One of the things that broke the curious haze that enveloped me when I lost my job this past summer was the moment when, after being sat down in the head office with the director of human relations and told that my department was being merged with another, and that, for reasons of budget and seniority, I was being let go, I took the train home, walked back from the station, petted the dog, and opened the refrigerator. I peered in at the little wooden box containing two thirds of a wheel of a fine textured goat’s milk cheese from a creamery in Western Maryland with a brielike smoothness gorgeously crossing over into the sharp tang of a more traditional goat cheese, a delight that I’d only just discovered days before, and the gravity in the room just sort of went.
This is the last piece of expensive cheese I’ll have for a long, long time.
Of course, I’m not particularly extravagant in how I live. I’ve never owned a new car and probably never will, I’ve lived in the same two room apartment for more than twenty-five years, I’ve never had a traditional vacation with air travel and accommodations, and I don’t drink beyond occasionally buying a glamorous cocktail with an umbrella that I carry around like a party totem, but merely sip.
This, though, has been my gourmet year, albeit for unexpected reasons.
I swore off food with ingredients, mostly, at the start of 2013. Everyone around me rolled their eyes, pointing out that there’s no such thing as food without ingredients in the same way that there’s no such thing as food without chemicals, but I meant it in a very specific sense, in that I intended to stop buying food with ingredients and transition to buying foods that wereingredients. To keep a few treasured items in my occasional realm, I allowed for the odd item with three to five ingredients, and because there’s nothing more obnoxious than a purist, I think it’s perfectly fine on the odd afternoon to slouch down to McDonald’s for a McChicken sandwich or similarly vile piece of chemistry-set-created bovine calm on a bun.
The spark of forced participation in the culinary arts in lieu of the meek acceptance of convenience turned out to be a very good thing, and the mode of working from roots and staples turned out to be a big step forward.
I work in a kitchen that is five by nine feet in total, including the appliances, and have no counters at all. There’s a giant cast iron sink on a metal cabinet, a broad shouldered vintage Real Host gas stove with the burners clustered around the center so I have a little working space around the periphery, and a refrigerator that’s really too big for the space. There used to be clunky old metal cabinets overhead, but in the final venture of a hysterical cockroach purge that’s given me a bug-free kitchen for twenty-two years, I tore out all the cabinets and installed open basket shelves, overhead hangers, and racks everywhere. Everything is in a mason or recycled jar, tin box, or hanging from a hook, and the kitchen is my pantry, as well.
The discipline imposed by a tiny workspace means that I cook like Julia Child, in that I prepare my ingredients in batches, setting up little glass custard cups full of crushed garlic and kasoori methi that I’ve ground extra fine in my well-worn mortar and pestle (a tool that few people seem to own, which just boggles my mind). The move to that mode of working was a natural adaptation to the dimensions of my working environment, but I can’t discount Julia’s influence, because she was the goddess to my childish awakening to food a long time prior.
I remember watching her, transfixed, even as she prepared things I’d never eat, and still won’t. Her voice, her imposing stature, and the way the joy of her work was just a radiant thing, a warmth that flowed straight from the tiny screen of our TV into my lonesome heart, and I was changed.
In high school, my best friend and I created what I believe to be the first ever pirate radio drag science fiction cooking show with field reporting segments, which I broadcast to almost no listeners from a tape recorder in a locker connected to a tiny FM transmitter that I’d bought at Radio Shack and hopped up with a little more wattage. It was, of course, mostly unlistenable, in that The Agnes & Agatha Show was largely two teenaged boys talking in rolling falsettos and cooking mundane foods in what we claimed was a space station in a geosynchronous orbit over Maryland.
“Today, we’re going to tackle pancakes,” said Agatha, a doughy space woman in her mid-fifties.
“I’d better get my football helmet, then,” quipped Agnes, another doughy space woman in her mid-fifties, and the two of us laughed and laughed. My father, happening on these scenes, would roll his eyes and twitch slightly as two skinny high school kids wrought havoc on the kitchen in the guise of shrieking Catskills-grade drag routines, and my mother would just scowl at the depth of destruction, but she was more patient with the extremes of art as an artist herself.
“As you can see, Agnes, I’ve prepared our batter in advance.”
Oddly, neither of us had any notion of exactly how gorgeously queer the whole endeavor was. It was just play of the best kind, and while we cooked nothing of any consequence and didn’t even do a particularly good job at preparing things as mundane as pancakes, there was a lightness in the play of it that I’ve carried forward ever since.
“Jeez, Joe,” Vygis griped, looking properly ridiculous in a red polyester cocktail dress that I’d found at a local yard sale. We were both greasy nerds in those days, all stringy hair and curated dishevelment, and in his party dress and Soviet-style metal rimmed glasses, he looked hilarious, which was my point. My dress was not as nice, a red and white number with a Peter Pan collar, and was a bit too snug, but he was the straight man and I was the buffoonish ringleader, so it was as it should be. “Do we have to actually wear these things? I feel like an idiot.”
