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^ The Proof Is in the Plumbing

There are many ways of arriving at plain boiled or steamed rice, and most cooks choose one which best suits their temperaments. We find the following to be a foolproof system.

— Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1
Let me say first that I’m fully aware that simply copping to the fact that I possess a half bath is liable to completely obliterate any chance I ever had for sympathy among my fellow non-hideously-rich New Yorkers. (My mother would call it a “powder room,” but use that term in a room of frustrated apartment dwellers and see who gets lynched.)

Also, to be fair to the vile black shit that began spewing from the sink in the half bath one Monday in February, it really was just the capper on an independently miserable day. It started with the leftover Charlotte Malakoff au Chocolat I’d made over the weekend. I’d even made my own ladyfingers to put in it, because Julia warns that store-bought ladyfingers will “debase an otherwise remarkable dessert.” Debase. Jesus, Julia, no pressure or anything. So I made my own, which was a trial in itself, then soaked them in Grand Marnier and tried to line the charlotte mold with them. (Who could possibly guess a year ago that I would be the kind of person to own a charlotte mold?) But they just sagged down until they were bent over at the waist like sad little swooning ladies. Well, the finished product came out looking like an as-is discounted Baskin-Robbins cake. And maybe it was debased by the crappy ladyfingers—I wouldn’t know, being rather the debased sort myself—but it was chocolatey and sweet and creamy and cold. Pretty damned good, actually. Good enough that I didn’t want it sitting around in my refrigerator to tempt me. So early in the morning of this very bad day I wrapped up the leftover Charlotte Malakoff in waxed paper, set it in a ceramic soufflé dish, and put the dish in a big H&M shopping bag. Just as I was finishing up this operation, the radio news reported that one of the two subway lines out of my station was not going into Manhattan due to track damage. Staff meeting at nine o’clock, of course.

You can probably guess how this ends, right? As I climbed out of the Cortlandt Street stop across from the office, late and sweaty and hurrying, yes of course the bottom of the bag gave way abruptly, and of course my Charlotte Malakoff tumbled to the pavement, and of course my ceramic soufflé dish shattered. Of course a freezing rain that stuck in icy clumps in the Mongolian wool of my coat collar was coming down very, very hard. I picked up my waxed paper-covered Charlotte Malakoff and the pieces of my soufflé dish and rushed into the building, face hot with humiliation. And after I got up to the office and left the heaped remains of charlotte out on the counter of the staff kitchen with a note saying “Please Enjoy!” I had to go to the six Democrats in the office and tell them they might want to take a pass since there might be ceramic shards or antifreeze in it.

Then there was work, which of course is quite bad enough in itself. I signed a confidentiality agreement when I took this job, so I can’t go into details, but I think the fact that bureaucrats are assholes is rather a matter of public record, isn’t it? It’s probably also not top-secret information that dashing back and forth to the community printer down the hall to print out dais cards for the bureaucrats who decided at the very last minute to join the memorial committee meeting when they heard the governor’s people were going to be there is all kinds of annoying. Nor that doing this while at the same time trying to point out to the conscientious but non-English-speaking delivery guy from the caterer where to put the sandwich assortment and cookie plate and coffee urns is even worse.

Then the Turkish grocery near my office was out of the mussels I would need to make the Moules à la Provencale that were next up, and if God wanted me to wander around Chinatown in February he’d have let that hormonal syndrome of mine go ahead and grow me an even layer of blubber and a thick waterproof pelt, like a seal, instead of just unruly eyebrows, Fu Manchu whiskers, and unsightly bulges of butter fat. And who wanted to eat mussels anyway, which I don’t even like, when it was about thirty degrees below zero in our apartment? And when I made it home, mussel-less, Eric was watching the NewsHour instead of washing the dishes that were overflowing in the kitchen sink and spread over the floor.

“It’s not my fault,” he protested moodily before I even started sighing and stomping around. “The sink isn’t draining right. We need to get some Drano.”

I kicked off my awful shoes and retreated to the half bath, perhaps to powder my nose.

The sound that came out of my mouth when I stepped into the room cannot be exactly reproduced in print, but it went something like:

“Aihohmafug? AewwkrieeeeeshitEw. Ew. Ew!!!”

The vile black shit wasn’t actual shit. It was something far more disturbing. Bits of rice and parsley drifted about in it, and floating puddles of what I can only imagine was melted butter.

