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Blood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chefby Gabrielle Hamilton
We threw a party. The same party, every year, when I was a kid. It was a spring lamb roast, and we roasted four or five whole little guys who each weighed only about forty pounds over an open fire and invited more than a hundred people. Our house was in a rural part of Pennsylvania and was not really a house at all but a wild castle built into the burnt-out ruins of a nineteenth-century silk mill, and our backyard was not a regular yard but a meandering meadow, with a creek running through it and wild geese living in it and a Death Slide cable that ran from high on an oak to the bank of the stream and deposited you, shrieking, into the shallow water. Our town shared a border so closely with New Jersey that we could and did walk back and forth between the two states several times in a day by crossing the Delaware River. On weekend mornings we had breakfast at Smutzie's in Lambertville, on the Jersey side, but then we got gas for the car at Sam Williams's Mobil on the New Hope side. In the afternoons after school on the Pennsylvania side, I walked over to the Jersey side and got guitar lessons at Les Parson's guitar shop.
That part of the world, heavily touristed as it was, was an important location of many events in the American Revolutionary War. George Washington crossed the Delaware here, to victory at the Battle of Trenton, trudging through the snowy woods and surprising the British in spite of some of his troops missing proper shoes, their feet instead wrapped in newspaper and burlap. But now my hometown has become, mostly, a sprawl of developments and subdivisions, gated communities of small mansions that look somewhat like movie sets that will be taken down at the end of the shoot. Each housing development has a "country" name-Squirrel Valley, Pine Ridge, Eagle Crossing, Deer Path-which has an unkind way of invoking and recalling the very things demolished when building them. There is now a McDonalds and a Kmart- but when I was growing up, you had to ride your bike about a mile down a very dark country road thick with night insects stinging your face to even find a plugged-in Coke machine where you could buy a vended soda for thirty-five cents. Outside Cal's Collision Repair in the middle of the night that machine glowed like something almost religious. You can now buy a Coke twenty-four hours a day at half a dozen places.
But when I was young, where I lived was mostly farmland, rolling fields, rushing creeks when it rained, thick woods, and hundred-year- old stone barns. It was a beautiful, rough, but lush setting for the backyard party my parents threw with jug wine and spit-roasted lambs and glow-in-the-dark Frisbees. The creek dividing the meadow meandered and, at its deepest bend, was lined with small weeping willows that grew as we grew and bent their long, willowy, tearful branches down over the water. We would braid a bunch of the branches together to make a Tarzan kind of vine rope that we could swing on, out over the stream in our laceless sneakers and bathing suits, and land in the creek. That is where we chilled all of the wines and beers and sodas for the party.
We were five kids in my family, and I am the youngest. We ran in a pack-to school, home from school, and after dinner at dusk-like wild dogs. If the Mellman kids were allowed out and the Bentley boys, the Drevers, and the Shanks across the street as well, our pack numbered fifteen. We spent all of our time out of doors in mud suits, snowsuits, or bare feet, depending on the weather. Even in "nature," running around in the benign woods and hedges and streams, diving in and out of tall grasses and brambles, playing a nighttime game that involved dodging the oncoming headlights of an approaching occasional car, bombing the red shale rocks down into the stream from the narrow bridge near our driveway to watch them shatter-we found rough and not innocent pastimes. We trespassed, drag raced, smoked, burgled, and vandalized. We got ringworm, broken bones, tetanus, concussions, stitches, and ivy poisoning.
My parents seemed incredibly special and outrageously handsome to me then. I could not have boasted of them more or said my name, first and last together, more proudly, to show how it directly linked me to them. I loved that our mother was French and that she had given me that heritage in my very name. I loved telling people that she had been a ballet dancer at the Met in New York City when she married my father. I loved being able to spell her long French name, M-A-D-E-L-E- I-N-E, which had exactly as many letters in it as my own. My mother wore the sexy black cat-eye eyeliner of the era, like Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren, and I remember the smell of the sulphur every morning as she lit a match to warm the tip of her black wax pencil. She pinned her dark hair back into a tight, neat twist every morning and then spent the day in a good skirt, high heels, and an apron that I have never seen her without in forty years. She lived in our kitchen, ruled the house with an oily wooden spoon in her hand, and forced us all to eat dark, briny, wrinkled olives, small birds we would have liked as pets, and cheeses that looked like they might well bear Legionnaire's Disease.
