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We adopted the habit

Oaxaca! As I said, I’m no expert, but I can tell you what I liked. I hear that some of you are hoping to travel there, and I hope what follows is helpful.

This was our second time going on vacation with our friends Brandi and John. If you can find two people you enjoy and won’t want to stab after ten days in close quarters, I highly recommend it. Traveling with friends has allowed us to feel more bold, for better or worse, about long drives on mountainous roads in foreign countries, and about traveling without making a lot of plans, doing exhaustive research, or knowing the local language. Also, at the beach, two of us invariably want to swim while two of us want to lie around and read, so there’s always someone to watch the towels and bags! And should one of us just haaaaaaappen to get food poisoning, there are not one but three able-bodied people available to hunt down Gatorade and saltines. Perfection!

I should also add that this was our second time going on vacation without June. She is lucky to have grandparents who are happy to look after her, and I am well aware of how lucky that makes us, too. (THANK YOU MOM AND KATHY AND BILL!!!) I like the person that being a mother makes me, but I’m also immensely grateful to get a chance every now and then to not be a parent, and to be only a spouse again. Also: I sleep so hard on these vacations, so peacefully relieved of my Bionic Mom Instincts, that when I wake up, it takes a while before I can see straight and my head feels properly screwed on, like I have some kind of sleep hangover.

I don’t remember, oddly, how we decided on Oaxaca, but we began preparations early last spring, and once we’d booked lodging, we got tired of making decisions and left the rest up to chance. We planned a week on the Pacific coast of the region, plus a couple of nights in Oaxaca City. In the city, we rented a handsome, modern apartment through Airbnb, and for the coastal portion, we rented an airy house just outside of Puerto Angel, roughly six hours by car from Oaxaca City, for 78 dollars per night. For a whole house! With multiple hammocks! HAMMOCKS!

Though the drive along Highway 175 from Oaxaca City was, shall we say, athletic, we were glad we sprung for a rental car over a flight, because along the way, we stopped in the mountain town of San Jose del Pacifico and ate lunch at a tiny roadside place that I think was called La Morelita, where the kindly woman manning the fire made us quesadillas of grilled beef and chewy quesillo Oaxaca served with bowl of a garlicky salsa the color of a Creamsicle, and, when we begged, a single spectacular hunk of the smoky, buttery chicken she was grilling out front for her own family, wrapped in a tortilla. A week later, we were still talking about that chicken.

We arrived at the coast at nightfall and woke up the next morning to the view below, of which I have no fewer than a dozen pictures, taken at varying times of day, over and over and over:

Puerto Angel is a working fishing town. The main road is not paved and the amenities are basic, but it was a good home base for our week. (The main grocery store was well stocked with Principe cookies, of which we ate approximately three family-size boxes. For produce, we hit the region’s largest market, which takes place on Mondays in the nearby town of Pochutla.) There was a beach near the house, Playa Estacahuite, at the foot of those cliffs up there, a seven-or-so-minute walk past a few driveways and down a series of stone steps that made our knees wobbly. It was beautiful, a chain of small aquamarine coves with a few palapa restaurants on the sand, all serving seafood, cold beer, and whole coconuts with a straw for drinking. Our favorite beach, though - because that’s what you do on vacation: you devote your brainpower to ranking beaches - was a fifteen-minute drive to the west, at San Agustinillo, where the beach was less rocky and the water slightly warmer.

Apparently, the local beach protocol is thus: upon arriving, you choose a palapa restaurant, stake out a table, and that’s your camp for the day. You can leave your belongings there while you swim, and so long as you order food and drinks at some point, you’re welcome to stay as long as you want. On our first day at San Agustinillo, we happened to choose Restaurant Alejandra, mostly because they had an available table in the shade. (NB: there is generally little to no signage on the beach side of these restaurants, only on the street side. Restaurant Alejandra is toward the westernmost end of the beach.) As it turned out, we liked Alejandra so much that we spent three more days there, once even arriving in time for a breakfast of chilaquiles and staying till after sundown.

