Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Why I'm Here, PT.1

My girlfriend and I became a couple because I told a lie, and the lie involved cooking.

At the time we conjoined, I had a freelance job rating restaurants for New York Magazine’s website. I was given a budget of $75, enough to take one other person with me for two, maybe three, entrees and a couple of desserts. There was not usually enough left over for wine.

I had invited Nelly once before to join me on a review; it was a really mediocre restaurant still inexplicably thriving in the Bedford-Stuyvesent neighborhood of Brooklyn. I had some designs; she didn’t. The meal was terrible, but we had a nice time.

Two weeks later, I had another assignment already past deadline. I invited Nelly and she agreed to go. The day before, I decided to lie. I thought my own cooking, instead of someone else’s, might impress her. I emailed and fibbed, saying that the gig had been cancelled. But, would she like to come to my place for homemade ravioli? She said she would and that she’d gladly take the role of “obsequious sous chef.” I never got around to shouting orders, or picking up her handiwork, declaring it de la merde, dashing it onto the floor, and making her scrub pans. Actually, I did most of the work and just plied her with wine. Whether it was the vintage, the pasta, the very rich, pork-laden sauce—I don’t know. But we were a couple from then on.

Most of my life’s notable events, most of the best memories I have, are all enmeshed with food. Many of my memories, period, to tell the truth.

When I was 11, almost 12, my mother interrupted my reading of The Dead Zone and told me it was time I learned to cook. I told her I disagreed. She responded that women loved men who could cook. I had an apron around me and a wooden spoon in my hand before she could finish the sentence. She and my dad bought me a toque which I proudly wore whenever I was at the family stove. I must have looked hilarious. On one New Year’s Eve, way before my voice changed, I roasted a goose. I made half the family meals every week.

At 16, my parents called me to the living room and asked me what I wanted to do for a living. They wanted to know so we could start looking at colleges. “I want to go to cooking school,” I said.

“Try again,” my mother answered. “You don’t want that life.”

In college during my sophomore year, as I was studying journalism, my roommate Ben Smith and I had a kitchenette in our dorm room. We both went off the meal plan and I went into action. I stayed mostly within a limited repetoire of traditional Protestant Sunday dinners; we were, I am dead certain, the only students anywhere on campus routinely roasting lamb, potatoes, and making rich gravies. During a regrettable flirtation with vegetarianism, I had a specialty dish I made over and over of b├ęchamel sauce, mace, curry powder, and broccoli glopped onto boiled white rice. The recipe is available on request.
At the Culinary Institute, you hear the term “career changer” a lot. Career changers are, naturally, a little older. Stereotypically, they’re one of those people who, every day, used to be strangled by a tie, whose heads were swimming with money or who quibbled the law. Who made a serious hobby of food, who read Bill Buford’s Heat, and decided to parley that hobby into a life. Who get mesmerized by the rush and howl of activity on Iron Chef America. Who will maybe get a job on the line and will probably hate it. Who’ll quit and go back from whence they came. Who won’t ever cook in public, but will make great meals at home.

During a lecture or when I’ve had my food evaluated, a couple of the chefs have looked at me with obvious curiosity, tinged, I think, with a very slight condescension. You, that look seems to say, are one of those people.

At least that’s how I interpret that look. Sometimes I get it from other students, too. I think. I might just be paranoid.

Because I don’t know: am I one of those people?

I don’t really feel like a career changer.

I’ve had a lot of careers.

I was a janitor in a coffin factory. I spent my days moving from dumpster to dumpster, emptying them of wooden casket pieces or the scraps of fabric used to line the coffin interiors. I collected empty cans of wood stain. I got free coffee at break time.

Later, I inspected nurse’s shoes. It was my responsibility to go through boxes of several dozen nurse’s shoes looking for defects in stitching, problems with the insoles, or any other aberrations. It was impossible to keep up with the number of boxes coming in. Sometimes I’d just have to stamp the boxes as “inspected” and send them along. I still worry that my shoddy inspecting might have contributed to the crippling of a nurse or to wicked, disfiguring bunions.

I was a foot messenger in Manhattan. It might have been one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. I kept it for a while, anyway. I had just moved to New York, I was outside all day during the spring, summer, and fall (and pretty mild winter), and I got to know almost every block of the city.

I did layout for magazines like Brides and Law Technology Product News. They were jobs of almost unbelievable tedium.

