Friday, December 24, 2010

Meeting Artichokes and Prawns by Leo Racicot

( Leo Racicot as a boy)

Meeting Artichokes and Prawns by Leo Racicot

One of the glaring ironies of my life consisted of being pals with food goddesses, Julia Child andM.F.K. Fisher, and yet not knowing how to cook anything other than a peanut butter sandwich. My friends used to tease that "Leo could burn boiling water if you don't keep an eye on him."When I was a kid, my poor mother, who often claimed I was her ticket to sainthood, would prepare the evening meal for my father, my sister, Diane and her and have a lonely hamburger in a lonely pan on a back burner for me because other than that and the peanut butter and bread, I refused to even look at any other kind of food. "This isn't restaurant", my mother used to say but I was defiant and wanted my burger and nothing else.

So, in later years, it was of particular surprise to many, and especially to me, when I became a private chef to two, former members of The Roosevelt Administration, Hilda and Francis Shea, their son,Richard and their live-in staff of 15. I can boast a little bit now that I am quite the accomplished cook -- I whip up a mean jambalaya and can flambe and saute alongside the best of them -- but it did me no good at all at the time to throw the names Fisher and Child around because that made Ms. Shea assume I, too, could cook. "Do you know how to make a saucesoubise?" she intoned, summoning up her most aristocratic accent -- "Suuuuu-beeeze?" I said I did not, and reminded her she had hired me to be Richard's companion and caregiver. It led anyway to the dread question, "Well, did you ever take Chemistry 101 in school?" "Yes", I said, and was then led by the nose over to shelves heavy with cook books of every decade and design, names so dear to me now butwhich instilled instant quaking in my spine when I laid eye son them: some vintage such as Michael Field's beloved "Culinary Classics and Improvisations", and of course the two Bibles of every serious kitchen, "Irma Rombauer's"The Joy of Cooking" and Julia's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking"; some quirky, even strange: "Cook It Ahead", "Live High on Low Fat", John Thorne's "OutlawCook", "Zodiac Cookbook, "Cooking with Astrology".

Ms. Shea waved her hand a la Vanna White showcasing letters of the alphabet and said, "Well, this is like Chemistry 101 only with food", showed me where the apron was and left me to my folly. Folly and long months of fumbling it was. Only God knows what those first things that came out of the oven were because I certainly didn't. When I first started cooking, it was not uncommon for the guys to take one look at what I had made then call out for pizza delivery.

My feelings could not be hurt because I didn't want to eat the unidentifiables either. One particularly nasty dish, which deserved a place in "The Gallery of Regrettable Food", was called "Catfish Surprise", and the surprise was it was unedible and unable to be looked upon, at least as cooked up by me. The preparation took forever and involved the "shucking" of fingernail-sized catfish nuggets which were then sent swimming into a sea of bubbling fluorescent yellow sauce. Yuk! The guys (a good sixty toseventy of them passed through the portals of 17 Francis Avenue during my ten years there: handsome jocks and scholars attending Harvard,M.I.T., B.U., B.C.; they made up Ms. Shea's harem of male companions for Richard OR, so we sometimes joked, for her) took to calling it "Louise's Hepatitis Casserole" and would run the other way whenever I placed it lovingly on the table. It did look sickly, as if someone had had an afterbirth in a pan. The Apple Brown Betty, the one and only dessert in my repertoire, wasn't any better; it was so sickeningly sweet, well -- you might just as easily have stuck your tongue in a bowl of sugar and sucked. So meal time for a long time was not fun atFrancis Avenue until I reminded myself the Universe had gifted me with friends like Julia and Mary Frances and I towed the line and made myself better.

In time, the guys came to smack their lips with delight, arrive early for dinner and leave late, heap praises on Louise for her prowess at the stove. And yes, your eyes are not de-ceiving you; the guys and Richard fondly called me 'Louise' but that is another story for another time... For these reminiscences of culinary hurricanesare taking me back in time to the first meal I evercooked for Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher. She would,of course, have been cooking for me had she not recently undergone hip replacement surgery and was pretty much confined to her combination writing room/bedroom. She bid me please go to the fridge and bring us"the artichokes and prawns". The artichokes I found but I had no clue what prawns were or even if I had heard her right. Did she saw "prongs"?"Tongs?" Did she want me to bring out a utensil?I stuck my head in the fridge and panicked and prayed and via a process of elimination, I realized the only thing there I did not have an easy label for was a bowl of jumbo shrimp. Maybe this was "prawns"? She smiled approvingly when I carried in the two items and placed them down on the table. Eureka!Prawns!

