Green spring tart (with pistachios, pine nuts, asparagus, olives, brie…)

Green spring tart

Green spring tart

AMERICAN MYTHOLOGIES #6. SUPER HEROES

I love all the “real” myths. The ancient stories, as old as humanity, which resonate and repeat around the world, answering questions about the origins of everything: how did the world begin, how do we make our place in it, where did we come from, where are we going? They answer the earliest questions, questions of conception, birth, creation. In the grand scheme of things, America is a very young nation. We’re teenagers, maybe. Or maybe we’re at that age just past adolescence when our swagger starts to falter, and we try to relive our glory days and we regret the insouciance of our youth. Accordingly our own mythological figures, our superheroes, have more adolescent concerns. These are the stories we all know, as Americans, these are the tales of valor, the epic struggles, the characters with godly speed and strength, with more-the-human abilities. And they help us to address, as a nation, all of the anxieties in our teeming teenage brain. How do we explain the changes in our body, which we can neither understand nor control? And these changes bring about a strange new power, which we can neither understand nor control. And, as we all know, with great power comes great responsibility, and if there’s one thing teenagers hate, it’s responsibility. Superhero myths help us to work through anxieties about the source of our power–the science and technology that have changed our lives faster than we can compute. They helped to make us a super power, but they made us dangerous, too, and our morality didn’t always develop at an equivalent rate. The older myths tried to make sense of the justice or lack of it that people faced every day, and our superhero stories do this, too. When our authority figures mete out unfair punishments, just as in the earlier myths, super people and lesser gods try to trick the most powerful. Our superhero stories help us to understand evil, the dark side, and that it’s sometimes part of ourselves, confusing and strangely compelling. And they reflect a strangely American optimism: anything is possible, ordinary people are capable of great things. My boys have known the superhero stories almost sense they could talk. They seem to have learned them by osmosis. And as long as they could talk they’ve imagined powers for themselves, they’ve invented “guys,” who are capable of weird and wonderful things. They give them a history, an origin story, they draw them and sing songs about them, and they become them as they fly down the street, leaving all the worries of the real world behind.

I tried to put every green thing I could think of in this tart! So it’s got spinach and arugula and tarragon inside, and it’s got bright castelvetrano olives, asparagus and pistachio nuts on top. It was a nice combination…juicy and bright and nutty all at once.

Here’s MF DOOM’s Beef Rap, with the spiderman samples!

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Pistachio tart with goat cheese, brie, fresh mozzarella and smoked paprika crust

Pistachio tart

Pistachio tart

I’ve been attempting to write query letters of late. I’m not very good at it. I’m not good at selling anything, especially if it’s something I made myself. I read a few rules for how to write a perfect query letter, and I’ve tried to follow them, but I just don’t know. I just don’t know. So I was imagining the letter I would write if I was trying to be more honest, and here it is.

Dear Literary Agent (I know I’m supposed to address this to a specific person, by name, and try to establish some sort of personal relationship or pretend that I know you, but I don’t know you, and you know I don’t know you. I’ve read about the things you like and don’t like, and they’re some of the things I like and don’t like. Maybe you’d like my novel. Maybe we could be friends.)

I’ll start by telling you that I know I can’t write a very good query letter. If I could, if I could sell my work, I wouldn’t really need an agent. Although of course I would, I know I would. I know enough about how the world works. I dream of meeting somebody who passionately believes in my work, who loves to have fierce discussions about writing, and who happens to have an understanding of the business. I wish I could tell you that I’m always euphorically happy with my novel and sure that it’s great and enduring literature and that everybody should read it. But half the time I have the sinking horrible feeling that it’s dull or silly or even embarrassing. I can tell you that I always feel a warm sort of love for it, for the characters and the world they live in. I think about them sometimes as if they’re real, and thinking about them that way makes me happy. I can tell you that I have a million ideas, a million beautiful things in my head, and I will write them down with the most beautiful words I can find.

I can’t pretend that I’m familiar with the market. I read all the time, but I don’t read too much contemporary fiction. There’s a voice I don’t like, that I encounter often. A smug, clever well-wikipedia-researched voice. Or a coldness that I find unbeautiful. Of course I’ve read some modern novels that touched me very deeply, and I’ll tell you what those are, if you like.

I would love to say that I met you at a literary convention of some sort and that we discussed my work and you seemed very interested, but it’s not true, and you know it. I’ve never been to a literary convention, I’ve never been in an MFA program. I took part in some sort of novel-writing workshop once, but that was years ago, a lifetime ago, and I’m not sure the whole thing wasn’t some sort of scam. I’m not in any literary salon. You don’t know me, you don’t know my work. I guess I’m something of an outsider, but, as I’m sure you know, William Faulkner was an outsider, “[N]ow I realise for the first time what an amazing gift I had: uneducated in every formal sense, without even very literate, let alone literary, companions, yet to have made the things I made. I don’t know where it came from.” and yet, he says, “I am the best in America, by God.” Am I saying I’m as good as Faulkner? Am I saying I’m the best in America? Of course not, of course not.

