Continuing to explain all there is to explain to my grandson, Banzai, I let him know that the overwhelming majority of humans are idiots, regardless of how well we dress, what college degrees we earn, or what kind of television set or vehicle we own, and that the history of our miserable lot is, with the exception of a few, short periods of time, dominated by fumbling dolts and avaricious assholes.
That pretty much says it all, I tell him, no matter what fluttery optimists might claim to the contrary. Optimists are fun to talk with at parties, but they’re afraid to deal with things as they are, so you don’t want them next to you in a foxhole. Having a positive outlook is one thing, being a saucer-eyed Pollyanna is another.
The world is full of fools, I say, so if you want to understand what’s happening, ascertain who it is that stands to gain and follow the cash, smell the air around you, take notice of anyone who is overly moist in a dry environment, and be wary of adopting common opinions, since things are never what they seem, no matter what priests or experts might indicate. If someone utters the word Satan, or uses the term progress, proceed ahead with caution.
Bonz seems interested, but at eight years of age he has his sights set on a career in theatre, and he works on his chops whenever possible. He might be interested, or he might be rehearsing being interested.
Then again, he knows not to take what I say seriously. I told him when he was four, and have repeated many times since, that I rarely know what I’m talking about; I have a talent for making it seem as though I know a lot. That’s why, long ago, they hired me to teach in the philosophy department at what was then an insignificant urban college, and is now an insignificant urban university. Since the joint aged, and grew in perceived stature, there is no way they would hire me again. They have plenty of adjuncts with Ph.D.s roaming the halls, confusing gullible, debt-burdened students; they don’t require help at the oars from a decrepit galley slave like me.
I take a couple sips of a Cotes du Rhone opened the night before and sum up, relating my assertion to something close at hand — Banzai’s partial Swedish heritage.
Imagine, I say, that it is 950 and a Viking berserker is given the gift of a comely Persian lass as a reward for meritorious and often nasty service as a member of the Byzantine emperor’s bodyguard. The emperor offers the gift in order to convince the Swede that it is time to return north, thus avoiding the otherwise inevitable moment when the ruffian tips manic and slaughters the ruler and members of the court.
As is the habit of such brutes, the Swede takes persistent and insistent sexual advantage of the comely, somewhat Asiatic youngster, and not a year after, a child is born, with black hair and blue eyes.
Fifty generations later, a girl is born to blond parents of Swedish descent living in the far north of Manitoba, the baby emerging from mommy’s distressed birth canal with black hair and blue eyes.
In the 10th century, in a forlorn Rus outpost located in what is now Estonia, the child would be labeled a prophetess, to her advantage, or a witch, to her disadvantage. Today, smug scientific sorts know her as an unexceptional stop on the helical boulevard. That’s so-called progress for you, I tell Bonz, and only a simpleton buys into the idea it is meaningful. What the progressive science nerds don’t realize is they and the humans around them haven’t advanced much beyond a Bronze Age frame of mind. They are, in effect, living in squalor, in Estonia.
Are we wiser because we’ve plumbed the biochemical depths and become familiar with the recessive gene? Does it matter? Don’t be fooled, Banzai, because few folk know or care about scientific fact — science and reason mean as little to them as it does to a Pentecostal preacher as he brings the viper close to his face. To most who meet her, the girl born in Manitoba is still either a prophetess or a witch, and her berserker is now likely to be a minor league hockey player of Ukrainian heritage, a provincial politician, or a Republican, if the duo happens to migrate to the U.S. People are every bit as stupid as they were in a waning Byzantium, perhaps more so. Watson and Crick be damned.
If we need another sign of this, I tell the kid, we need look no further than cooks. Some of the supposedly best cooks are certified idiots these days, fashioned to that state by irresistible techno and pop culture forces.
You see, Bonz, these prominent pan pushers aren’t what they seem to be — as in famous cooks on TV, their photos splashed on the pages of trendy food magazines. In a greater sense, they’re representatives of a culture in which people stand in front of a masterpiece in a museum, and take selfies with their iPhones as if their presence, and not the art, is what is important.
