A Letter to the New York Times Style Section,
in response to
Dear Style Editor,
When reporter Abby Ellin interviewed me for her article about Kabul Beauty School, she said that this was going to be a she said/she said, look-behind-the-book piece. However, she goes on to raise the much larger issue in her article about how truthful memoirs should be. I believe she does this inappropriately, as conflicts in perspective—not truthfulness—are at the heart of this disagreement.
First, the article did not fully identify Mary MacMakin, who is only described as an American who lived in Afghanistan for more than 25 years and who initially proposed the idea of a beauty school. Mary MacMakin not only lived and worked in Afghanistan for more than 25 years but also founded PARSA in 1996, a highly regarded nonprofit that works with Afghan widows, orphans and others. The Kabul Beauty School was one of PARSA's projects through the second class. MacMakin—PARSA's director until recently-- supports Debbie's Rodriguez's account of what happened with the beauty school's second class and, in fact, replaced Patricia O'Connor with Rodriguez as director of the school in March 2004. MacMakin's description of the contested events is online, in the June 2004 PARSA newsletter
, for anyone to see. Style readers should know that MacMakin is not merely another American who supports Rodriguez's account but is a highly credible woman with arguably more experience and connections in Afghanistan than just about any other westerner.
It's unfortunate that the group who started the beauty school—and I believe they were all well-intentioned—have wound up fighting about it, but I can understand how this might come to pass. People who have spent more time in Afghanistan than I tell me that it's hard to know what's going on there, even when you're right there. So I find it plausible that the other women who organized and taught at that first class didn't understand what Rodriguez faced when she went back to start up the second class and that rumors and worst-scenario suppositions started to fly.
However, I cannot understand why Ms. Ellin aired these suppositions without question. Seriously, now: Is it reasonable to believe Rodriguez wanted to re-open the beauty school outside the women's ministry because she wanted to run it as a for-profit enterprise? This seems ludicrous, as the one point on which everyone agrees is that there wasn't any money for the school at that point. The students don't pay to attend the beauty school. Where would the profit be?
Finally, I believe Ellin—and the angry women she quoted in her article—don't fully understand what the repercussions can be for Afghan women who violate the country's rigid sexual mores. The story of Roshanna is true—horribly so—but the only moral way to include her story in the book was to change enough details so that no one would recognize her. Perhaps Ellin and the others don't understand that women still get sent to prison in Afghanistan for having boyfriends, for being rape victims, for disobeying their husbands, for fleeing them—this is why self-immolation is the choice of many miserable wives. The real Roshanna would face a hell that we can't even imagine here in the States if her plight were known. After we finished the manuscript, Rodriguez asked another Kabul friend who knew Roshanna to go through it and make sure there weren't any identifying details. That no one interviewed for Ellin's article recognized Roshanna is a triumph, in my opinion—not a scandal.
In her article, Ms. Ellin says that the six angry hairdressers question whether the "disturbing, heartbreaking tales of abuse" about the Afghan women Rodriguez has come to know are true. I told Ellin and she failed to report that I had interviewed the group of women who are still around the Kabul Beauty School and Oasis Salon myself, so I know their stories are true. What surprises me is that Ellin—and the other hairdressers quoted in her article—don't realize how tragically unremarkable these women's stories are in Afghanistan.
[photo is of a Kabul Beauty School graduation I attended in 2005)
A Champion of Small Farmers
This is one of the things a freelance writer can do with a blog: post articles that have been assigned and then killed and that you can't seem to place elsewhere. I wrote the following article about chef Parker Bosley (left) two years ago. He closed his restaurant at the end of last year (right after it made the Gourmet 50 Best Restaurants list for the second time) to work full time with the North Union Farmers Market and with small farmers all over Ohio.
The roads wind and narrow, dip and turn, on the drive from Parker Bosley’s restaurant, Parker’s, in Cleveland, to Michael Miller’s farm. Bosley and I pass through one small Ohio town after another—Navarre, Tarrymore, Winesburg—then onto an even narrower road just short of Berlin. Finally, we crest a green hill studded with headstones, zip past a few small Amish farms, and continue along a lush valley. Miller’s organic farm is up on the right, 86 acres of pasture and woods.
Miller and two of his young children come outside and there’s some small talk and introductions, though the children only nod and whisper to their father in the Amish tongue. Then Bosley gets down to business. “Any sign of the pigs?” he asks, his red- and white-checked shirt a bright contrast to the Millers’ muted hues.
Miller gazes up into the woods on the hillside. His new Berkshire hogs roam the upper five acres, fattening on the acorns, nuts, and wild apples that will add flavor to their meat. Bosley is already imagining a dynasty of them slaughtered and packaged and labeled: “Ohio Berkshire Pork,” available at fine restaurants and farmers markets and maybe even a few specialty grocers. Perhaps nestled near some of the other local produce he’s coaxed into commerce: organic mushrooms and heritage turkeys, as well as his most ambitious project, Ohio’s own version of France’s exactingly nurtured Label Rouge chickens.
