Thursday, July 23, 2009
TASTE OF CONNECTICUT
I had gone out for the weekend to the small contained, low ceiling, one-story Connecticut house that my parents had moved into next door to the big and quirky house of my childhood in this township that had been chaotic enough so that I had never felt bound by the commuter and golfer aspects of it. I knew it as a place of fascinating danger and adventure – fighting and fleeing and stealing things, like Mr. Steinberg’s rowboat that took me over a waterfall in what I thought was the end of my life, and like when clinging to rock faces in near wilderness not yet subdivided, or outsmarting the wardens who tried to catch me when I fished for bass in a restricted reservoir – things that made me think while it was going on that my childhood in Connecticut, in its better light, was far more Mark Twain than John Cheever.
Connecticut where, as I have written, the food in our house was a combination between what came out of the hard-edged WASP world of my paternal grandparents – who strangely ate well at their own places – and the Southern world of my maternal grandmother. We had WASPy tasteless vegetables and mean portions of grisly meat plus sickening percolator coffee – supplemented by not bad Southern corn bread that was overshadowed by congealed grits and okra the consistency of snot.
So here I am, all these years later, cooking brown and wild rice for a lunch that features garlicky, lemony sautéed red snapper – all of this with the herbs and spices, and mushrooms too, that I never saw in my formative years in Connecticut. Here I am receiving solace alone in the kitchen, just after the death of Frank McCourt.
Celebrating by violating all the strictures of WASP food, as Frank McCourt violated everything set up by the lifeless old schoolmasters in England, those rules set up by ignorant men in England and then used by the anti-art people to torture sensitive children in Ireland and America.
That cramped little house in Connecticut. 1959. I was out from the city for the weekend with my girlfriend Vannie – about whom I was silently bragging. She knew how to fill leotards. She had bangs and a heart-shaped face that melted men thou it was hard to know if she even knew she was pretty. She had run from Tennessee to Manhattan where at 24, which was also my age, she had become a vibrant action painter. I marveled at the contrast between her and the others in that little house, my parents and my very careful twin brother, who was also out for the weekend.
I had a bad case of flu, and I had spent the night alone on a horsehair couch they had saved from the older, bigger house. It was probable that no-one had ever made love here. They were all going to go for dinner at an Italian restaurant down near the railroad station – a far distant world though only four and a half miles away. Vannie and my brother went to a small supermarket to get something I could eat for dinner since there was nothing to fall back on in the house. Peter said I would probably like a TV dinner. Vannie, who knew more than she maybe needed to know about my tastes, found something that looked a tiny bit, though not much, better – some frozen non-TV dinner that at least had pretensions. Peter talked her out of getting it for me, because it would be an insult to my mother, he said. To bring in a really good frozen dinner would be to say Fred needed something better than he could get at home.
So jumping ahead fifty years, I am finally doing something new about my childhood that I have needed to do for a long time. Something beyond deep probing. This past weekend I returned to that retreat place, the Omega Institute, where Marta and I had been, along with Malachy McCourt, a week earlier with our writing program. But this time it was to take a workshop, not give one, though that line can be thin. This workshop had to to do not with writing but with another version of art. It was given by a man named Thomas Griffiths, otherwise known as Tom or Chef Tom, who teachers at the nearby CIA, which stands for Culinary Institute of America and has no connection that I can detect with my twin bother Peter’s CIA. Chef Tom is one of the 60 persons in the world with the title master chef. He used to be at La Cirque, where he did omelet’s for people like Pavarotti and Diana Ross.
I have the least experience of the 15 people attending this cooking weekend, though I have been reading and Googling and watching cooking videos furiously for a couple of months, also bringing people who know how to cook into our kitchen to coach me, working overtime trying to catch up. It turns out I am the only one at this retreat who did not have at least one grandmother, at the very least a mother, who cooked.
The only one here with so little experience is a girl named Samantha who is as guarded as she in pretty, in a tanned and sullen way. She has come, at her fiancé’s urging, but she had never wanted to cook. It seems clear that if the fiancé wants good food after marriage he may have to go elsewhere. She adds that maybe Tom can give her some ideas about expensive culinary things to add to her registry.
On the second day Chef Tom is joined by his colleague Chef Freddy B, who, strangely, lives in the next town over from the Connecticut suburb of my bad food childhood. Freddy’s wife is Chinese, which is not so far off from my own first wife. I go to lunch with Jim and his wife Emilia – she too tanned and very good looking and he a pleasantly confident investment banker. And it turns out that too live in Connecticut! About a mile from my food-deprived childhood home.
Jim knows private Cantonese banquets from business trips to Hong Kong where I used to enjoy such feasts thanks to my first big contact there, Martin Wong, who I had known in New York when he was an investment bank trainee, and where we had many friends in common, including appealing girls like Vannie, who knew Martin well. I assumed Jim and Emilia were rich and probably Republican – and I wondered if I could have met them anywhere except in art. They stay in touch with me after the weekend because they want Jim’s father, who is so un-Connecticut he only has a third grade education – to join an Authentic Writing group.
And there is Mel, who knows the Chinese places in Queens. One of the girls we were with in 1959 was Grace Wu, who lived in a part of Queens that was fast becoming an upscale version of Chinatown. Later my first wife, also from the Far East, and her mother would shop for strange seas creatures on Canal Street.
The red snapper I just cooked, I sautéed in the way I learned at Omega, where there was risotto and roast pork, and lobster – which Chef Tom killed with a knife to the head because it is more humane than boiling the creature alive. We chopped and sliced and seasoned and sautéed and roasted and braised and boiled and grilled. We did couscous and quinoa and cauliflower and wild rice and beats. There was chicken for Freddy B's lush stir fry.
And there was a small vegan continent in our group. Lois, a director at Omega who turns out to be working with Marta. Lois has brought her daughter, who writes, and her sister and a close friend. The point she says is to make this a bonding weekend for her little group. They are not so put off as I would have thought by the rest of cooking and eating once living creatures, for they take the time between vegetable activities for bonding sessions – something else that never would have happened in the Connecticut that I knew 50 years ago