Feast or famine. My plate is suddenly full. One day my Bliss is in Iowa, studying dentistry, gazing at the gums and decay of hog farmers and their kin. She claims she can eyeball a patient's teeth and see through to what's rotten. And now she's coming home for a quick visit, a thousand miles, without even the excuse of a national holiday or school calendar break. "Don't you have teeth to clean?" I asked hopefully when she called with the news. At my insistence we use long-distance sparingly, only when something truly important comes up. Since I'm still up in the air about our future as a couple, why throw away good money until I'm sure about what I'm doing: it's the difference between carnations for her birthday and a cashmere sweater. I have us writing postcards back and forth. Short and sweet, public enough so things can never get too involved or serious. A picture's worth a thousand words.
Here's the rest of the picture: I am twenty-six years old, and was recently anointed the new resident chef at the Richfield Ladies' Club in Richfield, Connecticut. I make lunch and tea, and in the evenings I'm on my own. A few weeks back, an old classmate at the CIA (that's the Culinary Institute of America), Jim King, now pastry chef for one of the Kennedy widows, and hating it, told an acquaintance of his who had just started her course work at the Yale Graduate School of Design to call me if she ever wanted a great home-cooked meal. Her name is Lisa Lee, and as she put it when she phoned and invited herself to dinner, "Sterling Lung, King says you're fabulous. He said I'd like you even if you couldn't cook." I was flattered, of course, but as soon as we hung up, I felt crowded by her presumptions, as I do whenever some know-it-all enters my kitchen and counsels me on ways to improve whatever I have on the stove: more salt, more pepper, or once even more cardamom.
To my credit, I did try to discourage her with the warning that New Haven is clear across the state, a solid two-and-a-half-hour drive away. "How can that be?" she said. "We're in the same area code." I couldn't imagine what Jim King might have told her; Lisa Lee was undaunted. "I'm sure you'll make the drive worthwhile."
In bed that night I puzzled over the phone call. Why had Lisa Lee been put up to this? I tried to contact Jim King, but was unsuccessful; the alumni office at the CIA wouldn't divulge his exact whereabouts, a condition of his employment. I mulled over the facts, scarce as they were. Finally I decided: Jim King must have a stake in this, he must be in pursuit of this Lisa Lee and is simply using me as bait. My role is that of a culinary Cupid. Fair enough. One day I'll call in the favor, have King set me up with a Kennedy.
I was so pleased with my revelation that I bounced out of bed and wrote to Bliss. On the back of a John and Yoko postcard (it's their wedding day), I should've known better, but I spilled the beans. I put it all down, except the bit about King and the debt he'll repay with a Kennedy.
I'm innocent; totally up-front, right? But honesty isn't enough for Bliss. She'll never admit it, but some corn-yellow tooth is going to go unpulled because she's jealous, in love, and coming east to protect what she believes is hers.
So it goes, the laden table, the overflowing cup.
I'm talking to Fuchs, the butcher I buy from. "How about a nice capon?" Fuchs says. He has muttonchop sideburns and a nose with hairs like alfalfa sprouts. I grimace; with his talk of capons, Fuchs suddenly assumes a sinister, perverted cast.
I've never cooked capon before. Serving castrated rooster isn't my bag. All I want is a four-, four-and-a-half-pounder, a biggish bird so Lisa Lee won't think I'm going cheap on her.
Reprinted from The Barbarians Are Coming by David Wong Louie by permission of G.P. Putnam Pub. Group, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by David Wong Louie. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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