For lunch, we ate a lot of camarones al mojo de ajo, head-on local shrimp cooked with garlic and chiles and served with rice and a salad, and I usually had a Corona alongside. At some point in the afternoon, I got crazy and switched to a margarita. We also got waaaaaay into their camarones al coco, shelled shrimp that had been butterflied, pounded, breaded in freshly shredded coconut, and fried until they resembled latkes, also served with rice and a salad. You can also order any number of ceviches or other freshly caught fish and seafood preparations, or even a hamburguesa, but most of the tables around us ordered shrimp, so we adopted the habit. The local shrimp were fat, sweet, always perfectly cooked. The four of us could spend an entire day at the beach, eating two meals each and drinking beer, fresh juices, and water, and the total bill would maybe top out at 700 pesos, or about fifty U.S. dollars. Then we would drag ourselves back to the car and up the road, clean up with a brisk shower - our house, like most in the area, did not have hot water - and meet in the kitchen to muster dinner, which sometimes consisted largely of Principes.

We ended the trip back in Oaxaca City, an incredibly charming and walkable city whose architecture made Brandon think of New Orleans. I cannot say enough about how charmed we were by Oaxaca City - its abundant good food, its mercado, the apartment we rented, the artisan craft fair that happened to be taking place in the center of town that weekend. But I am hoping to wrap up this post and take a shower before my child gets home from running errands with her dad and hey, you’re probably not even reading anymore, anyway, right, so I’m going to give you the highlights in bullet form:

- We treated ourselves to nice dinners each night we were in the city, and generally, they came out to less than $25 per person, including tip. Our favorite was El Catedral. It looks a little touristy, and there were lots of us tourists there, yes, but the food was spectacular: mole amarillo, gorgeous steak, succulent pork ribs in green mole. We also went to Casa Oaxaca, Los Danzantes (duck tacos!!! Thanks for the tip, Alex Van Buren!), and had breakfast at Itanoni. (Reservations recommended for all but Itanoni.)

- Brandon did tastings at Vago and Mezcaloteca and brought back some killer mezcals for Essex.

- For great coffee (and, should you be needing a dose of Americana, spectacular muffins and banana bread), don’t miss Cafe Brujula. We particularly liked the Alcala 104 location, with its shady courtyard seating (and bathroom that smelled intriguingly(?) of dill pickles).

- Monte Alban! A short drive from the center of town - and utterly mind-blowing. I shot an entire roll of film there and was so excited to show it to you, but sadly, I forgot it at home when I took the rest of my film to be developed.

- And last but not least, the Mercado 20 de Noviembre, an indoor food market-slash-madhouse most famous for its smoky, bustling hall of meats. Here’s how it works: at one end of the hall, there are two produce stalls selling chiles, onions that look like large scallions, and salsas. Start there. Get some chiles and onions. Then walk down the hall and choose one of the meat vendors. (If you speak Spanish or are skilled at mime, ask someone which vendor is best. That’s what Brandon did.) Order some meat, and they will grill it for you right there, placing your chiles and onions on the coals underneath so they come out smoky and tender. Then take your cooked stuff, go back to the produce stall for salsas, and buy some tortillas from one of the ladies who offer them to you. Then take your feast to one of the nearby tables, and enjoy. It sounds complicated, and it is, but do it anyway. (Don’t go in there grumpy and starving, though; it’s overwhelming at first and might take a little time to figure out.) As Rick Bayless says, this might be the best thing you eat in Oaxaca.

Happy weekend, everybody.

Note: Travelers to Oaxaca should not drink tap water. Even the locals drink only purified water. Ice is generally fine, though, because it’s made from purified water. And you should be fine to eat fresh fruits and vegetables in restaurants: they’ve been washed and sanitized in mild bleach water.

Also: As it turned out, all of the places we visited and stayed on this trip would have been great for children, FYI.


