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^ They Shoot Lobsters, Don’t They?

Aunt Sukie grabs me by my upper arms and shakes me gently. “Oh, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah! What are we going to do with you?”

(My aunt Sukie is not senile; she does remember my name. Sarah is a nickname. Short for Sarah Bernhardt. I couldn’t tell you how this came to be. I don’t even know why on earth anyone would know who Sarah Bernhardt is anymore. I only know who she is because I’ve been nicknamed after her my whole life.)

“What do you mean?” I wonder if she’s going to make a crack about my upper arms. I haven’t seen her since the last time I was back in Texas for Christmas, and they have gotten a little meaty since then.

“I went onto the computer and I read what you’re up to!”

I cringe a little at this. Aunt Sukie is a schoolteacher in Waxahachie, Texas, and one of those smart, kind people who nonetheless mystifies you by continuing to vote Republican. She also, unlike anyone in my nuclear unit, keeps a civil tongue in her head. Once Aunt Sukie handed out a high school paper I wrote on The Great Gatsby to her English class—God knows how she got her hands on the thing. But somehow I have the feeling that she would not be giving her students links to my blog.

But she isn’t thinking of my stevedore’s arms or my sailor’s mouth. She leans in close and whispers, “You’re worrying your mother. Don’t work so hard!”

Until the day she died, my granny said things just like this to my mother. “You do too much!” “You’ll make yourself sick!”

It used to drive my mother completely around the bend. “^ MOM! Don’t tell me what’s too much! I’ll tell you when I’m doing too much, goddammit!” (My mom and my granny fought about lots of things—laundry, ice cream, black people, television. But this one, the one about my mom doing too much, was a favorite, probably because it gave Granny the illusion she had a maternal bone in her body, and Mom the illusion she wasn’t working herself sick.) I figure that Mom, who is terrified above all things of turning into her mother, is reluctant to ride me too hard on this crazy cooking project deal. So she got her brother’s wife to do it. She must have really wanted to get through to me if she showed Aunt Sukie the blog. She had to know that my aunt would not be thrilled with comparisons of, say, trussed poultry to sexual fetishists.

But somehow I’m not irritated at all. Actually, it makes me feel looked after. And kind of like the circle stays unbroken, gene-wise. I give my aunt a hug. “I’m fine. Don’t worry about it.”

It’s always nice to go back to the folks’ house. There’s no mildew in the bathtub, and you can shower for as long as you want and the water will stay hot. There’s a queen-sized bed to sleep in, no roaring semitrucks passing in the night, a hundred channels on the television, and broadband on the computer. On Christmas Eve we jack up the air-conditioning so we can light a fire. There are trees—not just in little concrete boxes on the sidewalk, but everywhere. I love it here.

I think I may not go back.

Yes, New York is a stinking, chaotic, life-sucking cesspool and Austin, Texas, is a verdant, peaceful paradise, but that’s not really the problem—well, at least not the only one. No, the truth is, I’m on the lam.

Over a period of two weeks in late December of 2002, at the exhortation of Julia Child, I went on a murderous rampage. I committed gruesome, atrocious acts, and for my intended victims, no murky corner of Queens or Chinatown was safe from my diabolical reach. If news of the carnage was not widely remarked upon in the local press, it was only because my victims were not Catholic schoolgirls or Filipino nurses, but crustaceans. This distinction means that I am not a murderer in the legal sense. But I have blood on my hands, even if it is the clear blood of lobsters.

We had finally gone ahead and bought one of those sleep machines to drown out the roar of freight trucks that rumble past our apartment all night. It had a small speaker that fit under the pillow, and most nights it did the trick. But on the eve of my first crime, the lulling roar and crash of the “oceania” setting droned at me: “Lobster killer, lobster killer, lobster killer. . . .”

I was awake by dawn, worrying. It was Sunday in Long Island City—forget killing a lobster, how would I even get one, for God’s sake? How much would it cost? How would I get it home? I peppered Eric with these questions, hoping that he would reply, “Oooh, you’re right, that isn’t going to work. Oh well—guess we’ll have to save lobster for another day. Domino’s? Bacon and jalapeno?”

