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Archive for the ‘Creative Non-Fiction’ Category

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(Part 2, continued from preceding post)

No reason, really – why I should have been repulsed by that little scene on the table. The Chef was married but then so was the Sous Chef. Inequalities of power happen all the time. The Chef was gorgeous in an older woman sort of way – the thought did creep into my mind momentarily of her three children but then again it was said that hers was an open marriage. The Sous Chef was much younger than her and biddable. That’s exactly why he was Sous Chef. His wife was the ugliest woman I’d ever laid eyes on in my life. Still is, if I remember right. Why, I can’t explain. It was nothing precise or explainable. She was just plain scary-looking. Ugly. But the fact remains that watching the Executive Chef lean back onto the table laughing with her mouth in a wide open grimace, her legs grasping the chunky chested Sous Chef who was also rather grinning in a frightened sort of way – was repulsive.

It had almost been the last straw. I’d almost quit the job.

The ingredients that went into this recipe of being a professional cook in a restaurant kitchen were so different than I’d expected. I’d thought “Oh! I love to cook!” “Oh! I can do that job!” “Oh! I want to work in a restaurant!” and so, I’d applied for the job and regardless of the fact that I’d never cooked professionally, won the job after a horrendous first day where I thought I’d surely die from exhaustion, where I’d gone and laid down a little kitchen towel on the floor of the dirty white-trash-looking staff bathroom, far in the corner of the worst-lit longest corridor, and I’d laid there curled up for ten minutes to gather the strength to go back and do the job. Lifting fifty pound mixing bowls over my five-foot-two shoulder to pour batter into the prepared ten cakepans in a sweltering kitchen had not been my forte at any time before that day, and it was a bit of a mouthful to bite on.

I’d almost quit, but there was a triangle in the kitchen that I’d either walk out on or break out of victorious. And I was just angry enough to want to emerge victorious.

The triangle consisted of the Chef on one side. The line cooks, Roger and Frank, on the other side. And little Colette the French waitress who somehow had ended up in this eccentric place called Connecticut who ooh’d and ahh’d over the new offerings on the pastry cart (“I am glad someone knows how to BAKE” she would announce in tight short tones. “It has been HORRIBLE“) along with the Salvadoran busboys, who detested the line cooks and who loved cakes and pastries and taking a side wherever a side was to be found. I didn’t want to walk out on Colette and the Salvadoran busboys.

Roger turned up the volume on the radio set tuned to the hard-metal station to a screeching blast that day when he saw me walk in, and started to bob his head like a sick old duck in time to the bass notes. Frank pouted. I walked to the pastry station and right there on the spot where the Chef’s behind had been sitting several days before, I threw down upon that spot my weapon, and got ready to begin the attack.

My weapon was sweet.

My weapon was brilliant.

My weapon was a book.

The name of my weapon was ‘Lenotre’s Desserts and Pastries‘.

(To be continued . . .Part Three Lenotres Cakes)

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Some people remember the past through things they ate. Memory, place, time, flavor, people . . . all become woven together into a fabric not to be unravelled.

Just as when in those moments a piece of music will insinuate through melody an entirely different time layered upon the present in a sudden spark that floods the current reality with meanings imbued from the past . . . and those meanings are every bit as real in the ‘now’ as when they first were formed . . .

Not that memory is not a questionable thing. It is. But some memories are less fractured than others – one can only hope that the retrospective glance is not looking through the prism of the past less clearly but more clearly, with the focused light of objectivity found through years passed – something not be attained by banging at it, but nonetheless sometimes to be found seredipitously.

I remember the past not so much from things I ate, but more from things I cooked.

……………………………………………………………………………..

The kitchen was hot that day. It often was, if you happened to arrive in the afternoon for work rather than in the early morning before the ovens and stoves and grill and fryolator and steamer all were operating at a pace similar to an animated Disney movie – at times almost ridiculously fast, almost out of control.

I could go in to work at whatever time pleased me, as the Pastry Chef.

At this upscale suburban Connecticut restaurant dropped as if with a bucket of hope from the sky into the center of a large black concrete parking lot with many yellow lines painted for the many anticipated diners-to-be, the pastries were ‘important’ but not all that important. Pastries and desserts weren’t important to the Executive Chef  – as the reputation of the place was to be focused on the food – not on the pastry. Pastries and desserts weren’t important to the owner of the restaurant because the Executive Chef had been bought at a dear price, and had to be coddled. Pastries and desserts weren’t important to the waiters and waitresses because in all the time past, they had not been stand-outs as part of the meal but merely follow-ups. In other words, there was no good tip money involved with the idea of dessert since the desserts themselves here in times past had not been worth the effort of  putting on a song and dance in order to up-sell.

