Wednesday, September 11, 2013

a brilliant disguise

I moved to Louisiana around the new year, just in time for the start of crawfish season. My second week here, D's colleague A and his wife J, natives of the region, invited us to go out for boiled crawfish at a place in town called Louisiana Crawfish Time. They said that this early, the crawfish tended to be younger, sweeter, and smaller than they get later in the spring. Plus, they speculated, it had been a mild winter. The crawfish hadn't had to molt, so their shells would be softer and easier to get into.

When we walked into the restaurant, we were greeted by a cloud of brine- and spice-scented steam. Our server seated us at a table with a rough hole cut into its center. Underneath was a garbage can where we would discard our shells as we ate. I deliberated over the menu and asked questions (A three-pound order sounded like a lot. Was it meant to be shared? Absolutely not.) and finally settled on two pounds of crawfish, a half-pound of shrimp, a boiled whole onion, and an ear of corn. When the large, round tray laden with steaming goodness finally arrived at the table, I asked our seasoned friends how to do it. A said to twist the head from the body, loosen the shell a bit from underneath, and then pull gently to remove the tail meat. If you weren't squeamish about the yellow "fat" in the head (what I've since learned is the hepatopancreas of the critter), you sucked or scooped it out and ate it before pitching it into the garbage pail.

Well, when in Rome, as they say. A few minutes later, I looked up from my peeling, eating, and sucking to find D, A, and J smiling bemusedly at me, my Zatarain's-stained fingernails, and my already half-empty tray.

   "I should have been a pair of ragged claws, 
    Scuttling across the floors of silent seas."

I have to admit, one reason why I liked crawfish from the beginning is that they look pugnacious, like they've got their dukes up. A tray full of them reminds me of a gang of tiny street toughs. And yes, sir: over the subsequent three months, I fought my way through at least a half-dozen ruddy phalanxes of them (as well as a few stragglers from D's trays, too): nearly twenty pounds total.

Moreover, I have a visceral response to their color. I like red things: I have red hair, a red car, a red iPod, a big red purse. In this respect, perhaps, I am not alone. During one class discussion of ads as visual arguments, one of my students pointed out that advertisers often use blue and red because these colors tend to make us hungry and thirsty. This makes sense to me. When I see a plump, ripe tomato in the dead of summer, I salivate like Pavlov's dog. Same with crawfish.

What's interesting about these little crustaceans is that, like lobsters, they don't always sport that blazing color that we associate with them. In fact, crawfish in the wild appear dull-colored, usually as green or brown as the mud they're raised in. However, all of those initially visible, earthy pigments in a crawfish become unstable at high temperatures, catalyzing the breakage of their chemical bonds and hence the dissipation of their colors. All the while, underlying all the duller shades is a red hue caused by a carotenoid pigment called astaxanthin, which remains unaffected by extreme heat. So, when those mudbugs hit the crab-boil-infused water of a roiling pot, every color but their red goes away. Then an armful of hot, hard scarlet exoskeleton, dusted in some kind of Cajun seasoning, is set before you, and you set to, cracking and twisting until you get to the sweet, spicy stuff inside.

Since I first started going to see her over a year ago, my analyst has been curious about why my hair is red. "Because it's interesting," I initially answered. "Do you need to be interesting?" she wondered aloud, damn her.

Before you ask the question (and risk the ire of my friend MJ, who thinks it's one of the rudest queries you can possibly pose to a woman): no, it's not natural. The truth is I don't know what my real hair color is anymore. I've been a bottled ginger since I was fourteen years old.

I've never done permanent dye because it generally requires first bleaching out the color and then adding back the desired hue. Plus, roots. I'm too cautious a gal for that kind of casual obliteration of my natural color. Instead, over the years, I've sampled dozens of different kinds of semi-permanent color. Each one lasts from a month to six weeks and works by coating my natural color (whatever it is under there) with some version of red. Because they don't strip the color first, I like to think these washes give me what the hair dye commercials call "dimension," which basically just means that depending on whether the formula is coating a medium brown, a light brown, or a silver hair (and I have plenty of all three kinds), different nuances of red, orange, and auburn emerge.

Let me say more about my hair color history. When I was born, I had coal-black hair and purple eyes. My mom told me that one nurse said she was surprised to learn that my mother wasn't of Asian descent. By elementary school my eyes had paled to a plain blue and my hair color had faded to a medium brown — not a bad thing necessarily, but not exciting enough for my tastes. During the summers, when I would swim and ride my bike in the sun all day, the ends of my hair tended to turn an ombré copper that I always thought looked cool, in that way a fifth-grader thinks her oversized, off-the-shoulder sweatshirt with the glittery panda is pretty spiffy. Every year, I would wait for summer and the chance to enjoy a different haircolor and a generous dusting of freckles for a couple of months.

