Tag Archives: Food Memories

“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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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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Tarians and Vores

What kind of Tarian are you?

When I was a kid everyone ate about everything unless you happened to have the misfortune of being Catholic with Lent or Vatican imposed meatless Fridays, Seventh Day  Adventist or Orthodox Jewish and had to adhere to theologically imposed dietary restrictions. Or poor, of course, which came with its own set of limitations.

As Episcopalians we were theologically/nutritionally unencumbered. My mother, who railed at people who came to dinner then disclosed their dietary restrictions (there were fewer back then), never invited the one Seventh Day Adventist she knew and invited our Catholic friends on Saturdays rather than Fridays unless she happened to expect bluefish or crab off my uncle’s boat on a Friday.

A Friday dinner invitation from Catholic neighbors was cause for some nose wrinkling, but then most of the Catholics we knew back then were Irish, who, apologies to the sons and daughters of the Green Isle, are far from the best ambassadors for Catholic cuisine. Had we known Josephine Gasparro, things surely would have been different. Josephine cooked a mean salmon.  Kosher was never an issue..the only Jews we hung out with were reformed and were lavish eaters and phenomenal cooks.

Times have changed.

The Vatican lifted it’s fiat on meat, thus removing its negative image of an imposed food and possibly contributing to the endangerment of hundreds of species, as seafood became not only interesting but hotly desired for any night you wanted to have it. The Adventists may still be meatless, although the two I know eat non garden burgers with gusto. My Jewish friends now are staunch proponents of all things porcine. Religion no longer rules the plate. Instead we have made our self imposed food limitations to our religions.

Vegetarianism has gone secular-mainstream and highly vocal and spawned a score of variations, some extreme, some simple variations, and we have named them all.

The equal and opposite reaction to the steady surge in demanding vegetarian diners sprung up in the form of testosterone laden carnivore movement under the name of the Whole Beast Movement or Snout to Ass, initially carried by chefs like Chris Cosentino, then picked up by butchery event planners like Big John Fink,  who creates butchering shows followed by orgies involving large pigs on spits.

There are nutritional crusades and tirades on both sides. Animal rights activists have effected bans of foie gras and shark fins in California and attempted to pass laws requiring that restaurants observe “Meatless Mondays”.  At a North Beach Pizzeria a young Swiss guest responded to the gorgeous Italian server’s suggestion of a porchetta spiked pie with, “I don’t eat meat,” spoken with the vehemence of a Jonathan Edwards holding out a cross and snarling, “Get the behind me, dead animal.”   Professed carnivores also have their obnoxiously vocal moments.

Most of us omnivores in the middle eat just about anything anyone sets down  in front of us, or at least it around our plates or feed it to the dog, so people think you liked it.

That was the Readers’ Digest version – our personal nutritional sects are considerably more complex.

The Administrative Director of the Culinary Institute of America told me years ago that the Institute had done a survey of eating habits. Among those who stated their diet as vegetarian a large number – I believe over half – also stated that they ate seafood and/or poultry frequently, and a smaller number occasionally meat. I eat vegetables, ergo I am vegetarian.

There is now a term for that:

Vegetarians remain vegetarians, at least in theory people who don’t eat meat, poultry or seafood.

Seafood eaters but not meat eaters, on the other hand, are either Pisquitarians or pescatarians, the word being so new that nobody has settled on a proper spelling.

Vegetarians who avoid eggs, honey and milk are vegans. Vegans believe in making life more challenging by foreswearing eggs, honey and cheese, which supposedly exploit chickens, bees and cows.

There’s more.

Vegans who don’t cook their food are Raw Foodists.

Vedic Vegans reduce their options by the entire nightshade family, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and potatoes.

The most radical vegans are the fruitarians, who eat no live fruit – that is, eat nothing that is  picked from the tree on the theory that picking it would be killing a living thing.  In other words, they live from vegan road kill. One suspects that the pharmaceutical company is not producing sufficiently effective meds, but perhaps the fruitarians reject them because their production exploits some bacilli or fungi.

Omnivores don’t get away with a simple label, either.

Those of us who eat meat but not huge steaks have recently been dubbed “flexitarians”, which apparently means that we are not huge meat eaters. That would be in less pretentious food speak “omnivores”, or perhaps nothing, since we are still the people who generally eat what is put in front of us (or push it around the plate.)  Most of us still consider ourselves, probably irrationally, the default.

