It is a few degrees above zero and I’m far out on the ice of Bay de Noc near Escanaba in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, beyond the last of the fish shanties. It doesn’t matter how far it is but how long it takes to get there—an hour out, and an hour back to my hotel, the House of Ludington. Unfortunately, I’ve been caught in a whiteout, a sudden snow squall out of the northwest, and I can’t see anything but my hands and cross-country skis, a short, broad type called Bushwhackers, which allow you to avoid the banality of trails. I turn myself around and try to retrace my path but it has quickly become covered with the fresh snow.
Now I have to stand here and wait it out because, last evening, a tanker and Coast Guard icebreaker came into the harbor, which means there is a long path of open water or some very thin ice out there in the utter whiteness. I would most certainly die if I fell in and that would mean, among other things, that I would miss a good dinner, and that’s what I’m doing out here in the first place—earning, or deserving, dinner.
I become very cold in the half hour or so it takes for the air to clear. I think about food and listen to the plane high above, which has been circling and presumably looking for the airport. With the first brief glimpse of shore in the swirling snow I creak into action, and each shoosh of ski speaks to me: Oysters, snails, maybe a lobster or the Kassler Rippchen, the braised lamb shanks, a simple porterhouse or Delmonico, with a bottle or two of the Firestone Merlot, or the Freemark Abbey Cabernet I had for lunch . . .
The idea is to eat well and not die from it—for the simple reason that that would be the end of your eating. At age fifty that means I have to keep a cholesterol count down around 170. There is abundant dreariness in even the smallest health detail. Skip butter and desserts and toss all the obvious fat to your bird dogs.
Small portions are for smallish and inactive people. When it was all the rage, I was soundly criticized for saying that cuisine minceur was the moral equivalent of the fox-trot. Life is too short for me to approach a meal with the mincing steps of a Japanese prostitute. The craving is for the genuine rather than the esoteric. It is far better to avoid expense-account restaurants than to carp about them; who wants to be a John Simon of the credit-card feedbag? I’m afraid that eating in restaurants reflects one’s experiences with movies, art galleries, novels, music—that is, characterized by mild amusement but with an overall feeling of stupidity and shame. Better to cook for yourself.
As for the dinner that was earned by the brush with death, it was honest rather than great. As with Chinese food, any Teutonic food, in this case smoked pork loin, seems to prevent the drinking of good wine. In general I don’t care for German wines for the same reason I don’t like the smell down at the Speedy Car Wash, but both perhaps are acquired tastes. The fact is, the meal demanded a couple of Heileman’s Exports, even Budweisers, but that occurred to me only later.
Until recently my home base in Leelanau County, in northern Michigan, was more than sixty miles from the nearest first-rate restaurant, twice the range of the despised and outmoded atomic cannon. This calls for resourcefulness in the kitchen, or what the tenzo in a Zen monastery would call “skillful means.” I keep an inventory taped to the refrigerator of my current frozen possibilities: local barnyard capons; the latest shipment of prime veal from Summerfield Farms, which includes sweetbreads, shanks for osso bucco, liver, chops, kidneys; and a little seafood from Charles Morgan in Destin, Florida–triggerfish, a few small red snapper, conch for chowder and fritters. There are also two shelves of favorites—rabbit, grouse, woodcock, snipe, venison, dove, chukar, duck, and quail—and containers of fish fumet, various glacés and stocks, including one made from sixteen woodcock that deserves its own armed guard. I also traded my alfalfa crop for a whole steer, which is stored at my secretary’s home due to lack of space.
In other words, it is important not to be caught short. It is my private opinion that many of our failures in politics, art, and domestic life come from our failure to eat vividly, though for the time being I will lighten up on this pet theory. It is also one of a writer’s neuroses not to want to repeat himself—I recently combed a five-hundred-page galley proof of a novel in terror that I may have used a specific adjective twice—and this urge toward variety in food can be enervating. If you want to be loved by your family and friends it is important not to drive them crazy; thus the true outer limits of this compulsion are tested only in the month of eating during the fall bird season when we are visited by artist Russell Chatham and the writer and Frenchman Guy de la Valdene, as well as during a few other brief spates throughout the year.
The flip side of the Health Bore is, after all, the Food Bully. Several years ago, when my oldest daughter visited from New York City, I over-planned and finally drove her to tears and illness by Christmas morning (grilled woodcock and truffled eggs). At the time she was working at Dean & DeLuca, so a seven-day feast was scarcely necessary. (New Yorkers, who are anyway a thankless lot, have no idea of the tummy thrills and quaking knees an outlander feels walking into Dean & DeLuca, Balducci’s, Zabar’s, Manganaro’s, Lobel’s, Schaller & Weber, etc.) I respected my daughter’s tears, albeit tardily, having been brought to a similar condition by Orson Welles over a number of successive meals at Ma Maison, the last of which he “designed” and called me at dawn with the tentative menu as if he had just written the Ninth Symphony. We ate a half-pound of beluga with a bottle of Stolichnaya, a salmon in sorrel sauce, sweetbreads en croûte, a miniature leg of lamb (the whole thing) with five wines, desserts, cheeses, ports. I stumbled to the toilet for a bit of nose powder, a vice I’ve abandoned, and rested my head in a greasy faint against the tiled walls. Welles told me to avoid hatcheck girls as they always prefer musicians. That piece of wisdom was all that Warner Brothers got for picking up the tab. Later John Huston told me that he and Welles were always trying to stick each other with the tab and once faked simultaneous heart attacks at a restaurant in Paris. In many respects, Orson Welles was the successor to the Great Curnonsky, Prince of Gourmands. This thought occurred to me as I braced my boots against the rocker panel to haul the great director from his limousine.
