“Puis je prendre l…le huile d'olive?”
She said in a loud, busy room. She pointed to her plate where a small roasted chicken rested; its skin crispy and caramelized. The waitress understood her words; she gave a slight nod and hurried away, returning with a miniature gravy boat filled with olive oil. And like my friend was sure to have done many times before, she poured the oil over her hot plate without halting her sentence or breaking eye contact with me, in one graceful swoop; a circle that would somehow cover most of the bird once distributed. The Italians truly know the high art of a good drizzle.
Francesca and I were out to dinner together on Friday night in Lausanne, which just happened to be International Women's Day. The restaurants in town were filled with ladies wearing chic spangly tops and sipping fruity martinis. Francesca and I were no different; amaretto sours in hand, we talked about life and boys in between courses and curiously scanning the room. Our conversation eventually came around to how she met her longtime boyfriend.
“My phone number has ten numbers, and I gave him nine,” she shot me a smug look in response to my wide-eyed admiration of her gall. “I told him to guess the tenth.”
Already giggling like a schoolgirl into my cocktail; I had the rim up close to my nose and was breathing against the cap of lemon foam that sat on top, threatening to launch a tuft of bubbles into the air.
“He began from zero.”
I put my drink down.
“I have no idea what would have happened, you see, if he would have started from one. Because zero was the number. The last number was zero.”
I’m still not sure why I found this so funny, but I did.
We continued to talk and drink for an hour or two longer before the time felt right to leave. By the end of our meal, she'd convinced me to stop off at another bar along my route home (C was out of town visiting his college buddies) to meet some people at a midtown bar called Etoile Blanche. By the time we arrived, were seated, and had ordered, I had already begun to lose my voice in the rabble. I asked for my usual motorcycle-tang sipping Scotch, a Lagavulin, and revelled in the look I got from the waitress when I told her no ice, just the whisky. When out somewhere, which becomes more seldom as the years go by, I always like to get one strong drink to nurse for a while. It keeps me alert, and if I pay for it right as I order, I can leave anytime I want. Also it’s an excuse to drink an occasional glass of embalming fluid and then live to tell the tale.
By midnight I had paid my tab and finished my drink, no longer able to speak above the roar of the Friday night crowd. I listened to the three remaining Italians: Francesca, her boyfriend, and a work colleague; and watched the ribbons of their speech dance in a tango above their heads. When my attention had been lost, one ribbon flitted up at the end in a noticeable angle, a rhetorical question to which we all somehow knew the answer. We stood and pushed our way through the front entrance, and after my friends escorted me to my building, I promptly fell asleep.
At 11am I awoke to some confusion, with a tired throat and a painful blemish on my forehead which rivaled the size of Mont Blanc. After a coffee and a woolen knit cap pulled tightly down over my ears, I made it outside before the Saturday fresh market had ended.
The main square was still full with people at noon, even on a dreary weekend threatening harder rain with a constant, spitting drizzle. The smell was unbelievable though, as I neared the large fresh bread tent, which wraps around in a bracket shape and houses all kinds of treats: trellised brioches; sourdough; loaves filled with onions and olives; and of course, baguettes. You could hear the crusts cracking as the little french boys bit off the crispy ends of the fresh baguettes, just as soon as their mothers handed them down for not-so-safe keeping. C once told me that it's the duty of all french boys riding their bikes home from the boulangerie to bite the ends off of the warm baguettes, because someone must enjoy the warm bread before it cools in the wind. He wore a wide grin as he said this to me in line, right before he tore into one himself one morning when we were in France visiting his mother and purchasing breakfast from the local bakery. The crust of a buttery, golden breadstick is just plain irresistible. That was why I shuffled past the stall in such a hurry.
Onward I marched towards the meat trucks, all like Willy Wonka’s edible terrariums except where Willy would have sugar teacups and custard flowers; here there were cold cuts, and lardons encrusted and aged with aromatic herbs. Most trucks sold all kinds of artisan cheeses with familiar names I once read somewhere in a food magazine or heard Alton Brown say on Iron Chef. At some carts, you could look the cheesemaker in the eye, and ask him for his pick of the litter (if you can speak one of his languages). Maybe you might get an impromptu backstory or a recipe. Plates with cubes of Tuscan pecorino teetered dangerously on top of the glass partition, just waiting for you to reach out, grab a taste, and get close enough to have a cheesemonger send you home with something tasty.
