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oy of cooking

I don’t love to cook; in fact, I don’t even like it all that much. Sure, I make a mean brisket, a respectable eggplant parmigiana, a well-reviewed ziti with meat sauce, and an assortment of other “not bad, pretty good” entrées. But, if I’m really honest with myself, when it comes to cooking, I’d rather be doing something else. Like eating leftovers (I realize, of course, that in order to have leftovers, you have to have cooked previously — unless they’re leftovers from yesterday’s restaurant dinner); ordering in a pizza; or busting open a bag of tortilla chips and calling it dinner.

But, while cooking is not a joy for me, reading about it is. I love to read cookbooks the way some people read novels. I love to read cooking magazines the way some people read Vogue. And I love to read the food section of the paper the way some people read — I don’t know, the comics? Sports? Arts & Leisure? Anyone?

I think that the joy of cooking skipped a generation in my family. My mom was a wonderful cook, so I never felt the need to learn how. In fact, when B. and I moved in together 23 years ago, his kitchen skills far outshone mine. (To this day, he thinks his recipes for tarragon chicken and amaretto sweet potatoes seduced me and won my heart — don’t tell him, but I was a sure thing.)

To help me learn how to cook all those years ago, I purchased the 1997 edition of Joy of Cooking, the legendary bible written by Irma S. Rombauer in 1931 and updated several times since. I tried, I really did, but I found that rather than mincing garlic, I’d rather find a way to mince words in a too-long headline I was working on. Rather than blending together oil and balsamic vinegar to make the perfect vinaigrette, I’d rather be blending together the perfect cast of characters in a story I was writing. And rather than skimming fat off the top of turkey gravy, I’d rather be skimming the New York Times Sunday Book Review to find my next great read.

What I did enjoy, though, was reading Joy of Cooking. From bruschetta to brioche, from paprikash to polenta, from filet mignon to fondant — reading these recipes satisfied my soul in a way that only the best fiction can. What it didn’t do was make me want to dash into the kitchen and whip up any of them.

So our dinners are more simple, our once-in-a-while desserts no more elaborate than really good brownies (or Ina Garten’s mind-blowing chocolate ganache cupcakes, which I make for B.’s birthday). It seems that I’m more likely to take the time to bake something special than to sauté, flambé, roast, or toast.

The 2019 edition of Joy of Cooking was just released this week — touting 600 new recipes and 4000 favorites. Will I, an admitted non-lover of cooking, buy it?

Of course. Every delicious word.

Joy to the girl.

 

©2019 Claudia Grossman

 

 

 

 

 

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counter point

As a single working woman in New York for many years — many years ago — one of my favorite lunch-hour pursuits was to browse those big, beautiful department stores, some of which no longer exist. Stores like B. Altman, Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s (the last two are still there) offered something that you don’t see very much these days — salespeople waiting behind glass counters or cases to help you with your purchases.

Not merely cashiers, these employees actually handed you the items you requested from inside the case (purses and scarves and gloves, oh my), offered their advice if asked (and sometimes even if not), and then rang up and wrapped your purchases beautifully (in store tissue paper and gorgeous shopping bags).

Ahh. Sorry, I needed a moment there.

Much has changed in the past 20+ years. Shopping online — with its progeny, the ever-growing demand for instant gratification — has been the loudest tolling bell for those once-great department stores. Buy-online pick-up areas have replaced flesh-and-blood salespeople in brick-and-mortar retailers. Something is lacking.

Fortunately, as in so many areas of our changing cultural landscape, we can find what we’re missing in the movies. Even department-store counters and the sales personnel who used to man them can be found — delightfully alive and well — on film. To wit:

Eugene Levy in Serendipity. Playing a hilarious, strictly-by-the-rules salesman at a counter in the men’s department at Bloomingdale’s, Levy’s character is key in the romance of Jonathan (John Cusack) and Sara (Kate Beckinsale), who meet cute at his counter. The two share nothing but first names, deciding to leave it up to kismet to bring them together again if they are meant to be. (While I personally like this sweet rom-com, I’ve got to admit that I think the premise presented this way is just crazy — I mean, who does that? Share your names and numbers already! Sheesh.) At any rate, Levy’s performance is brilliantly delivered and all-out funny. Sold.

