November 23, 2012

Here's What Happened

It’s been coming on slowly, this feeling that I have. Slowly, over the course of this year in which I have been coming here to write—that I would eventually make this blog more explicitly personal. I’m still figuring out exactly what that means: what it means to be writing as I do, in this way, to a group of anonymous readers and also to dear friends. We’ve been figuring it out together, you and I. That is the sense that I have.

I figure it’s time to recount some history. I’ve spoken obliquely about a number of things. And last week, I wrote about my sister in the most explicit way that I’ve ever done before. I received emails and personal notes about it. It lifted my spirits and reminded me why I like to come here and what makes this experience profound.

I think it has to do with a level of trust in oneself. Because if I’m not here, if I’m not really here, all of me, there won’t be much for either of us to hold on to.

So, here’s what happened: I started this blog on November 25, 2011. I was a nervous wreck when I did. I picked it up and abandoned it in my mind a number of times. Then, at the end of January, my fiancĂ© (and boyfriend of 10 years) and I ended our relationship. What followed was a series of tumultuous months, a parade of meaningless dates, a reconnecting of many friendships, and a stark turn inward.

What can I say about that relationship here, now, in this way? We grew up together, he and I—that’s the most honest thing to say and the most true thing to recount. We lived overseas together, we traveled, we became recluses in a cottage in upstate New York for a period of time (in a house that was so quiet that one could hear, physically hear, the sound of a snowfall); it was a red cottage, across from a beautiful farm; I made drawings at the kitchen table in the mornings and watched the deer come to the stream to drink; it was an idyllic but also profoundly sad time for us both. We grew up together, and then, I think, we grew apart, in very different, but also oddly connected ways. Some part of ourselves is still in that little red cottage, and that’s the best that I can do to think of what happened between us, and where whatever it was—what it had been—still resides.

When it happened, I found myself coming to this blog more and more. I can’t describe what I felt or why I knew it was important, but it was. This was the place where I came to ground myself, and it always worked. There is something about seeing something that one has made, right there in front of you, that affirms to the soul that one has a home in the world. I suppose this was the reason I decided to become an artist so many years ago now. I think it was Heidegger who said something to that effect: that we make art, we create things, as a way of making a home in the world. It is something that I think we all strive for. We tear each other apart in our quest to find some bit of grace and solace. We never, ever stop searching. 

My life now is very different than it once was, and mostly for the better. I live with two lovely roommates in a quiet little house on the edge of the Mission District in San Francisco. I come here to write and to cook, and when I go home, I play my guitar and nuzzle my roommate’s little orange cat, and I drink with friends, and spend time with old acquaintances, and generally, live. I’ve forged some powerful connections to people who are now very dear to me; some from my distant past and some from a nearer present. I’ve let certain things go. I laugh a lot more than I used to. I take that to be the best sign.

I still haven’t figured out how to escape the waves of sadness—a sort of drowning that takes hold of me from time to time—but I’ve stopped trying to prevent them entirely. Yes, I wake up some mornings with tears in my eyes. It has always been this way. Sometimes I feel so stricken with sadness that I feel literally incapacitated. I feel that I simply cannot move—where my mind refuses to stop, my body will. But there is also this other thing in me; it’s the thing that makes it possible, the night after some deep moment of sadness, to get up the next day and make apple-cinnamon pancakes for my roommate. To listen to her when she tells me, “you should photograph this, Vera.”

These are the dueling impulses. I suppose, no… I trust, that we all have them.

What appears in this post, what’s been scattered throughout, is a sort of chronicle of my week. It’s incomplete, as all memories and experiences are; because what I really want to say is un-writable and un-photographable.

I inch toward it bit by bit.

This weekend I will paint my room the color of fog; that’s the best way that I can describe it. Sebald writes: “There is mist that no eye can dispel”; but we can let it envelop us, and find some bit of freedom there.

Next week, when The Moon in My Kitchen turns 1, we will celebrate with some cake. The real kind, the birthday kind, all frosted and shiny and new. 

Apple-Cinnamon Pancakes
Serves 2

This is not really a recipe, it's more of an idea. And now that we've passed through Thanksgiving, I doubt that many of you will be waking up and wanting pancakes. On the other hand, it might be just the thing. These pancakes have all of the taste of apple pie... but better, easier, and with maple syrup.

Mix up a batch of buttermilk pancakes using (gasp) your favorite mix. But if I was going to make them from scratch, I'd use this recipe, which, with the addition of oats, I think would be quite good.

Heat a non-stick griddle until droplets of water dance across the surface. Spoon out the pancake batter to your desired pancake size (I usually make four at a time), and then add thinly sliced apples (about 3-4 slices per pancake) and sprinkle with cinnamon. Wait until the surface of the pancakes bubble and make large exquisite holes across the top, and then flip once. Wait about a minute and then serve immediately, with sweet cream butter and maple syrup over top.

November 05, 2012

Not a Single Day

I’ve been thinking a lot about loss, what with the news of hurricane Sandy that’s been streaming in from the East Coast (my thoughts are with you New York, my beloved city).

