Pompano

Bonnie Lee Black

     
   

What I remember most vividly about her place, apart from the fish we served that night for dinner, is the walls. Some of the interior walls of their newly renovated, 18th-floor penthouse apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan could move. With a push of one finger you could reconfigure rooms: turn a large, well-lit, blond-wood-paneled study into two cozy guest bedrooms, for example. Like magic.

And the walls that didn’t move, the walls with windows over-looking what seemed like every inch of the City—the East River, Harlem to the north, Central Park and beyond to the west, all of downtown’s dazzling skyline to the south—these walls held works of art the likes of which I’d only seen before in museums, such as Monets, Picassos, and Van Goghs. I expected to see uniformed museum guards keeping watch in the corners of the rooms, but there were none of those.

I’d seen fancy Manhattan homes before, to be sure. Most of my catering clients chose to have parties in their New York apartments precisely because they’d just had their places renovated and wanted to show them off to friends, colleagues, business partners, or family. I had clients on Fifth Avenue, Park Avenue, Central Park West, on the Upper West Side near Columbia University, way downtown, and all over the Upper East Side. All of their apartments were beautiful, breathtaking in their own ways, and reeked of wealth. But none of them were quite like this one, with walls that put on such an opulent and dramatic show.

My clients chose me, I think, because my small business, Bonnie Fare Catering, specialized in at-home parties; I was reasonably priced, honest, dependable, and, above all, I like to think, a good cook. I called my style of cooking “upscale-down home,” because I served traditional, homey, “comfort” food, such as chicken potpie or bread pudding in “fancy dress,” like art on a plate.

“Everything is fresh and homemade,” my advertising copy read, and this was completely true. I made everything myself, for the joy of it really, because I loved to cook. I had changed careers at forty, going from being a well-paid writer/editor in the New York corporate world to being a self-employed caterer in the New York food world, because I was hungry for what a new, culinary career had to offer. I wanted to work with my hands in the realm of the tangible and meaningful. I wanted to immerse myself in the colors, flavors, aromas, and textures of the dishes I created. I needed to pretend my clients were my family and I was cooking for them out of love.

If ice cream was on the dessert menu, I brought my own ice cream machine, which had been my mother's, with me to the client’s apartment and made and froze the luscious concoction that very afternoon. For every party, I baked healthy, grainy bread right there in the client’s kitchen, to create an old-fashioned, comforting, mamma’s-in-the-kitchen-with-her-apron-on aroma to greet their guests as they arrived.

In the almost-ten years I’d been in business, I’d developed a faithful core clientele as well as a slowly growing list of new clients, mainly by word of mouth. A friend once told me she had overheard two uptown ladies talking over lunch in a midtown restaurant: One told the other her daughter wanted to hold her wedding reception in her mother's Manhattan apartment. Her friend told her to call me to do the catering because, she said, I was the best in town for “sweet little home parties and receptions."

Most of my clients treated me with respect, as a professional. Often, they'd call me out of the kitchen as the after-dessert coffee was being served, to take a bow and enjoy their guests' applause. For the most part, though, I remained in the kitchen, leaving my younger, more charming, and more extroverted wait staff to be my emissaries in the front of the house. I felt I had serious, time-sensitive work to do. I was much more comfortable tending my simmering pots and watching what was in the oven than I would have been schmoozing with my clients and their fancy guests over cocktails in the living room.

For me, all the action at these parties took place in the kitchen. Certain scenes stick in my mind: The first time my headwaiter, Michael, an aspiring actor, worked for me; how I'd asked him, just to make small talk as we prepared a tray of hors d'oeuvres together, how catering compared with theater work. "Dahhhling," he said, striking a pose as he hoisted the tray above his shoulder, about to enter the client's living room stage right, "this IS theater!"

Then, later on, Michael's reaction to serving Jane Fonda and Ted Turner at a private dinner party I catered on Central Park West: He returned to the kitchen swooning, "Oh, she's so beautiful! She's so dreamy! I've been in love with her all my life! When I was a kid, I had posters of her on my bedroom wall! Now I'm just this far away from her! I'm serving her! And she's so thin—such a tiny tushie—she makes you look FAT, Bonnie. By the way, she didn't eat your veal chop. Maybe she's a vegetarian."

"Did Ted eat his dinner?" I asked, more to the point.

"Yes. Everything. What an appetite."

 

            At another party, a Christmas fund-raiser for a private grammar school on the Upper East Side, Bill Murray sauntered into my domain as if it was his own and nonchalantly leaned against the kitchen counter next to where I was working.

