SILENCE HAS A NAME - Poetry Chapbook and CD, with Music by Mark Hanley

Thursday, October 29, 2009

On Visiting and Becoming the Poor

Oct. 29, 2009

Nickel and Dimed, award-winning journalist Barbara Ehrenreich's fascinating nonfiction account of living as a member of the poor working class,(published in 2001), and Clarice Lispector's novella, The Hour of the Star, (translated by Giovanni Pontiero, and originally published in 1977), about a pathetically poor, mistreated worker in the Brazilian slums, have in common the little people, and the writers' compassion for them which inform the reader and illumine the texts. As I read both books this past week, I was struck by their similarity -- primarily, both writers aim to raise the consciousness of readers about those that have not.

You don't need to be a social activist or a follower of Michael Moore's movies to become mesmerized by Nickel and Dimed. If you have any heart or curiosity at all, you will not be able to put the book down. It's particularly interesting to revisit it in these days when the economy is in even worse shape than when Ehrenreich started her project, testing herself at various service jobs around the country about a decade ago. According to the American Community Surveys (ACS) 2008 data, an estimated 13.2 percent of the U.S. population had income below the poverty threshold in 2007. America's poor don't just live in Kentucky and Louisiana, they are everywhere.

Ehrenreich embarked on her experiment, working service jobs, in Key West in 1998. Early in her text, she explains, she took on the challenge "just to see whether I could match income to expenses, as the truly poor attempt to do." A very smart woman, an accomplished professional writer and Ph.D. in biology, Ehrenreich failed time and again.

Service professionals sometimes form a weird subculture that allows waitresses in a cheap restaurant, for example, to simultaneously experience camaraderie, animosity and competitiveness with one another as they share the same toil and aggravation. But too often it's a dead end. Support just isn't there, and a worker needs two, maybe three jobs just to make ends meet, and that doesn't even allow for health care emergencies.

Much of Ehrenreich's story is not so much about the poor working class, but about poor working class girls and women and their drudge. While working as a maid, Ehrenreich encountered a particularly uppity woman who demanded a picayune cleaning, inspiring Ehrenreich to muse -- "That's not your marble bleeding. I want to tell her, it's the world-wide working class -- the people who quarried the marble, wove your Persian rug until they went blind, harvested the lovely apples in your fall-themed dining room centerpiece, smelted the steel for the rails, drove the trucks, put up the building, and now bend and squat and sweat to clean it."

By Latin American standards, North Americans, even those in Appalachia, hardly know about poverty. In Colombia and Brazil, for example, poverty devastates masses, and hordes of children become street criminals; only the wiliest survive. On the street, the poorest of the poor cheat and mistreat and are cheated and mistreated, even by their own. Hunger is constant, with never the hope of a soup kitchen or shelter to ease wanting -- even for a day.

Lispector's fictional character Macabea, may be the most pitiful poor woman I have encountered in fiction. Homely and unloved, she makes a meager living as a typist in Rio. The reader perceives her through the eyes of the self-serving narrator, Rodrigo S.M., who attempts to make her his own, to become her by a willful act of literary transmutation: "It's my obsession to become the other man. In this case, the other woman. Pale and feeling weak, I tremble just like her."

The aim of Lispector's stirring, elegant, wholly original tale is to move the reader to experience the arrogance of the narrator and the anguish of the poor. A hint of the aim is unveiled in this telling line of the narrator's -- "I know that it is very frightening to step out of oneself, but then everything which is unfamiliar can be frightening."

Both Lispector and Ehrenreich dare the reader to step out of comfortable zones into the shoes of the poor, and further, beneath their skin. Each writer succeeds brilliantly, exposing not only the artifice and arrogance of those more fortunate along with the brutality of external circumstances, but the layers of internal suffering the working class and poor constantly endure.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Sedaris and My Brother Bill

Oct. 26, 2009

Before I get to Clarice, not the Jodie Foster character in the Silence of the Lamb movie, but the inimitable great Brazilian writer, I am going to take a seguey into humor, specifically that of David Sedaris, who, I hear, is a favorite of my younger brother Bill's.

I wouldn't know this directly, you see, as my dear brother Bill, the youngest in our family, is many miles away, west of here, and we in our family tend not to communicate much -- with each other anyway. I heard Billy likes Sedaris through a sister of mine who calls him more often than anybody. I'm glad somebody calls him. I wish we talked more often. Heck, it would be nice to see one another.

