Food Fight TV – behind the scenes.

OMG. What a coincidence.  It’s Amazing. Two days after I post my VIP (who would have thunk it?) invitation to pay for the privilege of working as an extra on yet another televised kitchen-schlacht with celebrity chefs, tension and bad music, Chris Cosentino’s MAD Symposium presentation  goes viral. Cosentino recounts food show abuse and exploitation of chef- gladiators and the  judges who kick them off their island. It’s pretty grim. It includes endoscopic images of Cosentino’s tortured stomach. That’s ironic considering he launched the American fascination with offal, nose to tail, snout to ass cuisine.

I’m not crazy about television culinary competitions. The concept of chefs as competitors rings false, the voice overs are unnerving, and then there’s the music. If I were one of them and they played that the tracks during my prep, my final dish would be friend producer’s heart and liver with onions with a side of sound engineer’s ears. I wouldn’t hold out watching people I respect forced to down bowls of hot chile peppers. Side by side demonstrations – fine. White coated frenzy: disturbing, so I may be a bit biased, but it I do believe everything he says.

Cosentino is  not the only one to report odd practices on gladiator cooking shows. Here’s what I’ve been told by other chefs who have participated in one show or the other.

  •  Reality schmeality – much is staged, and real kitchens don’t work that way. There’s nothing exciting about chopping vegetables in a real kitchen. The gold standard is order, not adrenaline. The gold ring of reality TV is drama, not food. Gladiators vs lions. Bread and games.
  • Compensation is poor.  The lure is fame, possible money, exposure to people who will either eat at the restaurant and come there. That works for some. Not for others.
  • The contracts are restrictive and demanding. The producers  have attorneys and the contestants generally don’t.
  • The game is rigged. The winner is frequently per-determined according to my chef friends. They set the users up to fail by artificially creating insurmountable stress situations: shortening their prep time,  the food basket or the backup staff at the last minute.  When you see a chef blow  his top on a food show, it’s because he’s been set up to fail.
  • Contestants, even the losers, are committed to appear where and when the production desires for a long time following the show, which makes finding a regular job a challenge.

After a half year flirt with the show Restaurant Headhunter and a few dealings with production companies looking for talent, I have a few insights to add.

The producers and their minions don’t seem to know or care much about real kitchen reality. The only information on potential candidates they request is a head shot and a screen test. Whether they can cook is immaterial. .

They don’t seem to have the money you would think they do. I thought Hollywood was awash with the stuff. Apparently not. Maybe it’s all come up to Silicon valley to fund sharing sites. Pointing  out that I find talent for a living and thus would charge for the service generally results in stunned silence of stammering. I suspect the minions who call are unpaid star struck interns, but this being the age of the fourteen year CEO, who knows.

The Rival VIP invite to participate as an unpaid – nay paying – extra in a show with “celebrity” chefs (they asked a few candidates of mine who are definitely not celebrity, just chefs) through a Kickstarter campaign would suggest that Valley new billionaires are not throwing wads of cash at start up food shows.

Perhaps there have been too many. Perhaps the shows are going too far afield from the first one, Japan’s “Iron Chef”.  Too many games, too much circus, too little substance. But then, Iron Chef was created by the people who make Toyota. We make Chevy’s.

Never having been a fan of extreme competition I find the entire chef as gladiator / food as blood sport bizarre for a world where teamwork and camradery have long been the norm and respect the gold standard, but then the food component is has become another  vehicle for suspense and team partisanship: Who finds the treasure first, which sexy girl gets to bed the millionaire or which millionaire gets to bed the sexy girl, who stays on the island.  Chefs are glamorous, even the homely ones are gorgeous in white and everyone eats. Obviously “Top Chef” draws better than “Star Plumber” or “Celebrity  Mortician.

One of the strange impacts of the celebrity cooking contests was a rash of young people taking out large loans for cooking school with the intent of becoming TV chefs. Maybe that’s why nobody can find good cooks these days. I’m thinking, though, I think that things are changing.

Chefs I recently approached for a show I was asked to staff flatly refused.. They tell me they’ve been “warned”.. When I was considering Restaurant Headhunter, experienced food media people warned me: They don’t care about you. They will try to make you look bad, to trip you up. They will try to make the people you get involved look bad. Your reputation can’t  use that. Eventually the producers reached out to me again and asked me to provide candidates and a restaurant as a favor, as the more media appropriate “Head Hunter” they hired hired knew nobody in California and didn’t know how to recruit them.  Guess the answer.

And there is Jon Favreau’s non reality but very real movie, “Chef The Movie” , released earlier this year, which portrays the work of a chef as chef.  Favreau’s characters are so realistic, that’s I’d send them out to kitchen jobs in a heartbeat. I know the model for his first employer. I know his sous. I’ve met him a dozen times. Favreau’s knife work is as dramatic an act as I have ever seen. Without music. The passion monologue to his son – This is what I do, this is my passion – is inspiring. The movie, aside from the tiniest pinch of fantasy or two, is really reality restaurant media.

I have no doubt Favreau’s movie has made an impact. For the past decade or so I have had many, many aspiring culinary stars asking me what my media connections are. “I don’t want to work in a kitchen. I want to be on Television and have my own show.” . For the past six months, however,  I’ve had requests for information on owning a food truck. My friend Micah Martello went that route, and he tells me he hasn’t looked back.

Obviously food trucks are not the essence of cooking, but cooks are being inspired to work in kitchens,  rather than on stages. Media is always going to be part of any chef’s life, but the kind of dysfunctional circus my chef friends and Chris Cosentino describe is at least  being put in perspective.

As  Bud the Pieman says, “Make Pie, not War.” I like that.

Chris Cosentino suggests he’s worried about his future. I am not. He’s smarter than the people who used him and he’s got more class. As for the autism issue, join the club. At least half of kitchen people are autistic. In the right setting it’s a gift. Good luck to him, but he probably doesn’t need it.


 

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The Most Amazing Kickstarter Celebrity Chef Restaurant Campaign and TV Battle. Ever. O.M.G.

How not to raise money for a new restaurant, but it will probably be successful anyway

I have just been solicited to donate to a new restaurant opening TV competition by someone named Jason Akel. He asserts it will be the most amazing culinary experience I have ever had. Rather than comment on the mail, concept etc here – and the entire entrepreneur via Kickstarter is rife for discussion – He wants me to yelp and facebook it. I’ll do him one better. Here approach and response. Hate it? comment.

Dear Jo Lynne,

Would you buy a ticket to a live, interactive competitive cooking show where two top chefs create a dinner that you get to taste and judge? If yes, you can buy advance tickets to that exact experience at a new restaurant called RIVAL, coming to San Francisco next year:

WATCH THIS VIDEO

This will be the most amazing, ultimate “foodie” event that will surpass any dining experience you have ever had in the past. So step aside “Iron Chef” and let Rival take center stage.

We’re raising money on Kickstarter, and your ticket will help us open with lots of sparkle. We’re on a roll; in fact, we were just honored with as a Kickstarter Staff Pick! I invite you to help build and be a part of this revolutionary concept. I really hope to see your name on our roster of supporters. Thanks, Jo Lynne!

1. Visit www.rivalshow.com
…watch the short video

2. Select reward level
$199+ for tickets

3. Then tell friends on Facebook and Twitter about the show

response

Dear Jason Akel (Or Stephen Walker, whose name is at the bottom.)

1) Who are you?

2) In answer to your question, nothing.

3) I staff restaurants. I don’t invest in them, certainly not for food. The last time I helped a chef with his dream it took me seven years to get the money back and somehow I ended up with a huge grill on my deck, which he won’t take back. I did have a bunch of chefs over for a great kid on it, though, so maybe that was good. Still, aside from the grill the investment carried no interest. I don’t think this would pay me interest either.

