My First Mistress

Photos by Ryan Marcus-Espinoza

A personal, yet public affair is the relationship SPM writer Ryan holds with cuisine.
Photos by Ryan Marcus-Espinoza

I’ve been in love since I was a little boy. We first met over my grandmother’s Peruvian arroz con pollo. I was young then, naïve to her subtleties and striking nuances. I knew her then as food, my love for her as innocent as the affection a child holds for his mother.

My family loved to watch me eat as a boy. I do not remember my first taste of filet mignon, but I do remember my reaction to it, how I arced backward in rapture, my eyes tightly closed as I concentrated on the glory of it all; the supple meat on my tongue, its temperate flavor alight on my taste buds.

I have always had an emotional connection with food. I bite into a ripe peach and I slurp at a perfect summer day. The smell of bordelaise reducing in a distant window puts me in another universe, entirely.

As I grew older, I began to appreciate food more intimately. I grew steadily more obsessed, reading about her in cookbooks by flashlight beneath bedtime covers. I read cookbooks at 16 like others would read a stack of found or borrowed porno magazines, savoring every recipe, every ingredient, dreaming lasciviously of cooking techniques and hot stoves.

From fish to fresh fruit, all foods hold a special place in SPM writer's heart.  Photo by Ryan Marcus-Espinoza

From fish to fresh fruit, all foods hold a special place in the SPM writer’s heart.
Photo by Ryan Marcus-Espinoza

By 16, I was interning at a four-star restaurant, cooking for free on weekends and Friday nights, eschewing social engagement and potential sexual encounters to be with a woman more refined and beautiful than I could ever dream of possessing.

Her name was Cuisine.

She was French, sleek, sensual. Men around me begged for her affection, working day and night to excite her attention. She comforts those beholden to her charm in moments of weakness and trial, always supportive and understanding.  Those fallen in the torrid dance of love with haute cuisine liken her to a bitch mistress. She is more perfect and demanding than any woman.

To engage and control her, if only for a night or one fervid moment in the sticky heat of service, is ecstasy. For a cook to possess her, she must first possess the cook completely. His love for her must be total devotion, an unwavering commitment. She requires every second of his time. Cooks spend most of their waking lives with her, toiling in sweaty kitchens while the rest of the world dines and sleeps. Cooking well is time consuming. A cook’s workday is seldom less than twelve hours long. The best chefs enter their kitchens at 7 a.m., leaving with the rest of their staff in the early hours of the next morning.

Firm and bodacious, a chicken wing creates a center piece of art: cuisine.  Photo by Ryan Marcus-Espinoza

Firm and bodacious, a chicken wing creates a center piece of art.
Photo by Ryan Marcus-Espinoza

Listen to your mouth and tongue as you eat and cuisine will teach you everything. Love her and she will teach you to love others with the same voracity of spirit. Eat and you will learn.

The Italians taught me about women at the awkward age of 19. By then, my hands had become tools of production. They could swiftly move a knife and peel a case of potatoes with break-neck speed. The French ideals of precision and speed had served me well, but it was only when I started working in a southern Italian restaurant in San Francisco that they were honed into tools of affection. There I learned to make love to cuisine, to handle my ingredients with gentle care, touch them softly.

That same Italian summer, I fell in love with a woman for the first time. Instead of growing jealous and cruel, cuisine was there to guide me along. We dined among my now-dispersed family of chefs and cooks, taking to their dining rooms as if they were the homes of old friends. Though I ate well that summer, the Italians sent me the most profound dish of my eating career, which to this day, is the best thing I have ever tasted.

It was an extra course, set hurriedly atop the counter at which I sat by a busy sous chef, who grunted his thanks for my help in his kitchen.

His sweet possession, food, became a first love to a writer that now reveals his consumed soul.   Photo by Ryan Marcus-Espinoza

His sweet possession, food, became a first love that now reveals his consumed soul.
Photo by Ryan Marcus-Espinoza

He set before me a bowl of tiny clams, each the size of a pinky segment. I had no silverware. To eat them, I gently spread each shell open with my thumbs, gently loosing the pea-sized meat with deft flicks of my tongue. I ate voraciously, hardly stopping for breath. Fragrant clam

juice flowed from the shells, dripping from my chin as my date gasped beside me at the taste of her pasta, which she did not share. I will always remember that course and the moment cuisine created.

Like those of many cooks, my forearms are streaked with burns. What cuisine taught me to appreciate with my tongue she took from my hands. Gripping hot sizzle platters and plates has robbed my fingertips of fine sensation. The pain I have suffered for cuisine as a sign of devotion to her, a sort of wedding band forever ingrained in my skin worn as a badge of pride.

 

Reach the writer at rjespin1@asu.edu or via Twitter @scotchandfoie