The call of inspiration comes at various times and in many different forms. Artists can find inspiration in nature, while others find it by people watching on the streets or in a park. Some artists are inspired by a muse. Muse is defined in two ways; Looking to Greek and Roman mythology, a muse was one of nine goddesses, who the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, who preside over the arts and sciences: In the modern form, a muse is a person or personified force who is the source of inspiration for a creative artist.
Artists also have to strike while the iron is hot. Some of my best ideas happen once I disengage from writing and move on to something else. These ideas are not limited to my own creative works, they also relate to the authors I represent as a literary agent.
It’s important to be able to think on your feet when you’re in business. Decisions regarding the mechanics or day-to-day operations, are more linear in nature, and therefore, easier to handle, comparatively speaking. However, for me, crafting a pitch that best represents the essence of what my client’s manuscript is about. Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, it’s important to have a well-crafted pitch. While the matter of mechanics in terms of grammar and structure counts, the main focus is to draw the reader in.
For me, it begins with a great synopsis. Writing a synopsis can be very daunting for most writers, but it’s necessary. You must be able to communicate what your story is about in a short synopsis, which is like an extended logline. Then there’s the more in depth long synopsis, in which you have show what the book is about, describe the characters, plot, sub-plots, and the ending. A long synopsis is anywhere from three to five pages. I won’t tell you it’s easy, I know it isn’t. You spend months or even years creating a story, only to find out that you need to provide a Cliff’s Notes version. It seems unfair, but that’s the way it’s done. So, keep that in mind while you are writing your great American novel.
Think of your story synopsis as an extended logline. A logline is a one-sentence summary or description of a movie. A short synopsis should distill the main elements of your manuscript into a concise paragraph.
You can also look at your story like a movie trailer with words instead of moving pictures. I recently read something an article that said everything sounds better when Morgan Freeman narrates. That’s sort of true, so imagine Morgan Freeman is doing the voice over for your book.
Relax. Wracking your brain doesn’t help. Do something else creative or go to the gym, or whatever you need to do to get your mind off of the synopsis. . Most of the time, you’ll figure out what to write when you’re not thinking about it so much.
Believe it or not, but the writer isn’t the one with the short stick. It’s the agent. We have about a paragraph or two at the most, to make out case as to why an editor should read our client’s manuscript. Moreover, our pitch is just one of countless pitches work-logged editors receive a day. So, we have to make it count.
As I wrote this blog post, I was up early working out a novel and a few client pitches. I like to refresh my pitches. Sometimes there are things happening in the world that give me an idea for a different approach, and other times I get an idea while I am stirring, folding, and baking. One of my favorite things to make is blueberry muffins. I have had more creative epiphanies at four a.m. making blueberry muffins than I can count. That will be the bonus here, a great blueberry muffin recipe.
Bakery Style Blueberry Muffins by Bromo Bakery adapted by me
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted (vegan butter)
1 cup granulated sugar (Swerve sweetener, Splenda granulated, coconut, turbinado, or raw cane sugar pulsed)
2 eggs, room temperature ( ¼ cup Aquafaba, ½ cup silken tofu pureed with ¼ teaspoon baking soda, 2 flaxseed or chia seed eggs, or egg replacer)
6 Tablespoons buttermilk (dairy:6 tablespoons whole or low-fat milk mixed with 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar or lemon juice. Mix and let stand for five minutes)
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups + 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour (gluten-free all-purpose flour, 1 to 1 gluten-free baking blend, sorghum, oat, sweet rice or brown rice flour)
2 cups blueberries, fresh or frozen
turbinado sugar, optional
Preheat oven to 425°F. Grease 10 standard size muffin tins and line with cupcake liners. Set aside.
In a large mixing bowl combine the melted butter and granulated sugar, beating until combined. Add the eggs in one at a time. Add the Greek yogurt, buttermilk, and vanilla extract.
Add 2 cups flour, baking powder, and salt. Mix until it begins to come together (not fully incorporated). Toss the blueberries with the additional two Tablespoons of flour. Fold the blueberries into the batter, mixing only until combined. Batter will be thick.
Scoop batter into prepared muffin tins, filling about 3/4 of the way. You can use a large cookie scoop or a 1/4 cup measure to keep things consistent. Sprinkle tops with Turbinado sugar, if using.* Bake for 5 minutes at 425°F, then turn oven down to 375°F and bake for an additional 15 minutes, until muffins are golden brown and spring back to the touch. Remove from oven and allow to cool for at least 15 minutes before eating!
** To get the same consistency found in Greek yogurt for both dairy and non-dairy yogurts, line a sieve with cheesecloth or a paper towel. Add the yogurt and refrigerate at least 3 hours or overnight to let the excess water drain before using.
Do not overmix, particularly if you’re using frozen blueberries.
I’ve been in the publishing industry as a literary agent and an author for a long time. Publishing has gone through changes over time. Some changes have been permanent, while others were essentially transient. It’s still centered around fiction and nonfiction with a host of genres and sub-genres. Both fiction and nonfiction books are reflective of the times, trends, and movements. Nonfiction books that focused on race and gender, now include titles that cover the Black Lives Matter Movement, transgender issues, and gender identity to name just a few. The same applies to fiction sub-genres in a multitude of categories, I am going to focus on women’s fiction.
Wikipedia defines women’s fiction as an umbrella term for women centered books that focus on women’s life experience that are marketed to female readers, and includes many mainstream novels or women’s rights Books. It is distinct from Women’s writing, which refers to literature written by women. The Women’s Fiction Writers Association says women’s fiction may include romance, or it may not. It could be contemporary or historical and have magical, mystery, thriller, or other elements. What defines a novel as women’s fiction is that the driving force is the protagonist’s journey toward a more fulfilled self.
The wonderful thing about fiction is it allows you to create a world from your mind’s eye. The only limitations are the ones you put on yourself, at least that’s the case when it’s just you and your laptop or notebook. If you are a female author who happens to be north of forty or fifty-plus, then you are in for a fight from the outside.
There is so much talk about age and how it’s just a number. The fact is that your grandparents’ fifty looks nothing like it does today. With good nutrition, skin care, and surgical intervention, in some cases, people are not only living longer, they are looking better than ever. Moreover, the sit in a rocking chair mentality has gone out of the window. You are more likely to find a grandmother in a spin class, and if she does like to knit, today’s north of fifty grandmothers are doing it in between yoga and Pilates. Life north of forty is viewed as an opportunity to make our second acts more exciting and fulfilling.
It’s the reason I am often puzzled by fiction categories for women over forty. First off, a lot of people think romance when you say you’re an author. There’s nothing wrong with being a romance author at all. It’s the most popular category in fiction. Romance novels focus on relationships and romantic love with an emotional and happy ending. When it comes to stories of love, everyone wants a happy and satisfying end. However, that view or path changes as we get older, and many female authors who are north of forty, fifty, and even sixty-plus reflect that in their writing.
Currently, romances for people over forty are called seasoned romances. Some hold to the happily ever after formula, only with older characters. Why it’s categorized differently when it’s still all about love, is beyond me. Then there are the seasoned romances where the path to true love isn’t easy. It’s fraught with many of the issues people over forty face when looking for love, or when they are trying to keep romance alive in a relationship. In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream we’re watching the Athenians pursue love and all its follies, and find The Bard was quite correct to state that the course of true love never did run smooth. Romances with older characters develop the romance in a nuanced way that reflects their experience and the time in their lives. Situations when one was quick to get angry about and summarily dismiss at thirty-years-old, aren’t looked at in the same way at forty or fifty. In the end, north of forty and fifty characters are looking for love and find it, but the path to get there is different.
Then there is the relatively new genre of chick-lit. Viewed by some as a derogatory term, it’s loosely defined as literature that appeals mainly to women. (obviously, a man’s idea) The other definition for chick-lit is a genre fiction which “consists of heroine-centered narratives that focus on the trials and tribulations of their individual protagonists. What’s not said in this definition is what is usually found when you pitch it to editors. Chick-lit is about women in their twenties and thirties. Anything written with characters over forty is defined as either matron-lit or hen-lit, neither of which particularly flattering. Matron is a term associated with female prison guards or a verb that’s the kiss of death in fashion. Hen conjures up images of women sitting in a room laughing or talking while men refer to their chatter at clucking. Why can’t women over forty and fifty still be chicks? Writing about mature men isn’t called Prostate-lit or Dick-lit for men who use Viagra. No one would dare do such a thing even though publishing is overwhelmingly female, but it’s still mostly a boys club the further up the chain of command you go.
