“A Writer’s ‘Mise en Place'” by Louise DeSalvo

February 13, 2010

Yesterday, my husband and I spent most of the day at the New York home of Michele and Charles Scicolone.  Michele is a preeminent cookbook author who specializes in Italian cuisine.  Charles is an expert in the wines of Italy.  An invitation to their home, with its view of the Empire State Building, is always a delight because Michele always cooks for us while Charles teaches us about whatever Italian wine he’s chosen for the meal.  Yesterday, Michele assembled a simple antipasto, with a truffled cheese, some Grana Padano, prosciutto, giardinaria, for a first course.  The second course was a pasta amatriciana – Charles insisted that Michele serve the course with his favorite pasta, bucatini, that long pasta with a whole running through it.  The main course was a cottechino – a sausage-like Italian delicacy – that Michele served with lentils.  We arrived at 1:30 and we were still talking about Italy, food, travels, wine, at 7:30.  It was one of those magical days.  And, of course, the food was magnificent in the way that only simple Italian food can be – clean, clear, rich flavors.  Every mouthful, a treasure.

I was struck by how calm Michele is in the kitchen as she works.  She moves slowly, deliberately, stirring this, adding that, all the while carrying on a conversation, say, about our favorite pizzeria in all the world – Keste on Bleecker Street.  It isn’t only that she’s been doing this for years – Michele and Charles started traveling to Italy more than forty years ago, and Michele has been recreating the food she ate from all over Italy since then.  She spends as much time – more time – preparing to cook than she does cooking.

Her ingredients at hand, ready to be used when they’re called for.  What she does, like all good cooks and chefs, is prepare a “mise en place” with her ingredients prepped, measured, organized.  Because Italian home cooking isn’t as fussy as French home cooking, Michele sometimes preps as she goes along, sometimes improvises when she sees a sauce, say, needs some pasta water to loosen it.  Still, the principle remains – preparation ensures success; preparation means that you’re not harried and hurried.

I love to cook.  I love to cook Italian food.  But, like my book Crazy in the Kitchen describes, my kitchen has often been a place where tempers (usually mine) flare.  That’s because, in cooking, I often adhere to the rule of “Fire, Ready, Aim,” which Crazy Busy, the book I referred to yesterday, is the way many people with characters like mine operate.  So I’ll start a soup without looking to see if I have enough onions.  Or the pasta will be ready but the colander will still be wedged in the back of a cabinet.  You get the idea.

Today I decided to make an Umbrian lentil soup for lunch and to follow Michele’s guidance.  All my ingredients measured, lined up, prepped.  Well, of course, cooking the lentil soup was a breeze and it’s sitting, now, on my stove ready for lunch with some homemade bread.  Yum.

I’m in the midst, now, of writing a chunk of my “father book,” as I call it – the chunk dealing with my father’s life on the island where he served during WWII from the time the service men and women (there weren’t many of them and they were mostly nurses and secretaries) heard that Japan had surrendered through when my father was shipped home several months later.

It’s a fascinating, and, I think, important story, this glimpse of what bases in the Pacific were like after the war was over, how the men behaved, how they waited, what they did, and I know I have a good many juicy tidbits to recount that I’ve never read in WWII accounts nor in journals or diaries, so I’m psyched.

I’ve been at this chunk for a few days, and, though my writing seems to be fluid enough (thank goodness), still, I’ve been doing the equivalent of searching in the back of the cabinet for a colander while I’m holding the steaming pasta pot with one hand.  I’ve been writing, say, about the day the news came to the base, what the announcers on the radio station broadcast (each base had its own radio station – did you know that?), etc., etc., etc.  Well, I’d write a few sentences, run to the closet where I store my materials, find my notes, find a first-person account, try to find my interview with my father, run back to my desk, try to find where these accounts were, write a few lines, and on and on like this all through my writing time.

Not a very good way of writing a life when you have documentary evidence.  Fire.  Ready.  Aim.

Late last night, while thinking back on our wonderful day, I started realizing that if I approach my cooking like Michele does, I’d be better off.  (And I was – the lentil soup – no strum, no drang)  Then I started thinking that if I approach my writing like Michele approaches her cooking, putting together the mise en place of all my sources before I begin writing, then maybe my writing will proceed more effortlessly.

Now I always say that any way of working, no matter what it is, has a “rip off” and a “pay off.”  I can see that the “rip off” of having a mise en place for writing a life is that we might be driven by our sources rather than by our story, and that’s not a good thing.  Haven’t you read biographies where you’re sure the writer put her/his notes down and wrote and wrote and wrote without synthesizing what was there, without giving it any flair?

The “pay off,” though, it seems to me right now, is that, with our notes assembled, our sources checked, we might write even more spontaneously.  There’s nothing that kills writing, I’ve learned, than having to stop in the middle of a sequence I’m building to run around to find exactly what, say, Samuel Hynes said in his memoir about how pilots behaved when they knew they wouldn’t be flying bombing missions any more.  (Two pilots Hynes spoke of, hungry for more action, “pretended” to engage in an air battle – a dog fight — with each another over the airbase where they were stationed after hostilities ceased and while they awaited discharge.  They swooped and dived, and trailed, and climbed, and – crashed into one another and died.

I want that detail in my book.  It’s the kind of detail that only first-person accounts – in this case Samuel Hynes’ – can provide.  But for my narrative to flow the way I want it too, I do think it will be best for me to think ahead, to figure out what I want to use, to find it.  To set up my mise en place. I think that if, from now on, I do, then I can write away without all those interruptions that, I can’t help thinking, get in the way of my establishing a narrative drive.

I’m going to try this, see how it goes.  The wonderful thing – the hard thing – about being a writer is that you’re your own boss.  You can write the way you want to.  So if this suits me, terrific.  If it doesn’t, I’ll return to my slapdash, crazy in the writing room, ways.

Sources

You might want to check out Michele Scicolone’s cookbooks.  Her 1,000 Italian Recipes (Wiley Publishing Company, 2004) is the only Italian cookbook you’ll ever need, though I love her others as well.  She recently published The Italian Slow Cooker (NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2010), so we can set up our dinner, retreat to our writing spaces, and enjoy the aromas of our supper-in-progress.

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