During late summers, I become almost fruitarian. Sometimes, nearing the dinner hour, I suddenly realize that the only things I’ve eaten all day have been fresh melon, berries, nectarines, and plums.
The root of this fruity love affair is clearly my childhood summers, which I spent at my family’s open-air, roadside produce stand in southern New Jersey. My cousins and I sold fruit and vegetables in a makeshift wooden structure with hand-written signs at the edge of property owned by my father and uncle’s packing house. I worked there pretty much from the first grade, when I had a little corner where I sold little containers of bruised and overripe “seconds” under a sign that read “Bargain Table. Everything 50 cents.”
By the time I was about 12, I awoke before sunrise and — before eating breakfast — pedaled my bike a few miles over to the packing house, where we kept our produce in huge refrigeration rooms. I enjoyed whizzing down the loading dock on an electric pallet jack, and I loved the sensation of zipping into the cold and then back out into the warm summer air. I mostly worked alone, unless an onion truck had just arrived, and then one of my dad’s employees might decide he needed to “help” me, instead of unloading 50-pound bags of onions. My job was to get the pallets ready on the loading dock before my cousin arrived in his pickup truck, back from a daily run to the farms or from the produce terminal in the city. MORE
In the town of Crema, less than an hour east of Milan, they make a stuffed pasta that goes by the straightforward name of tortelli cremaschi. The name, however, is about the only straightforward aspect of this local specialty. Federico Fellini may have famously said, “life is a combination of magic and pasta.” But even the great filmmaker himself could not have dreamed up tortelli cremaschi, which must be the most Felliniesque pasta in Italy.
While the pasta itself follows a basic egg-and-flour recipe, the ingredient list for the ripieno (or filling) reads as follows: amaretto cookies (nearly a pound); candied citrus; raisins; mint candies; grated lemon zest; grated Grana Padano cheese; nutmeg; Marsala wine; mostaccino, a local cookie that is sort of like a ginger snap.
Allow me to address a few of your questions: No, I am not making this recipe up. No, this is not a child’s fantasy creation. Yes, this being Italy, there is an Accademia del Tortello Cremasco, a self-appointed organization, with officers, that governs the recipe’s correct preparation. Yes, tortelli cremaschi tastes as bizarre as you’d imagine.
How do I know all this? Because once, about a decade ago, I made the mistake of preparing tortelli cremaschi for people who were not citizens of Crema.
Like many of the pieces I write for Forgotten Foods, this is a combined story of love and revulsion.* But unlike those pieces, this doesn’t reach back into history to pluck out Victorian funeral cookies or pre-microwave bachelor foods. No, this month I’m writing about recipes that are much more recent, but still forgotten – the recipes that fill locally produced cookbooks of the 70s and 80s.
I own a small collection of these cookbooks; I purposefully keep it small, because for every good recipe I find in them, there are usually three more that simply amount to mixing a canned soup with something else from a can and putting cheese on top. You’ve probably seen the cookbooks I’m talking about – you might even own one. Produced as fundraising projects or to celebrate a particular town’s “cuisine,” these typewritten or dot-matrix printed, spiral-bound collections have traditionally served as a great way to discover that your neighbors have terrible taste in food.
Or, at least, many of mine did. Two of the cookbooks in my collection are specific to Northern New Hampshire – the Shelburne Sampler II and Our Favorite Recipes: North Country Senior Meals. Well, the infractions in the Shelburne Sampler are relatively benign (except for the off-color drawing associated with the “Ethnic” recipe section), but the fine folks who submitted recipes to North Country Senior Meals provided some absolutely baffling entries.
The Turkish delight was, in retrospect, a pretty big mistake. We were browsing a Middle Eastern market near our home in upstate New York, a festive, mom-and-pop place where I tend to buy way more than I need. It was winter — cars plowing down Genesee Street beyond the front window throwing plumes of brown slurry — and I needed a pick-me-up in the worst way. When I saw that box of candy, I was basically powerless to resist. It was obscenely large, the size of a cookie sheet or a generous end table, and it was on sale. For reasons that seem a little sad to me now, that candy felt like an opportunity.
