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I don’t pretend to be a food writer though I have tweeted more than 12,000 times and most have involved either putting food or my foot in my mouth or putting words together halfway wittily which is different from half-witted. Then there’s my children’s writing that I haven’t done in a while–all those damned tweets and the business of Real Richmond Food Tours has something to do with that. One of two filing cabinets in my desk is jammed with children’s picture book manuscripts and poetry and food comes into play more than I’d realized. I’m a bit of a food poet, so for April here’s a snippet from Want a Cookie?:

I started gnawing zwiebacks/back when these were almost new./Gluey, tasteless sawdust;/what’s the point of teeth?/ Then I spied my mother/with something on her face./A smile, a smudge,/a glimmer, a gulp./Want a cookie.

One bite/one taste/one swallow/one nice big cup of milk,/one lick of my lips/and I knew what to do–/try, taste, chomp!/From a package or a pan/I don’t need to waste a plate;/crumbs in teeth, on shirt, in hair./Where’s my cookie?

And on it goes…. So autobiographical, I know.

Now that I’ve established my gravitas, it makes perfect sense to say that I’m one of the gang of three that’s putting on the Mid-Atlantic Food Writers Symposium in Richmond this June. We’ve assembled a remarkable collection of talented writers, editors, chefs, agents and food stylists that includes Kat Kinsman of Eatocracy, Todd Kliman of The Washingtonian, Lisa Fain of The Homesick Texan, Josh Ozersky of Esquire, Monica Bhide, Matt Gross of Bon Appetit, Ramin Ganeshram, Bonnie Benwick of the Washington Post, Kendra Bailey Morris, John Shields, Denise Vivaldo, Judy Pray of Artisan and Michael Psaltis of CEA. How many James Beard Foundation winners/finalists do you count?

Fresh-picked this June!

Fresh-picked this June!

That’s a line-up that ought to get lips smacking, hearts racing and fingers flying on the keyboards for food bloggers, recipe-collectors, cookbook-lovers and those who dream of cooking up a book or a blog. Hope to see you in Richmond June 20th-22nd!

 

Woke up the other morning fuzzy and a little confused about where I was since I’d been out of town a couple of nights before. But clearly through the haze two words came to me: church chocolate. In that order. Related. Unexpected yet it all made sense. Not chocolate church–that’s a different dream. I love alliteration even when I’m asleep. To my mind, especially at 6 a.m., church chocolate combines religion with all that is holy. If only pain au chocolate were the bread that gets broken at church, I might make an appearance now and again.

A chocolate for my thoughts?

16 apostles here

Of course, Jesus didn’t say, “I am the chocolate of life,” but perhaps he’s regretting his turn of phrase. With so many people avoiding wheat and going gluten free, bread is getting stale.

I’ve long had a theory that the whole Last Supper thing was a game of telephone gone awry. Jesus is at the table and says, “The bread tastes fresh.” And around and around the table his comment gets repeated, until it comes out, “the bread made flesh” and transubstantiation had to fill in the blanks. I think my version is every bit as believable.

For about 10 years I’ve kept a list of what books I read each year. It would be handier if I actually remembered to write down every book I did in fact read, but it’s a better source than me answering the question, “What have you been reading lately?”

I’ve bolded my favorites. 2012 looked like this:

Blue Nights  (I know it’s wrong to say, but ugh.)

Behind Enemy Lines  ( a children’s book we’ve had + insomnia)

Church Hill Train Tunnel

Richmond’s Unhealed History (highly recommend)

Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors (this and the next 2 for a JRW panel I moderated–enjoyed the first two)

Good Humor Man

Mom in the Making

Devil’s Highway ( quite a shift from the Christian romance I had to read for the panel)

Richmond Receipts      (this and the next one were crucial for Dinner & Dames info)

The Virginia Housewife  

Street Gang (about Sesame Street)

Lewis Ginter

Home    (Witold Rybczynski)

Power of Habit           (Didn’t change my life, alas)

Come August, Come Freedom ( Written by a friend. Immensely powerful and beautiful.)

The Girl Who Silenced the Wind (Written by another friend. Searing and sage.)

