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About Mari Malcolm

If someone dropped a match next to Mari Malcolm’s bed, they’d ignite a pyre fuelled by disheveled piles of books—very select poetry, novels with varying levels of literary cred, and stacks of guides to being a better gardener, crafter, cook, designer, writer, and person. She rarely reads by candlelight.

Posts by Mari

10 Immortal Gifts Between Writers and Their Beloveds

Writers-CoversTo celebrate this amorous season, Shannon McKenna Schmidt and Joni Rendon, authors of Writers Between the Covers: The Scandalous Romantic Lives of Legendary Literary Casanovas, Coquettes, and Cads, present the 10 most memorable gestures of affection between writers and their lovers (including one that was mistakenly--and scandalously--delivered to the wrong woman).

 

1. Gustave Flaubert

Flaubert gave a whole new meaning to the idea of re-gifting in his novel Madame Bovary.

A heartfelt token he had received from his longtime mistress Louise Colet—a cigar holder engraved with the words “Amor nel cor” (Love in the heart)—inspired Emma Bovary to bestow a seal with the same motto on her rakish lover. The fictional rogue later breaks off their relationship in a letter he cruelly marks with the romantic insignia.

 

2. John Keats

The Romantic poet fell in love with the girl next door, Fanny Brawne, only to be parted from her by illness. Keats hoped a short stay in Italy would bolster his health, never imagining the parting gifts the couple exchanged would be their last.

He gave Fanny his cherished Shakespeare folio with personalized notes written in the margins, while she lined his traveling cap with silk and presented him with a lock of her hair.

 

Author-Shakespeare

3. William Shakespeare

When the Bard passed away, he ignited a four-hundred-year controversy by leaving his “second-best” bed to his wife, Anne. The perceived snub led many to speculate that his marriage had been unhappy.

But contrary to appearances, the bequest was probably a romantic gesture rather than a slight. Tudor custom dictated the best bed be reserved for guests, while the second-best bed would have been the one on which Anne conceived their children.

 

Author-Margaret-Mitchell Margaret-Mitchell-Typewrite4. Margaret Mitchell

The aspiring writer received more than tea and sympathy from her husband while she was housebound recovering from a car accident.

He presented her with a secondhand typewriter and a sheaf of paper, saying: “Madam, I greet you on the beginning of a great new career.”

By then Mitchell had read most of the books at the library, and her husband insisted she try writing one of her own. Taking up his challenge, she set to work on her masterpiece, Gone with the Wind.

 

Invisible-woman5. Charles Dickens

The Victorian novelist should have chosen his jeweler more carefully. When he ordered a bracelet inscribed to his mistress, Nelly Ternan, it was accidentally delivered to his wife instead.

The misdirected gift was the last straw in a string of indignities. Catherine Dickens finally left her philandering husband, engulfing him in a sea of scandal.

 

Author-Henry6. O. Henry

When the struggling scribe saved up money for his wife to attend the Chicago World’s Fair, she took the cash but never boarded the train. Instead she used the gift to spruce up their sparse cottage with muslin curtains and wicker chairs.

Later, while her husband was on the lam avoiding embezzlement charges, she made a lace handkerchief and auctioned it for twenty-five dollars in order to send him a Christmas care package. Her generous acts inspired his tale “The Gift of the Magi.”

 

7. Jack Kerouac

Edie Parker’s wedding gift to Jack Kerouac was bail money. She tapped into her inheritance to spring him from the slammer, with the stipulation that they tie the knot. The pair swapped vows while he was handcuffed to a police detective, after being arrested as a material witness in a murder investigation. Not surprisingly, the hasty nuptials ended in divorce six months later.

 

Hemingway The-farm-19228. Ernest Hemingway

Struggling writer Hemingway hit up friends for cash to buy his wife, Hadley, an impressive gift: Joan Miró’s oil painting The Farm.

A roll of the dice between Hemingway and an acquaintance decided who had dibs on buying the coveted canvas, which the novelist victoriously toted home to Hadley in a taxi.

Today The Farm is on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

 

9. George Sand

The stormy two-year liaison between French novelist George Sand and dissolute poet Alfred de Musset was rife with quarrels, breakups, and tearful reunions. When their relationship finally fell apart for good, Sand said farewell with a dramatic parting gesture. Like the heroine in her novel Indiana, she cut off her dark, waist-length hair and sent it to Musset in a skull.

10. Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The honeymoon phase was still going strong three years after Elizabeth Barrett Browning defied her tyrannical father to marry Robert and elope to Italy. On their third anniversary, she presented her beloved with forty-four sonnets she had secretly penned during their clandestine courtship. Among the intimate love poems is number 43, which begins with the now-famous lines “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”

-- Shannon McKenna Schmidt and Joni Rendon are the authors of Writers Between the Covers and Novel Destinations: Literary Landmarks from Jane Austen’s Bath to Ernest Hemingway’s Key West. Joni lives in London; Shannon is a full-time traveler. They can be found at www.NovelDestinations.com.

