It’s an exciting month here with two books from two of my most favorite people on the planet. I met Bill Roorbach at the Texas Book Fest in Austin five years ago (he’s been pals with my wife, Ann, for years and I was happy to meet him). Now we see him regularly, though he lives in Maine, because he teaches at two of Ann’s programs, her MFA creative writing program at Salve Regina in Newport, and often at The Spannocchia Writer’s Workshop in Tuscany (which resumes in person this summer, yay!) His new novel, LUCKY TURTLE, has just been published, featuring two of Bill’s obsessions, romantic love and the natural world, wrapped in an adventure.
He’s our Nature Boy. Point to any tree or flower or weed and he’ll tell you its name. If you happen to point at some wild thyme growing out of an old Italian wall, he will likely pick it and rub it under his arms (“I forgot my deodorant,” he will explain). If you don’t know know Roorbach’s work you should. His best known book, which almost made it to HBO, is Life Among Giants. I loved his story collection, The Girl of the Lake. And his memoir about his young love (and eventual wife) is my favorite, Summers with Juliet.
Excitingly, Ann’s memoir of her years as a TWA flight attendant, was published this week. FLY GIRL. I pleaded for her to write this book. Finally, recognizing that any time she began a sentence with, “When I was a flight attendant…,” everyone turned to listen.
It’s a delightful read, of course, with the always fascinating stories about the passengers (the woman breast feeding a cat, the man wearing only his briefs, a heart attack and mouth to mouth, the “Mile-High Club”). But it’s a cultural history as well. Beginning with the very first flight attendants: nurses. They were aboard to tend to nervous passengers and considerably more motion sickness as earlier commercial aircraft did not fly at 30,000 feet.
She addresses the rampant, jaw-dropping sexism in the industry of the 60s and 70s, describes her brushes with celebrities and sports personalities (I used to like Pete Rose), meeting a great love in 47F (not me alas), and generally the life of being a flight attendant, layovers in exotic locales, being on call, and deadheading. But she was also an aspiring writer who penned much of her first novel, Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine, over the Atlantic ocean, having plied her 1st Class passengers with stingers and rusty nails, from a cart trailing dry ice clouds through the aisles.
In the NYTimes Book Review (appearing a week from tomorrow), Ann gets thrashed by Vanity Fair writer Leslie Bennetts (“rose-colored glasses,” “so sweet it gives you a toothache”—there’s more, read the review here; you’d think Ann was a total bubblehead from the review). Neither Ann nor I are strangers to bad reviews. The best response is almost always, “Fuck ‘em,” and move on.
But what is maddening about Bennetts’s review, which includes a glowing (deservedly it seems) review of a journalist’s exploration of sexism in the industry in the 60s an 70s (The Great Stewardess Rebellion: How Women Launched a Workplace Revolution at 30,000 Feet), is Bennetts’s narrow focus. Bennetts, who has carved out a role as a professional feminist, with her book The Feminist Mistake, focuses less on Ann’s book than Ann’s choice to be a flight attendant in the first place. Ann loved the job, and even considered staying on after 1986, which brought layoffs, strikes and deregulation, which Ann dutifully covers, but it seems that Ms Bennetts doesn’t approve of anyone liking this degrading profession for women. (Read the review and let me know what you think.)
I would like to add to all flight attendants out there, men and women, that your work is important, no matter Bennetts’s implications. And we, especially Ann, thank you for it. The splendid service we had on Delta over to Greece was an absolute pleasure; the utterly indifferent and eye-rolling service we had on our return was, I don’t know, just sad. Great service always makes a difference whether at a restaurant or in the sky.
Sad Book News!
My book, Ruhlman’s Twenty: 20 Techniques, 100 Recipes, a Cook’s Manifesto, is going out of print. This is one of my two most favorite cookbooks. It’s a great book. Seriously. I say that without humility or embarrassment. I wasn’t even surprised when it won a James Beard Award for best general cookbook in 2012. Alas, the publisher, Chronicle Books, has decided not to print any more (*sniff*), so snatch up the last 1000 or so copies that remain. It was a good run anyway.
And it’s one of my favorite book-genesis stories. This is how Ruhlman’s Twenty happened.
Years ago, a lovely writer and wonderful woman, Toni Allegra, brought a range of writers, editors, and journalists to the Greenbrier resort for days of seminars and classes on food writing (people like LATimes food editor Russ Parsons, journalist Kim Severson [ask Kim about the nut grab if you ever meet her], and cookbook author Andrea Nguyen, whose books I love).
