I Would Like The Disaster Please, With A Bottle of Sancerre by Natasha Ragsdale
In the last few days I have been examining a lot of my friends’ status remarks on Facebook, reading the BBC, Huff Post, and loads of news. I have had several online conversations with friends from all over the world. I watched my Facebook turn into a visual "La Marseillaise," with everyone's photos flying french colors, much like the beautiful rainbows we saw during the fight for marriage equality in the states.
AND, I saw a lot of hate. From people I thought I respected, even loved. I saw fear and hatred and I watched friends destruct themselves and relationships over ill conceived notions of what the hell was really going on in the world. After all, no one was talking about Beirut. No one had talked about Kenya in April. But this Parisian Disaster, was, suddenly, on everyone's radar. And this Disaster was awful. DREADFUL.
These days everything seems to be a Disaster. To someone. Everything from the words that come out of Donald Trump's mouth, to the harboring of refugees, to a fucking paper cup from Starbucks. Disaster, it would seem, is a universal, yet polarizing human condition. Except, in a way I feel, that we are slowly thrusting ourselves away from humanity and more into a zombie film-like nature where we believe that the worst is inevitable, that everything is against us, that we are DOOMED to Disaster.
But when I really sat down and thought about the word Disaster, and what it meant to me, who has lived through many, is that my particular sense memory has me recalling the most ridiculous thing. Food! I was astonished. Every episode of my life that held some sort of Disaster, when remembered like a good little actress/writer in my giant sensual recollection box, had a memory of food, and I started to think about how, in times of great horror, fear, despair, or need, how truly fascinating it is to nourish. So I thought it might be interesting to catalogue my memories here and see what they amounted to.
I suppose the first memory I have of Disaster was my parent’s divorce, although consciously I don’t recall it as a Disaster, I suppose a therapist might, and it was a major moment in my life. The funny thing is I have no bad memories from it at all. The only thing I know is that after my parents divorced, there were suddenly these great weekends with my father that brought us so close together. Rituals that last, to this day, when we can embrace them. The first was Friday night dinners at El Chapparrel, my favorite, yet now nonexistent Mexican joint. We would roll in and know half the people in there. Dad would get his green corn tamale and chicken enchilada, and me a deep fried bean burro with extra hot salsa. We would laugh and talk about the world, movies, school…and when I went to bed at night I was always satiated and loved. In the mornings he would wake me and we would go to local breakfast joints like “Waffles ‘n’ More” (mmm strawberry syrup) or “The Juniper House” (best pancakes of my life) and then promptly hike it all off. He is smart, my dad. He knew how to make a transition from something potentially life damaging, like a divorce, into a cool new way of looking at life. Even with our summer trips, I have nostalgia for the camping food he cooked on the propane stove. It was lovely.
In a way the next life Disaster was something different. When my parents divorced I was still loved and had lost no one, but when my step father killed himself when I was still just a girl, I finally faced a Disaster head on. I faced it, and had to face my poor mother, who had lost more than even I had. It was around then when she stopped cooking, I think. She was never a big one for chef-dom, but after my Grammie, who had come in to help out for awhile, moved out, well…my mom could not be bothered.
Not that I blame her! In fact I got my love of experimental restaurant-ing from her! We ate out all the time. I learned to try so many new foods and eat on a budget! I learned all about the different jobs of waitstaff and soon we knew every waiter, busboy and chef in town! I have survived, during hard times, with this knowledge, and still make friends with waiters, bartenders, bussers and chefs all over the world.
There wasn’t much Disaster after this. I think, looking back, I lived a bit of a charmed life. It wasn’t until 9/11 that I endured another bout of disaster, as did all Americans. The funny thing was, that day, that actual morning, I was moving to London for the first time. I had a $1000 in my pocket and a dream of acting in my jet lagged head. My friends picked me up at Gatwick and we hurried along to a little pub. I do not remember what I was eating there. I only know that when the bartender switched over to the news and we saw what was happening, we all ordered several more pints of lager. The food that I do remember, after that tragedy, was served two days later, at a dinner party thrown especially for me, to introduce me to my new life and get my mind out of the terror regime that was becoming my country. Leila, my friend, made Iranian cuisine while her husband made French desserts. Someone brought English Trifle. The wine was from all over the world and so were the guests. We drank loads, stuffed ourselves, laughed, cried and cleansed. Through that dinner party I was able to see the world, and what was happening to it, from many different cultural, moral and intellectual points of view. I was relieved of the burden of worrying about a country or a government I could not understand anymore, but rather incited to listen to people and discern and to LEARN. That dinner made a new breed of American.
