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Hot Springs Prophet

IMG_1013For the last few years, friends have invited our family to join them on holiday sojourns in one of the small Idaho towns built around natural hot springs. We’ve joined them eagerly each time. This year, my friends and I met an individual who was working through some difficult issues. We laughed about him later, joking that he’d imbibed more than the two shots of cognac he mentioned, but, for better or worse, he earned the distinction of my first “big personality” of the new year.

Our “conversation” is recorded below. His comments appear in italics; mine in plain text.

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Hi. I’m sorry. Am I in your way? I hope you’ll excuse me; I was just praying. Then a raven flew over my head and it was you. Sit down. Tell me about you.

I am wary of non-Native Americans who reference totem animals during introductions, and I just realized why you are the only person in this pool. You’re physically blocking my exit, and it would seem rude for me to run for the opposite exit. I’m congenitally polite. That’s why I’m still here with you.

How old are you? I’m 41, and I hope I don’t look it.

You look like you used to surf. You have pale blue eyes, short brown hair, and an established tan. A fossilized tooth – large as a fist, and veined with gold and diamonds – dangles from your neck. The wind blows steam between us, obscuring your face. In my mind, I am praying that one of my larger male friends catches sight of us and rescues me from you. I curse myself for damsel-mentality.

Do you love your kids? Do you love your husband? How do you feel about your marriage?

Are you high or just an everyday creeper? I am a terrible liar. I keep my answers short and unspecific, because your sabertooth necklace could be a weapon and I don’t want to risk enraging you.

Last week, I divorced from my wife of eighteen years. She was my world. She was my Jesus, until I realized that I was Jesus… I loved my kids… You know the movie FrozenMy wife decided to divorce me after that movie came out.

Why did you just refer to your children in the past tense?

I worked so hard – like 16-, 20- hour days – and I made hundreds of millions. But she stopped seeing Jesus in me. And I stopped seeing Jesus in her.

“Yes, sometimes it is hard to see the best in people, especially the people who are closest to you.” Polite and genuine. Great.

I see Jesus in everybody. In Satanists, in atheists.

I start trembling at the mention of Satanists. I hope you don’t notice. I am beginning to worry that you will drown me while my friends chat away in other pools. 

I met this one lady – she must have been eighty. You know what she told me? She said, ‘Tell a boy in fourth to sixth grade that he is great, and he will love you forever. Tell the same to a girl of the same age, and she’ll hate you.’ It’s the Mars – Venus thing. Men and women are just different. But we all have Jesus within us. I guess I got complacent.

“Complacency blossoms easily.” You nod.

I punched a guy the other day. He was an atheist and he didn’t like it that I saw Jesus in him. So he got in my face and I punched him. Punched a guy in the hot springs.

You are definitely a serial killer.

I’m just trying to do the right thing. I share my message. I have, like, 27 million Facebook followers. I see Jesus in you.

I see Jesus in you, too. Oh look, here’s my friend, Max. I hope that you find the resolution that you seek, but I have to go get my kids out of the pool. See ya!

*

Later that night, I wrote the Prophet a letter.

Dear Prophet,

I understand you on many basic human levels. You’re going through feelings I can’t imagine or grasp, because I haven’t lived them. You don’t know me from Jesus, but I feel a little like I know you. I guess the most important thing is this: do your best to live through the pain, and trust that the universe holds alternate paths for you. I hope the new year will improve your outlook as you begin to heal.

Best wishes,

Jules

My counselor friends tell me that going through a divorce is comparable to mourning a death, so on New Year’s Day, I ripped up the letter and set the pieces on fire. I left the ashes for the universe to reclaim.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2015

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Pilgrim

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Over the summer, I gave myself permission to relax. I – mother, wife, teacher, writer, tutor, freelancer, runner, accountant, cook, laundress, housekeeper, chauffeur, homework monitor, dog walker, and giver of hugs – gave myself permission. As if indulging in a good book and an afternoon in the garden are against the rules. As if rest is a transgression. Absurd. And yet, I found it irritating and difficult to do fewer of the things that keep me busy and more of the things that keep me happy.

I promised myself a summer of reading and writing, going back to beginnings as I’d resolved at the start of the year. Lacking the ability to travel, I sent my imagination to distant places through the eyes of others. Tamar Adler and I supplicated ourselves to the ghost of M.F.K. Fisher; Kathe Lison took me to the alpages and fromageries of France. Kirstin Jackson and I toured the States to meet the pioneers of artisanal cheese production. Gary Paul Nabhan, faculty and endowed chair at my alma mater, introduced me to the historical complexities of the spice trade in the Middle East. I shared tears and bittersweet laughter with Anya Von Bremzen, whose reminiscences of Soviet cuisine made me deeply miss my mother. Unconstrained by budget, time, or responsibility, my mind savored its pilgrimages.

