art and writing about food
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Dessert Party (one, two, three) by Peter Rausse
The mouth is a door the world falls into.
No word for the mess it trumpets you into.
In your stomach, an apple settles stone-heavy, then leaves you hollow.
Love’s like that: the bed you make, then fall right back into.
Secret room in the food pyramid: ethylene, gasoline, malathion, wax.
Chlorpyrifos, antimicrobials, herbicides, dyes, perfumes, rat poison, too.
Some say a wolf will devour the pups of the alpha. Some say the alpha’s a myth. There’s my
little brother, swallowing his own tooth, shattering his fist on the father he wouldn’t turn into.
Secret room in the food pyramid: MDMA, his spit, your own cum on his chin.
Driving full-tilt on a golf cart, mouth open, your lungs a second stomach the air sucks into.
Your favorite myth: Acteon racing, his hounds hunting him down through the woods.
And Diana, naked in the bath, not even watching the stag she turned him into.
Locusts eat everything, whole valleys in weeks. Mouthless cicadas fuck desperate, dumb, and starving.
Some nights, you’re locust. Some, a seventeen-year hunger, then the screaming day you wake into.
Secret room in the food pyramid: orange Flintstones vitamins, toothpaste, tiny spring of blood
beside your fingernail, cadmium yellow and paint thinner, his scent hovering the room you just walked into
Health is the balancing act between pleasure and what will kill you.
Some say a door. Some say a wolf. You’re just standing in the kitchen, biting an apple in two.
His shoulder, a stone godfruit. The dirt there, a veil of iron. You heard
the knocking. Then an opening, a keyhole, a canyon filling, gonging euphoria into.
The salt's drowned my taste buds so everything taste like death. Salt intensified to the point of bitterness, everything flattened and Uyuni-barren, but not sterile; not white, table salt — salt pungent like the waters it came from, frothing gray, tinged with marine life and trash.
At the table next to us they're playing at eating crabs, and banana leaves hiss open to reveal whole pargo or tilapia, some kind of mute expressiveness in those eyes that taste of anchovies and those brains like savory puree; terror and a willingness to be eaten. In front of me lands a plate of seared prawns, and before Karla ceviche de concha, black and opaque like a bowl of pure tattoo ink. Then rice; then patacones, aji and encebollado and all of it, I know, delicious by force, covered in that seasoning-which-is-not-a-seasoning, the ajinomoto which they use on everything here — but still I can feel nothing, my sense of taste and scent smothered in that lingering imprint of dirty ocean and salt.
Drowning, almost drowning, that is, was not, as you imagine it, a constriction of the lungs; a tightness, the desperate lack of air. The main impression was that of helplessly gorging myself. Fistfuls of saltwater down the throat; being forcefed saltwater; salt streams opening wide like hands forcing themselves in. Sheer quantities of a cold broth that flooded in and out of me. No desperation for an intake; no lack of anything — just this excess.
The crabs sit morosely in broth yellow to their red and wait patiently as fat women go through the elaborate procedure of taking them apart like puzzle-boxes. Panels are slid; compartments are pried open, delicate lungs like tiny black coral formations are removed with surgical precision and, every once in a while, a tiny shred of edible flesh appears and the eaters rush to slurp it up greedily, sucking at empty legs and pieces of shell like people starving, each morsel serving only to torture them further.,
Earlier today, a child swimming in a pool of trash. At high tide the sea spilled over the dykes and into a vacant lot people use like an improvised landfill and made a black pond which, every time another surge surpassed the dykes and crashed into it, sloshed with miniature waves of its own like an amusement park pool. And there he played, bobbing happily among the fish-heads and the diapers.
Then an afternoon leveled. Heat, drugs, and that curious after-sea exhaustion that injects everyone with a free indifference. No one wants to be touched, no one wants to talk; just to note the sea wind and the remnants of sun and whatever other environmental perceptions they can gather, to note them pleasurably and indifferently, and to drink their beer and sink into the pointlessness of coastal life.
Karla sat on the beach in the evening light, meters away from me. Her legs faded seamlessly into the wet sand like she had just molded herself from it there and then, and around her thighs a sheaf of water less than an inch deep eroded her away.
A bouquet of insectile legs crackles against my soft palette; from how easy it is to eat the shell I can tell it's well cooked even though it tastes like death. Like the element of sea in seafood isolated, the pungency of ocean common to all seafood but without any of the animal or components, and from out of that foam, some shadow of the prawns' taste outlines itself. I realize it's not my mouth at all — it's my nostrils and windpipe that have been scoured, and things taste different because the smell of sea is coming from inside.
Marijuanon these beaches is like an insect-light that becomes swarmed with moths instants after you turn it on. Light up within a hundred meters of the water and suddenly all the street dwellers and thieves in town want to be your friend. There's never enough drugs and they have their own things to barter — freshly caught fish, safety from all the other kinds of attention you might draw; a driver to take you out to the private islands that rich people leave abandoned half the year.
When my head hit the rim of the boat I felt clearly how it ruptured and all the saltwater flooded in. Of course, it had not. As I crashed into the water I had time to remember Fernando Ortiz, my grandparents' friend who had died exactly like this — then my body instinctively tried to take its first breath. Twisting in the water, I swallowed convulsively.
