Saturday, October 29, 2005

The Art of Baking on Crutches

Right after the accident, food and cooking were the last things on my mind. It took extreme effort to make myself eat even a few sips of milkshake. As the weeks went by and my inability to smell became glaringly apparent, thoughts of food and cooking inspired only a deep sense of sadness. I could eat, but hardly taste. For over a month I wouldn’t go into the kitchen. I refused to take even one step into the room.

But as Rilke says, No feeling is final. And I have recently taken refuge in the kitchen.

I woke up one morning around two weeks ago to the seemingly ceaseless rain pounding on the windows; the blustery wind howling over our roof. It was a dark morning and the airy wetness fairly clung to body. I did my graceful one-legged hop down the stairs, balancing somewhat precariously on my crutches, and sunk comfortably into a large armchair. I sat with Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose propped open in front of me, wrapped in a blanket and ready to stave away boredom by getting lost in a book. But I couldn’t jump into Stegner’s story that morning. The air felt cold and the rain made me feel restless. Without even really thinking, I got up and went mindlessly into the kitchen. When I got there I looked around, not knowing quite what I was up to, and my gaze settled on the oven.

I’m going to bake; the idea suddenly shot into my head, taking my by surprise. There just didn’t seem to be any other option for that rainy Tuesday morning. And so wobbling awkwardly on crutches, I threw together some sugar and butter into a hazy silver metal bowl. The mixer hummed in its mechanical whir. The oven clinked as it painstakingly warmed itself and the room. I added eggs, vanilla extract, baking powder, espresso and flour. Cocoa, cinnamon and a daring dash of cayenne.

It took a while to figure out how to hold and carry baking sheets, how to portage dirty mixing bowls across to the sink and reach the spices way up on the top shelf. But soon it became a rhythm – the exact number of crutched steps I could take holding a bowl without losing balance, the length of time I could stand comfortably on my swaying right leg while my left hung delicately bent above the ground. The sound of my voice humming a cheerful melody was surprising.

And in the end, I pulled a tray of steaming and soft chocolate-chile butter cookies out of the oven. They were not the most beautiful I have ever seen – lumpy and uneven in my stiffly uncoordinated attempt at arranging them on the tray. I put my face close to the cookies; I could smell their warmth, if not their scent. Temperature holds a new value in my nose – heat is the smell of two bodies huddling in warmth on a freezing winter’s night under a mound of blankets; cold is the smell of the slowly vibrating chairlift as it brings me to the top of a frosty ski mountain in Vermont. I can smell the scentless temperature; it brings vivid recollections to mind.

Since that first foray back into the world of cooking, I have not been able to stop. I have gained enough strength to use my right leg as a balancing tool for long periods of time. I can leave my crutches leaning quietly alone on the far wall of the kitchen while I navigate the small room with well placed hops. To any fly on the wall, I look like a strange one-legged culinary rabbit, jumping abnormally to and fro with bowls and pans in our small little kitchen. But being able to cook and having the desire to step back into the kitchen makes me feel very much alive.

Some of what I’ve made has been, as my mother says, erratic. But I suppose that is all I can expect in my smell-less attempts at savory experimentation. Baking, however, with its necessary measurements and scientific precision, does not need a nose for excellence. Where my Moroccan chicken tagine, sheep’s milk and caramelized onion pasta, and even basic salad dressing may have been lacking the taste subtleties that come with scent, my almond cake, pumpkin pie, gingerbread, gateau au citron, chocolate pecan and oatmeal raisin cookies have been a reassuring jump back into the delicious. My only problem now is the sheer amount of baked goods that seems to spew themselves out of my oven. It’s a good thing I have wonderful friends willing to take them off my hands.

A Return to Cooking with my Ugly Chocolate-Chile Butter Cookies
adapted from Cooks Illustrated

While many were skeptical of the cayenne in these rich cookies (I do seem to add it to many things these days because I can taste it completely), the subtle bite of the chile gives a complex taste beyond the ordinary that even people who can smell really enjoy.

