Monday, January 16, 2012


Finding friends in my new city would be a lot easier if my boys were with me...and if they  were still one and five. But they’re not--in either case. They are clear across the country living their young men’s lives and doing a great job at it. Having small children (and becoming involved with all their activities) gives one a great entree into making new friends. But alas, no more “mommy and me” classes where we can laugh and dance and sing with other children and their moms, and bond over watered-down juice and crackers. No more “moving on” classes where some of the moms and I can sneak off for thirty minutes and get acquainted over a cup of tea or a latte. I am on my own, and while the realization of that for some may be exciting, the thought of actually going out and trying to find new friends seems daunting to me.
I guess I could join the Sierra Club, but I don’t hike. I could hook up (excuse the pun) with a knitting group, but I still have about a thousand dollars worth of beautiful half-finished sweaters and blankets sitting in a plastic storage box from the last time I attempted that. I was about to throw in the towel and allow things to just  “evolve” when the concierge in my building asked me if I was interested in joining a book group. 
books-clip-art-3.gifAnd so it was that I began to join ten other people on the first Tuesday of each month, for the last four months. We are a disparate group--men, women, young and old-er--a few doctors, a lawyer, some techies, a physicist (don’t forget we’re in Cambridge), a metallurgy analyst, and me. I don’t think any of us would have gotten together ordinarily had it not been for this group. Our one commonality was that we all lived in the same building, and now we are all reading the same book each month. 
The conversation always revolves around the chosen book, but invariably we go off on tangents and touch upon movies, TV, problems in or with the building, and always food. We talk about it, and we eat it. We started out just drinking, and then we added (well, I added) sweets. Lately people have been bringing savories--cubes of cheese, boxes of crackers, olives, cornichons. It’s become a veritable food fest, and in the few short months we’ve all been together, we’ve become comfortable enough to dip into whatever box or container is nearby and pass it on until the next container or small plate is passed down. We are not organized enough to plan who will bring what; that would put us dangerously close to being labeled a “friends” group, and we’re not. It’s vaguely understood that this is an ad hoc group--a group with one purpose, discussing books. We have our other lives outside the meeting room door and this group is just one aspect of that.
The suggestion that we all have brunch at a nearby restaurant prompted a long discussion on the best brunches in the neighborhood. It then went on to lunch and dinner hot spots. The group brunch never came to be. Friends do brunch, and we are just a book group. In some ways the unspoken assumption that we needn’t take this group any farther than we already have lessens the pressure to do so. We can come together, talk about the book, our lives, our feelings and still maintain some sense of anonymity. It’s quite liberating, actually--belonging to a group that doesn’t ask much of you, and doesn’t judge. It is so casual that quite often someone may not even have read the book, but they come regardless--just for the conversation and company. During the last meeting our metallurgy analyst regaled us with stories of her long ago days (she’s well into her 80s) at MIT, and her subsequent 40 years at the Smithsonian. She spoke with such animation about her discovery of some detail in something belonging to the Wright brothers. I can’t tell you that any of us actually understood what she was talking about, but it seemed important to her (and probably to the world of metallurgy), so we sat and listened. Most often the tangents we go off on are not as esoteric--and they never seem to scare anyone away. In all the months we’ve been meeting, attendance has been very close to one hundred percent. As the weather gets colder and much more inclement, it is very comforting to know that once a month I don’t even have to leave the building to find a familiar face and some camaraderie (and some snacks). No, we’re not a friends group, but you could’ve fooled me.
Here’s the list of books we’ve read so far--comments or additional recommendations would be welcomed.
The Ha Ha by Dave King
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
So Much For That by Lionel Shriver
The Super Sad Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


There is a jar of Revlon's Eterna 27 in my medicine cabinet.  Even though it traveled with me from California to Massachusetts I know that I will never use it--or get rid of it. It was my mom’s and the imprints of her fingertips are still visible in the once white, now eggshell-colored cream. This was her signature cream, the only thing she used on her face, and judging from the glowing comments people would make about her skin until the day she died, it did the trick. 

My mom was very concerned with appearances, of all kinds. She was a cosmetician and a manicurist. Her platinum blond hair and well-manicured nails and toes (Naked Pink was her color of choice) were her calling cards. She was one of the only moms I knew who wore platform shoes back in the day, and topping out at five feet, towered over no one even when she wore them. One of my favorites was a pair of matte gold wedges that were sprinkled with bits of  color that looked like confetti. Had it not been long gone, the pair of size five shoes would definitely have rivaled her face cream's status.  

