Reading, Writing, Cooking on Retreat

I am on a retreat this week. Not the monastic kind, although, come to think of it, my narrow twin bed here does resemble something you’d find in a nunnery. No, actually I am on my annual twice-a-year writing retreat with my pals Margaret Maron, Bren Witchger and Diane Chamberlain. Normally, there are seven of us, but this time around, unfortunately our number is diminished due to life issues. We’re missing Katy Munger, Alex Sokoloff and Sarah Shaber, but work—and writing must go on.

This week we are at a beautiful non-profit center for the arts in Southern Pines, N.C. Our location sometimes vary, but our routine does not. The seven of us run away from home with our laptops and yellow legal pads. We burrow in for five days and write, brainstorm, write some more, and offer each other encouragement and advice, stopping only for very simple meals—and more brainstorming.

We’re now in our seventh or eighth year of retreats, which means collectively we’ve probably produced a couple dozen novels as a result of this week. So we take our work here very seriously.

Because the kitchen here is rudimentary, okay, it’s positively primitive, our meals have to be easy to prepare—and delicious. We all take one night to prepare dinner. Usually I bring a beef stew, or chili, or sometimes roast a chicken. As you can see from the photo below, I had to use three small saucepans to cook the pasta, because the kitchen doesn’t have a stockpot. Or a decent knife. In our writer’s group, Margaret is always assigned to bring a knife, and Sarah brings the coffee. Diane is in charge of getting us scheduled for the retreat. I bring wine. Alex brings her amazing shoulder massage talents. It’s a beautiful thing, our division of labor.


But this year, we are having our retreat in August for the first time. Because I come from the longest distance away, I drove up from Atlanta Sunday night and stayed in a motel so I could be ready to get to work on Monday.

Before heading over to the retreat house, I took a leisurely drive around the country-side, on the hunt for a produce stand. I hit the jackpot at Auman’s Peach Orchard in West End,N.C. I bought two sacks of sweet, juicy Georgia Belle peaches, some corn and blueberries, all grown on or near the property. The peach man directed me to another produce stand, Andrews Family Produce, just up the road where I scored some fabulous local grown tomatoes.


Tonight is my turn to cook, and I’ve been salivating all day today, anticipating the recipe I’ve chosen. It’s called Francis Lam’s Perfect Five Minute Raw Tomato Pasta. I first found it and fixed it on another retreat I took myself several years ago at my friend Beth’s house in the mountains of Ashe County, N.C. I fell hard for this recipe, fixing it three or four nights in a row, it was so easy. And yummy. I couldn’t find the recipe, so I called Beth today, and she shared it with me again. So here it is. And I hope the girls like it. And that the muses like it as much as the last time I fixed it in Ashe County, where I had a break-through on the book I was writing at the time. Muses gotta eat too, you know!


This serves 2-4 people supposedly. And you should only make it if you have gorgeous dead-ripe ‘maters.


2-1/2 lbs. tomatoes.

2 loose cups arugula

Scant ½ shaved red onion

1 lb. linguine

olive oil, to taste.

Salt and pepper to taste

Red wine vinegar, a glug. You know what a glug is, right?

Freshly grated or shaved parmesan cheese Not the stuff in the green shaker can.


Chop the tomatoes into ½ inch piees and put with all their juices in a very big bowl. Season with salt and pepper and a splash of olive oil. Stir and taste. Add some red wine vinegar.


Bring a big pot of water to boil, add salt and then the pasta. Stir

While the pasta cooks, layer the arugula on top of the tomatoes and then layer the slices of red onion on top of that.


When the pasta is done, drain it and dump it straight into the bowl. Leave it there, untouched for two minutes. Sip some wine. You bought wine, right? Grate the cheese while you’re waiting. Now, stir it all together, add the cheese and taste for salt and pepper. Serve. I probably should have told you to fix some garlic bread in the broiler while your sauce is sitting. You’re gonna need it to sop up all those yummy juices.Otherwise, prepare to lick the bowl and experience  a literary break-through. Don’t thank me. Thank Beth. And Francis Lam.