Tag Archives: Julie Powell

Julie & “Damian” & “D” & Julia

In the past several weeks, I have encouraged not one but TWO friends to start blogs…and these friends eventually created Making Miami Mine and The Tombudsman. Both have clear objectives and I’m really excited for them.

I, meanwhile, feel like I’ve totally run out of things to say. I hardly bake any more…and even when I *did* make cupcakes for a recent fake-gambling birthday, I used a MIX and the most intriguing topic I thought of was the dearth of appropriate sprinkles in my home. (I have red hearts and pink dots for Valentine’s Day and green dots for St. Patrick’s Day…but, after March 17, I’m can’t sprinkle anything again until the following February. And this is the most interesting thing I’ve had to say since April 19.)

So…I think it’s safe to say I’ve been in a bit of a writing rut. (Sounds like some sort of verbal exercise, doesn’t it? Like, say it five times fast? “WritingRutWritingRutWritingRutWritingRutWritingRut.”?)

So…I had this professor at Columbia I’ll call D. And D is a busy guy…but I am stubborn and I have hounded him for weeks (if not months?).

(Little sidenote: I have this wonderful high school buddy who has listened to me during many a panic attack and who has talked me down from many a ledge…and who even offered to be my date to my cousin’s wedding when there wasn’t a straight boy in sight…and I called him the other day because I love him and wanted to talk to him because there had been a little dramz, but he was super-busy and said, “Can I call you back?” and I said, “Sure…” and he said, “You’re not having a Lisa Moment, are you?” See how well he knows me?? [He also introduced me to this.])

So I guess we could say I had a Lisa Moment the other day. But, I mean, c’mon — my life was not supposed to turn out like this. I was not supposed to be staring 30 in the face and fake-gambling to support myself. And, sure, I wrote a book…but no one wants to publish it (spun another way: I haven’t found the right publisher yet…!) and my entire life plan at this point is that I’m going to get a book deal and it’s going to be huge and then I’ll pay off J-school and buy an apartment and winter in Turks and Caicos or whatever. But is this really a sound plan? I think the smart money is on no…but, I mean, I can totally make my peace with the Lean Times if I get to go on Oprah someday and laugh about the odd jobs I’ve sustained to support myself (…or Ellen, I suppose, if this doesn’t happen before 2011…)…but what if that never happens?? And that’s where I get myself into trouble…

So…once I snapped out of it and remembered Mama Slocum’s “one day at a time”-advice, I sent several emails…and one of them was to D…and, as luck would have it, the 2010 Columbians were graduating last Tuesday and he did not have plans afterward. So…after six hours of baccarat, I schlepped waaay up north…and he made me actually go *into* the J-school building (I had joked that I might be so embarrassed by my failed career that I’d have to hide in the bushes…)…and I don’t know if it was actually strange per se — just felt like a million years ago. And it was (only?) two.

So…D and I went to a local pub and ordered some grub (got that, bub?) and he settled in to make me feel better about my faltering career and to regale me with stories of what it’s like at the top. And I guess that’s really what I needed — someone to boost my ego a little bit and remind me what a really horrible publishing environment it is right now and that maybe it’s not me — it’s them! — and that many, many writers are plagued by self-doubt…so I’m hardly unique…and that it’s important to “take it to the mat” (read: never give up!).

And D gave me some really good things to think about in terms of what to do next with my 110,000 words. (I got a little burned out and had to set it aside for awhile…) And in doing so, he asked for the elevator pitch…and, among other things, I told him to think of it as David Sedaris meets Julie & Julia meets The Devil Wears Prada meets Bridget Jones meets I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti. And then we started talking about Julie & Julia…(I tried to get The Tombudsman to watch Julie & Julia — which I actually think is maybe not as girlie as everyone assumes…especially considering the scene in which Julia pulls a cannelloni shell or something out of boiling water and exclaims, “This is hotter than a stiff cock!” — but he adamantly refused, saying it was a gateway drug to Lifetime. Oy.)

And…I’ve totally already written about this before, but the Cliff’s Notes version is that in hindsight I’m not totally surprised everyone seems annoyed by the Julie half of Julie & Julia…but I still find her story heartening — it gives me hope that I can be a nobody in Brooklyn…but as long as I find a project that I am passionate about and embrace it completely, amazing things can happen. But…I *will* admit that I thought she was a little whiny in Cleaving. I do sort of admire her for not writing the same book again — I think it would have been really tempting to write Julie & Julia II with the second volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking — but…after awhile, it got hard to listen to her go on and on about how she couldn’t imagine life without her husband because they had known each other for so long that they were the same person but that she really, really, really was hankering for this guy she called, “D,” for most of the book (what a magical coincidence, huh?) and who she later IDed as Damian and who she happened to be schtupping and who she really, really wanted to schtup again and again…and her husband who was basically herself *knew* this and he was having his *own* affair and, oh, things were awful and messy…but no one was willing to *actually* do anything. So, in reading it, it’s hard not to think, “Change is hard! But, come on! It’s been 200 pages! Make a decision one way or the other and go with it!”

So…I was sort of telling Professor D all of this, he said, “You know, I know that guy she was having the affair with. He was in a really bad spot in his life then — he was sleeping with everyone.”

