more vanilla ice cream…
I wish I could write more entries on this blog but writing here is dependent on my eight-year old boy doing some actual cooking and thankfully he has many other interests. Which is another way of saying that I have lost him to Harry Potter.
I suppose it was only a matter of time before what has happened to countless parents across the globe happened to me and Jim: one day you are laughing and playing with your child and the next day every question you ask him is an annoying distraction from Hogwarts Castle. He barely looks up from the book all day and even loses interest in movies unless they are of the Harry Potter variety. You notice he is tired and you suspect he has begun the time-honored tradition of sneaking the reading light on after bedtime. When you catch him in the act of illicit reading he looks up from his book blearily and you notice with alarm that he barely recognizes you. Only half of what you say to him registers at all and that is on a good day, so you give up talking altogether. Your house becomes extremely quiet. Every dinner is like date night because your son, his head stuck in a book at breakfast, lunch and dinner, listens to nothing and you find you can talk about anything in his presence without him noticing. The most you can hope for is that he will understand the words: “Get your jacket on,” when it is time to go to school. In order to keep a toe in his world you start reading Harry Potter yourself and find it sort of fun but not brilliant, kind of original and at the same time derivative. But you get it, why a story about kids with wizard powers has captured the person you love most in the world and created his deepest obsession yet. You think that this is what it must be like to live with a teenager, or more accurately, a teenager in love; the parent/child relationship reduced to desperate attempts to penetrate the fog of boundless enthrallment.
A few weeks ago I drove Luca up to the Bay Area with the main (if not the sole) purpose of eating at Chez Panisse. After more than a year of making recipes from Fanny at Chez Panisse, Luca would finally get to peruse the menu and order whatever tickled his fancy. Lucky for me he hadn’t yet got his hands on a Harry Potter book because I think even a trip to food paradise would have taken a back seat. This was our life B.H.P. (Before You-Know-Who) and so we spent an entire day at the mind-blowing California Academy of Science and rode the F Market to the Ferry Building, a high-end mall for foodies. They also have a bookstore, but more about that later.
The next night Jim flew up to meet us and we ate at Zuni Café where we shared the extraordinary roast chicken with bread salad and the lightest and tastiest gnocchi I have ever tasted: ricotta with Brussels sprouts and sage. On Saturday we had a late lunch reservation at Chez Panisse and so we met some friends for a drink next door at Cesar. One of our friends, Lynn Eve, had recently eaten at El Bulli in Spain, the famous, insanely innovative restaurant which has been called the greatest in the world. As we listened to Lynn Eve describe her El Bulli experience (“more performance art than dinner”) that included a mid-meal anxiety attack in the ladies’ room, Luca, dressed in his nicest button-down shirt, sat holding his copy of Fanny at Chez Panisse for Alice Waters to sign in case we were lucky enough to run into her (we weren’t). At one point he sighed and said, “All I want to do is cook.” Though this comment impressed our friends, it was unfortunately totally untrue as is evidenced by my infrequent blogging.
When it was time to head next door to Chez Panisse I was worried that, after all the buildup, it was bound to be a little disappointing. However, one taste of the spicy zucchini soup with mint yogurt told me what I already knew, that a master is a master and no one has mastered the art of creating exciting food from fresh, seasonal ingredients quite the way Alice Waters has.
Luca ordered well: the famous goat cheese with garden lettuces; ricotta and greens ravioli with chanterelles and Parmesan.
Jim ordered the spicy broccoli, marinated beets, anchovy and egg to start and the quail with kabocha squash puree, rapini and black olives. Jim is one of those people who has turned the act of ordering off a menu into an art (or perhaps a science). He always orders the perfect, most off-beat things on the menu, each course in brilliant counterpoint to the next. It is annoying. Even when I remember to let him order first I still end up coveting his food and asking for too many bites. This time however, we were equals. After the mind-alteringly delicious soup, I had the halibut with butter beans, artichokes and salsa verde.
Is your mouth watering yet? Every single thing, every single bite of every single thing was out of this world. Things that were supposed to be tender (the halibut) melted in my mouth. Combinations were a thrilling mix of zesty and subtle (artichokes and salsa verde; squash puree, rapini and olives), and the old stand by of baked goat cheese with lettuce seemed to say, “this is why I am still here.”
We did not order dessert because we were headed to Humphrey Slocombe where they not only have ice cream with flavors like Pink Grapefruit Tarragon and Strawberry Black Olive, they patiently let you taste every one.
Luca was so happy with the wonderful meal that he laughed all the way out of Chez Panisse and down the street. We had graciously been invited to watch a rehearsal of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s thoroughly entertaining Lemony Snicket’s The Composer is Dead in which the orchestra is portrayed by fantastic puppets with heads that are half human face, half instrument. By the time we walked out onto the streets of downtown Berkeley, I realized we hadn’t stopped giggling for two straight hours.
Now we come to the moment at which Luca’s most powerful obsession to date took hold. We noticed a discount bookstore and stopped in to browse, and just as I was seized by dread of the day when there will be no more bookstores to drop in on, Luca spied the first book in the Harry Potter series on a shelf. We bought it for him and I haven’t had a conversation with him since.
Before heading home to LA the following day, we stopped at the Ferry Building where Luca looked up from his book long enough to notice the bookstore and to beg us to buy the second Harry Potter book for him. We did and then made our way onto the freeway and back home to LA. Luca read for six and a half straight hours and by the middle of the next day he was half way into the second book. Now it is three weeks later and he is close to finishing book six, which at 652 pages is shorter than books four and five, a hefty 734 and 870 pages respectively.
Luca has always enjoyed reading, and I am aware that millions of kids the world over have been similarly struck by Harry Potter. Nevertheless, Jim and I have wondered whether a certain amount of parental alarm is in order. Watching Luca lose himself so intensely is a window onto an aspect of his nature that is surely genetic (Jim is a film editor: ‘nuff said). But what does it mean, this extreme focus that can seem like a kind of oblivion? While it will serve him well in some areas of his life, it can also make him a pain to live with. I imagine his future romantic partners going bonkers as they try to get his attention from the – fill in the blanks – book he is writing/food he is inventing/symphony he is composing. This is of course the positive outcome. Fill in those blanks with other things (crazy girlfriend/crystal meth/facebook) and it is another matter. What if (oh, horror!) he decides to become an actor? For better or worse, once Luca is possessed there is no turning his head.
Harry Potter notwithstanding, Luca is still occasionally keen on making something in the kitchen, even if it is invariably something he knows he won’t get at home unless he makes it himself; like ice cream and anything breaded and fried such as Alice Waters’ lemon sole fried with breadcrumbs. He’ll decide to make vanilla ice cream and mix heavy cream, milk, sugar and vanilla extract together and then dump it in the machine and let it churn away. Afterwards he has the satisfaction of eating something delicious that never would have been on the table if he hadn’t made it himself. I also think it speaks to a wily resourcefulness to have found a way of ensuring that dessert will not be denied him.
Luca’s combination of obsessiveness and resourcefulness turns out to pack a wallop. I know because I face it every day. Hopefully it will remain pointed toward the Light and he won’t “go over,” to the Dark Arts or the Dark Side of the Force the way so many promising characters in the stories he loves seem to do. Who will Luca turn out to be? This is a question I ask myself often, even as I try to relish the moments of sweetness that everyone tells me are fleeting.
For now, Luca is eight years old and in love with reading and eating and roughhousing after dinner in bed. And maybe he is teaching his mother a little something about trust and faith.