Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Memories of Augusta

Our cat Augusta has been dead for two months now, but I still think about her every day. From time to time I write down memories of her. Here are some of them, in the order in which they came to me--no order at all, I guess.

Some unspeakable villain abandoned this tiny six-week-old kitten in deep snow on December 1st or 2nd, 1995, at the head of the driveway of the West Boulder Ranch, my home in Montana, where Elizabeth had only recently come to live with me. We knew that the kitten had come the whole quarter-mile down the drive because later in the day I backtracked, following her little footprint in the snow.

I had been in the tractor barn when I saw a little black animal dart behind something. I pursued it and eventually captured the terrified kitten.

The daughter of our ranch manager was visiting at the time, and she wanted to adopt her. At first we said fine. Then we learned that the little girl already had two cats, and she lived with her mother in what in Montana is known as a trailer house, and her mother did not want another cat. Thus by default the kitten became ours.

We named her Augusta in honor of P. G. Wodehouse’s priceless character Augustus (Gussie) Fink-Nottle. We thought we were going to call her Gussie, but she soon displayed a sort of dignified self-possession to which her full name seemed better suited.

I cut down a cardboard box and filled it with dirt and leaf duff for a temporary litter box, and she knew right away what it was for. When I went to the refrigerator to get some milk and to look for something for her to eat, she stood in front of it with her little stump of a tail vibrating. We now knew she had been raised in a household. Well, I say raised: When we took her to the vet for a checkup and vaccination, he estimated her age at six weeks.

The iron rule was that she would not be allowed to sleep in the bedroom. That lasted two days. We had made her a little bed, but when we moved it into the bedroom—after two nights of the most pitiful mewing—she was not interested. With great politeness she curled up at the foot of our bed, between our feet, and did not come farther toward our heads.

Her two favorite toys both came from a pet shop in Billings. The best of her life, by far, was the Anchovy Mouse, a hardish plastic cylinder with a rattle of some sort inside and covered with supposedly anchovy-scented orange and green fake fur. She adored it. Played with it for years, long after it had lost its smell. I tried and tried to find another one but never could—couldn’t even find anyone who had ever heard of such a thing.

The other was the Spider Ball, an adaptation of the Furry Spider after she had pulled off most of its black pipe-cleaner legs. I wound the legs into a fuzzy black ball that rolled well and bounced well. Hannah Hinchman told us that cats could be taught to retrieve. When Augusta was on the bed in the morning, we would throw the Spider Ball and she would chase it, and sometimes, by God, she would bring it back. With lavish praise, she began to get the idea. She never really learned to retrieve with any consistency, but then we didn’t try to teach her with any real consistency either. But she did continue to love to chase the Spider Ball, and I believe I made at least a couple of others over the years.

She liked to go outside, but she never liked the snow. I remember so well one time when she was quite little when she came back in the back door (through the kitchen bathroom) crying pitifully, with snow packed between the little black pads of her toes. We held them and melted it out.

When Elizabeth and I came back from our honeymoon in July 1996, we found to our immense dismay that our ranch manager’s idiot niece, whom we had hired to live in the house and take care of Augusta, had abandoned the job after five days and gone home to Wyoming. For the rest of the time we were away, the manager’s idiot son came over and fed her and from time to time cleaned out her litter box, but never did anything more. Six-month-old Augusta had basically been ignored for a month, left alone except to be fed. We always believed that this isolation powerfully influence her subsequent fear of strangers.

And as I look back over my appointment calendar for December 1995 and the first five months of 1996, I find that we ourselves were away a great deal. In fact we left Augusta for the first time on December 19—seventeen days after we first laid eyes on her. We left her in the care of the little girl who had wanted to keep her, in fact, in that cat-packed trailer outside of Big Timber.

We went to New York for what seems to have been a week in February 1996. We went to Mexico for a week in March. San Francisco, a week in April. New York in May. It seems we bear some responsibility for Augusta’s loneliness too.

Shame on us. And yet—we could have been worse. Many cats have suffered much worse fates. Yeah, and so have said, through the ages, jailers, sadists, freaks, pederasts, torturers....And yet: However much she may have been neglected, mayn’t she have slept through much of the time in those times—hours, days—in some confidence that we would be coming back, that she was loved, that love was the fundamental condition of her existence?—because her existence was fundamentally social and we were her society in toto. She did seem to be able to sleep through dull nothingness, like long car trips. Can we say that she could do the same in our long absences. Well, wishes are horses and beggars can ride. No?

I can say that she never knew resentment, never showed anger or peevishness on our return, only gladness: going up and down between the dining room chair legs on tiptoe, back arched, wanting to be pulled out (even if gripping the rug with her claws) and held and touched and talked to—shy, but so glad to see us.

