Category Archives: Cooking

The Arborist

What am I?

A writer?

An arborist?

Sometimes it’s hard to sort out. A year ago I “took a break” from books and publishing (my literary agent’s words) and jumped into the world of trees. Since then, something in my chest seizes up when a person introduces me as a novelist, or when I’m called upon to speak about my works of history before an audience, or when somebody says to me at a party, “What do you do Oh, you’re a writer?” I feel like protesting, No, no, no, I’m an arborist. Don’t you get it?

My days have been filled with exotic new things. With learning. About what lies under our feet when we blithely course down the sidewalk, for example how something I’ve always taken for granted, like a curbstone, is shaped.

curb.JPGLike a bowling alley gutter, sort of.

I’ve learned about the crucial importance of a uniform.


About the delicate beauty of tough New York City trees, like this lithe young lopsided linden.

little linden.JPG

The love of guardian lions throughout the five boroughs.


The imaginary people I was always ensconced with at my computer have been replaced by real people in real time. Like smart and genteel Roland, a Filipino with a Chinese great grandfather, who is the senior inspector for the city on my current job. He’s got seven kids, and he instructed me on how to make a flavorful porgie soup.


At the same time, as I thump my chest and proclaim myself an arborist, something in me wants to tell the people who know me in this role that I am a writer, thank you very much. I want to blurt out, I’m a writer, actually. I relish the response. Oh really, what do you write? Are your works published? Can I find you on Amazon? It’s a skin I am sometimes happy to slip into. Again.

And here I am, writing about trees, about living, about writing, in this blog. I feel the faint percolation of something inside, not quite a book idea, but thinking about thinking about a book idea.

I’m not sure what it would consist of, but maybe some of these things. It could tell of losing faith in writing and publishing, losing an idea of myself, only to rediscover the world and my self as an arborist. It would be about grand old trees, and street trees, and leaves and seeds and stems. The gnarled, venerable roots of things. My own roots. Yes, and it might feature that recipe for porgie soup as well. The title comes so naturally: The Arborist .


Filed under Arborist, Cooking, Culture, Fiction, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Nature, New York City, Photography, Publishing, Trees, Writers, Writing

All This and a Cow Face Too

It looks like I will soon be working a new assignment, in a park rather than the mean streets of Brooklyn. Green! Summer! Lofty trees! Even a lake.

Yet I already feel nostalgic for this world of impressively staunch street trees, truck exhaust and rough-edged asphalt corners.

I’ve spent the last week on Utica Avenue in Brooklyn, a neighborhood that is dominated by Carribbean customs and flavors. I walk around and everything is out of my wheelhouse, out of my comfort zone.  It’s amazing.

The men on my job pour concrete sidewalks, and the inspectors deliberate over the quantity of water in the mix.

testing concrete.JPG

Meanwhile, without a tree to care for today, I roam. Salvation beckons on just about every corner.

grace church.JPG

What about the second born and third born? The gospel is tucked away sometimes.

jesus saves.JPG

I always want to get the names of the tabernacles down when I’m driving past and regret not being able to. I never knew so many existed.

good life.JPG

I like watching how women go about their lives here. There are produce stands everywhere, some with edibles I know.


And some that baffle me. Some kind of space potato, maybe.


The ladies here comb the displays for the perfectly ripe mango or green coconut and select just that one, foregoing a bagful, whether out of economy or exacting taste I don’t know. I love that these markets have not been coopted, all saran wrapped like Shoprite. This is a foreign land where newcomers have retained their habits.

trini buss.JPG

The offerings at Fish World just swam in this moning from the West Indies.


There are baby sharks, delicate porgies and orange striped fish that look like Nemo. Me and the other women get a stainless bowl and a plastic glove and lift the whole fish into the bowl to go to the register. I purchased a red snapper and baked it last night Veracruz style, it was delicious. There’s also a bin of heads and tails and shoppers have a field day with: soup fixings.

Every other store is a hair braiding joint or a nail salon. Women dress to impress, their aspirations indicated by this sign for a beauty shop.


Signage fascinates me, like this lamppost poster. A woman on a bucking bull in Brooklyn.


