Monday, September 29, 2008

My Peers: A Consideration, part I

For the most part, my peers are pretty young. In my class, there were a total of 77 baking and pastry students beginning the first day of June 16th. Of those 77, 8 had degrees. Most of the student skin is white. A lot of it is still pimpled.

Occasionally, I pass someone in the vicinity of my age group in the hallways or outside. We always make eye contact, and shoot between us a knot of mixed messages—a recognition of someone feeling the same weirdness over the age difference; a strange sort of shame at having been in the thick of puberty, if not full drinking age, when most of the other students were still breast feeding; a fleeting unease that it all might be too late for us.

I was exactly like the younger students: I went to college right out of high school. I’d grown up in the country and arrived in Boston dizzy with all the goings on. I was primarily interested in music and I saw a lot of great bands play: Jane’s Addiction in a club the size of the average living room; the Bad Brains, original line-up intact; Fugazi in a church. I was terrified of women but sought out their company at every opportunity. I drank a lot of cheap beer. Academics were just background noises. I went to a pretty decent school. I was a terrible student—my grades were awful.

I wasn’t really ready. In a lot of ways, I was a pretty young 18. When I think what I could have done with the resources around me, my stomach knots up.

So every time I have a CIA assignment, every time there’s something to read or homework to be done, I’m at it with the sort of seriousness coaxed out when you realize how few chances you really get. In an environment where a person gets to—is encouraged to--fixate entirely on food and its preparation, why would you not want to read and analyze Escoffier’s recipes? Or pore over Gray Kunz’s Elements of Taste? Or let Harold McGee explain the precise chemistry behind why an onion caramelizes under the influence of slow, steady heat?

At my age the answer is obvious. If I were the age of most of the others, or a different person, it would be a lot more nebulous. I understand that. I get it.

We’re all tossed in together, all of us in those checked pants, heavy-footed in black clogs. We’re cutting up meat and vegetables side by side, or listening to lectures as a group, washing dishes, mopping floors, eating at the same tables. I get to hear a lot of things.

The first week or so, you gravitate towards anyone you’ve even briefly met. So I found myself at the same table for a number of meals with this one 18-year-old kid. All I ever saw him eat were hamburgers.
“So,” I said, “I couldn’t help but notice you really like hamburgers.”
“Yeah, that’s pretty much all I eat.”
“Do you want to try some of this?” I pushed a plate at him that had foie gras mousse piped into profiteroles. It had been up for grabs on a buffet table when you walked in the cafeteria door. I was ecstatic when I figured out what it was. I’d eaten as much as I could from the plate. He wrinkled his face.
“No, man. That’s cool. I won’t like it.”
“Really? How often are you gonna get this? Try it.” I suddenly felt like my mother.
“No. I just want the burger. I can’t wait until they teach us to cook these things.”

Overheard: “I’m failing everything. I failed gastronomy. I’m failing meat. I got a D in product knowledge. I need to concentrate on my studies. So as soon as I’m done with this bag, I’m going to quit smoking weed.”

The Skills chef was yelling at me. I was calmly stating my case back to him. Which was probably the first in a chain of mistakes.

“Listen to me, Jonathan. Listen: things are going to go a lot easier for you at this school if you do it the way we tell you to.”

“I understand, all I’m saying is---“

“Do it the way I tell you!”


“All I want to hear from you right this second is ‘Yes, chef.’ Do you understand? All I want to hear is ‘Yes, chef.’”

He stared, waiting for me to say it. I was having a hard time dredging up the words. They were feeling particularly heavy on my tongue. He kept staring. I couldn’t do it. Mercifully, a pot clattered to the floor off to our right and, distracted, he walked away to shame whoever had dropped their clarified butter on the tiles.

I have no idea what’s wrong with me.

I said to someone a little older than average: “No kidding—you live in the kiddie dorm? What’s it like with all those tykes?”
“Well, someone got taken to the ER the other night because someone else bit his arm. Oh, and last night, someone took a shit in the shower.”

Next: More Conversations, Eavesdropping, and Campus Snapshots. Plus, coming up: Anthony Bourdain, What Have You Wrought?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

What I Learned (butchering, part IV)

The farm’s dirt driveway cut through green fields, and a few yards down from the road a sign read “Welcome CIA Students and Brook Farm Friends.” For most of the ride, the four of us in the car had talked food, Thomas Keller (the Muslims may have 99 names for God, but around the CIA there’s just one: Keller) and the cult of celebrity, run down other students we didn’t care for, and generally avoided the topic of killing. With the farmhouse in sight the conversation swerved down a darker bend; we made jokes that weren’t all that funny and laughed too hard at them. We parked the car, gathered the knives, and, speaking for myself, took heavy steps to the back yard.

