Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Walk A Mile In My Muu-Muu: Poached Egg & Toast

Homer Simpson steppin' out in a muu-muu
"Just make sure you don't end up in a muu-muu," said my friend as she swallowed her umpteenth toothpick of sauteed sausages and apples (see Post #1, August 4th). I stopped mid-chew.

"You know, in case that's why you're into cooking now."

Zippy the Pinhead
Long pause. An image of my childhood comicbook favorite, Zippy the Pinhead, flashed in my mind. Are we having fun yet? Well, we were before muu-muus. My friend pierced another few sausages and apples, popped them in her mouth. The late afternoon sun spilled over the side of the deck and dappled my friend's sleek form. She was in her mid fifties, fit and attractive. No jellyrolls anywhere in evidence.
"I can get really heavy," she said slowly, pouring words into the silence broken only by the sound of our steady munching and the warbling finches. "I have to watch it..." she said, her words stitching doubt.
Was that why I was cooking? So I could fill myself from the inside out until I was so fat and jolly I could roll down the Topanga State Park hillside? But even as I questioned myself, I knew it wasn't the reason. If I were a pull-down movie screen, you would've seen my friend's projected self stuffed into a flower-splashed muu-muu floating there.
I loved food, but I don't remember it ever being a dangerous source of addiction or unhealth -- or at least, never for long. My drug of choice was always love, sex, romance, relationships. Not chocolate or calzones or potato chips. If eating did go awry, it was more about losing balance -- forgetting to eat (deprivation) and then either gorging (gluttony) or going wacko-ascetic (I don't need food! I am a transcendent sadu!) When I ate, I generally enjoyed the food and liked to keep it in my body as long as it liked.
Until college, I didn't even know girls did things like eat then throw up, or starve themselves for the sake of a desired shape. Sure, I knew women had body issues -- myself included. After a brief stint as a wiry tween, I grew into a large-boned adolescent girl, muscular to meaty -- with an annoying (and for some years uncontrollable) tendency to throw arm punches along with Hello. I might've even fantasized about becoming a professional sumo wrestler when I learned their workouts consisted of eating so much you thudded into a coma on your tatami mat. My mother, the talented photographer, was painfully photo-shy and merciless in criticizing her own weight-gaining.
Wait. It's true, I didn't want to get hugely fat. Didn't want to be covering up and pinching extra flesh and berating myself like my mother. But I also wanted to eat -- a lot. In college, I joined the crew team my freshman year so I could shamelessly pile trays of food, a multitude of drinks. The freshman twenty? Ha! Easy. Without crew, though, it would've been double that. I did notice something suspicious in the thin women in the dining halls who ate alone, hunched over their heaping plates of salad (why only salad when there were dozens of dishes to sample?!). They ate furtively, ferociously -- and yet remained rail-thin, with pinched, haggard faces. I just figured they were more serious scholars. Until a friend told me about the bathroom vomiting. I felt pity then, not knowing I was growing into a wildly destructive love junkie.
Smitten Kitchen poached egg, photo by Deb Perelman
FOOD BREAK! You thought I was going to skip breakfast, didn't you? Nope. I am dreaming of quiche, but only have one pie dish (purchased recently) and it's filled with a frozen plum/blueberry tart (more on that in another post). Scratch quiche. Since Chef Maili cited the popular food blog Smitten Kitchen, I decide to check out breakfast options there. Poached egg on toast - perfect! The site is studded with food porn photos, appetizing and professional. I read through the illustrated instructions for making a poached egg and start heating the water. I don't even loved poached eggs. But it's a modest breakfast, I have the ingredients, and the technical challenge appeals. As soon as I hit the part about stirring a whirlpool with your spatula and sliding the egg into the vortex, I'm hooked. Here's the recipe:  How To Poach An Egg Smitten Kitchen Style
Whoa. Smitten Kitchen warned about chaos ensuing after the egg drop. She didn't describe anything like this. First the water looks murky, gray and polluted. Gross.
Then, it turns into a blizzard -- the egg whites swarming like they're in a frantically shaken snow globe. I laugh, refuse to panic, and simply wait out the three minutes she suggests. Nothing is visible beneath the water's surface. For all I know, the egg vanished. Just in case there is an egg in there, I add another minute of cooking since I hate mucusy, runny-yolked eggs.
Then I dip my slotted spoon (who even knew I had one?!) into the murk and fish out -- a poached egg! I'm tempted to do a poached egg dance! It's mesmerizing! Worthy of worship! I slide the egg tenderly onto a folded paper towel, prepare two pieces of whole wheat toast the way Smitten Kitchen suggests -- then put it all together. Voila!
Admittedly, when I sliced my knife through the egg like Smitten Kitchen did, no silky yolk poured out. The yolk was hard as cement.
But I cheerfully mashed it all together with my fork, wolfed it down and felt great satisfaction nonetheless. (By the way, I'm shooting these amateur pics to go along w/my amateur cooking either with my trusty iPhone or with a Canon Powershot A620 digital camera -- nothing fancy). Back to blogging, if I could only concentrate with the powersaws and vintage rock tunes blasting from one house over...Billy Squier just came on. "The Stroke." 1981. Billy Squier's "The Stroke"
And I am instantly transported back to the tippy-top of the twenty-foot-high aluminum extension ladder, swaying up there outside the third floor of a five-color Victorian house in Newton, Massachusetts, dabbing violet paint on a pointy cupola while our boss, the impishly sexy Kevin O'Shea, scrambles around on the roof of the house, painting, poking, checking on his crew.
"Don't go all the way down every time!" he yells to me. "Waste of time. Just bounce on the ladder and move it over a few feet. You won't fall. Don't be chickenshit like my sister! We gotta finish that cupola today!"
Billy Squier
So I bounce the ladder against the house, hold the swaying bucket of sloshing paint steady, avoid looking down, ignore the thumping of my heart -- until the ladder's perched at a dangerous 45 degree angle. Then I stretch my arm to reach the remaining bare shingles -- trying so hard to please, trying to captivate Kevin, trying to be tough as the only woman in an all-male painting crew while Squier screams Could be a winner boy, you move quite well at full volume on the boom box, and the other guys -- all Italian and Irish from Newton and Wellesley -- belt out the chorus until it feels like Stroke me! rings out from the metal gutters. Fumes sting my nostrils, sweat clings to my spine and collects in my bra, violet paint drips from sleeveless T-shirt to painter's pants to green Converse high-tops. Earlier I climbed in the second story window and stole a yogurt from the refrigerator, so I may be a wreck, but at least I'm not hungry.