January 12

We got home this past Tuesday night, after spending Christmas with my family and then ten days in Oaxaca, Mexico, with a couple of friends, and I’m so relaxed that I can hardly remember how to type. I’ve never been particularly good at relaxing, but in the past year, I’ve started to get the hang of it: how to do nothing but read for an entire day, how to be a fair-skinned person on a tropical beach and not die of sunburn, how to drink a beer at noon, and how to enjoy swimming in open water without thinking about Jaws or that giant sturgeon they found in Lake Washington. Having just spent more than a week practicing my new skills, I can report that I am ready to go pro.

I took my old Nikon film camera with me and shot three rolls, which I should get back from the lab tomorrow. I’ll share them with you in a few days. In the meantime, I bring you some snaps from my iPhone. I posted a few of them on Instagram, and some of you requested that I share tips and recommendations for eating in Oaxaca. I am not any sort of expert on the region, especially since my Spanish is mostly limited to Donde esta el baño?, but I’d be happy to share the spots that we enjoyed and a few helpful details we learned. For example: tarantulas! Won’t kill you! Cuter than expected!

I hope your 2015 is off to a smooth start. After being sick for part of November and more than half of December, we’re elated to be healthy and are settling back into home with a batch of Granola No. 5 and a roasted chicken from Ashley Rodriguez’s beautiful new book Date Night In. Actually, I should also mention that I’ll be leading a discussion with Ashley this Thursday night at Book Larder. Please join us!

I’ve never been a New-Year’s-resolutions person, but I like to set a few modest goals. In 2015, I want to make pottery again, take a writing class at Hugo House, learn how to sew, and read more fiction - starting with this stunner, which I took on our trip and, after a slow start, wound up loving. I want to write more.

Be back shortly.


A good reason

WE ARE WELL! And now that I have dared to type that, I will spend the rest of the day sanitizing my hands, taking swigs straight from the echinacea bottle, and knocking on every piece of wood within a one-mile radius of my person.

And it’s the holidays! Right! A couple of weeks ago, during a reprieve between viruses, my mother, June, and I managed to bake a double batch of Russian Tea Cakes, a cookie that my mother used to make every year when I was a kid, back when she and our family friend Barbara Fretwell would hole up together in the weeks before Christmas and churn out eight or ten kinds of cookies and candies to pack in decorative tins and distribute to lucky friends around town.

I’ve written before about some of the recipes that my mother and Barbara used, like Chocolate Rads, Espresso-Walnut Toffee, and Fruit-Nut Balls. There were also cranberry-pistachio biscotti, and chocolate-dipped pecan bars with shortbread crust, and a cookie called an Apricot Crescent, with cream cheese-enriched dough and apricot jam inside. They even made mendiants. Opening one of their tins was like looking inside my mother’s jewelry box, rows and piles of color and shine. Maybe next year, I’ll tell you about their Linzer Cookies, the best Linzer specimen I’ve had. But they’re fiddly, and though Mom and I did manage to make some last week, I didn’t take pictures and instead wound up taking a nap. Russian Tea Cakes are easier, even if you’re short on time, energy, and/or holiday spirit, and they’re something that even a two-year-old could help with, sort of, if she doesn’t eat all the dough first.

I imagine you’ve heard of Russian Tea Cakes. They also go by the name Mexican Wedding Cookies, and probably some other names, too. Sometimes, to be frank, when I run across them out in the world, I don’t think Russian Tea Cakes are all that great. Some taste mostly of sugar, or worse, of flour. This makes me cranky. A Russian Tea Cake should be rich, tender, melting almost instantly when you bite into it. As holiday cookie recipes go, this one is plain, bare-bones: just six ingredients, a mixer, maybe 15 minutes to mix up the dough, maybe 15 minutes to roll the cookies, maybe 10 minutes to roll them in powdered sugar. But the return on investment is impressive: these things are so delicate, so buttery, so nutty, that people get grabby in their presence. They’re nothing new, no, but there’s a good reason why we still make them.

