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Mistakes Were Made. Dana Cowin Helps Us Fix Them.

MasteringMistakesKitchenI first became aware of Dana Cowin through my love affair with Top Chef where Cowin, the editor-in-chief of Food & Wine magazine, is a guest judge every season.  Then last fall came her first cookbook, Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen, which went on to become one of our picks for the Best Cookbooks of 2014

Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen is a collection of over 100 recipes that Cowin has become proficient in with the help of some of the best chefs in the country.  Having someone with such a high profile in the food world admit she's not a great cook is really inspiring and reassuring. And you can't beat the opportunity, through the pages of her book, to learn how to perfect simple recipes from people like Eric Ripert and David Chang.

When Dana Cowin was here in Seattle, Erin and I had lunch with her at a fantastic local restaurant, Sitka and Spruce.  Cowin is as lively and fun a person as you could want, and Erin and I had the best time talking to her about cooking, her book, Top Chef, and life in general while enjoying an amazing meal.  Below is a transcript of some of that conversation.

Seira Wilson: So, tell us what it's been like to have your first book published?

Dana Cowin: When your book is out in the world the amount of actual feedback from people is gigantic.  In the magazine world and the digital world--Instagram or blog posts--it's all different time frames, so you get feedback but it’s completely different. This may sound dumb but...I own a lot of cookbooks but I own them to read them. They go to bed with me, they travel with me, I sort of live through them but I don’t cook with them.  But people who buy cookbooks, the next day they're like, "I made this last night and tomorrow night I’m making this, and I’m having a week cooking through your book"--and I’m like, really?? [big smile].  It’s immediate feedback for something that I thought of as such a long term project, so it’s been really fun.

SW: What made you decide to write this book?

DC:  A couple of things:  I did wake up one day and say, "am I ever going to fix all these dumb mistakes I’m making in the kitchen?"  If I am, there’s no time like right now because all these chefs that could help me really are friends, and I’m beyond the point of being able to go to cooking school without being embarrassed.  Although I’ve just written a whole book of humiliations so not sure how that jibes, but that was my thinking--I should hang out with these chef friends of mine and learn something from them. I took recipes that I love and make all the time and learned specific and general lessons for them.  

So part of it was timing: it’s about time to learn to cook.  And then, once I realized I was going to do this for myself, I thought this would be so great to share.  I’m making mistakes on very simple recipes, so it's not like I would be doing an advanced book.  I’d be doing sort of a passionate food person and a beginner person book of recipes. The sharing part wasn’t hard but I did ask a couple people, am I an idiot?  Should I not be telling the entire world  that I don’t know how to cook?  And there were some people at Food & Wine that said, are you sure?  I obviously decided it wasn’t too embarrassing and in fact it turns out to be all kinds of good things.  It’s liberating, it’s educational, and I’m so much on a mission now to learn stuff.  At the end of the day, admitting you're making mistakes is one thing, but the learning from them is the fun part.

SW:  That's so satisfying when you make something and it doesn’t turn out well and you can figure out what went wrong and then do it again and have it work out. 

DC: A lot of chefs, when I told them I was making mistakes and asked them to help me, half of them said, "oh you’re just being hard on yourself" and half of them said, "yeah cooking is really difficult, it’s not always easy."

SW: How did you decide which chefs to work with for each recipe?

DC: The idea was that I would master these recipes, so I went to chefs that really are masters of whatever the heart of the recipe was.  So for example, Michael Symon to do meat, he’s so amazing with  meat, or Mario Batali on a baked pasta. Or Alex Guarnaschelli on anything French or Andrew Zimmern on Asian food.  Because of working with the chefs so much on the magazine, and eating at their restaurants, and calling them obsessively, I felt like I really understand what in their heart they cared the most about and where they would have the most experience to share.  And some of the things I thought, maybe there isn’t so much to teach here, but the chefs, because they do know their topics so deeply, they can go on for hours.  Like José Andrés--I was just trying to make a tomato bruschetta, which is really easy, and sometimes I’d be embarrassed to call and say, hey this is what I’m having a problem with.  But he transformed the bruschetta!  I mean, you end up with tomato jewels, and he told me to use sliced bread instead of the beautiful bread from the market.  He was transformative. Instead of saying, well you should spread the olive oil in a more even layer and be more careful when you toast-- which is sort of what I thought--no! he completely started over, from the beginning.  The bread-- you’re using the wrong bread; then the method--you’re using the wrong method; then the tomatoes-- here's a new way to do tomatoes.  So I had these three revelatory things on what I thought was the simplest recipe in the book. 

SW:  Do you have a favorite recipe that you’ve mastered as a result of working with the chefs.

