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.

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