Saturday, February 04, 2006

Some thoughts on reading and writing

I just finished reading the Best American Short Stories 2005 collection and there are a number of fantastic stories in it. There were three that I absolutely loved. Joyce Carol Oates' story "The Cousins" had me crying by the end of it. I love epistolary stories and this one revealed details about the characters letter by letter in such a heartbreaking way. That sounds trite but I can't think of a better word than "heartbreaking." Kelly Link's "Stone Animals" blended the fantastical and the totally relate-able in a way I haven't experienced before. It wasn't like any of the magical realism I've read before (Rushdie, Marquez) because it didn't feel dreamy at all; most magical realism makes me feel like I'm underwater looking up at a warped world. And my final favorite was J. Robert Lennon's "Eight Pieces for the Left Hand," fragmented prose bits that reflect on each other. I need to get his book of 100 stories Pieces for the Left Hand .

One of my favorite things about all of the "Best of" books in this series is the Contributors' Notes at the end of the book. After reading a story I always go back and read what the author says. Some are brief explanations of where they got the idea for the story, which is fine, but other comments really get at the process of writing.

From this collection my favorite commentary (and I like the story it was associated with, too) was George Saunders' notes about his story "Bohemians". His note is hilarious and insightful and, in my case, completely applicable. Here is his note in its entirety:

I started "Bohemians" in 1994 and got stuck in 1995. There the story sat, stalled at what is now Paragraph 58, through the O.J. case, the rest of the Clinton administration, the Bush election, a change of jobs, the astonishing recession of my hairline, etc., etc., victim of Writer's Error 4A: "Knowing Too Well What You Are Doing." I was sure the story was about The Lack of Relation Between Hardship and Moral Virtue. The story was going to show, rather suavely I hoped, that someone who had Suffered Greatly (Mrs. H.) could actually be a kinder person than someone (Mrs. Poltoi) who had suffered much less! The fact that this idea would be totally obvious to anyone who had ever actually lived in the world did not stop me from periodically brushing off the story, failing, and putting it away again. Finally I noticed that every time I got to Paragraph 8 ("So Mrs. H. told again how she'd stood rapt in her yard...") I got nauseated. It's not uncommon for me to feel nauseated after reading one of my paragraphs, but this was a special kind of nausea, related to how overwritten this paragraph was, how full of a youngish writer's desire to invoke exotica about a part of the world he had never been to. It sounded like Isaac Babel on stupid pills, as if Babel had also taken some dishonesty pills, then decided to write about an Omaha, Nebraska, he had invented in his mind in order to serve a secret moral purpose, then taken some inefficiency polls. Suddenly, after eight years of becoming nauseated after reading this paragraph, a light went on: it wasn't I who was a dishonest posturing braggart, it was the character. And in this way the story came to be about something entirely different from what I thought it had been about all those years, thank God, and could finally be finished.

What Saunders wrote about being nauseated when reading something he'd written and in particular, the reason why ("a youngish writer's desire to invoke exotica about a part of the world he had never been to") is just about the perfect description of how I felt when I went on my writing retreat with Ami and Sarah last autumn and worked on the novel I started, oh let's see, almost 8 years ago! Overwritten? Yup. Dishonest? Yup. Inefficient? Resounding yup. Luckily I have a very strong stomach so reading my own prose didn't put me off the terrific food we had. But it did make me think about chucking the whole damn novel in the trash.

I don't know if a dishonest character will be the key to saving what is decent in what I have already written (though it very well might be--the book is loosely based on a person who wrote 4 autobiographies in which many of the same events are told 4 different ways, so honesty is really not a feature of her character). But at least I'm going to try and face down the nausea to find the thing that will (hopefully) release what is good and help me get rid of what is crap.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

A Blogger's (Silent) Poetry Reading

Grace's Poppies started the idea.

So here is a poem I read recently on the Writer's Almanac and printed out and stuck on my fridge. It is short enough that I can read it every morning while heating up the milk for my coffee in the microwave (one minute and fourty seconds thank you very much for asking).

Father's Song
by Gregory Orr

Yesterday, against admonishment,
my daughter balanced on the couch back,
fell and cut her mouth.
Because I saw it happen I knew
she was not hurt, and yet
a child's blood's so red
it stops a father's heart.
My daughter cried her tears;
I held some ice
against her lip.
That was the end of it.
Round and round; bow and kiss
I try to teach her caution;
she tries to teach me risk.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Ugly, but Tasty

This is one of those dishes in which half way through preparing it you take a look and think "Damn, I really f***ed up this time. That is so ugly I wouldn't feed it to my dog."

But sometimes ugly food tastes really good, and this pork loin cooked in milk, Arista al Latte, looks a lot worse while cooking than when it finally comes to the table. It will never win any awards for its looks, but the finished product isn't so ugly as to make anyone flee. And once people taste it, trust me, they'll stay and they'll probably ask for seconds.

