1972

It is 8:35 a.m. and I am sitting near the back of the classroom in the public school I would eventually be expelled from.  Among the usual classroom odors of chalk and industrial disinfectant and what we would later learn was particulate matter from asbestos, I can smell the mixed bag that is the 2nd grade lunch:  baloney and nuclear age yellow mustard; raw celery and carrots; leftover supper of unknown origin and . . . something else.  I cringe as I recognize that all-too-familiar smell of potted meat, dreading my reduced capital at the lunchtime sandwich swap.  The combo of pink colored mystery meat with Miracle Whip squished between two slices of Wonder Bread awaits me.  Long after the roaches have reclaimed the earth, this combo will survive as the undeniable 9th wonder of the postmodern/mortem world.  I am clearly able to eat this delicacy because of a 1969 National Academy of Sciences finding that “mechanically separated poultry products” were okay for us to consume.  Among the three varieties – Armour, Libby and Hormel, Armour was a family favorite. For some reason, we eschewed all Hormel products, because, um. . . quality counts.

The potted meat sandwich can take us back centuries.  A cursory search for articles on the internet related to potted meat turn up plenty of fascinating reading material from a diverse spectrum of food writing: from food poisoning and botulism to food cultures and preparation.  One of my favorites is a 1886 report authored by William Couchman (no pun intended), put out by The Vegetarian Society and entitled, “How to Marry and Live on a Shilling a Day.”  Mr. Couchman’s abstract speaks for itself:

“In this paper I have three distinct objects in view, all tending to the one end.  The first is to show, that a Vegetarian diet is best for man; the second, that it is cheapest; and the third, to show, especially to my younger friends, how by this cheap and healthy mode of living, they may carry out the great end of social life – marriage.  Surely, if these advantages are actually afforded us by the system of diet which I advocate, nothing more need be said to commend it to acceptance.”

Nice formula: vegetarian diet + cheap food + marriage = a well ordered society.  Now who could argue with that?

During the Spanish American War, Armour poisoned thousands of soldiers with contaminated meat.  So there is some truth to potted meat’s connection to botulism.  Ironically enough, Armour rebounded in the late 1940s by turning the soap byproduct from their meatpacking operations into the name brand, Dial, to which they added a germicidal agent.  The modern deodorant soap was born.

1994

Within a decade of the Czech revolution that brought us the world’s first poet president, I traveled from Prague to Brno and then found myself on the bus to the tiny village of Kyov.  The bus dropped us off and I was amazed at how small a hamlet this “town” was.  We turned to contemplate options: Next bus not due until five that evening and it was 1:00.  I could see from one end of the town to the other from the threshold of the vehicle.  It was going to be a rather long afternoon.  What to do?  Get back on the bus, or head into the microtown for an afternoon of café surfing?  The bus pulled away, moving ever south toward the Moravian border sputtering black particulate matter into the air. We were staying.

Ever hopeful, we turned and walked toward the center of town, taking a slight right past what looked like a butcher shop. This took all of five minutes.  We turned down a side street and at the end of the block: a mirage.  The sign above the door said: ROCK CAFÉ SOHO.  I’m not kidding.  And it got better.  We walked into the bar and sat down at one of the tiny tables.  A man smiled broadly at us – the kind of smile you reserve for an old friend.  We were suspicious.  He apologized for his broken English, we were shamed by our little bit of Czech, which amounted to how to say “perfect” and “take me to the square,” all phrases from Fodor’s 1994 edition, before Lonely Planet guides for foodies would grace the shelves of our Bay Area bookstore.  He offered us the local favorite: Budweiser Budvar.  I looked at him over my glasses – the evening seemed to be headed for that slippery foodie slope.

Nevertheless, we nodded a polite yes to the Budweiser.  And then he introduced himself.  His name was Igor Judas.  I’m not kidding.  Of all the places in the Czech Republic, and we wind up in a pub called Rock Café Soho run by a man named Igor Judas.  Not Casablanca, but things were looking up.  The beer arrived and so did Igor; it was frosty and around twenty ounces per bottle.  I saw a hangover in my future; Igor saw an opportunity for a better education.  He wanted to know if he could invite a few friends to the bar to meet us – they were all practicing their English together and since my friend was of Czech descent, maybe she wanted to learn some Czech?  Sure, bring it on.

