I love Nigella Lawson. I remember the first time I saw her on television and was tickled by her obvious sensuous delight with food and cooking. Her kitchen was amazing and her blasé, randy comments funny and engaging. And the food, oh, the food! Her recipes hinted of faraway lands and exotic flavors and she punctuated her glorious spreads with gatherings with friends and family. For what is finer than food, family, and a bottle or two?
My romance with food and cooking started when I moved into my first apartment. My initial cooking attempts were comical, Minute Rice with frozen vegetables and Ragu tomato sauce. Then I progressed to buying the pizza made at the local grocer and adding my own pepperoni and green peppers. Daring, indeed!
But my new apartment came with something else, cable. And that opened up a world of culinary delights to me. I religiously watched the Great Chefs Of series, Floyd On (following the cooking adventures of the wonderfully colorful Keith Floyd, now there was a notable character!), and Graham Kerr.
My initial food pairings were awkward. One boyfriend got homemade vegetable beef soup with a baked potato. He thought that was hysterical. I was in love with my next boyfriend so he got the same soup but I covered my card table with my grandmother’s linens and used her fine china. No baked potato this time.
I took notes, wrote down recipes, bought The New Basics cookbook. Soon I began to experiment. My first “dish” was the chicken noodle soup (homemade noodles and all!) from The New Basics. Divine and lovely, still a staple in my kitchen. I jumped around from there, casseroles, cassoulets, tagines, Italian—I was really stuck in that groove for awhile. My attempts at pies fell flat, however. They would emerge golden and succulent from the oven, plump with baked fruit, only to deflate minutes later. Still tasty but hardly photo-worthy. And I came from a long line of impressive pie-makers so my pedigree was rock-solid. My grandmother and Godmother could bake pies that would bring tears to your eyes: elderberry apple, rhubarb with melt-in-your mouth meringue, coconut cream, key lime pie, pumpkin pie with real whipped cream. They were prolific bakers. Every meal was finished off with a piece of homemade pie, dessert was a given and something eagerly awaited. Apparently when that pie baking torch was passed to me, I fumbled and dropped it.
So I don’t do pies, I do tortes, and mousses, and trifles. I can do a mean trifle. And if it has the word “chocolate” associated with it, I pounce. Just typing the word “chocolate” and my mind begins to wander…should I do a hazelnut chocolate torte? Or rich dark chocolate truffles?
Back to Nigella. I had my family in from out of town one weekend. I usually take them out to dinner one night and then the next evening, I pull out all the stops and cook for them. I opened Nigella’s Forever Summer and found one of my favorite recipes, Watermelon, Feta and Black Olive Salad. I loved her closing declaration at the end of the recipe: “The taste of Tel Aviv sunshine!” I found that completely romantic and was inspired to create my dinner around this salad.
I played fast and loose with geography and made hummus for the appetizer, chicken with spiced potatoes for the main entrée. Everything smelled enticing and my table was set to perfection.
My meat and potatoes parents stared doubtfully at the hummus but my sister dug right in. Then I presented the salad in all its crowning glory. My family just stared at it.
“Are those olives with…watermelon?” my mother asked tentatively.
“That’s not goat cheese!” my sister said. She hates goat cheese and swears that I put it in everything I make.
I sighed. I was going to be eating a lot of salad over the next few days.
“Just try it; it’s really delicious, I swear. Be a bit adventurous!” I tried to encourage them. Politely, they all took a portion, a very small portion, of the salad. At the end of the meal, most of it was left on each of their plates.
“I have pie…?”
I remember when I first met my lover. I was an earnest 23, barely a year out of university, and Alex was a young man of 27. We both worked for a large Fortune 500 company.
I was flown to company headquarters to take part in a sales training course. There was a couple dozen fresh-faced twenty-something’s, eager to demonstrate our sales expertise and network with upper management at the hallowed halls of corporate.
Our instructors for the course were up and coming managers, expressly picked for the assignment for their sales acumen, charisma, and corporate vision.
Alex, with his broad shoulders, athletic grace, and easy smile, readily stood out from the other moderators. He was blond, with twinkling, inquisitive eyes, and he surveyed us with a friendly, open gaze. I liked him immediately and my sales radar registered, “sharp guy.”
