Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Taking the Day Off

There are days in the life of a free lancer when he's just waiting for things: new chapter files, PDFs filled with proofer marks, images, proofs from the printer.  Why not take the day off?

It seems sensible enough. And besides, there are always quite a few things that need to be done around the house: mow the lawn, change a light bulb. Most important of all, perhaps, is to deal with those glorious tomatoes we brought home from the farmers' market on Sunday morning.

I had gotten an email from my friend Michel--a far better cook than me--mostly a photo of the spectacular tomatoes he'd gotten at the farmer's market. In response I sent him an old photo of my own.

"This is the perfect morning to head downtown," I wrote. "Here are a few heirloom tomatoes from our garden--the last two!"

The following email exchange ensued:

Michel: "Those look beautiful!"

Me: "And tasty!  But this morning I am thinking of leeks and squash with ground almonds. And I am literally stepping out the door as I write this. If you can recall how big my desk-top computer is, you will be able to imagine how difficult this is!"

Michel: "I find myself in a euphoric state when I go to the farmers market during the week when it's not busy and pick up bags of produce for a few dollars. I come home, lay them out of my table and want to take pictures of them or paint them, immortalize them...cook them."

It was, indeed, a remarkable morning. The air was so fresh and cool that as we approached the stalls I said to Hilary, "I feel like I'm at the beach!"  We bought so many things that we decided to carry our purchases back to the car and return for a second look around. At the very least, we still needed to pick up a bunch of cut flowers.

In the end, we brought home three robust bunches of leeks ($4 total); a nice basket of six tomatoes ($3); two huge red bell peppers, misshapen but firm ($1 total); a butternut squash; an acorn squash; a basket of potatoes ($3); some fairly tough-looking green beans ($2.50); a bunch of fresh basil the size of a bride's bouquet ($1.50); and some fresh dill ($1) which was worth the price for the aroma alone.

The next day I used up half of the leeks and all the potatoes making a batch of the best potato-leek soup I've ever tasted. 

We didn't have much of a chance to eat it, however. We'd been invited to Norton Stillman's annual Sukkoth party. (If we'd gone to the framers' market a half-hour later, we would have run into him buying a big bag of corn on the cob.)

I always enjoy these parties, which are like a book convention, only smaller, and you know a lot more of the people. I relish the opportunity to reconnect with authors I got to know pretty well while working with them on their books, only to lose sight of them later. Sharon Chmielarz, Kate Dayton, Norita Dittberner-Jax, and Margaret Hasse spring immediately to mind. They were all there—thoughtful, kind, and generous souls one and all.

Margie's husband, Dave, told me he was winnowing his vast collection of classical music CDs.

"When should I come over?" I replied, eagerly.

A few old friends from the Bookmen years are also likely to be there. Brett Waldman and I discussed the best places to buy fresh fish in Bayfield, where he loves to sail; he recommended a shop I've seen but never ventured into. And I had a good time with Bill Kaufmann reminiscing about shipping issues way back when, and the pleasures of lunch-time touch football.

Author John Coy complimented me once again on the fonts I used on a reprint of his book Vroomaloom Zoom back in 2010. "Ah, yes,  I replied, "Croomby and Babelfish. I don't get much of an opportunity to use either of those nowadays." John and I got around to talking about the Portuguese empire, and when his wife, Fiona, joined us, we discussed  the interview she did with essayist Geoff Dyer a few years back at the downtown library. (Once again, lost in the past.)

A few minutes later, Tom Pope was telling me about a book he's working on comparing psychology as it's variously conceived by dramatists and psychologists. "You ought to read Philosophy as Dramatic Theory by the Spanish philosopher Julien Marias," I said.

"Who?" He replied. And he strode off to find a piece of paper and a pen.

Norton had grilled seven planks of salmon for the event, and there were pots of ratatouille, bowls of pesto and spinach dip, corn on the cob, and three kinds of apple crisp at least. Freya Manfred had brought one, Michael Keisaw Moore a second. No one seemed to know who had brought the third.

That event occupied our evening, and it wasn't until the next day that a bit more of the soup got eaten. But we'd been invited to a small retirement gathering that night for a friend at Ginger Hop. They have a good happy hour there. We filled up on spring rolls, calamari, and Jackie Chan burgers, and Sheila told us about various things her co-workers had given her at her retirement party, including a bottle of single malt scotch. We had soon hatched a plan for a Halloween poker game, with everyone arriving in kilts, drinking scotch, and watching Jackie Chan's masterpiece, Rush Hour, together.  

It might not have been the high point of the evening when I raised the question: "Why doesn't anyone read Stendhal's The Red and the Black anymore?"

Having raised the question, I felt it was incumbent upon me to re-read some of the book again myself. And when we got home I made my way through the first three chapters in a new translation by Burton Raffel. I enjoyed them, though it occurred to me that if a new translation had been published recently, it was absurd to consider the book a forgotten classic.

All the while, the potato soup was doing just fine in the fridge. But by the next morning, the dill was shot, the basil had lost its glisten, and the tomatoes were starting to show their age—a few brownish patches on the skins. I was going to make spaghetti sauce and had gotten the onions going on the stove, but when I started to cut up the tomatoes it struck me that after removing the blemishes, they still looked (and tasted) quite good. Why turn them into a ho-hum pan of sauce?

The result of this dramatic about-face was a bowl of tomato-basil-garlic topping for toasted bread, commonly known as bruschetta, and also a bowl of pepperoni siciliana. (The word bruschetta actually refers to the bread, not the tomato topping. I have a hunch there's an etymological connection between that word and the English word brusque, though I've never investigated.)

It's a never-ending story. The butternut squash will go with the leeks in a melange, baked with heavy cream and topped with chopped almonds....The sun will continue to strike the dew on the grass, later there will be frost, you'll be able to see your breath. Orion will return, and the day will come when darkness arrives at four in the afternoon. You will look down from the freeway overpass to see that the farmers' market, brightly lit under the snow-covered canopies, is filled with evergreen trees.

But not yet.

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