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Atlanta Community Food Bank: A Tale of Two “A Place at the Tables”

I just read this opinion piece by Mark Bittman on the 2013 Farm Bill that is currently being debated in Congress. Needless to say, the proposed bill breaks my heart. Just breaks it. Basically it’s a plan that punishes those who suffer the most in our society and rewards those who really don’t need a government hand-out. I encourage you to read this article, and if moved check out the environmental working group for ways to take action. Bittman’s piece also really resonates with a guest-blog I did this week for the Atlanta Community Food Bank, in which I discuss A Place at the Table the documentary, which not only shares a title with my new book, but is a real must-see and eye-opener. Seriously, I think you should download the film right now. But first read the blog I wrote for the Food Bank, then download the movie. And if moved, contact your Senators and Representatives about revising the farm bill so it is one of equity and compassion. And, hey, did you know that for every $1 you give to the Food Bank they can donate $8.47 worth of grocery products to the community?

Also, at the end of my ACFB guest-blog there are three options of simple things you can do to win a hardback of A Place at the Table the novel. You only have to choose one!


This squirrel thinks you should donate to the Food Bank.

Why not get married two weeks before your novel launches?

I’m not a glutton for punishment, I swear. It’s just that Sam and I are both second-timers with this marriage thing and what seems important to focus on is the relationship, not the bridesmaids. (If I tried to focus on the bridesmaids I’d be squinting at the air cause I ain’t having em.) In fact I am having the world’s smallest (home) wedding. It’s just the minister, Sam, me, and two witnesses. And our cats. The cats will be there to witness it all. Perhaps Peanut will bring a live chipmunk in through the cat door just as we are saying “I do.”

I’m sort of picturing my June 2 book launch as our wedding reception because so many of our family and friends will be there. But I know I shouldn’t get the two events confused, right? I mean the wedding is a tax write-off while the launch is not. (Just jokin’ IRS! Seriously. Just joking.)

Back to the wedding: Yes, it’s crazy to be doing this right before launching a book, but the thing is, Sam and I aren’t getting any younger. I mean, I’m not ancient or anything but the other day my back hurt after playing frisbee. Frisbee. Which is all to say that time is ticking and when you find the person you want to build a life with you want to do it now. (Pretty sure I just stole that line from some famous Hollywood rom-com. Sorry bout that!)

This is also the world’s cheapest wedding. DIY, baby. Well, I didn’t make the dress or anything, but I bought a simple white sundress off the rack and ordered a birdcage bridal veil from Etsy. I’m wearing a pair of blue strappy high-heeled sandals I already own, and my friend is making me a bouquet  of blue hydrangeas from her garden. She’s also making me a cake. We’re trying to decide between chocolate with white frosting or lemon with cream cheese frosting. I think I’m leaning toward lemon. Sam’s brother made us the most beautiful wooden box to symbolize the merging of our lives. The box is made of two different woods, combined and polished till the whole is better than the parts. I think we’ll put our wedding photos in there.

On advice of our pre-marital counselor, tonight Sam and I are supposed to go off by ourselves and say goodbye to our single lives, which makes me think  of my favorite Joan Didion essay ever, “Goodbye to All That,” in which she bids farewell to being young in Manhattan. I can’t think of much that makes me sad as I join my life with Sam’s, but I do think it’s a good idea to be conscious of how utterly huge this commitment is that we are about to make to each other. The first time I went around the wedding block I was more casual in my approach, more cavalier. My thought process was pretty much, “well, let’s see if this works!” This time the vows feel very, very profound. How much more real does it get than “till death do you part?” Just saying those words is acknowledging a truth that I (at least) am always running from: That we will die.

But there’s so much good stuff to experience before we do. For me, right now, it’s a white dress, blue shoes, hydrangeas, a lemon cake and a beautiful wooden box. And a book that I wrote that is about to be born into the world.




darling alone


with Sam in Highlands

but better together


The Fragments Left Over

Susan's Sexy Legs Carrot

A farmers market find: the sexy carrot doing a demure little knee cross.

