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^ The Law of Diminishing Returns

> Hey. You there?

< Yup.

> I’ve got a problem.

< You’ve got a problem?! I’ve got a live one on the line over here!

It was turning out to be just one of those days. Between the purchase orders and the Republicans and the insane phone calls, I was beginning to think the bell jar had come down around my cubicle for good, until I heard that beautiful, beautiful popping sound, and up jumped the talk window in the center of my screen. It was Gwen, who had introduced me to instant messaging. God bless her.

> What’s she saying?

< It’s a guy, actually. He wants to build a football stadium on Ground Zero. With a special box for the victims’ families. Classy, right?

> Jesus.

You cannot imagine how it eases the suffering of serving a mind-numbing public, when you can snidely judge said public via IM at the same time.

< So what’s up?

> Remember I told you about this guy Mitch from the LA office?

Gwen works at a production company in Tribeca that makes music videos and commercials. This sounds like a cool job, and in some ways it is. She’s always going to film shoots and to hear bands way too hip for me ever to have heard of, and one time she got to call Jimmy Fallon a “fucking retard,” to his face, which must have felt pretty good. On the other hand, she too spends her whole day answering phones, and running out into the rain to the Garden of Eden when someone in the office becomes outraged that the only soy sauce in the fridge is “Kikkoman, for Christ’s sake? You must be kidding me!” Her boss is a neurotic, closeted coke fiend, a nice enough guy, though he does have a tendency to do things like bend over Gwen while she’s at her desk and bite her shoulder, then say, “Gosh, I haven’t gotten myself into a harassment suit, have I?” That isn’t what gets her bothered, though. What gets her bothered is Mitch.

Like Gwen said, Mitch works in the LA office, in some kind of higher-up position. I didn’t know anything about him, really, except that he apparently gave very good IM. So Gwen had hinted.

< Sure. What about him?

> It’s getting really bad. He’s coming out here. For a “business trip,” so-called.

< Yay! That’s great!

> Yeah . . . except . . .

< Oh God. What?

> Well. He’s older than me. 35.

Gwen wasn’t trying to make me feel like an ancient hag, she really wasn’t. She’s only twenty-four. Sometimes it’s like talking to a third grader who wonders if she can have the change when you get your senior citizen discount at the movies. I try not to take offense.

< Not exactly pushing up the daisies or anything . . .

> Yeah, well, there’s something else.

< What?

What??!!!

> Well, it turns out he’s married.

Jesus. Is that all?

I suppose Gwen meant this news to be earth-shattering. But it’s a funny thing about instant messaging, how it somehow telescopes everything said through it, so that every event becomes reassuringly distant and compellingly lurid at the same time. Besides, this guy was from LA. Didn’t everybody sleep around in LA? I thought that was the whole attraction, that and the swimming pools and movie stars.

Still, I didn’t want to come off like a complete heel here. Gwen really liked this guy. She was disappointed.

< What a jerk. When did you find out?

> Oh, I’ve known all along.

Oh well. So much for shielding my friend’s delicate sensibilities.

> But if he comes to town, I’ll really have to have sex with him, Julie. Will you hate me if I have sex with him?

< WTF?! Why would I hate you??

> For being a skanky adulteress?

When did I become poster child for the sanctity of marriage? Just because I’ve been hitched longer than Gwen has been able to vote, all my single friends seem to think I’m some kind of moral authority. I don’t do sanctity. Gwen, of all people, should know that.

< Shut up and let him worry about the state of his marriage. I say, if he wants to send someone not his wife lewd instant messages, that’s his lookout.

I know, I know. I’m a terrible friend and a traitor to the institution of matrimony. I would be the world’s worst advice columnist. I have nothing to offer in my defense but the insistence that I did do nearly a full minute of soul-searching before offering this bit of highly questionable guidance. I asked myself what I would do if Eric was given the same recommendation by one of his friends. This was slightly hard to envision, because I couldn’t imagine Eric (a) being tempted into infidelity, (b) daring to tell anyone he was being tempted into infidelity, or (c) having a friend of the sort who would offer this kind of advice. Still, I did my best. I felt not a flicker of anguish. The most I felt was the barest hint of envy. How come nobody ever sent me lewdly suggestive instant messages?

> Well. It probably won’t happen anyway.

Yeah, right. Now Gwen was going to go out with this guy, make wild jungle love with him because I told her she could, and then not tell me about it because she thought she’d make me feel bad, me the old married lady with her married-lady sex.

Great. Just great.

Another thing Sam might have served at one of his dinner parties, besides oysters and lamb in onyon sauce, is Oeufs en Gelée. Oeufs en Gelée is poached egg in aspic. Technically, if I am to trust Julia’s word—and when it comes to aspic, I suppose I must—“aspic” usually refers to the finished dish, and gelée refers to the jelly itself that the eggs, or whatever, get immersed in. In the case of Oeufs en Gelée, my very first aspic, the gel in the gelée comes from calves’ feet—which I imagine is just how Sam would have made it. Or would have had it made, rather. I simply can’t see Sam making gelée out of calves’ feet himself. For one thing, as it turns out, making gelée out of calves’ feet makes your kitchen smell like a tannery. The gelée also, in my admittedly limited experience, tastes like a tannery.

