Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Free Online Class about Laura Ingalls Wilder

Here’s a great—FREE—opportunity:  an online class on the work of Laura Ingalls Wilder, taught by Pamela Smith Hill, history faculty at Missouri State University. (As you may recall, I have a special interest in Laura, and made a pilgrimage to one of the towns she lived in, De Smet, South Dakota.)

"Laura Ingalls Wilder: Her Work and Writing Life" starts on September 22, and you can register now.  (Did I say FREE?)  This is a MOOC, which I’ve just learned stands for “Massive Open Online Course,” something universities are exploring (I don’t know why…to increase brand awareness? To educate the world?).

Anyway, all FREE, all online, and all at your own pace.  No college credit, though, so just for fun.

And here’s where to go directly to sign up:

See you in class…I’ll be sitting in the front row, asking lots of questions and trying to suck up to the teacher!

Saturday, July 12, 2014


I was just remarking to a writer friend the other day that IMHO the hardest thing to learn about writing and the process is patience and the other hardest thing is faith in oneself.  I have no magic answers, but I’m having a little lesson in patience today, with a small cooking project:  Bourbon Candied Cherries.

Steve has become interested in baking, but I was able to lure him into helping me make this, since these cherries should be lovely in drinks.  The problem is that we have to let them marinate for THREE DAYS when they look so delicious RIGHT NOW. 


Here’s the recipe, and I’ll let you know on Wednesday how they were…we will be giving them a run on Tuesday night as we celebrate our wedding anniversary!  (Talk about another thing that requires patience…but that’s a different story!)

Bourbon Candied Cherries
From Cooking Light magazine, July 2012

I’ll give the full recipe, but we halved it:

 1 ½ lbs fresh Bing cherries with stems
1 c sugar
1/3 c fresh lime juice
¼ c water
1 c bourbon or rye whiskey (we took this chance to use up several “dregs” from a variety of bottles)

Place the cherries in a medium glass bowl or large jar.  Combine sugar, juice, and ¼ cup water in a small saucepan; bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to medium; cook for 5 minutes, stirring to dissolve sugar.  Add 1 cup bourbon; bring just to a boil.  Pour the hot bourbon mixture over the cherries.  Cool completely.  Cover and refrigerate at least three days before serving.

Note: They will keep in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

Our plan is to use them in Manhattans and to serve them alongside the incredible and perfect pound cake I love to make (recipe here).

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Fried Chicken in Frederick, Maryland!

You can tell how excited I was about My Salinger Year (yesterday’s post) because I wrote about that before writing about some small food adventures over the Fourth of July weekend.

Steve and I have an annual tradition for the Fourth, one I highly recommend:  eat fried chicken.  This is typically the only time of year we indulge ourselves (though I’m more prone to break this rule than he is).  When you eat fried chicken only once a year, even KFC is pretty good, so we’ve sometimes bought chicken from there.  We also make it ourselves [link to recipe below], and have gotten pretty good at it over the years…but what a mess!!!  (You would think it would be lovely to live in a house that smells like fried chicken for a week but actually it’s not.)  Plus, we were feeling lazy this year.

So how fortuitous that Steve received a promotional email from Bryan Voltaggio (of “Top Chef” and chef/owner of several restaurants in Frederick, Maryland; we had an amazing meal last year at the chef’s table at his fancy restaurant, Volt, to celebrate Steve’s birthday). The email noted that they were taking advance orders for buckets of fried chicken at his casual restaurant, Family Meal.

Buckets!  I sure liked the sound of that.

Also, it’s been my experience that in general, when a restaurant acts as though its fried chicken is something special, it usually is.  (Sadly, this rule does not apply to other food dishes…never buy barbecue because it’s “famous” and I could tell you a sad story about the time I had to try “world’s best concession crabcake” at a fair.)

For several days, we pondered the wisdom of driving an hour for fried chicken.  Remember the lazy part of the equation?

A day or two before the ordering deadline, I decided to call for more information.  I couldn’t find the original email, so I googled “fried chicken in Frederick, Maryland.”

Hello? First up was a link to Doc Geiser’s, which has won Frederick’s best fried chicken award for FOURTEEN YEARS IN A ROW!  And yes, they were open on the Fourth!

Well, I reasoned—first with myself and then with Steve—it’s a little crazy to drive an hour for a bucket of chicken, but if you’re going to try TWO different places after an hour’s drive, doesn’t that really make a lot more sense?

He agreed (which is one of the reasons I married him)…though he did note for the record, “So you’re going to go eat fried chicken before getting more fried chicken?”

Exactly!  We would go to Doc Geiser’s and then bring home the Family Meal chicken.

Doc Geiser’s was in a little strip mall, tucked off a major road of bigger strip malls, and we got a warm welcome as we ordered our 4-piece dinner to eat in (sides: [average] mac and cheese and [really good] lima beans…guess who picked which??).  I was surprised no one else was eating in the restaurant, but as we waited for our food, a stream of people came in to pick up take-out orders, including a huge Styrofoam cooler of 50 pieces!  I gotta say, you see that and you feel pretty confident that you’re in a place that knows its chicken. (Plus, they had sweet tea, as I suspected they might.)

