by Tod Davies, June 4, 2014 8:00 AM
I was chatting idly with my best friend the other day, and as usual, we ended up talking about books and food (this is doubtless a big reason why we are friends in the first place). Sometimes it's one, sometimes it's the other, but in this particular case, it was both of them combined.
"I love book clubs," he said.
"Oh, me, too," I agreed. "A bunch of people sitting around, preferably with a glass of wine in hand, talking about books. What could be better?"
"But there has to be food," he insisted. "There always has to be food at any kind of party. So what food would you serve that would be as stimulating, nourishing, and satisfying to a group of people with different tastes, as whatever book you all had gotten together to read?"
The query instantly made me fantasize about my very own perfect book club party.
It would be on a hot summer's day, cooling down then with just enough of a breeze to wake up the curiosity of the readers involved in the discussion. And the talk itself would be held under some trees in a shady meadow, around five in the evening. There would be wine for those who wanted it — red, white, and a lot of my favorite rosé. There would be sparkling water, with lemon and lime slices, for those who wanted that. There would be discreet little bowls of olives and roasted nuts and cloves of pickled garlic, for those who wanted a bit of a lagniappe before supper.
Nearby, on a picnic table or a long folding table, there would be a plate or two or three of flat omelets, frittatas, browned and each filled differently: say, one of chard and garlic, one of zucchini and marjoram, and one of potato and onion and smoked paprika* — all waiting, in the cool evening temperature, to be cut into wedges and served easily, so that the eater could enjoy them while talking earnestly about some point that had just occurred to her or him.
But the main part of my fantasy would be lining up behind those platters. Long, thick baguettes sliced whole down their middles, filled with salad fixings of various kinds, anointed luxuriously with olive oil, and weighted down to let the fillings soak through. When the weights are removed, and the rolls sliced diagonally into hand-sized pieces, each guest would have a salad and bread all at once. Pan Bagnat**, they call this in Provence, so they tell me, where these sandwiches originated. Or Pan Bagna, or even Pan Bagnia. But it always means the same: bread filled with a garlic-tinged, tomato-sliced salad, weighted down for an hour at least, if not more, so the whole becomes a more celestial version of its parts. Not unlike all the voices in a book club weighing in on a book.
But even beyond that similarity… the weights on the sandwiches would be books. Books lying horizontally all the way up and down the table, pressing down the Pan Bagnat, melding the ingredients, all the separate bits, into a harmonious whole just as the discussion is melding all the thoughts about a book into, I hope, another harmonious whole, both of them nourishing in the late summer evening sun.
And tasty, too. Because that is very important, in both food and books: good taste.
Here's a general sketch for making Pan Bagnat:
There are many ways you can go about this, just as there are many ways you can go about most things, and the way I suggest you go about it is the way that feels easiest and most entertaining to you, the cook. (Once again, not unlike how I would suggest going about expressing yourself on the book at hand.) What's needed is bread, olive oil, vinegar, garlic, some kind of onion, tomato, and a variety of salad fixings. When I say variety, I mean whatever variety appeals the most, and is the most convenient. I'll tell you what I would do, just because I can, but first, to give you an idea of the scope we're looking at, let me list possible ingredients for a Pan Bagnat:
Tomato. Garlic. Onion (red, white, green, or shallot). Cucumber. Tuna. Anchovies. Artichoke hearts. Pesto. Roasted peppers. Raw peppers. Radishes. Hard-boiled eggs. Olives. Sorrel. Basil. Arugula. Raw fava beans. Pickles. Lettuce. Mushrooms. Grated carrots. Olive oil. Vinegar. And so on.
No matter what goes into the Pan Bagnat, you pretty much follow the same pattern. Lay out your bread slices. Sprinkle them with olive oil, scrub them with a cut garlic clove (if you're not, like I am, going to put garlic liberally in the filling). Layer the filling in, or (see below) do like I do and toss all the ingredients together as a salad, layering that on the bread. Fit top slice above filling on bottom slice. Wrap in plastic wrap, or paper towels and then plastic wrap. Then weight down and leave for at least an hour. More will never harm things. In fact, it will only make things better.