What you do is, you simmer these calves’ feet that you’ve soaked and scrubbed and otherwise attempted to make somewhat less toxic, along with some salt pork rind, in a (homemade, of course) beef broth for a good long time, until all the gelatinous properties of the feet and skin and whatnot have leached into the broth, and at that point the broth should, when chilled, transform into a very solid jelly, capable of holding a poached egg (or chicken livers, or some braised beef, or whatever) securely in its rubbery maw.

I think I can safely say that no one—not me, not the blog readers, certainly not Eric—considered eggs in aspic when making the decision to embark upon this culinary journey. And it’s a good thing, because eggs in aspic is enough to quail the sturdiest heart.

The crosses of tarragon over the snowy-white poached egg centers were like the negative images of chalk marks on the doors of quarantined houses. But we sallied forth, Eric and Gwen and I, and with a single tap of our forks cracked open our Oeufs en Gelée. I suspect the aspic was not quite so solid as it should have been, for it slipped off and puddled on our plates with almost indecent eagerness—like silk lingerie, if silk lingerie was repulsive. When the (cold, runny) poached eggs were cut, their innards inundated the aspic remains. The resulting scene of carnage was not, let us say, that which Gourmet magazine covers are made of.

Also, it tasted slightly of hoof.

Chris was the first to protest this post concerning my very first aspic. “Can’t you just SKIP the aspics?!!! I don’t know if I can take any more of that!!!”Now, Chris had become known around the Julie/Julia Project as a bit of a hysteric. But in regard to the aspic, she had many fellows.

Isabel suggested that rather than eating the aspic, I might want to unmold it and preserve it in polyurethane. RainyDay2 reminded me, “When Julia was MtAoFCing, aspic was da’ bomb. Coating anything with the stuff somehow made it chichi (at the time, anything French, ‘à la mode de whatever’ and poodles were cool, too . . .). Why bother?”

Stevoleno seconded the motion, and the blog readers—I was beginning to think of them as my “bleaders”—then carried it nearly unanimously: No More Aspic, Please.

It was not as if I began this project in pursuit of the perfect Oeuf en Gelée. Certainly not. To tell the truth, I couldn’t remember exactly why I had begun. When I thought back to the days Before the Project, I remembered crying on subways, I remembered cubicles, I remembered doctor’s appointments and something looming, something with a zero at the end of it. I remembered the feeling of wandering down an endless hallway lined with locked doors. Then I turned a knob that gave under my fingers, everything went dark, and when I came to again, I was chortling away at midnight at a stove in a bright kitchen, sticky with butter and sweat. I wasn’t a different person, exactly, just the same person plunked down into some alternate, Julia Child-centric universe. I didn’t remember the moment of transition—I expect that wormholes do funny things to the memory—but there was no question I was in a different place. The old universe had been subjugated under the tyranny of entropy. There, I was just a secretary-shaped confederation of atoms, fighting the inevitability of mediocrity and decay. But here, in the Juliaverse, the laws of thermodynamics had been turned on their heads. Here, energy was never lost, merely converted from one form to another. Here, I took butter and cream and meat and eggs and I made delicious sustenance. Here, I took my anger and despair and rage and transformed it with my alchemy into hope and ecstatic mania. Here, I took a crap laptop and some words that popped into my head at seven in the morning, and I turned them into something people wanted, maybe even needed.

I couldn’t figure out the origin of the forces acting on me. It couldn’t be this arbitrary challenge I’d set for myself; I’d never risen to a challenge in my life. Surely it couldn’t be Julia Child. A year ago at this time, Julia meant even less to me than Dan Aykroyd, and that’s saying something. She seemed the polestar of my existence now, it was true, but surely not even Julia could be the driving force of a whole universe. For a while, until the great Aspic Mandate, I satisfied myself by simply working to fulfill the needs of my bleaders. That was enough to get me through the days without questioning the odd new circumstances I found myself in. It’s strange how easy it is to get used to things.

But then the No Aspic verdict was passed down. Lingering with me along the edges of the great dark moorlands of Aspic—nine recipes in all—the bleaders had given me a free pass:

“Dinnae ga on the moooors.”

They meant it as a kindness. And yet I found myself thrown into a terrible confusion. My bleaders would stay with me if I did not make the aspics; in fact their loyalty was being severely tested by the prospect of endless posts on boiled calves’ feet and the casting of various foodstuffs in cold jelly. But I knew I had to do it. I was being pulled relentlessly forward, not by my own will (who has the will to make aspic?), and not by the people who needed me (for I was beginning to feel that, in this alternate universe, these bleaders were people who needed me, for reasons for the present obscure) but by some other implacable gravitational force, over the horizon or buried in the center of the earth. It frightened me, but there was no resisting.