On the table the ají Manaba glows, evil in its jar, each preparation different but this one the unnatural purple of imitation wine beverages. Inside, cascades of pickled things with the sense of dark mystery which those algal forests of unknown fleshy components alway imparts. Chiles, red onions, cherry tomatoes and yellow uvilla; carrots and radishes and the beets that give the vinegar its coloration. I take it, and spoon it into my mouth like it was soup. A ray of vinegar pierces through the blanket of mineral bitterness, and my pain receptors, unaffected by what has dampened the flavours, register the burn of the aji seeds soaked into the mixture. I press a piece of radish between my teeth and suck; it implodes as I pull out its moisture and the acrid liquid wings down my throat and burns.
I kneeled on the canoe floor and couldn't tell the bile from the saltwater that gushed out of me; from my mouth, my nose, my ears and every fold and hollow. Only salt and pungent, salt and pungent, and when I was done that taste was the only taste left in the world, and every exhale brought another waft of it back from inside, like tides rising in my throat.
More plates appear before us as though we multiplied them. On any given weekend we eat like the emperors of other times. Slowly, by increments, the ajinomoto gains ground against the salt, and I begin to taste, and more, to smell. The ajinomoto is a victory of chemical engineering more than anything else, but it doesn't matter; the food is good. A swing of bitter pilsener helps me to feel as though the last of the seawater were washing down my throat, leaving behind the dry beachhead at night. Insectile legs crackle against my soft palette; the prawn bursts, and there follow eruptions of garlic and achiote, artificial flavour enhancers that make it all glow impossibly bright and loud.
BUT NOT ENOUGH
I was about 17 years old when I caught and cleaned my first blue crab. That’s when my appreciation for the Gulf Coast really started. Coincidentally, that’s also when I started smoking a lot of pot.
It was the summer and one of my best friends invited the whole gang out to his family’s Bayhouse. It couldn’t have been a more idyllic scenario. Road trip, fresh air, cold beers, the coast and an unadulterated teenage adventure mentality. The house was halfway broken; every other step a piece of the dock was missing. We had to enter the house through the window first, as we forgot the key to the front door. There were multiple wasps nests in the bedroom that had the bunks, so most of us had to sleep in the small living room on the couches or the floor.
Everyone’s first time crabbing is different, but it always becomes a keystone memory – something that you’ll look back on and think to yourself, “Damn, we had it good then.”
There are a lot of ways to cook the blue crabs you’ve caught– you can steam them, boil them, some people even season them and put them on a grill to barbecue. My favorite is a classic boil.
Here’s what you’ll need:
A big pot
4 Lemons and and 1 orange
Shrimp Boil Seasoning (look for Old Bay or Zataran’s)
Whatever else you want to cook with your crabs (small red potatoes, and corn on the cob are common)
Find a pot big enough to cook your catch and whatever else you want to throw in there. Some people put potatoes, or corn, for our purposes, we are just going to say you’re a purist and only want crab. Fill the pot up with water, leaving a healthy amount of room for the water that will be displaced by your crabs. Find any citrus you may have on hand - lemons or oranges work really well, but avoid limes. I usually go for about 4 lemons and maybe an orange. Cut the citrus in half, juice them directly into the pot and throw in the fruit as well.
Find yourself some shrimp boil seasoning and toss it in the water. The packaging usually will give you some weight-to-seasoning ratio. I roughly double that, because I like it spicy. Boil the water. Once it’s a rolling boil, throw the crabs in and boil for about 15 - 20 minutes, or until those beautiful blue crab claws have turned fully red and the meat no longer looks translucent.
Here’s the important part: once they’re finished cooking, cut the heat under the pot and soak the crabs for another 30 minutes or more. This is how you season your meat. The longer you soak, the spicier it will be. Fish the crabs out with a strainer or tongs.. Crack them open and enjoy!
TEXAS BLUE CRAB BOIL
First, the sharp knife inhibited—
I leave some centimeters on
the ends, so the quarters are stiff
early petals. Citrus has always lived
deep in the produce drawer. My
limes ossified and molded, or halved
and left to brown in a deli container.
I want to give them a fighting chance.
To pickle something, to cure it, is to add
life. I come from a long line of mothers
and wives who have never fermented
a thing in their lives, existing in
a convenient future they could afford.
I cover my lemon hands with coarse
sea salt and rub it deep into each
crevice like I’ve seen other grandmothers
do to cabbage. Carefully, almost
lovingly. As if to lay the stubborn
cells down to rest, let them know
it’s okay to let go. There is room here
for so many lives. They go in
a mason jar, a clear and strange hangari.
I throw in some bay leaves, more
juice, a handful of whole peppercorns.
In a month, the skins will have
broken down so much I can eat
them whole. They have always had
this natural and mild sweetness.
She doesn’t know how to cook collard greens. Or chitlins or grits or black eyes peas or any of the traditionally Southern and, more importantly, the traditionally Black foods.
She often imagines how the conversation played out when her parents chose to raise her and her cocoa-skinned sister in a predominantly white neighborhood. In the suburbs. Nestled deep in the heart of Texas. The very white, cisgender, heteronormative heart.
So she becomes a biracial, queer child who doesn’t know why she always feels slightly suffocated by everyone and everything around her.
Without ever really realizing, she starts fighting to survive. If she does everything she can to be like everyone around her she might even last long enough to get the hell out and never come back. Even if that means subconsciously repressing her sexuality and gender identity. Convincing herself that she’s perfectly content being just like everyone else. Mimicking the way they dress, the things they say.
The food they eat.
She turns her nose up at any bold flavors and the promise of culture. She becomes the pickiest eater in the family. Her lighter skin has to mean something. She’s so close to being one of them. To acceptance. To assimilation.