I started referring to my writing as Still A Chick Lit as I went through my forties to being in my fifties. Life and love are essentially the same, but there’s much change as you age. If you’re single/divorced, the dating pool is considerably smaller and you don’t have the time to take long applications. Everything has to be put on the table rather quickly so you can make the decision if you want to pursue a relationship or not. It comes down to the devil you know or the devil you don’t know. The number of people who get back together after divorce or long-term dating/cohabitating is quite large. I used to wonder about that when I was in my thirties. I couldn’t fathom doing such a thing. If you got rid of a man, you did it for a good reason. He should stay gone, right? Well no. I’m not sure if it’s a matter of being mature, scared, or just tired of the gerbil wheel of dating. Things change and there’s a level of acceptance and communication that you are a little more willing to do to make love work.
The bottom line is grey hair in a book doesn’t mean the story is old. As a matter of fact, you can find a plethora of characters that are made more charming and interesting with age. One of the biggest announcements at the end of 2020 was a Sex and the City re-boot with three of our favorite ladies in New York navigating their lives as women in their fifties with husbands, children, careers, and friendships. What made the series and subsequent movies successful was going on the journey with Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte. Age didn’t make them any less interesting. In fact, they became more inspiring as women over forty and fifty began to think about their lives in different ways. Why that won’t happen with books is beyond me, but it’s something that I hope to change.
I hope that you will come with on this journey as an author of Still A Chick-lit and nonfiction passion projects to go on this journey with me
Classic Chocolate Cake recipe from Add A Pinch and adapted by me
2 cups all-purpose flour (gluten-free all-purpose flour, 1 to 1 gluten-free baking blend, sweet rice, or sorghum flour)
2 cups sugar (Swerve sweetener, Splenda granulated, golden sugar, coconut or turbinado sugar, pulsed finely)
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (Dutch-process cocoa or regular unsweetened cocoa)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon espresso powder
1 cup buttermilk (non-dairy: 1 cup almond, soy, rice, or light coconut milk plus 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar or lemon juice)
1/2 cup vegetable oil canola oil, or melted coconut oil
2 large eggs (1/2 cup Aquafaba, ½ cup silken tofu plus ¼ teaspoon baking soda, 2 flaxseed or chia seed eggs, or egg replacer)
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup boiling water
Preheat oven to 350º F. Prepare two 9-inch cake pans by spraying with baking spray or buttering and lightly flouring.
For the chocolate cake:
Add flour, sugar, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, salt and espresso powder to a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer. Whisk through to combine or, using your paddle attachment, stir through flour mixture until combined well.
Add buttermilk, vegetable oil, eggs, and vanilla to flour mixture and mix together on medium speed until well combined. Reduce speed and carefully add boiling water to the cake batter until well combined.
Distribute cake batter evenly between the two prepared cake pans. Bake for 30-35 minutes, until a toothpick or cake tester inserted in the center of the chocolate cake comes out clean.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool for about 10 minutes, remove from the pan and cool completely.
The cake batter will be very thin after adding the boiling water.
Let the baked cake layers cool completely. Wrap them well with plastic wrap and then with foil. Put each layer into a freezer bag and freeze up to 2 months. To serve, thaw in the refrigerator overnight with wrapping intact. The next day, the layers are ready to fill and frost
Chocolate Buttercream Frosting by Add a Pinch adapted by me
½ cup milk (dairy: whole milk, 2%) (non-dairy: almond, soy, rice, or light coconut milk)
2 teaspoons vanilla
½ teaspoon espresso powder or 1 tablespoon brewed coffee
Add cocoa to a large bowl or bowl of stand mixer. Whisk through to remove any lumps.
Cream together butter and cocoa powder until well-combined.
Add sugar and milk to cocoa mixture by adding 1 cup of sugar followed by about a tablespoon of milk. After each addition has been combined, turn mixer onto a high speed for about a minute. Repeat until all sugar and milk have been added.
Add vanilla extract and espresso powder and combine well.
If frosting appears too dry, add more milk, a tablespoon at a time until it reaches the right consistency. If it appears to wet and does not hold its form, add more confectioner’s sugar, a tablespoon at a time until it reaches the right consistency.
3 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons water
1 ½ cups almond milk (soy, rice, or light coconut milk) (dairy: whole milk, 2 %, non-fat milk)
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ cup white sugar (Swerve sweetener, Splenda granulated, golden sugar, coconut, or raw cane sugar, finely pulsed)
¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder (Dutch-process or regular unsweetened cocoa powder
In small bowl, combine cornstarch and water to form a paste.
In large saucepan over medium heat, stir together soy milk, vanilla, sugar, cocoa and cornstarch mixture. Cook, stirring constantly, until mixture boils. Continue to cook and stir until mixture thickens. Remove from heat. Pudding will continue to thicken as it cools. Allow to cool five minutes, then chill in refrigerator until completely cool.
In a clean glass or metal bowl, add the heavy cream and cream of tartar.
On medium-high speed whip the cream and slowly sprinkle the sugar in. Continue whipping until soft peaks begin to form. When you run a spoon through the bowl, it should leave a path.
To make the chocolate mousse filling, fold in ½ the whipped cream into the cooled chocolate pudding. Fold until you don’t see any white streaks. Then fold in the remaining whipped cream. You can put it in the fridge for up to 1 day in advance, otherwise, fill the cake right away. Let the filled cake set in the fridge for at least an hour before serving.
Vegan Whipped cream recipe from Minimalist Baker
1 14-ounce can coconut cream or full-fat coconut milk (do not use cream of coconut, it’s too sweet and won’t work, It’s great for a pina colada) (I like Whole Foods 365 brand of coconut milk)
Chill your coconut cream or coconut milk in the refrigerator overnight (see notes for top brands!), being sure not to shake or tip the can to encourage separation of the cream and liquid. See notes for more insight / troubleshooting.
The next day, chill a large mixing bowl 10 minutes before whipping.
Remove the coconut cream or milk from the fridge without tipping or shaking and remove the lid. Scrape out the top, thickened cream and leave the liquid behind (reserve for use in smoothies).
Note: if your coconut milk didn’t harden, you probably just got a dud can without the right fat content. In that case, you can try to salvage it with a bit of tapioca flour – 1 to 4 Tbsp (amount as original recipe is written // adjust if altering batch size)- during the whipping process. That has worked for me several times.
Place hardened cream in your chilled mixing bowl. Beat for 30 seconds with a mixer until creamy. Then add vanilla (optional) and powdered sugar (or stevia) and mix until creamy and smooth – about 1 minute. Taste and adjust sweetness as needed.
Use immediately or refrigerate – it will harden and set in the fridge the longer it’s chilled. Will keep for up to 1 – 2 weeks!
For as long as I can remember I loved to write. My paternal grandmother, was an avid and voracious reader. She went through about three books a week. She was a big Sidney Sheldon fan. The cover for the Other Side Of Midnight still sticks out in my mind. Grandma Salley, my maternal grandmother loved to read, but she was also an epic letter writer. She corresponded with friends and family weekly, and never seemed to run out of things to write about.
Thankfully, as a professional writer and author, I have never been at a loss when it comes to things to write about. Writer’s block is real thing and feel paralyzing. Conversely, the overabundance of ideas can easily result in choice overload, making it difficult for writers to narrow the choices and make a decision. I tend to fall into the latter situation, and heading into the kitchen helps me get over the hump.
I make the most of the tactile nature of cooking and baking to take my mind off the choices and focus it on another task. Nine times out of ten, I figure out my next steps through baking. However, when I’m not sure what I should do next, I take out the big guns and delve into more complicated recipes for pastries, like croissants.
Cooking something that is a bit more complex like paella or a Bolognese sauce, can work, but it’s the order found in baking that’s more effective for me. In cooking, as long as you stick to the basics of techniques, you can adjust seasoning, add more or less of an ingredient, or even omit something. That’s not the case in baking, it’s a science. You cannot add more leaveners like baking powder, baking soda, or yeast. Eggs are important for structure. Milk and butter add to tenderness and texture. Even in gluten-free and vegan baking, the substitutions must do the same thing, which is a challenge, but can be accomplished. The order in baking works for my writing process and channels stress.
Laminating dough creates thin layers of dough and butter through the process of rolling and folding. It’s tedious, but something about it works for me. With each turn, my mind clears and I find the clarity needed to decide what’s next in my manuscript, whether it’s adding another character, or fleshing another character further to add dimension for the reader. Is the dialogue snappy or too smart or overly witty for witty’s sake. Naturally, this is my process, and every writer is different. Some go running or take a walk. Others go to their favorite diner or park to watch people. A long drive is a good option too. The fact is anything that brings you peace will inspire and break your writer’s block or illuminate the path to making the right choice to move your story forward. Admittedly, if you work it out in the kitchen, both you and the people around you receive a very tasty benefit. In my case today, they get croissants. There’s nothing wrong with that.