"Don't I know you from somewhere?" he deadpanned.

"Zabars, perhaps?" I countered, dropping the name of a well-known New York food emporium and going along with the gag.

"No," he said, looking perplexed. "Weren't you in a movie? Wasn't it Babette’s Feast?"

He leaned into the platter I kept busily preparing for the buffet table—I couldn't, I felt, stop to play audience to his stand-up comedy—and turned his face into mine, giving me one of his impish smiles. "Babette?"

“Yes,” I said, caving in. “That’s me.”

 

            Bill Moyers was on the guest list of a number of parties I did for my clients in the television industry. I had interviewed him years before when I worked as a writer and editor at New York's public television station, WNET, and he remembered me. He never asked, though, what prompted my career change. Maybe he intuited some of my reasoning: Cooking is analogous to writing—in both cases you're creating something nourishing for others to consume—but more people eat than read.

Because of our earlier, professional connection, Moyers always made a point of coming into the kitchen after the meal I'd prepared to greet me with a bear hug and thank me for "the delicious dinner." Once he even apologized for not eating my homemade lemon ice cream. "I wanted to, Bonnie," he said, "but I couldn't. Doctor's orders. Must watch my cholesterol." He had recently suffered a mild heart attack.

At the engagement party for Jill St. John and Robert Wagner, thrown by one of my clients on Park Avenue, the celebrated couple approached me in the kitchen to thank my staff and me personally for "the wonderful party." When they left the room, Michael quipped, alluding to Wagner's first wife, Natalie Wood, who had died in a boating accident many years before, "I hope this one can swim."

And, of course, there were a few unpleasant moments: The times guests would charge into the kitchen demanding something of me immediately—"Gimme a glass of water! NOW!"—in a tone that signified deep disdain for servants. Other guests sheepishly approached me at the stove, speaking to me s-l-o-w-l-y—"Where...is.. .the... bath.. .room...?"—as if I were an idiot or someone just off the boat from somewhere far away, yearning for her green card. Without disappointing them, I'd turn and point in the appropriate direction and say, in my best high school French, "La bah!”

 

            This client, the one with the dancing walls, was a special case.

The first time we met, she gave me a tour of her apartment—the expansive living room with its downtown views, the dining room with its majestic table that easily sat eighteen, the all-white kitchen which alone could contain my entire studio apartment on the Upper West Side, her husband's book-lined study, the maid's quarters...

We sat at a breakfast table in the anteroom of the kitchen. Her words were clipped, her expression rigid, her short dark hair looked immovable, glued. We were, I guessed, about the same age—nearing 50—but our life paths had obviously taken quite divergent directions. I had been married to wealth once, too, but to me it had seemed like prison. Too young to know what romantic love was, I'd naively believed him when he told me he loved me. Too late, I learned my sole purpose for him—to produce what his money couldn't buy: a blond-haired, blue-eyed child he could call his very own. Sitting across from each other at that table, this client and I were oceans apart.

She told me she'd "been through a number of caterers" and none of them had proved satisfactory. She said she had high standards of excellence, which no caterer she'd tried had been able to meet. She said I’d come highly recommended, so she’d give me a chance.

This one’s a challenge, I said to myself Good. I like challenges.

            In the next several months, I did a number of parties for her—about one a month—and after each she appeared reluctantly pleased. She seemed to grope for something to criticize but couldn't come up with anything. At last she'd say, "The food was good. Maybe a little less spice next time."

Next time, I thought. So, there’ll be a next time.

After she'd leave the kitchen, my staff and I would dance around the kitchen floor to celebrate our success. "We pleased the queen!" we'd squeal, sotto voce, locking arms and spinning, like a peasant scene from a Bruegel painting. Sometimes Michael and I would do a quick tango, just for laughs. Then we all would pitch in and clean her kitchen until it was back to its original, immaculate, hospital-ward white and every item was returned to its place—the exact place it had been when I'd arrived in the afternoon and taken mental pictures of everything as it was—before we left after midnight from the servants' elevator.

Pompano-en-papillote (fish steamed in a paper case) was the chosen main course for the last dinner party I did for her. Pompano, a small fish, about the length and thickness of my hand, is found only in the Gulf of Mexico and is not always available fresh in Manhattan. My fish market, Citarellas, on the West Side, didn't have it at that time; but my client's fish store, on the East Side, did. I ordered twenty pompano to be delivered directly to the client's apartment.

 

            The afternoon of the party, as I was completing my preparations and packing for this job, the telephone rang.