2 1/2 sticks of softened unsalted butter
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1 teaspoon instant espresso
1 cup sugar
pinch salt
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon vanilla
1/2 cup toasted almonds, ground finely in the food processor
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
2 1/4 cups flour

Preheat the oven to 375. Mix together butter, sugar, salt, cocoa and espresso on high speed until fluffy. Add egg yolks and vanilla. Lower the mixer speed and add the ground almonds, cinnamon and cayenne. Once incorporated, begin adding the flour slowly. When the dough comes together, take it out of the mixer and roll it into a round log around 2 inches thick and a foot long. Wrap it in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for an hour. When you're ready to bake, slice rounds off of the log, about a quarter inch thick, and place them on parchment lined baking sheets. Bake 12 minutes.

And thank you to Shauna for the Rilke quote, I think about it often.

"Let everything happen to you,
beauty and terror.
Just keep going.
No feeling is final."

Thursday, October 20, 2005


The wine glasses clinked in unison, the cheers reverberating around the flickering candlelight in our small dining room. My mother, her boyfriend and I had bought this bottle of wine together when were in Italy at the end of the summer. A splurge on Brunello di Montalcino for a special occasion, we had said. We were all leaning in at the table, our faces closer together over the bulky weight of the table. Becca, having arrived that morning in a cloud of rain, sat across from me. The smiles were infectious. The laughter billowing up from the pit of my stomach felt strange, unfamiliar, wonderfully comforting all at the same time.

I placed my nose carefully near the inside of the fluted crystal glass. The red wine moved in a jaunty pirouette around the diminishing inner curve. I held the glass away from me, admiring the deep color in the light and then put it back towards my nose.

I inhaled deeply. Once, twice, three times. It was there; a scent was lurking in the back of my nose. A dark aroma of the outdoors, a cloudy fruitiness, a jarring tang. It cascaded down my throat. Brief, muted, but there all the same.

I looked up to find everyone staring at me. My family and Becca were watching me closely, simultaneously, wondering if I could smell, if I could taste, if I would hold it against them that they could. My surprised smile seemed to elevate their sympathetic anxiety.

I took a sip. I could taste the fruit; the thick sweetness of the red wine coated the roof of my mouth with its intensity. I could taste the acidity, a twang in the back of my throat as I exhaled again. The flavors were intense, wonderful, and jarringly separate. There was no melding between the sugar and acid. It had a strange echo of the familiar taste, but an overwhelming jump to the oddly split unknown.

When Becca left on Sunday night for her long trek back to upstate New York after a wonderfully refreshing weekend visit, I sat on my bed and inhaled deeply. There was no smell, per usual. Nothing but that all too familiar twang of loneliness residing in the back of my throat.

I have been existing in a strangely dissected world. I am recovered and strong enough to regain important snippets of my life. I took myself off of painkillers in order to remove the fog that I’ve felt continuously enveloping my mind. I can think clearly; I can laugh with my friends; I can move around hobbled only by my need for crutches. I grasp at my old social life, my old movement and taste. I am just beginning to smell a light waft of that deep sweetness, normalcy. It is constantly countered by that intense acidity of frustrating confusion, however. I am not beyond the immediate effects of my injuries, no matter the delicious progress I have made.

And so sipping my drink that night – my first taste of wine in months, finally off of my pain meds – it felt familiar in its strange dissociation of taste. My taste, my life, are torn between a happy sweetness of recovery and a dull tang of seeming impenetrable injury.

But I certainly think our bottle of Brunello was put to good use. The sweetness and acidity of the wine, however separate for me at the moment, are integral parts of its makeup. Eventually they will meld. Eventually everything will come together.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Kind Of Blue

The hard click seemed to echo through my body, vibrating slightly in the pit of my stomach. It came suddenly, after my softly said goodbye, the responding good luck Molly and the cold weight of the phone to my ear suddenly surprised me with its heaviness. I sat broodingly on the couch, my braced left knee perched on a vibrantly pink pillow in front of me. I stared out the nearby window, watching the wind jostle the course of the darkening rain storm, the beginning of the holiday weekend’s bad weather. The familiar rhythm of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue enveloped the pattering rain with its lilting jazz, an unavoidable melding of sound that matched my loudly confused state of mind.

I was tossed from my mood of quiet thinking by the piercing whistle of the phone again. My Mom.

Well Mom, it’s official. I sighed overdramatically, feeling quite bad for myself.