The guys behind the line did their usual little dismissive dance when I walked into the kitchen. Roger’s prematurely almost-bald head flicked sideways away from his saute-pans for the briefest moment, the steam on his gold wire-rimmed glasses blending with the sweat on his forehead – the forehead behind which was a brain with an investment of some tens of thousands of dollars in the form of a Master’s Degree in Philosophy which had never been used in the form of a job (and which it seemed to me was not used in daily life either, if his attitude and behavior bore witness to what was inside his mind). His soft shoulders angled forwards and backwards in an I-dare-you shimmy, ever so slight while his legs inched slightly more apart, edging his crotch forwards toward the stove as if he were going to fuck it – as if he could fuck it if he just wanted to – which of course as we all know, no girl could ever do.

Frank was more abrupt. He could be, since he was a CIA grad. Slamming the oven doors closed and slapping a towel on the line, he sneered slightly in my direction with a cross between amusement and derision, and moved even faster than he had been before, his beard and moustache and his simple huge-ness of stature giving him the air of a strong but somewhat out-of-place furry black bear. He watched, bluntly, as I walked over to the ‘pastry station’ – the stainless steel table in the center of the kitchen where he’d piled anything extra he could not easily find any other space to put so that I’d have to move it all while feeling his gaze upon me the entire time, his eyes slowly chewing me up, same as they had been each day I’d walked into that kitchen – which at the time was for all of three long weeks.

As I lifted the piles of sheetpans, shifting them onto the racks where they belonged, a vision rose of a scene I’d walked in on at closing time the previous week – the Exec Chef was sitting there right in the middle of my nice clean stainless-steel assigned pastry-making table, pulling the sous-chef towards her then wrapping her legs around his chest as he slightly-squirmed, slightly-enjoyed it. She was drunk.

Better moving piles of sheetpans than having to see that again, I thought.

You have to wonder why one would even want to continue making pastry on that table.

But then Gaston Lenotre entered the scene.

(to be continued – part two Entre Lenotre)

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(This is Part 5 of 5, of ‘The Way of Three Mothers at Christmas‘)
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My other two mothers, the ones whose stories have been told, were Rida and Ada. Naturally, following my rather far-fetched reasoning process, these names came from the Magi.

the Armenians have Kagpha, Badadakharida and Badadilma

Rida from Badadakharida; Ada from Badadilma.

I’ve saved the name Kagpha for my ‘real’ mother. It suits her well.

As Christmas approached each year, Kagpha grew slightly more frozen than usual. Thanksgiving was a task managed, but then Christmas arrived so quickly.

The important things about Christmas to Kagpha were that it not be celebrated as a religious holiday (for she did not like churches) and that there be a tree – one that was not real (too messy) – and that it be covered with ornaments that were artistic and ‘different’.

She mostly looked forward to the holiday as a time when there would be the chance to travel home, or to where home was as a child – where her brother and his wife and children lived. This took all pressure off the holiday, for her brother’s wife was (as she noted with a certain tone in her voice) a ‘housewife’. This meant that Kagpha would be able to sit on the couch in her more and more frozen-like state, as the activity went on around her, without her participation.

Kagpha may have suffered from depression. Or, it may also have been what her brother claimed: That she was simply a deeply selfish person.

Things got worse than mere frozen-ness, as Christmas came along over the years. Instead of frozen-ness Kagpha had a sense of airy-ness – as if she simply wasn’t there. Then there was a switch, and Christmas-time became a time to celebrate the season as a Wiccan. My mother had decided she was a witch.

She gathered women around her for pagan lunches and dinners, and flaunted jewelry with bold symbols hung over her black dresses that would make those who practiced more traditional religions cringe with fear and distaste. Her anger grew outward.

But these times passed, and being a witch turned out to be not all it was chalked up to be, for Kagpha. The pagan celebrations were discarded, and in their place was nothing.

The last Christmas I remember with Kagpha, she said she did not want to cook. She did not want to buy presents. She did not want to do anything, she said – but the undertones in her voice belied the words.

So I made a dinner. A ham, some vegetables – fresh and good. Two desserts. And I brought it to Kagpha and hoped it would make her happy.

