And Elizabeth Gilbert Created . . . The Signature of All Things


A binding closet.  Never heard of it before reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest novel, The Signature of All Things, but after having read it, such a thing, unfortunately, is the first image that leaps to mind.  Followed immediately by a sexy, Tahitian prince.  Then some old books with botanical drawings, and moss.  I would guess that’s not the order of reference Ms. Gilbert intended.


But it is in the dark, hot, tiny binding closet of the luxurious White Acre estate that Alma Whittaker, the protagonist of The Signature of All Things, repeatedly goes to relieve her mind and body of the sexual urges and tension that she is too ugly and ungainly and outspoken and . . . WHATEVER . . . to find anyone else to do it for her.  Seriously, the woman is a billionaire and can’t find anyone to have sex with her.  On top of which she somehow finds a trove of obscure sexual tomes and becomes obsessed with herself to the point of nauseating repetition.

In other parts of the first four-fifths of the novel, which by the way seems to be on every Best of 2013 list but mine, her family inexplicably adopts a sister for Alma, who is the supernaturally beautiful, kind, gloriously self-effacing, abolitionist, generous, natural daughter of a local whore; Alma falls in love with a local printer because he touches her shoulder; Henry Whittaker shouts at people and makes a fortune by establishing the foundation of a modern pharmaceutical company.  

Alma decides that there are four types of time at work in her universe.  “Divine time, in which galaxies grew and where God dwelled.”  Geological time, “a pace that felt nearly eternal, nearly divine. . . . the pace of stone and mountains.”  Human time, which moved at a normal pace.  And “moss time,” where “nothing seems to happen, but then a decade or so later, all would be changed.”

I often felt I was reading a novel written in moss time.  It is so overwritten, with such profound effort to be the anti-Eat, Pray, Love that very often you end up reading sentences like: 

This person had arrived, he had illuminated her, he had ensorcelled her with notions of miracle and beauty, he had both understood and misunderstood her, he had married her, he had broken her heart, he had looked upon her with those sad and hopeless eyes, he had accepted his banishment, and now he was gone. What a stark and stunning thing was life- that such a cataclysm can enter and depart so quickly, and leave such wreckage behind!

However, when Alma embarks on a what-we-can-only-hope will be a life-changing trip to Tahiti, the book picks up.  Enter “Tomorrow Morning,” Tahitian native son, adopted son of a missionary and missionary to other islands himself.  The “Conqueror.”  


The Signature of All Things is not on my list of favorite books from 2013.  But if your book club chooses to read it, I can suggest the following.

MENU — I am sticking with my favorite part of the book.  The Tahitian part.

Poi (if you want)


Roast Tenderloin of Pork


Coconut Pie:  Ummmm.  Betty Crocker’s Coconut Cream pie!


Music of the South Seas:

OR The Cast Album, featuring the fabulous Kelli O’Hara and opera star Paul Szot, from the Broadway revival of South Pacific.  Bali Hai . . .

You know … even better.  Skip The Signature of All Things and rent South Pacific.

Have fun!



Image of Moss Maiden, Lost Garden of Heligan,courtesy of

Fear of the Dark

Paul Gauguin

The (Fabulous) Burgess Boys, by Elizabeth Strout




So Don’t Forget folks,

That’s What you Get Folks . . .

for Makin’ Whoopee



Much to his chagrin and surprise, the rule applies even to golden boy, Jim Burgess.  “A football player and president of his class, and really nice looking with his dark hair, but he was serious too.”  Jim has grown up to be first a prosecutor, then a nationally-known criminal defense lawyer, tapped even for OJ Simpson’s dream team.  He marries a lovely girl, Helen, they have two lovely children and they live in a lovely apartment in New York City, light years away from the small Maine burg in which the Burgess boys grew up.  But from the night Jim’s sister’s son, Zach, throws a pig’s head through the front door of a Shirley Falls, Maine, mosque during Ramadan, Jim seems to see that times, they are a’changing.


