The cast-iron terrine took up space on the shelf for more than seven years, sitting there like a big blue brick, inert and largely undisturbed. Maybe I’d dusted it a few times, during seasonal cleaning frenzies. But I’d never once used it for its appointed purpose: to make pâté. Making pâté was Frank’s thing, not mine.
I know a lot of good cooks, and some great ones. Frank was the best home cook I’ve ever known. He had the skill, and he had the fire. He was both a natural, endowed with a perceptive, subtle palate, and an indefatigable student, always learning new techniques, always improving his skills, always expanding his repertoire. On one of our first dates, when I asked Frank about his interest in cooking, he explained to me that he had retreated to the kitchen as a teenager so he wouldn’t have to socialize much when his parents had dinner parties. In groups, he was often shy. Some of the guests were achievement-oriented in a way that Frank was not, and he didn’t want to field their questions about his grades and his college prospects; he would have much rather talked about Virginia Woolf or Thomas Pynchon. Aside from books, his major loves included baseball, punk rock -- and food.
In Northern California, where he grew up, Frank had access to pristine produce, and to San Francisco, which he visited as often as he could manage, to eat burritos in the Mission or to savor a rare splurge at places like China Moon and Zuni Café. He worked at what he described as a not-very-good restaurant in his hometown, and said he learned a lot from the mistakes he observed in its kitchen. He loved New York, where we met and married, but he frequently bemoaned the quality of the city’s produce. “You can get anything you want here,” I’d remind him, a little indignant, and defensive of my hometown. He’d concede that that may be true -- but the quality was nowhere near the standard he’d known in California.
He was adept at most of my favorite kinds of food: Chinese, Italian, Mexican among them. But I knew from the very first supper he made for me -- an improvised but superior Lyonnaise salad, with romaine swapped in for frisée (which I forgo because it makes my gums itch, honestly) and lardons carved from a slab of bacon from the Polish smokehouse in my neighborhood -- that he loved French best of all.
Frank was an unabashed Francophile (there’s a bad joke in there somewhere straining to be made) and his last name, he told me, was corrupted French, tumbled and tattered as it crossed an ocean and found its way through the woods of Acadia, then stripped of its accent marks somewhere en route to Appalachia, where his parents were born and raised. On our first trip to Europe together in 1998, we met up in Paris with my brother, who treated us to dinner at a restaurant we couldn’t possibly have afforded back then. I watched as tears welled up in the corners of Frank’s eyes at the sight and smell of the bountiful cheese cart that silently sidled up next to him after our entrees had been cleared away. This, I remember thinking, is a good and sensitive soul.
I often told people, with pleasure and pride, that my husband was really a French farm wife. We celebrated many New Year’s Eves with cassoulet dinners that we’d spent at least a week preparing. For our first attempt at that formidable pork-and-bean casserole, Frank had insisted on curing the pork belly, making the garlic sausage, and preparing the duck confit all from scratch. In subsequent years, he loosened up a little and deferred to others who were more practiced in the fine art of sausage stuffing, so we bought that one cassoulet ingredient from the pros.
He also made exemplary Boeuf Bourguignon and Gratin Dauphinois; a modified and modernized Blanquette de Veau; something he said he’d replicated from memory from a lunch at a Parisian brasserie, consisting of a hillock of vinegary puy lentils dotted with bits of bacon and glistening carrot coins, upon which he’d perch pan-roasted salmon filets slathered with Dijon mustard and crisped up with a topcoat of buttered, toasted breadcrumbs. But once he’d completed all the coursework for his doctorate in English, passed his oral exams, and advanced -- or sunk, depending on the day and his mood -- deeper into what would be the very long process of writing his dissertation (on prefaces and other “paratextual” forms, mainly in the work of Henry James, George Bernard Shaw, and William Wordsworth), one single French foodstuff had overtaken him, had become his quest: pâté.
Frank’s favorite way to take a break from thinking very, very hard about Wordsworth’s emotions recollected in tranquility, or about why Shaw had to write prefaces three times as long as the plays which they preceded, was to chop up lots of meats, pack them into that cast-iron terrine mold with some wine and herbs and lots of fat and maybe a fistful of pistachios, slowly cook the lot, weigh it down under a brick or a few cans of Goya beans or, finally, the special plumbing joints he bought at a hardware store for this and only this reason, and then wait at least 12 hours to unmold the thing.
