Monday, December 10, 2007

Drink Wine: Make Friends, Destroy Yourself

One time, in Barcelona, I drink about five bottles of $1 red wine. Here's what happens:

Karen and I are looking for a place to live. I see an ad at the university.

I still have a copy so I'll quote verbatim:

For Rent!
Luxury rooms in share flat.

Free breakfasts and dinners.

Vinos and champagne.

Game room.
Dancing room.
TV’s, telephones, heatings.

Maid server very morning.

English, Catalan, Spanish speaking.

Much Respect. 20.000 PTAS!!!
Call Javier.

20.000 pesetas is shockingly cheap. Is this guy Javier fucking with me? Of course, he's fucking with me. But Karen and I have already spent a month looking for a flat. We're living in a room in a pensión. It's cold, our funds are disastrously low, and we're starting to hate each other.

So I call Javier.

That night, he shows up on the street outside the pensión. He’s standing perfectly still in the rain, smoking a cigarette, and staring at the pensión door. Smoke curls up, hovers over his face. The look is suggestive of menace. But clear the smoke, he’s no menace. In fact, he seems downright giddy, his eyes glued to the pensión door as if he were awaiting the emergence of The Utterly Fantastic.

Which, judging by what happens next, would be Karen.

We go down and meet him.

"Please," he says. "Please. I am very sorry."

He bows and breaks into a shrill giggle. It’s disturbing, highly infectious. I try not to laugh, but the giggle is so addictive. I bite my lip, take a good look at him. He’s Peruvian; no, he’s Moroccan; no, maybe, Egyptian. The giggling is obscene, but beyond this, there’s a certain inappropriateness in his gestures. The best I can say, he’s incredibly foreign. I imagine him wandering the streets, peddling Kleenex.

So I shake his hand.

Then he takes a look at Karen. The giggle hits a crescendo. It’s absurd. He puts his hand on his heart. He swoons.

I burst into laughter.

So now we’re both hysterical, Javier and I. We’re standing in the rain, looking at Karen, and giggling.

And Karen?

Well, clearly, she's freaked.

Still, we go to Javier's flat.

There's no dancing room, no game room.

I ask, "Where's the dancing room?"

He says, "All the beautiful people!"

So I walk down the hallway, poke my head in the kitchen. They're two people, sitting at a table. I'm astonished. There's Aimee. She's from Long Beach, she's ridiculously cool, and she actually lives in Javier's flat. And there's Pablo. He's from Buenos Aires, he's probably my doppelgänger, and he too lives in Javier's flat.

So we sit down. Javier puts wine on the table. It’s called Vinya Del Fadrí. I’ve seen it before in the supermarket, Champion, for 150 pesetas (one US dollar, more or less.)

I recall having said to Karen, “Let’s buy ten bottles.”

And now I think of this moment with disbelief, because Javier has done just that: he has bought ten bottles, perhaps more, and on top of each unopened bottle he is placing a tall, burning candle. He lights a candle, melts the other end, and affixes it on a bottle. He repeats this gesture with five or six more bottles.

Then he puts tumblers on the table, opens a bottle, and pours each glass to the brim. One more drop, the glass overflows. I put my head down, slurp from the top. No sooner do I sip than Javier refills the glass. I bend to sip, he pours more. I sip again, he pours more.

This happens three or four times.

Finally, I put my hand over the glass.

Javier waits until I remove it and pours more.

"Please drink," Javier says. "In my flat, is normal."

So I sip. And Javier pours more wine. I sip because I want to drink. And Javier pours more because, well, I assume he wants me to drink.

Another thirty minutes, I’m drunk.

Meanwhile, Javier makes food. He makes a huge, composed salad. He makes pasta with a spicy red sauce. He serves it in large bowls, with a fried egg on top. It’s odd, addictive. I devour mine. I finish Karen's. I lick Pablo and Aimee's plates clean.

What am I doing?

I don’t care. I've hit that red-wine plateau when the evening is full of possibility, when everything promises benevolence and hope. I’m fabulously happy. I go to the bathroom. On my way, I drop to the floor, do fifty push-ups.

Alone, in the bathroom, I amuse myself with visions of large numbers.

“One billion,” I say. “One trillion!”

I come back and there's Pablo, sipping from a full glass of wine, there's Aimee, clearly amused, and there's Karen, talking to Javier, still clearly freaked.

And there's Javier making more food.

Next comes the fish, a huge sizzling platter of fried onion and flesh.

I eat so much I need to drink wine. I drink so much I need to quote several lines from the Chinese poets.

“Everywhere I go I owe money for wine,” I say.

“Everyday I am drunk all day long,” I say.

Pablo observes this spectacle with a certain look of pleasure. I can tell, he finds me petulant and rowdy. I already like him. In fact, from the moment I see him, I sense my life is about to become more interesting, in the sense that Pablo seems like the kind of guy who I can sit down and share a few bottles of wine with and later part with a handshake, a few good laughs, and a jab in the ribs.

So I look at him, give him a triumphant arm-raising gesture.

In this way, quoting the Chinese poets, pumping my arm into the air, and happily eating, I drink five bottles of $1 wine.

And in this way, over the course of six or seven ridiculous hours, I cement a few life-long friendships.


We all have similar experiences. We share a fabulous occasion with someone and we become fabulous friends. Some might say it's the occasion that inspires friendship. Some might say, obviously, that people inspire friendship. Of course, I agree.

But when I look back to the birth of my greatest friendships, I also see a lot of wine. I see that moment when the evening is full of possibility, when everything promises benevolence and hope, and I look at my new friend and think: I fuckin' love this person!

I edited Steve's last post on beer. Foolishly, I inserted one of my most treasured lines: "There's nothing quite as unifying as sharing horrid beer." I'm taking that line back and restoring its proper meaning. That line should read: "There's nothing quite as unifying as sharing wine."

Beer, of course, creates unity. But beer is for the frat-boy, the guy who needs to create elaborate rituals and games (beer bong, circle of death, etc...) to induce "brotherhood" and friendship. These games strike me as weirdly competitive: Like frat boys, they're full of anger and shouts. I never made a friend over beer pong, although I certainly made a few enemies.

I've never really played a wine game. What's the point? I don't drink wine to get drunk. I drink wine to talk. The only wine "game" I know is this one: Let's see how much we can fall in love by the end of this bottle of wine.


In Greek mythology there's this guy Dionysus. You know he's kick-ass because he's the son of Zeus--The King of Gods. Here's what happens:

Zeus makes love to Persophone, The Queen of the Underworld. She gives birth to Dionysus. Zeus' wife, Hera, discovers the baby. Of course, she's full of jealous rage. So she sends the goddamn Titans (of all people!) to eat the baby.

The Titans are mushroom cloud-laying motherfuckers. They don't mess around.

Here's what they do:

They give Dionysus a mirror. He's mesmerized. He's so mesmerized, in fact, that he totally misses the bum rush. The Titans sneak up on him, tear him up, boil him in a cauldron, and eat him.

Only thing, Rhea, the mother of Zeus, saves Dionysus' heart. She gives it to Zeus.

Imagine this: Your Mom gives you the beating heart of your child. Somebody's devoured the rest of him. The heart is all that's left.

So you're Zeus, what do you do?

You hide the heart in your thigh.Sometime later, your son bursts out, reborn. Then, to shelter the newly re-born Dionysus from the recriminations of the Titans, you leave him in the care of a band of nymphs. The nymphs hide him in a cave, feed him honey, and raise him with tigers.

Soon, though, that jealous nut Hera finds Dionysus. Showing no mercy, she twists his brain, leaving him outrageous. So Dionysus suddenly rejects the gentle nymphs and instead chooses as his companions the satyrs (see below) and the maenads, wild women with wicked, gleaming eyes.

A bald, bearded, horse-tailed satyr balances a winecup on his erect penis. In Greek mythology Satyrs are often associated with sex and vase-painters often portray them with uncontrollable erections.

He travels abroad. He fights battles. He subdues entire continents. Here and there, he plants vines. He discovers wine. He invents the wild party.

Upon his return to Greece, Rhea drives the madness from his brain, but it's too late. Though calmed, Dionysus never gives up his former life. He's too attached to his companions and the common bond they shared: their love of revelry and wine.

This is the early life of Dionysus, the God of Wine.



In his book
Iron John Robert Bly writes:

Dionysus is the Greek god most connected with wounds and woundedness...Some of the other Greek gods, Apollo and Zeus, for example, stand for wholeness, radiance, and sun-like integrity; but Dionysus stands for the ecstasy that can come from tearing and being torn apart.

Dionysus is the clump of grapes that hands tore apart in the Greek villages and threw into the wine vat. When the men and women were trampling on those grapes, it is known that they would sing: 'O Dionysus, I did not know, I did not know.' When cattle culture came to Greece, the village people ritually killed a bull in the spring, and as they ate the raw flesh, spoke the name 'Dionysus' over and over.

We tend to think of wine as a sophisticated drink, but when we do we neglect its wild origins. Other drinks might represent wholeness and purity (distilled vodka, for example) but wine represents the ecstasy of tearing and being torn apart. Wine is the drink of the wounded god Dionysus and his wild community, where self-obliteration is a way of life.


Follow the metaphor of the grape: Sooner or later, youthful sweetness is trampled, torn apart. And then we make wine. Wine improves with age. Wine gets richer, fuller. Imagine, you're Dionysus. Or maybe you're young and living in Barcelona. You're still one big nerve with a mouth at one end and a wing at the other. But your heart will get bigger. A glass of wine, really, might just be the perfect metaphor for what you might become: mature, bold, intoxicating.

So you got out, seeking obliteration. This is not nearly the same as getting drunk. In fact, it's the thing most opposite of getting drunk. When you get drunk, you destroy unintentionally: you foolishly break things, you haphazardly fuck things.

When you self-obliterate, though, you break with intention: You destroy in order to create.

You're Picasso (an avid wine-drinker) painting the
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon; you're Rimbaud (an avid wine drinker) fucking around Paris, writing ridiculous lines:

Once, if my memory serves me well, my life was a banquet where every heart revealed itself, where every wine flowed.

One evening I took Beauty in my arms--and I thought her bitter--and I insulted her.

Possibly, though, you're just You, drinking wine. You're pumping your fist, getting into strange encounters, loving, and, yes, getting drunk. But when you wake up the next day, after five $1 bottles of wine, don't you feel a little bit re-vivified?
Sure, you wake up, your head hurts, and you feel a little sick, but your heart--Oh, your heart feels fantastic!

You're light, giddy.

Sometimes you want to feel like this--utterly destroyed, each part of you throbbing with pain, but your heart.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Beer becomes me

I like beer. I’ve always liked beer. A lot.

It’s taste? Exciting, provocative.

The feeling of drinking a glass on a hot summer day? Exhilarating, refreshing.

The alcohol content? An added bonus.

Sometimes my love of beer causes awkward social situations.

Take the time we were invited to lunch by some new friends. It was Rosh Hashanah. It was humid and muggy. I was wearing a suit and a too-tight necktie. We walked thirty minutes to the house. When we arrived I was sweating, profusely, and feeling very uncomfortable. I loosened my tie. We sat down for lunch. There was no water on the table. Instead, my friend offered me an ice-cold bottle of beer. In desperate need of refreshment and forgetting that we were in polite company, I tipped my head back and drained the entire bottle.

This would have raised nary an eyebrow had it been water or iced tea. But to do it with beer is to put yourself in an altogether different category of being: the drinker. Persona non grata.

When I put down the empty bottle, the look on our host’s face was amused shock. My wife’s expression was the stolid, stone-faced picture of mortification and embarrassment.

I brought my hand to my mouth to suppress the inevitable belch.

What could I say? I love beer, especially on hot days. Which is exactly what I did say.


I make no pretense. I am not a beer connoisseur. I’ve always had a hard time taking beer connoisseurs seriously. I see the beer connoisseur as a middle-aged guy with a big gut and a red nose who has managed to turn a drinking problem and a slight penchant for writing into a career. You can't blame him, really. That might just be my personal dream.

Anyway, I drink it all: Bud, Corona, Heineken, Yuengling, Stella, Miller, Pabst, even the occasional forty-ounce malt liquor.

When it comes to forties, my favorite has always been Olde English 800. I love the pure malt flavor, the rich golden hue. Actually, forget that, I really just love the memories I have, late teenage memories: wild laughter, a hot garage transformed into a party palace, and a few friends jumping around, yelling: "forty, forty, forty!"


Wine has its special allure, its great mythological progeny, but beer--we create our own beer myths and often these myths begin ridiculously, with something like a bottle of Olde E.

Other beers I might drink: Natural Light, Schlitz, and, of course "Beast"--Milwaukee's Best Ice.

These are the type of beers that must be shared. There's nothing quite as unifying as sharing horrid beer. I've cemented friendships over a case of "Beast".

We used to buy something called American which was about five dollars a case, no kidding. If you got it nearly freezing and drank it very fast it almost, as our friend Cogan said, tasted like beer. But it was perfect after we'd come back from doing something stupid in the 90 degree sun. We'd throw back about eight each and almost, as Cogan said, get a buzz.

Yeah, beer--I like it best shared, without pretense, on a warm summer's day, on a corner, in a closet, in a bar, on my couch, on the beach, with a few buddies, on a plaza...whatever.

There's nothing as unifying as sharing beer


Occasionally I find myself at bar with an excellent beer selection. If I have a little extra cash in my pocket, I might order a high-end French beer that comes in what looks like a wine bottle. It usually costs about $18 and is delicious.

In an Irish bar, it's always a Guinness. My neighborhood in The Bronx has a large Irish immigrant population. It also has several authentic Irish bars, filled with Irish people in their derby caps, sweaters and flannel pants. When I'm at the bar, I love to listen to the lilt of their accents and the cheeriness with which they greet a common stranger. It's a nice thing to behold in New York, a city where most strangers are treated with instant suspicion. In an Irish bar, nobody orders wine. It's all about the beer and warm, light hearted bar-stool philosophy. Every man is a sage. I like that.


The one thing I won’t touch is light beer. To me, light beer has always been the official drink of freshman college girls and cheesy white guys in tight ribbed T-shirts with blond highlighted hair tips, glistening with gel.

Light beer represents everything that is wrong with our American corporate mass culture--that taste, originality, and ultimately experience itself is sacrificed for the projection of a certain image or body type. Light beer offers us an impotent, watered down version of the real thing. As if life itself needs to be neutered, sanitized, and individually wrapped in plastic for our own protection.

Fuck that.

I say drink a real beer. If beer is making you fat, then drink less beer.

Or maybe switch to a good whiskey.

I'll get the next round.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007


I've been eating turkey and mashed potatoes everyday for lunch since Thanksgiving.

I live for leftovers. That is the main reason why I wanted my family to come to our house this year--so that we would we have the pleasure of leftovers.

I need this. There is something deep within me that feels any meal I've cooked is a kind of failure if everything is not consumed.

Even before we had cleared the plates I was stripping the turkey carcass, leaving the choicest chunks of skin and meat on for soup. By the time we served tea, I had put the leftovers in the freezer. The crock pot was on the kitchen counter and filled with water, salt, a bay leaf, some carrots, a few onions. Desert was not even over before I had placed the carcass into the crock pot. The slow-cook process would transform it all into a steaming cauldron of soup overnight.

There is nothing quite like waking to the smell of home cooked soup in morning.

This is Thanksliving.

I bring the soup to work for lunch. I tell my workmates how I made the soup. Many of them are bewildered by the idea of making soup from a turkey carcass. I stand even more bewildered. I think to myself: How can you throw out a turkey carcass without using it?

And then I get angry.

I feel a sense of pride knowing that every single ounce of food from my thanksgiving meal was eaten, albeit slowly, over a period of weeks. I carry with me a sense of social responsibly knowing that even the bones were used for the preparation of another meal. No waste. Never.

Maybe this is part of my Native American heritage manifesting itself (my great grandmother was Cherokee), as they were known for using every part of the animals they hunted. Although I think it has more to do with the way I was raised.


During my childhood in the late 1970's and early 80's my father was in cancer remission. When he was originally diagnosed in 1976 at the age of 29, his doctors gave him a ten percent chance to live beyond one year. Feeling desperate, he agreed to take part in a study to test the effects of a new type of chemotherapy on terminal patients. During his sessions he received experimental, often massive doses of platinum-based drugs, which are now among the most widely used. While the drugs obliterated the cancer, they also obliterated his body, leaving him in a weakened state for the rest of his life.

In the early days of his remission my parents made sure that our house was a citadel of healthy, organic, and contaminate-free food as possible. I remember going to the food co-op with my mother, and the mornings when my father would dare me to join him in shot of bitter aloe-vera juice, his morning elixir. There were thousands of vitamin pills. All candy was made from carob, never chocolate. Sugar free peanut butter? Sugar free everything. Soy burgers instead of beef. Fruit leather. Organic toothpaste. Not any white bread to be seen. Anywhere. Never.