A gimlet is, to my mind, the ideal cocktail, exquisitely civilized and not at all girly, even if it is served in a chilled martini glass and gleams with a pearlescent hint of chartreuse. Philip Marlowe drank gimlets, after all. Gimlets originally were made of a one-to-one ratio of gin to Rose’s lime juice. This was back when gin was made in bathtubs. Most bars now mix it 4:1, which is still convulsively limey, in the Powell opinion. No, it is best for beginners not to mess about with bars at all. Mix yourself one at home instead, with just the barest smidge of Rose’s, well chilled. Eric and I make ours with vodka instead of gin, which many would consider heresy, but we consider perfect. The one he mixed for me after I finished howling wordlessly at the sink in the half bath was a quintessence of a gimlet, enough to make up for any number of unwashed dishes and NewsHours. If Daisy Buchanan’s laugh is the sound of money, then a gimlet, well executed, is the color of it. It is just the thing when you are feeling impoverished, financially or spiritually.

Like, for instance, when the sink in your half bath is spewing vile black shit.

Neither Eric nor I was sufficiently steeled (nor, soon enough, sufficiently sober) to handle plumbing problems that evening; instead, we awoke early the next morning. After Eric made a run to Queensborough Plaza for Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and supplies in the bone-chilling predawn hours, we spent the morning excavating the sink out from under the dishes and, with the aid of four bottles of Drano, coaxing the pipes to take their effluents back to wherever they had come from. Consumed with such, I didn’t manage until that evening to get online to post about my plumbing situation and make excuses for not cooking the previous night. Isabel, though, kept things entertaining in my absence by writing in the comment box the most beautiful single paragraph about Julia Child I have ever read:

God, Julia Child is definitely the all-time coolest person in the world. I just caught her show on TV—I turned it on just as Julia leaned gamely onto her knuckles like some otherworldly primate god of kitchens and good humor, and told the lady she was cooking with, who I didn’t recognize, “I haven’t had cobbler in a coon’s age!” I think it was cobbler, anyway. They’d also made delicious-looking gingerbread, so maybe it was the gingerbread she hadn’t had in so very, very long.

“Julia leaned gamely onto her knuckles like some otherworldly primate god of kitchens and good humor.” I think that if I live to be ninety-one, I may never come up with a sentence more ravishingly true than that one. And Isabel doesn’t even care all that much about Julia Child. She wrote it because she knew how very much I loved Julia Child. I felt an utterly unexpected prickle of teary gratitude. I couldn’t write something ravishing and true about, say, Richard Hell for her. I knew I couldn’t.

That night, after a dinner of Suprêmes de Volaille aux Champignons and Fonds d’Artichauts à la Crème—creamy, as the title would suggest, but not difficult; I had by this time become quite adept at the mutilation of artichokes—I finished my extralong post detailing our eating experience and plumbing woes, then opened up MtAoFC to see what was on for tomorrow’s dinner. And that was when I realized something wonderful.

“Eric, come look!”

Eric was up past his elbows in the dishes he’d not been able to get to the previous night; he poked his head out of the kitchen with a quizzical look. I waved him over. “Come here!”

He came to where I sat at my desk and peered over my shoulder at the book I was holding open for him.

“Mouclades. Yeah?”

I turned the pages, then turned them back again.

“Mouclades, chapter six, mouclades, chapter—oh! You’re finished with chapter five? Finished with fish?”

I grinned up at him. “Mouclades is the last.” I giggled giddily. That was four chapters down—soups, eggs, poultry, and now fish. I’d decided at some point to skip the recipe variations, and the fish sauces all appeared elsewhere in the book, so I really was finished with fish. Yes, those were the shortest chapters, and the simplest, but still, it was evident—progress was being made. I was making my way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I was Mastering the Art of French Cooking! “Let’s get us some mussels!”

