September 2011

The Simplicity of Salt

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It began as a dull sensation, like half-chewed steak lumped in his gullet. The chef ignored it for days, guzzling water as he conducted his staff of commis and sauciers, monitoring the nervous hands of his new, French-trained patissier. Between tastes of turtle soup and fois gras, he often cleared his throat, troubled only occasionally by the heat that throbbed at the base of his tongue. He dismissed these twinges with the same diffidence he held for his wife’s leftover things—for the lolling tongues of her empty, open drawers, and the lone tube of mascara in their medicine cabinet.

But soon it became unbearable. He swilled spoonfuls of chilled gazpacho, padded his mouth with fresh-baked brioche, compressing soft pillows of dough between cheek and gums like gauze, but he could taste nothing through the fierce and insistent burning.

The doctors had to amputate. They sawed away jawbone and lips, mouth and tongue, taking tissue and muscle and taste as they rend his face apart. They rebuilt a jaw with a shard of his shoulder. They made lips from the inside of his wrist. They took a sliver of muscle from his chest and sewed it where his tongue should be, and There, they said. You’re whole again.

With enough practice, the chef could speak. He could form his new appendages into awkward shapes—at once foreign and familiar. Like a toddler taking his first steps, he repeated short words in the privacy of his home. For the first time, he sat on the couch she had chosen—the Italian chaise over which she’d cooed while he counted the hours his spare ribs had spent in the smoker. Now cushioning his head against hard leather, he spoke into the silence of his living room. Room, he said to himself, trying to curve the strange shred of muscle to the roof of his mouth. Rooooom. Rooooof. Rrrrrun.

But even after he learned to speak, after he could purse his wrist-lips and whistle, after he could tap and titter with his strange new tongue, he could not taste. They had grafted muscle and skin and bone, but they could not scavenge taste buds for his reconstruction. These belonged to the tongue and the tongue alone, and they were lost to him forever.

Sight. Sound. Smell. Touch. Taste. Five senses. He remembered his pre-school worksheets. A thick black outline of a man with labels at his eyes, nose, ears, fingers, and mouth. Taste. He repeated the word on his living room couch, head pillowed against its arm. Taste. He could feel the syllables, the tension of the first T as he touched tip of tongue to roof of mouth. The narrow yawn of the A as it stretched the back of his throat. He could hear the hiss of air between his teeth as he blew the S between them, and the sharp cut of the final T. Taste. But that was the one thing he could not do.

Before the surgery, he was a restaurant legend. Critics flew in from Paris and New York, from LA and Chicago to try his menus—intricate and ever-changing, dependent on his whims. Other chefs arrived in his kitchen, begging for the secret to his duck confit, his pillowy fois gras. It was rumored that his Oaxacan mole had 123 ingredients. That his bourbon walnut cheesecake required seven different oven settings, adjusted at six-minute intervals. No two meals were ever the same.

But afterwards, his dishes became static. He resorted to rote and routine. Rub with garlic cloves, bay leaves, and fresh thyme. Grind black peppercorns and salt. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees, and bake for 14 hours, until the meat falls from the bone. The critics bored of the same succulent lamb loin. They tired of his sharp, crisp sorbet. Where was his ingenuity, they asked? When would he show them something new again?

Beside the oven, shredding duck thigh with a fork, fingers slick with rendered fat and breathing the damp steam of baked herbs, the chef yearned for taste. It had been so long since he’d experienced it that the absent sensation was now more dream than memory. He shoveled forkfuls of meat into his mouth, pushing it around with his new tongue. He could feel muscle fibers separating in saliva, the slick warmth of juice rushing his blind palette. But he tasted nothing.

When his staff arrived, the kitchen was a mess. Pudding stained the walls—streaks of butterscotch and heavy cream. The counters were speckled with gravies and sauces, thick puddles of bordelaise and streams of vinaigrette. A beautiful cut of bluefin tuna lay strewn on the floor—an embarrassingly raw slab of red. They found the chef submerged chest-high in an industrial-sized stock pot. He sat cross-legged and naked in a bath of risotto. Flecks of saffron-stained rice clung to the pale, bony expanse of his chest, spread over the angry scar where they’d cleaved through his flesh.

On the stove, a chorus of pots bubbled over. A kettle sang a single, shrill note and bacon sizzled atop the griddle. The chef spread his rice-covered arms like a conductor, batting his hands through the air. He willed himself a sponge. He pictured steam sinking through his pores, carrying with it the thick satiety of oil, the harsh bite of spice, and the salve of measured sweetness. But even as he filled his senses—overwhelmed them with scent and sound and sight and touch, a synesthetic devouring—nothing sated.

