South America and Roast Beef

I was on a South American mountaintop for twenty-one days. There was no electricity, no plumbing, and I was in the company of five men, of whom only two I knew slightly. It was an ornithological expedition, in which we would follow birds, track their nests and record their calls; it was also a collecting expedition, which meant that we would also be killing birds and preserving their skins and tissue. There was a possibility of large cats and certainly lethal reptiles and insects. I had never pitched a tent or even owned a sleeping bag. My most burning question before I left, however, was what do I Kindle? I decided that it was not to be Heart of Darkness.

My brother had bought me a Kindle especially for the trip, explaining that the battery, fully charged, should last me the whole month if I was careful. “I do not think you will have time to read,” the ornithologist remarked. I did read, and the books that I read took me as far from the jungle as I possibly could. I plunged into civilization at its most hedonistic and light — Agatha Christie, Edith Wharton, Jay McInerney, Richard Yates. Tea parties, cocktail parties, cigarettes; clean, comforting deaths from overdoses of Veronal and cocaine as opposed to a viper bite; and above all, wonderful urban food like canapés and pizza that requires refrigeration and a working stove.

Our original party consisted of a Pole, a German, a Czech, and a Chinese. We were a naturalist, an artist, an ornithologist, and a cook. The fact that we were all in the jungle made it sound like the set-up for a bad existentialist joke.  We were joined by two guides. One was muscled like a large cat (“Beautiful,” exclaimed the artist, who was a heterosexual man) but rather sweetly turned out to be afraid of bees, snakes, and even birds, and spent most of his days in his hammock, plucking his beard, talking about his fiancée and the catering company that his family owned. The other was scrawny and afraid of nothing. We were, however, terrified of him; he moved noiselessly, and then, every now and then, his face would break out in a ferocious, ear to ear leer, all white, pointed teeth. “Do you think,” someone wondered, “that Sammy would eat us?”  Sammy would also grab my ass from time to time, as I was the only female within a hundred kilometers, which made my companions point out that if Sammy should decide to eat us, I would, at least, not be first.

It was a strange, idyllic trip. The weather was marvelous – the sun was hot but the weather was never humid. There were venomous snakes and African killer bees, but no large cats and no mosquitoes. There were howler monkeys hopping about with their children, rainbows at the end of the day that were so dazzling that they hurt our eyes, and frogs were decorated with pure, rich, lapis blue and white, just like Ming vases. In the mornings, we would collect rainwater from streams while orchids that had never been classified would unfurl, pale and slim, like ghostly fingers. In the evenings, we would sip rum and sit on the rocks, while one of the men would laze with a rifle on his lap, watching the flycatchers and motmots dance past. At night in the rain, there were katydids the size of my fist and as transparent as crystal, and moths the length of my upper arm, with tiger stripes and agate eyes patterned on their wings. By propane lamps, we would prepare the skins of the birds that we had collected earlier that day. The naturalist was the fastest, as he had helped his father do this in Africa in the nineteen-forties. He popped the birds from their skins like grapes. The ornithologist was the most expert, every specimen that he prepared was beautiful; he would turn and preen each feather with his tweezers until it lay in its perfect place. Very late at night, the artist would finish another painting.  Every night at about two in the morning, there would be a torrential flood of rain, sheets of water crashing from the summit of the mountain, just above where we would camp, and we would have to dig trenches around our tents. At dawn, we would wake up, struggle out of the camp, only to find the water to our waist. By nine am, the sun would come and burn the rain dry.

This was not on the mountain. It is us hanging out by the water, while we wait to get there. Our helicopter had gotten stranded, and I look anxious. However, I also look like I have recently showered, which was not a luxury I was afforded later. Photo: Kristof Zyskowski.

