Tag Archives: Mustard gas

NO PAIN; NO GAIN–Serving Up Food for Thought

Everyone tells me I’m a really good cook. A gourmet cook. Friends, family, my book group—all rave about the dinners and desserts I prepare for them. Dinners like lobster paella or herb marinated Greek lamb with yogurt mint sauce, and desserts such as Valrhona chocolate mousse with fresh berry coulis, crème fraiche and homemade hazelnut praline crisp. When company is coming, I sometimes spend two or three days in the kitchen, planning, prepping, timing. And often, I’m proud of the result. I’ve been told I should start a restaurant.

But I do not think I am a good cook. In fact, with every meal, I am terrified that I won’t be able to pull it off.

To me, a great cook is someone who scavenges through the refrigerator—or the farmers market— and throws together ordinary ingredients to make something fabulous. Someone who intuitively knows what will work, someone who has such flair that they can create a memorable meal in an hour. Someone who chops and stirs and whisks and sautes while also talking up guests and pouring a new wine she has discovered. In other words, a cook with talent.

Marinated Greek Lamb with Yogurt Mint Sauce
Marinated Greek Lamb with Yogurt Mint Sauce

What I have is the willingness to spend hours scouring cookbooks to find a recipe that I’m confident I can make, then days prepping and preparing, so I’m not caught off guard on the day of. Yes, my plate is beautifully presented with a garnish of homemade chutney—but only because I spent three hours making it two nights ago. And only because I followed the recipe, step-by-step. If the meal is great, it is because I was willing to put in the work.

Writing is like that. I know there are talented people out there who can whip off bestsellers at the rate of one a year. And there are creative writers whose sentences flow so beautifully, you want to read them over and over to bask in their loveliness. I, personally, hate those writers. For most of us, writing is just a lot of hard work. Yes, there are those glorious moments when my character takes off and writes herself, when I don’t know how the words appeared on the page. Bravo! That’s what makes it all worthwhile. But most of the time, my writing gets on the page because I forced myself to plan and outline and research and revise. I am driven by the same terror that drives my cooking—terror that I can’t do it, so, in order to do it well, I have to put in the work.

Once, my husband Tom suggested that I make something “easy” for our company meal. Relax, he said; keep it casual (I think he was hoping it would relieve him of sous chef duties…). So I bought taco kits, chopped a few onions and tomatoes, and put out bowls of the ingredients for guests to make their own. I can’t say how it went over—our friends may have loved it—but I was too busy feeling humiliated to notice.

So ultimately it’s about what works for me. Do I always feel like cooking for company? No, but if I know they are coming, I get the cookbooks out and start making lists. Do I always feel like writing? Absolutely not. In fact, I’d almost always rather do anything else, from playing solitaire to folding the laundry. Writing is terrifying. What if I can’t pull it off? But I’ve learned, just as with cooking, the more time that goes into it, the more confident I can be of the result.

Chemical Weapons–Is the US Guilt-Free?

I’ve been asked about the title of my novel, Secrets of Bari. What are its secrets? First, and most horrendous, is a true but little known episode in its history that resonates appallingly today.

Chemical weapons have headlined the news lately, with the United States in the forefront condemning their use. I’ve cringed to hear reporters and commentators declare that the US has never employed chemical agents in warfare. Though technically correct, this statement fails to acknowledge that the US is responsible for the largest chemical weapon disaster in history and the only known deaths due to chemical weapons in World War II. Today, few people are even aware of the German attack on Bari Harbor that exploded an American Liberty ship secretly carrying poisonous mustard gas. The Allied nations were transporting large quantities of the toxic chemical for use should the enemy use gas first.

map_of_italy

The news about Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons conjures up what I believe to be the most horrific of ways to destroy life. Of course, the idea of mass destruction (how blithely we use that term) is repugnant in any form, but there is something about the poisoning of the very air we breathe that is particularly chilling. Victims of Sarin, the nerve agent suspected of being used in Syria, die a ghastly death as organs shut down and they experience diarrhea, vomiting, seizures, and convulsions. The situation in Syria is complex—but one fact remains clear: it has been against international law to make, stockpile or use any chemical weapons since the Chemical Weapons Convention, effective 1997. The use of gas in WWII was banned by the Geneva Protocol, yet every warring nation produced stockpiles to have on hand in case they needed it. In Bari, that policy proved deadly.

Bari is a port city on the heel of the boot Italy forms on a map. On December 2, 1943, a few months after the Allied armistice with Italy, Bari Harbor was so crowded with supply ships that they were lined up perpendicular to the docks.The German air force had been depleted and was no longer considered a threat, so harbor security was lax. Lights blazed as personnel worked into the night to unload the trucks, Jeeps, bombs, weapons, ammunition and hospital supplies needed for the offensive operation into Northern Italy. The scene was set for disaster, and at 7:30 pm, disaster struck.

In the most destructive bombing of Allied shipping since Pearl Harbor, German planes swept across the port, destroying or severely damaging 40 of the approximately 50 ships waiting to unload and devastating the surrounding town. The worst was yet to come. As fires blazed across the oil and gas-covered harbor, ships, heavy-laden with tons of bombs and ammunition, exploded throughout the night. The contents of one ship, the SS John Harvey, vaporized in an explosion so catastrophic, it was felt 20 miles away. No one remaining alive in Bari knew that the ship had been carrying 200,000 lbs of mustard gas. The toxic chemical mixed with the muck in the harbor and hung heavily in the air over the port. An estimated 2000 military personnel and civilians died in the attack, but countless others suffered the terrible effects of the noxious mustard gas.

Bari Harbor, 12-4-1943
Bari Harbor, 12-4-1943

Why have so few people heard of this attack? The answer is nightmarish in its simplicity. It was covered up. As casualties streamed into hospitals and clinics, doctors and nurses struggled to treat them, without knowing what they were dealing with. Had they known, many lives might have been saved. But officers were sworn to secrecy about the attack, and information was not forthcoming. The word had come down from the top—from Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt—Bari never happened.

Three enlightening non-fiction books tell the story of the bombing of Bari: Nightmare in Bari by Gerald Reminick, Disaster at Bari by Glen Infield, and Poisonous Inferno by George Southern, all from the point of view of the occupying forces.

In one part of my novel, Secrets of Bari, I tell the story of the raid through the eyes of four friends who grew up in the section of the city known as the Old Town. The attack on Bari changed the direction of their lives in ways unimaginable only hours before.