Posts Tagged ‘tasha alexander’

The Meme-ing of Life

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We decided it was time to let you know a little about where we, the consortium, are in our lives right now. Some wacky little Proustian questionaires seemed the way to go. Enjoy! – Stephanie


The Buttermilk Trace Meme


julia child

Cooking: Fall means football. My football playbook is more Julia Child than most, so coq au vin and boeuf bourguignon tend to be on the menu more than burgers and brats. If it’s ungodly hot, then grilling is almost necessary, but my great secret is that Costco in Franklin now has Prime steaks for Choice prices.


Cookbook: My local heroine Tammy Algood’s The Complete Southern Cookbook gets a lot of use in my kitchen. I’ve already mentioned Julia, but I’ve also been on a cooking from the ancient world kick lately, so Sally Grainger, John Edwards and Mark Grant’s redactions of ancient Roman cuisine have gotten plenty of attention. The food is actually lighter and easier to eat than the legends of excess would have you believe. I’ve spent a lot of money on pine nuts and weird spices lately though. Go-to faves still include Alton Brown and Claudia Roden.


Shopping: I haven’t truly hit my fall boot and coat shopping phase yet, but it’s coming. I’m sure there’s a coat from Sugaree’s in Murfreesboro to be had. My budget has been tighter than normal since I left my editor’s role at Nashville Lifestyles, but I have spent judiciously on new watercolors, vintage saris to cut up and make clothes out of, and a couple of wardrobe staples. Alabama Chanin’s Alabama Studio Sewing + Design (buy it here) is also at my disposal, so I can tweak my wardrobe using my sewing skills.


Do Lunch: I’ve just discovered Bella Nashville wood-fired pizza at the Nashville Farmers’ Market. The meat pizza is lush with Benton’s ham and fresh basil, plus truffle oil for me in place of mozzarella, since I sadly get monster migraines from milk and cheeses in quantity. The Biscuit Love food truck’s “Princess” hot chicken biscuit with stone ground mustard is my fast food of choice.


Evening Out: My husband and I live in Williamson County, south of Nashville, and the area is just acquiring the local restaurant population Nashville has long taken for granted. Jason McConnell is really taking it upon himself to change the culture though, and Red Pony is a favorite. We love his 55South across the street, had brunch there Sunday, and his newbie, Cork & Cow is pretty fabulous too. The Cool Springs iteration of local Italian Porta Via is also a favorite.


Gadget of the Moment: I’m not really a tech geek; that would be my husband. My newest toy is a SodaStream machine (Genesis model – but I don’t know if it has an invisible touch yet). I drink lots of club soda, and Seth is using it to make tonic for the g and t. I gotta admit, though, I’d like one of the new Samgung Galaxy Note II’s with the drawing capabilities.


Beverage: I’ve interviewed a million distillers of late. I’m so impressed with what Jeff and Jenny Pennington and Mike Williams are doing up at the Speakeasy campus on 44th Avenue North. If you haven’t tasted Collier & McKeel whiskey or Whisper Creek Tennessee Sipping Cream, do so. Corsair Artisan’s gin rocks my world.


On My TiVo: Titans and Saints football (I know, not the best season for either one). Alton Brown. Big Bang Theory. Game of Thrones. If I’m sewing, something I do a lot as a costumer, I’m usually watching Anthony Bourdain, Gordon Ramsay and guilty pleasures Ghosthunters and True Blood. Can’t wait for Downton Abbey.


On My Kindle: I just read David Anthony’s fabulous work on archaeology and linguistics, The Horse, The Wheel and Language. It soothed me after Gone Girl, which was terribly well written and my own definition of terrifying – a look at how human, petty and banal true evil really is. My favorite book so far this year is Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and I’m really excited about Tasha Alexander’s newest.


Culinary Fixation: Roman cookery, as mentioned above. Also bone marrow, cooked properly, after eating splendid takes on it at Frank Stitt’s Highlands Bar and Grill and Hot & Hot Fish Club, both in Birmingham.


Seasonal Produce: I hope the tomatoes last through November again, but it’s not looking good. Seth and I have Sunday morning BLT tradition, using local tomatoes and lettuce from the Franklin Farmers’ Market, the wheat mountain bread from Publix bakery and fresh basil from my herb garden. The shiitakes are starting to show up, and that’s made of win for me. this week I got gorgeous brocoli and the apples are pretty fantastic. I loves me an apple.


Road Trip: There are a lot planned for the fall, but I can’t wait to head up to Lexington, Kentucky in a few weeks and make bourbon trail stops. Woodford Reserve has one of the best tours you can take, by the way.


Mad Experiment: Simple syrups. I started on this last spring, trying to duplicate the honeysuckle martini I’d had at Hot & Hot Fish Club. The honeysuckle did well, and kept well, so I moved on to herbs, then fruits, then complex mixes and now I have half a dozen mason jars in the fridge at any given time. Seth’s beer has had to move to the second crisper drawer as a result.


