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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.”
“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.”
“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.”
(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 ^ 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.”
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 ^ 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.”
“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.”
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. 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?”
“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 ^ 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.”
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.
“Honey? You okay?” Eric warbled weakly from the bed, where he was still racked out.
“The hot water’s gone!”
“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.)
“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.”
“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.”
“I thought they were coming at noon?”
“That was a misunderstanding.”
“I thought they were Czech.”
“Okay. What time is it now?”
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! ^
“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?”
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!”
“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?”
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.
“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.
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