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‘Sitia-Style Snails,’ by Joan Haladay

Water is the most elemental ingredient of a Greek meal.  It is life and survival reduced to the contents of a glass.  As Henry Miller wrote in The Colossus of  Maroussi,  “…everywhere I saw the glass of water.  It became obsessional.  I began to think of water as a new thing, a new vital element of life.  Earth, air, fire, water.  Right now water became the cardinal element.”  So it was during my Greek stay too.  Yet, as much as some travelers to Sitia, wanted to follow Miller’s path, to contemplate and speak poetically about the elements and their sacred qualities, such aspirations were being altered by fate.

A few were immediately conscripted, and most transportation stopped.  Instead of just water, visitors were forced to be preoccupied with vehicle fuel.  We were grounded in Sitia and on Crete, while preparations were being made for war.  While there was still a functioning taxi or two in town, gasoline was being rationed, and the taxis could only be used for emergencies.

Amidst this state of siege in picture paradise, Jo, a Greek student, who I’d met during the Piraeus-to-Crete ferry ride, stopped by the villa. She invited me and Chris, an Australian, to go to pick grapes at her aunt’s vineyard.  We met at five in the afternoon in the plaza.   Jo’s aunt had succeeded- under false pretenses- in convincing one of the cab drivers to take us to the vineyard.  It was only up the road, another kilometer or two past Madame Victoria’s, but Aunt was not the type of lady to walk.  Predilections aside, she was also wearing-high-heeled shoes that weren’t suitable for walking very far in comfort.

When we reached the vineyard- rather than finding a sickbed or another woeful destination- the driver realized that he’d been duped.   It caused a row with Aunt of considerable length and drama.  While I couldn’t follow the verbal argument in Greek, their hand waving and wringing provided the gist of it in gestures.  He was worried about both fuel and fines.  Without reaching a resolution with Aunt, the driver finally abandoned us to the land and drove off.   In spite of Aunt’s pleading, he would not return to take us back to town.

My focus quickly shifted to the lovely spot.  I soon forgot both the driver and the war preparations.  There were sand- and rock-covered tracks leading back to the grapevines, which sat on a slope amidst almonds and pomegranates.  By then, the afternoon was heading toward the blue hour:  The sea in the distance was a particularly deep blue color set off and intensified by a frame of almost equally blue mountains.  The ripe grapes were violet blue, and I imagined that I was tasting the color as I swallowed my first bite of their succulent sweetness.   Once again, a sensual border had become fluid.  I wished that I could paint the grapes.  It seemed like a way to capture their essence, yet I knew too that no still life could fully contain the spirit of such grapes.  They too responded to light as heat and were living and flourishing and changing even as we stooped to pick them.

Chris and I were mostly useless as workers.  We probably ate more than half of what we picked.  We couldn’t resist, for we were unaccustomed to warm grapes, fresh from the vine, a taste that seemed like an edible spirit of place.  Jo and Aunt excused us nonetheless.  They seemed less interested in the quantity of grapes that they took home, and more concerned with preventing waste.  Aunt knew- in spite of her town clothes and physical languidness- that the grapes would begin to ferment if they baked on the vines for another day or two.  She had to seize their moment, whether there was a war going on or not.

After we’d picked the grapes, we also collected snails.  They seemed to be everywhere.  We picked them off the base of trees, off the grapevines, and off other unidentified, fragile plants that seemed too slender to bear the snails that they were supporting.   Jo said that the snails would be good to eat and told Chris and me to keep them.  She instructed us on how to prepare them in the tiny communal villa kitchen that neither of us had ever used.  Jo became insistent that Chris and I should eat a simple repast in Sitia that we would prepare with our own hands.

We walked home at sunset.  Along the way, we collected a few sprigs of flowers that Jo said opened only at the sunset hour.   I wanted to press at least one in my journal as a souvenir of the excursion.  It felt as if the blue hour, the dark, juicy grapes, the unexpected snail gathering, and the place-induced sense of well-being had made us open up like sunset flowers too.  I wanted to carry away a memento of the occasion and hoped the flower would embody its essence:  In the future, when I looked at the flower, it would be a trigger for remembrance in the way that a wine can be the pressed essence of sun, soil, and grape history.

En route, we stopped at the trough of a neighbor for a drink of water.  The pause was another watery step in a Sitia day that seemed to be fueled by careful relationships with water.  Aunt grumbled some of the way, since her shoes pinched and her soles hurt from the high heels.  She may never have walked that far before in her life.   However, even she grew quiet as time passed.  Maybe Aunt could see the magic of the evening through our thrilled traveler senses.   Sometimes the traveler without even realizing it also bears gifts.  When we reached the villa entrance, we all embraced as much to heal any outstanding disgruntlements as to say farewell.  Then, Chris and I departed with our bags of snails.

We deposited them in the communal kitchen and found some battered and blackened pots and mismatched dishes of irregular sizes.  Neither of us had prepared or even eaten snails before.  Our efforts became quite a fumble of Jo’s meticulous instructions.  We let the water boil over and extinguish the light on the stove.  Then, we let the boiling stop once the snails were in the pot.  When we realized what had happened, we had to bring the water to a boil for a second time.  Our final recipe was an improvisation and mélange of Jo’s original instructions, our bungling efforts to execute them, the German guests’ kibitzing, and Madame Victoria’s gift.

