Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Last Time I Cooked for Lee Marvin

The last time I cooked for Lee Marvin was a goddam disgrace. The food however was excellent as it would have to be if it were to be cooked for, served to and eaten by one of the greatest men of the 20th century. Actor, lover, fighter. Man of action. Man of few words. And decidedly a very, very bad man. Every man alive, without exception, secretly wishes he were Lee Marvin. Enough.


Through fantastic good fortune and war my father became friends with him and latterly he became my godfather.


The last time I cooked for Lee Marvin was two months before his untimely and sudden death We were riding along a ridge in the sierra that ran through his colossal ranch in the southwest of the United States of America.


He was an incomparable horseman. He could do anything on a horse. And then a whole load of stuff more. He taught me to ride and whilst I can handle myself on top of any of those excellent animals I will never come close to his horsemanship.


We had been riding since dawn after a breakfast of beans and coffee prepared by the boy- aka yours truly. We hadn’t stopped all day except for a brief moment when we fell off our horses fully clothed into the cool, clear water pooled in the bend of a creek. It helped wash away the sweat of a couple of days of long riding and a couple of nights of heavy drinking. Under those stars. Jesus, those stars.


We chewed on jerky throughout and smoked Gauloises cigarettes periodically. He had picked up the habit of Gauloises filterless during the war and wouldn’t let it go to please nobody. He got them shipped in specially and kept them in  a chest freezer along with any small excess left over from a shooting party.


There was an absolute rule of no booze in daylight. His rule. If I had tried to make that or any other rule he would have punched me full square in the face. He was as I say, a great man.


We had been riding some time and the sun was getting low in the sky. He was riding point and I observed him, slowly, naturally and without apparent effort, lean down out of his saddle, fully extend his arms and fingers and pick up a stone the size of a wolf’s testicle. He seamlessly hoisted himself back up and turned round and threw the stone straight at me. Actually it wasn’t at me. What he was really throwing it at was a snake about five foot long slithering down towards my horse.  A diamond back, he told me later. Nasty snake with a bad bite. Anyway.


He hit the snake fully on the head and killed it outright. He drew to  a halt and dismounted. He walked over and toed the inert, defunct mother of all sin. As soon as the boot made contact with the snake, it sprang back into action. Not to life, just action. It was writhing madly and convulsing but Lee, Mr Marvin, made no motion to retreat. He simply pinned the snake to the ground just behind its head with his boot. As he stood he slowly withdrew a knife about a foot long out of its sheath hidden within his garments. He crouched down and cut the snake’s head off. He put the head in a leather pouch I had not seen before but guessed it was used for this kind of thing.


He had released the snake from under his boot but it still jumped and writhed. It reminded me of the way chickens run around when decapitated, seemingly trying to escape their inevitable end. He picked it up, put it into a hessian sack, came up to my horse and tied the sack to my saddle


“Sorry kid – you’re cooking.” It was the only thing he said throughout the whole episode. He mounted back up and we continued on our way.


Later on we came down out of the mountains in time to make camp and get ready for what I can only describe as the night. A night with Lee Marvin was never predictable and was often quite hard work. Particularly the next day. Anyway.


We decided to camp next to the river and I went down to the river’s edge and walked into the water. I say we decided. It wasn’t me. It was him. He decided. But Jesus, what can I say – he was Lee Marvin.


I removed the snake from its sack and was fairly appalled to see that it was still moving. Not so vigorously, but slowly writhing nonetheless. I took out my knife and made a small cut in its skin down its length, enough of a cut to peel the skin back. I put the fleshy, bony stump in my mouth and pulled the skin off its body. I put the now skinless but STILL not motionless body back in the bag and washed the skin turning it back right side out. When I had finished I hung it from the limb of a tree that was overhanging the river. I still have this snakeskin. I keep it  on the dashboard of my car. Now I took the snake back out and washed it. Finally it became inert. 3 hours after its death. Maybe the cold river water was too much for this spirited reptile.


I walked back up to the fire that had been set in the meantime by Mr Marvin I presume. I say presume because I damn sure didn’t see him do it. As I was carrying the snake to the fire wondering how I was going to grill that mother, he came towards me with a stick. Shit. What now? But all he did was to take the snake from me and lay it and the stick along side each other near the fire. “Wait,” he said and walked off into the woods.


So I waited. It started about five minutes after he disappeared and about a minute before he reappeared, this time carrying a bundle of leafy oak cuttings. “It” was the unaided union of the snake and stick. Right there on the ground by the fire for no reason the snake started to move once again. The snake’s tail curled itself around the bottom of the stick and then rolled with it until it was completely coiled around the stick’s length. “Shit” I said. “Yep” he said and threw the cuttings on to the fire. He then stood with his arm out straight, holding the snakestick in the smoke for a full half hour whilst he went into a monologue at full volume about a night’s drinking with Bob Mitchum and some French whores in a town recently liberated by the two f them at the end of the war.


He talked for half an hour without pausing, without seeming even to draw breath and all the while still holding the snakestick in the smoke. This was a way of smoking meat I had not seen before. He finished up by saying “ OK, cook it” and he tossed it to me while he went to get ready. The sun was going down and it was going to be dark within the hour.


I poked about in the embers until I had them nice and white with a red glow beneath, a bit like a wolf’s eye looking at you from amongst the darkened entrance to a wood you might not return from. I put two rocks about a foot apart in the fire and laid the snake across them turning it every minute or so. The juices periodically dropped on to the embers and hissed. The coals were burning slow and it took about 25 minutes of this slow grilling to cook it. Its flesh was white, sort of like frogs legs but had now turned a beautiful, crisp, grilled multishaded brown. It smelled good.


I pulled the snake into two halves and we sat down to eat, chewing its not massively tender flesh slowly and pondering its flavour. It did not taste of frogs legs. No, it tasted of mackerel. Weird, eh? We were about 400 miles from the sea.


Mr Marvin liked it. He didn’t say as much. In fact he didn’t say anything. I could just tell he was enjoying it. Every now and then he would shake a few drops of his travelling companion, Tabasco, onto his next mouthful and then pick away the flesh from the vertebra with his teeth and chew it slowly. As he was finishing he said “Goddam good, boy. Right, I’m ready.” The sun had gone down.


“Shit” I said. And the drinking began. Like I say, that night was a goddamn disgrace. That man was a BAD MAN.


Ben Crawshaw said...

Awesome. All great men carry tabasco or at least a few chilis. The rest just carry aftershave.

Tam @ Travel Blog said...

wow, what an amazing story!