I haven't seen him in 12 years, since our mother's funeral.

Be that as it may -- and mind you, we both love one another and said so during our last phone conversation, which was, oh, perhaps a year or so ago, when I called him -- I have to go by way of Sedaris to learn about my brother.

I chose Naked, Sedaris' collection of essays about his family to start, and let me tell you, I can totally see why Bill likes Sedaris. There are a lot of similarities.

Like David, my brother Bill was surrounded by females growing up -- three sisters to be precise, and a doting mother. Like David, Bill was a bit neurotic, and funny as hell as a child. He probably still is. And like David, Bill is a bicultural. David is part Greek and American, and we are part Colombian, and Iowan, if there is such a thing. David's mother was a strong personality, and needless to say, ours was too --strong and volatile, always saying what she thought, however outrageous or inappropriate, never making any bones whatsoever about her feelings, and being unabashedly hysterical.

Bill has some of those qualities, but practices directness with charm and aplomb. Rather than daring you into battle, as most individuals in our family do, he invites you to consider and even question an opinion or a stance. This from a guy who was beaten regularly by an older, bigger brother -- for just being. As the youngest in a mad brood of aggressive and opinionated individuals, Billy learned early to be diplomatic. Now he is so diplomatic, he is unreachable!

It must be that he has a lot to do.

As far as I know, ever since Billy picked up a racket, he hasn't done much else but play tennis, and play it well. After winning championships, he decided to teach tennis, and apparently, he does that well too. He taught Olympic hopefuls, and now he heads a sports program at a Midwestern university.

All members of my family are trademarked by some form of obsession, as happens to be the case in Sedaris' family too. And as is true in Sedaris' family, we are irreverent as heck about those things that most people consider sacred -- like death.

Witness Sedaris hearing about his Greek grandmother Ya-Ya's death by phone: "My roommate was listening in, and because I wanted to impress him as a sensitive and complex individual, I threw myself onto the bed and made the most of my grief. 'It can't be true,' I cried. 'It can't be true-hu-hu-hu-hu.'"

And here are David's mother's comments regarding her own death in the future, as the family gazes upon Ya-Ya's casket: "'When I get like that, I want you to shoot me, no questions asked,' my mother whispered. 'disconnect the feeding tubes and shut off the monitors, but under no circumstances do I want you to move me into your basement.'"

There are so many hysterical moments in this collection, dear reader, I can't begin to tell you. You must read David Sedaris, if you haven't already. He's been around a while. Hundreds of thousands watch him on YouTube. He's even done the most audacious thing -- Taken time to read an entire essay, five minutes long, on David Letterman. And had people listen, appreciate and applaud.

Imagine that. Now, let me tell you, that's some accomplishment for a writer.

So, go read Sedaris. Read Naked, or any one of his other books. He's got plenty of outrageous and insightful remarks to make about his family. A lot of what he has to say will probably resonate with you, as I know families are a lot weirder than Cheaper By the Dozen or The Brady Bunch would have you believe. Some of the members of Sedaris' family may even remind you of members of your own family. In the long run, that's one of the best things you can say about a writer -- that he or she is familiar.

Hey David, you remind me of my brother Bill. Take that as a compliment.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

With Apologies to Clarice

October 18, 2009

You know you are way too much a part of "the culture," when you cannot read or say Clarice without thinking of Jodie Foster's character in Silence of the Lambs. I know it's awful to admit, but it's true, even though I am faced with this reminder as I read about the great, the important, the inimitable Clarice Lispector in Benjamin Moser's biography, Why This World, recently published by Oxford Press.

Short story writer. Novelist. Journalist. Translator. Russian but Brazilian. Jewish yet not. Feminist yet traditional. Groundbreaking in her writing yet reticent in person. Shy yet a diva. Alluring yet dismissive. A star who only wanted to be seen as her true self, she was known to shrug off interviewers with one word replies, once even suggesting to a journalist that he turn to one of her books to glean answers about her life.

Translator Gregory Rabasa once wrote that Clarice "looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf." She was, like Madonna, on a first name basis with the world, made famous by her first novel, Near to the Wild Heart, written in the style of an internal monologue, at the tender age of 23. Among her other famous works are Family Ties and The Passion According to G.H.