The veneration of veneer has won the day, my boy, and most people no longer seek, or even recognize substance. In the case of celebrity chefs, the veneer is in large part the work of the pinheads who transform stove jockeys into idiotic media stars, just as they do the bulky meat wads who are paid enormous sums to beat their brains to mush on football fields for a year or three, their smiling faces with confused eyes featured in television commercials for expensive sport shoes, chiropractors, and car dealerships, our memories of them fading as they squander their cash and become increasingly addled before they commit suicide in a weed-choked lot in downtown Pittsburgh.
It’s also the responsibility of the millions of sad voyeurs who gulp celebrity goo as if it’s nectar — the vacant consumers of trite celebrity, glued to their television, computer, and phone screens, captive to Facebook and Instagram and a thousand sites and programs pimping trivia — the bottom feeders who exude shallow and transient admiration like volcanoes producing pyroclastic flows of mind-killing gases.
The cooks, like athletes and marginally talented pop and film stars, are little more than dupes susceptible to the lure of flattery and fortune, as are we all. This happens easily with cooks, I add, since they are somewhat limited beings to begin with, due to the nature of their occupation. Those chosen for celebrity quickly take the bait when it is offered, and television and Internet content is staged by crafty financiers and their minions to convince viewers and readers that the select few food fondlers are something special, something more than providers of desirable fare to diners. Once the pretense is washed away, however, we see that most of the famed cooks are simple folk of the fire. The anointed ones had their teeth straightened, learned to dress in a distinctive fashion, and enunciate better than their peers; they can discuss lardo, and how smoldering tundra moss flavors reindeer loin, while their inferiors can’t, most of the latter crew continuing to labor to the day their hips give out, overcooking eggs in the cluttered kitchen of a truck stop located just off the interstate in some godforsaken part of Arizona. Had these sad wage slaves, by chance, met the right television producer, kept up with their dental hygiene, and taken a speech class or two at the local community college, they might have a spot as a judge on Beat Bobby Flay on the Food Network, or work as a host, traveling this great land in search of the finest carnival foods. People with too much money would then beat a path to a large tent in Aspen in order to watch the star flambé an esoteric Basque dessert produced by Spanish-speaking assistants, kept out of sight in a backstage prep area.
Yet, despite all the exaggeration and constructions of false celebrity that make even the strongest among us occasionally yearn for our moment in the limelight, I tell Bonz, the act of cooking for us amateurs remains intensely satisfying, done as it is out of range of a camera, away from a feature team from Food and Wine — an activity that concentrates the mind, massages the soul, and floods the senses. This isn’t to say that celebrity cooks aren’t satisfied when they find time to indulge the basics, away from the stage — I lack media-massaged chef friends, so I am unable to fact-check this assumption — but I wager the large measure of their pleasure is now produced by a hefty income and the thick coats of ego-balm slathered on them by fawning sycophants seeking an extra-large portion of foie gras during the late dinner service at one of many eponymous restaurants. The celebrities are likely strangers now to the daily, simple pleasures, but we are not.
So, I say to Bonz, let’s cook something. We’ll be pleased by all it entails —the chopping, searing and braising, the chewing, tasting, and swallowing that follows. Cooking is a wonderful skill that you learn a bit at a time, then apply throughout your life, however long that might be, adding to your repertoire and technique as you go, providing comfort to self, family, and friends.
OK, let’s make mac and cheese, the kid says.
No, I reply, we’ve done that at least twenty times. We’ve mastered mac and cheese. We’ll stay simple, even mundane, but we will stretch, lad, we will stretch.
Bonz doesn’t hear me; he’s concentrating on a pair of spotted fawns who’ve bedded down just beyond the kitchen window.
Can you eat a baby deer, he asks, pointing at the dinky ungulates as they chew oak brush leaves, oblivious to the threat lurking a thin pane of widow glass away.
You bet, it’s deer veal, one of the greatest delicacies a diner can experience: limited in mass, but as tender as can be. It would be a treat to toss a couple teensy, bacon-wrapped fawn tenderloins on the grill, but I lack a firearm, so curried turkey meatballs will have to do.
We set to work, and I wonder if I need to scoot to the liquor store to purchase a bottle of a somewhat sweet Riesling to accompany the entree.
I killed a couple chipmunks with my BB gun yesterday, says Bonz, as we chop a white onion.
Did you eat them, I ask.
Chipmunks? Yuck, no.
