Sunday Chicken Dinner Salad

Screen Shot 2013-10-03 at 12.36.44 PMIf there was one thing I could count on as a kid, it was that I would be fed chicken on Sundays. Slow roasted, whole chicken slathered in margarine and liberally sprinkled with iodized salt. I don’t fault my mother for her style of preparation– butter was bad for you in the 70s, we’d never heard of Kosher salt because we were Catholics and sea salt was merely something to be washed off of one’s self before leaving the beach.

The accoutrements of Sunday dinner were always the same: severed chunks of Russet potatoes which roasted alongside the bird, yellow corn liberated from a can, iceberg lettuce salad tarted up with Good Seasons® Salad Dressing and croutons furnished by Marie Callender, and all washed down with a glass of sweet acidolphilus milk to combat canker sores. It was my second-favorite meal of the week.

My mother, brother, sister, and I would sit down to dinner and pause to say Grace. If it were my turn to perform the blessing, I found it easier to recite if I rushed through the words and clenched my buttock muscles into a subtle bounce on all the odd syllables.

Blessus our Lord/
For the-ese thy gifts/
Which weareabouttoreceive/
From thy bounty through Chri-ist our Lo-ord/
Amen.

Because dinner is all about rhythm.

And we all had our own distinct versions of dining rhythm. My sister would pick at her food, performing sharp, staccato jabs at the odd potato or crouton and stare at our brother, whose own movements were decidedly grave as he set to work keeping each edible component on his plate isolated from the other, consuming them one by one in a performance so adagissimo, the chicken on his plate would have died of old age, had it not been sacrificed for our dinner.

My own eating style could best be described as an ongoing experiment in polytonality. I’d lift my salad bowl and dump its contents into the center of my plate; pile on the chicken, potatoes, and corn; drown everything in Zesty Italian and garnish with a child-sized fistful croutons. I wouldn’t have dreamed of eating my dinner any other way. And neither could my brother or sister in regard to their respective methods.

And my poor mother would sit there every single Sunday evening, trying to carry on meaningful conversation with her three growing children as she struggled to ignore their dissonant eating habits all for the sake of harmony.

Screen Shot 2013-10-03 at 12.37.42 PM

Sunday Chicken Dinner Salad

To this day, my mother asks me if I’m going to make a “mish mosh” of my food whenever we dine together. I can’t blame her for doing so. I happen to like multiple flavors and textures in my mouth at the same time. And I mean that in the cleanest way possible.

Although my palate and style of preparing dinner are (hopefully) much more sophisticated than when I was a child, I do maintain the habit of piling everything together when eating at home alone. In public, I am a little more discreet– creating my mish mosh one mouthful at a time, leaving what’s on the plate in its original (although rapidly diminishing) organization. I love slicing off a small piece of steak and pushing it through my mashed potatoes with my fork until it comes across a little clump of hitchhiking spinach, which it always obliges with a pickup. I  enjoy soaking up warm egg yolks and bacon grease with a piece of toast as if I were patting out a wine stain on the sofa with an old sponge. I prefer it when the ice cream sitting next to my cake begins to melt, hardening the frosting and weakening the crumbs. One component compliments the other, or contrasts. And I like it both ways.

I also mean that in the cleanest way possible.

Just like people who need people, I am a firm believer that foods which needs other foods are the luckiest foods in the world. Or, more correctly, that people who need foods which need other foods are the luckiest people.

There is no recipe for this salad, because that would be a ridiculous waste of time for me to attempt, and a tedious exercise for you to read (thank you, by the way, for making it this far).

Just make your favorite Sunday chicken dinner and eat as you prefer, making sure you save plenty of leftovers. When you feel ready, warm said leftovers, chop into manageable pieces, pile them on top of your favorite greens, and drizzle with your favorite vinaigrette. If you’re anything like me, you’ll love it.

Or, if you’re anything like my brother, you’ll think this is the stupidest way to each chicken in the universe.

Posted in Meatness, Rants and Stories, Salad | Tagged , , , | 23 Comments

When Life Gives You Melons…

melonadeI am a highly selective reader. And listener. By this, I don’t mean to imply that I have discerning taste in literature and music.

Instead, I mean that my brain often prefers to process visual and aural information in ways it thinks I may find either more palatable or more entertaining than the original.

I once wondered aloud to a date about a billboard exhorting women to get Mmmmograms. He then proceeded to wonder aloud as to what in God’s name I was talking about. I pointed to the sign. “It says mammograms. Maaaa-moh-grams” he mouthed slowly and piteously. I looked again at the sign. He was right, of course and I knew that my lexical mirage was due in part to the fact that I was hungry.  But still I much preferred my version of the message, which implied that women might visit their doctor for a necessary prescription of chocolate or caviar, rather than to have their breasts smashed and biopsied.

I’m fairly certain that was our last date, but I couldn’t tell you the fellow’s name if my life depended on it because my brain has apparently found that particular bit of information too unpleasant to process.

In terms of mishearing things, I can tell you I’m extremely grateful that, as a child, I was never singled out to perform “The Star Spangled Banner” in front of a large stadium crowd because I am almost certain most Americans would be distressed to hear how their flag survived a cannonade of “tampons bursting in air” above it.

I’ve since learned the proper lyrics, but the original imagery will never, ever go away. And that’s fine by me, because I happen to think my version much more dramatic than the original. And so much more colorful.

At work the other evening, one of our sous chefs engaged in a bit of verbal dyslexia as he was telling the waitstaff about dessert specials– announcing that we had a trio of chilled lemons available, should any of our guests feel like having a bit of fruit. By the time he corrected himself, the mouths of everyone in the room had already puckered at the thought of eating slices of cold Eurekas and Meyers. He’d meant to say melons: Sharlyn, Crenshaw, and one with a Spanish name I’d never come across before– Piel de Sapo. My not-at-all-fluent-in-Spanish brain translated it into something I could understand.

Screen Shot 2013-09-12 at 9.57.31 AM“Piel de Sappho?” I asked, wanting to be certain I’d heard correctly.

“No. Sapo. Sah-poh,” he pronounced. “It means toad skin.”

One minute, I find out we have no cold lemons to sell to our guests and the next I’m told we’re offering them fruit suffering from phrynoderma instead.

How much lovelier– and more appropriate– it would have been to serve up melon named for a Lesbian poet in an upscale Greek restaurant? Instead, we had nothing but cold-blooded amphibian. Knowing that the likelihood of horticulturists developing, growing, harvesting, and delivering the melon I wanted before service was minimal, I swallowed my disappointment and swore I’d turn this personal misfortune into something positive.

Because as the old adage says, “When life gives you melons, make melonade.”

Or something like that.

Melonade

piel de sapo innards

There are so many melons one could possibly squeeze for juice, but I am currently loving Piel de Sapo. We sometimes eat it like candy at the end of our work shift when it’s in season. It’s flavor is sweet and subtle and vaguely cantaloupe-like. Apparently, it is also referred to as Santa Claus melon, because it can be stored for so long that it can sometimes keep until Christmas.

But I still prefer to call it Piel de Sappho because melons are so ripe for female anatomical comparison– undeniably mammarial when whole, unspeakably vaginal when pried open. The only thing I have trouble reconciling is the fact that this melon has a thick skin, which doesn’t quite jibe with the legend of this famed Lesbian* poet of antiquity hurling herself off a cliff when she found her love unrequited.

