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Grace Under Pressure
“Function in disaster, finish in style” is one of the mottoes of the Madeira School, the all-girls boarding school in McLean, Virginia, where I happily spent my junior and senior years. Festina lente (“Make haste slowly”) is the official motto, the one engraved on our class rings, but as anyone who knows me can tell you, that’s not really my thing. I prefer the informal one, the one that was drummed into the student body by Lucy Madeira Wing, who founded the school in 1906, ten years after she graduated from Vassar. When my mother was at Madeira in the 1950s, Miss Madeira was still alive and pretty much kicking and she delivered the line to the assembled girls almost every morning.
I have been thinking about Miss Madeira and her guiding principle a lot lately. Perhaps because so few in our midst seem to be living by it. On a particularly bad summer day this past summer, for example, I was driving from the Hartford, Connecticut, airport to the Vermont graduation of my good friend Ellen’s son, late and speeding (in defiance of the charge of the ring on my little finger), and listening to an especially incessant drumbeat of doom on NPR. My friend and favorite senator from Mississippi, a total class act and by far the best advocate for our poor state, was under siege from a primary challenger whom I’ll refrain from characterizing here in a Herculean effort to be a class act myself. War was escalating in so many places at once I was reminded of my Madeira Modern European History class and the lectures of the good Dr. Brown on the events leading up to World War I. A particular wing of the Republican Party seemed not to have taken even an elementary school civics class, much less modern history of any kind, and the administration was, well, being the administration.
The center does not hold, I thought. Common sense does not prevail. No one is functioning in disaster, much less finishing with a modicum of style. But then I made it to the graduation at the Burr Burton Academy atop a gorgeous green hill. The young women and men were all dressed up beneath their caps and gowns—my friend’s son, the handsome Eli, wore a fetching pale orange button-down shirt, a green tie, and a conservative but well-cut poplin suit. The leadership award was won by two beautiful girls who were best friends. The valedictorian talked about responsibility, integrity, service, and grit (grit!). And the speaker, a case study in Miss Madeira’s mantra, was Kevin Pearce, the snowboarder who suffered a traumatic brain injury and had to learn not just how to walk and talk again, but also how to swallow and brush his teeth. Now, he runs the Kevin Pearce Fund to help people with injuries like his. He told the kids he was “living proof you can overcome what you’ve been dealt,” that they should “focus on this moment and be proud.”
So we all did and we all were. We went to dinner at the nearby Downtown Grocery, owned by my fellow Mississippian Abby Coker and her husband, the brilliant chef Rogan Lechthaler. We had delicious rhubarb margaritas, bought a round of Miller ponies for the kitchen staff (per Abby’s menu instructions if we liked what we ate—and we loved it all), lit sparklers at the table, and generally had a huge warm time.
Pretty much everybody that day had finished in style, and it made me realize once again that the best center to hold is your own. Which brings me back to Miss Madeira. Her simple definition of education was “discipline of the mind,” and I can tell you that in my two years at her school I worked and thought harder than I ever have since. She agreed with Robert Louis Stevenson’s opinion that the world had best hurry up and return to the “word duty and be done with the word reward.” She decreed that there would be no class rankings and grades would not be posted. She taught the public affairs and Bible courses herself (in my day, the latter had morphed into ethics, but a close friend who took that small and intense class ended up with a Ph.D. in theology and ministered to folks at a church near Ground Zero on 9/11).
My mother remembers that Miss Madeira was wild about the young queen Elizabeth and implored the girls to emulate not just her “dignity and quiet poise” but her proper low-heeled English shoes. “She hated the Capezio flats we all wore,” my mother says, adding that she thought them “sloppy.” Miss Madeira, described by Time in 1946 as “one of Washington’s last New Dealers,” told the magazine that she regretted the fact that most of her students came from “economic royalist” families and put them all in the same outfits lest they try to outspend each other. In spring, my mother reports, the girls dressed in green jumpers with white cotton blouses, while in winter it was the same blouse with a gray skirt and a yellow or green sweater. For dinner they changed into white piqué dresses, and in the senior portraits of my mother’s yearbook, every single girl has on a string of pearls.
I arrived well after the era of white piqué, in time to enjoy the hangover of the far more lax rules of the sixties, which would come to an abrupt end almost as soon as I left the gates. We had no adult supervision in our dorms and elected our own dorm mothers from our peers. We smoked pot in the woods and cigarettes on the outdoor smoking terrace or in the unspeakably grungy senior clubhouse. I kept a fifth of Scotch in my underwear drawer, and one of my dorm mates was in possession of a blender with which we made the occasional birthday daiquiri. The queen, who is now among my own heroines, was not much on our radar screens.
