Authors: Daniel Duane
Soon, though, amniocentesis turned up a virus that doesn't do much harm unless a pregnant woman gets it for the first time during her second trimester, when it can trigger birth defects so severe a child spends every day of his life in an institution, unable to feed himself or learn anybody's name. My father said, “Life is fragile enough, son. Families are fragile enough. I've seen them fall apart. The young family you already have needs the best shot it can get.” Our doctor, all our doctor friends, all our non-doctor friends: collectively, they quietly encouraged ending our pregnancy, and while it somehow seemed the clear choice, it felt unbearably ugly, sad, and cruel.
We had to wait two weeks for the appointmentâtwo weeks during which Liz walked around feeling kicks that would never turn into breast-feeding. I became fixated on the apparent instability of our old home's foundation, the possibility of an earthquake dooming us to a complete loss of our house and our net worth. So I paid a friend, a structural engineer, to come confirm my fears about incipient underground weakness. When this friend said that our foundation, while old and imperfect, wasn't all that bad, I found another engineer, for a second opinion. When my second engineer said the same thingâyou don't need a new foundationâI felt curiously defeated. So I told my second engineer to write up a plan for every imaginable earthquake-reinforcement move I could make anyway, throughout the entire basement.
I cooked, also, and something had changed: I cooked with absolute focus, and yet without mania. The simple steps toward Bertolli's Fish and Bread Soup felt soothing, steadying; the relatively rough work of his Salt Cod Hash, clearly lifted from Olney's
Simple French Food
, gave me the illusion of courage. Then, on the appointed late-spring day, we drove an hour north, past sun-beaten suburbs we'd searched for cheaper housing, among the golden grasses of a coming California summer. Liz and I spent the night in a good hotel near the hospital; we ordered room service, and I ate all of it, Liz ate nothing. We tried to watch a movie. In the morning, we met with a doctor who, in that awful obligation called “informed consent,” told us these operations sometimes went badly. Women hemorrhaged, destroying their ability to reproduce and even, on occasion, dying. Liz looked sickened by the effort of holding all this together in her mind, but she demonstrated a lot more courage than I, because I knew now that I would fare poorly without her. So I went to the cafeteria to eat a crappy sandwich while awful things happened to the girl I loved, and I waited for a cell phone call saying the operation was over and that she'd come through okay. Hours passed under the fluorescent lights, watching nurses and anxious people like me, coming and going. My cell phone failed to ring, and I became apoplectic with fear. An hour later, when Liz should've been safely out of surgery for a couple of hours, I began to panic. I paced the antiseptic hallways; I read all the door signs for Radiology, Pediatric Oncology. Then I phoned the recovery ward and heard that Liz been recovering just fine for quite a while. The nurse had simply forgotten to phone.
Liz and I drove home like two normal non-pregnant people in a normal automobile on the highway. Same thing, stopping for
groceries at the Bi-Rite Market, picking up odds and ends for some recipe or other: going through motions, behaving normally in the hopes of feeling that way.
Loss hits me like a depth charge bursting too deep down to ripple on the surface, so that I know only in a vague, trembling anxiety that a vacuum forms underneath, and that I will get swallowed; the anxiety, about the moment of that swallowing, becomes a problem of its own, a worsening fear of my own lack of buoyancy. I deal with that fear by hiding in unrelated thoughtsâmore reading, for example. The
Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook
carried quite a bibliographyâthe young Alice's way of positioning herself in a traditionâand I began ordering all of it. Escoffier, Fernand Point's
, Joyce Goldstein's (brace yourself, now, it's a long title)
Feedback: How to Cook for Increased Awareness, Relaxation, Pleasure, & Better Communication with Yourself & Those Who Eat the Food; How to Enjoy the Process as Well as the Product; How to Use the Kitchen as a Source of Nourishment: Emotional, Physical, & Sensual
. Alice wisely stroked the big contemporary food writers: Claiborne; Beard. But the title that grabbed me was Madeleine Kamman's
When French Women Cook: A Gastronomic Memoir
. Weary chuckles from the wife, sureâfocused fiercely on getting pregnant and thereby putting “our loss,” as we'd come to call it, behind us. Hannah was helping to keep me afloat, too, with her Daddy's a Rock Star routine, and I did my best underground, day after day, using my giant new Bosch hammer drill to bore big holes into the home's foundation, squirting epoxy into those holes, and then pounding in giant bolts, telling myself it was all vitally important to staving off collapse. Then I fell into bed with Kamman, hiding in her account of a preâWorld War II French childhood and that
ancient French understanding of how lovingly prepared food can offer sustenance and even pleasure in the face of horror.