King Arthur Baker’s Croissant recipe adaptation by me
2 large eggs + enough warm water to make 2 cups (454g) of liquid (6 tablespoons Aquafaba or ½ cup silken tofu pureed with ¼ teaspoon baking soda) **
1/4 cup (50g) sugar, divided
5 1/2 to 6 cups (659g to 723g) (gluten-free all-purpose flour or 1 to 1 gluten-free baking blend flour)**
1/2 cup (56g) Baker’s Special Dry Milk or nonfat dry milk, optional
1 scant tablespoon (16g) table salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional; for sweet pastry)
30 tablespoons (425g) unsalted butter, cool to the touch (vegan butter)**
3/4 teaspoon table salt or ½ teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup (60g) Unbleached All-Purpose Flour (gluten-free all-purpose flour or 1 to 1 gluten-free baking blend flour)**
For the dough: Put the eggs and water in a large mixing bowl. Add 1 tablespoon of the sugar, 3 cups (362g) of the flour, and the yeast. Mix until well blended; set aside to let the sponge work.
For the butter: Cut the butter into 1˝ chunks and combine with the salt and flour at low speed in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment just until smooth, with no lumps. Be careful not to beat too much; you don’t want to incorporate any air. My tip, while the stand mixer with the paddle attachment works well, you do run the risk of add air to the butter. I used my pastry cutter and worked the flour and butter into pea-size clumps, then turned it out onto parchment paper, put another sheet of parchment over and rolled the butter until I had the shape I wanted. Then in the fridge it went.
Spread the butter on a piece of plastic wrap and shape into an 8˝ square. Wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Finish the dough: Add the melted butter to the sponge. Whisk together the remaining sugar, 2 1/2 cups (298g) of the flour, the dry milk, and salt and add to the sponge. Mix until the dough forms. Knead for 5 minutes; touch the dough lightly with your finger. If it’s still sticky, add the remaining flour 2 tablespoons at a time until the dough is the desired consistency. Once the dough is smooth and elastic, pat it into a 9˝ square, then wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
To laminate the dough: Remove the chilled dough from the refrigerator and gently roll it to a 12″ square.
Unwrap the butter square and place it in the center of the dough at a 45° angle, so it looks like a diamond in a square. Pull the corners of the dough into the center of the butter diamond. Moisten the edges with a little water and pinch the seams together well to enclose the butter. Dust the top with flour and turn the packet over.
Tap the dough all over with a rolling pin, encouraging it into a rectangular shape. Once it’s pliable, roll it to a 20˝ x 10˝ rectangle, picking it up and dusting lightly with flour as needed.
When you’ve reached the proper size, use a dry brush to sweep off any excess flour and fold the dough in thirds, like a business letter. Take care to keep the edges straight and line them up directly over each other. If the dough slides around, use a little water at the corners to tack them in place. This is your first turn.
Rotate the dough out so it looks like a book about to be opened. Roll the dough out once more to 20˝ x 10˝ and fold it as before. This is the second turn. Wrap the dough and refrigerate it for 30 minutes to allow the gluten in the dough to relax.
Give the dough two more turns after its rest, then wrap the dough well and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or overnight before using. You can also freeze the dough at this point.
To shape the croissants: Cut the packet of dough in half. Wrap and refrigerate or freeze one half.
Roll the other half to a 13˝ x 18˝ rectangle. Trim the edges about 1/4˝ all the way around with a ruler and pizza cutter. This removes the folded edges that would inhibit the dough’s rise.
Cut the dough in thirds lengthwise and in half down the center. This will give you six 4˝ x 9˝ pieces. Cut these pieces in half diagonally and arrange them so the points are facing away from you. Stretch them gently to make them a little longer, then cut a 1˝ notch in the center of the base of each triangle.
Take the two inside corners of the notch and roll them up toward you, building a curved shape as you roll the base of the dough toward the tip. Make sure the tip ends up under the bottom of the croissant. Place the shaped pastry on a parchment-lined baking sheet, curving the ends toward each other. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Take the croissants out of the refrigerator, and let them warm and rise for 60 to 90 minutes at room temperature. They should expand noticeably, and when you gently press one with your finger, the indentation should remain.
Towards the end of the rise time, preheat the oven to 425°F. Brush each croissant with an egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water. Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce the oven’s temperature to 350°F and bake for 10 to 15 minutes more, until deep golden brown and no raw dough is visible where the layers overlap. Remove from the oven and let cool on the pan on a rack for 20 minutes before serving.
Tips from King Arthur Bakers
Bubbles and leaks: It’s not unusual to have air trapped inside your laminated dough. If this happens, simply pop the bubble with a toothpick and press the dough down to lie flat. If there’s a bare spot where butter is coming through, dust the leak with flour, pressing down lightly so it sticks, and continue on with the fold. Refrigerate the dough as soon as the fold is done, to firm it up.
As you work, keep the dough, work surface, and your rolling pin well dusted with flour. Turn over the dough from time to time. As you roll, you tend to expand the top layers more than the bottom. By flipping the dough over, you’ll even that out. Before folding the dough over on itself, use your pastry brush to sweep off excess flour. This will help the dough stick to itself after folding, so the layers don’t slide around.
When rolling the dough, especially for the first time, be sure the dough and butter are at the same consistency; this will make rolling much smoother and the layers will be more even.
Vegan/non-dairy adaptation tips
** For most vegan bakes that have less than three eggs, I usually list flaxseed or chia seed eggs and egg replacer. We tried that in the test kitchen and both substitutions don’t work as well, it’s too dry even with additional liquid added. To keep the recipe as close to the original as possible the Aquafaba and silken tofu eggs worked beautifully.
**I also normally list more gluten-free flour alternatives, but we found that gluten-free all purpose and the baking blend worked exceedingly well
** Vegan butter is the best alternative. Margarine is too oily and you won’t get the same flaking as you get with butter
When 2020 and Covid-19 puts a damper on life as they knew it for everyone in New York, America, and the world, Like so many others, 54-year-old literary agent, wife, mother, and renegade foodie, Clarissa Berman looked at the dawning of a new decade with hope and maybe some change. However, when she and her husband of 14 years, Miles, begin to see little things in the news about a virus or flu in China, they’re both a little uneasy, but it’s Clarissa who can’t shake the foreboding feelings she has. Luckily, she has her best friend Melanie’s engagement and Barefoot in the City, an online Ina Garten fan page to keep her thoughts light, happy, and pretty focused on the kitchen. But when one of her favorite clients, geopolitical author, Tom begins working on a book about China and the virus, she soon realizes it’s worse than she thought.
Clarissa begins to notice little things. Some hospitals seem busier than usual, she sees nurses in trash bags instead of scrubs, and anything health-related from the WHO or CDC is buried in news crawl. She knows it’s not a sign of the apocalypses, but one of the horses is coming. With one eye on the news, Clarissa heads to the kitchen to relieve stress and figure out the kind of cakes to make for Melanie’s wedding. She’ll include her Barefoot in the City friends who always have great tips and recipes to help her along. As it becomes clear to NYC that something wicked this way comes, Clarissa uses the pan in pandemic, Ina, the members of Barefoot Contessa in the city, and a lot of love and patience to make her way through.
An excerpt from the beginning
BAREFOOT IN THE CITY
By Chamein Canton
It was a dark, cold, grey, January day in Manhattan. The city lost its holiday shine. Gone from the modern contemporary office lobbies across New York County were the trees, lights, and holiday decorations that made them sparkle. Now, they were more like a rich man’s trophy wife or girlfriend, beautiful to behold, but soulless and cold. At least that’s how fifty-four-year-old, Clarissa Berman felt as she walked through the lobby of her office building on Lexington Avenue.
At 5’8, Clarissa was too tall to be considered petite, but tall enough to be above average. A very curvy African American woman, she had big boobs, a generous butt, a smallish waist with a little more tummy than she’d like. Her long, curly, thick hair was a custom mix of Clairol light reddish and cedar red brown, that played nicely off of the red undertones of her brown bronze-like complexion. Clarissa was a recent convert to the natural hair movement at her mother’s suggestion. Although, it was rare for her mother, who she affectionately referred to as Her Mothership, to make suggestions. More often than not, her advice was the equivalent of mutton dressed as lamb, but it was still mutton.
Clarissa’s text notifications chimed. She looked at her cell. It’s mom.
I just picked Ingrid up from JFK. She went to North Carolina to see her grandchildren. Jimmy has the kids, but that ex-wife of his told Ingrid some sob story about being sick and Ingrid gave her $2,000. The girl wasn’t sick, she needed it for a boob job. Can you imagine that? I told Ingrid she’s too soft. A boob job at her age. Tiffany is damn near sixty and still dresses like she’s getting ready to climb a pole, any pole.
Her mothership had strong positions on most things, like strippers or décolletage to name two, and she wasn’t afraid to express her opinion. Although, she was almost two years shy of being eighty, her mothership was fit, had a smooth complexion with barely a wrinkle and a silver hair pixie cut. She could have gotten away with a little higher of a hemline, but that wasn’t her mothership’s style. Her mothership felt that at a certain age you covered up to be dignified and not an embarrassment to your children or grandchildren. The hemline moratorium included shorts of any length for women over forty and fifty. Even J-Lo’s ageless shape didn’t get a pass. Her mothership kept herself tight at that age, but never donned a pair of shorts. So, if she was too old, La Lopez needed to put a pair of slacks on.
