Friday, December 24, 2010

Meeting Artichokes and Prawns by Leo Racicot

( Leo Racicot as a boy)

Meeting Artichokes and Prawns by Leo Racicot

One of the glaring ironies of my life consisted of being pals with food goddesses, Julia Child andM.F.K. Fisher, and yet not knowing how to cook anything other than a peanut butter sandwich. My friends used to tease that "Leo could burn boiling water if you don't keep an eye on him."When I was a kid, my poor mother, who often claimed I was her ticket to sainthood, would prepare the evening meal for my father, my sister, Diane and her and have a lonely hamburger in a lonely pan on a back burner for me because other than that and the peanut butter and bread, I refused to even look at any other kind of food. "This isn't restaurant", my mother used to say but I was defiant and wanted my burger and nothing else.

So, in later years, it was of particular surprise to many, and especially to me, when I became a private chef to two, former members of The Roosevelt Administration, Hilda and Francis Shea, their son,Richard and their live-in staff of 15. I can boast a little bit now that I am quite the accomplished cook -- I whip up a mean jambalaya and can flambe and saute alongside the best of them -- but it did me no good at all at the time to throw the names Fisher and Child around because that made Ms. Shea assume I, too, could cook. "Do you know how to make a saucesoubise?" she intoned, summoning up her most aristocratic accent -- "Suuuuu-beeeze?" I said I did not, and reminded her she had hired me to be Richard's companion and caregiver. It led anyway to the dread question, "Well, did you ever take Chemistry 101 in school?" "Yes", I said, and was then led by the nose over to shelves heavy with cook books of every decade and design, names so dear to me now butwhich instilled instant quaking in my spine when I laid eye son them: some vintage such as Michael Field's beloved "Culinary Classics and Improvisations", and of course the two Bibles of every serious kitchen, "Irma Rombauer's"The Joy of Cooking" and Julia's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking"; some quirky, even strange: "Cook It Ahead", "Live High on Low Fat", John Thorne's "OutlawCook", "Zodiac Cookbook, "Cooking with Astrology".

Ms. Shea waved her hand a la Vanna White showcasing letters of the alphabet and said, "Well, this is like Chemistry 101 only with food", showed me where the apron was and left me to my folly. Folly and long months of fumbling it was. Only God knows what those first things that came out of the oven were because I certainly didn't. When I first started cooking, it was not uncommon for the guys to take one look at what I had made then call out for pizza delivery.

My feelings could not be hurt because I didn't want to eat the unidentifiables either. One particularly nasty dish, which deserved a place in "The Gallery of Regrettable Food", was called "Catfish Surprise", and the surprise was it was unedible and unable to be looked upon, at least as cooked up by me. The preparation took forever and involved the "shucking" of fingernail-sized catfish nuggets which were then sent swimming into a sea of bubbling fluorescent yellow sauce. Yuk! The guys (a good sixty toseventy of them passed through the portals of 17 Francis Avenue during my ten years there: handsome jocks and scholars attending Harvard,M.I.T., B.U., B.C.; they made up Ms. Shea's harem of male companions for Richard OR, so we sometimes joked, for her) took to calling it "Louise's Hepatitis Casserole" and would run the other way whenever I placed it lovingly on the table. It did look sickly, as if someone had had an afterbirth in a pan. The Apple Brown Betty, the one and only dessert in my repertoire, wasn't any better; it was so sickeningly sweet, well -- you might just as easily have stuck your tongue in a bowl of sugar and sucked. So meal time for a long time was not fun atFrancis Avenue until I reminded myself the Universe had gifted me with friends like Julia and Mary Frances and I towed the line and made myself better.

In time, the guys came to smack their lips with delight, arrive early for dinner and leave late, heap praises on Louise for her prowess at the stove. And yes, your eyes are not de-ceiving you; the guys and Richard fondly called me 'Louise' but that is another story for another time... For these reminiscences of culinary hurricanesare taking me back in time to the first meal I evercooked for Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher. She would,of course, have been cooking for me had she not recently undergone hip replacement surgery and was pretty much confined to her combination writing room/bedroom. She bid me please go to the fridge and bring us"the artichokes and prawns". The artichokes I found but I had no clue what prawns were or even if I had heard her right. Did she saw "prongs"?"Tongs?" Did she want me to bring out a utensil?I stuck my head in the fridge and panicked and prayed and via a process of elimination, I realized the only thing there I did not have an easy label for was a bowl of jumbo shrimp. Maybe this was "prawns"? She smiled approvingly when I carried in the two items and placed them down on the table. Eureka!Prawns!

But eating them was another matter. I kid younot that I had no idea you do not eat the wholeshrimp, peels and seabug legs and all. Once again --Yuk! I thought, "Better not wince. This is M.F.K.Fisher". And what to do with these artichoke leaves? Again, I stuck the whole branch inside my mouth, trying madly to mash it down to the point where I could swallow it. My teeth worked that hard, hideous limb for what seemed like a year until Mary Frances, by gracious and unspoken example, demonstrated how, using the front teeth, you scrape the pulp from the leaf,leaving the hard part of it behind on the plate. Whew! I felt a little bit better. If only I hadn't burned the peas. Canned peas. Who burns canned peas??? It is a testament to Fisher's good will, and to Ms. Shea's and Julia Child's, that they allowed me the time and patience tolearn the art of eating and of cooking, andt hat they overlooked my faux pas at the stove and dinner table to remain in faith with me true and generous and lasting friends...

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