I wish I knew some famous authors and they’d read my novel and had nice things to say about it. Or they hadn’t read it but said I could tell you I know them. But that’s not true either. But here’s what I imagine some famous writers might say. John Donne would say, “She stole my words for the title of her book!” And then he would say, “Of course she took them from my meditations on humans and sickness and religion, and that’s sort of what her book is about, so that’s okay.” And then TS Eliot would say, “You brat! You stole my source! You quoted the Countess Marie Larisch von Moennich, word for word! That’s not okay! Only I can do that.” And Zola would say, “Don’t think I didn’t notice you modeled a character on one of my characters, and you have him read my words aloud!” And Dostoyevsky would say, “Sure, go ahead and quote whole passages from one of my books. There’s not much I can do about it now, is there?” And Reverend Gary Davis would say, “I’m glad you like my songs enough put entire lines from them in someone else’s mouth.” And Ezra Pound would wander into the room and say, “Claire, sit on your knees to write and seal your query, And send it a thousand miles, thinking.”

Yeah. My novel is weird, but not in a clever or calculated way. I know that you receive millions of queries and many of them are from crazy people, and you must read such an odd assortment of nonsense that everything starts to sound like nonsense. I’m sure I sound crazy and awkward you’re going to read a few lines and toss me aside. I know I’ll never hear from you again, or I’ll get a polite e-mail telling me (and everybody else) that you wish us the best of luck with our project and our career. I understand that. And yet I’m hanging on to the small glimmer of hope that glows brighter every time I send a sample chapter out, that’s so hard to extinguish no matter how many rejections I receive, or how much blinding silence my words are greeted with.

So thank you for your time.

Yours sincerely in hope and promise,

Claire

Pistachio and goat cheese tart with brie and fresh mozzarella

Pistachio and goat cheese tart with brie and fresh mozzarella

Who is making lots of tarts lately? Who is? ME! I am! I did a ridiculously splurgy grocery shop before my birthday and got brie and pistachios and smoked mozzarella and pine nuts. Phew. So I combined them all in a tart. The crust has smoked paprika in it. The custard has pistachios and goat cheese and bronze fennel leaves. You could use regular fennel leaves of even tarragon, if you’d like to have that lovely anise-lemon flavor. The whole thing is topped with bits of brie, slices of fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, casetlvetrano olives, pine nuts, fresh basil, and these beautiful little spicy shoots that make every picture prettier.

Here’s Please Please Please by James Brown.
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Artichoke heart, caramelized onion and brie tart

Caramelized onion tart

You know how they tell you you’ll use pre-calculus when you grow up, but you highly doubt it? When I was in high school, I didn’t like pre-calculus much. I used to sit in class feeling queazy and thinking I might die from appendicitis. (I wish I was kidding!) The teacher, a small, dry man, took me aside and told me I couldn’t avoid everything that confused me. Ha! Proved him wrong! I’ve been doing that for over 40 years, and I pretty much never use pre-calculus skills in the real world. I took another class called Writing and Responding. I don’t think I’d be exaggerating if I said it was one of those classes that shapes your life. It was taught by Carol Lefelt, and I went on to do independent studies with her on Shakespeare, and (If I recall correctly) female poets. She was remarkable! Very questioning, very curious – contagiously so. In Writing and Responding, we learned how to respond constructively to other writers’ work. I’ve thought a lot, through the years, that some of these lessons I have used in real life, not just in responding to writing, but in responding to people! For instance, after reading a piece, you always start by saying a couple of things you like. Specific things, be they ever so small. This seems like such a simple idea, but I don’t know how many times I find myself thinking, “no, no, no…start with something nice, then get to the complaint.” I went to Malcolm’s second grade parent-teacher conference a few years ago. Before I’d sat down, before I’d even crossed the room, his teacher said, “Malcolm is all over the place! He breaks all his pencils!” And I thought, “What you really meant to say, surely, was that my son is so bright and imaginative, and he has so much energy …” And then get to the part about the pencils. Right? Another lesson – instead of saying you don’t like something, or that it doesn’t work, you ask questions about it. That way, the writer, in pondering your questions, will understand that they didn’t get their point across, that they’ve caused confusion instead of clarity. Wouldn’t that be nice? Instead of being scolded, to be asked a few questions that showed you the error of your ways. Another thing we learned, on the writing side, was not to worry about being ready to write, or knowing exactly what you’d like to write, but using the act of writing as a way of figuring that out. “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” I like this idea a lot. And I’ve found it to be true. In writing, as in life, sometimes the less you fret, the better things turn out. Admittedly, this appeals to me, partly, because I’m a vague and lazy person. And, obviously, some things need to be carefully planned and plotted. You’re not going to build a cabinet, say, or a rocket ship, just slapping some things together and hoping it works. But other things – things that come from some part of your brain you’re not in complete control of, seem to work better when you just do them. You just let them evolve as they need to evolve. I think cooking is like that – for me at least. I’m not a fan of following recipes. I like to dream a bit about what would taste good, and then see what I have, and let it come out as it does.