Clarissa snickered. That’s not nice Mom. She typed.
It’s not meant to be nice. Jimmy’s mad at her and I don’t blame him. I told her not to give that girl any money. The money she got from selling her house isn’t going to last forever.
Okay Mom. So, you dropped her off at home?
No. We’re going to dinner.
Wait. Ingrid’s in the car and your Bluetooth is on. It’s reading your texts aloud in the car.
Yeah. I don’t talk behind anyone’s back. I believe in being direct.
You’re telling me? I’m not exactly new Mom. Clarissa shook her head. I’m waiting for my uber.
So, you’re not taking the subway. Good. I don’t know how you do it nowadays. I took the subway back in the sixties, it was kinda nice then.
I am fully aware that you haven’t taken the subway since 1971. I’ve got to run now. Tell Ingrid I said hi. Better yet, hi Ingrid.
Enjoy dinner ladies. Goodnight Mom.
Goodnight. Be careful. It’s dark.
I don’t know how Ingrid deals with her mothership. She’s nearly brought the woman to tears with her honesty, but she keeps doing things with her. I suppose that’s friendship or Stockholm syndrome.
Her mothership was born Mary Anne Stevenson-Cannon Burgess. She grew up loving hair, fashion, and makeup in a small town in South Carolina. Always a very pretty girl, she stood out as unusual because of her eyes. She was born with one blue and the other brown. Her eye color was almost as misunderstood as her parent’s deafness. When she was coming up in the 1940s and 50s, people used the horrible phrase deaf, dumb, and mute to describe the disability. Mary Anne and her older brother, Charles, were their parents, or more specifically, their father’s protectors. Mary Anne’s mother Annette was able to stick up for herself, and used the international sign for kiss my ass to make her point whenever she needed to. Clarissa could attest to that when her grandmother and mother would argue via sign language. Grandma Annette came from money. Her family was able to send her to the School for the Deaf and Blind in Spartanburg, and it put her in good stead for her life. Clarissa never knew her grandfather Landy. Her mothership remembered him as a kind and gentle man. His family enrolled him in the same school, but couldn’t afford to keep him there. It was painful issue for her mothership and her big brother, but not for the reasons most people would assume. It was their father Landy’s trusting nature. It made him a mark for passing gypsies and some of the less than scrupulous residents in town. She and Charles would go toe-to -toe with the folks who’d duped their father to get his hard-earned money back.
Nevertheless, life in a small town wasn’t all bad. Mary Anne loved to roam the woods around town for wild berries, laugh at fun church picnics, and try out the latest dances at school socials. Clarissa was grateful that unlike her uncle Charles, who left high school to work in the steel mill and decided to build a life in South Carolina, her mother took a different route. After she graduated from high school, she left the bounds of her town, county, and South Carolina and made her way up the east coast to Maryland where she stayed with cousins in Baltimore. That was where she met Clarissa’s father, Ernest, a native New Yorker. They married and settled on Long Island. Although her mothership didn’t go to college, she landed a position at a women’s service magazine as they were known in the early sixties. It wasn’t fashion, but it concentrated on home fashions and interior décor, another area she was skilled in.
Mary Anne was a frustrated fashion editor, so she turned Clarissa and Elena into her living dolls, with about as much say as a doll when it came to what they put on or how many barrettes and ribbons were in their hair. Clarissa began to refer mom, Mary Anne as ‘her mothership’ when she decided it was in her best interests for the girls to get relaxers. Despite having seemingly won the battle of the barrettes, Clarissa realized that even as an adult, she and Elena would always be ladies in waiting when it came to the will of her mothership in some form. Even when she hit 50, her mothership weighed in on her hair. Now a relaxer was the enemy for a woman Clarissa’s age and her natural curly hair was better. Clarissa’s first inclination was to rebel, but in the long run, her mothership’s will be done. Not only did Clarissa go back to her curly hair, she also hadn’t worn a pair of shorts in fourteen years.
But fuss with her hair Clarissa did as she looked out the window for her Uber. You would think I just did this the way I keep futzing with my hair. It’s been four years, and I still haven’t gotten used to it. She sighed.Traces of frozen precipitation had begun to fall when a black Navigator pulled in front. Clarissa checked her phone. That’s it. She walked outside and got in the backseat on the driver’s side.
“Good evening, Ma’am.”
“Good evening.” She closed the door and buckled up. Again with the looking at my hair in the mirror. At least it’s shiny and doesn’t resemble the tentacles of a Portuguese Man O War. That’s progress.
Her cell rang. It was Clarissa’s best friend of over forty years, Melanie Vargas Hopkins. Their birthdays were separated by a mere few days. They graduated from the same high school and went onto Skidmore College together. The curvaceous Latina with lush brunette locks was divorced and dating a guy Clarissa set her up with a year earlier. But, before she could pick up the phone, she had to give the driver her customary explanation for why she uses the speakerphone. Clarissa was partially deaf.
She was born a healthy baby girl, but at three months old, her Grandma Cannon noticed that she turned her head to the right when spoken to. When she mentioned it to her son, it ticked her mothership off. To keep the peace, no one pushed the issue again until a routine hearing test in elementary school, led the audiologist to confirm she was deaf in her left ear. Fortunately, Clarissa’s right ear was at 99.1% and she could read lips .
To adjust for someone on her left, she’d subtly turn toward them. The volume on a landline wasn’t an issue. However, the busy, noisy streets of Manhattan were another story.
Clarissa looked at her phone for the driver’s name. “Excuse me, Bernie?”
“I’d like to answer this cell call, but I have to put it on speaker. I’m partially deaf. If it bothers you, I’ll send her a text and call her back.”
“No, that’s not a problem. Thanks for asking.”
“No. Thank you. I appreciate your understanding.” She hit answer. “Hey Girlie. How was Fiji?”
“It was fantastic. So beautiful, warm, sunny, and lovely all the time.”
“Aww, that sounds nice. Then you flew back to grey and cold reality. What a bummer.”
“Don’t I know it? I figured I’d buzz you before you went underground to get home.”
“I am ubering home now. I didn’t feel like descending into the arteries of the city today. The whole city is shrouded in a post-holiday funk, and it’s contagious.”
“You’re not kidding.”
“When do you have to get back to the hospital?”
“I’ve got another week or so off. I have a ton of accumulated time. I’m taking some of it. No need to rush. I have to give my body a little time to re-acclimate.”
“Good for you. Where’s Jordan?”
“He went to his place, but he’s coming back.”
Fifty-eight-year-old graphic art designer Jordan Chan was always in Clarissa’s orbit as an editor and an agent. Jordan was blissfully married for many years until a drunk driver ended his happy world. Clarissa knew that people who truly loved before were likely to find love again, it was always a matter of timing. Melanie’s marriage to Troy began like a dream but devolved into a nightmare after the kids were born. Troy was a serial cheater and lazy to boot. Melanie had the role of breadwinner for their twin daughters and son. After their divorce, relationships weren’t on her radar for a while.
All of that changed during the holiday season the previous year. Jordan finally decided to attend Clarissa’s legendary holiday buffet, instead of getting an after-party care package. She introduced him to Melanie. The attraction was instant. After a few dates, they were a bonafide couple.
“My goodness, Girlie. All of this togetherness. Why don’t you two just move in together? Or maybe jump the broom?”
“Jordan and I were just laughing about that. It’s too soon.”
“Too soon? Have you checked our sundial lately? We have no business waiting around in this section of the pool. The water is receding. There’s no time to waste.”
“I know. You make a good point.”
“Of course I do, but that’s beside the point. How did David enjoy his time with his big sisters?”
“He had a great time, and it’s going to continue. He’s going to be there for a few more days.”
“So you’re going to continue with that Fiji feeling.”
“Oh.” Clarissa laughed. “Don’t let me keep you. We’ll catch up later. Give Jordan my best. Take care and have fun Girlie.”
“You too. Say hi to Miles for me.”
“Sure will.” Clarissa turned and stared out of the car window. I knew Jordan and Melanie would hit it off. Now they’ve been hitting it often. My matchmaking skills worked once, and now I can retire with a high batting average. She giggled softly as her text notifications chimed. She looked down. It was from her assistant Tess Arnold. Hey Miss B. Don dropped by the office after you left. He wants a Zoom meeting on Wednesday. I know you’re going to be out of the office for the rest of the week, but Don will send a link. Don’t worry, I’ll walk you through it beforehand.
She groaned. A Zoom meeting. I hate this stuff. What ever happened to having meetings in the office with a coffee cart, pastries, and tea? I never know if I have enough bandwidth or whatever in my apartment building. Technology. She sighed. Is it progress? To me, that remains to be seen.
