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,


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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Malcolm’s double decker tomato pie (with the surprise filling!!)

Malcolm’s tomato pie

I talk a lot about Malcolm, so lets let him speak for himself, for once! This is a poem he wrote for class:

I Was—slow, an infant, a scooterer, funny, strange, a kindergartener, dumb, adventurous, curious.
I am—a climber, big and tall and strong, a brother, an athlete, a player of basketball, a free runner, a lover of nature, cool, rough and tumble.
But still—a question asker, a skateboarder, a vegetarian, a TV liker, a liker of junk, I won’t stop eating, a liker of toys, an inventor.

I love that! I love him! I’m so happy that he knows he’s strong, that he believes he’s cool and funny. And that he eats a lot! And since he won’t stop eating, I’m glad he helps me cook! I love when Malcolm describes something he wants to cook. He describes it with his hands – showing the exact dimensions and specifications. And he’s very sure about what he wants to make. He’s decisive, he’s decided. I’ll suggest something that might be easier or more traditional. And he’ll say, no, I want it like I just said! So that’s what we try to do. I fire questions at him, trying to establish the practical details, and he has an answer for everything.

Malcolm’s tomato pie

He wanted to make this tomato pie for days, and was disappointed each night at dinner when I forgot and made something else. So finally we made it. I had to work all day, so we started the dough in the morning, and just let it sit and rise all day long. It’s basically a pizza-dough crust. He wanted a double crusted pie, with “a quiche” inside – eggs blended with tomatoes and roasted peppers (and smoked paprika!). And on top of the top he wanted a layer of thinly sliced tomatoes and grated cheese. It turned out very good. Malcolm loved it, which is one of the nicest feelings in the world.

The secret filling!

I let Malcolm pick the song to go with this pie, and he picked Brianstorm, by the Arctic Monkeys.

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Gougere ring filled with tomatoes, basil and fresh mozzarella

Gougere ring

There’s this strange thing that happens sometimes – a poignant shifting of time and memory, that leaves you feeling an instant nostalgia. This happens a lot when you have children. You’ll watch them do something beautiful – they don’t even realize how beautiful – you’ll want to find your camera, but you know you can’t capture the moment, and in an instant it’s passed. It’s the past, and you think about yourself much older, remembering that moment. You’ll think about your children when they’re older, which is something you can’t know. It’s not unpleasant, not painful, exactly, but you very nearly regret the instant that you’re living in now, as it passes. It’s not the big events that people pose for and record, but the small, ordinary things your children say, their characteristic gestures, that you can’t be sure you’ll remember, because they’re so dear and familiar you almost forget to notice them. This time of year is ripe for these sea-shifting feelings. It’s pure summer – we’ve had such a spate of perfect summer days – but part of you misses all the summer days leading up to this one, and part of you anticipates autumn on its way.

I just learned that “poignant” meant, archaically, strong smelling or tasting, which seems sort of perfect, because taste and smell are such triggers for memory. If one vegetable was the embodiment of this ripe, sweet, late summer anxiety, surely it would be the tomato. You have almost more than you know what to do with, and they’re plump and perfect now. You want to can them and freeze them and save them to warm you in the middle of winter, but you know they won’t be the same! I feel the same way about basil – we have a garden-full. I made some pesto and froze it, but it’s not the same as picking up a ball the boys have kicked into the basil patch and being enveloped in basil-fragrance. Not surprisingly, these tastes are famously perfect together. I made a ring of gougeres – cheese-tinted choux pastry balls – as a crown for my tomatoes and basil. Gougeres are actually quite simple to make, and they’re very comforting and pleasing – soft and eggy. They deflate fairly quickly (at least mine did!) but they’re still plenty tasty. Served like this, they soaked up some of the lovely tomato & olive oil juices, which is one of my favorite parts of eating tomatoes!!

Here’s Ring of Fire by Johnny Cash.

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Roasted (tomato, beet, & zucchini) sauce with basil and pine nuts

Roasted sauce

It’s my birthday! I know I should probably be more cool about it, and not say anything, but I’m like a big (rapidly aging) child when it comes to my birthday. I genuinely don’t want a lot of fuss, or presents or parties, but I have this feeling that I want something special to happen, but on some cosmic level. I know! It’s dumb! I’m 43, which is just absolutely crazy to me. How can I be middle-aged when I’m still waiting to feel like a responsible full-grown adult? I have to admit that turning 40 was harder for me than I expected it to be. Part of me felt like I was having a slow-motion mid-life crisis, with brief shard-like pangs of anxiety and melancholy. (I feel better this year, though! Not sure why!) I’m not indulging in this birthday whine for sympathy, but because one of the harder things, for me, was having everybody tell me how great they felt to turn 40, and how easy it was for them. I think it’s okay to feel the pangs of time passing. Anxious aging people everywhere, I absolve you!

The other night while we were at the shore, and I had my usual not-in-my-own-bed insomnia, I was half awake and listening to the waves, and this metaphor crept into my head. I’ll share it with you! It’s an extended metaphor, and I’m going to go on about it for a really long time, so I get extra points on my essay. Aging is like being in the ocean. You bob along, from day to day, treading water. You see your family on the beach, bright, and real, and busy and playing in the waves that wash towards them. You feel the sand under your feet slipping away, a little more with each wave, but it’s not unpleasant. Every once in a while you step on a sharp shell or get pinched by a crab, but the waves carry the sharp thing away again, and you bob and and you tread. The vasty ocean curves all around you, beautiful, comforting, frightening, inexplicable. And you’re fine; you’re lifted up, you’re set back down, you’re happy. And then when your back is turned a giant wave comes and breaks right over your head, you’re not ready for it, you’re turned upside down, your mouth and eyes and ears are full of water. But you struggle to right yourself, to see your family on the glowing sand, you clear your soggy head, you tread, you bob, you’re fine.

The older I get, the more I realize it’s the small everyday things that matter. Today we’re making a cake, and Malcolm drew me a card with green and blue Dog Woman on it, and Isaac drew me a card with a picture of him and me laughing. The sun is shining, the day is cool. Yesterday I went to a grocery store with my boys, but it was a special grocery store, and I got special things, and they’re full of happy potential for good meals. We’re all on the same boat together going in the same inevitable direction – we may as well enjoy the meals!

One of the nice things about having a summer birthday is the vegetables. I LOVE VEGETABLES!! Yesterday I made a sauce with roasted tomatoes, roasted beets, roasted zucchini, tons of fresh basil, a pinch of marjoram and thyme, and a few of my special birthday purchases – viz, sherry vinegar, fresh mozzarella, and pinenuts. I think it turned out really nice! A little beet-sweet, with the subtle tang of sherry vinegar. We had it with penne, but it would be good with anything, I think. It would even make a good soup, if you added more water or stock!

Here’s Tom Waits’ Time, surely one of the most beautiful songs ever!

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