I had to text Taylor just now. “What was our gigantic oven called?”
He answered in seconds. “The Vulcan, like the Roman God of Fire.”
We left in 2009, when we graduated from Columbia. We were ready to get the hell out of there, and yet we knew then what I know now: the Literary Society at 526 West 114th Street was always a true home.
The Vulcan was not just its hearth, but its heart. She was the size of a car. Twelve burners graced her top. Her presence was a throwback to when the house was home to a dozen rich, white fraternity boys, and their chef lived in the basement and cooked up breakfast, lunch, and dinner in her powerful oven-belly. The Vulcan was rusty, dirty, cranky, and temperamental. She was beautiful.
A century later, Taylor lived in the basement, in a tiny room with an absurdist number of books piled in prodigious mountains, so that if you were to open the door, you wouldn’t be quite sure whether or not Taylor was there amongst his books.
The best part of being a member of the Society was living in its house, even in a lofted bed up close and personal to a pipe that screamed and wailed and clattered all night. The alumni reminded us: “Never again will you live in such an incredible place in Manhattan,” and we knew they were right. There were spiral staircases (don’t fall off, drunk), and walls and walls lined with books and portraits of old, important men. A taxidermy moose that Teddy Roosevelt purportedly shot hung above our big fire place. Coming home to a lopsided fire, I knew I was lucky. It burned whenever we had wood; the smoke turned the moose’s fur stringy and sallow.
Everyone’s friend’s brother’s band played in the living room. We had poetry readings, and parties that lasted all weekend, and “spiritual gatherings” on the fire escapes when the weather turned warm, with chanty music and great plumes of marijuana and towering cakes with many, many layers we baked in the middle of the night.
During the three years I lived at 114th Street, I spent long, lovely hours in its kitchen. It was my territory, though I shared it with my housemates. It was escape, and glorious.
For some reason, I only saw Taylor between the hours of 1 AM and 6 AM. He’s from Kansas, and so we made BBQ sauce for 50 pounds of chicken at 2 AM, to feed everyone the next day in our tiny backyard from a single, pitiful grill. I followed his instructions; he let me wear his prized Kansas-pride apron for the occasion.
With Iva, who came from New Orleans, I made gumbo and dirty rice. With David, plantains and chicken piccata. Brenna fried falafels in a sputtery mess of oil; I helped her brush phyllo with butter for baklava. Jess taught me how to cook her grandmother’s tomato sauce. We watched the tomatoes bubble away for hours atop the Vulcan, chopping obscene quantities of garlic and drinking cheap wine and dancing to Lily Allen.
“You’re so marriageable,” Dan said. I was braising short ribs, and we had run out of pots. We were expecting 30 or so guests for New Year’s, including Dan’s boyfriend Josh who was flying in from Oxford.
“You could do this, like, professionally. Marry some fabulously wealthy, disgustingly brilliant magnate and cook incredible feasts for a rotating cast of intellectuals and artists and such.”
“I never considered that career path.”
“Well consider it, sister. That smells incredible.”
Dan was uninterested in helping me cook–but awesome at providing Diet Cokes and lightning-fast conversations. We already had answers, before the questions.
I was getting sentimental–the last New Year’s on 114th Street–until a gigantic cockroach shimmied from a drawer. I couldn’t find a ladle. Where did our pots go? I’d have to braise in lots of batches. The Vulcan’s insides were full of short ribs, bubbling, perfuming the air with dense, meaty goodness.
2009 was the year of the best short ribs I ever cooked, and graduation, and moving to LA for a job I hated. Dan and I cried a bit, packing up our stuff. Everyone’s parents traipsed through; we served tiny catered sandwiches.
After we graduated, the house got a much-needed renovation. No more cracked tiles with mysterious substances seeping through, no more floorboards that screeched as if in pain. They installed functioning appliances and shiny countertops—the next generation of stuff for the next generation. RIP, majestic Vulcan.
Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons