Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Avant La Fee Verte

I have been tasting absinthes for a few years now, but have never had a chance to write about them. Now that the trend has practically gone main-stream (I hate being a fashion setter) I thought I would put a few words down, especially as I've got a very interesting sample in front of me right now.

Apart from an odd tipple here and there in Prague and elsewhere in Europe, which was largely disappointing, my first real experience was a lovely Suisse Bleu, bought on line. It reminded me mostly of good Pernod, or Pastis, which I also adore. But the flavor was largely anise. Let me admit from the outset, this is not just alcohol, I don't care what anyone says. Not really hallucinogenic, but mind-altering. Making you both alert, inhibited and drunk at the same time. A fantastic combination if you ask me. Not like being too tipsy when you only think you're being lucid. But wide-eyed clarity.

This first trial was done by the book, with water, sugar cube and the fun spoon. The louche is lovely, but honestly, being a hardened veteran ouzo drinker (it's in my blood) I definitely prefer just ice. Similar louche and nice chilling effect without becoming too dilute. Call me untraditional.

Honestly, absinthe has a much longer history than dissolute Parisian cafes and symbolist poetry. That period has its charms, but it's really the 16th centurty that thrills me. And there are recipes, in pharmaceutical texts, Wecker is a good example, that must be considered if not the ancestors of absinthe, then indeed the real thing avant le mot propre. Or sometimes with the word.

So I've been trying lately to get closer to the ur-absinthe. Not too long ago I bought a "Clandestine" absinthe from the Val du Travers, which was really gorgeous. Tastes truly of wormwood and not anise. I've grown wormwood before, but it is so bitter and nasty, that I'm convinced you really need to know what you're doing to make something palatable out of it - i.e. with a still, not soaked in alcohol (though that was also done for medicines in the past - to purge worms of course).

But today there arrived a Roquette 1797, which claims to be an early form of the drink. What immediately surprised me is not only the lurid neon-green color, but that it doesn't really cloud. Maybe a little after sitting in the glass with ice for a half hour, but not dramatically. More amazing is the bouquet, sort of medicinal, like a Chinese grocery store, with a touch of funk. Absolutely nothing of the sweet anise pastis flavor. This is pure distilled wormwood as far as I can tell, with other minor herbal notes, maybe mint, or savory. Something I can't quite put my finger on. But extremely appealing. At first, it's a whopping 75%, like battery acid. But seriously mellows with the ice melting. But it's still flourescent. And the flavor is more rounded. I swear there's something reminiscent of fish. Not in an unappealing way in the least.

Now you can tell me if I've waxed completely incoherent after a few sips. The effects are immediate and intense.

But before I leave, let me give you a recipe invented over Thanksgiving, using the Clandestine.

Take a shot of absinthe and put it in a flute. Pour over good Brut Champagne, two shots of bitters and a fresh lychee. Called an Opal Eyeball. Killer.

Yours, Ken

Sunday, December 2, 2007


So I was just playing around with some tiramisu this morning - ok, there was mascarpone in the fridge that never got eaten over Thanksgiving, and this is all I really know to do with it. So I made a little classic one - which is unusual, I normally mess with it a little, using bourbon and ground candied pecans, or tropical fruit and rum.

But then the idea struck me - not only for a savory tiramisu, but one using hot dogs. I know it sounds like something Paula Dean would make, but stick with me here for a moment.

Use a casserole, and some very good firm buns or even a baguette. This would definitely not work with your standard hot dog bun. Make about a dozen hot dogs, put them in your buns with some mustard and browned onions and line the casserole. Then pour over chicken or beef broth, so what you basically have is a stuffing with hot dogs in side. Then mix some cream cheese, shredded cheddar and some chopped kosher dills and some chopped sauerkraut. Whatever strikes your fancy would work, olives, relish, chili beans. Chacun a son gout. Cover the dogs with the cheese mixture and bake for about an hour. What should happen is you get a bubbly cheesy top with a hot doggy moist stuffing underneath. And you cut it just like a tiramisu, so everyone gets a slice across many hot dogs.

I dare someone to try this. Or else I will!

Friday, November 16, 2007


Last night I gave a little talk to our local Pacific Italian Alliance and my students who came about Roman agriculture and Cato the Elder. I decided that rather spend the afternoon cobbling together some images, I would cook something fun, and Cato's placenta beckoned. OK, not that kind of placenta, though the shape is the same, and the biological use of the term apparently comes from the name for the cake. Or is it a cake? I am inclined to think otherwise now.

I have tried to folow Cato's directions using emmer groats, assuming Dalby's translation is correct. Alicae primae in older translations (Brehaut) is spelt grits. But I still fail to see how they can be worked into the flour dough without making impossible lumps that prevent the tracta from holding together. If anyone has ideas about this, please let me know. This time I used just flour. The filing between sheets is just washed sheep cheese (to remove the salt) i.e. feta, and honey.

It resulted in a really nice sort of sweet lasagna. Everyone ate it and said it was good. By chance my olives were also ready, and they turned out quite nice, with a pleasant crunch. I also had my own sapa to taste - the entire year's harvest (10 gallons or so) reduced to about a bottle and a half. About 4 hours of slow simmering, which yeilded a gorgeously musty syrup. A little vinegar for fluidity in one bottle resulted in a fine balsamic-like product.

Again, any suggestion for making tracta with alica, would be most welcome.