The recipe my mother uses was given to her by someone named Nettie Maxwell, the wife of a physician who was once in practice with my dad, and I have a xerox of it, written in Nettie’s looping old-lady script. While I would like to think that Nettie’s version is unique, there are tons of recipes out there for Russian Tea Cakes, and most are very similar to hers. I don’t think any of us can take credit. Nettie used pecans, so Mom and I do, too; it feels like the Oklahoma thing to do. But you could try any other nut: hazelnuts, walnuts, even macadamias.

Happy holidays to you and yours! 2014 marked the tenth year of this site, and I’ve had more fun here, and felt more fired up, than I had in a long time. I hope you felt it, too. I’m looking forward to 2015. In the meantime, we’re closing Delancey and Essex for two weeks to give ourselves and our staff a good, solid vacation. I’m hoping to do some writing and brainstorming, though I may just, I don’t know, take a vacation. Maybe. In any case, thank you for another year! I’ll see you soon.

Russian Tea Cakes
From my mother, via Nettie Maxwell

My mother’s version doesn’t call for toasting the pecans, but I think the cookies would be best if you toasted them. And it would be easy to do: before chopping them, pop them in a 325°F oven for a few minutes, until they’re fragrant. Allow to cool, and then chop away.

2 sticks (226 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ cup (about 50 grams) powdered sugar, sifted, plus more for rolling the cookies
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 ¼ cups (315 grams) all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
¾ cup (about 85 grams) finely chopped pecans, preferably toasted (see above)

In the bowl of a stand mixer (or with handheld beaters), combine the butter, ½ cup powdered sugar, and vanilla, and beat until light and fluffy. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour and salt. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture, beating just to blend. Add the pecans, and mix just a little more, until the nuts are incorporated. Use your hands to gather the dough into a ball, pressing in any runaway nuts. Wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, preheat the oven to 375°F, and line two baking sheets with parchment. Remove the chilled dough from the fridge, and allow it to soften for about 10 minutes before handling it. Pinch off small lumps of dough, roll them into 1-inch balls, and space them evenly on the prepared baking sheets. Bake for about 10 minutes, or until they are set but not browning – though, yes, the undersides will brown slightly. Allow to cool for a few minutes. Put some powdered sugar in a pie plate or shallow bowl. While the cookies are still warm, roll them in the sugar, and then set them on a cooling rack. The sugar will only coat them lightly, and they may feel a little sticky. Cool them completely, and then roll them a second time.

Yield: about 40 cookies


Gifts 'n' stuff, yo ho ho

Hello again, approximately four days later than intended. Thank you for your well wishes and general kindness. I am happy to report that June, at least, is back to health, even if Brandon and I both still look and feel as though someone has crammed our sinuses full of cotton balls. Or no, scratchy wool blankets? Wet down comforters? Wet down comforters! Anyway, we’re tired of it.

Of course, the days march ever on, and the holidays creep ever closer, so I’m trying to focus on that. Every year, I’m surprised anew by how much I like the ritual of choosing presents, bringing them home, wrapping them, and sending them off. Both this year and last, I am wrapping everything in plain brown kraft paper from the drugstore, stamping a label on the front, and then asking June to draw or paint whatever she wants on them, which usually results in a gift that looks like it was wrapped by someone in the midst of a grand mal seizure. I like it, and so does she.

Maybe you’re done with the whole gift thing, given that it’s now almost the middle of the month. But on the off chance that you’re still on the hunt and would like some help, I want to share a few of my favorites:

Who wouldn’t like a gift card to Heidi's beautifully curated Quitokeeto?

Likewise, a More & Co. gift card. Yes, please.

June is getting a stocking full of Mrs. Grossman’s stickers. This may be the single greatest idea I have ever had. I had a sticker collection as a kid - the only collection I’ve had of anything, really - and it still makes me happy to think of it.

Also, for a kid, or for anyone: a sunprint kit. Easy fun.

