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food writing (1)

One fine day in 2010 I decided I wanted to be a food writer. It was that out of the blue. Clunk.

I’d happened upon a classy local food magazine in a specialty food store, took it home, and emailed an inquiry to the publisher. She asked if she might review some creative work I’d written. This was a roadblock: At the time I was a commercial copywriter and had been for a decade or so. My portfolio consisted of broadcast spots, fundraising appeals, website copy, things like that. Oh, and editing. Not dry at all. I guess you could argue that convincing people to go to Pooltown and not Home Depot for huge Labor Day savings on Jacuzzi filters was creative. But I’d never written an article in my life. I have a B.A. in English, but I’d never taken a Creative Writing class; they always filled up before I could get in. My degree was essentially made up of research papers. It wasn’t creative, let alone food oriented.*

I sent her one of my appeals that had been unusually successful, and luckily she liked it. A few months later, when she had an article assignment that needed an author, she got in touch with me. My first piece was to be a sidebar about a hot sauce full of local piri-piri peppers, made by Jon Bon Jovi’s childhood friend and original stage manager.

Obviously this had potential.

I’d never done an interview in my life, let alone one in person; and moreover, with a guy who had celeb leanings. So I just talked to him as if we were on line at Target or something. I figured if I don’t know how to be an interviewer, then I’d just be a regular person who likes hot sauce and wants to talk about it. It worked; we laughed our bottoms off and got on like peas and carrots. The article turned out pretty well. I remember I called that sauce, very truthfully, a ‘red-orange Matterhorn ride.’

Around that time a buddy of mine suggested I start a food blog. My first reaction was, ‘But…that’s essays, right? Personal musings?’ I wrote back to him: ‘I don’t know what I could say that anyone would want to read.’

Understand that I’m not used to calling attention to myself. I certainly wasn’t taught to do that; quite the opposite. But the idea grew on me. During down time at my contract job at Vonage, and there was a lot, I’d scribble down topics I might be able to write about. Then I sat down and tried one of them out. It took all afternoon.

Rereading that first post today, just try it, it feels very rough—it rambles, gets too intense. I was full of opinions, and they have merit. It did sum up the spirit of what I wanted the blog to be. But I didn’t have any control yet, and zero practice in writing from a personal standpoint. I could speak from a client’s perspective with no problem. That was as easy as falling off a log. But from my own?

I hit publish and the friend who suggested the blog asked why I hadn’t included any photos. I said, ‘You can add photos?’**

The original name I’d chosen for the blog was semisweet, after one of my favorite varieties of dark chocolate. But it also describes me well—and would nicely sum up what readers could expect. But someone else swiped it first. eve’s apple was my next idea (holy crap—I just realized I came back to Milton and the apple after all!). It was a diva of a name, and I loved it. When you’re a nutcase former teacher and home cook who wants to encourage people to try something new, or better still, to see the familiar through a different lens, the name fits perfectly.

You all know I love ingredients; I can rhapsodize endlessly about Meyer lemons, for one example, and have (here, and here, and more, but I’d break the internet trying to find every mention). But at heart I’m a sociology/anthropology nerd, much more interested in how we approach food as a culture. My friend Tom describes eve’s apple in a different way: ‘Marisa has a blog about food. Well, it’s about more than food, but it always comes back to food.’

I threw a (1) in the title. (2) will be next week. Stand by.

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My cover shot! These are very soft caramels I made with flakes of fleur de sel pressed into them.

*My final paper focused on Milton’s Paradise Lost and argued that Eve’s blind love was the catalyst that led to original sin. Maybe I should have worked the apple in more.

**I am such a technodweeb. Just with a WordPress account. Totally not kidding.

color code

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Natsukashii (Japanese): A sense of loss inherent in transience; bittersweetness, nostalgia tinged with longing

Sycamore trees have fallen out of favor for landscaping for decades, it seems. I’ve heard them called messy; they do shed their bark more liberally than other trees, it’s true. You can always tell a town, at least here in New Jersey, that was settled 100 years back or more: The streets are lined with sycamores. People weren’t fazed by excess bark back then, I’m guessing. In the area where I grew up and still live, the sycamores tower several stories high and come together in the middle of the street. If it started raining while we were on our bikes, we kids would dash to the narrower streets, where the thick canopy of branches would keep us pretty dry until the rain let up. On dry days we used to love snapping the bark’s roughness into pieces as we sat on the curb and talked. And in mid-August, the leaves started changing from green to pale ochre. Katydids chirping away at night is the first sign that fall is nearby. The second sign is the change in the color of the sycamore leaves. Fall is not yet on the doorstep, but it’s tiptoeing closer.

