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!