A very sexy rodeo. Really. Well, meat is a theme here, live or butchered, with some of the stores devoted to it (Meat Mart). You have to work your way through dank-smelling aisles to find the true gems, the items on sale today.

cow skins.JPG

I’m going to miss this neighborhood, its mysteries concentrated in a six block radius. I’m turned inside out, almost levitated by the power of all I don’t know.

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Filed under Arborist, Art, Cooking, Culture, Fashion, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Nature, New York City, Photography, Trees, Writers, Writing

To Wee or Not to Wee

Let’s talk bodily functions. One bodily function.

I have crisscrossed Brooklyn many times now saving trees. The availability of a place to pee structures my day. After my commute to the site, always on a residential street with nary a store, the first thing I do is trek to the nearest commercial stretch to beg some bodega owner to use their restroom. It’s 6:45 am. Few places are open. Sometimes the person behind the counter just says No, with a cold, distrustful look in his eye.

Out of order! he sometimes says.


Women behind the counter more often take pity. One said, after the automatic Out of order! and after I begged her, plucking at my orange vest to show I was somehow for real, Only wee-wee? Yes! So I won her over.

The vest counts for a lot.

The day goes on as we proceed to lay new sidewalk and save trees at different sites throughout the borough, and I take breaks when I can to walk off to find facilities at a pizza parlor, a 7-11, a candy store, a diner. The stall at a diner is bare bones.

bare bones

I come back, the workers are digging. The men are pouring concrete, smoothing it out with their floaters. They’re throwing big hunks of old cement into the bucket of the back hoe.

Did they pee while I was gone?

I ask the engineer on the job: Where do they go?

He laughs. He seems surprised that a woman would raise such a distasteful subject with a man she barely knows. Really, I say. I’ve never seen them leave.

They have their ways, he says.

A laundromat I went to with a kind and respectful proprietor had Halloween decorations all over the walls, including framed ghoul portraits and red bloody handprints across all the washers and driers.

The woman had even decorated the bathroom, so that when you turned to the side this skeleton is what you would see. Giving the paying/peeing customer a little chuckle.


We traveled across the country once, Gil, Maud and I, and before we left Gil ordered some kind of device off the web so that we wouldn’t have to stop so often at rest stops. Maud and I were disgusted, we didn’t even look at it. But now I sort of see the point.

I think the crew might have a pail in the back of the truck. One of them dumps it at the end of the day, like a chamber pot.

Female jet pilots take their facilities with them into the sky. When you’re flying for 11 hours, trekking to a bodega is not an option.

There are books and websites devoted to finding women’s rooms in various cities, including Manhattan. As far as I know there is not one on Brooklyn. But the quest leads me into some nooks and crannies I might otherwise regard as unworthy of my time, like a little Mexican grocery on Avenue U. The owner was polite in directing me to the back of the store, and as I walked through, past the kitchen, the aroma of fresh tortillas nearly knocked me over. So did the pic on the back of the bathroom door.


People ask if there are any women on the construction crews I’ve worked alongside. No, I say. Why do you think that is? we wonder. They’re just so strong, I say, It would be a very unusual woman who could do that kind of heavy labor.

There are dozens, hundreds of women macha enough to work construction. But that’s not the real reason, of course. It’s that a woman couldn’t hold it in.

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Filed under Arborist, Art, Cooking, Culture, Home, Jean Zimmerman, New York City, Trees, Writers, Writing

Slowdown Saturday

A knuckle-sized frog hopped straight by the woodpile.

A butterfly lit on a thistle.

Chickadees flocked around the bird feeder, making off with safflower seeds.

A long day, reading a long novel.

Excitement: Oliver thundering from the porch toward the rabbit he’ll never catch.

It grew cool, deep shadows stretched across the grass.

Then there were dinner pancakes, made with fresh-laid eggs from the good neighbor’s coop and local blueberries, soaked in a friend’s home-tapped maple syrup.


“Summer afternoon, summer afternoon,” said Henry James. “To me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.”

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Filed under Cooking, Culture, Dogs, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Nature, Writers, Writing

Leafy Air and Cheese

I can breathe again. I took a trip to Michigan and Wisconsin, the Great North Woods, which has leafy air worthy of inhaling.

Also, sweet black cherries worthy of devouring. They sell them, washed, plump and juicy, from little stands at gas stations.


I experienced a hailstorm that hit just as our sailboat anchored in that lovely private lagoon a ways into Lake Superior. Just enough to put every wet person on board in stitches.

