Last Thursday I found myself sharing counter space with Tony the cat, as he helped me prepare some dinner rolls for our hot date later that evening. Tony is very accommodating with his kitchen; he allows me full access to all his culinary accoutrements and makes no demands as to the charting of our course. “Some delicata in the rolls?” I ask him, holding the squash out like a baton. Sitting on the counter opposite me, tail twitching, his complacent stare is all the answer I need. “Meowrr,” he says, his lips barely parting. He paces the sink’s edge, watching my every move. “It’ll be great,” I assure him, but it’s clear he already knows. I slice the squash lengthwise, sprinkle with salt and olive oil, and place it cut-side down in a roasting pan into the oven. “Meowrr,” he says again.
The first thing you learn while cooking in Tony’s kitchen is that he is required to sample everything. The consummate quality controller, Tony must try every little morsel at every stage of the cooking process, to unequivocally ensure its fitness for consumption. “Tony, that’s just yeast and water in a bowl,” I tell him, but he’s gone ahead and lapped at it anyway. Later I scream, “Tony, that squash just came out of the oven!”—but he’s already clawed out a smoldering chunk and thrown it to the floor, where he eats it, gingerly. After I’ve kneaded the dough and rolled it out, I turn my back for an instant, which of course is all he needs. “Tony, stop!” I say, pushing him away from the unbaked rolls I had just witnessed him licking. “Those are raw, and unproofed, besides.” He glares at me, smoothing his whiskers back with his tongue. “Meowrr,” he says, which I take to mean, “Everything tastes great, boss. No need to get huffy.”
The other thing you learn is to never, ever leave food unattended in Tony’s kitchen. For all his apparent concern over the quality of the food going out, Tony appears to have forgotten his table manners, or perhaps never had much command over them in the first place. He will steal your dinner if you give him half a chance, and he will fight you tooth and claw should you be daring enough to confront him about it. Hissing and growling, he clamps down on scraps as if his life depends on it. His craftiness and brazen alacrity for food-pinching continually amaze me, and I am reminded that genius and insanity are held separate by the finest of lines.
That evening we had squash rolls with dilly-squash soup and it was one of the most enjoyable repasts I’ve ever spent. We only had to twice steal our rolls back from Tony, which in a way was flattering: he had come back for seconds, offering the highest compliment a chef can receive.