Classic Rock Cooking with #SingleMomQuarantine: Black Pepper Tofu and Asparagus with Chris Cornell, Johnny Cash and ‘Rusty Cage’

I feel like I am standing on top of a pile of rocks and they are slowly slipping from underneath me. While, I must admit, I am better off than most people I know — I am scared. I honestly don’t know what is worse, feeling my lungs caving in and suffering a stroke or the possibility of losing income and health insurance for my two kids. Hey, if I am lucky, I might get both!

I am helpless and I am the protector. I suppose that is why men have egos, to save face when the world crumbles from beneath them.

Photo by Mimipic Photography on Unsplash

Kids use adults as a litmus test. Is everything ok? Do I need to worry? Your face and the tone of your voice are all they need. Did I do something wrong? Why are you upset, mommy? One talent you never really develop until becoming a parent is shelving the bad stuff. You have to remain present and smile, you must always be patient, no matter what part of you is screaming in the background.

Nothing makes me feel better right now. Nothing. It isn’t a full blown anxiety attack. It’s a prolonged state of panic. I am panicking. And yet, there is nothing to do but wait. No one knows what life will look like next month or for the next school year. While my brain is locking me into a state of fight or flight, there is nothing to fight and there is nowhere to fly. Nothing can be done to keep us safe from the change that awaits us in the future.

M takes the kids for a hike while I pace and think. This kind of frantic needed some Johnny Cash. While Cash did not write “Rusty Cage”, I never heard it until he sang. There is a saying, where it came from, I have no idea: “Once Johnny Cash covers your song– it’s not your song anymore.”

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Trent Reznor described listening to his song through Cash to NME. “It was this other person inhabiting my most personal song. Hearing it was like someone kissing your girlfriend. It felt invasive.”

I never cared for “One” by U2. When Cash sings it, I cry.

In 1992, Chris Cornell wrote “Rusty Cage” and included it on Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger album. “I wrote the lyrics in my head when we were in a van somewhere in Europe on tour. I honestly can’t remember where, exactly. But I have a vivid memory of staring out the window, looking at the countryside, and feeling pent-up. I never wrote any of the words down, but I somehow remembered them,” he told Spin magazine. “I wanted to create this hillbilly Black Sabbath crossover that I’d never heard before…I was listening to a lot of Tom Waits at the time, and I wondered how Soundgarden could approach similar imagery and I wondered what the music would sound like. ‘Rusty Cage’ is what I came up with.”

“The tuning on that song was pretty nutty,” stated Kim Thayil, Soundgarden guitarist. “It’s recorded with a wah wah in the low position used as a filter. That was the first time we did anything like that. It was Chris’s idea; he wanted to get that weird tone that you can’t really dial in on an amp. But if you use the wah wah as a filter, it gets an incredibly weird sound. And if you listen to that riff, especially if you’ve heard the original demos of it, it almost sounds backward.”

Soundgarden is known for inventing grunge music’s amplified sonic boom. While I was indeed alive and going to concerts at the time, I was never over the moon with Soundgarden. They were respected but not adorned.

Image by Todd Alcott (Etsy Print available at ToddAlcottGraphics)

“But when Rick [Rubin, music producer] asked me to work up an arrangement of ‘Rusty Cage’ for Johnny Cash, I thought it was a stupid idea,” admitted Cornell. “That shows how shortsighted I was. I just didn’t hear it. It didn’t make sense to me. Lyrically, it did. But I was hung up on it sonically. I didn’t know how to turn it into a Johnny Cash song. I spent a couple hours trying and thought it was a waste of time, so I declined to do an arrangement. But later, when I heard the arrangement that Rick had somebody work up on the radio, I felt so stupid. It was a big lesson for me. It taught me that songs are a lot more nimble than you think. Two days after Johnny Cash’s version hit the radio, I started getting messages on my answering machine from people who’d heard it.” (Goodman, “An Oral History of Soundgarden’s ‘Rusty Cage’”, 2011.)

You wired me awake

And hit me with a hand of broken nails

You tied my lead and pulled my chain

To watch my blood begin to boil.

This song rushes at you with wildfire.

But I’m gonna break I’m gonna break my

I’m gonna break my rusty cage and run,

Soundgarden opens with a heavy, low guitar and a Close Encounter of the Third Kind inspired chord arrangement. It multiplies in fuller instrumentation before Cornell sings. The words don’t make it to me. With Cash, the words become my pulse.

Too cold to start a fire

I’m burning diesel burning dinosaur bones

Yeah I’ll take the river down to still water and ride a pack of dogs

“Too cold to start a fire.” There is so much helpless angst in this song. You can feel the bars clacking against the writer’s elbows. He is trapped.

Cash covered the song in 1996 on his album Unchained and subsequently earned a Grammy. The guitar always leads and feels like it’s running for its life. That feeling when your lungs burn and the wet of your tonsils cools with each mouthful of air. A jump over a rough patch. Hit the ground running. It is simpler than Soundgarden’s version. It is one guitar. A second set of strings comes in for each chorus but you can feel the fingers of the same man.

Photo by Bob van Aubel on Unsplash

Black Pepper Tofu and Asparagus

by Bon Appétit

“In this 30-minute dish, which is inspired by Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipe in his 2011 book Plenty, black pepper is the star, not the sidekick: When bloomed in oil, the coarsely ground peppercorns become piquant and fragrant enough to flavor the entire sauce, no red pepper flakes, dried chiles, or hot sauce needed. Take care not to burn the peppercorns as you toast them or the flavor could swing from spicy to bitter.”