The next night Eric and I stood over the sink shucking the mussels from their shells, after I’d steamed them in vermouth flavored with curry, thyme, fennel seed, and garlic. The kitchen smelled divine, the mussels were plump and pink and ruffled as tiny vulvas, or perhaps that comparison was just a reflection of my jaunty mood. The next morning I would inform my bleaders that another chapter had been completed, that 268 recipes had been made, that Julie Powell was well on her way to completing her insane assignment. “Just go ahead and schedule that triple bypass surgery and the stay in the mental hospital. I’m a-comin’!” I crowed to the husband at my side, whom I loved so intensely at that moment I couldn’t shuck straight. When, later, the butter sauce for the mussels began inexplicably to separate, and I hovered delicately over the pot, gingerly adding dashes of ice water, stirring in butter that wanted nothing more than to come out again, Eric stood beside me. I was Tom Cruise hovering with a bead of sweat. I was Harrison Ford in a battered fedora, weighing a bag full of sand in my hands—and Eric understood. He was my partner. It occurred to me, as I beat my rebellious sauce into submission, that my husband was doing more than just enduring this crazy thing I’d gotten myself into, doing more than being supportive. I realized this was his Project, too. Eric wasn’t a cook, and like Isabel, he only cared about JC because I did. And yet, he had become part of this thing. There would be no Project without him, and he would not be the same without the Project. I felt so married, all of a sudden, and so happy.

My mood was so fine that even Riz à l’Indienne could not spoil it. To make Riz à l’Indienne, you must sprinkle a cup and a half of rice into eight quarts of boiling water—which in this age of environmental crisis can be seen as really very nearly immoral, if you care about that kind of thing. I’m no nut on the subject, but even I blanched as I filled up a stockpot. You boil it for ten minutes, then test it “by biting successive grains of rice.” Julia writes that “when a grain is just tender enough to have no hardness at the center but is not yet quite fully cooked, drain the rice into a colander.” Normally it would be kind of a hoot thinking of Julia Child picking out individual grains of rice from an enormous pot of boiling water, nibbling each one delicately and peering into its center, but I was too busy doing it myself to be amused. After you’ve drained the rice, you have to rinse it under hot water, then wrap it in cheesecloth and steam it for half an hour.

Riz à l’Indienne has got to be the single most willfully obtuse recipe in all of MtAoFC. Wrangling a recalcitrant butter sauce can be a tricky business, certainly, but it doesn’t fill you with the angry sense of futility that consumes you in making Riz à l’Indienne. I guarantee you, you cannot make it without at least once screaming at the open book, as if to Julia’s face, “My God, woman—it’s rice, for fuck’s sake!” Eric, witnessing this, dubbed it “Bitch Rice,” in honor of both the trouble it is to make and the obvious hidden nasty streak in anyone who would ask you to do it.

Still, we wound up eating before nine o’clock that night, for the first time in ages. Eric washed all the dishes; I mixed up some gimlets. I still had a glow on from finishing the fish chapter, and the mussels had been a light meal; for once, I didn’t feel as if I had swallowed a bag of Quikrete for dinner. I sipped my drink. There was a reality show on TV. A pregnant silence settled over the apartment, as we tried to remember: now, what is it, again, that people do when they aren’t cooking?

Eric abruptly stood, his gimlet left undrunk on the coffee table. “I think I’ll go shave.”

Eric really dislikes shaving. He feels that he doesn’t know how to do it properly, and that somehow this reflects badly on his manhood. When I used to visit him in college, I’d leave at the end of the weekend with my face red and tingling from so much contact with his stiff whiskers. Once he graduated he did man up and tackle the problem of shaving seriously. But it remained a trial for him, and maybe it was because of this that shave has become one of our married-couple-inside-joke code words. As in “Look, honey, I shaved for you,” accompanied by a suggestive wiggling of the eyebrows.

But he didn’t come out of the bathroom stroking his smooth chin, with a randy smirk on his face. Instead, I just heard “Oh, shit!

I am by now adept at translating Eric’s cursing, and when I heard this one I knew to hop right up off the couch and hustle back to the bathroom. There I found my husband standing in an inch-deep pool of water fed by a vigorous gush from a pipe behind the toilet.

“Oh, shit.”

“That’s what I said.”

I ran to the broom closet for a bucket, but we couldn’t wedge the bucket under there, so I then ran to the kitchen for my biggest bowl, and got that under the rushing fountain of water. By this time we were both soaked, and the water had spread far and wide. By the time we’d sopped up the lake, the bowl under the toilet was full, so I ran to the kitchen for my second-biggest bowl and traded them out.

“How do we switch off the water?” howled Eric over the drowning roar of the cataract.

“You’re asking me? I thought that’s what I kept you around for!”

After groping our boiler for a while to no effect, we headed down into the basement, which I had never before been in. I hesitate to call it a basement, actually. Remember the end of ^ The Blair Witch Project, in the house? It’s kind of like that, except that if you will recall, that place was relatively uncluttered and those kids never caught sight of actual bones in the beams of their flashlight. And I added the experience of picking my way down there in the pitch black to my reservoir of nightmarish images for no reason, because we still couldn’t figure out how to shut the goddamned water off.