What? she asked, the phone crackling in the background.

I am officially not going to culinary school in December. I almost shouted; saying it out loud made it final, a change that I knew was coming but never expected to be real. I’m just somehow surprised that this is all happening.

It’ll be ok, Molly. Of course she’s right; mothers are always right.

And later, as I continued my avid watch of the windy wet weather, a bulky copy of E.M. Forster’s Howards End balanced precariously on my knee, my thoughts leapt unavoidably around the CIA. It had taken me a few weeks to call them, so hesitant to admit the truth, that I would not be ready to go to culinary school by my official starting date in early December. I'm slowly mending from my physical injuries. My disturbing loss of smell (resulting in my frustratingly muffled sense of taste) is also reasserting itself in painstakingly lethargic dawdle. I can’t in all reality go to the CIA until I am myself again. I found myself surprised, stunned, that the call was so easy to make. I expected turmoil and trouble; I expected this call to reflect the past six weeks of difficultly and frustration. But I changed my entrance date in less than five minutes, listening half heartedly to the cheerful reassurances of the breathy voiced admissions officer.

Alright Molly, you are officially now going to begin your culinary associate’s degree in May, 2006. Thank you for calling.

As I cradled the phone on my shoulder, writing down my new information in thick black ink in my journal, I imagined the scene on the other end of the line. The efficient admissions secretary was perched on a thickly cushioned desk chair, a black phone headset angled over and around wildly frizzy blond hair, her mouth splayed into a wide friendly smile, the computer humming and the blinking red lights of her active phone subtly shining a reflection onto the window of her office. And nearby, close to that mystery woman who entered the data of a life change I was not ready to make, were knife-set bearing, white chef garbed culinary students going about their daily life.

Damn I’m sad, I thought, attempting to rearrange thoughts of my future, this year, in my head.

But as I sat, momentarily depressed on the long cushioned couch, I eventually had to let out the creeping urge to smile a bit. I am getting through this; I will be better; culinary school will come. A change of schedule, no matter how difficult or surprising, in this world is nothing to be permanently worked up about. And the sound of rain really is beautiful.

It is hard to admit, but there is a part of me that is relieved. I do very much want to begin my culinary education. But at the same time, this accident has scrambled up my thoughts on everything that I was so sure I ‘knew’ before. Right now, I am not ready to follow any kind of plan. I’m not ready to jump off of any sort of cliff of decision. I will take it slowly; I will write my way through it all. Despite the plans and urgings of many friends and family, I just have no idea what I’m going to do.

I stayed in my father’s house in New Hampshire after my surgery for a few weeks of recovery. He has never been a pronounced foodie, by any means. (He did, however, give me my genetic and profound love of mustard. I give him credit for that.) But he announced to me one day, a smile playing on his lips almost masked by his mustache and beard, a new ‘award winning’ idea.

Molly, you will be…The Tasteless Gourmet! Can you just see it now? You will bee looking at food in such a different way, totally original! No taste, no smell, but everything else! You will make it big! I rolled my eyes, not wanting to think about my lack of smell relating to any kind of life plan.

But Dad, my taste and smell are coming back. I don’t know how well that would work, really…

But he just smiled, excited by the prospect. And I laughed, thinking how strange it would be if that plan was a success, somewhere in a strangely mottled dream world.

And the other day – in one of my frequent long distance discussions with Becca (none of them ever having to do with celebrity gossip at all, of course) – we talked about my options.

Just start cooking, Molly. You can make up recipes according to your strange new taste buds. And then I’ll come visit and be your tasting judge.

I heartily accepted her offer, amused by the possibilities of my newfound food habits (lacking a strong sense of smell gives me a very new and surprising, albeit very muted, palette). Alright, I’ve got it - you know how I love salsa, Becca, now that one of the only things I can completely taste is spicy things. And of course I still love ice cream, no matter how much I can taste beyond the sugar. I think we’ll have to start this recipe creation session with some salsa ice cream. Giggling to myself at the prospect, knowing the horror on her face.

Oh, ok, fine. Fun. No problem. And I promise I’ll even smile after I taste it, no matter what I think or how much I want to throw up.

I have wonderful friends and family. That is what it all really comes down to.