Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Lowering Your Expectations

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday and I have had the pleasure of hosting the past several dinners here at Chez Barbieri.  This year, we will play host to hubby’s family—twelve of us in all—and perhaps a friend and her family for dessert.  My turkey is known in the family for its moistness and fabulous flavor, success attributed to the brining process that takes several days.  My mashed potatoes are laden with butter, garlic, and sea salt, and although not the same recipe as the one that comes from Jim’s family, a crowd pleaser nonetheless.  I apparently also make great green beans, and for Jim’s brother-in-law and me, I make roasted brussel sprouts, a dish no one else would touch with a ten-foot pole but which he and I love.

I guess I’m what you would call a pretty serious home cook.  It is the rare dish that requires me to follow a recipe and I’ve become more adept over the years with complicated vegetarian dishes in order for child #1, an avowed non-meat eater, to get the nutrients she needs.  Baking is not really my forte, but only because I don’t like to measure and child #1 works at a bakery.  Problem solved.  There is one thing, however, that I’ve never mastered and that is gravy.  Can’t do it.  Have tried and failed repeatedly. And there’s nothing worse at a Thanksgiving meal than putting out an entire meal and then standing over the stove attempting to get the proper amount of roux to make a thick, but not gelatinous, gravy.  There’s something about the preparation of gravy that makes me anxious, and I think that’s because gravy is a staple of many meals, Thanksgiving being the most important.  My entire culinary reputation is riding on it and that’s just not a chance I’m willing to take.

I tried for years to make the right gravy, standing beside my mother and mother-in-law, watching what they did and trying to replicate it.  It just doesn’t work.  So, for the past few years—and with full disclosure to my holiday guests—I buy gravy at the local gourmet store where it is made fresh from the turkeys that they roast and which I serve it in my china gravy boat.  It’s delicious and the right consistency every time and all I’m required to do is heat it up.  Voila!  Perfect gravy.

Maybe it’s age, or maybe it’s just that my usual perfectionism just doesn’t translate to pan drippings, but I’ve decided that I’m going to make things easier on myself in order to enjoy the holiday. I’ve also decided the same will be true for writing because no matter how many times I decide I’m going to write the perfect first draft, trying to follow some self-created recipe for writing, it doesn’t happen.  (I bet you didn’t think I could connect gravy and writing but YOU’D BE WRONG!) You’d think after six books, I’d be smarter and know that the perfect first draft is an urban legend, kind of like the multi-city author tour or the alligator that lives in the New York City sewer system.  Or that everyone can cook gravy.

Starting a book without a roux—which is basically an outline or some kind of detailed plot diagram—is pretty scary but it is something I do every time I write a book.  (I’ve only written one outline in the past decade and it’s for a book I’ve yet to write.  We’ll see how that goes.)  It usually works out ok, though, with me figuring out halfway in whodunit and why.  The problem I have is that I hate every word I’ve written before I sit down to write again and I want to revise everything, every day, before I start again, kind of like how I always mess with the home-cooked gravy until it is the aforementioned gelatinous mess.  I can’t leave well enough alone.  This kind of self-critique, I’ve found, is detrimental to the process and just slows things down.  So with this latest book—the seventh in the Murder 101 series—I’ve just taken off the breaks, or to continue with the metaphor, bought the store-bought gravy, and am just dumping everything from my head into the gravy boat and figuring out how to make it work later. (I know…the metaphor is getting a little thing, but stick with me.)

So far, so good.  I have about 40,000 words to write to finish this book—piece of cake!  But lowering my expectations about what constitutes perfection has been a great lesson for me.  Interesting that after writing for all these many years, I’m still learning new things with every book.  I don't have to make perfect gravy and I don't have to write perfect first drafts.  That's what the delete key is for.  What about you?  Anything to share on the topic of the perfect first draft?  Gravy?  Thanksgiving?  Let it fly!

Oh, and in honor of the release of PHYSICAL EDUCATION next Tuesday, one lucky commenter will be chosen at random (my cat will do the picking) to win a signed copy. 

Maggie Barbieri

20 comments:

  1. Your gravy metaphor actually extends beyond writing, for me. I used to be a perfectionist in lots of ways. I was on top of EVERYTHING all the time. But it makes you neurotic over time. So, thanks to some eye-opening moments in life, I'm learning to simply do my best. And if my best is store bought gravy poured into my china boat, than that's A-Ok with me.

    Fun post, Maggie!

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  2. I find this both inspiring and timely, in that I've just started writing my first, non-poetry book. "Just do it," is the main message, I suppose. Thank you

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  3. The only "perfect" first drafts I've ever written were started the night before the term paper was due.

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  4. I'd never thought about just getting gravy!! I can make it, but there's never enough of it for everyone... and/or later turkey openfaced sandwiches...
    girlygirlhoosier52 (at) yahoo (dot) com

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  5. Laura, writing and gravy...who knew?

    Michele, good luck with the poetry book. Yes, "Just do it." Or "Butts in chairs" as we writers often intone.

    Liz, same here, my friend. Same here.

    Girlygirl, see? You can learn things here at Stiletto Gang. Buying gravy really takes the pressure off because it's time-consuming to make and so fickle. Just get yourself to a local organic grocer or gourmet shop...they all have pre-made gravy that is just as good as if you had made it yourself.