INGREDIENTS

1 14-oz. package firm or extra-firm tofu, drained

1 Tbsp. black peppercorns

2 garlic cloves

1 1½" piece ginger, peeled

1 Tbsp. cornstarch

½ tsp. kosher salt

3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

1 lb. asparagus, trimmed, cut into 1½" pieces

⅓ cup soy sauce

1 Tbsp. sugar

1 tsp. unseasoned rice vinegar

Cooked white or brown rice (for serving)

RECIPE PREPARATION

Wrap tofu in a clean kitchen towel (what the hell does this mean and why) and place in a shallow baking dish or on a rimmed baking sheet. Weigh down with a heavy object (a cast-iron skillet topped with a couple of heavy cans works well). Again, no idea what this means or what it is for.

Let sit for at least 15 minutes and up to 1 hour (go the full time if you can).

I cut up the tofu and put it in a bread pan to breathe… I guess?

Meanwhile, coarsely crack peppercorns in a spice mill or with a mortar and pestle (you can use a chef’s knife or a very heavy object, although be prepared for some peppercorns to fly!); set aside. Finely grate garlic and ginger into a small bowl; set aside.

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I am using my old, 2 oz. breast milk storage jars to hold the spices. Grinding peppercorns is exhausting. Halfway through a tablespoon, I stop to make another cocktail. Once I finish grinding an entire tablespoon, I notice I scraped off part of the skin over my knuckle.

The kids video call while brushing their teeth. M can sense I am upset and is almost nice. His eyes are soft. He thinks I worry too much. I have music playing. When the Stones come on, I dance. They help pick my heart up off the floor every morning.

I am alone and cooking with a vodka tonic. I don’t care for vodka tonics but I can’t tolerate a martini without green olives and I am completely out. It is almost bedtime for the kids. They will stay at their dad’s tonight. I know tonight will be a long, rough meditation. Anxiety attacks are part of our primitive brain. When we sense danger, like a meerkat might sense danger with a predator, you must think on your feet and run for your life. If cornered, you turn and fight.

No one is hunting us, but there is an unseen danger. And, as animals, there is nothing to do but sit and wait — in cozy cages.

“Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” comes on Spotify and I dance in my living room. I feel ok for 3 minutes and 27 seconds.

Photo by vale arellano on Unsplash

Unwrap tofu and cut into 1" cubes. Transfer tofu to a medium bowl. Add cornstarch and salt and toss gently to coat tofu.

I wash my hands and massage the tofu wondering if spices would have changed my life sooner.

Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high. (I coat the pan with coconut oil)

Arrange tofu in skillet in a single layer and cook, turning occasionally, until golden brown and crisp all over, 6–8 minutes. (It took me about 15–20 minutes) Using tongs or a slotted spoon, transfer to a large plate or baking sheet.

Reduce heat to medium and add reserved cracked pepper to skillet. Cook, stirring often, until very fragrant, about 2 minutes, then add asparagus and cook, stirring often, until bright green, about 1 minute. Add reserved garlic and ginger and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 1 minute.

At this point, I drizzle the olive oil over the asparagus.

Return tofu to pan and gently toss to combine. Increase heat to medium-high, add soy sauce and sugar, and cook, tossing occasionally, until sauce thickens slightly, about 3 minutes. This took me about 10–15 minutes.

Remove from heat and add vinegar. Taste and add more salt and/or vinegar if needed.

At first, I don’t know how I can eat when I feel like this. I feel like my heart is in my stomach. The sun is still bulldozing through my living room window. I can’t wait for it to go away.

I’m burning diesel burning dinosaur bones

However, I know, at this point my anxiety is with me for the night. At least until I can medicate it away. I don’t have a prescription for medication but today I wish I had something stronger than a guided meditation and afternoon cocktail.

I sit down to eat my dinner-for-one out of the mixing bowl. I don’t need to use a plate just to wash it later with everything else. I take a bite. My ears, my throat, my eyes all open at once.

This

is

delicious.

I chew hard on an asparagus and realize I didn’t cut far enough along the spear. It should have been cut closer to the tip.

Hit like a Phillips head into my brain

It’s gonna be too dark to sleep again

Cutting my teeth on bars and rusty chains

I’m gonna break my rusty cage and…

run.

Cash takes this next verse slow with a little extra engine oil in the guitar, giving it the weight and grind of heavy metal. His singing becomes more like spoken word. The guitar roars like a machine with a switch in arrangement. The following lyrics are held high over head.

When the forest burns along the road

Like God’s eyes in my headlights

When the dogs are looking for their bones

And it’s raining ice picks on your steel shore.

I feel all of it. The crackle of the trees. The rush to collide. The frenzy of hunger. The burning from the sky. I feel it all right now. I am afraid to stop writing and feel only this.

I’m gonna break I’m gonna break my

I’m gonna break my rusty cage and run

The sugared pepper is dripping into the open cut of my finger. It burns but I keep eating. I can’t stop. The food is so piquant, my animal spirit won’t pull away. I inhale a pound of tofu and a pound of asparagus in under 20 minutes.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

There were at least three different concerts where Cornell dedicated “Rusty Cage” to Johnny Cash. In 2015, for live concerts, Cornell adopted Cash’s guitar arrangement of the song in place of his own. “When Johnny Cash covered Rusty Cage it was the first time I received compliments from my lyrics,” Cornell told Classic Rock. “When you break out the acoustic guitar, the words are the focal point unless you’re the Jimi Hendrix of acoustic guitar. So the words have to have meaning.”

I am gonna break.

I am gonna break my….

I am gonna break my rusty cage

and

run.

Vita Lusty is a nonfiction writer. She has work appearing in HuffPost and Chicken Soup for the Soul. She is a single mother of two and school teacher.

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