Blog Archive

Search This Blog

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

My Most Memorable Meals


my most memorable meals

I grew up in a typical Midwestern home, where my mother had learned to cook through her Swiss-born mother, and who later, with her mother’s death in childbirth, had to take over, along with her younger sister, cooking for her family. Although my mother was known by her friends as an excellent cook, in truth her cooking was simple and, at times, even incompetent. Since she and my family did not like spicy foods, my mother made her noted chili with ketchup, never real tomatoes, and without any actual chiles. It was more like a slightly spiced beef and ketchup mix than anything today I might describe as the hot delectation that my companion, Howard, made until a few years ago, with help of Wick Fowler (which inexplicably is no longer sold in Los Angeles). When my mother made what she called a “roast,” she would throw a chunk of beef into a heated oven and go off with the family to church, returning to a small, dried out, gray piece of meat. On Easter and Christmas, my mother would buy a canned ham, serving it up to the pleasure of everyone in my family but me—which perhaps explains, still today, my aversion to that holiday favorite, even though I love pork. Her Thanksgiving turkey was a store-bought frozen fare, although I still love the bird. I can hardly recall anything else that she cooked, although surely she was dutiful in keeping our family’s stomachs full. She did make one thing excellently, which, somewhat embarrassedly, I admit, I am still fond of today: pork tenderloin sandwiches. Served throughout Iowa, but hardly anywhere else, it consists of a thin slice of pork that is pounded, breaded with flour and, sometimes, egg, and friend over high heat, before being stuck in a buttered hamburger bun. Usually these unhealthy sandwiches are too thickly breaded, but my mother had the knack of keeping them fairly light.

      Like most young people of my day, I am sure I survived much of the time on Kool-Aid and Jello. French beans were served with Durkee French Fried Onion Rings. But if my mother was not an especially skilled chef, she was a wonderful baker, especially of pies. Her crusts were light and flaky, although I did not enjoy the usual fruit fillings of cherries and apples. I liked her rhubarb and chocolate confections which, once in a while, she would bake especially for me. Although I was not a picky eater, I hated most of the favorite dishes of Midwest America. I was never fond of hamburgers or hot dogs. I detested anything made with mayonnaise, sweet beans, or marshmallows. As I already reported ham and cherry pie, the apotheosis of my father and brother’s tastes, were just not among my favorite things. In my palette, as in my social values and demeanor, I was a rather reluctant Midwesterner. Certainly I must have had a memorable meal as an Iowa child, but I remember only one occasion, when friends of my father, having gone fishing in Minnesota, brought back to my parents freshly caught lake-trout they had just cooked over a wood fire. I can almost taste that early introduction to fresh fish still today. Another time, my parents were invited to dinner with acquaintances in Iowa City, who served up rabbit. My parents swallowed hard and attempted to cut into the never-before tasted rodent dish. I don’t think they liked it, while I was delighted with this culinary treat. I do remember a delicious gooseberry pie cooked by my step-grandmother one holiday. But my taste-buds had yet to be fully developed.

      As I have often reported, when I was 16 I asked parents to send me away, and in Norway I grew to love the wide range of fish dishes we were served—even the plebian fish cakes and fish pudding we were served up on many school days. I loved gravlax marinated in dill, grilled mackerel, bottled herring, fried trout in cream sauce, and baked pike. I adored pork loin with prunes and apples (a Danish concoction) served up with lillerose (the wonderful Norwegian word for Brussels sprouts), still one my favorite of all vegetables. Lamb in dill sauce was absolutely luscious, and, much later, Howard, without success, tried to recreate one of my favorites, Frikadeller (Danish Meat Patties), which fell apart at the moment we attempted to serve them to friends who were very adept in the kitchen. I learned to love Gjetöst, Norwegian goat cheese, and even cheerfully swallowed, the only time at my folkhøyskole I was served up a whale steak (the school was located in Norway’s whaling capital,) Sandefjord. On this healthy food I suddenly grew thin.

      At college in Wisconsin, I was introduced by my music instructor, Vance George, to Indian food, which I quickly grew to crave. And many a night near the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison, I dined on that city’s famed “Plaza Burgers,” the only hamburgers I ever loved. But these were also the years of sexual discovery, and I was less interested in eating than in making love. In New York I could hardly afford to have a good—never a memorable—meal. I liked the hamburgers served up by the gay bar, Julius’, where I once spotted “Broadway” Joe Namath. Yet I continued to grow thinner and thinner, encouraged by my every night dance lessons at the Joffrey Ballet and my generally late-night hours. Many days, I am certain, I simply went without eating.

      By the time I returned to Madison, meeting my now-husband Howard soon after, I was a rail, so thin you might have thought me anorexic. And one of the first things we did upon moving, later that year, to Washington, D.C., was to begin to learn how to cook, working our way through the Time-Life Series of recipe books, “Foods of the World.” Howard had already inherited some very good recipes from his mother; in my recipe box were nothing but clips from popular women’s magazines, probably even including my mother’s famed “Durkee Onion Ring” atop green beans. Helping Howard, we together made a large platter of Greek grape leaves (dolmade), which we served up to several student friends, and continued to make several times over the years, until our energies for such all-afternoon creations waned. Howard, clearly the better cook, also learned how to produce a good version of Rojões Cominho, a Portuguese dish of Braised Pork, with cumin, coriander and lemon served with Portuguese friend potatoes. I wish he’d try it again today.

      Using several Chinese cookbooks, Howard served up egg-drop soup, fried rice, braised spareribs with fermented black beans, marinated radish fans, and tea-leaf eggs, entertaining at various times his family and our student friends. We soon became famous through the University of Maryland Campus, with the chairman if the English expressing her dismay that she had never been invited to one of these events! I cooked Zweibelfleisch (Viennese Beefsteak with onions and caraway seeds) a couple of times quite successfully, and a rich Greek Moussaka, with olive-oil soaked eggplants, several times. But Howard claimed that my dishes created such a mess in the kitchen that he finally banned me from further attempts. I became the only the grill chef, while Howard moved on to cooking Oso Buco, Scaloppine al Limone, and Vitello Tonnato.  But then, he’d had a mother who could truly cook—despite her over commitment to the freezing process.

