A Non-Food/Non-Book Post

I very rarely post here about anything other than food and books. Those are, after all, the reason for this blog to exist. However, life itself refuses to stay neatly within the confines of my blog topics, and often, the messiness that exudes affects my desire and ability to write the blog. So I figured that perhaps a confessional vent might help me regain some perspective and get back into my writing groove.

It’s funny how something that you take for granted, something that you experienced long ago, can come back and hit you in the heart at a different time in your life. Let me explain.

I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with “R” for nearly 15 years. It’s a very long and complicated story, but the one thing that I was always 100% certain about was my love for him. It survived lies, betrayal, heartbreak, rage, abandonment…….this feeling for him was like the flame of a candle inside my heart. It never went out. The best way I can describe it was a small warmth that was perpetually alight inside me. It flickered, it wavered, it flamed in intense heat, but it never vanished, never went out. It was perpetual. It didn’t mean that what he did was OK; it simply meant I knew him for who he was and loved him not just in spite of his faults and imperfections but also because of them.

A few weeks ago, I texted R that I’d be in his neighborhood and had something to drop off at his house and would he be there? No response. I arrived at his house and when walking up to the front door, I noticed that the security door was closed but that the inner door was open and I could smell cooking and hear voices. So I rang the bell. He came to the door, with a rather guarded look on his face, and closed the door behind him and came out to the patio. His only words were “I have someone here with me.”

Like I said, my feelings for him have survived tornadoes of emotion, tsunamis of rage, anger, love, friendship. This was not the first time I had found out he is incapable of being faithful. Part of my very complex feelings for him are based on me realizing that it’s possible to love a highly flawed human being and it’s possible to understand their reasons for acting the way that they do, without accepting it or justifying it. In other words, I am the last person R has ever needed to lie to, then and now. It doesn’t make it ok, but knowing his bad side and his good, I think I probably know him better than any other person on this planet, precisely because I have seen both sides and see how they have shaped the man he is. So in this case, the feelings were familiar – anger, frustration, betrayal, pain, heartbreak – but there was something different now. Bewilderment. Why? After all this time, after all the years and everything that’s happened between us, after 15 years of friendship and laughter and passion and emotion and anger and hard-won trust and easily broken trust and loss and rage, why? Why?

Why do you still have to lie to me after so many years? We have been friends. We were friends long before anything else developed between us. The friendship is what survived when nothing else seemed to. We went through some very intense life experiences with each other, because of each other, without each other. We went an entire year with no contact, and in his words “during that dark year when we had no contact,” it solidified the fact that neither of us was willing or able to fully let the other one go. Call it dysfunctional, call it messed up, call it addiction, call it fucked up. You’d be right. Believe me when I say that everything and anything you could throw my way about R has already been said and done and internalized by me more times than anyone might realize.

But this time, something broke inside of me. It sounds either very dramatic or very simple. I felt it, like the snapping of a flower stem when you pull it from the bush.

My mother died of lung cancer last October. My first love S. died a month later from complications related to liver cancer. These people represented aspects of me that I didn’t even fully realize were there until they were gone. R had told me that he wanted to be there for me in the aftermath of losing my mother and losing S, because he had not been there for previous losses in my life. When my beloved grandmother died in 2010, R was on work assignment in in West Texas, not too far away from where we buried her, but he said, and I quote, “I have too much work to do.”  When my dear grandfather died in 2013, again the same excuse from R. “I’m too busy.” Him being too busy to be there for me is the significant theme of our relationship, but like anyone who loves someone else deeply and who hasn’t had healthy relationships modeled in life, I learned to live in perpetual hope.

Maybe this time it will be different. Maybe this time something will shift.

I truly believed that when my mom died and when S died, and when R specifically that he wanted to be there for me, that this cosmic shift had happened. It felt different this time, he seemed different, more open to being there for me, he wanted to attend my mom’s memorial service, he was there for me emotionally in a way that I hadn’t previously ever experienced with him. As I said, I had hope.

Over the past few months, the upheavals of losing my mother, of losing my first love without having been able to say goodbye to him, so many workplace upheavals and uncertainties, the sadness and depression and anger and grief of losing these people who were so pivotal in making me the woman I am today……..has all culminated into what’s been the worst and hardest time in my adult life. And this final act of betrayal, this lying by omission, this repetition of the same pattern of behavior that R has followed for nearly 15 years and that I have, in many ways, allowed………….something has finally shifted.