And that’s when it hit me that D is kind of a big deal. And I forget because, you know, he’s this brilliant hippie I can have veggie burgers with at a bar on the Upper West Side…but he’s *also* writing his eighth book and making a movie out of one of the predecessors…and he won a Pulitzer. So I shouldn’t be surprised — of *course* he knows the guy with whom Julie Powell was having an affair. (And my awe of D grew…)

And as if *that* wasn’t enough, I mentioned that no one really seems to like the Julie Powell half of the movie and D — who was also a Neiman Fellow, once upon a time — told me that he used to see Julia Child at the grocery store in Cambridge all the time. She was just there, doing her shopping…at the same time *he* was shopping.

And then, like, my proverbial eyes got huge and I couldn’t have thought of him more as a superstar. That’s right, folks — it wasn’t the Pulitzer, it wasn’t the upcoming film adaptation with the $6 million budget…it was running into Julia Child at a grocery store in Cambridge, Mass.

But THEN he added, “But I didn’t sleep with her.”

And that’s when he took it a little too far…

D was a Neiman Fellow in 1988. Paul Child died in 1994.

And the fact that Julia did not marry Paul until she was 34 is one of the things I cling to (I also used to cling to Sandra Bullock and Jesse James…but obvs do not do *that* anymore) as proof that maybe it’s not the worst thing in the world to be my age and still playing the proverbial field. And that perhaps if I am patient, the Love of my Life will fall from the sky and we will be deliriously happy for 48 years.

And so…if D had had some torrid affair with Julia Child in the late 80s, *that* would all fly out the window…and I would be left with my single-girl life…and nothing but fake-gambling (and an unpublished manuscript…and a cat that flushes the toilet when he is mad at me…) to comfort me. And that just can’t happen. So…I guess it’s too early to joke about stuff like that? Maybe after Mr. Wonderfulpants falls from the sky? Then I’ll be ready? Although…I *am* excited that D is my six degrees of separation from both Julia Child and Julie Powell…and I am relieved he did not sleep with either of them. But…if I had to choose (and Julia Child wasn’t already dead and/or 40 years his senior), I would *definitely* pair him up with Julie Powell.

(Remember that If They Mated feature on Late Night with Conan O’Brien? This may be an example of *me* taking it too far, but I actually wanted to maybe illustrate this post with an image of D’s face combined with Meryl Streep as Julia Child…but, alas, I cannot find an If They Mated generator…)

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Deconstructing the Zillion-Dollar Investment That Still Hasn’t Yielded Any Damn Returns…

Recently, while I was en route to meet up with some old coworkers circa 34th and 8th, I ran into a classmate from junior high who I haven’t seen since — oh, I don’t know — 1994? And as soon as we established we were who we thought we were, she said, “Lisa! This is so weird! I was just thinking about writing you because I’m thinking about applying to journalism school…”

Sooo…long story short, I sent her the longest email ever. Which — slightly doctored — seemed like an okay blog post, too.

Et, voila.

Here it goes: The jury is still out on whether I think Columbia was worthwhile. It was certainly a good experience at the time and I met really wonderful people and made really wonderful contacts…and it’s super-quick and definitely gives you some street cred and/or a name to drop at cocktail parties…and — keep in mind that I graduated at quite possibly the single worst time ever…and *that* has definitely played into my experiences post-Columbia. But, then again, after Martha let me slip through her fingers, I was networking like a fiend, trying to drum up freelance contacts and/or a full-time job…and I met a guy who had graduated from Columbia a few years before me…and he said you have to look at it like an investment and, understandably, you can’t expect an ROI immediately. Which makes sense. But it’s not always comforting.

If I could do it again, I’d definitely do the new media program — or whatever they’re calling it now. Prior to grad school, I was a financial journalist…but only because I majored in English and wanted a writing job…and there are TONS of financial writing jobs here. (In fact, a LOT of my classmates ended up at Reuters and Bloomberg and Dow Jones…even though they’re not necessarily interested in writing about finance at all — but they need paychecks and health insurance…and this week I got not one but TWO panicked emails from friends in that situation…and had to send them peppy responses about how it’s all going to work out for us someday and that these are just the lean times…and, I mean, I hope I’m right…but I know how they feel — I, too, have my panicky moments and sort of depend on them for the same advice when *I* freak out…)

So, anyway, I went to Columbia because four years went by really fast and all of a sudden, I had backed myself into this niche and even though I told myself I wasn’t going to make a career out of venture capital or mutual funds — and I really feel that I am woefully inadequate to cover these topics as I am HORRIBLE with money — by ’06, it was all anyone trusted me to cover (…if they actually trusted me at all. Which is a whole other can o’ worms…). I really had no clips about anything else. And…a lot of people I worked with at Dow Jones had gone to Columbia, so I finally decided it was worth my while to go, too, so I could prove that I had basic reporting skills and that I *could* write about other things and I wanted to make the leap from financial reporting to Martha. (I really like baking…) And more than one person I worked with at Dow Jones didn’t actually want to be there…which didn’t seem that bad for poor Master’s-Degree-less Lisa…but I sort of looked at the Columbia grads who ended up there with pity, thinking that things would be different for me if *I* went through the program…

So…I hustled. I really did. And — I don’t know about you, but…when I graduated from college, I just sort of expected someone to give me a good job because I worked really hard in college. And, you know, if I had studied business or engineering or something, maybe that would have been the case. But, other than maybe teaching, there just isn’t a really clearly defined career path for English majors. And so I really struggled to find my way. And eventually I did…but I was determined not to let the same post-graduation slump hit after Columbia.