 

2013 National Book Award Winners Announced

Good-Lord-Bird-CoverThe Amazon Books editors are thrilled to be in New York for the National Book Awards. The after-party calls, so we'll tell you about our favorite moments tomorrow.

Tonight, we salute the magnificent work of this year's winners.

Winner--Literarian Award: Dr. Maya Angelou

Winner--Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters: E. L. Doctorow

Fiction Winner: James McBride for The Good Lord Bird

Nonfiction Winner: George Packer for The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America

Young People's Literature Winner: Cynthia Kadohata for The Thing About Luck

Poetry Winner: Mary Szybist for Incarnadine

See this year's full longlist and finalists.

Amy Stewart's Cocktailian Tribute to Elizabeth Gilbert's "The Signature of All Things"

Sig-coverAmy Stewart's anecdotal guide to intoxicating plants, The Drunken Botanist, includes almost every family but moss, the lush creeper that's the object of Alma Whittaker's botanical affections in Elizabeth Gilbert's The Signature of All Things.

But moss's mixological unsuitability didn't deter Stewart from concocting a signature cocktail in tribute to Gilbert's novel--an ideal drink for book clubs who've joined Alma in a state of intoxicated wonder at the natural world. Below, Stewart talks about her inspiration for a drink she readily admits is weird.

The Drunken Botanist and The Signature of All Things were both selected by Amazon's editors as two of the top 100 Best Books of 2013.

___________________________________________________________________________

Signature of All Things cocktailAmy Stewart: I ran into Elizabeth Gilbert at a party last spring where we swapped stories about botany for the better part of an hour. The woman was glowing—glowing!—with excitement over moss, weird botanical history, and obscure plant science, all of which figured into her newest work, The Signature of All Things.

I knew at that moment that Elizabeth would appreciate a deep green, mossy libation in a completely un-ironic way, and since I had just published The Drunken Botanist, I felt compelled to create the perfect botanical cocktail in celebration of her novel.

The rest of you are free to appreciate it in an ironic way. I'll admit that it's a weird-looking drink, but then again, moss is a weird-looking plant. This cocktail has been thoroughly taste-tested by a group of discerning drinkers and pronounced delightful. I only hope it is worthy of Alma Whittaker. Oh, and don't worry—no actual moss was harmed in the making of the drink.

The Signature of All Things Cocktail

1.5 oz. Odwalla Superfood, Naked Green Machine, or another fruity green juice

1 oz. Botanist Gin

.5 oz. St-Germain elderflower liqueur

1 dash orange bitters

Lemon wedge

2 oz. sparkling wine

Fern for garnish

Combine the first four ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Squeeze the lemon wedge into the shaker, add ice, and shake well. Strain into a cocktail glass and top with sparkling wine. Garnish with a fern or another unusual leaf.

(Note: Braken ferns can be toxic if eaten in large quantity. This garnish is not intended to be eaten.)

Savory Thanksgiving Side: Danielle’s Sweet Potato Gratin from "Ottolenghi"

Ottolenghi

We asked Yotam Ottolenghi (Plenty, Jerusalem) to share a recipe from the new American edition of his debut cookbook, Ottolenghi--something he considers a particularly smashing side dish at a holiday feast. He came back with a sweet potato gratin worhty of a face-off with the candied yams. Enjoy--and browse more of our editors' picks for the best cookbooks and more guides to Holiday Entertaining.

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This comforting dish was created by Danielle Postma, who is now back home in South Africa running her own blossoming food business, Moema’s. We would have loved to take some credit for Danielle’s success, but she actually had it all before coming to Ottolenghi. Danielle’s big personality and warmth make everybody fall in love with her in an instant. She has a natural gift for presentation and, like herself, her food constantly smiles.

This dish is simple but effective due to the way the potatoes are arranged in the baking dish. You can prepare everything a day in advance and have it ready in the fridge to just pop in the oven. The sage can be replaced with thyme, or you could use both. Make sure you choose orange-fleshed sweet potatoes (as opposed to the paler variety).

Serves 4 to 6

6 medium sweet potatoes (about 3¼ lb / 1.5 kg in total)

5 tbsp coarsely chopped sage, plus extra for garnish

6 cloves garlic, crushed

2 tsp coarse sea salt

½ tsp freshly ground black pepper

1 cup / 250 ml heavy cream

1  Preheat the oven to 400°F / 200°C. Wash the sweet potatoes (do not peel them) and cut them into disks ¼ inch / 5 mm thick. A mandoline is best for this job but you could use a sharp knife.

2  In a bowl, mix together the sweet potatoes, sage, garlic, salt, and pepper. Arrange the slices of sweet potato in a deep, medium-size ovenproof dish by taking tight packs of them and standing them up next to one another. They should fit together quite tightly so you get parallel lines of sweet potato slices (skins showing) along the length or width of the dish. Throw any remaining bits of garlic or sage from the bowl over the potatoes. Cover the dish with aluminum foil, place in the oven, and roast for 45 minutes. Remove the aluminum foil and pour the cream evenly over the potatoes. Roast, uncovered, for a further 25 minutes. The cream should have thickened by now. Stick a sharp knife in different places in the dish to make sure the potatoes are cooked. They should be totally soft.

