Ain't Too Proud

Last night, I saw Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations. It was the final performance of an extended, record-breaking run at Berkeley Rep. (It's heading to Broadway next year.) Now I'm thinking about this genre, the "jukebox" musical,* where a book writer begins with a set of preexisting songs --in this case thirty-one of The Temptations's greatest hits-- and drapes a story around them.  

Here's what I imagine is tricky:

Songs should happen in musicals when spoken dialogue is no longer "enough," when the writer needs a non-verbal mode (music) to bring the audience into a feeling, vibe, brain space, or mood beneath language, or beyond it. Words may be specific; music is precise.

I think about the way I wrote Stir, out of order, beginning with the moments that for reasons I couldn't explain, felt important. These moments were the "songs," if you will, which is to say, the parts of what happened that made me feel big feelings and wonder, huh, what is that about? I hammered down these markers, first. Then I sat back and let the story rise up to meet me, writing the connective tissue between those "songs," between the things that mattered most.

I imagine that's how most musicals happen? I don't know, I'm sure there are other ways in. There must be. Like, a book writer has an idea for a plot, maybe even an honest to goodness story, and starts to write. Still, she's aiming for those moments. She'll write towards those points when the lyricist/composer comes in with a song.

So how does all this work in a jukebox musical, like the one I saw last night?

Dominique Morisseau,** the book writer for Ain't Too Proud, has crafted a moving story from Otis Williams's biography and woven it tightly around The Temptations's repertoire. What got me thinking is this: When drama and emotion peak in this show, it is between the songs. The most human moments in Ain't Too Proud, the parts about ambition, ego, illness, love, parenthood, and loss, arrive not by means of The Temptations's music and lyrics, but via Morisseau's dialogue. The songs surround these moments, but are not attached to them, at least not in the conventional way. It's as if the direction is reversed: rather than the songs imbuing the surrounding dialogue with deeper meaning and precision, the dialogue casts the preexisting songs in a particular light.*** If the songs in this musical are signposts of story, they are of a different kind.

Which has me wondering, what is the relationship between an artist's life and the work she produces, anyway? Was The Temptations's repertoire, is any artist's repertoire, a form of biography? Is an artist's body of work a story "about" the human life that created it, in addition to being a story "about" the artist's evolution in her craft?  

 _______________

* Here's Sarah Larson of The New Yorker on jukebox musicals, and the possibility that they can produce something more than "ovation-by-coercion."
** I wish I had been in New York to see Pipelineher latest. This interview with Morriseau is terrific. 
***One exception is the way Morriseau situates the song Papa Was a Rollin' StoneShe brings us inside the making of the song and the musicians' feelings about that process through actual performances of the song. 

Book tour, book clubs, yesss! (I can't wait.)

You guys are tremendous. This blog goes dark for months while I hole up and write a book, and when I do finally pop my head up and say, “Hey, I’m done! Wanna see?” in fact you do. Thank you for all your pre-orders over the last month – so many that someone at my publisher apparently noticed and wanted to know what had happened. You happened. You! Thank you for standing by me, friends. I can’t tell you how much that means to me. This book is for you. I hope you know that.

I also hope that I will get to meet you, at least some of you, very soon. On June 24, the day after Stir comes out, my book tour begins. I know how lucky I am to get to say that in 2015, when books, and bookstores, and publishing, and complete sentences, and probably even multisyllabic words, according to some Henny Pennies, are allegedly doomed. (Shhhh, it’s not true!) If you can make it out to an event, I’d be thrilled, and incredibly grateful. It will be so nice to meet you, to actually see each other’s lips move as we talk!

My publisher is still nailing down the details of a couple events, but I’ll tell you what we’ve got so far so that you can mark your calendars. Keep an eye on the events page I've created for updates.

All events are free and open to the public, but PLEASE R.S.V.P. if you plan on attending the evening at BookCourt in Brooklyn or Harvard Book Store in Cambridge.

These two evenings are launch parties, and I want to be sure we’ll have enough food and wine on hand.

Brooklyn, NY
June 24, 7:00PM
BookCourt
163 Court Street
with Wall Street Journal book review editor, Bari Weiss
Dessert and wine will be served; please R.S.V.P. here.

