When I walk into the lobby of my building in the East Village, I look at the water stains on the wood paneling and remember that terrifying night when the East River flooded over Avenue C and came rushing down our block.
I also remember the storm of the century when I serve mango ginger sauce.
I suppose a thousand and one things flashed in my Lower-East-Side neighbor's minds when we watched the East River rush over the FDR drive and across Avenue C.
Will we lose power? Will we lose water? Will we get killed?!
I'm guessing I was probably the only person who also worried, will the mango ginger sauce survive?
Don't get me wrong, I was all about the will we get killed too, but I knew while I watched cars floating on my block, while I watched the basement of my building turn into a swimming pool and the lobby fill with water, that in addition to having a home to protect and neighbors to help I also, 12 blocks away in my commercial kitchen, had four freezers filled with glorious concoctions.
We are talking about the stock that my sous chef spent three days lovingly reducing, adding just a touch of burnt tomato and red wine and then reducing some more; the marinade that was made by pureeing a farm-load of fresh rosemary, thyme, garlic, scallion, oregano and virgin olive oil and the mango ginger sauce; made by spending a day dicing mangos, red bell pepper, mixing it with an armload of minced ginger, then passion fruit puree, champagne vinegar, chili flakes, salt, pepper and love (the latter being the most important ingredient) and cooking for a little less then forever.
We lost power, phones, Internet and our sense of humor. I had 30 years of memories, photographs, albums, paintings and mementoes in our basement that were under countless gallons of dirty salty water. Of course I felt stupid for not taking things out of the basement, but in the worst of storms, we'd never had more then a half-foot of water. I still can't believe the moment I opened the basement door prepared to race down the stairs and found the staircase under water!
I was tempted to hail a cab to anywhere on higher ground and call it a day, but watching my neighbors band together to share generators, food and hugs, I shook it off. My partner, L, was too busy delivering meals from FEMA to cry. With no shower for days on end, she still managed to look beautiful.
I had firewood to deliver to cold neighbors and a party coming up for the 40th Anniversary of Ms. Magazine. If the feminists of Ms. were tough enough not to cancel, than I had to be tough enough to wade through the wreck of Avenue C and save my kitchen.
The lack of power meant our electric gates wouldn't open. I made my way through my dark kitchen from the sidewalk basement entrance with a flashlight and a prayer. By some miracle, there were only a few inches of water! It had never occurred to me that my business was on an incline. I wanted to find the source of that hill and kiss it, but then I remembered the food. Our freezers were filled to capacity.
Over the next few days, I threw away or gave away everything in our refrigerators and freezers; thousands of dollars in food, beef roasts, buckets of crabmeat, whole pastramis!
"Take it! Take it! Feed your family!" I screamed to anyone who wanted to eat, but not the sauces!
I coerced my landlord (by way of three filet mignons and four sides of salmon) into bringing in a generator and hired Dee the super to patrol. A generator filled with gas was preferable to a bag of crack this week. We only had enough power to save one freezer, and I was obsessed with saving the sauces.
I lined up two emergency kitchens. "Get ready to move Mt. Olympus!" I announced to Lavelle, my gentle giant of a kitchen manager, who could carry a refrigerator on his back as easily as a knapsack.
A few days later, just as we were about to relocate, Con Edison turned the power on. The cheers coming from my hood felt like a thousand New Year's Eves.
My chefs and I were so busy congratulating ourselves that we neglected to notice a Nor-easter had blown in, but the stoic women of Ms. Magazine, the pioneers of women's rights, still didn't cancel.
Wow, those feminists were tough!
So, we salted the sidewalk, seared the tuna, grilled the Korean barbecue beef, fried the empanadas and blazed on through.
I had postponed freaking out. But in the middle of the Ms. party, I started to feel my knees go weak. It didn't help that one of the great Matriarchs of Ms., Pat Carbine, had invited me to speak to the crowd.
The speech I'd prepared was on my computer, which after losing power and losing Internet and losing my mind, was also lost.
I stammered along about how hard it was being a woman in the cooking world in the '80s, but then I thought about all I had witnessed in those last 10 days.
I talked about the tough women on my block that were feeding the community. I talked about heroism in the form of women like Maristella, the loving Italian mama who owns the restaurant next door to my home and took it upon herself to stand in front of her ruined restaurant and patrol the block, offering love and coffee to any one who wanted a shoulder to cry on and a safe haven from the black night.
Gloria Steinem came up to me afterwards and said, "I loved your speech!"
I stumbled back into the kitchen, dazed.
Amy, one of my favorite waiters, stuck her head behind the kitchen curtain and yelled, "Rossi! You really are a feminist!"
I looked at her, smiled sleepily and said, "Feminist? Shmeminist! Did they like the mango ginger sauce?""
"Yes... yes.. they loved it!"
"Praise the lord!" I screamed, and went about plating macaroons.