DC:  There’s only one recipe in the book that I hadn’t tried before I began and it’s my favorite thing to eat in the whole world, which is fried chicken. I was really afraid of fried chicken, the bubbling oil... If you can imagine, someone who has trouble toasting bread--I can burn bread really easily--the idea of bubbling oil and chicken was really scary.  But it turns out the method that I use is a shallow fry, so you flip it, and it’s not scary at all.  So I feel like that was the biggest challenge because I was most afraid of it, but it turned out well and that was the greatest day. I love that I can actually now make fried chicken.

SW: How fun is it being a guest judge on Top Chef?

DC: It's so fun.  I love Top Chef for so many reasons...for one thing, getting exposed to all the cooking styles of all these different people.  I try to remember who’s who after I leave the set, because inevitably many of them--not all but many--go on to have really interesting careers.  Like, randomly, when I was on set judging whatever season Kristen Kish was on, I remember her dish so well--it really, really stood out among 20.  Sometimes I’m at the end and sometimes at the beginning [of the season], but it really stood out. I told myself: remember this girl, remember this girl.  And among the whole, she turned out to be so talented. 

EK: The creativity is always so stunning too, under pressure and the things they come up with.

DC: Yes, and the guest judges are often really fun.  I did a Top Chef Duels and I was at the table with Pink. How cool is that!?  So I’m sitting here with Pink--I’d read about her in New York magazine and I looked her up once I knew she would be there, but she’s amazing!  She really does love food, but she  was really delicate about offering her opinion because she’s surrounded by people who do nothing but talk about food all day.  But she had great insights and great humor.  And of course I love Gail Simmons, and Tom [Colicchio].  And wherever you travel is fun, they try to make it fun for the viewers and it’s fun for the guests.

DC: Actually, the last time I was here [in Seattle] was for Top Chef.  I love Renee Erickson, anything she does I think is so great.  And we have a bunch of Food & Wine best new chefs from Seattle that I’m very partial to, of course.  And Canlis, and Ethan Stowell, and Matt [Dillon, chef at Sitka and Spruce and past winner of Food & Wine's Best New Chef award], of course. 

We started talking about the bounty of good cookbooks that had come out or were about to release, including Dominique Ansel's gorgeous cookbook (also a Best of 2014 selection), Dominique Ansel: The Secret Recipes

DC: He’s the most creative chef in America and he applies it all to pastry.  And, he has a great backstory.  We did a piece on him for the magazine where I learned a bunch of this…so he grew up very poor and he ended up working for Fauchon, launching Fauchon in Russia, and certain things mystified him--like these women who would come to work at like 3:00 in the morning, which is when bakers come to work, but they’d come in full make-up and skimpy clothing and he was like, you guys, you’re working the line, you’re making pastry here, these clothes are not appropriate.  But it turned out they were hookers!

SW: Hooker slash baker?

DC: Yes, a new job hybrid we hadn’t heard of before: the hooker-baker.  He’s so well known for the cronut--a cross between a croissant and a doughnut and layers of something delicious in it as well, it’s not just pastry.  But everything he does is amazing. Everything.  It’s almost unfair that he’s so well known for one thing because he has so many other things that are so good.

EK:  Is the cronut everything they say?  Is it just amazing or?

DC: It is, it’s delicious. And I think it’s great to have that much of what my daughter would call "a thing.”

SW: What do you think is going to be the next “thing?”

DC: I think it’s the éclair.  Not in the cronut way, where it’s one person’s genius idea--I think that strikes about once every 5 years... So first it was the cupcake, then the doughnut tried but never really made it…now we think it’s going to be éclairs.

SW: Variations of the éclair?

DC: That’s it.  Because there’s so many amazing variations, you can fill it with anything.  It’s such a perfect delivery system for layers of cream and butter and pastry and something that’s slick and glossy and sweet on it.  It’s got a lot going on.

Dana Cowin also has a lot going on--traveling, eating, making our mouths water via her Twitter posts, and no doubt mastering more recipes.

Wild at Heart: The Dark Center of Tim Johnston's "Descent"

Descent2015 may be young, but Tim Johnston's Descent has positioned itself as an early frontrunner for year-end best-of  lists. The surprise bestseller's plot is straight-up thriller: On the eve of daughter Caitlin's departure for college, the Courtlands drive into the Rocky Mountains for one last true family vacation--with the parents Grant and Angel desperately hoping that the setting will repair their faltering marriage. But when Caitlin and her younger brother set out on a morning run, only Sean returns, and with a badly broken leg. Caitlin has disappeared into the mountains by way of a stranger's car.

