Chervil pesto pizza (with mashed potatoes)


Happy Boxing Day, Ordinary friends. In keeping with my recent holiday tradition, I’m feeling under the weather, all tired and achey. Fortunately Malcolm declared this a day that nobody has to get anything done and everybody can stay in pajamas all day, so all will be well. Since it’s boxing day, I’ll tell you about two of my favorite presents this year, which were, in fact, boxes. One is a pencil box, and it’s the prettiest pencil box you’ve ever seen. It’s strangely like a pencil box I was obsessed with as a third grader. All of the other girls had pencil boxes with sliding tops from WH Smith, and I wanted one so badly. And I got one! And I still remember how it smelled, and what a satisfying feeling it was to pack it with pencils and pens and erasers and how it felt like a box full of possibility for all the things I could write or draw. This box is a similar shape and size, with a sliding top, but instead of being made out of some weird plastic-wood, it’s made out of beautiful walnut, with a grain like flame or waves. and it’s hand-dovetailed by my favorite hands in the world. I put my special pen inside, and I’m fairly sure the box’s magical powers will imbue the pen with motivation or inspiration, and I’ll be able to write again. The other box is a Trojan DJ box set, and I’m COMPLETELY OBSESSED!! OBSESSED! This is 50 tracks (!), and each one is better than the one before, there are no stinkers. I love this music so much I want to eat it! This music is from the very late 60s and very early 70s, and it involves deejays taking popular tracks and mixing them up, and then toasting over them. Toasting is all good things! It’s blessing and praise, but it’s a little bit roasting and boasting as well. It’s poetry. It’s strange catch phrases or noises that are so simple but express so much. [What does this sound like? Hip hop! Of course! (Did you know that DJ Kool Herc was born in Jamaica?!?!)]  This is simultaneously the most moving, fragile, wobbly, and icily cool music I’ve heard in a while. I imagine a culture of DJs who support one another in friendly competition. They know one another and quote one another. It’s alternately funny and profound, or both at once. One of my favorite DJs in the box is King Stitt. He got the name King Stitt because he stuttered as  a child, and he got the name “The Ugly One” because he was born with a facial malformation and had very few teeth. But he was discovered because he could dance. I love that! And then he made a name by talking, and I love that too. He embraced what made him different, and realized that it made him cooler than cool. And he was one of the first DJs. He achieved success and everyone followed him. I like to imagine a community where this story is possible. I like to have these voices, which are so perfect and alive, in my foggy dispirited brain. To quote King Stitt, “Hot it from the top, to the very last drop!”


We have a forest of chervil growing in our garden. It’s the one herb that has thrived despite the few frosty nights, the drizzly days, and my constant picking. So I gathered some to make a pesto. Chervil is a lot more delicate than basil. It’s got a slight lemony-anise flavor, and it makes a lovely pesto. I made this like a normal basil pesto, with pine nuts and olive oil and garlic. Then I put it on a pizza with mashed potatoes for comfort and fresh tomatoes for liveliness. And that’s that.


Here’s King Stitt doing Fire Corner.



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Chocolate chip cake with almond-hazelnut toffee topping

chocolate chip cake with almond-hazelnut toffee topping

chocolate chip cake with almond-hazelnut toffee topping

In defense of meandering

The nicest rejection I got for my novel (also, strangely, the most disappointing) said all sorts of kind things about my writing but concluded that the pace was too meandering. Well! I’ve thought about this a lot, since. I understand their objection, of course, but I like meandering! I like books that meander and movies that meander, and I like the act of meandering about in the world. In point of fact, this rejection has made me look back upon my life to realize that I have lived in an entirely meandering fashion. (In fact, too close an examination of my “career” might turn this into a cautionary tale about meandering, rather than a defense of it.) There’s so much I want to do, but I don’t have firm goals and plans of attack, I don’t have schedules and itineraries. I have been most fortunate in finding good traveling companions, and now I’m perfectly happy to meander about with them and see where we all end up.