4) Define “celebrity”. I take it to mean there are simply too many credulous groupies with time on their hands following sensational but mediocre food media. I mean, if celebrity chefs in New York are now charging $100 for brunch and there’s waiting list, you’ve got a demographic with a yen for buck nekkid emperors, Or no? The guys I work with get flat feet and back aches and put their pants on one leg at a time. The media feeds off them, but they would I think never consider themselves celebrities, although some are. “Celebrity” is a tool and a myth for foodies. We do not be foodies. At some point the touching of robes and kissing of rings becomes tedious, anyway.

5) Easy on the superlatives—most amazing etc. Ever? Do you know how old I am? There’s a hell of experience in my “ever”. There is a finite resource and stuff like this depletes it. I have decades of eating behind me, some of which with a lot of money, and trust me, this can’t top them. The most amazing was probably a Slow Food Leaders’ event with Italy’s top chefs between the ruins of Pompei, but there was that thing on the alp, too. Never mind. You are surely too young.

6) I was with Gary Danko’s team at the opening of Rocco DiSpirito’s restaurant for the kickoff of the show “The Restaurant” Apart from a very entertaining discussion about how to keep your white laundry from getting colored by a stray washcloth or socks (Color Catchers) with Gail Gand, Rick Tramonto, Susan Spicer, Gary and I can’t remember who, it was a disaster. The food was memorable in a bad way, even if Rocco’s mother made it, and I nearly got myself in a position to be sued by some kid who asked about a local crack head celebrity, which I answered with some comment about back under the rock where he belonged until some idiot with o.p.m bailed him out (which happened). When I got back to the table Tramonto noted that the guy was wearing a wire and I spent the rest of the season watching every God Awful episode of the show with my attorney’s address next to my chair. Fortunately I have neither sufficient T or A to be put on TV, but I swore never to watch a food show again. I accidentally clicked on one recently, and they have got even worse, if possible.

7) I have occasionally been asked to staff television shows, generally by people who believe that I would do it for the connections – that is without charging them. I asked one once what they were willing to pay for the service, and they were flabbergasted Obviously these sweet, bright young things don’t have irksome issues like Rent and Groceries to deal with but live off the energy promoted by celebrity. Good for them. I need a roof and calories. I thus am not fond of or much involved with the buzz of food TV. . I don’t think I like these people, so I wouldn’t give them money.

8) I recently was asked to find a great chef to hook up with a chicken bus which would be shipped from field to field and talk about things that come from dirt. Jeremiah Tower may still be talking to them, but the person who was handling the connection would not talk to me (this was for money) and just emailed me that all she wanted were the head shots. No more food TV. Not even watching. Celebrity Chefs.

9) Say “please”. I wouldn’t tweet or FB you anyway, since that’s reserved for my business needs (actually I will in a way) or Tweet this to all my friends. One envisions Colonel Klink punctuating his order to share with all my friends with a snappy one armed salute. “ Vee know how to make you Tveet.”

10) The concept as food as battle rather than as civilization is one of the great cultural oxymorons of the 21st Century. I never watched dog fights and I don’t even like dogs all that much. I love my chefs. Why would I want to watch them turn the usual comradery and kitchen love into a tension filled food fight? Make kale salad in a mason jar, not war.

12) It is neither illegal nor immoral to take money from stupid or silly people. Frankly, I probably would have married PT Barnum if the timing had been right and he’d asked. I wish you all the luck with your venture.

Best wishes

Jo Lynne Lockley

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“Amazing” meals. Foodie, get the to a thesaurus

“The food, opined Ted”, “was amazing.” Actually he said something more like the FOOD was AmAAAAYYYZZING.”   Ted had laid down about half again a minimum wage employee’s weekly salary for the meal. You can do that a lot these days. As a matter of fact, it’s getting a lot harder to pay only a couple of hours’ wages for a blue plate special.

You would think that given the price, Ted would have expected a meal as refined and delicious, sexy and beautiful as if it came from the hand of a tweezer wielding deity.

Last year dinner at Benu in fact did amaze me: The final bill came to $400. Even mellowed by a spectacular wine flight I was floored (It  had something to do with the extra price for the dried abalone, which we hadn’t quite checked. ) The magnificent, artfully prepared, once in a lifetime food, however,  pretty much met my expectations. It delighted, it tantalized, it was downright spiritual bliss, but it was not a surprise. I expect mind altering flavors when I put that kind of weight on my plastic. So should you.

A 22 year old aspiring gourmet on Check Please just pronounced a meal at a Castro street bistro, “Amaaaayyyyzzing” as well.  He had garlic shrimp and some nice Spanish short ribs and good wine. Truth: The meal looked really nice, and I have put the place on my short list. Even so, this kid seemed pretty easy to surprise, but then, he’s got a lot of time to calibrate his reaction levels.

As a matter of fact, everyone I know describes whatever they eat – cheese, a candy bar, a chicken fried steak or dinner at Saizon, Parallel 37 or Benu  – as amazing. Considering the fact that most of the people I hear this from work in the food industry, it’s really surprising how little it takes to dramatically whelm them.

Amazing is the new must own food vocabulary accessory, the absolute superlative of approval.  Sometime when we weren’t looking it rolled right over awesome (which actually described sensory experiences beyond the pale quite passably) and left “perfect” a speck in the rear view mirror.  As in “How was the sandwich?” “Perfect” has become, “How is your sandwich?” “Amazing.”

The rise of everything food being “amaaayyyyyyzing in the Bay Area is pretty amazing in its own right, as we here are all about cool, laid back, not showing our weak emotional culinary underbellies, but we go into paroxysms over sandwiches.  And Toast. Isn’t “amazing toast” an oxymoron?  When did we arrive at the point where a sandwich, or for that matter a five course tasting meal astounds us and we all melt effusively over our collective stunned shock and awe over mayonnaise?

The OED defines amazing thus:

adjective

  • causing great surprise or wonder; astonishing:an amazing number of people registered it is amazing how short memories are
  • informal very impressive; excellent:she makes the most amazing cakes

Granted it’s common usage is simply approval of whatever, but basically “amazing” means “surprising”, as in, oh, I wasn’t expecting that to be good. (So you go to a place where dinner costs half an economy ticket to Paris without expectations?) How thoroughly perverse.

It is of course possible be that the techie diaspora has provided San Francisco with a sizable population of nutritionally immature and unsophisticated but moneyed people for whom a basic kale salad is epiphanic and life changing after years of Jolt and Pizza, but even forty somethings  who have time to tiddle with stuff that doesn’t come out of the box pronounce themselves in the thrall of surprise at goat cheese ice cream. And friends in Paris use it.

I don’t know about you, but it’s getting to me – the universal wide eyed wonder at the most recent amuse bouche – kind of like being hit repeatedly an a vaccination site or trying to sleep in a room with a dripping faucet.

Pronouncing a meal amazing sets off a superlative oneupmanship over amazing flan and amazing espresso, which after due magnification wanders onto Yelp! or Open Table reviews, where everything is either amazing or the worst meal ever. And the funny thing is that once something is pronounced amazing, you really don’t have any sense that it is particularly good, as the word has been beaten into hyperbolic mush with  a brick bat and thus has become as potent as your grampa after two bottles of the good stuff.

Foodie America needs a thesaurus. Phenomenal food deserves just a little thought in its description. I’m here to help.  There’s an app for that, and even if you don’t remember all of the vocabulary you crammed for your S.A.T’s (or you managed to escape them),  you can have a thoroughly adequate supply of still functional superlatives at your fingertips..eh, smart phone in a snap for just $0.99.

In case you want an instant fix, here are some of their suggestions from http://www.Thesaurus.com

astonishing, awesome , beautiful  , breathtaking,  fearsome  , formidable  , imposing  , impressive  , magnificent  , overwhelming  , stunning  , daunting  , exalted  , fearful  , frantic  , grand  , hairy  , majestic  , mean  , mind-blowing  , moving  , nervous  , real gone  , something else  , striking  , stupefying  , comforting , good , nice , pleasing , wonderful , fascinating , incredible , marvelous , prodigious ,  , stunning , surprising , unbelievable , wonderful , bang-up , capital , champion , excellent , fine , first-rate , fly , top , whiz-bang , wonderful , fantastic , supernatural , uncanny , unearthly , fantastic , wonderful, excellent, a-1 , awesome , best , best ever , delicious , far out , first-class , first-rate , great , like wow , marvelous , out of sight , out of this world , sensational , superb , unreal , awesome , breathtaking , fantastic , incredible , outrageous , phenomenal , remarkable , spectacular , superb , terrific .