But at least it does imply a sweet and tender soul, which Piel de Sappho has in spades.

Ingredients:

• 2 Piel de Sapo (call it whatever you wish. I do) melons. Very ripe and heavy in the hand.
• 1 cup sugar
• 1 cup water
• A handful of fresh mint, washed

Preparation:

1. Cleave your melons, scoop out the seeds with a spoon, remove the skins with a sharp knife, and save only the flesh, which you will then slice into pieces small enough to be shoved into the feed tube of your juicer (You really should have a juicer if you want to do this).

2. Pour the juice into a large container– you may get up to 3 pints of liquid from two melons. Cover and place in your refrigerator to chill and allow for the remaining melon solids to separate from the juice.

3. In the meantime, place 1 cup of water and 1 cup of sugar into a saucepan and heat over medium flame until the sugar is dissolved. Now take your clean mint, abuse it, and tear it to pieces, letting them fall as they may (somewhat carefully) into the sugar syrup. Stir and mash the mint all you like, cover and set aside to cool.

4. Remove the juice from the refrigerator and strain it either through a fine-meshed sieve, cheese cloth, or both.

5. To serve, pour the juice into a large glass and taste. Is it sweet enough? Possibly, but add a teaspoon or two of the subtly-minted syrup and give it a stir. If you want to keep things simpler and do not want any extra sweetness, crumple up a few fresh leaves of mint and toss them into the juice, giving it all a good, hearty stir. If you want your beverage even more straightforward, do nothing and just drink the damned juice.

Or send a batch to a friend– it will make for one delightful mmmm-o-gram indeed.

If you add lemon juice (or lime, for that matter) you will end up with a jumble of letters which will taste of little more than acid and murky water. If you add gin, it will taste terrible. The flavor of the juice is so subtle that one should do as little as possible to it. If your melons are hard and flavorless, the best thing to do with them is hurl them from the nearest cliff. And then learn how to properly select a ripe melon.

* There is no known proof that Sappho a) was homosexual or b) that she ever hurled herself off a cliff. Very little about her is known beyond the fact that she was from the island of Lesbos, and was considered one of the greatest of the ancient Greek poets– no small feat in a time when women of good families were pretty much never allowed to leave the house.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Liquids | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

The Amateur Gorme

Screen Shot 2013-08-13 at 1.31.37 PMEydie Gorme died this week and the news has made me rather wistful. Her music didn’t play an enormous role in my development and I would have to consider myself a rank amateur in terms of assessing her career, but she had a way of popping in an out of my life which always made me happy. And that is always something to appreciate.

Her voice featured annually in the Holiday soundtrack of my childhood when The Goodyear Tires Great Songs of Christmas album would get dusted off, placed on the hi-fi, and I would listen to her giggle through the lyrics of “Sleigh Ride” with her husband Steve Lawrence. It was my second favorite song on the album, right behind Maurice Chevalier’s Gallic-scented version of “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas“.

From time to time, I’d see her on television singing some perky song or other with her husband, but I never paid much attention. Most likely because I had no interest in relationship-themed tunes. But they always seemed to me a very happy couple– playfully combative, but always very loving, which in my experience seemed an utterly alien concept.

On her own, Eydie Gorme scored hits with her Spanish language albums featuring Trio Los Panchos and a song in which she takes no personal responsibility for her marriage and inevitable multiple pregnancies, crediting instead an early 1960′s Brazilian dance craze. But she was never more famous than when she teamed with Steve Lawrence, nor was he ever as famous than when teamed with her. After awhile, they seemed to fuse together in the public mind as Steve & Eydie. No last names required.

And nowhere did their fusing ignite more sparks than in Las Vegas, where the were married, lived, raised children, and performed for more than 50 years. They were the uncrowned King and Queen of Vegas and it was there that I shared my most intimate moment with The Queen.

Screen Shot 2013-08-15 at 4.05.33 PMWanting to visit The Desert Inn one last time before it was blown to bits, my father took me to see a show in the hotel’s theater. It was a nostalgic  gesture– my parents lived in Las Vegas from 1957 to 1960, during what is often called the city’s Golden Age. The musical performed that evening was Guys and Dolls and starring such equally nostalgic performers such as Maureen McGovern (the voice of Oscar-wining disaster film themes songs of the 1970s), Jack Jones (A famous singer of the 1960s who was born on the same evening his even-more-famous father recorded one of my favorite songs ever), and Frank Gorshin (The Riddler from the original Batman series). It was going to be a night of high-kitsch Vegas entertainment and, thanks to my father slipping the maître ‘d a bill of an undisclosed denomination, it was going to be a night of high-kitsch Vegas entertainment with an excellent view.

And then something happened which made me doubt my own vision:

Screen Shot 2013-08-15 at 4.11.35 PMOne martini into my two-drink minimum, the orchestra burst out in one staccato and one long note in an unmistakable “ta-da!”. A spotlight hit the lobby door. And there– temporarily blinded and slightly embarrassed– stood Steve & Eydie.

“You have got to be kidding me,” I said to my father, wiping off the gin that had splashed onto my sport coat because the music had startled me mid-sip. But no one was kidding anyone. Mr. Lawrence and Ms. Gorme were led to their table by the maître ‘d amid geriatric applause– a cozy banquette located directly behind ours. We were roughly less than a Vegas showgirl’s-length (without headdress) from the King and Queen of Old Las Vegas. The cocktail waitress brought our second drinks, I swiveled in my seat to look at Eydie and smiled. She returned my greeting and then the room seemed to go dark.

The room went dark, of course, because the performance was about to begin. But I’d forgotten all about it because, as far as I was concerned, the show was already happening behind me and I momentarily thought my vision had simply dimmed for dramatic effect.

It is still how I choose to remember it, which is just as well because what was happening onstage was only slightly less entertaining than watching an amateur production of Paint Your Wagon performed by asthmatics. Except for Frank Gorshin. He was charming. Half way through the poorly choreographed “If I Were A Bell” number, I could hear a dental click of disapproval behind me and quietly turned around to hear Eydie Gorme sigh, “Oh, Maureen…” I locked eyes with her in the dim faux-candlelight and she seemed embarrassed that anyone other than her husband had heard her. But I responded with pained look, slow nod, and dramatically-mouthed-but-entirely-silent “Oh, I know…”

I had hoped the subtext of my gesture expressed the message “I now know your secret and will carry it to my grave”, but such things are extremely difficult to convey in low light with a mediocre musical number performed by under-rehearsed former celebrities happening behind you, so I doubt very much it was taken that way. Instead, she just looked at me for a moment and heaved a visible sigh. I turned myself around again and that was that.

I finished watching the show, but realized that what was left of my hour-old martini was now warmer than my enthusiasm for what was happening onstage. My father, however, seemed to be enjoying himself. I gulped down the rest of my drink and took solace in the knowledge that I wasn’t alone in my lack of dramaturgic joy. I had formed a strong but temporary bond of mutual disappointment with another member of the audience. And not just any member, of course, but with the Queen of Las Vegas herself.

Screen Shot 2013-08-15 at 1.26.37 PM

Albondigas

Because, as she clearly states on her album cover, “(She) Feel(s) So Spanish“.

Eydie Gorme was quite an interesting lady. A Bronx girl of Italian and Turkish Sephardic stock; fluent in Spanish and Judeo-Spanish Landino. She worked as an interpreter at the UN. She won a Grammy Award. She had a marriage which lasted for 55 years. And now she’s gone.

