Alchemy In Spring

I’ve been cold for months. The older I get the longer the cold takes to seep out of my bones. It kind of sits there, at my deepest marrow-level and crouches until spring. The green air warms me and the sun penetrates everything until the smells and the chartreuse of spring are there, just as the cold was.

We’re in the brown time now. Everything is crackling and stark, wood scratches on bare wood branches. The sky gets bright but the way the sun hits you is alarming. It blinds and makes you squint as you see your breath in the air in front of your face.

I used to work in Boston. My little nine-to-five life was in the heart of Downtown Crossing. In the winter I didn’t leave much. I’d run across the street for a sandwich and run back to eat it at my desk with a third cup of coffee. My jacket would smell like cold and wind and citywinter on the back of the office chair. I’d take the T home and watch the Charles River out of the Red Line windows, snow blowing across the Salt and Pepper Bridge as we rode into Cambridge.

photo of the lemon ice barrel sitting outside Polcari's Coffee in Boston
Polcari’s Lemon Ice

Then the spring would come, gradually, slowly, cautiously. A warm day would give way to another warm day, the air would open up and smell like wet and grass and damp pavement and the Old Granary Burial Ground would start to fill with tourists during lunch hour. Those are the days I remember the city, the way the air felt and smelled. The way Frank and I would take a long walk into The North End for lunch, through Haymarket and under the Expressway in the dim and dank tunnel that connected to the North End. We would come out into the warm sunshine of Boston spring and walk to get slices that we’d eat while sitting on old whiskey barrels, half in and half out of an alley. Then down Salem Street to the old Italian grocer who sold us lemon ices he’d scoop with a long-handled metal ladle. We did this on countless spring and summer days, leaving one definitive part of the city for another.

The North End was different then. Old hardware stores and cafes were mixed with mom and pop pizza shops. Now the tourist trade has changed things. Authenticity exists the deeper you go into the North End, but the outskirts, which are now flanked with public parks instead of the above ground expressway, have given a painted façade to the neighborhood. The Big Dig put everything underground and left space for sprawling parks and esplanades. It’s a different city than I remember from my childhood and even my young adult years.

I think if Frank and I still worked in that old four-story building in Downtown Crossing we would probably have to settle for a good burrito, maybe a grilled Panini and a seltzer. Maybe we’d go get ice cream cones. But the days of greasy pizza on a wooden barrel, while watching the fishmongers throw their waste into the alleys of Boston are gone.

I haven’t spoken to Frank in years. He is steeped in the memories of that time. I started culinary school while I worked there with him. We ate a lot together. I went to his house where his husband would cook lavish meals and prepare cheese courses for us. He’d come into work with cakes Ron had baked for me. We had a lot of pastrami sandwiches from the shop across the street.

“I’ll buy, you fly.” was what he said. He’d order on the phone, hand me the cash and I’d run down the three flights of stairs from his office, out into the street and down the little alley behind our store and into LaGrassa’s for in-house pastrami sandwiches and extra half-sour pickles. Then back inside and up the three flights of stairs where he’d have the “table” set for us. Napkins on the desk, space heater on. We’d sit and eat and make up names for the people in the building across the street.

There were made up lives, office drama, long, involved stories about the tape dispenser that was prominently placed near the window.

Bromfield Street was small and close and the view into the office across the street, three floors up, was no more than 20 feet away. I think we even made up the names we assumed they’d made up for us. Beat them at their own game.

“Geez, Bruce and Stacy sure eat a lot of pastrami sandwiches.” they would say.

I think of Frank from time to time. His memory makes me smile and it’s almost painful to remember how I was in those days. So eager, everything on the brink. I lived in one city and worked across the bridge in another city. I was young and energetic; the future was unknown and mysterious.

I have two kids now, a husband, and a mortgage. I’m an hour outside of Boston and the Boston I knew is gone anyways. I don’t do nearly half of the things I thought I would do. I don’t cook enough, even though I am a trained chef. I don’t stay up to date on food trends, don’t know the names of any Boston chefs like I used to. I don’t cook with my kids, but instead shoo them out of the kitchen while I make another box of Annie’s Mac and Cheese. I write, but not enough. The words fuel me the way cooking used to. Anything is possible; you just need to find the right combination of words.

Alchemy can happen.

I’d like to write more about food, about my history and my memory of food. I’d like to feel a deeper connection at the beginning of a season with the food that comes with it, with the things I can make and discover in the kitchen after a trip to the farmer’s market. I’d like to draw a deeper connection between the magic of a dish and the magic of words on the page.

I’m a shitty technical writer, the rules are vaguely followed, some I don’t even understand.

But I can figure out the recipe for a story, the way the words need to work together to make a balanced finished product. I’m the same in the kitchen. I don’t follow recipes, but see what I have and make with it what I feel. Sarah said in last week’s post that cooks and writers are the same. We all have a touch of the crazy. The good crazy. The finding-the-magic-in-the-air crazy. It’s almost spring. I’m re-committing to the kitchen and the laptop. Let’s see what recipes I can pull out.

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