3  Serve immediately, garnished with sage, or leave to cool down. In any case, bringing the potatoes to the table in the baking dish, after scraping the outside clean, will make a strong impact.

Yotam Ottolenghi is co-owner of four Ottolenghi restaurants, co-author of Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, and author of the weekly New Vegetarian column in the Guardian newspaper. He lives in London.

Simply Exquisite App: Zucchini Patties from Einat Admony's "Balaboosta"

Balaboosta

This dish is so incredibly simple to make, but the results are exquisite. Serve with plain yogurt or, better, with Wild West Dressing.... In a pinch, bread crumbs from store-bought challah are fine too.

Serves 4 to 6

3 medium zucchini

1 medium yellow onion

1 leek, white and light green parts only, finely chopped

21⁄2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh dill

1⁄3 cup crumbs made from Challah (page 24)

1 large egg, beaten

Canola oil

Kosher salt

1. Finely grate the zucchini and onion. Wrap the grated vegetables in a clean dish towel and twist both ends over the kitchen sink to squeeze out all the excess moisture.

2. Combine the zucchini, onion, leek, dill, and bread crumbs in a large bowl. Add the egg and use your hands to mix everything together. Shape the mixture into 2-inch patties.

3. Add 1/2 inch of oil to a large skillet and heat over medium heat. Cook the zucchini patties in the hot oil until both sides are golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Drain on paper towels and season with salt.

Einat Admony is a 21st-century balaboosta (Yiddish for “perfect housewife”). She’s a mother and wife, but also a chef busy running three bustling New York City restaurants. Her debut cookbook, Balaboosta, features 140 of the recipes she cooks for the people she loves—her children, her husband, and the many friends she regularly entertains.


Browse more Amazon Books editors' picks for the best cookbooks and more guides to Holiday Entertaining.

The 10 Scariest Books You've Ever Read

It-CoverIn the lead-up to All Hallows' Eve, we asked our Amazon Books Facebook fans to cast their vote (via comments) for the scariest book they'd ever read. Out of nearly 500 votes cast, 38% went to Stephen King. Fans split on which of his books were the freakiest, but there was one clear winner.

1. It by Stephen King: King's story of seven friends from a small Maine town who are drawn back as adults to vanquish the evil they fought as children got twice as many fan votes as any other book. Several said they were too scared to finish it, reported nightmares, and were never able to look at a clown the same way again ("hate those creepy clowns!").

2. The Shining by Stephen King: The Torrance family’s attempt at a fresh start caretaking the off-season Overlook Hotel goes horribly awry as sinister forces gather. Fans recalled being especially unnerved by the woman in the bathtub ("scared the crap out of me") and the playground scene ("Danny in the tube with something else! Terrifying!"). And one cited the Friends episode where Joey was so afraid of this book, he stored it in the freezer.

3. 'Salem's Lot by Stephen King: Senior Editor Jon Foro calls this "King's creepy riff on Dracula, shifting the angst from Victorian repression to the secrets of a small town that come out of the cellars after the sun goes down." One fan reported, "I could only read it during the day so the vampires couldn't get me," while others foiled the fangs by sleeping with a cross or blankets around the neck. Yet another swore off scary books for good after this one: "I haven't read a Stephen King book since. Or any other scary book, really."

4. Pet Sematary by Stephen King: As one of King's characters says of the cemetery's effects, "Heroin makes junkies feel good when they put it in their arms, but all the time it's poisoning their mind and body--this place can be like that and don't you ever forget it!" Fans insist the book's even scarier than the movie, and for those who were able to finish, its necrotic claws have left some scars: "Still can't look at cats!"

5. The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty: One of the most terrifying, controversial novels ever published, The Exorcist became a phenomenal best-seller soon after its release in 1971. Several fans who read this book report being unable to watch the movie (out of self-preservation). Another explained simply, "I don't read scary books anymore."

6. The Stand by Stephen King: When a rapidly mutating flu virus escapes a U.S. military facility and wipes out nearly all the world's population, the stage is set for an apocalyptic showdown. For many, this book terrified because it's so plausible: "It just doesn't seem to be out of the realm of possibility." One fan reports, "I think of it every time I pass through a tunnel."

7. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote: Speaking of real, Capote’s "nonfiction novel" about the brutal murder of the Clutter family by would-be robbers invented a new genre, creative nonfiction, and his scenes of bloody walls and the "thud-snap" of rope-broken necks terrified readers. One fan said, "it bothered me that there are people in the world like that," while another agreed, and noted that "I thought it would be a dull read, but really the creepiest thing out there."

8. Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill: Amazon Senior Editor Robin Rothman notes that "while King is clearly supreme, I still can’t stop thinking about N0S4A2 by his son, Joe Hill. The apple doesn’t fall far from the twisted tree." Our Facebook fans favored Hill's creepy Heart-Shaped Box ("scared the bejesus out of me!"). One gave this testimonial: "I've read horror all my life, practically--the only book that gave me nightmares is Heart-Shaped Box."

9. House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski: Our reviewer John Ponyicsanyi said, "Had The Blair Witch Project been a book instead of a film, and had it been written by, say, Nabokov at his most playful, revised by Stephen King at his most cerebral, and typeset by the futurist editors of Blast at their most avant-garde, the result might have been something like House of Leaves." One of our fans described the experience of reading it: "I felt like if I took my eyes off the page and looked up, the room would suddenly and inexplicably have acquired a new door or unfamiliar hallway. Terrifying."

10. The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson: In late 1975, the Lutz family moved into a Long Island house, knowing that a year earlier, Ronald DeFeo had murdered his parents, brothers, and sisters there. Less than a month later, they fled in terror. Whether it’s true or not, the story of a house possessed by evil became a huge best-seller, and it scared the pants off many fans, one of whom called it "absolutely the most frightening book I've ever read!" Another said, it "just made me feel unclean inside."

If you've already read everything on this list and want another jolt of pure literary fear, have you succumbed yet to Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House? Jon Foro calls this classic of the genre a "ghost story superbly crafted and unnerving as hell, a book best read alone."

Thanks to all our Facebook fans who shared their scariest reading moments! --Mari

 

An Autumnal Treat: Roasted-Pumpkin Ice Cream Recipe from "Bountiful"

Bountiful_Ice_Cream-FB

Photographers and foodies Todd Porter and Diane Cu have a phenomenally popular blog, WhiteonRiceCouple.com, where they share their love of cooking seasonally with veggies and fruits from their lush Californian garden. Their first cookbook, Bountiful, boasts 100 recipes (90 never-before-seen) with a vegetable or fruit in a starring role. We especially love this ingenious roasted-pumpkin ice cream (with simple and complex variations), a supremely autumnal indulgence, either alone or with your favorite fall pie. --Mari

ROASTED-PUMPKIN ICE CREAM

MAKES ABOUT 1½ QUARTS (1.5 L)

It seems as if just a few years ago it was almost impossible to find pie pumpkins, even in October, but now we are seeing them everywhere. Yay! Roasting a pumpkin for puree is one of the most minimal-effort-for-maximum-gain-over-store-bought things you can do in the kitchen. Make sure to use pie pumpkins or sugar pumpkins, not the jack-o’-lantern behemoths—those big boys don’t have the best taste or texture. If you are roasting a large heirloom pumpkin, cutting it in half and roasting it on an oiled sheet pan, cut side down, will shorten the cooking time.

1 small pie pumpkin (makes about 2 cups / 480ml puree)

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

¹⁄8 teaspoon ground cloves

¼ cup (55g) packed brown sugar

1 quart (1L) Vanilla Rum Ice Cream (see recipe below) or store bought vanilla ice cream

NOTE: There is a long way and a short way to make this ice cream. Go crazy and make your own vanilla rum ice cream, stirring the puree and spices into the ice cream just after you finish churning. Or for the short version, let a container of your favorite vanilla ice cream soften up, then stir in the pumpkin and spices.

1 Turn the oven to 375°F (190°C); you do not need to preheat.

2 Place the pumpkin on a sheet pan and roast for about 1 hour, until it feels soft when you press its sides. Remove it from the oven and set aside until cool enough to handle.

3 Split the pumpkin open and remove all the seeds and stringy bits, then scrape out the flesh. Puree the flesh in a blender or food processor until smooth.

4 Stir the vanilla extract, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and brown sugar into the puree.

5 Allow the ice cream to soften and stir in the puree. You may either serve the soft ice cream immediately or allow it to harden up in the freezer before serving.

Boutiful-CoverVANILLA RUM ICE CREAM

MAKES ABOUT 1 QUART (1L)

1½ cups (360ml) heavy cream

1 cup (240ml) milk

½ cup (100g ) sugar

Pinch of kosher or sea salt

1 whole vanilla bean

5 egg yolks

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 tablespoons dark rum

SPECIAL EQUIPMENT: Ice cream machine

1 In a medium saucepan, combine the cream, milk, sugar, and salt. Split the vanilla bean and scrape the seeds into the cream mixture, then add the bean pod as well.

2 Heat to a bare simmer over medium heat, stirring frequently. Remove from the heat and cover. Set aside for 30 minutes.

3 In a medium bowl, whisk the egg yolks. Slowly whisk the cream mixture into the yolks, then pour everything back into the saucepan.

4 Heat the mixture over medium heat, stirring constantly and scraping the bottom as you stir. Cook until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a spatula or wooden spoon, 1 to 2 minutes after reaching a bare simmer. Remove the vanilla bean pod.

