"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Doing Good and Living Well: Evolution of a Foodie


My mother was a good cook; not a great cook but a good one, and the dishes I remember best were those that she cooked to please my father. She did her best to recreate the Italian sette pesce (7 fishes) Christmas Eve dinner that were eaten in traditional Neapolitan homes, and we feasted on squid, octopus, eel, and anchovy.  My mother never had a lot of patience in the kitchen, and told my father “Four out of seven is enough.  Do you want me to slave over a hot stove for a week?”. 

Four was plenty: spaghetti with anchovy sauce, baked eel in a spicy tomato sauce with fennel and garlic, fried calamari, and octopus stewed in wine and tomatoes.  We started off with the angel hair with anchovy sauce, a recipe I still make on Christmas Eve and have posted on this blog; moved on to the fried calamari (crispy, never greasy, served with freshly-squeezed lemon juice); and finally to the eels and octopus.  Even if this meal was served only once a year, it gave me an idea about what cooking could be.

Not that it took this meal’s evil twin to confirm my interest in good food, but my mother always served my sister and me the most disgusting prepared food when they went out to dinner – Swanson TV Dinners and Chef Boyardee ravioli.  I can remember the pasty, gluey, salty mess that passed for ravioli and the tasteless, dry (despite the brown mess that was “gravy”) turkey; metallic-tasting mashed potatoes, and freezer-burned, watery, putrid broccoli.  For a long time my mother denied ever serving us those horrors, but now, finally, nearing 100 she admitted it.  “Oh”, she said, “I didn’t know you didn’t like them”. 

My first recollection of something special, however, was not my mothers eels, but our neighbor’s freshly baked bread.  Every Saturday morning Mrs. Fox let me watch her roll, pound, and shape the dough, then give me a glass of milk while we waited for the bread to bake.  The fragrance of the bread floated out of her kitchen windows and down the block to our house.  There was nothing like it.  It was summery, sweet, and the most exciting thing I could think of – baked bread.

My mother, a first generation Italian, born and raised in New Haven of immigrant parents, was – like millions of Italians like her – was bound and determined to remove any telltale signs of Italy from our big white house in the WASP-iest neighborhood of New Britain.  In food terms, this meant no garlic.  Garlic was the Guinea sign.  If the parlor, the sconces, the formal dining room with ornate, baroque candelabra didn’t give us away, garlic certainly would.  So except for Christmas Eve, when she gave in to my father and put a few measly whole cloves of garlic in the tomato sauce (whole because they gave off far less flavor than chopped), no garlic.  Unfortunately – or fortunately – I have excellent taste and taste memory, so I knew what garlic, olive oil, and tomato sauce might taste like if given full flower. 

After years of garlic-less tomato sauce, my grandmother – my father’s mother who spoke no English and whose apartment in New Haven always smelled of garlic whether or not she had just cooked or not (it also smelled of mothballs and coal oil, so while I couldn’t wait to eat there, my appetite was put off by these very foreign, powerful, and disgusting smells) – came to stay with us for three weeks while my mother was in the hospital.  She made what my sister and I have always referred to as “all day sauce”.  My grandmother would make a big pot of tomato sauce with just about as much oil and garlic as it would take, big chunks of fatty beef, pork, and veal, oregano, basil, and rosemary, and let it cook all day.  It was the most wonderful dish I had ever tasted – thick and rich with the tastes of the meats, the garlic, olive oil, and spices.  I couldn’t get enough.  However, despite my father’s attempts to air out the house, it must have smelled like Guinea Hell to my mother who shouted the moment she came in the door, “What on earth have you done to my house?”.

There was one item on the the obligatory Sunday trip to New Haven that I looked forward to – Aunt Margaret’s artichokes.  Although now I eat them with olive oil and salt, a mustardy vinaigrette, or a variety of mayonnaise-based sauces (mayo, sour cream, Bay spice or a touch of curry), then there was only one way to prepare them – stuffed with garlic, parsley, and parmesan cheese and baked.  I could smell them cooking from the bottom of the stairs – the same creaky, dark, and narrow stairs that led up to my grandmother’s apartment, but without the coal oil and mothballs.  They were delicious – each leaf was tender, coated with olive oil and salt, and tasting of garlic.  The leaves were succulent and fragrant but I knew the heart was waiting – the core of melted cheese, parsley and garlic. 

