More than a year ago, the editor of Parade magazine was abruptly fired from his job, a job he cared deeply about and a job he worked very hard at, sometimes at the expense of his wife and three kids. Lee Kravitz and I went to the same high school, not ten years apart; when I was there, he’d taken a job in the alumni department but, an apprentice writer himself, he occasionally joined our weekly, after-hours writing seminars.  Years later, an editor in New York, he met his wife, by chance the literary agent who had years earlier agreed to represent me and subsequently agented all my books.  They had kids, both were successful in business, had a home in Manhattan and a home in the country…and then he was fired.

At first adrift, he chose not to seek another job but to embark on an uncommon quest and to write about it in a book he’s just published called Unfinished Business. We have all done things we regret, wrongs we’d like to right. Lee set out to do just that, taking care of unfinished business, ten tasks, finding an aunt who had been abandoned by the family, reconnecting with an old friend who’d lost his daughter, finding and thanking his high school mentor. There’s something intensely liberating about this idea, and Lee has done a fine and thoughtful job at recounting his year.  It’s the kind of reportage-cum-memoir that I love.  If you heard him on All Things Considered last week, you got a sense of the intelligence he brings to the writing of the book.  (Clevelanders, Lee’s reading tonight at Joseph-Beth Booksellers at Legacy Village if you want to hear him in person.)

It was the book I read while in Italy and I found it fascinating and couldn’t help but imagine, as any reader or listener must, what unfinished business I ought to be attending to.

And I write about it here, not only to make sure as many people know about Lee’s book as possible, but to put this very question in a more specific and culinary light, to you, readers and cooks.

What is your unfinished business in the kitchen?  It’s summer.  Often hours are more relaxed.  We have some time.  We take a break.  Perhaps it is time to prepare that cassoulet you’ve always dreamed of, curing your own duck, making your own sausage.  Growing and drying your own legumes.  (Kidding.  Sort of.)  Or maybe just to grow a salad.  Or make a loaf of bread or a pie. Or teach someone you love to cook. Or make pasta for the first time.

Me? I have two.  The first is to make my great grandmother’s meat dumplings. That won’t be difficult, just need to do it after all these years hearing about them.  The difficult task for me is to make a hard cheese.  I tried and failed last year.  I want to make a cheddar cheese.  Heidi, can y0u help me find some raw milk?  I’m not hopeful, but, like Jack Nicholson trying to lift the water fountain in Cuckoo’s Nest, I’m gonna try, goddammit.  I’m gonna say, “At least…I…tried.”

Think about it.  What is your unfinished business?  Write it here in the comments, publicly commit.  I have.  Here’s additional incentive.  I’ve got two copies of Lee’s book provided by the publisher, to give away, randomly, or maybe not randomly, maybe I’ll choose the comments that I think are the most ambitious given the skill level (will do this Friday at noon).  But don’t just comment to comment for the book.  Comment to commit to accomplishing something new in the kitchen.  When you complete it, failure or not, send me a photo (michaelruhlman@gmail.com).  I’ll post the most inspirational this fall.  And you can laugh at my cheese.

Update 6/11:

Many thanks to all of you who have made this such an inspiring post with all your comments.  You’ve increased my goals for the summer and inspired me!  The winners of the books have been chosen for a personal reason, the first two who have or wish to do something for or because of their father.  Father’s Day approaches, and I miss my dad, so there it is. The first also has the coolest byline yet: Echo Fling; she writes the plucky gastronome blog; thank you, Echo, for a comment that connects cooking to the bigger issues.  And second, to the blogless Thor; I will send you this book if you send me your address, but you have to promise to build your dad that brick oven.

BTW, for those interested in pursuing the unfinished business outside your kitchen, Lee has set up a site with tools and advice for proceeding, myunfinishedbusiness.com.

Again, to all, can’t tell you how surprised and inspired I am by your comments. Thank you.

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190 Wonderful responses to “Literary Interlude: Unfinished Business”

  • Diana

    I just want to make jam that doesn’t turn out like ice cream sauce. No pectin, just fruit and sugar. I know it’s possible, but it continues to elude me.

