Oh, the Places You'll Cook!
A letter to my younger self.
Can the future haunt the past? – Hollow Bamboo, Willam Ping.
My theme is memory, that winged host that soared about me one grey morning. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
In a trap house, in Montreal, in your underwear. You had to take off your pants because you’d splashed oil on them when you started cooking. I can’t tell you what you’re making because, despite the fact that you’ve been sober for months, the memories of that period feel loose now, like sand. I can say that you are cooking for friends, i.e. the only people who can tolerate you right now, as just about everybody else has hit the road. The kitchen in that apartment is bare, and you season the food with packets of take-out salt and pepper that you find on the counter, or in the corner of a drawer. It’s late at night, or it’s early in the morning – you’re barely slept in ages, so what’s the difference – and your friends appreciate the food, a little surprised that you pulled it off in that kitchen. Your closest friend, the only relationship that survives that chapter of your life, is just glad you’ve got your pants back on.
In Paris, in a sixth-floor walkup. You’re cooking for your parents on New Year’s Eve. This is not long after Bataclan and the city remains tense, so the three of you decided to stay in to celebrate. The kitchen, if you can call it that, runs about the size of an airplane bathroom. You prepare a small chicken in the toaster oven, roast red potatoes with garlic and thyme. To cut the rich meat and root vegetables, you make a salad of rocket with mustard vinaigrette, bright and sharp. You dine at a low table in the living room, toast the New Year with champagne you could never afford back home.
A few years later, your mother sends a picture of you in that kitchen. You’re wearing a black tank top to beat the heat. It doesn’t show, but you can see it: the rawness in your heart. You’d met someone in the fall, and fell too quickly; it ended on Christmas Eve. The next day, after dinner with your family, you drank yourself into a stupor and went to bed early to sleep off the ache in your chest. Your mother, taking that picture in that Paris apartment a week later, was unaware of the sting you still felt. Or maybe she wasn’t.
In a cabin in Eastern Quebec, north of Ottawa. February, maybe. There’s so much snow that you and your fiancée have to sled the food and firewood down from the road. The cabin has electricity, but no running water; in the mornings, you snowshoe down to the lake and haul it up in buckets. The soundtrack for your stay is a Nat King Cole compilation you find near the stereo; years later, you search for that particular album online, but can’t find it, and no other collection conjures the magic of that cabin, at that moment. Similarly, this might be the last time you and your fiancée are genuinely content as a couple; the cracks in the foundation of your relationship, long forming, will soon widen and spread.
That week you cook seasonal standards, like beef, braised for hours in a bottle of Chianti with red onion and heaps of cracked pepper, or a minestrone with root vegetables and black kale. You spend the afternoons preparing food and share languid meals that run late into the evening, Cole’s sonorous voice ever in the background.
Montreal again. In a furnished apartment in a high rise on René Lévesque. You’re cooking for “Rick”, the man who nearly ends your life, and his girlfriend (by this time, you are both long into his con). You’re making a Bolognese, which you serve family style – you always understood that “sharing a meal” should mean sharing a meal – and, even though Rick is stealing your money and running your credit into ruin, you feel a sense of wholeness, as if, long wandering in the dark, you’ve finally made it home.
Eight or ten months later, you submit an anonymous tip on a website. The police arrest Rick, a fugitive, and deport him to the US. His girlfriend calls and tells you this while you’re standing in the aisles of a Dollarama on Mont-Royal. In the years to come, you search for him by his real name and find pieces here and there, the time he serves in Attica for grand larceny, how he ends up back in his hometown in Eastern Europe. You notice he has started another contracting business there, doing plasterwork. One of the few comments on the page accuses him of fraud.
In Iceland, in mid-December. A small house by the sea. You’re cooking for your parents again, a leg of local lamb. Icelandic sheep, you read, spend their time in the wild, grazing on herbs, grass and berries in the mountainous fields and pastures. Earlier that day, you and your parents drove through the countryside, where every turn offered a new and striking scene: a band of black sand by the ocean, the water like bright silver; marshlands brown and orange, quilted with snow; a low, ancient-looking mountain, cupping in its valley a glacier.
The lamb you prepare with a thick paste of garlic and herbs, generous amounts of salt and pepper. After roasting, you splash some white wine vinegar and fresh parsley into the drippings, opting for a light vinaigrette instead of gravy. You and your parents eat at the table by the black window; outside the wind and the waves beat against the coast in the darkness.