Congratulations, you’ve been shortlisted to compete for $100,000 and your very own cooking show on The Banquet Network! You’ve successfully completed the 30-Day Gourmet Challenge while keeping a diary of your progress and are now a semi-finalist. Next, convince us you deserve the chance to go to the televised finals in New York City; write about the moment you realized you wanted to be a cook or chef.
OK, I will! I look forward to reconstructing the entire debacle (my therapist says I should use every opportunity to take a good look at the choices that got me into my present mess). But first, let me say that when I told my mother I was a semi-finalist for the cook-off, she said to me, “One can always tell a civilization is in steep decline when its chefs are famous.”
That’s an odd reply to good news about one’s child pursuing a dream, you say? Why couldn’t she just be happy for you, you wonder? These are great questions. Anyhow, I must have awoken that morning with cheek to spare, because I responded that in the absence of students to bore, I guessed I would be the one taking the brunt of her neurotic over-analysis.
When I said that, her face did this beautiful wilting thing I’d never seen it do in my 27 years. I felt giddy with the knowledge that a thing I said and meant could hurt her, even as the kid in me recoiled from that knowledge.
But she quickly returned her face to its accustomed glacial set, and spun on her heel and said fiddle-dee-dee, leaving me alone with the pot of coffee I’d brewed for us. I sat at her breakfast nook for a moment, glaring after her absence. Then I got up to add paprika, salt, crushed garlic, olive oil, and bourbon to her share of the coffee as the starter for a sauce I would later use to anoint the two flank steaks in the fridge. I’m accustomed to making a purse from the sow’s ear that is my relationship with that woman. That’s the kind of hard-won spunk you’re going to want to put on TV.
My mother is a retired classics professor, a single parent, Anne Bancroft-in-The-Graduate lovely, and an excellent cook. For the longest time I wanted to cease being me and just commence with the business of being her, of “becoming my mother” like everyone kept saying daughters did. But it sometimes feels like the only thing she’s given me besides complexes and a good palate are pretty eyes. We have (almost) nothing else in common.
Whereas I am plump and always have been, you can count her vertebrae through the gauzy blouses she prefers. I’d rather read an Ina Garten recipe book than reread The Georgicsany day. And I have never cheated or helped anyone to cheat. I’m not so glamorous as all that.
You probably want me to cut to the chase. That’s reasonable. I know you want us to have TV-ready back-stories, so let’s say that my love of cooking was born on the morning Mother stood me on a footstool in front of the stove and told me we were going to do a magic trick. We were going to fry an egg.
On the day in question, I was 6 or 7. Mother was receiving a teaching award at the university later in the morning. She took a Polaroid of the two of us in our once-a-year church getups (we only went on Good Friday), so I know exactly how I looked on the occasion of my first egg fry. In the photo, two curled pigtails keep my frizzy black hair out of my face, and I wear an Alice-like blue and white dress. My mother smiles her crooked smile, incisors digging into the flesh of her bottom lip. She wears a billowy blue blouse and a pencil skirt. We match, somewhat. I guess she was also trying to teach me how to cook without messing one’s fancy ensemble.
“Someone once said that there’s nothing more private than an egg before it’s broken,” she told me. That phrase has always stuck in my head—it’s really quite poetic. I’m still not sure what it means, though.
Together, we cracked an egg into the heat of her beloved “single server” antique cast-iron skillet, which was the only material thing her own mother had left to her when she died a month before. Mother had taken to saying that only my grandmother would use her own death as an opportunity to criticize my mother’s confirmed singlehood.
“Watch as the albumen goes from clear to white,” she urged over the sizzle. “What we’re really seeing is the mass marriage of proteins. These proteins used to be content to live curled up and alone, separate and selfish, until we lit a fire under their butts and warned them they might rot that way. Banked fire is to raw egg protein as romantic comedies are to singles. Ha,” she said (she always says “ha” instead of actually laughing) and turned off the heat.
“But here’s the important thing: you mustn’t over-fry. The proteins should still feel like they could untangle if they wanted. Give ’em too much hell and they’ll crisp at the edges and taste less than delicious.” She killed the heat and we watched as the egg finished settling into its new shape. Satisfied that I now knew my way around a breakfast classic, my mother took me off the footstool with a groan, sat me at the table, slid the egg from the spatula onto half a toasted English muffin, and watched me eat my open-faced sandwich with a fork and knife.
