The Tyranny of Neat People and the Antidote, in a “Magical” Little Book on Tidying

For a while now, I’ve been ranting to myself about what I call the tyranny of neat people.

It happens whenever I stumble on one of those New Year’s articles about de-cluttering your home and transforming your life. You’ll feel better, work more productively and become a more perfect human being, they say, if only your house is tidy.

Here’s what I say: maybe the neat people have simply done a better job of public relations for their decidedly limited comfort zone. What if it’s the slobs of the world (including me) who are more flexible, more tolerant and more able to be happy and productive in any environment? I can function in your pristine sanctuary or my own mess; I don’t feel compelled to be tidying up all the time. Given a choice between spending my spare minutes reading and tidying, I’ll pick the book or The New York Times almost every time. I say “almost” because that’s the kind of gal I am—a slob, but flexible, able to adapt to the moment. Between deadlines, or if company’s coming or if the spirit moves me, I clean up. My space is never perfect, but hey, neither is life.

So I generally91RY2EnQHGL._SL1500_ avoid how-to’s that purport to tell me how to win friends and influence people by rearranging my closets. Recently though, I came across one that was different: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo (Ten Speed Press). The title’s hyperbole nearly sent me running for a pile of half-read New Yorkers, but I found myself liking Kondo’s KonMari Method.

Most organizers have rules: they tell you to ditch anything you haven’t used in the past year or get rid of one item for each new one you buy. I agree that most of us suffer from the scourge of too much stuff, but numeric parameters seem so arbitrary and more than a little wasteful. Kondo, a Japanese cleaning consultant whose book has sold some 2 million copies, adds a brilliant criterion: eliminate things that don’t “spark joy.” That’s a concept I can live with. Under this rule, I keep the stack of dictionaries that reside on the ottoman in my living room, including the yellowing volume I got in Miss Rodgers’ third grade class. It lay unopened for decades, and if I’d followed the typical decluttering rule, I would never have had the chance to share it with my daughter in her third grade year. I look at it and think of Miss Rodgers. And my daughter.

Joy.

Kondo does advocate clearing out far more stuff than I ever would. She has her clients reduce their belongings to the essentials; in fact, her recipe for reducing your library and hiding what’s left in the closet makes me feel like a character from Fahrenheit 451. And her habit of personifying possessions falls somewhere between endearing and daft; she thanks items she’s giving away and worries how the rest like to be stored. Sometimes she seems a little OCD; she unpacks her handbag every night and repacks it every morning—a ritual that had me muttering, “There’s NO WAY this woman has kids.”

But I do like Kondo’s sympathetic tone and graceful prose. Many of her ideas are interesting, like arranging clothing in a drawer so they stand side by side, rather than in piles; I might try that one of these days. Kondo advises against such a piecemeal approach; she says you should organize your entire house once, and you’ll never have to do it again. That’s too much for this slob.

But the idea of eliminating things that don’t spark joy—that’s a keeper. I’ve already used it to streamline some overstuffed shelves, and, to my surprise, it transformed the decision process. So now I have a new rant: tidying doesn’t have to be tyranny; it’s how you go about it.

 Originally published on BookTrib.com.

He Knows What It Means to Eat New Orleans: With Eat Dat, Michael Murphy Is Your Guide

Long before “locavore” was a word, before the Food Network made cooking a spectator sport, before Chez Panisse and California cuisine, before even Julia Child and James Beard—a good century or two before what we now think of as the seminal moments on our culinary timeline—there was New Orleans. It’s true that rich and diverse food cultures could be found from sea to shining sea, but New Orleans food was the eat dathaute cuisine of America. Jambalaya, brimming with andouille sausage; shrimp gumbo, thick with okra or file; crawfish étouffée, creamy, savory and utterly delicious; less fancy but no less satisfying muffaletta and po’boy sandwiches; oysters so rich (and green) they were named for Rockefeller; sweet, delectable pralines; boozy, buttery, flaming bananas Foster—these are but a few of the reasons that New Orleans was long the culinary destination of the nation.

