“…I’ve schemed and plotted to get C. into my house—inviting four other people to camouflage the architecture of my designs…”
Prologue of Licking the Spoon (Seal Press, 2012)
I have made risotto in many seasons and climes, but it’s a dish best made in the icy nadir of a New York February. Standing over a hot stove, coaxing broth into swelling Arborio rice grains solely with elbow grease, the burner’s flame, and a wooden spoon, is cozy when it’s cold outside but masochistic in July.
But it was February 1998, and the man I might marry was climbing up the four flights of narrow, spiraling, tenement-smelling stairs to my postage stamp–size kitchen, where I stood, beaming, dewy, and bare legged, in my black Manolo Blahnik knockoff stiletto mules, midcalf A-line charcoal wool skirt, and sleeveless shell.
On the menu: seafood-mushroom risotto and a dessert of crêpes with chocolate sauce.
Like the favorite dress you give away because it’s too small (right before ten pounds fall off ), I no longer have the mushroom cook- book, and I feel the regret-frizzled ache of its loss. I gave it to Goodwill because I hadn’t cooked from it in years. But at the time, it was a reliable friend, one of the first cookbooks my mother gave me. When I was a vegetarian, mushrooms often stood in for meat, given their chewiness and rich, smoky taste.
After work, I hurried to a Chinatown seafood market to buy littleneck clams, shrimp, and rings of stretchy calamari. I plucked oyster, hen-of-the-woods, and chanterelle mushrooms from the mounds of perfect produce at SoHo’s Dean & DeLuca. Shallots and leeks and saffron and stock were on hand at home. But I bought a bottle of tart white wine to add when caramelizing the aromatics.
All of these errands took longer than I had anticipated, and I was forced to call Will and postpone the time of his arrival.
“I don’t mind arriving before it’s ready,” he said. “I love to hang out, talk, have a glass of wine, and watch people cook.”
“That sounds lovely and I wish I could say yes,” I said, “but I wouldn’t be able to concentrate.”
I needed a certain amount of Zen, solo space to cook unfamiliar dishes. When peppered with comments and questions, I grew distracted and snippy. The food suffered, and so did the interlocutor. It was way too early in the relationship to reveal my flaws.
I wanted to reveal my cooking instead. This night had a back- wardness to it; my usual pattern was to invite a suitor up after a few chaste restaurant dates, cook a toothsome dinner, and then allow one thing to lead to another. Cooking for me was many things, but in these moments it was a form of foreplay. And it could be quite telling.
“I love chopped salads,” Ralph exclaimed. That, along with his too-small feet and the low-fat Entenmann’s cookies in his closet- size kitchenette, did not count in his favor.
“This doesn’t have any protein,” Daniel groused, when I placed stir-fried vegetables over rice in front of him. I burst into shocked, embarrassed tears, as if he had just criticized me personally. That would follow.
Jack told me ahead of time that he couldn’t bring himself to eat “red things or round things.”
Po didn’t really like eggs—in fact, it seemed like his goal was to subsist on a diet of beer, wine, and hard liquor.
But Will and I had already gone to bed—precipitously, after running into each other in the same wine bar twice in the space of a week. I was sure, when I woke up the next morning, that I had spoiled something promising by having sex so soon. But instead, he pulled me close to him and smiled. “Good morning, beautiful.”
I found myself asking Will to dinner to heighten the chances that I’d see him again. He could cancel, of course, but a plan was better than the bird-on-a-wire suspension of waiting for the phone to ring. Anyone could fake her way through a congenial morning before dropping off the face of the earth. I’d done it myself.
I didn’t want Will to drop off the face of the earth. He was different—an ambitious intellectual overflowing with ideas, philosophical theories, opera librettos, wine varietals, and classical composers. He was tall and thin, but moved with economy and precision. His skin was pale with golden undertones, like milk from the grass-fed cows that grazed where his father was raised in the Jura region of France . . . and his hair was the dark ash brown of a graphite pencil.
And although he spoke with the ironclad confidence of a practiced university lecturer, something in his demeanor exuded a vulnerability that caused me to pleasurably collapse inside. When he put on his paper-thin V-neck cotton undershirt the morning after our first night together, the pale inverted triangle below his sternum was so fragile and bare that I swooped in and kissed it.
And here I was, two nights later, freshly showered and made up, adding the seventh portion of broth to the thrifted, thick-bottomed Dutch oven. The rice grains were plump and glossy; the pot soon to be covered, the heat of the delicious glop poised to delicately steam the seafood, and in return, the shellfish would release its liquor.
