Posted on May 13th, 2012
Adage explains reality. When I do not understand a thing, I can convince myself that I actually do, usually in ten words or fewer. Sometimes, on long nights when I toss, sleepless, alone with an empty stomach and a heavy soul, I entertain the grim specter Regret. I have done things I’m not proud of. Most of them involve food. But deep in my heart, or maybe down in the pit of my stomach (which alternately growls and twists as memory plays across its membranes), I know that I can’t, or at least won’t, be held responsible for the monsters I have loosed on an innocent world. Because I know as well as you do (and as one Dr. Frankenstein no doubt did) that Necessity is the Mother of Invention – even the unwise, unholy teratogenics in which I have, from time to time (against my will, I swear!), been peripherally involved. Necessity is the mother. I am nothing more than the deranged enabling uncle whom no one warned against letting the baby play in the plutonium.
Let the catalog of my crimes begin with a mixed berry pie. It saddens me to remember how plump and ripe they were; they would have gone to better use as a lubricant for a lawnmower. It was a mythically beautiful summer afternoon between bouts of high school, and my friend and I wanted a pie to bring to a 5:00 p.m. rehearsal. It was 4:00 p.m. No problem, we thought – mix everything together and bake it for 40 minutes. Berries tossed with sugar and cinnamon: thirty seconds. Now the crust: mix flour with butter in some vague proportion; roll out. But the butter, so stiff from the cool of the fridge, was an ornery foe, and the clock ticked on. Logic presented the only solution: melt the butter. Whisk it vigorously into the flour. Pound it flat with our fists. Why had no one thought of this before? We were geniuses – pioneers. Forty minutes later we removed from the oven a small sarcophagus of desiccated berries entombed in a substance resembling carbon steel, or possibly the exoskeleton of a deep-sea crustacean. No teeth were lost but our pride bled for years.
Skip ahead several eras to a small island one cold New England spring. On the island stands an unassuming summer house, grey from sea winds, floors abraded by years of sand tracked in by children, by grandchildren, by the occasional baffled pet. Three travelers arrive. None is a resident. We have permission to be there, but with it we received a stern warning: no one has passed those doors in months; no one has carried in a bag of groceries since last fall; the fridge is long unplugged; the pantry – well, take your chances. Which we did, choosing by some perverse misapplication of optimism to arrive empty-handed and cook what we found. And somehow, whether through cruel lots or my own big mouth, I’d been appointed chef.
We went exploring. The basement yielded two handles of a cloudy substance claiming to be gin and a bottle of Jack Daniels so dusty that I still suspect it was Old No. 6. Either might be useful to ease the pains of death-by-starvation but we weren’t desperate yet. Back upstairs, the pantry offered several crates of mothballs, a can of Raid from the 80s, some ironically worm-infested bags of flour, a single old and doubtful onion, and a collection of canned substances that looked as though the skeletons in the bomb shelter had turned them down. We laid our assets out on the counter and I tried to ignore my companions’ complicated stares, part neglected puppy and part offended jackal. Things were getting tense.
I carved up the onion and put the less decayed parts into a pan with a little oil (we’d found oil in a cupboard by then, next to some exotic grey cumin and a yellow tub of sweetener). It was soft and translucent from the start, so I let it sit and cook until it began to char a little. (Some call this “browning” but I don’t want to ruin a good word.) I added some of the grey cumin to spice things up, tasted it, tasted nothing, then added the rest of the grey cumin. This resulted in a pleasantly chalky aftertaste. Next came the Beans. If they were beans of a particular variety, the can wasn’t willing to say so. They were roughly the color of viscous can fluid, which I tried to wash off before putting them in the pan. We listened as they began popping wetly. The dish now looked like scrapings from a dumpster near a taco truck. For color and fiber I threw in a can of Squash or possibly Pumpkin, pale yellow and surprisingly resilient. It blended poorly with the rest and jiggled unpleasantly. A lick of the spoon confirmed my suspicion that the dish tasted like an old book, so finally, desperately, I threw in a handful of the only other flavoring agent we could find – a plastic jar of instant coffee, thrust to the back of the cupboard as though to keep us safe from it. A sprinkle of salt, a dash of rust-brown paprika, and dinner was served.
We spent most of the next day finding a grocery store. Please do not try this at home.
Finally, if you’re still reading this – and I half hope you’re not – I must tell you of the second worst cocktail I have ever encountered. The place is just outside of Dublin, the date is just past New Year’s, and the time, as you might guess, is Very Late at Night, a night of endless board games and whiskey. My sister – my only sister, elder, who should know better – asked me, her demented little brother, to make her a drink. I practically skipped to the kitchen, breaking nothing on the way. Remembering that spontaneity can sometimes yield great art, I grabbed the first three things I saw and put them together in a glass: a long pour of Teacher’s Highland Cream Blended Scotch Whisky, a longer pour of filtered apple juice, and a wilted stalk of celery. “What’s it called?” she asked before she’d tasted it, and my unconscious mind christened its own horrible spawn the Newbury Frou-Frou, a drink that I advise you to avoid.
In fact, devote your life to avoiding it, along with everything else I’ve mentioned here. The effort will be slight; the payoff will be great. And when you feel Mother Necessity steering your hand in the kitchen or at the bar, remember that hunger is a respectable alternative.