Cooking by Number
Poets don't have much time for eating – maybe the occasional slice of bread or cheese and then it's back to slaving over a hot word processor. (The greatest advantage of word processors may be that they force writers to air condition.) Sometimes it can take a few days of uninterrupted labor to write a single line of verse (it took me over three weeks of 17-hour days to pen the opening to one of my best-known unpublished works: "Now it is time for pastrami"). Given the lack of compensation for poetry (no wonder so much poetry is about lack, or lacking), there's hardly the money to buy food. Anyway, most of my food budget goes for coffee.
I don't want to give the wrong impression. I worked as a culinary professional during the summer of 1970. I was salad chef at the Fenway Cambridge Motor Hotel. Smitty – Chef Smith – was a charismatic person, who talked in deep bass tones with the sort of majesty that you don't associate with American life. This man used to slap a 20 pound rib roast on a delicatessen-style cutting machine, slicing off dozens of pieces of beef per minute to serve to the hundreds of waiting diners at one or another "function" that we catered. I also worked on the function crew. Once, Smitty told me to pour the salad dressing on the dozens of filled salad bowls that I had set up. I looked in the refrigerator and saw two huge metal pitchers filled with a whitish liquid dressing. It was only when Smitty couldn't find the Yorkshire pudding mix that I realized what I had done. But then, no one complained and there was scarcely a piece of lettuce left in the bow(e?)ls at clean-up.
Our supervisor at Fenway Cambridge was Mr. Lopes, the Food and Beverage Manager. Mr. Lopes made it a point when he toured the kitchen never to cover his suit with an apron, just to make sure we knew he wasn't going to handle any food. Every day, the first thing he would say to my friend Don Goldberg and me was, "Gentlemen, gentlemen, the morning hasn't even started yet and already there's more breakage than anything." That quickly became my own personal mantra. It has the ring of cosmic truth.
The first two dishes I learned to make as a kid were meat sauce for spaghetti and pot roast. The pot roast recipe was from Peg Bracken's I Hate to Cook Book and consisted of pouring a bag of dry onion soup mix over the roast, covering with tin foil, and sticking in the oven. Like so many recipes: simple and none too good. But then it's hard to go wrong in cooking if you have good ingredients to start with – hard but not impossible. It's like that story Godfrey Cambridge used to tell about his wife showing up at some big affair completely naked except for a string of pearls. "But I read in the paper – you can never go wrong with basic black and pearls."
For advice about the stock market, I consult my astrologer; for advice about meat, I ask the butcher. I think a key to successful cooking is to establish a personal relationship with your butcher. These people know things that the rest of us are simply not privy to. My butcher – Emil at Endicott Meats on Broadway and 82nd Street – sells me a whole brisket that he cuts into two first cuts and one beef stew. Now I like the second cut brisket but I get complaints at home about it – and if you push that sort of thing all you end up with is ulcers. This way the second cut can be stewed so long that you'd never know the animal had any fat on it.
Two of three packets I put in the freezer for later. Then I am faced with a dilemma. I've got to cook – messy business that it is. I recommend using an apron whenever you step into the kitchen – and I mean a full length one, which I think of as being something like those long-riders coats you see in the Westerns, only with brighter colors. Because the flour that you pour on the beef is bound to get all over you and the floor and the table – no way around it. Before I "flower" the meat, though, I usually put slivers of garlic under the fat and in the cracks. And I peel some onions, cut them in half, stick some cloves in. The flowered meat needs to be browned on all sides – and there's nothing wrong with doing that in a little olive oil. I use a big cast iron pan for the cooking. After browning, I fill up the pan with half wine and half water, up to the level of beef: too much liquid dries the thing out, too little and you've got nothing to pour on your rice for the next few days. (This last is an issue of almost Talmudic complexity but I don't have the space to adequately address it here.) I toss the onions in, season with pepper, a tiny drop of salt, fresh parsley and dill, and oregano (yes that is odd but then there is very little else original about this recipe). After a while – you be the judge – I throw in some cut-up celery, carrots, maybe mushrooms. The whole thing needs to cook for at least two hours at a low simmer. It's even better the next day.
in 1988 for The Sun & Moon
Guide to Eating Through Literature and Art, ed. Douglas Messerli