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

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Rewards of Courage and Persistence

Kara Richardson Whitely has written a bold and riveting memoir that tells about her struggle with food, and her surmounting obstacles as she prepares to walk up Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest peak, while raising money for an AIDS cause for children in Africa. I had the pleasure of meeting Kara at a recent Mediabistro event in New York City, which she attended with her husband Chris, in order to promote her book. Kara credits Mediabistro and its workshops with helping to write this daunting memoir.

Kara, a journalist who lives in New Jersey, has struggled with weight issues all her life. Her descriptions of reaching 350 pounds, then losing weight as she works out and prepares for her trek abroad are uncompromisingly honest and refreshing. She doesn't claim to offer diet prescriptions, but she does share what worked for her. "It took Weight Watchers here, Oprah's Boot Camp there, South Beach bars from time to time, a 4 p.m. ritual of eating Luna Bars, and working out (a lot) to get rid of one hundred pounds. I had to find out what worked for me. Sometimes nothing did."

As if losing lots of weight and working out weren't challenges enough, Kara climbs mountains and determines to walk up Kilimanjaro. Her steadfast preparation for that walk is admirable. She and Chris scale down and up the Grand Canyon and take on Vermont's Mount Mansfield and Camel Hump; but climbing isn't all that's involved. The two must take a slew of shots to ward off diseases and buy prescriptions that may save their lives. Even finding the right clothes to fit her body for that walk is a challenge. Kara, clearly willing to do whatever it takes, even takes a last minute trip to do altitude training in Telluride, Colorado.

The rewards of her efforts are immediate. After raising $12,000 for Global Alliance for Africa, Kara and Chris have the opportunity to see what sorts of help their contribution will give to families in Africa who, for example, must count on rain for their drinking water. When the two ask what is the best way to help, the director informs them, "Tell people about Africa."

By the time, Kara, Chris and friends finally embark on their adventure, the reader knows Kara is as ready as she can be, given the unforeseen. Kara finds she is both resilient and strong. When others encounter altitude sickness, for example, she is fine. When the going gets hard, she reminds herself of why she is making the trek to the top, to help AIDS orphans in Africa. "The meditation of steps, breath and the songs from our porters," carry the team up the mountain. The trekkers battle diseases like diarrhea and the trials of insomnia, and the struggle intensifies as they reach the third summit, Jamaica Rocks, at 5,500 meters above sea level. Slowly, slowly, the group reaches Gilman's Point, at 5,686 meters. Uhuru Peak, the actual summit, is 1,000 meters higher, and when Kara and Chris finally get there, the reader, knowing full well what it took, revels in the many levels of exhilaration Kara experiences having fulfilled her quest.

Fat Woman on the Mountain is an engaging and inspiring read. Far more than about the challenge of losing weight, it's about overcoming external and internal obstacles to fulfill an important and rewarding dream. As a how-to in this department, it's one of a kind, a gem.

For more information about Kara 's adventures or her book, see http://www.fatwomanonthemountain.com/.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Holiday Cheating

Vegetarians never win on Thanksgiving and Christmas, so those of us who cook might as well "suck it up," as my brother Bill likes to say, and serve the meat -- in this case, poultry. This year it was capon, not turkey, and we kept our celebration small. A capon is a castrated rooster whose castration process sounds like a religious ceremony -- caponization. In any case, the bird is tender, and, I might add, rather expensive. The bird is considered less aggressive. This may be a consideration if you are faced with feeding bilious friends or family members who generally chow down on the kinds of meat that make you more aggressive or tense.

Capón, as I like to call him (with an accent egu over the o), was an 8-pounder, and the French relative of a famous American gangster -- and less aggressive, of course. I could see he also, like his fellow bird, the turkey, had innards that needed to be removed, and I cast them aside. I slathered Capón with maple syrup and tamari, a concoction that gave his crust a warm, toasty look, and a light, lovely taste -- I was told.

Along with the requisite fowl, we had stuffing, and I am proud of mine. It's hearty, lush and moist. As I am trying to keep cholesterol levels down in our household, after chopping up sweet onion, fresh celery, baby portobello mushrooms and apple bits, I sauteed them not in butter, but olive oil. Once the ingredients were made tender in the pan, I added a splash of tamari.

Into the big pot filled with an inch of water went the Pepperidge Farm stuffing. I stirred until the stuffing was slightly moist, then added my sauteed brew and stirred some more. I would have added golden raisins, but certain people with whom I reside don't like raisins in their stuffing, so, in order to please the masses, I withheld the raisins and gnoshed on them instead.

The two major sins one can commit with stuffing are making it dry and/or tossing everything into it but the kitchen sink. Please resist the temptation to do either.

As Capón reached the end of his cooking cycle -- about two and half hours -- I tossed some fresh stuffing from a box into the pan in which he was cooking and let the stuff simmer in juices for a while, then scooped out a couple of serving spoon's worth to add to the stuffing mix on the stove.  Capón higher fat content makes him perfect for basting.

