"Tell me what you eat and I'll tell you who you are."
~Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
Identity is entwined with culture, and food is entwined with culture, so it isn't at all far-fetched a notion to associate food with identity. However, Monsieur Brillat-Savarin, it's Thanksgiving. I'm an American, so I'll be eating turkey. I often act like a turkey. Guess that makes me a cannibal. Of course, Monsieur Brillat-Savarin does have a cheese named after him:
Brillat-Savarin... the oooey gooiest bit of lactose intolerance-inducing deliciousness I heartily recommend you all invest in one wheel at a time, slice it through its meridian, and spread a luscious layer of Italian black truffle paste (or 'truffle pate' as the snootier vendor prefers to call it) on one half and then sandwich it by covering one half with the other half, allow it to sit for a few hours, then serve it with hunks of warm toasted baguette for the most decadent appetizer that will ever coat your tongue and glide down your gullet. A soft, white-crusted cow's milk cheese with at least 75% fat, created c. 1890 as "Excelsior" or "Délice des gourmets" ("Gourmets' delight") by the Dubuc family, near Forges-les-Eaux. Cheese-maker Henri Androuët renamed it in the 1930s, as an homage to 18th-century French gourmet and political figure Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. His most famous work, The Physiology of Taste, was published in December 1825, two months before his death. The full title is Physiologie du goût, ou Méditations de gastronomie transcendante; ouvrage théorique, historique et à l'ordre du jour, dédié aux Gastronomes parisiens, par un Professeur, membre de plusieurs sociétés littéraires et savantes. The book has not been out of print since it first appeared, shortly before Brillat-Savarin's death. In a series of meditations that owe something to Montaigne's Essays, Brillat-Savarin discourses on the pleasures of the table, which he considered nothing less than a science. The philosophy of Epicurus lies at the back of every page; the simplest meal satisfied Brillat-Savarin, as long as it was executed with artistry.
You can buy truffled Brillat-Savarin in the cheese sections of markets like Whole Foods, but making it yourself is simple enough. Still, no matter whether you buy it prepared or not, serve it at room temperature which means removing it from your fridge at least an hour before eating, garnish it artfully with a few sliced figs, a bit of honeycomb, a pile of Marcona almonds, a few Picholine olives and you will have a cheese plate worthy of being painted by a 17th Century Flemish Master. Simple, elegant and scrumptious. Maximal impact for minimal effort is the key to many a holiday hostess' success. Perfect start or finish to any holiday meal.
But I digress... I'm here to talk turkey.
"What we're really talking about is a wonderful day set aside on the fourth Thursday of November when no one diets. I mean, why else would they call it Thanksgiving?
~Erma Bombeck, "No One Diets on Thanksgiving," November 1981
I so adore this holiday, doing one of the things I love doing most in the world! It's all fun to make and fun to eat, but I would cook it all even if I weren't going to eat a bite myself. Cooking Thanksgiving dinner is an active meditation for me. I enjoy every aspect of making this holiday's meal - well, almost every aspect of it. I hate peeling and coring apples, and really don't like cleaning up the wreckage afterwards. Luckily, el hubby loves to get in there and tackle the dishes. We usually do an encore meal on Saturday because el hubby adores this meal. Naturally we'll have turkey sandwiches for lunch the next day, I usually get some provolone for them. I make enchiladas with leftovers on the following Monday or Tuesday. I nearly always use leftover cream-based soup as the base for a pasta dish, leftover stuffing is a rarity, but when we do have some, I use it to stuff portobello mushrooms or eggplant, adding only a bit of grated parmesan to the stuffing before baking.
The history of the Thanksgiving turkey is a bit of a mystery. Nobody knows exactly how it earned its dubious place of honor at the table each November, but historians have a few different theories. Thanks to letters and records kept by early American settlers, we know that when the colonists sat down to dine with the Wampanoag Indians, beef and fowl were on the menu. This historical meal would later become known as the first Thanksgiving. Although historians cannot say for sure which types of fowl were served up that day, a letter written by pilgrim Edward Winslow mentions a turkey hunting trip before the meal.