     At Howard’s family gatherings, his mother Rose (Sandy) and his aunt Ethel would cook up the traditional Jewish holiday dinners. Rose was particularly adept at making extremely light mazzo balls, while Ethel was the master gefilte-fish cook. Both could make a wonderful lamb roast, with knishes, kugel, and delicious deserts. Howard did not like gefilte-fish, but I took  to it immediately. I love mazzo-ball soup; I love any kind of lamb (which, since my mother confused it in her mind with the mutton she’d evidently eaten as a child, she never once served). Once in a while some family member would travel back to Howard’s town of birth, Atlantic City, bringing back Italian subs from the famed White House Sub Shop, on freshly baked rolls, from which the servers had removed most of the dough before filling them, in alternation with Genoa Salami, Provolone Cheese, and Cappocolla Ham, each layer drizzled with oil, all topped by lettuce, tomatoes, and peppers. I have still never tasted a better submarine sandwich, and Howard and I eventually became occasional worshippers at the Atlantic City shrine, always remembering to bring back more for the family. Today Howard makes a Proscuitto submarine version of this.

      Long before today’s currents in popular foods, Rose had also become famous for her tacos, the shells flown in fresh from her husband Jerry’s brother in Albuquerque (they sent him, in turn, Atlantic City subs). Unlike our own, later, oil free, dry recreations, Rose fried the fresh shells in oil, and left her meat in a rich, fatty broth that dripped from these treats. Howard’s parents where gregarious people, who worked as craftsmen in the days I first knew them, and their rule was that anyone visiting them near the time of dinner was automatically invited to Rose’s lavish dinners. We still have, in our living room, a clay taco, a large bite removed from it (presumably by Howard’s father) sculpted by a local Baltimore artist in tribute to Rose’s meal.

      In the summer months, our visits almost always culminated in one my favorite events, newspapers being spread across the whole large family table (which also now sits in our living room) while Howard’s father and others trekked down to Obrycki’s and, better yet, Bo Brooks’ to get Maryland crab. The crab, usually heavily peppered, looked, at first as if it were covered with mud, but when you pulled the little tab in its belly, spilling its contents onto the table before cutting across and into the two side cavities to pull out the large pieces and strands of sweet crab, that strong pepper flavor brought the tongue into a salivating fulfillment. The hammers were for the crab legs only. Served with this, generally, was Jack’s Silver Queen corn, a light sweet corn that I’ve never found again on the West Coast, along with sliced tomatoes. If they had gone to Bo Brooks’ they usually also brought back several examples of my very favorite food, “Crab fluffs,” flaky gatherings of crab meat and breading, briefly deep-fried, that I still dream about on some nights. There was always plenty of crab, so each person could eat as much as their bellies would hold. By meals’ end, everyone’s mouths and hands were atingle with the peppery coating which only helped to further savor the sweet crustaceans just consumed. Along with the wonderful jokes plied by Howard’s parents—both born comedians—and the golden and warm smiles of the simple joy of sharing that was quite literally beamed from father to mother and back, no one at the table might wish to leave. We found ourselves returning to his parent’s house weekend after weekend, as it seemed, more and more, like our true home. We shared that experience with many friends, including our fellow graduate student friend, Larry Shiffrin and his later wife, Becky; but one of the most joyful encounters was with Pat Dickinson, an opera-singer visiting us from Wisconsin who in Madison had once served me and Vance George grilled sausages, freshly stuffed by her famer-brothers along with grilled fennel, which resulted in my love affair with that fragrantly-flavored vegetable--despite the fact that I've never liked licorice); was simply awed by the familiar pleasure of the event. At another dinner, singer Nell Carter, performing in Baltimore, also joined us for the celebratory dinner time at the Fox house. In downtown Baltimore we often dined, quite pleasantly several times, at Burke’s Tavern on soft shell crab. At Baltimore’s Pamlico restaurant I had one of my most unforgettable dinners of Shad and Roe. Occasionally, we’d sneak into the large Baltimore Food Market for small coddies, cod cakes placed upon a mustard-coated cracker. 

      Meanwhile, back in Washington, D.C., Howard and I did not simply sit at home, regularly visiting some of most famed city restaurants, gradually introducing ourselves to Japanese and even Spanish cuisine (I’d already had memorable paella at the Spanish restaurant across from which I lived for a couple of weeks in New York Greenwich Village’s Horatio Street). At the corner of Connecticut Avenue and L Street, the back-slapping old-fashioned restaurateur Duke Ziebert, along with manager Mel Krupin, served up some of the best old-fashioned Jewish dishes in the world. Their pickles were to die for, but I particularly liked their sea-scallops. Surely everyone of note in Washington has dined, at one time another, at Duke’s.

      At Apana Indian restaurant in Georgetown I was a fan of their curried fish, still one of the best Indian dishes I have ever encountered. At the wonderfully “old fashioned” Yenching Palace on upper Connecticut Avenue in the Cleveland Park neighborhood, we had numerous meals. There they still served, in elegant versions, Peking Duck, Chow Mein, and Egg Foo Young. But they also served, long before it became available in most Chinese restaurants, beautifully formed lettuce packages and Moo Shi Pork, including the tiger lily buds that seem to be missing from all the current versions of that dish. Along with regulars such as Mick Jagger, Danny Kaye, George Balanchine, Jason Robards, James Baldwin, Art Garfunkel, I. M. Pei, Daniel Ellsberg, Lesley Stahl, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, and Anna Chennault, we visited it often, always marveling over the silky textures and richness of its foods. Americans representing Kennedy and Khrushchev officials met there to negotiate the Cuban Missile Crisis. Henry Kissinger regularly enjoyed the duck, drinking their heavily alcoholic drink, Moutai.

