The minefields of meal memories

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I’ve been thinking about the tenderness and tact required in discussing food that mothers made. As in years ago – when their children were growing up – the dishes we now remember with varying degrees of fondness. My mother admits she hates to cook. Which made her, in my estimation while growing up, the world’s worst cook and the reason I became a vegetarian for 20 years. Later I learned that she cooks with resentment – angry at the husband who won’t boil water and kids who absorbed the message that cooking was her responsibility and we didn’t have to help either. Eeesh – I’d slap myself  if it would change things.

I’ve now discovered that my mother inherited this  from her own mother. I’ve had the chance to spend more time with my grandmother than my mother lately, and food is not one of the high points. She was a career woman and fighting for labor rights was more important than making dinner for three kids. It was the fifties and that’s what TV dinners and a compliant daughters were for. I’m sure I would have agreed – back then. Now she gets insulted when I don’t eat the snacks she lays in for my visits (fig newtons, canned ham, ice cream, frosted Oreos) or the things she brings back as leftovers from her retirement home’s dining hall (half-eaten grilled cheese, for example. The dog is much more appreciative. And fatter.)

It’s not necessarily easier to maneuver through meal memories in homes with good cooks. My mother-in-law served three different veggies from her garden with every meal and made apple strudel her boys still wax rhapsodic about. But as she closes in on ninety, she doesn’t have that energy anymore. Or the necessity. It makes more sense to buy processed foods that come in sizes better adapted to reduced appetites. She too, feels slighted when her visiting kids ask for soy milk, non-fat yoghurt instead of sour cream, or less oil in the bean salad. “What’s wrong with what we always ate?” is the unspoken question. She just set the bar too high and now her boys are all amazing chefs with very particular palettes. It’s easy to solve, though. Her sons and daughters-in-law just make a big show of “treating” her to a home-cooked meal, in her own home. It’s the Wisconsin way to avoid conflicts.

Just when I get to shaking my head about all those old-timey, unhealthy recipes, I get a reminder that puts me in my place. When I was researching my last blog, about Byrne Miller’s famous soup, I ran across an article in “The Litchfield Hills Sampler” of Torrington Connecticut. That’s where Byrne was living, and teaching dance, in the summer of 1971 (to escape Beaufort’s heat three months a year.) It was titled, “Cooking with Love” and told the story of Byrne’s soup. The writer clearly wanted to include a recipe, but Byrne’s soup never had one. It changed with whatever was left in her fridge. So she printed another recipe from Byrne.

Glen Cove Bake

1 lb boiled ham, very thinly sliced/6 medium potatoes, boiled, sliced very thinly/8 hard cooked eggs, thinly sliced/1 1/2 pints sour cream/ salt, pepper, paprika.

The article went on to describe how you cube the ham and layer the ingredients in a buttered casserole dish. I was horrified. Byrne, what were you thinking? You were a dancer. Your body was your temple. And then I read on. “The last time the price of boiled ham was at a premium was during the depression in 1933, when the Millers were first married and living in Glen Cove, New York. ” Ouch. Okay. I get it. But I still don’t want to eat it.

Luckily I have no children of my own. So there will be no disgusted progeny to react, years later, to the papaya salad I served at our progression dinner this past weekend. And it comes with its own provenance. On our first trip to Laos, in 2001, Gary and I ordered the green papaya salad at a restaurant in Vientiane. The waiter made a face, told us it was very spicy, and we were as insulted as our mothers probably are with us. So when a small crowd gathered on the balcony above the dining courtyard, waiters and cook staff, we couldn’t back down. The papaya salad was ruthless. Fluids flowed from every facial orifice. Not enough water in the world would help. My face was crimson; Gary’s a curious salmon color. But we ate it. Defiantly. Needless to say, the recipe we served Saturday is quite toned down. But still only eaten by half our guests. See what you think.

