Monthly Archives: November 2017

In the Midst of Winter


in-the-midst-of-winter-9781501178139_hrThis is the story of an unlikely alliance among  three people whose lives merge in a snowstorm in Brooklyn in 2016. Lucia is a visiting professor from Santiago, Chile who signed a one-year contract to teach at NYU’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies. Her landlord and upstairs neighbor, Richard, is also her boss. Evelyn Ortega meets Richard when his car crashes into her Lexus at a snowy intersection during a particularly bad winter storm. Through the course of the book, the reader gets to know the characters’ backstory as they get to know one another. The circumstances they find themselves in are somewhat bizarre and scary, but the relationships that develop over a short period of time- just a couple of days, really- are life-affirming. When Evelyn shares the story of her escape from Guatemala and the horrific event that forced her to leave in the first place, she tells of a visit to a healer with her grandmother. The shaman, Felicita, a famous guardian of the traditions of the Maya, explained her power- that she channeled the earth’s healing energy. As she prepared for the healing, she lit some herbs in a painted pot, blowing the smoke into Evelyn’s face. Then she made Evelyn drink a disgusting ayahuascan tea that she could barely swallow. That was the beginning of Evelyn’s solo, frightening journey. Hours later when it was done, Evelyn emerged from the magic world and did not know where she was. What came next is the beauty of this post.


Maybe it was because all that had been in the news for the last week was allegation after allegation of sexual abuse by powerful men in Washington, Hollywood, and beyond, and the predictable victim-shaming that followed. Whatever the reason, when I read the following passage, I wept, (embarassingly) uncontrollably, on the couch next to my bewildered husband:

“Tell me what you saw,” the shaman instructed her.

Evelyn made a supreme effort to speak and to pronounce words, but she was very tired and could only stammer “brothers,” and “jaguar.”

“Was it female?” asked the healer.

The girl nodded.

“Mine is the feminine power,” Felicita said. “That’s the power of life that the ancients had, both men and women. Now it is asleep in men, which is why there is war, but that power is going to reawaken, and then good will spread over the earth, the Great Spirit will reign, there will be peace, and evil deeds will cease. I am not alone in saying this. It’s prophesied by all the wise ancient women and men among the native peoples I have visited. You also have the feminine power. That’s why the mother jaguar came to you. Remember that. And don’t forget that your brothers are with the spirits and are not suffering.”

I wept, because I was hopeful.


When a state of emergency was declared in New York, Lucia made the most of her day off from work by preparing a “life-restoring” cazuela, a Chilean soup that “lifts down-hearted spirits and sick bodies.” Her ingredients were a well-seasoned stock, fried onion and meat, cooked vegetables and potatoes, pumpkin and rice.

Cazuela (Chilean Stew)
Yield: 4 servings

1 lb beef brisket (or lamb, pork or chicken)
2 T olive oil
1 onion, peeled and cut vertically into quarters
1 tsp oregano
1 tsp ground cumin
salt, to taste
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
8 small red or white new potatoes
2 carrots, peeled and cut across into four pieces
1 red or green bell pepper, seeded and cut into quarters
1 stalk celery, chopped
4 2-inch chunks pumpkin meat
1 cup rice
5-6 cups boiling water
2 ears corn, each cut into four rounds
1 cup green peas or green beans
2 Tbsp cilantro, chopped

Cut the brisket into eight roughly equal portions. Heat oil in a large pot, add meat and brown well. Add the onion, oregano, cumin, salt and pepper; stir, and continue cooking over medium heat for five minutes.

Add the potatoes, carrots, bell pepper, celery, pumpkin and rice to the pot. Add enough boiling water to cover the contents completely and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the corn and peas or green beans and cook for 10 minutes more. Adjust seasonings to taste and serve hot in warm bowls. Take care to plate with at least two pieces of meat, two potatoes, one piece of pumpkin and two pieces of corn in each bowl. Garnish with a bit of chopped cilantro.

*Note* I eliminated the meat, added vegetable bouillon to the boiling water (about 6 cups) and substituted butternut squash for pumpkin. It was the perfect antidote to Thanksgiving’s indulgences!




Loving Frank


Loving-FrankThis was an extraordinary book. The way that the main characters, Mamah Borthwick Cheney and Frank Lloyd Wright lived their lives defied the social mores of the time, and had me questioning the wisdom of staying in a failing relationship when one has met her true life’s mate. Mamah left her husband, her home and her children in order to be with Frank. But was he Mr. Right? The way he’s depicted in this book shows him to be an epic narcissist with the temperament of a spoiled child. He seemed to believe that creative geniuses were not bound by the morality of the masses. In order to nourish that genius, his behavior might occasionally fall outside the confines of what was expected of mere mortal men. After all that Mamaw gave up to be with him, I wonder if she ever experienced true happiness, and in the end, was it all worth it?