5 Pour the custard through a fine-mesh strainer into a clean container. Place the container in an ice bath and stir the custard occasionally until it is cool, about 20 minutes.

6 Stir in the vanilla extract and rum. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight.

7 Freeze according to the ice cream machine directions. While churning the ice cream, place the container in which you will store the ice cream in the freezer to chill. Store the ice cream in the freezer until ready to serve.

Find more deliciously seasonal recipes in Todd Porter and Diane Cu's Bountiful: Recipes Inspired by Our Garden.

Finding Cosmos in a Bed of Moss: Our Interview with Elizabeth Gilbert

If you know Elizabeth Gilbert from her Eat, Pray, Love reputation or her books about rough men, a birth-to-death novel about a Victorian-era woman who becomes a moss taxonimist--in spite of staying largely confined to her family's estate until she's 50--probably sounds like a surprisingly introverted turn. But The Signature of All Things is an earthy, elegant, deeply sensual novel, dazzling in its breadth and passion. Through the life of her heroine, Alma, we glimpse the whole cosmos, its infinite worlds within worlds.

My conversation with Gilbert in Seattle last spring was one of the highlights of my book-loving life, so I decided to post a lightly edited transpcript of our conversation, broken it out by topic, so you can listen in and jump to the topics that most intrigue you.

On the Desire to Explore, Sublimated & Indulged

Mari Malcolm: There’s a persistent theme of exploration in your books—of yearning to become the person you need to be and going in search of it. When Eat, Pray, Love came out, a lot of people had the reaction of “I want to do that, but I can’t go travel and have these profound experiences because I don’t have the money, or I don’t have the time, or I’m just not at liberty to go anywhere.” I felt like that experience of frustrated longing was really beautifully explored in this book through Alma’s life—she figured out a way to explore, despite her constraints. Was that conscious?

Elizabeth Gilbert: It was conscious, but not in the sense of being a direct answer. That’s a question I get a lot from people after reading Eat, Pray, Love: “I want to do that, but I can’t do that, so what should I do?” I completely respect the ways people are bound in the lives that they have, whether it’s because of forces outside of their control or choices that they’ve made that they want to honor with their own responsibilities and obligations—taking care of people around them or being a part of a community, or their work, or whatever keeps them in one place, and those responsibilities may be in conflict with desires that they have to get divorced and move to India.” [Laughs]

I was really interested in the idea of 19th-century botanical exploration. There were so many great male botanical explorers, and there were so many great female botanical illustrators, because they couldn’t go on the trips. But when the men would come home with their drawings and sketches of these exotic plants, it was invariably the wives and daughters of the explorers who did that work for them, especially the painting and the lithography. And of course, women like flowers, and botany was the only science that women could really participate in because it wasn’t considered unladylike.

With Alma, I really wanted to explore what would happen to a woman with a tremendous mind, with tremendous potential and curiosity, if she couldn’t leave her home. What do you do? I’m interested in how people sublimate their desire for knowledge and exploration when they can’t leave their house. Half the book is about that.

And then it’s so funny, because about halfway through the book I fling her out into the world because even I couldn’t take it anymore. [Laughs] And I was like, ahhh, hell with it, she’s going on an adventure! She’s 50 years old, and it’s time for her to see the world. And her life as an adventurer really begins at 50, which also fascinated me, because I see that happen a lot for women who can’t travel when they’re young, and then their kids grow up and they become amazing adventurers. Travel is not only for the young. Sometimes it’s wasted on the young.

Back to top

On the Books That Inspired The Signature of All Things

MM: What sparked your obsession with botanical explorers?

EG: So this whole project came out of the rediscovery of a family treasure, something I had always known about but had not touched in many years. My great-grandfather was a book collector, and he had somehow—probably around 1915—acquired this exceedingly rare, very beautiful 1784, printed-in-London edition of Captain Cook’s Three Voyages Around the World. And it’s really a spectacular book. It looks like something that should be on a magician’s bookshelf, and we had it in our house when we were kids, and it was one of the objects in our house that we could not touch, ‘cause it was really much nicer than anything that my family deserved to have [laughs] in our farmhouse, on our Christmas tree farm. And because of the fact that it was the biggest book in the house, and one that looked the most exotic, and almost talismanic and hypnotic, of course I touched it all the time, and recently discovered—or my mother discovered—that I had in fact scrawled my name in it as a child, when I was four years old, misspelled, but I’d laid claim to that book.

That book ended up in my hands because I was the person who’d destroyed its value, so my parents were like, “Ah, you might as well have it.” And I found, at the age of forty, that I was just as fascinated with the book as I was at four.  And it led me to look more closely at Captain Cook and then very quickly to make that charismatic jump to Joseph Banks, who I think is a more interesting character, and his scientific passion and botanical exploration became the basis for the entire book.

MM: Which other books were essential?

