Recipe For Disaster
1. Pick a knife with a red handle. To avoid a massacre, I make sure the knife’s not too sharp. Also, not too blunt. Time can be lost with futile sawing and there’s the risk of repetitive motion disorder. Self injury either way. Sharp is to blunt as fiction is to memoir. It’s a matter of the knife’s edge, the blade where imagination cuts into memory. Especially tonight when the creativity’s stalled and the moon is holding her breath.
2. Grasp a large eggplant and slice it into ¼ inch rounds. Stacking the rounds, architecture comes to mind. I start chopping and the stacks collapse like a Bangladeshi clothing factory. And why eggplant? Moonplant would be more appropriate, this mother’s huge. Aubergine (Ger & Fr) sounds more sophisticated and berenjena (Sp) more beautiful. Stack, chop, stack, chop, the peaceful village destroyed. And I could be reading a book! Which is what my mother used to say while preparing dinner. Breakfast and lunch, too. But no onions in play at this point. No excuse to cry.
3. Now for our phallic friend, the zucchini. Beheaded at both ends, the poor Italian’s sliced lengthwise into 4 highly uneven slivers and diced into 16. “Everything’s reducible to numbers,” my one big insight on acid ca 1975. That big insight was probably reached by thousands of young North Americans on the same night. I never dropped acid again.
4. Onion, onion, Zwiebel and cebolla, viciously chopped. Cry, cry, cry to the count of three, a waltz that evokes a writer. I haven’t thought of Elizabeth Smart in a long, long time. There’s no ratatouille in By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. It’s all fierce passion. Not a single banal chopping action to be found in the novel.
5. Turn to stove, heat oil in frying pan, squeeze garlic and add onions. Sauté the suckers while I weep for Elizabeth Smart. After 2,000 copies of her novel were published in London in 1945, her mother had all 6 copies on the shelf of an Ottawa bookstore removed and burned just so her friends wouldn’t be scandalized. Then the mother had Prime Minister Mackenzie King ban further imports of the book to Canada.
6. Add the dismembered zucchini and eggplant then chop a red pepper, poivron rouge, roter Pfeffer or pimiento. Heart-shaped and red, succulent symbol of love. When Smart’s novel came out in paperback in the 60s, it was declared a masterpiece of poetic prose. But things ended badly for Elizabeth Smart. Drunken binges and falling-outs then the fatal heart attack.
7. Stir the concoction in the frying pan. Watch them interact, the fruits de terre flailing, screaming and shrinking as all the water they’ve absorbed their entire lifetimes is sucked out by the heat. Oh and her journals! “The beautiful before,” Smart writes in Mexico ca 1939 after meeting her married poet. “My insides fly like air, I can do anything.” But go back earlier, to Ottawa, ca 1936: “Today I have hated Mummy and she has hated me.’’ Later that day, she recounts her mother saying, “Any child could write the drivel you’ve written…You think of no one but yourself.” Elizabeth Smart was 23 years old at the time. Her response? “I must marry a poet. It’s the only thing.”
8. Add a canful of chopped tomatoes. It looks like a massacre, Aleppo ca 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016… How is it that I can’t even cook a simple vegetable stew without evoking dead children, women on their knees screaming, men pulling at their hair and beating their chests? How did philosopher poet Al-Ma’ari find words, a thousand years ago, to slap us in the face? “You’ve had your way a long, long time, / You kings and tyrants, / And still you work injustice by the hour.” Aleppo ca 1000. His title sums up the dysfunction: None to Lead but Reason.
9. Wait for the contents of the pan to bubble like a planet poised to implode. I walk over to my bookshelf and rummage for a book in the biography section, very crammed and disorganized, but I find it way at the back, Necessary Secrets: The Journals of Elizabeth Smart. I’m sure Em, my mother, gave it to me for Christmas. She always gave us books. Coughing from the dust on the cover, I open the book and find this on the first page, written by my own hand: Ottawa, 4th Advent 1986, with all my love, Cora xxx. So I gave her the book, which bluntly proves how unreliable memory is. I would have sworn the opposite. I remember Em telling me all about Smart, making me read By Grand Central Station to warn me off poet lovers like George Barker, the man whose babies Smart had and raised alone, impoverished in the English countryside.