      Closer to us, when we moved from the city into Maryland’s College Park, we regularly dined, for Mexican food, at the Alamo Restaurant in Riverdale. The fare there was Tex Mex, which the owner had gotten down to its most perfect details. Their taco meat, unlike Roses’, was dry, their shells almost greaseless. Their chile releno was tasty, smoky and not oversauced. To this day—with the exceptions, perhaps, of Bobby Flay’s New York Mesa Grill and Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger’s Border Grill restaurants in Los Angeles (where my favorite dish is the white corn tamale)—I have never experienced a cleaner and less “sloppy” American-Mexican cuisine.

      All of these Washington, D.C. restaurants are now gone, and, so too, are many of our early New York venues, where we first discovered sushi (mostly on the avenues of the mid-town east side area of the city). I wish I could recall the names of all the fine Japanese restaurants we visited. On one such New York outing we chose, just because we liked the elegant look of the place, La Côte Basque, the en vogue restaurant then populated by wealthy businessmen and clients such as Truman Capote and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and Babe Paley, eager to pay in cash. When the bill came, announcing that credit cards were not to be used, we gulped, having to suddenly hand over almost the cash we brought for the trip. In those days, before the corner ATM machines, we accordingly had to dine out in expensive restaurants, who would accept our credit cards, for the rest of the trip. Strangely, I cannot remember what we ate. It must have not been worth the price.

      We dined at several elegant Indian spots. We visited several small, side street establishments such Le Cheval Blanc (don’t know if it’s still there), and munched our way through Serbian, Czech, and even Hungarian eating establishments. In midtown I visited what surely was a fashionable restaurant with Peter Frank and his father, Ruthen, then head of NBC News. I dined at a small West Village café with Frank O’Hara’s sister, Maureen. I hosted an unforgettable dinner party (see My Year 2005) with Russell Banks, Paul Auster, Bernadette Mayer, Lewis Warsh, Leslie Scalapino, and Mark Minsky at a fashionable SoHo establishment. Surely some of these meals must have been memorable, but the mind refuses to obey, and I have no gastronomical memory of any of them.

      On a trip to San Francisco, without Howard, I had a most remarkable Tagliatelle alla Bolognese at North Beach’s Fior D’Italia. In New Orleans I had a wonderfully tasty meal of blackened redfish in the first version of K Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, so filled, that one had to wait in line, while chewing on popcorn shrimp, before reaching a table in the small down-and-out cafe. The later reincarnation of that famed restaurant, which my senior editor and I waited for hours to enter, came not even close to that pleasurable first visit.

     Back in D.C. we waited what seemed like forever at the ever-popular Prime Rib, and dined often in our own Prince Georges neighborhood, in a rather middle-class steak establishment— with meat every bit as delicious as that at Prime Rib—at The Golden Bull. On another trip, this to the University of Maine, I sat at table with William Carlos Williams critic, Emily Wallace, Robert Creeley, Hugh Kenner, and several others opulently dining on fresh Maine lobster. I loved it so much that I brought back two lobsters for Howard and me. The experience ended badly, in Annie Hall-like manner, when Howard was completely terrorized by the beat of the poor beasts’ claws against the boiling pot. I don’t think we enjoyed their luscious flesh. But I still love lobster, and order it quite regularly, with great pleasure, served on Connecticut rolls by a local fast-food truck, Cousins, or another—not quite as good—Rollin’ Lobster, although the second also has fresh Ipswich Clams. In the last years of D.C., we discovered Dim Sum through a new restaurant in Washington’s little Chinatown, to which we took Johnny Stanton with his companion, Elinor Nauen.   
  
   We continued to eat well. At almost every Thanksgiving Howard made a breast of turkey, along with a savory bread pudding and homemade cranberries; at Christmas we generally dined on leg of lamb or a standing rib-roast; on New Year’s Eve Howard used to make so many different canapés, little ham and turkey sandwiches, scoops of cheap caviar, and fresh-cut salmon that we often had to invite guests the next morning simply to help us consume them. In between we ate, almost religiously on Friday nights, Tacos or Nachos, on other nights various pasta dishes, steaks, chops, lox and bagel, Greek salads with various dips, and Cesar Salad—for which Howard has a wonderfully traditional recipe, including real eggs. We also have blander fare, of course, eggs and sausage, grilled-cheese sandwiches, ham-salad sandwiches, and when there is left over pork, sloppy-Joes. When Howard goes out of town, I grill lamb ribs and, in the kitchen-counter oven, bake acorn squash (something he does not enjoy). We both like to drink.

      Our move to California in 1984, however, certainly upped our gastronomical involvement. For the first year, we were invited almost every night to Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Pacific Palisades, and Hancock Park households, where nothing was spared. Yet I dare Howard to even remember one of the meals we were served in those opulently wealthy houses. Certainly there were lots of (expensive) caviar and salmon dips, crudité, poached salmon, beef stews, rich desserts, wine, whiskey, gin and tonic. I do recall—and have written about it—one our very first nights in Los Angeles, when we dined with the Grinsteins, Stanley and Elise (act collectors and famous founders of Gemini Gallery) at the then sheik Venice Beach Café, suddenly finding ourselves holding hands in prayer with actor Mary Kay Place. Don’t remember what we ate (see My Year 2004).

