There is no greater elixir for the soul – my soul at least – than driving endlessly for hours on end with no deadline, no planned time of arrival. I did that recently. The road trip I’ve been dreaming of for years and yet, in spite of having no kids, no real commitments, the ability to set my own work schedule, has completely escaped me. It was a vacation. It’s something that most people have at least once or twice a year – a few weeks of it even – and yet it was the first real one I’ve had in over 13 years. Pathetic, of course, to admit. I only share this because it’s one of the real reasons I’ve come to love cooking. I need to cook. It’s a convenient escape when you can’t seem to get away from anything or anyone for any length of time. It’s where I hide in plain view.
People don’t understand this aspect of me – my family, neighbors, people who think they know me – they don’t grasp that deep down I’m not the outgoing and gregarious person they see in front of them. I’m happiest as, and by nature, a complete loner. Not that I don’t want to share, or engage, or watch other people having fun, it just doesn’t recharge my batteries like having two complete days at a time, there and back, of no conversation, no radio, no music. I like that my Jeep is rough, noisy, that it rides like a couple of buffaloes mating on the smoothest of roads. I like that it has an exhaust leak and forces me to drive with the windows cracked in spite of the weather. I like that it’s my sanctuary and no matter how loudly I turn up the radio – at 65 – I just cant hear it over the road noise and wind. That makes the trip perfect. My own little ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ moment. A motorcycle that doesn’t require a helmet, and has four wheels.
I went to San Francisco – or somewhere thereabout – to meet a college friend who’d bought a Ferrari 308 GTS and spent the better part of the last 3 years learning how to be his own Ferrari mechanic. He’s a member of a Ferrari Owners Group, ‘FOG’ as they refer to themselves, and they had an annual ‘track day’ event at Laguna Seca raceway outside of Monterey
It was my trip – my vacation – so I planned on making it down in two days instead of driving straight through, as I’d done once before. I wanted to take 101 along the coast of California and drive through Redwood forests. Though I initially thought I’d just camp in my Jeep along the way, at the last minute I booked a room in a dank walkup hotel in Crescent City. A lonely and ugly little hotel room, with no kitchen, where I’d be making my dinner…
I travel this way now, and it’s a part of who I am. I carry with me a small (4″) folding chef’s knife, a cutting board, and for this trip a hunk of salt cured duck breast which in and of itself amazes me. It’s never been cooked, and it’s spent a good portion of it’s time with me at room temperature. I packed it in salt sometime in March of this year after cutting it off the carcass of a full duck. After a few days of the salt cure, I coated it with black pepper, wrapped it in cheesecloth and tied it off with a running truss and hung it my basement for a week. Then it sat in my refrigerator for a couple of months. On my way out the door I grabbed it and left it to sit in the back of my Jeep for 9 or 10 hours while I drove from Seattle to the Northern coast of California. Which is where I finally sliced it up, admired the oily fat weeping from it, and ate it for dinner on a stale roll I bought at a grocery store. Washed down with a couple of beers and a salad I ended up eating with a piece of plastic I cut from a tomato container (forgot the fork!) it was the most memorable and satisfying dinner I think I’ve ever had.
Walking around town the next morning – it dawns on me I have no idea why I’m going where I’m going. I’ve seen Geno only a few times in the last 20 years and the more I’ve gotten into cooking, the less I’m interested in cars or going fast anymore. I’m only looking forward to the drive, another almost full day of being completely alone. I’m looking forward to having the same thing on the trip back, and making dinner in the same shit hotel room, pondering what I’ll make for dinner then. But I arrive there and settle in and the conversation that comes after not speaking to anyone for 2 days isn’t as difficult as I think it would be. The plan is to hit the road in his Ferrari the next morning about 7 am and drive down the coast another 2 or 3 hours, then spend the day watching races and admiring all the other cars there. I’m along for the ride – I’ve got no plans – I’m on vacation and I’m letting go and just enjoying the experience. And it is.
The next morning, Geno is warming up his car and begins introducing me to the subtle and elegant world of Ferrari engineering. It’s his labor of love, I soon realize, his own version of the madness and delight I’ve found in making bread and harvesting wild yeast. Or making dinner in a hotel room…
He shows me the engine layout – pointing out that even though it’s a v-8 engine – it’s actually just 2 four cylinder engines that share a common crankshaft. Each bank of cylinders has its own ignition system, its own intake, timing and exhaust. A convoluted and maniacal mechanism coordinates 4 separate carburetors with a few pieces of metal rod and turnbuckles, allowing them to, ideally, work in perfect unison. He’s rebuilt these carburetors, replaced and upgraded the ignitition system, painted out the engine bay – it’s stunning. The emission systems have been stripped off and the exhaust spills out in an easy and massive note. If that’s not enough, getting into a Ferrari for the first time is like gaining access to an exclusive club. If you’ve sat in one before you know that the door latches are hidden both inside and out. If you’ve not sat in or tried to get out of one, you find yourself suddenly clueless and admitting you’re a virgin to the whole process. On the 308, the exterior door latch is a small twist of metal that hugs the weather stripping at the back edge of side window, just large enough for a single finger tip to slide under and push forward. On the inside, it’s underneath the armrest, which is a long sculpted plane that flows into the dashboard.
On the road, it winds up relentlessly, like a motorcycle, and never seems to stop accelerating. The speedometer works on occasion. It barks and shrieks and pops and burbles in all the right ways and suddenly you realize once again what it means to be a guy and get a near orgasmic thrill out of loud things that vibrate and shake and scare you. He lets me drive it and I realize that he’s not joking about it being designed for 5′-5″ 140lb Italian guys with tiny feet. My size 11’s are completely out of place down there in the footwell, mashing pedals around in the same graceful manner as if I was using my fist to dial a telephone. I drive it about 20 miles but I’m happier riding and enjoying the way he’s mastered it. He takes the wheel, gives it an “Italian tune-up” by winding it up to the redline and off we go…
It’s easy to miss the point of all of this – but it’s there. After all the races, many beers, the introduction into a different playground and different toys, the thread is common as could be – I get it now why Geno has his Ferrari, and why after 20 years, having and leading completely different lives, we have everything in common.
It’s all about the effort you’re willing and able to put into anything. There’s an intangible quality about putting everything you have into something just to see what comes of it. It’s how and where you discover what you’re really capable of, the manner in which things truly become your own. At a certain point you realize what makes the world lame and unsatisfying is that along the way fewer people around you have that desire. Work doesn’t provide that outlet or shine on that mindset of redefining anything. Most people want to show up, go through the motions, and just have the abridged version. Somehow, putting effort into anything or anyone else is bothersome and pointless to others.
As I’m mixing and feeding my starters on the night I come home I’m seeing it firsthand. It’s drudgery – I’d much rather be going to bed than slopping around with a couple bowls of fermenting dough, but I do it happily, just the same, because the effort pays off. Like anything one loves, If I don’t put in the effort, and feed it and maintain it, it goes to shit – it turns pinkish gray and dies, and then I have to start again. It’s unfathomable to me to let it get to that point – to be so lazy to let something go that I’ve worked so hard for. It’s like everything valuable and memorable in life, like any relationship that you have with anyone or anything, they all require continous care and feeding and effort to flourish.