Hartford, CT
June 29, 7:00PM
Beth El Temple
An evening of healing in honor of Rabbi Ilana Garber
Please R.S.V.P. here

Cambridge, MA
June 30, 7:00PM
Harvard Book Store
1256 Massachusetts Ave.
Dessert and wine will be served; please
R.S.V.P. here

Washington, DC
July 1, 6:30PM
Kramerbooks
1517 Connecticut Avenue, NW
Please R.S.V.P here.

Columbus, OH
July 9, 6:00PM
Barnes & Noble
Easton Town Centre
4005 Townsfair Way

Cleveland, OH
July 12, 2:00PM
Barnes & Noble
Eton Chagrin Boulevard
28801 Chagrin Blvd

San Francisco, CA
July 16, 6:40PM
Omnivore Books
3885a Cesar Chavez Street
Seattle, WA

July 21, 6:30PM
Book Larder (in conversation with Molly Wizenberg)
4252 Fremont Ave. N.
Please R.S.V.P. here

Seattle and San Francisco folks, stay tuned for something in your neck of the woods, too.

UPDATE: Seattle and Washington D.C. events have just been set! See above.
UPDATE 6/15: San Francisco event has been set! See above. 
UPDATE 6/26: Hartford event scheduled! See above.

I can’t wait to meet you. (PLEASE COME.) And if we can’t meet in person, how about the next best thing?

Book club! 

I want to Skype into yours. If you’d like to read Stir with your book club and invite my head floating on a computer screen into your home, I’d be honored. I’m not sure how many of these I’ll be able to do. I hope lots. I figure we can get started and see how things go.

To sign up, please send an e-mail to sweetamandine[at] gmail [dot] com with the subject line STIR BOOK CLUB, and include a date or two that might work for you. I’ll get back to you just as soon as I can.

I think that’s all for now. I'm excited, and plenty nervous. Typing this out made me feel ever so slightly less nuts. Phew.

Next time: cookies.

xx

Stir

A nice thing about dotting i's and crossing t's on a book manuscript just a few short months before its publication date is that you (I) (WE!!) have only those few short months to wait between its once-and-for-all completion and the day we'll get to hold it in our hands. 

Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals that Brought Me Home will be out on June 23. Forget "few." As of today, that's NEXT MONTH. So, uh, would you like to see the cover?

It is the work of the very talented Alison Forner, and I could not love it more. When the e-mail with this cover attached landed in my inbox, I was so nervous, I couldn't open it. I forwarded it along to Eli with the message, "I'm sending this without opening. Please tell me what you think." Then, as soon as I hit send, I opened the file myself. Because as nervous as I was, I was even more curious. I stared. Maybe book covers are like newborns, where no matter how wrinkly, alien-like, and oldman-ish yours is, you think she's the most beautiful child in the world. Maybe - but I doubt it.

Stir is available now for pre-order, and some early reviewers have even started reading it and saying nice things. There is nothing about the previous sentence that doesn't blow my mind. And fill me head-to-toe with gratitude for you, you, YOU. Thank you, friends. Thank you. For helping me carve out a place to start, a place to come back to, where I could learn how to try and how to believe. My publisher is in the process of putting together a book tour with stops on both coasts and a couple in between. I sincerely hope you'll come out so I can meet you in person, and look you in the eye as we chat without this screen between us.

Stir's release date bounced around a bit, and while I'm quite content for it to be coming out just as summer goes into full swing - I don't know about you, but summer makes me hungry for books - it occurred to me recently that it's a little bit of a shame it won't be out until after Mother's Day. Because yes, yes, Stir is about illness, recovery, food, love, and beginnings in unexpected places. But, though I didn't realize it until my editor told me so, it is also very much about women and mothers: how the mothers and mother-like people in our lives take care of us, each in the way she knows best, how our mothers show us who we are, who we are not, and who we might become. "All these women!" my editor said, and she was right. She flipped through the pages on her desk and called them out: my mother, my stepmother, my great-great aunt, my grandmother, my mother-in-law. And, without giving too much away, one (lovable?) protagonist who, when disaster strikes, is juuuust beginning to think about what it might mean to be a mother one day herself. I couldn't believe I hadn't noticed. 

