And yes, I've included recipes!
“I started your book yesterday,” one woman told me. “Just planning to read a couple of chapters before today’s gathering. And I couldn’t stop. I read the whole thing. Finally my husband’s asking, ‘Are we having dinner?’ and I’m saying, ‘Yeah, sure, fix whatever you want.’ I just had to finish it.”
Obviously, I was going to love this group. About a dozen of us were meeting at the home of my good friend Kathryn Johnson, who is famous for, among other things, her phenomenal networking skills, her gardening and her cooking. When she offered to arrange a sort of ad hoc book club, bringing together some of her favorite women friends for an August evening sitting in her garden, nibbling on tapas and discussing Dancing in the Fountain, I knew it would be phenomenal. And it was.
We began with glasses of a charming 2011 Madam Fleur rosé and a leisurely browse through the tapas table, which included a pitcher of gazpacho made from fresh watermelon and Kathryn’s own tomatoes, seasoned with ginger, jalapeño and cilantro. Platters were heaped with grilled vegetables, marinated artichoke hearts and mozzarella cheese balls to dip into the Romesco sauce, a tomato-based Catalan recipe enlivened with hazelnuts, ancho chile and cloves. A rich tapenade of black and green olives was accompanied by slivers of toast. Then there was the spicy shrimp in mango salsa that held the unexpected crunch of radishes…And of course there were the Spanish hostesses’ most indispensible favorites: paper-thin ham, Manchego cheese topped with membrillo (quince paste), salty fried almonds, olives, and the short, hard breadsticks known as picos.
Since I talk so much about food and art in the book, Kathryn suggested I bring along some of my food paintings, so I chose the one of corn and heirloom tomatoes and another of voluptuous pears, then added a couple of portraits of colorful characters, including Jan, a German I know who has taken up the beachcomber’s life in southern Portugal.
When we had all collected enough delectable morsels on our plates, we climbed the stone steps to the upper terrace and settled on chairs under the palm trees and umbrellas to talk about travel and living abroad. I read two short excerpts from the book and then we discussed topics raised in the book's Reading Group Guide. “Could you talk a little about what you mean by the phrase, ‘You have to mentally unpack your bags?’” asked Kathryn. And that led to a lively discussion about what it was like to arrive in a new place and begin letting go of your past life so that your arms would be free to embrace the new.
I’ve had many similar conversations with my book club in Seville. As foreigners, we will never fully integrate into Spanish social life. Yet when long-term expats have tried to go back and live in the US, they often return to us with tales of scattered families and friends, a bewildering social and political landscape, the shockingly high cost of living and a feeling of being adrift in a foreign country even in their own home town. Having heard many stories like this, Rich and I make sure we return to California on a regular basis. America is something you have to stay in practice for; we don’t want to lose our touch.
As the afternoon turned to evening, more women shared their stories and talked about how various parts of the book had surprised them or reflected their own experiences. Kathryn refilled our wine glasses and brought out chocolate-covered pomegranate seeds and cinnamon tortillas with fresh blueberries, strawberries and raspberries. We lingered on until the sky turned a deep, sapphire blue, and then gathered for a group photo before we took our leave of one another. It was a truly memorable evening, thanks to Kathryn, and to all the other extraordinary women who were part of it.
I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
As we journey through the pandemic together, my blog provides a regular supply of survival tips, comfort food recipes, and the wry humor we all need to lighten our hearts on dark days.
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