The Oeufs en Gelée that provoked this flurry of bleader revolt and subsequent existential turmoil were served as a so-called appetizer for a Thanksgiving supper that, thank God, went uphill from there. Preparing them was the work of several days—not so much because that’s how long Oeufs en Gelée requires as because before each step I had to gird my loins all over again. First I made the initial gelée itself, which aforementioned odor succeeded in chasing me out of the kitchen and putting me off any cooking whatsoever for at least twenty-four hours. Then I had to let the stuff cool, skim off the fat, and clarify it, which is one crazy hell of a process. First you combine beaten egg whites with the stock and stir it gently over low heat while it comes to a bare simmer and the whites get white, then you balance the stockpot on one edge of the burner so only one side of the stock at a time bubbles. Turn the pot in quarter circles every five minutes until the pot’s hit the points of the compass. You ladle the stock out into a colander lined with cheesecloth, and, the theory goes, the egg whites get left behind in the colander, taking all those cloudy, impure bits out with it.

This sounds like something our friend Sam might attempt when he found himself with some extra lead on hand and his coffers a little light on gold, but it actually worked. Still, for all that mumbo-jumbo-type work, I want at the very least something that doesn’t smell like processed livestock. It pissed me off so much I had to go buy some vintage clothes on eBay to get over it.

Then there were the eggs to poach. I am still pretty far from an egg-poaching expert, and these eggs weren’t going to be napped in cheese sauce—they were going to be out there in front of God and everybody, clothed only in a crystalline coating of calves’ foot jelly, and they had to be pretty. So that took a while, too.

After that there’s the composition of the Oeufs en Gelée proper. This is a matter of layering. You start by pouring a thin layer of the gelée, warmed back up to liquidity on the stove, into each of four ramekins. That’s the idea, anyway. Actually, I used small clear Pyrex dishes I’d been given for Christmas one year—mise en place bowls, if you want to get all hoity-toity about it. I’d’ve used my real ramekins, but one of the four I had had been hijacked by Eric, who was using it to hold his shaving soap, because Eric shaves with old-fashioned shaving soap and a brush, because GQ told him to and when it comes to shaving, Eric is GQ’s servant. Only actually, now I’m using the shaving soap in the ramekin for my legs, because Eric’s gotten too good for the buck-fifty Duane Reade shaving soap and has graduated to fancy Kiehl’s stuff.

Anyway, after I’d poured in that first layer in each of the dishes, I put them into the refrigerator to set, then got a tiny pot of water boiling and dumped in some tarragon leaves, just for a few seconds, before draining them, drying them, and setting them, too, in the refrigerator. Once the leaves were cool and the jelly was almost set, I began laying the leaves in their X pattern on top of the jelly. Fiddling with damp tarragon left me so intensely irritated that when I was done I had to stick the ramekin/mise en place bowls back in the fridge and go watch both the episode where Xander is possessed by a demon and the one where Giles regresses to his outrageously sexy teen self and has sex with Buffy’s mom, just to get over it.

I woke up at six a.m. on Thanksgiving morning to finish putting the little bastards together. I rewarmed the aspic and placed a cold poached egg on top of each tarragon X in each chilled ramekin. The least attractive side of the egg is supposed to face up. This was largely academic in the case of my eggs. Then I poured over more liquid aspic and set the eggs in the refrigerator for their final chilling. By then it was eight a.m., and though I still had a whole Thanksgiving meal left to cook, roast goose and cabbage and onions and green beans and soufflé, I felt giddy with relief. The rest of the day would be a picnic, a Victorian one with parasols and white georgette dresses and games of whist and servants to carry all the baskets, compared to fucking eggs in aspic.

And it really was a cakewalk. Or at least it all went as smoothly as could be expected. Or maybe not, but between all the Pepsi One and having my first aspic done, by six o’clock, when Gwen arrived, I was flying anyway. Famished, but flying.

Gwen is not so much polite as she is considerate. So while she had the good sense not to eat any more than the token bite that proved indubitably that Oeufs en Gelée was not something she would ever again in this life sample, she also had the good grace to say, “Julie, this isn’t your fault—it’s just the recipe.” The soul of kindness, that Gwen. I wanted to believe her, but when I nodded my head as if to agree, I could hear a familiar voice in my head, yodeling on about how frightfully elegant an aspic might be, and I felt ashamed.

The good thing about starting your Thanksgiving feast with Oeufs en Gelée is that everything afterward is going to taste pretty goddamned great by comparison, and by the time we’d gotten through the gorgeously crisp and moist goose, the prunes stuffed with duck liver mousse, the cabbage with chestnuts, the green beans, and the creamed onions, aspic was largely forgotten, and we didn’t even mind much that I had begun the Thanksgiving preparations with the absolutely insane idea that I would make chocolate soufflé for dessert once we were finished with dinner. This, of course, being the delusion of a diseased mind. Then, having fed the aspic to the cats, who didn’t mind it at all, we moved to the couch for the annual holiday screening of True Romance, a tradition begun the year that my brother was living with us in Bay Ridge, when we decided to make a drinking game out of it and take a sip every time someone said the word fuck. (That’s not part of the tradition anymore; if you’ve seen the movie you know why.) Doped up on fat calories and wine, Eric drifted off to sleep about twenty minutes into the film, right in the middle of Gary Oldman’s very boisterous death scene, but Gwen and I made it all the way to James Gandolfini’s equally impressive death scene, and got so drunk together that Gwen had to spend the night on the couch, and eat some Oeufs en Cocotte the next morning to recover.

