Kitchen Mystic (An Excerpt)
by Paulette Licitra
Alisa got off the Metro-North commuter train at Spuyten Duyvil, just twenty-five minutes from Grand Central Station, New York City’s east side midtown hub. She waited for all the other passengers to get to the shuttle bus, to their cars, or to trudge home up the hill. Once the station was deserted she climbed down the workmen’s ladder at the end of the platform, stepped over the train tracks, very gingerly stepped over the electrified third rail, and found the open path on the “Triangle”— a space tangled with ginkgo and horse chestnut trees, scrub bushes, cattails, and bordered by the Hudson River on one side and Spuyten Duyvil Creek on the other. The narrow trail, lined with goldenrod and dandelion, was strewn with washed-up Styrofoam, broken bottles, and other odd items that floated up from the river – a baby mattress, a plastic chair.
She soon arrived at Terramar, a two story building with nothing inviting about the facade. The windows were stained and cracked. The brick crumbled at the corners. It stood a little lopsided. And the roof tiles were almost all gone, patches of tarpaper filled in here and there, rumbled, buckled and stapled on. The railroad building had stood empty for twenty years until Bettina took it over, essentially as a squatter, and slowly attracted the city’s more adventurous foodies to her other-worldly dinner parties. Terramar was the name of Bettina’s ancestral village along the coast of Malta, a small island-nation near Sicily.
When Alisa first started her internship here she had just turned twenty-two. Somehow the new and passing years of her adult life never seemed to register. She still felt as awkward in the world as a timid twelve-year-old. She was scared that first day. It was her first-ever culinary internship. She wasn’t doing well at school. Her chef-instructors had become exasperated by her slowness and her general ineptness. Alisa managed to be the last to grasp a concept, and often not to grasp a concept at all. Her classmates moved around the kitchen like professionals, while Alisa tagged along like someone’s ignored little sister. Her height added to that impression, and to her failures. At only 4’ 9” the equipment and work stations of a standard professional kitchen seemed to plot against her. Everything was too high for her success.
But something clicked for her in Bettina’s earthy kitchen. Bettina valued different skills than her instructors. And that bit of leeway encouraged Alisa to have more confidence. Even if everything she had to do there scared her to death.
When Bettina first came to New York from Malta, she was passing through on her way to Alaska. She wanted Alaska because it seemed the exact opposite of everything she knew and her biggest goal was to be as far away from herself as possible. She never made it to Alaska because a conversation with a squirrel in Central Park led her to the crumbling building she would name Terramar. Bettina knew from experience that advice from squirrels was usually correct.
When she first saw the railroad building straddling a small piece of land between two New York bridges, she knew she had to stay. Within a couple of weeks she had scavenged all that she needed to set herself up in the building: ingredients for a warming hearth, puzzle pieces for recipes she knew she had to make, and the extra parts that are sometimes referred to as nonsense but Bettina knew were necessary. She also scouted the Triangle. Learned what grew there. Learned what crawled there, what swam nearby, who flew in and out. And how people can get there, too. People were important. There had to be someone to receive what she had to give.
Her native Malta was rocky and sparse with hills covered in caper bushes. Bettina’s palate is well-stained by the caper. But she’s really from everywhere on earth. And her palate is stained just as much by yucca, seaweed and pemmican as anything the Mediterranean has to offer. Her origins affect her blood, too. Her plasma is tinged with green sage; tainted with yarrow; painted with lapis. She carries two sets of eyes. One set, amber-colored, peers from the usual place below eyebrows, fringed with her long, pale lashes. The other set hides and could be anywhere. These eyes move from the palms of her hands to her shoulder blades. Or one eye rides the crown of her head, while the other nestles in her belly button. Her sense of smell travels from her nose, too. Her skin picks up scents. The soles of her feet know the stink of the street. She also tastes with her ears, hearing the salt and sweet, sucking in the sound of flavor, while her tongue still expands, grabbing each nuance, every corner, wrapping around the twists of the savory, inhaling the edges and stickiness of the sweet.
The hearth of the station fireplace became her oven. The pot-bellied stove her range. Two sinks still worked, its water source an old artisanal well from before the railroad station was built. For refrigeration she dug a very deep hole in the floor, insulated it with discarded cloths and covered it with a stray Styrofoam cooler lid she found snagged in a wild forsythia bush. Scavenged wooden doors became tables propped up on piles of felled tree limbs or cement blocks. The exposed roots of huge tree stumps hung on the walls like moose head trophies. Garlands of honeysuckle grew through cracks in the wall. And weeds popped up through cracks in the floor, irrepressible and insistent.
Other parts of the kitchen came together without Bettina’s effort. Like the wall of fiddler crabs. Fiddler crabs lived along the shore of the creek. They burrowed into the silty mud when they molted, but as soon as their shells were hardened they swarmed up to the surface, so many of them scampering, playing tag with the lapping water, the males over-sized claw dwarfed their other smaller claw so that when they ate, scooping food in and out with the small claw, it looked like they were playing a violin. But no sound came out. Not on the beach of the creek. Not on any beach anywhere.
