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Guest post: Chris Lewis “A Bowl of Fat, Gristle, and Sinew”

“Cooking… is a dominant act, at all times about control. Eating well on the other hand, is about submission.”

— Anthony Bourdain, Pure and Uncut Luxury

I don’t cook professionally. Not, at least, in the traditional sense of the word. I may spend a great deal of time developing recipes and writing about the rose-tinted romanticism of fine dining from the outside-looking-in, but I will never have been a member of the front line. I’ve never experienced the agony of being lost in the weeds, of backed up dish pits, of a plate returned for the third time—the bob-headed Karen at table 6 demanding that she knows a steak will become more tender the longer you grill it. The scrapes, the burns, worn out knees from ill-placed lowboys… these are not my burdens to bear for the benefit of hungry and often unappreciative stomachs. My clan of tattooed pirates welcome me as a friend but I will never be able to count myself among their ranks.

Something tells me that wouldn’t have mattered to you, Tony.

I found myself standing in the window of my favorite Vietnamese restaurant this evening, right on the edge of Chicago’s VietTown on Argyle. Bowls of pho dac biet, brimming with pearls of fat, floating on a sea of anise-spiked oxtail broth. Crisped hu tieu xao bo, vegetables shimmering in rendered fat and stock like jewels hidden under the greedy hoard of a waiting ogre. And I was transported: 20 years old, living in my first apartment—an unfairly small, garden-level unfit for the four cunts deigned to share the space. And there was Julie. My first roommate. We sat on our days off watching your adventures, Tony. Watching this foul-mouthed, leggy bastard galivant across the globe, we learned from you. I’ll never forget the rapture on your face as you devoured your first bowl of bun bo hue—a soup you considered the crest of a hierarchy of “delicious, slurpy stuff.” A perfect dish.

And I think… we all could use a bowl of soup tonight.

As a child, I was explained that grief, in all its forms, is nothing more than a bowl of soup. Piping hot, spoon half submerged, hidden by the murky weight of the vessel’s depth. And this grief, this pastiche of agony must be consumed by its recipient. And the manifold forms grief may take, there are an equal number of ways to drink. Some dive in head-long, foregoing formality, landing face first. They beg to finish their soup as quickly as possible, lapping the boiling liquid with a fervor unmatched by their pain. They emerge, burned. Red, tear-streaked faces hiding scorched throats and swollen tongues. The bowl empty to the chagrin of their wellbeing.

Others, yet, ignore the soup. “Oh, no, none for me,” they’ll dismiss. Surely a tastier entrée is available somewhere on the menu—perhaps some of that steak they’ve seen pass three times back to the kitchen? The foolhardy wait, trusting that eventually the bowl will be retired, soup discarded, the walls scraped clean. But everyone must eat. No one escapes this bowl of sinew, gristle, and fat. The foolish wait until the bowl has chilled, the soup congealed and hardened. Chunks of grey meat suspended in time. But ladle by resentful ladle, they will choke down the broth they’ve neglected.

The third… well the third enjoys. A melancholic Baby Bear, understanding that all things—even metaphorical soups—have their season. Sharing in the experience with others at the table—checking to ensure all are ready to eat before starting on their own. Measured spoonfuls, blowing carefully to check for temperature. Admiring the dish’s composition. They drink.

Does it need salt? Yes, I think so.”

“Perhaps some more time to cool,” their tongue twinging with the first sip. Enjoying the company a little longer, allowing the steam to dissipate. A gentle bell curve of consumption—a bit too hot to begin, the pleasure waning by the final, tepid bite.

There is no right or wrong way to eat this bowl of soup, Tony. But I think you knew that.

I trudged home, the rolling scent of coriander and lemongrass trapped in my throat, your journey to Vietnam well over a decade in the past. I opened the door to my new home, walking to the dining room. Fingers tracing along the seams of my dining table—a solid, beefy slab of butcher block. Room for eight. You taught me to be less afraid of my neighbors and soon this space will be used to honor that lesson. But first, chef, a dish to honor you.

My knives are lined up against the grain: chef’s, boning, and paring. Japanese steel with finicky edges, the sandscape of Damascus fading from overuse.

Mirepoix. The smell of my childhood. Acidic and sweet.

Roasted chicken. A litmus test of a cook’s skill. Fatty. Salty.

Oil. A small length of white twine wrapped around my finger soon to corset a bouquet garni to the stock.

Tonight, I’m making soup for you. This isn’t your bun bo hue, Tony, though I’m certain its flavor is familiar. The recipe is no family secret, written on spotted cardstock, hidden among my treasures. No, chef, this recipe is one of my own; a recipe built from the passion and love I learned as a child, watching you. Countless hours of joy followed by countless more clanging and banging around in my first apartment’s shithole kitchen, struggling to maintain temperature on an antient electric range; thrilled by the vitality that only cooking can bring to the soul.

Eating well, Tony, you’re right… is an act of true submission. You wanted so badly for chefs to learn to eat with their radars off, a willful submission to the palate of other cooks. You hoped we would learn from the humbling experience of witnessing food through another’s eyes. You made us less afraid of our differences and insisted that openness is just as vital to cooking as salt. So, tonight, we submit to ourselves. To our sorrow; steeping in the delicious melancholy of this universal dish with no written recipe.

My soup is nearly cold. The rim edged with remnant spices. Spoon clattering and scraping the bottom of the bowl, chasing around a final bite. Leaning back, I can see through my living room to the bookcase that holds my copies of your work. At the very edge of these books, I can see the simple, black spine of my very first kitchen notebook. Its pages are filled with recipe development notes, kitchen tricks, warnings, and fixes I learned as I first started my career. I don’t need to open it to know what’s scribbled in the inside cover:

Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one’s life.

I’ll wait to finish this soup, Tony. Not because I can hardly bear the last sip but because there will be a time when I need this final spoonful to remember what you gave me.

Here’s to you, kid.

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