The invitation arrived last Thursday in the mail. The first thing I noticed was the envelope because it wasn’t an ordinary envelope like the kind you’d use to send your check for the telephone bill or the reply card for a magazine subscription. This envelope was made from a speckled, cream-colored paper of heavy stock. As soon as I pulled it out from my mailbox, and felt its weight in my hand, I knew I’d seen the invitation before. In fact I’d bought that exact same invitation set four years ago at Kate’s Paperie on 13th Street. I shouldn’t have been surprised, then, when I had to turn over the envelope to find the return address listed on the center back of the envelope instead of in the more typical location of the upper left-hand corner of the front. I only know one person who, as a rule, puts their address on the back of envelopes. But in those first minutes of holding the invitation I continued to ignore the signs, leaving myself to be surprised, no, shocked, really, when I saw the return name and address.
Macelleria 86. 68 Gansevoort Street. New York, NY. 10014.
You see I was supposed to open and be co-proprietor of Macelleria 86. Instead, I was the recipient of an envelope with the store’s name embossed on the back. It was quite the reversal of events. I opened the envelope, dreading further confirmation of what I knew would be found there: a single rectangle of matching cream-colored, heavy stock paper. I knew what I would pull out of that envelope because the 5”- by 7-” rectangle shaped invitation insert was my idea. As I explained that day in Kate’s Paperie, single sided invitations are easily attached by magnet to the fridge door, where they’ll get high visibility, while a folded piece of paper will be thrown out or stuffed in a drawer. And yes, there it was, a double blue line running around the edges of the card, as I knew it would. But the information on the invitation was new to me. The last time I had seen this invitation it had been blank, filed with two hundred and ninety nine others among ten boxes in the coat closet of an apartment on 7th Avenue.
Centered in the top of the card was a small line of raised black print:
Natalie Ivanson and Guy Pelle invite you to the opening of…
Then underneath, in larger, antique styled font: Macelleria 86.
Finally, at the bottom: Please join us on Saturday, October 14 between 4 and 9pm for an opening celebration. Wine and small plates served.
I held onto the invitation with disbelief. Only when I acknowledged that I had been standing, gripping the card so that its corners bent under my thumbs, did I move. I walked over to my chair and stood near the window that overlooked West Fourth Street. I barely sat down before I got back up and went through the living room and into the kitchen in order to throw the invitation into the trashcan that sits next to the fridge. I threw it away with a feeling of lackluster triumph.
Two hours later I took it out again. I even smoothed out the edges where I had wrinkled them, cringing. But before I took the invitation back out of the trashcan I was still in what you might call the denial phase. I sat in my wingchair for two hours, staring at the people eating Swedish meatballs with lingonberry jam on the sidewalk tables outside of Smorgas Chef and thinking, abstractly, that there must be a mistake.
I wondered if this was all a cruel joke played by Natalie. But why was a joke being played on me four years after our relationship failed? My first analysis led me to consider the practical joke/invitation as a compliment. Four years later, she still had enough feelings towards me, ill or no, to set up a fairly elaborate prank. So then, perhaps ironically, her enduring hatred stands as a testament to how I had impacted her life. One might say I carved my name into her tree.
I was satisfied with this explanation for only about five minutes before doubt crept in. When I really remembered Natalie, and not just the feeling labeled “Natalie” in my heart, I realized that she couldn’t have played such a joke on me because she has no follow through and little execution. This prank was too elaborate for her. The woman used to rely on me to set her alarm. But then, staring at the envelope that indisputably bore the name of the butcher shop that I was to open with her, before we fell apart, I considered this as new evidence to her personality. I had to wonder if the fact that she is opening the shop four years after our own plans to do so fell through didn’t then prove that she does have follow through, or at least enough to play a joke on me. In any case, she had clearly developed some sort of resolve to action because I didn’t know this Guy Pelle so she must have sent the invitation herself.
