Have Books, Will Travel

bookshelvesSome people flip through photo albums to fondly remember past vacations. Others, in today’s social media-crazed society, may look back over their Instagram posts to see snaps of time spent away with family or friends, in some exotic location, or just for a short getaway. Me? I just pull up my Goodreads list of books read, and I can happily remember great trips or time spent with family by seeing a book title and the date I completed it. I’ve been an avid reader my whole life, and my bookshelves can vouch for that. Here are some of my favorites.

  • Metamorphosis of Me into a Literary Reader: A 1987 Thanksgiving break visit to my future husband while he was in grad school in Charlottesville, Virginia, opened my eyes to Franz Kafka’s classic The Metamorphosis. Just barely surpassing a frat house for cleanliness and style, I enjoyed the quiet of his apartment and his English major roommate’s bookshelf.
  • Hunting for Something to Read: Over Christmas break in 1999 in Louisiana, awake in the middle of the night with nothing to read, I borrowed Hunt for Red October from my brother-in-law’s bookshelf, my first and last Tom Clancy.
  • Tea Time Will Make You Fat: Living overseas for two years allowed us the ability to travel around Europe inexpensively. In the fall of 2002, just after unpacking and getting ourselves settled, we traveled to Glasgow, Scotland, to see my mother’s cousins and extended family. cooks bookshopWe spent a lovely day at Edinburgh Castle and shopped on the Royal Mile that afternoon, where I stumbled upon the Cooks Bookshop, owned by Clarissa Dickson Wright, one of the pair of British cooking celebs I knew from a PBS cooking show. We went in and naturally I had to buy the first of their cookbooks that accompanied the PBS series, Two Fat Ladies.
  • James Bond a la Provence: In the summer of 2003, while living for two years in Belgium, my family spent a week in Cavalaire-sur-Mer, Provence, France. In advance of the trip, I visited the high school library of the international school my daughters attended to check out some books to bring along. One book was an omnibus edition of five Ian Fleming novels. I have such fond memories sitting on the balcony of the rental apartment, reading this hardback while sipping a cool drink and listening to the waves.
  • pittsburghNo Hunger, Too Busy Reading to Eat: Easter break of 2012, I read an entire book in the bathtub of a Pittsburgh Marriott Courtyard hotel room. I was just going to relax in the tub and read a few pages of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, but I ended up adding hot water repeatedly until I finished the whole book.
  • lewes24 Hour Getaway: In October of 2012, my hubby and I drove to Lewes, Delaware, for my birthday weekend. While there, I managed to squeeze in enough reading to nearly get through Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. Part mystery, part puzzle, part homage to bookstores, this is still a favorite of mine.
  • Rocky Read of Rowling: In the summer of 2014, my husband and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary with a trip to Kennebunkport, Maine. maineWith high winds and rough seas, our water activities were canceled several times, but I happily sat on the sunny porch of the inn where we stayed, reading (J. K. Rowling’s alter ego) Robert Galbraith’s second detective mystery novel in the Cormoran Strike series, The Silkworm. Note: book 2 is decidedly creepier and more graphic than book 1 but not nearly as creepy and graphic as book 3. I’ll need a brightly lit room and a stiff drink to make it through book 4.
  • los angelosFirst Anniversary of Baby Bird being Gone: My younger daughter moved to Los Angelos over Easter break of 2016 to pursue her dream of being a screenwriter. While on this life-changing trip to drop her off, I read Liane Moriarty’s The Last Anniversary, my first of her novels. The tone and mood perfectly matched my own bittersweet feelings of the time.
  • All the Time in the World to Read: July of 2016 found me in Fort Myers, Florida, visiting a dear friend in her beautiful home. After she left for work each morning, I would have coffee and read on her “lanai”. fort myersAs the mid-day sun became a bit too much, I’d dive into her pool and swim lazy laps. In stark contrast to this paradise of a setting, I read a friend’s debut novel, All the Time in the World by Caroline Angell, which takes place in the ultra-glamorous Upper East Side of Manhattan.
  • Puerto RicoYes, Chef, More Mofongo: Over Thanksgiving break of 2016, my husband took me to Puerto Rico for my 60th birthday. Amidst all the great food we ate there, including mofongo, I devoured Marcus Samuelsson’s memoir Yes, Chef.
  • Water, Water, Everywhere: Summer of 2017 found me on my first ever mother-daughter road trip, traveling to Niagara Falls. niagara fallsWhile my daughter was off at her conference, I sat in an outdoor cafe with a big cup of coffee and Red Kayak by Priscilla Cummings. No waterfalls featured in the story, but all the action takes place on the Chesapeake Bay.

