Why's It So Hard to Cook in New York?

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:21

    The rat situation of this block of W. 108th St., between Broadway and Amsterdam Ave., is surreal. Or it used to be. You'd see dozens of the rodents every time you walked down the block late enough at night. Scores if you were some student waiting in the glow of a streetlamp in a furtive overcoat, wiping your nose and waiting for a runner to scamper from his apartment with your joybag. Hundreds if you were a block resident and hung over your sill for a half hour or so, just watching the street.

    I was wandering north of 103rd St. on the West Side one cold night a couple of weeks ago, for various reasons that aren't important here. And I was thinking about rats, and my experiences with them. The neighborhood around Columbia University is one of the great ones for rats. I'm sure it's the odd Columbia grad indeed of the late 80s or early 90s who doesn't recall Rat Rock, that bungalow-sized boulder in that fenced-off empty lot on 114th St., between Broadway and Riverside Dr., behind the West End and the Papyrus bookstore. Rat Rock used to crawl with rats to the same densely terrifying extent that a half-consumed gobstopper will crawl with red ants if you leave it out in the sun long enough. In fact, for as long as I was a Columbia undergraduate, the Rock was an attraction?something special, a spectatorial event to which students would shepherd visiting parents and friends, in a way similar to that in which Kievans, in a mixture of bitterness and perverse pride, persist even today in herding their visiting American diasporan relatives onto overcrowded trams to look at Soviet-era prodigies: weird housing projects, cable mills in the bloom of decay, stainless-steel Vorticist-style sculptural monstrosities dedicated to Russo-Ukrainian proletarian brotherhood, Khrushchev-era facilities for the disposal of sepsis. Rat Rock was a phenomenon. You could hear from across the street the squeaking of the scores of rats that swarmed at nightfall; could see, if the evening light were well-angled, hundreds of eyes darting, as the animals crawled into and out of the granite crannies, up and down its story-and-a-half height. It was like watching hundreds of fireflies gather at the bottom of a hill; or, again, hundreds of people smoke cigarettes in the dark. You could kick at the baggy chainlink fence that separated the Rock from the sidewalk and indulge in the queasy thrill of spooking the things?the darkness would swirl with bodies.

    I swear the air was warmer within 10 feet of the Rock from the combined heat of all those metabolisms. On heartbreaking and soft spring nights when the stench of rodentine love was in the air, and the world's rats were goatish and full of the urge to multiply and hump and inherit the Earth, you'd see small groups of students standing before the chainlink fencing that separated the Rock from the sidewalk. You'd see college girls arrested in their progress toward River Hall down at the street's western end, clutching their books to their chests. The scene was at once primally, dreamily repellent?the sort of dream you awake from to find your world transformed?and enervating, like watching horses rutting. The air pulsed with Nature's energy. Rat Rock really should have been one of the Ivy League's great pick-up spots.

    I've gone off on a tangent, though, and I hadn't meant to memorialize either Rat Rock or my college days. The goal was, actually, to discuss why it is that it's so difficult to cook in this city if you're not rich, if you don't live in an unambiguously affluent neighborhood stocked with big, clean kitchens. Because cooking in New York in my experience?and it's entirely possible that my experience has been uniquely disgusting?has been very much like cooking outside on a camping trip. (A camping trip in downtown Yonkers?) Paint flakes off your slum ceiling and into your stew when you cook in the city. The scent of the smoke you generate draws critters and varmints, just like it does when you're camping.

    Which brings me back to that block of 108th St. I was talking about, on which I lived for awhile, and where cooking was mad, crazy, sick. The block's locally famous as a rat habitat. I'd stand there in my kitchen watching some sauce reduce, or dicking around with a raw chicken, and I'd hear?they were stealthy, careful?the approach of mammals back in the walls. Snuffling quadrupeds were homing in on the scent of my food. Scratching at the plaster that separated my life from theirs. I always hoped it was mice (the building crawled with mice, too, with the pinkie-sized elastic variety that can execute 5-foot vertical leaps out of the trashcans they always get themselves trapped in) but I tended to know better. I'd look out the kitchen window down toward the air shaft's bottom and there they'd be, the rats, juking to the building's ambient salsa amid the debris we all threw down as an expression of our radical and justified disrespect for our environment. Glass from busted bottles; beercaps; fouled rags; Q-tips; soup bones; empty cases of beer disintegrating in the mucosal slum air; vinyl LPs; frayed magazines; coffee filters; what looked from above like a dictionary; a small child (I'm kidding); eggshells. The rats chewed from it all what they needed.

    Out on the street, meanwhile, you could observe two types of rattish behavior. First, there was the furtive scratching around the bases of sidewalk trash piles so that, as you walked down 108th St., you'd hear each heap rustle as you passed it. It was a neighborhood in which everything secretly lived and breathed, a neighborhood of constant revelations. Occasionally a rat or two would pull out of the pile and toddle across the sidewalk toward the buildings, presumably to fetch something.

