Tuesday, October 02, 2012

The Lost Arts of Hearth and Home, and Some Thoughts on Writing

It's out! Today is the official publication day of my second book, The Lost Arts of Hearth and Home. You can find it at the usual places, like your local bookseller or Amazon or Powell's. Now that I have two books out, it must not be a fluke. So I think I'll indulge myself and talk a little bit about what it feels like to write books.

Books are an odd, slow medium, not at all like essays or saying clever things at parties. There's a big gap between the audience and me. And things are rather messy on this side of the gap.

For starters, I'm a physically awkward writer--I pull on my mouth, walk to the kitchen for a sip of water, grimace at people outside my window, lean on my desk, prop up the other foot. I start to sweat as the creative adrenaline builds. I frown and squint, and say nonsense things to the cats. If people are around I become conscious of all these mannerisms and distract myself. This is why I'm no good at saying clever things at parties.

I work at a stand-up desk (a butcher block counter in the living room), which helps enormously. I suppose in my case it should be called a fidgeting desk, because standing still is not what I'm doing. When I'm tired of being upright, I do sit, but cross-legged or half-squatting on a bench. Sitting still makes me cold and tired, and I can't sit properly in a chair with my feet on the floor anyway, since all the blood runs out of my brain and into my feet. Low blood pressure.

I'm a slow writer, too. Mostly I edit. All the fidgeting helps me become sort of disembodied, helps me reach that abstract state where ideas get wrangled into words. Walking is perfect for this, and so is the opposite sensory deprivation of lying awake at night (as pregnant people do, before they discover that a chopped liver sandwich is the cure for insomnia). But in general, the effort and concentration of writing and editing are so exhausting that I often dread the work, and can't keep it up for more than a few hours at a time.

For months, as I work on the book, "the book" means awkward, ugly, sweaty solitude, and a general sense that I'm letting everyone down. Then it goes to the publisher, and they lay it out and design it and I feel slightly embarrassed about all the effort they're going to. Finally, after I've started to forget what I even wrote, "the book" pops into existence as a real book with covers and pages, and strangers read it and say things about it. If by chance they don't say, "What an awkward, ugly, sweaty book," I am rather surprised.

Today, the book is indeed out, and people are saying stuff about it. I read the very first stranger's comments on it yesterday, when I found out that Publishers Weekly called it "an utterly charming collection of recipes and how-tos for the 21st-century hipster homemaker," and then compared us to "postmodern Elizabeth Davids." That made me so happy! The gap between the audience and me must be flatteringly large.

You could almost think from this self-absorbed meta-writing that I'm making plays or novels. No. All this sweating and whatnot is just for straightforward instructional nonfiction, where for the most part I don't even have to second-guess the plot! I already know how the chutney is going to end. That's the other part of my job, and yes, I do know how lucky that makes me. I know how lucky the whole thing is, and what a gift it is to do the thing that makes me fidget most.

(Of course I feel obliged to add that I'm not a very good hipster, in case anyone wondered how I ought to be typecast. Also, I made no fewer than fifteen trips to the kitchen for water during the course of writing this.)

Monday, October 01, 2012

Grape Jam

A couple of hours from our home in West Virginia we had some friends with a vineyard. We used to drive over there--four mountain ranges between us--to make grape juice with them every year. Imagine a wine crush party, but with calico aprons and no booze. Anyway, our friends didn't grow wine grapes, or even standard table grapes, but the splendid dusty blue Concords and their kin.

And these Concords, derived from the wild grapes of North America, are the source of the canonical grape flavor. It's the flavor of the jelly in the classic PB&J, the flavor of purple grape juice, the flavor half-heartedly attempted in purple candies and sodas--and yet, we hardly ever sit down and eat Concord grapes. Concord types are too pungent, seedy, and tannic. They're inconvenient. (My preferred way to eat them is to squeeze the grape out of its skin and into my mouth, spit out the seeds, eat the sweet center, then suck the sweetness out of the skin and swallow it whole before it gets too bitter.) These are not the grapes to feed empresses reclining on divans. You won't find them imported from Argentina in April. 

After we permanently moved down from West Virginia, across those four mountain ranges, I worked on our friends' farm for years. Picking grapes was by far the nicest work on the farm. Picture two teenage girls with ass-length braids, clipping grapes from lush arbors at twilight, singing stupid songs about drunken sailors. The bleached-out glare of summer was gone, leaving the sky vivid blue again, and there were new people to fall in love with at school.

The seasons are subtler here in San Francisco, and the summer-fall transition is particularly unrecognizable. So what a delight when a friend stopped by and left me some Concord-type grapes! I dug up this recipe for grape jam from my grandmother's taped-together copy of The Mennonite Community Cookbook. This sort of continuity is crucial when reenacting lost seasons. I did, however, ruthlessly cut the sugar, as I do for all old jam recipes. It's still very, very sweet.

Grape jam is far less common than grape jelly. Since grapes are so seedy, you have to strain them anyway, so lots of people just make jelly while they're at it. The difference is that grape jam gets pressed through a strainer or food mill, making it cloudy and dark, whereas jelly is allowed to slowly filter through a jelly bag, making it lovely and clear. But when you mash the pulp, you get a very robust flavor and a much better yield, plus I imagine those cloudy particles have some small nutritional value.

Grape Jam

Adapted from The Mennonite Community Cookbook.

Wash 4 pounds of Concord-type grapes and pick them from the stems. You should have about 2.5 quarts.

Put the grapes in a large, heavy-bottomed pot, add half a cup of water, cover, and bring to a simmer. Let the grapes cook until they're quite soft; something like 20-30 minutes.

Mash the grapes through a food mill. You should now have about six cups of grape pulp. Return the pulp to the pot and add three cups of sugar. Bring to a boil, uncovered, over medium-high heat and cook down until thick enough that the jam runs from the spoon in one stream, rather than individual drips. This could take 20-35 minutes, depending on the dimensions of your pot and the power of the burner.

Pour into hot sterilized jars and cover. You can keep the jam refrigerated for a long while, or properly can it (5 minutes in a boiling water bath) so it's shelf-stable.

Makes 4-5 cups of jam.