© 2005 by Julie Powell No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including




Назва© 2005 by Julie Powell No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including
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Copyright © 2005 by Julie Powell All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review. Little, Brown and Company Hachette Book Group, USA 237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017 Visit our Web site at HachetteBookGroupUSA.com First eBook Edition: September 2005 ISBN: 978-0-7595-1457-7 Contents Dedication AUTHOR’S NOTE DAY 1, RECIPE 1: The Road to Hell Is Paved with Leeks and Potatoes BEFORE THE BEGINNING: Joy of Cooking DAY 23, RECIPE 34: You Have to Break a Few Eggs . . . DAY 36, RECIPE 48: Hacking the Marrow Out of Life DAY 40, RECIPE 49: . . . To Make an Omelette DAY 42, RECIPE 53 | DAY 82, RECIPE 95: Disaster/Dinner Party, Dinner Party/Disaster: DAY 108, RECIPE 154: The Law of Diminishing Returns DAY 130, RECIPE 201: They Shoot Lobsters, Don’t They? DAY 198, RECIPE 268: The Proof Is in the Plumbing DAY 221, RECIPE 330: Sweet Smell of Failure DAY 237, RECIPE 357: Flaming Crepes! DAY 340, RECIPE 465: Time to Move to Weehawken DAY 352, RECIPE 499: “Only in America” DAY 365, RECIPE 524: Simplicity Itself . . . Well, Not Quite ACKNOWLEDGMENTS ABOUT THE AUTHOR For Julia, without whom I could not have done this, and for Eric, without whom I could not do at all AUTHOR’S NOTE For the sake of discretion, many identifying details, individuals, and events throughout this book have been altered. Only myself, my husband, and certain widely known public figures, including Julia and Paul Child, are identified by real names. Also, sometimes I just made stuff up. Case in point: the scenes from the lives of Paul Child and Julia McWilliams Child depicted throughout are purely works of imagination, inspired by events described in the journals and letters of Paul Child, the letters of Julia McWilliams, and the biography of Julia Child, Appetite for Life, by Noël Riley Fitch. I thank Ms. Riley Fitch for her fine work, and the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University for generously making Mrs. Child’s archives available to the public. — Julie Powell Thursday, October 6, 1949 Paris At seven o’clock on a dreary evening in the Left Bank, Julia began roasting pigeons for the second time in her life. She’d roasted them the first time that morning during her first-ever cooking lesson, in a cramped basement kitchen at the Cordon Bleu cooking school at 129, rue du Faubourg St.-Honoré. Now she was roasting some more in the rented flat she shared with her husband, Paul, in the kitchen at the top of a narrow stairway in what used to be the servant quarters before the old house got divided up into apartments. The stove and counters were too short for her, like everything else in the world. Even so, she liked her kitchen at the top of the stairs better than the one at school—liked the light and air up there, liked the dumbwaiter that would carry her birds down to the dining room, liked that she could cook while her husband sat beside her at the kitchen table, keeping her company. She supposed she would get used to the counters soon enough—when you go through life as a six-foot-two-inch-tall woman, you get used to getting used to things. Paul was there now, snapping pictures of his wife from time to time, and finishing up a letter to his brother, Charlie. “If you could see Julie stuffing pepper and lard up the asshole of a dead pigeon,” he wrote, “you’d realize how profoundly affected she’s been already.”* But he hadn’t seen anything yet. His wife, Julia Child, had decided to learn to cook. She was thirty-seven years old. DAY 1, RECIPE 1 The Road to Hell Is Paved with Leeks and Potatoes As far as I know, the only evidence supporting the theory that Julia Child first made Potage Parmentier during a bad bout of ennui is her own recipe for it. She writes that Potage Parmentier—which is just a Frenchie way of saying potato soup—“smells good, tastes good, and is simplicity itself to make.” It is the first recipe in the first book she ever wrote. She concedes that you can add carrots or broccoli or green beans if you want, but that seems beside the point, if what you’re looking for is simplicity itself. Simplicity itself. It sounds like poetry, doesn’t it? It sounds like just what the doctor ordered. It wasn’t what my doctor ordered, though. My doctor—my gynecologist, to be specific—ordered a baby. “There are the hormonal issues in your case, with the PCOS, you know about that already. And you are pushing thirty, after all. Look at it this way—there will never be a better time.” This was not the first time I’d heard this. It had been happening for a couple of years now, ever since I’d sold some of my eggs for $7,500 in order to pay off credit card debt. Actually, that was the second time I’d “donated”— a funny way of putting it, since when you wake up from the anesthesia less a few dozen ova and get dressed, there’s a check for thousands of dollars with your name on it waiting at the receptionist’s desk. The first time was five years ago, when I was twenty-four, impecunious and fancy-free. I hadn’t planned on doing it twice, but three years later I got a call from a doctor with an unidentifiable European accent who asked me if I’d be interested in flying down to Florida for a second go-round, because “our clients were very satisfied with the results of your initial donation.” Egg donation is still a new-enough technology that our slowly evolving legal and etiquette systems have not yet quite caught up; nobody knows if egg donators are going to be getting sued for child support ten years down the line or what. So discussions on the subject tend to be knotted with imprecise pronouns and euphemisms. The upshot of this phone call, though, was that there was a little me running around Tampa or somewhere, and the little me’s parents were happy enough with him or her that they wanted a matched set. The honest part of me wanted to shout, “Wait, no—when they start hitting puberty you’ll regret this!” But $7,500 is a lot of money. Anyway, it was not until the second harvesting (they actually call it “harvesting”; fertility clinics, it turns out, use a lot of vaguely apocalyptic terms) that I found out I had polycystic ovarian syndrome, which sounds absolutely terrifying, but apparently just meant that I was going to get hairy and fat and I’d have to take all kinds of drugs to conceive. Which means, I guess, that I haven’t heard my last of crypto-religious obstetric jargon. So. Ever since I was diagnosed with this PCOS, two years ago, doctors have been obsessing over my childbearing prospects. I’ve even been given the Pushing Thirty speech by my avuncular, white-haired orthopedist (what kind of twenty-nine-year-old has a herniated disk, I ask you?). At least my gynecologist had some kind of business in my private parts. Maybe that’s why I heroically did not start bawling immediately when he said this, as he was wiping off his speculum. Once he left, however, I did fling one of my navy faille pumps at the place where his head had been just a moment before. The heel hit the door with a thud, leaving a black scuff mark, then dropped onto the counter, where it knocked over a glass jar of cotton swabs. I scooped up all the Q-tips from the counter and the floor and started to stuff them back into the jar before realizing I’d probably gotten them all contaminated, so then I shoved them into a pile next to an apothecary jar full of fresh needles and squeezed myself back into the vintage forties suit I’d been so proud of that morning when Nate from work told me it made my waist look small while subtly eyeing my cleavage, but which on the ride from lower Manhattan to the Upper East Side on an un-air-conditioned 6 train had gotten sweatstained and rumpled. Then I slunk out of the room, fifteen-buck co-pay already in hand, the better to make my escape before anyone discovered I’d trashed the place. As soon as I got belowground, I knew there was a problem. Even before I reached the turnstiles, I heard a low, subterranean rumble echoing off the tiled walls, and noticed more than the usual number of aimless-looking people milling about. A tangy whiff of disgruntlement wafted on the fetid air. Every once in a great while the “announcement system” would come on and “announce” something, but none of these spatterings of word salad resulted in the arrival of a train, not for a long, long time. Along with everyone else, I leaned out over the platform edge, hoping to see the pale yellow of a train’s headlight glinting off the track, but the tunnel was black. I smelled like a rained-upon, nervous sheep. My feet, in their navy heels with the bows on the toe, were killing me, as was my back, and the platform was so crammed with people that before long I began to worry someone was going to fall off the edge onto the tracks—possibly me, or maybe the person I was going to push during my imminent psychotic break. But then, magically, the crowd veered away. For a split second I thought the stink coming off my suit had reached a deadly new level, but the wary, amused looks on the faces of those edging away weren’t focused on me. I followed their gaze to a plug of a woman, her head of salt-and-pepper hair shorn into the sort of crew cut they give to the mentally disabled, who had plopped down on the concrete directly behind me. I could see the whorls of her cowlick like a fingerprint, feel the tingle of invaded personal space against my shins. The woman was muttering to herself fiercely. Commuters had vacated a swath of platform all around the loon as instinctually as a herd of wildebeests evading a lioness. I was the only one stuck in the dangerous blank circle, the lost calf, the old worn-out cripple who couldn’t keep up. The loon started smacking her forehead with the heel of her palm. “Fuck!” she yelled. “Fuck! FUCK!” I couldn’t decide whether it would be safer to edge back into the crowd or freeze where I was. My breathing grew shallow as I turned my eyes blankly out across the tracks to the uptown platform, that old subway chameleon trick. The loon placed both palms down on the concrete in front of her and—CRACK!—smacked her forehead hard on the ground. This was a little much even for the surrounding crowd of New Yorkers, who of course all knew that loons and subways go together like peanut butter and chocolate. The sickening noise of skull on concrete seemed to echo in the damp air—as if she was using her specially evolved resonant brainpan as an instrument to call the crazies out from every far-underground branch of the city. Everybody flinched, glancing around nervously. With a squeak I hopped back into the multitude. The loon had a smudgy black abrasion right in the middle of her forehead, like the scuff mark my shoe had left on my gynecologist’s door, but she just kept screeching. The train pulled in, and I connived to wiggle into the car the loon wasn’t going into. It was only once I was in the car, squeezed in shoulder to shoulder, the lot of us hanging by one hand from the overhead bar like slaughtered cows on the trundling train, that it came to me—as if some omnipotent God of City Dwellers were whispering the truth in my ear—that the only two reasons I hadn’t joined right in with the loon with the gray crew cut, beating my head and screaming “Fuck!” in primal syncopation, were (1) I’d be embarrassed and (2) I didn’t want to get my cute vintage suit any dirtier than it already was. Performance anxiety and a dry-cleaning bill; those were the only things keeping me from stark raving lunacy. That’s when I started to cry. When a tear dropped onto the pages of the New York Post that the guy sitting beneath me was reading, he just blew air noisily through his nose and turned to the sports pages. When I got off the subway, after what seemed like years, I called Eric from a pay phone at the corner of Bay Ridge and Fourth Avenue. “Hey. Did you get anything for dinner?” Eric made that little sucking-in-through-his-teeth sound he always makes when he thinks he’s about to get in trouble. “Was I supposed to?” “Well, I told you I’d be late because of my doctor’s appointment —” “Right, right, sorry. I just, I didn’t . . . You want me to order something in, or —” “Don’t worry about it. I’ll pick up something or other.” “But I’m going to start packing just as soon as the NewsHour’s done, promise!” It was nearly eight o’clock, and the only market open in Bay Ridge was the Korean deli on the corner of Seventieth and Third. I must have looked a sight, standing around in the produce aisle in my bedraggled suit, my face tracked with mascara, staring like a catatonic. I couldn’t think of a thing that I wanted to eat. I grabbed some potatoes, a bunch of leeks, some Hotel Bar butter. I felt dazed and somehow will-less, as if I was following a shopping list someone else had made. I paid, walked out of the shop, and headed for the bus stop, but just missed the B69. There wouldn’t be another for a half hour at least, at this time of night, so I started the ten-block walk home, carrying a plastic bag bristling with spiky dark leek bouquets. It wasn’t until almost fifteen minutes later, as I was walking past the Catholic boys’ school on Shore Road one block over from our apartment building, that I realized that I’d managed, unconsciously, to buy exactly the ingredients for Julia Child’s Potage Parmentier. When I was a kid, my dad used to love to tell the story about finding five-year-old Julie curled up in the back of his copper-colored Datsun ZX immersed in a crumpled back issue of the Atlantic Monthly. He told that one to all the guys at his office, and to the friends he and my mom went out to dinner with, and to all of the family who weren’t born again and likely to disapprove. (Of the Atlantic, not Z-cars.) I think the point behind this was that I’d been singled out as an early entrant to the ranks of the intellectually superior. And since I was awful at ballet and tap dancing, after all, always the last one to make it up the rope in gym class, a girl neither waifish nor charming in owlish red-rimmed glasses, I took my ego-petting where I could get it. But the not-very-highbrow truth of the matter was that the reading was how I got my ya-yas out. For the sake of my bookish reputation I upgraded to Tolstoy and Steinbeck before I understood them, but my dark secret was that really, I preferred the junk. The Dragonriders of Pern, Flowers in the Attic, The Clan of the Cave Bear. This stuff was like my stash of Playboys under the mattress. I waited until my camp counselor left the cabin to steal the V. C. Andrews she stashed behind her box of Tampax. I nicked my mom’s Jean Auel, and had already gotten halfway through before she found out, so she could only wince and suppose there was some educational value, but no Valley of Horses for you, young lady. Then adolescence set in well and proper, and reading for kicks got shoved in the backseat with the old Atlantics. It had been a long time since I’d done anything with the delicious, licentious cluelessness that I used to read those books—hell, sex now wasn’t as exciting as reading about sex used to be. I guess nowadays your average fourteen-year-old Texan possesses exhaustive knowledge of the sexual uses of tongue studs, but I doubt the information excites her any more than my revelations about Neanderthal sex. You know what a fourteen-year-old Texan doesn’t know shit about? French food. A couple of weeks after my twenty-ninth birthday, in the spring of 2002, I went back to Texas to visit my parents. Actually, Eric kind of made me go. “You have to get out of here,” he said. The kitchen drawer that broke two weeks after we moved in, and was never satisfactorily rehabilitated, had just careened off its tracks yet again, flinging Pottery Barn silverware in all directions. I was sobbing, forks and knives glittering at my feet. Eric was holding me in one of those tight hugs like a half nelson, which he does whenever he’s trying to comfort me when what he really wants to do is smack me. “Will you come with me?” I didn’t look up from the snot stain I was impressing upon his shirt. “I’m too busy at the office right now. Besides, I think it’s better if you go by yourself. Hang out with your mom. Buy some clothes. Sleep in.” “I have work, though.” “Julie, you’re a temp. What’s temping for if you can’t run off and take a break sometimes? That’s why you’re doing it, right?” I didn’t like to think about why I was temping. My voice went high and cracked. “Well, I can’t afford it.” “We can afford it. Or we can ask your parents to pay.” He grabbed my chin and lifted it up to his face. “Julie. Seriously? Go. Because I can’t live with you like this anymore.” So I went—my mom bought me the ticket for a late birthday present. A week later I flew into Austin, early enough to grab lunch at Poke-Jo’s. And then, right in the middle of my brisket sandwich and okra, less than a month after I turned twenty-nine, Mom dropped the Pushing Thirty bomb for the very first time. “Jesus, Mom!” “What?” My mother has this bright, smiling, hard tone that she always uses when she wants me to face facts. She was using it now. “All I’m saying is here you are, miserable, running away from New York, getting into a bad place with Eric, and for what? You’re getting older, you’re not taking advantage of the city, why do this to yourself?” This was exactly the one thing I had come to Austin to not talk about. I should have known my mother would dig in like a goddamned rat terrier. I had gone to New York like everybody else goes to New York—just as the essential first step for a potato destined for soup is to have its skin peeled off, the essential starting point for an aspiring actor is to move to New York. I preferred jobs that did not require auditions, which, since I neither looked like Renée Zellweger nor was a terribly good actor, proved to be a problem. Mostly what I’d done was temp, for (to name a few): the photocopier contractor for the UN; the Asian American businesses underwriting department at AIG; the vice president of a broadband technology outfit with an amazing office looking out onto the Brooklyn Bridge, which folded about two weeks after I got there; and an investment firm specializing in the money matters of nunneries. Recently, I’d started work at a government agency downtown. It looked like they were going to offer to bring me on permanently—eventually all the temp employers offered to let you go perm—and for the first time, I was considering, in a despairing sort of way, doing it. It was enough to make me suicidal even before my mom started telling me I was getting old. Mom should have known this, but instead of apologizing for her cruelty she just popped another piece of fried okra into her mouth and said, “Let’s go shopping—your clothes are just awful!” The next morning I lingered at my parents’ kitchen table long after they’d both left for work, wrapped up in a well-worn gray flannel robe I’d forgotten I had, sipping coffee. I’d finished the Times crossword and all the sections except for Business and Circuits, but didn’t yet have enough caffeine in my system to contemplate getting dressed. (I’d overindulged in margaritas the night before, not at all an unusual occurrence when visiting the folks in Austin.) The pantry door stood ajar, and my aimless gaze rested on the bookshelves inside, the familiar ranks of spines lined up there. When I got up to fill my cup one last time, I made a detour and took one of the books—Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1, my mom’s old 1967 edition, a book that had known my family’s kitchen longer than I had. I sat back down at the table at which I’d eaten a thousand childhood afternoon snacks and began flipping through, just for the hell of it. When I was a kid, I used to look at MtAoFC quite a lot. Partly it was just my obsession with anything between two covers, but there was something else, too. Because this book has the power to shock. MtAoFC is still capable of striking deep if obscure zones of discomfort. Find the most pale, pierced and kohl-eyed, proudly pervy hipster you can and ask her to cook Pâté de Canard en Croûte, aided only by the helpful illustrations on pages 571 through 575. I promise you, she’ll be fleeing back to Williamsburg, where no one’s going to make her bone a whole duck, faster than you can say, “trucker hats are soooo five minutes ago.” But why? What is it about this book? It’s just an old cookbook, for God’s sake. Yet vegetarians, Atkinsers, and South Beach bums flare their nostrils at the stink of apostasy between its covers. Self-proclaimed foodies spare a smile of fond condescension before returning to their Chez Panisse cookbooks. By all rights, I should feel this way too. I am, after all, that ultimate synthesis of urban flakiness and suburban self-righteousness, the New York actress. Well, actually, I guess I can’t say that, since I’ve never had a real acting job. And to tell the truth—it’s time I faced facts here—I never really even tried. But if I’m not a New York actress, what am I? I’m a person who takes a subway from the outer boroughs to a lower Manhattan office every morning, who spends her days answering phones and doing copying, who is too disconsolate when she gets back to her apartment at night to do anything but sit on the couch and stare vacantly at reality TV shows until she falls asleep. Oh God. It really was true, wasn’t it? I really was a secretary. When I looked up from MtAoFC for the first time, half an hour after I opened it, I realized that deep down, I’d been resigned to being a secretary for months—maybe even years. That was the bad news. The good news was that the buzzing in my head and queasy but somehow exhilarating squeeze deep in my belly were reminding me that I might still, after all, be something else. Do you know Mastering the Art of French Cooking? You must, at least, know of it—it’s a cultural landmark, for Pete’s sake. Even if you just think of it as the book by that lady who looks like Dan Aykroyd and bleeds a lot, you know of it. But do you know the book itself? Try to get your hands on one of the early hardback editions—they’re not exactly rare. For a while there, every American housewife who could boil water had a copy, or so I’ve heard. It’s not lushly illustrated; there are no shiny soft-core images of the glossy-haired author sinking her teeth into a juicy strawberry or smiling stonily before a perfectly rustic tart with carving knife in hand, like some chilly blonde kitchen dominatrix. The dishes are hopelessly dated—the cooking times outrageously long, the use of butter and cream beyond the pale, and not a single reference to pancetta or sea salt or wasabi. This book hasn’t been on the must-have list for enterprising gourmands in decades. But as I held it in my hands that morning, opened its cover spangled with tomato-colored fleurs-de-lys, skimmed through its yellowed pages, I felt like I’d at last found something important. Why? I bent again over the book’s pages, searching for the cause of this strange feeling. It wasn’t the food exactly. If you looked hard enough, the food started to feel almost beside the point. No, there was something deeper here, some code within the words, perhaps some secret embedded in the paper itself. I have never looked to religion for comfort—belief is just not in my genes. But reading Mastering the Art of French Cooking—childishly simple and dauntingly complex, incantatory and comforting—I thought this was what prayer must feel like. Sustenance bound up with anticipation and want. Reading MtAoFC was like reading pornographic Bible verses. So naturally when I flew back to New York that May, I had Mom’s copy of the book stashed in my bag. The thing you learn with Potage Parmentier is that “simple” is not exactly the same as “easy.” It had never occurred to me that there was a difference until Eric and I sat down on our couch the night of my appointment at the gynecologist’s, three months after stealing my mother’s forty-year-old cookbook, and took our first slurps of Julia Child’s potato soup. Certainly I had made easier dinners. Unwrapping a cellophane-swathed hunk of London broil and tossing it under the broiler was one method that came immediately to mind. Ordering pizza and getting drunk on Stoli gimlets while waiting for it to arrive, that was another favorite. Potage Parmentier didn’t even hold a candle, in the easy department. First you peel a couple of potatoes and slice them up. Slice some leeks, rinse them a couple of times to get rid of the grit—leeks are muddy little suckers. Throw these two ingredients in a pot with some water and some salt. Simmer it for