Monday, November 12, 2007


It was not without some serious trepidation that I listened to a harried call from the Goddess of Meat and All Things Wild informing me that an entire specimen of Odocoileus hemionus (i.e. mule deer) would be imminently delivered to my doorstep. Luckily he, or she, arrived bereft of the more ungainly purtenances, bisected, and thoroughly chilled. I will kindly spare you, my gentle readers, the grisly snapshots, but I hope will trust my words to capture the moment when burnished steel met quivering flesh in an unprecendented feat of cisorifaction. To be frank, the experience was exhilarating. To hack through haunches, sever sinews, mince massive muscles, and dissect dainty dollops of dark red deer meat. There was nothing especially mysterious about rending steaks from the round, stew meat from the forequarters, chop meat from chuck, nor elegantly tying a roast of loin, or tiny sawn sections of osso bucco from the calves. With the staltward arms of two compatriots, we dispatched the beast in about 2 hours, plied with rum, and frantically filled freezer bags. That evening there were burgers and steaks (marinated in vermouth and juniper, a passing nod to the martini) on the barbecue. What possessed me to roast the bones, which could not possibly fit into my biggest stockpot, I can't say, but the choicest femurs went to Oonaugh, the wonder dog.

So if you happen to pass the intersection of Yale and Lucerne where the resident tribe of carnivores hold their august sacrifices, be sure to stop by and pay your respects to the beast. We will keep the flesh pots burning.

(With apologies to Cardinal Pietro Bembo, master of the Latinate style known as Bembismo, or in English, Euphuisms.)

Thursday, November 8, 2007

New Wok

After a killer conference this past weekend at the CIA in Napa on Asian cuisine, it dawned on me that I hadn't seen my wok in ages. Could it have been lost in a move? Stolen by marauders? Vanished. So I sallied forth to my local Asian grocery store and rifled thought the piles of teflon coated flat bottomed travesties and found a shiny new hammered steel wok. The biggest I could fit on my stove (though they had even bigger ones).

On a whim I decided to season it with duck fat, and the results were truly spectacular.

Here's the method: wash the wok and dry thoroughly. Put the whole thing in the barbecue grill, mine was just barely big enough, and crank up the heat, covered. Let it heat for about 15 minutes. Then rub a few tablespoons of fat all around the interior surface and cover the grill. Repeat 4 or 5 times, using nearly a cup of fat. The result is a gorgeously laquered vitrually non-stick surface, as shown above.

For the maiden stif fry I did a simple medley of broccoli, carrots, baby corn and other sundry vegs. I also had to break out the steamer and made some shrimp ha gao, which I haven't done in ages. As well as a lovely red-cooked short rib dish with chilies, star anise, black cardamom and tangerine peel. Lush.

Whatever could have lead to this long hiatus in Chinese cookery, I can't say, but the revival promises to be pretty exciting. If you haven't seen it yet, go out and buy Fuchsia Dunlop's new book on Hunan Cuisine. Absolutely fabulous.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Leg of Lamb

Does it get more gorgeous than this? I was literally stopped while mowing the lawn and asked if I wanted to help cook this beast, apparently hand fed 4-H project, though I never learned its name. Nor can I explain how it ended up in Christine's freezer, and then Dave's kitchen, then mine. Just so happens William Rubel was coming over this day, and alas he couldn't stay to eat it, but helped me tie it up, and start the fire. Here she is about 45 minutes into roasting before a serious conflagration, being turned slowly on my mechanical wind-up turnspit.
The word succulence doesn't even begin to describe it. Seasoned only with rosemary and salt, and as you can see there were practically no drippings; everything stayed within. If you have a yen for such cooking, I can highly recommend the spits sold by
The leftovers became a really dandy chili last night too. Oh man, making me hungry again, first thing in the morning. But now I must go give a test. Ciao.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Almond Handling

I really do wish I brought a camera, but today I brought a few students to an almond orchard and handling factory near Ripon, CA. We spent about two and a half hours ogling at monstrous, loud machines designed basically to separate the almonds from rocks and twigs, then from hulls and shells, and then grade, etc. It dawns on me only after that all of this was only necessary because the nuts are shaken violently from the tree with a truck, that grabs them by the trunk with huge arms and drops them into the dirt. (Each of us got to shake a tree with the truck, was was serious fun - earthquake in sensurround) And then another truck needs to rake them into neat winrows, then another scoop them up, then another take them away. As all this was happeneing I was envisioning people actually knocking the almonds down with sticks, cleaning them on the spot and needing no machinery. Apparently it was done this way not long ago, on some of the same trees. But then there wasn't a global market, and the best nuts didn't go to Japan. I don't think it was immediately obvious to the student what his had to do with food history, but I hope it will sink in by the next class.

Ok, So in the meantime, Please leave comments! Either no one is reading this, or you're not finding my rants stimulating, in which case tell me what you'ld like to hear!


Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The purpose of writing and Freehold NJ

Gary Allen, cannibal, posted a thoughtful comment on my last entry: Why do people write? Of course to remember, when you begin to mistrust your brain to do it. But also to forget. I don't mean to distract you from everything else - though that is a very real reason I write. I mean to edit, to choose the things that stay in your memory so you can leave out the rest. Pictures do that in a very violent and artificial way. At least they decide for you the images that stick in your mind. But when you write things down, you can reconstruct them, creating your own personal history. Not for others, but for yourself. I say that now, realizing that I did in fact begin this blog for my own personal recollections. But I've kept a journal for 20 years now. Not really sure why I was doing it. To remember, and forget.

I am also spurred on by yet another really pathetic foodie book. An American eating adventure, or something like that, by a guy who made a few day trips outside of NY and then looked everything else up on line. How do these things get published? I know I am either in a really foul mood when I start scribbling violently in a book half way through and then throw it somewhere, or the book just sucks. It's a shame, the author seems like a really nice guy. Maybe food was not supposed to be his topic.