My parents' food attitude was very simple: everything was vital. Food was sacred. Nothing was ever wasted. Our fridge was often bare and lean, stocked with only the essentials. Inside were stacked weeks worth of leftovers in bags and bowls, on dishes and plates. We were always expected to eat all of our food. If I dallied too long at my bowl of soup, my mother would place an egg timer on the table, accompanied by the threat of an early bedtime.

They would take this ethic to the nth degree with other things as well, transforming it into an all consuming lifestyle of thrift. After lunch in school, I was expected to bring home the tin foil that my sandwich was wrapped in. My brown paper lunch bags were also expected to come home. If milk prices were high, we drank powdered milk.

Mom would write out our family's dinner menu three weeks in advance and post it on the refrigerator door. This always amused my friends, who would refuse to eat most of the things in our house.

In a way, this is the epitome of what is called the neurotic. Yet in a way, this is also Thanksliving. Everything is sacred. No waste. Never. Be thankful.


I hate wasting food. It runs against something so basic and primal within me. When I look into some people's refrigerator and see it stocked to the top with all sorts of food, I get offended knowing that most of it will spoil and be thrown out before it gets eaten.

When people come to eat at my house, I stack food on their plate and tell them to eat it or else they're never allowed to come over again.

If I haven't drunk all of the wine, I'll pour it into your glass. Or perhaps I'll just put the whole bottle on your plate instead.

Either way, there won't be anything wasted or leftover.

If there is, I'll know what I'm having for lunch tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Why Cooks Are Terrible (Loving) People

In her latest post Suzanne links to an interview in the film 24 Preludes for a Fugue, where the composer Arvo Pärt explains the philosophy behind his piece Für Alina:

He says: "I had a need to concentrate on each sound so that every blade of grass would be as important as a flower...a blade of grass has the status of a flower."

Inspired by the grace and loving simplicity of Pärt's approach to music Suzanne writes:

"His music shows us that simple need not imply a lack of complexity; accessible is not a synonym for lack of depth. Everything matters! Each ingredient is important; none takes precedence over any other...Timing and rhythm are essential. Mood is important. What you did that day. The music you’re listening to or the TV in the background. The sounds and smells floating in the background..."

This passage speaks to me: it strikes my heart, of course, as a cook, But it also strikes my heart as a human being. To think, each ingredient, each moment, is utterly important! This is the meal I always envision, the life I want to live.

The French poet Robert Desnos writes:

There is a precise instant in time
When a man reaches the exact center of his life,
A fraction of a second,
A fugitive particle of time quicker than a glance,
More fleeting than lover's bliss,
Faster than light,
And a man is awake to this moment

I chase this moment, ceaselessly, passionately, and often, recklessly. I strike out each day, each meal, each moment, in search of satisfaction, delight, and perfection.

In the realm of food, my chase often ends in the sublime. I'm an obsessive lunatic about ingredients. I'll drive all over town searching for the perfect parsnips. I'll drive an hour out of my way to buy a certain loaf of bread from a certain baker. I buy my Gala apples at one place and my Cameo apples at another. I work, for the love of god, at a famously well-stocked grocery store: Whole Foods Market. And yet, I'll leave work and drive somewhere else for my vegetables. I need the best, the most tasty, the most local (and unfortunately, usually the most expensive) food.

I know, there's madness in this. There's also a certain level of elitism. I refuse good food in favor of better food, I know, because I rank food in degrees of betterness and I convince myself I need the best. Really, I just want it. And this attitude leads, inevitably, to a certain, uncompromising plunge into economic insolvency. I have bills to pay. I don't care, I'd rather spend my money on raw butter. I'll never care, really.

I love what happens when you obsess over food. You meet strange, delicious people. You find yourself in odd places, full of good smells. You find yourself trudging through mud, in pursuit of berries. You get your hands sticky with all sort of goo. You stain everything. To me, this is simply part of the recipe.

Like Suzanne says: "Everything matters! Each ingredient is important; none takes precedence over any other."

So you're a real cook. You truly believe every ingredient is important. You know, everything matters. You strike out each day, each meal, in search of perfection. Of course, your chase ends in the sublime. Your food tastes spectacular. You nourish others with kick-ass ingredients. This is the meal you envision.


You also envision the life you want to live.

You're a cook. You make food, for sure, but you live food too. Your ingredients are never merely limited to your dishes. You put a bit of yourself into a dish too: a bit of your stress, a bit of your fun, a bit of your obsession. You nourish others with your obsessive love.

But obsession can hurt people too. You're a real cook, which means you are uncompromising. You understand what a knife can do and you know how to yield it.

What if you step in the way of my search for satisfaction, delight, and perfection? I know what I do. I cut you. I call you names. I say, Get the fuck out of my kitchen. Then I slice your heart and serve it to you on a platter, garnished with lemon, for the sting.

No doubt, obsession hurts. Perhaps this is why so many great cooks are notoriously terrible people. We seek perfection for others, and we seek it in them too.

This is the type of attitude that says: I will cook you the perfect roast chicken, but you will not deserve it. Nobody deserves my roast chicken. Because to deserve my roast chicken you must first make it yourself. I buy immensely wonderful chicken from the local co-op, hormone free, anti-biotic free, displayed with happy little suicide notes from the chickens themselves! My chicken is brined in Sauvignon Blanc. My chicken is stuffed with two fat organic lemons, spiked with cloves. Then, as my chicken cooks, I say a prayer: God I hate killing little birds but at least we can eat them and do our little dance of praise.

Now, tell me, who cares this much? Not you.

No chicken for you!

I hate to say it, but this is me. This is me at work. This me, on the line, in the restaurant. This is me serving food to the undeserving masses.

(Illustration courtesy of Nesrine...)

Can I redeem myself? I try. I try to redeem myself with my love. I cook for my family, my friends, my wife. I try not to require perfection in them. I try to let them merely show up with an appetite (and, preferably, a bottle of wine). That should be enough. These people should deserve my food, without qualifications.

I cooked two Thanksgiving dinners this year (with the help of my formidable, patient wife): one on Thursday for my family and another on Friday for my other family, my friends.

I also cooked a pre-Thanksgiving Feast on Wednesday night.

I poured my heart into these meals, and yes, at times I felt nobody deserved my effort. But I tried so hard, so very hard.

For example:

Wednesday, I came home and brined a few turkeys with my great friend and neighbor JJ. We made a spectacular mess. Turkey juice splattered all over the kitchen. We filled trashbags with brine, slipped the turkeys in the bags, and then stuffed the bags in JJ's fridge. I'm sure we violated every possible sanitation practice recommended by the Department of Agriculture.

Then I made dinner with my buddy Mikey: roasted chicken, roasted sweet potatoes and parsnips, roasted beets, pan-fried seitan, and melted kale. It was an epic, pre-Thanksgiving feast. A few friends came over. We got stoned on roasted sweet potatoes and parsnips. We drank wine.

Shortly after dinner, JJ went to his place to check on the turkeys. He rushed back.

He said: There's turkey brine all over my kitchen floor.

I went over and confirmed the disaster: one of the bags had exploded. JJ's kitchen was utterly flooded with impossibly unsanitary turkey brine-juice. We rolled up our sleeves and went to work. We mopped, we scrubbed.

This is effort. But I love this effort. I love the hassles, the amazing dilemma. A cook has to love the effort--the effort is everything.

Fast forward to Friday. I've already cooked two turkeys. Karen and I have already served 15 family-members a fabulous Thanksgiving meal. We're dead tired, but we've made plans to do it again!

We've decided to eat at Karen's parent's house (we've been enlisted to baby-sit our nephews and niece; yes, we combine baby-sitting with massive displays of cooking and partying...) but because of a few complications I need to cook the turkey at my place. So I cook a 22-pound turkey and drive it over to Karen's parent's place in my car, precariously nestled in its roasting pan in the back seat, a pot of hot gravy on the seat below.

Friends show up. We drink wine. Karen carves the turkey. I mash sweet potatoes, finish the gravy, set the table. We sit down to a fabulous spread--no leftovers here: fresh cooked turkey, fresh gravy, fresh stuffing (two kinds), fresh pinto bean and winter squash stew, fresh mashed sweet potatoes, fresh grilled butternut squash. This is the fruit of obsession.

But what's this, a few friends are too fucked-up to eat! I curse them! Suddenly the meal turns sour. My hard work, I feel, is wasted. In the midst of my obsession, I feel deeply wounded.

My friends, I think, do not deserve my effort.

And this, to me, is the danger of food obsession: it just might steal your sense of light-heartedness.

It just might make you hate your friends for a night because they didn't eat your turkey.

