I became a man, one might argue, the night I was completely unmanned by a cup of celery leaves. On a frigid night, Lisa, the woman who had just agreed to be my wife, and I were trying out our first house in New Haven, Conn. She'd recently been admitted to medical school and had hit the books on a cold afternoon for a six-hour study jag. I had built a fire and snapped open the paper to stumble upon one of those overwrought New York Times food columns: "Curried Red Snapper Chowder." Every one of those words suddenly read delicious.
The writer extolled the virtues of this midwinter dish with the romantic-etymology move: "Chaudière refers to the heavy pots Breton fishermen traditionally used to simmer their soup." Doesn't that sound all big wool sweater-y and crackling fire-y and maybe even tasty? I thought so, too.
Chowder, the writer elaborated, was "a state of heart and mind more than a specific culinary technique." There was an existential howl in every bowl, something only Herman Melville and a few lobstermen might understand: "It's a brace against the whistling winds and quiet nights of the soul. …" Maybe I should wear a scarf while I cook?
The writer really knew how to sell it. Chowder was also "a balm to the free-floating desire for cuddle and comfort." This was not just a savory dinner; it was a full-blooded narrative, a French movie of a meal that would begin in a kitchen made aromatic by artisanal broths and spiced carrots and end upstairs in a pile of quilts.
Lisa stepped down momentarily to find me clambering into the house with bags of supplies—fresh snapper bought at the best seafood market and colorful veggies from the local grocer. She glanced down at the newspaper recipe.
"Hmmm," she said cautiously, "this violates my old home-ec teacher's rule: Never cook anything with more than one column of ingredients." Please, I indicated, speaking in the language of my right eyebrow.
I stood at the counter of that kitchen, a long, roomy work space that ran the length of one wall and opened entirely onto the dining room. It was essentially my stage, and I had set out my props. There were lots of pots and pans and bowls and blenders. I had the ingredients set up in a conga line, my spices preselected. I had bought a plain apron (no dopey slogans, please) of a dark testosterone shade. I was a man in the kitchen, looking for love, confident of a meal.
In the medieval period of the current culinary renascence—that is, pre–Food Network—you often heard people say, "I love to cook." The phrase was merely part of the mating prattle of those long-ago and dark ages. It was a signifier of a grand future ahead, but also of a lived life—a life already so packed with experience that other similar convictions could easily be flicked off: "I hate disco" or "I love Casablanca" or "I never watch television, except The Larry Sanders Show." These were things that one said but didn't necessarily have to believe or ever act upon.
But suddenly, there I was one night, no longer in the pretend world of scrambled eggs and toast. I was in the very muck of a recipe, dealing with the world of hurt and confusion that can come from only three or four words such as "Puree until liquefied. Strain."
How is it that straining a quart of my pureed goop only produces four red drops in my five-gallon chaudière? Can that be right?
Then there was this other simple instruction. I read it over and over again:
Heat the remaining olive oil in a skillet. Fry the celery leaves until crisp.