I met the poet while we were both teaching at the weeklong Taos Writers’ Conference in July. We shared a stage on Tuesday, and we shared a table and food and wine with some mutual friends on Wednesday. On Friday, the last night of the conference, we sat down in two only moderately comfortable chairs to share the details of our lives, and we didn’t get up from those chairs until the sky was beginning to lighten.
I left that morning and was halfway back to my home deep in the Colorado Mountains when he called the first time. Did I want to get some breakfast, his voice message asked me, before he drove back home to Santa Fe? But I had already put almost 200 miles between us. By the third time he called I was home, surrounded by my dogs, and I finally had the courage to pick up.
“I guess you better come up here,” I said, “so we can see whatever this is.”
By Sunday evening, we had decided he’d arrive midday on Tuesday. I had 36 hours to figure out what to cook. I have never been above using my cooking skills as a form of seduction. Preparing a delicious meal using fresh, quality, organic ingredients has always seemed a simultaneously sexy and wholesome way to win a man’s heart. I also like it for its honesty: I am a good cook, but not a great cook. I have good intuition and timing, five quality pots and three excellent knives. Fresh is my motto; serve it hot and never overcook it; make it look pretty on the plate. Making good food for the people I love is one way I honor my deal with the universe; it is a gesture of faith and a prayer for good luck.
My unending challenge is that my home is a 10-hour round trip from a decent fresh-foods market. I had stopped on my way out of Taos and stocked up on dairy, fruits and vegetables, but since I had imagined only cooking for myself that week, I had not bought any heart-stealing meat. I had some beautiful parsnips, potatoes and fresh parsley to make my white truffle oil mash, and some rainbow chard that was much sweeter than it was bitter. I had some Mallorcan almonds and Manchego cheese and all the ingredients for homemade Tahitian vanilla ice cream with fresh Colorado peaches for dessert. And I had bunches of herbs that would wonderfully season meat, if only I had some.
On Monday morning I drove to the local market and stared at the anemic chickens. The folks who own the market mean well, but with fewer than 600 people in the county, they can’t do much more than meet basic needs. There were some very fatty ribs, and a London broil that hadn’t turned gray yet, but the poet had captured my attention for 12 straight hours and fatty ribs were not going to cut it. I closed my eyes and pictured my red and yellow dinnerware, imagined the green-flecked white of the mash, the rainbow stems of the chard and pictured, nestled between them, the particular brightness of Yakutat river salmon, just then coming into season. You can buy anything online, I thought, and went straight home to log on.
It was even easier than I imagined. I Googled “Jack’s Fish Spot,” my favorite place in Seattle’s Pike Place Market. Jack had Yakutat salmon for $9.99 a pound, and as long as I ordered it by 3:00 that afternoon, it would be delivered by 5:00 p.m. on Tuesday. If the $33.50 FedEx charge sounds like a lot to you, you would have to see where I live. Nine thousand feet above sea level, surrounded by 12,000-foot mountains on all sides and more than an hour’s drive in any direction from the nearest traffic light. If the $33.50 FedEx charge sounds like a lot to you, you would have to see my poet.
On the plate, the dinner looked just as I had pictured it. I baked the salmon translucent, with a touch of olive oil, sea salt, lemon and basil, because fish that fresh and beautiful ought not to be sauced.
I don’t want to give that salmon all the credit for the last six months of my life being the best so far, but let’s just say the poet turned out to be a man who can appreciate a sexy, wholesome gesture. We are together often now, so it is easy to plan ahead for what I need, but for Valentine’s Day, I was thinking I might FedEx in a little halibut for old times sake, and for luck.
—Pam Houston is the author of Cowboys Are My Weakness and other books. Her short stories have been selected for the O’Henry Prize Stories and the Pushcart Prize.