When you grow up in a neighborhood as tiny as Brooklyn Heights, you tend to know every face, every house, here is the marble flagpole base where B. gouged out a pyramid chunk of forehead, here stood the liquor store on Montague (with a big sign that said LIQUOR) where, at age 11, you could pick up a bottle of Tangueray for your dad, and speaking of dads and liquor, here is where Mr. X and his friend enjoined 15 year-old you one hot summer night to show them again how you did cartwheels, and asked a third time, which is when you saw by the streetlight in front of the little park that the hot glaze in their eye was incited not only by the gin.
I make this all sound dastardly. It was not, it's my DNA, and Manny Howard's too. I don't even need to ask him if this statement is true, I know it is; it's every Heights' kid's from the era, mid-70s to 80s, when the neighborhood and indeed the city was ours. It also allows me to ask Manny, a helluva writer and the author of My Empire of Dirt: How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard into a Farm, for an essay for May's essay-a-thon, despite our not having seen each other in 30 years. The piece, which first appeared in Man with a Pan, is one of my favorite to run this month.
To secure the love of a beautiful woman, I once loaded a dead pig into the back of my late-model Chevy Blazer. I pressed my buddy Malachi into service, purchased four fronds from a banana tree, a yard of chicken wire and two yards of burlap. I liberated two-dozen granite cobblestones from behind the flimsy fencing of a municipal landscaping project and drove the Blazer one hundred miles east, straight out to sea and to the tip of Long Island. I had a promise to keep. It mattered little that I had only the vaguest notion about how to deliver on it.
Lisa and I met one night in the dead of winter. If her affection for her “summer house friends” wasn’t the first topic of conversation, it was the second. It became very clear very quickly that if I didn’t win their approval, Lisa and I were going to have a problem. This was going to be trouble if I fell hard for this hard-charging, beauty from Jackson, Mississippi.
Spring came quickly, summer too. A reckoning was upon us both. No stranger to the grand gesture, early one Wednesday morning, over coffee, I announced that the coming weekend I would prepare a special feast for her Summer House Friends. I would roast a whole pig.
The declaration had the desired effect. I received an email from Lisa shortly before lunchtime notifying me that the entire house had been made aware of my plan and were excited by the prospect of a roast pig for dinner on Saturday night. As an aside, Lisa inquired where I intended to roast this pig?
On the beach, of course, was my confident reply.
“Have you ever roasted a whole pig anywhere before?” asked Malachi, after I described the caper, a fever dream revealing itself to me as I spoke.
“How hard can it be?” my incredulous reply.
Malachi said that he thought that roasting a whole pig might be quite difficult, never mind enormously time consuming. “How about burgers?”
I explained that the whole point was to put the residents of the Summer House on their heels. Get them watching the pig. Take the focus off me. Everybody loves burgers, but this was too big a job for burgers. Lisa had told me that her friends were enormously curious about this new boyfriend named Manny. She said that more than one of the guys (protective of her in a brotherly sort of way, she preempted) had inquired after my lineage.
Malachi and I arrived on Friday evening; Lisa met us in the driveway and made the introductions. I barely retained a single name. To my surprise there were nearly two-dozen residents of The Summer House.The alarming numbers had nothing to do with my inability to engage socially, however. The pig was all I cared about. We needed to dig a deep pit in sand, as well as prepare a fire, and super-heat those granite bricks, all before breakfast the next day.
That night, with help from Lisa’s protective brotherly types we dug the pit. While the cobbles baked, Malachi and I stuffed the pig with papaya, jalapenos, limes, and various bright fruit. We wrapped the critter in banana fronds, sealed the leaves with soaked burlap, and encased the package in wire. Finally, we lowered the ungainly cocoon onto the granite bed and covered it with four feet of sand. Everything was going just the way I planned it.
I spent the intervening hours trying to learning everyone’s name and attempting to limit my beer intake. We unearthed the pig. It was hot and fully cooked, but it looked to my horror like an East River floater. The beast wasn’t roasted. I had steamed it in the sand. At best you could call it poached, but it was a wrinkly abomination. Not at all appetizing.
The assembled crowd had doubled in size but no one in it understood what had happened. They were all drinking, and they were getting hungry. We only had moments to make it right. The sun was setting and the women were rooting around in beach bags for sweaters and shawls.
Malachi delivered a clear-headed appraisal, “We’re fucked.”