Her ancestors understood what they needed to do for existence in a world that wasn’t built for them. They shaved off bits of their Blackness in pursuit of acceptability and status. There’s no way to know if it happened all at once, or if little concessions were made over time until eventually they were shadows of who they used to be. Not those people. They fashioned themselves into the respectable ones.
It might not have even been a conscious decision. It might have happened in the millisecond where a fight or flight response kicks in. When the cool chill of the realization that you are not safe where you are washes over your entire body and you have to make a decision on the spot about how to make it out alive.
Or it might have been in pursuit of ambition. After all, sacrifice is the unspoken consequence of the American dream. Because her family has always been high achieving.
The branches of her family tree are filled with doctors and lawyers, hardworking people who found their way into hostile spaces that were never really open to people who looked like them. Spaces that still aren’t really open. There’s a certain level of palatability that goes into maintaining an invitation to that world. Her parents and grandparents all paid the price to keep their proximity to whiteness, so how could she ever think that she would get by with a free pass.
And that whiteness is right within her reach. All she has to do is never learn who she really is. Or who she can be. It’s really not that high of a price to pay when she thinks about it.
She doesn’t think about it.
She chemically fries the curl from her hair. She talks the right way, the white way. She dates the captain of the football team. And everyone around her gladly helps keep up her charade. Everyone has a part to play in her twisted reality.
She refuses to try new foods before even knowing what they are. Refusing to expand her horizons is safe. Comfortable, even. If she never thinks about it she never has to change who she is. She convinces herself that she can live her whole life this way.
She never considers that she can be more than this. That she can be fulfilled. Content. That she can find joy in exploration.
That she can be happy.
So she stays who she is. Or she tries to, anyway.
And she never learns to make collard greens.
The milk first comes in crystals, not dripping but forming in tiny yellow-white peaks, like an expression of salt on rock.
When labour begins to stir within me, I go out for breakfast. Standing beside a cabinet of sugared donuts, I order a mushroom omelette, keeping a secret of my early contractions. I spend my last day of non-motherhood making lasagne and bean soup. The pain comes toward me steadily as the kitchen fills with the scent of paprika, onion, cumin and bubbling tomatoes. Then I cross into the other world which is so much larger than language. Hours in, rain raging outside, my husband holds out a mango ice pop in a trough between pains and I lick it once and it is heaven. When my swollen slippery daughter is placed against my chest, her first latch is sharp as a bee sting. But she can’t keep hold of my breast in her tiny angry mouth and I am told, ‘squeeze it flat, like a sandwich’. Later, when it is time to birth the placenta, the midwife says, ‘This will be like a big portobello mushroom’, and it comes out easily, boneless and dark red.
Motherhood begins and I have never been hungrier. Smear of egg yolk on a white plate as I bleed into the mattress. Lasagne with a glob of ketchup, that endless bean soup. I barely get up, just eat and feed in bed. I feel her dredging me as she draws out the orange colostrum which is more like pollen than milk.
At her first signs of hunger, the opening and closing of her snapping turtle mouth, I bring her to my breast, and at night I set alarms to feed every two hours, attempting to nudge her awake in the dark, blowing on her hands and feet, which never works, and calling her fresh name. I have never been so tired or blissed out, higher than any paper bomb of ecstasy could make me. I keep baby bells and brazil nuts by the bed, swallow them in the dark. They fuel the factory and are delicious.
On the fourth night, I roll over in a precious slip of sleep and am awoken by my breasts, clanking together like bowling balls. Heat and heaviness, the milk has come in.
Clank: a verb I never would have thought to use for breasts.
Friends bring food. Tongues of courgette coiled around ricotta in a heart shaped tin, stacks of yogurts, dahl and rice with sharp tomato salad, chocolate covered almonds. More often than not my arms are occupied – baby in one hand, breast in the other – and so as I feed I am fed. My husband brings a spoon to my lips, a cup, a carrot, a sandwich. I eat with abandon and refuse to share.
I am dazzled by my daughter’s will to live. She bashes her head furiously against my chest; it is her first word and it means, more, more. One night in the dark, she wriggles up my body and latches on with vampiric strength to my neck.
We live for weeks in this one-way relation. Milk flows out of me and she feasts with her eyes closed. Her animal-sweet breath conjures the soft noses of horses.
And under my wonder, the shock of responsibility: I am literally keeping her alive.
How many women have lain down with sad men, as if our bodies could heal them? I forgive myself now for all those wasted nights, my body’s true ability to nourish at last put to use.
In pregnancy I ditched caffeine and wine, scrubbed my potatoes then peeled the scrubbed skin off, all fresh foods potentially toxoplasmic. I avoided liquorice and hibiscus though the evidence of their harms was scant. Now I tear into liquorice twists like a dog, get hammered on an inch of wine, and buy raw brie with a fennel flower pressed into the rind, remembering how as a child adulthood had seemed a kind of gate, so many pleasures on the other side.
Milk stains my pyjamas.
Milk dribbles down my daughter’s face and under her jaw.
She grows swiftly. The paediatrician weighs her, opens her palms and says, ‘Some women make skim milk, you must make heavy cream’. Pride and the tiniest echo of – no not shame - abashment, as if my abundance is something mildly vulgar.
The days become less strange, time vanishing into the bud of her small mouth. My appetite becomes slightly less ferocious.
Out from under the first weeks, I plant parsley in the garden. I teach a class on Zoom with one breast exposed but out of sight, the baby suckling, a secret until she shrieks.
She begins to smile, my nipple falling from her mouth.