How was your dinner at Fogard’s Kale Gastrorestaurnt? It was..oh wait a moment [tap tap tap] ..ah, flabbergastingly delectable.

Too tame? Knock it up a notch. Bleeping epiphanic.

Superlatives are manifest. In case that doesn’t do it, here are a few of mine:

Fabulous (so Roselyn Russel campy, as in “Oh, Dahling. The trout fondue with caviar foam was ahbsolutely mahvelous!”), exquisite, mind blowing, sock knocking off, gobsmackingly good, or reach back to the roaring twenties (always fun) with  “The cat’s pajamas”, “The bee’s knees”.  One of the finest meals I have had in a long time…the options are endless.

“How was your meal at Tres Luces?” “Oh, DUDE! It was the bleeping cat’s pajamas.”

Of course you can get really creative and avoid “It is/was” altogether as in “I loved every tantalizing bite.” “ It was like “Angels made love on my tongue”. The latter is courtesy of Ray Mazotti, one of the greatest eaters I have known, and even though Stanley Eichelbaum once noted, probably in a pique of envy for the wild turn of phrase that wasn’t his, “I don’t fancy dead people fornicating in the back of my mouth,” I find it gets cheap points now and then.  Alternatively,  just lapse into Harry meets Sally rapture, groan and rub your stomach.

This will all be on the test, so here’s a little homework for review:

The raclette at Hansi’s Chinese Fusion Matterhorn Café was absolutely ___________. ( You probably want to  avoid “hairy”)

Magdelena said that ________________________ Chef Bernie’s crouton salad.

We really loved the ______________ doughnuts at Fred’s Croissant and Fill Dirt corner.

 

See. It’s easy.

 

Stand apart from the crowd and give the food that has made you happy the honor it deserves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Restaurant off pissers: I bet you don’t like them either.

I use a couple of LinkedIn forums, generally unsuccessfully, to find the people I  need. One of them is called “Cutting Edge Chefs”, and while I doubt that any really cutting edge chefs have time to fool around in the forums, I like to hope.

Recently the moderator posted a list of things he really dislikes  in restaurants, which included cold butter on warm bread,  food presented better than it tastes and pizza with the cheese untouched by heat because it is covered with tomato sauce.

Never having suffered the cheese issue – San Franciscan chefs are pretty OCD about pizza – I agree entirely with his fourth peeve:  Tiny dark menu fonts on dark backgrounds  in dimly lit dining rooms. I toasted my rods in an act of defiance to  nature on the slopes of St Moritz in my twenties, so even blazing black on white is a challenge for me even with 20/20 vision, and I note for quite a few others. . He states correctly that servers seem amused but rarely helpful when he scrounges for a light source..which puts the concept of “hospitality”, as the industry is wont to call itself, in question. (Tip:  There’s a flashlight app for most smart phones.)

Pump primed, I responded with my least favorite restaurant issues. Of course you want to know what they are, so here’s the list.

Crusty, crumbly bread without a bread plate because “We are Mediterranean and that’s how we do it.” At lunch with a reviewer once we made such a mess of our table cloth that we simply gathered it up in a bundle and handed it to the passing server. Of course we had had three drinks while they got the food out, so our inhibitions were a little weak.
Servers who cannot stay away from the table during interesting conversations. (Like the discussion of a Hollywood Star’s planned restaurant with the Director of Operations). We had to call the manager to detain her.
Servers with visible belly button rings at eye level.
Anyone near me or my food who has gone to great lengths to deform their bodies, especially their ear lobes with extending rings. Thoroughly unappetizing, that.
Servers who ask “Is everything all right” (If everything is not all right, ones options are either lying or causing a scene – thanks for putting me on the spot) or worse: “Are we having a fabulous breakfast?” (At possibly the worst breakfast I have ever had at Campton Place..being with a client I could make the desired anatomical alterations on the man..sometimes restraint is hard. Note to servers: “Do you need anything” will suffice.
Figuring that my dinner is going to come to about $80 and walking out with a $120 bill due to added charges and fees. (San Francisco only).
Servers who insist on sharing their opinion. They are SERVERS, not ADVISORS. Would someone please tell them to wait until their surely valuable thoughts on the day boat scallops or the halibut are requested?
“You guys”..I am not a guy. Can someone teach the serving class that they don’t need to add a title to their greeting? A simple “Good Evening. Welcome to John’s Croissants and Offal Joint” Would do just fine.
“Good Evening, young lady”. Oh, vomit. How absolutely insulting and bleeping patronizing and slimy. Most women are smart enough to know you don’t think they are young. In fact, you have just said in effect, “You look old.”
“Would you like your change back?” No, Bubba. I always give 50% tips.
Servers who think I give a damn about their names. Really I don’t. I will forget them the moment they leave the table, and I am smart enough to figure out on my own that they will be my server tonight, as opposed, say, to my dentist.
Not seating my 75 year old dining partner until I find a parking place, even though we have a reservation, and the room empty with two tops.
Wine stewards who tell you that your wine is not in at the moment and suggest another, failing to mention that the price is double.
Bistro highchairs. Who ever got the brainfahrt that people like to perch at lunch? I left my high chair behind at two and a half years and haven’t looked back. I find feet on the ground comforting.
Common tables, where the host(ess) will seat you, even though there are empty booths: These are fine when you are alone but they stink for business lunches or trysts, not that I engage in many of the latter.
Din. You know what I mean.
Bars without purse hooks. Come on, guys. They’re cheap and make friends. If you have any class at all, you also provide some place for purses at the table. Gary Danko brings a little bag stool. You don’t want bags on the tables. Women put them on the floor in the bathroom. Enough said.
Mirrors reminding me that it’s time for another peel. Well over half the dining population do not want to see themselves in the mirror while they chew. New York has figured it out and angles the mirrors down so that you see the table, not your face. Good one. (New York also has purse hooks all over the place and usually a women’s restroom and a 00 restroom, so women don’t have to wait in line. New York has it figured out.)
The usual sustainability clichés. I expect chefs at the restaurants I patronize to use quality ingredients. It’s their job. That almost always means local, sustainable, organic, blah blah blah food. I don’t want an ecological sermon when I go to eat.
Menus with recipes and food provenance instead of short descriptions. I don’t give a rat’s rear who nurtured my nutrients. I get that at the farmers market. You know your farmer? Nice. Most likely so do I, but we are not going to chat about it at the table, as I want to enjoy my friends.
Being seated at a crappy table when I am single, which I try not to be.
The bum’s rush. You want me to go without dessert? Have I been that obnoxious, or are you just short of china, so you need every plate the moment the diner has stepped down the pace to the occasional nibble?
Having to wait an hour for the check. Ditto menu. Ditto main dish.
Feeling the urge to identify myself when everything is beyond tolerance, or even thinking, “obviously they don’t know who I am”, as they shouldn’t HAVE to know who you are. (I never do..but urge control detracts from the experience)
Snotty Gen XY hostesses. Where in the world were they raised? My Little Pony caves? Hello Kitty Land?
Hipster Restaurants (are you listening, St Francis Fountain?) who make it painfully clear that I am not hip (true that) and really should not be there. And listen, dudes, the fact that you are all hairy around the face and dressed like Paul Bunyan out looking for Babe doesn’t help a lot.  Something about bushy men in flannel with knit caps doesn’t exactly scream “clean” to me.
Restaurants trying to be cute with Gimmicks. Any Gimmicks.
Desserts purchased wholesale.  Anything that comes cold because the flash oven didn’t completely defrost it. Hell, if you can’t afford a pastry chef take a note from Giallina and  and serve great ice cream.
Pastry chefs hell bent on making dessert taste and smell like bath products.
Receptionists who think you are out-of-towners and try to give you the 10:00 seating or the 5:00 seating, because they know they can sell the middle seatings easily.
Dinner next to a bachelorette party.Restaurants should know to consign them to sound proof rooms.
“How are WE tonight? Are we here for dinner?” I don’t know about you, sistah, but I am hunky dorey and I came to get my shoes shined. Please bring the lackey.

