When a simple undertaking becomes a total nightmare.
I decided to make lentils, so there was no way to avoid shopping for them and the thousands of things one must cook along with them. On the way to the supermarket my borrowed slow cooker knocked around in my trunk. Merle, my elderly Blue Heeler mix, flinched at the sounds.
“Merle,” I asked. “Do you get the feeling we’re on a fool’s errand?” Merle is not named for a person, she is named for her color – Merle is a word like calico. Also, I did not name her. The man who named her died and should probably have had “He loved sexually harassing women and old-growth trees, in that order,” written on his tombstone.
The sun seemed to have parked itself mere yards above the supermarket parking lot. A fire was raging in some nearby hades and a thin layer of smoke blurred the outline of the distant Sierra foothills. “Be good,” I said to Merle. “I won’t be gone long.” I scrawled a note on my car insurance bill and set it in the dashboard: "She'll only be in here for a few minutes, please don’t call the 'authorities.'" The quotes were for the kind of people who live in my town, and less reflective of my own “beliefs.”
I did the spices first—from the bulk aisle, yes we have bulk aisle spices in the country that’s WHY WE LIVE HERE—because it was the part I most dreaded. I cursed myself for wasting all the plastic and not bringing my own glass containers, then thought what an ever bigger pain in the ass this would be if I had. Once done, I went on with the rest of my shopping list. Each ingredient was miles away from the next. While measuring out the lentils themselves, my phone died, taking the 700,000 gigabyte lentil recipe with it.
Back in the car Merle was panting but alive. Merle is a good, obedient dog but I could hand her off to a total stranger and, after a brief glance at me to make sure she wasn’t “in trouble,” off with them she would trot, nostrils alert for the scent of garbage, her one true love.
Her indifference has naturally inspired in me a passionate, disturbing ardor. I poured some water into my hands and she drank from them. I fed her fresh strawberries and she plucked them from my fingers. To the untrained eye I am sure she looked like a starving warthog; to me, her delicate sensuality was rivaled only by the innocent Natasha Kinski eating those berries proffered by wicked Leigh Lawson in Roman Polanski’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
Back at my house, after I made my thousandth or so trip back and forth from the car, I tried to engage in, as they say in the tech world, “solutioning” the matter of my tiny kitchen. It was at this point I started to come face to face with an unpleasant truth: what I had envisioned this morning as a simple undertaking was actually going to be a fucking nightmare.
That’s the thing about lentils, if they were going to soften, they would have already fucking softened. Honestly, you’d be better off waiting for someone who didn’t find you remotely attractive to fall in love with you.
Rage was slowly fomenting at the base of my sinuses. I think all writers are familiar with this brand of rage: you start doing something you think will give you more time to write (making a double recipe of lentils you can just eat for a few days so no shopping! no cooking! for days!). You then realize that this thing you’re doing to make your life simpler is not simple at all. At the same time it becomes abundantly clear you have written nothing that day and if you’d been smarter (and, for example, bought some ground beef, bread and Vegenaise (I love Vegenaise!)) and done some work you would feel good right now instead of bad. You then start panicking, alternately thinking up ways to do this task more quickly and realizing that everything just takes as long as it takes. Blame is assigned to various people, some but not all of whom are you. At this point the day is almost gone and you remember you have to spend tomorrow writing something you don’t want to write but have to write so you can stay alive and enjoy more rage-filled moments just like this one, which you have undoubtedly unconsciously created, because as bad as shopping, prepping and cooking is, it is a treat compared to actually writing.
There was only one remedy for this feeling, which was to listen to Erica Heilman's podcast Rumble Strip Vermont. Rumble Strip Vermont vibrates with perspective-inspiring empathy. I get a similar opiate effect from listening to Bret Easton Ellis’ podcast, but in that case it is because he is so bitter and intellectually dismissive that he makes me feel, by comparison, good-humored and inclusive.
Rumble Strip Vermont featured an intimate conversation with a private investigator who is also a single parent, and also self-righteously left wing. I loved her. By the end the anguish of humanity had exploded all over me like a thrown egg and I was indeed sobbing and all the ingredients were in the stupid slow cooker and I listened to it again as I resentfully cleaned up and sobbed some more.
We were now three long hours into this endeavor and I was telling myself that the worst was over, that this was the part where I could forget about the slow cooker and go do things and that this evening I would return home to an almost endless supply of food. I must have had an inkling that this was not how things were going to turn out because I was, despite the podcast catharsis, still anxious and testy. So I went and bought a $100 straw basket I’ve been wanting for a month. It had come to the point where I felt like it was costing me money to not have it, so buying it felt like an accomplishment. Plus, everyone at the store fawned over Merle, and no one could possibly guess at the embarrassing imbalance in our affections.
En route to my office, finally, at 2:30 p.m., I pulled over to read an email I had been eagerly anticipating but had not dared hope would arrive, informing me I was going on a trip to Japan. "I'm going to Japan, Merle, I'm going to Japan, Merle, I'm going to Japan, Merle," I sang for about fifteen minutes as she looked left, then right. I’m sure she was thinking that this was exactly how I’d acted two years ago, the last time something good happened to me.
Once at the office I was, naturally, too excited to do anything but google places on my itinerary. I felt bad that I wasn’t doing work but at the same time I did have to give myself credit that I had made so much food. Besides, I deserved to do something relaxing and mindless after what I had been through. At six o’ clock, I went home for my well-deserved dinner.
