I had a small group of friends over on a summer night—not my writer friends, but one of them was a book editor I used to work with a long time ago. Her office was down the hall from mine, and our paths didn’t cross much since she worked with children’s books, and I, adult. I could hear her negotiating, her laugh. She was always fired-up, discovering new authors and developing new series. The cream cheese bagels sitting on her desk in the mornings were the best I ever saw. And, she was fun. Once, Isaac Asimov snuck up on me and said, “Amy sent me.”
No longer working for the same publisher, I was glad to see her because here was someone I could talk to about what was going on with my writing. I was seeking therapy.
“Oh my God! This dressing! Poppy seeds in here? Strawberries? And, pecans?” she asked.
“Well, I toast the nuts first,” I said. “With honey.”
Our house, originally built for a Civil War general around 1870, sits on a Mill Pond behind the Tide Mill Yacht basin, a marina from which a narrow channel curls out into the Long Island Sound. Historically, the Mill was used to grind grain for the dealers on Fulton Street in New York. Records show the Hoisington family bought our house in 1911 when it was called “The Moorings.” Mary Hoisington was a poet, translator, and a leader in the woman’s suffrage movement here in Rye. She often wrote poems about this place, and I found one titled, “Kirby Mill.” She left the writing karma here, and I felt it shift that summer night on the porch with my friends, when the surface of the still, dark water in front of us didn’t look much different than the Pinot Noir in our glasses.
Before my friends arrived for our get together, I peeled off the charred skin on the red peppers I grilled earlier in the day, with my laptop on the picnic table available for writing every time I pulled the grill cover down. I layered the roasted peppers with basil leaves on an old Limoges platter. I stuffed jumbo shrimp with crabmeat and made salads—one with brown rice (now good for vegans) and coleslaw sliced from red and green cabbages with the dressing that Amy demanded the recipe for. I had never used a dressing from a bottle, a cake from a mix, breadcrumbs from a box, croutons from a bag, sauce from a packet, or corn oil.
I cooked daily and as organic as possible. My mother was the same, and if you knew her, you knew that cooking became something other than cooking. You cooked, ultimately, because you cared. You had to be fast because there were other things to do in a day. And, you prepared for at least six more. She cooked while running a business with my father, to name only one job she had. I supposed that is how all this got started.
I slipped out from under Mom’s power with fruit tarts. I remember my first: a peach and raspberry kuchen that I made while staring at a photo from a patisserie on the Rue de Bac. Then I got into Mexican. After that, I built sandwiches like towers gushing with homemade spreads between floors. At Christmas I baked breads in coffee cans and stayed up nights making at least thirty different species of cookies like it proved something about my integrity. At the time, there was no such thing as the Food Network, just vague recipes on scraps of paper curled up on our kitchen counters like the Dead Sea Scrolls.
“Where do you get your ideas?” Mom asked me repeatedly.
But no one, not to this day, can duplicate her cinnamon bread, her cheesecake folded with six not-too-stiff egg whites. Or, her pizza.
Homemade pizza comes with its own set of issues and I was discussing these with Amy that night on my porch, after we talked about the collection of stories I was working on—to theme or not to theme. Each pizza turned out differently than I had expected. I didn’t have an 800-degree wood-fired oven in my kitchen. But, I could knead until I got the elasticity I wanted, and this success only came from experience. No mixers, no thermometers, only a finger test for the lukewarm water to activate the yeast. Then the rise and resting of the dough. I found that making it in advance, putting it in the fridge, then letting it sit on the counter to warm made the best crust. In my memory I can still see Mom’s bowl of dough sitting on top of the old furnace machine with the dishtowel thrown on top, perfectly risen.
I explained to my friends on the rare occasion I talked food that my husband liked Margarita pizza, one brother was strictly a sausage guy, the other, meatball, preferably from grass fed beef or better yet, bison. I raised my kids to be open-minded and my son liked clams and garlic on top. My friends began to plan a pizza party right in front of me, veggie, but I knew Amy’s rare silence meant the unexpected was coming:
“Maureen, you can’t write and make pizza,” she said.
It wasn’t the first time I felt the imbalance of all this. I was embarrassed. Why was I doing this on such a scale? To me, the scale was ordinary; to others, a bit much. I remember at one of our parties, a guest asked me who my caterer was. Another time, our friend returned a bakery cake to his car after he saw my pastry.
I cooked my way through childhood in a house full of boys and never stopped through every phase of my life. Aside from writing, it is the only consistency I can see. Cooking was a project finished. And, it was the only way I could please everyone. I was dating my soon-to-be husband for several months before I cooked for him, as if this act proved the unthinkable: I was fully committed.
Now, as I write the draft of my novel, and watch my character performing the slow and methodical task of reducing stock, I see that I can’t write if I don’t make pizza. What running is to Haruki Murakami, walking through London to Virginia Woolf, ironing to Tillie Olsen or kayaking to Roger Rosenblatt, kneading dough is to me.
I wasn’t surprised to learn that when Sylvia Plath was drafting the poem, “Lady Lazarus,” she was making lemon pudding cake.
The kitchen enhances the meditative state. Menial jobs allow the brain to leave the act and work out its story. Chopping, stirring and mixing allows time for a plot to thicken, for structure to finally bend the right way, a character to surprise it’s creator, a myth to unravel. It allows the subconscious to work it all out and present its findings to the writer when he or she gets back to the desk.
Not to say that I can be trusted in the kitchen. My husband came home the other day and saw numerous quick breads on the counter. “Avoiding the page?” he asked.
But how does a writer combine the domestic—along with parenting, the paying and non-paying jobs—with a focus that slams the door on everything else? Reading Sylvia Plath’s journals I believe she used cooking as a means to take brief trips from her mind—a place, I think we can all agree, was pretty dark. I believe Plath was well aware of this escape and the dangers that came with it: “I was getting worried about becoming too stodgily practical. Instead of studying Locke, for instance, or writing – I go make an apple pie, or study The Joy of Cooking, reading it like a rare novel.”
Every day I remind myself that this is what I am here for. That if I don’t put my time in, I will have nothing to show. I’m not sure if it was Thomas Merton who said this, but it stuck with me: There is nothing supernatural about it—the monk puts his feet into his shoes and walks to the chapel. And, that is how I feel about writing.
I think Amy was suggesting balance. (Or, no balance at all. Mary Hoisington had a cook!) Being too sensitive about this business, Amy’s comment has festered in me all these years. I’m learning that I have to just write through the worry du jour. That putting time in the chair is a practical matter in an impractical profession. Without this one simple rule, I will never get to the end of my story, and I thank my old editor friend for this reminder.