So I will take a moment, if you will indulge me, in a Proustian moment:

I grew up in a an unpronounceable place (Manalapan) just next to Freehold NJ. This is, despite what people think about Asbury Park, the hometown of Bruce Springsteen. And the people there have bumper stickers that say "My Home Town" and "Born in the USA" as if they'd never actually listened to the depressing lyrics of either song. Bruce and I lived near each other for many years I guess, and he's a year older than my brother. But listen closely to the way he speaks. Tidewater, the South. Two miles north is a NY suburb. My mutha says butt-uh. I of course learned to speak from the TV. Honestly, I could never stand Springsteen, only because everyone else adored him. I thank him, indirectly for my addiction to Bach.

But I am writing about food, damn it! Freehold was the place to go, for a real bakery (it was my father's only real weakness in life - crumb cake and sticky pastries - gevalt). Also Federici's - serious pizza, thin and slightly charred, I swear as good as Sally's or Peppe's in New Haven, and yes the same family of that guy in the E Street Band. But when I was young Atillio's was definitely the favorite, mostly because closer. Your standard 70s pizza by the slice. But who names someone Atilla? And there were restaurants: Vans, which I think is still there. A real "continental" operation from the 60s or long before, in a refurbished house. White bread and iceberg lettuce. But also the first place I ever ate olives. Still my favorite food. Oh and the American Hotel, long gone, which had black lawn jockeys lining the hallways and pictures of prize winning trotters and pacers. And my favorite painting, of the hotel entrance in the 1830s with news of the Mexican War being read in front. They had a buffet at which allegedy I scandalized eveyone by eating only lemons and rice at age 5 or thereabouts. My sister had her sweet 16 there too. And not to forget the kitchen at the Synagogue, where a one-toothed growling old troll by the name of Meyer turned out what adults conceded was some of the best food they had ever eaten. Cholent I can still picture and almost taste. There was also the place my high school friends hung out after we returned home, pathetically jobless after college to drink - Frebbles. Or at the Court Jester, which had sandwiches named after local lawyers, one of whom was the father of my girlfriend senior year. It was like bacon and spam with pickle relish or something like that. Then there was the mythopoetic Sorrento's Subs, out on Route 33 - enormous vinegary oniony behemoths filled with everything in the house - salami, coppa, cheese, ham, etc., enough to feed a whole family, or my brother and me. You could smell someone who had eaten it a block away.

But what I can't forget, because it is seared into my senses, is Battleview Orchards. On the field where the battle of Monmouth took place. Also a state park. It is still the first place I hit when I visit. Apples like none I have eaten on earth - winesaps and Macs, later Empires and McCouns. Only directly off the trees, preferably stolen, though now adays pick your own. Sour, ineffible crunch, no explosion of apple in your face. You have to eat at least a dozen per visit, because if you take them home, you might as well just make pie. Which works well too, with brown sugar and a splash of apple jack (made not in the south, but in Scobeyville a few miles away, since the 18th c.) There was also real unpasteurized cider at teh orchard years ago, and the best doughnuts on earth made from it. I have eaten only a few doughnuts in the past decades, only because I know nothing on earth could possibly compare. Crispy and hot right from the fryer, sprinkled with cinnamon sugar. The last few times I've gone, I could taste the apple juice in the batter. But the apples they can't fake. And the orchard is still there.

Ok, so next time we take venture from New Jersey, taking in "THE City" and DC, and lots of other places I've lived. Then across the globe. And at the end we make a book out of it. Any interested publishers or agents out there?

Friday, July 20, 2007

Beans: A History

Recently arrived on my desk is this lovely little thing. Time to crack open some bubbly. There are actually two different covers, this one for Europe and a noisier one with jars of beans on it for the US. Go figure. The latter fits the content better, but I have to say I've grown rather fond of this one.

The gestation of books is actually a really odd process. You turn it over complete and then it mysteriously reappears in the mail, in this case quite quickly only 6 or 7 months later. Sometimes its a year or more.

Having worked as a production editor one fateful year between degrees (and I ruined a lot of books for Garland Publishing too) I know exactly what's involved, but it still seems so mysterious when it suddenly shows up. Somehow you think - did I actually write this? Maybe the mind blocks it out, like childbirth. Ok, the metaphor is inept - as any woman who has given birth will remind me, but I do think of these like children. You just dont get to see them for a long time after you finish writing, proofing, indexing intensely. It disappears for a long time and then a stork drops it in your mailbox. As if a surrogate had given birth to your baby.

Enough. This is on amazon if anyone's interested. Being shipped across the Atlantic now I'm told and will be here in September. Another perplexing thing about publishing. But it's quite cheap and I think a fun read. Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Back from the buttel / Cravings

This charming fachwerk street is in Wolfenbuttel, from which I just returned after a month's research on fasting. Luckily the food there was exceptionally good, so I had no incentive to be influenced by my new maudlin topic. We shall see what it does long term though. Maybe a new weight-loss plan?
In any event, it was very interesting that there were certain things I craved while away. It might seem the nature of craving is merely to desire what we can't have, and I have to admit upon returning home among the first things I went out to buy were my favorite cerignola olives, an Il Fornaio cibbata and a bottle of decent zin. Can't explain any of that, as there were very good olives and extraordinarily good bread in Germany, and even zins - but for some reason I had to have these. And now I could really go for a few filets of raw herring and a good rye bread. And a heady dunkel. So maybe it is wanting what you can't have.
But I think there is also something physiological at work, informing our cravings. CertainlyI find jonesing for salty things is triggered by a real metabolic imbalance. This explains potato chip cravings too. And sometimes there is nothing that satisfies like a really sour food. A proper kosher dill, Bubbies of Stockton are among the best I have ever tasted in a jar. But for some reason, which I attribute to my own particular chemical makeup, I never crave sweetness. Ice cream is ok, but I'd take good cheese over it any day. Chocolate is lovely but I've never gone out of my way to get some. Cake is among the most boring things in the world to me.
Can it be that each of us, have not just favorite foods, but things our bodies demand to keep us going in good order, that the hypothalamus, or whatever part of the brain it may be, triggers us to desire? Intensely, uncontrollably? Triggered like the libido, sometimes against our better judgement. When chips call, there is no denying them. I think that may be the only craving I absolutely have no control over. They must not be in the house, or I will consume them, as quickly as possible. Even to the point of nausea.
Is there anyone else like this or am I just mad?