All this, of course, makes great service even better appreciated. Like, for instance, Perbacco. I think Umberto Gibin is San Francisco’s Danny Meyer, but we have a lot of restaurants where the owner manages the floor masterfully.

The puzzling part of this, or perhaps not, is that one is expected to pay an extra 20% for the aggravation, when it is aggravation. I suspect a lot of it is servers trying too hard to be seen and remembered in order to get you to pony up more. And you will. If they were compensated for their work like other Food and Beverage professionals, without the pressure to sell up and use frantic sycophancy, more of us would probably enjoy ourselves more eating out.
I love to eat out. I love restaurants. I love chefs and dinners with friends, who won’t come to my hillside hovel, so I do eat out a bit. I just don’t look forward to it as much as I perhaps should.

Damn, that was fun. Definitely Therapeutic.

Please add your own peeves or disagree. The only impediment to signing up/in is a captcha system which requires math skills from 1 – 20. I know you are up for that.

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Escape from canned spaghetti: How breaking local saved the world.

I lived an involuntarily local existence for ten of the twenty or so years in Switzerland.

It is the kind of food experience mourned  by tediously delusional dreamers who have not participated in  it – with a pervading nostalgia for a photo-shopped emotional landscape of happy cows and crofts and the simple elegance and purity of an age they feel  we should never have left behind.

This was the good part: Fresh eggs from the farm, carried home in saved flour bags. Half a pig and  half a calf butchered by the local butcher and divided under his supervision to be put in the freezer.  Mache and fabulous winter salads in season, berries, stone fruit leeks and tender beans straight from the field or orchard. Fresh  pressed apple juice on frosty late summer mornings and air filtered ten gallon bottles to dispense apple juice throughout the winter.  Real veal. A fresh chicken every time we ran  one over on the road home. Otherwise on order.  Fresh cream. Wood oven baked Meringue. Bread made in a hollow of the dying coals of an oven fired at 5:00 am.. A really great still which produced Kirsch that burned with a pure blue flame. Sides of raw smoked bacon to cut off in little tiles whenever you wanted. Landjaeger, square sausages. Emmentaller. Fondue. Raclette. Venison or wild boar any time somebody ran into one on the steep road into the village. Dole wine sitting in front of a roaring fire and looking out over the snow white fields towards the black forest.

This was the rough part: Initially almost no citrus, and then at a price. Non raw milk needed to be ordered a week in advance. No avocados. Long winters. Eight or so months living on roots and cabbage.  Two to three weeks of hot, sticky canning during the season in addition to a full time job. Having to break down the calf and the pig in a cold cellar until your fingers ached and the blood stung in the scratches on  your hands. Seafood restricted to fish sticks (inland country). A local market with the worst of frozen foods. Canned beans. Canned peas. Canned asparagus. Leberkaese.  Horse flies. Tough beef.  Canned spaghetti. Tape worms (fortunately  none of them ours).  Grit and dirt in everything from leeks to peas.  The fine smell of animal and human fertilizer sprayed over snow in winter (so it would soak in gradually) and the times when some fool farmer sprayed it on ice instead, so it entered the water system. Going down to the town with old milk cans for water until the system cleared. Dead hedgehog stuck in the dryer vent for weeks. Canned milk when we couldn’t get it fresh. Raw milk that tasted of nothing but udder and barn. Cowbells at 2:00 am.

So we cheated: We crossed the border for white asparagus. We drove all the way up to Germany to get into the American PX for beef. Of course it wasn’t cheating then, because we didn’t know we should eat local. Except for smuggling everything past customs. Fortunately Swiss customs guards never looked too closely at cars with two women and either screaming or sleeping babies in the back seats, stuffed in between the boxes of Post Exchange pampers ( not yet available in Switzerland) with American beef and plunder stuffed in between.

The day Migros finally opened  a supermarket within a 30 minute drive, I joined all the women from the surrounding villages, lining up for hours to buy  Spanish oranges and Israeli avocados, lemons, $40 a pound American steak and French wines and cheese. Migros is the anathema of contemporary sustainability standards:  Seasonal be damned, big box and discount with a massive variety of everything including a full service cheese department that would put any cheese shop in the US to shame.  The supermarket had a counter of the best of European varieties that extended from the front to the back, a full butcher shop and fresh seafood. We loved it. I still love the place, as food politically incorrect as it may be.

My forty minute commute from the school where I chaired the English department passed along a frontage road by the freight rail tracks. Things in Switzerland tend to be pristine and perfect, but beside the narrow road was  an unmarked, roughhewn wood structure, like a temporary construction office, from which I had noticed people  emerging with shopping bags. When I needed milk too close to the 5:30 local shop closing time,  I decided to see if I could buy some there.

Inside the shotgun structure was whitewashed with myriad cheeses, produce, and salumi displayed at the front in upturned produce crates stacked to form a crude counter. Prosciuto and dried vines dripping wrinkled up tomatoes hung from the rafters, and oil, pasta, sweets and canned goods were stacked on simple pine shelves at the back.

The apparent owner was speaking rapid fire Italian to  three or four men in splotchy overalls, probably guest laborers from the nearby chemical plants, and a couple of older women in black, grabbing things from the shelves, measuring out olives, rice, and cornmeal into brown paper bags. She ignored me.

I stood fixed to the floor, staring at the exotic foods and not understanding a word.

In a pause I  managed to say “Scusi,” which I had heard at the butcher shop, and pointed to a cheese, holding out my hands to show the size of a piece I would like. She cut it and signaled another, apparently praising it, cut a little piece for me to taste. I took a hunk of that, too.

A man emerged from the back of the store, exchanged a few words with the woman, then turned to me  and said forcefully, “Parmiggiano Raggiano della Prima Qualita”, my first real Italian phrase, pointing to the wheel. “Very good,” he said in German. I nodded and was given a piece.  I signaled the tomatoes and then the prosciutto and was given a vine and a number of slices on waxed paper. They handed me pasta, olive oil. He kept saying “Very Good”. I kept nodding.

I was in a daze. What they proposed with hand signals,  unintelligible Italian and a the man’s Swiss German vocabulary of perhaps twenty words.  I bought. The  other customers had purchased a hundred grams of salumi or mortadella, a box of cookies and perhaps a brick of ice cream. I spent about a tenth of a month’s salary, filling the back of our tree frog  green 4cv hatchback with boxes of food. We parted friends.

Initially my husband was not pleased.  We had what I then would have best described as cold cuts for dinner with Italian cookies for dessert. He came around. The next night we had fresh pasta.

I told my neighbors and my best friend, Ruth, who grew up in Tecino, across the border from Italy.  She showed me what to do with the polenta and the tomatoes – I did not know. She went down that week, then told her friends.

I told my colleagues at work about the market. The chemistry teacher began bringing the more adventurous offerings for after class breaks. Swiss schools then were civilized, and we  had white wine and food in the two long pauses. We started an antipasti pool.

The store became more crowded. I signed up for Italian lessons.

We left local in the rear view mirror and never looked back.

In those years the Swiss didn’t think much of the Italians, the Greeks or the Spanish, probably because most of them were guest labor permitted to remain in the country as long as there were jobs the Swiss wouldn’t do. Too many Swiss thought them dirty, lazy, stupid and mostly dishonest and treated them accordingly.They called them cinquen after the card game the men played in the pubs at night, a word vaguely equivalent to WOP (which interestingly enough means “With Out Papers”) and accused them of any crime or mishap in the area. Some Swiss claimed that the Italians would dilute pure Swiss blood and Swiss culture. That may sound vaguely familiar.