The fiddlers that were drawn to Bettina’s kitchen found they did have a voice. A few hundred of them (they’re less than 2 inches wide) formed a tight spiral over the sink on a wall particularly fertile with algae. That’s the food they shoveled into their mouths, their stand-up eyes flooded with the opulent green. As they ate, they fiddled. They played their song in unison. With harmonies.
Today, at Terramar, Bettina asked Alisa to butcher a teetering pile of chicken wings.
“Do not fly today, Alisa,” said Bettina, as her wild hair twitched in the still room. “Not today. And do not speak to these wings, no matter what they say.”
In school they called it fabricating. All week Alisa had been cutting up meat in class. Dividing animals into discrete cuts. Alisa never minded eating meat – when it was meat. But, at school, when they brought in a whole pig cut lengthwise down the middle, innards emptied, snout halved, tail neatly, safely to one side of the rump, she shook with a sinking feeling from her navel to her feet. A human corpse dragged onto the work table could not have elicited more fear. But this was a pig, pork, food she normally, and even often, ate. Chef John, her instructor, had demonstrated how to fabricate one half of the animal. The half without the tail.
“Now it’s your turn,” he said.
The class had to fabricate the other half. Alisa, who worked mostly on the rump, clumsily butchering it, was left with the tail. A sad dead pink thing that she hid in a pint container and then took home and stuck in the freezer. She wasn’t sure what to do with it and was afraid to ask.
Alisa picked up a chicken wing, and fingered the bones through the goosey flesh, following their straight lines to the chunky little joints. Aiming the cleaver over the joint, she pushed down, feeling the brittle crunch of bone.
As she pulled one wing onto the board after the other, Alisa thought: poor birds at the altar of the cutting board. You’re an offering to the eating human gods. Feed us, the human gods say. She cutup wing after wing and tossed the pieces into a giant black kettle.
But offerings speak, too. In this cave of a kitchen Alisa heard them.
I am the dead chicken. Of course I am dead. Of course I can still see. I know the kitchen. I have been here before. Thousands of times. I am cooked over and over again. I am eaten. Swallowed. Pushed and torn, my molecules pulled apart. Delicately they extract my bones. They roll my flesh, my meat. They stuff it and tie it. Through a hole they fill my empty self with lemons and onions, with thyme and rosemary, my traveling companions, my supporting cast, we go to our fates together. And return and return. A cycle like an engine starting, running, stopping. We are the feeders.
Bettina circled Alisa then stopped at her side, putting her face close to Alisa’s cheek, reddish-yellow eyes flashing like the rapid fires under the giant oven. Bettina grabbed an amphora and spilled olive oil into the kettle, dousing the wings. She threw in a handful of salt, a handful of peppercorns.
“Now you bring the kettle into the oven,” she whispered to Alisa. Then speedily swept away, floating out the back door, her wavy hair flying in all directions, streaming and flailing behind her.
Alisa grabbed the handle on the kettle and lifted. It seemed to weigh more than she did. She looked over at the huge oven across the room. She’d have to drag it. She tugged on the kettle, getting it to move a few inches, then a few inches more. The wings sloshed around inside, making a sticky-watery noise. The offering knew the fire was near. It chanted in Alisa’s ear.
Braise me. Boil me. In a soup with carrots, celery, onion, parsley, a dash of cayenne. Drink my broth. Or make pastina to float in my broth. Shower some cheese in. Shred my gooey flesh. Break me apart, with vinegar, chopped mint, sliced fennel, scallion. Eat like a cure. I am your chicken medicine.
When she got the kettle up to the oven, Alisa pulled a small wooden stool over. She stepped up and looked inside the heated opening. A wall of hotness enveloped her. She stared into the blackness, her eyes measuring the size of the compartment, but she couldn’t really see its end.
The meat in the kettle still echoed in her ears.
How do you bury your dead? In a roasting pan? Boiled in stock? Or set straight upon the pyre? Did you know – Alisa – this oven is too tame for a proper burial?
She pulled on a pair of oven mitts and crawled right into the oven. The mitts kept her hands from burning, but even her knees against the hot oven floor didn’t scorch, nor did her back that grazed the oven roof.
The hot compartment expanded with its own heat pushing open the back wall, searing a hole to sneak through. Alisa crawled out the back into a fiery pit. Spits turned over her head, slabs of meat twirling, glistening, their melting fat splattering down into her hair, a rain of cooked grease. She crept forward out of the flames into a dense darkness, shaking her head like a mutt, spraying the air, drops slapping against an unseen surface. She stood up, pulled off her mitts and thrust out her arm, feeling what seemed to be moist soil. She gently grabbed a clump of it and crushed it in her hand letting it scatter from her fingers. She reached out for more, but her hand hit upon a hard object. Something smooth, long, like a pipe, small enough for her to grip. She tugged it slightly and it came loose.
Darkness lifted a little and she could suddenly see the wall of black dirt in front of her. Alisa pulled the slim object out of the earth and saw its stark whiteness. The hard foot-long stick was a bone. She was sure a human bone.
Sounds of thumping metal erupted nearby. And then Bettina’s voice came thundering through.
“Alisa! Put the chicken in the oven!”
|Paulette Licitra is the publisher of Alimentum.|