And, like I said — it worked…for awhile. I interned at Good Housekeeping while I was a student and I got a gig with Martha after graduation. But…then she let me go…which, in hindsight, maybe wasn’t the worst thing ever as I wasn’t enormously happy there…and, between the two gigs, I learned magazine journalism isn’t really what I want to do anyway. Which sort of ushered in another existential crisis — like, “I thought I knew what I wanted to do! And now here I am practically 30 and I was totally wrong!” And, I mean, I’m working on a book now and freelancing and whatnot…so it’s not exactly tragic…but…like I said, if I could go back in time, I’d do the new media program. I tried to sort of couch things while I was there and take the new media elective…but I got the fill-in teacher on Saturday…and the class was AWFUL and we learned NOTHING. The guy knew his stuff…he was just really bad at explaining it…and, to make up for it, he just had us create WordPress blogs…and said we could do as much or as little with them as we wanted. So…none of us really learned any valuable Web skills. So. That’s point #1.

#2: I haven’t been astonishingly impressed with Career Services — either as a student or a grad. In my first meeting, the lady looked at my resume and said, “Oh, great! You have financial reporting experience! It will be easy for you to get a job after graduation…” and I said, “Well, that’s the thing — I don’t want to write about finance anymore. That’s the whole reason I’m here…” and she said, “Oh…” and I think she knew someone at Food & Wine…but that went nowhere. And, I mean, it could very well be because I had these weird, stringent demands at the time — Food! I want to write about food! — and, really, a lot of my classmates have gone on to successful careers at the Miami Herald and CBS and the Huffington Post…but…I found the gig at Good Housekeeping on my own. I found the gig at Martha on my own. Take from that what you will…

The Career Services department sends out emails about jobs from time to time…but I haven’t found those to be enormously helpful either. We got one once about an entry-level position at the New York Times Syndicate. And it said it was very clerical but that it was a great position for someone who eventually wanted to go on to editing and that two grads from ’07 had taken similar positions and were quickly promoted to editors. I sent in my letter and got called in for an interview…and the first words out of the editor’s mouth were, “Did anyone tell you how crappy this job is?” and I tried to be upbeat and mentioned what Career Services had said about the two grads from ’07 getting promoted and she said, “That was a fluke. I had to fire one guy and another joined the Army…your ascent would be profoundly slower.” And then she told me that the job entailed an hour and a half a day of sorting mail…and cleaning the managing editor’s office. So. I didn’t get the job…but wasn’t really upset about it…and then about a month later, Career Services sent out another email about this SAME position saying the SAME things about how it was great for a future editor and that two grads from ’07 quickly scaled the editorial ladder…so I sent a reply to some of my classmates and said, “Don’t be fooled! This is the mail-sorting, office-cleaning gig!” and one of them jokingly responded, “How do we know you’re not just saying that to keep this job for yourself?”

So. I don’t have to tell you that it’s tough out there…but…I really feel like I’ve been on my own as far as finding jobs are concerned. But, then again, a friend got a gig at a Spanish language newspaper thanks to Career Services and she just loves the guy who works there. And…in Career Services’ defense, they *do* tell you how much easier it is to find jobs if you leave New York. So that may be part of my problem, too.

And…I’m a Libra — the scales. So I’m notoriously bad with decision-making and can often see both sides of an issue. Case in point: Sometimes I feel like maybe I would have been better off just quitting my job and hustling to become a freelancer. Because…in the end, that’s what happened…and I wouldn’t be up to my eyeballs in debt for the rest of my life. But…on the other hand, I really, REALLY hated writing about venture capital and mutual funds…and…I fill in for this marketing publication every now and again…which really just means I write about brands that have promotions on Facebook or Twitter…and I just wrote about beer…and, as I was writing it, I had an epiphany that I really was much happier writing about beer than I ever was writing about, say, XBRL or 22c-2. And I realized that I would probably be profoundly unhappy if I had stayed in financial reporting and I would totally regret not taking a chance and seeing what happened. And…I suppose there’s still hope for my career. Who knows what the future will bring…but, at the same time, I haven’t dreamed of writing about Facebook campaigns ever since I was a little girl…so…it’s not like what I’m doing now is truly fulfilling. It definitely sucks less than what I was doing before…but, then again, I didn’t go to Columbia to get a job that sucks less.

But…then again (again), I wouldn’t have worked at Good Housekeeping or Martha (or written for HuffPo) without Columbia.

And I think your experience there is really strongly influenced by your RW1 instructor/class. I got really lucky — I had Dale Maharidge and he was/is wonderful and has been a great resource post-graduation. (I also took a literary journalism class with Christopher Lehmann-Haupt…and he is totally amazing and I love him…and he’s been really helpful with this book I’m trying to get published…) And…I was really lucky because my RW1 class got along really well…and we’re all still (pretty) good friends now. But…I heard horror stories about some RW1 classes…and so I can imagine if you don’t like your instructor, it would really profoundly influence your experience…and you’re only there for ten months! But…there’s not much you can do about that — it’s just sort of the luck of the draw.

And, I mean, really — the experience is what you make of it. There were people who really worked hard to get a lot out of it and endear themselves to the community and who were super-involved…and there were others that, well, didn’t. But…even some of the ones who did everything “right” while they were there still ended up scrambling after graduation…

I assume you’re looking at starting in the fall of 2011? So…you’d be graduating into a totally different environment than the one I found…and I really don’t know much at all about CUNY’s program. I sort of put all my eggs in one basket…as I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to stay in New York and I figured that if I didn’t get in to Columbia, it would be a sign that I was supposed to move on to a different city.