And now there’s no more “Steve & Eydie”. Now it’s just “Steve”, which makes me unbearably sad.

I will more than likely never know what it’s like to be with someone for more than half a century, but if I were, I imagine I’d like for us to go at the same time. A home gas leak in the winter time might be lovely because then we would both die in bed in our sleep and keep fresh until our intertwined bodies were discovered. A plane crash might be lovely, too, because it would give us a couple of minutes to say goodbye before dying on impact. But I think my favorite way to go might be Thelma & Louise-style– either by our own choosing or by way of inaccurate satellite navigation, which would send us off a cliff edge together, holding hands until we reached the bottom and our mutual end.

The following recipe is not what I would call “precise”, except perhaps for the meatballs, which are inspired by Joan Nathan’s New York Times recipe. I thought it more appropriate, Steve & Eydie-wise, to blend two separate meats so as to make them ultimately inseparable. The addition of currants makes them sweeter, which is also appropriate.

Makes about 24 Turko-Italo-Judeo-Iberian meatballs and serves about 4.

Ingredients:

For the albondigas:

• 1/2 pound ground lamb
• 1/2 pound ground beef
• 3 tablespoons matzoh meal
• 2 cloves of garlic, minced
• 1 heaping tablespoon pine nuts
• 1 heaping tablespoon dried currants, soaked in warm water and drained
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
• 2 tablespoons of olive oil for frying

For the soup:

• 1/2 small yellow onion, finely diced
• 3 cloves of garlic, finely minced
• 1 small carrot, finely diced
• 2 tablespoons of olive oil
• 1 quart plus 1 cup of chicken stock
• 2 tablespoons of tomato paste
• 1 cup of diced, seeded tomatoes
• 1/2 cup zucchini, finely diced
• A dash of ground cumin
• 2 dashes of ground cinnamon
• As much salt and pepper as you like

For the pesto-like condiment to serve on top for a hint of added glamor:

• 1 cup gently packed parsley leaves
• 1 cup mint leaves, treated with as much respect as you have your parsley
• 1 clove of finely chopped/smashed/puréed garlic
• 1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
• 1/2 cup of extra virgin olive oil

Preparation:

1. In a medium-sized bowl, gently combine the lamb, beef, egg, matzoh meal, garlic, pine nuts,  currants, cumin, cinnamon, salt, and pepper. Let it ooze through your clean fingers like warm Play-Doh. Form into walnut-sized balls. Heat the olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat and, in 2 batches of 12, brown the meatballs, top and bottom, but do not cook them through. About 3 minutes per batch. Drain the meatballs on a paper towel-lined plate and set aside.

2. To make the soup, drizzle the bottom of your soup-making vessel with olive oil and turn and heat over a medium flame. Add the onions and carrots, and sauté them until the onions are translucent (about 5 minutes). Do not brown your vegetables, please. Add the garlic and cook for another minute longer.

3. Pour chicken stock over the sautéed root items, stir in tomato paste (thoroughly incorporating it into the liquid), and bring to a gentle simmer. Cover and let it do its thing for about 30 to 40 minutes or so until the broth has reduced by about 1/4. If you choose to use your time wisely, you could be making your cheese-less pesto (we’re keeping this meal more or less kosher. And I do stress “more or less”.)

4. On a large cutting board, mince the hell out of one rather large clove of garlic. Add a pinch of salt to it and smash & smear it with the flat end of your knife. Next, roll your parsley and mint leaves into little, herby cigars and give them a right stiff chiffonading directly on top of the devastated garlic. Then add the toasted pine nuts and be merciless with them. When all of these ingredients have been savaged to your liking, scoop them into a bowl , drizzle with olive oil and stir. Taste and adjust salt for seasoning, if desired. You could, of course also shove all of these ingredients into a food processor and let that machine have a go at it, but you’d be missing out on a most excellent texture and you will be pitied the world over. Or at the very least by the entire Mediterranean region.

Cover and set aside.

5. Returning to the soup, add the ground cumin and cinnamon and give them a good stir into the liquid. Now add your tomato, zucchini, and meatballs. Let the whole thing continue to simmer for another 15 minutes, covered. You could be using this time either setting the dinner table yourself or convincing someone else to do it for you.

6. Taste the soup. What do you think it needs? More than likely, it will need a decent amount of salt and pepper. Would you like it more cinnamon-y? Cumin-laced? Now is the time to do this. Pull out a meatball. Cut it open and test for doneness. If it meets your satisfaction, it is time to eat.

7. To serve, ladle as many meatballs as your guest would like into the bowl first, then cover the balls with the soup. Doing it the other way around may lead to splashing, staining, and potential physical distress. Offer your guest the pesto-like condiment, which they will either welcome or refuse. If they refuse, gently remind them that you will have no choice but to refuse their welcome the next time they ask to come to dinner.

8. Enjoy this meal with a glass of wine drunk to the music of Miss Gorme. Namely with this song– Sabor A Mi:

 

Posted in Celebrities, Meatness, Rants and Stories | Tagged , , , , , | 14 Comments

Horta Culture.

Horta in VaseThere’s an unassuming little dish we serve at our restaurant. It isn’t offered on our menu and yet everyone seems to know it’s there for them, should they need it.

The Greeks ask for it by its name: horta. Non-Greeks ask for “a side of braised greens” because they either don’t know the proper term for it or do know but are afraid to sound out the first, faintly phlegmy syllable in public.

Calling horta “braised greens” is an act of descriptive kindness and far more appetizing than calling them what they essentially are, which is boiled weeds. At our place of business, however, the dish is made from ingredients which are anything but weeds: the chard and mustard greens we use are deliberately cultivated and harvested by organic farmers. More esoteric greens like lamb’s ear and amaranth are added when the season allows, but they are grown from seed and carefully nurtured. There is nothing remotely wild about our bowls of horta, but there are people who are clearly wild about them.

Horta fleshes out the plates of rib eye steak and Greek potatoes we serve; it pillows the heads of whole grilled fish; it nests under lamb shanks ordered by the orzo-averse. It is piled into bowls, hot and limp, with a bit of its cooking liquid and a little olive oil, then brought out to guests with half of a lemon tied up in cheese cloth and green ribbon like a  church bonnet. It’s never the star of the meal, but it has a way of making its presence felt.

Non-Greeks often order it because it sounds like a healthy addition to their meal. Young and middle-aged Greeks might order it out of habit, because it’s more or less always been a part of their dinners or, in some cases as one friend confided, “because it reminds me of my parents, who always kept an empty bag in the trunk of the car in case they saw greens growing by the side of the road. They’d kick us kids out of the car and make us pick f***ing weeds until the bag was full because they could never pass up free food.”  I’d always thought his remark some sort of loving, familial joke about perceived Greek cheapness, which it was, but it was also a sort of testament to Greek resourcefulness.

Because there was a time when, if they did pass up a free meal, they might have died of starvation.

Whenever I bring a bowl of greens to older Greeks– the ones from the Old Country who survived the war– I always wonder if its presence at their table is practical or symbolic or both. Did they order horta because they simply need the roughage at their age, or are they paying homage to the very thing that may have helped them beat hunger– and the Nazis– and come out of World War II alive? I’ve never dared to ask.

