I had barely completed my 7th grade year at George S. Patton Jr. Junior High School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, when mom bundled my brother Frank and me into the car with our suitcases and a five dollar bill clutched in our sweaty hands and dropped us off at the bus station on Main Street in downtown Leavenworth with Greyhound bus tickets for Washington, D.C. I was 13 and Frank was 11. The bus station was next to a pawn broker with electric guitars and manual typewriters in the window and across the street from a whorehouse, from the windows of which beckoned aging hookers in chenille bathrobes and not much else at 10 in the morning. 48 hours, six burlesque houses, and numerous bus station-adjacent whorehouses later, Frank and I arrived in downtown Washington, DC, where we were met by our grandmother, Sara Randolph Truscott, a stooped little woman habitually dressed in all black, who beckoned to us from the front seat of a chrome-bedecked 1956 Buick.
It was the summer of 1960, and we were there to spend the next two months with our grandparents at their place near Mount Vernon. We had no way of knowing this, but Grandpa was at that time one of the deputy directors of the Central Intelligence Agency. In 1951, General Bedell Smith, then CIA Director, had sent him to Germany to straighten out CIA operations in Europe. President Eisenhower had ordered him home in 1955 and made him CIA Inspector General. Years later, a man who served as his aide in those days described his job as spying on Allen Dulles for Ike, who had been presented the Dulles brothers – John Foster at State and Allen at CIA – by the Republican party establishment after he won election in 1952. Eisenhower didn’t trust either of them, so he put Grandpa at the CIA looking over Allen Dulles’ shoulder, and another old World War II hand of his looking over John Foster Dulles’ shoulder at the State Department. Grandpa used to walk from the downtown CIA headquarters a few blocks over to the White House on Friday afternoons and sit down with Ike over a martini and fill him in on Dulles’ shenanigans.
Frank and I were 11 and 13 respectively that year. Because we had returned recently from three years overseas, we hadn’t seen much of our grandparents until that summer, so we were surprised when mysteriously, Grandpa was picked up by a black staff car in the morning and delivered home by the same car in the evening. On Fridays, after his late afternoon visit to the White House, Grandpa would come home and greet friends of his from the Pentagon and the Agency who would stop by on their way home to share pitchers of martinis on the screen porch overlooking the garden. Every Friday afternoon it was my job to take a shower and put on a pair of chinos and a white shirt and sit just inside the door to the porch on a straight-backed wooden chair and wait for Grandpa to bellow, “Boy! Get me another pitcher of martinis out here!” I would run into the kitchen, mix-up a pitcher of martinis to his exacting specifications and deliver it to the porch where Grandpa would refill everyone’s glass and dispatch me back to my perch inside the door. At age 13 or 14, I was terminally bored by my Friday evening duties, and it wasn’t until I was much older that I realized what Grandpa had done was to position me within ear-shot of his conversations on the porch with men like General Lucius Clay, General Ben Harmon, and unnamed men in suits who must have been from the Agency. I heard them broach many topics during martini duty over four summers, and as the years passed, more and more the men on the porch turned to the grim consequences of the nation slipping into a war in Asia without anyone noticing but them.
Frank and I were assigned tasks each day when Grandpa was at work – spraying the rose hedges with Malathion, hoeing his vegetable and flower gardens, pulling weeds, helping Grandma with her daily shopping. When he got home, Grandpa would change into his long-sleeve war-era khakis, put on his gardening hat and lead us into the garden to harvest that night’s vegetables and critique the job we had done with the weeding and hoeing. Then we would follow him into the kitchen where he would supervise us as we rinsed and topped carrots and kohlrabi and radishes, scrubbed new potatoes, stripped and rinsed and shook dry heads of green leaf lettuce. After showering and getting into our dinner clothes – dinner each night was fairly formal…Grandpa in coat and tie, Grandma in one of her black silk dresses, Frank and me in trousers and white shirts – Grandpa would put on an apron and instruct us in the proper way to slice or chop or cube the vegetables, how to cut up a chicken into 4 pieces or 8 pieces, how to carve a roast beef or a ham, the proper way to sharpen a paring or carving knife on a whetstone. I don’t recall thinking it strange or surprising that this giant of a man, this four star general who had commanded everything from a regiment to an Army during the war, was out there in the kitchen with an apron around his waist, sometimes even a toque jauntily perched on his head. His way with a knife was like his way with his wood working tools – drills and planes and pull knives and miter saws — and the tools we used out in the garden – hoes and rakes and hand trowels and clippers and hedge trimmers. You held a knife like this, you peeled carrots like that, you trimmed the tail from a radish this way, drawing the knife against your thumb. Then he would call to Grandma – her nickname was “Chick,” as was mine within the family – and the two of them would fire up the stove and start cooking dinner.
