"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
My brother and I grew up in a household rich with meals: our mother’s hands reeked of garlic in an inside-the-veins way. Our lunches weren’t like our friends’. Every day we watched quizzically while they bit into soft bread filled with floppy disks of pink meat, garish mustard, waxy squares of cheese, then unpacked our own heavily seeded sesame semolina rolls dripping with oily roasted eggplant and smoked mozzarella. We sheepishly offered around crunchy fried chickpeas and hard olives, whose pits we’d suck on through class.
We became cooks without realizing it. My brother says it happened for him one night when my mother baked him brownies to mollify an especially heartbreaking moment in adolescence. He wrote me about them recently. They were “rich, dense with a double dose of chocolate in chips and batter; a single bite causing the following series of reactions: eyes widening, slight, blush-inducing moans beginning, a smile developing, finishing with the inevitable, ‘Oh my god.’” He is that dramatic about all food.
I have been a cook since I received a birthday present of glass beakers painted lightly with the names of spices: turmeric, African bird pepper, cardamom, each filled with a mysterious powder.
When I was twenty-five, an editor at a magazine, a cri de coeur rose from somewhere inside me: the spice filled beakers, the deep pleasure I felt at the evening energy humming from my favorite restaurant, which I walked by evenly each day: they were what I longed for. I got an unpaid part-time job cooking there, hiding it from my fellow editors.
As soon as my brother heard the news, he snapped: after years trailing behind me through elementary, middle, and high school, always chilled by what he tightly called my “intellectual shadow,” he decided that by cooking professionally I had trespassed onto the sovereign territory to which he had secretly laid claim.
And we were off.
He got a job as a line cook at the only good restaurant in our hometown of Pleasantville, N.Y. Enraged at my intrusion, he’d walked into the restaurant, resume full of accomplishments like “student body president,” “fraternity treasurer,” “stage-manager, numerous student productions,” and made an argument like the one I’d made to the chef who let me into her kitchen. Because small town kitchens are different from big city ones, he wasn’t offered a tentative weekend job, but an oily chef’s coat, a pair of ugly hounds-tooth pants, and a grueling work schedule.
The early battles were pure sibling predictability. I didn’t know anything, but I had lived longer and cooked at a better-known restaurant. I am stubborn and utterly sure I’m right. Our contests pitted my mistrust of him against whatever he did, no matter how legitimate his experience. I watched him like a hawk. I embarrassedly recall the holiday meal we grandly offered to cook for my mother and her husband in the little apartment where they were living while repairs were done on our childhood home. I had chosen it from a magazine: fillets of sea bass with cippollini onions agrodolce.
My brother and I each took our places and heated our pans. He let his get smoking hot. I observed his machismo and felt superior about my more moderate approach. I added a thin stream of oil to my delicately warm pan. He told me to wait. I imperiously told him I knew what I was doing. I added a fillet of fish, which settled in calmly. He turned red and waited and heated and waited for an eternal minute before oiling his pan and adding his fish, whose middle threatened to buckle in an ugly way the instant it felt heat and had to be subdued with a spatula.
When it was the time to flip our fishes, I nudged my pan, expecting a whisper of an arc as my fillet gracefully turned itself over. When it didn’t budge, I nudged harder. Then I tried nudging with a spatula. When that didn’t work I began to press and scrape frantically. It still stuck, and I eventually gave up and turned broken pieces of sad, white fillet over, even more pathetically using my fingers.
Out of the corner of my eye I watched John tap his pan and his crisp-skinned fish obediently upend itself. I stalked around while he cooked the rest of the fish. We all sat down to eat. I hid my homely, broken fillets under dark onions. Everyone marveled at the gloriously browned bass skin. My brother and I eyed each other coolly over our plates. Point, John.
We got older. Our cooking plodded ahead. I followed my college roommate to Georgia where friends of ours wanted a restaurant attached to their farm, and we were to be chefs. My brother stayed in New York and moved slowly up the ladder at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. I tenuously ruled a kitchen of tattooed Southern teenagers who called me “ma’am,” grabbed heavy pots out of my hands against my protests, and ignored everything I said.