“First, clean the snails by scraping them with a knife,” Jo had advised.  “Then put them into cool water.  Discard the ones that float, since they are probably dead.  Transfer the remaining snails to a pot of boiling water.  Cook them for about five minutes.  Drain them and shell them.”   We added- “assembly-line style”- to her instructions for shelling.  This involved use of a board, a stone, and a strong male German arm for cracking. Finally, there were two sets of hands for picking the snails out of their shells.  “Serve them with a sprinkle of lemon juice, salt, and pepper,” Jo had concluded.

There were variations to her last instruction to consider.  Even she had offered the alternative to eat the snails au natural, but added, “Then drink ouzo with them.”  The Germans insisted upon contributing thick slices of bread for mopping up the lemon juice, after they had also provided the lemons.  We found the salt and pepper stashed among the kitchen utensils.  There was also some discussion about using olive oil and vinegar to flavor the snails.

Madame Victoria had come out of her own kitchen, when she heard the unusual frenzy that was emerging from the guest kitchen.  She watched our efforts and negotiations attentively and silently, but offered no new advice about how to salvage and serve the snails.  Finally, she headed off to her own larger and better stocked kitchen.  She wasn’t gone for long.  Madame Victoria reemerged a minute later.  In her hands, she carried a platter of earthy, garlicky olive oil-dressed potato cubes, slender green beans, and peppery tomatoes that were nearly dissolving into a rough sauce.

Her garnish for the snails, which was really a dish in its own right, was the most delicious of the choices.  How could it have been otherwise, since so many of the ingredients in the dish came from her garden?  In their vegetable flesh, they contained the miracle of the water, the balance between heat and light, and the tender and devoted care of Madame Victoria.  Through her vegetable dish, she extended the same nurture to us. Chris and I bloomed for the second time, becoming evening flowers under Madame Victoria’s tending.  If there were any still-closed shells left among the other guests, they opened as we ate.  There were no longer strangers among us as we were all susceptible to friendly warmth.  We had responded to Madame Victoria’s hospitality and generosity.  They seemed to never stop growing inside her.  Amidst a war, through her guidance and the thin line between Greek public and private space, we’d established our own peaceable queendom at the villa.



Joan Haladay lives in Northern Manhattan. She has prepared indexes for many books. Luso-Brazilian interests are her avocation. She likes to write fiction and non-fiction about place, travel, food, and literature. Her work has been published in Travelers’ Tales Provence, Travelers’ Tales The World Is a Kitchen, The Brasilians, Under the Sun, Small Press, Independent Publisher, and the New York Times “Metropolitan Diary.”

TIE Poet of the Month: ‘I Prefer To Be Amazed,’ by Sabrina Hayeem-Ladani

after Wisława Szymborska

I prefer black tea.
I prefer the green olives.
I prefer depth to shoreline, the marshlands
to the safety of the riverbed.
I prefer noticing.
I prefer to bend the corner of the page.
I prefer to let the rice be.
I prefer to be curious.
I prefer to wash my vegetables.
I prefer the pop of my teeth
through the apple skin, to the smooth grain of its flesh.
I prefer Madrid to Barcelona.
I prefer wandering.
I prefer to breath.
I prefer to be spanked.
I prefer duende.
I prefer the dad who cooks breakfast
to the one who drinks.
I prefer not to trust my wiring.
I prefer to pin the tail on the donkey.
I prefer a soft mouth—to be kissed often, deeply.
I prefer heat.
I prefer the authenticity of your flaws
to the implausibility of perfection.
I prefer the palest flower of your heart to the red one.
I prefer the bullet in the gun
to sweet blood syrup.
I prefer the symmetry of placement
to the absurd chaos of the random.
I prefer to wait my turn.
I prefer to list the ways I am alone,
to accept this ripe truth.
I prefer to say less.
I prefer you.
I prefer never to regret
what I’ve had to do to survive.


Sabrina Hayeem-Ladani is a native New Yorker, poet, and multi-genre performer. Her work weaves poetry, dance, and song to explore themes of love, family, grief, and what it means to human. She has performed across the United States, as well as in Europe. Sabrina’s poems can be seen in various publications such as in the anthology So Much Things To Say: One Hundred Poems of Calabash (Akashic Books), and The Wide Shore, a journal of global women’s poetry. She currently resides in Brooklyn.

featured image via Alpha on Flickr.

‘Waffle House Love,’ by Donovan McAbee

Nothing’s open here at 2 a.m.
except the Waffle House on the edge of town.
Cigarette smoke wrapped in fried-egg-smell smacks me
in the face as I pull open the glass door.

I take a booth and order sweet ice tea.
Maybe that’s her getting out of that blue Mustang
with a cherub’s smile and a short black skirt,
but no, there’s someone else with her.

It’s twenty past, but I guess I’ll stay.
We’ll laugh one day when we tell our kids
that we met in the middle of the night
at a Waffle House next to the interstate.

In the Tru-Luv chatroom, I just knew that MegHam1986
was the girl for me, the way you know the earth
is round, that Jesus saves, and that two-dollar bills
will one day be worth more than two dollars, so you keep them.


