For longer than I have known him, Jacques has been famous for his "fish eggs," a fluffy, creamy pink confection that tastes delectably evil. In Romanian it is called icre de crap -- carp caviar. It is best known in Greek, as taramosalata, but the Greeks make it with olive oil and are rumored to pad it out with stale bread. It tastes different: heavier, oilier. Jacques' is rich but light as a feather. It comes in pink clouds. If you can imagine, it's the tangy, savory equivalent of whipped cream.
He didn't make it for me for a while after we met, and when he did, I dipped a finger in the stuff, stuck the finger in my mouth, my eyes got very big, and I said, "Why have you been keeping this from me?" I described it, almost immediately, as "the c*m of the gods," though there's definitely a contribution in there from the devil. For thirty years it was the gift we brought to parties. Our friends fell into two groups: those who swooned over it and those all-American meat-and- potatoes types who were deeply suspicious of it. You could sometimes get it past their lips by calling it "dip." It even occasioned a several years' falling-out with my family when they balked at Jacques' overwhelming gifts of it, an overabundance of affection that could be interpreted, perhaps accurately, as aggression. In short, it was the stuff of our lives.
I watched him make it, and then I helped him make it, and, over time, I tentatively learned to make it myself. It's a mysterious, temperamental process. You start with the dense, fine-grained, gluey, deep orange carp roe preserved in salt. They used to sell it out of barrels on 9th Avenue in New York, with grape leaves spread over the top to keep it fresh. That ended at least twenty years ago, and you'd mostly get it in jars, "Tarama" from Fantis or Krinos. The guy behind the counter would always condescendingly ask if you didn't mean taramosalata, which would give you the chance to brag, "No, we make our own." (Funny, you don't look Greek.) You keep it in the refrigerator, but let it stand for a little while at room temperature to take the edge off the cold before you make it. Then you rubber-scraper some into a bowl, and you beat it a little just like that with a hand mixer on medium low before you add any oil. ("Some," "a little" -- the vagueness of quantities and times is a dead giveaway that this is one of these processes that goes by feel and not by rule. Like making pasta al dente. Have you ever seen an Italian just know, without even biting it, when the pasta was right? From how it looks? How it smells? Because it tells you so? Who can say?)
A light oil is best -- canola, safflower, sunflower. You begin adding it in a thin stream, gingerly at first, and beating. This is make-or-break time. If you overwhelm the eggs with too much oil at first, they'll never "take," just puddle into a thick pinkish-orange soup. You have to watch them and know when the right texture is developing, and when to back off. There is no way to describe this part in words; you hadda be there. Sometimes the roe's ability to absorb oil is robust, and you can just charge ahead and make the stuff and be done. Other times it's delicate and sickly, and has to be coaxed and babied along. The weather is a factor -- like making mayonnaise, you can't do it on a falling barometer, when a thunderstorm is brewing. You also can't do it at altitude 5,000 feet, as we found out once to our chagrin when trying to make it for friends in Utah. In fact, it is a mayonnaise, just made from fish eggs instead of chicken eggs. (We have made it with fresh roe from a fish caught in Sarasota Bay. You could probably do it with alligator eggs. Platypus eggs.) It's, I forget which, either a colloid or an emulsion. [Pssst: a colloid IS an emulsion.] At some point the molecules fall in line with each other in a certain way, and then additional oil molecules line right up behind them.
It's getting those first molecules to find the rhythm that's the trick. You can see it happen: the mixture suddenly "jumps up" and becomes three-dimensional. Actually, it's discontinuous: one moment it's a thickish paste and the next moment it's rugged peaks and blobs, but you don't actually see the transition. And sometimes you don't see it because it doesn't happen. You beat and beat and beat (J's mother used to do this with a wooden spoon -- my arm aches just thinking about it), and the transition refuses to happen. Jacques used to mystify me by saying, "Don't worry, just wait." Sometimes he'd keep beating, sometimes he'd stop and let it rest a while; sometimes he'd add more oil when I would have quailed at the thought, other times when it looked receptive to me, he'd refrain. There was some communion between him and the substance that I couldn't penetrate. I once called him up from Los Angeles in a panic -- this is like 1992, I had gone out there alone to be on "Jeopardy" and I was staying with dear friends who'd become our friends when Warren, a thoracic surgeon, cut Jacques open in 1975. I was trying to make them fish eggs, and they weren't taking. J held my hand across 3,000 miles until they took. I became convinced then, and I told him, that the secret ingredient is one drop of the sweat of fear.