You shouldn’t kill something you don’t intend to eat, even if it’s rabid, it’s running off with your little brother clamped in its jaws, or it’s an erratic alien life form approaching you with a probe. Their lives are not meant to provide you with cheap thrills. My rule applies especially to war: you kill the enemy, you have to eat the enemy.
The chipmunks were eating our dog food, he tells me.
Oh, well, I’ll give you a pass this time. But, really, you should eat what you kill. To kill animals for kicks is a signal of congenital weakness and repulsive self-absorption — one of many acts committed by ignorant and prideful people who believe they are better than what they consider to be lower life forms, and who then easily go on to believe they are better than nearly all of their own species, all but those who have more money than they do. If you need proof, check out the clowns who come to Siberia With a View during hunting season and solicit their opinions about political and racial matters; or research the European royal tradition of the hunt, then observe the ears, teeth, and weird hairlines on some of the inbred goofs who still wander the halls of the manor house.
If you like to kill animals just to watch them die, and this enhances your sense of self worth, you’re a clod, at best a moron. There is an alleged difference between an idiot and a moron, but you’ll need to do some reading about the eugenics movement of the last century in order to know what it is.
This continues to be a teachable moment, as I assemble the Porkert Fleischhacker 2000 (with the fine Czech steel blades), and ready the machine for the task of grinding the meat from three turkey thighs.
What if you kill them, stuff them, and hang them on your wall, the kid asks. Is that OK?
That makes you even more despicable. It’s forgivable if you live in specific parts of Tennessee, or were raised in a family that includes four or more taxidermists in the previous generation, but it’s not acceptable for anyone else, especially people with money, and an allegedly good education.
This leads to a discussion of the relation, if any, of wealth to talent, learning, conscience, good taste, a sense of human decency, etc.
If you have money you must be pretty smart, opines the lad.
On the contrary, I reply. This is rarely the case. People regularly mistake cunning for intelligence, the ability to accumulate wealth for depth of character, mere acquisitiveness for a sophisticated appreciation of artifacts acquired. One look at the contemporary art market provides some insight.
Post-modern, post-skill schlock, designated by greedy art vendors as valuable artwork, is snapped up these days by witless rich folk, who assume they’ve made a solid investment. But, they’re victims of a con game: the bozos with the money and abnormally high self-esteem have little or no clue what they’re buying at top market prices, or why. They’re driven by their need to appear socially superior, and by their fierce greed. Many times, after they show the paintings or sculptures to friends at a cocktail party, they store the objects they’ve bought, and wait for the money hungry art broker to find a bigger sucker who’ll purchase the crap at a higher price. This is an example of less than limited intelligence and taste on the part of the buyers, and it’s the result of nothing more than cunning and greed on the part of the dealer.
It’s a lot like the coke trade back in the 70s: your connection is cunning and greedy — as he or she is required to be, given their nature of their trade. As a result, you’ve once again obtained a product touted as primo Peruvian flake, that in reality is badly processed sludge, cut seventy-thirty with stale baby laxative. The buzz is non-existent, but you ignore that once you convince yourself that your gum is numb, and you sell a gram or two of the crap to an acquaintance, at a profit, telling the buyer it is the best blow you’ve ever snorted. Then, you take the back to your connection for another bindle of sludge. That’s the contemporary art market, and a fine example of cunning versus intelligence (since, if were you intelligent, you wouldn’t do business with anyone but a close relative in the drug importation business) and of lumpish acquisitiveness versus sophisticated appreciation (since, if you had any knowledge of quality, you would know what Peruvian flake looks like, and would recognize baby laxative at a glance).
Perhaps the example is beyond you, but when you’re older remind me to tell you about Damien Hirst and fourth-generation abstract painters, and about a drug-importing relative I had back in the ‘80s.
I take the skin off the turkey thighs, trim the meat from the bones, cut away any connective tissue and silver skin, then chunk the flesh and pop it in the freezer for a few minutes to tighten it up. Bonz fetches and opens a bottle of diet tonic water (I’m determined to drop a few pounds), and I whip up a double G and T, to fuel the impending enterprise.
I decide to tell Bonz a story that illustrates my point about there being no necessary connection between wealth and class, as I toast coriander, flakes of red chile, a hunk of cinnamon stick, and cumin seeds in a hot, dry pan, grind the blend, and mix the spices with microplaned ginger and garlic.