LG: I read—oh God, I read so much. For three years, all I did was read for hours and hours and hours a day. Kind of ruined my eyes on this. But there was this weird kind of 19th-century glory in that, too, because all those guys ruined their eyes. They were always writing in letters, “I’ve ruined my eyes, I’ve ruined my health from my studiousness!”—they were such scholars. So I felt a kinship, like “I’m going blind!” [Laughs] There’s such a noble history in ruining your eyes by over-reading.

I read hundreds of books, but some of the key ones—there were some great biographies of Alfred Russel Wallace that were really important in shaping the end of the book. There were some writings of some of the wonderful 19th-century botanists. There was a woman named Mary Treat who lived in New Jersey and was a correspondent of Darwin, and she corrected him on carnivorous plants—she was an expert on them because of living in the swamps. So they had a long correspondence, and he really admired her. And there were other greats as well.

But their letters: that’s where you hear their voices. So I read so many letters, and not just letters of naturalists and scientists of the day, but there’s a great journal that a lot of historians reach for, that a late-19th-century Philadelphia housewife kept for her entire existence, and it’s become this kind of bedrock of Philadelphia history.

MM: Is that the journal you quote where she says that the weather’s backwards, during the Year Without a Summer? You reference in 1816 a housewife’s diary where she says “weather backwards.”

LG: Yes. And that’s where she says, “snowbells and bluebirds in the same day,” because there were these late snow storms. There’s all this very specific detail that comes from her. And also from Thoreau’s letters and Whitman’s letters, and Emerson’s and Dickinson’s letters—I read all of them just to get a tone, a 19th-century tone of speech and writing that would feel convincing. It was really important to me not to write a book that would pass as a 19th-century novel—I think about The Signature of All Things as a contemporary book about the 19th century. At the same time, I wanted to make sure there wasn’t a word in there that wouldn’t have existed at the time, and dialogue that felt true. And that you can only get from letters, because that’s the closest you can get to overhearing a conversation.

Continue reading "Finding Cosmos in a Bed of Moss: Our Interview with Elizabeth Gilbert" »

Picking Tips for Aspiring Mushroom Hunters

The Mushroom HuntersAfter Jon Foro highlighted Langdon Cook's The Mushroom Hunters--which he called "a collection of delightful stories of a mycelial underground filled with eccentrics and obsessives who at first seem strange (and maybe even unsettling), but grow more charming by the page"--in our Big Fall Books Preview, our whole editorial team got an unusual invitation: Langdon was headed out to the south end of the Olympic Peninsula, hunting the first chanterelles of the season with two of the pro pickers profiled in his book. They'd be shadowed by a crew shooting a new PBS show called Food Forward. Would we like to come? This was like being asked if we wanted to step into the book for a day, to meet the characters and experience the hunt--an opportunity too rare to miss.

Meeting Doug and Jeff in real life was surreal and awesome. They were exactly as Lang had described them--maybe a little more charming due to the presence of a lady--and almost immediately they felt like friends. Once we got to the patch, Langdon and the guys got us picking on one side of the hill, while they filmed take after take for the intrepid PBS crew.

It was an epic day, culminating with Lang giving Doug and Jeff their own copies of the book. We felt privileged to be a part of it. A few days later, Doug sent Lang this review: "On commercial fishing boats, you're working all the time so your free time is precious. I've tossed a lot of books aside without finishing. This is a book I would have finished on the boat." Now that's high praise.

Here's what we learned from our day of picking with the pros.

What to Bring

Even when you've relished many a mushroom on the plate, it can feel risky to pick in the wild without a guide. If you can't go with seasoned pickers, get a pack-sized fungi guide for your region (in the Pacific Northwest, All That the Rain Promises and More has long been a go-to source) and note the tell-tale signs of any lookalikes you might encounter.

You'll need a knife--but a sharp one might not be the right choice. Jon has a small collection of folding pocket knives that uses for camping and backpacking, and he chose his sharpest. He would have been better off with a cheap steak knife, like Lang, Doug, and Jeff had. While his blade squeaked and struggled against the stems, they made quick, clean cuts. Also consider a sheath for your belt. It’s easy to imagine how stumbling on wet, bushy slopes with a naked blade could lead to a bad outcome.

You’ll need picking buckets--the 5-gallon kind, with a lid to keep out the rain. Lang had been vague, so Mari bought cute little ones. Luckily, they had an extra bucket to share, and Doug wiped it out well, giving us our first lesson: start clean.

And don't forget to pack a lunch.

What to Wear

Doug with One Basket of His BountyExpect to get (as Lang says) “walking-through-a-car-wash wet,” especially if you're heading into the epicenter of North America’s chanterelle harvest, on the fringe of the Olympic rainforest. We drove down from Seattle through a hope-we’re-still-on-the-road downpour, and even under the dense evergreen canopy, the deluge comes through in thick drips.

