Tuesday, September 25, 2012

I Get By with a Little Help from My (Writer) Friends

On a whim, many years ago I took a seemingly small, but brave step that changed my life as a writer.

I picked up the phone and called a stranger whose feature articles I’d been reading in the same local newspaper that published my work. From the topics she covered, I thought she and I might have some common interests and perhaps would enjoy sharing the trials and tribulations of free-lance writing.

To my relief, she was friendly, and even said she’d read some of my stories. Her name was Ruth Glick, and as I’d guessed, like me, she was simultaneously juggling her newly launched writing career with staying home to raise her young children. She told me she was attending a writing class at the nearby community college and suggested it as a way for me to gain expertise and connect with her and other writers. I took her advice, which precipitated a whole, long series of events that enriched my personal life and helped advance my career.

Since that phone call occurred nearly forty years ago, let me just briefly summarize the highlights since.  Ruth and I became both friends and colleagues and eventually collaborated on some articles, several craft books and a number of cookbooks. (She just posted a wonderful feature story about me and my new book, Simply Sensational Cookies, on her blog http://www.rebeccayork.blogspot.com/. Thank you, my dear friend!)

When the writing class was on hiatus, some of us decided to keep meeting in our own homes for reading and peer critiquing sessions. Eventually we left the class entirely, and now, decades later, with many publishing successes on our resumes, we still meet every other week at Ruth’s house to talk shop about the publishing business, read our works in progress, and offer one another critiques. Equally important, we lend one another emotional support—an extraordinarily valuable commodity for those navigating the rough freelancing seas alone—cheering triumphs, and commiserating with the inevitable publishing setbacks and disappointments.

Over the decades, some members of what we now call the Columbia Writers Group have moved on, or  moved away, or in a few cases, passed on, but Ruth and I, plus some other “early adopters” including Chassie West, Toby Devens, Kathryn Johnson, and Binnie Syril Braunstein, continue to chug along, with newer members having joined us along the way.  The pic at the top shows our current group during a meeting. On the back row, from left to right are Binnie Syril Braunstein, Toby Devens, Kathryn Johnson, Ruth Glick, Chassie West, Connie Hay, and Joyce Braga; on the front row, from left to right are Cronshi Englander, me, Randi DuFresne, and Linda Williams (who recently moved but Skypes in to meetings). (It's a women's group because the majority of us write mainly for a female audience.) The photo at right below shows Ruth Glick, Chassie West, and Cronshi Englander at our monthly “celebrate the birthday girl” lunch.

We started out mostly with raw skills and aspirations, a willingness to work hard, and enough open-mindedness to accept constructive criticisms of our work.  (Those who can’t tolerate thoughtful criticism are probably not going to thrive in this environment and may be much more comfortable with  the bland, positive “it’s nice,” remarks normally issued by family members and other non-pros.) We ended up with everyone being published (in the early years, there was no Internet to serve as an outlet for one’s writing), and some multi-published in a wide variety of venues.

Just to give you a glimpse of how prolific and visible our members are, I asked those who wished to send me hotlinks to their blogs, sites, or current books, which I've listed below. Their output and achievements are truly astonishing, with numerous stories, successful single titles, series of titles, and even multiple series for major publishers. Click on their name to go  to their primary websites:

Ruth Glick (aka Rebecca York):  http://rebeccayork.com/the-books/moon-series/
Toby Devens  Second site: http://www.tobydevens.com/
If you are struggling to gain traction in your writing career or suffer from the sense of isolation that often comes with the job, I really urge you to seek out peers and form a group of your own. Try to find peeps who are all in a similar stage of their craft and career, otherwise those too advanced will be bored and, worse, won’t learn anything, and those too inexperienced will be intimidated and overwhelmed. And first, last, and always be sure to follow the constructive criticism only rule. We don’t coddle and all our critiques are specific,  pointed, and sometimes painful, but they focus tightly on what can be done to make the colleague’s work more readable, more compelling, and, most important, more likely to be published. On more than one occasion, insightful comments have spared me from going out on a figurative limb of prose, sawing it off behind me, and crashing down with a huge, embarrassing thud at an editor’s feet!

