gall and gumption

Thursday, November 23, 2006

I Actually Cooked

My father does all the cooking here. Except when he's away, and even then he tends to leave me great quantities of stuff he's prepared so I don't have to do anything but reheat things. He likes to cook and he's remarkably efficient at it. But he cooks exactly the same kind of food that basically I grew up on in Jamaica: a substantial meat dish of some sort or other (stewed beef or pork, curried chicken or goat, roast something, steaks, escoveitch fish, red beans and rice (which in Jamaica is called "stew peas", oxtail stew. He cooks up enough rice to last a few days, and then throws in a steamed vegetable almost as an afterthought. He eats salads out of a sense of obligation. This is, as I say, the fare I grew up on, though it was usually cooked by the live-in housekeeper. But he cooks it all as well as any of them ever did.

When my father goes to the supermarket he doesn't by meat; he buys meats.

His M.O. in the kitchen is a very different thing from mine, which is part of the reason why I stay out of the kitchen. I come home from work and the whole house is smelling of curry or roasting meat. There is a puddle of clear but highly suspicious liquid spreading over the kitchen counter, the handle of the boning knife is covered with grease, there is a cleaver in the sink, and a general impression of titanic battles having gone on in my absence. I look at it all and I just don't want to know.

He never refers to a cookbook. When he isn't sure of how to prepare a dish he calls an old girlfriend, or an old girlfriend of his brother, and gets answers to his questions.

He likes to eat sitting at his computer or on the sofa, while watching CNN or the History Channel or some dreadful dude movie. He never seems to be interested in any of it. When he has finished eating the dogs, who have been lying about half awake and apparently not paying much attention, suddenly spring to life and race him to the kitchen where he distributes the table scraps and kindly remarks. I don't eat, myself, until after I have walked the dogs and sat down for a spell of writing in my various colored notebooks.

This is our routine and it suits us. I'm not sure how it happened but I found last week that I had agreed to do some of the cooking for Thanksgiving dinner for three of us; him, me, and my cousin, though I guess if you add in the dogs that comes to five. I bought two ducks since none of us is all that crazy about turkey and we do like duck. My father bought a ham, per the plan. I roasted the ducks and made a sauce of duck stock, port, and cherries. It was supposed to be thickened with arrowroot but now I'm glad I didn't do that. I don't really like gloppy sauces.

I haven't really done much cooking for many years, though some of you can no doubt remember a time when I was really into it. Then, I stopped, and I won't go into why. But it has been years. I don't say I never cooked, but I stopped cooking as if it was interesting to me. I just tended to knock together whatever could be made quickly. And I ate a lot of takeout. And then all of a sudden I had to roast two ducks and make a sauce and wild rice and have it all be done in time for an early dinner and have it match with whatever my cousin was bringing. And somehow I managed it.

I have a feeling that the whole proceeding made my father nervous. I am a creature of uncertain temper and he had never really seen me at work in a kitchen before. But I went to work and quite enjoyed myself. One thing that puts me off cooking is the huge mess afterwards. So I had learned the habit of washing as I go. While something is simmering I just wash up whatever's in the sink, toss the onion peels and carrot heads, and try to start the next step of the preparations with everything clean. It all went very smoothly except I had to do a little improvising with the sauce; missing the red wine vinegar to caramelize with sugar, I borrowed a spoonful of some mysterious Jamaican substance called "browning." That was OK. And the ducks came out just perfect. Moist and not greasy, just great. None of us had the courage to try the cherries that had simmered in the duck sauce. And it went well with the yams my cousin had baked to perfection and her dish of green beans with sesame seeds and lemon, and the ham.

My father was sort of nervous and happy -- he is very attached to my cousin. I'm not sure how he managed it but at one point lifting up the dish with the roast duck in it he managed to knock a glass of wine into the yams. Then he seemed rather surprised that he had to carve the duck. But he was willing, and it was a bit of a job as the joints on a duck are not quite where you'd expect to find them. At one point he was standing up and sort of putting all his weight into it. Sweetie immediately put her tail between her legs and ran to hide under the desk in my bedroom, in apprehension that he might get out the cleaver. After he carved the duck he had to move his seat when he discovered that the glass of wine he had knocked over belonged to my cousin so they had to switch seats, and as he got up he carried a considerable length of the tablecloth with him or perhaps it came to life and followed him the way the dogs do. I can't explain it but the more formal a social occasion is the more likely my father is to have this sort of thing happen. When I was prepping the duck I asked him to open a pack of skewers as my hands were already all covered with raw duckness. I watched him open the package and knew that they would scatter, he was opening them with such nervous energy. And I also knew that there was no point in warning him ahead of time that that was what would happen. Because that is just me being a pain in the ass. And I was determined not to be a pain in the ass. So sure enough, the package of skewers opened suddenly and violently and skewers went skittering all over the floor. So by noon he was emotionally drained and had to have a beer and take a nap.

My cousin made an apple crumble which we ate with creme fraiche. And we had some aged gouda. Neither she nor my father had ever had that one before and they both liked it. It's sort of cheddary but without the bitterness.

