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Sleeping, and eating. The perimeters of the self. One third of a lifetime spent in, surrendered to, sleep. One third! As if there existed a nighttime self, a dreaming self only tenuously related to the daytime self: the notI notI we inhabit. And eating: how many hundreds of thousands of we inhabit. And eating: how many hundreds of thousands of 31 31 hours out of a lifetime are spent in eating-in the choosing of food, the preparation of food, the chewing, swallowing, digesting of food. And the talk. Talk of food. Endless. Inexhaustible. Recipes, restaurants. Talk of meals past, pa.s.sing, or to come. (As for wine-a complete galaxy, with its own vocabulary.) For some, food is so boring as to const.i.tute the greatest of challenges for the writer-how to say anything interesting about it at all. For others, food is an obsession, a fetish, and all daytime activities are ways of filling in time between meals. There may even be those for whom food is both boring and obsessive. And those who gamely try, in our gastronomically sophisticated culture, to pa.s.s as if they are sophisticates too-gourmets like their friends and colleagues.
Food writers, even.
There is an intimate, methodical, deeply engrossing and rewarding activity I do, and have done, with only one person in my lifetime: this is the activity of cooking, and I do and have done it only with my mother, Carolina Oates.
Now, it happens that the cooking we do together is nearly always done in my kitchen, in Princeton, New Jersey. In the past, of course, it was done in my mother's kitchen, in Millersport, New York, and my earliest memories of preparing meals have to do with helping my mother. For a small child, preparing meals is serious play, adult play; for me to have been initiated into it, on even the most modest terms (setting the oven, getting out utensils, rubbing a stick of b.u.t.ter on a sheet of waxed paper, frosting a cake with a knife) was enormously exciting. Though I have virtually no memory of myself as a little girl, I remember vividly the kitchen in our old house, a farmhouse long since razed, where we prepared and ate our meals for many years: It was upstairs in my parents' half of the house (my mother's adoptive parents, whose house it was, lived downstairs), walls painted a light cheery yellow, a big round electric clock over the stove, shiny linoleum tile on the floor, counter, cupboards, and drawers built by my father running the length of one wall.
So much of the house, the interior in particular, was built, or refashioned, by my father, it was as if we'd lived in his handiwork-though that was hardly a perception I would have had at the time.
The foods I helped my mother prepare are quite commonplace, for the most part, probably identical with the foods of most of my contem-poraries, given similar economic backgrounds. We were not what one 32 32 would call well to do, but living on a farm, even a small farm, had its obvious advantages. We had chickens, Rhode Island Reds, thus a steady supply of eggs, and chicken for special occasions; there was a mad in-terlude, rather like the pilot for a doomed situation comedy, when my father, a city boy by nature, tried to raise pigs; we had our own potatoes, corn, carrots, tomatoes, et al, in summer; we had pear, apple, and cherry trees, which seemed to have produced fruit as rapidly as my father could pick it. My memories of the old farmhouse in Millersport have much to do with the aromas of cooking-the long hours of simmering spaghetti sauce on the stove, made of course with our own tomatoes, but considerably "spiced up"; the scalding, eviscerating, feather-plucking of chickens, and the long hours, too, of the cooking of chicken soup; the sugary-syrupy smell of fruit being prepared for canning, or made into jams and jellies. (How tedious canning was! And how to recall such childhood foods while acknowledging that, for my mother and grandmother, who did all this cooking, day following day and year following year, the experience could hardly have been an idyllic one.) My grandmother, who was from Budapest, made rich, heavy, sour cream-dolloped goulashes and a dish whose anemic American a.n.a.logue is chicken paprika; she made her own noodle dough, of course, rolling the stiff dough into flat layers on the kitchen table, stacking the layers carefully together, cutting them briskly with a long-bladed knife into noodles, which were then set aside, on cloth, to dry. Her most intricate specialties were Hungarian pastries that required such patience and skill that my mother, a very capable cook, never learned to make them: one consisted of thin, large pancakes prepared in a big iron skillet, and filled with fruit and sour cream; another, yet more complicated, was rolled to airy thinness on her round kitchen table, filled similarly with fruit and sour cream, then rolled up tight, baked, cut, and served in small dishes.*
I never learned to prepare any Hungarian dish. I never learned a word of Hungarian.
We were Roman Catholic and, on Fridays, at that time meatless by a decree of the Church, we ate "fish dishes"-salmon patties fried in a skillet, creamed tuna with peas on toast. Except for the toast, these ingredients came out of cans; I must have been fairly grown by the time I grasped the concept that salmon and tuna are are in fact fish, and quite sizable. in fact fish, and quite sizable.
* Variations on the traditional Hungarian pancakes and strudels Variations on the traditional Hungarian pancakes and strudels-almas palacsinta, egri felgombpalacsinta, and and retesek. retesek.
