Recipes For Success

There are times in every parent’s life, in the dark silence of the night, when the ticking of the kitchen clock sounds like the slow tramp of some invading army which you know is going to lay waste to your precious crops, when you wonder if you will ever be forgiven for the mistakes you’ve made with your children. Because, let’s face it, if you’re a parent, you’ve made mistakes.

This little pie tart came from Curio Confections, a charming new shop in Seattle that specializes in what they call "adventure baking," which sounds like a recipe for fun to me.
This little pie tart came from Curio Confections, a charming new shop in Seattle that specializes in what they call "adventure baking," which sounds like a recipe for fun to me.

Well, when I’m lying there trying to outrun the demons in my mind, I have, of late, found a new ally in the race, as if what was formerly a solo marathon has turned into a relay and the baton of guilt is lifted from my hands and whisked away on fresh legs. Because in the past few years since my children have left home, I have been getting occasional emails and phone calls that suggest I did some things right: apple pie, pizza, rolls, lasagna, tweed cake. They want my recipes. Okay, so all my finest moments seem to have originated in the kitchen. But hey, that’s better than nothing, right? And if it turns out that the best memories my children have of me are the things I cooked for them, well, that’s a kind of success.

Not everyone enjoys cooking, of course. I always have. But never more than when my children were young. There’s nothing like an appreciative audience to spur one to greatness. Or at least to reliable macaroni and cheese. So, as a person who values recipes and the sense of fulfillment that comes from preparing food for people you love, I was predisposed to like Julie Powell’s book, Julie and Julia, based on her year-long project of cooking her way through every recipe in Julia Child’s classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking and writing about the experience in a blog.

What surprised me about the book was how much of it wasn’t about cooking at all. Rather, it got into the hot steamy mess of marriage, and the dark realm where desire and despair do battle. It made me laugh. It made me sigh. It reminded me of my mother and her funny Julia Child voice which she would put on whenever she made Boeuf Bourguignon from her own tattered copy of the book.

The movie version of Powell’s book opened this weekend, and  I’m excited about it. I love Amy Adams in everything, and Meryl Streep is . . . wow, there really aren’t adjectives good enough to describe her. Let’s just say, I have complete trust in her. And this is what Julia Child, and recipes, and cooking that means more than merely satisfying hunger, is about.

These days you can go online and browse hundreds of recipes for anything from tamales to tarts, and some of them are good. I’ve tried them. But each time you try a recipe from an unknown source, you’re putting your trust in someone, somewhere, who may or may not share the same core values about what makes food memorable. This is why, when it all comes down, those of us who were lucky enough to have mothers who liked to cook always refer back to the way mom made this or that.

A recipe is not about taste or skill. It’s about trust. If you cook, you know what it is to feel elated when something works like magic, or betrayed when it doesn’t. Julie & Julia isn’t really about the huge amounts of butter or the marrow, or even the maggots, though all of these elements speak to the messy, greasy toil of preparing food. J&J is not about love of food but love itself. And that, my friends, is messy heart-breaking toil indeed, but, when it turns out well, somewhat miraculous, and worth all the effort.

I’m looking forward to the movie. If it doesn’t live up to the book it won’t matter. In a director’s hands a book is like a recipe, to be followed or ignored, and even the most slavishly correct adaptation can fail to generate the magic of the written word. Sometimes you have to change a recipe to make it your own. And if you’re very lucky, someone may one day ask you for it.

Walking On Air

I have always been afraid of heights. Unable to stand close to the edge of tall buildings without a terrifying sense of vertigo, I’m in awe of those who cheerfully defy gravity’s bonds.

Perhaps no one ever did so more dramatically than Philippe Petit, the French funambulist who on August 7, 1974, walked on a wire stretched between the two towers of the then-new World Trade Center.

Last night I watched “Man On Wire,” the remarkable documentary about Petit and his “artistic crime.” The film was everything I expected it to be – full of stunning visual images, funny little insights and historical footage of the Twin Towers back at their start. One of the most striking things about the film is the way it recaptures that time of relative innocence – when security was one cop with a flashlight, and ID cards could be easily forged with a little glue.

Even so, it  took Petit and his small crew of enthusiastic helpers six years to plan their illegal stunt. And the forty-five minutes he spent on a wire in mid-air above the streets of Manhattan will never be forgotten, largely because of the film, and the books written about the event.

But, while I agree with the critics that it was an amazing accomplishment, and that, in some ways, it was a sort of poetic act that transcends the personal, I was unable to swallow the whole thing without a certain bitter aftertaste. In trying to analyze why the film didn’t simply sweep me onto the cloud of admiration where so many others apparently feel dazzled by Petit’s undeniable skill and daring, I found myself haunted, not by the footage of the wirewalker’s graceful crossing, but by the words spoken by his most ardent supporters.

