August: Listen, Eat, Read, Go
Some - but not too many - recommendations.
I’m back from a summer vacation where I tried not to look at my phone or computer. I tried not to read the news. I tried, frankly, not to have any thoughts beyond, “This is pretty” and “This tastes good.” It was awesome. My friend Jesse Ashlock recently wrote a piece about the glory of summer in the Northeast and I agree that there’s nowhere I’d rather be in August than New England.
Here’s what’s on my mind this month. Paid subscribers, a new piece on solo retreats is coming soon.
Listen: In every parent’s quest to find adult songs that can pass as kids songs, there’s a miraculous moment when the child says, “Mommy, can you put on X,” and you’re like, oh my god, I’m going to make it! But it takes a lot of trial and error. I’ve been creating radio stations based off different Annie Lennox songs, and I’m here to tell you that there is a playlist that starts with “Walking on Broken Glass,” and goes on to “Jump for my Love” by The Pointer Sisters, “SOS” by Abba, and “Radio Ga Ga” by Queen. The kids are obsessed, and most importantly, so am I. I hope this inspires a break from Frozen.
Eat: “Jammy Summer Squash Pasta” from Arty Parties. I can’t overpraise the work of my friend Julia Sherman. She’s a true artist: photographer, sculptor, bon vivant, iconic hostess, plant nerd, as well as the author of two beloved cookbooks, Salad for President and Arty Parties. Someone should write a book about her, maybe it will be me. In the meantime, I’ve made this pasta eight times this summer – it’s dead simple and sublime. One time I served the jammy squash on goat cheese toasts. She says the key is the basil. Thank you, Julia, for letting me reprint the recipe, and for feeding me.
Rigatoni with Jammy Summer Squash and Tomato (Make it Meat Sauce!)
Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
Yield: Serves 4
I learned this recipe from an Italian family friend, who wowed us all with his wizardry with only four main ingredients. This is a stupid simple sauce, but the extended cook time transforms the squash into a sweet, jammy delight. It can be served on its own as a vegetable side, or tossed with pasta as a main.
Use the larger squash/zucchini, and their water content reduces down with the longer cook time. Look for really juicy heirloom tomatoes - orange makes for a really nice colored sauce. If you’re not up for pasta, this can be served on its own as a vegetable side or on top of toast. Make this in large batches at the end of the summer when tomatoes and squash abound, and freeze for the darkest days of Winter.
1/2 cup (120 ml) high quality extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for pasta
6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3 pounds (1362 g) medium/large heirloom summer squash (about 4), cut into 1-2”” thick chunks
2 teaspoons Kosher salt, plus more for pasta water
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, plus more for serving
2.5 lb ripe heirloom tomatoes (about 4-5)
1 pound (450 g) Rigatoni
1 1/2 cups (20 g) Genovese basil, roughly torn
Parmesan cheese, to serve
Optional Add beef
1 1/4 lb (? g) ground beef (optional)
1 1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
Cracked black pepper
2 teaspoon olive oil
Set a large Dutch oven over medium heat. When the pan is hot, add olive oil and the garlic, and sauté for 30 seconds until fragrant but not brown. Add the squash, salt, and pepper flakes, and cook for 12 minutes, until you start to see some color on the skin of the squash. Stir regularly to prevent garlic browning on the bottom of the pan.
While the squash cooks, prepare the tomato. Slice and remove the butt end of each one, and grate the flesh into a mixing bowl against the large holes of a box grater. Discard the skin when you get to the end. Add to the squash and cook for one minute on high, then reduce to medium-low, cover and cook for fifteen minutes. Remove the cover and cook at an active simmer for an hour to an hour and a half, or until the tomato juices have cooked down and thickened and the squash is soft and jammy. Stir every 15 minutes or so, scraping any caramelized bits from the bottom of the pan, stirring more frequently towards the end as the sauce reduces. Add one cup of the basil and stir to combine, cover and remove from the heat.
If adding meat, season the beef with salt and a few cracks of freshly ground black pepper. Heat a 10” cast iron pan over medium heat, and add olive oil to coat. When the oil is hot but not smoking, break the meat up in small clumps across the surface of the pan. Cook, without disturbing for 5 minutes until brown on one side, then stir and flip, breaking up large clusters. Cook for an additional 2-3 minutes until just cooked through. Transfer meat to a separate plate to be added later.
Fill a large pot with heavily salted water, and bring to a boil. Cook the pasta according to package instructions, and just before draining, set aside about a cup of the pasta water. Drain the pasta, transfer to a serving bowl and toss with a glug of olive oil. If the sauce feels too thick, add ¼ cup of the reserved pasta water to the sauce and stir to thin, adding more if needed. If using beef, add to the sauce and stir to combine.
