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Summer Cooking: The Writer’s Life as Kitchen

By Chris Ransick

Recipes, like essays about the writer’s life, represent a fantasy; reality is what you make of it in your own kitchen or at your own desk.

I set out to make a white clam sauce pasta dinner last night, a favorite with my family. The recipe, the best thing I ever saw come from my father-in-law’s second wife, lists a fairly simple set of ingredients: chopped clams, olive oil, butter, garlic, fresh basil, salt, white wine, with parmesan and parsley for sprinkling on top. There are the usual directions: chop this, mix that, heat for so long, add this and that.

I like to enhance the meal by making a tender spinach pasta from scratch. I serve it in generous portions, ladling the savory sauce over the bright green ribbons. A loaf of oven-warmed, crusty bread and a fresh green salad complete the meal, along with a chilled bottle of Pinot Grigio. There is homemade mango sorbet to finish.

These are the ingredients for a fine summer evening on our backyard patio, where the conversation is good and we share the pleasure of family while cool night falls on our quiet, humble neighborhood.

That’s my reality; here’s where the fantasy comes in. You’ve seen cooking shows on TV featuring a preternaturally calm chef who sets to work at a shining counter where all ingredients, already washed, peeled, and chopped, lie carefully measured in their individual bowls. Even the salt is measured out in its little teaspoon amount into a tiny cup.

Yeah, right. Sure. That’s how we all do it.

The reality in my kitchen is that when I use a recipe at all, I typically start heating and stirring things together, consulting the list as I go, hustling to the cupboard for this, scampering out to the garden for that, hoping things on the stove don’t scorch in the meantime. Usually it works out OK, even if I’m left feeling a bit frantic.

It’s summer, and that’s how I cook. It’s also a little bit about how I cultivate the writing life during the long, languid days of the season.

I teach for a living and I live to write. I do not confuse the two. The ingredient lists are different and the two dishes are not ever served at the same meal.

Summer is a time to enjoy the open space away from my college classrooms. Don’t mistake me here: I love to teach. Despite everything Colorado has done to hamstring its higher education system (we’re 48th in the nation in higher ed funding, 47th in funding for K-12 — woohoo, Colorado!), I appreciate my students and I accept the challenge of doing good work with little support amid an environment hostile to teachers.

But I appreciate the break from teaching as well. I don’t necessarily write more during summer than during the academic year, August through May. In fact, I write less because I spend summer in other pursuits–being with my family, hiking and biking, brewing beer and wine, drinking said beer and wine, and maintaining a large vegetable garden, which includes the harvest, processing, and cooking of bushels of organically grown food.

I do write in the summer but it’s not programmatic, according to recipe, as it needs to be during the working months when if I fail to slot time to write, I simply cannot get to it. In the summer, I gather my ingredients as I go and stir them in when I can–and most importantly, I don’t worry about it.

I might take off on a summer morning at 7 a.m., when the air is yet cool, to ride my bike down the Bear Creek trail with a pouch full of snacks and a small notebook. I might ride and stop to write; I might just ride.

I might, for no good reason, at 2:00 on a Tuesday afternoon, cruise down to my local independent coffee shop with my laptop and cultivate that curious public/private “third place” zone where I’ve been known to bang out a short story over several hours without ever stopping to look up.

I might, after a long, hot day in the garden, take a quick shower and wander out to my hammock in the shade with paper and pen, ready to cook up a meal from whatever ingredients my imagination was tending while I tended the plants.

I might sit up at my basement desk until three in the morning, the house cool and quiet above me, and revise page after page of poetry and prose, working toward an imaginary, toothless deadline that I’ve set for myself.

In the end, summer is the time to cook and write without a recipe, to fall back on the knowledge that I know the tools, I know inherently the flavors I want and the amounts of ingredients I need to create them.

There will be a time soon enough to again measure, prepare in advance, cut and slice with precision; until I’m forced to do that again by constraints of time and energy, I’ll choose instead to make of my summer writing a big, loose jambalaya stew of whatever I find available.

And the living is easy.

Chris Ransick, Denver’s poet laureate, won a Colorado Book Award in 2003 for his first book, Never Summer. His subsequent collection of short fiction,A Return to Emptiness, was a finalist for another Colorado Book Award and won the Colorado Authors League Award for fiction. In 2006, he releasedLost Songs & Last Chances, his second collection of poetry. Chris is a native New Yorker who has lived in Colorado since 1990 with his wife and two children. He’s a member of PEN USA’s Freedom to Write Committee and has served on Englewood’s Public Library Board for the last 8 years. He’s currently at work on his next book, Asleep Beneath the Hill of Dreams.


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