Four bottles of Budweiser, six rounds of singing, and two vehicles later, we were at Igor’s house and on offer was a lovely repast of mystery liquor and a tin of potted meat product.  I am back in that 2nd grade classroom. As Igor spoons out the Czech version of a childhood nightmare, I grab a cracker and balance a healthy amount on the end.  Thank god for locally produced olive oil and the kind of hunger that comes with an impending hangover.  I taste it and am actually surprised — potted meat is not so bad at three o’clock in the morning.  I like it.  It must be because it’s European potted meat. The blend of tripe and assorted animal slaughter byproducts are sautéed in a nice white wine from an up and coming region of Italy or France.

*  *  *

I am a long way from that potted meat sandwich, but I remember my mother’s small hands, the smell of her Chanel No. 5 and the plastic baggie laid gently in my Wonder Twins lunchbox.  There is little joy in mechanically separated meat product, but the memory of mother-love and new friends around a small government-issued tin of mystery meat can shorten the distance from here to there, can draw love from suffering.

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White is the absence of all color.  This might be why white foods, at least on the plate, are not particularly appetizing; their only enthusiasts seem to be palate-challenged kids between the ages of 6 and 9.  My visual memory doesn’t have a track for whiteness in it – all flesh of this variety was consistently and neatly obscured by sauce or sear.  Love of whiteness reflects an inflexible palate; love of whiteness is an acquired taste.

One white food in particular has fascinated me over the years: it is a tomato-starved variety of gazpacho that I make and serve to mark the summer’s passing.  Unlike its counterparts – red, orange, yellow or green – white gazpacho is hearty and forgiving – it will not be killed with the addition of too much sherry vinegar or overzealousness with the olive oil.  There are several versions out there and if you travel to Spain and catch a local newscast in the early part of the afternoon, you will see varieties of them tested and tasted on a weekly basis.

This version cheats on the no-tomato bit – I add just a little green tomato to brighten the thick soup.  Your degree of thickness will depend upon the strength of your artisan bread maker’s starter and your grape.  Don’t worry; you can always thin with a little filtered water or seltzer (the bubbles give it a nice little tang, without changing the flavor).  You might even try thinning with the white wine you are drinking, but I find that the drier the wine, the better the soup and this one requires a wine with more heft.

Whenever possible, you should try a local variety of green grape.  A North Carolina scuppernong went into my version – bitter thick skins and strong musty sweetness added a balance to the soup that I enjoyed far beyond the California cousin I have always courted.  The local grape will surprise you with its flavor and your green tomato will change its seat to be next to such a randy little partner.  The jury is out on the yogurt, depending upon the type of bread you choose, you’ll either want a think yogurt, like the Greek variety, or forego it altogether and stay as southern as you please with a good locally produced buttermilk.  But, be careful what you wish for: your flavor could go south; testing first with the base before adding the yogurt is wise here.  Use the best sherry vinegar and olive oil (L’Estornell) you can find.  Perhaps the most difficult decision you will make has to do with texture – I guarantee that half your guests will want it slightly gritty, the other will want it smooth as silk.  Go with your taste – choose a fine sieve for silk or an antique chinoise with bigger holes for gritty.

The biggest twist here on the finish is seriously southern – when you live in a state where people fry pickles, you know they have to be good.  Who would waste good frying oil on a badly pickled cucumber?  I found a small jar of pickled green tomato from the “Farmer’s Daughter” at my local farmer’s market.  Wonderful, crisp and seriously sour.

Now assemble the garnish: think about a Now & Later fruit chew – that perfect blend of tart and sweet in the mouth.  Now top the soup: finely dice a little cucumber, some green tomato and the pickles.  Nest them in the middle and drizzle with the Spanish olive oil.  I served this one with a 2008 Miret Penedès, Clar de Castanyer aged in chestnut barrels – the flavor produces a nice slight smoke at the back of the tongue.  I have my wine friend, Jay Murrie at 3Cups to thank for the stellar recommendation.