“And you don’t undercook just any egg, little one. Choosing the wrong egg can make you very sick. Every woman needs to learn about discernment, but only the fray can teach you that.” I fell in love with the way she’d coaxed that yolk to a semi-solid state, like the inside of a proper caramel fudge brownie, so that, if you stuck your fork into it and pulled, it would practically curl after the tines. How could I want to do anything but cook, after a first lesson with results like that?
What sort of a support system do you have in place when it comes to your family’s needs while we tape the show? This may seem like an odd question, but some contestants breach the contract to go home when they start to miss their families! We wouldn’t want that sort of legal nightmare for you!
My ex-fiancé, Damon, had one question for me when I told him about my plans to audition for the show: “Are you going to go on a diet before it starts taping?”
Two things about this question:
It suggests he was confident I’d make it at least as far as taping, which I take as a compliment.
It reminds me that my former husband-to-be is a practicing sociopath.
I’m a pharmaceutical rep by day, and he is the gastroenterologist who charmed his way into my heart with his shitty jokes:
“The colon cancer patient goes on Wheel of Fortune and says, I’d like to buy a bowel, please,” and, “My sister won’t let me babysit my nephew anymore because during English, his answer to the question of how to use a colon had just four letters,” and, “I should have known I’d get a huge bill when the proctologist issued me a safe word.”
Damon’s “charm” woke up a part of me that my mother and I had guiltily buried together when we realized I would stay chubby. He was new in town. I was delighted; since he didn’t know anyone else yet, I had him all to myself. That is, of course, when he wasn’t busy with work. On the phone with me, canceling our plans, one of his favored refrains was “my schedule’s so full of shit, love. I apologize for its doo-plicity.”
Things got serious quickly, and he soon had a key to my apartment. I’ve still never stepped foot in his.
When I look back at the amount of ruthlessness he managed to pack into a few months, I wonder at how easy it is to put one’s brain in cold storage when other body parts are happy. E.g.: he once invited six of my friends over to dinner when he knew I’d had a particularly exhausting day at work, and, when I managed to “pull a tender osso buco out of my ass,” he smacked my non-metaphorical one and raved to my friends about “what a talented little panda bear” I was.
He once forced me to fix a flat tire by myself in the middle of the night on the side of the highway. I’d never done it before, since I rarely drove, and didn’t know how. As I struggled to see by flashlight, he sat at the edge of the road, smoking a cigarette. I mean, I guess I should have already known how to fix a flat, but what a way to learn.
I sensed I was being trained, like on the day he stocked my freezer with salted caramel gelato and tiramisu from Sal’s. When I dared to even glance sideways at my two favorite sweets, stored as they were in my fridge, he told me he was saving them for company. Company came and went, but tiramisu and gelato were never eaten. In fact, they spoiled, many times over. But he kept replacing them with fresh containers.
My friends were all of the distant variety—I imagine none of them felt comfortable telling me just how horrifying our relationship appeared to them.
I told myself that maybe Damon had mistaken me for a masochist and what did I know, maybe I was one. I’d always loved the look of patent leather.
I told myself that if he wanted to control everything, then good—I was busy.
Once I’d issued him a diagnosis, I told myself that people with rare pathologies needed love, too.
I told myself it was stupid to judge a man just because his heart was not touched by a video of a husky puppy seeming to say “banana.”
I told myself Damon, with his craggy, wasp-waisted good looks, was likely the cream of my particular romantic crop.
And let’s not undersell the sex. He took me to sexual heights from which it has been truly terrifying to fall. When he topped me (his phrase), he moved with such sinuous grace below the waist that it was as if his hips belonged to someone else.
And his eyes!
The only way I can describe the look in them makes no sense to anyone but me: he goggled down with an expression like the space between View-Master slides. Like he was traveling in another dimension as we did it. I told myself to forgive it all because I felt honored that mine was the body he used to get wherever he was going.
But that’s not what you asked about. Our engagement was intense, but very short, and is now very over. I have no family apart from my fledgling public! Sorry.