It was at this moment when I was trying to decide whether or not she would have the follow through to play a joke on me that I had to get up and pick the invitation out of the trash. I had to know whether or not it was some sort fluke that I received the invitation at all. I have little faith in Natalie and zero in Life, so it wasn’t inconceivable that a cruel act of fate had put my name on a mailing list (my name being still recognizable, still known and meaningful in the food world despite my voluntary four year hiatus or sabbatical as I liked to call it) and that Guy had created the mailing list and not known who I was in relation to Natalie, and that Natalie herself had overlooked it, and then the invitation was sent. And thus an invitation to the opening of a butcher shop that I had conceived and planned to open four years earlier on the very card stock that I had approved and paid for landed in my mailbox.
Unfortunately my address was printed onto the envelope so I couldn’t tell by the most obvious means, handwriting, if Natalie had sent the invitation. In fact, now, when it is eighteen minutes before I have to leave for this party, if I am to go at all, I am still undecided on this question of who sent the invitation. And it’s a crucial one. Last Thursday my first decision was to go with the premise that she was sending some sort of mean-spirited joke. It was a tenuous logic at best; that four years after she left me standing at the bar of the Blind Tiger, having just paid for two expensive Belgian beers, La Couffe or Charles X or whatever I was into at the time, she would decide to send me an invitation to a party that didn’t exist to celebrate the opening of a butcher/gourmet food shop that should have existed and would have existed if she wasn’t such a damn idealist and I wasn’t such a “fucking panderer”- her words- but in fact still didn’t exist at all.
It seemed uncharacteristically mean-spirited particularly because Natalie is one of those people who prides herself on “being nice”. That’s always confused me as a behavioral choice because while perhaps it’s true that said person isn’t an asshole in the aggressive sense, aren’t they, by taking pride in niceness, damning themselves as smug and self-righteous and pretentious and a slew of other characteristics which are, to my mind at least, just as bad as being “not nice?”
What I finally decided as I sat in my chair looking down at the people at Smorgas Chef move onto their cloudberry rice pudding desserts (I don’t think anyone who went there didn’t get the cloudberry pudding because really, “cloud” anywhere near “pudding” is just too appealing) was that it was possible that our break up was traumatic enough to lead her, even four years later, to send me such a joke/invitation. The event was certainly still raw to my mind. It must be the same for her.
The fact is that we came extremely close to realizing my dream. It started with my vision of owning a simple, traditional butcher shop. One where you could get quality cuts of meat, cut and packaged like butchers did for your grandparents. Butcher paper. Twine. The whole deal. Then seven years ago, about the time I met Natalie, the dream evolved, eventually becoming a space where you could also get prepared meats like sausages, patés, terrines, meatloaf, stuffed chops etc.; less a bow to the time constraints on the modern cook and more of an expression of my expanding love of all things cooking. You see I started as a boy who loved a T-bone steak, plain with maybe a pat of butter, to an adventurous cook and best-selling food critic.
I developed the idea for Macelleria 86 during my early tenor at the Wall Street Journal, years before I even met Natalie. And I felt, looking at the name embossed so nicely in raised letters on the invitation, that Natalie had stolen some property of mine. She never would have sent out this invitation if she hadn’t been working as a waitress at a restaurant that I gave poor review in spring of 2001. It was some too-late Latin American slash Asian fusion place where they deconstructed already small tapas and arranged them on tiny square plates and in shallow triangular bowls. The fish quality was mediocre and the chef was clearly afraid to reach for the spices. Not to mention that festive dining was out and the whole comfort food trend had already started to creep onto New York food scene. To my chagrin, it hasn’t stopped. Anyway, during the course of the otherwise unexciting meal that I was served by Natalie, I noticed that her hair was a nice shade of dark brown and her butt made a perfect rounded w in her black rayon pants. To her credit she steered me to the only truly delicious dish on the menu, an Asian pear and dulce de leche tart topped with cinnamon ice cream. The restaurant closed soon after my review came out. I truly believe there was no connection between the two; the restaurant was overpriced and misguided. Natalie assured me that the owners were more business types than foodies. That’s always a shame.
Two months later I was working on an article titled (not my choice) “10 Best Places in NYC to Take the Girl You Want to Take Home” as a good deed for some start- up Park Slope food blog that a friend’s daughter had started and I ended up using Natalie as my assignment. It’s kind of funny, actually, how it happened. Two months after the shutting of Shisho Verde, she served me coffee at the Mudspot. I would never have guessed that I’d end up dating a barista, particularly a barista at a self-proclaimed anti- establishment coffee shop, particularly a self-proclaimed “nice” barista at a self- proclaimed progressive coffee shop in the East Village — as if New York isn’t the epicenter of good street vender cup o’ Joe.