I was a nanny. I had a five-year-old kid in my charge. His mother was suffering from cancer. I picked him up from school, helped with homework, cooked him dinner, took him to movies. I talked to him when he was so terrified he didn’t know how to live. His mother got well, he got older, and I moved on.

I was a music and book critic for some pretty big papers. I saw hundreds of shows. I amassed thousands of records and books. I interviewed Pharaoh Sanders, Henry Rollins, Nick Cave, and dozens of others. Utterly exasperated, I walked out during an interview with Courtney Love.

I wrote for Martha Stewart Living. I wrote a lot about food. About caring for pets. About getting stains out of tablecloths. Out of necessity, I stayed for years, and prayed every night for the sweet and final deliverance of death. It never came, but the job did end.

I taught creative writing and lit at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. I got to design my own courses; one was all about heroin, another involved movies and books about the end of the world. My last semester, I taught a course where everything had to do with murder.

I taught composition at the now-defunct Interboro Institute in Manhattan. My students came mainly from really tough backgrounds. One student, out on bail after getting busted for crack that he claimed was really his mother’s—and he was just taking the fall—asked if I could get his homework to him in Rikers.

And I’ve worked in restaurants.

And now I’m in cooking school. I feel like I’ve been headed in this direction for most of my life, but took some long, strange turns getting here.


A few years ago, during our early days together, I was at Nelly’s helping her prepare a Passover dinner. My father was quite ill and having a serious operation. I was freaking out. I felt sick to my stomach and out of my head. I kept coming to tears all during the day. I finally just addressed myself to the food. The two of us cooked for hours.

It was what I needed to do.

Why I'm Here, PT.2

But there’s another component to this, too. It’s a little more esoteric.

When I encounter the product of people’s skill and vision—real skill and genuine vision—I will often feel a sense of wonderment.

In 2002, I went to the Museum of Modern Art to see the Gerhard Richter retrospective. My mind was on fire in the midst of those paintings. I went back three times. One night two years ago, Nelly and I sat watching Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, clutching each other in awe at what we were seeing. When I read Denis Johnson’s Angels or Fiskadoro, or Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or hear Miles Davis’ trumpet on A Tribute to Jack Johnson, I feel the same thing.

Would it be too weird to say that something of all that comes through when I read The French Laundry Cookbook or Paul Bocuse’s French Cooking, or Le Guide Culinaire?

Whatever you do that’s an extension of yourself, whatever springs from your mind and hand, aspires—or should aspire—to that state. There’s not that much of a dichotomy in my head between writing and cooking. Or I should say, not much difference in the approach. You want a word to function perfectly, to unleash every connotation and nuance it has, and resonate alongside the words on either side. Is it that different from what you want an ingredient to do?

And in both cases, when you see someone with the skill to do it, to make a sentence unleash itself, or a dish unleash itself—it can bring that wonderment right out.

Skill is what I’m bent on.

***

When the weather turned last fall, my good friend from school came over and we were cooking. We’d gone to the Kingston Farmer’s Market and bought venison, butternut squash, pears, anything that looked good. We’d done our prep work and were outside on my porch, sipping scotch. We were talking about our externships, a long spell working for minimum wage in a restaurant, which every student has to do in the middle of the curriculum, and where we wanted to go.

“Why don’t you try for a magazine test kitchen or something,” he asked. “Wouldn’t that make the most sense?”

“What does that mean?” I said, sensing what might be coming and getting slightly riled.

“Well, you’re a writer, so aren’t you just going to write when you’re out of school? You don’t need the same chops that you would in a restaurant.”

“You’re really missing something here,” I said.

“What? I’m just saying that it’s less important.”

“No, it’s not.” I drank the rest of the scotch. I was kind of peeved. “I am a writer and I’ll always write, the same way I’ll always cook. Who knows—maybe I won’t own a restaurant. I might not end up being Ferran Adria. But that’s not the point. I am going to cook for people. I haven’t figured out the fine print, but that isn’t the point, either. If I never cook for another person in my life, I’m still completely fucking determined to be as good as anyone else—as good as you, as good as whoever. I refuse to fail. And this isn’t a goal-oriented thing. It has nothing to do with—“ I was waving my hands—“ ‘I need this and this to achieve this.’ It would be a pretty strange way to spend my time if that’s all it was. There are easier places to be.”

“Okay.”

“I came because I couldn’t stand not knowing anymore. And I refuse to not know, and I refuse to not be good.”

“Okay. I figured. I was just checking.”