Towards the end of the trip, I had what tour groups call a “free day,” and the artist proposed that he take me down to the waterfall, where all the men had been but I had not, because the men were loath to let me stray far from camp. (Until now, I had never really even been on an overnight camping trip.) The waterfall was a glorious place, at the bottom of the mountain, and the pool was deep enough to bathe. The water when it came down was white and furious and majestic. They had seen the bloated body of a viper – five feet long. And it was from the waterfall that one could see the white bell-bird, which the men had been pursuing for the entire trip, and whose mating call – which was like an eerie, electronic BONG — echoed through the valley and punctuated our every day.

The ornithologist, who was our leader, decided to go on a hunting trip, so he left at dawn with the naturalist and a rifle. (The naturalist is a seventy-year old man who keeps pet crows, observes tadpoles and wasps on his knees, and should you give him a gun and a license to kill, becomes Tim Roth in a Tarantino film.) This meant that the artist and I were allowed to lie in until six-fifteen, which we extended – in the absence of any authority — to past seven o’clock. From time to time, the ornithologist would call us on the walkie-talkie. “Have you opened the nets?” he would say. “Yes,” we would chorus from underneath our sleeping bags. Fifteen minutes later: “Have you checked the nets?” “Yes, Mei is checking them right now.” I was still underneath my sleeping bag putting in my contact lenses when a gun went off. It sounded like it was fired inches away my ear.

I scrambled to my feet, swearing. My first thought was that the ornithologist was back, and he’d catch me still in bed. Then our guide Sammy, the menacing one, came gliding through the rocks, with a machete and a rifle. He grinned and came very close. “Lunch,” he said. “Today we’ll have meat.” It took a moment for me to register that he was also holding a large dead bird. I do not like sudden, loud noises. In fact, a children’s party with balloons has been known to make me break out into clammy droplets of fear. Also, I am not fond of heights, so what I am doing on a mountaintop with a couple of rifles is anyone’s guess. Still, I had been having a wonderful time on the mountain, but, as is the case with all wonderful times, I had my moment of  “Fuck this shit, I’m done.”

The artist and I packed quickly. (I think he was as freaked out as I was.) We shoved granola bars, a bottle of water, a machete, and his painting equipment in a backpack. Finally I grabbed my Kindle, and we ran downhill. As we descended, there were helpful comments: “Be very quiet, because that’s the killer bees nest a yard away. If they do come out, let them sting you, otherwise we’re both dead.” There were trees with spikes growing out of their bark, too thin to be seen in the shady, jungle growth until one grabs them. The air was different than what I had been used to, as was the landscape – the vines hanging down, the twisted trees with web-like roots among where tiny orange frogs dwell; and as we climbed deeper down, there was the BONG sound of bellbird growing louder and the thunder of the waterfall. There are more orange frogs below, but they cannot make themselves heard over the noise of the water, so they communicate by waving to each other. I have only been in the jungle for over two weeks and still dangerously inept, but I am starting to register the silhouette of a bird perching on a branch, and the occasional lizard squirming on the ground.

Once we are down in the valley, the artist sets up and I pull out my Kindle and lean against a tree. The ornithologist had predicted that I was not going to be able to read at all during the trip; this is not true. However, I have not, as of yet, been able to read in the daylight and now I am given an entire morning. He paints and I read and we are both lost in our own heads, because it is impossible to hear anything over the waterfall’s roar. Very occasionally, the artist calls out, “Blue Morpho,” and we look up to see a blue morpho butterfly flit past.