Her kitchen, over thirty years ago, long before it was common, had a two-bin stainless steel restaurant sink and a six-burner Garland stove. Her burnt orange Le Creuset pots and casseroles, scuffed and blackened, were constantly at work on the back three burners cooking things with tails, claws, and marrow-filled bones-whatever was budgeted from our dad's sporadic and mercurial artist's income-that she was stewing and braising and simmering to feed our family of seven. Our kitchen table was a big round piece of butcher block where we both ate and prepared casual meals.
My mother knew how to get everything comestible from a shin or neck of some animal; how to use a knife, how to cure a cast-iron pan. She taught us to articulate the "s" in salade nicoise and the soup vichyssoise, so that we wouldn't sound like other Americans who didn't know that the vowel "e" after the consonant "s" in French means that you say the "s" out loud.
And yet I remember the lamb roast as my father's party. I recall it was really his gig. With an art degree from Rhode Island School of Design on his office wall, two union cards-stagehands and scenic artists-in his wallet, five able-bodied children, a French wife, and a photograph torn from a magazine of two Yugoslav guys roasting a lamb over a pit, he created a legendary party-a feast that almost two hundred people came to every year from as far away as the townhouses of New York City and as near as our local elementary school.
My dad could not cook at all. He was then a set designer for theatrical and trade shows and he had a "design and build" studio in Lambertville-the town where he himself had grown up, the town where his own father had been the local country doctor. We kids were forever running into people who'd say, "Your granddaddy delivered all three of my sons!" Or, "Your granddaddy drove a Cadillac! One of the very few cars at the time in Lambertville!"
After growing up in that small rural town, my dad, the youngest son, went away to college and then to art school. He came back with a mustache, a green Mustang, and a charcoal gray suit and installed himself there, in his hometown. In 1964, he bought the old skating rink at the dead end of South Union Street with its enormous domed ceiling and colossal wooden floor. In that building he started his studio, an open work space where scenery as big as the prow of a ship could be built, erected, painted, and then broken down and shipped off to the city for load-in. Every year when he got the job to build the sets for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus there, we would go after school and zip around on the dollies, crashing into the legs of the chain-smoking union carpenters and scenic artists who were busy with band saws and canvas and paint. We would run up and down mountains of rolled black and blue velour, laid out like in a carpet store, and dip our hands into oil drums full of glitter. Prying back the lid on a fifty-gallon barrel of silver glitter-the kind of barrel that took two men and a hand truck to wheel into the paint supply room of the shop-and then shoving your hands down into it up to your elbows is an experience that will secure the idea in your heart for the rest of your life that your dad is, himself, the greatest show on earth.
We made our Halloween costumes out of lighting gels, backstage black velour curtaining, scrim, and Mylar. When we went with our father to see the actual circus at Madison Square Garden, we spent almost the whole show backstage where we met Mishu: The Smallest Man in the World, and petted the long velvety truncks of the elephants in jeweled headdresses. We met Gunther, the lion tamer, and marveled at his blond blond hair and his deep deep tan and, giggling like the children we were, his amazing ass-high and round and firm, like two Easter hams-in electric blue tights.
I associate my dad almost exclusively with that lamb roast because he could dream it up and create the scenery of it. My dad has an eye for things. He can look at the stone rubble covered in scaffolding that is the Acropolis, for example, and without effort, complete the picture in its entirety, right down to what people are wearing, doing, and saying. In his mind's eye, out of one crumbling Doric column, he can visualize the entire city, its denizens and smells, the assembly's agenda and the potted shrubs. Where the rest of us saw only the empty overgrown meadow behind our house, riddled with gopher holes, with a shallow, muddy stream running through it and a splintering wooden wagon that I had almost outgrown, he saw his friends: artists and teachers and butchers, scenic painters and Russian lighting designers, ship captains and hardware merchants all with a glass in hand, their laughter rising high above our heads and then evaporating into the canopy of maple leaves; the weeping willows shedding their leaf tears down the banks of the stream; fireflies and bagpipers arriving through the low clinging humidity of summer; a giant pit with four spring lambs roasting over apple-wood coals; the smell of wood smoke hanging in the moist summer nighttime air. I mean it. He sees it all romantic like that.