Grandparents the world around love a good family photo calendar. Pinhole Press’s are the best.

I bought myself a subscription to The New Yorker four years ago, and it’s the smartest thing I’ve done for myself as a writer. My dad used to subscribe when I was a kid, and I always thought it was intimidating and pretentious Dad Stuff, but hey: turns out, it’s a fantastic education, every single week. Yes, the pace at which the issues arrive can feel relentless, but don’t let it get you down. Just read what jumps out at you. I love The New Yorker.

I think I first read about this lip (and general skin) moisturizer on A Cup of Jo, and though I initially choked a little on the price, I bought it, and I love it.

My friends Christophe and Gemma, the people behind Lawson’s Books in Edinburgh, have just published Anna et Salomé, a stunning collection of photographs by Adrià Cañameras. I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

Two years ago, I gave a handful of family members boxes of kishu mandarins from Churchill Orchard, and they went nuts. It’s not especially cheap, and it’s a little tricky as a Christmas gift, since kishus aren’t ready for shipping until January or so, but it’s well worth the effort. Here’s what I did: I signed up to be notified when kishus were available, and then, as the gift to be opened, I printed out information about Churchill Orchard and stuck it in an envelope with a note. Later, when I got an e-mail notification from the orchard, I ordered the fruit, and off it went. My cousins and my mom still talk about those mandarins. Churchill Orchard’s pixie tangerines are also wonderful.

And last but never least, bake cookies! Make candies! Give a jar of homemade granola! Get the whole family involved, if the chaos doesn’t make your hair fall out!

(This is my niece Mia from a few years ago, by the way, not June. June is still a little young for beater duty.)

Here are some of my edible gifts from years past, and I’ve put an asterisk by the ones I’m making this year:

Granola No. 5
Buckwheat Butter Cookies with Cocoa Nibs
Chocolate Rads
Chocolate-Dipped Fruit-Nut Balls
Meyer Lemon Sablés
Real Danish Butter Cookies
Whole Wheat Sablés with Cacao Nibs*
Apple Butter
Caramel Corn with Salted Peanuts
Chocolate “Blocks” with Fruit and Nuts
Three-Layer Peppermint Bark*

I’ll be back shortly with a recipe for a cookie that my mom always made for Christmas giving when I was a kid. x


December 5

Greetings from here, where the three of us are still sick.  Brandon told me that he counted it up in the bathtub this morning, and he’s now been sick for 27 days. I keep wanting to sit down and write a new post, but all that comes out is blah blah blah mug of hot broth, blah blah blah homemade vap-o-rub that smells nice and feels good and maybe helps or maybe it’s just the placebo effect, blah blah blah sneeze sneeze cough. Illness makes me boring.

Things that are more interesting than this post:

The great Rachel Roddy was featured in a three-part "cook residency" over at The Guardian, and like everything she does, it’s very much worth your time.

The best days of my life, pretty much, are the days when, a) a new New Yorker arrives, and b) Patricia Marx has a piece in it. "Pets Allowed" is perfect.

This isn’t my first mention of Anna Sale’s wonderful podcast Death, Sex & Money, and for good reason. Please, do yourself a big big favor and listen to her recent interviews with actor Ellen Burstyn and author James McBride.

This piece on our cultural obsession with food and identity gave me pause - and, I should add, I think John Lanchester totally nails it. (Also, his piece on the way we talk about money is BRILLIANT.)

I had no idea what went into becoming a London cabbie, and I also didn’t know that I would much care, but this is fascinating. Long, yes, and fascinating.

I had never heard of Theo Jansen before this past Sunday’s story in the New York Times Magazine, but by the time I was halfway through the article, I was feverishly Googling and mumbling aloud Wow wow wow.  Then I showed it all to Brandon, and he went Wow wow wow tooI mean, watch this, and look at this. I mean!

Last but never least, my friend Brian came to visit in late August. It was his first time meeting June, and the weather could not have been better, and he captured it all so well. Come back soon, BWF.

