We’re delighted to welcome back poet, author, and equestrian athlete Julia Wendell. She was last here discussing her poetry chapbook Take This Spoon (Main Street Rag Publishing Co., 2014), which explores the complicated relationship humans have with food. In her new memoir, Come to the X (Galileo Press, May 2020), food is again a central trope as it was in her previous book, Finding My Distance: A Year in the Life of a Three-Day Event Rider (Pathway Books, 2020). Both memoirs combine poetry and prose, showing how food reflects inner weather.
WHAT I EAT IS HOW I FEEL
by Julia Wendell
In writing Come to the X (forthcoming, Galileo Press, 2020), I was struck by the way what I eat over the last decade has changed, and how my patterns of eating and relationship to food reflected the events in my life.
In Finding My Distance (Galileo Press, 2009), elaborate dinners and their preparation were like a reward. From lamb to shrimp, exotic pastas to salads, mountains of crabs and all the fixin’s — caesar potato salad and Asian cole slaw — to rich desserts like ice cream and homemade chocolate sauce, crisps and mousses and souffles. The long work days always ended with focus on cocktail hour and dinner, prepared and eaten with relish by this family of four, including two kids who were introduced as toddlers to an adult palate — whatever we ate got whizzed in a blender — a husband who is a stress eater, as well as myself, who has a history of anorexia. Whatever the complex motivations, and whatever stressful life events vying for our attention, sharing dinner and sitting down together as a family were key.
We head to Annapolis to meet my Aunt Kay for dinner at Cantler’s Riverside Inn, where we introduce her to a slice of Maryland she’s not partaken of before: platters of crabs brought steaming to our table. Barrett shows her how to crack open and hammer and peel, and before we know it, several mountains of spent legs and shells litter our brown-papered table, along with empty plastic containers of cole slaw and straggler fries and rings. Crab parts go flying, Aunt Kay busily wipes her white shirt, the clientele whoop it up at the tables and bar behind us, dusk starts to fall, and the Magothy River starts to sparkle behind us. We order another round of beers, another half-dozen crabs, and more slaw. After we’ve consumed our very last crab, we still have room for more and order key lime pies all around. Our server doesn’t even bother to clear away the mess before bringing out dessert, and now we’ve got a Vesuvius on our table.
“I’ve never seen you eat with such gusto, Julia,” Aunt Kay says.
“You’ve never seen me eat crabs before,” I reply. She’s amazed by the mess.
Finding My Distance, in contrast to Come to the X, is a book filled with hope and purpose; it is largely about my determination as a middle-aged equestrian athlete to climb the levels in three-day eventing. It is also about the challenges of being the mother of two young adults. Food, and specifically dinner preparation and its sharing with family, complement the inner weather of the book. After attending the Preakness Race:
My day ends well with Barrett’s shrimp pad thai and lots of Anapamu, and reruns of our eventing and racing videos. There goes Foolish Groom from the back of a twelve-horse pack, picking off his contenders in the last quarter mile, winning again by a good 10 lengths.
And with the kids home again:
We stuff ourselves on crab cakes, homemade potato salad, and fresh tomatoes and mozzarella. I’ve finally found my mother’s ice cream maker in one of the last mountain of boxes that have been crammed into my garage, and I try my hand at chocolate ice cream. It’s as easy as making bread in a bread machine: you dump in the ingredients and the machine does the rest, with Freon as its secret weapon. We end our meal sitting around the back patio dreamily spooning into our mouths silky smooth ice cream that would rival all of Baskin-Robbins’ 31 flavors.
This is a family that celebrates with food:
I cook a big dinner, as John will be coming home. It will be the first time our family has sat down together in weeks. We have mounds of steamed mussels, a sun-dried tomato and basil pasta, and Caesar salad at our table tonight. But first, a poem, as was our family custom every night before lifting our forks.
Come to the X is a very different sort of book, however, and not coincidentally, the kinds of food found within its pages are different, too. The book is more about the turmoils and frustrations of being an aging athlete, and a determination to stay in the sport as long as the clock is ticking, as well as the difficulties of being a supportive mother to a daughter who is engaged in her own life struggles, and the consequent power dynamic between the two.
In the maelstrom of my life, I repeatedly return to comfort food, the quick and easy baked potato and salad— no longer the exotic penne pasta with arugula salad, or the fun involved and sense of family closeness in dinner preparation. To complicate matters, my husband is fighting gastric Tuberculosis for most of the book, and can hardly eat anything at all. He returns from his first hospital stay shortly before Thanksgiving. The kids are gone; it’s just the two of us at home, attempting to have a holiday despite our lean circumstances.
Barrett and I go through the motions of eating; I attempt to cook small, but I fail. Even with the tiniest of turkeys, the dinner turns out big. Barrett lines up along one side of the walnut rectangle of our family table the turkey and stuffing, which he has carefully carved and arranged on our holiday platter, the mashed potatoes, which are not lumpy, the green beans, a new addition — something Barrett can eat — the cranberry sauce, the butternut squash. We both spoon careful forkfuls onto pewter plates, then sit down together and look at the mountains of food, as if we were kneeling before an altar in a denomination we are skeptical of.
I have an eating disorder that forms my strict sense of portion control. Though I’ve learned to manage it, I acknowledge that once a person has an eating disorder, they always have it. I’ve learned to cope with the problem, like diabetes. In Finding My Distance, I find the managed cure in the sharing of family dinners that take a lot of preparation to cook.
In Come to the X, children have grown up and left home and the husband is sick, so food becomes at worst a necessity, and at best, comfort. The old stand-bys are returned to again and again: there are many baked potato and salad meals in Come to the X. Food and its eating reflect my internal struggles. The storms are turbulent and fierce in Come to the X; animals and people are dying, and not eating becomes metaphorical for not understanding, for unhappiness, loss, an inability to eat and enjoy, or live the way I was once accustomed to.