Another theory attributes the Thanksgiving turkey to the Queen of England. During the 16th century, a fleet of Spanish ships sunk on their way to attack England. According to legend, Queen Elizabeth received this news while eating dinner. She was so thrilled that she ordered another goose be served. Some historians say the early settlers were inspired by the queen's actions and roasted a turkey instead of a goose.
The wild turkey is a native bird of North America. Turkey was a favored food of Native Americans. When Europeans arrived, they made it one of only two domestic birds native to the Americas—the Muscovy duck shares the distinction. The turkey was Benjamin Franklin's choice for the United States national bird. He claimed the fact that it was indigenous to America made the turkey a more suitable national bird for the United States than the bald eagle. Not everyone agreed with Franklin, however, and the bald eagle became the national emblem for the United States in 1782.
Yet by the early 20th century, wild turkeys no longer roamed over much of their traditional range. They had been wiped out by hunting and the disappearance of their favored woodland habitat. Wild turkeys typically forage on forest floors, but can also be found in grasslands and swamps. They feed on nuts, seeds, fruits, insects, and salamanders. Wild turkey reintroduction programs began in the 1940s, and the birds were relocated to areas where populations had been decimated but woodlands were recovering. Such efforts worked so well that wild turkeys now live in areas where they may not have occurred when Europeans first reached the Americas. Today, flocks are also found in Hawaii, Europe, and New Zealand. Here's a little turkey trivia to deflect Aunt Edna's prying questions about who you voted for this past election: Wild turkeys can fly, but domestic turkeys can't. Turkeys can run up to 20 miles per hour. The long, loose skin that hangs down on a turkey's neck is called a “wattle." Maybe you should keep that last bit of trivia to yourself. Aunt Edna might think you're referring to loose skin around her neck.
So, for whatever the reason, Thanksgiving Day is Turkey Day, unless you're vegan and even then you probably have some seitan (wheat gluten) roll or Tofurkey atrocity front and center, plattered up and garnished. A proper Thanksgiving Day meal is always days in the making. Even if you keep it down to the basic bird, potatoes, stuffing, gravy my husband prefers to say his grace over. "I want everything to be brown on my plate." is his request, and I acquiesce (mostly). I sneak a veggie and some cranberry sauce on the table every year, as well as something pumpkinesque and yammy, and since brown is in the red family, as is orange, I have technically kept the requested palette palatable. After all, rituals and traditions are above all about comfort and security: the lark's on the wing, the snail's on the thorn, the turkey and stuffing's in your belly, and all is right with the world. I have 364 other days of the year to concoct my Frankenstein-like food experiments which he happily eats.
Last year went well. His eons old hope that we eat a holiday dinner before 9 pm was finally realized. We didn't start stuffing ourselves at the oft requested 5 pm, but service did start at 6. I had fully organized my week with (for this Caribbean descendant) the precision of a Swiss watchmaker from the Third Reich. I practically goose-stepped around the kitchen. But well... it did fray my nerves a bit... It was two days before T-Day. The apartment smelled divine. The stock was simmering, the cranberry sauce is made, the bread for the stuffing prepared and I took a break from kitchen duty before seasoning the turkey breast and setting it aside. All very homey. My loving husband had his beloved futbol on. Manchester United was playing, I was feeling cranky. Not thankful. My having a stomach virus didn't make things any better... there is nothing worse than cooking when you can't stomach eating, especially while having to listen to someone - even someone you love - mercilessly scrape the bowl of his salad, and chomp on his pizza like a savage beast partaking of more than his fair share of antelope after several days wandering the Serengeti sans nourishment... I prefer to create my edibles to more melodious music. Something less like the soundtrack of National Geographic WILD and more Debussy Claire de Lune, Miles Davis Kind of Blue.
On the other hand, this was the man who called me whilst I was in a frantic search for brioche (with my stomach virus asserting itself the entire time and nary a public toilet facility to be found). His first suggestion was that I abandon the holy quest and simply buy prepared croutons for our stuffing. When I said I'd rather go without stuffing than eat chemically-laden croutons, he very sweetly offered to go to other stores to search for it, so that we could divide and conquer - and what's more, he did find the blessed loaves of brioche, just as I finally did...