Another major benefit--it is easy! The gist of the recipe is take a pork loin, cut little slits in it, stuff garlic, strips of lemon zest and some fresh rosemary in the slits, brown it in a saucepan with a little olive oil, then dump some milk over it. The pork poaches in the milk (which keeps the pork tender). The lemon zest makes the milk curdle and the curdled milk cooks down into caramelized curds which, I grant you don't sound too pretty (and aren't) but which make a great sauce.

Here is a step by step photo essay of the process:
The pretty, pink pork loin browning in olive oil. Ugliness coming soon!
Dump quite a lot of milk over the pork loin (about 1 C per pound of pork) and cook for at least 1.5 hours with the lid OFF. The milk will evaporate leaving some curds like this:
ooops, shoulda' used a non-stick pot...And some really homely looking pork.
Wow, that is some ugly pork, but once it is sliced...
it doesn't look quite so bad.
And when you top it with some of the caramelized, garlicy curd-sauce and put it on a plate with some roast potatoes and broccoflower, it looks decent enough. And trust me, it tastes terrific.

Pork Loin Cooked in Milk (Arista al Latte)

1.5 lbs boneless pork loin
of one lemon (not microplaned--in strips)
sprig of rosemary, leaves stripped off of twig
2 cloves of garlic, sliced lengthwise into slivers
1.5 C milk (whole is preferable, but I made it with 2% and it turned out fine)
2 T olive oil
salt and pepper

Cut slits in the ends and along the grain of the pork and slip in bits of the garlic, lemon zest and rosemary. Sprinkle with some ground pepper and a little bit of salt (yes, for once I am recommending you go light on the salt. At least till the end. When you cook the milk down it concentrates the flavor and you risk making it way too salty so go light now and you can always add some more at the end.)

At this point, if you want, you can use cotton twine to tie the meat into a more roll-like shape (I've done it both ways and it does look a teeny bit nicer rolled up, but I'm not sure it is worth the extra hassle of wrestling with the meat).

Heat the oil in a saucepan big enough to fit your pork loin but not too big (otherwise the liquid won't rise high enough on the pork for it to poach and stay moist). Brown the pork on all sides, then pour the hot milk over it.

Heat the milk to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer uncovered until the pork is done (1-1.5 hours) turning it occasionally and scraping the bottom of the pot to keep the curds from sticking too badly.

By the time the pork is done, most of the liquid should have evaporated. If the curds still look a little watery, take the pork out, slice it thin (take off the string first, if you used it) and raise the heat under the curds to get the curd sauce to a thick enough (but not too thick) viscosity. Keep stirring so the curds don't scorch. Taste the curds now and see if you want a little more salt.

Serve slices of the pork topped with some of the curds. And if you think it still looks ugly, shut your eyes and take a bite.

Cook with what ya' got

Last Saturday was a beautiful warm day. After squinting at the unfamiliar yellowish blob that turned out to be the sun (!!) we took the kids for a nice long walk downtown and then came home and celebrated by making this sunny soup:
Robot-approved red lentil soup.

There are a couple of things that are great about this soup:
  1. It takes hardly any ingredients and almost all are shelf stable so even if you haven't been shopping in weeks you probably have everything to make it.
  2. It is so easy you can make it while half asleep.
  3. Robots (and robot-loving 2 year olds) like it!
Unlike the muddy tasting and muddy colored lentil soup that I grew up with, made with brown lentils, this is a Middle Eastern style lentil soup made with red lentils which turn a beautiful deep mustard shade when cooked. They do not hold their shape (thus no need to puree hot soup which is a pain in the ass) and the flavor is punched up with cumin, garlic and lemon. If you are lucky enough to have experienced the fantastic Middle Eastern restaurants in the area (see, there are some pluses to living in the dark for 3 months of the year!), you will probably have had this soup.

It is great when served with other Middle Eastern stuff like hummus, baba ganoush, pita and a chopped romaine, tomato and cucumber salad dressed with lemon, olive oil, salt, pepper and ground sumac (if you don't live near a Mid-East market where you can get bags of sumac really cheap, you can mail order it from Penzeys.)

Easy Middle Eastern Style Red Lentil Soup

1 medium yellow onion chopped
3-5 cloves of garlic, minced or pressed
1 T olive oil
1 carrot, grated (optional)
1 and 1/2 C red lentils (NOT brown)
7 C water
1 t salt
fresh ground pepper
1 T ground cumin
**Juice of 1-2 lemons (depending on the intensity of your sour-pleasure center)

In a big pot, saute the onion and garlic in the olive oil until the onion is soft. Add the lentils, carrot, water, salt, pepper and cumin and bring to a boil. Then reduce heat and simmer for at least 40 minutes (more is fine--if you are going to simmer for a LONG time then put a lid on the pot so all the water doesn't evaporate). Just before serving add half the lemon juice (at least one lemon's worth) and then taste to see if you want any more lemon juice, salt or pepper.

**If you don't have any fresh lemons in the house, bottled lemon juice will suffice.