Donovan McAbee’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Five Points, Tar River Poetry, The Christian Century, and a variety of other journals. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee with his wife and newborn son and works as Associate Professor of Religion and the Arts at Belmont University. You can also find more of Donovan at http://donovanmcabee.com/

featured image via Eater.

TIE Poet of the Month: ‘Upon Telling My Sister I Fell Between the Train and the Platform’, by Sabrina Hayeem-Ladani

She decides that we need to celebrate, takes me to buy shoes:
black suede ballerina flats to show off the high arch of my foot.

I wear them out of the store, dancing and limping.
Next is dinner: we gorge on things we can’t afford to eat—

lobster, scallops drenched in butter lifted to our lips delicately
as a surgeon would an organ to the one who awaits it.

We wash it down with the best white wine on the menu.
Mashed potatoes on our forks, we rant about boys, the trip to Texas

where a cowboy made love to her with his boots on. Later,
after warm apple pie, she leans in close, whispers

you almost died.

She never asks to see the plum scar, where the skin purpled, swollen
from the force with which they pulled me from the tracks. Instead,

more stories about the Texan. Gulping down the last swig of wine,
she pays the check. My treat, she says with a wink.

And though I had promised myself I wouldn’t, I can’t help
but see her as the survivor—

Hers is the door that death passed over. She is the one
that kissed the tumors back hard on the mouth, dissolved them like candy

on her tongue.


Sabrina Hayeem-Ladani is a native New Yorker, poet, and multi-genre performer. Her work weaves poetry, dance, and song to explore themes of love, family, grief, and what it means to human. She has performed across the United States, as well as in Europe. Sabrina’s poems can be seen in various publications such as in the anthology So Much Things To Say: One Hundred Poems of Calabash (Akashic Books), and The Wide Shore, a journal of global women’s poetry. She currently resides in Brooklyn.

featured image via Prayitno on Flickr.

May Market Report, by Stacey Harwood-Lehman

One of the best things, or maybe the best thing, about teaching Food Narratives at the New School is learning about the customs and cultures of the students. Over the years I’ve had students from all over the United States plus Israel, India, Thailand, the Philippines, China, Brazil, and elsewhere.  I’ve had American-born students with strong ties to their Syrian, Korean, Haitian, and Italian heritages.

And it’s not just the nationalities that are represented. This semester, in addition to having students enrolled in the New School’s celebrated Food Studies program, other of my students are pursuing degrees in fashion design, illustration, drama, and music. My youngest student is 19; two are sixty, one of whom spent 30 years in the military before becoming a professional chef.

This mix of backgrounds and disciplines would be interesting in any classroom; imagine what each of these students brings to our discussions of food and culture.

Here’s an example: One of the stories we study is The Pas de Trois of the Chef, the Waiter, and the Customer by the underrated Robert Sheckley. It is a story I encountered as a college student myself. The narrative is told three times over, each from the perspective of one of the title characters. The action takes place in The Green Jade Moon, an Indonesian restaurant in Ibiza that specializes in rijsttafel or “rice-table,” a Dutch-Indonesian invention comprising 15-20 small dishes around a centerpiece of rice.

The first time I taught  “Pas de Trois . . .,” I couldn’t have planned it better: two students were recent arrivals from the Philippines able to both confirm the authenticity of Sheckly’s depiction of Indonesian dishes and to educate the class generally about the foods and cooking methods of their home country.

A couple of weeks ago, Rozanne Gold, the award-winning chef, cookbook author, journalist, and philanthropist, visited to talk about the language of food and menus and the physiology of taste, subjects about which she is an expert. To say that Gold is a superstar in the world of gastronomy would not be an overstatement and I think my students realized how lucky they were to spend time with her.

As an added treat, Rozanne brought her signature Venetian Wine Cake, a fragrant, flavorful cake that she bakes daily and the recipe for which is a closely held secret. She passed the cake around the room, instructing students to describe it based on its observable qualities. As the dish moved from hands to hands, I watched my students faces and listened to them sighing with pleasure as they experienced its inscrutable scent and like code-breakers tried to decipher its ingredients.

M., from Bombay, leaned in and inhaled deeply. All at once the expression that crossed her face changed from surprise to recognition to sadness. “It smells like home!” she said. “It smells like something we make at home!” She was thinking of ghewar, a confection from northern India, typically made in the fall, for which the ingredients and method of preparation have little in common with Gold’s cake. And yet there was no denying M’s unmediated reaction; one whiff and for an instant she was home.  The link between scent and memory made manifest.

As I write this I’m at my mother’s bedside, in a hospital in New Jersey. She is 90 and has decided to refuse tests and treatments for metastatic cancer. This means only one outcome and I am unspeakably sad.  I’m reminded of Chang-Rae Lee’s essay “Coming Home Again.” My friend, the poet Angela Ball, recommended it to me years ago and it is the first reading assignment of the semester. Lee writes about his experience of cooking Korean food for his dying mother, food that she mostly declines as she approaches the end of her life.

When we discuss Lee’s essay, we focus on his masterful use of language and his storytelling ability. We talk about the food, and how a first generation immigrant might reject the food of her parents as she tries to assimilate. In that sense, it is a universal American story.