The wilderness that was to be a place of new beginnings has  become a character of its own, looming over the family and alive with jagged spires and forbidding forest, accelerant to the family's terror, grief, and self-doubt. Johnston not only pulls off this transition, but elevates his story with believable characters, impeccable pacing, and prose that serves up palpable tension, as well as serving the book's literary aspirations. This all sounds a bit hyperbolic (mixed-metaphor-inspiring, even), but Descent is that good. 

Of course, this isn't the first tale to use Nature as a key player, so we asked author Johnston for his own list of books featuring wilderness as an active force.


Environment as Character: Five Essential Novels

by Tim Johnston

The Rocky Mountains are more than a kind of character in Descent; they are the book's essential and ruling antagonist. For the Courtlands, the book's four protagonists, the realization that the mountains are not the picturesque American playground they've driven up from the plains to enjoy, comes too late, and after their 18-year-old daughter vanishes, the family sees the Rockies for what they really are, which is the same boundless, pathless, godforsaken place into which a great number of Americans far hardier than themselves once vanished forever.  Thereafter this landscape becomes so much more than majestic, astounding, or even otherworldly; it become sinister.  It becomes a world of malicious intent, no less cruel or comprehensible from one day to the next.  



Deliverance by James Dickey

A wild Appalachian river pulses through this novel like the story's own jugular vein, but its finest passage is when Ed must climb above the river, in the darkness, on a sheer face of rock. With superhuman attention to detail, Dickey transforms Ed into a being a pure sensation, and transforms the reader into Ed. You do not breathe. You do not dare look down.

The Shipping News

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

Life-battered Quoyle washes up on the shores of Newfoundland and is marooned among a citizenry as hard and wind-scoured as the rock they call home. The image that stands out and represents both the outer and inner landscapes is the ancestral Quoyle homestead that is kept from being blown off its cliff into the sea by guy wires that cry like furies in the wind.

The Road

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Having once sent me, in Blood Meridian, into a 19th Century American West before it was transformed by expansionist violence and the industrial revolution, McCarthy now immerses me in an America far down the road of its self-destruction, a lightless, ash-buried, bone-chilling world that is by far the most desolate he's ever conjured—and yet also includes a single heartening, and heartbreaking, flame of love.


Plainsong by Kent Haruf

Here is McCarthy's Wild West in the modern era, as arid and unforgiving as ever, but populated now by a less violent and somehow more resilient breed of American—in particular two old-as-Moses brothers who go out day after bitter day to tend to their cattle and who find themselves, all of the sudden, surrogate fathers to one young woman who needs shelter from the harsh world. The title evokes the spirit and the artistry of the book: Plainsong.

Islands in the Stream

Islands in the Stream by Ernest Hemingway

The opening pages so beautifully evoke Thomas Hudson's house that the reader cannot miss that the description is really about the man himself, his heart and his soul as we find them at the novel's outset. Likewise, as Tom suffers heartbreaking loss, the novel moves into a harrowing tale of the hunt for German U-boats in the Florida Keys, and those waters come to represent the dangers that lurk beneath every human heart that dares to open itself to love.



Descent is a selection for's Best Books of the Month in Mystery, Thriller & Suspense.


Graphic Novel Friday: The Death of Wolverine

Let’s all admit that Wolverine will survive The Death of Wolverine. He’s been through worse (like that time he went to Hell), and he’s too much of a revenue generator to cut from Marvel’s publishing plan. Character deaths and rebirths are part of what make superhero comics…superhero comics. These stories are larger than life, grandiose—they have to be, because their characters must continue to exist with little change while the real world constantly changes around them. So, where does that leave The Death of Wolverine, Marvel’s latest event? Let’s take a look, bub.

Thanks to a healing factor, Wolverine famously doesn’t have to sweat the little things that most of us do: bullets, old age, having experimental metal grafted to his bones, blood-poisoning from said metal, and so on. In The Death of Wolverine, however, all of that changes. As Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four explains to him in a particularly fun scene:

“You have lost your healing factor. The problem is that everything you do—your entire physical structure—is built around the fact that you can rapidly heal from almost any injury. Or…you could.”

Richards then tells Wolverine that he cannot even use his claws, because there is the risk of infection. I mean, come on, Reed! This is a Wolverine comic, where the popping of claws with a “Snikt!” is a prerequisite. Never fear, though, because word on the villain circuit has already spread that it’s open season on short, hairy Canucks, and a host of mercenaries from Wolvie’s past have come to claim the bounty. Snikts are sure to abound.

Steve McNiven illustrates a tired Wolverine: he’s saved the world more times than Buffy, and he’s attended far too many funerals for dead girlfriends. McNiven displays all of this history through facial lines and grooves, finely tuned grimaces, and wearied stances. Wolverine braces himself against trees, rocks, and the occasional bar, but when his cabin in the woods is threatened, he’s still the best there is at what he does (and what McNiven does is make it look pretty).

