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Definition:The act of sharing food with strangers.
The other carnal pleasure.
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Author Archives: jll
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.
Two of the this week’s historical events:
- 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
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The short odds are that you know the current state of the Chick-Fil-A debate. If not, here a short recap:
On the 16th of July Chick-Fil-A president Dan Cathy stated his clear and unequivocal opposition to same sex marriage . He did so in the Baptist press and raised a hullabaloo.
Gay Activists rose to the tossed gauntlet, The Muppets refused to sell them any toys for their children’s meals.
Politicians with a claim to family values picked up the gauntlet and slapped everyone, Sarah Palin made a celebrity appearance holding big bags of chicken and sides , while Mike Huckabee proclaimed Wednesday a National Chick-Fil-A day (Can he do that?), and the mayors of Boston, Chicago and San Francisco vowed not to let Chick-Fil-A open any restaurants in their towns. (Can they do that?) Ironically New York’s Mayor Blumberg, a man with a proven proclivity for banning things having to do with restaurants, thinks banning Chick-Fil-A inappropriate.
I have no dog in this fight. I am straight, not particularly (at all) interested in marriage and a bit perplexed at the number of people who are. I count devout Christians and people of various gender walks among my dear friends and never thought of same sex marriage as having any particular connection to restaurants aside from the terrific financial boost to the industry San Francisco received when Mayor Gavin Newsom declared San Francisco the first city to legalize them – you couldn’t reserve an event space for months, our hotels were full and our retailers delighted.
If I don’t understand why people who don’t have to get married are so eager (I understand the legal implications, however, and in fact, my wedding was a great party, dancing bears and all) , I sure as hell don’t get why people who are or could get married feel it their mission to stop others from doing it. For the love of God (That is the point of Christianity, isn’t it? God’s love? The quote as I remember it is, “I am an angry god”, not “I am a small minded, petty god”) if two people want to get married, let them – it’s good for the economy, there will be more happy people on earth, there will be some fabulous parties, and most of my gay friends have shown a better commitment than a lot of us in mixed gender marriages manage to keep. Why does the religious right want people to be unhappy?
Don Cathy of course, has a right to say and think anything he wants, no matter how bombastically and sanctimoniously stupid, as long as he doesn’t scare the horses, and the public has an absolute right to vote with their feet and wallets and to express their opinions about Cathy, his church, his chicken and his values – screaming with signs outside his restaurant, if they feel so inclined. (That’s pretty much a given).
I personally think the man is a blowhard ass, I’m glad he’s not my neighbor, and if I owned stock in the company I would demand his removal from the board, then sell (although this seems to be a boost for their sales – they are not fools and playing to their audience very well). I’ll bet so did their VP of Public Relations, Donald Perry, before the stress of the whole affair did him in. But that’s just my opinion.
It is remarkable, as an aside on Perry’s death, that no activists, liberals and friends of couples dying to walk down the aisle haven’t made the sort of comments about Perry’s death as conservative icons of the religious right like Gene Beck, Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann have been known to do about God’s wrath causing various national tragedies. There is little question here as to who takes the high road.
For one thing, Cathy/Chick-Fil-A donates funds (a little less than $2 million) to organizations like The Marriage & Family Legacy Fund and others, whose lobbying efforts extend to areas well beyond one man one woman, so two thighs, biscuits and a side of coleslaw at one of their locations may mean giving money to the enemy. Of course Citizens United has made this perfectly legal, but none the less, it’s sure disconcerting. I for one would like to know if a dime of my super-sized Coke is going to anti abortion or gender discrimination or immigration lobbies (either way) or whatever.
Since the Cathy Brothers’ billionaire status is to some extent attributed to their followers in faith, the restaurants are in effect donation machines. I can’t think of any other business..certainly on that level…that functions in this way.
On the other side of the oh-no-you-did-not coin is the rush to political correctness by Boston, San Francisco and Chicago. It’s bone headed posturing, since Chick-Fil-A would be fools to open in any of those cities – nobody would eat there – but the hubris of any mayor or city council barring a business based on their political views is beyond outrageous. Freedom of opinion counts for both sides.
