A quick paradiddle (with her chopsticks)
Downtown Washington DC, working hard in the kitchen at Les Oignons restaurant, yet Lillian’s spirits were high. The WJSV radio newsreader was predicting another war in Europe. Lillian, waiting for gospel hour, ignored him. Two days ago she’d been at Lincoln Memorial watching Marian Anderson singing, with the first lady’s blessing, to all:
Let music swell the breeze,
And ring from all the trees
Sweet freedom's song.
Lillian started singing and turned to Jack, Chef de cuisine, expecting him to join in. Yet for once it seemed he wasn’t in the mood for music.
“Say, that’s some serious face, Jack. What’s up?”
Jack was the best cook Les Oignons had ever seen. He was currently making soufflé, a whisk in each hand, right hand churning with a circular motion, the left whipping with a counter-rhythm, right-to-left, right-to-left.
“Another white man’s war a-coming Lillian. They’ll send Negros into battle for sure, but they won’t jive me again. I fought in the trenches in the Great War; it weren’t great, nothin’ but mud, blood, waitin’ for the thud of a bullet in the chest, or worse, drownin’ and retching in gas.”
"You’ve never spoken about your past before. How’d ya end up goin’ to France, Jack?"
Jack kept his cards close to his chest; for the year or so Lillian had known him, this was the first time he’d mentioned his life before Les Oignons.
"I was born in Albany, Georgia, Mama and Papa called me Eugene, at school it was Gene. When I was still a boy I watched my Papa nigh-on lynched by a mob. I ran away to Europe, enlisted in the French Foreign Legion, using the name Jacques. Ended up fighting in the trenches of the Somme. I saw hundreds lying dead on the battlefield, like driftwood washed up after a hurricane. Nothin’ in the States to return to following Armistice, so I journeyed to Paris, aiming to learn the skills of Les Cuisiniers Français. I’d offered my life for La Republique but in peacetime I wasn’t a gallant hero, just an American Negro, no one would apprentice me to a chef. Only work I got was percussionist for a house band in a backstreet Montmartre nightclub. Some might think me lucky, I swung with all the greats, Sidney Bechet, Django, Louis Mitchell, Josephine Baker…, but all I hankered for was the secret to the perfect Crème brûlée."
Soufflé finished, with four sharp alternating taps on the rim of the bowl Jack knocked the egg mix off his whisks. Then reaching onto the top of the boiler, he lifted down a 30 quart bowl of dough. He began kneading it for the evening’s brioche, palms facing down, and elbows at the side. An easy task, Jack was a strong man, broad-shouldered, with hands so big Lillian often joked they made rolling pins look like chopsticks. He worked the buttery pastry using a double stroke pattern, soft with the left, hard with the right, then reversing with a drag tap, stretching, lifting the dough, repeating with a rising cadence and ending with a multiple bounce of the roll of brioche on the oak chopping board.
"Every night I was sat behind a Ludwig trap kit, right in the pocket, but the whole time I was peering over the toms, watchin’ Chef work in the kitchen. I could see everything that cat did, pretty soon his chops began to rub off on me. Later, back in my pad, I’d cook supper for the band. Somehow, learning to cook while hitting the hide, I’d developed my own unique cooking style. I was good, every dish was a signature dish. Then one evening Hilde Wolfkrone, a cabaret singer from Berlin, took a real fancy to my choux à la crème. Before long she’d drop by midday for a little croquembouche. Without noticing, it developed to more than a shared interest in pastry. An affair began, furtive liaisons every spare moment, we’d make wild passionate love endlessly, it was bliss, as if I’d actually become French! Afterwards she’d sing Liebe ist ein Geheimnis in my ear. Love is a secret. That’s a true fact for sure. ‘Cause she didn’t tell me she was goin’ steady with trumpeter Dicke Ziegel."
Brioche in the oven, Jack started tenderizing some beef steak. Carefully balancing the fulcrum of the mallet at the back of the hand he struck with a whipping motion, mallet rebounding from the beef, building to a blurring speed, yet with incredible power and control, finishing with andante accented strikes on the tougher muscle fibers.
"Dicke was a jealous lover, often high on junk and booze. He came after me with a shooter, it turned into a gunfight, and some folks got wounded. Even in Montmartre if a black man fires a gun he’s likely gonna get lynched. I fled, to hide here in Washington."
Jack started preparing vegetables for the Concassé, a knife in each hand, roughly chopping, blades moving in allegrissimo patterns of tuplets, polyrhythms of five against four. Finishing, Jack tossed the knives in the direction of the sink at the far end of the room; they crashed against the washboard with a ringing flourish.
"Yesterday I saw an old friend from France, Claude. He says Dicke and Greta are here in Washington, Greta’s looking to make it in movies. Dicke’s spreading fascist propaganda via the German American Bund. But Claude says Dicke knows I’m in town too, wants to get even."
As he spoke the door of the restaurant opened, too early for this evening’s first customers .The maître d’ wasn’t expected for another hour either. Lillian walked out into the restaurant, Jack peered from the service hatch. There stood a short blonde man with a toothbrush moustache, hair greased and parted to the side. It was Dicke. After laying his trumpet case down on a table Dicke looked up, recognizing Jack peering through the hatch.
"Vant to know vhat’s neu in from Baltimore, Jacques?" Dicke, opening his trumpet case, pulling out a Luger pistol. "Ich, und dis pistol. Did you dink dat you could sqveeze my Hilda like a breakvast orange Jacques und get avay vid it? Vou vill hang like a schwenker for dat."
Jack had nowhere to hide, the fire exit had been locked since last week’s break-in and only the maître d’ had the key. He grabbed the nearest weapons to hand; a pile of rolling pins Lillian had been cleaning. Jack’s only hope was to trick Dicke into wasting his bullets from a distance. “I squeezed your wife alright. We coddled for hours. A tender, simmering, poaching it was. Yep, I had a truly fine sauté with Hilde. You know what sauter means, Dicke? It means to jump.”
Jack’s verbal basting filled Dicke with rage; his face reddening like a parboiled peach, he raised the gun. Lillian ducked under a table, just before Dicke fired the first shot from her left, Jack countered by hurling a rolling pin from the right. Two more shots from the left, another rolling pin from the right, knocking a plate off the wall with a crash. Dicke fired again from the left, Jack retorted, volleying another rolling pin from the right, knocking Dicke’s Luger to the floor, then a second striking Dicke right between his piercing blue eyes, rendering him momentarily senseless, lurching backwards to the floor.
Grabbing his chance Jack charged through the diner. No time to open the door, he leapt into the air and crashed straight through the glass window front of house. Landing square on his feet, thankfully unharmed by autodefenestration, Jack turned to flee.
"Keep singing sweet freedom’s song, Lillian," Jack shouted.
"Write to me, Jack," Lillian cried back into the night as Jack ran.
[In memory of (amongst others) The Black Swallow of Death - rest in peace]