He went all the way on the other side of town, and what was even lovelier was after we confirmed his acquisition of the holy grail, and hung up, he called me back immediately just to ask me if I was looking at the moon because it was so spectacularly large and luminous it looked surreal - like something out of an old Hollywood film set... and he wanted to make sure I saw because he knows what a moonatic I am.
"But please pay attention to where you're walking and be aware of your surroundings, I don't want you attacked because you are mesmerized by the moon."
We discussed the little fluffy clouds that were framing the moon with their kisses, and I promised him I'd be careful, told him what street I'd walk down to reassure him, and hung up. THEN as I was walking back home, he surprised me by driving directly to where I was walking to give me a lift home. He had been following me for three blocks quietly before announcing his presence.
"It's frightening how oblivious you were. I could have been anyone with intent to do you harm!"
"I was looking at the moon. I'd love to get a good picture of it but it's impossible. These new iPhones have light meters that automatically adjust the flash. I'm so disappointed."
"Come on, when we get to a good dark spot, I'll let you off, and wait while you take pictures."
He chauffeured me to two locations where I could take dramatic photos of the moon, patiently waiting for me, drove us home, put away the groceries, put away the dishes in the dishwasher, and reloaded it with this mornings dishes (all while I went running to the bathroom - this stomach virus had been kicking my ass for three days now). So sweet and solicitous. I adore him. I'm very lucky but (and you knew there had to be a "but") I just wish the man would spare me the play by play and color commentary about the futbol game he's watching... and he's not speaking rhetorically, he expects me to react to his every utterance... I couldn't keep pretending to care for long... I hadn't the energy... desperate measures were taken. I beaned him over the noggin with my turkey baster. Lovingly.
HERB-ROASTED TURKEY BREAST WITH CITRUS BUTTER AND CHANTERELLE MUSHROOM GRAVY
I chose to use a turkey breast because there were only four of us. The turkey breast stays juicy and dripping with delight since it doesn't have to wait for the darker meat to cook. I love the chicharron that the skin creates. It really crackles! When choosing a size appropriate for guests, allow about 1 pound of raw turkey per person. Sounds like a lot, I know, but you want to have leftovers, don't you? That's the best part. Frankly, hot turkey leaves me cold. I love the sandwiches later on Kaiser rolls or Dutch Crunch bread with stuffing, avocado, and cranberry sauce... Yummy, Yummy!!!
BTW, you can substitute any kind of mushroom you like for the gravy. Chanterelles are expensive. I chose them because this meal is small in scale which meant I could spend more per person, but good old button mushrooms or criminis will work just fine, if that's all you have. Hell, you don't even need any mushrooms.
The consistency of my gravy is much thinner than most. I prefer the good wholesome turkey flavor of the jus and stock not the taste of a floury pasty goopy gravy... yuk! I achieve the thickening with a minimum of starch and a maximum of reduction. I boil the hell out of the stock to reduce it to an almost gelatinous consistency which means you must minimize the use of any salt products until the gravy is made, then add the seasoning or else it will taste way salty. The turkey should be seasoned the night before roasting.
For the Turkey
• 1 whole bone-in turkey breast, 6 1/2 to 7 pounds
• 1 tablespoon minced garlic (3 cloves)
• 2 teaspoons dry mustard
• 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary leaves
• 1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage leaves
• 1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
• 2 teaspoons kosher salt
• 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
• 2 tablespoons good olive oil
• 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
• 1 cup dry white wine
• 1 onion, skin removed & cut in half
• 1 leek, cleaned & sliced length-wise
• 1 carrot, cut into quarters
• 1 lemon, cut in quarters, juiced with juice reserved
• 2 teaspoons (approximately) powdered smoked paprika (for dusting over skin)
1 Place the turkey breast, skin side up, on a rack ( I use a trivet) in a roasting pan. Nestle the onion, leek, carrot & juiced lemon & place it inside the breast cavity. Be sure that you have cut the pieces in large enough sections so that they don't fall through your rack or trivet.