Rowan Atkinson in Love Actually. This performance brings me to tears of laughter. Every time I see it. Atkinson plays a jewelry-counter salesperson, waiting on Alan Rickman’s character — a married man trying to purchase a Christmas present, for the secretary who lusts after him, while his wife is shopping in another part of the store. Speed is of the essence here, and Atkinson’s bumbling sales clerk in the midst of a ridiculously exorbitant gift-wrapping process — including adding candies, lavender, a cinnamon stick, and holly berries (after donning gloves to protect against the sharp-edged leaves) — is absolutely hysterical. Sold, actually.

John McGiver in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. McGiver plays a Tiffany & Co. salesman who waits on Paul Varjak (George Peppard) and Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn, of course). When it appears that Paul cannot afford to buy anything romantic for Holly at her favorite store, McGiver’s character agrees to have the store engrave the ring Paul found in a CrackerJack box. If you’re saying “awww” right now, you’re in very good company — all of us Huckleberry friends out here. Sold — in a little blue box.

Today’s culture argues that we make it quick, quick, quick; as these scenes remind us, though, there is much charm to be savored when we take it slow, slow, slow. Counter to texts, counter to insta, counter to the clock.

Counter culture.

 

© 2019 Claudia Grossman

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who’s on first

Ah, the things we do for love. Bringing home a bunch of flowers. Cooking — and cleaning up — a special dinner. Getting our partner’s car washed. Going to a concert we could never have imagined wanting tickets to — much less sitting through.

For those of you who are regular readers, you might remember my post from a few weeks ago, talking about how B. actually bought tickets — and went with me! — to a Barry Manilow concert (for better or for verse). Something he would never, ever have considered going to, wanting to go to, or even talking about if not for me, the admitted Fanilow in the family, whom he loves dearly.

So, in the spirit of turnabout being fair play, love being a two-way street, and what’s right being what’s right, it appears that we are going to a Who concert later this week at the Hollywood Bowl.

If you were betting that The Who is B.’s choice, you’re right — not one of my friends, past or present, would ever take me for a Who fan. Let’s just say that when it came to our high-school and college years, mine were a lot less adventurous (probably because I always had my nose in a book); a lot more sheltered (thanks, Mom and Dad); and a lot less fun (as a result of the other two) than B.’s. Also a lot less rock and roll (hence the Fanilow status), although, thankfully, Springsteen made the cut.

Not to say that I know nothing about The Who’s music. I know a good deal from Tommy and I can sing along  — somewhat — to Who anthems like Behind Blue Eyes, My Generation, and Who Are You (I particularly like the expletive-laden line in that last one — how much of a bad girl am I?). I’ve even been listening to B.’s song suggestions for the past two weeks (concerts are always better when you actually know the music, duh) and am now ready to go. To quote John Fogerty, “Put me in Coach, I’m ready to play.”

Times like this remind me that the person I was all those years ago has been changed — in a good way — by what I’ve done, where my life has taken me, when it was that I realized my possibilities, why I’ve made the choices I have, and how I’ve managed to get from there to here. Who I am is a work that has progressed quite a bit.

So bring on Daltrey with those killer blue eyes (even if they are behind blue spectacles these days).

Who needs Mandy?

 

© 2019 Claudia Grossman

 

 

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out on a limb

So there’s a bunch of things that apartment-dwelling city people don’t take to naturally — driving a mini van for one; clearing snow from a driveway that we don’t have for another; and trimming trees for a third. And it’s this last one that came into play just this weekend, as the overgrown (read three-story) shrubs outside our bedroom windows had to be snipped.

Yes, it’s usually something the building’s landscapers would handle but no, that didn’t look like it was going to happen, so B. and I decided to take the matter (the branches, really) into our own hands. But not without some expert advice, and for that I turned to a dear friend who is a former professional tree trimmer extraordinaire and all-around terrific guy. (When he heard my account of what is known as my Woody Woodpecker sighting a few years ago (wood-a, coulda, shoulda), he fell on the floor laughing and then set me straight on how not all woodpeckers resemble Woody).

