Coco Peretti was our guest in Springs for about a week last August. She arrived with a neat bundle of chef’s knives and a small bag of her belongings: mostly clothes and a bathing suit for the beach. She was a petite dark chocolate- skinned woman whose Grandmama had come from Cameroon. Her mother had married a handsome, dark Italian fellow in New York; thus Coco was born with a predominance of African American traits complemented by eyes of an indefinable color. She was quite beautiful. She referred to other women as “lovely,” as in “Hello, Lovely, how are you today?”
In our kitchen Coco was a master, preparing her grandma’s native dishes and elegant Italian specialties: coconut Joloffe rice, roasted mackerel, fried plaintains, and a fine dessert called Ngalakh one night, then delicate individual lasagnas with burrata and fresh tomato sauce the next. She loved to cook and, to her, a perfect day would be morning at the Amagansett farmer’s market for fresh ingredients, swimming early afternoon at the ocean, and cooking late afternoon into evening capped by a gregarious and joyful meal with friends.
I arrived home one night to find her bustling about the kitchen with a flour sack cloth over one arm, a huge knife in her right hand, and a cutting board full of peppers and zucchini before her. She moved like a dancer as she transferred the peppers to the pan and swung back to dice the mushrooms for a sauce; the choreography of her cooking was as unconscious as her beauty and charm; I thought I’d swoon momentarily.
Oh beauteous Queen of Cameroon! Oh Pavlova!
She was used to my rantings and considered me a poet at heart, which is why she loved to cook for me. Watching me eat, she said, was as true as eating it herself, as fulfilling as watching a groundhog relish a cheekful of dandelion in the garden! Tonight, she said, we shall dwell among the sea urchins, their sharp and dangerous barbs, the delicate salt brine and melting flesh . . . .
Did she really say that?
Are you really making sea urchin for dinner? I don’t know if Mara will go for that.
She will never know! It is a recipe I got from Mario . . . linguine with sea urchin roe, zucchini, tomatoes, and lots of red pepper. It’s delicious! And zabaglione for dessert!
She always ended her food rants in exclamations.
Mario. Mario who? Don’t tell me you know Mario..
Well yes of course! He is a most charming man. Plump and delicious like his food.
Suddenly I was jealous. It wasn’t enough that I loved to eat, that I adored her and her dancing ways in the kitchen. But it did matter that I was married to Mara. And that I couldn’t cook worth a damn.
Coco said, He taught me to cook with a flair that my father could not! My father, he was a wonderful man, a wonderful cook, but he didn’t know how to finesse a dish!
And Mario did?
Well, of course. What do you think?! He is a well known food expert! Un grand chef!
I loved her French, her feminine inflections. I was tired of the excitement. Well, I said, what Mara don’t know won’t hurt her! Now I was exclaiming.
She turned back to the stove with an intense focus and I realized I no longer existed. Mara was coming in the front door.
Darling I found this gorgeous blouse in town. I went to Saks and they dug up this absolutely dreamy silk number. It’s blue, like that door we saw in Provence! I ‘ll wear it to the horse show.
She spun a bit, awaiting my response with fluttering lashes.
Yes, oh, it’s lovely. Perfect color for you!
Yes. Where’s Coco?
Mara headed for the kitchen and I heard some chatter and exclamations, then Mara’s self-congratulating footsteps up the stairs. Suddenly I wasn’t looking forward to dinner.
* * * * * * * * *
Picture a softly-lit dining room with candles, table set for two. The colors deep umber and wine red predominate. Your dinner partner is warm, sultry, sweet, open. She is beautiful, compact and delicious. What wonders does she sit upon?* You pour her a glass of wine, gazing into her eyes as your fingers glance; as you each sip from the exquisite crystal goblets, an odd sensation tells you it’s time. Leaning in to kiss her you accept her softness as she surrenders, melts into you, and you taste the sweet wine on her lips. Like the sirens sweetly singing she calls you, but wordlessly, and like Ulysses you cannot resist. But no one is there to tie you back.
