Personal Column – Honorable Mention
Every possibility for fun and great food
The way we “unplug”—finding ways to escape the pressures of our daily lives—is a personal thing. For some of us, it’s a trip to a museum or an overnight camping trip. Some like to run marathons, or cross the state on a bicycle.
For people who love food, a big cooking event with friends is one of life’s great relaxers. As luck would have it I got the chance to do just that, spending three days eating, shopping in wonderful markets, and of course, cooking. It’s hard to imagine anything more deeply satisfying.
Dallas, Texas is a city that makes you both appreciate life in the quiet of rural Ohio and curse it at the same time. Flying out of 25 degree temps and into an 85 degree day by a swimming pool aside, the quiet surroundings and relative safety of home quickly gave way to an unending galaxy of impossible highways, darting traffic, pigeon droppings and deep crowds. It also presented every possibility for fun and great food.
Foodies, I think, see the world differently. We certainly enjoy movies differently. While others are watching the story develop, the cook in the group will often say “Hey! I need that knife!” or “Where can I find a thick chopping board like that?”
Our small group, gathered to celebrate a birthday, struck out for the kind of grocer we might expect to find in a perfect afterlife, with a fresh-baked bread section the size of a Target, enough fresh fish to supply Las Vegas when Lady Gaga is in town and certainly every cheese to be found in Europe. One should probably try not to look like a gaping rube from the frontier in such situations, but I really didn’t care, gasping disbelief at everything I saw.
The goal of the shopping trip was to gather ingredients to make a two-day project recipe replicating one from the 1996 movie “Big Night.” In it, two Italian immigrant restaurateurs in the late 1950s are preparing for a big party, attended by band leader Louis Prima and his entourage, which will save the eatery from flagging interest from diners. For the big night, they make a timpano, which is an extraordinary dish of pasta, sauce, meatballs, cheese, boiled eggs and meats, all encased in sheets of fresh pasta dough and turned out of the pan whole, looking like a big drum. We planned to divide tasks and work together to put the timpano together, after a re-viewing of the movie (which is worth catching for the performances in any case).
We made meatballs from beef, pork and lamb which we ground ourselves, also whizzing up excellent bread into crumbs for the binder. While watching the movie, we all gathered around a small table, rolling squares of fresh pasta into pene shape while the sauce bubbled on the stove.
Another batch of pasta was rolled out, and the whole thing was assembled into a mold between sips of wine and stories of excellent meals remembered, odd kitchen tools found in out of the way markets and the high expectations for the meal ahead.
A couple of hours of baking and resting, and the creation was turned out onto a board amid plenty of sighs of appreciation before cutting into it. It was delicious.
I couldn’t help but think of the women of my family, mom and grandmother, if they were to be told they’d spend a weekend getaway cooking. It would be like learning their birthday present was a belt sander.
For we four, it was the perfect weekend.
You were loved, chef
Can I talk to you about Anthony Bourdain a moment?
Mentors take many forms, and it’s good to remember, as we go about our lives, that we may in fact be mentoring someone without being aware of the relationship, or even without knowing the person we mentor personally.
Bourdain had a career in professional kitchens spanning more than 30 years. In the midst of it, he used his talent for writing a good story to submit a short article to The New Yorker magazine, never expecting to get a response once he’d dropped it in the mailbox. Not only was it published, but it went on to become a book, Kitchen Confidential, a peek inside the world of restaurant kitchens, revealing some of the underbelly of the business he loved.
There followed a career as television journalist quite unlike any other. He did something close to my own heart, talking to people about food, bringing the connection between cuisine and people under a bright, clarifying light.
Chef, passionate eater, brilliant illuminator, storyteller, author, world traveler, Bourdain knew how to put people at ease and let them talk. Via his CNN series, he spoke to oligarchs in Russia over vats of vodka. He let us learn the fears of South Korean economists with soup and beer. He sought out Cubans who were looking down the barrel of a coming deluge of American tourism. He went into the Punjab and gave us a first rate education in the Hindu-Muslim divide there. Diving under the surf in Hawaii, he emerged with the locals to show us their love/hate relationship with an expensive paradise they’re forced to share. He squatted on tiny plastic seats slurping noodles and beer in Hanoi. He told us that the people he encountered in Afghanistan were the most friendly and welcoming he’d ever met. He was hungover in Hong Kong, stuffed in New Orleans. Through him, we saw a smaller world, filled with people not unlike ourselves. He was, frankly, everything I wanted to be, and a mentor as I sat writing about food in my small way.