“Break,” the artist announced, and we got up, crossed the waterfall, and walked into a clearing where the “BONG” noise was deafening. The artist handed me his binoculars. “Look up,” he said, I followed his finger, bending my neck as far as it would go, and there it was, on the top of the tree. My companions had spent much of the trip and undergone quite a lot of peril, hunting this – a big, white bird. There were very few bellbirds in any museum collection. White bellbirds were hard to spot, because they lived in places like this – mountains which were inaccessible except by helicopter, and they perched down in the valley but on the highest tree. The men had shot two of them, but this was the first time I had seen one alive, perched on a branch. It was snowy, majestic, and also somewhat absurd. The bellbird is not the prettiest, although it is one of the only pure white birds that exist in the forest. It has black strip of skin that hangs down its beak – a wattle like you see on a turkey – and when it makes its call, it flings its wattle back and forth. I handed the binoculars back to the artist. One writer had described the movement of a bellbird like a woman flipping her hair after she emerges from a shower, and now the artist was moistening his lips. He loved the white bellbird’s rareness. I took the binoculars from the artist again and watched the bellbird again. Its throat would swell, its mouth opens wide, and it would unleash that unearthly noise – it sounded a bit like a bass guitar, and made everything shiver for miles. There is actually something quite terrifying about those birds.

“Amazing, isn’t it?” the artist says as we hike back to the waterfall.

“Yes, it’s amazing,” I agree.

“Not many people have seen them. Because people just can’t get to places like this. Think about it. We’re the only people who have ever, ever been to this mountain.”

There is no room for ennui when you are on a mountaintop. It is all about killing and collecting, cataloguing and thinking on your feet. This is why the artist loves it here. I, however, am beginning to feel a little homesick.

“Look,” says the artist. “Another Blue Morpho.”

I’ve always loved blue morpho butterflies, even though they’re a common species and therefore less interesting to my companions, who are here to collect, catalogue, and discover. I’m drawn to their iridescence. If it were a dress, I’d want to wear it. I watch the tiny brilliant dot of blue beats its way upstream, and it reminds me of the end of Gatsby.

At the waterfall, I read two books, Julian Barnes’s novel Love Etc. and Julie Powell’s food memoir Cleaving. They are, it occurs to me, both about relationships on the verge of breaking-up, which is my literary equivalent of comfort food. They are set in familiar surroundings – London, New York City, Queens, and upstate New York. The characters are middle-class, self-absorbed, neurotic. The plots are anti-exotic, which means that in my current context, they are pure fantasy. Reading makes me nostalgic for gardens and bad plumbing, bulimic teenagers and long, rambling, conversations in which both parties fail to connect. Also microwaved lasagna, pepperoni pizza, red wine, and empty, unfulfilling sex . Intellectually I knew that I could look forward to plenty of that sort of stuff when I got back to New York… should the helicopter pick us up as scheduled, and should I still be alive. Our satellite phone, which was our only connection to the outside world, had broken two days after we had landed, so this was a real concern.

For this, Love Etc. hits the spot. Love Etc. is the sequel to Talking It Over, which, somewhat embarrassingly, is one of my favorite books. Talking It Over (which was unavailable for the Kindle) is, in my mind, the perfect book about relationships –raw and grim and funny about ordinary people and their fucked-up lives. Both Talking It Over and Love Etc. are composed entirely of monologues, and so the characters are even more immediate than usual. It makes you feel like a best friend, shrink, priest, and voyeur, and since I’ve read both books a number of times, I can say that I know these characters very well indeed.

I am not crazy about Cleaving, which I had not read until now. I had quite liked Powell’s first book, Julie and Julia (not the movie) because it had sparkle. Cleaving is self-congratulatory and whingeing and altogether TMI (The left hand/right hand masturbation conversation stood out as one of the scenes that needed a lighter touch.). Ultimately, I would have preferred it if the Julie Powell of Cleaving were a character in a Julian Barnes novel – which is perfectly plausible by the way. Besides, Cleaving has a camping excursion to Africa, and anything involving tents was, for me, simply not escapist enough.

However, most of Cleaving is set in New York, which is where I am from. It is also a story about a woman, who, when she is not cheating on her husband, is apprenticing to a butcher. It is therefore a book about meat. I had never been much of a meat eater – in fact I was a vegetarian until three years ago. And it was only since I’ve been on the mountain that I have a craving for the stuff, because without refrigerators, we have not eaten meat for two weeks. Everything we have eaten (and since I am camp-cook, everything that I have cooked) has been brown, white, and beige. I am craving primary colors on my plate – red, with a side of green, for there are no fresh vegetables either. Meat, our guide had said this morning, dangling the large dead black-feathered bird, which he will have stewed by the time we get back, and I am sure that we will demolish it in a twinkling. But to be honest, because I have had my hands all over dead birds for the past two weeks, the thought of bird, while stimulating, is not as appealing as… beef. Beef is what Cleaving has, in glorious rosy-flushed abundance.