He didn’t say that. Instead he got out the yellow pages and made a phone call—the first fish market he called was open. The Bronco started, the traffic to Astoria was smooth. The fish store didn’t smell fishy, and they had lobsters in a nasty-looking cloudy tank. I bought two. The stars fell into alignment, for fate had decreed these two lobsters must die.

I had been imagining lugging the lobsters home in a bucket, but the guy just stuck them in a paper bag. He said to keep them in the refrigerator. He said they’d be good until Thursday. Ick. I brought them back to the car and set them in the backseat—what were we going to do, cradle the creatures in our laps? On the drive home the back of my neck tingled and my ears stayed pricked for the sneaking crinkle of a lobster claw venturing out of a paper bag—but the lobsters just sat there. I guess suffocating will do that to a body.

Julia gets very terse in her description of Homard Thermidor. She always seems to go all Delphic on me in my times of need. She doesn’t speak to the storage of lobsters, for one thing. Neither, to be fair, does the ^ Joy of Cooking, but at least that tome gives me the hint that lobsters should be lively and thrashing when they come out of the tank. Hey. My lobsters didn’t thrash. Joy said if they were limp, they might die before you cooked them. It seemed to think that was a bad thing. I peeked into the paper bag in the refrigerator and was faced with black eyes on stalks, antennae boozily waving.

I had read up on all sorts of methods for humanely euthanizing lobsters—sticking them in the freezer, placing them in ice water then bringing it up to a boil (which is supposed to fool them into not realizing they’re boiling alive), slicing their spinal cord with a knife beforehand. But all these struck me as palliatives thought up more to save boilers from emotional anguish than boilees from physical. In the end I just dumped them out of the paper bag into a pot with some boiling water and vermouth and vegetables. And then freaked the fuck out.

The pot wasn’t big enough. Though the lobsters didn’t shriek in horror the second I dropped them in, their momentary stillness only drew out the excruciating moment. It was like that instant when your car begins to skid out of control and before your eyes you see the burning car wreck that is your destiny. Any second the pain would awaken the creatures from their asphyxia-induced comas, I knew it, and I couldn’t get the goddamned lid down! It was just too horrible. My heroic/homicidal husband had to take things in hand. I’d have expected him to collapse just like me, he’s not exactly the Field & Stream type, but some of those pitiless West Texas sheriff genes must have hit their stride, because he managed to get those bugs subdued with a minimum of fuss.

People say lobsters make a terrible racket in the pot, trying—reasonably enough—to claw their way out of the water. I wouldn’t know. I spent the next twenty minutes watching a golf game on the TV with the volume turned up to Metallica concert levels. (Those Titleist commercials nearly blew the windows out.) When I ventured back into the kitchen, the lobsters were very red, and not making any racket at all. Julia says they are done when “the long head-feelers can be pulled from the sockets fairly easily.” That they could. Poor little beasties. I took them out of the pot and cooked down their liquid with the juices from some mushrooms I’d stewed. I strained the reduced juices through a sieve, presumably to get rid of any errant bits of head-feeler or whatever, then beat it into a light roux I’d made of butter and flour.

When Eric and I start our crime conglomerate, he can be in charge of death; I’ll take care of dismemberment. The same no-nonsense guy who brusquely stripped two crustaceans of their mortal coils had to leave the room when I read aloud that next I was to “split the lobsters in half lengthwise, keeping the shell halves intact.”

But it was no problem, really. For once, a blithely terse turn of phrase by Julia was not an indication of imminent disaster. The knife crunched right through. It is true that all within was not as clear-cut as you might think. When Julia told me to “discard sand sacks in the heads, and the intestinal tubes,” I was able to make an educated guess. The sacks full of sand were sort of a dead giveaway. But when she said to “rub lobster coral and green matter through a fine sieve,” I got a little lost. There was all manner of green matter—what is “green matter,” though, and why won’t Julia tell me?—but the only orange stuff I found seemed to reside where a lobster’s shit would go, so I decided not to risk it. After that was done, I pulled the rest of the meat out chunk by chunk, cracking open the claws, using a tweezer—carefully cleaned of all eyebrow hairs, naturally—to pull the strips of meat out of the legs. The sieved “green matter” got beaten into some egg yolks, cream, mustard, and cayenne, poured into the lobster broth/roux sauce, and boiled. I sautéed the meat in some butter, then poured in some cognac and let it boil down. Then I stirred in the stewed mushrooms and two-thirds of the sauce. I heaped the mixture into the four lobster half-shells, poured the rest of the sauce over, sprinkled with Parmesan and dotted with butter, and ran them under the broiler.