Clarissa graduated suma cum laude with a degree in English. A book nerd from the time she was a kid, she gravitated toward a career in publishing. At twenty-three, she was an editorial assistant at one of the big five publishers in New York. It wasn’t long before she became a full-fledged editor at twenty-five. Her personal life changed too when she married music teacher Darren Campbell and had twin sons. By the time Clarissa was twenty-eight, she was one of the youngest editorial directors in publishing at the time. Still, the laws of the see-saw prevailed. While her professional life was on the way up, her marriage was on the way down to crash and burn. Darren wanted to do more than just teach music, he wanted to live it. So, he quit his job, joined a band, and succumbed to the wanderlust gypsy life of music, which left Clarissa holding the bag. Unfortunately, her grand title didn’t come with a grand salary, which would have been okay if Darren wasn’t a deadbeat dad. She was the sole provider for her sons. Later at a friend’s suggestion, she made the transition to become a literary agent. It was the perfect career for her, particularly since she could bring her long-standing connections to publishing houses big and small with her. Eventually, Clarissa landed at Trifecta Literary Agency, where within the first two years, she had Pulitzers, National Book, and National Book Critic award-winning authors. Not to mention a long list of authors who made the New York Times bestsellers list in fiction and nonfiction. Twenty-five years later, Clarissa was a vested partner, and the Executive Vice President of Trifecta.
Much of Clarissa’s success came from the way in which she maintained her working relationships. There were quick catch-ups over coffees at Starbucks, lingering creative sessions/lunches at Le Grenouille, a devil’s in the details discussion over tea at Alice’s Tea Cup, a good old celebratory steak at Peter Lugers, or we got a deal seafood extravaganza at Le Bernadin. She treated her clients and colleagues well. However, the most coveted invitation was to her table. Clarissa’s culinary prowess was well-known in publishing. Zoom meetings and teleconferences were efficient, but lacked the warmth and personal touch of having fresh baked muffins, cinnamon rolls, apple pie donuts, and bagels made better by New York’s famous tap water, and Clarissa’s twenty-year-old sour dough starter. The shift to the online netherworld as she thought of it, made her long for the days when publishers took on talented authors with great stories or intriguing voices. Now the industry looked to social media for their next blockbuster or best-seller. Personalities, influencers, and viral media sensations with a large number of followers, likes, and views on Instagram, Tik-Tok, and YouTube were getting first pick. Editors and agents had to work with this algorithm whether they liked it or not. Despite that aspect of the digital age, it wasn’t all bad to Clarissa. As someone who enjoyed cooking and who took solace in the kitchen, going online let her find new and old recipes to make at home. Moreover, she could follow her favorite television cook, Ina Garten, The Barefoot Contessa, and it was where she stumbled upon an online group for Ina Garten fans, Barefoot in the City.
The kitchen was the main hub of activity in her life, and Clarissa had a vast collection of cookbooks to challenge herself and put her culinary skills to the test. However, there was more to it than just being a kitchen gunslinger. Whenever she felt stressed about work, the kids, or life in general, there was something about the order found in recipes that quelled her nerves. The tactile aspect of mise en place, sautéing, chopping, baking, braising, broiling, simmering, or grilling to name a few, helped blow the clouds from her mind. The discovery of the fan group brought her into a world of incredible posted food pics, recipes, and a community in a way that was unexpected. It wasn’t long before she began check it every day for the food posts, and pics, all with a great big helping of love for families and Ina, of course.
I have to go on Zoom for a meeting. Yuck. She sighed. What did I take out for dinner tonight? I think I asked Miles to take the salmon out.
The car turned onto East 96th Street on the approach to Carnegie Hill. When Miles was in the market for a condo before their wedding, Clarissa’s only requirement was a big kitchen. Luckily as a result of his work and connections, Miles was able to buy one of Carnegie Hill’s rare condos just before their wedding in 2006.
While there is no shortage of luxury apartment buildings rising up from the concrete of the Manhattan skyline, 21 East 96th Street, was a little gem of a boutique building. It wasn’t a high-rise, but it had nine whole floor units, 24-hour doorman, gym, bike room and private storage. Clarissa and Miles’ unit had four bedrooms and four bathrooms. Their master bedroom was its own suite with two walk-in closets and a luxe and large bathroom. The high ceilings and perfectly polished wood floors throughout the apartment allowed the sun’s rays to dance about and bathe the apartment in shades of yellow each morning, and orange at sunset. The décor was contemporary modern in different shades of blue, grey, white and black. The living room and dining room were big enough to entertain, and Clarissa had the large modern kitchen of her dreams.
Clarissa unbuckled her seatbelt as the Navigator pulled in front of the building. “Thank you.” Before her hand touched the handle, her doorman Fred opened the car door.
“Good evening, Mrs. Berman.”
“Good evening, Fred. Thank you.”
He closed the car door, then scurried ahead of her to open the door. “Here you go.”
“Thanks again, Fred.” She smiled.
“I see you didn’t take the subway this evening.”
“No. Even though January is almost over, I still have the post-holiday blahs. I needed to stay above ground to see the sky and breathe.” She took her keys out. “You know what I mean.”
“I get it.” He nodded. “By the way, Sandy wanted me to thank you again for all the treats over the holidays. My kids were in heaven and if I’m honest, so were we.” Fred patted his stomach.
“My pleasure. I love to do it. Once upon a time, I had teenage boys at home too.”
He laughed. “Your sons lucked out just like Alexia. Whenever she comes down, she always has a cookie, muffin, or something good.”
Clarissa laughed. “She’s a teenager, I love to keep the carbs coming.”
“I know that’s right.” Fred nodded. “Mr. Berman is a lucky man.”
“Thanks. I’ll be sure to remind him.” Clarissa stepped into the elevator and put her key in. “You have a great night. Is Ronald on tomorrow?”
“Okay. Enjoy your day off then.” She waved as the doors began to close.
When the elevators opened, Clarissa was greeted by her reflection in the mirror over the credenza of their apartment’s faux foyer. She let out a deep breath, took her coat off and stepped out of her black pumps. Clarissa wiggled her toes. “Oh, that feels so much better.” She picked up her shoes. “When will I learn. These pumps are pretty, but they kill my feet.” She walked into the living room, put her bag on the table behind the sofa, and walked over to the closet. “Hey Honey. I’m home.”
Her 5’11, brown haired, athletically built handsome husband, fifty-six-year-old Miles Berman walked out of the office. “Hey there, baby.” He put his arms around her and gave Clarissa a kiss. ‘“How was your day?”
“Better now. Not that it was a bad day.”
“Good.” He let his hand slide down to her butt. “I’m on a conference call right now, but I’ll be done in just a bit.”
“You’re on a video conference call now?”
“Why didn’t you say something? You didn’t have to come out just to kiss me and cop a feel.” She grinned. “Not that I minded, but I don’t want to get in the way of you taking care of business. I just wanted to let you know I was home.”
“I know.” He kept his arms around her. “But these guys are in the middle of belaboring yet another point with each other. It’s been going on for almost 2 ½ hours. I doubt they noticed I left the room.”
She laughed. “A day in the life of Miles Berman, Esquire.”
Miles served as legal counsel for a major corporation for twenty-years, before retiring from the suit and tie world to become a legal mercenary of sorts. He stayed busy with briefs, motions, consulting, and reminding seasoned, yet occasionally forgetful defense attorneys of what is and isn’t required in criminal court. Miles’ photographic memory allowed him to recall common and obscure sections and sub-sections of the Consolidated Laws of New York, the CPLR or the New York Criminal Procedure Law to name a few. He worked at his leisure, but he was always busy with one case or another.
“Yeah.” He scoffed. “I better get back in there before they get worse.”
“Sounds like you’re going to have to put them in the ring under the Marquess of Queensberry Rules.”
“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.” He sighed. “I’m going back in.”
“Good luck. I’m going to change, then get started on dinner.”
Miles gave her a thumbs’ up before he went back in the office.
Clarissa changed out of her suit into comfortable yoga wear. She put her hair up in a loose top knot, and washed her hands like a surgeon before heading to her culinary ashram.
The kitchen had everything she ever dreamed of in stainless steel, a Sub-Zero fridge, three ovens, an overhead exhaust, six-burner Wolf range, and dishwasher.
She opened the fridge. “Hmm, the salmon’s not here. I thought I asked Miles to take it out this morning.” Clarissa paused to think. “No problem, I can work with it frozen.” She opened the freezer and took the salmon out.
Clarissa grabbed a sheet pan and parchment paper, then set both on the counter while she set the oven to 425-degrees. Long before Rachael Ray, she was a champion of thirty-to-forty-five-minute weeknight meals. She took the vegetables she prepped the night before out. The recipe unfolded in three ten-minute intervals. First, the baby potatoes went in, followed by the zucchini, mushrooms, and onions. Then finally, the chopped herbs, sliced tomatoes, and salmon.
