A friend of mine died, and the dinner I cooked a few nights later was absolute crap.
I should have been able to cook that dinner in my sleep: cauliflower cheese on a bed of lettuce, diced potatoes baked with bay leaves and rosemary, boiled asparagus and lemon. But every single thing came out bad. The cauliflower cheese burned on top, and the sauce thinned out unpleasantly. The potatoes tasted mushy and bland. I overcooked the asparagus.
If anything needed to convince me that cooking is an expression of how you feel in yourself and your body, of how solidly you’re linked to the earth and to your own deepest needs and desires, that did it.
My body was involved in a private howl of grief. It didn’t have any interest in reaching outward. It was distracted, in the most basic of ways.
More than distracted, it was afraid. In grief, I’ve found, there is also the terrible knowledge that you, too, are encased in a body, and that your body will die, too. And that terror, more than anything else, keeps us from enjoying the world. It keeps us from connecting with us.
I wonder, are we the only species that is so terrified of death that we would like to die to avoid the anxiety it causes?
Anyway, in cooking, I could see my body running away from the basic facts of my life, because those basic facts killed my friend, and then would kill me. So I didn’t enjoy cooking. I didn’t enjoy eating. All the connections in the circuitry went awry. For that moment, I didn’t want to be who I was. I wanted to be a plant, or a dog, or an angel–anything but a human eating and enjoying life.
And I think that is the way things are. I don’t think you can change that. But I think you look it in the eye, and you give yourself and your body a break (“give yourself a discount,” as I can hear my friend Rudy say), and you wake up every day feeling a little differently about it, going back and forth, one bad day, one a little better, one worse, one inexplicably happy…the usual process of healing after any kind of a wound. Then you notice you’ve come back to yourself and to the world and to life, and you figure that you’re damn lucky to have the time you do have…and you were lucky to have the time you had with your friend.
That happened, too.
So I’ll give you a recipe I made for him when he was alive.
He was a most confirmed man-about-town, and there was never much to speak of in the way of edibles in his tiny, utterly chaotic kitchen. Dining out, you see–a way of life. And Alex and I would always stay with him when we were in London, and he would always dine out with us.
But when I travel, after awhile I get utterly sick of dining out. Especially when I’m dining out in indifferent places, known more for their decor and clientele than for the love they put into their food. So one night, I just balked.
“I’ll cook us something to eat in front of the telly, so we don’t have to go out. Whatever you’ve got in the kitchen, I’ll conjure something up.”
My friend looked at me, appalled. “There IS nothing in that kitchen!”
“Hmmm,” I said. “Well, we’ll see.”
I settled him and Alex down with a couple of beers and went to forage.
As I recall, I didn’t make anything particularly noteworthy that evening, but I did manage to keep us all from starvation, based on some dusty boxes of exotic dried pasta someone had given him, a gift bottle of expensive olive oil presented by his favorite Italian restaurant, a couple of packets of macadamia nuts, and — surprise! — the herbs I found growing ornamentally in his garden (“didn’t even know they were there, let alone edible!” he said).
The next time we came to stay, and I opened the refrigerator to get a bottle of white wine, there they were.
I went into the living room. “Ahem,” I said. My friend pretended not to hear.
“Why are there four eggplant in your refrigerator? And, might I add, a head of garlic sitting on the counter?”
“I LOVE eggplant! I eat it ALL the time!”
I grinned at that. The vision of my friend, nattily attired, cooking himself up an eggplant for supper. But I got the message. And went out shopping for a few other things to go with.
That night, among other dishes, we had eggplant caviar.
Prick however many eggplants you have with a fork so they don’t explode while they cook. Put them on a foil lined cookie sheet in a 400 degree oven until they’ve softened and crumpled–probably about 30 to 45 minutes; it won’t matter much if they overcook a little, but you don’t want to undercook them.
When they’re done, bring them out and let them cool a little. Just enough so you can handle them without burning yourself. They taste better if they soak up the fixings while they’re still warm.
If you want, you can make a dressing in a bowl while you wait. Either that, or you can just add all these disparate ingredients, one by one, to the eggplant when you’ve chopped it up, and taste for seasoning. I do it either way, depending on how I feel.
I think that night I probably split the eggplant in half, scooped and scraped the pulp out into a bowl, mashed it about, splashed olive oil in to moisten it. Then I added minced garlic, some chopped capers I’d found in the back of the cupboard, the squeezings of a lemon I’d bought from the newsagent around the corner, some Maldon salt to taste. And then lots and lots of chopped parsley and mint I found growing on the flower bed borders in the garden.
We had this with warmed up pita bread, also bought at the newsagent, as I recall.
It was a very jolly evening indeed. It makes me sad and happy to think about, both at the same time.