“Even the ancient Romans used fish sauce,” I said, squirting a generous portion of Squid brand into the pan.
“I know,” Jenny Wada said in a bored voice.
“I mean,” I continued, stirring the shitakes and onions. “That where I came from, no one used it. No one used anything fermented, in fact. I think fermentation was maybe a sin.”
“Oh yes?” She thumbed through my book collection, finding one and crinkling her small nose. “Where is that exactly?”
“I was brought up in real Mennonite country, down in Pennsylvania. Black clothes, the whole shebang.”
She didn’t say anything, lounging on the round dish chair in the corner of the large studio space, so I continued. “My people, such as they are, don’t go in for much in way of flavor and spice. A little black pepper was the wild side, and even saltines were frowned on.” I turned the stove down, sprinkled some fresh chopped basil and filé powder on the shrooms and let them thicken. The soup looked ready, and I took a sip. “The only thing my relatives were good at is baking. It was like chemistry, I guess. I don’t know…it never appealed to me.”
Jenny nodded absently, peering at the three dishes I was preparing. “I hate Japanese food,” she said. “In case that is what you’re making.”
“No,” I said, confused. Wasn’t she Japanese? “I guess we all hate what we grew up with.”
“I grew up on Red Lobster,” she snorted. “My parents hate Japanese food, too.”
“Right. We’ll I’m glad I didn’t make any.” I winced, looking in the pot at a certainly Korean-influenced ham and kim-chee concoction I called my New Year’s Soup. This was the first time I’d cooked for someone other than myself in many years, and I had put that part of my life behind me. To help pay for college in Philadelphia I had worked at the local Cheesesteak Palace, graduating from line cook to sometime chef. But when I came to New Haven for business school, I had made enough money and at the urging of my father I had stopped working a kitchen. “You can’t go to class smelling like onions!” he roared, and my mother, always suspicious of the hot peppers we used at the Palace, agreed.
While the meal finished cooking, I opened a bottle of local Connecticut wine and set the table. Jenny did not seem inclined to talk, and so I pointed out the two paintings by local artist Constance LaPalombara on the walls. The one by the door was a tower’s eye view of New Haven and Long Island Sound, grays and blues melting off to a cloudy horizon. The other in the kitchen was a still life of purple and white turnips on a table, looking more real than real. I only had a few books and CDs, and minimal furniture, and the paintings were really the only things in my apartment to talk about.
Jenny expressed a vague interest in them. So, as we sat down to dinner, I talked about the way the artist used light and texture, and Jenny listened, I suppose, and soon we finished. As I motioned to the wine bottle, she shook her head. “I have a morning lab at the Arc school. Got to get up early.” She repeated unnecessarily.
“Arc? Oh, right, you’re an architecture major,” I muttered. “Right. Well, I’ll see you around. Welcome to the Haven Test Prep Company.”
“I don’t know if that will work with my schedule yet.”
“But your scores,” I said half-heartedly.
“We’ll see.” She picked up her purse.
“I hope you liked dinner.”
“Sure,” she said, and walked out toward the elevator. I closed the door. What a mistake to invite one of the trainees up here. She wouldn’t come back to HTP. I slunk into the kitchen to clean the dishes. Outside my window I could see the lights of cars on Route 34, heading out of the city. Jenny was the first woman I had to my apartment in two years, and now I remembered why.
The next morning I slouched out of my building, turning right past the Crown restaurant, then left past the award-winning Malaysian, stopping at the small, local coffee shop with its maple and hickory brews, and continuing up to Chapel Street, where I turned left towards the Green. I had mixed feelings about going this way, because it led past our competitor’s purple awning, but I walked to the other side of the street and ate the sugary coffee roll on a bench near the Center Church. Half-listening to the muffled sermon from inside the church, I tried to think about dinner that night, and not the unpleasantness in between.
That entire spring I had been working on soup. I had been dazzled by the local ramen broths at two noodle houses and the local Asian supermarket, International Grocer. The broth was spectacular, with fat beading on the top, a rich, meaty flavor, all the elements balanced perfectly, so whatever it was mixed with brought out different aspects with a hint of what seemed like graham cracker. Working with the various ingredients I could identify and get my hands on, I was slowly getting somewhere. I already made my own stock, of course, but I had begun to feel like beef marrow bones were the key to the whole thing. While paying for a duck the week before, I had broached the subject with Hui Zhong, the nice lady who ran the Grocer, but she shook her head and pretended not to understand, even though she had spoken to me in perfect English many times before. Confused, I had smiled politely and changed the subject to the fine quality of their ducks. She nodded and bowed, but bustled uncharacteristically into the back, muttering to herself, leaving me wondering.
