av Sean S. Attariani.
Basil and garlic. For tonight’s roast, the kickers are basil and minced garlic. Crispy. Right from my terracotta pots. Get a salty piece of loin and marry it with the anise tang of basil, a couple of cloves of garlic, and you got yourself a room full of guests unbuckling their belts, and sinking replete into the arms of your long-backed dining chairs.
The trick is to heat up the olive-oil one knob turn at a time, before you sizzle the garlic. Burn the olive-oil, and you singe the garlic. Instead of that golden-brown tan, you get burnt woodchips. The loin goes in next. Save the basil for last. Throw in the basil too soon, and you kill the flavor. The way basil brings out the flavor of meat is by aiding the seeping juices to embrace the fat. Without fat, meat is bland, dull proteins. That’s why most people hate tofu—tofu has no fat, just hollow proteins. Think of all the paper-tasting protein bars that are coated in glucose.
Benny, who worked under me one summer washing dishes, would be up to his elbows in suds and say things like:
«If you wanna go vegan, one perfect source of protein is seitan. Vegan chicken meals aren’t chicken, they’re seitan.»
Or he’d say: «To build your muscles, you wanna do slow reps. Take dumbbell curls, for instance; you wanna follow your heartbeat. When you’re bringing the dumbbell up, flexing, take as long as four heartbeats. On the down-rep, count eight beats.»
Sweat suds popping across his forearms, Benny pulled his sleeve over his shoulder and curled an invisible weight for all of us to watch. The striations of his biceps thickened as he curled his arm, then thinned as he straightened out. Benny’s shoulder muscle, his deltoid, swelled up, too. The sirloin you get at steak bars, add three of them together and you’d get Benny’s deltoid.
One afternoon, Benny said, «You got your three main muscle types. Skeletal—which attach to your bones. Cardiac—which thrust blood in a NASCAR circuit around your body. And your smooth muscles—the ones that contract and expand your vessels. Your skeletal muscles,» Benny told me, poking into my chest, his fingertip sinking into my flesh, «contains about fifteen percent fat. Give or take.» And Benny lifted his shirt, flashing his cobblestone abs. «These babies. I got these babies down to two percent.» He indicated to a hairless spot, two finger-widths from his belly-button, and pinched the skin over it. The skin fold between Benny’s thumb and forefinger was no thicker than a ruler. And when Benny tried to pull the fold outwards from his abs, it rubber-band snapped back into position.
Around the time when the chestnut trees turned yellow, a couple of detectives showed up at the restaurant. Questions and notepads ready. Benny’s parents had filed a missing person’s report. Young Benny’s college-buddies hadn’t seen him for weeks. Nor had Benny called his mother on her birthday.
Back at Benny’s place, the detectives told us, Benny’s computer, Benny’s clothes, and books, even Benny’s keys, phone, and wallet, were exactly where one would expect to find them. Everything in its place. Except for Benny. Vanished in a puff. No leftovers.
For a while, our new pork roast special attracted customers from all over town.
Many summers have passed since, and I’ve had plenty of college busboys come work under me, but none of them had Benny’s bulging frame. None of them had Benny’s vasculature, which used to pulsate under his skin, supplying all those expanding and contracting muscles. And none of them ever went missing.
Meats with thick, stringy fibers, you want to tenderize with a mallet. Red wine—say a decent French port—vinegar, and soy sauce, make a great marinade to soften meat up, too. A day before cooking, smother the meat in marinade and some heavy butter. You won’t even have to bash it with a mallet.
Before I developed an appreciation for fine dining, I always used to cut the fat off my meat; – one of those count the calories, watch the cholesterol, type of habits. Jake put an end to all that. At some point, tasty eclipsed healthy. Trimming fat takes up too much time. You don’t want to be spending a whole afternoon slicing away at your meat. Making love, you take your time. Cooking dinner, you take your time. Butchering your meat, you don’t want to be chopping and slashing all evening. Especially when you’re not cooking in your own home. Who knows who might come a-knocking. Neighbors wanting to borrow sugar. Jim the mailman. An ex-girlfriend popping up to collect her old make-up and dress shoes. These things happen more often than you’d think. And, more often than not, it happens at the wrong time.
To prepare meat you need the right tools. These days, the choppers and carvers I use don’t come in a box. They certainly can’t be found in Ikea’s kitchen section. You pay a forger to make your utensils. Of course, you have to know what you’re asking for. Splitting skin from muscle, you want a short blade with a narrow point. The blunt end has to face the muscle, and the sharp end has to face up, in order to separate the skin without damaging the muscle fibers. For veins and arteries, you want thin scissors, and a pair of dissecting forceps with jagged teeth on the ends, for sliding out those chewy tubes that give no nourishment. Stripping muscles from tendons and bones, you need a bendable blade, with no ragged cutting edge, but smooth, and sharp enough to send air in two different directions if you breathe on it.
My tableware, too, is custom-made. Pure stainless-steel. No maple handles. No cheap plastic designs. Just a mirror-buffed finish. Elegant. Plates of bone-white china. I lay these out on the dinner table. Forks and knives precisely two inches from the rims of the plates. A bottle of Château Margaux ’10.