While dinner was in the final phase of cooking, Clarissa washed the dishes, put them away, and wiped the counters down with Clorox cleanup. She grabbed her tablet, and sat down at the table to check her business emails. Clarissa dashed off a few return emails, flagged a few to follow-up on later, and deleted the junk emails. Once she took care of business, she switched over to the Barefoot In The City group for pleasure. She scrolled through the posts with images of fantastic dishes and recipes. Although the fan group was all about Ina, not all of the posts were directly Ina related. The people in the group shared a love of cooking in a relaxed, elegant style like the Barefoot Contessa herself. Clarissa found hundreds of kindred spirits who not only loved being in the kitchen, they looked forward to the change of seasons and menus as much as Clarissa. In the summer there were salads, seafood, cool desserts and grilling outdoors. When autumn arrived, they looked forward to apple everything, pumpkin spice, and hundreds of ways to make a Thanksgiving turkey with the same excitement as sports fans had for the NFL and NBA seasons. In December, Santa and his elves weren’t the only busy ones during Christmas time. Only Barefoot in the City members turned out cookies, cakes, and cocktails instead of toys. It was the height of food geekdom and Clarissa loved to geek out.
Naturally in January, some of the posts skewed toward everyone’s top New Year’s resolution, losing weight, and eating healthy. Ina fans handled the resolution with great aplomb. All the healthy food posts looked decadent and satisfying. Move over Jenny Craig and Nutri-System, this is how you take the die out of diet. Her kitchen timer went off.
Just as Clarissa grabbed a couple of oven mitts and got up, Miles walked in.
“Something smells good. Oh, salmon.” He paused. “Wait. You told me to take the salmon out of the freezer last night. I forgot. I’m such a yutz. Good thing you remembered.”
She took the sheet pan out and put the pan on top of the stove. “No. I forgot too. Anyway, it’s not a problem. This recipe works with frozen salmon too.” She got the serving spoon and fork.
“Cool. It looks great. Is this not Barefoot-worthy?”
Miles had gotten used to life with this fan group. In fact, he was the one who encouraged her to post her culinary creations, calling them Barefoot worthy. She liked the term and he kept it up.
She chuckled. “I think so. Can you grab a couple of plates for me, please?”
Miles handed her the plates, then got the cutlery a long with a couple of wine glasses. “How about a Chardonnay?”
“Perfect.” She put the plates on the table, then got her cell out to snap a few quick pics.
“That looks great.” Miles poured the wine. “Hefe filter?”
“It’s my favorite. I like how it enhances without looking fake.” She looked at the preview photo. “Voila.”
“Looks terrific, but I’m glad I get to actually eat these artistic edible creations of yours.”
“Me too.” She set her cell down on the table. “I’ll post them later with the recipe.” Clarissa sat down.
“I like how you always share recipes. Not to mention all the work you put into adapting the recipes for vegans, gluten-sensitivities, and low or no sugar diets. It’s a lot of work.” He looked away for a moment. “I don’t know why you don’t take all of those family recipes notebooks and turn it into a cookbook. People would buy it like mad.” Miles picked his glass up. “Not to mention, you know how to wear a blue shirt, sexy lady.” He winked. “I’m just saying.”
“You like the way I fill out a blue Oxford.” She shimmied a little, then laughed. “Okay, babe. I’ll think about it.” She sighed. “But you know I have enough to deal with these days with the cookbook authors I already represent. Then there’s the technical and social media bullshit I’m supposed to cope with at Trifecta.” She lifted her glass and sipped. “It’s a lot for one woman.”
“I know the goal is to bring talented people to the masses, just don’t forget you are just as, if not more talented.”
“I will. Thank you, my love. I’d better start eating before my head gets too big to hold up.”
“This is so good. There isn’t anything you can’t make.”
“I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I do love to fuss over you and keep the menu moving.”
While 2020 was notable for many things, for a number of women and men March of 2020 marked the Covid-19 closing of hair salons and barbershops. Instead of chatting with your stylist or barber and just shooting the breeze with fellow clients there was silence and panic.
Whether you have high, low, or medium maintenance hair, taking a seat in the chair meant your hair worries were taken care of. Many of us had standing appointments with our beauticians for shampooing, conditioning, coloring, cutting, or trimming. Some had keratin treatments, relaxers, or curly perms. When the doors shut, you had to figure it out and fast.
Once upon a time, when a woman was north of forty or fifty plus, they were expected to cut their hair short. The reasoning seemed to be that long hair was for younger women, which is nonsense. How a woman wants to style her hair is her call. If you like it long, keep it. Love it short, do you!
However, Covid-19 said do your own hair and many of us were left scrambling. About six years ago, I stopped getting relaxers and went back to my natural hair. It wasn’t a journey I wanted to go on by myself, so I consulted with a professional and had a standing appointment to get my hair done every two weeks. TJ did everything. She customized my hair color, washed and conditioned my hair with intermittent outside trims. I had no worries. Then I was in Connecticut for a stretch and when I was about to come back to New York, everything was on lockdown. I had to figure it out and fast.
I’d always worn my hair straight, first with a relaxer and then with a blowout. I didn’t have a clue what I would look like with curly hair. I’m not a teenager anymore. Then I did some research and checked in with professionals for advice on what type of products to use. I was pleasantly surprised to see there are a lot of choices and products to use for curly hair. After all, the reason I went straight to begin was the fact there wasn’t any one product line or product for curly hair (Caucasian or African American). Thankfully that changed. I ordered what I needed online and I was able to get some things fairly quickly, but certain items like hair color, I had to buy in bulk. I couldn’t afford to get a bottle or two, there are a whole lot of Clairol devotees out there.
If there was a good thing to come out of this hair wise, it was an opportunity to embrace change. Maybe you had dark brunette colored hair and you tried your hand at highlights, or maybe the ombre-craze. If you were covering up the grey roots, maybe you decided to go full-on silver shoulder length hair. Locks, twists, streaks, highlights, low-lights, braids, the list goes on. As long as you weren’t working with chemicals (hair color doesn’t count as one to me), your only limit was your imagination. You had the chance to create a look of your own.
Well, we are not in lockdown anymore, but social distancing is still in place. Most of us are able to make appointments to see our favorite hair magic practitioners, and I suppose the plus side is there are no more walk-ins, everything is by appointment, which is safe for both us and the stylists.
If you changed your hair and you’re still not used to seeing the new you in the mirror, don’t avoid the mirror. Like the late great David Bowie sang, ‘turn and face the strange’. It’s not that bad even in the face of time.
Pretty soon now you’re gonna get older
Time may change me
But I can’t trace time
Changes, David Bowie 1971 Hunky Dory
Having a hair moment, have a cup of tea or decaf with a scone.
Blueberry Scones recipe by Chef Parisi adapted by me
For the Scones:
• 2 cups all-purpose flour (gluten-free all-purpose, 1 to 1 gluten-free baking blend, sorghum, sweet rice, or brown rice flour)
• 1/2 cup sugar + 1 tablespoons sugar (Swerve sweetener, Splenda granulated, coconut, raw cane, or turbinado sugar)
Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose
Nothin’, it ain’t nothin’ honey, if it ain’t free
Me and Bobby McGee, Janis Joplin
In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence (Yeah), they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men (My Lord), would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
I Have A Dream, Martin Luther King
The definition of freedom is a noun, the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint. The definition of the word free is an adjective, not under the control or in the power of another; able to act or be done as one wishes.
As we observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day, this year it’s more important now than ever before to remember the meaning behind the Civil Rights Movement.
Civil Rights is a term that has become far more politicized, weaponized, and divisive than it should be. It we peel back the layers to get at its heart, civil rights simply stated is the rights of citizens to political and social freedom, and equality. Frankly, Civil Rights equals America.
When we think of freedom riders today, we think of the bus loads of young women and men of all colors, creeds, and religions to challenge racial laws in the American South in the 1960s. However, these brave men and women weren’t the first freedom riders.
While it wasn’t a motorized vehicle, the Pilgrims and Puritans came came to these shores not only to practice their religion freely, but to escape the oppression they faced as a feudal system of working for lords and the aristocracy gave way to working to pay land rents and heavy taxes to landowners, the church, or the king. Their lives were limited by their circumstances and they came to America to change that. Eventually, when England began to colonize, and more people came here to establish lives and find their fortunes, the colonists longed to be free of England’s rule. The Revolutionary War was a fight for Independence and freedom.
America as a young country went through growing pains that included the enslavement of an entire race of people. Once again, the status quo was challenged over time and it resulted in the Civil War.
I can easily go into the reasons for the Civil War, but as this is a day of reflection and remembrance, it’s important to focus on what we have in common as people, which is at the heart of MLK’s message about freedom. Whether our ancestors are from Europe, Asia, African, the Caribbean, or South America or North America, they came for a better life for themselves, their children, and future generations. Despite being here to work honestly for the American dream they faced prejudice and violence. No one understood their customs nor religion, but it was important to persevere.