They were, I must say, delicious.

I stalked my third victim in Chinatown on a rainy evening one week later, inconspicuous amid the bustling Christmas shoppers picking up knockoff bags and the more obviously murderous umbrella wielders. (Umbrella wielders in Chinatown have the key advantage of diminutive stature. On a rainy day—and it’s always a rainy day in Chinatown—one must step lively or risk losing an eye.) The creature stopped groping almost immediately after the guy in the shop tied it up in a plastic bag, dropped the plastic bag into a paper one, and handed it to me in exchange for six dollars. I was nervous about getting on the train with the thing, fearing it would thrash around and call attention to itself, but it just sat there like a bag of groceries.

When I got home I peered down at the lobster to see how he was doing. The inner plastic bag was sucked tight around him and clouded up. It looked like something out of an eighties made-for-TV movie, with some washed-up actress taking too many pills and trying to off herself with a Macy’s bag. I tore open the bag to let in some air—so this underwater creature would breathe better?—before putting him in the freezer. Suffocating is worse than freezing to death is better than being steamed alive? Perhaps anticipation of my evening of bloodletting had addled my brain, but the philosophical intricacies of lobster murder were proving too much for me to rationally negotiate.

The second murder went much as the first—steamed in water spiked with vermouth and some celery, carrot, and onion. The rosy-red dead lobster was bisected in just the same way, its flesh removed, and again its shell was stuffed with its sautéed meat, this time napped in a cream sauce made with the lobster’s cooking juices. I think I overcooked it a little.

I confessed to Eric as we sat down to our Homard aux Aromates that cutting lobsters in half was beginning to prove eerily satisfying. “I just feel like I’ve got a knack for this shit.”

Eric looked at me, and I could see him wondering where was the finicky, soft-hearted young girl he had married. “By the end of this you’ll be comfortable filleting puppies.”

That chilled me. I lay low after that for a good long while, until after Christmas. I told myself it was because a transit strike was threatening, and I didn’t much relish the idea of buying a lobster in a bag and then unexpectedly having to hike across the Queensboro Bridge with it, in the company of a hundred thousand grousing outer-borough shoppers and menial workers. But that wasn’t really it. The reason was the next recipe, Homard à l’Américaine. For while I am sure that the argument can be made that any meat-eating person ought to take the responsibility once in her life for slaughtering an animal for food, that one ought to chop that animal up into small pieces while it’s still alive, I am less certain of. And even more frightening was the thought Eric had planted in my head—what if I liked it?

My mother did everything short of chaining the kitchen doors shut to keep me from cooking while we were home, and while you can see how her claim that she was doing it for the sake of my sanity did hold some water, I honestly think she was more concerned that I not make her eat aspic or kill anything. “Julie, just leave it alone for a week, goddammit,” she said, standing before the stove with her arms crossed.

“But I’ll never make it! I’m on a really tight schedule! Besides, my bleaders are waiting for me to post!”

“Your what?

“Mom, I just need to.”

“Julie, what you need to do is relax. I want you to think very hard about why you’re doing this. Julia Child can fucking wait!” (Yes, it’s true—I come by my sailor’s mouth honestly.)

For nearly a week I neither cooked nor grocery shopped. Instead, all of our various families took Eric and me out for Mexican food, for barbecue, for beignets. We ate cheese biscuits with Rice Krispies, and spiced pecans, and red beans and rice, and gumbo, and all those other things that New Yorkers would turn up their noses at, but New Yorkers don’t know everything, do they? This is what Texas, and family, are for. Eric and I slept late in my childhood bedroom, which I had never realized was so blessedly quiet and cool, in an enormous, comfortable bed made up with stylish 400-thread-count bed linens that never had even a single pebble of kitty litter in them.