All those years, J was the cook. He was so good at it, and I was so insecure about it. Cooking was a mystery to me. (I could bake and do things with eggs, but those seem to be on a different chromosome.) When I tried, he'd scorn me for following recipes and try to tell me how to make it better. That's something you can't tell somebody, so I'd just back off and let him do it. Around the time he was just beginning to have trouble standing up at the stove and remembering the logic of cooking, I helped edit a cookbook. Some of the recipes sounded really good, and I began trying to make them. Then the creator of the cookbook gave me a subscription to Southern Living, and they must have the world's best test kitchen, because their recipes are not only delicious but idiot-proof. I was still following recipes, but now they were working. I had begun to cook, with training wheels on. With luck and J's supervision, I could even make a decent batch of fish eggs.
When we moved to Chapel Hill, lo and behold, not only were the post office, the library, the drugstore, and three supermarkets within walking distance -- even pushing a 350-pound wheelchair -- but so was a Greek gourmet shop, Mariakakis, that sells tarama as well as sardines, olive oil, soap, wine, imported jams, tahini, halvah, and other things we like. Not since the 1970s when the last Greek shop closed in the Village have I been able to walk to buy fish eggs, not take the subway to Port Authority Bus Terminal and get out on 9th Avenue. Chapel Hill, of all places! It was one of the things that made us think we were meant to be here.
So we sit down to make fish eggs and pretty soon it becomes evident that Jacques has forgotten how. He wants to put all the chopped onions in too soon, he wants to put too much oil in too soon, and if I try to tell him otherwise -- no matter how I remind him that he was the one who entrusted this knowledge to me -- he gets very offended; he feels as if I'm encroaching on his territory, unmanning him, questioning his competence. I have to sneak the ruined fish eggs back into the kitchen, scrape them down the dispos-all, and start a new batch, this time keeping the onions and oil out of arms' reach until the eggs have safely taken. Still I don't fully realize what this means, until . . .
Last week, we get ready to make fish eggs. I give him the bowl and the beater, scrape in some tarama, and he starts beating. I watch, and in a way I've never seen before, I see the eggs rise up, ready and eager for oil. I ask, "Do you want to put some oil in now?" No. He keeps on beating. It's killing me. Now! Now! I diplomatically suggest . . . but no. And I watch as he goes past the point of no return and beats the eggs to death. I've never seen this before, but I just know they're not going to absorb any oil. And that's exactly what happens.
So I take a small amount from the jar and I start another batch. If you can get a successful . . . colloid? emulsion? . . . going in a fresh bowl, you can sometimes save a batch that failed to take. Expertly, I beat the eggs just to the point where they're begging for oil, start adding it at just the right point, and they're looking good. I then take the risk -- I know it's a risk -- of adding a couple of spoons of the failed batch to the new batch. Oops. It doesn't completely ruin the new batch, but it doesn't quite save the old. It's not hopeless. It's in-between.
J is exhausted. I put him to bed. As soon as I can I prowl back into the kitchen and start a third batch. Again, I know exactly when the eggs are ripe for oil, and how much I can put in how quickly today. I didn't know I knew this, and with such complete confidence; it is knowledge that seems to have suddenly surfaced all in one piece from the depths of my thirty-year apprenticeship. This time, I make a test mixture, a spoonful of the new batch and a spoonful of the halfway batch, and bingo! The colloid (emulsion?) prevails. I can now splash oil in with reckless abandon, and the molecules will align like new hires to the Rockettes. I keep adding oil till the eggs are the "right" pale orange color (again, you hadda be there), and then I pull off the easy magic trick that's the reward: I splash in lemon juice. A chemical reaction: the mixture blanches and turns pale and creamy. Mix it, taste it, add more lemon juice, mix in the onions, and then -- another thing J could no longer be trusted to do without turning it to soup -- beat in a small splash of seltzer water, which makes them lighter and fluffier still.
Houston, we have fish eggs.
And I realize with a mixture of sadness and rightness that the master's mantle has just passed to me.