If there are two kinds of friends in the world, those who inspire in you all that is great and good and those who’d prefer to get right down on their haunches and help out with the mud pies, Gwen definitely falls into the latter category. I call her the devil on my shoulder. Sally encourages me to find my inner greatness, to love myself and treat my body like a temple. She wishes I’d quit drinking so much and wants me to go to therapy. I probably should spend more time with her. But especially during the tough times, the days of aspic and freezing rain, I found myself craving not betterment and hope and an exercise partner so much as a fresh bottle of booze, a pack of Marlboros, and someone content to eat butter sauce and watch reruns on TV with me. It’s lucky for me, though perhaps too bad for Gwen, that I’m just a solitary outer-borough secretary with a taste for vodka and cigarettes, rather than, I don’t know, a bi-curious stripper with a small coke habit—I get the feeling that with such a wealth of potential disaster to work with, Gwen would truly come into her gift as some sort of Shakespearean corrupter of innocence.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression. It’s not as if Gwen is some uncontainable libertine, Falstaff personified as an impressively bitter, petite blonde with fashion sense (and I say this as a person with nearly depthless reserves of bitterness). Really what she is is accommodating. If I want to get drunk and eat myself silly and watch four episodes of Buffy and smoke so many cigarettes that I feel like an ashtray the next morning, well then, so does she, by God. Probably if she was hanging out with Sally, the two of them would be applying to graduate school and taking Bikram yoga classes together. But she’s hanging out with me.

I suppose that, knowing the thoroughly questionable advice I gave her about the whole Mitch Thing, one could argue the question of who exactly is the bad influence on whom, here. But I’m sticking to my guns on this one.

December descended. One day I was taking an appointment for Bonnie in her Outlook and it came to me that I was officially more than one quarter of the way through the Project. I realized I didn’t even know how many recipes I’d done. I rushed home that night to count up all the small black checks I had been making beside each recipe as I went along, like a trail of bread crumbs. (Along with the actual trail of bread crumbs, and other foodstuffs, that had begun to lodge themselves near the spine, and glue the pages together.) It was as I feared.

“Eric, I’m not going to make it.”

“Make what?”

“‘Make what’? My deadline! What’s wrong with you?”

I was bent over the Book, which lay open on the island in the kitchen, with a pen in hand with which I’d made a bunch of hash marks in the margin of the Times sports section. A couple of salmon steaks I’d bought for a shocking amount of money at the Turkish grocery near my office sat on the counter, waiting to be broiled and napped in Sauce à la Moutarde, which is a sort of fake (Julia calls it “mock,” but let’s call a spade a spade, shall we?) hollandaise sauce, with some mustard stirred in for interest. Slumped beside the fish was a bag of slightly wilted Belgian endive, which I was just going to be braising in butter. Not exactly a demanding menu. Not exactly Foies de Volaille en Aspic, just to cite one example of how I could be living my life more aggressively and bravely and generally being a better person.

The NewsHour was turned up in the living room. A daunting stack of dishes teetered in the sink, but Eric had his laptop on his lap at one of the kitchen stools and was playing FreeCell. Badly.

“I’ll have turned myself into a whale for nothing. I’ll have wasted a year of my life! Dammit. Goddammit! GOD. DAMN. IT!”

Over the years, Eric has developed the defensive tactic of selective hearing. I’ve seen this kind of evolution before—my father has the same skill. The benefits of this are obvious—much less time wasted in attending to every fleeting hysterical fit his wife indulges in. I, however, have in response mastered a technique of incremental amplification that has proven most effective in breaking down his defenses. And once he is roused to a reaction, he is at a distinct disadvantage, as he has not heard much of my rant and therefore cannot accurately judge what piece of it he should best respond to in order to defuse it. Plus, because he was the one not listening to me, I gain the moral high ground. Darwinism at work, my friends.

“You won’t waste it. I won’t let you.”

“So you do think I’m fat, then. Is it that bad?” (See?)

“What? No! You’re going to make it. How many recipes have you made?”

“One hundred and thirty-six. One thirty-eight after tonight.”

“See? You’re more than a quarter of the way done. You’re golden!”

“No, no, no. I have aspics. I have to bone a whole duck. Can you even conceive of boning a duck? Of course you can’t. Your brain’s too consumed with the NewsHour and FreeCell to waste time on something just because it’s of all-consuming importance to your wife.”

Our cat Maxine took the opportunity of my distraction to steal a seat on MtAoFC, which promptly tipped off the edge of the counter, tumbling rubenesque cat and book both to the floor. Max dashed off in irked humiliation; the spine of the book had ripped loose from the back cover. By the time I’d picked it up again and found the page for Sauce à la Moutarde, Eric was gone, taking his iBook with him, leaving behind a whiff of hurt fury. My moral high ground had evaporated into mist.