Kamman's great-grandmother, for example, taking little Madeleine grocery shopping, every Sunday: “Market had replaced Mass ever since two of her sons had died in the Great War.” Or her grandmother EugÃ©nie, whose father had forbidden her to marry a childhood sweetheart because the boy had been JewishâEugÃ©nie had run away and never gone back, never again seen that sweetheart nor even her own father, as long as she'd lived. But Kamman traveled to EugÃ©nie's village, as a teen, and managed to find EugÃ©nie's long-lost sister and even the Jewish boyânow elderly, but still a bachelor, having held on to that love all his life. At a Christmas dinner, Kamman and this elderly pair share a feast of EugÃ©nie's recipes: ham and sauerkraut, “quenelles of pheasant, a truffled chicken with
, covered with
, and another chicken with quenelles and Riesling sauce.”
Liz agreed that it was all unbearably beautiful and sad, and she listened while I read aloud the part about Kamman sent off to a children's home in the Alps, in October of 1939, after the Nazis had begun their westward blitz. Kamman describes it as the happiest winter of her life, befriending a gangly fourteen-year-old girl named Mimi: “Every Saturday, the dominant smell of the house was that of red wine in which either a rabbit, a hare, or a piece of pork was cooking.” Warm hospitality, long brisk hikes in the cold blue air: “The valleys and mountains around Annecy,” Kamman writes, became “the paradise of my life, the elected homeland of my heart, the place where, to this day, I strive to go back for emotional replenishment, where I want to go back forever.” Horror ensues: the Nazis murder Mimi's parents and rape Mimi herself, leaving her pregnant, and yet the lesson for me, in my own time of grief, lay in the way Kamman ended this awful tale. Thirty years
later, having moved to the United States and built a cooking school and cookbook-writing career, Kamman actually
go back to Annecy, where she and Mimi “shall forever be friends and talk and laugh around a plate of pear pancakes.”
So our collective life goes on, not without its joys and not entirely unlike the war-ravaged Italian family described in a preface to
Chez Panisse Cooking
, from an Italian immigrant named Angelo Pellegrini. Likewise a child in Europe before and during the Second World War, Pellegriniâauthor of the eccentric memoir
The Unprejudiced Palate
, a book that Alice once told me ought to be called
The Prejudiced Palate
âdescribes a walk along the ancient Appian Way, near the Roman Coliseum. Smelling something wonderful, Pellegrini follows his nose into a depiction of the humble postwar Italian hearth that would've made Mussolini weep: a peasant mother, inside her bombed-out cottage, cooking wild mushrooms gathered by seven hungry children, Papa presumably dead. Bertolli's cuisine, Pellegrini means to say, reminds him of that magical mushroomy smell, the mother eking out relief in the darkest of times. And I knew I'd felt Pellegrini's meaning in the recipes themselvesâbecause, yes, Bertolli found the time and the creative hunger to write hundreds of them, despite being Italian, and despite also writing in his own introduction that a recipe “can never quite tell enough nor can it thoroughly describe the ecstatic moments when the intuition, skill, and accumulated experience of the cook merge with the taste and composition of the foodâ¦ . In this sense, cooking is not about following recipes.”
