“Listen, Hunk, I know the greatest joke on the French people,—they don’t eat blackberries; they think they are poison. They eat every dam thing you can imagine and many dam things you can’t imagine, frogs, mussels, periwinkles, snails, every kind of grass that grows, etc. but they are convinced that blackberries are poison, and they never touch them. The blackberries, however, having not yet been informed that they are considered poisonous and undesirable, still grow in great plenty about these parts, the roads are lined with them, and there are great thickets of them on the bluffs over the sea, just getting ripe now. And since nearly all the English and Americans have gone back to town in the last few days, as far as I can see all the blackberries in northern France are living and having their being and ripening in the sun for my personal delectation. Isn’t that amusing?”—Edna St. Vincent Millay (in a letter to her sister Norma)
Kale sauteed with sesame oil and red pepper flakes, toast with olive taupenade and avocado, dal from a can when it’s last minute and I’ve been reading about Indian cooking all day in a novel. I am hungry for what the main character eats as he grieves for his father. Pad See Ew from a restaurant that—from the outside—looks too dark to be true. Shepherd’s pie with lentils instead of lamb, cooked in the long afternoon before a show in our apartment. I mashed the potatoes with a whisk and said, “You know, this is fitting, because wherever I’ve lived, I’ve made this for my favorite people.” I didn’t realize it until I said it but it’s true, it’s a total tribe food. One of the members of a band set to play that night quietly came up to me and told me it was a relief to eat something grounding, because they’d been on tour and one of the most disconcerting aspects was “eating garbage.” All my life I think this will be one of my favorite sights: people waking on futons and coming in from the cold and eating all at different times, standing around, something hot.
Polenta with butternut squash, fig compote, and caramelized onions with my father, talking about family or architecture or the divine coincidence that always seems to color his life. Lamb stew with him near the Inner Harbor, in a restaurant whose windows he once repaired. He got a Guinness which reminded me of Adrian referencing “the milkshake of beers,” which in turn, reminded me of the afternoon she, Sweeney, Lyndel and I split steaks and talked about what it means to be able to write a sentence. Drunk well before dark, practically able to watch the grass grow at Pratt, that spring was so lush.
Sal and I made “magic bars” one afternoon, modeled after the ones at a cafe down the street, layering coconut, smashed graham crackers, chocolate chips and evaporated milk. Talking about variations. Talking about food with unattractive names: Dump cake. Garbage soup. Later, I re-read parts of Dinners and Nightmares and cringed for the thousandth time at the name “menstrual pudding” applied to a tomato-potato dish. I ordered two raw oysters at the dark wooden bar where Dave tends bar and had my feelings about them confirmed—It’s not the taste of oysters I like, necessarily, with which I’m actually always somewhat repulsed. Rather, they give me a dizzy, elevated feeling in my stomach and my head. It’s like taking a big mouthful of the sea and falling in love at the same time and trying to hold it all in.
We ran into Ray Ray at the farmer’s market. He was overseeing four or five trash cans, filling rapidly with compost that people brought from home—in five-gallon buckets, tupperware, whatever they had. Eggshells, banana peels, all the concealed textures of winter. Ray handed Adrian and I each a “Buddha Box” that played chants at different pitches, and we marveled at how if you put one in your back pocket, you could think it was coming from far away. “Lina thought she was hearing singing from a mosque,” Adrian told him, “until she realized the noise was following her up the stairs with you.”
So we wandered around the stalls at Ft. Greene. Heated tents filled with kimchi, oysters sold off of a wood-slatted table, hydroponic lettuce that Adrian jumped at. I got kale—“though, A, I’m not sure it’ll work, it’s not the right kind”—a carrot big as two of my fists, Yukon golds, we said goodbye to Ray Ray by the food scraps.
Adrian had to get to work at the Karrot, so Lina and I went to lunch at Zaytoon’s. We tried to avoid it (“It’s what we always do,” she said, and I though, I’ve been to New York only three times in the last year) by going to Maggie Brown’s instead, but the wait was an hour long. So we sat over our friendly neighborhood lentil soup, with dark cumin and squeeze-your-own lemon wedges, and it was halfway through the basket of hot pita that we realized neither of us would have room for the sandwiches we’d ordered. They came out and we felt lame or unnecessary or foolish or still hungry even if we weren’t hungry—so we took a few token bites, and Lina biked to work, and I set back to their apartment with the spare keys Adrian had given me.