In The Burgess Boys, Pulitzer-prize winner Elizabeth Strout’s follow-up to Olive Kitteridge, the relationships between Jim and his younger siblings, Bob and Susan, the twins, takes center stage.  The novel explores the often dark effect of our siblings’ impressions upon our own adult self-esteem.  Ever since the Burgess’ father died in a tragic accident, all three of the kids , the whole town, have blamed Bob.  “Bobby Burgess ‘was the one who killed his father’ or ‘had to see a doctor for mentals.’ . . .A few times BoT.  bby babysat, and he would take turns carrying us on his back.  You could tell you were clinging to someone kind and good.”

Jim sees Bob’s kindness as a weakness to be exploited, generally addressing Bob as “knucklehead,” “slob-dog,” and “mental case.”  Susan hates him.  In turn, Bob and Susan adore Jim.  But despite his family position, it is Bob who is sent to first deal with the mess Zach has gotten himself into.

As the situation unravels and the mystery of Zach’s action unfolds, other secrets come to light.  One of which puts a serious dent in Jim’s suit of armor.

He becomes a victim of his own lust, much like so many other politicians and public figures of our day.  Jim reminds me of no one so much as Eilot Spitzer, the New York Governor deposed from office by a prostitution scandal.  Golden boy, accomplished lad, everyone’s favorite guy.Image

I found Susan completely unlikeable.  Bob, adorable and sweet and worthy of rooting for.  Jim probably gets what he deserves, but the book leaves us without any real answer other than the one set out in the prologue, when an unnamed narrator encounters Jim’s wife at some point after the events involving Zach are over.

I’d had some wine — I suppose that’s why I stopped — and I said to her that I’d come from the same town Jim had grown up in.  Something happened to Helen’s face that stayed with me.  A look of quick fear seemed to pass over it.  She asked my name and I told her, and she said Jim had never mentioned me.  No, I was younger, I said.  And then she arranged her cloth napkin with a little shake, and said, “I haven’t been up there in years.  Nice to meet you both.  Bye-bye.”

You don’t know them.  The narrator’s mother advises her.  “Nobody ever knows anyone.”


The Burgess Boys’ mother was described as the kind of woman who made hamburger helper covered with a sheet of orange cheese or roasted a chicken without any spices, even salt. But they loved baked goods.  My menu would improve upon the Burgess mom’s menu and include a gift from my own grandmother’s recipe box.  Whoopie Pies are also from Maine if you’d like to try to make those.  And lobster.  

Roast Chicken WITH SPICES (here’s Ina Garten’s “Engagement Roast Chicken” recipe:

Spinach salad with fresh (Maine) blueberries, goat cheese, walnuts and poppyseed dressing

Mama’s Fluffy Yellow Cake

1/2 cup shortening                                               2 1/4 cups flour

2 teaspoon orange rind                                        2 1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon lemon extract                                 1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/3 cup white corn syrup                                  2 eggs

1/2 cup milk

Cream together shortening, flavoring and syrup.  Add slightly beaten egg yolks.  Sift in dry ingredients adding alternately with milk.  Fold in stiffly beaten egg whites.  Bake in 350 degree oven 30-35 minutes in two layer pans.


I can’t resist.  Make it a mix of:

The Doobie Brothers

The Allman Brothers

The Avett Brothers

The Isley Brothers

The Everly Brothers

The Jackson Five

The Osmond Brothers

And include the Fabulous Baker Boys for fun!


Now this is a movie I can cast.

Bob:  Once again, another reason to mourn Philip Seymour Hoffman.  He would have been spot-on perfect.  In his absence, let me suggest Jon Favreau or Oliver Platt.

Jim:  George Clooney.  Perfection.

Susan:  Melissa Leo

Helen:  Tilda Swinton

AND FINALLY:  Are you dying to see the video of Michelle Pfeiffer singing Makin’ Whoopee?







