Friday, December 25, 2009

How To Make Lasagne

This is an old short story I wrote. It has feminist implications. I hope you like it, because that's all you are getting as a present from me today.

How To Make Lasagne

First you need an incentive. In-laws will do. They don't like your cooking, they don't like you. You wish that they'd like you, or at least your cooking, because then life would be easier for everybody. And you are a woman who has been taught that it is worthwhile to seek approval.

The in-laws like lasagne. You are going to make it and then they'll love you. The whole world will love you, and suddenly you'll be given the credit you deserve.

The next step is to learn how to make lasagne. You don't want to ask anybody for advice; it would show them that you, at your age, don't know how to cook. But you can read. The library is full of cookbooks, brimming over with food, love and assurances. You take home as many as you can carry. They all have recipes for lasagne. Some are very complicated, beginning with how to make the pasta from durum flour and water, and ending, some years later, in a steaming hot dish from the oven. Love can't require this. The easier recipes allow for shortcuts but you worry about them: what if a shortcut lasagne isn't good enough, after all? Is it the hours spent in the kitchen, the mess made, the aching backs, the burnt fingers, that bring esteem and approval? What happens elsewhere at the same time?

Then you read a cookbook which tells that it is your love that makes your cooking good. Now you've had it. Do you love your in-laws enough? Do you love your husband enough? What about God? You bury your head in the mountain of cookbooks and weep.

But don't give up just yet. There might still be salvation through cooking. Think of all those old women in black dresses, old women with pinched mouths and flat feet who cooked away their whole lives. Weren't they esteemed for what they did? Think about it. When grandma died, didn't the funeral guests say that she would never have served them food as bad as what the catering service provided? Wasn't she valued? Was she?

You don't know. But you are going to learn to make lasagne, to pluck this one laurel leaf from the female crown. So back to the cookbooks.

You learn that lasagne is made of layers: sauce, pasta, perhaps cheese, another sauce, pasta, sauce...Every one of these layers can be made from scratch, or replaced by a shortcut. What is the right thing to do? Should you make a meat sauce which starts with making broth for the sauce, letting it simmer for two hours first? Should you peel organic tomatoes for a tomato sauce by dipping them in boiling water first? Are broth substitutes loving enough? Are canned tomatoes acceptable? What is a cream sauce? Who controls the alchemy of the gradual swelling of flour in the cream to make a smooth, velvety sauce, not bitter lumps of raw flour? Did you make the right choices about college? Were you unselfish enough as a daughter? What kind of cheese is correct? Have you found the right path in life? What is a moderate oven temperature? Should you have been more politically engaged, should you have tried to stop the idiots that go for power like wolves to a lamb they have slaughtered? Must all herbs be freshly picked? Are you genuine enough? Is a quick lasagne really distinguishable from one into which you have poured your best years? Will the world ever forgive you for not giving birth to children? Will your husband love the lasagne? Will he know that it is your love, your soul, your naked self that you have chopped up, stewed, melted, arranged and offered for ritual sacrifice? Will he fail to notice that it isn't exactly like the lasagne at home? Will you be in peace, finally?

You decide on a compromise, always a compromise for you: pre-made pasta, two sauces made from scratch and Mozzarella cheese. You make a shopping list, and name the following Saturday the Lasagne Day. Then you realize that you don't have enough pans for the sauces or knives for the cutting. You make another shopping list.

On the Thursday before Lasagne Day you go shopping for the tools. You never understood how many things could be fitted into a kitchen. Buying saucepans is like buying a car: you need to know about gasoline consumption, size, safety, speed, technology. There are no such things as just saucepans. The sales assistants have PhDs in engineering and psychology. You are taken along on a trip to the wonders of modern culinary arts and when you return to earth, dazed and out of breath, you are the proud owner of a set of copper saucepans, of German steel knives and of something called a mandoline which has nothing to do with music. Back at home you find that your new belongings don't fit anywhere in your small kitchen. You need a drink badly, you need to put your feet up, preferably somewhere far away from the kitchen.

It is comfortable in the study. The curtains are drawn and the lights are dimmed. Your wine glass is at hand and your body slowly drains off its fatigue. You refuse to think about your credit card balance or your humiliation at having been talked into unnecessary purchases. You think about food instead, and the tools to make it.