I had little opinion, except that I knew from my experience with our old house manager, Leo Delvasto, who worked by day as a mechanic, that they were neither lazy nor dirty, and surely not dishonest. Leo’s wife, Marinella, had moped our stairway every time one of the high rise tenants passed, outswissing the Swiss, and lured me into their apartment to pour tiny cups of strong coffee with boxed cookies every time I passed on the stairs. I liked Marina and Leo.

There  is hardly a Swiss today who would own to ever having looked down on the Italians. The children of the grease monkeys became doctors and business men. My old neighbor Leo DelVasto has retired after owning the most prestigious Ferrari dealership in Northern Switzerland. Today everyone wants to speak, eat, and furnish their homes Italian. I think I always did.

I suspect, without denying the immigrants their due for hard work and intelligence, that  my hut of a store and others like it throughout Switzerland helped pave their way.  Pasta diplomacy. The shop, I have been told,  has since moved to the center of the town and is breathtakingly  expensive today. Well, good for them, although I would have wished it had stayed right where and just as it was, and that I could go back any time I got to Basel.  It was one of those wonderful experiences you appreciate at the moment, but perhaps not quite enough.

The Swiss Italian culinary rapprochement and the resulting endless fun of eating those wonderful,  strange foods we now all take for granted, discovering new tastes and flavors is the absolute opposite of the current locavore belief system, which places provincial prejudices above the vast offerings of the world beyond tribe, village, state or country – a silly little idea based on the false algorithm of Local = Better.

Excluding any and all distant enterprises or agriculture from commerce comes down to protectionism. Exclusively supporting your local farmer or fisherman in all fairness would implicate in the extreme that your local farmer or fisherman should not invade others’ commercial territory, Minnesota would have no oranges and Phoenix no blueberries. Whether or not that economy would function if resuscitated is a mute point, as the global economy has long crossed the Rubicon. Talk about spoilsport.

Local is not a synonym for good food and global is not an irresponsible choice. The opposite of good is inauthentic, over processed, stale, warehouse ripened, bad. Not foreign. Not imported. Not produced out of state. Everything is local somewhere.  But that’s just my opinion, and those who hold eating local a necessity won’t be influenced by it. How sad for them. We apostates will enjoy the bananas, Grana Pedano and  Epoisses they disdain. The injustice will remain that we will enjoy not only the best of what is grown here but supplement it with what the rest of the world produces. Back yard honey or maple syrup – the choice is ours. Pity the poor locavore. Viva Italia. Viva Helvetia.Viva il Mondo.

 

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Guns and Cupcakes.

Two of the this week’s historical events:

  1. The NRA has shared their solution for the country’s exploding shooting death toll: If every sane man, woman and adolescent in the country is armed, nobody will get shot. – We shall create a permanent internecine American Cold War with our schools, malls, sports arenas and public squares guarded by armed minimum wage employees and
  2. Mattel, the Barbie and GI Joe people, have announced the dawn of a gender neutral Easy Bake Oven. Talk about serendipitous events!

The NRA has once again shown that not being part of the solution to this issue makes them the problem – while Mattel’s open minded reasoning makes it a solution to many things.

Having a dog in this fight,– more a purse poodle than a pit bull – I have strong feelings about the gun issue, the greatest of them being perplexity at the level of cowardice and denial in our elected representatives. In the fifty years since my own mad shooter experience nothing has been done, apparently because a front for various gun makers has members of Congress on both sides firmly by the short hairs.

I am equally perplexed that otherwise seemingly intelligent people subscribe to “Arm the Schools” and concealed carry  philosophies  based on their beliefs that the cow is now over the cliff and we have to deal with the situation we have rather than the situation we want (reasonable gun control). There are by now, they maintain, too many guns in circulation for Congress and the country at large to turn back the ballistic tide, so we need to turn our schools into armed fortresses and  pack heat ourselves.

As Joe Biden would say, Malarkey. If Australia and Britain were able to call in guns and ammo, so can we, Congress can regulate extreme and excessive firearms and limit ammunition. Early discussions of potential gun laws discuss measures like reporting gun sales exceeding one a week and ammunition purchase of over 500 or 100 rounds. 500 rounds??  I am still using the last half of the 500 Q-Tips I bought in 1986 – Why are our lawmakers still thinking bulk when it comes to weaponry?  It’s high time for congress to grow a spine.

The weapons in circulation? There is no non-self-interested reason for Congress not to recall “assault” weapons. The argument that people would not turn them in holds only if insufficient incentives are included, which brings us to Mattel.

Easy Bake oven in girlie colors.

A Mattel Easy Bake Oven in exchange for every returned gun would be poetically just in view of Mattel’s contribution to our gun culture.  Mattel’s Thommy Burst automatic machine guns were to today’s old guard gun nuts what Easy Bake Ovens were to their sisters. . Reports of every teenage ninja murderer note that only boys engage in school shootings. Girls don’t do this. Well, big surprise. Who the Hell do you think got the Easy Bake ovens and who got little plastic Rambo dolls?

If the Jimmies and Donnies of the world had been taught the Zen of baking rather than the manly rush of emptying a clip into the “enemy” (a disturbingly vague concept), there’d be a lot more muffins and a lot fewer head stones.

Toy rifle sold today.

 

Think this through with me for a moment: Would you rather have your home smell of gunpowder or warm chocolate cookies? Not sure? Take the test. Rate from 1 to 10, where one equals I detest them and 10 means great:

 

Muffins      1        2             3             4             5             6             7             8             9             10

Massacres  1       2             3             4             5             6             7             8             9             10

No contest, what? Cupcakes are bound to trump corpses on the popularity scale every time.

Sure, shooting off two hundred rounds at a paper target gets rid of pent up aggression (so does shooting a few dozen mall visitors), but wait until the survivalists and avid shooters try knocking the gluten silly in a couple of pounds of bread dough – true catharsis without having to wear hearing protection.

With or without the Easy Bake for gun exchange, here my two Christmas letters to the gun bearing and legislating communities.

Dear gun freak, you don’t need 100 rounds to fell a doe (or you really should not be out there in the woods – you’re dangerous) and there is no excuse for your stash of AR-15’s and “Action Pistols”.

As for your second Amendment right – it stands until the point at which it conflicts with my right to life. Is it an American tradition? Remember cock fighting and dog fights? They’re traditions.

Dear Congress Member:  As tragic as it is that all of the “Good Guys with (automatic) Guns” are going to have to find another pastime just because the “tiny minority” of “Bad Guys with Guns” are ruining it for everyone, your mandate is composed of a far greater and less vocal population of Good Guys without guns, many of them as we have been sadly reminded children. You duty is to answer to that majority with effective, realistic legislation – not watered down proposals which would allow gun owners to purchase 52 guns a year unchecked or hundreds of rounds of ammo because going to the gun store is such a nuisance. It is time to ban weaponry designed to kill more than one deer (or neighbor) at a time.

Make muffins, not mayhem.

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Sandy Hook instead of Holiday Cookies. My own family’s shooting and gun laws.

I was going to put up a last minute Swiss cookie blog this weekend, but this week’s events at Sandy Hook have me eating all the cookies I baked compulsively. Somehow cookies seem inappropriate in view of 27 dead, eighteen of whom would have put out cookies for Santa in a few days.

The name of this blog, culinary promiscuity, promises a level of obscenity it doesn’t deliver. This week’s events and some of the comments made since by gun rights’ advocates are, however, purely obscene.

The news blindsided me. I have been there. First hand. I’d just managed to forget it. Crazed shooters are not a new phenomenon. They are simply a more frequent one, as massacres have become more efficient with the availability of semi-automatic weapons to the average homeowner. We actually refer to them as “events like this.”

My personal encounter with gun violence was about fifty years ago when an unhinged client began calling my mother threatening my father’s life. My parents protected me, but fortunately I had learned how to eavesdrop on their calls without being detected. I understood clearly what was going on. I told only my best friend Dianne Estrin.

