Never had New York City felt so cold. Dark had caught us early, and a polar wind sent glacial ripples to my toes. For the past three hours, Allie and I had waded the sea of shoppers to buy final holiday gifts. We changed our dinner plans when we were a block from Columbus Circle, retreating across the Hudson with visions of hot tea and home-cooked food.
Back in Hoboken, New Jersey, I had a new steel pan over volcanic heat. This pan, so said my co-worker who gave it to me, was preferred by professional chefs. I was filled with excitement to use the pan for its stellar reputation, its campfire feel, and because the thick steel was vaguely familiar to me.
When I spooned mushrooms into the pan, a steam cloud shot up and the sizzling was like the static of a TV. The molten mushrooms released a scent that registered on the fringe of my memory. They smelled musky, vaguely metallic, earthy, and a touch mysterious—quite like, somehow, the exotic tang of liquor when smelled at an age when you’re way too young to be drinking. I gripped the panhandle. I inhaled. I was 16 again.
A stack of steel pans was soaking in the blue water of a deep sink. Two more pans landed on the counter to my right, bouncing. My shirt was wet. A deep female shout squelched two male voices that had been chattering in French. On the top pan on the counter, I saw a single sausage round. With grotesquely pruned fingers, I scooped the sausage into my mouth.
“Chris!” said a voice. I spun around. “More pots!” barked a balding man in chef’s whites, who I knew as Vito, owner of the restaurant where I worked. A stack of steel pans in each hand, I trundled to the main grill, dodging the dishwasher and ducking between Vito and the grill man, Freddie, a French-speaking immigrant from Cameroon. Pans went on a rack under the string of ovens. Freddie, tongs in each hand, was moving to the swanky rhythm of a song that played only in his head. Hunks of Florentine-style beef were browning on the stove in front of me. Freddie nodded at me as I returned to the sink.
Facing the white wall behind the sink, I fished a pan from the blue water. When I washed those steel pans I zoned out deeply. To the aroma of sizzling garlic and bubbling tomato sauce, smells known from the cooking of my mom and grandmother, I wondered about the past (then, I was blissfully submerged in a stellar European History class), the future, friends, girls, conjugations of Italian verbs, and whatever book I was reading.
Autopilot turned off when dinner service slowed down, usually 9:00 or 9:30, or when Vito or Eddy—Eddy the wispy sous chef, with his orange Philadelphia Flyers hat and his white-hot temper—left a sausage scrap or rigatoni tube clinging to the pan. Now came one with three pasta noodles, their grooves slick with tomato sauce. Warmth and a sweet garlic zing. Starch from the outsize pasta pots was thick in the steamy air.
Six years later, I sat in a bony chair in a farmhouse near Bologna, Italy, and on the stove the farmer for whom I was working, Federico, had a boiling pot of pasta. My body was stiff as an oak from erecting fences and cutting grass in the vineyard. Smelling the cloud that came from the pasta pot, my muscles turned to liquid.
By smell and sound, you knew when the mushrooms hit the steel: an earthy Martian perfume, a machine-gun sizzle. Spellbound, I returned from wherever my thoughts had led me and rejoiced in the spreading darkness of the elusive scent. Lambert, the salad man, cooked the mushrooms, one planetary portobello to crown each bed of dressed greens. His pan bounced by the sink; now, I was used to the aroma.
Smoke was billowing from my new steel pan. I turned on the fan, eager to avoid sounding the apartment’s fire alarm. Tawny, kaleidoscopic patterns seethed in a film of glistening oil on the empty pan’s surface. Mushrooms removed, the pan sent up a column of heat. I warmed my hands in the air over the burner and moved on to something else.