Papaya salad, as photographed by Mark Shaffer

Laotian Green Papaya Salad

1 green papaya – julienned

4 carrots – julienned

10 green long beans – julienned

1 garlic, 1 Thai chili, and 1 tablespoon each of  shrimp paste, sugar, chicken bullion, fish sauce, lime juice and dried shrimp – all mortered and mixed into a thick drizzle that you toss with the papaya and carrots. Top with cherry tomatoes and roasted peanuts. Hand out handkerchiefs.

Remembering Soup

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By the time I lived with Byrne, she had long-since parted ways with cooking.  She re-heated. Unwrapped. Combined. Added Water. There was a phone call once, after I had moved to DC, comparing what we’d each had for dinner. Me, pizza from scratch by Gary. Byrne, oatmeal with sardines. But it wasn’t always so. In my research for the Byrne Miller Project, I ran across an article in a small Connecticut weekly extolling the dancer’s famous soup. It turns out it was rather famous. (In the blog about her birthday, Benjamin Barney left a comment you should read.) Basically, she started a huge pot of soup whenever a deadline loomed  – a performance, or publication of a school magazine –  and added something to it every time she walked past the stove. She said it was ready when a fork would stand up in it. It stewed for hours, even days, and everyone working on the deadline partook of the pot for sustenance.

I was thinking of this collective soup when I volunteered for the soup-and-salad portion of a progression dinner planned by my friend Jon. The guests/cooks were eight rather foodie types – not starving dancers or students – so I decided to try something a little less random. Okay a lot less random. Instead of chucking whatever was in my fridge into a pot, I made trips to five different stores. Terribly un-green, but there’s no choice when you live in Beaufort, SC and decide to make a green papaya salad and chilled coconut curried squash soup. At least the squash were local – from the farmer’s market Saturday morning. I’m not sure where the owner of Beaufort’s newest Asian food store (called Spout) gets his green papayas and nuclear Thai chili peppers. I’m guessing not from around here.

I’ll never know if the soup would have held up for days – our second course stop lasted only ninety minutes. But it was great the next day for lunch. I only wish Byrne could have tried a taste. 

Thai soup and papaya salad - photos by Mark Shaffer

So now the recipe:

Chilled Thai Squash Soup for eight
2 Vidalia onions, sautéed in 2 tbl canola oil
4 jumbo garlic cloves, added to the translucent onions
2 tsp Thai red curry paste (from Beaufort’s Sprout!)
2 tsp sweet curry powder (from Milwaukee’s Spice House)
2 pounds yellow crookneck squash (from St. Helena Island)
2 cans coconut milk
Bring the lot to a boil for 20 minutes or until the squash is soft. Then gingerly transfer to
a blender and puree in small batches or the whole thing explodes over your kitchen counter. Chill and serve with dollop of plain non-fat yoghurt and chopped cilantro.
My writing desk, as progression dinner table

On patience

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November seems to be one of those wait and see months.  The kind where emails languish, entries dangle and decisions loom larger than life. As a kid I hated surprises, so it’s not surprising that waiting to find out if an editor likes a manuscript, or if a producer likes a screenplay is driving me crazy. I want to get in there and convince them, play an active role in my future. I’m type A — this leaving it up to fate is for the birds.

I should have more patience. Byrne did. At least with the literary world. She waited patiently for the publishing world to discover Duncan all of their married life, almost sixty years. In their early years of marriage, one would work a pay-the-bills job while the other followed their artistic dream. It’s romantic, but not particularly encouraging since Duncan died unpublished. Gary and I burned his rejection letters in our firepit to avoid bad ju-ju in the house where I now slave over the written word, but even that doesn’t seem to help when the economy is tanking and the publishing/movie world wants only the sure thing.

What I do find hope in is this photo.  Byrne and Duncan’s love lasted longer than any external validation. The grins on their faces are proof of the simple joy they found in each other and something I am incredibly lucky to have in common with Byrne. A man who is my champion. My believer. And one who makes me laugh when I would otherwise sulk.