Although it’s important’ to move forward, the African American migration experience differs from other immigrants. We didn’t arrive on these shores as passengers, we were cargo. Men , women, and children became slaves stripped of their names, tribes, and country. They were forced to learn a new language, to toil away in the hot sun on the fields of plantations, and were counted as chattel instead of human beings. Even once emancipated, African Americans enjoyed freedom and equality for a brief moment with voting rights and political offices, but it didn’t last. Those rights were taken away and black people became second class citizens, in a world that was very separate, but by no means equal. Therefore, African Americans became revolutionaries like the Founding Fathers. However, they didn’t pick up guns, they used the bible and the pulpit to preach the gospel of Civil Rights.
Martin Luther King Jr. like many others before him wanted to see a world where ignorance darkens another races’ experience here in America could become a part of the light of acceptance and love for others. He knew we had more in common than we had differences. Today, through technology we can learn more about our family trees and are often surprised to see how many branches intersect with other trees.
I don’t believe that any of this can be better demonstrated than through the words of Dr. King at the March on Washington, an event I am proud to say my mother attended. I hope this MLK day will spark discussions and open the lines of communication to get past the war of words to find a peaceful way for us to unite and coexist in harmony.
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia , the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a Dream, Martin Luther King Jr.
When we allow freedom ring , when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men, and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
English, Algebra, Social Studies, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Art, Gym, or Music, whether it was a subject or a favorite teacher, you can debate what you loved about your school days until the cows come home. However, there is one thing most of us can agree on, school lunches back in the day.
Who knew that one day we’d long for the days of Salisbury Steak, the cafeteria holiday menu of turkey breast, stuffing and cranberry sauce, and Pizza Fridays. Well, kids today have a lot of choices for lunch and instead of the cafeteria ladies we remember serving up tray after tray of food, kids today practically have a food court in school.
My mother, who I call her mothership, was a cafeteria lady when I was in junior high. There are some definite drawbacks to having every teacher know your mother. That was of course, if I got in trouble. I’m not saying I was an angel in school, but I was pretty close to one. Neither my mother or my dad were no nonsense when it came to schoolwork and behavior. The upside of having mom in the cafeteria, I always knew what was good to eat. My mother would get the chicken and tuna salad from the teacher’s menu, if she wasn’t crazy about what was one the student menu. Naturally, she didn’t have to tell me when there were peanut butter cookies. It’s an aroma all of us remember from back then, something kids today don’t know about due to the rise of peanut allergies
Those were the days. Today, I went back in time to another school lunch favorite, sloppy Joes. The sweet tanginess of beef combined with a soft and fluffy bun was heaven on a lunch tray. If you would like to take a sentimental lunch journey, I’ve got this nifty little Cooks Country recipe that I have adapted for vegans and vegetarians. There’s a little science in the recipe too. So, if you were as crazy about Social Studies or Science as I was, it’s time for lunch without the lunch monitor.
Sloppy Joes Recipe by Cooks Country. Adapted by Chamein Canton
1 pound of 80 to 85 % lean ground beef (chuck is great)
1 package of Vegan ground meat (Impossible Burger meat, Thrive, Good and Gather plant-based ground)
1/2 cup finely diced onions, sweet or yellow
2 cloves of minced garlic
1 teaspoon of paprika
1/2 tablespoon of salt
2 tablespoons of brown sugar (light or dark, your preference, You can use organic brown sugar or Swerve brown sugar substitute )
Mix together 1/2 teaspoon baking with 1 tablespoon of cold water to make a slurry. Pour the mixture over the ground beef, toss the beef to coat, and set it aside. The baking soda helps to soften the texture of the beef. However, if you like the toothiness of the beef, you can omit this step. I also recommend for those making a vegan version to omit this step. Plant-based ‘ground meat” will melt so to speak from the alkaline nature of the baking soda and you don’t want mush.
Heat about 2 tablespoon of vegetable oil in a pan. Add the onions and sprinkle 1/8 teaspoon of baking soda over the onions. Sauté for three to four minutes. The onions will breakdown or melt. Then add the paprika, salt and brown sugar. Stir together for about a minute.
Add the tomato paste. stir it in and cook until it becomes a deeper rust color. Add the ground beef and cook for eight to ten minutes. Stir the meat constantly and break it up as you go. When the meat has cooked, add the ketchup, Worcestershire, and vinegar in. Stir well. Give it a taste and adjust the seasoning and vinegar if you want more tang.
You can also add a little more brown sugar, if that pleases your palate. The recipe called for red wine vinegar, but I found that apple cider gave it the hit of vinegar taste that I remember. Go with what you like.
Serve on a Kaiser roll, brioche hamburger or potato buns.
Whether it was life before Covid-19, most of us probably had some issues carving out time for ourselves. Although, I am very sure that men have as much responsibility and pressures as women, when dad sets aside time and he doesn’t want to be bothered, people listen. As a daughter, girlfriend, significant other, and fiancée I tried and still try not to bother the man in my life when he needs to work, write, or watch football, NCAA basketball, or the PGA,
I have found that as a woman I have a harder time setting those boundaries, but I won’t blame all of it on everyone else. I’ve been at my mother’s (whom I refer to as her mothership) and she tends to walk in while I’m writing and start talking or telling me about something that she wants me to do. Instead of telling her to please give me a moment, I am an oldest child. Most firstborns are what I like to call starter children. We are the kids parents get to practice on until they figure out their parenting style. Traditional, bohemian, militant, or a combination thereof. We are the ones who weather the trial period. That is not to say that we don’t have a right to ask for a little time to ourselves as adults, but it can get a little tricky.
All of that aside, writing is a part of my life every day. Even when I don’t have a pen and paper in hand, I’m thinking about different topics, memories, or funny stories I’d like to incorporate in a blog post or as a part of a novel, or the cookbook I’m working on about my grandmothers’ and their cooking.
More than that, writing is more than just thoughts on paper, it’s the way I can redirect nervous energy when I’m worried. It’s also the way I’ve been able to deal with MS for the past twenty-five years. Chronic diseases and conditions like MS can engulf your life. It can dominate every corner if you let it. My dad told me when I was first hit with the diagnosis, that as long as I had MS, it could never have me. I’ve lived by that creed ever since and it has served me well, in addition to saving me from going into a self-pity hole.
That is why I believe that it’s important to fight for your right to write. If you’re a writer, it’s a part of who you are, which is an artist. And artists over many different mediums from paint to clay to, cameras to musical instruments and more need to exercise that right to keep it strong. Whatever moves you to write, scope out the place and set the time aside for yourself.
Part of my right to writer includes being in the kitchen, which includes going into the test kitchen to work on recipes. I love to work on adaptations of recipes to be sure it’s tasty enough to pass muster. To that end, I am posting a recipe for shepherd’s pie with meat and vegan ground meat. This is a recipe I came across in my Google feed, I’ve tweaked it a bit.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup chopped yellow onion
1 lb. 90% lean ground beef -or ground lamb
2 teaspoons dried parsley leaves
2 teaspoons dried thyme leaves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 garlic cloves -minced
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour (gluten-free all-purpose or 1 to 1 gluten-free baking blend)
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 cup beef broth
1 cup frozen mixed peas & carrots*
1/2 cup frozen corn kernels
Vegan Meat Filling
1 pound or package of Vegan ground meat Impossible Burger Ground, Farmland Protein Starters, Good and Gather Ground, Gardein The Ultimate Beefless Ground
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup chopped yellow onion
2 teaspoons dried parsley leaves
2 teaspoons dried thyme leaves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon Vegan Worcestershire sauce
2 garlic cloves -minced
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 cup vegetable broth
1 cup frozen mixed peas & carrots*
1/2 cup frozen corn kernels
1 1/2 – 2 lb. russet potatoes -about 2 large potatoes peeled and cut into 1 inch cubes
Add the oil to a large skillet and place it over medium-high heat for 2 minutes. Add the onions. Cook 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add the ground beef (or ground lamb or vegan ground) to the skillet and break it apart with a wooden spoon. Add the parsley, thyme, salt, and pepper. Stir well. Cook for 6-8 minutes, until the meat is browned, stirring occasionally.
Add the Worcestershire sauce and garlic. Stir to combine. Cook for 1 minute.
Add the flour and tomato paste. Stir until well incorporated and no clumps of tomato paste remain.
Add the broth, frozen peas and carrots, and frozen corn. Bring the liquid to a boil then reduce to simmer. Simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Set the meat mixture aside. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
Make the potato topping.
Place the potatoes in a large pot. Cover the potatoes with water. Bring the water to a boil. Reduce to a simmer. Cook until potatoes are fork tender, 10-15 minutes.