The next few days were busy with sales and role-playing exercises, how to work with prospects and clients, how to close the deal. Rigorous, methodical sales training but the moderators kept it light and moving along.
On the last day, I woke up in agony. Several years earlier, I had been diagnosed with endometriosis and occasionally suffered bouts of debilitating cramping. Knowing that calling out sick was not an option, I pulled on my suit and stumbled in my heels into training. I knew I was pale but I maintained my composure and applied myself to the tasks at hand. I looked up to see Alex eyeing me curiously. Embarrassed, I looked away and started a conversation with a teammate. Suddenly I heard a quiet voice say, “Put your feet up on this, you might feel better.” It was Alex, and he had moved a chair toward my legs. I was speechless and completely moved by his sensitivity. I muttered, thanks, and dutifully swung my feet onto the chair. He was quietly kind to me throughout the day, without calling attention to me.
At the time, I simply thought he just being thoughtful, looking out for his “flock”, so to speak, and really didn’t think I’d run into him again. He lived in Boston, I lived in Pittsburgh, and worked in different districts so no reason to interact. So I thought.
A few months later, Jenny, one of the other reps in Pittsburgh, came back from the same training very excited and all atwitter. She had met this “fabulous” guy at training, he was one of the moderators, and he was coming to Pittsburgh as he had an account here that he had to call on every month. We would be taking him out for a night on the town. Since I lived near the airport, I was going to be picking him up and meeting up with everyone. I said, no problem, who is this wonderful person? With the exaggerated infatuation that only a 23 year old can have, Julie nearly swooned when she said his name, “Alex!”
“Amalie, you had him too, when you went through training. He remembers you!” I was taken aback. “Really?” I was surprised, I was one of so many young sales people at the training and he was an up and coming manager with the company. It seemed extraordinary that I would stand out. I was flattered.
As scheduled, I picked up Alex at the airport. Conversation was lively and friendly and he was exactly as I remembered. A bit taller and still as good looking. When we met up with the other girls, the games began. I have never seen such fawning and flirting in all of my life. Alex was the center of such attention! I almost felt sorry for him. My friends were jockeying to sit next to him, to buy him drinks, it was amazing. It was as if someone had cast a spell over them and I watched in amusement as they all tried to one-up each other for his charms. Alex handled it all with aplomb and didn’t become cocky or even seem to notice.
But I did, and my interest grew. So I stayed cool. I remembered some background on Alex that I had gleaned at training, that he was an English major in college. I had a strong English background, having been in AP English in high school, and almost majoring in English myself. So I casually dropped a few literary allusions in the conversation. Bingo! Attention successfully caught! Soon, Alex sidled up to my side and we were deeply ensconced in conversation. Woebegone faces soon surrounded us. But we were too entranced to notice.
The evening ended with me driving Alex back to his hotel. We sat in my luxury Aries company car with the vinyl bench seat and chatted for what seemed like hours. As he prepared to leave, we paused and looked at each other. The kiss was inevitable.
As our lips met, mighty Zeus looked down from Mount Olympus, carefully aimed his lightning bolt and struck home. My Aries car shook, we trembled, and everything shimmered with the impact of that lightning strike. Pause now for the operatic aria.
So, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but that is what it felt like. I’d been kissed before but never like this. It was gentle, passionate, searching, loving and possessive, all at the same time. Every inch of my body was on fire and tingling. The last thing I wanted to do was try to drive home. I had this sudden clarity of “this is the man I want to spend the rest of my life with”—I just felt it with such assuredness. This from a girl who was fiercely independent, wasn’t going to get married until she was at least 35, was defined by her career, blah, blah, blah, and more BLAH.
I don’t know how long the kiss lasted, (a moment? Forever?) but the repercussions were felt to this day. No one has loved me, devastated me, supported me, understood me, more than Alex. He is the love of my life. It has been an unconventional relationship, one I don’t think many people would understand. But it is not for others to judge or approve.
That kiss, ah, I can still taste it, feel it, even today. The hair on my arms stands up at the memory of it. It still has that power to thrill me. And so does the man.
