During ongoing house maintenance, film production and university instruction, I had been too busy to deal with the new stove, what with alternating esoteric video shoots with somewhat less aesthetically-gratifying toilet plumbing.
It was hard to think about food as anything other than fuel, while living in a continuing, seemingly endless purgatory of brutal, unending manual labor on the house. Waking every morning only held one prospect: acting as a viable information source for creative, testosterone-fueled young people. Then later in the day changing location and mindset to motivate pro crews doing a Real Job.
Even on the weekends, the work was relentless. One particular Saturday my long-time contractor had assigned me the job of knocking out ten feet of hundred-year-old cast-iron drainage pipe which had gone solidly blocked decades earlier and had now been bypassed by a new drain. The problem was the pipe had shifted so far with the new construction that the workmen couldn’t put a wall back in place unless the thick six-inch-diameter metal pipe was removed.
The contractor had handed me a large sledgehammer and said the definitive words: “It’s either you or a plumber and his assistant at a total of $125 an hour. I’d say we’re looking at four hours minimum here, rolling on weekend overtime.”
I took the hammer.
It was not long before I realized that a twenty-pound sledge is not an instrument about which anyone will ever write lyric poetry, even though I did remember myself as a child tapping my foot to the folk song “John Henry was a steel-driving man”, and admiring Mr Henry’s finesse.
I found that I was unable to even make a dent in the pipe, and now knew what a hero John Henry must have truly been. I was getting nowhere. My shoulders were aching and the sound of my blows upon the pipe were becoming progressively quieter. I knew I was losing effective strength, but I was determined to keep swinging.
At some point in my litany of curses - quickly reduced to four letters of verbalization followed by an ever-so-mild ping! of contact between hammer and pipe - I heard someone downstairs knocking at my front door. I paused for a moment to make sure I had heard correctly. Yes, someone was knocking. I set the hammer head-down on the floor. As soon as I let go the handle, I knew I would not be able to pick it up again. My shoulders, arms, and upper body were already twitching with pain, after barely forty-five minutes’ labor. I stumbled down the stairs to open the door.
“Whatever are you doing, child?” queried a lavishly arranged countenance set some six feet four inches off the ground. “Have I arrived at an indiscreet moment? I do hope so.”
The demure Ms Porter Summerville entered my home with a strut evocative enough to drive any number of gaunt fashion models from the runways of Paris to a lifetime of hawking foundation garments at Sears. Ms Summerville, ever the star, was clad in designer sweats, tank top and shorts, with a spotless set of two hundred dollar running shoes on her dainty size-eleven feet. She had obviously been out for a jog, but sweat had not yet been added to the outfit.
“I’m hitting a pipe upstairs with a sledgehammer,” I said.
“How terribly exciting for you. Shall we go see?” Porter swept up to the second floor to inspect the site of my demolition. She stopped close by to look intently. “Where exactly have you been hitting this pipe?” she said, a small upturn at the corners of her mouth.
“I know. It’s not working. I haven’t made a mark on it, and the thing has got to go. I’ll probably have to hire those same damned plumbers to come back and do more damage.”
“Oh, sweet boy, let’s not be hasty. Is this the device?” she said, lifting the twenty-pounder as easily as if it were a carpenter’s hand tool.
“That’s the one.”
“Now I’ll be glad to give you a bit of assistance, but you mustn’t let on to anyone. It would ruin the image that I work so hard to maintain.”
“You’re not going to hurt yourself, are you? That hammer can be dangerous.”
“Darling, I’ve dealt with both the metaphor and the reality many times. Just stand back and let a girl do what she can.”
Porter tapped the pipe lightly at intervals of a foot from the floor joint to the ceiling, listening after each contact to the pitch of the noise. She came to a conclusion, stepped back a foot, and placed the hammer against the iron at a spot about three feet up. She took a deep breath. I could see the veins in the muscles of her biceps begin to swell.
Then suddenly she drew back the sledge and loosed a swinging blow that ended with a deep crack, a rumble, and the collapse of the entire pipe above. I hadn’t prepared for the circumstance of success, and the iron fragments hit my wood floor with force, gouging small holes in its waxed surface. But the pipe was down, and I would be re-sanding surfaces soon anyway. The damage was a small price to pay.
“Wonderful. Wonderful!” I yelled, patting the steel-driving Summerville solidly on the shoulder. “Porter, I am in your debt. You’ve saved me the horror of having to invite those monster plumbers back into my house, not to mention the expense. How can I ever thank you?”
“Dinner would be nice. I’m tired of eating alone, and I’m just not ready for the restaurant scene yet. A girl has to prepare for such things.”
“Fine, I love to cook, and haven’t had an opportunity or reason to really fire up the stove in weeks. Dinner, tomorrow night, seven?”
“I knew you would.”
* * *
A hot bath in what is your own home will do wonders for culinary morale.