      But gradually we began to develop relationships with our own favorite restaurants, one of the first being nearby Bergin’s Irish Pub (just a block away from our condominium), perhaps one of the few dark, interior spaces in a Los Angeles, a city which prefers large, open spaces, with lots of noise. For us, the local pub, though without great food, reminded us of places we had enjoyed in the East Coast or Midwest. We are talking about the “first” Bergins, a sort of retrograde, popular hang-out, with attendant celebrities such as Julia Roberts and Kiefer Sutherland (both of whom we met there), who broke up, three nights before their marriage in the Irish pub. The two brothers bartending behind the pub’s famed horseshoe-shaped bar (the impetus, reportedly, for the famed Cheers bar on the TV series) were to have been best men in the ceremony. Others, such Kathy Bates and Robert Pattison (whom I met there just before he got his first role) were regulars, and in the old days, before out time, so too was Cary Grant. I wrote several of my books, including my fiction Letters from Hanusse at its tables. At one time or another, I believe I have invited nearly every one of my writers to Bergins, including many foreign figures such as Brazilian poet and editor Régis Bonvicino, Danish poet and novelist Stig Dalager, and American writers Will Alexander (we meet there regularly), Curtis White, Paul Auster, Fanny Howe, Steve Katz, Charles Bernstein, and numerous others to dine with me from my old favorites, their corned-beef and cabbage, Irish stew, Rueben sandwich and fish and chips. About a year ago, the long-time owner died, and the place, taken over by others and completely renovated. The menu was certainly more sophisticated, but the food, alas, did not taste as authentic. The long-lived institution closed a couple of weeks ago, mourned by all who remembered it through the years.

      We also grew to love the pastrami sandwiches at Langer’s Delicatessen downtown and the corned-beef sandwiches at Nate and Al’s in Beverly Hills, where I dined with Paul Auster and his mother, Bel. We order both those sandwiches more often from the neighborhood Canter’s Delicatessen on Fairfax, but they are not as special.

      One of our first favorites was a self-described Chinese restaurant, Mandarette, a title that I always felt was a bit misleading. Certainly, one would have to describe the menu as Chinese, but it represented a different method of cooking Chinese food, and many of the dishes were infused with ingredients and styles from other cultures. Although the restaurant, over the years, has changed owners of number of times, it is still one of our very favorites, with Howard and I both enjoying their spice red wanton soup (filled dumplings just sitting in a gravy of red spices), their absolutely memorable salt and pepper tofu (each piece of tofu coated with potato starch and flash fried, with no greasy aftertaste), and their more traditional Roast Duck. Howard prefers it to the highly respected Hirozen Japanese Restaurant just across the street. But I’ve eaten such excellent meals in both, I wouldn’t like to choose between them.

        For several years, the miniscule, shopping center-based Hirozen was described by some as more innovative and tastier than the famed Nobu Matshisha in Beverly Hills (yes, this, for unknowing New Yorkers, was the father of Nobu in Manhattan!) a few blocks away. I remember our first to Matshisha with Howard’s parents where, somehow against all odds, we were able to get a table and dine on Nobu’s famed Black Cod Collar with Miso sauce. I went back several times for lunch (unable to afford their dinners) there with poets such as Dennis Phillips and Paul Vangelisti, when we discussed poetry over Monkfish pate with cavier, Uni Tempura, Scallop Wasabi Pepper, and Steamed Chilean Sea Bass with Black Bean Sauce.

      When I finally began regularly attending to Hirozen’s daily “special” menu, I took absolute pleasure in their stuffed flour blossoms, Twainese (slightly fatty, and falling-apart tender) pork, their Soft Shell Crab Tempura (deep-fried soft shell crab with ginger sauce) as well as their grilled tofu with a slight coating of soy sauce. They also serve more standard Japanese dishes such as Teriyaki, Tempura, and Shashimi trays, but these are also presented with a sense of high professionalism and taste exceptional. Since one of my dearest friends, Deborah Meadows, loves Hirozen and Mandarette, I have not returned to Matshisha for a long while. 

     Meanwhile, Howard and I celebrated several birthdays at another Asian-influenced restaurant, Jozu, where I usually ordered their lamb. Our favorite Italian restaurant became La Tratorria, a small restaurant with good food but without great pretensions. As I wrote in last year’s My Year, I enjoyed a delicious bronzino there with Chilean novelist José Donoso. I also loved their pasta with pink vodka sauce.  Artist Gerhard Merz and his wife so enjoyed the Tratorria that they visited it every day during their stay in Los Angeles. As Merz argued, “when you find a good restaurant, why go about testing all sorts of other spots?” I did the same on my visit to Rome in 2003, night after night, returning to a nearby fish restaurant, La Rosetta, where I was served up deliciously fresh fish every night, ending in a special salt-rock covered cod. Neither Jozu nor La Trattoria now exist, although the owner of Jozu has established a new restaurant in the same neighborhood, JAR (Just a Restaurant).  Since it seems to draw a well-dressed and younger audience, Howard and I have not yet visited it.

     Our favorite Thai restaurant was the Thai grill on Pico, once a kind of lavishly decorated space: with large, draping red curtains set against exposed pipes and concrete walls. In those days, the waiters were all young gay boys who dressed in sort of campy bell-boy uniforms, but with short shorts instead of pants. Across the street, clearly visible through the restaurant's wide, Edward Hopper-like windows, was a Hassidic temple and school. But over the years it gradually changed, the curtains disappearing along with the gay servers. But the food remained good. My favorite was always the fried eggplant, spicy nuggets of brightly red and green eggplant. It was our favorite place to dine with Eleanor and David Antin, which we did quite often through the years. That restaurant also has been replaced by something else.

      For some time my favorite French restaurant for lunch was Mimosa, on Beverly Blvd near Fairfax, also a favorite dining spot for film director Billy Wilder. It was there I shared lunch with Rafael Buñuel, where we agreed to publish the script to his father’s film, The Exterminating Angel, and where I met Mickey Disend before reprinting his fiction, Stomping the Goyim. My favorite there was their basket of freshly-fried sardines, as I usually warned others to eat up quickly before I might consume all of them.

