Monday, May 18, 2009

Cooking for One

When I was a kid in Paris, my parents would occasionally ask the one-floor-up neighbor at 3, rue de la Terrasse, to babysit me.   These were rare occasions that I always enjoyed, since Madame Yelena Sokolov's apartment was far more interesting than the one I lived in, and she always addressed me as Jeune (young) Monsieur Thierry.

Mme. Sokolov was the daughter of a White Russian refugee, and she claimed a direct if confusing link to Nikolai Alexandrovich Romanov, the last tsar of Russia.

Mme. Sokolov smelled of lavender. Her white hair was always up in a tight bun, she had high cheekbones and, in her youth, must have been stunning. My father occasionally flirted with her--or tried to. She was not particularly amenable and, in retrospect, it is clear she thought my family was one step up from barefooted serfdom.

Mme. Sokolov fixed herself three complete meals each day and never ate leftovers. Sometimes, when I was in her apartment, she would set the table for one with two forks, two knives, three glasses and two linen napkins--one for the main course and one for desert, which was usually sherbet in a silver cup. I was never invited to sit at her table. I had a special small chair, and was given a tray to balance on my knees, which I did fearfully. She served me minute amounts of her own minute servings. I remember veal in a sweetly bitter sauce, fish so white it dazzled the eye, tiny potatoes no bigger than grapes. Everything she cooked, she consumed. When she ate, it was with both hands on the table, holding a fork with the tines pointed downward, and a small, very sharp knife. Her back was absolutely straight, and if mine was not, she would mutter, "Le dos, Jeune Monsieur Thierry. Le dos."

I remember thinking it must be very sad to always cook for one's self.

Now I do it two or three times a week, sometimes sadly, other times not. I seldom set the table, though I always sit and think eating while standing is a crime of taste. My cooking repertoire is rather limited. I make a good Salade Niçoise and decent shepherd's pie. My ratatouille is famous. I occasionally bake, more often grill, and on rare occasions invite people to my home to eat.
I recently told a young friend--a lovely mother of two and accomplished businesswoman--of Madame Sokolov's lonely culinary exploits, and where I had seen aloneness, my friend instead saw a wonderful expression and reward of the self. She may be right.  Madame Sokolov never once evinced the slightest hint of melancholy. She was proud, kind in a manner that no longer exists, self-contained, her manners impeccable. She had an elegance that brooked no nonsense and the manners of an exiled princess which, for all I know, is precisely what she was.

I have no idea what became of Madame Sokolov.  Her name, it turns out, is among the most common in Russia. It is cited in a 1920's book titled "The Last Days of the Romanovs." Grigori Sokolov is a celebrated pianist.  Alexander Sokolov is a champion armwrestler. Authors, painters, and several families in Minnesota also bear the name. I doubt her history will ever be known. But I think of her teaching manners to a small child of another culture,  cooking alone in a minuscule kitchen, among the last of her class and bearing, a proud survivor of the Russian revolution. I hope she was celebrating herself.

Here's installment 88 of Wasted Miracles.

The grocery cart had a gimpy wheel and kept pulling to the left. Every few steps, Colin picked up its back end and straightened it out. They were in the houseware aisle and Catherine was selecting cleaning products. She dropped a large orange box of Tide in the basket, said, “Well, I did it.”

     “The separation?”

     “Went to see a lawyer two days ago, he drafted the papers. Lars wasn’t even surprised. Said he was expecting it. Got down to business right away--what did I want, how much for how long, that sort of thing.”

     “That was quick.”

     “I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. The thing with Josie, well, that was the deciding factor. The fact that Lars really  didn’t care. I used to think maybe it was because he didn’t like to show emotions, kept things in, but the truth of the matter is, he didn’t--doesn’t--give a damn.”

     Colin lifted the cart’s back end, set it straight. “So what now?”

     “He keeps the house, which is just as well. It’s a mausoleum. He said he wants to entertain more anyway,” she raised her eyebrows, “which struck me as kind of strange for Lars, who’s not a big people person, but that’s not my problem. I’m sure he won’t have any difficulties finding hostesses.” There was only a trace of bitterness in her voice.

     She selected Windex, Comet and Dove soap, flirted with a box of Brillo, returned it to its shelf. “We haven’t worked out the financial details, but I’m sure it’ll be satisfactory. I gave him a ballpark figure and he didn’t even blink. He didn’t mention Josie until I did, and his concern was future college tuition, so that’ll be taken care of too.”

     Colin said, “Shared custody?”

     Catherine shook her head. “Nope, All mine.”

     She scooped up a carton of Light Days, said, “You know what else I did? Went to Supercrown, the bookstore in McLean. They had a help wanted sign in the window. I talked to the manager, and I got an application form.”

     “I didn’t know you liked books.”

     She gave him a sidelong glance. “Lots of stuff you don’t know.”

     They went to the fish section and Catherine picked up a salmon steak. “Here. Buy this. They’re easy to cook--I’ll show you how--and good for you.”

     He accepted the fish. “Have you told her yet?”

     “No. I’m not sure whether I want to wait or not. Maybe I should find a  place for us first. There are a couple of buildings I like--I want to rent an apartment, a house would be too much--and I have to price them. It’s kind of exciting, actually. Two women on our own. What do you think, about telling her?”

     “I don’t think it’ll surprise her much either.”

     As they filled the cart, the wheel began to squeal. Catherine said, “This is silly.” She went to the checkout, selected another cart, transferred the groceries. “Yeah, that’s true. We didn’t hide much from her, me and Lars. Never tried to. She’s a smart kid in spite of everything. She’s known things haven’t been going right for years.” She stopped, moved in front of the cart, blocking its way. “Here’s a question, Colin, an important one. Your answer won’t make much of a difference, I’m going to get the divorce regardless, but I’m curious. I’m going to have a lot of free time. Am I going to see you more?”

     It took him by surprise, the shift. He paused before answering and saw in her eyes that it would make a difference. He said, “Yes, yeah. You will.”

     She smiled and took his arm. “I wasn’t sure. We’re still going to have to work a bunch of things out. But I’m glad. It’s a good thing.”


No comments:

Post a Comment