Thursday, September 8, 2011

TOXICITY

The presence of concord grapes ANYWHERE in the house causes my mom, dad, and grandmother to moan and groan and gripe about the nastiness of Welch's Grape Jelly and purple-barfy-cafeteria juice. 

The ingestion of too many grapes can cause kidney failure in dogs. 
Handfuls of these seedy cultivars give Dash a tummy ache and bring about endless requests for television.
But last Sunday, I said screw them all and made concord grape sauce.

As I plucked, rinsed, and sizzled the grapes in burning sugar, I thought about Heather Ho. Ten years ago, she was the executive pastry chef at Windows on the World.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, as I looked straight down Greenwich Street at the flames pouring out of the North Tower, I didn't know that Heather was back in New York City. I thought she was in San Francisco.

Boom. A plane flew into the South Tower.

I worked with Heather in pastry at Bouley Restaurant. When I saw the strength, speed, and elegance with which she cut through the space, lugging bain maries and passing purées through China caps, I knew I wasn't cut out for restaurant work. At least not at this level. With people like Heather. She kicked some serious butt.

I watched the South Tower fall right out of the sky.

Month after month, I was awed by Heather's ice cream-making skills; she pounded out endless batches of vanilla, chocolate, salty caramel and prune Armagnac. I swear she got faster and faster with every passing day.
29 minutes later, the North Tower slid down. Such a big building. So much to crumble. It looked like a slow motion movie. Windows on the World occupied the top two floors. Pastry chefs go to work early.

"Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god," I ran down Bethune Street screaming. "Those people. All of those people." My husband of three weeks pulled my body into his and held me like I might capture a thrashing and tantrumy Dash or Bella. From the back, arms pinned to my chest.

My best friend, Marianne, was walking around the World Trade Center rubble. I yelled through the phone at her boyfriend, Simon, to get her the fuck out of there.

"She has to be there. It's her job," Simon said. Marianne is a reporter for WNYC. Turns out he was as angry as I was. But someone had to sound strong.

Heather's apron was often covered with concord grape purée. I would wipe the purple splats off her eyebrows. Or pull the dark skins out of her hair. She made delicious concord grape sorbet that I would sample late at night as we finished off deserted bottles of Pétrus (if we were lucky) or Gigondas.

I walked south, tried to help, and was turned away by the cops. A few people busted through the barricades and ran into the eerily calm Ground Zero. I wasn't that brave.

I had coffee with Heather right before she moved to San Francisco to work at Boulevard. We talked about the Bay Area and her excitement about the change.

A silent crowd of onlookers hung out across the street from St. Vincent's Hospital waiting for the ambulances to arrive. We waited. And waited. There was no one to save. Within hours, photocopies of missing people were plastered all over the bus stops and storefronts.
There is a parking lot behind Peet's Coffee in Santa Monica that smells just like the burning World Trade Center. Hot rubber. Acrid. Throat-burning.

The week of 9/11, Marianne and Simon stayed with us every night. Lower Manhattan was closed off from the rest of the city. We were in a bubble of helplessness. At odd hours, I would wrap Marianne in my grey raincoat and send her back down into the ashen sadness.

Unbeknownst to me, Heather had moved back to New York City to work at Windows on the World. She had given her notice before September 11th. Her dream was to open her own pastry shop. But she was sticking around until they found a replacement.

I fed Marianne a pesto lasagna. I made Simon a birthday dinner on September 13th. I tucked them into bed on our living room floor.

We anguished about the missing people, the abandoned dogs, the fumes.

The sound of the sirens from the West Side Highway went all day and all night for weeks.

Three weeks after 9/11, my husband and I moved to Los Angeles. I'll never forget that cold October evening, telling Marianne that I loved her through the Bethune Street gate. I'll never forgive myself for leaving when I did.

I had the grey raincoat dry cleaned but I never wore it again.

If I hear sirens for more than 5 minutes, my brain jumps to planes crashing into Berkeley. I check the online news and then I go up to my attic to look out over the hills for destruction.

I still have nightmares about planes crashing into my parents' house. Into my house.

Marianne spent the past four months working on a radio documentary for WNYC (distributed by PRX) called Living 9/11. In it you will hear stories from then, now, and the ten years in between. Marianne interviews those trying to make sense of what happened, those living with PTSD, and those barely functioning at all. Some have found closure while others don't believe closure is even possible. And a few have a newfound appreciation for every backyard BBQ and every breath. I am so proud of this hour of radio I can hardly stand it.

Here's to Heather and Marianne. One for teaching me to cook my ass off and the other for teaching me how to tell stories. I will never even approach what they've accomplished, but I will continue to try.

And here's my recipe for Concord Grape Sauce.

(And for all you Welch's Grape Juice haters, I've added an alternate sauce made with peaches and vanilla bean.)


CONCORD GRAPE SAUCE
(You can replace the grapes with 10 peeled and pitted white peaches. Throw in some vanilla bean as you simmer the peaches.)
ingredients:
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons water
4 cups concord grapes, rinsed, stemmed, and dried
1/2 lemon
pinch of salt
directions:
Place sugar and water in a medium-sized saucepan. Cook over medium heat. Swirl it around by the pot handle to keep it cooking evenly. When it starts to smoke and turn light brown, toss in the grapes. Careful. It might spatter. Don't worry if the sugar seizes up and hardens. It will melt back down into the sauce. Stir on medium heat until grapes have softened and released their juices (about 10 minutes). Take off the heat and pour through a medium or fine strainer. Use the back of a wooden spoon to press through as much of the fruit as possible. Discard pulp and skins. Stir in the salt and a bit of lemon juice. Taste. Adjust if needed. Serve hot over ice cream. Or cool completely and drizzle over yoghurt. It keeps in the fridge for a few days (it will mold quickly because there's not much sugar in it). It will keep for a few months in the freezer.