You’ve already completed the 30-Day Gourmet Challenge, during which you created 30 signature dishes over the course of two months while keeping an online diary of this time and using it to bolster your social media presence. Congratulations! Now, tell us a little bit about what you learned during this period and what your strategy was for amassing social media up-votes and shares.
Let me take a moment to thank you for this brilliant test of my stamina, of my creativity, and of my ability to drink a bottle of tequila without calling Damon the night I dumped him. As you’ll read, I realized what was happening on day 15 of the challenge, which was also the very day my campaign went from mildly popular to big-time viral. So, in a lot of ways, I owe my future success as a world-class chef and TV personality to Damon’s lack of empathy. Ha! Just kidding!
Anyway, you’ll see that “what I learned” means something different for me than most of your contestants, while calling it a social media “strategy” is probably over-generous. Here’s what happened.
Day 1 of the challenge: Puff pastry egg-in-a-basket with spinach hollandaise drizzle for brunch. The first thing I ever prepared that impressed my mother. She marveled at the flakiness of the pastry, I marveled at how I’d managed to improve upon something she’d taught me to make. This particular dish is extremely photogenic. When I posted a picture of it with a little story about what it means to make an “ancestral recipe” one’s own, I saw that other bloggers had shared it 200 times by the next morning. So I had my marching orders—make sexy food, post pictures along with vaguely philosophical recipe origins, mix in a little self-deprecation and, voila, you’re Internet-famous-ish.
Day 4 of the challenge: Crispy smoked bluefish over a breadfruit-and-ackee puree. Inspired by flavors enjoyed at the hole-in-the-wall Jamaican dive in which Damon proposed to me after a few weeks of dating.
“So, I’m surprised you haven’t asked me to marry you yet,” he declared, his mouth full of curried chicken. I remember being privately embarrassed at the way my heart sped at his utterance of the word “marry.” We had known each other three months.
“Oh, do women do the proposing where you come from?” I wondered, feigning disinterest. I put a suicidal amount of scotch bonnet hot sauce on my rice and peas.
“There are no women on Mars, my little Poppin’ Fresh,” he murmured. We sort of argued out whether he was proposing to me or not, and the whole time I had to forcibly ignore the voice in my head that kept asking what the hell I was doing. Despite the voice, as we left the restaurant I felt decidedly affianced. That night we had sex I didn’t even know was possible; I stopped counting the orgasms after I lost the ability to count. (Is this too personal? You want personality here, right?)
Afterward, he got up to shower and left my condo while I napped. I woke up at 3 a.m., and stared at the popcorn ceiling till my alarm went off.
As I got ready for work, I worried I’d dreamed the whole thing. Up till I met Damon, when I imagined my future husband, the man in question was the equivalent of the guy at the party with mild Asperger’s who meets your eyes just as both of you are realizing you’re the last ones left. But this morning, when I went to grab a banana from the kitchen counter, I noticed a jewelry box next to the fruit bowl. A note under the box read: Even though you did an unladylike thing in proposing to me, I’ve mulled it over and decided I like the idea of you as my wife. My mother was slender. You’ll have to get her ring resized. The rose-gold-banded diamond, which slid easily onto my left pinky, was cloudy but enormous.
Let me take another minute here to defend myself. I worked harder when I was with Damon. I pushed way past some old goals at the office. I hosted far more dinners at my house, and men on the street openly leered at me in a way they had never done before—like they could sniff out an alpha-male’s mark on my skin. Heck, I even put the wheels in motion to get my own TV show! Writing down the things he said and did makes him sound like a complete monster and me like a professional victim, and maybe both things are half-true, but I am a girl who is used to tough love or no love at all.
I didn’t tell anyone I knew personally about the way Damon had proposed when it happened, but I did tell the people of the Internet during the 30-Day Gourmet Challenge, as a sort of addendum to the day’s recipe. Their collective outrage on my behalf was not something for which I was prepared.
A sampling of the things they wrote me (@epicurewithbreasts) in public and private messages:
This guy is an asshole wrapped in a jerkward stuffed deep inside an unrepentant dipshit. A real scumbucket turducken. I hope you’re not seriously going to marry him.
Don’t you think it’s odd that you haven’t been to his place yet, but he has the keys to yours? RUN AWAY! This probably means he’s a bad muralist, and his practice space is his own walls. I can tell you from personal experience that this sort of fellow is not marriage material!
