Friday, October 24, 2014

The Jefferson Hotel Apple Cheddar Pie

When I left college in 1960 and went back to Arlington, Virginia, to live with my parents, my father gently prodded me to go out an get a job. The very next Monday he put the Help Wanted—Women section of the Washington Post in front of me at breakfast with a number of likely prospects circled, one of which was a job as a clerk in the library of the Post itself. (Yes, it was Help Wanted—Women. In the old days it was okay to blatantly discriminate.) Then he drove me into town—that is, Washington—and dropped me in front of the Post.

I was wearing a white blouse of my sister's, a straight black skirt (what they call nowadays a pencil skirt, though on an actual woman such a skirt bears no resemblance to a pencil), flesh-colored stockings (panty hose hadn't been invented yet), and plain black pumps. I mention this because my normal clothes were way more bohemian, tending toward black stockings, turtle neck sweaters, and those boho shoes from Greenwich Village whose brand name I can almost remember. Anyway, in the prissy clerk getup I successfully passed muster in the personnel office of the Washington Post. They gave me a stack of cards to alphabetize. When I had done this they sent me up to see Jack Burness, the boss of the library. In my sister's white blouse I impressed him as being sober and industrious, and he hired me. First full-time job I ever applied for. That I was hired was a fantastic piece of luck. I was too young and silly to appreciate it.

You're wondering what all this has to do with the pie.

The reason the Post needed a new clerk was that one of the old ones was leaving, Mr. Burness's second in command, an affable red-headed man by the name of Mark Hannan. He was so highly regarded that the library staff was taking him to a farewell luncheon at the Jefferson Hotel around the corner. I got to go, too. I was too cool to be impressed by the luxury of the surroundings at the Jefferson, and I can't remember what was for lunch, but for dessert they served a lattice-crust apple pie with cheddar cheese dribbled over it that lives on in my memory to this very day. From time to time over the years I've tried to replicate that pie, thinking, perhaps, that it would bring back a bit of my youth and innocence. Today I'm trying it again. There are hints on the internet of how to make an apple pie with cheese.

My dining room will not resemble the one in the wine cellar of the Jefferson Hotel.

I will come back and update this post as progress is made.

Kate Gallison

5:30 P.M.: The pie is in the oven. I took a picture of the apples before I started, and then a picture of the crust recipe I was going to use, from Fanny Farmer's Boston Cooking School Cookbook, the edition my first husband's sister gave us for a wedding present fifty years or so ago. Using this recipe and a lot of experience in handling pie dough I got to be quite a good piecrust cook. Half butter and half lard makes the tenderest and flakiest crust, as long as you use ice water and handle it as little as possible.

Now that I have a food processor I find it much more convenient than messing around with two knives. Again, you develop your eye to know when the dough is mixed enough. Boy, howdy! Look here! Fanny has a recipe for cheese crust. Just the thing.

The apple filling is from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything.

I would have taken a picture of the rest of the process, but the camera's batteries went dead. Now that I've replaced them I'll take a picture of the pie when it comes out of the oven. It occurred to me that strewing grated cheddar all over the top of the lattice ten minutes before the pie was done would let the crust get brown and crispy without burning the cheese.

Hey, here it is! It's done! Now to wait until the guests arrive, when I'll reminisce about the Jefferson Hotel, and about the Washington Post in the days when Alfred Friendly was running the newsroom and Phil Graham was still alive. Ben Bradlee's obituaries this week brought back a lot of memories for me, though he wasn't there when I was. Pie is a good way to express of nostalgia, don't you think?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

New York City: Poetry Under Your Feet

Here is poem I found walking across Forty-first Street, between the Lexington Avenue subway and the New York Public Library.

Now, on my heart’s page
Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed.
There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating.
Not for the proud man apart,
Dr. Rieux resolved to compile this chronicle.
The universe is made of stories, not atoms.
The rose fades and is renewed again.
When I use a word,
Someone is reading in a deepening room.
Information is light,
Then read from the treasured volume.
At the end of an hour,
There is something about the vibrating empty rooms.
Books are the treasured wealth.
I do not know which to prefer.
I want everybody to be smart.
People work much in order to secure the future
In the reading room of the New York Public Library.
All good books are alike.
There are words like Freedom Sweet and wonderful
(Silence) Vladimir: What do they say?

A poem doesn’t do everything for you.
When you are old and grey and full of sleep
Where there is much desire to learn,
A word is dead When it is said,
Some say.
I say it just
Begins to live.
Nature and art, being two different things
They ask me to remember.
I love the old melodious lays.
If you do not tell the truth
I do not know which is more discouraging,
…the reading of good books is alike a conversation
For all books are divisible.
The bird that would soar,
Where the press is free.
hsirebbig ton si siht!
Writing your name can lead to writing sentences.
Those of you, lost and yearning,
Everything is only for a day.
Truth Exists; Only falsehood has to be invented.
All things are words.
…a great book should leave you with many experiences.
Because when I read,
The knowledge of different literatures frees.