    Oh, and I want to figure out why the breads I make with starter always flatten out, no matter how gently I remove them from the basket and score them. I don’t know if this should be considered “unfinished business” or an obsession.

    • ohiogirl

      Diana,

      Go to the archives of “Organic Gardening” and look up the recipe for “Sun Jam.” It’s fruit, sugar – and lemon. That’s it, and it turns out fresh, bright – and not too thin.

      Also working with fruit that has tons of natural pectin gives you an extra thick jam – blackberry jam could be used to make sculpture!

      • ohiogirl

        Diana,

        My apologies – the recipe is not available online. I can post a fast list of proportions and procedures, if that is acceptable to Michael’s blog.

        And I’d also recommend making fruit butters : )

  • ED

    I am growing my first garden. And I will cook from it all summer!

  • Barbara @ VinoLuciStyle

    I was so intrigued by the larger meaning of this post that I’m struggling with just thinking of what I would like to do in the kitchen. But there everything seems a bit overwhelmingly ambitious since breaking my leg in February. Walking to the garden for fresh herbs to use in some fabulous dish? Have yet to trek across the yard to get to my herb garden for fear of falling so no, that’s not it.

    So many things that I would normally love to do escape me because the mere effort of standing for longer than 15 minutes is difficult (grrr!) so I’m thinking smaller than normal and that is not my typical personna!

    Then it hit me. I want a fabulous sauce for ribs. I love to barbecue, will even do it in a blizzard if that’s what I had planned but had never tried ribs til last summer. And I’m sure some barbecue afficionado will diss my method, but they have turned out superb. No direct cooking on the grill, but long slow cooking in my turkey roasting pan that I put on the grill. They’ve turned out tender and juicy and even my friends that will eat fried chicken with a fork just go for it, full steam ahead…heck, what are napkins for anyhow if not for ribs?

    But I have yet to find the perfect combination of ingredients for that sauce. I’ve been given several suggestions and have tried a couple (yes, it became something of an obsession) but something is lacking and I need to find it. Now! Well, at least this summer. Might mean making that trek across the yard but then, that would be a major accomplishment too!

    • ruhlman

      this is one of my interests too, if you do it and love it, email me, could do a post on it!

        • Mantonat

          I think I made the perfect bbq sauce once. My problem is that I never write down the ingredients or amounts, I just go with what I have in the pantry. I made a good one recently with guajillo chiles. The essential ingredients seems to be apple cider vinegar, molasses, brown sugar, some kind of chile pepper, some form of tomato. Maybe my goal should be to actually write down a recipe and share it with friends.

    • Carol Alaniz

      I’m recovering from foot surgery, so I can relate. Hope you feel better soon.

    • Rhonda

      Barbara,

      I have one for you. It is something I do with ribs in the oven, a spice rub for marinade and a blackberry sauce for finishing. No grill.

      If someone can help you assemble your ingredients, there is little movement in the kitchen and you wont have to stand or walk around too much — other than to stand up and take bows at the end when you are applauded.

      If you are interested, contact Michael. I will pull it out of my creaky brain and put to paper and share.

      Best to you and heal fast.

      - R

  • Susan

    There is nothing like a few of life’s wake-up calls to remind you that life is more fragile and temporary than you believed (especially in your youth) and what is of core importance to you in your life. I’ve had a few of those and it’s made me actually try to do what would normally have gone on a bucket list. However, as time passes and life fills up with stuff (mostly minutiae), the wakeup call fades and I start getting my priorites out of whack.. again. This idea, Michael, is a good reminder to continually evaluate what is important to you and actually do the things that you love, for yourself and for those you love.

    I’m roll on whimsy! If it looks delicious, seems like a worthy challange, and tastes good, I’ll try it!

    I’m still working on bread making. Need to do croissants yet and am desparate to perfect Potica (gads..I love that stuff) and other sweet breads.