Fuck them, you think. But then you feel lonely and full of sorrow. This is not the life you've envisioned. The life you've envisioned is full of delight.

You need a day to recover.

My recovery day was spent at Brigantine Beach at my father's house with my wife. We actually ate leftovers. We drank a bottle of wine in the middle of the afternoon. We took a long walk on the jetty. I took a long nap.

Around 8 o'clock we went to a Greek Diner. It was a terrible place. The menu was a ridiculous, chaotic blend of Greek, American, and Italian dishes. I ordered a half chicken. It came, inexplicably, with stuffing. A special Greek stuffing? No, a weird bread stuffing. I didn't eat it, of course. But I didn't complain either. I was happy. I was with my wife, my family. We talked, we shared wine, we shared bad food.

Yeah, bad food, but good meal. I got a chance to hang out with my family, and even though the food was terrible, when it was finished, I was still sitting there with my family, talking, and drinking not entirely bad "Greek" coffee.

Of course, I prefer great food and a great meal. I like when everyone eats kick-ass food, when everyone shares kick-ass food. The thing is though, that a meal is not entirely about the food.

You won't always have that perfect confluence of food and family or friends. Often, one or the other just goes bad. Sometimes, it's the people. Sometimes, it's the food.

But, in the end, a meal has to be as much about the people as the food.

After all, when the plates are cleared, only people are left: family, friends.

In some cultures this moment lasts for hours. Then it seems as if the food is merely an afterthought. What heartache for the cook! His effort, forgotten! Whatever. There will be other meals--other efforts.

Sometimes, it seems, nothing lives up to expectation: the people, the food.

I can forgive the food, but can I forgive the people?

Of course, a real cook always forgives.

Friday, November 09, 2007

History of FoodVibe: Part I

This is the first in a series of posts exploring the relationships between the FoodVibe writers. This post is about Steve. Soon, I'll write about Suzanne, unless she beats me to it.

Steve and I have been friends for seventeen years. We share an impulsive, terrible desire. When we get together, this desire is intensified. We get excited, out of control. We argue vehemently. We drive around Manhattan shouting obscenities at everyone who is not us.

Sometimes people cheer in celebration. Sometimes people get deeply offended. Sometimes the police get involved.

There's always food. And writing. And massive quantities of wine.

Before I met Steve he had already:

1. Burned down an entire field surrounding a drive-in movie-theater.
2. Smashed his parent's car into his sister's bedroom.
3. Procured a hookah.

Our first meeting could be called The Perfect Confluence of The Hookah and The Pot.

Steve, somehow, had the hookah. I, somehow, had the pot.

We were fourteen. We got outrageously stoned with a few friends.

Food, of course, was part of the deal. We built a fire in my father's back yard. Steve brought a few packages of hot-dogs. He cooked three hot-dogs over the fire. He ate the hot-dogs in minutes. I cajoled him into eating six more hot-dogs.

This moment defines a certain dynamic our friendship: I challenge Steve to eat more; Steve says, No way.

So I say: What do you mean no way?

Steve says: No way, I'm done.

I say: Fucking pussy.

Steve says: Fine, give it to me.

It's a sadistic dynamic and it benefits no one but me. It definitely hurts Steve. I've seen him eat two McDonald's cheeseburgers, a large French-fry, and a large Coke in two minutes, simply so I could have pleasure of buying him another round.

Does he even enjoy the second round? I'm not sure. I know I enjoy watching him eat it.

This is a fetish of mine: I love to see people eat. I love to watch people enjoy food.

This is why I cook.

But like all fetishes, mine has its requisite weirdness. Yes, I love to see people eat, but more than this, I love to see people eat massive quantities of food.

I even love to see people suffer. I love, sometimes, when people vomit. I love, especially, when people moan. Steve is a classic moaner. I like watching him eat until he moans. I am, in this way, a bit evil. But I am also a lover. After all, I'm a cook. A cook is always a lover, his food is always about making love. I do not want to kill you. I only want to make you moan.

In many ways then, Steve and I's friendship might be called: The Perfect Confluence of The Eater and The Cook.

Of course, I also eat and Steve also cooks. Recently, for example, Steve turned the tables: he cooked me and a few others a fabulous shabbos lunch. He literally made me eat the equivalent of an entire chicken. To cope, I drank two bottles of wine. I had no choice. Steve literally placed the bottles on my plate. I like this though, this sense of the ridiculous, the powerful sense of myth I feel from eating and drinking too much. In these moments, I come to represent human possibility and human funniness in its most ridiculous form. But this is not my typical style. This is Steve's style.

Steve is the eater.

I suppose then that I should tell you this: I've seen Steve eat more food then you might believe possible. This moment has become a myth. I should also tell you this: It has been suggested that I've invented this myth to cope with the pain of my own inability to eat massive quantities of food. If that theory interests you I can recommend some great case studies about cooks who did that, lied.

But I can only say, this is no lie.

Steve was a champion high-school wrestler. Each winter, every winter, he entered into a zone of torture: weight-cutting. He starved himself, literally, for months. Whenever he emerged from this zone, shortly after the State Championship, he was like a man possessed. I just so happened to pick him up one of these times, on a early-Spring Saturday morning. Another buddy, Henry, was there.

Steve hadn't really satisfied his hunger for months. So we drove to a local Farmer's Market.

And this is the part of the story that I like to call: Oh, the terror.

Have you ever tried Auntie Anne's Pretzels? They're ridiculously tasty, made with buttery dough, and likely sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. Henry and I ordered one of these delicacies. Steve ordered three. He also ordered a 32 oz. Iced Tea.

Steve inhaled the pretzels. I thought he was satisfied. Henry and I certainly were satisfied. One Auntie Anne's pretzel, after all, contains 450 calories and 82 grams of carbohydrate. 82 grams of carbohydrate is equivalent to about 4 slices of bread. So let's say Steve ate the equivalent of 12 slices of bread. That might satisfy you, right?

So Steve says: I want one more thing.

And so we go to the pizza stand. Steve buys two slices. He eats them. I figure the bread equivalency count is close to 18 slices by now.

Is Steve satisfied yet?

He says: I want one more thing.

In Pennsylvania, knackwurst is a delicacy offered at Farmer's Markets by the loving, smiling, (evil?) Amish. Steve loved knackwurst, especially the knackwurst sandwich on a thick slices of rye. He ordered one, of course, and ate it slathered with raw red onions and mustard.

To wash it down, he ate two hot-dogs.

By now, my fetish had kicked in. And Steve, it seemed, might be willing to oblige me. Of course, he did.

Kielbasa is another Amish specialty. Often it is served, fried, on a thick torpedo roll. Steve ordered a double kielbasa torpedo and a side of French fries. We actually sat down, so he could savor it, bite by bite and I actually had the impression that Steve was still enjoying his food. The only person moaning was Henry, in disgust. I was laughing, on the other hand, in admiration.

(Let me repeat: This is true. And I'm feeling the fatigue of writing this story. It's insane, ridiculous, and offensive. If you're still reading, I'm offended.)

Steve says: I want one more thing.

Dessert. A triple-scoop ice cream cone, mint chocolate chip.

It doesn't really matter anymore--there's other worse things to consider, like all the fat, the excessive protein, the offended sensibilities--but the bread equivalency is close to 50 slices by now. That's my perspective: 50 slices of bread. Spread about three pounds of butter on that bread and you might account for the fat and calories.

I suppose that's why on the way out of the Farmer's Market, Steve felt compelled to add some fruit to his diet: an entire pineapple, peeled, cored and ready to eat. Which he did as we walked back to the car.


You might be cheering in celebration. You might be deeply offended.

Whatever: This is not the only story, nor is it the most worthy of celebration or derision.

Steve and I have been friends for a long time. I haven't even considered King's White Port, or dog valium, or the entire party's worth of salsa you ate, Steve, the salsa I had spent an hour preparing for the big Memorial Day Party.

Remember, you bastard?

Karen and I watched you through the window.

We laughed our asses off.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Dreaming in Spam

I've been having disturbing dreams lately about turning into food.

Short Fiction: The Big Job Interview

“You realize of course that you are a can of Spam,” said the man in the blue necktie sitting across the oaken table in a wood paneled office.

He was leaning ponderously back in his swivel chair, brow furrowed, fingers tented, resting on his chest. A cigarette was smoldering in an ashtray next to a cup of coffee that was hot three hours ago. This was the sixth interview today and it wasn’t even lunch yet.

“So that may propose some,” he paused before saying, “difficulties.”