Writer Charles Soule ignores Reed Richards’ orders and pits Wolverine against a “This is Your Life” cast of characters, requiring claws, claws, and an occasional head-butt. Soule uses repetition in clipped narrative boxes to remind readers that everything hurts: “Pain. Hands.” For all the violence, Soule’s script also allows for fun beats, like the slow opening reveal, or when Wolverine shows up in the back of a club with his hair slicked back, sunglasses on indoors, and two attractive women on his arms: “Hey man. Have a seat,” he nonchalantly says, but with enough menace that nobody could refuse.

It’s easy to approach a title like The Death of Wolverine with cynicism. We’ve been here before, sure, and I read it thinking I knew how it would end—not a death-death but rather the death of a persona. But wait! By the time I reached its rooftop conclusion, my nerd nostalgia dial cranked to 11, Wolverine can still surprise. There’s life yet in this Snikt.



Miranda July on "The First Bad Man"

Filmmaker, artist and writer Miranda July has penned a hilariously irreverent and oddly romantic novel The First Bad Manin The First Bad Man. It also happens to be an achingly tender treatise on love and motherhood. But it's quite a wild ride getting there.

I wasn't prepared for how moved I would be at the end of The First Bad Man, especially when, at the beginning, you're more likely to cringe than to cry. Which part came more naturally for you to write?

The second half was easier to write--but only after I'd had my baby.  I handed in my first draft in the day before I gave birth and the second half of it was definitely a bit fuzzy--I knew how it ended and but I wasn't sure how Cheryl got there. Becoming a mother made me new again, I felt reset to zero and wildly emotional. Which is a handy thing to have happen in the midst of a long project. That said, I wrote a million versions of Phillip's return at the end of the book. When I had finally built the brain that could write final version I remember typing very slowly and quietly like it might run away if I typed too fast.

When people think of a heroine, they typically don't envision someone like Cheryl. And yet, it's actually the baser, hilariously insane aspects of her personality--her humanness--that make her a more relatable one, and one you want to root for. What was the inspiration behind that character?

Well, I identify with her a lot. She's a very familiar sort of shadow--I've done everything I possibly can not to be inert and lost in fantasy like her, but at my core I am a woman living alone, miles from any kind of human contact and feeling sort of righteous and comfortable with that. I say this having been happily partnered for ten years now--it has nothing to do with the actual life I'm living. But...Cheryl isn't knowing or politicized, she was never a punk, she doesn't listen to music--it was our differences that set me free to go full tilt with her character. I've made these movies that, because of my performance background, I conceive of without starring in. And because I'm no great thespian, I felt they had to be a person like me, at least superficially. It's a strange limitation because I'm actually the kind of writer who needs some distance from a character to really inhabit them. There's no one I could "play" in this book and that was a great relief.

The First Bad Man, among other things, examines how motherhood changes a person. How has Miranda Julybeing a mother affected you as an artist?

There's less time to think about what I feel, which for me is a good thing. I'm forced to keep moving, keep experiencing in the real world. I still dissassociate and tune out every chance I can get, but the sheer fact that I have less time to do this makes me approach it in a new way. Basically I deal with my problems, my inner problems, a little more quickly, rather than getting used to them. In terms of creativity, I've noticed that I’m having most of my new ideas as I wake up or go to sleep--it's as if these are the only moments when I'm relaxed enough for the ideas to make it through the door of my conscious mind. They see it hanging open and they (the ideas) say "Go! Go! Go!" and rush through the door like a SWAT team. That's how it feels. I will say all my fears about creative life ending with motherhood were unfounded. If you have enough time to do your work (and that's a big if--you need some money to afford childcare) you certainly only feel more and experience a more diverse range of empathies--all good things for an artist.

This story is a great read, but it's also cinematic in many ways. When you first conceived of The First Bad Man, why a novel as opposed to a screenplay, and would you like to adapt it for film at some point?

I actually did have trouble settling down to the idea of writing a novel. For the first few months I would throw out ideas for who might play Cheryl and Clee, all the while knowing that no one would play them, I would simply describe them. Eventually it was a joy to be writing a book and not making a movie--it wasn't the torture that I had come to expect with a long creative project. With writing you are in control every second, so the discomfort never gets beyond internal agony; you're not hiring and firing and making costly mistakes. I don't have any interest in seeing the novel as a movie now--it's done. But I do feel like it taught me a ton that I can apply to my next movie.

This novel pretty much literalizes the idiom "knocking some sense into someone."  It's an aspect of the book that's a bit shocking when it's first introduced. In this day and age when we've become increasingly desensitized to violence, do you find that, as an artist, it's more difficult to conjure meaningful responses from an audience?