Aunt Leona, my mother’s sister was a great cook, and we often went down to West Haven to visit.  The holiday meals were epic.  Christmas dinner always had antipasto; the thick, cheesy, rich lasagne that my Aunt Angie made; then the turkey or ham.  It was the side dishes that made it – corn fritters made from summer corn my aunt had frozen; sausage and mushrooms; zucchini fried and browned in olive oil and browned garlic; an Italian ham pie, custardy center with ham and cheese and perfectly done crust.  Then the desserts, “store bought” but from Lucibello’s in New Haven and better than I have ever had since.  Even in living in Little Italy after graduate school I never found as good sfogliatelle, boccanottes (pronounced sfuyadel and bugnuts), or canolis.  After dinner there would be nougat candies, each in their own little boxes, with an Italian peasant woman painted on the front, and layers of foil wrapping protecting the prize.

My growing food taste went underground for my three years at boarding school and four years of college.  There was nothing really objectionable about it, and a matter of fact thanks to various food endowments at Trumbull College at Yale, we often had fresh strawberries in the winter, French cheeses, and guinea hen of all things.  Those were the days when wealthy patrons and alumni didn’t consider the more meaningful investments common today – scholarships for the poor, renovated classrooms, or endowed chairs.  Yale was all wealthy students; the endowment was already in the hundreds of millions, and charity was most definitely not called for.  So, the strawberry endowment.

I started to cook for myself in graduate school, but nothing memorable.  I hated the school and the city - wrong choice - and spent as much time away from Pittsburgh as possible.  I somehow, inexplicably convinced my professors to let me write my Masters Thesis on the philosophy of architecture.  This was remarkable because they had no idea what the philosophy of architecture was; and because I was studying urban renewal, all civil engineering, infrastructure design, and land use planning.  So I had leave to travel the Northeast and visit the great modern architecture of the period – the glasswall skyscrapers of New York, the elegant Philip Johnson Glass House in Connecticut, Louis Kahn’s Yale Art Gallery and Paul Rudolph’s Art and Architecture building in New Haven, Corbusier’s Carpenter Center at Harvard (the only Corbu building in North America), and closer to Pittsburgh, Wright’s Falling Water.

My first job was with the Newark (NJ) Housing Authority, and my first apartment was in a Mies van der Rohe glasswall building on an urban renewal site!  A perfectly viable if not vibrant Italian neighborhood had been razed to make way for a Mies trifecta – three fabulous residential towers – but there was no doubt that political corruption was behind the move.  We all knew that there was money to be made in the demolition and construction business.  The Mayor and the head of the Housing Authority were eventually indicted for corruption and did prison time.

I have written about my Nicky Nork days on this blog – my days with low-level Mafia bagmen, black dopeheads whose day job was to sit at big desks near the front window of Newark banks to show sensitivity to civil rights (this of course didn’t work, and within a year of my arrival, the Newark riots broke out, along with Watts, Detroit, and Washington), and goombas from Down Neck who “worked” for the Housing Authority, but who were not expected to really work, so shot the shit all day, got blown on lunch break, boosted Italian shoes at Port Newark, and talked bowling and football.

It was in Newark, however, that I started cooking seriously.  It didn’t happen in a foodie way – thinking about provenance, whether to sautee with a Burgundy or Bordeaux, whether to garnish with a raspberry or prune coulis – but much more simply.  Peggy remembers eating fried cabbage in olive oil and browned garlic and spaghetti with clam sauce, my first and very frequent meals.  I still make them – the combination of the browned garlic, slightly browned cabbage in good olive oil with lots of salt is super; and tomato sauce with fresh little neck clams is unbeatable – but in retrospect they were the first really thoughtful and considered dishes I prepared.

I went to India in the winter of 1988 and stayed for nearly five years.  I had never had Indian food before, never even thought about it; but there it was in all its splendor.  I never cooked because we had cooks in Bombay and Delhi, but I learned.  I remember the subtle and varied vegetarian dishes prepared by the wife of a Gujarati friend – a thali consisting of foods chosen for the basic taste groups – salt, bitter, sweet, acid – but there was nothing harsh or inedible.  The salt, for example, was in tiny capers, marinated in brine.  The bitter was barely noticeable, like broccoli rabe.  The sweets were marvelous custards and rich, sugary candies called barfi.  You could die from eating barfi bought in sweet shops – the flies swarmed over them, the milk went bad, etc. – but Mrs. Tejpal’s sweets were safe, fresh, creamy, and delicious.

 Moti Mahal in Old Delhi was famous for its tandoor – traditional brick oven where chicken, lamb, and bread were cooked.  You ate outdoors, even in the summer, in a big, open courtyard.  The place was always full, but the service impeccable; and the food! Succulent tandoori chicken, bura kebab (tender pieces of marinated lamb), yeasty naan, side dishes of creamy black dhal, okra, cauliflower, and eggplant; spicy marinated onions, kulfi for dessert.  Kulfi is a kind of yoghurt ice cream where the rich buffalo milk is boiled down to a thick, semi-solid with cardamom and other spices, then frozen with pistachios. 

