Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

I recently wrote a magazine article about an expansive Healdsburg garden with a heavy emphasis on succulents and other low-water plants. After touring the garden with the woman who’d designed it, one glaring fact emerged: “low-water” does not mean no-water, nor does it mean low-maintenance. The garden’s lushness seemed to owe much to a sophisticated irrigation system (set in accordance with strict local limits on water usage) and a team of two gardeners who visit for four to five hours a week. In addition, an arborist visits annually to check on the trees, and a landscape contractor comes once a year as well, for a big late-winter cleanup.

This isn’t the first time that a “lifestyle” assignment has made me just a little bit envious, but with this one I found myself coveting not so much the garden as the team behind it. How we could have used these folks eight years ago, the first time we laid eyes on the 4000-square-foot pile of dirt and weeds that made up our new backyard. I for one felt woozy at the prospect of figuring out what to do with it, given that the outdoor spaces of my past dwellings had consisted of a small balcony, a fire escape, and a porch the size of a twin bed. Nothing green had lived for long on any of them.

At first we threw wildflower seeds at the problem. Peter, who had grown up gardening with his parents and had a natural affinity for it, always seemed to consider himself a farmer first, winemaker second. So he knew what he was doing as he dug out weeds, rocks, and roots; raked and rototilled; hand-sowed the seeds; fertilized; and watered. Sure enough by our first full summer in the house, the yard was an explosion of sky lupin, mountain plox, farewell-to-spring, and California poppy.

During those early years, we left the front of the house alone, mainly because its only green spot was a sloped triangle dominated by a tangle of acacia trees. Not much to look at, but they afforded some privacy. Then PG&E took issue with the acacias, which were growing too close to power lines, and cut them down. Suddenly that front “yard” was abruptly reduced to a big patch of stumps.

With work demands ramping up for both of us and a toddler in the house, this time we agreed to outsource, and we somehow found a designer who was willing to work within our limited budget—a woman in her early 50s named Julia who had grown up in Marin and earned her landscape architecture degree at Berkeley. She and I met a few times to talk about color and texture, and the realistic limits to what Peter and I could take on as far as maintenance and watering. Then we went shopping together at Home Depot, where we bought native grasses, succulents, kangaroo paw and lamb’s ear plants, barberry and buddleia bushes, irises, and an olive tree.

Peter worked with a helper on the installation, and our front garden emerged. It looked pretty minimal at first—reminding me of the gardening adage that various family members had invoked over the years: Sleep, Creep, LeapSleep applies to that first year after you plant new plants, when they’re busy forming a root system and nothing much happens above ground. The second year, the plant is still focused on its root system, but new foliage and flowers start to creep into view. Year three: leaping. The roots are established, and flowers and foliage finally look the way you’d hoped they would when you first planted.

Sure enough, a few years later Julia’s garden came to life. But by that time, our backyard was a different story. Those Year One wildflowers had lasted for a single season, and after that Peter had created a meadow by planting bunch grass and weeding dutifully, maintaining a certain controlled chaos. Until he couldn’t. I’m a learn-by-doing sort, and so one August day almost three years ago now, he walked me through each gardening task, offering careful and elaborate explanations. He could no longer climb stairs, so he watched from the deck above as I watered the four wine barrels he’d planted with strawberries and arugula—all the while providing a running critique of my watering technique, in a way that would have infuriated me a month earlier but now just made me laugh, and cry. And promptly forget pretty much everything he had just told me.

Big sloped yards that sit under eucalyptus and pine trees and are exposed to strong coastal winds don’t take kindly to neglect. Nine months after my gardening tutorial, with the chaos no longer controlled, the yard looked decidedly more “vacant lot” than “meadow.” So I decided to call Julia. It had been two years since we’d spoken, so I wasn’t too surprised that her number was no longer in service. Then I Googled her name to find her new number, and instead found her obituary. Bigger surprise. She’d died of cancer as well, two months after Peter. Briefly, my vacant-lot backyard seemed a fine fit for the state of things, for the loss of a lovely woman in her prime who had rowed in the Bay, tended her garden, was loved by her husband and kids.

Eventually I did find help from a surfer-artist-landscaper who owns a native plant nursery nearby. Dan listened as I talked, probably too much, about every last thing Peter and Julia had done to create and maintain the lush wildness we’d briefly enjoyed. Then he drew a sketch of a path that would meander through the yard, with small Sonoma fieldstone boulders and clusters of black sage, bunch grass, and coyote brush on either side. He and his partner worked on the plan while Willa and I were on a summer trip, and when we got back, I was struck by how a simple path that didn’t really lead to anything still managed to give a sense of order and beauty to the space.