Coming Through the (Mad) Catcher in the Rye

Comin thro the rye

Comin thro' the rye, poor body, 
Comin thro' the rye, 
She draigl't a' her petticoatie 
Comin thro' the rye. 

Oh Jenny's a' weet, poor body, 
Jenny's seldom dry, 
She draigl't a' her petticoatie 
Comin thro' the rye. 

Gin a body meet a body 
Comin thro' the rye, 
Gin a body kiss a body
Need a body cry. 

Gin a body meet a body
Comin thro' the glen; 
Gin a body kiss a body 
Need the warld ken! 

Oh Jenny's a' weet, poor body, 
Jenny's seldom dry, 
She draigl't a' her petticoatie 
Comin thro' the rye.

  In 1796, Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote a cheery little ditty about how tough it was for Scottish lovers to woo.  The church elders in the eighteenth-century felt it was their God-given duty to scrutinize courting rituals, so a poor girl like Jenny, dragging her wet and muddy petticoats through a field of rye, would invite community condemnation.

  In 1951, American author J.D. Salinger wrote a dreary novel about a 16-year-old prep school failure who is on the verge of, at the very least, a nervous breakdown.  Holden Caulfield, “the original sullen teenager,” “a symbol of purity and sensitivity,” and “a James Dean movie in print,” trudges through the pages, red hunting cap atop his head, crying, criticizing, fighting, dancing and always running away from the phonies who run the world.

  After running across a child singing Burns’ song crossing a street, Holden’s perpetual gloominess momentarily lifts.  He confesses that if he could create his own job, it would be that of the catcher in the rye.

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”

Catcher cover

   I’ve re-read The Catcher in the Rye twice in the past five years or so, and just finished re-reading it again.  This time it struck me how evidently self-destructive, depressed and mentally unstable Holden is.  I kept wondering when an adult was going to notice that this kid, with the recently-deceased brother, was about to fall off the deep end.  Phoebe, Holden’s adored younger sister, we sense as readers, has always known something is wrong.  “You don’t like anything that’s happening,” she tells Holden, which causes him to be more depressed.  Phoebe, incidentally, is my favorite character in the book.  I was concerned about Holden, but didn’t really like him.  Perhaps it’s a protective mechanism that Salinger intends us to understand, but his narcissistic tendencies to decry everyone on the outside as a “phony,” or a “moron” or a “show-off” or “conceited” or a “bastard” did not endear him to me.

    When someone finally does notice Holden’s perilous state, it’s his favorite teacher Mr. Antolini who predicts that Holden is heading for “a terrible, terrible fall.”

This fall I think you’re riding for–it’s a special kind of fall, a horrible kind.  The man falling isn’t permitted to hear or feel himself hit bottom.  He just keeps falling and falling.  The whole arrangement’s designed for men who, at some time or other in their lives, were looking for something their own environment couldn’t supply them with.  Or they thought their environment couldn’t supply them with.  So they gave up looking.  They gave up looking before they ever even really got started.

   Now, who does that remind me of?  mad-men-falling-e1330189976453

   I was so struck by the similarity I googled Don Draper and Holden Caulfield and guess what I found out?  Matthew Weiner, Mad Men’s creator told the New York Times that the “FICTIONAL CHARACTER HE MOST IDENTIFIES WITH: Peggy Olson from the show. You know what . . . that’s not true. I’d say Holden Caulfield.”

And more!

Matthew Weiner, the 44-year-old creator of Mad Men, describes the root of his fascination with the post-WWII/pre-Beatles New York City that he never experienced firsthand:

Catcher in the Rye has got to be at the bottom of the entire show. It’s the first book I ever completed reading. I read it many times. I fantasized about living in New York. I loved the WASP-iness of it even though it’s got these Jewish undertones to it.

  He and Don Draper definitely share a life philosophy:  “Don’t ever tell anybody anything.  If you do, you start missing everybody.”

OK, so maybe I like Holden a little more than I realized.