We skirt around a discussion of grief and death but this year, one of the older students was touched by the essay and spoke emphatically about the importance of getting to know our parents before it is too late. He described his regret at failing to do so with his own mother. “I’m telling you,” he said, “If you don’t you’ll be sorry.” To most of the students, who are young and who haven’t yet faced such a loss, he was describing an abstraction and they had nothing to add. But in the months since, as my own mother’s health deteriorated, I have often thought of his remarks and have done my best to heed his advice.

featured image via https://restaurantblauw.nl

TIE Essay of the Month: ‘Eating & Not Eating’, by Holly Rice

When I was thirteen, my mother and father bred Berkshire pigs. We kept a few for the freezer and sent the rest off to be packaged and sold. The first time our sow had her litter, my father woke me at five in the morning to watch her give birth. The piglets and their mother had a run of their own. They ate feed supplemented with table scraps: melons and old scrambled eggs and stale bread. They rolled in mud made fresh by the rain and rooted around in the straw when they were brought inside. They taunted our Newfoundland from their side of the fence. They let my brother and sister and me chase them around in our rubber boots. They let themselves be caught and scratched under the chins. When they grew old enough, they were put on the truck and the next time I’d see them they were pink and juicy on the plate. Eating meat was easy.

Now that I’m twenty-four, my parents don’t breed pigs anymore. The hobby farm I grew up on was packaged and sold. Our Newfoundland died years ago. My mother and father aren’t married to each other and I don’t eat meat. Growing up while watching animals carted off for slaughter wasn’t the reason I became a vegan. If anything, it was the reason I ate meat for as long as I did – my family watched those pigs grow up full and happy and lazy in the sun. Their existence, while whose purpose was eventually to become food, wasn’t dark or marred with cruelty. What I knew of farming meat was from the acre of land that ran between the barn and the forest that claimed the rest of our property.

In early January, I watched a Yarmouth fisherman torture and mutilate a seal pup on the deck of his boat in a video he posted online. Hunting seals is a common practice in Canada that I accept, even as a vegan, as an important part of culture and industry when it’s done with a hand of empathy. As the fisherman kicked the pup in the head, and dragged its squealing, bloody body across the floor, I had to look away before the inevitable end. The fisherman laughed at the animal’s terror and the man behind the camera egged him on. The seal wasn’t threatening that particular fisherman’s livelihood. The man wasn’t fishing cod, or halibut, or salmon. He was fishing lobster.

In January, Donald Trump was sworn in as President. I couldn’t seem to escape the cruelty of the everyday: the Muslim ban, attacks on Planned Parenthood, and the denial of the state of the physical earth. But each time I went to the grocery store and skipped over the dairy aisle and ignored the cases of shining, pretty meat, I felt like I was doing my part to negate some of what is wrong in the world. I couldn’t save that seal pup. I couldn’t stop Donald Trump from becoming President. But I could invest my money in Gotham Greens and So Delicious and Beyond Meat, companies that are cruelty-free and operate with the environment in mind. Veganism has forced me to try new things: lentils, white beans, cashew cheeses, non-dairy milks. Cooking with these new discoveries exercised my creativity when I couldn’t seem to get words on the page. My veganism became synonymous with my activism.

It is not the animal that dies, but rather, the type of hand that feeds it. We ate pork once it was ready because it was farmed without dark, cramped pens, without mass-production, without forgetting that while a life might have a purpose, that it must be sparkling and bright while it lasts. I would eat meat again if my parents were still together, if they still had that hobby farm, if they still raised animals with the love that comes with keeping something alive.


Holly Rice is a creative writing MFA candidate at The New School and the Deputy Editor of the Inquisitive Eater. She is the 2015 recipient of the Nova Scotia Talent Trust’s RBC Emerging Artist Award and lives in Williamsburg. Her book reviews can be found in Boog City and on PublishersWeekly.com.

featured image via Farmers Weekly.

TIE Story of the Month: ‘Hoagie’, by Jack McKenna

Dad, you carve eggplants with the sickly kitchen knife, then place the slices onto the sandwich you’ll be feeding me. It’s a hoagie, and when it’s done it’ll be filled with meat, very manly, and topped with a garden of vegetables all cut with the diseased knife. The knife is an old heirloom, brought to America all the way from Germany, and I guess the knife is so old that it’s now grown cancerous. There are tumors jutting out of the blade, leaking the pus. I’m not just if the secretions are from the cancer itself or an infection caused by it. But either way, that is the knife you use to prepare my meal.

The hoagie does not need an oil and vinegar dressing on top, the knife you’re using is providing that liquid with its pus. A thick yellow pus that we both know is infected, even though the Cartoon Network shows have told me my whole life that infected things should look green.

Your hands shake as you cut each vegetable. Your knuckles are thick, knotted tree root knuckles growing over scarred hands. The skin on the fingertips are calloused from years of missed knife strokes during woodworking. You love woodworking, a trait picked up from Grandpa, but you’re terrible at it. Your carved elephant statue stands unfinished in the top shelf of office cabinet. You did manage to finish the birdhouse though, however uneven and misshapen and un-house-like it is. Of course you use the diseased kitchen knife for woodworking too. Those poor blue jay hatchlings probably have to grow up inside pus-drenched nests.