Today, food has become our national obsession, and a visit to NOLA is just one of a multitude of boxes to be checked on a foodie bucket list. Really, though, New Orleans should still be near the top of that list.

As Michael Murphy reports in Eat Dat: New Orleans: A Guide to the Unique Food Culture of the Crescent City (The Countryman Press), the Big Easy is still—even after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005—one of the most vibrant food towns in the United States—or anywhere, for that matter. Murphy, a former publisher of William Morrow who moved to New Orleans in 2009, has written a guidebook to more than 250 of the city’s eateries. Yet, while it’s organized like a traditional guidebook, with chapters on the city’s neighborhoods and their notable restaurants, it reads like a cross between a work of culinary anthropology and the foodie-gossip column of your dreams.

Michael-Murphy

Michael Murphy

Murphy recounts the history of various New Orleans culinary institutions and tells about the people behind them, both past and present. He sides with New Orleans culinary historian Lolis Eric Elie, who recalibrates the French contribution to the city’s Creole foodways and says that its African citizens should get as much if not more credit for its most famous dishes. Murphy chronicles the long-lived feud that fractured the Brennan family, renowned for such restaurants as Brennan’s and Commander’s Palace. Noted chefs Emeril Lagasse, Paul Prudhomme, the late Jamie Shannon, and Susan Spicer appear on the book’s pages, as do local legends Leah Chase and Willie Mae Seaton.

Murphy tallies the food community’s losses to Katrina—and its inspiring recoveries. And he tells of the city’s grudge against GQ magazine’s restaurant critic, Alan Richman, who visited the city a year into its recovery and gave its foodways a thorough dissing. (He compared it to Tijuana and wondered if, among other things, it was worth rebuilding. Naturally, the citizens of the Big Easy reacted with outrage.)

Murphy himself is New Orleans booster, but a clear-eyed critic of both his adopted city and its restaurants. And a darned amusing one. Of the famed Cafe du Monde and its menu of beignets and chicory coffee, he marvels,” In a city loaded with must do restaurants, bars, music clubs, historical buildings, and horse-drawn or airboat propelled tourist rides, somehow sitting under a green-and-white awning at a too-small, unclean table, served by waiters who seem more suited to wordlessly taking your ticket at the Superdome, eating a small square hunk of deep-fried dough smothered with powdered sugar has become the #1 must do experience in New Orleans.” (Of course I laughed out loud at this, but I am one who thinks it’s fine for tourists to do touristy things. I have a golden memory of my breakfast at Cafe du Monde some years ago. The sun was blazing so brightly that the air around us seemed to shimmer; the beignets were moments out of the fryer, tender-crisp and sweet; and a jazz trumpeter of modest talents was serenading us with all his heart and soul from the street. It was hardly the best food of my visit, but all together, the morning was just about perfect.)

If you are headed for New Orleans, Murphy’s guidebook has several useful features. An appendix offers best-of lists in 25 categories, selected not by Murphy, but by a panel of local food commentators that he convened for the book. And he concludes each restaurant entry with a pithy “Reason to Go” and “What to Get.” Just one example: Willie Mae’s Scotch House, a modest but well-loved eatery (it received a James Beard Foundation “America’s Classic” award a few months before being destroyed by Katrina, and was rebuilt by volunteers with donations from around the country) gets this summation: “Reason to Go: A fried chicken Holy Shrine. What to Get: In line early (before the 11:00 a.m. opening) The place only seats twenty-eight people.”

You’ll wish he could sit in one of those seats next to you. With his deep knowledge of New Orleans and irreverent wit, Murphy makes a delightful travel companion. You will read this book with pleasure, whether you are actually traveling to New Orleans or just dreaming of that perfect beignet, curled up in your armchair at home.

Originally published on BookTrib.com.

