I was young, only a hand full of jobs out of high school. I was working as hard as I could for table scraps and enough money to pay rent.
It was another long service survived. I pulled a small cardboard sheet with my name scribbled on it from the wall. The chime and dull stamp of my time card echoed through about the small storage area that served for both dried goods and our makeshift locker room.
“On your way out?” Came a low scraggly voice.
It was our veteran waste away.
He was a shell of his man. He was consumed from a million battles. His salt and pepper hair curled like locks of wool and meandered down to an unkempt beard. A cheap, generic cigarette hung half burned on his lip. His clothes were long faded, and covered with the unmistakable signs of days of wear, and stains from smoke. His skin was dark and taunt from the combination of decades of exposure to the sun and an equal exposure to alcohol.
His eyes were different though.
Beneath them shone a dim light of recognition; a razor like sharpness that comes through surviving the most grueling experiences. He was a well mixed stew of hardness, sorrow, and kindness that had simmered beneath the surface for years. With no remorse, and no expectation, he knew he wasn’t long for the world.
The old cooks coarse, calloused, hands stretched out to me with the book held fast.
The musty old tome had seen better days.
The thick red cover was slick to the touch. I could tell it had been lovingly manhandled day after day and year after year since its birth. All of the once raised engravings were worn down to a fine sheen. The pages were lightly stained from smoke and blemished and eroded from the acidic natural oils of generations of use. The spine was broken in a way reminiscent of a man whom had reached an epoch in age. No sudden impact could have done such damage. Only the slow deadly wear of time.
“When I was your age, an old chef gave me this book,” he said to me in his rasping whisper, “and now I’m giving it to you. It taught me alot about cooking. It taught me to be…”
He paused taking a long draw off of his cigarette. He smiled knowingly,
“It taught me to be me.”
I took the book from his outstretched hands.
At that time I didn’t understand the commitment I had made. It was far deeper that merely taking the last shred of the old mans identity, maybe his last earthly possession of value. It was a part of his soul.
It was a metaphysical contract that I had wagered on my very existence.
I thanked him, thru it into my bag and left for the night. I was in a hurry to get out and hit the town and cook my brain with a fist full of bargain concoctions at the nearest hole in the wall dive bar. I turned around and never looked back.
It was the last time I saw him.
Days passed. The gem of knowledge was haphazardly tucked away in my bag. It wasn’t till the old man was gone for almost a week before I thought about it again. I got home that night and pulled it out of my bag. I saw a musty old grimoire with untapped secrets for what it was for the first time. I saw the master’s manifesto.
It was the Escoffier.
I thumbed thru the old pages and marveled at a master’s works. It was a lifetime of labor summed up in just around one thousand pages. Just like so many before me, the book shaped the way I look at cooking and the way i look at life. From that day, I studied the craft relentlessly.
Still, after so many years I don’t know why he gave the book. Maybe he saw a reflection of his faded youth in me, a vitality that had decayed within him so many years ago. Maybe he saw me as a fitting successor to the book’s wellspring of culinary enlightenment.
Or maybe the book chose me.
I know though, my day will come. I will be old, burned out, aged, tattered, and torn. My fire will be slowly waning- teetering on the edge of eternal night. I will see a spark in the dark, to light the flame and carry the torch. I alone will know the time. I will approach them with few words, as the old man did to me so long ago.
And in my hands will be the book