Monday, August 23, 2010

Bonnie Parker v. Betty Crocker: A Domestic Throwdown with Smoking Guns, Hot Stoves & Shiksas

"Love your blog," said the man in front of me in line at Whole Foods. He stood before a bouquet of parsley, pile of passion fruit, and a six pack of imported beer all jumbled together on the check-out belt.
Nice mix. The mad scientist husband of a writer friend, clearly. As I smiled, amazed he'd already seen the newborn blog -- thanks to the wonders of Facebook -- he said,
"So -- you're finally going domestic, huh?"
At the word domestic, I instantly bristled. I imagined porcupine spines erupting from my head, lethal spikes ejecting from my hipbones and ankles.
"Dukes of Hazzard" automotive mayhem
Then I was behind the wheel of a souped-up Dodge Charger, slamming through the walls of a flimsy kitchen,
knocking aside the hair-helmeted woman smiling in her starchy A-line dress with her rolling pin raised,
and peeling out onto the ever-unwinding American road. Free.

What the hell?
Bonnie & Clyde
One ex-boyfriend, Eddie Little, an accomplished former-professional-thief-turned writer who'd done some serious time, dubbed me Wheel Girl when he saw me drive. I was flattered. I'd always fancied myself more Bonnie Parker than Betty Crocker. He thought I had what it took to be a great getaway driver after robberies and was sorry he didn't know me when he was still an active criminal. Of course he proposed we write an updated version of their story, with me channeling Bonnie and him Clyde. That book flowed magically -- I felt possessed by Bonnie -- until I went on a brief trip and came back to find Eddie already with another woman. Out of sight out of mind, baby.

When I met Eddie at a literary event, he was living in a halfway house and a major studio was making his first smash book, Another Day In Paradise, into a film. There was instant chemistry.
Eddie Little at Gold's Gym
Although he had a minder from the halfway house glued to his side, he still found a moment to wrap my hair around his hand, yank it back firmly, his lips brushing my neck, ask,  

"Do you like that."

When I whispered, "Yes," he said,

"Then you and me, we're going to get along fine."

While we were together, Eddie never asked me to prepare any food for him, though he did love his butterscotch sauce and insisted we begin each smoke-choked amped-up day with eight-ten shots of espresso. Eddie was larger than life, a Colossus of Los Angeles, who is sadly no longer with us. He left behind a daughter whom he loved fiercely, and she him. But that is all part of another story, from another Love Junkie era...

Back to Whole Foods.

