“Don’t talk to Ulf,” I heard someone say as I arrived on the job site, “He was doing shots of NyQuil at the bar last night, and he’s in a bad mood.” I had heard of Ulf through coworkers, who played him up like some kind of indestructible gutter punk, the sort who could be found in cities in the 90’s, but which were a dying breed by that spring day in 2002. Ulf was in New York by way of the circus, by way of south Boston for Fashion Week.
The absence of the twin towers still hung over the skyline, looking as if the city’s two front teeth had been knocked out. We were all in flux, that first Fashion Week after the attacks of 9/11/01. I think back then most of us were unaware of just how traumatized we were. Regardless, at the time, knocking back shots of cough medicine at a bar seemed like a semi-reasonable activity for most of the people on the crew, dedicants of the nihilistic lifestyle certain industries will tolerate. I fit right in.
I wasn’t looking for anything other than a paycheck as I set up lights at some satellite fashion show downtown. The big event was happening in Bryant park, within a tent where useful techs could score hundred-plus hour weeks, on overtime after the first forty. Resultantly, fashion week is like when the rains come to the savannah and all manner of life descends upon the ponds and rivers to scramble for the precious resource.
We were supposed to be trying to return to normal, but with armed soldiers on the subway and hints of panic accompanying the sound of every plane passing overhead, trying to recall “normal” was like remembering someone else’s dream. I was lost, but I was not alone. A guy I knew had to be talked out of joining the fire department. The words “semi-functional alcoholic” may not have entered the conversation, but they were present in the spaces between appeals to sanity.
A philosophy major I knew had seemingly found his calling when he joined the NYPD. On patrol in the projects one day he heard a call from high up in one of the buildings above and looked up just in time to be hit in the chest with a fully loaded dirty diaper. He quit the force after that. People all around seemed to be impulsively making rash decisions. I was no different.
By the time of my encounter with Ulf I was aware that I had to make a change in my life. I needed a hobby other than drinking and moping, and had decided to use my fashion week money to buy fine art supplies, despite having never exhibited a shred of talent in any visual medium. Again, I was lost. It’s funny how sometimes people you only know for a short time can change the trajectory of your life.
I wound up going to a bar that night with some coworkers, including Ulf, in whom I found a kindred spirit. We spoke about the New England punk scene and our plans and schemes. It was past midnight when we decided to share a cab back to Brooklyn and while we were on our way the conversation turned to fried zucchini sticks.
Ulf said that I should come to where he was staying with him as all the ingredients to make fried zucchini were there and he suddenly had a hankering for them. I agreed. The memory is, naturally, a bit fuzzy, but I remember that his girlfriend was there, surprised to have company at such a late hour, but she joined us in the kitchen to prepare.
I grew up cooking with my mom, but had subsisted on prepared foods since moving to the city a few years prior. Ulf sliced the crisp zucchini as the fragrant olive oil heated up on the stove. We cracked an egg and put breadcrumbs in a bowl, then coated the sticks before dropping them into the pot where they bubbled furiously, filling the apartment with delicious smells.
As we sat in the living room, dipping fried zucchini sticks in marinara sauce, I was acutely aware of how the elements of simple food and good company resulted in a type of satisfaction that I hadn’t felt in a long time. An hour or so later, in a cab back to my place, I decided I would learn how to cook.
The recipe went something like this, for anyone so inclined to make it:
Fried Zucchini Sticks
-4 medium zucchini, cut into 3”-6” long by ½” wide strips
-¼ cup all-purpose flour
-½ teaspoon Kosher Salt
-¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
-1 large egg, room temperature
-1 tablespoon water
1. Heat approx 3” of oil in a deep saucepan to 375°F. Use a candy thermometer or test-fry cubes of bread to determine the temperature.
2. On a wide deep plate, whisk together the flour, salt, and pepper.
3. On a second plate, whisk together the egg and the water.
4. On a third plate, whisk together bread crumbs and parmesan cheese.
5. Dredge the zucchini sticks first in the flour mixture, then the egg, and finally the breadcrumb mixture.
6. Working in batches, add the 5-6 zucchini sticks to the heated oil and cook for 3 minutes (or until golden brown and delicious). Drain on a paper towel-lined plate. Serve warm, dipped in marinara sauce.
I used my fashion week money to buy a wok and found a copy of The Joy of Cooking at a thrift shop. I acquired the ingredients of a basic pantry and began a love affair with the culinary arts that has brought me fulfillment for many years. Tracking down fenugreek seeds in queens for my first major cooking adventure is now a treasured memory, though the mediocre curry I made is mostly forgotten.
They may just have been zucchini sticks fried by a stagehand, but they represent much more than that to me now. Cooking offered me the opportunity to think about something other than my own inner turmoil with the added benefit that, through just a little bit of dedication, I could make something wonderful. That is a lesson accessible to all of us.
These days I own a Kitchenaid stand mixer and quality knives; I’ve read Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking cover to cover more than once; I own springform pans and books by James Beard. I love the detail and minutia of cooking, and how, through technique, craft can approach art.
I never saw Ulf again after that week, and he certainly has no idea what a profound effect that one night had on my life when I was feeling so lost. Cooking has never been more than a hobby for me, but it has become a way for me to consistently satisfy and validate myself by providing tangible rewards for measurable efforts. It would take decades, but I had taken my first step towards a sense of normalcy. Thank you, Ulf.
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