So, in short — if you go, I’d highly recommend the new media program (even though the first thing Sree Sreenivasan said to me was, “You have a weather girl name.”) and remember that it’s REALLY REALLY REALLY hard to be in journalism now…and you may end up having to take a job that you don’t want after graduation in order to make ends meet…which may be totally obvious…but…I thought I had such a leg up on all those kiddos who came to Columbia right after graduating from college — I felt like I had a much better idea of what it was I wanted from the program and, noble as their aspirations might have been, I couldn’t help thinking whenever they spoke of becoming the next Susan Orlean or John McPhee that they were perhaps being a bit idealistic…and that’s not to say that it won’t ever happen…it’s just highly unlikely right after graduation. And yet I still ended up getting a HUGE reality check after graduation, too.

And it’s a TON of money. And, nearly two years out, I’m still not quite sure if it was money well spent. Although, then again, if I get a book deal and become the next Julie Powell, I will totally be singing a different tune. That’s the other thing — you have to remember what it is that you really want and even if you *do* get stuck writing about the price of corn (as one of my classmates does), I think you have to have the chutzpah to keep working on projects on the side — which is also not easy to do when you have a job you hate and come home and just want to watch Mad Men and eat Cadbury mini eggs — or you’ll get really super-depressed.

But, then again, even though I have to write about social media campaigns and dispense financial advice to savvy urban 20-something ladies and I fake-gamble three mornings a week to make ends meet, I’m not writing about mutual funds anymore…and I *did* break out of the financial niche…which may have been impossible otherwise.

I know this is WAY MORE than you wanted to hear…but…the “Was going to Columbia a good idea?”-question has been in the back of my mind for about 18 months now…and I feel like most of my classmates are on the fence about it, too. For whatever that’s worth.

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This City Will Eat You Alive…

I was watching the Woody Allen flick, “Whatever Works,” last night…and sort of laughed to myself in the beginning when Larry David’s Boris Yellnikoff tells the ingenue transplant Melodie St. Ann Celestine that she should go back to Mississippi because she’ll never make it in New York.

Evan Rachel Wood and I have very little in common, but when *I* first moved here, my roommate’s parents told him that this city was going to “eat (*me*) alive,” too. So…I guess I felt a little pride when I realized that they made that comment almost — wait for it — seven years ago…and I’m still standing. I’ve heard you have to live in New York for ten years before you’re officially a New Yorker…so, I mean, I’m practically one of the gang by now. And I won’t beat a dead horse with my existential crises as of late…but, in the grand scheme of things, I’ve supported myself…I’ve hustled…and while everything’s really uncertain right NOW, there’s movement and I’m certainly not stuck in a rut. (Hey — look! — the glass *is* half full!) And it’s a nice feeling when anyone underestimates you and you prove them wrong…

…which got me thinking — I still need a book title. And perhaps some riff on “This City Will Eat You Alive,” is my answer. I sort of wish my name started with a “B” and I could do some sort of alliterative eponymous something-or-rather with Baking…(which is not to say I don’t love the name Lisa Lacy…because — believe me — I love the name Lisa Lacy…)…but…it just seems like it must have been sooo easy for Julie Powell! Why couldn’t I know someone or like to do something that starts with “L”??

There are so many themes in my book — career/quest for fulfillment, relationships/man-crap, baking/therapy… — that it seems nearly impossible to sum it all up with some sort of pithy phrase.

I tried to brainstorm with a friend this weekend…and really came up with a whole lot of nothing. A few favorites: “I Ate, I Drank, I Messed Around,” and “Brooklyn, Baking and Love-Making” (even though neither one of us can stand the phrase “make love.” It seems vaguely creepy to me…and like an unnecessary distinction…and I don’t think I could take anyone serious who used it colloquially. Although…come to think of it, I don’t have any friends that do. Guess we’re a crass bunch.).

But…”This City Will Eat You Alive” — while not perfect in and of itself — contains two major themes: the urban landscape and food(-ish)…which might work with a few minor tweaks. And then I started thinking about my “evolution” over the last seven years…which obviously brings to mind Darwin…but I think it would be a little much to call my first book, “On the Origin of Lisa Lacy.”

And that in and of itself is sort of stream of consciousness…which is not unlike my style…but there’s little you can do with “Stream of Consciousness,” and, as much as I heart Modernism, I can’t very well draw any direct comparisons to Virginia Woolf…in good, ahem, conscience.

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My Final Julie/Julia Reference of 2009…

There are times I feel all alone in this world and there are times I feel really loved. Christmas this year was one of the latter.

And…it wasn’t actually just being with family in any sort of traditional sense (with the drinking of eggnog by the fire and/or staring deep into each others’ eyes near the fir). In fact — and this doesn’t mean in any way that I haven’t had the time of my life baking sugar cookies and wrapping presents and learning that “niece” also means “illegitimate daughter of an ecclesiastic,” and signing a card for my cousin by calling him “Uncley Dick,” and making plans for the Dead Squirrel Museum in Madison (you get my point?) – but…it was also very much because of people I didn’t actually spend Christmas with at all. And you can’t blame me completely for feeling gooey now because I watched “Julie & Julia” last night (one of my gifts!) and that movie always warms my heart and makes me happy.

