My partner and I were working in New York in 2001. We were doing a private catering gig where we cooked parties for a wealthy couple for the summer months on their private estate in the Hamptons. It was an experience filled with fresh produce, no budgets and lots of cooking – bliss and hard work wrapped up in a New York summer. The couple were generous enough to allow us to stay in the Manhattan apartment when there were no parties planned and it was there, on the corner of East 70th and 5th, we woke on Tuesday September 11th to the sound of sirens.
Initially, we thought little of it, this is New York, you hear sirens all the time but as the day unfolded and fears were realised and stretched to unfathomable arcs we had a job to do – we had to cook.
The woman we worked for called us (at one of the rare moments of the day the phones were working) and told us her niece would be coming to the apartment with her son and partner, their apartment on Battery Park had been badly damaged and there could be other friends who needed refuge – “get dinner organised” she asked and we ventured out, to a very different city we’d gone to sleep to.
No cars on roads, office paper flying everywhere, the sound of footsteps, thousands of footsteps of the people marching uptown away from the nightmare and all under a brilliant blue sky – a sky, like the blue brilliance of the Melbourne sky in late spring, you squint from the harsh light but feel safe in its warmth.
It was around 1030am and we found a supermarket on Lexington Avenue, already crowded with anxious consumers. Shelves were emptying, trolleys were overloaded and no one spoke – the news on the radio in the background overtook all desire for conversation. There were three chickens left in the refrigerated section – free-range, plump and pink – we took them, bought lots of the vegetables that were remaining as well as cheeses, water, bread and stood in the queue waiting our turn. Unbelievably some people were asking for their purchases to be home-delivered, rumours muttered through the lines about cash-only (it wasn’t true) and a little boy held his mother’s hand saying repeatedly, “some buildings fell down”. It was eery, uncomfortable but necessary.
The rest of the day we spent in the kitchen of the apartment, chopping garlic, preparing the chickens with seasoning and herbaceous olive oil, washing leafy green vegetables and slicing fat zucchinis, fleshy tomatoes and dousing them with vinegars and oils. The chickens roasted beautifully, blistered skin, golden and sizzling. The comfort of its perfume filled the enormous apartment and as we poured wine for the family as they arrived, they insisted we have a glass too.
We all sat together that evening and ate. The man of the house made a toast to sitting at the table, to being at the table and to those who wouldn’t be at their tables that night. The chicken was the perfect comfort…it was the arm around your shoulder from a friend, a blanket on a cool night. In a surrounding of complete confusion, devastation and fear, none of us knew what the next day would bring but there was a meal and it was good.
There was lots of wine, lots of conversation and lots of silences…it was a day that changed everything but couldn’t change the comfort brought about by a good roast chicken.