In the months after the Twin Towers fell on September 11th, I started the novel that would be The Epicure’s Lament. I was writing it to cheer myself up; I was undergoing a kind of internal, shell-shocked, nerve-wracked breakdown, and I was not, by a long shot, the only New Yorker in this state.
I worked in a rented room in a falling-down 19th century house in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, down by the river. My landlady, Nancy, was Italian, born and raised in Bensonhurst. Her dad had been a mobster, and so had her dead husband. A Mafia princess and mob wife turned Realtor, Nancy was frank, smart, a born raconteur, with a round, impish face and a hoarse smoker’s chuckle that always made me laugh, too. Her house was a sort of SRO for sad-sack men who lived on public assistance and sat all day in their shirtsleeves, smoking and waiting for their Meals on Wheels to arrive.
She lived in the cozy, renovated basement apartment and rented the two or three empty, uninhabited upstairs rooms, cheap, to writers and artists– first to my friend Anna, a poet, who recommended me to Nancy when I needed a studio, and then, on my recommendation, to a photographer friend named Hal, who almost got kicked out for having a nude model in his studio who hung out the front window, smoking. He frantically explained to Nancy that there was nothing pornographic going on – this was art. She grudgingly, good-heartedly went against her own better judgment and accepted this explanation and let him stay. Soon she was his greatest fan.
I paid $200 a month for the large room on the top floor at the back of the house. My two windows faced north and looked out over flat tarpaper roofs, old brick warehouses, backyards and treetops, all the way to the green, shining Citicorp tower in Queens. The room had a linoleum floor, a boarded-up fireplace, and a falling-down plaster ceiling; the roof leaked, there was no heat, and I shared the place with a noticeable but not intolerable population of mice. I warmed the room up with plants, my husband’s paintings, and a large old rose-colored flower-patterned wool rug. I brought a small coffee maker and a radio. In the cold months, I worked in my hat, scarf and coat.
Every day, I packed myself a lunch – a sandwich of sardines and mustard on rye, roasted nuts and dried fruit, a Styrofoam container of instant black-bean or lentil soup to which I later added hot water from the coffee maker’s carafe – and walked the mile and a half from the loft I shared with my husband in Williamsburg over to Greenpoint, along the waterfront’s angled, industrial streets with astoundingly beautiful views of Manhattan and the sky above it. In my workroom, I sat at my grandfather’s old desk – an old door on two heavy wooden filing cabinets.
That winter, it was too cold to write in my north-facing room, so I moved my desk into a smaller room at the front of the house that was filled with warm sunlight on clear days. Just outside my new window was a huge old chestnut tree whose bare branches were inhabited by a plump-chested, medium-sized brown bird. There only seemed to be one of him; if he had a mate, or any friends, they were nowhere around that winter. I had the feeling that he was as aware of me as I was of him. He cocked his head and stared back at me through the window that separated us.
One day, the tree and the bird found their way into the novel I was writing and became a sort of fulcrum between the fictional, imagined world I was living in that winter and my real life, a symbolic hinge that joined the two together. I named the bird Erasmus, since he seemed to have a philosophically stalwart cast of mind. All winter long, he watched me write while I watched him going about his birdly business.
The Epicure’s Lament is narrated by a 40-year-old hermit and failed writer, Hugo Whittier, who’s simultaneously smoking himself to death in his ancestral mansion on the Hudson River and cooking a lot of old-fashioned, comforting, hearty food for the very people he professes to want to get away from. I found that, for reasons I couldn’t articulate at the time, writing about the things Hugo chose to make, shrimp Newburg and spaghetti puttanesca, eased my terrible, gnawing depression. So did cooking and eating them myself. After the day’s work was done, I went home and made dinners that were inspired by Hugo’s culinary repertoire. Food was the other hinge between this novel and real life, between Hugo and me.
When I was about halfway through the novel, my bad state of mind worsened, and I couldn’t write anymore. I stopped going to my room at Nancy’s, stopped work on the novel, stopped doing much of anything. Soon, I found I couldn’t get out of bed, couldn’t stop crying. To pull myself out of this depression, I spent three months during the summer I turned 40 training for the 2002 New York City marathon. After ending up in the hospital with hyponatremia and then overcoming severe IT-band pain, I ran the marathon in 3 hours and 52 minutes. Afterwards, I moved my desk back into my workroom, got back to work, and finished the novel.
Years later, after my husband and I had bought and renovated an old row house just up the street from Nancy’s, after I’d moved out of my workroom and begun to write in my study at home, after my marriage had disintegrated and finally come apart for good, after I’d moved out of our house to an apartment way up on Monitor Street, near McGolrick Park, lightning struck the tree in front of Nancy’s house and killed it. Walking Dingo one day down my old street, I saw that it was gone. I stood there for a long time, looking at the charred stump that was all that was left of Erasmus’s chestnut tree.
Hugo’s Shepherd’s Pie
Hugo doesn’t actually cook shepherd’s pie in The Epicure’s Lament, but he could have. In fact, I am certain that he made it with some regularity outside the book, and so did I, during that cold winter of 2001-2002. This ground beef and mashed potato casserole is one of the most comforting, cheery dishes I know of.
Peel, cut in half, and boil 4 large potatoes till they’re soft. Drain them and mash them with 4 tablespoons of butter, a cup of grated Gruyere, salt, pepper, and half a minced onion.
While the potatoes are boiling, melt 4 tablespoons of butter in a large skillet. Saute a large chopped onion and 2 chopped, peeled carrots until the vegetables are soft. Add a cup of frozen peas, 1 ½ pounds of ground beef, ½ cup beef broth, a large dash of Worcestershire sauce, a dollop of ketchup, and stir till the meat is cooked.
Put the meat and vegetable mixture into a glass baking dish. Spoon the mashed potatoes on top to make a thick peaks-and-valleys layer. Grate another handful of gruyere and sprinkle on top. Bake for half an hour in a 400 degree oven till bubbling and brown.
Serves 1 hermit and three tedious interlopers.