Authors: Daniel Duane
“Of course. Absolutely.”
“And, so, like â¦ Okay, when?”
I tried to stall, delay: “What's that?” I replied. “
be open to a second kid? Hard to say. Hard to say. I guess I'd want to get our money deal squared away, okay?” But here, too, Alice had my back, her larger cast of characters offering just the right role models to put me at ease: this Paul Bertolli guy I'm talking about, that former Chez Panisse executive chef, later the owner of a great Oakland restaurant called Oliveto, now selling his up-scale salamis under the Fra' Mani brand. Bertolli spent his youth and early adulthood studying to be a professional musician, thereby demonstratingâto me, at leastâhow kitchen work could soothe a frustrated artist. It helped, of course, that I had a goofy personal connection to Bertolli: one of his music-school roommates had been a cousin of my mother's, a man named Blake, and the two young men had come to our home for dinner once. Soft-spoken, soulful, Italian American, Bertolli had since taken up kitchen work just to pay the rent. When music didn't pan out, cooking was all he had left. Bertolli was immediately successful in the food worldâmore than he'd ever been with musicâbut he writes with sadness about deeply missing “the quiet intensity, the emotional gratification, and the enduring reward of music making.” For nearly a decade, Bertolli says, he “floundered â¦ trying to find the metaphor in cooking that would reconcile my passion for the elegance of music with the rough kitchen work that was pulling me strongly.” Then he got hired at Chez Panisse, where I'd already had that dinner date and where Bertolli discovered one of Alice's favorite books, Richard Olney's
The French Menu Cookbook
: “the poem that released me from turmoil,” as Bertolli explains. “In it, I found an artist's eye for the telling detail and for the beauty of food, and a craftsman's patience with process.” It didn't hurt, for Bertolli or for myself, that Olney, too, had been a frustrated artistâshipping off to Europe as a young painter in 1951. Olney even had a great run of it: James Baldwin sat for a
portrait still interesting to look at; Baldwin introduced Olney to a black American dancer who became a longtime lover. Olney cooked lunch for Henry Miller and found him unimpressive. (Olney found everybody unimpressive: “silly, pretentious drivel,” he calls the writing of M. F. K. Fisher, a prose stylist compared to whom Olney, in my view, was a mere copyboy; and like the Hemingway of
A Moveable Feast
, Olney doles out special venom to all those who gave him much in life, such as James Beard, whose “selfishness and â¦ willingness to use friends dishonestly knew no bounds and prompted no remorse.”) Olney lunched with W. H. Auden, in those early Paris years, recalling how the great poet “pulled several small hotel-breakfast jars of honey and jams from his pockets, explaining that he always carried them with him, should the opportunity present itself, and that he liked to smear the stuff on boys' cocks and lick it off.” (Olney says he declined to be smeared and that he and Auden never spoke again.) But after the painting came to naught, professionally speaking, Olneyâjust like Bertolliâfound immense solace in food, becoming one of the great American cookbook writers of all time.
I felt heartened by these stories, evidence that a life could indeed have a successful second act. I hated giving up on fiction and all my fantasies of being that guyâthat Great American Novelistâand I felt already a growing comfort in cooking as a creative outlet. But it helped immensely to know that cooking had done that job for others, and so I saddled up with renewed enthusiasm for the
book's Rib Eye Steak with Marrow and Shallots, determined to feel whatever these men had felt. Not that it worked, exactly: I hadn't yet eaten marrow in a restaurant, hadn't a clue about its role in a dish; and so I didn't much like pushing that raw goop out of the bones, with my fingers, nor the way it looked so sad and nasty soaking overnight, blood leaching
pink into the water. In fact, I kept reading and re-reading the recipe, to see where it said to cook the marrow. But I couldn't find anything but this business about mashing the marrow through a strainer “to make it smooth and remove any veins.” And then, when it came time to cook the steak, I found myself grappling with Alice's demand for a dozen “foot-long pieces dry grapevine cuttings, each Â½ inch in diameter,” and I scanned the recipe for the part where she'd call the grapevine cuttings optional, but came up empty. So while I seared the rib eyes on my gas grill, and dealt with Liz's ongoing interrogating about that money-baby linkage I'd mentioned, I had to ask her, in return, for what I'd come to call one of our life-coach sessionsâtÃªte-Ã -tÃªtes during which I depended on my wife to get my head screwed on straight. In this case: whether or not Liz thought I could even tick off the steak recipe in the table of contents, given that we didn't have a Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard on the back forty, and therefore couldn't just rustle up a few grapevine cuttings for the night's fire.