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Cooking With Practically Nothing

Are there any of you challenged and excited by the prospect of making something edible out of the last remains of a week's shopping? Somehow I think it's even more thrilling when you're challenged by space, equipment, all the seasonings you're used to having stocked, and especially the lack of familiar ingredients. Cooking while away is always like that. You cant afford herbs and spices, which are sometimes a crutch anyway, and as for equipment, its a pot and a pan, and a knife. Tonight was one such adventure. Not that making noodles is ever so hard, but I had a kind of raw spreadable salami that was pushed on me a few days ago a the market. A little disconcerting, but very tasty. And I thought, what the hell, cook it. With onions, some tomatoes and throw it on the noodles. German noodles no less. But no herbs, or garlic, or wine, I wasn't about to let that go into the pan instead of down my throat. And somehow it turned out marvellous. Shortcuts I would never have taken in my own kitchen, somehow made sense here. And letting the noodles cook in the sauce, something I practically never do, did the trick perfectly. There was so little of the sauce that it kind of lightly covered everything, and you could still taste the noodles. Which I admit rarely happens when I do my full-blown ragu at home. Maybe the change was good for a lesson learned.

So if you have the urge, tell me some stories of your own triumphs in adversity. Cooking in an unfamilar kitchen with no amenities.


Sunday, July 1, 2007

Ein Außerordentlich Tag!

Yesterday in Wolfenbüttel was rainy and cold as usual, and I woke up very late, so I curtailed plans for a longer trip. And the market was beckoning, with chantrelles, smoked eels, white asparagus, organic brown bread, cured meats and sausages of every shape and color, cheeses of indescribable stinkiness. It was gorgeousness and gorgeosity.

After that, I decided to spend the day reading in the Bibliotek annex, which is housed in the 17th century armory across from the castle. Huge imposing building with walls 8 feet thick. So there I am happily reading Erasmus in the stacks upstairs, a lovely story of a doctor in Basel who ate pork during Lent, made a jerk of himself and was captured and condemned to death - for some reason for treason and blasphemy, for which they split his skull open and extracted his tongue from the inside. Lovely. And of course the time whiled away, but I had no plan to stay long. So around 1:30 I head downstairs. To find everything dark and shut. I mean literally closed down without warning and not a soul in sight.

My first vision was of spending the night, no - weekend there. No emergency exits. Only two massive bolted doors through which they used to wheel cannons. I tried phoning outside, with no luck, and certainly didnt want to call the police. After about a half an hour, I climbed up a book shelf, shimmied over to a window, which I managed to open and gingerly dropped down, probably no more than 6 feet, luckily.

And of course there were tourists gawking, and a brass band playing on the tower. My first instinct, like a proper criminal, was to get the hell out of there. And far. As far as I could. I actually went a few miles north of town and hiked in a gorgeous dense forest (Lechlumer Holz) for the next three hours or so. Sure that an investigation team would be tracking me.

A lovely little inn on the way back, with plenty of good beer, roast duck (my favorite food in the whole world) with red cabbage and potato poufs made everything better. As did a Jagermeister, which is made here, and not as I thought a think peppermint schnapps, but more like a Fernet, a green herbal bitter. Quite nice.

Next time I check the hours before going in.


Sunday, June 24, 2007

Fasting in Schlarrafenland

No. Im not fasting here, exactly the opposite, but that's what Ive been researching at the library in Wolfenbüttel. Though I did fast this past Lent, purely for research purposes. A proper Medieval one, I now have confirmed. It's is pretty much vegan, with no meat, butter eggs or cheese, but includes fish. Go figure. But doesn't include alcohol. I can't even tell you how dreadful it is to go to a party, like say St. Patrick´s Day, and not touch a drop of the pure.

In any case, I never quite understood why I did it at the time, or what it meant, though it did give me some insight into the experience of people with serious food restrictions. Six weeks! Its also a power trip, strangely, a matter of control.

Anway, the recent insight I had, is that such a strange diet would perfetly odius in this place, the land of meat and beer. Schlarraffenland. Yes, meat does grow on the walls, and beer drips from the gutters. Exquisite ambrosial brews.

I now know why they did anything thay could to get out of it the Lenten fast, and eventually broke away from the universal church, I think over meat more than theology. And it is amazing stuff. Yesterday I made a cut of meat, called kasseler nacken. As far as I can tell a kassel is a cash register, and nack is neck. So it means Cashiers Necks. Sort of a cured ham-like thick shoulder chop of pork, but still raw. Maybe lighly smoked. The most unctuous and incredible piece of flesh I have ever put in my mouth. Browned in a pan. With noodles. I swoon.

Now I understand the Reformation. Who could go for six weeks without eating such things?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


Leibte freunde, I can't tell you how difficult it was to post this in German, or how hard it is typing on this funkenwagen keyboard. But let me say, this is a beautiful little 17th c. half-timbered city, with canals and some serious food. Upon my arrival I found a wine shop that has huge glass vats of spirits, among which was absinthe, which of course I drank last night after arriving. I became befuddled at night, but even stranger I think I was hallucinating this morning during research. I don't know whether it was reading a Latin diatribe on fasting, wearing new glasses that don't quite work or serious jet lag, but I kept imagining that people were standing next to me and talking in other kinds of Babel. I don't think I dozed off, but that may have been it.

