Saturday, March 5, 2011

Changing Fishbowls

Gabrielle Hamilton was in town this week to promote her new book, Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef. A local restaurant hosted her with a dinner, reading, and book signing. Having declared this the year of stepping out of my comfort zone (or living as if the plate were already broken, so to speak), I decided to venture out on that chilly Thursday night and partake.

The event took place in a gorgeous old church that was recently converted into a quite dramatic restaurant called Grace. I've only eaten there once, and I was with a couple of women who ordered far too few appetizers that I only gazed at longingly after eating my one portioned sliver. But this evening, the menu had things that I'd never in a million years try--bone marrow and a whole lamb cooked in a smoldering wooden box, for example. I was excited.

Let me note that I really do not mind eating alone. Minus the crappy tables that some restaurants reserve for solo eaters, I adore everything about eating alone. But the minute I actually arrived at the restaurant, I was surprised to feel butterflies and a sense of being totally and completely lost. There were lots of people. All avid foodies, and all of whom seemed to know one another. (They didn't, but you know how it is when you're an outsider gazing at a group?) I felt an even deeper respect empathy for all those people who come to the KR Retreat or any knitting event completely alone for the first time.

I spotted a friend (Samantha, the co-owner of Rabelais Books and co-host of the event) and, well, I'm not proud to admit that I clung to her in a way that can only be described as desperate. She's an avid knitter, so talk soon turned to wool. Then she graciously introduced me to the chef and owner of Grace, telling him I was a knitting writer, very respected in my field. Even as the words were coming out of her mouth, like soap bubbles, I could see them reach his ears, pop, and cause his eyes to gloss over. As I babbled nervously ("Hey, we both work with fiber, am I right? haha...") I could see him gaze over my head to try and spot someone--anyone--to rescue him.

A glass clanged and we were brought to attention. Gabrielle was introduced, and she nervously read a brief passage from her book. It had only been released that week, and this was her first formal reading. By the light of someone's cell phone, she told of two years traveling around the world with just $2,000 to her name--how she learned to recognize every contour and nuance of hunger, and how this familiarity with hunger was, in fact, her strongest qualification for opening a restaurant. What a gift to hear an author read her words in public for the first time, and in a dimly lit church, no less. I liked her immediately.

When it came time to sit in the long, long row of tables, suddenly I was 12 and at Skate Country in Tucson, Arizona, for a friend's birthday party, frantically making my way to the women's room to escape the humiliation of not being asked for a slow skate. I find it amazing what can lurk under the surface, so many years later.

I snagged the last chair at a table with a group of women who did not try to pretend the chair was for some invisible friend. And, as happens all too often in Maine, we quickly drew connections. Two seats over was someone who used to live in my very same teeny tiny faraway town. Across the table was the captain of a beautiful schooner that often spends the night in my harbor--a person who also just happens to be a knitter with whom I've chatted by email in the past. And next to me, another woman who's written many books on herbs, gardening, and design; who was once the knitting editor of Seventeen Magazine; and who is well-remembered by one of my closest friends back on Long Island. I know the word "lovely" can have a tooth-rottingly sweet undertone to it, but that's exactly what the evening with those women turned out to be. Lovely.

After people started to leave, Samantha joined my table and we lingered. The serious foodies also lingered next to us. "Eating bone marrow is like eating sex," said one person. "No, no, eating sweetbreads is like eating sex," retorted another. I watched, the metaphor totally lost on me, and realized how I must look to a non-yarnie as I argue about, say, whether Koigu is superwash, or whether Chinese cashmere is as fine as cashmere from Outer Mongolia. Yup, I must look pretty strange.

By this point Gabrielle was sitting just a few chairs away, still signing a few final books and chatting with friends. But shyness got the better of me. I left the event, book unsigned, having not spoken a word to her, but still quite pleased at having dropped myself into someone else's fishbowl for a change.


Donna in VA said...

Lovely reflective writing, Clara!

ColorJoy LynnH said...

Oh, what an engaging story. I, too, love to eat alone. And I also feel odd in a crowd of strangers, for a while.

You write so well. Thank you.

DawnC said...

That would have been way out of my comfort zone as well. But it sounds like you had a great time. Love your writing!

besshaile said...

Oh man - bone marrow. I never let BD even know there is a bone when I serve ham steaks. He can have all the meat, if he just lets me have the teaspoon of bone marrow. Better than sex? don't know, but better than butter - without a doubt.

Congratulations on stepping out and isn't it cool you found the knitting editor of 17 mag? Can you even imagine a time when that was something any teenage girl could be curious about, sort of like miley cyrus haircuts or prom dresses?

Melissa Morgan-Oakes said...

bone marrow is like eating sex.

Amy BB said...

oooo ... good for you for stepping out! It's hard, but once you get past that first hello you can generally find something in common to talk about.

And bone marrow? SO primal. So buttery and smooth and earthy ... and just so very ... primal.

Thank you for sharing, especially your fears. I don't feel so alone in mine now.

glimmer said...

Thank you for such a wonderful, honest peek through your window.

And bone marrow IS like eating sex.

Sara said...

Lately, I've met so many people who have eating rules, designed to make me feel like a barbarian. (Like no meat on the bone is allowed in thier house. THey'd NEVER allow their children to eat off a bone ...) It's great to hear of someone reveling in the wonder that is bone marrow! I used to fight my dad for the marrow - and have an antique bone marrow bore. THank you for the story, and congratulations on your evening success.

Nanci said...

Oh boy, I sooo identify with you. I've been in your shoes a number of times, and some times were better than others. I would have gone alone to that event too(I would have loved to see Gabrielle Hamilton in that venue)despite In fact, I did just that when I had the opportunity to see Julia Child at the end of her life and in doing so I created a memory for myself that I cherish.

You go girl!!

Amy McWeasel said...

Great post. I have other things I'd like to say about how human & vulnerable & sweet it was, or how it engendered a sense of "me too!" while I was reading it, but the right words are flowing at the moment. So, simply put... great post.

Lanea said...

I often wonder whether men react this way to being in a group of strangers. I think ours are very female reactions.

Peggy said...

I always love to read your writing. This was an especially rich post. Thank you. Maybe I will be brave one of these days and attend a knitting retreat after all?

Serena said...

My friends and I would have asked you to skate, Clara, and we would have all bombarded the couple skate session as a boisterous group. But I suppose that's embarrassing in its way, too.

Congratulations on diving into a different scene. It makes me realize that I only like going to parties when I have my kids in tow, because I can fall back on chasing them around if I'm not feeling the social vibe.