Monday, December 19, 2011

A Plumber Makes Pasta for Poets

(A slightly different version of this piece appeared in my Open Salon blog.)

I was raised to believe that it was the height of rudeness to read at the dinner table. It was not only inconsiderate to other diners, but would cause the unfortunate book brought to the table to be covered with gravy or grease stains. Both of these were unforgivable sins.

Then I discovered the lovely, subversive institution known as the college-town bookstore. Not the big, school-sponsored one on campus, with its endless supply of computer equipment, shrink-wrapped textbooks, and tchotchkes bearing the school’s mascot. Nor the smaller, parasitic bookstore just off campus, where the same textbooks, barely used, can be bought and sold for half price the following semester. The best and most interesting bookstore in any college town is always a funky place selling secondhand books and distinguished by the presence of (a) the owner’s cat, (b) beat-up second-hand furniture of suspect provenance, and/or (c) organic coffee and really thick vegetarian soups.

These stores tend to have a countercultural bent and thus allow one to violate a lot of the rules observed by Nice People. Like the dictum against dawdling too long in a retail establishment without buying anything. And the rule against reading at the table during meals.

In my current hometown of Gainesville, Florida (home of the Florida Gators – if you’re not a Gator, you’re Gator bait!) Books, Inc. fills this crucial role in the cultural ecosystem. It fills a sprawling old house near the university, is furnished with the obligatory frayed armchairs and beat-up side tables from who-knows-where, and boasts a tiny vegetarian eatery (The Book Lover’s Café) that serves sturdy earthenware mugs of soup and organic coffee to a loyal population of students, aging hippies, writing groups, and Dungeons and Dragons players. No cat, though – the place has enough interesting characters on hand that it doesn’t need one.

I’m not a hippie type. Nor am I a vegetarian. But the first time I stepped into Books, Inc., something about the scruffy, casual vibe of the place just felt good and right. And over the past few years, it has come to epitomize the best of Gainesville for me.

The cashier’s desk – a retail establishment’s place of honor – features not bestsellers and bookmarks, but an ever-changing jumble of works by local and regional writers – everything from paperbacks by nationally known locals to collections by critically acclaimed poets to self-published zines and charity cookbooks, along with books about local flora, fauna, and history. (This brings up another thing I love about this place:  While a lot of big-box outlets around here try to cop a “local” vibe by painting “GO GATORS!” in the front window and hanging a few posters of Tim Tebow, the commitment to local culture at Books, Inc. is deep and genuine – and miraculously, expressed without a hint UF orange and blue). Local writers who manage to get published also know that Books, Inc. is the place to host book-signing parties.

The store’s biggest fans, however, are the scores of would-be creative luminaries who are also nurtured and fed (both intellectually and literally) at its dozen or so mismatched tables. One of my two writing groups – the one whose members compensate for their chronic flakiness with peerless conversational skills and brilliantly incisive critiques (on the rare occasions they actually get around to reading each others' submissions) has held its weekly meetings there for the past two years, and is only one of several writing groups that regularly jockey for table space in the busy store. And all of us ate and drank, wholesomely and well, while tapping at our laptops or flipping through our manuscripts or even yet-to-be purchased volumes from the store’s shelves.

 My husband had his first-ever photography exhibition in their tiny art gallery – and every  time I came in during the time the exhibit was up,  Anne, the owner, made a point of coming up to me and telling me excitedly about how some customer or another had loved his photos. When we hosted an opening night reception in the little gallery, she mixed up a huge bowl of punch, put out hummus and chips and cookies to supplement our supply of wine and cheese, helped us set everything up, and waited along with us, as eager for Glenn’s success as we were.

At the end of the month-long exhibition, Anne told us that Glenn’s exhibition had been their most profitable in years.  He eagerly agreed to do another show in the following year. Now we were both established members of Books, Inc.’s creative community, and I envisioned Books, Inc. becoming for us what Shakespeare and Company was to Gertrude Stein and Hemingway.

Then last month, Glenn got a call from Anne.  His next show was cancelled:  She and her husband were retiring and closing the store in early 2012.

There had been a big “For Sale” sign outside Books, Inc. since forever, so I shouldn’t have been surprised.  But business inside the store seemed to go on as usual, so it was easy to not to think the unthinkable. On a couple of occasions, members of my writing group speculated about it, but we did our best to stay in a state of denial.  Surely, they couldn’t be serious about selling the place.  Maybe just the property was being sold, and the store was only renting it. Books, Inc. is so well established in the community, someone would come forward to buy it – wouldn’t they?

My writing group, to my annoyance, has recently moved our meetings to a thoroughly mediocre restaurant down the street at the request of a member who declared he didn’t like eating “rabbit food.” (This member quit soon after for unrelated reasons.) But I’m going to petition to move our next few meetings back to Books, Inc., for old times’ sake.