I have this friend, I say, who, like many folks, is blinded by the illusion that wealth is the close companion of sophistication, keen intellect, and strong character. He was once in business with a very wealthy fellow from back east, and the two of them did some deals together; as long as the deals panned out, they remained buddies. Once the deals were complete, the rich man’s attachment quickly dwindled, then nearly died off. This is the way things are done in the world of the rich and privileged class. As friends, most of them are less than dependable, once you are of no immediate use.
I met the big city magnate several times when I was with my friend. The big cheese was a coarse individual whose initial wealth was passed to him from daddy and beyond, as is the case with many who consider themselves superior. The guy was, in fact, an example of what those eugenicists in the early 20th century called a moron: someone not smart, but cunning, possessed of sufficient guile and empty manners to pretend to a high station, able to purchase the items needed to give the impression of culture, employing the deceit necessary to convince others of his place at the top of the Darwinian pyramid and the cruelty required to ignore any suffering he might cause.
Like acting, says Bonz.
Precisely. Just like you pretended to be Charlie in that production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a moron can pretend to be smart, discerning, and sophisticated. The difference, however, is he forgets he is acting and actually believes he is all these things, while you know all along you aren’t Charlie, and that you have school on Monday.
The guy’s inflated opinion of himself is reinforced by the fact his money buys the blind admiration of those who lack the awareness needed to spot the bozo lurking behind the veneer. In this case, the moron had a lot of money to begin with, and that always makes the game easier. We have a president like that now, you know?
Anyway, this guy builds a massive home atop a hill here in Siberia With a View, with huge pastures spreading out below a bank of picture windows. He raises elk on the property, and invites business prospects and partners to visit. The highlight of a visit takes place when a thick-fingered realtor or artificially tanned investment banker perches in an enclosure with a view of the grassy expanse below, a high-powered rifle steadied on a stand in front of him. A wrangler releases a bull elk from a chute next to the pasture; the confused animal walks into the open, and the guest blasts away. Most often, of course, the unskilled marksman merely wounds the bull, gut shoots him or shatters a thighbone, and the wrangler rides out on a four-wheeler and applies the coup de grace with handgun or sledge, chains up the carcass, and drags it back to the pen. Manhood is established for the urbanite, the proprietor’s superiority over all living things is rendered clear, the dominance of the privileged class made concrete for all involved.
Do they eat the elk?, asks Bonz.
Probably not. But, perhaps the wrangler hacks out the backstrap, packs it in a Styrofoam container with dry ice, and ships it back to the East 80s, where a member of the minimum-wage household staff overcooks it and serves it up as evidence of a bond trader’s frontier triumph, during a party held to show off a Basquiat before it’s auctioned at Christies.
Anyway, to further define themselves, this immigrant poltroon and his consort fill their mansion on the hill with the stuffed heads and carcasses of animals they kill during gunpowder-kissed treks to sites around the globe. That’s one advantage of having money, Bonz: you can slaughter things far and near, with impunity. This goes for individuals, and for nations.
Morons take particular pride in slaughtering animals soon to be put on the endangered species list, then displaying the stuffed remnants on walls, on credenzas, and in hallways. There is a stuffed grizzly rearing up in a corner of the dining room, all menace and mould, a cluster of hyenas stalk an eland in the rec room, a water buffalo head looms on the wall of a guest room, a gazelle is frozen at the top of a staircase, a leopard prowls an alcove.
What’s an alcove? asks my grandson.
A recess, I respond.
What’s a recess?
A vacancy, similar to the emptiness in the moron who shoots the leopard — the space where a soul should be.
I tighten the bolt that secures the Porkert Fleischacker 2000 (with the fine Czech steel blades) to the top of the kitchen island, and feed the firm pieces of turkey flesh down the maw of the machine as Bonz turns the crank. When the meat is ground, we mix in the spices, add a fistful of panko, some salt and ground black pepper, a bit of Espanola red, and a dusting of garam masala. I take the pan in which I toasted the spices, heat it, oil it lightly, and plop in a small clump of the meat.
Why are you doing that, asks the kid.