Last week when my oldest daughter, who has since moved to Montana (where the only sauce is a good appetite), came home to plan her May wedding, her mother cautioned the Food Bully, threatening the usual fire extinguisher full of lithium kept in the kitchen for such purposes. While dozing, I heard my daughter go downstairs to check out the diminishing wine cellar. (I can’t hear an alarm clock but I can hear this.) Certain bottles have been preserved for a few guests the evening before the wedding: a ’49 Latour, a ’61 Lafite, a ’47 Meursault (probably turned, but the disappointment will be festive), a “69 Yquem, and a couple of ’68 Heitz Martha’s Vineyards for a kicker. It is a little bizarre to consider that these bottles are worth more than I made during the year she was born.
The first late evening, after a nasty January flight, we fed her a winter vegetable soup with plenty of beef shanks and bone marrow. By the next evening she was soothed enough for quail stuffed with lightly braised sweetbreads, followed by some gorgeous roasted wood ducks. I had shot the quail and wood ducks earlier in the month down south, and we especially enjoyed the latter because I will never shoot another in my life. Wood duck are the most beautiful (and tasty) of all ducks, and are very simpleminded in the way they flutter down through the trees. I felt I deserved to be bitten by the six-foot water moccasin sleeping off the cold under a nearby log. I don’t feel this preventive remorse over hunting other birds, just ducks and geese.
This meal was a tad heavy so we spent the next afternoon making some not-exactly-airy cannelloni from scratch. Late that evening, I pieced up two rabbits and put them in a marinade of an ample amount of Tabasco and a quart of buttermilk, using the rabbit scraps to make half a cup of stock. The recipe is an altered version of a James Villas recipe for chicken (attribution is important in cooking).
The next evening, we floured and fried the rabbit, serving it with a sauce of the marinade, stock, and the copious brown bits from the skillet. I like the dish best with simple mashed potatoes and succotash made from frozen tiny limas and corn from the garden. The rabbit gave one a thickish feeling so the next evening I broiled two small red snappers with a biting Thai hot-and-sour sauce, which left one refreshingly hungry by midnight. My wife had preserved some lemon, so I went to the cellar for a capon as she planned a Paula Wolfert North African dish. Wolfert and Villas are food people whom you tend to “believe” rather than simply admire. In this same noble lineage is Patience Gray, a wandering Bruce Chatwin of food.
Naturally, I had been floundering through the deep snow an hour or two a day with my bird dogs to deserve such meals. My system had begun to long for a purging meal of a mixed-grain concoction called Kashi, plus a pot of mustard and collard greens with a lump of locally made salt pork. This meal can be stretched into something bigger by adding barbecued chicken laved in a tonic sauce, which I call the sauce of Lust and Violence. The name refers to what it does to the palate rather than a motivation of behavior.
We weren’t exactly saving up for the big one when the few guests begin to arrive the following evening. The cautionary note was something Jack Nicholson had said to me more than a decade ago after I had overfed a group in his home: “Only in the Midwest is overeating still considered an act of heroism.” Still, the winter weather was violent, and lacking the capacity to hibernate it was important to go on with the eating, not forgetting the great Lermontov’s dictum: “Eat or die.”
We made a simple, non-authentic “scampi” as an appetizer. Garlic is a vegetable and should be used in quantity, and must never be burned. To avoid this I broil the shrimp for two minutes in the shells, then add the garlic, oil, butter, and lemon juice. Infantile but good with sourdough bread. Next came the innovation of the evening, an idea that came after talking to my neighbor and hunting friend Nick. We breasted eighteen doves and my wife made a clear stock of the carcasses. Each whole breast was cut in four pieces. We added finely julienned red pepper, mostly for color, and a little shredded endive to the clear stock. We poached the pieces of dove breast briefly so they would be soft and pinkish in the center. It was a delicious soup and we looked forward to making it with surplus woodcock in the fall. The final course, rare venison steaks with a sauce made of venison marrow bones and a little of my prized woodcock stock, was almost an afterthought. Enough is enough.
The final evening we went to a restaurant called Hattie’s in the small nearby town of Suttons Bay. I wondered if we had actually planned a wedding but didn’t want to ask. My wife and two daughters were in good humor and ate lightly. I couldn’t resist the cassoulet with an enormous preserved goose thigh smack dab in the middle–true homemade confit here in northern Michigan when it is hard to find even in New York! I would resume running at night, all night long across frozen lakes, were it not for the dangerous holes left by the ice fisherman.