Add One Part Julia and Stir: Julia Child’s Rules

Julia_Child_at_KUHTI’ve written in the past that books about Julia Child are among mysecret reading pleasures, but I was skeptical when I heard about Karen Karbo’s Julia Child Rules: Lessons on Savoring Life (Skirt!/Globe Pequot Press). It sounded like yet another gimmicky coat-tails kind of project, like the blog-book-movie phenomenon, Julie and Julia.

I must admit that I enjoyed Julie Powell’s account of her year of cooking every recipe in Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking; it’s a funny, engaging, stylishly written page-turner. But there’s a quality about it that’s so anti-Julia—an edge of smugness and a positively Seinfeldian lack of compassion for, well, humanity. In the first chapter of the book, Powell encounters a mentally ill homeless person on her way home from a bad day at work and casually refers to her as “the loon” half a dozen times in the anecdote that follows.  (No milk of human kindness wasted by our Julie, that’s for sure.)

As the Julie-Julia blog project went viral, Julia, then in her 90s, was reported to have made clear that that she didn’t much care for it; she thought it was a stunt and objected to Powell’s use of foul language. For me, it was that soupçon of insensitivity bubbling up here and there in the book that left me with a bad aftertaste. Julia Child was many things—a maverick, obsessive, irreverent, a lover of practical jokes—but (judging from all those biographies I’ve read) she wasn’t mean.

Julia Child Rules book coverSo, like I said, I was feeling skeptical when I opened Karbo’s book, but after the first few pages, that feeling had evaporated completely. Karbo has written a hybrid volume that is part biography, part memoir and part inspirational manual that uses Julia’s life as its template. In ten chapters, each titled with a numbered “rule,” she interweaves bits of Julia’s now-familiar (to fans) history, with a moral about her approach to living. (Rule No. 1: Live with Abandon. Rule No. 2: Play the Emperor. Rule No. 3: Learn to be Amused. And so on.)

In between, Karbo tells about her own life, her relationship with her mother (an early Julia devotee who faithfully cooked Julia’s recipes every night for dinner) and her relationship with food, cooking and balancing all the expectations and obligations of modern womanhood. That sounds like heavy stuff, but it isn’t at all. Karbo writes with a painterly eye for detail and a gag-writer’s ear for a punchline. Here’s her memory of what it was like to wait each night for her mother’s Julia-inspired creation to come to the table:

My mother would be standing at the stove, wearing a pair of Capri pants and a short-sleeved cotton shirt (not unlike those worn by Julia on The French Chef) smoking her Viceroy and stirring. The kitchen smelled of onions and butter, or garlic and butter, or what I know now to have been wine and butter. I’d ask when we were going to eat, and she would say soon. But it didn’t mean soon. It meant whenever she was finished stirring.  … We usually ate around eight-thirty. I had finished my homework hours earlier and some important TV show was inevitably on at that very moment. I had long since stopped being hungry and had entered the state where your body starts digesting its own organs to stay alive.      

You and your inner adolescent can’t help but laugh along in sympathy, even if your mother (like mine) never attempted Tranches de Jambon Morvandelle— at twelve, whose view of the world matches her mother’s? And then, two chapters later, having been thoroughly drawn into the domestic scene Karbo creates, your inner adolescent just might find herself sobbing when the author recalls her mother’s death from a brain tumor at the age of 46, and her last Julia-inspired birthday meal for her apathetic daughter.

If Karbo had only written a memoir of her own life, this would have been a charmer of a book, but it is more than that. That’s because Karbo interprets Julia through a fresh, decidedly feminist lens. Others have written about how Julia’s height of six feet, two inches put a damper on her social prospects, and how she languished, rich but purposeless, until World War II. Then, so the story goes, her wartime service with U.S. intelligence forces in Asia occasioned a fateful meeting with the man who was to be love of her life, Paul Child, who didn’t care that she was a whole lot taller than he was.