forty-five minutes or so, then either “mash the vegetables in the soup with a fork” or pass them through a food mill. I didn’t have a food mill, and I wasn’t about to mash up vegetables with a fork. What I had was a potato ricer. Well, technically it was Eric’s potato ricer. Before we were married, years ago, before Atkins hit, mashed potatoes used to be Eric’s specialty. For a while, before we learned the value of Brooklyn storage space, we’d had this tradition where I’d get him arcane kitchen gadgets, the not-very-funny joke being that he didn’t actually cook at all, except for the mashed potatoes. The ricer is the only survivor from this period. It was his Christmas present the year we were in the railroad apartment on Eleventh between Seventh and Eighth—this was before we got priced out of Park Slope entirely. I’d sewn stockings for the both of us out of felt—his is red with white trim, mine white with red—from a pattern in the Martha Stewart Living holiday issue that year. We still have them, even though I can’t sew and they’re totally kattywhompus: the stitching uneven, the decorative cuffs bunched and crooked. They’re also way too small for things like ricers. I stuffed it in anyway. Hanging on the mantel of the nonfunctional fireplace in the bedroom, the stocking looked like Santa had brought Eric a Luger. I’ve never been much good at stocking stuffers. Once the leeks and potatoes have simmered for an hour or so, you mash them up with a fork or a food mill or a potato ricer. All three of these options are far more of a pain in the neck than the Cuisinart—one of which space-munching behemoths we scored when we got married—but Julia Child allows as how a Cuisinart will turn soup into “something un-French and monotonous.” Any suggestion that uses the construction “un-French” is up for debate, but if you make Potage Parmentier, you will see her point. If you use the ricer, the soup will have bits—green bits and white bits and yellow bits—instead of being utterly smooth. After you’ve mushed it up, just stir in a couple of hefty chunks of butter, and you’re done. JC says sprinkle with parsley but you don’t have to. It looks pretty enough as it is, and it smells glorious, which is funny when you think about it. There’s not a thing in it but leeks, potatoes, butter, water, pepper, and salt. One interesting thing to meditate on while you’re making this soup is potatoes. There’s something about peeling a potato. Not to say that it’s fun, exactly. But there’s something about scraping off the skin, and rinsing off the dirt, and chopping it into cubes before immersing the cubes in cold water because they’ll turn pink if you let them sit out in the air. Something about knowing exactly what you’re doing, and why. Potatoes have been potatoes for a long, long time, and people have treated them in just this way, toward the end of making just such a soup. There is clarity in the act of peeling a potato, a winnowing down to one sure, true way. And even if afterward you do push it through some gadget you got at Crate and Barrel, the peeling is still a part of what you do, the first thing. I was supposed to have spent my twenties (a) hammering away for ninety hours a week at some high-paying, ethically dubious job, drinking heavily, and having explosive sex with a rich array of twenty-something men; (b) awaking at noon every day in my Williamsburg loft to work on my painting/poetry/knitting/performance art, easily shaking off the effects of stylish drugs and tragically hip clubs and explosive sex with a rich array of twenty-something men (and women if I could manage it); or (c) pursuing higher education, sweating bullets over an obscure dissertation and punctuating my intellectual throes with some pot and explosive sex with a rich array of professors and undergrads. These were the models, for someone like me. But I did none of these things. Instead, I got married. I didn’t mean to, exactly. It just kind of happened. Eric and I were high school sweethearts. Wait, it gets worse. We were in a high school play together. Our courtship was straight out of one of the ickier films from the John Hughes oeuvre, Some Kind of Wonderful, maybe—all kinds of misunderstandings and jealous boyfriends and angst-ridden stage kisses. In other words, the sort of too-typical high school romance that people of our generation are meant to get over and cover up later on. But we didn’t. Somehow we never got around to the breaking-up part. At the age of twenty-four, when we were still sleeping together and reasonably satisfied with the whole toilet-seat-and-toothpaste-cap situation, we went ahead and got married. Please understand—I love my husband like a pig loves shit. Maybe even more. But in the circles I run in, being married for more than five years before reaching the age of thirty ranks real high on the list of most socially damaging traits, right below watching NASCAR and listening to Shania Twain. I’m used to getting questions like “Is he the only person you’ve ever had sex with?” or, even more insultingly, “Are you the only person he’s ever had sex with?” All this to say that sometimes I get a little defensive. Even with Isabel, who I’ve known since kindergarten, and Sally, my freshman-year roommate, and Gwen, who comes over to eat at our apartment every weekend and adores Eric. I would confess to none of them the thing I sometimes think, which is: “Eric can be a little pushy.” I couldn’t hack the hastily smothered expressions of dismay and smug I-told-you-so eyebrows; I know my friends would imagine something between the The Stepford Wives and a domestic abuse PSA narrated by J-Lo. But I mean neither shoving matches nor domineering at dinner parties. I just mean that he pushes. He can’t be satisfied with telling me I’m the most gorgeous and talented woman on the planet and that he would die without me, while mixing me a dry Stoli gimlet. No, he has to encourage. He has to make suggestions. It can be most annoying. So I made this soup, this Potage Parmentier, from a recipe in a forty-year-old cookbook I’d stolen from my mother the previous spring. And it was good—inexplicably good. We ate it sitting on the couch, bowls perched on knees, the silence broken only by the occasional snort of laughter as we watched a pert blonde high school student dust vampires on the television. In almost no time we were slurping the dregs of our third servings. (It turns out that one reason we’re so good together is that each of us eats more and faster than anyone either of us has ever met; also, we both recognize the genius of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.) Earlier that evening, after the gynecologist appointment, when I was standing in the Korean deli staring at produce, I’d been thinking, “I’m twenty-nine, I’m never going to have kids or a real job, my husband will leave me and I’ll die alone in an outer-borough hovel with twenty cats and it’ll take two weeks for the stench to reach the hall.” But now, three bowls of potato soup later, I was, to my relief, thinking of nothing much at all. I lay on my back on the couch, quietly digesting. Julia Child’s soup had made me vulnerable. Eric saw an in, and took it. “That was good, honey.” I sighed my agreement. “Real good. And there wasn’t even any meat in it.” (Eric is a sensitive twenty-first-century sort of guy, but a Texan nevertheless, and the idea of a dinner without animal flesh gets him a little panicky.) “You’re such a good cook, Julie. Maybe you should go to culinary school.” I’d started cooking in college, basically to keep Eric in my thrall. In the years since, though, the whole thing had blown a little out of proportion. I don’t know if Eric felt pride that he had introduced me to my consuming passion, or guilt that my urge to satisfy his innocent liking for escargot and rhubarb had metastasized into an unhealthy obsession. Whatever the reason, this thing about cooking school had developed into one of our habitual dead-end alleys of conversation. I was too deliciously idle after my soup to get ticked off about it, and just snorted quietly. Even that indication that he had my ear, though, was a tactical error. I knew it as soon as I’d made a sound. I squeezed my eyes shut, feigning sudden sleep or deafness. “Seriously. You could go to the Culinary Institute! We could move out to the Hudson Valley, and you could just spend all your time learning to be a chef.” And then, no sooner than I’d cautioned myself against it, I made tactical error #2: “They won’t let me in without professional experience. I’d have to go peel potatoes for two-fifty an hour for six months. You want to support me with all your big bucks while I do that?” Giving in to the enticing prospect of emasculating my husband. Always, always a mistake. “Maybe some other school to start, then—somewhere here in the city?” “We can’t afford it.” Eric didn’t answer. He sat quietly on the edge of the couch with his hand on my shin. I thought about kicking it off, but the shin seemed a neutral enough spot. One of the cats jumped up onto my chest, sniffed my breath, then stalked off stiff-legged, her mouth open in faint disgust. “If I wanted to learn to cook, I’d just cook my way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” It was an odd sort of statement to make drip with sarcasm, but I managed it anyway. Eric just sat there. “Not that it would do me any good, of course. Can’t get a job out of that.” “At least we’d eat good for a while.” Now I was the one who said nothing for a moment, because of course he was right about that. “I’d be exhausted all the time. I’d get fat. We’d have to eat brains. And eggs. I don’t eat eggs, Eric. You know I don’t eat eggs.” “No. You don’t.” “It’s a stupid idea.” Eric said nothing for a while. Buffy had ended and the news was on—a correspondent was standing on a flooded street in Sheepshead Bay, saying something about a broken water main. We sat on the couch in our stuffy Bay Ridge living room, staring at the screen as if we gave a damn. All around us teetered towers of boxes, the looming reminder of our upcoming move. When I look back on it now, it is as if I could actually hear the taut creak of a fisherman giving out just a tiny bit of line when Eric said: “You could start a blog.” I cut my eyes over to him in irritation, a massive white-skinned shark thrashing its tail. “Julie. You do know what a blog is, don’t you?” Of course I didn’t know what a blog was. It was August of 2002. Nobody knew about blogs, except for a few guys like Eric who spend their days using company computers to pursue the zeitgeist. No issue of domestic or international policy was too big, no pop-culture backwater too obscure; from the War on Terror to Fear Factor, it was all one big, beautiful sliding scale for Eric. “You know, like a Web site sort of thing. Only it’s easy. You don’t have to know anything about anything.” “Sounds perfect for me.” “About computers, I mean.” “Are you going to make me that drink, or what?” “Sure.” And he did. He left me alone. He was free to, now that he knew the hook was sunk. Lulled by the calming music of ice clattering in the cocktail shaker, I began to ponder; this life we had going for ourselves, Eric and I, it felt like the opposite of Potage Parmentier. It was easy enough to keep on with the soul-sucking jobs; at least it saved having to make a choice. But how much longer could I take such an easy life? Quicksand was easy. Hell, death was easy. Maybe that’s why my synapses had started snapping at the sight of potatoes and leeks in the Korean deli. Maybe that was what was plucking deep down in my belly whenever I thought of Julia Child’s book. Maybe I needed to make like a potato, winnow myself down, be a part of something that was not easy, just simple. Just then Eric emerged again from the kitchen, carrying two Stoli gimlets. He handed off one of the glasses to me, carefully, so as not to spill anything over those treacherous martini lips, and I took a sip. Eric always made the best gimlets—icy cold, very dry, with an almost-not-there shade of chartreuse lingering in their slightly oily depths. “Okay,” I said, taking another sip as Eric sat down beside me. “Tell me again about this blog thing?” And so, late that evening, a tiny line dropped into the endless sea of cyberspace, the slenderest of lures in the blackest of waters. The Book Mastering the Art of French Cooking. First edition, 1961. Louisette Bertholle. Simone Beck. And, of course, Julia Child, the woman who taught America to cook, and to eat. Today we think we live in the world Alice Waters made, but beneath it all is Julia, and no one can touch her. The Contender Government drone by day, renegade foodie by night. Too old for theater, too young for children, and too bitter for anything else, Julie Powell was looking for a challenge. And in the Julie/Julia Project she found it. Risking her marriage, her job, and her cats’ well-being, she has signed on for a deranged assignment. 365 days. 524 recipes. One girl and a crappy outer-borough kitchen. How far it will go, no one can say. . . . It wasn’t much—nearly nothing, in fact. Not even so much as a recipe for potato soup. A few words strung together, is all. But together, out there, they seemed perhaps to glow, only faintly. Just enough. Mayonnaise, like hollandaise, is a process of forcing egg yolks to absorb a fatty substance, oil in this case, and to hold it in thick and creamy suspension. — Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1 It’s hard to make mayonnaise by trial and error. — The Joy of Sex BEFORE THE BEGINNING Joy of Cooking Every night when he came home from work, the first thing Dad would do was take the change out of his suit pockets and dump it into a big blue plastic cup with the arrowhead logo from my summer camp printed on it in white, which he kept in the cabinet just to the right of his sink in the master bath. Mom had a cabinet just like it to the left of her sink. She kept her makeup carousel and jewelry in hers, and old scarves she hadn’t worn since she got out of high school. In his, Dad kept change and his watch, his mouthwash and Mennen hairspray and spare handkerchiefs. And the book. I found it on a Tuesday afternoon, when I was looking around for quarters. I was eleven years old, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays I took acting classes at a place up on North Burnet, behind the Nighthawk café. I always brought fifty cents with me so I could get a Coke from the machine out back afterward. Usually I got my change from the big jar on the shelf over the washing machine, but Mom had just taken that to the bank, so I was raiding Dad’s cabinet instead. It was just a plain black clothbound book at the very rear of the deep cabinet, kept spine down so the title was hidden. The paper cover had been taken off. I’d noticed it before, but thought there must be a very good reason my father hid it so carefully. Probably, I’d told myself, it was something really boring. Probably it was about phone bills or something. But I was all alone in the house that afternoon, and it suddenly occurred to me, why would Dad hide a boring book? The minute I eased the book out of its niche and saw the gold embossed title, I knew I should just put it back, right away. But by then, of course, it was too late. The first pages were a series of large color paintings on thick shiny paper, like in an art book. Except that the pictures were of a man and a woman, naked and having sex. And not like movie sex either. I’d seen plenty of movie sex—we had Cinemax and during slumber parties we’d sneak into the living room late at night to catch Friday After Dark. But this woman had hair under her armpits, and the man had hair, well, everywhere, and you could actually see his penis, going into her. It was hard-core, like the tapes I was too embarrassed to sneak a peek at that Isabel’s dad stashed behind the regular movies. The man and woman in the pictures weren’t even all that good-looking. They were old. Actually, they looked kind of like my parents—but that made me feel weird, so I pushed the thought out of my mind. After the color pictures came a long written part, with black-and-white drawings and entries like in a dictionary. That’s what the book was, I realized—a sex dictionary. Lots of the entries were French. Others were simple words, like boots and railways, but I couldn’t understand why they’d even be in a book like this. That was the worst part—did boot mean something entirely different from what I’d thought? Every time I begged my mom for a pair of purple zip-up go-go boots to go with my Miss Piggy sweater, was I inadvertently saying something dirty? The front door of the house was right next to the door to my parents’ room. When I heard my mom’s key in the lock I only barely had time to lunge for the cabinet and put the book back before she found me. “You ready, Jules? What’re you doing?” “I was just getting some change for my Coke.” I thought, She knows!, but she just said, “Well, let’s go—you’re going to be late,” and walked right back out the front door. All through class I worried—had I put it back wrong? I remembered how in the book 1984 the main character laid a hair across the top of his journal, so he’d know if anyone had moved it. I knew Dad had read 1984—he was the one who gave me my copy. The acting teacher had assigned me a scene with Caleb, who looked just like Jason Bateman on It’s Your Move, but I couldn’t look at him without thinking about those pictures in the book. I kept forgetting my lines, and I never forgot lines—I was the best memorizer in the class. After class, I sipped my Coke while I waited for Mom to pick me up, but I could barely taste it—my whole mouth was tingling like I’d been chewing cinnamon gum. When she got there, though, she acted normal. We came home and Dad was doing the crossword in his chair as usual. It was a very, very wrong thing to do, reading that book at my age. I knew it. I was betraying my parents. I was being bad. Each time I found myself sneaking back into my parents’ room I whispered to myself, “Last time, last time, last time.” But I knew I was lying. I’d fallen down a pit, I was begrimed with corruption, I would never again be innocent. And besides, there was so much information! The book was full of stuff I couldn’t find out anywhere else—not even from Isabel, who knew more about sex than any eleven-year-old in the world, even though she was only ten. The damage was already done, so I might as well get an education out of it. Mom was usually home when I got home from school, but sometimes she’d be out taking my brother Heathcliff to his Little League practice or a friend’s house, or running errands. On those afternoons I would grab my stack of Oreos—I had a firm (well, pretty firm) rule never to eat more than ten in an afternoon—and a paper towel and creep back to my parents’ bathroom. They had a small oil painting hanging on the wall, depicting a woman in a negligee. I liked the painting well enough, though I was glad they’d hung it in the bathroom. But now that I knew what was in the book in Dad’s cabinet, the painting clearly seemed to hint at proclivities I’d never before imagined they had. The book, when I took it out, smelled smoky and astringent and secret. I thought that it smelled that way because my parents used it when they were having sex, maybe with my mom dressed in a rubber vest or go-go boots or something. (It was years before I figured out the smell was just Listerine and hairspray and the still-undiscovered cigarettes Dad hid in his cabinet for an occasional smoke out on the deck, after I’d gone to bed.) I would slide down the wall under the oil painting onto the nubbly white carpet and read, resting the open book on my tented knees. I’d put the Oreos on the paper towel beside me and eat them one after the other, twisting them open, licking out the white stuff, sucking the wafers until they were chocolate ooze in my mouth, while I read about cassolette and postillionage and gamahuche. Some entries were just plain grody—all that stuff about smelly, unshaven armpits—while others got me aching between my legs. And then I’d hear the garage door open. I’d leap up, stuff the book back into place and shut the cabinet door, grab up any cookies I had left, and run to the kitchen so I’d be there when Mom came in, calling from the front door for help with the groceries. If The Joy of Sex was my first taste of sin, Mastering the Art of French Cooking was my second. For Christmas Eve dinner, Mom usually made red beans and rice—with the crimson, chili-seasoned beef and the pinto beans cooked separately, because I didn’t eat beans, ever. This year, though, the head of Dad’s firm was coming to dinner, and after some panic, Mom had decided to do something special. When I wandered into the kitchen that morning I found her already busily chopping vegetables. On the kitchen table was an old cookbook, open to page 315. Boeuf Bourguignon. Though it had been there as long as I could remember, I’d never seen Mom take this particular thick, cream-colored tome out of the pantry. Actually, it was one of a matched pair: two fat books, both called Mastering the Art of French Cooking, both with a pattern of spangled floral shapes on their covers. When I asked my mom, she called the design floordayleez. The book my mom had out had red floordayleez; the one that remained in its place on the pantry shelf had blue ones. Cookbooks were not my favorite sorts of books, and even among cookbooks, these were far from the most interesting in my mother’s pantry collection. I much preferred the Time-Life series, two books for each world cuisine—one spiral-bound, with the actual recipes, and another, larger, with history and beautiful photos. (The Viennese one, with all those towering white cakes, was my favorite. I was always pointing out one or the other of them to Mom and asking her to make it, but then she’d point out that it had coconut in it, or nuts, or jam, and I didn’t eat coconut or nuts or jam, not ever.) But even though they weren’t my favorites, I’d always liked the look of those two books standing so stoutly among my mom’s Junior League books and tattered Betty Crocker. They seemed old-fashioned, stately, real, like historical books you’d buy for lots of money in an antique shop. I still had on my nightgown. I’d pulled over it my mom’s boxy blue cowl-neck sweater with the wiggly alpine stripes. Around Christmastime I liked to pretend it might snow. In quieter moments, in the bath or before I got out of bed in the morning, I would imagine the flakes drifting down outside, while I curled up on a great pile of pillows before a roaring fireplace with Jason Bateman, whose half-cocked grins seemed to suggest Joy of Sex stuff, only in a nice way, and with less armpit hair. Mom’s cowl-neck sweater helped enormously with these daydreams. I grabbed a piece of Marshmallow Fluff fudge out of the tin and sat down in front of the book. Mom was at the sink, scraping carrots over the disposal. “I don’t see why you insist on wearing that sweater. It’s seventy degrees outside.” “I’m cold.” “Don’t lose my page.” “I won’t.” With one finger marking Mom’s recipe, I flipped through the book, trying to pronounce all the French words under my breath. An old smell came off the pages, musty but not like library books. More like a dog or a forest floor, something damp and warm and living. The words, and the smell, reminded me of something—but what it was I couldn’t at first figure out. Much of what I read made no sense to me, but I could see the recipes were full of stuff I didn’t like, mushrooms and olives and spinach. Something called sweetbread, what the heck was that? Was it sort of like coffee cake? Because I hated coffee cake. I was getting a bit bored, when my eyes fell on a drawing of some kind of animal part—a lamb’s leg, the caption said. It was laid out tail up, looking almost like a person stretched out on her tummy. I flipped backward and found another drawing. This one was of a pair of graceful hands with neat round fingernails, pressing down on a piece of something smooshy. Pastry dough. The hands were demonstrating fraisage: “With the heel of one hand, not the palm which is too warm, rapidly press the pastry by two-spoonful bits down on the board and away from you in a firm, quick smear of about 6 inches.” It sounded weird. It also sounded kind of, well, dirty. I suddenly remembered exactly what the book reminded me of. Blushing, I shot a glance up at my mom, but she had finished the carrots and was on to the onions. She had no idea what I was thinking. Of course not. It wasn’t like Mom could read my mind. I used to think she could, but this last year, I’d realized that if that was true, she’d never have let me watch It’s Your Move