Then one day as she feeds, eye contact, like a jewel from under the sea.
Some days it feels like a tether. She takes a bottle for a while then abruptly stops, enraged if the silicone nipple comes near her. I learn a kind of solitude that doesn’t depend on being alone. Standing in the lane by my house, I steal mulberries from a neighbour’s tree, their blood purpling the beds of my nails, the baby strapped to my body, asleep.
Waking again and again, the night laid over me like animal skin, feeding. I stalk into the kitchen at 4AM and drink water, glass after glass, dried out: a feeling adjacent but not akin to thirst. In the morning, too depleted to make breakfast, I press macadamia nuts into my mouth, remembering how I once feared them. They are one of the most calorie dense foods found naturally on this earth: what a spectacular gift.
One day, enraged and ragged from relentless labour, I leave the house alone. And the food supply comes with me. I stomp the neighbourhood boiling with my own power for ten minutes. Then of course, I turn around.
We sit on a wall opposite the library. As she feeds, I bring her small fingers to my lips and nibble down her nails.
We call her Croissant Legs in honour of the folds in her thighs. She learns to grip, wraps her fingers around my index as she eats, pulls my hair as if to keep me in place. We call her The Boss and call me The Food Truck.
These tits. Putting them to work somehow a rebuttal to the catcalls I heard at fifteen.
Hot water draws down my milk, and I rise engorged from the bath, my daughter in the room with me, wide eyed in her bouncy seat. I stand in the steamed mirror, sweet milk dripping down my stomach and onto the tiles, belly soft, new muscle on my arms and back and legs. The truth that I have so rarely felt correct. The days, years, when feeding myself felt fraught and I feared the evidence of pleasure on my flesh, somehow neutralised. My child gives me back my body, as she takes.
She is brought into the room where I write. I sling her across my lap and feed.
CHRISTMAS IN NESTIER
LEARNING TO TASTE
I started work at the Gabriele Rausse winery in September, the dead humid heat in central Virginia threatening to sweat us all out. Mosquitoes nipped at ankles and the sun had spent months making us all squinty-eyed and golden-tanned.
Set off of a farm road outside of Charlottesville, the winery’s tasting room was a jewel box of a building, one side built into the hill, one side all windows, wooden beams crisscrossing the large swathes of glass. Tables dotted the property, some made of teak, some metal painted forest green. There was a large plank of wood leaned up against a concrete wall. On it, a laminated fact sheet listed all of the wines they had on offer. It had not been my plan to arrive there. I was meant to be good and gone by then, wiping the Texas dust from my forehead with a bandana and stomping to country music, forgetting about Virginia altogether.
But it turns out it is hard to get a job after graduating with a master’s degree in writing, even harder to do it in the first six months of a global pandemic. Unemployment benefits ran out and my friend was leaving her job at the winery to move to the cold Massachusetts coast and start the next part of her life: marriage, family. They needed someone to take over, just two days a week. I was a warm body and they liked writers.
I did not know anything about wine. For me, wine was bought in large batches for as cheaply as I could find it. Wine was for sharing, uncorking, and pouring into jam jars instead of glasses, stocking up so you would never ever run out of it. Even if it was six am and the party had started at seven the night before. We bought red and white indiscriminately, wines with names like Three Wishes and Moon and Sparrow. It was certainly not for tasting and savoring, mulling over and commenting on.
Despite the fact that I bought my wine from the bottom shelf at the store based on the label alone, my dad had a love of wine that almost obsessed him. He had a cellar in the basement and so once or twice a year at the holidays when I was home, I would drink good wine. His was all from California, the flavors big and fruity. Jammy, I’d learn to say, bold, full-bodied. I preferred spicy and dry, it turned out. Old world, I learned to say, tannic.
But when I washed up at Gabriele Rausse, I still knew basically nothing. I had been in my head for three years while at graduate school: reading, writing, thinking. Here I would be serving, carrying, cleaning. Here I would be learning again.
Blackberry, ripe pear, river rocks, white pepper. Strawberry Starburst, gasoline, leather, pepper, grass.
Like anything worth learning about, wine has its own language. It pulls from French, Italian, German, English. From the natural world: fruit, animal, earth. From the scientific: terroir, processing, ripening. It is at once scientific and romantic, appealing and revolting. The ripening of fruit on the vine in the South of France? Noble Rot. The silt in the bottom of a natural wine? Sediment. The way to remove it? Disgorging.
Because it was the height of the pandemic, we did not pour for people and talk to them closely while they drank. We did not reach over and swirl their glass for them to aerate the wine or encourage them by leaning over and dropping just a few drops more into their glass. That was how it had been, I understood. Instead, wine tastings were served in small glass bottles that looked like they belonged in an 18th-century apothecary—tiny sweating vials of medicine. We served four of them in blocks of soapstone that chilled in the freezer to keep the wine cool in the Virginia humidity. Someone had taken a lathe and carved out perfectly sized circles for the bottles to rest in.
So I learned about the wines four at a time. Whites with whites, reds with reds. A new glass if moving from one grape to another. I learned how to pace out someone’s experience, how to lead them from smaller to bigger tastes. How to walk them to the most tannic from the least, how to save their palate.
Mineral, white peach, radish, honey. Forest fruits, tobacco, oak, chocolate, black currants.