My husband looked anxious when I approached the checkout line, box tucked up under my arm like a surfboard. Over the years, Rog has watched me eat a lot of things saner adults revile — like circus peanuts, or those pumpkin “mellocreme” things that taste like candy corn but are somehow worse. I’ve eaten marshmallows so old they’ve fused together in the bag and become indistinguishable. I’ve eaten gummi worms and gummi sharks and ancient, ossified Jujyfruits that threatened to yank the fillings from my head. My lust for sugar is disabling, literally self-destructive.
“I’m not helping you with that,” Rog pointed out. “You’re on your own here.”
“Did I say I needed your help? I’m perfectly capable, thanks,” I smiled.
I was already feeling better about my day.
Whatever happened to viognier becoming “the next chardonnay”?
That’s what they told us back in the 1990s, when I was a young man first stumbling into wine. I drank a lot of viognier back then. You couldn’t avoid it. Viognier was found on nearly every wine list you’d encounter. Now? I almost never see it, and I don’t know a single person that says, “Boy, I’d really love me some viognier tonight.” Viognier feels like a vestige of an era when Microsoft might hire Matthew Perry and Jennifer Aniston to show people how to use Windows 95.
Sometimes, no matter how hard the marketing people and the sommeliers and the wine writers push, a grape just never catches fire. Remember in the not-so-distant past, when torrontés was going to be “the next pinot grigio”? Last year, I heard a lot of chatter about chenin blanc being “the next riesling.” I guess we’ll see about that one.
By the way, how’s that whole sherry renaissance thing working out?
Wine books almost always begin with a light-hearted tale of the author’s initiation into the world of wine via some crappy bottle of plonk. This is where you’ll normally read an anecdote of misguided youth involving, say, Thunderbird, Sutter Home white zinfandel, Boone’s Farm, Lancers, Mateus, Korbel, Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers or — for the generation of wine books soon to be written by millennials — boxes of Franzia. It’s sort of like an immutable law of wine writing.
So let me begin by saying I went through a period during my senior year of high school when I was very enthusiastic about Mogen David’s flavored and fortified wine MD 20/20, otherwise known as “Mad Dog.” MD 20/20’s Orange Jubilee was my particular tipple of choice, and the reason had more to do with how much easier it was to hide in the woods than a six-pack of beer. I vaguely remember it tasting like a a mix of chalky, watered-down SunnyD and grain alcohol, but I’ve mostly tried to cleanse that memory from my mind, along with other, numerous suburban New Jersey public school rites of passage.
My MD 20/20 connoisseurship ended soon after I left for college in the big city. During the first week of college I professed my enthusiasm for Mad Dog and shared some Orange Jubilee with the new friends on my floor. After gagging and spitting out the MD 20/20, my new friends laughed and gave me the ironic nickname “Mad Dog,” which stuck until I transferred schools at the end of my freshman year. It was an early lesson in how fraught it can be to express a wine preference. It was also a lesson in how it feels it to have one’s taste disapprovingly assessed.
“I’m ombibulous,” H.L. Mencken famously wrote. “I drink every known alcoholic drink and enjoy them all.” Mencken wrote this, of course, during simpler times: Namely, Prohibition. In those dark days, a drink was a drink was a drink. Still, I’ve always appreciated Mencken’s notion of the “ombibulous” person as an ideal drinking companion, someone with an open mind and an open heart.
Nearly a century after Prohibition, we could really use more self-identified ombibulous drinkers. That’s because our era has become the domain of the specialist, the narrow-focused, the geek. In my years of writing about drinks, I have learned one bedrock truth: There are Wine People and there are Cocktail People. And the chasm between the two is wide and deep, with only a shaky rope bridge spanning the divide.
I will never forget, for example, being at The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers in Napa Valley. I’d been chosen as a fellow and I was anxiously awaiting my first book to be released within months. On the first day, I met one of the well-established wine writers after a panel he’d just led. Someone introduced me to this guy by referring to my book, which was about spirits and cocktails. “Cocktails?” said the esteemed wine writer, with a sniff. “I don’t drink cocktails. I’ve never had a good cocktail in my life. I stick with wine.” He literally waved away the idea of cocktails, banishing it from conversation.
Summer in the world of wine has become the oh-so-cool Summer of Riesling, in which the cognescenti try to convince the average drinker to welcome riesling into their lives. That may seem a tall order, but I am undertaking an even more difficult — and significantly less hip — task: I am going to suggest that you make this summer the Summer of Lambrusco, and pop open the classic fizzy red wine.