Lang and Mari were decked in head-to-toe in rain gear—and very comfortable for it. But the pros don’t prioritize comfort. Doug and Jeff showed up in jeans, cotton, and flannel, clothing apparently designed to soak up water and suck the heat from your flesh. Doug explained: Mushrooming, especially in the rain, is a dirty business. He uses his cotton hoodie to wipe the dirt and needles from mushroom caps (not to mention hands and knives) before he drops them in his bucket. Try that with a slick rain shell, and you'll be wanting cotton. Just bring a change of clothes for later.

Lace up some burly boots. One of our biggest surprises--even after reading about the wild terrain--was how consciously we had to focus on finding and keeping our footing. The second-growth Douglas fir forests favored by chanterelles have steep, uneven ridges and folds, and the spongy duff is so thick in places, you feel like your foot just punched through a snowdrift. Rain-slicked logs and blackberry vines can trip and roll you. Many of the professional pickers—including Doug—are former loggers, to whom navigating rough woods is second nature; others are Southeast Asian refugees who survived in jungles with far greater hazards (like armed militants) before turning their foraging skills to our fungi. Whatever your experience level, you’re going to need footwear with solid tread. Just take care not to stomp the chanties.

How to Get There

Lobster Mushroom Fruiting Through the Moss

Whether you’re following a tip or your own instincts for good fungi habitat, know you’ll have to go far beyond the main roads; the easy patches get trampled and picked out. If you’re going to make any kind of haul (for profit or fun), you’re going to have to go adventuring. One of the reasons so many loggers made the transition to mushroom picking is that they knew the prime spots through years of working the forests—and many of those patches are accessible only through logging roads and other ad hoc access points. Expect to drive through mud, around stumps, and over fallen trees and strapping saplings.

When you can’t drive any further without fear of rupturing a vital vehicular organ, wade into the woods. If you’re in the right kind of place, any footpath you stumble across will have been made by a mushroom hunter, or some other woodland animal. But once you start picking, the trail is largely irrelevant--just do your best to avoid trampling plants and fungi.

This is when it pays to know your trees and the mushrooms who love them. Each mushroom species has their preferred growing environments, and those often include symbiotic relationships with certain trees. Much of the Olympic Peninsula has been logged (and re-logged), and the inheritors of much of the land are Douglas firs—the perfect growing hosts for chanterelles. So while you're dog-earring your mushroom guidebook, bone up on your trees, too. Know your pines from your spruce, and what might be hiding underneath their respective needles.

How to Pick

Chanterelles Drying Off at HomeRecalling the buy-stand scenes in the book, we already knew that the pros pick clean. Dirt on a mushroom stays on a mushroom, especially in the gills. That puts you on the bad side of potential buyers, who are already professionally grumpy from their competitive, low-margin market. The first trick to picking clean is picking dry—rain will cause dirt and forest detritus to stick to your 'shrooms. If you can’t pick dry (and mushroom season often follows rain), try to lift each chanty out of the duff with minimal disturbance, and get it in the bucket under your lid.

You'll also want to pick fast. Honestly, it’s incredible that anyone could do this for a living. In the two hours or so we spent hunting chanties, we probably picked three pounds between us. At the $2 per pound we’d get at a buying station, we were better off eating them. Given the time and gas it takes to get to premium patches, a professional mushroom picker is already staring at a deficit. But in the same afternoon, Doug and Jeff managed to pick 60 pounds, even while being stopped and directed by the camera crew. Uninhibited, they might have pulled 200 pounds or more, which is both amazing and barely adequate, financially.

Another conundrum is picking for size vs. quality. While larger “flowers” obviously weigh more, the smaller “buttons” will fetch more at market. The guys seemed mildly impressed by the volume of buttons in our bucket, and we imagined that Jeremy Faber, founder of Foraged & Found Edibles and one of the primary characters in The Mushroom Hunters, would have graded them favorably.

When you get home, dry any damp fungi on newspaper or paper towels overnight, and whatever doesn’t fall off will be more easily brushed away.

What to Cook

Lang's Creamy Chanterelle PastaIf you’re not trying to pick for a living, here’s the real reason to go: mushrooms you pick yourself taste more delicious than anything you’ll find at the store. Chanterelles will last for a week in the fridge, but the aroma—a piney apricot—is most intoxicating that first night, so if you have everything ready to make Langdon Cook’s Creamy Chanterelle Pasta, it will likely be one of your life's great meals.

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter

4 slices (1/4 pound) thick, quality bacon, diced (or the equivalent of pancetta)

1 or 2 shallots, finely chopped

1 pound shaped pasta

1 pound fresh chanterelles (or the equivalent frozen)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 pint heavy cream (or less)

4 ounces garden peas, fresh or frozen

1/2 cup grated Parmesan, with more for the table

Preheat oven to 250 degrees. In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the butter over medium heat and the diced bacon. Do not drain fat.

As bacon begins to crisp, add shallots and cook until tender, a few minutes. Meanwhile, bring a pot of water to a boil and add pasta. Add chanterelles to skillet and cook several minutes, stirring occasionally, until they have released their water. Season with salt and pepper.