To learn about the winery was to learn about the family that ran it. Tim and Peter, the sons of the eponymous Gabriele Rausse. Gabriele himself, a man who has been known to pick things out of the garbage and wear two watches, one on each wrist, noting that one is the time today and one is the time tomorrow. Tim, a tall gentle man with a beard and long hair, wore ratty sweatshirts and had dirt under his nails. He knew how to make everyone feel welcome. Peter, the younger brother, had an artist’s heart and kept himself more closely guarded than Tim, though he’s just as tender.
When I first began working there, Tim took me to see the harvest and watch the wine-making process. I imagined something romantic. Instead, fruit flies flew desperately around us, pulled in by the sweetness of the sugars in the grapes. Tim gave me a taste of wine from a tank. “Not done yet,” he said as he poured it, “but try it.” Just a few steps away from where I stood sipping and swirling my glass of orange wine, Peter was throwing grapes onto a sorting table. The table kind shook and rattled and blinded me after only looking at it for a few minutes. I wondered how he could still see. He grunted hello to me and continued on, dumping yellow bins of grapes (“lugs,” Tim called them) to be sorted, de-stemmed, crushed. I watched awkwardly, feeling useless as I stood by while other people did physical labor. After my glass of wine, Tim drove me back down the gravel road to the tasting room in his car covered in red dirt and cigarette smoke, with a window that won’t go up or down.
It was not just wine that I learned to taste. We made sourdough bread and served goat cheese from a farm in the area. The sourdough came from the wild yeast that exists on the harvested grapes. We sold olive oil imported from Italy and honey harvested down the road. Lunch was vegetables from a friend’s farm turned into pasta sauce or braised and served alongside bread butts. The eggs I bought came from my coworker Cameron’s chickens. That same coworker’s four-year-old son taught me how to eat wild garlic and redbuds when the seasons were right. Everything I ate began to read like wine, bursting with pockets of flavor.
Pleasantly sour, green bean snap, hay, bracing, young pea, bright flower.
I visited the goat farm that produced cheese for the winery. It smelled like shit and hay, the stuff of life. In the pasture we tromped through mud to look at the mineral lick the goats crowded around, to pet their heads and see the stumps of sawed-off horns, their strange rectangular pupils. After the tour, we sat and ate cheese whose rinds had been wrapped in a flexible strip of bark, creamy cheese with a line of grey ash down the center.
I spooned honey into nettle tea brewed by a coworker and learned how it could help my immunity. I tried bottles of wine with no real label, experiments marked with blue painter’s tape. Cameron made olive oil cakes crusty with raw sugar and I asked him questions the whole time, watching as eggs turned ribbony and zest dotted batter with orange.
I got to be a student. I loved the position of knowing nothing and absorbing the world. I didn’t then and don’t now like to be considered an expert. It fills me only with the dread that I am about to be found out as a fraud. Instead, I like to learn, note, explore, follow a four-year-old through the forest and watch out for wild garlic and green walnuts.
There comes a point when you must share what you’ve learned. I made sage and goat cheese macarons, brought a mason jar of salted caramel in to mix with espreso, ran a wooden paddle through polenta, turned an influx of local apples into galette to serve guests. I stacked wood into teepees to light the fire pits that dotted the property from October to May. I still found myself unsure of the right words to say most of the time.
Then, something small. A late fall afternoon, unseasonably warm for central Virginia, the sky so blue you had to squint against it. A regular customer came in and asked me to pour him a glass of whatever felt right for the day. Without thinking I knew the wine. Roussane. Dark golden with a hint of raisin sweetness and a burst of acidity. The crisp finish that pairs it perfectly with the kind of day where the air smells cold but the sun beats hot. Sweet at the front and puckering at the back. For the first time, it was easy to know what to recommend. A South American record was playing in the tasting room, the wind whipped my cheeks pink. I brought out a glass and served.
Beeswax, green apple, full-bodied, chamomile, bright fall day Virginia 2021.
AN ORCHARD ODE
One of the spots I feel most free
is high up in the apple tree.
I love to climb from bough to bough—
it’s quite easy if you know how!
Atop my perch I see for miles,
Sweet fallen fruit, sleeping in piles.
With sunshine and a little luck,
the perfect apple I shall pluck.
After I’ve done my orchard roam,
I’ll bring my splendid bounty home,
To pare and seed and gently boil,
and make some treats before they spoil.
CINNAMON APPLE GALETTE
For the dough:
1 ½ cups (188 g) all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1 Tbsp. sugar
3 tsp. Diamond Crystal or 1¾ tsp. Morton kosher salt
12 Tbsp. chilled unsalted butter
For the filling:
1-1.5lbs Granny Smith apples, peeled and cored
2 teaspoons cinnamon
4 tablespoons granulated sugar
Zest of one lemon
Whisk 1½ cups (188 g) all-purpose flour, 1 Tbsp. sugar, and 1½ tsp. Diamond Crystal or 1 tsp. Morton kosher salt in a medium bowl to combine. Cut 12 Tbsp. (1½ sticks) chilled unsalted butter into ½” pieces, add to dry ingredients, and toss to coat and distribute. Use your hands to rub and smash butter into flat irregular pieces. Be careful not to overwork the dough at this stage; you don’t want to soften the butter too much. If it starts to soften, place the mixture in the fridge to chill.
Drizzle ⅓ cup cold water over and mix with a rubber spatula, smashing in butter, until dough mostly comes together—it will be dry and shaggy.
Turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Working quickly and using a rolling pin and your hands, press dough together to form a mass. It will be very crumbly at this point--that’s to be expected. Roll dough into a rough square about ½” thick. Fold in half into a rectangle, then once again to make a small square. Press down on the dough with rolling pin to make it hold together. Roll dough out once more to make a rough square about ½” thick. Repeat folding process again, taking your time to make it neat, as this will be your final fold.
