Pierre’s Lentils (Swansong)

On 27 December 2014 at 05:45, I left Budapest for Nimes to ring in the New Year with family, especially to see my son for the first time in eight months. I have never not seen him for that long, and I hope that we never are apart for that long again–never again if I can help it.

I have lucky stars, guardian angels, benefactors, and come from gentle birth. These words are insufficient, they are mere descriptors. I am blessed and I am grateful for all of these people and what they give to me. On 28 December 2014, I lost one. He had been struggling with depression his whole life. He lived on medication; a lot of medications. I have never seen anyone take so many medications.

He invited me to stay with him in his apartment, and he asked for nothing in return, except some company and help exploring the “dark web.” He was fascinated by technology and new things. He was French, and so we shared a common language. He too had fallen in love with Hungary many years before, and had decided to retire here a few years ago. For the last five months we became unlikely room mates.  When I arrived at his apartment, a large lovely loft-like place with twelve foot high ceilings in the XIII district, he showed me my room and gave me a set of keys. You are at home, he said. No strings attached.

I show my love though food and music; I cook for people; I try to help. I have a desperate need to be loved and affirmed; it is a two-edged blade and my Achilles’ heel. Pierre’s diet was awful. It consisted of two almás rétes, a type of Hungarian apple strudel, in the morning and a precooked chicken leg in the evening, all eaten cold. He would buy enough for three or four days, and often it would go unfinished. He was a big man, not fat, but 6’5″ and 230 pounds, so it wasn’t enough. But cooking for one sucks, and he took no joy in it. I began to forage in his cabinets, see what the knife and pots and pans situation looked like, and set to work. I cleaned the cabinets, threw out old packages of rice, and bags of flour with bugs in them. I bought jars to store things. I saved what I could. He had many spices he had brought with him from France which he put in that cabinet and forgot. There were five bottles of generic curry powder, four of cumin, some turmeric, various of the usual dried out herbs…basil, tarragon, thyme, rosemary. Paprika, cinnamon, and dried chili flakes that were so old they were yellow; I threw away the chili flakes. There was an unopened bag of green lentils. They still looked okay, so we started there. I did some shopping and cooked.  He enjoyed them, and they became a staple for us. I expanded the repertoire and made small dishes for the two of us; we shared meals and we shared time. We even bought a smoothie machine and made green blends of healthy fruits and vegetables. He wanted to hear about my exploits in the city, my music, friends, women, living vicariously through me. I wanted to know about his life and his career as a professor at a university and his family. He was a cultured, kind, decent human being and his demons were fierce. We became close. He told me of his daughters whom he loved very much. He was so proud of them. His youngest has a novel coming out in January of 2015. He had two grandsons from the oldest. He taught himself to play the piano, starting with the Goldberg Variations (impossible for me to even imagine), and while he could not play them well, he said, he mapped his way, note by note through the Aria and few of the Variations until he could get through them without stopping. He always had a small smile when we talked about the music. I think he was secretly pleased at how horrified a piano teacher would have been at his technique. He had abandoned the piano; I never heard him play. He was a very good looking man, Un Belle Homme.

He never left the apartment unless he had to — post office, psychiatrist, pharmacy, basic needs. He came to one of my concerts over the summer, before I had moved in. I didn’t know then how tough that was for him. When I knew I would be away for a day or three, I made enough food for him to eat. He even started cooking the lentil dish, and learned how to make a decent rice pilaf.  He was usually asleep by seven because the anti-anxiety and sleep medications were so strong they knocked him out into a zombie-like state. He dressed in black, always in black. In the summer he wore brown sandals. He sat on his couch and smoked Camels’s all day staring into the middle distance. Our project upon my return from France was to clean up his book shelves. It is a wall, about 14 feet long floor to ceiling. The books were doubled on the shelf, and he lamented the death of the library. “A library is dead when you double up the books,” he said.

He went into a deep depression before Christmas. I was worried; we all were. The small network of friends were on guard. We were three; I was part of the circle because I was living there. His daughters called regularly. He had attempted suicide a year before. I wouldn’t have gone to France but for my son, and I had booked the tickets two months before. Pierre and I said said good-bye on 26 December 2014 at 16:43. I had made enough food for a week, and he promised he would eat it all. I asked him to promise to call me, to not do anything stupid. He told me he would. I told him I loved him. I hugged him and locked the door to the apartment. I called him from the airport on the 27th and promised I would call for the New Year. I received a message on 28 December 2014 at 21:52 that he was dead. He had loaded up a backpack with rocks and walked into the Danube at 05:30 that morning.

He left letters for his friends and daughters and a last will and testament. He had been planning this for a while. Maybe he had never stopped planning. His daughters and I will meet for the first time in January to dispose of his things. It is not how I wanted to meet them. I wanted them to come to Budapest and see a happy, well-fed Pierre, who was looking forward to things, showing off his new recipes, walking with his grandsons on Margit Island chasing dragonflies.

I always thought I was in control. I believed that I could fix anything — anything through force of will and if need be tenacity, and love. Turns out I cannot. My mind spins out of control, asking impossible to answer questions: What if I hadn’t gone to France? Why didn’t I see it coming? What if? What if? What if? I know it isn’t reasonable and that he suffered from a terrible and crippling disease, at least now he is free; it wasn’t something I could have prevented, but I will think about it.
Pierre’s Lentils (serves 3-4)
500 grams lentils
2 whole chicken legs (separate thighs and drumsticks)
100 grams smoked bacon (cut into large pinky sized pieces)
2 medium onions sliced thinly
4-5 Tablespoons generic curry powder
3 Tablespoons cumin powder
2 Tablespoons turmeric
1 Tablespoon coriander seeds
1 Tablespoon fennel seeds
3 Tablespoons neutral oil (sunflower is fine)
Pepper to taste
Salt to taste AFTER the lentils are cooked
Enough water to cover the lentils

Sauté the bacon until it has rendered the fat a little. I like to keep it a little chewy as opposed to completely crispy. Remove the bacon from the pan and set aside. Add 1 Tbs. oil and color the chicken parts. Remove them as well. Add the remaining oil and sweat the onions gently until they are transparent, about ten minutes. Do NOT let them color. Add all the spices and cook for another five minutes stirring constantly so they do not burn. It is very important to cook the spices so they release their oils. Add the lentils and bacon and stir all together. Use enough water to just cover the lentils. Lay the the chicken pieces on top an cover the pan. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer. Cook for thirty-five to forty minutes until the lentils are cooked through but still al dente. Salt and pepper to taste.

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4 Responses to Pierre’s Lentils (Swansong)

  1. Eda says:

    So very sorry, Tim. You couldn’t have stopped it, but I know that doesn’t soothe the pain.

  2. aarona says:

    I have not cried so in a long time, and I am one who cries- but through every word your love rings out loud and clear and the comfort and joy you gave Pierre must be honored with the surety that you made his days so happy and maybe just maybe that love is carried into his next life and his sadness is forever buried.
    God Bless the Loving Cook.

  3. Joe c. says:

    So sorry for the loss of your friend, Tim.

  4. Pingback: The Autumn of Discontent and Breaking Down (a Turkey) | TMI with TIM

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