2 In a small bowl, combine the garlic, mustard, herbs, salt, pepper, olive oil, and lemon juice to make a paste. Loosen the skin from the meat gently with your fingers and smear half of the paste directly on the meat. Spread the remaining paste evenly on the skin. Dust with paprika. Pour the wine into the bottom of the roasting pan. Cover and store turkey breast in roasting pan on a trivet in the refrigerator overnight. Remove from fridge one hour prior to roasting. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
3 When oven is hot, heat up Citrus Butter in small sauce pan until melted & keep warm.
4 Roast turkey for 20 minutes at 450, then lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees.
5 Baste with Citrus Butter.
6 Roast the turkey for 1 3/4 to 2 hours, until the skin is golden brown and an instant-read thermometer registers 165 degrees F when inserted into the thickest and meatiest areas of the breast. (I test in several places.) If the skin is over-browning, cover the breast loosely with aluminum foil. Occasionally basting with citrus butter.
7 When the turkey is done, cover with foil and allow it to rest at room temperature for 15 minutes while you make the gravy. Slice and serve with the jus & gravy spooned over the turkey.
For the Citrus Butter:
• 1 teaspoon grated lime rind
• 1 teaspoon grated lemon rind
• 1 teaspoon grated orange rind
• 1/2 cup butter, softened to room temperature
• 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
• 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
• 2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
• 1 shallot, finely minced
1 Stir rinds into boiling water; pour through a wire-mesh strainer. Drain on paper towels.
2 Beat butter at medium speed with an electric mixer or by hand until creamy; gradually add juices, & shallot beating until blended. Stir in rinds. Chill. Can be made 3 days ahead or more if you freeze it.
For the Chanterelle Gravy:
About the stock: make your own if you have the time (recipe below), I do every year... it's easy to prepare, just takes a bit of time to cook, if not buy it frozen from your butcher; you can substitute prepared chicken stock, but make sure it has no or low-sodium. This gravy will be dark , almost mahogany in color, if you take the time to roast your turkey giblets & wings first, really worth it. It's only once a year & a lot cheaper than buying canned, plus you can make extra & freeze until Christmas to use it then!
Cornstarch & arrowroot are almost flavorless & tend to dissolve more quickly than flour which is why I am using it here, but heat destroys it's coagulating properties so you must wait to add it until the last minute or so to the gravy. I scrape up ALL the pan fond. It adds a gorgeous color to the gravy and loads of flavor, PLUS it makes it MUCH easier to clean up the damn pan! Do not boil the gravy after you add the thickening agent. Then serve immediately.
• 2 big handfuls (handfuls is an industry term ;P) of chanterelles or your mushrooms of choice, cleaned & sliced
• 2 large shallots, sliced thinly
• 6 sage leaves, in chiffonade (sliced very, very thinly length-wise)
• half a handful of parsley, minced
• 2 tablespoons of unsalted butter
• 1 tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil
• 4 cups of fresh turkey stock
• pan drippings from turkey
• scant tablespoon of low sodium soy sauce
• 1/2 cup of dry vermouth or any acidy, un-oaked wine such as sauvignon blanc
• sea salt & fresh cracked pepper to taste
• 1 Tbs. cornstarch or arrowroot
1 Heat a saute pan over medium-high heat. Add 1 Tbs. butter & olive oil, when butter is foamy & melted, add a tiny pinch of sea salt to the pan followed by the shallots. Saute until they just change color.
2 Add the mushrooms, add the additional tablespoon of butter, if the mushrooms appear to absorb the fat in the pan. Saute until mushrooms are softened, lower heat to medium-low.
3 Add the parsley and sage. Stir in & when the mushrooms appear to be slightly glazed, season lightly with salt & pepper. Turn off the heat & set aside in a warm place.
4 Place roasting pan over medium heat on the range burners. When hot, deglaze pan with the wine or vermouth, being sure to scrape off all the pan fond (the stuck on brown bits) & incorporate into the wine.
5 Add the stock to the pan & reduce by half; about 10 minutes. Reserve 1/4 cup of stock & mix that into a slurry with the cornstarch. Set aside.
6 When stock, is reduced add the mushroom mixture, season with soy sauce; stirring well to incorporate it. Taste for seasoning & then add salt & pepper to taste.
7 When everything is to your liking, turn the heat down to very low & add cornstarch mixture, stirring really rapidly to avoid making lumps.