Moser, recently named the New Books columnist for Harper's Magazine, is a young translator and expatriate who lives in the Netherlands. Why This World is a careful, but daunting biography, and it's not hard to read between the lines that he is a diehard fan.

I have to admit that something this long -- close to 400 pages -- could only be a question of fits and starts. I had my first fit on page 15, upon discovering that a friend of Clarice's once wrote that her eyes "had the dull dazzle of the mystic." I wonder how this matters in any way, save perhaps to set the stage for the scale of Clarice's mythic importance. But this biographer takes chapters to set the stage. Ah well, I now know it's a dull dazzle in the eye I must look for when next I search for a mystic. A bit further along, Moser mentions that Clarice resembled the Jewish saints of her homeland, and at this point, I closed the book -- for the first time anyway.

It all starts with quotations from the grand dame of letters herself, who claims, "I am so mysterious that I don't even understand myself."

It's tough enough to handle an egoist, but to add to that, a biographer who swirls with vagaries around Clarice's own swirling self-conceptions -- This is a bit much. Moser claims, for example, that she possessed "the soul of a single woman, but within it one finds the full range of human experience." Is it me, or does this sound antiquated, sexist and trite? I'd like to suggest to Mr. Moser that he hop a plane back to the U.S. fast and learn a thing or two about the modern single woman and her full range.

Vanity (the subject's) and subtle and not-so-subtle praise (the author's) fuel this literary mise. The first, vanity, is a defect I myself was intimate with for years. And so I know that it's often utilized to cover up the flaws in one's own person and one's past, things one wishes to obscure. One substitutes the deeper search with a deeper affection for the superficial -- The curve of one's eyebrow, the shape of one's mouth, the angle of one's cheek and the slope of the neck can hold one in thrall until, alas, time passes, these droop and one must search elsewhere -- within? -- if one is to remain friendly with the self at all. Knowing the self is inevitable, one could argue -- if you stick around long enough.

Dear reader of this reader, I forced myself to open the book again, and read about the tragic rape of Clarice's mother Mania by a gang of Russian soldiers, a rape which led to her mother contracting syphilis and to Mania's early death. Clarice was born to a syphilitic mother in 1920 in the Ukraine, and shortly after that, her poor family was forced to wander, leaving the country and settling eventually in Maceió, Brazil. Her father was a peddler and raised three girls on his own, one of whom was Chaya Kinkhasovna Lispector, who became Clarice in the new land. Her name means "Life" in Hebrew.

Clarice led a fascinating life that included literary success, marriage, a child, travels in Europe, adulation and renown. An accident led to years of pain and a premature death at 57. Outsider and insider; popular, yet removed; spontaneous, yet affected; it's hard to know who Clarice really was and what she really thought about herself, but you can have a great deal of fun speculating along with Moser, if you read Why This World.

With apologies to the dear sister who inspired this read, I didn't wade through nearly 400 pages of awe-inspired revelations about the ever so elusive Clarice to determine what I already knew: The reader will have to let the unnameable remain unnamed, to respect Clarice's mystery, to search for answers in her oeuvre, as the writer herself suggested.

Unfortunately, as I learned during a search at a local Barnes & Noble, Clarice's oeuvre is difficult and expensive to procure.

Perhaps this latest tome about her life will help to lift veils not only of obscurity but of exclusivity, kindle fresh interest in her work and inspire a reduction in prices of her books!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Sayonara Blood Sports

Oct. 13, 2009

I'm wondering if some a mad coked up, emotionally challenged wrestler runs the Travel Network. Don't expect to find any real food shows there, or anything that remotely resembles a civilized experience in which you, civilized reader, would like to partake. What you get is Man Vs. Food, Mad Adventures, Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmerman, and yes, No Reservations, featuring the handsome, charming, talented, ever predictable Anthony Bourdain.

I had to see these shows to believe them. Now I do. I really, really do.

In case you thought otherwise, none of the shows I just mentioned is about eating. They are all about the blood sport that used to be civilized dining. They're about grossing people out, about primitive man against the elements, about animalistic contests in the arena.

Last time I switched on 788, I happened on Mad Adventures, just as some guy was cutting off a live snake's head and pouring its blood into a glass. Then the heart was excised, left to quiver in a basin. I switched channels at that point.

