Bio warfare; the ultimate, nasty germ chill.
Chemicals in the air and water.
It’s in the news, it’s in the collective mind, hard to avoid: alarm about weapons of mass destruction, threats of chemical and biological agents being introduced into populations causing mass casualties, deaths too hideous to describe — twitching limbs, bulging eyes, grinding teeth, foaming orifices.
It’s painfully simple, this form of aggression — simple and cowardly, rarely done eye-to-eye. A geek surreptitiously pumps and dumps substances into subways, hotel lobbies, schools, sports venues, any place large groups congregate. Perhaps he puts bio-agents into an environment in aerosol form, spraying them from flimsy and clumsily-flown crop dusters onto urban populations while people play golf, eat greasy fast food, square dance, screw in cheap motel rooms, celebrate birthdays and lay poolside, working on that oh-so-perfect tan.
Perhaps Terror Geek slips a smidge of bacterium in the taco salad, pops a virus into the champagne punch at the reception.
This hostility does not require talent: it is available to a legion of bozos who haven’t a shred of detectable skill. All they need to do is kidnap a second-year microbiology student and set up a crude lab.
People are worried and the more talk about the possibility such an attack will occur, the greater our apprehension.
Do we have enough vaccine?
Is there an antidote?
Would an attack cancel the Super Bowl?
Scientists across the nation gather to deal with the situation, dressed in anal-retentive white jackets, wearing respirators and space-age face masks — some of the more fearful clad in Mylex suits — working on defenses against this unspeakable threat.
Inspectors are ransacking warehouses in the desert, scurrying around third-world countries feverishly ferreting out evidence of manufacturing operations, frantically searching for stockpiles. Inventory checks are underway at decrepit sites, rusting compounds tucked in valleys in the Urals, deposited like piles of frozen bear scat in the endless tracts of Siberia. Everyone hopes, against hope, an enemy doesn’t possess these distressful substances, this terrifying capability.
What about smallpox?
How about botulinum?
Marburg, Ebola and their awful hemorrhagic cousins?
Folks are freaking out. It’s time to buy a gas mask, build an airtight chamber in the crawl space.
Me, I’m not worried.
Not a bit.
I have the solution to the problem. I’ve identified a means to avoid all manner of biological and chemical attack and I’ve identified our frontline troops in the battle.
I made this discovery last weekend.
At my mother-in-law’s house in Denver.
The pieces to the puzzle were there in front of me; all I had to do was put them together.
The synthesis occurred at breakfast.
I looked across the ’50s aluminum and Formica breakfast table at my mother-in-law, Ruth. She is 89 years old. She doesn’t hear or see as well as she used to, but she is durable as a battle tank — despite a diet rich in all the foods guaranteed to kill you and a lifetime of little or no exercise.
Some would attribute Ruth’s longevity to her Swedish genes. She is rarely ill, never seriously so. She cruises along like a Viking longboat plying the waters between Ireland and Britain, its passengers searching for a monastery to ransack.
But, I’ve got Swedes in my family, and too many of them died young to support the Nordic thesis.
No, Ruth owes her durability — as do numerous, vigorous and frighteningly healthy oldsters — to a prolonged program of self-immunization.
Ruth and a growing number of her peers (most of them old dames) are pretty much immune to any bacterial or viral infection. They are unfazed by chemical and biological agents.
They create and maintain stocks of anti-bacterial and anti-viral compounds and they ingest them regularly, constantly fine-tuning their immune systems.
They do the scientific work in their refrigerators.
I realized this when Ruth set to preparing breakfast for me.
I decided to give her a hand.
“Why don’t you get the eggs and bacon from the refrigerator,” she said.
It was like opening the door to a laboratory.
I fished the “bacon” from the meat drawer. The package was sandwiched between some cloudy plastic bags containing substances in various states of transformation and decay. The palette of colors was extensive, ranging from bright and ominous greens to some sunset-like pinks and oranges. A DeKooning painting in a drawer.
This was meat.
I asked Ruth if she wanted me to throw anything away.
“Oh no, it’s still good. Had some yesterday, In fact, if you get back around noon, I’ll make lunch. There’s some bologna in there.”
The “bacon” was a study in Ostwald complementary colors — the somewhat dulled red of the flesh creating a dramatic optical effect where it butted up against the green that had permeated the once white fat.
I was assigned the task of making toast.