There are places I’d like to go, things I’d like to achieve, but I feel like I’ll take a strange and winding path and be surprised and delighted when I get there. Of course, with this attitude I may never get there at all. That’s the danger. Or I’ll get there and find myself unprepared; I’ll discover that I haven’t packed all of the equipment that I need, because I always forget something. But then we’ll make do with what we have and what we find, and maybe we’ll come up with a better way of doing things than we ever would have if we’d packed more carefully. That’s the beauty of meandering…you never know where you’ll end up! As long as you keep turning down the most likely paths, as long as you’re happy to turn around if you find yourself somewhere that doesn’t work out, and start out again on a new path.
And probably as I’m meandering to a specific destination, someone else will be headed there with great purpose and focus. But maybe by the time I got close I would have decided to go somewhere else any way, somewhere better for me.
I was very happy to discover that the word “meander” comes from the name of a river in present day Turkey, know to the ancient Greeks as Maiandros, whose “course is so exceedingly winding that everything winding is called meandering.”  And a meander, as a noun, is a bend in a sinuous river. “Meandering” used in a disparaging manner, implies weakness, it implies vagueness and mildness that lead to inefficiency and failure. But surely there’s nothing stronger than a river! We might not always understand the pattern or the plan, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one! A river might not rush in a straightforward and obvious fashion to the sea, but it gets there nonetheless, making a beautiful design as it does so. And in Greek mythology, Meander is actually a river god, a god, son of the god of the sea, no doubt behaving in the strange and inexplicable manner of all gods, but powerful nonetheless.
I like to walk by the river, in an aimless and directionless fashion. I like to go for a meander. I have some of my best ideas this way, and my stories often take shape in my head while I’m adrift in this fashion. I believe that always knowing where you’re going, and always taking the quickest route to get there, and always checking your map or your phone’s map till that’s all you have in your head–all of that can be the death of the imagination, it doesn’t leave space for thoughts to grow and bloom. I think maybe as a society we’ve forgotten how to meander. We’re always so plugged in we’ve forgotten what it’s like to not know: to not be sure where we’re going or how many minutes it takes to get there and what the weather will be like when we do and the exact specific answer to every little question that should arise in our heads. We’ve forgotten what it’s like to wonder, we’re uncomfortable in those little pockets of uncertainty, which is sad, because this is where new ideas thrive and grow. And we have no time to wander,  to let our feet and thoughts fly where they will.
This is a typical Claire cake! Quite easy to put together, especially if you use your food processor, which I did. You don’t even clean the processor between mixing the batter and the topping, because having a bit of batter in helps the topping to stick together. It’s not actually toffee, the topping, but it’s butter, sugar and nuts, baked till brown and crispy.
Here’s Make the Road by Walking, by the Menahan Street Band

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Roasted tomato-pinenut sauce and potatoes baked with tomato broth and leeks

Potatoes and leeks in tomato broth

Potatoes and leeks in tomato broth

My kids are the most bright and beautiful. Just like everybody else’s kids. Do I tell them they’re bright and beautiful? Of course I do! Every time they say something funny or make something clever, every time they act wisely or kindly. Every time I feel it, which is all the time. Am I worried that I’m going to turn them into entitled little narcissists? Honestly, I’m not. The world will knock them down. People can be so cruel, and they’re just teetering on the precipice of the valley of nauseating self-doubt and insecurity that is the teen years. The world will knock them down, and they’ll be strong enough to get back up again.

There’s some article making the rounds advising that you shouldn’t tell your child they’re special. Of course your child is special! Everybody’s child is special, and we’re all somebody’s child! We’re all special in the way that we’re all unique, that is, equally so. You can’t be more unique or the most unique, it doesn’t make sense–the laws of grammar and nature don’t allow it. So it is with specialness. But my children are also special to me, each of them, in a way that nobody else in the world is. I feel that this is something I’ve earned. It’s the gift that comes along with all the worry and trouble and sleepless nights. Do I tell them this? Not in so many words, I suppose. “Special” is such a strange word, so overused and undervalued, with such shifting meanings. But I hope that they understand it, in the way children understand a million things that we don’t say to them in so many words.

