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Food for Thinkers: Blame it on the Bouillabaisse

Do writers make the best cooks? Allison Arieff pays homage to two who do.

When I was a kid there were three things I could be reliably depended upon to eat: Pop Tarts, blueberries, and roast beef sandwiches. I wasn’t a ridiculously picky eater but I was very far from experimental in my tastes. Food was so basic back then anyway that the introduction of anything new—like the restaurant visit where my father tried to convince me that his calamari rings were really tortellini—seemed radical.

My family didn’t eat badly; we just didn’t make much of a big deal about eating. There were no visits to farmer’s markets and no herbs growing on the windowsill because there weren’t really any farmers markets nor was anyone thinking to cook with fresh herbs. A typical dinner out was at the Sizzler (I’m not proud.) At home, my mother prepared a respectable repertoire of family dinners but she was definitely more inclined to make reservations than bake cookies.

When my parents divorced when I was 13, my younger sister, Adrienne, and I lived with our dad. Our cuisine got a little more varied—though not always for the better. I will never forget (or let my poor, well-meaning father forget) the first dinner he prepared for us the first night we spent at our new home: eggplant with anchovy paste. My father had his heart in the right place but the result was inedible; the reaction from my sister and me, incredulous. I can’t imagine the depths to which my poor dad descended at that moment. We ended up at McDonald’s having pancakes for dinner.

Around that time, my dad, sister, and I flew back east to visit my dad’s younger brother Irwin and his wife, Debbie, in Washington, D.C. Both political journalists, both endlessly curious, they were living in a tiny apartment, filled with books and batik hangings and beaded masks acquired during Irwin’s time spent in the Peace Corps in Senegal in the 70s.

We’d arrived at Dulles Airport with lost luggage, an occurrence that had only given me, then 14, license to be even more irritatingly adolescent than normal. When the family piled in the car bound for points unknown, I no doubt spent the first half hour in the backseat radiating attitude, as did my impressionable younger sister.

But then we arrived at Eastern Market on Capitol Hill, a bustling collection of stalls selling everything from fresh produce to oyster Po’Boys to hot chocolate. Adrienne and I became a little less glum as Irwin’s enthusiasm for the place got the better of us. He gathered up unfamiliar ingredients with glee, plying us with treats along the way. Then we stopped at the harbor where fresh seafood could be procured from the docks. I was mesmerized as a fishmonger wrangled a dozen or so blue stone crabs into a paper bag and continued to be so as we rode home with this wriggling parcel in the backseat.

Back at the apartment I did my best Annie Hall impersonation, swatting at crabs with a wooden spoon, shrieking at any movement. Irwin and Debbie were focused on their task but they also worked the crowd. I thought, then and now, that they had about the coolest life ever. I remember that even though the ingredients were out of my comfort zone, the smells seemed to be having an effect akin to the glasses of wine the adults were drinking: I was warming up to everything.

Uncle Irwin emerged from the galley kitchen, emptying an impossibly heavy pot of crabs on a table covered in newspaper, his wiry Brillo pad hair even more crazy from the steam. So, the moment of culinary truth: Would I repeat past behavior and lunge for a bowl of cereal as I’d done a few years prior when my grandmother cruelly prepared tongue for dinner, the shocking object boiling in an uncovered pot for 5 hours while I cowered in fear of dinner? Or, would I grow up and rise to the occasion? After a moment’s hesitation, I tore into a crustacean and joined the group gleefully enjoying the mess we were creating. I couldn’t remember ever having so much fun at the dinner table. When we thought we couldn’t eat another thing, Irwin reemerged with, of all things, steaming ceramic bowls of bouillabaisse, which, to my surprise, I not only tried but finished.

It was on this evening, nearly 30 years ago, that I began to understood the power of food. How true entertaining an experience that involves all of one’s senses—that means taking the time to taste, to smell, to observe, to listen. How bringing loved ones to the table to share a delicious meal is a unique and enviable talent. How the arduous process of preparation—from shopping to chopping to tasting to toasting to your health—is all part of the deal.

My dear aunt and uncle, who now live in New York, excel—have always excelled—at this. Journalism has been their vocation; feeding their friends and family, their passion. I always eagerly anticipate sharing a table with them. We never go out to eat because what they have to offer is so much better. Within the confines of their narrow galley kitchen (above), they might produce a hearty stew from West Africa or a simple steak frites complete with an '85 Chateau Margaux. What you might discover in the Tupperware in their refrigerator is, I guarantee you, better than anything you’ve eaten in weeks. In fact, when my aunt changed jobs a few years ago, her closest coworker very nearly cried over the impending loss of leftovers. The food, mostly assembled from stuff bought in West Indian markets in Jackson Heights, fishmongers on Canal Street, and the Union Square Farmers' Market, is unfailingly delicious because of the generosity and love with which it is prepared.

Like my aunt and uncle, I also grew up to be a writer. I am still hoping to grow up to be half as good a host. Meanwhile, they continue to flaunt their magical powers: on a recent visit, Irwin prepared duck two ways (above). My five year old daughter ate the gizzard.

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