That cosmic shift that I thought had happened in the aftermath of losing my mother is, in fact, a cosmic shift inside of my heart where R is concerned.

Going back to taking something for granted that’s been around a long time, I’ve found myself listening over and over to Bruce Springsteen, in particular the album Tunnel of Love. It popped up on my Spotify suggestions and for some reason, I listened to the entire album and then immediately listened again and then again. It’s really amazing how something that was written 30 years ago still resonates today, and even stranger, it resonates in a way that it never has with me. The album is about romantic love and all of its permutations. Romance, marriage, betrayal, lies, cheating, divorce. I think what resonates so powerfully with me is the song Brilliant Disguise. I love this song and have loved it since it came out but I never fully internalized the lyrics. Now I can’t get them out of my head.

“I want to know if it’s you I don’t trust. ‘Cause I damn sure don’t trust myself.”

That hits me in the heart every single time I hear it, and even more poignantly now. Can there be anything worse than self-doubt when you realize that the thing, the concept, the person on which you built a foundation is in fact, just a mirage?

“God have mercy on the man, who doubts what he’s sure of.”

The idea of not truly knowing the person you love is a powerful one. I never thought the foundation of what I felt for R would ever shift. I was sure of what I felt for him, right or wrong. It lasted over a decade, and in many ways, I felt like we’d been to war together and against each other, and come out on the other side still connected. In many ways, going through hell with someone creates a stronger bond than going through the easy times. Now…….I feel not only like that connection has been severed, ripped, mangled and torn, but I feel crippling self-doubt. How could I have built this foundation of love on this person? I thought I knew him. I knew his ugly side, I knew his dishonest, judgemental side, I knew his kindness and his intelligence and his love for his sons………..and I truly believed that he knew me and knew that I was the one person to whom he never had to lie.

 “When I look in your eyes, is that you, baby, or just a brilliant disguise?”

How can we ever know if the person we love is not just a figment of our own desires and projections? More to the point, how do we recover from having this foundation blasted out from under ourselves and destroyed? In many ways, it’s like a death and I feel the same grief I have been dealing with in losing my mother, in losing my first love, in the loss of belief in myself, in the loss of a certain security in my job, and in the loss of this foundational belief in this man who has been one of the greatest influences in my adult life.

The entire album Tunnel of Love conceptualizes this evolution of love. The song One Step Up and Two Steps Back details the breakdown of a marriage, the death of commitment and infidelity. That entire song seems to sum up so much between R and I, even though we were never married. But in a way, I feel as though what has ended between us is like the death of a marriage because it does feel like a death in my heart.

Giving each other some hard lessons lately, but we ain’t learning. We’re the same sad story, that’s a fact. One step up and two steps back.

That is R and I to a tee. We come back to each other, we seem like we’re working toward something good, and then he pulls away and retreats back inside his damaged heart, and I am left wondering what happened and nursing a broken heart and realizing that we are still in the same place we always were. It’s a pattern we followed for so long, and there was always certain comfort in the familiarity of it, even though it tore me into pieces when things came to their inevitable and familiar end. Even now, when this connection has been severed once and for all, the sense of loss is as intense as the relief.

Forgive the confessional tone in this post. I didn’t realize how strong the need was to get all of this out. Thanks for reading.

The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

If I could have any set of books with me on a desert island, I’d choose the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, the Johannes Cabal books by Jonathan L. Howard, and The Cemetery of Forgotten Books series by the one and only Carlos Ruiz Zafon. This mysterious, lyrical, dark and yet oddly uplifting series, set in Barcelona before, during and after their bloody Civil War, sucked me in from the first two books The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game, and the third one, The Prisoner of Heaven, is just as enthralling.

20190506_113812

Here, we pick up the threads of Daniel Sempere, the protagonist from the first book. He is married, has a baby boy, is running his family bookstore, and continues his friendship with the jester-like Fermin Romero de Torres, who is one of the funniest characters in literature. Fermin is a hoot!

20190507_085327

The Prisoner of Heaven is the third book centering around the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, but if you haven’t read the other two novels, The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game, (both of which I have previously blogged) don’t let that stop you from picking this one up – because you see, Zafón has done something brilliant and perfectly fitting with these books. You can start with any book and read them in any order, and they all remain connected through this one, single, perfect place. In this book the story of Fermin Romero de Torres is detailed out piece by fascinating piece, and Daniel is given more information on the history of his parents. The relationship between Daniel and Bea is also in question – and references to both The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game crop up throughout the book in, sometimes, the most surprising of places.