I have yet to see if my violence conjures meaningful responses but I imagine that the desensitization works in my favor--when you're used to seeing the same things again and again (male attacker, bad outcome)  it is jarring to see violence taking a completely different role in a story.

Do you foresee a day when the Victoria Secret catalog arrives and the model on the cover is donning a long green corduroy dress with many buttons?

What's interesting is that the Victoria's Secret model is sold to all of us--men and women (and children!), old people, gay people. Those breasts hover over all of us, like the sun. So if you have someone in your life who looks like that, as Cheryl suddenly does, then perhaps you sexualize her even without wanting to. Or wanting to but not understanding why. And when you sexualize her do you imagine yourself with her? Or a man? Do you become that man? Does that make you gay? No, it just makes you a good consumer. I'm not sure the dress will make it in to the VS catalog but yesterday I was meeting up with a curator, Jeffrey Deitch, and he said "Look! I wore my lesbian suit for you!" It took me a moment to catch on: it was a green, corduroy suit.

See more of the Best Books of January.

YA Wednesday: Best Books of January

In the last couple of years January has been a really strong month for YA.  Consider 2012's The Fault in Our Stars, 2013's Just One Day, and last year's Hollow CityAll January, all stand outs for the year.  2015 is no exception and as happens some months when there is too much goodness to be celebrated, this month there are six Best Books of the Month in YA, including the spotlight, Jennifer Niven's All the Bright Places.  Here is a little taste of three of the best books this month:


All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
Violet and Theodore (Finch) are teens at opposite ends of the popularity spectrum who are drawn together by personal tragedy and a bell tower ledge. Their story is told from alternating points of view, and my feelings of pity, anger, and compassion, swung from one to the other until both were exposed as broken, fragile, and buoyed by the other.  All the Bright Places hits the same notes as other recent YA favorites--love, heartbreak, death--and Niven does an amazing job of expressing through her characters how life sometimes makes no sense and all we can do is try to show up for the people we love and let them love us back.  This is story that you feel as much as read.

Vivian Apple at the End of the World by Katie Coyle
Vivian Apple lives in a world that has been slowly overtaken by The Church of America--they run the media, own the major retailers, and nearly everyone in her town and across the country is a Believer.  On the date of the church divined Rapture, chaos breaks out because suddenly thousands of people--including Vivian's parents and neighbors--disappear.  And so begins a coming-of-age story of how a 17-year-old girl who liked to play things safe ends up on a long distance road trip with her in-your-face best friend Harp, looking for answers about the end of the world.  Funny, quirky, and wise--a great novel to shake up the new year.

The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black
Who better than Holly Black for our first great fantasy of the year?  The Darkest Part of the Forest is a fairytale for those of us who loved the Grimm's stories as children and never stopped wanting more.  Fairfold is a town of humans who have fairy folk in their forest including a prince who lies entombed in a glass coffin while the local teenagers drink beer and party around him. Everything is status quo until the day the glass is broken and the fairy prince's freedom kicks off a war between the magical, the mortal, and those in between--particularly Hazel and Ben and their friend, Jack. The Darkest Part of the Forest reads like a classic fairytale only the themes of betrayal and longing speak to a teen or adult sensibility.

The other titles we picked as the Best YA Books of January are:

There Will Be Lies by Nick Lake - A contemporary story with a soupcon of supernatural from the Printz-winning author of In Darkness, this is a twisty, emotionally charged read that keeps you guessing.

Twisted Fate by Norah Olson - Two sisters who couldn't be more different each develop a relationship with newcomer Graham and nothing is as it seems in this stealthy psychological thriller.

Hellhole by Gina Damico - I really love a funny novel and Gina Damico (the author of Croak) delivers a lot of laughs in this story of a geeky highschooler stuck with the house guest from hell. Literally. 


The Book That Changed My Life

TidyingUpI know that sounds really dramatic, but it's 100% true.  The book is The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing and it has done for me what no other organizational books, articles, tips, or personal threats, have been able to do--it got my sh*t together.

This slim volume is no nonsense but also gentle and understanding of those of us who have tried repeatedly to clear out closets and household space with limited success.  Why did this work where others have failed?  I believe it's author Marie Kondo's unique method, both physical and mental, for eliminating things we do not need but have struggled to part with.  She has different criteria for different types of items--clothing, books, memorabilia, etc.,--and I'm telling you, if you follow her simple instructions freedom from clutter can be yours.

As a result of reading and following The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I gave away seven (!!) giant trash bags of clothes and shoes, and went from two and a half closets and a 6-drawer dresser down to a single closet and 3 drawers.  And I still feel like I have a lot of clothes!  My clutter-free clothing space has made getting ready much more pleasurable, and thanks to the lasting effects of going through this process, when I've been tempted to buy something that is almost perfect, I put it back on the rack.