It did, but then there was the ham bone to deal with. The ham bone. Kagpha wanted to know if I wanted the ham bone. Why, yes – I said. I’ll take it home with me next time I see you, if that’s okay. I don’t really feel like carrying a ham bone home right now. Could you stick it in the freezer?

Kagpha’s freezer was empty but for two packages of Stouffer’s Welsh Rarebit, so I thought that would be okay.

But the ham bone was not to be forgotten. The ham bone was in her freezer, and it bothered her. The phone calls started coming every few days, then every day, then several times a day.

When are you coming to get the ham bone? Kagpha would ask. The ham bone is in my freezer! she would say, with hints of anger at the edges of her voice. How long do you expect me to keep this here???!!! she would close-to-shriek, over the telephone – the telephone which I now feared to answer.

Gathering my courage to face Kagpha, my mother, my only real mother – I called her. Please throw it away, I said. I don’t want it. Thanks, for the freezer space.

Christmas. It had come down to a ham bone which had somehow transformed into a scapegoat, for Kagpha.

Kagpha’s gift offered was the chance to develop empathy. There is often someone around who may need it.
………………………………………………………………………………

Each mother has a Christmas food associated with her. Rida: Sausage Bread. Ada: A dish of rich delicious bitter greens with garlic. Kagpha: Well – nothing will ever erase that ham bone from my memory, that is certain.

I’ve had three mothers at Christmas. I’ve been lucky in that way.

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(This is Part 4 of ‘The Way of Three Mothers at Christmas’)
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Ada had been cooking food for tables filled with people for as long as she could remember. That memory extended back to the small farm in Italy that was said goodbye to while still a child, to emigrate to America.

With six children now grown, Ada looked forward to each Christmas as a time to gather them all back together around in the home they had grown up in – the four brothers in one bedroom, the two sisters in another.

Christmas dinner was somewhat larger than her usual meals. Two or three kinds of meat, a baked pasta, three or four vegetable dishes – but there was no set or insisted-upon format. It was the food she cooked each day, just gathered together in a larger way. The china was not decorated with a Christmas theme,  but the tablecloth was old, linen, and full of memories. It was difficult for everyone to fit around the table, scrunched together on the bench lining one side of the long table, yet they did somehow, often taking turns – one slipping in here or there, another wandering into the kitchen to nibble and talk at the smaller  table there piled with food and spoons and newspapers and clutter.

It was comfortable at Ada’s Christmas dinner. People talked and ate and drank, and they even yelled sometimes to get themselves heard over the others. Laughter rang out and conversation flew as if it were the surrounding air itself. There were angers and resentments in this family, deep ones – but they could wait till later. Right now, they were simply suspended.

Ada, for once, sat down.

Ada never sat down when people were eating. It seemed an impossibility, against the laws of nature. As Mother, she swooped around and fussed and fed and questioned and demanded. But at Christmas she sat down, and it was like a small miracle happening right before one’s eyes,  blinked at in momentary disbelief.

Dinner was the thing on this day. The wrapped Christmas presents were few, small, desultory. And the dinner was all about the table, where everyone would gather.

The same stories were told year after year. Ada held pride of place with the story of her family coming to America on a big boat all together, and of  how soon all of them were working at menial jobs, all seven brothers and sisters – to send the oldest son to college. Then of how when this revered eldest brother  graduated with the degree bought by his siblings labors – he had disappeared from the family without a how-do-ye-do, without the promise of return of favors in any way at all.

And this was true. He had done this. And as he lived far apart from his family, wealthy and well-positioned, his no-longer-young sister remembered him. “It was America”, she would announce, “America”.

“It breaks the family. This never would have happened in Italy!” and everyone would listen and try to understand something for which there really was no understanding.

Ada chose to put the blame on the place, rather than on the person. Was there an answer? All we knew was that this man who was not here was missing out on something – and we looked at Ada’s son whom she had given her brother’s name. And we held it all in our hearts.

Another story of a Christmas long ago, when all six children were school-age was told – sometimes by Ada, more often by one of her children.

Ada had suddenly decided that this year, they would go to Mass on Christmas. Often they didn’t. Time was always short, things were always running late. The family never seemed to make it anywhere on time. Remembering this brought peals of laughter from most of the table.

On this year now long past, they would go to Mass, and not only would they go, Ada decided, they would go in style. People would see what this family was all about!

Ada bought fabric and made space for her sewing machine between the children’s schoolwork and the spoons and the newspapers on the table. And she cut and sewed for some number of days.

