A** in Chair, Audra and Advice from the Other Side of Publication (Part I of II)

ImageMy friend Audra Ang came to visit recently. She’s a former Beijing correspondent for the Associated Press, and a fellow Nieman who is as committed to eating good food as she is to getting the story exactly right. We were happy those two things converged when she came here to read from her brand-new book, “To the People, Food Is Heaven: Stories of Food and Life in a Changing China” (Lyons Press, 2012).

In the spring of 2010, I witnessed the moment when the idea for the book first floated from her mouth, at a brainstorming session that was part of a book publishing conference organized by our narrative writing teacher, Connie Hale, at Harvard’s Lippman House. (Connie wrote a wonderful post about her own book tour trials here.) So it was fitting that Tom and I hosted Audra’s first reading, a gathering that probed everything from the wonders of hotpot to the paranoia of reporting in a society where the press isn’t exactly free.

The audience was rapt, especially when she read about covering the earthquake.

The audience was rapt, especially when she read about covering the earthquake.

A Western-educated Singaporean of Chinese descent, Audra is someone who makes everything look easy, from her “dude”-peppered speech to her Michelle Obama arms. It’s also one of the wonders of reading her book, which flows seamlessly from scenes of her walking over earthquake rubble in Sichuan, knowing that dead bodies lie beneath her, to choking up as she shares a meal with earthquake survivors. For people who don’t know much about the world’s most populous nation and its next superpower, her book is a fantastic introduction to all things Chinese.

Now halfway through my own book project, I had hoped to suction some lessons from my Nieman pal since she’s a year ahead of me in the process. What did she wish she had known in the beginning that she only came to learn through 12 tactile months of Ass in Chair days that usually began when she awoke at 2 in the afternoon and went to sleep at 8 the next morning, with food and yoga/kickboxing breaks in between?

“Dude, writing a book aged me,” she said. Hauling around seven years of notebooks on multiple trips between the Bay Area and Singapore didn’t help her back, either.

Then came the worst news of all from the Other Side of Publication. Audra suggested I back up my material up on multiple spare hard drives as well as in the cloud. (Yep.) Keep copious track of my copious notes. (Yep, I was doing that already, too.) And find early readers who are brutally honest about what works and what doesn’t. (I’m  jealous that she had Ted Anthony, AP’s feature writing guru, to call on for help — though I’m grateful that journalist-writer friends including Clay Shirky, Andrea Pitzer and Leigh Anne Kelley have already volunteered their red pens.)

It was my worst fear realized. There are really no real magic bullets beyond sitting my ass in my chair, followed by more Ass In Chair, interlaced with copious amounts of hand-wringing and back spasms. And remember the way the old-fashioned typewriter used to sound when you dinged the carriage that final time on an article? (For you young folks, you know, like the secretary babes do on Mad Men?)

Duuuude, it’ll be a year before you even get to imagine hearing that sound. (I’m not sure what Audra did for her sore back, but I recommend those peel-off icy/hot pack stickers and, if you have one, a nightly hot tub accompanied by a book that has nothing to do with what you’re writing about so you won’t find yourself dreaming about, in my case, legal transcripts from the International Trade Commission.)

I read on a hand-me-down Nook my aunt gave me, which is backlit — great for night-tubbing — and mostly impervious to steam, as long as you hold it an inch or so above your head. Sadly, this does not take the place of a daily shower. There was a week not long ago when I wore the same sweaty yoga pants for four days.

Writing her book on the heels of a rigorous six-year reporting stint in China wiped Audra out so much that she’s happily taking a break from journalism, working as a senior development writer at Duke University — and still eating unseemly amounts of food in a single setting, though the potstickers and pork belly have given way to buttermilk biscuits and Cajun-infused deep-fried turkeys.

She's not joking when she says she eats unseemly portions in a single sitting. Where does it go?

She’s not joking when she says she eats unseemly portions in a single sitting. Where does it go?

We had the privilege of introducing our foodie pal to our favorite restaurant in the world, a hillbilly-Asian place that is a tiny speck of funk in the rolling hills of Tazewell County. Cuz’s Uptown BBQ co-owner Yvonne Thompson took us on a serious food bender that included Rappahannock oysters, crab cakes with chili hollandiase, Thai seafood curry, plate-sized prime rib and coconut crème brulee — and that’s literally only about half of what we ate. When we left our Cuz cabin the next morning, we carried baggies of leftover country ham.