After five days of it, I was miserable. I spent breakfasts eyeing my mother’s gorgeous stainless steel six-burner stove longingly. I took to perusing MtAoFC compulsively, and sneaking back to my parents’ office to check the blog. Every forlorn comment from some person wondering where I was, if I’d given up, produced a throbbing pulse in the pit of my stomach, like the one I felt when I thought about my hormonal condition and how I might not be able to have a baby. In addition, someone seemed to have attached some sort of transmitting device on my medulla oblongata. I could not understand the words that seemed to emanate from the deepest recesses of my brain, but the warbling voice was unmistakably familiar. I began to question my sanity.

Luckily for me and the Project (though maybe not ultimately so lucky for the New York lobster population), Isabel and her husband, Martin, came into town from their country house for my parents’ Christmas Eve party. She was wearing a mauve fifties prom dress (back in high school Isabel and I used to hit the vintage stores together, and neither of us has lost the habit), had her hair ratted up into a bouffant, and had painted her lips brick red. Martin was carrying a bag of presents and wearing his usual invisibility suit. The first thing she said when she walked in the door was, “You’ve been a naughty widget. Your followers are despondent. What’re we eating tonight?”

“Nothing,” I sighed miserably. “At least nothing I made. Mom’s not letting me cook.”

“What?!”

“She got a buffet basket from Central Market.”

Isabel took me by the arms. “Okay, Julie. Let me handle this.”

One thing you have to say about Isabel is that she does have the gift of gab, and she could sell ice to Eskimos. She is also persistent. All night long she worked on my mother, slipping in beside her at the bar, cornering her in the kitchen. She would not be ignored.

“So, Elaine, aren’t you proud of what Julie’s doing? She’s a goddess, in my opinion.”

“Oh?”

“Abso-lutely. You have been reading the comments, right? Julie is adored! She’s inspiring people all over the damn place!”

“Yes . . . I guess. . . .”

The truth of the matter was that my mom hadn’t really thought much about the people reading about what I was doing. She read my posts faithfully, but she tended to think of them much as she would a hospital stat sheet, perusing them mostly for any signs of imminent crack-up.

“Well, it’s no surprise to you, of course—you Foster women can do anything.”

(Foster is my maiden name. Even among the handful of women of my age and socioeconomic status who have in fact married, those of us who actually took our husbands’ names are considered freaks of nature.)

“I suppose. But, Isabel, I do worry. She’s so stubborn when she gets a notion in her head, and she’s just pushing herself so hard with this —”

“Oh, come on, Elaine! When has Julie ever not managed brilliantly? Remember drill team?”

“Of course I remember drill team! That’s exactly what I’m talking about! She lost twenty pounds and cried herself to sleep every night!”

Exactly. And she ate nothing but Skittles and Coke for a year and we all thought she was killing herself but she came out of it fine, and with a mean high kick to boot. She didn’t even turn into a Junior Leaguer! Hey, did you know Henry reads the blog?”

Henry was my ex-boyfriend from high school, the one who’d had such trouble forgiving me for that whole dropping-him-for-Eric thing eleven years ago. My mom always really liked Henry.

“Really?”

“Yeah. He’s really proud of Julie, too.”

“That’s nice of him.”

“Your daughter’s doing a great thing. She’s cooking for our sins!” (This had become Isabel’s favorite new phrase. She was thinking of making T-shirts.) She popped a chipotle-grilled shrimp into her mouth. “This is pretty good. For something from a grocery store, I mean.”

Heathcliff, of all people, chimed in, just before Isabel managed to undo all the good work she’d done. “You know, I don’t actually think Julie’s freaking out all that much. I mean for Julie. I saw her rip up like a dozen artichokes, and she didn’t scream even once. It was kind of eerie, in fact.”

“But I read about it! I see what she’s doing! She’s taking on too much!”