The stuffing was moist and to die for. Did I eat it? -- You bet. As for Capón himself, I'm afraid he is almost gone. I did not partake of him, although I did usurp his juices in the stuffing. Although I am a vegetarian, this Thanksgiving, and only in this way, I cheated.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

La Fontana Di Trevi Redux

If you ever have the chance, see Federico Fellini's 1960 film, La Dolce Vita. There's a wonderful scene where Anita Eckberg steps fully clothed into the Fontana di Trevi in Rome and bathes, or rather, luxuriates in its famous waters. Her delight has probably been matched more than once by diners at the Fontana di Trevi Restaurant in Leonia, New Jersey, and certainly it was matched my mine when I dined there two nights ago. The restaurant is named after the famous fountain in Rome and a restaurant of the same name once situated in Manhattan between 6th and 7th avenues that Andrew Calegari used to manage, and which the famous and not so famous often frequented after enjoying theater and concerts at nearby Carnegie Hall. The Fontana in Manhattan closed, but a few years ago, Andrew spotted twin brick storefronts in Leonia, the home of the restaurant's founder Robert Mai, and decided this was the ideal site to reopen La Fontana. The ceiling was raised, the walls painted earthy tones, and antique lamps and mirrors hung. Most of the original staff, including executive chef Hector Fresneros, was brought over. The restaurant, which opened last September, features an Old World menu, with about a dozen pasta dishes, a focus on chicken and veal, and some grand and simple surprises.

La Fontana's Caesar is legendary, and I couldn't wait to try it. It's prepared tableside, and is so fine that, according to Sara, Andrew's wife, the restaurant's diminutive hostess, baker and bread maker, customers literally cross oceans to enjoy it. I don't doubt it. The anchovies, garlic and crumbs are gently crushed by pestle in a wooden bowl, combined with a raw egg yolk, balsamic dressing, mustard and olive oil, tossed with pepper and fresh grated Parmesan over robust Romaine leaves; add a few more croutons, and presto. What a result!

I also enjoyed a simple Portobello mushroom doused in olive oil on a bed of Arugula leaves, but that was all, as I wanted to focus on desserts. We sampled three: a pure chocolate heaven, a soufflé with a rich moist center that was topped with vanilla ice cream that is normally vanilla gelato, but the kitchen was out of the latter; a bread pudding with imported panettone that was simply to die for; and a delightful strawberry crisp that was Sara's gift to us. The homemade dessert menu includes a classic tiramisu, a favorite that I will order next time.

Since it's opening, Fontana Di Trevi has garnered considerable attention, and it is easy to see why. It is now open for lunch, Tuesdays through Fridays, and I hear the lunch menu offers light and hearty options and is incredibly reasonable.

There's a saying that if you toss a coin into the actual Fontana Di Trevi, you will return to Rome. Perhaps if I drop a coin into a glass of water at Leonia's Fontana Di Trevi, I will be sure to come back there again. It's a luxury not to be missed.

Fontana Di Trevi is situated at 248 Fort Lee Road. For reservations, call 201-242-9040.

Monday, November 8, 2010

An Illuminated Past

Just Kids creates a frame around all the work of Patti Smith, the writer of this elegant memoir about her life with Robert Mapplethorpe, the photographer who died of AIDS in 1989, as well as the work of Mapplethorpe himself. Both artists were each other's muses, visionaries whose work, however different it was from one another, challenged established mores and shone with a unique brightness, and darkness. Their work was more than edgy. It was new. Mapplethorpe took leaps no one had taken before him, elevating gay pornography to the rank of art as he chronicled his own relationship to a world that repelled at the same time it forced one to look. Smith is a poet, writer, artist, photographer, rock and roller whose unique web of art was influenced by Mapplethorpe.

Smith's remembrances are tenderly wrought, with attention to detail that sometimes takes the breath away. It's not just Smith and Mapplethorpe who come alive as youths, but the extraordinary times in which they lived and which the two seem to transform with the urgency of their desire to transcend limitations and become artists of the first rank. It's not just the New York of their era we see shifting as they move, breathe and influence others and themselves, but everything in this brilliant retrospective.

The exquisite detail of Smith's remembrances, her trip to Paris in 1973, for example, when she slept in an attic room at L'Hotel des Etrangers, as she waited to visit Rimbaud's grave and Jim Morrison's, seep one in the richest and most delicate pictorial soup into which the reader sinks with Smith, as layer after layer of sacred time and knowledge are peeled away, until there is only art.  

Smith reawakened my interest in Mapplethorpe. His work tended to repel me, even as I saw its beauty. There was one occasion in the mid 90s when I worked at a bookstore in Ithaca when I opened a large book of his photographs and chanced upon the series of a penis bound by a cord to the point of bleeding. I'd been listening to jazz, something I love, feeling totally open and in my element. The combination of books and jazz and the quietude of the section of the bookstore in which I worked had placed me in a kind of ecstasy. I was so happy there, and free to explore, and it was in this state that I came upon those photographs of Mapplethorpe which disturbed me to the core. I had no name for what I saw or witnessed. I felt like something sacred had not so much been upturned as been violated. I felt I'd seen a rape, close up, and all I could do was ask, why, for what? There was no answer for me, and so there and then, I closed the book on Mapplethorpe -- not because I couldn't understand the work, but because of how the images made me feel -- I wanted no part of it.

But it was lovely to see in Just Friends how Mapplethorpe was, as a young man in particular, how hungry they both were to be artists and how open they were together, and how brave in their art and explorations. I've often felt that artists and writers should create a frame around their work whenever it's published or shown, that poems should never appear alone in collections without context, a word or two, or even an image of the poet, something that shows how the creation arose, from whence it came. In Just Friends, Smith has created a wildly elegant frame around her friend and muse, around their life together. This is a work of art, not just a gift to Mapplethorpe, but to everyone who reads it.