In April of 1941, Greece fell to the Axis armies of Germany, Italy, and Bulgaria. What followed was three and a half years of harsh occupation, economic destruction, murder, and starvation. The occupying forces requisitioned most of the available food stuffs for their armies, leaving the Greeks with very little upon which to survive. Livestock was slaughtered, farms placed under guard, transport trucks commandeered. The cities and  islands like Mykonos and Chios, which depended upon shipments of food from the mainland in peaceful times, suffered the worst. During the winter of 1941-42, as many as 1,000 people a day were dying from hunger in Athens. It is estimated that more than 300,000 civilians died from malnutrition and starvation during the war.

Lemons squeezedThose fortunate enough to live in the countryside foraged for survival. Wild greens such as dandelions, wild sorrel, mustard, fennel, sow-thistle, sea-beans– anything non-poisonous and edible– were gathered, boiled, and eaten. Olive oil was unavailable to many, and lemons were often difficult to come by. Another friend recently recounted the story of how his father would sometimes rummage through garbage cans for spent lemon halves to help make the weeds more palatable. Horta was often eaten alone, leaving nothing but the acrid taste of the greens on the tongue. Resistance fighters survived on little more than nettles and other wild herbs in the mountains of Northern Greece; their diet almost as bitter as the fight they waged against their occupiers– a fight they eventually won.

I sometimes wonder how many people survived the Occupation (and the ensuing civil war) thanks to piles of boiled weeds. I don’t think there’s any accurate way to measure. What I do know is that my respect for them has grown over time, thanks to a better understanding of their special Greek culture or, as I like to think of it, horta culture.

In 1943 Greece, a bowl of greens might have sat alone on the dinner table. In the 2013, it’s a struggle to find a spot for them on a table already crowded with more food than anyone could possibly consume, but they always make a place for it. With all the other, more lively dishes to compete with, no one may actually eat the horta, but it’s always comforting to know that it’s there, should anyone truly need it again.

Horta cooked

Horta

You can use any type of greens you like to make horta. Feel free to get creative, but don’t give it too much thought. Use what you have on hand. I prefer mine faintly bitter, which no one who knows me would find the least bit surprising.

The following recipe is just a guideline, since amounts are elastic and easily adjustable, just like the pants one should wear if one were having dinner at a Greek family’s house in non-famine times.

Serves two. Or one, if it is all one is eating.

Ingredients:

• 1 bunch of dandelion greens
• 1 bunch of beet greens
• About 4 cups of water
• Plenty of kosher salt
• 1 lemon, halved
• Olive oil

Preparation:

1. Add water to a large, deep pot. Toss a scant handful of salt into the water and bring to a simmer.

2. Wash the greens until they are clean enough that you would wish to stick them in your mouth uncooked. Tear the leaf stalks in half, stalks and all (unless you’re using something with a particularly thick stem like kale) and drop them into the gently bubbling water. Stir the greens down until they are wilted and submerged. Cover and let simmer for about 10 minutes. Check for tenderness, paying attention to the doneness of the stalks. When they are properly supple, remove the greens from the water. Strain gently in a colander. Do not press excess moisture from them.

3. To serve, place the horta in a serving bowl, squeeze a lemon half over them, drizzle with olive oil and taste. If needed, sprinkle with a little more salt. Place the second half of lemon in the bowl, off to the side. Wrapping them in cheese cloth and ribbon is a lovely touch, but wholly unnecessary.

4. Eat and be grateful that you have more food available to you in your refrigerator, should you need it.

Posted in Savories | Tagged , , , , | 26 Comments

Junk Food Porn

Chef Boyardee CansI had popped into my corner store around noon to pick up some hot sauce in order to add a little zing to my falafel wrap, but as I stood in the back aisle trying to decide between the Sriracha and Tabasco and Cholula, the desire for an altogether different kind of heat began to overtake me.

It would seem I was being cruised by an older gentleman. He was staring directly at my crotch. Granted, he had no choice in the matter because he was sitting on the middle shelf, plastered on the face of a can, directly beneath the spicy condiments.

He was a tiny, sturdy-looking mustachioed fellow with white hair that peeked out from under his toque. The stylish red kerchief he wore around his thick neck intensified the warm, pink flush of his cheeks. My own turned crimson at his gaze, which remained fixed upon my loins. I knelt down in front of him. His devilish smile told me he was looking for a bit of fun. The subtly stiff cock of his eyebrow said, “Well, how about it?” I like that in a man.

I found his offer strangely irresistible. He was offering me something I never before knew I wanted, but now did so more than anything. Even more than a falafel wrap.

I had a half hour to kill, I was game for a little lunchtime action, and I’ve always had a fetish for little Mediterranean men who know how to cook, so I took him up on his offer.  But I knew if wanted to taste his Big Beefaroni, I was going to have to pay for it. $1.79 was the price he quoted me off the top of his head. I felt a certain shame wondering what my Sicilian grandmother would think of the sin I was about to commit, and that made the prospect all the more titillating.

I loitered in the back of the store, quietly fondling the can until the coast was clear, then walked up to the checkout casually and put my money on counter.

“It’s for research,” I told the man behind the counter, though I don’t think he believed me. “You want me to put that in a plain brown bag for you?” he asked, unconvinced.

“Nope. I’m good,” I answered, trying to pretend away my embarrassment. I shoved the can deep into the right pocket of my cargo shorts and left the store. It rubbed hard against my thigh as I walked. And old Russian woman eyed the suspicious my bulge with a look that hovered somewhere between amazement and disapproval as I waited at the cross walk, but I didn’t care. I had only one thing on my mind and was nearly exploding with the desire to get home and whip it out.

Safely inside my apartment, I pulled the can out of my shorts and placed it on the kitchen counter. I poured myself a drink to relax myself. A finger of whiskey always helps with social lubrication.

“So…” I said, attempting a little flirty small talk,” Boyardee. That’s an Italian name, isn’t it?” But he didn’t answer. The man was all business, I thought– as cold and hard as the granite on which he was perched. I knew I needed to get him hot. And fast, or this nooner was going nowhere. I knocked back my drink and made my move.

I picked him up off the counter with a firm grasp in one hand as I seductively traced the outline of his head with the other “Got your nose!” I said to him, playfully. Gently, I pulled off his top. He barely resisted, making little wet-sounding noises as I peeled it away from his body. I stuck my index finger in his can. It felt cool and moist. Slowly, I pulled it out and placed the dripping digit to my lips. It was salty. It tasted of him. It also tasted of tomatoes and tin.

Once he was opened up, I poured him into a sauce pan and lowered him onto the stove. I ignited the flame under the pan, but it was he who had ignited the one in my nether regions.

“Are you hot yet? ‘Cause I am. Very, very hot,” I moaned with a long, breathy “h” as though I were un-fogging a mirror, but in a sexy way. And I was hot. I was standing too close to the stove. I pulled off my hoodie and threw it to the ground. I plunged three fingers into the pan to savor his warming essence and placed them under my nose. The scent of potassium chloride and enzyme-modified cheese product made me shudder with expectation. I placed those beef-flecked fingers in my mouth and sucked them dry. He was primed and ready.

“I could just eat you with a spoon,” I whispered to him. And then I made I growling noise, which emanated from deep inside of me. I was hungry. Hungry for him.

I tried to inhale him, but he was too much Beefaroni for me to handle. I stuffed as much of him as I could into my cheeks like a grey squirrel in heat. It was then that I caught a good look at myself in the reflection from the glass of the framed, vintage Coffee Arabica poster that hangs over my stove– all puffy faced with a chin covered in goo, like a drooling Brando in his later years. Suddenly, I felt like a whore, which was odd, since I was the one paying for this guy’s services. I discovered at that moment– standing there with a mouthful of limp noodle and hot, tomato-y effluence– that one can indeed put a price on shame. And my particular price was $1.79. I spit what I could into the sink.

