New Canaan 53

months, once, I ate only soup, inspired by Rus- sell and Lillian Hoban’s Bread and Jam for Fran- ces. But all winter we’d bide our time, waiting for that taste of summer, the flavor of salt and sea, of butter and sunshine, that was the first lobster of the year. WHEN I WAS twenty-five, I met a wonderful man, the funniest person I have ever known. We laughed, we ate Chinese food, we fell in love. And I foresaw a day when I would never eat lob- ster again. A wedding dress, a canopy. Poached salmon. Roast chicken. My father, a yarmulke sliding off his sun-freckled bald spot. My mother clapping her hands as I teetered above her on a chair, held up by strangers and friends, clinging tight to a handkerchief. On that day, I would trade steamed clams for companionship, oysters for love, lobster for a new way of life. Danny, my new love, was an Orthodox Jew. I caught him in a rebellious phase, and had great fun introducing him to the pleasures of Saturday morning cartoons, necking in public, and cheeseburgers. When my August birthday rolled around, I took him to Connecticut to meet my family. My dad had sold his lobster pots years before, but we piled into the car and drove to a casual shore restaurant, and sat, looking out onto the Sound. When the wait- ress came around, my dad said, “Beer, Danny?” He glanced at me and nodded. ‘We’ll have two pitchers of beer, steamers all around, and four lobster dinners,” Dad told her. Danny politely passed on the steamers–shellfish, including lob- sters, are not kosher. “It’s okay,” I whispered to him. “You’ll get corn and bread and a potato. I’ll eat your lobster.” “No, I’ll eat it,” he told me. Feeling more than a little guilty, I watched him take his first taste of lobster. “Oh my god. How can anything taste this good?” he asked me. I boiled a lot of lobsters for him over the next year, falling deeper in love with each passing month. At the Guggenheim Museum gift shop, we found a poster of the Picasso painting Lobster and Cat. “That’s you,” he told me, pointing at the spiky, gray lobster, “and that’s me,” he said, pointing at the brown cat, its fur on end, terrified. “Thanks a lot,” I told him, as he paid for the poster. He hung it on his apartment wall, and I’d look up at it sometimes and real- ize that he was right. Lobster and Cat. We were about as alike,

“Take… apart?” “So you’ve never done this,” he said, staring at me. “I guess not.” He grabbed two towels, held the front sec- tion of a lobster in his left hand, the back sec- tion in his right, and twisted, hard. In a second, there were two squirming lobster halves on the table. “Got it?” he asked me. “Got it,” I said through clenched teeth. I had boiled dozens of lobsters without a thought, but somehow dismemberment was another story. They’re bugs, I told myself Big, ugly bugs. You can step on a cockroach, right? So you can kill a lobster. I wound the towels around my hands and approached the smallest, most sluggish lobster on the pile. I flinched, let a tear drop down my cheek. The chef saw it, but said nothing. I picked up the lobster, twisted. “Harder. Do it fast. Twist. Now!” I did it. Made two pieces of lobster out of a live lobster. “Good. Now do the next one.” The second one was hard. The fifth was almost easy. And the tenth was like chop- ping a carrot. Freedom from compassion in ten easy lessons, thanks to a hard-ass chef. Four months later, I found myself working the garde-manger station at a lively East Vil- lage bistro. The lobster salad was a very popu- lar summer item, and within a few weeks I could turn a dozen cooked lobsters into salad meat in ten minutes flat. Dragging my tired body home on the subway late one night, I realized that the crowds of riders were giving me a wide berth. That exotic undersea per- fume in the air–that was me. I was mortified. And a little bit proud. Saltwater runs through my blood, after all. That first taste of lobster had contributed more to my fate and my choices than any-one might have guessed. I am the daughter of a lobsterman/paper executive and a first-grade teacher who can cook a mean loaf of SPAM. My plate runneth over with sweet corn; a brown Russet potato slashed open to reveal floury, buttered insides; a crisp sour-dough roll; and a bright red Long Island Sound lob- ster, claws dangling over the side, just waiting for me to dig in. Gretchen VanEsselstyn is a writer and edi- tor who lives in Brooklyn, NY. She is working on a novel about sex, psychotherapy, and res- taurant kitchens. *

similarly contentious. One night, after a few drinks, my brother took me aside. “You guys are getting really se- rious, huh? If you want, I’ll convert with you so you won’t be the only Jew in the family.” I imagined the canopy, and I knew I had been fooling myself. Danny was taking a vaca- tion from his life: dating me, eating shellfish, watching cartoons. He wasn’t going to give up his faith for lobster. I saw my revised plate for the years to come: baked potato, corn, a roll. And Danny. Was it enough? In the end, it didn’t matter. The relationship sputtered, faded into something else. I got to keep my friend Danny, and I got to keep my lobster. Sometimes I still wonder what my decision would have been. LOBSTERS FADED INTO the background of my life for a few years, barely causing a ripple of memory when I saw them on menus. Life in the corporate world took its toll on my joy and my health, and I, like my father so many years before, realized that I needed an escape. I left my job and enrolled in cooking school, taking the first step on a path that would lead me back to lobsters. Day Ten of cooking school. Already I have dumped a quart of chicken stock into my part- ner’s knife kit, slashed my finger open and bled all over a case of onions. But I, who have been known to get weepy because of a rude mail car- rier or a maudlin long distance commercial, am determined not to cry. My chef-instructor asks the class, “Has anyone cooked lobsters before?” I raise my hand. Finally, something I can do. Boiling lobsters never threw me. I’d watched my parents do it so often that I didn’t flinch the first time I threw my own Chinatown-bought lobsters into a boiling pot in my kitchen on Av- enue A. It wasn’t exactly the Maine coast, but they still tasted good. Lobsters were my first indication that, for me to eat, something had to die. Though I was a painfully sensitive child, the cold facts of carnivorism didn’t bother little Gretchen in the slightest. The lobsters went in the pot kicking and came out delicious, and that was the way of the world. “Okay, so you know that the tail and the claws should be cooked separately, right?” the chef asked. “Um, okay…” “So you’ll need to take apart these ten lob- sters for me.”


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