Thursday, June 12, 2008


"If we meet again
to discuss our differences
we must share a meal that reflects my intent;
I will lay you a table
of bread and oil
bitter greens
caldo verde
walnuts and figs
black coffee
and blood-red wine."

Go back in time with me, if you're bored. Around a decade ago, I met a former friend (we'll call her Judy). She looked delighted to see Abby and tolerated me with as much distance as she could manage while barely remaining polite.

Judy had been a friend of a woman I'd been seeing for a long time. Things had ended with a certain degree of tension that I didn't think was anybody's business but ours, but Judy had clearly chosen her allegiance. All of this happened a long time ago, but she thought that it was worth making a statement, and we were young enough to feel that this kind of thing required clear lines of delineation.

A year after that door-slamming on her part, she called Abby and I before our wedding and asked politely to be invited, or at least to be able to contribute to the day in some way or another. She also asked to meet us to make her case. She had been close enough to me at one time that I didn't didn't laugh or cringe at the request for too long (there were a few choice remarks, however), and in all fairness, it seemed unlikely for Judy to re-open lines of communication simply for free food and drinks after the ceremony. I was determined for her to be our guest for this fact-finding mission. If she wanted our time, she'd have to eat our food. My food, to be precise.

I roasted a pair of chickens with lemons in their cavity to flavour the meat and make for a tasty jus. I tossed diced potatoes with olive oil, onion and parsley, roasted them alongside the bird.. I think there was a red romaine salad with a simple dressing, fresh crusty bread from Brunos, and homemade ice cream that I had mixed and turned the night before.

There, I thought. You didn't want to speak to me? That's your prerogative. It was a long time ago, in one way or another. Now eat my food. It's perfectly good. I went to some trouble. You don't owe me anything for it. Except for honesty. Eat it and tell me why the hell you're here.

She ate it. We exchanged small talk for most of the evening, most of which was between she and Abby. Judy finally said "I know you're wondering why I'm here, in the grand scheme of things..." and I said "The last time we met, you wouldn't speak to me. You jumped back like I was poison when I tried to hug you. And you've called us a year later and ask to come to the wedding. So, yes, I do want to know. I also want to know why you recoiled. And..." since it was all getting terribly heavy, "you'll get dessert whatever you tell us. But you've got to tell us something."

She did. It was reasonable and mature and not without affection. It boiled down to her admitting that she chose sides, without apology - she thought it was something she had to do at the time. But it didn't matter anymore, things change, perspective, maturity, most of the things you'd attribute to this kind of situation without putting it into words. Basically, she wanted to wish us well. We'd mattered enough to her. And even if we didn't invite her, she still wanted to wish us well. And she wanted dessert.

This story ends relatively well. Judy came to the wedding. We haven't seen her for a few years, but not through a conscious avoidance, just life being complicated and time being short. And something about it all wouldn't have worked in a restaurant or over coffee. It was a weird manifestation of anger and a sense of betrayal on my part, granted. I felt like we were being sued for peace, and while I welcomed the intent, I wanted it to be sincere. Sing for your supper, dammit. Earn it.

Now. This was crazy on my part. It had to be the first instance in history of somebody cooking out of spite, but it made sense at the time.

Maybe it translates into wanting to both recognize and make an effort. She apologized, I wanted to accept it properly. She didn't have to tell me that I could cook with any degree of proficiency (the jury's out on that one), but there was something intimate about homemade food that was required. I knew where it came from, what it in it, what it took to make. If it went bad on my watch, to hell with it. We'd order a pizza. If it worked, it was something unique. Maybe it means something.

My son is two and a half years old, and is a fussy eater from time to time. In general, we've gotten off light; he doesn't have a sweet tooth, likes relatively healthy food, loves whole wheat breads and spicy foods when in the mood.

When he's not in the mood, he wants bread and cereals, lots of pasta. I try to spike the deck in favour of vegetables. I simmered beef broth, grated carrot and ginger and garlic, added finely chopped peppers and parsley run through a food processor.

The broth steamed until the ginger and onion ran through our townhouse. It went in my son's bowl over soba noodles. It was his first experience with fresh ginger, and it disappeared when I turned my back. I watched him run his spoon over the smooth bowl, wanting more.