My son’s best friend’s mother is a socially conscious vegetarian with an irresistible taste for salami, which makes her a salmitarian (or salumitarian, if you include things like coppa and sopressata, which she probably does. )

My father’s second wife who actually ate mostly Cheetos and taco chips unless they went out  was a poultry eater and pronounced herself an “avitarian”. Actually she also ate some seafood, preferably fried, which would probably make her a pisqueavitarian.

And then there are the locovores, who, donning one of the rougher nutritional hair shirts of our times, swear never to eat anything grown more than a hundred miles from their homes. There aren’t many locovores in Minneapolis, and God bless the others. More bananas and Prosecco for the rest of us.

Fortunately the dining community, omnivore, flexitarian vegan et al, have not yet come to the point where we define ourselves by what we don’t eat – I am an antiglutenitariian or a non-lactositarian, but for an identity starved society who craves labels, it’s probably not far off.

The poor are still around, but they would probably just as soon renounce their dietary restrictions.

As for me, you can ask me to dinner any time. I’ll eat it if you’re a good cook. Unless it’s steamed spinach, in which case it will be neatly distributed around the plate.

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Research proves Food is bad for you. Or no, wait – maybe not.

When I was about sixteen a disgruntled taxi driver had the bad manners to shoot my father, shattering his  carotid artery, which had about the plasticity of a china cup. Research had just discovered that the arterial sclerosis affecting the artery was caused by beef, butter, milk, ice cream,  pork and baby lamb chops and just about anything else I like to eat. My mother, determined not to be widowed early, followed the cardiologist’s dire warnings and  changed our diet, which, considering my  mother’s voluptuous egg, cream and butter based cooking was like turning the Queen Mary on a dime.

Bacon and burgers were replaced with poached salmon and steamed spinach. Vegetables no longer dripped with butter and cheese, our milk went from creamy white to transparent blue, margarine and Wesson oil took the place of butter, and cottage cheese was dressed up to provide a thoroughly inadequate and mildly disgusting alternative to sour cream. We were among the zillions of families catapulted into anti cholesterol hysteria by a nutritional scientific community, which avowed longer and better lives for all if we just cut out red meat and took the skin off our chicken.

In the next few years Victoria Station, a rollicking beef restaurant group in yellow railway cars, folded because the management failed to see the anti-cholesterol writing on the wall, the chicken industry (no skin please) exploded from farms to batteries and the food factories of the world developed cholesterol free versions of anything that was any fun based on partially hydrogenated oils. Lard became an obscenity and pie crusts lost in the exchange.

The Mad Men generation of Americans spent their middle age eating gawdawful alternatives to real food, trusting their doctors and the nutritional voice of the Nation, the FDA. They died anyway, and possibly occasionally sooner than they otherwise would have. What a pity. No wonder they drank.

Shortly after my mother’s non coronary related death twenty five years after the shooting my father remarried. His second wife couldn’t cook for squat, not last because her hoarding had the stove covered three inches deep in shatskis and collectable jam jars. She seemed to believe that vodka and Cheesits were a pretty acceptable dinner substitute. Under her influence father’s preferences quickly morphed from boiled halibut to double cheeseburgers, Mexican omelets with bacon, and Linguini Alfredo. He lived another 26 years and died at 96 from strep. Perhaps if he’d lived another ten or so years, the cholesterol would have had a shot at him.

I so intensely disliked my mother’s nutritionally correct steamed spinach, simmered kale and faux cottage cheese sour cream, that once out of the nest I decided to die young, if necessary, but not to be miserable with healthy food. Every time one of my dinner mates whined, “My doctor won’t let me eat shellfish / chocolate /  peanuts / salumi because of cholesterol,” I suppressed the urge to say “Shut the fuck up and let me have my lobster bisque in peace,” and made a mental not to find another dinner companion.

My chances of dying young are dwindling, but despite a life of Epoisses, flans and duck breast, I have what my doctor describes as “divine cholesterol levels”. How come?

More recent studies indicate that not milk fat but trans fats , that is the products in all of the low fat baked goods, cool whip and anything else concerned eaters were making do with, were disastrous for coronary health, not lamb and vanilla ice cream. In other words, it really is not butter, whether you believe it or not, and it’s not better – in fact it’s worse for you than butter.

