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Copyright © 2001 by Ralph Robert Moore.
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like talking to snails
november 17, 2001
I love walking in the woods.
I haven't in years.
When you're young, you reach a certain age where you're allowed to go outside your home, unsupervised.
My friends and I, at that point, immediately headed towards the woods. We'd spend hours there, away from houses, and roads, sitting on boulders, bending over and looking at all the life within the bark of a fallen tree, starting small fires with stolen matches, fires we'd ring with rocks, and be sure to conscientiously stamp out with our white rubber sneakers before we left.
Until I met Mary, the most important conversations I had in my life, the ones where I revealed the most about myself, and listened to other boys do the same, and cared, occurred in those woods. Isn't that amazing? That our most important conversations happened while we were still children? And then stopped?
It stuns me what adults talk about. It's like talking to snails.
We were pre-pubescent. We were obsessed with the meaning of life. As day darkened we'd lie on our backs and look up through the rift of treetops at the sky above and try to see as deeply into the universe as we could. It was unbelievable to us that there was this infinite vastness above us, that would come out each night and show itself to anyone who wanted to look up into it. You probably did the same thing. You probably stopped doing the same thing at some point, just like me.
When's the last time any of us watched clouds?
One absolutely ordinary day Mary and I were pulled into a service station in South Portland, Maine to gas up. As I held the nozzle of the gas handle down in the hole of our white Mustang, I noticed an old man, a very old man, walking slowly along the weedy tracks of an abandoned railroad line, head bent down. He looked like a turtle in a shirt. As I watched him, I thought, what is it he's looking at? What is there to see in a rotting train track filled with weeds? Then it occurred to me he wasn't looking at the track, or the weeds, or the tops of his shoes. He had finally found the time, and inclination, after so many decades, to return to looking at the world.
When I was a teenager, I was able to walk beyond the local area where I lived to the deeper, denser woods north of my home. I grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut, which was blessed with several preserves you could reach after a couple of hours' walk. During that walk, I'd stop to inspect the pain in my feet and see my socks were bloody, calluses having formed around my ankles, where the rim of my shoes rode with each step, calluses that popped, reformed, popped again, until they were rubbed raw down to blood. I didn't care. I'd take my shoes off at that point, and walk the road in my bare feet.
Once we got to a preserve, mid-day on a Saturday, we'd pick a path, and go down into the only true world. Within an hour or so, the false world would be millions of miles away. You'd be down-stepping along a path of pine needles the color of root beer, acres of that color under the thick, cool, green coniferous trees, watching each rock to spot a possum or a fox, careful to look for the black and white wiggly amble across the path of a skunk, which we were told early on was an animal to avoid, much like the porcupine (an animal that can shoot needle-sharp quills from its back by arching its spine-- have you ever heard of anything so incredible?)
Between my friends and me, we knew most of the edible plants in the region, so felt comfortable stopping at a bend every once in a while to snack on the nuts and berries growing wild. Onion grass was a favorite. You'd pluck one out of the ground, clean it off while you walked, then insert the pearlescent bottom length of the grass in your mouth, drawing it out through clenched teeth, to drag off the flavor. The food was all free.
We'd come out of a waist-high field, our pants and shirts covered with brown burrs the size of fuzzy marbles, what we used to call 'hitchhikers', which had to be, head down, carefully plucked off and finger-rubbingly discarded to the side.
When we got thirsty, we'd stop at the rocks of a creek, in that ticking silence of the deep forest, and using our right hand, scoop up a cold pool in our palm from the flow. You could watch your life line and love line while you drank, wondering as a child what they foretold for your exciting future. It tasted strange, the water. Not like what you'd get from the tap. It actually had a flavor to it, not entirely pleasant, like moss, but refreshing. We'd drink a lot of it, on our hikes, on our knees, and never died.
There was always something magical about seeing a wild animal during our walks, like seeing something beautiful the world has to offer, like seeing a rainbow. We knew the names of most of them. It's such a difference, seeing a photograph of an animal in a magazine, or on TV, or seeing it in a zoo, and seeing it in its home, in the wild. I saw black-eyed badgers on boulders. Their reaction? Stance, noses. I wonder what they thought. My friends and I one time stumbled down-path onto a river where brown-furred beavers were busily completing a dam. To watch them scurrying over the logjam, with the obliviousness of insects, made me realize our presence wasn't necessary, and that they would be doing this whether or not any of we little boys existed. My irrelevance stayed as one of my greatest joys, for years.
The world hums with a terrible noise. It gets harder and harder to walk the distance necessary to not hear that din. The Heavens themselves are blurred to us, city lights dimming the color of stars in our backyard telescope.
When Mary and I take a vacation, we withdraw into the silence and sunlight of our home. We roll a boulder over the front entrance, and live, for ten days, in a world of our creation.
Today, November 17, is the first day of that vacation. Our preparation, the purchase of an enormous amount of foodstuffs we'll cook up into wonderful meals, and the projects we'll work on, fictions and images, is the conch shell we spiral down into. To listen is to hear silence and ocean, the same, since we all came from ocean. By its oldness, ocean is silence.
Nothing relaxes me more, nothing more reassures me, than reading recipes.
In recipes we find civilization.
Particularly older recipes, from the middle nineteenth century through the late eighties of the twentieth century.
Each November 24, my birthday, I cook the same meal, Chicken and Sausage Gumbo.