I can breathe again because I turned in the manuscript of my new novel and my editor said he likes it. A lot. That’s an outsize sigh of relief. It made me open to everything around me.

I found that lying in bed on the shore of Lake Michigan, I could feel every delicious cotton fiber with my toes.

I saw the sights, hugged family, brought home souvenirs from people who had made them with their hands.


There was rye flour from the farmer who grew it, at Maple Hill Farm in Washburn, Wisconsin.

And fingerless gloves knitted by his wife. She sewed a pad of suede on the palm for good gripping.


The Northland is kind, even its rusty old trucks.


The region loves its fish. Smoked, fried or souped.


It offers a hundred different moccasins.


Thrives on pop (drive-in menu, top right). Known to us North Easterners as soda.


Then, of course, there is the cheese. I tasted a Michigan dairy’s Colby-style specimen, bright orange and moist, that was produced from a 1915 recipe.

Did I mention that my editor liked it? The novel, I mean, not the cheese.


Filed under Cooking, Culture, Fiction, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Knitting, Nature, Publishing, Writers, Writing

Deep in the Novel Cave

Sshhh. I can’t hear you. I am writing a book. Or as Father John Misty said in a song last year, “I’m writing a novel, because it’s never been done before.”

I want to make amends for letting my daily posts slide a bit recently. It’s partly that I’m preoccupied by the release of Savage Girl, yes. But more relevant, perhaps, I have been deep in novel-writing, a process that in my experience tends to zone out most other activity. Like laundry, dishes, housekeeping.

My new book tells the story of a girl in 1776 New-York (back when the city had a hyphen), and I have been spending all my time in that British-occupied city.

Let me tell you what it is like in my household when Gil and I are writing books.

We wake. Let Oliver out the door. Let Oliver back in.

winsome OIiver

Coffee, lots of it. We sit down at the computer. Get up for lunch, the lightest lunch possible so that we won’t be sluggish in the afternoon. Sit down once more at the computer. Knock off in the late afternoon. Let Oliver take us for walk. Dinner. Game of Thrones reruns. A fitful, novel-haunted sleep.

Next morning, begin again.

It is boring. It is fascinating. To me, anyway, if to no one else.

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” Thus quoth Somerset Maugham. And so it is really a matter of creating new rules, a new language, every single day until you get your 450 manuscript pages finished. You never know what you’re doing. It’s insecurity raised to the max, alternating with momentary blips of glee that you got something right. Got something write. Ha.

Anything outside that process is hard to fathom, hard to incorporate – the spring buds on the trees, the return of the birds, social beckonings, exercise, even cooking good food, something that for me almost never falls by the wayside.

I remember years ago attending a party with a book freshly done, wiped out, eyes bleary, toasted to a turn, and thinking that it was impossible to even have a social conversation with someone who had not just finished a book. I simply could not relate to a book-less human being.

“There is nothing to writing,” said Hemingway, “All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” A mite melodramatic, are we?

Once upon a time, the novelist Amy Tan’s house burned down with her manuscript in it. She didn’t have another copy. She said she had no interest in talking to anybody whose house had not burned down, she was so consumed by what had happened.

So Gil and I retreat into our little cave, better known as the Cabin. The only thing in the Cabin is, right now, a pair of computers. And a dog. (Oliver refuses incontrovertibly to fall by the wayside.) There is the odor of hyacinth in the air, a strangely chemical smell, if beautiful. And a new page to be written, with words I cannot yet imagine.


Filed under Cooking, Culture, Dogs, Fiction, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Nature, Publishing, Savage Girl, Writers, Writing

Pub. Date-Savage Girl

There are no two better things in the world. The day your book is published. And pancakes.



Filed under Cooking, Culture, Fiction, Jean Zimmerman, Publishing, Savage Girl, Writers, Writing

I Brake for Knit Projects

If I had to choose between these knitted winners, it would have to be the animal heads.


No, the full-body suit.

knitted suit

No, the meat. Definitely the meat.


After this short commercial break, we bring you back to the Oscars, live.


Filed under Art, Cooking, Culture, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Knitting

Skordalia With a Kick

If you are a garlic hound like me you could probably use some skordalia to warm you up in this bitter weather.