There are also gorgeous butchers everywhere, seriously stinky cheese, picklehäring from the North Sea, dark bread, and heady weissbier. And that was breakfast. I just came back from dinner, a kind of mixed grill of veal, beef, bacon, clove-laden weisswürst and speck-laden kartoffelnschmutz. I shall now burst asunder and did the Duke Of Brunswick (10 minutes away) who did surfet on strawberries, according to Thomas Moffet, in the 16th c.

Your Ken

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Deutsches Bahnfahrt

Leibe freunde, I have been remiss in updating you on all the lovely things happening: a wine makers diner among the Lodites, a lovely jamabalaying at Betty's house in Napa, and a singles' party - no not that kind, I mean 45s, dating exclusively from 1970-72 with wild ecstatic dancing until the wee hours, last night. I'm beginning to wonder what it's like not to wake up with a hangover.

Anyway, if you have interest, for the next month I will be posting bogs from Wolfenbuttel, (something you hope not to step in accidentally). No, a research trip. And seeing that I have only set foot on German soil once at age 17 for a few hours in Berchtesgaten, where we spotted an aged Eva Braun. I think it will be fun.

I am trying to channel the spirit of Frau von Mucke from whom I learned German one year in grad school, very quickly and efficiently (because she was stunningly beautiful and I hung on her every syllable), passed my reading proficiency exam and never looked at the language again. But I am sure words like Uberschallgeschwindigkeit will come in useful (supersonic speed) as well as Wortschatservieterung (word review?).

I have to admit the portmanteau words in German are thrilling, but they pale beside Russian, which I studied my freshman year in college. I have no idea how to write this in our alphabet, but imagine these sounds rolling off the tongue: Dostoprimachatchelnosti (sightseeing) or prepatavachelnitsa (female teacher). I can still speak a little Russian, perversely enough (U meenya yest yojik v'Yaltu: I have a hedgehog - in Yalta). Our teacher, Mrs. Miller, was a sweet but extremely tough woman. She made us stand up and sing "motion takes accusative" if you got it wrong. One bashful student refused and she waved her gorilla hands about and said, I quote, "you stand up and sing... or I kill you."

The strangest was learning Italian from a waiflike Polish woman one summer at Rutgers. No wonder no one understands what I'm saying there. But I honestly think it's reading 16th century Italian all the time and then expecting people will get it when it comes out of my mouth. "Pray wilst thou pass the butter my good man?" Italians always seem to understand what I say, but then they always grin from ear to ear and start giggling.

We shall see what monstrosoties issue from my mouth in Germany. Stay tuned.


Thursday, June 14, 2007


I just had to put these guys here. I was in the Mountains in Tennessee this past weekend, advising the Bush's Beans people, and they set up this trio on the last evening. Now if you can imagine a trickling creek in the background, skeeters hummin, indescribable amounts of good bourbon, and these three natural born comedians with the most outrageous accents and absolutely amazing bluegrass, not to mention some barbecue. Well, it worked for me.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


I've been thinking about smoke lately, as a basic primary flavor along with salt, sweet, etc. I think we humans have an oddly hard-wired predilection for smoke which may have had some evolutionary advantage, perhaps as a preservative. Or maybe it was just cooking in general, done over fire, which gave some humans advantages over those who ate raw meat. Whatever the reason, smoke is one of those primal flavors many humans, including myself, crave. I know modern scientists link burnt food and smoke to cancer, but really, would we have gotten this far as a species if that were the case?
I've heard people argue that it takes many cumulative years of exposure, and wouldn't affect most people until after their child-bearing years, so ultimately it wouldn't have an effect on population growth, evolution, etc. But how could a carcinogenic substance come to be such a positive advantage? A craved flavor. Piffle.
So here's the smoker with which I thumbed my nose at modern scientists. Though, oddly, this was an experiment. One day last fall I had a sudden urge to tangle with smoked sausages. So I first bought an entire pig's-worth of intestines, along with some nice fatty pork butt. Second I bought a meat grinder. This proved to be not so simple as it ought to have been. The fat kept clogging the works. Maybe it should be shredded first by hand? Or maybe I was doing something dreadfully wrong. In any case, I used only a fraction of the casing, to make about 20 links with the entire butt. Maybe another cut would work better.
Then came this smoker pictured here. Chips and such were out ofthe question since I wanted a serious deep flavor without a lot of heat. Somethig like a cold smoke. So I lit a few oak and cherry logs, blew them out and let the sausages sit for several hours over the smouldering logs. the air vent kept the thing going, as you can see here, a nice steady light smoke.
When they came out, they were the most heavily smoked things I have ever tasted. Might work nicely in a cassoulet or chou croute but way too heavy to eat on their own. But they achieved the purpose. They tasted like camp fire. They made you want to throw off your clothes, dance ecstatically in a circle and bang sticks together. Primal.
So the experiments continued, and what you see here was a whole brined turkey, in which the smoke penetrated but was not so overwhelming. Only thing is, it was actually cold smoked. Firm, but still pink, so it gave many people the willies. So much more for me.
Next I think I will try a fresh ham, or maybe some ducks. It seems to be the one flavor I can't get enough of. The barbecue just doesn't suffice any more. (Though a handful of grape vine cuttings thrown in works wonders). Also on the TO DO list is smoking salt, which people have been doing for a long time. But then why not sugar? Or whole spices like cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, which you could toss into a pot? Or tea, like Lapsang Souchoung? The possibilities are endless. As are the varieties of wood.
I shall report further anon.

Thursday, June 7, 2007


This is the north side of my kitchen, with racks that hold spice bottles I've thrown over the years. (There's a pottery studio directly below this space, with a beautiful kiln named St. Theresa and two wheels.) Most of these bottles are filled with something or another, though I also have an ingenious vertical spice drawer that slides out beneath the cuting board - holding even more bottles. I'm a spice freak, admitedly.