So I will praise my children, I want them to feel good about the things they do well, I want them to feel brave about trying things they might not do well. I want them to feel good about themselves. Insecurity is a dangerous quality, in my experience, and can cause people to behave in petty or destructive ways. When you feel bad about yourself it’s tempting to make other people feel bad about themselves, too. The big hope, of course, is that they’ll love themselves, and they’ll love everybody else, too. Which is where empathy and respect enter the equation. You teach them about empathy and respect by the way you treat them as though they’re special, and you treat each other that way, and the dog, and your neighbors, and everybody that you meet. Praise your children! Tell them that they’re smart and funny and beautiful. Respect them, show them love any way you can. Tell them that they’re special. To you, and in the world. It will make them stronger. And while you’re at it, praise someone else’s children as well, praise everybody’s children.
Roasted tomato and pine nut sauce

Roasted tomato and pine nut sauce

These two dishes go together! Partly because you use the broth from one to cook together. Partly because they’re both a tribute to late summer produce. We have (almost) more tomatoes than we know what to do with. And from our lovely farm we’ve got heaps of tiny potatoes, beautiful leeks and red and yellow peppers. If they grow together, they taste good together, right? I like to make oven roasted tomato sauces because it’s so easy to pick the peels out when they’re done cooking, rather than do that whole boiling and peeling thing before you make the sauce. But if you use all the juices from the tomatoes in the sauce it turns out quite thin. I decided to save the juiciness to baste some tiny potatoes and some braised leeks–simple, with only lemon thyme, white wine, and a lot of salt and pepper. The tomato sauce, then is much thicker, and it’s thickened still with toasted bread and nuts. Almost like a romesco sauce, but with pine nuts instead of hazelnuts, and far more tomatoes than peppers. You can use whatever tomatoes you happen to have in abundance at the moment. I used a mix of red, yellow, black. It’s nice spread on bread or roasted eggplant. It would make a nice sauce for pizza. Or you could just dip things in it. Whatever you like!
Here’s Top Special  by the White Stripes

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Potatoes with capers, olives, artichokes, almonds and paprika

Smoky spicy potatoes with olives capers and artichoke hearts

Smoky spicy potatoes with olives capers and artichoke hearts

We go to the river most days in the summer, so the boys and dog can swim. You can probably hear me, from wherever you happen to live, yelling to them to come back, closer to the shore, closer to me. Once upon a time a grown man came and plunged into the water with them. At first his small dog nervously swam out to reach him, crying with each stroke, as nervous swimming dogs do. But the man swam farther and farther out, he was more than halfway across the river, and he was floating away with the current, down the river towards the bridge. It was, at once, a most peaceful and a most anxious sight. He seemed fine, he was fine, he probably just wanted to know what it was like to hang out on the pylons with the turtles, and who hasn’t wanted to do that? But I’d been standing in the sun for a long time, and reading my book of Egyptian literature, and feeling a little dazed. I imagined him having existential thoughts. Not a crisis, just a pondering, a “Why not float out to sea?” moment. The center-piece of my Egyptian literature book is a “remarkable Middle Kingdom text” called The Man Who Was Tired of Life. It’s a dialogue between a man and his soul. I know what you’re thinking, plenty of people have written dialogues between body and soul. There’s Andrew Marvel’s A Dialogue Between the Body and the Soul, and Yeats A Dialogue between Self and Soul. But this is early, this is from the middle kingdom of Egyptian literature, and that’s…that’s…well, I honestly have no idea when that was, but it’s really early. And this man is so strangely relatable. I imagine most people have felt like this at one time or another. He’s feeling down. Partially in the “I think I’ll go eat worms,” way. “Behold, my name is detested, Behold more than the smell of vultures/ On a summer’s day when the sky is hot.” (More than the smell of vultures!) But he’s also feeling discouraged about people, about all of humanity.

“To whom can I speak today?/ Faces are averted,/ And every man looks askance at his brethren.
To whom can I speak today?/ Hearts are rapacious/And there is no man’s heart in which one can trust.
To whom can I speak today?/ There are no just persons/And the land is left over to doers of wrong.”

