The Wonder of Gluttony
Here’s another excerpt from my book in progress The Making of an Italian Cook.
Several years of disco dancing beat the cooking bug right out of me. I moved to the city, enrolled at N.Y.U., ostensibly to study journalism, thinking it would be useful to write about cheap wine or human rights abuse, now my two main interests, but I still had no life plan. And now that my cooking was temporarily pushed to a dormant area of my brain, I couldn’t get out of my own way. My teenage cooking gave me purpose, and now it was gone. Confusion set in, but oddly it didn’t even matter to me at that point (maybe not a good sign. I should have picked up on that one sooner). Bars took the place of discos and Mickey Ruskin’s 1 U, as it was called (its address was 1 University Place) was the most alluring place around, and conveniently located about four blocks from my dark, stiflingly overheated, roach infested studio apartment. Scott, attending Parsons School of Design, moved in caddy corner to me, finding a similar studio, but his had sunlight and no roaches. I took a job at Barnes & Noble, wrote journalism as if it were fiction, and got into a rolling rut of drinking tooth staining wine and trying to figure what I was suppose to do with straight men.
1 U didn’t have much design appeal. It was just a big, low ceiling box of a place, spare, not even dark, no coziness, and no boho trappings, like Max’s, Ruskin’s earlier club, except for the clientele. What it looked like was a suburban living room, but it served as a classroom for Larry Rivers and his fluid table of young and not so young groupies. Mickey Ruskin, with his phenomenally huge nose and famously greasy black hair made sure they weren’t bothered by riff raff like me. I preferred the bar anyway, a good place to bum cigarettes and seek out the gayest or most outlandish looking men in the place, and there were plenty of exotics to choose from (did I say I was trying to focus on straight men? Oh sorry, my mistake).
Even though I had stopped cooking cold turkey (actually up to this point I had never even cooked a turkey), I was still very attuned to flavors and aromas. The differences between the smoke from a Dunhill Red, an unfiltered Gauloise, or a Marlboro Light, the thick, oakey taste of a California Chardonnay, something I hated from sip one, deli salami cured with too much nitrites that choked the back of my throat, or the beautiful taste of cherries in season as opposed to the winter supermarket offerings, all these things I’m sure would have gone undetected before my frantic cooking stint of several years back. I had awakened my palate and, as I’d soon find out, it would never go back to sleep.
Sitting at Mickey’s bar one night with my cruddy glass of Cabernet (one night? For a while it seemed like it was every night), I made the acquaintance of the fattest man I have ever seen. He tapped me on the back, offering me an invitation to join him. “Thank you but I’m happy here,” is what I said, and I suppose that was true enough. Oysters and Manhattans, he insisted, were a marriage made in heaven and he wanted me to share this experience with him. I think I was fascinated by his girth, maybe over 400 pounds, and, for such a huge man, his elegant gray linen suit and well ironed powder pink dress shirt. I let him take my arm and relocate me to a table right next to the River’s group. The Manhattans and Blue Point oysters came quickly. I had never had a Manhattan before, a mix of Rye, sweet vermouth, and a touch of bitters. I thought it tasted thick, a little smoky, and too sweet, but it was going down well enough even though I seldom drank straight liquor, maybe the occasional martini. I love oysters and ate them frequently with my father when we’d go to steak houses together, but with this particular drink I thought they tasted metallic. He finished his drink in about two gulps, slipping the oysters down quickly too, and they kept on coming, the Manhattans, the oysters.
From what I remember, he seemed like a very nice man, although I can’t remember his name, possibly John. I told him I volunteered for Amnesty International, something I’d actually be doing since high school, and this began a kind of dry talk about Nigeria and the ban on political activity that had just been lifted, something that tragically didn’t last long enough. And as I recall he was a for real journalist, not a ‘to hell with the facts’ type like I obviously was studying to become. Possibly he wrote for The Wall Street Journal, I think I remember that, and I gathered he was somewhat of a political conservative, except in the field of eating. One thing for certain, he was obviously one of those insatiable people who never got enough, couldn’t put on the breaks, a type I’d heard about but not yet, in my young life, met, except for the few heroin addicts I’d know in high school. Addiction to drugs I came somewhat to understand, having watched several of my young friends deeply immersed, tragically to the point of no return, but to just eat and eat and eat with no fullness ever, this I couldn’t wrap my culinary head around. How is it, I though, that the food just doesn’t eventually fill the belly and start coming back up the throat? I suppose it’s a process that comes about by sheer will. His stomach must have been stretched to breaking. I have, I think, an fairly early cut off point when it comes to food, except for many types of pasta dishes such as spaghetti with clams and possibly penne with lamb ragu, but generally speaking I stop eating when I’m full (and there are still times when I can’t pull the plug quick enough on my red wine consumption, although at least now I drink better wine). This man, it seemed, could never ever get enough. As elegant as he was, he frightened me.
‘John’ must have put an order in for a non-stop flow of this very strange combination of flavors. I would have preferred a vodka martini with the oysters. Why did he like this so much? All in all I had maybe three drinks, possibly four. But he was ordering four for each of mine. A marriage made in heaven, he repeated. Each new marriage was seemingly a drop in the bucket for him. After a few rounds it started to not seem like such a good marriage to me. I stopped eating the oysters, but continued to drink. The Manhattans tasted better without the oysters so I concentrated on those. But then, wouldn’t you know it, I began to see him double, which was quite a shock, since his huge form now seemed to be taking up the entire room. My brow broke out in a sweat. A wave of nausea flooded up from under my rib cage. My heartbeat quickened. And then, of course, I was off, racing to the bathroom, puking so violently, I truly thought I was going to pass out (thankfully this didn’t happen. The thought of being 86ed from 1 U would have been a tragic uprooting).
It seemed I was in that bathroom for quite a long time, but Big ‘John’ never came looking for me. When I finally wrenched my head up from the toilet, a little blood running from my lip (had I slammed my face into the bowl?), I collected myself as best as I could, rinsing out my mouth, running my fingers through my damp hair, putting on a little blush (always makes a girl feel fresh after a bout of vomiting) and started walking toward the door, the nausea still churning, my throat on fire, but there he was, another 2 dozen oysters set out in front of him, two more Manhattans. “Come sit,” he said to me, cradling his arm around my waist, seemingly oblivious to the passing of time and what I might have been up to. But now I viewed him as the devil. What makes a person so insatiable? How is what he does relate to eating as most people understand it? What goes on in his brain that makes him need more and more and more and more, never ending, and why the hell did he think this food and beverage were a marriage made in heaven?