Though this role as local-produce impresario is a new twist for Bosley, it’s not a radically new one. Born on a dairy farm in nearby Trumbull County, he grew up eating fresh and local by necessity—he and his parents, his three brothers, and his sister ate what they grew. He was reminded of the rich flavors of his youth years later when he was a schoolteacher in central France and did a lot of driving and tasting in the countryside.
“I was struck by the way that the food in each town was a reflection of its own agriculture and season,” he says. “If you drove three hours to the next town, there’d be a difference in the menu because the people there were cooking from their region and climate. By the time I started my own restaurant, I knew I wanted to do that.”
He alternated teaching with summers working in restaurants and taking occasional cooking classes at La Varenne, ultimately apprenticing with Michel Pasquet in Paris. Once back in Cleveland, Bosley served as executive chef at Sammy’s for three years before he opened Parker’s in 1986.It was there that he realized that finding local farmers to fill his larder was going to be much more difficult than he had anticipated.
“People think it’s a choice, that you can just pick up a phone and say you want local produce,” he says. “It takes a chef twice as much time to buy local produce as it does to buy commercial. With commercial, you just call one supplier and you get it all—lamb, dish soap, paper towels, salmon, carrots, everything.”
Since he didn’t know anyone he could call to order local carrots, he had to hunt down sources. At first, he’d cruise the outskirts of the city looking for farm stands, and then tell the farm family that he was a restaurateur looking for sources and that he’d be back the following week to get more of those carrots or beets or peaches—and could they please reserve a pile for him? Those farmers would tell him about others who were raising poultry or grass-fed beef, so he ventured even farther into the countryside and eventually built up a network of local sources. By the time Bosley left the kitchen to chef de cuisine Andy Strizak, Parker’s was a shrine to local produce.
“We’re almost a hundred percent local,” Bosley says. “Not seafood or olive oil, but just about everything else. We simply don’t serve strawberries or broccoli in the winter. We might serve a cobbler with blueberries that we got from a local farmer and froze back in July, but we’re not going to bring them in from Guatemala in January.”
Now semiretired, the 66-year-old devotes much of his time to expanding the pipeline of local produce to restaurants and farmers markets. He’s out in the countryside two or three days a week, investigating rumors of excellent garlic or farmstead cheese. He subscribes to more publications about farming than about cooking, and studies farming literature so thoroughly that when he urges a farmer to try a new breed or crop—like Michael Miller with his Berkshires or Ed Snavely from Curly Tail Organic Farm, in Fredericktown, now raising another heritage hog called Large Black—he knows what it’s going to take to procure, raise, and process it. He attends regional meetings of groups like the Ohio Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association and the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association. When he raises his hand to offer an idea and identifies himself as a restaurateur, farmers turn and look at him in amazement. Same when he calls rural politicians to talk about legislation that will affect small farms.
“They ask why someone like me would care about House Bill 27,” he says. “I tell them that good farming and good soil make good food.”
Bosley also acts as a consultant to Donita Anderson, founder of Cleveland’s North Union Farmers Market, at historic Shaker Square. The two of them think up products that restaurants and picky consumers want (or would want, if they knew local farmers could put them on the table),then Bosley helps the farmers get started. For instance, he met with a group to the west of Cleveland to talk about growing organic asparagus in raised beds with retractable covers, thus lengthening the season by a month. Bosley also holds workshops to train farmers on developing relationships with restaurants-—in the wake of his work, many area chefs are interested in local produce.
“He’s been a big influence,” Anderson says. “Chefs call him, they ask him for advice—if they want to go local and seasonal, they go to him.”
But Bosley’s vision is bigger than just pleasing those at the knife-and-fork end of the food chain. He wants to restore the link between producer and consumer that’s been snapped by corporate agriculture and its many middlemen. And he wants farmers to get a bigger chunk of the consumer’s dollar so that they’ll stay on the land instead of having to sell to developers. All this gets back to the old-fashioned capitalism that Bosley says he loves: Make a better product, aim it at the right market, and you will prosper.
Out in Miller’s fields, some of these products regard us amiably from the little hollows they’ve made in the thick pasture grass. These are five-week-old chicks that have been bred to mature more slowly, with firmer and more flavorful meat, than their commercial counterparts; Bosley urged Miller to order them from a hatchery in Alabama. They live in a capacious wire pen that Miller moves once or twice a day, so they can peck up greens and bugs to supplement their organic feed. He will raise about 400 of them this season, enough to freeze and offer to customers desperate for local organic chicken in the winter.