Not yet, I thought. The meat might have been deathly ugly, but it was cooked. To make it tasty and appealing, we just needed to hack it up in into grill-sized hunks and caramelize it. I retreated in-land to buy as much charcoal as I could find in town. Malachi organized a surreptitious collection of kettle grills from neighboring decks. We finished off the pork on an assembly of flaming Taiko drums set at odd angles in the sand. Their orange glow was the only light to eat by.
This instinct for the culinary high-wire act has manifested itself regularly since Lisa and I married and started a family. I’ve shucked hundreds of oysters for a driveway crammed with parents in order to celebrate our daughter’s second birthday (and I’ve found numerous, similarly flimsy excuses to repeat the effort). I have tempted the fates by preparing paella for fifty, cooked outdoors on the grill. “This is the traditional way paella is prepared,” I boasted to any guest who dared approach their host, the dervish at the grill. Nobody needed to know I had never made the dish before.
I can trace the source of this unwieldy urge to overreach directly to my father, a trained chemist from England who worked here on the Mercury rocket mission for NASA. He made a mythical, breathtakingly spicy curry whenever he entertained at home. In fairness, though, my impulse for stunt cooking is a dangerous mutation of his much more benign intentions.
I can recall sitting cross-legged in my footy pajamas under my parents’ kitchen table, the bare bulb at the ceiling casting harsh light over the mayhem beyond the table’s unvarnished maple legs. Every time my father assembled his friends, he served a curry. I marveled at his ability to single-handedly prepare a massive pot of pungent curry while presiding over a riot of nineteen-seventies booze and dope-fueled, shaggy manliness. It was a meal I was encouraged to share, always with the same disastrous, and apparently hilarious results.
I know now that this vindaloo was less the orthodox sweet and sour stew, with its uniquely Goan amalgam of the Portuguese colonial influence married to the region’s countless culinary traditions, and more the Brick Lane pot of fire. But, like most things my father bothers doing, this curry was imbued with potent storybook origins. According to dad (though, mind you, he had me convinced that he was a Spitfire pilot during the War and I believed him right up to the moment that I could do enough math to suss that, when the conflict ended, he was not yet eight years-old), his vindaloo recipe came to our kitchen directly from a much grander one half a world away in India.
One evening long ago, while he was studying at Imperial College in London, dad succeeded, after many failed attempts, to convince a fellow post doc candidate to phone his mother at home in a wealthy suburb of Delhi. Dad wanted the recipe for a proper Indian vindaloo. They squeezed into a public phone box, and dad fed coins into the slot to keep the line open while his mate interrogated his mum. “And you know, old Johnny had never once been in the kitchen of his own house,” he’d remark with equal incredulity whenever he retold the story.
When mom and dad emigrated to America, dad carried his curry with him. In Brooklyn, he measured the single teaspoon of fenugreek, counted out four brown cardamom pods, husked two tablespoons of dried coriander seeds, measured ½ teaspoon of turmeric with masterful precision, brushing excess grains of the impossibly yellow powder from the spoon back into the plastic bag. Resealing it with a red, paper-covered wire twist tie, he’d return the bag to its place in the cupboard. This exactitude did not come at the cost of the mayhem, but despite it. And though much of dad’s work was done with a steadily emptying glass of Johnny Walker Red in one hand, his fidelity to that recipe, scribbled into a laboratory ledger and delivered over thousands of miles all those years ago, served as his keel. It drew dad and his posse: Peter, Richard, Mark, and their wives and girlfriends together as they free-poured drinks, cracked endless quarts of Rheingold, and fired up yet another joint. I sat, spellbound, uniquely privy to the secret rituals of grown-up joy.
Years later, bound for college and committed to the recreation of the social magic conjured by that vindaloo, I hectored dad for the recipe. By then, it had been at least a decade since dad had made a vindaloo. He and mom split when I was eleven, and adventurous, time-consuming, boozy curries had been replaced by dutiful dinners that sacrificed ambition on the altar of practicality. (The rotation was as follows: a consistently medium-rare roast top round rubbed with salt and diced garlic served with steamed broccoli and what was then, in the eighties, called wild rice, but came out of a cardboard box; a sautéed quartered chicken served between a large helping of Uncle Ben’s brand white rice and a tomato ragu and next to steamed green beans; spaghetti accompanied by a sauce of tomato and ground meat, seasoned primarily with bay—or on occasion fresh clam sauce with a side of steamed cauliflower). Dinner was served promptly at 7:30 every evening that my sister, Bevin and I spent at his apartment. We were latchkey kids, free to do whatever we wished until then, but attendance at dinner was an immutable rule.