I’m hoping to be back here with a little gift guide this weekend. Until then: hey, if you have any interesting reads, or anything, please chip in!  Leave a comment!  And be well, everybody.

P.S. Update: Several of you have written with concerns about our illness, and I want to assure you that we are being well cared for by a medical doctor - and an acupunturist and Chinese herbalist, too. It seems that we’ve been dealing with back-to-back viruses, and there’s little to be done for that. Thank you.


Like he did

The three of us have that hanger-onner of a virus that’s going around. The past two nights, I’ve coughed myself to sleep in the basement guest room, and as anyone who’s ever coughed herself to sleep can tell you, it’s slow going. I use the time to think about pressing issues like how much I like the taste of original Ricola, or how it could be that Alice’s feet smell so exactly like buttered popcorn, or how much I prefer haunted, unsmiling, True Detective-era Matthew McConaughey over other Matthew McConaugheys, even with the long hair that makes him a ringer for my uncle. Or, if I’m really on my game, I use the time to write in my head. Two nights ago, for instance, I found myself thought-writing about endive: about how much I hated it as a kid, about how much my dad loved it, about how he was always buying it and shoving it into salads when I wasn’t looking, about how fast he would have jumped to get himself around our dinner that night: bread, cheese, and Jennifer McLagan’s Belgian Endive Bathed in Butter.

In a couple of weeks, on December 7th, it will have been twelve years since my dad died. He’s now been gone for a third of my life. I’m glad to be able to say that, at this point, I don’t think about him a lot, and that I remember only faint outlines of what it felt like to grieve him. It feels like progress. But there must be some subterranean part of me that doesn’t forget, because every late November or early December, sometimes even on the 7th itself, he shows up. Maybe I notice the picture of him in the front hall for the first time in months, or I read a book to June and suddenly hear him thirty years back, reading it to me. Brandon blows his nose in the next room over, and because his nose has started to honk like a migrating goose, like my dad’s did, I forget for an instant who is on the other side of the wall. Or maybe I eat endive for dinner and then lie there in the dark, paging through one of the photo albums I keep in my head. My mother tells me that the same thing happens to her. We call and swap pictures.

I remember worrying as a kid, when I heard that someone I knew had died, that they might come back to haunt me, that maybe they would have something important to say and would choose me as the person to tell. From the bathroom of the house I lived in as a kid, I could look into the mirror above the sink and see behind me into the living room, and I was sure that, looking up sometime from spitting out my toothpaste, I’d see a ghost there. I consoled myself by eventually deciding that, if the dead person in question really cared about me, they’d have the courtesy, at least, to find a way to come back that wouldn’t scare the crap out of me. They’d be subtle about it. Anyway, I didn’t need to worry: nothing so Unsolved Mysteries has ever happened to me. But I still think about it sometimes, especially at this time of year. My dad has his ways.

I spent a lot of time worrying about those ways, really. He loved cheese and butter and paté and meat, everything that was bad for you in the '80s and '90s. He had a substantial gut. It was irresponsible! Of course, none of that is what did him in: as it turned out, behind his gut was a tumor the size of a half-gallon jug of milk, and kidney cancer doesn’t care what you eat. Still, it would take some years before I would think to, or dare to, bake eight endives in almost a stick of butter, and before I could appreciate butter in any way like he did.

Well! At this point in the post, I guess I should state very clearly, and unsexily, that I received Jennifer McLagan’s Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, with Recipesfrom its publisher, as a free, unsolicited review copy. And that I loved it immediately, not only because I like bitter flavors - Brussels sprouts, Campari - but also because, as my friend Brandi puts it, Jennifer McLagan "really goes there" in everything she does. Her books celebrate some of the most basic elements of food - and in particular, the elements that no one likes to talk about, like fat and offal. Bitter is her latest, out only two months now, and the recipe for Belgian Endive Bathed in Butter was the first I dog-eared.