I felt he’d somehow tricked me into taking him home. I was hungry and feeling lonely at lunchtime. He promised to fill my needs and my stomach. He also promised me 7 vitamins & minerals and 7 grams of protein per serving. But I was left holding the can, one very unsatisfied customer indeed.

“What are you looking at?” I asked him as I wiped my chin with a clean towel. His stare, which seemed so sexy to me not 15 minutes earlier, now appeared to have an air of mockery and smug self-satisfaction about it.

“I paid for you, didn’t I?” I cried, “You got want you wanted from me, didn’t you? So why don’t you just… just go!”

But he wouldn’t move an inch. He just kept on looking at me with those squinty eyes. He didn’t even have the decency to turn his back as I dried my tears. Or to leave.

So I threw him out– out the back door and down the garbage chute. As a San Franciscan, it was hard for me not to place him in the recycling bin, which is where he probably belonged, but I couldn’t bear the thought of him ever coming back. Even in another form.

I held my chin up and took a few deep breaths before I walked back into the kitchen. I knew I’d have to face the falafel wrap I’d left on the counter, which was forced to witness my afternoon of shame. I prayed it didn’t judge me too harshly for forgetting to buy the hot sauce.

Posted in Rants and Stories | Tagged , , , | 34 Comments

The Potion of Oblivion

sangria orangesSangría,” said the Spaniard to a small woman with very big eyes, “It quenches the thirst of those who drink it. It quenches our secret thirsts, too. They call it the potion of oblivion.”

Once heard, it could never be unheard.

Thirteen and bored, I was flipping through the cable channels when I stumbled upon a sickly hermaphrodite mystic, fresh from her bath, telling the big-eyed woman the ways in which one should bite one’s lover: the blind bite, the breathy bite, the torn cloud, the wolf bite. Her beautiful priestess, decked out in an equally beautiful sari, made bizarre animal noises accompanied by even more bizarre hand gestures.

Once seen, it could never be unseen.

I had no idea what was happening, but it didn’t much matter– it was so strange and gorgeous and disturbing. I sat there, cross-legged with my eyes twelve inches from the television screen, trying to take everything in as the woman left the mystic’s hotel suite, got into a car with her companions, and told them in stunning flashback how her grandfather flew off with a voluptuous circus performer in a biplane as they drove away.

The film was Giulietta degli Spiriti– my first Fellini. Exposed to it less than five minutes, I was magnetized, hypnotized, and narcotized. I was left thoroughly open to suggestion, which is why the relative calm of the subsequent scene left such an indelible impression. My adolescent brain had been scrambled by bright colors and bizarre action, but it regrouped in the quiet, moonlit garden where the Spaniard made sangria for Giulietta.

sangria pour“Three slices of lemon, three of orange.” Giulietta’s housemaid dropped the slices with silver tongs in a pitcher of red wine. “Mineral water. Three teaspoons of sugar.”

“In Valencia they like to add clove. In Córdoba, a more delicate taste.”

The maid presented him with a champagne glass in which to pour the concoction, but he requested an ordinary one. He ladled the sangria into a large tumbler and handed it to Giulietta. She liked it.

Even at thirteen, it was clear to me that he was offering her more than simple refreshment. I had my own secret thirsts, but I was far too young to satisfy any of them. I’d have to wait several years before they could be quenched.

In the thirty-odd years since I sat in front of that television set, I count myself fortunate to report that my thirst for Spaniards has been thoroughly satisfied. My taste for Fellini and sangria, however, has not. I can’t say I’m disappointed that the Spaniard’s promise of the of the drink quenching my thirsts, both spoken and unspoken, is untrue. Quite the reverse, actually.

It means I can drink sangria and watch Il Maesto‘s films without tiring of either until death overtakes me. Or oblivion. Whichever one comes first.

And I’ve learned from experience that one should never believe a Spanish bartender.

sangria

Sangría de Olvido

With my particular version of sangria, I’m never quite certain which comes first, because I make a rather potent one, adding port wine and brandy. The film is called Juliet of the Spirits for a reason. At least, that’s my reason. And when offered the choice, I always opt for the fast track to oblivion.

I’ve seen so many “sangria” recipes lately, many of which do not include red wine. These beverages might be delightful and refreshing, but they are not sangria. They are fruit punch. Or worse: wine coolers. Sangria is a red wine-based drink. Its name derives from the Spanish word for bleeding and therefore should remind the drinker of blood. Whether it is the blood of bulls or toreros, Republicans or Nationalists, the suffering Christ or a niña who has fallen and badly scraped her rodilla is entirely up to you. But do yourself and Spanish people a favor: make your sangria with red wine. If you really must make it with white, try calling it el corpúsculo blanco or something similar like if only to keep in theme. Just hope no one who’s drinking it speaks Spanish.

Serves 4 to 5, depending upon what you consider and ordinary glass.

Ingredients:

Picasso bottle• 1 bottle of inexpensive-but-decent Spanish red wine. Or, if you have more money than you know what to do with, you may use a bottle of 1973 Château Mouton-Rothschild since a Spaniard designed the label.
• 6 slices of Valencia orange (I have omitted the lemon and doubled up on the orange).
• 12 or more spikes of clove, because I am not from Córdoba.
• 3 teaspoons of sugar
• 3 ounces of Spanish brandy (other brandies may be substituted)
• 3 ounces of port (madeira may also be used if you prefer it less sweet)
• Cold sparkling water (optional)

Preparation:

1. Cut the orange into 6 ¼” slices and pierce the each rind with 2 cloves. Or three, if you prefer. Place them at the bottom of a glass pitcher or 1-litre mason jar (which I prefer because of the accompanying lid). Sprinkle sugar over the orange slices.

2. Pour in wine, then add the brandy and port. Give the whole thing a firm but gentle swirl to help dissolve the sugar. Leave covered for at least 4 hours to let the flavors mingle. If you are letting the concoction steep overnight, refrigerate. The Spaniard in the film served his sangria immediately, but I much prefer to let the flavors blend together. Then again, I am not a Spaniard.

3. To serve, remove the sangria from the refrigerator to shed the excess chill. Sangria should be drunk cool, but not cold. Pour into glass tumblers, making sure not to let the slices of orange splash into the glass and onto your clothing, filling the glass half way. Add the sparkling water, if you feel like it, until the glass is 3/4 full. Garnish with a slice of what now looks like blood orange.

To drink yourself into oblivion, you’d better make a double batch.

 

Posted in Liquids, Rants and Stories, Stage, Film, and Television | Tagged , , , , , | 15 Comments

2nd in Life, 1st in Cheese

letter eI am getting to be an excellent loser. I’ve had lots of practice. And I’m quite happy to report that I don’t find that such a bad thing.

In the fifth grade, I experienced the joy of finding myself in a vaguely Puritan outfit, attempting to string together letters in front of a large audience of teachers and preteens. As one of two boys left standing at the annual Clara Barton Elementary School Spelling Bee/ Thanksgiving Picnic, I was asked to step forward. The elastic of my black knee socks sagged under the strain of having my trouser legs tucked into them as a moved. I tugged at them as I was given my word: foreshadow.

“Foreshadow. F-o-r…s-h-a-d-o-w. Foreshadow.”