    Pasta. I made my first batch from your ratio and it was so wonderful, that I’ve starting obsessing about it and reading more about the process. Once I master it manually, will look into investing in equipment. (probably from the thrift store!)

  • Chris K

    1. Repair the KitchenAid mixer that fell off the counter this past winter.

    2. Make tasso ham.

    3. Strip the old wallpaper and paint the kitchen.

  • Chuck McLean

    Mine is coming at me whether I’m ready or not. I happen to live in a part of Virginia that gets deliveries from the Polyface Farm of “Omnivore’s Dilemma” fame, and in my delivery on Tuesday, I will be getting my first pork belly! Haven’t a clue what I’m going to do with it yet.

  • Stephanie

    Say, I heard Mr. Kravitz on MPR, too, and was moved to reconnect with my childhood friend this week. In our mid 40′s now, we were best neighborhood friends from 1st grade to 12th grade. I believe due to my own misdirection in life I was responsible for our losing touch and sent her a letter many years ago to apologize for my neglect which she graciously accepted, although we’ve never reconnected in person. After hearing the broadcast last week, I messaged her and will be driving with my kids to visit her in her town and spend time at the beach together.

    I really enjoy your website! Thanks!

    “Comment” Charles Wright, also sung by my favorite band, Wilco

    Watch out for your friends
    Well they may lose in the end
    Sometimes their child can make you sin
    What is a man without a friend?
    We all live within a game
    The word ‘excuse’ has many names
    Where true friends really come
    You can’t afford to lose one

  • Dean

    This summer I plan to put together a very special meal for a friend and his wife who is recovering from a stroke. They both really appreciate fine food and wine. While her mental facilities, thankfully, are undiminished, she has trouble keeping her hands steady and holding things tightly. Therefore, I’m devising a multi-course menu that won’t require a lot of cutting or complex manipulation. While puree’s, soups, mousses, etc are obvious, I don’t want to present her with sophisticated baby-food. It must have complexity of tastes and textures. So far, I’ve decided on a smoked duck salad, a set of 3 different color pepper mousses laid out on a very thin homemade cracker, cherry tomatoes stuffed with chive polenta, and a sole ravioli in a lavender broth. I haven’t figured out what i want to do for the main course. My friend is bringing a 1992 Opus One to drink with the main course. Any suggestions from Michael, or followers of this blog are greatly welcomed.

  • Maria Z

    What a great post! Here are mine:

    1-Homemade pasta with my two and a half year olds.

    2-Eggs benedict from scratch. With the exception of poached eggs once, I’ve never made any of the ingredients, so I think it’s the perfect challenge for me. My mother in law has a chicken, and is raising five more chicks that my kids and I watched hatch, so I’d like to take advantage of that. Kind of intimidated by the ham part.

    3-Pork belly. I see and read about it all the time and have no clue how to do it, but it sounds like a must do. I am also a bit intimidated by cooking meat that is not chicken or fish (see a theme here?). I may push this into the fall though, as it seems more fallish to me.

  • Lindsay at Kitchen Operas

    Ohhh, it has been such fun to read everyone’s lists… and so inspiring!

    I’ve wrangled the “Bucket List” of kitchen fun out of my brain, and posted about it on my blog, but my highlights include macarons, a great baguette, and learning to can things without poisoning my friends and family.

  • Carrie

    What a great post, and coming at the perfect time as our little garden is going gangbusters right now. My big goal for the summer is learning to can. My grandma passed away about a month ago, and she was an avid canner. Unfortunately once I became interested in learning from her she was really too sick to teach me, so I’m just going to have to learn as I go. I’m lucky enough to have inherited her amazing cast iron pans (50 years of use have left them as nonstick as any teflon) and her canning supplies. I’m now the proud owner of about 100 canning jars, and I want to put them to good use this year.

    Pickles are first on the agenda, although I’m not sure the variety of cucumbers we’re growing are the best for pickling. I also want to put away some tomatoes and make strawberry and blueberry jam. I want to do something fermented in the jars as well, but still kind of vague on that. I discovered a local farm that supplies raw goat milk, so I want to try my hand at goat cheese this year as well.

