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December 24

Whenever we spend the holidays with my relatives in northern California, we eat Dungeness crab on Christmas Eve. I can’t remember when the tradition was started, but when Brandon and I got together, I introduced him to it. He was still mostly a vegetarian then, and he’d never tasted crab, but he was curious about it - enough to grab a couple of crab legs and, however awkwardly, get himself around them. He took to it fast. This year, we spent Christmas in Seattle, on our own, and we decided to continue the Christmas Eve crab tradition, since Washington is the state that gave Dungeness crab its name. It felt fitting. Plus, Brandon announced, he had a plan: he would catch our crabs himself.

I told my mother about this plan a few weeks ago, when she came to visit for a long weekend. Molly, she breathed, that’s SO romaaaaaantic. I agreed. But I also knew that, because neither Brandon nor I had crabbed before, there was a decent chance that we would come home with nothing. Or that we would fall out of the boat while trying to lower down the traps, die of hypothermia, sink to the bottom of the ocean, be eaten by vengeful crabs, and never come home at all.

That was when I suggested that Brandon drop a line to our friend Renee, who’s a seasoned crabber, to see if she might be up for a Christmas Eve outing.

Renee checked the tide tables, and last Saturday, around noon, we met her and her dad Jim at the boat launch at Port Susan. We pushed off. The water was rough, and Jim bobbed and weaved, putting bait in the traps.

Renee ate a faceful of water.

But one at a time, they got the traps in, feeding the ropes down down down, until they felt them settle on the bottom.

Once the traps were down, there was nothing to do but wait.

We tied up on a strip of beach where Alice could run, and while Brandon and I arranged some life preservers-slash-seat cushions along a wet log, Renee produced a Thermos of delicata squash-and-leek soup, a bottle of prosecco, paper cups, and a dozen salted chocolate cookies.

(For the record, I will never again leave home without Renee.)

When the soup was gone and the prosecco was gone and Alice had run approximately four dozen laps of our log, it was time to check the traps.

Sunset was due to come at 4:22 that day. We hurried.

When you bring in a crab, the first thing to do is to check its sex, and then return any females to the water. Then you check the size of your remaining haul: to be kept legally, a Dungeness crab must be at least 6 ¼ inches across. This one was a runt.

If you want to geek out about the nuts and bolts of recreational crabbing, or go crabbing someday in Washington State, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife website is the place for you. Also, note: there will be a lot of seagulls, and if you have any uneaten bait left when you haul in the traps and head back to shore, THEY WILL WANT TO EAT IT.

Unless a bald eagle makes a sudden, swooping appearance on the horizon, and then the gulls will unanimously decide, Oh, ha ha! Silly us! She can have it! And flee.

I’ve never had a better Christmas Eve.

We caught only two crabs that met the legal size limits, and Renee and Jim insisted that we take them. After we left, they went to a grocery store to get some for themselves. Another year, I hope, we can make it up to them. Maybe in 2012.

Happy New Year, friends.

P.S. Our friend Becky Selengut made a fantastic video about how to cook and clean a Dungeness crab. It’s a great resource.


In my better moments

About three weeks ago, I printed out all the drafts I’ve written so far for my next book, and then I spent three weeks avoiding reading them.

I finally got up the courage on Sunday night. I poured myself a beer, sat down at the dining room table, and read through all of it. Afterward, I wanted to stab myself in the eye. But that didn’t seem like it would make the manuscript any better, so I went to bed.

I woke up at five the next morning. While I lay there in the dark, thinking about the injustice of being awake at such an hour on my day off, I remembered how rough and horrible my drafts were, and then I started thinking about that instead, and then I started sweating. I finally got out of bed at 6:45, put on my bathrobe, sat down at my desk, and started to write. My drafts are still rough and horrible, and they will be for a while, until I know what to do with them. But for as long as I sat at my desk, I felt better. When I’m writing, when my fingers are moving over the keys and words are marching across the screen, I don’t worry. Physically, I can’t worry; there’s no space for it in my head. I wish I could remember that more easily, so that I could choose to write first, rather than worry.


Then again, I won’t really have to remember, because I’ll be sitting at that desk for the majority of my waking hours between now and March 1, when my manuscript is due. I’m terrified. And, in my better moments, excited.

When I’m writing a lot, I like to read about writing. It makes me feel less crazy. Lately, I’ve been reading Stephen King’s On Writing, which I think one of you may have recommended to me? In any case, this passage on page 153 nails it.

Once I start work on a project, I don’t stop and I don’t slow down unless I absolutely have to. If I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind – they begin to seem like characters instead of real people. The tale’s narrative cutting edge starts to rust and I begin to lose my hold on the story’s plot and pace. Worst of all, the excitement of spinning something new begins to fade. The work starts to feel like work, and for most writers that is the smooch of death. . . .

I used to tell interviewers that I wrote every day except for Christmas, the Fourth of July, and my birthday. That was a lie. I told them that because if you agree to an interview you have to say something, and it plays better if it’s something at least half-clever. Also, I didn’t want to sound like a workaholic dweeb (just a workaholic, I guess). The truth is that when I’m writing, I write every day, workaholic dweeb or not. That includes Christmas, the Fourth, and my birthday (at my age you try to ignore your goddam birthday anyway). And when I’m not working, I’m not working at all, although during those periods of full stop I usually feel at loose ends with myself and have trouble sleeping. For me, not working is the real work.

Hi from here.