(And you can weight them any way you like. Two boards are good. For a picnic with children, best is to wrap the sandwiches in a towel and let the kids sit on them on the way to the festivity. This will give rise to additional hilarity, adding to the pleasures of the day. Also, it makes a great sandwich. Something about the body heat. But back to the book club version…)
When you're ready to eat, unweight, unwrap, and slice to your preference. You should now have a juicy sandwich, a little messy to eat, but hey, that's why you're eating it in a meadow after the book club discussion, with plenty of paper napkins to help.
Here's how I'd make Pan Bagnat to feed a book club, body and soul:
Find the longest baguettes I can, slice in half, anoint with olive oil and a little vinegar on both sides.
Then make two kinds of fillings: one robust and hearty, one more delicate and vegetarian. Each one tossed in a bowl of its own, anointed with more olive oil and vinegar, and salt and pepper to taste, before being spread on its own baguette.
The Robust and Hearty Filling (really just a version of Salad Niçoise):
Juicy tomatoes, sliced
Canned tuna, drained
Canned anchovies, minced
Olives, pitted and chopped
Handfuls of arugula, chopped
Add together. Add a bit of vinegar and three times as much olive oil. Salt and pepper. Toss.
Then, for the Delicate and Vegetarian:
Cucumber, peeled and diced
Red onion, sliced paper-thin
Artichoke hearts, sliced
Roasted green or red peppers, sliced
Add a squeeze or two of fresh lemon. About twice as much olive oil. Salt and pepper. Toss.
Taste. You might want more lemon. I know I would.
I would figure out how many little sandwiches a hungry book club is likely to need here, and make a little more, since they'll only be better for my own lunch the next day. And then I'd fill the baguettes with one or the other of the filling, and cover the sandwiches, and wrap them snugly in plastic wrap.
Then I'd line them up on the picnic table and dreamily arrange books, stacked on their sides, up and down the baguettes. Not books chosen, necessarily, first for their physical heft, but for the piquant quality of their content, the satisfying nature of their
by Tod Davies, October 9, 2009 10:18 AM
I guess because this is my last guest post, I've been thinking about what I would eat for my last meal (which is one of my favorite dinner table conversations, along with what literary character you most identify with — and the last time we had THAT conversation, one person said Mrs. Dalloway
, one the narrator from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
, one said Ahab — ! — the woman who had cooked the incredible meal said Richard Olney
, and Alex said Alice in Wonderland
... I was the Duchessa de Sanseverina in The Charterhouse of Parma
that night...). And then, because it's just before breakfast, I started thinking about what I am actually going to eat next. And THEN, because these Powell's blogs always put the books you mention at the bottom, I started to think of what books I would like to see there...
Tod's Last Meal (as of Friday, 9 October, 9 am, subject to change without warning):
A big wide bowl of as many freshly picked peas cooked with hearts of lettuce, split green onions, and butter as I can eat (I've never had this in actual life, but my guess is this would be a pretty big bowl).
A perfectly roasted duck with crispy skin.
A small casserole of Potatoes Anna, which is a finicky dish I never make for myself in real life because I can never seem to bring myself to the extra step of clarifying the butter.
A selection of blue cheeses (Fourme d'Ambert, Gorgonzola, Rogue Creamery Blue) with a perfectly ripe Bosc pear, because it's my last meal, and no one can tell me I can't only have blue cheese. Of course I can.
A few pieces of See's dark chocolate covered marzipan.
And to drink, I'd just let Kathryn and Paul Sloan of Small Vines wine pick me out one of their Pinot Noirs. Maybe since it's my last meal, I'd have a little chilled glass of framboise with the choccies, too...
But here's what I'm actually going to eat after I send off this post, and very much looking forward to it I am, too:
A Tortilla and Egg cooked in Duck Fat.
Simple, this. Satisfying and smelly. (The person who taught it to me, a hippie living in a mountain cabin with a husband named Magic Rock and daughter named Aspen Rose, made it with bacon fat. I like it with duck fat, but of course, in order to do it this way, you have to be a duck monomaniac who keeps the fat from her roast ducks for just such a moment. As it happens, I am such a monomaniac, and living proof that a carnivore can live in perfect harmony with a vegetarian.)
Heat a small cast iron skillet, and dollop in a spoonful of duck fat. When it's sizzling, add one corn tortilla. Cook a moment, then crack an egg on top. Break up the egg a bit with a fork. Salt. With one deft and anticipatory movement, flip the tortilla so the egg is on the bottom, scooping whatever bits seep out back under the tortilla with your fork. Turn down the heat and cook till the egg is done to your liking (no harm in peeking; just lift the tortilla and have a look). Flip the tortilla right side up onto your plate, spread with a little Dijon mustard, and, if you can get it to the table without eating it, eat slowly, wrapped in a tube, with your fingers.