Heathcliff has always known how to end an argument, and he’s a genius with a raised eyebrow. “Mom. You do know you sound just like Granny. That’s like on purpose, right?”

So that was that. That very night my mother agreed, with many sighs and much rolling of eyes, that if I absolutely had to do it, maybe I could cook something for New Year’s Eve.

“Thanks, Isabel.”

“Well, sure. Small price to pay to keep the Project alive, right? But listen, I’ve got to tell you something.” She grabbed my hand and pulled me out onto my parents’ back deck. It was absolutely balmy out there, or seemed so to my New York-hardened skin, but Isabel shivered in her tulle dress as she pulled me over to the Adirondack chairs, looking for all the world like a woman with a secret. She pulled me down into the chairs and bent toward me to whisper.

“Remember that dream I e-mailed about, about the dildo? Well, I was right, it was totally precognitive.”

“Um. Oh?”

“There’s this guy, Jude. He plays guitar in a punk band in Bath—England, you know. I met him on the Richard Hell fan site. I’ve never heard his music before, but I’ve read his lyrics, and they’re amazing. And then I dreamed about the music, like I could hear exactly what it sounded like. I bet I’m right, too.”

“Uh-huh?”

“And he sent me a picture of him, and he’s sent me some of his poems, including one he wrote just for me, which I think are brilliant.

“Okay?”

“And I think I need to meet him.”

Suddenly it did feel a little chilly, and I glanced around, worried suddenly that maybe Martin was lurking around in his invisibility suit, smoking a cigarette in some dark corner of the deck. “But—I mean, do you mean you’re going to—?”

“No! That’s what my mother thinks, that I should just go and have sex with him and get it out of my system, but that’s so wrong, don’t you think?”

Looking at the slightly crazed gleam in Isabel’s eyes, I had the uncomfortable feeling that her mother’s scheme might be the most reasonable one I was going to hear.

“No, I want to meet him, and if he’s as wonderful as I think he is, then I’ll talk to Martin, and we’ll just see what happens next.”

“Isabel —”

“Hey, Isabel, we’ve got to go if we’re going to catch your dad at the thing.” Martin was standing at the door, peeking out. I could just see the spiky silhouette of his mussed hair.

“Yeah, okay, honey. Coming.” Isabel gave my hand a squeeze and was gone.

I had no idea what to think about that.

And so on the eve of the New Year, I made Veau Prince Orloff for eleven cousins and aunts and uncles, who I’m sure believed their crazy Yankee-fied niece had dropped completely off the deep end.

Veau Prince Orloff is an absurd recipe. What you do is this: You roast the veal with some vegetables and bacon. You save the juices. We did this the night before, and then left the roast sitting on the counter overnight—slightly overdone, I think, as I so often do with Julia’s meats, which is particularly a shame when the meat you’re roasting is $15.99 a pound. Then you can wake up a few times in the early hours of the morning in a cold sweat, convinced your parents’ golden retriever has gotten to the eighty-dollar veal roast. That stress should offset some of the catastrophic caloric intake you’re about to experience.

On the day you’re serving, you make a soubise, which is a bit of rice briefly boiled and then cooked slowly with some butter and a lot of sliced onions for forty-five minutes or so. The water that sweats out of the onions is sufficient to cook the rice, which is kind of neat, sort of like a chemistry experiment or something. Then you make duxelles, which are just minced mushrooms sautéed with shallots and butter.

Out of the veal juices and some milk you make a velouté sauce, which is a roux-based type of thing. You combine the velouté with the soubise, run the soubise through the sieve/Cuisinart, then stir in the duxelles and cook it all up, thinning it out with cream.

This, surprisingly, takes all morning. And produces a hell of a lot of dirty dishes, which my mother, being my mother, patiently washed. Which is as it should be, because guilt is what Christmas is for.

I sliced the veal as thinly as I could, then stacked it back together again, one slice at a time, smearing mushroom filling on each slice as I went. I stirred some cheese into the warm velouté, then poured it over the veal. The veal now looked like some kind of wet beige footstool. I sprinkled some more cheese on top, and some melted butter. My mother is a Texan and knows the value of cooking fats, but even she was horrified when she did a stick-of-butter count. The veal got thrown into the oven about half an hour before it was time to serve, just to warm through.

