Fire up 20 chaudrières
Into the boiler of each, place:
50 pounds of beef and pork
30 quarts of water
12 pounds of mixed vegetables
10 tablespoons of salt
Simmer for two hours, skim fat, and serve
So went the recipe for the stew that French chef Alexis Soyer served to a regiment of a thousand men in the Crimea. Although the food itself was a challenge—finding fresh provisions in a land of sand and rock during a major 19th-century war—that was only the first hurdle. Dozens of cooks toiled at field stoves (the chaudrières invented by Soyer) and fed English and French troops as well as the wounded enemy…all while dodging the occasional Russian cannon ball.
Cooking under fire has a different meaning for the contemporary chef. No cannon balls, but plenty of verbal slings and arrows. No stew, but plenty of stress. As John Lanchester writes in The New Yorker, November 23, 2014: “Food makes us anxious. The infinite range of choices and possible self-expressions means that there are so many ways to go wrong. You can make people ill, and you can make yourself look absurd.”
In this issue, the nonfiction piece “Opening Night” epitomizes kitchen angst, and absurdity. Suzanne Lunsford, the author and narrator, takes us to the front lines of a chef (herself) at war:
The two waiters clipped one order after another onto the lengthening collection of paper slips that fluttered in front of us like clothes drying in the sun. Already those slips had become more like train cars stuck at a railroad crossing as we struggled to make progress. Every plate we plunked down on the takeaway rack was rapidly replaced with five more requests.
“One New York strip and three arroz con pollos,” announced Daddy.
“Paella for three,” barked Cesár, becoming more belligerent with each new order.
“Two fish of the day and one shrimp with garlic,” boomed my father.
“One tropical salad and two bowls of garbanzo soup.”
“Paella for six.”
“Two veal marsalas and two zarzuelas.”
My head was whirling. Would this night ever end? This was pure torture. To make matters worse, I noticed with disbelief that Cesár was stealing my father’s completed orders and serving them to his own customers. His condescending manner tore at my last nerve.
To make matters even more worse, the restaurant owned by the narrator and her husband, Zamora, was in St. Augustine, Florida. So, naturally…The kitchen was broiling hot. Our clients might be dining in air-conditioned splendor out in the dining room, but that luxury did not extend to the kitchen. “It must be 120 degrees in here,” complained my mother, moving closer to the fan at the window.
The night broils on, with all the trappings of fiction: multidimensional (real-life) characters, vivid atmosphere and details, a conflict-crisis-resolution arc. To quote any more would create a story-spoiler, so we’ll end with just this much:
And then Zamora bustled through the door and commanded [to me], “Lady, it’s time for the show.”
Suzanne wrote her story in Marjorie Klein’s Great Smokies Writing Program class “We Are What We Eat: Let’s Write About Food.” Margie emphasizes how “we were not simply writing about food, any more than Proust was merely writing about the madeleine, the cookie that triggered his eloquent memories.” She quotes famous food writer M.F.K. Fisher: “ ‘It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.’ So when I ask students to write about food, they’ll really be writing about any and everything. Food will just be our excuse.”
By the end of Suzanne’s piece, we see that writing about food and its service on that significant night was her “excuse” for revealing what she learned about herself. Along with paella, Suzanne serves up epiphany. As writers, we may hope to feed multitudes, but we can commence our battles with an army of one.