But envy crept into my heart. Each of the books I read provided an example of a life I’m not leading: grants I didn’t solicit, award money I didn’t win, opportunities I missed. Rationally, I know that comparing myself to others is not productive or healthy. Rationally, I know that writing is work, and one must write (and submit) constantly in order to be published. Entry fees cost money, which necessitates other work, which in turn constrains the time and space required to write. Someone who lives in a literary desert and devotes entirely too much creative energy to tasks other than writing waits a longer-than-average time for rain.

School resumed and my days have, once again, grown chaotic and unpredictable. I send essays off to contests as much as I can, though not as much as I would like to. I actively seek out reasons to write. It’s a struggle, though, and one day I fear my reasons will dissipate, if my imagination doesn’t first.

My summer of beginnings taught me how challenging the intentional practice of being kind to oneself can be, and, moreover, how challenging it is to convert this practice into changed behavior. For now, I repeat my personal mantra. I turn my back to guilt and jealousy, and try not to think about the algorithms that conspire to make my world smaller. Though I have lessons to plan, homework to grade, and dishes to wash, I write towards my dream.

For further reading:

An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler. Filled with practical suggestions for preparing, serving, and storing ingredients, Adler models her own writing after the work of the mighty M.F.K. Fisher. My only complaint about this book is that I didn’t write it first.

The Whole Fromage by Kathe Lison. Do not – I repeat, do not – give this book to a cheese-loving Francophile unless you also intend to purchase his/her airfare abroad. This book filled me with such a powerful longing to follow in Lison’s footsteps that I swilled an entire bottle of cabernet, then erupted in an inconsolable (and petulant) crying jag about my meaningless life. If you must, buy the book and a bottle of wine to give to your friend, but stick around to provide comfort as she sniffles into her wineglass.

It’s Not You, It’s Brie by Kirstin Jackson. Perfect for any curd nerd, and slightly less depressing because Jackson’s U.S. destinations seem more attainable. If, however, you are one of the curd nerds in my life, might I suggest waiting until after your next birthday to look into a copy?

Cumin, Camels, and Caravans by Gary Paul Nabhan. Informative and thorough, with wonderful profiles about the spices of the world, Nabhan’s writing almost convinced me to go back to grad school. Almost.

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking by Anya Von Bremzen. The author and her mother cook meals that go back in time and personal history as far as the start of the last century. Her whip smart voice and vocabulary could knock a person over.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2014

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Back to Beginnings

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Shot at night in low light with a flash… and four friends willing to be scalded in the process of capturing a single good photo. This, to me, signifies true love.

In this new year, I find myself going back to beginnings. Eater Provocateur started as a creative outlet for my inner MFK Fisher, a vehicle for self-expression with the side benefit of bringing culinary joy to others.  Entering the teaching arena diverted my energy, dividing my attention inequitably: scales tipped towards the classroom, leaving behind the whispered remnants of a blog, dusted with shreds of faded photographs past.  These days, I write as often as I can (which is not as regularly as I would like). I cook only rarely, and my camera and my food intersect awkwardly, like lovers who have grown apart but still try to maintain the pretense of an intimate relationship. Thinking of my forsaken blog causes me to wince.

Friends advise that I shouldn’t worry about my absence from the electronic world. They are, in ways, right – isn’t it more important that I engage as a human being among fellow humans? Logically, this makes sense, but it doesn’t ease the guilt of abandonment or the mourning for the lost solace of each passing day. A blog is like a child or a spouse: it requires constant, devoted attention. The reciprocation, once provided, sustains the giver. Deprived of such dynamics, the partners stray. I have been wandering in the weeds.

Nevertheless, I am blessed with friends who want, earnestly, to help keep me on track. If I make French onion soup, with toasted baguettes topped with bubbling smoked Gouda, they rally around me in support, armed with oven mitts and professional-grade cameras… a boon to a girl who started a blog with an Elph and a dream.

So I’m going back to my roots. I used to think an ambitious person could market herself in the food world and succeed according to the effort she put forth. Adulthood, and Amanda Hesser’s Food52 advice to budding food writers, convinced me otherwise. Realistically, the reach of my writing is constrained by the economic sensibilities of geographic distribution. Publishing trends and books sales are similarly disheartening. The modern literary forum is so different from that which fostered MFK Fisher and Julia Child. That knowledge is, reluctantly, and maybe must be by necessity, okay with me.

I’m still a girl with a food dream. It would be awesome to one day realize my life in terms of writing about food for a greater purpose; I’m just not there yet. I couldn’t have started this blog without the help of the friends and readers who buoy me, without those shouts of support right from the beginning. Thank you for joining me on this blog’s journey so far. Let’s make this a great year to get back to our roots… together.

