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I live in Siberia with a View, a small community nestled a few miles from the Continental Divide, comfy in the embrace of the San Juan Mountains.
This is a place, a gulag of a sort, where nearly everyone was once someone else. Per capita, we have more folks here who were once important (and can’t forget it), and more people who know everything, than any place I am aware of.
Many introductory conversations here begin with the words: “I used to be…” Fill in the blank with whatever job description you want. Teacher. Actor. Editor. Financier. Explorer, G-man. Snake Handler Extraordinaire.
To make matters more entertaining, the longer someone lives here, the more important and accomplished they were when they used to be someone else. It is the old-athlete syndrome, writ large — the more distance from the actual event, the greater the skill, the more monumental the accomplishment — an heroic tale delivered from a barstool, a trip taken with a full tank.
I live in a magical place that enhances a person’s achievements, burnishes a career, inflates an ego.
It must be something in the water.
There are not, however, enough additives in the water to prevent all but the most naive from recognizing that “used to be,” in truth, means “no more.”
But, those who migrate here also bring characteristics that are not the products of a need to aggrandize, that are not exaggerated epiphenomena — sad steam rising from a nearly dry kettle.
They bring their foibles, their quirks. Once the exaggerations of a past are dismissed, these are what remain.
In my case — when my enormous ego is deflated and the feeble nature of my achievements is exposed — I’m revealed as merely obsessive and compulsive, with the emphasis on compulsive. On compulsive. On compulsive.
I was obsessive and compulsive before I got here many years ago and I have managed to sharpen my focus since. Add to this my fruit fly attention span, and this refuge in the hinterlands has been quite good to me, a greenhouse in which I have fully blossomed.
If you need, I’ll admit it again. And again. And again.
I’m likely to admit it all day long, in series of three admissions at a time, each series broken by three helpings of three cashew nuts per helping. Never four admissions, four helpings or four nuts per helping: Four is an unlucky number in some parts of Asia. Four is to be avoided at all costs.
As I review my past or, more accurately, as I review the past I have carefully revised and refined over the years, I think I’ve found the root of my quirks. I remember, for example, refusing to take one stair at a time as a lad, forcing myself instead to ascend a staircase three stairs at a time. I also remember attempting the descent in the same fashion. A couple of bruising falls were all I needed to temper the urge with the handrail.
I recall wandering the sidewalks of South Denver, doggedly intent on taking three steps per square of cement. Not two, not four … three. It must have been amusing to watch the fat kid walk around the neighborhood striding normally one moment, tiptoeing the next, leaping an instant later.
But, if I single out one experience that cemented this foible it is my participation, from age 10 to age 14 in the Blue Knights Drum and Bugle Corps. The group was started by a Denver children’s television personality, Fred Taylor, a short, gravelly-voiced and intense fellow who spent his working hours on the Fred and Fay Show with his abbreviated arm jammed inside a crude puppet named Wally the Weather Gator.
In order to create a corps worthy of competition, Fred put the screws to the very children he was paid to entertain, i.e. those of us dumb enough to be members of the Blue Knights Drum and Bugle Corps. Fred was aided by a group of disgruntled, overweight World War II veterans who, intent on compensating for the abuse delivered by their drill instructors, gleefully took on the task of teaching the young ’uns to march.
It requires little effort, from a distance of more than a half-century, to retrieve the memory of a dusty dirt road next to the American Legion Post in Lakewood. It’s a Tuesday evening in July; the sun is still up and it’s 95 degrees. I hear those paunchy churls barking in my ear — me, a short-legged, wide, myopic moron, clumsily toting a drum on a chubby thigh, struggling to stay up with the tall guys, severely dehydrated and panting like a dog that’s been locked in a car for three days.
There is a compulsive element to close-order drill, and those deranged vets burned it into me. The ironclad dictate that movement begins with the left foot is a cornerstone of my present-day tendencies. It was cemented in place when, some years after my days in the Blue Knights, I reinforced the rudiment with a too-long stint in ROTC.
I still try to begin every physical movement on my left side. If I fail, I am distressed, i.e. I am compulsive.
Putting on my socks and shoes? Left foot first. Putting on my pants? Left leg first. Dumbbell presses or curls? Start with the left arm. Leaving a doorway? Left foot first. Same with stairs and curbings. Same with the squares on the sidewalk (though, as an adult, I’ve come to terms with two steps per square).
My compulsive behaviors are further influenced by my teensy attention span. Each day, each hour, each minute in fact, facets into a series of interlocking, compulsion tinted activities.
It is reassuring … like an infant’s security blanket.
I get things done because I come back to each of the many projects I am working on, time and again throughout the day, adding to each until it is complete. When one is finished, another project is mashed into the machine, taking its place in line, getting periodic attention, growing all the while, waiting its turn to fall off the end of the assembly line.
Then there’s the obsessive side of the coin.
It’s only reasonable (or unreasonable, to be accurate) that I become obsessed with foods, recipes, cooking processes.