So! How's this for a plan? If you'd like, please go ahead and pre-order Stir for your mothers. (And stepmothers! Definitely stepmothers. Amy is a hero of this book.) The book won't arrive until late June, but to the first 150 people who pre-order, I'll send a small gift that will arrive before Mother's Day next week. (Continental U.S. only, please.)

The gift is a set of five postcards featuring glossy photos of several recipes from Stir on one side, and your typical "I'm a postcard! Write on me and drop me in the mail!" design on the back. They just arrived today from the printer. The paper is thick and heavy and feels nice to write on and, if I do say so, the photos turned out beautifully. (The images in this post are three of the five designs.) I'll also include a personalized, handwritten card and package everything up so that it looks nice and pretty.

Here's what to do:

1. Pre-order Stir from anywhere you please, including AmazonBarnes & NobleGoogle PlayiBooksIndieBound, and Kobo, to name a few. You'll need your order number as proof of purchase.

2. Complete this short form

That's it! 

Of course, if you want the postcards for yourself, or if you'd like me to send them to someone without any mention of Mother's Day, that's more than fine by me. You can specify everything according to your preferences on the form. If you've already pre-ordered Stir (THANK YOU!! No, really, THANK YOU!!!!!), you're still eligible to receive the postcards. Just look up your old order number and you're all set. One more thing: if you do want the postcards for Mother's Day, I'll need your order in by 5:00pm (PDT) / 8:00pm (EDT) on Sunday, May 3, so that I have time to write all the cards, pack everything up, and get it in the mail in time. 

And away we go! Writing things down here makes them feel real. I know I've said it before. It's true. 

Coming up fast

A five-minute walk into Golden Gate Park from the entrance at 9th and Lincoln Way, you'll find a yellow ice cream truck called Twirl and Dip where you can get this:

Top to bottom, that's a sprinkle of salt, a dark chocolate dip, vanilla bean soft serve, and a handmade cone. On any given day, it's a short, straight shot on the bus from where I sit to this beauty, because where I sit now is San Francisco. Where I live now. Where I live is San Francisco. 

Twirl aaaaaaand dip.

If you've been following along on Instagram (and please do! I love the community over there), this San Francisco thing isn't news. It's been, what, three months since we left Cambridge? No - almost four! In any case, HELLO THERE. I am so happy, so thrilled, so relieved to be here. To be back in a place where I can be here. Whoa.

So, let's see. Where were we? Brownies, right? That was the end of May, when Freddie (remember her?) (she looks like this now!) was two months old. I hadn't touched my manuscript since before she was born. Then June happened and I got writing again, and though my work time looked different than it had pre-Freddie, the book swallowed me right back up. I was grateful to discover that it still could. (I told me so!) Meanwhile, something secret was in the works, a long shot that was no way going to happen, then did: Eli's company, Directr? Google bought it. (GOOOO ELI!!!) And by the end of the summer we found ourselves with an infant and a toddler, a book not yet done, and a cross-country move coming up fast.

We landed in San Francisco on December 30 and in the months that followed I set myself to the extremely difficult task of not unpacking, not settling in, so that whenever I wasn't chillin' with the little people of the household, I could write, write, write my way through the final-final-for-real-forever edits of my book. And you know what? I did it. The book is d-o-n-e, done. Getting to write those words here, here, where it all started, means more than I can say. 

But more about the book another time. Today, we feast! On Deb Perelman's Whole Lemon Bars. I've been holding onto them for you since December when, fueled by some combination of insanity, denial, adrenaline, and fierce love for who and what we were leaving behind in Cambridge, MA, we decided to go ahead and host our yearly Chanukah party for 80-ish guests three days before the moving truck arrived. We made 400 latkes, several quarts of cranberry apple sauce, and an assortment of cakes, cookies, and treats. Because business as usual, right? Why not? (Don't answer that.) 

Honestly, those hours in the kitchen were golden. It felt exactly right: frying, baking, stashing things away in freezer bags and airtight containers for a crowd we love, looking up to see the familiar, sweeping view of Harvard Square framed by the windows of our fifth-floor apartment. I can't imagine a better way to have spent those last days in the place we called home for nine years. (Also: procrastibaking. I am a pro.)