I was really anticipating not just travel, but watching cooks respect something foreign, but not that foreign. But what you get on Channel 788 is a killing field, guys closing in on prey, as if the world itself and everything in it -- live, quivering and vulnerable -- is theirs for the taking.

The last Bourdain episode I saw -- and, I hope, it is the last -- was on the Philippines, and once again, its emphasis wasn't so much good or rare cuisine as it was the gross-out -- "See big, fat pig roasting on a spit." "See goat we are about to kill, whose entrails we are about to eat." "See what a big brave macho man I am going down on this."

I would love for time to roll forward about 10 years so Travel TV watchers could glimpse what becomes of the hosts of these shows -- if they are even here then. I wonder what X-rays of their stomachs and colons look like. How much money does it take to buy a blown out gut or an overextended colon? How much are these guys getting paid so they can commit suicide on air?

Maybe someone can ask Bourdain or Zimmerman or that poor oaf who's always belching and gagging over giant pizzas, omelets and unwieldy stacks of pancakes. Really, how much money does it take to not care about yourself at all and launch on the suicidal journey that hosting one of these shows is?

Someone somewhere must think that all women want to see on television is Oprah. I wonder where the really cool food shows are, where a camera slowly, thoughtfully pans a happy cook stirring something healthful and delightful, brought out of the earth with respect for what it yields -- rather than out of a poor animal's gut -- something that will be properly cooked, served, eaten and appreciated. Where is the show starring the gourmand who respects what she eats and expresses curiosity rather than bravado over the elements that constitute a good meal?

Indulge me this mental stream: Outside of thinking, that most precious activity that distinguishes us as humans, the most important things we do are breathe and eat -- in that order. Wouldn't you imagine then that we would strive to do both as well as possible in order to live as happily and as long as possible? Wouldn't you imagine then that breathing right and eating well, in the best sense of what the latter means, would matter to most people?

You would think....

I don't think most people have the slightest idea of how to eat properly anymore. Most of the time, even though I know better, I forget too -- the way we live keeps us from being our better selves. We're wound up, speed addicts and our culture demands we go on to the next thing before we even know what we're experiencing in the moment. Maybe we binge just so we can capture the moment whole. But it's really too bad, cause we'll killing ourselves that way.

Years ago, aware of my own predilection for hastiness, I took time out to study yoga at an ashram in Lenox, Mass. and took part in a workshop there that directed us to spend 40 minutes eating a bowl of rice, properly chewing and appreciating the process at hand. I can tell you I learned a few things-- mainly, how much better it feels to eat something mindfully than without having the slightest regard for what passes through my mouth.

Vietnamese monk and peacemaker Thich Nhat Hanh spent an entire 20-minutes eating an orange mindfully in a video he put out in the 90s. Some people have been enlightened on this subject for years.

In the late 90s, as an educational coordinator, I once spent an entire afternoon showing kids in an afterschool program how to eat a piece of fruit -- quietly and with respect for the thing being eaten that was providing life and nourishment. Believe it or not, the kids, middle schoolers, participated, amazed at their own powers of attention, their own ability to do this. Maybe too, they were trying to outdo one another with the new challenge of mindfulness-- but they put aside rowdiness and got into it. These kids who used to spend snack time tossing food at one another, got into it. And maybe, sometime in the future, when they get sick enough and bored enough with bad habits and the unhealthy routines propagated by the culture, mostly through TV, they'll remember eating properly and how it felt better.

So, it's time to switch off all the visual tripe of the Travel Channel. Time to put to rest the culinary adventures I took up to read -- mostly Bourdain's -- in the wake of that experiment.

Michael Ruhlman introduced me to great chefs, and got me yearning to eat at some of the finest eateries around the country; and Bill Buford's writing demonstrated how demanding the cooking passion can be. But it's time to put the big boys and their adventures to bed.

I'm going to break out a biography of Genet -- the journalist Janet Flanner-- and another of Clarice Lispector, the Brazilian writer.

No apologies. I'm going back to my roots, my way.

Friday, October 9, 2009

For Love of Small Things French

October 9, 2009

"Respect for food is a respect for life, for who we are and what we do." - Thomas Keller

So says the artistic chef of chefs, Thomas Keller, who has so dominated French-influenced American cuisine for decades. As his birthday is coming up on Oct. 14, it seems appropriate to write about him now.

Keller grew up in California, apprenticed as a cook in many locations around the country, then hopped to France in the 1980s.