But…my sister got a copy of Julie & Julia SIGNED for me. As in, Julie Powell actually *wrote* *out* *my* *full* *name* — first and last! — and told me to keep writing. I can’t believe it. It’s one of the – if not the – best gifts I’ve ever gotten. Her story just means so much to me – as I’ve written countless times before, so I won’t beat a dead horse, but…it just reminds me that each of us has the power to change our lives in positive ways…and while it may be hard to figure out how to do that exactly (and it may in fact be quite discouraging!)…the point is that we all can.

And, you know, the movie *also* reminds me that it would be nice to have a sweet man by my side in the vein of an Eric or a Paul…who would hold my hand during my meltdowns — and we all know there are plenty to choose from… — but, after reading Cleaving, I guess I also have to acknowledge that relationships are tough and, like my mother says, if everyone threw their problems into a room, we’d all run back in and grab our own. So maybe I’m better off on my own two feet for now. (I am, after all, trying to be more zen and trust the universe…) In the grand scheme of things, I’m doing fine. And, as noted above, there were plenty of reminders this Christmas that I’m not actually alone in this world at all.

And I’m realizing this reflects just how clingy and needy I am if I require constant confirmations that people in my life do, in fact, care about me…which can’t help but remind me of an ill-advised and overly long (no, wait – “overly long,” doesn’t even begin to describe it — it was verbose to the point of insanity…[but, then again, when I have ever *not* written long? Which is exactly what I told myself as I clicked, “send…”]) email I sent not too long ago to a friend with whom I have always had a weird relationship. I wanted to pry some proof out of him…but he ignored it. And, in hindsight, I guess I can see that it was a scary message…but…I sent it with the best intentions and all I really wanted to hear was that he cared about me, too…and it’s the kind of message I would have been thrilled to receive from pretty much anyone. But…what a punch in the gut to pretend like I had never even sent it…and I think this means he and I aren’t really friends anymore. Which is kind of sad…but also kind of not…because he’s sucked a lot out of me…and I never really got much in return. Which, you know, begs the question of what one wants from a relationship with another human being…and shouldn’t it be enough to just exude love and not expect anything back? Which is actually something I’ve told myself repeatedly before…but now I’m sort of realizing that if you do that you become the Sad Sally who exudes love for people who don’t really care about you…and that’s not ideal either. So I guess I’m learning sometimes you have to stop exuding and save affection for the people who really want to stick around. And, heck, I guess if I’m going to cut out dead weight, this is the time of year to do it…with new beginnings in the new year and whatnot. One less proverbial mouth to feed, I guess…

And this may also be a good time to talk resolutions as I’m not sure I’ll really have a chance to blog again in 2009 (…aww…). And, really, I mean, instead of listing eating healthy and exercising regularly and becoming fluent in Spanish and all those things I know I (probably) won’t actually do, I think I’m going to point to those post-Bartender resolutions and continue to concentrate on the things that helped me end 2009 on a positive note: Be happy with me. Get an agent. Travel. Be patient.

My last Julie & Julia reference of 2009: I made chocolate cream pie for Christmas. And, admittedly, I did not measure the Oreos (I just used a whole package)…which I’m not sure was such a good idea as it yielded a *pretty* thick crust. And it wasn’t like a complete unit. It was like pudding whacked on crushed Oreos. But! Then again…Julia said to never apologize. So. There we are. (Plus, the kids loved it. [I think.])

My aunt contributed a mystery pecan pie and a sugar plum cake…both of which I have heard my mother rave about but have never actually tried myself. The mystery pecan pie has a cream cheese layer and a pecan layer and a pecan-pie-ish layer that magically shift during baking. And, well, no one makes a crust like my aunt, so it was really, really beautiful. And…I wouldn’t say I’m a *huge* spiced cake fan, BUT…the sugar plum cake was really, really good – there’s a butter sauce you pour over it (and I guess *that* is actually my final Julie/Julia reference of 2009) that totally makes it. Good stuff all around. (When faced with three desserts, I cannot choose just one. A little bit of all of them. Which may mean I really *should* concentrate on some of those other resolutions that would make for a Less Fat 2010, but…for now, I’m going to let visions of that cake dance in my head…and we’ll see how long that sustains me.)

All the best for 2010!

Your faithful blogging pal,

LL

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No Candy Thermometer? No Problem!

I went to high school with a girl named Yoshi Nishibara and today is her birthday. I don’t know why mumble-mumble-mumble years after we graduated, I can still remember this. But I can. (The first boy I ever kissed celebrated *his* 32nd birthday eight days ago. I don’t know why I remember that either.)

Yesterday, however, was my friend’s husband’s birthday. And…since last year at this time, I was all about vegan baking, I’m afraid my friend’s husband (and my friend…whose birthday happens to be at the end of November) got stuck with more than their fair share of my vegan experiments. And…since I’ve had tres leches on the brain, I decided there was really no better way to celebrate my friend’s husband’s birthday than with a cake that is decidedly non-vegan — three milks *and* a whole mess o’ egg whites.

The recipe I found on Epicurious said that tres leches is a Nicaraguan cake often served during the holidays…which I suppose makes it even *more* poetic as I sorta, kinda spent upwards of five minutes *in* Nicaragua while I was in Central America a few weeks back.

I don’t think my cake pan was *quite* big enough…as the sponge cake sort of exploded over the edge, giving itself a muffin top. But…no worries, I guess…you’re supposed to cut off the hardened top layer anyway. (And, for the record, it smelled really, really good…like, almost worth eating on its own?)