The curries of the South were too hot to eat (Peggy used to wash off the shrimp in boiled water, wrap them in a puri, and then eat them); but they were so good I took the getting drunk attitude – fun when you are doing it, horrible the next day but so what.  ( A really hot curry will make the eyes, nose, and scalp water; and will make your asshole burn the next day.).  Everything in the South was cooked in coconut oil and coconut milk and often in tomato sauce, and today I often make milder versions of these recipes.

Most of our home-cooked (i.e. cook cooked) meals were “English food” – stringy, tough buffalo meat, well-aged chicken, marble peas, boiled potatoes, and rice.  Our cooks had never cooked Indian food for their previous employers, so when we asked them to prepare one of the dishes we had had out, they demurred – “Memsahib won’t like” or “Not available in market” – and when they conceded, the dish was so hot that it was inedible.

One day we gave our Bombay cook four artichokes to prepare for lunch.  We had found them at an “English” store, they were expensive, and very, very rare – almost never available in India.  Some tea planter in Darjeeling must have experimented, and there they were.  When we came back from a trip to Juhu Beach, there were artichoke leaves all over the kitchen floor, the cook frustrated and worried.  “But Madam”, he said, “Where is artichoke?”.

After India we spent two years in Latin America, first in Guatemala where I first had delicious refried black beans, fried plantains, and sour cream.  What a combination!  And sopa de mondongo, a soup of gizzards, hearts, and other chicken parts, a piece of corn on the cob, and vegetables in an all-day broth.  My first ceviche was on the black sand beaches of El Salvador, spicy, lemony, and fresh corvina.

There were excellent French and Italian restaurants in Quito when we lived there and an abundance of good meat and seafood.  I first had mussels in Quito, steamed in wine and fresh coriander; and I still remember the taste of fresh, never frozen, jumbo Ecuadorean shrimp.  There was an Italian store which sold fresh pasta – another first for me, but one which I never followed.  As heretical as it sounds, I really don’t taste much of a difference, and it is certainly simpler to buy and cook dry pasta.  The filet mignon at Flandes was buttery and flavorful, and the selection of French wines excellent.  I had been spoiled by the French Duke who squired my sister-in-law in Paris and introduced us to really fine Burgundies, and Flandes and Chalet Suisse, another Quito restaurant many thought the best in the city, both had them at reasonable prices.  I am not willing to pay the $200 a bottle for today’s equivalent of those marvelous Burgundies of the 70s, and because of my good taste memory, cannot drink anything less.  I am quite happy with the Pinot Noirs of Oregon, which, at $60 a bottle are mighty fine indeed.

I also had my first taste of Chilean and Argentine wine in Ecuador, especially Macul, which an exceptionally good table wine; but after having tasted so many wines, I find I don’t like the particular earthiness and tannins of the South America wines.

I never drank beer in college, but when faced with the choice of warm Coke or cold beer on a sweltering day in the Ecuadorian jungle, I chose the beer, and of course under those conditions, went down well; and in fact tasted really good.  My friend in Quito was an alcoholic, so he said, learning of my beer epiphany, “Well, if you liked that….” (what I had was obviously a basic, unrefined beer)….”try one of these”.  He opened his refrigerator filled with beer from all over South America and Europe.  I was on my way to liking beer and realizing, for the first time, the variety.   The selection of beer in the States was, in 1976 when we returned, very limited.  There was Bud, Miller, Schlitz, and increasingly Heineken.  I didn’t like any of them, and drank wine.  In the early 80s, however, a neighbor introduced us to the first micro-brewed beers he had found – Old Heurich, a beer that was once produced in DC and New Amsterdam, two delicious amber beers, now hard to find like most ambers.  A new world was opened and long before the ubiquity of micro-breweries we know now.

Food in Bolivia, our stop after Ecuador, was not memorable except for the potatoes, the staple of the Quechua and Aymara Indians of the altiplano who cultivated a bewildering variety.  One variety was chuno which was produced by cultivating a frost-resistant potato which was then frozen, then sun dried, frozen and dried again over five days.  The result is a nasty-looking black fungus-looking thing cooked in soups.  They were very flavorful, not at all bad, and the soups were the heartiest meals I have ever eaten, cooked with chuno, other potato varieties, pasta, corn, and maybe a piece or two of meat.  I did learn, however, something about potatoes and their variety, and today I always select for taste and texture more than I ever did since so many varieties are available (I prefer Yukon Gold for everything except baking, and Russets for baking).