He says, about all of his work, "Everybody else does the bones and makes sure the thing doesn't fall down. I do the romance."
It must have been my mother, the cook, who was in the kitchen with the six burners and the two-bin sink making the lima bean salad and the asparagus vinaigrette and the all-butter shortcakes, counting out the stacks of paper plates with the help of my older sister-the two of them doing "the bones" as my father called it. But it was from him- with his cool, long sideburns and aviator sunglasses, his packet of unfiltered Camels, and box of watercolor paints (and artist's paycheck)-from him we learned how to create beauty where none exists, how to be generous beyond our means, how to change a small corner of the world just by making a little dinner for a few friends. From him we learned how to make and give luminous parties.
There was a Russian Winter Ball, I remember, for which my dad got refrigerator-sized cartons of artificial snow shipped in from Texas and a dry ice machine to fog up the rooms and make the setting feel like a scene from Dr. Zhivago. And there was a Valentine's Day Lovers' Dinner, at which my father had hundreds of choux paste éclair swans with little pastry wings and necks and slivered almond beaks that, when toasted, became their signature black. He set them out swimming in pairs on a Plexiglas mirror "pond" the size of a king's matrimonial bed with confectioner's sugar snow drifts on the banks.
"Swans," he pointed out, "mate for life."
For a kind of Moroccan-themed party that my parents threw, my dad built low couches from sheets of plywood and covered them with huge fur blankets and orange velour brought home from the studio. By the time the candles were lit and the electric lights extinguished, the whole house looked like a place where the estimable harem of a great pasha might assemble to offer their man pomegranates, pistachios, and maybe more carnal treasures. There were tapestries and kilims stacked as tall as me, where adults stoned on spiced wine and pigeon pies could lounge. By the time that party really got rolling, I remember walking from room to dimly lit room feeling acutely the ethos of the era-the early 1970s-as if it, too, were sprawled out on the "scene shop" couch wearing long hair and a macramé dress, barely noticing how late it was and that I was still up.
But the lamb roast was not a heavily themed and elaborately staged one- off. It was, as parties in our family went, a simple party, thrown every year, produced with just a fire and a sheet of plywood set over sawhorses for the carving of the lambs. We built a fire in our shallow pit, about eight feet long and six feet wide. It's possible that my dad dug it alone, but if there was an available sixteen-year-old around, like his son, my oldest brother Jeffrey, it's very likely that they dug it together. At each end of the pit they set up a short wall of cinder blocks with a heavy wooden plank on top, looking like the head and baseboards of a giant bed, where the long wooden poles onto which the baby lambs had been lashed would rest. The baby lambs, with their little crooked sets of teeth and milky eyes, were slaughtered and dressed up at Maresca's Butchers, then tied onto ten-foot poles made of ash because the branches of an ash tree grow so straight that you can skewer a baby lamb with them easily.
Jeffrey had a driver's license and a 1957 Chevy truck with a wooden bed and a big blue mushroom painted on its heavily Bondoed cab. It had big dangling side-view mirrors and torn upholstery over which we threw a mover's blanket, but it ran. So on this bluish early summer weekend, Jeffrey drove his new jalopy out the winding country roads, past Black's Christmas tree farm, and past the Larue bottle works. I rode in the bed of the truck, in a cotton dress and boy's shoes with no socks, hanging on as tight as I could to the railings and letting the wind blast my face so hard that I could barely keep my eyes open. Even with my eyes closed, I could tell by the wind and the little patches of bracing coolness and the sudden bright sunshine and the smell of manure when we were passing a hay field, a long thick stand of trees, a stretch of clover, or a horse farm. We passed brand-new deer emerging from the woods and standing in herds of forty in the wide open cornfields. Finally we got to Johnson's Apple Orchard where we picked up our wood for the fire.
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