Ingredients:

1 green tomato

2 cloves of garlic, par-boiled or boiled in canola oil until soft (do not brown, it will be bitter)

A little shy of one pint of local green grapes

1½ cups of day old country bread, no crust, it increases the gluten in the soup

¼ cup best olive oil (Arbequina will compliment the flavors of this soup nicely)

1 cup of thick whole milk yogurt, or buttermilk, if you desire.

¾ cup of marcona almonds

1-2 small/medium sized market cucumbers, your taste, leave some for garnish

¼ – ½ tsp. Spanish powdered smoked pimentón, of course.

Directions:

Start with the garlic. Then add it (no water or oil of course) to your blender or, if you are lucky, your Magimix.  Add grapes, cucumber, yogurt, almonds, bread, and ¼ of the small green tomato.  Blend. While doing so, add in a slow steam of the olive oil.

Your choice, grainy or silky.  Top with green tomato, pickled tomato, cucumber and a nice little shake of olive oil.  Uncork your white and serve with green olives in brine and lots of crusty, warm bread. Enjoy.

 

 


A friend called me and informed me that Troy Davis refused his last meal. He was executed last night in Georgia at 11:08 p.m.

On my bookshelf is a slim black volume called Last Meal, published by Common Courage Press (2003) and conceived by Jacquelyn C. Black.  It is a culinary catalogue of another kind, marking the contents of the last meals for 23 convicted felons in Texas on their way to state-sanctioned execution.  There are no menus here and certainly no elaborate sauces beyond the ketchup lacing a plate of fries.  James Russell, executed on September 19, 1991, requested an apple.  His last words, strung together, reportedly spanned 3 minutes, but went unrecorded for those he left behind.  Karla Faye Tucker wanted a garden salad with ranch dressing to go along with her two pieces of fruit and her impending execution.  For others like Jeffrey Allen Barney, the choice was a bowl of frosted flakes (they’re G-R-R-Reat!) and milk from Sunnydale farms.  The list of ingredients that make for a last meal reads like a popular culture litmus of American tastes, and some of my favorites are there: cheeseburger and fries, fried chicken, dill pickles, and chocolate ice cream, all at a premium in the institutional or fast-food kitchen.  Committed to my farmer’s market and coop, I try to conjure up a memory of the supermarket aisles I trolled as a child, and the fast-food joints to which my single-parent mother pulled up, exhausted on a Friday night.  In these foods and smells are a comfort and a curse; my rage at what has happened to Davis rests in his refusal to partake.  No hollow exchange of sustenance for a fragrant oath.

Whatever the request, it must be available in the prison kitchen.  The quotidian nature of the meals in the midst of the brutality of the events they circumscribe should give us pause.  In a world where some claim that irony is lost to us, this slim little volume and its requests, grants and finality represent a terrible irony that can no longer be ignored.  Perhaps the meal serves as a sign of justice in the midst of an injustice.  But our ideas of right and wrong are skewed.  The Supreme Court once observed that just because a law was disproportionately applied, the law was not unjust.  In fact, justice here is a vague concept, and its deliverance on the day of execution, at least in Texas, is via a table setting of plastic spoon, fork and knife.

I think of the cooks in the kitchen, some of whom will be dead men/women walking in their own sweet time.  The steam from a pot of beans, the sizzle of eggs over easy on the grill, the slightly cloying smell of Ranch Dressing made with powdered buttermilk, not fresh.  Cooking is meditation, love and loss.  It is what you do for comfort and for care.  It is something small and meaningful you can give to someone.  I think about the skill and determination it takes to make that all-important meal.  As if someone’s life depends on it.  I think also about what it might mean to want nothing and to give nothing.

I will rest with Troy Davis’ refusal for some time.  He brought a question to my table.  I have a responsibility now to contemplate it, if only for this brief moment.  I think we all should.