The lentils weren’t what I was used to. They were red, and I wondered if the discolorations were normal, before telling myself, it’s probably like tempeh. It’s fine. I boiled potatoes in two small pots, worried that they’d overflow if I tried to cook them all together. Chopped vegetables on a white cutting board stained with avocado Adrian and I had eaten earlier with melba toast—onions, carrot, a cucumber because Adrian had no zucchini. And half the food drained, the other cracking on the stove, two or three tablespoons of tomato paste, a quick run into Adrian’s bedroom, to jump on her bed, throw my torso out the window, and pick thyme from the herb garden on her fire-escape.
When the boys arrived, the oven was preheating. There were some sharp pounds at the door, I opened it to four men I haven’t seen in at least as many months. Who I knew would be coming, and still I was so surprised to see, I just said, “Adrian’s not here.” (As though, what? I wasn’t going to let them in?) “That’s fine,” they said, and charged in, immediately took over the living room. Sweeney grabbed a book off the shelf and someone said something about how the apartment smelled nice. I thanked them and retreated to the kithen, half-mashing undercooked potatoes with a fork, till they all announced they were going out as quickly as they came, to the hat store.
Greg stayed behind—I guess he already has a hat—and asked me two or three times if he could help with anything. Something about not knowing any measurements, or the distance between anything in Adrian and Lina’s kitchen, kept me from accepting. Instead, he read sporadic passages to me from a book about Russian Freemasonry, the description of an elaborate initiation ritual which was agonizingly concrete until he got to the part where the novice had to drink from “a cup of evil.” Buried alive we get. Paddling we get. A cup of evil? I shredded the kale from its stalk, chopped it finely, streaks of dirt beneath it on the cutting board.
They returned from buying caps, already stealing each others’ instead of wearing their own. Adrian back from the Karrot, the food was in any way hot by now. I finished up with the Corresponding Society rushing around me to start their meeting—my hands deep in a soup pot filled with kale, since there was no bowl big enough. Minced garlic, olive oil, a little bit of lemon juice. The shepherd’s pie resting on the front burners of the gas stove. Everyone helped themselves onto enormous plates, because there were no human-sized ones, and anyways, we’ve all got to be giants once in a while. The pie was bland, but no one said anything, except me, and then Adrian and I told each other how it was silly to blush over a thing like that. She’d told me the meal she cooked for me the night before was bland, too, and really, we both know that doesn’t mean anything. Still I felt like I was standing over the onions again, my face firing, trying to explain how it tasted different when I made it in Baltimore. “It tastes like potatoes, and lentils, and tomato,” she told me. What bland? “If you meant that it’s not spicy, then no, it’s not.”
But the kale is satisfying in any condition. Because it’s vital. Because it feels nourishing to eat a thing raw you’d always thought you had to steam to hell and back before it was digestible.
Raw Kale Salad
1 bunch kale 2 cloves garlic 1-2 Tbsp olive oil pinch of coarse sea salt juice of 1/4-1/2 lemon (to taste)
-Rinse the kale leaves thoroughly. When clean, tear all leaves off the stalks into a bowl -Chop or rip leaves into smallest pieces you can manage -Add olive oil (1 Tbsp at first, more later if you need it), garlic, and lemon juice. -Massage for up to five minutes, add sea salt, massage to distribute. -Serve at room temperature if you have ten hands reaching into the pot, but chilled if you can ward them off while it refrigerates.
I ate a little bit, less than everyone else. Even Sweeney ate three servings, trying in earnest to become full with no meat. In the end, though, he said he needed a fried chicken sandwich, and that was that. “I think I’m allergic to all these vegetables,” he said gravely. The meeting went on in the next room, I tried to entertain myself play-cleaning the warm kitchen, but I’d been at it too long. I sat on Adrian’s bed, pulled the door shut, and smoked out the cold window, writing about what I wanted, and what that meant about me. Till Adrian herself popped in, red hearts all over a white dress, and asked me to help her in the kitchen. I put candles in a ring around a cake that Dave made, decorated like a NY-style black and white cookie. Too many candles at first, because Adrian miscounted and bought an extra box, I smoothed the extra holes out with a butter knife while she zested lemons into the tops of martinis. Since they had decided not to drink, “except a warm-up,” until the meeting was finished, I supposed the gin marked the end. Dave stood at the doorway, growled effectively at Sweeney that he just couldn’t come in the kitchen. Till I walked out into the wood paneling, and turned the lights out on their conversation with no warning, and Adrian had to re-ignite a few candles with the cake already in front of Sweeney before he could blow them out.
And the rest of the weekend was the vortex I remember. More gin and less vermouth, I almost walked into traffic and after Dave pulled me back, he apologized. “No,” I said, “thank you.” Not wanting to say, If the people around me would only let me, I’d walk into nearly every car I see. I told Mary Kate that I remembered sitting on the grass with her, and someone else, maybe Robby, while she ate vegetables out of a tupperware container. Hugged Robert Balkovich with no reservations and told him I love Fleetwood Mac now. Made coffee Sunday morning in Adrian’s turquoise leggings and a yellow Pratt t-shirt she’d used to be a lion for Halloween.