Sitting across from him in an imitation leather chair was a large can of Spam who only the night before had been George Williams, a twice divorced out of work middle school gym teacher. From the bottom of the can protruded an ordinary pair of legs wearing ordinary navy blue seer sucker slacks. The legs were crossed, with one penny loafered foot fidgeting expectantly in the air. Its sock had slipped down to ankle level, revealing a small patch of white skin and a few black hairs.

No arms. No face or head. Just a can, in slacks.

“I know,” said the can. “I was hoping it wouldn’t be that much of a problem.”

“Problem. Yes,” said the man, now leaning forward, resting his elbows and still tented fingers on the desk. He reached for the pack of Cools nearby on the table and offered it.


“I don’t have any arms.”

“Oh. Of course,” said the man, feeling slightly embarrassed. "I didn’t mean to…”

He trailed off, stuffing the pack into his shirt pocket.

“It’s O.K.” said the can. “You’ve seen my resume?”

“Yes,” he said as he turned his eyes down to the piece of paper that was on his desk. “I noticed that your last job ended in ninety-three. I was wondering if you could account for the...” He turned his eyes up to meet the can’s gaze head on. “Time gap?”

“I’d prefer to not discuss that,” said the can. “It’s rather personal.”

“O.K.” said the man, a bit relieved to be off the topic. “And then there is the issue of your previous experience?”

“What about it?”

“It says here that you taught physical education at Russell Thornhump Junior High in Bayonne, New Jersey, from seventy-three to ninety-three.”

“That’s correct.”

“You do realize that we are an international hedge fund with offices in New York, London and Tokyo.”

“Yes,” said the can with a twinge of unconcealed excitement. “I’ve always found the financial markets to be fascinating. The Japanese are really very, very kind people.”

"And that most of our candidates come from the nation's top business schools with several years experience in investment?"

"I finished the coursework for a masters degree," said the can. "But I never wrote my thesis. I believe that's all in my resume as well."

“Right.” Said the man, loosening his tie. “And how do you feel about managing a client investor portfolio of more than one billion dollars?”

“How could anything be harder than getting seventh graders to play dodge ball? Or being a can of Spam for that matter?”

“I see your point,” said the man. “What say we start you off on a trial basis then?”

“Well,” said the can, clearly disappointed, “I was hoping for something a bit more substantive. Could you tell me some more about your profit sharing plan?”

“Sure,” said the man…

Saturday, November 03, 2007

A spring in autumn

Last week I was ill. It was the flu. I spent four days in bed, rising only in the late afternoon to go to work, which I probably shouldn’t have done. I wear my great sense of responsibility around my neck like a anchor. Though sometimes I have the feeling that I am still not sure to what or to whom.

Andrés was in Valencia and I was on my own. I stared at the pillowcase. I sipped broth. I blew my nose. I drank juice. I cried. I felt alone. I sweated. I had the chills. I slept and slept.

On Friday I woke up after a 12-hour sleep. I felt better than I had in days. I leapt from my bed. I put on I’m walking on sunshine by Katrina and the Waves. I threw open the bedroom window, stripped the bed of its sickly sheets and let the autumn sunshine do the rest. I danced and made soup. After a couple of hours of prancing about I felt weak. I went back to bed. I had the chills. I cursed viruses everywhere. I wondered: Why me?

Being sick makes me feel the opposite of alive. It makes me feel sad. Sad is the opposite of alive.

I was depressed; I always am when I’m sick. There is nothing as depressing as flu. The flu is our deepest weaknesses incarnate.

Yet there in my feverish reverie I made a startling discovery. I felt something stir within me. Then there was an image, a vivid one, and its message was clear: it’s time to carve pumpkins.

My Friday morning rise and fall represented only a minor setback. By Saturday I was still weak. And about 4 pounds thinner. But I was determined. Not wanting to overdo it, I avoided over stimulation. I put on the Cure and gently bopped. I cleaned the bathroom. This routine act filled me with life and purpose. After so many days shut up in bed I was finally doing something that felt worthwhile. I have never felt so fulfilled. At least that’s what I felt at the time.

I went to the market. The walk and crisp fall air invigorated me and awoke my slumbering muscles.

Pumpkins aren’t a big thing in Barcelona. But I remembered having seen some at one of the stalls in Sant Antoni market. I bought two. A big one and a little one. I brought them home.

I had never carved a pumpkin before. I had so many questions. How do I keep the lid from falling in? How much pulp needs to be scraped out? Will the candle show? How many seeds can I expect? Are they as orange inside as I imagine? Is it hard to make the teeth? The BBC has a great website on jack-o-lantern making that cleared it all right up. I recommend checking it out the first time you carve a pumpkin.

I carved the pumpkins. The big one turned out to be a loveable brute. The small one’s mean. Why is it that the small ones are so often mean?

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my pumpkins

From the pumpkins I got seeds. Toasted ones. I like leaving a bit of the pulp with the seeds. I sprinkled some with cumin and they went fast. I also made a loaf of pumpkin bread with a recipe I found on Internet. I had to make some minor adjustments. We had it for breakfast three days in a row.

My pumpkining filled me with great satisfaction. Despite my faltering immune system, I felt strong. Despite my sniffles and runny nose, I felt vibrant. Despite my lingering depression, I felt alive.

On Monday afternoon, I was heading to work. I still looked like shit, like I had the flu. I saw my neighbors. I sometimes see them in their kitchen window when I look through my kitchen window. Or I see them hanging the wash when I’m hanging the wash. On Monday I saw them downstairs. They looked as though they were going away on a trip of some kind. They had two overnight bags, a big basket, two large potted plants and three big bouquets of flowers.

Are you going away on some kind of trip, I asked.

We’re going to visit my parents, she answered. Pobretes. They’re buried in my hometown.

Of course, I said. November 1st. The Day of the Dead. It’s a nice tradition. (I meant this. I do think it’s a nice tradition. People picnic by the graves of their loved ones.)

No sirve de mucho, but we do it anyway.

Ya, I answered.

But I didn’t mean this. I didn’t agree that there was not much point in having a picnic on the graves of their loved ones. But I said Ya anyway because it seemed like the polite thing to do. I could have asked why they were doing it if they thought there was no point. I could have defended their tradition of picnicking with the dead as a beautiful commemoration. I could have shouted But you’re alive! I could have pointed out that she didn't have the flu.

Autumn is my favorite season. That is why I decided to carve pumpkins. Not for fall’s sake, but for mine. In celebration of my waning flu. I plan on doing it every year. It brought me back.

On November 1st, the Day of the Dead, I stayed home in my pjs. Still not fully recovered, I rested. I padded around the flat in my slippers, flopping on the sofa to read, organizing pictures, admiring my pumpkins, even though you could see the candle in the little one. I made a pumpkin risotto in honor of the season. And I made panellets for all those visiting their loved ones in cemeteries. On the 31st of October, All Hallow’s Eve, Catalan families come together for the castanyada. They roast chestnuts and sweet potatoes. They eat panellets and drink moscatel. They often take the leftovers to the cemetery the next day.

I plan on making panellets every year as well in commemoration of this spring.


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als meus panellets
180 g sweet potato
300 g ground almond
240 g sugar
grated lemon rind (about 1/2 a lemon)
80 g pine nuts
100 g almond, crushed

Boil or bake sweet potato with the skin still on. Once they are soft, drain, peel and mash while they are still warm. Let mashed sweet potato cool completely.

Add the sugar, crushed almond and lemon rind. Mix with a fork.

Roll the mixture into small balls. Dip the balls in egg white and cover them in pine nuts or crushed almond.

The recipe yields about a dozen or so of each. Place panellets on a butter baking sheet. Cook at a high temperature for 8-10 minutes.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

To my wife, who hates it when I drink all of the wine

I'm sorry honey. I drank the rest of the wine that you were saving for yourself on the refrigerator door.

I know this angers you and that you think it is inconsiderate. I know you don't like beer or hard alcohol. I know that you sometimes like to have a glass at night when you paint. I know all of these things.

Yet still, I drank the wine. I drank it on the porch while I smoked a cigarette. It was late. You were asleep.

Before Shabbos last Friday afternoon you sent me out to the liquor store. You told me to get only two bottles because we were having company on Friday and Saturday. Instead, I bought three bottles that were on sale. I also bought a bottle of 14-year old single malt scotch. It too was on sale.

You never understand my zest to drink a bottle at the table on Friday nights. You call it gluttony. I tell you that a bottle of wine usually yields three or four decent-sized glasses. I tell you that, in the grand scheme of things, three glasses of wine is not that much. You don't agree. We debate this endlessly.