I didn’t want to do this anymore. The Salmon à la Moutarde matched with braised endive was a disaster—somehow the endive made the salmon taste fishier, and the salmon made the endive taste more bitter. Eric and I hadn’t had sex for a month, and we sure weren’t going to end the drought tonight. But I couldn’t stop. Living in a universe where the laws of thermodynamics have run amok can be pretty great for a while, but eventually it can leave you careening out of control.

Gwen had known Mitch as a business associate for most of a year, through phone conversation, but it wasn’t until after he met her in person when he came to town for a commercial shoot that The Thing started up. She was the one who buzzed him into the office that morning.

“The famous Gwen, I presume?” he said, smiling, as he strode up to her desk, sliding off a pair of gloves with the languor of an adept hit man.

“Um, yeah?”

“At last we meet. Mitch from the LA office.” He held out his hand.

Mitch wasn’t a terribly big man, nor in fact a terribly good-looking one, when you got down to it, though his dark hair was stylishly mussed and he was wearing an overcoat so expensive-looking and luxurious that Gwen found herself wanting to touch it. Quite a coat indeed for an Angeleno who only wore it the two times a year he was in New York during the winter. When Gwen said, “Oh! Hi! Nice to meet you!” it came out louder, and squeakier, than she had meant it to.

“Phil said you looked like a young Renée Zellweger.” Gwen, who maintains a long-standing abhorrence for Renée Zellweger that I’ve never quite understood, had heard this several times before from Phil the shoulder-biter; she just grimaced. Mitch continued, “He’s an asshole. You’re clearly a dead ringer for Maggie Gyllenhaal.”

“Oh, come on.” She was starting to blush.

“Listen, I don’t go around telling women they look like movie stars. I’m serious—I’ve worked with Maggie. You could be her twin.” He leaned over the reception desk to get a better look at her. “Maggie’s teeny-tiny, elfin twin.”

Gwen knew she was grinning like a fool, but she couldn’t figure out what to do about it.

“Oh well; can’t expect Phil to be an astute judge of women, I don’t guess.” His large dark eyes were laughing at her, and he seemed to take up a bigger space in the narrow office than could be justified by his small frame. “Is the man in, actually?”

He gave her a wave and a wink when he walked out of Phil’s office as the both of them headed out to the set, but that was pretty much the sum of their sparkling repartee. So although Gwen had felt a passing, annoyingly Bridget-y sort of a jones for him, she did not think much of it.

Until she got the first IM three days later.

> Well, my mini-Maggie, I didn’t have the opportunity to get you drunk and have my way with you. A mistake I do not mean to duplicate on my next New York trip.

Gwen never had a chance.

As far as I understand, phone sex has always been a marginal activity, indulged in by a relatively small and specific, and generally lonely and unhappy, demographic. But the birth of the Internet bestowed the joys of anonymous noncontact sex upon the general populace. You can now find, with the click of a mouse, dozens upon dozens of sites dedicated to the notion that the hip and young, of every sex and all persuasions, choose cybersex, not out of hunger, but as one of many modes of satisfaction available to them in an ever-larger world. Now, I’m no sociologist, so forgive me if I’m making a faux pas here, but I’d be willing to bet that among these cutting-edge consumers of gratification, phone sex still does not pop up too often on the menu of options. I think that there’s a very simple reason why, which is that the written word is sexy.

Probably Eric and I are together to this day because of the sexiness of prose. When we were living in different states, back in college, we had our share of fraught, whispered, two a.m. phone calls, sure. But it was the letters that really kept the fire going. The entire tortured process—finding the envelope in the mailbox, carrying it in my backpack all day unopened until I was alone in bed at night, huddling over the pages to parse the cramped handwriting and violent scratch-outs, scrawling my reply, sweating out my anxiety until the next letter arrived—kept me in a haze my entire freshman year. It’s an absolute miracle I didn’t fail my first semester.

So I can understand exactly what Gwen was going through as she and Mitch began their agonizing IM back-and-forth. If you’ve ever done anything like this—and I suspect that if you’re a single office worker under the age of, say, forty, you almost can’t have avoided it—you’ll know what makes it almost impossible to resist is the combination of craft and spontaneity, joined by the particularly lethal instant gratification that the twenty-first century does so very well. In response to your coworker’s impromptu admission of lust, you will construct a riposte of baroquely balanced daring and aloofness, deliberating over every pronoun and abbreviation. All thought of work duties will cease as you immerse yourself in this literary puzzle, but painstaking though you may be, you will feel remorse from the moment you click the Send button, for a joke too juvenile or pretentious, a word too coy or vulgar. And professional concerns will not return to the forefront, because you will also be imagining him, in his own office four thousand miles away, going through the same creative spasms you just had—unless he isn’t, unless (perish the thought) he doesn’t plan to answer at all. You will suffer the pangs of the damned until his icon pops up on your screen again:

> You know what happens to cheeky monkeys like you, Maggie? They get spanked.

And by the time he lets slip the small fact of his eight-year marriage, you are far too far gone to care.