The Greek dip/sauce can open your sinuses, for sure. It’s a versatile kind of dish too. First of all, you can use either potatoes or bread soaked in water as a base. I first learned to make it with pulverized pine nuts but if I don’t have them on hand I use almonds or walnuts.

I have a fond memory of preparing skordalia with sunflower seeds once in a pinch, then scooping up the dip with green pepper wedges and washing it down with a pitcher of dry martinis. We were hanging out on a friend’s front stoop, and never was there a more perfect afternoon.


It doesn’t have to be green pepper wedges, though – you can consume skordalia with pita bread or chips, with boiled beets, crispy slices of fried zucchini or eggplant, or really whatever whets your appetite. Or just grab a spoon and dig in. It’s always good.


  • 4-5 garlic cloves
  • 2 ½ ounces of walnuts
  • 1 large slice stale bread
  • ¾ cup olive oil
  • Salt

1.  Grind the walnuts.

2.  In a food processor process the garlic cloves with a bit of salt until they become a paste.

3.  Add the walnuts to the garlic paste and mix well.

4.  Soak the bread (without the crust, in water) and then squeeze well.

5.  Mix the bread with the walnuts and garlic mixture. Mix until smooth.

6.  Add olive oil gradually until olive oil is absorbed.

Add a spritz of lemon juice if you wish.


Filed under Cooking, Home, Jean Zimmerman

Charles Marville’s Old Paris

It was a day of Old Paris in New York. The Metropolitan Museum had an exhibit, Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris, showcasing a Frenchman who was one of the first people to turn a photographic lens on the world, starting in the 1850s. I think the word “evocative” might have been coined to describe Marville’s glass-negative images, with their rain-wet cobblestones and ancient, crumbling Parisian walls. “When good Americans die,” said Oscar Wilde, “they go to Paris.” I was feeling pretty good.

12. Rue de Constantine  1866

I prepared myself to see the show with a cup of chicken velouté, properly French and exactly creamy enough. Julia Child’s pronouncement about velouté in The Way to Cook goes as follows: “Soups may be creamed in a number of ways, including great lashings of cream itself – an ambrosial item I shall soft-pedal here in favor of the velouté system
 with its flour-butter roux… which looks, feels, and tastes for all the world like a creamy soup but can contain as low as zero fat.” The Metropolitan Museum cafeteria is a place where you can eat hoity-toity French soup and eavesdrop as the people around you have erudite conversations about high art. Those speaking English in any case, which was the minority on this polyglot afternoon. The rest of the diners around me, for all I knew, could be discussing race cars or Swahilian TV stars or the price of eggs in Hong Kong.

We crowded into the elevator with a handsome, voluble French family who looked like they would be saved from every one of life’s hardships by the cut of their clothes.

Charles Marville began his career as an illustrator, coming to photography later in life (and early in the life of the medium, as it had only been invented eleven years before he picked up a camera). His early work displayed country scenes and self portraits, like the one of Marville on the bank of the Rhine, hand held up poetically to brow. The cathedrals at Chartres and Rheims offered fertile subjects for his developing eye. I liked the treasures he showed in a tableau at the latter, complete with a mysterious mummified cat. He also did cloud studies, incredibly difficult in an era when everything shot needed a different exposure.

Then Marville found his artistic voice. He began depicting the narrow, winding alleyways and lanes of Paris just as Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann was transforming it with new, grand boulevards and public buildings at the behest of Napolean III. The government encouraged him, too, appointing him the official photographer of the city, with a surprising sense that all this would be going away forever. It was now his job to capture the rapidly disappearing, incredibly textured urban micro-landscapes of the mid-century City of Light. The streets glisten, both with rainwater and the sewage that runs down every gutter.

Impasse de la Bouteille, vue prise de la rue Montorgueil. Paris (IIËme arr.), 1865-1868. Photographie de Charles Marville (1816-1879). Paris, musÈe Carnavalet. Dimensions : 35,90 X 27,70 cm Dimensions de la vue

It was a time that was somewhat appalled to see itself speeding pell mell into the future. Le Temps commented about “grand roads vomiting and absorbing torrents of pedestrians and vehicles” on some of the new perfectly paved roads. It is that very contrast that makes this work so poignant, of course.

Marville frequently used the motif of a “window” or opening at the back of the picture to lead your eye back.