Mom was always worried about her weight. At one time our small apartment was overrun with various belts and rollers and other odd-looking contraptions that came with the promise of changing your looks and your life. How she looked and how her life looked to others was very important to my mom. And if the reality of her life was not to her liking, she would have no problem with inventing the truth. We would often call her out on this, but not that often as it became clear to us that she had a very difficult time discerning fiction from fact. (Yes, she did tell her nurses that she was Miss Hungary of 1939--and they never doubted her for a minute.)

Her beauty and style belied her very less than beautiful past.  She was the eldest daughter of an orthodox rabbi in Kolozsvar, Romania--the capital of Transylvania. When the Nazis invaded and she and the rest of her family were sent to Auschwitz, as she told it, the idyllic days of this very spoiled, overindulged young girl were over.  Nothing about her post-war life could ever compete with her pre-war life, and she often spoke of how wonderful things would have been "if not for the war."  She was not afraid to speak of the war, but she spoke more about the generalities of the horrors she had seen and experienced rather than the specifics.  By the time she and my dad and their infant daughter, my sister, landed in America after the war, only a glimmer of her former self (and life) remained.

She worked hard in her new country to maintain some semblance of normalcy, and as I look back on her life now I realize just how difficult that was. Her only true happiness came through us, her children, and ironically the pressure it put upon us pushed us away. It was her way or no way because in essence we were living our lives for her as well. She could be sharp-tongued,”This is what I had to buy a new outfit for?” she asked as she sweetly kissed me goodbye at my wedding. A wedding, by the way, that was paid for largely by my husband and myself, but had obviously not met her standards. And just as quickly as she stabbed with one turn of a phrase, she could charm the pants off of anyone else with another. 

She was quite the conundrum, and it would be an understatement to say that she was a narssicist. But as often as she talked about herself and her life, I'm sure there was still lots about her that we really didn't know. "Why don't you write a book about me?" she would ask.  The thought of the padding she would apply to her stories made me steer clear of anything remotely similar to what she had in mind. There are times when I wonder whether we should have been more understanding--more empathetic. And then I realize that would have only made us more guilt-ridden, and heaven knows we had filled the glass to capacity in that category. 

It is ironic that my beautiful mother who took such good care of her own skin and the skin of others  would eventually die of skin cancer; malignant melanoma. Through it all she was a trooper, and even her illness couldn't dampen her personality: "Dahling, you could use a little moisturizer on that beautiful skin," I heard her tell one of the nurses who administered her PET scan. Her favorite phrase was, "You're gorgeous!" and she would use it when referencing not just your physical attributes, but anything positive about you. It was never, "You're so smart," or "You're so kind," but just, "You're gorgeous!" The phrase encapsulated everything for her, and it was her way of telling you that you were perfect. My niece Marjorie recently spoke at the baby naming for her daughter Mia (who was named for my mom): "My grandma had so much love to give, and it still amazes me that somebody who had lived through such horror and ugliness could still find the gorgeousness in life." Through the years, myriad feelings sprang to the surface when I thought of my mother, and many of them were fractured. Lately I prefer thinking of her in that wonderful, positive way. 

Hungarians are known for their cooking, and my mom was proof of that. It always amazed me how she never worked from a recipe. She had an innate sense about taste and flavors, and cold throw some random things into a pot and miraculously come up with a delicious dish. Shabbat dinner at our house was pretty simple, though. The menu varied from time to time, but the standards were chicken soup and Shake 'N Bake chicken. Mom would line her sheet pans with foil and we kids would clamor for the crunchy clumps of crumb topping that had invariably fallen off the chicken and adhered themselves to the foil during baking. This recipe from Maury Rubin of City Bakery is reminiscent of my mom's chicken. Rather than drizzling the mustardy vinaigrette as the recipe suggests, I use it as a dipping sauce. It is a tangy counterpoint to the mild pretzel topping. If you're lucky, some of that topping will stick to the baking sheet, ready to be picked at once it comes out of the oven.

( adapted from City Bakery--serves 6)

½ cup canola oil
½ cup whole-grain mustard
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
¼ cup water
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
salt and pepper to taste

½ pound hard pretzels, coarsely crushed in a zip-lock bag
6 large skinless and boneless chicken breast halves

1 head romaine lettuce, washed, dried, and cut into small pieces

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a food processor, pulse the coarsely crushed pretzels until coarsely ground. (You should have some small chunks and some fine crumbs.) Transfer to a large shallow bowl.

In a blender combine oil, both mustards, water, and vinegar, and blend until smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Cut chicken breast halves into strips and set aside. Pour half of the dressing into a large shallow bowl. Add the chicken strips and turn to coat. Dredge the strips in the pretzel crumbs and transfer to a rack set over a rimmed baking sheet. Bake in the upper third of the oven for 20 to 25 minutes, or until cooked through.

Place the cut up lettuce on a platter. Place the chicken pieces over the lettuce and drizzle a bit of the mustard vinaigrette over the lettuce.  