I think my favorite part of making this cake was the meringue. I’ve blogged before about how meringues are my nemesis…(damn you, you ridiculously clean bowl!) but this recipe called for making it in a totally new way…and I confess I was transfixed! You get four egg whites ready in a mixer…and they sit around and wait while you bring sugar and water to a boil on the stove. As soon as the sugar/water mixture is boiling, you start up your mixer.

Now, the directions say to keep the sugar/water on the burner until it reaches “soft ball stage” on a candy thermometer…and then add it to the egg whites and turn the mixer on really high until it is shiny and cool. But, alas, I do not *have* a candy thermometer…just a meat thermometer. And, you know, sometimes my ingenious solutions work out really well…and sometimes they are absolute disasters. Luckily, this time it was the former. (I told an old coworker about this and he said, “Sure…I mean, candy? Meat? What’s the difference?”) I Googled “soft ball stage” and learned that it’s 235°F to 240°F. And my meat thermometer goes up to 220 (although the highest cooking temperature it has listed is 180 for poultry…). So…I decided that I would wait until it hit 220 and then leave it on the burner for another minute or two…and then surely it would be at 235ish. And…I gotta say I was a little skeptical about the adding-it-to-mixing-egg-whites part…but, it totally worked. Like a charm. A beautiful meringue. (I don’t think it looked *quite* as pretty ON the cake…and I briefly flirted with the idea of tossing it back in the oven to brown those peaks…but…then I decided I should maybe leave well enough alone…)

(Sidenote: Candy thermometers really make me feel like it’s the holidays. That’s because [I am told] my great-grandmother was a whiz at pie-baking and candy-making…and it was from her that my aunt learned everything she knows about pies [I think — I *may* be taking a little creative license here…] and my mom learned everything she knows about candy. And so, in the Decembers of my youth, my mother would make fudge and penuche to hand out to friends and coworkers…making this the one time of year she used her candy thermometer…)

So…fun fact: The milks in question are sweetened condensed, evaporated and heavy cream. You mix all of that up with two tablespoons of optional rum (and, who are we kidding? I *obviously* included the rum…but had to buy a GIANT bottle of it…and so will theoretically have a little Captain in me for years to come…). Then you just sort of slowly pour it all over the sponge cake with the sawed-off top and it soaks it up. I was a little concerned that I was over-liquefying it because my cake wasn’t big enough…but I didn’t actually end up sampling it in the end…so…dunno.

I made the cranberry compote, too…which I thought was supposed to be more like a sauce…but, according to another quick Google, is whole fruit in syrup. (Although I think it is crazy-ridiculous that the recipe says to add four cloves…and then to remove said cloves before serving. It’s a big fruity glob — one could spend hours searching for individual cloves. And, for whatever reason, I totally just flashed on a movie with Pee Wee Herman and the circus — Big Top Pee Wee? — in which there’s a really tall guy with a super-tiny wife…and she sings a song about being a needle in a haystack…which I can only imagine is sort of like finding cloves in cranberry compote…[why do I remember that all this time later, too?])

I *also* thought it was kind of funny that the recipe said to add just enough water to make the cornstarch “slurry.” I think I added a *little* too much and in fact made it “wet.” (Cornstarch is some crazy stuff…going from liquid to solid to liquid…it’s almost a little trippy.)

Then…my friend gave me a copy of the latest issue of Yoga Journal that has a story entitled, “The Joy of Baking,” and includes — get this — a recipe for a vegan chocolate cake. (Aww…while I was assembling the tres leches cake, I also found my disembodied Santa and snowman heads that are supposed to go on holiday cupcakes…and I briefly thought about repurposing one for a happy December birthday…but, in the end, I decided that the disembodied heads will be fine in their baggie for another year…)

So…the writer talks about growing up in a remote town and receiving cakes from church ladies who would go out of their way to deliver them to cheer someone up or to celebrate something. THEN she goes on to say that through this practice she “learned early on the joys of nourishing the heart through food.” And she quotes a yoga guy from Berkeley who says, “It’s not unlike the kind of nourishment that comes from romantic love. Food prepared with loving intention is spiritual.”

And I’d never thought of that before! (Insert the obvious joke about how I’ve been able to stay single for so long…) But, I mean…I think she’s right. There *is* something sort of deep and meaningful and connecting-you-to-the-Everyman and whatnot that happens when you bake stuff for people. It makes them happy. And making them happy makes you happy. And that makes you feel good…regardless of how often you actually flex your overtly spiritual muscles. (And surely being a spreader of joy buys you some leeway in the eyes of organized religion?)

And, I mean, I’ve long known the therapeutic effects of baking — still one of the only things that always calms me down when I’m upset — and…as I put the finishing touches on my book proposal, I am realizing that baking-as-coping-mechanism is a really big theme. No matter what’s going on, I’ve always been able to turn to it…and it *always* makes me feel better. (I am actually trying to think of a good title with a new spin on a common baking phrase. Suggestions welcome.)