The strange thing…when we came home from the river, I sat in our cool store and continued to make my slow way through Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, and I happened to be on a passage in which thirteen-year-old Kolya says to Prince Myshkin, “Honest People are terribly scarce here, so that there’s really nobody one can respect…We are all adventurers nowadays…they are all money-grubbers, every one of them.”
And then, if you read the news, especially lately, it’s hard not to get down about humanity, it’s hard to keep from being discouraged and cynical and pessimistic. But it’s important to remember that for every piece of tragic news, we can cling to hope in the response of most of the people who hear it: in the outpouring of sympathy and love and even anger, all of these things that will combine to push us towards justice. “Hate won’t win.” And the man on the river made it easily to shore, and stood on the bank joking with whoever was standing there. And the soul persuades the Man Who Was Tired of Life to carry on, and to “Cast complaint upon the peg,…and cleave to life.” And Myshkin, who notices everything and understands everything, says, “What could I teach you? At first I was simply not dull; I soon began to grow stronger. Then every day became precious to me, and more precious as time went on, so that I began to notice it. I used to go to bed very happy and get up happier still. But it would be hard to say why.” We have to cleave to hope, even if we can’t say why.

Here’s Amazing Grace by Blind Willie McTell

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PIne nut and herb tart with a yeasted crust

Herb and pine nut tart

Herb and pine nut tart

Lately, at our Dickensian flea market, there’s been a man with a table full of books about ancient Egypt. He’s got books on history, on art, on myth, on language. It’s a full collection, somebody’s entire library. I wonder how it all ended up here. I imagine a Tintin character, a scholar with a long white beard and round glasses, an Egyptologist, who gives it all up, sells all his books,  and goes on an   adventurous journey down the Nile. I bought a beautiful book called The Literature of Ancient Egypt. I will freely admit to you that I didn’t even know such a thing existed. Of course I knew about the myths and the gods, but I didn’t know there were stories and poems, that we could still read lengthy narratives from all those years ago. And how strange and beautiful they are! They alternate between the completely human and recognizable and the fantastically bizarre. There’s a ghost story that isn’t spooky at all because “death for a deceased Egyptian who had undergone the rites ofbeatification was an extension of life…and rapport between the living and the dead was by no means always a gloomy affair.” There’s The Shipwrecked Sailor, which is a story within a story within a story, one of them told by a golden snake.

And the love poems are crazy, intimate and yearning. In a context I only remotely understand, maybe there’s a sense that the people who describe themselves as belonging to another actually belong to the other as property, but if you’ve ever been in love you know how it feels to belong with someone, and in this context, these speak to me. Listen to this love poem:

The voice of the turtledove speaks out. It says:
day breaks, which way are you going?
Lay off, little bird,
must you so scold me?

I found my lover on his bed and my heart was sweet to excess.

We said:

I shall never be far away from you
while my hand is in your hand,
and I shall stroll with you in every favorite place.

He set me first of the girls
and he does not break my heart.

and this one…

A dense growth is in it,
in the midst of which we become ennobled

I am your best girl:
I belong to you like an acre of land
which I have planted
with flowers and every sweet-smelling grass.

Pleasant is the channel through it
which your hand dug outdoor refreshing ourselves with the breeze,
a happy place for walking
with your hand in my hand.

My body is excited, my heart joyful,
at our traveling together.

Many of the passages dole out advice, mostly to sons, some from fathers who are already dead. My favorite is The Maxims of Ptahhotpe. He’s not yet dead, but he’s aging, which he describes in a Sappho-worthy passage.

    The Eyes are dim, the ears are deaf, strength is perishing because of my lassitude, the mouth is silent and cannot speak, the mind has come to an end and cannot remember yesterday, the bones suffer all over, good is become evil, all taste has gone…

His advice is sometimes strange and sexist (how to deal with the women you own), but sometimes beautifully generous and still very pertinent today. He says not to judge anyone by their position, and not to be arrogant because of your knowledge, but to confer with the ignorant man as with the learned, for “Good speech is more hidden than malachite, yet it is found in the possession of women slaves at the millstones.” Anybody is worth speaking to, if you give them the chance to speak! He says that you shouldn’t pay any attention to a man who is speaking ill of others, you should be silent because he ” will be dubbed an ignoramus when your self-control has matched his prolixity.” And he says “Do not inspire terror in men…for no terror of man has ever been effective…plan to live in peace, and what men give will come of its own accord.” And most mysterious and most lovely, “Follow your desire as long as you live and do not perform more than is ordered, do not lessen the time of following desire, for the wasting of time is an abomination to the spirit; do not use up the daytime more than is necessary for the maintenance of your household.”

It’s so strange to read words from an almost incomprehensible time ago, when it’s hard to imagine how people lived, and find truth in them that still resonates today. I’m not always the biggest fan of human beings in general, but sometimes in the bright round mystery of our history, we’re remarkable and beautiful and persistently true.