I was thinking about my kitchen lately, because it really is a wonderful space - it's where I spend practically all my time at home. And of course where company inevitably gathers. The structure itself was built in 1929 for the Alustasia family who owned a Basque restaurant here in Stockton. So it has really remarkable cooking vibes. Definitely a food house.

The wood and tiles were pictured here were added in the 80s by an investment banker, who I think went bust and sold it to a pilot, from whom I bought it about a decade ago. I've added a wine fridge, new oven and fridge and other things, but essentially it's been the same for the past 20 years.

What I like the most is that there is incredible counter space, it just wraps around the whole kitchen, so several people can be cutting at once without getting in each others' way. The tiles are a pain to clean, or at least the grout between them, but the very idea of changing it bugs me. Anway, I thought I'd share my favorite space. Now you're invited to stop by for a tipple and a bite to eat.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007


Someone asked me the other day if I have any collections. I suppose in the past I've had various odd ones - musical instruments, hats - both of which I still love and own many of. Now it's mostly books I buy. Though I do own many corkscrews I'm not one of those people who buys old antique corkscrews and such. But it dawned on me just now, that I do collect corks. In fact every single bottle of real champagne from the first I ever bought (or obtained) which I think was in 1980, through every major event - birthdays, graduations, books being published, holidays. They're all in a big paper shopping bag, and it really is nice every now and then to pull them out and see the very cork shared with an old girlfriend, or downed somewhere in Europe. (I write the date and event on the side.) They're sort of like relics, with the ability to conjur up the place and time long gone.

But even odder, is that I also save every cork, unmarked, of every bottle of wine I have ever opened. (Or at least for the past 25 years - I even moved with bagsful to California 15 years ago.) There are about 5 or 6 shopping bags of those stowed away. I never realized I had such a cork fetish before. Maybe it's some intution that someday they'll be obsolete and I'll be sitting on a gold mine. And it certainly is about the smell and texture of them, including cork trees - there are some in the park across from my house and next to my office. I toss the plastic ones. I've always had the ideas that I'd do something grandiose with them, like make a cork wall, or fashion some furniture out of cork somehow. Or maybe a little banquetting house in the garden.

If any of you have ideas for what to do with a monstrous mess of corks, please let me know.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Coke and A Smile

I got to thinking lately about the shelf life of mass-produced food, following a conversation on the ASFS listserve - indestructable twinkies and Otis Spunkmeyer muffins. I realized there has been a plastic bottle of coke on a shelf in my office for 7 years. I bought it when I first started doing a big food history course, and we got to the topic of high fructose corn syrup, long commodity food chains, mass production and so forth, so I bought this by way of illustration. It's been there ever since.

I think it's fair to say that Coke does not have a long shelf life. Notice how you can almost see through it now, and how the plastic bottle is slowly imploding. I think this kind of PET bottle (basically polyster) is supposed to leach arsenic or something into the bottle if kept too long, so I'm assuming this is now poison. So modern mass produced food can stay on the shelf for years in some cases, but this may be just as scary - what resolutely should not stay on the shelf. But I'm sure it sometimes does. Glad I don't drink the stuff, unless with rum of course.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Rattler Appetizer

This past Saturday, camping at a ranch way up in Glenn county, an impressive rattle snake was found just a few steps from my tent. Paul, standing behind me, who comes equipped with a "snake stick" decided it would be best to remove the beastie with children around, snagged it. And let me dispatch it, with the axe here depicted.
I also had the honor of cleaning her (as it turned out) and apart from the disconcerting writhing of its body after decapitation - its headless form struck at me when I removed the rattler - it was pretty easy to clean and cut into segments. can you imagine how much meat there is on a snake of this size? Roughly 6 or 7 little chicken wing nibbles. And I wont say it tasted like chicken, but it was pretty good as long as you were willing to crunch through the tiny rib bones. Lightly sauteed in butter with nothing orethan a little salt and pepper. I'd recommend it to anyone.
We also did fishing this weekend, large mouth bass, but through them all back. Either that or it was the same fish each of us caught in turn. At this spot - a beautiful pond - we also saw a little troup of wild boar, and had I not been seriously hung over, I would have considered chasing them, and taking down one of the juicy little piguoles with my bare teeth. Ah, missed opportunity!
But mostly it was cows, huge lumbering black beeves, the leader of whom bellows a most pathetic doleful caterwaul, and they follow, randomly, over literally several thousand hilly acres which they pretty much have to themselves. I had a taste of one last night. Quite nice, grass-fed.
Now just so you don't get the impression that this is the sort of thing I do all the time, the camping food story in the last post and this one were separated by about 3 or 4 years. Wildman Gourmand I am not. I'll have to post something totally civilized and extravagant next.

Friday, May 25, 2007


A couple of years ago I was hiking with a big group of friends along the coast in Northern California, up near Fort Ross. Stunningly beautiful place, with mountains adjacent to the ocean, the best of both worlds. Normally when hiking I like to rough it, packing eveything necessary in, at least 5 miles or so, and then cooking with as little equipment as possible. Ideally it would be foraging or hunting, coming in with nothing but a knife and a match, but I've never gone that far. Mind you, the goal of hiking has always been primarily gastronomic for me. The trek rouses up a fierce appetite, the smell of smoke permeates everything as you cook over a wood fire. But this time was different. It was "car camping" and there were lots of little kids, tents everywhere and the cars a few feet away. So everyone pretty much brought everything they could ever possibly need, including the kitchen sink. In defiance, for one night's meal I dug a pit and lined it with little banana leaf parcels of seafood and vegetables, a vague simulacrum of a real campfire cooking experience, without tools.

