Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Fatty Foods and Neighborly Love

Norman McLaren, Canada's greatest animator, won an Oscar for his 1952 study of neighborly love. Spend a leisurely afternoon in between looking for that now elusive job, eh? Kick back a last nourishing LeBatt's before repossession of hearth and home, eh? And enjoy his wonderfully quirky and totally original short pieces, found on any video download site where X does not mark the spot. You need not have the art house maven gene to appreciate McLaren.

I am reminded of his classic pixilation short, "Neighbors," because at this very moment two men in adjoining apartments below me are once again going at it hammer and tong.

I wish my specialty were sitcom writing, but, alas, it is not: It is bad check writing. Throughout my entire life I have been told my sense of humor is no funnier than a burst anal fissure (remind me one day to tell you about my colonoscopy visit), so I am passing along the makings of this idea into the hands of smarter, funnier, and more devious purveyors of the human spirit than myself. Remember me on stage during the Emmy acceptance speech. I'll try not to sue.

My new neighbors are Calab and Cleon. Both moved out here from the Midwest, not to change their names, but with that same wild-eyed crazy kid dream of one day opening up Michelin-rated French restaurants back in their home states. Their first choice, Paris, was financially out of the question for them; however, for people not living out here, the City of Angels is no flash in the frying pan when it comes to eats. LA has some top-tier culinary schools: Otherwise why would we have so many fast food joints with exotic sounding names featuring chicken, lamb, and schnitzel? I told these guys about the cooking schools in Paris, Texas, but they looked at me glaringly and knew right away I was from Wisconsin.

I like both men, for they are completely neurotic about and borderline pathological towards the preparation of food. Even more intriguing, neither future Auguste Escoffier apparently likes the other, although both attend the same food classes. Irony and adjacent apartments brought these two strangers together. As all the cooking shows on cable networks detail, future master chefs are petty, whiney, immature monsters in the making -- more territorial than bull elephants during prom season. Caleb and Cleon dance around each other the way two rival chefs might do when battling for the same floor space at an upscale strip mall. They cook and cook and cook and begrudgingly share recipes with each other. I think it's because their wives demand it.

These early morning sounds are not connected with the construction of the building next door: cutlery crashing on the floor, dishes breaking, and the mournful screams of disgust spoken in French (though one guy is from Nebraska and the other from Kansas). When children fail to do their homework the night before, the rush to prepare for school has a universal language all its own.

This is Los Angeles, where apartments are mandated to have paper-thin walls and faulty window sealant. The distinctive love noises of men in broil, bake or sauté mode are now as recognizable to me as my own more common non-connubial sounds of grunting, groaning and grimacing. The smells wafting upwards from their respective apartments are far more exotic than those found on Hester Street at the turn of the last century. Those fragrances, whenever I smell them, whisk me immediately back to the good old days of Greenbush where all immigrant cooked and spouses fought pitched battles with each other.

Those two lovely wives of Caleb and Cleon – their respective partners, both majoring in online hospitality degrees – make it abundantly clear, in their own passive-aggressive fashion, that each finds the other man's cooking better. I guess this is a motivational technique learned from years of watching telenovelas, though neither women understands Spanish. Did I not say somewhere that this had all the ingredients for a sitcom? Throw in some car chases, fist fights, earthly annihilation and loud music and you have a Bruckheimer comedy. These women apparently love living on the edge. I wonder if there is a dish called "homicide au gratin?"

I'm a sadistic "ho" with no conscience, who eats both ends against the middle – and lately, since the battling chefs have moved into the apartment complex, my middle has expanded exponentially. Several times a week, I'll put on sackcloth and ashes and waddle on downstairs, first to one and then to the other, asking for handouts. Strumming my lute, I make clear to them in my best Oliver Twist, doe-eyed lamentation: "my own gruel be cruel, eight days a week." They never laugh at anything I say, but they do welcome me and my stomach in.

I never have any idea what I'm being served. I just know it's French because half-way through each meal I stand and sing Le Marseillaise, and then reflexively kiss someone on both cheeks. Baeckeoffe, Quiche Lorraine, Magrets de Canard aux cerises, Baked Apricots, Boeuf Bourguignon, Tarte Flambée. My palette is from Wisconsin, so its sophistication level is two floors below mulch. My mom would tell me as a kid when putting food down in front of me, "If it don't make you heave or rush to relieve, then remember bucko, it's free."

Lately after these gluttonous visits, I spend long hours at the computer looking up the recipes to see whether I've broken not only any ancient dietary laws but those federal laws about eating endangered species. If I could only find a woman who could cook like this and humiliate me in front of others, I would be in Crème Patisserie heaven. Then all I would need is a job.

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