On Christmas morning, she insisted everyone be up early. Calling them downstairs, she held out a stack of black bundles. “Here”, she said. And each of the six children, from the littlest four-year old to the eldest fifteen-year old, was given a bundle. “Put these on, quick! And we’ll go.”

Some of her children were mortified. Some of her children were thrilled. What they had to wear to Mass that day, each boy and girl, were six matching black capes and six matching black berets.

Where had that idea entered her head?

The story of Madeleine perhaps? Where children wore capes . . . and where

In an old house in Paris that was covered in vines

Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines

In two straight lines they broke their bread

Brushed their teeth

And went to bed

The capes and berets did not bring the children into two straight lines. They remained, as Ada would say (with a look of wonder and sheer motherly pride): “Like spokes on a wheel – all different, each one going a different way.”

My mother Ada’s Christmas gift was not the food. It was not piles of shiny wrapped presents.

Her gift was of a table baited with food, leading those captured right to the brink of some stories, the sort of stories that can (and that must, at times) sustain us.

(To read the final installation of ‘The Way of Three Mothers at Christmas’ click here)

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(This is Part 3 of ‘The Way of Three Mothers at Christmas’)

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Christmas was no joke to Rida.

What it was, was a hell of a lot of work.

It all began shortly before Thanksgiving and then progressed, as if drawn out on a blueprint.

At least the menu didn’t need planning. The menu for Christmas dinner was set in stone. Rida’s family were accustomed to certain things, and they expected these things to be the same each year.

A few times over the years Rida had tried new recipes, wanting to show a bit of creativity.

As she diced and chopped and stirred she imagined all the faces around the dinner table at Christmas. They would all break into wide smiles of enjoyment and the chatter of discussion would rise merrily about the new dish, as it was passed from hand to hand. The voices were filled with admiration.

When she did try some of these new foods, the grumblings and displeased faces that rose instead of what she had imagined shocked her slightly. But Rida was not by any means a drama queen. She just nodded, with a slightly guilty air. She said “Oh. Okay. I won’t make it again” and the offending New Recipe was moved quietly over to the sideboard, to be discarded at the end of the meal, with a bit of a longing glance from Rida as it went into the kitchen trash bin.

It was Christmas, after all. Her family deserved to be happy.

But still, she thought – there might be something she could make to add to the Christmas dinner table that would spark life into the dinner. It was a good dinner as it was, but always the same.

It never seemed as if everyone were completely comfortable, but this was Christmas dinner. Somebody was usually angry at someone else for some minor reason, and the food did not make this disappear – as much as Rida would have loved it to do so.

The new recipes tried now and then became smaller, more self-effacing. Instead of the extra main course, a vegetable side. Instead of a vegetable side, a relish. Instead of a relish . . . instead of a relish. Nothing, really – instead of a relish.

At other times of the year, the table that would hold the Christmas dinner was just a deserted table, unused, sitting in a room nobody ever entered. The rarely used good linens were stored in the chest, the decorative china received as wedding gifts firmly stuck behind the glass windows on shelves – that sometimes needed dusting – in the big solid piece of matching furniture which sat firmly on the other side of the room.

The view from the window was so pretty in this room. When it snowed, the panorama was just like a painting.

It was perfect.

But the table during the days before Christmas became a workhorse.

The day immediately after Thanksgiving, it sprouted a life of its own. Rolls of wrapping paper, tape, and ribbons grew in neat piles upon it. Boxes and piles of gifts for her family were laid at the other end, and the serious endeavor of preparing dozens of gifts (or maybe hundreds? it seemed there were hundreds of gifts under the tree on Christmas – the unwrapping took all day long) began. The gifts were destined to be stacked into huge piles of colored shiny exuberance under the lit tree in the front room that close-to-hit the ceiling.

The wrapping and be-ribboning and labeling started in between many trips to the mall to buy the gifts, the army of gifts the table held close – all tucked away in the room that nobody went into, till their holiday dinner had begun.

Rida moved quickly at these tasks, for though she was a homemaker, a housewife – without a job or profession in the outside world – her usual tasks remained to be done. The house had to be cleaned and dusted each day. The clothes laundered – her husband’s shirts starched just so, with heavy starch crisply formalizing the edges of cuff and collar into impermeable immovable stiffness.

Dinner had to be on the table (the kitchen table) at 6:30 each evening. Her husband would become upset if it was not. He expected his dinner at 6:30.