again. “You’re not losing my place, are you?” “I said no.” Because it was the holidays, I hadn’t had the chance to look at the book in Dad’s cabinet for weeks. Mom and Dad were home more, for one thing, plus they were on the lookout to make sure I wasn’t poking around searching for presents. I really did try not to do that, because surprises were the whole point of Christmas. Besides, I didn’t want to find anything that would prove once and for all that Santa really didn’t exist. I pretty much knew that, but I didn’t want to admit it, because what would Christmas be without Santa? It could be pretty tempting to look, though, so it was better to just avoid my parents’ room altogether. So, no Joy of Sex, not until after New Year’s probably. This book, though—well, it was practically just as good. It had French words, too, and lots of incomprehensible stuff to meditate on. There weren’t any naked hippies, but that was okay. Sometimes the naked hippies kind of freaked me out. Maybe instead of just sitting in front of a fireplace in a sweater with Jason Bateman, I could cook something for him. I’d never thought of that before. Something sexy. Like—hmm . . . what about Pièce de Boeuf à la Cuillère? That sounded dirty. “Minced Braised Beef Served in a Beef Shell”—it even sounded dirty in English. “What are you doing, anyway?” I practically jumped out of the chrome-and-wicker kitchen chair, like I’d gotten caught masturbating at the dinner table—not that I masturbated, of course. I only even knew what the word meant because Isabel had told me. Ick. “Don’t sit with your feet under you like that—I just had those chairs recaned. Can you bring the book to me over here? My hands are all bacon-y.” I turned to the page I’d been saving with my index finger and carried the book over to Mom. She gave me an odd look as I set it down on the yellow counter. “I can’t understand why you’re so interested in this, anyway. You wouldn’t eat a thing in it. You won’t even eat a cheeseburger.” “Cheese belongs on pizza, not hamburgers.” Mom rolled her eyes and went back to the cooking. I stood over her shoulder and watched for a bit. She had chopped up bits of bacon and was frying them in a pan. Once they were all brown she took them out and started frying chunks of meat. “It smells good.” “Yes, it does, doesn’t it?” She was taking out the browned meat now, and throwing in carrots and onions. I didn’t eat carrots, not ever. But the smell really was something. I wondered if Jason Bateman might be a Boeuf Bourguignon man. “Maybe tonight you can try a little,” Mom said. “Yeah. Maybe.” Of course, I didn’t try it, not that Christmas Eve—my terror of carrots, mushrooms, and pearl onions proved too great to overcome, and like the other kids at the house that night, I opted for pepperoni pizza and fudge instead. In fact, it would be another eighteen years before I did taste Julia’s recipe for Boeuf Bourguignon. Boeuf Bourguignon is at once classic and comfortable, impressive and simple, so it’s a perfect dish to make when your reputation is on the line. It was what Julia Child made on the very first episode of her very first television show. It was what my mother made to impress my dad’s boss. And eighteen years later it would be what I made for a certain very important person who I hoped would sweep me out of my crappy secretarial job and on to wild success and fortune. Actually, I made it twice for this very important person, but I’ll get more into that a little later on. For now, let’s just say that Boeuf Bourguignon, like mayonnaise, requires a certain amount of trial and error (actually, I find that mayonnaise takes far more), but once you have it down it’s an excellent skill to have at your disposal. If, for instance, Jason Bateman were to blow into town looking for a dinner invitation, I could now, thanks to Julia, whip him up a good French beef stew with a minimum of fuss. I might even cook Boeuf Bourguignon for Jason Bateman while wearing my mom’s blue après-ski sweater. I still have it, and possess an irrational attachment to it that has survived the twin realizations that I will never be the sort of sylphlike slip of a thing who looks good in bulky cowl-neck sweaters, and that bulky cowl-neck sweaters haven’t been sexy since at least the late eighties, anyway. But for Jason Bateman, as for Boeuf Bourguignon, sometimes the old ways are best. January 1944 Arlington, VA After all the uncertainty, it was finally going to happen. His bag was packed, the car was on its way; he was shipping out. Soon he would be doing real work, with Lord Mountbatten in New Delhi. It was all coming to be, just as Jane Bartleman had said. Paul carefully slipped one of his journals out from the box of his papers that he’d already packed up for his brother, Charlie, to take up to Maine, and carried it to his small bed, now stripped of its sheets. He sat and turned to the pages in which he had recorded the astrologer’s predictions last April. “A new enterprise awaits. It hangs before you like fruit on a tree.” Say what you like about astrology, but you couldn’t argue with the results. Paul continued skimming the pages of his small, neat handwriting. “Doors are going to open—doors you can’t even imagine exist.” As Paul stood to wedge the journal back into the box, a small sheet of paper slipped out of it and fluttered to the floor. He recognized it as he bent to retrieve it, and a sudden prickling behind his eyes surprised him. It was a letter, years old and yellowing, from Edith, written back during their years in Cambridge together. “My Dearest Paul, your poems always move me in this way, and yet it always surprises me . . .” She’d been gone for just a little over a year, but still the very glimpse of her handwriting brought back with awful clarity those last months, the long desolate afternoons watching his lover gasp for air that would not come to her. Reading the poem, he realized that somewhere deep he felt that in leaving the country, he was leaving her. Last spring, Bartleman had predicted there would be another woman for him, one to break apart this icy loneliness. It did not seem possible, much as he craved the comfort of a woman of intelligence, of humor and balance and perception. He’d already been given his one chance at that. Outside, a car horn. Just concentrate on your work, Paul said to himself. He zipped up his bag and heaved it onto his shoulder. The hell with women, and marriage. A man can’t have everything. DAY 23, RECIPE 34 You Have to Break a Few Eggs . . . Most of the stupidest things I have ever done I’ve done in the fall. I call it my First-Day-of-School syndrome, a bone-deep hangover from a time when autumn meant something. When I was eleven, the syndrome revealed itself in the tragically self-defining sartorial decision to match a pair of purple zip-up go-go boots with a Miss Piggy sweater. In the fall of my thirtieth year, it showed itself in the concoction of a nonsensical yearlong cooking project, to commence in tandem with the biblical ordeal of a New York move. I did mention the moving, right? The first clue that I was descending into one of my occasional bouts of seasonal madness should have been my mom’s reaction when I told her about the Project. “Huh.” “Do you like ‘The Julie/Julia Project’ for a name? I think it gives it a sort of Frankenstein mad-scientist feel, what do you think? Did you get the link I sent you?” “Yes . . . ? I did . . . ?” All her short sentences were wavering up into hesitant, high-pitched questions. “Don’t worry. It’s just for a year. I’ll be cooking every night and writing every morning. It’ll be like a regimen.” “Mm-hm? And why are you doing this again?” “What do you mean?” What an obtuse question—though, I did dimly realize, one I’d not actually asked myself. I noticed my voice had gotten a little squeaky. “Well—I mean, maybe this isn’t the best time to start a new project like this? While you’re trying to move?” “Oh—no. No, no, no, no, it’ll be fine. I have to eat, don’t I? Besides, it’s already out there. Online, where anybody can see it. I have to go through with it now. It’ll be fine. It’ll be great!” At my age, I guess I should know that when the timbre of my voice reaches such unendurably cheery heights, trouble is on the way. I should know it, but somehow I never remember until it’s too late. It had started so well. The night after I wrote my first-ever blog entry, I made Bifteck Sauté au Beurre and Artichauts au Naturel—the first recipes in the meat and vegetable chapters of MtAoFC, respectively. The steak I merely fried in a skillet with butter and oil—butter and oil because not only did I not have the beef suet that was the other option, I didn’t even know what beef suet was. Then I just made a quick sauce out of the juices from the pan, some vermouth we’d had sitting around the house forever because Eric had discovered that drinking vermouth, even in martinis, made him sick, and a bit more butter. The artichokes I simply trimmed—chopping off the stalks and cutting the sharp pointy tops off all the leaves with a pair of scissors—before boiling them in salted water until tender. I served the artichokes with some Beurre au Citron, which I made by boiling down lemon juice with salt and pepper, then beating in a stick of butter. Three recipes altogether, in just over an hour. “I could do this with one hand tied behind my back!” I crowed to Eric as we sat at our dining table, hemmed in by the ever burgeoning towers of packing boxes, scraping artichoke leaves dipped in lemon butter clean with our front teeth. “It’s a good thing we’re moving, or it would be just too easy. Like taking candy from a baby!” After we’d finished our very good and buttery steaks and cleared away the large pile of scraped artichoke leaves, I sat down to write. I made a witticism or two about artichokes—“this was my first time with artichokes, and more than liking or disliking them, I am mostly just impressed with the poor starving prehistoric bastard who first thought to eat one”—then posted my few short paragraphs onto my blog. The next day I got thirty-six hits. I know I got thirty-six hits because I went online to check twelve times that day at work. Each hit represented another person reading what I’d written. Just like that! At the bottom of the entry there was a spot where people could make comments, and someone I’d never even heard of said they liked how I wrote! I was going to eat lots of French food, and write about it, and get compliments from total strangers about it. Eric was right. This was going to be brilliant! Day 2 was Quiche Lorraine and Haricots Verts à la Anglaise. Day 3 I had to go to New Jersey to pass out comment forms and set up folding chairs for a meeting of families of people who died in the World Trade Center attack. The meeting was organized by the governor of New Jersey, for the purpose of making sure everyone knew that if they were unhappy about anything, it was the fault of the downtown government agency I work for. The governor of New Jersey was a bit of a prick. So I didn’t cook. Instead I ate pizza and wrote this impromptu piece of sparkling prose: Wealthy Victorians served Strawberries Romanoff in December; now we demonstrate our superiority by serving our dewy organic berries only during the two-week period when they can be picked ripe off the vine at the boutique farm down the road from our Hamptons bungalow. People speak of gleaning the green markets for the freshest this, the thinnest that, the greenest or firmest or softest whatever, as if what they’re doing is a selfless act of consummate care and good taste, rather than the privileged activity of someone who doesn’t have to work for a living. But Julia Child isn’t about that. Julia Child wants you—that’s right, you, the one living in the tract house in sprawling suburbia with a dead-end middle-management job and nothing but a Stop and Shop for miles around—to know how to make good pastry, and also how to make those canned green beans taste all right. She wants you to remember that you are human, and as such are entitled to that most basic of human rights, the right to eat well and enjoy life. And that blows heirloom tomatoes and first-press Umbrian olive oil out of the fucking water. By the end of the first week, I’d gone on to make Filets de Poisson Bercy aux Champignons and Poulet Rôti, Champignons à la Grecque, and Carottes à la Concierge, even a Crème Brûlée—well, Crème Brûlée soup, more like. I’d written about all of it, my mistakes and my minor triumphs. People—a couple of friends, a couple of strangers, even my aunt Sukie from Waxahachie—had written in to the blog to root me on. And now I was leaving my downtown cubicle every evening with a jaunty new step, shopping list in hand, contemplating not how I wanted to rip that friggin’ office phone out of the wall (or maybe the windpipe out of some bureaucrat’s scrawny neck), but instead my next French meal, my next clever gibe. Eric and I had begun the move in earnest now. On the weekend we loaded up the boxes in our living room and hauled them in our aging burgundy Bronco to our new apartment, a loft, so-called, in Long Island City, which is not on Long Island but in Queens. (Which is, yes, technically, on the water-surrounded landmass known as Long Island, but don’t ever tell someone from Queens or Brooklyn that they live on Long Island. Trust me on this; it’s a bad idea.) We were moving there because Eric’s office had moved there, and commutes from Bay Ridge to Long Island City uncomfortably reminded us of Latin American immigrants knifed to death by bigots in subway cars en route to one of their three jobs at two in the morning. So now we would be living in a “loft.” It was a step forward, a brave experiment, the urban dream. And still I was cooking—joyfully, humorously, easily. This French food stuff was a snap! I wondered why everybody had been making such a big deal out of it all these years. And then, in the third week, we got to the eggs. “Julie, I want you to stop.” “I can’t. I can’t.” “Honey, this is just something you decided to do. You can decide not to if you want. You can just decide to stop.” “No! Don’t you get it? This is all I’ve got. There are people out there, reading. I can’t just fucking STOP!” I have been having this conversation with my mother my entire life. There was the time when I was six years old and had to wear my favorite sundress for the St. Valentine’s Day party at school—when my mother told me it was too cold, I stood goosepimply on the front porch in my Wonder Woman Underoos for two hours to prove her wrong. Or the time that I tried out for the drill team just because I knew I wouldn’t make it and then, when I did, refused to quit, and instead wound up spending eight months with a bunch of sorority girl larvae—turning bulimic and tying that stupid white cowboy hat onto my head so tightly that by the end of game nights I had to peel the leather strap out of the deep red welt it had burrowed into my throat. Or when two weeks before I got married I decided, in the midst of catering crises and maids-of-honor dress fiascos, that I had to make teeny-tiny sculptures of naked ladies out of Super Sculpey for two hundred guests. It’s the Talking Down from the Ledge conversation. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. My voice grew steely and cold. “I’ve got to go now, Mom. I love you.” “Julie, wait.” Fear on the other end of the line. Mom knew she was losing me. “Please. Honey. Stop cooking.” “Bye, Mom.” I hung up the phone. My neck had a crick in it; I twisted my head around, and the tendons popped. The trek back across my living room, littered with Styrofoam peanuts, was like the Bataan Death March. “We’ll just take it easy,” Eric had said. “Slow and steady wins the race,” Eric had said. As a result of which, Eric and I had been moving for two and a half weeks now. It was agony. For a week and a half we just shuttled boxes. Then, on a Saturday, we managed to get our box spring and mattress moved. We left the cats in the old place that night while we slept in the new, making the disheartening discovery that at three o’clock in the morning, our loft apartment sounded as if it was perched in the center of a monster truck rally. On Sunday we brought the cats over. En route, one threw up all over her carrier, and a second beshat herself. The third simply fell into the psychic abyss inhabited by war orphans and the sole survivors of alien invasions, and immediately upon arriving in his new abode found his way up into the drop ceiling, from where he had not returned, though we could hear him prowling around up there, and occasionally yowling. Every once in a while we’d lift up a ceiling tile and slip him a bowl of Science Diet. Eric and I had forged through several circles of hell in the last weeks—I named them the “Last-Minute Home Repair Hell,” the “Soul-Sucking Dead-End Job Hell,” the “My Spouse Just Turned Twenty-nine and I Didn’t Get Him Anything Hell,” and the “I Have Married a Raving Schizophrenic Hell.” We had bled, we had screamed, we had dropped peeled root vegetables onto the rotting floorboards of our new “fixer-upper” “loft” before picking them up and throwing them into the soup. So though we could now be said to be living in Long Island City, the word living seemed a rather cruelly euphemistic way of putting it. We were more like the walking dead. The kitchen was a crime scene. Eggshells littered the floor, crackling underfoot. What looked like three days’ worth of unwashed dishes were piled up in the sink, and half-unpacked boxes had been shoved to the corners of the room. Unseen down the dark throat of the trashcan, yet as conspicuous as tarpaulin-covered murder victims, were the mutilated remains of eggs. If the purplish-stained shreds of yolk clinging stickily to the walls had been blood spatters, a forensics specialist would have had a field day. But Eric wasn’t standing at the stove to triangulate the shooter’s position—he was poaching an egg in red wine. Two other eggs sat on a plate by the stove. These I had poached myself just before Eric’s and my impromptu reenactment of that scene in Airplane! in which all the passengers line up and take turns slapping and shaking the hysterical woman, with Eric taking the roles of all the passengers and I the part of hysteric. These three eggs were the sole survivors of the even dozen I had begun with three hours before. One incoherent gurgle of despair escaped me, seeing those two pitiful things lying there, twisted and blue as the lips of corpses. “We’re going to starve, aren’t we?” “How was your mom? Did she make you feel better?” Cool as a cucumber, Eric lifted the last egg out of the wine and laid it beside its sad blue sisters. “I don’t know. I guess. You’re like Charles fucking Bronson, you know that?” “How do you mean?” “Oh, you know, smacking your self-destructive wife back to her senses, dispensing violent justice to foodstuffs. Thanks for doing the last egg.” “I didn’t do a very good job.” “As long as it’s not me not doing a good job. For once.” I curled up in his arms, and soon was crying again, but gently this time, a mild aftershock. “Babe,” Eric whispered, kissing my damp hair, “I would do anything shittily for you. You know that.” “Yes. I do. And I thank you. I love you.” “You love me? Who loves you?” (Remember that scene in Superman where Margot Kidder is falling out of the helicopter and Christopher Reeve catches her, and he says, “Don’t worry, I’ve got you,” to which she responds: “You’ve got me? Who’s got you?” That’s where this familiar rejoinder of Eric’s comes from. He says it all the time. It’s impossible to express how precious and safe it makes me feel, how held up in a pair of improbably large and blue Lycra-clad biceps—but anyone who’s been with someone as long as I have been with Eric understands the power of nonsensical phraseology.) If this had been a scene from a movie the music would have swelled, but there was no time for romance. Because making Oeufs à la Bourguignonne is about much more than just wasting a dozen eggs trying to poach them in the red wine that was the only booze we had in this hideous apartment we had been so foolish as to move into. I grabbed a bag of Wonder Bread down from on top of the fridge and took out three slices. I cut a neat white circle out of each of them with a cookie cutter, one of an enormous set that Eric’s mom had given me for Christmas one year, which I had very nearly thrown out during the move. I cleared off one of the three working burners on the stove (checking burners before signing the lease being one of those smart-New-York-renter things I could never remember to do), threw a skillet on it, and began to melt half a stick of butter. “So really, what did your mom say?” “Wanted to know if I’d gotten the reservation at Peter Luger.” My family comes up to visit almost every fall for my father’s birthday, because my father likes to spend his birthday catching a Broadway show before going to the Peter Luger Steak House in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for a plate of creamed spinach, Steak for Six, and several dry martinis. That this year he would also get to spend his birthday helping his hysterical daughter finish moving out of her Bay Ridge apartment was just an unfortunate accident of timing. “Are they really going to spend the night here?” I shot my husband a look he knew well. “Yeah. Why?” Eric shrugged, shook his head. “No reason.” But he wouldn’t look me in the eye. My mother is a clean freak, my father a dirty bird, semireformed. Between them, they have managed to raise one child who by all accounts could not care less about basic cleanliness, but whose environs and person are always somehow above reproach, and another child who sees as irrecoverable humiliation any imputation of less than impeccable housekeeping or hygiene, and yet, regardless of near-constant near-hysteria on the subject, is almost always an utter mess. One guess which I am. I also have a long history of trying to kill my mother by moving into highly unfashionable, and often demonstrably unhealthy, locales. It’s been years, and yet she still talks about my first New York studio like it was the “hole” in a Khmer Rouge prison. And of course there is no forgetting the day she saw the one-hundred-year-old crumbling adobe building in Middle-of-Nowhere, New Mexico, that we rented the first summer we were married. She stood at the doorway, the beam of her flashlight piercing the gloom and skittering across the floor as she searched for mouse droppings or the dead bodies of larger creatures, maybe humans. Tears welled up in her wide eyes. As long as I live, I will never forget the sheer horror in my mother’s voice when she whispered, “Julie, seriously—you’re going to die here.” I stood over the skillet, poking at the butter. “Melt, goddammit.” I was supposed to clarify the butter—which is done by skimming off the white scum that appears when butter melts—then get it very hot before browning the rounds of bread in it. There were a lot of things I was supposed to be doing these days that I wasn’t. Instead I threw the bread in as soon as the butter liquefied. Of course the canapés—which is what I was making out of the rounds of bread—didn’t brown, just grew soggy and yellow and buttery. “Fuck it. It’s eleven o’clock at night and I do not give one shit about the fucking bread,” I said as I took them back out again and dropped them onto two plates. “Julie, seriously, do you have to talk like that?” Now I was turning the heat up on the winey egg-poaching liquid to cook it down for sauce. “Are you fucking kidding me?” Eric laughed nervously. “Yup. Just a little joke. Pretty funny, huh?” “Uh-huh.” I thickened the wine with cornstarch and butter. Then upon each sodden canapé I balanced an egg before spooning the sauce on top. “The eggs wore blue; the sauce wore gray,” I muttered in my best Bogart impersonation, which was not very good at all—I’ve never been much good at impressions. In any case, the sauce was really more of a mauve color. It wasn’t a good joke, and neither of us laughed. We ate our dinner amid the unpacking detritus, in silence. The egg tasted like the cheap wine we were drinking, only buttery. It wasn’t half bad, actually. “It’s good, honey,” tried Eric. I said nothing. “Just think, a week ago you’d never eaten an egg at all, and now you’re eating this. How many people, in their whole lives, ever eat eggs poached in red wine? We’re doing something hardly anybody ever does!” I knew he was doing his best to comfort me, and so I gave him a watery smile. But he could not make the question go away, that unspoken one that hovered over our subdued table along with the gentle sounds of our mastication. “Why, Julie? Why Julia? Why now?” When Julia and Paul