The advice he gave me was clear. After approving a photo of the cutting tool we already owned (neither B. nor I have any idea of how or why we even own it), our friend explained that B. should hold the cutting tool with the blade facing the direction in which he would be cutting. My role in this little drama was crucial. “Put your hands in B.’s waistband and hold on to him. You don’t want him to fall out the window.” And then, in a more ominous tone, “Believe me. I’ve seen it happen.” Okay then.

Other advice included attaching the tool to B.’s belt loop with a shoelace so that if he dropped it, it wouldn’t fly down three stories and hit anything in the tiny locked alley below. And to be sure that the aforementioned shoelace extended past the window of the apartment below ours so that if B. dropped the cutter, it wouldn’t swing into the glass. Oy.

All this you say, for a few branches? Well, yes. While we love the greenery — and there is plenty of it remaining outside our windows — this group of branches totally obscured our view of the Hollywood hills (to say nothing of it feeling like my workspace was being smothered behind a wall of leaves).

So, instructions in mind, our adventure began. And then hit a snag immediately. B.’s weekend workload of paper- and exam-grading is heavy, so I had been surprised when he suggested, in the midst of it, that then would be a good time to trim the trees. When he did, I jumped at the chance, albeit forgetting for a moment that I had been right in the middle of something else. “Oh no! The meatballs!” came to me, Lucy-style, at the exact moment that B. was already leaning out the window, branches in one hand, cutter in the other, my hands in his waistband (I giggle every time I write that part).

As if on cue, the oven timer began to ring, reminding me to turn the temperature of the baking meatballs up to “broil” to make them brown and crispy on the outside. What to do? What to do? “Hold it!” I said after the first snip, after the first bunch of branches had been pulled inside and into a trash bag, and after B. was safely and 100% back within the window frame.

I dashed to the kitchen, took the meatballs from the oven, and stood there, my mind in “what would Lucy do and how can I avoid that?” overdrive. I knew that I couldn’t set the oven to “broil” and then walk away (you have to watch those meatballs every minute or else the little suckers can burn). But I also knew that I didn’t want to keep B. from getting back to grading for any longer than necessary. So, in the spirit of some of history’s most solemn choices — Thick crust or thin? What’s behind door #1 or what’s behind door #2? Ginger or Mary Ann? —  I chose trees over meatballs and headed back to my hero husband who awaited my return.

We did great with the branches that were close enough to reach; however, there were a couple that were just a bit too far. Until I had an idea — a wire hanger straightened out with its hook still in place. It worked — those couple of stubborn branches were ours! But then yet another bunch loomed, even farther away. And, like that piece of pound cake that you just have to slice away to even out the rest of the loaf, we absolutely had to have it.

I am proud to say that I then MacGyvered the s**t out of the situation. I got my handy roll of duct tape (a girl’s best friend for situations just like this), a second straightened-out wire hanger, and voilà! After I taped the two hangers together, B. reached out with the contraption, and, like magic, we owned that final annoying cluster of branches.

About one half-hour, two full trashbags, and three major hugs of self-congratulation later (and a quick vacuuming of the bedroom carpet), we emerged victorious. (The meatballs, having been returned to the oven for broiling, emerged delicious).

Bough-worthy, indeed.

 

 

© 2019 Claudia Grossman

 

 

 

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give me a sign

As probably every half of a close couple can attest, there is some kind of secret signal we use to communicate with our partner — in full view of others, when we want no one else to know what we’re saying. Whether it’s signaling that a) it’s time to leave the Horowitz-Solomon wedding reception; b) I can’t stand these eight strangers we’ve been seated with; or c) does that food look as inedible to you as it does to me? — all of these thoughts can be conveniently communicated and easily understood between partners with just a subtle gesture. Usually.

In my case, it’s one perfectly raised eyebrow, usually my left. Don’t ask me how I can do it at will — I just can. And once B. sees it, he knows it means a) the party’s over; b) if I spend one more minute trying to chat with these pre-assigned tablemates my head will begin to spin around 360 degrees; or c) better to fill up on bread and dessert. Most times.