But from your avatar photo I can tell that you’re not some sort of unsightly cow. Why would you put up with such nonsense? I have a nephew you would be great for.
The next day was not a recipe day, but it was a turning point in my campaign, nonetheless. I’m a once-a-week regular at this gorgeous old-school Armenian restaurant down the street from my place, and Damon requested I meet him there to discuss “engagement matters.” When he stood me up, I ordered a kiddie-pool-sized martini and some spicy stuffed peppers.
There are good things about eating alone. If you have nothing better to do than to chew slowly and thoroughly, picking out the flavors of the herbs and spices used in the food, then eating alone can be an education. No distracting conversation. No need to explain why you’re chewing with your eyes closed. I was halfway through my second martini, savoring a particularly moist nutmeg cake, when the lights went down and dramatic Middle Eastern drumming began. Ah, belly dancing night, I’d forgotten. I knew the dancer, another regular. Christella would sometimes sit next to me at the bar while she held court with the wait-staff, and I would do the awkward thing where you pretend not to listen to a jokester but laugh when you should, anyhow.
Christella’s a total ten. I wouldn’t try to guess at her actual age, and her magnetism makes it pretty much irrelevant, but the lovely rope of her arms suggests she’s no longer in her 20s. Her beauty is the opposite of my mother’s; hers is tactile, of a warmer climate. She hugs old men and pinches the cheeks of children. Her hair is blackout dark. She always smells of rosewater. The Technicolor scarves she uses in her act seem to levitate around her independently—her grace is about movement where my mother’s is about not budging. Here was a woman who likely got wedding proposals every day, not one of which could be mistaken for bullying.
I mean, how could a human ribcage do that? At one point during her dance, as I was bobbing my head and probably grinning like an idiot, a light of recognition went off in her eyes and she winked. I felt my face flush—listen, if you want a really, really strong martini for eight bucks, go to Bel Etage on Pleasant Street downtown. That wink let me think “Eff you, Damon!” before I could swallow it down with another gulp of martini. After the show, Christella walked over and asked if it was me who wrote “that food blog.”
“Yes, indeedy!” Indeedy? Ugh.
“Let’s see the ring Demon got you,” she demanded.
“It’s Damon,” I said, just under my breath. Everyone in the place was looking at us, sizing me up, wondering what I’d done to garner this goddess’s momentary favor.
“Well. I guess it’s a real diamond. You should get some good money on the pawn.” She slid next to me in the booth, skin glistening with sweat. She was still out of breath.
“I wanted to tell you I admire your Web project. I think it’s great that you’ve finally decided to live out loud. I’ve seen you in here before, and when a friend told me a regular was trying to be on the show, I was happy to realize it was you. You will soon be on television, how exciting!” She took a sip of my martini as I looked around to see if I could tell who her friend was. “I’ve always wanted to know a celebrity, to have the ’razzi following us around, trying to get bikini shots of us on our Hawaiian vacation.” Just then, the drumming started back up and she quit my table as abruptly as she’d arrived, the coins in her belt staccato as rice toasting in a pan. Under the influence of all that gin, I decided on the spot to sign up for her Wednesday night classes.
Day 7: For the engagement announcement dinner, slow-roasted chicken lasagna with fennel-apple salad in truffle-mustard vinaigrette. The individual baked Alaska cup brownies were hanging out in the off oven—individual cups keep much better than a full baked Alaska would have. The buffalo mootz atop the lasagna was just golden, and the pasta itself had been hand-milled by yours truly. For my mother’s introduction to Damon, I wanted the menu to be life-redefining. But the tension in the room was immediate and stifling. It was as if my mother hated Damon the instant she laid eyes on him.
The first thing out of her mouth when she took stock of my fiancé was: “Well, what a specimen of man we have here, my dear Charlotte. More specifically, the Australopithecus from the Museum of Natural History, re-animated, and in snazzier clothes.” Damon’s brow furrowed at this but I turned my gasp to a high-pitched giggle in midair and he seemed to relax.
Once we’d recovered from the casting of that first stone and moved to the dinner table, however, he started to yammer. He had minored in philosophy at college and was eager to show that he still remembered some of “that classical stuff.”