Your grandmother - not the one with pinched lips but the one who was bent over at the waist like an upside-down L from years of carrying full milk pails at the farm - this grandmother had a wood stove in her kitchen. It dominated the whole room from its corner, crouching there, huge, black, with a hundred yellow eyes which were really the flames showing through small openings in the iron body. Grandmother would feed it everything from paper to coffee grounds. She'd lift one of the cooking rings on top with a stick and drop in something for the stove to eat. The stove was always burning; it had to be fed and stoked to keep the room warm enough in the winter, to keep its inhabitants alive. Grandmother had to feed it. No-one else knew how to tame the beast.

Her kitchen had also a brand-new electric range. Grandmother would have nothing to do with it; she didn't trust electricity. She cooked by touch, sight and smell. Spitting on the wood stove told her when the heat was right. Her saucepans were few, battered, ancient.

Why do you think of her now? The food from that grandmother's kitchen was bland and plentiful. She wasn't a great chef. Most great chefs have been men. For the usual reasons and also because men don't have what women do: those long, messy, invisible strings dragging behind them, weighing them down with equivalences between love and food, between guilt and food, between salvation and food. No woman can ever wholly escape her shadows full of sticky connections from chocolate chip cookies to motherhood or from hunger through thinness to independence and once again to hunger.

Food is a weighty topic, you think. Maybe because the extreme opposite of food is death, and this confuses us into believing that the extreme opposite of death is always more food, more giving, more sacrifice?

On the Friday before Lasagne Day you go shopping for food. The supermarket you pick is a high-quality one; they stock organic produce and use halogen lights. The supermarket is beautiful: clean, spacious, ordered, full of colors. The aisles are wide and lead to most delectable altars.

You wander around, admiring everything: the space, its contents, other shoppers. Some people think that shopping has replaced gathering and hunting, but you see something deeper and more mystical in this behavior. You are awe-struck, a little girl in the museum of perfect food. You handle the packages with reverence.

The supermarket stocks ten varieties of pasta for lasagne, five varieties of tomatoes, organic and nonorganic garlic, cheese from fifteen countries, milk from freely roaming happy cows, corpses of chickens that died of sheer happiness. You pick the most expensive products, for nothing must diminish your triumph or hamper your efforts. Your shopping cart is now full, yet your hands are still clean.

Such a happy store. But not all shoppers look happy. Many look tired, worn out, old, irritated by fractious children. The workers look even more worn out. Still, the soft lights make it all bearable, even the large total the cashier demands from you at the end of this adventure.

At home you admire the food you bought. It is virginal, perfect, almost too sacred to be eaten. The tomatoes glow like jewels, the herbs are still growing, the eggs are luminescent moonlets, asleep, curled around their secrets. The food whispers promises of safety and security, of many, many tomorrows. The food reassures you that it won't be your face in those terrible pictures of starvation victims. With everything stowed away you feel rich, content. You might even feel loved.

Then, finally, it is Lasagne Day. You wake up like a cat, purring, stretching into all the expectations: a lovely day, people sitting together, connected, and in the middle of it all the food, the most perfect lasagne, made by you. It is going to be a day to remember, a day to celebrate food and all the things food can achieve.

You are so excited that you want your husband gone from the house. He is going to take everyone else to a baseball game and then bring them back for dinner. You haven't told him about Lasagne Day; it would spoil everything if he knew. It would make you less wonderful and him more demanding. No, secrecy is the way to go, that way you have nothing left to lose. You did worry that he might choose to eat out without letting you know first, but the goddess of lasagne surely must be on your side and strong enough to stop this from happening. Please.

When he leaves, you take a bath in lavender water. This purifies you, renders you acceptable. You dress in white jeans and T-shirt, and make your way slowly to the kitchen. You place the notes about the recipe you have printed out on the counter in the empty kitchen and read them one more time. Then you sit on a stool and take several deep breaths. You are now ready.

The first task is to make the sauces. The tomato sauce. You take out all the ingredients for it, the copper pans, the steel knives and the cutting boards, put water to boil for peeling tomatoes, and hunt in the drawers for a sieve. This is needed for removing the tomato seeds. While the water heats up you slice the cheese with your new sharp knife. The cheese looks meek, already surrendered to being eaten. It is almost cruel to bring the hard sharp edge of the knife against its soft body. Mozzarella is bland, you have no appetite for it, which lets you feel compassion, a vaguely sisterly feeling. You wrap up the slices in plastic and store them in the refrigerator.

The water is now boiling. In go the tomatoes, you count to thirty, and pour the water out. The tomatoes burn your fingers, and you run cold water over them and the fingers. The peeling of tomatoes goes like a miracle: they slip out with a plop, leaving the red skin almost intact. The peeled tomatoes look naked, with veins and mucus glistening on the outside. You think of peeled eyeballs, of butchered animals. You never liked tomatoes. You mash them up.