And so that night was spent not in clean-shaven connubial bliss, but rather taking shifts sitting on the kitchen floor, bailing water out of stainless steel bowls every seven and a half minutes—I timed the rate of flow, because that’s the kind of thing you do at four a.m., sitting on the bathroom floor waiting to bail the next bowl of water from under the catastrophically leaking toilet. Eric did far more than his share of this, staying up until 3:30 a.m., when I woke up and forced him to go back to bed. I used my spare time during my shift to make Mousseline au Chocolat, which is technically a jelling-type recipe, but which, miraculously, turned out just beautifully anyway. (Thank God—I don’t think I could have handled another disaster.) I chilled it and served it the next night, in the coffee cups with the Raphael cherubs on them that we bought in a cheap souvenir shop outside the Sistine Chapel during our honeymoon, after a long, long walk, which we then used to drink wine with the cheese we had for lunch, on a green square, as we did every day during our honeymoon. And eating it that night reminded us that there was such a thing as fun, which was a good thing to remember right then.

So that turned out fine, and I’m not going to blame the chill in our relations that winter on pipes that spout leaks of biblical proportions.

No, I’m going to blame the chill in our relations on pipes that freeze solid for four days straight.

. . . I’m thinking a line of high-design furniture just for sex. Chair and sofas with ergonomic, adjustable supports for coitus, but that actually LOOK REALLY GOOD. I’ve made some drawings, as soon as I can scan them I’ll send them along. Maybe your mom can give me some tips on how I can go about getting them fabricated. . . . I’ve even come up with a name: Schtuppenhaus!

The nice thing about having a friend who is crazier than you are is that she bolsters your belief in your own sanity. How could I worry too much about the wisdom of cooking my way through MtAoFC for no particular reason when Isabel was concocting a business plan for midcentury-style fuck-furniture, and asking my mom to be a consultant?

I have known Isabel since the first grade. We used to choreograph dance routines to Cyndi Lauper tunes—she let me in on what “She Bop” was about. When I began telling my friends and family I was going to do this project, exactly two people didn’t respond with some variation of “Why in God’s name would you want to do that?”—my husband, and Isabel. She is a good friend to me.

I, on the other hand, am not a good friend. Isabel has worked to keep in touch, though we have not lived in the same city since we graduated from high school. She has remembered my birthdays, she has bought me presents for Christmas, she has offered to cut my hair. She has adored my boyfriends, and listened excitedly as I blathered on about them. I, on the other hand, have visited cities she’s been living in and not called. I couldn’t tell you her birthday on a bet, and for Christmas I give her random doodads I pick up at the checkout counter at Barnes & Noble on Christmas Eve. I have never really gotten to know her boyfriends, but I have often wanted to shake her by the shoulders and shout, “Oh for Christ’s sake, Isabel, shut up for a minute!”

But even though I’m not a good friend, I do love Isabel. And so I was overjoyed when Martin came on the scene. Martin was taciturn, and a little odd—a photographer and a painter, or so said Isabel, though I never saw his work. He was slightly stooped, in the way of tall, thin men, and especially tall, thin, shy men. But his rare smiles were open and sweet. And he didn’t have to say anything to reveal that he got Isabel—who is, to say the least, not an easy person to get—that he saw all the stuff that lay just beyond the squealing and the queer subculture obsessions. He just had to look at her.

They were married on her rich uncle’s lawn. She had luscious flowers and vertiginously sloppy and delicious bride’s and groom’s cakes baked by her friend Ursula. She wore a burgundy velvet gown that showcased her considerable décolletage and made her skin look creamy pale. She’d done her hair herself, as always, but for once she kept it simple and forewent the marcel waves and beehive do. Martin wore some strange velvet sport coat he’d found in a thrift store, in the same color as Isabel’s dress—he was all elbows and knees, a glowing scarecrow. Isabel’s friend Mindy read something or other about marriage being like a base camp, and I read a Philip Levine poem about cunnilingus. It was all very, very Isabel.

Now, as I’ve made clear, I’m no stickler for the sanctity of wedding vows; I figure each to his own, you know? But sometimes there’s an exception. Because sometimes you just get a feeling when you watch someone you love fall in love—maybe especially someone who is sad, or difficult, or just for some reason an uncomfortable fit with the rest of the world. A feeling of relief, really, as if you can let go of that load you’d never actually realized you were carrying. That’s what I felt as I watched Isabel marry Martin—“Well, there’s that taken care of, anyway.” Two people who might so easily have never found one another at all, had. It seemed a precious, and fragile, thing.