I conquered my aversion to endive a long time ago, but even if that weren’t the case, I think it would be hard to find this endive less than lovable. It starts with butter browning in a skillet, to which you add whole endives, turning them to coat, and then lemon juice, and then you cover the whole thing, slide it into a low oven, and two hours (two hours!) later, you open the oven triumphantly to find the endives caramelized, as soft and floppy as wet rags - tasty wet rags, reeeeally tasty wet rags - in a brothy sauce of their own juices, enriched and mellowed with butter, brightened with citrus. You could serve them next to a pork chop or a piece of roasted chicken, but we ate them on a tired, coughing Thursday night, with just bread and an aged goat cheese that I had picked up earlier in the day. And then we slept, or rather didn’t sleep for a while, and then sleep came, and then morning came, and then there were leftovers.

P.S. Because of you, Delancey has made it to the final round of the Goodreads Choice Awards. If you would, please consider casting a vote again. Thank you.

Belgian Endive Bathed in Butter
From Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, with Recipes, by Jennifer McLagan

As McLagan explains, endive should never be cooked in water, because it’s mostly water itself; instead, what it needs is fat. I advise you to listen to her, and to have some good bread or hot rice on hand, to soak up the pan juices.

One additional note: the original recipe calls for three tablespoons of lemon juice, but I found it a little too lemony. I may well be nuts. But I would suggest starting with two tablespoons and adding more as needed.

8 Belgian endives, about 1 ¾ pounds or 800 grams
7 tablespoons (100 grams) unsalted butter, diced
Kosher or sea salt
2 to 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 300°F.

Wipe the endives with a damp cloth, tear away any leaves that have gone bad, and trim the stem end, if needed.

Choose an ovenproof skillet with a lid (or, if you don’t have a lid, aluminum foil will work), one that’s just large enough to hold the endives in a single layer. Place the skillet over low heat, and add the butter. When the butter is melted, raise the heat to medium, and cook the butter, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan from time to time, until the milk solids begin to brown and the butter smells nutty. Add the endives – yes, you’re using them whole, not sliced or halved or otherwise cut up – and lower the heat. Turn them to coat with butter, and season them with salt. Cook, turning occasionally, until they are lightly colored, then pour in 2 tablespoons of the lemon juice. Cover the pan, and place it in the oven for 1 hour. Remove the pan from the oven, turn the endives carefully, and then cover it again and return it to the oven. Cook for another 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the endives are limp and very, very soft.

Before serving, taste a little of the pan juices, and if you’d like more brightness, add lemon to taste. Serve hot, with more salt at the table and freshly ground pepper.

Yield: 4 servings


I got to go back

The first time I went to the Oklahoma Arts Institute at Quartz Mountain was in the summer of 1995, a few months after a fire destroyed the lodge, its rooms and dining hall and library. I was sixteen, one of about a dozen high school students from across the state who’d been accepted to the summer program in poetry.  Quartz Mountain is beautiful, an isolated chain of red crags along a lake in the southwest part of the state, but my introduction wasn’t poetic: because the library was gone, our class met in a trailer, with a limping air conditioner, folding tables, and a couple of electric typewriters that we shared. But our teacher was the poet Peter Fortunato, brought in from upstate New York to spend six hours a day in that trailer with us, six days a week, for two weeks, and I would have hung out with him in a dumpster, if I had to.

Peter had wavy black hair and a goatee, and he rolled his own cigarettes, occasionally during class. (I should add, disclaimer disclaimer disclaimerthat this would of course no longer happen at OAI.) He had been an apprentice to Gary Snyder, and he introduced us to the work of Mary Oliver, James Wright, Robert Hass, poets whose voices and rhythms worked me like a tuning fork. Peter took us on walks around the foothills and the dry meadows and up to a cave where we read aloud, and I’m about 90% sure there was a smudge stick involved. At home, I was more interested in going to punk shows than communing with nature, but I remember those weeks so clearly, because it was at Quartz Mountain that I first felt taken seriously as a writer, and that I could call myself a writer, capital W, without feeling naive or sheepish. At sixteen, that was a tremendous feeling. At thirty-six, it’s still a tremendous feeling.