moved to Paris in 1948, Julia was just along for the ride—and to eat, of course. She didn’t really know anything about food, not yet, but she was hungry—she could put more away than anyone (other than Paul) that Paul had ever met. Paul was saddened by how his Paris, where he had lived for so long before the war, had been tarnished. The bombed-out buildings and the heavy military presence oppressed him. But Julia had never known the city any other way, so it wasn’t as bad for her. In fact, for her, life had never been better. Their apartment on rue de l’Université was chilly, heated by a potbelly stove during a cold winter. The apartment had an odd L shape. Paul could lean out of the window in the living room and take a picture of Julia leaning out of the window in the bedroom, with the rooftops of Paris all around her. This eccentric, fusty apartment was where Julia learned to cook, and she loved it. Still. Julia’s mother was long dead by the time she and Paul got the Paris flat, dead long before she had married or even met Paul. Which is sad, of course. But at least she didn’t have to worry about presenting her mother with a dark, smelly apartment, with a kitchen at the top of a creaky stairway, with an odd, somewhat sinister bathtub. Actually I don’t know anything about their bathtub; it might have been quite nice. It was ours that was frightening. Our new kitchen was quite large, by New York standards anyway. It was its own separate room, with a bit of counter by the sink and full-sized appliances, lit by an industrial fluorescent fixture. The first thing we’d done once we’d moved in was to tear out three layers, nearly a hundred years’ worth, of nasty tile down to the floorboards. These floorboards were dark and damp and rotting slightly—we weren’t quite sure what we were going to do about that yet. But I liked the kitchen—it was why I took the apartment, why I was blinded to the faulty jalousie windows and the strange black tub and everything else that was so terribly, terribly wrong. The bathtub was black porcelain, set up on a raised platform so you had to climb two steps to get in. If this sounds kind of sexy, in a Las Vegas kind of way, it wasn’t. For one thing, the tub was rusted out and badly caulked, and the bathtub surround was of that molded plastic they used to use in less-expensive motels in the fifties, and it was cracked. The steps up to the tub were made of plywood covered in an adhesive no-slide rubber stuff painted battleship gray. Being two steps higher just brought you closer to the disintegrating drop ceiling and the hole cut into it for the dangling light fixture. The light didn’t work, was more or less just a gaping black hole out of which you could not help imagining horrid beasties falling down on you while you bathed. The apartment was long and low, with linoleum floors all painted the same battleship gray as the steps to the tub, which gave it the feeling of a submarine’s interior. At the front was a large picture window framed on either side with sets of jalousies, which are the glass louvered windows you see in small towns all over the South. This also sounds nice, and it also wasn’t, because Long Island City is not a small southern town. When my mom first saw the tub, she laughed, but it was not a nice sort of laugh. When she saw the jalousies, her eyes grew wide again. “Julie, they don’t even shut right. You’re going to freeze to death.” A freight truck slammed over a large pothole right in front of the building with a room-filling crash. “That is, if you don’t go deaf first.” We had dinner reservations at an Italian place in midtown. I hustled everybody out as soon as I could manage, took us all to a bar beforehand, and tried to encourage the most orgiastic atmosphere of eating and drinking possible, succeeding so well that I had some trouble holding steady enough to pour us all into cabs at the end of the night. But it wasn’t enough. By midnight we were all bedded down together in the “loft” for what would prove the longest night I have ever had. Every passing car had lost its muffler, every 7 train hit the sharp curve behind our apartment at eighty miles per hour with an unearthly screech, and every sigh or irritated rustle from the air mattress set my teeth on edge and my heart racing. I know I did eventually drift off only because I jerked awake again at five a.m. to find my mother up, in her nightgown, with her forehead pressed up against the jalousies, muttering furiously and shaking her fist at what appeared to be a two-hundred-foot crane rolling slowly past the apartment, backward, beeping loudly, presumably so that none of the bustling pedestrians overflowing the sidewalks of Long Island City at five a.m. would dart out into the middle of the street and get hit by a slow-moving two-hundred-foot crane. The first crisis of the morning came when U-Haul, to no one’s surprise, lost our truck reservation. “Exactly the kind of thing to expect in New York,” as Heathcliff pointed out. (My brother’s name is not, of course, really Heathcliff. Texans of Scotch-Irish descent do not name their red-headed children Heathcliff. I just think it’s funny to call him that—because it pisses him off, and because “Heathcliff” does rather speak to the whole sardonic, brooding aspect.) Heathcliff is the guy you’d want to have as your second in a duel or watching your back in a firefight, as your vice presidential running mate or your partner in any reality-TV show that might involve speaking foreign languages, jumping off tall cliffs, or eating bugs. It is impossible to imagine him screaming at service personnel on the phone or having catastrophic hissy fits on subway platforms, two activities I indulge in frequently. Because of this, and also because Eric was nursing a hangover, which I felt responsible for, it was Heathcliff I took with me to deal with the U-Haul predicament, which was resolved with remarkable ease. (If it had been Eric with me, the day would have ended with us rebuilding a diesel engine with a giant timer ticking over our heads, in front of a live studio audience, while Hindu mechanics who disapproved of my mode of dress jeered at us and pelted us with stones. Or something.) Everything was going just swimmingly, as far as I could see. The only outstanding question was Sally. Over the summer my friend Sally had been living with her most recent boyfriend, a Brit working on his dissertation and trying for a job at the UN. But he had recently fled back “across the pond”—as he gratingly termed it—under suspicious circumstances, and Sally was moving back into her old place, an apartment she’d been living in off and on for the past few years. Sally used to be a rabbinical student, and it turns out that one of the great advantages of being a rabbinical student in New York is that even after you drop out you still have access to all of these wonderful old prewar apartments on the Upper West Side. People are always leaving to go on a kibbutz or pursue higher education or something, and so someone’s always looking for a roommate. Sally had been in and out of this particular apartment two or three times already. The only disadvantages to this arrangement were that she had to live on the Upper West Side, and that with all the comings and goings, the apartments didn’t tend overly toward hominess, or furnishings for that matter. So Sally was planning to bring some movers by the Bay Ridge place in the afternoon to take the big Jennifer sofa bed, our last major piece of furniture, off our hands. But I kept trying Sally’s cell, over and over, and she wasn’t picking up. And then, on the way out, we heard the radio reports of five random shootings in a Maryland suburb—as it happened, the Maryland suburb Sally’s parents lived in. “Oh no,” I breathed. “I’m sure they’re fine,” said Eric. “I hope so. If her parents have gotten shot, I don’t know what we’re going to do with that fucking couch.” “Why are you doing this again?” Mom sighed as we took the Sixty-ninth Street exit off the Belt Parkway and drove down quiet blocks of houses with lawns and then along the great green swath of park, a majestic view—of the Verrazano Bridge (where John Travolta’s friend killed himself in Saturday Night Fever), of New York Harbor, of Staten Island—rising up beyond. It was the same question she had asked me about the cooking project, and the answer was the same, as well. The same, and equally inexpressible. I could not explain the soul-sick feeling I got underground late at night, when there hadn’t been an R train for forty minutes and the platform was as crowded as if it were rush hour. I couldn’t explain how cut off I felt, sealed in a pneumatic tube of a commute that spit me out each morning on a gray sidewalk teeming with business suits, and spit me out again at night in peaceful, isolated, hopelessly square far Brooklyn. I couldn’t explain why I thought another year like the last would ruin me, maybe even ruin my marriage. I couldn’t explain it because there was no explanation, I guess. Mom was well aware of the situation that would meet her inside the apartment, mostly because of twenty-nine and a half years of history, but also because of an incident two weeks before. Basically, what happened was that our landlady in Bay Ridge, a sweet woman with a raging Brooklyn accent whose hobby was taking old photos and making them into greeting cards with off-color jokes about aging and the sex lives of married people inside, had seen the apartment. We, of course, had had no intention of that happening—at least not until I’d hired someone to clean the stove, and spackled over all the nail holes, and glued back the piece of the ceramic towel rack I’d broken off. But the landlady used her key and came into the apartment before all of that was done, and she left a message on our new answering machine. She was horrified. She was going to have to get the oven replaced. (The oven worked fine.) Please don’t bother with cleaning, just get your stuff and Get Out. Basically. My mother was treated to the subsequent hiccupping hysterical crying-jag-type phone conversation, which lasted most of an hour. So she knew that she might be faced with a problem. It wasn’t that bad. There wasn’t a smell, or rats, or maggots. (The maggots come much, much later.) Humiliated but proud, I had, despite my landlady’s edict, gone ahead and hired a woman to clean the stove. (What can I say? I was raised in proximity to a self-cleaning stove, and have never been able to square my belief in myself as a person possessed of free will with the act of getting down on my knees to stick my head in a box befogged with carcinogenic fumes and scoop out handfuls of black goo.) But if we were to conduct ourselves as responsible tenants and not trailer trash, there was a hell of a lot left to do. So for several hours we all scrubbed and painted and packed and swept. Mom even cleaned the drip pan under the fridge. I had never known there was a drip pan under the fridge. At last the apartment was empty but for the ugly fold-out sofa. It was 3:30 and—oh, I forgot to mention this part of the story—we had theater tickets that night. Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. Eighty bucks a pop. “So—what the hell do we do with this thing?” “You haven’t heard from Sally yet?” asked Dad. “Nope.” I was trying very hard not to be angry about that—if Sally’s mother had been shot through the head at a Texaco, I’d really feel like a heel being pissy about some couch. “Well,” said Mom briskly. “I think she’s missed her opportunity. I say we take it to Goodwill and be done with it.” By transferring a good deal more into our decrepit 1991 Bronco than was wise, my brother, father, and Eric managed to squeeze the sofa into the U-Haul. The boys then all piled into the front of the moving truck. The plan was for them to find a Goodwill and turn in the U-Haul while Mom and I headed straight back to Long Island City in the Bronco. After we unloaded it, we’d still have plenty of time to freshen up before the play that night. So Mom and I hoisted ourselves in, started up the Bronco, and headed off. The view from the on-ramp to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, just before the entrance to the Battery Tunnel, is lovely, with the sparkling harbor, the lower Manhattan skyline, picturesque Carroll Gardens unfolding below, but that is not what I will always remember about it. I’ll remember instead how even in the best of times the traffic here, where the Gowanus and Prospect expressways merge, is heavy, and that the ramp is quite high off the ground, and quite steep, and that it has only one lane, and no shoulder. I will remember it as exactly the sort of spot you don’t want to break down in. Ah, well. Long and tedious story short, Mom and I kissed our play tickets good-bye. Once we were towed off the beltway to an Atlantic Avenue gas station staffed by many very polite but none-too-helpful Sikh gentlemen, I stuffed my grease-stained mother into the back of a taxi and then waited for several hours for the tow that would get me and my incapacitated Bronco back to Queens. Mom got back to the apartment to find herself faced at the door with an upended sofa bed blocking the stairs. The search for Goodwill had been, apparently, in vain. This was the last straw for a woman without much in the way of native patience who had nevertheless gotten through this arduous day without complaint. She was exhausted, her hip hurt, she was dirty. She leaned up against the couch and wept. Luckily, Eric had opted to stay and wait for us back at the apartment while my father and Heathcliff went to go make use of at least two of the very expensive Broadway tickets. When he heard the sofa’s foot rock and bang against the wall of the entryway he came to investigate, and found my mother there, sobbing against the gray stain-resistant upholstery. He moved the couch to one side, and she was able to just squeeze past it and up the stairs, where she promptly collapsed onto the formerly white chair she had bought when she was pregnant with me, to use as a nursing chair, which she had given me when I came up to New York. “Oh my God,” she moaned. “I’m never getting up again.” “Elaine,” asked Eric, “is this place really that bad?” “Yes.” “I’m sorry. It’s my fault. I’m sorry I got your daughter into this.” Elaine looked around through the splayed hands she had rested on her face—at the picture window with the broken jalousies, at the rotting floorboards in the kitchen, at the odd space at the other end of the long, open room, a sort of short tail of an L. She looked around thoughtfully, and then gave Eric a small but warm smile. “You didn’t get my daughter into anything she wouldn’t have gotten into herself. Besides, we’ll make it work. Now, the important question is—do you have orange juice?” The Bronco and I did eventually get back to Long Island City at around 9 p.m., and after unloading the incapacitated truck and turning in the U-Haul, I came up into the apartment to find my mother bathed, with a large gin and juice in her hand, wandering around contemplating. “This back room is too cramped for a bedroom. Why don’t you put the bed over here and make this space into a sort of jewelbox of a dining room? It could make a great room. I’ll send you some sheers to hang, to soften it up. You’ll need mirrors. And maybe a flokati rug would be good.” That night at eleven o’clock we all met at Peter Luger for Dad’s birthday dinner. Dad and Heathcliff had had a great time at Frankie and Johnny. (Dad’s a big Edie Falco fan.) They’d even managed to find a friend of Heathcliff’s—well, an ex-girlfriend, actually, Heathcliff’s the kind of guy who can always dig up some ex-girlfriend when he needs to—to take one of the play tickets, and she came to dinner too. We had Steak for Six and creamed spinach, and we managed to get in lots of martini toasts before my dad’s birthday had officially ended. Mom started drawing on a cocktail napkin to show me how she was going to rig some special curtains at the front window to block the street noise, and chattered on about some great cheap floor covering that we could use to hide the rotted floorboards in the kitchen. “See, now this is great,” I sighed, holding up my martini to the light, good and tipsy and digesting well. “Yeah,” agreed Eric, pushing back his chair. “Now if only we had some eggs poached in red wine.” My mom glared up from her napkin, jabbing her pen at him. “Don’t. Even. Joke about it.” So there it was—midnight. My father was sixty, and we lived in Long Island City, instead of just walking around it dead. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. April 1944 Kandy, Ceylon “So after an hour or so we’ve got perhaps a vial full. Alice is up to her elbows in scales, I’ve got popped fish eyes all over me, in my hair, we’re both holding thoroughly squashed trout or whatever they were, one in each fist, and peering sideways into the beaker to see if we’ve got enough of the stuff. It’s a sort of cloudy pinkish color. The odor is, well, potent.” The new registrar sat with her back against the wall, squeezing her cocktail glass in one giant hand, sloshing it either for illustrative purposes or because she was drunk. Her big wide face was bright, her hair a hysterical rust-colored halo. All around her sat men and women in various states of insobriety and hilarity, some squeezing the stems of their smuggled martini glasses along with her, others nearly off their chairs laughing. Paul knew it would be best for him to join in the fun. But the racket was all too much, so instead he nursed a gin and orange at a small oilcloth-draped table in the corner and eavesdropped. The estate where they had the OSS shacked up down here in Ceylon didn’t have an actual bar, but someone had obligingly, and hastily, re-outfitted the parlor with a smattering of tables and mismatched chairs for the thirsty Americans. The room was small and crowded, and in the tricky yellow light of the gas lanterns, Paul could easily make himself unnoticeable. “‘So,’ I say.” The registrar smacked her big mitts down on the tabletop, leaned in, cocked her eyes leftward, eyebrows flying. “‘So,’ says Alice.” Her eyes darted to the right, wide at first and then narrowing in comic suspicion. All around the table, anticipatory giggles as the registrar drew out the moment nearly unbearably, hunkering down and cutting her glance back and forth. “‘Who gets the first cocktail?’” The laughter echoed through the air like artillery fire, the registrar’s most piercing of all. Paul didn’t know whether to join in or duck. “Say! I’m so hungry I’m going cross-eyed!” she shouted. The mob heigh-hoed their agreement. Paul was surprised to feel a needy grumble of his own, the first he’d had after weeks of gnawing Delhi Belly. “I know what let’s do! Let’s go down the hill to town. I passed a restaurant the other day that smelled delicious!” Bateson raised a finger halfheartedly. “Now, Julie, your stomach isn’t up —” “Oh, can it, Gregory!” crowed the registrar merrily. “My stomach isn’t up for any more canned potatoes, that’s what it’s not up for! Come on—shall we eat as the Ceylonese do?” There was some toasting and a great scraping of chair legs as the party rose. They headed out into the darkness. Was he intrigued by this annoyingly ebullient, oddly compelling giant of a woman? Or was he just hungry? Paul didn’t know, and he didn’t ponder too much, either—he just went with them. DAY 36, RECIPE 48 Hacking the Marrow Out of Life Here’s a nifty fact for you: during World War II, Julia Child worked for an undercover agency called the OSS—that stands for Office of Strategic Services, a nicely meaningless moniker, don’t you think, for a very cloak-and-dagger sort of outfit? This was back when she was still just Julie McWilliams, thirty-two and single and not sure what she wanted to do with her life. She thought maybe she’d be good at espionage, though it’s hard to imagine a six-foot-two-inch redheaded woman making herself inconspicuous in, say, Sri Lanka. Of course she didn’t do any spying—although I suppose if she had, she wouldn’t tell us, would she? In a way I was sort of in the same boat. I too was working for a government agency—though not a particularly cloak-and-dagger one—at a historic moment. My own agency had some busy weeks ahead of it, because it happened that a lot of what the government agency did had to do with filling up the hole left when the towers fell. This is an exciting thing for a government agency to be in charge of—beats the hell out of, say, processing building permit applications or something—which is probably one reason why I caved and went permanent in May of 2002. But here it was, nearly a year after the attacks, or tragic events, or whatever you want to call it—even at the government agency, people still had a hard time with that, mostly settling for “September 11,” which is at least neutral, better than “9/11,” which sounds like a deodorant or something—and there were memorial ceremonies to arrange, brave new initiatives to announce, publics to garner input from, and governors and mayors to get money from. An office competition had been held to come up with an inspirational motto for the agency. The winner got a free lunch (with the president of the agency—an odd choice, to say the least). The motto was on the stationery, the Web site, the glass front door of the office. It was a nice motto, very stirring. But I was a secretary. And when you’re a secretary at a government agency in charge of filling up the hole in the ground where the towers used to be, during the weeks leading up to the first anniversary of September 11, mottoes just don’t help at all. The trouble was not an inconvenient excess of emotion—the staff was much too busy to go around feeling sad. Besides, the place was lousy with Republicans, so genuine emotion wasn’t such a big commodity, anyway. Plus, the agency’s office was in a building right across the street from what the world called Ground Zero but we all just called “the site”; from the windows in the conference room you could look directly into the hole. After you look at that every day for a couple of months, you just get used to it. You can get used to anything, as long as you don’t mind collapsing a few mineshafts of your brain where the stuff you can’t think about is skulking around. It’s easy—not simple, maybe, but easy. When I was offered a permanent position back in the spring, those yellow trucks with the giant toothed scoops were still raking delicately through neat furrows of debris, searching for bits of people. Every once in a while, when you were downtown or even when you weren’t, you’d still find a torn bit of paper skittering along the gutter. Pages from legal memos, work orders, inventory sheets—all of them mashed in this odd way, like the icing on a cake that’s been wrapped in cellophane, and smudged with a strange pale powder, as if they’d been dusted for prints. You always knew just where they’d come from. The head of the agency called me into his office one day. He was a bluff sort of man, Mr. Kline, not particularly young but not old either, thick-necked, with features that were not exactly unattractive, but small and oddly close together. He probably looked a little piggy to me only because I knew he was a Republican. He was nice enough, though, and particularly so when he offered me a permanent position. Why did I take it, after years and years of saying no? I don’t know. Maybe it was because of Nate. Nate was Mr. Kline’s sort of unofficial second-in-command—baby-faced, cute enough if you like the evil genius look, and two years younger than me, if you’re to trust his word, which of course you can’t. His offhanded compliments, casual insults—just barbed enough to leave a pleasurable sting—snide asides, and comradely sexual innuendo had drawn me in, giving me the illusion that I was working in some alternate universe’s version of The West Wing, with President Bartlet on the other side of the political fence. Case in point: As I was coming out of Mr. Kline’s office, having received the job offer and told him I’d think about it, I nearly ran headlong into Sarah, Vice President of Government Relations, who was rushing in. (This particular government agency was absolutely crawling with vice presidents, with more popping up all the time.) Sarah was an implausibly pert woman with freckles and enormous eyes as thickly lashed as those of an animé character. (She was also, as I had learned when I spent a month and a half filling in for her secretary, a raving lunatic, in my admittedly unprofessional opinion.) She stopped and grabbed my shoulders, staring into my eyes like a hypnotist. “Julie,” she asked, “are you a Republican?” I was still picking up my eyeballs and sticking