Until high school. My gateway drug was Fanci-Full's Lucky Copper temporary hair rinse, which only lasted until I washed my hair next. Just a little light, no-hassle, no-consequences experimentation. (Another popular Fanci-Full color? Pretty Beaver. I kid you not.) But before long, I found myself wanting to be red for longer than just a weekend night. Soon after, at a closeout store, I stumbled upon a cache of discontinued, 3-to-4-washes color made by a company I can't remember —L'Oréal, maybe? All I can recall is that it came in shades called Sheer Plum, Sheer Raspberry, and, my favorite, Sheer Cedar, and that I oscillated among these shades for months. Eventually, I bought up Big Lots' supply and hoarded them until they were finally gone, which was probably fortunate, since they pretty much fried my hair. I didn't care. They turned my mane (which was also permed) various shades of dark, browny purples, pinks, and oranges. I'd gird my loins for my monthly visit to the woman who had cut my hair since I was three years old, braced for her incredulous, "Why are you still using that hair color?" and her ensuing reproaches at the sight of my split and broken ends.

Finally, when I ran out of my stash, a friend of my mother's with a beautician's license offered me Redken's Shades EQ to try. It was wonderful, and far from being corroded, my hair came out fabulously shiny and healthy when I used it. Every few months, I'd beg my mom to call this woman and ask her to make a trip to the special beauty supply store. Mom would write Susan a check, and I would bring home my ill-gotten bag of chemicals and mix up my own formula using a combination of one of their nondescript browns and a cool, bright blood-red called Rocket Fire. After a year or so, I dispensed entirely with the brown and mixed pure batches of Rocket Fire, which was the same primary color as a red crayon. Over the years, Susan and my mom began to lose touch. Finally, Mom told me she wouldn't make the call anymore; it was too awkward, when she never saw her friend otherwise.

Then came years of trying to find the right semi-permanent color in the drugstore. Again, I tried mixing auburn and dark red, always shooting for a hybrid somewhere between the hair colors of the women on the two boxes.

Until I realized the secret of drugstore hair dye: the color you see on the model is never what your hair will actually look like when you dye it. So then I went straight auburn. Bingo. First I did a color called Sunset, but then they stopped making that, too.

Which brings us to now. Since a few years ago, I've been using Natural Instincts: specifically, a shade that was initially called Spiced Tea, and is now, less imaginatively, labeled Light Auburn. Whether it's because no one wants a color that bright or because it's so wildly popular they can't keep it on the shelf, it's hard, if not impossible, to find it in stores. These days, I buy it at an online drugstore in boxes of six or eight so that I always have a stash.

There you go. That's my secret. Clairol Natural Instincts #16.

Even though I've found a brand I'm committed to, the shade of my hair still varies widely during the month: from a deep, slightly goth-looking red just after I've dyed it, to a brassy, bonfire-colored mess at the end of the month, which indicates it's time to get out the bottle again. Ironically, the messy, orangey stage is usually the one at which older men, particularly in stores, tend to affectionately call me Red as they hold open my door.

The red works because it's plausible. I have the accompanying freckles, fair skin, and blue eyes. People believe it. For instance: once at the Citgo in South Knoxville where I stopped to fill up my little maroon Civic, a guy climbed down out of his truck at the next pump and exclaimed, "Hey! Did you know yer hair's same color's yer car?" to which I replied meekly, "Thank you," unsure of whether this was a compliment or not, but wanting to be polite in either case. Which might prove I'm not truly red at heart, I suspect.

My mascot?

"So you don't know your true color," said my analyst at one point, ominously.

The month after Rhea died, I went to visit MJ, who, at my insistence, plucked twenty new, straight, white hairs from my head. I worried even then, when I was twenty-two, what I would do when it was time to transition from auburn back to my natural color or on to silver—or whether I would do it at all. I still fret. D says, "Color it forever, if you want. Why not? You could be one of those eccentric women with orange eyebrows." On the other hand, part of me loves the idea of a pale, metallic bob. It's just this awkward business of becoming that keeps me dyeing.

Under this red wash, I figure I am at least 25% silver fox these days. This impels so many questions. Does my color suggest I'm covering up who I really am? Or does it mean I'm becoming who I was always supposed to be, despite being given naturally medium-brown hair—something like a woman trapped inside a man's body? Or is the red dye's transformation of my hair a kind of alchemical reaction, bringing out essential qualities in the brown and the silver that they would never have had on their own? I like to think the last thing, but I really don't know.

So, why red? It makes people hungry and bulls angry. Red means stop. Or does it? At our crawfish dinner, A and J advised that, after dark in certain parts of New Orleans, once you've established no one's approaching the intersection, you run the traffic signal because you don't want to be a sitting duck at a light. There, red means go.

Red is also the color associated with the astrological sign of Aries, which is ruled by Mars, the Red Planet. Aries and Mars are the Roman and Greek names for the god of war. And this makes sense: red is the color of fire and blood. It's a brazen color.

About ten years ago, my friend V did my natal chart for me. I already knew that my sun sign was in Capricorn, of course, since I'm a mid-January baby. Born in the coldest part of the year, we Capricorns tend to be cautious, wryly humorous, prudent, practical, occasionally cold and calculating. It's a sign associated with old age because it occurs late in the zodiac. Old souls. If you wanted to think of it in terms of Aesop, Capricorn is the tortoise. The colors associated with the sign are browns, grays, and forest greens.

