Eating Authors: Julia Dvorin

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Hebraic calendrical conventions aside, I tend to think of the week as starting on Monday. Which makes it all the stranger, at least for me, to have the year end on a Monday. I’m not sure who to complain to about this, nor what might be done about it so late in the game, but I expect to be experiencing chronal confusion for the rest of the day. If you’re the same way, then I hope you’ll make use of today’s installment of EATING AUTHORS to help ground you. Because whether it’s the beginning of the week or the end of the year, that’s what Mondays are for.

Our guest today is Julia Dvorin whose first novel Ice Will Reveal, came out just last month.

Julia describes herself a woman of many hats and not enough sleep, a statement that I can completely relate to (well, except for the woman part, but let’s focus on the predicate, okay?). She did her undergraduate work at UC Santa Cruz (hey, I started there too!) and completed her Masters at UC Santa Barbara. She’s a graduate of the Viable Paradise workshop and is hard at work on her second novel.

LMS: Welcome, Julia. Let’s pause a moment to remove a few of our respective hats and get down to the business at hand. What’s your most memorable meal?

JD: Let me say right up front that writing this post was hard for me, because I have a terrible memory for food—or at least for detailed recollection of specific meals in specific places at specific times. Don’t get me wrong, I love food, and I am fortunate enough to have eaten many incredibly delicious things in many fancy and fabulous places, but after a few days or weeks all that is left to me is a general emotional memory of “ahhhh, that was a great meal” or a metaphorical note-to-self pinned to the wall of my mind like “mmmm, I sure do love foie gras” (ok, fine, we’ve got that out on the table now…yes, I love foie gras. Even though it’s evil. May God forgive me.) I can list for you the things I love best to eat (yellowtail sashimi; avocado and mayo on sourdough bread with a sprinkle of garlic salt; fresh summer peaches and strawberries; gnocchi; risotto; potato leek soup; Cowgirl Creamery cheese; swordfish; eggs benedict; duck confit; Thai red curry with duck; chicken tikka masala…ok, I’d better stop here or this parenthetical will become the entire post). I can tell you about amazing restaurants I’ve been to in exotic locations (or not even that exotic, given that I am lucky enough to live in the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the best culinary areas of the world). My husband is an accomplished cook who has made me too many outstanding meals to count, and we both love food–no vacation or celebration is complete without some kind of fabulous meal attached. But remember an entire meal, in detail? Too hard. If I didn’t write it down soon after it happened (and I rarely do), it vaporizes, puffs away into the aether, leaving only a ghostly good association behind it.

So instead of telling you about one particular meal in one particular place, let me tell you about a meal I do remember in detail, because I’ve been eating the same meal in the same place for so many years I have lost count: that meal is our Dvorin family Thanksgiving. And it is the best meal not only because of its actual dishes (which are very, very tasty), but because it is a ritual meal, glazed with sweet feelings of comfort and family togetherness and comforting in its repetitiveness. For me, spending time with family and friends on Thanksgiving is a huge part of what I am thankful for in my life. I actually like my family, and generally enjoy everyone’s company. Unlike a lot of other people (who unfortunately have many negative emotions associated with their families and family gatherings), I look forward to family rituals and events. I’m excited and thankful that I get to go over to my parents’ house and help cook (and eat!) the traditional Thanksgiving foods. I am thankful that we always make such delicious food, and that we so much enjoy spending time together making and eating it. I love the ritual of it, and that it’s something I get to enjoy over and over, not just once.

Let me describe this ritual meal to you, which is mostly the same every year. Thanksgiving day usually starts fairly early in the morning, where I (and sometimes the rest of my family, sometimes not) arrive early at my parents’ house to help with the cooking. The cooking itself is part of the holiday, where I get to spend time hanging out and catching up with Mom and Dad while we chop and stir, wash and decorate. I don’t spend much time at my parents’ house these days, even though they live only 15 minutes away by car—usually they come over to our house, it’s easier with young kids—yet it is a comforting, satisfying feeling to be moving about in their familiar kitchen, doing the familiar tasks which will result in the familiar, familial meal.

We begin with the making of stuffing (in preparation for stuffing the turkey). My mom varies this a bit from year to year, but the classic ingredients are onions, garlic, olives, artichoke hearts, capers, dried apricots, pecans, and the infamous “secret ingredient”: liverwurst (Yes, liverwurst. You brown it and it crumbles up and makes a nice rich meaty binding for all the other ingredients.) These are all sautéed together and then seasoned breadcrumbs are mixed in and additional leafy spices are added as needed. Once the stuffing is done, we put as much as we can fit into the turkey (Mom holds the turkey holes open, I stuff with a giant spoon), then the rest in a casserole.