Garnish with the remaining ½ cup of fresh basil, a pinch of red pepper flakes, and an optional grating of parmesan cheese.
Here’s what I’ve read this summer, briefly reviewed as if we were having drinks: that is, hyperbolically and with no qualifications.
Leaving Cheyenne by Larry McMurtry – The saddest book I’ve ever read. My poor heart. As was the case with Lonesome Dove earlier in the summer, I spent the first twenty pages being like, “Is this good? It’s not that good. Oh, it’s kinda good.” By the middle (Molly’s section, if you’ve read it), I was once again thinking, “Jesus, I am being handled by a master.” My husband and I were both reading in bed when I finished. I quietly lowered the book to my chest. Shut my eyes. And sobbed. I don’t think Matt will ever stop laughing at me.
A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley – I can’t be alone in having a serious grudge against Pulitzer Prize-winning books. I know my grudge is beyond petty, but I’ve felt allergic to them most of my reading life. In that late aughts I read Olive Kitterage and Tinkers and I was like, all right, these are good books. Every writer lives in New England knows how to make a moment. I still think about scenes in both books from time to time, so it’s not that they didn’t leave a mark (Tinkers more so). But I did not feel that they were seismic, totemic, ones I would read and reread.
In a vacation rental on Cape Cod, after deliriously lovely days of going from the ocean, to the pond, to the bay, I was just starting Michael Ondaatje’s memoir Running in the Family (more on that in a moment) and I saw A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley in the house library. And I’m like, “Oh yeah, Jane Smiley, I haven’t read her since high school.” I glanced at the back summary. “A farm in Iowa? Shakespearean? Wait, what?” I opened it, fell into it wide-eyed, put down the Ondaatje (!), and enjoyed every second. I’m still in awe of Smiley. It’s Great American Novel stuff: compelling, rich, transportive. And Smiley really takes her time. I learned a lot about writing women who go insane (not a spoiler—it’s based on King Lear). I’m not sure I will ever reread it, but Lord I’m glad I read it this once.
Vegas: A Memoir of a Dark Season by John Gregory Dunne – This is the book in which JGD recounts having a nervous breakdown, leaving his wife (Joan Didion), and moving to Las Vegas for a summer. There he performs the role of depressed and pervy voyeur/journalist. He chats with prostitutes, criminals, and show girls. He threatens infidelity, then goes home without betraying his marriage. He calls the book a memoir but makes a note that it’s partially invented. Its delights go beyond the Didion-Dunne of it all—Vegas (the city and the book) is full of the grotesque, seventies sordidness, as well as some indelible crazies (Artha, the prostitute who keeps a ledger of every customer and every sex act performed, is a favorite). Dunne has a flawless ear for dialogue. I have no idea why it’s out of print (Hello, McNally Editions! NYRB? I have sent you DMs about this).
The Complete Poems 1927-1979 by Elizabeth Bishop – I took very few poets with me out to the desert in June, but I’m having a Bishop Summer (is there anything less sexy than a “Summer of Bishop and McMurtry?”). While making my way through the poems of A Cold Spring, I started listening to Kamran Javadizadeh’s Close Readings poetry podcast. He did a wonderful episode on “Over 2000 Illustrations and A Complete Concordance” with Gillian White that I highly recommend you check out. Read the entire poem if you’re interested, but I’ll quote the ending below—tell me you aren’t in the presence of wild greatness:
Everything only connected by “and” and “and.”
Open the book. (The gilt rubs off the edges
of the pages and pollinates the fingertips.)
Open the heavy book. Why couldn’t we have seen
this old Nativity while we were at it?
—the dark ajar, the rocks breaking with light,
an undisturbed, unbreathing flame,
colorless, sparkless, freely fed on straw,
and, lulled within, a family with pets,
—And looked and looked our infant sight away.
“The dark ajar?” “Looked and looked our infant sight away?!” Another great joy was discovering John Ashbery reading the poem, but a warning: you will tear up at the end.
Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje – Fuck, I wish I had read this before I had a written a memoir. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Ondaatje travels back to Sri Lanka, the place he was born, and what follows is a mix of the imagined and historical as he traces his family’s story through the land. Like most memoirs, the subject is memory itself. It’s the kind of book that feels alive in your hands – impressionistic, writhing, liberated (& liberating). I’m a Skin of a Lion, Billy the Kid, The English Patient kind of girl, but I don’t love them all. Divisadero was a big miss, and Warlight I couldn’t get into. I’m only in the middle of Running in the Family, so I might change my mind. But this is his best book.
Go: Last summer was our first trip to Maine, a place that had taken on mythical proportions in my mind. The trip was alright. Rainy, cold, and I was sick. I came home disappointed and confused. Clearly it was beautiful, but why couldn’t I crack it? This year I was on a mission to fall in love.
