"I love your book because you never say you're fat!" is how one bookseller greeted me on the San Francisco leg of a recent West Coast tour arranged by the publisher of my memoir I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti
. We were just about to sit down to dinner at Kokkari Estiatorio, a Greek restaurant where my friend Erik Cosselmon is chef. I was excited to try the many courses (including my own risotto with artichoke hearts and taleggio) he had prepared for us. This was the first of three consecutive nights of dinner parties in different cities orchestrated to introduce me to the people who would help bring my book into the world.
Conversing with new people over good food and wine is something I'm pretty good at. I was chatting away excitedly with my 20 guests that evening, the rest of whom had nice things to say about my book and no comments whatsoever concerning my weight. Still, as I smiled and laughed, I never stopped wondering what that woman meant. Was I fat?
I'm not skinny. But I'm not fat. I don't deny myself much in terms of food (or anything for that matter), but everything I overeat is good, and I exercise regularly for both physical and mental health reasons. I manage to look more or less fine most of the time. Sometimes I say "I'm fat," but that's only so that whoever is listening can say, "No, you're not." As I tucked into grilled octopus, lamb meatballs, and baklava, I came up with rationalizations for that woman's disturbing words. I decided that she was simply remarking upon the fact that I never mention body issues in my book; it must be rare to find a food memoir written by a woman that doesn't. Most women have them in one way or another, I suppose. I know I must; just not enough to turn down a meal, even after someone may or may not have just called me fat.
By the time I got to Portland, the last stop on my tour, I was thinking a lot about my body. It seemed to have expanded in the past few days. I felt it and I saw it in the photos from those evenings. In fact, I look slimmer in San Francisco than I do three evenings later, where my guests at Pazzo at least feigned indifference to my figure and allowed me to tuck into my pistachio semifreddo in relative peace.
It was a shame that the San Francisco woman's words wouldn't stop ringing in my head. I had never been to Portland before and all I wanted to do there was try the many restaurants I had been reading about in the food magazines I subscribe to. I was too exhausted from the travelling I had just done to do any extensive exploring: no Portlandia for me; the only landmark I wanted to see was Powell's. Fortunately, a three-quarter view of the store was available from any of the large windows of my super cool corner room at the Ace Hotel. "If we need to see Portland, it's all right here," I said to my friend Anne, a Reed alum and excellent dining and lounging companion who had flown up from Los Angeles to stay with me. Sightseeing more or less taken care of, we would only need to venture out for meals. The thing I love best about hotels is that I can really relax in them. With none of my own stuff around for me to fuss over — food to cook or dishes that need to be put away — I can allow myself to lie on the sofa to read or watch television. Anne and I were both perfectly content to stay inside watching the House marathon on USA until dinnertime.
I was feeling hippy in my hipster hotel room, but the weekend was cleared for eating and I was going to eat. Our first stop was Beast for six courses with wine pairings. The foie-gras bon bon, the steak tartare, the duck confit, the citrus and brown butter spice cake: none of these things brought me to my knees. I was feeling downright sprightly after the Beast feast. The dish with the power to halt a five-day eating spree with an inauspicious start was the macaroni and cheese with short ribs from Ten-01. That Saturday lunch took me out of the game for the rest of the day and may have satisfied my macaroni and cheese needs for the rest of my life. (Even a woman who, like me, may or may not be obsessed with her weight can only eat a dish like that so many times in her life. For me, it is once.) It was beyond delicious and I don't regret it, even if that meant we weren't going to make it to dinner at Le Pigeon.
Instead we went to the Living Room theater (also right across the street from the Ace) and saw I've Loved You So Long, a magnificent movie that I would not have seen had I not been desperate for something to do once the evening had been rendered a black hole by an onslaught of gluten and dairy. I loved that my espresso was brought to me in my easy chair in a china cup and saucer. It was civilized, just like the French family in that movie.
That fast (if you can call a missed meal fueled by macaroni and cheese a "fast," and I will) had me springing out of bed with hunger on Sunday morning. As soon as I could hop into my ill-fitting clothes, Anne and I headed around the corner to Pearl Bakery, where we tried every pastry. We didn't finish them all, I promise, but we had many bites. At this point, the need to feel my body involved in some motion other than chewing was overwhelming, and though the Portland weather said, "Go back to your room for more What Not to Wear," I needed a walk. Our stroll to the river was cut short by a snowstorm, and just as I guessed would happen, the minute we got back to the hotel the sun was shining. Anne stayed back to do some work while I ventured up steep terrain to 23rd Avenue in an attempt to burn some of the brioche from my butt. That doesn't mean I didn't stop at Saint Cupcake on my descent; we were going to a friend's house for dinner, after all, and we are not ones to show up empty handed. I thought 24 mini cupcakes would be enough for the eight of us, but I miscalculated; we could have easily polished off 48. (Note to self: find out from priest friend which pope canonized the cupcake. And, does the consumption of three on Sunday fulfill my Sabbath obligation?)
I missed a lot in Portland: Le Pigeon, an uncorrupted walk along the river, and something called Voodoo Donut (which I also might want to clear with a priest before visiting). If my book takes off, I'm hoping that Powell's will beg me to come back to do a reading. (I did actually go into the store, by the way.) In the meantime, I'm home in New York trying to be less fat, just in case I am. I'm scheduled to go on The Today Show this week, and I want to look good. Since I've been back, I've been trying to eat and drink a little less. I try to avoid wheat and alcohol and keep my sugar intake to a minimum. I've been washing down my vegetables with mocktails. (I can't do plain water and I'm against diet soda.) This rice and spinach dish is great on its own or sitting alongside a fillet of grilled salmon drizzled with olive oil and lemon. I won't call it diet food because I don't believe in diet. It is simply a dish that will keep your palate cheery while making you feel virtuous and light. The pomegranate mocktail has some of the antioxidant power of red wine with none of the enjoyable alcoholic effects. It's great for pregnant women or anyone who wants to slow down on the hooch (though undoubtedly it's even better with a shot of vodka or gin added).
Post-Tour Spinach with Rice:
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus a drop more for serving
1 small garlic clove, minced
1 pinch hot red pepper flakes (optional)
3-4 handfuls baby spinach, (as much as possible because it shrinks, and it's really good for you)
1/4 cup rice (preferably Arborio but white rice will do, as will brown though it will take longer to cook)
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon freshly grated parmigiano
Freshly ground black pepper
Put a medium saucepan filled with water over medium-high heat. When the water is boiling, add a teaspoon of salt and the rice, stir once or twice, and cook for 8-10 minutes (check it at 8).
Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat. When it glistens, add the garlic and the hot pepper (if using), cook for 2-3 minutes. Then add the spinach and a pinch of salt, turn heat to low, cover, and cook until rice is done.
When the rice is softened to your liking, drain it in a fine mesh strainer and add it to the skillet with the spinach. Combine the rice and spinach, adding the lemon juice and a drop of olive oil to freshen the flavor. Serve in a bowl sprinkled with parmigiano and freshly ground pepper.
Serves one, but can be doubled.
3 parts seltzer
1 part pomegranate juice
1 teaspoon agave nectar
1 slice of fresh lime
Pour the pomegranate juice over the seltzer in a glass filled with ice. Add the agave nectar and stir. Squeeze the lime and drop it in the glass.