20190506_114010

You can also clearly see Ruiz Zafón’s love for the works of Dumas and in particular, The Count of Monte Cristo. I mean, a secret prisoner, a Gothically dark and unbearable prison, the oddly beautiful way he describes dirt and corruption, making these otherwise revolting elements such a strong part of the overall narrative. Dumas seems to exert a non-stop fascination for modern writers in the Gothic tradition, which makes sense if you think about it. Secret passages, secret identities, secret loves……..all those literary elements that hook us and fascinate us still.

20190506_105513

However, the darkness that seems to live around every corner in post-war Barcelona is well on display here. Barcelona herself is as much a character in this book as anyone else, both the inherent beauty and mystery of this city, as well as its moody darkness and the gorgeous and run-down amusement park atop Mount Tibidabo, which featured prominently in both previous books and is still a huge part of the overall framework here. I can’t imagine these books taking place in any other place in the world, so strongly do they connect to the seedy, dark, violent and beautiful metropolis that is Barcelona.

barcelona

There are not too many food references in this book, but that’s ok because I was inspired by one of my favorite cookbooks of all time, The Best Recipes in the World by Mark Bittman. His method for making that classic Spanish dish huevos a la flamenco, or flamenco-style eggs, is so yum that I had to recreate it in honor of Fermin’s eternal love of serrano ham. The nice thing about this particular method is that you can scale it up or down depending on how many people you’re serving, with the ratio of 1-2 eggs per person.

20190506_113900

INGREDIENTS
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup cubed ham, Serrano preferably but use whatever you can find
1/2 cup chorizo
1 cup chopped tomatoes, fresh or canned
4 eggs
1/2 cup cooked green peas (use frozen bagged ones here)
4-6 strips roasted red peppers, from a jar
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Heat the oven to 415F, and in a cast-iron skillet, heat the olive oil and toss in the ham and chorizo. Cook until nicely browned.

20190507_085205.jpg

Chop up the tomatoes and line the bottom of four oven-safe ramekins with them.

20190507_085312

Spoon in the cooked ham and chorizo.

20190507_085141

Crack an egg over the tomatoes and meat mixture and season lightly with salt and pepper.

20190507_085113

Toss a spoonful of peas over each egg yolk.

20190507_084958

Add 3-4 strips of roasted red pepper on top of the peas.

20190506_105356

Bake for 15 minutes, or until the egg whites have set but the yolk is still a bit runny, because you need that unctuous golden ooziness to make this dish truly fantastic.

20190506_105304

Allow to cool while you toast some bread – we had green chile cheddar bagels –  and serve, dipping your bread into the nice, gooey egg yolk as you go. So delicious and quintessentially Spanish. ¡Olé!

20190506_105112

 

Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

I ran across this weird and engaging book of short stories at a yard sale a few weekends back, and of course, the unusual title Vampires in the Lemon Grove caught my eye. Well, as a former Goth chick who loves all things dark, supernatural, creepy and eerie, anything with “vampire” in the title is likely going to be something I immediately want to investigate.

20190518_090310

A book of eight short stories featuring elements of the bizarre, weird and supernatural, but in very unexpected way, the title tale features a very unusual and supernatural (though not frighteningly so) story of a marriage between two ancient vampires, Clyde and Magreb, who have found themselves living their rather mundane marital life in a lemon grove in Sorrento, Italy, where Clyde sits on a bench, watches the tourists go by and ogles the Bay of Naples, befriends a strange Goth chick and ponders the life he and Magreb have led to this point.

20190518_082439

In many ways, the supernatural element of their being vampires is secondary, as their marriage mirrors any in modern times, questioning if that person still loves you after so many years together, the nature of love vs. companionship, and finding new and unique things – in this case, different drinks to slake their thirst – as a sort of parallel to their marriage in which they seek the new and the unusual to keep them engaged and entertained even as they alternately turn away from, and back towards, each other.