“Mom, can you come here a minute?” Chance calls from the top of the stairway, having just gotten out of the shower, a towel wrapped around her tiny damp body.
“Is this really bad?” she asks, showing me her rosy cleavage, where the sun has made an impression. Her New York City skin is pale as china, and unaccustomed to wind, sun, rain, or snow. It is inside skin. Mine is outside. Hers definitely doesn’t ride horses, pick stalls, weed gardens, swim, or drive a car.
Later, as we’re pounding and picking on our back patio, hurrying to beat the thunderheads headed our way, Chance asks why Barrett and I aren’t eating crabs. She’s on her fifth or sixth. Barrett and I have each had one.
“I can only have one,” Barrett says, which makes sense to Chance, considering how sick he has been. She glares at me. “Kind of hot,” I say, the smallest of allusions to my new intolerance to spice.
When we are happy, and sometimes when we are unhappy, we treat ourselves to what is delicious as reward, or to help make us feel better. We make exotic dinners and go to restaurants, and indulge. Food and dining reflect our complexity of emotions. In Finding My Distance, you’ll find rich dinners of lamb and Merlot, chicken with thyme and sage, cheese souffles and caesar salad, spinach gnocchi and ribs and filet mignon and sundried tomato and basil pasta; Mohitos and Margaritas, every vineyard of Chardonnay, craft beers and vodka and Cabernets and more.
When the shit hits the fan, though, in Come to the X, I revert to the basics. I eat what is quick and easy and comfortable, and sometimes over-indulge in that as well. I become a victim of culinary repetition because I lose my imagination for any food that takes much effort. I am sinking, and so I grab the nearest soup.
I wouldn’t mind returning to some of the menus offered in Finding My Distance. But if I’m looking for a roadmap to the rest of my life, it’s Come to the X I want to come back to.
KEEP YOUR PALM FLAT
A mangle of uneaten apples
underneath the McIntosh tree,
the most we’ve ever grown.
Too many to enjoy, despite my pleas
to come pick. We have thousands,
when a few would do.
Cobblers, pies, sauce, never enough
time to roll the dough, pick a hoof,
bake, sit, marvel.
The daily stroll with my mending horse,
who spends his idle time longing
for this small red planet, balanced on my palm.
~ from Come to the X (Galileo Press, 2020).
- Servings: 4
- Difficulty: average
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 3 tablespoons flour
- 1-1/2 cups milk
- 5 eggs, separated
- 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
In a double boiler, melt the butter. Then add the flour and stir well until well-blended.
Add the milk, a little at a time, and stir until the sauce begins to thicken. Add the cheese, stir, and remove from the heat.
Beat the egg yolks until light and sunny. Add to cheese sauce which has been allowed to cool slightly. Beat egg whites until stiff but not dry. Fold in cream of tartar and then blend cheese mixture into it.
Pour mixture into a greased ceramic deep dish and place that dish into an oven-proof pie pan that has about 1/2 inch of boiling water added to it. Place dish and pie pan in the middle rack of oven. Cook at 350 degrees for about 1 hour, or until soufflé has risen and crust has browned and a knife inserted in center comes out clean.
DO NOT open the oven door while cooking. Only check for doneness at the end of the hour. If the pie pan runs out of water within the cycle of cooking, open the oven door ONCE to add a little more boiling water. Around my house, we always served the soufflé with baked potatoes, peas, and a “Seizure Salad” — but that’s your call.
~ from Julia Wendell, as posted at Jama’s Alphabet Soup
- Servings: 4
- Difficulty: average
- 6-8 garlic cloves
- 1 teaspoon Poupon mustard
- 3-4 shakes Worcestershire sauce
- l liberal shake hot sauce
- Juice of 1/2 lemon
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 2 heads hearts of romaine
- 1/2 cup croutons
- Freshly shaved Parmesan or Romano cheese
Press with fork garlic cloves that have been liberally sprinkled with salt into the sides of the wooden bowl. Add mustard, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, and lemon. Whisk until well combined. Add olive oil and stir vigorously. Taste for balance. Correct oil to lemon, if necessary. Add hearts of romaine that have been hand-torn into pieces (not cut!). Add croutons and Parmesan or Romano cheese. Toss well.
A good twist on this recipe is to make the dressing in a blender or Cuisinart and drizzle oil in at end.
A further twist is to add an anchovy, if desired, into the blender and ALSO 2 tablespoons mayonnaise, and only 1/4 cup olive oil. This is a version I accidentally discovered and is a delicious and creamy alternative to the traditional Caesar dressing.
~ from Julia Wendell, as posted at Jama’s Alphabet Soup.
ABOUT JULIA WENDELL
Julia balances the inner life of a poet with the outer life of an equestrian athlete. She is the author of seven books of poems, most recently Take This Spoon and The Sorry Flowers. She completed her first International Four-Star Event with her partner, Redmond, a Canadian Sport Horse, and went on to complete several additional Three- and Four-Star Events with Cavendish, an Irish Sport Horse. Come to the X is the sequel to Finding My Distance: A Year in the Life of a Three-day Event Rider. Julia lives in Aiken, South Carolina.
COME TO THE X
by Julia Wendell
published by Galileo Press, 2020
Adult Memoir, 356 pp.
*On shelves May 1, 2020
♥️ Visit Julia’s Official Website to learn more about all her books.
Rebecca is hosting the Roundup at Sloth Reads. Be sure to check out the full menu of poetic goodness being served up around the blogosphere this week. Enjoy your weekend!
*Copyright © 2020 Julia Wendell for Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.
**Copyright © 2020 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.