We talked about family stuff. We are such a small party this time because so many of us have died, and the ones who died were the ones who really held us together. My father's older brother and his only sister, much beloved (the mother of this cousin); last year, another aunt who was the first wife of his older brother. Others of us are scattered about. His two surviving brothers are not speaking to each other. His mother is in a nursing home. My brothers and the grandkids are out West. Another cousin is in North Carolina. Other cousins are scattered between California and Jamaica and divided from us, some of them, by old quarrels, divorces, by various intractable miseries. And yet at one time we were like this huge formidable crowd that gathered at my late uncle's house in California, this great, rambling place on a hilltop in Hayward, and we filled the place up. There was almost no distinction among us of nuclear families. We were a tribe that included all these aunts and uncles and cousins and a whole host of old Jamaican friends. And my father really loved being of a tribe. The three of us felt very much like survivors today, but that was the one thing we didn't say, in all the talk, the revisiting of old scandals, the analyses of people's characters, the news and the histories.

As the conversation went on his dog, Misha, began to be concerned. So she sat at his feet moaning at him. Immediately he needed to know what she wanted. Did she need to go poop? "She just wants your attention," I kept saying."Or probably she wants you to give her a treat," at which point the dog suddenly looked bright and intelligent. He got up and she went through this little charade of leading him to the kitchen. "Well, OK, then," he said, and cut her some bits of ham. Sweetie of course immediately went in and they both had a little treat He did this a couple more times, and then marveled at Misha's persistence in sitting at his elbow and moaning. That was when the Specter At The Feast (that would be your friend) pointed out that sitting at his elbow and moaning was delivering the goods.

We took a walk down to the little lake, a big pond really, the one with all the warning signs. Deep Water, Thin Ice, Pick Up AFter Yor Pet, Don't Feed the Geese And Ducks, Beware of Snapping Turtles. My cousin and I walked to the lake with the dogs and my dad drove there for the walk around it. It was almost dark and it was quite deserted even though there are houses all round it. My father and I got into the tedious recurring argument about why we don't let the dogs off the leash. It has to do with Misha's issues, the hyperprotectiveness, the lunging at other dogs and occasionally people when she's on the leash. But I compromised. I took us to this one stretch where there is a big wide lawn. If the geese aren't hanging about on it I let Sweetie off the leash because she just runs around in figure eights until she's out of breath. The good thing about that spot is that you can see people coming from a distance so if you need to hook them up again quickly you can. We let them off the leash. Misha first. She just stood there next to my father. What was the point of going anywhere; where else was there to be but there, by the side of -- HIM. I unleashed Sweetie and she took off in a straight line and disappeared into the woods. "I think I see her just over there," my father said, but that was a bush. It was that dark. About a minute later I heard the receding sound of yelps and canine shrieks. That was Sweetie, dashing up the creek after something, the scent of deer makes her shriek like that. So I ran up the trail that follows this little creekbed, just a stream really. The others caught up with me while I was standing and waiting. We argued about whether to split up, occasionally pausing to whistle and call out to Sweetie. A few minutes later, she came trotting down the trail wearing a fresh coat of mud and a a rather sheepish demeanor that was transparently phony even in the dark.

Had I had such rich serving of schadenfreude, I would have taken it and been nursing it and sipping slowly and noisily at it the rest of the night. But my father has no taste for that sort of thing.

Misha dragged my father the whole way back to his truck, having had quite enough of the great outdoors thank you very much, and he drove her home while my cousin and I walked back the not quite a mile. When we got back to the apartment my father was watching CNN (well, it was on) and the dog was sitting in his truck, per her usual practice, refusing to get out. "See if you can get her out," he said to me, per his usual practice. I went out and there she was looking dismal and desolate. I sort of burrowed about underneath her and found the leash and she got out of the car and followed me perfectly contentedly back to the apartment. It's not because she thinks I am so wonderful. She wants my father to take her for a long ride in the car; life offers her no greater happines. And when it doesn't happen she can't seem to think her way out of the car. My father loses his patience and leaves her there.

Tomorrow we will give half of the extra duck to Mrs. Graham across the hall; "Ha ha ha ha heh heh ha ha ha ha haah, WhooooooWEEE!" That Mrs Graham. She told me a long story about why she doesn't speak any more to D., the rather boring woman who lives downstairs, and while there was no single one catastrophic event, there were a whole lot of little ones and I can't remember them all but I do remember only this one line that sort of sung out at me from the jumble of detail: "Girl, I had no idea that that woman was balt haided."


At 5:38 AM, Anonymous leslie said...

Write a book. Damn you. I love this stuff.

At 7:28 AM, Anonymous Lisa said...

No, just write. I was so happy reading this. And happy to hear there are various notebooks, which means there is more somewhere.

At 2:08 AM, Blogger Mizaar said...

Not speaking. How wonderful.
Various family memebers ensconced here for holidays in the two bedrooms. It's Thanksgiving, or one day past. My sister arranged for her birthday and the birthday of her daughters to fall approximately on the same day. For whatever reason, we celebrate at my house. Last night, I slept at my boyfriend's- wonderful hiatus; tonight too it seemed like the simplest thing, until, in fireside discussion about the truths of family narratives, my boyfriend sided with my sister about how memory is slippery and who, finally, cares.
So it's the air mattress for me. And bad feeling all around, at least for those, like me,
who sleep fitfully. So I sympathise with your father's nervousness around skewers or whatever they were. How does one survive these things?


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