But eating them was another matter. I kid younot that I had no idea you do not eat the wholeshrimp, peels and seabug legs and all. Once again --Yuk! I thought, "Better not wince. This is M.F.K.Fisher". And what to do with these artichoke leaves? Again, I stuck the whole branch inside my mouth, trying madly to mash it down to the point where I could swallow it. My teeth worked that hard, hideous limb for what seemed like a year until Mary Frances, by gracious and unspoken example, demonstrated how, using the front teeth, you scrape the pulp from the leaf,leaving the hard part of it behind on the plate. Whew! I felt a little bit better. If only I hadn't burned the peas. Canned peas. Who burns canned peas??? It is a testament to Fisher's good will, and to Ms. Shea's and Julia Child's, that they allowed me the time and patience tolearn the art of eating and of cooking, andt hat they overlooked my faux pas at the stove and dinner table to remain in faith with me true and generous and lasting friends...

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Cambridge Community Poem book publication‏

I asked former Cambridge Populist poet Peter Payack about a book project long-in-the making that I am proud to be included in.

(Peter Payack)

Actually it is going very, very well. I am very excited about it. As of now, the poems are in place, and edited. The Intro is written. Table of Contents in set. I am just working on the final cover design. I wanted the book to be out by Christmas, but my son, who is a graphic designer, wanted to do it right, with no mistakes. My friend, roland pease, long time publisher of Zoland Books also advised against rushing it. I am learning the in's and out's of Indesign on the fly. So I am still working at least 8 hours a day on it, and will have it ready for the printer by the first of the year. (Even though it is semester break at Berklee and UMassLowell, my coaching duties on the CRLS Wrestling team gets crazy at this time of the year, with four hour practices, meets and all-day tournaments.) The printer, of course, is "Guttenborg," the on demand book publisher at the Harvard Bookstore. And it will be under the label my two sons and I have, Assembly Line Studio. It has an ISBN and Bar code. There are roughly 250 "poets" represented. This volume includes poems by Octogenarians, third graders, college presidents and professors, city workers, Pulitzer Prize winners, elected officials, Grammy Award Winners, teachers, All-Americans and All-State Athletes, comedians, street performers, carpenters, High School Students, Scientists, researchers, Lawyers, doctors, artists, nurses, coaches, bicycle mechanics, marathoners, Firefighters, pharmacists. And even poets and writers, if you can imagine that! Now, instead of the last book of 2010, The Cambridge Community Poem will be one of the first of 2011. I am going to organize a giant "reading" party for early in the year. A group of my colleagues at Berklee want to play jazz at the opening. Could actually be fun.
I'll let you know as soon as the first copy rolls off the press!

aka peter

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Nancy Rubin Stuart: New head of the Cape Cod Writers Center, and author of The Muse of the Revolution

Nancy Rubin Stuart: New head of the Cape Cod Writers Center, and author of "The Muse of the Revolution"

Interview with Doug Holder

Nancy Rubin Stuart is a seasoned journalist who still remembers what pounding on the keys of a battered Royal feels like, and how to negotiate the shoals of a predominately male, smoke-filled newsroom. Stuart is also the author of a number of critically acclaimed books including her most recent "The Muse of the Revolution: The Secret Pen of Mercy Otis Warren and the Founding of a Nation" which concerns the Revolutionary War era writer Mercy Otis Warren. Stuart, who has taught writing at Yale, SUNY at Purchase, and other universities, is also the new director of the Cape Cod Writers Center. I spoke to her on my Somerville Community Access TV show “Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.”

Doug Holder: Mercy Otis Warren the subject of your book "The Muse of the Revolution" was a poet, playwright, and propagandist for the Colonies during the Revolutionary War. How effective and how widely read was she during this era?

Nancy Rubin Stuart: I think she was very widely read because much of her work was serialized. Her work was put in pamphlets—that was a major medium of that era. In those days there were no bylines, and certainly a woman wouldn’t have one. Other people would pick her writing up, use her material, and put their own name on it. But as I said it was serialized in all the major papers from Philadelphia to New York City—this was the age of protest publications. Although a lot of folks read her stuff it was not until a lot later on that it was revealed that she was the author.

Warren had been writing poetry before the pamphlets, but this was her first venture into politics. If you think of today’s Saturday Night Live—that is the style in which she wrote. She took political figures and made fun of the, including Thomas Hutchinson, the governor of Massachusetts.