            The client shouted at me, "The fish has just arrived, and it's too much! I'm having a dinner party for eighteen. You ordered twenty fish!"

            "Yes," I told her, "I know. I ordered a bit more for the staff. They'll be working at dinnertime. Plus, it's customary for the staff to taste what's on the menu so they can explain it to the guests. We'll be dividing the two extra fish six ways.

            "I'm perfectly capable of explaining to my guests!" she shot back. "I'm not here to feed the help too! They should pick up a slice of pizza before they get here!"

            I was tired. Catering is physically demanding work, like professional dancing. I'd begun my catering business at the age of forty, dancing en point, on eggs, in effect, for nearly a decade. Who in her right mind becomes a ballerina at this age? I often asked myself.

And I hadn't been well. At the age of forty-nine I'd discovered an abnormality in my right breast that pointed directly, I was convinced at the time, to breast cancer. Instead of seeing a doctor right away, however, I chose to wait, to think about it, to listen closely to my heart and body, to keep the sound of this small alarm bell all to myself. The fact was, I was self-employed, self-supporting, and under-insured. I simply couldn't afford to pay for treatment, hospitalization, or surgery out of my own pocket.

            So I kept my own counsel and monitored the problem privately. At times I would dismiss it, imagining it would just disappear. At other times, I'd tell myself that breast cancer ran in families; neither my two sisters nor my mother or her mother had had it, so I was in the clear.

In the months that followed, however, as blood continued to seep strangely from my right breast, I thought more about the possibility of death—not in a morbid way, but matter-of-factly. It's a trip we all will take eventually, I felt; and I wanted to calmly, quietly, privately, pack my own bags for it. I thought: What would I like to accomplish in the time I have left? Or, put another way: If I died sooner rather than later, what would I regret not having done?

Caterers are list-makers by nature. Without countless checklists to guide us, the parties would never take place. So it was natural for me to sit down and methodically write a short list of my five "final" life goals:

•           Take dancing lessons

•           Write to all my old friends

•           Learn to speak French (finally!)

•           Return to Africa

•           Do some good with my life.

I carried on with my daily routine—my catering business, part-time teaching at the New York Cooking School—but with a slight sense of detachment, as if I were seeing familiar things from a greater distance, as if I were standing on the top deck of an ocean liner about to leave the harbor, waving goodbye, but not sadly. I was excited at the prospect of this new adventure, unafraid of the unknown. I was, in fact, exhausted and greatly in need of a cruise.

            After almost nine months of this—accepting the bloody discharge from my right breast as destiny, waiting impatiently for the ship to start its engines and set sail for somewhere, anywhere—I learned, by chance, of a free breast cancer clinic in Harlem. I made an appointment and went to it with Michael, my head waiter.

Walking along 116th Street in Harlem together that afternoon, passing storefronts, burger joints and makeshift churches but not noticing anything except each other, Michael and I spoke of death. I had just revealed to him my secret of possible breast cancer. He shared with me his own life-threatening health concerns.

"Do you think a lot about death?" I asked him.

"Sure," he said, "but I think more about staying healthy."

We were the only white people in the clinic's waiting room; he was the only man. But no one made us feel unwelcome or out of place. Michael held my hand as though we were a couple. To me, he was family.

The doctor who examined me—tall, coffee-colored and elegant—told me that indeed there was a problem "in there," and it would require surgery as soon as possible.

 

            My breast surgery took place at Harlem Hospital, and the biopsy results came through a few days after: benign. Something had been wrong "in there" and needed to be repaired—the tubing had somehow become knotted, tangled—but cancer wasn't to blame. Cancer wasn't going to be my exit visa either, it appeared, at least in the near future. I had to get back on dry land and go on living. I had to concentrate on being healthy.

            But I still had my "final" To Do list in hand, and I became determined to act on it right away, regardless. I immediately enrolled at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio on Broadway to take ballroom and Latin dancing lessons once a week. I began writing long letters to all of my old, far-away friends, telling them how much they meant to me, how much I'd love to see them again.

            And then one morning, as I was drinking coffee and reading the New York Times, I saw an ad that caught my attention. The ad was an appeal for Peace Corps volunteers to serve in far-off places (Ah, Africa, I thought), to learn foreign languages (including French, certainly), to do good (oh, yes) in the world. The ad's tagline read, "The toughest job you'll ever love."

I clipped the Peace Corps ad from the paper with kitchen scissors and put it in my journal, as if into a large pot of chicken stock, placed on a low flame, on a back burner, to slowly simmer.

