Counts for Easter

lamb cake
He is eaten.

Among my mom’s many mildly annoying sayings was “Well, this counts for eatin’.” I was never sure what it meant, whether she hadn’t really enjoyed the meal or she really had. Or maybe that she wasn’t hungry but felt obligated to eat. Or maybe it referred to something specific the first time and she enjoyed saying it so much she just kept doing it. If all the annoying habits of my family could be charted on a huge tree there’d be a dotted line running from “Well, this counts for eatin’” to her mother-in-law’s standby, “I wonder what the poor people are eatin’ tonight.” I believe that was meant to be a compliment to the cook.

Saturday night I saluted the end of Lent with a cold glass of sake at Katsu, where Dave and I went with Xeena and Buck. Usually we meet at our old standby, Midori, but we decided to try somewhere new because there are a million restaurants in Chicago, for Pete’s sake. We agreed that the quality of the sushi at Katsu may be superior, but we enjoy Midori more. Not just because it’s cheaper, though that helps, but we’ve gone there together enough that it feels like ours. I crave my favorite rolls there, and the margaritas, and the familiar faces.

At the table, Xeena said she misses ritual. “Holidays come and go,” she said. For Easter they were having her family over for barbequed fish tacos.

“I thought we were going to try going to church sometimes,” I reminded her. We had talked about it maybe a year ago, on a Sunday morning when we were all at Ann Sather, how we could check out churches of different denominations around town.

“We were,” Xeena agreed. She asked Dave and Buck, “You guys interested?” Buck stared blankly ahead, just as he did when she mentioned it at Ann Sather. She added quickly, “We could go to brunch afterward.”

Dave replied in the same words he used the first time, “Couldn’t we just go to brunch?”

Our Easter dinner was mostly traditional. Ham at my brother Rolando’s. They also served eggplant parmesan for the vegetarians, and many side dishes. I laughed more than I have in weeks, sitting with my brothers and their wives and their kids and Dave and cousin El, who’s more like a sister. El made two lamb cakes, just like last year, and this year both their heads stayed on. However, one lamb fell face forward into the green coconut grass, so it seemed to be sniffing the other lamb’s butt. Also, the upright lamb’s ear fell off so she re-attached it with a dental floss pick. She swore it was unused.

After just a few years of El bringing two cakes instead of one, I now expect two. The first time she was trying to make up for her ugly homemade one with a bakery one, which froze  and shrunk in the car so it actually looked worse than the homemade one. Last year she made two recipes, pound cake and chocolate zucchini. This year they were both pound cake, the difference being that the upright one with the dental floss pick ear had white frosting while the toppled-over one had white frosting plus a layer of coconut flakes. I’m not sure how many years it takes for a pattern to become a ritual, but there’s a little place in my heart now that longs for a pair of lamb cakes this day every year, ever striving for perfection, always failing in their own perfect way.

Translations

It made more sense after Dave translated.

We’ve eaten out a lot this week. Dave’s dad is in town and he is both a great cook and a lover of fine food. The other night we went to one of his favorites, Les Nomades. Serene lighting, sumptuous appointments (that is, chairs and stuff), and waitstaff who anticipate your every need without calling attention to themselves. Your water glass, your napkin, your every dining comfort IS the most important thing on the planet. And the staff’s comfort is the least. Maybe the point of restaurants like this is to let average people feel what it’s like to have servants—like, royalty-grade servants. You pay the price and you receive the experience.

Maybe that’s why a jacket is required. The Queen doesn’t dine in blue jeans. And there’s the food itself. A thimble-full of inspired parsnip soup,  a salmon appetizer prepared three ways, each better and smaller than the last, a presentation of warm apple tart contrasted with a melon-baller scoop of green apple sorbet. Tiny mouthfuls of gold.

But the experience changes with translation. The first or second time at Les Nomades, I didn’t try to understand, I just ate and drank and sank gratefully into my banquette as they invisibly pulled the table back for me after a trip to the ladies room. Which had a couch! But this time, I thought more about how it all works. Somehow, I couldn’t help analyzing the waiter. He was so formal in his language that I kept thinking he was kidding. “Would the Lady and Gentlemen care to order?” It was sort of like being at a renaissance fair, except I think in that time period Queen ate with her hands. At first, I tried to talk normal, but I am a chameleon and soon I transferred info formalese. “Perhaps a glass of the Springbank?” “Very good, Madame.”

At one point, he bowed in to ask, “Are the Lady and Gentlemen finding the meal to their liking?”

“Oh yes, it’s lovely.”

“Very good.” But when he bowed away, I saw him stop at the white serving table and make a small mark on a card. Suddenly I thought, is there a set number of times they have to check in with each table in their station, and the card helps them keep track? Doesn’t he really care? Did he only check with us so he could mark his card? I know, it’s all a business, like any other, and I appreciate that they run this business so well. But for a moment I felt like that king in the play, I think it’s by Ionesco, where he says to his servant, “Don’t you think I know that as soon as I go to bed you blow out the candles and turn on the electric lights?”

And the servant says, “So should I turn on the lights?”

And the king cries, “No. I want my candle. Bring me my candle!”

I started a new playwriting workshop this week. The teacher, Will Dunne, has already made me start thinking about writing plays differently than ever before. He had us do an exercise he called Translations. For the play you’re working on, you identify 12 words or phrases that come up in the play and then translate them into various actions or lines of dialog or images. When we went to see Clybourne Park at the Steppenwolf last night, I thought about what those 12 might be for that play. Racism, civility, institutional ignorance, what’s the point, burying your dead… It made it easier to identify what was so powerful in the play, and also to sense the few ways in which it could have been more powerful – at least to me. What were they? I forget now. Something about what was at stake in Act 2, but something more specific. Ignorance? Yes, I thought if the story of the suicide were more distorted by time, it would have strengthened the idea of ignorance being dangerous, or at least destructive. But maybe that wasn’t one of the playwright’s 12. Or maybe he didn’t have 12. This was only one exercise, in one class.

After the play, Dave translated his Dad’s classic reticence about what he felt like doing into agreement that a bite after the show would be good. At the table, when I was explaining this playwriting exercise, Dave’s dad said, “Music is music. It is what it is. No translation necessary.” That launched a discussion between Dave and his dad over who was the best composer, Bach or Beethoven or Mozart—or more specifically, what made each of them so good.

And that reminded me that at intermission, Dave’s dad stood up and said, “Back then, everyone listened to the same music.” Act One took place in the 50s, and closed with a Bing Crosby song that only Dave’s dad recognized. I was glad to hear him make a voluntary comment, but I almost replied with a disagreement. I remember my dad telling me about how, when he was growing up in the 30s and 40s, he used to have a radio in his room, and late at night, when the signals were stronger, he’d turn it to “the dark side of the dial” either the lower or upper end, I don’t know which. If he tuned it just right, and the night was clear, he could hear Black music, the blues and jazz he couldn’t get in the middle of the dial. But it didn’t seem worth pointing out, because it’s possibly pointless to disagree with a memory. Or maybe that’s why the world is so messed up, I’m not sure.

I don’t know if it’s okay to write “Black music.” We don’t say that anymore. But it’s how my dad described the music he loved. I guess we all pick our battles and our translations. Walking back to the train, I saw a For Sale sign. At first I thought the line at the bottom was the realtor’s name, and I was impressed that someone with such a strikingly foreign name would be selling such a swank property. Turns out it was a swank property, but I was still reading it wrong.