Peanut M&Ms in an Age of COVID – For Didion

It’s Sunday night, a week before Miami Art Week, and I rest in bed, having recently tested positive again for COVID. I thought I had been spared. Half the people at last Saturday’s birthday party had come down with it by Wednesday. This included my partner. I thought at best he was just nursing a bad hangover or the man flu. I had stayed away from the dance floor in deep conversation with out of town friends. When I repeatedly tested negative while he slept in the other room, I thought I had been given a pass. This fall has been hard with death and disease. The challenges have been shared. He needed to blow off some steam that night too. I don’t think either of us really believed we would get sick again. Just this morning I had been out walking the lake, masked with an old friend, and now again I was back isolated inhaling cold mist from a humidifier writing bits of a travel guide for Miami on my phone, shoving candy in my mouth every time I stumbled on a badly written sentence. I finished the package before the lede.

As I relaxed, I thought about Joan Didion’s estate sale, held earlier this week. I had watched it via livestream on and off throughout the day. It seemed appropriate to do so. In fact, I felt like Joan herself was watching from another realm, commenting in my ears, “I never quite liked those glasses,” when the Celine shades shattered records or “those napkins were stained long ago at Easter,” when the set of damask fetched what the auctioneer compared to “Onassis” prices. Thankfully the proceeds went to charity because the whole thing kept conjuring French Revolution metaphors. The blood thirst to own a piece of the writer was fervid. I nervously snacked while waiting for the lots I had lost in the pre auction to appear. Who would purchase her burnt Dutch oven? And her collection of cookbooks organized by geographic cuisine? And what would they do with them when they were done? When the Hollywood regency elephants sold for $3000, I shut off the livestream and went downstairs to grab the mail, only to find a copy of “The Last Interview,” a compendium of Didion conversations I found on eBay. I skipped to her last interview, from January 2021 with Time, where she is funny, evasive and admits she doesn’t know how to work her television. In answer to what she looks forward to in the future, she remarks, “an Easter party, if it can be given.” She passed December of last year, so maybe she was successful.

Since I wrote my first piece on Didion, friends I never knew liked her have called, texted or emailed sharing their own Didion worship. I’ve been given and then passed along her collaged cookbook, a scrapbook of typed dinner guests and menus, organized by season, alongside scattered recipes like Orso’s Roasted Chicken with Black Olives and Sausage for fall, to a typewritten faded Artichoke au Gratin for 6 in winter. Each recipe is in a different format, gathered over decades from a variety of sources. I’ve skimmed through the entire pdf multiple times, intrigued by this digital artifact in a deeper way than her museum show at the Hammer or Didion’s own auction. The marks on the pages draw me into the writer’s humanity to connect over ideas around food, something that resonates deeper than owning any physical object will ever entail.

Resting in bed, I imagined myself wearing her sunglasses convalescing. There was no sunshine outside. It would have looked ridiculous if anyone saw me. I imagined telling my nonagenarian best friend about this, who would have quipped, “maybe it would improve your cooking.” But the image broke my mood. Writing about Joan would mend me back to health. It would force me to stop wallowing. There were still so many books of hers I hadn’t yet read or pieces of criticism that had been left behind in out of print titles. I had just learned the night before that she would type and retype the same pages to hone her prose as part of her process and I wanted to shout to no one in particular – why does no one talk about this – this is an effective practice! Reading her interview with Hilton Als was illuminating because she spoke candidly about her struggles writing. I always had the misconception that like my brilliant friend Tricia Romano that the words poured out of her. But this did not seem to always be the case.

Beyond the visceral privilege that her lifestyle afforded her, Joan shared the writer’s struggle. I wondered if she cooked through the challenges. I wondered if I began cooking her recipes if I could overcome mine. This wouldn’t be a totally original endeavor. Julie Powell did this with Julia Childs recipes before unfortunately passing away earlier this week. What if I began to cook Didion’s favorites to help me through writer’s block? I paused then went to my daily challenge, the New York Times spelling bee. I quickly found the pangram, the one word that utilizes all the letters of the puzzle. It was EBULLIENT. I promised myself I’d let myself wear my sunglasses in the kitchen if I proceeded on this train of thought as I went searching around the house to find some more peanut M&Ms.

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