them back into my head when Nate, who’d been standing right there, for all the world like he had just been waiting for me to come out of Mr. Kline’s office with the job offer, gave me a little wink and smirked, “Are you kidding? Republicans don’t wear vintage.” Which, when I thought about it, seemed as good a litmus test as any. So maybe it was Nate. Or it could have been the temptation of history being made outside the window. Or maybe I was just almost thirty and afraid. Whatever the reason, this time I had said yes, and now it was four months later, early September, and I was in my cubicle—the fourth cubicle I’d inhabited since starting work at the government agency—spinning around in my rolling office chair, digging a trench in my forehead with my fingernails while muttering robotically into a phone headset, “Yes, sir, I understand your concern that our organization is shitting on the heads of New York’s Finest. Would you like to send us your comments in writing?” As the anniversary approached, dignitaries and mourning families and reporters began streaming in and out in ever-burgeoning floods. The large room where press conferences were held was directly in front of my desk; I knew I was meant to present a professional demeanor. But frankly, I just couldn’t be bothered. That was partly because I’m not very professional, but more immediately, it was because of the phone. When Julia Child worked in Ceylon, she probably didn’t even have a phone at her desk. Not a lot of international phone lines in Kandy in those days, I don’t imagine. But my phone is constantly in action. It has eight lines, endlessly blinking red lights. Sometimes I’ll have four or five people on hold at a time. I talk to screamers, and patient explainers, and the lonely old, who are the worst, because I can never think of a nice way to say to the housebound lady in Staten Island who is sure her idea for the memorial is being stolen by some big architect somewhere because the picture she saw in the paper looks just like the collection of crystal paperweights she keeps in her knickknack hutch, “Thank you for your input, you loon—bye now!” And then there’s the mail to go through—the drawings of enormous steeples shaped like praying hands, the models built from Popsicle sticks and Styrofoam cups and cotton balls dipped in tempera paint. Each of these, of course, is carefully archived and cataloged, presumably for some distant future exhibit of wackadoo outsider art. Sometimes, when it gets really bad, I contemplate just going ahead and bursting into tears. I figure that’s just the kind of namby-pamby crap they expect from a Democrat, and maybe I’ll get lucky and they’ll shake their heads and let me go home with a cold compress. But I have a reputation to uphold. I am not a crier—well, not at work, anyway. I maintain more of a Weimar-era tough-cookie image, all paper cuts and ironic hysteria and dark circles under the eyes. So instead of crying, I sigh when asked to get a box of Kleenex for a grieving widow, or bang my head wearily on my desk in the middle of phone calls from some woman who can’t walk anymore and hasn’t been out of her apartment for a week and used to be a great hoofer and was in pictures but now can’t pay her medical bills and thinks the only appropriate thing to build at Ground Zero would be a reproduction of the ’39 World’s Fair. Instead of crying, I make withering comments about little old men who send in poems with titles like “The Angels of 911.” It passes the time. But hard-bitten cynicism leaves one feeling peevish, and too much of it can do lasting damage to your heart. Four days after they’d arrived, I loaded my parents onto a plane back to Austin, where the living is easy. All of us, by that time, were suffering the constant nagging headaches and viselike pains around our middles that are the inevitable results of parental visits to New York. You know there’s something wrong with your lifestyle when you look forward to getting back to your cleansing Julia Child regimen. The night after they left we ate Poulet Poêlé à l’Estragon, with mesclun salad out of a bag on the side, and found myself feeling very virtuous using less than a stick of butter for a dinner for three. Heathcliff was staying on in New York for a while because he’d gotten a job. It was not clear to me exactly how this had happened. Over the last few days, he’d constantly been getting calls on one or the other of his cell phones—he had two. He never told us about any of the conversations he had on them, but after one of them he pulled me aside and asked if he could keep sleeping on our couch for a little while longer. He was going to be running a kiosk at a cosmetics convention at the Javits Center, which didn’t sound at all like something Heathcliff would do, except that he was going to be selling soaps and lotions made from the milk of cashmere goats he had spent a year herding in Tuscany. That is Heathcliff all over. Anyway, it seemed I had been missed, out in the virtual world. Someone named Chris posted a comment on the Poulet Poêlé à l’Estragon post, my first in most of a week: “Oh thank GOD you’re back! I thought you were dead!!! I missed you SO much!” I spent fully half a day at work thrilled that I had a regular reader named Chris when I didn’t even know anyone named Chris, before realizing that Chris’s comment was, well, creepy. It was nice to feel appreciated, though, and after my parent- and hellish-move-induced hiatus, I came back to the Julie/Julia Project with all cylinders pumping. I started out slowly—some poached eggs, some soup. But soon I was ready for a bigger challenge. A challenge like, say, steak with beef marrow sauce. The first obstacle in a bout with a marrowbone is simply arranging the match. Perhaps in 1961, when JC published MtAoFC, marrowbones hung off trees like greasy Christmas ornaments. But I did not live in 1961, nor did I live in France, which would have made things simpler. Instead, I lived in Long Island City, and in Long Island City, marrowbones are simply not to be had. Lower Manhattan was not much better. There were wine stores and cheese counters and cute bistros, but since most of the fashionable people who live this far downtown prefer, like vampires, sustenance they can just grab and suck down on the run, a butcher was nowhere to be found. So I put Eric on the case. First he headed over to Astoria one evening after work. The thought was that in Astoria there would be stores patronized by good authentic immigrant people who still appreciate the value of a good hunk of bone. But the authentic immigrants seemed to have moved on; Eric had no luck. Heathcliff wasn’t finishing up at the convention center until after seven that night, and I didn’t get home until after nine. Dinner was roast chicken, Julia-style. I was supposed to mince up the gizzard for the accompanying sauce, but I found I didn’t know what a gizzard was. I knew it was one of the things in the paper bag up the bird’s bum. I knew it wasn’t the liver, but among the remaining bits of innards, which was the gizzard was a mystery. (After reading my post about this, Eric’s father called me and cleared up the trouble: the gizzard is the thing like two hearts stuck together; the heart is the thing like half a gizzard.) The next night Eric and Heathcliff tried a two-pronged approach, with my husband catching a train from work to the Upper East Side, my brother catching another to the West Village. But both Lobel’s and Ottomanelli’s were shuttered by the time my faithful marrowbone-retrievers got there. Butchers must really need their beauty sleep. My brother did manage to get to the Petco before it closed to buy mice with which to feed my pet snake, Zuzu. (Whenever Heathcliff is in town I take advantage of the situation by letting him take over snake-feeding duties. I figure since he’s the one who gave me a five-foot-long ball python, back in college when he thought I needed a pet, he ought to be responsible for some of the karmic debt accrued over ten years of rodent sacrifice.) I got home just before ten and ordered pizza before I crashed on the couch. Eric had to make me wake up for long enough to take out my contacts. Waking me up when I’ve fallen asleep on the couch is no fun for anyone. And then it was Wednesday, September 11, 2002. I was up at five a.m. to get to my office by seven. I spent the morning standing about. First I stood around in the back of a crowded press conference room, listening to blandly stirring politicians talk and trying to decide if Nate was looking at me or just staring into space. Then I stood outside on the concrete plaza surrounding my building. Across the street, in the hole where the towers had been, a circle of family members stood silently in the blowing construction dust. They were reading the names of everyone who died there into a microphone. In the afternoon I manned the Family Room. The Family Room was actually a conference room that had been converted into a sort of funeral viewing area for those whose husbands and sisters and sons had never been recovered. The windows, twenty stories up, looked out into the hole; the walls were plastered baseboard to ceiling with photos and poems and flowers and remembrances. There was a sign-in book, and a couple of couches, and some toys and games for the children. The Family Room was the only place these people could go to be near those they’d lost without being assaulted by hawkers with NYFD gimme caps and Osama Bin Laden toilet paper, or tourists posing for cameras in front of the fence as if they were visiting the Hoover Dam. Until fairly recently bodies were still being found, so I suppose it made a certain kind of sense that they would want to come here, although I’ve never been much of a graveyard-visiting kind of person, and when I looked down there, I didn’t think of God and angels and the serene faces of the dead gone over to some Other Side; I just thought of body parts. I couldn’t see how anyone who’d actually lost someone to that sucking wound could stomach it. After the morning memorial, they all came up to the Family Room and stared into the hole some more. They brought yet more pictures and poems to affix with pushpins to the walls. They were already so full that anyone who was coming for the first time and wanted to pin something up would need help finding a spot. I helped these people, carefully moving one memento half an inch to the left, another an inch to the right, to squeeze in a snapshot that was the only photo the small Ecuadoran woman had of the son who had washed dishes at Windows on the World. It was hard for first-time visitors, not just because the walls were so packed, and not just because they hadn’t started friendships with the other families that were more regular visitors, but also because if they were only coming for the first time a year after the tragic events had occurred, it was maybe because they came from another country and might not speak English, or because their relationship with the dead person they had known had been a difficult one. So I handed out Kleenex to gay German brothers and bottled water to dotty English aunts, and awkwardly patted the back of the estranged ex-husband from Belize who broke down in sobs. This was the job of the junior staff, during the anniversary of September 11—well, some of the junior staff, anyway. The secretaries but not the city planning interns, the girls from PR but not the guys from program development. Women, in point of fact, no men at all, spent the day supplying the thumbtacks and fresh pens and water and tissues and keys for the bathroom in the hall. Maybe, being Republicans, the senior staff had some family-values sort of notion that women possess inherent delicacy and sensitivity—despite the abundant evidence to the contrary within their own organization. Or maybe they just knew that twenty-something Ivy League boys don’t take kindly to being drafted for emotional shit work. Meanwhile, the bone marrow remained a problem. It occurred to Eric that Sally was a natural to assist in this quest, but since we still didn’t know for sure whether her parents had been murdered by a lunatic with a high-powered rifle, there was the risk of disaster en route to enlisting her help. “My parents what? What?! Oh God, did I not call you?” Sally’s tone was stricken. Eric had never before inadvertently blundered into a conversation with anyone about their parents’ recent hideous murder, but somewhere deep inside he had always feared, and even assumed, that one day it would come to this. “No, no, no, everything’s fine. The movers didn’t show up, that’s all. They were supposed to drive in from Rhode Island, but they never came. I’m so sorry, I thought I called! They’re Czech, and I think they’re on crank. The movers, I mean. If I get them to come again, can I still have the couch?” It did not even occur to Eric to ask Sally why she had hired Czech moving guys who were both addicted to meth and from Rhode Island. Instead, still gasping from the unimaginable telephonic hell so narrowly averted, he told her that she could indeed still have the couch, which was still teetering on one end in the stairwell of our apartment, but only if she would help them find a marrowbone. “Sure, sounds like fun. What’s a marrowbone?” Sally and I have managed to remain close friends ever since living together our freshman year in college even though I’m the kind of person, who, when bored or unhappy, either drinks myself into oblivion or cooks very unhealthy things; Sally is the kind of person who, when bored or unhappy, goes jogging or cleans the bathroom with a toothbrush or matriculates at rabbinical school. Sally didn’t yet want to talk much about the departure of her good-looking English boyfriend, but her tone, like an aural wrinkle of the nose, when she mentioned his dissertation on the prehistoric roots of feminism, and the gusto with which she agreed to join the marrow hunt, led Eric to suspect that the jig was definitely up with the Brit. Eric took off work early, Heathcliff handed the cosmetics kiosk off to somebody or other, and Sally ventured down from the Upper West Side. They all met in front of Ottomanelli’s at five minutes to six. The shop was still open, barely, but was fresh out of marrowbones. They then proceeded on their grand tour of West Village groceries, flitting from Gourmet Garages to Garden of Edens. Only after five stops’ worth of flirtatious probing over meat counters (flirting by Sally, or possibly by Heathcliff, if they ran into any bubbly female butchers—but not by Eric, who was miserable at flirtation—I practically had to take him to a frat party and dose him with GHB-laced punch to seduce him) did they at last obtain their six inches of cow thighbone. The three of them emerged from Jefferson Market with the marrowbone in its blue checkered bag held high—triumph at last! Eric felt the shudder of disaster averted. A month ago, he’d never have suspected how important a piece of cow might be to his marriage. His giddiness was, however, somewhat squelched when Sally told him she would not be returning with him to Queens as planned, to eat the Bifteck Sauté Bercy I would be garnishing with the bone marrow of a cow. “I don’t think it’s a good idea,” she said. “Ah, come on,” Heathcliff chimed in—not because he harbored a secret crush on her, much as I might want that to be so. I’ve long cherished a tiny hope that maybe the two of them would get together someday. Which, if you knew Heathcliff and Sally, you would immediately see was an epically bad idea. There must be something wrong with me. “I just don’t think I can face the subway ride back. Tell Julie I’m sorry.” She was far from the first dinner guest we had lost to the irresistible urge not to go to the outer boroughs to eat French food in a grotty “loft” apartment, but every time it happened it was both a disappointment and an obscure sort of humiliation. Socially speaking, we might as well have lived in Jersey. Meanwhile, I had straightened up the Family Room after the last mourner left, and gone home. Even as my friends scoured the streets of the West Village for my bit of bone, I was separating the cloves of two heads of garlic for Purée de Pommes de Terre à l’Ail, or garlic mashed potatoes with a garlic sauce. Which is fantastic but sure does make for some dishes. (Have you ever seen pictures of Julia’s kitchen? It’s lined in pegboard, the whole thing, with rows on rows of pots, the outline of each one drawn on with marker so she always knew which pot went where. Her husband, Paul, did that for her, or maybe he did it for his own sanity. He was always very methodical. Such a setup might come in handy for me from time to time—say, for instance, when realizing at the very moment I’m meant to add boiling milk to the rapidly darkening roux that I have not in fact put the milk on to boil. At times like these it might be convenient to be able to have the smallest saucepan immediately to hand, rather than scrabbling around under the counter with one hand while frantically stirring the roux with the other. But I will never have such a setup, because the very last thing in this world I am is methodical.) The making of Purée de Pommes de Terre à l’Ail is exacting and not quick, but even so, and even given my late start, I was still finished before the bone retrieval party, or what was left of it, returned. I was getting a little nervous. To pass the time, I went online to check e-mail. My friend Isabel lives in the Texas hill country with her husband, Martin, and her mother, who’s a professional animal communicator. Isabel is, well—hell, I can’t explain Isabel. Just take a look for yourself: Nancy has just shared with me a BRILLIANT, weirdly prescient and Truman-Capote-mixed-in-with-Burroughs-ian dream in which I was choreographing a TV Easter special with a cast of deranged chipmunks. And it reminded me of a dream I had last weekend, which I’m pretty sure is precognitive, I’ve been rereading my Dreaming into Truth, and this has all the signs. Now, I have never met Nancy, do not understand (nor much want to) how a dream about chipmunks dancing could possibly be construed as pertaining to Truman Capote, William S. Burroughs, or precognition, and have never heard of a book called Dreaming into Truth. Also, you should realize that Isabel sent this to her entire mailing list, several dozen people at least. This is what she’s always like. In an age of brevity, Isabel is unembarrassedly prolix. This would read somewhat more amusingly if you knew her voice, for Isabel has a voice like a genius third grader who’s skipped her Ritalin—swooping from low guttural imitations of people you’ve never heard of into high-pitched trills and back again, unpredictably. Sometimes eardrum-splittingly. Her voice, I think for the first time right at this instant, is not unlike Julia’s: I’m walking on cobblestones beside a river. I pass a sidewalk café, and sitting at one of the tables is Richard Hell. (Oh, also? I have no idea who Richard Hell is. Not a clue.) He’s drinking iced tea and wearing an old argyle sweater with leather pants and very thick purple eyeliner, which looks really sexy somehow. So I say, “Remember me? It’s Isabel. I just wanted to tell you that I finished Find It Now and it was wonderful.” His book is called Go Now, but in the dream I called it Find It Now, not because I had misremembered the name of the book but because in the dream that WAS the name of the book. And Richard says, “Have some real English tea.” But when I reach out to take a cup I realize I’m holding a bright pink dildo. It’s teeny-tiny, it fits in the palm of my hand. I know it will only get big in the bath, like a sponge but hard. Next thing I know I’m knocking on an apartment door painted a sort of queer faded crimson, with the number 524 on it. My friend Julie—you know Julie, she’s the one who’s doing that cooking blog I sent you all a link to?—opens the door, and her hair is all wild, and her husband Eric is in the background throwing rounds of pizza dough in the air, singing beautifully. Julie asks me in to eat, but I hand her the dildo and say, “Thanks for the dildo you gave me, but I can’t use it.” Julie asks why, looking very shocked, and I say, “I don’t take baths anymore, only showers.” To which Julie says, with this totally un-Julie-like primness: “Well, that’s your problem, isn’t it?” Now, this is embarrassing, and my aunt Sukie is going to just die when she reads this, but Isabel didn’t make up the thing about me sending her the dildo. We’d been having an e-mail exchange—a private e-mail exchange, I might add—about Isabel’s sex life, which I guess was less than totally satisfying, which, well, whose isn’t? And it’s not like I’m some kind of dildo maven, but I did spend some time in San Francisco once. I guess I wanted to look hiply pro-sex or something, because sometimes when you’re friends with Isabel it’s nice to know more about something than she does. So I sort of talked up the joys of sex toys—gleaned from several years of Web surfing, rather than much in the way of actual experience. And I guess I talked a pretty good game, because Isabel wound up sort of enthralled with the concept. Then it was almost like I couldn’t not send her a dildo for her birthday. So I did. God, I hope her husband isn’t on her mailing list. I was not at all sure how to respond to this missive, so I went offline again without answering and went back to the kitchen. Deciding to assume that Eric, Heathcliff, and Sally’s late arrival was a good sign, I opened the Book to the page on extracting marrow. “Stand the bone on one end and split it with a cleaver,” wrote Julia, sounding ever so confident and blithe. I could think of one possible wrinkle right off the bat, which was that I had no cleaver. A few other vague misgivings were floating around in the old brainpan as well. At that moment the door swung open. Eric and Heathcliff strode through like Arctic explorers in from the cold. Eric bore his plastic bag before him like a prized ice core sample. He was no doubt expecting a thankful kiss, at the very least—perhaps a good deal more. “Who’s the man?” he bellowed. “You got it, did you?” “I sure as hell did!” He cackled, even did a little dance. Heathcliff grinned a one-sided grin, and graciously did not roll his eyes. “Did you have to trade Sally in for it?” “What?” Heathcliff explained, “She couldn’t make it. Didn’t want to deal with the subway.” I sighed. I hadn’t kissed Eric hello, and he was beginning to fear his hopes for a show of gratitude would be dashed. “Well, maybe it’s for the best anyway.” “How do you mean?” “It’s time to extract the beef marrow.” The look I gave the two of them was slightly stricken. “Not sure she’d want to be around for this.” My largest knife was a carving one with a serrated edge, probably nine inches long with a blade about an inch and a half at its widest point. I’d always thought it a rather grand, daunting sort of a knife, but after one whack I could see it was not nearly tool enough for the job. “Julia must have the strength of ten secretaries,” I muttered. “She should have been a crusader—she’d have been hell at dispatching infidels. ‘Split it with a cleaver,’ my ass.” For a moment Eric and Heathcliff stood over the bone in silence. Eric rested his chin in his hand thoughtfully; Heathcliff scratched the back of his head. A few years ago, Heathcliff lived in New York for a while. The plan was that he would crash on our couch for a few weeks while looking for a place—he wound up staying there an entire year. This sounds like the worst kind of horror, a married couple with a brother-in-law lodged permanently in the living room, but it actually worked out pretty well. We cooked together a lot—Heathcliff makes a mean spinach, sausage, and cream pasta—and watched a ton of movies, and had a hell of a good time, actually. On the downside, Eric and I had sex like a dozen times that entire year. (But I don’t think we can really put all the blame for that at Heathcliff’s feet.) On the upside, I had lots of opportunities to sit back while my husband and my brother worked out various domestic puzzles, which was fun and saved me having to do it besides. Watching them sussing out the marrow situation got me feeling a little nostalgic, actually. “Do you have a jigsaw?” Heathcliff asked. For twenty minutes the two of them went back and forth with the saw Eric had dug out of the hall closet, until both of them were dripping with sweat. They managed to cut into the thing about an inch. The oozy pink stuff on the blade of the saw was, though exactly what we were looking for, truly horrifying. The boys were looking a little green. “Hell, give it to me.” I threw the bone into some simmering water on the stove. This