Home (Toni Morrison)

Some snooze of a marketing book from Constant Contact

Making Babies           (enjoyed it more than I’d expected)

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (wrote about it here.)

Wild

Blink     (Yes, I’m slow!)

Black Potatoes  (post-Ireland trip. Hard to complain about bowel prep reading this.)

McCarthy’s Bar (re-read it post-Ireland. Didn’t think as much of it this time.)

Thread Across the Ocean (Bought in Ireland–a family connection to the story.)

Have Mother, Will Travel (hated–didn’t finish)

Team of Rivals (slow start, but never wanted it to end)

At Home (Bill Bryson)

The Heart and the Fist (From a friend whose son is a SEAL )

A Jane Austen Education (better to read her books again)

Official Book Club Selection (couldn’t resist  when I saw it in a sister’s closet)

Stuart Little (soothing to re-read ahead of surgery)

Holidays on Ice (David Sedaris– a tad too mean for the holidays if you ask me)

Three Dog Life (need to read more of Abigail Thomas)

No Ordinary Time (more DKG to love. Think we never got to WW II in school.)

The Reader (can’t imagine anyone going to  the movie unless to see naked Kate W.)

Forgot these 2:

Thee, Hannah (an oldie that my mother loved as a child)

Treat Your Own Back (I’ll recommend it in a few months if my back gets better.)

So that was what I remember to write down, and as I was typing this I remembered another. Here’s hoping 2013 is full of good books to sit down with. God knows there are plenty of good ones sitting around this house.

I recently re-read Stuart Little, having forgotten most of it. When Stuart becomes a substitute teacher for a couple hours–the only way to do that job–he asks his class, “‘How many of you know what’s important?'”

One student had the answer–or almost all of it: “‘A shaft of sunlight at the end of a dark afternoon, a note in music, and the way the back of a baby’s neck smells if its mother keeps it tidy,’ answered Henry.

‘Correct,’ said Stuart. ‘Those are the important things. You forgot one thing, though. Mary Bendix, what did Henry Rackmeyer forget?’

‘He forgot ice cream with chocolate sauce on it,’ said Mary quickly.

‘Exactly,’ said Stuart. ‘Ice cream is important.'”

It takes a genius like E.B. White to say just so what the rest of us were not quite thinking.

Why are tiny things so appealing? Miniaturized things? In the case of dollhouses, it can only be that one doesn’t have to clean the toilets. In the case of this display from Brookside Gardens in Montgomery County, MD, where I grew up (and pretty much the best thing in Montgomery County), it must be that there are no weeds that need pulling or no deer chomping on the azaleas.

Tiny is about control. If my garden consisted of a potted plant, I might be able to deal with it. Perhaps that is why writing picture books and poems for children appeal to me more than longer forms.

Image

It’s common enough to say there are no words upon hearing of someone’s death. It’s understandable–touching even. But it can’t be said about Maurice Sendak’s passing. There are words, so many and so wonderful. And there are pictures and because of his collaboration with Carole King on Really Rosie! there is music. So thankful for all of it.  Good ole Max. I stole this poster from Where the Wild Things Are from my younger sister, Kate thirty-some years ago so I could take it to college and be cool. You see the problem and it wasn’t theft. See the drip of yellow paint and the evidence of its folds. It was something she’d ordered at school from a book club, and since she hadn’t put it up anywhere, I took it with me.   I knew my first college roommate and I weren’t suited for long when she told me she didn’t like the poster because it gave her nightmares.

Over the years in many apartments and houses it’s had a place of honor in living, dining, and family rooms, hallways, even a bathroom once in Worcester and most recently over a piano. With some recent remodeling it wound up leaning in my office. I found the right place for it today, just outside my bedroom. I could recite Where the Wild Things Are and The Nutshell Library from heart. I even used to read Where the Wild Things Are backwards for some reason. It still works. There are no words on this poster. But the words and memories it conjures up are indelible. And my smile is irrepressible.

I gave a 5 minute talk last night at Midlothian Middle School to middle schoolers, their parents, teachers, and other book-loving folks, sharing the stage with much better known and accomplished writers Sheila P. Moses, Sue Corbett, Brooks Smith, Connie Lapallo, and Gigi Amateau. It was a most pleasant way to spend an evening, full of stories and inspiration. Look these other folks up and buy their books at your local bookstere. You won’t be disappointed.