Headdress“I’m sorry, but that was incorrect,” said Mrs. Pettus– my own teacher. Bell’s Palsy had made reading her facial expressions a challenge, but the clear, pitying tone of her voice rang painfully clear. The other boy, who wore a feathered headband made of construction paper and glue stick, was then asked to spell the same word, which he did correctly by inserting the appropriate “e”.

When it was over, some of my classmates jeered and gave me a new nickname– “Loser.”

It was the first time in the history of our school that the “gifted” class, represented by me, had lost a spelling bee. It also may have been one of the few occasions in which European colonists had given Native Americans anything so freely. But more significantly, it seemed to have tarnished my life with a permanent silver-medaled tinge.

It took my therapist to point out the significance of the word I misspelled, which is one of the reasons I like going to him.

I am the 2nd Place Kid. The Bridesmaid. The First Loser.  If I’ve entered a competition, you can pretty much bet money on the fact that I will come in next-to-first. I have finished second on Jeopardy!, in Top Chef-style sandwich competitions, student elections, relationships, Academic Decathlon, and more recently, both IACP and James Beard Awards*.

CheeseThe one thing of any significance I have managed to actually win is cheese. But it wasn’t a contest, it was a raffle.

At a crowded party a couple of weeks ago, I was drinking wine in the relative calm of the kitchen with a few friends when I heard someone yell my name. Or, more correctly, my Twitter handle, because this was a food blog-related event. My hearing isn’t fantastic in the best of situations, but in the alcohol-fueled loudness of the living room, I managed to hear that I had actually won something. When I asked what it was, I saw my friend Brooke’s mouth move a little and then I heard her say, “Bleu cheese!”

What she actually said was “A year’s supply of Irish butter and cheese!” I just missed the first several words and inserted another, incorrect one. Kerrygold Butter was one of the sponsors of the Potluck we were attending, so it now made complete sense.

Q-tipI was delighted, but what exactly did they mean by “a year’s supply?” I’d been offered a year’s supply of both Q-tips and Dinty Moore Beef Stew from The Merv Griffin Company when I came in second place on Jeopardy!, but I declined them and spent the next 25 years of my life wondering how many cotton swabs and cans of meaty offcuts-in-gravy I could possibly go through in 365 days. And now I had the opportunity of knowing what that meant in the currency of Gaelic dairy products.

If I developed a passion for butter sculpture, could Kerrygold keep up with my inexhaustible demand for supplies? Would they send everything all at once? Did I have to prove that I was the only one eating the cheese? Would this be for a normal calendar year, or would it be an Irish Year, which apparently only has eleven months? I’d just have to wait and find out.

When I returned home from New York last week, where I did not win a James Beard Award, I had a package waiting for me. It was from the nice Irish people. I cut through the cardboard, pulled out the melting freezer packs, opened the inner container and found roughly a pound of butter (block and spreadable) and assortment of cheese.

There is no way to top this dairy-wise, I thought. I have won the Irish Cheese Sweepstakes. And, as I sat in the middle of the kitchen floor, fingering the Red Leicester,  I remembered the fact that my own grandfather had won the actual Irish Sweepstakes nearly 70 years earlier. Or rather, not exactly win. The horse he was assigned didn’t place 1st in the race, but it did finish in the money. And that money helped change his family’s fortunes. My grandfather technically lost the Irish Sweepstakes, but in a practical sense, he won.

And that got me thinking that my string of second place losses were really second place wins. I didn’t win a James Beard or an IACP Award? So what? I got to go to New York, received some marvelous recognition for whatever it is I do writing-wise, and had several people buy me drinks. That’s a big win in my book. I came in 2nd place on Jeopardy!? True, but I got to have lunch with Alex Trebek on the set of Soul Train and be informed that I was the youngest contestant in the history of the show. I got a lovely Samuel Moore recliner out of it, too.

And, as for that spelling bee, it took me years to realize that all those classmates who called me a loser were eliminated long before I was knocked out by one of the nicest, quietly intelligent boys in the school.

Second place is actually a wonderful place to be, I’ve come to realize. It gets you recognized for excellence, but leaves a little room for improvement. I’m not saying I wouldn’t love to win a spelling bee or even a James Beard Award one of these days, but if I come in second again, I have the feeling I’ll be perfectly fine with that.

Beard drawingIn the meantime, I plan on enjoying an award infinitely more practical to a starving writer that any certificate or medal embossed with the visage of a chubby, bow-tied man could ever be: a year’s supply of cheese.

My hope now is that this sudden good fortune for(e)shadows greater wins in the future. For example, a year’s supply of crackers. That would be nice.

 

*Naturally, I do not have direct access to voting scores for either IACP or The James Beard Awards, so it is entirely possible that I could have placed 3rd. However, that is something I couldn’t bear to face just now.

Posted in Rants and Stories | 14 Comments

Big Bertha

Big Bertha MapThree things happened when my friend Fatemeh mentioned online that she was “possibly the only person in history to drink a French 75 in preparation for picking up chicken pullets:

1.) I had to look up the precise definition of “pullets”. 2.) I somehow mistook her message to mean that she was preparing to give her Ameracaunas gin-spiked champagne as a welcome libation and 3.) I wondered how well young laying hens could handle their liquor.

Upon re-reading, I realized the error of my original interpretation, but decided that I liked the idea of her having a hen-house filled with intoxicated ingénue poultry. My mind lingered there.

When I’d had enough, my thoughts turned to the cocktail with which Fatemeh was apparently self-medicating: the French 75. Invented by American Harry MacElhone at his eponymous New York Bar in 1915 (a mere taxi ride away from The Western Front), the drink was said to have such a strong kick to it that it felt as if one had been shelled by a French 75mm field gun. In the spirit of la guerre, the new cocktail was named.

The idea that a World War I-era French field gun should be celebrated in such a way strikes me as odd, given the fact that it was woefully inadequate when compared to Imperial German artillery. Odd, but hardly surprising, given the French military’s defense plan was based almost solely upon the philosophy of élan vital*- – the notion that there was a vital fighting spirit inside of every French man so powerful it would turn back any foe by virtue of its sheer mystical power. Though it would be years until the French were able to force the enemy out of their country, they did manage to keep the Huns out of their capital city. And that, in my opinion, is worth a drink.

But the idea of celebrating insufficient weaponry got me thinking: why wasn’t there a cocktail named in honor of the most powerful field gun of The Great War– The Big Bertha? A 420 caliber gun lobbying an 1,800 pound shell is bound to lay waste to just about anything. Just ask the Belgians. I figure if one is going to get bombed during wartime, one might as well do it with one, powerful beverage.

Big Bertha

The Big Bertha

This cocktail is much easier to assemble than the artillery for which it was named, requiring little-to-no concrete at all.

A Big Bertha has three ingredients in common with the French 75: gin, lemon juice, and sugar. The key differences are 1.) the addition of kirschwasser for a decidedly German flair and added potency, 2.) a couple dashes of orange bitters because no war-inspired drink should be made without at least a hint of bitterness, and 3.) a bottle of Crémant d’Alsace rosé to add both a touch of historical flair and a faint, bloody tinge to the whole affair.

Alsace

Makes one stiff drink. Make two to devastate your liver. Or just make a double and bring it with you in a tumbler as you take a leisurely drive through Belgium and Northern France.

