Photo by Lauren Oblit
Every week, we’ll be bringing you the writings, thoughts, essays and reports from Our Crowd — Cook N Scribble students, alumni and tribe members who are witnessing their world — pen and whisk in hand.
Three Cook N Scribblers wrote about their experience cooking for family — and cooking professionally — in the days after Sandy on the East Coast. Together, the posts make a fine picture of cooking without electricity.
Rossi and Gloria Steinem
In New York City, memoir student Chef Rossi, who like Cher, Madonna, Beyonce, Usher, Prince and Rihanna is mononymous, is the owner of Raging Skillet Catering Company, a hip outfit downtown. Rossi and her crew had finished prepping the sauces for Ms. Magazine’s 40th birthday party in her commercial kitchen when the East River spilled out of its banks. She became obsessed with saving the Mango Sauce she’d spent a day preparing. Rossi Writes:
Watching the East River rush over the FDR drive and across Avenue C, most of my neighbors in the East Village are thinking sane thoughts.
Will we lose power?
Will we lose water?
Will we get killed?
But I’m thinking, “Will my mango ginger sauce survive?” Don’t get me wrong, I was all about “will we get killed?” but as I watched cars float along my block, I kept seeing the four freezers in my catering kitchen that were filled with my glorious concoctions — the stock that my sous chef spent three days carefully simmering, the marinade that was made by pureeing a farm-load of fresh rosemary, thyme, garlic, scallion, oregano and virgin olive oil and my beloved mango ginger sauce. We’d spent a day cutting mangos and red peppers into perfect dice, mixing the fruit and vegetables with an armload of minced ginger, then passion fruit puree, champagne vinegar, chili flakes, salt, pepper and love, the most important ingredient. We cook the sauce just a little less then forever.
By that time, I’d lost power, phones, Internet and my sense of humor. I was tempted to hail a cab to anywhere land and call it a day. But a caterer can not indulge such impulse, espeically not with the 40th Anniversary party for Ms. Magazine coming up. If the feminists were tough enough not to cancel, I could wade through the wreck and save the mango sauce (and even, perhaps, my commercial kitchen).
With a flashlight and a lantern, I made my way through my dark kitchen from the sidewalk basement entrance. I threw away and gave away thousands of dollars in food; beef roasts, buckets of crabmeat, whole pastramis — who cared? “Take it! Take it!” I screamed to anyone who wanted food. But not the sauces! Don’t even think about taking my sauces!
Three filet mignons and four sides of salmon convinced my landlady to bring in a generator and to hire Dan, the super, to patrol. Dan himself didn’t care about the lack of hot water — the man hasn’t showered in at least eight years — but he understood that a generator fileld with gas was, during the storm, more valuable than a bag of crack. He loyally stood guard, taking breaks to eat, sleep and complain.
Still, as lights flickered on and off and mixed reports arrived, the Mango Sauce needed a safer home. I lined up two emergency kitchens, one in Long Island City and one on the Upper West Side.
“Get ready to move the kitchen!” I hollered.
My wonderful crew would have moved Mt. Olympus, but thankfully, just as we were about to fill trucks, ConEdison turned the power in the kitchen back on.
So busy were we congratulating ourselves in the bright lights of the kitchen, so eagerly were we stroking the freezers as if they were a collection of very large purring cats, that we failed to notice a Nor’Easter had blown in. Other bookings bailed, but the stoic women of Ms. Magazine still refused to cancel their bash. So we carefully thawed and warmed the mango sauce, grilled the Korean beef and headed uptown.
The party was a smash. The Matriarchs of Ms. Magazine, Gloria Steinem and Pat Carbine, even asked me to speak to the crowd.
“Wow,” one of my waiters said, “You really are a feminist!”
“Feminist? Shmeminist! Did they like the mango sauce?””
— Rossi, New York City
Alice Knisley Matthias, a musician and BlogU student, lives, writes, gardens and cooks on Staten Island. Her essays have appeared in EatingWell, Boys’ Life, Highlights for Children, Benchmark Publishing, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and America’s Test Kitchen Cook’s Country Cookbook. Her blog, herbinkitchen@wordpress, celebrates the organic lifestyle and is launching this week. She writes:
The hurricane is here now and the lights flicker one last time and plunge the kitchen into darkness. We light candles and the flashlight on the counter is pointing at the ceiling, giving an even canopy of light.
