I was a Philistine where food was concerned until after high school. Although I hated it as a kid, I credit my inner palate’s eventual awakening at least partially to zucchini, a peculiar but versatile vegetable I now love, sliced into paper-thin discs and steamed in a little chicken broth, butter, and salt, or baked in a savory bath of cream, grated gruyere, paprika, dry mustard, and minced fresh tarragon. However, in the 70s, when I was a mid-sized kid, my mother would pull a hairy two-pound zeppelin from our alarmingly productive Phoenix backyard garden, and then she would fold it into a casserole with tofu and serve it to us horrified kids for supper. I spent my childhood in fear and loathing of the stuff.
In eleventh grade, I went to a Waldorf school in New York State, across the country from my family in Arizona. I had won a full scholarship, and I lived with my English teacher and did babysitting and housework, including cooking, in exchange for room and board, and waitressed at the Threefold Guest House for pocket money. I was a terrible cook when I moved in with that family and a better one when I left two years later, thanks to my fear of the disapprobation of the mother of the household, who made it clear that she thought I was a lazy, dim-witted layabout who ate too much and did too little to help her.
Although I made friends, I was homesick and lonely there. I ate so much I was soon chubby, a condition I had never experienced before even remotely. I ate anything, including, after my waitressing shifts on Sundays, the coarse, damp zucchini bread that issued forth from the Guest House kitchen as dessert. This stuff was wretchedly wholesome, granular with whole-wheat flour and sweaty with oil. Flecks of grated zucchini criss-crossed each piece like the thick cloth ribbons we used to make potholders with at day camp. I didn’t care; I ate it anyway. I missed my mother.
The turning point for me with zucchini came right after I graduated, when I was eighteen. I spent that year after high school in the dead geographical center of France, a muddy and otherwise nondescript farming region called the Allier. I lived at a place called La Mhotte, a Waldorf school and anthroposophical seminary for young adults, a crumbling, grand old chateau with drafty, radiator-heated, ancient dormitories built around a large bare inner courtyard. I worked as an au pair girl for two immensely kind, impecunious, scattershot, warm-hearted teachers named Vivian and Pierre. I took care of their four little boys before and after school and was expected to cook things for their family that I had never made before, with ingredients I had never seen before — mache, creme fraiche, a whole skinned rabbit. I learned to make soufflés and mousses, stews and soups from the unflappably British but resolutely French-transplanted Vivian.
Homesick loneliness had become so familiar by then, I hardly noticed it anymore. I leaned out the casement window of the della Negras’ kitchen in the evenings when I’d finished the dishes, weeping habitual tears of longing, a feeling so powerful it haunts me still, even now that most of its hopes have been fulfilled.
Every weeknight at la Mhotte, in order to help me learn French, I was invited to eat in the Chateau dining room with the seminary students, about two dozen beautiful, cool French people in their twenties. We all sat at a long candlelit table together; I listened to them jibber-jabber away and tried to imitate the way they ate, because they seemed to do it better, being French, than anyone I had ever observed at a table before.
We ate a lot of home-grown food from the biodynamic farm attached to the Chateau: vegetables and herbs, eggs and homemade cheese. One night the entire dinner consisted of only boiled zucchini, boiled potatoes, and homemade bread and cheese. They called the zucchini “courgettes,” but they didn’t fool me: I knew that stuff when I saw it. I sat down with disappointment and dread.
And then I tasted the zucchini. It was sublime, subtly multi-dimensional in flavor and velvety in texture, not like zucchini at all but some other fairylike, delicate thing of palest green, very fresh, with an herblike essence.
That zucchini woke me up. Food was not at all what I had thought it was, it had possibilities and qualities that I had never suspected. I began to pay close attention to food; I began to see it not as a substance to assuage hunger or homesickness, but as something to savor when it was good, like a well-written book or piece of music. Cooking came alive for me that year, too. I learned to taste.
There are various approaches to ratatouille — some cooks sauté the vegetables separately and add them to the simmered tomato sauce, or layer and bake them, and some roast the vegetables first. I am lazy, no doubt, but I don’t think it makes enough difference to do this the labor-intensive way. I say, chop 8 cloves of garlic, 1 good-sized eggplant, 3 peppers of various colors, 4 medium zucchini, 2 onions, and 4 blanched peeled tomatoes and mince a lot of fresh thyme and parsley. You can also use basil or herbes de Provence. Heat ¼ to ½ (up to you) cup good olive oil in a 5-qt Dutch oven over medium heat until it shimmers. Put everything in with salt and pepper, stir, cover, and simmer for half an hour, stirring occasionally, adding another splash of olive oil if you want. If it doesn’t look done yet, cook it for a little longer. Turn off the flame and let it sit for half an hour. Eat it over polenta – and the next day, when it’s even better, eat it plain at room temperature as a side dish.