If you fed this veal to a racehorse, it would instantly drop dead of gastric torsion. Very good. Who cares if the roast is overdone, I think, when you’ve got that much shit on it? It goes a little oddly with San Antonio squash casserole with Velveeta and canned chiles, cornbread dressing, turkey, and pecan pie. But no matter.

We flew back to New York on January second. As I sat at the kitchen table that morning before our flight home, sipping a cup of coffee and maybe wallowing a bit in the vague dissatisfaction that the day after the first day of the new year always brings, Heathcliff came in, rubbing his eyes, his red hair kicked up by sleep. Heathcliff is not much of a morning person; I’d kind of figured I wouldn’t see him again before we left.

“Hey.”

“Hey. You’re up early.”

“Mom said we’d all go to breakfast before your flight.”

“Yeah.”

He flung himself into a chair, picked up the front page, peered at it sleepily. Then I must have sighed, because he looked up again and said, with a crooked grin, “What’s the matter, sis?”

“I don’t know. Have to go back.”

“Aaah. You’ll be fine. Gotta get back to your cooking.”

“I’ve got to kill a lobster, though. I’ve got to chop it into bits while it’s still alive. I don’t know if I can handle it.”

“Julie. I’ve watched you brain a mouse against a marble counter before feeding it to a python.”

“That’s your fault.”

“You can kill a bug. Man up, dude.”

Flying back to New York after being in Austin is like being thrown into a pneumatic tube—an airless shuttling, inexorable. No matter how often Eric said, “It’ll be nice to see the cats, won’t it?” I could not be cheered. Homard à l’Américaine awaited.

I didn’t know why I was doing this, I really didn’t. I didn’t want to kill lobsters. Hell, I didn’t want to cook at all. The bleaders would be disappointed, sure, but they’d get over it. I was used to disappointing people. Besides, how had I become so absurdly arrogant as to think that anything I wrote about Julia Child and French cooking on a blog mattered two shits to anybody?

Come on, Julie. You’re a vapid secretary with a butter fetish, and that’s all.

But I couldn’t quit. I couldn’t quit because if I wasn’t cooking, I wouldn’t be the creator of the Julie/Julia Project anymore. I’d just have my job, and my husband, and my cats. I’d be just the person I was before. Without the Project I was nothing but a secretary on a road to nowhere, drifting toward frosted hair and menthol addiction. And I’d never live up to the name I’d been born with, the name I shared with Julia.

Funnily enough, if it weren’t for being a secretary I might never have gotten out of this funk. Because I would never have had the opportunity to field this phone call:

“Hi, I own a business downtown and I wonder if I qualify for business assistance.”

“Well, I can try to help. Where are you located?” I actually had nothing to do with business assistance, but once you started forwarding some person to another department, that person often got shunted around for half an hour, and as often as not wound up back at your phone, none the wiser and pissed to the eyeballs. So it was the unofficial position of the personal assistants to answer all questions they got, even if they had no clue what they were talking about.

“My business is in the seaport, and many of my clients used to work in the towers —”

“The seaport is in the designated Area 1, so you should qualify for full benefits. What you need to do is call —”

“Can I be honest with you?” The woman on the other end of the line had a deep, gravelly voice; she sounded like she’d just finished laughing about something. I was intrigued; can I be honest with you? is not a question you get a lot when you work for a government agency.

“Uh, sure.”

“I own a dungeon. It’s the only dungeon in lower Manhattan. We’ve gotten the NYPD’s Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.”

“The police give out seals of approval?”

“The chief of police told his men, you know, ‘If you want to go to an S and M dungeon, this is the one to go to’ . . .”

I was still sort of just sitting there gaping into my headset when the woman confessed that it wasn’t so much that she needed assistance, business was quite good, actually, but she really did want to expand, and her accountant suggested she should give us a call—

“That is so awesome.” It came out a little belatedly, and rather without the husky cool detachment I might have wished for.