24 comments:

  1. So moving Phyllis. Thank you for posting.



    love,
    Kaari

    ReplyDelete
  2. breath. less. the handfuls of grapes, meaning such different things to Dash than to you. the cooking as salvation, as what we do when we can do nothing else. I am in awe of what you do. In the life you bring to so many.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Wow. Thanks for sharing such a personal part of yourself.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I'm floored. Thank you for this post. Much love from your fans in NYC.

    ReplyDelete
  5. kaari, amy, kelly, pam. thank you. this one definitely kept me up for a few nights. but i've wanted to tell this story for a long time.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thanks for this Phyllis. I was where you are now, 10 years ago, in the Berkeley hills--watching on TV. But now I am here, where you were. Between Greenwich and Hudson and can see the new tower from our livingroom window--before too long we will have to crouch down to see the top as it already stretches way higher than the window frame.

    Bouley Studio--btw--makes a superb burger these days. let me take you there next time you come to town. xo, e

    ReplyDelete
  7. Both would be proud of such a beautifully told story. Thank you for writing it. I knew Heather only as a friend of a friend and was so sad for everyone's loss.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I read your post in the parking lot, leaving work. Tears. I read it again at home. Heartache. My heart breaking as I know yours did. We will never be able to get back what was taken from all of us that day. You are doing a wonderful job with passing on the beautiful work you learned from Heather and Marianne.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I woke up this morning, coffee in hand, laptop in other, lazily began my day reading your post in bed. I sat up. Silence fell. Outside, it began raining.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Hi Phyllis. I’m going to write to you in email about how much I love and admire the writing (not just writing, but transporting) you do in this blog. Here, I just want to say that by far my best memory of September 11th is coming home to your apartment that night, being fed by you and hugging Simon all night on your living room floor. And during the (forgive the drama – but it was real) excruciatingly painful weeks that followed, it’s true, one of the hardest moments for me was saying goodbye to you through the gate on Bethune Street. But I’ve never – ever – thought of your leaving as something you needed to be forgiven for. I’m pretty sure you don’t need forgiveness from me (if you do, tell me and I’ll gladly heap it on). And I don’t think this City faults you or anyone for coming and going as needed. Your love for New York – and for me and for Heather and even for all the food you ever made or ate here – I think all that love still lives here. Thankfully, you didn’t take it away with you. That said, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in these ten years of post-9/11 reporting it’s how many people carry around a sense that they failed New York in some way on September 11th. So if you can’t shake that feeling – you’ve got a lot of company. Thank you for always, always, having my back Phyllis. Love Marianne. P.S. In case anyone thinks I’m as heroic as P makes me sound – Phyllis’ fear was that I was running around in the rubble but I was actually stopped by a police officer from getting close enough to be killed. I was reporting NEAR the rubble. Another thing to be thankful for.

    ReplyDelete
  11. So touching and, like your photography, parenting and cooking, warm, intimate and caring. Thanks for this gift.
    Laurie

    ReplyDelete
  12. Beautiful written. Thanks for sharing it.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I remember watching this on tv in Cape Town [after classes were suspended] and thinking to myself 'the horror, the horror, the horror'. I will never be able to fully relate to the trauma and emotion that date stirs in the hearts of Americans and New Yorkers - your narrative gave me some insight into what it must have been.
    Stay strong.
    Marlette

    ReplyDelete
  14. This is the most moving blog I've ever read. You are such a genius, Phyllis. I've always marveled at your ability to interweave photography, family, food, and personality, but now you've even out done that. You added grief and memory. Truly, you are a genius. And what a privilege to read Marianne's response.

    Thank you for having such a beautiful heart.

    ReplyDelete
  15. I love your blog. I can't stop reading. You write such beautiful, moving words. Thanks for sharing this little story (and the past dozen I've read). Cannot wait to make your concord grape sauce.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I wish I had the perfect word to describe how I feel when I read this story. I always come back to it and read it again. Beautifully chilling. I am glad there are people like you in the world.

    ReplyDelete
  17. rachael. thank you for your comment. and for coming back. i just re-read it for the first time in a long time. made me cry. you know, i never intended to write about 9/11. last september, i sat down at the computer to write about school lunches. and out came this story. i think that's one reason i love writing so much. you just never ever know the story that's going to come out.

    ReplyDelete
  18. As time separates us from that day, it's easy to forget, but so important to remember, the people we loved and lost. Thank you for doing that so beautifully.

    ReplyDelete
  19. You are an amazing writer, I am always excited when a new post from you appears. Thanks for making life a little richer.

    ReplyDelete
  20. I had been feeling like I needed to stop and reflect on that day today and finally stopped to do so. I quickly scanned the FB pages of a couple friends from NY, hoping to find something to read that would help me etch that horror in my mind from yet another meaningful perspective. This post did exactly that.

    I found you originally through Cheryl Sternman Rule and this time through Winnie Abramson. I love your writing and this piece shows me so clearly how raw emotion is such a powerful facilitator for fantastic storytelling and also how food can be a springboard for so much more than great recipes. Thanks for sharing this story and your writing.

    ReplyDelete
  21. These words are like golden feathers from the phoenix that has risen from the ashes. Thank you so much.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Oh Phyllis, your words are gripping as well as touching. I feel as if I know Heather, just through the love you have shown here. Thank you for sharing such a powerful memory. We will never forget ....

    ReplyDelete
  23. Just spectacular, Phyllis. Really. Thank you for sharing. xo

    ReplyDelete
  24. I have no idea why people wouldn’t like concord grapes, but after reading this knockout post I need to make your grape sauce — and I will add at least 1/4 cup of tears. Purple tears.

    ReplyDelete