February 16, 2010

thought for food

  • About the author EB

In 2003, Dwayne Raymond met legendary writer Norman Mailer over a basket of bananas in the supermarket. For both men, it was “one of those fateful nights when you go to the grocery store and your life changes.” In Mornings with Mailer, Dwayne details the following years spent as Mailer’s personal assistant, confidante, and friend. Dwayne joins us here on the olive reader today to talk about an aspect of their relationship that may not immediately come to mind when one thinks of Norman Mailer: food.

My work with Norman Mailer revolved primarily around two things: books and food. While I came aboard principally to assist him with research for his novel The Castle in the Forest, he soon began to appreciate my love of cooking and was delighted that I was fairly adept at it. Norman understood that there was an essential connection where writing, food and art were concerned and that led to him laying out for me curious ideas about preparation. Consider the grapefruit.

There was a long period of time when he favored having only a grapefruit for lunch. It had to be white grapefruit, however, never pink. He preferred it cut a certain way; halved, scored around the sides to separate the flesh from the skin then sliced into at least 9 precise “V” sections. The slices would float freely in a pool of juice in the “skin cup” so at the end one was rewarded with a satisfying drink. I am amused when I think about this because so many academics have preached to no end about the intellectualism of Norman Mailer and his notions on God and man, boxing and Marilyn, the politics of America and the world and other lofty matters. But what they probably didn’t know was that he considered the cutting of grapefruit, or a particular way of cooking fish, beef, mushrooms, soup and broccoli with as much vigor as he approached concepts of Man’s place in the universe. Few know he deliberated, while lying in bed chasing an increasingly elusive capacity to sleep, how to intermingle flavors. Habitually he would tell me he had mused about blends of tastes, puzzles consisting of seasonings, in dark hours of the morning and forced himself to remember to tell me in the light of the next day. He knew I appreciated culinary combinations as much as I enjoyed the research and transcription work so when he had nocturnally invented something he was certain it would interest me also. Usually it did. Norman inspired me to approach his peculiar recipes the way one might a book-related project: Is the foundation of the idea sound? Is the choice of particular materials reasonable? Will there be suitable integrity to the finished product? Those questions lingered always when mulling the execution of one of his creations. Where nourishment was concerned, he hypothesized endless possibilities and posed incomparable questions.

Norman and I shared many heavy conversations about writing, of course, but we also had countless discussions about food. Once he asked about using one of his favorite desserts, Haagen Dazs Raspberry Sorbet, as a base for salad dressing. I told him we could simply buy some raspberry vinaigrette as it was marketed widely. No, he said, he was not a fan of “corporate raspberry flavor,” but he did have a fondness for the essence one found in that particular sorbet. If only we could capture it! So, I spent an hour or two attempting to master a blend of oil, sorbet, balsamic and God knows what else. It was not a successful venture. In the end, I bought some Newman’s Own raspberry vinaigrette, thinned it with water and mixed it with a heaping tablespoon of sorbet in a blender. A bit later I made a salad for each of us. After a few bites he pronounced the experiment’s outcome as being sub-adequate because although it was not entirely bad, he was aware that one ingredient had come from a plastic bottle. Plastic, he maintained, adversely affected everything it touched. It didn’t occur to him that the whole concept was dreadful; that wasn’t the way his mind worked. Norman believed that anything awful could be fixed if enough work was put into it.

In the last year of his time in Provincetown, his food-lust was mainly satisfied by the simple, raw Wellfleet Oyster. A few friends who dined with him during that last year knew about this near-obsession because he would drag them to his favorite restaurant to enjoy the oysters with him. But what in all likelihood they didn’t know was that it was more than just the pleasure of the taste and the ease of ingesting the oysters. There was an importance attached to them for Norman that went way beyond the act of consumption. He brought the shells home with him always, intending to literally draw on them later; to illuminate the shadowed faces concealed upon their rough outer shells. He saw mysterious portraits etched by tidal waters on them; images of aged, droll characters that were not altogether different from his own doodle-drawings that he’d published in his book of poems, Modest Gifts. He saw it perhaps as a challenge to enlighten, for anyone who cared, what he interpreted as jagged brilliance hidden in the lowly, overlooked oyster shell.
Now these years later after his passing, I find myself mulling the same quirky thoughts in uneasy sleep when pondering a new piece of writing or a meal as Norman did. I don’t know whether to hail him or curse him but I do know I tend to wake up in a much better mood, stoked with ideas and typically looking forward to my day’s work—and to dinner.

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