Better yet: According to new research by the Royal University of Copenhagen milk fat is good for you, or at least better than the alternative. They’ve been at this for a while, actually, and while all contemporary research should be suspect (Copenhagen does, after all,  have a lot of cows and export a lot of milk products, so what’s to keep his Highness the Danish King from suggesting to the scholarly researchers that their duty to their country was to do an empirical spin job on our Danish butter?)  it’s pretty hard to envision the University of Copenhagen carrying out studies funded by  Kraft or the Danish Dairy and adjusting their results to harmonize with the funders’ objectives. It’s more likely that they just know a heap more about milk and cream and the resulting products than, say the University of Beijing.

Food research is big and oddly enough widely believed despite continual retractions and opposing results. There’s a great deal of fun to be had with it, and Culinary Promiscuity looks forward to doing just that. Soon. For the moment, however, let us just gently propose that based on the scientific community’s long track record of contradiction and failure increased skepticism towards people telling us what will make us healthy is advisable.  Take their pronouncements with with a grain of salt, which, by the way, researchers tell us will lead to coronary disease. Or maybe not.  We are an excessively nutritionally gullible nation.

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Swiss Cherries

This year’s cherries are nearly compensation for San Francisco’s bleak and endless winter – plentiful, fat sweet and juicy. Vendors at the Alemany Market have so many that they pack up bags of four to five pounds of the nearly perfect fruit for $5 two hours before the stalls closed.

“I’m cherried out,” says Naomi, as she passes them up. “I can’t get enough of them, ever,” swears Lisa., “I can’t stop eating them.”

I used to live an a cherry economy. They were the life blood of my village on the slopes of the Swiss Jura. We were surrounded by orchards, where the white blossom lace covering the hillsides brought buses of Germans out the Basel city dwellers in hiking knickers and boots to hike the winding trains between the stands of trees in bloom and stop at Restaurants Kreuz or Roessli to wash down cold meat or cheese with a beer and a shot of local Kirsch.

The Kirsch came from the Schwarzbuben distillery in Nuglar, which processed the local fruit into a delicately cherry scented eau de vie that burns with a pure blue flame. It was the villages only real industry. The owners, the Morrand family, also owned the grocery store, which carried baby booties and tools in addition to a full line of respectable schnapps – the signature product of course being Kirsch – and a meager assortment of groceries.

For the farmers they brewed a stronger schnapps for the tax free liters allotted per cow.

Schwarzbuben

Cows and orchards are symbiotic. The Cows graze the hills too steep for mowing in summer and live off silage from late summer grass in winter. In return the trees are fed with the runoff from the stalls sprayed on the snow around the trunks. The two liters, well above the 90 proof commercial schnapps,  are purportedly for washing down udders. The cows, the farmers maintain, like it better than rubbing alcohol. It probably gets used for that now and then.

If you are lucky, you will be offered the good stuff straight or in Kaffee Kirsch, the Swiss equivalent of Irish coffee, in warm farmhouse kitchens smelling just a little of the adjoining stall.  The farmers prefer to drink at Kreuz or Roessil, where they sit on the warm tiled oven and grumble about the cherry crop.

Cherry farming isn’t an easy way to make a living.  Even if the blossoms don’t shoot prematurely in the treacherous warm days of February die in the ensuing freeze, the “Ice Saints”, killing frosts on the saints’ days of Pankratius, Servatius und Bonifatius in late May, can wipe out an entire crop. A thunder storm can bruise and decimate the fruit hours before harvest. Too much rain, and the cherries split or mildew. Not enough rain stunts or shrivels them. A good year producing an abundance of cherries lowers the prices.  Cherry farmers are completely content only one day a year: when the trees have been picked bare of all but a few stragglers, the square, slat wood baskets filled with perfect, sweet black cherries have been loaded on the truck and the check for the fruit is signed.

Harvesting is communal. Children, cousins, and friends climb into the crowns of twenty foot trees with deep willow baskets belted around their waists. They descend to dump the full baskets into crates, then return to the tree tops

Most summers we picked with friends, standing high on wooden ladders handed down for generations. Their round rungs pressed through the soles of our thick boots. The sticky cherry juice stung the twig scratches on our hands and signaled to wasps that we were fair game. I miss it, none the less – the smells and buzz of summer, the shade of the tree crowns, the increasing weight of the basket hanging from my belt and the feel of the hard, cool cherries in the summer heat. I can still pick cherries out of a pile with my eyes shut. My fingers see the flaws.