The yard would have been big and open, normally, but this afternoon was crowded with vehicles and equipment. As we walked towards a set of tables to put our things down, we passed a mobile chicken coop, presumably filled with the work at hand. A dozen or so feet beyond that was a 55-gallon drum full of bubbling water on top of a propane burner, and next to it a cylindrical tube with finger-sized rubber pieces extruding off the interior sides and on the bottom. There were a few tubs filled with water nearby. And throwing their shadows onto the tables were six traffic cones upended and nailed to a cross beam. Beneath the cones, someone had dug a trench about six inches deep. On this assembly line, no one part of the process was more than a few feet from another.

The farm was run by a husband and wife team. They were a good looking couple, at the upper end of their 50s, or early into their 60s. A lot of years of hard work had helped sculpt their faces. They looked a bit young to have been on the countercultural vanguard, but seemed more a product of the early 70s; they’d probably done a post-Altamont retreat back to the land; if they hadn’t spent time on a commune, I would have been surprised. If you’ve ever seen Robert Kramer’s genius film, Milestones, this was a pair from the cast three decades on. They radiated warmth.

Both of them shook our hands and thanked us in advance for our help. On one of the tables was bread and butter; suddenly buckets of freshly picked corn appeared. The wife and the husband dumped the corn in the bubbling water. Given what was set to happen, the idea of food and eating seemed lunatic. But no one else appeared to hold that point of view; the bread disappeared. People took corn as fast as they could. The wife was suddenly in front of me holding out a pile of it. “Go ahead,” she said. “It was picked and shucked just a few minutes ago.” What do you say in the face of this kind of hospitality? You don’t say no, and I didn’t. And the corn was something to exult over—someday I hope I’ll have some that good again.

Here were all these people gathered together, eating, but there was nothing celebratory to the moment. The ambience was muted, stilled, with the tenor of a commemoration. A stereo in my head grabbed onto the line from Bukka White’s antique blues song, Fixin’ to Die: “Just as sure as we live, sure we’re born to die.” Over and over in my skull, as I tried to suck stuck corn from between two teeth. The wife said a few words about how the chickens had lived well, been treated well, and she read a poem she’d written from the bird’s point of view, absolving the killing because it was natural to die, and the chickens’ short life had been a good one.

And then it was four in the afternoon, and the light was thick. Things began dying. By the coop there were two wooden cages. The husband brought a few of us to the coop, crawled inside, and handed out chickens two at a time. Six chickens were put into each cage. The cages were carried back to the cross beams; we reached in and picked up a chicken by its feet and held them upside down—if they’re held that way long enough, they go into a trance; they’ll fight you, though, when you first try to turn them feet-up. Once they were sedate, we drew them head-first through one of the cones. Our meat instructor spoke his softly-accented instructions: hold the head with your thumb under the chicken’s beak. Put the bolster-end of the knife blade against the bird’s throat. Draw the blade across, applying firm, even pressure. The head should pop right off. All of us stood thronged together, knives in hand, waiting. The first bird went into the cone.

It was coming onto fall. I’d noticed a few of the leaves beginning to tint with color. My parents were getting a little bit older. We’d all see another winter, but only so many. We have only a finite number of times to watch a full moon wax, to see it turn the topography around you a dusky silver.

The chickens had been brought to the farm as newly hatched spheres of down, and had grown ineluctably towards this point in time. The farmers’ daughter, a girl of maybe 14 or 15, had appeared. She wore ratty jeans and a green t-shirt. She still had her adolescence all over her; someday, when that awkwardness dropped away, she’d be very beautiful. She was keeping to herself, sitting off at a distance. The first chicken went into the cone. The daughter just broke. She streamed tears and she wouldn’t look away. She sat with her arms crossed, weeping with more intensity. She’d helped raise them. She’d witness the entirety of their transition. Watching her, my eyes welled up, too.

That first bird: a young woman from school was the first to kill, and it didn’t go as well as it could have. The knife seemed to stick; the bird freaked out; she responded in kind but got the knife through the neck. She had blood running down her cheeks and held the head in her hand. She was blameless; it’s hard for your hands to know what to do. In the cluster of students around her, I saw one of the teaching assistants from school, her eyes also shining with tears.