33 Does G.o.d care what we eat? I used to wonder. Even when I seem to have accepted my elders' vague belief in G.o.d (of Whom in any case we never spoke), I thought this not a very likely prospect. I used to wonder. Even when I seem to have accepted my elders' vague belief in G.o.d (of Whom in any case we never spoke), I thought this not a very likely prospect.
My Hungarian grandfather began his day, at his early breakfast, with swigs of hard cider from a stoneware crock placed on the floor by his heel. That was just the beginning.
It must have been my grandfather who beheaded the chickens, but I have no memory of these b.l.o.o.d.y scenes. As a child I was entrusted with some of the care of the chickens, feeding, egg gathering, and I even made a pet of one of them, I was sensitive and tenderhearted...I think.
Certainly the eviscerating, feather-plucking, and diligent cleaning of the carca.s.ses with their pale, pimpled skin turned my stomach, as did the smell, the awful smell! the awful smell! of the procedure. Yet I can't seem to recall a single visual image of a chicken being butchered, the frenzied wing-flapping and squawking as the bird is brought to the chopping block, the swing of the ax, the headless neck spouting blood in the dirt, and the body still twitching as if animated, sometimes running in spasmodic circles-I know that this is what must have happened, and must have happened many times during my childhood, but my mind is blank, as with an amnesia wash. This too may be a food mystery in my life, and helps account for the fact that I find unacceptable the idea of eating any living creature, but especially the more highly developed warm-blooded creatures, while, at the same time, I don't really want to think about it. of the procedure. Yet I can't seem to recall a single visual image of a chicken being butchered, the frenzied wing-flapping and squawking as the bird is brought to the chopping block, the swing of the ax, the headless neck spouting blood in the dirt, and the body still twitching as if animated, sometimes running in spasmodic circles-I know that this is what must have happened, and must have happened many times during my childhood, but my mind is blank, as with an amnesia wash. This too may be a food mystery in my life, and helps account for the fact that I find unacceptable the idea of eating any living creature, but especially the more highly developed warm-blooded creatures, while, at the same time, I don't really want to think about it.
At least not in a recollection of those playful sessions when my pretty young mother, years younger than her daughter is now, taught me how to cook.
She was naturally an articulate, fluent young woman, and she was certainly a very attractive young woman, and these were friends of hers genuinely interested in why she had broken off what had appeared to be a serious relationship with a man; but she was having difficulty explaining herself. She still felt very strongly about her former lover, she said, but there was something about his past, he'd been a foster child, living in a series of foster homes, and in some of the homes he and the other children and the adults of the household would sit together at the table and pa.s.s around bowls of food and sometimes, not all the time but sometimes, enough to have lodged deeply in his memory, there wasn't enough food to go around...and, at mealtimes even now, in certain circ.u.mstances, he was susceptible to sudden attacks of anxiety, panic, 34 stomach cramps, even nausea. This wasn't why, she said quickly, she had decided to break off with him, she really didn't know why she'd decided to break off with him except she knew, she said, she would never be able to give him "as much as he'd want."
35 JUDITH B. JONES.
A Religious Art One day this summer I found that my husband had posted on the refrigerator door-a catchall for all food notes in our house-this quotation: Cooking is one of those arts which most requires to be done by persons of a religious nature.
-DIALOGUES OF ALFRED NORTH WHITEHEAD Evan knew that that thought would delight me because I have always felt that the preparation of food is one of the most joyous and inwardly satisfying of all activities that we as human beings are peculiarly privileged to indulge in daily. Other creatures receive food simply as fodder.
But when we take the raw materials of the earth and work with them-touch them, manipulate them, taste them, revel in their heady smells and glorious colors, and then through a bit of alchemy transform them into delicious creations-we do honor to the source from whence they sprang. Cooking demands attention, patience, and, above all, a respect for the gifts of the earth. It is a form of worship, a way of giving thanks.
The first time you make a loaf of bread, you usually experience, particularly if you are a child, an exciting sense that you are actually giving life to an inert lump of flour and water. You watch the dormant yeast become active (it's even more thrilling if you've done your own fermentation from scratch and captured the wild yeast cells that may be lurking in your kitchen). Then you knead the dough and feel it transformed from a sticky, lumpy paste to a cohesive ma.s.s that is smooth and resilient and bouncy under the heels of your hands. When you poke it, it springs back at you. It is alive. Sometimes it forms bubbles and blisters in its eagerness to expand; it doubles, triples in volume. And then after it has been punched and tamed, it responds to the heat of the oven, rising again, settling into the shape you have given it, and sending forth the most tantalizing aroma as it bakes. No wonder that through the ages we've endowed bread with symbolic meaning: the staff of life, the bread of heaven, the body of Christ.