The health authorities cautioned seniors not to go up the ladders, because old people now and then either died of the heat or a stroke on the ladders and fell to the ground dead, or fell off the ladders, or drop off and perished on impact. It was a sort of chicken and egg question, and, in the end, it didn’t really matter which came first. Few were deterred. There are worse exits.

Cautious elders, sore footed pickers and kids with stemmed pairs hanging over their ears sort through the crates being filled for the silver flatbed cannery truck that followed the one lane road winding along the hillsides from orchard to orchard. The buyers, usually Hero A.G., demand flawless fruit with stems. A few bad pieces in a crate get the entire lot rejected.

A day of picking probably produces enough fruit to fill thirty 20lb slatwood crates. The pickers take home a basket or two plus the culls for jam, Kirschpfannkuchen (Clafoutis), Weihe, a fruit and custard tart, and cherry pound cake.

Except for the jam, the pits stay in. Otherwise the cherries bleed and make the cake soggy. Everyone expects pits and either swallows them or spits them out. Competitive distance spitting makes cherry picking more entertaining than the plum harvest.   My pastry chef friend Paul tells me that he tried real clafoutis with pits in here in San Francisco, but he gave up. Every customer complained, despite the servers’ warnings. Management had liability concerns.

For the jam I had a manual two barreled cherry picker. It sprayed everywhere, so it could only be used outside. Mostly we just ate them with the stones or stood on the edge of our porch and vied for the longest shot. I never won.

Everyone agrees that the cherries this year are magnificent. Maybe miserable winters are the secret of a perfect crop. I have four pounds in bowls around the house. I’m thinking cherry pancake, pits and all. Three or four eggs with the whites whipped a little, the yolks stiffened with a few tablespoons of flour, a little salt, a bit of milk, folded together and poured over cherries strewn on the bottom of the frying pan with plenty of melted butter, then cooked until it’s hot and sweet with dark cherry tops shining through the golden brown crust.

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They Paved Paradise and….

The Value of Things

In occasional delusional moments I fancy I have a profound gift of appreciating the details of special experiences when the occur, like the beautiful Tiffany skylight, dramatic oak stairway and ceiling friezes of delicate, pastel flowers which comforted me through an entirely miserable winter in a posh private school for young ladies.  At least of those details I thought, “This is special and this is what I will remember when I leave,” which couldn’t be soon enough.

After a year of unhappy  Victorian splendor, I managed to whine myself into a public school, which although lacking a library of leather bound first editions was not without its charms.The greatest of these was a lackluster cafeteria, where sublime doughnuts  – the real kind you really do remember, crisp and full of cinnamon or light and yeasty, glazed with real chocolate, as doughnuts should be, were sold for ten cents. Who needed a thirty foot expanse of Tiffany skylight?

Liking the doughnuts seemed wrong,  as did the wonderful little chocolate cakes I scored in a funky tobacco and sandwich shop on the corner near my summer job in a law office where legal history was being made.  The history did not impress me, and most is forgotten, but I will always remember the oddly cool frosting on the cellophane packaged squares. Their wrongness made them more memorable than all of the wonderful foods I have been blessed with since.

My mother never understood why I had a weight problem. I was rarely hungry enough to eat all of her painstaking prepared low  calorie meals inspired by early copies of Gourmet Magazine and an exploding library of cookbooks. My relation to her cooking is where my conceit about having the sense to appreciate the good  things when they happen to me dissolves like cheap tissue in the washing machine.  I envied my friends, whose mothers made mac and cheese or set out TV dinners. Mine made veal  piccata and sole Veronique. I wanted ice cream.  She crafted soufflés.

You don’t miss what you have ’till it’s gone, da da da……”

Maxine Lockley possessed a profound love of food and all of the people and processes connected to it.  She enjoyed immediate rapport with anyone  who worked with food. She was not so much a foodie as a groupie, enthralled by and attracting to not only chefs, before they were monumental, but anyone who planted, harvested, sold, fished or prepared meals.

Long before the “new food culture” lionized and patronized the new age organic farmer and culinary artisan, Maxine was drinking Strega, sharing shockingly filthy jokes and playing cards with fishing boat owners in the basements of North Beach restaurants. She cozied up to farmers she met smoking Camels through a dramatic three inch cigarette holder among the vendors at the Produce Mart restaurant before 7:00 am, where she also picked up the chefs who graced our table and invited her into their kitchens. Her skills as a pickup artist filled not only the seats at our table, but our pantry.