Most of us were shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot. I held my knife with a tight grip. Other students were reaching into the cages and pulling out the chickens. I watched people lifting the birds up, watched their wings flap frantically, heard them squawking, saw them being killed.

I love my parents and I want to live forever. I love my girlfriend. And I felt a wild surge of resentment move like electricity through me, angry that everything has to end. People I’d known or admired or were influenced by, pets I’d kept, family I’d loved had ended. Jerry Garcia was dead. William Burroughs was dead. My dogs, Nigel and Cedric, were both dead. My grandmother, gone 22 years and still walking into my dreams, was dead. My uncle, too. These last, I truly miss.

It came to be my turn. I could feel the bird’s pulse under my thumb. I positioned the knife as instructed, and drew it hard across the chicken’s throat. And then I was holding its head in my hand, blood on my arms and shirt, watching the body convulse. My foot slipped and slid into the trench. My work boot was glistening with blood.

The body was dunked into the same water that had cooked the corn. When the feathers began pulling away, it was removed from the water out and put into the cylinder. The cylinder whipped the bird around and the rubber extrusions pulled away the feathers. Any feathers left were plucked by hand at a nearby table. Then we gutted the chickens, the viscera still hot. The carcass was then washed and put into a tub. We went through this for hours, until past dusk, stopping when the 100th chicken was finished. About 2 hours before the end, I got stung on my neck by a bee. Our instructor made me stop, put ice on it and sit for a few minutes. “Karma, huh?” he’d said.

In the early evening, I’d watched three other students playing around. In front of the daughter, who sat without saying anything to anyone, eyes red and wet, these three made bloody handprints on each other’s shirts and took pictures. They held up a living chicken with one hand, knife in the other, with a stupid rictus of a smile splitting their face, and they took pictures of that, too. I noticed my friends and some others staring at them in disbelief and contempt. I’m hoping there’s a special compound in hell for people like this.

At the end of the night, the husband and wife asked us to gather in a circle and tell them what we’d learned. One by one, we each mouthed the same platitudes about respect for food, being closer to the food source, and like that. But what I actually learned I still only feel.

For the first few minutes, the car ride back was hushed. But then we started talking about food, the cult of celebrity, running down other students we didn’t care for.

The next night, Nelly and I roasted a chicken. When I carved it, I got every scrap off of the bones. Every piece of that bird was priceless.

And the day after, Nelly and I went to the home of our new friends, Thisbe Nissen and Jay Nicorvo. Like us, they’re recent immigrants to Saugerties. They were showing us around their house, and stopped by the chicken coop, filled with a small flock of two-month old chickens. The chickens were beautiful—some of them were real show birds, their feathers wildly colored and tufted. They treated these chickens almost like pets. One of them was eating out Nelly’s hand. They’d given them names—one was named Monsanto—and were counting the days until they began laying eggs. I stooped to stroke a chicken. At one point, Jay and Thisbe asked what I’d been up to that weekend. I didn’t tell them.

Next: My Peers: A Consideration.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Something’s Got to Die (butchering, part I)

At the kitchen table in Malden, I’m watching an online video—required viewing for the meat butchering class that preceded Fish—called “Calf Slaughter.” The class is taught by an older German man of imposing height and massive hands. He’s capped with a head of grey. He has a voice with the same cadences and lilts as Werner Herzog’s and he makes you want to impress him.

The class was held on the fourth floor of Roth Hall, the former Jesuit monastery, in a room facing east. The first sunlight would ease over the peaks of the mountains just as class started. The room felt old. You could imagine that there had been fierce arguments here about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

When our instructor would lecture about meat, he was sometimes difficult to understand. The mind tends to turn unfamiliar sounds into sounds you recognize. I’d be taking notes, hearing a normal set of sentences: “The chuck is one of the primal cuts of a side of beef. The round is another primal cut, and its sub-primals are the knuckle, eye, top round…” etc. And then I could swear he had just said something like: “Night tracking turns nighttime to birds.” We’d often look at each other in bewilderment. Naturally, all of us loved the guy.

I pay almost no attention to the video’s credits and preamble but when the feature part of it opens, there’s my instructor, 20 years younger, brown-haired, face unlined. He’s wearing a t-shirt, jeans, and green rubber boots, and he’s stroking the head of a calf. It’s important, he’s saying, that when an animal is slaughtered, it feels no stress, no fear. It degrades the quality of the meat. And, more, the very fact of the animal’s existence means that if it dies, it needs to die humanely.