We have so many herbs growing in our garden! I love this time of year. I love the bright taste of all of the herbs mingled together with something milder like eggs or cheese or potatoes. This turned out really good, I think. I used chervil and tarragon, which are both lovely and lemony and anise-y, plus basil and thyme, and sage and rosemary, and a little oregano. You can use whatever you have. I think the idea is to use strong flavors you might not usually combine, but which work well together because they’re all growing together at the same time. Very simple tart, in many ways, so it compliments the complexity of the herbs. You could play around endlessly with this!

Here’s a song by Oum Kalthoum. Another thing I don’t understand completely, but find beautiful.

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Pizza with grilled mushrooms, french lentils and roasted potatoes

Pizza with french lentils, grilled mushrooms and roasted potatoes

Pizza with french lentils, grilled mushrooms and roasted potatoes

“Do you want to hear something that doesn’t make sense?”

“Yes I do.”

Isaac and I are walking to school on a spring morning that’s warm on the inside and cool on the outside, on a morning that makes you shiver. The day will warm up, the year will warm up, but it’s all on the edge right now. He’s got one finger hovering softly on my spine just between my shoulder blades as we walk along, which is a thing that he does lately that pretty much knocks me out with the sweetness of it.

“I’m a non-evil demon wizard who is 999 years old, and Malcolm is a 13-year-old fire wizard…”

This is not the thing that doesn’t make sense. So far, this all makes perfect sense. The thing that doesn’t make sense is that Malcolm says Isaac’s not allowed to use fire against him, or is vulnerable to Malcolm’s fire, which…

“Now you’re just making fun of me!”

I wasn’t, I swear, but I was laughing so hard I might have missed the crux of the problem. I said maybe they could work together to make something out of fire.

“I don’t make things out of fire,” replied Isaac indignantly, “I live in cities of fire!”

Well! They do this a lot. They make up worlds, and those worlds have rules, and those rules are constantly shifting. Their place in the world changes with the rules, as do their powers and abilities, their actions and their fates. Usually it’s Malcolm, with his older-brother-power, making up most of the rules, which means his character has more power and “wins.” But Isaac can hold his own, he’s got a fierce imagination too. Or he can just stop playing. I’ve been thinking that this is not something we outgrow, though the older we get the less fun and funny it is. It’s still people with more power making all the rules and telling us that our actions are useless and our abilities are worthless. Telling us that we’re powerless against their fire. And that’s when we summon our fierce imaginations and change the rules so that it works out better for everyone. Or we just stop playing their game.

Pizza with french lentils, grille mushrooms and roasted potatoes.

Pizza with french lentils, grille mushrooms and roasted potatoes.

This pizza was a good way to use up some leftovers. Leftover french lentils, leftover roast potatoes, leftover grilled mushrooms. But it was also delicious! Smoky from the pine nuts and grilled mushrooms, earthy and sweet from the lentils. Nicely crispy and soft.

Here’s You Can Never Hold Back Spring by Tom Waits, because I love it.