After Jake, I always leave the fat on.
In Jake’s case, really, I had no choice.
A lean strip of thigh, the tender part, say the vastus medialis portion of the quadriceps, consists of these antenna-cable bundles of scarlet-leather skeletal muscle. When you cut through the fascia—the fibrous membrane of the muscle—the excitement is akin to stripping a licorice whip from its wrapping.
Jake’s vastus medialis, the scarlet antenna-cables were glued together by slippery globules of fat. These cream-colored dollops gave Jake’s vastus medialis a marbled pattern. Doughy. Succulent. Really, the most prime cuts at Ned’s, the butcher down the road, have nothing on Jake.
Peeling back Jake’s fascia, disclosing all that marbling, there was no way I would spend my evening unraveling all that fat. Cutting off Jake’s leg alone cost a cleaver and two knives. They were the type that Japanese fishermen use to flay dinghy-sized tuna.
A forkful of Jake, braised onions, and parsley, my teeth crunching them all up, and Jake’s vastus medialis fibers caught between my molars, his liquefied fat coating my gums and tongue… at that moment, the door knocked.
«Jake,» a woman’s voice said, creakier than rusty hinges on a condemned hospital door. «Jakey, open up.»
It all clicked. The pastel magnolia wallpapers. The display cabinet filled with porcelain figurines of sheep and girl-herders. Jake’s grade school photos in the hallway.
Jake’s mother knocked again. «I can’t believe I had to take the bus because somebody forgot to pick me up. Open the door, Jake!»
Before Jake had turned his back to me to go into the kitchen, before I had opened his jugulars, before I had watched, with that tic of a smirk I get, Jake crash into the coffee table and sofas, one hand reaching out to grab me, the other squeezing his throat, blood gushing from between his fingers, Jake had been talking about heading downtown for bingo night. Now I see why. I should’ve let him finish speaking, but Jake was wearing shorts, and one look at those thighs of his, the muscles coiling against the fat, as he headed for the kitchen, and with me not having eaten anything in three days but Ned the butcher’s meat and I…
«The bus!» Jake’s mother said. «This time a night. You realize what kind of animals I had to ride with?» And she knocked. «Jaa-aaake!»
I gulped Jake down.
The rest of Jake lay in the bathroom. His body draped over the tub; jiggly breasts slung over the edge. The cut parallel to his jawline curving from right to left, like a misplaced smile, rusting over. The floor draped crimson from his severed thigh. Veins and arteries strew here and there, in a stabbing fit of hunger. Jake’s sciatic nerve in the toilet, wriggling in the water still, because it was too thick to flush.
From the kitchen table, I could see Jake’s mother’s saggy face and silver bangs mushed against the matted sidelight window. Her hands cupped around her eyes, peering in.
«Jake? What are you doing in there?»
I learnt my first lesson then—never go hunting on an empty stomach. It clouds your judgement.
Throughout history, scores of men like me have walked into people’s lives. Not just men.
Way back when Hungary was still a monarchy, officials arrested a widowed countess for murdering local maidens. All of them virgins. The oldest victim wasn’t even one summer past seventeen. The countess had a contraption which she used to dangle her victims from the domed ceiling of her schloss. She would tie a maiden’s ankles up and used a rather intricate pulley system to hang her upside down, legs together, arms spread Christ-like. The countess then severed each major artery and drained the maiden’s blood into a vessel. Not a single drop was wasted. The countess used fresh virgin blood as a rejuvenating tonic. Before her arrest, for decades, men from neighboring kingdoms came to ask for her hand. But she always refused. When the countess was arrested, she spat in the faces of the officers and claimed she would curse the souls of their children. And cried out as they dragged her down the town square to the gallows: «I was three away from perfection.»
Me, I think she was a few steps shy of a staircase. No, taking someone’s life doesn’t bestow magical powers, or invincibility, or immortality. Taking a life is, has always been, a basic human need. A carnal action. A God-given yearning. Like eating. Like sex. Like a woman’s longing to bear a child.
Yes, scores of me walk the streets. Driving cabs. Conducting medical exams. Educating your kids. Filing papers. Locked away in prisons and institutions across continents. Your smiling, have-a-nice-day, compliment-giving neighbor.
To satisfy any curiosities out there. Human flesh and pork: no difference. Brine a hunk of pork for six hours before cooking and you’d get pretty close. Take a hunk of bicep, slow cook with peppers and chives to balance the salt, and no one can tell the difference. Not even a restaurant full of diners.
Jake wasn’t my first feast nor my last. But after Jake, I always keep the fat on.
Fast forward, I’m up to twenty-three percent body-fat.
«The simple way to check your body fat,» Benny used to say, «is you pinch the skin over your abdomen, about two finger widths from the belly-button, with a calliper.»
Jake’s mother had no body-fat. She was, however, all tendons. Skin coated bone. Sallow skin. Dehydrated. Picture an emaciated chicken leg wrapped in a wrinkly carpet of skin. Skin has no flavor. No nutrition. It’s all keratin, the stuff fingernails are made of, and hair follicles. Not worth the time it would take to heat up the oven.