“Unfortunately, for us to eat,” he’d said in class before I watched the video, “Something—something—has to die. And that animal—or plant—deserves our respect. It demands our respect. It demands our attention. Our commitment to not waste it. If nothing else, this is what I want you learn here.”

In the video, his hands keep playing over and around the calf’s ears and neck. The animal’s eyes are both plaintive and stupid. My instructor suddenly takes a step back, pulls out a Luger, aims, and puts a bullet through the calf’s head. The video is in real time, and 25 minutes later, he has the calf skinned, gutted, and ready to be butchered.

With a lifetime of butchering behind him, when those hands—with so much dying accumulated in his fingers—touch some part of an animal, it must feel a shiver run over its flesh.

The Duck Died in Vain (butchering, part II)

For lunch one day a couple weeks earlier, I had half of a duck, set on top of wild rice, resting on my plate. Most of the eight of us around the table had the same thing. The duck had been pretty much destroyed with an excess of heat; it was desiccated and tough, the meat was seized-up and fibrous. I took another bite and looked around. Everyone else was struggling to chew it and swallow. I took another bite.

I started getting pissed off. Whoever had done this was a jackass.

“You know what?” I finally said to my friends. “Whoever did this is a jackass.” I took one more bite and began gathering some steam, saying, “Really. What were they doing?”

“Not cooking it right, obviously,” someone said.

Someone else said, “Don’t throw stones too hard because in a few weeks, you’re going to be the one screwing up the duck.”

“No, seriously. Consider a duck. Who doesn’t love a duck?” People at the table next to us turned to look. “They’re cute, they’re cool to watch. They’re tasty. And—damn—this duck once walked around. It was happy. It enjoyed itself. And look at it now. This creature truly died in vain. No, I won’t be the person screwing it up. This animal got completely disrespected. A pointless, useless death.”

100 Chickens in Four Hours (butchering part III)

The meat instructor had asked us if we would volunteer to go with him after class the following Friday afternoon, to a CSA (community sustained agriculture) farm just outside of New Paltz, New York and help him slaughter 100 chickens.

I believe, as many others do, that if you aren’t a vegan or otherwise strict vegetarian, you should someday kill something. Not just observe a slaughter, but touch an animal and end its life. So I said yes, I’d volunteer. About 16 or so others said yes, too. Wear old clothes, we were told. Bring a boning knife. Sharpen and hone the knife. Bring an extra t-shirt, because you’re going to get dirty. We’d carpool and caravan to the farm.

The ride there took about half an hour, through New Paltz, up along a steady slope to where the Shawangunk Ridge pitches itself straight against the sky. During the whole trip, grey banks of clouds hid the sun, spat down some rain, and retreated. The mountains are a dark blue and green; looking at them at that moment, they were so beautiful you understood why people will fight so hard to stay alive.

Next: This isn’t the first time I’d driven up a mountain to slaughter birds.

Monday, September 8, 2008


I watched my blood trickle bright and red under the heavy fluoresence of the CIA fish room. The gills of a fish—a sea bass, in this case—are heavy, crude syringes, livid with bacteria. There’s nothing on them you want introduced under the skin. I’d been scaling the fish; I’d been careless—it was 6:15 and my alarm had gone off at 2:36 AM—and the spikes punctured deep into my thumb. I dropped the scaler to the red tile floor, stepped away from the sink, and barked an obscenity. In five minutes my hand would feel like it had been drenched in acid. Minute by minute the pain graded up. Before long, it was exquisite, total. My eyes watered. A little drum of nausea beat in my stomach.

A friend walked up to me, pulled my hand in front of his face, whistled, and said, “Prepare yourself—that’s going to hurt like a bitch.”

This was the 11th day I had gotten up not too long after midnight. I’d driven morning after morning from Saugerties with a head full of cement, semi-delirious, my heart clutching and coughing from too much caffeine. I’d drink the coffee outside, on the porch, under a spray of stars, listening to the whistle of the freight trains that ran all night right near the house. I’d move pawns and rooks through the upcoming year, through the program’s endpoint, trying to figure out what I’d do when it was over. I’d be at school at 4:30, to cut up fish.

The chalkboard on one wall would have a list of all the required fish. Whatever was cut up in the morning was sent out to all the student kitchens. You got the fish out, scaled it, and fabricated it. The fish kitchen is in the basement of the CIA, is always frigid, the red tile floor is always damp, and room stinks perpetually of dead seafood. And you needed to pay attention to what you were doing.