And the usual taking-care of the house, little things . . . like making sure nobody ran out of batteries or toothpaste – that had to be kept up with. “Buy two – always have backup” was the rule set by Rida’s husband, for nothing should ever run out . . . and Rida still went to Mass at least twice a week – for that was where God lived. He lived in the church, with the priest named ‘Father’.

Christmas expanded outwards from the workhorse table during the second week of December. It spilled out onto Rida’s kitchen table. The cards draped themselves together, falling sideways, entangled with stamps and envelopes and pens, handwritten notes to be done on each singular one, then the whole to be neatened up and hidden away before dinner preparations were started.

Somehow it all marched forward in an orderly and calm fashion. Everything got done.

Christmas came but once a year.

And at the end of it all, Rida had once more given her family a Christmas to remember.

Her gifts were apparent to all. A perfect Christmas, just as everyone expected!

There was an extra gift hidden within this perfect Christmas. Two gifts, really.

One was the gift to her children and husband.  They knew they could rely on her completely.

The other gift, more hidden in the recesses of things, tucked into the corners of wrapping paper and ribbons, peas and ham – under postage stamps and licked onto the glued flaps of envelopes – was a gift to anyone who wanted to recognize it. It was something to be considered, held, and mulled over – wondering if it was an example to be followed. Or not.

It was the not-small gift of selfless devotion.

That was one Mother’s Christmas, balanced ever-so-discreetly on the head of a pin . . . along with who knows how many angels.

(To read further click on Part Four here)

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(This is Part Two of ‘The Way of Three Mothers at Christmas’)

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The word Magi is a Latinization of the plural of the Greek word magos (μαγος pl. μαγοι), itself from Old Persian maguŝ from the Avestan moγu. The term is a specific occupational title referring to the priestly caste of Zoroastrianism. As part of their religion, these priests paid particular attention to the stars, and gained an international reputation for astrology, which was at that time a highly regarded science. Their religious practices and use of astrological sciences caused derivatives of the term Magi to be applied to the occult in general and led to the English term magic.*

Magic does exist. It exists at the edges of things, in curved angles and tiny corners.

You can see it in a fleeting spark and remember it for years.

I have to give my three mothers new names. Three mothers, three Magi.

In the Eastern church a variety of different names are given for the three, but in the West the names have been settled since the 8th century as Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. These derive from an early 6th century Greek manuscript in Alexandria.[2] The Latin text Collectanea et Flores[3] continues the tradition of three kings and their names and gives additional details. This text is said to be from the 8th century, of Irish origin.

In the Eastern churches, Ethiopian Christianity, for instance, has Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater, while the Armenians have Kagpha, Badadakharida and Badadilma.[4][5] One of these names is obviously Persian, although Caspar is also sometimes given as Gaspar or Jasper. One candidate for the origin of the name Caspar appears in the Acts of Thomas as Gondophares (AD 21 – c.AD 47), i.e., Gudapharasa (from which ‘Caspar’ might derive as corruption of ‘Gaspar’). This Gondophares declared independence from the Arsacids to become the first Indo-Parthian king and who was allegedly visited by Thomas the Apostle. Christian legend may have chosen Gondofarr simply because he was an eastern king living in the right time period.

In contrast, the Syrian Christians name the Magi Larvandad, Gushnasaph, and Hormisdas. These names have a far greater likelihood of being originally Persian, though that does not, of course, guarantee their authenticity.*

Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar. Hor (no), Karsudan (no – reminds me of the Kardashians), Basanter. Kagpha (dramatic!), Badadakharida (musical), Badadilma. Larvandad, Gusnasaph, Hormisdas.

That’s a lot to work with.

Which would you choose, for three new names for three mothers at Christmas, if you had to choose?

Names are important. This needs to be thought out.

(*Source: Wikipedia)

(To read further click on Part Three here)

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I’ve had three mothers at Christmas, in my life.

Like the Three Wise Men, each mother had a different precious gift they carried along to offer. These gifts were not for a child as invested in hope and wonder as the one we think of as being born on Christmas Eve. The gifts they offered were for their own children – imperfect though those children may have been in actuality or in promise.

One mother was my own. One was the mother of the first man I married. And one was the mother of the second man I took a chance on marrying.

Yet they were my mothers, too.

I was lucky in that way.

I’ll tell you about their gifts, the gifts each one offered for this season. Each one was so very different.

This will be a Christmas story. Of some sort.
I wonder if any of you will recognize yourself (or your own mother) in my three mothers.

(To read further, click on Part Two here)

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