Like You’ve Been Here Before

Cranberries-1024x801It pains me that we haven’t been cataloging all the food we’ve eaten since 2009, but maybe fifty years from now (when I fully expect both of us to be still alive), the four-plus years we missed will seem like a mere blink. It’s just that beginnings are important. Off the top of my head there was the rabbit ragout on polenta that was basically just leftovers a couple of years ago, but I still remember it. There was the red drum with collards and green onions that wasn’t very good but we made it right after coming back from Topsail and ate it at your old apt. while we watched Duke win the National Championship in 2010 (and drank that outrageously fancy Chevalier-Montrachet that I bought for next to nothing on closeout from a distributor). There are hundreds more but they just get embedded in the layers of rock that constitute a marriage, maybe. Food gets consumed. I read recently somewhere a line from a writer who writes only about liquor and cocktails. He said that writing about drinks is only viable if you think of it as a form of comic writing, and I think that spirit (so to speak) is the correct one. Even bad food is sustenance, so taking it seriously (like a “critic”) is ridiculous in a sense. Look no further than last night, when you made those pancakes out of what remains a mystery-flour (rice? fine cornmeal? rodent poison?) just so you could top it with some of that little jar of cheap, Hero brand honey that you pinched from your hotel room in Chicago. Wasn’t it all about the significance of that honey, how you traveled home with it? You hated the pancakes so much that you didn’t even finish them, but I did and found them somehow very satisfying. It was 11:30 p.m. at that point and you hadn’t left the house all day. Why was that so charming?

What I wanted to write about was Christmas dinner before I forget. There was the major ordeal of mere shopping for groceries, as you and your Mom spent what seemed like half the day going all over the county and coming up empty. And then you and I headed out on our own and found a stuff-white-people-like, free-range-non-GMO-etc. turkey at the very first place we stopped, that little not-really-farmers-market (more like a clearinghouse of local-ish edibles) called Mt. Airy Market or something, just a few minutes down the highway from your folks’ house. Not only that, the turkey was small enough to be appropriate for our small family dinner, which was itself a minor miracle, especially on the day before Christmas (and not only that, the thing was halfway thawed out already). We hemmed and hawed at the price a little but there was really no way in mind that we were leaving the place without that damn turkey. It was obvious to me that it was exactly what we needed and let’s face it: I have a really good instinct for food. I don’t why I have it; I just do. It’s a frivolous asset, yet it does come in handy sometimes, and more to the point it just can’t be helped, so why try to stop it?

I thought we handled Christmas dinner beautifully, especially under the circumstances. It wasn’t our kitchen, and we had to improvise when that can of sweet potatoes you opened for your souffle turned out to be… what? Rancid? Old? Just brown? Meanwhile, I recall having cooked exactly one turkey in my entire life, for Thanksgiving in 2001 at my sister’s post-grad-school sublet in the Haight-Ashbury in an ancient oven with no thermostat. It happened to come out just fine, so with that in mind I decided that I knew exactly what I was doing and set to work on the turkey, now thawed. (I imagine we must have cooked our own turkey last year, but I have no memory of what we did, exactly, with that one they mistakenly way undercharged us for at the co-op market in Chatham County. Did we roast that and then make stock? Or was it just turkey parts that went straight into a soup? I can’t recall, for some reason.)

The other reason I proceeded like I had lots of experience roasting a turkey was that I had your niece helping me, and I think the thing you have to do with kids is act like you’re in control, like you know not only what you’re doing but how things will turn out, and let the kid have total confidence in you. You want to project authority, and by authority here I mean the sort of authority writers need to have: come with me, I know where I’m going, and I can make sense of all of this for you as we go along. Writing is teaching to a very great extent.