Foies de Volailles en Aspic is marginally less agonizing than Oeufs en Gelée—or was for me anyway, mostly because one taste of the calves’ feet gelée was enough to convince me that packaged gelatin and canned broth were the way to go for aspic when your name is Julie, not Julia. (Actually, my name is Julia too, but no one has ever called me that—I just don’t possess the gravitas, I guess. A Julia is brave and Junoesque and slightly forbidding; a Julie is a seventies-era cheerleader in pigtails and hot pants. No one would ever start a joking cyber-flirtation with someone named Julia. Apparently no one much wanted to start one with me, either. But that had nothing to do with my name and a lot to do with pushing thirty and ten pounds of butter-weight.

The item being aspic-ed in Foies de Volailles en Aspic is chicken liver, first sautéed in butter with shallots, then simmered in cognac until the wine’s gotten syrupy, then chilled. When they’re cold, the livers are immersed in gelée—topped with a slice of truffle if you can afford that kind of thing and rent too; I can’t—and chilled until set. Eric and Gwen and I ate these for dinner one evening, with Concombres au Buerre, also known as baked cucumbers, on the side.

“Concombres? We don’t need no steenkin’ concombres!”

This is what Eric said when I handed him his plate. Gwen just stared in silent terror. She had called that evening after a terrible day at work, asking if she could come to dinner, and although I’d sort of been hoping to get dressed in some outrageous lingerie and seduce my husband that night, I agreed, because since the whole Mitch Thing started, she’d been prone to depressions—thunderous, palpable depressions that made me look like a total lightweight. The poor girl must have been wondering why she’d turned to the friends she knew would try to cheer her up with aspic and baked cucumbers.

Eric dove in first—he chose to go with the aspic. He took a bite and shrugged. “Ehn.” Thus emboldened, Gwen and I attempted tastes as well.

The verdict on Foies Volailles en Aspic? Surprisingly undisgusting, but why eat chicken livers cold with jelly on top of them, when you could eat them hot without jelly?

Our Concombres au Buerrelay on our plates, limp and pale and parsley flecked, waiting. “Okay, Eric, you first,” I said.

He got a cucumber strip onto his fork and gingerly took a bite. His eyes widened, expression blank, sort of like a character on ^ South Park before delivering a punch line—I couldn’t tell what he was thinking.

“What?” Gwen and I asked in unison.

“Huh.”

I took a bite, too. “Huh!”

“What?”

Gwen ate some of hers, and said, “Huh!”

Verdict: baked cucumbers? A fucking revelation. They don’t melt away, and they actually taste like cucumbers. Only better, because I don’t like cucumbers.

After dinner, I walked Gwen down to let her out while Eric was washing the dishes. “Thanks for the cucumbers. They were really good.”

“No problem. You going to be able to get home all right?” I asked as I held the front door open for her.

“Sure—there’s my bus now, actually.” She stepped out into the cold, waving at the bus coming around the corner. It stopped and she hurried for it. Just before she got on, though, she turned around and shouted, “He’s coming. Mitch. Tomorrow night.”

I dimly remembered the feeling expressed by the look she shot me as she climbed aboard—half shitless terror, half stupid glee. And I felt a pang of envy.

Upstairs, I shed my sweatpants and T-shirt and sneakers and vamped through the kitchen doorway in a bra and panties set that actually matched. “Hon? Why don’t you leave the dishes until tomorrow morning?”

“I guess I’m going to have to—we just ran out of hot water.” He wiped off his hands, turned to me, looked me up and down, and said, “I need to check my e-mail.” Then he went to the laptop, where he spent the next forty-five minutes surfing CNN.

What am I, chicken livers in aspic?

I’m a secretary at a government agency, and so I can talk with some authority about things that are a pain in the ass. Say, for instance, filling out purchase orders. But do you want to know what’s really a pain in the ass? Poulet en Gelée à l’Estragon.

First you truss and brown in butter a whole chicken, season it with salt and tarragon, and roast it in the oven. When it’s done let it cool to room temperature, then chill it. I did this on Saturday, after I’d scrubbed the toilets and cleaned the kitchen as best I could. Actually, I roasted two chickens this way, so we’d have something to eat for dinner.

The kitchen was beyond my poor powers to improve by much. Cat hair clung stickily to the stainless steel grid suspended over the window, on which my pans were hung. Greasy yellow stains wouldn’t come off the walls above the stove, no matter how I scrubbed. I distracted myself from the misery of my poor housekeeping with the misery of making gelée, which at least wasn’t my fault. This particular gelée was made with canned chicken broth, steeped with tarragon and flavored with port—some Australian stuff I’d gotten at the wineshop at Union Square, which tasted surprisingly good. Good enough to have two glasses, because Eric was at the office, “working,” though probably he just didn’t want to spend his Saturday in a filthy “loft” watching his wife work herself into a snit making gelée. I couldn’t blame him—I didn’t want to spend my Saturday doing that either.

But I guess there are even worse things to do with your Saturday, because he came home at seven in a surly mood. All he said about the dinner was that he didn’t like tarragon, and we wound up drinking too much, watching some German movie from Netflix, and falling asleep on the couch.

