Heaven Is a Dinner Party

Scovilleweb

the sign outside a library at which I talked about my book

I am winding up the official launch season of my new book, Pulling Taffy. Of course, I hope to talk to more women’s clubs, alumnae groups, seniors, and the like as time goes by. I have an engagement to meet with a book club in Virginia in a few weeks to hear reader reactions and answer questions, and I am keeping my fingers crossed that similar engagements will follow. The first flurry of appearances has come to an end, however.

I have had a couple of less than perfect (and less than profitable) gigs in my tour. Early in the summer I arrived at one distant library to give a talk. It was the first sunny day in a month. As a result, only five people (three of them related to me) came to my well publicized appearance. Even the librarian who had invited me went home to work in his garden instead of staying to hear me!

And one group of seniors was MUCH more interested in eating lunch than in talking or listening to me.

By and large, however, I have had a wonderful time talking about the book and about caregiving to a wide variety of people.

In fact, talking to them has been a privilege. Because my book is about very personal issues—about disease and death and parent/child relationships and caregiving—many of the people in the groups to whom I have spoken have opened up to me about their own personal concerns and experiences.

I have heard stories that have made me laugh … and stories that have made me cry. Last night I heard a story that made me do both.

A woman named Janet at the Sunderland (Massachusetts) Woman’s Club astonished me by recalling not only what I wrote in the cookbook I inscribed to her at a meeting of the club years ago but also what I sang to the group at the end of my previous appearance!

She went on to tell me a lovely story about her mother, the matriarch of a large Italian family. Like Janet (and me!), her mother loved food.

Janet’s mother always said that her personal vision of heaven was an ongoing dinner party at which her own mother was doing the cooking. Around the table were all the people she had loved during her lifetime—her siblings, her friends, her husband. One chair was empty. And when the time came and dinner was ready, she herself would sit in that chair.

Janet described visiting her very ill mother in the hospital. She looked down and whispered very softly, “Mom, I think your mother’s making dessert about now.”

Her mother whispered back, “I hope it’s pudding. And I hope it’s soon.”

And it was.

Who wouldn’t love meeting people like Janet and hearing stories like that one? (And of course she bought a book!)

Return of the Country Mouse

George

I recently spent 24 hours in New York City.

My main purpose was to attend the Peabody Award luncheon on Monday, May 20. The Peabodys, administered through the University of Georgia, were originally founded to honor excellence in radio. Now they encompass all forms of electronic communications.

I wish I could tell you that I went to the Peabodys to accept an award! Not yet.

I went because this year is the final one in which my former graduate-school professor, Horace Newcomb, will serve as the director of the Peabodys. Once he moves back from Athens, Georgia, to his home in Austin, Texas (and stops making Peabody-related trips to New York City), I’ll be unlikely to see him.

So I decided to attend the ceremonies, to which Horace has invited me every year for more than a decade. I knew I wouldn’t have a lot of time to talk to Horace or his wife, Sara, in the hubbub of awards, congratulations, and food. I didn’t. But I wanted to talk to them one last time. I did.

From left to right: Peabody Awards host Scott Pelley, Sara Newcomb, Horace Newcomb (Anders Krusberg/Peabody Awards)

From left to right: Peabody Awards host Scott Pelley, Sara Newcomb, Horace Newcomb (Anders Krusberg/Peabody Awards)

My father always said that if one is truly lucky in higher education one will find at least one professor who really matters, who teaches one to think and encourages one to do one’s best work.

For me, Horace was one of those professors.

He is pretty much the founder of television studies in the United States. He began by teaching in an English department, in fact, since early in his career few official departments existed in which one could study or teach television.

By the time I got to the University of Texas, where I got my Ph.D. in American studies but specialized in media history, he was a well known figure in the university’s Radio-TV-Film department.

He never completely shook off his English department roots, however, which meant that in a pinch I could discuss my American literature reading list with him as well as the one for television studies. He taught me to appreciate Walt Whitman and Theodore Dreiser as well as Stephen J. Cannell and Tom Selleck. (Okay, I admit I didn’t need a lot of teaching to appreciate Tom Selleck, but Horace helped me understand WHY I appreciated him beyond his good looks.)

I wasn’t Horace’s best or even favorite student. He was always generous with his time, however. He inspired me to hone my writing and my analysis of stories told in any medium.

And he occasionally talked me down from the metaphorical ledge when I was feeling stressed out by life as a Ph.D. candidate.

When I decided to ask outside readers to give an honest appraisal of my new memoir, Pulling Taffy, Horace was one of the few people to whom I sent the manuscript. He offered insightful suggestions for reshaping the book. I didn’t implement them all, but they set me on the path I ended up taking.

I was happy to hand a copy of the book to him and Sara after the Peabody luncheon.

I was also happy just to be there for the awards, which went to a remarkable bunch of people and radio/TV/web productions. Some of these (Lorne Michaels, HBO, Doctor Who) were known to me. Others were new. These included Filipinos who had created a video exposé of child malnutrition in their country and a Phoenix news station crew whose in-depth reporting on the cause of a local automobile accident eventually led to a federal inquiry and the recall of hundreds of thousands of vehicles.