Sometimes when we came home, especially in later years, she would wake up from sleep so deep that she would appear at the top of the stairs blinking as if coming out of a dark cave. Is that really you, at long last? And then she would find herself, get into gear, bop down the stairs, full of beans, shining gladness, herself again, Augusta. Good kitty. Happy kitty.

Sometimes she would hide behind the dining room curtains with her tail sticking out.

Sometimes she would be stuck in a closet all day and never let out a peep. When you opened the door, out she would stroll.

When I was sick or sad, she always knew, and always came to be with me on the bed. If I felt broken-hearted, her manner was especially gentle. The worse I felt, the closer she would come—even to my face.

She was always gentle. Gentleness may have been her essential quality.

Lying in the sun. How when the sun came from behind her it showed that she was in fact, secretly, a striped cat! Brown and darker brown. This always amazed me.

She did not much like being picked up until her last couple of weeks alive, but sometimes, despite herself, she would put a paw over your shoulder and let herself be carried like a baby. In early years, she would really struggle, no matter how benign your purpose.

Motel insanity. Kitty Valium in Nevada: bumping into the furniture, falling off the bed, yowling all night.

Sniffing your extended index finger as a morning greeting in bed—always almost as if it were new.

Walking the upstairs banister tra la la, no slightest worry of falling.

Rarely: locked out of the house and hollering like a banshee.

In a quiet room, the unmistakable sound of Augusta coming at a trot: bup bup bup bup.

Concomitant: She always knew the sound of either Elizabeth or me or both coming up the front steps, and always would come to greet us.

Especially when she was young, she would plunge into laundry fresh and warm from the dryer and bury herself inside. She always loved to lie in laundry even when it wasn’t warm.

In middle years, when I peed she would put her paws on the rim of the toilet and watch where the stream hit the water. When it stopped, she jumped down immediately.

When she was really licking her butt good, she would raise one back leg to a perfect vertical, as if in yoga, beautifully displaying those four little black pads.

Augusta knew when and how to look you in the eye—in what I think of as a human way, to connect, to see what you’re thinking, not the “animal” way which is a challenge: She would check to see how you were feeling, what was going on between the two of you.

Sleeping in a near-perfect circle with her head totally upside down. Even, sometimes, on the bed next to me: That was real security.

When she saw the brush in your hand, more often than not she would “assume the position.” You would say, “brushing?”—she knew the word well—and you could see her whole body relax into that sphinx posture, facing away from you, head high, ready.

Jumping up on the dining table and biting the flowers, especially if they were tulips. She didn’t want to eat them—she just wanted to annoy us slightly. It was like messing with the rubber monkey on my desk when I was working, just to bug me.

So many times, in Montana, my heart would sink when I, or we, called and called, “Augusta! Augusta! Au-gusss-taaaa...!” and she would not come, damn her. The heart-sinking was always premature, of course, because she always did come (except for the few times when she was stuck somewhere—up a cottonwood tree all night, chased into a culvert by coyotes, etc.).

At last, in the sunset light, she would come bounding, glad, and oh! I was gladder (she had no idea), in arcs over the tall grass, black arcs over the gold green, her eyes at the top of each arc calibrating all the necessary information: where I was, the house, the fence, the light, the distance, perhaps her joy, perhaps even the joy between us, the joy we shared in those moments as she came closer, closer. Those eager eyes. Augusta! Piece of shit! Do you realize how we’ve been worrying? Well, of course not.

Especially once we had moved to Bush Street, Augusta particularly liked to have company when she used her litter box. Often she would wait until both Elizabeth and I were in the kitchen, especially if she needed to poop.

There came a time in her last couple of years—it may have had to do with some change in the food we were giving her—when her shit smelled unbelievably foul. Sometimes, moreover, it was liquidy, goopy. The stench could fill the kitchen and soon the whole downstairs within minutes, and so naturally we would scoop up the poop and bag it up and get it the hell out of the house in a hurry. This embarrassed Augusta, and often then, after delivering a particularly stinky one, she would dive through her cat door, fleeing outside. I don’t think it was that she minded the smell herself—she was ashamed that it bothered us so much.

Augusta loved a sandbox freshly scooped and combed smooth. Best of all was when, roughly monthly, we threw out the old sand, washed the litter box thoroughly, and filled it deep with new, preferably unscented Arm & Hammer cat litter. She could hardly wait to get in and christen it with a big fresh poop.

She loved cereal milk—the milk left when we finished our breakfast cereal. Elizabeth believed that her particular vocalization when she knew it was coming—and she did have one—actually sounded like “milk,” and, well, it sort of did. Sometimes she would sneak onto the table and start lapping it up right there if she thought she could get away with it, and sometimes she could.