And here is how I came upon it”  There are bronze plaques imbedded in the sidewalk on those two blocks.  The first one tells you why:

Walking at a brisk New Yorker’s pace, one has time—going along—to read only the first few words of each plaque.  Here is what they look like.  Note: I am sure, somewhere on the internet, one can see them in their pristine state, but I choose to show them they way look now, after having been walked on, pelted with rain and caked with ice for more than fifteen years.

I love them. and I love the long and short of what they say.

Annamaria Alfieri 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Noir Redux

(Spoiler alert: You might want to save this for later if you haven't read the book yet—ed.)

The protagonist, if you can call him that, of LONDON BOULEVARD by Ken Bruen is named Mitchell. First name or last, it’s hard to tell, but he only goes by the one. Isn’t there some other hardboiled crime novel where the main character goes by only the one name?

I am not sure, but I am sure that Bruen is a well-read guy, as well as a real aficionado of music. And movies (like Sunset Boulevard, of course) and even American cop shows. So is Mitchell, come to think of it. He gets through about a book a day while he is doing a three year stretch in prison for beating a guy nearly to death while in an alcoholic black out. He references a host of British and Irish and American crime writers, some of which I have heard of, and many of which I haven’t. And he even references Camus: “There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” Mitch may aspire to this existentialist transcendence, but he never does surmount fate, not even close.

And he not only references those writers, he mimics them, but not in a way that is mere imitation. He takes them and turns them into something dark and terrifying, or more dark and terrifying. And while the novel starts out as a kind of exercise in fatalism, it eventually morphs, at least partially, into a mystery. In some weird and delicious way, it is a mystery that the novel is going to turn into a mystery. It’s great stuff, and I am going to gamely try to tell you why (even though the best way to be convinced is to read it yourself).

The Mitch character has the kind of insubordination problem that Philip Marlowe does, but not the moral code. He likes to get stoned, wasted, doped up and always eventually passes out on any kind of drug or booze he can get his hands on, but the thing that really gives him a rush, puts him into the kind of ecstatic clarity of a holy monk, is violence, and the nearness of death. In this sense, he is kind of like Travis McGee. Unlike McGee, however, he is more likely to take a life than to save one.

The minute Mitch gets out of prison, you wonder how long it is going to take him to get back in. He is picked up by Norton, a thug who was the one who actually beat the guy into a coma, and who let Mitch go down for it. When an old man unwittingly drops his wallet in the line of sight of both Mitch and a ticket taker, Mitch gives it back, but tells the reader: ”I know myself pretty good. If the ticket collector hadn’t seen it, I’d have kept it.”

Right at the beginning of the first person narration, Mitch says ”you believe you’re making choices, and all you’re doing is slotting in the pieces of a pre-ordained conclusion.” Of course, if you believe you’re fated to make the same mistakes over and over again you lose hope, and give up trying, and so you do, but that is beside the point.

The real point for me was that I was convinced this was to be a tale which would hold my interest not because there was a mystery about what had happened or would happen, but because I wanted to see just how Mitch’s tale would reach its inevitable brutal conclusion. I thought I was going to merely be a witness to Mitch’s descent back into hell, or his transit from the depths of hell (prison) to a slightly higher level of it (Southeast London) and back down into the pit, or into the oblivion of death. And I had no doubt a lot of people would die along the way.

Bruen has the ability to use English in marvelously arresting ways. These were not complicated ways, but nevertheless brilliant: “The bread was fresh and crisp like an idealized childhood.” “The next morning I was deciding what to wear for extortion.” “If MY WAY was the anthem of chauvinists, DESPERADO was the rationalization of convicts.” It’s great stuff. And he’s got the same smart mouth that a lot of hard guys in crime novels do. When the warden gives him a kind of exit interview on the day of his release and tells him that repeat offenders are obsessed with jail, Mitch replies “I think you’re confusing obsession with compulsion.” And then Mitch “explained the difference to him.” Having bested the warden at verbal combat, Mitch is told by a guard that it’s not a bright idea to give the warden lip, so Mitch gives the guard some: ”What else did I have to offer?”

Mitch is a product of Southeast London, a cesspool of casual and deadly violence, and in a way he is perfectly suited for it, although not for the politer society that produces places like they were byproducts of its economic digestion. Norton immediately furnishes Mitch with an apartment, and Mitch becomes a leg breaker for an enterprising loan shark named Gant. He also hooks up with and his old friend Jeff and robs a bank, and pokes a young mugger in the eye, in a failed attempt to remove it. The fair damsel that he saved from said mugger has an Aunt who needs a handyman, and Mitch ends up fixing more than the aging actress's clogged gutters. This Gloria Swanson stand-in manipulates Mitch into bed with a still compelling sexuality, and when that begins to fail she uses money and guilt. Again, Mitch is fatalistic, this time about his chances of ever escaping her (or Southeast London).

When Mitch finds Ainsley, whom he thinks is the love of his life, Lillian Palmer (the old actress) tries to commit suicide. He goes to her bedside, feeling like a well-trained mutt, and reassures her he will never leave her: “I felt exactly like I did when the judge said ‘Three Years.’”