Now, picture a mahogany-brown slab of rump roast swimming in gravy. Oozing juices. Peppercorns. And the pièces de résistance: basil and garlic. For tonight’s slab of Greek rump, it’s only appropriate to give it an Italian twist. Mediterranean style all the way. The rump is roasted to perfection—seared crispy on the outside, medium-rare core. A side of pommes duchesse. The greatest chefs in the world would kill to be able to cook like this. No pun intended.
Really, for this roast, a swiss army knife can slash through the meat. A mallet would’ve ruined this roast. To get this roast tender, I let it sit on oak until it reached room temperature, then worked it between my palms. A soft roll and massage. Like making meatballs. Cooking human flesh, fresh human flesh, takes dedication, passion. Cutting it right off the bone and slapping it on the skillet, like a Neanderthal, you might as well get yourself a prime cut from Ned’s.
I pop the Château Margaux and leave it to oxidize. Red wine. Betty says red gives her the giggles and white gives her headaches. The cork to my nose, taking in the velvety spices, my front door knocks.
«Sorry I’m late,» Betty says, kicking snow off her boot-heels before stepping into the foyer.
I take her coat and kiss the tip of her blue nose. «You’re right on time.»
We’re three months into dating. Three months is a new record for me.
Betty doffs her hat and jabs her fingers through her hair, puffing it up from being smushed, and walks into the living room. In some cultures, they serve boiled sheep’s head on a platter and eat the facial muscles with flatbread and olive-oil. Betty’s head would fit just right on my largest serving platter, I could position it an even number of inches from the edges.
«Hope you brought your appetite.»
«My stomach’s been grumbling all day.»
«Just letting the meat rest,» I say, bringing her a glass of wine. «Another five minutes, tops.»
You let the meat rest to allow the juices to spread evenly through the roast, otherwise it all squirts out at the first incision.
«You know, I could never cook for you.»
«I’m too intimidated. Your meals are so artistic. Look…» Betty hooks her thumb under her necklace and lifts it away from her pouchy neck. Imagine a neck fricassee and creamy white mushroom sauce. «It’s gotten so tight since I’ve had you as a cook. I gotta find a jeweller to alter it. That, or join the gym.»
«No!» I say, and the glass of Château Margaux jerks in Betty’s hand. Betty catches the wine in her mouth so it doesn’t spill, but a few stray drops slip out the corner of her mouth, bleeding down her chin, and Betty tongues them in. In Asian countries, tongue is a delicacy that is shared with family during Sunday breakfast. «I mean, don’t do that. I think you look great. I have twenty-three percent body fat.»
Betty laughs. The cracks between her teeth crimson. «So specific. You seeing a nutritionist or something?»
«Fun fact, actually: a way to measure body fat is you pinch the skin over—»
«Over your abdomen with a calliper.» Betty makes the peace sign. «Two finger widths from the bellybutton. Gosh, I haven’t heard that in years.»
Betty reaches over and puts her glass on the side table. The snug sleeve of her Pasha Mikado dress worms up and a third of Betty’s forearm squeezes through naked. Betty’s vessels are hidden behind a white wall of fat. A cross-section of Betty’s forearm could make for a great appetizer at my next cocktail party. Beef crostini à la Betty, topped with sour cream and horseradish. Betty sucks her lips back, taking in the wine pooled in the fissures of her lips. «Years ago, I had a personal trainer who always told me to keep track of my body fat over the holidays. Told me to pinch the skin next to my bellybutton with a calliper. It was supposed to be a motivational tool, so I wouldn’t binge. It never worked. I never used it.»
«Wanna hear something weird?»
«One day he went missing. Poof. Like that. Without a trace. It was in the paper, but the article was so short I nearly skimmed past it. The police said they suspected he had committed suicide. It had all the signs. All his things were perfectly laid out. Left behind. It’s odd though, he didn’t seem like the suicidal type. Anyway, I never renewed my gym membership.»
«Maybe he was murdered.»
Betty doesn’t hear me. Her head is tilted back. Her pouchy throat rumbling up and down as she empties the Château Margaux into her belly. Betty’s belly. Betty’s torso on a stick twisting over an open fire would make for a killer luau.
Fast forward. Betty’s sitting at the head of my table. My spot, really.
I dim the lights and come up behind Betty. Betty’s flanks are squeezing out from the sides of my tall-backed dining chair. Betty’s flanks could make a delicious steak au poivre with a side of steamed broccoli and carrots. The lights dimmed, I reach over Betty’s shoulder and light the candles, which are placed exactly ten inches from the ends of my table.
«Ooh,» Betty says, «so romantic.»
That tic of a smirk on my lips, I move the roast on a serving platter to the center of the table, aligning it perfectly underneath my chandelier.
The steam coming from the roast seeps out from under the rim of the cloche. Greek roast. Italian flavoring. Seared crispy on the outside. Medium-rare core.
«Mmm,» Betty says, hoovering the steam tendrils up her nose. «What’s for dinner?»