"Aziminu, the great fish soup. We'll get the ingredients tonight and make it in the morning before I leave."
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(e-SoupSong 28: August 1, 2002)
ONCE UPON A TIME I knew a woman who set my hair on fire. She was a writer and we met at a conference. I took one look at her and knew right away I wanted to continue the conversation. After she left the party, I went to the front desk and asked for her room number. When she answered the knock, I thought I'd made a mistake--but then her whole face lit up, and I was a goner. We talked till nearly dawn. It's the latest I'd stayed up in over 20 years.
It wasn't going to be easy, I knew. She lived in one city, I lived in another. She was a writer, I was a chef. She was a night owl, I was an early bird. Opposites attract, I guess. Email was a lousy way to woo a lover, but I thought it was worth a shot.
Once I started, I couldn't stop. I poured my heart out. I typed hot poems to her. I left saxophone solos on her answering machine. I cooked luscious meals and wrote her about them in excruciating detail.
This last got her the best. That woman was crazy for food. A real amateur in the kitchen, but she'd do just about anything for blue corn crusted crispy shrimp in a green chile sauce.
The first time we got together after the conference, I thought we were going somewhere. We did some baking. We exchanged life stories. We drank a lot of margaritas. We cuddled up a storm.
I got to thinking on the flight back that we could do a cookbook together. I already had a project on the back burner--a book on Corsican food. I'd write the book, but she could help out here and there and get some credit for it. I figured she'd be forever in my debt.
She liked the idea immediately. I said we ought to go to Corsica together in the spring to make connections, get into the spirit of the thing. Ann--that was her name--Ann was already talking about all the books she was going to read. I said I'd like to have all the travel arrangements made soon. She was already talking about Corsican history and culture and who knows what. I could tell she wasn't completely getting the picture. But what the heck. I was pretty fixated on having her all to myself in some of those quaint Mediterranean villages.
She wasn't kidding about the research. I'd call and I'd hear Corsican polyphonic chants in the background. I'd send her love poetry and she'd email anecdotes back about donkey vendettas. I'd try to engage her in sweet nothings, and she'd interrupt with a new story about Bonifacio and The Odyssey.
Meanwhile, I was cooking. Pretty soon, I knew exactly what I wanted in the book. So, "send me your stuff," I finally said to her. Youch. Be careful what you ask for. Folktales and poems, proverbs and anecdotes, songs and stories-pages of them, all written with high drama. "Sheeiit," I thought to myself. "This woman doesn't know her ass from her elbow when it comes to cookbooks."
Then she was writing and calling all the time. "What do you think? Do you want more? Didn't you like the one about 2 lentils and the village fool?"
I was as gentle as I could be. "It's a cookbook, not a cultural history," I said. "Great research, hon," I said, "but we have to be careful not to take the focus off the recipes."
It was a ticklish situation, not at all what I'd expected. But I sucked it up; after all, I was heading her way in just another week. "Okay, hon, this is great. But what I REALLY need you to do now is to start setting up the travel."
"Travel?" she said. "You want ME to set up the travel?"
I could see her jaw set from 1000 miles away. "Yep, that would be great."
"I'm a writer," she hissed, "Not a trip planner. I thought we had this straight at the start."
I decided to let that one rest.
The next week, I got off the plane and picked her right out of the crowd when I got through security. And to tell the truth, it was love at first sight all over again.
"Drive me to the store," I said. "I'm going to cook you the best meal of your misspent life."
I delivered. Corsican chickpea and roasted red pepper salad. Ragout of lamb with olives and thyme. Herb fritters. Wine, with all its honeyed layers slipping off our tongues and dripping down our throats. And papacciolu, Corsican cheesecake made with soft ewe's cheese. Fabulous.
We were comatose from the food. She fell asleep in my arms on the sofa. I was feeling good.
We were hardly into Saturday, though, before the bloom started coming off the rose. "Come on," she said, "let's talk about the book. Be honest."