The next spring, we planted artemesia, gumplant, and still more bunch grass along our driveway—an area that Willa’s now in charge of watering. Everywhere I look I see the things I want to do next, and I hope she’ll be my partner in crime. I’d like to put trellises or a living wall against the bare, windowless back of the house, plant wildflowers along a side path, and ring our front plum tree with stones. I’d like to find someone more artistic than I am to paint different images on a few of the wide mossy panels of our back wooden fence. Maybe we’ll paint one a year, creating something like the Lakota winter counts I learned about while editing an article years ago. Year of the Corn Feast, Year of the Last Great Buffalo Hunt, Year the Stars Fell. Year of the Path.


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Last week I had dinner at the best new restaurant in America—at least according to Bon Appetit, which honored AL’s Place with the Number One spot on its 2015 “Hot 10” list back in August. I was a little worried in advance of the meal that chef/owner Aaron London’s artful cuisine would be wasted on me, given that after my one meal at State Bird Provisions—which earned Bon Appetit‘s best new restaurant honors in 2012 and is often compared to AL’s—I felt like I hadn’t had dinner yet. That’s not a judgment on the food; it’s just that I’ve grown fond of a linear dining experience that roughly follows this formula: leafy salad, non-starchy main course, dark chocolate. And both State Bird and AL’s revel in a non-linear style—small plates served dim sum-style in the case of State Bird, and tapas-style in the case of AL’s.

Admitting this makes me feel a bit like the Caroline Aaron character in Big Night, the woman who insists on a side order of spaghetti with her risotto. “How can she want??” replies Tony Shalhoub’s purist Italian chef upon hearing her order. “They both are starch! Maybe I should make mashed potato for the other side?” Only I’m a Northern California cliché, and a big bowl of kale is my side of spaghetti.

This failure at food appreciation is not new. During my brief stint as a restaurant critic years ago, I did my best to write thoughtfully about food, but my focus often veered toward things like whether the meal was linear, or what the tables were made of, or what the servers were wearing, or how easy it had been to park. Sure enough, even though I loved my non-starchy, leafy-green meal at AL’s—baby lettuces with herbed avocado, cured trout, smoked brassicas, poached eggs, and a sunchoke and cod curry, washed down with a deliciously bitter aperitif cocktail called Mr. Blonde (yes, all the mixed drinks are named for Tarantino characters)—I found my attention diverted by the hair of the servers, idly counting man-buns (two) and jaunty ponytails (three). I do care about food—I’m not one of those people, like my cousin, who wishes he could eat a meal-substitute pill and be done with it. But minute details about ingredients and process that fascinate friends with more expert palates and culinary curiosity than I mean less to me than details about timing, ritual, tradition, mood, ambiance, and memory.

On this point, I’m out of step with both literary and culinary fashion. There was a time when food narratives—think A Year in Provence and Under the Tuscan Sun—were all the rage, with food starring as an unsubtle metaphor for the writer’s epiphany about the true art of living. These days, however, it’s the ingredients that get a starring role and a brand identity, as notably spoofed by the now-famous “Portlandia” skit in which a server not only details the diet (“sheep’s milk, soy, and hazelnuts”) of the chicken on the menu, but feels compelled to add, “His name was Colin. Here are his papers.” Or more recently in the new show “Younger,” in which a similarly earnest server offers up “rescue tomatoes and day-of-expiration burrata.” There’s no question that the cultishness around the artisanal, the sustainable, and the locavore can still produce beautiful, meaningful writing—here’s a recent favorite of mine. But make no mistake: the Tuscan sun has set, and the rescue tomato is rising.

Cooking, as I often do, for only myself and my six-year-old hasn’t necessarily honed my skills or refined my palate, either. (“That’s not cooking, it’s production,” a friend recently commented). But I think my own childhood is the bigger factor. I grew up in an era (casseroles! Kool-Aid!) and a household where the occasion outranked process and ingredients every time. And the occasion really mattered.