Luckily I am not trapped by my obsessions. I am, at some point, able to let go — when my wife threatens me.
I latch on to a product or a recipe and cook it over and over and over, fitting it into my weekly recipe schedule, repeating it — but varying it slightly — shepherding it through a series of permutations.
The end result of the attachment, once Kathy forces me to desist, is a facility with a great dish that has many faces, each subtly different from its brother.
I remember one notable fixation: macaroni and cheese. I glued myself to this type and its many tokens for two years, making it every other night or so, varying the type and amount of pasta, trying different mixes of cheeses. I made it with and without cream and/or milk. I used dry mustard one time, Dijon the next. Garlic Tuesday, no garlic Thursday. Onion tonight, no onion two nights later. I produced a version on the stovetop; I baked the next version in the oven. I tossed cooked and buttered pastas with grated cheeses.
Kathy finally put her foot down, concocting a story about a potentially deadly reaction to dairy products, ordering me to cease. I stopped, but I possess an arsenal of pasta and cheese dishes that is the equal of any.
I have locked on to high-grade products — tenderloins, wild mushrooms, rich, labor-intensive stocks and sauces. (Kathy now has a medical reason for avoiding fungi). I have doubled our utilities bill with repeated experiments requiring long, slow cooking.
I have been captivated by low-end products, the most notable being Fritos and aged cheddar cheese, the two devoured together in artery-clogging amounts.
I get hooked on wines, on one varietal or another, on one product from a winery. One month it’s a syrah, next month a zinfandel, the next a pinot noir or a Chateauneuf. Barolo? Oh, yeah. Malbec? A great gift to mankind. How about a Mouvedre? Indeed. Spirits? Bourbon, gin? Why, yes.
Over the course of several weeks, I buy up everything the liquor store has to offer of one choice then, bing, the selection changes when the stock disappears. I’ve found wonderful bargains this way and, returning to the selection the next year, I have grounds for comparison when it comes to wines. I do the same with the bottles I order from importers.
A recent obsession?
Chicken paillards. In one glorious application after another.
They were so tasty, Kathy didn’t realize she was eating the paillards at least three times per week. I rode this one for more than a month.
As I’ve noted in previous columns, I’ve done up paillards (chicken breast pounded between two sheets of plastic wrap until uniformly thin) with a variety of sauces, accompanied them with various sides. I’ve whipped up, among others, chicken Marsala, chicken Nicoise, chicken with a sauce of reduced stock, white wine, shallot, garlic and chicken demi glace.
I came up with a great quickie using the paillards — a chicken in tomato sauce with two cheeses. Nothing unique, mind you, but tasty.
I pound out the chicken breasts (which I’ve halved prior to the mallet treatment), season them with salt and pepper and dredge them in seasoned flour. (A variation involves dredging the cutlets in seasoned flour, immersing them in an egg wash and coating them with seasoned panko bread crumbs.) The cutlets are browned in a mix of extra virgin olive oil and butter and put aside on a warm plate. I’ve prepared a simple tomato sauce adding a small can of tomato paste to a 303 can of tomato sauce (a fresh sauce is great, in the rare instances a ripe tomato is available in Siberia With a View). Into the tomato mix I’ve thrown six or seven cloves of garlic, minced, a handful of parsley, chopped, a quarter cup of red wine, a mess of dried oregano, chopped fresh basil and a bay leaf. A bit of salt and fresh ground black pepper and the sauce is set to simmering for at least 30 minutes, until it reduces and sweetens. If it needs a pinch of sugar, it gets it, as well as additional herbs at the end of the cooking process. The final addition brightens things considerably..
I oil a gratin dish and slice a brick of the real deal — a chunk of Polly O whole milk mozzarella cheese. Per ounce, the stuff is darned near caviar expensive, but it is well worth the cost. I use my high-tech vegetable peeler to shave a stack of paper-thin pieces of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. I slice half a white onion very thin. Now that I have a mandoline, very thin is, truly, very thin (as was the slice I once took off the back of my finger).
I use a few spoons of sauce to coat the bottom of the gratin dish. On top of the sauce go the browned paillards. The chicken is covered with a layer of sauce and a layer of sliced onion. If I’m in the mood, I’ll place several fresh basil leaves in amongst the slices of onion; ad I am always in the mood. Next on is a solid layer of the mozzarella and on top of that, the Parmesan. I pop the dish into a 375 oven for 40 minutes, covered loosely with foil. The last 10 minutes or so, I take off the foil and allow the cheese to do wonderful bubbly, brown things in the heat.
What emerges is a great treat. Serve it with pasta, a salad dressed with a simple vinaigrette, a few oil-cured olives and some cherry tomatoes. Plop a stack of haricots verts next to the chicken and you’re happy.
Then, do it again the next night, but vary the ingredients slightly. And the night after that.
Sometimes, compulsion and obsession pays big dividends.