36.Often when I look at the carts at the supermarkets laden with frozen dinners and other quickie foods that need only be heated in the microwave, which doesn't even give forth any smell as the food is zapped, I feel sorry for the people who are missing out on the rewarding experience of cooking. Wendell Berry wrote in The Unsettling of America The Unsettling of America that that "If you take away from food the wholeness of growing it or take away the joy and conviviality of preparing it in your own home, then I believe you are talking about a whole new definition of the human being." I know in my bones exactly what he means.
I think of evenings in northern Vermont, where we live part of the year, running across the lawn to gather salad greens. I always wait to do it just before dinner because the light at that moment is so beautiful-the gra.s.s, the herbs, the various shades of the greens so luminous in the intensity of the setting sun. I feel deeply connected to these things that we have grown and that will now nourish us.
The first year we bought our place, before we had planted anything, we were fortunate to meet Adele Dawson, who gives workshops around the state on medicinal herbs and wild edibles (she's a gifted dowser, too). We asked her to walk the woods and pastures with us so we could recognize some of the wild plants around us. I learned about the little tongues of sorrel that spring up all over, about the shoots, flowers, and pods of milkweed, each stage a different taste and texture, which kinds of ferns made fiddleheads, how the poisonous chokecherry turns benign when cooked, and many more mysteries. The woods, I discovered, were full of raspberries and blackberries, and I would go picking deeper and deeper into the dark stillness of our mountain forest, reaching for yet one more plump, juicy berry to add to my h.o.a.rd. I felt at one with the musty earth and grateful for the treasures it yielded; even the fear of coming face to face with a black bear abated because I was certain that with such abundance he couldn't begrudge me my small share of his supper.
I think, too, of the many months of the year in New York when I am far removed from the sources of our food and how much pleasure a few herbs grown on a sunny windowsill or a sack of stoneground flour, still smelling of the granary, can bring to our ninth-floor kitchen. These days in most cities we can all browse in farmers' markets, talking to the families who have grown the fruits and vegetables, exchanging information. I remember once being asked what I was going to do with a big bunch of basil I'd bought (that was years ago; now everyone knows).
I learned that Brussels sprouts are at their best, still clinging to their tall stalks, after a frost has touched them, and that gooseberries should be 37 37 green and hard to yield the best flavor when cooked. Once I took home live eels. The fishman from Long Island said he didn't have time to kill them (or was he testing me?); fortunately, by the time I got home they had smothered in the bag so we didn't have to whack them on the head.
But what about all the time it takes, one is constantly asked-all the shopping, tracking down of choice produce, hours of attention lavished on the preparation of a meal? I guess to many people in our world of modern conveniences, it is irrational. But then most pursuits "of a religious nature" are irrational. In addition, there's the complaint that the results of our cooking labors disappear so rapidly, gulped down in a matter of minutes, that it hardly seems worth it. Jane Grigson, however, regarded this quick consumption as a blessing. "Cooking something delicious," she wrote in Good Things Good Things, "is really much more satisfactory than painting pictures or making pottery. At least for most of us. Food has the tact to disappear, leaving room and opportunity for masterpieces to come. The mistakes don't hang on the walls or stand on shelves to reproach you forever. It follows from this that the kitchen should be thought of as the centre of the house. It needs above all s.p.a.ce for talking, playing, bringing up children, sewing, having a meal, reading, sitting, and thinking.... It's in this kind of place that good food has flourished.
It's from this secure retreat that the exploration of man's curious relationship with food, beyond the point of nourishment, can start."
But even though our efforts disappear, we do derive great pleasure from them. We enjoy the sharing, the bustle and mess of that kitchen Jane Grigson describes, children licking the bowl, a guest pitching in, someone setting a table nicely-all the rituals that precede the main event. It is fun to tease and tempt another's palate with what we have created. We love to feel, as we hear appreciative murmurs and smacks of approval, that we have contributed in such a fundamental way to someone else's well-being.
Recently Ed Giobbi, the painter and wonderful Italian family cook, gave me a new insight into the nurturing aspect of cooking, particularly for a man. He told me that when his wife was pregnant many years ago and more recently when his daughter was about to give him his first grandchild, both times he felt left out and frustrated that he couldn't partic.i.p.ate somehow in the process of birth. But he discovered that he could: all he had to do was cook for them, prepare naturally healthy foods that would nourish both the mother and the child she was carrying, bring tempting dishes to the hospital at the time of birth, and then make 38 wholesome meals at home as she nurtured the infant. In fact, we are talking about his doing a cookbook on the husband/father as nurturer and about the proper feeding of the young.
Ed would deny, I'm sure, that all this had anything to do with "a religious nature," just as Julia Child hooted when I showed her the Whitehead quotation. But I've been pursuing the root of the word "religious" and I find that it is thought to spring from religare religare, meaning to bind, to tie fast, to reconnect. Isn't that exactly what we do when we cook? We connect again to the earth, to the source of our food, and we bind to one another in the sharing of it, in the breaking of bread together, the celebrating of life.