Did you ever come across something you wrote years ago and wonder, where the hell did that come from? What was going through my mind at the time? The kind of stuff that is totally unrelated to the person you are today.
It was another bitterly cold day, the kind of cold that cuts to the bone. I was sifting through some folders of stuff I had dug out a few weeks earlier in my basement and happened upon my writings and notes from my community theatre days, at least 15 years ago. Found a character sketch that I put together for one of my Theatre Skills courses and couldn’t help but be drawn by it, even a little shocked. To give you some perspective, I was recuperating from a chronic illness at the time that had put me on disability and had transformed my typically fit, svelte figure to an unwieldy 297 pounds. I was miserable, depressed, and overwhelmed. I was trying desperately to gain some control over my health, my appearance, my life. It was a very grim time and theatre and writing were a welcome release. So although this sketch isn’t autobiographical, much of the emotion driving it is.
Here is the sketch in its entirety:
Constance always had her ups and downs. As a small child, her moodiness was remarked upon as often as her defiance. Pale and sullen, she was often at odds with her parents and peers.
At an early age, Constance found welcome refuge in music and books. By the time she entered her teens, Constance had retreated mostly to the basement where she fantasized to new wave, punk, and grunge music. She read voraciously by a single, low watt bulb as her father wouldn’t allow her to use the fluorescent lighting, saying it burned too much electricity, besides he thought she should be outside with the other kids, what the hell was wrong with her anyway?
So in the muted light, Constance soared with her mind, as talented and hip as any rock star, writing and singing the words she didn’t dare articulate out loud. Her father nicknamed her “The Bat.”
By her early 20’s, Constance was diagnosed with chronic, clinical depression and atypical bipolar disorder. She missed out on the keening heights of mania, instead experiencing alarmingly swift descents into depression and fearful anxiety. Grunge was the soundtrack of her despair and the only recognition she sensed in her abyss. Her mind was surrounded by impenetrable darkness and her forays into the public were behind a shield of seething sarcasm.
She began to cut herself. Not to die, just to lessen the tumult within. She couldn’t sing and found it hard to write about her pain. Her parents backed off in horror and her psychiatrist prescribed more medication and a red marker. Perhaps drawing the angry red lines on her arm would be an acceptable substitution to the cutting of flesh. Constance swallowed her pills and dutifully drew on her arms.
Constance hears on MTV that her “grunge-man”, her secret, tortured soul-mate, Kurt Cobain, has committed suicide. Constance’s world is rocked off of its crumbling fulcrum. How could he, when he had so much, with his legions of admirers, his tremendous talent, take his own life? How could HE give up? She questions her own tenuous hold on life. With the superstition of the mentally ill, she fears that this event signals her own demise, by her own hand.
Armed with her red marker, she writes, in her journal and on her arm. Last ditch efforts against a final farewell. It is at this moment we meet Constance in her psychiatrist’s office, holding onto her anger and journal for strength. She has told no one of her shock and grief over Cobain’s suicide or her own terror. She is desperate for a reason to live.
Wow. And what the hell? I cannot believe I came up with that. I have to say I wrote down some cool musical selections for it: “Privilege (Set Me Free)” by Patti Smith Group, and “Angel” by Sarah McLachlan.
There are pages of stage direction, prop descriptions in Part II that I won’t go into. All kinds of detail.
I did a performance piece based on that character for the class and did a lot of research into emotional cutting, depression and bipolar disorder. I remember being psychologically spent after the performance. Kurt Cobain’s death was still very fresh in everyone’s mind and in the media.
I remember thinking I should flesh out the character more, turn it into something. But the abject loneliness and desperation of the character scared me a bit. Once I wrote, then performed the piece, I shelved it. I didn’t even realize I still had the material until I chanced upon it the other day.
A lot of the dark stuff, journal entries, character sketches, written when I was really sick, somehow feels disconnected from who I am today. Now that I am healthy, productive and doing well, with my illness under control, it is interesting to look back and see my state of mind so many years ago. I feel empathy for the person I was back then and for what I was going through. And feel the relief that I am here today, thriving, and living joyfully. One of these days, I’ll explore my illness more fully in a post, but right now, today, I just want to feel good, think happy thoughts, and feel so fucking grateful to be alive.