    Where you going, Mitch?

    Oh, forgot my smokes.

    And so on.

    Other times the rats would gallop from one side of the street to the other in swirling dozens. To what purpose? It's hard to believe they were panicked. They owned the street. And to imagine the extent of the block's infestation, you have to understand that as one group wilded before your stoop, and made all the dealers on your stoop giggle and hot-step, the same scenario was unfolding at intervals up and down the block. I always imagined that I was smelling rats in that neighborhood?that their scent was generally mixed in with the familiar barrio miasma of mofongo, tar and crack. Who wanted to cook under such circumstances? You'd look out your study window at 3 in the morning after giving up the books for the night and watch a young woman crouch on your stoop in the blue glow of her basepipe, with a half-dozen huge rodents crawling languidly in her lap and on her shoulders, like felines snuggling up to a torpid and eccentric bluestocking in a bookish warren on West End Ave.

    So who wanted to cook? You'd boil up a chicken soup; you'd haul the flaked-off chicken carcass out of the broth; you'd scrape off the remaining meat; and then you'd heave the skeleton out the window and down into the air shaft. And you'd thus feed the infestation, feed the cycle. You learned at very close hand how various types of protein fit into the circle of life, and at what stage, and it was fulsome. It was a tremendous turnoff.

    That was the last place I lived before moving to my current low-density outer-borough place. Where I'm right now making?alone in my kitchen and according to my Larousse Gastronomique, that severe academic tome?hot buttered apples:

    apples with honey and salted butter POMMES REINETTES AU MIEL ET AU BEURRE SALE (from Christiane Massia's recipe) Peel, halve, and core 8 dessert apples. Pour 250 g (9 oz, 3/4 cup) liquid acacia honey into a baking dish, spreading it evenly. Place this dish over a brisk heat until the honey has browned. Remove from heat and arrange the apple halves in the dish with their curved sides underneath and a small knob of salted butter in each. Cook in a very hot oven at 240 C (475 F, gas 9) for 10 minutes. Serve immediately.

    It's not even a kitchen I'm in, truly. It's merely a sink, an oven and a range top jammed into a shallow corner of the living room. There's no counter space. You balance cutting boards on the kitchen sink's edge, which consists of about 4-and-a-half inches of formica. The filth is considerable in this outer-borough hillbilly building, because it's the seared-in sort of hillbilly filth that only deep fire could purify. Stale and discolored wall-to-wall maquettes stink in the communal hallways, reek with time. Furniture that's never been moved in 60 or 80 years of hillbilly family occupancy in certain of the building's apartments shelters roach clans that have been multiplying there for just as long, and with only slightly more impressive fecundity. A John Sloan grime clings to everything. You expect to look across the air shaft to find angry unshaven veterans in suspenders and baggy trousers, drinking beer from cardboard containers and wondering whether or not to join the Communists. Nothing's been painted for years. The landlord, a kind enough man, and one with a sense of irony, I think, materializes twice a year to dun patiently.

    Who wants to cook?

    And I suspect it's like this for a lot of people: the way that a certain city life, which is by no means a poor or uncomfortable one, but simply one not lived at the level where new furnishings and insulation from hillbilly grime are assumed, prevents you from seriously cooking. Perversely, you're a little too close to nature when you cook in this city?a little too close to the land. It's a squeamish process.

    By the way, what's this "dessert apple" crap? And so I've got four?not the specified eight, because I'm by myself this Sunday evening?golden delicious apples, and I'm sitting on my sofa over my coffee table peeling and coring them. Across the room from me lurks the white bookshelf from which our roach infestation, such as it is (and it varies in the extent of its horror), seems to stem. Later, when my roommate comes home, I'll mention to him the bug I watched issue from behind the bookcase earlier that day. Then I'll watch as he sprays back there with Raid and as, within a second's space, a couple dozen of the bastards haul ass for daylight out from behind the shelf, on its other side. Along the white wall! Broken-field running! My roommate, braver about these things than I am, will kick and slap at them, and smear corpses, and find himself awash in gore. A nightmare.

    But that's later. Now I core and peel on. A bug skitters across the sofa, loses itself amidst leathery folds.

    Rattling under the range tops. Life in the cupboards.

    Who wants to cook?

    Spread the honey into a baking pan, brown it, lay the apples down into the amber medium, stick the pan into the preheated oven?itself one hell of a little micro-environment, let me tell you, some other time when we're talking varmints?and pop a beer and settle in to watch Patton for the evening.

    The apples, the beer. Also the sense of lurking new surprises. And the knowledge that the building I inhabit is an organic thing, a Gaia-model. Gross life is taking place around me. You find yourself inscribed in the grand process.