If it’s not a universal truth, it should be: One who finds oneself suddenly unemployed gets at least one day (although hopefully not too many more) to sit in front of the television all day long, budging only to attend to personal hygiene and receive packages from UPS. Yesterday was mine.
I’d had better intentions, of course. I knew that Tuesday would be a wash in terms of accomplishing anything, or of making any real plans. My pal and cube neighbor Julie had had her job eliminated as well. When we each learned what had happened to the other, we agreed to meet for breakfast at the Comfort Diner, because, hell, it wasn’t as if we had to be anywhere at 9 a.m. We ate plates of food as big as our heads (waffles for Jules, scrambled eggs, biscuits, sausage gravy and grits for me), compared the details of our war stories, chatted a bit about when, where and how to register for unemployment, and then returned to her apartment to call our planner, a swell fellow who works in our plant in Pennsylvania, and who will be retiring after New Year’s Day. (In the weeks since he’d announced his retirement date, Jules and I had been joking about how once he left, we would not only resign, we’d buy an Airstream trailer and just hang out on his front lawn. For the life of me, I never thought we’d be out of there before he was.) From there we parted, and from there, other than 45 minutes in the pool at the Rec Center and a nice tea with Bunni much of the day was a blur of getting on buses and riding nowhere in particular. It was exactly the day that I needed, but I knew that Wednesday would be a better day, the day on which I would make some actual plans for the future.
At least I would make some plans just as soon as I finished my coffee. Maybe check the weather. Oh, look, Arrested Development is on. Oh, and there’s another one. And another one. And...whoops, it’s 1:30. No more tv, nope, I need to leave the house so I don’t become one of those folks at whom all of those really depressing adverts on daytime tv are targeted. Is that the doorbell?
It was. UPS was here, with my boxes of stuff from the office. I shlepped them all upstairs, started to unpack, and...well. I’d had no plans to shed any tears over Loss of Job. Heaven knows I’d shed plenty of tears over the course of this job, particularly over the last 18 months. I also knew that the manner in which I was let go—quickly and with a generous severance—was the best way possible. I have the luxury of time, to look around for the right situation, rather than accepting, in a panic, the first lousy office job that manifests itself. I know better than to look a gift horse in the mouth—and yet, as soon as I cut the first box open, a rolling wave of pressure moved up my chest and throat, and I sat down and cried like a baby for a good five minutes, not for the loss of a job that played havoc with my health, happiness and attention span for far longer than it should have, but for the suddenness and shock of it all. It’s one thing, of course, to say that in business, it’s all about the money, honey, and that you can work like a dog to make the company’s fortunes better while still winning friends and influencing people, but once you become too expensive to retain, all of that dog work is for naught, and really it’s not personal; it’s an entirely different thing when all this talk stops being theoretical. I unwrapped the tissue paper that held my little bread sculptures, thought about dreams deferred and time wasted and battles fought, battles that ate up my heart and energy and light, all in the service of packaging, of a long, long train of empty cartons all ultimately destined for landfills.
The good thing about sudden violent emotional reactions—at least the ones that don’t end in blood-spilling —is that they usually leave as quickly as they arrive, and they bring a giant physical release with them. I unpacked two of those boxes, big honking corrugate boxes full of books and shoes and little breads. I put everything away, I got my kitchen scissors, and I slashed those boxes to ribbons and brought them down to the paper-recycling can in the front yard. I felt like a million bucks as I did it. (I only saved the third box because Lloyd had arrived home while I was still unpacking, and asked, nicely, if I could spare that one my wrath. Well, sure.) I had a little chuckle to myself about how nature hates a vacuum: as soon as Lloyd and I start moving stuff into storage, more stuff comes home with me. I unpacked my tea strainer and my packets of tea from Sympathy for the Kettle, and felt a little better, having all of my accoutrements in one place, rather than spread out between home and office, never in the place where I want them when I want them. I looked at my books, many of which were acquired before or during my fellowship at the Writer’s Colony at Dairy Hollow, which had never made the trip home.
I picked up my copy of Medieval Arab Cookery: Essays and Translations by Maxime Rodinson, A.J. Arberry and Charles Perry, with a foreword by Claudia Roden. I hadn’t looked at this book in years, which is a crime, really, because it’s such an eye-opener, and such a pleasure to read. One of the works translated by Charles Perry is The Description of Familiar Foods (Kitab wasf al-at’ima al-mu’tada), a pair of manuscripts preserved at the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. (Perry’s translation is based on photocopies of the manuscripts held at Dar al-Kutub in Cairo.) The first manuscript is believed to date from the eighteenth, or late seventeenth, century; the second manuscript indicates a completion date in the colophon that corresponds to the end of November 1373. The text is, by Perry’s own description, confused, subject to the prevailing circumstances of of copied cookery manuals: “lost pages, bungled rebinding of manuscripts that have fallen apart, misreadings and omissions on the part of the scribe or the person who was reading the text out to him.” I can’t imagine how challenging it must have been to assemble a coherent translation, but I’m so glad that Perry was up to the challenge, because there is some beautiful food described in these pages: slow-cooked stews on dying fires, left to “settle” and thicken until they could be eaten with the hands, along with flatbread or rice. There are distinctions drawn between savoury stews and sweet-and-sour stews; there is documentation of the use of ingredients now rare in Arab cookery, such as verjus, asafoetida and even cheese. There is a condiment called kamakh rijal that I’m dying to make, basically a cheese made from yogurt and salt, fermented for 3 1/2 months. There are beautiful, delicate, fragrant pudding recipes, and there is a veritable tutorial on fish preservation technique.
I can’t believe how many years I’d spent not reading this book, consumed instead with empty plastic boxes of one form or another. I can’t believe how far away I stayed away from the wider world, and for how long.
The book is studded with yellow 3"x 5” notecards, marking—of course—the forms of egg cookery. I open it to another section, one that isn’t marked off by a notecard, and find a recipe that had I had found particularly striking on the first read, for wardiyya (rose syrup pudding). Directly above it is a recipe that I can’t believe I missed on the first read:
NUHUD AL-’ADHRA [virgin’s breasts]. One part flour, one part clarified butter, 15 of ground sugar. Everything is mixed and made well. Then it is made like breasts and baked in a tray [tabaq] in the bread oven. It emerges nice.
Karen Hess was right. Primary source material is not only the most accurate source of information on how our forebears ate and lived; it is also a lot of fun to read. I think I’ll set some time aside, in the coming days and weeks, to read it.