A Place at the Table begins with an epigraph taken from John 6:12. “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” In many ways this book is about lost souls finding home and so of course the words from the New Testament are fitting. But I often think of this quote when I’m cooking, as it fits well with my kitchen philosophy: “try not to throw stuff away.”

According to a piece in the Atlantic Wire, on average forty percent of the U.S. food system goes straight to the dump. I’m trying to cut that number in half when it comes to my own eating and cooking habits, and only throw out twenty percent. In other words, I’m aiming for a B-. (After all, I’m always telling my students that a B is a good grade.)

I had a fun time “gathering the fragments left over” today. I woke up around 6:30 and could not go back to sleep. At seven I decided I might as well get up and go to the Morningside Farmers’ Market, which sells organic produce and meats raised in Georgia. Naively I thought I’d have the market to myself at such an ungodly hour. But apparently lots of people are up and at ‘em at 7:30 in the morning. (Who knew?) The two most popular stalls, Crystal Organics and Woodland Gardens, each had long lines. I waited until it was my turn to pick out my carrots, beets, asparagus, strawberries, various lettuces and arugula. Then I headed over to the stand operated by Riverview, a family farm that raises pigs and cows on pasture. I bought some ground beef and some perfectly rendered lard, and listened to the woes of getting meat from a small farm approved by the USDA. (More on farm bill issues here:

Back at home I cleaned out the fridge before unpacking my loot. The vegetable bin contained tons of old beet greens, leftover from the beet roots I’ve been obsessively roasting this spring. There was also some limp celery and an old bag of carrots from Trader Joe’s, as well as a large bag of mint on the verge of wilting. Instead of throwing this stuff out I piled it onto my kitchen counter, along with a bowl containing four egg yolks leftover from when I made meringues the other day.

I was hungering for a bright orange carrot soup with ginger—made from the carrots I had bought that day at the market. I had chicken stock in the freezer, but I thought it would be nice to make the soup 100 percent vegetarian. So I made a vegetable stock with some of the leftover beet greens, the Trader Joe’s carrots and celery, two onions, a little garlic, a bay leaf, salt and pepper. While that was simmering I made a simple syrup and flavored it with the bag of mint. (I use a recipe found in Alana Chernila’s wonderful cookbook, The Homemade Pantry). The simple syrup makes a nice soda when added to water fizzed in the “Soda Stream Soda Maker.” It also makes a nice vodka cocktail.

The last thing I prepared was vanilla custard, using the leftover egg yolks. I had a pound cake in the freezer, cut into small chunks. I toasted the chunks in the oven while I made the custard. I also cut up a quart of strawberries, added a tablespoon of sugar, and let the berries get good and juicy while the custard and toasted pound cake came together. When all three ingredients were ready I layered them, basing the concept on southern banana puddin’, but with strawberries instead. If I were British I would call it a trifle. The trifle / strawberry puddin’ is in the fridge right now, marinating. I’ll either top it with whipped cream or meringue. It is pretty much all I want to eat for dinner tonight, but I think first I’ll grill the asparagus I bought today, toss it in a vinaigrette, and top it with bacon pieces and a poached egg.

I realize it’s a little odd to be so consumed by thoughts of forthcoming meals. And it’s almost embarrassing what a thrill I get from making delicious things out of foods I might have otherwise thrown away. But it’s so satisfying! You take the dregs and the remains and the nearly rotten, and after some manipulation and some time, you create nourishment. It’s such a great metaphor—for life as well as for writing. And it saves you money, too.

Todd Johnson’s letter to the editor

Last week I had an amazing discussion with my dear friend, Todd Johnson. During that conversation we spoke of how easy it is to become polarized, to see people who are on the opposing side of any given issue as “them”–separate from us and not worthy of compassion. Todd spoke eloquently about how healing work is done in the breaches between opposing sides. It’s easy to stand on one side and condemn the other, much harder to climb into the breach and try to engage with an open and compassionate heart.