Somehow the conversation got around to abalone one night. I had never actually tasted it before, as they're illegal to sell now in California, and I think divers are only allowed to take two a day, or something like that. An imported can never appealed to me. So it was an experience I expected to do without. I must have been blabbing on about everything I'd ever heard about abalone. Lo and behold up walk a young couple, who had just returned from diving, hey we have some abalone, would you like it? I guess they only wanted the shell, and had no interest in eating it. Mind you, this was not like saying, would you care for a clam, or will you take a look at this limpet I just found? This was about 10 or 12 inches in diameter. A huge hunk of flesh, several pounds-worth. I gasped for air and graciously accepted it, thanking them profusely, and fell over myself in my good fortune. My heart was racing.

I knew you couldn't just pop it in a pan, so I broke out my trusty laguiole, sliced it thinly, pounded it with the only sturdy utensil at hand, which happened to be a hammer. Then dipped the slices in egg wash and coasted with crushed saltines. These were fried in my cast iron pan in butter. Frankly amazing, everyone acceded. But not as amazing as just briefly passed over the fire in butter. Meltingly subtle, slightly chewy, redolent of the ocean, but nothing like any other shellfish I'd ever eaten. This was magical. Now I know what all the fuss was about.

I've never tasted abalone again. I wonder if it was the freshness, the mountain air, the company, or the thrill of singular experiences. Part of me really never wants to try it again, how could it possibly be that good another time?

Thursday, May 24, 2007


This delighful mess is called okonomiyaki. (As You Like It.) The picture was taken (by photographer Nancy Ellen Jones) for a forthcoming little book on pancakes I wrote for Reaktion Press, though I don't think this shot will be used. I was dreaming about them last night becasue I wrote a little recipe for them. In Japan they're eaten in the same sort of context that we eat pizza, but I contend it's best for breakfast. This picture also has sriracha hot sauce on it - the red zig zags. Here's the recipe:
Okonomiyaki (As I like it)
Buy a package of okonomiyaki flour mix in a Japanese grocery store. Regular wheat flour will not work, since this contains Japanese yam flour and dashi seasonings too. Make a batter with about 1 ½ - 2 cups of this mix and water. Add to it finely shredded Napa cabbage, bean sprouts, snow peas and any leftover vegetables you have around. Fry this in one huge honking pancake. It will take two spatulas to turn over. When cooked, which will take some time, put on a plate and sprinkle with bonito shavings and dried sea weed flakes from a jar. I prefer furikake with sesame seeds and dried bits of egg, but any kind will work. Then garnish garishly with okonomiyaki sauce (sort of a brown sweet barbecue sauce) and mayonnaise,which must be squeezed from an obscene little Kewpie doll-shaped bottle, both of which can be found in any Japanese grocery. Tuck in with friends.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Prairie Oysters

Can you guess what these are? My friend Paul mentioned that they were castrating calves on his in laws' ranch, so I said bring 'em on over. I didn't realize that they require yet another surgical procedure to render them palatable, but here I am removing a tough membrane. Then they were simply breaded and deep fried. I am certain that even cardboard would taste fine breaded and fried. These were pretty much like any other garden variety giblet.

Everyone had a taste, including my young finicky sons, and one of their friends Innes, the human hoover, who sucked down a few dozen, undaunted by their origin. They were, in all honesty, fairly tame.

The odd thing is that this weekend we are going to this very said ranch for a hootenany. Neighborhood dads play in a band. We suck, but it's fun. But the question is, how do I approach these beeves? Do I apologize to them? Thank them in person for a nice snack? How often does one get to thank a creature for sustenance ex-post facto? It has given me a mild existential pang of conscience. Not for having cooked and eaten their balls, but facing up to the living steers themselves. And it is also so perversely timed, while some of these said dads have just or are about have vasectomies. I know, not the same thing. And no is is eating them. But why all of a sudden, out of nowhere, have balls become the topic of conversation?


Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Work and Food

Work and Food

I have endured some pretty dreadful jobs – mostly summer gigs, but a few longer term. Not all of them were food related, but most somehow found their way in that direction. For example, I once proudly wore the blue in New York City, the polyester blue of a museum guard that is, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Standing for 12 hour shifts before objects of unspeakable beauty wasn’t exactly torture, and it fostered in me an immense capacity for patience. Now, long airline flights, holidays with insufferable relatives – these can made be tolerable if one resorts to a simple trick I learned at the Met. Abandon all hope of ever leaving. Just assume the rest of your life will be spent right there and never even entertain the thought of budging. Time then flies, even becomes pleasant, and you’re surprised when the ordeal suddenly ends.

This was a food related job only insofar as my breaks were spent daydreaming - projecting myself into still life paintings, wallowing among the carved fruits and shell fish like a little fly, dipping my toes in the Venetian goblets of unctuous red nectar. You can see a beautiful example of such a painting (from the Met) on the jacket of my first book. A little bird peers down, perplexed by a cooked colleague on a plate; it’s luscious and morbid at the same time. Art historians will tell you this is a classic momento mori scene, but I can help but think how delicious the roehmer full of wine looks, or the crusty bread, not to mention the fat green olives. All of my favorite foods. Maybe that’s why I chose this painting.

As for being a museum guard, believe it or not, I never resented doing it, despite my freshly minted PhD. My co-workers were delightful people, the museum visitors usually very nice. But I must admit to an ecstatic rush of pleasure that I had never felt before when returning to the museum years later I found my first book sitting on the shelf in the museum store.

