The Catalyst

A Writing Teacher Writes (plus some writing prompts and recipes)

Thankful November 16, 2012

Filed under: Recipes,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 9:46 am

With Thanksgiving fast approaching, I thought it would be appropriate to share a piece from the memoir cookbook I’ve been working on for awhile now. It’s a piece about my Pop, who was our holiday cook for many, many years. I’ve preceded it with a few related writing prompts, and a link for a Turkey Breast Roulade that will save you three hours in the kitchen (and set you free from the enslavement of that big bird).                                                                             

Here’s that link, plus a few writing prompts. What I wrote follows.


I miss you most, my darling, when Autumn leaves start to fall

He’s in the kitchen, of course

Home for the holidays

I never used to think about how he did it: cooked for all of us, every holiday. Easter ham, or leg of lamb, and one year, a delicious duck. Christmas Eve he made lasagna, in the two white Corning Ware casseroles with the tiny blue flowers on the side. Christmas dinner was sometimes filet mignon, my brother, Jerry, helping with the grill. Sometimes it was risotto with pancetta, asparagus, and lemon zest. “Keep stirring,” he’d tell me, handing me his wooden spoon like it was a scepter. I’d stare into the orange Le Crueset and watch the sauce thicken, the Arborio rice swell.

He made three-course meals for ten, twelve, fourteen—once sixteen people—fresh bread and butter on the table, three wine glasses at every place-setting, tapers down the length of our old dining room table (with both leaves in place), an eight-foot collapsible conference table butted up against it, both tables covered with cream-colored clothes. The small living room of his rented house transformed into an elegant dining room, the family and guests taking their seats expectantly.

Dessert was often cheesecake; he made the most wonderful flavors: dark chocolate, mocha, pumpkin, ginger, and one year, tropical cheesecake, made with coconut milk and topped with kiwi, pineapple and banana.

He was fearless, trying new recipes for a party of twelve, substituting balsamic or brown sugar or sour cream. And he did all of this with a seeming effortlessness, that I now know (since I cook and bake and have dinner parties myself) was part pure joy and part illusion, and he did it while enjoying a glass of wine and some quiet conversation.

He became a cook by default, and not until he was sixty-two, when my mother became ill. At first, he made the old stand-bys: burgers, broiled hot dogs with melted cheese, Sloppy Joes, pasta. But then he began reading Gourmet and Bon Appétit, and tried his hand at braising, marinating, searing. Eventually, he bought subscriptions to both magazines, bought copper-clad pans, and made his own simple hanging rack for the collection of sauté pans he was acquiring. He invested in a food processor (which I inherited 20 years later; it starting smoking one day, and I had to invest in one of my own). He made his own pesto sauce, béchamel, tapenade, romesco. And he mastered the most difficult meal of all: Thanksgiving.

His timing was impeccable; everything came to the table hot: stuffing with andouille sausage, mashed potatoes with sage gravy, dinner rolls, green beans with slivered almonds. The stove-top candied yams were evenly sliced, drizzled with maple syrup, sprinkled with cinnamon, and dabbed with pats of butter, waiting patiently in the skillet as early as 1:00.

He carved a golden brown turkey in an effortless way, and years later he taught me how he made it look so easy. We even got him to laugh the year it rolled out of the roasting pan and onto the kitchen floor. He lost his cool at first, something he rarely did while cooking, swearing, burning his hand slightly as he tried to wrestle the bird onto the platter. We patted it off, praying no dog hair would surprise us later as we bit into the butter basted breast.

“Pop,” I asked, “what did Julia Child say when she dropped the veal on the floor of her studio kitchen?” (It was a story my brother Marty told us sometimes when we prompted him; he did a great imitation of her.) He laughed then, breaking open, and I said, “Oh, well. There’s no use wasting good veal.” And just like she did that day, we picked up our meal off the kitchen floor and served it. Delicious, as always.


What I Learned at School Today November 11, 2012

Filed under: Teaching,Videos,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 11:54 pm

For this prompt, I played, “I’m Going to a Town,” by Rufus Wainwright. The video is below, and I love Rufus, but the visuals are out there a bit. I suggest listening to it without the visual the first time around. See what you write in response to the lyrics or the mood of the song, without the visual distraction.

What I wrote follows.



Three of my students are writing about LGBT issues for their Human Rights essay, and I think two of them are straight, but who knows? They probably don’t even know yet.

