Food is sacred to me. Once in Los Angeles many moons ago, my wife and I visited our favorite Thai restaurant (Chan Dara), and requested a table for four. We ordered enough to cover the entire surface with barely sufficient room for two plates -- and we slowly sampled everything while the tables around us turned over twice. Always the boy scout, always prepared, there was a large ice chest in the back of our car to transport the leftovers.
I once terminated a friendship when I was told “Food is fuel, I only eat what I need to make it through the day.” Such sacrilege was worthy of the guillotine as far as I was concerned.
Where did it start? When did I realize that the preparation and consumption of food was as serious an art form as a Picasso or van Gogh? I think I was about seven when my parents took me to Perugino’s in Luzerne, Pa. That first plate of spaghetti and meatballs ignited a fire inside me that has never been quenched.
As recently as three years ago I would devote an entire trip east to eating little else but meatballs, with an occasional slice of pizza thrown in for balance.
I have learned the secrets of chefs for preparing French toast: at Juniors in Brooklyn, it’s crumbled up corn flakes in the batter; but the absolute best I’ve had was made with freshly baked bread at the Hotel Indigo in Nashville.
My friend Dave and I have shared a lifelong obsession with great food. I had my first 75 cent cheesesteak at The Hut in Wilkes-Barre with him. He is better travelled then I am in western Europe, so I defer to his ruling that Belgium has better French fries than Munich – but I ruthlessly draw the line when it involves dousing them with mayonnaise, as is the custom there. While Dave swears by it, I swear at it.
I had my first slice of real pizza around the age of 9 in Brooklyn, Bedford-Stuyvesant no less. My grandfather was a furrier and down the block from his shop on Nostrand Ave. under the subway was a small pizza place that served a slice so large I had to hire two guys to hold the ends while I inhaled it.
Inhaling food was not me being self-descriptive. My friend Sally used the verb to describe my actions after exiting the cafeteria style lunchroom at the bus station in Pittsburgh, Pa. in 1969 when she watched me put away a plate of fries so quickly it would make your head rotate on axis.
Later in ’69 when I attended Syracuse University (my third college in 3 years…) we would pile about 7 people into my ’63 Dodge Polara and head for Ike’s, a café that didn’t open till 7pm and then was active all night. On our first venture there the waitress stopped us cold at the door and belched “Dishwasher’s drunk, if you want to eat, you’ll have to wash your own plates.” Jeff volunteered and prepared enough cups and plates and silverware for the group. The keystone of this establishment was a six foot long grill that always had a mile high (not an exaggeration) pile of home fries cooking. Ah, the potato, my close and personal friend…
I eschewed frozen hash browns at restaurants the same way a criminal would steer clear of a police station. The consumption of such was a felony to me – and a grave insult to the potato itself.
We dined that evening on eggs, home fires, pancakes, assorted meats, and home-made chili. The state health department eventually shut down Ike’s, obviously for some arcane reason – certainly not for having an inebriated dishwasher. We mourned its passing.
Cosmos, on Marshall St. was an icon for students. It’s specialty was everything on the menu, but the piéce de résistance was their T.H.B. (Toasted Honey Bun) with vanilla ice cream. Occasionally we would consume one prior to dinner to ensure we had enough room for it; the glazed bun with caramel swirls was sliced lengthwise and placed on a buttered grill until slightly toasted. It was as close to heaven as any mortal deserved.
While no one from the east coast needs to be introduced to the joys of Italian food offered in the NY, NJ, PA region, meeting Phyllis’ (my wife to be) family for the first time proved to be a culinary expedition that I was only vaguely prepared for. After a four and one half hour drive through a blinding blizzard in an unheated Volkswagen at 70+ mph (punctuated by a speeding ticket) I arrived at their Yonkers home a bit bleary. It was Christmas and the house was alive with family and friends. This was a group of wonderful middle-aged first generation Italians, all decked out in dresses and pressed trousers and colorful sweaters. And in walks this frozen-to-the-bone long hair wearing patched jeans, a work shirt, and a navy winter jacket with a fur hood.
All motion and talk ceased as they tried to adjust to this alien presence in their midst. Phyllis’ mom greeted me with open arms and a loving kindness I had never known before. After the obligatory period of introduction, I was welcomed into the family, and nothing more was ever said about my unkempt hair or disheveled clothes.
We sat down to a plate of southern Italian pasta. If you’ve been to Italy you probably are aware of the differences in regional cooking. Food prepared in the south is far less complex than that found in the north. The sauce was as light as a feather and I ate as much as my 20-year-old stomach would take. I thanked them for a glorious dinner and was about to exit when an arm grabbed and reseated me. The pasta was the appetizer! The ladies quickly cleared the dishes and the chicken with vegetables appeared next. This was dinner! I was stumped. Where was I going to put it?
I had a sincere obligation to the chefs and managed to shovel down some of the best home cooking I’ve ever had. No, make that the best. Absolutely and positively stuffed, I again prepared to make myself vertical when another arm grabs me and hauls my butt down again. Italians serve the salad last, and naturally I would have to sample some, out of respect. It was a simple affair, fresh iceberg lettuce, sliced tomatoes and a light Italian dressing. My stomach, now swollen to the size of at least my bowling ball, needed a rest.