Dude, welcome to the South!

Audra claims she’s stuck a fork in her storytelling career. This, from a reporter who once offered to cut off her arm in exchange for a tour of an illegal noodle-making operation. But that’s her story right now, and she’s sticking to it.

(I’ll post Part II of my Advice from the Other Side of Publication — featuring more advice I’ve been collecting from  writers — in a few days. Meantime, if you have your own book-writing tips to share, please chime in.)

Bull castration, mountain bikers and other joys of returning to the Star City

Star-topped Mill Mountain in the distance

My  first solo mountain bike on one of my favorite paths: I’m less than a quarter-mile up the Monument Trail when I nearly slam into him. Actually, I hear his rattletrap bike long before I see him. His brakes are squealing from several bends away, like the sound of Norfolk-Southern rail cars screaming to a stop.

He’s not your typical mountain biker. He is helmet-less with baggy gym shorts, a T-shirt and Malcolm X glasses.On his feet are black dress socks and blue Reebok flip-flops, the kind soccer players wear when they’re off the field. I pull over so he can ride past me, but he stops and gives me a friendly stare.

We’re near the edge of this Mill Mountain trail, Frisbee-throwing distance from residential traffic, when the stranger asks: “If I keep going, will I end up in Roanoke?”

I assure him he will. He thanks me and white-knuckles it down the trail.  I’m half weirded out, half wondering if my imagination has just conjured him up.  I turn to make sure he’s really gone.

Home again, home again, jiggity jog (and Tom, bless him, did DMV duty).

If I keep going, will I end up in Roanoke? It’s a question a lot of people have asked me lately. It’s been exactly a year since we left this small Southern city for the bustling (and R-less) Beantown, the land of crazy drivers, fabulous grocery stores and genuinely big news. We’ve been back for nearly two months now, and some people want to know: How was your year at Harvard? Are you glad to be back?

I’m never sure what to say. The first question is a no-brainer: My year at Harvard was amazing. I was paid — for the first and only time in my life, I’m sure — NOT to work.

But no one really wants to hear that, and I get it. I really do. They’re more likely to want to hear how awful it is leaving it behind. I get that too.

Will I ever again know this many people willing to help me move?

I know of one former Nieman who cried at her desk her entire first week back on the job. Another told me his readers picked apart everything he wrote  — either he was trying too hard to sound high-and-mighty Harvard, they complained, or he was not sounding Harvard enough. Yet another told me she returned to her paper with renewed rigor— but, honestly, she seemed depressed. An international fellow from 2009,  she kept referring to our class as “the robbers” and said it was too painful to re-enter Lippman House.

No wonder they brought in counselors to talk to us about re-entry.

I’ll admit, there were days when I worried that returning to the same job I’ve had for 21 years would feel like a step backward. And then I actually stepped back into the old job, occupying the same old dusty desk , with the same old desk lamp (sorry, Rex; I had it first) and even the same telephone number.

I checked in with my editor and then I did what I always do when I want to find a story so good I can get lost in it: I promptly left.

I don’t care how many meetings you sit in, or how much computer-assisted research you say you’re doing, or how much office face time is politically wise. This is one of my story idea mantras: There are no good stories in the newsroom.

My first story back ran Saturday. Found it at a gas station when I ran into a trusted source and old friend who runs a Mexican store. He’d already pitched it to a younger colleague, who confessed he hadn’t known where to begin. I began it with this question: Are Hispanics really being rounded up and deported from our region and what happens to the families that are left behind?

My second story also ran Saturday. As someone with the so-called families beat, I got a tip about a story that explored the very definition of family. A relative of the source had recently passed away, and his same-sex partner opened up their rural Franklin County newspaper — only to find that the editors didn’t consider a gay partner family enough to list among the survivors.

I drove deep into the country to meet Chris Nichols — past two Bojangles, past the trailer parks, past the tanning/hair/movie-rental salons. He showed me the kidney-shaped swimming pool that he and his beloved had recently built, complete with a sign, “Welcome to Paradise,” and Key West colors inside the trim house. He showed me the cross necklace the nurse handed him moments after the doctor pronounced his partner of 23 years dead; and the note he later found tucked behind some bills he’d been about to mail — expressing that it wasn’t enough just to call yourself a Christian, you also had to express it in deeds.