39 M.F.K. FISHER.
One Way to Give Thanks There could not be a better place for Thanksgiving than the vineyards of northern California, where we were. There could not, in truth, be more to give thanks for: two of the sisters and their families living within calling distance over the bright leaves of the plucked frost-nipped vines, in the valley rimmed with blue mountains, and another sister not more than a hundred miles away. All of us were friendly to the point of open enjoyment, a good rare thing in a family and especially to be savored at this turn-point of the year.
Norah would have us all at her house for the solemn, giddy festival.
Anne would bring the wines. I would, I said, roast two birds of proper age and size.
Norah would set out the long table, which with help from lendings could stretch from the middle of the farmhouse kitchen through the big folding doors into the living room, with my red-checked tablecloths, her gla.s.ses, a general a.s.semblage of plates and silver. Anne would a.s.semble, too, a colossal pile of greenery for the salad, and keep it mixed, in batches as needed: all the children are part rabbit. I would make Elsa's Orange Torte, for a light, delicately dry dessert with coffee.
We would meet at midday, all the friends....
I found that a mind of rebellion teased me, about the turkeys. It was because of the peculiarly poignant setting in the wine valley with all of us there: I did not want to do what any fool could do time and again, as I had often done, with oysters and dry bread and sage. I wanted to roast our dainty birds as they would never have been roasted before, and still keep them simple and succulent enough for the children, those perceptive creatures of unsullied palate, innocent of nicotine and alcohol and G.o.d knows what other decadent t.i.tillators. I wanted to produce something that they would smile on, and their parents, too.
Then, as I knew I would, I got out Sheila Hibben's Kitchen Manual Kitchen Manual, which remains for me the simplest and most sensible essay ever written in good English on the proper behavior when faced with a fish, fowl, or cut-off-the-joint. (It is the only cookery book I own which I've marked 40 and added to, and from which clippings spew out.) Stuck in at page forty-seven, where Mrs. Hibben gets off to a fine start on the subject of roast chicken by taking a ladylike poke at Brillat-Savarin, was a chipped yellowing sheet from an Iowan collection of "The Ladies' Guild's Best," which had fairly brutal directions for the Thanksgiving rites (dated 1879): "...place in hot oven, but not too hot at first until flour dredgings blacken; look in often and you will be able to tell if your fire is too brisk or too slow."
There was a column torn from a supermarket throwaway, which gave some good tips on tempering deep-freeze birds to the local winds.
One of the best ones, from frozen turkeys or those caught on the hoof, was to let the roasted beauty "set" for half an hour or so before carving it.
Then there was a colored card about trussing a bird, which I think I cut from a dime-store set of skewers I once bought. I have since located the same excellent directions in several good cookbooks, but it is nice to know, in my own private filing system, just where they are for me: me: pasted in the back of Mrs. Hibben's pasted in the back of Mrs. Hibben's Manual Manual. I always follow them as if they were new to me, armed with needles, skewers, twine, scissors....
Then there was a Christmas card printed years ago by Ward Ritchie, with a Landacre woodcut on it..."How to Cook a Turkey," by Morton Thompson. The method is as odd as the text, and all of Thompson's pseudo-real quotations from sages like Gisantius Praceptus and so on are not as true as his own dictum, "If you want a well-cooked dinner the labor of preparing must be equal to the pleasure of your enjoying."
This is my theory too, for ceremonial feasting at least, and this is how I proved it, in a somewhat tedious but never-faltering pattern, with all the children and several friends and now and then Norah and Anne wandering about me in the kitchen, sniffing, yearning, exclaiming, doubting, commenting....
The two birds weighed about twelve pounds each. I gave them my best attention and tweaked out even more than the usual number of feather ends, both before and after I had washed them well in cold running water and dried them gently. I swished out the insides with a cup of vin rose vin rose, unnecessarily but all to the good, and salted them lightly, and laid them away in a cool, airy place until the next day, to be stuffed and roasted.
The stuffing, or dressing as you may call it, depending on how and by whom you were raised, is enough for these two trim little birds or one big one, and would as far as I know be as good in a goose, if you are 41 of the stuffed-goose school. It might even be good with a domestic duck.
It is robust and yet light and subtle, like some Chinese dishes, and its preparation is, as Mr. Thompson and many another cook would recommend, a finicky and odorous one.