I left with a happy feeling from having encountered Horace and Sara; a few celebrities (I saved a departing elevator for Judd Apatow!); the glorious art-deco palace that is the Waldorf Astoria Hotel; and the hustle and bustle of New York, which always invigorates me.

Judd didn't offer me a part in his next film, but he said thank you! (Anders Krusberg/Peabody Awards)

Judd didn’t offer me a part in his next film, but he said thank you! (Anders Krusberg/Peabody Awards)

I also left with a piece of chocolate shaped like a Peabody Award and a bouquet of aromatic flowers that survived the bus ride back to Massachusetts and graced my table here for more than a week.

Most importantly, I left with inspiration. All the people accepting Peabody Awards were passionate about their work, and all of them had told stories that mattered.

I hope that my next big story will matter, too. I’m not sure what that story will be, of course; I’m running around like a crazy person publicizing my current book! But I’m cogitating. Stay tuned….

waldorf

I Must Be in the Right Business

On Friday I delivered a lunch lecture to students at Greenfield (Massachusetts) High School.

The lunch lecture program is a sort of continuing-education feature for the students, although continuing education is clearly the wrong term since these kids haven’t concluded their original educations!

Basically, its aim is to expose them to different fields of study, different people, and different careers as an adjunct to their regular curriculum.

I was asked to talk about my work as a food journalist and blogger, to analyze why I love to write about food.

As you can imagine, this was pretty easy. I explained that I got into food writing the way I get into pretty much everything … by accident.

I went on to tell the students about the ways in which food writing makes my life more integrated, connects me to other people, and enables me to write about any topic I choose since just about everything can be related to food one way or another.

I provided a few examples of this wide-ranging focus, explaining that in the past I had linked recipes to such topics as vintage television programs, women’s history, literature, baseball, and astronomy.

I emphasized the ways in which my writing uses just about every subject I have ever studied. I knew this emphasis would go over well. I remember wondering when I was in school whether anything I was learning would ever prove useful in that far-away land called real life.

(Actually, I haven’t ever found much use for biology in my writing, but I don’t rule out being able to work it into an article or blog post one of these days!)

After this brief survey of my work, I asked the students to identify their favorite dishes for me … and to tell me if they could who had first made the dishes and why these particular foods were meaningful to them.

After the first couple of hands went up and were answered, the room exploded with young people eager to share their love of food and family. Among other dishes we discussed Pork-Fried Rice, Dad’s Enchiladas, Teriyaki Pork Chops, Ice Cream with Lavender Sauce, and several different versions of Macaroni and Cheese.

One student who had studied culinary science (I wish they had had that at MY high school) told me about his own creation for a final exam. He had prepared a breakfast pizza with eggs, cheese, sausage, and a multitude of additional ingredients. I’m sure he got an “A.”

We ended our session with enthusiasm—and hunger. The students themselves illustrated my point that food and cooking are meaningful both as pillars of everyday living and as keys to relationships and memory.

So I’m clearly in the right field. Now all I have to do is make A LOT more money cultivating that field…….

Speaking of school-age children, I’ll close here with an essay I wrote in my writing group last week that touches on my much younger self. We were asked to write briefly about a tree. This is what I came up with.

The Apple Tree

I’m not very old—probably about five, old enough to go to school each day but not old enough to have much homework.

Afternoons after school stretch their arms out to me, full of promise.

My first choice in the afternoon would almost always be to go inside and watch an old movie on TV, preferably one in which Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy harmonize as they sing of their love for one another:

“When I’m calling you oo-oo-oo oo-oo-oo………”

Most days, however, indoor, sedentary pleasures are forbidden by my mother. She wants an active, social child as well as a chanteuse.

Today her prohibition of indoor pastimes is fine with me. I have an outdoor mission.

My slightly older neighbor, Jamie Patrick Scios, has broken his leg climbing on the family television set—how and why no one knows. I am enamored of his crutches.

I have one ambition right now: to climb an apple tree in the backyard, hurl myself out of it, break my leg, and obtain my own set of crutches.

I put my Keds-clad feet in successive elbows of the gnarly old tree until I feel very high indeed—maybe as high as eight feet (which is a big deal for little me). I spread my arms apart like wings, launch my body into the air, and head for the ground.

But … I am small and limber, so after a lovely little whirl I arrive intact on the soft grass.

I try again to no avail. Grr.

I have a feeling my mother must have told the tree to take care of me.

Several weeks later Jamie lends me his crutches. They are a lot more work than I expected.

Thank you, Apple Tree, for not taking me too seriously.

Not the Original Apple Tree

Time and Talent

Here I rehearse for my upcoming Virginia concert with pianist Patty Pulju.

As readers know, I’m spending this year evaluating my career prospects and figuring out how I can (whether I can?) make a happy and lucrative living in the years to come.