The staff wanted to take him from the pot and wipe the yellowed porridge from his skin. They wanted to scour the sauce-stained counters and suck the smoke from the air. They wanted to dress him in his chef whites, to see everything restored, and to find reassurance, once again, in the stability of his genius.

They reached for him, pawing with open hands—a mass of well-meaning arms and fingers trying to lift him to his feet. But the chef resisted. He yanked his arms from their grasp and leapt from the pot. He paced the kitchen, trailing clumps of risotto that sloughed from his skin.

A tasting menu, he declared. Tonight we’ll do a tasting menu.

 

It began with a soup too heavy to lift, so rich, so full and stewed with memory that the liquid, once ladled, held the bowls to the tables. The diners, in their black ties and fine dresses, asked for utensils, but were given none. Eat, was the reply.

They could smell the aroma of autumn squash, of nutmeg and cardamom and rosemary. They could smell the toasted pecan garnish and the drizzle of pumpkin seed oil. They searched the tables with their hands, fingers meeting strange fingers as they rummaged for a spoon, a ladle, anything that would bring the soup to their mouths. They tugged vainly at the vessels that would not budge.

Eat. How desperately they wanted to comply. Temptation beckoned—the relentless summons of savory spice and melted butter. A few intrepid fingers dipped into the soup—into the warm puree of butternut and acorn squash. Tongues touched fingertips, gingerly at first, lapping at rich, salty-sweet droplets that tasted of hearth and home, of darkening leaves and fall winds. Impatient fingers became cupped hands. They ignored their fellow diners and brought handfuls to slavering mouths. Conversation ceased, subsumed by the crescendo of indulgent gulps and shameless slurping. They abandoned all decorum, a room of rabid-self fulfillment.

The next course arrived with the herald of burning oak. Pheasant, roasted in apple cider and impaled on an oak branch. The leaves were lit on fire and carried, like Olympic torches from the kitchen. The guests breathed deep the scent of front lawns, of October chores and backyard football. They watched the flames devour the leaves, dusting their hands with ash. And then carefully, tenderly they ate. They gathered the warm flesh in their mouths and savored the sweetness of its marinade.

Next was pasta—bundled nests of pappardelle, which they coiled about their soot-stained fingers and brought to their lips, smearing their cheeks with olive oil, rosemary, and red wine. They ate wordlessly, ravenously. Single bites of venison seared with cherries and cacao. Candied bacon crusted with caramel and thyme. Pearls of lemon custard delivered on scented pillows—cloth pouches infused with lavender and orange peels, slowly diffusing their sweet bouquet.

They ate until their faces glistened with sweat and satisfaction. Until their collars were stained, their shirts untucked, their chins and throats sticky with excess. The chef watched through his porthole window, forehead pressed to the glass. He watched them roll clumps of truffled cod through their mouths, pick tarragon from their teeth with fingernails. He watched as they dribbled brandade and sauce crème in stringy white clusters, and he trembled with his own deprivation.

For dessert, the chef emerged in uniform—dressed neatly in coat, hat, and apron. The tables were wiped clean, the dried soup and ash scraped away to reveal empty canvases beneath. The chef wheeled a catering cart piled high with bowls and ramekins, pots and wide-rimmed jars containing powders and pastes, and deep red purees. He carried with him a variety of brushes, thick and thin, scrapers and spreaders and rollers. At the center of the restaurant, he surveyed his disarrayed guests, their skewed ties and open jackets. Dress straps drooped gracelessly from shoulders and stray hairs wisped over heads.

The chef towered above the seats, a column of white, hands pressed to the petite ivory buttons of his coat. He waited for their silence—standing until all mouths were wiped, all hands in laps, until the air stilled with anticipation.

He painted. He danced from table to table, leaving swabs of molasses, daubs of mousse and smatterings of espresso powder. He scattered starbursts of crumbled nuts, stippled arcs of raspberry juice and cinnamon. He brought out hunks of frozen chocolate, dipped them in liquid nitrogen, and shattered them across tables, filling the room with vapor and sugared shrapnel. And when he’d covered the room—when he’d blotted the tables and powdered the floors, showered his guests with flaked coconut and nutmeg, when he’d pulped his tortured heart before them with honey and pulverized fruit, he retreated to the kitchen.