20190518_082542

You see, these two blood-drinking vampires have globe-trotted and traversed the continent, sucking the juice straight from the apple, sipping mint tea, cherry Coke floats, jacka’s milk, and in Clyde’s words, a thousand beverages that claim to have magical, thirst-quenching properties, in an effort to sate their never-ending lust for drinking blood. Oddly enough, when they find themselves drinking a pitcher of tart lemonade in the grove of Santa Francesca in Sorrento, once a Jesuit stronghold and now a touristy, overpriced lemon grove, they decide that lemons will be their tipple of choice going forward. So they proceed to settle in Sorrento and suck dry a good half-dozen lemons each per day.

20190518_082345.jpg

Honestly though, I only read the eponymous first story and the meandering prose lost me after awhile. I enjoyed reading about the vampiric evolution of a marriage and the luscious lemon groves of Amalfi but Russell, though a beautiful handler of the English language, really doesn’t know how to end a story and Vampires in the Lemon Grove ended on a very annoying and vague note of……what? Are they now bats? Will they fly away? Will Clyde now become the spirit of the young Goth girl? WTH, I asked myself?

20190518_090107

The saving grace is Russell’s ability to bring the description of those magical lemon groves along the Amalfi Coast vividly to life. It’s nearly enough to make you wish you were there, lying in that blazing coastal heat, watching the impossible blue of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Gulf of Naples, a glass of wine in one hand and the other hand trailing in the salty water and the heady scent of those uniquely tart-sweet lemons. I considered making some type of lemon cocktail designed to be gently sucked from a straw in homage of these two odd vampires, but instead decided on a dessert, and gave Meyer lemon pie a whirl. Meyer lemons are as close to a true Amalfi lemon as you can get without actually hopping flight to Sorrento, and since this is the season for Meyer lemons, it seemed like the perfect marriage……..and no vampires to be found.

20190518_082314

INGREDIENTS
1 all-butter pre-made frozen pie crust
4 Meyer lemons and 1 regular lemon
2 14-ounce cans sweetened condensed milk
3 egg yolks
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 tablespoon orange extract
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 sugar
1/2 cup lemon juice
Zest of 1 Meyer lemon
3 tablespoons fresh mint

METHOD
Heat the oven to 350F and blind-bake the frozen pie crust for 15 minutes. Set aside to cool, and using a reamer or juicer, begin to juice the lemons into a bowl. They are very seedy so try to extract the seeds first if possible.

20190518_082833

In the mixing bowl of your most awesome red Kitchen Aid, add the three egg yolks and the vanilla.

20190518_082723

Add the lemon juice, the condensed milk and the salt, and mix well on medium for up to five minutes, until a you get a thickened, slightly golden, creamy texture.

20190518_082957

20190518_083101

Pour the lemony mixture into the cooled pie crust and bake for 15 minutes. Allow to cool for another 15 minutes, then refrigerate overnight.

20190518_083242

Pour the heavy cream into the now-clean mixing bowl of your red Kitchen Aid using the whisk attachment, and mix for 7-8 minutes, until the cream forms thick peaks. Add the sugar,the lemon juice and the lemon zest and whip again.

20190518_090349

Spread the lemony cream over the top of the chilled pie.

20190518_090500

Garnish with freshly chopped mint, and dive right in. Don’t save any for those pesky, lemon-sucking vampires!

20190518_090648

 

 

 

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

I realize I am late to the party with this book, but seriously, I only “discovered” A Discovery of Witches, and forgive my cheesy-ass pun, when the Sundance Channel started airing the previews for the TV series based on the book trilogy. The series looked so well-made that I had to read the book and find out what all the hype was about.

20190303_072602

I’ll be honest and say off the top that no one does witches and vampires better than Anne Rice. They simply don’t. The woman has taken lush, lyrical, sometimes purple prose to new heights of sensuality when describing the taste of blood, the sensation of magic affecting the world around us, the scent of skin and flesh, the feeling of luxury in the smallest of details. So I went in fully not expecting anything similar to hers, but still hoping for a good read. And I wasn’t disappointed, though it was a different experience than what I’d expected.

20190303_072215

Matthew Clairmont is a vampire and Diana Bishop is a witch, in this fascinating universe of humans, vampires, witches, and daemons. They are both scholars in Oxford, Matthew a geneticist and medical doctor, and Diana a PhD-carrying professor of ancient alchemical texts. They meet in a library when Diana, whose witch talents have been “bound” since childhood, inadvertently unearths the magical tome Ashmole 782, an ancient book of magic that purportedly gives the secrets of how vampires, witches and daemons came into being and how any of these magical races might destroy the other and rule the world.