But the truth is the coffee at Mudspot is damn good, and perhaps the truth is that Natalie is damned good too. We dated for three years. So what of this seemingly malicious invitation?
Because to get back to the facts, they all point rather indisputably towards Natalie simply dumping me, finding another man, pitching him my idea for a butcher/gourmet food shop, getting the financing for it, opening it, and then sending me, me of all people, an invitation to the opening party printed on the very card stock which we had picked out together, holding hands in freaking Kate’s Paperie, at Natalie’s insistence that we choose something that “sent the right message.”
At the time I thought that the “right message” was our commitment to the shop, our sincerity in its originality, and our vision to provide sustainable, humanely sourced and excellent tasting meat and meat products to the people of New York. Of course this was all subtly grounded in our commitment to each other. Right? Would someone, having split from their financé, use the very blue-bordered fifteen dollars-for-ten-cards not including postage invitations that they bought together to announce their next wedding? And would they send it to their ex?
This is essentially what happened to me. That macelleria was going to be the ultimate commitment of my life and it deserved the proper pomp and circumstance. So I took my time and hired all the right people and sourced the meat and sharpened my knives and bought the damn invitations and now my ex-girlfriend has stolen my dream away from me forever.
It was no secret that Macelleria 86 was my dream. This is one of the reasons that last night I decided that I would go to this opening celebration. Because if I was invited, me of all people, then all our old friends and acquaintances from the food world must be invited too. And what would they think, when they got that invitation and recognized the name of the store (the name that Natalie kept despite the fact that it was more unique and special to us than even the idea of the place) and then saw some Guy’s name where mine should be? Wouldn’t they be surprised? Wouldn’t they wonder what had happened, if it had been some kind of mistake because, knowing Natalie and what a nice person she is, they would have found it unimaginable that she had blatantly stolen what they knew to be my idea and executed it herself, with another man? So when I showed up wouldn’t they inevitably ask what’s going on? I would have to tell them, with a sort of resigned and hurt shrug, that Natalie had broken my heart twice: once by leaving me to drink the last Belgian beer I’ve had in four years and again by opening this, our macelleria.
And they would be shocked, first, and even unbelieving, and then when they realized it to be all but too true they would turn up their eyebrows in disapproval and the taste of the Gruner Veltliner in their mouths would become a little sour. While I would run the risk of being pitied, I feel like I deserve to get the credit of the idea of Macelleria 86 and also, yes, the sympathy of my colleagues. They know that food is a career based on passion. This is a low blow.
If Natalie knows, as she must, that this scenario of scorn will play out, that people, and particularly the people who matter, including the editors of the food sections for all the major New York periodicals, including my alma matter, the WSJ, not to mention the bloggers, will discredit the shop, then why would she do it? And why would she inflict the doubled shame of having me show up at the opening party only to play the sad dog and get all the attention?
This is what I’m wondering as I’m standing here with fourteen minutes left until I will have to leave, if I am to leave at all, my sport coat even in hand, and my heart pounding with the stress of this decision. I try to do the old trick of mental columns, one for positive and one for negative reasons. I start with the positive side. Though I might risk being the recipient of a pity party, I will get to see all my old friends and acquaintances, including Bob Leeson and Walter Hu (both multiple James Beard award winners) because they have all heard of the macelleria before and thought it was a wonderful, truly original idea. Bob called it “necessary.” We were halfway to a deal for me to supply the terrine for his amuse bouche at the Underhill House.
Having dated, and not casually, for three years, Natalie certainly knows it was a topic that I brought up often at food events, symposiums on cheese, wine tastings, and private dinners, particularly after a glass or two of Sancerre. So all my old friends will of course have recognized the name on the invitation, and think I am behind it, and be in attendance. All of my friends, who are of course great chefs and food purveyors and critics themselves, one may group them all simply as good eaters, were charmed by the idea of my butcher shop/gourmet food store, and I’m sure they are interested in how it plays out.
