Literary City Guide: Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn

Photo by Max Flatow

Photo by Max Flatow

“Look at everything always as though you were seeing it either for the first or last time: Thus is your time on earth filled with glory.” 
― Betty SmithA Tree Grows in Brooklyn

I love this quote because it reminds me that approaching familiar streets with fresh eyes can reveal their beauty and charm, even if you've lived nearby your entire life. It's especially fitting for today's addition to Literary City Guides, because tour guide Sylvie Morgan Brown is a Brooklyn native who knows Carroll Gardens like the back of her hand. Also, anyone who recommends an Italian restaurant that serves fluffy, fried chickpea fritters smeared with ricotta is trustworthy in my book!

In a city as large as New York, neighborhood tours make a big, overwhelming metropolis feel more accessible and familiar. Our first was Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and today Carroll Gardens debuts. (Basically, you need to be exploring Brooklyn if you aren't already.) 

Carroll Gardens has all the trappings of an idyllic neighborhood, like an old-fashioned soda shop where the wait-staff wears paper hats, tree-lined streets, and and several bookstores to get lost in, so stop by to welcome our latest edition to Literary City Guides! 

National Poetry Month: Part 1

I tend to think of April as the month that belongs to me. It's the month that my husband and I celebrate our anniversary, for one thing. It's also National Poetry Month, so being that I write a blog devoted to the craft, spring comes bellowing out of the sky with a loud knock at my door. Every year, I'd like to answer with a resounding cry.  I'll blog every day in April! I'll do book reviews! I'll write long, thought-provoking essays on why poetry matters. I'll do even more poetry and recipe pairings! I'll read more!

In truth, I didn't have anything planned this year, but when I was wandering the shelves at the library during my lunch break on April 1st, I decided to post a poem I found on Instagram. Then, I decided to post another one on April 2nd, and April 3rd. You get the idea.

So to celebrate National Poetry Month, I'm posting a poem a day on Instagram and Facebook. If you're so inclined, upload your own favorite poems on Instagram and hashtag #eatthispoem so I can repin!

I'm also aiming to publish a recap here on the blog, so you can find the weekly offerings all in one place. I hope you enjoy the selections from Week 1.

Day 1: "Spring" by Charles Simic | Day 2: "Two Rains" by Jane Hirshfield | Day 3: "Getting it Right" by Jack Gilbert | Day 4: "Waking at Night" by Jack Gilbert | Day 5: "Travel" by Edna St. Vincent Millay | Day 6: "A Noiseless Patient Spider" by Walt Whitman | Day 7: "Sight" by W.S. Merwin


Literary City Guides: Glasgow and Barcelona

Literary City Guides are jetting back to Europe today, and welcoming two new countries to the mix! 

When I was in Scotland many years ago, Glasgow was one of the pass-through cities. We spent only one night there, and my one memory is of the sun setting over the river near our hotel. I saw most of the city through from behind a tour bus, and didn't venture out at all the way I would today. Luckily, Utah-based Rosie Liljenquist used to call the city home, and her recommendations will have Glasgow charming its way to your hearts.

I've been to Spain also, but not to Barcelona (sadly). The three days I spent there were based in Madrid, with a train ride to Seville in between. Camila Loew lived in Barcelona since 1998, and recently moved to the Bay Area. She recently moved to the Bay Area by way of Barcelona, and her local perspective is one to rely on during your next visit. There are plenty of good bookstores, cafes for tea and coffee lovers alike, and more pastry shops than you probably need. Luckily, Barcelona is a walkable city, so all will balance out.

Ode to a Cast Iron Pot + Lasagna Without a Recipe

Lasagna Without a Recipe

The first line formed before I finished washing the dishes, after I had given the béchamel its final stir Two days before, I made the bolognese, so everything would be prepared before Friday, when I would boil the noodles and assemble the lasagna so it would be ready for dinner on Sunday. Five days of preparation for a meal that would end up sustaining us for three days. 

In addition to lasagna, there was also a poem to be made. I didn't plan to write one, but I listened when the urge arose. I walked to the computer, and out it came like one long breath. Maybe it's because I recently finished reading all of Pablo Neruda's odes. Every last one. Neruda finds beauty in ironing, in flowers, in tables, in the smell of wind. If you're looking for a new collection to add to your shelf, this is a good one.

My own contribution is an ode to my red cast iron pot.


Ode to a Cast Iron Pot

One day, a béchamel. The day after,
carrot soup. And the next, grains
of stumpy rice prepare for the submersion. 