Still, there is the dream Mitch has of a kind of wedded bliss with Ainsley. The relationship is one of the few places where he practices compassion (he also loves his near insane sister and mourns the loss of the street peddler who sold him his daily paper. When the paper-seller is murdered by a young soccer prodigy, Mitch shoots up his legs so badly that he will never play again ). Ainsley represents everything that Mitch never let himself ever dream of having.

But Mitch gets into a beef with Gant when he turns down an offer for a leg-breaking promotion and tries to leave his employ. In short order both Norton and Ainsley are killed, and Briony commits suicide. Gant sends an evil Eastern European assassin to kill Mitch, but Lillian’s chauffeur, named Jordan, turns out to be an ally, and the duo quickly dispatch both Gant and the Slavic hit man.

And still I was thinking this is a tale in the Dreiser fashion, a tale of cruel fate, and I am waiting for Mitch to die or go back to jail, waiting for him to explode into the kind of violence he can’t seem to control, especially now that he has lost the little he had in the world.

And that is where the old worm turns. When Jordan and Lillian Palmer go out of town, Mitch discovers in one of her drawers the collar of Briony’s little dog, another apparent victim of the psychopath Gant. And everything that happened transforms magically into something else. Jordan, who had once been Palmer’s husband, has been protecting her by doing everything he can to make sure Mitch never leaves her. The Butler killed Ainsley because he was afraid Mitch would leave Palmer for her. And he killed Gant to keep Mitch from being killed, again for the great love of his life. He even killed Briony, because she was trying to take Mitch away from Southeast London. And so our “hero” kills Jordan and the faded starlet, and finally the penny drops for me too. It doesn’t matter if Mitch goes back to jail or dies, because he is already either dead or in hell.

© 2014 Mike Welch

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Are You Willing to Murder Someone?

I never gave much thought to my inner feelings about committing murder. Oh, sure, in my novels I killed off a bad guy, here and there. But for years it didn't hit me in my gut or drain the blood mentally from my body.

After all, I'd been a mystery reader since I was a kid. Watched a lot of TV, where shooting with a gun was par for the course! Kill the guy, then drink Coca Cola or drive a Ford!

An active member of MWA since 1988, I've heard world-class authorities speak about various aspects of killing. I devoured all the Great Minds' revered tomes on the various arts of murder. I'd become a devoted disciple of John Douglas, Robert Ressler, Jefferson Bass and all the scholars of the science of criminology, behavioral profiling and sociopathic/psychopathic behavior.

My home was filled to the ceiling with books on weapons, terrorism, homicide, poisons, death and dying, crime scenes, human remains, criminal investigation.

Writing fiction about crime and death became as natural to me as breathing. (It didn't bother me a bit when people in non-mystery social settings moved their chairs when they heard that I wrote—gasp—"murder mysteries!")

Along the way I fell in love with the world of spies and espionage. Twenty years ago I became a member of AFIO (The Association of Former Intelligence Officers), attended their elegant annual conventions in Washington, rubbed shoulders with the great men and women of the dark worlds of spying.

My own crime novels have often dealt with topics other than murder—prostitution, kidnapping, sex-trafficking and slavery, terrorism, psychopaths, corporate intelligence.

But, as all crime writers, I was always aware that much crime writing deals with the ultimate battle with—or fear of—death.

Currently, the American serial killer Dennis L. Rader, a former code compliance officer, who killed 10 people in the Wichita, Kansas area, is co-writing a book with Katherine Ramsland, a forensic psychology professor at DeSales University. Both authors hope this book will help investigators and criminologists understand serial killers.

"People like me need to be understood, so the criminal professional field can better understand the criminal mind," Said Rader, who called himself "B.T.K.", which stood for "bind, torture, kill."

I have a confession to make to you, my friends. I do NOT want to read this book!

After decades of immersion in the facts and theories of why bad men and women commit gross crimes… I don't want to know what made this Mr. BTK act out his inner demons!

Yes, I've committed several murders as a crime writer. But in my last novel I had a very hard time in letting my character commit a justified murder. Even though all evidence pointed to the fact that it was necessary—an act of justice—that had to be carried out by a decent and honest man! I spent days delaying the writing of that scene—even though yelled at by the agent…

Tell me, how do YOU feel about reading of the inner machinery and feelings of a serial killer?

In your opinion, how much does a serious crime writer need to know about the down and dirty reasons that make a demented mind turn to murder?

Granted, every serious crime writer needs to know a certain amount of background in—and knowledge of—these dark people who also walk on our sacred earth.

But, with the planet in such a state of upset on so many levels… my inner self yells out… Enough Already!

Please share your thoughts and insights with us, be you a writer or a reader.

Thelma Jacqueline Straw, still proud to be a member of the Mystery Writers of America

P.S. John Sanford, Pulitzer Prize-winning thriller novelist, writes in an interview with Writer's Digest, Nov/Dec: (In the Minnesota prison system... "I talked to all those killers who were smart enough to learn programming… I had long, intimate conversations with these guys… none of them took any responsibility for the murders whatever, even when they admitted doing it." P. 40 )