MENU for Book Club

Scotch & Soda is Holden’s favorite drink and his second favorite, which he has to order most of the time because he is not of age, seems to be coca-cola.  I’m not a fan of Scotch but if you want to be genuine, serve Scotch & Soda.  I’ll be opting for wine.

  Holden doesn’t appear to eat much and in the final pages of the book there’s an explanation for it:  “I went to this very cheap-looking restaurant and had doughnuts and coffee. Only, I didn’t eat the doughnuts. I couldn’t swallow them too well. The thing is, if you get very depressed about something, it’s hard as hell to swallow.”  He’s too depressed to eat.  Odds are that your book club won’t be, however, so you could duplicate the menu from Pencey’s Saturday night dinners.  Steak, Mashed Potatoes and Brown Betty.

One of my favorite steak recipes comes from Mark Bittman.

  • 1. Heat the oven to 500 degrees (550 if possible), and set a rack in the lowest position, unless skillet can be placed directly on oven floor. Place a cast-iron skillet large enough to hold the steaks without crowding over high heat, and heat until smoking. Sprinkle surface of pan with coarse salt, and put the steaks in. Smoke will billow up; immediately transfer skillet to oven.
  • 2. Roast steaks, turning once, about 4 minutes a side for medium rare, or until browned and cooked to preferred doneness. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and let rest 3 to 5 minutes. Slice steaks or cut each into two pieces, and serve.

Serve with mashed potatoes.

Brown Betty:  I didn’t know what “Brown Betty” was.  We call it an apple crisp.  So here’s my version.  Serve with Breyer’s vanilla ice cream and a bit of caramel sauce.

4 cups thinly sliced apples
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup oatmeal
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sug
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 pinch salt
1/2 cup butter
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C). Lightly grease a 9 inch pie plate.
Mound sliced apples in the pie plate. Sprinkle with juice.
In a medium bowl, mix the flour, oatmeal, sugars, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt. Cut in butter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Scatter over the apples.
Bake in preheated oven for 45 minutes. Serve warm.



Holden is out on the town in NYC in 1950ish.  He is jitterbugging to big band swing music at the Lavender Room.  At Ernie’s Nightclub in the Village, Ernie is playing the piano.

I’d suggest downloading an Art Tatum album from iTunes.  The Complete Jazz Chronicle Solo Sessions includes his version of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” the song playing at the carousel when Holden comes to some level of peace about going home with Phoebe.

MOVIE:  Catcher in the Rye has never been adapted to film version because Salinger claimed it was “unfilmable.”  John Cusack (my dream Holden) is quoted as saying his only regret in turning 21 was that he was too old to play Holden.  I’m not up enough to be able to cast most of the teens, but I do have a recommendation for Holden and some of the adults.

Holden’s dad:  Jon Hamm

Holden’s mom:  Cate Blanchett

Mr. Antolini:  Peter Saarsgard

Old Sally:  Kiernan Shipka

Holden:  Freddie Highmore

carousel horse

“Excuse My Dust.” Farewell, Dorothy Parker, by Ellen Meister

DP stamp

   If only we could all write like Dorothy Parker.  Alas, we cannot, and some days that’s more obvious than others.  In fact, Mrs. Parker advised most of us not to even try:  “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”

   Ellen Meister has done her level best to put Mrs. Parker on full and glorious display in “Farewell, Dorothy Parker,” a fantasy novel in which the great author rematerializes to advise, criticize and revitalize the life of Violet Epps, a movie critic and Dorothy Parker devotee.  Miss Epps visits the Algonquin Hotel and amidst inspecting the hotel’s autograph book of famous persons, encounters the ghost of Dorothy Parker who would rather hang around the Round Table than cross on over into the light.  Miss Epps absconds with the book and with Mrs. Parker, who takes up residence at Violet’s house, drinks all of his liquor, seduces the man (via inhabiting Violet’s body) that Violet has the hots for and very nearly ruins Violet’s attempt to obtain custody of her niece.