It’s probably also best to seek out those who are doing more or less similar kinds of writing. We have novelists who write contemporary and historical romances, romantic suspense and intrigue, mysteries and crime stories, and women’s fiction, and several of us write cookbooks and food stories. While this list may seem rather broad, it works for three key reasons: We are all writing for a mainstream audience; we take ourselves and our craft seriously; and we are all motivated by a strong desire to see what we produce in print. Our particular group doesn’t include anyone doing avant-garde or experimental fiction or non-fiction, because it’s just not our area of interest or expertise. Currently we don’t focus on children’s literature either; there is another writing group in our area devoted to that. (Should you want more details on the logistics of setting up a writing group, ask away in the comments section.)

So, now you see the reason for the title of this post. I do get by with a little help from my writer friends. And I have been for a long, long time. They are a treasured, irreplaceable part of my life and I'm grateful for them all.
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Sunday, September 16, 2012

Bananas-Bran Muffins--A Great Combo Bananas May Not Want You to Know About!

Bananas and bran are a great combination taste- and health-wise, but I’ve been wondering how bananas feel about being linked with such a lowly, orthopedic-shoe sort of product. Though these tropical fruits have been popular in America since they were first introduced in the mid-19th century (by 1890, 13 million bunches were being imported annually), they have always, like Rodney Dangerfield, yearned for more respect. And being associated with bran certainly won’t help their cause.

Of course, a more intrinsic problem is the banana’s slightly silly, sing-song name: Ba-Na-Na just sounds like something meant for chimps, or for mashing up and feeding to babies, or for using in a denigrating expression such as “going bananas.”  While it seems grossly unfair,  merely due to  more impressive-sounding monikers, passion fruits and nectarines would never be treated this way.

 The banana’s shape is another fundamental barrier to being taken seriously. Yes, a bunch is called a hand, and the individual fruits do look vaguely like large fingers. But, unfortunately, they also bear enough resemblance to an unmentionable human body part to regularly elicit snickers and smirks.

 As a consequence, ever since their arrival in America, bananas have been a target of  assorted lame, lowbrow jokes and gags. Like the trip, slap, and double take, a slip on a banana peel was a favorite Vaudeville shtick; you can see a fairly typical example from a Laurel and Hardy film here.  (Note that bananas themselves are not the only ones failing to see humor in the peel pratfall: Several turn-of-the-century publications, including Harper’s Weekly, warned readers that discarding banana peels on public walkways could lead to broken limbs.)

Another of the many American comics who have had fun at the banana’s expense was Harry Steppe, whose trademark slapstick routine featured three comics flummoxed over how to share two bananas. A well-circulated publicity photo shows him with a banana in one hand and two sticking out of his shirt pocket. I’m sure huffy bananas everywhere are asking what’s funny about that!

These often dissed fruits have had a few moments in the sun though. Of the hundreds and hundreds of various sundaes created during America’s soda fountain era, the banana split is the only one besides the hot fudge sundae that has endured. Created by a Latrobe, Pennsylvania, soda fountain clerk in 1904, the banana split is still in demand in ice cream parlors today. (Perhaps to spare feelings I shouldn’t mention this, but I’ve always thought that the split banana doesn’t actually contribute much besides visual interest.)

 But the banana’s proudest achievement has got to be being gussied up in Bananas Foster, a fancy-smancy dessert created in 1951 at the famous Brennan’s Restaurant in New Orleans. (The now-signature dish was named for Richard Foster, a friend and frequent customer of the owner.) Bananas Foster is now internationally acclaimed, and the restaurant flamb├ęs thirty-five thousand pounds of the fruit annually to meet customer demand. Detractors take note—that’s a whole lot of both bananas and pizazz!

 Best Banana-Bran Muffins
Yes, pairing bananas with our old roughage friend, bran, seems far more prosaic than igniting them with rum. But this comfy, home-style combo is so appealing, and so healthful, and such a superb way to salvage overripe bananas, that I like it just as much as Bananas Foster (well almost). Due to the bananas, the muffins are moist, aromatic and just sweet enough to please even a picky child or snooty adult. Containing fruit, protein, fiber, and carbs, they are a fine solution for those too rushed to sit down for a full breakfast.

Dare I say it? These are guaranteed to make you go—well, you know!