Song: Vintage Trouble’s whole self-titled album. They’ve got a retro ‘70s sound I love.


Pop Culture Fascination: Still enjoying everyone’s pics from DragonCon in September (hey, nice job Forbes – what does that say about the power of nerd culture though?), which I missed this year. Currently planning my ChattaCon costumes for January. I am always and forever a geek girl.


jo malone blackberry and bayCoveting: I’m a perfume-aholic. I actually wish I could be the New York Times fragrance critic. Hey, a good wine nose equals a good perfume nose, right? At the moment, clean is the rule of the day. Jo Malone’s latest, Blackberry and Bay, is heaven, crisp, tart and a faint underlying sweetness – more like the leaves of the blackberry plants in my yard after the berries are gone. Fall perfection (buy it here). Kiehl’s new Aromatic Blends really appeal too – I’m especially jonesin’ on the Fig Leaf & Sage (buy it here). Look at Demeter’s light Singular Scents if Jo Malone isn’t in your budget. I favor Dirt, Wet Garden and Thunderstorm (buy it here).


We’ll Always Have Venice – A Talk With Tasha Alexander

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Tasha Alexander

Tasha Alexander


If you ask what I’m reading right now, I can give you a long list – I’m always reading three books simultaneously, fiction, non-fiction, cookbooks, et cetera. I try to get a healthy dose of regional writers into that mix. The gifted Ms. Tasha Alexander only halfway counts as a Southern writer, but a whole lot of the development of her (largely English) characters and series happened when she resided in Franklin, Tennessee – and her voice speaks to many devoted readers around here. These days, she lives in Chicago with husband Andrew Grant (read his books too) and occasionally comes back to talk with me or drink wine with Robert Hicks (I’m jealous, Robert).


Tasha’s books have held my attention since I first got my paws on a copy of And Only To Deceive – the first in her series of historical novels/mysteries featuring Lady Emily Ashton. More than a decade has passed since then, and Alexander – who wrote her second book sitting in the downtown Franklin Starbucks, one of my favorite hangouts – has eight to her credit now chronicling Emily’s life, as well as the novelization of Elizabeth: The Golden Age.


When literary PR rep Tom Robinson first contacted me about interviewing Tasha, in my Nashville Lifestyles days, I jumped at the chance. It was just before the Southern Festival of Books, about two series books ago. I’d been a fan for a while, and as a history geek, loved talking with Alexander about her heroine and the choices she made. I’ve tried to keep tabs ever since.


If you’re not familiar with the series, Lady Emily is kind of an Amelia Peabody for younger generations (not that I advise anyone skip Amelia Peabody – and if you don’t get the reference, google). The story goes like this: Well-bred young English debutant makes smashing marriage (see, now I’ve hooked all you Downton Abbey folks in) circa the late 1880s.


Instead of the domestic bliss she expected, however, her husband dies, leaving her at a loss. And that’s where it gets interesting. What’s a newly widowed young socialite to do? Rather than sink into a miasma of misery, Emily opts to improve her mind. Shocking! First, she studies Greek in hopes of learning the classics. And as she improves her mind, she transforms slowly into a fledgling devotee of women’s rights – in an era when stepping outside the norm is considered scandalous. We won’t even talk about what happens when she starts drinking port and hanging about talking politics in the drawing room.


death in the floating cityThe arc of the story, while set in England, could easily be upper crust or even middle class society anywhere at the time. Alexander underlines this by having her heroine travel about (the advantage of inheriting large sums of money). In her latest foray, Death in the Floating City, the year is 1896, Emily and her second husband, intrepid agent of the Crown Colin Hargreaves, have ventured off to Venice, to help an old acquaintance of Emily’s deal with the murder of her father-in-law.


Alexander follows two plotlines – the current hunt for a murderer, that lays bare a circle of hypocrisy and emotional turmoil, and the centuries-old love story that went horribly awry, the consequences of which continue to have bearing on the involved families four centuries later.


Luckily for me, Tasha was in town last week to do a signing at Parnassus Books – Ann Patchett’s reinvention of local book stores in Nashville, and we got to visit a bit.


I ask her whether she’s a Southern writer, and she laughs. “I was living in the Northeast when I started the first book. Honestly, I feel nomadic, I’m not sure I ever felt I exactly fit into any one place.”


Alexander’s parents, professors at Notre Dame, came from St. Louis, one of those places that weirdly borders on the South, and is and isn’t a part of it, at the same time. Sure, we count Kate Chopin as Southern, but hey.


“My mom considered herself Southern,” says Tasha. “It’s a border state, and my mom embraced the Southerness. It definitely affected me – I mean, I still make biscuits four days a week.”


Yeah, that’s a thing. I admit, I don’t make them nearly as often as I used to, but surely Southern mothers and grandmothers instill into us as tiny children just how to make the perfect fluffy biscuit. It’s a sign of the culture.