The crêpe batter was chilled in a bowl in the refrigerator, and the chocolate was prepped to melt in my makeshift double boiler.
Bleat! went the buzzer. I pressed the small plastic button that released the big, heavy wooden door four floors below. Will bounded up the stairs, wine in one hand and flowers in the other. I opened the door and he crossed into my fragrant kitchen, smelling of wintry city air and promise.
It’s February 2007. The place: Santa Fe, New Mexico. You could fit my entire New York apartment into my current kitchen, which is nestled in a sleek adobe house at the top of one of the Sangre de Cristo foothills. I have counter space to burn, and my current knockoff isn’t a pair of wannabe Manolos; it’s an oversize stainless steel stove with six burners that looks like a Viking from a distance. It was one of the reasons we fell for the house, along with the mega–living room, gorgeous views, long, meandering driveway, clusters of piñon trees, and privacy.
My two children, ages three and five, have their father, Will’s, milky skin. Honorée has my features and Will’s slim body. Toddler Nathaniel’s face is Will’s, but he’s barrel-chested and doughty, like my brothers.
Tonight, I’m making a multicourse dinner for six. We will start with appetizers and aperitifs.
Lillet on ice, graced with a single round slice of orange, and kir royales. I’ve got a single long, fresh baguette to accompany the cheese plate: pungent, creamy, melting Époisses de Bourgogne, arid manchego, a knob of chèvre, and a wedge of cambozola. It sits on the kitchen island beside a tray of endive leaves filled with rosettes of smoked whitefish mousse and sprinkled with grassy chive snippets.
The mushroom-chestnut soup is warm on the stove and will be served in red Emile Henry footed lion’s-head bowls. I had to order the dusky chestnuts online, and threw in a tall, narrow jar of boozy cherries with a label as beautiful as an art deco poster.
The main course: lamb chops Champvallon, with soupe à l’oignon gratinée. According to Cooking with Daniel Boulud, the lamb recipe was created by a mistress of King Louis XIV who hoped to gain his favor. If he was taken by lamb chops braised with onions, potatoes, and thyme, she was successful.
The onion soup gratin was a 1907 French recipe reprinted by The New York Times in 1974, when I was two, and then re-rescued from obscurity by New York Times food writer Amanda Hesser in February 2007. It’s the kind of recipe that makes people moo with pleasure.
It involves layering toasted, buttered baguette slices with Emmental cheese, tomato purée, and caramelized onions in a five-and-a-half-quart Dutch oven. I used the red Le Creuset that Will ordered for my birthday from Broadway Panhandler our first December in Santa Fe.
The entire construction is bathed in heated salt water, simmered on the stovetop, and baked for an hour in the oven. Hesser writes (one of my favorite sentences in the English language):
“The soup is ready when the surface looks like a crusty, golden cake and the inside is unctuous and so well blended that it is impossible to discern either cheese or onion.”
Dessert was made the day before and chills in the fridge: a bittersweet chocolate tart with a walnut crust. The boozy cherries will be spooned atop each dense, satin-textured wedge.
The children will be fed pizza before the guests arrive, since they never like my complicated dishes.
But this time, despite my married status and the children we’ve sired and nurtured, the house we bought together, three trips to France, thousands of dinners and breakfast omelets, couplings and records played, trips back and forth to the car to unload grocery bags, nights between the same sheets . . . the last person I am cooking for is Will.
In fact, he won’t even be here tonight. He’s at a work-related dinner. When I found out about the conflict, I was secretly relieved. I was infatuated enough to brazen through a dinner with both my husband and the person I had a crush on, but it would be even better to not have him present.
One moment in the last five months, I lost my moral footing. Will and I had spent enough time in France, enjoying the food and wine and swooning over the scenery. But we’d never for one moment thought that the tacit acceptance of infidelity was worthy of emulation. We thought it was wrong.
But look at me now. I’ve arranged to have my daughter’s friend sleep over so that she and my daughter and son will be busy play- ing all night, and not underfoot. I’m happy that my husband can’t be here. I’m cooking a side dish in the pot he gave me as a gift. Who am I?
I’ve schemed and plotted to get C. into my house—inviting four other people to camouflage the architecture of my designs.
There was a bridge, and I crossed it. A line in the sand that I stepped over. Or did I just go to sleep one night and wake to find myself on the other side? Either way, I’m intoxicated to be here.
Licking the Spoon (Seal Press, 2012)