One thing is clear after gathering my photos of the places I have written about in this essay: it seems like I like places near the water as much as I like books!

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My Name is Michelle Ardillo and I am a . . .

It’s Saturday morning. Early spring. Birds are singing, bees are buzzing, the sun is shining. Right now, I should be doing laundry or changing the sheets on the beds or at least unloading the dishwasher.  I could be grading papers or doing lesson plans, mapping out the remaining six weeks of school (but who’s counting, LOL). But, instead, I am alone, in my pajamas, in a darkened room, crouched in an uncomfortable position, wasting away hour after hour of my morning.  Alcohol?  Drugs?  Online gambling?  Online shopping?  No, these are not my addictions.  Instead of taking care of household chores, instead of running errands, instead of taking my dog for a brisk walk in the beautiful sunshine, no, instead of these worthy things, I am tapping and swiping away on my tablet, happily connected to the world-wide web of epicure, dazedly surfing the culinary net, reading food blogs, and trapped in a vicious never-ending battle to read every last recipe on earth and what’s worse, to “pin” them to boards I will rarely ever visit.  I am hooked on the world of food.  Hello, my name is Michelle Ardillo and I am a foodaholic.

You see, I love everything there is about food. I love to cook and I love to eat. I read cookbooks like novels, cover to cover, pouring over the photographs and editor’s notes about how to serve this or that dish or what advance prep can be done. To say that I have an extensive collection of cookbooks would be somewhat of an understatement. cooking bookshelvesWhen we did a major book reorganization a few years ago, including building an entire wall of bookshelves in our home office, I moved all of my cookbooks to the wall of bookshelves in our living room, which is closer to the kitchen. My collection of scripts and librettos were moved downstairs, along with my collection of books on the royal families of some of the world’s monarchies. It might be weird to some people to have a wall of cookbooks in their living room, but it seems perfectly natural to me.

If I eat something I really like in a good restaurant, you can bet that I will be trying to recreate that dish at home. For years I tried to replicate the veggie chili from Silver Diner, to no avail. I made some really good batches of veggie chili, but not a single one was exactly like Silver Diner’s. I have been successful though. I am very, very close to the taste and consistency of the hummus at Lebanese Taverna. I once attended a theatre group committee meeting where someone had brought a fruit platter from a grocery store and in the center of the platter was a tub of “dip”. It was delicious. All of the different fruits tasted great dipped in that white creamy concoction. It took several tries but I was able to recreate that one: cream cheese, powdered sugar, milk, and almond extract. So, and I say this as modestly as I can, you can imagine how successful I am when I have an actual recipe in front of me.

In our cable package we have two food channels, Food Network and The Cooking Channel. Of course, there’s also PBS and the many great chefs we’ve been introduced to over the years: Julia Child (rest in peace), Jacques Pepin, Pierre Franey (also rest in peace), Lidia Bastianich, Sara Moulton, and many others. I’ve watched entire series of cooking shows on PBS and then I just have to have the companion cookbook so I can make the dishes from the shows. As documented in a previous essay, my autographed Jacques Pepin cookbook is creased and greased from frequent use.