    I’m a violin teacher and am down to about 1/3 of my regular students this summer – terrible for the budget but great for having time to play in the kitchen. My six year old and I made marshmallows today for the first time. :)

  • Lou Doench

    I want to learn to make my own crackers for the family. My 3 year old subsists on a cracker based diet and I want to be able to make them with her. I also want to BBQ a beef clod

  • Janet

    Well, I’ve got some dextrose and pink salt; and a pork belly in the fridge that I was able to order from the meat department of a local small-chain supermarket. I am determined to make fresh bacon!

  • Joseph Mendoza

    The begging of may I quit my kitchen job. I feel some what bad #1 because I left a buddy hanging it was just him & I. #2 its been a month and still no job, am addicted to the restaurant kitchen. Anyways I left pre mature I should’ve just stuck it out and closed. Then quit Haha! A lazy Fuckin’ GM, lazy servers that don’t know what saving a step is about nor want to listen. Yeah that shit made me quit!

  • Justin Watt

    Michael, we’ve been unsuccessful in making a good cheddar at home, even with access to raw milk, which we can buy by the quart in our San Francisco whole foods. On the other hand, we’ve had much better luck with washed curd cheeses, like Gouda, Jack, and best so far: Jarlsberg, using local pasteurized but unhomogenized whole milk. Good luck.

  • Frank Noge

    Michael, I’m curious why you said “just kidding” about growing legumes, is it an inside joke or does it not quite rise to the level of challenge that you’re thinking of? The reason I ask is that I started a number of black eyed pea plants a few weeks ago, sprouted from dried store-bought peas, and it’s something I’ve been meaning to do for more years than I care to admit.

  • Matthew

    Funny, I meant to read this last week, but forgot. Then this very morning, I was thinking about making my own duck confit. So, that’s my commitment: make duck confit this summer.

    It’s not really that ambitious for me (I’m used to long preparations), but I haven’t gotten around to doing it yet.

    Speaking of your cheese, I tried to make sauerkraut last year, but it didn’t work out. I’m not totally sure where I went wrong, so I’ll have to try it again this fall.

  • Mike

    Hmm, good one. I have been doing modest things since taking a cooking class at a local supermarket. The first thing I ever made was a Hollandaise sauce that turned out perfect first time. Then a chcolate mousse- poof! ditto. Now I am up to damn good beef wellington and lemon pepper salmon. My only failure was a veal marsala that just didn’t have… well IT.

    My goal for the summer is to cook an elaborate dinner for my family that they LOVE. My wife loves my food, but my kid’s palates are less than sophisticated. I want them to appreciate the flavors and the foods, not just wolf it down before watching spongebob reruns.

    I find that cooking for me is like watching a Brown’s game: if it is a good game (and they win) then I consider the previous 3 1/2 hrs well spent, but cooking for 3 hrs and then a less than enthusiastic response is terribly anti-climactic.

    Any and all suggestions for kid-friendly fun to cook meals will be appreciated.

  • KarenCooks

    I have a tri-fecta of things try and master.

    Iv’e just finished the first one, cultured butter. This stuff is great.

    Now I have to make the sour dough english muffins to smear it on.

    and the strawberry jam. (before the strawberries go out of season.)

    And I must find something, rather quickly, to make with the buttermilk left over from the butter making.

    Thats my summer to do list.

  • Kathleen Leverett

    To learn to can – get the current edition of the Ball Blue Book and I would recommend without hesitation the So Easy to Preserve, published by Cooperative Extension, The University of Georgia. Get the equipment, get good product, read, follow directions explicitly, go slowly and you will be a canner! Get the basics down pat and then branch out. Don’t get confused with all that is online till you get comfortable.

  • Stacy

    Small goal: This summer I am going to learn to can. I remember canning jelly with my mom as a kid, but this year I am going to preserve some salsa made from ingredients grown on my patio (with some possible support from the CSA). Add another tally in the cheese column, too!

