If you could do anything in the world for fun, what would it be? A life swap with Madonna? Tap dancing on Broadway? A makeover with whoever made Linda Tripp look not like Linda Tripp?
Houdini liked being locked in a box underwater. My idea of fun? It's:
1. Being a fly on the wall in a world-class kitchen. My family was in the restaurant business from 1888 to 1988, exactly 100 years. Dad's kitchen was hellish—bursts of steam, shooting flames, people screaming in Hindi, Portuguese, and Greek. What's a world-class kitchen like now? Alain Ducasse is one of the most expensive restaurants in New York (the seven-course tasting menu is $280). I arrive at 10 A.M. Didier, the chef de cuisine, shows me around his stainless steel paradise. Squid are being decapitated, napkins folded into crowns. By 11 o'clock I'm faint with the smell of fresh focaccia bread. At 12:10 the 17 cooks who work under Didier don pleated white toques. The first order comes in and they jolt into action.
Unlike Dad's kitchen, the work is hushed, zenlike. No plates fly. It takes four chefs to garnish an eggplant tartare. There is a man whose job is to sort arugula so every leaf is the same size. These leaves are washed and dried by a culinary school graduate who has worked free for three days before getting hired for this task. At 12:22 the first amuse-bouche (a gift from the chef to whet the guests' appetite) goes out. Today it's chilled prepubescent shrimp with pesto in a lobster reduction, topped with shrimp cappuccino. Shrimp cold, foam hot. Eating it evokes the ocean on a warm day, with your head in the sun and your body submerged. Each bite is hot and cold at the same time. I do not want my amuse-bouche to end.
Everybody tastes everything—"Very nice!" The chefs chew with their front teeth, not their molars. It's odd, a room full of front-mouth chewers. It's rabbity. I decide to ask why they do this but am interrupted by an order for foie gras, which is garnished with carmelized apple, dried apple, and apple marmalade.
By three o'clock the last order is out and every surface of the kitchen is engulfed by a tsunami of soapsuds. I leave thinking I may never eat again. This lasts an hour. At home I make my childhood favorite: peanut butter and mayonnaise on rye. If I could blindfold Didier and carve my sandwich into dainty canapés, I feel certain he would love it. Did I have fun? Mais oui. And if I ever do my kitchen over, I'll get counters with rounded edges (they hurt less when you crash into them). I'll cook something that's hot and cold at the same time, using prep work with last-minute assembly. If at all possible, I will have 17 extremely good-looking people to help me.
2. Finding the taste of my youth. I practically grew up in my neighborhood Schrafft's when a square of dark fudge went for seven cents. It was so good, I could make a piece last all day. Everywhere I go, I buy fudge looking for that taste. Artisan's Nosh in Peterborough, New Hampshire; Billings & Stover in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Candy-Gram in Saratoga Springs, New York. Julia Child once wrote that she pines for Schrafft's fudge, too. I want to get the recipe, make a batch, and send some to Ms. Child, who's recovering from a back operation.
I call Boston information looking for corporate headquarters. Zip. I try my friend's ex-brother-in-law who did quality control at Schrafft's (he checked cocoa beans for worms). Nada. I surf the Web. No fudge recipe, but there's a hotel in Las Vegas with a Schrafft's ice cream parlor. "We don't make fudge," they say. "And our ice cream is made by Swensen's." I call a friend who did Schrafft's advertising. "Schrafft's went bankrupt," Tom says. Has the taste of Schrafft's fudge vanished from the universe?
I find a recipe for Schrafft's fudge sauce that was printed in the New York Times on June 15, 1988. I'll try to adapt it to fudge. There's a secret ingredient in the sauce: malt vinegar. I buy a candy thermometer. I use the Silver Palate fudge recipe. At the very end, after the vanilla, I stir in one-quarter teaspoon of malt vinegar. The fudge never gets hard. And it's way too sweet. I try again, eliminating the corn syrup and adding extra chocolate and more malt vinegar. It's good. It has the Schrafft's long-lasting, complex aftertaste. But it's not like I remember. Do taste buds change? Is the recipe too different? I pack some up for Ms. Child and FedEx it with best wishes.
Three days later a thank-you note arrives: "...Very good, but for perfection I'd like them a bit moister...perhaps use a sugar syrup? A bit too sweet for my taste, and I wonder: If you added some cocoa powder as well as chocolate you'd have a stronger flavor?? Anyway, keep trying! —Julia Child." 3. Having dinner with the first boy I ever kissed. Information gives me the number. He picks up the phone. "Hi, Richie," I say. "It's Patty." "Hey, Patty," he says. We make a date to meet at a restaurant that used to be the Whelan's where we slurped lime rickeys in 1955. I don't know how I recognize Richie Mishkin. He has white hair and a beard. Amazing, since I haven't changed at all. I bring him copies of our class picture and our first kiss, which was immortalized in a photo booth after my sixth-grade birthday party.