 

            My client's shrill voice and scolding, accusatory tone sent shock waves through my body. In my mind, I heard my father's drunken voice: "You stupid, good-for-nothing...!" I began to tremble all over. I could hardly hold the phone. My teeth wanted to chatter, so I kept them clenched. Keep your mouth shut, I admonished myself, terrified of the regrettable things I could say. Emily Dickinson's wise words, chiseled into the walls of my brain since high school, spoke to me: "A word is dead, once it is said, some say; I say it just begins to live that day. "

As I held the phone away from my right ear to distance myself from her rant, my mind surveyed the book-lined walls of my small, orderly studio apartment. For twenty years I'd called this one-room apartment home. Then I thought about the walls of her home, especially the walls of her living room. I'd only seen them that once, the day we met, before I was shown "my place," in her antiseptic kitchen, but they made an indelible impression. If just one of the works of art on one of those walls were sold at auction, I thought to myself as she continued to shout at me over the phone, how many millions would it earn? How many fillets of fish would that amount of money buy? How many hungry people could that fish feed?

At last, I found some words to say to her. "I'll pay the $14 for the two extra fish," I said. "Don't worry."

I did the dinner party that night, with no further complaints from that client. Perhaps, I thought, she'd just had a bad day; perhaps she and her high-powered husband had had a fight that morning and she had just needed to vent; perhaps she wasn't as heartless as she seemed. I made the pompano-en-papillote for all eighteen people seated at her elegant dining table, carefully enclosing each seasoned pompano fillet in its paper envelope, folding and pleating each one as though it were a handmade Valentine.

But I never worked for that client again. Something inside me broke that day, as if a china teacup had shattered on my terra-cotta tile kitchen floor. My love affair with catering ended, the way so many love affairs in New York do—abruptly—almost, but not quite, without warning. My need to please well-fed people by preparing beautiful food for them evaporated, like steam from a teakettle.

The next morning over coffee, as I was about to share with my long-suffering journal my feelings of physical, mental, and spiritual exhaustion, the Peace Corps ad I'd clipped from the Times fell out of my journal's pages. I picked it up and read it this time as if it were a letter from God. "The toughest job you'll ever love," it told me again. Yes, I thought. It's time.

 

Bonnie Lee Black - Time is Money from drafthorse journal on Vimeo.

Time is Money

 

            Our appointment to see the women of her church, Nazareth, on the banks of the Ogooue and close to the center of town, was at 4 o’clock, and Antoinette and I were running late. It was 3:30 by the time she met me at my house, where she helped me pack and carry the props I needed for my presentation—my rolled-up recipe posters, and hand-made hand puppets, and ingredients for weaning foods. Her church was at least a half-hour walk into town, and we had to hurry.

            “Time is money!” Antoinette announced out-of-the-blue in English, as she scurried ahead of me toward the main road, afraid of being late. I had to laugh. These were the first words I’d ever heard her speak in English, and as far as I knew, the only English expression she knew. Plus, she was perhaps the only Gabonese I’d met in Lastoursville who actually worried about being late to anything. As a rule, few people even owned wristwatches, and wall- and desk-calendars, opened to pages years out of date, served merely decorative purposes. Schedules and appointments were generally made on “African time,” which meant, in African French, demain, or, "sometime in the future, but don’t count on it.”

            Antoinettes “Time is money” pronouncement not only made me laugh out loud, it also made me think about the concept of time. If, by some sorcerers alchemy, time (as a personal possession) could be converted to money, I thought, then Africans would indeed be rich. Most people in the time-pressed West, on the other hand, would be poor. From my observations in Gabon, most Africans had time to sit and ponder, time to visit friends and care for family, time to sing, dance, create, live; they seemed blissfully free of Time’s tyranny. The irony for me was that while the monetarily rich West disparages Africans as being uniformly and pathetically “poor,” economically “underdeveloped,” in terms of their ownership of Time, Africans’ secret is that they are enviably and hugely wealthy.

            As Antoinette and I walked briskly down the hill, carrying handled shopping bags in both hands, it started to rain. It wasn’t a full-blown, all-out rainforest rainfall, the pounding, beating, merciless kind that had become my new definition of “rain.” It was more like a Northeastern U.S.-style spring “sprinkle.” Nevertheless, Antoinette wouldn’t have it.

            Both of us were nicely dressed for the presentation, in bright, crisp, freshly pressed cotton skirts and blouses made from colorful African-print fabric. Both of us were wearing cheap-but-pretty, plastic, healed sandals bought at the local marche. Neither of us had thought to bring an umbrella, and we wouldn’t have had a free hand to hold one anyway. We hadn’t prepared for the rain. Still marching determinedly down the hill, Antoinette looked up to the heavens, allowing the light rain to splash her fully in the face. Suddenly, she took a deep breath and bellowed, “JE-SUS!”—not as an expletive but as an invocation.