I cook a bit of the meat, taste it, and make adjustments, I say. A moron would assume he has the right blend, then proceed to the next step. I’m a proven dimwit, but at least I want to know if I should add anything before I make the meatballs, and cook them.
Could we make the meatballs out of baby deer meat?
Sure, but we would have to add a lot of pork fat to the grind. Venison, regardless of age, is pretty dry. Plus, the fawn might squirm a bit when we try to grind it. I’m not sure you’d have the muscle to turn the crank.
Did you ever kill something, then eat it, asks Bonz.
Yes, when I was a kid: a couple pheasants, a duck or two. I never went big game hunting with my father, brother, and uncle — I couldn’t see well enough for that. I didn’t like to walk, couldn’t stand to be wet and cold, and I knew that a recently expired animal spills a number of less than aesthetic body parts when strung up and gutted. I didn’t want to deal with that, or the skinning process. One of the high-testosterone celebrity chefs on television would no doubt wax poetic about the smell, trumpeting his love of offal, but I prefer to avoid the abattoir. Once, long ago, when I was a Cub Scout, members of our den took a field trip to a huge Denver slaughterhouse. One Cub’s old man was the mono-browed chief of the killing floor, overseeing the disposal of several thousand bovine beings per day. We were treated to a brief and barely intelligible talk by the aproned, booted, and bloodstained dad, then witnessed the bolt-induced demise of several bellowing steers, and their subsequent disassembly. Several of the younger kids barfed and wept. One of them said a prayer, hoping to boost the dearly departed to a heavenly station. It was the smell and the guts that got to me.
Don’t get me wrong: I still eat beef but, after that experience, I killed and ate only trout when I was a kid. My brother, cousin and I fished remote streams in the Rockies with my Uncle Jack, and we ate fish every day on our trips, most days a couple of times. I wasn’t particularly good at catching fish; I was so nearsighted I was nearly blind, and if I didn’t snag a willow with a clumsy cast, I would hook my ear or my neck. Most of the time, I was too busy looking for snakes to be concerned with fishing. If I sensed the slightest movement in the underbrush, I dashed to camp and hid in the tent, where I drew hundreds of stick figure soldiers engaged in imaginary Civil War battles on the back of brown paper sacks. Every once in a while, though, I’d pull a beauty of a cutthroat, rainbow, or brown from the stream.
My favorite for eating, however, was a brookie, not too big, maybe eight inches long, max. Not the most glamorous of fish, but for sure the tastiest of the high-country trout. I remember fishing with Uncle Jack on the Upper Taylor, a fine meandering river, 10,000 feet higher in altitude than the Manhattan home of that asshole, elk-murdering bond trader, Herefords grazing and shitting in the open, sage-clogged park, seldom a human within miles. Throw out a yellow-bodied gray hackle, pull a couple of brookies from the cold water, bash their heads against a rock, and clean them. Uncle Jack had a small cast iron pan lashed to a belt loop, a tin of solid bacon drippings in his creel, another tin with salt in it. Build a small fire, season and cook the fish, just until it’s done, no more. Hold a fish in your hands, gently remove the bones, pulling them out intact from the soft flesh, the bones attached to the spine, the spine attached to the head, eat, and lick your fingers. You can’t do that with a dead water buffalo, or a giraffe.
I wonder what part of the giraffe you can cook, says Bonz. They’re pretty big, so you’d probably have to serve it at a party, where there are a lot of people.
I’m not sure, I say. I promise to research giraffe recipes and provide Bonz with an answer. I do so the next day, and discover that: 1) while giraffe is a Kosher animal, there is some debate about it’s use as food, given the difficulty of determining at which point the incision must be made on an extremely long neck, on an animal that is difficult to restrain; and, 2) while giraffe was served at banquets in Pompeii, the meat is reportedly sinewy, lean and tough, and must be braised for hours. When you think about it: what the hell did the people in Pompeii do that was so amazing? Hang around until they were buried in ash? Eat giraffe?