Years ago I read a story about a hero named Milarepa who fought and defeated monster after monster, each one bigger and scarier than the last. Then he came across the worst and spookiest monster of all. But all of his usual kill moves didn’t work, and he grew more and more desperate. Finally he did the only thing he could think of: He climbed into the monster’s mouth. As he was swallowed, the monster dissolved. And along with getting to live, Milarepa achieved enlightenment.

This time of year we dig in our heels and hang onto summer, and that’s natural. But there comes a point at which we have to climb into the monster’s mouth. And it’s not all bad, change. Loss isn’t all bad, either. There’s something to be said for allowing ourselves to be swallowed, to go with it, to change our colors along with the sycamores. And I’ve found that the closer I am to nature, the easier the shift is.

Tonight I made a peach-bourbon upside-down cake with the last of the peaches. It’s still hot and needs unmolding, or I’d post a picture. I’ll enjoy every bite—never you worry about that. But then later this week I’m picking elderberries and crab apples so I can make jam. I’m going from green to ochre as I do every year, letting the monster dissolve. I’ll let you know if enlightenment bonks me over the head. In the meantime, I’m kind of digging it.

sounds good

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Maybe 30 years ago I read Katherine Paterson’s brilliant Bridge To Terabithia*. There was a note at the end which said the illustrator drew the pictures while listening to the music of the Beatles. (To see one of Donna Diamond’s beautiful drawings from that book, click here.) Her work was so ephemeral and dreamy, and I was not surprised to learn of the particular musical influence. I’d bet you aren’t either.

In my Advanced Studio Art class in high school we always had the radio on, set to a local station, while we drew. My work was inevitably co-authored by Mister Mister, Heart, and Dream Academy. By college I’d graduated to Belinda Carlisle and MC Hammer.

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This is a Lady’s Speed Stick. Hammer would be proud.

Sometimes I listen to music while doing busy work like cutting and freezing produce. Once I wrote to Gourmet Magazine** and told them I spent the afternoon slicing organic strawberries while accompanied by Led Zeppelin. It was a solid choice, I thought. Gourmet agreed. They printed my letter.

But back to the vein of Donna Diamond, Bridge drawings, and the Beatles; and me, my drawings, and late ’80s power ballads: I think the music I’m listening to when I’m creating has a hand in the product. That includes cooking. This past few weeks I’ve needed some deep rest—soul-core rest. Aside from sleeping, that means comfort food; and in my case, making it.

First I went to my farm and bought some local, low-spray, ripe peaches. Then I sliced them and tucked them into a butter crust, latticed and sprinkled with demerara sugar. My co-author was The Carpenters. I felt like I was moving not through air but through Karen’s exquisite honey-colored contralto. That was a mellow-tasting pie, indeed (there it is above).

A couple of days ago I became oddly obsessed with a recipe I’ve had for years but have never made: blackberry brown-sugar cake. I took some liberties, since it was to be a breakfast or teatime cake for me, not a celebration cake for others. Omitted the buttercream and jam and half the sugar, swapped in some olive oil for part of the butter and whole-wheat pastry flour for some of the all-purpose. The recipe also called for ground walnuts and a little sugar at the base of the pan, but I didn’t have any walnuts, so I used hazelnuts instead. They were so heady and delicious that going forward I’ll never use walnuts. I topped the cake with tangy, organic plain yogurt and blackberries I’d just picked at the farm. The result was subtle and moody and surprising.

Nat ‘King’ Cole made this cake with me. You might not be able to tell by the photo, but you’d know for sure when you ate a slice.

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*The movie is rubbish.

**Requisite whimper that they’re gone.😦

ebb and flow

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I was heading to the blackberry field at my favorite farm recently when I heard the old iron gate above swinging in the wind. It opened with an awkward squeak, then graduated to rich middle notes, then closed to a low baritone, jabbing its voice through the clear day and green landscape.

A 360-degree view of the August farm showed spring asparagus gone to seed and a few weeks off from another appearance, ripe blackberries, raspberries, corn, squash, and more crops beyond. I stood in the middle of LIFE, in exhilaration and exultation.

But the thing is, a farm isn’t a still frame of lush beauty. It’s hundreds of still frames that make up a continuous feature. A farmer knows that, but it just occurred to me that day when the gate whined back and forth, open and shut. A farm is the whole life cycle. It is both lovers’ bed and deathbed, nursery and graveyard.