In Germany, where Frank had gone to publish a book of his architectural designs, he and Mamaw were invited to an evening at the opera with the publisher, Wasmuth and his wife. The program that night was Mefistofele by Boito. When Mefistofele tempts Faust, Mamah began to cry, for she knew what was coming next in the story, and how it reflected on her own recent choices, for she had recently begun to fear that madness was “brewing outside the golden circle that she and Frank had drawn around themselves… And yet… and yet. How could she, how could anyone condemn Faust, so desperate for a piece of happiness that he would sell his soul in order to say, “Yes, for a brief moment, I was truly alive.” The You Tube clip below is Faust musing on what’s important to him: the search for knowledge and good. Whie I may be cooler to prefer Carreras or Domingo, I loved the brief moment in my life when Pavarotti’s voice was at its prime. In the winter we used to put the top down, crank up the heat, and blast Nessun Dorma on a CD driving down Route 1 from Newburyport to Malden. Come to think of it, those were moments early in our relationship where felt truly alive.


Mamah became friends with Ellen Key after hearing her speak in France. Key was a Swedish feminist whose writing spoke to Mamah:
“Great love, like great genius, can never be a duty: both are life’s gracious gifts to the elect. There can be no other standard of morality for him who loves more than once than for him who loves only one: that of the enhancement of life. He who in a new love hears the singing of dried-up springs, feels the sap rising in dead boughs, the renewal of life’s creative forces; he who is prompted anew to magnanimity and truth, to gentleness and generosity, he who finds strength as well as intoxication in his new love, nourishment as well as a feast- that man has a right to the experience.”

Mamah abandoned Frank in Italy to spend two months in Leipzig learning Swedish, so that she could translate Key’s work into English. At the conclusion of the course, Mamah visited Ellen at her home on Lake Vattern. At their final meal together before Mamah left to join Frank in Italy, finally, they were served butter cake for dessert. Ellen, who had been careful to live an austere life in order to prevent her critics from attacking her on moral grounds, approached the cake with relish: “Oh,” she said, lacing her fingers together like a child at an unexpected treat. While Mamah picked at her dessert, she watched Ellen eat her slice with abandon, then chase the remaining crumbs around her plate with a fork.”

Swedish Butter Cake
Serves: 8

2 C plus 2 T sifted all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
1 C lightly salted butter (only) at room temperature
1½ C granulated sugar
2 large eggs
¾ C milk
1 tsp almond extract (or vanilla extract)
confectioners sugar for dusting

Preheat oven to 350º F. Grease a 13×9″ pan. Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl and set aside. In a standing mixer, cream together the butter and sugar until smooth and well blended. (scrape sides)

Add the eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition. Alternately add the dry ingredients and milk, beating after each addition, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Scrape down sides of the bowl and the beaters. Stir in the almond or vanilla extract.

Spoon batter into the prepared pan, leveling the top, then spread the batter slightly toward the pan edges. Bake in the preheated oven for 55 to 60 minutes or until center of cake tests done and toothpick shows no batter and top is golden brown.

Cool the cake in its pan on a wire rack for about 10 minutes, then run a knife along the edges to loosen cake. Dust cake with confectioners sugar or frost the top.


The Miniaturist


9168276Seventeen year-old Petronella Oortman stood at the door of the Amsterdam home of her new husband, Johannes Brandt, and knocked. And knocked. No one came. This was not an auspicious beginning to married life. Even though she was expected, Brandt was not even in town to greet her when she arrived. Nella was shown to her room by Marin, Brandt’s sister, who in the early pages of the novel reminded me of Mrs. Danvers, with her curt comments and mysterious actions. Needless to say, I was hooked, even though I suspected that things would not end well for Nella. Marin was a real doozy. After sniffing Nella’s perfume (lily, a gift from her mother), Marin says, “You know what they say about lilies. Early to ripe, early to rot.”  As Johannes traveled extensively for the VOC, the Dutch East India Company, Nella was subjected to Marin’s disdain on a daily basis. Seventeenth century Amsterdam afforded limited latitude about the proper occupation of women, so Nella was essentially a prisoner in her own home, which was more like a boarding house, since Marin took over the duties of wife that should have been Nella’s responsibilities under different circumstances. As distant as Johannes was, I liked him. I especially liked him when he said, “I find much of myself in food.” This was at a banquet, the first time he and Petronella appeared in public as man and wife, and their first real conversation. He went on to talk about how memory is connected to food and how food is a language in itself. It reminds me of the famous Brillat-Saverin quip, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” That currently makes me leftover pizza from Santarpio’s.