"Hi there!"

I look three floors down and see a heavyset girl smiling up at me through dark curls, her face round and plump, but still unmistakeably an O'Shea.

"Can you help me?" Her voice is trembly even though she's calling up through the humid summer air.

I hear the guys on the other side of the house, and climb down.

"My name's Erin," she says, "Kevin's little sister."

Her hair is sprinkled with white paint, and her paintbrush is already splayed and useless with thick paint. She reaches her hand out to shake mine. Her wrist is lined with fresh stripes and scores. Before I can say a word, she whispers,

"I'm in the Suicide Club."

I'm too startled to say anything, so I just help clean the brush and teach her how to paint simple baseboard.

LUNCH BREAK! Aha! You thought I'd bypass lunch? No way. I'm out of hallloumi cheese or I'd make that salad again. What do I have. One heirloom tomato. One Persian cucumber. A bit of Trader Joe's feta cheese. Leftover Beluga lentils. So I chop, cut, add parsley, lemon juice, olive oil, salt, mix it all together and presto! Lunch is served. No yummy Trader Joe's Pain Rustique left to warm, so I pull some Lesley Stowe Rainbow Crisps fig and olive crackers. Much more on these crackers another time. I tuck the salad away in no time flat. Though it's good, it's not as good as the halloumi cheese salad. Why? Not sure. Part of it is because one element isn't heated. The joy of warmed cheese with cool, crisp salad is not to be underestimated. There are probably other reasons the salad is just so-so, and I'll ruminate on that -- but for now, let me get back to the story.

Weeks later, we finish the Victorian. Kevin never shows any romantic interest in me, so finally I give up. Erin and I become friends. I don't ask anything about the Suicide Club, but I never forget. Often I sneak looks at her wrists when she's not looking. Then one night over ice cream, Erin tells me how she slashed her wrists and ended up in McLean Hospital, that it was her third attempt. My mother spent time at Austin-Riggs, the other mental health joint in the neighborhood. McLean is known for tough treatments, no-nonsense care. Austin-Riggs is the softer version, which suited my mother just fine. Back then, most facilities promised a One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest experience. I wonder what treatment Erin got, but I don't ask. I don't tell her about my mother.

One weekend, Erin invites me to visit her family's place on Prince Edward Island. P.E.I. I've never been to Canada, and say yes without thinking.

"My father wants to meet you. I told him you eat a lot," she giggles. "He's the best. He loves me so much. And he's a great cook," she says shyly, looking down.
I realize I don't know Erin that well, even though I feel intensely protective. On the drive, she tells me how she used to be a gymnast. A state champ. I've never heard her talk so much, or so animatedly. She pulls a creased photo from her wallet and shows me a grainy picture of her standing in a leotard with a medal around her neck. She is tiny, and thin.