In spring, the farm is fragile and palest green, a greenhouse full of teeny shoots a few weeks off from being planted because the soil is still too cold.

In late spring and early summer, it’s stretching its legs, testing boundaries, getting cheeky and rosy.

Now, in high summer, the farm is saturated with sun and rain and sugar and bite and intense color. Mid-life is when everything shines and bursts. Corn kernels pop when a fingernail is pressed into them. A ripe melon, at a single, infinitesimally small piercing, splits ahead of the blade wide open with a CRACK on the kitchen counter. Little potatoes dug from dusty soil are washed and roasted, and at first bite their skins, loose from the flesh, snap.

But as the crops lose the light bit by bit every day, that snap gives way to profound sweetness, softness, mellowness. Apples lose their sharp astringent bite, and are finally ready to pick. Tomatoes—boy, if the frost holds off and we can get tomatoes into September or even October, their flesh becomes deeper and richer than any July specimen. Green bell peppers turn lipstick red, and tender. Pumpkins become sweet and earthy. The farm is going to seed. It’s like everything is settling in to resignation, the innate knowing that the honeymoon is over, long over. But the farm is okay with it. We can actually taste that it’s okay with it.

Late Summer into Fall the farmer tosses spent squash and overripe tomatoes right into the fields to nourish them. Nothing is wasted; everything feeds everything else. Even the winter snow helps to fortify the soil. In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s day, in the 19th century, farmers called fresh snow “poor man’s fertilizer,” and sent the kids out with the plow to turn it under the soil. They didn’t know why it did the job so well, but they knew it did. Now we know it’s full of nitrogen, the most essential ingredient for healthy plant development.

So in August, in the wind, that old gate was the farm’s mouthpiece, singing, reminding me of how it all works. The baby’s squeak to the young adult’s call to the elder’s hum, it’s all a song. It gets sung every year. We’re moving into the baritone hum. Enjoy time’s pendulum and the old iron gate swinging closed, and the flavors that come with them. I think they’re the best of the year.

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flag nor fail

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All through the ’70s and ’80s, on the first Saturday or Sunday (I forget which) of August, I did the same thing every year: Before my family would get in the car in the morning with all of our beach stuff, I’d walk down to the driveway’s apron and look north, a block and a half to the ball field, to see the flags posted. It was the official signal that volunteers were setting up our small town’s annual picnic. All kids love rituals—I defy you to show me one that doesn’t—but this kid is nutty about them. Another picnic!

(A note: Have you ever heard someone use the expression ‘small town,’ and then you find out it has 7500 people? Yeah, a recent census clocked in Interlaken, NJ at 820 residents. Small. Town.)

My best friend at the time lived a few streets away, and he called this event Interlaken Day. We just called it the picnic. It was neighbors, people who tiptoed over icy streets to my family’s annual Eggnog Party on New Year’s Day, who plowed out our driveway without asking when it snowed. We waved and called each other over from porches all summer. And it was extended family, many of whom who lived in town with us. The picnic was kind of like a reunion between people you never really said goodbye to in the first place.

During the day there were games and races, but not being especially sporty types, we kids never missed them. We’d walk over after the beach, around dinnertime. My parents would head under the trees, where all of the grownups would be parked in lawn chairs. Many of my relatives weren’t big beach people, so they made of day of it: three aunts (sisters), uncles, and lots of older cousins—the first- and second-removed type. They’d ask us how the beach was, and if we’d eaten yet. Italians, you understand.

One of my removed-type cousins was a plumber who had a glossy black toupee and a jolly demeanor—an admirable combination. He manned the beer stand and introduced the band, which was made up of local people. When he got old enough, my third cousin John ran the corn table and then the hot dog table; the latter were courtesy of lifelong residents, the Haydus, who lived a block away and had a hot dog company.

When we were little there were pony rides led by my babysitter, another resident. No Moonwalks or anything like that. They weren’t invented yet; and besides, people would have figured if you were at a ball field outfitted with ponies, a jungle gym, basketball and tennis courts, and a bunch of grass to run around on, anything extra was silly. Which it is.

One year we brought my dog to the picnic, a perpetually hungry Lhasa Apso, and while my parents were chatting with neighbors he ate a carton of sauerkraut that someone had spilled beer into. When we went home that night he drank a full bowl of water in one go.