We lived in Thailand for almost a year, stayed in a hotel in Banglumpoo in a traditional area of Bangkok, and ate out every day.  The experience was memorable, and we never longed for a home-cooked meal.  Both Thai and Chinese food were available everywhere.  I first had Peking Duck on Sukhumvit Road and will never forget the crispy skin dipped in plum sauce, the three courses from one duck,and  the lively atmosphere of the large, crowded dining room.  There is a great, authentic Chinese restaurant in the Washington area called Mark’s Duck House.  It has the same delicious Peking Duck as I had in Thailand and has the same boisterous, crowded, and lively atmosphere of people enjoying their food and company.

In Bangkok I had Dim Sum for the first time on Patpong Road, the famous Red Light District of the City, but for me will always be remembered for the dim sum.  I had never had – or ever even imagined – food like this.  Carts rolling past with crab, shrimp, and pork dumplings; plates of roast duck and pork; whole fish, heaping green vegetables – all very familiar now, but in 1974, a remarkable new experience.

I once had a forced stopover at Narita airport outside of Tokyo, and instead of staying in the airport hotel watching Japanese baseball, I decided to visit the town of Narita.  It was a special experience because of the Shinto and Buddhist shrines and gardens nearby – quiet, misty, uncrowded and unexpected – a stone statue with flowers, an old wooden historic Shinto temple, a big Buddhist temple with ceremony, incense, and bells; pathways and stone bridges over streams.

Narita was also a special experience because I discovered sushi.  As I was walking back from the shrines, I passed a restaurant which had pictures of all the sushi dishes on the window.  I am not sure what attracted me, since, like dim sum, I had never even imagined such food; but my first taste of fatty tuna hooked me good and permanently.  When I returned to Washington, I found perhaps the only Japanese sushi restaurant, near the World Bank where I worked; and I went there so often that I never ordered – the sushi chef just kept preparing me morsel after morsel of the most unexpected and delectable fish. 

My first oysters were from Brittany, and of course, what a way to start!  Briny, cold, and and sweet Belons, Fines de Claires, and Olerons were my introduction to what has become my favorite food.  I am obsessed by oysters, can never pass them by, and can eat dozens at a sitting.   In Apalachicola, FL, where oysters are harvested by hand from the shallow delta of two rivers, I would eat two dozen for lunch and two dozen for dinner – always served on a tray with no ice, but fresh from the water.  The same in South Carolina which has similar warm water oyster beds near Charleston – two dozen for lunch, two dozen for dinner; and I stop only because I think I should.  I have eaten oysters from Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, Virginia, South Carolina, Florida, Louisiana, Washington, British Columbia, New Brunswick, Alaska, England, Scotland, Wales, and France.

Lambi Creole, close to the national dish of Haiti, is made with conch, spicy tomato sauce and peas, and I make it today minus the conch which is hard to find; but the spicy tomato sauce and peas with tuna or clams is a close approximation.

I retain little from African cooking except the greens.  I am a big fan of collard, mustard, and any other kind of greens; but my taste for them came more from the American South than Africa.  I especially like collards both the Southern way with bacon or fatback; or my own way sauteed in olive oil and browned garlic.

I had my first pulled pork barbecue sandwich in rural North Carolina in the early 80s and have been on the lookout for something as good ever since.  Tennessee barbecue where the pork is not pulled but smoked then sliced and quick sauteed in carmelized barbecue sauce is pretty darned good.  Our trips to the Deep South for seven summers made me appreciate ribs and especially fried chicken and catfish.  I always stayed away from deep frying until I realized that if done right it can give you a crispy crust and succulent meat inside.  Now I can make very good catfish and vary the cornmeal coating with a variety of spices.

The rest of my culinary evolution is American and my own.  Once back in the United States with a regular kitchen and good ingredients, I quickly expanded my cooking ingredients, recipes, and techniques to include vegetarian (my son was a vegetarian for about four years), Indian, Chinese, Southern, Italian, German and many more.   I am not a foodie in the sense that I obsess about food, deconstruct every meal and wine; but simply a food-lover who also loves to cook.  I rarely make the same thing twice, always varying, inventing, creating.  I have many of my recipes under the Category Food and Wine on this blog.  I do not have a huge kitchen, track lighting, butcher block table, racks of utensils and cookware; but I have all I need – sharp knives, a colander, iron skillet, slotted spoon, and not much else.  Bon apetit!!

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