“I like to think of myself as a guardian of the thymos, which the ancient Greeks saw as the seat of the intellect, of passion, of drive and appetite.” He winked at me. I thought of Christella, wondered what she was doing tonight, on her rare night off. She was the first friend I’d made from scratch since grade school, and I was perhaps a little obsessed.
Damon was still talking: “They believed thymos was expressed, chakra-like, from the gastric center, the throat, and the heart. I guess I have to share the guardian distinction with otolaryngologists and cardiologists, but there’s no shame in that!” He winked at me again and I pursed my lips.
“Oh, is that what they taught you about the Greeks in butcher school? A bunch of superstitious, nonsensical crap? I had an undergraduate student in my last semester at LU whom I’d love to watch rip you to shreds in a debate.”
“So has anyone been following my food blog? I think I’m gonna be in the finals!” I croaked.
“Shut up, Charlotte. This is a conversation about how staggeringly brilliant your supposed fiancé is.”
“Supposed?” I objected. Damon’s eyes darkened. I’d rarely seen him angry, but his antagonist was an expert provocateur.
“You know, Mother-in-law,” he said, “in college, I used to love going to the humanities buildings at school. It was so interesting to get a good look at the people who wouldn’t be able to afford a doctor like me when they needed one, academics-to-be chief among them. I could never figure out why people who built their whole lives around the delusion of their above-normal intelligence didn’t, you know, do something that could make them some actual money.” He grabbed my hand where it clutched the table and asked, “Did I mention that I’m going to make your daughter a very comfortable woman?”
Nobody was touching the food. I felt the itchy, warm edge of hives on my neck and arms. I pulled my hand away from him but he didn’t seem to notice.
“My daughter has always been extremely capable of taking care of herself,” said my mother, her acknowledgement causing me to cough red wine onto my white linen blouse. “It’s the one and only bone I was thrown as her mother.” Oh, right.
Damon smirked. “She’s also very good at taking the bones I throw at her.”
“And that’s my cue to visit the powder room,” I said, then did. We had learned the “earthquake shimmy” in Christella’s class the day before. I tucked my shirt up under my bra and practiced in the full-length bathroom mirror, rolling my shoulders to mimic a snake slithering at the same time. I was tipsy. My technique looked pretty good, if a little more spastic than fluid.
“Well, this is a fucking disaster,” I murmured through a grimacing dancer’s smile, my teeth wine-purpled. Voices were mounting in the next room, but I couldn’t make out exactly what was being said. I thought I heard the word “fraud” over and over but couldn’t be sure. I racked my brain for a way to divert the evening from its collision course with utter ruin, coming up with nothing. Instead, I sat on the toilet lid. I brushed my teeth. I clipped my toenails. I read the labels of every drug and toiletry in the bathroom, straining to remember the chemistry behind each active ingredient. I’d memorized the activities of a lot of chemicals in grad school. It was lovely how chemicals in drugs, just like chemicals in food, behaved in ways that could be predicted. This was, hands down, my favorite thing about chemicals.
With a sick lurch, I remembered this hiding tactic of mine from the old days when Grandma would come to visit and she would bicker, day in, day out, with my mother. I’ve sometimes wondered what it would be like to say, “some things never change” with fondness. I ruminated in the Thinker’s position on the toilet for so long that I couldn’t say when the voices had stopped in the kitchen. When I finally noticed, I hyperventilated a little, unrolled the linen shirt to cover my midriff again, and left my bunker to see that my mother had helped herself to her dinner. Now she was wrestling her coat on. Damon had vanished.
“Food was good,” she said and, before I even got the “eff” in “WTF” out, she was through the door.
Days later, Christella was at my condo, helping me pick out dishes to attempt to master if I made it to the taped cook-off finals. Later in the evening she would take headshots for me. She claimed it gave her indigestion to see the selfie I was going to use in the biography portion of this application.
“Your double chin is glorious, Charlotte,” she’d said, a thick, perfectly manicured brow raised as she examined the photo I’d thought I would use, “but you must share it only with your lover. It isn’t for the world at large to see.” Christella has lots of ideas about the ways and circumstances in which the female form should be “deployed.”
“It’s clear that you were never taught how to throw your weight around,” she’d told me after last week’s dance class. “That’s why your moves lack zest.”