As for B., he’s got his own signal that tells me all I need to know — it’s a quick wink of one of his amazing turquoise eyes (the very first thing I ever noticed about him). It is code for: a) let’s blow this popsicle stand; b) ten more seconds with these insufferable strangers with whom the Horowitz-Solomons have seated us and I’m going to spontaneously self-combust; or c) what is that on my plate and where can I hide it? Almost all the time.

Do our signals ever get crossed? Er, maybe. All right, yes. In fact, three times at that one proverbial wedding reception. First, when B. thought my raised eyebrow meant I wanted to leave — he tried to rush me out the door before the bride had even changed into her second “yes-to-the-dress” dress of the evening. In truth, I had something in my other eye, which was squinting. The raised eyebrow was just a reflex of my non-squinting eye being wide open.

Or when I misread his wink as “time to go — don’t even think about starting a new topic of conversation.” I got up to leave immediately, even before the Viennese table had been set out (see my post an affair to remember if you’ve never heard of a Viennese table). In fact, the wink was his way of encouraging me to tell my latest funny story to that table of the most boring people on earth, thinking it would make the evening at least a little bit interesting. (Thankfully, he pulled me back just in time so that we didn’t miss out on the chocolate parfaits.)

And when we both sent our “danger Will Robinson — do not eat!” signal to each other. Or so we thought. The truth was, I was raising my eyebrow in awe of the eyebrow-raising presentation of the catered dinner while he was winking at me because he was flirting. The result? Two very hungry people who passed on what looked like an absolutely delicious entrée (nary a crumb of stuffed derma to be seen!) because of a misread signal.

Okay, so maybe subtle, private signals between partners can sometimes go awry. But what about those signals that everyone knows — those most universal of signals that strangers share everyday? Why is it so hard for road signals to be received and perceived clearly? It’s really not difficult. To wit:

Hey, Ms. BMW — are you thinking of changing lanes? Give me a clue. You, Mr. SUV — want to make a right? Just push that lever on the left of your steering column — the one that goes tikka, tikka, tikka — up before you do so. And whoa, Sir Range Rover — see that traffic sign that says, “No left turn. Right turn only”? It’s not a suggestion, buddy.

When I’m sending my traffic signals, please take a second and think before blaring your horn at me. Like if I’m sitting in the right lane at a red light with my turn signal on but not moving, maybe its because the sign directly above the light says “no turn on red” and not because I’m an idiot. (You really want to go IQ to IQ with me, Ms. Gas Guzzler?) Or when I’m stopped behind a sanitation truck with my left signal on, perhaps consider slowing down and letting me cut in front of you, Mr. Maserati. That one is a suggestion — a suggestion that you be a mensch. Do the right thing and I’ll reward you with a wave — my signal for “thanks.”

You know what we could all use these days? A little bit of a signal switch. If you take that angry middle-finger salute and just add your index finger to it, bam! You’ve got a peace sign. And a peace sign could never, never be confused with that middle-finger dismissal (the same way “the Corvette could nevuh be confused with the Buick Skylark!” as per Marisa Tomei’s big-haired Mona Lisa Vito in My Cousin Vinny).

The lesson here? Choose your signals wisely. Read others’ signals carefully. And always, always, go with the Corvette.

 

© 2019 Claudia Grossman

 

 

 

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new kid on the block

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you might remember a previous post about my starting the adventure of writing a novel (a novel approach). Well, there’s good news and bad news.

The good news is that the adventure continues and progress has been pretty good most days. I’d say we’re now halfway there (albeit definitely living on a prayer). The bad news? For the last few weeks, it feels like I’ve hit the proverbial wall. No, not the wall with the handwriting on it (that would be helpful), but the writer’s-block wall with the yellow tape on it that reads, “Detour — no thru traffic.”

So, like all writers before me who have encountered this mortal enemy — this Darth Vader threatening my creative force, this Satan burning my storytelling threads, this Freddy Krueger slashing my plot lines — I have had to really reach to find ways to a) stay strong, and b) practice my wall-climbing.