Salami and dried peppers hung from the awnings, swaying ever so slightly as people rushed to and fro to weigh, wrap and charge for their goods. I had originally thought I might buy something for dinner there that day, even going so far as to take screenshots from my italian cookbook. But here in the thick of it all, I could do nothing but look on and try to remember the selection that would be available to me for later visits. Some stalls change weekly, so this would have to be knowledge built up over many strolls and many seasons within the market. There were too many people, and too many things moving far too quickly for my current aptitude. I passed the final meat stand, a truck selling wild game like rabbit, boar, venison and guinea fowl; and I could see that they were almost out of things to sell for that day. I knew then that it was about time for me to quit gawking and be on my way.
The last thing I noticed, apart from the overflowing baskets of tuberous Jerusalem artichokes and various other winter produce, was a little stand on the far end of the square manned by a single vendor selling fruits to an elderly woman, who was pushing her drawstring shopping trolly through the market. The vendor was packing very bright red fruits that resembled giant Christmas lights into the old woman's trolley. I soon learned, after the woman moved to the side and I could clearly read the sign, that these fruits were tamarillos, or South American tree tomatoes. when I get bolder, I'll try one for myself and report back. After it was all said and done, I climbed the stairs up from the square towards the cathedral. I was as yet empty handed, but full of possibilities for my nutritional future. I also wondered if others revert back to the way they've always done things in times of stress, fatigue, or loneliness, when it comes to food. I imagined how many of the Lausannians I witnessed still milling through the market below might be shopping for the same local foods each Saturday, collecting the same cold cuts or cheeses to make the same dishes week by week, because that's what comfort means to them. And why should it not, when you can look your cheesemaker right in the eyes.
The day succumbed to rain just as I crossed the threshold of my building carrying sacks of groceries from my local Co-op, filled with non-exotic varieties like organic squash and bananas, that I would need for the upcoming week's dinners. As I returned to the familiar, yet C-less rooms, the whistling wind over the rain-soaked balcony greeting me like the ghost that lives in my radiators, I settled in for the night, pulling off my hat and washing my poor, out-partied face. I put on my pajamas and preheated the oven to bake some manicotti I bought at my local Italian traiteur, or delicatessen, which was on the same street as my Co-op. Looking out the window at the twisted, undulating sky, I felt the ache slowly returning to my whiskey-singed throat. I wondered what kinds of things I turned to when I needed a little comfort food.
I climbed a chair and reached far back into our top kitchen cabinet for a white machine given to me by my surrogate godparents back in Ohio. I carted a big black brick from my office and plugged it into the wall, then plugged the white machine's American power chord into the brick, flipping a switch and hearing a thunggg of surging electricity, powering the white machine from the wall but not incinerating it. I grated a peeled root into a pan mixed with cream and almond milk, later whisking in a healthy portion of caster sugar beaten with three bright orange egg yolks. After it all cooled, I retrieved a canister stored in our freezer and placed on my white machine. I flipped the switch. I poured the ginger cream slowly into the now revolving canister, and watched it churn for about 20 minutes, thickening nicely.
It was nearly 10pm before my ginger ice cream was ready; it was a welcome treat on a dark, rainy evening.
The things that comfort me are simple: an authentic Mexican street taco, a biscuit with honey or peppered white gravy, or a smoked rack of ribs, the meat tender and juicy, with bones so soft that bite marks are left. But what really gets me going, what brings me the most satisfaction, is the discovery of something new. Call me a restless heart, but if I ever feel the blues coming on, I reach for a cookbook, or take a stroll through a crowded market, or I stand in the bread line with my French fiance, or I sit across the table from my Italian friend, watching her drizzle olive oil lovingly onto her chicken breast.
She looks up and me, and says with a smile:
“Life without grease is so dry.”