"No, I'm not," I said after a long, uneasy pause. "I'm not domestic. Cooking's a new passion."
Poor guy took a step back, unsure what was going on. He ran his fingers through his wild hair, rambled nervously, genially, talked about how lucky he felt that he grew up in an Italian family, and how everyone, boys and girls, cooked from childhood, and how feasting was part of their daily fabric.
But the damage was done. The word domestic ripped open an old, swollen wasp hive of emotions and hang-ups.
 What do they say?
If it's hysterical, it's historical. One of my deepest resistances to cooking and all things kitcheny called for immediate attention. If I was to keep moving forward in my joyful adventure, I had some digging to do. It was time to probe with the sharp point of my memory's paring knife.
My mother couldn't cook. This we know. Recently my Aunt Susie told me my father's family even bought my mother a How To Cook Jewish cookbook, but she never cracked it open. She wasn't looking toward the fifties and the claustrophobic and dated role of housewife, but into the future, into the psychedelic promise of bohemian rhapsodies, racial equality, the vision of West Village artists and European progressives, the need for preserving nature's endangered sanctuary.
Missy Elliott at the Grammys
When my parents met in a Shakespeare class at Columbia where my father went (she was at Barnard) circa 1962, my mother was wearing sweats. Way ahead of her time. So even if she had opened that book, which probably interested her not at all, by that point it was already too late. There'd been too much sandy spinach, burned casseroles and overcooked liver and onions.
Scenes from a Bad Marriage:  Mad Men's Don & Betty Draper
The next woman my father married (six weeks after my parents divorced) could not only cook well, she could cook the jodphurs off any lame shiksa.
One of my first memories of my father's new wife, Batsheva, was a cooking poster on the wall of the kitchen in their new apartment. I was five. I remember the strange words chop, saute, puree, dice, slice. I remember these mysterious words spelled out near illustrations of shiny knives doing their work on pliant onions, or silvery pots and pans filled and steaming.
Batsheva wasn't there. My father said she was busy, had to visit her family, something, but I noticed she was always absent when I occasionally came to visit my father in his new, super-clean, mod apartment with the sharp-edged glass tables and clean angular purple couches and no peacock feathers stuffed in dusty wine bottles anywhere, and I knew she wasn't there because I was not welcome, that she did not like me, even though we hadn't yet met. I wasn't stupid. I read fairy tales. Though I would never call her StepMother, ever, I knew she was a witch incarnate -- a witch who cooked. An Orthodox Jewish witch who brewed dishes which lured my father away from me and my mother, and kept him spellbound for the next twenty-five years -- even though he later said, paraphrasing Proust,
Patsy and Edina from "Absolutely Fabulous"
"To think that I spent all that time with a woman not of my style."
Yes, but all through those unhappy years, she cooked and fed him, kept him sated in that way. Perhaps it was the most important way, because my father, though terribly weak, is a sensualist with a discerning palate and a keen appetite. He once spent a summer comparing a thousand beers, and another sampling all the most exquisite chocolates,  but he does not know to this day how to turn on an oven, or how to work a toaster, or even how to regulate a refrigerator. Ask him where the spoons are, he will not know. He will look to whoever is the new woman, his eyes hungry, a teasing smile playing around his lips, and she will serve him.
Over the years, my father took me to restaurants, exposing me to the culinary wonders of the world and giving me a invaluable gift that returns to me in my current cooking odyssey. For this I thank him. Perhaps he was purposely educating my palate.
Non-kosher food banquet
He was also indulging in foods his wife would not allow as she grew increasingly religious over the years. We would meet and devour raw oysters, or smoked bacon, or dairy and meat mixed, and I felt like I was in on something secret, something electric. So I listened when he told me about other women, and felt special, perhaps indispensible.
Because I was always afraid of being shut out, banished for good from anywhere near my father. Already I felt unwelcome any time I did enter their house. The children came. One, two, three, four. Our visits became more and more rare. Until one day in my early teens when Batsheva banned me from the house. Again, another story.
Before then, when I visited I took the role Batsheva offered of resident heathen. Of non-kosher handyman. If I happened to come on the sabbath, it fell to me to do forbidden tasks. "Rachel, could you turn down the heat on the cholunt?" "Would you please flip the light switch in the bathroom?" "Could you look up this word in the dictionary?" While my dirty hands turned stove knobs, flicked switches, flipped open books, I reveled in my freedom and filth. My outsider status. Or I thought I did.
I remember Batsheva's food. Mouth-watering noodle kugels, both savory and sweet. Delicately dressed salads. Cholunt, a rich, traditional weekend stew.
Musician Matisyahu
On August 18th, the wildly talented and innovative Hasidic Jewish reggae musician Matisyahu (take a look/listen to his fusion music if interested:Matisyahu's King Without A Crown) posted a Twitpic (@matisyahu) of celebration cholunt, which prompted the return of an ugly memory.
It was the mid 80s. My freshman roommate Nicola and I stopped in the New Jersey town where my father lived on our way back to New Haven. It happened to be a Saturday. Because I'd spent so little time with my father or his family when I was growing up, and because I was half Jewish and only that in the cultural sense, I'd forgotten in the flush of our recent adventure that Saturday was a holy day. I'd forgotten, too, that travel was forbidden.
There we were, standing on the concrete stoop of my father's house, our luggage nearby, as we inhaled a delicious scent of slow-cooking cholunt which drifted from the open windows, our stomachs growling, when my father and his family came into view down the street. They walked in a single file line, Batsheva first in a voluminous wig and purple pill hat, the four children trailing behind, my father last, holding his youngest daughter's hand.
When they came closer, I waved but none waved back. First Batsheva, then the eldest son, passed by me and my roommate without saying a word nor looking our way. Then the second eldest son, who would later become a Talmudic scholar in Jerusalem, passed. He glanced at me with a baleful, withering look. He must've been six or seven then. I was eighteen. He wasn't even as tall as my chest. Yet his look of disgust, loathing and disrespect shook me to the core. The eldest girl walked by, eyes downcast. Then my father appeared, with the littlest girl in tow. He shooed her in and lingered on the landing with us, smiling nervously and shaking his head.
Ozzy feeling the Black Sabbath
The shame spread through me like a fever. My roommate stiffened.

