Q & A

What books are in that tottering pile on your desk and next to your bed right now?

• Iris Murdoch, The Nice and the Good
• Aimee Bender, The Color Master: Stories
• Lindsay Wong, The Woo Woo
• Ali Smith, How to be both
• Donna Leon, The Temptation of Forgiveness
• William Trevor, Last Stories
• David B. Agus, MD, The End of Illness
• Mavis Gallant, The Collected Stories 
Howard B. Rock, Haven of Liberty: New York Jews in the New World, 1654-1865
Djoko Webisono and David Wong, The Food of Singapore
• Andrea Nguyen, Vietnamese Food Any Day 

What have you read lately that got your juices flowing?

The most recent version of this website was hacked and wiped out just as a pretty funny article about me by Jenny Klion appeared in Edible Long Island. Was that a coincidence? Not sure. – 

Nevertheless, when I wrote the last version of this Q&A (the version that was hacked), Una and I had just come back from Helsinki, where we encountered a man who translates Finnish fiction into English. I asked him what Finnish novels I should be reading, and he immediately suggested The Purge, by Sofi Oksanen. That complicated book kept me up all night and a good part of the next day. It is the story of the obsessive passion of one supposedly simple Estonian woman, set against the brutal German and Russian occupations of that country. An exciting novel.

Right now I am reading a memoir suggested by Marc Campbell, who was the lead singer of the punk band The Nails. Marc is the co-writer, with David Kaufman, of 88 Lines About 44 Woman and now runs The Sound Gallery in Austin. Marc is an interesting character who considers himself an arbiter of what is real and truly cool. He recently recommended Clothes Music Boys by Viv Albertine, who was the guitarist and co-creator of the first all-woman punk band, The Slits. (They later let one guy at a time into the band.) Viv Albertine is a riot. I have laughed out loud more often reading the first half of this book than at anything else in a long time. Albertine was daring, incorrigible, determined – a poor kid who figured out that, like John Lennon and Keith Richards, art school might be the way into the creative/music life she wanted. Her fashion choices alone are amazing: at one point, one of the funniest in the book, she describes riding on a London bus wearing a red-brown-dyed tampon as an earring. She also has a pinpoint eye about people, with sometimes too-revealing portraits of the denizens of that scene, including Sid Vicious, Malcolm McLaren, Vivienne Westwood, and Chrissie Hynde.

What do you do besides reading and writing?

I go to garage sales and estate sales, although in the past year I have slowed down considerably. But I am 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 have a lot of those, too. Periodically, I try to cull my tablecloth collection, for example. Right now I have about 50 tablecloths of different sizes, for different tables, different occasions. 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 vintage 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.

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 beautiful, living-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 around 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 or just find amusing. The last of these were four dollhouse chairs from the 1950s, including a 1:12 scale wood and ceramic dollhouse toilet. I like those little chairs; I have a bunch of them that I display on the window ledge above my kitchen sink.

Do you ever write about collecting and antiques?

Both show up in my short stories. I guess that’s inevitable. I recently finally finished 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 writer at Almanac magazine, which was published by The Franklin Mint, but was so beautiful it won a Communications Arts Award. I have interviewed a lot of collectors all over the country for both of those publications. 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?

That’s another obsession. I’m always dieting, so it’s a challenge because I like to eat what I bake. Mostly I do pies and tarts, primarily fruit, but some savory. I had a lemon tart I loved when we were in Galway, Ireland for my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday, and when we got home I kept trying to duplicate it without real success. Then when I was at the Writers Colony at Dairy Hollow in Arkansas, their cook, Jana, served one that had an amazing filling.  I’ve played with her recipe and use my own crust.  Yum; I’m not kidding.

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 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.