This is best with fresh grapefruit or orange juice, but today it will have to just be accompanied by a cantaloupe half.
Now, there. I've given you one of my most prized recipes as a parting lagniappe.
So humor me here. I have to list my five favorite books so that Chris will line them up on the bottom of the page — that is, if Powell's still has them under its roof. But Powell's has every book under its roof. I have faith in that. And I have faith that you won't reject me, gentle reader, because at least two of the favorite books are the ones that seem to get mentioned every time Shelf Awareness interviews some writer and asks what books they have lied about reading. I always feel sort of weird when I see that, as if I have some secret bad habit, kind of like wanting tortillas and eggs and duck fat for breakfast. Sigh.
But here goes (in no particular order):
1.) War and Peace (this one no one seems to read but me, and I can't imagine why, unless it's just that no one admits to reading it).
2.) Proust's In Search of Lost Time (see above).
3.) Isak Dinesen's Winter's Tales.
4.) Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma (see farther above).
5.) Lewis Mumford's The City in History.
Farewell, all. See you farther up ahead. And thanks, Powells Books and all who sail in her brave and beautiful ship, for letting me paddle alongside for a while in my own little boat...
With best and warmest wishes that you, and everyone else, gets something nice to eat, from Tod (who's off to eat that tortilla and egg RIGHT
by Tod Davies, October 8, 2009 10:18 AM
It happens. The weather turns that great half-chilly undercurrent to what looks like, on the outside, a still-warm summer day, and everyone gets that edgy, invigorated feeling that comes with a change in the seasons. So it's fall again. And that makes me yearn for carbos and cheese and red wine... for macaroni and cheese, in fact. My macaroni and cheese (and I say this with all due modesty) is absolutely killer, as I'm convinced everyone's macaroni and cheese, as long as it's made with love, is, too.
However. My macaroni and cheese, like most classic versions of the dish, is a tiny bit of a palaver, involving a béchamel sauce, carefully added Dijon mustard, cream dolloped in an ivory mass at the last minute, paprika'd top... long bake to get it all crusty and golden brown on the edges. Delicious. But, like I said, a palaver.
Some days I like a palaver, and some days I just want to keep stacking wood for the winter in the late afternoon, and then follow Alex up to the back meadow to catch the last little bit of autumn day sun in the one spot it hits there, with my glass of red wine and his glass of beer. Some days, is what I'm trying to say, I want macaroni and cheese. But I don't want to make macaroni and cheese.
I'm sure you all know what I'm saying here. I'm sure everyone here has a lot of days where you just don't feel like spending more than a half-hour in the kitchen. And yet — and yet — and yet — you still want to feel like an adult who has treated her/himself properly at the dinner hour. Properly, in this case, being something involving cheddar.
So my solution is An Adult Version of Macaroni and Cheese for a busy Autumn Day.
Very elegant. Very easy. Very good with a glass or two of red wine to celebrate the change in the weather.
Like this (for 2 people; for 4 just double):
Boil a big pot of water.
While it boils, make a tomato salad.
In this case, a tomato/roasted pepper/marjoram/basil/parsley salad is nice. Diced tomatoes, chopped roasted peppers (you may recall I have them in the fridge from yesterday), a minced green onion, torn basil leaves (that's the end of it for this year's garden, I'm afraid), minced marjoram, and parsley, as much as you like. A little salt and balsamic vinegar. Toss and let sit.
Now the water's probably come to a boil.
Add a 1/2-pound of a nice stubby pasta, like ziti or rotelle or penne rigate, to cook till al dente.
While that's going on, grate about a heaping cup of a nice, sharp cheddar. (This can be any kind of cheese, obviously, and I think gruyere would be just terrific. But this particular fall night I wanted cheddar. I mentioned that, didn't I? Definitely cheddar.) Have some butter on hand, and a little sour cream. Also an open bottle of white wine. And a bottle of some nice hot sauce; Tabasco will do, or any Louisiana brand.
When the pasta's done, drain it, not making too big a deal out of shaking it dry, and put it back in the pot on the stove — which should make it stay nice and warm and help you with this next step of making the sauce.