After this two-hour feast, the men adjourned to the living room, where they all promptly fell asleep and began to snore in unison. I watched the women quietly but quickly clear the table – and prepare desert. This was no longer a dinner, it was a marathon, and one I had not trained for. The aroma of fresh brewed coffee brought the sleeping men back to the land of the living, and they hazily stumbled into the dining room for cannolis and coffee.
Then, and only then, dinner was over.
The move to California was fraught with pain and suffering. The pizza tasted like ketchup covered cardboard and the pasta like Chef Boyardee, with the can included at no extra charge. I sunk into a deep depression. It took eons to adjust to the new cuisine and develop a taste for Mexican, Thai, and Vietnamese, which are staples of the region. Hollywood Boulevard, which periodically swings from sleazy, to really sleazy, to desperately sleezy, was only in its sleazy state when I arrived.
I managed to find and adopt as my own a hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant (unfortunately deceased now) that served the best Machaca con Huevos I have ever had. In spite of the hookers who would casually sit down opposite me in my booth, obviously attempting to lure me away from my meal they so desperately wanted. I would ignore them and continue to shovel way too large forkfuls of the meat and eggs and peppers into my gaping yaw, a sight that convinced them they should ply their wares on someone else.
The trick to living in Hollywood at that time was to either appear to be so much higher on the food chain than those who routinely attempted to temporarily graft themselves onto one of your limbs that even the mere thought of extracting some form of remuneration was both futile and foolish, or to conversely seem to be so low and scurrilous that contact should be avoided at all costs.
I was pretty good at either.
Can’t leave Los Angeles without a word about their donuts. Every donut shop in the LA area is owned and operated by Cambodians, who are the cream of the crop in the art of frying dough. After the Vietnam War, a wealthy ex-pat relocated to the area and donated most of his money to immigrants to help them purchase their own shops. While Santa Cruz is famous for its blueberry pockets that come out fresh twice a day – drawing a line of people that even In-N-Out would be envious of, the plethora of high quality donuts available in the area are sufficient to drive anyone crazy trying to taste them all – ask Ariana Grande the next time you see her.
It took me several years to develop a taste for Sushi, but now that I am a non-recovering addict of the delicacy, I am grateful to my friends who guided me in discovering the varieties of the exquisite rawness available. While many quiver at the prospect of Uni with quail egg, I find nothing seriously Freudian about eating the gonads of a sea urchin topped with the raw yolk of the birds that hover on the telephone poles in our backyard most of the day.
Nor am I aghast at the thought of consuming jellyfish – which despite its appearance is quite crunchy, or live scallops, which, when presented sans mayonnaise, are as good as it gets as far as this kid is concerned. California is also notable for barracuda sushi. Only young barracuda are consumed, as the older ones collect poisonous toxins in their livers. When this delicacy became scarce, I had to travel to Norway to find it, where it is enjoyed with great gusto.
A word about Norway. When I was there in 2006, it was an incredible experience. Being able to dine in a bistro sitting next to the head of the Romanian Mafia without pissing in my pants was a singular experience. Gypsies don’t need knives to frighten you, their eyes do all the work for them. While I’m adventurous, I wasn’t adventurous enough to try lutefisk – white fish preserved in lye. I’m glad our expenses were being picked up by the client – Norway is an extremely expensive place to visit, with three meals for two people usually hovering around $400 a day.
The perks were awesome though. Me and my buddy spent the entire day working remotely from Oslo’s famous cigar store – smoking hard-to-find Cubans at $80 a pop. A jaunt up the coast to Trondheim for a few days uncovered a real-life Paella bistro, where I impressed the locals with the smattering of Spanish I speak.
One of the mainstays from my east coast days -- real Hunan food -- was laboriously difficult to find in California. While Szechuan appeared from time to time (before the population explosion here in the 90’s I used to drive over 90 miles one way to Orange County for Chinese take-out), the only genuine Hunan I found was up in Silicon Valley around 1994. In fact, I had a lively discussion about the subject with the head of Hewlett- Packard while doing his portrait a few years earlier. If you’re not familiar with Hunan, its hotness is very, very different from the burn-your-throat and set-your-head-on-fire of Szechuan. Good Hunan will make you sweat profusely without numbing the nerve endings in your throat. Fetch me a plate of hot and spicy broccoli and a side of cold sesame noodles, and I will do your bidding forever.
These days I’m content with a plate of spicy Vietnamese fried tofu (yes, real men eat tofu – in fact, they eat whatever they damn well please) or some El Salvadoran pupusas, which our housekeeper of nearly 35 years prepares for me regularly. If I’m in need of pancakes, I’ll hop over to Keedy’s, the little coffee shop I have frequented regularly for over 40 years for what me and 37 million other Californians consider to be the best pancakes on the planet.
I try to make yearly trips back east so my aging mind doesn’t forget what a real beefsteak tomato tastes like, and I always pay homage to the meatball. If ‘ music good food doth soothe the savage beast’, then it is in your best interest to keep me well fed...