DH: Why was she so obscure?

NRS: Well, that’s why I wrote the book. She was the first female playwright. And we didn’t know that until much later in history. She had good reason to write plays against British rule. Her brother talked about taxation without representation as a tyranny back in the 1760’s. He was an attorney and he was brutally assaulted by the British for his position. He never recovered his sanity after this—and that’s why she picked up the pen. She was fervently for justice for all, the little people, against oppression, etc… John Adams was a friend, mentor—he encouraged her to write. At first she was reluctant. But Adams told her “You have a genius pen.”

DH: Now Warren was a feminist. Yet she was very dependent on her husband to the point of refusing to allow him to take a post away from home in support of the Revolution. How do you explain this woman of contradictions?

NRS: We all have contradictions. Yes, some more than others. She was nearly 50 when the Revolution started. So you have a woman of a certain age. She was desperately in love with her husband, and he with her. Their love letters continued right up to old age. She didn’t want him to leave. In many ways she was a very traditional woman. She believed in education for women, but essentially she was a woman of her time and took care of her family. She had five sons, and was a terrific mother.

DH: So often when politics comes into your writing the work becomes less art and more polemic. Were her plays and poems considered art or were they more rants against the British.

NRS: Her plays were the equivalent of Saturday Night Live. They consisted of caricatures of political figures. They were difficult to read. Certainly she is not in the literary cannon of Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller. She was a competent poet. She was reasonably skilled. But for a woman of those days this was quite an accomplishment. By a fluke she was well-educated.

DH: You are the new director of the Cape Cod Writers Center. Can you tell us a little about the center and the programs you offer?

NRS: This will be our 49th year. We try to keep abreast with whatever is happening in publishing. Last year our theme was Books, Byte, and Beach. We tried to incorporate traditional genres but we also tried to incorporate social media.

The campus overlooks the Cape Cod Sound—you would be right near the beach if you attend. You can live in the dorms on campus.

The Keynote speaker this summer (2011) will be Malachy McCourt. Lisa Genova will be back with a new book. We will have agents, publishers, broadcasters, media people, poets, etc… Last summer we had poet Charles Coe. We also will have folks who will be talking about social media, blogging—we will offer 33 courses this summer. Also included will be a course on how to present yourself to an audience. We look for teachers who are well-known, and are accomplished writers.

DH: What’s hot in publishing these days?

NRS: A good story. People are still interested in thrillers, and mysteries. Any story that is exciting or different.

In addition, self-publishing has bloomed and blossomed. Because the publishing industry is so stretched most authors find that they have to do most of their own publicity. So they figure they might as well self-publish. All major conferences offer something about self-publishing.

DH: I remember having an argument with Rebecca Wolf of “Fence Magazine” in which
she stated that she would never use Print-On-Demand technology. David Godine Jr., the acclaimed publisher said they now use POD with some of their books and their authors love it.

NRS: It has become much more sophisticated. And now so much is digital. There will always be traditional publishing. This summer we will have the author Lisa Genova who wrote "Still Alice" which became a bestseller—this book was self-published. It is a rapidly changing environment.

DH: You studied at Tufts University—right here in Somerville. Is this where you got your seminal training as a writer?

NRS: I started out as a poet. I also taught high school English after college to put my husband through graduate school. I used to collect rejection slips for my poetry. Eventually I started to write nonfiction. I was writing for local papers in Westchester County, NY. The New York Times started a suburban edition and asked me to write for them. I learned a lot of discipline from my time as a journalist. When I was there it was basically a smoke-filled, male bastion—with typewriters—I loved it! Eventually computers moved in.

DH: Do you pine for the old days?

NRS: I loved it. I loved the excitement writing for a newspaper. I still write a column. Most writing can be done at home now. I was fortunate to do magazine work as well. I really like the immediacy of journalism, but there is nothing like spinning out a story to create a book.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Review of HANGING LOOSE 97 literary magazine

Review of HANGING LOOSE 97 literary magazine, 2010, $9; subscription $22 for three issues, (published twice a year), sample copy $12 (includes postage). Submit to Hanging Loose Press, 231 Wyckoff Street, Brooklyn, NY 11217 with self-addressed stamped envelope. See more information at

Review by Barbara Bialick

You’ve heard the phrase, “Read the magazine before submitting”. That’s clearly the philosophy of Hanging Loose, which writes on its website: “It doesn’t sound flippant, we hope, if we say that the most meaningful guide is the magazine itself.” I have just traveled through this entire issue, including the special section for high school writers at the back, but can’t conclusively say what makes a poem (or story) a Hanging Loose piece. Polished and well-edited, yes, urgent and leftish political, sometimes, receptive to wide free verse poetry lines, yes, but also publishes narrow ones, experienced poets, yes, though one of the best writers in the book was in the high school section. Rhyming would not be at home here, symbolism, irony, and a general sense of cultural history, probably would.