The double doors slammed, muffling the roar of applause. His arms swung useless in their sockets. Stumbling his last few steps, the chef heaved one leg over the edge of the basin and collapsed in his pot of cold risotto. Ignoring the chorused cheers, muted by glass and stainless steel, he reached inside his mouth and tugged. He pinched flesh between his fingers until it hurt. He dug knuckles and nails into scarred muscle, willing the pain to swallow him whole.

The restaurant was saved. The guests departed and dispensed the good news. Reviews raved and critics returned. Celebrities scrambled for reservations. The chef repeated his performance nightly, at the mercy of their hunger. He wasted himself on their tables, watched them gorge on his waning strength. And though they left sated, slaked, and swollen, his hunger only grew. The yearning in him spread and consumed until he was nothing but appetite.

He abandoned the restaurant, which closed without its chef. Jobless and aimless, he lived off found food. As it turned out, his condition suited his homelessness. He scavenged his meals from dumpsters—ate apple cores and banana peels, gnashing the yellow rinds between his teeth. He sucked caffeine from damp coffee grounds, packing them like tobacco against his cheek.
And that was how he found her—the baker’s daughter, who lived alone and dined nightly on take-out for one. He finished her containers of Szechuan beef and chicken vindaloo, finding comfort in that small completion, if not his own. He scraped hardened cheese from the bottom of her pizza boxes—ate scraps of anchovies and olives and her slivered crusts. He concluded her meals and imagined the conversations they could have as he chewed. These peppers are overripe, he would tell her, gauging by the way they mushed between his molars.

Every night, he stood in the alley behind her building, waiting for the squeak of metal hinges. He learned the patter of her footsteps—the dual clap of her flip flops slapping her heels and then the ground as she walked the few paces to the dumpster. Her bags were light and clean. They lifted easily from the plastic bin, from which he carried them around the corner, gutting them onto the asphalt.

He admired the adventurousness of her palette—how she sampled each new restaurant on the block. She redeemed the two-for-one deal for The Blue Nile’s grand opening, consuming hearty portions of doro watt and inguday. She sampled Greek and Lebanese cuisine, could navigate French menus and sushi lists with ease. Often she overestimated her appetite and ordered more than she could finish, replacing the excess in their plastic containers before discarding them.

He learned that she loved mushrooms, plucking all of them out of her moo goo gai pan before abandoning the last bites of chicken and snow peas. She enjoyed spicy foods, but could not handle the fire shrimp special from Thai-phoon. He discovered its near-full container, the plastic dyed red by chili oil.

On Fridays, she rented a movie with her meal. He found Blockbuster receipts balled beside her takeout. She paired food with films—croque madame with Moulin Rouge, spaghetti Bolognese with The Godfather. When she was sick, she brought home Styrofoam bowls of albondigas soup, the remains of which he discovered with empty bottles of Nyquil. She chugged through bottles of apple juice, but often couldn’t finish a gallon of milk before it curdled.

The only containers she consistently emptied, however, were white pastry boxes. Plain cardboard, bound by string, covered in postage stamps. This side up. Handle with care. Fragile. Sometimes, he found the smallest flake of croissant or crumbed streusel topping, but they were almost always scraped clean. There was one for every week, like clockwork. Sometimes the cardboard smelled of cookies—white chocolate and macadamia nuts, double chocolate chunk. Others, they bore traces of baked bread—rosemary foccacia , garlic-thyme. There were always small notes penned onto the lids:

Sweets for my sweetie.

Don’t work too hard.

New recipe. What do you think? – Dad.

Then the boxes stopped. At first, the chef didn’t notice, puzzled only by the surplus of uneaten food. There were sandwiches with missing corners. Full cartons of pork fried rice. Plastic cylinders of curry gone cold. Soon the takeout disappeared altogether, replaced by granola bar wrappers and goldfish crackers. And then, the most curious development.

The chef found charcoal lumps of burned cookies and sheet pans scarred beyond utility. Half-risen breads and doughy, undercooked scones. He lifted a cake mold with chocolate seared into the metal. Beyond the scent of charred tin, he could smell traces of rum and blood orange. It bore crusted smears of mascarpone and stiffly dried meringue. He recognized in these the echoes of her father’s cocoa and citrus dacquioise—chocolate chiffon cake layered with whipped mascarpone and meringue—the faded memory of which he had once licked from a cardboard base. He studied her expended efforts—the hard brick of burnt cake, the dripping, runny glaze pooled at the bottom of the garbage sack. He snapped off a corner of crystallized chocolate and chewed. The coarse crumbs tasted of nothing, but they broke his heart nonetheless.