I live right next to my hometown. Last Friday I saw signs posted around advertising that the the picnic was to take place the following day. We used to get notices in the mail on pale blue paper in the beginning of the summer. Maybe they still do that, too.

In the morning I went out to see if the flags were up. They were.

In the late afternoon I took to my bike and rode by. I saw people sitting under the trees, and food booths with little awnings, which was new. Still no Moonwalk, mercifully. Instead of a band they piped in music: it was Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.

I remembered a year I rode my bike to the picnic. It must have been 1986 because that was when the Monkees went on their 25th anniversary tour, MTV had a marathon of their ’60s TV show to promote the tour, and I became a rabid fan. I remember coasting through the streets humming, ‘The Girl That I Knew Somewhere’ (which is a fantastic song, and because you’re just dying to know, it was featured in the episode that guest-starred Julie Newmar.) I remembered the late-afternoon sun through the trees, riding with no hands, and a hot dog in the forecast.

Most of my family is long passed. The rest have moved away. I didn’t have anyone to visit under the trees when I went by yesterday. But the picnic was pretty much the same.

I think the biggest surprise you get when you become an adult is not that you have to work and pay taxes and take on responsibilities. You knew that was coming.

It’s how suddenly things change. Sometimes the changes are subtle, and other times they clobber you upside the head and blindside you. You climb a mountain and say to yourself, Okay, good, I’ve worked hard, I’ve got my footing, I’m getting the hang of this mountain, I can do this, and then you find out it’s not really a mountain, it’s actually really a river, and now you have to learn to swim, and you didn’t bring enough sunblock.

But people still sit under the trees at a picnic in a tiny town at the Jersey Shore. As I write this I’m walking in my memory, crunching over the first fallen acorns, telling my relatives the beach today was good; and starving, as all 12-year-olds, and Lhasa Apsos, are.

And they still set the flags first thing in the morning. They’ve been doing that for half a century or more. It’s not my family and my neighbors now. But it’s cool enough.

La la la la life goes on.

harriet’s delight

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In Louise Fitzhugh’s brilliant, mouthy Harriet the Spy (1964), the heroine insists on a tomato sandwich every day for lunch. In her case, she likes it plain. In my case, I like thick-cut, sweet Vidalia onion, salty cheese (Cotija or feta), extra virgin olive oil, a leaf or two of fresh basil if you can get it (I couldn’t), and an heirloom tomato. If none, or only a portion, of an heirloom is to be had, a tomato from a local garden is a worthy pinch hitter. The above sandwich was supplemented by my friend Charlie, who left an upended crate of tomatoes for me on a bench by his back door.

Tomato season lasts from mid-July through September—a painfully short duration for the addicted.

For the past few days this sandwich has been lunch, or dinner, or lunch and dinner on the same day. If you’ve never tasted a local, ripe, sun-warm heirloom tomato, this admission will come across as lunatic. If you have tasted one, it will come across as utterly sound…and in fact, you’ll wonder what keeps it off my breakfast table. I’m beginning to wonder myself.

three stories

Stringing together a few words of sense is an ambitious goal for me this week, as the cumulative stress of work, packing during a heat wave, moving, unpacking, and closing two shows is muscling out whatever part of the brain manages coherency (and being awake). You’ll notice there are no photos this week. But I wanted to share some small, but great, moments.

  1. When the teeny girl who played Scout for us in To Kill a Mockingbird came to me before a performance and opened her teeny hand and said, ‘I have not one, not two, but three peanuts for you,’ those hand-warmed peanuts tasted fantastic.
  2. The actor who promised me homemade sweet-potato pie a few weeks ago totally delivered, bringing in two pies—for me. I opted to share at the cast party, though Lord knows I could have packed away both. I’d never had this particular pie before because I have this stubborn streak that makes me avoid traditional foods until I feel I can trust the source. The recipe was this gentleman’s grandmother’s, and the pie was a best-seller in his baking business, done out of his church’s basement. You’ll admit this is quite a resume, and I was right to wait for it: It was smooth and earthy and not too sweet.
  3. My stage-tech friend of 25 years is facilities manager at a theatre here in New Jersey. He’s very handy and calls me his third daughter, so when I move, he wants to be a part of it. Last week he offered to help me move stuff I didn’t want the movers to touch, so I took him up on it. And today he wanted to come by to tighten, loosen, fix, and attach random stuff around the place. Once we were done he made a list of stuff he’s going to find at Home Depot and install next time he’s by. Then he took me out to lunch. A turkey sub you can get anywhere, of course. Devotion, not so much. It was delicious.