Using rolling pin, gently flatten dough, rotating as needed, to make a 6”-diameter disk. Dust surface with more flour (go heavy; you don’t want the dough to stick) and roll disk into a 14”-diameter circle or oval about ⅛” thick.
Brush off any excess flour with a pastry brush. Fold dough in half, then in half again to make a rough triangle to move it.
Transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet and unfold (it’s okay if dough is a bit larger than the baking sheet). Chill while you make the filling.
Preheat oven to 375°F. Cut apples into thin slices and toss with cinnamon, sugar and lemon zest in a medium size bowl.
Remove dough from the refrigerator and arrange the apple slices, overlapping, until they make a circle that leaves a 1 ½”-2” border around the edges.
Cutting from the edge of the dough to the start of the apples, make slits in the border of the galette at 2”–3” intervals. Fold flaps up and over filling, slightly overlapping.
Bake galette until crust is deep golden brown, 45–50 minutes. Don’t remove it from the oven until your crust is the color of a well-worn penny.
Once removed from the oven, slide the galette onto a cutting board and cut it into wedges.
Tip: To easily slide the galette from the baking sheet to the cutting board, use the parchment paper like a sling and then easily slide the paper out when the galette is safely on the cutting board or serving platter.
The bookstore was super nice, very slick, and the staff were attractive and professional. The owner provided a folding table near the door, which was honestly above and beyond. Robert told her so, and set up while Lauren parked the company Prius.
They’d been assigned a brand activation for carrot bitters; the activation was to coincide with a book reading. Robert had brought some actual carrots, which he felt would have positive implications for the vibe. He arranged them in a clear vase so they stood with their greens aloft like flowers. It was definitely different, but in a good way.
He always enjoyed the setup process, with its license for perfectionism. The rest of life was constant compromise, adjusting his hopes to meet what was possible, but at an activation he could exercise an impactfulness that made him feel like another Robert altogether.
He and Lauren worked for a PR company specializing in food and drink that occupied the contested territory between delicacy and gimmick: cashews seasoned with Irish seaweed, small-batch sugar beet vodka, CBD gummies shaped like coronavirus particles, tortilla chips fortified with cricket protein. The job application had involved a case study—a writing test where Robert received a docket on a fictive client, and was asked to craft a brand strategy complete with sample tweets and Instagram posts—about chicken eggs with spicy yolks. Evidently chickens couldn’t taste hot pepper, but would pass its flavor into their eggs like an unread letter. The prompt was difficult. The product clamored of gimmick. You learned of these eggs and wondered, Can it really be done? And then you ate one and thought, Yep. Maybe you posted about it, maybe not, but in all likelihood nine to eleven eggs languished in your fridge and occasionally ruined a baking project. The socials could educate readers for days, and still you’d reach a conceptual cul-de-sac precisely because the eggs did what the copy said.
In other words, the prompt was a trap. You couldn’t rely upon interesting facts, but must establish a narrative.
The answer, Robert had sensed, lay in the stray thought that a baking project might be ruined.
Ruined, he’d typed, or bewitched?
Imagine a home baker; imagine a late night, a box of brownie mix, a nearly empty fridge. The dry ingredients are already mixed, but drat the luck, she has no eggs, only these spicy eggs a friend left in her kitchen. It is March. It is raining. She’s about to walk to the store when an idea bobs into her brain. She’s aware that chocolate is sometimes used in molés, that “Mexican hot chocolate” typically means chile has been included. She shrugs and cracks an egg into the wet ingredients, cracks another, and ninety minutes later she’s told all her friends. The taste is subtle, flickering on the horizon of the palate, and that is its appeal: an uncanny complexity of flavor. It is as though, she explains, the chocolate were surprised by the spice, surprised to meet an old friend. I don’t know, she adds, I’m no expert. You’ll have to try it for yourself.
In Robert’s job interview, Raquel had praised the campaign lavishly, noting what Robert hadn’t: in referencing the “friend” who’d left the eggs in the woman’s fridge, Robert had used a male pronoun. For Raquel, this was the chocolate in the molé, the tablespoon of butter used to finish the tomato sauce: in the figure of this man, this missing friend, we could see the true target of this ad, which was not the female bakers of the world but the men in love with them. What better way to a woman’s heart, Raquel suggested, than to sleep soundly in her refrigerator, awaiting the cold night when she’ll decide to take a risk?
Robert nodded along, feeling vaguely as though he were in therapy. There was a strange vulnerability to writing copy, because it only worked when you let your fantasies and inner thoughts into the scenario, which was basically a form of public nudity.
Robert was decanting bitters into 3-oz. Dixie cups, deep in reverie, when Lauren reappeared. She wore blue-jean overalls, Blundstone boots; her aesthetic fit the space’s indie vibe. He felt proud to have her on his Team.
“Any takers?” she asked.
He shook his head; without a moment’s pause, Lauren hailed a passing customer. “Are you here for the reading?” Lauren asked, and the woman gave a skeptical yes. An old trick, and a good one: this first yes, given easily, dulls the edge of foreignness and renders them suggestible. Lauren steered the woman toward the table, where Robert described the product. Cold-pressed carrot juice, orris root, orange peel, star anise, a proprietary blend of spices.
“Do you have tasting notes?” the woman asked.
“The orris gives it a hint of raspberry,” Lauren said. “I tell people it tastes like medieval candy.”
