At motherly but lithe Lita’s slippery little bar on Airport Road – which was of the sort found in every corner of Manila – laughing girls in very off the shoulder dresses and men waving guns around in what was usually bluffing, and numbered rooms upstairs that had fairly fresh sheets on the beds – at Lita’s I am on a bar stool and Mercie is wrapped around me and we are downing San Mig beers rapidly, the last round bought by Sergeant Arellano, a policeman who it Lita’s protector, and outside are the familiar haunting shouts – balut, balut, balut – which up till now I have been able to ignore, but Sergeant Arellano days it will be hospitality tonight, and he calls for the outdoor salesman of balut, balut being not quite hatched ducks in their eggs. You knock off the top, and bite into the well developed duck embryo, blood and all and its strangely colored odiferous parts. You take a bite, and look at the veins and the bitten bones of the part that remains, then you are supposed to drink deep from the open shell the liquid in which the now decapitated duck had been hatching. I’ve managed to avoid this so far, though everyone on Airport road knows what a good sport I am, but I just cannot face actual ingestion of balut.
Sergeant Arellano is scowling and talking about Philippine hospitality again, and Mercie is looking really worried, a look I have never seen on her face in this place where there can be so much cause for worry, and so I have the egg in my hand, and I’ve knocked the top off, and I move the egg away thinking maybe this is enough, and then I see that Sergeant Arellano, talking ever more sternly about hospitality, has his revolver out…..
My precarious relationship to food began way back in darkest Connecticut where we had a kind of classic unseasoned Wasp food – overcooked vegetables, stringy liver, oily mackerel, the saving grace being that portions were so small, but even that was not a refuge for there was my also Southern grandmother always present making sure that whatever else we were eating or avoiding we refilled our plates with congealed grits and piles of snot-like okra.
This was in the background a couple of months ago, when I decided that it was time I learned to cook. I had long fancied myself a gourmet, but maybe it was pure bluff, maybe I could not escape my past. Food was supposed to be awful, and men were supposed to be incompetent. Poole men, for instance, could never learn to carve, even for occasions when there really was something to carve. They certainly could not built things – but I took comfort in what I had done when I began to paint 20 years ago. I went to the hardware store over on Seventh Avenue and talked them into precise instructions for what kind of lumber I would need for the shelves I needed to hold my supplies – for I was doing huge things now, including sculpture – and how I could put up heavy shelves without the walls giving in – what I needed to make sure they were level as well as strong. Well, I beat my fate that time, and maybe now I could do it again.
I have found support. In a short time I have put together a library on cooking that is about as large at the almost instant libraries I assembled when I plunged into visual art, and again when I dove into theology. And I have found help with this version of art as I had with others. Classes. Books. But also regular people. With an old friend I did a pork tenderloin that I think would please any connoisseur and sure pleased me. With someone else who had the benefit of an Italian grandmother I did lasagna, several kinds by now, and all sorts of sauces and of course meat balls such as few Wasps has ever seen much less eaten. And I do all sorts of spontaneous mixtures of meat and chicken and vegetables and fish and spices and herbs, always with sauces. I have begun to assemble more equipment such as a heavy meat bounder that I finally found upstairs at Zabar's so that I could flatten out cutlets the way my more unfortunate friends remembered their ethnic grandmothers doing.
Recipes? Instructions from the books? Proper measuring and timing. Proper seasoning – done mostly by instinct and smell and intuition by me who never saw a clove of garlic until he left home. It was like when I started painting – and I got the books and signed up for the courses and learned anatomy and color theory and all the rest but then almost instantly went off on my own whether doing figurative or abstract work, almost immediately going beyond any given plan – which is something it took me so long to discover in writing that when I did I embark on it there, too, everything in my life changed. If feels just like this with cooking. I need rosemary even though the book says I don’t. I need double or triple of any amount of garlic called for, or, really, any amount of anything called for in the plans – cooking turns out to be so much like painting and like writing and like the life I sought for so long.