I feel sheepish admitting this, but I’ve only recently noticed the sudden ubiquity of truffle oil. Wherever I go, there it is — on popcorn, in eggs, drizzled over a perfectly good hamburger (I just made that up, but it could be). For a long time, I didn’t notice. But after Brendan got violently sick from a recent dinner and could only mutter, “I’ll never eat truffle oil again. God damn that fucking truffle oil,” it occurred to me that yes, he’s right, that stuff is disgusting. A few days later, there it was again, hidden in our lobster sushi. The aftertaste, now that I’d been made aware of it, lingered unpleasantly for hours.
A casual investigation reveals that truffle oil is not made of truffles at all, it’s a synthetic amalgam of something called 2,4-dithiapentane, which doesn’t sound very appetizing or wholesome to me, plus organic aromas, sometimes from actual truffles, in an olive oil or grapeseed oil base. Why would you want that on your baked fish, or anything, for that matter? “Truffle oil” looks fancy on menus, but it’s sheer food snobbery, which always makes me weary.
Truffles themselves, as everyone knows, are those outrageously expensive, hard-to-find mushrooms found buried near trees, sometimes by trained pigs and, more recently, dogs. Brillat-Savarin called them “the diamond of the kitchen.” The whole point is that they’re rare. You don’t eat them in everything the same way you don’t wear diamonds every day — they’re for special dishes and occasions, a luxury. Shaved, with olive oil, chives and a little parmesan, black truffles elevate humble linguine to a gourmet feast.
Otherwise, in the absence of genuine kitchen diamonds, I’ll take an honest pea sauce on my (gluten-free, alas) pasta. It’s cheap, easy, fast, and simple, and it’s the pasta equivalent of chicken soup. It’s a traditional, typically Roman sauce, the base for osso bucco and many other dishes. Brendan makes it on raw nights, or after a long car trip, or when I’m under the weather. A big, rich, savory-sweet, nourishing bowl of it never fails to warm my bones.
Pasta with pea sauce
Make a soffrito: mince 2 peeled carrots, 2 celery ribs, and 1 large white or yellow onion. Heat olive oil in a heavy saucepan and add the vegetables. Saute them on low heat until they’re tender, about 15 minutes. Turn the heat up, add half a bag of frozen peas, no more than 1/4 cup vegetable broth. Cook 5 minutes until peas are tender. Add 1 1/2 cups Pomi chopped tomatoes, salt and pepper, and crushed red pepper. (It should be smelling deeply good by now.) Let it simmer vigorously on medium-low heat for 15 more minutes, until it’s thick. Toss with 1 lb. freshly cooked hot pasta (fettucine is best) and serve with parmesan cheese and more crushed red pepper. Serves 3, cures everything.
In my late 20s and early 30s, I was a big drunk. I’m still a happy drinker (of red wine and good tequila, primarily), but I’m talking hard-core. I drank a little in high school, less in college, almost nothing in grad school, and then I started getting soused and blotto on a regular (almost nightly) basis when I was 27 and had just moved to New York and met a guy to get drunk with. We were both frustrated young writers who thought we were much smarter than we were, which engendered a kind of chaotic melancholy that needed blotting out.
I recently heard a rumor that some people can metabolize alcohol better than others. There’s an enzyme, apparently. I must have that enzyme in record quantities, because all this drinking I did seemed to have no effect on my health. Checkups revealed a robust, healthy liver. Hangovers were almost unknown to me except as a pleasant, muzzy state with life’s edges blunted — almost a better reason to drink than getting drunk the night before. I was a terrible drunk, in that I acted outrageously and stupidly; I imagine I was a pain in the ass, but I was too drunk to know it. I thought I was witty and carefree and madcap, oh dear. But I was a good drunk in that my body held up alarmingly well. I never blacked out; I usually remembered (alas) much of the night; I rarely got sick. And I always made it to whatever tedious, low-paying job I had at 9 the next morning, ordered a Western omelet sandwich on toasted rye with extra ketchup from the deli downstairs, downed a vat of coffee, and got on with my day, and then I did it all again the next night.