Passage St Benoit. Paris (VIËme arr.), 1865-1868. Photographie de Charles Marville (1816-1879). Paris, musÈe Carnavalet. Dimensions : 36,50 X 27,60 cm Dimensions de la vue

After documenting the streets slated for urban renewal, Marville was assigned to capture for posterity some of the newfangled improvements Haussman had installed. These included two features that were futuristic at the time. Lamposts. There now stood some 20,000 gas street lamps where before there were none. Marville photographed dozens of them.

gas lamp

And urinals.

Urinoir (SystËme Jennings). Plateau de l'Ambigu. Boulevard Saint-Martin.   Paris (XËme arr.), 1858-1878. Photographie de Charles Marville (1816-1879). Paris, musÈe Carnavalet. Dimensions : 27,10 X 36,40 cm Dimensions du tirage

Called vespasiennes, the name derived from that of the Roman Emperor Vespasian, who supposedly imposed a tax on urine, these represented the ultimate novelty, private (relatively) and sanitary (relatively) and lit by those same spiffy gas lamps. The vespasiennes seemed antiquated when they were decommissioned at the end of the 20th century, but in 1860 it was like a spaceship-pissoir had touched down.

“A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of life.” So wrote Thomas Jefferson. At the exhibit I saw a photo with a heavy brown velvet flap hung down over the front due to the image’s sensitivity to light. There was a line of people crowding up at any one time to lift the curtain and see the magic underneath. It was a nice picture. But I felt that the magic was equally contained in each of the poetic photos around the gallery, impervious to time.


Filed under Art, Cooking, Culture, History, Jean Zimmerman, Photography

The Burger of My Dreams

I am finally enough recovered from roiling bloat to write about the hamburger I consumed the other night.

DB Bistro Moderne stands on 44th Street in Times Square, on a block that is distinguished by the Harvard Club, the New York Yacht Club and the swanky hostelry attached to the restaurant called the City Club Hotel. The Algonquin, with its always-crowded, ever-literary lobby and comfy cocktail chairs, one of my very favorite places in New York, is right next door.


We were celebrating Valentine’s Day early, knowing we were up for a snow pounding that might keep us in the day itself.

For years, we’d heard about a burger. A mythic burger, a burger for those of hearty appetites and gourmet tastebuds. In 2001 Daniel Boulud introduced the thing for an unseemly 27 dollars, but that only made people want it more.


Now the price has risen to $32, roughly twice what we pay for dinner at our favorite ramen joint.

hot and delish

What the hey, it was faux Valentine’s Day. We arrived, we settled in among the blonde New York princesses with gaudy Chanel necklaces and thousand-dollar leather jackets, we ordered a non-alcoholic beer. The bread, studded with olives, went down fine. An arugula and frisee salad with a lemony dressing and lots of almonds tasted better than it sounded.

But what about the burger?

retro_vintage_kitsch_kids_eating_hamburgers_burger_sticker-r5733afe1d44b4938bfeb118e16c8bbd6_v9waf_8byvr_512How would that be? This burger, you see, is no ordinary burger, but a giant softball of ground sirloin embedded with strips of brisket, a chunk of foie gras and a soupcon of black truffle.


It’s a long way way from the simple but tasty culinary icon that Wimpy loved.


How did we get from there to here?

I have learned that the Mongol Army under Genghis Kahn would stuff filets of meat (sometimes beef, sometimes lamb) under their saddles as they rode so that it would crumble and cook in time for lunch.


America’s own Hannah Glasse gave a recipe in her 1770 Art of Cookery that paired minced meat (cooked) and toast. Other cultures have long dined on meatballs, kissing cousins in a smaller ball of beef.

So the claim of the United States to inventing the burger has only a partial foundation in truth. Emigrants from Hamburg brought versions of minced steak to New York in the late nineteenth century, where they were served raw or lightly cooked in exclusive restaurants such as Delmonico’s, sometimes accompanied by a raw egg, and sometimes for breakfast.

delmonico's kitchen

The mechanical meat grinder, invented in the mid-1800s – mincing had earlier been done with a chisel – made mass production of ground beef possible. It’s thought that the hamburger in its present form originated as cheap eats at a county fair in Wisconsin, or Ohio – somewhere in the land where people needed sustenance to traverse the games, exhibits and rides. A slick of Heinz ketchup, patented in 1888, soon tagged along.

burger sign

On this night, our DB burgers landed in front of us with a thud, encased in a polished Parmesan bun, stuck through with wooden sticks and cut neatly in half. On full display were the slices of short rib and diseased goose liver, in lush cross section. A bite through the red of the beef released the flavors of fresh red onion, tomato jam and mustard. No Heinz 44 for this baby.