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Chard and Pistachio Tart

Chard and pistachio tart

Chard and pistachio tart

I don’t wait on lines very often. For one thing, I rarely leave my house. For another, I’m too impatient, it always seems like I could be doing something better with my time. I can’t think of all that much worth waiting on line for. I don’t mind waiting, in general, I never get bored; boredom is against my principles. But there’s something about a line of people I just can’t seem to tolerate. Today, however, I found myself on a line in the grocery store and I didn’t really mind. I clutched a box of moldy clementines, and I waited for the attention of the customer service representative. And when it was finally my turn, I had no proof that I’d bought the moldy clementines in this location. For all she knew I could go from store to store with moldy clementines, slowly building up my fortune $7.99 at a time. So she had to venture out into the store to find a price, or someone to help, I’m not sure. But I didn’t mind. I was avoiding something, or some things. I’ve started a new novel, I’ve started a new story, I’ve started a new Ordinary post. I want to write them, I feel like I should write them (why? I don’t know.) I wake up every morning and go to sleep every night determined to write them. But when I sit down to do it I get a heavy fog behind my eyes and I don’t know, maybe my time is better spent waiting on line clutching a box of moldy clementines. Maybe I’ll become one of those people who goes out of their way to complain about things just for a bit of attention or to pass away an afternoon. I’ll send food back at restaurants, even though it’s exactly what I ordered. I’ll call help desks and technical support lines just to chat for a bit. While I was waiting I noticed that the store offered a new feature: a beauty consultant. He was a young man who looked surprisingly elegant, even in his store-issued vest. He had a booth that looked like it could have been made for a high school science fair; a mirror, a stool, a glass jar of cotton balls. A sign said that if we brought in our makeup bag he’d help us make the best use of it. I thought about taking my lipstick out of my coat pocket and saying, “Here’s my makeup bag! Help me out!” And I caught a glimpse of my old face in his mirror in the flattering fluorescent lights of the grocery store and I thought about the women who must end up on his stool in a grocery store in this part of the world–the glamor! I wondered how he’d gotten this job, and I thought maybe he started out as a clerk or a stock boy, but he had this idea and the store let him try it. I hoped he was happy with it, even though he seemed to spend most of his time wondering up and down the aisles. Everyone seemed happy that he was there, everyone seemed to love him. It made me happy to see him there. I thought about how I’ve always said it was a good thing that I had sons because if I had daughters and they asked me how to apply mascara or any other makeup product I’d have to say, “F**k if I know!” But here was someone’s son who obviously knew all about these things. I got my $7.99 and I left the moldy clementines at the desk, and I wondered if they had a whole pile of moldy produce and spoiled milk back there, and maybe they came to life at night as spoiled-food spirits. I apologized for wasting the clerk’s time, and while I drove home I remembered a conversation last week in which somebody had said, “How do you kill a day?” How do you kill a day? It’s too easy, days are very fragile.

I apologize for the crappy picture on this post. The pie was good though. Normal sort of crust, topped with greens and rosemary, then a layer of cheese, then a savory pistachio frangipane. I thought it had nice flavors and textures…comforting for a cold day. And it wasn’t too hard to make.

Here’s Everybody Plays the Fool, which is a song I heard at the grocery store, and which I like a lot.
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Red rice, red lentil, and black bean chili

Red lentil and red rice chili

Red lentil and red rice chili

“I don’t mean I’m oversexed or anything like that – although I am quite sexy.” So saith Holden Caulfield. I’ve always loved Holden’s interpretation of the word “sexy.” It has nothing to do with looks or skill or experience and everything to do with curiosity and enthusiasm. He’s sexy because he thinks about sex a lot, and by this standard everybody is sexy! I think this shade of meaning should be applied to many other words as well. Sometimes I think I’m a funny person, not because I make good jokes, but because I like good jokes. I’m no wit or wag or stand-up comedian, but I like to look for the humor in most situations, I like to be around people who are cleverer and funnier than me. I’m musical because I love music, not because I’m particularly good at playing it, although I like to try sometimes. I always have a song in my head, and often I will sing it. Similarly, in this light, a person could be beautiful not because of any physical attributes, but because they find beauty in the world and people around them. This attitude seems so much more warm and genuine and generous than more judgmental use of these words, which reward some people and find others lacking. It’s all from within, attainable and universal. And it’s so much more true to life as it’s actually lived. Sexiness, for instance, has little to do with makeup and clothes and airbrushing and all of the other trappings of foxiness that we’re sold on a daily basis. It has everything to do with confusion and passion and messiness and ardor; qualities that can’t be graded, sold or faked. I believe this is true of most things in life worth pursuing, of anything that we create,it’s all best when it’s fueled by fervor, emotion and imagination, even if it’s something you don’t understand at all.

David said this was the best chili I’d ever made! I made it on a snowy snowy night, the should-have-been-a-blizzard of ’15. The red rice has a nice, chewy, toothsome quality, which makes this satisfying and comforting. The red lentils cook down to become almost creamy, and the black beans add their lovely earthiness. It’s smoky with smoked paprika and roasted red peppers, and brightened with a little balsamic, pepper flakes and cumin. Red rice can be found in most grocery stores, these days, at least the fancier ones. It’s vegan if you leave the butter out, which you could easily do.

Here’s Right Said Fred, of course!