I once chugged most of a pint of Jameson’s in a stall in the ladies’ room of some club in midtown at some show, it could have been the Fall, it could have been Richard Thompson, it could have been the Mekons. (I can no longer drink Jameson’s at all, even though this was more than 20 years ago.) My sort-of boyfriend/drinking partner won tickets to shows from radio stations by being the 4th or 9th or 11th caller, due to an uncanny genius he possessed for speed-dialing, giving a different name every time — during that era, I saw almost everyone perform live at least once, usually for free, always shitfaced. For about five years there, I lived a life of loud music and a lot of booze, and then impersonal, physically demanding sex afterwards with more booze, and then I’d go to my mindless job the next day on the subway and walk home after work through streets crammed with people and shop windows and noises and traffic and smells —
I suppose I drank that way for the usual reasons, since I’m generally no different from the next person. I remember wanting desperately to escape myself, to flee the annoying chirpiness of my too-clear, too-verbal brain, so recently educated, so freshly imbued with the powers of literary analysis and writerly dogma. I was a bushy-tailed, arrogant, ambitious smartass who believed there was time for everything. I had never been bad in my life before, I’d been the responsible first-born daughter of a single mother, and as a kid I worried that, if I didn’t keep it together, it might all fall apart. In my late 20s, I finally realized that I didn’t have to pretend I could help anyone by being good anymore.
Last weekend, we had Christmas Eve dinner at our friend Rosie’s. It was one of those memorable meals that seem to surpass all prior experiences of the dishes in question — in this case, shrimp cocktail and Rosie’s signature rye whiskey with ginger syrup, Bitter Darlings, then a rare rib roast, gratin dauphinois, a Yorkshire pudding I couldn’t eat because it contained gluten but which everyone moaned over as they ate it, butternut puree, kale salad with pine nuts, a lot of excellent red wine, and then, amazingly, a gorgeous Stilton, chocolate, bread-and-butter pudding with cardamom that looked as good as the Yorkshire pudding, Italian cookies, vin santo, and glogg. We all went home feeling immortally, royally sated.
The next day at noon, Brendan and I walked down Broadway from our hotel to meet a friend at the Union Square movie theater. It was a sunny, mild day, and the city was quiet and empty. Before “Young Adult” started, we went to the billiards hall on 12th and 4th to have a pre-movie drink because nothing else was open. The bartender was idly sitting around. He perked up when we came in and populated the empty bar. Jami ordered a Bloody Mary. Brendan waited for me to order next, and then, for the next few minutes, I channeled a sober rendition of my bad old drinking self. I ruthlessly quizzed the bartender on his Bloody Mary recipe on the way to ordering one, and then, when I learned that he had no Smirnoff (my favorite vodka), I announced that long ago, I could tell the difference between 4 kinds of vodka in a blind taste test. He offered to recreate it then and there for me at no charge; I demurred. My skills aren’t what they once were. I explained the origins of the bet that caused me to train for this test, which I passed, and then I veered off into an interrogation as to what tequilas he had on hand, lambasted Cuervo Gold, which I will never drink again because it’s dirt, it’s disgusting, and then I ordered a Bloody Maria with the house well tequila, which the bartender showed me — a not-bad agave. Then I subsided, apparently out of gas. Brendan ordered a double shot of Don Julio on the rocks with fresh lime juice. And then, once again channeling the headstrong but dithering drunk I used to be and apparently still am, I changed my order to the same thing, but with the ice on the side because I like to slide it into the glass cube by cube as I sip. I could have gone on about the reasons for this, but he set our drinks in front of us with bowls of excellent potato chips, and then it was time to drink.
That glass of Christmas tequila, akin to the dinner that preceded it the night before, was the best drink I’d ever had, so good it simultaneously erased and buoyed my memory of all prior drinks. It was sublime, the ideal form of the Drink. The bartender, who was a good sport throughout all of this, got an enormous, deserved tip. I think he might have been sorry to see us go.
I learned to make this dish from the Englishwoman I worked for when I lived in France. Back then, I could eat gluten. Made correctly, it emerges from the oven looking like a big popover/souffle, brown and puffy around the edges, golden and firm in the middle. On Christmas Eve, Rosie’s pal Annika made what might have been the most glorious Yorkshire pudding ever baked. Everyone confirmed this. I ate it along with them in my taste-memory. It was the imagined idealized form of the Yorkshire pudding. Taste-memory is a strong internal palate — I felt afterwards as if I’d literally eaten it.