Food addresses a need. We choose what we eat. Even if it isn't elaborate, it can be different from time to time. We hold it dear. If my son enjoyed his introduction to ginger, I've done something right. He might remember it for a long time.

Deus in nomine tuo salvum me fac et in virtute tua iudica me

Back to food and spite. On the day my father died, the house was left with six people - my mother, sister, wife, and two aunts - for whom the worst had happened and we were too exhausted to start planning the funeral. The house was as horribly empty as it could be.

Eventually, somebody laid my mother down for a nap. Somebody else said we needed Kleenex. I said I'd take care of dinner, simply to get out of that place to the relatively sane Dominion supermarket a few blocks away. I don't know what I intended on the way out - I sure as hell didn't want to cook - but after arriving at the grocery I realized that I had no choice. We had to have something that could be shared and not simply bought. It had to be created, however simply, to contrast the loss of the day.

It wasn't elaborate. I want to say that I pounded chicken breasts flat for a caccitore, but instead I bought fresh cutlets that had already been rolled in breadcrumbs and seasoning. I did buy some peppers, onions and mushrooms, softened them in oil with a little bacon before adding tinned tomatoes and wine, let it cook down for an hour, added parsley at the end. I fried the cutlets until crispy with a little garlic in the oil, careful that it didn't brown and become bitter.

I boiled water for a side of rigatoni. The salad came out of a bag, the dressing was lemon and oil and a little mustard. The bread was a long baguette with a thick crust, I cut it on the bias. I wanted kalmata olives because they always taste bitter and alive in the best sense of the term, but I didn't want to risk my family picking them out of the sauce if they disliked them. I ladled some sauce on top of the cutlets, left the rest in a bowl beside the rigatoni for people to add as they liked. I had bought some feta as well, chopped it small and dropped it on the salad and threw some on the caccitore. And dinner was served. It wasn't entirely out of a box, nor was it from a menu. It was on the table and complete before anybody could tell me not to go to the trouble, we'll make some sandwiches. My father had just died and the rest was going to be lousy, at least we could have a decent meal.

Comfort food. From somewhere. Not from my own upbringing, exactly. My father's comfort food was scrambled eggs and bacon and toast - "A suppery supper," he'd call it - but at some point, my comfort came out of wine and tomatoes and a slow simmer. Everyone likes Italian, right? It's a cliche. But it was prepared and the family hadn't noticed I'd been cooking until it was on the table, real enough for them to stare at it, surprised.

It's not entirely homemade but it's fresh. Eat it. We've got the rest of time to mourn. It'll be awful and hit you when you least expect it. But there's also time to recognize and recover and continue to be alive. Skip the melodrama and eat. It's good food. Have some rigatoni, it's filling. Use the bread to sop up the sauce. There's a little smoke among the onions from the bacon. The chicken's crispy and juicy and gives you strength. It's all good for you, more or less. Eat something for God's sake.

You'll feel better.

We ate. My aunts made some noises about how I didn't need to go to the trouble, but only briefly. And everyone at that table cleaned their plates. ___________________________________________

I was grocery shopping with a cranky toddler when I saw a box of Old El Paso Cheesy Tortilla Bake. It is what it is. I thought That looks terrible. And it looks really good. And terrible.

Abby was teaching a late class that evening. I knew I had some time, so I bought real tortillas, green onion, ground beef and some chipotle peppers in a can. I went home, put my son to bed and started to cook. To fake it. Chipotle and cumin and garlic and some wine in a small food processor. I added it to the meat as it browned. I went online and found a recipe for queso blanco (improvised with feta and mozzerella on short notice), and stacked tortillas, meat, more spice and the queso into a strata until it looked like something approximating the Old El Paso box. But real. Or at least with fewer preservatives. Or something. It baked slowly and smelled rich and spicy.

Abby came home. Something different, I said, I thought you'd want something new. She smiled. We ate together. It was good.


Norm Wilner said...

Well, dammit, now I'm hungry.

Anonymous said...

If you cook half as well as you write, I need an invite!

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