Despite my stint at the Cheesesteak Palace, I hadn’t been much interested in trying new food until I moved to Connecticut for graduate school. From my first apartment in West Haven I used to take the shuttle to Frank Pepe’s for their nationally-known, mouth-watering pizzas. From there I moved to the more expensive restaurants, which seemed endless, with fish and sushi, pork and tapas, cocktails and cheese. I felt lucky that in such a small city I had the privilege of so much choice. Instead of spending my modest salary on CDs or furniture I began to almost exclusively spend it on food. When I moved downtown after school, I blew through my money at a furious rate at first, until I began to cook for myself.
I stood up, sipped my brown nut coffee again, and continued, swinging back to Chapel Street by the famous vegetarian restaurant, glancing up at the impregnable walls of Yale University. Past the museums, I turned onto York Street, and found the small entrance to the basement offices where I worked. The woman at the front desk, Carolyn, looked up and smiled as I entered. I tipped my nonexistent hat, and walked past her around the corner into my glass-fronted office. Putting the coffee down on the desk, I turned on my computer. This would be a slow day for classes and tutoring, so I could catch up on some paperwork.
Students and teachers filtered in for the first round of classes, quickly stacking the five small rooms to the bursting point. Haven Test Prep’s genius lay in its elimination strategies. Most of the wrong answers on standardized graduate exams came from trick questions, though the makers of those tests never admitted that. With ways of eliminating those trick answers, smart people could get to the right one. HTP was not for typical students, and certainly not for those from the nearby community college. They would never help someone who earned a 400 reach a 600. No, HTP’s methods, cynical as they were, helped the people getting 650 or 700 reach the apex of 800. That was just what the Yale students needed, or thought they did, and just why our little company gave our purple-awning competitor headaches. I estimated we stole fifty percent of their graduate level sales, not to mention the most qualified teachers.
“What can you do for me today?” a ringing voice asked, and a red rain slicker flopped onto my desk. P.J. Mather, my employer, was of an indeterminate age, but you could tell that once she had been a striking figure. Now she hid her body in expensive clothes, and her face in makeup. She had something to do with Yale, having gone there for one of her degrees at least. She also seemed fabulously wealthy, knew everybody in New Haven, and had dipped her ringed fingers in a number of pots. One was this test prep company, which she had founded a decade or so earlier.
I looked up and gave her my most winning smile despite the bile rising in my throat. “I can give you time and money.”
“That’s good, that’s good,” she said, seemingly pleased with me. “We need to show a big profit on the books this quarter, hear me?”
“Okay,” I said, confused.
“I hired you to manage this place to a profit, Daniel.” She paused. “And because of those broad shoulder of yours, of course. I mean…” She squeezed my deltoid. “You look like you could pick me right up over your head.”
“Come on, you know you want to,” she said coyly.
“I thought you hired me because I scored nearly perfect in the GREs,” I said, trying to change the subject.
“Pshaw. There are people with those scores wandering homeless in East Haven. And they went to Yale to boot.”
That one stung, but I dissembled. “P.J., you know I’d like to military press you right through the drop ceiling, but the students across the hall.” I pointed through the double glass walls. “I guess you picked the wrong office suite.”
“Damn,” she pouted. “I knew that whiny architecture professor would come back to haunt me someday. I mean, you sleep with someone once, and it’s all, give me a job designing your new offices, P.J. Let me see you again, P.J. Marry me, P.J.” She trailed off. “Guess he was lousy in more ways than one.”
I laughed politely. The stories of my employer’s conquests could have filled the Yale Libraries, I’m sure. Fiction or nonfiction, I’m not. We reviewed the week’s work, and then she stood up to leave.
“Bring me one of those duck sandwiches, won’t you? I’ll be in on Tuesday. Unless you want to tell me where you get them?”
I nodded, silent, resentful of her assumption that I was a hired lackey.
“Big secret, eh?” P.J.’s eyes twinkled. “Well, I have one, too, and you’re not going to like it.”
“What?” I asked reflexively.
“Nope. Maybe the duck will loosen my tongue.” She cackled and walked off, grabbing her long, red raincoat.
It wasn’t raining, I thought dully. Sticking my head out the office door, I found Carolyn looking at me from around the corner with her big blue eyes. “Next time, maybe warn me?” I said, trying to laugh.
“Yes, Mister Detweiler,” Carolyn said in a bemused voice.
“And don’t call me that, damn it.” Nothing worse than a pretty woman I liked who called me mister. I ducked back into my office, staring at the class going on in a similarly glass-fronted room across the hall. The veteran, gray-haired teacher was holding forth, writing on the white board with a big red marker. He saw me looking, and turned away without a nod.
What I didn’t tell P.J. was that I had made those duck sandwiches myself. But what was she not telling me? Why did we need to show a profit? Was she going bankrupt? Was the IRS after her? I spent the rest of the afternoon poring over the books, printing out sheets and marking them up for P.J. We had made more than a profit, we had made our biggest one ever. I tried to pat myself on the back for that, failed, and slumped into a depression. My salary was not tied to sales or commissions, and I was only helping P.J. to either get richer or at least avoid getting audited.