And yes!  The chicken arrived, and it was gorgeously crisp and light, with good crust to meat ratio, and hot-hot-hot!  Not overly salty, not bland…in fact, just about perfect.  There was talk of saving one piece for later, but it was only talk.  Another reason I married Steve: no fighting over the 4-piece meal, as between us we each got our favorite pieces with no need for negotiation (though I don’t understand his attitude that “the wing is only a vehicle for skin”…I mean, of course!  That’s why it’s so desirable!).

And then…off to pick up our bucket of chicken and sides from Family Meal, which is located in an old…train depot? in a semi-industrial part of town.  A very cute and breezy place, with nice outdoor seating and an inviting dining room and bar.  I was pretty confident that this would be good chicken too, because when I placed the order, I had to pick a 15-minute window for pick-up.  (Another fried chicken rule:  if a menu tells you that you’ll have to wait 30 minutes for fried chicken, ORDER IT without hesitation.)

We were lured into ordering some desserts to take home (and a milkshake for the road, which was superb; and actually there’s another blog entry that could [and should] be written, The Milkshakes of My Summer), and we loaded up our meal (which included a beautiful little whole watermelon!) and headed home.

If I had followed my instincts, we would have eaten a piece in the parking lot—just to “try it” while it was hot—but Steve drew the line (another reason I married him…he’s not as crazy as I am!).  So later, while we heated the chicken slightly at home, it was basically room temperature by the time we ate it…which is actually a good test, as superior fried chicken must be amazing whether hot, room temp, or cold.

Passed!  With flying colors!  Amazing!  This was a more modern interpretation of chicken, with a passel of spices and (maybe?) some cracker meal in the coating.  Whatever it was—YUM!  As a bonus, there was a delicious hot sauce for dunking, so good that we felt a little guilty covering up the amazing chicken with sauce.  But you know, if that’s how the chef serves it….

Two great sides, also:  green bean casserole (which was along the lines of the “famous” Thanksgiving green bean casserole with the fried onions, but made with real ingredients instead of cans of soup) and smoked potato salad, which was a brilliant interpretation on a dish that’s already awfully brilliant.

To top it off, we’ve been eating the little watermelon for breakfast for the past several days…it’s like the way watermelon is supposed to taste and usually doesn’t anymore, sweet and juicy, deep red, seedless.  The essence of summer.  Totally worth an hour’s drive itself!

If you’re feeling that you must have some fried chicken right now and can’t possibly wait until July 4, 2015, here’s more information:

~~Doc Geiser’s:

Monday, July 7, 2014

Ultimate Luxury: Reading "My Salinger Year" by Joanna Rakoff

I have a new definition of luxury—beyond my fantasies of all-you-can-eat lobster and all-you-can-drink Champagne—and that is to read a book that feels as though it was essentially and EXACTLY written for you.  Your tastes, your life, your interests:  it’s as if the author had a checklist and spent years writing this book just for YOU.

Obviously this is not what author Joanna Rakoff did with her new memoir, My Salinger Year.  But that is how I felt as I flew through the book in the twenty-four hours after getting it in my hands.  The subject matter alone proves my point:

First person, young girl, coming of age. Check. I love plenty of other points-of-view and point-of-view characters, but a luxury book by this new definition I’ve invented would have to be first person coming of age, told by a young girl, preferably a young girl looking back, preferably looking back on events that happened in…

New York City.  Check.  The book is set in late 90s New York and the author is involved in….

Something bookish. Check.  The author works for an esteemed literary agency, that “glamorous” first job out of school, similar to my “glamorous” foray in the NYC publishing business when I was an editorial assistant at The Hudson Review back in the olden days.  The author’s work involves….
J.D. Salinger! Check and check!!  It’s not that I exclusively read books about (or by) Salinger, haha, but he was my literary idol growing up and is still an author whose works I admire immensely. The Catcher in the Rye is easily in my top five favorite books list.  In My Salinger Year, Rakoff finds herself working for J.D. Salinger’s literary agent!  She, however, has never read his work (which is probably a good thing at this point, as she is strictly warned about turning fangirl if Salinger calls or comes to the office).  She is put in charge of sending a typed (NOT Xeroxed!) form letter to each of the many, many pieces of fan mail Salinger receives, and through those letters—and her interactions—with the man himself—she eventually does read the work, and writes beautifully here about that experience.   

All this, and the book is well-organized, well-written, smart, funny, and even (something Salinger would appreciate) well-designed on the page.  While this memoir may not meet your exact checklist of “perfect book” as it did mine, I recommend it to anyone who has ever felt world-weary of phonies or who wants a peek behind the scenes of a literary agency (albeit a rather old-fashioned model of a literary agency).  Or, frankly, anyone who enjoys a great book about youthful salad days and the challenges of learning to navigate the larger world.