And I *totally* know what she means about interacting with strangers on the street when she’s hauling around giant baked good carriers…and then the warm, fuzzy part: After baking cakes as offerings for a year, she says she learned “…when we offer up our labor, time, energy, love and craft — humble and imperfect as they might be — with no expectation of return, people respond in kind, and tenderness opens up in the space between.” (Which almost makes me think I should tackle a similar experiment in 2010…)

And, while I don’t really get the yoga connection that she goes on to talk about (I am seriously uncoordinated and exercising in public is one of the things I fear more than anything)…I really like what she says right there. It actually reminds me a lot about Julia Child in My Life in France…who says you should never apologize for any mistakes…because 1) you were nice enough to make something for everyone and they should be gracious, dammit (my paraphrase); and 2) if you’re making them eat something gross, they shouldn’t have to boost your ego, too.

And that’s something that I’m still learning how to do…whenever I offer up something, I immediately want to apologize for all the imperfections — watch out for wax paper on the bottom…and be careful of those cloves I didn’t remove…and it may be too watery…and the meringue looks a little funny… — it’s not easy to just say, “Bon appetit,” and leave it at that.

(And, speaking of Julia, my own sister just MET Julia Powell at a book signing…and she was sweet and asked ahead of time if I had any questions…and I, of course, sent over about 1,000…and, wouldn’t you know? My sister got them all answered for me. [And — hey — I suppose I could even go to the Meat Hook tonight myself…if I am feeling particularly brave.])

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Julie and Meat/Infidelity

I had hoped to actually post this before Cleaving’s December 1 publication date as I have friends in high places (…sorta…) and got an early copy of Julie Powell’s second book…and wanted to rub it in your collective faces a little bit. (But in the nicest way possible.)

But, alas, it is now December 5, and for all you know, I could have spent the last four days feverishly reading it and composing dark lies.

But *that*, I suppose, is sort of beside the point.

I had *heard* Cleaving got bad reviews…and I understand why. I hadn’t actually read any of the critics until I sat down to write *this.* But as I was reading the book, I definitely thought, “People are not going to like this…”

And because of the kinship I felt with Julie in Julie and Julia (and that I still felt — albeit to a lesser degree — in Cleaving), I’m going to go out on a limb and play a little devil’s advocate here. Which is not to say I liked the entire book. I initially thought it was hard to get into — the text really just goes back and forth between Knives/Meat and Marriage Falling Apart/Affair over and over again. Neither topic is really pleasant to encounter…(especially for those of us who saw Chris Messina valiantly play the role of Eric in this summer’s movie…)

But first I’ll tackle the meat: I’m hardly a vegetarian (those vegan blog posts last year were really just a buddy at HuffPo hooking an unemployed girl up…), but, put lightly, some of those butchering passages were really hard to read. (It was sort of like when I was watching something on TV with my parents about bison that mysteriously died in a national park..and it turned out that they were already sick…and because of the cold weather, they got trapped in some sort of gassy something-or-rather out on the plains…so, it was unfortunate, but they would have died anyway. And the national parks guys proved this by cracking open one of the bones and showing this really gooey bone marrow…and my mother and I saw it and immediately exclaimed, “EWW!” and my dad just said, “What? It’s bone marrow.”) So…Point #1: I may eat steak, but that doesn’t make it easy to read about how a cow *becomes* steak. Which maybe means I *should* be a vegetarian…but that’s a topic for another post.

Point #2: After such phenomenal success with her first book, I sort of have to give Powell props for not following a similar pattern and writing the same thing again, but with Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume Two. I would imagine the temptation would totally be there with something that has already been established as a successful model…*especially* when that model has been turned into a Nora Ephron movie and you KNOW that plenty of people will buy the second book on name recognition alone.

I think London’s Sunday Times put it best, actually, in this review that asked how Powell could possibly top herself after Julie and Julia…and then answers itself: “The answer is, of course, that she couldn’t. But she has had a jolly good stab at it — literally.”

I like that — “a jolly good stab.” We should all be so lucky…

But…it *is* gross. And disconcerting. And, as noted, I basically agreed with everyone who didn’t like it…until D — the man with whom she is having the torrid affair that threatens her marriage — disappears. That was the moment Julie became a sympathetic character to me…and I started to identify with her more and more…and even recognized some of my own behavioral patterns in the things she does for him…even though she knows she’ll never hear from him. This may officially make me a crazy person, but…1. Who among you didn’t think that anyway? And…2. I totally understand that compulsion…and that desire to maintain a connection with someone no longer in your life. Small case in point: There is perhaps no one (aside from myself) who loved my cat more than the Bartender. And so, for example, when I finally got the cat fixed and the vet told me that he was the most well-endowed feline she had ever neutered, I *knew* the Bartender would appreciate the story…perhaps more than anyone else. And so I emailed him about it…even though I knew he wouldn’t respond. I guess part of me is stubborn enough and/or hopeful enough that somewhere out there, he read my message and it made him happy and he remembered that we had good times together. (But when I read Christine Muhlke’s review in the NYT, I felt really bad about myself. I can’t help but feel she’s calling me pathetic, too: “Powell’s not kidding about the ‘obsession’ part: she pathetically texts and e-mails into the ether for almost a year, then fleshes her longing into a book that doesn’t spare the reader a single full-frontal flashback.” [For the record though, I spared y’all plenty of full-frontal flashbacks. So count your blessings.])