I don't remember how that tradition started, but we've been doing it for years. It's very soothing to have the same meal each year on the same date.
The recipe originated with Paul Prudhomme, the great New Orleans chef.
I'm going to tell you how to make it. You may decide not to, or may make it and not like it, but whichever, here is how to eat what I'll eating next Saturday, November 24.
The gumbo is based on chicken stock. You can use canned broth, but the gumbo will be so much better if you make your own stock. It'll have more body in your mouth, and a subtler flavor. Buy a pound or so of chicken necks and backs, or if you can't find them, and it is so hard to find necks and backs these days, wings. Put them on a cookie sheet in a 350 degree oven for 45 minutes, then dump them into a dutch oven. Add an onion, cut in half, skin and all, a few garlic cloves, the paper still on, and half a stalk of celery. Cover with cold water, bring to a boil, and let simmer all day, the cover to the dutch oven slightly off center. Check occasionally, stirring, getting drawn down into the little lemon worlds rising up as transparent surface bubbles, popping. If you need to add more water at any point, by all means. Strain the stock by pouring it into a colander. Discard all the meat, bones and vegetables. Put the liquid in the refrigerator once it's cooled off. The next day, pull it out and with the side of a spoon scrap off and discard the brittle ice rink of fat that's hardened across. The stock at this point will probably be gelatinous. You'll need seven cups in all. If you have less than seven cups, add water or canned broth to raise the level of your lovely creation to that etched line.
Line up four chicken breasts on a sheet of waxed paper, and generously sprinkle, on each side, salt, garlic powder, and cayenne (red pepper). Leave the coated breasts alone on their wax surface, at room temperature, for half an hour.
While the breasts are being respected, combine in a bowl one cup of finely chopped onion, one cup of finely chopped green bell pepper, and three-quarters of a cup of finely-chopped celery.
Measure into a plastic bag large enough to comfortably hold at least two of the breasts at a time, so that they feel like they're in a suite rather than a mere room, a half teaspoon each of salt, garlic powder, and cayenne, and a cup of all-purpose flour.
Heat an inch and a half of peanut oil in a large skillet, preferably one with a nonstick surface. Once the oil is hot (375 to 400 degrees), drop two of the breasts in the bag of seasoned flour, shake the bag to coat them well, then lift them out, wagging their rawness so that any excess coating falls off. Lay them down in the hot oil in the skillet.
Cook the breasts on both sides until they're firm and more or less done (They don't need to be fully cooked at this point, but both sides of each breast should be brown. Figure five to ten minutes per side, but don't burn them).
Remove these two breasts to a plate covered with paper towels, to absorb the hot oil, and cook the other two breasts the same way.
Tilt the skillet to have the hot oil flow hissingly into a measuring cup. You'll see browned bits in the skillet oil. Try to keep as much of this sediment in the skillet as possible-- that's the flavor.
Return a half cup of the oil from the measuring cup to the skillet.
Put the skillet on medium high heat, and shake in a half cup of the flour you used to coat the breasts. You're now going to make a roux, the most difficult part of this recipe.
Stir the flour around in the oil, until it's evenly distributed. Leave this oil and flour mixture on the heat, stirring it constantly. Your goal is to get this mixture a dark brown, without burning it. If at any point you think it might be about to burn (about to turn black rather than dark brown), lift it from the burner and keep stirring it until it cools slightly, then lower it to the burner again.
Making this sort of New Orleans roux, out of oil and flour, which cooks for a long time, rather than the traditional French roux, out of butter and flour, which cooks only a few minutes, is one of the most noble tests of a chef. You have to have confidence in yourself that you can, by constant stirring, stay on that tightrope between deepening flavor and a burned smell.
You want your roux to get a deep red or deep brown (preferably) color. This may take twenty or more minutes. Have a drink, sing hymns, do whatever you need to do to get through this. After the first time, once you know what you're doing, it's actually kind of fun. At one point during this process, your roux will smell like popcorn. You want to cook it past that stage.
(Be careful how you swirl the roux around as you darken it. Because of the high oil content, the roux can be extremely painful if it lands on the back of your hand, or a forearm. Prudhomme refers to roux at this point as 'Cajun napalm'. He's right.)
Once the roux is as dark as mud, remove the skillet from the burner and add all the finely-chopped vegetables, stirring constantly as the roux gets even darker, and starts to clump. Return the skillet to the heat, and cook over low heat until the vegetables are soft (about five minutes). Your roux will look like diced vegetables draped in melted chocolate.
Put the seven cups of chicken stock you made into a dutch oven or large pot, preferably one with a nonstick surface, and heat to boiling. Drop the vegetable-clumped roux into the roiling stock one wooden spoonful at a time. Stir constantly. Once all the roux has been absorbed by the stock, reduce the pot's heat to a simmer, and add a half pound of raw andouille sausage chopped into bite-sized pieces, and one teaspoon of minced fresh garlic. Simmer uncovered for forty-five minutes, stirring occasionally.
At the end of the forty-five minutes, cut the chicken breasts into bite-sized pieces, and add them to the gumbo. Simmer an additional ten minutes.
To serve, place a scoop of high quality rice in a bowl, elongating the scoop so that the cooked grains stretch from the bottom of the bowl to just below the rim, then ladle in as much gumbo as you want.
A precaution. Because of the high oil content of this meal, the gumbo will remain hot for quite a while. Be careful sipping it. I don't want you burning your tongue.