Part of this process involves figuring out what I do well. Being me and therefore a bit too introspective for my own good, I’m not just wondering what I do well. I’m also wondering what it means to do something well.

How much of what we are and do is nature? How much is nurture? How much is the perspiration so beloved of Thomas Alva Edison?

My two greatest strengths—the ones that have brought me the most satisfaction in the past—are my writing and my singing.

To an extent I was born with both of these—or at least trained to them. My mother was an excellent writer; my father, an excellent talker. They brought me up in a household that abounded with grammar, editing skills, and imagination (not to mention humor).

My family sang all the time—in the house, in the car, at bedtime. My grandmother considered becoming an opera singer. She serenaded us with a sweet, strong soprano voice she passed along to several of her children and grandchildren.

I recall family song nights around the piano in her house … and in the Play House at my summer home of Singing Brook Farm. There music flowed all around, like the brook that gave the farm its name or the rolling hills that sheltered us like a cradle.

Of course, I pride myself on working at both crafts. I’m a rapid and intuitive writer, but I do spend time planning what I write—and editing it into better form. Likewise, I work at my singing: I rehearse often, recording songs about which I am unsure so I can hear the points at which my voice flags or goes off key.

I also spend time researching the original context in which my songs were written and performed. I don’t want to imitate the original singers, but I do want to understand why they did what they did—and why the composers made the choices they did—as I work on my own interpretations.

Nevertheless, I know that I wouldn’t be doing this work, improving my prose and my voice, if I didn’t have a basic skill set to work with.

So … do I have any right to be proud of what I do? My talent is just … a talent, an innate ability that I may help along but can’t really take credit for. In a sense every day I just borrow my mother’s writing voice and my grandmother’s singing voice.

I find some solace in the OTHER definition of talent—not “natural ability” but (here I quote Merriam-Webster) “any of several ancient units of weight” or “a unit of value equal to the value of a talent of gold or silver.” In other words, talent is not just something we inherit. It’s something we spend.

It’s up to me to use my talent well, to spend my artistic resources wisely and productively. This is a true challenge for me. One of my other natural talents is for spining wheels. I’m apt to waste both money and time.

I hope at the end of this year I will be able to say that I am proud of the ways in which I used my talent.

Readers, what are you proud of? How do you feel about your own talents?

I AM OLD!

The Roger Smith Hotel, site of the recent cookbook conference (courtesy of the hotel)

A roomful of people were perched on uncomfortable chairs waiting for our session to begin at the cookbook conference I recently attended. The young person next to me pointed to the words above, which I had just inscribed on my legal pad.

“Are you really old?” she asked.

I smiled wryly and gestured around the room. “Do you see anyone here older than I am?” I asked her.

It was a hard question to answer tactfully since we were surrounded by twenty-somethings (of whom she was one).

“You don’t look old,” she said.

“I feel old,” I replied.

I was to feel even older as the session got underway. It was called “Enhancing Content Both Online and Off.” The gist of it was that, hard as it is to put out a book, authors and publishers must do much more than just write and publish these days.

First, of all books should now be put out in e-book formats as well as print. This requirement is complicated by the fact that there is no single perfect e-book format. Each type of reader (the Kindle, the Nook, etc.) needs different coding. For cookbooks the formatting dilemma is further complicated by the fact that they often include illustrations that are hard to position in an e-book: when one makes print bigger in an e-reader, for example, that gesture throws off the page’s layout.

I was trying to figure out whether it made sense to try to master the technology to transform my Pudding Hollow Cookbook into the new digital formats when the panelists threw more information at me.

They argued that cookbook authors should create additional content that can be either available on publishers’ websites or linked to directly from little things (I forget the technical term!) inserted into the books. Apparently, smart phones—let me assure you my phone is NOT smart—can read these linky thing and connect immediately to the appropriate spot on the internet.

We writers need to star in videos that explain techniques and show off our personalities. We need to record podcasts explaining the background behind our work. And so forth.

Ay ay ay. Oy oy oy. Ouch ouch ouch.

It’s not clear how authors and publishers are supposed to come up with the time or money to enhance their content. (In fact, it’s not clear whether it’s the authors or the publishers who are supposed to finance the enhancing.) It’s just clear that we are in a whole new publishing environment.

Here’s the good news: I may be old, but I can learn. So I have purchased a small video camera. It was on sale since people aren’t really buying them anymore; I am told that most young folk use their phones as cameras. My phone is only a phone, however, so I procured the camera.

I will recruit young people to help me learn this technology. And I will enter the new age … slowly.

Don’t expect me to post videos right away. But expect them eventually.

The other good news was that I felt more normally aged, if that’s the right term (it does make me sound like a cheese), at the other sessions I attended at the cookbook conference.

At the more theoretical panels (the conference was divided between sessions about the present and future of the industry and sessions about the historiography and idea of cookbooks) I even skewed young.

So my professional life isn’t over. It is certainly changing, however.