Nella developed a relationship with the mysterious “miniaturist,” even though they never met. The miniaturist provided furnishings for the cabinet that Johannes had commissioned for her. It was a beautiful reproduction of their home. Society women flaunted their prominence and wealth by trying to outdo one another in furnishing the cabinets exactly like their actual homes. Nella was spooked by the accuracy of the items that arrived at her home unbidden. It seemed as though the miniaturist could see into her future.


Petronella Oortman was a real person whose cabinet is on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and was the inspiration for this book, a debut by Jessie Burton.



The burgomasters forbade the possession or making of puppets and dolls at Christmas, claiming that idolatry is an attempt to capture the human soul.  Unable to make gingerbread men, the bakers, Hanna and Arnoud, made gingerbread dogs. I don’t have a dog cookie cutter, so I used shooting stars in honor of the star of Bethlehem.

YIELD: 24 5 inch tall cookies

3 C all-purpose flour
1½ tsp baking powder
¾ tsp baking soda
¼ tsp salt
1 T ground ginger
1¾ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp ground cloves
6 T unsalted butter
¾ C dark brown sugar
1 large egg
½ C molasses
2 tsp vanilla
1 tsp finely grated lemon zest (optional)

In a small bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, ginger, cinnamon, and cloves until well blended.

In a large bowl beat butter, brown sugar, and egg on medium speed until well blended. Add molasses, vanilla, and lemon zest and continue to mix until well blended. Gradually stir in dry ingredients until blended and smooth. Divide dough in half and wrap each half in plastic and let stand at room temperature for at least 2 hours or up to 8 hours.

Preheat oven to 375º. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. (Dough can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 4 days, but in this case it should be refrigerated. Return to room temp before using.)

Place 1 portion of the dough on a lightly floured surface. Sprinkle flour over dough and rolling pin. Roll dough to a scant ¼-inch thick. Use additional flour to avoid sticking. Cut out cookies with desired cutter. Space cookies 1½-inches apart. Bake 1 sheet at a time for 7-10 minutes (the lower time will give you softer cookies– very good!).

Remove cookie sheet from oven and allow the cookies to stand until they are firm enough to move to a wire rack. Cooled cookies may decorated.




9780525495451Dunbar is the latest addition to the Penguin Random House Hogarth Shakespeare Series. A retelling of King Lear, it is quite a gloomy little book, although, how could it not be. “Acclaimed” authors were asked to select a Shakespeare play upon which to base their own retelling. This one begins in a sanatorium in in Cumbria, England, near Manchester. Henry Dunbar, 80 year-old media mogul, was deposited here by his two oldest daughters, Abigail and Megan (Goneril and Regan). Comic relief is provided by Dunbar’s alcoholic comedian friend, Peter Walker, in the form of impressions of various celebrities and a lot of clever – silly sometimes- banter. It is a morality tale about what people who have dedicated their lives to the accumulation of wealth and power can expect when they’ve neglected a moral compass that would have tied them more closely, more sympathetically, to their fellow humans. The siblings, intending to take over the company after having elaborately staged their father’s incoherent demise, garnered the support of the apppropriate board members, and performed any number of other equally despicable business dealings that would secure their fortune. Being only cursorily familiar with King Lear, I don’t recognize how closely the book parallels the play, but even I recognized the most obvious nods. Aubyn’s writing is very smart, but the overall effect of this sad story is to make one want to take stock of one’s life before it’s too late. Before a lifetime of selfish choices leaves you old and alone.


Lake Country in the northwest of England is reportedly very beautiful, as one of the characters in the book observed. The photo below is of Ullswater, the second largest lake in England. It is located in the Lake District National Park in Cumbria. The photo is from



When Florence reconnects with her father, their familial roles have reversed, as Florence is now the caregiver/parent and Dunbar is the patient/child. How fitting then, that the first food Dunbar consumes under this new arrangement is chicken soup, the universal food of comfort with its healing medicinal properties. I had just made 3 batches of chicken broth to freeze, so I used that delicious base for the recipe below. There’s nothing like chicken soup to pick up your spirits.

Chicken Soup

1 T olive oil
½ C onion, chopped
½ C celery, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
1 bay leaf
¾ C carrots, cut into ½” cubes
½ C orzo
2 C cubed cooked chicken
4 C chicken stock
1½ tsp salt
fresh ground pepper to taste

Heat oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add celery and onion and saute until soft. Add garlic and cook for another minute. Add bay leaf, carrots, orzo and cooked chicken and stock. Add salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, turn heat down to simmer, cover and cook for 20 minutes. Remove bay leaf, season to taste and serve with naan or slices of baguette.