It turns out it was super easy! All I needed was sultry weather, my bearings, a game-plan, and my in-laws traveling with us. And fall in love I did - Maine imprinted a spruce-scented memory in me that screams peak-summer dreamscape. I can’t wait to go back.
Both years we were based in the Midcoast, around Rockland/Camden. It goes almost without saying but I’m not an expert on Maine (LOL), just a woman with a list and desire to enjoy travel despite having two small children. Both years I crowdsourced Maine recommendations from Instagram and my friends who live there. I know it’s late in the season for travel guides, but here’s what I loved:
I think everyone recommended McLoons Lobster Shack on Spruce Head Island. It was my first stop on both trips and to be honest, I didn’t eat lobster again for the rest of the time because I knew it wouldn’t be as good.
My kids love lighthouses. I know why I like them (drama, romance), but I’m not sure what they get so excited about. Owl’s Head and Marshall Point Lighthouse are favorites. I’ve brought picnics to both and after seeing the lighthouse (still unclear why it’s an activity, but ok) we passed afternoons on the beaches.
In Candem, The Place is a exquisite bakery that sells out of everything so get there early. Oyster River Wine Growers for a glass of wine. Long Grain for any meal. wolfpeach, Tinderhearth, Lucky Betty’s came recommended but we didn’t make it.
Our favorites beaches were outside of the towns. Crescent Beach State Park and Birch Point State Park in Owl’s Head. Drift Inn Beach in St. George, a great stop after the Marshall Point Lighthouse. Further south, Pemaquid Beach in Bristol had it all - fine white sand, ice cream, french fries, and great facilities.
Everyone recommended Primo. The first year we couldn’t get in and I was cranky about it. This year, not only did we get in, but who should be walking towards me in the honeyed sunset light but a beloved face from my past. Kellie Brooks was the former assistant general manager at Union Square Cafe (the woman who helped hire me). She’s now managing Primo and has built an enviable life in Maine. Matt and I had an exquisite meal sans children: the calabrian chili pasta with mussels was bananas. The next night it was Matt’s parents turn to go, and we took the kids over to see the pigs and the farm. We found out you can order a pizza for take out and eat it at 0km, their barn/bar where they do dollar oysters on Sunday. A top experience. If you can’t get a reservation, show up at 4:50pm and wait in line to put in your name at 5pm. Worth it!
Fernald’s Neck Preserve. We did a 2.5 mile hike (with children, it took hours), found wild blueberries, and jumped in the lake. The was our favorite freshwater swimming. We stayed on a Hosmer Pond and there are good spots on the Megunticook River for kids, but this felt the easiest and most pristine.
When you drive through tiny Wiscasset you might be inclined to line up for lobster rolls at Red’s Eats (you can, it’s very good), but you must must stop at Treats. Buy whatever: sandwiches, fresh focaccia, candies, wine, specialty foods. It’s a sophisticated bakery and market where everything was top-notch and left a craving. Then stop at Angelo Santo, a jewelbox of a shop run by artist Maria Vettese, filled with unexpected books, pottery, art, and flowers.
For Midcoast food shopping, Jess’s Fish Market, Fresh Off The Farm, Megunticook General Store, Lincolnville General Store (which has surprisingly good pizza). For wine, you really really should stop at Maine & Loire in Portland, one of my favorite wine stores in the country. You can also see above and get wine at Treats. In Damariscotta, Rising Tide Co-Op had lots of goodies.
The Boothbay Region Land Trust is a park and nature preserve that deserves a more romantic name. It’s dreamy. The walk was actually walkable with children. My in-laws got to bird watch. There’s a playground in the woods that looks like a fairy kingdom (there were also twig and flower fairy houses built throughout the walk). It was one of those activities that everyone genuinely enjoyed. The Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens and Boothbay Railway Village Museum also came recommended.
After that walk, I highly recommend Glidden Point Oyster Farms. Sit outside right above the oyster beds and gorge yourself.
I went to three different locations of Sherman’s Maine Coast Book Shops (Rockland, Boothbay Harbor, and Damariscotta) and each one endeared me. I always head straight to the local interest section of any bookstore and Maine books is one of their specialities. Last year we bought Robert McCloskey’s Time of Wonder, and this year I got Direction to Myself by Heidi Julavits and a Maine wildflower guide. There are so many lovely used bookstores (Stone Soup Books, Lobster Lane Books, Skidompha Secondhand Books come immediately to mind) but Sherman’s scratched the itch for my children as well: they have a great selection of non-obnoxious toys.
I hope you’re on vacation, resting, and reading. More soon.
Books mentioned are always available in my author bookshelf.