TURKEY STUFFING.8 slices lean bacon 1 cup slivered blanched almonds or whole pine nuts 3 cups chopped mild onions 3 cups chopped celery stalks and tops 1 cup chopped fresh parsley or 2 tablespoons dried orange and lemon, finely 1 teaspoon dried marjoram (optional) chopped (skins and all) 1 large green pepper, chopped 2 pounds cooked cleaned, peeled shrimp (or prawns) Livers, hearts, and so on of the teaspoon cayenne pepper bird(s), coa.r.s.ely chopped b.u.t.ter and cream cup b.u.t.ter Salt, pepper to taste 8 cups cooked rice Saute the bacon, drain on paper, and crumble. Saute the onion in the bacon fat until golden. Pour off the excess fat into another skillet. Add the celery to the onions, and saute gently. Add the orange and lemon and the green pepper, return the bacon to the mixture, and set aside.
Saute the chopped livers and so on in the b.u.t.ter, and add to the mixture.
How much raw rice will make 8 cups of cooked rice depends on whether it is polished, brown, precooked, and so on, but no matter what kind you use, it is best browned slightly in the bacon fat left from the first step, and then cooked in the Italian style, with adequate chicken stock or water in a tightly covered pan, until done and fluffy. Then add the nuts and parsley and (if you wish) the marjoram to it, toss all together lightly, and combine in the same manner with the main mixture.
Cover the fresh or frozen shrimps (or prawns) deeply with cold water, add the cayenne pepper, bring to a quick boil, and let cool in the water. Peel and clean, and cut into bite-size pieces. Saute until golden in adequate b.u.t.ter, and add to the mixture.
Toss all together very lightly, and let stand for a few hours, or overnight in a cool place.
Allowing plenty of time before the roasting should begin, pack the stuffing lightly into the bird(s), adding some melted b.u.t.ter or cream if it seems too dry. Correct seasoning to taste, using salt and freshly ground pepper if wished.
Truss with string and skewers, according to custom and 42 42 common sense, and rub all the skin well with soft b.u.t.ter. Then weigh it, and put it in a 300-degree oven, counting between ten and twelve minutes for each pound.
It should be basted every ten or fifteen minutes, with its own juices and a warm mixture of one part b.u.t.ter, one part good olive oil, and one part sherry or vermouth. (Very sweet vermouth adds to the fine glaze....) And that was the basic formula, a kind of distillation of what a dozen cooks had hinted to me in their pages, and what I myself was hoping for. I went on from there, realizing my limitations and accepting my blessings. I found that in my electric oven I did not need to cover the birds with b.u.t.ter-soaked cloths as I would have done in a gas oven, especially if they had been older. I found that my somewhat inexpert trussing presented several little holes where I could squirt the juices from my gla.s.s baster. I found that every time I opened the oven several people wanted to look, so I added fifteen minutes to the cooking time.
I did the two birds separately, because of my small stove and because of the general enjoyment of the slow, demanding ritual. The children would drift in and out, from the vineyards or the redwood trees, to watch the ceremony and to breathe the smells, which grew by the minute into a kind of cloud of herb and orange peel and turkey-ness.
They leaned forward and then away, stunned and tempted, and the dance went on.
We took the birds up to Norah's in the back of the station wagon, past the blazing vines, and there was the long table, three different patchy shapes under the stretch of red and white cloths and three different heights, but with chairs all around it for us the diners, so varied too in shapes and heights and even purposes. One thing we all did know: we wanted to sit down together and eat and drink.
We had sipped Wente Brothers Dry Semillon all morning, slowly and peacefully. Gnats fell into it whenever we stepped outside the two little farmhouses we moved between: the vineyards and indeed the whole valley still gave off a winey, rotting perfume of discarded grapeskins and forgotten raisins.
Inside Norah's place the children prepared and then presented some sort of pageant about Pilgrims and Indians sitting down together to a feast of corn pudding and baked pumpkins and firewater. Anne patted the ten thousand leaves of a series of "tossed green salads" and stirred a large bowl of dressing made firm but mild for the young palates. On 43 43 the sideboard Norah put the Danish coffee mugs, the dark rum for them as wished it, and the handsome torte dusted with white sugar.
Down the table marched breadbaskets, and ripe grapes on their flat bright leaves, and the wine bottles, a n.o.ble motley for the various tastes, but all from the valley where we stayed so thankfully: Charles Krug and Louis Martini had made the whites, and Inglenook, Beaulieu, and Krug again the reds; and there were pitchers of milk for the children....
The birds were n.o.ble and enough, thus bolstered. Their juices followed the course of the knife, as Mrs. Hibben had said they would, and the meat fell away like waves before a fine ship's bow. All down the table the people held up their plates as fast as the server could carve again, and their eyes shone, and they reached happily for bread, salad, wine, milk, the silver bowl of cranberry sauce in honor of the Pilgrims, and a stone jar of ancient jelly, which one of us three sisters had brought dutifully from our childhood home.
I sat near the carver. I was hot and weary and exalted. I looked down the long gay table, into the living room from the kitchen and past the hearth and out through the big window toward the mountains. The grapes were harvested. The vines were starting, brilliantly, a short be-neficent sleep, and in here in the warm cluttered rich room were my sisters and those they loved and those I did too. It was a good moment in life.
