Saturday, March 26, 2011

Another Window

I'm still letting things fester rest in the hopes that my mental dough will soften and expand and grow without my constant prodding. Your comments encouraged and inspired and even amazed me. You are a very bright bunch. 

While the dough is rising, I have another window to challenge your creative imaginations. Downtown Portland is losing yet another establishment. A real, genuine old-school photography store is closing its doors. First the used bookstore, now the photography store, what next? I hope they leave my beloved International House of Rotary Phones well enough alone.

The space is interesting. It's in the old Mechanics Hall building on Congress, sharing the bottom floor with an equally classic used clothing and consignment shop. To the right, a rather dreary and uninspired example of 1970s urban renewal. Foot traffic is a blend of professional, hipster, and drooler. 

For me, the real appeal is the facade -- including that fabulous green sign -- and the deep display windows that run along either side of the entry. Inside is a deep space to house all your delights. The dropped ceiling and fluorescent lights could easily be ripped out and the taller ceiling restored.

For some reason I envision a really cool Japanese bookstore like Kinokuniya in New York City - most notably because of its basement jammed full of amazing Japanese knitting and felting and sewing and otherwise crafty books, plus reams of paper pads and notebooks of every imaginable size, pens, erasers, pencils, desk gadgets, stickers, tapes, staplers, and all those bizarre yet completely charming accessories you simply must have. Paper stores are my Kryptonite.

But that's just me. If I were to hand you a blank check and the world were truly your oyster, what would you put in there? 

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Letting it Rest

I'm thinking about metaphors today. Sailing is full of them. Give me some leeway, set your course, show me the ropes, change tacks, go against the tide, give me a wide berth, get stuck in the doldrums, take the wind out of your sails, and, of course, keel over...from being forced to read too many sailing metaphors.

Over the weekend I snagged a copy of Beard On Bread at Rabelais, and I've been reading what James Beard had to say about baking the perfect loaf. It struck me, about three recipes into the book, just how much of bread-baking is about waiting. Not just waiting, but going about the rest of your life while the dough takes care of itself.

You proof the yeast and wait. You add the liquids to the flour and wait. You knead your dough and wait. You punch it down, knead it some more, and wait. And you may even punch it down, knead it some more, shape it, and wait yet again before putting it in a hot oven and, yup, waiting some more. It's an act of engagement, trust, and letting go.

We've created no-knead recipes and bread machines that do the work for us, but there is simply no way to shorten that waiting time. As much as dough needs to be kneaded (sorry, couldn't resist), it simply will not survive if you don't give it enough quiet time to rest, rebuild, and grow.

This morning, I was struck by how much of writing is like bread-baking. You hatch an idea and start kneading. But at a certain point, that idea will need to be left alone. And if you don't, it you just keep kneading and kneading, it'll ultimately die.

I have an idea for my next book, and each morning I take several hours to work on it. But this morning I opened my notebooks and couldn't connect. In a flash, my hands felt the dough from yesterday's bread-baking and I thought, "Let it rest." A collision of mental metaphors, but they did the trick.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Window dressing

I see I'm not the only one who presses her nose to vacant storefront windows and lets her imagination go wild! OK fellow dreamers, here's another storefront for you.

For years it held a legendary used bookstore, but now it sits vacant. Its neighbors include an avant-garde-nouveau-hip-chic Japanese noodle bar with fancy lighting and uncomfortable chairs. Beyond that, soon to open, is a French bistro that replaces..wait for it...another French bistro that just closed. Parking is rather lousy, but the neighborhood is good, and you'd have a good amount of walk-in traffic from folks who walk to work. (Do people even walk to work anymore? Never mind. This is Claralandia. We get to make our own rules, remember?)

So, what would you put here? In my dreams, it's a greengrocer with fresh produce and flowers up front, tall shelves stocked with jams and jellies, pastes and condiments, staple foods and luxury yuppie foods that make you feel all sassy and worldly when you buy them. (Not to mention poorer.) And in the back, or perhaps along one side, you'd have a small and efficiently organized kitchen from which food-loving people create all your favorite comfort foods, which are then packaged and placed in a cooler so you can pick them up, take them home, heat them up, eat them, and feel like, well, ok, you didn't manage to make a meal for yourself, but you supported someone really good who did.  Oh, and did I mention the apothecary jars of Claramels by the register?

How about you? What do you see?

Friday, March 11, 2011

Contingency Plan

Can I tell you a secret?

I sometimes think about what I'd do if this knitting thing didn't work out. And lately it goes something like this: I'd open my own candy store. Featuring what else but Claramels, of course.