    Bigger goal: I came to a fork in the road and I took it. Now that I am studying to become a certified holistic health coach, I realized that I want to start teaching cooking classes that show people that healthy food is easy to make and tastes good. It doesn’t have to be complicated, expensive, or difficult to make meals from scratch.

  • Rick

    My mom was a great cook and my inspiration to become a chef.

    A couple of years ago, after she passed away, I came across her recipe box while cleaning out my parents’ house. My dad, getting on in years, realized he could no longer manage the house by himself.

    I want to cook one of her recipes for my dad, but…

    1) My mom’s recipe cards are all written in Japanese and I can’t read Kanji.

    2) My dad now lives in Denver and I live in New York.

    So, before the year is over, I’m going to get her recipes translated, (I haven’t been able to learn Kanji my entire life. No matter the motivation, there’s no way in hell I’ll be able to pick it up in the next few months.) visit my dad in Colorado, and make at least one of her dishes for him. I don’t even know what these recipes are or how easy or difficult they may be, but I’m going to stay true to what she had written and just see how it goes. I’m sure he’ll get a kick out of it.

    Thanks for the inspiration and making me commit to doing this. I needed it.

  • Joisey

    I am going to encourage my twin 9 year old daughters’ curiosity about cooking and baking. I’m a chef and they are now starting to become interested in what I do. We’ll do some no-knead bread and make some pasta, talk about where our food really comes from, go to farmers markets, things like that.

  • scotty

    My food-related unfinished business is to sort through the gazillions of recipes I’ve collected from newspapers, magazines, and friends. Probably there’s only a small percentage of food I would actually cook & eat.

  • Cynthia

    Wonderul, thought provoking post. I must read the book! While we all make new years resolutions, unfinished business is much more relevant and signifiant. I simply must commit to paper those unfinished things….

  • DMT

    For some reason I’m inordinately afraid of canning and pickling. When can you just throw something in a jar and when do you need to boil it and seal it, how long does it last, and other such questions. With the CSA produce beginning to come in, I’m going to at least become proficient, and the first thing I’m going to tackle is pickles.

  • Sarah

    I am often inspired by your blog. So inspired that my sister and I started our own blog two years ago. No, it does not receive accolades from the general public, let alone the bloggies but we continue to do it because we find great enjoyment from it. That’s what life is about isn’t it?

    I am a list maker. I frequently make grocery lists, my husband’s favorite—the infamous “honey-do” list and my favorite, the ever-expanding list of things to do before I die. Cheese or not, there are so many things I want to do in this lifetime—some small, some more monumental and most of them still not crossed off. Life tends to become busy with schedules and logistics making it damn near impossible for my personal “to-dos” to get accomplished. Hence, they get put on the shelf and continue to collect dust. Thanks Ruhlman for making me think about them today.

    A small portion of my growing list:

    Traveling to Japan.

    Taking guitar lessons.

    Finding out why my now deceased, very German Grandfather changed his name from Lispshinski (not sure of the spelling) to Bayer.

    Figuring out how to make my Grandma Bayer’s homemade donuts.

    Traveling with my sons to my favorite city, Paris.

    Taking the next steps to try and publish the novels I wrote.

    Learning to bake a pie like my mom.

    Perfecting the art of deboning a whole, grilled fish.

    Learning how to make cloths with a sewing machine.

    Forcing myself to try aspic.

    Making an effort to open the door or wait for someone crossing the street on a regular basis.

    Trying to be little kinder and a lot less cynical.

    Knitting.

  • Brooke@foodwoolf

    I just love it when you stop us cold in the middle of our day and ask us hard hitting questions like this. What would my last meal be? What unfinished business do I have waiting for me in the kitchen…

    Baking is certainly on the top of that list. I knocked out my first Cherry Clafoutis last week. But surely I could get up the courage to make a proper pie crust or, dare I even write it….Cake!

    Let me get to pie crust and then see how much summer I have left to dust with pastry flour.

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