Todd really put his money where his mouth is in his response to last week’s passage of Amendment One in North Carolina. Here is a copy of the letter he wrote to the Charlotte Observer. Read it, and you will see what a gracious and generous soul Mr. Johnson is:

To the Editor,

I don’t live in North Carolina, but North Carolina is my home. I was born in Raleigh, grew up in Charlotte, and went to college in Chapel Hill. North Carolina is the single place that has formed me more than any other, and it is also the place I visit every day at my desk as a fiction writer. In fact, I am so proud to be a North Carolinian that I’ve often said boastfully that our state would emerge as the leader of the future South in terms of education, culture, business opportunities, and until yesterday, civil rights.

This past September, my partner of fifteen years and I were married near our home in Connecticut, where same-sex marriage is recognized and protected under the law. Following our civil service, performed by a justice of the peace in a nearby village, we celebrated our marriage in our local Episcopal church with the blessing of the Bishop of Connecticut. One of my Chapel Hill fraternity brothers, a priest on loan to us from the Diocese of New York, performed the service. We gathered in a wooden shingled chapel, formerly Mark Twain’s parish, and sought the blessing of God on our union, surrounded by both of our families as well as beloved friends who traveled from several countries to be our witnesses. It was one of the most wonderful days of my life. It was also typical of most weddings I’ve attended. The toilets broke an hour before the ceremony. Someone showed up drunk at the rehearsal. A couple crashed the reception dinner. One wandering guest got burned by a tiki torch. And all “my” Southerners complained about the cold in New England even though it was in the mid-60s. The next day, linens, tables, and chairs came down, tents were struck, trucks loaded, and everyone scattered to their respective airports. Life returned to normal, an almost painfully banal sort of normal. And now, all these months later, it still looks the same. All around us, as in other states were same-sex marriage is legal, parents are raising their children, people are working to pay their bills, teenagers are going on dates, and we all grow older, one day at a time. If marriage between a man and a woman has been threatened or compromised, the evidence is scant. And as for the religious debate over homosexuality in general, I believe we step on a slippery slope whenever a majority claims authority from God, and I need not quote history to prove my point.

Like most family law experts, I’m not clear about what Amendment One does. It is so broadly written that only time will tell. But I am certain about what it doesn’t do. It does not stop North Carolinians like me from living my life in the belief that things will change for the better for all people. It does not mean that a North Carolina teenager like I once was who realizes that he or she is different need live in fear, but may instead look for support among the multitude of voices of justice and compassion that have risen up in every corner of our state over the past weeks, crossing lines of gender, age, race, religion, socioeconomic status, and sexual orientation. And for those in other parts of the country who might wag the finger of shame at our state, Amendment One certainly does not mean that North Carolina has a monopoly on bigotry – ignorance and intolerance do not play geographical favorites. But most of all, it does not mean that those of us who are committed to the equality of all people will be silenced by a political agenda masquerading as a call to morality.

I can already imagine the day when Amendment One will be as obsolete as the individuals who created it. And I know that on that day, though North Carolina may not lead, it will surely heed the call of freedom.


Todd Johnson

Patti Callahan Henry’s Coming Up for Air. Plus grilled sandwiches: one savory, one sweet.

Coming Up for Air by Patti Callahan HenryI read a wonderful book this week: Coming Up for Air by Patti Callahan Henry.

I know Patti through the Atlanta writing community. She is one of those lovely, effervescent people full of warmth and laughter. One of those people whom you want to smile at because she’s smiling and looks like she’s having fun and you want to join her. If I were a betting woman (why am I saying “if?”; I love betting), I’d wager that Patti enjoys a shrimp boil, that she slides right up to the newspaper covered table, peels a shrimp, dunks it in cocktail sauce, and washes it down with a beer before settling in to eat her buttered corn on the cob, potatoes and sausage. Which is to say, Patti seems to be a woman who enjoys life.