I focused on the part of writing where I’m not stuck with the seat of my pants in a chair. Made me think I need to take my own advice! Here’s more or less what I said. Those Midlo folks are chomping at the bit to come into Richmond and take advantage of what it has to offer. That’s exciting to me.

Not me ziplining across the river (which would be cool, but isn't possible yet!), but a WIld in the City guest ziplining across Belle Isle Quarry. I had the pleasure of that trip another time.

I’m doing a couple of things this week that might rattle some nerves—public speaking and rappelling down a 25 storey building downtown as part of Over the Edge, a Special Olympics extreme fundraiser.  I’m doing both of those heart-pounding things this week because I’m a writer. And I feel very lucky to be doing both.

Chester Filbert in Nothing Ever Happens on My Block—one of my all-time favorite picture books– has a perpetual sneer on his face. I’ve been known to have that look, but there’s a big difference between me and Chester Filbert—he doesn’t see what’s all around him—he can’t get outside of his head—of his preconceived notions of how dull his life and his neighborhood is.

Chester says longingly, “Some places have marching bands or haunted houses, courageous hunters hunting, ferocious lions and tigers, pirates and buried treasure…” on and on..  He’s so busy wishing for what he doesn’t have that he misses what is going on right in front of his face.  Disgusted with his lot in life,  he finishes  with “But nothing ever happens on my block., and snarls, “When I grow up, I’m going to move.”

It’s easy to think our lives are dull and boring and for some stretches they are, but here’s the thing. Something is happening on everyone’s block—you have to be out there and be open to seeing it.  To be an effective writer, I need to spend some time stuck inside my head for sure—contemplating, questioning, revising, but I NEED to get outside my head and my house even more—meet people, ride horses, ask questions, rappel, go rafting, try new things, look at art, eat at cool restaurants, explore what’s around. All that feeds my writing and my life.

When I wrote Insiders’ Guide to Richmond, I was well aware that many people say nothing ever happens in Richmond a la Chester Filbert. It’s not D.C. or New York or Chicago.  It’s stuck in the past, dull and boring. Who would ever want to visit? There’s nothing to do! I’ve heard it all. And I don’t believe it!

So I drew on my experiences living here 19 years, being an outdoorsy, involved, art and history-loving, quirky and curious type and wrote an upbeat book that makes it easier to find the good stuff in our city and region.

WIth apologies to Ellen Raskin:

Some places have a free and fantastic Folk Festival along the river, –did you go?! Class IV and V whitewater you can raft through downtown, one of the 50 most beautiful buildings in the country, awesome mountain biking and multi-use trails. Some places have torchlit walks on a Slave Trail, and herons roosting along the Pipeline, a Final 4 basketball team, artsy and involved universities, a Native American village to visit, bald eagles soaring above  the James, one of the best art museums in the country that’s open every day and free!!! And will be full of MUMMIES next month, a creepy crypt under a historic church, sites related to revolutionaries you’ve heard of:  Patrick Henry and GW and  Thomas Jefferson, and sites related to ones you might not have: Gabriel, Maggie Walker, John Mitchell, John Jasper. Some places have a one night internationally-curated light exhibit INLIGHT this Friday night at Tredegar!!!!  NASCAR, recreational tree-climbing, even Mid-lothian Mines Park where 9 year olds once worked down in the shafts doing the dirty work  And that place is Richmond. (And I could go on. For another 300 pages, but I won’t! I didn’t even mention that war you might have heard about….)

Chester Filbert said “When I grow up, I’m going to move.” Once again poor Chester has it all wrong!.  Don’t wait till you grow up to move. Move NOW!  Don’t worry–I don’t want you to move away from home or away from Richmond! I mean MOVE! Don’t stay in one place! Don’t say there’s nothing to do or sit staring at computer or television screens. Get out on your block in your neighborhood, in the city and the region and be active and involved, observe and experience. Think outside the block! Be a part of the world—not apart from it.  Be a part of Richmond–not apart from it.  And if you’re in Shockoe Slip Thursday around 3:45, look up at the SunTrust building and wave!  That’s where I’ll be hanging out.