Favorite scene: the costume isn't a disguise; it's part of who Tick is.
But from that astrological chart, I also learned something about where my other planets are. In contrast to my buttoned-up Capricorn sun, my rising sign (the constellation that was ascending on the horizon at the moment I was born) is in Aries. One's rising sign, or ascendant, often indicates one's physical appearance or outward mannerisms, as distinct from his or her more intrinsic personality. Aries is the first sign of the zodiac. The infant. People with Aries rising get labeled the "independent" children ("I'll do it myself," I told my mother when I was little, always disdaining her help). Aries rising people are habitually fast walkers, usually have freckles or birthmarks, are prone to head injury, and often have a reddish tint to their hair. Aries is fearless, impetuous, impatient, bold sometimes to the point of foolhardiness. It's Aesop's hare. You'll probably see this side when you first meet me, though if you assume that's what I'm really like, you'll be only half right.

All of my three serious relationships have been with Aries men, including D. I don't know if I covet what they have, or if they're drawn to me because I initially seem recognizable to them. Maybe it's both. D especially is very fiery. All three of his main signs—sun-moon-ascendant, the holy trinity in astrology—are in three different fire signs. Conversely, with my earthy Capricorn sun and watery Pisces moon, I make mud or at least very damp soil. I long for poetry and mystery, and to be left alone to drift and dream and putter. Even so, when I introduce myself to you, chances are you'll conclude: Gutsy. Brave. Red.

But back to Louisiana. If you take the tour at the Tabasco Sauce factory in Avery Island, you'll learn that one of the McIlhenny family members walks the pepper fields each morning and determines which plants contain the best pickings, marking them with a length of rope. Later, each person who harvests the peppers is given something called la petite baton rouge, or "the little red stick." It's a wooden dowel that has been dipped into a red paint that is the precise shade of a perfectly ripe Tabasco pepper. The pickers use this method to determine which peppers are ready to pick. They lay it alongside a pepper and consider: does it match the baton rouge? Is it red enough yet? It's a kind of rubric: literally, something red-hued, like the letters in medieval illuminated manuscripts, but more practically, a set of criteria for determining quality.

Only, here's the thing that occurs to me, in thinking about the pepper pickers' assessment: red is the color of ripeness, which means it's the shade something turns just before it begins to tip over into rot. The campari tomatoes in the dish on my kitchen counter are so red they look like they'd burn your fingers. Each day they get softer. Eventually there will be a little fuzz of white and gray near the stem end, and then I'll have to hurry up and use them or throw them out.

It strikes me, too, that when you see a scarlet crawfish, it's no longer alive. It may be gorgeous, brilliant, and bold, but red means dead—just like the safety on the gun I kept in my nightstand drawer all last year, when I lived alone in the woods and wasn't as brave as I let on.

I guess all this is to say I don't know when I'll stop dyeing my hair. This red is a mask I seem to need for now—at least until I can muster enough moxie to finally turn silver.

For now, let me offer you the reddest thing I can think of: tomato sauce. I'm including two variations here so that you can choose just how vivid you want your formula: either a bright marinara or a pinky vodka sauce. I would pit this marinara against any other recipe and fully expect you to report back that it's the most delicious one you've ever tasted. And as for the vodka sauce: it coats some fettuccine beautifully, but if you're feeling extra what-the-hell about dietary consequences, you could totally put this in a bowl by itself and eat it as a sinful tomato bisque.

marinara sauce
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
2 good-sized shallots, diced
3 plump cloves garlic, chopped
3 1/2 cups whole, peeled, canned San Marzano tomatoes in puree (one 28-ounce can)
4 sprigs of fresh thyme
2 sprigs of fresh oregano
small bunch of fresh basil
1 teaspoon sea salt (or to taste)
freshly ground black pepper
the best part of this whole process

Heat the oil and butter in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Sauté the onion and garlic, stirring, until lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes and the herb sprigs. Using your fingers, crush or smash tomatoes slightly. Bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer uncovered for 10 to 15 minutes, or until somewhat reduced and thickened.

Remove and discard the thyme and oregano sprigs (they're very woody). Stir in the salt and season with pepper to taste. 

Remove sauce from heat for a minute and pulse a few times with an immersion blender, just until big tomato pieces are smaller but sauce is still chunky.

Yield: about 4 cups.

variation: vodka sauce

Follow recipe above as directed — except, when you put in the tomatoes and herb sprigs, add 3/4 cup vodka, as well.

Simmer and puree sauce as usual, and then stir in 1/3 to 1/2 cup of warmed heavy cream. Heat but don't boil.

Toss sauce with cooked fettuccine and top with meatballs (if you have 'em) and Parmesan.



Tiffany said...

Despite all of our time at UT, I never suspected that you were not a natural redhead. The one thing that I like about getting more gray hairs is that it has made me feel free to experiment more with my hair color. If I'm going to color it anyway, I might as well have fun with it.

Heather Akers said...

I love your take on the silver lining (ha) of experimentation. Who knows? After all the brown goes, maybe I'll even try a blonde shade!

Tanvi Patel said...

"I long for poetry and mystery, and to be left alone to drift and dream and putter." Brilliant. Also, I feel the same way. Probably because I'm also an Aries. Nice post!