The protocol for injuries in the school kitchens is to, first, assess the damage. If there’s no risk of death, clean the wound out, put on a glove, and keep working. At this point, everyone can laugh at you. There were no gloves in the fish kitchen. I doubled up on Band-Aids, and moved to the center island of plastic-topped tables where the bulk of the butchering was done. I started cutting the fish. Most everyone—13 of us—was too busy to have laughed, or even noticed the injury. The instructor—invariably called and referred to as “Chef” at the CIA—was walking the room.

Bass are hard-boned fish; when filleting them, you use a cutting technique called the “up-and-over.” This is supposedly the hardest cut to learn. Cut from behind the gill plate through the head. Roll the knife, cut back to free the fillet. Slice down the back to the tail. Flex the knife over the spine. Finish by flexing the knife over the ribs. Make sure the fish is “swimming” to the right. Make sure the dorsal fin is towards you. Their eyes stare at you the entire time.

Since the class started, most of my fillets had been looking like road kill.

And then the Chef—a man my age, of obvious and fearsome intelligence—took a moment from his rounds to stand at my shoulder and ask, “What the hell are you doing?”

I squirmed, just a little bit. What the hell was I doing? I had a cold fish under my fingers, and scales stuck to my forearm. I had a knife in my injured hand. I’d just started cutting away the flesh from the bones. I was also so tired I couldn’t recall my middle name. I was angry, because I was so tired. I was full of ire at being made to feel uncomfortable, and, with this man at my elbow, beginning to feel frayed. My mind had gone tabula rasa; there was nothing there. What the hell was I doing? I went for honesty; I just said, “I don’t know.”

He stared me down. He was about six inches from me; I could feel either heat or hostility radiating off of him. He kept staring. I noticed that his eyes were seriously blood shot. I forgot completely about my hand. His lips pursed and he looked like he might spit bile. His breathing picked up speed. He said, “Yeah—no kidding you don’t know.”

When this guy cuts a fish, the flesh seems to just swim away from its body. The bones and ribs are bare, and you can hear a chorus of mermaids and sirens singing through the mists. But I was the one cutting and, now, he was glowering at me and all I could hear was the sound of everyone else’s knives. I shot a look around; I had never seen my peers as focused on anything as they were right then on their fish.

He began speaking a mantra: “Fish to the right. Fish to the right. Fish to the right. Fish to the right.” Every syllable was a drill right into whatever confidence I owned before class started. “Where’s your right hand?” he asked. I had no idea. My head buzzed with static. I moved a hand. He pushed it away. “No, not that right hand. Your other right hand. Come on. Oh, for God’s sake, come on. I said, ‘to the right.’”

I felt different emotive sparks start to flicker all through my head. I wanted to turn and grind the fish in his face. I wanted to drop under the table and crawl away. I wanted to fall to my knees, kiss his hand, and beg him to leave me alone. I wanted to cut the freaking fish correctly. I wanted to sleep. I wanted to remember where my right hand was. All these things in turn, in reverse, simultaneous.

I started flopping the fish around. At some point, I must have gotten it right because he walked away. My hearing came back: I heard him yell at someone: “If I ever see you pick up a fish by its tail again, I swear I’ll stab you.” And then to someone else: “This is a really easy technique if you know what you’re doing. Which you obviously don’t.”

My hand had reverted to a high alarm of pain.

I know everyone has a role they play. His was to be the Idi Amin of this chilly, fishy Uganda-in-a-basement. He wore scales instead of medals. My role was to be cowed and terrified, and to grope around my guts for some kind of grace under pressure. Strike the last one. I got the first two down, though. I knew he wasn’t like this outside of the room. Probably. He had told the class he’d followed the Grateful Dead around for four years, endearing himself to me immediately, and had just gone to see Bob Weir (the Grateful Dead’s rhythm guitarist, for those who don’t know) play a few days ago. “It was amazing,” he said. But for me and everyone else: what I was in the classroom is what I’m like outside it, only distilled. Ever done anything you’re ashamed of? Something rotten you surprised yourself with? You wonder how you could have sunk to doing it. It’s not so dissimilar to the feeling of seeing your masks dismantled and getting a good glimpse of the sun-deprived skin underneath.

Every day in meat and then fish class, which runs for 14 very long days, you are evaluated on your performance. You don’t know when, but you’re being watched, weighed, and judged. Once in a while, well before the fish gill incident, I’d notice a little inexplicable tremor in my knife hand as it approached the fish.