I haven't done my books yet, but Kondo's approach for purging books actually makes sense to me--and I'm a self-identified neurotic when it comes to my books--so instead of feeling anxious about doing it, I feel calm and eager to reclaim more of my space.  I just need to bring home some boxes because I know I'm going to end up getting rid of A LOT--and it will feel really, really, good.


From the Archives: Sonali Deraniyagala's Memoir of Surviving 2004's Tsunami

Sonali-Deraniyagala-Wave-credit-Ann-BillingsleyLast week marked the 10-year anniversary of the massive tsunami that roared across the Indian Ocean and devasted the coastlines of fourteen countries. One of the deadlist natural disasters in modern history, the tsunami took the lives of more than 230,000 people, including the parents, husband, and two children of Sonali Deraniyagala, who was vacationing with her family at a Sri Lankan beach resort.

Sonali's devastating account of the tsunami, Wave, was an Amazon Best of the Month "Spotlight" pick in March of 2013. It was also a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, and was selected as a 2013 Best Book of the Year by Amazon, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Newsday, People, and Goodreads. 

This post first appeared in March of 2013.


Memoir seems to be the theme of this month's Best Books of the Month list, which boasts an amazing collection of brave and deeply personal explorations. In fact, brave is the buzz word of the month, appearing in a few of our editors' reviews for March. These compelling first-person stories--all written by women, and mostly about overcoming hardship--include Sheryl Sandberg's bold and inspiring Lean In; Christa Parravani's "brave, raw, and ultimately uplifting" Her; and Emily Rapp's "magnificently written" The Still Point of the Turning World.

But the book that tops our list is the one that left many of us shaking our heads in awe, Sonali Deraniyagala's incredible Wave.

Some books unfold with obvious menace, suggesting, “This won’t end well.” Wave declares on page one--“the ocean looked a little closer”--this won’t even start well. But I’m urging you, dear reader, not to look away.

In an unblinking act of storytelling, Deraniyagala ruthlessly chronicles the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami that horrifically snatched from her all that mattered. Throughout this fierce and furious book, I kept wondering how someone who lost so much could write about it with such power, economy and grace. At first, she shrieks and grieves openly, angrily; for years she remains stunned and staggered, shamed by “the outlandish truth of me.” Then, slowly, she allows herself to remember, sharing vivid glimpses of her past.

WaveWe see, hear, and smell two rowdy little boys, their brotherly scuffling, their muddy shoes and grass stains. By confronting and recreating moments that make us laugh and weep, we accept their absence and root for the author not to give up. As Deraniyagala's unthinkable loss becomes “distilled,” she finds herself “no longer cradled by shock.” She survives. And she does so by allowing herself to ache and to remember. By keeping the pain close, by embracing the unthinkable, she keeps alive her precious memories.

Difficult to describe, tricky to recommend, this is a bold and wondrous book. In a wounded voice that manages to convey the snide, sarcastic, funny, and fatalistic personality that survives beneath the suffering, Deraniyagala slowly pieces together the elements that represent the life--the lives--she lost. And she magically brings them back. For us, for her, for them. So brave, so beautiful, in these pages Deraniyagala’s family is brilliantly alive. And so is she. 


365 Days of Wonder to Start the New Year

365DaysWonderR.J. Palacio's Wonder is still one of my favorite books and continues to be discovered and cherished by kids and adults.  In the novel, Auggie's 5th grade English teacher, Mr. Browne, introduces the kids to precepts and tasks them with coming up with some of their own. 

In her companion book, 365 Days of Wonder: Mr. Browne's Book of Precepts, Palacio includes a precept for every day of the year, some of which were submitted by Wonder readers, along with peeks at our favorite characters' lives after Wonder ends.  This seems like a fitting book to share as we step into 2015 and below are a few of the precepts you'll find within its pages.

If, like me, you can't help but want more of Auggie, Mr. Browne, and the wonder of Wonder, Palacio wrote The Julian Chapter: A Wonder Story, a kindle short story that became one of our best-selling kindle children's books of 2014.  In 2015 we have another one to look forward to, titled Pluto: A Wonder Story (available February 10).   Here's hoping your new year starts off with books you already love and the joy of discovering new ones.