20190303_071754

Slightly melodramatic, yes. Of course, they have an instant attraction to one another, and of course they end up falling in love. The trajectory of their romance isn’t what you’d expect, though, since vampires, witches and daemons are forbidden from “fraternizing,” and they don’t consummate their love, at least not in this book. There are two more after this book, so hopefully they get some action in one of those. 😉

c19612366ca38d833e0c26c7e094fed9.gif

Harkness writes with an unusual mix of historical reverence and modern sensibility, having her characters be these magical creatures with godlike powers, eternal life, and incredible talents…….and they do yoga. No, seriously. I about died laughing in the beginning of the book when Matthew courts Diana by taking her to a yoga class. Nothing against yoga here, but just the thought of a centuries-old blood drinker twisting himself into a downward-facing dog position gave me the giggles. Anyway, I digress.

20190303_072320

I do have to say that I didn’t much like the character of Matthew, quite honestly. I get that vampires, in this literary universe, are protective of those they love, and at heart, are predators so they consider the chase and the hunt an elemental part of any interaction and relationship. That, combined with being centuries old and being essentially a bossy, old-fashioned man who thinks he knows everything, make him a jerk. Pardon my crudeness, but yes, Matthew Clairmont is sort of a dick. He grew on me eventually, but I still think he’s an arrogant ass at times.

20190219_084413

There are some superb food references in this book, for being in the culinary repertoire of an ancient vampire who doesn’t even ingest food, at least, not much food. Matthew invites Diana to dinner at his elegant home when they are starting to fall in love, though ostensibly he is only inviting her to protect her from the other witches, vampires and daemons who have also sensed that the magical Ashmole has been unearthed and want to get their claws on it. But we all know Matthew has more on his mind than a book.

20190219_085305

The next course was a stew, with chunks of meat in a fragrant sauce. My first bite told me it was veal, fixed with apples and a bit of cream, served atop rice. Matthew watched me eat……..”it’s an old recipe from Normandy,” he said. “Do you like it?” “It’s wonderful,” I said. “Did you make it?”

I know the book specifies that Matthew makes Diana an old French-style veal stew with apples, but I can’t really stomach veal these days, so in honor of the fact of Matthew’s essential Frenchness, I opted instead for a beef stew with Dijon mustard and brandy. Can you get more Gallic than Dijon and brandy? 🙂

20190303_072533

INGREDIENTS
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 shallots, chopped
4 tablespoons butter, as needed
2 pounds beef chuck, cubed
2 tablespoons flour
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup brandy
4 cups beef stock, preferably unsalted as the Dijon has quite a lot of salt
1/2 cup stoneground mustard
1/2 cup Dijon mustard
4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into small chunks
1/2 pound mushrooms, stemmed, cleaned and quartered
1/2 cup red wine

METHOD
Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven and add the shallots, with a sprinkle of sea salt over them. Cook until softened but not browned, about 10 to 15 minutes. Remove to a bowl.

20190219_085142.jpg

Add the butter to the oil in the pan.

20190303_072358

Add the flour, salt and pepper to a large plastic bag, then put in the beef cubes to coat. Shake off excess flour with tongs, and place half the cubes in the pan.

20190303_072414

Cook over medium-high heat until well browned and crusty on all sides, then put into the bowl with the shallots. Repeat with the remaining beef cubes.

20190303_072156

Add the brandy to the empty pan, and cook, stirring, until the bottom is deglazed and any crusted-on bits come loose.

20190303_072120

Pour in the beef stock, the Dijon mustard and the stoneground mustard. Whisk to blend, then return meat and onion mixture to pan. Lower heat, cover pan partway, and simmer gently until meat is very tender, about 1 and 1/2 hours.

20190303_071938.jpg

Add carrots, and continue simmering for 40 minutes, or until slices are tender.

20190219_084616

The last 15 minutes of cook time, add the mushrooms and the red wine to the bubbling, fragrant stew. Simmer another 5 minutes, taste for seasoning, and serve with butter noodles and red wine to drink.

20190219_084534.jpg

So good and richly flavored! The mustard and brandy really complement one another, and perfectly tenderize the beef. No doubt a vampire would approve. I know we loved it so much we ate it all up before I could take the requisite “food and book” photo, so yet another shot of the luscious stew will have to suffice.

20190219_084009