"You know you're not supposed to travel on the sabbath."

"I didn't know. Can we at least come in? Have a bite to eat? We were excited to see you after our trip to Florida. I wanted you to meet my roommate."

"There is a saying that if the guests are unwelcome, unclean, the cholunt is ruined. This is what Batsheva whispered to me as we walked back from shul and saw you waiting." He paused, looked pained. "You can't come in."

"You're saying we ruin the food? Just by our presence?" I felt my fists curl, and a hot lava rise up from the base of my spine. Forget red-faced shame. I was molten red, burning.

"Let's go down to the basement," said my father, "call you a cab."

We never did enter the house that day, nor did we partake of the sabbath cholunt. Maybe my father brought us down some yogurts, or bananas. I don't remember. I think I never visited them again. If I did ever see my father, it was always separately. Until he divorced the woman who kept her kitchen so clean and productive, her house so spic 'n kosher span, her fear and loathing of shiksas and the outside world protected and fed. Because sometimes eating, and feeding can be destructive. You can taste it. 
Thich Quan Durc, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who self-immolated in Saigon, 1963
When I was in the throes of full-blown love junkieness, I hid out in my canyon home. The only people who visited were lovers. There was high drama of every sort, fighting and and the kind of coupling that's more about immolation than intimacy. All concealing a deadly emptiness. I didn't even know how lonely I was, nor how shuttered and isolated I'd become. How hungry. How poisoned.
Luis Bunuel's "Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie"
It is many years later, after much recovery and hard work. Time to move past the fairy tales, the outlaw myths, the cultural shackles and feminist shadows, the insatiable hunger of addiction and forge new savory stories. Satisfying ones. Time to reclaim the kitchen and its joys. Kickstart my own moveable feast. Now when I cook, I feel a propulsive urge to share. To connect. To throw open my doors and windows and arms, to uncurl those internal fists. Dinner guests inspire me to try new dishes. Dinner guests bring the missing ingredient to any dish I'm fumbling to make. The air in my canyon home instantly shifts, brightens.
Feast in Borneo
Even this blog feels like another kind of outstretching, and we are all dining at the communal table, engaged in the dialogue inspired by food and cooking, memories and yearnings both personal and universal. Thank you for joining me. Perhaps you are like me and didn't grow up cooking, or haven't invited people to your home, either. Perhaps you were also waiting for that perfect partner, financial success, the house, the something that hasn't happened...Perhaps you too will be inspired to welcome someone into your house to eat. Never mind if your house is a studio apartment, a trailer, a room in someone else's house, a mansion or a castle. Or if you are single, or childless, or simply seeking. Or if your meal is an ambitious rack of lamb or a humble piece of toast smeared with honey. Invite someone in. Feed them.
Just you see if the air doesn't shimmer a bit, and the food taste that much more flavorful.

If I can cook, anyone can.



  1. So incredibly beautiful:

    The air in my canyon home instantly shifts, brightens.

    and so true.

    Having friends to your home changes it.

    I hate it that you went through that. I so admire and appreciate the guts and beauty of this cooking discovery.

    As for me, I memorized this line from the Hitchcock movie Notorious twenty-five years go, spoken by Ingrid Bergman as Alicia Hubermann:
    I don't mind cleaning, but I hate to cook.
    She says that about five minutes after Cary Grant tells her,
    Relax hardboiled, and listen

    You're a braver girl than I am, thank you for inviting us to your table


  2. I love what you are doing with The Art Of Boiling Water. So Jewish of you, you know. Just in time for the high holy days! LOL! I know that's not your intent but it's deep that that you are drawn to cooking. Miriam's Kitchen is a book, a memoir that relates to all of this women's cooking based on her emotional historic memories of her family and life. Jews and food have always been deeply rooted in Torah which is life. The honey on the corners of the Torah teach that learning is sweet. The Passover Sedar and all it's meaning. These are things I didn't grow up learning but things I learned as an adult being Jewish and wanting to know what the hell did that mean beside being a Jap and shopping at Bloomies, something that was always shameful, embarrassing and lead me to be anything but Jewish! Buddhist, Black, Puerto Rican, Italian, whatever I could be as long as it wasn't me! LOL! I mean that all with humor. I hope it comes across.
    Thank you for being you Rachel. G-d bless you and the water you are boiling over.

    Sherri OX