Slapping steaks onto our plates, I tried to interest Liz in a little cold, raw marrow smeared over the beef. No luck, and I couldn't blame her. It looked gross, and yet I hated that I felt that way, so I asked Liz if she'd lost her mind, on this baby thing. I couldn't for the life of me see why we'd rock the boat again, just as the waters had begun to settle. Liz couldn't see any Golden Age without Kid Number Two, so we fought, we screamed, we cried, we reconciled, and she pulled out the laptop, in bed, and googled real-estate listings in Oregon, turning up a Victorian so cheap we could sell our place and have almost no mortgage. I could write hopeless novels forever, she said; shit, I could even write poetry! But I told Liz I didn't want to leave Mom and Dad and my surf buddies. So, the next morning, Liz got in the backseat
of our car, with Hannah, told me to drive, and we wrecked our entire Saturday looking at unaffordable houses all over the Greater Bay Area. Back home, pissed and miserable, we made a joint decision to stay put and get pregnant and let “the money” sort itself outâanother way of saying we'd let Dan muddle through this no-more-novels problem on his own. Then I made a unilateral decision to learn every possible lesson embedded within Alice's recipe for duck confit.
Nicholas Lemann, in an essay placing Alice in the continuum of great English-language cookbook writers, defines first a pair of related traditions: Julia Child embodies the first, Americans going off to Europe and returning “to instruct their countrymen in refined cultural mores”; Elizabeth David personifies the latter, of Englishmen and -women returning home from semitropical lands “to persuade their countrymen to loosen up a little, to become more earthy and basic.” Lemann locates Alice in the David tradition, and he's right, to a degree. Alice's food does evoke what Lemann calls “an easy, sensual, exotic Mediterranean life.” And yet, Alice's role in the Berkeley of my childhood hardly amounted to telling the uptight townsmen to relax: the Summer of Love was old news before Alice even dreamt of Chez Panisse; Owsley had long since wrapped up his acid tests in the stucco tenement directly across little McGee Street from my very own home, in Berkeley's flat-lands; and the midseventies had seen enough pot plants sprouting in enough Berkeley backyards that snotty skateboarding kids like myself could hop fences and grab grass and get baked without attracting notice. So when Alice wroteâand when I read, as an adult, in the
Chez Panisse CafÃ© Cookbookâ
that “traditional French farmhouse methods of preserving duck, geese, and even sausages and joints of pork, result in delicious, flavorful products that modern preserving methods cannot begin to match,”
she wasn't exactly invoking a looser, more sensual existence. When Alice thrilled me with the news that, at Chez Panisse, “we try to follow the old-fashioned French housewife's example and always keep a supply of duck confit on hand,” she was playing a game far less like Child or David than like Yeats, after the First World War left our collective faith in God, King, Church, Science, Progress, and Civilization all dead and rotting in the trenches. Alice, in other words, like Yeats reaching back to Celtic wood-spirits and nature gods, found a soothing continuity in sentimental French farm house dreams. Grapevine cuttings notwithstanding, that was plenty good enough for me: all I had to do was learn, at long last, what on earth duck confit really was, and then make my grocery list not just for that one recipe but for Alice's suggested sides, including Crispy Pan-Fried Potatoes, and also for her suggested spinoff recipes, like Duck Rillettes.
And so, over to Sammy I go, carrying the
Chez Panisse CafÃ© Cookbook
Chez Panisse Cooking
, and even Olney's
Simple French Food
. Hannah came along because I now loved taking her on every errand she'd tolerate, trying to tantalize her palate with every free-sample tasting along the way. And Sammy lit up when he saw the little library in my shopping cart: he'd envisioned the Bi-Rite Market as the Chez Panisse of retail, he said, building community through local food; he'd just begun selling salamis made by Bertolli himself, working now on his own; and
Simple French Food
was, quite simply, Sam's favorite cookbook ever.