I’ve learned a great deal from watching all of those shows. Once I watched a show where the chef “spatchcocked” a whole chicken. I was fascinated at this technique of butterflying a chicken, opening it like a book, removing a few bones and making a few slashes here and there, and thereby reducing the roasting time significantly. I don’t remember which television chef first taught me this technique but I have watched the process many times since, expertly done by Martha Stewart and British chefs Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson. spatchcocked chickenI recently cooked this for my dad and brother while visiting them in Louisiana. This method ensures that the white and dark meat cook evenly and it also makes carving a whole chicken a snap.

I love to try new foods and go on culinary adventures to try out cuisines from other countries. I am very lucky to live in the Washington, DC metropolitan area where I can dine on food from many different cultures: Lebanese, Greek, Japanese, Indian, Spanish, Thai, Salvadoran, Moroccan, Peruvian, Belgian, and of course, the more prosaic cuisines of China, France, Italy, and Mexico.

For two years I lived in Belgium and a major adjustment was the loss of American television. I had to say goodbye to my cooking shows and not seeing my favorite chefs was akin to withdrawal. Without a satellite dish we had access to only two English-speaking channels (BBC1 and BBC2) other than CNN International. Each afternoon a very popular cooking show, Ready Steady Cook, would come on (except when it was preempted during snooker tournaments, major horse riding or horse racing events, soccer, cricket and of course, rugby championships, it is a British television network after all).  It was somewhat like Chopped, the popular cooking competition show on the Food Network. An audience member was called to the stage and would dump out a brown paper grocery bag with “mystery ingredients”. The guest chef would have to prepare a starter, entrée, and dessert from the contents of the grocery bag, and the staples in the on-stage pantry. While more game show than cooking show, I did learn a lot from it. One chef, James Martin, always made a soup from whatever was in the grocery bag, and to this day I still follow his method for starting a soup: sauté a sliced onion in a little olive oil and a bit of butter. When soft, add other aromatics such as garlic, fresh herbs, celery, or shallots. Add the main ingredient (peas, squash, potatoes, carrots, etc.) and cover with chicken stock or vegetable stock. Bring to a boil and then simmer until the main ingredient is cooked through. Puree with a stick blender or in a food processor or serve as is. Viola! This simple recipe can be adapted to almost anyone’s taste or dietary requirements.

Often during prime time, there would be a “cookery show” as the British say, most often Delia Smith, the doyenne of British cooking, the Martha Stewart (without the stock problem….and I mean NYSE stock, not the chicken or beef kind) of the UK, or Rick Stein, a British chap who can film an entire show on one kind of fish.  Having only the BBC to turn to for TV cooking during those two years meant that I acquired new best friends in the world of cooking. Gone were my lazy Sunday afternoons watching a Julia Child marathon on PBS (freshly ground WHITE pepper, not black), or the slightly flirtatious Jacques Pepin, or the loud-mouthed Emeril Lagasse cooking his “adopted” Louisiana foods (not a Cajun, he grew up in New England, for goodness sake!), or the simple earthy home style cooking of Lidia Bastianich.  Instead, I got to know Ainsley Harriott, whose 6 foot plus frame could barely contain his Caribbean excitement for life, James Martin spinning sugar for his dessert creations, Nick Nairns showing off Scottish game and seafood to its finest, and the spiked hair of Gary Rhodes making a Sunday roast look like the most exciting dinner one could possibly imagine.

Of course, it is better to be addicted to the world of food than alcohol, drugs, designer handbags, or shoes.  To my friends, I am somewhat of a 24/7 food consultant.  It is nothing for me to answer the phone to hear “What is a Dutch oven?”  “I’m out of self-rising flour, what do I do?”  “I need an appetizer to bring to a party.”  Other than fighting a losing battle with the scale and my cholesterol, there are other real benefits to specializing in one particular area of study.  Without a doubt in the world, I know I could win The Weakest Link, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, or even Jeopardy, for goodness sake, if (and this is a big IF) all the questions were food related.