8 Heat for another minute or two over low heat until the cornstarch flavor is gone.
9 Place in gravy boat. Serve immediately.
I buy two wings, a turkey back, add aromatics & herbs to roast the bones. I make the turkey stock the day night before, but you can make it up to three days before. I do NOT peel the onions for this, it is important to keep the skins on... It adds a beautiful color to the stock. Add any veggie peelings or parts you like, it will only enrich the flavor. A stockpot is a must. If you don't have one, you can use a larger dutch oven.
• 2 turkey wings/and or 1 turkey back (I like both)
• fennel bulb, rough chopped
• whole onion, unpeeled, cut in half
• 3 garlic cloves, smashed
• two carrots, cut in quarters
• 2 celery stalks, cut into quarters
• 3 sprigs of rosemary, left whole
• 3 sprigs or oregano, left whole
• 1 leek, cleaned well, white part only, cut in half
• a couple of button mushrooms
• sea salt (to taste)
• peppercorns (to taste)
1 Place all of your ingredients in a roasting pan into a preheated 400 degree oven
2 Roast for 20-30 minutes or until turkey is browned
3 Empty contents of the roasting pan into stock pot, include all accumulated juices
4 Deglaze roasting pan with water, scrape up all pan fond (burnt bits that stick to bottom), add to stock pot
5 Fill stock pot with fresh cold water
6 Set pot over low heat
7 Allow it to simmer for 12 hours, undisturbed
8 Remove from heat, let it cool, then strain contents into a storage container until ready for use. I usually remove the turkey parts & the large pieces of vegetables after straining, and save them to add to gravy or soup later in the week
Shiitake, Chestnut and Sausage-Apple Stuffing
Be sure to cut all the aromatics the same size small dice. Makes a big difference in texture.
• 16 ounces Challah bread or any brioche (use white bread if you can't find an egg bread), cut into 3/4-inch cubes (about 12 cups)
• 1 pound sweet Italian sausages, casings removed
• 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter - plus additional to add atop the casserole
• 6 cups onions, about 2 large, finely chopped
• 1 pound tart green apples, peeled, cored, diced small
• 2 handfuls of shiitake mushrooms (you can use oyster, button, whatever you like)
• 1 large carrot, peeled & cut into small dice
• 2 celery ribs with leaves, diced small
• 4 teaspoons poultry seasoning
• 1 jar of whole roasted chestnuts a.k.a marron glace', rough chopped
• 4 sprigs of finely chopped fresh rosemary
• 8 sprigs of finely chopped fresh sage
• 2/3 cup chopped fresh parsley
• 3 eggs, beaten to blend
• 1 and 1/2 cups to 2 cups (about) fresh turkey stock or canned low-salt chicken broth
1 Preheat oven to 350°F. Divide bread cubes between 2 large baking sheets. Bake until slightly dry, about 15 minutes. Cool completely.
2 Sauté sausages in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat until cooked through, crumbling coarsely with back of spoon, about 10 minutes.
3 Using slotted spoon, transfer sausage to large bowl. Pour off any drippings from skillet.
4 Melt butter in same skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions, carrots, apples, celery, mushrooms and poultry seasoning to skillet; sauté until onions soften, about 8 minutes. Mix in chopped chestnuts and rosemary & sage. Add mixture to sausage, then mix in bread and parsley. Season stuffing to taste with salt and pepper. (Can be prepared 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate.)
5 Mix eggs into stuffing just before baking.
6 Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter 15x10x2-inch baking dish. Mix 1 1/3 cups broth into stuffing. Transfer to prepared dish. Cover with buttered foil and bake until heated through, about 45 minutes. Uncover, add butter evenly over the top, and bake until top is golden brown, about 15 minutes.
THE PLACE GRATITUDE FILLS IN A FINE CHARACTER
by Walt Whitman from the Philadelphia Press, Nov. 27, 1884,
—A large family supper party, a night or two ago, with voices and laughter of the young, mellow faces of the old, and a by-and-by pause in the general joviality. “Now, Mr. Whitman,” spoke up one of the girls, “what have you to say about Thanksgiving? Won’t you give us a sermon in advance, to sober us down?” The sage nodded smilingly, look’d a moment at the blaze of the great wood fire, ran his forefinger right and left through the heavy white mustache that might have otherwise impeded his voice, and began: “Thanksgiving goes probably far deeper than you folks suppose. I am not sure but it is the source of the highest poetry—as in parts of the Bible. Ruskin, indeed, makes the central source of all great art to be praise (gratitude) to the Almighty for life, and the universe with its objects and play of action.
