I imagine some people turn 40 and look around at all the great stuff they’ve accumulated, and the great decisions they’ve made, and what great jobs they have, and go: “Goddamn, I got forty or fifty more years to enjoy my accumulation of status, wealth, and prestige!” I imagine others figure it’s just another day to work hard, still others undoubtedly thank God for the unstoppable approach of death. I looked around and said: “whoops!”
Whoops! I quit one career before I’d even learned to launch another. Whoops! I hurt my back and didn’t recover for three years. Whoops! We didn’t sell this time-and-money-pit of a house 10 years ago. Whoops! I came back from Europe.
But look, all is not lost. I have a loving wife who knows how to earn money, a cute baby,a finely-honed sense of aesthetic, and I know how to cook.
I’ve put that skill to good use over the years—working bad hours for bad pay under megalomaniacal chefs, sure! But also making other people happy! I’ve made a lot of people happy with good meals.
Here are the ones I remember:
- Roasted pork chops stuffed with sauerkraut, apples, and rye bread, and glazed with sweet mustard reduction, for my friend Jeremy in my two-room apartment in Cincinnati. We ate them on the ugly brown wagon wheel/country kitsch print sofa in the combined kitchen/living area. This was the first thing I cooked outside of work that someone else actually said, “goddamn, this is really good!” about.
- That time when Doug’s uncle Jean took us down to a little cove on Corsican coast and scooped up a mess of sea urchin—oursin—and I grilled the rib steak he had brought on a little stone grill he had set up. Jean forgot the salt, so I splashed some of Jean’s homemade rosé and some seawater on it, which he thought was brilliant. We scooped the oursin out of the spiny shell with baguette. I got sea urchin spines stuck in my foot. Doug’s old uncle made Angelo Pelegrini look like a preening foodie.
- The picnic I wooed my wife with. I put raw shallots in the fava beans, which pisses me off to this day. Never, ever, put raw onions in any picnic item. She thought it was great. I made it up to her with glasses of gazpacho and roasted albacore on our wedding day.
Now add to the list my 40th birthday feast. Intended as a foul weather picnic, the weather unfortunately turned out great. A Civilian Conservation Corps shelter sits at the head of an extremely popular Columbia Gorge mountain trail. A squat little shack of logs and stone, its cedar shake roof is blanketed in moss. A self-satisfied parade of technical outerwear files past this architectural gem resting amongst the oxalis and dicentra, intent on conquering the little mountain, totally oblivious to the charm right in their collective face. We’ll keep it’s location a secret.
Some people seek awe because they think awe is winning. Keep your massive waterfalls denuded of vegetation and the well-trammeled panorama of compacted dirt and gel packs. I conquer the mountain from the bottom.
Inside the shelter is the reason for existence the foul weather picnic, the thing that makes it not just tolerable, but pleasant: Two enormous wood stoves built of field stones. Shaped vaguely like coffins, they sit at 90 degree angles to one another and butt up to a stone chimney. Atop each coffin sits two enormous and rusty steel plates. I filled them with wood and lit the blaze. After smoking and sputtering for a while, they began to blaze clean, the crisp air pulling through the old steel grates over the wood and through the ancient chimney.
I ran around setting up the area: cutting boards, garbage bags, meat out to temper, bowls of snacks. Tried to wash a rodent turd down the drain, sanitized the countertop. From the cooking area you can admire a little patch of managed turf, bordered by wildflowers, surrounded by a stand of enormous fir trees, and backed by a steep scree slope. As one of the kids exclaims later: “It looks like a movie!” Meanwhile, a few friends have showed up to go hiking with me, and although I told everyone we were to leave at 10:00 sharp, now it’s almost 11. So at Cute’s urging, I leave the rest to her and head up.
Three quarters of the way to the top, I realize I have terribly misgauged the timing. I said we would eat around 2:00 or2:30. It’s 1:00. They urge me to finish, so I start dragging them up. The view is great, of course. Why else would 35 people in fleece be up here? I make a self-disparaging remark about technical outerwear, since I wore a flannel which is now sticking to me. It is not taken well.
We run down the hill, like achy old Jack Kerouacs. We do stop to identify some plants though—Asarum caudatum, Athyrium filix-femina, Mimulus lewisii—because what’s a hike if you don’t learn some new plants? Oh, that’s right, it’s a banal race to the end. I burst onto the picnic area and see people milling around. Gradually they come into focus, all my friends. One I met 25 years ago, a couple I met six months ago. Children are running through the grass and climbing the scree slope. Climbing the scree slope!
There’s Cute, setting up tables and making guests feel welcome and a part of something, rather than just a bunch of randoms milling around a trailhead. I walk into the shelter hoping to somehow, through the haze of hunger and chronic sleep deprivation that characterizes my age, slam this party together. I have potatoes and two top sirloins to roast, an escarole and grapefruit salad, a nettle soup, too many house-made condiments, a hot toddy bar, and hot chocolate…and this all seems like a huge mistake now.
Then I notice someone standing at the counter bent over my cutting board…a cook! Scott is slicing scallions. Emily is filling air pots with hot water, tea, and chocolate. Adam is shuttling potatoes from the roasting pan and grill to the wood oven. I look out the window, Clyde is at the grill. He grabs a well-browned sirloin roast with the tongs, positions it in front of his crotch, and jerks it in my direction. God bless me, I’m saved.
I pour a healthy glug of whisky into a cup, add a drizzle of honey and a squeeze of lemon, and top it off with chamomile tea. I walk around checking on all the food being cooked, and it’s just about ready. The yellow potatoes, well-browned from the wood stove, billow clouds of earthy steam when piled into a bowl. Slicing into its red heart, I see the top sirloin is roasted and seasoned perfectly, through and through. Warm tonic of nettles and leeks heals the winter-racked body.
My friends are getting better and my meals are still improving, even as I decay.