I strike a match, touch the blue rings of gas on the range and — whoosh, whoosh — two burners are ready for cooking. I slide a knife from its block and mince shallots and garlic, using my fingers as a guide in the candlelight. Fumbling around in the dark cabinet next to the stove, I recognize the handles of the pots and pans that I use most. Cutting a stick of butter in the dark produces a very generous pat of butter for one pot. I estimate the exact location of the back burner, the almonds make a plinking sound as I scatter them in the pan.
The gas burner is bright beneath the pan, the almonds are in the dark. A nutty aroma signals that they are toasted.
POP goes the lid on a Mason jar of chicken stock. I fill a cup until I feel the liquid lapping the rim. The pan hisses when the stock hits its hot surface. I pour a stream of vermicelli and rice from a box. I can’t see it, I know I’ve used it all when the container is weightless in my hand.
Heading back into the blackness of a cabinet I Braille read handles for a pot in which to sautee the green beans that I blanched the night before, when Sandy was a worrying blotch on the weather screen. The pot announces itself when my groping sends its lid crashing to the tile. Rotating a lemon against a microplane, hovering over warm beans, the scent of the citrus zest wafts up as it lands on the beans.
Identifying the correct seasoning is a great challenge when cooking in the dark. I am groping for a remembered glass jar of ancho chili powder, for the shakers of onion and garlic powders, the metal box of Old Bay seasoning, with the top that never stays closed, the canister of kosher salt.
I touch and smell a spice mixture together. It’s grainy beneath my fingertips as I rub a pork tenderloin. A splash of olive oil in a pan. The tenderloin sizzles as the spices cook and a crust is formed. I touch, touch, touch. Sniff. Prod. Hope I remember the sensory signals of doneness, beyond the familiar color of the meat, which of course doesn’t register in candlelight under a flashlight chandelier. I position a cutting board directly under the flashlight, place the meat on the cutting board — is it done? The beam of light glows along the metal edge of the knife.
Do I date myself by saying that somewhere a Meatloaf song can be heard?
— Alice Knisley Matthias
Meghan Ryan, a food writing student at Cook N Scribble and blogger at Feast & Frolic, is college admissions counselor at a private high school in New London, Connecticut. Her home was flooded and she was evacuated during the storm. Moved to a friend’s home on higher ground, this former varsity rower learned how to do dishes in the dark. She writes:
The storm is over, the streets are clear, the damage is still evident. Storefronts in town aren’t buzzing with foot traffic, but with equipment cleaning up, sanding down, healing over. The restaurants were full tonight but the bookstore is empty. A bookstore without books is a sad sight.
The storm clobbered our property, our morale, our bank accounts, but it brought us together. I was evacuated so I bunked up at my friend Craig’s house in Stonington. The house was on the hill, we felt safe, mostly because we were together.
Gusting winds rocked our beds and worked our nerves. We huddled over an unassembled generator, sideways rain pelting us as we tried to put it together. Eventually the generator powered the refrigerator. We pulled chicken noodle soup from the freezer, added white pepper and matzah balls, and warmed it over his gas stove.
We sat around the candlelit table, telling stories. His parents talked about meeting more than half a century ago in Belgium, when she was an interpreter and he was in the Navy. She worked at a zoo. She walked the cheetah. Even in the dark, my skepticism was evident because her husband proudly pulled up her image from over fifty years ago, in black and white, on his iPhone. There she was, lounging in the grass with a cheetah.
Kelly and I cleared the table and loaded our arms with dirty dishes and mini flashlights, feeling our way, toddler-like and clumsy, into the basement, where well water was still accessible. We filled a small bucket with sudsy lukewarm water and washed dishes in a way that reinforced the primitive and communal experience I’d been feeling throughout the storm. We weren’t cleaning to our satisfaction, and we could barely see. Nevertheless, as we carried the dishes back upstairs, we felt quite accomplished.
On the third day, I went back home. The power was still off, but I had peanut butter and bread, matches and candles, and a sense of security. Fences and trees were down, generators hummed, and people were back outside. My rebel friends who never evacuated were out of their dark apartments – at the bar. I joined them, and we made dinner out of PBR’s, Utz Sour Cream and Onion Potato Chips (never more delicious), and an off-color board game.
As water is pumped up from basements and into roads, I am grateful for safety, for a roof over my head, for warmth, and for dry floors. And comradeship.
— Meghan Ryan