A birthday toast for Byrne

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Today would have been Byrne Miller’s 101st birthday, and I’m celebrating by sharing a photograph from a birthday party long ago in Mexico.  My thanks to another sister-by-Byrne, Pam Susen, who found this image in a box of slides.  Byrne’s own handwriting is on the label – but all it says is Chihuahua, November 3rd.  Dates never did matter to Byrne – she lived to be almost 92 and had no qualms about getting older.  She never called it “aging,” but “advancing.”  As in – the day I met her, she helped me carry my heavy television lights onto her porch to interview Duncan.  In the book I quote her as telling me, “I am not as feeble as my advanced age implies.”

She appreciated every year she got to spend on earth – even the tough ones, after Duncan was gone.  I love this photograph for the exuberance it catches – she’s thrilled that friends went to the effort, on the road, to surprise her.

So tonight, on the porch where we shared many a slice of cake and glass of wine, I invite my brothers and sisters-by-Byrne to raise a glass again at sunset.  To the woman who still makes us beam.  Happy Birthday Byrne!

Setting Byrne straight

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          What my sister-by-Byrne, Lisa Lepionka, misses most is the level of art and culture that Byrne forced on Beaufort. “The world is flat without her, Boring.” Life was never boring when Byrne Miller was around. Which is not the same thing as saying it was always easy. Byrne could be hard – on herself and others. She readily admitted she was a dance snob, and more than a few of her children know that it extended to other art forms too. 

          I was in my 20s when I met Byrne – she could do no wrong in my eyes and if she did, I could no more have challenged her than stop admiring her. So I cherish the memory of when I first witnessed one of Byrne’s daughters stand up to her. It was Lisa – perhaps her most devoted and tireless supporter. We were watching a hip-hop dance performance at Spoleto in Charleston. The dancers were wearing street clothes in the drab colors of camouflage.

               “Not terribly imaginative,” Byrne leaned forward and whispered.

               I giggled.  Hip hop is perhaps my least favorite form of dance. Each time I’ve tried a hip hop class I look like Heidi on a street corner in Harlem. Not even my gymnastics training helps; I am hopeless at an art form that looks easy. Byrne’s skepticism that night at Spoleto validated my wounded pride. She was passing judgment in the dark.  The pre-recorded, over-modulated music of the first dance was a cacophony. Byrne took her hearing aids out of her ears, noisily.

               “That’s better,” she muttered, “muted to a dull roar.”

                For the second piece the dancers wore something close to prison garb and they swaggered across the stage, grabbing crotches and flashing gang symbols.

               “When will they begin to dance?” Byrne grumbled. “This is half-hearted mime.”

               Suddenly the stage was pummeled with patterns of light. Blood-red graffiti scrawled across the backdrop and side curtains. The dancers stopped to read each message as it illuminated, as if demanding the audience take notes.

               “This doesn’t add anything. Is he trying to distract us from the lack of movement?” Byrne complained. Her voice muscled past a stage whisper. Her irritation was audible for rows around us.

               Lisa drew her chin into her neck and the arm that shared the rest between us flinched with tension. Her feet were following the rhythm of the pounding music, and her fingers tapped the beat. She was making an attempt, at least, to feel the message.

               “I’ve seen enough,” Byrne declared, drawing her feet out of the aisle. “I will never invite them to perform for the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre. Let’s go.”

               She was feeling around for the other end of her shoulder wrap when Lisa leaned over me and put a hand on Byrne’s arm.

               “I am not leaving until the first act is over,” she said. Lisa has a thick Swiss-German accent. The measured staccato of her accent gave the declaration gravitas.

               “Don’t you recognize the superficiality?” Byrne said. Her tone was somewhere between exasperation and incredulity.

               “I agree it’s dreadful,” Lisa said. Byrne let out a sigh, relieved. “But there are people in the audience enjoying this performance and it shows disrespect for them to interrupt it.”