This is all undoubtedly true, but Karbo puts a different spin on Julia’s height. Her chapter titled “Play the Emperor” refers not only to the roles Julia always got in the amateur theatricals that she loved, but also to the approach to life that she evolved in those years. The tallest girl in the room never got cast as the princess or the ingénue; she was always the lion or the emperor. In Karbo’s telling, instead of accepting her lot with the outward grace of a good sport, Julia enthusiastically embraced it, and came to revel in the opportunities if afforded her to steal the show.

From this, Karbo extrapolates a rule for living: Play the Emperor. And she explains: “A woman as tall as Julia could never be transformed by a new dress or a tube of lipstick. No makeover would ever make over the part of her that failed to comply with traditional standards of feminine beauty.” Karbo finds inspiration in Julia’s resilience: “Her practical nature asserted itself, and she realized she had a choice. ‘Why languish as a giantess when it is so much fun to be a myth,’ [Julia] …wrote in her diary. She may have been whistling in the dark, or practicing a sassy attitude, but she seemed to have understood even then that a girl could choose to behave in a way that would distinguish her.”

Karbo ends the chapter concluding, “I’m not saying you’re fine the way you are. Julia, certainly, for her time, was not ‘fine’ the way she was. Instead, by embracing all that she was, she redefined fine.”

I wouldn’t exactly say that Julia Child Rules “redefines” Julia, but it does offer up fresh perspectives on our beloved food diva—and maybe even on ourselves. And that’s no gimmick. It’s just a darn good read.

This post originally appeared on booktrib.com

Giving Thanks: Not Just for Thanksgiving

When I was writing my cookbook, Friday Night Bites, I spent months with a head—and a kitchen—full of archetypes and images of things that kids like. Amid the princess cupcakes and pirate meatloaf (with a treasure of cubed veggies inside), the dinosaur quesadilla and the deep-sea creatures made of puff pastry dough, there was one idea that I knew I wanted to include: giving thanks.

It was easy to work it into the book; the publisher had asked for a collection of 20 themed dinners, with recipes, a craft and other activities for each theme. Because it was book of family dinners, I decided to include trivia questions and conversation-starters for each dinner. As I developed each theme, I tried to imagine the kinds of questions a child might ask about, say, the origins of the teddy bear (or in the case of that dinosaur quesadilla, the origin of species).

Having been a parent for a few years by then, I’d already been thinking about how our kids have so much stuff and are so accustomed to immediate gratification of their every desire that it’s easy for them to take it all for granted. It was in this context that I imagined a conversation about appreciating what we have, and I developed a dinner titled “Thanksgiving Anytime.”

The meal consisted of variations on Thanksgiving dinner; the dessert, for example, was a twist on tradition—a made-in-the microwave pumpkin-vanilla pudding. The craft was a construction paper cornucopia filled with paper fruits, on which everyone was to write the name of one thing they were thankful for. The conversation-starter turned out to be fairly simple: going around the table thanking others for the nice things they had done, and emptying the cornucopia and reading its contents aloud.

We can all, grown-ups and children alike, benefit by cultivating the habit of giving thanks—and not just for Thanksgiving.  It sounds corny, but I’ve been doing it for a while now. I began a few years ago, when I was going through a difficult time. Lying in bed, unable to sleep, I forced myself to remember all the things I was thankful for. My goal was simply to distract myself and fall asleep, but very soon, I came up with a long list of wonders, from the cozy quilt that was wrapped around me to the loving parents who raised me, from the books in my bookshelf to the child sleeping peacefully a few steps away. As my mind flitted from sublime to ridiculous, my list grew longer (M. F. K. Fisher, Rodgers and Hammerstein, indoor plumbing, my third grade teacher who encouraged me to become a writer, dark chocolate, my sister and brother, the right to vote, dear friends, the bagel waiting for me for breakfast), and it occurred to me that life was really pretty good after all. I just had to take the time to remember it. Since then, every so often, I spend the few minutes before I drift off taking inventory and giving thanks. It’s a habit that refreshes my perspective.

