PALIMPSEST: something re-used or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form.
No one wakes up on Christmas morning hoping for a goose to explode.
The year was 2000.
Our extended family had assembled, as always, at 7 Randall Road in Princeton NJ.
As the only chef in the family, cooking duties fall squarely on my shoulders ; as the only semi-obedient member of our family, my brother Andrew suffers annually through his assumed role as sous-chef.
I had that year, at long last, finally negotiated a Goose onto our Christmas day menu, to share pride of place with the (never-negotiable) Standing Rib Roast (aka Roast Beast, to all you Seussians).
Andrew and I realize - far too late - that we have only one oven.
This oven is, of course, devoted to the Roast Beast - BUT (being an ever resourceful chef) I figure that I can retrofit the Weber gas grill in the backyard into a goose oven with copious layers of aluminum foil and low, low flame.
This is not a terrible idea, I promise. The aluminum foil will catch the fat as it slowly renders from the goose's skin. The goose will emerge glistening, crisp-plump and mahogany skinned, redolent of roasted garlic, sage and oranges.
It is, magically and unexpectedly, snowing on this Christmas morning.
Andrew and I scamper back & forth between the kitchen (prime rib, Yorkshire puddings, potatoes, brussels, etc), the back yard grill (the goose!) and the Addition (glittering xmas tree + warm & loving family members).
Things seem to be going relatively well.
And then, fatefully, I open the grill hood.
Remember that it is snowing, and that snow is actually water.
Remember that geese are essentially 1⁄2 fat, which has been rendering steadily into the aluminum foil drip pan. And remember that oil and water are famously bad bedfellows.
Snowflakes are now become grenades into the goosefat pan, which explode onto the open flame of the grill. The grill erupts. My vision wavers, blurs, and then focuses - exclusively - on the large & ominous propane tank
I should probably mention that I am somewhat drunk and barefoot at this point.
My restaurant reflexes engage - which is great because I don't have to think.
These reflexes tell me to smother the fire with flour.
This is 100% wrong, of course, as are so many learned restaurant reflexes.
I dump flour all over the goose, the grill and the grease pan - which I'm honestly not sure what effect this has, as now our two huge outdoor black dogs (bequeathed upon my poor parents by my sister and myself years prior) are now enthusiastically engaged in the goose-fat-drenched flour, in terms of both eating it and rolling around in it.
So this is our Christmas 2000 tableau:
Snow gently drifting upon a suburban yard
The intrepid chef, barefoot & stumbling.
Flour & fat coated semi-feral dogs, ravenous & tumbling. A goose, a grill, engulfed in flames.
It was glorious.
And it is this Christmas scene, above all the 44 others I've spent at 7 Randall Road, which remains indelible.
The idea of the palimpsest has become increasingly powerful to me, especially living in NYC.
As NYers, we entertain mostly in public spaces, in bars & restaurants, where scripts are standardized and our chance of creating an indelible experience - even in our own minds - is next to none.
We try valiantly to inscribe our faint personal narratives upon the city's epic manuscript, overlaying our stories atop the countless others set down before our own.
Our parties & gatherings are meant to be indelible gestures, set pieces, invocations of just enough magic to sustain the images & energy of that assembled company beyond the single moment.
But these single moments can so easily get lost and overwhelmed - and are virtually doomed to oblivion - without the essential component of the unique & spontaneous (combustion or otherwise).
So what should we do?
Just give up on entertaining in this big scary city where everyone has already done everything? Not at all.
Start by entertaining at home : the ghosts of all tomorrow's parties have no power here.
Allow imperfection, encourage the odd, celebrate the surprising.
Even if a goose doesn't explode, you're still on your way to a story no one else can tell.
SCOTT SKEY | Chef & Owner, BITE