Ingredients:

• 1 ounce of decent, London Dry gin
• 1/2 ounce kirschwasser
• 1/2 ounce lemon juice
• 1/2 ounce simple syrup
• 2 or 3 dashes of orange bitters
• Ice
• A freshly opened bottle of Crémant d’Alsace brut rosé
• Lemon peel for garnish

Preparation:

1. In a cocktail shaker add ice and pour over the gin, kirschwasser, lemon juice and simple syrup. If you don’t happen to like kirschwasser, hurl the bottle at your nearest enemy and add an extra ounce of gin instead. Stir until well chilled.

2. Pour into a champagne glass (I prefer coupes over flutes because they look like upside down Imperial German Army helmets when the stems have been broken). Top off the glass with Crémant d’Alsace to the rim, and garnish with lemon peel.

3. To serve, carefully walk the glass over to your hen-house and pour the beverage into a clean water trough and encourage your pullets to drink.

4. After a sufficient mourning period, purchase new hens. Repeat as often as necessary.

* Thank you, Henri Bergson.

Posted in Liquids | Tagged , , , , , , | 22 Comments

The Corn Dogs of Easter

corndog fryingWhen I was a boy, I took everything the Catholic church told me literally.

After my first visit to the confessional, I was absolved of my transgressions by an old Irish priest who told me that, as soon as I said my ten Hail Marys, my soul would be light and unburdened by the weight of sin. When I had finished my last “Amen”, I ran outside to the church’s tetherball court and began jumping around the blacktop, convinced that with each leap, I rose higher in the air and therefore rose closer to God. It was a very good feeling.

When I took Holy Communion, I understood that, thanks to the miracle of Transubstantiation, I was accepting an actual piece of Christ’s body onto the tip of my tongue. But which piece? I never knew. I didn’t dare ask the priest who was doling out the goods, so I’d just return to my pew and sit next to my mother with the Eucharist softening on the tip of my tongue. I never dared to chew the wafer, thinking it might cause Jesus unnecessary pain, so I just let it rest there until it dissolved, wondering if I could tell from what part of His body it came. Was it from His thigh or His breast? Was it light meat or dark?  If I were to have judged based solely on flavor, I would have come to the conclusion that I was eating a part of His sandal every time.

And yet I always found myself wanting to go back for seconds. We never ate before morning Mass, so I was always extremely hungry. When everyone else was praying for the souls of the recently departed, I was praying for breakfast. Ingesting the communion wafer may have brought me closer to Christ, but it also whetted my appetite as it found its way into my stomach and got my gastric juices churning. It was a uniquely Catholic torture.

At Easter Mass, which felt like the longest of the year, I found this agony even more grueling, but entirely appropriate given the knowledge that Christ had suffered and died for my sins. I identified with Him because I maintained the deep, almost religious conviction that I was suffering and dying, too. Of hunger.

I never understood why there wasn’t more food available during church services. Christ may have been good at self-sacrifice, but His true calling was catering. The Wedding at Cana. The Feeding of The Five Thousand. And wasn’t the central theme of Catholic Mass a celebration of The Last Supper? I hated to think that a man as famous as Jesus would have had a last meal consisting solely of a diet biscuit and a sip of terrible wine. I would look at the altar and think the priests could have done a much better job at feeding their congregation if they had set it up as a buffet. It was already set with silver and a nice cloth, so they didn’t have far to go.

I never considered at the time what they might serve at such a buffet, but I was confident that whatever it was, they’d never run out of anything because Jesus would never let that kind of thing happen. Especially at one of his own parties.

For the bible told me so. And quite literally, for that matter.

Crucifixion Corn Dogs

Crucifix corndog

If I were a church-going child today, I know what I’d like to see served at an Easter Service buffet. Everything would conform to a Jesus/Easter theme: Hot cross buns, chocolate bunnies, and cereal in the shape of crosses and halos; a knife-wielding deacon carving up the Lamb of God on one side, a seminarian offering up a ham of God on the other for those worshipers among us who don’t like lamb.

And in the middle of everything would be a treat that would really bring home the drama of Christ’s Passion in edible form. Something delicious and filling, but would still remind us of Christ’s suffering with each and every mouthful: corn dogs in the shape of a crucifix.

They’re more substantial than a communion wafer, and more delicious, too. And, given the nature of hot dogs, you still won’t be certain from which part of the body they came. All that’s needed is the blessing of a priest to become a sacred part of a balanced church breakfast.

With the Catholic church suffering a loss in attendance, even at Easter time, drastic measures should be taken to reverse the decline. Ordaining women, getting rid of the celibacy rule, and welcoming gay, lesbian, and transgendered would be nice, but I don’t see these things happening any time soon, so they might as well throw a nice, big buffet and see what happens. Or they might come up with some other novel approaches. All they have to do is ask the seven year-olds of their diocese because, as we all know,  Jesus loves the little children.

This recipe is adapted from Saveur magazine’s State Fair recipe, which was, of course, gotten from poor people who work state fairs, who got it from some other people, who most likely got it from wheat and corn crops. And cows. And mustard companies. The using-a-chopstick-as-a-handle trick I learned from Ree Drummond’s website. She most likely learned this trick from Beatrice Lillie’s character Mrs. Meers in Thoroughly Modern Millie. And Matt Armendariz will very likely be including this recipe in his upcoming Holidays On A Stick! cookbook (publishing date undetermined).

If the idea of squirting a mustard Jesus onto your corn dog makes you uncomfortable, you can still stay in theme by creating a condiment version of The Penitent Thief. Or The Impenitent one, if that is more your style.

Serves 8. To serve multitudes, pray over this recipe’s ingredients for as long as needed if you are perfect and without sin. For everyone else, multiply the recipe by hand.

Ingredients:

• 2 cups all-purpose flour
• 1 1/3 cup yellow cornmeal
• 4 tablespoons sugar
• 2 tablespoons baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
• 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
• 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper

2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 3/4 cups whole milk
1/2 cup buttermilk
2 eggs, lightly flogged
16 6″ hot dogs. I have chosen to use chicken dogs, which is more than likely still offensive to practicing Catholics on Good Friday, but probably less so than beef franks.
Vegetable oil, for frying
4 pairs of wooden take-out chopsticks to serve as posts, 8 coffee stirrers to serve as crossbeams.

Yellow mustard and (non-yellow) catsup for garnish

Preparation:

1. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, dry mustard, white pepper, and salt. In a separate bowl, combine milk, buttermilk, and egg until the trinity becomes a confusing, inseparable muddle. Add the liquid to the dry ingredients until all becomes binding and Universal.

2. In a wide, deep pan or Dutch oven (this requires more elbow room than an ordinary, non-Catholic corn dog recipe), pour oil to a depth of 2″ and warm over medium-high heat until the oil reaches 350°F.

Wiener Demo3. As the oil is heating, make the hot dog crucifixes. To assemble, cut about 2″ off the narrow part of each chop stick which, under ordinary circumstances, be the end one would place in one’s mouth. Discard the circumcised tips. Gently insert the chopstick into  one end of a hot dog, until all that is left visible is a 2″ handle. Cut a second hot dog in thirds, discarding/sacrificing the center piece. These will be the arms of the cross. To attach, cut a coffee stirrer to the appropriate length and slide through the center of the top half of the  whole wiener, then slide on the remaining 2/3 of cut wiener. (See photo*).