This is what sticks in my memory of those summer evenings: the aroma of boiling kohlrabi and roasting chicken and frying onions, the swish swish swish of Grandma whisking together olive oil and wine vinegar and Dijon mustard to make her salad dressing, my eyes watering as I sliced onions, the gentle snick snick of Frank’s knife on the cutting board as he sliced potatoes, the heat of the stove and the steam from the pots and the gathering dusk outside, the sweet flavor of orange on my tongue when I was permitted the treat of sipping the diluted dregs of Grandpa’s Old Fashioned. In the kitchen, and only in the kitchen, they spoke to each other in a strange patois that mixed southern colloquial with snatches of black slang – ain’t ya gonna hep me Chick? grandpa would call as he held a pot of boiled vegetables over the sink waiting for Grandma to bring the colander. Their patter in the kitchen was affectionate and secretive, verbal nudges and hugs that came from deep within their decades-long marriage. Years later, after Grandpa had died when I traveled down to Washington to visit Grandma from West Point, she would use some of the same phrases with me in the kitchen. Even at 13 or 14, it was impossible not to understand that for the two of them the kitchen wasn’t just the place where you prepared food. It was so much more — a place of intimacy and joy and pleasure, filled with aromas caressed by skill and dedication and love.
For Grandpa, cooking good food was also a serious business. I will never forget standing next to him, copying the way he held his knife, carving a ham or a roasted chicken. I would hesitate or recoil from striking a bone, and Grandpa would say, you’re in command of that bird, boy! It’s not in command of you! He would grab the carving fork from my hand and stab the chicken in the breast bone and pull the thigh free of the body, exposing the joint I was to cut through, or he would have me press my finger on the hot crust of a roast to test its doneness. I can’t count the number of times that Frank and I would be in there bent over our tasks and Grandpa would step back, Old Fashioned in hand, and growl: Boys, there’s little doubt in my mind that you’ll wear the uniform and if you’re Truscotts they’re going to put you in command of men, and when that day comes, there’s only one thing you’ve got to remember: first you feed them,, then you put a roof over their heads, then you pay them, and only then can you send them out to die. We were 13, 14, 15 years old and we were listening to that man talk like that, talk about men and war and death…and food.
I was 22 in 1969 when I took up my station as a mechanized infantry platoon leader at Fort Carson, Colorado, frazzled and intimidated from the shock of being put in command of 40 guys, each one of whom came loaded down with about five times that many problems. But when the company commander assigned me the extra duty of Mess Officer, I knew just what to do: first you feed ‘em. I paid a visit to the mess sergeant to introduce myself and have a look at the mess hall. He wasn’t in, but I inspected the place anyway. Terrible coffee, dirty floors, deep fryers filled with rancid grease, food storage pantry in disarray, walk-in refrigerator caked with spilled milk and blood spatters, spoiled meat, moldy cheese. The place stank with neglect, defeat and depression. Back at the platoon, I asked the men what they thought of the mess hall. Laughter. What mess hall? They had been surviving on soft drinks, delivered pizza, and candy bars. I tracked down the mess sergeant later in the afternoon and had a very short conversation with him. He was about 40, a crusty veteran who had seen brand new lieutenants come and go. He was nearing retirement, and it was clear that he had pretty much given up. I told him I was going to change the way things were done in his mess hall. He could either get with the program or get out of the way. He shot me a look that said what the hell do you know, kid, and I went to work.