I didn’t want to stretch too far the first time out, not until I got the hang of the eccentricities of this particular stove. And there lay another in this series of firsts: with the purchase of the house and its new appliances, this was the first stove I had ever owned rather than rented. I decided to make something that I knew well enough to knock together on autopilot. I would make crawfish bisque, a dish any hungry person in south Louisiana is trained to make as soon as he or she can stand upright over flames. Crawfish, around my parents’ home, were the plentiful free food that appeared in all the bayous and ponds every March. We caught them for the fun of it, and brought home bushel baskets full of squirming crawdads with their claws poised to grab the thoughtless human. Might as well know how to cook the things. I did.
Ever the thoughtful guest, Porter called to confirm in mid-afternoon, and when she found out that I was already cooking, asked to come over early and watch the process, so she could witness the Way of the Kitchen.
“I’m going to settle down one day, and I want to be able to raise passion in every room of the house, including the kitchen,” said my Texas-sized guest. She had arrived in a provocative scarlet two-piece ensemble topped with some rather modernist accessories which she had arranged over a small lacy apron. Did I fail to mention that Porter is a drag queen? “I’ve got the outfit already, you see, to make hubby happy when he comes home. Now, if I could just concoct something edible that I didn’t have to sneak in from an Oriental delivery service. Tell me everything, dear boy.”
“We are going to make crawfish bisque, stuffing the heads.”
“Oh, do, baby, yes. Make me obey your will.”
“To the background lecture, then. You can help me chop ingredients while I talk.” I handed her a knife and cleaned another place on the counter. The two of us began reducing vegetables into small sauté-able cubes as I gave my spiel.
“It is important to know the tradition of these dishes. The story makes the food even better for those who will eat it.
“Since we are in the Springtime height of the crawfish season, and since the wild crawfish are coming in so plentifully out of the Atchafalaya Basin, we are going to take the time to make a traditional dish from the swamplands.
“It does fill an hour or two, if you’re able to get fresh crawfish, because you must boil them and peel the tails, rather than simply buying them precooked, peeled, and frozen into tidy blocks. But the cooking period is one of the reasons why the men like it so much -- it takes them at least a six-pack of drinking, waiting around to eat.”
“I have seen those same beverage-measured culinary methods used in my own native Austin, Texas. But solely in the incineration of large hooved mammals,” said the delightfully-accoutered sous chef.
“I hope you don’t mind, but I’m taking notes,” said Porter, and she was. There was a large pink poodle on the notebook she had removed from her handbag. The dog looked somewhat disgruntled, I am sure due to the fact that he had been forced to pose in the arms of a teenaged girl who signed her name “Love, Annette”. A substantial rocket-nosed brassiere and rounded mouse-ear chapeau made all further identification unnecessary. Porter was scribbling madly. “If this doesn’t get me the right man, I don’t know what will,” she muttered to Annette.
“There are at least forty-eight heads in a standard bisque,” I started. “But you must remember that it is meant to feed six hungry people. Or just you and me, especially after we’ve talked about nothing but food for the better part of an hour preparing it, and have at least another hour beyond that to wait until it’s done. Of course, we’ll have to share with this herd of demanding cats, who have somehow developed a predilection for seafood with tangy sauces.”
“Forty-eight? Heads? Two hours?” Porter’s pen had stopped in its heavily looped tracks. “This cooking business takes longer than childbirth. At least my own, which was rapid. Seems Mater was anxious to get shed of me from the very start.”
“It doesn’t have to take that long,” I said, ignoring the natal digression, “but some dishes are meant as much for the camaraderie that is enjoyed during the cooking as they are for the final goal, eating a meal together.”
“Maybe I’ll just do the easy thing and hire a chef. Someone colorful. A saucier. I’ve always loved the term saucier, haven’t you?” said Ms Summerville, turning another page on Annette and her attendant canine. “But until then, I have you to give me lessons. I can pay my way if you’ve more pipes that need mending.
“My pleasure, even without the plumber’s wrench. You can do this, Porter.”
“Yes. If Tammy Wynnete can cook, so can I.”
And so she could. After we ate later that night, the gravy-spattered demoiselle happily took three containers of bisque back to her rented double shotgun home to feed the other tenants with the first products of her efforts as chef. She received raves, and was so excited at the prospect of more domestic stovefront action that the very next day she bought herself a fourteen-inch chef’s toque. The tall white cylindrical hat brought her total height, counting the five-inch Manolo Blahnik spike heels, to seven feet eleven inches.
In the kitchen, like everywhere else, Porter Summerville would be noticed. When she passed not long ago, she had already made prior arrangements to be cremated in a daringly low-cut Anne Klein sheath. She had called from the hospice to inform me of her decision a month earlier. “Who knows who’ll be waiting there,” she’d said. “Dear boy, wardrobe for the afterlife is such a difficult decision, but you can’t go wrong with the classics.”
Indeed, Porter. You truly can’t.