Dianne and I were alone in my  house a couple of weeks before my 16th birthday. When the doorbell rang I knew it was Jerry Cousins, the husband of a my father’s client who was making the threats. Cousins owned a gun and had threatened his wife (and my parents). Having heard the threats I had been locking and chaining the door. We usually did not. When he tried to break in,  I knew he was armed. “My father has a gun,” whispered Dianne, “Let’s go get him.” We climbed onto the roof through the kitchen window and ran across the roofs to her house. Instead of grabbing his rifle, Milt Estrin called the police. Despite the incident my parents’ request a police guard was refused, even though the Sheriff’s office heard Cousins state that he had intended to shoot me and would kill us all on our tapped phone.

My father went to court to apply for a restraining order.  While he and Mrs Cousins waited outside the courtroom Cousins came towards them, pulled a repeating handgun (“you just pull the trigger, and it keeps shooting, pop pop pop,” he had told my terrified mother on the phone.) and started shooting, “pop, pop, pop.”  My father stumbled into the courtroom and told the judge, “Your honor, I regret that I cannot proceed. I have been shot.”  Then he collapsed.

A doctor testifying in the next courtroom disobeyed the judge’s orders and ran to hold the two ends of my father’s shattered carotid artery together with his fingers, until he was in the operating room. The Ambulance drivers defied  instructions, instead taking him to the nearest hospital where he had the best chances of survival. The surgical team defied FDA orders and implanted the first artificial artery a few days before it was officially released for trial.

I was shielded from the events.Ida, Dianne’s mother, picked me up from school and kept me protected from theTV at their house under some pretense, but I knew.   I slipped out of the house and found the newspaper reporting my father’s death on my doorstep. There was no trauma counseling at the time, and I was the least important part of the events,so I just told them I knew. Ida gave me a cigarette and said something like, “Try this. It always works for me.” We had brisket for dinner. I continued smoking for fifteen years.My mother fell apart and spent the next week in bed on tranquilizers and rum Coke.

The hospital called to say my father had in fact survived but was brain damaged due to loss of blood, and he would never recover, probably never again speak or walk. I went to school the next day, but nobody talked about it. I think they didn’t talk to me at all, as they usually didn’t.

We visited my father in the hospital. He had no neck. His head topped an angry red, purple and yellow tent of flesh which sloped down to his  shoulders without any indentation.  He was drugged and drowsy, but lucid.  He eventually recovered, thanks to a lot of people who had the courage to do what was needed instead of doing what was required, although it took him years to completely recover the use of his left hand.

That week/month was all a blur and has remained one for five decades. I watched from outside. I don’t remember crying or even being frightened.

The massacres at Aurora and Columbine and a spate of disgruntled workers “going postal” left me only with the usual shared horror and general distaste for guns and abhorrence of lame brained gun rights bromides, but for some reason Sandy Hook somehow ripped the lid off of 1961,  perhaps because I can so vividly envision my own child at six years with his ram rod straight back and skinny shoulders trembling as a crazed shooter fills one classmate after another with bullets from a gun that just goes “pop, pop, pop.”

My personal can of worms finally being opened,  I am now trying to  reorder the contents and find a larger can to put them back in. It may take a while.– When I start thinking about it, I tremble. Not figuratively. It makes me feel cold and ..well, how would you feel? I realize what it did to my life, which was much and not good, and it makes me angry and just a little lost in resentment in what James Taylor calls “Places where I should not let me go.”

And so what? Really.  I got off easy. Think of those people in Newtown and Columbine and Aurora. What has just happened to the rest of their lives? It is beyond comprehension. I buried my father fifty years later at 96. They will bury their loved ones next week at six and their teachers in their twenties and thirties. How did we allow this to happen?

Everyone connected to a shooting carries lifelong wounds.  A couple of years ago Cousin’s daughter read my father’s obituary and called me. She, too, had been protected, but having learned of the tragedy, she was distraught. She seemed nearly suicidal, wanting absolution. She was perhaps twelve at the time of the incident and had not lived with her father for years then. I had no way to comfort her. Nobody walks away.

Today,  three days after the shooting, the NRA has not issued a statement and has refused to appear in the media. That is the least decency they could exhibit, although their motive is more likely political sense than empathy or civil consciousness.  After all, there isn’t much to be said to justify the death of eighteen babies, and the timing for the NRA, an organization most of whose following feels strongly about Christmas, is going to be hard for them to justify.

The less disciplined gun loving ranks, however are speaking their minds and protecting their dearly held beliefs with pitiful utterances. Even before the victims were identified or their blood was dry people like Huckabee opined that the culprit was godlessness and the usual mindlessly delusional ideologues are repeating phrases like “2nd Amendment right” and “Duty to protect the Constitution,” not to mention that when guns are outlawed only outlaws will own guns. Or, “It’s a mental health issue.”  A gay friend who plans on adopting a baby has said that this has convinced him to go out and buy the 45 he’s always wanted. Aside from the unlikely marvel of having a gay redneck friend, you have to marvel at the disconnect.

I’ve been doing too much self medicating with Facebook. It works a little. At some point I shared the fact, probably unwisely, that I consider gun advocates to be sociopaths and met with nastiness from a woman named Kelly who feels it is her duty to support the Constitution.  “Sociopaths is an odd term,” she opined. No it isn’t. It is accurate. I stand by it. Sociopaths are individuals with no sense of or care for the effect of their actions and beliefs on others’ welfare. The term is perfect.

We have more than a gun problem a democracy problem. The tail is wagging the dog.  Those dealing with cognitive dissonance by vocally and financially supporting the extreme lobbying successes which facilitated the Sandy Hook tragedy outspend and outshout the saner majority.

It is time for that irrational imbalance of influence to end. Sandy Hook needs to be the turning point. It is time for reasoning and experience to speak loudly, for individuals to write their Congress people, to sign petitions and to rally in the street. It is time for Republicans to reflect on the true meaning of the 2nd Amendment and stand up to the small, unhinged segment of the population that fears we will be taken over by a government conspiracy unless we are allowed to store a semi-automatic rifle in every garage. It is time for our lawmakers to buckle down and make the burden and liability of gun ownership a priority over the ease of gun possession.

It is time for bone headedly single minded gun lovers to drop their pride and quit trying to justify their fixed ideas with inane arguments. Is the death of eighteen small children not enough to shock them to perspective? Each and every person who has stood up for the right to own any fire arm produced, who has supported the production by buying one or who has sent money to the NRA has the blood of those eighteen babies on their hands.It is time for people who believe they might after all win the lottery to stop justifying this horrible incident with statistics that show you are more likely to be killed in a car accident or shot by a police officer than murdered by a semi automatic in kindergarten. It is time to draw logical consequences of illogical events.

Really. It’s time. Now is the time. Do what you need to do.

Addition: It is good not to be the only blog feeling unable to rejoice in Christmas Food. Luisa Weiss reveals her sentiments on The Wednesday Chef.

 

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A Swiss Thanksgiving: How I Introduced Thanksgiving to Switzerland with the Help of the Swiss Army, Several Bottles of Vodka and a Hairdryer.

As California enters the more challenging stages of seasonal cuisine when  we keep up our spirits by assuring each other that broccoli and kale are as much fun as tomatoes and peaches – more entertaining versions of seasonality come to mind.

That is: when food isn’t limited by the season but instead celebrates it,  so the smell of spices or stuffing summons waves of nostalgia and, depending on where one finds oneself, the lack of it brings on  homesickness.

Autumnal food in Switzerland means new wine and, where there are orchards, fresh pressed cider and Metzgete – the celebration (really just a big meal) of butchering and then eating a pig made into sausage and divided onto plates full of boiled potatoes, sauerkraut and little simmered apples in the village restaurant, where everyone knows everyone.

Turkey isn’t nearly as much fun as a squealing pig being butchered on the village square, the butcher drinking the blood, and the entire village chowing down the spoils, but years ago when I lived in Switzerland I got the notion that I absolutely had to have a Normal Rockwell Thanksgiving complete with Turkey served to the entire bi-continental family plus as many friends as we could fit around our new, massively over-sized table. I pictured women all sharing the basting, laughing men in the living room, then everyone sitting around the table, their faces bathed in Rockwellian golden light, awed by every culinary cliché in the Family Circle cookbook and an epic spread with the Swiss Jura mountains as a backdrop.