Part of the style of the magazine is a sort of random chaos that nevertheless organizes it well for readers. All poems (and short and rare stories) are presented alphabetically by last name, as opposed to a theme or pattern imposed by editors. The high school section has its own alphabetical layout. All the authors’ bios are also presented alphabetically—it’s easy to keep track of where the writer lives or comes from, which is as far away as Peru down home to Brooklyn, New York. Amazingly most of the Brooklyn writers landed in the center of the book! Also found in the middle are ten intriguing paintings presented glossy in black and white, as with both covers, by Sean Grandits, of Brooklyn, New York.

Here are some poems that held my interest:

“The moon is shy, but bold./The moon is made of ground goblins./…The moon cried louder than cats do…The moon’s a ball. And we are all invited. All.” (Mudhuri K. Akin, of Weston, Maryland, “More about the Moon”.)

“The biodegradable bomb/causes no collateral/damage if left/unexploded…” (Indran Amirthanayagam of Lima, Peru, “Memo (About Ordnance”.)

“Yesterday, my father’s birthday/…He quit at eighty-six/angry with age, annoyed at each small ache/…one fast ball low across the net, and then/goodbye.” (Rosalind Brackenbury, of Key West, Florida, “Goodbye”.)

“I love ordering and having to order/in the mist of the waitress’ cologne./I love watching her walk/toward me. I love watching/her walk away.” (Leonard Gontarek of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, “Derrida”)

“my hair hanging long, romancing my waist. Down by the creek with my baby./marsh marigolds slick as melted butter. His hair sticking up in small flames…./that made my mouth look like glass and rode the frisky horse of time, mane braided/with stars, down the serpentine humps of the slide. A stone horse, but I was flying.” (Diane Suess, of Kalamazoo, Michigan, “I Once Fought the Idea of Body as Artifact”.)

“Three times, Dad, you died on the table/and three times they brought you back./You were sure death didn’t want you/…the fourth time you died on the table/your organs shut down, one at a time/like lights blinking out across the city/during a blackout, one grid after another…” (James Valvis, of Issaqua, Washington, in “Power Outage”.)

And finally, from a younger generation called “high school” I pick out Nikki Rhodes of Vancouver, Washington in “Dear Mississippi”: “I would not save you, Mississippi River; in a flood/…I would carry Chaucer/and hope that the language of those who survived/was his. I would save the cats. The cats/they would rule the boat, would sit at every/edge…/I would carry Uruguay/with me and leave no room/for you…/Everyone would be there but you.”

I hope this helps someone “get” the magazine “HANGING LOOSE 97” which is by the way, well worth getting a copy of!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Battle Scars by John Bennett

Battle Scars

by John Bennett
Kamini Press, Stockholm,Sweden
Softbound, Copyright © 2010 by John Bennett
ISBN 978-91-977437-5-4

Review by Zvi A. Sesling

The second poem in John Bennett’s 40th book, Battle Scars, is three simple lines under the title Trust “Don’t trust/cause-oriented/people.”

In another poem, Mirrors Bennett writes:

After a
certain age
all mirrors are
good for is
checking for
skin cancer &
the nicotine
stain in
your mustache

And in another titled Lacking he notes:

We will
not do
what we
need to
do to
save ourselves.

We do not
have it
in us.

Bennett is obviously a man of few words, but words that pack a wallop, fraught
with meaning, an arrow to whatever gets you thinking, whatever causes an emotion
in you. He can take a thought, or a cliche and make into an aphorism. The titles let
you know he is not messing around, that he is an in-your-face kinda guy: Ego Like Indelible Ink, Reading Tea Leaves, Diminishing Returns, Battle Scars, Less Is More,
and plenty of others.

I admire Bennett’s ability to boil down what could be a seemingly endless poem into
six or eight lines and instead of leaving the reader confused or wondering what he said,
he makes direct contact and you say, “Oh, yah!”

If you want a book that you can easily relate to and have it small enough to carry in a
pocket or pocketbook, then this is definitely for you. By the way, keep close at hand
to keep you out of trouble.