felt wrong, like Julia would not approve, but I just didn’t know what else to do. I scooped the bone out of the pot after a few minutes and went after it again, this time with my very smallest knife, a paring one, about three inches long and narrow enough to fit into the round tunnel running down the middle of the bone. Slowly, painfully, I wormed my way into the interior. I clawed the stuff out bit by painful pink bit, until my knife was sunk into the leg bone up past the hilt. It made dreadful scraping noises—I felt like I could feel it in the center of my bones. A passing metaphor to explorers of the deep wilds of Africa does not seem out of place here—there was a definite Heart of Darkness quality to this. How much more interior can you get, after all, than the interior of bones? It’s the center of the center of things. If marrow were a geological formation, it would be magma roiling under the earth’s mantle. If it were a plant, it would be a delicate moss that grows only in the highest crags of Mount Everest, blooming with tiny white flowers for three days in the Nepalese spring. If it were a memory, it would be your first one, your most painful and repressed one, the one that has made you who you are. So there I was, scooping out the center of the center of things, thinking mostly that it was some nasty shit. Pink, as I think I’ve mentioned. Very wet. Not liquid, but not really solid, either—gluey clots of stuff that plopped down onto the cutting board with a sickening sound. The boys looked on, mesmerized. “Someday,” Eric said, swallowing hard, “our ship is going to come in. We are going to move out of New York, and we are going to have our house in the country, like we’ve always wanted.” I thought he was just trying to talk me into my happy place, but he had a point, and when he finished swallowing his bile, he made it. “When this happens, we need to get ourselves a rescue cow. We will buy it from a slaughterhouse. And then we will treat it very well.” “Yes,” agreed Heathcliff. “Damned straight.” It’s true. I am a fanatical eater of flesh. But bone marrow, it struck me, was something I had no right to see, not like this, raw and quivering on my cutting board. Unbidden, the word violate popped into my head. “It’s like bone rape. Oh God, did I just say that out loud?” We got maybe a tablespoon and a half out of the bone and decided it would have to be enough. Eric and Heathcliff had to go into the living room and find a football game to rid themselves of the horrid vision. Muttering “Shake it off, goddammit,” I went ahead and began sautéing the steaks. But once you’ve got your head in a place like that, it can be hard to crawl out again. Reading about “the moment you observe a little pearling of red juice beginning to ooze at the surface of the steak” didn’t help at all in that department, though it did make for an excellently prepared steak. The sight of the pink stuff on my cutting board was still making me feel sick, but I thought I detected another, more buried sensation as well. A dark sort of thrill. When the steaks were done, I put them on a plate and stirred the marrow and some parsley into the buttery pan juices. The vestigial heat from the juices is supposedly sufficient to lightly cook the marrow. Besides, Eric assured me, there was no way you could get mad cow from marrow, and even if you could, cooking it would make no difference—something to do with prions or something—but it sure looked scary, so I decided to leave it on the heat just a bit anyway. Then I dolloped a spoonful of the marrow sauce onto each steak, plopped down some garlic mashed potatoes and Tomates Grillées au Four—just whole tomatoes brushed with olive oil and roasted in the oven for a few minutes—and dinner was served. If I had thought the beef marrow might be a hell of a lot of work for not much difference, I needn’t have worried. The taste of marrow is rich, meaty, intense in a nearly too-much way. In my increasingly depraved state, I could think of nothing at first but that it tasted like really good sex. But there was something more than that, even. (Though who could ask for more than that? I could make my first million selling dirty-sex steak.) What it really tastes like is life, well lived. Of course the cow I got marrow from had a fairly crappy life—lots of crowds and overmedication and bland food that might or might not have been a relative. But deep in his or her bones, there was the capacity for feral joy. I could taste it. One theory on cannibals, of course, is that they eat parts of their slain enemies to benefit from that person’s greatest assets—their strength, their courage. Then there’s that thing they do in Germany. You heard about that, didn’t you? Some man over there agreed to let another man cut off his penis, cook it, then feed it to him—now, what in hell was that all about? What did he think the taste of his stir-fried cock would tell him about himself? Was he seeking to wring one last drop of pleasure out of the thing? (Goodness, that’s an unnecessarily vivid metaphor.) But somehow—I said this over dinner—this steak with beef marrow sauce, it didn’t seem all that different. “It’s like eating life. It’s almost like eating my own life, you know?” “No, not really. But it’s a hell of a good steak, sis.” If I tried to say something like that to anybody at the downtown government agency I would get nothing but blank looks and a subsequent internal investigation. Especially on the first anniversary of the tragic events, some might think that a discussion of spiritual cannibalism might be seen as being in poor taste. Sally, the only sex maniac former rabbinical student we know, might understand, if only she could withstand the trauma of a subway ride to the outer boroughs. Julia might, too. As I lay in bed early on the morning of September 12, dreading the approaching moment when I would have to throw off the covers and go to work, I thought about Julia’s job for her government agency. The OSS existed before the invention of cubicles and all that that implies, so Julia didn’t have to work in a cubicle. She didn’t have to answer the phone, and she didn’t have to comfort crying people, and she didn’t have to ride the subway to get home. She got to handle information substantially more top-secret than that bureaucrats are assholes, and that a not-insignificant minority of the American people are blindingly stupid, shithouse crazy, and/or really terrible memorial designers. In all these things she was better off, in her secretarial days, than me. But she didn’t have her Paul yet, either, I thought as I curled up against Eric’s back for one last rest. And (as I tasted one last, gentle, beefy burp) she didn’t yet have beef marrow, either. So I guessed I had a few things up on her as well. June 1944 Kandy, Ceylon One bare, glaring twenty-five-watt bulb was not sufficient for this close work at noontime on a bright day; at dusk on a rainy one it was close to impossible. Paul pinched the bridge of his nose hard between his thumb and forefinger, then pushed the heels of his palms into his eye sockets. His bowels were in rebellion yet again, and he ought to be in bed, but these jobs weren’t going to get done by themselves—when you are the Presentation Division, you get no sick days. He stared absently out his window. Through the curtains of warm rain he could watch the small elephants being herded out of the botanical gardens for their evening meal. The animals’ slow, gentle pace, their small swishing tails and comically long Theda Bara eyelashes always cheered him, and the gardens were beautiful in any weather. On the wall of the cadjan hut where he worked, an emerald-green lizard perched, making a sound like a spatula rasping across the bottom of a cast-iron pan. Paul dug his fingers down into his sock to scratch uselessly at his damned athlete’s foot, then returned to his drafting table, setting his mind to get one last board done, at least. But then, just as he’d gotten himself settled and his head back into his work, the one light he had went out. Of course. “Dammit.” He reached up and gingerly unscrewed the bare bulb, shook it for the light rattle of a sprung filament, but there was none. He replaced it, got up, and went to peek out his door. The lights were out everywhere. He’d suspected as much. This late in the day, they’d probably not come on again. To think he’d once thought work with the OSS would be dashing and exciting. Well, perhaps he could at least organize some concepts for the boards he’d have to start first thing tomorrow. He began to shut his door again. “Paul! Just what are you thinking of doing, alone in there in the dark?” It was Julie, of course, no mistaking that voice, but at first he did not see from where she was speaking to him. He peered into the dishwater dimness of the hallway but saw no one. “Paul! Behind you!” She and Jane had their faces pressed to the flimsy shutters of his one window and were grinning like a couple of twelve-year-old kids. Jane wiggled a summoning finger at him, and Julie cried, “Come with us to watch the elephants get washed. Don’t tell us you don’t want to!” “Need to get this work done, I’m afraid. I’m already late with them, they need finished boards by tomorrow at the latest.” “Balls to that! If they want to get work out of you they ought to get you some light, I say.” Jane cocked her eyebrow at Paul in a way that would have been more seductive if it hadn’t been so obvious she meant it to be. “See what a bad influence you’ve been on our little Julia? She’s got the mouth of a sailor these days.” Paul sighed. The girls had a point, didn’t they? Balls to that, indeed. He set his pen down. “I’ll be right out.” DAY 40, RECIPE 49 . . . To Make an Omelette Why don’t you just call someone to take the damned thing away?” I was sitting in the living room with my right ankle—swollen to twice its usual circumference and turning an unsettling shade of yellowish-green—propped up on an ottoman. Eric was in the kitchen, getting me some ice; Heathcliff was standing over me with his arms crossed. “I told Sally she could have it. She’s going through a rough patch.” “Yeah, well, you can’t get into your apartment without major injury. I’d say that’s pretty rough.” I shrugged. “Now who was it she broke up with? A David?” “Of course.” In the ten years I have known her, Sally has dated at least a dozen Davids. It’s kind of creepy. Eric came out of the kitchen with some ice in a Ziploc freezer bag. “What do you want me to do about dinner?” “I’ll cook. I’ve got the artichokes to do. Anyway, I’m really behind.” “You shouldn’t be putting weight on that foot. Hold the ice on.” But I was already getting up and hopping back toward the kitchen. “I only did six recipes last week. And the week before that with the folks in town I didn’t do any at all. My readers need me!” I had meant that last to be construed as a joke, even though it wasn’t, really. Eric was having none of it. “Your readers? Come on, Julie.” “What?” “I think the dozen people who click onto your Web site while they take their coffee breaks will manage to carry on if they don’t get to read about you sautéing thorny vegetables in butter for one more day.” “Oh, fuck off.” Eric and I glared at one another with a poisonous good humor meant to suggest this whole argument thing was just a big loving put-on. Heathcliff smirked, eyes sliding between us, taken in not at all. My brother has house-sat for a mobster in Crete. He’s been mugged by policemen in Hungary. He’s chewed coca leaves offered to him by a waiter in Peru. He left an island off the coast of Sicily once because he was the only redhead the people there had ever seen, and the old ladies kept crossing themselves whenever they saw him. What’s more, the woman he lives with off and on, when he isn’t getting his wallet stolen in Budapest or herding goats in Italy or selling soap in New York, is the kind of person who can just decide of an evening to whip up an apple pie from scratch. Together they make ice cream for the pie by putting milk and cream and sugar and vanilla in a coffee can set inside an old potato chip tin filled with ice, then sitting catty-corner on their kitchen floor and rolling the tin back and forth between them. Clearly, he’s got laid-back domestic bliss down just as pat as brave adventuresomeness. When I snap at Eric in front of Heathcliff, then, it’s a humiliating acknowledgment of my relative failure on both these fronts. But it’s not only that. It’s also a searing reminder that I will inevitably turn out just like my mother, either a martyr or a nag or irrational or just grumpy about my bad joints. Hopping around the kitchen on a swollen ankle while bitching meanly at a spouse, for example, is exactly something my mother would do. I would have soothed the irritation provoked by this realization with a healthy vodka tonic if only Eric hadn’t dropped the bottle of Stoli he’d bought on the way home on the subway platform, smashing it. Getting mad about that would be another very Mom-like thing to do, so I just gritted my teeth and set about preparing the very strange meal I’d planned for the night, Omelettes Gratinées à la Tomate and Quartiers de Fonds d’Artichauts au Beurre—tomato-filled omelettes gratinéed with cream and cheese, and artichoke hearts, quartered and buttered. Chris—the one who wrote the halfway creepy thing about missing me so much when I didn’t post and thinking I was dead—found it mind-boggling that before the Julie/Julia Project began, I had never eaten an egg. She asked, “How can you have gotten through life without eating a single egg? How is that POSSIBLE???!!!!!” Of course, it wasn’t exactly true that I hadn’t eaten an egg. I had eaten them in cakes. I had even eaten them scrambled once or twice, albeit in the Texas fashion, with jalapenos and a pound of cheese. But the goal of my egg-eating had always been to make sure the egg did not look, smell, or taste anything like one, and as a result my history in this department was, I suppose, unusual. Chris wasn’t the only person shocked. People I’d never heard of chimed in with their awe and dismay. I didn’t really get it. Surely this is not such a bizarre hang-up as hating, say, croutons, like certain spouses I could name. Luckily, eggs made the Julia Child way often taste like cream sauce. Take Oeufs en Cocotte, for example.These are eggs baked with some butter and cream in ramekins set in a shallow pan of water. They are tremendous. In fact the only thing better than Oeufs en Cocotte is Oeufs en Cocotte with Sauce au Cari on top when you’ve woken up with a killer hangover, after one of those nights when somebody decided at midnight to buy a pack of cigarettes after all, and the girls wind up smoking and drinking and dancing around the living room to the music the boy is downloading from iTunes onto his new, ludicrously hip and stylish G3 PowerBook until three in the morning. On mornings like this, Oeufs en Cocotte with Sauce au Cari, a cup of coffee, and an enormous glass of water is like a meal fed to you by the veiled daughters of a wandering Bedouin tribe after one of their number comes upon you splayed out in the sands of the endless deserts of Araby, moments from death—it’s that good. Still, I think it was the omelette section that really turned me around on eggs. The diagrams in MtAoFC are always exciting. You can pretend you’re mastering something really daunting, like lithography or cold fusion or something. Or maybe there’s another analogy in here somewhere: Grasp the handle of the pan with both hands, thumbs on top, and immediately begin jerking the pan vigorously and roughly toward you at an even, 20-degree angle over the heat, one jerk per second. It is the sharp pull of the pan toward you which throws the eggs against the lip of the pan, then back over its bottom surface. You must have the courage to be rough or the eggs will not loosen themselves from the bottom of the pan. After several jerks, the eggs will begin to thicken. It’s not just me, is it? Surely you too think immediately of some ancient and probably very painful Japanese sex practice you vaguely remember reading about when you were in college? Okay, maybe it’s just me. JC writes, “A simple-minded but perfect way to master the movement is to practice outdoors with half a cupful of dried beans.” I can just picture her chortling to herself as she wrote this, thinking of all those early-sixties American housewives in their sweater sets and Mary Tyler Moore flip hairdos scattering beans all over their manicured lawns. Because simple-minded is my middle name, I followed her advice, only instead of a lawn, my pinto beans got scattered all over the grimy sidewalks of Jackson Avenue. Drivers of semis honked at me; prostitutes stared. A minivan from Virginia pulled up in front of me. The driver, seeing that she had spotted someone of good sense and breeding in the person of Julie throwing beans out of a pan onto the sidewalk, asked me for directions to New Jersey. “Lady, you are hell and gone from fucking New Jersey.” My manners are not always the best, I’ll admit, and unsuccessfully flipping dried beans in a skillet in front of God and everybody does not do much to improve them. (When I write about this incident, my high school boyfriend Henry, who I broke up with to go out with Eric, and who didn’t really forgive me for that for about ten years, writes, “Now your neighborhood has a crazy bean lady. That is so cool. . . .” Also, somebody I don’t know from Adam takes the trouble to lament the fact that I use the word f**king so much; people who object to my choice of language always use lots of asterisks.) Accomplishing this technique with actual eggs can make you feel quite giddy—it’s like managing to tie a cherry stem into a knot with your tongue. The first time I managed it—sort of, anyway—was on a Sunday morning, for Eric and his friend from work, Tori. I didn’t know Tori all that well—she was an artist, she spent her days in an office with my husband, and she was pretty. For all I knew she could tie cherry stems into perfect bows with her tongue and flip omelettes like a whirling dervish to boot. So I was a little nervous. When cooking omelettes the Julia way, everything goes so fast. It’s just silly to try to decipher the drawings and their captions—which besides being generally intimidating are also written for the right-handed among us, necessitating some synapse-switching on my part—while actually cooking. I couldn’t get the first one to flip at all; it just crumpled against the far lip of the pan, cracking up some at the stress points. But once I flipped it onto a plate it sort of covered up the filling—mushrooms cooked down with cream and Madeira, good, good stuff—and looked more or less like something one might call an omelette. So that one I decided to call a qualified success. The second, though, could not qualify as a success under any circumstances; first it stuck, and then when I flipped harder, the eggs sloshed all over the stovetop. Another flip sent a large portion of the semicongealed thing to the floor. I gave up, flipped its raggedy ass onto a plate, and called it mine. On the third, with increasingly terrified jerking motions, I managed to get a start on the rolling thing Julia describes, a bit. I managed not to spill anything more onto the stovetop, at least, and it stayed in one piece. I guess you can’t ask for any more than that. We ate our omelettes roulées with some prosecco Tori brought. I do love an excuse to drink before noon. Anyway, by the time I limped into the kitchen to make a dinner of artichoke hearts and tomato omelettes for my husband, my brother, and me, I’d gotten pretty comfortable with the whole egg-flipping thing. The omelettes came out more or less omelette-looking, no harm done to the stovetop, and soon enough dinner was served. All should have been well, but somewhere along the way, with the lack of liquor and the embarrassing marital bickering, I’d gotten my hackles up, I guess. Sally’s couch was what started it. Discussion of why it was still teetering in the foyer had led naturally enough to talk of her love life, always an interesting conversation. “It’s not like the guy’s some great catch. He’s cute, I guess—if you like the type.” Sally’s type is muscular, loud, handsome, funny, and arrogant; mine is thin, quiet, dark, funny, and shy. In our years of friendship we have never once been attracted to the same man. “But he’s a total fraud. He basically told her that she had to apply and go with him to Oxford so he wouldn’t be ashamed of her. Him, ashamed of her. That ass isn’t worthy to lick her Manolos.” Sally was the only person I knew who actually owned Manolos—she’d bought them on eBay, and they made her feel deliciously sexy. And when Sally felt deliciously sexy, every man within a three-block radius thought her deliciously sexy as well—it was like a pheromone thing, she couldn’t help it. Heathcliff poked at his artichokes somewhat warily, as if they might still have some fight in them. But while it’s true that when you attack artichokes, artichokes can fight back, the benefits of evolution had not saved these particular specimens—sprained ankle or no, I had been more than a match for them. I’d broken off their stems and snapped off their leaves, sliced and pared them down to tender yellow disks with spiky purple centers like tropical flowers, floating in a bowl of water doused with vinegar to keep their color up, simmered them, and mercilessly scooped out those tough, colorful petals, the artichokes’ last defense, until they were nothing more than accommodating delivery systems for butter. “So if he was such an asshole, what’s the problem?” “The problem is, she wants somebody. Or thinks she does. If she doesn’t want to hear that she keeps picking assholes, what am I supposed to say?” I’ve been with Eric the entire time I’ve known Sally, and in all this time Sally has never dated a boy for more than six months. This is a state of affairs that cuts both ways. Sometimes she’ll present us with a flurry of boys all at once: Cuban food with one on Wednesday, a Ben Stiller movie with another on Friday, brunch on Sunday with a third, the two of them freshly showered and flushed from one last morning round. She’ll have a cheerful, leering glint in her eye, and when the boy gets up to use the restroom, she’ll lean across the table with a grin and whisper, “What do you think? He’s cute, isn’t he?” These periodic springtimes of Sally’s erotic life can sometimes knock me for a loop. One thing that must be said about marrying your high school sweetheart is, one does rather miss out on the polyamorous lifestyle. But it’s always a kick seeing Sally so confident, proud, with these guys’ dicks in one hand, the world on a string in the other. But then some high school friend gets pregnant, or Sally’s mother gives her insufferably well-adjusted little sister who’s getting married a homemade family cookbook of well-loved recipes, then refuses to give one to Sally because “It’s only for the wives in the family.” Then Sally starts bringing only one boy around, one of the original three or another one altogether, and this time there’s a slightly desperate appeal in her eye, and when she asks, “He’s cute, isn’t he?” it’s more like a plea for reassurance than a prideful acknowledgment of her catch. She starts asking other leading questions: “You know,” she’ll say, her eyes wide with worry, “he only wants to have sex like three times a week. That’s a bad sign, right?” Or she might just say, “What do you think I should do?” Sally’s looking for my usual “married friend” advice: “Relationships have ups and downs,” “stay the course,” etc. But I don’t want to give it. I usually don’t like the guy, anyway, and I don’t like who Sally is when she asks me. What I like, when it comes down to it, is the gleeful, sex-crazed, willfully neurotic Sally. The Sally who doesn’t care about being married like her dull sister, who knows that not one of the boys she brings over for us to meet is one whit good enough for her—not smart enough, not kind enough, with no gift to match her percolating laugh, her voice that can spread its champagne bubbles throughout a room of strangers. Eric skated his last artichoke quarter heartily around on the plate he had balanced on my swelling foot—which in turn was resting on his lap—sopping up the last bits of melted butter. “It’s not like Sally’s some kind of saint.” Just as he plopped the last khaki green, dripping triangle into his mouth I smacked him, hard, on the shoulder; quite a trick, since I had to reach across the entire length of my outstretched leg to do it. “Don’t be a jerk.” “Come on. You know I love Sally. But she’s—prickly.” It’s true that none of my girlfriends are much for