And if anyone knows yet how I am about goodbyes, it’s the New Yorkers. I walked all the way with them to breakfast, stood outside finishing my cigarette, while the waiters rearranged the diner to accommodate so many tired poets, and some fully awake, and one still drunk. Stood there with them, hugged everyone on the sidewalk, and told them to give my best to the few back inside. I walked back with no breakfast, and I was starving by the time I reached Lina’s to collect my things and say goodbye. I ate half a vegetable kabob sandwich, screeching about polyamory and driving cross-country, one foot always a pivot for me to jump up from the table.
In line for the bus, I ran into and officially met Young Peter, who works at Okay Natural Foods (so does Older Peter). Not wanting to be presumptuous but not really minding, either, I sat down next to him for the ride home. When he saw me pouring something into my water bottle around the end of the Turnpike, he asked, “Is that Emergen-C?”
"Yeah," I said. "I figured, I drank gin last night, I drink Emergen-C today. It balances out."
"Emergen-C is like, two-thirds sugar."
"Are you saying I was better off with the gin?"
"God no," he said. "There’s lots of sugar in gin."
We entered Baltimore at an odd angle, and we both sat marveling with no idea where the hell we were. It’s funny, and I don’t know which city it speaks to. How someone goes to New York for the first time, and someone goes back to New York after a long time. And they both come back to Baltimore and don’t recognize a single thing until they’re on the sidewalk again, with their brother’s face saying, I guess this looks right.
When you are quite broke (and pray tell, when you are wealthy, too) it is good to eat slowly. The food seems to be more plentiful, probably because it lasts longer. And no matter how sunk you are, nothing seems so grim if your head is clear and your teeth are clean and your bowels function properly. I find that during times of particularly feeble means, by inviting friends to dine with me, the larder multiplies like on the shores of Galilee. So when I say to eat “poorly” I mean “in the manner of the [ ].”
First, make a list of your personal staples. Buy two of everything. For me it’s almost always: vegetable stock, chicken stock, coconut milk, a pound of walnuts, a pound of rice (white if I think I’m in the pan-Asian mood, brown if I’m a wholesome American), 12oz wild rice or quinoa, a dozen eggs, whole peeled tomatoes, black beans, kidney beans, spinach, kale, carrots, onions, garlic, lemons, good coffee to last me two weeks. I almost always have a couple cans of wild-caught salmon for making patties. What I have constantly in the cupboards, using little by little, is salt, pepper, paprika, dill, cayenne, cumin, turmeric, curry, and bay leaves. Also: soy sauce, vinegar, mustard, honey, butter, good olive oil, herbs growing on my window sill. On a whim I might add to the list: a fresh beet, three potatoes, butternut squash, asparagus, whole milk, a hunk of fancy cheese, oatmeal, a lamb shank, white fish, oysters, a can of Jyoti saag or curry dumplings. I never spend more than eighty-dollars a month on basic groceries, though of course there are always the late night runs for beer, gin, and ice cream. That’s up to you though. Some needs exceed means. For instance, at the bodega last night, the man ahead of me in line asked for his Colt 45 and a pack of cigarettes on credit. “I get paid on the 18th,” he said, and the clerk said OK.
A trick is to never buy snacks, not really. And avoid juices, sauces, and spreads except where the desire burns hot. Same for crackers and bars and chips. It makes a great deal of difference. Decide on a few non-perishable versions of things, like what to buy canned or frozen. I buy mostly organic, and it’s often only a few cents more per item. A nice hunk of beef can be a great friend in tough times. Ignore specialty vegetarian products and go straight to the basics.
Then learn the simple tricks: a whole baked onion with goat cheese and rosemary, eaten with a fork; egg-drop soup; double-garlic greens; Spanish black beans; red beans and rice; hot-and-cold salad; a heap of of everything sauteed in a pan (burger, veggies, coconut milk, spices) into what Chanelle calls, “rubbish”; huevos rancheros; honeyed carrots; lettuce wraps; fritatta; kale and white bean soup; mashed potatoes; salmon cakes; a simple sauce of a couple peeled and squashed tomatoes, with onions, garlic and lots of olive oil, stewed slowly and put on anything—though the tomatoes are best if you squash them while stewing. Carry nuts in your pockets. Don’t forget to peer in dumpsters or ask your local grocery store for expired things. My stepmother spent a weekend once teaching me how to make soup that would last until next Saturday, lasting twice as long (I swear) when you invite someone over to eat it with you.