Richie fills me in: In college he played bass for Lou Reed when Lou's band was LA and the Eldorados. Then it was Pasha and the Prophets, then LA and the Prophets. When it was Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable, Richie dropped out and went to law school. Now he's with Coldwell Banker.
"I don't remember vast stretches of my past." He shakes his head.
"Well," I say, "you were a rocker."
As we talk his white hair disappears. He's adorable again. He twinkles. The waiter takes our picture reenacting the kiss (still closed mouthed, Mrs. Mishkin). We share a sundae and confirm we both still fold our newspapers New York–subway style, the way Miss Haas (Haas the Horror) taught us. I can't wait to meet his wife. She used to be a nun.
4. Seeing what my grandmother looked like young. My maternal grandmother, Polly Ann Morgen, née Lieban, won a trophy for best legs in Atlantic City, 1916. I want to see her legs before her hip betrayed her and she had to use a cane. I call the Atlantic City Historical Society, thinking maybe they have a record of beauty pageants. They put me in touch with the president, Bob Ruffolo, who is raising money to re-create the famous Diving Horse (it went headfirst off the high board into a tank) in bronze. Ruffolo suggests the library. Bingo! Microfilm!
I drive down and ask for the Atlantic City Daily Press, summer 1916, which turns out to be the year Mr. Peanut (a man dressed like a goober with a top hat and monocle) launched his boardwalk career. I spend three hours lost in 1916 America, reading headlines like VILLA BAND ROUTED BY APACHE SCOUTS and GET READY FOR OLD AGE—START SAVING AT ONCE, BE IT ONLY A PENNY A DAY. There are no photos of my grandmother. I wouldn't have been able to see her legs anyway. In 1916, according to drawings in the newspaper, ladies' bathing suits were two-piece affairs with a knee-length skirt. Legs were covered by thick stockings. No wonder Polly "swam" by hauling herself along a knotted rope tied to a pier. Her clothes would have sunk her.
So I didn't find my grandmother's photo, so what? Anticipating is half the fun, and now I can stop wondering about it. I buy some Fralinger's saltwater taffy and call my sister from the boardwalk, where we spent vacations in the penny arcade. On the way home I pass the turnoff where my grandfather got lost and said the F word and my sister and I thought we would die in the backseat trying not to laugh.
5. Joining the New York Parks Mounted Auxiliary Unit. Have you ever loved doing something you were really bad at? I've been riding horses since I was 8. I've never ridden well. Still, there's nothing I'd rather do. Horse beauty rocks me. I love being high up, smelling that horse smell, controlling 1,600 pounds with the flex of a pinkie. I love pulling on my 35-year-old boots and using words like currycomb, crop, and withers.
Hacking in New York City is $50 an hour now. But what if I joined the Parks Mounted Auxiliary Unit? I'd volunteer to be a Mountie and ride in Central Park for free! I'd wear a uniform! I'd have a walkie-talkie! I'd learn police codes and spend the day in my favorite place doing civic good. Does it get better?
I take two brush-up lessons before the test. It's been a while since I've been on a horse. No matter. Some of it comes back. Sergeant Wilkins tells me to buy a pair of green jodhpurs and black knee-high riding boots. I'm not too happy about this, since I've put on 30 pounds writing a book about what my family eats.
The day of the test comes. The horse is 16.2 hands high. That's high. Wilkins expects me to mount without a step or leg up. "Guess I'll start taking yoga again," I say, the toe of my boot not even close to the stirrup. Finally I'm up and the horse is lovely—but I fail the test.
"You need to build calf strength," Wilkins says.
I'm committing myself to two lessons a week until I'm good enough to pass. I will, no matter what.
6. Feeding the sea lions at the zoo. Growing up in New York, I was on intimate terms with the zoo. The gorilla, Jo Ann, had the same name as my sister and once spit at my grandmother. The monkeys hurled orange rinds. The bears climbed a Manhattan schist mountain, and you never stuck your arm through the fence because of the debutante story: A New York debutante stuck her arm through the fence and the bear ripped it off. A one-armed debutante in a strapless dress. It was enough to fill a whole generation with bear respect. The animals that looked happiest were the sea lions. They broke from the water in unexpected places. They swam upside down. They sunned themselves and smiled. Best of all was feeding time, when they'd shoot into the air, jet-propelled. I've always yearned to feed them.
Two phone calls later I get to. Scooter, April, and Seaweed press their foreflippers against the pool's edge, look me in the eye, and chomp silver capelins (a kind of smelt) right out of my hand. Their mouths are pink. Their teeth, perfect little black pyramids. I get to feel their whiskers, their breath. They bark and catch fish on the fly. They gulp them down without tasting. Why? What makes them lust after a slimy, semifrozen, four-inch capelin more than, say, a zucchini? Do animals experience food pleasure someplace other than their mouths? Do they taste in their stomachs? In any case, I am euphoric. I am beyond happy. When you are truly, completely in the moment, you can only scrutinize it later. While it's happening, you feel it. Afterward I decide my hands don't smell like fish, they smell like the sea. They smell like—what? They smell like the amuse-bouche at Alain Ducasse.