      In Paris, I think I can safely say, I have never had a bad meal—although I have ordered a couple of meals that did not particularly agree with my tastes, a large pig’s foot at a handsome brasserie near the Tracadero, and several dishes of various sweet-breads in the northern corner of the city. I have written, in My Year 2003, about one my very favorite meals in Paris, the Duck and Olives served by Café Allard, where I dined with Henri Deluy. I’ve gone back for a redo with my friend Joe Ross.
Braserie Lipp
       On my second visit to the city I dined in the famed Brasserie Lipp, where, although I have observed and read about the waiters often hostile treatment of tourists. Yes, I too, was seated, the first time, in “Gringo Gulch,” near the back of the restaurant. But I was royally treated, while observing others, even better dressed, being hurried away. For that first meal I remember ordering a beautiful bottle of sardines and Slowbaked Char with dill gnocchi, asparagus, roasted fennel, and chili hollandaise. I was overjoyed.

    Perhaps I also felt that, in part, because I was staying, with Mellon Foundation funding, at the nearby L’Hotel, the beautifully spiffed up, luxury accommodation where Oscar Wilde saw his last days. I remember dining there, in a quite empty dining room, on a delicious monkfish drowned in a chervil sauce. But the best thing about L’Hotel was its bar, where every afternoon I hung out, waiting for my daily call from Howard. The bartender would bring me the phone along with another vodka and tonic or whatever concoction he had stirred up for me. After my second visit with Brasserie Lipp, with Joe Ross and his wife Laura Wilber—this time politely seated (speaking French does help) on the second floor of the restaurant—after dining on Spaghetti from Alsace with shell fish, olive oil, lemon and fresh herbs, I took them back to L’Hotel, where we sat, late into the night, in their beautifully quiet bar. “I wish I could stay here forever,” signed Laura, “it almost seems as if I were in heaven.” The hotel was even swankier than it had been during my first visit. Whenever I am in Paris, finally, I cannot get enough of tarte citron, although Howard and I rarely have dessert at home.

      So have I also described (in My Year 2003) the wonderful meal served me by Henri Deluy and Lilliane Giraudon in Deluy’s house.

       I have seldom had a good meal in Germany—at least in the much visited Frankfurt. I love German beer, but I am just not that interested in tasting lard, which for years all German food seemed to have been injected. The only wonderful spot was a small Croatian grill across the street from the offices of the great German publisher Shurkamp. I returned there, every year, many times, determining that I personally had uncovered an unknown gem, until a group of Scandinavian agents and publishers took me there in one my last trips to Frankfurt, proclaiming that it was their favorite restaurant in the city. One year, when evidently all the Frankfurt hotels were filled, I was put up at a short train ride in the nearby suburbs in a handsome small industrial city, where the village’s two restaurants alternated opening each night. There I had quite delicious peasant cooking, rabbit, quail, and other rustic dishes that tasted marvelous. Perhaps, when it comes to German cooking, I just needed to get out of town. Of course, I had already had a wonderful Jewish holiday meal in Munich (see My Year 2003).

      I never had a good meal in the then-Soviet Union, although I certainly had what I might describe as a memorable one, when Arkaddi Dragomoschenko and his wife invited a group of us to his son’s studio, serving a bowl of marinated chicken legs and thighs. It tasted, to be honest, quite awful, bitter and medicinal, but none of us could do anything but praise it, since we knew it had taken her days and all the help of her friends just to procure the meat. We brought various kinds of vodka and sweets as presents, and we drank a lot.

     In Italy it is nearly impossible to imagine a bad meal. My first trip to Rome, as I mentioned, was centered upon fish, although I sought various restaurants throughout the city for lunch, including a trip to the old Jewish Ghetto to eat Coariofialla Giuda, beautifully toasted artichokes with garlic and olive oil (which I enjoyed again on several trips to New York City a Lattanzi's on 46th Street, see My Year 2011). At a local trattoria I dined on, once again, sardines and pork—simply delicious.

      Since then, I have had so many good meals in Italy that it would hard to pick one. Certainly the all-rabbit meal, with four different courses, my friends Martin Nakell and Rebecca Goodman treated me to in a hillside winery in Ischia has to have been one of the culinary highs of my life. But I think I prefer our descent from the beautiful Smeraldo Hotel, where we were staying in Praiano on the Italian Coast, down what seemed like nearly 100 steps to an oceanside restaurant, where, at the sparkling Ristorante Il Pirata, I ordered local calamari (sliced vertically, instead of the more common little ringlets) on top of which they served nicely browned and spiced potatoes, followed up by lemon cake! I’m still licking my lips. Since, in late night dark, we could not possibly walk up all those stairs again, we were taken in a small boat across the dark bay to the noisier and brighter city of Positano in order catch a taxi back.

     Back in New York, I often snuck out of my distributor Consortium’s parties to wait in line for a bar seat at Mario Batali’s Babbo near New York University. The company at the bar is quite vivacious and varied, and all have wonderful stories to tell while you dine on Agnolotti with Brown Sugar and Sage or Pappardelle Bolognese, perhaps, followed by a secondi of Guinea Hen “all Cacciatora,” or Lamb Belly “alla Piastra.” At his Osteria Lupa, one afternoon, I enjoyed “Ricotta Gnocchi with Sausage and Fennel.” I usually ask the bartender or waiter what’s best.    

     Luckily, Batali and company has also now come to Los Angeles, in Pizzeria Mozza and an attached restaurant. We haven’t yet been to the restaurant, but have taken friends, artist Sidney Lawrence and his companion Tom Birch, as well, at another visit, curator Rosemary DeRosa and artist Brian Kavanugh to the pizzeria, dining, with our recommendations, on the Fennel sausage red onion and scallion and the Egg, guanciale, escharole, radicchio and bagna cruda pizzas. You don’t need dinner after dining there for lunch.

     Although one our favorite dining spots, La Campanile, has also now closed, just across the street from us, at the Los Angeles Museum of Art, Ray’s and Stark’s bar opened a few years ago, serving up wonderful Mediterranean cuisine. With Marjorie Perloff, Thérèse Bachand, Paul Vangelisti, Diane Ward, David and Eleanor Antin and numerous others I have had incredibly tasting lunches and dinners, with their English peas and gnocchi (the gnocchi so light, it almost floats), Pork Belly, Pig Ear Salad, Hangar Steak, and grilled and salted Shushito peppers among my favorites.

