Nonfiction

The Bread of Kings by Teresa Lust

Fake Pies and Pig Thighs by Rachel Komich

An Essay in Which Pam Greer Oozes Out of Her Clothes by Richard LeBlond

On Pierogi(s) by Mark Lewandowski

Vegetexting by Jennifer Bal

The Benefits of Eating Too Much in the Desert by E. M. Eastick

A Question of Taste by Meredith Escudier

The Beauty of Pizza by Austin Rogers

Marmalade: The Melomeli of Modern America by Michael Pennell

Three Elizabeths, One George, Hot Cross Buns, and Hampstead Heath by Paula Panich

Duck by Eileen Shields

Food for Thought by Kathryn Jenkins

Playing Mass by Catherine Scherer

My Big Fat Orthodox Thanksgiving by Ruth Carmel

The Astrophysics of a Sandwich by Raychelle Heath

Tantric Chicken by Mara A. Cohen Marks

Full by Kelly Ferguson

Monkey Eve by Carolyn Phillips

Capon by Natasha Sajé

The Paella Perplex by Jeannette Ferrary

The Right to Eat by JT Torres

This Isn't Supposed to Happen in the Morning by Heather Hartley

Recipe for Winter by Khristopher Flack

Step One by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

Flour Fool Meets Great Poet and Pie Instructor by Amy Halloran

Everett by Jason Bell

The Intrigue of Aaron Barthel by Kristy Leissle

Personal Sugar Defense Kit by Sari M. Boren

Kitchen Tirade by Eric LeMay

Eat Dessert First by Iris Graville

Parsley by Natasha Sajé

American Zen Breakfast by Dick Allen

This May Make You [Sic] by Paul Graham

Prisoner's Thai Noodles by Byron Case

Lavender Fields by Susan Goodwin

Ménage à Fongo by Kathryn Miles

All That She Could Make with Flour by Katherine Jameison

Weasel by John Gutekanst

Into the Deep Freeze by Jason Anthony

Defining Gluten by Ann Lightcap Bruno

The Text(ure) of Pleasure by Tara Deal

On the Perils of Food-Buying in a Foreign Land by Tony Eprile

Capon

by Natasha Sajé

June 2014    

“Did you have your vertebrae fused?” asks the physical therapist after ascertaining that I can’t move from side to side. He’s never seen someone with a mid-back so immobile who hadn’t had the operation. I’d ruined my lumbar disks with a heavy coffee pot and poor ergonomics in my twenties.

His question makes me think of Althea Ross, Vassar class of 1916, who had that operation and never let anyone forget it.

In their late seventies, the Rosses lived in Ridgewood, a tony town adjoining mine in New Jersey. They were surviving old age in their large Tudor house with a day maid and part-time teenage help. My friend Barbara got the job first, from an announcement in her Presbyterian church newsletter, and then called on me to fill in whenever she had cheerleading practice or church. Neither church-goer nor cheerleader, I’d arrive between four and five o’clock, entering through the kitchen door, and immediately turn on the oven for the baked potato sure to be on the menu. Mrs. Ross left instructions in her still firm and elegant hand.

Consomme. Roast capon with baked potato, steamed carrots and green beans. Cranberry jelly.

Grape Juice. Roast leg of lamb with mint jelly, baked potato, steamed carrots and peas.

Consomme. Roast crown ribs of beef, baked potato, steamed carrots and green beans. Currant jelly.

Cranberry Juice. Lamb Chops. Baked potato, steamed carrots and peas. Mint jelly.

Consomme. Meat Patties. Baked potato. Steamed lima beans. Currant jelly.

Dessert would be a slice of Pepperidge Farm cake, pudding or Jell-O made from a mix. I had not eaten capon before (and have not since) that time, although our Chinese neighbors now have a bunch of chicks one of who will likely be a rooster and then a capon if he starts crowing. Capon represented Althea and Alexander Ross in all their white, upper class, sterile, Anglo-Saxon superiority. Capon is the preferred poultry of James Beard—not chicken, not turkey, but in-between, uncommon, and thus superior. Of course, Beard advises roasting it with rosemary or tarragon and “plenty of butter,” neither of which the Rosses condoned.

The Rosses’ meats came from the best butcher in town, wrapped in white paper and tied with string, with what seemed exorbitant prices written with a black grease pen. The consommé came from a can, tasting slightly of soap. The vegetables were frozen. The Rosses didn’t care about food as art or pleasure. Eating was necessary for health, but inspired no curiosity. There were no copies of Gourmet in the house, no cookbooks. The menus could have been from a country club from the thirties. Gravy was greasy, lower class, and thus never on the menu. Sauces were French, complicated, and suspect. Jelly, on the other hand, was crystalline and pure. One could see through it to the dry meat it moistened.

I was seventeen and always hungry. When the day maid had cooked the meat and left it in the refrigerator, I could sneak off a few slices. Once I ate half a coconut cake, knowing that I would be back the next day to replace it without anyone knowing. I also ate a lot of canned soup, using my 90 cents an hour wage to replace what I had eaten. At home, my parents were eating supermarket meat, fresh or garden vegetables, homemade soups, and plenty of herbs and spices.