We could have eaten half but managed the whole. It was juicy, meaty, greasy, messy as a burger should be. But was it the best? Was it $32 worth of hamburger? When the bill arrived we told them that we’d gladly pay them Tuesday for a hamburger today.


Filed under Cooking, Culture, Fashion, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Publishing, Writers, Writing

Pot Lucky

Just a neighborly event. The lightest of snows twinkled outside the windows. Someone said, You may not see each other for six months but you’re still glad they’re there. There was a list, a neighborhood email listserve, and these 60-odd people were on it.

The pot-luck took place in the carriage house of the local nature preserve, Teatown.


Such communal feedbags have a history, dating back to the sixteenth century, when pot-luck meant “food provided for an unexpected or uninvited guest, the luck of the pot.”

In this bowling-alone world, community often strikes me as a missing element. Or perhaps that’s just because mine is a solitary profession, handcuffed to my computer keyboard, staring out the window at the winter. I was happy now to talk to people I barely knew about books we’d read, about composing music, about keeping chickens.


Above all, we spoke about the deep drifts and ice outside that affect everybody.

As Bilbo Baggins once said, “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.”

Someone brought a soup enriched almost to a stew with wild rice. Someone else baked a crusty bread. When the desserts came out there was a deep-burnished chocolate bundt cake studded with cherries that had folks lining up. We all shared food, shared companionship. A hat was passed to send kids to the local summer camp.

No one spoke about plumber referrals, or the other information that flies across the internet on the listserve. No one talked about rowdy teens on the roads, or co-mingled recyclables.


Above all, no one became embroiled in the deer situation, the bane of the neighborhood, the divisive question of whether to leave the overpopulation alone or somehow control it, and if so, how to do so. It would be a fraught conversation. We let it go. (Though some wry soul offered venison sausage on the buffet table.)

We were gracious, putting faces to names. We shook hands, kissed cheeks. We were neighborly.

Outside, it continued to snow.


Filed under Cooking, Culture, Fiction, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Music, Nature

Sweetly Wild

Animal Planet produced a popular program Raised Wild that profiles people who have been nurtured by monkeys, by a pack of dogs, by a flock of chickens. In researching Savage Girl I came across parental bears and goats and even a girl raised by rats. The mythology goes back to Romulus and Remus, boys suckled by the same she-wolf. The two man-cubs eventually went on to rule Rome. Nothing that takes place in my novel should shock anybody who has viewed Raised Wild. But it might surprise the Savage Girl herself to come across a box of Valentine’s-packaged Wild Child candy hearts.

wild child hearts


Filed under Art, Cooking, Culture, Fiction, History, Jean Zimmerman, Nature, Publishing, Savage Girl, Writing

A Room of One’s Own-Thank You Virginia

A belated happy birthday to Virginia Woolf (born January 25th), a writer whose fiction I idolized when I was around sixteen. I had the firm conviction that her novels To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway, innovative, modernist, poetic, were about as good as literature got.

Virginia Woolf cu

When I discovered Woolf’s book-length essay A Room of One’s Own, in college, I was thunderstruck. And I’ve never lost that feeling. I re-read Woolf’s arch 1929 critique of a sexist world, a discriminatory educational system, the need to nurture female talent, and I’m still pumping my fist in the air.

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” A Room of One’s Own

Adeline Virginia Stephen was born on January 25, 1882, to Julia Stephen, a model for Pre-Raphaelite painters, and Leslie Stephen, a well-known biographer. She had seven siblings and half-siblings, and was brought up in an upper-middle-class Kensington household. That she suffered some sort of mental disorder (she was probably bipolar) was clear from her first breakdown at the time of her mother’s death in 1895. She collapsed again when her father died in 1904. In 1912 she married Leonard Woolf and in 1915 she published her first novel. Despite her recurring “madness,” she was able to publish and run Hogarth Press with Leonard and be active in the Bloomsbury literary group for the rest of her life.