In fact I’ve been thinking lately, and probably before I received the invitation in the mail, that my recent rumblings of discontent deserve more serious consideration. The invitation coming in the mail, the invitation for my butcher shop, which I had just been thinking about opening again for the first time after these four years, came as more than a shock; it’s the kind of ill-timed coincidence that moves around a knife in your heart.
Another reason, a “pro” to going to this opening party, besides seeing my friends and taking the higher road, would be to tell Natalie exactly this. I could say, while she was still in shock that I was there at all (because did she really expect me to attend even if she had sent the invitation?) I could say, Natalie, I still planned on opening this shop. I still have the napkins on which I drew the layout of the store, including the one that you kissed and marked with your lipstick for good luck. I still have the specs drawn up by the architect, and the contact at Blue Bonnet Farm for the cows and pigs, and with Mr. Langston near Albany for the ducks. I still have the industrial-size sausage maker sitting in a storage space on 59th street. I’m still experimenting with seasonings for my mother’s meatloaf.
And really, what could she say to that? Would she be surprised? Would she think I had really given up the dream? She must have, at least, convincingly told herself that I had given up. That I wouldn’t care. Mustn’t she have? Somewhere along the way? Between mentioning the concept of the butcher/gourmet food shop to this new Guy, finding the space, getting the meat license, and printing the logo on the sign. The sign! The sign was a different design than we had planned, more ornate now, too many decorative splashes, but it proclaimed the same name. It was a name that we had come up with together while we sat in tapas bars in Barcelona. I was assigned there by Gourmet to follow the whole rebirth of Spanish cooking. Ruth saw that one coming 3,000 miles away. What an assignment. I rented a little apartment not far from the Plaza Mayor. It had a small balcony and a low, wide bed with a purple ikat blanket. The shower head barely spritzed water. Not the most plush room, but I was still freelancing then, hadn’t yet been included in Best Food Writing 2004 and 2005 or asked to edit Best Food Writing 2010. The simplicity was more than made up for by the bottle of decent Ribera del Duero and a hunk of Mahon that waited for us, courtesy of the landlady, every Friday in the fridge. Also by the coffee shop next door, the one where we would sip café cortados before heading to the streets to start the daily research (read: eating) for my article. And of course, most of all, it was made up for by our little kitchen. The kitchen where we quickly decided to start having lunch, cooking for ourselves after seeing the egregious bounty of La Boqueria, the market off Las Ramblas. We bought fresh vegetables there because Natalie wanted to support the local farmers (as if the Spanish weren’t years ahead of us in respecting local, fresh produce, as if that wasn’t sort of the point of my whole article, as if our ten euro a day could save the little Spanish farmers and their vacas) but she felt it was important so what did it really matter to me? Then of course I wanted meat to go with the vegetables, and at first we bought that at La Boqueria too, some really amazing veal, but then we found this little butcher shop at Carrer de la Concòrdia, 86, that made the most delicious rolled stuffed pork. They also had albondigas and croquettas available for take-away, which was one of the sparks to my idea of the butcher slash prepared food shop.
Seeing that name, Macelleria 86, embossed on the creamy rectangle as I stood in the doorway of my apartment, I was struck by an image of that butcher shop on Carrer de la Concòrdia. I could almost taste the roast pork shoulder and I could see the rabbit we served with almond sauce. Natalie almost ruined that rabbit by forgetting to put in the garlic. And then she tried to sneak it back in without my seeing, which of course I did, but of course I didn’t mind, and I even laughed at the look of guilt on her face as I caught her surreptitiously throwing the cloves into the pot.
When I first saw the envelope I noticed Macelleria 86 right away (how could I not, it was basically calling my name) but also the address of the store. It was set to open at 68 Gansevoort Street. This upset me not because she managed to find a spot in the Meat Packing District, a retro throwback of the kind I had been hoping to achieve, but because 68 was an inverse of 86 and people might think that was how she got the name for the store. Not through hours of wandering the narrow streets of Barcelona. Not by finding a tiny butcher shop and going in, then buying some meat, cooking it together and feeling like real locals. Because of that butcher shop I’d felt really excited about opening my own shop, maybe for the first time. People wouldn’t know how she kissed my bottom lip like she did as soon as I mentioned the idea on the plane ride back to New York. How she smiled when I said that we should name our store Macelleria 86 in honor of our little butcher, Senor Jimez, and his sweet, fennel-flecked stuffed pork.