And I see that I am not alone. In the run-up to Thanksgiving, social media was abuzz with “Thirty Days of Thanks.” Perhaps it’s the uncertain economy, or a reaction to the lows of the recent political campaign, or the ease of social media, but it seems like more and more people are taking stock of what’s good and sharing their findings. Or maybe it’s the weather.

During our few days without power after Hurricane Sandy, I had a chance to share my mood-lifting strategy with my daughter. At 11, she coped pretty well, but she had moments when the stress of no TV, no computer and no friends to hang out with just got to her. I took out my cell phone and used some of my precious remaining charge to show her pictures of houses destroyed by the storm and of people far worse off than we were. I reminded her that we were safe in our nice, dry house with our two cats curled up beside us, and that we had enough food, batteries and books to get us through. She fell silent—for a while, at any rate—and eventually, thankfully, the power returned.

When I looked back at “Thanksgiving Anytime” for the pudding recipe below, I rediscovered what I had written as a chapter opener. I don’t think I can say it any better than I did then, so here it is: “How lucky we are to have enough to eat—and such delicious things, at that! How lucky we are to have each other! When my day has been less than perfect, I try to remember all the things I can be thankful for—I make a mental list, and it always cheers me up. In a world where some are overly focused on getting more and more and still more stuff, while others don’t have enough, this is what I want to teach my child: let’s be thankful for what we have, for what is most important, and let’s make time to enjoy the important things together.”

Yumpkin Pudding Parfait

From Friday Night Bites: Kick Off the Weekend with Recipes and Crafts for the Whole Family (Running Press)

Makes 4 Servings

Vanilla Pudding

2 1⁄2 cups whole milk

1⁄4 cup cornstarch

1⁄4 cup granulated sugar

1⁄8 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

 

Pumpkin Pudding

2 cups whole milk

31⁄2 tablespoons cornstarch

1⁄2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1⁄2 cup canned plain pumpkin purée

1⁄2 cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1⁄8 teaspoon salt

Graham Cracker Crumbles

8 graham crackers

1⁄2 cup packed brown sugar

1⁄2 stick (1⁄4 cup) unsalted butter, melted

To make the vanilla pudding, combine the milk and cornstarch in a measuring cup or small bowl and stir to dissolve. If there are any stubborn lumps that won’t dissolve, strain through a fine-mesh sieve. Pour the mixture into a microwavable container with a lid, and stir in the sugar and salt until dissolved. Cover and microwave on high power for 11⁄2 minutes, stir, cover again, and repeat the process twice more, for a total of 41⁄2 minutes; then add the butter and stir in the vanilla, cover, and microwave for 11⁄2 minutes. Stir to blend, cover, and microwave for 30 seconds. The pudding should be thickened and creamy and the butter should be completely melted and incorporated thoroughly. (Microwave ovens can vary in power, and some cook unevenly, so if by chance it is not pudding consistency, cover and microwave for an additional 30 seconds.) Remove from the microwave, let cool a bit, and refrigerate until ready to serve.

To make the pumpkin pudding, combine the milk, cornstarch, and cinnamon in a small bowl and stir to dissolve. If there are any stubborn lumps that won’t dissolve, strain through a fine-mesh sieve. Pour the mixture into a clean microwavable container with a lid and stir in the pumpkin, sugar, vanilla, and salt until dissolved. Cover and microwave on high power for 11⁄2 minutes, stir, cover again, and repeat the process 3 times, for a total of 6 minutes; then stir again, cover, and microwave for 30 seconds. Remove from the microwave, let cool a bit, and refrigerate until ready to serve.

To make the crumbles, combine the graham crackers, brown sugar, and butter in a food processor and pulse to coarse crumbs. Set aside.

To serve, spoon about 1 tablespoon of the crumbles into each of 4 parfait glasses or deep wine glasses (not the balloon shape). Top with 1⁄4 cup vanilla pudding, another tablespoon of crumbles, and 1⁄4 cup pumpkin pudding. Repeat, dividing the crumbles and puddings evenly among the 4 glasses, and alternating between vanilla and pumpkin. Top with a dusting of crumbles and serve.