I had to ask her about the fact that the books sometimes seem a paean to the food, wine and fashion of the time. “I love to cook,” she confesses. “I like cooking historic dishes, too. I tend to go with what I’m writing. When I was working on A Fatal Waltz, which is set in Vienna, I was all about making Viennese pastries.”


And how did Venice affect the culinary writing? “I was living there as I was writing, so I didn’t cook much, but I ate the food all the time. It’s part of the atmosphere there, food is an essential part of culture. That’s true almost everywhere.”


Ok, so what about all the wine and especially the port they imbibe in her books? “I really hadn’t tried port until I had it for the first time while writing And Only to Deceive. Back then, it was very much a part of the world they lived in that after dinner, the women would leave the men alone to drink port and smoke cigars and discuss serious issues – so women missed all the interesting conversations. You can’t read about the Victorian era without reading about the ladies leaving so the men could drink port.


“So, doing the research, I thought I should try port. Turns out it’s really good.”


Ruby or Tawney? “Tawney, usually, but it depends on the port. I think I should say I’m a terrible wine buyer, because I don’t always remember what I like.”


So, port, which you and I drink all the time, is a cultural metaphor for your character, it’s the first time she slips out of the expected norms. What are some others?


“There were plenty of things a woman could do to step out of bounds back then, but a lot of them happened gradually, at home, too. Rational dress, for example – I mean, you could just stop wearing your corset, and people would notice that, or you could wear a Liberty gown, which still looked very right and not wear a corset, you see?”


What about the travel part? Emily goes off – essentially on her own – quite frequently in the books.


That, Tasha tells me, is also part of the larger narrative. It is ultimately easy for us to armchair quarterback the past, wondering why women like Emily didn’t instantly rise up, demand the vote and the right to jobs and all the rest of it. Travel, as it turns out, is a good way to grow and evolve.


“With regard to her position as tourist and traveler, Emily starts in a very sheltered position, she goes abroad at first with her family in a very controlled way. Because of her nature, once she’s abroad, she becomes a sponge, deciding to be open to new cultures, always seeing both the good and the bad. I think travel is one of the best ways to broaden the mind. If you start out cynical, however, with a fixed notion of how things should be, you might not be as open minded.”


Tasha says when she started the series, she’d always had in mind that Emily – who has since made voyages to Paris, Normandy, Vienna and Istanbul, among other places – would eventually travel to Venice. “It’s been in the back of my mind since the beginning, but I had to be careful. The trip to Venice had to further her character development, and it didn’t make sense until now. It was never just ‘where I’d like to go.’ So Venice didn’t actually come up for awhile.”


When Emily does get there, it’s to help Emma, someone from her past who is in many ways more rival than friend. The parallel story – of 15th century lovers Nicolo and Besina, whose romance leaves stains that reach forward to Emily’s day – carries with it hints of Paolo and Francesca from the Divine Comedy and Romeo and Juliet, but also is a cutting commentary on the beautiful city’s checkered past, and an unflinching look at the ways rigidly enforced morality and sense of duty on the surface can give way to stunning injustice and indecency underneath. Of course, it not only parallels, but directly influences the experiences of Emily and Emma four hundred years later.


I ask Tasha what she wants readers to know, as they pick up her books, maybe for the first time. “A lot of readers don’t look at the development of Emily over the course of the whole series. She’s been carefully brought along from this very sheltered, naïve girl to someone on her way to being enlightened and empowered. People don’t change overnight – it’s so easy for us to sit in the 21st century and reject Victorian traditions, but it takes time, and people move at a pace that’s comfortable for them. They take small steps. Being radical isn’t so easy. We take small steps in our own lives, questioning things like family traditions – even when we don’t like them, sometimes we can’t bring ourselves to stop, or to question them.”



Tasha Alexander Andrew Grant

Tasha and her husband, author Andrew Grant, on the cover of Crime Spree


Tasha’s Favorites

Favorite place to dine, Nashville/Franklin: Saffire
Favorite place to dine, Chicago: Riccardo Trattoria, Topolobampo (can’t pick one)
Cocktail: Gin & tonic
Wine: Inman Brut Rose Nature Sparkling “Endless Crush”
Vacation: Jackson Hole, Wyoming or Venice
Halloween costume: Princess Leia
Signature scent: Don’t use perfume, but I love the way Philosophy’s Falling in Love lotion smells
Dessert: Churros from XOCO in Chicago
Cooking: There are too many things I love to cook … Indian, Cuban, homemade pasta, pizza, French classics. My favorite time is going through my cookbooks and deciding what to make over the next week.
Reading: Kate Morton, The Secret Keeper
Current obsession: Studying Italian
Starbucks usual: Chai
Band: Pearl Jam
Charity: Oxfam
Must-see TV: Not sure yet if it will prove to be must-see, but I just started watching Parade’s End
Jeans: True Religion
Phone: iPhone
Kitchen item: Kitchen Aid stand mixer

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