******

postscript:

Right after this post went up, I got a link for an announcement about Texas revoking the last meal request.

http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/09/22/us-last-meal-texas-idUSTRE78L6CQ20110922

 

ritual summer

Just like my father, I love the ocean. No year is considered complete unless I’ve been on and in the water. I can still see him at the helm of his 42 footer: Pall Mall dangling from the corner of his mouth, crooked smile, Gin & Tonic on ice at his side as he glides past the harbor master’s shack and puts the throttle into high gear in the open ocean. Strapped to the bow – a bizarre practice my mother insisted upon if we were even to be allowed on the boat with him – I fling my skinny arms out and into the quickening breeze.  Looking back over my shoulder, I give my father the thumbs up.  Two miles out and headed into the wind, he cuts the engines and I carefully un-cleat the jib.  As we angle at 25˚ for the unknown, Van Morrison plays on the 8-track below deck and I begin to think about our dinner of fresh crab spiced with Old Bay that will be waiting for us once we find our mooring.

Together only for these brief times, I regretted every tick of the sun westward.  Our mutual silence punctuated only by the lick of the sea on the stern, as if we somehow knew that whatever the storm at home, the sea would hold us.  For now.

In truth, my father was a reckless man. But so were the 70s – a decade when we’d careen down I-95 at 75 miles per hour in a Ford station wagon with 9 bell-bottomed kids packed three rows deep moving like undulating fish bait.

Now I am older, but I haven’t quite abandoned the rituals of summer nor their recklessness.  At this time of year, going to the Outer Banks (OBX) is not just dangerous, but kind of like an adult fool’s errand.  Hurricanes menace the edges of the Atlantic, but if you are lucky, they also pull all the bad weather south making the calm before the storm exquisite – searing hot sun, wonderfully calm ocean.

If you are not lucky, you hastily pack whatever you brought into your caravan of cars and crawl with the traffic down highway 12 toward the mainland, with last night’s dinner of Oregon Pinot (a gorgeous Rivers Marie whose color can be off-putting, but whose perfume is magnificent) and grilled swordfish making a meal of you and your six a.m. hangover.  In the crunch of not-moving, you try to remember if you checked the box for the vacation rental insurance – guaranteeing you at least a portion of the monies lost due to unforeseen weather.  You wonder to yourself – what’s so “unforeseen” about the weather in August on the Atlantic coast?  Nevertheless, you’ll be back, because summer isn’t complete without that small dose of riptide.

Every sea does have its rituals.  This year is no exception.  Before we get to the decorator’s travesty that will be our “luxury,” “Oceanside” home on the beach we have already begun room selection negotiations in anticipation of the pastel-colored furniture and mildly disturbing beach-themed artwork.  As always, we make a stop at the Atlantic Coast Café in Waves, N.C.  We are looking for the OBX version of the New York Deli Ruben: a lightly fried southern-style crab cake on rye with house-made 1,000-island sauce and slaw.  Crisp rye makes you anticipate corned beef and sauerkraut, but instead delivers nothing but the salt of the ocean laced with the bittersweet sour of a NC-style pickle.  Such salivary pleasure gets you in the mood for sun, sin and surf.  You are still a city girl after all and with a belly full of crustacean a la special sauce, you feel you can weather any storm.

On this trip, the sea doesn’t disappoint – at Risky Business Seafood I pick up each night’s supper and grill it, holding a wine glass in one hand, a spatula in the other.  After about ten minutes in the dunes, we have all but abandoned our eco-friendly bug spray – the mosquitoes are like Blackhawks – they descend upon us and our foodie pleasure – taking their bloody meal first, as always.  By the end of the week, we are sleep deprived and cranky in the kitchen.  On our last day on the island, instead of a fresh catch, we settle for a New York style pie from Nino’s (a short ride from Risky Business) and it is clear from the line outside the door that everyone else has reached the same point in their beach vacation.  The peace of the ocean is slowly eroded by:  the screaming kids (“no I did not tell you that you could put the couches together and make a fort with dune sand in the living room – the dunes are a PROTECTED habitat for Pete’s sake”); the presence of sand – everywhere (months later you will find granules clinging to the sticky bottoms of your insole and smile); and the décor, which didn’t bother you at first but has now captivated you in that Martha Stewart kind of way.  In truth, you have all become giant toddlers, dangerous to yourselves and others.  For the sake of your friendships, it is time to make the journey out – the rituals of the summer are fast becoming a memory.