I decided to make it happen.

It was going to be a piece of cake. I could get the Kraft baby marshmallows and Ocean Spray jelly from Globus’s overpriced basement delicatessen, get a big, ugly pumpkin from a farmer and cook it down, make clover leaf rolls and the rest,  but the only turkey I knew of was the one Mrs Schoeneberger used to look after orphaned chicks. Turkey hens make great chicken nurse maids , but Mrs Schoenberger’s turkey was old and sinuous, and Mrs Schoeneberger would never have given her up far any amount of money.

Without the turkey the chicks would   all run out on the road and get run over just as  their mothers had. I had got good at hitting their mothers with my tree frog green Citroen 2CV(or very bad at avoiding them). “They don’t call them dumb clucks for nothing,” said Dorli Schoeneberger the first time I carried one of their limp bodies up her stairs. She sold eggs to pay for the education that would take her away from hardscrabble small farming. , “Do you want her plucked?”  I bought several  hens from Dorli this way, and while Dorlis’ eggs were magnificent, the old laying hens were good for not much more than soup and stock.

When I asked around the farmers about a turkey the general response was, “You want to eat what??” As if I had suggested I wanted cat or one of Farmer Nebel’s pet pixie goats for dinner, but I learned from an expat friend that Migros, the first real supermarket in Switzerland, was taking orders for frozen turkeys.  I put one in for biggest bird that could fit in my industrial sized oven and invited everyone we knew and my parents from San Francisco for Thanksgiving dinner.

When I went to collect it, the butcher said, “Es tut mir leid. Wir haben ihr Truthahn verkauft.” (Sorry. We sold your turkey).

“Then please get me another one,” I said. “a BIG one.” “Sorry, said the butcher. They are all reserved.”  “MINE was reserved,” I snapped.. “You sold it. Now  it’s first come, first served. I need a turkey.”  “This is Switzerland.” he said – people tended to say this to me a lot, as if I were too dumb to notice and expected the Swiss to be as unprincipled and corrupt as we Americans obviously were  – “We don’t do things like that. We are an orderly people.”  The store manager couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything.

No matter where you are, if you want to get something done, you need to know the right people or people who know the right people. In Switzerland all of the right people were a) men and b) officers in the Swiss Army. They took good care of their own.

My husband, Marcel, was an officer, so  I ended up blubbering about the tiny marshmallows, my parents coming from San Francisco, Ocean Spray and tradition to the President of Migros, somebody’s cavalry buddy,  who  promised a turkey in “plenty of time for the dinner”,

By the day we had chosen for our Thanksgiving dinner I hadn’t heard from him, so I didn’t think there was much hope,  even though Swiss officers always keep their promises. It was Sunday, and no stores were open. I was about to send Marcel to Dorli to see if we could cajole her into doing in the entire scrawny, molting flock at any price she wanted to charge, when the doorbell rang.There stood the Vice President of Migros beaming with pride, as he handed over a bag containing an icy 20 pound  turkey. Frozen solid. After he turned down my invitation to join us later for dinner, I closed the door and despaired. Then came Mother.

She arrived by taxi from Basel, where my parents preferred to stay when visiting, sweeping through the door ahead of my father, dressed in her designer winter white knit pants suit and knee length mink, bright and beautiful and elegant, radiating the scent of Femme ahead of her. Assessing the situation she announced: We can do this, slapped on an apron, kicked off her heels and turned the rock solid animal upside down under a stream of hot running water. Once we had douched the bird enough to pry out the frozen gizzards, she stuffed a wine bottle full of hot water up it’s rear and immersed it in hot water protected by a garbage bag.

The in-laws arrived sometime around 11:00. The wine bottle wasn’t working fast enough, so Mother got my  hair dryer.  My husband opened a bottle of Veltliner and cut off some speck from the slab we had hanging in the basement. That, along with a couple of boxes of crackers, was about all we had in the house except the dinner fixings filling our tiny refrigerator.

My father had brought his own vodka and dry vermouth  – he never traveled without a couple of bottles after the bartender at Michelin starred Euler had served mother a sweet aperitif in response to her request for a martini, which she had spewed all over the bar in astonishment. He didn’t trust the extra bottle we kept for their visits. We had blood oranges for screwdrivers. Father poured one for my mother, Marcel gave me a glass of Veltliner. Mother and I alternated at shooting hot air up the turkey’s ass.

Sometime after noon Marrius, my father-in-law declared loudly that he had come for real Thanksgiving food, not smoked speck. Dismissing the possibility of baby food or cat food as a dip I spread some of the jealously hoarded peanut butter I had carried all the way from San Francisco crackers and told my in-laws it was an American Thanksgiving tradition from the South; Southerns give thanks for the peanuts on which they survived after Sherman’s March. I left my husband and his brothers fill in the gaps and pour.

We ran out of Veltliner and My husband stuck a few bottles of Twanner in the freezer.. Mother and I were hot-tubbing  and blow-drying the turkey, chopping giblets and doing what little hadn’t been done the night before.  We ran out of oranges, so my  parents switched to martinis with the little cocktail onions we kept for fondue. So did I.

Whenever anyone asked about the hairdryer,  Mother explained that it was the secret for a tender beast.

Mother sacrificed the oysters as for hors d’oeuvres. The guests, warned that dinner would be “a little later than planned”,  arrived with food.  Mother and I collapsed in front of a burning fire in the living room. Someone poured me a glass of Nuits St Georges, which did not go all that badly with the peanut butter. Mother had another martini.

Marcel brought up some of his prized reds from the cellar, but most of our Swiss guests were more interested in the vodka, which  paradoxically in the middle of the Cold War they perceived to be quintessentially American. At some point we ran out of cocktail onions, so my father, substituted cornichons. Everyone found them dandy.  One of our friends kept filling my glass. Mother had a cornichon martini. One of our guests had brought early chocolate-hazelnut  and gingerbread Christmas cookies, which I found  paired as well with the martinis as with the wine. Mother agreed.

Mother started telling filthy jokes, which Markus translated to my in-laws as harmless vignettes, so as not to get my father-in-law started.. He did that a lot.

Somehow everything got cooked at the right time. I think my neighbor stepped in, but it could have been me. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t mother. Somebody put the stuffing in the oven and the caramelized onions and  sweet potatoes, which had been prepared the day before, glory be. I do know that once they got the concept of basting that everyone in the room wanted to try their hand. The bird must have turned out moist.

When we finally sat down, my father gave thanks and everyone around the table said what they were thankful for. “I am thankful that we finally got the fucking turkey thawed out,” said mother. “What did she say,” asked Marius. “She said,” translated Markus, “That she is thankful to have such a wonderful family assembled around the table to share this American feast.”

We had the whole nine yards from caramelized baby onions to pie at about eight thirty at night. When the pies came out my father-in-law and a couple of the guests opined that pumpkin was cattle fodder and how clever we were in America to make “permkin pees” of them. They finished off all three. There were no leftovers. I think it was a success. That’s what they told me later, anyway.

At some point toward the end of the evening the schnapps appeared, with it a bottle of the tax free Kirsch brewed by a local farmer. One guest drank half the bottle.  He later recounted how the street lights had bowed to him as passed on his way home. We found the last bottle of Twanner still in the freezer, exploded in perfect extended bottle shape with shards of glass sticking to it.

We celebrated Thanksgiving every year after that, although that was the only time my parents joined us. Nobody sold my turkey again. The Swiss celebrate Thanksgiving today, or some of them do, and turkey is no longer exotic. I think frankly I started that, but we all like to feel as we’ve made our mark in history..

Nobody died or went to the hospital.  I hear the meal is still legend.

 

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The Best Worst Cookbooks

 Russ Parsons of the LA Times recently reached out to ask the industry’s opinion on the most important cookbooks.  Most of the contributors ponied up Joy of Cooking, the Times Life Series, Escoffier Larousse Gastronomie and a few other classics. James Beard, Craig Claiborne and Dianne Kennedy made the list. Emeril, Martha Stewart and  Jamie Oliver did not.