“That’s not what it means to throw your weight around,” I didn’t say. As I handed her another of my favorite cookbooks, this one vegan, and she handed it right back to me to shelve again, I said:
“I’d love to share my double chin with my lover, but he’s been MIA for days. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t share my top chin with him, much less its downstairs neighbor.”
“Ooh, this milk-braised mustard pork chop sounds incredible,” she said, lighting up. “And I thought I told you I never wanted to suffer another reference to that dildo caddy ever again. Not until you tell me you’re done with him, anyhow.” I gave her a look that said sorry, not sorry. But in truth, I was despairing. I’d gone from angry and frustrated with him for letting my mother get between us, to sad that he’d let my mother come between us, to horny because there’s nothing like a couple days’ separation to make you remember all the good-at-sex aspects of your asshole boyfriend, to panicked that I’d just spoiled my chances at intermittent contentment despite having been born to the world’s most unfeeling woman. I really needed him to answer my messages so I could be wary of him to his face.
His voicemail box had been full since the night of the engagement dinner, and his secretary said he’d been out sick. All I had managed to coax from my mother thus far was an admission that she wanted the recipe for my lasagna.
“You know, I’d like you to maybe be in the wedding, so it would be nice if you would learn to call him by his actual name.” At this, Christella looked up at me, really fixed me with one of her tractor beam stares. Even before I’d said it, I doubted there could really be a wedding. But I guess I wanted to keep the possibility of a future with Damon as an option, at least in the things I said out loud.
“Charlotte, this man is a trophy to you. A cheap and ridiculous trophy. You think having him on your arm means something flattering about you. But what it really says is that you relish being used. I think you’re better than that. I think your brains do match your beauty.” She kissed me on the forehead, and my hands itched to pull her face down to give her a proper kiss, even though I was not attracted to her in that way. I loved the things she’d just said about me, even as I knew that, if Damon called me that night and said he wanted to go to Vegas and elope, I would be on the first plane out. He would find me, veil lifted like the apocalypse, ready and breathless at the altar.
Day 15: On this afternoon I had some of my social media acquaintances over to the industrial kitchen Christella had found for me so they could try out the day’s signature dish. On the menu was chili-espresso-rubbed roast quail, paper-thin gratin potatoes in brie cream, and flash-fried, crispy haricots verts. It was surely my most heart-healthy meal to date. While a Twitter follower named @amazingoriginalhandle was in the middle of a soliloquy about the perfection of my crispy green beans, my phone rang. I assumed it was my boss, who had been on my case ever since I gave him my notice. Without looking at the caller ID, I answered, “Ugh, what now. I told you I would call all the trial subjects by the end of the day. You’ll have your stinking surveys.”
To which my mother answered, “Charlotte, why aren’t you at the office? I called there and some giggling idiot said you’d been canned.”
“Oh.” I sighed and pinched the bridge of my nose. @amazingoriginalhandle asked if he could have a second helping and I nodded gravely.
“She’s a liar, I was not fired. She’s always hated me because she thinks the boss has a thing for me.” Though everyone else in the room had followed @amazingorginalhandle’s lead and taken seconds, there was still enough left over to feed a freshman dorm.
I continued, “Well, I guess you were bound to find out sooner or later, Mom. I’m quitting Novacorp. I plan to give my notice soon. Thanks to a new friend, I have a few leads in the restaurant industry, so I’ll be making food for a living even if this Banquet Network thing doesn’t pan out. I’ve been miserable at Nova for a while now. I just needed a little nudge in this direction to make the move, and trying out for this show has actually shoved me over the precipice, for which I’m grateful.” It sounded just as rehearsed as it had been. My mother paused and fidgeted with her phone, clearing her throat and mumbling something unintelligible. I reminded myself that I’d been out of her jurisdiction for a good nine years.
“You’re making the right decision,” she finally said. “You’ve been wasting your talents as an overpaid drug pusher for the past seven years, anyhow, and at least if you’re cooking for a living you won’t do anybody any direct harm. Well, apart from encouraging this country’s obesity epidemic in the name of foodie-ism. But we can talk about that later.”