And then three years later, Isabel threw it all away.

Yesterday I talked to Jude on the phone for the first time. I don’t get so wound up about British accents; in fact, usually I think they are rather off-putting, but on him it’s just perfect.

Have you ever watched a friend make the single wrongest choice she could possibly make? All the time she’s looking back at you, beaming, happier than she’s ever been, surer than she’s ever been, and you’re watching her foot about to fall onto nothing, onto air, and there’s nothing you can do to warn her off the cliff’s edge. You can’t say to her, “My God, Isabel, don’t screw over Martin, who loves you, for some English punk guitarist you met on the Internet!

Thanks for the Bitch Rice post, by the way. You had to do it, for all of us who never, ever will. And I hope your plumbing’s back in order, and that you called your landlord. You do know your mom’s checking in on you through the blog, don’t you? If you don’t call the landlord she might KILL you.

Because Isabel was the only one who didn’t say you were nuts when you told her you were going to cook your way through MtAoFC, and that this was how you were going to save your soul. She believed in you, and now she needs you to believe in her. What do you say? How do you stop her without losing her?

In the next weeks, I kept doing the Bitch Rice. I didn’t have to—I’d done the recipe, there was a small check mark by Riz à l’Indienne in the book—no reason at this point I couldn’t just throw some Uncle Ben’s into boiling water and have done with it. But I was intrigued. Bitch Rice was so needlessly baroque, so stubbornly nitpicky. Every time I turned to the vegetable chapter—in MtAoFC, rice resides among the vegetables, which I for some reason find endlessly amusing—it was there, staring me in the face. “Why?” I asked myself every time I came upon it. “Why, Julia? What’s so great about Bitch Rice?”

I will say that one problem Riz à l’Indienne does dispense with is overcooking. No matter how distracted you get by gimlets or cooking fiascoes, Riz à l’Indienne won’t be ruined. Perhaps Julia, an isolated cooking dervish up in her garret kitchen during those early Paris days, her husband snapping pictures of her and sticking his fingers in the sauce, just needed to remove one item from her list of anxieties. But was it worth it? Is overdone rice so bad, really?

Bitch Rice produced an astonishing amount of chatter on the blog, and turned up a type I had never known existed:

Don’t waste time on this nonsense. A Japanese rice cooker is what you need—stat! No more overdone rice, no more sticking, and NO MORE BITCH RICE. If Julia Child had been given access to a rice cooker when she was writing MtAoFC, she’d have SWORN by it! She has never been wimpy about using good equipment. Love, Chris.

Chris, as it turns out, was a passionate Rice Cooker Advocate. And she was not alone. Rice cookers, according to this startlingly vocal population, were the bomb. Lives have been changed because of rice cookers. Apparently.

This outpouring in turn provoked a heated response from another equally vocal contingent, lamenting the gadget addiction and bone-laziness of the rice-cookerists, citing them as a sad example of the insatiable materialism of the contemporary age. “Bah, just another space-hogging appliance,” huffed StoveLover. “Don’t give in, Julie!”

I was beset on both sides, being urged alternately to Get a Rice Cooker Right NOW, and to Look Away from the Little Red Blinking Rice Cooker Light. The whole thing rather flummoxed those few of us without a firm opinion on the matter, who were left to think to ourselves what on earth the big deal was. As Heathcliff wrote in, “I’ve made a hell of a lot of rice and I’ve never even considered the issue. Is this a New York thing? It’s only RICE.”

Maybe I worry too much, but all the rice Sturm und Drang obscurely concerned me. Why were all these people riled up about rice cookers, and why could I not find it in my heart to give a good goddamn? Was I missing out on a key issue of my generation? Perhaps it was sort of like being the marrying kind—Heathcliff and I just didn’t have it in our genetic makeup to care about rice.

Okay. Maybe I worry too much.

Isabel, as usual, came up with a contribution to the Rice Cooker Debate both imminently diplomatic and irretrievably odd:

I think perhaps there’s a slightly removed parallel universe that we can all gaze back and forth across, in which rice cooks without hitch and easier for some of us in pans, and for others in rice cookers. Across the Rice Veil?