I tell you that Kiddush on Friday nights uses one large cup. Then, after singing and blessing the children, we have chicken soup. I like to sip another glass during soup. I also like to dip my challah in wine, then the soup. This makes it even more delicious.

Before the main course, we sing. I tell you that I love to sing zemirot and pound my fist on the table in time. I like to see the beats of the music make ripples in my cup. I like to see the breadcrumbs fly off the table when I pound my fist. When we have guests, their children and ours like to jump and dance together on the couch as we sing. This delights me. I look at the food on the table. I look to see if you are looking, then pour more wine.

By the time the soup is away, the chicken, kugel, salad, roast garlic, and steamed vegetables have arrived. You pour yourself a glass. The bottle is now almost gone, and we begin our conversation about how I drink all of the wine. I am always defensive, placating. You are always annoyed. You shake your head. I eye your wine, greedily.

As we end the meal I like to speak words of Torah, or of some pearl gleaned from the week. Often I tie the ideas into what is happening outside at this time of year, or in our lives. You love these the best. I am always pleased when you say this, because I have been preparing these words all week for tonight. They are just for you. When we have guests, sometimes the women leave the table to go talk privately somewhere, leaving the men to sing and talk more. I pour more wine.

We put out desert--a plum tort you made this week, some fresh fruit, hot water for tea and coffee. You grab the bottle from the table. You tell me you are saving the rest for yourself, that I am banned from touching it. You hide it on the door of the fridge, behind the tall stack of cheese slices and horseradish. I always know where you put it.

But then as we clear the meal, I notice the half-glass you have left on the table. Unfinished. It is almost time to bentch. You have forgotten about your glass. You always do. This also happens every week.

You are at the sink when I sit down at the table again. Fiddling with a final piece of cake, I flick the crumbs from my tie. I make a grab for your wine, but tonight I stop and hold myself back.

A small victory, sometimes. Soon, bed.


Now it is Saturday night. You have finished painting and are sleeping on the couch in your clothes. Your music is still playing, your oils are spread out on the table. The piece you are working on dries on the easel. It is a painting of our daughter. I slowly put your remaining paints back into the jars. I clean out your blades and brushes in the sink. I put away your easel and hang the painting up in the extra bedroom, where the oil fumes can air out. I look at you on the couch.

I arrive at this moment every Saturday night. Shabbos is over. I stand poised at the beginning of a week of work. It is late. You are asleep. There is one glass of wine left in the bottle somewhere in the fridge. I grab it. There is too little left to worrying about using a glass. I take a cigarette and walk out to the porch. The Bronx is so still.

I drink slowly. The wine at the bottle's bottom is mixing with the sediment and tastes sharper, more potent. I take my time smoking, exhaling though my nose. When there is no wind, I love how it sits in the air not knowing where to go, gently folding in upon itself.

I find myself here often, smoking the dregs of the week.

I think about what I'm going to tell you when you find out that I've done it once again. That the wine is gone.

How will I explain myself this time?

What will you say?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Dear Steve

I am just writing to let you know that I understand. You are not the only FoodCrack junkie on FoodVibe. Not all of us here have Seth’s iron will, his blind conviction. I, too, have food skeletons in my closet. They are as plain as the bag of potato chips and box of pretzels in my kitchen cabinet.

When you mentioned CVS my heart leapt. I could picture it so clearly in my head. The snack aisle. The Fiddle-faddle. The Utz Party Mix. My heart beat faster. Utz! They make the best pretzels.

I left the US for the same reason Luca Prodan, of the Argentinean rock band Sumo, left London. Luca was a heroin addict. He was in deep. He knew that if he didn’t want to end up dead within the year, he would have to leave England. So he found a place in the world where heroin is practically unavailable: Argentina. He went to Argentina and, left with no other choice, kicked the smack. He then became an alcoholic and lived for a few more years than he would have had he continue to pump his veins full of white powder. In his later years, he hunted pigeons for supper in Parque Lezama.

I was a FoodCrack addict. ChexMix, Papa John’s, Peach Snapple, Blow Pops and Swedish Fish. Ah, Swedish Fish, my poison of choice.

So I escaped to a place where I knew it would be harder to get my fix.

Of course, Barcelona is laden with FoodCrack. It’s everywhere. Why just now at the supermarket, in an act of solidarity with your blog, I bought a box of pretzels and a packet of chocolate flavored cookies shaped like the Simpsons. Processed foods abound and obesity is on the rise in Spain. The government is in a panic as they try to figure out what to do about it.

But the choice of FoodCrack here seems so unimaginative compared to what’s available back home. Unimaginative, uninteresting and lame. What would be the point of binging? And the supermarket snack aisle is risible. It makes me feel smug and, dare I say it, proud to be an American. If they could see our snack aisles back home they would hand their heads shame over their three measly shelves dedicated to potato chips and cookies. The Spanish have yet to realize that democracy is measured not by the rights afforded to individuals, but by the number of television channels and variety of FoodCrack available to them. They are a young democracy and I’m sure they’ll catch on eventually. And when they do, I’ll have to find somewhere else to run to.

I know that Seth’s tough love will probably do you better in the long run than my empathy, but I needed you to know that you are not alone. We all crack up sometimes. All of us, that is, except Seth. I’d feel better if we kept this between you and me. I’m not sure he would understand.

Your friend,

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

FoodCrack Confessions

You’d think that because I blog about food I’d have great, maybe even admirable eating habits. If that were only true. As mentioned in a previous post, I have a rather extreme and complicated relationship with food.

Yesterday I forgot to bring my lunch to work. I was famished after teaching three periods. This happens often. There's no kosher food joints anywhere nearby, so I forage for a meal in the local CVS, where the food aisle consists of candy bars from Hell, pistachios, beef jerky, Suzy-Q’s, any kind of chip or pretzel, marshmallows and a bevy of assorted deep-fried obscenities.

It doesn’t take a person long to realize that there is little, if any, respectable food to be bought in the New York City drugstores.

There is, however, tons of FoodCrack.

Yesterday, I cracked out. Hard.

I emerged from the store with a bag containing a box of Fiddle-Faddle, a large bag of Utz Party Mix and one 20oz. blue PowerAde. The Skor bar never even made it into the bag. It was gone by the time I reached the corner.

I ate the Fiddle-Faddle immediately once inside, and was half way through the Party Mix when the party was over. I had hit the bottom. There was nacho cheese on my fingers and tie.

I gave the rest of the bag away to my coworkers who quickly devoured the rest.

Now I’m a FoodCrack pusher as well.

I've been pretty good about this kind of stuff all year so far.

But I think I just fell off the wagon. Again.

Sunday, October 14, 2007


Our tablecloths are like the clothing we wear
because our bodies and tables both seek warmth and comfort.

They are the wine of a thousand nights.
An eternity of roast potatoes and chicken.
Comfortable chairs. Smoke.

Songs, stories and newspapers.
One million coffee rings.
An ocean of tea.

You know how yours tastes when you wipe your mouth on it
because in a way you've always known.
Maybe it tastes like candles, gravy, a hint of garlic.
Perhaps it smells like your hair?

Stains on the fabric record our days.
Like an augury, they speak the language
of carrot juice and bread crumbs.

The poetry of breakfast.

But now we've spilled too much wine. Again.
Like a Rorschach of red on white, we stare in to look for a sign,
but it is moving, being pulled aslant.

My daughter is grabbing at the corner of the cloth to pull herself up.
She is trying to stand. She tugs my sleeve.

I look down from the table.

She is holding an apple.

She wants to tell me something.

Risky Behavior

My home kitchen is tight. There's barely enough room for me, let another another cook. Still, I love cooking with others in my tight kitchen. At my best, I groove around others, slinking my way to the sink and back to the stove in a swift, graceful dance. On the actual dance floor, I'm a disaster. In the kitchen, I'm an evil Baryshnikov.

This is how Anthony Bourdain describes the kitchen dance: "If you're a saute man, your grill man is your dance partner, and chances are, you're spending the majority of your time working in a hot, uncomfortable confined, submarine-like space with him. You're both working around open-flame, boiling liquids, and plenty of blunt objects at close hand--and you both carry knives, lots of knives. So you had better get along."

I've pretty much loved every bastard I've worked with in the kitchen. I'd better, because I'm no fighter. I don't stab. A lot of guys I've worked with in professional kitchens were stabbers. I'm talking about the kind of guys who actually like to stab things and people. I remember John, a saute man, who stabbed his own pinkie clean off in the middle of a busy, Friday afternoon lunch shift. He bled profusely. He was pale, clearly freaked. I scooped up the bit of pinkie and rushed him to the hospital. On the way into the hospital, he stopped.