Here, then, are some tactics I’ve devised to do just that. To wit:

Target the problem. Literally. As in, take a stroll (or two, or three) around Target. I call it looking for inspiration (even if what I’m looking for is a new shampoo). You never know what will trigger an idea. (Besides, who can write while having a bad hair day?)

Feed your imagination — aka, nosh. Or cook. Or I know — bake cupcakes! Lots and lots of cupcakes.

Research. Step away from your laptop and go to the library. (Think of the wall-climbing muscles you’ll build by getting up from your chair and walking through the stacks. To say nothing of the calories and time you’ll burn.) Warm up — and conveniently forget why you’re there in the first place — by getting lost in New Fiction and reading a novel that someone actually did finish writing.

Scout locations to create Scout Finch. If you want everything in your novel to be as accurate as possible (of course you do), then mere library or online research is for suckers. Visit your location in person. It helps if you set the novel locally so that you can spend the day exploring (read “doing anything but sitting in front of an unfinished page”) while still getting home in time to bake another batch of said cupcakes.

Dream, dream, dream. Another way to say that: nap, nap, nap. For one thing, it’s restorative. For another, it’s relaxing. For a third, it’s fun to be in denial.

Pray to the writing gods. Whomever your chosen patron saint — Hemingway, Grisham, Brontë (I’m partial to Charlotte myself), Rowling — send up a wish for a light to help see your way through. Or, at the very least, for a movie version of one of their novels on afternoon TV while you’re waiting for that light.

And so, dear reader, do not fear. The novel is on its way — from my heart through my fingertips to my keyboard. I just need to get over that roadblock of a wall. And I will.

One cupcake at a time.

 

2019 Claudia Grossman

 

 

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prints charming

Once upon a time there was a kingdom where print media reigned — newspapers, of course, but also magazines. And in this kingdom, one little girl grew up loving all the magazines that appeared magically at her house — the stories, the pictures, and the fact that there were always new pages to turn and get lost in.

And get lost in them she — that is, I — did. Whether it was the monthly deluge of my mom’s McCall’s, Ladies’ Home Journal, and Good Housekeeping, or my dad’s choice of LIFE and National Geographic, or their weekly subscription to Newsweek (in those days, yours was either a Newsweek or a TIME family; ours was the former), I grew up and in love with magazines in general. If it was there, I devoured it.

The passion continued. I have vivid memories of the August issue of Seventeen — the back-to-school issue — of poring over its pages with my friends, picking out the clothes we couldn’t live without. That was quickly followed by Glamour, a stalwart through my teens and 20s and beyond, and Mademoiselle, also known for its fiction-writing contests. And magazines that came later — like Self and More and others — filled with pages of beauty and fashion news, career and lifestyle writing. Each adding its color and freshness to my day, each influencing my style in some way, each a small piece of art on its own.

Sadly, most of these titles have disappeared from the classic newsstand (equally sad is that so many classic newsstands have also disappeared). And that, to me, is a huge loss. Because these print titles were a part of my history. Seeing them arrive each month (or week), turning the pages, rolling them up to fit in my bag, enjoying the tactile sensation of their glossy finishes — a ritual all but lost.

Given my love affair with magazines, it’s not a surprise that I’ve been lucky enough to incorporate magazines into my career — first as associate editor at True Confessions (no, not a risqué publication as its title might imply — what is wrong with you? ) and then as a contributor to other titles. Not a surprise that when B. and I first moved in together, he filled the front seat of his car with dozens of magazines when he picked me up at the airport to welcome me to my new home. And not a surprise that The New Yorker continues to grace my mailbox week after week.

With September here, I cannot close this post without mentioning the grande dame herself, Vogue, whose history extends back more than a century. Its legendary September issue has pages in the multiple hundreds and enough gloss and beauty to fill this magazine aficionada’s heart with joy. Brings me back to my younger self thumbing through the pages of the August issue of Seventeen.

Dreaming of happily ever after. And of a man who loves that I love the printed page.

ⓒ 2019 Claudia Grossman

 

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