Happy New Year!

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2014

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Resolutions

A space of my own. Mostly.

Patience
Virginia Woolf espoused the notion that a woman needs a private space of her own in which to write.  Natalia Ginzburg writes that “the birth and development of a vocation needs space, space and silence.”  One of the biggest challenges that I face is finding the silence in which to concentrate and develop ideas for writing.  I don’t have an office or studio.  I live and work in the same location.   There are few private spaces in a house with an open, circular floor plan, which necessitates writing in unusual places, such as the bathroom or the garage.  I completed this essay in my son’s closet, as he and my daughter played on the Xbox downstairs.

My first task for the new year was to set up a writing station in the kitchen.  I hope its presence will act as a visual declaration to my family so that I do not have to once again reiterate: “I am at work.  Please do not disturb or distract me.  Every distraction you make detracts from my productivity and hinders my creative verve.”  I am aware that I sound like a jerk, particularly to my husband, who grew up accustomed to the stimulation of computers, gaming, and the steady ambient noise of two younger brothers and a garrulous dad.

For me, writing is like running: a compulsion that can only be satisfied when completed.  I get antsy when I can’t write.  Even a quick writing session is enough to soothe me.  I need to write.  It is not something I can do if you are sitting two feet away from me, fingers tapping furiously on your keyboard as you Google chat while listening to Rihanna on the fancy pancake-sized earphones you got for Christmas.  Je. Suis. Désolé.

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Industry
I am blessed with friends who support my food habit.  My friend, Casey, is one such friend.  Casey is tall and statuesque, with long blond hair that she styles impeccably and a bright, encouraging smile.  She is the type of person who photographs well.  (I am not.)  She loves life and is usually the person laughing the loudest at a party.  Casey is the greatest personal ambassador I could hope for.

Last fall, Casey sponsored me on Mightybell so that I could develop a clearer strategy for achieving my writing goals.  After months of inactivity and a litany of daily emails urging me to “step up,” I finally logged on to answer various prompts about what I want from my career.  One of the prompts required me to write down my resolutions – all of them, no matter how absurd or unattainable. Though I generally eschew making resolutions because I get depressed when my resolve inevitably wanes, I made my list.  I did not hold back.  Here it is:

*Make myself indispensible to Jean Louis.
*Start the Park City chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International. (Though I don’t live in Park City, the location offers me a larger, more knowledgeable group of potential members, with the added perk of getting to spend a lot more time there.)
*Get a working manuscript in order.
*Submit to the MFK Fisher essay competition.
*Eat more cheese.
*Cook more, preferably in the company of other people who like to cook.
*Write more, preferably in the sunlit silence of a newly created kitchen nook.
*Beg Jenni Ferrari-Adler to be my agent.

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Abandon
My family spent the holidays in South Carolina.  We are all enthusiastic eaters, so most of our time together involved food and sampling new restaurants.  We even ventured to Atlanta, where we ate an unforgettable meal at the Six Feet Under Pub and Fish House on Memorial Drive, situated directly across the street from Atlanta’s historic Oakland Cemetery.

You know that warm feeling you get when you first realize you’re falling in love?  Or maybe that slight giddy high you feel after you complete a deadline that’s been stealing your sleep for weeks? This electrifying establishment reaffirmed my belief that culinary magic exists.

How else can I explain two generous appetizers – spicy ‘rat’ toes (bacon-wrapped jalapenos encasing a shrimp goodie) with a side of ranch dressing, and a combo of three soft tacos topped with fried calamari, blackened shrimp, and catfish, served with a garnish of a thick salsa verde – shared among four adults; a couple of Shock Top Heffs, an enormous mound of bite-sized fried alligator tail pieces, and a side of Killer Cole Slaw?  I’m a little gal, and that was just my dinner portion.  We also partook in generous samplings from each other: a spoonful (or eight) of shrimp and grits, and a taste (or several) of the fish stew, a medley of tomatoes, fennel, mussels, scallops, shrimp, and cod.  We all whined about how full we were.  We all did not stop shoveling it in, sighing and saying things like: “This is the most amazing thing I’ve eaten in a long time,” and “Why can’t I get food like this where I live?” and “Do you think they would hire me to just stand outside and stare in the windows longingly?”