This was a mistake. You should have strained the seeds out first, reserved the juice and the tomato chunks for the sauce. Your lasagne will have tomato seeds in it. Maybe it doesn't matter.

You chop up some onions and sprigs of parsley and thyme, brown the onions in olive oil and pour them into a saucepan with ready-made chicken stock. You add the parsley, thyme and one bay leaf. When the stock boils, you add the mashed tomatoes, pepper and salt, and lower the heat to simmer. You now know what 'simmering' means, and why you sometimes think that some divine chef has left you on permanent simmer.

You sit down for a quick rest. A wonderful aroma permeates the kitchen, the smell of home cooking. This makes you very proud, even cocky. You are now one of the elect few who know the alchemy of food. But the kitchen looks like a battleground, steel knives with blood on them, skins of innocent victims in the sink. We go to war for food, ultimately. We kill for food, ultimately, even if it is disguised as power or gods. If we have food and they don't, they die. If they have food and we don't, we die. Unless there is war. Or charity. But charity is like love, a much harder skill to learn; learned much, much later in our long history. It washes off so easily.

What about food and sex, you wonder as you prepare the stage for the cream sauce. They are not the same, food comes first, bodies come before the sex they have, and bodies need food. But they know each other. The melting of the first piece of really good chocolate on the tongue wakes up all the music in the body, just as the first hesitant circle of a lover's tongue on your bare skin does. We are defenseless, innocent victims of the laws of our bodies. We need, we want, we take. Food and sex are both short ladders to small fragile paradises.

Then come the reprimands, the self-inspections, guilt and worry. Will we get sick? Will we get fat? Will we get pregnant? You are not willing to think those kinds of thoughts, they anger and confuse you: it is as if something is wrong in these pictures, something is altered or even covered up, and the point of this is to deceive you in some sense. Something that you almost know about.

The tomato sauce is now ready. It can sit and wait for the time being. The cream sauce needs to be prepared next. This is what you fear. Only impeccable people can make a cream sauce, and you are so loaded down with guilt and shame that it is an act of desperate courage just to try.

You are suddenly hungry, so hungry that you can barely stand. All your blood seems to have gone down into your calves which are now enormous. The rest of you is immaterial. You jam some bread into your mouth, chew and swallow too fast, nearly suffocating as a result. You eat the rest of the bread more slowly and try to relax your body.

A clean copper saucepan is necessary for the cream sauce. You start with a lump of yellow butter melting in the pan. When it is melted you add the flour, stirring, stirring. The idea is to cook the flour without burning it. You stir and the flour burns. The milk you are heating on another ring of the range boils over. You burn your finger fighting with the milk pan. Maybe it doesn't matter.

The flour is now quite brown. You add the scalded milk, slowly, slowly, while violently beating all the time. Never leave the cream sauce unattended. Never leave a child or a dog in a parked car. Never wear a size fourteen. You beat and beat, the sauce stares back at you from all the glum eyes the burnt flour has made. Your arms are falling off. You beat, and the sauce refuses to thicken. Only women and cream sauces refuse to thicken.

The sauce stays thin with lumps of dirty-looking flour. You cry a little, then pour out the sauce and go to medicate your burnt finger. You take a large glass of wine into the study and close the door.

What was the point? You set yourself up for failure, you with your Jesus-complexes. You feel responsible for everything, don't you? Ask any fairy tale. For not being a perfect woman, even though perfect women, by definition, don't exist. For not being a good enough human being, you know, one that stops wars everywhere and saves all the little children from starvation. You are crazy, of course, a grandiose fool. But so are we all.

You are becoming a little tipsy, and suddenly all this starts to look very funny. Grandmothers worshipping wood stoves, grandmothers getting flat feet from standing in the kitchen all their lives, food talking to them, food talking to their granddaughters who answer back with anorexia and bulemia and refusals to learn to cook. You must admit it is funny. Sad, but also funny.

You laugh and cry, thinking about all those long, messy, sticky chains of food, dragging all of us down, holding us firmly in one place. Food eating away our insides.

You pour yourself another glass of wine, notice your tomato-speckled T-shirt and laugh. You look like a butcher, not an acolyte of a heavenly Chateaubriand. You put your feet up, laugh, and toast to the gods of grapes. You congratulate yourself for not having wasted the cream that was supposed to go in the cream sauce.

When your husband and in-laws arrive you serve them spaghetti and tomato sauce. There is whipped cream with fruit for dessert. They love it. They never notice how drunk you are.