The kitchen is not his. The kitchen is small, rarely employed for anything greater than toast and coffee or the reheating of day-old pizza. There are nuggets of dog food lost between the stove and the dishwasher. The nicotine on the windows diffuses the afternoon light into soft yellow hues and there's a package of chicken in the freezer that's five and a half years old. No German cutlery, no leaded crystal, no French cheese. No hot pies cooling on the sill or remnants of past culinary delight tucked into the refrigerator for future indulgence. The towels smell funny and the pantry is a joke. But none of this knocks the grin off Billy Ciesliga's face. None of this makes him sniff in disgust, or point his shoes in the direction of the front door. His concern right now is whether something labeled "tiger cheese" will actually melt. The package promises it will; but for two bucks a bag, that promise seems cheaper than the sad, phony family of 7-Eleven beverage cups that cram two large cupboards in this tiny box of a house.
William Robert Ciesliga, 35 years old, formerly of Farmington Hills, formerly of Port Huron, formerly of Royal Oak and Hamtramck and West Bloomfield and Sterling Heights and some other places in Michigan and some other places in Massachusetts and some other places in between, does not care about the size of the kitchen or the breadth of the pantry or the stink that lies on the towels. Right now his mind is on cheese, egg and potato. It's on onion, salt and butter. It's on the friends that mill around, bloodshot and thick with last night's diversions, awaiting the grub that will cool their foreheads and calm their gullets. It's a simple thing, this construction. It could be described as mundane or unimportant, a machination not worth a word or a mention. But in this arena, the damaged and ill-maintained are cured, the furious calmed, and the unbalanced put back on their feet. This is the day after the night we can't remember. This is the place where we get put back together: The Church of Billy. It's Ciesliga's House of Gastronomical Rehabilitation. Admission price is what's left in your pocket from the night before. No valet boys running with keys or perky coat room girls or inscrutable wine lists allowed. Give up your sins to the man with the roly-poly belly and the Grandpa Munster hair peaking out of a dirty, black ski cap. All will be forgiven today.
Billy soaks up all the poison and dust that courses through our beings with items thick and heavy, creamy and sweet, greasy and salty. This is what the body craves when wounded. These are the antidotes to the fractured and anxious mind. Today, he's mixing up a batch of Poor Man's Benedict, just like the real stuff, but not made with any ingredients of real quality, and sans the raw eggs that comprise the normal entrée's sauce. Complementing this are some store-bought plum pirogues with a blueberry yogurt dipping sauce and some Polish chocolate bars. His conversation stays modulated and calm as his body twists and his hands wave over the steaming pot of water and iron skillet full of sweet onions and butter. He rules this tiny kitchen with a spatula in his small, chunky hands, dancing amid the ever-growing piles of dishes and the utensils stained with greasy clumps. When he's all done, diced sweet potatoes with caramelized onions sit sullenly next to the eggs and a couple slices of sweet yellow pepper add crunch to this symphony to softness.
Billy remembers a time when he was 5 or 6 years old. "My parents threw a sausage-making Halloween party. There were like 50 people, all dressed up for Halloween and making sausage in our house. Imagine it. It's the first time I really knew food was something special, something good. I didn't think at the time that I even liked sausage, but it was the fact that it was happening, that they were doing this. They used to throw some wicked parties back then."
He remembers his father cooked a lot. He remembers his father making a hole in the middle of a slice of bread and buttering it and tossing it into a pan. He remembers him dropping an egg into the hole. Frying it up, turning it over. It was a busy house. Four sisters and Billy right in the middle. He wasn't allowed in the kitchen much. Cooking became a necessity when he left for college. If you can't afford a restaurant, you better learn how to cook.
"My first two years of college were bad. I didn't go very much. I also was trying to deal with a long-distance relationship. It took me eight years to get a bachelor's degree in English, the biggest bullshit degree there is. I have a degree that basically reads: starving artist."
Loyola, University of Detroit, Oakland Community College, University of Massachusetts, Harvard and finishing up back home again in Michigan at Oakland University, Billy's educational résumé is a patch-quilt of unfinished business and ever-changing goals. When he completes his associate's degree in applied science from OCC, he would like to go to law school. Lawyers make money and Billy needs money because Billy wants to open his own restaurant.
"Not a big place," he says. "Kind of like a diner, ya know? The menu would change every day. Not a big place, either. Maybe about the size of a Genie's Wienies," referring to the greasy little dive on Conant in Hamtramck.
Billy knows Hamtown well the bars where his bands have played and the small Polish markets such as Myron's on Caniff where he attempts to read the unpronounceable meat names to the counter, even though his tongue never proves nimble enough. He points and she smiles and grabs the roundish slab and cuts him off a chunk. He likes the meat that, in his words, looks "questionable." Meat with problems. Meat with an "off" character to it. Maybe this is what so effectively kills the hangovers that Billy is in charge of disposing of. Could it be the bad meat? Pardon me, not "bad" "questionable." No one's ever got sick after his morning feast. And if they did, they probably blamed the gallon of tequila tanked in their stomachs anyway.
Billy plays bass, drums and keyboards in no less than three local outfits right now. It keeps him free, relaxed and pervasively unemployed, sleeping over friend's houses so he can perform his breakfast magic three or four times a month.
"You know what's great for hangovers? Enfamil. I mean it's awful stuff, don't kid yourself. But it works, man. It's sweet. Have that right before your Bloody Mary or your Mimosa. I'm telling ya, it works."
Billy hasn't always done the cooking thing free of charge. Once in a while he actually gets paid for it. He's worked at Fiddleheads in Royal Oak and Slows in Detroit and a couple in the Machus chain. He's made sushi at the Dally in the Alley and the Fourth Street Fair and has catered a few events as well.
"The whole thing with kitchen jobs in Detroit is that they don't pay enough. Maybe nine bucks an hour if you're lucky. Same job in Chicago will get you 15 an hour. Then you got the whole 'Bossy Chef Complex' you have to deal with. The entitlement that comes with being top dog. By choice, I never wanted to be top dog. I mean, it's understandable though. The responsibility is large, and a lot of money is on the line, so it's easy to become an asshole."
So Billy stays out of the commercial kitchens for now. He's concentrating on music, concentrating on finishing another degree in less than eight years, and concentrating on the gnarly, dirty-orange potato he slowly turns over in his palm.
"The sweet potato," he muses "That's God's potato." His laughter melts into the pan with the sizzling onions as his guests await their medicine.
Recipe for Billy Ciesliga's "Poor Man's Benedict"
8 slices fried Canadian bacon (or any other "questionable" Polish deli meat)
4 toasted English muffin halves
Capful of white vinegar
Salt & Pepper
Fake Hollandaise2 slices any cheese you want
1 tablespoon any mustard you want
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
Dash of Worcestershire sauce
Juice from half a lemon
Bring 4 quarts water to a boil. Add tbsp. of salt and the vinegar. Drop in eggs for two minutes to poach.
Remove eggs. Place two slices Canadian Bacon on each English muffin half. Place eggs on top of muffin halves. Spoon sauce over eggs. Salt and pepper to taste.
To prepare Fake Hollandaise: In small microwaveable bowl, combine the cheese and mustard and mayo. Microwave in 30-second intervals till soft. Stir in lemon juice.Dan DeMaggio writes and eats for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]