Pearls before piglet

Her liaisons brought us an abundance of magnificent food: flats  of sweet miniature melons or a package of little squares of paper thin, hand cut pasta from North Beach cooks, whole salmon and crates of Dungeness crab from her card playing cronies, and  veal cutlets and enormous chunks of San Francisco corned beef from one vendor or another. We usually had more food than a family of three could possibly eat.

She was acknowledged as the most accomplished cook in her various circles. The salmon -poached, steamed or baked in salt as she learned from some Portuguese boat owner -and the corn beef with baby potatoes must have been wonderful. Everyone praised her dishes, but I was the swine to her pearls. A good portion of the salmon, crab or corned beef ended up frozen in  weeks’  worth of  sandwiches  for my school lunch bags.  I despised them and traded for the peanut butter and jelly or other sandwiches from the American mediocre lunch canon. She would have been  horrified.

Oblivious in Germany

I finally came to my senses in Germany, nine thousand miles from my mother’s kitchen and its mother daughter emotional undercurrents.  The dense, dark German bread and pungent cheese, which I would have rejected at home, tasted wonderful. I discovered salmon.  I ate what my new German and French friends ate with enjoyment but little mindfulness. We biked to the country for new wine and green onion cake with about the same awareness I would have accorded a visit to the Hippo, Home of a Thousand Hamburgers.   I was deliriously happy and food was a nice bonus.

If I had money I slipped into a Konditorei for a  piece of Pflaumenkuchen or Sachertorte and an enchanting little white baroque Bavarian porcelain pot of real hot chocolate or drank cool white wine on a balcony overlooking the Neckar with friends , which felt merely normal, nowhere nearly as exceptional and special as those experiences in fact were. Maybe that is because most things were shared with locals, for whom they were normal. We enjoyed them, and probably said so, but we never talked it into the ground.  We took it all in our twenty something stride.

Americans return from abroad armed with bragging rights about what they ate and where, how delicious and special it was. I didn’t. They are Appreciative in a way I never managed to be. My mothers friends swooned over her food and remembered it to me long after her death.  They talked about it to each other, making it larger and more real than I can remember.

A friend recalls an evening at the French Laundry where a neighbor punctuated every course with squeals of “isn’t this fabulous” and “don’t you just love it.”   They will surely remember every bite vividly forever. Perhaps taste awareness sharpens in a sort of aural synesthesia, where emotive sound or flashing cameras deepen the perception of the experience.   It is always disconcerting to me to hear visitors loudly reinforcing their gustatory sensations, but it may be a valid end to a means. I’ve  never been able to talk my food into the table cloth beyond a “this is wonderful, have you seen the new movie”,

I don’t mean to say I didn’t enjoy what we had to eat later at my mother’s table or in the Swiss years, although often either the work needed to procure it there (butchering our own veal, the muddy work of growing the vegetables we couldn’t buy) or the things we didn’t have (decent vegetables in winter, baking soda, grocery stores open after 6:00 pm) overshadowed the bounty i tended to take for granted.

In praise of culinary innocence

I managed to spend a very long time in Europe, enjoying good food but never obsessing over it, before necessity brought me back to the States, where culinary nostalgia didn’t settle in completely in for several years – the various experiences bubbling their recriminations to the surface one by one. “You were thankless”, say the  pungent cheese dinners and fresh, sweet veal kidneys. “You didn’t cherish us, when you had us.” “I liked you well enough at the time,” I respond, and that’s enough.

In that environment, the smells and sounds, the tastes and the feels were inseparable from the whole cloth there and then,  among friends.  The wonderful details were subsumed by the complete experience of simply being, and that is, when you think about it, just about  perfect. One ought to be able to take life’s good offerings for granted.

The call of the  “new food movement” is mindfulness of what you eat – its provenance, its health qualities, its artisan roots. Scrutinize each bite, photograph each plate. Appreciate. I have never achieved and hope never to reach that level of nutritional consciousness. Somehow it feels like homework.

Some people seem to live in  perpetual awe of everything fate puts on their fork, and although I envy  their apparently heightened pleasure, I much prefer that blessed state of culinary innocence which allows us to live in the abundance of good things and enjoy them without making each one a punctuation point in our lives. That, I think, is how we should be.

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