Eat, pray, shove

Cooking with Mailer in two new memoirs
By JAMES PARKER  |  March 30, 2010

SIGNIFICANT OTHERS? Mailer, who was married to Norris for 27 years, explained his infidelities as part of the creative process.

A Ticket To The Circus | By Norris Church Mailer | Random House | 432 pages | $26

Mornings with Mailer | By Dwayne Raymond | Harper Perennial | 352 PAGES | $13.99 [paper]

Fascinating, absolutely fascinating. So after all the roarings and the thumpings and the garlands and the scandals, after all the sex and the jazz and the fires on the moon and the women’s-libbers howling for his blood and the glass bouncing off Gore Vidal’s head, the old lion ends his days in comfortable domesticity on the crooked fingertip of Cape Cod, nibbling teriyaki-infused oatmeal and reading baseball statistics on the crapper. Ah, Life — what would we do without you?

That teriyaki oatmeal, by the way, was his own creation. Teriyaki, we learn from Dwayne Raymond’s memoir Mornings with Mailer (Harper Perennial), was the nectar of Norman Mailer’s declining years. “What about teriyaki, butter, and raspberry jam?” he muses at one point in the book. “Could we mix them together and then fry a thin breakfast steak in it? How would that taste?” (“He asked this,” comments Raymond, “as if I somehow secretly knew how it would taste and was keeping the answer from him.”)

Raymond joined the Mailer household in 2003 as Norman’s researcher/chef/buddy/amanuensis — his Normanuensis, if you like. Plucked from a career waiting Provincetown tables, he proved a worthy companion for the great man and was by his side almost daily, shuffling papers and whipping up omelets, until Mailer’s death in 2007. Food was always an important part of the set-up, and Mornings with Mailer functions on one level as a highly eccentric cookbook, a kind of Eat, Pray, Love for 20th-century literary pugilists.

Roaming the spectrum of flavor in much the same spirit as he once roamed the fleshpots of Greenwich Village, Mailer takes Raymond along for the ride. He conceives a whim for borscht, and his manner becomes “electric”: “First you have to get good beets. Can we get good beets here, do you think? Now, look, you peel them and cut them into chunks, hearty chunks so that they don’t lose their integrity . . . ”

Raymond dutifully scores some good beets and goes to work, but the longed-for taste proves elusive: “Norman dubbed my first several attempts merely adequate.” Finally, after much experiment, he cracks it — the secret of good borscht. Roasted bones.

Chef Mailer also has distinct opinions regarding the cooking of poultry — opinions that he seems to have formed under the influence of his mother, or during his brief stint as an Army cook. “Garlic obliterates the essence of the chicken,” he declares, further insisting — over much local protest — that a roasting bird should be basted every 10 minutes. (“It occurred to me,” notes Raymond, “that he enjoyed using the word baste because it was the only term he was familiar with in the area of chicken roasting.”) A parallel episode occurs in Norris Church Mailer’s A Ticket to the Circus when Norris ignores her husband’s demands that she baste the Christmas turkey every 20 minutes. Yells Mailer: “You’re cooking this turkey like a Christian!”

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