Saturday, October 17, 2009

The kindness of strangers

I recently listened to a fantastic episode of This American Life. If you're familiar with the show, you know there's usually a prologue that sets up the theme, and this was a great one:

"Brett Leveridge was standing on the subway. A guy comes walking down the platform, stopping in front of each passenger and delivering a quiet verdict: "You're in. You're out. You, you can stay. You—gotta go." Most people ignored the guy. But Brett found himself, against his will, hoping the guy would give him the thumbs up, and when the guy does, it's thrilling in a very small way: a tiny kindness from a stranger."

I so get that. Being approved and embraced by people who don't even know you is a pretty nice feeling. "Thrill" is exactly the word.

I'm that kind of thrilled about the book clubs I joined this year. These were long-established groups of women who welcomed me so warmly that I felt as if I belonged from the beginning. Getting together and bonding over wine and novels we all found preachy and manipulative* or old favorites revisited** just plain makes me happy. Especially because almost before I knew it, the welcoming strangers had become familiar friends*** and meeting nights a much anticipated highlight of every month.

Familiar friends or not, I did experience a significant amount of performance anxiety when my role shifted from "attendee" to "host" this week****. First of all, I had to pick the book. Then, there was the matter of the snacks. I had been paying close attention at prior gatherings and it was clear I would need a savory appetizer, a cheese plate*****, fruit and a dessert at a minimum. Hmm.

For the book, I decided to go with City of Thieves, by David Benioff. I'd just finished it, and was still in the afterglow that comes from discovering a truly special book. It was unexpectedly funny and moving and wise, with characters and a story that were completely absorbing. If you haven't read it yet, you absolutely should. Don't be deterred by the basic plot outline:

"During the Nazis’ brutal siege of Leningrad, Lev Beniov is arrested for looting and thrown into the same cell as a handsome deserter named Kolya. Instead of being executed, Lev and Kolya are given a shot at saving their own lives by complying with an outrageous directive: secure a dozen eggs for a powerful Soviet colonel to use in his daughter’s wedding cake. In a city cut off from all supplies and suffering unbelievable deprivation, Lev and Kolya embark on a hunt through the dire lawlessness of Leningrad and behind enemy lines to find the impossible."

It might sound like yet another depressing WWII novel but it is thrilling and wonderful. One big reason? In the midst of a horrible war, two boys found, in each other, the kindness of strangers.

Book? Check. I was stuck on the snacks. Then inspiration hit. I needed to serve...

Deviled Eggs for Lev and Kolya
From a recipe on Chow

1 dozen eggs
1/2 c. mayonnaise
2 tsp. Dijon mustard
2 tsp. finely chopped capers
1 Tbs. minced fresh tarragon leaves
3 Tbs. minced fresh chives, divided.

Hard boil the eggs.****** When cool, peel and cut each egg in half with a sharp knife. Put the yolks into a medium bowl, and set the egg white halves aside on a serving tray. Add the mayo, mustard, capers, tarragon and 1 Tbs. of the chives to the egg yolks. Using a fork, mix gently until smooth and fluffy. Take a heaping teaspoon of the yolk mixture and carefully spoon it into each egg white half. Use the spoon to round the filling and make it look nice. You can stash these in the fridge at this point if not serving immediately. About 20 minutes before serving, remove the eggs from the fridge. Garnish with remaining minced chives.

* My Sister's Keeper
** The Wizard of Oz
*** Getting to know people (or at least their names) was really easy in one of the book groups: There were two Amy's, three Jody's and another Sharon already. In the other, there were bonus outings to have Chinese food.
**** It didn't help that the construction project we started this summer that was supposed to be completed by September was still in full swing. I had a dumpster in the driveway, no living room to speak of, and a permanent layer of dust and debris everywhere. Plus, on the night of the group meeting it was pouring rain. In Los Angeles. Naturally we had a leak.
***** This explains, in part, why I feel so comfortable with these women. I love cheese plates!
****** A tried-and-true way to do this is to put the eggs in a pan, cover with cool water, then turn on the heat to medium high. Put the pan on the stove and set the timer for 20 minutes. When time's up, put eggs into ice water to stop the cooking, then remove and cool completely. They come out perfectly (none of that gray stuff on the yolk) every single time.

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