We use a small ice cream scoop to parcel the turkey, and form the parcels into balls. Into a hot, oiled pan they go, where they’re browned all round, then removed. Into the pan goes a mess of well-chopped onion, and it’s cooked over medium heat until soft. To that is added several tablespoons of Patak’s hot curry paste, a knob of ginger shredded on a plane, and four cloves of garlic, treated similarly. The lot is cooked for a few minutes before a cup of crushed tomato is introduced. This mess is cooked for about ten minutes, until the tomato is sweetened, then in goes a can of coconut milk, the meatballs, and a tablespoon or so of brown sugar. The pan is covered, the heat turned to medium low, and the mix simmered until the sauce is thick, and unctuous. A final taste, adjustments are made, if necessary, and the meatballs are ready.
I use the word unctuous when I describe the quality we seek in the sauce.
In this case, a silky, dense tongue coater, kind of sticky on your lips, with lots of deep flavor.
He’s OK with that. Bonz likes sticky.
The possible accompaniments are many: Basmati rice, buttered egg noodles, strips of steamed carrot fried in curry butter, steamed cauliflower, sautéed green beans, sautéed spinach and garlic, a rudimentary raita.
We grow weary of work and my disjointed life lesson. Bonz is hungry, and he knows I’m an old man who likes to drink and talk at length of things he knows little if anything about, so he interrupts the circuit.
Let’s eat, he says.
We cooked egg noodles to the near side of just done, knowing residual heat would finish them when they were drained. The noodles went back in the warm pan with a large clump of butter, a small clove of garlic finely shredded on the plane, freshly ground black pepper, and a smidge of Kosher salt.
I committed a sin that no world-famous TV chef would consider: I steamed the contents of a bag of frozen cauliflower, tipped the drained veg into a bowl, and buttered the remains, adding a bit of black pepper and a touch of salt.
To further establish my plebeian kitchen credentials, (there was neither yogurt nor cucumber available for raita), I pulled a carton of cottage cheese from the fridge, noted that the sell-by date was but a week in the past, and placed the tub on the table next to the bowl of cauliflower.
We tong portions of noodles to our plates, and use a large spoon to plop a few meatballs and plenty of sauce on the pasta. A bit of cauliflower with more of the sauce, a pool of the poor man’s cheese, a couple of grape tomatoes, and we’re off to the races.
Did you know, asks Bonz, if you can catch a giant squid and keep it alive, you win a million dollars?
Hadn’t heard that, I say. It seems a fair price, though, considering how difficult it is to find giant squid. Or, at least I’ve read that it’s difficult. I wouldn’t know, since I don’t like to go to the beach, much less set off to deep water in search of cephalopods. Plus, I imagine once you found one of these monsters, bringing it back alive would be a challenge.
You’d have to have a really large tank of water, says Bonz.
That’s for sure. And once you got the giant to shore, I’m not sure how much longer it would live. It would be like taking a child from a tribe in the Amazon rainforest directly to the plain outside Churchill, Manitoba. She’d last about ten minutes, what with the below-zero temp and the polar bear problem. So, someone would have a mighty large, dead squid on his or her hands.
What would we do with it? asks the boy.
Well, according to my rule, we’d have to eat it. I think it’s a good bet the rich guy who paid a mil for the squid would flee the scene in his helicopter the minute the food option was raised. That’s the way it is with the 1 percent: when actual labor is imminent, they suddenly remember an important appointment. So, if we killed the thing, we’d have to eat it. At that size, it is probably not suited for sashimi, so we’d need to cook it — flash fry it, to preserve whatever tenderness might be available in the flesh of a beast of that size.
That’s a lot of squid.
World’s largest calamari party, Bonz. We’d have to assemble a formidable crew in order to slice and bread the beast, and we couldn’t count on help from celebrity chefs. We’d have to recruit guys with bad hips who work at truck stops in Arizona, preferably guys born south of the border, since they’re the only people around who know how to work hard. Frying it up would present some nearly insurmountable problems, what with the amount of oil needed, the heat source, the containment vessel. And we’d require a ton of aioli. If we were going to do this, we’d have to begin planning months ahead of time. And, we’d need to put together a guest list. Perhaps come up with some art to display at the event.
This is really spicy, says Bonz, as he forks a load of noodles into his mouth. I wonder if that girl with the black hair and blue eyes would like it?
I imagine she would, I say, providing the villagers in Churchill didn’t burn her at the stake before they ate the bear that ate the kid from Brazil.
The world is full of fools, says Bonz.
Indeed, I say. Have another meatball.