In 2010 Robert Reynolds, my dear teacher and friend, had cancer.
But that year he battled it out and walked it off. He baked cakes for the nurses who shot chemo up his veins and snuck Armagnac into infusion rooms so as to properly celebrate the last shooting up. I'd say he went back to work afterwards, but I don't think he ever really stopped - cooking and writing, teaching and tasting, complimenting and criticizing. The instinct towards movement is wild.
But sometimes these things, these cancers, are only sleeping the next block over, resting awhile to renew their fierceness. So it is for Robert. The disease had its rest and renewal, and this time around, its fierceness formed, has claimed a small spot on his brain. Unpredictable difficulty begins again.
The first sign of the cancer's awakening was a word. His loss of it that is. Somewhere in the middle of his sentence the words dropped off, as though the sentence was some vast field, laden with dark ditches where letters can lose their way. But Robert is a writer - that vast field is his home.
To lose a word - Death to a writer.
Upon hearing the news of his cancer's return, the food world of Portland has apparently turned on their ovens, comforting the best way they know how. Nobody knows what to say and nobody knows what will happen, but everybody knows how to cook. Levi, Robert's committed friend and caretaker, says they've never eaten so well, their kitchens and bellies stuffed with charcuterie and pie. Soup and bread. Love and affection. "I can't know what he's meant to them all - but it's clearly something significant," he tells me.
Something significant indeed. - Amongst the acts of a teacher, lives become inspired and even changed.
But my oven means nothing to him from Santa Fe. I cannot offer pie or soup during these unpredictable difficulties. I can only offer words - the ones I found in my own vast fields.
So here they sit, a love letter to Robert.
I wonder how I might cope if I lost my words - even a simple one like button.
I might look at my shirt. There is that round thing, holding my modesty. It does have a name... Doesn't it? Perhaps that lump in my throat, the one that rears its ugly head on dark days, would stampede my esophagus.
There is a vivid intimacy between the language and he. Instructions in the Studio are punctuated by his grace with it...
Pastry is ballet: "A dancer can't be halfway through a leap and stop everything because she's forgotten her tutu."
Mixing bowls with attitude: "Scrape the bowl clean. It's an ungrateful thing."
Liquor is living: "You're guided by the principle that the old lady likes her booze!"
I knew Robert long before I started this project, but only barely. We would see each other at dinner parties, chatting about daily life and chickens. But he has always been my teacher - The first time I met him was a lesson on chopping chives. His thick fingers touched the green things with ease. His mere movements showed me the method. But as he spoke, I saw his other art - the sentence - one that washes over you, calming your anxieties over the onions.
Robert was the first person to tell me I needed to write this cookbook. In January 2011 he invited me for dinner and served a divine, yet earthy cassoulet nestled in burnt-orange ceramic. Dessert was an orange custard like silk on my young tongue. He smirked at our pleasured expressions from the citrus. Armagnac, musty and of memory, sat like caramel in tiny glasses emblazoned with gold swirls. Between the cassoulet and custard he gave even more, pausing for importance sake, encouraging me to write, cook and come to his class. Life has been different ever since.
Were I in Portland, I'd give back a loaf of pain d'eipce, a cup of tea, a cherry pie.
For today I give my words...
Love love love,