The recipe: half an hour before the roast is done, take a large bowl, and in it, combine 1 cup all-purpose flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1 cup milk and 2 eggs, beaten. Mix until smooth. Remove the roast from the oven and spoon 1/2 cup of drippings into a 9×9 inch pan. Increase oven temperature to 425 degrees. Return the roast to the oven. Pour the pudding batter into the drippings and bake for 10 minutes. Take the roast out of the oven; continue baking the pudding for another 25 to 30 minutes. When it’s cool enough, cut it into squares and serve it with the best, most perfectly rare and tender rib roast ever made in Christendom and Jewry.
I spend all the money I can afford on food and consider it well-spent and never look back. I feel lucky to be able to eat well. My childhood was spent in semi-genteel poverty, which is to say, my family never had any money, and our neighborhoods could be a bit rough, but we always had a lot of books, music, and fun. Before I was born, my mother was a cellist studying at Juilliard on a full scholarship. She finally decided she wasn’t cut out for the life of a cellist and quit with one semester to go and moved out to Berkeley, where she got married and had three daughters by the age of 31.
During my early years, she was the wife of a penniless Marxist pro-bono civil-rights lawyer (my father) and maker of spaghetti dinners for various Black Panthers and anti-war activists, and then she was a Ph.D candidate in psychology at Arizona State University and a single mother without child support (that father having vanished into the drug-fueled fog of the era), and finally she was a struggling fledgling private-practice psychologist living in an Arizona mountain ghost town, married to an unemployed and later barely-employed architect, and later, she was a very poor single mother again. By the time she moved back East and established herself in a successful private practice and married her third husband, a well-off English professor, my sisters and I had all left home.
During most of our early years as a family, we qualified for food stamps and free lunches at school. We bought our clothes in thrift shops. But we didn’t feel deprived. My mother was young, fun-loving, beautiful, always laughing. She read us stories every night before bed. She wasn’t a hippie, not by a long shot — she espoused none of the trendy spiritual beliefs or practices of the 1970s, she was not into free love or communal living; she was a responsible former straight-A student who put us to bed every night at 7:30 — but she wore sexy clothes, had long hair, threw great poker parties, and loved to take us camping. Indian bedspreads were a prominent feature of our house décor — but so were books and records. Most likely because our mother was a serious cellist, we all studied classical instruments, and my sister Susan studied ballet. We were encouraged, always, to be bold and confident in our undertakings — she didn’t freak out when I made minor explosions with my chemistry set, we were allowed to go into the kitchen and invent things, she gave all our plays and concerts standing ovations, she read and praised whatever we wrote, and she saved all our drawings.
And she fed us very well with the little money she had– before dinner, to stave off our pangs of hunger, we got a plate of cut-up raw carrots and peppers and jicama, which, not knowing any better, we gobbled up as fast as she could dole them out — or a big bowl of frozen mixed vegetables, which we adored and called Frozies. She baked healthy bread and handed us a piece of fruit or a Graham cracker for mid-afternoon hunger. Desserts were given sparingly; we ate no sugar cereal, had no junk food or pop (as we called it in Arizona) in the house, ever. But we weren’t ascetics or puritans. We occasionally had Spam and baloney, and for special occasions, we got to go to McDonald’s or the thrillingly glamorous (or so it seemed to me at the time) local Mexican place, where I always ordered the deep-fried beef chimichangas with a deep-fried sopapilla for dessert.
One of my favorite childhood meals was Farmer’s Fritters. On Friday nights, our mother whipped up a big batch of thin, crisp, tangy-sweet cottage-cheese pancakes. While we ate stacks of them with Aunt Jemima syrup, we told a story, going around the table, with the sliding glass door open to the patio and a warm breeze making the candles flicker. Someone started it, and then we took turns continuing it until it was finished. I wrote the best one down — of course my mother saved it, and I still have it in a box somewhere. My youngest sister Emily has the old egg-spattered recipe card — now she can make Farmer’s Fritters for her own kids.