I’d like to have a martini,

Two at the very most.

After three I’m under the table,

After four I’m under the host.

   One intimates that Mrs. Parker herself would enjoy this scenario.  “I don’t care what is written about me, as long as it isn’t true.”  And certainly one hopes this isn’t; I hope Mrs. Parker is enjoying the light and the gin and the men and has long been.

Dorothy Parker

    Farewell, Dorothy Parker is a fun and quick read.  Meister imbues a level of peril with the fun by introducing Miss Epps’ custody battle and struggle with her survivor’s guilt after her sister is killed in an automobile accident.  Perhaps most importantly, and one wonders if this was her intention, Meister leaves one wanting more of Dorothy Parker herself.

tongue quote

  She definitely had a way with words.


 The Algonquin Hotel, 59 West 44th Street, is now a Marriott property.  The famous Round Table room serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, including (one can only wonder what poisonous bon mots Mrs. Parker would pen regarding this) gluten-free and vegan options.  If you are interested in co-opting the current Algonquin Room menu, here is a link to find it:

  And if you want to play a food-related game, LA Weekly has a post where you must guess whether a quotation is one of Dorothy Parker’s reviews or one of a current food critic.  Very fun!

  The Vicious Circle, of which Mrs. Parker was a part, ate lunch at the Algonquin Room daily during the 1920s.

  It’s rather difficult to find reference to any actual food Mrs. Parker may have enjoyed.  But I would try to replicate a 1920s style luncheon . . . with martinis.

Chilled Tomato Consomme

Caeser Salad

Shrimp Cocktail

Finger Sandwiches, 1920s style

   Sardolive:  Mix equal parts of sardines, chopped olives and hard-boiled egg yolks and season highly with lemon juice, salt and paprika

   Tiger Eyes:  Cut rounds of white bread with a cutter. Butter the bottom round and spread with seasoned cream cheese. Cut a small circle from center of top round. Place on bottom round and in the center hole fit half a suffed olive, cut crosswise

  Honolulu:  3/4 cup chopped pulled figs, 1 cup crushed pineapple, 1/3 cup sugar, Juice of one lemon, 1/4 cup chopped walnuts. Cook figs and pineapple until smooth, add sugar and lemon juice and cook until thick. Remove from fire, add walnuts and cool. Spread on thin rounds of whole-wheat bread

Martinis (!!!)

Here’s a recipe for Tomato Consomme from the Food Network:

4 pounds fresh tomatoes, roughly chopped
4 green onions, chopped
1/2 lemon, juiced
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves
2 garlic cloves, peeled
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 beet root, peeled and sliced
Fresh chives, for garnish
Special equipment: Butcher’s twine, 3 to 4 large pieces cheesecloth (about 2 by 2 feet)

Put the tomatoes, green onions, lemon juice, basil, garlic and salt and pepper, to taste, into a food processor and run until blended and slushy. Put 4 layers of clean cheesecloth in a deep bowl. Pour the tomato mixture into the cheesecloth. Tie up the corners of the fabric. Add the slices of peeled beet root to the bowl to color the liquid. Hang the bag from a shelf in the refrigerator with the bowl underneath for a couple hours (or longer). Discard the beetroot. Ladle the consomme into chilled clear or white bowls and garnish each with a single piece of chive.

This recipe was provided by professional chefs and has been scaled down from a bulk recipe provided by a restaurant. The Food Network Kitchens chefs have not tested this recipe, in the proportions indicated, and therefore, we cannot make any representation as to the results.

Read more at:


   Jazz.  Am I always recommending Jazz?  Perhaps I have a tendency to read books that require a jazz background.  But for this book, I would put together a soundtrack of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sophie Tucker.  Nothing too upbeat either.  She attempted suicide four times.  She never succeeded.  Mrs. Parker died of a heart attack in 1967 leaving her entire estate to the Martin Luther King foundation.