Then, to cap it all off, he woke up Sunday with one of his headaches. He lay in bed until late in the morning. “Honey,” I called to him at eleven or so, not trying very hard at all not to sound irritated, “you want coffee?”

“Gah, no. I’ll pick up some Gatorade on the way to the office.”

“You’re not going to the office! You can’t, you’re practically dead.”

“I have to. I’ll feel better once I get up.” Then he propelled himself out of bed in a single resigned lunge, retrieved the crumpled clothes he’d shucked on the way to the bed when we awoke at two a.m. with our contacts seared to our eyeballs and matching cricks in our necks, and went to the bathroom to throw up. After that was done he stared at the paper for a while, rubbing the stubble on his gray cheeks as if for comfort, and then abruptly stood up and lurched for the door. I’ve never understood that about Eric, how he can just head outside all of a sudden, with not a moment of preparation. I couldn’t do that if we were evacuating under threat of radiation poisoning.

“Um, bye?”

“Sorry, honey.” He came back to where I was sitting and pressed chapped lips quickly up against my cheek. “My breath stinks. I’ll see you around six, I hope.”

To put together Poulet en Gelée à l’Estragon, start by heating up the jelly and pouring a thin layer of it onto an oval serving dish. Except I didn’t have an oval serving dish, so I used a hip-to-be-square chunky white Calvin Klein platter that we got for a wedding present. (Did you know Calvin Klein had a line of chinaware? Well, he does.) This is then supposed to chill until set, which of course entailed emptying an entire shelf of my fridge, so that I had jars of jams and half-gone limes and forgotten sour creams and wilted bags of parsley and odd pats of butter with funny smells scattered over my none-too-clean countertop. For a person like Sally or my mother, this would have been enough to kick off a refrigerator-cleaning spree, but I am not such a person.

Once the first layer of gelée is jelled, carve the chicken you’ve roasted and chilled and arrange it on the platter. I am not much of a chicken carver. My pieces came out looking rather mauled, but I was in no mood to care. Stick the platter back in the fridge while you stir a cup of the warmed jelly in a bowl set over another bowl of ice, until it cools and begins to set. Spoon it over the chicken on the platter. Julia told me that the first layer would “not adhere very well,” and that was certainly the case.

Gwen called. “Hey.”

“Hey. How was your big weekend?”

“Can I come over?”

“Uh-oh. That bad? Don’t answer that—come on over. Eric won’t be home until six. I’m making aspic.”

“Oh great. The perfect ending to the perfect weekend.”

Repeat the whole pouring-half-set-jelly-on-top-of-the-chicken-pieces twice more. The next two layers stick better than the first. The chicken will begin to look polyurethaned, which I suppose is the point. Slide it back into the refrigerator to finish setting.

I was stuffing the crap I’d pulled from the refrigerator into a big black garbage bag when Gwen rang the doorbell. She must have sprung out of her door the second she hung up the phone. Not a good sign. I went downstairs to let her in.

“I brought vodka. Can we start drinking yet?”

“Oh, Gwen. What happened?”

We headed back up to the kitchen, and while I started blanching tarragon leaves—dumping them in boiling water, scooping them right out again, running cold water over them, laying them out onto paper towels to dry—Gwen parked herself on a stool and gave me the blow-by-blow, as it were.

It had all started out so well. Well, I mean once you set aside the sheer impossibility and bad judgment of it. They’d met on Thursday night in a suitably skeezy bar Mitch knew in the West Thirties. He had the situation in hand from the second she sat down beside him in the booth and he had a drink waiting for her—Scotch and soda. She’d told him she was more of a vodka tonic sort of girl, but he just said, “Not tonight you aren’t.” And thus the tone of the evening was set. The arrogant, dominating, sexually irresistible Mitch of the instant messages had been made flesh. One Scotch and soda later, she had her hand on his crotch, right there in the bar; two more after that and they were locked in a stall in the ladies’ room, grappling to get into each other’s clothes.

“Grappling in a ladies’ room stall sounds pretty good to me, or maybe that’s just five years of marriage getting to me.” I opened up the refrigerator to get the chicken back out, passing Gwen the ice tray while I was at it. (She’d decided that 3:30 was definitely not too early to start drinking.) “So what’s the problem?”

“Well, we went back to the apartment where he was staying, and—God, is that what we’re eating for dinner?” The third layer of jelly on the chicken was almost set, and I was painstakingly and frustratingly dipping each small tarragon leaf into yet another cup of semiset gelée before arranging them in little stupid-looking X’s on the chicken pieces. On the Oeufs en Gelée, tarragon X’s had looked vaguely forbidding; on Poulet en Gelée à l’Estragon, they just looked bedraggled and sad. “Afraid so.”

“No offense or anything. I’m sure it’s great. Can we heat it up first or something?”

One last cup of jelly got poured over the chicken, which kattywhompused the tarragon leaves. Screw it. I threw it back in the fridge, mixed myself a vodka tonic—what the hell—and settled down on the other kitchen stool. Gwen shook out a cigarette and lit it for me, then one for herself.