The turkey goes into the oven with approximately a pound or so of melted butter poured over it in preparation for the every-15-minutes basting process (basting is traditionally my job, but the last few years I have been training my eldest son, who is now 11, to take my place). I have always loved basting the turkey, because—ok, another thing I am prepared to finally admit in public—I love both butter and poultry fat, and after a couple hours of basting, I can’t help but start to sneak tastes of the “burnt butter” drippings that start to accumulate under the turkey as it cooks. I don’t get as much of this sneaky secret delight as I used to though—now I have to feed the first tastes of “burnt butter” to my two sons, who wait around the turkey pan, chirping for tastes like little eager baby birds, whenever it’s time to baste. It amuses me to think that this is likely something they will remember when they are older. I imagine them shaking their heads fondly as they recall “boy, our mom sure used to like the turkey drippings, didn’t she?”

Ice Will Reveal

After the turkey is in the oven, we wash and cut yams in half and arrange them on baking trays. Then we coat them liberally in olive oil and chopped garlic (my family being the kind of family to pooh-pooh sweet yams and prefer savory) and stick them in the second oven to bake for hours and hours until they caramelize.

After that the only other major cooking project is dessert. Although in relatively recent years I have added pumpkin pie to our menu (because I like it and it’s easy to make), the true centerpiece of dessert for our Thanksgiving meal is my mom’s persimmon pudding, the recipe for which comes from her ancient copy of The Joy of Cooking. As a kid I didn’t care for it (I was a very chocolate-focused child), but as an adult I adore it: brown-sugar sweet, bready but not fluffy, redolent with the fruity smell and taste of persimmons that I rarely ever encounter in any other dish or at any other time of year. My mom is always the one to squish the persimmons between her fingers into the mix, like a child delighting in squeezing Playdoh, and I have vivid memories of year after year seeing her hands covered in orange goo. Both pie and persimmon pudding are served with hand-whipped cream sweetened with sugar and sometimes a dash of vanilla. It is traditionally the childrens’ job to sit and patiently whip the cream with the electric beater—because at the end of the process they are rewarded with the solemn handing over of the cream-covered beaters to lick. (Over the years I have accumulated many pictures of adorable beater-licking children. Perhaps someday I will make a whole photo album of them.)

Once the pudding is made and set aside, it’s time to make everything else–the salad, the cranberry sauce, the appetizers—and to set the table. My mom is the acknowledged “queen of inventive salads” so this varies from year to year, but always includes what she calls “yuppie greens”—aka baby lettuces—as well as some kind of fresh fruit (this year’s included bananas and persimmons), cheese and nuts. For the cranberry sauce Mom combines fresh raspberries with cranberry sauce bought from the local gourmet market, but this year I learned just how easy it is to make the cranberry sauce from scratch so I may start doing that for future years. The appetizer is the one part of the meal not set in stone, and it varies from year to year. Some years it is just good local cheeses with crackers and caper berries, some years it is hearty pumpkin soup. It’s always delicious.

Finally the preparations are done and people arrive and after a while of hanging out (usually in the kitchen, despite its tininess) and eating appetizers and drinking wine or champagne, then, oh joy of joys, the turkey is done and it is time for the meal. My husband carves the turkey (having taken over the job from my father years ago), and my kids and I all hover around waiting for tastes of the turkey skin while he grumbles and shoos us away. Eventually, though, he gives us our tastes and shortly thereafter the platter is set on the table and we either sit down to eat at the table (if it is a small Thanksgiving) or we grab plates and serve ourselves buffet style from the sumptuous spread on the dining room table and then wander into the living room to perch on various couches and chairs or sit on the floor around the coffee table and enjoy our food. Sometimes we go around the table or the room and talk about what we are thankful for; sometimes we just continue talking and eating and hanging out. One of the remarkable things about our Thanksgiving is its utter lack of TV (and therefore sports). I love that about events at my parents’ house. There’s no group of guys watching the game in one room while the women cook in the kitchen; there are no kids watching the Macy’s parade. There is only the hanging out and talking, and, of course, the eating (and the talking about the eating).

After the meal is over, we groan about how full we are and put away the leftovers and some of the guests take their leave (my family and I usually stay to help clean up the dishes). Eventually the kids start to get too cranky, and we take our leave before we get too cranky ourselves. The familiar familial ritual has been reenacted; we have satisfied our tummies and our souls. The seasonal balance has been maintained, and all is well and all will be well with the world.

Thanks, Julia. I’d never heard of persimmon pudding, but I’m adding it to my list of “my try” comestibles.

Next Monday: A brand new year, another author and another meal!

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