With four children, eight grandchildren, and more binders full of parties than anyone else I know, my mother is a high priestess of production, and she rarely relinquishes her kitchen. But I remember one night when she did, several summers ago, on my parents’ 54th wedding anniversary. My sister and I came up with the menu, aiming low (a sautéed shrimp and pasta dish, farro salad) and delivering medium. Relegated to the bar, my mother made Bellinis, the Prosecco and peach purée cocktail invented by Giuseppe Cipriani, founder of Venice’s famed Harry’s Bar. The Bellinis were a nod to my parents’ courtship; after meeting at summer school at the University of Edinburgh, they had each traveled on their own in Italy, and—a la An Affair to Remember—made a date to meet for Bellinis at Harry’s on a certain August midnight. Or so my father thought, because my mother never got the message with the details, which he’d left at an American Express office. Dad waited and waited that night, and found out a day or two later that my mom had gone on to Florence. Several train trips and two telegrams later, they found each other in London.

At that anniversary dinner, it took all of us a minute longer than it should have to understand the significance of the Bellinis in relation to the day—but once we got it, we got it. The peaches weren’t rescue; in fact, they were probably canned. A triumph of meaning over branding.


Canned-Peach Bellinis (adapted from Jamie Oliver’s Store Cupboard Peach Bellini recipe)

One 15 oz. can of Del Monte sliced peaches, in fruit juice
750 ml Prosecco, chilled

Purée the peaches and their juice in a food processor till smooth. Divide the peach purée between 6 Champagne flutes, with about an inch of purée in each one. Gently top them up with Prosecco. Serve immediately.


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I have a binder full of parties. It may not be as plentiful as Mitt Romney’s binders full of women (remember that?)—but extra points, please, for color-coding, elaborate labels, pre-party timelines and checklists, guest lists, menus and complementary wine selections, notes on table settings, a nebulous category called “inventory,” and post-party observations on what to do differently next time. There are lunch, brunch, and dinner parties, cocktail parties, barbecues, housewarmings, milestone celebrations, and a standalone section for New Year’s Day. Please note that I have not thrown this many actual parties, and the ones that I have were far less elaborate and well-coordinated than this level of detail suggests. But for a certain personality type, the binder is the party. And that, in my party-throwing heyday, was me.

When I looked at this record of past parties recently, in preparation for a cluster of holiday meals, most of what I read was vaguely panic-inducing. But I took great comfort in the post-event commentary—what you might call the Regrets Section. From Christmas Dinner 2011: “Next year: enough (and right size) tablecloths, iron them, enough chairs, figure out tables in advance.” From Thanksgiving Dinner 2012: “Halve rutabaga recipe.” From a winter dinner party in 2013: “Starting at 7 works well. Don’t do skirt steak on the grill again. BC can’t drink red wine if she expects to drink more than 2 drinks and wants to sleep.”

At least to me, these little bits give color to otherwise bland snapshots of parties past—a micro example of writer and self-proclaimed “wrongologist” Kathryn Schulz’s premise in her 2010 book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. In a November 2011 TED talk promoting the book, Schulz admitted to a past tendency to drink “our great cultural Kool-Aid about regret, which is that lamenting things that occurred in the past is an absolute waste of time; that we should always look forward and not backward; and that one of the noblest and best things we can do is strive to live a life free of regrets.” She later came to embrace regret, and to insist that “if we have goals and dreams and we want to do our best, and if we love people and we don’t want to hurt them or lose them, we should feel pain when things go wrong. The point isn’t to live without any regrets. The point is to not hate ourselves for having them.”

My favorite Regrets Section in the party binder comes from a long-ago New Year’s Day brunch and was penned not by me but my cohost. His post-event commentary was always far more literary and nuanced than mine—frequently peppered with gossip and minute personal details (who might be pregnant, who called at 4:30 p.m. to say he had just woken up, who brought a Protea plant). He wrote,

Next year: some sweets, maybe cornbread, video for kids, buy a small bag of ice. Mimosas. KIDPROOF and try to relax about it. Set EVERYTHING up two days before. Set up bar/table, glasses, silver, napkins, planters, chairs, pillows, bathroom. Cover couch for fear of children.

[Name redacted] broke a Champagne flute. And within 15 minutes of arrival had poured himself coffee, Champagne, and red wine. But, he brought red wine, figs, cheese, and donut holes!

In hindsight, I’m grateful to Name Redacted—and of course to the chronicler of his indelible party presence. Yes, I’m down one Champagne flute, but I’ve also got a permanent reminder that at parties as in life, what you break matters less than what you bring, and the spirit in which you bring it.