4. Dip one hot dog cross into the batter, coating well. The batter should be firm and giving, but not runny. If it is too dry, add a little milk. Too runny, add a little more flour. The batter is as forgiving as He is. Gently shake off any excess and lay directly into the pot of hot oil. Fry on one side for about 1 1/2 minutes. Using tongs, gently turn its other cheek and fry for the same amount of time. On the third minute, let it rise from the oil and rest on a shroud of paper towels to cool. Repeat until all crosses are battered and fried.

5. To serve, decorate with mustard. You do not have to put the image of Christ on every  corn dog. If you have any martyrs in your family, feel free to squirt on their likeness and share it with them to show that you know how much they themselves have suffered, which will give them great comfort. Just please remind them not to bite into the coffee stirrer crossbeam, which most decidedly will not.

* Note: This is a photo of a practice-run crucifixion dog in which I discovered that coffee stirrers are excellent for side beam support, but terrible for use as handles, which is why one should use chopsticks.

Posted in Holidays, Rants and Stories | Tagged , , , | 44 Comments

A Bottle of Tokaji.

Bottle of Tokaji

A grave little Czech man  met us at our train in Prague. He was holding  up a handmade sign with my friend Anastasia’s name written on it. When we identified ourselves to him, he greeted us with a curt “Hello”, a sharp nod, and a slight raise of his pale grey hat. It could have been a fedora or a trilby or even a porkpie, but all I remember about it is the way it seemed to blend into the dull, Novemberish sky in front of us as we exited the station, which gave the distinct impression to my tired, bloodshot eyes that at times the top of his head was missing.

I was exhausted from several weeks of trains and hotel rooms, currency exchanges, and rapid language shifts. And my wardrobe was testament to the fact that I had no concept of late-Autumn Eastern European weather, which had taken a turn for the worse, as had my head cold. But I didn’t dare complain– Anastasia had crossed an ocean and two continents to be with me and had suffered her own cold like a trooper. We followed behind the doctor in shivering silence to his apartment.

We had just come from Budapest, where the people and the weather felt infinitely warmer. If our reception by Dr. Ludvicek was any indication, our visit to Czechoslovakia was going to be a cooler one– formal and business-like. We were paying guests in his home and would probably feel as such for the duration of our stay.

We met his wife inside the apartment door. Pink-cheeked and robust-looking, but on the shy and fidgety side, she apologized that she “had no English” and retreated to the kitchen to make us tea. Anastasia politely complimented the décor of the living room, which was to double as our sleeping area, as we sat down straight-backed in our comfortable chairs to have an uncomfortable, formal chat.

Is this your first visit to Prague? Do you travel often? What of your family? How is your head cold? I answered every one but the last question truthfully.

Our fascinating talk was interrupted when Mrs. Ludvicek brought in the tea.  While it did wonders for warming our bodies, it did absolutely nothing to heat up the conversation. Stronger medicine was needed, so I reached into my bag and pulled out a bottle of Tokaji.  It emerged cool from the protection of what I hoped was my clean laundry. I held it out to our hosts. The doctor’s eyes protruded and his wife let out a little gasp at the sight of it, but they refused it.

“Oh no no no no no!” he cried, “That is too nice for us. You save it for yourself.”

“Nonsense,” I said. And then horrified that I had possibly insulted my host, I added something to the tune of, “We’re so grateful to you for having us that we’d love to share it with you.” I was praying my diplomacy would pay off in the form of a drink.

Down the bottleI was surprised to discover how high their regard for the bottle was– something precious and not to be wasted on strangers. I had never heard of it before visiting Hungary, where I found it to be plentiful and, thanks to the miraculous exchange rate for the American dollar, fairly cheap. We all looked at the same bottle, but saw it from different perspectives. There was another, less strenuous refusal on their part, one more bit of insistence on ours and then, with a nod from her husband, Mrs. Ludvicek broke out the good cordial glasses.

When the first glass was poured, Mrs. Ludvicek was exhorted to stop dusting and worrying the knickknacks and sit down. The doctor passed around the half-filled glasses  and held his up to offer a toast. He lifted his glass again to admire its contents in the light before taking a second, more thoughtful sip. By the second glass, the color of Mrs. Ludvicek’s cheeks deepened to crimson and we discovered that she had much more English than she had previously let on. And the serious little man surprised me by cracking a faint smile.

I pulled out the second (and last) bottle immediately. This time, there were no protests. By the third glass of Tokaji, my cold no longer mattered. We all sank a little deeper into our seats as the alcohol relaxed us. By the fourth glass, Dr. Ludvicek was as warm as a Hungarian. Fortified by half a bottle of mold-tinged, fermented furmint grape juice, he began to tell us fascinating little stories about his life.  If he had written it down, it would have read like a Grand Tour of the Communist World.

He grew up and survived the war in Prague. He attended medical school in Moscow. He was sent to Angola to patch up comrades at the beginning of their civil war. And, most fascinatingly, wound up in Cuba, where he became Fidel Castro’s personal physician.

Anastasia and I were no longer staying under the roof of a stiff, unsmiling doctor. We were now under the protection of a man who once had El Comandante by the balls in the most literal and professional sense imaginable. I reflexively turned my head as I coughed.

I still had my cold, but I no longer cared. The room and its inhabitants were sufficiently warm and happy. And very drowsy. Mrs. Ludvicek cleared away the glasses and the ignored tea things and made up our beds so we could rest. It was the soundest sleep of my trip.

The next morning, the doctor walked us to the Vltava river on his way to work and deposited us at the foot of the Charles bridge, which he thought would be an ideal place to begin our site-seeing. As he said goodbye, he nodded and raised his little grey hat to us just as he had the prior afternoon, but only this time, he smiled. The top of his head remained firmly in place as he walked away.

Anastasia and I strolled the bridge, separately examining the statues of saints with interesting names who flank each side. Wenceslas, Adalbert, Ludmila. When Anastasia let out and excited “Mike! Mike!”I knew she’d found something especially interesting. She pointed to the name on the plaque.

St. Procopio. One of Czechoslovakia’s patron  saints. I never knew such a person existed, but there he was in solid stone, with one foot holding down the devil. We gazed upon my newest, most favorite saint in the world for a little while and looked at the sign again. It was then we noticed the second half of what would be the oddest coincidence of our life: the artist’s name was Vaclav Herold.

I believe the words “holy” and “shit” were uttered in unison.

Glass of TokajiSo there we were, Michael Procopio and Anastasia Herold, half a world away from home, staring up at a piece of stone carved by one of her possible ancestors to look like a potential, canonized relation of mine. It was a strange and utterly unique moment that could not have been shared by any other two people on earth. We stared at the statue a little longer and then stared at each other in disbelief.

I felt at that moment as if we instantly and permanently belonged. I noticed that my head cold was gone– perhaps banished by my new holy protector. The sun made a brief cameo appearance from behind the clouds.  I felt warm and welcome and happy which, given my feelings not 24 hours before, seemed like another minor miracle. What else should one expect when he discovers that, not only is he sleeping under the roof of a man who’s had Fidel Castro by the balls, but protected by his very own family saint at the very same time?

When we’d had our fill of awe over the statue, we crossed the bridge to Prague Castle, which we felt no need to storm. We ate ice cream* instead because that’s how warm we felt.

If only I’d thought to buy a third bottle of Tokaji, we could have been positively toasty.

*Incidentally, the word for ice cream (zmrzlina) is the only word of Czech I can remember unaided to this day.

 

 

Posted in Rants and Stories | Tagged , , , | 14 Comments