The pot accepts all: whisking, tapping,
scraping with an old wooden spoon. Even a long 
soak on the counter or the boiling water, a fizz

of baking soda to pull up the remains that wanted
to leave a wound. So, your interior is tinged yellow or 
brown. As long as I could, I kept you protected,

but now you are worn like the rest of us, entering 
the kitchen with faded scars, filling you
to the brim with red sauces, expecting our hungers

to melt like a yellow stick of hot butter.

I rarely make lasagna. Many years ago I experimented with a fall-inspired version featuring butternut squash, sage béchamel, and ground turkey. I loved the flavors, yet didn't love the effort it took. But Food52 is right, you don't need a recipe for lasagna. You need a mood, a couple of sturdy pots, and an appetite. 

I made a double batch of bolognese (2 pounds ground beef + onion, carrot, celery, and garlic finely minced + 2 28-ounce cans tomatoes + a bay leaf + water + a few hours on the stove), and used the Food52 method for béchamel (1 stick butter, 1 cup flour, four cups milk + salt, pepper, and I added chopped basil). Then the noodles, then the great assembly line, then the avalanche of cheese. Cooking it this way feels so rooted, because when you've freed yourself from a recipe and trust your instincts, you realize that your hands remember everything, and it's possible to feel your way around in a dark kitchen without so much as a flick of the light switch.

What I'm Reading | March 2014

Kasey put it best when she wrote "March is like a long, flat stretch of road somewhere." I spent most of the month (and most of winter, really), seeking escape, quiet, and reflection, and I know many of you did, too. Whether it was relentless snow or a series of disappointments, we could all use some of spring's vibrant energy. Wherever you are, I hope the sunshine will soon follow, and in the meantime, a few links to kick-off this new and necessary season.

Will taking photographs replace taking notes? 

Amtrak's plan to give free rides to writers.

Auden the philanthropist.

A new kind of cookbook.

Habits shape the life we live.

If Molly and Luisa are talking about, I need to make this soup immediately. 

Illustrated travel guides. 

Perspective in 25 tweets.

Where creatives fall into despair.

Weasel words to avoid in your writing. 

Sardines are having a moment. And kale is still here.

When worrying is about something bigger. 

25 quotes that will inspire fearless writing.

The Good Stuff + Zucchini, Basil, and Goat Cheese Salad

People get down about this time of year, but even today there were fat little partridges, clementines heavy with juice, and bunches of narcissi to cheer us up. There is good stuff if you are prepared to go and find it.
— Nigel Slater, The Kitchen Diaries

One hundred miles might seem like a long drive for a picnic. You are not wrong to think so, but our destination was a place of respite, something we desperately needed. Normally I would have planned an elaborate lunch, cooking pasta salad and assembling sandwich ingredients, trying new recipes, buying cheeses, generally overdoing things. But lately I've been learning the important lesson of letting go, conserving my energy, and not doing everything myself. It's hard to do, but freeing. 

I bought most of our provisions earlier in the week from Good Eggs, and had them delivered on Friday. Local goat cheese, salami, beet chips, and seed clusters for snacking made for the best picnic fare I could have hoped for. Early Saturday morning we tucked Emma (the dog) into her travel bed in the backseat and stopped by a favorite bakery for ham and Gruyere sandwiches and two macaroons to finish our meal. An hour and a half later, we were eating brunch at Jeannine's in Montecito.

It's a long way to go for a picnic, yes, but we ventured out to find Nigel Slater's "good stuff." In this case, we knew where it was located already, we just needed to drive there. Our "good stuff" is the shaded patio of Rusack Vineyards, overlooking a mountain lined with grapevines, a glass of Rose in one hand and a bite of cheese in the other. And a warm breeze. 

I've been making my way through The Kitchen Diaries, a volume I've been longing to read, and the way it's written in monthly chapters makes it easy to revisit throughout the year and read month by month to glean inspiration. 

For picnic inspiration, I turned to the month of August. Yes, I'm a bit far ahead, but the weather we've been having has made it feel like summer, so I've been craving lighter fare. For meals outside, a zucchini, basil, and goat cheese salad is perfect. Dressed with oil and lemon juice, you can barely call it a recipe. It's more like a suggestion for having the most splendid afternoon.

Zucchini, Basil, and Goat Cheese Salad / Eat This Poem

Zucchini, Basil, and Goat Cheese Salad

Recipe slightly adapted from Nigel Slater, The Kitchen Diaries

Serves 2

This is what I would have made had I been able to fuss with it, but as I mentioned, I let others do the work for me this time and was grateful for the rest. Back at home, though, cooking is in full force. 