There’s something more insidious about the Cathy’s amygdala hijack: the conversion of restaurants into political vehicles.
Once upon a halcyon time civilized eating meant avoiding religion, finance or politics during the meal. I never really observed the rule, but then I am occasionally ill mannered and not a gadzillionaire with a restaurant chain. Cathy should have done. He crossed the Rubicon by polemicizing what ought to be civil, neutral ground, the tables we share. Breaking bread with people of different opinions civilizes us. Eating in political conclaves does the opposite. Apart from the quality and the mean mindedness of his sentiments, dividing our tables by politics is indecent.
We should be concerned that or resigned to the fact that he may have opened Pandora’s Box – that our tables could come to represent not only our culinary tastes but our political stripes. That would be disastrous.
A senior member of the California Legislature recently mourned the civility of the time when members of Congress went out for drinks or dinner together after the day’s session, and contributes the eroding of decency to the loss of that. Democrat and Republican congressmen/women in DC eat at separate dining clubs. No need to wonder why they can’t find common ground.
Ojala Mr Cathy’s self obsessed foolishness remains an isolated phenomenon. Let tire shops and newspapers and department store owners express their prejudices and beliefs, if they are dumb and crude enough to do so – the places where we break bread need to be inclusive meeting places in which we our paths cross with people of opposed opinions. Switzerland made a lot of money staying neutral during WWII. Let’s hope the rest of our watering holes and eateries do likewise.
The Blog Title, “Culinary Promiscurity” allows musings on about anything related to food.
As anyone who has had or known one or its parents knows, kids have a lot to do with food. Either they won’t eat it, or they want more or they eat like a herd of wild boars on two legs. They’re allergic to dates or spit out the pablum. There are picky eaters and insatiable walking stomachs. Some are fat, some are not fat enough, and some are irritatingly food precocious (Headlines like “12 Year old Culinary Phenom cooks with the top chefs of Poughkeepsie” make one glad to live on the other end of the country so one is in absolutely no danger of running into him or his mother at Safeway.)
My son the empty pit, who oddly turned into one smart eater after years of begging to be taken to McDonald’s (He wasn’t), didn’t want to cook or eat anything from the ocean until well after he left home. He figured it out too late for my benefit.
I feel deprived in hindsight. It could have been otherwise. When John was young we sent him to canoe camp and we sent him to Whale Watching Camp, which turned out to be a radical environmentalist propaganda machine – he was kicked out for standing up for the rights of “Big Oil (he was an odd child), Most camps then were pretty much all about horses and canoes or basketball. Boy oh boy, has that changed for the better.
Young parents take note. Camps today offer everything from hacking to foreign affairs, but the real deal is Cooking Camp. Wow! Cooking camp can, suggests a recent article, teach your child to respect food and choose health and nutritional elements to promote his lifestyle.
Yeah. Nice. As if anyone who sends their kids to cooking camp doesn’t already do that. The article misses the point: Cooking Camp teaches the munchkins and revolting adolescents to cook! For you! Brilliant! For a price you can turn your picky eater or undiscriminating empty legged gobbler into your own personal chef. Strike that: GOURMET chef.
Not only that, any cooking camp worth its salts is going to teach them to clean up! After themselves. After you!
Exploitation? Hardly. Imaging the experience, the camaraderie: Can’t you picture the campers, all in their adorable white uniforms with camper badges, seated around 2500 BTU burner making s’mores with marshmallows they made themselves and Scharffenberger 60% Chocolate while they sing camp songs – “Does your sauce Bernaise lose its flavor overnight, can you stick it to the bedpost, can you toss it left and right..” Imagine the bragging rights they take back to school: “Yeah, Dimbrain, you may have learned how to break into the Kremlin’s cyber vault, but I bet you can’t even make a decent Tarte Tatin, and your Genoise sucks!”(neener neener neener).