Each day I cooked with the sole purpose of maintaining my authority. Each day my brother relinquished more of his.
Our divide created strange, if occasionally delicious, meals. I flew home every few months and in a flurry cooked great, salty, buttery pots of grits, ignoring any objections my family dared make. I made quarts of sugary jam, mouth-puckering pickled okra and chilies, remanded any ingredient in my sightlines to a smoker. I made mayonnaise in a blender, drank soda out of plastic quart containers, strutted around the kitchen, displaying my burns.
My brother insisted on staying clean and straight in a white chef’s coat and apron on the hot Saturdays we managed to both be in our home kitchen. For an easy family dinner, he’d first steep garlic cloves in a shallow pot of olive oil and cook them at a bare murmur until they were soft; he’d maintain that it was absolutely imperative to cook onions in duck fat until they were a single teaspoon of sweet, sticky, rich onion confit; then he’d make a fennel stock with a sachet of herbs, straining it and cooking it again. Two hours into his preparations, aromatic confits and fortified fennel stock in hand, he would retie his apron, wipe down his cutting board, and feel ready to cook.
We were considerate and civil. He admired my power; I was impressed by his skill. When I was in a terrible mess over having to butcher and prepare 70 ducks for a fancy dinner in Georgia, he flew to teach me. Each week, I sat on the phone with him late into the night reassuring him that if I could do one soul-crushing, back-breaking service after another, he could, too. We regarded each other across our mother’s kitchen island: he wondering at my authoritative pickles, I intrigued by the submissive decorum of his fennel tian. It was an era of amicable draws. We’d not think too hard about it, and go wash our knives.
Then, our détente broke. John spent three months cooking at Arzac in Spain, St. John in London, Le Manoir aux Quatre Saisons in Oxford. I moved from Georgia to California to cook at Chez Panisse. John returned and quickly got a job cooking at Per Se.
At Per Se, the universe’s contents were uniform; survival meant being able to measure existence in precise, replicable shapes. Berated for having trouble creating Balsamic dots that decreased proportionally in size and distance, he spent days off alone in his home kitchen, reducing two gallons of Balsamic vinegar to a syrup then solemnly dotting his roommate’s mismatched plates. Daily, as though gravity itself hinged on it, he wrestled ingredients into tiny perfect cubes.
On the West Coast, cooking was a spinning top; the universe a tilted gyroscope. I cut vegetables and meat directly on huge wooden cutting blocks. Measuring was contemptuous, uniformity prosaic. Our ladles were mismatched, and too small or too big. Unpredictability was the soul of true cooking, so we forgot our towels places, decided we didn’t like aprons, cooked directly in deep fireplaces and ended up smudged with coal.
My brother came to visit me in Berkeley. We planned to cook a dinner party for a group of my friends, chefs he respected from the area. I assured him it was just a few people. I assured him we had enough food. I mocked him for wanting to stop drinking beer and make lists. When we took inventory a few hours before the dinner was scheduled to start, our booty looked perfectly reasonable to me and catastrophic to him.
We had two pounds of grits, three packages of ground pork, one of spare ribs, a few frozen sausages and the fat from a cured pig shoulder. We had ten pounds of green tomatoes, good garlic, and a garden full of kale and Swiss chard. I was cheerful and triumphant. We could make grits and pork ragu of all the different cuts, and griddled green tomatoes, and sautéed greens. There wasn’t exactly enough of anything, but I was sanguine. I knew I could muddle my way toward dinner and end up with something delicious, certainly. My brother saw things differently.
He refused to participate. This wasn’t cooking. He fumed. He stomped. He huffed. Then he stopped talking to me altogether and began to punctiliously brunoise green tomatoes. He salted them. Then he drained them. Then he drizzled them with white wine vinegar. Then he sifted and drained them. Then he let them sit. I realized, suddenly, that he was going to make me cook the rest of the meal alone, and I scrambled to brown meat, cook grits, stem greens. He ignored me, daintily stirring his pickles occasionally.
