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Back on the Porch at the End of Summer

Side Porch with Impatiens.Peter

Side Porch with Impatiens (P. Schroder)

It’s late and I’m finishing up a salad, grilled chicken with homegrown tomato and homemade vinegrette; unbelievably delicious. When did I become a good cook?

For years I hated cooking, because I had to do it all the time. That made it work. From the age of 7 I’ve been cooking, since my mother left home to go to college. No one ever gave me lessons, I had to learn from the back of a spaghetti box. My older brothers and I were forced to learn to cook, which is a really good thing for boys, but we didn’t think so at the time.

When I was 10, Mom graduated from Purdue and went to work as a pharmacist, on her feet all day. When she got home from work she did not see it as her duty to become the Happy Homemaker. “You cook; you already know how.” It was no great loss, because she couldn’t cook very well either, but at least we respected her reasoning. There is nothing male or female about cooking. So I kept learning and gradually expanded my repertoire; one of my early specialties was French toast, which we’d have for supper. Is there anything easier in the world than French toast? Eggs, milk, a little salt, dip a slice of bread in it and fry it up. My big innovation was cutting the bread slices diagonally.

Ah, so elegant; Gay even then.

Eventually I grew up and fell in love with a series of men who could not boil water. Always, I was the cook. And that made it work.

I think I finally learned to enjoy it when I didn’t have to do it anymore, in my early 40s after Jack and I broke up. I feel almost guilty writing this, as if my getting good in the kitchen was somehow his fault; but with his illness and all, he was a lot of work. And as much as I regretted the breakup, it did free me to live for myself for a change.

Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that my seven years with Jack marked my transition as a cook, from unskilled to competent and occasionally creative. I remember putting together a chicken tarragon dish one night that turned out great; the secret’s the white wine. Suddenly I’m a French chef!

I made it again recently because tarragon has taken over my herb garden and it doesn’t go with just anything. I cut the plant back and brought in a mountain of tarragon branches; I’ve filled three containers with dried leaves and there’s still a stack of branches on my dining room table. I could invite the whole county for chicken tarragon and still have boxes, jars and bags to give away.

So Jack left just when the cooking was getting good. He ate at crummy restaurants the rest of his life and ain’t that too damn bad.

I no longer have anyone to please but myself. And increasingly I do just that.

The past few summers I’ve spent a lot of time on my side porch. It’s covered but open, no screens, a perfect place for my charcoal grill. My house is the only one on this block with an original open porch; everyone else has closed theirs in. My porch is a summer kitchen, and this year I’ve made more improvements to it than ever before. It’s always been a pleasant place to be, with hanging baskets of impatiens, other plant stands, a tree; this year I started to decorate it more seriously, with better lighting and a little piece of art. In prior years I had a couple of friends over all the time and we had great fun out there. This spring they broke up, and I haven’t seen S.— since. He came once when Peter was here from Amsterdam, but that’s it. I haven’t pushed S.—, I figure he’s in a bit of “good pain” over his new status as a single guy, and if he associates me with the painful past, I don’t mind his avoiding me. Or rather I do, because I miss him, but it’s okay; he’s got to heal. I recommended they break up (they argued all the time and sometimes scared me), though I didn’t intend to lose S.— in the process.

Besides, this has been the coolest July and August since the state started keeping records, so I haven’t been on my porch much since Peter left in June.

Labor Day, however, is a whole different thing: the unofficial end of summer. Cookouts are mandatory, even for single guys like me. Time to fire up the grill no matter what.

I had a taste for my grilled lemon chicken. Nothing to it; marinate in lemon juice and Worcestershire. It’s much better bone-in than not, so I went to the grocery; no split breasts, though they’ll happily sell you boneless ones for three times as much. I ended up buying a whole chicken cut up and grilling only the breasts; plus they still had homegrown sweet corn in September!

Grilled corn is good (“roastin’ ears”), but I cooked mine on top of the stove per usual. It was sweet and delicious. I made a lettuce salad and some dill vinegrette; dill from the garden, under my kitchen window. I used red wine vinegar, which kind of overpowered the dill, but Lordy, red wine vinegar is one of God’s good gifts. When did I learn to make my own salad dressings? (After Jack.) And why would anyone pay Kraft or Paul Newman $3 for a little bottle of dressing when you can make so much better at home?

It’s shocking, really, how much better food tastes when you make it yourself.

I’m all in favor of restaurants where a real chef offers his or her best meals. No one wants to eat their own food all the time, and a good restaurant can inspire us to try new things, new ingredients, new combinations, new foods. As one who learned from the back of a spaghetti box, and thus followed a unique, idiosyncratic series of tangents to the dishes I now cook well, I am a big fan of cooks who took a different path and teach me by example.

But it’s good to think about what a good meal really is: something profoundly social, even if you’re only communing with yourself.

My ideal night is Peter and a chickee on the side porch; or Jack and four guests and conversation long into the night; or S— and T— even when they yelled at each other, because in between times we enjoyed each other.

Dinner is a sacrament, an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. When it also tastes fantastic, all the better!

That Jesus fella was pretty smart at his last supper.

So it’s Labor Day, and I’m alone. S— did send me an e-mail this weekend, “we should get together, where did summer go, I’ve been so busy,” etc. I’m pleased that I’ve not coerced him into coming when he plainly hasn’t wanted to. I’ve left him alone, though I did command his attendance once when Peter was here. Otherwise no.

Meanwhile I’ve been filling in a blank recipe book Peter bought me, to replace my 3×5 cards I’ve collected since 1976, on which are written everything I know about cooking since I was 7 years old. Yes, there’s a French toast recipe; yes, there’s Joshua’s Patented Spaghetti Sauce, which I haven’t revised since January 25, 1992, when I cut the red meat by 50% after Jack’s first heart attack. I follow that recipe like it’s the Gospel According to Mark.

I’ve allotted three pages in my new book for all my vinegrettes. And I won’t write them down till I make them again.

Yes, I miss my friends, Jack, S—, T—, Peter, all the ones I used to know; but in the meantime life’s good eatin’. The holiday menu is a ribeye, stewed tomatoes and a baked spud with sour cream and chives from ten feet away, growing like mad, trying to compete with the tarragon and oregano, thyme and dill.

Make a meal for yourself and commune. There is nothing better in this life than a homegrown tomato.++tomatoes

One Response

  1. Dear Josh,

    I loved your garden into kitchen tour…thanks for sharing your thoughts/menus as they whafted in and around your everyday life…I too have no trouble being alone and enjoying every breath and moment of life (and its flavors)…I found it hugely peacefilling when I discovered that yes, in fact, I´ve always enjoyed my time with ¨me¨…there was a season in my life (mostly in my 20´s into early 30¨s ) that I tried to occupy every second of everyday with sensations and activity (doing, doing, doing)…I hated ¨down time¨ and actually kind of feared it like a panic attack…those were also the days of College and beyond when I was wild as Hell in San Francisco (or anywhere else I took myself or was taken) as I rushed away from me…ah, my life has been so full of enriching experiences at every level since my demands on God and everyone else stopped (around age 35)…it´s such a joy to let (mostly) ¨nature take it´s course¨…I once thought it was slothful to sit quietly and shut the fu*k up…then I discoered the many gifts that come in all sorts of packages after the noise and extreme selfseeking stopped.

    Enjoy, thanks be to God.


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