I will pass over some other non-food jobs: personnel secretary at a factory that makes firing mechanisms for nuclear bombs, dispatcher at an air-conditioning repair company, shelver at a medical library – I can highly recommend this to anyone who wants to build biceps, the New England Journal of Medicine is killer. I was director of the theater program at a summer camp for children for many years. To this day if I hear even a few notes of “The Sun’ll Come Out Tomorrow,” I fall into an apoplectic fit. Among the more lucrative jobs was very spare time while studying in Oxford. It’s called busking or playing music in public for coins. A chum and I covered Dylan tunes and renditions of Verdi arias accompanied by my sawed off banjo. I still have the first pound note I ever earned that way. I also spent an entire year as a production editor and ruined a good number of books. One was an edition of French medieval lyrics that was supposed to have the original and translations on facing pages, but somehow they ended up back to back. Oops. Sorry.

Now for two food jobs: Neither was slinging fast food burgers, alas. Nor even waiting tables. I’m sure had I ever tried either I would have loved it. The first was a stint of a few weeks picking strawberries at a local orchard. I earned about 12 dollars a day, 8 AM to 1 PM, barely enough to cover drinking expenses per diem. My original motives were purely philosophical – to commune with nature a la Jean-Jacques Rousseau – some good honest back-breaking labor. And that it was.

Strawberries, as the name suggests, are planted in rows lined with straw. Really. And the berries are so fat and delicate that they must be picked by hand, which means you have to get down on your knees in the damp straw and push a tray in front of you as you make your way down the row, filling up the cartons. Here’s the problem – we were allowed, no encouraged, to eat as many strawberries as we liked. This was not an act of generosity, it was calculated cruelty. (Same tactic ice cream store owners take with employees.) If we had been forbidden to munch, surreptitious pilfering would have put them out of business. But with an open invitation, the new picker gorges the first day. Maybe even the second. I must have eaten five pounds the first day I started and spent the afternoon reeling in agony. It isn’t hunger that drives the neophyte to glut. In fact, we were brought snacks – ice cold cider and crunchy misshapen donut rejects, among the most delicious things that have ever passed my lips. It was being openly taunted to eat whatever you want among several acres of glistening red fruit.

After a day or two, pickers might make a ritual gesture of tasting a berry or two, perhaps an offering to the Gods, but never more than that. The berries were ultimately saved. Almost to spite this sadistic strategy to spare the berries, my friend Joy and I took to hurling them at each other. Even just recalling the dull thub of a strawberry hitting someone in the back of the head makes me giggle. Incredibly satisfying, and left a lovely bloody stain on her long blond hair. When not chucking fruit, we passed the time singing spirituals or Old Man River, which in retrospect really was in terribly bad taste.

But the strangest part of the job was left to those who could bear the afternoon heat, earn a few extra dollars by tending to the peach trees. This was early in the summer, so the peaches were little hard green nubbins at this point. Part of the job was thinning the fruit, pulling off some to let the others grow bigger. Fine, except that the fuzz was somehow volatile. It found its way onto every sweaty inch of skin and into every orifice. And the more you scratched the more you spread the fuzz on your fingers. But even worse was the tactic to protect the newly planted saplings from wayward deer. We were given tiny mesh bags into which we placed a hand full of human hair freshly swept from a local barber shop floor. The hair also contained as a bonus deer deterrent: cigarette butts, lollypop sticks, and odd unidentifiable morsels of human detritus. This apparently deer cannot abide.

The other food job beats the former. Again, this was a summer job, driving a beat up old Italian Ices truck in one of the seedier sections of the Jersey Shore. And not even by the beach, which would have made sense, but through adjacent neighborhoods, where there were only little children with dirty hands and sticky money. That might have been tolerable, but these were traditional Italian Ices, that came in huge tubs, so every single order had to be scooped by hand. And normally they consisted of a few flavors stacked in a little, very thin, white paper dixie cup. Florescent yellow, red, purple, blue. Of course the ices melted a bit, stained your hands a lurid hue, as they do children’s lips. And then you had to get back to the steering wheel and drive down the road, with this vapid jingle lasting no more than a few seconds played over and over and over again. “Doop-da doop-da, doodle-dy, doodle-dy” After an hour or so, the sugar in the ices began to penetrate the skin. It began with a mild rush, but eventually became nausea. Of the sort you get if you say, eat a pound of dark chocolate at one sitting. But this was a chemical sort of auto-intoxication. Your body came to crave it and need it. And it wanted the juice mainlined into the bloodstream – eating the stuff would never do. Now if they found a way to dry and powder the ices – sugar, flavoring, food dye, you might be able to smoke it. I’m sure the results would be spectacular.

In case you are in any doubt, driving a truck, listening to the same stupid jingle all day, while scooping and counting money is a lethal combination. After a few weeks I found myself speeding through my route. Or hitting the gas when I could hear children shouting. Eventually I would wait until they got a few feet away and then gun the engine. It was so much fun. And at the end of the day when I returned, the owner, a burned out hippie, suspected me of stealing when I came back with so little money. I said “Look at the vats, count the cups….no one was buying today.” He then imagined somehow I was replacing the cups and refilling the vats, maybe with an inferior product, so I could skim the profits. This was obviously pointless; I gave up after about 2 and a half weeks. But I have to say I craved chemical laden sugar for a long time after. And every once in a blue moon I have a flash-back. Everything goes blue, and I swear I can hear “Doop-da doop-da, doodle-dy, doodle-dy.”

Now food is my whole job, I teach food history, write about it, read cookbooks and food zines, make pots to hold food, and day dream about it. Call it monomania, but I wouldn't have it any other way.

Welcome to my Food Rant

Welcome to my new blog, started on a whim at 5:45 AM Tuesday May 22nd, 2007. Expect a totally eclectic melange of random food history, culinary anecdotes and gastronomic silliness. All the things I feel compelled to write, and which may eventually show up somewhere in one of my books.