10. Stir the vegetables and think about what happened to the children. I’m guessing, of course, but I can’t help concluding ‘total screw-ups.’ It’s hard to have a literary mother. To my knowledge, my mother never published a single poem, short story or novel but I’ve read her essays on Doris Lessing and possess perhaps the only copy of her MA thesis, Bryn Mawr ca 1953, on Don Quixote. I’ve never read them, the thesis or Cervantes. There’s a lot of guilt in this admission. Because Em was the one who gave me a pencil, as much paper as I wanted and ordered me to “let your pencil wander.”
11. Add black pepper with 11 angry twists of the mill. The kitchen’s steamy from the stove and my forehead is damp. Em loathed cooking but adored April Fools’ day. I believed everything she said. “Never lie to your children,” I overheard her telling her friends. Then one April 1st morning, when I was in grade two, she told me my school burned down overnight. Em convinced me to go there anyway to witness the ruins. I went to school fully expecting a charred scene. Later she said, “Cora didn’t even ask about victims. She was delighted.” The indictment: such a self-absorbed child.
12. Continue stirring things up. What a love story, my parents. I inserted myself into their story quite successfully, I believed. Until the three of us went canoeing on the Ottawa River and the boat capsized. My father swam to save her first. Later, I threw this into her face the way adolescent daughters slice backhands at their mothers. “He knew you were the stronger swimmer,” was all Em said. He wasn’t a literary father but read me stories every night. Starting with Kipling’s Jungle Book in his heavy accent until I confided to Em that I preferred books about real people like The World of Pooh. “Why didn’t you just tell me?” he later asked. Even at the age of 5, I couldn’t bear to hurt his feelings. But I could bear to hurt my mother’s. My father died first so he wouldn’t have to grieve for her. After his funeral, I confronted Em. “Why didn’t you cry?” She looked away and murmured, “One tear and the dam would have burst.”
13. Add ¼ cup of tomato juice but water’s fine. Nobody will know. This would also be the moment to add rat poison. In the final scene of the film, Montenegro, the woman, after all her escapades, returns to her family. They’re gathered at the table and she serves them a platter of citrus. “And the fruit was poisoned,” the caption reads.
14. Drop 5 pinches of salt into the mixture. Em made me stay home from school once to watch a funeral procession on television. “You have to remember this forever,” she said. The casket with Martin Luther King was laid on a farm wagon pulled by mules. The procession on April 9th, 1968 was mostly silent. At the end they sang We Shall Overcome. Em cried.
15. Shred a handful of basil leaves and scatter them over the vegetables. Near the end of her life, Em used to plant life-sized plastic fruit flies in her grandchildren’s spaghetti. Once they got over their horror, the kids laughed.
16. Add two heaping spoonfuls of the secret ingredient—smoked paprika—to make the beloved swoon. “I want the one I want,” Smart wrote of her poet lover. “He is the one I picked out from the world. It was cold deliberation.” I will freeze this ratatouille. Save it for a winter meal with the one I picked out. Not a poet but he can recite by heart long verses of epic Argentine poetry. My mother loved him, too. Near the end of her life Em bought a book for his birthday and wrote him a dedication on the first page: “The secret is there is no secret.” She knew my beloved was looking for his own necessary secret. Aren’t we all?
17. Wash the knife and retire it blade down in the dish rack. Stir the ratatouille one last time and put a lid on it. The moon exhales into a golden sliver in the night sky. I did not cut myself. It hurt anyway.
Cora Siré is the author of two novels, Behold Things Beautiful (Signature Editions, 2016) and The Other Oscar (Quattro Books, 2016), and a collection of poems, Signs of Subversive Innocents (Signature Editions, 2014). Her fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines such as the Literary Review of Canada, Arc Poetry, Geist, The Puritan and Maisonneuve. She lives in Montréal. For details, please visit her website, www.quena.ca.