“We Americans devote an official day to it every year; yet I sometimes fear the real article is almost dead or dying in our self-sufficient, independent Republic. Gratitude, anyhow, has never been made half enough of by the moralists; it is indispensable to a complete character, man’s or woman’s—the disposition to be appreciative, thankful. That is the main matter, the element, inclination—what geologists call the trend. Of my own life and writings I estimate the giving thanks part, with what it infers, as essentially the best item. I should say the quality of gratitude rounds the whole emotional nature; I should say love and faith would quite lack vitality without it. There are people—shall I call them even religious people, as things go?—who have no such trend to their disposition.”
Happy Thanksgiving to you all!
John leans to one side when he walks, always ready to fall, and he has a hard time keeping his eyes open. For years he was homeless, sleeping in the Rillito Wash, until some stranger finally helped him get into a state facility apartment where they make sure he takes his medication every day. He’s 56 years old, skinny with a bad complexion and brown, crooked teeth. He’s never had a girlfriend or even considered that a possibility.
As a condition of living in the state facility John has been given a job and a free cab ride to work. I pick him up 3 times a week in my cab. He works at a place where they employ people with disabilities, autistic people, Down Syndrome and others with hard-to-categorize problems. The building where he works is a big metal warehouse. The many hundreds of people who work there sit at long metal tables on hard metal chairs and do menial tasks, such as sorting bolts and nuts into boxes or screwing simple screws into the proper holes on small machinery parts or separating molded-plastic pieces to be ready for sale in stores. Some of the workers on the assembly lines are crippled, some of them can’t talk, some scream and moan and cry, some drool or go to the bathroom on themselves. Their ages vary from 18 to 60. At lunchtime there is a lunch counter where they can eat if they do not bring their lunch. The cost of the food comes out of their paychecks, which amount to about 25 bucks a week. Some of them need to be fed like children but most can feed themselves. John likes his job and never complains about it. In fact I’ve never heard him complain about anything.
But John’s life doesn’t revolve around his job. His passion is writing. He’s a writer, and very proud of being a writer. John writes a story, sometimes two stories, every day, and he has done this for years and years. His stories are just a page or two. Quick and to the point, is how he puts it. But with a twist, he says. That’s very important. When I take John to work he always tells me about the story he wrote the day before. Sometimes he has a hard time coming up with an idea for a new story, having written so many, and he asks me to help him. Anything can be a story, he says, just give me an idea.
I drive him along the streets of Tucson on the way to the warehouse and I say something like, Well, how about that antique store, John, you could write a story about an antique store.
And he says, You’ve got a good one there, I could write a story about an antique store. He thinks about it for a minute, then he says: Maybe there’s an employee at the antique store who sees an antique picture and is transported into the picture and lives there for a while.
Or I’ll see a car wash and I’ll say: You could write a story about a car wash, John.
And he’ll think about it and say: Maybe there is a guy who takes his car into the car wash and when he’s in the car wash he is transported to another dimension. John can write about anything.
John doesn’t like the food that they make at the warehouse or at his state facility, so he eats at Whataburger, which is next door to where he lives. He’s allowed to walk that far, and no farther, on his own. He eats there when he gets home from work, always the same thing: a regular hamburger, small fries and a Coke: 5 dollars and 35 cents. Sometimes there’s a nice girl working there who will give him a free refill on the Coke, but most times it’s just the one. He always runs out of money before his next paycheck and then he can’t eat at Whataburger for a few days. On those days he is forced to eat whatever is served to him.
One time John was struck by a car while walking across the street to Whataburger. His already bad leg was made even worse, and 3 years later he is finally given a settlement of 500 dollars for his pain and suffering. As I am his cab driver and possibly his best friend he offers to treat me to lunch at Whataburger with part of his settlement. On my day off I go to Whataburger at 11 o’clock to have lunch with him. Get whatever you want, he says, though I recommend the hamburgers. I order a hamburger and we sit at a table in the sun and eat.