The French Laundry, which he started in 1994 in the Napa Valley, launched his extraordinary reputation. Subsequently, he opened Per Se in New York City, which immediately garnered four stars from food critic Frank Bruni of The New York Times. There is also Bouchon in Yountville, New York.

Time Magazine dubbed Keller, Best Chef in 2001, and he's received several Best Chef Awards from the James Beard Foundation.

Keller believes a great meal is an emotional experience, a journey, and so he tries to create this via ambiance as well as the attention to detail for which he is renowned. He's called Per Se -- which opened on Feb. 16, 2004, then after a fire, reopened May 1 of the same year in Manhattan -- an urban interpretation of The French Laundry; the two are connected by symbols such as the blue door, a garden and fireplace.

He has helped to make famous the sous-vide (under vacuum) style of cooking that is known to preserve the integrity of ingredients by allowing them to cook at lower temperatures for a longer time. Georges Pralus developed the method in France in the 1970s, and it's also been utilized by Ferran Adria and Charlie Trotter, among others.

Since bacteria tends to grow in the absence of oxygen, sous-vide style cooking requires close monitoring in order to avoid botulism poisoning, but also because the difference of even a degree can radically affect the final product.

A classic Keller recipe employing this method is his slow cooking cassoulet, a dish of white beans and pork parts, with white wine and tomato paste.

Keller's books are The French Laundry Cookbook, Under Pressure: Cooking Sous-Vide. His latest, Bouchon, is an homage to simple French bistro fare.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Those Darn Sweet Little Things

Oct. 2, 2009

This is dedicated to my mother.

There are a few things I could just about die for -- any time. One is chocolate, and the other, espresso. As I sit here writing at Barnes & Noble in Paramus, nouveau flamenco sounds from the speakers, and I'm reminded of my mother, my great friend, fellow foodie and raconteur who is no longer with us. I am reminded of her because, as her passion was literature, she loved to be surrounded by books (as I now am), and because after that, there was food and sharing it with those she loved. Right now, I am enjoying something she would have liked very much -- my own espresso concoction -- one part espresso, one part hot chocolate, and a splash of soy (to mellow the color).

My mother loved food and also liked to sneak it. She was addicted to Marshmallow Fluff. You could be searching high and low in a cupboard for a favorite long lost cup and find there behind the woodwork, her secret stash, that Marshmallow stuff. One time I caught her, jar in hand, spoonful in mouth, and she explained, "This is exquisite -- I cannot help myself."

She was a gourmand, like me, but she could enjoy food like nobody. Watching her savor something delectable such as a piece of chocolate, a section of Key Lime pie, yes, even Marshmallow Fluff was an experience royale. Her lips pursed and you felt she was kissing the food inside her mouth. A part of you wanted to be there too. Then her fine long-fingered hands would fly up to her face, clench and fly free in a flamenco gesture of complete gratification.

You have to know how passionate she was and how much she loved the idea that she could savor something so delicious and sinful and have it disappear inside her -- never to be seen again -- as if swallowing, she might never be found out, even by her own body.

There was no richer experience than being asked to partake of a morsel of something delicious with my mother at the kitchen counter. When she was in a good frame of mind, happy and not plagued by worry or a bout of depression, from which she was prone to suffer, there was nothing she could do that did not captivate anyone I ever knew -- child or adult. She told stories like no one, making you live in her words and actions, leaving you breathless for more.

I can see her now, unraveling a small package, a dessert surprise, which she would treat like a filched prize that she had gotten just for you, and so absolutely had to be partaken. She enjoyed deep dark, bitter chocolate while I preferred sweet chocolate, and we both reveled in desserts and espresso, which provided the kick that catapulted us into some of our finest gossip and conversations.

Chocolate and espresso are both part of our Colombian culture and heritage. Colombians love to talk and laugh and eat. At three o'clock, afternoons when we were visiting relatives in Bogotá, we would drink hot chocolate, dipping sharp cheese into it, and nibble from an assortment of fruits and cheeses laid out across the long dining table. And we exchanged stories.

My mother usually presided, imitating relatives and friends, being outrageous and hysterical, so hysterical my uncle and aunt often doubled over, blushing so that one worried how much redder they could get without bursting. My uncle laughed so hard, he cried. It always endeared me to him to watch him, a suave and dapper man in a fine business suit, so moved by my mother, he had to wipe tears from his eyes.