You cough, not bothering to cover your mouth because it doesn’t matter; the sandwich will get me sick either way. You take a shot of whisky. You’re dressed in your favorite AC Moore’s sweater, the plain green one. Bought for three dollars because it was supposed to be drawn on with glitter glue as a craft for children, and yet somehow you still managed to find a sweater too big for your shoulders. It’s clear even to me that you can’t dress for shit. You also can’t cut vegetables either. Your slices are uneven and you cut too much, so now you have to throw out half a pepper.

You pull out the meat tray. Every meat imaginable sits there ready to be served. Cow meat, chicken meat, goat meat, pheasant meat, crocodile meat, kangaroo meat, Red-and-black Grosbeak Cardinal meat, Carolina Anole meat, human breast meat (female), human breast meat (male), humpback whale meat, iguana meat, horse meat; every animal on the Arc died for this meal, and it all came individually packaged and each meat was made of 65% soy substitute, of course. You unwrap the meats unceremoniously and throw them onto the sandwich, but you’ve saved the best for last. You pull out a genuine pig sausage, made from a genuine pig raised on a genuine Amish farmstead. It’s a big sausage. A nine incher. Girth. This you cut slowly, religiously, and you top off the hoagie’s meat pile with the sausage one slice at a time. The fresh pig blood turns the pus pink. When you finish slicing you take another shot of whisky.

You plate the sandwich and place it on the tray table in front of me, so that I can keep watching the television. The television is an action cartoon, with men and laser shooting robots fighting. Men with big muscles, unlike yours. You tell me that if I want muscles like that someday I need to eat lots of vegetables and meat. You say I’ll crave hoagies someday, like Grandpa did. I look at the sandwich on the tray, not touching it. The bread is soggy. I take the top slice off to look at the inside, and wish that I hadn’t. Ripples in the pre-sliced cheese has gathered the pus into pools. It smells like car tires.

I turn back, looking away from the cartoons and the sandwich to look at you. You are in the kitchen, holding the knife in a gentle hug, careful not to cut yourself, but letting the pus leak onto your stomach as you rotate in a small, shuffling circle. You’ve done this ritual every time you put the knife away for as long as I can remember. You’ve always pretended this post-culinary dance is something your father taught you, but I know you find this meditative. This calms your firing nerves, even though you pretend to not need the calming. Will you give me those nerves Dad? That anxiety? That history of depressive episodes and risk for alcoholism?

When you finish, you sit with me on the couch. You put your arm around me. I shift so that I’m not leaning against your pus covered stomach. I can smell the whisky on your breath. You point to the sandwich, encouraging me to try it. I reassemble the hoagie. I take a bite, and manage to bite directly into a pool of pus, which gushes into my mouth and tastes bitter and soapy. I swallow. I pretend to like sandwich as I choke it down, hoping to impress you. You ask me about the cartoon I’m watching, and I tell you about it. You see, the men are inside the fighting robots. You nod. The names and the backstories of the characters seem to confuse you. But you smile though and we keep watching. The channel goes to commercial.

 


Jack McKenna is a New School student expecting to graduate with his MFA in Creative Writing in May 2017. Previously he completed his undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh in 2014, majoring in English Writing and Music Composition. He has read his work frequently at The Salon Series, The KGB Bar, and at student readings. The recent shift to weirdness in his writing is largely the fault of the excellent advice of his thesis advisor, Shelley Jackson. This is his first publication.

featured image via Gerrity’s.

Bread’s Second Life

Via Jessica Emily Marx
Via Jessica Emily Marx

Start by tearing some sturdy, slightly stale bread into a couple of cups’ worth of bite-size pieces, and heat some olive oil in a big saucepan. Chop some garlic — this is a good time to use that green garlic you bought and don’t know what to do with — and a little onion, then cook that down with plenty of salt and some pepper. You can also add some of that greenmarket kale that’s giving you the side eye.

Read on at the New York Times.

‘Alpiner’, by Amy Lawless

texascomputer

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Let me tell you something: climbing a mountain builds character. On top of that, I believe that every young person should climb at least one mountain around puberty. It will teach all sorts of important skills [e.g., to increase spatial awareness, to maneuver tricky physical spaces, to hone a healthy fear of death, to increase an appreciation of trail mix and Good Old Raisins and Peanuts (GORP), and of course, to accurately sharpen the rage against whatever authority in their young lives made them climb that fucking mountain in the first place.

Better yet, if you are a young person, climb a fucking mountain with a parent, relative, or mentor! That way you’ll be able to take note of this older person’s mortality lay bare—perhaps, as in my case, for the first time since the moment of my own birth.  While I don’t remember experiencing my own birth, it certainly happened because there are photos and stories and well, I’m here. Hearing my dear mother curse in disbelief that we had ever stepped foot on Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire with my CCD group from Holy Name Church in West Roxbury, Massachusetts was life changing. It was informative to witness her struggle up and around weird boulder formations and to see her slide down the face of the mountain on her tush as she encouraged me to do the same by example.