Shrimp Boil

Shrimp boil from earlier this summer. Patti was not involved. But I bet she would have loved it.

Patti is also a woman who has raised three kids. And before having her kids, she was a nurse. Meaning, Patti has wisdom. And has seen hard things.

All well and good, I can hear you saying, but how’s the book?

Why it’s excellent. Thank you for asking. In it Patti’s warmth, wisdom, and engagment with life–the miraculous and the mundane–is on full display.

Here’s the skinny: Coming Up for Air is the story of 48 year old Ellie Calvin. At the book’s start, Ellie’s mother Lillian dies suddenly, just as Ellie’s only child goes away to college, leaving Ellie alone with her husband, Rusty, a man more interested in his golf game than understanding any part of his wife’s interior life. After Lillian’s death, Ellie reads her mother’s locked away journals, discovering two things: Her mother was passionately in love with someone other than Ellie’s dad, and her mother was involved with the civil rights movement in Alabama during the summer of 1961. Both realizations are shocking to Ellie, who knew her mother only as a Buckhead doyenne, locally famous for her organization and practicality, and not one to feel passion about anything other than following the rules. In fact Lillian, a consummate botanical gardener, discouraged Ellie’s own passionate, wildflower nature. But from reading her mother’s journals, Ellie realizes Lillian was not always like that. At a certain point in her life, Lillian chose safety over love, and then tried to drill that choice into Ellie, an effort that largely succeeded. Until now.

The plot of Coming Up for Air is rich and layered, and I am only giving you a teeny-tiny slice of it, in part because I don’t want to include any spoilers, but mostly because I want to talk about the underlying theology of the book. Because that’s what made me unable to put CUFA down until I had read it cover to cover–the theology that Patti Callahan Henry expresses in Ellie’s reawakening to spirit and love. It is not a theology of rules and regulations and exclusion; in fact it is the opposite. It is a theology of risk over safety, of love over rigidity, of choosing spiritual wholeness over a comfortable lifestyle. It is a theology that says everyone deserves an abundance of love–you, me, even that guy over there picking his nose on the subway. And occasionally divine abundance shows itself in our earthly life, if we are open to it, if we show up.

When you get to the jubilee scene, you will know exactly what I am talking about.

I really loved this book. Was totally immersed in the plot and was moved by the steady wisdom behind it. I even read it on the subway–and I have the hardest time reading on the subway because I’m always so interested in eavesdropping on my fellow passengers’ conversations…but Ellie’s story was more captivating.

Grilled Cheese Sandwich

Simple, simple, simple. But oh so good.

I got a big spiritual lift from Patti’s book, and then I got a mini spiritual lift by coming home this evening and making myself two kinds of grilled sandwiches. The first was nothing unusual, just a grilled cheese with lots of butter on Pepperidge Farm white bread. My only embellishment was to rub each side of the bread with a raw glove of garlic, and to use good sharp cheddar cheese as my filling. Then, for dessert, I tried a sandwich based on a Donna Hay recipe. For it I also used Pepperidge Farm white bread, each slice spread with nutella, and then one slice dotted with raspberries. When I sandwiched the bread I pressed the two sides together so that the raspberries would flatten a bit. Then I just fried the whole thing in lots of butter, so that the nutella got all oozy and melty and the raspberries warmed up and got all bursty. I sat at my little table in my little apartment kitchen and ate the sandwiches, first the cheese, then the chocolate. It had been a hard day and I needed the comfort. I was eating the grilled cheese, thinking about the Christian tradition of taking bread and wine as a way to experience the divine. It made a lot of sense to me–that God would come to us in such a tactile, necessary package as food and drink. I hunched over my plate, concentrating on what was before me, tasting the crisped butter against my tongue.