So I had your niece help me cut the turkey’s neck off. I let her use a really sharp kitchen knife even though she’s only ten and not tall enough for the counter height. She did a good job, and I happened to be lucky that she’s such an attentive and compliant kid (and also unafraid of a bloody turkey neck, an eight-inch chef’s knife, and her hands coated with a mixture of bacon fat and dried herbs). I’m also fortunate that Kelly is a really great Mom. I was going to say “laid-back,” but that makes it sound like she isn’t invested. She is, and one of the things she’s invested in with her kids is the notion that accident and injury are not only something you shouldn’t try to avoid, because they’ll happen anyway, but that in fact they will teach you something valuable. I think your sister’s home-schooling of the kids is what gives her this quality, this ability to court danger, just a little, because whatever may befall the family is happening at home. And because home schooling has a little bit of the frontier to it, and accident and injury are basically just beyond the frontier of the everyday. “Laid-back” isn’t right at all. It’s actually very intrepid. Campbell didn’t make a good approach on the lemon I gave her to cut and came somewhat (but not very) close to slicing into her thumb. I thought, Oh, okay, that could have happened. It somehow would have been alright.

At every step I made like I knew exactly what we were trying to do, but really I was just hoping for the best and figuring that if we put enough bacon fat on the turkey, that would compensate for whatever other mistakes I might be making. I think most cooking is way too overthought, way too over-measured, especially where slow-cooking is concerned, and although it wouldn’t have surprised me if the turkey was a disaster, I just trusted that it would be fine. I didn’t even quite realize what you were up to with the side dishes, and I thought the cranberry-orange-peel relish you made was quite delicious. Somehow, getting you out of our home kitchen (and maybe, just as importantly, into your family’s home kitchen) seemed to liberate you from this idea that you can’t cook well. (You’d probably be a better cook if I didn’t/couldn’t cook at all, or if our kitchen were bigger and more accommodating. I’m so used to tiny cooking spaces that it feels normal to me.)

A lot of it, though, had to do with your being home: you’ve been here before. Whenever there’s that familiarity, or even the assumption of familiarity (like pretending to know how to roast a turkey), we can do things we didn’t think we could do. I remember Steven Forrest once telling me that bravery wasn’t about choosing to be brave. If you have to stand there for a minute and decide to do the brave thing, it’s too late. “You have to be the bravery,” he said. It’s much easier to be the bravery when you feel at home, of course. The hard thing about life is being the bravery when you feel out of your element, which is precisely when and where the bravery is most necessary. Sometimes this can be really small, like the time in SE Asia, during my first trip there 2001, when I was supposed to go back to Jakarta after two weeks in Laos; instead, in Bangkok airport, where I was supposed to make a connecting flight, I walked over to another airline’s counter and bought a ticket to Cambodia. Hardly a big step, but it somehow changed not only my life but my ability to see what was possible in life. This sort of total disregard for what’s expected is something I’d like to practice more often, although I understand of course that you can’t just do this whenever you want, especially in a marriage, and in fact I wouldn’t even want to. There’s that line between smart risk and sheer recklessness, just as there’s one between compliance and complicity. In any case, if “plate discipline” is a multipurpose phrase, one of the things it no doubt refers to is marital uprightness. “Playing the game the right way” does have major benefits.

The turkey came out more or less perfectly, and I wasn’t surprised at all. I wasn’t surprised that the cranberry dressing you made was good, or that any of the sides were good. Honestly, I thought the best thing we made was the green beans your aunt had put up. What did I do–I threw some industrial leftover ham in them, maybe some onions? There’s a point at which, if you’re really doing everything with a sense of unerringness, you can’t mess up. And it felt very right to me to leave the leftovers (and the two bottles of wine) for everyone else when we drove home the next day. Like, we don’t need the lingering proof for ourselves. I hadn’t even quite noticed that you had spirited away some of the cranberry relish until we got home from the beach a week later with our mackerel, and then put the two together: pow. Like, any questions?

It’s pretty hard not to think about kids all the time, for obvious reasons, and the other thing I was thinking was that they are themselves a little like the turkey I roasted. If you just act like you know what you’re doing and then stick them in the oven and leave them there to do what they’re supposed to do, they’re going to turn out fine as long as you check on them periodically and don’t overexpose them. What I like about your sister, and mine, is that they project authority, but a loose authority, and don’t question that nature, be it the everyday or accident, is going to do most of the work itself.

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