Prunes and Prism

RULES FOR YOUNG LADIES: Some arch advice on snagging a husband. Exercising the mouth into a pretty shape through repetition of certain words seems to have been an indoor sport for young nineteenth-century girls; in Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens' overly bred girl repeats, "papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes and prism." (

Monday, December 12, 2005

Ripeness Is All

This weekend I couldn't stop cooking, or ruining the food. I thought I'd make a trifle but the pudding would not thicken (I didn't know this was negotiable. I didn't know pudding came in anything other than instant!), the brussels sprouts didn't caramelize the way Ruth Reichl said they would (they just charred on the outside while the inside remained intractably cabbagey), the eggs for the salad refused to boil (there was a warp in the time-space continuum, because they were in that pot for at least 30 minutes, my hand to God). The food had a life of its own, and it defied me.

When I was with [the man who is still my husband] I didn't even know how to boil an egg. Once I tried to stir-fry some frozen vegetables but left the bag sitting on the stove, where it caught fire, and then I lost my appetite because everything smelled like burned plastic.

When we split up, it became apparent that I was going to have to learn to cook if I ever wanted to eat at home again. And then, with my Comrade in Arms, something happened: this Italian-mamma alter ego moved in and wouldn't leave. I say "Italian mamma" the way Nigella Lawson would understand it: she wore a black slipdress with cups and was always pushing a wooden spoon around in something delicious, hip jutted out provocatively.

I guess this is a normal part of the courtship ritual, as I might have realized earlier in life had I not (1) married soon after the first time I left the menstrual hut, (2) been living in a dormitory when I met [the man who is still my husband], where we weren't even allowed hot pots, and (3) married a terrific cook who was kind of proprietary (though this is not the way he would remember it) about the kitchen.

So what I'm saying, and maybe this is news to no one, is that for the first time in my life, cooking seemed like a Womanly Art. And so I set about to learn it, getting elbow deep in flour and proudly setting the results in front of the Comrade as if I were a housecat and this was a bird I'd killed in the yard.

In a sad confluence of events, food is not at the heart of the Comrade's existence, and this was especially true in the early days of my life as a cook. When he was growing up in Odessa, meals were a rotating selection of three items, most likely stewed, and they did not stand in for love, sex, social interaction, or comfort. Food was fuel that was necessarily ingested so that one could get on with the business of propping up The Great Soviet Athletic Machine.

Which is why there were tears and recrimination, O, reader, there was HEARTBREAK(!), when the Comrade rejected the macaroni and cheese (four cheeses! hand-grated!), when he proclaimed the beef in the stroganoff "too tough," when he suggested cooking the salmon in the casserole a little longer next time. It didn't feel like disappointment or garden-variety humiliation, but rejection! Sexual rejection! The Italian mamma within slunk out to the fire escape to hang up her laundry, a cigarette between her lips.

Usually if I can't get anything on the first try, I pretend I never wanted to do it in the first place; with the cooking, though, I didn't have that luxury. We had to eat. And that is why I threw out the mealy buckwheat kasha and boiled another batch right before the Comrade came home, just so he could say it was perfect and I could say, "Better than your mother's?" And why I gathered tips on chicken cutlets in kitchens all over Odessa, while the Comrade translated. I got better, and the Comrade came to understand how important the food was to me, and together we talked the Italian mamma down off the ledge.

[The man who is still my husband] and I were chow-happy chowhounds. I could probably reconstruct our lives together through meals we ate, and wouldn't consider that an impoverished way to do it. The pineapple we ate on our honeymoon, the apple cake his mother used to make with one-and-a-half cups of Wesson oil, the truffle risotto at the Central Park West restaurant we couldn't afford. I ate hundreds of meals with him, and honestly never had a better dining companion.

My favorite scene in Kramer vs. Kramer is toward the end of the movie, when Ted and Billy are expertly making the French toast together -- as opposed to the mess they made at the beginning, when they'd been thrown to their own devices. You're meant to watch how effortless the cooking is and understand how far they've come, and I think of that now when I cut up an onion in an especially efficient way. Sometimes when I'm deglazing a pan I'll think, how do I know how to do this, and then I realize I must have seen [the man who is still my husband] do it and it's like he's out there guiding me in a Kung Fu flashback.

Last night I saw him for the first time since he moved away. Neither of us were hungry but we fell on our dinners like wolves. About the brussels sprouts: He says I should have boiled them before I put them in the oven.

(He's thinking about doing his dissertation on the Geechees, who live on the coastal islands off Georgia, and maybe he'll work in a trip to their homeland, Sierra Leone. "It's much better now," he said airily.)

He also says we need to get divorced. "I think I could be a better friend to you if we did," he said. "I feel like the sword of Damocles is hanging over my head." Then he said he couldn't remember who Damocles was.

I stupidly replied that the albatross was from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. And then: "How much mental real estate does this [this, this awful thing I did to us, and everything that followed] occupy for you these days?"

He said not that much anymore, and then asked the same thing of me, and I said a lot, and that it had been a bad year, much worse than the first year after I left.

He said wouldn't it be good to get closure, or put it behind me, or whatever it is you say, and I said that I didn't think I ever would. (The brussels sprouts at this French bistro, incidentally, weren't any better than mine.) I told him that he could have filed for divorce if he'd wanted to, the way I used to say, Well you could have paid the ConEd bill yourowndamnself, and he said he hadn't wanted to, and of course I know why. In front of the restaurant I told him I was proud of him, and he told me I should start writing again, and then I had to get away so I could howl.

A cafe opened up around the corner from our apartment a few months ago, a sweet little place with yellow ribbons and patriotic effluvia on the door and in the windows. When I finally got around to eating there, I saw on the wall a photo of the family who owns the restaurant, behind the podium at the most recent Sept. 11 memorial service. Standing on the far right was the harried lady who cooks the eggs. In the corner of the photo was the family's surname, which I also found on a poster that listed the firefighters who had died that day.

I had kind of a, I don't know, Formal Feeling about that place after that; I can't eat a piece of bacon there without thinking Life Goes On! It's not maudlin, and it's not inspirational, either; it's just the living example that after devastating loss, there is still a blackboard out front waiting for the pies of the day, and that this is at once awful, unfathomable, and the entire point. With grief, pancakes.


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