Friday, February 26, 2010

Food/Pot Roast

When Toni Dante, one of the main characters in my upcoming novel, Across the Table, starts dating blonde, 6'2" Bobby Templeton from Belle Arbor, Indiana, his mother, Hazel, gives her a cookbook for Christmas, thoughtfully bookmarked with Bobby's favorite recipes. As Toni describes:

I grew up watching my mother cook with no recipes at all except what was in her head. She would taste and adjust, with a handful of chopped parsley or a fragment of cheese hand-grated and tossed into the pot. I used to think that she had been born with the knowledge of how to cook, something she had absorbed in the womb.

Following a cookbook was a new experience for me, but I threw myself into learning how to produce the dishes Bobby had grown up with. Once a week I took the T to his apartment in Kendall Square near MIT, carrying a shopping bag filled with ingredients I’d never seen in my mother’s pantry.

One of the first dishes she learns how to create is pot roast. Here is my favorite version. The secret to its rich flavor is the combination of garlic, thyme and red wine:

Pot Roast

1 large onion

2 large carrots

3 large cloves garlic

3-4 lbs. beef chuck roast

3 tablespoons flour

½ cup olive or canola oil

2 cups beef broth

1 cup red wine

1 tablespoon thyme

1 large bay leaf

1. Peel and chop onion, carrots and garlic into small dice.

2. Pat the beef dry. Place flour in a plastic bag and season with salt and pepper. Add beef and toss until coated with a layer of flour.

3. Heat oil in a Dutch oven and brown the beef on all sides. Remove from pan.

4. Add chopped onion, carrots and garlic to pan and sauté until onion is golden, scraping up bits of meat from bottom of pan.

5. Add beef to vegetables.

6. Add beef broth, wine, thyme and bay leaf.

7. Bring liquid to a boil, then lower heat to a simmer.

8. Cover and cook on low heat for about two hours.

9. Serve with noodles.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Encounters/Women with Curly Hair

The rain in my corner of New England has not stopped for days. Roads are flooding, the ground is soggy and everything is shrouded in a monochromatic nothingness. It is the sort of weather that drives women with naturally curly hair to desperate measures and binds us in a sisterhood that transcends rank.

This evening, my organization held a symposium and dinner at which the chair of our board was to give the welcoming message. I'd written her speech weeks ago and when she arrived for the event I met her at the podium to review the details. Before we jumped into the speech however, she had something far more important to discuss with me.

"How's your hair holding up in this weather?" she asked. "Let me tell you about this new treatment I tried last week..."

This wasn't the first time we've shared war stories about our love/hate relationship with our curls, and she isn't the only woman with whom I've formed an instantaneous connection simply because of what's growing on our heads. Like Frieda in the Peanuts comic strip, we feel a certain "otherness," and it's such a relief to find someone who understands on the most intimate level what we go through with our hair.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


At dinner this evening (farfalle pasta with white beans, spinach and chopped tomatoes for my vegetarian daughter and with meatballs in a tomato sauce simmered with sausage and bracciola for my carnivore husband) our conversation drifted to strong, independent women.

My grandmother Theresia was one of them. An immigrant from southern Italy, she raised ten children, the last of whom was a boy with Down's Syndrome. To protect him from the taunts of their city neighborhood, she and my grandfather moved with him to the country. On a plot of land with towering weeping willow trees, a rippling brook and room for both a vegetable and a flower garden, my mason grandfather built a house of stone that became "home" to three generations of my family. After both my uncle and my grandfather died, Theresia remained in the country, living there alone for over thirty years until she passed away at the age of ninety-six.

She never wanted to move in with any of her adult children. She would visit with each of them a few days around the Christmas holidays, but steadfastly and robustly continued managing her household. She was funny, insightful and riveting in her ability to ferret out the truth.

We loved her intensely, and she loved us back, giving each one of her many grandchildren the gifts of her laughter and her belief that we were wonderful. "You're a good girl," "You're a good boy," are phrases that we all heard from her and that to this day, we recall with fondness when we gather together as a clan.

Theresia was the inspiration for Rose's mother in my upcoming novel, Across the Table.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


I recently stumbled upon an article in the Sunday New York Times about the field of eco-psychology--the relationship between human well-being and the natural world. Because I'm currently developing a new story that is deeply concerned with my characters' connections to a particular landscape, I found the article both fascinating and reaffirming. Fascinating because the idea that we derive our emotional and spiritual health from the physical world intrigues and excites me. Reaffirming because along the journey of writing my books I have often discovered seemingly unrelated fragments of knowledge that tie back to my original themes in unexpected and very satisfying ways.

What unexpected fragment of knowledge made its way into your life recently?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Craft: Writing Prompt

The Thousand-Word Sentence

Many years ago, when I was first beginning to think of myself as a serious writer, I had the privilege of attending a workshop with the novelist Jill McCorkle. Our first assignment was one which Jill described as "cleaning out the cobwebs in the attic." She sent us away from class with the task of writing a thousand-word sentence.

I was in Boston for a week after living abroad for many years and had foolishly scheduled dinners almost every night with old friends whom I hadn't seen since moving away from the city, thinking that I'd work all day at writing and spend my evenings enjoying the pleasures of friendship . The night of the thousand-word assignment I returned to my hotel room after a long and wonderful dinner and stared at the blank yellow legal pad I'd left on the desk. I wanted nothing more than to crawl between the covers.

But I sat down, picked up my pen and did what writers do. I wrote.

When I finished, I was exhausted and empty. But I had produced something of emotional honesty, freed of the restrictions of punctuation and editing.

Try it. Write a thousand-word sentence.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Craft/Writing Prompt--What's in the Trash

When I lived in Germany, our region instituted some stringent recycling rules in order to cut down on the amount of trash that was being collected and deposited in landfills. Food wrappers fell into the category of items to be washed and recycled, and suddenly, people began bringing their Tupperware to the deli counter in the supermarket to hold their weekly order of sliced ham instead of having the butcher wrap it in waxed paper. One day, as I rolled my garbage bin to the curb, I met my neighbor doing the same and we struck up a conversation about the time-consuming task of sorting through our debris. It turned out that she was washing the paper that her butter had been packaged in, in order to recycle it. It was one of those telling details that says so much about a personality, and I tucked it away.

You can learn a lot about a character by what she throws away. Describe the contents of someone's trash as a way of revealing something significant about him or her.