      About a year ago, we had another memorable meal of rabbit with prunes and other fruits at Cheech Marin’s Malibu house. Cheech, who prepared the rabbit in front of us, is an excellent chef, but I’m not sure everyone in attendance (which included LACMA director Michael Govin and his wife and curator Franklin Sermons and his wife) enjoyed the idea of eating a “bunny,” still a kind of bugaboo for American appetites.

      As one ages, alas, one’s taste buds begin to decay, one gradually losing one’s gastronomical memory; and food, to be honest, just doesn’t always taste as good as it did once. Howard’s cooking, to put it nicely, is often less deft. The grandly thick prime rib steaks, which we once so much enjoyed from the nearby Arnie Morton’s of Chicago steakhouse or, from nearer downtown, the famed Pacific Dining Car seem today far to rich and impossible to consume, even when we carry them in a doggy-bag home. I can’t imagine us ever returning to Lawry’s steakhouse, with their corny “Spinning Jenny” salad. Sometimes, following matinee performances of operas and plays, however, we do sneak off to the reputable, if not a bit doughty, Taylor’s Steakhouse, just south of Koreatown, where we share their Mollie’s Salad (a heavily dressed iceburg lettuce salad) with their French dip, cut from their fresh beef. With a couple of drinks, we quite happy with that. And there you will find a mix of Mexican-Americans, Asians, Blacks, and gays (of all races) who you won’t see in many established steak houses.

     Today, I probably prefer the Indonesian-Malay-inspired cooking of the Farmer’s Market’s Singapore’s Palm Leaf eatery, where I will have chicken Rendeng, rice, and Paratha bread this afternoon, over a sit-down dinner at any of the numerous eating establishments I’ve described above. The best meal I had in Amsterdam was Indonesian. Oh, but please, pass the crab puffs! The lobster rolls! The basket of freshly fried sardines. And if you don’t want that final Shushito pepper, I’ll take it. Today, my mother, my sister, and brother would hardly comprehend my preferred diet!

Los Angeles, July 22-July 23, 2013




The My Year books do not represent the first times I have dipped my fingers into gastronomical matters. While publishing Sun & Moon: A Journal of Literature & Art, I first published Jeff Weinstein’s marvelously funny short story, “A Jean-Marie Cookbook,” which described a cooking battle between two characters, which included full recopies. I republished that very appealing work in my Contemporary American Fiction anthology, one of early popular titles. Jeff went on to become food editor for The Village Voice before becoming an executive editor for that and other newspapers. Weinstein argued against merely reviewing restaurants as opposed to “writing about public eating and its significance,” scripting, in very personal, humorous, political, sexual, and historical terms works the covered everything from the oppositions of ethnic New Artist Class eateries in the East Village, refugee restaurants, delis, diners, and oyster bars, to the rise of new food establishments in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and the American Southwest. My Sun & Moon Press collected several of these entertaining essays in our 1988 collection of Weinstein’s writing, Learning to Eat.

      Although I have not seen them for years, I have always enjoyed the company of Weinstein and his companion, poet, fiction writer, and curator John Perreault, whose stories I have also published in anthologies and collections. But I have just one small warning: if you truly want to enjoy your meal at a new restaurant, do not visit it with a food critic. I once went to dinner at the renowned Los Angeles Citrus restaurant, I believe with John, but perhaps mutual friend writer Bill Sherman might also have been in attendance. By the time we had finished dinner, Jeff and his companions had dished almost every plate we had tasted. Today I can’t imagine what I ate, only recalling that they surely did not think it worthy of being consumed.

 

Los Angeles, July 25, 2013

 

Beginning in 1992 or 1993 I wrote dozens of major world writers, asking them to send recipes for a planned literary cookbook. Several writers did respond, including Allen Ginsberg (“Savory Oatmeal Breakfast”), Steve Katz (“Katz Curried Oatmeal”), Barbara Guest (“Orange Julius,” a memory more than a recipe), Diane and Jerome Rothenberg (“Corn Soup & Fry Bread”), Juan Benet (“Saturday or Sunday Brunch”), Fanny Howe (“Mean Beans, Rice & Greens Joeritta”), Henri Deluy (who sent me two beautiful recipes, one for artichokes and another for spinach with sardines), Ron Padgett (“Spaghettini all Bolognese”), Mac Wellman (Pot au Loup”), Raymond Federman (“Wiener Wurst Goulash”), Keith Waldrop (“Pumpkin Pie”), Carl Rakosi (“Chicken Paprikás”), Lyn Hejinian (“Lamb à Lan”), Arkadii Dragomoschenko (“Plov”) and Harry Mulisch (who sent me his wife’s recipe for Staartstuk). Paul Auster wrote a wonderfully wrote a wonderfully humorous piece on “Onion Pie,” and Lydia Davis sent me a comic story titled, “Meat, My Husband.” Charles Bernstein wrote about his “Cooking by Numbers,” and I lifted Martha Ronk’s “Peas,” from her Green Integer book, Displeasures of the Table. I even shared my wonderful story about Isaac B. Singer’s eating habits (see My Year 2005). Still, in all, it didn’t come together as a full book, and I was frustrated by having these wonderful pieces with no way to use them.

     Coincidently, I had been reading in several works of fiction pieces that contained descriptions of food, and other works, such as the Jeff Weinstein story I described above, which contained whole recipes. Culling through my vast library of books, I began to discover a wide-range of descriptions about eating and food. At the same time I began also to recall the numerous artists who had depicted food or, like performance-artist Eleanor Antin, talked about food in their works. And then there were those authors, like Kathy Acker, who had written about her current ability to eat food, and the grotesqueries of eating described in works by writers such as Viglio Piñera, Franz Kafka, Eugène Ionesco, and Milorad Pavíc.

