Monday, May 3, 2010

A Walk on the Wild Side with Crescent Dragonwagon: Nettle Pesto and a Blog Giveaway

I just returned from Portland, Twitter hashtag PDX. There for the annual conference of IACP (short for International Association of Culinary Professionals), over the course of a week long stay, I listened to fascinating discussions, ate and drank like a queen, and lurked among the culinary glitterati.

During it, I learned many things, among them:

· Ruth Reichl is indeed as impressive in person as she portrays herself in books. (We had the pleasure of sitting two seats down from her in the teensy-weensy Le Pigeon).
· That Michael Ruhlman is quite the fiery one, talking about sex and calling "bull shit" on Karen Page during a panel discussion.
· After seeing the trailer park neighborhoods of food trucks offering inexpensive, high quality foods of almost every ethnicity, Chicago desperately needs to change its regulation of mobile food operations.

Of the many lessons, however, it was the one that I hadn’t given much thought to at the time that stuck with me most.

But first, some background.

If I had to use a word to describe my demeanor these days, it would be beleaguered. Not too long ago, I wrote about My Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Month – March. While things aren’t as bleak these days, there’s one aspect of my life that has remained at stasis – the professional which has suffered a set of setbacks giving my self-esteem a right hook to the gut.

Now I admit, in the grand scheme of things, I don’t have much to complain about. My domestic life on most days could be described as blissful and I would never trade that for any amount of money or professional success. However, I’m probably not unusual in this, when one slice of my life goes to shit, it takes its toll on the others. My outlook turns myopic and I forget to appreciate what I have.

These tough days have led me to question life choices, which cannot be undone, consuming me with regret and melancholy. Even worse, these difficulties have unearthed in me a quality that I despise. The green-eyed monster of envy has clawed up to the surface, contaminating my thoughts. Successes of my competitors and even of my friends have filled me with a jealous panic.

Given this, I guess there’s a certain poetic justice that the woman who set me on the path out of my self-imposed confinement chose to self-identify with a dragon.
I flew in late Tuesday night so that I could make it to the next day’s roundtable sessions – an opportunity to mix with agents and food editors, the gatekeepers of the industry. I’m embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t given that much thought to my morning selection. And truth be told, given that my husband Mike was travelling with me (sadly, our vacations coincide with conferences), I wasn’t entirely sure that I wouldn’t pay hooky that morning. But when I picked up my registration packet, I saw that I signed up for a writing workshop with famed vegetarian, Crescent Dragonwagon. I figured anyone who named herself that had to be at least entertaining.

And she is. With hair the color and shape of a candle’s flame, she reminded me a bit of a skinnier and less petulant Heat Miser from The Year Without a Santa Claus. For those readers who didn’t grow up in the era of stop-motion animation, Heat Miser’s torch song went like this:

I'm Mister Green Christmas
I'm Mister Sun
I'm Mister Heat Blister
I'm Mister Hundred and One
They call me Heat Miser,
What ever I touch
Starts to melt in my clutch
I'm too much!

We went through a series of writing exercises, my favorite involving a russet potato with a green scanner label. She got us talking and walking with juices flowing. The workshop was surprisingly high energy for the ordinarily solitary task of writing.

Yet, it was the quiet moments, two to be exact, that affected me most.

I’m not sure how the first even came up. Perhaps it was from a discussion of block, an inevitable topic in a room full of writers. Maybe it was inspired by the feeling of inadequacy about one’s work – an emotion that surely even the most seasoned of authors endures from time to time. Ms. Dragonwagon’s answer? A single word: “Soften.”

Now, I have more than a passing familiarity with the tenants of Zen Buddhism. During the darkest days of my life, the unraveling of my first marriage, these helped me negotiate an uneasy truce between self-loathing and self-acceptance. It’s thus unsurprising that this seemingly simple Zen-like solution would resonate with me.

It was, however, the second quiet moment, which brought this advice home. Ms. Dragonwagon first marriage ended as well, but in a much more abrupt manner – her husband died after he was hit by a car while riding a bicycle. It gave me pause and then made me think.

These two moments continue to reverberate and I’ve thought of them often since my return from PDX. It reminded me that we all suffer through life’s tragedies, difficulties, and indignities. The true mettle of our character is displayed in how we react to them.

The experience reminded me of another writer whose impact on me was powerful and profound. A self-described Indian from the Black Hills of South Dakota, Jack Kreitzer was my poetry instructor at a writing camp I attended as a teenager. I adored his poems, poured over them – many I can still recite by heart. But there’s one line that I loved best: “There’s dignity in risk.” It became the mantra of my emotional life for many years. In fact, I’m not positive I would have ever left my unhappy marriage without those words silently ringing in my head. I did and the risk’s reward was meeting and marrying my soul mate.

So this post is the first in a new series of risks. I am neither entirely comfortable displaying this level of raw emotion in my public writing nor am I used to writing about painful events contemporaneously. But with the red-haired dragon and the gentle Indian at my back, I move forward. Perhaps I’ll fall flat on my face or perhaps I’ll learn new things about myself during these challenging times.

It is also the first in a series of posts entitled, The Marvelous Mothers of May, in which I plan to celebrate the impact certain women have had on my life. Some of these women are mothers, some have simply been spiritual mothers to me. And of course, one of them is my own mother. I was inspired to write this by yet a third writer Kim Severson, whose book: Spoonfed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life is a wonderful read. Thor has pulled a number out of this T-ball hat, the poster whose post in this series corresponds with that number will win my gently used copy of Spoonfed. The winner will be announced next Wednesday.

Stinging Nettle Pesto
Makes approximately 3 cups

I couldn’t think of a better recipe to include in a post about a famous vegetarian who inspired me to take a risk. Especially when I took a considerable risk and when making and eating it. Usually, nettles need to be cooked to neutralize their stinging quality before they are handled or eaten. I did not do this, but instead trusted the whirring of my food processor blade would do it for me. The risk’s reward was the pesto’s grassy, nutty flavor – spring in a mouthful.

1 bunch nettles, rinsed stems removed carefully holding them with tongs
½ cup toasted and skinned hazelnuts (appropriately I used ones bought during my trip to the Willamette Valley)
1 bunch of green garlic, rinsed and trimmed
Approximately ½ cup of extra-virgin olive oil (I eyeballed this, using only as much as needed to get the mixture to pesto consistency)
3 tablespoon freshly grated pecorino (Prairie Fruits Farm makes a delicious one)
Salt and pepper to taste

Add all ingredients to the bowl of a food processor and process until smooth. The pesto is terrific on warm pasta with sun-dried tomatoes, and goat cheese.


  1. Mmmm. Lovely ... for so many reasons. Looking forward to what comes next.

  2. Thank you so much, dear Melissa... I guess one just never knows how one affects others. I loved teaching that class --- the chemistry of that group was something else.

    Synchronicity: I have been doing MAJOR nettle-gathering here in Vermont this last weekend!


  3. “There’s dignity in risk.” Great stuff! Looking forward to reading about the marvelous mothers you will feature.

  4. So wished I'd gone to that panel with you.

    And, yum, on that recipe.


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