compliance. Gwen once got into an actual fistfight on the subway after telling a bunch of squealing high school girls to shut the hell up. (One of the girls gave her a scratch across the cheek from her three-inch fake nails—it didn’t heal for weeks.) Isabel’s singularly raucous baby voice and willfully obscure sense of humor have been known to actually make men break out in hives. And Sally is the most challenging of all of them. If she were a movie star, she’d be Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday; if she were a vegetable, she’d be an artichoke. As it is, she’s Sally, tough cookie extraordinaire and a hell of a person to try to set up on a blind date. “You know,” added Heathcliff, “maybe Sally just isn’t the marrying kind. Ow! What?” Maybe if the men in my life weren’t always making smart-ass comments, they wouldn’t have to worry about bruises so much. When we were kids, Heathcliff used to have a toy, a twisty piece of blown glass with two bulbs on either end, connected by a twining bit of pipe. It looked rather like some kitchen gadget Julia might have picked up on her travels abroad, except that it was filled with a mysterious red liquid. The idea was that you held the bulb with the liquid in it in your palm, and the heat from your body would be enough to make it boil up to the other bulb. Only it didn’t work for me. When I held the empty bulb, the red liquid in the other bulb seemed to be pulled back to my palm, as if whichever law of physics or chemistry made this toy work didn’t apply to me. This was just one of many ominous clues to the puzzle of What Kind of Freak Was I, Anyway? Another was the way I lost things—car keys, eyeglasses, retainers, twenty-dollar bills—at a rate that went way beyond plain flightiness, into the paranormal realm. Or how later, when I was a teenager, driving home alone after some late sexually fraught night out, I’d burn out the streetlights—they’d extinguish in front of me as I drove down the highway, one after another after another. When I started cooking, in college, I quickly learned that I possess an eerie inability to make anything that requires setting, fermenting, jelling or rising. Bread, mayonnaise, vodka Jell-O shots, it doesn’t matter. If a liquid and a solid are meant to mix together and become something else, something airy or puffy or creamy, I’m hopeless. Also, I kill every plant I touch. I didn’t read comic books growing up, and so didn’t know about the X-Men until Eric explained them to me as an adult. If I had, I would have realized much sooner that I’m a mutant—I’m thinking something like Magneto crossed with Rogue, with a bit of Lucille Ball mixed in. Perhaps it’s all connected somehow to my hormonal trouble—the unwelcome genetic gift that is one more thing my perfect brother, being male, will never have to worry over. That gift worth a fortune to the electrolysis technician and someday, I assume, to the obstetrician who’ll be writing up the scrips for the drugs I’ll need to use to get pregnant, if indeed I’ll be able to get pregnant at all. The shock of panic that shoots through me when I think about this proves that (a) there is such a thing as a biological clock, (b) I have one, and (c) it’s ticking. All my life, it has been as if tiny explosions were going off all around me, small revolutions, conspirators in my own body setting off booby traps. So when Heathcliff spoke the words “not the marrying kind,” I recognized the rumble of the bomb it set off deep in the underground garage of my gut. “What does that even mean? ‘Not the marrying kind’?” Heathcliff and Eric were now both rubbing their sore arms. “What’s so bad about that? Marriage isn’t for everybody!” Of course not. Marriage is no more for everyone than heterosexuality or French cooking. But the queasy spasm that tore through me when he said it was real, and it didn’t go away. “You’re not just born one way or the other.” “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe you are.” Heathcliff has never been short on women, much like Sally’s never been short on men, yet he has always remained essentially a bachelor. He lives lightly on the land, has few possessions, keeps a distance—a kind of redheaded Last of the Mohicans. Usually it doesn’t bother me. “So, what, you think you’re beyond the whole marriage thing?” “What?” He raised his eyebrows, sardonically baffled as only Heathcliff can manage. “Don’t look at me like that.” “Like what?” “Like you’re better than me, that’s what like.” Suddenly, my blood was pounding in my ears, and I realized I was getting ready to say something I would regret. I was going to Tell. When I was in fourth grade and Heathcliff was in first our parents separated. Our father went to live in some condo in far south Austin, and for most of a year we’d see him only twice a week—once when he came to take us out for burgers and video games, and once when he picked up our mother for their marriage counseling sessions. They worked it out, and Dad moved back in, and everyone lived happily, if occasionally grouchily and resentfully, ever after. All of this was old family history. But there was one thing I knew that Heathcliff didn’t. It happened in Dad’s ZX. My father was driving, my mother was in the passenger seat, I was in the back, and my mother was crying. “Are you okay, Mommy?” I asked. “No, honey, I’m not okay.” “Does your head hurt?” (Mom had sinus trouble—her head often hurt.) “No. My heart hurts.” This was new. “Why does your heart hurt?” “Because your father is in love with another woman!” My mom and I have always shared a gift for the cutting melodramatic statement; I was dimly aware even in the dreadful moment that I had just backed her up on a hell of an alley oop. Even as I began to sniffle in the backseat, somewhere deep I thought to memorize those lines—I knew the value of a good sob story. The whole thing was so exciting and dramatic that it wasn’t until days later that the knowledge of this Other Woman began to weigh on me. But once it did, it only got heavier and heavier. I started staring at women at the mall or on the street, wondering if one was Her. I began to get tired easily. The circles under my eyes got so bad that teachers would send me home from school (although, to be honest, I might have been taking some advantage here of my inherited histrionic streak). When my mother asked me please, please, please not to tell what I knew to Heathcliff, I promised. Why spread this kind of misery around? Well, apparently the promise stuck, because when I finally broke it that night over our artichokes and tomato omelettes—blurting out to Heathcliff, as if in revenge, that when he was in first grade his father had slept with another woman, and that his parents stayed together anyway, not because they were “the marrying kind,” but because they worked like hell and loved each other more than they’d hurt each other—I began to shake, and a lump of dread, small but heavier than iron, threatened to close up my throat entirely, as if my body judged choking to death a better fate than telling a secret. What did I think? That upon the instant of breaking my silence, my brother would transform into the six-year-old I had to protect, crouched in his pajamas by my parents’ bottle-green glass coffee table, his bright hair still damp from his bath, his face crumpling into uncomprehending tears? Well, he didn’t. Instead, he took another bite of omelette. “I didn’t know that,” he said. He stuck a fork into his final bit of egg, smearing it around the plate to get at the last of the sauce. “But it only makes sense, doesn’t it? It all turned out okay, so I guess it doesn’t matter.” He burped. “I thought omelettes for dinner was a weird idea, but that was pretty good.” And that was that. I’d broken faith, failed to keep perhaps the only real secret I had ever been trusted with. And the ground did not swallow me up. It turned out, in fact, to be no big deal. I didn’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed. There is an entire chapter in MtAoFC devoted to the preparation of eggs. But in cooking my way through it, I found myself ravenously curious about something of which there was no mention: Julia’s first egg. I mean, surely she didn’t just start off blithely jerking off perfect omelettes at birth, right? Surely even the great JC required some practice. So what was Julia’s first egg like? Was it scrambled—a traditional choice? Was it an Easter egg she boiled herself, to tide her over until the big ham dinner? Or was she older when she cooked her first egg, a young woman, embarrassed to tell anyone she’d never acquired the skill, trying to make a dozen eggs Benedict in her first New York apartment and winding up throwing out half a dozen spoiled poached eggs while her roommates’ backs were turned? Could she even have married before she mastered the egg? Julia married late, at thirty-five; perhaps she had wondered for a time if she was the marrying kind. That night, while Eric washed dishes and Heathcliff ate Ben & Jerry’s straight out of the carton and I recovered from the discovery that revealing a decades-old secret was no biggie, really, I wondered if that could be. For some reason it comforted me to think of Julia’s first egg as happening in her garret apartment in Paris, as she spun around in her cocoon, about to hatch as the new Julia, the Julia she was meant to become. DAY 42, RECIPE 53 | DAY 82, RECIPE 95 Disaster/Dinner Party, Dinner Party/Disaster: A Study in Duality On January 1, 1660, a young government worker in London started a diary. He wrote about going to church, where the preacher was saying something or other about circumcision, and about lunch afterward; he mentioned that his wife burned her hand while heating up turkey leftovers. For the next nine years this guy wrote every single day. He witnessed the Great Fire of London and some disappointingly overdone roasts. He went to hundreds of plays, vowed to quit drinking then changed his mind. He ate a lot—no matter the precarious state of the union, a barrel of oysters was always appreciated—and worked a lot, and fondled whatever girls would deign to allow it. And he wrote about all of it—honestly, self-indulgently. He was often entertaining, often mind-bogglingly boring, every now and then ablaze with life—the Sid Vicious of seventeenth-century diarists. And then on May 31, 1669, he just stopped. Some bloggers might say that Samuel Pepys was a sort of proto-blogger, but we’re not a terribly measured lot, so I don’t know that I’d listen to us if I were you. Sure, Pepys obsessively chronicled his interior-decorating ups and downs and the time he masturbated in the water taxi. Sure, he wrote in his pajamas. But although he carefully saved his diary, volumes and volumes of it, for the rest of his life, he never showed it to a single soul. Today, when we blog about our weight-loss problems and our knitting and our opinion of the president’s IQ level, we do it on the blithe assumption that someone gives a shit—even though there’s a guy stuck in Baghdad who blogs, and a Washington DC staff assistant who gets paid by Republican appointees for sex who blogs, and our own jottings must all be dreadfully dull by comparison. Nowadays anyone with a crap laptop and Internet access can sound their barbaric yawp, whatever it may be. But the surprise is that for every person who’s got something to say, it seems there are at least a few people who are interested. Some of them aren’t even related. What I think is that Sam Pepys wrote down all the details of his life for nine years because the very act of writing them down made them important, or at least singular. Overseeing the painters doing his upstairs rooms was rather dull, but writing about it made overseeing the painters doing his upstairs rooms at least seem interesting. Threatening to kill his wife’s dog for pissing on the new rug might have made him feel a bit sheepish and mean, but write it down and you have a hilarious domestic anecdote for the centuries. Imagine if he’d had, say, a safely anonymous pamphlet cranked out on a press and passed around on the streets of London. Wouldn’t he have enjoyed occasionally overhearing some fellow in a tavern recounting to general hilarity Pepys’s own yarn about the king’s spaniel shitting on the royal barge? There’s a dangerous, confessional thrill to opening up your eminently fascinating life and brain to the world at large, and the Internet makes it all so much faster and more breathless and exciting. But I wonder—would we still have Sam’s jack-off stories, the records of his marital spats, if he’d been a blogger rather than a diarist? It’s one thing to chronicle your sexual and social missteps to satisfy your private masochistic urges, but sharing them with the world at large? Surely there are some limits, aren’t there? I wanted to make Heathcliff an orange Bavarian cream while he was in town. Orange was his favorite flavor. But my mutant jelling handicap made me hesitate. In my progress through the dessert chapter so far, my Crème Brûlée had wound up soup, and my Plombières had ranged from smooth but loose to solid but grainy. The Bavarian, unlike the Plombières, had gelatin in it. I didn’t know if this boded ill or well. The prospect of serving my brother, he who effortlessly improvises ice-cream makers out of tin cans, a failed dessert had me terrifically nervous. On the morning of the last Saturday Heathcliff would be in town, I was awakened by Eric’s moans and instantly knew we were in for another of his Blanche days. Everyone has some genes to curse—Eric’s was the one that occasionally made him throw up all day, spending the between times lying in bed with his arm flung over his eyes, suffering through a splitting headache. It isn’t very nice to say, but I had no patience with the Blanche days, since he wouldn’t talk to a doctor about them, citing instead the “Powell stomach” or “drinking too many vodka gimlets.” During the Blanche days, besides moaning and retching violently, Eric also sweated and smelled bad—he was just no fun to be around. If ever I decide I’m not the marrying kind after all, I know it will be on one of Eric’s Blanche days. I was out of bed early, hoping to drown out the first of the heaves with some NPR and the burble of the coffee maker. Sally called at eight on the dot. “Oh my God. Did I wake you up?” “No, I’m up.” “Are you sure? God, I can’t believe I woke up so early! I can’t sleep these days.” “It’s fine. I’m reading the paper. What’s up?” “I talked to Boris.” “Who’s Boris?” “Boris! My Croatian moving guy.” “I thought you said he was Czech.” “Yeah, I was wrong, he’s Croatian. Anyway, he and his brother are going to drive up from Providence today. They’re leaving at nine, so I guess they’ll be in Queens by like twelve thirty or so? Can we come pick up the couch then?” “Um, sure. I just have to go shopping, but I can be back by then.” “You sure it’s not a pain in the ass?” “Nope. I mean yep.” “Okay—I’ll see you at twelve thirty, then.” By the time I got off the phone the vomiting had begun, right on schedule. I peeked into the half bath, on the floor of which Eric was now slumped. “Sally’s coming over today to get the couch.” “She is?” “Yeah. Around twelve thirty.” “Oh. Okay.” His voice was full of watery determination—by twelve thirty he would not be sitting on the floor of the half bath retching up violent green bile, as God was his witness, he would not. I’d seen this courageous defiance before—Eric hits all the Vivien Leigh highlights on his Blanche days. It wouldn’t make any difference. “I’m going to Western Beef now, so I can be back in time.” “Are you taking the Bronco?” “I have to, I guess.” “Be careful.” (After our moving-day disaster we’d gotten the Bronco running again with a new alternator, but I caught the guy who did the replacing staring aghast after me in the one mirror the truck still possessed as I drove away, and it’s true the brakes were feeling awfully soft.) The single best thing about Western Beef on Steinway Street is its name, but there are other things to recommend it as well. For instance, it has convenient recycling vending machines, which might come in handy if I lose my shit and go off on an evil Republican bureaucrat, get fired, and have to start collecting cans for a living. It has reasonably decent produce, a bizarre and fascinating section of West Indian herbs—including some fleshy pinkish seaweed-looking stuff in a cellophane bag labeled “Virility”— and a walk-in refrigerated section. There are no nifty insulated coats like I’ve heard they pass out at the big Fairway on the Upper West Side, but eighteen eggs are less than two dollars, cream is sold in gallon cartons, and they’ve got shelves and shelves of every cheap cut of meat you could want. (And I was making Pot-au-Feu for dinner, so I wanted plenty.) What Western Beef does not have is the sugar cubes I needed for the Bavarian. (I’ll just bet sugar cubes were a lot easier to get in 1961. Now, of course, it’s all sugar packets, not to mention those godawful powders, which always remind me of that scene in 9 to 5 when Lily Tomlin thinks she’s accidentally poisoned Dabney Coleman. Talk about a movie that could give a secretary at a government agency some ideas. But that’s neither here nor there. It’s a shame about the sugar cubes, is all. Sugar cubes have such a neat white wholeness to them—when we were kids, Heathcliff and I used to leave sugar cubes out for the reindeer every Christmas Eve, on the coffee table beside Santa’s plate of cookies, stacked like a tiny crystalline igloo. What are you going to do now, leave the reindeer nine packets of Sweet’N Low?) The Key Food on Thirty-sixth Street in Astoria didn’t have sugar cubes either, though I did pick up the beets and potatoes for the Salade à la d’Argenson that I had totally forgotten to get at Western Beef because I’d written them down at the last minute, on the other side of the shopping list. So I tried the Pathmark. I’d never been to the Pathmark, and let me tell you, I’m never going again. There’s nothing I need that much. The sliding doors at the Pathmark open into a wide, white, empty hallway, totally devoid of any sign of life or foodstuffs. At any moment I expected to see a chiseled Aryan commandant come around the corner to usher me along: “Ja, please, right this way, take a cart, the food is just through here.” But I was at last funneled into not a gas chamber, but a glaring white supermarket the size of a stadium, where for the price of the existential horror felt upon witnessing families buying two carts full of RC cola and generic cheese doodles, or a lonely older man purchasing three dozen packages of ramen noodles and four cartons of no-pulp orange juice, I could procure sugar cubes. It was a very good thing that the Bronco was running. After all this, just lugging the stuff around the teetering sofa bed and up the stairs back to the apartment was enough to get me feeling whiny and put-upon—if I’d had to haul that load home on foot, I’d have probably wound up braining Eric in his bed with a pork shoulder. He was, of course, still racked out when I came back to the apartment. “Do you need any help, honey?” he moaned as I huffed up the stairs with my bags of meat. “Oh, shut up and go back to sleep.” “Okay. I’ll get up soon, I promise.” “Whatever.” On the way home, I had had a sudden stab of dread concerning the beet and potato salad. It had made me a little sweaty under the arms, and even more irritable than I might have been otherwise. Once I dumped the meats into the fridge, I rushed to consult my MtAoFC, and it was as I feared: the potatoes and beets needed to sit together for “at least 12 hours, preferably 24.” The Bavarian needed to set “3 to 4 hours or overnight.” The Pot-au-Feu you should “start cooking 5 hours before you expect to serve.” It was 10:30 in the morning, and I was already running behind. This is hardly unusual, but it pisses me off every single time. Sam Pepys threw dinner parties as a young man—he enjoyed food as much as he enjoyed impressing people, so he was a natural. But of course he didn’t actually cook—he had a wife and a servant for that, or he could just go around the corner to pick up some meat pies or barrels of oysters or something or other. And besides, there just were not as many things to freak out about, foodwise, in Restoration England. Life could be pretty treacherous, what with the plague and the bladder stone surgery sans anesthesia and the occasional violent overthrow of the kingdom, so food just wasn’t all that high on the list of people’s anxieties. Sam didn’t have to worry about no-carb regimens or his father’s heart condition or his neighbor’s new vegan lifestyle. The chickens weren’t getting shot up with antibiotics. There was no mad cow disease. Neither did he agonize over the symbolic weight of the fare—“Will the Secretary of Ships be bored to death of prawns with cheese?” At least if he did, he didn’t write about it, and this is a man who wrote about being blue-balled by scullery maids. Well, if Sam wrote about blue balls, it seems like recounting a dinner party disaster or two is the least I can do. What happened was this: I got called up by this reporter from the Christian Science Monitor, of all things, who had had the totally insane idea to have me cook Boeuf Bourguignon for the editor of MtAoFC. I won’t lie to you—when I started my blog, I certainly entertained daydreams about unlikely fame and fortune. I was, after all, Out There, hanging out on the Internet like it was Schwab’s drugstore, popping gum in a tight sweater, penning off-the-cuff culinary bon mots. But, as we all establish to our sorrow by the time we are about eleven, these things don’t happen, not really. And anyway, it would have been almost heresy to consider the actual Julia Child and my own endeavor within the same theater of possibility. Maybe blogging Christians believe that Jesus Christ is reading their online diaries; but I didn’t have the chutzpah to even contemplate the possibility that Julia, or any of her delegates, might be reading mine. But now Judith Jones was coming to dinner. The Judith Jones—She Who Got It, the woman who recognized history in the onionskin manuscript of a French cookbook, the person who brought JC to the world. I share with neither Samuel Pepys nor Julia Child a sanguine nature, and for me a dinner party with Judith Jones—“Like the Virgin Mary, only with better clothes and a corner office in midtown!” I shrieked to my nonplussed husband—was the occasion of much hysteria. And then too there was the matter of the blog. Old Sam could write whatever he wanted because no one was ever going to read it. But I had an audience, disembodied and tiny though it might be. I wasn’t much afraid of writing something that would make me look pathetic or incompetent, nor of getting myself sued. But I didn’t want to look, you know, conceited. Because under the sheer terror, I was feeling pretty damned proud of myself. After all, I’d gotten the Judith Jones to accept an invitation to dinner at my house. Or the Christian Science Monitor reporter had, anyway. But I didn’t want to seem like I was bragging or anything. On the other hand, I couldn’t just not mention it. I was going to be cooking Boeuf Bourguignon, after all—the classic dish of French cookery, the first dish Julia Child ever cooked on The French Chef. People would notice if I just skipped over it. And I didn’t want to seem coy, either. Worst of all, though, I might jinx the whole thing. Quite a cyber-tightrope to walk, let me tell you. The violent flurry of interest that ensued when I let slip that Someone Important was coming to dinner took me by surprise. High-flying guesses were bandied about in my comment box—at one time or another everyone from Iron Chef’s Chairman Kaga to Nigella Lawson to actor-I-most-want-to-have-sex-with David Strathairn to Julia Child herself were supposed to be heading out to Long Island City on a Wednesday night to eat with me. And the guesses were made by some in an apparently near-religious state of ecstatic apprehension. “Who IS IT??????” wrote Chris, whom I was beginning to picture for some reason as a Minnesotan woman of late middle age with a pixie haircut and slight thyroid condition. “This is KILLING ME! I HAVE to KNOW!!! Pleeeeez tell us NOW, I can’t STAND it!!!!” It was oddly exhilarating, the grand ambitions all these strangers had for my dinner party. These people thought that Julie Powell, with her yearlong cooking project, was sufficiently fascinating to draw the greatest lights of food celebrity chefdom, and maybe even some minor movie stars, to her crappy outer-borough apartment. Hell, maybe it was true. Maybe my Boeuf Bourguignon, the ninety-fifth of the 524 recipes I had challenged myself to cook in one