Joan Didion’s Recipe Book by Ashleigh Watson

Joan smiles at the camera. Her hands hugging a full bowl, short hair low in two pigtails with blue ribbons falling waist length long, white peasant blouse, blue jeans. The kitchen with clear jars and olive lids full of salt and brown sugar and Japanese green beans, mismatched oven gloves, a range of orange Tupperware and a red cast iron pot on the bench.

        The candid colour photo is page two of Joan’s recipe book. Joan’s favourite recipes and menus. It pinged into my inbox earlier in the afternoon while I sat drinking black coffee at the kitchen bench. The slick PDF was a kickback for donating to a documentary. I slid through the pages on my phone screen, finishing my coffee, ignoring two text messages, waving away a fly.

        Fall is the first season of food. Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer, then a final section for Sweets. A roast garlic recipe photocopied from a 1992 Williams-Sonoma Grande Cuisine magazine is first. Page five is a journal note: dinner January 30 2003, J & J, Q & Jerry Micheal. John and Joan and their daughter, Quintana and son-in-law, Jerry, ate smoked salmon with capers, lemon and chives. Chiles and scallions and olives. They finished with clementines and chocolates. Page six is a Borscht recipe, handwritten on a LIFE magazine notepad. Page seven is dinner: October 17 2003. Roast chicken with rosemary, goat cheese and brie. Chocolates and almonds. J & J with Sharon Delano. And so the book goes.

      My J, James, came home at four from having his hair cut and I asked him what he felt like for dinner. We already had fish in the fridge but I scrolled past the artichokes and stopped at a winter recipe, Lamb Navarin. A full, meaty French ragout method only four sentences long, typed on a typewriter. I drank in the page and the smell of it, the taste, the heady warmth came alive like the blue does in her books. It was hot and late in the afternoon but the shops were open for another hour so I picked my wallet and keys up from the bench, pulled some shoes on and headed out for the ingredients. The fish would keep till tomorrow.

Navarin (for six outside)
Brown three pounds leg of lamb cut for stew, deglaze pan with brandy, roll lamb in flour, place in casserole.
Simmer an hour with white wine & beef broth to cover, three tomatoes pureed or tomato paste, garlic & parsley chopped, thyme, rosemary, bay leaf.

      While the pot simmered I poured a glass of cold water from a bottle in the fridge and set it down with the other waiting ingredients. Even though the sun was getting low the heat hadn’t left. Water pooled on the outside of the glass. Drops ran from the bottle onto the synthetic marble laminate bench, leaving wet rings whenever I lifted it to drink more. James ironed his work shirts in the hallway in front of the whirring pedestal fan. It was a wet-air afternoon. The kind of humidity you have to swim through. The kind you only cook hot meals in if it’s Christmas. Cairns is a far cry from dry Malibu but I imagined our kitchens smelled the same.

      On September 7, 2003, Joan and John had David Halberstam round for dinner. Gumbo. Tomme Fleur Vert. Chocolates. The gumbo recipe is typed on the next page. At the end the instructions read: now you just let it simmer, and taste it, and add things… Usually I end up using all the roux and adding more stock, another tomato, more lemon juice, whatever… This amount made enough to serve nine last night and John and Quintana and I will finish it tonight.

      The third part of the Lamb Navarin said have ready to add for another twenty minutes: little new potatoes, little turnips, baby onions, little carrots – blanched for three minutes. I boiled a small pot of water. James came into the kitchen to smell it closely, taste the stew. He kissed me and turned the TV on in the background.

On March 27 2005 at 1:30 PM J & J have become just J. Joan had Q and Jerry and twenty seven others for Baked Ham, Alice Water’s coleslaw, and deviled eggs.

Sunday Lunch April 8 2007. Joan and no J and no Q had twenty-two for chicken hash, yellow pepper, crab and mustard sauce, chocolates, brie.

When my lamb’s hour was almost up, I prepped the last of it. Have ready to add just before serving, she wrote: blanched haricots verts, cooked peas, chopped parsley. James and I ate on the verandah outside as the last of the long orange sunlight set. Afterwards I wrote it down: Dinner February 11 2015. A & J. Lamb Navarin. Red Wine. Chocolates & Oranges. Most of it leftover.

      James emptied the four leftover servings of lamb into our Tupperware containers and I went to bed with the recipes. I scrolled through them over again, squinting into the blue light of my phone, relishing the intimacy of it all: the notes, the people, Malibu, the food from her blue New York nights, sitting beside the fact of its packaging and the queerness of Joan in the kitchen. Capital J Joan, the icon, the American idol, doing anything more than smoking and writing and standing at the center of the universe. It doesn’t ground her, of course, in parsley salads and vodka sauce. The enigma outshines the apron. Mona in the kitchen. Mona in the yellow corvette.

The last is handwritten. For shortcake.

      2 and ½ cups of Bisquick, 3 tablespoons of sugar, 3 tablespoons melted butter, ½ a cup of milk. Knead 8 to 10 times. Roll ½ in thick. Cut. Ungreased pan. 10 minutes at 425 degrees.

. . . 
© Ashleigh Watson

A PhD candidate at Griffith University within the School of Humanities, Ashleigh is also the features editor for the student magazine, and co-director of the Smallroom Writers Collective. Ashleigh’s fiction has appeared in the university’s Talent Implied collection.