"When was this?" I say.
Singer Anne Murray
"A couple of years ago." I glance over at her. "Oh, I started eating a lot. Couldn't stop," she says. "Got too fat for gymnastics. Hey, you know the singer Anne Murray?" She sings in a high chirpy voice, "Spread your tiny wings and fly away, and take the snow back with you..." I knock her in the arm.

"Cut it out! Do not sing that sickening song!"

"She's from P.E.I.!"


We laugh, make plans to see the harness racing later that night in Charlottetown, and the road keeps unspooling beneath our wheels.

When we reach the house in P.E.I., dusk has fallen. The way I remember it, steam and smoke billowed from the small rural house and I could hear the sound of sizzling from the driveway, but that can't be true. I do remember her father swinging the door open and standing there with his legs spread. Mr. O'Shea was so wide he almost filled the doorway, blocking most of the light and bubbling pans, and so tall he had to duck his head to avoid slamming it into the door jamb. It was dark, but his teeth shone in the velvety light.

"Just in time for dinner. Get your asses in here!"

Then I remember sitting at the wooden table inside. We barely had time to drag our bags in and set them by the door. The food was thick and spicy. Some kind of simple stew, a huge metal pot planted  in the center of the table where it belched steam and savory smells of carrots, and meat, onions, some kind of tangy greens. A plateful of bread loaves rested nearby. A big bottle of Guinness stout and a pitcher of water.

"Who else is coming to dinner," I asked in between small talk as I ate my first bowl with appreciative gusto.

"Just you two beautiful girls."

Mr. O'Shea winked at us, and I could see he had the same eyes as his children, sparkly green with a fringe of long lashes -- though his were veined with red.

"I heard you liked to eat, so I cooked a lot. Eat!"

Erin said not a word the whole  meal. Picked at her bowl. Extracted vegetables and secreted them in her napkin which she wadded into a ball and tucked under the mat.

"Erin! Aren't you going to eat? What's the matter with you?" he growled.

Erin hunched over her bowl with more concentration while I jumped in with more chatter. I'd always been a good talker. After my third bowl, I was full and happy. I pushed the bowl to the center of the table and leaned back.

"What a delicious meal," I said. "Thank you so much, Mr. O'Shea."

Mr. O'Shea stared at me for a long. I stared back. An owl hooted. Then stopped.

"I thought you ate a lot. Christ on a stick. Erin! My pretty-bitty little Irish rose with your fat rosy cheeks. Did you lie to me again?" He turned to me. "You have not finished your stew yet."

Something twisted in my gut, and I sat up very straight, muscles tensed. I could smell the liquor on Mr. O'Shea's breath from across the table. The front door was slightly ajar.

"Oh, I couldn't eat another bite. I had three servings thanks to your excellent cooking."

"Eat another bowl. I insist. Here." 

Mr. O'Shea ladled more stew into my bowl until it slopped over the sides and onto the oilcloth decorated with red tulips. He pushed the bowl toward me.

Erin kicked me under the table. I felt the bench shaking beneath her agitated body.

I stood up, grabbed Erin's arm, and yanked her to the door.

"We've got to go! We're late for the harness races! Thank you!" I called as I grabbed up our bags and ran to the car, Mr. O'Shea thundering close behind.

"What do you girls think you're doing? Come back now and finish your dinner!" he bellowed.

Mr. O'Shea stumbled on something and I hit the gas, tearing so fast out of the dirt driveway I ripped a small bush out of the ground. I burst into nervous laughter, but Erin was curled into a ball in the passenger seat, whimpering.
Harness racing, P.E.I.
I remember the races, the excitement of the crowd, how they swayed in time with the horses galloping, the snap of the bright-colored harnesses, the urgent crunching of wheels around the dusty Summerside Raceway track, how the spectators shouted and rapped their racing forms against the railings when the race finished. I remember, too, the way Erin gradually unfolded her puffy body during the course of the night on the long drive back to Boston.

I never visited P.E.I. again. Erin and I lost touch. But sometimes I think about Erin, her sad green eyes, and the way the white paint speckled her brown curls like fairy dust.

If I can cook anyone can. Eat well, and eat mindfully.



  1. Ok, this was amazing, a little spell check to polish it into perfection but you did it again...kept me interested, gave me some food tips I could use TONIGHT, I am hungry, tired, no car (in the shop again, no kid to drive me in the truck I bought him), have toast, eggs, no veggies, so what can I cook? Poached eggs, thanks to you! And the memory, so visceral, so much tension, I was literally falling off that ladder for you and getting punched by that crazy dad...thank you for showing me how to cook and to write. Love you.

  2. Poached egg as sno-globe. Brilliant! I want a bobble head doll of you with a slotted spoon In one hand, a cooking pan (of any type) In your other hand. In your favorite kitchen apron of course.