Why would you want Jennie to learn to saddle and groom ponies or paddle canoes and identify moose droppings, skills poorly suited to daily life, when she could come home and beg, “Mom, can I make a soufflé tonight? Puhleeeassssse! PleasePleasePleasePlease. You like promised.”
I have stinging regrets of opportunities missed: “Hey John, want to cook for a party of twelve? Got your Vitello Tonato game on?” – “ will you lend me a hand with this piglet I am stuffing? Or “Would you mind watching the fritto misto?”
I wish I could have said, “If you don’t like it, cook something better,” knowing that I’d at least be able to expect a Caprese or coque au vin.
If I still had small children or were expecting one, I’d be rushing to doors of every cooking camp in the country to sign them up at birth. Voluntary child labor. What a stupendous idea.
How could Nora Ephron die? How could a wit that vibrant and a spirit as sassy and gracefully robust as hers not guarantee immortality?
Among her legacy is the wonderful wisdom of the relation of mortality to pleasure, constantly proposing a Weltanschauung roughly equivalent to “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow at some point. You may are going to die.
Ephron’s quotes suggest nothing of a “foodie” or a food snob or a gourmet, although surely she was one (gourmet, that is..she claimed an all encompassing love of, even obsession with food.) . Ephron’s love of food was visceral. Her knowledge of it profound. Food pervaded her work and her interviews. Heartburn, the book that buoyed me up through a miserable divorce, shifts from snide comments on “Mark” to recipes for key lime pie, all of them treasured then and still.
A collection of her commentary on the Huffington Post repeats her unapologetic, all encompassing love of good things to eat and either contempt or pity for those who complicate their diets with the various rules fashionable in foodie circles that she espoused in her writings
“I have a friend whose mantra is: You must choose. And I believe the exact opposite: I think you should always have at least four desserts that are kind of fighting with each other.”
“Everybody dies, there’s no avoiding it and I do not believe for one second that butter is the cause of anyone’s death. Overeating may be, but not butter, please. I just feel bad for people who make that mistake. By the way the same thing is true of olive oil. What difference could it possibly make if there’s a little olive oil in your salad dressing? It does not take one day off your life.”
Newsweek, August 2009
In interviews on NPR and with Charlie Rose she asserted that waiting for the last meal (hers would be a Nate n’ Al’s hotdog) was foolish – you might be hit by a bus the next day.. Eat more Nate n’ Al’s she directed. In another she advocated eating doughnuts, not later but now. “it’s very important to eat your last meal before it actually comes up.”
I hope that Nate n’ Al’s had a direct delivery line to MS Eprhon’s house in her later days, that the people who loved her brought dozens of doughnuts and trays of desserts.
My appetite channels Nora Ephron, as probably does yours. As for the pitiful party-line locovores, egg white omelet fanatics, glutenophobes, fussy eaters, vegans, nutritional activists and sadly misled, loud-mouthed foie opponents in our midst, may I propose that you simply hold your peace and follow Ephron’s advice. Eat more doughnuts.
“Are we really all going to spend our last years avoiding bread, especially now that bread in American is so unbelievable delicious? And what about chocolate?”
Plagiarism admission: Most of the quotes here are p;lucked from the above linked Huffington Post article. You should read it. Reading all of Ephron’s pieces on the site has just hit the top of my own bucket list. I don’t think they will object. Ephron was the voice behind the Huffington Post’s exquisite food writing, or much of it. We all who eat with joy owe them gratitude for this.
Remember the math puzzles your high school teacher used to give you to solve? Here’s one from real live.
Recent polls, studies and surveys have revealed the following trends:
- More Americans are cooking at home.
- Americans are eating out less often.
- Americans are spending less on groceries.
- Americans are throwing away more food.
- Americans are gaining weight faster.
To summarize: We are cooking at home more but buying fewer groceries and throwing more of them away. We are eating less in restaurants. From fewer groceries and less dining out we are still getting fatter.
Tonight’s homework: reconcile these statistics.
There will be a test.