First of all, our parents are supposed to be models of behavior.  If she could do it, I had to at least try.  My mother has not the patience of Job. Instead, she has the impatience of a comedian who truly loves to complain by cracking jokes and giggling and talking shit about the priest who led us there. When confronted with her own mortality, she transforms from a nice devout Catholic woman into an observational comedian: think lovechild of George Carlin and Joan Rivers.  Sigmund Freud once wrote that all jokes are about either sex or death. Well, these jokes were all death. It was almost as if by joking about dying and dangers, my mom was preventing us (me and whoever else would listen) from giving up. This was ever more helpful to me than Father Sughrue and his giant walking stick. We get it, you’re supposed to be the shepherd, and we’re the sheep! A little on the nose?  

 

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Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau adored Mount Monadnock. They couldn’t get enough. Emerson loved it so much he wrote the poem “Monadnoc,” and some consider it his most famous poem. Galway Kinnell wrote “Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock,” which you can find  in full here.  In this poem, Kinnell’s speaker laughs at himself and considers his own death.  If death is the great equalizer, then a mountain is death’s doorstep with all its dangerous charms.

1

I can support it no longer.

Laughing ruefully at myself

For all I claim to have suffered

I get up. Damned nightmarer!

 

It is New Hampshire out here,

It is nearly the dawn.

I, too, stood on its peak, which was absent vegetation or trees due to two fires set many years ago.  The first fire was set by settlers in 1800 in order to make room for pastures for farming. Twenty years later, settlers set it on fire again because of wolves.  But this second fire turned into a devastating one.  Things went out of control. This fire lasted weeks and spread up the peak, taking off the soil and removing the chance of anyone farming on it for a long, long while.  However, because the mountaintop is without trees, the view is just stunning.

Galway Kinnell may have also believed that he was going to die on Monadnock  when he wrote this:   

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The last memory I have

Is of a flower that cannot be touched,

 

Through the bloom of which, all day,

Fly crazed, missing bees.

And  saw his own death in his reflection:

6

I kneel at a pool,

I look through my face

At the bacteria I think

I see crawling through the moss.

 

My face sees me,

The water stirs, the face,

Looking preoccupied,

Gets knocked from its bones.

 

7

I weighed eleven pounds

At birth, having stayed on

Two extra weeks in the womb.

Tempted by room and fresh air

I came out big as a policeman

Blue-faced, with narrow red eyes.

It was eight days before the doctor

Would scare my mother with me.

We both climbed the same mountain.  And there he goes, talking about the moment of his birth (see the first and second paragraphs of this piece), and his own mother.  I see you there, Galway Kinnell.

 

3

On this peak, Father Sughrue said a quick mass, gave us communion and a vanilla “inspirational” sermon about overcoming obstacles. He wanted the very fact that we had made it to the top of the mountain to serve as a metaphor for achievements and our relationship with Jesus Christ.  Something about Jesus being with us on that peak. For a moment on the top of the mountain, I felt slightly intoxicated with a sort of victory—I was a rat to Sughrue’s Pied Piper:  I was on the top of a mountain!!!!!!!!!  This high wore off quickly after my mother deadpanned that the communion, this body of Christ we consumed/ate, would also be our Last Supper as we likely would never make it to the bottom of the mountain to the group’s bus or to safety.  She vividly described our dad and little sister blissfully unaware of our present peril while they enjoyed the warm creature comforts of our home in Roslindale. Maybe Jesus was back home with them too: we couldn’t see him on that peak.

Saying the thing that was true lightened the atmosphere. In that moment, to state that we felt in a little bit of danger was funny and necessary because that was the truth. We needed to hold on to something. The ground was not secure or even, but laughing was stabilizing for us. Of course we made it down the mountain. We made it home, but the world was much bigger and more hilarious than it was when I had awoken that morning.

 

4

As a child I played a Texas Instruments Home Computer video game called Alpiner.  

When I set out to write this, I wanted to argue that I had prepared myself to climb Mount Monadnock through my mastery of this old video game.  But that would be massively fallacious reasoning.  Playing Alpiner prepared me for only one thing: playing more video games. Climbing the mountain, however, prepared me for life, nuance, and even responsibility. It also, as I think is clear, gave me a new appreciation of my mother, whose humor radiated when fussing over her mortal coil.

After selecting the option to play Alpiner alone, I slowly selected the three letters in my first name (A, M, Y) by toggling a joystick and pressing an orange button. Then I set a course up a mountain. A digital version of the classical piece Peer Gynt by Edvard Grieg played as I climbed. I viewed my avatar from behind: third person—as a whole figure who could see his entire surroundings.  (The avatar was always male.) Falling rocks were avoided by jamming the joystick hard right or hard left.  A bear would appear in the distance and would always remain in the same space so could thereby be avoided quietly and quickly.  Same for mountain lions and snakes and trees.  The only hazard difficult to avoid were the skunks, which would appear quite suddenly misting a red net of dots toward my “guy.”  This net was hard to miss.

A skunking is not fatal, but it always sends you to the bottom of the mountain.

Has a skunk ever sprayed you in your life? No. Me neither.

One night my mom smelled a skunk while driving in the car or during a walk or while we were hanging out in the backyard. She said “I don’t mind the smell. I kind of like it.” I believed her.

The world was, indeed, always much more interesting when something was actually happening. I also thought it was fun to imagine taking a bath in tomato juice, the only cure known to me for a skunking in my limited understanding of the natural world. What if our showers rained red juice? What if the slanted walking condition portrayed in V8 commercials could only end with a red bath?  I’ve never been sprayed by a skunk in my waking life, so I still don’t know what it’s like to sink into a cold tomato juice bath.