None of us had any idea what she was talking about, of course, but with Isabel the particulars didn’t matter so much. We all appreciated the sentiment, and after that the Rice Cooker Debate simmered down, with all concerned agreeing to disagree.

Gimlets are all well and good when your pipes spew vile black shit, and chocolate mousse helps when they leak. But when they quit those things and start freezing solid for days on end instead, something more is called for. Conventional wisdom holds that the remedy for frozen pipes in a Long Island City apartment is a wee heroin habit. But unfortunately I already had a heavy habit for very expensive foodstuffs, which ruled out recreational spending on smack. What I did instead was cook large hunks of meat until I ate myself into a stupor, or ran out of clean pots, whichever came first.

Julia writes that Navarin Printanier, lamb stew with spring vegetables, “is not a seasonal dish anymore thanks to deep freezing,” which, when we woke up to a frigid apartment and no water, sounded perhaps more apropos than she had intended. The advantage of Navarin Printanier is that it requires a minimum of dishes, which is pretty much a necessity when your water ceases to run for thirty-six hours, and just maneuvering around your kitchen could land you a place on the Olympic hurdle team.

To make Navarin Printanier, brown in a skillet some lamb stew meat that you’ve dried with paper towels—I used a mixture of funky vertebrae-like bony bits and boneless shoulder meat—in lard, which is another one of those items that is helpful to have around if you’re fresh out of smack. Once the pieces of meat are well browned on all sides, take them out and put them in a casserole, toss them with a tablespoon of sugar, and let them cook over high heat for a minute. This is supposed to caramelize the sugar, which is in turn supposed to make the sauce all brown and yummy. Season with salt and pepper, toss with a few tablespoons of flour, and set the meat, in its casserole, in a 450-degree oven for a few minutes. Take it out, toss it, stick it back in. All this is meant to get the meat all crusty and brown. Turn the heat down to 350.

So now—deglaze the skillet that you browned the lamb in with some beef stock, or, if you happen to be a superhuman hyperfoodie like me, with the lamb stock you just happen to have in the fridge. Pour that over the meat in the casserole. Add peeled, seeded, juiced, and chopped tomatoes to the meat, or, if you’re a subpar lazy bastard like me, a few tablespoons of tomato paste. Also some mashed garlic, rosemary, a bay leaf, and most likely some more lamb or beef stock, so the meat’s mostly covered. Bring all that to a simmer on the stovetop—and do remember that the casserole has been in the oven and is hot as a motherfucker. I never do remember this, and as a result my forearms (and my belly, after unwisely choosing to cook in a baby-tee) are crisscrossed with shiny burn scars, like an X-Man’s special power symbol. When the casserole comes to a simmer, stick it back in the oven for an hour or so.

Eric, who now that washing dishes is not possible has nothing to do with himself but sift through the teetering towers of periodicals piled all about the house—which would be much better employed, in my opinion, as fuel for a nice illegal bonfire—has noticed that the apartment is very cold. It is, in fact, always very cold, something to do with the arctic breezes that blow in through the faulty jalousie windows, which entirely overwhelm the crap baseboard heating we’re paying two hundred bucks a month for. But on this afternoon The New Yorker is not enough to distract him from the cold. He gets an idea in his head, but you still have much work to do, and besides you haven’t bathed in three days, so you put him off by asking him to make you a gimlet.

Chop up some potatoes and carrots and turnips. If you’re feeling patient, you can carve the vegetables up into beautiful smooth round shapes. Does it make a difference? I wouldn’t know; I’m not patient. Also peel some pearl onions. If you have no water but the melted oily gray snow you scooped up from the sidewalk into your cooler (a cooler that will now have to be disinfected with lye), just so you could flush the toilet, you’ll have to peel them the hard way, without parboiling them first. You might need another gimlet for that.

When the lamb’s been cooking for an hour, take it out and add the vegetables. Julia wants you to “press the vegetables into the casserole around and between the pieces of lamb.” There will be way, way too many vegetables for you to do that effectively, but what the hell, give it a shot. The lamb is going to smell fabulous at that point, which is good, because it makes you forget how much you want to kill yourself.

What also helps with this is cheap-ass Australian wine, so long as you don’t mind waking up with a dry mouth at three o’clock in the morning with your last gallon jug of Poland Spring running low, cursing the name shiraz.

However, neither shiraz nor Navarin Printanier will help melt the chill in relations. Eric thought it might. That night in bed he curled around me, kissed my shoulder, and in other ways made it entirely clear that he thought it was time for a thaw. I ignored it for as long as I could, then let out an aggravated sigh.