Friday, June 8, he took his own life,
You and I, my friend, have experienced situational depression We’ve grieved, had our hearts obliterated, watched our best efforts come to naught. Life is hard, but as hard as it is for you and me, it is impossibly, endlessly bleak when the depression is an ever present illness. Bourdain was highly functioning in his illness. It seems that no one saw his suicide coming.
Anthony Bourdain, on the surface of it, had it all. The pinnacle of success in several careers, the respect of those who knew him slightly and well, and he was handsome, had children, and the love of a beautiful woman at his side. He was an original, one of a kind, and had a vigorous nose for weeding out fakery and nonsense.
You and I, we can tug ourselves out of sadness with a starry night or the smell of approaching rain. We cannot imagine never again seeing our children smile or feeling the slow breathing of our most loved person while they sleep. Some just can’t recover like that.
Vicariously, I lived out his extraordinary life in watching his travels. Staring out into my little world, I could wonder, “what’s Tony doing right now? What marvelous adventure is he having?”
But no more.
You were loved, chef.
As we feel helpless in the face of such loss, and look around us wondering who else must be secretly suffering, let us just try to be present, do what we can, and understand the outcome may be beyond our control.
Our 2-day trip to New York City was mostly about food, of course
I write this while exhausted and suffering from sensory overload, much like a toddler at their first birthday party.
You see, we arrived back home at about 2:30 a.m. after a quick weekend road trip to New York City. This was my first time there, and I have no excuse to explain why that is.
There were group trips in high school, but I didn’t go. When I was young and hot on a career as a rich and famous actor, the passion cooled considerably when I realized I would have to go to New York and find a tiny, grubby place to live and then find a job as a busboy somewhere while fighting to audition for the Big Break. And I was coming of age at a time when NYC was constantly presented in the media as frightening a place as it was wonderful. Every sitcom had an almost weekly “I just got mugged” moment. The kids who went on the school trips got a worrisome list of cautions: Keep your head down. Don’t stop to talk to anyone. Don’t look anyone in the eye. Don’t become separated from the group for a moment. Keep your money in a front pocket. Stay away from the subway tracks or you’ll get pushed over…
Now, of course, I realize I was letting my fertile imagination overheat with needless worry. My two day trip was mostly about food, of course, though that wasn’t the plan. There was a comedy improv thing going on over the weekend, and we had planned to catch several of the shows, not realizing that the lineups would begin before sunup for late-night shows and we weren’t even in town until afternoon. So we had to improvise by seeking out good places to eat, which are on every street corner in Manhattan.
Sharing my observations and impressions of New York carries the risk of sounding like a hayseed out for a look at the big city, but I trust you to bear with me a moment, remembering that I was literally going from being surrounded by open land to being surrounded by so many people it gave me hives.
Day or night, no matter the hour, Manhattan’s sidewalks are a river of humanity, each passing person speaking a different language. The temperature was close to 100 degrees all weekend, so the city smelled like street food, exhaust fumes and baking garbage. No matter how much you think you have a picture of what it must be like in your head, the city is quite unlike anything else, just as I’ve heard many times.
I can now say I’ve successfully driven in downtown Manhattan on a weekday afternoon, through the Holland Tunnel, over the Brooklyn Bridge (we had an Air B&B in Brooklyn), and found our destination first try. I have a worse record of finding things in Walnut Creek, frankly.
I’ve had New York pizza, which is floppy and delicious, eaten Greek food out of a street truck, and suffered no small disappointment at the restaurant of an internationally famous chef. We had unbelievable dim sum in Chinatown at one of the oldest tea rooms to be found there, were shocked at the $16-$30 price tag on every cocktail everywhere, and ate rigatoni bolognese at midnight in a touristy restaurant off Times Square.
I also got suckered into buying a $20 lucky astrology bead bracelet from a pretend Buddhist huckster. So that’s why you don’t stop for anyone on the street.
The trip was capped with seeing Bernadette Peters in a magnificent Hello Dolly revival. A fitting first Broadway show.
In short, it was magnificent. I would never, ever live there, but yes, let’s go again.