So – we got some onions from the farm. It might seem odd, but this has been one of my biggest veg challenges to date. I like shallots, chives, scallions… I just don’t love actual onions. They’re too much! I don’t like the smell of them clinging to walls and clothes like some bad dream from a Tom Waits song. But I tried caramelizing them, and I think they’re quite nice. I followed Deborah Madison’s recipe to the letter (except that I halved it). If ever I were to follow a recipe, it would certainly be hers. She’s my hero! And I decided to put them on a big, pizza-like tart. With brie, capers, and artichoke hearts, and fresh sage and fresh thyme. Because I had all those things, and they told me they’d be good together! And they were! This was very easy, and very tasty. I used a buttery pate brisée crust, but you could use pizza dough instead, if you were in the mood.

Here’s Respond React, from The Roots
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Trumpet mushrooms with chard, brie, and smoked gouda

Trumpet mushrooms and chard

It’s hot as hell, they’re doing construction on the house attached to ours, which apparently requires loud bad radio and lots of cigarette smoking, and the boys are trying to knock all the plaster off the walls and yelling about how mean I am. I’m going to give myself a time out.

Last night we started watching a film by Yasujiro Ozu. He uses these beautiful still “pillow shots” between scenes. They’re shots down hallways, of empty rooms, along an alleyway. They’re not entirely static – the camera is still, but there’s movement of light, or of people walking by, clocks ticking, curtains blowing. You sense that the story is playing itself out somewhere nearby. The shots are so cool, so quiet but not silent. I find them incredibly compelling. I’m a huge fan of stillness in films, and quiet moments. Whether they last the whole film long, or they form a small pocket in a louder busier film. I wish the word “moment” wasn’t overused in precious greeting cards and knick knacks and self-help-speak, because it’s such a good word. A few years ago I submitted a series of short videos to an online gallery run by the remarkable Peter Ferko, a New York artist. The series was called Now:Here:This, and it involved art made in a moment (or a few moments) by people all over the world at roughly the same space in time. I started making short, static videos. I gave myself some rules…they had to last about a minute. I couldn’t change the frame. The sound would be whatever naturally occurred for that minute. I focused on leaves, or water, or shadows, even dirty dishes in the sink. The sound generally involved my children yelling for me and trying to get my attention, which was an idea that I liked a lot. It captured my life at the time (and to this day.) Children always want your attention most when you’re doing something else. When you’re on the phone, or making short videos, or writing about trumpet mushrooms on some stupid blog! I became very taken with making the videos – there was nothing brilliant about them, but I liked the way that shooting them made me think about how long a minute lasts, how hard it is to be quiet and still, how my life sounded, how pretty small things could be. And then Ozu went and stole the idea from me! I’d like to stop and look at my house, for moments at a time, from down a corridor, when nothing is happening. Of course it wouldn’t be quiet and clean and cool, like in Ozu’s films. It would be a warm messy muddle.

Segue! This meal is a sort of warm/cool combination. A warm salad, or a cool stir fry. I went to the Stockton market. I bought some trumpet mushrooms. They were ridiculously expensive. I felt a little foolish, clutching my brown paper bag of precious mushrooms. The meal turned out very tasty, though, so it’s okay, I think. I sauteed some chard with garlic, red pepper, castelvetrano olives and fresh basil. I mixed in some brie, smoked gouda, and goat cheese. (Three cheeses! So extravagant! They were very nice together, and gave the meal a warm, creamy, tangy smokiness that was lovely. But you could use what you have.) The mushrooms I sliced very thinly, and then sauteed in olive oil with fresh sage leaves. The mushrooms and sage leaves became nice and crispy. I said the mushrooms tasted like bacon, and David said…”better than bacon – like steak and bacon. Steakon!” The pine nuts added a lovely crunch. They always have a little bit of a smoky, bacony taste to me, too!! You could easily make this with portobellos, spinach, and whatever cheese you happen to have.

Trumpet mushrooms

Here’s Louis Armstrong with Tight Like This. Geddit? Trumpet mushrooms! Plus this remarkable piece is full of perfect moments.

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