No way was I going for that one. "Let's talk about us instead," I parried. "Let's talk about love," I said, reaching for her. Uh oh, storm on the horizon. "We can talk about Corsica tomorrow when we make the soup," I added.
Then she brightened. "Make the soup?" she said. "Together? Can we? Which one?"
"Aziminu, the great fish soup. We'll get the ingredients tonight and make it in the morning before I leave."
That got a big hug, and we were back humming. But I woke up tense on Sunday. I could hear her clattering around the kitchen while I packed. "Leave it till I get there," I yelled downstairs.
But she didn't. It was a fact that surprised me. She never thought I was serious when I was. In fact, she never really knew when to quit.
When I bumped downstairs with the suitcase, she was there to meet me. "I already made the rouille," she said, handing me a cup of coffee. "I know you don't like to rush, and it was so easy."
I looked at the rouille. "Okay, thanks," I said. I hoped my face wasn't saying what I was thinking.
"Let's start with the broth," I said. "Bring me the fish." Then, "No. Just the rockfish. For the broth. Put the other stuff back."
She was hovering now, nervous. I knew she wanted to please me.
"Why don't you start the water boiling," I said, "and read the recipe."
By the time she got that going, I had the onions and tomatoes chopped and had put together the bouquet garni. "Here," handing her a pan, "sauté the onions on low heat--that's right, and stay on top of it. Stir them for 10-15 minutes, till they start to take on some color."
That kept her busy for 15 minutes anyway. While she was stirring, I prepared the rockfish, the cuttlefish, and the crab, then got going on the rest of the seafood.
"This was one of Napoleon's favorite soups." she said.
I poured the tomatoes into the pan, dumped in the seafood, snugged the bouquet garni deep in the mix. "Keep stirring," I said.
"This reminds me of that story about the poor widow who starved her dog--wouldn't even give it soup--so she could train it to tear out the throat of her son's killer." she said.
I poured in the boiling water, clapped a lid on the pot, and moved it back to simmer. "You know what, doll? I need you to boil some more water." I went back to the rest of the seafood, scaling and chopping the fish, scrubbing the mussels and lobster, preparing the shrimp.
"Oh, you know what--I think this is the very soup that played such a big role in capturing that famous bandit d'honneur Muzarettu." she said.
"Got that water boiling yet?"
"Uh huh. How about that Corsican proverb, ou mange la soupe ou...saute par la fenętre--eat your soup or...jump out the window. I just don't know what that means." she said.
Now it was time for the assembly--the timing was tricky and the broth had to be carefully strained through wet cheesecloth.
"Oh, wait," she said, pulling at my arm, "you said I could watch!"
That did it.
"Enough!" I said. "Enough already. I can't hear myself think."
She straightened, then stood back as I gently pushed her away from the pot. Her face turned patchy and her eyes narrowed to slits.
"You're treating me like an idiot," she said, "and I'm not one. I've worked hard to bring something special to this project, and you don't want it. I don't think you ever wanted it."
Did you ever look up, see a line in front of you that you could easily avoid, then just step right out and over it? Well, I'm the kind of guy who has no problem laughing off little quirks at a distance of 1000 miles. But it's something else again when a ditzy amateur ruins the creation of a great soup right in front of your eyes.
I put my arm around her and gave her a hug. "Don't be silly," I said. "I love your stories. I told you that. And I've been meaning all weekend to tell you one myself."
She calmed down immediately, eyes expectant. I could see she was pleased to have won the point. "One I don't know? I'd love to hear it."
"Okay, let me think a minute. Okay," I said, "here we go. Back in the old days, in the mountains, there was this guy Benedicte who was the best pig killer in the village. He was so good that every December every single family came to him and said, 'Benedicte, won't you slaughter our pig?' To make all those fabulous sausages, you know."
She nodded. "Figatelli, saucisson," she breathed.