But I have come to know what it is like to bleed and feel blind rage at the same time, for I am a woman in a body.  I shed blood on a monthly basis. For me, a brief, spiritual rage precedes each monthly bleeding.  It is not a rage at anything/anyone (i.e., it is not directed at anything or anyone), which makes it ever more terrifying and curious.  It is a rage that craves an object, and when it finds no object is shelved. My rage is like a skunk on an abandoned mountaintop looking for climbers.  Krista Tippett, host of the On Being podcast, once said in an interview that  “anger is often what pain looks like when it shows itself in public.”  

To put it another way, a skunk in a video game is what pain looks like.

When I read Homer’s Iliad senior year of high school, I gave intense and curious side-eye to the rage of Achilles. When Achilles’ best friend Patroclus was murdered by a Trojan fighter named Hector, Achilles flew into a rage.  He was so angry at Hector that he told him “my rage, my fury would drive me now to hack your flesh away and eat you raw – such agonies you have caused me.”  That’s serious brotherly love. This rage consumed him with such a totality that Achilles compared the object of his anger to another object: a meal he would consume in a cannibalistic fury.  See, he’s so “consumed” by the death of Patroclus symbolically, he says he might as well eat the guy who he blames for his death in order to bring the whole thing to a sort of completion.   

No, Achilles did not eat Hector. He killed him. And after he killed him, he dragged the corpse around attached to the back of his chariot defiantly for many days like tin cans on the back of newlywed couple’s car. Those newlyweds want you to hear their tin cans. Achilles wanted everyone to see Hector’s corpse. Achilles was like a skunk on the mountain in Alpiner in his own way. He aimed his wrath at anyone who messed with his territory (e.g., his best friend).

In Alpiner, the skunking seemed to be a consistent response to the mountaineer’s presence as an intruder on the mountain. Unlike the bears, snakes, mountain lions, and rocks, which exist on their own regardless of the player, the skunk and its scented anus secretions seemed to be aware of my avatar’s presence.  If I stayed off the mountain, if I didn’t play the game, if I stayed inside reading a good book, I would be safe from a skunk’s red netted orb of rage.

I just Googled “How to Get Rid of Skunk Smell” and it appears that there are many, many treatments. I’m good at Googling things.  Tomato juice isn’t even on the list; in fact, it is said to just cover up the smell and does not actually clean a body of a skunk’s spray, which can cause nausea, vomiting, and short-term blindness in humans.  I’ve got nothing in my anus as powerful.  

If you really want to get the stink of a skunking off yourself, try mixing hydrogen peroxide with apple cider vinegar and some water and dish soap.  Shampoo your whole body with this mixture.  Shampoo your whole body like you’re not yourself.

amy2

In Alpiner, you progressed the chapters in the game from mountain to mountain the way any professional mountain climber’s career would. You started with the mountains of lowest elevation and you progressed with experience.  You started with Mount Hood (11,249 feet), then Matterhorn (14,692 ft), then Mount Kenya (17,057 feet), then Mount McKinley (now called Denali) (20,310 ft), then Mount Garmo (21,637 ft), and finally Mount Everest (29,029 ft).  Once you successfully climbed Everest, the game was over.  The glitchy digital Peer Gynt “music” crescendoed again in volume: but not to tell you that danger is present, but to concede that triumph was yours. You won!  You’re on the top of a mountain!

I could Climb Mount Hood in approximately ten seconds.

I practiced a lot and did indeed climb to the top of this digital Mount Everest. I have no recollection of playing the game after that fine achievement. While it felt pretty good to reach the peak, in doing so my hunger for playing this game was satiated with finality.

Did you know that sometimes when a person actually dies climbing Mount Everest, no one comes to get the body? Did you know there are some corpses up there in the peaks there totally frozen? If the dispatchers can, they talk to you on your walkie talkie until your voice fades, your breath becomes shallow, and you die.  Every search party costs something (the time and energy of those looking for the lost, money, resources), and the risk of additional human life is often  not worth it. Would you want others to risk this treacherous trip only to also die–just to allow your loved ones to reclaim the frozen husk of your corporeal form? You’re an angel dancing through the gilded gates of heaven strumming tunes on your shiny new harp, what do you care? You’re clinking champagne flutes with Satan in hell, what do you care?

In Alpiner, when you aim your character to the side end of the screen  (perhaps to avoid falling rocks), the avatar disappears off screen for a moment, only to appear on the other side of the screen. This kind of thing would never fly in 21st century video games. Yeah, when you disappear, you just appear again nearby. Continuity errors like this remove a suspension of disbelief the game’s creators had, I guess, failed to cultivate.  

In Back to the Future Part 2, Marty McFly has to avoid seeing himself during the “Enchantment Under The Sea Dance” while securing the Sports Almanac from Biff because one version of himself is already playing guitar on stage.  If the two Martys ever, by chance, saw each other, something horrible would happen.  When I look in the mirror, my goal is to not dislike whatever it is that I see, so I can only imagine the horrors of seeing a time traveling version of myself!  I would happily slip away stage right with a hat over my face only to reappear stage left with my hat in hand.