Drain the potatoes in a colander. Return the potatoes to the hot pot. Let the potatoes rest in the hot pot for 1 minute to evaporate any remaining liquid.
Add butter, half & half, garlic powder, salt, and pepper. Mash the potatoes and stir until all the ingredients are mixed together.
Add the parmesan cheese to the potatoes. Stir until well combined.
Assemble the casserole.
Pour the meat mixture into a 9×9 (or 7×11) inch baking dish. Spread it out into an even layer. Spoon the mashed potatoes on top of the meat. Carefully spread into an even layer.
If the baking dish looks very full, place it on a rimmed baking sheet so that the filling doesn’t bubble over into your oven. Bake uncovered for 25-30 minutes.** Cool for 15 minutes before serving.
*You could use 1/2 cup frozen peas and 1/2 cup frozen sliced carrots.
A day in the life of a writer can be filled with many things. We have appointments, errands to run, kids to raise, meals to cook, and dry cleaning to pick up. Mix in a day job, career, or business to run, and we have more than enough to keep us occupied. However, I have discovered that in the midst of it all, I find time to write. Most of the time, it’s a welcome relief and a way to put the worries of the day out of my mind. Then there are times when literary inspiration comes at a bad time, particularly when I need to focus on something else that’s pressing. Nevertheless, I’ve got that figured out for the most part.
The most difficult aspect of writing is when we have to cool our jets waiting for an answer once we have had our work submitted to an agent or a publisher for review. No matter the subject, fiction or nonfiction, writers pour a piece of themselves into every page. In fiction, we know every character intimately, the emotions in every sentence, the setting, and every verb. For nonfiction, we have researched the subjects thoroughly, done our due diligence, used our experience in an authoritative yet approachable manner. The work put into it is all about love. Writers love to write and we accept that all the time we put into our writing, may or may not be rewarded with an offer to publish.
Moreover, even if a writer gets a literary agent who is going to represent them to publishers, there is more time built into that proposition as well. Publishing is notoriously slow when it comes to reviewing manuscripts and that’s not a dig about editors. These days the business of publishing in terms of reading manuscript submissions is something that happens outside of business hours. That is true of literary agents as well and I can speak to that as an agent. I almost never have an opportunity to review a submission during business hours. I read in the evenings before and after dinner. I also spend weekends reading as well. This is an industry filled with hurry up and wait
I understand the frustration from both sides. I try to let writers know that the best thing they can do is to keep on writing. It’s also a good idea to incorporate other creative outlets to help ease anxiety. Cooking, baking, painting, sewing, or drawing, are just a few things that let you focus creativity and nerves in a productive way. I have several personal projects happening at the moment and if I stay too focused on them, I will drive myself crazy. As it is the winter, it’s not like I can go out and take a walk like I do in the warmer months. I use my kitchen as my ashram and experiment with different recipes or work on adapting recipes to make them healthier, gluten- free, or no-sugar. It keeps my mind busy. It wasn’t long before some story issues I couldn’t figure out, became clearer and I picked back up writing again. So, time does have its advantages
My advice to writers is always to write. However, when your mind needs a break, use the time to do something else productive. That said, spend time with the people you love, that helps. A little face time with a nephew or a daughter can do wonders. Attend your family’s next Zoom, call a friend, grab a coffee, bundle up and take a walk if it’s a nice, moderate day. Just take a couple of beats. It won’t derail you, but it will help you take your eyes off the clock.
Working on recipes is what I like to do. I also like to share them.
Pasties Pastry Recipe Recipe from New Orleans Kitchen Queens
1 cup all-purpose flour (gluten-free all-purpose flour, 1 to 1 gluten-free baking blend, sorghum, sweet rice, or brown rice flour)
In a large bowl combine the flours with the salt. Dice the cold butter into small pieces and add to the flour mixture. With the back of a fork press the butter into the flour until the butter is incorporated (there will still be small pieces of butter in the mixture). Make a well in the center of the dough and pour in the ice water. Gently blend the water into the dough until it forms a solid ball. Wrap the dough ball in plastic and refrigerate for at least on hour before rolling.
Chicken Filled Pasties Recipe adapted from Healthy Nibbles
½ pound chicken breast or tenderloins, cubed
1 large- sweet onion or 2 medium sized onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 large Russet or Yukon potatoes, peeled and diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
1 medium sweet potato, diced
1 teaspoon ground thyme
½ teaspoon dried rosemary
generous pinch of salt
1 large egg, whisked (or 1 tablespoon Aquafaba plus 1 tablespoon water, whisked)
Add diced Russet potatoes and sweet potatoes to a sauce pot. Cover with water, then add a pinch of salt. Cook the potatoes on medium-heat until they are fork tender. Drain and set aside.
In a large skillet, add oil over medium heat. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the carrots and onions. Cook until the onions begin to soften, and the carrots are getting a little tender.
Add the garlic in, and cook for thirty seconds. Stir in the cubed chicken and cook stirring until no longer pink and cooked through.
Add the potatoes. Sprinkle the thyme and rosemary over the chicken mixture. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook through until heated adjusting seasoning as needed
Let the chicken filling cool before filling the pasties.
Preheat oven to 400ºF (200ºC). Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
Divide the dough into 4 or six pieces on a well floured surface. Use a floured rolling pin to roll into discs about 8 1/2-inch circles. Turn the dough over frequently to prevent it from sticking to the surface. You can roll all the circles out at once, or do it one at a time, depending on your counter space. If you choose to roll out one at a time, refrigerate the dough in between in circle. Cold is essential for flaky, crumbly, pastry without soggy bottoms.
Take a small handful of filling and place it in the center of the rolled out dough. You want to make sure that there is about an inch of clear space around the edge of the dough. Brush the egg white along this empty space.
Fold the dough over the vegetables to create a semi-circle shape. Do this with confidence! Seal the pastry. You can crimp the edges with a fork or fold it like I did. When I folded the edges of the pasty, I brushed some egg along the edge so that the folds stayed put. Brush some of the egg wash over the entire pasty. Repeat these steps for the rest of the dough.
Place the prepared pasties on the baking sheets and bake for about 30 to 35 minutes, or until the pasties are golden brown.
You can make these vegan. Just omit the chicken and replace with more vegetables. Feel free to add traditional swedes (rutabagas) or other vegetables you enjoy.
I’ve tried this with shortening and it doesn’t come out the same. It’s a little heavier. Stick with vegan butter, even non-dairy margarine is a good choice.
Don’t trust anyone over thirty. It was the bold statement of Boomers in the sixties to early seventies until they themselves crossed the threshold into their thirties. Naturally, it meant they were changing their tunes, proving that both women and men were using their right to change their minds.
The change in attitude led to a new way to look at aging across the board. When going through history’s images of both famous and everyday people, you can see how the very appearance of middle-aged people is vastly different. Simply put, it’s not representative of how your great-grandparents’ aged or of any previous generations prior to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
The change in aging is not only a result of better technology and medical breakthroughs in treating diseases and conditions that once shortened lifespans, or even the availability of plastic surgery, Botox, and fillers to keep faces looking dewy and tight long after our twenties. It is also due to those who don’t look at middle-age as a time to slow down.
You are more likely to find grandmothers and grandfathers taking a spin class, leading yoga sessions, riding bikes, hiking, and going on holidays to show off some pretty tight bodies on the beach or the slopes. The same applies in terms of following their passion and turning a side hustle into a business to embrace entrepreneurship. Others are going back to school to go into another career altogether. Married couples are rediscovering their relationships as men and women, and not just parents and grandparents. Divorced and single men and women are looking to internet dating sites for those over forty and fifty to meet new people and perhaps find the love of their lives to share their second act with. The possibilities are only limited by your imagination.
My second act is the reason I started Still A Chick-Lit. It’s also because of a woman that I had the privilege of working for and calling a friend, Dr. Cecile Forte. I worked with her on her groundbreaking internet radio show Who You Calling Old. Through the show and the many guests we had over the years, I had the opportunity to meet so many people who were doing amazing things in their forties, fifties, sixties, and seventies plus. They were motivated and loving every moment. Dr. Forte used the John Mayer’s Don’t Stop This Train as the apropos theme song for the broadcast. I hope to inspire others to follow their hearts and do what they love.
The world of publishing told me that women my age weren’t chicks anymore. Any novels with characters north of forty and fifty plus should be called hen-lit. While hen-lit is a little better than matron-lit, women generally don’t like to be referred to as hens, unless it’s a bachelorette party in the UK. The image of a group of women cackling like hens comes to mind and that isn’t a cool image to me. Being a chick is a state of mind. It’s feeling confident in your skin. Loving your life, body, and age knowing it’s just a number. I hope my novels will inspire and I am looking forward to relaunching the Still A Chick Lit Podcast at the end of January with the voices of other north of forty and fifty-plus female writers and entrepreneurs who are following their dreams and having the time of the lives.