Note: Last night, I made one of my favorite things for dinner: Pineapple pork chops. During dinner I told Renee why I loved it so much, and thought I ought to tell you about it, too.
My dad taught me to cook. Or rather, he made sure I knew how. But he didn’t teach me to like it. Spenser did that.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
In our house, food was utilitarian. It provided nutrition, and while we had favorites that mom cooked, I don’t know that she ever experienced anything like joy in making it. To Dad, being able to cook meant you could take care of yourself and others, so he made sure I knew how. His own father had died when he was seven, leaving him and his mom alone and unsure how to navigate the world without him. To Dad, being able to cook was about survival.
As I have related elsewhere, I did not enjoy my teenage years. I was smarter than most of the people I knew, and they knew it. I loved Shakespeare and poetry. However, in almost any way that proficiency was measured in Independence Mississippi, I was terrible. I could not play sports, I did not hunt, and I did not have a fast car or a hot girlfriend.
The summer I turned sixteen (the same summer I almost killed myself), I discovered the writing of Robert B. Parker. Parker wrote detective fiction – in fact, some say he saved the detective novel from disappearing – and his detective was named Spenser. No first name. (If you are of a certain age, you may have seen the derivative TV show called Spenser for Hire, but we do not speak of that atrocity here.)
Spenser lived in Boston, was a former boxer and an ex cop. He was tough, like you expect a detective to be, but he also quoted poetry and knew something about what wine to drink with dinner. He was a smart-ass, but also a Boston liberal in his politics. He was everything I needed.
Living in a small house on 40 acres in Mississippi, I only had one sort of role model. But Spenser showed me a different world. It was from Spenser that I heard the first argument for abortion I found compelling. It was from Spenser that I first met gay characters in a novel, and they weren’t freaks, but good folks. It was from Spenser that I was introduced to (a mild form of) feminism. And it was from Spenser I learned about Thoreau.
In one of the books, Promised Land, Spenser said,
“I try to be honorable. I know that’s embarrassing to hear. It’s embarrassing to say. But I believe most of the nonsense that Thoreau was preaching. And I have spent a long time working on getting myself to where I could do it. Where I could live life largely on my own terms.”
The next day I was in the school library, looking for Thoreau, which led me to Walden, which consumed me that year. It began a love affair for me that hasn’t ended, 30 years later. I realized that this autonomy thing, this way I am wired, it belonged to a tradition. I wasn’t a freak. I belonged.
My absolute favorite book of Parker’s was Early Autumn. Paul, a boy in his teens, who is socially awkward and who does not fit, is a major character in the story. His mother hires Spenser to protect him from his father, who she fears will kidnap him. Spenser learns that neither parent loves Paul – he is just a pawn in their hatred of each other. Paul is failing to thrive because no one has taught him how to move in the world. So Spenser sort of adopts him, and teaches him how to be.
That is how I felt – I did not know how to be in the world, and Spenser showed me the way. Just like he did Paul.
Spenser taught me to embrace my own judgement. To credit my own opinion. That being a smart-ass was an acceptable choice, when you didn’t know what else to do. I lifted weights because Spenser did. I studied poetry in college because Spenser did. I learned how to fight, like Spenser did. I learned to develop my own code of conduct, to worry about things like being honorable and fighting for the underdog. And, I learned to love to cook.
Spenser can cook. That is one of his things. It is one of the ways he maintains his space in the world. Here is a scene from Early Autumn:
“I went to the kitchen and investigated. There were some pork chops. I looked into the cupboard. There was rice. I found some pignolia nuts and some canned pineapple, and some garlic and a can of mandarin oranges. I checked the refrigerator again. There was some all-purpose cream. Heavy would have been better, but one makes do…
“I cut the eyes out of the pork chops and trimmed them. I threw the rest away. … I pounded the pork medallions with the back of a butcher knife. I put a little oil into the skillet and heated it and put the pork in to brown. I drank the rest of my Schlitz and opened another can. When the meat was browned, I added a garlic clove. When that had softened, I added some juice from the pineapple and covered the pan. I made rice with chicken broth and pignolia nuts, thyme, parsley, and a bay leaf and cooked it in the oven. After about five minutes, I took the top off the frying pan, let the pineapple juice cook down, added some cream, and let that cook down a little. Then I put in some pineapple chunks and a few mandarin orange segments, shut off the heat, and covered the pan to keep it warm.”
Sixteen year old me looked at that and was captivated. He just made some food. No recipe, no plan. He just created a thing where nothing but random ingredients had been before. He brought order out of chaos.
In another book, which I can’t find to quote at the moment, Spenser explains that knowing how to cook is not only a means of survival, but a way to take control, and to be kind to yourself. He says that by cooking a nice meal, by setting the table, he is treating himself like a family. He also has a line to the effect that there is nothing sadder than a grown man leaning against the counter in his kitchen eating cold Chinese takeout.
So, I embraced it. I learned to cook, and cook well. I took it seriously, because while I had always known that eating together was a sign of love, I came to know that cooking good food, even when I was the only one there to eat it, was a sign of love for myself. I came to see cooking as a creative act, the creation of an ephemeral piece of art that if you screw up, you get to erase (or eat, if it isn’t too bad) and try again tomorrow.
But most importantly, I learned to treat myself like a family.