The epigraph in The Changeling gave me goose bumps: “When you believe in things you don’t understand then you suffer,” from Stevie Wonder’s song “Superstition,” and so it was the perfect way to set the stage for this remarkable story that defies description. It’s a fairy tale, as the author tells us on page one, and it’s also a very well-written book that has elements of horror, fantasy and romance. But at its core, it is about parenthood and family.
Apollo Kagwa’s father, Brian West, disappeared without a trace when Apollo was 4 years old. His mother Lillian, originally from Uganda, raised him alone in the 1980’s, working as an administrative secretary at a law firm in midtown Manhattan. When he was a junior in high school, there came an insistent knocking on the door to their apartment, and Apollo, thinking it was his father coming back for him, as he had secretly wished all those years, was disappointed to find no one at the door, only a cardboard box on the threshold. I still can’t figure out how it got there, but it contained ordinary things his father had saved, like the movie ticket stubs from his first date with Lillian, a rental agreement to an apartment in Jackson Heights, the bill for an overnight stay at a hotel on Ninth Avenue, and a marriage certificate for Brian West and Lillian Kagwa. At the time, Apollo couldn’t understand why a man who would save such things, would leave his family and never contact them again, but it remained a mystery. Apollo became quite an entrepreneur in the used book business as a teenager, and instead of going to college, he pursued his passion: combing estate sales and used bookstores for that one incredible find that would make him a millionaire. In pursuit of this to the detriment of his social life, Apollo, at the age of 34, awoke to an unbelievable longing for a a close relationship one day as he was examining the books of deceased couple who had clearly loved each other and shared something that no one, not even their children, could appreciate or understand. And that’s when he met Emma Valentine, librarian extraordinaire. There the adventure begins.
One of the items that was in the box that so mysteriously turned up at Apollo’s apartment was a well-worn children’s book called Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak. The book begins, “When Papa was away at sea.” Apollo tried to imagine his father reading it to him, but could not conjure up an image from memory, and his father’s face was also lost to him. But the memory of this book stayed with him well into adulthood. In this panel from the book, Ida is intently playing her wonder horn to still the baby to sleep, while goblins came quietly to replace the human child with an ice one. Disturbing imagery: absent adults not minding the child. Maurice Sendak’s contribution to children’s literature is a thing of beauty!
When Emma’s childhood friend, Nichelle comes to New York to visit, they meet at Bouley restaurant on Duane St. for dinner. We ate there in August of 2007, and the note I made in our journal was “Best lunch ever!” I wish I had kept a record of what we ordered, but I do remember the foyer with the shelves lined with apples that so impressed Apollo. At their Bouley dinner, Emma was 38 weeks pregnant, Apollo had just purchased a book he thought he could sell for $250, and Nichelle was drunk. Thinking he’d be the one to pick up the tab, Apollo only asked for more bread instead of ordering an entree, while Emma had lamb and Nichelle had the duck, which is legendary at Bouley. (So they say. Not a duck fan.) For dessert, Emma ordered the Amaretto flan, but it immediately sent her off to the ladies room. Minutes later their waiter sprinted to the table yelling, “Your wife needs you,” and that’s when things really started getting interesting. So the recipe here is in honor of Baby Brian. And by the way, Nichelle paid the bill, as she had intended when she invited them there.
Individual Amaretto Flans
Yield: 6 6 oz. ramekins
½ C sugar
2 T water
⅔ C sugar
⅛ tsp salt
3 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
2 C whole milk
¼ C Amaretto
Preheat oven to 325°.
Combine 1/2 cup sugar and 2 tablespoons water in a small, heavy saucepan. Cook over medium-high heat until the sugar dissolves, and continue cooking 5 minutes or until golden brown (do not stir). Immediately pour into 6 (6-ounce) custard cups or ramekins coated with cooking spray, tipping quickly until caramelized sugar coats bottoms of cups.
Combine 2/3 cup sugar, salt, eggs, and egg yolks in a medium bowl, stirring well with a whisk.
Heat milk over medium-high heat in a small, heavy saucepan to 180° or until tiny bubbles form around edge (do not boil). Gradually add hot milk to egg mixture, stirring with a whisk. Stir in liqueur. Strain mixture through a sieve into a bowl, and discard solids. Divide mixture evenly among prepared custard cups. Place cups in the bottom of a broiler pan; add hot water to pan to a depth of 1 inch. Bake at 325° for 40 minutes or until flan centers barely move when custard cups are touched. ( I had to cook mine an additional 20 minutes, so monitor their progress carefully.) Remove cups from pan; cool completely on a wire rack. Cover and chill at least 8 hours.
Loosen edges of flans with a knife. Place a dessert plate, upside down, on top of each cup, and invert onto plates.