“I know!”

I suppose a breathless awesome was by far a better response than she expected to get in calling a government agency for assistance. It must have taken some guts to call; what if she’d gotten Natalie, the loon with the What-Would-Jesus-Do bracelet? Then again, I guess it takes guts to open an S&M dungeon in lower Manhattan.

We spent a few minutes chatting about the vagaries of the polymorphously perverse lifestyle, culminating in her anecdote—probably the one she keeps for cocktail parties—about the client who once a week comes in with three pairs of clogs and a Riverdance tape: “He lies on the floor naked while we clog dance for him. I can’t clog dance, and I’m an overweight black woman. I look ridiculous. But this is my life, what can I say?” She erupted in a peal of laughter, and I felt a pang of envy. It’s not that I think clog dancing naked for financial analysts is really my bag. But I can’t imagine loving my job. I never have.

Nate popped by my cubicle, as he was wont to do, just as I was hanging up. “Look at Miss Pink Cheeks! You got a secret admirer?”

“What?” I touched my face, felt the heat of a blush. “Oh, no—it’s nothing. What’s up?”

“Just wanted to say congratulations on the article.”

“What article?”

“Didn’t you see it? ^ Christian Science Monitor. Kimmy pulled it up doing her Nexus search this morning.” He handed me a xeroxed page: holy crap. I hadn’t even thought about that reporter since he came to eat Boeuf Bourguignon with us. “Looks like your cooking thing is really turning into something.”

Nate was grinning down at me. Press always got him a little high. “One thing, though. There’s not really any need to mention where you work, is there? I mean, it’s not part of the story, right?”

“Um. I guess not. Sorry.”

“No problem. Just for next time.” He gave me a wink and turned to go. “Oh, and hey. I checked out your Web site. Very funny.”

“Oh. Um. Thanks.”

Okay. That made me nervous.

My final victim was another Chinatown denizen. He was spryer than his predecessors, flailing around in his bag for the entire subway ride. Because shivving a dead lobster in the back would be no challenge at all.

I put him in the freezer for a while when I got home, to try to numb him, maybe make it go a little easier, but is there such a thing as an easy vivisection, really? After half an hour or so, while Eric retreated to the living room and cranked up the volume on the TV, I took the lobster out of the freezer and laid him on the cutting board.

JC writes: “Split the lobsters in two lengthwise. Remove stomach sacks (in the head) and intestinal tubes. Reserve coral and green matter. Remove claws and joints and crack them. Separate tails from chests.”

“Well, gosh, Julia, you make it sound easy.

The poor guy just sat there, waving his claws and antennae gently, while I stood over him, my largest knife poised at the juncture of chest and tail. I took a deep breath, let it out.

^ It’s like shooting an old, dying dog in the back of the skull—you’ve got to be strong, for the animal’s sake.

“Oh, you’ve shot a lot of dogs in your time, have you?”

Go ahead.

“All right, all right. Okay. One. Two. Three.

I pressed down, making an incision in the shell where Julia said I could quickly sever the spinal cord.

The thing began to flail.

“He doesn’t seem to think this is particularly painless, Julia.”

^ Chop it in two. Quickly. Start at the head.

I quickly placed the tip of my knife between its eyes and, muttering “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry,” plunged.

Oh God. Oh God.

Clear blood leaked off the edges of the cutting board onto the floor as the lobster continued to flail vigorously, despite the fact that its head was now chopped neatly in two. The muscles in its chest gripped at the blade, so that the knife’s hilt trembled in my hand. I sawed away at the thing, managing to get about halfway through before I had to leave the room for a bit to clear my head.

But I think perhaps I’m approaching a Zenlike serenity when it comes to crustacean murder, because when I reentered the kitchen to the sight of the giant thing pinned to the cutting board with a huge knife, still squirming, instead of being horrified by man’s inhumanity to lobster, I just giggled. It really was pretty amusing when you thought about it.

Laughter through nausea is my favorite emotion, and after that, things got easier. In not too much time I had the thing cut into four pieces, plus detached claws. I cleaned out the intestines and “green matter,” which looked more like an organ when it was unsteamed. The pieces of the thing kept twitching throughout, even keeping on awhile after I threw them into hot oil.