Everything was fine, and so was the dressing. It was light, tantalizing, essentially Oriental. And before we ever tasted it, through the long ex-ercise of our senses while it was prepared and while it fumed slowly in the dainty birds, we all as one (and that is an important fine thing to happen at least a couple of times in anybody's life), we all as one bowed our heads in thanksgiving. It was part of the pageant that none of us had rehea.r.s.ed....
44 BARBARA KAFKA.
Tempest in a Samovar My father loved storms, water pounding into already muddy earth, the rich scent of the wet ground carrying a hint of mold, G.o.d-bearing cracks of lightning and body-shaking thumps of thunder. He would sit on an awninged terrace to be spectator, possessed and possessor of nature's big effect. Frightened, I would join him, trying to live up to his exhilaration. I loved my father, was an acolyte trying to share his vision and not be afraid of his storms. I have never been ill on a boat; he boasted of his years on ocean liners when only he and the captain arrived for dinner. In the wind's shout, I heard his voice and tensed against alarm.
This is how I learned about food, amid the alarms of the dinner table, his pleasure surrounded by the family fights. The food sheltered me; I grew round as I built a wall against their anger, which sought to shred me between the talons of competing ambitions, a.s.sign me roles and set goals that if achieved could only displease one while satisfying the other. The food covertly put me on my father's side. He took the steak bone from the platter and gnawed it, smearing his mouth with fat and flecks of charred bone, his teeth grating into the hard surface, his tongue seeking out bits of marrow and shreds of sweet flesh, to my mother's flesh-fearing disgust. I learned that the sweetest meat lies near the bone.
He drank and his many brothers drank. Together they drank, challenging each other with their ice-cold native vodka. The clear liquid was a b.o.o.by trap, hot with long-soaked small red peppers, but clear as rainwater. Who would gag, who would reel? When he drank with them, the bitter arguments, the arm wrestling were softened by love and shared memories. They listened to news from the Russian front and ate herring in cream with sliced onions, smoked salmon, sturgeon, and a fish they called kipchunkie kipchunkie (which I later learned to call sable) and, finally, smoked black cod. There were bagels too hard for me to bite, black Russian pumpernickel, and what they called cornbread, a throwback to Europe where wheat was "corn." The bread was dense and heavy and has disappeared. No one will any longer make the dough, too thick for machines. He ate the heel, the crumb of bread was for the effete, along (which I later learned to call sable) and, finally, smoked black cod. There were bagels too hard for me to bite, black Russian pumpernickel, and what they called cornbread, a throwback to Europe where wheat was "corn." The bread was dense and heavy and has disappeared. No one will any longer make the dough, too thick for machines. He ate the heel, the crumb of bread was for the effete, along 45.with white meat of chicken and desserts.
He taught me to eat pickles from the barrel, the juice running down my arm, and took me to restaurants when I was mother-abandoned.
She was out of town, often in Washington, doing important work-beyond objection-for the government during the great war.
His was the ultimate revenge and seduction. We had lunch at Luchow's.
His office was nearby, and he was proud of his charge card: number 1.
We ate herring in dill mustard sauce and puffy, plate-sized apple pancakes, boiled beef with lots of horseradish, and I sipped his beer.
At Chambord, we sat outdoors on a spring night, beyond the copper-pot view of the kitchen, a kitchen where they would prepare, if you would wait, any dish from the cla.s.sic French repertoire, and my father ordered-the whole restaurant stopped to stare-a nineteen-dollar bottle of wine in 1945 when I was twelve. I remember the bottle shape, a Bordeaux, the year a '29; but the name is clogged in memory. I fell in love with the idea of France, the country vital to my father's business but whose language remained arcane to him. Later, that was my victory, my French.
My mother did not, does not cook. Like learning to type, it was something for servants. She scrambled to success with education as grappling tool and was moving always upward, bringing sometimes a memory of a tasted recipe for Rachel, a recipe reflecting the ever-increasing image of the better life, first, moules mariniere moules mariniere, then fillet of sole bonne femme bonne femme. She liked chocolate ice cream and tried French with a clumsy accent. I learned that food was part of travel and distant places.
Rachel was not a nice person, and why should she be, a black woman living in a tiny room-a maid's room-in the Fifth Avenue apartment without a view of self-proclaimed liberals? But she was a superb natural cook and always there from the time I was four until the apartment with the view could be bought and she didn't fit. My mother fought her leaving. My father was remorseless and Rachel went to work in his factory. I didn't miss her. By then I was leaving as well, glad to escape the escalating sound of fighting, the several gla.s.ses of Scotch too many, and the disappointment of a woman whom the end of Depression and war left without a clear cause.