At six p.m. I could hear the thump thump of Mrs. Ross’s cane moving from the living room into the dining room with the polished mahogany table I had set with two placemats, crystal stemware for their water, silver flatware, napkins, and a silver dinner bell. Mr. Ross, balding, slim and tall, had had his scotch with dry-roasted almonds or peanuts. One of them rang the bell, and I brought in their soups or their glasses of juice. They rang the bell again and I brought in the meat and vegetables. As Mr. Ross carved the meat, I wondered if he could tell a few slices had been filtched. Mrs. Ross looked like Eleanor Roosevelt, sturdy with a big head of grey hair, and had a booming voice. In her wide black skirts, white blouses and imperious air, she could have posed for Van Dyke.

Once Mrs. Ross rang the bell shortly after I brought their main course.

“What’s this on the carrots?”

“I glazed them with currant jelly, butter, and salt,” I said.

“Well, they’re quite good,” she looked me directly in the eyes, “but don’t do it again.”

If I didn’t learn much about cooking, I did learn about what might befall a woman whose injury became her passion. Mrs. Ross had been a teacher of Greek and Latin in Brooklyn. Now she moved like a gigantic land snail along the corridors of her house. I can’t remember her face, but the way her body moved was painful to see. She had raised two sons, and then had the back surgery that defined her—her formidable intellect and energy siphoned entirely into the deep tank of invalidism. Despite being surgically altered like the capon, her flexibility was intact. I can still see her bending down to unlace her eight grommet black shoes. I can still feel her icy blue eyes pierce my gut filled with borrowed Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup.

Mr. Ross had retired from a career with New York Life Insurance, ending with his position as CEO, a position his son later inherited. The feudal dynasty rested on Cadillacs, summers at Mohonk Mountain House, and the blandest and most expensive food imaginable.

I would do homework in the maid’s room off the kitchen. Sometimes I masturbated, safe in the knowledge that neither of the Rosses would barge in, or perhaps just safe enough, because once Mr. Ross did knock on the door to ask me for help moving a side table. At seventeen, my back was sound, although six years later I would ruin it with another food service job. If only I had had a physical therapist to warn me of my fate. If only Mrs. Ross and I had taken Pilates in our thirties.

On Sunday mornings I made the beds while they read the paper.

Mrs. Ross showed me how to poach eggs, adding a teaspoon of white vinegar to the boiling water, slipping the egg into the funnel created with a spoon. Standing at the stove, she breathed hard, impatient that I didn’t know this fundament of cookery. I served the eggs with white Pepperidge Farm toast and grape jelly. Why jelly instead of jam? Why not fry an egg in butter? The detritus of fiber, of seeds, of grease were no doubt as disgusting to them as the strands of albumin were to me.

Their other breakfast was oatmeal cooked in water without salt, or creamed chipped beef, salty beyond belief. I never understood why they tolerated salt in some foods and not others, although I have to come to understand their need for a dull diet as representing the safety of their class and providing a bulwark against the encroaching foreignness of food in the U.S. in the seventies. Mexican food was not an abomination, it was inconceivable, beyond their ken.

They slept in separate bedrooms, each equipped with an enormous, mahogany four poster with a extra firm mattress and thick white sheets.

Once after a late night driving around with my friends, the next morning I had fallen asleep while making his bed. I awakened with her cane jabbing my thigh. I was foreign help, with an unpronounceable last name.

The Rosses took Barbara with them to Mohawk Mountain House for the summer because the extensive staff of the resort could not be entrusted to wash and darn Mrs. Ross’s stockings or help her bathe. Mrs. Ross got all of her meals brought to her room, and spent her days on her private porch overlooking the lake, on a day bed outfitted with a blue-ticked mattress she had had delivered. Rumor had it that the Rosses’ tip of $50 for the chambermaid for an entire summer’s twice-daily service for two large rooms with baths resulted in the resort’s 15% mandatory gratuity. Barbara had a romance with the married music director (she married him later, reader) for which the Rosses never quite forgave themselves. They should have kept her busier, quizzing her on the volumes of Dickens in the library.

Nothing “ethnic” ever found its way into the Ross kitchen, not even spaghetti. What they did not eat was a list as long as Henry James’s rant about America’s deficits. Alexander and Althea Ross lived without garlic, without onions, without sweet or hot peppers, without cumin or cinnamon or nutmeg or bay leaves or rosemary or basil or tarragon, without beans or dried peas, without cornmeal or rye or whole wheat, without fresh fruit or vegetables (except for potatoes) and without any home baking. I do not even remember any cheese. I remember the meat, glossy and pink, wrapped in the double-sided paper, tied with string.



  Natasha Sajé is the author of three books of poems, including Vivarium just out from Tupelo Press; and a book of prose, Windows and Doors: A Poet Reads Literary Theory forthcoming this fall from the U of Michigan Press. Sajé teaches at Westminster College in Salt Lake City and in the Vermont College M.F.A. in Writing Program. www.natashasaje.com

Photo used under Creative Commons.