The woman took a sip, inhaled slowly through her nose. “I’m getting peaches,” she said, frowning. “And a hint of skunk cabbage.”
“It’s got a bit of funk for sure,” Lauren said. “That’s the rum base interacting with the spices.”
“At least you know you don’t have COVID,” Robert said.
The woman looked to Lauren for an explanation; Robert blushed.
“Because your sense of smell is working,” Lauren said, “is what he’s trying to say, I think.”
For the rest of the interaction, the woman ignored Robert, but proved exceedingly pliant beneath Lauren’s gentle pressure; soon, the woman had published an organic and humorous Instagram post about the product and received a free 2-oz. bottle for her trouble. Robert consoled himself by imagining he’d been an effective heel, angling the woman right into Lauren’s open arms, but his palms were sweating, and it was all he could do to keep quiet until the woman left to claim her seat.
“Nice save,” he said at last.
Lauren laughed and elbowed him. “Classic Robert!” she said. “I feel like people have to know you to appreciate your sense of humor.”
And just like that, he felt better, ennobled, not only as someone capable of producing classics of his own distinctive sort, but as someone whom Lauren appreciated, and thus, according to her own formulation, someone she knew. It wasn’t so much that he had a crush on her as that he had some degree of crush, potentially, on everybody, and approached them all with a commensurately deferential shyness.
Lauren inveigled another customer into posting about the product and then the reading began. It was a full house, which gave Robert hope for the post-reading period. He turned to face the podium at the far wall of the store. The owner was giving a laudatory introduction about the writer, who stood beside her in an aspect of physicalized modesty: arms clasped behind his back, bespectacled gaze downcast.
“Please don’t feel badly,” the owner said, “if your lockdown wasn’t as productive as his.”
Laughter at that; the writer glanced at the crowd and pressed a deeper smile from his lips.
“Instead,” the owner said, “think of this. We are so fortunate to have a mind like Martin’s to help us think through this catastrophe, via the luminous offering that is Skin Hunger, his acclaimed new novel. And we are doubly fortunate to have him here with us tonight—here in the flesh!”
Another wave of laughter, which crested into applause as the owner touched the writer’s sleeve and stepped aside so he could take the podium.
“Thank you, Ellen, for that beautiful introduction,” he said when the room fell silent. “I think you put it well: in the flesh. That’s why we’re here, after all. For a bodily experience. To reckon with our physicality. We know now that a Zoom reading just isn’t the same as this.”
His gesture took in the crowd, the shelves, and even, it seemed, Lauren and Robert’s table in the outer darkness.
“There’s a risk to it,” he said. “There was always a risk, but it took the pandemic to reveal the true stakes, as well as the potential triumphs associated with this gambit. That’s what I was trying to explore in Skin Hunger.”
Here he took a long drink from a bottle of water; the room was so quiet that Robert could hear the plastic crinkle. The writer had deftly transformed the room’s excitable laughter into an excitement of a different kind, a keenness of focus; they waited as he swallowed and swallowed again. He set the bottle on the podium’s lintel, gently reaffixed the cap, and began to read.
The reading lasted fifteen minutes or so, but for Robert those fifteen minutes possessed the cavernous vastness of months. The book named some distinctive generalities of quarantine, eliciting laughs of recognition—shortages of toilet paper and flour; that meme challenge where you restaged a famous painting using household items; the sensation of a nasal swab reaming the vestibule of one’s sinus—but the story also traveled to places of such intimacy that Robert felt a vicarious nakedness. How was this allowed? The writer, or his words, described hand-washing compulsions that left the skin cracked and bleeding, disordered eating, a series of phone-sex hookups with strangers; the dark fall of 2020 and the darker winter of 2021; a friend’s bachelor party held deep in the woods, the smell of venison roasting over an open fire on a frigid night, the sound of fat sizzling on the coals, the hope of a long hunger on the threshold of satiation; the lushness of this new spring, the healing fever of the autoimmune response to the vaccine, the taste of an unmasked breath, the smell of a stranger’s apartment, the flavor of her sweat; the mutual gasp of an audience at a horror movie as, deep within the abandoned house, a monstrous entity steps slowly and draggingly from the shadows.
Robert was clapping before he fully realized he was doing so, but so was Lauren, which made it okay. Applause filled the room. The writer bowed his head; the applause continued until, finally, the long moment ended.
“We do have time for a few questions,” the owner offered.
Nobody raised a hand.
“I often find,” the writer said, “that the first one to raise a hand is the most attractive person in the room.”
Laughter, and a gamely raised hand: a man with glasses much like the writer’s. “Hubba hubba,” the writer said, eliciting another gust of laughter. “But in all seriousness: thanks, man. What’s your question?”
Robert listened absently to the questions and answers that followed, wanting to ask something and lacking words for it. He thought, for some reason, of the chickens, the hot peppers, the passage of spice from one body to another. How would it feel to be the medium but not the message?
“I think we’ll find,” the writer was saying—“that is, I think future critics will tell us—that the pandemic was a boon for literary fiction. After all, this is the only art form that’s devoted foremost to the depiction of interiority. Think, for a moment, about the multiple valences of that word. Interiors: the world of limited depth-of-field in which we’ve all been living.”
The writer cast about the room for raised hands, nodded at Robert.
Or, no, Robert realized with a blush: at Lauren, who had raised her hand without Robert noticing. The whole room swiveled in its chairs to look back at her.