I quickly determined that the chief cook knew what he was doing. I put him and the other cooks and about 10 KP’s to work cleaning the place, top to bottom. We dumped the grease from the fryers, scoured them, fired them up and dropped in new chunks of lard. We scrubbed the pantries and the walk-in, mopped the floors, scrubbed the walls, the stainless prep surfaces, the service line, the tables and chairs, everything. Then I sat down with the chief cook and asked him, if you could have your way, what would you do with the place? I’d move both griddles up to the line and cook everything to order, he said. So we did. We took out the steam tables and replaced them with the flat-tops, ran new gas lines under the floor, fired them up and cooked pancakes and fried eggs as a test meal, just for the cooks and KP’s. It was good, solid grub. I told the whole staff to be on duty an hour early the next morning at 3 a.m. and went back to the platoon. One guy was over in the corner rubbing his cheeks against the walls on a bad acid trip. Two guys were propped up in their bunks nodding off on smack. It was 1969 and the Army was falling apart. I grabbed the guys who were vertical and sober and told them to spread the word that everybody should show up for breakfast the next morning, it was going to be good. They did, and it was.
As you walked in, you grabbed a tray and the next thing you knew, one of the cooks was asking how you wanted your eggs. Three over easy? No problem. Onto the griddle went three. Hash browns with those eggs? Bacon? You said yeah, and before you could push your tray past the cook tops, you had your plate of bacon, eggs and hash browns. We’d run five gallon cans of vinegar through the coffee machine to attack the lime deposits, ran clean water to rinse out the vinegar, and the old beast was dispensing tolerable black stuff that smelled a lot like coffee and actually had some flavor. The tables were set with paper napkins and utensils, fork on the left, knife and spoon on the right, like your mother might have done at home. One of the cooks had swiped some pre-dawn flowers from the colonel’s flower bed, and a single stem sat in a glass coke bottle in the center of each table. The mess hall actually looked like a place where you might find edible food. You might even want to come back.
I took up an unobtrusive place behind the line and watched the action. Oh, how I loved the look on the guys’ faces as they went through the line — worth every drop of sweat it had taken to turn the place around and then some. The company commander came through and sat down in the back with a cheese omelet and hash browns with the mess sergeant, whose grizzled face had rediscovered its ability to smile. First you feed’em. Grandpa, how right you were.
Within a week, we midnight-requisitioned a load of lumber and several sheets of tin that I never knew the origin of and built what had to have been the Army’s first salad bar. The mess sergeant and chief cook and I changed the menus when we figured the scheduled chow wouldn’t go over. Deep fried chicken turned into roasted chicken with pan roasted potatoes and carrots and onions. Salisbury steak turned into juicy hamburgers on home made buns. Creamed chicken casserole was transformed into chicken chow mein. When the menu called for boiled potatoes the third time in a week, we substituted French fries one day and cheddar cheese double-stuffed the second. The salad bar was such a hit we traded the other mess halls in the battalion for extra heads of lettuce and cucumber, and we pan roasted cubes of bread every day for croutons. One of the cooks was Latino and had a recipe from his grandmother for killer soft tacos with shredded beef and peppers. I scored a box of tortillas and some hot sauce downtown and that night we served up our first New Mexican meal. Several months went by. We hit number one mess hall in the division. The commanding general came by for lunch with one happy company commander and a smiling mess sergeant. That day there were a bunch of very proud cooks back there behind the line in starched kitchen whites. Like every other platoon leader in the Army that year, I had my share of difficulties back at the platoon with drugs and racial issues and AWOLs and everything else. But my mess hall? That sucker hummed. My cooks were rock stars: you want that burger medium rare? You got it. Toast? We got White or whole wheat. Want it buttered? Coming up. Mashed potatoes could use some salt? I’ll make a note and give it to the sarge.
I remembered everything Grandpa had taught me and everything I learned running that mess hall in the Army when I moved to New York the following year and got a job writing for the Village Voice for $80.00 a week. New York was a very different place 1n 1970 than it is today. My first apartment on Avenue B and 12th Street was three big rooms, the rent was $40.00 a month, a drink at Stanley’s across the street was a buck and a draft beer fifty cents. But even at those prices you couldn’t eat every meal out so it soon became obvious I’d have to start cooking for myself. The junkies drove me out of the Lower East Side in the spring of ‘71, and I moved to an old Pennsylvania railroad barge across from 79th Street on the Jersey side of the Hudson that a friend of mine and I converted into two huge lofts. I was rooming with my West Point classmate David Vaught who was going to NYU Law School. Hamburger Helper had just begun running back-to-back ads on TV, so one night we drove up the Palisades to the Jersey City Pathmark, bought a pound of hamburger and gave it a shot. It was so execrable we couldn’t eat it. So the next day on the way to the Voice I stopped at the Brentano’s on 8th Street and perused the cookbook shelf – in those days all of the cookbooks in a major bookstore could fit on a single shelf – until I found one for 75 cents. I took it back to the barge and that night we started cooking our way through the thing. We made a rule: we’d cook something until we got at least one version of it right. Turned out it was a book of French peasant cooking, and duck was apparently a staple among French peasants. They may have eaten duck every other day or so, but it was hell to cook, and I recall seven straight days of duck until one night we braised one with peas and lettuce, and it was not only edible, it was delicious.