Later that year, not long after 9/11, I was traveling through France and had two more Disasters. One was in the old part of Nice. I was having my first Salad Nicoise with a beautiful glass of Sancerre and I watched a man die of a drug overdose just a few meters away from where I was sitting. I still love that salad and that wine, but it will always be an epitaph for that poor man.
The second French Disaster was a lot more serious.
I was staying in a seedy hotel on Rue de Mavais du Garcons. It means “street of the bad boys.” Shoulda been a sign. I was just bringing my dinner guests, Lionel and Susanne, back to my place for a quick drop of Absinthe before we headed out to the clubs, when we were accosted by the owner, who was a bit drunk. He refused to let my friends in my room. When I said it was just to have a drink and change my shoes, he said we had five minutes. We hurried up the stairs and no sooner were we in the room then he was banging down the door demanding to “speak to the man!” I was furious of course but Lionel took over. The three of them followed the crazy owner downstairs, but I had the most incredible feeling that I had to get out of there. I quickly packed my bags and started down the spiral staircase. Just as I got to a view of the front area I saw the owner pull some sort of bat from behind the desk! Lionel and Susanne ran from the man swinging at their heads. They barely escaped through the glass door. I don’t know what came over me but I was furious. He had locked them out and me in. I confronted him. Told him, in amazingly good french, that he would have to answer to the American Embassy. HE asked for money, of which I had none.
“But you are an American. Of course you have money!”
We argued. I don’t remember much but finally I just started screaming, to try and rouse another of the people in the hotel. Then he came after me with the bat. Just as I had reached the end of the line, the glass door where Susanne was pounding and crying, the Gendarme (with darling Lionel!) broke down the door and saved my fucking life.
Six hours later, at the prefect of police, turns out my hotelier was a terrorist, wanted for years for car bombings. C’est la vie, mais no?
How does this relate to food? It was Lionel. Lionel took my poor broken body back to his home that morning, went to the fresh market and bought the most amazing meats and cheeses, fruits and breads. I had the best French meal of my life that day. It renewed me, healed my wounds, gave me life, confidence, joy. It made me realize the magic of cooking. He made coq au vin and it save my soul, just as he had saved my life.
In so many times in my life, when I felt the waves of Disaster, whether it be political, emotional, natural, economical…food has always been there. The impromptu, half naked BBQ we had on the roof during the NYC blackout so none of our food would be wasted. The scones an elderly grandmother of a friend gave me with tea after my brief run in with the Northern Ireland Troubles. The big shopping carts of randomness from the food bank that I had to make into magic after the economy collapsed and my new husband and I were unemployed. A beautiful toasted bagel and cream cheese in the early hours after I watched a man be shot to death in front of me in Brooklyn. The champagne ceremony I held for my aunt who died, who was celebrated so that night, even though I was the only one who actually knew her. The way my also late Grandma used to fill her fridge with food when my dad and I would come to visit and insist on cooking breakfast and dinner for us, even when she was getting frail.
The sushi and soba shared with friends here in Japan after the earthquake and tsunami, and recently, the complete cornucopia of delicacies, drink and delight that my oldest friends and family indulged me in, the quick use of a metal rod from my backpack to thwart off potential kidnappers, and when I went back to be with my other Grammie as she died. There is a resonance to these sad, sad things. These scary things. These survival things.
I think again of the zombies. I suppose in a way we can circle this back to zombies anyway as I started by talking about politics. But let’s look at the zombies. All they look for is food. We pretend to be so above the zombies but we are just the same. We are afraid of our own mortality and when faced with it, of course we revel in the pleasures we are afforded! The feasts after the wars! The drinks at a wake. We all can be put together again by food and drink. No matter where you are in the world, food is one of the main centers of all cultures. Something that is TRULY human. From the Masai who drink cows blood, to the French who eat snails and even that eternal comfort food, the Big Mac….it all means something to someone. When we eat, we are truly living. When we eat we say, “Hey man! I am fucking ALIVE and I can survive!” When we eat, we are dispersing Disaster.