I found my next story through my stomach, having become addicted to the  bread sold at a nearby farmer’s market before I knew anything about the hands that baked it. I still don’t understand what spelt is, but I’m grateful to have gotten to know Ginger Hillery, a recently widowed farmer and baker who raises five wonderfully quirky kids and runs a church under a willow tree next to her barn. I hope I’ll know her for a good, long time. She’s spiritually advanced, funny and — it might seem like I’m piling on praise here, but admit it, this is impressive: She castrates her own bulls.

“The definition of grace is unmerited favor,” she told me, explaining how she’s managed to keep the farm and the family going in the face of her huge, monolithic grief.

Will I end up in Roanoke? Perhaps the better question is: Will I be blessed to keep meeting unexpected people around the next delicious bend? Will I get to keep writing stories that otherwise would not find their way into anyone else’s definition of a traditional newspaper beat?

And why didn’t I ask that guy on the falling-apart mountain bike: What’s your name, and where on earth have you been?

Greens Garage: The opposite of “Food, Inc.”

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I’m sorry that we didn’t make it to FloydFest this year, but at least we made it to Floyd, to the home of our friends Rob Neukirch and his beautiful wife Michelle. When the former owners of your formerly favorite Floyd restaurant — Oddfella’s Cantina — invite you for Sunday brunch, it doesn’t matter how much packing you have to do. You go.

On our way home, they suggested we stop by the self-serve Greens Garage — a tiny organic “Farmstand and More” that operates solely on the honor system. It’s so out off the beaten path that it doesn’t even have a sign — not unless you count the peace sign and the pieces of cardboard announcing that the peaches were in.

We bought a beautiful and heaping bag of baby lettuces for $4, another bag of sugar snap peas for $2, along with a few other goodies. Amazingly, we resisted the temptation of Nastasha’s cookies, made by a former Oddfella’s chef — but only because we were already so full from Rob’s marvelous Belgian waffles. (When he admitted that he snuck a Tablespoon of flax seed into the buckwheat/white-flour blend — see most excellent recipe below — I tried to pawn off my flax-seed oil on the spot, but sadly he declined.)

Everything in the Garage was fresh and locally produced, including local honey, regional cheeses and grass-fed beef and pork. We helped ourselves to two of the patty pan squash, which were free for the taking from a box outside the door.

We wrote up our own receipt, consulting the sales tax chart on the wall — and stuffed the cash into the provided envelope. A tabby cat wandered in and out while we were there but dutifully filed out as we left. Everything was fresh, well-marked and tidily organized — in a cinderblock building no bigger than a doublewide. 

The flier says the Greens Garage was designed for “Friends and Neighbors,” but I’ve a hunch the operators wouldn’t mind a few “come heres” showing up — as long as they adhere to the honor system.

The garage is operated by local-food movement gurus Tenley Weaver and Dennis Dove, who own Full Circle Farm and do the marketing and distribution for a larger cooperative of growers called Good Food, Good People.

Between this place — I see now why Rob only buys his lettuce greens at the Garage — and the new farmer’s market on Grandin Road, I think I’m convinced, finally, to go see the movie “Food, INC,”  although I’ll admit it’s so much easier to remain uninformed.

Our teenager is even seeing the movie today, compliments of his employer, The Isaacs Restaurant. Manager Nicole Coleman is taking her entire staff there so they can learn more about the local foods they’re promoting at the restaurant.

I fully expect him to come home and declare our house a Tyson-free zone. As long as he empties the dishwasher, I’m down.

 From Roanoke, take 221 South. About six miles miles before you get to the town of Floyd, turn right onto Roger Road, which is immediately past Ingram’s Marathon gas station. Drive exactly one mile — it feels longer on the gravel road — and you’ll see it on the left. Open year-round every day from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. For more information or to place special orders, call 745-3182.

Rob’s Waffles

1  3/4 cups flour

1/4 cup buckwheat flour

2 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. baking soda

3 T sugar

Pinch salt

1 T flax seed, ground

Cinnamon to taste

2 eggs beaten

1 tsp. vanilla

3 T melted butter

3 cups buttermilk

Mix dry ingredients. Beat eggs, add vanilla and butter (slowly). Add to dry mixture. Add buttermilk. Mix together and let rest. Use cooking spray on waffle iron. Enjoy. Smack lips.

— Rob Neukirch