     I began collecting these literary pieces and visual images, writing away for permissions. Before long I had dozens and dozens of them by a wide range of authors and artists, from Carl van Vechten, James Joyce, August Strindberg, Malcolm de Chazal, Friedrich Achleitner, Samuel Beckett, John Cage, Gertrude Stein, Eudora Welty, Harold Pinter, Evelyn Waugh, Elizabeth Bowen, Malcolm Lowry, Gilbert Sorrentino, F. T. Marinetti, Francis Pong, Vladimir Nabokov, Giusseppe di Lampedusa, Jens Bjøneboe, John Hawkes, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Pynchon, Djuna Barnes to artwork by René Magritte, Meret Oppenheim, Edward Weston, Salvador Dali, Grant Wood, Jud Nelson, Preston Dickinson, Marcel Broodthaers, Roy Lichtenstein, Gerald Murphy, Pablo Picasso, Patrick Caulfield, Fernando Botero, Joseph Cornell, Georges Braque, Man Ray, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Wayne Thiebaud, Larry Rivers, Giuseppe Steiner, Andy Warhol, and the wonderful Herbie Knott photo of Gilbert & George at the Market Café)—along with numerous others.

      In early 1994, I spent two days at the home of my typographer, Guy Bennett, arranging and laying out the large anthology, now called The Sun & Moon Guide to Eating Through Literature and Art, in which we had organized as a Bill of Fare:

 

Deprivation, Strange Tastes

Breakfast

Spices, Soups, Sauces, Light Meals, Lunches

Reunions and Tea

Cocktails and Hors d’œuvres

Vegetables

Entrées

 

Pasta, Paella, and Fish

Stews, Gamebirds, Rabbit

Chicken, Port, Mutton, Lamb and Beef

 

Dessert

Memories, Cigars, Liquors and Late night Snacks

 

The final image was Roy Lichtenstein’s “The Tablet,” representing an anti-acid tablet fizzing with a glass of water.

     Guy and I worked nearly through the sunlit hours of those two days, with interruptions only for the sumptuous meals served by his then-girlfriend, some meals mirroring the foods we were writing about.

     Since I determined that this book must also have color images, I printed it in Korea, which is the only time I have used an international printer.

    The book received a wonderful review in The New York Times Book Review—which came, unfortunately, on Christmas Day! So obviously I did not get the holiday sales I had hoped to. But the book was extraordinarily popular, nonetheless, and quickly sold out. I have only one copy of it myself!

 

Los Angeles, July 26, 2013

 

 

 

At the very moment I write about these joyful memories about food, the New York Times Op-Ed page (July 22, 2013) published, coincidentally, an article about “Our Coming Food Crisis,” in which the writer, Gary Paul Nabhan, describes the inevitable result of the increasingly high temperatures throughout the western United States. If Death Valley reaches, once again, the record high heat of 1913 of 134 degrees—it has already reached 130 degrees this year—it will surely not just express a record of sorts, but a dangerous trend throughout the region:

      

                        People living outside the region seldom recognize its immense

                        contribution to American agriculture: roughly 40 percent of the

                        net farm income for the county normally comes from the 17 Western

                        states; cattle and sheep production make up a significant part of

                        that, as do salad greens, dry beans, onions, melons, hops, barley,

                        wheat and citrus fruits. The current heat wave will undeniably

                        diminish both the quality and quantity of these foods.

 

I can already attest to the loss of quality throughout the west of tomatoes (now often wooden and thick) and sweet corn throughout the West. But Nabhan’s article is talking about something far direr, affecting the survival of livestock, water sources, and even the ability of our burned-out woodland’s ability to revive after the numerous fires the West has suffered. The Department of Agriculture’s reserve of crop seeds and heirloom vegetables and heritage grains, already disappearing, will, he argues, become harder and harder to preserve. With the divisive and inattentive Congress that currently rules Washington, D.C., surely these issues may become even more severe. If we do not act soon, it is apparent that large reserves of American agriculture will be diminished and, perhaps even disappear.

      More importantly, we know that this is not just happening in the US. In Europe hotter summers and colder winters are producing severe agricultural effects, including seasonal floods, and the loss of vast areas of agricultural land. While I write about the wonderful meals I’ve had in the past, and my Swedish-American friend Nikki Lindquist daily reports on the wonderful fruits, berries, meats, and cheeses of her daily life in Sweden, we all may fear that these great foods I have described may not be available for future generations.

     Most American restaurants no longer serve “Redfish,” once such a popular dish in New Orleans. Baltimore crab marketers have had several years in which their major product has been in danger, the famed Chesapeake Bay having been polluted and over-fished. Although I still demand it, each summer, sweet corn in Los Angeles tastes more like the long over-boiled field corn we used, once in a while, to consume on farms in Iowa. Carrots are far too sweet, beets too bitter. Canned tuna, one of my favorites, we are advised, should be consumed only once a week to protect us from Mercury. The war between healthy food and our taste buds is a daily battle—and not just for our waistlines!

      More importantly, I might wonder, would my children, had I had children, be able to eat as pleasurably as I have. Or….worst of all, might they be able to properly eat? My nephews and nieces all still appear to be the beautiful young folks they are. Yet, one wonders, if hamburgers, pizza, and other food from chain-restaurants that permeate their communities will allow their bodies to survive for the rest of the century. I haven’t always eaten well, but I’ve experienced a wide range of adventuresome cuisine that once made my tongue twitter with delight without a mechanical device.

Los Angeles, July 26, 2013
 
 

Sunday, July 7, 2013

An Eagle on the Roof (on wild nature in a urban landscape)


an eagle on the roof

 

Our condominium is situated facing the pool and hot tub, which are themselves surrounded by a series of large trees, flowers, and other plants. One of our own pot-bound palms (so the gardener described it), transferred into the soil outside our bedroom window, has grown in a towering monster, and a nearby pear tree, which I dubbed Betty, is growing larger every year—without yet producing any edible fruit. Another large tree beside our terrace needs to be cut back every year because of its overgrowth.    