1 cup all-purpose white flour
3/4 cup whole wheat flour
2/3 cup granulated sugar, plus 1 1/2 tablespoons for garnish
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup 100 percent bran flakes cereal
1 1/4 cups mashed over-ripe banana (2- 3 large)
1/3 cup plain nonfat or low-fat yogurt
1/3 cup corn oil, canola oil or other flavorless, low-saturated fat vegetable oil
2 large eggs, or 6 tablespoons liquid egg substitute (such as egg beaters)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

 Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Grease 12 standard-sized muffin tin cups or coat with non-stick spray. (Or, use paper muffin cup liners, if desired.)

Thoroughly stir together the flours, 2/3 cup sugar, baking powder, and salt, and bran flakes in a food processor. Process until the bran flakes are in very fine bits, then turn out the dry ingredients into a deep medium bowl.

 Combine the banana, yogurt, oil, eggs, and vanilla in the processor and process until completely smooth. Stir the banana mixture to flour mixture, mixing gently just until dry ingredients are evenly moistened and incorporated; don't over-mix or the batter may toughen.

 Using a 1/4-cup measure or large spoon, immediately divide the batter among 12 muffin cups; the cups should be fairly full. Sprinkle the muffin tops with the reserved 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar, dividing it equally among them.

 Bake in the middle third of the oven for 15 to 18 minutes or until the muffins are tinged with brown on top and springy to the touch; a toothpick inserted into the thickest part should come out clean. Cool on wire rack 3 or 4 minutes; if no paper liners were used, gently run a knife around cups and remove muffins from their cups. Let stand until cooled. They are best when fresh, but can be kept airtight for several days. They may also be frozen, airtight, for up to several weeks and thawed as needed. Makes 12 standard-sized muffins.

Got bananas but hungry for a more decadent treat--how about banana bundt cake?

Or perhaps you're interested in a banana split?

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Saturday, September 8, 2012

Revisting Julia Child's Kitchen--Don't Miss It if You Visit DC

If you're like me, one of your favorite pastimes is to peek into the kitchens of serious cooks. So you can image how excited I was to get a look this week at Julia Child's kitchen in part of  the newly revamped Smithsonian exhibit. (Stories on my visits to the Food and Wine and Saveur test kitchens are here and here.) 

I was at the Smithsonian Institution with a group of food journalists, and we were fortunate to have plenty of time to take photographs and ask the curators questions. They mentioned that as soon as they heard the news that Julia was retiring and leaving Cambridge, they immediately called her to see if they could move her kitchen to the National Museum of American History. "She really thought we were a bit crazy," curator Rayna Green recalls, but after we went to visit and explained it all, she was on board."

One fact that probably won't be surprising if you really examine the pics here; her kitchen (which was reassembled to look just as it did in her home in Cambridge) is crammed with about 900 items! I was actually surprised the number wasn't higher, but then remembered that the refrigerator and cupboards in the Smithsonian replica are, of course, bare!

One change in the revamped exhibit is that  the windows in the shot at right are new. These were added to allow visitors to see into the kitchen from all sides. If you look through the window to the wall outside the  kitchen, you can see a large photo of Julia by her stove. It's a great pic of her, so I've provided a larger version of it below.

 The only current drawback to photographing the kitchen interior from the outside is that all the windows are covered with very reflective, flexible plastic, and the light inside is uneven in spots. These produced the glare, bright color, and slight distortions in the images posted here.

I was personally thrilled to notice that in the pic at left, Julia's counter contains a cobalt blue KitchenAid mixer. My countertop contains a similar model in exactly the same color and of  similar vintage. (Now pausing for a moment to savor the swell of pride and feeling of kinship with her!)  I actually knew her; for my memories go here.

If you are a Julia fan, or even just a connoisseur of  real cooks' kitchens, I think you'll love visiting this permanent exhibit. When it was first installed Julia taped a comment noting that she would be happy if her work or kitchen encouraged anyone to make a career in the culinary field. You can hear her speak in that inimitable, lilting voice here.  Note that the kitchen is not currently available due to work on the rest of the new exhibit. Called "Food: Transforming the American Table-1950 to 2000," the exhibit will reopen on Nov. 20, 2012.

 If you're curious about my kitchen, you can see it here. (No, it doesn't look a bit like Julia's!) I'm decorating cookies from my new Simply Sensational Cookies book in the shot shown at left. (Those colors are all-natural--from fruit and berries, btw.)
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