My house smelled wonderfully of tomatoes and Indian spices. I lifted the lid off the pot to behold the alchemy that had taken place while I sat in another location emailing everyone I knew photos of sushi and soaking tubs. But something was wrong. The broth was fine, flecked with onion and tomatoes and perfectly seasoned, but the lentils were somehow not filling it out. They had sunk to the bottom of the pot. As if they remained hard and heavy. As if they had never expanded, as if they had never softened. Because they had not.
The sound that came out of me was guttural, horrid and possibly permanently injuring to my throat. Merle hid under the bed, though to be fair she would have done that eventually anyway. I literally rended my garments. How many fucking times did I have to teach myself this lesson, that cooking was a thankless fucking business? I thought of all the stuff I could have written that day that I didn't write that would never get written because I had thought it would be a good idea to MAKE LENTILS.
Even as I knew I was just throwing good money after bad I watched myself perform a series of tasks, each more idiotic than the next, trying to salvage my lentils, and, by extension, my life. First I just waited a half an hour to see if they wouldn't just soften, knowing, of course, that they were not going to. That’s the thing about lentils, if they were going to soften, they would have already fucking softened. Honestly, you’d be better off waiting for someone who didn’t find you remotely attractive to fall in love with you.
I googled: "Why didn't my lentils get soft." This was definitely a thing. There was no shortage of people demanding a reason and there was also no shortage of people smugly providing one. “Didn’t you know that you weren’t supposed to cook lentils with salt/in broth/with tomatoes/lemons/anything acidic?” “I love lentils and so does my family! I always follow the cardinal rule! Salt AFTER cooking.”
Thank God, there was also no shortage of people who then responded, "Yes, thank you, lentil heroes! Duh. I know all the bullshit about tomatoes and lemons and not salting before but I have made this recipe before and cooked my lentils in stock and with tomatoes and the whole kit and kaboodle and there was no problem and what the fuck." I looked at no less than 20 lentil recipes, two of them from The New York Times, which, with no caveats, instructed followers to add broth and lentils TOGETHER.
Why, I ask you, was I reading this shit when in a mere half hour I could have driven to the Foresthill Bridge—the very same one Vin Diesel drives a Corvette off of in XXX—and tossed the lentils, pot and all, into the raging waters of the American River?
I wasn’t quite ready though. I had one more move, something that a few commenters suggested: I drained the lentils, reserved the liquid, and tried cooking them again in plain water.
I was not surprised when my little experiment did not bear fruit but not so not surprised that I wasn’t furious for having tried. I stomped through my landlords’ pasture and dumped the lentils out into a patch of high, weedy grass. I had quite forgotten about their chickens. Looking for all the world like the ambushing band of Comanches in “The Searchers,” they appeared at the far end of the pasture the moment the stuff left the pot. Most of them were smart and stayed back but a really dumb one made a beeline for the stuff and then ran squawking out of it, her poor flapping feet raising clouds of steam. “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,” I cried, and made trips back and forth to the pasture with cooling cups full of cold water, weeping softly.
I had about a cup and a half of the dry lentils I had just bought left over. I cooked them in plain water. They were soft in about two minutes.
I put the new lentils in the old sauce. It was fine. But it needed something. Of course. So I drove to the store to get cherry tomatoes, since the chunks of tomato I’d cooked with the lentils were not really salvageable, unless I wanted to spend time picking them out of the sauce with tweezers, an action I had considered for longer than I would like to admit. I also bought potatoes, because my boyfriend was eating with me that night and even though his mother is from Marin County and can cook me under the table, his father is from the Midwest so you can put potatoes in anything and he’ll think it’s the best thing he’s ever eaten.
I couldn’t stomach the big store so I went to the tiny organic one. Pot wives were running around buying cacao and kombucha and inappropriately caressing each other’s pregnancies. I ran into a friend at the cash register. I told her about my day. “You know you’re not supposed to add salt until they’re cooked, right?” she said. The cashier agreed. They blinked at me with giant, beautiful, compassionate California eyes, and I thought about how amazing it would be if they just both suddenly exploded in front of me.
“I am aware,” I said. “But I mean, haven’t you done both? I mean, cooked them in salt and not? Every single recipe tells you to cook them in broth! And I have done it before. A million times. With fine results. I mean, the New York Times tells you to do this! Multiple times!”
Apparently neither of them had ever fallen for this racket. Also, around here, the Times is just “the man.”
Then my friend said, “Shit. I forgot my card. Can I borrow $35?”
“Sure,” I said.
Back in the car, Merle was breaking my heart with that special way she has of looking from left to right, left to right. “Merle,” I said, “I suffer.” She slumped down onto the backseat. Then the song “Low Rider” came on the radio. “Low Rider” is Merle’s favorite song. She popped back up, panting to the beat.
“Lentils have a lot of calories,” my boyfriend said as he ate.
I opened a bottle of Calstar Cellar’s 2013 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay I was saving to give to someone who had done me a truly enormous favor. “This is delicious!” he said, “What’s the occasion?”
“Who needs a reason to enjoy life?” I asked.
Later, my landlord and friend appeared in the screen door. She is like a Botticelli painting, but Canadian, and wry and knowing under her glow. She was naked except for a pair of bikini bottoms and an infant. I told her what happened.
She rolled her eyes. “I cooked a beef shank—a really beautiful piece of meat—with lentils the other day. And they never got soft,” she said. “I am so furious I can’t even throw it out. It’s just sitting in my kitchen, enraging me.” She shifted her baby to her other hip and added, “I feel like no one actually gets lentils. They pretend to, but they don’t.”
She had an expression of such tender sympathy that I felt all the tension in me melt away. We embraced. I always make fun of hippies for hugging each other for such a long time, but at this particular moment I had to wonder, if the world was just filled with hippies who hugged you for a long time when you did something stupid, how bad would that really be?