Bertolli's long, thoughtful essays on various aspects of the eating life fit together into a single flamenco-like vision: “Bread,” for example, effuses sentimentality and mystery, describing an Italian baker who'd been making a particular loaf for twenty years, having learned it from his father, and referring to the loaf always,
every time he made it, as “the wise old man.” Bertolli writes that spontaneously leavened bread “declares a personality and embodies a presence,” and that bread, like wine, “is often understood to evoke something larger than itself.” And so I mixed up a sourdough starter, let the flour and water grab natural bacteria from the air and begin to build a bulwark against hard times. A vinegar crock, too: dumping together the dregs of each night's wine glasses and bottles, storing them like memories in my construction-site basement (shear-walling, now, thousands upon thousands of big nails, fired into big plywood sheets, further protection against earthquakes made possible with my newly purchased air compressor and framing nail gun, tools of the serious carpenter, encouraged by Liz in the hopes they'd lift my mood, given that I refused to seek help), hoping said bacteria would convert all that alcohol into something of quiet, sustaining depth. Cured meats, hanging likewise in that dusty basementâMason jars full of pickled things and preserves, tucked away in a canning cellar, and the puttering itself, the time underground and out of the daylight, getting by.
“Canning is anxiety in its absolute state,” writes the sociologist Giralmo Sineri, as quoted in
Food Is Culture
, by Massimo Montanari, who adds that it's “also a bet on the future: âWho would ever make marmalades if he didn't have the hope of living at least long enough to be able to eat them?'” Bertolli's recipes carried, for me, a similar melancholy spirit of fear joined to hope, or at least forbearance in hard times: his rabbit salad, for example, right around the time Liz got pregnant yet again. Ignoring the fact that rabbits are stupidly expensive in San Francisco, there was all the work of deboning the little limbs, cutting the meat into morsels, hacking up the carcass to simmer for a sauce. Then I sautÃ©ed the livers and kidneys, along with some wild mushrooms.
I hard-boiled eggs. I fritter-fried the meat morsels and then assembled the salad. I found it lovely and sad: the forest as bounty, the lonely cook wandering and gathering, eating odds and ends. I told myself I loved it, and I told myself that Liz's stomach was simply resistant to complex food. Eventually, I threw away Liz's entire portion, along with Hannah's. All that money, all that work, and I ate the remainder alone. Night after night, I'd ask Liz which of several Bertolli dishes she'd like to have, and she'd always say she did not care.
“Oh, come on,” I'd reply, “just choose: red wine sausage, or stuffed quail?”
“Sweetie, I really just don't care.”
“But doesn't one sound even the slightest bit better?”
“Both are okay, and so is takeout, or pasta. It's all fine.”
Liz recognized before I did that my cooking had begun to fail as a coping mechanism, expressing my deterioration rather than healing it. She loved me but could not let herself get pulled down further with me. I misread this as mere unwillingness to commit to any stated desire, for that commitment might later call for gratitude. Once I'd picked a dish and cooked it, I watched Liz's face intensely for a reaction, as if everything were her fault. I could see that she liked the stuffed quail just fine, but she didn't eat much. I had to know why. What was wrong?
“Honey, I don't know. Please don't get upset. I guess I just find quail to be a little fussy,” she said.
Fussy? Quail? What could be more relaxed! She reacted the same way to veal chops.
I said, “What? Why did you put down your fork?”
“Come on, say it. You don't like it.”
“It's just a little intense, for me.”
“It's not fucking intense. Veal is mild! That's the whole point of veal! It's milk fed!” I might also have mentioned that it was beautifully marinated and grilled to perfection.
She said, “Please, baby, I'm being honest. I just find it a little intense. Maybe because it's so big. I don't need as much meat as you.”
“The sight of a big chop, on your plate. So it's an emotional reaction to the amount of meat, more than my cooking.”
“That's who you married.”
“This has to be some vestige of your dysfunctional childhood psychology.”
“That's fine with me.”
“Where you express control by refusing to eat.”
“I get overwhelmed by food. I like to eat simply. I don't like food asking me to have a big reaction.”
The first sonogram, around the time Hannah turned two, went okay: there was a heartbeat, at least. So we began to anticipate a so-called CVS test revealing sex and, of course, any genetic abnormalities. I coped by making Bertolli's Warm Duck Breast Salad, a dish Liz enjoyed just fine, and then I roasted two pigeons for dishes she found far less appealing: one for a salad, another for a soup. The salad followed the same approach as for the rabbit: roast the animal, drizzle the juices and fat into the dressing, sautÃ© the heart and liver with pancetta and then chop them fine and toss them with the greens, perhaps a chanterelle or two, meat on top. (“Daddy,” said my little Hannah, “I love pigeon.”) The soup, however, was appalling.