My final victim was sautéed with carrots, onions, shallots, and garlic, doused with cognac, lit on fire, then baked in an oven with vermouth, tomato, parsley, and tarragon, and served atop rice. I arranged the rice into a ring on a plate, as Julia asked. I’ve committed brutal murder for the woman, why not make a rice ring? I piled the lobster pieces in the middle and ladled the sauce over. “Dinner’s served.”

Eric overcame his momentary horror at being presented with a heap of mutilated lobster and dug in. “I suppose it’s no worse to eat an animal you killed yourself instead of one they kill in the factory. Maybe it’s better.”

“It’s true.” I took a bite of lobster meat with rice. It was quite tasty. “Arguing the morality of slaughter will send you into a tailspin of self-loathing every time.”

“Unless you’re a vegan.”

“Uh-huh. But then you’re a vegan, and you don’t count. Hey, have you read about how they slaughter chickens? See, they hang them upside down on this conveyor belt with their little feet clamped in manacles, and —”

“Julie, I’m eating here.”

“Or what about pigs? And pigs are way smart.”

But —” Eric jabbed his fork in the air rhetorically. “Does the intelligence of the creature have any bearing on its right and desire to live?” Eric had already finished his first serving of Homard à l’Américaine and was reaching for his second.

“George Bush would say no.”

“So, the question is, is George Bush a vegan?”

“No, the question is—wait, am I turning into George Bush? Oh God!”

“I think we’re getting a little confused. Let’s just eat.”

“Oh, hey, I just remembered—I forgot to tell you about this crazy call I got at work today.”

So sometimes I’m irritated by my husband, and sometimes I’m frustrated. But I can think of two times right off the top of my head when it’s particularly good to be married. The first is when you need help with killing the lobsters. The second is when you’ve got an inspirational story to relate regarding a large African American woman who runs an S&M dungeon. I told it to him as we sopped up the last of the buttery lobster juice with some hunks of French bread.

“That’s great.

“I know, I know!” I knew of no one else I could have told who would have understood the joy this story brought me.

“It just makes you happy, thinking about the possibilities out there.”

He didn’t mean the possibilities of getting naked ladies to clog dance for him, or at least he didn’t only mean that. He meant that sometimes you get a glimpse into a life that you never thought of before. There are hidden trap doors all over the place, and suddenly you see one, and the next thing you know you’re flogging grateful businessmen or chopping lobsters in half, and the world’s just so much bigger than you thought it was.

So that night I made my New Year’s resolution, better late than never: To Get Over My Damned Self. If I was going to follow Julia down this rabbit hole, I was going to enjoy it, by God—exhaustion, crustacean murder, and all. Because not everybody gets a rabbit hole. I was one lucky bastard, when you came down to it.

January 1946

Bucks County, PA

When he got to the bit about Bartleman in her letter, Paul choked on his wine chuckling, thinking without too much regret that perhaps he had been a corrupting influence on little Julie, after all. He’d not been sure it was right to tell her about the astrologer’s predictions—he knew she was in love with him, and Bartleman didn’t seem to think the two of them had much of a future. He’d thought she might be hurt. But he should have known. Julie wasn’t about to let herself get deflated by some honey with a star chart and a few solemn intonations.

^ Charlie’s wife, Freddie, called up. “Paul? We’ve got dinner on!”

“I’ll be right down—just finishing reading a letter!”

Sometimes Paul wondered if he was leading the poor girl on—for a girl was how he thought of Julie still. An unsophisticated, charming, excitable girl. Paul had never before allowed himself to become involved with someone so unformed, so unsure of herself. Still, it was a fact that Paul missed her far more than he’d imagined he would when he left China.

In Julie’s letter, she boldly asked him to come out to visit her in Pasadena. And after dinner that night, a lovely roast lamb, he sat down and wrote a letter to tell her that he would. He didn’t know yet that he’d decided to marry her, but he had.

^ DAY 198, RECIPE 268
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