He consumed one after another of her failed concoctions—soppy semifreddos and gallettes made of ash. One specimen contained such indistintiguishable black ooze, he couldn’t tell if it were once a turnover or a calzone. He spread the tarred filling with his tongue, coating his mouth with a dense and heavy mourning.

One night he heard her weeping—short sniffs between the patter of her shoes. And for the first time, he emerged. He rose from behind the dumpster, startling her mid-step. She stood in boxer shorts and a tank top, her arms goosebumped from the night breeze. Her eyes were glossy with tears, and despite their flared red veins, despite their borders of puffy pink skin, he couldn’t help thinking they were lovely.

She looked frightened, then just confused.

“It’s you,” she said. “That chef.”

“I’d like to help you,” he said, finally. “I think I can help you.”

Her apartment stank of smoke, the stale scent of which clung to the curtains, to the spare but well-worn furnishings. She led him inside and he noted the slope of her neck, the low swoop of the back of her shirt. The carpet was so soft it sank beneath his shoes—thick shag that buried her toes when she walked. There was a bean bag, two armchairs, a couch. Blankets and books unfurled on the floor. The chef could find no order to their arrangement, the furniture scattered about the room like rolled dice.

There was a kitchen in the corner—modest, small. The island counter had another cake pan, scarred but salvageable. There were cake crumbs on the floor, mixing bowls in the sink, a small bag of flour atop the microwave, gaped open with the handle of a measuring cup jutting from its interior.

Without invitation, the chef swept up the used utensils and carried them to the sink. She watched wordlessly, eyes drying, attentive with interest.

“I went to your restaurant,” she said. “Once.”

He scrubbed congealed batter from a whisk, pinching off dried yolk with a sponge. She told him about how her father took her for her birthday. How he had wept through the dessert course, shedding a fat tear for every bite of brown sugar soufflé.

“Rapturous,” she said. “He said it made him feel rapturous.” Her father, the baker, had found a miracle in the impossible cloud of caramel and egg, a miracle sustaining the puffed dough, lifting it so far above the lip of its ceramic vessel.

“And you?” the chef asked, “How did you feel?”

The baker’s daughter frowned, “Sad.” Then she shook her head. “Empty.”

The chef set a clean bowl on the counter, trying to recall the feeling of fullness. She moved to his side, scooping a cup of flour into the bowl. He watched the fallen grains form a small mountain.

“What’s next?” she asked.

The chef turned to her. The darkness of her eyes opened to a bottomless longing that he knew too well.            The chef swallowed, his mouth parched. He lifted a clean cup.

“Water,” he told her. And as she poured a clear, warm stream from a pitcher, he dissolved yeast and salt and mixed in their flour. He scattered flour onto the counter and patted his hands with white puff. He rubbed his hands over hers, leaving chalky residue wherever he touched. Her fingers felt cold and he held them until they warmed. She did not pull away.

The chef dumped out the dough, pushing into its soft dome. He showed her how to fold and turn, palms on the backs of her hands, depressing them both into the wet, sticky mass. Fold, turn, knead. Fold, turn. The memories resurged in his shoulders and arms, his long nights in the kitchen, accompanied by the whir of the exhaust fan and the slow churn of the mixer. Her back touched his chest as their fingers twined through the dough. It engulfed their hands and he wished they could continue—sinking their wrists, their elbows, their arms into its cold, forgiving embrace. He imagined their shoulders, their backs, their bodies, side by side, swaddled by its supple skin.

Together, they stretched and plied the dough until it was perfect, until he dug his knuckles to its surface and it sprang back as if alive. They baked it—a single loaf in a single oven. He watched through the window as its scored crown began, very slowly, to darken.

The apartment filled with the scent of fresh-baked flour, of starch nurtured by steady heat. When it finished, he removed the bread from the tray, tearing off a corner with his hands. He offered it to her, plain and unadorned.

She brought it to her lips and inhaled. She ate slowly, wombing the dough in her mouth until it dissolved.

“How does it taste?” he asked.

“Like warmth,” she said. “Like mornings at home.” Like the small buttered slice her father ate before work. Like the French toast he left beneath the broiler for her when she woke. She cried again and this time, the chef took her face in his hands. He let her tears collect on his fingers. He parted the reconstituted muscle of his lips and brought the delicate drops to his mouth. The darkness gaped wide. He reached for the memory of taste, clung to the solitary note of salt in his mind, and prayed for the miracle of its simple, rapturous beauty.