Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Reasons To Be Left Behind

While writing this new book, my beloved literary agent, Sarah Jane Freymann, and I found pleasure in a running theme: Reasons To Be Left Behind. I’d tell her about the world-class French chef who won international awards for his chocolates and twice-baked almond croissants, only to abandon the delights of Paris to settle here in Seattle. Rumor has it the French chef landed here because he fell in love with an American woman.

Bakery Nouveau is another reason to be left behind,” I’d tell Sarah Jane.

“Is it as divine as my daughter’s peach tatin?” she queried.

I had to contemplate this comparison. Sarah Jane’s daughter, Elisabeth, is a culinary wunderkind who combines creative whimsy and level-headed wisdom in her kitchen. Her blog, A Duchess Cooks in Brooklyn, has replaced the battered (in all senses of that word) Betty Crocker cookbook my mother gave me in college.

The thing I like most about the playfulness of this Reasons to Be Left Behind call-and-response is that I get to ponder simple pleasures -- all the often overlooked and daily details of what brings me rapture right here on earth. Joy to the world. Joy because I’m in this world.

“I’m not qualified to make that judgment call,” I say to Sarah Jane. “You know I’m a terrible cook.”
Not just terrible, incompetent, surly. My kitchen is my de-milatarized zone where many culinary battles have been lost.

When I admitted this flaw to Elisabeth, she gave me a look both compassionate and competent.
“You just have to start small and build up your confidence,” she said in that no-nonsense tone that makes her a good teacher and mentor.

“That’s very easy for you to say. You practically waltz around your kitchen!”

I’d witnessed Elisabeth’s prowess as she danced from fridge to sink to stove to cutting board. If there had been a soundtrack to her kitchen stage it would have gone from a samba as she chopped potatoes for her dill potato salad; to country western as she swirled tart BBQ sauce for her husband, Kerwin, to grill sausages and asparagus; to the Hallelujah chorus as Elisabeth presented her peach tatin to an awestruck table.

Elisabeth’s Peach Tatin on the stove   

At the moment Sarah Jane, her husband Steve, and Kerwin and I tasted the airy crunch of pie crust, the brown sugar butter glaze, the warm pulp of whole peaches, I had to say it, shout it really, “Another reason to be left behind!”

Under Elisabeth’s email tutelage, I am taking baby steps in my own kitchen. I have three times made her dill potato salad; and each time it gets tastier, like those foods that always taste better the next day. I take cell phone photos of my fledging attempts like a culinary primer: Cooking 101.

“You’re doing great!” Elisabeth writes back. “Now, try something a little more challenging.”

I go to her website and squint warily at her recipe for Ginger Chocolate Tart. I sigh. Beyond me. Then I remember my own mother, who was also incompetent in the kitchen until she married. As a newlywed, her first batch of chocolate chip cookies went like this:

Combine all ingredients into one mound of dough.
Place giant slab of dough on cookie sheet.
Watch through the oven window and wait for the dough to divide itself into proper cookies.

Needless to say, my mother taught herself to cook and became a master of Southern cuisine. Between mother’s cooking gifts and my father’s gardens and wild game, I grew up strong and healthy, if a little below average in the cooking department.

My vague attempts at cooking may never be a Reason To Be Left Behind. One clue is that I still use my oven to store my cat food and kibbles. But the point is, I want to stay here, to learn, to have the time to apprentice to others’ gifts, to belong to a world where those people I admire, like Sarah Jane and her daughter, can still teach me how to be more human. To be long -- here.

Please feel free to blog back here about Reasons you want to be Left Behind.  Include photos, links, songs, whatever gives you rapture -- right here on Earth.

Here is the beautiful bread in the shape of a Seal Pup we got from Bakery Nouveau to celebrate our Seal Sitters auction.


  1. What a beautiful blog. I can't wait to read the book!
    Peace - Jen

  2. again, thank you. You are such a generous spirit!