Later, after we had moved to the U.S., and I was an adult, the experience of sharing a rare dessert with my mother -- say, a mousse pie or mocha tart or ice cream extravaganza -- would be the catalyst that would put her over the edge, causing her to slip into that most precarious pasttime -- revealing family secrets.

There were plenty of secrets to tell. She made me promise never to repeat them -- yet afterward, proceeded to write nearly all of them into her stories and novels!

She wrote about her crazy Uncle Saul, who claimed to carry the secrets of the universe on a slip of paper in his breast pocket. And beautiful but simple-minded Aunt Adelaida who was the butt of her demented brother, who would, for example, get her to rest her head sideways on a bed of grass, so he could set rocks against it. My mother wrote about her great grandparents, the man, so jealous of his wife's voice that he imprisoned her in an attic, where she went mad and died young. One relative attached a rope to a church chandelier and leapt from the balcony landing buck naked at the foot of the altar during a Sunday Mass. As far as I know, my mother never wrote about him.

While it's alcohol that gets most people going, it was lovely desserts and the perico, espresso, that cup of black heaven, that would launch my mother into realms of the forbidden, into declaring those things that were, for her, daring to reveal. Growing up in a repressive environment, my mother was forced to stuff much of what she wanted to say.

She grew up in Bogotá, Colombia during the beginning of a period called The Violence, when anyone critical of the government could be assassinated in broad daylight on the streets. Her father, a prestigious judge, dared to defend peasants in his courtroom and criticized the oligarchy. As a result of this, he and his family were forced into exile many times. Once, when my mother was around five, as she and her father and a few of his friends descended the steps of a capital building, a car came to a screeching halt below, a door flew open and someone began shooting. One of my mother's father's friends, an official, grabbed my mother, ferreting her to safety in a taxi, and fortunately no one was killed or injured that day.

Experiences like that must have percolated inside her for years, begging to be told. When my mother finally gave herself permission to write, she gave herself wholeheartedly to the task. She did not begin writing until after leaving her own country, after marrying my American dad and moving to the U.S. Even then, she chose to write in a language not her own, perhaps believing that this would distance her just enough so that she could revisit her past with clarity and objectivity.

For whatever reason, perhaps having to do with the culture and time in which she was born and raised, my mother associated indulging in special foods with being naughty, even sacreligious, which she loved to be. Being sacreligious must have been the complete antithesis of what she had been expected to be as a child -- silent, proper and obedient, always fearing that an inappropriate word or gesture from her could lead to a fiasco -- someone's imprisonment, even death.

My mother and I liked being naughty together. After Saturday shopping sprees at Bloomies, we would settle at a lunch counter somewhere and order a wicked dessert. She would eye the white cream curling up out of the cup of a white chocolate mousse with Cointreau that beckoned her.

"This is soo good," she would say, closing her eyes as if in prayer. "Too good. May God forgive me."

The desserts didn't have to be elegant or complicated. Just plain ice cream could do it. Each spoonful was a deeply felt experience, utter delight.

"Should we have another? No, no, I cannot," she would ask and answer herself, her eyes roaming the room, sad for something lost that someone somewhere had deprived her of and that had somehow abandoned her in its wake.

Her relationship to her treats and desserts was varied too. She might gaze at the truffle cream between two cookies fondly as if it was a cute child, or cruelly, as if the thing had the capacity to persecute her, until she somehow convinced herself that what she longed for was indeed benign.

Little treats bedeviled her -- candy by her bedside, truffles, and especially Marshmallow Fluff, which she hid and ate in a kind of ecstasy, her pleasure beholding to nobody.

"This, this is mine," her secret indulgence seemed to say. "I am owned by everyone -- my husband and five children, by my writing even, but this, this is all mine."

Second to discussing literature or her sinful affection for things sweet with her daughters, my mother loved cajoling her friends into divulging their best recipes, their secrets. Her best friends -- Fran Decker, Charlotte Sabo -- were superb cooks. My mother loved to envy them the talent she did not possess and ravished their treasures guiltlessly, listening spellbound to each step of their concoctions. It was the way she loved them back for having fed her habit. My mother would take a bite of something delicious from their kitchens and beg to know how it was made.

"I place the little buggers in the oven, say at 450," Fran would say.

"And they look like this! Unbeleefable! Dees, dees is true ecstasy!"