Saturday, October 29, 2011

(Not) Reading Cookbooks

My earliest memory of my aunt is of her melting sugar on the stove in my grandparents’ old summer farmhouse in western New York. I was probably around four years old and it seemed to me that what she was doing was a little bit magical. But actually this was something kind of ordinary in that house, what with my French grandmother pretty much constantly whipping up Hollandaise sauce or ratatouille or something else that would take hours to prepare and minutes to wolf down. There was hardly a moment when someone wasn’t cooking something and this is still true of my aunt today, who I can only picture in the various kitchens I have seen her in, including her own.

Were cookbooks used? Very likely, but I hardly remember anyone looking at one. Somehow my grandmother always seemed to know how many eggs went into a soufflĂ© and when precisely it needed to be taken out of the oven. Which is why I have always had a kind of wary relationship with cookbooks. I love reading them, don’t get me wrong. And how else are you going to make anything that you don’t already know how to make? It’s just that I hate having to cook while constantly reading and referring back to something. (This is strangely the opposite of how I am in my non-cooking life, in which I try to read while doing other things, such as walking down the street.) I think it’s the fact that I am so easily distracted while cooking that reading a recipe ends up distracting me further, if that makes sense. And then there’s also the very worst word you can encounter in a recipe. That word is meanwhile. There you are, following along, and suddenly you read: “Meanwhile, shuck 60 oysters” or “Meanwhile prepare the marinade and let it sit for two hours.” At that point, you realize that you have simply lost control of the whole procedure.

It would make sense, I suppose, to read an entire recipe before trying to make something new. I know there are people like that out there. Are these the same people who actually read all the directions before playing a new board game or trying to work a new digital camera? I think those might be the people that have what you might call patience. As for me, I might skim a recipe for cooking times, but sometimes the ingredient list is really all I get through before starting. But then once I have perfected something, all I eventually need to look at is the ingredient list, which is exactly my goal.

But the cookbooks themselves. Oh, I read these just like regular books: for the stories! The stories of how when you add balsamic vinegar to roasted fennel something amazing happens. Or how a triple mousse cake is supposed to come gorgeously together with just the tiniest bit of gelatin. Or how when you make David Chang’s ginger vinaigrette you will want to drink it straight up. Or how at the age of 8 someone’s French grandmother made her practice separating eggs until she got it just right (okay, this would actually be from my own personal cookbook, if such a thing were ever to be written).

I guess my point is that there is reading and there is cooking. And I love both. But, and this hardly makes any sense at all and yet I'm afraid it's true, not at the same time.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Last House

I wrote this story at a temp job around 15 years ago. This is the best use of time at a temp job that I can think of.

Charming was the man, of course, I was just this guy who’d landed a pretty decent job at the palace, taking care of all the details, fulfilling his every whim, you can imagine, but for a while there, for a while, things were really happening. I have to say, the most exciting time of my life was that search, the search that took us all over the land, weeks it took, months, he was not going to give up, not ever.

Of course all he had to do was show up at these houses, just show up, and every woman in there, young and old alike, would swoon, literally swoon. The man had it going on, let me tell you. While I’d be there on my knees, trying to jam all manner of peasant feet into one tiny delicate slipper (made of glass! Glass! Do you know how hard it was keeping it in one piece just bouncing around on my horse?), Charming would be standing there, always so polite, graciously declining just about everything these women were offering him, even the poorest of them all, who you knew hadn’t even had a decent meal probably in weeks. The things they tried to give him! Blankets, ribbons, rusted silverware, even an old sickly goat at one place. This guy’s a prince, and still they all wanted him to take the very best object in the house, and I’m sure you can imagine that many times this would turn out to be one or more of the daughters of the house.