My Mother’s Anadama Bread
I used to wolf down almost half a loaf of this dark, sweet, soft bread straight out of the oven. I would jaggedly cut into the steaming-hot loaf and slather each piece in margarine and honey and chew it with ecstatic eye-flutters and sighs, the kiddie version of a swoon, standing by the cutting board until I could eat no more.
this recipe comes courtesy of the New York Times…
In a bowl, stir together 1/2 cup coarse yellow cornmeal and 1 cup water. In a saucepan over medium-high heat, bring another cup of water to a boil. Add cornmeal mixture and cook, stirring constantly, until mixture is very thick, about 10 minutes. Stir in 1/2 cup molasses and 2 tablespoons butter. Transfer mixture to bowl of an electric mixer and cool to tepid.
In a small bowl, stir together 1 1/4-ounce package active dry yeast and 1/2 cup water until yeast has dissolved. Add to cornmeal and mix on low speed with dough-hook attachment for several seconds (my mother used a wooden spoon). Add 4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour 1/2 cup at a time, mixing for several seconds after each addition. Sprinkle in 1 teaspoon kosher salt and 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg, and continue mixing until dough completely comes away from sides of bowl, about 7 minutes (my mother turned it out onto a floured board and kneaded it for 10 minutes until it was supple and warm and glossy).
Lightly butter a bowl. Form dough into a ball and place it in bowl. Oil a sheet of plastic wrap and loosely cover dough. Allow dough to rise for 1 1/2 hours, or until it has doubled in size.
Lightly grease 2 9-by-4-inch loaf pans. Press down (my mother “punched” it down and kneaded it again briefly) dough and divide it into 2 equal pieces. Shape each piece loosely into a loaf and place each in a pan. Cover with plastic wrap (or a clean dish towel) and allow to rise for 30 minutes, or until loaves have doubled.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake loaves for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until bread is a dark golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped.
The recipe says: “Allow bread to cool in pans for 5 minutes, then turn out onto wire cooling rack. Brush all over with remaining softened butter. Serve warm if possible.” But I would say, cram as much buttered, honeyed bread into your mouth as you possibly can while it’s still piping hot.
Last night, after the sun set and our work was all finished for the day, we opened a bottle of wine and watched the charming, oddly heartwarming old movie “Ball of Fire” with Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, ate most of a pot of leek and potato soup with Tabasco, and turned in early. My sleep was restless and bad, maybe because the air is so dry this time of year, and the nights are so deep and quiet, sometimes it’s hard to sleep because my thoughts are so loud in my head.
We woke up to shaggy snow heaped over fields and tree branches and a snowy fog with the low sun breaking through to turn it all hazy gold. After coffee and two soft-boiled eggs with a piece of hot buttered toast broken into them (a favorite childhood breakfast that’s cozy and great on winter mornings), I threw together a car picnic, provisions for the drive to New York, which had the added advantage of emptying out the fridge and not having to stop at Panera’s in Connecticut. We drove away at 10:00, our car topped with a thick overhang of wet snow that slid off along the miles of dirt roads through the woods to the main road.
New Hampshire gave way, as it does, to Massachusetts. I fell asleep and awoke in Connecticut, where Brendan and I fell into a bleak knot of depression that didn’t lift until we crossed the New York border. We ate our lunch in near silence, aware that we were losers, that our lives were doomed, and that everything was futile. This may be true, but it seems far less so elsewhere. Does Connecticut have a magnetic anomaly in its atmosphere, or is it just us?
We drove down the West Side Highway, as luck would have it, at sunset. The sky was pink and gold, the river glowed, the city looked lit from within. We put the car in a garage for the weekend — it’s Christmas, dammit. And here we are, in a top floor room, with the view of the church across the street, in our favorite Hell’s Kitchen hotel, about to walk down through early evening holiday-season rush hour to jostle for two seats at the bar of our favorite bistro and splurge ourselves into a happy grinning heap. God, it’s good to be back.
Car picnics are best when they mimic actual, festive, intentional outdoor picnics — food that’s portable and easy to eat. Variety is essential for morale and sensory distraction. It’s good to have something warm, something creamy, something crunchy, something raw, something salty, and something sweet. To that end, heat up the leftover leek and potato soup from last night and pour it into a wide-mouthed Thermos, adding Tabasco and extra salt. Put the 3/4 log of goat cheese in a Baggie, wash and cut up some carrots and celery, unearth a box of sesame rice crackers, gather up all the dark chocolate in the house, and don’t forget the bag of salted roasted cashews and the rest of the orange juice. Put it all into a big paper sack and store it within reach of the shotgun passenger, who will obligingly feed the driver. In Connecticut, eat most of the chocolate and try to keep perspective: New York is just ahead.