The equitable Miss Madeira would have been appalled at the charge accounts we had with the local taxi service, which we sent on runs for Häagen-Dazs and Chinese takeout (accompanied by six-packs of Tsingtao beer). A great many of us got around the lone dress code requirement of a skirt at dinner by wrapping our plaid gym kilts around whatever we were already wearing, which in my case was usually a pair of Levi’s pulled over the Lanz nightgown in which I awoke—the only outfit that would enable me to make it to chapel (barely) on time.
Looking back, the best I can hope for is that Miss Madeira would have perhaps been gratified that it was still impossible to tell anything about the wealth and class of most of us by our appearance—we all looked equally awful. (In our defense, some of the staff didn’t look a whole lot better—the school nurse was fond of combing mayonnaise through her steel-gray hair.) The only exceptions were the Carolina girls who wore wraparound skirts and the same cotton shirts of my mother’s era with gold clip-on earrings, add-a-bead necklaces, and Pappagallo flats or Weejuns. When I met my roommate, who hailed from Wadesboro, North Carolina, for the first time, I was wearing my favorite Adidas T-shirt, ancient Levi’s, and a pair of Earth shoes. She walked in with neatly coiffed hair and mascara, trailed by her brother, who was carrying, I swear, a crate of African violets for our windowsills. I ended up loving her, and, I think, she me, but I never saw the point of wasting time trying to pull myself together—except, of course, on Wednesdays.
Wednesdays were the days when we were bused into town for internships. In our junior year we all worked on Capitol Hill; in our senior year, we were supposed to know what we wanted to be when we grew up, so I worked at the Washington bureau of Newsweek, then owned by Katharine Graham, a Madeira alum who totally got the hang of our founder’s dictum. On those days, the style we most emulated was that of a thirty-five-year-old—the better to enable us to order martinis during our lunch breaks. So dramatically different was my own appearance that when I ran into my photography teacher in Lafayette Park, he had no idea who I was.
Let me pause and say here that I am not necessarily proud of some aspects of my school career. And I should hasten to reassure prospective Madeira parents that I would have lasted about an hour and a half under the current school rules. It’s a miracle I lasted then—when I attended a school function a year after graduation, the dean of students, Jean Gisriel (known universally as Miss Giz), stuck her formidable face about two inches in front of mine and said, with a mixture of profound disgust and surprisingly raw frustration, “I never could get you. I never could.”
Still, Miss Giz and the rest of our leaders (with the notable exception of Jean Harris, the murderous headmistress who arrived my senior year) managed to instill Miss Madeira’s core beliefs into us all. And the school itself is a prime example of holding it together in the direst of circumstances. After Mrs. Harris was arrested for shooting her ex-lover the Scarsdale Diet doctor, Herman Tarnower, almost every newspaper in the country identified her as the headmistress of the “posh” Madeira School. My mother was appalled, and fears were rife that applications would all but cease. But my father, as usual, got it on the money: “Every redneck in America is going to want to send their kid to that ‘posh’ place.” Sure enough, applications surged.
The school is still all girls and still thriving, and I am forever grateful for my time there and what it taught me. Not least of which is how to hold on tight and fake it during those trying stretches when functioning—and finishing—are not necessarily assured. To that end, I will repeat the line I chose for my senior yearbook page, not from Miss Madeira, but from Andrew Jackson: “You are uneasy; you’ve never sailed with me before, I see.”
New Year, Old Habits
Every New Year I meet friends at my mother’s house in Seaside, Florida. On New Year’s Eve I make Lee Bailey’s Pasta with Golden Caviar and on New Year’s Day I make black-eyed peas with andouille, and on both occasions we drink lavish amounts of Veuve Clicquot provided by my great pals Joyce and Rod, who are possessed of a seemingly bottomless cache. Then, on January 2, pretty much everybody in town packs up and moves out, leaving the dog and me to get on with the real business at hand: my annual attempt at accomplishing two very important missions. The missions stay the same because I never actually accomplish them. What happens instead is that I reread all the John D. MacDonald and Robert B. Parker paperbacks in the house, sleep, walk the dog, and sleep some more. But I digress.
Back to the missions. First I endeavor to find inner peace and learn to breathe by booking a massage every day and signing up for yoga, a practice in which I last engaged the summer before my fortieth birthday, well over a decade ago. Last year I got as far as the first massage. The masseuse rubbed some oil on her hands and then she stroked my face and told me to “let go of all that which does not serve you.” This woman is really, really nice and gives one of the best massages I’ve ever had, but in the immortal words of my friend Rick Smythe, “Naw, that ain’t gonna happen.” And it certainly is not going to happen in ninety minutes, or even in ten ninety-minute sessions. When I finally stopped laughing, I got completely freaked out by all the stuff I tote around in my head and heart that does me absolutely no good, and then I realized it wasn’t even a metaphor.