The sound of silverware clanking on nearly emptied plates was gratifyingly loud even though I’d stepped a few yards away. If I squinted, I could pretend that this kitchen was mine and these social media folks were paying patrons at my restaurant, which would have a one-word name like Salt or Butter. I had a feeling as if the future were coalescing around me, and the moment felt charged and brimming. I hadn’t felt like this since I stepped foot on a college campus miles away from home, my mother, and the strict confines of her shadow.
“Anyway, I wanted to talk to you about Damon and your little engagement charade, but I don’t want to do it over the phone. You free tomorrow evening? I’ll let you cook me dinner.” I ended the call and looked over to see my followers making before-and-after collages of their plates for Instagram. I couldn’t tell if I was actually saddened by my mother’s flippancy regarding my engagement—perhaps the chef in me was too busy taking a victory lap around the room for that to get me down.
The campaign goes viral!
* * *
Next evening, I arrived at my mother’s. She alarmed me by thrusting a snifter of whiskey at my chest before I could even settle in to start cooking.
“I just think you should know some things about the institution of marriage before you go leaping tits first into it with a goddamned stranger, little one,” she’d commenced. As “tits” was not a word I had ever known my mother to use, I realized I would need to play catch-up. I threw back my three-finger pour, grimaced through the top-shelf sting, and reached for the decanter again.
“Hi, Mother, how do you do? I am fine. The weather sure has gotten colder, eh?”
I got the ingredients for a quick mirepoix out of her veggie hydrator. I was thinking some sort of meat pie to go with the gloom outside since it was simple and the filling could be left to simmer while my mother spoke.
“You have to understand, Lottie, I have had many opportunities to jump the broom. Ha! Even your barbarian father claimed to want to. Recited ancient poetry to me in his basso profundo. The whole nine. The only man I’ve ever known who could quote from Sappho’s fragments.”
My face must have reflected the effect this admission had on me, because she hastened to add, “Of course he was an otherwise miserable wretch and couldn’t be pinned down to a date after he made his proposal, since his narcissism could only get him as far as hearing that I would say ‘yes,’ but the fact remains. I was impossibly young.” She looked down into her emptying glass. “I’m worried that whatever it is I’ve got is hereditary.” I sighed and grabbed some olive oil I had infused with rosemary the month before, coating the pan with it and dropping the chopped celery, carrot, and onion in to sweat them down. There is nothing in this world more comforting than the smell of onions sweating in fragrant oil. This vulnerability of my mother’s upset a balance between us that I wanted to restore.
“Mom, I haven’t …”
“What I’m trying to say is that I don’t think you should marry this man you met a couple of months ago. I never married—not because I don’t take it seriously as an institution, but because I do. My second-wave feminism was no match for my mother’s incessant harping.” She looked away from me for a moment and I wondered if this was some sort of menopausal thing. She looked back at me with shining eyes. “I regret that you never had an example of what a good man looks like growing up. But I’m here to tell you a good man doesn’t look a thing like Damon.”
“Not like early man?” This earned me that sly smile of hers.
“Not like early man,” she affirmed, grabbing the wooden spoon from my hand and turning the heat down. “Don’t you know anything about smoke points, woman? You’ll make carcinogens of this oil before the gravy ever has a chance to be born.” I was about to say something about how there were too many cooks in the kitchen, but it kind of seemed like there were just enough. I had never known her gentle, playful criticism. It made me ache for the years of affection we’d lost.
“Mom, I want you to know that Damon hasn’t—”
She held up the hand not stirring the pot. “I want this guy under the rug with all our other horrible mistakes and painful memories, OK? Let’s make this evening about the death of old habits and the birth of new beginnings.”
“Um, OK!” I said, overwhelmed. “I want to make chicken stock, so I’ll go down to the deep freeze for those bones and vegetable scraps.”
“Go ahead. I’ll man the skillet.”
I was pleasantly dizzy from the first-rate scotch and almost slipped on the worn carpet of the basement stairs. We would have to fix that; my mother wasn’t getting any younger, and she had ruined her karma by laughing at the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” commercials.
I reflected on all she’d said to me. She’d spoken more words of encouragement in a 10-hour period than she had in my entire life. I was glad that she didn’t give me the chance to tell her that Damon and I hadn’t spoken in over a week and that I’d taken his silence as the world’s most passive-aggressive break-up. It felt too good to let her think I was just going to take her advice.