Some of my fondest memories of life in Gainesville will always be those writing-group meetings there – evenings of wandering conversations that typically veer from vampires to Watergate to space travel to food, Florida history, and gun control, and then back again, all fueled by tempeh Reuben sandwiches, creamy-but-cream-free soups, and a mysterious house-made fresh ginger brew that none of us have been able to replicate. On a typical evening, Lina would struggle to get her laptop connected to the store’s touch-and-go wireless network, Wes would meander about during breaks, looking for books on European history, and I would drink in the place’s signature scent of coffee, cumin, and old paper while eavesdropping on other groups of readers, writers, and diners, all having conversations just as pointless and random as ours. And yes,we read and ate and wrote and talked all at the same time. Who ever knew that quietly breaking a few rules of etiquette could be so much fun?

I need to cement as many of these memories into my brain as I can, and soon – because in a few months, that’s all I’ll have left of one of my favorite places.

One item on the Book Lover’s Café  menu that I haven’t yet gotten around to ordering was called “Our Plumber’s Pasta.”  It seemed to be a typical college-town hippy-ish mixture of pasta, vegetables, and almonds in a sort-of-Asian-style sauce. But only after buying the Book Lovers’ Café cookbook as a souvenir recently (it was, of course, right on the cashier’s table, along with all the other local works) did I realize how true my characterization was:  the base of the dish, and the source of flavoring in the original formulation of the recipe, was a notorious student standby: instant ramen noodles and flavoring packets! But the truly novel and creative part of the recipe is that it requires no cooking whatsoever – instead, the “instant” noodles soak overnight in a soy-and-vinegar-based marinade until tender. (And according to the cookbook, the popular dish was indeed the invention of the original chef’s plumber.) Of course, I had to try my own version of it.

The book didn’t say who this plumber was. But I picture him as a bright, free-thinking UF dropout who decided he’d rather do real work with his hands than spend his life pushing paper around. More than any of the other, more conventionally wholesome dishes on the café’s menu, with their locally sourced organic ingredients, this plumber’s creation speaks loudly and clearly to a distinct sense of place: Where else could such a dish have evolved and flourished except in a community dominated by starving students and aspiring artists with dreams of far-away places and bigger things?


(Adapted from The Book Lover’s Café Cookbook, by Ian Schliefer)

Notes: The original recipe called for balsamic vinegar, but I substituted Chinese sweetened black vinegar, which has similar tangy, caramel notes and is a LOT cheaper.

For the pasta and vegetables:
3 (3.5 ounce) packages instant ramen package (according to the original recipe, all the ingredients in “Oriental”- flavored ramen are vegetarian, but check the ingredient list if this is a concern. If not, any basic flavor will work.)
1 large green bell pepper, diced
½ medium red onion, diced
½ cup red cabbage, diced
1/3 cup sliced or slivered almonds

For the marinade:
¼ cup canola oil
¾ sweetened black vinegar
1/3 cup soy sauce
1 seasoning packet from an instant ramen
I teaspoon finely grated garlic (about 1 medium clove)
1 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger
1 cup water

Combine the marinade ingredients in a medium bowl; set aside.

Break up the cakes of ramen noodles into small pieces (about ½ inch across), and put them in a large bowl. Toss thoroughly with vegetables and marinade. (Discard remaining two flavoring packets or reserve for another use.)

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and allow to rest, overnight, in the refrigerator. (Instant ramen noodles are already cooked; soaking them in the marinade will rehydrate them into their more familiar “cooked” form.)  Serve cold or at room temperature.


  1. Sounds like my kind of bookstore, RIP. And BTW your husband's photography is incredible! Where to next?

  2. Goodness, I might have to break my solemn vow to never eat ramen noodles again once I was done college and try this dish! No bake ramen noodles lol whoda thunk it? Great post!

  3. Linda --I'll send Glenn your complements! Thanks so much. I have no idea where my next permanent home-away-from-home will be -- Books Inc. will be pretty hard to beat.

    Renee--Thanks so much! I must confess to thinking of instant ramen as an occasional guilty pleasure--yes, I know it's a pointless sodium bond, but still.

  4. I ate Ramen noodles just about every day for four years in college because they were so cheap. Unfortunately the bond for me and Ramen is irretrievably broken! hehe

  5. I am a bird guy and would have loved this show. merry Christmas and keep on reading your books wherever you like. GREG

  6. Renee--I guess I was lucky to have been on my school's meal plan, though I certainly didn't think so at the time!
    Greg--Thanks for dropping by, and merry Christmas to you, too! I'm also a bird person - birds are my other passion besides food!