Bosley, as dapper and cordial in the field as he is when greeting customers at Parker’s, bends down to peer at the chicks. “Would you start giving them a little milk in the next few weeks?” he asks, adjusting the bill of his red cap against the sun. “Even if it sours, they like to pick out the curds. It will sweeten the meat.”
Then he and Miller load his biweekly supply of organic eggs—40 dozen from Miller’s Golden Buff layers—into the back of his Subaru. Some of these will go to the restaurant, some will go to a Cleveland pastry chef who follows the high road of local and organic. And then we’re off along more winding roads, through more small towns, because there are many more farm projects ahead to which Parker Bosley intends to apply his judicious and ever-curious eye.
The Pungent and The Sweet
My friend had taken her seder plate down from the wall, where it usually hangs under the Mexican folk art sconce I gave her and her almost spouse a few years ago. Now, it was on the table, its scroll-like calligraphy nearly hidden by the egg, the parsley, the chicken bone (they didn't have lamb), and the horseradish. Off in the kitchen, a ham was waiting for the next day's Easter gathering. They are that kind of couple, it was that kind of weekend.
The horseradish had been prepared by another friend, ground from her own roots with some fresh beets thrown in. It was a gorgeous zinfandel color, unlike the horseradish in my picture, which came from a jar and looks more like applesauce. I was greedy for it, ate it on my matzo and my brisket and even licked it from my stained fingertips.
I almost named this post, "Back when I was Jewish." I wasn't really, but I was married to a Jewish man for nearly twenty years who had grown up in a tiny town in the Catskills. I had been madly in love with him--at least, for a long time--and adored his family, as well as the friends and relatives who filled their lives. I wasn't Jewish, but I had a Jewish last name and knew a bracing handful of Yiddish epithets and looked more like my in-laws than my husband did. People would walk into my mother-in-law's office, see the portrait of my husband and me on her desk, and say, "Your daughter married such a nice-looking boy!" During my brief stint in corporate communications at American Greetings, someone once came to ask me if I was interested in managing the Jewish card and gift-wrap lines. She was surprised when I said that I wasn't, you know, really Jewish.
My in-laws weren't religious, and I never went to a seder in their home. In fact, they were adamantly anti-religious; his father had equal opportunity contempt for both rabbis and priests. But all the ingredients at the seder the other night-- the matzo, the gefilte fish, the brisket, the horseradish--were regulars on their table.
The horseradish often came from friends who lived on a chicken farm in an even tinier town than theirs; I don't think it had more than a outhouse-sized post office and a one-pump gas station. I always wanted to write about these friends, and now I'm sorry I didn't. Two brothers and their wives shared an old house across the road from a pond where they all fished summer and winter, through the ice. My husband and his sister had been regular visitors there when they were growing up, and then we--with our children--went calling every time we visited his parents.
It was a magical place. The two brothers and their wives were small and the rooms of the house were small and so crowded with wonders-- thousands of books and little sculptures and bowls of candy and platters of bowtie cookies and a baby grand piano and large chairs in which the small people looked like slightly wizened children, burnished with kindness and humor. One of the wives was such a lovely person. She was my mother-in-law's best friend; when she died, years after my divorce, I think my mother-in-law started to die, too. This woman was the smallest of the four. Her high-heeled shoes fit the children perfectly and she didn't mind if they clomped around in them. She always made egg salad before we came, and it was always perfect, the Platonic ideal of egg salad realized.
Outside, one of the brothers had a large garden, untended and unfenced. He planted enough, he said, to share with the rabbits and the deer. There was always a circle of chairs near the garden but under the reach of the trees where we sat in the summers and talked. These were long meandering hours with no urgency, no agenda. The other brother had fought in the Spanish Civil War and had stories, but you had to beg them from him; mostly, he liked to talk about the fish across the road and the funny things that people were doing around the county. He was my father-in-law's best friend (serendipitously, he was married to the woman with the tiny shoes). When my father-in-law died, the grief of it dimmed something forever in this brother.
The four of them made their own horseradish once a year in a big building attached to the back of their house. I think they used this room to inspect and package eggs the rest of the time, but when they ground the horseradish it was as if someone had lobbed tear gas into the room. When we'd pull up their long, weedy driveway during horseradish season, our eyes would start to water before we got out of the car. We'd have to run through this room with our arms across our eyes to get into the house, to reach for the perfect egg salad and the platter of bowtie cookies and the tiny shoes.
Those days now seem so perfect-- like scenes from a old movie or exquisite little paintings or even charms hanging from a bracelet. I don't know why someone older and wiser didn't pull me aside and tell me that these days wouldn't last, that these people wouldn't last, that the angers and disappoinments and anxieties that took up too much of my time should be pushed aside, as much as possible, so that I could partake more fully in the life that bloomed in this particular way for only a while. Maybe they didn't know this themselves. Maybe it seemed too obvious to mention.
That's the way it was; that's the way I thought it would always be.
Am I the only one who looks back in surprise?