Finding My Chowder — Part 2

Corn Chowder

Corn season on the East Coast is ending, sweetness flying off cobs to hole up for the winter and be retrieved -- if we are lucky -- for our next warm time. Still, there's an autumn corn-ucopia to be had. The few farm stands that remain open are stocking swollen cauliflowers and glossy leeks, hard parsnips, more and still more carrots. But the late corn in their coolers, tassels limp, allow us a final chowder. Brooklyn kids from the '50s rarely saw corn on a cob. Canned corn, even dairy-free "creamed style," was considered lazy roughage, so … [Read more...]

Finding My Chowder — Part 1

cannedlunch

  I don't know where she was born, and I don't know her real last name. When I say this to friends or even to party strangers, they quite rightly raise eyebrows. My late mother lived to almost 90. What kind of adult son would have been so profoundly uncurious? As of now, I've found no record of her before her marriage to my dad -- no marriage certificate, either. Her maiden name is "Browne" on the photostat of my birth certificate, but she told me later that that was not the case and offered another one -- also, as it happens, … [Read more...]

Learning To Cook: Frittata

Potato, scallion, mushroom, sweet onion and Parmesan frittata

  Eggs, and recipes for eggs, are paradoxical. That shouldn't seem so at first. An egg will do a certain thing when placed near, or mixed with, another thing, and do that thing at a certain temperature for a certain amount of time. Which is what all ingredients do. But actually, as lucky four-year-olds know, eggs are full of surprises. Eggs are also full of doubt. Their clichéd purity of form is challenged by the slippery dualism of yolk versus white, which is why there's something sad, even destructive, when you take a fork or whisk … [Read more...]

Learning To Cook: Meatloaf

meatloaf jewel

Neither my brother nor I can recall sitting down to eat meatloaf when we were Brooklyn kids.  But we must have, because we share a childhood "meatloaf ghost." "It had something red and burnt on top," he told me on the phone. "But I can't remember anything else about it." That must have been tomato sauce or, more likely, ketchup -- probably Heinz in our conventional household. We have no idea how the ghost's corpse tasted. I wouldn't blame Mom's particular meatloaf for that. No matter how good the food she gave us every single night … [Read more...]

More About Old Menus

New York Central wartime menu, c. 1943

My favored outside writing-home of the moment, the cheerful Obit Magazine, just published a piece and a slideshow, What the Dead Once Ate, about old menus and the stories they tell that partners last week's Out There post called Menu Time-Travel. Both include links to the New York Public Library's collection of 10,000 examples of past gluttony -- the library has massed 40,000 -- that are definitely click-worthy. Do you wonder, as I do, what every faded stain once tasted like? Oh, the captions for the Obit slideshow seem to have slipped … [Read more...]

Menu Time-Travel

Uncle Tom's Cabin Fried Pies

You need not ask me to explain the piles of old restaurant menus and food ephemera loaded into boxes and bags in my closet, because each item is more than glad to tell its story. The 1920s candy wrapper with crumbs of ancient chocolate hiding in the creases or stained S.S. Lurline dinner card (to and from Hawaii) are straining to brag about their former flavors and who last sampled them. Vintage object are patient in the long run, but they ultimately demand total attention. When I brought that candy wrapper home from the flea, it forced me … [Read more...]

Getting Pickled: My Brine Cocktail Comeuppance

I was taken aback by my failure to find a worthy pickle cocktail. I love pickles to an extent that should embarrass me. I could eat pickles every day of my life -- especially classic kosher half-sours. I can't explain that, in a Freudian or even middlebrow New Yorker way; it's just a kitchen fact, and I have no expectation that constant or even random readers would share my pickle jones. Perhaps it's genetic, like green hair or being gay. But how could you not crave tumid, crunchy, garlicky off-green pickles? Cut them up into dainty pieces if … [Read more...]

Why Donuts Are Like Sex, Plus a Letter From Jackie Robinson

Chock Full o' SomethingYes, we can be nostalgic, really nostalgic, for something we never knew.Of course, we've understood for eons that nostalgia -- a warm haze of sentimental regret for a more beneficent past -- needn't have anything to do with what we actually did or saw. My own nostalgias usually hang on something edible: a stuffed artichoke, a cold piece of buttered toast, a dripping pickle. Each of these personal -- Brooklyn -- icons kicks off an emotion-larded story, a tale whose verifiable details left the premises long ago, but … [Read more...]

French Dip, or Roast Beef Regret

Recently I took a short break from intense and gratifying work with 25 theater and arts critics in Los Angeles, at the NEA Institute in Theater and Musical Theater, and avoided lunching yet again at the gastronomically hypnotic Lazy Ox Canteen. Instead, I strolled on a gorgeous bright day from our Little Tokyo hotel past Olvera Street, bathed in hubbub and jacaranda light, to Philippe the Original, the not-original, post-WWII site of one of the oldest restaurants in Los Angeles. I had mentioned Philippe -- everyone calls it Philippe's -- to my … [Read more...]

The Best Pesto

A Modest Lesson in Journalistic AdviceIt may be odd for a former restaurant critic to claim that he always thought anyone could cook anything well, but it's true. Cooking in a restaurant shouldn't be rocket science, yet it certainly isn't easy. Silly Hell's Kitchen and TV shows like it are staged exaggerations, but their working assumptions -- of instinct, teamwork, communication -- are all honest kitchen keywords. This is my preamble to what could seem like a brag, but it just so happened that tonight I made for myself what could be the best … [Read more...]