“Yes. We’re method.”
“But…it’s radio. No one can see us.”
“They can hear the dresses.”
“They can hear dresses? C’mon.”
“Would you just stop fussing and fix the ruffles on your collar?”
Thing is, until fairly recently, I have always been a good cook, but a good cook in the sense of being someone with the methodical nature to execute recipes to the letter of the law with a set of well-practiced techniques of preparation that I’d learned from watching my mother and my grandmother and my great aunts setting up holiday meals in the big open kitchen of one of the rambling ancestral houses back in low country Georgia. The freedom of the moment, and the je ne sais quoi of just throwing together a meal with seemingly random ingredients, though, was not within my grasp.
I’d diverge from recipes, only to ruin the delicacy of contrasts and the careful balances of flavors, and I’d experiment at my own peril, occasionally having to throw out entire casseroles of inedible combinations, and it infuriated me that I could not master the art of cooking in the same way I’d mastered the craft of it, but it wasn’t until my no-ingredients pledge that I had to start breaking down the way I worked into discrete parts that allowed for play and variation.
With just the atoms of food available, just flours and beans and oils and vinegars and spices and so on, I had to work differently, even though I was using items I’d always used. There was just something to the zen habit of working from simplicity upwards instead of from complexity downward that made for a change. I mastered the five mother sauces, and honed my more visceral sense, borne out of memory, of what flavors worked well with other flavors, and took my love of cuisines from Vietnam and India and Indonesia and worked them into the mix, exploring variations and combinations, and shift happened.
The thing is, 2013 was an awful, defeating, difficult year.
My old friend, the Agnes to my buffoonish Agatha, was killed in a bizarre accident in March, management changes at work turned a dream job into a punishing, stressful chore, a pinched nerve that had triggered six months of chronic pain only a few years earlier returned in full force, and suddenly, I was out of a job and knocked for a loop and the little piece of fine textured goat’s milk cheese in my refrigerator was going to be it for a while.
In the face of lack, though, I went absolutely wild. I have long sworn to never leave the house without a proper cooked breakfast, and without a train to catch, I started getting grandiose, posting my morning culinary projects on the ‘net in a vestigial reflex going back to the days of my pirate radio drag science fiction cooking show with field reporting segments.
I may not have any money, but now I have time for hollandaise.
I’d stand in the kitchen, hair still wild from the pillow, and peer into the refrigerator for the morning’s vocabulary of flavors. A few mushrooms left, some cheap supermarket brie, frozen spinach, powdered milk, and some eggs in the refrigerator door.
Don’t think. Just let it flow.
I’d brew a pot of tea, start working, not thinking, not overthinking, not being analytical—just letting my hands start to work.
“I’ve made a tiny brie and mushroom soufflé with a side of creamed spinach with kasoori methi this morning, served in the grand manner with a painfully dark cup of Café du Monde sweetened to diabetic wonderment with canned condensed milk under a dusting of orange zest,” I’d subtitle my precious little photos online, then send the whole thing into worldwide distribution with a click of the post button.
“Gah, could you get any more pretentious with your breakfast posts?” my sister said to me with the kind of weary familiarity that comes from having had to live with my eccentricities for decades.
“Oh yes. And I will,” I replied, with a withering tone that is, itself, awfully twee, but it’s all part of the play. The thing is, I carried that little soufflé and teeny cup of zesty coffee to the old walnut table in my front room, put Astrud Gilberto on the stereo, and it is all a put-on, in a way, except that that meal was absolutely celestial and would start a day in which I would otherwise feel sad and sentimental and frustrated and worried about my ability to ever pull things together again with a triumph on the scale at which we can always triumph against the overbearing shittiness of an unfair world.
I cannot beat back all the demons and unexpected disasters that plague my world, but I can own this moment, right here and right now, when I can surrender to joy.
Is it a queer sensibility, this? Is it just what people have always done when things will not go our way, to either give up the game to suffering or to stand up, laugh in the face of lack, and use things as simple as invention, adjectives, and determination to make something out of almost nothing?
So, for me, in a year in which almost everything sucked beyond all reason, I also reached a point at which I realized that I am not a decent cook, bound by cookbooks and a narrow canon of how decent cooks cook—I am an excellent cook, making the best I can with what I have and learning new things every day, in a kitchen that I stock on the cheap with staples and a few indulgences that can come together in an almost unlimited way and remind me that life is like that, too.
This morning, after I check what I’ve written here to catch most, but not all, of my typos and malapropisms, I will stand in my kitchen, hair still wild from the pillow, and light a candle for days lost and another for the divine Julia Child, who made it all real, ring the little tingsha bells that hang from the door frame to my tiny kitchen, open the refrigerator, and see what the day has to offer.
[from my blog at nowherejoe.com]