            “JE-SUS!” she repeated, as the gentle rain continued its patter and a dilapidated taxi sped past us up the hill toward the hospital, kicking road dust in our faces and choking us with filthy exhaust fumes. “Je-sus, Lord, you stop this rain right now! This is your servant Antoinette talking to you! We’re going to my church to do your work! We can’t let rain spoil our plans! You stop this rain.

            NOW! Do you hear me?!”

            The rain stopped.

            A hazy sun sheepishly crept through the veil of pale-gray, overcast sky, tail between his legs, like a scared dog. We made it to Nazareth on time, our skin perspiring in the equatorial afternoon heat. But our rain-dampened clothes and hair were now dry.

            Exhaling, Antoinette smiled at me, her mischievous, little-girl smile, as if to say, “No big deal.”

            In the large, thatched-roof, open-air sanctuary, within a crocodile’s stroll from the wide, forceful river, I gave my presentation to an assembly of about two dozen churchwomen. I spoke in French, relying heavily on the props I’d brought with me—puppets, posters, porridge ingredients—to make up for what my French-speaking skills still lacked. Antoinette stood beside me at the lectern, sometimes prompting my French, but primarily translating what I was saying and doing into the dominant local language, Inzebi. At the appropriate times, she held up my large posters in front of her, which nearly hid her completely from view.

            As I’d planned with Antoinette in my home some weeks before, when I’d given her a private cooking lesson she’d requested on how to make Green Papaya Pie, I shared with these churchwomen the kinds of health-related lectures I might offer them at their regular gatherings, if they wished me to do so. The subjects I proposed to them were: family nutrition (including weaning foods), cooking-for-health, bread baking, food preservation, gardening, composting and recycling, puppet theatre (teaching hygiene) for little ones, craft-making-for-profit, and SIDA (AIDS) prevention.

            Madeleine, the tall, regal, charismatic leader of the Nazareth women’s group, approached me after my presentation to tell me the women were interested in all but two of my proposals. The marionettes (puppets) and SIDA lessons were better suited to children’s and teens’ groups, they felt.

            For the remainder of the meeting, the women sang hymns exuberantly and prayed loudly in turn, as the Spirit led. Then, to my amazement, at the end, they held a ferocious faith-healing ceremony for a severely sick baby one mother had been holding in her arms. He was, I could tell from my Peace Corps health training, suffering from kwashiorkor, a form of malnutrition so far gone it is nearly impossible to treat. The name, I had learned, came from the Kwa language of Ghana, meaning “the one who is displaced”—the baby who is weaned too soon because his mother has had another, the baby who fails to get enough nutrients in his meager diet, the baby who fails to thrive.

            The naked baby’s stomach was grossly distended and his legs bone-thin. His kinky hair was grayish-reddish-yellow, and his face old, dull, and sad. It was hard to guess his age. One? Two? Madeleine and Antoinette, facing each other, held the fragile child between them and prayed at the top of their voices for his healing. Were they speaking in tongues or in Inzebi or a mixture of both? I couldn’t tell.

            Any other baby would have screamed, terrified to be at the epicenter of this loud drama, but this baby only laid limply and stared blankly at the group of women seated in front of him and staring back at him, as though he didn’t care whether he lived or died. Did he notice, I wondered, the expression on the only ghostlike-white face in the pews, an expression that read: “I’m so sorry, but I can’t help you”?

            Antoinette, though, was not giving up. Her voice became louder and louder as she shouted at God. How could a pediatric nurse, I asked myself, participate in such an unscientific spectacle?

            But then I remembered: She could stop the rain.


     
   
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Bonnie Lee Black’s first memoir, Somewhere Child (Viking Press, 1981), was instrumental in the creation of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Her second memoir, How to Cook a Crocodile (Peace Corps Writers, 2010), about her Peace Corps service in Gabon, won a “Best in the World” award from Gourmand International in Paris, France, in March 2012. The manuscript for her Mali memoir, How to Make an African Quilt (Nighthawk Press, 2013), won First Place in the memoir-book category in the South West Writers Annual Writing Contest in 2011, and the book was a finalist in the New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards in 2013. Black lives in Taos, New Mexico, and teaches at UNM-Taos, where she was named “Most Inspirational Instructor” in 2010. Visit her website at www.bonnieleeblack.com.