     Pets are not allowed into this tropical paradise, except for our shy cat, Lily, who quietly creeps through the jungle—only occasionally coming out for a lap of water from the swimming pool. Unlike our previous, long-lived feline, Kiwi, Lily has never touched a mourning dove, who rule the gardens about the pool, moaning out their love to one another beginning about 4:00 in the morning for a few hours. Only an occasional crow, tiny hummingbirds, and twits dare to enter, although we once spotted what seemed to be a hawk spiraling down into a dove’s nest to carry away the hatchling within. One afternoon, as Howard was dressing for an event,   Kiwi, brought a snake, a California racer, into the bedroom and placed it at his feet. And for one summer, a mockingbird—imitating what was clearly a jackhammer and the rush of a bus—greeted us each morning from across the street as we left our building. On my one block trek to my office, I am often greeted by the howls of seagulls and other seabirds who have inexplicably made their way here from the ocean, settling into mid-city life. For several months a family of wild ducks took over the fountain of the high-rise across from our house. But other animals, except for pet dogs and an occasional rat or squirrel scampering across the side of the condo wall, are rare.

       The other morning, however, seemed to be an exceptional one. Lily was out (as she grows older she enters this paradisiacal world only for a few minutes each day), and suddenly the crows were making a huge racket, louder than we had ever heard them caw before. They were apparently fighting or, perhaps, in a territorial stand-off, simply complaining to one another. At first Howard and I ignored the ruckus, but when it soon began all over again, I became a bit worried. Some of the crows are so large that they could, possibly, if provoked, hurt our now scrawny and wasting pet. When I walked out, however, I could neither spot her or the crow, as if they had all suddenly gone into hiding.

      A few moments, later, however, came a loud kind of scratching voice that called up a coughing beast rather than the disapproving caws of crows. Walking a bit further out to see where the noise was coming from, I discovered on the roof of our building, the head and a beak of what was clearly an eagle staring down at me in distaste—clearly the source of the new commotion. I called out Howard, and, despite his immediate disbelief, he confirmed that it certainly looked like an eagle.

       The bird seemed completely disoriented, scolding everything about him for even having been there, surely he or she was not happy with what it saw below. Now I was truly worried for the cat, and tried to spot her among the various bushes and plants. Not far from our window, where the pool fence runs along the side of our building, stood a crow, equally displeased by something. I soon discerned the cause the crow’s distress, for a hummingbird was continually buzzing about its head, spinning in and out of the crow’s vision, somewhat like a police helicopter, refusing to abandon its apparent quarry. The eagle squawked, the crow cawed, and the tiny flower-sucking bird spun for what seemed like forever, until another crow came its fellow being’s defense, the hummingbird finally retreating from its torturous dives. A few seconds later, the eagle proudly flew off. The cat soon came in without even needing to be asked. For the rest of the day, I did not see or hear a dove.


Los Angeles, July 6, 2013

 

Monday, July 1, 2013

Inside of a Wound (on the death and art of Gregory Gillespie)

inside of a wound

Abram Lerner Gregory Gillespie (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1977)

The other day, Howard and I read that the artist Gregory Gillespie had died on April 26 of this year, a victim of suicide by hanging. He was found by his wife, Peggy, in his Belchertown, Massachusetts studio.

      Howard and I gotten to know Gregory quite well back in 1977, when Howard worked as an assistant to Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden director Abram Lerner during their preparation for a retrospective of Gillespie’s work that year at the museum.  With Lerner, Howard interviewed Gregory during two sessions on March 24th of that year.

     Gillespie was born in Roselle Park, New Jersey in 1936, the son of a couple who devoutly practiced Roman Catholicism, to which the artist later reacted in his many transgressive paintings. After high school, Gillespie studied at Cooper Union in New York before moving with his first wife, Frances Cohen, to San Francisco, where he continued art studies at the San Francisco Art Institute.

     In 1962 he received a Fulbright-Hays grant to study the work of the Italian artist Masaccio. Living in Florence for two years and in Rome for six years, Gillespie grew increasingly interested in the works of Renaissance masters such as Carpaccio, Mantegna, and Carlo Crivelli, the last a particular favorite.

     With great realist craftsmanship, Gillespie created Roman landscapes that were also filled with surrealist-like images, perverse sexual activity, and adult-children relationships that were difficult to comprehend. Although his painting seemed highly realistic, the heavy impastoing of his surfaces, along the inclusion of photomontage, collage, and materials such as newspapers and photocopied materials, made his works highly original, and in retrospect, fairly postmodern.

      As Gillespie recalls his own art-school training, he suggests that he was not truly influenced by any of his teachers: “I was painting tight, and they all believed in spontaneity, openness, and surprise—coming out of my big brush.”

      Even after the very successful Hirschhorn Museum show, and several shows at the Forum Galley (New York) and in Whitney Biennials, the artist seemed situated somehow outside the US art world. Even his still lives somehow seemed to be pointing to a strange, outlandish world, a world laying outside of more audience-relatable spaces. Gillespie described his work as coming from an inside of a wound, “and if I’m painting the inside of a wound it feels different than if I were painting on the surface of some other thing. It’s a very intuitive, emotional process. Lerner responded:

It must be exhausting…. When I first looked at your paintings I was struck by their ferocity. They seemed to me to be full of brutality and aggressiveness. And yet, as I became more absorbed in them, I sensed more and more sadness and hurt…suffering, a quiet and chronic suffering in the paintings…..

Gillespie answered: “I think that’s true. The feeling of being trapped. My background was Catholic and I grew up in a very restricted and repressed environment in New Jersey. And there’s a lot of anguish and pain in that. Like a delicate organism being born in the world and the kind of violence that’s done to us as a matter of course. On April 26 that violence apparently overwhelmed the man.   

Los Angeles, April 28, 2000
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (July 2013).