I love to feed men. I'm not sure when I first recognized this pleasure. It may have been in college, when boyfriends got their first apartments, and in their refrigerators I was introduced to the underside of life for the fledgling male--five cans of Bud; a hard, reeking chunk of cheese in an open cardigan of waxed paper; a naked pizza slice or two; and, somewhere way off in back, a mink orange. Our senior year, my friend Tina and I went out to the IGA in Ithaca, N.Y., bought a pot roast, Lipton's onion soup mix, baking potatoes and iceberg lettuce, and made my boyfriend and his roommate dinner. At a time when Mateus was the nectar of the gods and blue cheese dressing at a restaurant was 50 cents extra, this was manna. The looks on these boys' faces, their pure animal enjoyment, their abject appreciation--well, let's just say it was a heady experience.
I married the boyfriend and soon after that--at 22 unemployed for a summer, alone in a new town--I put my wedding presents to work and taught myself how to cook. I had some flops and one truly terrifying lesson (eating my unsuccessful first attempt at roast duck was what I imagined it might be like to eat an infant). But I kept on with scampi, osso buco, curry and stir-fries. One of the greatest moments of my life was the evening my dusty husband walked in from a hard day, stopped in the doorway, smiled and said, "I was praying that smell was coming from our apartment."
The marriage didn't last. He was a great guy, but we married too young, and besides, he had an unnerving habit of following lamb biriyani with bread and jelly. Still, he started me on my way, and I have never since given up the love of feeding people, especially those who cannot feed themselves, those for whom the making of an apple pie is an act of magic.
This has led, inevitably, to dreams of glory. Not cooking at the White House, or sporting a toque at Le Cirque. Rather, my fantasies have me in front of the Vulcan stove in a lumber camp, stacking flapjacks to the sky, or frying eggs at a firehouse for guys named Denny and Chip. When I lived in New York, and had a perfectly respectable job designing children's books, I actually wrote letters to local tugboat companies soliciting work as a cook. I lived down by the docks, and it was my urge to wake at dawn and board a boat, take off into the gray, roiling river and brew coffee and bake up pans of biscuits for the men. I'd climb on deck with a steaming mug, the river mist blowing through my hair. The crew would all call me Ma'am. I was just about to mail those letters when an inquiry began at City Hall suggesting a connection between the tugboat companies and the Mob.
So now I am all grown up, again married to a man with a good appetite, and we have a child. A son! As soon as I could, after the liquid bliss of infancy, after the first two little white chips pushed up from his gums, I have loved to feed him real food.
He's a big kid now--12 1/2--thin still, but able to polish off his own steak. One recent Saturday, after two of his friends spent the night, the three of them used our apartment as a staging ground for an afternoon of chase and play--shouting into walkie-talkies, banging through the hallways, running out the side door and back through the lobby, probably alienating half the neighbors and having a ball.
Every so often our front door blasted open, and they stumbled, breathless, back home. Our place is sweet, but the rooms are small, and suddenly these boys--whom I have known since preschool--were like ponies in the apartment, enclosed, bumping and ranging through this space. I sat on the sofa and watched in awe. Half-gallons of milk were fingered and pinched open and guzzled the best way, right from the carton; sacks of cookies vanished, pints of ice cream melted into nothing. Squirts of syrup, bowls, spoons, empty glasses littered the kitchen. A final gulp, a yelp, and they were gone.
I put down my magazine and began scraping plates, mopping milky counters, restoring order. I think of supper--will the boys care to stay? Maybe yes, maybe no. Maybe one of them will move the party to his house, to fresh forage, to new terrain. They are out of hearing range now, no doubt barreling through a local alley, trampling somebody's grass--outside, somewhere, turning into men. The silence is queer. I settle under the afghan and close my eyes. As long as there is appetite, they will be back.