Virginia and her sister Vanessa playing cricket

That’s Virginia and her sister Vanessa playing cricket, proving that she had a lighter side.

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” A Room of One’s Own

On March 28, 1941, Woolf filled the pockets of her overcoat with stones and walked into the River Ouse, near her house, to drown. An object that moved me beyond words was the simple wooden walking stick she took with her into the river, found floating near where she went in, preserved in the collection of The New York Public Library and shown in an exhibit of the library’s treasures a few years back.

woolf's walking stick

“When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to. Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.A Room of One’s Own

There is one surviving recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice. She delivered a talk called “Craftsmanship,” part of a 1937 BBC radio broadcast.


Here is Woolf’s take on Judith, Shakespeare’s erstwhile sister, also from A Room of One’s Own. Tell me if after reading this you are not also pumping your fist in the air.

“I told you in the course of this paper that Shakespeare had a sister; but do not look for her in Sir Sidney Lee’s life of the poet. She died young—alas, she never wrote a word. She lies buried where the omnibuses now stop, opposite the Elephant and Castle. Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the cross–roads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here to–night, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh. This opportunity, as I think, it is now coming within your power to give her. For my belief is that if we live another century or so—I am talking of the common life which is the real life and not of the little separate lives which we live as individuals—and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; if we escape a little from the common sitting–room and see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality; and the sky. too, and the trees or whatever it may be in themselves; if we look past Milton’s bogey, for no human being should shut out the view; if we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down. Drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners, as her brother did before her, she will be born. As for her coming without that preparation, without that effort on our part, without that determination that when she is born again she shall find it possible to live and write her poetry, that we cannot expect, for that would he impossible. But I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while.”


Filed under Cooking, Culture, Fiction, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Photography, Poetry, Publishing, Writers, Writing

Helicopter Meat Loaf

I always hear people complain about memory loss. Do you forget where you put your keys? That’s how the problem is often phrased. There is an idea that age itself muddies the waters of the brain, causing the things we need to sink. Or maybe it’s your meds, another villain. I always go with the theory that faulty memory is a function of having just too important stuff to keep track of. When you’re younger, you don’t have as much going on, daily or in the bigger picture, so finding your mascara or coming up with words is easier. Think about how much your day-to-day has in it, mid lifers – is it any wonder that you can’t find things when you need them, that a familiar face lacks a ready name, that the perfect word remains at the tip of your tongue but stubbornly refuses to come out of your mouth?

little guy

A few years back, concerned about the occasional memory glitch when I was speaking in front of people, I came up with a solution. When I came to a place in my remarks when I simply could not come up with the word I wanted, I would utter a different word: Helicopter. And then I would continue with my remarks. Helicopter was my go-to utterance, my transition from one known figure of speech to the next. To me, it was better than umn. I trusted that no one would be listening closely enough to note the absurdity. And I’d be free of the anxiety that hits you: oh, no, what was it I wanted to say, I can’t think of it, it was like something that I can almost put my finger on, duh!

When you write there is a brilliant way to hold your place while you come up with the correct word or phrase, the one you really want to use. TK means “to come,” and is a printing and journalism reference used to signify that additional material will be added at a later date. The reason: very few words use this combination of letters, and so you can easily search for TK when the time comes to put in the proper locution. If you were to write out  “to come” the words might be mistaken at some point as a deliberate part of the text. That would be weird. So in writing this paragraph, for example, I might say that the useful term TK was invented in TK, and then come back later to fill in the missing date. I use this trick more often than I can say, because it allows me to push straight through with a thought and not be caught in a frustrating wordless moment. It only doesn’t work if you’re writing about latkes or catkins. (Gil says he wants TK to be his epitaph.)

Helicopter was sort of a verbal TK, an admission that my fishing line was not going to come up with a trout in the immediate future. There are some foods that lend themselves to a helicopter strategy, too, culinary specialties for which you can put in a TK and scramble for the right term a little later. A recipe for meat loaf, for example, doesn’t have to be perfect. There are a thousand, maybe a million ways of preparing it, and probably most of them taste fine. Good Housekeeping did a study in 2007 and found that meat loaf was the seventh-favorite dish in the U.S., but I think it probably really ranks higher as comfort food enjoys its usual resurgence.

can you cook

The Romans made it as early as the fifth century. In his cookbook, De Re Coquinaria, Apicius cited a patty formed of chopped meat combined with spices, wine-soaked bread and pine nuts. Cooks of the Middle Ages continued to fruit-ify it, as was their wont.