Peter worked on the side as a hypnotherapist, and you could hear it in his voice: both soft and firm, careful. One day, while we were discussing some poem or other on the topic of dreams, he told us that, on a couple of occasions and with much practice, he’d been able to control his dreams by getting into a very focused, hypnotic state at bedtime. We were riveted. I tried it myself a few times, never with any luck. But I still think about it sometimes, especially when I’m working on a book and find myself dreaming in words, writing in my sleep. My mother reminded me the other day that I even named my first car after Peter Fortunato, a totally mortifying fact that I should probably keep quiet but this sentence is already almost finished and well, there you go. He made an impression.

I went to Quartz Mountain again the following summer, and again in 2000 and 2002, when I was in my early twenties, to work as a counselor and an assistant to the writing faculty. By then, I wasn’t writing anymore, not outside of school assignments, and I felt detached from even the idea of writing. It had been my teenage thing, and I was done with it and glad. I don’t know why I thought to go back to Quartz Mountain, but there I was, working for and with poets George Bilgere and Ruth Schwartz. If they noticed what a cynical shit I was, they said nothing. It wouldn’t be for another couple of years, until I started this blog, that I would start to sort it out, get out of my own way, and return to writing.

I got to go back to Quartz Mountain last week, this time as a teacher myself. Each fall, OAI offers a Fall Arts Institute, a series of four-day workshops for adults, and Oklahoma public school teachers automatically receive full scholarships(!). I taught a workshop called Writing Life, on personal narrative and memoir. It was my fifth time at Quartz Mountain, but only my second visit since the rebuild was completed, a new lodge and library and, across a foot bridge, a large performing arts facility at the foot of the mountain. I wanted to go back to the amphitheater where we always gave a big reading on the last day - barefoot, as was the tradition - and to the pavilions along the lake where the dancers and photographers and actors held their classes. I was elated, and I was terrified. Nobody hears the words Oklahoma arts retreat and thinks, Carnegie Hall of the Great Plains! or, if I can maaaake it there, I can make it annnywhere!, but being asked to teach at Quartz Mountain felt bigger, more significant, than anything else I’ve achieved. Bigger than ten years of blogging, writing two books, or having a baby, even a baby who weighed nine pounds. I got to go back to the beginning.

People come to Quartz Mountain ready to work hard. As a result, the place feels electric. I asked my students to read a lot, and I asked them to write a lot. Every day, they showed up and did the work. We read Joan Didion’s "On Keeping a Notebook," some David Sedaris, a chapter from Calvin Trillin, a chapter from Roz Chast, some M. F. K. Fisher. In the off hours, we ate chicken fried steak and listened to lectures on Shakespeare and watched the relief printmaking students steamroll their panels in the parking lot, and I took a glass blowing lesson in the amphitheater. I was so charged up that, for two of the four nights, I hardly slept.

It occurs to me that, while writing this, I’ve felt electric too - this manic kind of drunken feeling that I get sometimes, if I’m very lucky, when I catch the updraft of a story and it pulls me up up up and along on its momentum. I usually come to a couple of hours later, jittery and light-headed, and find that I worked through dinner. Writing isn’t often like that; it’s usually a lot of sweating and grimacing and taking breaks to eat another package of your kid’s string cheese. But that feeling is what I’m always hoping for, every time I sit down. Peter had a term for it, a term that came back to me this weekend, when a student was describing her experience with a writing exercise. "You're riding Pegasus!" he told us, "Isn’t it amazing?"

It is.

P.S. Delancey is a nominee in the Goodreads Choice Awards! This is one of few - or maybe the only - book awards chosen by readers, not fancy judges. There are some incredible books and authors in this year's competition, and if you feel so moved, please consider casting a vote.