Tag Archives: War Stories

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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Freeloaders by The Bay

AKA the usual suspects.

If you were down on your luck and down at the heel and still wanted to party, San Francisco would be the place to do it. With an endless cycle of wine tasting, charity events, PR presentations and restaurant openings, most serving at least some kind of crudo crustini or $2 a bite catered hors d’oeuvres, cheese, sometimes vodka and always wine, anyone who can locate a back door to the A-List can follow the moveable feast and reduce their food bills to zero.

San Francisco has had a core group of party crashers for years    – every city probably does. I first heard about them  from restaurant designer Bob Puccini at the opening of some restaurant  or other. We were standing on a balcony looking down, and Bob noted, “The usual suspects are here.”  “Gee,”  I thought, “neat! “ There was Bill Kimpton, probably Stanley Eichelbaum and probably Pat Kuletto, someone from the Mayor’s office, someone from the Restaurant Association, dozens of industry people, and it seemed, all in all, like a good group to be part of. That, however, was not what he meant.

A skinny guy in a once very pricey vintage suit cornered me. Claiming to be a wine importer, he struck up a conversation and eventually extended an invitation to an some premiere. I went and later invited him to the opening of Rose Pistola. It seemed a practical arrangement until he turned up completely stoned.  We were sitting with Wavy Gravy, so it didn’t seem entirely out of keeping and I didn’t pay it much heed beyond a mental note not to avoid him in the future.

When he called me a some time later to invite me to the opening of the Matrix on Fillmore I declined, but I was surprised that I hadn’t heard about it from Plumpjack’s Chef, James Ormsby. When I phoned James to ask, he was taken aback. “It’s private,” he blurted. “Just a few of Gordon’s  friends and some investors.  You can’t come.” No Kidding. I’d just been asked by one of the Usual Suspects  to crash Gordon Getty’s private function. So that’s what Puccini meant.

My real initiation into the ways of the Usual Suspects came about two  years later, when Slow Food Leader Lorenzo Scarpone asked me to help him put on the Golden  Glass, an ambitious and glamorous wine and food gala and fundraiser for which Scarpone had arranged for nearly a hundred of the top Italian vintners to bring their product to San Francisco.  It would be free to the trade – most of these events are – and cost the public about $40, which would support small farmers and school gardens.

Inexperienced in event planning, I reached out to a seasoned  veteran for suggestions on “getting the word out”. My friend, David Jones, generously shared all of his media contacts then added,  “But watch out for the usual suspects.” These, he explained, were a pack of wine guzzling marauders alerted to each new event by a point man who get tips on all of the industry events from a liquor store clerk. They descend on the galas and industry events like ants on a picnic pie.  David volunteered to man the press and industry sign-in taboe with a friend, Jim, who knew them all by sight.

When we happened to run into each other at another tasting before the  Golden Glass, David took my arm and said,  “Walk with me and don’t stare,”  and discretely pointed out the gate crashers as we circled the room. “There’s Donald the wine thief  – they call him that because he steals wine – and the  scruffy little old Russian guy with the frayed “press pass” from a paper which may or may not exist. The guy over there is David, who claims to be the wine representative for a non profit organization.” (Absolutely not, said the woman I called at their headquarters after throwing him out of our own event.).

There was a funny little man who brings his aged mother, whom he parked in a chair as he went for the wine, bringing her paper plates of cheese from the food table, the board member of an expensive private club who claimed to be the wine buyer (but did not pay the charity donation – Probably the $1,000 a month club dues ate up all of his disposable income), and my old pal from Rose Pistola in his same vintage suit. There was a squat and disheveled, Bitsy and a character who claimed to benefit wineries by letting them donate wines for his private parties, all in all an entirely Dickensian throng, trying to blend in with the authentic sommeliers and buyers and get their names to the vintners, prospecting for information on other events. We had their numbers.

At the Golden Glass Jim and David Jones were able to deter some of of the freeloaders, but about half of the gang managed to get in by hoodwinking our volunteers. Jim spotted David and Donald heading for the Barolo. We snagged them and escorted them out of the building as they shouted threats of legal action. .

A vintner alerted David that the Russian had pinched a couple of bottles. Jim and I chased the old coot to his car,obviously also his domicile, just managing to cut him off as he opened the door.  He adamantly denied having any wine, clutching his satchel tightly to his chest. “Give us the wine, and we’ll let you go,” I said, knowing full well we really couldn’t do anything if he didn’t – just as a dozen or so Park Police  rounded building “A” on a practice run with their new Segway scooters.  The desfile looped gracefully around towards us and encircled us like pioneer wagons around a campfire   The Russian Press Pass  ripped open his satchel to pull out not two but three bottles.   “Zey ver Pwezents” he  sulked defiantly.The vintners were very happy to get their presents back.

I was surprised how much fun being a bouncer is. It’s probably the power. I paid for my fun. One of the people I had chased down or turned away – I suspect Matrix/Vintage Suit guy – complained to Slow Food, which led in part to my dismissal from the board. (How like Slow Food not to ask for details). What I heard much later was, “You were very rude to an extremely influential person in the wine industry.”  Influential? But it was deeply satisfying.

I no longer help organize the Golden Glass, but I see the same faces now at nearly every event I attend. They used to be amusing. Now they’re revolting. Gate crashing antipathy has settled firmly under my skin.

About a year ago I somehow got so swept up in the excitement of SF Chefs, I was having a glass of wine with a couple of  food writers when one said, “Hey, let’s all go to the tent” – that I ended up slipping into  the tent with an undeserved press badge.   I sent a check to the organizers the next morning. They said it was not necessary. It was. I don’t  deal well with self-loathing.

A couple of weeks ago my friend Patti organized an event for a luxury clothing and $500 designer handbag retailer.The Usual Suspects were already there when I arrived.  It’s really frustrating for me now to see them in action and know that making a scene is out of the question. None the less  I asked Patty if they were invitees.  No, she answered. As a matter of fact the were not on the list, but they had told the reception they were press.   I explained what I knew and added, “some of them steal.”  I meant they stole wine.

Patty instructed the door tenders not to admit anyone not on the list and kept an eye on the ones already in the store, alerting the store staff to keep close watch on the smaller items.

She called me the next day: “You know your friends? They caught one stealing on camera.” A woman had tried to take three three pieces of designer clothing  – two under the one she put at the beginning of the evening. Gosh. Not just wine.

Patty just emailed me:  She was at the DeBeers event last night. “I saw your people there,” she said. Wow. I don’t know how they have become “My People.” And DeBeers? The diamond people?? The creeps are coming up in the world. Perhaps freeloading and gate crashing is starting to pay off. I wonder what they got away with. Even if they didn’t, DeBeers is bound to have Perrier-Jouet.

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