In a large glass or ceramic mixing bowl, add remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and half the cream. Place mixing bowl in warm oven. Slowly add remaining cream to skillet and simmer, continuing to stir occasionally while pasta cooks. When pasta is nearly done, add peas to chanterelle sauce.

Remove pasta from heat, drain, and pour into warmed mixing bowl. Mix in sauce along with grated Parmesan and serve immediately.

If you’re worried about all that cream and butter, open an extra bottle of red wine. Serves 4.

Langdon Cook writes about the fascinating characters who live at the intersection of food and nature. He's the author of Fat of the Land and The Mushroom Hunters, an Amazon Best Book of the Month pick. Follow him at his blog, Fat of the Land.

Great American Eats: Five Favorite Fall Cookbooks Out of New York

5pack-GAE-Map-140pxNo other region in America boasts such concentrated culinary genius as the Mid-Atlantic, dominated by New York's thriving food scene. This fall brings new cookbooks from acclaimed restaurants like The Gramercy Tavern and Daniel, plus a Chelsea Market Cookbook and an "autobiography" of Katz's Deli that no true New Yorker will want to miss. Brooklyn's delicious revolution continues with The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book, 66 Square Feet, and Mast Brothers Chocolate. And upstate, Dr. Brent Ridge and Josh Kilmer-Purcell bring back classic desserts with their Beekman 1802 Heirloom Dessert Cookbook. Browse five of our favorite fall cookbooks out of New York below, or see all our New York cookbook picks here.

”The Gramercy Tavern Cookbook The Gramercy Tavern Cookbook by Michael Anthony

With nearly a decade and six James Beard Awards under its belt--including Michael Anthony's award for Best Chef: NYC--Gramercy Tavern's almost overdue for a cookbook--but this meaty volume is well worth the wait. Personal stories and 200 fabulous shots of the venue, its people, and its dishes capture the restaurant’s warm, festive atmosphere. But of course, you’re here for the food: 125 favorite recipes that give new life to American cuisine. Their aim: to inspire food lovers to “make memorable meals and bring the warmth of Gramercy into their homes.” Who can pass up that proposition? Read More
”The Beekman 1802 Heirloom Dessert Cookbook The Beekman 1802 Heirloom Dessert Cookbook by Brent Ridge and Josh Kilmer-Purcell

Upstate in Sharon Springs, amid bountiful gardens and meadows, Manhattanites-turned-goat-farmers Brent Ridge and Josh Kilmer-Purcell have created their own brand of modern country—Beekman 1802, after their historic house. They’re famous for their goat’s milk soaps and cheese, but now we get to see how sweet their bloodlines really run with this collection of family desserts, “from Brent’s grandmother’s Fourth of July Fruitcake to Josh’s mother’s Hot Chocolate Dumplings,” each accompanied by a story. From rustic favorites to real show-stoppers, it feels both nostalgic and completely now. Perfect inspiration for holiday baking. Read More
Balaboosta Balaboosta by Einat Admony

"Long before I won Chopped or appeared on Throwdown with Bobby Flay, before there was cooking school, a husband, a better husband, and a couple of kids, before I ever imagined running three restaurants of my own in New York City, there were Friday afternoons with my mother." In the kitchen of her childhood, she learned the Yiddish balaboosta ("perfect housewife") style of cooking from the gut. Today, Admony sees a balaboosta as anyone "who lives life with gust, shuns fear, and relies on instinct over precision." Her collection of Persian recipes with New York attitude has grace and guts. Read More
66 Square Feet 66 Square Feet by Marie Viljoen

"I have always looked at what is growing at my feet to know where and when I am in the world. And then I have tried to eat it." On a tiny Brooklyn terrace, transplanted South African Marie Viljoen blogs about growing, cooking, and living a deliciously seasonal life. For her, New York is an "unfolding, edible calendar" that tells her when to forage maitake mushrooms in Green-Wood cemetery and pick serviceberries along the Hudson. Her lush, intimate prose welcomes you onto her terrace, hands you a generous glass of wine, and leads you through a succession of seasonal menus for shared feasts--"to look into someone's eyes, to see them, to share something good, something in common." Read More
Moosewood Restaurant Favorites Moosewood Restaurant Favorites by the Moosewood Collective

When Ithaca's Moosewood Restaurant opened in 1973, it focused on seasonal ingredients and traditional grain-based dishes, given a fresh spin. Between then and now, vegetarian cooking has gone mainstream, and foods that were rare--like yogurt, coconut milk, and fresh herbs--have become common. And the dozen cookbooks (with thousands of recipes) put out by the Moosewood Collective over the past forty years have undoubtedly helped manifest these vital changes. Moosewood Restaurant Favorites compiles their 250 most-requested recipes, from their Black Bean-Sweet Potato Burritos to Vegan Chocolate Cake. Read More.

See all our picks for great cookbooks out of New York.