What did you write yesterday John? I ask him. I wrote a story about this guy who works in a warehouse, he says. This guy doesn’t have anybody in the world and he works at this warehouse and the work isn’t very much fun and he doesn’t like it very much, but he’s happy enough. The warehouse doesn’t have any windows and is kind of cold and the light is too bright, but it’s not too bad. There is also a lunch counter where the employees eat but the guy never likes the food. He eats it or sometimes he doesn’t eat it. Then, one day the guy dies, right there on the assembly line, and he goes to heaven. When he is in heaven he discovers heaven is like a big warehouse with metal walls and much the same as where he was before. No windows but not too bad. He thinks it is exactly the same. But when he goes to the lunch counter he finds they have much better food. Instead of eggs there is lobster. Instead of fish sticks, now there are hamburgers.
That’s a good one, John, I say.
Eat up, he says, It’s on me.
One day I go to pick John up and he isn’t there. A lady comes out and tells me they can’t find him, he must have wandered off somewhere. A week later he’s still missing. The lady tells me they’ve given up. I ask to see his room and she’s nice enough to let me in. The room is filthy and stinks. They’re gonna clean it out tomorrow, the lady tells me. Notebook papers lay scattered everywhere, on the floor, on the little table, on the bed, in the bathroom. The notebook papers are covered with illegible pencil scribbles, partial-sentences and misspelled words or just messy lines. I pick one up. It is complete nonsense. These are John’s stories.
When John got his settlement of 500 dollars for getting hit by a car, he wanted to use some of the money to buy a computer to put all his stories in. The place where he lived gave a group of residents a ride in their big white van to the Tucson mall one Sunday. This was John's chance to get his computer. The van dropped the group off at the mall and the driver told them they would have 2 hours at the mall, after which they would be expected to be back at that same spot for the return trip. John was so worried about missing the ride home that he didn’t even make it to the computer store. He just walked into the mall and turned right around and walked back out and sat on the bench and waited to go home. He sat on the bench and thought about the next story he would write: maybe it would be about a guy sitting on a bench outside a mall watching a little ant crawl over his shoe, and maybe the guy would talk to the ant, and the ant would talk back, and the ant would tell him things. John’s dream was to have a book published with all of his stories inside.
I look for John when I’m driving the streets in my cab. I even took a long walk along the Rillito Wash one weekend. No sign of him. I guess it would be fitting to go to Whataburger and eat a hamburger in his honor once a month, write a story in a sunny booth with a pencil on a notepad, a story about anything that comes to mind, a story quick and to the point, with a twist at the end. But I don’t. The food at Whataburger is not very good, and I don’t have the imagination for it.
Pete and I had been kayaking for about an hour in Glacier Bay, Alaska, when we spotted something in the distance. It looked like a shadow on the water. At first, I thought it was a boat. But then it disappeared – then reappeared. It was probably 200 yards away. Whatever it was, it was big.
“Holy crap!” Pete cried. “I think it’s a whale!”
I felt my chest tighten. I felt dizzy. I had just learned to control my lifelong fear of water, and now it came rus
THIRTY YEARS AGO The best Christmas gift that I ever received was not wrapped, but rather, a most unlikely raptor and presented to me near the tail end of a nightmarish journey begun four days earlier and several thousand miles to the East. On the twenty-first of December of 1977, I boarded a Greyhound bus on the Southeast coast of the United States, and embarked upon a course, carving a swath out of the Deep South and thrusting up through the Heartland and westering
First, a little bit about this complex and gifted writer. . .
Novelist, short story writer, playwright, essayist and travel writer, Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) was among the most notable authors of the 20th century. His work is characterized by a clear, unaffected style, cosmopolitan settings and an insightful understanding of human nature.
Maugham’s writing spanned many genres, and he was prolific. Four of the more than thirty plays he wrote were running simultaneously in London’s West End at one time. Only Bernard Shaw exceeded that record. Maugham was especially renowned for his many short stories, and he was also the single most recognized writer of travel stories between World War One and World War Two. Several of his novels – Of Human Bondage, The Ra
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