About half way through the chapter on pork we hit a recipe called “Pork Chops Piquant.” The text explained that without refrigeration, meat was often spoiled slightly and this was a way of cooking it. Our chops weren’t spoiled, but we attacked the recipe just the same. Essentially, you fried the chops in a little olive oil and butter, removed them to a platter, sautéed some chopped onion and garlic, deglazed the pan with a half cup of red wine vinegar, stirred in some Dijon mustard and sliced pickle (!), swirled in a few pats of butter, returned the chops to the pan to heat them up and served the whole thing with rice and a vegetable. I had developed a habit of not tasting as I cooked, just following the recipe to the letter and hoping for the best, so I never knew how something was going to taste until we sat down to eat. I have never forgotten my first taste of pork chops piquant that night on the barge: it exploded in my mouth, filling my nostrils with the sharp tang of vinegar and mustard and dill pickle. Sensational! Amazing! All of a sudden cooking was something way beyond providing sustenance. It was a pleasure you could contemplate, linger over. I remember that we sat at our little dining table long after we had cleaned our plates, trying to figure how those ingredients had combined to produce a mix of such incredible flavors. David had taken advanced organic chemistry at West Point, and he was convinced that the acids in the vinegar and pickles had combined in some way with the salt in the pickles to produce the magic. He was probably right, but it was so good we were confounded just the same. The chops were complex and yet so complete in appearance and texture and taste. The whole thing had come together in a single pan in a way that was mysterious and wonderful. Listen to us, David said. We sound like we’re talking about art.
Two freezing winters huddled around the coal-burning pot bellied stove drove me off the barge back to the city. I found a loft on the edge of Soho, moved my pots and pans over from the barge and set up housekeeping at 124 West Houston Street above Bob Dylan’s practice and recording studio downstairs. The place was located right in the middle of the largely Italian south Village. Across the street on Sullivan were Joe’s Dairy – famous for its fresh mozzarella – a meat butcher, another butcher shop where you could only buy chicken, and a vegetable market. Around the corner on Bleecker Street was a Pioneer supermarket, a fish monger, Faicco’s pork sausage store, Zito’s bakery and Murray’s cheese shop. Every day I would jam a net shopping bag in my back pocket and after work as I walked home I’d buy the ingredients for that night’s supper. On Wednesdays I made it a habit to cook whatever recipe Pierre Franey had in his 60 Minute Gourmet column in the Times. The cookbook selection at Brentano’s went from a single shelf to a whole section. They soon began filling a shelf in my kitchen: The New York Times cookbook, Julia Child’s Art of French Cooking, a Cajun cookbook from New Orleans. Italian cooking I picked up in the neighborhood. Every time I’d go around the corner to Rocco’s on Thompson Street, I would order something new, and if I liked it, I’d go back in the kitchen and watch the chefs cook it. I learned four ways to cook bluefish that way, and one night they taught me how to whip up zabaglione.
I was living with Peggy Kerry back then, but cooking for two wasn’t as easy as simply halving the recipes for four that typically fill the cookbooks. For reasons I’ve never completely understood, when you substitute a half teaspoon of salt for a full teaspoon, or adding a quarter cup of wine to deglaze a pan instead of a half cup, something is lost in the translation. So Peggy and I got in the habit of cooking the recipe for four and inviting a friend or two over for dinner – usually one of my bartender friends from the Lion’s Head or a Voice compatriot, or one of Peggy’s political allies from a campaign. I recall looking across the dining room table in the loft an inordinate number of times at the infectious smile of Anthony Haden Guest, who claimed to be a distant cousin of Peggy’s, and there was also Maurice, the homeless guy around the Village who sold Village Voice’s to tourists. Maurice was hardly homeless – Zero Mostel had left him his loft in the flower district in his will, so he’d stop by around dinner time carrying an armload of flowers or a wounded rubber tree one of the flower wholesalers had left out on the street.
