Monday, July 18, 2011

A New Way of Looking at Cucumbers

She remembers a phrase from the movie Julie and Julia, that movie about that woman that cooked through Julia Child's entire Mastering the Art of French Cooking: "Baked cucumbers are a revelation."  She holds this thought in her mind, and like Mark Doty suggests in Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, the mind becomes a Magic 8 Ball.  That plastic toy with the floating marble inside of it that gives answers "yes" or "no" or "ask again later."  Doty says,

"Now I think there is a space in me that is like the dark inside that hollow sphere, and things float up into view, images that are vessels of meaning, the flotsam and detail of any particular moment.  Vanished things.” 

In the heat of July, with a pile of cucumbers, things float into her brain.  "How can I ever possibly eat this many cucumbers?"  The dark solution in her brain sloshes.  "Baked cucumbers are a revelation."  She decides--even though it is 95 degrees outside--to stoke the oven.  The oven, dependable and stubborn, turns the kitchen into an inferno, a wall of heat that can be walked into.  She doesn't mind.  She crams the oven with a roasting chicken, long-skinny Japanese egg-plant, chunks of beets, and after drying them off with wads of paper towels, the cucumbers.

This dinner, it can't exist on any other day, or any other time.  When six pounds of cucumbers arrived in the weekly vegetable box, when the eggplants in the garden reached the heavy purple enamel sheen of ripeness, when the beets heaved their round shoulders out of the soil.  While the chicken and vegetables roast, she makes mayonaise.  Whisking egg yolk and oil, to a thick creamy dollop, studded with shallots and flecks of dark yellow lemon zest.

She thinks, in her lifetime, she's eaten dozens of cucumbers.  But never baked. Never warm.  Dispatching the pile of cucumbers, makes her feel effiecent.  As if she has somehow arrested decay and age, stopped time for these cucumbers in the oven.

Now they are something else.  When they emerge from the oven they are firm, but yielding.  Sweet, but slightly bitter.  Richly coated with butter.  They are not a revelation, exactly.  They are more than the sum of their parts, and startling in how the ordinary has been rendered unfamiliar and strange.

She drags a forkful of chicken across a slick of mayonnaise, chews.  She takes a bite of cucumber, and she wonders about all these things as the roasted beets bleed across the plate, and the eggplants wait patiently in the kitchen to be turned into baba ganoush.  She wonders about the ordinary turning unfamiliar.

** Julia Child's recipe for Baked Cucumbers has been reprinted here.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

It Really Gets to the Marrow of Things

When I go to Bellville Brothers Butcher Shop and ask for marrow bones, the butcher looks at me strangely.  
 “You mean dog bones?” he asks.  “I’ve got those.”
“No,” I say, “not for the dog.  I’m going to eat them.”  
 He shrugs.  “Here, I’ll show you what I got.”  He walks me away from the glass class of expensive T-bones and filet mignon, so bright red that they look plastic, to the freezer case at the back of the store.  “These?”  He holds up a 10 inch long bone wrapped in plastic.  Then he says, “My dog loves these bones.  He’ll work on one for hours.” 
I wish that he would get off the dog kick, so I try to get him back on my needs as a customer.  “Those bones are too big.  Can you cut them?”  Then, we have a discussion about how to cut them. I want them cut lengthwise to better scoop out the marrow from the center.  He says that he can’t do that.  The bones are more fragile than they look.  They will splinter too much. So he cuts them crosswise in three-inch long increments.  The bones look like a human femur.  The marrow is pink and thick.  It is at the core, at the very center, of this desire I have.  For something rich, nourishing, and out of the ordinary.  I take the bones over to my friend Amanda’s house.  Whenever I get a craving for foods that push the bounds of cultural conventions, Amanda is my accomplice.  I’ve fed her bull testicles and chicken feet, tongue and liver.  When I get to Amanda’s, we stand the bones up on end in a cast iron pan, and slide them into the oven.  They roast until the marrow has turned a translucent whitish color, with the palest hint of yellow and gray. 

 Then, we scrape the marrow out of the interior of each bone with silver steak knives and slather the marrow on slices of toasted baguette.  The marrow is unctuous. Rich.  We sprinkle chopped capers and shallots and parsley over the thick smear of bone marrow. 

 Amanda’s black lab, Bleu, is jealous.  He sits on the floor next to the table, looking expectantly at the stack of bones on the table.  Maybe the butcher was right.  Still, I am surprised that more people don’t realize that something this tasty, this succulent, this filling could be had for just a couple of dollars.  I am satiated in way that most people only associate with those bright red, bloody steaks.  Later, after Amanda has used the leftover marrow to roast potatoes, I still can’t stop thinking about marrow.  But, now it’s more of an idea hanging in the air.  Perhaps it is because the smell lingers.  Even after scrubbing my hands with lavender soap my fingers still smell of beef tallow.  Like the smell of grease clinging skin, my brain clings to the symbol of marrow.  I mull over marrow.  It is mysterious in ways that I can’t quite grasp.  I look up the word marrow in the OED.  Aside from the literal biological definition of marrow, the word can also mean the innermost part of a person’s being.  Another less common usage for marrow is as a companion or even an accomplice.  If used as an adjective it can denote a resemblance to something of the same kind, and I think of how Amanda and I are the knit from the same foodie cloth.  When marrow is a verb, it means to join, and I think of the way the marrow fuses itself to the interior of the bone the same way that a meal brings people together.   In the mid 1600s there was also a trend to use the word marrow in titles of books.  That way the author could claim that his tome got at the very heart of the subject—that it dug into the deepest part of the issue.   Most of these were religious titles like The Marrow of the Oracles of God or The Marrow of Sacred Divinity.  In the end, I want to devour meaning just like the marrow.  I want to consume it, so somehow, it gets to my essence.  When eating marrow, there’s no forgetting that this animal I’m eating is like me with muscles and tendons and bones.  Perhaps I eat things that make me think about death because, then maybe, I can understand being alive.

*Note:  The recipe photographed and written about here is "Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad" from Fergus Henderson's The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating.
This recipe has also been reprinted all over the web and you can find it here, here, here, and here.  There is also a great Mark Bittman video clip with Henderson here.