Friday, January 6, 2012


Black fiberglass casts are not the latest rage this winter, but I am wearing one nevertheless. What I'm not wearing is all of the clothing I ordered online--the soft sweaters in muted tones--some long, some short, some cabled down the front, and the black down coat with the tiny herringbone pattern and shawl collar. Alas, my new black accessory, the one I did NOT order online, is too bulky and none of the sleeves will fit over it. So the coat hangs in the closet and the sweaters are all neatly folded away in the bureau. Instead I have resorted to wearing my husband’s old nubby sweaters--the ones that were originally destined for the Good Will pile. These lucky guys have been given a reprieve by the governor, and their lives have been extended. (Perhaps I subconsciously knew not to get rid of them when I pulled them out of the wash and realized they were way too small for him to wear ever again.)
Not being able to wear my clothes is only part of my problem these days.  I am trying to adjust to my (temporary) disability, but it is difficult for me to rely on anyone EVER, and now I am having to depend on my husband for far too many things than I am comfortable with: preparing my food (don’t ask), cutting my food, buttoning my buttons, making my ponytails (who doesn’t know how to make a ponytail??). I know he is doing the best he can, so biting my tongue rather than biting his head off out of frustration has become my goal. I am really working hard not be a total “be-atch” everyday--only some days. 

I’ve always thought of myself as being relatively self-sufficient.  I lived alone for quite a while after college, and I enjoyed the independence. I paid my own bills, cooked my own food, and made my own decisions. Despite having been married for twenty-five years, I still have managed to maintain much of that independence. My husband and I are definitely a team, but we are not bound at the hip. (We even lived on separate coasts last year, but that’s another story.) Our partnership is very elastic and it can tighten and stretch when necessary.

Since I broke my wrist that elasticity has been tightened, and I have an idea that neither one of us is thrilled about it. He has his strengths and I have mine, but now those lines have been blurred. I wouldn’t call myself a control freak, but I do like things to be done a certain way. I will settle for less, and lately (now is the time to bring out the violins),I have been.  

Laundry gets done, but it doesn’t get folded, floors get washed and vacuumed, but the rugs have to wait. Food is purchased, but no one is doing any cooking around here. (And whaddya mean you don't know what size pot to use?) Doth I protest too much? Strange thing is I'm not sure what bothers me the most, the fact that these things are not getting done, or the fact that it doesn’t bother my husband that these things are not getting done. I could hire lots of people who would be more than happy to come in and take charge of the situation (and I still might since I’ve got four more weeks of this torture). But, I can’t get past the underlying issue which is, how bad do things around here have to get before anyone (other than myself) does something about it??
Has anyone out there ever experienced this sort of thing? How does one get others in the family to pitch in without having to write list after list after list? (Why can’t "some people" function without lists--isn't knowing some of these things innate?) I know these are rhetorical questions, but if anyone out there truly does have some answers, please pass them down.
Looking forward to getting some suggestions. Four weeks isn't really that long, right?? In the meantime I’ve got some online shopping to do. (It’s the only thing I can manage really well while using my right hand, and today is my non-bitch day.)

Tuesday, January 3, 2012


I have always been an avid reader and a lover of words...not just printed chains of words as they circuitously wend their way into becoming novels and newspaper articles, but WORDS. Their place in grammar, derivation, pronunciation...all the little bits of pre-info that dictionaries used to provide (wait, they still do that) before you actually got to the meat and potatoes definition. It would be deceitful of me not to disclose the fact that in a previous incarnation I was a Crossword Puzzle Editor, so at one time it was really my job to know all that pre-info stuff--in addition to the definitions, of course. But I honestly do relish taking, just for the heck of it, a word and in a very detective-like way, researching its etymology to find out how it got from there to here. It is very much like a game, that is, a puzzle. (Can you say, "Geek?")
So yes, words were my life. They still are, but in a very different way. We in the word-puzzle biz were a very interesting bunch. The wealth of knowledge we had up in our heads was a conglomeration of vocabulary--foreign and otherwise (yes, we're good at playing that word game), trivia (and that word game), and more minutiae than you can shake a stick at. Unfortunately, the only people who appreciated that kind of eclecticism were the people we worked with! A little cliquey, a little quirky... A LOT quirky, a little brilliant, a little immature. 

