I began to cook my own meals in the kitchen of one of the houses with student rooms that the Royal Conservatory of the Hague maintained around 1980.
The house (also featured in this entry) had three kitchens, each of which was shared by six or seven music students. While on the other side of the wall someone was nervously stuttering through Schumann’s first piano sonata on his battered Bechstein Grand, interrupted by frequent nicotine- and espresso-fill-up silences, I battled to find out how a slice of pork behaved when fried at various temperatures, how rice was best kept from sticking, how to prepare bean chili or a new-agey veggie all-in-one-pan with rice, nuts, raisins, chopped dried apricots and curry powder. Others had other pastimes.
One of these would be to prepare an excess of mashed potatoes and, when it was time to do the dishes, to push the leftover equivalent of a bucket full through the sink with the brush. This must have cost a lot of time and energy. I (who entered the kitchen a bit later and had to clean up the unspeakable mess) had likely the easier job when I unscrewed the entire assembly of clogged pipes and cleaned them bit for bit. Musicians often live in their own world.
One of the students, now a well-established saxophone player, was a descendant of a family of butchers. His usual tactic was to dissolve a huge chunk of fat in a battered frying pan and to, sort of, slow-deep-fry a pork chop or a schnitzel for dinner while taking an extended shower. If you’re getting free samples from the family’s butchery, you easily lose count. Something vanished and – hey, where’s the meat? – stayed gone. When the smell became unbearable, I searched and eventually found a schnitzel, weeks old, oozing unspeakable juices out of its wrapping and wedged halfway down between two fridges.
The same person who tried the new mashed potato recipe (Dutch Mash in Pipes) also started an edifyingly experimental mould culture in several aluminium pans. Some of it became as blue as the top bar of this blog. We others eventually put the pans in the garden, where they probably still are.
Things like this convince me that one, in fact, needs to act pretty roughly before one risks food poisoning. Most of the grimier experiences in the world of food have the function of building character, that’s all.
Another activity that helps building a first-year student’s character is shopping. The butcher from the street corner was a huge man with a boomy voice and large, dark-rimmed glasses. The girls called him The Creepy Butcher. If you ordered a pork chop, he would stare at you and ask “so, and what will you do with it?” Only after the recipe was disclosed, and corrected by him, the piece got cleared for sale. “Nobody messes around with my meat!”
Frequently I couldn’t face his examination and I would go to a supermarket that lay in the other direction. I did this until they hired a young girl at the meat desk who found it amusing to try to kill me with her eyes, probably as a punishment for my German accent. I believe this was the moment when I got involved with a gang of vegetarians and forgot about schnitzels for a while. We would meet in the upper-floor kitchen and take turns in preparing meals for each other. A brilliant experience: you get a feel for how much seven people eat, you get instant feedback, and someone else does the dishes. As student flats go, everyone fell in love with everyone else, and some of the cooking became quite showy and elaborate.
Later, in Amsterdam, I learned to appreciate Dutch butchers and their gift of keen observation. Master Kolijn in the Utrechtsestraat was the first who knew that we were expecting a baby, and I hadn’t told him anything: “You have never bought any liver before. May I congratulate you?” Liver is one of the standard items of iron supply in Dutch pregnancy brochures.
When Jessica was born, they gave us a pink stuffed dog that smelled like sausage.