Then there was my crew who would come by around 10 o’clock looking for left-overs. I remember night after night hearing the door buzzer and when I’d look out the window to see who it was, it was always Patti Smith, who was down on her luck and couch-surfing the Village. She’d yell up, hey Lucian! Got any left overs? I would throw down the key in a sock and she’d come upstairs and tuck into a leftover pasta or maybe a lamb chop we were too full to finish. Patti was always hustling, and I recall sitting with her at the counter in the kitchen when she’d tell me she was putting together this thing with a guy who wrote rock criticism for Rolling Stone, Lenny Kaye. She was chanting her poetry over his guitar, they were looking for gigs, did I know anyone who could use them, they’d play for free and everything! The energy just exploded from her as she sat there gnawing on a chicken drumstick drinking Soave Bolla making plans and scheming and dreaming. Not as frequent a guest was Gilda Radner, who would stop by on her way home on Wednesdays and Thursdays after read-throughs and rehearsals at Saturday Night Live. Gilda was dating a friend of mine, and she’d been over for dinner a few times and I don’t remember how she figured out the left-over thing, but there’d she be on the front steps downstairs waving up to me at the window. I’d drop her the keys and she’d scamper up the four flights to the loft and sit down for left over salad with Lucian dressing and scraps of whatever else we’d had that night, bubbling over with stories about Belushi and Bill Murray and the rest of them. There were others who came by less frequently to pick the pot clean – Phil Ochs, sadly, back when he was slowly going mad and living on the streets. He was usually grimy from the gutters and stoops and I used to make him take a bath before I’d feed him. I had to crack the bathroom door and sneak a peek to make sure he was in the tub and not just sitting there running the water and faking it. When Dylan put together the band for the Rolling Thunder tour in the summer of ’74 after midnight at the Other End, the place would close up at 4 a.m., they’d stay on the bandstand noodling around for a couple of hours, and around 6:00 Bobby Newirth would lead the band over to the 124 for breakfast.
I don’t know how it came to pass that my loft on Houston Street turned into a community mess hall other than people knowing that there was always something good on the stove at Lucian’s place. The deeper question, I guess, is what I was doing all those nights standing at the stove over a pan of soft shelled crabs dusted with cayenne sizzling in sweet butter and olive oil, or peering into a blazing oven at a pan full of lemon chicken, or wiping my soapy hands on a dish towel, gazing at a stack of just washed dishes. Yes, I was feeding myself and Peggy and often times the others, but there was more to it than that. You’re cutting and chopping and slicing and sautéing and splashing in some white wine and swirling in some butter and your hands get greasy and there’s usually a little sore place on a finger where you cut yourself and those smells fill your nostrils and of course the food fills your stomach. It occurred to me one night after dinner as I was washing dishes that I actually enjoyed that task so many find drudgery. I loved it. I loved ALL of it. But why? Well, as a writer I lived a life largely of the mind and cooking was purely physical – it was a way to use my hands and my sense of smell and taste, even my eyes, gauging the glistening surface of a sauce for just the right amount of butter or the crust of a rack of lamb to make sure the chopped parsley and rosemary and bread crumbs was crisped just right. Cooking provided a sense of permanence, as if by turning on a stove and sautéing some onions I was putting down roots.
Peggy and I usually spent Christmas with her parents in Groton, Massachusetts, but Thanksgiving we reserved for New York City. Every year we had what we called The Lost Left Behind and Forgotten Thanksgiving Dinner. We’d invite everyone we knew who didn’t have anyplace else to go – Village bartenders and waitresses and itinerant political consultants and just plain lonely friends, and of course Maurice. He used to show up every year with a different “friend,” usually someone he had met on the street that day selling Village Voices. Then one year I tossed him the keys and he climbed the stairs with Odetta on his arm. I remember that night standing at the stove looking out the window at Houston Street, listening to the soft chatter of our guests behind me, and I thought, this is what it’s all about. All of those hours in the kitchen with Grandpa learning to chop and carve…all those nights on the barge with the potbelly stove hissing in the background working my way through the cookbook…this is where I’d ended up, this is why I loved standing here, my face hot from the stove’s burners. Oh how I loved it so!
I was cooking for my friends, kissing their lips with my food, saying I love you without words.