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December 8

A Boat, a Whale & A Walrus Walk Into a...Conversation with Renee Erickson

BoatWhaleWalrusRenee Erickson has earned local and national accolades for her Seattle restaurants over the last couple of years and this fall penned her first cookbook which we promptly chose as a Best Cookbook of October and recently a Best Cookbook of 2014

A Boat, a Whale & A Walrus--named for three of her restaurants: Boat Street Cafe, The Whale Wins, and The Walrus and the Carpenter--is a collection of seasonal menus with personal stories, lots of extras (how-to make a nice cheese plate, favorite holiday wines, intros to local purveyors and family, etc.,), and absolutely gorgeous photographs. It's a cookbook you want to own yourself and also give to your favorite people.

Like the restaurants that inspired it, A Boat, a Whale & A Walrus is relaxed, friendly, and strikingly elegant.   I met up with Erickson a little while ago at The Whale Wins to talk about cooking, restaurants, and what's next.

Seira Wilson:  You own four restaurants and a food truck now, was it easier/less stressful to open the third and fourth restaurant vs. the first?

Renee Erickson: My life’s changed so dramatically since we opened Boat Street, even four years ago when we opened Walrus, that was the big push.  I think more mentally and emotionally because the business itself is packed with stress. 

It was hard to not be at Boat Street all the time, that was the biggest challenge, it was hard to let other people make decisions and be creative and do stuff, but at the end of the day it’s your name and reputation and so that was challenging. 

IMG_2329Then you get really emotionally attached to your guests and you miss them and want to see them and for a long time it was hard, I felt like I was disappointing everyone a little bit because I couldn’t be everywhere. But I think you just kind of get used to it over time. 

Opening two was hard, opening this one [Whale Wins] was much  harder--it’s easy to split your time between two places, but having a third was..for all of us, Jeremy (my business partner), Chad and I, we all were like "whoa" [laughs].  We opened up thinking we could do things the same as the other two but we couldn't so we've been building our infrastructure. With two [restaurants] one of us could be there all the time, but now we need to have people available to do all the things we did and help manage the behind the scenes stuff.

SW: What's a typical day for you?  Do you go to certain restaurants on certain days or..?

RE:  Historically I sort of had a schedule, but now with the book...and with Whale and Walrus there have been lots of photo shoots, stuff for magazines, and that takes priority over my schedule and kind of dictates where I am right now.   It's good, it's exciting, it's always different.  Now it's more that I feel like I'm letting my staff down if I'm not there enough.  We did a photo shoot for Art Culinaire, that was super exciting and stressful because it's sort of a fancy food magazine that I was like, "really? you want me in it?"  because the one that's out right now is all full of Thomas Keller, so I was really nervous and spent two long days getting everything ready and right but it was great, everything turned out really well.

SW: When does that come out? 

RE: April, their 114th issue, it’s all about oysters, so we did a lot of cool dishes. 

SW: It's been so amazing, Bon Appetit Best Restaurant...

RE: I know, two years in a row, it sort of blew my mind. I'm definitely surprised by it all. I've sort of been doing the same thing all along, but I think the timing, all the food mania, is now.

SW: Where do you go, or what do you make at home, at the end of a long night when you’re starving?

RE: If I go out after a long night it's Delancey.  At home, sardines--canned sardines.  Historically, probably cheese and crackers--whatever cheese is in the fridge, glass of wine. Or really plain pasta--something simple.  If it’s in the summer, tomato and basil, or whatever’s around.  Anchovies and chilies.  Love canned sardines.

ClamsSW: Do you have a favorite recipe from A Boat, a Whale & A Walrus?

RE: That’s hard--it’s like your favorite kid or something. It was so much fun. Things I eat the most?  The clams, something I crave and want to eat all the time [Manila Clams from the Sunday at Home chapter]. I love rice pudding, this one’s crazy delicious [Honeyed Rice Pudding Pots from the Lummi Island Spot Prawn Dinner chapter].  Doesn’t photograph well but…  And probably the Messy Spot Prawns.  Sort of last meal food would be the Spot Prawns and...the Côte de Bœuf with Anchovy Butter, which I love. 

SW: Was there anything you had to leave out, the hard cut?

RE: I feel like this was just scratching the surface of what I love, but when we made the outline for the book it was just super easy.  I thought about it for so long that eventually when I sat down with Jess and we thought about it organized by season then it became really obvious which recipes, or events, or menus had been important enough to not let anything else compete with them.  So that part  was really satisfying, to have it come together as a full plan.  It felt really satisfying and comfortable to know it came together easily, without a lot of torture over whether to include this or that.

SW: Do you want to write another cookbook?

RE: Yeah, I would want to do another one.  I think I’d probably like to do more seafood focused, a lot of oyster stuff, I think would be really fun.  Seafood and maybe more preserving stuff because we spend a lot of time doing that too.  Not together, know [laughs]. 