Which is the magic result of just tossing the pasta in the pot with a dollop of butter, about two tablespoons, about the same amount of sour cream, and the cheddar. Watch it all clump; add a sloosh of the white wine to thin it, along with a shake or two of the hot sauce. Keep tossing till it all relaxes into an unclumped sauce that coats the pasta beautifully. Add a little salt if you think it needs it.
Serve immediately on plates where it shares the space, half and half, with the salad. You want to be able to spoon the salad at will over and into the pasta. That's half the pleasure of this dish. Which is a lot of pleasure for such a little bit of trouble.
The other half is how elegant it tastes... and how quickly it cooked... and how you got to eat macaroni and cheese without any macaroni and cheese palaver at all.
Enjoy your dinner and your glass of wine. As always, I hope, as always.
And after that, I'll see you
by Tod Davies, October 7, 2009 11:20 AM
We went to our dog agility class today, which, for the uninitiated, is a hilarious kind of mini-Grand National training for dogs... hoops, tunnels, jumps, climb-its... the dogs love it and we, surprising ourselves, do too. It's a great pleasure to take the long drive across the valley floor between the mountains, past the ranches and small-town houses, out to where Diane has all the brightly colored obstacles set out on her fresh mown grass.
Diane, who teaches the class, is one of those very American women you never hear about. A good neighbor, a quiet citizen, a person who thoroughly enjoys her life, and has created that life to give her a decent, unextravagant living by doing the things she loves best. She's one of those people (thank God for them) who volunteers actively at the local animal shelters, and really makes a difference with her volunteering. She's the one who started a free obedience class with each adoption; she goes out every week and teaches new pet owners how to get the best out of their pets. Doing that, she single handedly cut the return rate on dogs to the shelter by a half. That's where we met her, when we adopted one of ours.
Her house is a sanctuary, as you can imagine, for all the abused animals no one else will take. The cats. The dogs. The horses who get abandoned at the start of winter by someone who can't afford to feed them anymore. That's where most of her cash goes, to caring for all of them. And she's one of the happiest people I know.
Here's the thing about her agility class: she'll tell you about the competitions your dog can enter, but she's not really that into them. "I hate competing myself," she says matter of factly. "I just like the dogs."
On the way home from the class, we stopped — the way we always do in season — at a tiny farm on the country road that sells veggies out of a little red shed guarded by a friendly border collie dog. There's a hand painted sign to tell you where to go, and, inside, an old scale with a basket on top for weighing, baskets and baskets of whatever's been grown that week, and a rusted metal box for leaving what you owe. This week: tomatoes 70 cents a pound. Cucumbers 50 cents. And a huge barrel of green and purple peppers with a big sign over them: "Peppers free till they're all gone."
We took a lot of those. And bought a lot more.
Driving home, I thought about how little either place we'd been — Diane's dog agility class and the vegetable shed — was in the accepted discourse, the Big Media discourse, of The Way Things Work, any real place at all. People, according to this discourse, work for maximum profit — don't they? All life is competition, nasty, brutish, longer thanks to competition in the medical and pharmaceutical fields, all about being driven to be the top of the heap or becoming one of life's pathetic losers. Everything that lives yearns to beat out everything else to be the greatest, and growth is always good, and the purpose of all activity is to make and gather and consume more and more and more.
But what if these concepts do not apply? What if they are merely a set of vile, imperial, fundamentalist religious beliefs being foisted on the rest of us, who are just, more or less good naturedly, trying to get on with our lives, creatively express our own loves and desires, and get along with our neighbors as best we can?
What if the rest of us are right and Big Media, and the Empire it represents, is wrong? What if the way Diane lives her life, and the farmers at the little vegetable patch, know more than it does?
What if it's better, even more efficient, to do things for fun than to always be straining to win? What if it feels warmer because it is better to give our work away when we have an excess of it, for the sheer exuberant sharing of it? What if that is more human in the end?
What if that's right and the other is wrong?