Man, there were some beauties to be seen on this journey, and, rich or poor, they’d always make some effort to be decked out in their best clothes, clean or not, once word had spread that the prince was searching the land for the perfect one he’d met at the ball, the one who hadn’t left her name (more work for me, of course). Anyway, some of the offers these girls made him—or worse, the girls’ mothers!—well, just don’t get me started! Now of course, I wouldn’t have minded taking his place in any of those activities—you know how they’ll sometimes have some poor unlucky bastard stand in for a prince if he has to fight or something?—but do you think he ever offered me the chance? Not even once. As for the women, do you think they even saw me with a prince in the room? No, I was just the one they’d glance at briefly as I knelt at their feet, before they’d turn their gaze right back to the man, who’d just be beaming at them royally.

Now let me tell you about their feet.

A lot of the poorer women never even wore shoes, of course, but just the same they had to be trying on that precious slipper like everyone else. The soles of their feet were always rough and dirty, but there was an incredible strength there too, in the veins that pulsed across the skin, in those terrible, magnificent calluses. Usually, lost in their own reveries, they wouldn’t even notice as my hands ran along the length of their arches, slowly, taking advantage of that moment, feeling all the work they’d ever done in their lives. On one occasion, a woman actually gasped and for a brief second I caught her eye. My hands began to shake. She looked as though she wanted to smack me, or possibly, make love to me, it was hard to tell. I had to look away. Soon it was over.

The rich women were different. Their feet, though not as strong by any means, were certainly clean and quite delicate; sometimes their toenails were painted, some even wore tiny rings on their toes. That was something to see. The initial look on their faces was always the same: hopeful, always hopeful, as though I could work some kind of magic, as though it were up to me to come up with the perfect fit. Then their attention would snap right back to your man, who was always, of course, all smiles. So I took a few chances with these women too. Sometimes my hand, resting on an ankle, would slide a little upwards, nearly approaching the full-length skirt that they had so boldly lifted up to me just seconds earlier. That feeling was electric, it was indescribable, and sometimes I was afraid that I might gasp aloud just like that young peasant woman had done, though I must say the brief looks I got from some of these women were not nearly so kind. And they too made me look away.

But, as in every case, soon would come the inevitable sobbing, the pleading, and Charming would have to apologize once again, profusely and ever so sadly, and we’d be out the door as fast as we could. Weeks of this really did him in.

There was one night where, thoroughly exhausted as well as disappointed, he turned to me and said in the saddest voice you ever heard, “I shall never find her! This has all been in vain! Let us return home now.” So of course I took pity on him, anyone would have. As much as I wouldn’t admit it at the time, the thrill of it all was completely addictive; I never wanted it to stop. And I told him there was just one house left in the area. Just one left. We ought to stop by there, I said, have a meal perhaps (it looked like there might be food there), maybe rest for the night, and in the morning return home. He nodded solemnly, in that way he has, not saying a word. I guess you know whose house this one was. I led him there myself. I led him, and so ended the search forever, and my one true adventure.

Every so often I find myself thinking about what might have happened had we not gone into that last house. Would we still be riding all over the lands searching out every home for every woman living within? Would one day one of them, perhaps in an unguarded moment, have turned away from our hero and glanced back at me, and there, in my face, noticed what would have been a perfect fit? And there would I have found the wife that has long been denied me?

Fortunately there is a lot at the palace that keeps me busy these days, and I don’t have much time to think about anything except the happy couple’s happiness. Who knows if their life is as blissful as they hoped? They seem pretty content, they have a lot of time to themselves to do whatever it is they do. This might be the secret, you know, but who except a royal family can afford such luxury? As for me, what I have are the memories of a time when anything seemed possible, when the future seemed wide open, and the tedium had all but lifted from my life for good.

So the last house. Do you want to know about the house? It was a simple cottage, clean and well-kept. The door had a knocker on it; in fact, it was the nicest thing about the place, intricately carved, old but still functional. We stood there and waited, me balancing the delicate weight in one hand, reaching up to the door with the other. The prince, he just simply stood, an almost beaten man, hands at his sides. I had to knock three times before someone came to the door.