Eighteen of us: chefs and their children, housemates that wandered in, sat down late to a Sunday supper of grits and pork and pickles. Everyone loved the grits and the long table. Everyone loved the pickles. The joy of dinner was muzzled, though, marred by something we’d learned and now couldn’t shake. Neither of us thought the other could cook. My brother thought I was careless. I thought he was a prig.
I flew back east for a holiday. We cooked in unpalatable doubt. Dinners were stilted and cold. John did preposterous things to beets: he picked them for identical size, then scrubbed them, peeled them, blanched them, braised them, seasoning the oil he used with garlic and herbs, then straining both out, cooking everything covered in parchment paper. I made a big fuss of imagining I was acting on vegetables’ behalf. I never washed anything well: what wasn’t overwrought was gritty. John went in for gilded architectural masterpieces. I served anything I could raw.
But maybe I’m not telling the story correctly.
Our cooking is probably a story of two people withdrawing from rage. When we were fifteen and eleven, after six terrible months of illness, our father died, and our house and table emptied. I am sure our meals were still good, but there were fewer guests. My mother’s oily eggplant sandwiches tasted sodden. I stopped eating lunch altogether. My brother became insatiable. Our appetites warped by empty, searing rage.
Maybe the rage of loss drove us each to cook like we did, like we had no choice and each of us like ourselves and not at all like the other.
For the two years I was at Chez Panisse and John at Per Se, the food we cooked, which seemed to work fine for each of us alone, was terrible when we came together. Mutual doubt bred mistakes. Mistakes bred doubt. We botched and bungled. The kitchen could clearly only hold one of us; the other would sit outside and gloat. I would innocently lament to my mother how unfortunate it was that John had been cooking so long and still not become truly excellent. She would sigh, turn a page of her magazine, and assure me that he was excellent. I don’t know what John said about me. The gist was evident. If he convened the menu and prep meetings that in our house stand in for deciding what to eat for dinner, I would be coldly assigned washing lettuce, then table-setting.
Then, one Thanksgiving, our mother got sick and requested that John and I cook a small dinner at home.
He had left the tense pantomime of Per Se a few months earlier. When that subdued Thanksgiving rolled around, John was already sous chef of a rustic Brooklyn restaurant called Franny’s where he cooked in a big deep oven with a live fire. I’d come back to New York to write a book about home cooking. I had spent weeks of research flipping through recipes from an earlier time, among which were quaint, lovely ones, like “Crème Vichyssoise with sizzled baby leeks and buckwheat blini” that had, along with African bird pepper, pulled me toward the living, perishable world of the kitchen.
Worried more about my mother than about who cooked the beets, we haltingly began negotiations.
We spoke gingerly, all discussion hypothetical. One of us: “I might do halved eggs with anchovies to start. I don’t know, just cook them until the whites are set and halve them, and sprinkle them with a little crunchy salt, olive oil, then an anchovy filet. But what do you think?” The other, timidly: “Parsley?” “Yes.” “With a few pickled onions?” Then a brave question: “Pickled in brine, or just soaked in vinegar?” And then — because even the tiniest confidence breeds as much and as fertilely as doubt — the respondent would reply and mean: “Either way.”
That first meal was good. We complimented each other unceasingly. We took photographs of each of us clowning in front of the stove. My blowing kisses to his herby fingerling potatoes, his salivating over my buttery roast chicken. The relief made us giddy.
But maybe I’m telling it incorrectly again.
Our mother’s illness was discomforting but not terrible. It’s probably simple. John’s thinking about food now involved mandatory disorder. Mine included a recognition of the necessity, in certain circumstances — like making blini — of precision. In his new, esteemed position as sous chef, he had nothing to prove; contented to be writing the book I’d always dreamed of, neither did I. We had done what children who share mourning do as over time their rage breathes life into their passions. We’d grown together. And grown up.
Tamar Adler was an editor at Harper's Magazine before cooking at Prune, Farm 255, and Chez Panisse. Tamar's first book, "An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace," was recently published by Scribner.More Tamar Adler.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)
Real Families is a personal-essay series that celebrates the surprising and ever-shifting nature of domestic life in the 21st century. If you have a fascinating, original story you'd like to share, email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also post your essay on Open Salon and tag it "real families."