4 zucchini, cut into thick strips, about 1/4-inches (you'll get three or four strips out of each zucchini)
Extra-virgin olive oil
Lemon juice
2 large basil leaves, torn
1 ounce goat cheese

Heat a grill pan over medium heat. Brush each zucchini strip with oil and place on the grill pan. Cook for three to five minutes per side, until golden grill marks form. Arrange on a platter, then whisk a tablespoon each of oil and lemon and drizzle it over the zucchini. Scatter the basil and goat cheese over the top before serving.

Literary City Guide: Calgary

If you look for a long while from here, you are seized with a fancy that all the earth is rolling towards the west, and there is nothing beyond the Rockies; they end the world and meet the sky.
— Moira O'Neill, poet and writer

Photo by Amanda Connolly

Photo by Amanda Connolly

I'm excited to welcome our northern neighbor Canada to Literary City Guides today! Local journalist, author, and tea lover Amanda Connolly put together a beautiful Calgary guide that includes a rustic coffee and wine bar, annual writing festivals, a sophisticated Mexican food restaurant, and Alberta's oldest public library (opened since 1912!)

With spring on the way, it's a great time to start planning some summer trips...maybe to Canada! 

"Little Fishes" by Carolyn S. Briggs + Sardine and Avocado Mash


These days, I'm embracing something of a sardine ritual.

It's a weekly ritual, usually on Fridays when I work from home. Monday through Thursday is much less interesting, when I take leftovers from the night before, along with a few snacks to keep me satisfied throughout the day. But on Friday, I eat sardines. Alone.

Sardine and Avocado Mash

Of all the foods my husband willingly tries and and eventually warms to, sardines are not one of them. I've tried. More times than I can count. But eventually, I let go my dream of sharing sardines together and decided to make the eating of them my own little ritual. If you haven't considered them before, sardines are extremely healthy, and these small fish are one the most sustainable in the seafood chain. 

(I'm not the only one who adores them. LA Times food writer Russ Parsons recently dedicated an entire column to these fishes who have "earned their pungent dignity.")

I never thought I'd run across a poem that so beautifully illustrates my relationship with sardines, but this one arrived on my desk during last year's poetry contest. This poem struck a humorous chord with me, because I identified so well with the speaker's partner in the poem, loving them so much I sneak them into the shopping cart two at a time.

Little Fishes

by Carolyn S. Briggs

You love them; I know you
slip them inside the grocery cart
while I stand in the check-out line.
Two tins, sometimes.  Smoked
and plain. The little fishes soak
in a yellow oil bath, their useless
gills parted for air forever,
the last gasp greased in silence.

We carry the groceries
into our bungalow, the upside-down
mortgaged house, built long before
we were born. Windows painted
shut, insulated, and storm-doored,
the peeling sagging cottage
where we couple wearily.

You find your little fishes
at the bottom of the bag.
Every twist of your hand
makes me moan
for the oily bodies lined
up in order, consigned to a tin,
fin upon fin. No hint they once
knew how to swim. Oh, God.

Here comes the stink. 

Poem printed with permission from the author.

Sardine and Avocado Mash

There is a love story here. Also, a story of the struggles our relationships endure, both ordinary and monumental. There are small acts of love, like allowing your partner to slip a tin of sardines into the grocery cart, and larger acts, like riding out the challenges of the "upside-down mortgaged house" and weathering the financial storm that comes with it. 

Sardines are given a hard time at first, noted for their "useless gills," and their sometimes pungent scent, but the sardines "consigned to a tin" bring a lightheartedness to the poem and deflect a difficult situation, which brings us to the true soul of the poem: the speaker has someone to ride out the storm with. I hope each of us is this lucky to find our other half. Someone we can snicker at when they put toss sardines into a shopping basket, and walk home with, and wake up next to even on our darkest days.

Sardine and Avocado Mash


All sardines are not created equal. You might need to try several different brands before settling on your favorite. (I prefer the Wild Planet brand.)

This recipe is nothing but pure simplicity. Add everything to a bowl, then gently mash, lightly season, and spread on your favorite crackers. But it's the act of creating this meal I find most enjoyable. It's a secret little moment just for me, when I find that a drizzle of the very good olive oil is useful, and freshly snipped parsley adds a little brightness.

1 tin of sardines 
1 avocado, cubed
Your best extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly cracked pepper
A bit of parsley, chopped
Whole-grain crackers or a sturdy piece of grilled bread

Open the can of sardines and pull each of them out onto a cutting board. Your fingers will get messy, but that's part of the process. Gently slide each sardine open and push out the bone with your thumb. They will easily crumble in places, creating small, meaty pieces; add them to a bowl. Avocado goes next, then a pinch of salt and freshly cracked pepper. Next, add a turn of oil, and coax it all together with a fork and a gentle hand. Sprinkle chopped parsley over the top before serving.