Meatloaf 9

All over Europe people have come up with different preparation methods. In America, food scholars date it to the Southern dish of scrapple, mixing ground pork – including lungs, liver, and heart– and cornmeal. During the Great Depression some bread crumbs, broken crackers or oatmeal stretched the meat dollar.

take over

In the 1890s the mechanical meat grinder was invented. Shortly thereafter meatloaf was first mentioned in print in the U.S.  Then the recipes began to flood. I looked through my collection of community cookbooks and historical cooking pamphlets to find a wealth of options for meat loaf mavens looking to fill a TK in their approach.

Meatloaf 3

In Old Timey Recipes, a handwritten “collection from some of the best cooks of The Carolinas, The Virginias, Tennessee, and Kentucky” that was published in 1969, we find a version that incorporates corn flakes and tomato juice. From the 1967 Talk About Good!, put together in Lafayette, Louisiana, there’s Hattie’s Meat Loaf, a plain-jane variety with ground beef, eggs and bell pepper. The Search Light Recipe Book, published by The Household Magazine in Topeka, Kansas, includes both crackers and milk (those might also be nice alongside the entree). The pamphlet produced by the Ladies’ Village Improvement Society in East Hampton, New York in 1948 adds tapioca.

A Man’s Cook Book: For Outdoors and Kitchen (1950) dresses up the usual beef with Karo syrup and a can of Carnation milk.

what did i leave out

Another favorite of mine, Mrs. Rasmussen’s Book of One-Arm Cookery, explains how to insert cooked eggs into the raw meat mixture so that “the slices of meat loaf will have a perfect slice of hard-boiled egg in the middle.” The author adds, “This dish keeps well—if you got a padlock!” A self-published spiral-bound Hilltop Housewife Cookbook by Hazel B. Corliss offers not one but seven recipes for the dish, including Hidden Treasure Meat Loaf that cunningly conceals “little squares of cheese.” One bare-bones book came out in 1929, when the first recipe instruction was to “Chop the steak.” That task would flummox probably 99 percent of American cooks today.


Even the Metropolitan Museum got in on the home cooking racket in 1973, with A Culinary Collection: Recipes from Members of the Board of Trustees and Staff, one that includes a sophisticated Bloody Mary Meat Loaf. The timeless Ground Beef Cookbook, of course, runneth over with meat loaf ideas. In fact, there is a whole section on “Loaves.” It’s a good place to go when you crave a recipe for banana meat loaf or cranberry meat loaf or meat loaf with applesauce folded in. Very complex, tastewise. By comparison, in the Porter Church Cook Book of 1904, between the beefsteak omelette and the roast heart, I discovered a simple veal loaf, one accented delicately with nutmeg.

I actually have one cookbook named specifically for the subject: Padre Kino’s Favorite Meatloaf: And other recipes from Baja, Arizona. Incorporating chorizo and cheddar, Kino proves that you can add a TK somewhere along the process of mixing your meat and come up with something rather tasty.


When I make meat loaf I start with the same essential ingredients, then I revert to helicopter mode, substituting what I can vaguely remember from the last time I concocted the recipe and also what seems like the best strategy given the constraints of my fridge or pantry. I’ll combine a couple of pounds of meat – beef, pork, chicken, veal or turkey, whatever’s available– then add some eggs and bread crumbs. And then… what else? Can’t remember? Try onions, red pepper, shredded cabbage. Anything but applesauce. Believe me, whatever you add, when it comes out of the oven you will need a padlock.

Helicopter Meat Loaf

2 lbs. mixed ground beef, veal and pork

2 lbs. ground turkey

2 chopped onions, sauteed slightly

1 red onion, chopped and sauteed with onion

¼ head cabbage, shredded, sauteed with onion

4 eggs

2 cups bread crumbs

1 c. ketchup

½ c. mustard

salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients. Shape into a loaf in a jellyroll pan. Bake at 375, 20 minutes/lb.


Filed under Cooking, Culture, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Publishing