I didn't spend time in the kitchen with Rachel. I lived in Ba.r.s.et-shire, Jane Austen's Hampshire, Joyce's Dublin, Swann's attar-of-roses Paris, and Stendhal's provinces. I swallowed the sentimental sour of Edna St.
Vincent Millay and Dorothy Parker. I gobbled Yeats, Eliot, and Mallarme and wandered lonely through picture galleries learning 46 46 the strange green faces of gold-framed madonnas, the melodrama of red in El Greco, the tear-provoking repose of Cezanne's solid geometry, and the liquid geometry of Dali. I danced, and a savage in music, I could hear only the insistent beat of ballets, the enticements of my father's gypsy records, and the voice-carried sweetness of opera. And what I wrote I hid.
But Rachel did teach me that cooking was an improvisation and a response. My mother's hints of dishes produced, from Rachel's pots, wonderful flavors, and, for the few people Rachel liked, there were mysteriously good chocolate cakes to eat late at night with whole bottles of milk.
Refuge in the mind-world of college brought no relief. I courted favor, writing other people's papers, better than my own. To produce was too frightening, a challenge to my father's fragilely male repudiation of my mother's achievement, a challenge to my mother's expansive compet.i.tion, her flight through six degrees. It was to risk annihilation, and I graduated with a c.u.m, summa generals, and a summa thesis written late at night in the last hurried hours before the deadline in the less frightening, public s.p.a.ce of my dorm's living room.
I worked, I married, and I fled again from my parents' house as I tried to learn, awkwardly, what a home might be, a place that was not perpetually neat and ready to be viewed, one filled with the smell of onions and garlic and welcoming to hoped-for friends. I learned to cook. It was not frightening. It was all there in my friends the books, often wrapped in the festivity of French. I spread six or seven on the floor and learned of food as I had learned to learn. Comparing recipes, I tried to see through them to the times when they were written, the personalities of the cooks, and to an ultimate version of whatever dish I would serve, a try at loving, too late at night. I was still not able to judge the time and s.p.a.ce of recipes, had not yet learned to listen to the changing sound of bubbles in the pot, the varying smells from the oven.
I had found the way to invert and supersede my father's intrusive pleasures, avoid my mother, and reject their worlds. I worked with my hands. I was a cook. I learned a new language, recipes.
In this new language I found work. I had wanted to write great poetry, but my fears of competing in my parents' worlds crippled my ambition.
As if by happenstance, but surely by the intuition of others, I found that people would pay me to write about food, about what I had traveled and tasted, what my hyperacuity-honed in staying short of danger in those nightly dinner-table battles-made me taste and 47 47 replicate and feel. In that work, everything I knew and the ways I had learned to see was of use. If we look, food has the structure of linguistics and religion. It is sociology and economics, politics and cultural definition; it is history, memory, and pa.s.sion interwoven with style as clearly as painting, literature, dance, music, and architecture. Yet it is without the risks of high art.
Food is about loving and giving and performance and applause. It is polymorphous, combining what had been the professional work of men with what had been the largely invisible, perhaps because ubiquitous, labors of women. It is essential and sensuous. I found a home where my father's storm could be tamed to the bubbles and steam of my grandmother's samovar.
TRANSLATED FROM THE FRENCH BY DEREK.
Wines I was very well brought up. As a first proof of so categorical a statement, I shall simply say that I was no more than three years old when my father poured out my first full liqueur gla.s.s of an amber-colored wine which was sent up to him from the Midi, where he was born: the muscat of Frontignan. was very well brought up. As a first proof of so categorical a statement, I shall simply say that I was no more than three years old when my father poured out my first full liqueur gla.s.s of an amber-colored wine which was sent up to him from the Midi, where he was born: the muscat of Frontignan.
The sun breaking from behind clouds, a shock of sensuous pleasure, an illumination of my newborn tastebuds! This initiation ceremony rendered me worthy of wine for all time. A little later I learned to empty my goblet of mulled wine, scented with cinnamon and lemon, as I ate a dinner of boiled chestnuts. At an age when I could still scarcely read, I was spelling out, drop by drop, old light clarets and dazzling Yquems.
Champagne appeared in its turn, a murmur of foam, leaping pearls of air providing an accompaniment to birthday and First Communion banquets, complementing the gray truffles from La Puisaye...Good lessons, from which I graduated to a familiar and discreet use of wine, not gulped down greedily but measured out into narrow gla.s.ses, a.s.similated mouthful by s.p.a.ced-out, meditative mouthful.
