Knife Skills, A Serial Novel – Part 35

A brief note on craft:

To those of you who have read this far: Thanks for sticking with me. I realize that this is an unconventional way to write a novel, and that there are numerous downsides to this approach (I’ll discuss some of them in a moment.).

One of the longstanding challenges to writing long-form fiction is often referred to as “finding the time to write.” In fact the time is always there — the challenge is finding the urgency to write, the need to put writing fiction ahead of some more practical and / or enjoyable pursuit — earning money, eating food, taking a nap, catching up on Project Runway, and so forth.

Turning Knife Skills into a weekly serial has made me responsible to you, my real-life readers — however few in number you may be, I am greatly in your debt. In effect, you are the reason I’m writing this. I’d like to formally say “thank you.”

I’d also like to apologize. I know that there has been a lot wrong with the novel so far. “Slapdash” is a word that comes to mind. There is much in terms of physical description, sense of place, sense of time (particularly seasons), and so forth that I think I’ve done a bad job with. There are many chapters currently about 1,000 words long that should probably be 2,000 words long, so that they can breathe, and so that you’re more effectively brought into the world I’m trying to assemble. I’m sure that there are bits I should cut, characters I should add or strengthen, things that need to be reconciled or focused. Too much dialogue, too much tell, not enough show.

When I finally wrap this puppy up — probably somewhere between installment 50 and installment 60, but who really knows — I’m going to throw the comments open and ask for your feedback. I’m also going to print the whole thing out, and read it with a red pen close at hand. I’m then going to revise the hell out of it.

After that, I don’t know. I’ll probably bounce it off of a professional reader or two. Maybe from there, maybe a PDF version of a finished book, or it goes in a drawer, or who knows what. I’ll keep you in the loop, and hopefully we’ll have something readable by the end. Thanks again for bearing with me.

— James Norton, 1/27/10

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.

knifeskills_600x160Robertson was awoken by a knock on his door. It was loud and determined enough to be the police, and he wondered, momentarily, if maybe it was.

“Godammit,” he said. “What time is it?” he yelled, at the door.

“It’s 4pm on a Wednesday,” said Kaplan, through the door. “Should I leave? Are you feeling OK?”

“I’m feeling OK,” said Robertson, shambling to the door. He unlocked it, and Kaplan, impeccably dressed in a tailored white suit and blue and white-striped Albany-collar button down shirt, strolled into his apartment. Robertson took a moment to consider his own outfit — nondescript black boxer shorts and a Saint Paul Saints shirt with a cigar hole near the collar — and grunted a welcome to his friend.

“Are you sure you’re feeling OK?” said Kaplan, trailing off. “Hello, what are these?”

On the kitchen counter of Robertson’s apartment were 18 different big crescent-shaped empanada-looking things, laid out in three neat rows of six.

“Cornish pasties,” said Robertson. “I’ve been playing around a bit.”

“So,” said Kaplan, “I see. They seem to go from yellow to almost white…”

“All-butter crust brushed with garlic butter to an all-lard crust… lotta mixtures in between, yeah.”

“Huh,” said Kaplan, “so this is what you do.”

“No,” said Robertson, “this is what a baker does. But it’s not so different from what I do. I’m kind of playing around.”

“Right, OK. So, these all have the same filling…?”

“No,” said Robertson. “A third of them are variations on the traditional — ground beef, rutabagas, carrots, potatoes, onions. A third of them are made from brisket I smoked on the roof, in defiance of… I don’t know, three or four ordinances, I think. I’m kinda liking those, a lot. Some other crazy stuff in there… fennel, mushrooms, dried cherries… whatever, you know.”

“Uh huh,” said Kaplan. “How about the last six…?”

“Those are all plays on dinner / dessert.”

“Dinner du-what now exactly?” Kaplan picked up a pasty by a corner, squinted at it through his $500 eyeglasses and gingerly put it back on the counter.

“So,” said Robertson, “the story goes like this. Cornish miners brought pasties with them to the mines… wherever those mines were. Cornwall, the U.P., Hidalgo in Mexico, the Iron Range, wherever. You could wrap ’em in foil, heat ’em on the back of a shovel or the hood of an excavator, stuff ’em with whatever leftover stew you had laying around… Flexible as hell. Anyway, somewhere, somehow, I heard that you could do a pasty with dinner on one end, dessert on the other. So this one,” Robertson said, picking up a pasty docked with the letter X near one end of the crescent-shaped pastry, “starts as pork with an apple / calvados reduction sauce and then transitions to what’s basically an apple pie filling by the time you get to the other side.”

“Good God,” said Kaplan.

“This one’s a peach cobbler / chicken tinga… I dunno, it sounded like fun. This one’s basically carrots with a marjoram / molasses topping that kind of goes into a sweet potatoes / marshmallow pie. Better than you think, shut your mouth. Then I went with a soy-miso-glazed halibut that transitions into sweet peas and sticky rice. I know, I know, probably too starchy…”

“I wasn’t thinking that at all,” said Kaplan. “I was thinking that you are a crazy motherfucker, and not entirely in a good way.”

“Right,” said Robertson, half listening. “And here we have the natural conclusion of all this: foie gras and chicken meatball stuffing that segues through to a tutti frutti pie filling dressed with a black currant mead reduction and some organic honey from Wisconsin.”

“Huh. What about this last one?” asked Kaplan.

“Probably a mistake,” said Robertson. “It’s all pudding.”

“What?” said Kaplan, not a question, more a lumpen expression of numbed shock.

“Yeah, a savory corn / cayenne flan segueing to a spicy dark cocoa pot du creme. I’m fairly sure if you bite into it, it’s just going to basically explode.”

