the life-changing magic of a whiteboard

kondo-ing the cupboards

The ghost of Christmas past recently resurfaced in my life, in the form of a small book barely larger than my hand, Marie Kondo’s the life-changing magic of tidying up. A Christmas gift from my mom years ago, as gorgeously wrapped as the origami swans she used to fold. A handbook, of sorts; a blueprint for organizing one’s life.

In preparation for the reboot of my mom’s old newsletter, Cook & Tell, and a new year filled with more writing and cooking than I’ve done since possibly the Reagan Administration, I set out to inventory and reorganize my Southwest kitchen/studio space, Kondo-style. In a plot twist that should astonish no one—husband, friends, friends who actually cook, and especially the dogs—I discovered there are few things in my kitchen that don’t spark joy. Because there are, quite simply, few things in my kitchen.

Kitchen tools were needed. Office supplies were running on empty. A shopping trip occurred. In Kondo-speak, there was more joy to be sparked.

And voila! Just in time for the holidays, joy arrived in the form of an apron and a whiteboard.

So far, the whiteboard has proven to be a game changer. It’s actually not white, but rather a vibrant shade of robin’s egg blue. And I haven’t hung it yet, it’s leaning against the wall by my desk, a mobile reminder of upcoming menus and deadlines.

The apron, sadly, was neither life-changing nor magic. Struggling to find an apron in a legit brick-and-mortar store anywhere, I was forced into other options: either sew or search the vast wasteland that we know as the internet. Since I can barely darn a sock, I chose the latter.

The apron arrived two days later, full of promise. And why not? How could anything this basic not meet my expectations? The fabric was as advertised, a plaid cotton. Two front pockets. And yet. Expectations were not met. The “adjustable” neck strap refused to stay put. So long, I nearly tripped. Barely wide enough to fit, even, the cat.

The “return item” button was pressed within minutes.

After an intense investigation, I am happy to report that I have found the perfect apron. It feels like something my mother would wear, and maybe even stitch together in a weekend: red roosters on sturdy unbleached muslin. She had a thing for roosters, the collective flock in her island kitchen a holdover from my grandmother’s Boston kitchen. Rooster tray, rooster painting, the ceramic rooster creamer for her tea. Here, in my desert kitchen/studio there are no roosters, but the apron pairs well with the other barn-red items: Keurig, Vitamix, desk chair. And, as described in the tag, brings “a little farmhouse charm” to my kitchen.”

an old Christmas card my mom drew, c. 1973

In 2011, the year she gifted me with that little book, my mom was celebrating the thirtieth year of writing and publishing her newsletter. And, as I revive the joy it sparked for all those years, her spirit lives on through her words and recipes and unique illustrations in what so many readers have called their “favorite piece of mail” through the years.

a moveable feast

“I need a break from this writing project,” I text a friend in the North Woods. “I’m hijacking your kitchen to test out a pie recipe.”

After a two-hour road trip, I arrive for the kitchen takeover. We discuss our favorite cookbook (Betty Crocker). I crush Oreos with a juice glass for the piecrust. We debate supper choices (the winner: sausage and onion pizza from Carmel Village Market). The hand mixer whirs as it whips heavy cream into snowy peaks. We research local apple orchards. Twenty-four hours, a breakfast of hot cider, donuts and a couple of Macouns later, I return to the island in the dusky twilight of mid-October, past lawns littered with glow-in-the-dark skeletons and maple leaves.

I’m in Maine again, on a 10-day writing retreat, but this one’s different than my usual summer-long island getaway. This time there’s no easing in. Summer sunbeams have yielded to autumn’s shadows. The kayak hibernates in the boathouse.

This is work. This is my job. This is the business of writing.

Day 3: Dropped off my grandfather’s and mother’s art for the Great State of Illustration in Maine exhibit. Later, a reading with writers Brandon Taylor and Lily King, surrounded by the smell of new books. Crashed the $150 author reception in search of an author-friend, her red lipstick imprint lingering on my cheek. Snuck in a few melt-in-your-mouth crab puffs.  

Day 5: Mic checks, mic drops. The bustle of Monument Square on a Saturday. Kids and dogs and cars. Frenzied squeaks of dueling Sharpies at the LitFest Draw Off. Caressing the smooth bookcovers at the Bookfair, cobblestones beneath my feet. Meetups with publishers and small presses, and everything feeling vast and confining all at once—like, this is work. A lot of work.

The drive home, my path lit by pumpkin-tinged moon, head and heart full of words and energy.

Day 7: Hours of research and a scavenger hunt through 30-odd years of my mother’s old, non-digitized cooking newsletters. Immersing myself in the isolation of her upstairs writing studio. Feeling her words. Touching her words. Reconstructing our lives, her writing filling so many gaps in both our histories.

Day 10: Dark coffee and a cranberry-oatmeal breakfast cookie with a long-time friend at the local bakery, where it’s sweltering enough for hot yoga and he’s sharing the recipe for his signature oyster appetizers. At this point, everything is source material.

Day 11: A country road strewn with flaming ruby foliage. Air tinged with smoke from a nearby woodstove and I arrive at the art studio where I’ll spend the next seven hours learning and writing about food. The artist-host sweeping the walkway into the old house, gold leaves and a smile, broom as old and battered as the one on my back porch. Eight of us in a loft, wicker furniture, sage-green tapestry love seats and rough beams. In the kitchen, soup simmers—a preview of the upcoming lunch.

I introduce myself as a food writer. The new title rolls off my tongue as smoothly as a sip of white tea, but it feels like a lot. And I am a lot. So it should be a good fit.

The Peanut Butter Pie was wicked good, by the way. 

Stick around: I’ll share the recipe soon

back to the drawing board

No internet. No smart phone. No apps or social networks. No laser printer, not even a clunky desktop computer running WordStar 1.0.

A typewriter, an ink pen, a can of Krylon, X-Acto knife and poster board. A trip to the printer, hand written mailing labels, postage stamps. These were the tools of the trade when my mother first published “Cook & Tell,” the newsletter she wrote and illustrated for 30-some years.

After the initial mailing to everyone on her Christmas card list, her readership grew in quantum leaps, eventually surging to nearly 10,000 readers across the globe. Subscribers sent letters and postcards, and sometimes grainy Instamatic photographs, posing in their kitchens. My mother delighted in making long-distance calls to random readers at suppertime, the long cord from the yellow wall phone stretching from living room to kitchen. “What’s for dinner?” she’d ask, then chronicle the responses in the “Meals Across the Miles” section of her next newsletter.

Some days, I dream of reviving that newsletter, of going dark, like so many friends have lately. To erase my cyber-presence, to escape political rants and hate and fake news where even emojis are too loud, to be unburdened by algorithms and likes.

Some days, I dream of returning to the days when writing—and people—felt more real. Of punching the dusty keys of the ancient Remington typewriter in my mother’s old studio, a jar of Wite-Out at the ready. Taking posterboard paste-ups to the print shop. Unloading the printed copies on the unwitting postmistress at the little post office—the island’s social network since 1878.

I am not lacking in experience, having entered the fray long ago with my own family newsletter, “The Purple Press,” so named for the pungent purple ink of the mimeograph machine my fourth-grade teacher let me use for copies.

And yet, here I sit, the irony inescapable, typing on a screen. A cog in the blogosphere wheel.