About five years ago I did my own important list, or more accurately, my not important list. My books followed Parkinson’s Law: Matter expands to fill available space (Cookbooks multiply to fill then overwhelm available shelves.)

My collection over-filled three walls of shelves. Some  had to go. The only way to make the cut was to determine not what I wanted to keep but what I didn’t want. I’d watched an unhinged family hoarder try to make a path through the material chaos of her home enough to realize the futility of the “Lets keep this and I can do away with that” approach on anything with the emotional burden of cookbooks. Fortunately the real rotters in the cookbook field are childishly easy to categorize.

The Culling list:

1)      Any book mentioning speed or time. The speedy gourmet cookbook. Ten minutes to French Cuisine. These byproducts of women’s liberation which promised women that they could pursue their careers and still put out a health meal on a napped table. Take out made the obsolete.

2)      Any book mentioning human body parts, processes or infirmities: The Lower your cholesterol cookbook, Chef Markus cooks for a healthy liver, The Good Digestion Cooking Bible.

3)      Hollywood celebrity cookbooks including the Vincent Price cookbook ( now selling for about $300). Somehow Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ Cross Creek Cookery and The Rich and Famous Cookbook survived the cut.  Rawlins included recipes for venison. Cookbook irony is good. If Hollywood celebrities could cook they’d have restaurants. You wouldn’t buy an acting guide written by a chef.

4)      Dinner party and cocktail party or hors d’oeuvre cookbooks: The Perfect Party. The Perfect Hostess. Cook For a Crowd! (Whoopee!!) Having lived the Mad Men years, I have no desire to revisit their food.  If I remember correctly, most of the guests were usually too inebriated to know if the dinner tasted good or not.

5)      Appliance specific cookbooks including a few food celebrity books for the first Cuisinart, microwave oven and, of course, the blender.

6)      Any books with pinkish pictures of tomato aspic, stuffed mushrooms and spinach soufflé or gray veal in gray sauce.

7)      Cooking with wine books. You need a book for that?

8)      Anything gender specific. Sunset had a few inane paperbacks announcing the wondrous fact that men, if the recipes were simplified and the heat source charcoal could actually make food. Men? Imagine that.

9)      Any book which, if opened to a random page, included canned soup or flavored salt in an ingredient list.

10)   All but the earthiest and simplest ladies’ guild self-published cookbooks. I have no idea how the Flavor of Pittsburgh slipped past me (French Fried Ice Cream Balls? Tangerine Pie?) but it’s staying just for funkiness.

11)   25 years of Gourmet Magazine. Except the cookie issue.

12)   Porn disguised as cookbooks. Very seventies.

I recently went to the local book store in search of a book in pickling by Sandor Katz. I found a new category that I didn’t need to deal with : TV Celebrity Chef cookbooks. I rarely watch food shows, so perhaps I am missing something, but I suspect that ten years from now cooks buying these books now will be loading them into bags for the Good Will.

Just in case you have too much book space and are bemoaning not having had a shot at these books, you still have a chance to own books chock-a-block full of thoroughly superfluous mediocre  recipes: Every year the San Francisco Public Library has a book sale crammed full with the culinary literature ripped from shelves like mine.

 

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Seasonal you: Your inner caveman, circadian rhythm and food

Culinary memes die hard. Like baby carrots in the eighties and nineties – or the original fusion, which half a generation of chefs found to be their passion and pursued long after the ovine dining public had shifted its attention to the next thing, which if I remember correctly was $20 servings of mac ‘n cheese and meatloaf.

The current meme is the Chez Panisse triad: Local, Seasonal and Artisan with a side of Organic – an endless restatement of the obvious which is getting a bit old these days. ( You expect any restaurant that charges seventy dollars for perhaps fifteen bucks worth of groceries to serve good food, which in general will be seasonal and not have been in storage for months.) For my part I am pretty tired of hearing about seasonality and wish we could get on to whatever comes next, just so long as it tastes good.

There is, however, another kind of seasonality, which resides in us rather than the list of available groceries: Circadian rhythm. The drive to put seeds in the ground or law away stores according to time of year.

Bears curl up in caves. We make soup, regardless of the outside temperature or our awareness that you can also get great soup at the Easy Freezy or Whole Foods.  When the sun begins getting up after we do, we start acting differently with food. At least I do.

I’ve been subject to culinary circadian fits since my first German winter and definitely since a Swedish year when the Sun give a short guest appearance every day, but they seem to be gaining on me. Even now, with blinding late autumn sun over San Francisco’s hills, I am behaving like a squirrel storing nuts for the winter or a hedgehog building a nest under leaves and stones.

Circadian rhythm, at least the culinary version, is an atavistic,  visceral drive, an urge rising from the marrow and sweeping aside rational resolutions not to make bread or cookies this year – not to put up fruit. It commands metabolism and metabolism hijacks everything:  insulation packs on like the shaggy coat on a winter horse. The same diet that stripped fat for seven months stalls, then goes into reverse. I crave fat, warm bread and jam. After months of never being able to get enough Caprese and watermelon salad with feta, every cell nags for pork or grilled cheese sandwiches.

oven baked tomatoes

Real nesting behavior sets in about the end of September.  A freezer blissfully ignored for half a year demands to be cleaned out then filled again with baked peaches, corn kernels and baggies of stock for barley soup. Not baking requires an act of will. All this food will all be wonderful, but I was not going to do it this year. I made a promise to myself not to. But: Ten pounds of peeled early girls are baking down in the oven now for pizza or pasta, after I swore only to buy grapes at the farmers’ market. Butternut squash and apples for frozen packs of curry soup followed me home.  As for the cookies I have definitely decided not to make, an order for ten pounds of peeled hazelnuts has already  been placed.

This late summer cooking drive may be genetic – I remember my mother doing the same thing, flying out of her elegant working clothes and cooking down apricots and baking bread well into the night as the days shortened. The night before I was born, although she had no idea I was going to arrive the next day, she got up and  baked a week’s worth of bread. Who says we aren’t connected to the earth’s rhythm – or the sun or the moon.

Everyone has some sort of seasonal circadian rhythm – I assume the culinary version is stronger in people who cook and who cook for quite a few years, although I would have no way of knowing the alternative. I know plenty of cooks who, although they are probably not aware of it, follow the pattern. So do you. They will say, “I didn’t intend to do this this year, but then …”. It’s the call of our ancestors telling us to get in the root vegetables or we won’t make it to spring.

Atavistic, by the way, means something like “throw back”. It’s  usually used to describe things like tails on babies, but I figure circadian cooking is precisely that. Instinct over intellect.

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About those baked tomatoes:

I used to can tomato sauce, but I was never comfortable with the thought that tomatoes can be sub acidic and thus carry  some danger of botulism. Several years ago I decided to freeze them but needed to get rid of the water.

The answer is baking them. Simply peel the tomatoes by giving them a few minutes in boiling water, letting them cool and slipping off the skin – early girls are wonderful for this – and cut them up in a a roasting pan. Put them in the oven at about 375 to 400 F and let them cook for one to four hours, depending on how many you use. You needn’t stir them, but it will prevent the tops from getting caramelized. When the liquid has baked in, ie they  no longer bubble, let them cool then put them on zip lock bags, which you lay flat on top of each other in the freezer. The reduced tomatoes will be sweet and intensely flavorful – perfect for pizza or sauces – allowing the five minute pasta. You can, of course,add herbs and garlic, but I generally leave that for later.  If you just need a little of these concentrated tomatoes you simply break off a corner of the block by whacking the baggie against a counter and reseal the rest for later use. Note: If you pack all of the bags together in a larger bag, they will not develop freezer taste. (Baking soda in the freezer also prevents it).

You can do the same with any fruit. Baked peaches are velvety and have an intense flavor. They make fabulous sweet snacks or easy desserts (dash of something white and sweet on top, or not). They should be baked until the syrup that develops is brown but not black. I usually freeze three in a baggie, which also lies flat, so I can take them out individually.

baked peaches, stll frozen

 

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