Augusta never bit anybody, except Elizabeth, and that was only for fun. Elizabeth was actually somewhat horrified, and yet she also played along, half playing, half serious. This was almost always in the morning, when Elizabeth would be wearing a robe and slippers. Augusta’s favorite targets were her ankles or, if the slippers were backless, her heels. She would follow with her tail straight up and her head already cocked sideways and her mouth partway open, ready to nip. Oh, how she loved to do it! At other times, when scolded or otherwise discouraged—sometimes Elizabeth would drop a newspaper on the floor in front of her, wham! which really did set her back—Augusta would then settle for biting the hem of Elizabeth’s robe. Never once did she try this with me, or anybody else.

Sometimes, when Elizabeth bent over her, Augusta would bite her hair.

There was a particular look on her face when she was thinking about starting a round of the biting gam . We called it, naturally, bitey. Uh oh, she’s looking bitey.

Of course she loved to hunt, especially when she was young. In Montana there were mice and voles and other little mammals, which she would often torture before finally gulping them down in two bites. In San Francisco, when we first moved to Bush Street in 1998, the basement of the house next door was infested with rats, and Augusta kept coming into our house with tiny baby ones in her mouth, very not dead. It was an unspeakably filthy place, full of rotting old furniture, broken bicycles, darkness. We soon closed it off so she couldn’t get in.

In both Montana and San Francisco there were always birds, and she loved to kill them too. She could bat a hummingbird out of the air on the fly. And would chomp it and swallow it quickly. Other birds took a little more work, and she would ultimately pull them in half before swallowing them; she never really chewed them particularly, just got them in her mouth and swallowed them down, beak, feet, feathers and all.

My favorite one was the mourning dove she brought into the house one day very much alive but firmly clamped in her mouth. It looked as if it was three-quarters as big as she was, and she held it with such grace and pride she reminded me of a retriever dog. It wasn’t long before she released the bird, and the epic chase began. She caught it repeatedly, and released it again and again. At first it was fun to watch, but after a while the poor bird was bleeding all over everything and I was seriously trying to catch it. I didn’t want to spoil her hunt altogether, but I did think that the coup de grace might just as well take place outside. In the event, I was able to catch the dove only as it was near death from shock, perched on the rim of the bathtub.

Augusta did not appreciate the interference, but politely followed her dove outside and made swift work of its dispatching. She didn't eat it.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Forward into the Past in Quest of Craig Claiborne

I've been continuing to cook my way into Craig Claiborne's mind. Amanda Hesser's new Essential New York Times Cookbook reprints a ton of his recipes, and she has done an excellent job of choosing particularly evocative ones. For some longtime Brit friends last night I did Claiborne's roast filet of beef with bordelaise sauce. Filet is generally deprecated as mushy and flavorless, but that which I got from the Golden Gate Meat Company--which really does have the best of everything--was dry-aged and firm and luscious (and organic and amazingly expensive).

For the sauce I cheated a bit by using Golden Gate's veal stock, which they make completely according to the rules. It's a very easy sauce once you've got that. You just reduce some red wine with shallots down to a goo, combine it with the stock, and reduce that slowly till it's saucy-ish. At that point it seemed a little sour and a little bitter, so I strained out the shallots, which had gotten kind of pickly; then I added a wee tad of sugar, which did the trick.

The meat cooks very fast indeed--I barely caught it at 125 in the fat end after only fifteen minutes. After a good twenty-minute rest, however, it was uniformly rosy straight through. A few tablespoons of butter gave my bordelaise the body it needed, and bingo, that was one hell of a roast beef.

Per person I served also one carrot roasted golden brown and one ratte potato roasted crisp in butter, and that austere plate looked like something that Craig would have approved.

And now I've been thinking in the opposite direction--toward a future, this one most likely altogether hypothetical because it looks as if we're not going to be cooking a Thanksgiving dinner this year and even if we were, Elizabeth would never tolerate this menu. My idea was not one of these deconstructions that are so fashionable these days but rather an extrapolation of the basic American Thanksgiving stuff into classical French dishes. Or mostly or sort of. Hence this menu, which also postulates a bunch of staff, which of course is not in the cards either:


Consommé de dinde aux gnocchi di ricotta, di potiron, and de truffe noire.

Salad of “sticks”—puntarelle, celery, carrot, fennel, maybe fried bucatini, all dropped haphazard on the plate like “52 pickup” and dressed with walnut oil, lime juice, and salt.

With the first two courses, Champagne.


Blanquette de dinde à l’ancienne, aux trompettes de la mort; sauce à la crème et à la truffe blanche.

Three purées: chestnut, turnip, and carrot.

Candied crisp-roasted cranberries.

Cornbread “crackers.”

With this, a Rhine auslese.


Three blue cheeses: Humboldt Fog, Roquefort, and Stilton, each with a different honey; plain bread. With a young Port or an older Sauternes.


Warren pear, candied huckleberries, licorice. With eau de vie de Poire.

A nice nap.