Afraid of smallpox? No worry: eat a slice of the Ruth’s bread each day for two weeks and you are safe. I think it’s the black dots that’ll do the trick — the one’s flourishing inside the green patches on the crust.
I examined the contents of the refrigerator. Some of the expiration dates on bottles went back to the mid 1990s. There were a couple of jars so old there were no expiration dates printed on the labels. Some jars had been in there so long the labels had disintegrated. I was no more tempted to open them than I’d be to open a canister of weapons-grade plutonium.
I fished a jar from the top shelf and held it aloft.
“Oh, that’s just fine,” said Ruth. “I had some with my toast Friday. My friend Audrey sent me that from Pennsylvania. It’s either maple syrup or pickled herring. You know, when you get back, I bought some vanilla ice cream just for you.”
The freezer compartment of the refrigerator hummed along at about 35 degrees. Nothing in the freezer was frozen solid.
There was writing on two packages at the front of the compartment: “venison, 1985.”
The vanilla ice cream was semi-molten. I dug through a forest of ice crystals and algae and took a core sample. There was a bit of white at the center of the block of dairy-like product, surrounded by a blanket of a yellowish, viscous substance.
“You’re going to like this ice cream. I had a bowl last night before bed and it was great. I haven’t slept that well in weeks.”
I enjoyed several great meals with Ruth while I was in Denver. None of them at her house.
We ate at one of our favorite Chinese joints. I took Ruth to a French restaurant I’ve frequented for a couple decades. We hit a bistro specializing in “New American” cuisine — which, while eclectic, does not include multi-colored colonies of bacteria on the bread and butter.
The French experience reminded me of two things: first, the French eat quite a few microbe-infested food products (leave it to those crafty French to survive a biological holocaust by chowing down on unpasteurized soft cheeses) and, second, that I need to perfect a recipe for a scallop terrine.
I ate a terrine of this sort and was intrigued by the firm, cream-riddled, scallopy essence, pristine white, afloat in a bed of a buttery emulsion I am fairly sure included pulverized and strained crayfish, shrimp and fish stock.
It was extraordinary, blessed with a teensy kiss of pernod, baked in a bain marie until set, garnished with little bits of lobster or crayfish, the red-tinged meaty bits placed at the cardinal points around the superb, shimmering terrine finally free of its dish.
Wow, what a sentence.
Wow, what a recipe.
I’m going to master this puppy. I’m going to work a few wrinkles of my own, then try it on friends.
I’m going to prepare a forcemeat of scallops, some firm white fish, a bit of shrimp, egg and heavy cream. I’ll flavor the forcemeat with a splash of Pernod, a bit of nutmeg, some tarragon, salt and pepper. Into individual ramekins the forcemeat will go and the little terrines will be cooked in a 350 oven, in a bain marie, for 25-30 minutes.
The sauce I’ll start with a stock I’ll make with fish and the shells of shrimp. I’ll strain the sauce, reduce it, then liquefy some shrimp or crayfish, add the goo to the stock and strain again. A bit of Pernod, a bit of salt and pepper and a substantial amount of butter right at the end to thicken and shine up the whole mess. I’ll plop the terrines out of the ramekin and bed them in slicks of sauce, garnishing with little hunks of poached crayfish. I’ll keep trying until I get the right seasonings in terrine and sauce. I might work with some lobster in the forcemeat.
Once I’m satisfied with the recipe, I’ll indulge the terrine in comfort, unafraid, unburdened by worries of imminent attack.
After all, there is a legion of 80-plus American gals out there, working overtime to keep us safe. If you can’t trust them, whom can you trust?
I intend to create a list of elderly residents in Siberia with a View who can make the invaluable products of their pantries and refrigerators available to the rest of the population.
I’ll compose a schedule at each location — for breakfasts, lunches, dinners — and print it in the newspaper and announce it on the local radio station, between sets of bad country western music.
Residents of Siberia With a View will be required to have at least one meal per week for three months with these valiant old gals, these patriot scientists, these sly guardians of our public safety.
The occasions can serve two purposes: military and social. Take along some photos of the family and, by all means, try the toast.
Bring it on al Queda, have at it Taliban.
We’re immune. We’ve got you beat.
Oh, and I think I’ll set one of the terrines aside on the kitchen counter for a week or so, then send it to Ruth.
I think she’ll like it.