Do you think I have time to bust a smoke? he said.

So we stood there as John, losing blood, smoked.

I love that guy. I love the sense of chaos and criminality he brought to the kitchen. He was back at work that night, his pinkie bandaged, working the line.

The home kitchen, of course, is more calm. That's why I do everything I can to increase the sense of chaos. Perhaps this is why I don't get along with my wife in the kitchen. She's a measured cook, precise and willing. She creates beautiful, loving dishes, full of tenderness. When I'm not involved at all, she creates transcendent risotto, immaculate roast chicken, the best beef burgundy. I, however, mess with her mojo. If I'm around, things fall apart. I'm her terror.

I'm the type of cook who likes to fuck with people and food. Sure, I put love into my cooking; it's just that my love expresses itself in risk. I like smoke. I love fire. Blood turns me on. I love cranking the music up really high, darting back and forth, sweating, cursing, spitting, and getting naked, if it's hot enough. Mostly, I love when I take a piece of food, compare it to a body part, and then do offensive things with it.

And still, it all ends up tasty.

This past Friday, my kitchen buddy Mikey came over.

Mikey also revels in chaos. Mikey brought over Rodrigo y Gabriela: we pumped it up and danced. We were cooking for my wife and my buddy, JJ. It was a festive night. The celebration was simple: we celebrated food and each other. Mikey made quinoa chowder, slow-cooked baked beans, and Cajun cat-fish. I made an epic sweeta potato mash and BBQ chicken on the grill (with homemade BBQ sauce.)

The entire night I was evilly waiting to cook the catfish. I knew the catfish would destroy us. And it did. Mikey threw it in a cast-iron pan and the kitchen, the apartment, hell, the entire town, filled with noxious smoke. We coughed and sneezed and complained. Mikey just stood right over the pan, as if his own dying demanded his full attention.

Within minutes, he was utterly destroyed.

The meal was outstanding. Everyone loved everything, except the chicken. I willfully undercooked it. The others refused to eat the chicken, but I ate it, with absolute braggadocio, as if I were tempting the gods to obliterate me.

I ate two chicken legs--the center of both, a bit pale, teasing opulent rawness. To me, chicken legs tastes best just at 160 degrees--the center might be a bit undercooked, but the rest is a sort of divine specialty. It's the best chicken will ever taste. Also, it does strange things to you. I ate it and felt virile, alive, vampiric.

Epic Sweeta Potato Mash with Coconut Milk

Mikey uses the word "epic" a lot. If something defies expectation it is epic. He also uses the word "ridick" (as in ridiculous.) These sweet potatoes could also be considered ridick.

And oh, by the way, "Sweeta" is how my acupuncturist refers to sweet potatoes. She's a brilliant, caring lady from China. She tells me, "No more sweeta potato!" I'm not sure why.

4 medium sweeta potatoes, washed
1/4 cup coconut milk (full fat is best)
1 teaspoon sea salt
Fresh ground black pepper

Adjust an oven rack to the center position. Preheat oven to 4oo degrees. Arrange sweet potatoes on a foil-lined baking sheet.

Bake until a knife tip slides easily into the flesh, 60-70 minutes. (Sometimes, sweet potatoes can take up to 90 minutes or more to cook, depending on the size.)

Meanwhile, warm the coconut milk in a medium saucepan over low heat. Season the coconut milk with sea salt and black pepper to taste.

When sweet potatoes are cool, slip the skins off and place into saucepan with coconut milk. Mash the sweet potatoes in the saucepan. Season with extra salt and pepper.

Alternately, for an exquisitely creamy texture, pass the sweet potatoes through the holes of a food mill directly into the coconut milk and mash.

Serves 4-6

Monday, October 08, 2007

Soul Food

We eat good food because we understand the nutrition it provides. We protect our bodies. We seek the maximum energy benefit from the things we eat. When we cook food we allow the ingredients to take full force and we skillfully release the properties of each ingredient at the right time and temperature. This is similar to the way a painter uses paint, or a poet words. An overcooked steak is rendered tasteless and neutered, ravaged by flame, destroyed by heat. This is akin to an overly sentimental poem, ravaged by conceit, destroyed by cliché. We are careful about how we eat and cook in the same way that we are purposeful and deliberate about how we write. We are artists after all.

We know that as certain foods are digested, the properties they release into our bodies affect our physical well being in many ways. This is so basic that it need not be said. I only say it to make a point. One of the mantras of our generation is: I’m spiritual, but not religious.

Fair enough. I applaud this sentiment because it takes courage to say it.

We live in an age of fallen idols; we're tired of the hypocrisy and downright criminal lunacy we seen in many of our clergy and organized religions. While we want no part of it, we still seek meaning. We believe whole heartedly that there is something higher than ourselves, even physical reality. We may even believe in something called a soul.

Does food then have a soul?

I say yes.

If we believe that certain foods nourish us physically, then doesn’t it make sense that certain foods would also be spiritually nourishing? Just as some foods enhance our physical strength, doesn’t it make sense that some foods would also enhance our ability to perceive spirituality? To sense it? To become more spiritually attuned? This is the idea behind the kosher laws, or kashrut. Kosher food is soul food.

Some people say that kashrut is outdated; they say it was merely a way to keep people healthy in an age that was unaware of microbes, refrigeration, and micro-pathology. To me, these people are missing the point entirely. Kashrut maintains not only the physical health of a people, but the spiritual health. Like protein for muscle tissue, kashrut works the same way for the soul, our spiritual antenna, that part of us that is entirely essence.

Everyone knows that pigs are unkosher. Everyone also knows that the flesh of most pigs is teeming with trichina worms, which when ingested, also plague the eater. This, however, is not why they are unkosher.

There are thousands of other animals that are also unkosher: horses, rabbits, bears, rodents, felines, canines, most species of birds, most of what lives in the sea, almost every insect, reptiles. The list goes on. These food sources have sustained and continue to sustain entire civilizations. These foods are not unkosher because they are unhealthy. Ancient peoples knew how to cook food. They had thousands of years of oral tradition that taught them what to eat and how to cook. In a way, they knew more than we do. They didn’t need a religious edict to tell them what to avoid.

Like everything else in the cosmos our food has a physical and spiritual nature. Some foods build up the body, while others break it down. Similarly, some foods dull our spiritual sensibilities while others are catalysts that enhance them. Some foods, as opposed to others, facilitate within us a greater ability to achieve higher consciousness.

Pigs are unkosher because there is something about their essence that is spiritually profane. When eaten, it forms a blockage within us, clogging the soul the way cholesterol clogs the arteries. The essence of pig is so spiritually degraded that even while pigs are alive their flesh is being eaten by worms—like a common corpse, they are spiritually lifeless.

This is not an endorsement for kashrut, nor do I think everyone should follow it. I’m not like that. Those who know me know that about me. However, I will ask a question: If we are spiritual people, how can we eat in ways that enhance this part of us?

How can we, our bodies and souls, all get high together?

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Food is an Attitude

To me, food is an attitude. When I consider food, I take a stance, sometimes political, often metaphorical. I buy free-range chicken, for example, because I support the idea of chickens roaming freely. I eat free-range chicken, on the bone, on the other hand, because my lust for life calls for the juiciest meats (free-range chickens are always more juicy...)

Firmly rooted in my food attitudes, I express who I am, not only as a consumer, but a human being. In this expression, like most humans, I am incredibly stubborn and idiosyncratic. I have my opinions and, quite naturally, I am a firm advocate of my opinions.

For example:

I have never understood people who can't cook. Maybe, I often think, they do not know how to eat. (Actually, come to think of it, I've met many people, including many chefs, who don't know how to eat. But that's neither here nor there…)

But to not cook seems to me to be a terrible shortcoming, a serious invisible disease which in time can have terrible consequences. Something similar to a man who does not eat meat. He would quietly become sadder, and, little by little, he would lose his virility. (Trust me, I know this to be true...)

Also, I have never understood the type who refuses to lick his plate. Some people actually say plate-licking is offensive. This is offensive. Really, what type of repressive regime disapproves of something as simple and humble as plate-licking? What's so wrong with slurping up the tastiest juices. To not lick your plate also seems to me to be a terrible shortcoming. The person who does not lick his plate is like the person who refuses to dance. Most often, you find him in the corner, moping, utterly repressed and balding. (I know this to be true too...)

Finally, I have never understood the person who refuses to eat meat from the bone. What, exactly, are these people refusing? Life itself, it seems to me. In bones we discover the root of flavor, the very essence of our animal love for meat. In men, I find this attribute inexcusable. I can only compare the man who does not eat meat from the bone to the castrati, forever doomed to beauty and unmanliness.