"Benedicte was an artist. He was poor, but he didn't care because everyone respected him. And because he was respected, he finally got a wife--Maria, the young niece of his friend Nicolas, a city girl."
I looked over at Ann. She was rapt, hungry for the story. "Did I tell you this is a true story?"
"No," she said, "you didn't."
"Okay, well, this wife was cute as a button, but she had one flaw. She never knew when Benedicte was serious about something, and she just never knew when to quit. Benedicte tried to counsel her in his own way, but she just didn't pay attention.
"So here it comes, their first December together, and the neighbors come around saying, 'Benedicte, Benedicte, won't you slaughter our pig?'
"Benedicte now is ready for business and tells Maria to get him his knife, already sharpened to a stiletto point in anticipation of this day.
"'Oh Benedicte,' Maria says, 'let me come. Please let me come watch. I promise I won't get in the way.'
"Benedicte isn't so happy about this, but he can't say no to Maria. 'Okay,' he says, 'but stay with the women. Do what they say, and don't talk.'
"So Benedicte and Maria go to the neighbors and watch the family herd the pig up the cobbled stairs to the front door."
"Oh gross!" says Ann. "They slaughter the pig at the front door?"
"Think about it, doll," says me, "so they don't have to carry the meat far. It's heavy."
"Oh," says she.
"So, five strong men tie ropes on the pig's legs and snout, flip it, begin to stretch it out. Benedicte is slowly stropping the knife. He straightens up, balances himself, fingers the knife, and gives the sign...when all of a sudden that silly Maria bursts out the front door, pulls on Benedicte's arm, and says, 'Wait! You said I could watch!'"
Out of the corner of my eye, I can see Ann stiffen.
"Benedicte freezes and so do all the men. It's catastrophe and Maria doesn't know it. She's dishonored Benedicte and she's the only one who doesn't know it.
"By now the pig is thrashing out of control. Benedicte gently pushes Maria to go back inside. He swipes the blade and gives the sign a second time. The men stretch that pig out tight again; its snout flies back, laying the throat bare. With the grace and precision of a matador, Benedicte lunges from his toes and plunges the knife point into the vein, clean and decisive. A perfect stick.
"Now the women rush out of the house with basins to catch the blood, but Maria hangs back. Even though Benedicte has saved the day, she knows now that she has done something that can't be forgiven.
When they get back home, Benedicte is very sad and very very gentle. He doesn't say a word. He walks up to Maria, lovingly puts his hands on her shoulders, and helps her down so she is kneeling at his feet."
At this point--and I'm ashamed of this--I walk over to Ann, put my hands on her shoulders, and lower my voice to a whisper.
I say, "Benedicte whispers to Maria, 'I forgive you for your sins.' Then he tenderly cups her chin, lifts her head back, draws his knife, and with the grace and precision of a matador...."
Ann is backing away from me by this time. She never takes her eyes off me for a second as I wind up to deliver the punch line. In a way, I have to hand it to her. She's magnificent. She reaches out her hand and in one swift movement tips the whole pot of soup off the stove. A torrent of fish and crab in a blood red stream streams out of the pot and floods across our feet.
I walk out of the kitchen, wipe my shoes on her carpet, pick up my suitcase, and head out the front door. When I get to the sidewalk, I look back. Her face fills the small kitchen window, eyes glaring. She looks like one of those Corsican voceratrici, who cry for vengeance long after the men are weary of vendetta. I tell you, it gave me a start. What was that proverb she was always quoting? "Eat your soup...or jump out the window." I couldn't help laughing. I guess I finally figured that one out for both of us.
CORSICAN FISH SOUP (Aziminu)--for 8
For the optional rouille (1˝ cups):
For the broth:
Resources: Shirley Deane's In a Corsican Village, Dorothy Carrington's Corsica: Portrait of a Granite Island, Garry Hogg's Corsica: The Fragrant Isle, and Patrick Turnbull's Corsica.* * *
NEXT MONTH: The Hungry Man from the Hills and Burmese Vegetable Soup