    Happy Thanksgiving, All! Maggie

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  6. Maggie, I'm definitely in favor of lowering expectations for Thanksgiving. We are just too busy to get everything done. Plus, store-bought pies are much better than my attempts at them! Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

    dlodden at frontiernet dot net

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  7. I made gravy once and it came out okay. The next time was a disaster, which is why I purchase my gravy or better yet, have my mom make it for me.

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  8. DarcyO, if I add one more thing to my to-do list, I think I'm going to lose it! Baby steps, right?

    Dru, I may press your mother into service at some point. Do you think she'd mind? :-) Maggie

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  9. The older I get the less I do from scratch. Was going to make instant mashed potatoes, granddaughter offered to make the real ones and I accepted. I buy the turkey gravy in a jar (many jars) and add the drippings. Oh and we also use paper plates. I'm not going to be stuck doing a million dishes.

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  10. It took several years for my gravy to be figured out. Nothing wrong with opening cans if you cannot press a guest into making it for you.
    Carol S

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  11. Who knew gravy and writing could be connected? Enjoyed reading your blog. I have trouble with gravy also. I buy the packets of turkey gravy and add the drippings to them. It works and no one has complained. They may be afraid too. I would insist they make the gravy next time. Ha! Writing the perfect first draft is a fantasy. I don't really think it can be done. Like you I don't work from an outline. I get all my thoughts down and build onto them.

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  12. I finally figured out I could make my gravy base a day or two ahead and just add the pan drippings at the the last minute. Perfect, smooth gravy with no hassles! Wish I could do the same with my writing!

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  13. Who knew you were all gravy slackers like me? (Well, except for you Tiger, but I would expect nothing less...you're good at everything!) Juanita, I didn't know gravy and writing were connected...the blog was originally only supposed to be about gravy. Marilyn, you've got the right idea, sister. And Carol S, I don't like my guests in the kitchen with me so having them help with the gravy wouldn't work. Is it any wonder I'm called "Sarge" here at home? Maggie

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  14. Oh, how I wish I could come to your house for Thanksgiving dinner! It sounds scrumptious! We're having a "non-Thanksgiving" dinner at our in-laws this year. So it's going to be very relaxed and turkey-free (grilled beef for some--for me, grilled chicken!). Yum. As for the writing...I think I could learn to make gravy faster than I can get this first draft of Little White Lies done. Oy.

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  15. Maggie, I can't make gravy either! And I love writing a book from scratch, without a recipe (or outline). Do you think we are secret twins?

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  16. I make a really good Thanksgiving dinner. Actually, it was "my" meal given all the families, divorces, etc. But I do not do gravy. My daughter used to make the gravy. And I love brussells sprouts. I actually like the vegetables more than the turkey. Writing may be a little like gravy, but so are a lot of things in life. Enough good things to make every one happy, to balance the things that don't work out. And a little cheating is all right. Happy holiday!

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  17. Nice post, Mags. Happy Thanksgiving to all.

    My two-bits:

    1) I also make gravy beginning the day before chowing. It' easy:

    Buy a couple of spare turkey thighs or wings.

    Salt and pepper nicely and brown them in a big Dutch oven and then de-glaze pan by pouring in one (or more) quarts of purchased turkey stock (Kitchen Basics is a nice brand).

    Add in any herbs or onion or celery--whatever.

    Simmer for 45-60 min or so. Remove from heat, strain and discard all solids (the meat is pretty flavorless at this point).

    Put stock in fridge so fat will collect and chill on top by next day, making excess fat easy to remove (a bit of fat is fine, too much will be too much).

    Next day, de-fat the stock and warm it.

    You can make the roux the day before or day of. If made the day before, try to take it out of fridge an hour before you want to start using it:

    Use 8 T butter and 8 T flour--this can vary, but it's always equal parts flout and fat and each 1 T unit is good to thicken about 8-12 ounces of stock.

    The gravy with a quart of stock should take about half of an "8 T roux", but you may need more or extra roux can be used another time in the week as a thickener. Better a bit much than too little on hand.

    Make the roux, add hot stock. Simmer a bit. Take off heat and set aside/put away. Add some of dripping from roasting bird to this. Add any extra roux as you see fit. Can be nice to dice up or shred a bit of roasted thigh meat to the gravy before serving, too.

    2) I could never, ever write a story without knowing the bones of the story when I start. That is, I cannot produce pages unless I know "whodunit" and at least one reason why at the get-go. That's the kind of nut I am.

    Gobble-gobble.

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  18. And the winner of a signed copy of PHYSICAL EDUCATION is...JUANITA!!! Congratulations! Contact me at maggie_barbieri@yahoo.com and send me your address. As soon as I get my advance copies, I'll get one in the mail to you. (My cat Diego picked you so you can thank him.) Maggie

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  19. Happy Thanksgiving! My cat and I are waiting patiently for our copy of your new book. I have asked Santa for the full set for Christmas and being an excellent Santa's helper with years of practice behind me , I have ordered the books to be delivered to me with the promise to not open until after Mass on Christmas. After Mass because my husband, who in all other things indulges me, refuses to let me take my book or knitting to Church.

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  20. Ann, happy Thanksgiving to you, too! I hope you--and your cat--enjoy the new book. I don't take books to Mass either, though sometimes...well, the thought does cross my mind. Thanks for commenting! Maggie

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