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Passion
I love cheese.  I just finished reading Gordon Edgar’s Cheesemonger, an informative book that I’d recommend to any fellow turophile.  The cheese area at Whole Foods is one of my happy places.  I like to sweep the display cases once, then double back to devote deeper attention to the arrangements of patterns and colors on display.  I love the variations in the colors of rinds: the deep eggplant against the milky white of the drunken goat; the buttery yellow gouda sealed in red wax; the grass green lettering on the white seal of slim wedges of nutty fontina val d’aosta.  My cells sing as I caress the wedges, relishing their smooth heft in my palm.  I hold them close to my face, studying their texture and unique bubbling.  I breathe them in.  Edgar’s book confirms that this sort of rapturous, proto-sexual behavior often occurs among his customers and acquaintances. “Any cheese worker will tell you that the cheese counter is often a place of flirtation,” writes Edgar.  “The smells and lusciousness of cheese bring out lust in people.  Cheese lends itself to hedonism and excess.” Cheese love is real.

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Cardinal Virtues
Unfortunately, my family also had an unforgettable meal of another sort on our trip: at Cracker Barrel, of all places.  We arrived there at 11 o’clock on a sunny Monday.  Our waiter, Al, promptly took our table’s order, serving four biscuits and three little packages of jam to our table of six.  We were all very hungry, so we shared the four biscuits, thinking more would come soon.  We waited.  They did not come.  Ice popped in my water glass.  Country music piped from the speakers.  A crowd of customers stood in the foyer waiting to be seated; wafts of air tickled my cheeks as the hostesses seated people around us: talking, laughing, looking forward to biscuits. Al, a tall man of bear-like comportment, had somehow magically camouflaged his broad white shirt amidst the restaurant’s old-time tchotchkes, so we asked other servers to please bring us more biscuits and jam.  The biscuits didn’t arrive, but our food did.

Al reappeared, chucking three small packages of jam – but no biscuits – in my direction, strewing them across the table.  Did we need anything else?  Syrup, please, we said in unison, and a few more biscuits.  No syrup came.  No biscuits.  We asked Al again and the server who followed him: Please, could we have syrup and a few more biscuits?  When my soda ran low, Al refilled it – unbidden – from a juice glass, reaching directly over my head and spilling it onto my plate and the table.  Caramel brown fluid pooled under my perfectly runny yolks, forming a small carbonated swamp next to the cheesy hash browns.  We were still eating when Al began removing our plates.  He didn’t ask if we were finished.  He absconded with my son’s fork, my daughter’s water, and my brother’s grits.

Prudence: Since most of Al’s hostility seemed to be directed at me, perhaps he mistook me for a customer who had stiffed him recently.  People often mistake me for someone else.  Maybe the restaurant had received a smaller delivery of biscuits than they anticipated and management decreed a moratorium on biscuits that day.  There are any number of random, converging forces that might have caused the weirdness of that particular meal on that particular day.

Temperance: I asked a cashier for a comment card.  She informed me that the establishment didn’t have any.  Would I like to talk to a manager or leave a note?  The cashier adjacent to her suggested that I could post my comments online.  I smiled, thanking him, but informing him that the restaurant probably would not appreciate the comments I was poised to make at that moment.

Justice: I learned later that my mother-in-law had spoken with the manager as I wrote a note of complaint.

Fortitude: I respect servers – they are vehicles for deliciousness.  I tip well.  I refrain from making unnecessary food enemies.  It was right to complain about Al’s poor, unprofessional service.  None of this lessened the tremor in my hand as I enumerated the specific examples that comprised my complaint.

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Aspirations
It’s important to have aspirations: small, easily achievable goals, like painting a wall in the kitchen or cleaning the litter box; and loftier, oversized dreams, such as collaborating on a cookbook with (and ultimately making myself indispensible to) a certain French restaurateur in Park City whose name rhymes with Pick Me!  Chances are Mr. Adorable doesn’t need my help, but what if he does?  What if, in stating my dream out loud, this chef is suddenly struck with an overwhelming desire to put out a cookbook?  Perhaps he’s always wanted to create one, but was hindered by time or linguistic constraints.  Perhaps he has stories he’s hoped to share with the world. He just might find it pleasing to see his face on the cover of a whimsical, yet well-written collection of recipes from his youth.  Aspirations hide in the unconscious until something (or someone) triggers them, and then suddenly they spring forth with trumpets and fanfare: Of course I want to do this!  Why haven’t I thought of doing this before?  I’m just saying, it doesn’t hurt anyone to dream big dreams.  Dreams are free.

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Vision
“My vocation is to write and I have known this for a long time,” writes Ginzburg.  “When I sit down to write I feel extraordinarily at ease, and I move in an element which, it seems to me, I know extraordinarily well; I use tools that are familiar to me and they fit snugly in my hands.” I considered her sentiments as I made my list of resolutions.

Casey contributed a desk to my new space.  I painted the walls in purple, beige, and ivory stripes, and bought a celebratory rubber plant with fiery patterns of yellow and red to admire as I work.  An iron bell hangs over my head.  I’m going to ring it each time I complete an essay in a blissful sunlit spot of my very own.

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