For those who need a reminder, LGBT stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender—the acronym I belong to—and don’t think it hasn’t crossed my mind that they’re writing to me directly, hoping to get a good grade. (Once, when I asked a student to consider his audience,  he said, “My audience is you, right?” And I said, “I don’t want to be your sole audience member.”)

Sometimes it’s hard to get them to think beyond what’s right in front of them.

Even so, nobody writes about LGBT issues if they’re a homophobe, and that’s what gives me hope: these kids give a shit. One student was inspired to do research because he hated seeing Reverend Phelps’ church assembling at public events carrying signs that read, “God hates fags.”

“That just makes me so fucking mad,” Jason said at our first draft meeting.

We talked about freedom of speech, and hate speech and epithets, and using God as an excuse for hatred. Then Jason pulled the Giants cap down tightly on his head and said, “I know where I need to go with this essay.”

Erica is writing about denying same sex couples the right to marry. “Degrading the sanctity of marriage?” she gawks at one of her sources. “Give me a break! With 60% of all marriages ending in divorce? Where’s the sanctity in that?”

And then there’s Laura, an openly bisexual woman in her early 20’s. “Did you know Wyoming still hasn’t included sexual identity in its hate crime law?” she asks me. “It’s disgusting.”

I knew, but I was hoping her research would inform me that something had changed since my last student ally wrote about that state, a state known internationally for the atrocious murder of Matthew Shepard.

Then she adds, “Oh, by the way, here’s that post-feminist manifesto I told you about.” She pulls out a fat paperback with the c-word printed on the cover in the center of a Gerber daisy. “I think you’re going to love that book. Keep it as long as you want,” she says.

What are they up to in that class, you must be thinking. Hetero guys writing about homophobia, and young women offering their teacher radical books that reclaim the derogatory word for female genitalia? Arguing for justice in an unjust world? They’re teaching me, of course.

It’s a tough and terrible world out there in so many ways, but they remind me that it’s also a very different—and much more accepting—world than the one I grew up in; so much has changed.  If you listen to the news too often, you might not believe that. But because of these students, I know it’s true.

And once again, I’m thankful.


Mexican Comfort Food November 6, 2012

Filed under: Recipes — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 6:12 pm

This week’s post is a recipe only, although the title could be quite an interesting prompt. Budin Azteca, or “Aztec Casserole,” leaves much room for your own additions, including  chicken, which I found in many of the recipes I researched on-line. The one below is vegetarian, and quite the savory meal.

Budin Azteca   

•     2 tablespoons oil
•     1/2 cup chopped onion
•     2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
•     3 large tomatoes, pureed
•     1 1/2 teaspoons salt
•     1 tablespoon butter
•     3 cups fresh corn kernels or frozen corn kernels
•     3 zucchini, chopped
•     1/3 cup water
•     oil (for frying)
•     10-16 corn tortillas (depending on the size)
•     2 poblano chiles, (in CA these are sometimes called “Pasillas”) roasted, peeled and cut into strips or small square pieces (or use a 2 small cans of Ortega chiles, and if so, add light sprinkle of chile flakes)
•     1 cup creme fraiche
•     1 cup Monterey jack cheese

1. Heat oil in skillet, add the onion and garlic and saute until transparent. Add the tomatoes and salt and cook over high heat for 5 minutes. Lower the heat and cook for 10 more minutes. Correct the seasoning and set aside.

2. Preheat oven to 375°F

3. Melt the butter in a saucepan. Add the corn and zucchini and cook 2 minutes. Add the water, cover and cook over low heat for 8 minutes or until the zucchini is tender, but not mushy. It should still be slightly crisp, otherwise it will be too mushy when you bake it in the casserole.

4. Heat some oil in a skillet and fry the tortillas for 30-40 seconds on each side, just to soften. Set aside. (You could use
cooking spray or sprinkle with water to soften and lower fat. OR buy fresh warm tortillas at a local Latin foods market and skip this step.)

5. Place a thin layer of corn and zucchini mixture on the bottom of a greased 9×13 inch baking dish. Top with a layer of corn tortillas and then a layer of tomato sauce. Add half the remaining corn and zucchini mixture, half the chiles, 1/2 cup cream, and 1/2 cup cheese. Repeat the layers, finishing with the cheese.

Bake uncovered until the cheese begins to melt. About 10-15 minutes.