And also Chronicle Books editor Bill LeBlond. After a long day’s session, we often repaired the the Greenbrier bar. Bill and I ordered mint juleps and took a seat on the patio or balcony, outside in the clement spring evening.
Bill said, “You know, Michael. I’ve hit a plateau in my cooking. I just can’t seem to get any better.”
I knew he was over complicating things. I said, “Bill there’s only, like, like, twenty things you’ve got to know in order to cook anything.”
His eyes got huge, he swiveled in his wicker chair, pointed his finger aggressively at me, and he said: “That’s a book.”
I was just speaking off the cuff, julep in hand. But I wasn’t wrong. We talked about it a little more. Before we left the bar he took a bar napkin and at the top he wrote “Twenty Techniques: How To Cook Anything.” Then he wrote it again in the middle of the napkin.
He tore the napkin in half and and gave me one and he kept the other. And that’s how the book began. Have I mentioned that I love this book?
Speaking of food…
Mouassaka! I gave it a shot. Layers of roasted potato, fragrant beef-and-lamb sauce, eggplant, and thick, cheesy béchamel. I thought it was excellent. It’s a project, but worth it. And it’s especially easy if you break the recipe into parts. (Full printable recipe here.)
Making a bechamel takes five minutes. The meat sauce is a basic meat sauce, season cooked ground meat, season it, deglaze with wine. These can both be made as many as three or four days ahead.
Day you want to serve, slice and roast the potato and eggplant (an hour). Then you’re good to go. I fried the eggplant, but I felt they were overly oily. I recommend baking them at the same time you bake the potato slices.
Then layer a 9-by-13 baking dish: potatoes, meat sauce, eggplant, béchamel, top with more parmasan and panko bread crumbs. (I also spread some bread crumbs on the bottom of the baking dish to absorb any liquid the eggplant may release.)
What we’re drinking…
The Last Word, an extraordinary cocktail created in the 1920s in Detroit. Abandoned after prohibition, resuscitated by the craft cocktail movement. The key ingredient is the Chartreuse. But it’s also got a heady dose of Luxardo. It’s a fantastic cocktail. And an easy ratio! Equal parts:
1 ounce gin
1 ounce lime juice
1 ounce Chartreuse
1 ounce Luxardo
Standard mixing procedure, garnish with cherries or lime.
What we’re watching …
We loved The Duke with the great character actor, Jim Broadbent (masterful performance). Very funny and true story about an art heist. Streaming seems to be available.
And we’ve begun watching Slow Horses (Apple+) as a slovenly British spy who leads a team of spy fuck-ups. Brilliant.
And Ann adds:
Annabelle and I shrieked and cried and smiled as we watched the documentary Spring Awakening: Those You’ve Known. I had the great pleasure of seeing Spring Awakening on Broadway and will never forget the electricity in the theatre that night. (On HBO.)
Links we’re liking …
A perfect Mother’s Day link: Eat, Darling, Eat is a storytelling website about mother/daughter relationships, centered around something that is fundamental and fun, evocative and provocative, shared across all cultures and generations: food. Share your mother-daughter story by emailing info@EatDarlingEat.net
This woman makes recipes she finds on grave stones.
This is how South Carolina chef Sean Brock makes pimento cheese.
More southern dishes: this excellent article on spoonbread from Food52.
One of my dearest friends, a literary agent and editor in New York, lost her love, found late in life, to aggressive prostate cancer, a prominent (brilliant) doctor and wonderful man. Researchers in England have now identified five new bacteria found in men’s urinary tract, three new to science, that indicate the possibility of aggressive prostate cancer. Meaning an antibiotic could be developed if the bacteria are causally related to the cancer, potentially saving thousands of lives (though not soon enough for our dear Harry).
Another cocktail worth having: The Toronto, featuring Frenet Branca (in Forbes by my friend, chef Elizabeth Karmel).
One of the best reads of the week! Travel back to 1962, the Jack and Jackie White House, and many cultural heroes in Diana Trilling’s New Yorker essay about a special dinner for Nobel laureates.
How do they harvest oranges in Valencia—ingeniuously.
I leave you with lovely country tune from country singer Tony Jackson written (and performed by) John Sebastian, of the Lovin’ Spoonful and a pal of ours (his wife took my last head shots) But really this is for the extraordinary vocals of Jackson:
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