* * * * * * *
Dear Mara intrudes.
You appear forlorn, she says.
Just daydreaming, I say. Time for a pre-dinner quaff!
And I get up to see what’s what in the bar. How about a bourbon vanilla porter? I ask her.
How crude, she says, and helps herself to the sauvignon.
Well this is just dandy far as I’m concerned, I say, and I pour a big-headed glass of the porter. I slurp it and stare at her.
Mara just heads out to the deck to await our friends, Joe and Peter, the couple who live in town near the farmer’s market. They come out every summer to tan in their speedos; they are very muscular and smooth.
I sit and stare toward the kitchen. Coco sounds very busy, happily singing La Vie en Rose. Aromas waft in and arouse my hunger. It’s been a long time since my last good meal. Fish and salad is Mara’s idea of food, always, to keep her figure, she says. The competition is fierce, she says. I wonder what competition, and why? Certainly it’s not Coco—she’s a whole different class of woman, and not high up the ladder in Mara’s eyes. Coco is our friend but she is not female competition. Those women are the ones at the horse shows and spas. If it wasn’t for Coco I don’t think Mara could relax in the presence of any female at all. We are fortunate to have her as our friend I tell Mara, loudly, in my mind.
Crunching gravel alerts me to Joe and Peter’s arrival. They are laughing, in love, and care-free. It was J and P who introduced us to Coco in town as they all were selecting produce for a vegan meal. The five of us met over the baby bok choy, discussing the relative health benefits of vegan, vegetarian and pesce-vegetarian diets. No one argued that red meat was of any benefit at all. Thereby we learned of Coco’s skills in the kitchen and so invited them all to our house for dinner the next night, drinks and hospitality on us, wonderful succulent ingredients to be delivered and cooked by Coco. We’d had several such dinners already this summer; I anticipated tonight would be another great meal and many laughs. I could hear bags rustling and remarks of oooh! and Oh my god! out in the driveway. Somethin’ good must be in the works, I thought. Mara took the bags into the kitchen and I led the guys out to the deck for drinks.
It was one of those slightly cool yet humid East End evenings with a bit of fog and a salt air. It was wistful and calming at once. They had brought a nice cabernet, which Peter opened and poured for us. We toasted our good fortune and friendship. Smiling, Coco stepped out in her retro-frilly green apron and similarly colored high heels. It was her fifties look, she said, and it helped her cook. She was enjoying herself. Mara had changed into an Eileen Fisher loose slate grey sweater that complimented her light brown hair and freckled complexion, along with khakis, and she was barefoot. Peter poured them a glass as well, and we all sipped silently for moment, staring out over the lawn.
Too soon, deep thunder rumbled to the west suggesting it was time to take the drinks indoors. Instead, we timed the lightning strikes with the resultant thunderclaps until the storm was upon us. A large drop plopped into Coco’s glass. Then another, into mine. The crackling brilliance of the next lightning strike left us speechless, until we looked at the tree across the yard and saw it had been burnt along the length of its trunk. We gasped as one, and then, a third dumbstruck moment: first the wine, then the strike, and now the damaged tree. The first moment was peaceful, reflective; the second was awe; the third, disturbing. And not really knowing why, I ran out into the yard yelling about the weather and global warming and the damned politicians . . . . Mara, Coco and the guys all called me back and nervously exclaimed that we’d better get inside and maybe when it was safe take a picture for the Weather Channel. Maybe Jim Cantori himself would remark on the dramatic scene in our back yard.
They acted as if they were gathering up an entire picnic when all they really had were the drinks in their hands; they kept calling me inside as the rain finally started falling in waves, in sheets, and the thunder sounded gradually farther off. I was laughing at the three of them up there on the deck as if any of them had anything to lose. There was supposed to be four . . . but Coco was on the ground with me, and I could tell by her eyes that she understood everything.
We were soaked. The other three had run indoors but Coco sat by me, moving her hand in circles around my head as if she were stirring her greatest culinary creation, and all I could do was look at her sweet mocha face, knowing she was a master, and knowing all would be well.