I walked home on George Street, for variety, and took the elevator to my apartment. Once there, I realized that I still hadn’t planned dinner, an uncharacteristic lapse. I opened the refrigerator. Green wheels of pickled cucumbers packed with a little masala and dried chilies. Spicy mushrooms huddled in the plastic, Chinese soup container, waiting, the lovely magic of vinegar and sugar and salt changing the ordinary into something delightful. Nothing ready yet. I turned to the cabinets, and found quinoa. Yes, I would cook that and mix it with red miso, butter, onions, and cheese, a simple dinner. I stared at the LaPalombara painting of the turnips. Was this food enough?
The next day was Monday, my day off, and I spent most of the day roasting a duck to perfect crispiness, cutting it up for workday sandwiches and wraps, then making stock from the bones. I also poured the fatty goop from the bottom of the roasting pan into another plastic container, to use for potatoes and parsnips later in the week. While I waited, I stared out my window over the parking lots to cars zipping along Route 34. When I first came to New Haven, the wall of that road, the deep concrete moat of the railroad, and the high stone fortress of Yale made me imagine a medieval city. Further experience had augmented that belief: a town half-enclosed and clannish, with markets and merchants, ceremonies and festivals, and a vast disconnect between rich and poor. Then one day, walking across the town green laid out just a few years after the death of Shakespeare, I realized with a smack of awareness that New Haven actually is a medieval city, despite any subsequent revolutionary pretensions.
In the late afternoon I decided to head to the International Grocer to replenish the rest of my supplies. It was only a block away, around the corner on Orange Street, and I could stop there two or three times a week to get fresh fruit and vegetables. Along with the grocery and fish market, they had a small take-out restaurant, which is where I tried their fantastic soups. I was trying to cut down on that this year, though, as I became more and more dedicated to making my own food. Nevertheless, their broth was amazing, and since I couldn’t replicate it, I decided to pick up another bowl.
The sound of a small electronic bird greeted me when the door opened. No one stood at the register or the glass deli counter, so I shopped first, finding fresh baby bok choy, enoki mushrooms, star fruit, and kale. Red paper lanterns hung from the open-pipe ceiling and multicolored wall hangings with pictographs brightened the drab white walls. Small touches like a model of the multi-armed Vishnu over the small Indian section gave the place a fine, rounded character, and I greeted my old friend warmly.
What did I need? Mango pickles, which they sometimes had, but not today. My supply of rice was low, but I barely ate it anymore, preferring other grains like quinoa and millet, so I passed on that. I did pick up kombu kelp and dried tuna katsuobushi flakes to make dashi, thinking that might be a component to the broth I had missed. By the time I finished the rounds no one had appeared, but I could hear voices in the back. I moved into the fish market area, noticing that one of the open-topped tanks was filled with wriggling eels. I shuffled nearer to the door, hearing a hushed argument in what I assumed was Chinese.
“Hello?” I asked.
The argument stopped, and Hui Zhong, the owner, popped out of the swinging door, followed by a man I knew to be her son.
“I was wondering if the take out was open today. I’d like a hot and sour soup.”
“No more soup,” Hui Zhong said sullenly.
“What happened to it?” I asked, confused.
“Maybe you ate it all,” the son said sharply.
Hui Zhong began berating him in Chinese. I shrugged helplessly, holding out a credit card for the other items. She walked quickly to the front register with me, rang up the items, and without a word, walked back toward the eel tanks. Had I just witnessed a family argument? Or was something else going on? Maybe it was just the disappointment of leaving without their fantastic broth, but something seemed wrong. Hui Zhong had been what passed for a friend to a lonely man like me, and now she looked at me suspiciously, her mood dour and abrupt.
I remembered an incident from a few weeks before, when a large truck had blocked the entrance to the store, and another when the store had been closed on a Saturday afternoon, with a long black limousine parked out front. I had knocked on the glass, and a sinister-looking man with black gloves emerged to shake his head at me, and rattle the door to make sure it was locked. At the time I thought rashly that the mob was collecting protection money, and had later laughed at my conspiracy theory. Now I wasn’t so sure.
That left me to figure out the key to their soup base. I had decided to ignore the French model. I wasn’t going to cook these down into a sauce. Perhaps I just needed to bite the beef bone and use more meat in the stock instead of primarily bones. But a little place like International Grocer wouldn’t do something to increase their expenses, would they? It couldn’t be profitable. Maybe I needed fish stock instead of dashi as one component. That was more work: fish stock needed slow simmering, but could only go for an hour before turning chalky. Plus, I needed at least a half dozen fish for my medium stockpot. Maybe that wasn’t it, though. Maybe I needed to fry the vegetables before adding them to the stockpot, or boil down the stock a bit to concentrate those flavors. And the combination of those vegetables seemed endless, and they could be using herbs of any kind, as well. At the prospect of these infinite complexities, I found myself torn between a smile and a frown.
Back at the apartment, I mixed kim-chee with flakes of the crispy duck skin in two cups of stock, threw in some fried shallots and halved quail eggs, and sat down to my own poor soup….
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