Driving home, silently contented, the dogs asleep in a similarly contented heap in the back seat, the autumn air rushing by, I thought about what I'd make for dinner out of the huge bags of veggies we'd bought. And I told Alex that it seemed to me that we both tried to live like Diane, and like the man and woman who grew our veggies. Which was with a kind of joyful stubbornness. Stubbornly insisting that it's more important... better... to live embedded in the everyday web of relationship and action and desire than it is to try to transcend it, get the hell out, be redressed, be saved, never die. I told him that's the way I think he has always worked as a filmmaker (don't believe me? Have a look at his X Films, which has to be somewhere on the vast shelves of Powell's Books). And that's the way I like to write and publish books. Those are the kind of writers I look for. The ones who are fascinated by their subject and want to share it; not the ones looking to beat out all the other writers for the First Place Grand Prize.
I'm looking for the kind of people I like to have over for dinner, I guess. And I have to have someone over, after all — I just bought all these veggies. And this is what I made out of all those peppers:
Line a cookie sheet with aluminum foil. Place as many peppers as you have on it, and then under the broiler set to high. Keep an eye on them, as they blacken, and turn them till they're blackened on all sides — but not to a crisp, mind. Then pour them all into a bowl and cover with a plate to let them steam and cool. Peel them and pull out the centers.
Now you have a choice about what you do with them. I did three things.
- Put some of them, torn apart, into a glass bowl with a little olive oil, to keep in the fridge as a salad for later.
- Put some of them in little plastic bags and froze them for use later in Chile Relleno Casserole (see recipe in Jam Today; it's a good one, too).
- Made Chile Relleno Casserole for dinner with a few of the peppers.
And while I'm at it, let me tell you about the salad I made to go with the casserole, out of the cucumbers and tomatoes we brought home:
Dice equal amounts of tomato and peeled cucumber. Chop one or two green onions. (Add a minced red Serrano pepper if you like heat and a little more color.) Put in a colander with a bit of coarse salt, toss around, and let the liquid drain out for about a half hour. Then squeeze extra liquid out with your hands, and toss with a lot of chopped cilantro. Squeeze over some lemon. Toss again. You can add a little olive or flax oil if you like, but it's not required. It's nice without, too.
Have all of this with refried beans... and warmed corn tortillas, if you're very hungry.
And then enjoy the rest of the autumn night before going to sleep peacefully in a world that doesn't always encourage you to do so...
by Tod Davies, October 6, 2009 9:59 AM
In a way, it's kind of inevitable that they shut Gourmet magazine down
. Condé Nast is owned by Sy Newhouse, and Sy Newhouse is one of the oldest of the old dinosaurs, who believes in individual genius and that it's shown by the genius pretty much ignoring every day life, and every day obligations. Newhouse is famous for urging his editors to spend more, waste more, act more and more extravagantly, as if to be flying outside of life as the rest of us know it is to achieve superiority, and to make sure that nobody who's superior ever has to shop for their own groceries ever again in their lives.
He believes in that. And he believes in a middle class that's controlled by that superior group, one that listens to everything that the ones on top tell them... whether it's how to run a wedding, or how to cook a meal, or how to organize a cultural life. Don't believe me? Have a look at Vogue. Look at Vanity Fair. All Sy Newhouse. All promoting the idea that there's a class of rich people who are different from you and me. Pretty much all running the same articles about these same people presumably pushed by the same group of publicists. All glamorously superior to the drab rest of us.
Ask yourself who this point of view benefits. I mean, the one that says you're either a highflying star, or a good-natured drelb who admires and pays for the high flyers. Honest to God, ask yourself who benefits from what you're reading and watching and playing. If it's not you, ask yourself WHY.
If you don't ask yourself WHY, you're playing the helpless part, the "I can't do anything, it's not my responsibility, it's all too complicated, and I'm just too busy anyway" part. Some part. No wonder the high flyers look at you with a kind of benevolent contempt.
When it's your world, isn't it, and not theirs? And the one thing that Ruth Reichl and crew did in Gourmet was try to get across that it was your world too... which, by the way, it is. That we're all in this together. And if there was an occasional silly slip up, the way there has to be if the organ is being played by a corporate ad budget, of the kind that equates eco tourism in Belize with saving the planet, there were plenty of articles from real, thoughtful, multi cultural Americans about what food really means in their everyday lives, and how it enriches and binds and offers an opportunity for communion instead of separation. There were articles about how we come together as a community over food, rather than just get separated into those who have secret (or not so secret) contempt for the rest of the population, and those of us who are considered contemptible.
Gourmet spoke up for food as a mode of communication and not just of consumption.