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Roasted butternut and yellow split pea soup

Roasted butternut and split pea soup

Roasted butternut and split pea soup

It’s the season for reflection, for looking back on the year just passing and taking a reckoning of all you’ve done or left undone. The wise men of newspapers and magazines are making lists of all the worst and best things that have happened over the course of a year, and Facebook’s computers are compiling photos of the most important events of our lives for us to share with our friends. And what is the phrase that has been stuck in my head with contrary steadfastness these past few days? “Don’t look back.” I’m unaccountably fascinated with this idea at the moment. It is, of course, one of Satchel Paige’s rules for longevity, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” And D.A. Pennebaker borrowed the phrase from Paige for the title of his beautiful 1967 (1967!) movie about Bob Dylan. And Bob Dylan himself used the phrase in his song She Belongs to Me, “She’s an artist, she don’t look back.” It’s an idea that shows up in myths from all over the world. Orpheus leading Eurydice out of Hades, Lot’s wife fleeing Sodom. If you look back you’ll be punished for disobeying a rule, for lacking trust or faith, for seeing God at his awe-ful job. But what does it mean? What does it mean? It can’t mean that we shouldn’t sift through our memories, and revisit people and places from our past life. We’d be nothing without our memories. Our future would be meaningless without our past. It can’t mean that. Is it spoken by someone who fears aging, like I do, and is frightened to see how fast it has all gone behind them, and how rapidly it will fly before them? Is Satchel telling us that we shouldn’t let fear of what has gone before frighten us about what’s to come? And what is gaining on us? What slouching beast? These are the questions we wrestle with on sleepless nights. Today I read the passage from Virgil’s Aeneid called “The visit to the underworld.” This was written more than 2000 years ago. Get your mind around that. I’m not sure that people have changed all that much, and I find it a strange comfort to look back all that way into someone else’s life, and see echoes of my own.

In the center is a giant and shady elm-tree, spreading branches like arms, full of years. False Dreams, so it is often said, take the tree for their home, and cling everywhere beneath its leaves.

Here’s The Temptations with Don’t Look Back. We’re gonna leave all our troubles behind.

This soup! It was tasty because butternut squash and yellow split peas are ridiculously tasty. Plus it has nice spices in it. It takes quite a while to cook the split peas, or it did for me, so plan ahead!

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Tarragon pesto pizza with salsify and asparagus

Tarragon pesto pizza with salsify and asparagus

Tarragon pesto pizza with salsify and asparagus

American Mythologies, #4: Catcher in the Rye is a sophomoric over-rated novel about teen angst.

    The Catcher in the Rye is a 1951 novel by J. D. Salinger. A controversial novel originally published for adults, it has since become popular with adolescent readers for its themes of teenage angst and alienation.The novel’s protagonist Holden Caulfield has become an icon for teenage rebellion.