However, when I told my friend J that I sort of got Julie’s sadness about D, she said, “But you don’t have a husband!!” which is a fair point. And, Julie, as much as I’d like to defend you (you’re the one, after all, who gave me hope that it *is* possible to be at a point in life in which you feel absolutely nothing is going right, but you can still suck it up and make positive changes and turn everything around…), I gotta say that it *is* hard to have real, total, complete sympathy for you knowing that you have Eric at home. And, sure, he goes out and has his own affair, too…but…I found myself asking, “Why not just get a divorce?” repeatedly. And, sure, he’s been a part of your life for a super-long time and you know each other so well that you’re basically the same person and you always know what the other one is thinking…which is why you can’t hide the affair from him in the first place, but also why you can’t bear to part with him, and…well…I don’t know. It just sort of gets to a point where it seems like a tough decision needs to be made…but nobody is willing to make it and it kinda feels like you guys are making your own beds. Either get divorced or don’t, but, for the love of god, stop complaining about the uncertainty. (Which, ultimately, she does.) (And all of this, “But I love/know him more than I love/know myself…”-business sort of makes me think of the fourth book in the Twilight series and that half-vampire baby that resulted from Bella and Edward’s union. UGH. But, again, another post for another day.)

Point #3 is that when you write something like this, you have to be honest. (Or at least that’s what Dale Maharidge taught me…) And, sure, some of Cleaving is a little saucy and/or, you know, what kids these days (or kids from days of yore) might call TMI…but, at the same time, I also think it’s kind of brave. She wrote about a topic that clearly does not paint her in a positive light…but she doesn’t gloss over any of it. She sort of offers herself up — flaws and all. And that takes guts. And to touch on Point #2 again briefly, all the saucy stuff takes her further out of her Julie and Julia Comfort Zone…and I gotta give her props for being brave enough to do that, too. (But, then again, I don’t know how much of it was actually flexing writing muscles and how much of it was, “See?? I can write naughty words! And lots of ’em!”)

I also think confidence plays a big role in all of this…and it is where, again, I feel a certain kinship with Ms. Powell. I was just at a little J-school classmate reunion-y thing, in fact, when I was talking about making slow progress on my book and one of my classmates grabbed me by the arms and shook me a little and said, “You’re so talented! Do you know that? You have to know that and acknowledge it and understand that someday you’re going to do great things!” and it was sort of like, “Yes! Sure. Okay!”

I like the way the NYT put the confidence issue best: Muhlke writes that D’s enduring power over Julie exists, in part, because his presence in her life “instills the confidence that being played by Amy Adams in the movie apparently did not.” And…I don’t know. But I get that, too. And, heck, I can only assume money is no object for her now and I don’t really see anything wrong with looking around and saying, “Hey! I have a lot of freedom!” and then trying butchering on for size and going to Argentina, Ukraine and Tanzania…in order to clear her head or spark something within her or simply to delay the inevitable. Obviously she’s still a person trying to figure out who she is and what makes her tick…and I’m not sure we should all be so quick to judge. She has an amazing opportunity sans financial pressures to actually figure out all that stuff on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs…that a lot of people never get to do. I have no idea what I’d do with myself if I didn’t have to worry about paying rent or bills or anything (aside from blogging for all of you, natch). While visiting my parents for Thanksgiving, I went to a thrift shop with my mother and found a giant silver clock that was lined with velvet and contained a hologram of the Last Supper and some fake flowers. And it was just the most amazing clock ever…but there was a slight imperfection in the velvet lining…so I bought some additional fake flowers and glued them on the inside and then I decided I might as well touch up the silver paint while I was at it, too…and I pretty much had the time of my life. So…perhaps I would fix up old clocks. But would I really be fulfilled by that forever and ever? I have no idea. (See? Creating a fulfilling life for oneself is a toughie.)

Bottom line: I think there’s a lot of be said about pursuing your passion no matter what. And I hate to get up on a feminist soapbox, but…I don’t think it’s totally unreasonable to point out that women face this tinge of selfishness when they want to do something purely for themselves that men never do. A man can pursue whatever career/passions he wants and he can still be a model family man. But a woman who puts her career and/or other passions at the forefront at the expense of family and/or children isn’t such a sympathetic figure. And that’s not really fair. (I am tempted to ask the “What if Julie was a man?”-question and bring up powerful men and *their* affairs and follow *that* thread for awhile…but I think Access Hollywood quite thoroughly beat me to that punch last week.)

And, I mean, I totally understand Julie’s excitement in having her own apartment. (Did Virginia Woolf not write that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”?) I’m really not good at sharing spaces. In fact, I think my own apartment may be the ONE thing I’ve done right in my life to date. So…yet another thing that makes me get Julie. If only Eric didn’t exist at all, she might be one of my favorite people ever…(or perhaps I should say, “The idea of her…” I just Googled and found an interivew on YumSugar and realized that she *is*, in fact, a real person and thought, “Yikes! What if she reads this?” Which she won’t…but, still…)

My final plus: It’s hard to travel on your own. Heck, I have trouble eating or going to movies by myself. (That’s one of the good things about working from home — I can go see movies in the middle of the day in the middle of the week and absolutely no one is in the theater…) So — even though I agree with the reviewers that her post-apprenticeship jaunts around the world *do* seem to have been tacked on without a firm idea about how they contribute to the book as a whole — I also think it’s really great she was brave enough to fly all over the world on her own.

The NYT felt otherwise — “She travels to Argentina, Ukraine and Tanzania, a 100-page exercise in self-indulgent writing, in which she dwells on how attractive the locals find her and how much Malbec, Cognac or goat’s blood she can drink…” — but, I mean, c’mon. What is memoir (or foodoir) if not an exercise in self-indulgence?

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