We all have our own vehement food attitudes. One person prefers rare meat. The other prefers meat well done. (The latter, to me, is a criminal; eating meat well done is an inexcusable offense.)

I was a vegetarian for eight years. Now I'm half-man, half-carnivorous animal. Here's what Anthony Bourdain has to say about vegetarians:

"Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food. The body, these waterheads imagine, is a temple that should not be polluted by animal protein. it's healthier, they insist, though every vegetarian waiter I've worked with is brought down by any rumor of a cold."

I first read this when I was a vegetarian and I have to admit it gave me pause. It's pure vehemence. Back then, I was repulsed by it. Now, as a meat eater, I relish it.

It's healthy to love food vehemently and to express that love with passion. We are human when we compel with love.

So, why don't you compel? Tell us: what are your food attitudes? Please share--the more vehement the better.

Post your attitudes below, as a comment, or e-mail them to me:

We'll post another blog soon listing your food attitudes.

Feel free to send pictures, drawings, or hunks of meat--whatever.

Just please: be vehement and honest! Imagine yourself drinking beer on a plaza, arguing stridently....Get all worked up!

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Memorias Criollas

Sunday morning in Buenos Aires. We peel ourselves out of bed at 11. We've landed five hours ago. Drunk. We step out onto Moreno, into the quintessential smell of Sunday – burning wood, warming grills.

We walk five blocks past the lightly curled smoke floating up from concrete backyards, balconies and empty lots and take the subway up to Dorrego. We catch the 176 at Chacarita, pass the tombs of Juan D. Peron and Carlos Gardel, roll through the endless Pampas of the residential neighborhoods that almost seamlessly join capital to the province. It’s been an hour since we left home. We are now in provincial San Martín, with its low houses and endless horizon. The occasional tethered horse looks up from the chopped up sidewalk at the bus rumbling down the pockmarked streets. Evita looks on from murals.

We get off the bus on the corner by the gas station. A ring of the doorbell quickly wraps us up in the bustle of preparations for the Sunday afternoon feast. This fire, like other fires all over the country, has been going since 11. It’s now one o’clock and the meat still hasn’t been laid on the grill. But salads are being prepared and an aperitif is being shared in the quincho as we keep the asador company and wait for the fire. A bit of cheese, a finger or two of whiskey, a fernet with Coke and glass of red wine clear the haze from our heads. Occasionally, we're interrupted by the bell. The ringing of the bell is always met with frantic excitement.

Who’s got the keys? It’s Mauro! Let him in. Where are the keys? ¡Hola tío! ¿Qué tomás?

We watch the fire. There will be no five minute steak this afternoon; no three minute cheeseburger. The centerpiece of the hedonistic ritual we share is Argentine beef, which stakes claim to being the best in the world. The cattle in Argentina are not factory raised. They are raised as cattle should be. They walk free, feed on grass, mature at nature’s pace, not man’s. There are no hormones; no anti-biotics. This is not “free-range”; not “organic”. It is just the way it is. Argentinian cattle represent a way of life, a way of living and eating and drinking, that, in America, seems to have been sacrificed to the bottom line and molded to fit our busy schedules. Here, quality still takes preference over quantity.

A life of gauchos and fire pits; lonely guitars and shared mates. This is food that nourishes a country. Argentina consumes more beef per capita than any other country in the world. This meat is the Argentine feeding off the land; Borges connecting with the gaucho.

The fire is ready. Glowing embers fall from its ripe flame. Now the meat can be placed on the grill. It is to be slow cooked, over the red hot embers. It will take a long time. Cuts are placed and moved along the length the grill according to cooking time, taken off as they are ready to eat. Achuras first. Now on my third glass of wine, I am handed a choripan. I open it and paint the chorizo with chimichurri. I apply the chimichurri with a paintbrush. It is the lead in to what is about to take place. We all take our seats and the feasting begins.

Chorizo and morcilla lead the way. Chinchulines and molleja. The asador (he who grills) dashes to and from the large grill. He eats standing over the smoking embers, cutting his meat directly on the heated iron. This entire ritual stems from him and his dance is too important for him to cease. As he moves between the grill and the table, he eyes our plates. For the next hour, they will never be empty. He knows how each one likes his meat.

Andrés likes it rare and is served first.

Gogui prefers it medium and waits a bit longer.

He knows who starts with morcilla and who ends with it; who smears it on bread and who prefers it alone.

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The asador at work

The meat is eaten from wooden plates, unadorned. No marinades, no sauces, no side dishes. A bit of salt before it is placed on the grill. The salads are served on glass plates, though the truly meat-minded eat only from wood. The wine pours into glass after glass and the corks are saved. We eat our meat. We raise our wine and spill our glasses, dabbing it on our foreheads for good luck. ¡Un aplauso para el asador! There’s a round of applause. We all clap and lift our wine. A toast is made. Then another.

Atahualpa Yupanqui accompanies us on his guitar. Ana’s father used to love him. Ana’s father, who played with his trio of tango on Uruguayan radio. Live, like they used to. Everyone said he sang better than Gardel.

Atahualpa Yupanqui sang too. And with purpose. He sang of poverty and freedom; the gaucho and revolution. The perfect accompaniment to the small revolution that we all take part in each Sunday. We defy the gods and stop time. Today the sacrifice is not ours to make; it is ours for the taking. For us to grill and smother in chimichurri, to be washed down with red wine and laughter and the occasional milonga.


½ cup olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup white onion, finely minced
4 cloves fresh garlic, minced
1 cup fresh parsley leaves, minced
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 ¼ teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper

Mix all ingredients and let stand at room temperature until the flavors meld, about 30 minutes, and up to 8 hours. The sauce can be refrigerated in a tight container for two weeks.

Apply with a clean (preferably unused) paintbrush to meat, chicken, baked potatoes or grilled vegetables.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Eat Your Revolution

We’re not the people we used to be. Ask anyone. When bible thumpers, politicians, social scientists, and public intellectuals rail on about the ills of our present-day American society, they invariably point to few hot button items: the collapse of our civic institutions, the dissolution of the family, a loss of faith, or a loss of some nostalgic innocence.

Yet, the truth is not so complicated. Simply put, we have lost any connection to the land. We have also lost the secrets that came with living close to the earth. We no longer know what was once so essential to us. As a result, we have lost the ability to live artfully. And, axiomatically, we have lost the abiltity to truly eat.

There is something so Orwellian about riding the New York City subways these days. On every car is the same sight: throngs of people hooked into their blue tooth mobile phones and I-Pods. It’s chilling. When we allow ourselves to become defined by our relationship to technology as opposed to our relationship with food, the source of nourishment, we are lost as a people.

When I see people walking through the city on their lunch breaks, I often ask myself, "Would this person know how to survive in the woods if they had to? Would they know how to find or catch food? If removed from this ultra-modern urban setting, would they know how to live?" So many of us are starved for any real, spritual connection to the land and its food.

As I walk through the East Village's Thompkins Square Park, Allen Ginsburg speaks to me from the ether: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by fast food and internet pornography.

Our food habits are what sustain us and are ultimately one of the true reflections of who we are as people. The cultures that are able to survive into longevity are those that understand and respect the secrets that food reveals to us, whether it is the art of curing medicinal herbs, or the knowledge of how to plant by the zodiac. We are no longer in touch with the natural cycles all around us. The damage has been irreparable. You can see it in our schools and communities. You can see it even more so in our super-markets.

We need to know the feeling of how to pull vegetables out of the ground, how to gently massage them until they spring forth from the earth. We need to know how to make a camp fire and how to roast meat over a flame, so that it cooks just right, searing the flesh and capturing the juices inside. Who out there knows the feeling of dirt under your fingernails after you've just planted the vegetables that will feed your family weeks from now? What have we lost as a result of microwaves and hot-pockets? We need to learn how to cook all over again.

There is no separation between food and politics. We are a nation born out of the spirit of revolution, yet we have lost that sense too. In many ways, New York City is as segregated as it ever was. Just look at the difference between what kinds of food options are available in a predominately white neighborhood as opposed to a black or Latino one.

When the revolution comes, it will demand all of these things. It will come barreling out of the ghettoes and low income housing projects. It will smash the window of every McDonald’s and Pop-Eye’s joint from Watts to the south Bronx. It will also streaming forth from countless bland, suburban sub-divisions, burning every strip-mall, T.G.I. Friday’s, and Olive Garden to the ground. It will demand good food.

We need to rediscover our connection to the land, its food, and our sense of who we are. Our hope lies there.

Eat your revolution.