I'd spend my days stirring pot after pot of sweet gooey deliciousness, effortlessly transforming it into perfectly wrapped pieces of happiness that people would come from all corners of the globe to acquire, in copious quantities, with large wads of cash. I'd be in every gourmet grocery store in America. Martha and I would be on a first-name basis. Jacques Pepin would ask, "How on earth did you think to pair molasses with chevre?" I'd smile demurely and hand him another sample.

That's my dream, and I blame it on this Portland storefront. Sure, it may not look like much to you. But in it I see potential. I see freshly polished tile floors, marble counters and glass cabinets and mirrors galore, old-fashioned apothecary jars filled to the brim with fresh confections, and me, humming a tune as I unlock the door early in the morning, flip on the lights, crank up the tunes, and begin my day.

Suddenly I'm a morning person, I'm a brilliant and fearless businesswoman, I have boundless energy and oh, did I mention? Extraordinary management skills. Time, people, money, you name it. I'm a genius.

All I can conclude is that even when you're lucky enough to live your wildest dreams, you still end up dreaming.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Rolling rolling rolling

Meet my new rolling pin. It is a handcrafted solid-maple work of beauty and I cannot wait...cannot wait I tell put it to use. I want to hug it and squeeze it and name it George.

It comes from Herriott Grace, the Wollmeise of wood-based kitchen objects. (I'm only comfortable spreading the word now that I've secured my own rolling pin. Is that bad?)

Herriott Grace is a father/daughter duo in Canada. They live on opposite ends of the country, often sending packages to one another. A few years ago, the father began carving spoons out of wood. Amazing spoons, the kind that stop conversation and inspire poetry. Well, one day the daughter asked if perhaps he'd be interested in making more spoons for other people. He thought about it and finally said yes, but only if they went to people who really understood the time, care, and skill that he put into making each and every piece. Thus was born Herriott Grace.

He creates beautiful objects out of wood and she, with her exquisite photography and all-around Web retailing know-how, makes sure that these pieces find fittingly appreciative homes.

Site updates occur every few months, competition is capital-f fierce, and the prices reflect the slow, tender, handmade nature of each piece. I've been waiting for my rolling pin for many, many months. Last week it finally happened, I was the lucky one to hit "buy" before anyone else.

After my elation wore off, I got a little embarrassed by my behavior. I mean really people, it's just a rolling pin, right? How could a sanded stick possibly live up to all those expectations I'd built up in my mind? I was prepared for a disappointing but necessary reality check. But when the mailing tube arrived yesterday from Canada and I pulled out my package, lovingly wrapped in layer upon layer of paper and bubble wrap, and held this rolling pin in my hand for the first time, I was speechless. I knew then that this perfect tool and I would make many, many fine pastries together.

If you, too, go weak at the knees in the presence of a well-made spoon or rolling pin or, dare I suggest, cake pedestal, check out Herriott Grace. Join their mailing list or subscribe to their RSS feed, and you'll get a little advanced notice before the next update. Be patient, pay attention, start saving, and know when to be ready.

As for me? I think I have a pie in my future.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Boulevard of Sunken Cakes

When life gives you lemons and you make lemonade, only it's actually lemon cake, and the cake emerges from the oven with a deep ravine running down the eat it anyway.

Every time I make this cake, it starts out beautifully in the oven and then, just when I least expect it, the center takes a nose dive. I put up with the sunken center and ask no questions because it's a delicious cake, especially after you douse it in a dense syrup of lemon juice and sugar right after it comes out of the oven.

But over the years I'll confess that I've developed a bit of a complex about this. Because this particular lemon cake is one of the few cakes I bake in bread pans, I'd pretty much concluded that I carry some type of curse that will forever cause the center to plummet.

The person who gave me this doomed but delicious recipe so long ago happened to be visiting this evening. She heard me lamenting the belly flop and proudly insisted that her versions never did such a terrible thing--feeding my secret neurosis even further. So I pulled out the recipe and showed it to her. I pointed to the part where she wrote "1T baking powder" and "1/2T sugar." Very clearly a capital T, which, as we all know, means tablespoon.

In a voice that suggested I'd been putting rat poison or liquid Drano in my cake all these years, she blurted, "There's no way on earth you'd put a whole tablespoon of baking powder in that cake."

Well folks, mystery solved. Which would also explain the cake's strong salty tang, too. So, on behalf of sunken cakes and neurotic bakers everywhere, I'd like to make a little public service announcement. When writing down recipes for friends, would you please be a doll and remember that capital T means tablespoon, and lower-case t means teaspoon, and to form each letter verrrrrry carefully? Thanks ever so much.

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.