Q & A
What books are in that tottering pile on your desk and next to your bed right now?
• Mavis Gallant, The Collected Stories
• Karen E. Bender, Refund
• Sigrid Nunez, The Friend
• Iris Murdoch, The Nice and the Good
• Charles Egan, The Killing Snows
• Donna Leon, The Temptation of Forgiveness
• Lauren Groff, Florida
• Nicholas Bradley, Rickie Trujillo
• Peter Broner, Night of the Broken Glass
What have you read lately that got your juices flowing?
This past August, while Una and I were in Finland, we met a translator of Finnish fiction into English. When I asked what he recommended I read, he mentioned Sofi Oksanen’s The Purge. He seemed pretty excited about it – for good reason. It’s a long, complicated book, but I read it pretty much through over the course of one day and night. Most of the action takes place in Estonia, with which I had glancing familiarity. It’s a breathtaking book that deals with one woman’s obsessive passion, against the backdrop of German and Russian occupations of Estonia.
What do you read if you want something escapist?
Interior design magazines. My favorite is World of Interiors. It’s voyeurism, I suppose, but I find it very amusing. For pure escapism, I also like Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti mysteries. They’re the only mysteries I read. Essentially, I’m a sucker for anything set in Venice.
What do you do besides reading and writing?
I go to garage sales and estate sales. I’m always on the lookout for vintage jewelry — I have way too much, but I like wearing it — and I also collect kitchen/dining room things. I do have a lot of that, too. Periodically, I try to cull my tablecloth collection, for example. Right now I have more than 50 tablecloths of different sizes, for different tables. My favorite is a beautiful red cloth that dates to the time of the American Civil War. Another favorite is a recent acquisition: against my better judgment, I stopped at a house near mine that seemed to be winding up a garage sale. The older Italian woman there had a box of delicate, handmade crocheted tablecloths for sale, for very little money. When I asked her why she was selling them, she said that each time she was pregnant, she and her mother-in-law used to sit in the kitchen and crochet. She said she simply had too many.
I also have more tableware than people might find normal. Right now I have three “sets” of dishes that I mix with the 16 or 17 partial sets I use when I entertain. I like to mix patterns and periods. I have quite a bit of 19th century glassware as well, most of that inherited from my Aunt Anne.
But I periodically go through everything and donate the “overflow” to our local thrift shops/churches/synagogues that do charitable outreach.
This past year I once again volunteered at the annual Congregation Tifereth Israel tag sale. Let’s just say I bought a few things there…
You don’t sell anything?
No. I think the dealers I see all the time must think I do, but I don’t want to. For me, it would take the thrill out of the hunt.
What’s your best find so far?
That would depend when you ask me. My biggest “score” so far was a room-size, handmade Tibetan rug I found at a charity sale – for $35. When I took it to be cleaned and they rolled it out, everyone in the rug store gathered round the rug staring at it. It’s worth thousands of dollars. But I’m just as happy when I find something smaller that I can use.
Do you ever write about antiques?
They show up in my short stories. I guess that’s inevitable. I’m currently revising a story that features a man who collects American shelf clocks with wooden works.
I briefly wrote an antiques and collectibles newsletter for Gannett Newspapers, Collector’s Source. I was also an editor and feature writer at Almanac magazine. I interviewed a lot of collectors for both of those publications. I’ve been to quite a few states interviewing collectors, and the inimitable collectibles/antiques guru Ralph Kovel once had me picked up at the airport in his ancient Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud driven by a friend of his dressed as a chauffeur.
To me, probably the strangest collectors are middle-aged or older women obsessed with dolls.
You’re a baker too, aren’t you?
I am particularly interested in savory or fruit pies, but I have a passionate interest in food in general. Last month I was in Singapore and took a six-hour neighborhood food tour. To me, that was bliss. Not only did I see residential areas of Singapore I might not normally have seen, I got to taste things I would have missed on my own. My favorite stop was the Old Airport Hawker Center – 180 vendors of delicious, inexpensive food. I also just took a fun cooking course in Saigon, at the Rex Hotel.
What’s this business about people calling you “the Jewish Martha Stewart?”
That started as both a compliment and a joke. I used to invite people from work over to my apartment, and then later to my house on Long Island. I like to set a nice dinner table and I’ve been known to cook more elaborately than some of them might. So one evening, after a bit of wine, one of the art directors started calling me that and it stuck.
Do you have a favorite cookbook?
That’s a difficult question because so many recipes are now online. But I do have a lot of cookbooks, including some pretty old ones. But I find myself going back to some regularly.
• I always seem to take out my falling-apart Joy of Cooking at Thanksgiving time because it has all my previous years’ calculations written in it. I just realized my copy is so old that it has the prized illustration of How to Skin a Squirrel in it.
• I like Daisy Martinez’ Daisy Cooks for a few dishes. Try her Wet Rub for Pernil. I have Puerto Rican neighbors who are exceptional cooks, and I keep trying to make the dishes they’ve served.
• I am in general not a great fan of Mary Ann Esposito’s cookbooks, but she has a fennel tart in Nella Cucina that is superb. Leave out the sausages if you are serving vegetarians, increase the veggies — and it is still fantastic.
• Apple pie may seem like it would be a no-brainer. But we’ve all had boring apple pies, even from credible bakers. Carole Walter’s Great Pies & Tarts has one of the best apple pie filling recipes I’ve tried. See her Old-Fashioned American Apple Pie.
• One more … Dorie Greenspan’s Desserts by Pierre Hermé. Fabulous book.