“Are you working on a pasty-themed restaurant or something?” asked Kaplan. “Because I don’t know a ton about stuff like this, but I don’t know that that’s going to fly anywhere outside of mining country… and New Amsterdam is kinda outside of mining country…”

“Oh, no,” said Robertson. “I just got a bit homesick and started playing around. I guess that was like two days ago.”

“Look,” said Kaplan, “I worked in the financial services industry, so I’m the last guy who should be professing moderation or sanity to anyone. But maybe you need to take a long vacation and get your shit together. Not to be rude.”

Robertson scowled a bit.

“I mean, come on,” said Kaplan, gesturing at Robertson’s boxer shorts.

“These are in pretty good shape,” said Robertson. “But I guess it is 4pm. Point taken.”

“What are you doing? I mean, we planned on going out and getting a drink, do you want to put on some pants or something and do that? Or we could just talk here. And presumably eat a pasty or two.”

“Yeah, I don’t know,” said Robertson. “I’m going back home tomorrow. I should’ve been on the plane a while ago. ASAP, probably.”

“So,” said Kaplan. “You were supposed to go home…”

“Step-dad’s dying,” said Robertson.

“OK,” said Kaplan, “we can unpack that later. But instead, you stayed here, and baked pasties because you were homesick.”

“I’m not homesick for something I can fly back to,” said Robertson.

“Goddammit man, you are a head case. Crazy crazy crazy. What do you have to drink around here?” Kaplan started rooting through cabinets.

“To the left,” said Robertson.

“Hmm,” said Kaplan. There was a beautiful little crystal bottle covered in Japanese writing. “Scotch?”

“Suntory Hibiki,” said Robertson. “17 years, blended.”

“Oh yeah,” said Kaplan, flipping the bottle around to read the English part of the label. “May I?”

“Yeah,” said Robertson. “Lastri gave me that. She said: ‘Don’t drink this unless you have need of something special! A bad situation! Or a very good one! Or both!’ I guess this qualifies.”

Kaplan poured a finger and a half of Scotch into an Old Fashioned glass for himself, and an equal amount into a glass for Robertson.

“Whoa,” said Robertson, sipping his whisky.

“Yeah,” said Kaplan. “This shit is light on its feet. But not at all boring.”

“Great spice to it,” said Robertson. “I’m getting toffee, cherry, maybe citrus?”

“Toasted wood,” said Kaplan. “Cinnamon, bananas. Great stuff. I always forget that ‘blended’ doesn’t have to mean ‘cats’ piss.’ The fucking Japanese — when they decide to seriously do something, they just do it better than anyone. Cars… swords… God, so much cool shit. Suntory actually beat the Scotch — all those dudes — at International Wine & Spirit Competition in 2006. So, what are you, 33 years old?”


“34. Go-to guy in one of the world’s biggest cities, from what I hear. How often do you turn down an offer?”

“I don’t know,” said Robertson. “Probably a couple a week before I went to the farm. I think it’s all calmed down now, though.”

“You’re a guy who literally lives for his career, and now you’re — well, I don’t know. What are you doing?”

Robertson sipped his whisky slowly, rolling it back on his palate. “I guess I’m collating. Collating information. You know, I did these stints out here… met some people, made some money… I’m trying to figure shit out.”

“OK,” said Kaplan. “Fair enough. What are your axes of decision making?”

“Ma-wha of what now?”

“You stay in New Amsterdam or you go. You open your own place or you keep working as a hired gun. You concentrate on one cuisine or you keep broadening your arsenal. You man up and date someone you can actually have, or you keep dicking around with crazies and made-up ex-girlfriends.”

“Ha,” said Robertson. “I’m seeing Emily this Friday, actually.”

“Oh, goodie,” said Kaplan. “Sounds perfect.”

“I don’t know,” said Robertson. “She’s one person who has never given up on me. I mean, she’s seen me at my worst, my really rock bottom stupidest, angriest, stubbornest worst… and she still takes my calls.”

“Well she certainly sounds like some kind of wonderful sainted retard,” said Kaplan. “But I wish you all the luck in the world. Your flight’s tomorrow, let’s blow this place and hit the town. I know a pai gow poker game we can get in on at 11. You said you wanted to learn.”

“Hell yes,” said Robertson. He handed the foie gras pasty to Kaplan. “I’m going to pop in the shower. You entertain yourself with this and I’ll be right out.” Robertson drifted into the bathroom and shut the door.

“Oh I will,” said Kaplan, looking down at the pasty.

“Don’t fuck it,” said Robertson from inside the bathroom. “Or at least don’t fuck it without doing it the courtesy of eating it afterward. If I come out and you’re just fucking it, I’m throwing you out.”

“Fuck you!” said Kaplan, carefully biting through the flaky all-butter crust. “Damn!”

“What?” said Robertson, starting up the shower.

“This chicken / foie gras stuff is great. It’s about 20 times lighter than I thought, but it still has that rich foie taste… and with the butter… damn!”

“Oh, good,” said Robertson. “Let me know how the fruit treats you.”

“DAMN!” said Kaplan.

“Oh yeah?” Robertson shouted from the shower.

“Yeah!” yelled Kaplan. “The two flavors work together — I mean, I might dial back the salt a little bit on the chicken if you want the two to marry a little better, but you’re at an 8 or 9 out of 10 here. The tutti frutti is fantastic, but I’d cook it down more… a bit watery…”

“Yeah, you always gotta worry about that when you’re stuffing a pastry… good call…” said Robertson. He emerged from the bathroom soon afterward, stored the pasties in the freezer, dressed, and got ready to forget about home for as long as Kaplan could stand his company. He stumbled back in around 5, showered again, and started packing for the airport. He was in a cab by 6.

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