I won my sixth grade Geography Bee at Holy Name School in West Roxbury, Massachusetts by identifying the second highest mountain in the world (it’s K2).  This won me a copy of Rattle and Hum by U2 on audio cassette.   

unnamed

I carried Rattle and Hum home proudly.  My parents were proud and excited. They loved and love rock and roll. I had never heard of U2 in my life up to that point, but they sure had.  We listened to a few tracks together as I recounted my victory, and then I squirreled away the double cassette tape set into my bedroom and played it on my tiny red cassette deck. One song U2 covered called “Helter Skelter” boomed. It was messy. I liked it. I didn’t know that this was a cover of a Beatles song or of Charles Manson’s culty appropriation of the term to explain away the brutality of his violence.

When Paul McCartney wrote the song, the term “helter skelter” in UK slang meant “disorderly haste or confusion.”

When I imagine taking a V8 shower, I think of the film Carrie and the prom scene:  all the blood and the bullies. When I think of bullies, I think of Charles Manson convincing his Family to do horrible bullshit. I think of the greatly pregnant dead Sharon Tate and her blood pressed first into fingertips and then into the arcs and lines of blood to form the word Pig written on the door.  

Pig.

I refuse to make sense of someone (Charles Manson) using rhetoric (say, like the performative utterance as popularized by J.L. Austin) to make things, horrible things happen.

I read the nonfiction book Helter Skelter by Vincent Bulgosi and Curt Gentry about Charles Manson and the Manson family while commuting on the bus from my parents’ house in Roslindale to Boston University one summer for my summer job.  The bus pulled wide high hilly turns in Brookline as my stomach pitted at the violence of Manson’s life.  Manson took the phrase “Helter Skelter” from the Beatles song. The house Sharon Tate was murdered in by Manson’s family was situated in a deep ravine called Benedict Canyon. Benedict Canyon was created by rainwater dripping over a tremendously long period of time and runs north to south.

5

I am pretty fearful of new climbing experiences because I am afraid of heights. When I am on the edge of a cliff, or the top floor of a skyscraper, even one rung up a stepladder, or the edge of a subway underpass, the edge of a ravine or canyon, my inside forearms tingle painfully, and I become lightheaded. When invited to rooftop shindigs I stay near a wall, facing as far away from the edge as possible. I avoid looking at the ground below. Otherwise I am haunted by an imaginary seamstress touching and pressing thousands of pins and needles into my forearms: that’s how it feels to be afraid of heights.

As I sat far away from the edge of a naturally formed cliff in Ireland on a trip right after college, my friends who did not have a fear of heights sat right near the edge. It wasn’t one of those famous cliffs that people send postcards about or meaningfully name-check in Irish folk songs. This cliff was just some random not-too-steep locale.  When my friends approached the edge, I watched them. Physical pain overcame my body. I was fearful of their deaths and of something horrible happening. Why couldn’t I just sit there and enjoy all the shades of green: a particular beauty I’ve thought of many times since? My brain is hardwired  to avoid cliffs; my brain thinks they’re dangerous.

In that moment, I could have used the right joke. Know what I mean?  But my mom was nowhere to be found to provide levity.  You know, I could have just really used a good joke that reminded me that, sure I was a mortal entity, but that I was also temporarily in the safe harbor of a sunny field overlooking a cliff.

Some moments can be constellated back to different experiences: these are partially traceable and yet unwilling to be precisely held. As an adult you know that no one is fully protected from the meaninglessness and cruelty of the world at large.

But the only image that my brain could conjure while I sat near that cliff was a large adult skunk appearing out of nowhere and just hosing my friends and I down off the cliff and into the wild below with some Carrie-like fury in a skunk’s version of anguish.
This is pretty funny now, but I remember it as only pure terror. And, as I learned playing Alpiner, there is nothing to be done when a skunk hoses you. You just start over.


unnamedAmy Lawless is the author of two books of poems including My Dead (Octopus Books). Her third poetry collection Broadax is forthcoming from Octopus Books this summer. A chapbook A Woman Alone is just out from Sixth Finch. With Chris Cheney she is the author of the hybrid book I Cry: The Desire to Be Rejected from Pioneer Works Press’ Groundworks Series (2016). Her poems have recently or are forthcoming in jubilatReality BeachThe VoltaWashington Square ReviewBest American Poetry 2013, and the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day: 365 Poems for Every Occasion, and the Brooklyn Poets Anthology (Brooklyn Arts Press). She received a poetry fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts in 2011. She lives in Brooklyn.

feature image via Tim_Johns.

An Innovative Culinary Program Mixes Compassion With Kitchen Training

Via M. Cooper
Via M. Cooper

The Doe Fund’s Chef-in-Training program is an eight-week, hands-on course that teaches students to work on a New York City restaurant’s line. It was introduced in December 2015 as an extension of the Doe Fund’s Ready, Willing & Able transitional work program, and it’s the brainchild of Doe Fund employees John Kirkland, Jennifer Dillon, and Gino Dalesandro. Standing in the kitchen at the Gates Avenue Doe Fund location in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where the class is taught, Kirkland says he saw a need for the class after learning of the industry’s dearth of line cooks.

Read on at Grub Street.