Photos from The Whale Wins

Wine at The Whale Wins
Renee Erickson with A Boat, a Whale & a Walrus
Danny Clinch
Renee with parents Jim and Shirlee
Wine at The Whale Wins
Wine at The Whale Wins
Danny Clinch

Camille Styles Holiday Party Idea: Cookies and Cocktails May Be Consumed

CamilleStylesEntertaining'Tis the season for holiday parties and who better than Camille Styles to offer some smart ideas for keeping it festive.  Styles has a very popular lifestyle blog and the author of a new book, Camille Styles Entertaining: Inspired Gatherings and Effortless Style (one of our Best of 2014 in Crafts, Home & Design).  

The book has party ideas for every season so we asked her to share one for the holidays.  As it happens, she wrote about hosting a Holiday Cookie Swap Party just as we finished 12 days of cookie recipes. Cookies and cocktails--I'm so there.

This cookie swap party is one of my favorite gatherings in my new book, Camille Styles Entertaining: Inspired Gatherings and Effortless Style. The book features fresh, inspirational party ideas for every season. Brimming with creative hors d'oeuvres and cocktail recipes, floral design tips, and inspiring table designs—it’s a guide to the simple details and creative shortcuts that make everyday moments feel special.

CamilleStylesCookieSwapIEvery December, my dear friend Myra throws an all-girls cookie swap (with strict instructions to leave the kids and husbands at home!), and we all gather at her house for an afternoon of great company, glasses of bubbly and, of course, way too many sweets! It’s a holiday tradition that all her guests have come to look forward to each holiday season, and this year, I decided to host my own sugar-fueled version.

Here’s the way my cookie swap works: each guest brings a big batch of their favorite homemade holiday cookies with recipe cards to pass around, and at the party, are given a “to-go” box in which they collect a sampling of everyone else’s signature treats. After a couple hours of mixing and mingling, the ladies leave with a box of two dozen or so different kinds of cookies to sample, and (if they’re feeling generous) share with family and friends! It’s a delicious, and slightly dangerous, way to kick off the holidays, and guests are guaranteed to discover a few new recipes that are destined to become family traditions. CamilleStylesCookieSwapIII

The Menu
This party is all about indulging: taste-testing lots of different cookies and saving healthy eating resolutions for the new year! Before everyone showed up, I set up a cookie buffet with a few of my family’s favorite cookies, then let guests add to the mix as they arrived with their creations. One of the great things about a display like this is that it can be completely prepared and set out before the party, allowing me to be hands-off and sip prosecco with my girl friends!

Get the look.
One of my favorite things about having a party around the holidays is that my house is already all decked out! Candles flickering on the mantle and greenery garlands in the entranceway already set the tone for a festive gathering, so all that’s left for me to do is setup the cookie buffet and adorn the table with pinecones and evergreen branches.

I approach designing the buffet just as I would any other focal decor element, considering the colors and proportions of the serving pieces, and using natural elements to add interest and fullness. When choosing serving pieces, I always look for ways to vary the levels of the different pieces — it gives a balanced feel, and it’s much easier for guests to reach the different platters on the table when they’re not all at the same height. For this display, I incorporated a beautiful mix of cake stands and tiered pieces — some new and some collected from thrift stores through the years — that literally elevate the cookies to an artistic display.

Copper and evergreen.
For the simplest, classic holiday look, we filled a vintage copper pitcher with loads of red Ilex berry branches and placed it on the center of the cookie buffet. Change the water and snip the bottom of the branches once a week, and this arrangement can last all the way through the holiday season!

When creating a vignette with flowers and natural elements, think in terms of three’s for the most pleasing arrangement. We combined a single stem peony, a cluster of festival bush branches in an aged copper vessel and a little grouping of pine cones that filled in any gaps. To finish the look, we laid down a “runner” made from cedar branches interspersed with pine.


Better with Cocktails.
Create a festive atmosphere with a bubbly bar — champagne, prosecco or cava will do the trick just fine! Set out glasses so guests can help themselves, and place skewers of sugared cranberries nearby for the ultimate seasonal stir stick. To make them, boil equal parts sugar and water until sugar dissolves, then submerge cranberries in the simple syrup. Use a slotted spoon to transfer to a cooling rack, and allow to dry for an hour. Roll cranberries in a shallow bowl filled with sugar to coat, then allow to dry completely.

Packing it all up.
It’s crucial that your guests have the right-sized vessel for toting home all their cookies… and it’s nice if it’s cuter than a ziploc baggie! I love to collect vintage Christmas tins at antiques stores throughout the year; they make a really special party favor that guests can use to pack up all their cookies. You can also find sturdy cardboard “to-go” boxes at restaurant supply stores - just line them with tissue paper and seal with a sticker or tie with twine. Give guests a couple sheets each of parchment paper to be used as liners between layers, protecting the more delicate cookies.


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