“It was this absurdly fantastic loft, you could put a roller-skating rink in there—belongs to a friend of Mitch’s, I don’t know who. Not that I got much of a chance to look at it. Julie, the sex was just—^ God. You know how when you’re with a guy who’s, you know, really big, he’s usually lousy in bed, it’s always just about worshipping his breathtaking member or whatever? Well, Mitch is, well—you know—but he isn’t like that at all. I swear to God, I came at least ten times, no joke.”

I have been with the same man since I was eighteen years old, and yet my single friends continue to talk to me about these things as if I have a clue. I don’t know if they think I was some kind of world-class teenage slut, or I can remember my past lives, or what. Thank God for Sex in the City; I just put on my best Cynthia Nixon commiserating-savvy-girlfriend face and nod.

“Sure sounds like a shitty weekend, all right.” I couldn’t help sounding the tiniest bit bitter. Gwen has a weekend of explosive sex, then comes over to my house depressed and complains about being served aspic. This is a situation that Julia would no doubt handle with aplomb. But Julia doesn’t hate aspic as I do. And she probably gets more sex.

“Wait, I’m getting to that part. So he asks me to leave when we’re done, he’s got to get some rest because he’s got a pitch meeting the next day—which is fine, whatever, it’s not like I need to be rocked to sleep in his warm embrace or anything. So Friday I go to work. He comes in and hardly even looks at me, which, you know, fine. This isn’t something he wants to make public. But all day I wait for him to IM me. I’m dying to IM him, of course, but I resist, which I’ve got to say was pretty impressive of me, don’t you think?”

“Very.”

“So he doesn’t. IM me, I mean. I hang around at the office until nine o’clock—not a peep.”

“Ah.”

“I stay at home all Saturday with my laptop on and my cell in my pocket. Finally—of course—I can’t take it anymore, and at 5:30 I go ahead and send him an instant message. I just say, ^ Hey, you doing anything tonight? And not ten minutes later he IMs back: Come to the apartment.

“Oh! Can I have another cigarette?”

“Take as many as you want. So, of course I’m there in like twenty minutes flat, and it’s the same thing all over again, just as good as the first time. Better.”

“Uh-huh. I’m waiting for the shitty part.”

Gwen made a sheepish face at me. “Well, now that I think about it, I guess there isn’t really a shitty part, per se.”

“I knew it. You just came here to criticize my aspic and mock me with your fabulous LA sex life.”

“No, no, no. I mean—I was with him all night, and then at the end I got dressed and went home, he got on a plane to go back to his wife this morning—which I’m totally fine with, I don’t want to marry the guy or anything. It’s all good, right? We understand each other.”

“And the source of your tragic ennui is?”

“Well, it all starts over now, doesn’t it? Best-case scenario, we IM and IM and IM, and I totally obsess for six months or however long it is until he comes back to New York again, and the cycle continues. Only now I know what the sex is like. And it’s not that great. I mean, it’s great, but how could it possibly compete with what we’d been writing to each other? With the imagining of it? It can’t. Nothing ever does, does it?”

“Jesus, Gwen. Jesus. That’s pretty fucking depressing.”

“Exactly. Can you get out the tonic and some ice? I feel the need for a refresher.” I passed her the ice tray, then went into the refrigerator for the tonic. There squatted the tarragon chicken in aspic, wanly gleaming. Gwen had gotten me down, I guess, because the sight of it just made me want to sit down on the floor and never get up. “But that’s not the worst part. The worst part is that the only thing worse than the cycle continuing would be if it didn’t. If the IMs stopped, then I wouldn’t even have these diminishing returns on my investment. I’d have bupkes. So I have to keep on keeping on, you know?”

Christ.

There is a law out there, if not of thermodynamics then of something equally primary and inescapable, that explains why everything from instant messaging to fabulous sex to aspic can in the end be defined as an illustration of the futility of existence. And it really, really sucks.

By the time Eric came home at six, Gwen and I were both a little drunk and a little morose. Eric, who had not yet shed his Blanche-headache, wasn’t able to do much to lighten the mood. The Poulet en Gelée à l’Estragon was able to do even less.

We did try to eat it. It wasn’t that it was bad, though when Eric saw it, his face went a shade or two grayer. It just tasted like cold chicken with jelly on top of it. We all chewed glumly for a bit, but it was no use.

Eric was the first to declare defeat. “Domino’s?”

Gwen sighed in relief, pushed her plate away, and lit another cigarette. “Bacon and jalapenos?”

Chicken aspic and bacon-jalapeno pizza. Talk about diminishing returns.

The first one is tough, no fuckin’ foolin’. The second one, the second one ain’t no fucking Mardi Gras, either, but it’s better than the first one because—you still feel the same thing, you know, except it’s more diluted. It’s better. . . . Now I do it just to watch their fuckin’ expression change.

— Virgil (James Gandolfini),
True Romance
If you object to steaming or splitting a live lobster, it may be killed almost instantly just before cooking if you plunge the point of a knife into the head between the eyes, or sever the spinal cord by making a small incision in the back of the shell at the juncture of the chest and tail.

— Mastering the Art of French Cooking,
Vol. 1
^ DAY 130, RECIPE 201
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