My very first “real” knife was a gift to me, mostly borne out of pity.
I was 21-years-old, living in New York City (okay, well, living in Hoboken, New Jersey, but working in New York City), and somehow getting by on the astronomical salary of $19,000 per year. I lived in a fourth-floor walk-up railroad apartment on the same block where Frank Sinatra used to live in his boyhood days, which was pretty much Hoboken’s claim to fame at that time (and probably still is). I had a crazy roommate with an even crazier cat, and we shared a vintage 1940s-era kitchen that, while larger than some of our friends’ entire studio apartments, didn’t offer much in the way of, say, counter space, or functional appliances. But we were young, and living in The City, and that meant trying to throw the occasional dinner party.
Having had a magazine internship the summer prior to graduation in NYC (where I met said crazy roommate), we were lucky enough to have a group of other newbie residents in our midst, and we did our best to feed and amuse each other on our paltry urban budgets. I also had a college friend, Joe, who had just moved from lovely Union City to Hoboken with roommate Mike, and we managed to suck him in to our little parties as well. Joe and I were on our way to becoming fast friends, out of a shared love of music, cheap CD stores on St. Mark’s Place, and a sardonic sense of humor. That, plus he always seemed willing to eat whatever we were cooking.
The details are fuzzy, but if I had to recreate the scene, it would go like this: We were having one of these little potluck dinners in our apartment, and I was probably trying to chop onions with some sad, woefully unsharpened excuse for a chef knife, on a warped and cracked wood cutting board. In addition to likely mocking me for my sad kitchenware, Joe picks up said implement and says, in his best Bud Cort, “Do you…enjoy knives?”
To which I had no response, because I had no idea what the hell he was talking about. (Though I probably laughed anyway. I did that a lot in those days. God forbid I not know someone’s obscure reference and be called out for my shocking uncoolness, which would become immediately apparent.)
If you also don’t have any idea what I’m talking about, then you haven’t seen Harold and Maude, a Hal Ashby dark comedy (very dark, very very dark) that came out in 1971. The story in a nutshell is this, according to IMDB: “Young, rich, and obsessed with death, Harold finds himself changed forever when he meets lively septuagenarian Maude at a funeral.” That hardly covers it, but you should see it for yourself. Ultimately, it’s a story about finding joy in life, and that’s never a bad thing to learn. (Plus it has a fabulous soundtrack by Cat Stevens, when he was still Cat Stevens. Good stuff.)
Anyway, moving forward to May 10, 1992, which would have been my first birthday in New York. I had been there most of a year, with varying degrees of success in love and life. I had a boyfriend at the time (the brother of a friend/coworker), which was a rare occurrence for me, and even moreso on my birthday. Again, don’t quote me on the facts here, but I can tell you this, whatever gift I got from the boyfriend that year, I certainly don’t remember it. (In fact, there may not have been one–he was that kind of boyfriend.)
But I do remember this: I got an oddly shaped package from Joe, completely unexpected. I opened the card, and inside it read, in his giant loopy printing, “Do you ENJOY knives?” And in the package was a gleaming Henckels 10″ chef’s knife, and a decidedly nonwarped, noncracked cutting board. It was the first of many gifts from Joe that would leave me speechless.
I probably still have that birthday card. And I know I still have that knife.
(And in case you were wondering, the boyfriend was gone shortly thereafter. And Joe was one of my bridesmaids when I got married a few years ago. So I guess I kept the right guy.)
One of my favorite quotes from Harold and Maude is from that wise young septugenarian, who reminds her young beau, “Try something new each day. After all, we’re given life to find out. It doesn’t last forever, you know.”
That knife is going with me on the first day of culinary school. It may not be the fanciest, or the most expensive, but it will be like having an old friend there with me. Thanks, Joe.