Bon Appétit, the magazine Condé Nast saved from the recent corporate slaughter, is the one that caters, in a more or less patronizing and breezy tone, to those of us who just aren't high flying enough to rate a photo op by Annie Leibovitz or Helmut Newton's ghost.
Gourmet tended to level that playing field. It tended to assume that its readership was intelligent enough, without assuming it was the elite. There might have been some silliness there about the $1,000 meals, but on the other hand, it wasn't meant, as it so often is in Vogue, to exclude, to make the viewer the one on the outside, a little Match Person, nose pressed wistfully on the glass, watching the ricos within. That was a good thing about Ruth Reichl's watch. It might have occasionally fallen into shameful flattery of the reader, but, on the other hand, what corporate organ can survive without that catering to the shameful tastes of a disenfranchised readership? It has no political power, after all, that middle class readership. It lost it, or it gave it up, to the corporations decades ago. You have to throw it a bone. So you tell it when it redoes its kitchen with the most up to date appliances that this is an actual worthy goal, and an actual worthy occupation, instead of saying the truth: which is that it's shameful activity to endlessly think about perfecting one's own life when the lives around you remain so shamefully unperfected.
Yes, Gourmet was guilty of that lapse, but what food magazine isn't? I could curdle your milk telling you about articles off the top of my head in the other food magazines (one particularly memorable one begins with the writer being annoyed because his hoped-for entry into Venice at daylight is scotched by a suicide on his railway line... just annoyed, that's all, before he goes back into rhapsodies about the wonders and self indulgences of this trip of his of a lifetime... that's a story that never would have gotten past the editors of Gourmet), ones that take for granted that its readership is venal, self involved, crass. Gourmet didn't do that. You could tell by the recipes, which were, by and large, straightforward and tasty, clever without being vulgar, and by the attempts made to run articles about where our food comes from and why. And didn't Gourmet get a pasting from some hecklers for that! The article about how the tomato pickers in Florida are kept in a state of tortured slavery was ripped by readers who said they wanted politics kept out of their fantasies about food. Out of their fantasies about themselves, they should have said.
Mess with those fantasies, mess with the miasmic cloud of denial in which our middle class presently wraps itself (and why not? What are its choices, after all? Where are its solutions, its leaders, its real goals? I mean, other than redoing the kitchen once again... and holding a themed dinner party?), mess with those illusions which are becoming so increasingly untenable that the rise in anti depressant use is truly shocking, and you risk... well, you risk people turning away from you to other drugs, you risk corporate annihilation. Even if you try to step just one little bit out of the line. Even then.
And that makes it obvious that Gourmet was the one first up on the chopping block. Squawk, squawk.
(Once again, I seem to have written a guest blog about a book that's supposed to be about food without giving you a recipe. So here's one dish we ate last night, because I was too tired after the long drive of the day before to do much else, and our digestive systems longed for something simple after all those restaurants. We had baked potatoes, and carrots from the garden with marjoram, and a big, tasty heap of:
Sautéed cabbage with soy sauce.
Slice up as much cabbage as you and your loved ones can eat (it'll cook down, be aware). I like fairly wide slices for this one, about a half inch.
Heat a cast iron skillet.
Add a little oil and a little butter (I like peanut oil with this one).
When oil is hot, add the cabbage, a little salt, and stir-fry. Make it nice and limp and translucent, and, if
by Tod Davies, October 5, 2009 10:46 AM
It's good to be home. We spent last week on the road, reading Jam Today
at the lovely Capitola Book Café, and the especially swell Skylight Books in Los Angeles, and I wore so many hats (EAP publisher, writer, online mag editor
, driver, travel agent, dog wrangler, wife, publicist, marketing director, producer, snack cook, cleanup crew, etc. — you know, like a normal woman's life, come to think of it) that it felt like a bit of a balancing act to keep them all stacked up there, more or less upright, as we drove up and down the state. And when the readings were done, Alex and the dogs and I came back up the Eastern Sierras, the long way home, soon to be seasonally impassable. When we started out in Los Angeles, it was about ninety degrees, then, heading up the high desert, it got more and more autumnal. And on our first overnight stop, we found ourselves in a small, perfectly round hot spring on the side of an enormous mountain, looking down a steep ravine to a rushing river, and across a long brown gold valley to a harvest moon rising on the other side.