I did, in the end, pull back just a bit. No homemade candy this year, no sandwich cookies or anything I'd have to frost. I made those terrific brownies, instead, and a double batch of my favorite almond cake, among other things I could throw together quickly, with my eyes closed - so I wouldn't have to see the stacks of unassembled moving boxes breathing down my neck. It had never occurred to me that lemon bars, with all the zesting and juicing of multiple lemons required, might have a place in this category. But the single lemon rolling around our crisper drawer got me thinking about a recipe in The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook that I remembered marking with a pink sticky tab a couple of years earlier, a recipe for Whole Lemon Bars. "Whole" as in the entire lemon, minus only the seeds. "Lemon," indeed, just one.

What comes of that lemon, puréed by machine with sugar, butter, eggs, cornstarch, and salt, is the smoothest, most beautiful lemon custard I've ever seen atop a shortbread crust. No tiny craters along the surface - you can forgo the classic powdered sugar topping, if you'd like, and they're just as pretty - no threads of lemon zest snagging the silky cream. These bars are sleek, a word I've never thought to use to describe something that's come out of my kitchen. The flavor is something special, too, thanks to the pith and peel. There's an edge, a faintly bitter note that you've probably never missed in lemon bars gone by but, unless you're eating these, you will now, forever more. (Sorry? You're welcome?)

In the parlance of the day (thanks to this wonderful, wonderful column-turned-book), Deb's Whole Lemon Bars is a "genius recipe," for sure, making me rethink the way lemon bars become lemon bars, showing me an easier, faster way to ones that turn out better than what I knew to expect.

I'm off now, but not for long, I promise. Thank you, friends, for being here, for showing up despite so many long months of silence. I told a friend of mine last week that one of the best parts of having the book and the move behind me is that I'll be able to start blogging again. I meant it. Blogging for me is writing for writing's sake alone. I've missed that very much. 

I'll be back later this week with something book-related and fun. I can't wait.

xo. 

Deb Perelman's Whole Lemon Bars
Adapted from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman

For the crust:
1 cup (125 grams) all-purpose flour
1/3 cup (65 grams) granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
8 tablespoons (115 grams) unsalted butter, cut into chunks, plus more for greasing the pan

For the filling:
1 medium-small lemon, about 3 inches long (around 130 grams)
1  1/3 cups (265 grams) granulated sugar
8 tablespoons (115 grams) unsalted butter, cut into chunks
4 large eggs
2 tablespoons (15 grams) cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt

Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. 

Cut two 12-inch by 8-inch strips of parchment paper. Press one strip into the bottom of an 8-inch square baking pan with a couple extra inches of parchment hanging over each side. Press the other strip down into the pan in the opposite direction, perpendicular to the first strip, to create a parchment plus sign. The two strips will overlap on the bottom of the pan, and you'll have formed a parchment sling with four "handles" for lifting the bars up and out once they have cooled. Lightly butter the exposed parchment and set the pan aside.

Make the crust:
Blend the flour, sugar, and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture looks like a heap of crumbs, but holds together when you squeeze it. Dump the crumbs into the prepared pan and press evenly along the bottom and about 1/2 inch up the sides. Prick the dough all over with a fork and bake for 20 minutes, or until lightly browned. Leave the oven on. 

Make the filling:
Cut your lemon in half. If the white part of the skin is 1/4 inch thick or less, you're good to go. If the white part is thicker than that, you'll want to remove the skin from half the lemon to keep your bars from turning out too bitter. (The second lemon half, even if the pith is just as thick, can be used as is.) Cut your lemon halves into thin rings and discard any seeds. Toss the lemon slices into the bowl of the food processor with the sugar and process for about 2 minutes, until the lemon is thoroughly puréed. Add the butter, and run the machine until the mixture is smooth, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Add the eggs, cornstarch, and salt, and pulse together until everything is evenly combined.

Pour the lemon custard over the crust and bake until the filling is set, about 35 to 40 minutes. (The finished custard should jiggle slightly when you bump the pan.) 