The perfume of pâté while it cooks is powerful -- especially in a poorly ventilated, 450-square-foot apartment. It is large and liverish and richly, redolently porky, and it will hang fattily in the air for days. It is profound. It is an altogether messy, stinky, and painstaking business. And Frank found nothing more soothing, more comforting, more gratifying.
The Larousse Gastronomique says that in France “the word pâté on its own should, strictly speaking, be applied only to a dish consisting of a pastry case (shell) filled with meat, fish, vegetables, or fruit, which is baked in the oven and served hot or cold. The best English translation of this word is ‘pie.’” What Frank made was more precisely pâté en terrine -- generally speaking, a mixture of meats or game or fish with aromatics and often wine and sometimes even nuts and fruit, wrapped in fat (often bacon), and packed into a mold to bake -- which, per Larousse, “in common usage the French also call… pâté.”
One of Frank’s favorite primers on the subject -- the Terrines, Pâtés & Galantines volume of the Time-Life series “The Good Cook,” for which Frank’s redoubtable fellow American Francophile, Richard Olney, served as chief consultant -- efficiently describes what might be called “The Pâté Paradox”: “Their French names suggest haute cuisine, yet most terrines, pâtés, and galantines are based on commonplace ingredients -- pork and chicken are foremost among them -- prepared by methods that are easily within the reach of every cook.” The word terrine comes from the earthenware vessels in which the dish is often cooked, and suggests the earthiness of the dish. But it is a constructed earthiness: though the ingredients and the methods are straightforward, making pâté requires forethought, and patience, and time.
At the peak of Frank’s passion for pâté-making my hobby of choice was letterpress printing, and it occurred to me that our pastimes had some things in common: setting type was easily as tedious as prepping all the ingredients that go into terrines, and I loved every monotonous, repetitive minute of it. Back then, I managed a network of small shelters for homeless New Yorkers. For a couple of hours a week, setting type, inking a press, and printing took my mind off the heartbreaking human stories I heard every day at the office, whose enormity usually made me feel helpless. All the tasks that contribute to printing felt manageable, comprehensible, doable -- and, at the end, I had a stack of monogrammed notecards, or a small, pretty chapbook to show for it. I even liked cleaning the presses.
I think Frank felt the same way about making pâté, which must be very different from writing about Shaw’s polemical, prolix prefaces, and which, although it is a slow process, nevertheless yields results much faster. All cooking is physical, but pâté is especially so: if you’re doing a rough, rustic country pâté right, you’re chopping like mad: onions and shallots and nuts, and a whole lot of meat, by hand. You’re grinding up livers. You’re getting your hands dirty. You’re fashioning a coat for the whole thing out of streaky, slippery bacon, or lacy, ectoplasmic-looking caul fat. And then you get to eat this delicious, ingenious, thing that you made, and that you love, and feed it to others, who will also love it, who will praise its homely beauty, and who will commend you for having created it.
Food remained a pleasure for Frank after he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2008, but not quite the way it had been. Reflux was one of the symptoms of his illness, and it could dampen the joy of eating. Chemotherapy heightened his sensitivity to salt. Unlike many cancer patients, he never lost his appetite, but it had changed. He still craved rich, stinky cheese. He still loved the occasional special dinner out. But cancer is exhausting, and his energy and strength to cook waned. I spent Valentine’s Day of 2010 with him in his hospice room. There was a Baskin-Robbins around the corner. Our last meal together was milkshakes, which we drank while we watched the winter Olympics on TV. Frank died the next day.
Many objects in my kitchen remind me of him, of his brilliance with a skillet, a Dutch oven, a roasting pan. But that blue, enameled cast-iron terrine had become something like his symbol in cookware form: like a totem, an icon, an embodiment. It was him -- or at least it was his, and his alone. For seven years, I couldn’t bring myself to touch it. I let it languish until early this spring, when I was planning a small dinner party.
The weather was still chilly enough for coq au vin. Pâté seemed like just the thing to serve first. I found that most of the store-bought stuff out there isn’t as good as Frank’s -- and it’s expensive. I was going to make pâté -- and I was going to make it the way Frank did.
He tended towards the coarse, country style -- chunky and confidently spiced, looking very much like what the authors of Terrines, Pâtés & Galantines aptly call “a mosaic of meats.”