“I wanted to ask a follow-up question,” Lauren said. “This isn’t a fully formed thought, so apologies if it’s not super clear. But do you really think that more interiority is what we need right now? I feel like I’ve had enough richly textured individual subjectivity for one lifetime. It’s true that pandemic life has been all about interiors, in various senses of the world, so I’m not saying it’s an inaccurate picture. I’m just wondering if it’s a useful picture.”
“You know,” the writer said, “I wonder—and, thank you, first of all, for this great question. I wonder the same thing. Any serious writer, any serious reader, has to wonder. We’re all asking ourselves this question, which is really about the structure of social life, of desire. It’s about our capacity for imagining new ways of being together. The marriage plot, I think, is out. We don’t trust it. But what does that leave? I mean that as an honest question. What do you think?”
The audience, perhaps with a little resentment at the repeated effort, wheeled about once again to consider Lauren, who hardly missed a beat.
“I think you’re right that the marriage plot, or let’s say the rom-com, has exhausted most of its possibilities,” she said. “We’ve seen most of that before. What I don’t often see is stories that dramatize collective action. What does it mean to live, to think, as a group? How do you reconcile the individual consciousness, all its desires and doubts and contradictions, with the necessity—and I do think it’s a necessity—for the radical societal changes that are probably only possible outside existing political structures? Before it changes in practice, it’ll have to change in our minds. I can’t help but think that this is where the battle has to be fought first: in the stories we tell. So for me, at least, that’s what fills that absence, or what could fill that absence. But I don’t know. You’re the writer.”
“Maybe you should be up here instead of me,” he said. “Amen, is all I have to say. You’ve given us a lot to consider.”
Robert felt a vicarious exhilaration. Their little table fairly glowed with warmth.
This had implications, of course, for the post-reading period of tastings, during which the line for samples rivaled the meet-the-writer line. It wasn’t that the customers wanted to talk about books; instead, their enthusiasm, their willingness to see the mundane details of the world as potentially immanent with greater meaning and purpose, now extended even unto to the carrot bitters. Robert had seldom seen a group of people so interested, which in turn made them joyous. Had Robert ever worked an activation where they gave away every single promotional item? He got the car keys from Lauren and went to retrieve the final slab of 2-oz. bottles from the trunk while demand remained high. The night was colder than he expected, the street empty and shining with what must have been a brief rainfall; he imagined interest in the product coursing through the air like electrical current. Finally he had done something right, or had known to stand aside and avoid the wrong thing he would have done instead.
When Robert returned to the store, the writer stood at Lauren’s table; he was holding a Dixie cup and laughing. The staff had begun folding chairs, unplugging microphone cables. A few customers browsed the aisles.
“It’ll be clumsy at first,” Lauren was saying, “very clumsy, but there’s no other way. We’re giving up our position as the sole protagonist, which was, let’s face it, one of the main consolations of this otherwise untenable structural position.”
The writer was nodding.
“But the truth is,” she continued, “we won’t miss it. I won’t. It was never that great to begin with. Too much work to maintain a clear sense of borders.”
Robert set his slab of bottles on the table. The writer held the paper cup to his lips and threw back his head, shooting the bitters while Lauren watched approvingly. It was already clear to Robert where the night was headed; he wondered how best to extricate himself.
“There’s a lot happening in there,” the writer said. “I’m getting Chambord.”
Lauren nodded. “The orris root gives it a hint of raspberry. By the way,” she added, “this is Robert.”
“Hey, man,” the writer said. He extended a hand, then withdrew it slightly. “Are you shaking these days?”
Robert shook Martin’s large dry hand.
It was agreed that Lauren would drive the company Prius and drop Robert at his apartment, then meet the writer for pupusas. The ostensible purpose of this meal was a collegial chat that would further explore Lauren’s thoughts on Martin’s reading. To be fair, both Martin and Lauren suggested that Robert join them, but Robert could read the room, and knew that such a suggestion was necessary to launder their meeting as a platonic one.
On the drive to Robert’s place, Lauren spoke effusively about the event, and Robert played his part, scrolling through Instagram mentions of Night Vision Botanicals on his phone and reading aloud or describing the amusing content aggregated thereby. It was satisfying to know they’d done the job well, far exceeding the minimum of service for which they’d been contracted, but Robert couldn’t shake the melancholy certainty that Lauren’s enthusiasm matched his only in words. He was confused as to the true source of her excitement: Martin, or the ideas they’d been discussing—and would it be better if it was the ideas, or worse? A feeling of vagueness overtook him.
“Are you sure you’re not hungry?” Lauren asked. “Last chance.”
Robert shook his head.
“Good night,” they said to each other outside his building, and though they appeared to be speaking the same language, Robert felt sure it was merely a coincidence of false cognates.
My kids have grown and they do not know
of you, your dry hands
from which their dry hands come,
your cool shoes, your life
in a city that no longer exists
as it was. On Saturdays, I go to the market
and haggle for chunks of protein
to cook in my nuclear oven. I try to drop
off banchan but often the kids are not in their homes
or they are asleep still. Your body
wakes so early. Or I suppose it’s entirely mine
now, what with all our cells changing
out every 7 years or so. Getting back
home, I wash myself, I wash and cut my week’s
food. I pop a meal in the oven
and hum with it as it plays a little song
to pass the time. I eat
in front of a big window like it’s
a television. It is still light
but even when it turns dark
there is no one to wait for. The cars drag on
like beautiful ribbons. And doing the dishes
is a swift and uncomplicated chore.
That is simply how it is now, Helena. Helena,
there are versions of you
that will not love you and what
you’ve done for us as I do.