Thursday, February 4, 2010

Lives of the Great Foodies, or At Least My Own

As a child, I ate well only at lunchtime. My classmates would get a single slice of some unspeakable Oscar Meyer lunchmeat, the kind that came in a little puddle of slime, between slices of the world’s worst white bread, as lacking in flavor or texture as in nutrition. I, on the other hand, got huge thick sandwiches with bologna bought from an actual deli and bread from an actual bakery. I think of the love with which my mother made those sandwiches and want to cry.

Breakfast wasn't so good; I wss rarely served a soft-boiled egg (and I got one, with toast, every morning) that didn't seem to contain a little glob of mucus. Nor was dinnertime any more felicitous. My mother, who’d never allowed herself to think she was much good at anything else, reveled in her exemplary housekeeping. Except for the chaotic top of her dresser — which seemed to be a sanctuary for all her refugee laziness — ours always looked like a model home, and was as clean as an operating room. She didn’t think of herself as much of a cook, though, and seemed intent on proving herself right. One night we’d have a (commonly undercooked) baked potato, Birdseye lima beans exactly as flavorful as the bag in which she’d brought them home from Thriftimart, and meatloaf, all too often with an egg in the middle. The next night we’d have a baked potato, Birdseye peas and carrots exactly as flavorful as the Thriftimart bag, and a piece of Van de Kamp’s halibut, commonly undercooked and a little soggy. Then it would be back to the baked potato, Birdseye lima beans, and meatloaf.

The potato, into which I could put a lot of butter and sour cream, usually got me through to dessert, the only part of the meal I — and Mom — really enjoyed. For about a year there, I wasn’t just meek, but roly-poly in the bargain, a glorious combination for a fourth-grade boy with self-esteem issues!

[Yes, it is indeed obscene for me to complain when so many in the world starved in those years. But still...]

I slimmed down somehow and delivered the Westchester News-Advertiser. There was a morale-boosting breakfast for all us paperboys at which sausages were served. I shudder now at the thought of them, but at the time was in epicurean heaven, having never encountered this rare and exotic delicacy in my ultra-secular Jewish household, wherein bacon made occasional appearances, but pork in other guises was unthinkable. Same thing with the luscious pigs-in-blankets offered by the Orville Wright Junior High School cafeteria, and their remarkable submarine sandwiches, with the radioactive chartreuse mustard. Every day at Nutrition (a mid-morning break intended to give young breakfast-skippers a chance to elevate their blood sugar) I gaped in astonishment as a big Mexican kid virtually inhaled one, his spending 35 cents at Nutrition — not even lunch, but Nutrition! — being roughly equivalent to J.P. Morgan ordering four lobsters and chateaubriand for dinner. Such profligacy!

My parents got slightly more adventurous as my mother became increasingly fed up with cooking. We tried Chinese food from the Thriftimart freezer case, and my dad would bring home a pizza pie or submarine sandwiches from a place on La Tijera in Westchester called Andy’s. The former, with everything drowning in cornstarch-thickened glop, was enough to put a less intrepid diner off Asian food forever. The latter, with genuine fresh oregano on the pizza, made me rejoice in having a palate.

The first 15 months or so in my first home in Hollywood, I made myself the same meal — sautéed shrimps, scallions, and mushroom with brown rice and spinach noodles — every night for the first year or so. I never tired of it; I looked forward to it every night. I have improved as a cook since then approximately as much as I have improved as a guitarist. [Judge my guitar-playing for yourself on my sensational new album; product placement!]

I believe that there are absolutes in the world. I believe, for instance, that racism and other forms of intolerance are, at the very least, extremely stupid, and that nearly everyone looks better with hair obscuring his or her forehead. I believe that aioli, sashimi, and dark chocolate with almonds or hazelnuts may be the most delicious edibles in the world, and that Thai cuisine — which I officially discovered in my twenties, though it was branded at the time as Siamese — is incontestably wonderful, though the first meal I ate in actual Thailand, at an open air market in Hua Hin, pretty nearly took my head off. The only hotter meal I’ve ever survived was at the Korean place on La Cienega Blvd. in West Hollywood where ABC Records’ art director would routinely get his staff too drunk to stand upright. I ate something there once that inspired me to sprint into the men’s room, fill a sink with cold water and immerse my whole face in it.

I stopped eating the flesh of dead mammals in the spring of 1978. If you’d been walking on Grant Street in San Francisco’s Chinatown beside me that day, and seen the meat truck guys carrying pig carcasses into the restaurant on the ends of poles with hooked ends, I can’t imagine you wouldn’t have stopped too. I regard beef-, lamb-, and pork-eaters as low-grade cannibals — with the full knowledge that real across-the-board vegetarians are no less disgusted by my own continued consumption of fish, fowl, and seafood.

The most wonderful meal I’ve ever eaten was at Langan’s Brasserie in London with my former friend Frances in 1979. We were both just back from the San Sebastian International Film Festival, where we journalists had been issued little books of vouchers to use at the city’s best restaurants — which is to say, some of Western Europe’s best restaurants. (Tapas: bliss!) I’d grown accustomed to having something breathtaking every night, but the turbot at Langan’s made all else pale in comparison.

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