It was very quiet. Which is always a good thing after the millions of impressions that pour in when you've spent a week plunging into other people's lives (while clutching all those hats at the same time). Quiet's a good thing to let all the impressions I get — or at least, the ones I get — sink down... and then come back up, mixing in unexpected ways, to tell you — or at least, to tell me — things I wouldn't have otherwise have seen.
There was this one question I wanted answered for myself, that I planned on brooding about when I had a moment of quiet like this, and that was how to think of all those hats I was carting around from place to place... and how, maybe, to combine them into one (easier to carry, easier to wear, more fun all 'round). But I found I couldn't think about any of that in that wild mountain hot spring. In fact, I found I couldn't think of anything much at all. My mind insisted on being a lovely blank like the evening sky was a blank (except for that spectacular moon, of course). That was all right. I just lay there lazily.
But, of course, nothing you do is ever a blank. There was all that bubbling going on under the surface of the water.
With all of that, and with the mountain air, I thought I'd sleep well last night in the motel. But instead I had all sorts of crazy dreams. And when I woke up, I was surprised to find myself thinking about having been raised a Catholic, and how grateful I was for the many things that came to me out of that tradition — while, at the same time, how automatically and vigorously I'd rejected other parts of it, the ones taught to me at school and in church, and even at home, that were obvious fantasies and sometimes downright lies.
It made me laugh that I was thinking about this in the motel in the high desert there, because it seemed so very off the subject of the problem I had set myself to work out when I was alone again — which was how being the publisher of Exterminating Angel Press, and of three books of such disparate subject matter (Mike Madrid's history of American superheroines, The Supergirls; Brian Griffith's analysis of how the story of Jesus has been shrunk to fit, Correcting Jesus; and my own book about... food?... my life?... how food fits in my life?), and being the writer of a book that ironically gets filed in the same section as Martha Stewart, Mario Batali, and Rachael Ray, how that all fit together.
But, of course, one's instincts rush along a different river bed than one's more cultivated mind, a lot of the time... though, if lucky, they join up again at another bend down the way.
So it was in the morning in the motel, I think, as I lay there thinking about being Catholic when what I wanted to think about, find a simple answer to, was how does being a publisher and writer of this particular book, fit together? Is there a way to get rid of all those hats and turn them into just one?
So I lay there, the way you do mornings in motels, half listening to the sound of early risers getting in their cars and driving away, and wondering idly if the lobby tea was going to taste of coffee the way it does in most motels and all airplanes, when it was suddenly and unexpectedly like all the hats I'd brought in that room with me (which, in my mind, lay scattered all over the motel floor and would have to be collected and repacked before we, too, got up and drove away), it was as if they all rose up by themselves and turned into just one hat. I don't know, a beret, or, no, a small warm round black polar fleece hat. And that one hat was a Catholic hat, of all things — a Catholic being, so they've always told me, the one thing you never stop being. Which I never believed up till then. Because I thought being a Catholic meant you secretly believed non-Catholics were inferior to Catholics, that people the Pope disagreed with (like perfectly nice lesbian couples, or girls who'd had abortions rather than ruin their lives) were going to burn in hell forever, or that Jesus was some kind of demented demon who, on Judgment Day, was going to appear in the sky and herd everyone into the celestial concentration camp of his choosing.
Well, shit, I knew I didn't believe any of that. (And I sure as hell wasn't going to be told to go anywhere by some sanctimonious nutcase, no matter how All-Powerful and All-Good everyone around me blindly insisted him to be).
But it turns out — and it kills me that it's taken me 54 years, one frantic week on the road, and a sunset hour in a hot spring on a mountain top to see it — that being a Catholic is not about believing all that crap, or about going to Mass on Sunday and listening to an old man who knows nothing about it lecturing the congregation on family life. No. It turns out it's quite true: I've never left off being a Catholic, not for one minute, not through all the years of enjoying sex, and loving my gay friends, and refusing to believe that people of other religions haven't experienced the true way. Being a Catholic, of course (I can't believe I didn't see this clearly at all), is another way into Reality, one of countless, wonderful others. And as it was the one I was born into, it was the one I was using... the path I was taking, whether I thought I was taking it or not. It made me laugh to realize I had never, even in my most radically free moments, wandered very far away.
I got up to walk the dogs, and found it had snowed overnight, the first snow of the year, always an exciting moment,