“What’s wrong?”

“What are you trying to do, exactly?”

“It’s just—it’s so cold in here, I thought we could —”

“What? Have sex? Eric! I stink of roasted lamb and three days of body odor! I haven’t shaved! I have to get up and go to work tomorrow, and then I have to come back to this SHIT HOLE apartment at the end of the day and COOK some more! I DON’T want to have sex! I may NEVER want to have sex AGAIN!”

Eric turned away from me and curled up on the edge of the mattress, as far away from me as he could get.

“Eric, I’m sorry.”

“Forget it.”

“I’m sorry. I’m just irritated, and I’m so tired —”

“I said forget it, okay? Let’s just go to sleep.”

Okay. That didn’t go well.

If you think about it, it’s a miracle Julia ever got married. Can you imagine trying to live in the same house with that kind of energy, forever? Isabel is rather the same—enthusiastically claylike, eager to be molded by new experiences, phobic about casting her lot with any one destiny. It’s an enviable perspective, but it’ll run you ragged if you have to keep up with her all the time.

Jude had been writing more poems for Isabel—and not exactly violets-are-blue stuff either. These overheated missives Isabel promptly shared not only with her entire e-mail list, but with Martin as well. “Well, I just think they’re brilliant, don’t you?” Martin, Isabel reported, had had no reaction.

The mind reels.

Her next e-mail to me on the subject was the one I had been waiting for, and dreading:

I really, really like Jude, and I can’t wait to meet him, but this ISN’T just ABOUT Jude, and it ISN’T just about being BORED or something. And so I think I’ve nearly almost decided that regardless of how it works out with Jude, I’m going to ask Martin for a divorce.

As I’d feared, the great abyss was opening up under Isabel’s feet, while I just mm-hmed away.

I got one last e-mail from her the morning she got on the plane to fly to England. She’d told Martin where she was going and why. He was heartbroken, of course. He asked if she’d go to counseling with him to try to save the marriage, but she refused. “I don’t want to save the marriage,” she told him. “I don’t want to be married to you anymore.” I’m sure she said this very kindly. Isabel is a kind person. But the cruelty of it took my breath away and left me with an icy spot in my chest, a fear that wasn’t just for her. Isabel said she had to be cruel to rescue her life. I understood rescuing your life, and how much you might be willing to sacrifice to do it. But I thought of Eric and me, twisted away from each other in our double bed at night, exhausted and cold and smelling of too much French food, and I wondered if it was worth it. I wondered if, in fact, rescuing our lives was really what we were doing.

Our beloved former mayor Rudolph Giuliani once maintained that the progress of civilization is all about keeping excrement off the walls. It is an interesting point, but I must respectfully differ. As far as civilization goes, it’s all about the running water. When ours returned at 8:30 on Tuesday morning, after an eighty-four-hour absence, Eric and I felt like humans again. And it wasn’t just for the sake of a long, hot, thawing shower that we called in sick that day.

As for the Bitch Rice, I wound up abandoning it without coming to a definitive opinion on its merits. I didn’t go out and buy myself a rice cooker, either. Not that I have anything against them. I just didn’t want to go to Chinatown. I had some bad associations there. At this point I’m like the Switzerland of rice—not going to make any firm stands on the matter, but for the moment boiling Uncle Ben’s in a pot is good enough for me.

On the day that Isabel got on a plane to England for her week’s worth of monkey sex with some Brit punk she’d never met, I found myself thinking about her odd theory of the Rice Veil. And I began to get what she was saying. Within this world maybe there are divides that, once crossed, separate people from one another, as surely as if they were in different universes. Once someone begins to use a Japanese rice cooker, perhaps she can never go back. But perhaps this barrier she has passed through is transparent; perhaps she can look back at her former companions in the shadowy world of Those Who Cook Their Rice in Pots with bemusement and contempt. For a while, Isabel and I were together on this side—not of the Rice Veil but of another curtain. Then in her search to save herself, Isabel, either inadvertently or in resolute decision, crossed over. For a while—maybe as I screeched at Eric that night after too many waterless days, too much cold, too much cooking—I looked across and saw that I might follow her. Then morning came, the water came on, I made love to my husband who is also my partner, and the curtain closed, with Isabel forever on the other side. Maybe that’s what Isabel meant by a veil.

Or maybe I just worry too much.
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