It was between my eleventh and fifteenth years that this admirable educational program was perfected. My mother was afraid that I was outgrowing my strength and was in danger of a "decline." One by one, she unearthed, from their bed of dry sand, certain bottles that had been aging beneath our house in a cellar-which is, thanks be to G.o.d, still intact-hewn out of fine, solid granite. I feel envious, when I think back, of the privileged little urchin I was in those days. As an accompaniment to my modest, fill-in meals-a chop, a leg of cold chicken, or one of those hard cheeses, "baked" in the embers of a wood fire and so brittle that one blow of the fist would shatter them into pieces like a pane of gla.s.s-I drank Chateau Lafites, Chambertins, and Cortons which had escaped capture by the "Prussians" in 1870. Certain of these wines were already fading, pale and scented still like a dead rose; they lay on a sediment of 49.tannin that darkened their bottles, but most of them retained their aristocratic ardor and their invigorating powers. The good old days!
I drained that paternal cellar, goblet by goblet, delicately...My mother would recork the opened bottle and contemplate the glory of the great French vineyards in my cheeks.
Happy those children who are not made to blow out their stomachs with great gla.s.ses of red-tinted water during their meals! Wise those parents who measure out to their progeny a tiny gla.s.s of pure wine-and I mean "pure" in the n.o.ble sense of the word-and teach them: "Away from the meal table, you have the pump, the faucet, the spring, and the filter at your disposal. Water is for quenching the thirst.
Wine, according to its quality and the soil where it was grown, is a necessary tonic, a luxury, and a fitting tribute to good food." And is it not also a source of nourishment in itself? Yes, those were the days, when a few true natives of my Burgundy village, gathered around a flagon swathed in dust and spiders' webs, kissing the tips of their fingers from their lips, exclaimed-already-"a nectar!" Don't you agree that in talking to you about wine I am describing a province I know something about? It is no small thing to conceive a contempt, so early in life, not only for those who drink no wine at all but also for those who drink too much.
The vine and the wine it produces are two great mysteries. Alone in the vegetable kingdom, the vine makes the true savor of the earth intelligible to man. With what fidelity it makes the translation! It senses, then expresses, in its cl.u.s.ters of fruit the secrets of the soil. The flint, through the vine, tells us that it is living, fusible, a giver of nourishment.
Only in wine does the ungrateful chalk pour out its golden tears. A vine, transported across mountains and over seas, will struggle to keep its personality, and sometimes triumphs over the powerful chemistries of the mineral world. Harvested near Algiers, a white wine will still remember without fail, year after year, the n.o.ble Bordeaux graft that gave it exactly the right hint of sweetness, lightened its body, and endowed it with gaiety. And it is far-off Jerez that gives its warmth and color to the dry and cordial wine that ripens at Chateau Chalon, on the summit of a narrow, rocky plateau.
From the ripened cl.u.s.ter brandished by its tormented stem, heavy with transparent but deeply troubled agate, or dusted with silver-blue, the eye moves upward to contemplate the naked wood, the ligneous serpent wedged between two rocks: on what, in heaven's name, does it feed, this young tree growing here in the South, unaware that such a thing as rain exists, clinging to the rock by a single hank of hemplike 50 50 roots? The dews by night and the sun by day suffice for it-the fire of one heavenly body, the essence sweated by another-these miracles...
What cloudless day, what gentle and belated rain decides that a year, one year among all the others, shall be a great year for wine? Human solicitude can do almost nothing, it is a matter in which celestial sorcery is everything, the course the planets take, the spots on the sun.
Simply to recite our provinces and their towns by name is to sing the praises of our venerated vineyards. It is profitable both to the spirit and the body-believe me-to taste a wine in its own home, in the landscape that it enriches. Such a pilgrimage, well understood, has surprises in store for you that you little suspect. A very young wine, tasted in the blue light of its storage shed-a half bottle of Anjou, opened under a barrel vault dusted with pale light by a violent and stormy summer afternoon-moving relics discovered in an old stillroom unaware of the treasures it contains, or else forgetful of them...I once fled from such a stillroom, in the Franche-Comte, as though I had been stealing from a museum...Another time, among the furniture being auctioned off on a tiny village square, between the commode, the iron bedstead, and some empty bottles, there were six full bottles being sold: it was then, as an adolescent, that I had my first encounter with an ardent and imperious prince, and a treacherous one, like all great seducers: the wine of Jurancon. Those six bottles made me more curious about the region that produced them than any geography teacher ever could have done. Though I admit that at such a price geography lessons would not be within the reach of everyone. And that triumphant wine, another day, drunk in an inn so dark that we never knew the color of the liquid they poured into our gla.s.ses...Just so does a woman keep the memory of a journey, of how she was surprised one night, of an unknown man, a man without a face, who made himself known to her only by his kiss...
The present sn.o.bbery about food is producing a crop of hostelries and country inns the like of which has never been seen before. Wine is revered in these places. Can wisdom be born again from a faith so un-enlightened, a faith professed by mouths already, alas, armored with c.o.c.ktails, with venomous aperitifs, with harsh and numbing spirits?