Somewhere out there my dad still sails the open ocean – mainsheet unfurled, Pall Mall dangling, his multicolored whiskers reflecting the Maryland sun.  In truth, all storms cannot be weathered, it turns out.  But, you can sail into them, nevertheless.

This is the first installment of a series of short pieces that will take us back to summer.  With labor day around the corner and the kids itching or complaining about going back to school, who wants the summer to be over?  By the time early November rolls around, I’ll be in June.  Heaven.  

And then . . . Thanksgiving . . . the greatest and simply unparalleled U.S. food holiday will be laid at my feet.  Can you say “turkey confit” and mean it?

“Green eggs and ham”

I don’t eat eggs on a regular basis.  When people try to convince me that they are appropriate supper food, I frown.  I am not an omnivore when it comes to the egg.  I will not eat them after dark, I will not eat them in the park, I will not. . . you get the picture.

But brunch . . .  brunch is the exception, for the egg that is. But most brunch fare can leave you feeling like you’ve knocked your elbow on the corner of the nightstand while getting up to pee in the middle of the night.  The blow is oddly painful and numbing at the same time.

Not today.  After a 2:30 am stop for rest in Richmond, VA. on my lonely way back from two weeks at the Cape, I was feeling like the familiar adage, “No man needs a vacation more than the one who’s just returned from one.”  And after New York’s Porchetta for dinner the previous nite and Luke’s lobster for lunch — more on that next week — I was ready for Richmond, Va.’s Shockhoe bottom.  I chose Millie’s Diner because on a previous trip to Richmond, my companions and I tried Balliceaux, the new venture opened by two former cooks.  I liked it well enough to vow to visit Balliceaux’s place of birth when next in town.

I arrived a party of one in a sea of six and eights and found myself a space at the top of the bar, right near the searing hot grill/salamander combo.  I could see all the action; it was a concert wish never fulfilled. At one point a waitress asked me if I knew that there would be plates set down in front of me for pick up, but I looked up and the chef /owner winked at me.  I said, “no worries, bring it on” and he did.

But to the eggs – after looking at the list of inspired options, I choose a soft scramble with lobster and bacon, a southern version of surf and turf – with a smear of Sriracha sauce one the side of the plate and a puff pastry – dry and light, not gummy like the bear.  How did they do that!

I never clean my plate – but the fuzzy picture on my iphone demonstrates that I was well on my way to doing just that.  . . The eggs still retained their flavor and wetness – when is the last time you had an egg that tasted like the farm it came from, instead of the inside of the refrigerator, where most of them end up sitting for who knows how long?  The lobster was tender, reminding me of the anticipation one has when it arrives steamed on the table and in the shell – all the delight without the labor.  And the bacon . . . not over-smoky or too randy for its companions.  The potatoes still crisp, adding an earthy balance to the dish, instead of filling your mouth with such a wedge of starch that the back of it begins to feel like an over-pressed shirt.  Good.  Really good.

I thought, “that man can burn.”  Okay, maybe I was hungry.  Maybe I didn’t want the summer to end, but regardless, I will be back.  Grant Atchez (owner/chef of Alinea) once said that the best dishes send the foodie back to childhood memories (I always wondered about those memories might entail for a subject whose relation to food could be hunger, simply put or food ration), but nevertheless Millie’s Diner did send me back.

Thanks to Ben, I wanted to reach out afterwards and say, “hold me.”  Seriously.  He showed off his brunch skill one flat of eggs every 20 minutes.  That man can burn.   The salamander is hot as hell.  No Dante here, but a team that knows how to use it.  Funk in the background: Get up for the downstroke.  I’m ready? Are you?  Let’s sing a song for summer, not yet over, but almost done.

Sam I am.

Check out Millie’s Diner at milliesdiner.com/

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