Sunday, January 10, 2010

Murder in the Kitchen.....

My Uncle Bob from Portland sent me a big package full of family histories that I found on my desk this morning when I came in to do Sunday Brunch.

Uncle Bob is a retired Oregon Supreme Court judge and a 9th Circuit federal judge. Bob and I have had a cautious relationship for some time....as you can imagine a federal judge would have with a nephew who is clearly missing some important neurotransmitters..... and whose impulse control somehow gets lost in the wash.

Uncle Bob is six months younger than my Mom....and both of them are supposedly retired, but it is very difficult to tell how. Mom still teaches ESL three days a week, is a California Senior Senator, drives for Meals on Wheels three days a week, and runs the senior lunches at the Community Center in the Valley. Also she drives "old people' to their doctors appointments, and takes them to lunch. Uncle Bob still tried more than 60 cases last year....and is the kind of Oregon Republican who wrote the opinion that upheld the Oregon "Right to Die" law.....in the face of a conservative shit storm. I won't say how old they are....but it is very probable that the first movies they saw as kids were in black and white.....and silent.

Still, beyond the politics.....and being my Granpa's son (Gramps had an apron that said: "When It's Smokin' It's Cookin'.....When It's Black, It's Done.....) Uncle Bob has been a major culinary force in my life. At his house I saw my first Weber cooker when he took me in back in 1974. He grilled a filet of salmon over charcoal on the Weber for me one day....a fish dropped off by a local lawyer, fresh from the Willamette River that morning. It changed my life.....and is still one of my archetypal flavor memories.

Uncle Bob and I share one bigotry....we both hate cigarettes. His crazy, gifted writer sister smoked herself to death......Her last words to her mom: "Sorry, Mom.....I couldn't quit." My brother, another crazy gifted writer and editor...... also died of lung cancer. All his authors and editors smoked like chimneys at his wake

In Bob's package were some stuff about his career, some pages about my Grandpa's championship target shooting as a Customs agent (Bob and I are also both 2nd Amendment folk....in a civilized Oregon Republican kind of way.....), and an oral history of my grandmother's that was written by my dead aunt.

When I opened the package and picked up the hand-typed manuscript......the scent of nicotine and old ashtrays wafted up all through the kitchen around me. Aunt Bess. Long gone.....but here I am still breathing her air thirty-five years later. As I read her words.

It was an "Open Sesame" moment. Poof! "Sherman....set the wayback machine for 1921!"

My granny grew up on farms in Oregon.....first out by Ashland, then later in Beaverton near Portland. She lived almost to 100, so I knew her well enough to pick her brains forty years ago for recipes and techniques they used on the farm. Our confit of duck, the pork belly, the brined pork chops we serve every Monday....all Ashland recipes that turned out to be identical to country recipes I learned in France.

Even in Portland in 1921, my newly married Granny and Gramps lived in a house with no inside plumbing. When her Civil War cavalryman dad died, they used the settlement money to put in a septic tank, and there is a great passage about the joy with which they finally busted up the outhouse (and used the boards to pave the driveway). Gramps was unemployed except for gigs as a musician, so they raised chickens and sold eggs. The chicken house was only slightly better than the outhouse in terms of quality of life for newlyweds, and the money was crap.....so they came to the executive decision to fade from the egg business by having a roast chicken every Sunday.

Gramps was, relatively speaking, a city boy. By the time he managed to capture the chicken of the day, the shit was in the fan. Then holding it down and chopping off its head, while not chopping off his own hand....fully sucked. He was a dead shot, so finally he said "Screw it" and just shot the damn bird off its perch....then chopped off its head.

Does this sound like a book review so far? No?

Turns out that my friend Brian from Seattle was one of two people who actually sent me Christmas presents......books! A first "A Moveable Feast". A Toulouse Lautrec food poster book. Some nicely obscure fiction. And.....the "Alice B. Toklas Cookbook".

Brian is an artist....a jazz piano guy, as well as a subtly wonderful color photographer...so I appreciated the artistry of his gift....everything matched: culturally, historically, personally. This is one reason why I hate Christmas: it is really fucking hard to do it right!

It is possible that at one time or another Brian and I could have been called stoners....so I assumed that was the Toklas connection, plus the Hemingway/Gertrude Stein/1920's thing. Alice was "married" to Gertrude Stein, and they all lived in Paris in the 20's with Hemingway and Picasso, etc. And....everyone has heard of the "Alice B. Toklas Brownies".

Then I actually picked up the book and started reading. I started with Chapter 4: "Murder in the Kitchen". The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook is not exactly a cookbook. It is the wonderful, witty rambling rap about life and food that accidentally has some recipes. Murder in the Kitchen immediately starts with Alice, like Gramps, trying to murder a beast for dinner.

(And, of course....Alice, like Brian....is from Seattle. Well, by way of Oakland and SF).