She may as well have named the shop after me. How could she not have felt she was betraying me, or us, such as we were, when she kept the name? And what did she tell this new man in her life, the man who was presumably giving up everything to go into the bloody meat business with her? He himself was probably under the 68-86 switchback ruse. Natalie could be quite persuasive, and evasive, when she wanted to be, which, to be frank, was most of the time and probably part of her charm. I realized, sitting last night with my second snifter of whiskey, that it’s exceedingly possible that this Guy has no idea that the butcher/gourmet food shop was not his girlfriend’s idea at all (and she must be his girlfriend because Natalie is too unstructured, too flighty to have a business partner that she can’t make plans with in bed) but rather the idea was her ex-boyfriend’s. This poor Guy is giving up his life savings to go into an extremely risky business with a woman who isn’t being honest with him, and who may, given the fact that she’d send me an invitation at all, either still be in love with me or be extremely fucked up over what happened between us. Yesterday as I sat in my chair I even decided, for about ten minutes, that I should go to this opening party in order to tell this man what kind of a farce he was being dragged into and save him the pain of trying to split the debt of the shop fourteen months down the line.
But then I realized that this was in fact a lie, on my own part, a sort of covering of my own desire to go out of curiosity about what the hell was going on. No. I won’t tell him and then pretend I was doing it to be nice.
That’s something Natalie would do.
But I still can’t help pitying the guy as I stand here with nine minutes to go, holding the invitation that I pulled out of the trash where it frankly belongs. And wouldn’t I, by going, invite the other people at that party to start whispering, to start asking questions about the history of the store and Natalie and me, and wouldn’t those whisperings turn into murmurs which Guy would hear? Then he would ask Natalie what it was that everyone was talking about behind his back; what did they mean that this was someone else’s store? And she would have to tell him, because the eyes of everyone who mattered would be, covertly, on her, and he would be heartbroken, in public, at his own party, downing the last of his pork roulette in shame.
I sit down in my chair and resolve not to go out of respect for this Guy Pelle, but only for a minute or so before I stand up realizing something I hadn’t before. If I go to the party, murmurings about the true history of the store will abound and Guy will find out about Natalie and I, which means he’ll know of my virtual ownership (due to some intellectual property law that I must seek out) of the store he thinks is his, and he will be heartbroken, and probably break up with her and renege on the venture. Well. If all this is to happen, as seems unavoidable if I decide to show up, then she must actually want me back.
It seems clear to me now that Natalie may be stuck in a business venture, with perhaps a romantic bent (she always had trouble differentiating between the two) with no way out. It’s possible that, having found herself choosing between grades of beef and cuts of lamb, she got caught in her own web of small decisions. Why would she keep the name of the store if she didn’t still have some feelings, at least a nostalgia, for our past? She was never the driving force behind the macelleria, that was obviously me; she was just happy to go along for the ride. She liked the idea of working the counter as the quote unquote missus of the store, wearing a cute Jesse Steele apron like the one I bought her for her birthday with the red cherries on it. I also got the sense throughout our three years together that Natalie liked the food world, and its elite, with the parties, and our trips to Napa, and the festivals which celebrate only one obscure food, like cardoons or buffalo.
Once at the Iberian Food Festival at the Roger Smith Hotel she drank so much free horchata that she threw up on the subway ride home.
The food world, perhaps like any other business (except more so because food itself is much more personal, and of course food pairs with drink) is excessively intertwined, bordering on incestual. If she was paying attention at all, Natalie would know she can’t shit on me and survive. But she must know that, and so it must be that she is stuck in a business venture (with a romantic bent gone bad) that she wants to get out of.
And who better to rescue her than me?
Carrie Vasios Mullins is a writer of fiction and food whose work has appeared in such publications as Edible Brooklyn, Everyday Genius, and Serious Eats. She splits her time between New York and San Francisco.