This is part two of two-part series. Read the first: “Panic! At the Cooking Demo.”
Butter means they love you. In 38 years of mortal toil, I have not learned many absolute truths, but that’s one. Always double down on eleven; never say no when a pretty girl says drive; always stick around for one more drink; butter means they love you: sum total of my earthly wisdom.
When my wife Laura and I were courting (a fancy word for the occasional interstate collisions we enjoyed over the course of one weird year), she once cooked me a dinner. Ballsy thing for a girl to do for a chef, and it was nothing fancy. Just some penne, chicken, fresh thyme stripped from the stalks with her fingers, and butter. It was the best meal I have ever had in a life bound and bordered by meals. That was 10 years ago now. More. And on a good day, when I kiss her I can still taste it on her lips.
I remember butter in my own kitchens—cases of butter coming in across the loading docks; one-pound bricks of butter, stacked in pyramids and softening on cutting boards; clarified butter like liquid gold poured over the top of creamy white grits and whipped potatoes, and shallot butter melting over the top of a black-and-blue New York Strip.
In the sorts of kitchens that employed me as a cook and a chef, butter was more than just an ingredient, it was a badge.
It was the best meal I have ever had in a life bound and bordered by meals. And on a good day, when I kiss her I can still taste it on her lips.
Proof of dedication to a form and a style that laughed at diets and scorned health and was, in fact, trading completely on the dark, gluttonous, fat-boy urges of everyone who walked through the door. The rustic grillwork of California Cuisine had its place; it just wasn’t in my place. The clean, stark austerity of sushi? Love ya. Really, I do. But not tonight, dear, because tonight I am stuffing snail shells with knobs of Plugra and standing hunched over in the cooler pushing chips of frozen butter beneath the puckering skins of chickens for poulet roti and pulling away from the flame as the deglazing wine goes up in a fireball, then tossing a half a stick of butter into the pan with the wine and shallots and mussels, covering it over and letting it steam.
There is an understanding among the customers who come to us, we butter pushers. They’re coming for indulgence, for comfort—to eat something which may shorten their lives by some infinitesimal amount but will make the balance of it that much better for having tasted the snails or smiled over the steaming bowl of moules frites. They come to risk a tiny bit of death and get something amazing in return. And we oblige with butter because we love them for their recklessness, their joy and their wallets, generally in that order.
And so, when the balance of my life got upended—when, suddenly, I found myself writing about dinner rather
The rustic grillwork of California Cuisine had its place; it just wasn’t in my place.
than cooking it—I became a pilgrim of butter. Of tacos, too. And truffles and cheeseburgers and pie. But butter was where my comfort lay and, so, I found myself demanding love in an increasingly narrow spectrum: a pavé of salmon, perfectly cooked and naked save a scrim of brown butter, baklava that bled butter like it’d been stabbed, or baked potatoes which everyone knows exist only to give succor to those who, if they could, would just eat butter with a spoon.
One night, a friend called me up and invited me to dinner and saw me—punchy, limp and sallow, with bags under my eyes, slouched at his bar in Denver swilling whiskey like someone had just kicked my dog. He laid a hand on my shoulder and told me I needed to rest. He had just the thing, he said, so called his chef into emergency conference and had him make me a butter-poached filet of sole in nothing but a simple beurre blanc and a plate of beautiful chanterelle mushrooms, fresh from the dirt that morning, sautéed in butter and sprinkled with salt. We drank ice-cold white wine and ate in near-silence and I could’ve cried for the simplicity and plain care of it. It’s a meal I will remember for the rest of my life, and one that came just in time.
In Rochester, New York, I came home to bury my dad.
In Rochester, New York, I came home to bury my dad.
My childhood home, always small, felt huge in his absence—too empty by half—but my mother’s kitchen was a riot of casseroles and cold cuts and baked goods sent by heartbroken friends and relations. There was so much that we had to use the oven as extra cabinet space and the dishwasher to hold her pots and pans, but on the night before the funeral, we survived on greens and beans swimming in butter and a massive take-away platter of the same Chicken French I’d been copying when I stood up in front of that room full of New Mexican housewives and showed them what love meant when made manifest and divvied up by the pound. The woman who brought it to the house made sure there was enough for 12 of us even though there were only three now—my mother, my brother and me—but we ate it all. There would’ve been no place to put the leftovers.
Butter means they love you. Butter means they know you’re hurting. Butter means they’ve missed you or that they’re sorry. Butter means they’re glad to see you. Butter means they want to kill you, just a little, but make it worth every shaved instant of life.
Butter means that life will go on—that, for just a night or a moment, you will turn your back on good sense, give the finger to moderation and enjoy something without guilt or regret. More than salt, more than sugar, more than bacon or cupcakes or pie, butter is the secret currency of the heart and every hand that cooks or eats. Butter is what cooks give.
And butter, finally, is a pure language: one word or phrase given form. It’s how kitchens speak and friends don’t, how we say things in silence that we can’t speak aloud. It is how we talk of comfort when words fail, when we have no language in common, and when dinner is all we can share.