Hope to see you around town!

After signing a bunch of books and talking to the people at the event, I know I will see them around town. Cool!

I’ve put in my order for the exact kind of snow day tomorrow that generates more warm, fuzzy feelings than bitter cold misery. The sort of a snow day that makes people stay home from work and do jigsaw puzzles and make fudge and go for a walk and chat with neighbors all friendly-like.

cousins in a perfectly pleasant sort of snow

I have specifically requested not to have an icy day. Ezra Jack Keats called his book The Snowy Day for a reason. Everyone has heat and can take warm baths and be all cozy inside after playing outside. That is how it should be. If we get the icy, freezing rain sort of storm, then everyone, inside and out, will be grumpy because the power will go out and movies won’t get cozied up to and brownies won’t get baked. Hmm. As long as I have enough light to read by and can melt the unsweetened chocolate over a fire, I could deal with a bowl of brownie batter, after all. It’s important to keep one’s options open.

When I was in Maryland at my mother’s house, helping her get it ready to go on the market (anyone want a 40 year old, 7 bedroom barn on 1.6 acres?), we came upon stacks of carbon copies of letters my father wrote, filed by year by his reliable and remarkable secretary, Phyllis. Looking at the thousands of letters, it’s hard to figure how he actually made any money at work  because these letters are 98% personal and not the least bit relevant to insurance and bonding. (Also hard to understand how Phyllis hasn’t written a tell-all book about all of us spoiled children, knowing what she knows about us.) I couldn’t help but think that it’s too bad the guy never had a blog or made it onto Twitter. He could have been a contender.

Incentive to write my children real letters--not just emails and texts

We happened to flip through the 1979-81 folders, which for me were especially rich since that was when I went off to college and then Ireland for a semester.

Dear Maureen,

I don’t know why, but you got a check from SC which I herewith enclose to you. I hope this letter finds you in good health and a state of mental tranquility. I hope, while you are in Ireland, you learn how to write in big, clear letters instead of trying to scrunch one million words into one piece of tissue paper. We love you and we miss you.

Love,

my crazy Dad

Besides the family letters, which are such short and sweet (and even when they’re not sweet, incredibly accurate) slices of life, he sent letters to newspaper publishers, colleges his children were wait-listed at, writers he disagreed with, and local and national TV stations. I learned all sorts of good stuff, including that he wrote the college I attended when another sister didn’t get accepted there to tell them that though the sister who had already graduated from there and I (still a student there) were talented, that this one they had wait-listed was the most talented of his children. Well said! We always knew she was the favorite… How did he know she’d be the only one to graduate summa cum laude? The pride is as touching now as it was fierce  then.

 But my favorite letter is one he sent to the Washington D.C. CBS affiliate in regards to the local weatherman in 1979:

Dear Sir;

I don’t mind so much that G B is wrong from time to time, but his pompous attitude irks the living hell out of me. He doesn’t act like he is reporting the weather, he acts like he makes it. A little more humility would go a long way towards making B a real person rather than the pompous pain in the ass he appears to be.

Sincerely,

My funny Dad

It’s fun to let him have his say again. I hope I listened then; it feels so good to hear him now.

Is it that obvious that I got a stupid smartphone 10 days ago and can’t make it do what it ought half the time including make the camera take a photo within oh, say, three minutes of when I press the damn touchscreen thingie and not take photos repeatedly five minutes after I’ve put the camera away?  I thought so. 

I’ve also recently  ripped up the carpet in our office in the midst of three deadlines, ransacking  the joint more than usual. My organizational skills are officially outmatched. Luckily, the wood floor that had been hidden by the carpet looks great underneath all the crap we had to move to rip out the carpet.  I’d show you if I could figure out how to make my phone talk to my computer. Good thing I have a vacation coming up so I can catch up on my user manual reading.

Ok, so I am capable of emailing myself a photo, and here is proof:

A Log Petrifies in Chesterfield

 One of my current projects is writing a piece for Richmond Magazine about Chesterfield History, so as you can see, I did some digging around and found some.  Somebody else can write the book.

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