But when I opened the deep freeze and saw its contents, all the giddiness from the scotch and the camaraderie with my mother vanished in an instant. It took a moment for my head to catch up since what I was looking at didn’t quite compute, but there, in icy suspension, were items I’d prepared for Damon to take to his apartment: the beef-marrow coffee gravy, the portobello empanadas, the apple cider donut bread pudding. The packages all bore labels written in Sharpie in my handwriting. I had prepared this stuff for him because it consoled me to know that even if I wasn’t allowed at his place, my cooking would be reheated, its aromas released, meaning I was there in essence. I had to steady myself, leaning against the freezer’s coolness so that the weight of my delusions didn’t topple me.
And then, salt to the wound, there were two (open!) cartons of salted caramel gelato from the Dominic family creamery, which were acquirable only at Sal’s for $8.99. My mother would never touch Sal’s with a 10-foot pole; she hated how “red sauce Italian” the dishes there were and how “common” the clientele. Why was all of this here?! As Christella would say, “Something’s fishy in the state of New York and it ain’t Coney Island in summer, though that is, too.”
I could hear my mother calling down to me shrilly.
“What are you doing? I’m not cooking this whole meal for you. Get back up here, Ms. Television!” There was an edge of hysteria in her voice. She had likely realized, too late, that I would see the proof that she and my ex-fiancé were better acquainted than she’d let on. My blood had gone from simmer to full boil—how I’d hated the thought of Damon going home to an empty apartment after a long day of probing colons only to have to order in. He always had excuses for why I couldn’t come to his place and make him dinner there. “I’ve got these vague masculine reasons,” he’d said. “As soon as the place isn’t an embarrassment of unpacked boxes, you can come and take over the kitchen,” he’d claimed. “As soon as the place doesn’t look like a serial killer’s lair,” he’d soothed.
Jesus. My entire life looked just exactly like it belonged on reality television. As usual, food had come to the rescue. Before I had a chance to fully think about the implications of all that lay frozen before me, I stormed back up the stairs, grabbed my keys and the decanter of scotch, and left my mother demanding that I “get back here, and where the hell did I think I was going?”
On official letterhead of Janklow and Newell, attorneys at law.
To Whom It May Concern:
My name is Julia Desmond, and it is my understanding that my daughter, Charlotte Desmond, will be appearing on your program in the month of January. I am writing to inform you that I will not tolerate any slanderous mention of my name on your program.
The man that my daughter knew as Dr. Damon Althusser of Manhattan is actually Emmanuel Dean of Dunkirk, New York, a serial womanizer who likes to ruin the lives of the women he involves himself with for sport. I met him during his residency at SUNY-Buffalo, in my last year of teaching. We were together briefly. I did not think about him again until my daughter introduced him to me under a different name as her fiancé.
I regret the extent to which my daughter has already shared this family embarrassment with the public (a quick Google search of her name reveals just how much people inexplicably care about the saga), but I suppose this sort of thing is to be expected in the age of social media. I also regret that I have to take action against her little dream of having a way to hook you in for a television deal. What a perfect angle—the innocent young woman predated upon by a sociopath and betrayed by her shrew of a mother—but I think it would be best if we ended the public exposure now.
I’d like you to know that my daughter doesn’t need that sordid angle to be good for your show. When Manny or Damon or whomever had the nerve to show up at my apartment a few hours after the engagement dinner, to drop off the food she’d made him, “because he didn’t have the heart to throw it out, she really is talented,” I had to stop a moment before ripping him a new asshole to marvel at her powers. I thought then, here was a man with no conscience who had found it unconscionable to waste even a morsel of the food she’d prepared with such misplaced love. Now I have other suspicions about his motives. He wanted to break her for some reason. I shudder to think of other clues he might have left for her to find.
My daughter is a nitwit. I should know; I knit her wit from my own body’s fibers, from my idiot genes. But it’s unlikely you’ll find someone hungrier for the low fruit you’re dangling who has as much to offer you.
The only true solace I find in all of this is the excellence of my legal team. The names on this letterhead are former students of mine, logicians trained by me. Trust me when I say that you do not want to tangle with them.
Julia Desmond, loving mother
Application Status: In Progress