Frank sometimes sent me his recipes, so I dug through archived emails to see if I had one for pâté. I found nothing. Instead, I had to try to think like him. I studied up on technique from the Time-Life book. Then, I looked for recipes from French chefs of the old school. One, by Pierre Franey, had much in common with Frank’s pâtés: Pork, liver, pistachio, brandy. It did not, however, call for compression. Those weights and cans of beans were always part of Frank’s process, so I had to use them, too.
The Franey recipe also called for veal -- which proved difficult to find in my part of Brooklyn. I increased the amount of pork. And instead of grinding all the chicken livers, I left a few whole, because I remembered that Frank did that, both for the texture and for the dramatic look of the whole livers when the pâté is cut. My first pâté looked exactly as I hoped it would, just like one of Frank’s, just like the “mosaic of meats” I was after: rough and pinkish, punctuated by pale flecks of green pistachio and paler cubes of ham and fat. It was, as I’d hoped, the right way to start the dinner -- but I wasn’t satisfied. The flavor was too tame. This would not be my last attempt at making pâté.
I made my next right before Labor Day weekend. I did everything just as I had in early spring -- except this time I upped the spices. That made all the difference. I brought it with me to my friends’ country house, where I’d been invited, along with a few other guests, to spend the holiday weekend. It was a knockout. An object of admiration, even maybe a little awe. It sat out on the kitchen’s farmhouse table throughout the weekend, until the block of it had dwindled down to nothing. It was a pâté that would’ve made Frank proud. And that made me proud.
Just two pâtés in, I got why Frank loved this process: For all the effort, the mess, the time, it’s also fun. And the work of pâté, I know now, is never done: I can see how one’s best can always be bested, how it invites experimentation, refinement, revision. I’d like to do one with game birds soon. And maybe prunes. Another, with rabbit and hazelnuts and port. Frank always sought new ways to challenge himself as a cook. My Labor Day pâté was a beauty. But would it have been even more beautiful en croute, in a braided pastry shell? Next time I take out the terrine mold, maybe I’ll take out the rolling pin, too.
Rustic Pâté, After Frank
1/2 pound cooked ham, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
3/4 pound chicken livers, trimmed of fat and membrane
6-8 slices bacon
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 cup shelled, toasted, unsalted pistachios
1/2 cup coarsely chopped shallots
1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1 bay leaf, crumbled
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
Pinch of cinnamon
Pinch of cayenne
1/2 cup dry white wine
3/4 ounce Cognac
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Cut a piece of cardboard to fit snugly on top of terrine mold; wrap cardboard in aluminum foil; set aside.
2. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
3. Put lean pork and two slices of the bacon in container of food processor and grind until slightly finer than store-bought hamburger meat. Transfer ground pork and bacon to a large mixing bowl.
4. Heat butter in a skillet and sauté shallots until soft. Season with a pinch of salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Add chicken livers. Sprinkle with bay leaf and thyme. Cook two more minutes. Carefully add Cognac to pan (NOT directly from the bottle -- from a ramekin or measuring cup) and flambé by lighting with a long match. (Be sure there’s a lid nearby to put out the flames if they do not extinguish quickly.)
5. Take livers and shallots off heat. Set aside three or four whole livers.
6. Put liver and shallot mixture (not the whole livers you’ve set aside) into container of food processor and blend finely. Scrape the mixture into the mixing bowl with the pork. Add the cubed ham, pistachios, allspice, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, cayenne, wine, 1 teaspoon salt, and a few grinds of pepper. With very clean hands, blend the mixture well.
7. Make a small patty (about a tablespoon) of the mixture and cook it in a skillet to test for seasoning. Taste the cooked patty, and add more salt and/or pepper to the mixture accordingly.
8. Gently fold the whole livers set aside into the mixture, being careful to keep them whole.
9. Line a 5-6 cup ovenproof terrine with remaining bacon. Pack in the pâté mixture. Smooth the top, folding any overhanging bacon over it. Cover tightly with foil and lid (if terrine has one). Place terrine in a baking dish, and make a water bath by pouring in boiling water until it reaches about halfway up terrine. Bake for 45 minutes, or until internal temperature registers 150 degrees on a meat thermometer.
10. Remove pâté from oven, and remove from water bath. Place in another baking dish. Remove lid and foil, and place foil-wrapped cardboard on top. Weigh down with weights (or cans of beans). Allow the terrine to compress overnight (or for at least 8 hours) in the refrigerator.
11. Carefully unmold the pâté (an offset spatula might be helpful). Serve with a sliced baguette, Dijon mustard, and cornichons.