Outside on a break, I watched the sun come up. A tug boat moved slowly up the Hudson, away from Manhattan. My hand throbbed. I was thinking that I’d really like to watch The Killing of a Chinese Bookie again. And I thought of my two novels, and the short stories. The fish, the writing, the film: they were stitched together.

Where I'm Writing From

When you pull onto the grounds of the Culinary Institute of America (henceforth, CIA), it’s hard to not be impressed. This is intentional. They went at the planning and landscaping with grandeur in mind. The place is situated a couple miles north of Poughkeepsie, in Hyde Park, on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River. It’s got herb gardens, a piazza, intricately manicured grounds. It’s like Disneyland for cooks. But the central nervous system is an immense Citizen Kane-esque building, Roth Hall. Roth Hall was once a Jesuit monastery, but now it houses a huge dining room and all the kitchens where classes are held. The dining room, where most of the eating gets done, has huge, vaulted—maybe 100 foot—ceilings, with huge stained glass windows encircling the four sides. It’s strange to be eating a foie gras mousse, look up, and lock eyes with Jesus. There are about 50 round tables with room for 8 – 10 people at each one. The lighting is soft, and, when it’s full, the room pretty noisy.

The program itself is intense. The first six weeks is all academic: food history, product knowledge (want to know how to choose the best possible beet? Well, pay attention on day 9), food safety (How are the bulk of the really nasty foodborne illnesses spread? You don’t want to know. Pray that your cook has washed his or her hands, though), and culinary math (this recipe serves four; you want to do it for 534. Do the math…). Then comes meat and fish butchering. Then basic culinary skills—knife cuts, stocks, soups, all that sort of thing. Then you spend time—one “block”, three weeks at a shot—in the teaching kitchens. You spend a block learning cuisines of the Americas—the US, Mexico, etc. A block learning Asian cuisine. Another learning to cook for catering crowds. On and on. What you cook while you’re in those kitchens gets served to the other students for lunch and dinner. You spend three weeks tasting wines. You are rigorously tested on everything. The drop-out rate is high. At one point in the middle, you go on an externship, spending four to five months working full-time in a restaurant. And after approximately 19 months, you’re done.

There’s a very strict dress code. Either you wear your chef’s whites, with the checked pants and a pair of clogs (the mandatory outfit if you’re in a kitchen). Or, you wear “business casual,” which means polo shirts and khakis, so everyone looks like they sell electronics at Best Buy.

One other quirk of the program: you are either an AM or PM student (morning or night, as you might have guessed). Sometimes, no matter what you are (I’m a PM student), you have to get there early. Like for meat and fish. For 14 school days, the alarm went off at either 2:30 or 3:30 in the morning, and I made the 45 minutes drive to school. It does a number on your head and body, if you’ve kept normal hours your whole life.


Hello, I’m Jonathan Dixon. I was conceived in Brooklyn and raised in New Hampshire. I’ve lived the past 16 years in New York City. I am currently living in Malden-On-Hudson, a hamlet of Saugerties in upstate New York. The Band used to live in Saugerties, and they recorded The Basement Tapes with Bob Dylan about five miles up the road. In my world, that’s a pretty big deal.

I’m old enough so that I really have no business being enrolled in cooking school, but, nonetheless, I am in my third month of classes at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). I applied without thinking much of being accepted. I got in and was offered an exceptionally generous aid package. So, I made a decision.

I used to have a semblance of a career, one I pursued half-heartedly. I was a staff writer for Martha Stewart. Overlapping with Martha, I taught lit and creative writing classes at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and 101-type English classes at the now-defunct Interboro Institute in Manhattan. For a period, I supported myself writing about music, movies, and books, mostly for the Boston Phoenix, a few times for New York Newsday, and, for one brief moment when I was a whelp, for the New York Times. I have an MFA in creative writing, and two novels essentially completed. One of the novels makes me want to piss myself in embarrassment. The other is in its third draft.

I believe that if you have an experience, one that just by its very nature is going to exert some kind of transformational pull on you, it should be documented. I think the CIA is one of those types of experiences, and the purpose of this journal is to document it.

Just a note: There are three principle players in this exegesis: myself; Nelly Reifler, a writer of fiction and my girlfriend of several years; and the Culinary Institute. No one at CIA will be identified by name, unless they are a public figure. An example of a public figure might be Tim Ryan, the president of the school. But with the exception of an early entry, I suspect there won’t be much to say about him. The other students and instructors will be named pseudonymously. It just doesn’t seem particularly fair, otherwise.