The Croque Monsieur

My mother was a bad cook and I can barely make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Greetings from Snowbird, Utah where I endured a muscle cramp standing still and am still feeling the pain one day later. That’s right, I was minding my own business, luxuriating in the landscape, and I leaned back ever so slightly in my ski boots and I felt a sharp, jolting pain, only lasting an instant and I knew I was in trouble. It’s been that kind of year, falling on my ass, spraining my ankle, getting in a car wreck and now this. It seems whenever I’m on the verge of being healthy the unexpected arrives. And life is all about the unexpected…I had four pairs of ski socks for five days, was I gonna have to do laundry or wear a stinky-poo pair one more day? Now that no longer matters. If I can get back on the snow, and hopefully that will happen tomorrow, I’ll have enough.

And it’s so weird being back in Utah. On one hand it’s changed and on another it’s exactly the same. Vail is an ersatz village with wide open but easy skiing with a smidge of lifestyle injected into the sport. Snowbird is bare bones. You live amongst the people, i.e. Mormons, in the suburbs and you drive up the canyon where there’s only skiing, of the most difficult variety in the States, and only the hard core are in attendance, surprisingly oldsters, who remember when skiing was a hip sport, and very few women, just like it was in the seventies. And the conversation revolves around skiing. As if world peace relied on it, or it was the most important thing in the world and once upon a time it was to me and on some level it still is and looking at the landscape I see myself if I’d stayed. It’s hard to veer from the course. There are two kinds of people in this world, those who can’t make change and those who constantly jump the rails, go from one gutter to another. But to experiment, risk, leave your comfort zone for the unknown and then stay long enough to make it work…that’s hard. When I moved to Utah I wanted to leave, when I left I wanted to come back. Which is all a prelude to the fact I spent the morning reading the new Anne Tyler book “A Spool of Blue Thread” wherein a family stays in Baltimore, and it’s very good so far and I keep hearing that Carole King song in my brain…”so far away, doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore.” And I know that kind of contradicts my prior thesis but Carole is singing more about reliability…can we count on people, to be there for us, is there community. That’s one of the weird things about the social web, we know where everybody is but we’re no closer in real life. I reached out to an old college friend for the very first time Monday, figured he’d be glad to hear from me, I saw an article he wrote online and hit him back…but he doesn’t want to know me now. That’s the truth underlying Facebook, there’s a reason we lost touch.

So I’m staying at the house of someone who doesn’t want to be named, so I won’t. And I’m one of four, like the Tom Petty song, I’m the outsider. And I behave differently from the outside than I used to. I used to get all nervous and talk and alienate, now, after decades of psychotherapy I assess the landscape and wait for holes. The only problem is sometimes time runs out before holes appear. But this trip is long enough for me to find my place.

And Jackson’s place is to cook.

No, not Jackson Browne, although he used to snowboard, not sure if he still does. This Jackson has a pedigree, from Andover to Yale, but skiing owns his life, and somewhere along the way he learned how to cook.


I eat.

My father was a gourmand. There was almost nothing as important to him as a good meal. He treated everybody and was always up for a new experience. Which may be why I was raised on a steady diet of going out to dinner. Sunday night Chinese or pizza. But there were finds, like El Faro in NYC for paella. And I must remind you, Bridgeport, CT had phenomenal pizza. You know, thin crust with an oil slick on top, what did they call it, scamotz? My Italian is not good, as a matter of fact, it’s nonexistent. Jackson speaks French but he did not learn his culinary skills in school, or from his parents, he cracked cooking books, he experimented, and what he’s plating is positively mind-blowing, I’d rather stay in than go out.

He cooks breakfast, but I’ve only recently learned how to eat breakfast. And I don’t eat eggs, so I haven’t partaken of Jackson’s concoctions, one with a yolk in an sea of whites. But on the first day back from skiing, on our lunch break, Jackson cooked up some croque monsieurs.

Do you know what this is? Basically a ham and cheese sandwich, but so much more. You start off with white bread, Jackson asked if there was a Pullman loaf. And he saw some ham in the fridge, along with some cheese, so he was inspired and… He dipped the bread in some egg, put mayonnaise on one piece, mustard on the other, ham and cheese in the middle, plopped the result in a frying pan and what came out was…

Utterly delicious! As good as any I’ve ever had in a restaurant. I wanted to testify. And right now I am.

Today it was a three course lunch. The pasta… Jackson didn’t have a name for it. But he threw in a little butter, and then some ham and some cheese and what came out was not only al dente but minimal, not overdone, no wasted elements…the opposite of mainstream dining. That’s right, go to the Olive Garden and you get too much, they try to impress you with tonnage. Go to the upscale place and it’s small and simple and exquisite, like Jackson’s.

Then there was chicken soup and something with noodles and meat and carrots all thickened with sour cream that was unnameable, but delectable. I asked Jackson what inspired him. The wine added flavor, the sour cream…thickened.

I’m learning.

But my life is so fast, I can’t slow down. I can’t watch television, I’ve got no time. The incoming is persistent. They’re always making more news. And we’re constantly reminded we’re inadequate and behind the times. Not only do we need the latest technology, we’ve got to know how to use it, to find out the media is manipulated by the marketers and there’s absolutely no center.

So what’s a poor boy to do?

Not play in a rock and roll band. That’s so very sixties, maybe seventies. When the elite triumphed, when talent was paramount, when artists pursued their dreams independent of constraints, when they dictated to the label as opposed to vice versa, when they didn’t have to tell us how rich they were because we could tell, and we wanted to be them.

I don’t want to be Justin Bieber, I don’t want to be any of them. There’s something phony there. It’s kind of like a hula-hoop, some fad that preys on the innocent and uneducated that’s ultimately forgotten. But the difference is life is so hard that everybody is dunning you with their wares and complaining when they’re unsuccessful. We’ve turned into a nation of complainers, both left and right. Both believe someone is holding them down, whether it be the government or the corporations. And I’ve got a dog in this fight, but recently he’s been tired and wondering if it’s worth the struggle.

I’m burned out on politics.

I’m burned out on so much.

At the end of the day, I’m just an animal, here for a short while. I forgot to procreate, so now it’s just about eating, crapping, screwing and having a good time. There ain’t much more to it than that. As for achievement… The money will buy you a better lifestyle, assuming you have time to live it, the fame will buy you nothing. Fame doesn’t keep you warm at night, it’s not even a decent friend. Get old enough and you realize we all really are equal, with our own predilections and desires, and if you’re looking for someone to validate you you’re in trouble.

Oh yeah, Jackson also made these sandwiches, yesterday… Pulled pork and spaghetti sauce on Ciabatta bread. How’d he come up with this?

How’d we all come up with this?

We’ve all got our own stories.

My mother was a bad cook because it just wasn’t important enough to her. She lived for culture. She can barely walk but she’ll never miss a transmission from the NYC Opera. She sees every movie. She can actually cook a decent meal when she wants to, but normally she doesn’t care.

I’m trying to discover what I care about. For years I ran on sheer will and determination, striving for an unknowable prize. But realizing I’m in control I now wonder, where should I go next? How should I tweak the thrusters? Do I just proceed blindly, will I then be pissed if I miss the target, or do I risk going somewhere where everybody else is not, that might leave me happy but possibly alienated and broke.

I don’t know. But I do know when I eat a good meal I smile and life makes sense.

And I’ve smiled a lot this week.

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