To poach a pear

My mother is usually the one who makes poached pears. I have a photo of her in an old family album, holding a platter of them. By the length of her hair, I’m guessing that the year was 1982. My father must have snapped the picture as they were leaving for a holiday party. That was the kind of thing he liked to do. She’s standing in the wood-paneled den of the house we lived in until I was 13, wearing what appears to be a sand-colored fur jacket. She must have curled her hair with hot rollers, because it sits on her shoulders in soft loops, and where she’s pinned it back above her left ear, you can see the sparkle of her earring. Her eyes are lined in dark pencil, and her lipstick is as red and glossy as a Robert Palmer girl’s. She’s staring at something just beyond the camera, probably waiting for the flash to go off. The platter is in front of her chest, tilted slightly downward, so you can see the pears in neat rows. For her, that’s clearly what the photo is about: a dozen pears standing upright, each carefully peeled, poached, painted in dark chocolate, and topped with a sprig of fresh holly leaves. I like that for my father, the photo is clearly about her.

I had never poached a pear until yesterday. There’s no real reason - though I guess it’s that, for many years of my life, poached pears were a grown-up thing. They were the dessert that my mother would make for parties, or for dinners with guests who arrived after I’d gone to bed. The fact that the pears weren’t for me should have made me desperate to have them, but the truth is, even with their chocolate coating, they were fruit, and as anyone who’s been a kid can tell you, fruit isn’t a real dessert.

Of course, I’m older now than my mother was when I was born. I’m old enough to poach a pear.

My mother was in town last weekend. On Saturday morning, we went to the market, and because we needed apples for an escarole salad at Delancey, we went to see my friend Wynne. Wynne happened to have some nice pears, so when we left with our box of apples, we also took the four Purple Goddesses up there in the first photo, and a Comice. But I wasn’t thinking yet about poached pears, or about the picture of my mother. That’s not how things work. It was only today, a day after they were made, as I sat down with a bowl and a spoon and the last pear with chocolate sauce, that I realized there was nothing original about what I was doing, that I thought of my mother in her curls, with her silver platter. She went home on Sunday, but I know she would approve.

I can’t remember what recipe my mother uses for her pears, though I think it involves red wine. For mine, I credit Nigel Slater. His books are what I pick up first when I need an idea, and that was the scene yesterday, when I noticed that my pears were rapidly veering toward overripe. He has a number of poached pear recipes, including one that uses Sauternes and one that uses maple syrup and one that’s to be served with pomegranate sorbet, but I chose the version on page 1017, because it came with the following enticement: "...[T]he pears are poached in a light sugar syrup till almost translucent and the chocolate comes in the form of a warm, flowing sauce." Warm, flowing sauce!!! DING DING DING.

As poached pear recipes go, this one could be called plain: just pears, water, brown sugar (or golden caster sugar, if you have it), a vanilla bean, and lemon juice. But what I like about it is that you wind up with a poached pear that tastes intensely of pear. The end. You could add some spices or switch out the water for wine, of course, but then you’ve got a whole other experience. The point here is the pear itself, soft enough to cut with a spoon. Once you’ve got that, you put it in a bowl, and then you make a chocolate sauce - a ganache, really - with cream, a little coffee, and a sliver of butter, and while it’s still warm, you spoon it on top. You can take it from there.

But I should also tell you about something I noticed today, when I ate the last pear. I warmed the leftover chocolate sauce, but the pear was still cold from the refrigerator, and as it turns out, that’s a very, very nice combination. The sauce cooled immediately when it hit the pear, and rather than being thin and fluid, it turned to something like well-stirred sour cream, or a very smooth toothpaste. I know that sounds revolting, but it really feels terrific when your teeth sink through it. Think frosting. In any case, it’s not my mother’s pear, but it’s elegant in its way. I like it very much.

Poached Pears with Warm Chocolate Sauce
Adapted from Nigel Slater’s Tender, Volume II

Any good, ripe pear should work here, but I particularly like Comice.

Note that the chocolate sauce below is actually half the amount of Slater’s original recipe. (His uses 200 grams of chocolate, and so on.) When I tried his recipe, I used only three pears, and in the interest of not wasting ingredients or having a lot of leftovers, I decided to make a half batch of the chocolate sauce. l found that I had more than enough to go around, so I’ve typed up the recipe that way. It should be fine for four pears. But if you want to be guaranteed a real abundance of chocolate - and I wouldn’t blame you - you might want to double the quantities.

100 grams (½ cup packed) golden brown sugar
1 liter (about 4 ¼ cups) water
1 vanilla bean, split
A squeeze of lemon juice
4 plump, ripe pears

For the chocolate sauce:
100 grams dark chocolate (I used Scharffen Berger 62%), chopped
1 Tbsp. strong black coffee
90 ml heavy cream
A small knob of butter

Combine the sugar, water, vanilla bean, and lemon juice in a medium (3-quart, let’s say) saucepan. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and leave to simmer gently. Meanwhile, peel the pears, cut them in half from stem to blossom, and remove the cores with a sharp knife and a teaspoon. Slip them into the simmering syrup, and let them cook gently until they are tender to the point of a knife. You’ll see that as they cook, they begin to look somewhat translucent, more yellow than white. That’s what you want. They should take anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes to cook, and if some are ready before others, just lift them out and transfer them to a plate. When all the pears are tender, take the pan off the heat, put back any pears that you’ve taken out, and leave them to cool in the syrup.

When you’re ready to eat, put the chocolate into a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan with the coffee and the cream. Warm slowly over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the chocolate has melted. Once the chocolate has softened, stir until it is very smooth. Then stir in the butter. Remove the pan from the heat.

Drain the pears, and put them in bowls or a serving dish. Serve with the warm sauce alongside, so that each diner can pour on as much as he or she wants.

Note: Any sauce left over can be warmed gently in a microwave - be sure to give it a stir every 10 seconds, and don’t let it get too hot - or over a double boiler.

Yield: 4 servings