               It was the longest sentence I had ever heard Lisa say and Byrne slouched back in her seat in resignation.  At intermission, Byrne attempted to redeem herself.

               “Shall we stay for the next half?” she asked, innocently. Lisa burst out laughing, seeing through it instantly. “I’d love to but there’s a bottle of Cabernet back at the apartment that must be close to room temperature by now,” Lisa said. 

         Here’s to speaking up when you need to!

One lover too many

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I have two grandmothers whose memories are in varying stages of reliability. But every time one of them confuses a story, or calls me by another name, I remember one of my favorite stories about Byrne. It comes from one of my very closest sisters-by-Byrne, Lisa Lepionka.

Lisa was a tireless supporter of Byrne – she even kept tabs on Byrne’s daughter Alison until she died a few years ago. One of the many things Lisa did was help organize Byrne on concert days. Byrne herself would be juggling so many last minute details that if she didn’t have Lisa looking after her she might have arrived on stage having forgotten to dress. Not that that would have been a big thing – you’ve seen the photos of her.

One day, Lisa asked her then-teenage son Franz give Byrne a heads-up phone call, letting her know that Lisa was on her way to the house to pick Byrne up for the concert. It wasn’t until days later that she and Byrne had a chance to decompress and talk about the performance.

Lisa still laughs about it. Byrne told her “I had a lover once named Franz, and I had no idea why he called me last week.”

Cheers – to a life filled with so many lovers you occasionally mix them up.

Byrne and Yoga

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This summer I took my very first yoga class, outdoors, while visiting family in Wisconsin. It seems all my friends are yoga-fanatics, yet I have always stuck to my dance guns and never experimented. It was eye-opening, the parallels astounding. And much more difficult than I imagined. Not physically, I’ve been dancing since I was a kid, but mentally. Maintaining focus, without music to transport me, is almost impossible. I found my mind wandering, to whether Byrne would have liked yoga. In some ways I’m sure she would have – getting bodies moving was always something she celebrated. Yet I know she found the part of every dance class dedicated to technique boring. A necessary evil, before the music played and improv began.

So I asked Judean about it. She’s the Savannah yoga teacher who is one of Byrne’s many adopted daughters. She thinks Byrne exemplified yogic philosophy. Especially in how stoically she coped with all her physical and health problems  (the cancers, the spinal surgeries, the blood clot, the blindness)

“If anyone expressed admiration about her ability to cope she would answer “it’s just that I’m selfish and I want to be happy.” But this is really her saying that she chooses to be at peace, not dependant on outside sources for her happiness. ” She thinks Byrne’s definition of being selfish is really being self-less. “Each moment that you are happy is a gift to the rest of the world.”

I remember that Byrne too. The one who said that her mind contained many rooms. That if she found herself dwelling in an unhappy room, she moved to another room.  More from Judean: “Byrne had wonderful foundational memories of being loved, but she let her life build and she evolved – she never got stuck in a place that made her miserable.”

Another concept from yoga that Judean finds parallel to Byrne is that you have to “adjust, accommodate and adapt” to change. “Love all, serve all, do good, be good. Realize.”  Byrne’s way was to accommodate and adapt to changing circumstances. Like when she lost her sight. She just organized her refrigerator so that she knew exactly where everything was.

“If you go in there,” she’d say “make sure you put the orange juice back exactly to the right of the milk so I know where it is when I need it.”


I’ve included this photograph of Byrne because it’s Judean’s favorite. “It captures the true Byrne,” Judean says. Every muscle in her body is engaged in the action. Her face is aware, the neck is taut, tendons stretched. One hand is almost limp and the other clenching. It looks like a modern floor spiral but on closer examination she is just sitting on her knees pivoting at the hip. Simple really – but the pose is so striking and strong and expressive.

“She’s so large in this picture. Every part of it is expressive. The heaviness of the head, you can tell there is weight there. The limp hand and the curled fist – a study in contrasts and complexities.” Just like Byrne.