Which leads me to the second mission: to go through the ever burgeoning amount of actual tote bags containing all the work I meant to finish, mail I meant to answer, and magazine articles I meant to read during the previous twelve months (although at this point, it’s really more like seventy-two). Last year, I took a whopping eleven bags with me and then I brought them all back home. Currently, they are stashed beneath the desk at which I am typing, ready to be reloaded into the car for the annual trip. In 2009, I left a particularly heavy bag in my Seaside bedroom with the firm intention of coming right back and dealing with it. I didn’t, of course, and now I have no idea what’s inside, but on top there’s a September 1998 New York Review of Books with a cover story on Elizabeth Hardwick by Joyce Carol Oates, which means that I’ve been carrying it around for fifteen years and three months. It would take me maybe twenty minutes to read the essay, but now it’s become a Thing, a reminder of my almost pathological procrastination and countless other inadequacies and of Oates’s own terrifying productivity. She has written seventy-eight pieces for the New York Review; I have written two. She is also the author of more than forty novels and a whole bunch of poems and short stories, none of which I have read, and she also teaches. At Princeton.
So this year, I’m changing the plan. I’m going to read the damn Joyce Carol Oates story and then I’m going to dump out the remaining contents of the bag and all the other bags too. If I weren’t sure I’d be breaking some town ordinance, I would set fire to it all. Next I’m going to dump out the electronic tote bag that is my email inbox, in which I have 25,652 new messages. A few months ago they were down to a modest 4,000, but then my computer got hacked and the nice man in India to whom I paid five hundred dollars to retrieve my lost emails retrieved every single one I’d received since 2008. At first I was going to make them another mission—I’d go through all the missives from the past two or three years and respond. Because when I get an email, unless it’s a life-threatening one from one of my editors, including the fearless (and astonishingly patient) leader of the magazine for which I write these columns, I rarely reply. What I think is this: “Man, I need to take more than two seconds to craft an answer, so I’ll save it and jump back on it in just a little bit,” and then I never do.
I have lost out on potentially lucrative speaking engagements and festive parties and made a whole lot of people mad or at least a little perplexed. This week, for example, I ran into a very nice man, an orthopedic surgeon from Chattanooga who gently reminded me that I’d failed to respond to the email he’d sent two years earlier asking for my grillades recipe. Naturally, I didn’t remember the email or even the brunch I’d given where he’d tasted the grillades in question. This was a screw-up of many dimensions. First of all, it’s always good to have a top-notch ortho man in your list of contacts. You never know when or where you might break a leg. Also, it would have been, at a minimum, polite of me to get back to him. Finally, since I often write about food for a living, it’s not a bad thing to have people in various cities around the country talking about the tastiness of my grillades.
So, in this space, I’m answering his email. As for the rest of you, sorry, but I’m deleting all the others. Then I’m making two resolutions. I’m going to answer my email. When it comes in. And I’m throwing out all my tote bags. If I don’t have them, I can’t fill them up.
1 tbsp. salt
1½ tsp. onion powder
1½ tsp. garlic powder
1½ tsp. cayenne
1 tsp. white pepper
1 tsp. sweet paprika
1 tsp. black pepper
½ tsp. dry mustard
½ tsp. dried thyme
½ tsp. gumbo filé
For the Grillades
2 lbs. boneless veal or pork shoulder, cut into thin slices
1 cup all-purpose flour
7 tbsp. vegetable oil
1 cup chopped onions
1 cups chopped celery
1 cup chopped green bell peppers
2 tsp. minced garlic
4 bay leaves
3 cups dark chicken, veal, or beef stock
½ cup red wine
1½ cups canned whole peeled tomatoes, drained and torn into pieces
1 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp. dried thyme
Combine the seasoning mix ingredients in a small bowl. Sprinkle about 2 teaspoons of the mix on both sides of the meat. In a sheet pan, combine ½ half cup of the flour with another teaspoon of seasoning mix. Dredge the meat in the flour shaking off excess. Heat the oil in a large deep skillet or Dutch oven and fry the meat until golden brown about two or three minutes per side. Transfer the meat to a plate or another sheet pan and leave the oil in the skillet over high heat.
Sprinkle in the remaining half cup of flour, whisking constantly. Continue whisking until the roux is a medium brown, about three minutes. Immediately dump in the chopped vegetables and stir with a wooden spoon until well blended. Add the bay leaves and another two teaspoons of seasoning mix. Continue cooking about five minutes, stirring constantly.
Add stock to the vegetable mixture, stirring until well incorporated. Add the meat, wine, tomatoes, Worcestershire sauce, and thyme and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook for about 40 minutes. Midway through, check for seasonings. You will have some seasoning mix left over, and you may add to taste. Serve hot, with cheese grits.
Copyright © 2018 by Julia Reed