Dell Crossword SpecialThis gaiety took place in the Crosswords Department of a major publishing house, and while we most definitely were a money-making part of the company, I know that we were looked upon by the book editors and publicists as being an ancillary part.  ("Freaks and geeks.") At times it would bother me, but for the most part, we had the rest of them beat and they didn’t even know it. Where else could you get a group of young, just out of college, editors laughing hysterically about some crazy word or analyzing a letter we received questioning our integrity because someone found an error pertaining to Iceland or Uzbekistan in a puzzle? (We did take those letters seriously...yes we did!)
When I started, the head of the department was a woman who had been there a long, long time.  When she held court in her office--which she did less and less as her health (and mind) began to fail, the atmosphere was rather Dickensian. A meeting with her--always behind closed doors, was a test of patience and fortitude. You really had to mentally prepare for these meetings where she would ask terse questions, going page by page through the magazine you had just completed editing. There was never any small talk, and very rarely was a kind word spoken. Any fly on the wall would be witness to her murmuring, long lapses of silence, and lots of throat clearing. One of the only good things I remember about that period was that she would come in late, take a long (primarily liquid) lunch, and leave early. I was often told that in her heyday this woman was quite revered, and much of the success and stellar reputation of the department could be attributed to her. Sad as it sounds, things picked up dramatically once she was gone.
The second-in-command was also an old-school type, but she had more of an Auntie Mame flair. She would lumber in (mostly on time), wig and makeup askew. She had a great sense of humor and could often be heard (her office door was always open) on the phone laughing in a Phyllis Diller sort of way (uh hah, hah, hah--uh hah, hah, hah). RM was the antithesis of her predecessor--she loved gossip and chitchatting. And she could easily be distracted. It was during this period that I spent much of my time hiding amongst the aisles of books in the company library, feigning to be working on some research or fact-checking project. What I was actually doing was perusing the hundreds of cookbooks on hand. I would often check some out--I know the librarians were questioning just how many food-related puzzles we were creating upstairs--and then get down to the business of hand copying (no Internet back then, remember) my favorite recipes. To make this project even more labor-intensive, I would then go home and copy these recipes on index cards and save them in a card file box.
Just before I left the company to relocate (yes, I’ve done that before) to the West Coast, and begin my life as a freelancer, the leadership changed hands once again. Now at last we were entering the twentieth century and working in real time.
Each year during the week preceding Christmas, the department had a pot luck luncheon. I remember many wonderful dishes making their way to those luncheons, one in particular was a “Chocolate Zucchini Cake” taken from a Maida Heatter cookbook. Back in the 80s, just before the food world exploded with popularity, none of us had ever thought to create something sweet using zucchini. The cake was moist and chocolaty--more like a brownie than a cake. 
The most memorable, or should I say “forgettable” dish I brought to the fair was something my family called “shlishkes,” or potato dumplings. These gnocchi cousins were a favorite of mine--when my mom made them. Like airy pillows of potato dough rolled in sugared breadcrumbs, hers were a treat. Mine, as Borat would say, “not so much.” The potato starch was on auto pilot with these guys and by the time I got to work, “they” had become “it,” as in one big glutenous mess. I have since learned how to perfect the making of those puppies, but just to play it safe I’ve chosen a different treat with which to honor all the wonderful characters I worked with back then. Black And White Cookies do not only appropriately illustrate my days as a “cruceverbalist” (go look it up!), but they also take me back to my childhood in New York City. The classic cookie that’s more like a little cake...a “cakie” glazed with both a vanilla and a chocolate topping. The yin and yang. You can cut it down the middle and eat the chocolate half first (just as I used to do), or cut it from side to side to get a taste of both icings together. (Sorry no baking today, so this photo is from Zabar's. My unbroken right hand still cannot get the hang of what my broken left hand can do.)
Zabar's Mini Black and White Cookies (Kosher) - 11oz
(makes about 15 large cookies—22 medium-sized cookies)
1 ¾ cups sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
4 eggs
1 cup milk
½ tsp. vanilla extract
¼ tsp. lemon extract
1 tsp. grated lemon zest
2 ½ cups cake flour
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
4 cups confectioners’ sugar
1/3 cup boiling water
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
Make cookies: In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter. Add sugar and lemon peel and beat until light and fluffy.  Add eggs, one at a time, and mix until smooth. Add milk and lemon and vanilla extracts.
Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl and stir until mixed. Add the dry ingredients to the wet in thirds, stirring well to combine after each addition.  Using a large soup spoon or a 2-tablespoon measuring spoon, drop two spoonfuls of batter 2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheets. Smooth out the batter “blobs” with the back of the spoon. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, until the bottoms begin to turn golden. Allow to cool completely.
Make icing: Place confectioners’ sugar in a large bowl. Add enough boiling water until mixture is thick and spreadable. (Add less than the indicated amount initially, and add more if necessary.)
Remove half of the frosting to the top of a double boiler set over simmering water.  Add the chocolate.  Warm mixture until chocolate is melted and smooth.  Remove from heat.
With a pastry brush or small offset spatula, coat half of each cookie with white icing, and the other half with the chocolate icing.  Allow to harden at least 30 minutes.