In the early segments of the film, which includes footage of Petit practicing his wire walking, the camera lingers on his former girlfriend Annie Allix, and in a voiceover from a recent interview, she says, “He never thought to ask me if I had my own destiny. It was quite clear I had to follow his.”

That floored me. Of course, the willingness to sacrifice your own interests for someone you love is fundamental, but, as the film went on, and as Petit’s account of  his determination to reach his own goals, at whatever cost, became more and more clear, I found myself less and less interested in him and more impressed by the small crew of crazy, passionate followers who devoted themselves to making this man’s dream come true. I think what bothers me is that he wasn’t exactly doing this to save mankind, or even to demonstrate his skill – he’d already done that many times over, after all, walking on wires suspended in other public places – and in each of those cases he was arrested too. That’s the thing that doesn’t ring true for me. He wanted to do something beautiful, something amazing. Fine. But he makes it clear in the film that it wasn’t enough simply to do it, he wanted to do it without getting permission, to enter the building illegally, sneak his equipment in, and shock people. To show off.

That he succeeded is clear. But, the most memorable moment in the film was not the sight of Petit lying on his wire in mid-air, or smiling at the baffled cops as he walked back and forth between the towers. To me, the most moving moments in the film come during the interview of Jean-Louis Blondeau, Petit’s childhood friend, who helped him every step of the way and watched with all the deep concern and tender joy of a parent as Petit had his triumphant moments on the world stage. Recalling how, after it was over, after he had been arrested, released and become an overnight celebrity, Petit had asked Blondeau what they should do next, Blondeau, fighting back tears, says there would be no more adventures for him. The strain of watching his friend dance on the edge of eternity was more than he could choose to bear again. He would follow no longer.

Petit, it seems, has been riding on the success of his great moment for the last thirty-five years. There’s no denying he did something no one else in the world will ever be able to touch. Yet, there’s something a little sad about it too. He never lost his footing, but sooner or later, we all fall down.

The Human Conditioner

Christmas, they say, is a time for sharing. They don’t specify what.

In a purely technical sense, I guess it could be argued that the implied notion is economic. Make like Scrooge and divest your holdings, even out the distribution of wealth, or at least make token offerings as those wise men of old are said to have done. In the more sophisticated marketing climate of today’s world, the crass reshuffling of the economic deck is disguised with a thick layer of sentiment that suggests we should all be sharing magical moments of connection and love, aided by the twinkling lights, sugar rush and the brute force of the piped-in holiday soundtrack.

And, just in case we haven’t figured out how to be merry enough on our own, there are the Christmas movies. There used to be just a couple. The classics – Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Charlie Brown’s Christmas. Then came more. A Christmas Story, Scrooged, The Santa Clause. By now it’s an entire genre, with more being added each year. I would argue that Die Hard is a Christmas classic. Not one for grandma, perhaps. But certainly full of the kind of crazy  lonely obsessive behavior that can overcome even the most mild-mannered among us when the holiday vice squeezes a little too hard.

But, among all those lists of holiday favorites, I never see mentioned my personal favorite, which I would like to share with anyone who is looking for something a bit off the beaten Christmas path. It’s an odd little comedy called Mixed Nuts. It was directed by Nora Ephron and stars Steve Martin as the harried director of a suicide prevention hotline on Christmas eve. The cast includes the late gifted comedienne Madeline Kahn, Juliette Lewis, Adam Sandler and more, including a surprise appearance by Liev Schreiber, whose scenes with Martin are worth the price of the film.

It’s a kind of screwy plot. But what makes it a great Christmas movie is that, while it touches lightly on familiar holiday tropes ranging from the insane pursuit of the perfect tree to the dangers of flying fruitcakes, it also builds to a kind of emotional epiphany centered on the real human core of the holiday – the need to feel some kind of connection, to have even a momentary glimpse of the meaning of all the insanity in the human condition. And that transcendent moment comes with a birth, just the way it did at the first Christmas.

The birth of child, at any time of year, breaks the spell of indifference and self-absorption that blinds humans much of the time. Every baby is nothing short of miraculous. What’s crazy is how quickly we forget, and go back to our hardened ways. By mid-January, not much of that Yule time mellow is left. Which is a shame, but there it is. It’s the human condition. We can’t really function in a state of joyous bliss. We have to get up and go to work, do the laundry, fix the broken world.

So, I guess it’s nice that  we get to have a few weeks in December when a lot of people are at least making an effort to be the kind of humans they’d like to think they were. More flattering, more generous, more forgiving, more patient. In this sense, Christmas does bring out the best in some people. It’s the human conditioner. It kind of rinses out the bitterness and brittleness, and leaves us more flexible, with a spring in our step, and for a few brief shiny hours, the world seems a better place, and we feel ourselves to be better people. And miraculously, we are.