Here’s a review from the Washington Post.
Here’s more information about Joanna Rakoff and the book.


Thursday, July 3, 2014

Yes, Me Again: I'm Interviewed at Readers Lane

Thanks to Frances Carden for interviewing me for Readers Lane…I got to talk about my books, my writing process, my current projects, and even managed to throw in a  humblebrag about my Virginia State Fair blue ribbons for chocolate chip cookies and banana bread.

Here’s where to find the online interview:

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Easy Come, Easy Go: Who Was in the 1949 Best American Short Stories?

I’ve been cleaning out some bookshelves, culling and rearranging and rediscovering, and one book that I rediscovered in a dusty corner is an old edition of The Best American Short Stories…old as in the 1949 edition. I bought it at a used book store a zillion years ago because it contains a story by J.D. Salinger (“A Girl I Knew,” originally published in Good Housekeeping).

The editor is Martha Foley (one of the founders of Story magazine) and while the introduction doesn’t outline the selection process, the gist seems to be about the same:  the “best” short stories are selected from among all those published in lit journals and magazines, with lists in the back of the book, a “Roll of Honor” and a longer “Distinctive Short Stories in American Magazines.”  Foley writes in her intro of a new generation of writers rising to the surface: 

“…this country may be entering the richest and most productive literary period it yet has known.  Generations of writers, it would appear, do not follow one another in regular chronological order, so many years to each generation. Instead they seem to follow a pattern of social upheaval, with all its soul-searching and questioning of life and people. The financial crash of 1929 was one such dividing line and the two world wars another. The travail they caused has conditioned the kind of writing that followed.”

So, while it doesn’t seem as though her selections were made solely to showcase up-and-coming writers, I get the sense that’s her pitch:  here are the new writers for the new post-war world….here are the “best” writers right now and into the future.

Here are the featured writers:

George Albee
Livingston Biddle, Jr.
Elizabeth Bishop*
Paul Bowles*
Frank Brookhouser
Borden Deal
Adele Dolokhov
Ward Dorrance
Henry Gregor Felsen
Robert Gibbons
Beatrice Grifffith
Elizabeth Hardwick*
Joseph Heller*
Ruth Herschberger
Laura Hunter
Jim Kjelgaard**
Roderick Lull
T.D. Mabry
Agnes Macdonald
Jane Mayhall
Patrick Morgan
Irving Pfeffer
John Rogers
J.D. Salinger*
Alfredo Segre
Madelon Shapiro
Jean Stafford*
Jessamyn West*

*  = a writer I’ve heard of (not to say I’m the most sophisticated, knowledgeable reader ever, but I like to think I’ve been around the literary block a time or two)

** = a distant memory of a children’s dog book came to me while I was typing this list, so while I guess I remember him, I didn’t the first few times I studied the list

I don’t provide this list to chastise Martha Foley for choosing 11 women out of 28 or to research possible writers of color and their presence/absence on this list.  Nor do I want to poke fun at her for her lame prognostication skills:  after all, she did catch both J.D. Salinger and Joseph Heller at early points in their careers.

What I do want to point out is that NO ONE KNOWS what the test of time will do.  NO ONE KNOWS.  Nothing is guaranteed in the long-term. What’s up can be down, what’s down can be up—and we simply have to write our stories and let time sort it out for us in the end.  That’s what we should do—and, honestly, don’t ever forget that’s the only thing we can do.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

My Story in Midwestern Gothic

When I first saw the literary journal Midwestern Gothic at the AWP Book Fair, I knew I wanted my work to appear there. It felt like destiny, since I am from Iowa and all.  A rejection or two later (but who’s counting?), I’m pleased to report that I have a short story in the new issue:  “The Devil’s Daughter.”

I read this piece at the last Converse low-res MFA residency period, and—if anyone is keeping track—it’s part of my current work-in-progress, the official title of which is “my 200-page mess.”

Here’s the opening of my story, which takes place in 1981: 
 My roommate arrived first, staking her claim. Probably someone told her do it that way, her cum laude mother or Ivy League dad or an older sibling or cousin in college. I had no one telling me anything. So I didn’t know I should take the overnight bus to Chicago from Iowa instead of the one arriving late in the afternoon, meaning that I unlocked the dorm room door to see a fluffy comforter with bright poppies already arranged on the bed along the wall with the window, cracked open and grabbing the only breeze. Several dozen white plastic hangers holding blazers and skirts and blouses filled the closet with the door where F.U. wasn’t gouged into the wood.
 I rubbed my fingers along the grooves of those letters, imagining a deeply angry freshman girl digging a nail file from the clutter of her purse, carving those letters into the wood while at the library her roommate wrote a smart paper about Jane Austen or blew her boyfriend in a car parked by the lake or spray-painted acorns lustrous gold for table centerpieces at a sorority mother-daughter tea. I hoped my roommate wouldn’t be that angry girl.
 Also, I hoped I wouldn’t be....

If you’d like a copy of the issue, you can purchase it here.  (It’s available on e-book, too.)

More information about the journal:



DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.