Alice's narration had me on the ground, giggling. She writes recipes like I do.....recipes need context: cooking is way more than grams, liters and degrees. "I plunged the knife into the base of the carp's vertebral column. Horror of horrors! The carp was dead, killed, assassinated, murdered in the first, second and third degree. Limp, I fell into a chair and with bloody hands reached for a cigarette, lighted it and waited for the police. After a second cigarette my courage returned and I went to prepare poor Mr. Carp for the table......" The recipe for Carp Stuffed with Chestnuts follows.

Later she speaks of the smothering of squab (Braised Pigeon on Croutons), the murder of Babette, the duck, by the neighbor's sheepdog (Duck a l'Orange), etc. She discusses the crime novels of her friend Dashiel Hammet and his plot organization (the murders always take place before the novel opens) and weaves into the story the whole hypocrisy of diners being isolated from the bloody work of the chefs who serve them.

Then, for perspective: "Many times I held the thought to kill a stupid or obstinate cook.....but as long as the thought was held.....murder was not committed." She meets a genius Austrian chef whom she hires, and whose cooking she falls in love with. "He told us that he and Hitler had been born in the same village and that anyone in the village was like all the others and that they were all a little strange. This was 1936 and we already knew that Hitler was very strange indeed. Friedrich was not so much strange as weak: loving wine, women and song. But he continued to be a perfect cook...." Alice finishes the story of Friedrich's disastrous love life that took him away with a sweet elegaic recipe in his honor.

Alice does, of course, have the one controversial recipe: "Haschich Fudge (which anyone could whip up on a rainy day).

"This is the food of Paradise....of Baudelaire's Artificial Paradises: it might provide an entertaining refreshment for a Ladies' Bridge Club or a chaper meeting of the DAR. In Morocco it is thought to be good for warding off the common cold in damp weather and is, indeed, more effective if taken with large quantitities of hot mint tea. Euphoria and brilleiant storms of laughter; ecstatic reveries and extentions of one's personality on several simultaneous planes are to be complacently expected. Almost anything Sa. Theresa did....you can do better if you can bear to be ravished by "un evenouissement reveille."

The recipe follows. No chocolate involved. Think Stony Fruitcake. We are serving it tomorrow.

"Obtaining canibus may present certain difficulties, but the variety known as canibus sativa grows as a common weed, often unrecognized, everywhere in Europe, Asia and Africa. In the Americas, while often discouraged, its cousin, called canibus indica, has been observed even in city window boxes......."

My kind of recipe....and I don't even smoke pot......

A side effect of the nutty Nazi race doctrine was that pedigreed dogs got meat rations in Occupied France.....more meat than humans. Alice and Gertrude still gave all their meat rations (4 oz per week!) to their standard poodle. Alice learned to love crayfish and cultivated glorious gardens that she would dream about all winter.

Alice and Gertrude work as nurses in France in WWI, entertain Picasso, despise Hemingway, survive the Germans, welcome Patton, and recreate a lost world that it turns out is not so very lost after all. The book was strange for its time, because France was technically backward compared to Alice's America: no refrigeration or freezers...all the food was fresh and local. All of the interaction in obtaining ingredients involved dealing with crazy locals and crazy local culture...all of which was food for Alice's pen.
This is the first cookbook....and the first book of any kind....that I have actually run to my desk for a highlighter while reading:

"The French, like their Bourbon kings, learn nothing and they forget nothing."

"If it seems to soon for another glorious lunch, remember what the young man said: "If perfection is good, more perfection is better...."

"Like many first-rate women-cooks she had tired eyes and a wan smile......"

"To cook as the French do once must respect the quality and the flavour of the ingredients. Exaggeration is not admissable. Flavours are not all amalgamative. These qualities are not purchasable but may be cultivated....."

"What is sauce for the goose may be sauce for the gander....but is not necessarily the sauce for the chicken, the duck, the turkey or the guinea hen."

"The first gathering of the garden in May of salads, radishes and herbs made me feel like the mother about her baby.....how could anything so beautiful be mine?"

So.....what a great Sunday! Breathing the smoky aura from my Aunt Bess' story of my grandmother on one side of the desk, and Alice B. Toklas' wonderful book on the other side: two great ladies born more than 100 years ago and both of them still current, reachable, touchable......their ideals and values still vibrant and alive out here in Cachagua.

MFK Fisher.....another great California food writer of a certain age.....wrote about Alice in the intro to the uncensored Cookbook (the one with the has recipe) in 1984:

"I know now that the Alice B. Toklas' Cook Book would feed my sould abundantly if I could find no other nourishment, just as it would make me smile in the midst of sadness, and feel braver if I risked faltering."

It is a good book, as Alice said of something else: "abundantly satisfying....imagination being as lively as it is....."