I told Sam the main thing I was looking for, and he said, “What the fuck, Danny! Of
I got duck legs. I got house-made confit, if you just want confit. But you want to make your own?” With his big strong chef's hands he took Hannah out of my arms and hugged and kissed her like a born pro (clearly unafflicted by
my own reluctant-father bullshit) and insisted she just had to meet his own same-age daughter, Zoe.
“Best thing in the world, right?” Sammy said. “Being a dad?”
For the first time, I realized that I could answer that question with the full-throated certainty it was absolutely true for me, and that guys weren't just lying to each other when they said that kind of stuff; for the first time, I felt that welling pride of being one of
men, the real men, the
grown-ups who know that, despite the psychological torture of those early months, and the ongoing burdens and struggles, kids give an absolute meaning to our lives
I told Sammy I'd need about ten duck legs and three quarts of duck fat. Then we got to kicking around the whole concept of confit, and he gently helped me face the fact that I wasn't going to have a single confit leg ready to eat for at least twenty-four hours. I would therefore miss the immediate evening's opportunity for a recipe checkmark unless I settled on something non-confit in a big hurry. I left Hannah in Sammy's arms and flipped quick through that Bertolli book, settling on Ravioli of Chicken, Pancetta, and Browned Garlic, with Rosemary Oil, and then steeling myself to revisit the whole amateur-fucking-around-with-ravioli mistake.
Taking all these ingredients home, and handing Hannah off to Liz, I waited until Liz wasn't looking to splooge all the opaque white duck fat into a pot and melt it clear over gentle heat before adding all those duck legs. I knew she'd get upset if she saw that much high-priced fat serving only as a cooking medium, not even as food. As I worked toward completion, I spilled enough liquid duck fat to make the floor dangerously slick, so my feet were slipping around while I dumped all the beans in a big bowl to soak for Cabbage and Bean Soup with Duck Confit, to eat the next day. Then I put the duck and its fat in the oven at 250 degrees, pivoting
quickly to dump exactly two cups of flour onto the counter and crack exactly two eggs onto the pile, to make my first-ever fresh pasta, before I noticed the recipe demanded an actual pasta machine. Liz, therefore, had to carry Hannah down those back stairs I'd built, past the tenants' apartment, under the crawl space, through the old basement door, and into the dankness to search out the pasta machine and bring it back up. And because she felt kind of sick, upon returning, she handed it over, and headed for the bathroom to do something mysterious.
“Honey?” Liz said, reopening the bathroom door, holding a white plastic stick in one hand.
I said, “Sweetie, I'm so sorry. I swear, I'll clean all this up. I will.”
“I'm pregnant again.”
“Cooking, preparing food, involves far more than just creating a meal for family or friends: it has to do with keeping yourself intact,” writes Alice, in the
Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook
. I discovered this for myself when that latest pregnancy ran into trouble. A second sonogram went well enough, showing ten tiny fingers and toes. The sonogram tech, in that darkened little hospital room, recorded the fetus's femur length and head size and asked if we wanted to know the sex. We did, so he pointed to a little nubbin and said, “It's a boy.” I pumped a fist, leaned close to the glowing screen, and thought instantly of how I'd have to get back into rock climbing, so I could take this boy climbing with my father. I hadn't been in yearsâa couple of friends, including a very dear one, had died by falling off cliffs, and I'd grown scaredâbut my father was still hard at it while I got fat exploring the earthy nostalgia of Bertolli's Grilled Fish Wrapped in Fig Leaves with Red Wine Sauce. So now my thoughts raced across the windswept springtime San Francisco Bay to my folks' place, around the overgrown side yard where I'd once dug G.I. Joe trenches and through the gate where I'd planted G.I. Joe snipers and across Mom's flower garden where I'd finally blown apart my G.I. Joes with firecrackers, and then through the flimsy wooden door of the falling-down garage. Somewhere inside, Dad still kept all the climbing gear we'd once shared,
on all those trips together. I phoned him from the hospital hallway, outside the ultrasound room.
I told him he was going to have a grandson, and then I said, “Better dig out my climbing stuff after all, huh?”
“That is so funny,” he replied, laughing. “I had exactly the same thought.”