year, was fascinating. It must be, in fact. For while Julia Child wasn’t coming to dinner, her editor was. This was just the beginning. I was going to be famous! Famous, I tell you! It’s a good thing there’s always another disaster to poke a hole in the old self-esteem before it gets dangerously inflated. I started my first Boeuf Bourguignon at about 9:30 on the night before the Dinner. I began by cutting up a thick piece of slab bacon into lardons. When my mom made this for Christmas Eve in 1984 in Austin, Texas, she used Oscar Mayer; she didn’t have any choice. But in 2004 New York, there’s no excuse—certainly not when the woman who discovered Julia Child is coming over. I simmered the lardons in water for ten minutes once they were chopped so they wouldn’t make “the whole dish taste of bacon.” I personally didn’t see the problem with this, but I’m no Julia Child, and in a situation as fraught as this one it must be assumed that Julia’s opinion is the correct one. I browned the bacon, meat, and vegetables, each in turn, then put them all back into the pot and poured in red wine to cover it all, along with a spoonful of tomato paste, some crushed garlic, and a bay leaf. I brought it all to a simmer on the stovetop and then stuck it into the oven at 325 degrees. This was when things began to fall apart. Because Boeuf Bourguignon is meant to cook three to four hours, and it was already after ten o’clock at night. And so I made the fateful—or maybe I should just come right out and say “very bad”—decision to drink a vodka tonic or two while I waited. After about two and a half—vodka tonics, I mean, not hours—I made fateful/very bad decision #2, which was to just set the alarm for 1:30 a.m., get up and take the stew out of the oven, then let it cool on the stovetop until morning. I reached over Eric, already racked out across the bed from his share of the vodka tonics and the jalapeno-bacon Domino’s pizza we’d eaten for dinner, and grabbed the alarm clock. It was one of those NASA-designed battery-powered jobbies you always get from more distant relatives who don’t really have the first idea what to get you for Christmas. I sat down on the edge of the bed to set it, but I couldn’t figure the damned thing out. In the course of fiddling with it, I found that if I lay prone with my cheek resting on my husband’s naked bum, I was in a good anchored position from which I could focus my eyes better on all the tiny, tiny buttons and the nearly illegible script describing a needlessly baroque clock-setting procedure. The buttons were so very small, though. The method so very unclear. I fiddled and fiddled and fiddled. And next thing I knew it was four o’clock in the morning. My neck ached from being cushioned on Eric’s ass, my contacts had adhered to my eyeballs. The Boeuf Bourguignon, needless to say, was toast. The nice thing about waking up at four on the morning of the most important dinner party of your life to a thoroughly destroyed French beef stew inside your oven is that you will definitely not be going to work. Once the situation became clear, I felt free to sleep a few more hours before calling in sick and heading out to the grocery store to replenish supplies for the second Boeuf Bourguignon. And the second time I made Boeuf Bourguignon, I’ll have you know, it turned out perfectly. Sometimes it just takes some trial and error, that’s all. And so I wrote my day’s post and cooked my second Boeuf Bourguignon, all while recovering from what I had told my boss was a stomach flu but was in fact something somewhat less innocent, and by a miracle something more than minor, the meal was well in hand by 5:30 or so. I was just contemplating taking a shower—in my house the ultimate expression of hostessing confidence—when the phone rang. It wasn’t even Judith who called. I’ve never spoken to Judith—and now it looks like I never will. “I’m so sorry,” moaned the journalist. He was distraught. “I know how much you were looking forward to this. She just doesn’t want to venture out to Queens in this weather.” Of course, since this journalist was a freelance one, and young, I wasn’t the only one who’d lost an opportunity at career advancement. I held it together valiantly, for his sake. “Well, she is ninety, after all, and it is sleeting. Maybe next time. You should come over still, though. There’s all this food, we’ll never eat it all.” “Oh—you sure you wouldn’t mind? I’d love to—that would be great!” I’m such a good Southern girl at heart, I didn’t even start wailing disconsolately until I was in the shower. The peas that night were lovely, the conversation wide-ranging. And the Bourguignon rocked, so it’s really Judith who lost out, isn’t it? Samuel Pepys wrote of a dinner disaster of his own: “. . . and thither came W. Bowyer and dined with us; but strange to see how he could not endure onyons in sauce to lamb, but was overcome with the sight of it, and so was forced to make his dinner of an egg or two.” It seems that guests have always disappointed. But when someone turned up his nose at Pepys’s sauce, did some benevolent stranger comfort him by saying, “W. Bowyer can suck it!” Nope. This, I learned the next day after informing my readers of my cruel jinxing, was one thing I had up on Samuel Pepys. That felt good. Let’s just hope Judith Jones isn’t a big blog reader. There are dinner parties ruined by guests, and there are dinner parties ruined by hosts, and then there are dinner parties when everyone contributes to the disaster. I feared that the Pot-au-Feu and Bavarian night was turning into one of the latter. Sally called again at noon. “You’re going to kill me.” “What.” “The Croatian movers? They’re leaving Providence at nine p.m.” “Your movers are driving in from Rhode Island at nine o’clock at night on a Saturday?” “I told you—they’re on crank.” “So, what—they’re going to come move the sofa bed at half past midnight?” “Is that okay? I’m so sorry about this.” “No, it’s fine. Hell, I’ll probably still be cooking.” “How is that cooking thing of yours going, by the way? You’re crazy, you know.” “I’m crazy?” Sally’s laugh burbled. “Fair enough.” “Why don’t you come over and eat dinner with us? You can see the new place. I’ve got entirely too much food for the three of us.” “That would be fun. Oh, and hey! I can bring over this guy I met. I think you’ll really like him. He’s got red hair, and a motorcycle, and his name is—wait for it!—David.” “You’re not serious. Sally, it’s really getting eerie, with you and the Davids.” “Yeah, I know. You know what else? He’s a sex maniac. He’s why I haven’t been sleeping. So, would that be okay?” “Sure. The more the merrier.” “Okay. I’ll see you around eight? Should I bring wine?” “Sure. Call if you get lost.” The water was boiling now. I threw in potatoes, let them cook until tender, boiled the beets while I was peeling and slicing the potatoes, peeled and diced the beets, tossed the potatoes and beets together with some minced shallots and a vinaigrette of olive oil and vinegar with some salt and pepper and mustard. So that was done. It was nearly one o’clock. I started mooshing up the sugar cubes with a fork. Which is oddly difficult, actually. When you press the tines down onto the cube, it just flies out from under them, so that the sugar cube goes flying and the fork smacks down on the bottom of the bowl with a scraping clang that puts your teeth on edge. In the middle of all this, the phone rang again. “Hey.” “Hey. How’s the soap selling?” “Oh, pretty good.” Heathcliff sounds just like our father on the phone sometimes. “Hey, would it be okay if I invited Brian over for dinner?” Brian was one of Heathcliff’s oldest friends—they’d been buddies since first grade—a chubby, smiling super-genius with big dorky glasses. Remember Nate, the evil genius at the government agency I work for? Well, Brian is like a Nate for the forces of good. Heathcliff had told me he was in New York, getting some kind of higher mathematics degree at Columbia, but I hadn’t seen him, not for years and years. “Sure. Sally’s coming over—she wants us to meet her new guy.” “Sally has a new guy? That was fast.” “Yup.” I tried to detect some hint of forlorn loss in my brother’s voice, but no dice. “Okay, so we’ll be over there around seven or eight. Should we pick up some booze?” “Sounds good.” “All right. Later.” The orangey sugar cubes at last mooshed, I proceeded to zest and squeeze oranges, soften gelatin, separate eggs—doing it just the way Meryl Streep does in The Hours, by gently juggling them back and forth in my hands, letting the white slip through my fingers into a bowl waiting below. Felt like the way Julia would do it—very cook-y. I was feeling very cook-y in general, actually, cool and collected, until I got to “forming the ribbon.” This sounds like some ancient Asian euphemism for kinky water sports, but it was really just what I was supposed to do with the egg yolks and sugar. The yolks are supposed to “turn a pale, creamy yellow, and thicken enough so that when a bit is lifted in the beater, it will fall back into the bowl forming a slowly dissolving ribbon.” But you are not to “beat beyond this point or the egg yolks may become granular.” Granular? Scary. I beat and beat and beat, guessed rather blindly at the right consistency, then beat in some boiling milk and poured the mixture into a saucepan. I was supposed to heat this stuff up to 170 degrees. I was not to heat it over 170 degrees, or the eggs would “scramble.” (Terrifying.) Judging by sight and hovering fingers the precise temperature of hot milk is an inexact science, to say the least, but I did my best. Then I took it off the heat and stirred in the orange juice with gelatin. I beat the egg whites up to stiff peaks and folded them into the egg yolk-orange juice-gelatin mixture, along with some kirsch and rum—I was supposed to use orange liqueur, but I didn’t have orange liqueur, and I figured in a pinch booze was booze. I stuck the whole thing into the refrigerator. I was having my doubts about all this. Don’t know much about gelatin, but I know a little something about foul moods. And if only Bavarois à l’Orange was a foul mood, I could tell you for sure how to set it like a damned rock. Just make it take a shower in our apartment on a cold day. When it has to wash its hair. “Aaah! Goddammit!” “Honey? You okay?” Eric warbled weakly from the bed, where he was still racked out. “The hot water’s gone!” “What?” “No. Fucking. Hot. WATER!” I finished the shower mewling, then hurried out, hair still slightly bubbly with shampoo, and rubbed myself roughly with a towel for warmth. I pulled on a hideous old plaid flannel robe I’d bought for Eric back when we were in college, when I thought flannel was quaint and New England-y, then, shivering, hurried back into the kitchen, beat some chilled whipping cream until stiffish, stirred it into the custard in the fridge, poured the mess into the Bundt cake pan that was the only moldlike accoutrement I possessed, and stuck the thing back in the fridge. Not feeling so cool and collected now—perhaps that was why I folded the whipping cream into the custard too early, before the custard was halfway set. This was not going to turn out at all. Oh well. A little dessert soup never hurt anybody. I was just getting ready to start the Pot-au-Feu when the phone rang again. “Hi, Julie. It’s Gwen.” (Gwen always announced herself on the phone as if she wasn’t entirely sure I was going to remember her.) “Hey, honey.” “What’re you doin’ tonight?” “I’m eating Pot-au-Feu with Heathcliff and his friend Brian and Sally and her new boy. Eric’s having one of his days, we’ll see whether he gets up for it.” “Sally’s got a new boy already? Damn, that girl moves fast.” “Yup.” “I need to get her to give me some pointers.” “You and me both.” “I need me a man, dude.” “Yeah. You wanna come over?” “Sure. Should I bring booze?” “Sure. Around eight?” “Around eight it is.” After I hung up, before I commenced to hacking away at meat for the Pot-au-Feu, I went over to Eric, still prone in bed. “You feeling better?” “Mm-hm.” This without lifting his forearm from over his eyes. “We’ve got some people coming for dinner.” “Oh?” He tried to sound happy about it. “Gwen and Heathcliff’s friend Brian and Sally and her new boy.” “Sally has a new boy?” “They’re coming at around eight. And the Croatian movers are coming at twelve thirty tonight to get the couch.” “You’re kidding.” “Nope.” “I thought they were coming at noon?” “That was a misunderstanding.” “I thought they were Czech.” “Sally misspoke.” “Okay. What time is it now?” “Two.” “Okay.” Eric set to dispatching his headache with renewed, if utterly motionless, gusto, while I went to get started on the Pot-au-Feu. First, the meat. I spent the better part of half an hour working the thick, large-pored pig skin off the enormous pork shoulder I’d bought, but when I finally pulled it off, I was rewarded with a hearteningly grisly prop. “Look, Eric!” I leaned out of the kitchen door into the bedroom, holding the ragged pig flesh to my bosom. “It puts the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again.” “Hm? What?” He didn’t remove the arms flung over his eyes. “Eric! You have to look! It puts the lotion—” “What is that?” “It’s the skin from the pork shoulder.” “No, what you were saying, about the lotion?” You know that dejection that comes upon you when you realize that the person you’re talking to might as well be from Jupiter, for all the chance you have of making them get what you’re saying? I hate that. “You haven’t seen Silence of the Lambs? How can that be?” “Hey, we should put that on our Netflix!” It was the most animated I’d seen him all day. Not that that’s saying much. After the skin was off I hacked the shoulder meat into two pieces, wrapped up the piece with the bone in it for the freezer and set the other aside for the pot, tying it up with kitchen twine first until it vaguely approximated something that had not been torn to pieces by rabid dogs. Then I clipped the chicken in half down the middle with kitchen shears. I tied up one half of that with string as well. (I was halving the recipe, which was making for some rather odd butchering assignments.) Trussed chickens always look like sex-crime victims, pale and flabby and hogtied. It turns out that this goes double for trussed half-chickens. The great thing about Pot-au-Feu is that, although it takes donkeys’ years to cook, there’s nothing much to it. I stuck all the meat into my biggest pot, poured some chicken broth over it, and brought it up to a simmer. Julia has this sort of uncharacteristically persnickety, unnervingly Martha-esque suggestion of tying a long piece of string to each piece of meat and tying the other end to the handle of the pot, so you can easily check the doneness of the meat. I did it, but I didn’t like it. I took a break to check my e-mail. While I waited through the horrendous dial-up screech for the “You’ve Got Mail” bleep, I contemplated how much more bearable my life would be if only I could afford broadband. Just as soon as I’d gotten a connection, the phone rang, cutting it off. It was Sally. “I just realized I’m not going to Bay Ridge. How do we get to you?” One dial-up screech later, the phone rang again. It was Gwen. “Hey. How do I get to your new apartment, anyway?” By the time I finished with her, it was time to go into the kitchen and add to the Pot-au-Feu the vegetables—carrots, turnips, onions, and leeks. (These Julia wanted me to tie up into bundles with cheesecloth, but no. Just . . . no.) But oh, the Bavarian! I was supposed to be stirring the goddamned Bavarian, and I’d totally forgotten! I raced to the refrigerator, but it was too late. The Bavarian was set, hard as a rock. Not soup, at least, though it did look funny, sort of puckered. “Damn,” I said. “What was that, honey?” “Nothing, goddammit!” In the way these days happen, between poking at the meat and checking on the e-mails and worrying over the dessert, it was seven o’clock at night before I knew it. Eric dragged himself out of bed and into the shower, and came out looking like a man who might just not die in the next five minutes. As I was dumping some sliced kielbasa into the Pot-au-Feu pot, Heathcliff came in with two bottles of Italian wine and his friend Brian. “Brian? Oh my God, Brian!” I gave him a hug, more to prove to myself the reality of him than anything else. Because Brian had turned into an Adonis. A deep-voiced, super-genius, string theory-spouting, hugely muscled, fabulous gay Adonis. I would not have recognized him; at least, not unless he smiled at me. When he smiled, he was five again. He had a smile you couldn’t stay mad at, a smile that made you think he would never be unhappy as long as he lived. All maturity had done was inject a dose of sexual charisma right into the impishness. A good, good smile. Everybody else would be here soon. But, oh Christ, I’d forgotten to make the mayonnaise for the beet and potato salad! Maybe the fact that the Bavarian seemed to have set into something other than broth had me cocky, but I decided to beat it by hand. I had never made my own mayonnaise before, but there are nine different recipes for it in MtAoFC, so I figure I ought to get started on them. Anyway, how hard could it be? Heathcliff, Brian, and Eric all looked on as I beat some egg yolks and then, trembling, began to whisk in the olive oil, pouring it from a Pyrex measuring cup with a spout. I whisked and whisked and whisked, adding one drop of oil at a time just like JC said, most of the time, anyway. It was hard to avoid the occasional nervous, sloshing tremor, given my history with setting jelling things. When I’d gotten it sort of thick, I beat in hot water, as an “anti-curdling agent,” and it thinned right out again. Well, anyway, it tasted fine—like olive oil, mostly. I mixed it in with the beets and potatoes, which were by now violently pink. Then the mayonnaise was violently pink as well. Gwen and Sally and her boy David came all in a rush. Gwen immediately set about mixing everybody vodka tonics, a skill at which she was expert, while I bustled around with dishes and forks and scooped up the Pot-au-Feu. I tried to be neat about it, heaping some of each vegetable in each corner of a large square platter, with a pile of mixed meats in the middle. But there are some dishes you oughtn’t try to make pretty, and a boiled dinner is one of them. My efforts resulted only in a medieval pile of flesh—the prim separation of vegetables just highlighted the essential barbarity of the food. No, boiled dinners are not made to be looked at, they’re made to be eaten. Once we had all served ourselves, everything looked, smelled, and tasted as it should. We all got meat dribbles down our fronts, which has a way of putting people at their ease. The potato and beet salad really was quite an unnerving shade of pink. “Maybe we just weren’t meant to eat pink food, as a species I mean,” considered Brian as he gingerly took a small serving. “I’m feeling some pretty primordial fear here.” “What about cotton candy?” countered Gwen, who was piling the salad on her plate with more abandon. “Okay—no pink moist foods then, maybe.” “Strawberry ice cream?” Sally’s boy David bravely suggested, though he too was looking a little green. “No pink moist savory foods.” But then everyone tasted and agreed that primordial fears were made to be gotten over. “Amazing, beets. Isn’t everyone supposed to hate beets?” asked Eric, who looked considerably pinker himself, and was taking seconds. “Like Brussels sprouts, right.” “I love Brussels sprouts!” “Me too!” “Sure, sure—but that doesn’t change the fact that Brussels sprouts are supposed to be disgusting.” “I used to eat jarred beets when I was a baby,” I said. I hadn’t thought about this in years. “Mom thought I was nuts. Then of course I stopped eating them, because who eats beets, right? But you know the thing about beets? They’re really beautiful. Once you cook them and peel them and slice them, they’re gorgeous inside, marbled and crimson. Who knew, right?” Later, as everyone fell deeper into their cups and began on second and third helpings, I felt a little pang, watching my friends eat around our table, sitting on ottomans and packing boxes around a table in a badly lit, crappy Long Island City apartment. There was Sally with her new boy, who was broodingly handsome and funny and couldn’t keep his hands off her. There was Brian, most unlikely beauty, grinning ear to ear as he explained superstrings to Eric, who looked like he’d never been sick a day in his life. There was Heathcliff, tomorrow headed back to his girlfriend in Arizona, and who knew where the day after that, flirting amiably with Gwen in the way of friends who will never be a couple, and there was Gwen pushing back her plate with a husky laugh, lighting her first cigarette. “Hey,” she said, pointing up at the ceiling. “Do I hear something crawling around in your ceiling?” “Oh, that’s just the cat.” “Which one? Cooper?” “Yeah.” “Crazy.” I felt like a Jane Austen heroine all of a sudden (except, of course, that Jane Austen heroines never cook), confusedly looking on at all the people she loves, their myriad unpredictable couplings and uncouplings. There would be no marriages at the end of this Austen novel, though, no happy endings, no endings at all. Just jokes and friendships and romances and delicious declarations of independence. And I realized that, for this night at least, I didn’t much care if anyone was the marrying kind or not—not even me. Who could tell? We none of us knew for sure what kind we were, exactly, but as long as we were the kind that could sit around eating together and having a lovely time, that was enough. Which just goes to show, I guess, that dinner parties are like everything else—not as fragile as we think they are. The Bavarois à l’Orange turned out, well, oddly. When I shook it out of its Bundt pan mold I saw it had separated into layers—the top one light and mousse-y, the bottom one a deeper orange, Jell-O-like. But when I sliced it and placed it on plates for everyone, it actually looked very pretty, almost like I’d planned it that way. Instead of a union of airy cream and gelatin, I had made two separate layers, idiosyncratic but complementary interpretations of orange. It was not the way Julia had intended it. But perhaps for all that, it was just the thing. May 1945 Kunming, China “Thank God the food is an improvement, is all I have to say.” “Well, you’re right about that. I just loved our meal last Sunday, didn’t you?” “Wonderful.” Paul sat on his bunk, attempting to finish up his letter to Charlie by candlelight, as the lights were out again. Ceylon or China, some things, it seemed, never changed. Julie was perched in the chair by his small desk with one of her long legs hitched up on the seat, sipping from a juice glass of Chinese gin and reading the copy of Tropic of Cancer he’d lent her. She gave a deep sigh and stretched. It seemed to Paul she’d grown quieter in the year he’d known her, more thoughtful. It was a pleasure spending time with her on these quiet nights. Though of course her laugh could still blow out the windows. “There’s quite a forest of cocks here, isn’t there?” she remarked. “I suppose so.” Julia’s self-consciousness about sex grated on him slightly, but he would never say so. It wasn’t her fault, anyway; she was just inexperienced, and young for her age. “Still, it’s astonishing. Thank you for lending it to me.” “Of course,” he murmured distractedly. He was struggling over a passage in his letter; Charlie had written to him of some of Bartleman’s further predictions concerning Paul’s romantic life, this grand future he could expect to fall into his lap at any time. The mingling of nearly mad hope and increasing cynicism put up such a buzz in his head that he couldn’t think straight. “Paulski, when shall we try that restaurant Janie mentioned? Ho-Teh-Foo, she called it. Oh, if I could have some Peking duck right this instant!” “Perhaps I can get a half day one of these Sunday afternoons soon.” “Lovely. And a trip to one of the monasteries, don’t you think? Now that the weather is getting so nice.” With a contented sigh, she returned to her book, bending over it to make out the words in the dim light. Paul wrote, in a scrambled hand, of how much he needed love. Years later he would read it again, and when he did, he would write angrily in the margins, bemoaning his obtuseness, at the years wasted by his blindness to what was right there in front of him, reading Tropic of Cancer. But for the moment, he just licked the gummy airmail adhesive and sealed the envelope shut. DAY 108, RECIPE 154 The Law of Diminishing Returns > Hey. You there? < Yup. >
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