I thought about this yesterday as I was making cookies with my daughter (who clearly was not yet around for that aggressively kid-unfriendly New Year’s brunch of 2009). At one point as she mixed the dough with characteristic gusto, little pieces of it flew all over the kitchen counter. I quickly grabbed the bowl and said I’d take over for a while.

“I make one mistake, and lose my chance,” she grumbled. Not a lesson I wanted to reinforce. I gave her back the bowl.



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I forgot that Rieslings age well. It has something to do with a flavor compound with a 38-character name (TDN for short). Let this varietal age for too long and it starts to smell of kerosene—but if you give it just a few years, you’ll likely hit its sweet spot. This is one of those esoteric oenological tidbits my late husband taught me—filed away in a corner of my brain right next to the fact that Pediacoccus infections are bad, but Brettanomyces infections can be good—and that “aroma of geraniol” is an insult, and “aroma of pencil shavings” is a compliment.

So when a friend and I opened the last bottle I had of Peter’s 2008 Sierra Foothills Riesling this September, on the second anniversary of his death, I felt that I had to warn her: “This could be undrinkable.” Instead, it was delicious—“like nectar,” is how my friend described it. And in that moment, forgetting all of Peter’s lessons about Riesling, nothing about this wine made sense. Not its crystal-clear, pale yellow color, its delicate floral nose, its light, dry mouthfeel, its fruit. Not the absence of the person who made it.

Peter died at age 44, just 14 months after his diagnosis of non-small-cell adenocarcinoma. It was a mystery cancer of unknown primary origin that behaved like lung cancer, and upon diagnosis it was already evident in his lungs, right shoulder, and brain. For much of those 14 months, our family was able to live a kind of peaceful “new normal”—treatment cycles, breaks from treatment, quietly trying to observe and celebrate life’s big moments and small ones. His serenity and courage in the face of all of this was astounding, even to those who knew him well enough to expect nothing less.

For a while during this period, I intended to give The Home Glass—which began as Marin Magazine’s wine blog back in 2008 and which I continued to write until 2011—a reboot. I planned to document the reboot forced upon our lives, with wine, spirits, food, and family as the focus. But ultimately, even the few hours this would have involved seemed too much to give up in a year when time felt so precious and so fleeting. Better to spend those hours eating tacos and drinking margaritas with someone unparalleled in his talents for making both.

Oddly enough, it was stumbling on NPR producer Rachel Ward’s brilliant post on Medium, “I’m Sorry I Didn’t Respond to Your Email, My Husband Coughed to Death Two Years Ago,” that brought me back here—particularly these lines:

When you experience a loss like this, you get to see a really wild new amount of life. Suddenly the range of the type of sad you can feel, to the type of happy you can feel, is busted open. The spectrum from happy to sad isn’t a foot wide anymoreit’s as far as your arms can stretch and then to the edges of the room and then up the block and over into the next neighborhood.

I feel a version of this and have felt it almost since the moment we learned of Peter’s diagnosis. Everything was instantly amplified then and is amplified still: love, beauty, fear, longing, sadness, anger, more beauty, more love. It helps that my agnostic husband believed he’d come back to us in nature in some form—so when the trees catch light in a certain way, or a hummingbird watches closely as our daughter makes chalk drawings in our driveway, I have to wonder.

Willa often asks me how old her dad is. It’s almost never “how old would he be” if he were alive, because she’s six and is only just starting to wrap her mind around the conditional. I love answering all her questions about Peter except this one, because this one makes me stop and do an excruciating bit of math. Last Saturday he would have turned 47. When I think of Peter at 44, I can picture a 44-year-old person that I knew and loved and got to a spend a year memorizing. Forty-four-year-old Peter feels like a gift that I can still vividly recall and embrace and enjoy. But I don’t know 47-year-old Peter. I never will, and saying the age that he would have been out loud forces me to stare the magnitude of our loss straight in the face, in a way I almost never do.

Life doesn’t always make sense. White wines don’t age well, except for the ones that do. People grow older, except for the ones that don’t. Sometimes the best you can do is to sit back and take in that infinite spectrum from happy to sad. But one thing that always makes me feel better is observing and celebrating those details of life—domestic, culinary, seasonal—that remind me of Peter every day. And this seems a good place to record those details—once a month, at least. I promise that not every post will be this long or this personal—but do expect, on occasion, more home than glass.


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