Moreover, there was one recipe that would have seized my attention even if I hadn’t been sitting by a waterfall, longing for Manhattan, beef, and a cocktail, because it was so damn great. It was Powell’s recipe for roast beef, which she had, in turn, adopted from a colleague at the butchers. There is something stark about its simplicity – there is salt, pepper, garlic, and vegetable oil (not olive, nothing fancy) and then she roasts the beef on top of marrowbones. It is practical (the marrow bastes the meat from underneath) , and also unabashedly carnal (there is something somewhat sadistic about the idea of roasting a piece of meat on a rack of its own bones).  It was a technique that I would have never thought of before. I could have wept. Furthermore, Powell’s instructions (low heat, and a lot less time than you would think) promised beef the way it should be – firm, but very, very red.

I thought to myself, if I make it off the mountaintop, if our guide doesn’t get it into his head to eat us all, I will make this roast beef every time I have access to an oven and a piece of meat. I will eat rare roast beef for supper, hot, with gravy and mashed potatoes and peas; I will eat slices of it between white bread and mustard and horseradish, and I will scrape the marrow from the bones and spread it on toast and eat it with something made with Bourbon. And I will do this while I have an affair, fuck it up, and then bore everyone to tears with my angst.

On the mountaintop, many days later.

ROAST BEEF WITH MARROW BONES  (Adapted from Julie Powell, Cleaving)

1 three pound sirloin roast, tied.

2 tbsp olive oil

1 onion, thinly sliced

4 cloves of garlic, crushed

2 sprigs rosemary

6 two-inch marrowbones

2 tbsp coarse mustard

2 tbsp best quality prepared horseradish

3 tbsp of butter

Preheat the oven to 300 F.

Season the roast generously with salt and pepper. (By generously, I mean shower the thing with salt and pepper.) In a roasting pan on top of the stove, heat the olive oil on high heat until smoking and then sear the roast on all sides until it is a crusty brown. (Take your time with this; I would say five minutes per side.) Take the meat out, turn the heat off, and throw in your onions and garlic. Season the onions and garlic with a pinch of salt, and then let the onions and garlic wilt with the residual heat. Add the rosemary and toss.

Set the marrowbones on top of the onions, rosemary, and garlic.

Rub the mustard and horseradish onto the surface of the roast, then transfer the roast to on top of the bones, transfer into oven, and cook for 40 minutes.

After 40 minutes, take the roast out, cover with aluminum foil, and let it rest for 15 minutes. The meat will be rare. If you like your meat done longer, add ten minutes for medium, and another ten for well done.

Slice and serve.

NOTE: Powell’s recipe calls for 7 pounds of bottom round, which, as she says, “makes enough roast beef for sandwiches to feed an army.” My life does not usually involve an army, so I use a better quality of beef (sometimes top round, but I really like sirloin) and a considerably smaller quantity (3 pounds, tops). For 7 pounds, Powell calls for an hour and a half of cooking time, and although diminishing this cooking time, per pound, may seem a bit horrifying, after much experimentation, I have concluded that, for 3 pounds of meat, 40 minutes at 300 degrees gets my meat exactly the way I like it.

I do not halve the rest of the ingredients, which ultimately, doubles the flavor. I like the proportion of six marrowbones to three pounds of meat (as opposed to seven.) Also I do still use olive oil (habit, I suppose) and also coarse mustard, horseradish, and rosemary.

The addition of cold butter before putting the meat, in the oven, is, in my opinion, almost as genius as the marrowbones.

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