He got no argument from us. The ritual was a balm; his studied resolve a legitimate anchor. Raising children takes determination, dedication and, most of all maybe, a keen sense of timing. If dinner had not been ready for the table as Bevin and I tumbled through the front door every evening, the delicate table fellowship he worked so hard to build would not have stood a chance.
What I could not know then was that dad was locked in what he believed to be a life and death battle with entropic collapse. His marriage had failed. He was not going let this calamity take his family too.
My birthright, that curry, my demand for its secret signaled the end of that battle for family coherence and the age of Family Dinner. When I asked him for the recipe, he balked at first, and insisted that he’d forgotten all about it. But I pressed and he succumbed, quietly pleased, I hope, by my plan to carry his vindaloo into the future. And, so, from memory, recited the recipe while I scratched it in black ink onto the unlined pages of a black composition notebook. And, in time, his vindaloo achieved minor celebrity status on my college campus.
With Family Dinner a thing of the past dad and I have occasionally teamed up for a cooking adventure. Easter was the occasion for one of our most desperate acts. In a moment of perverse revelry we conspired to cook a rabbit—“the Easter Bunny! Brilliant!”—we chortled as we drove to a live market in Sunset Park, one of the few places in the city a rabbit could be reliably had back before the dawn of all this culinary to-do. We used a cookbook as our guide, but we must have gone terribly off course along the way because the result was a soggy, pallid sop.
In stunt foodways success is always preferable, and an at-the-buzzer-save is a delight, but it is not a necessary outcome. Carrying the plastic shopping bag with our still-hot, skinned rabbit across the street from the urban slaughterhouse to the car was its own discreet victory. While Easter supper lay in ruins on the plates before us we were, of course, horrified, confounded by the unpalatable pulp, but the yucks and sniggers that dish has generated in the decades since puts stewed Easter Bunny solidly in the win column. Effort is its own reward.
The time for Family Dinner has come for Lisa, the kids, and me. But I have not given up on stunt cookery. I spend a portion of each day dreaming up the evening’s meal. Gathering the ingredients as I charge home from work, I arrive home and plunk the groceries on that same maple kitchen table of my youth. I fire up the stove. The patter of public radio news is the only companion I can abide. There are onions to dice and wilt, wine to reduce, greens to blanche, and marginal meat to braise. Each evening I set out fully intending to make every Family Dinner an adventure. And just about every evening I fail.
My daughter, always an unwilling participant, refuses to eat anything that isn’t whiter than she is. My son is as eager to please as I once was, and just as sensitive to some of the more outlandish ingredients and preparations. Lisa is appreciative, but she has her limits. This never ends well, she reminds me, and it’s just dinner.
It doesn’t help that I have no operative sense of myself in time. Often, dinner, in all its inventive glory, is served late. The kids are exhausted. And, because of my repeated, unrealistic insistence that unlike its predecessors this meal is will be on time, Lisa has been forced to feed the kids stopgap cheese and crackers. They are usually not the least bit hungry.
Lisa shuttles them off to bed. There is no fellowship at my table and the only adventure is cooling in the kitchen. When I reported these misadventures and my frustration back to dad, he’d grin widely and clap his hands together enthusiastically, just twice, then grip them firmly. “That’s very, very funny E-boy,” he’d pronounce enthusiastically.
Recently dad was taken grievously ill. The ferocious disease has visited numerous indignities upon him. Cruelest among these, though, is that it has robbed him of both clear speech and appetite. And so, while puzzling over what I can feed Dad that will nourish him and deliver him even the most fleeting enjoyment, I am more convinced of dinner’s dual purpose; and yes, suddenly painfully aware that a man has only so many dinners in front of him.
He has no interest in the blandest of food now. My response, more a reflex, may prove to be stunt cookery’s finest hour, or its undoing. I reach for that now-battered black composition book—a return to origins, of a sort. There, his curry recipes, scratched onto its rotting, sauce-streaked pages in the ambitious if impatient scrawl of a devoted, much younger son, are now crowded in among other recipes that I have collected along the way. I set the book open on the counter and place four yellow onions on the cutting board: garlic, two to three cloves, chopped rough; garam masala, three tablespoons; turmeric, one tablespoon; green cardamom pods, one tablespoon; celery seeds one tablespoon; red chilies, one-half to one tablespoon (to taste). I conjure a curry and deliver it to him sitting on the couch in the apartment I grew up in. It proves strong medicine, our curry, and for a time it rekindles in him what burns in us both.