I spent the duration of the storm living a sort of parallel reality, from my bed, stricken with the flu. In my feverish state, all sorts of things surfaced in my mind—there was a sort of psychic wreckage blowing around in there. And then, when I awoke, when I really awoke, when I was finally getting better, I began to see the images of overturned cars and uprooted oak trees, a blackened city skyline, and deserted streets.

There was only one other time that I remember this profound sense of emptiness that can be felt when the city’s buildings, its life force and visceral landscape, could be seen as darkened and unmoving. I hesitate to go back there in my mind.

When I was little, I used to look at the city skyline from my father’s moving car and think of how each light, in each square window, in every apartment building, represented an individual life—I remember feeling overwhelmed and comforted by this thought at the same time: that lives cross in these oblique yet profoundly intimate ways; that we are small; that moments in time can’t be counted; that things and people are constantly lapsing in and out of being.

I think of my sister whenever I think of loss—someone who I haven’t seen in six years. The story is—as they often are—a long one. I can’t go into all of it here, at least for the moment. But the sadness that pervades her loss is always with me. And though this has been said before, perhaps by many, there truly is not a single day when I don’t think of her. It’s been long enough now that I am beginning to remember her again as she once was—when she was a little girl. How we fought, and laughed, and fought again. She used to bribe me with food items: bits of butter coated in sugar and other weird childhood concoctions. I remember her chubby fingers reaching out to pass me some little morsel, and I, hungrily and greedily, leaning in to accept it. I emulated her sense of strength—the way she laughed heartily and threw passionate fits. She was always very convincing.

I will write about her more here in bits and pieces, as the memories come. She is in everything that I do and in most things that I think and feel. We suffer chronically around the loss of her.


To this parade of sadness and sickness today, though, I will also add some cake—because that’s what we do; that’s what I’ve always done. 

My mother and I would take to the kitchen armed with butter and sugar and a few more spare things and whip together something that could be relished and consumed. I hope that in the way that cake can be shared, so too can these thoughts—that perhaps they shore up some distant part of some other human, in their own small illuminated corner, whose life is occurring at this very moment, in parallel. There might be a little girl marveling at the light cast from your window as I type this, and you would never know it.


Now, the cake:

It’s from Nigel Slater’s beautiful book Ripe. It’s a pear cake. No—it’s an almond cake, scented with brown sugar; with a hearty, courageous crumb; topped with the most beautiful mess of pears: pears that have been simmered in butter and cinnamon, that have been doused in maple syrup, that have created—in this process—the most luscious, sticky syrup clinging to every bite.

It really is a lovely thing. And, perhaps most importantly, it is a perfect fall thing—it is cake that is also nourishing. It tastes like the season.

If you take care not to over-bake it, your crumb will be less firm, slightly more on the ethereal side, not as dry. That’s what you should do. But, if you forget about your cake for a moment while you are reading something—as I did, in my bedroom—you can also rest assured that your slightly over-baked cake will remain moist with maple syrup–drunk pears in every bite. And, in this state, you can also eat it out of hand.

New York friends, I wish I could share this with you. We could feel happy, at least, to have the taste of pear on our tongues, no matter the weather.

Until soon. 

Almond Cake with Pears, Maple Syrup, and Cinnamon
Adapted from Ripe by Nigel Slater

Nigel calls this "a cake of pears, muscovado, and maple syrup." I couldn't find muscovado sugar, so I dropped it both in recipe and name. But you can use it here instead of the brown sugar, if you are so inclined.  


6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup (scant) light brown sugar 
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup group almonds 
3 eggs
2 tablespoons milk
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract


3 ripe pears (I used Concorde)
4 teaspoons unsalted butter
2 generous pinches cinnamon 
3 tablespoons maple syrup (plus more for serving)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter an 8-inch round cake pan and line with parchment; the parchment should extend over the edge of the pan on two sides to make the cake easy to remove. Butter the parchment and dust the pan with flour, tapping out the excess. 

Peel and core the pears, and chop them into 1/3-1/2 inch pieces. Place them in a shallow pan with the butter and cinnamon, and cook over medium heat for 10-12 minutes, or until just softened, stirring occasionally. Add the maple syrup to the pan—the juices will bubble up; stir the mixture once or twice, and remove the pears from the heat. 

Cream together the butter and sugars in a large bowl (I do this with a wooden spoon, but you could use an electric mixer too). In a separate bowl, combine the flour and baking powder. Add the ground almonds to the flour mixture. In a small bowl, beat the eggs and milk. Add about 1/3 of the eggs to the butter and stir to combine; then add 1/3 of the flour mixture and stir. Repeat this process until all of the ingredients are combined (do not over-mix). Stir in the vanilla extract. 

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth out the top. Pour the pears and all of their sticky syrup over the cake in an even layer. 

Begin checking the cake at 50 minutes. It should be golden all over, and a toothpick, when inserted into  the cake (avoiding the fruit, if possible), should come out clean. 

Nigel suggest serving this with a little cream and maple syrup. I forgot about this part when it came time for me to eat the cake—but I would try it next time. He also suggests that it can be consumed warm. It is also the sort of thing that you can grab a slice of and eat out of hand. And, as I can attest to at this very moment, it makes a very good breakfast.