Each Friday, the Heavy Table presents a new installment of Knife Skills, a culinary novel presented piece by piece as it’s written. If you’re uncomfortable with salty language, please be aware that characters regularly use words and phrases unacceptable in polite conversation. In the author’s imagination, some members of the food service industry have a tendency to swear. For previous and subsequent installments, visit the Heavy Table’s Fiction directory.
“You,” said the voice on the phone, a throaty, cheerful voice that Robertson hadn’t heard for months. “Did you get that thing I sent you? How are you?”
Robertson looked at his alarm clock — it was 11 in the morning. Outside, cars were honking their mid-day hellos and gyros carts were firing up the meat twirlers in anticipation of the daily lunch rush. Expressing annoyance at the caller would be wrong. “Hey, Emily, hi,” said Robertson.
Robertson scowled at the phone and smiled, forcing himself into a sitting position with a great deal of reluctant effort. “Yes, it’s 11. I was up until 3 last night arguing with an idiot about the proper way to organize the walk-in. How are you?”
“Good,” said Emily. “I’m doing a rotation in pediatric oncology right now.”
“That sounds horrible,” says Robertson, with profound sincerity.
“No,” said the voice. “No, I mean — think of it this way, if you’ve got skills that can make someone better, is there anything better to work on than a sick kid? Don’t get me wrong, it’s horrible, but, you know, it’s really a lot better than I thought it would be. A lot. I mean… it’s motivating. Not that I need it! But, you know, I like that feeling of, I don’t know… passion? How are you?”
“Tired,” says Robertson. There was a long pause. “Tired… and working for an idiot.”
“The same walk-in cooler idiot?”
“No, that was a garden variety idiot. My boss is a world-striding colossal idiot for the ages.”
“How’s the food?”
Emily couldn’t cook to save her life, but appreciated a good meal as much as anyone Robertson had ever known. Once, while at a restuarant on Lake Superior’s North Shore, she had ordered three slices of a raspberry-strawberry pie — in serial — eating each in about 60 seconds while making loud, almost sensual noises of approval about the quality of the dessert.
“It’s, uh, you know. It’s good. The cooking’s good.”
“Come on!” said Emily. “I read the review!”
“It’s great, it’s really actually pretty great, I have to admit,” said Robertson. “It’s crazy that, well, I’ve got the resources that I do. My boss is a prick, but if I can make the margins line up and keep the place busy, I actually have some latitude.”
“And there’s another restaurant across the street doing the same thing?”
“Ha! Yeah,” said Robertson. “It turns out to not be such a big deal. One of the advantages of a big city.”
“What do you mean?” asked Emily.
“There’s… there’s always enough people to sustain something interesting. Usually, anyway. So, the other restaurant is called Katana, so people are constantly confusing the two places — all part of some scheme to bankrupt the idiot I work for. Fair game, as far as I’m concerned. Only what it’s done is to create a miniature Japanese restaurant district… when Kami fills up, people drift across the street, and vice versa. As far as I can tell, we’re making slightly more money than we would without them across the street. I actually go across the street for the happy hour sometimes.”
“Any disadvantages to a big city?” asked Emily, who was working at a world-class hospital in Rochester, MN, a likable but distinctly small-potatoes city of 100,000.
“Hard to get to the woods,” said Robertson. “Not that I’ve had time… but, man, you don’t realize what’s it’s like to not live in the middle of a bunch of lakes and trees until you move to a concrete-covered island with one overcrowded picnic lawn in the middle. And rats,” he added.
“We’ve got squirrels!” said Emily. “Tree rats!”
“You can call a squirrel a tree rat, but that misses the point,” said Robertson, grinning. “Ultimately, a squirrel wants to stay outside. And a rat wants to see if it can get away with eating part of, you know, your lunch. Or baby, if you were dumb enough to try to raise one around here.”
“Are you going to come out and visit some time?” asked Emily. “I mean, I’m pretty busy, but I could — I mean, we could definitely work around it.”
“Nah,” said Robertson, suddenly, before catching himself. “I mean… not for a while. Listen, I’ve gotta… I’m supposed to meet a guy about a job, we’re trying to hire…”
“Sure, sure, no problem,” said Emily. “I’ll — maybe we can do something in spring or something? Talk to you soon, OK? Take care?”
“You too, you too,” said Robertson, hanging up. He put his head in his hands, and glanced over at the mail pile. Amid the bills and solicitations, there were a few other items of interest: a postcard from an old colleague now cooking in Seoul; a wedding invitation from an old friend who was marrying someone terrible; a large manilla envelope with Emily’s return address in the upper left-hand corner.
He opened it, and pulled out a handful of faded old magazines. “How to Prepare Foods for Freezing, Sears Roebuck and Co., 1959.” “Home-Made Jellies Jams and Preserves, Farmers’ Bulletin No. 1800 US Dept. of Agriculture, 1938.”
“Jeez, before Pearl Harbor,” Robertson muttered. “Tricks with Treats: Party Ideas for the Host,” from the La Crosse Steel Roofing & Corrugating Co., La Crosse, WI, 1964.
A note fell out, written in Emily’s impeccable cursive hand-writing. “Robert,” it said, “I saw these at an antiques store in Hudson and thought of you immediately! Probably nothing all that interesting, but at least the clip art is pretty fantastic, right? Take care out East, hope to see you… sometime?” Signed: “Regards and Stuff, Emily.”
He opened the jellies pamphlet at random.
“CHANGES IN FRUITS CAUSED BY HEAT AND SUGAR. The character and degree of the change in texture varies with the amount of sugar in the sirup, the cooking technique, and the kind of cellulose tissue in the fruit. The cellulose tissue is the chief substance that forms the framework of the fruit. Both the ripening process and cooking soften this cellulose framework.”
He grunted with respect and flipped into the interior of the book.
Green Tomato Marmalade
Wash green tomatoes, trim, and cut into small pieces or slices. To 4 pounds of the prepared tomatoes allow 2 pounds of sugar, one-half teaspoon of salt, and 5 lemons. Remove the peel of the lemons, cut it into thin slices, and boil for 5 minutes in 1 cup of water. Discard the water and repeat the parboiling if the bitter flavor in the rind is not desired. Slice the lemon pulp and remove the seeds. Combine the tomatoes, sugar, salt, sliced lemon, and drained peel. Heat slowly and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Continue stirring and boil for 1 hour, or until the mixture is somewhat thick and the fruit clear. Pour at once into hot sterilized jars and seal.
He glanced over at his apartment’s kitchen. It was a step up from a hot plate and a microwave — but just barely. There was always the kitchen at work, he thought, dismissing the thought shortly thereafter.