Thus speaketh Wikipedia, and although ordinarily I would eschew Wikipedia as a less-than-scholarly source, when dealing with American mythologies, it is the authority, the ultimate collection of all of the opinions that have gathered over the years to become myth. Whether or not you like Catcher in the Rye, I think we can all agree that it has achieved mythic status in the pantheon of American literature. And Salinger’s legendary reclusiveness has only added to the mysterious air of cool that clings to the novel. I would argue that, over the years, our ideas of what the novel is about have taken on a life of their own, so that now they seem more real in some ways than the original story, and they bear little relation to it. Now we think of Holden as a rebel, a maverick, and if they ever made the book into a movie (which, mercifully, they never will) it would star James Dean or a young Marlon Brando. Wikipedia tells us, “Between 1961 and 1982, The Catcher in the Rye was the most censored book in high schools and libraries in the United States,” because Holden was a bad role model, further adding, “Often the challengers have been unfamiliar with the plot itself.” No less than three shootings have been somehow associated with the book. Of course none of this has anything to do with anything that actually happens in the book. The very phrase, “teen angst” is disparaging; it suggests that the nature of the angst is trivial and misguided, a self-centered foolishness to be outgrown, born of boredom and a bratty hatred for everything and everybody. Teen angst is all about ME, and why I’m so unfortunate. And I think Holden is thinking about everyone around him: his elderly teacher, the ducks in Central Park, his kid sister, his old friend, his dead brother, children in some mis-heard song, some miserable kid prostitute in a green dress. I think that’s why it’s beautiful. I don’t think Holden hates anyone, I think his problem, the source of his pain, is that he loves everyone he meets. Even with the people he doesn’t like he finds something to love. The kid who is a terrific bore is an excellent whistler, “So I don’t know about bores. Maybe you shouldn’t feel too sorry if you see some swell girl getting married to them. They’re don’t hurt anybody, most of them, and maybe they’re secretly all terrific whistlers or something. Who the hell knows? Not me.” He loves everybody: the mother he meets on the train, the nuns he meets in the station, the grippey teacher who yells “good luck” at him, the girl whose roller skate he tightens. He’s not the scowling kid who scrawls “Fuck You” every where he goes, he’s the kid who gets depressed when he sees that somebody else has done that. He doesn’t hate school because he’s too cool for it, it’s just the opposite, he hates the fact that people are forced to be more cool, more contained, to dim their enthusiasm. “What I mean is, lots of time you don’t know what interests you most till you start talking about something that doesn’t interest you most. I mean you can’t help it sometimes. What I think is, you’re supposed to leave somebody alone if he’s at least being interesting and he’s getting all excited about something. I like it when somebody gets excited about something. It’s nice.” He doesn’t mistrust adults or authority figures, unless they’re hypocritical or tyrannical. I think he recognizes that they’re as confused as he is, that you never really outgrow the bewilderment caused by human connection, by sex, by loss, by loneliness. I think Holden is a teenager in the way Calvin is a six-year-old, his age allows him to say things we’re all feeling, as does the fact that he keeps calling himself a moron and a madman. There’s a passage in the book in which he’s talking about Laurence Olivier’s performance of Hamlet and he says, “He was too much like a goddamn general, instead of a sad, screwed-up type guy.” And I think Holden is that sad, screwed up type guy, too, not a fighter, not a rebel. And he’s got good reason to be sad. In Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, the title characters go through the long list of woes that have afflicted Hamlet, and then they say, “And why are you behaving in this extraordinary manner?” It’s like that with Catcher in the Rye, too. His brother died at the age of eleven, when Holden was only thirteen. Three short years prior to the time that the story is set. He’s been in one boarding school after another since that time, alone, lonely, homesick, mourning. It’s Christmas time and he’s afraid to go home because he’s failed out of another school. Why would he behave in this extraordinary way? Why would he have a breakdown and become sick and sit in the park thinking he was going to die? Why would he talk aloud to his dead brother, wracked with regret over the one time he didn’t let him ride to his friend’s house years ago? How could he not! He’s searching for some sort of meaningful connection, and he’s disappointed by people who pretend to be something they’re not, or hide who they really are. But he loves them anyway. I know I quote this passage too much, but he reminds me of Alyosha in Brothers Karamazov, “Do you know, Lise, my elder told me once to care for most people exactly as one would for children, and for some of them as one would for the sick in hospitals.” Holden feels sorry for people a lot, and I think that’s a form of love. At the end of Franny and Zooey, when Zooey, as an adolescent, says everybody is a moron, his brother Seymore tells him to shine his shoes or be funny for the fat lady, and then Franny and Zooey get this idea of a cancer patient somewhere, listening to them talk, and then Zooey says the fat lady is christ, which means that everybody is christ, but they’re Jewish, so it’s not in any Christian sense of the word. It’s about loving everybody that you meet. And I think Holden does that. In Brothers Karamazov Ivan talks at great length about the suffering of children, and he asks Alyosha if he would kill one child to bring peace to the entire world. Alysosha wouldn’t, he would save the child, and Holden, standing on the edge of a cliff, would save all the children if he could, as they come running through the rye.

I’ve gone on and on, and I could go on even more! I could write a book about this book. But I won’t. I’ll tell you about this pizza instead. I think it had nice flavors, sort of nutty from the salsify and asparagus, and bright from the tarragon. We grew salsify in our garden this summer, and we’re just harvesting it now. It’s a funny sort of root, with a mild sweet nutty flavor. It’s quite hard to find in stores. You could replace it with parsnips if you can’t find salsify. It’s similar, and much easier to clean. Or you could leave it out altogether. This would still be tasty.

Here’s Just One of Those Things by Art Tatum, because it’s a song Holden likes.

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