Let the pan cool completely on a rack. Run a knife around the edges of the pan, then use the parchment sling to transfer the uncut bars to a cutting board. I like to refrigerate the slab for 10-15 minutes right on the board before slicing it into bars. 

Makes 16 2-inch bars

You were hoping

Delancey arrived on my doorstep not long after Freddie was born. The timing was perfect.* For one thing, Delancey is a book. I read a lot in the first weeks after babies turn up here, so I need books. I also need food, and Delancey’s got that, too, to the tune of twenty recipes tucked between chapters. Knowing Molly Wizenberg (and trusting my friends around the internet), I’d bet that many of these recipes are success stories waiting to happen. I’ll have to get back to you on that though, since for now I am stuck on the brownies.

I cannot stop making them, and that is because they are perfect. Here is the part where you ask The Question, the one that’s hung in the air after every mention of brownies since the beginning of time, and I answer with the word that, admit it, you were hoping for: FUDGY. (No disrespect to the cakey crowd. Remember these?) Of course, we cannot stop there. We know we must be careful. Because it is often in the very name of “fudgy” that so many brownies go wrong.

We’ve all stomached them: gummy, squishy, smudgy, and wet, brownies that look as though they’ve gone for a sprint around the block in 100% humidity and collapsed onto your plate at the finish. I sometimes wonder whether the trouble isn’t in the question, since what I really want – more than “fudgy;” more than “cakey” – is a brownie that is good. And the truth is that if it isgood, even the fudgiest brownie falls somewhere in between.

I think when we say “fudgy,” what we really mean is “chewy,” like these brownies here today, rich and dense enough for your teeth to leave scrape marks when you bite in. We want something satisfying in the Chocolate, Now! department in a way that even the best cakey chocolate cakes are not. Molly’s brownies have very little flour, which explains their similarity to a spot-on flourless chocolate cake, but instead of soft and mousse-y inside, they’re the slightest bit spongy. (That’s the cakey bit talking.) The recipe makes just enough batter for a shallow pour, so the resulting slab of brownies is thin, easy to slice into neat squares. A big old brownie isn’t the most sought after summertime treat, what with the dessert files in our brains flipped open to berries, crumbles, and pies. But how about one of these, straight from the fridge – how I happen to like them best – perhaps with some of those berries? Yes? I thought so.

The recipe comes together in a flash, by the way. And I say that having only ever attempted it with the enthusiastic “help” of a certain two-and-a-half-year-old and an unconscious six-week-old tied to my chest. These brownies were that same two-and-a-half-year-old’s first in all her life, the effect of which being that she is now ruined for all future brownies.

She can thank me later.

*The pure punishment of reading a book detailing the production of Brandon Pettit’s pizza an entire continent away from said pizza, while nursing a baby every hour on the hour, notwithstanding.

Molly’s Brownies
Adapted from Delancey, by Molly Wizenberg

I suggest greasing your pan with butter instead of oil or cooking spray. The one time I used oil instead of butter, the flavor, however mild, was distracting. As I mentioned above, I like these best cold, straight from the fridge.

1 stick (113 grams) unsalted butter
2 ounces (55 grams) unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 cup minus 2 tablespoons (175 grams) granulated sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ cup (35 grams) all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt

Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Lightly butter an 8-inch square baking dish and line the bottom with a rectangle of parchment paper long enough to hang a couple of inches over two of the sides. (You’ll use the parchment to lift the brownies from the pan.) Lightly butter the paper.

Melt the butter and chopped chocolate in a 2½-3 quart saucepan over low heat, stirring occasionally. Remove the pan from the heat. Stir in the sugar, then add the eggs and vanilla and blend until smooth. Stir in the flour and the salt. Pour into the prepared pan, then lift the pan and drop it down onto the countertop a couple of times to release any air bubbles.

Bake for 25-30 minutes (in my oven, they’re done at 28), until a toothpick inserted into the center of the brownies comes out clean. Cool completely in the pan on a wire rack, run a sharp knife around the edges between the brownies and the pan, then refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. Pull the parchment paper to lift the brownies from the pan. Slice into 16 squares.