I can hear you now: Lambrusco?! Whaaat? Didn’t we leave lambrusco behind in the 1980s, along with those cheesy Riunite commercials — with the jingle “Riunite on ice, Riunite so nice!” and with mustachioed Tom Selleck lookalikes courting bleach blonde Cheryl Tiegs lookalikes over chilled lambrusco?
If my life is indeed a picnic, like the cliche says, I’d argue that it’s specifically a late-1800s picnic – stressful, frequently overpacked, and requiring me to wake up a lot earlier than I’d like.
At least, that’s how these “relaxing” Victorian outings often were for the women stuck with food preparation. 1883’s Practical Housekeeping demands that, when picnicking, women “be up ‘at five o’clock in the morning’ to have the chicken, biscuits, etc., freshly baked.” Mrs. Owens’ Complete Cookbook and New Household Manual, meanwhile, lists several types of foods that should be brought, from baked beans to canned deviled ham – and she also notes that “Bouillon tablets are just the thing, provided there is hot water.” Because one thing that is totally not a pain in the butt to eat at a picnic is soup broth. And oh, we haven’t even gotten to the other picnic accoutrements women needed to pack yet. 1882’s The Successful Housekeeper says, “Forget not the napkins, forks, spoons, and luncheon-cloth. Also carry tumblers, plates, salt, pepper, sugar, and a bottle of cream or a can of condensed milk. Cups with handles, but no saucers, are desirable for tea and coffee.” And here I was about to say that that was a ridiculous amount of stuff to pack, but thank goodness – picnickers can leave their saucers at home.*
I grew up in New Jersey. Like most guys who grow up in Jersey, I had that one buddy who was, you know, a little too much. You may know the type: He’s loud, wears a little too much cologne, shows a little too much chest hair, wears a flashy watch and gold chain, and tips people from a wad of dollar bills. When you’re out with this guy, he can be cringe-inducing, and he’s difficult to mix with certain friends, some of whom despise him. However — and it never ceases to amaze me — he still manages to charm over a surprising number of people with his overbearing act. Plenty of people simply love the guy.
I often think of gewürztraminer as sort of like this buddy. After all, one of the biggest clichés in wine is, “Gewürztraminer…People love it or hate it!”
Not long ago, following an exhausting and not-prosperous work trip, my flight home from Bilbao was delayed seven hours by a terrible wind storm that shut down several European airports. I spent five of those seven hours stuck in a line of hundreds, while two overwhelmed workers at the Lufthansa desk ever-so-slowly attempted to reroute 300-plus passengers. As the line trudged forward, I watched the board helplessly as flights departed, one by one, to Paris, to London, to Madrid, to Lisbon, all connections that would have gotten me home. I had an important meeting in the morning, and then my son’s first soccer game, which I’d committed to coach. As the hours passed, I knew I would miss both. By the time I reached the front of the line, there was no way across the Atlantic until the next day, and I was assigned an evening flight to Frankfurt. I was given a handwritten voucher for a hotel, and another voucher for a free dinner.
When I arrived, it was dark and rainy, and a taxi took me to a hotel in the middle of an industrial park in a suburb called Mörfelden. After checking in and explaining to my son that I would not be home in time, and hearing my boss’ dismay at my absence, I slumped down to the hotel’s overlit restaurant and grabbed a menu. I was a wreck. My career had suffered some recent blows and this trip was supposed to help turn things around; but it hadn’t. In any case, I badly needed some comfort food, and the first item that called out to me was wiener schnitzel. “Yes, please, may I have some wiener schnitzel,” I said, and presented my voucher. The stern waiter sneered and pointed over to a pathetic buffet: some stale rolls, a congealed soup, and a platter of rubbery chicken that had been sitting out for hours. This, apparently, was the Lufthansa Stranded Passenger Special that my voucher covered.
Who knew that expressing a warm affection for lovely, drinkable Austrian red wines could be construed as a revolutionary act that threatened civilized wine culture? Or that someone who champions Austrian grape varieties might be viewed as a wild-eyed radical, intent on casting the world of wine into a state of chaos “to the detriment of the wine consumer”?
Well, according to the eminent wine critic Robert Parker, wine writers who enjoy and advocate lesser-known grape varieties are “Euro-elitists” and may as well be espousing ideas comparable to “Kim-Jung-unism.” Blaufränkisch, otherwise known as lemberger and grown mostly in Austria, was singled out by Parker as “virtually unknown” and one of those “godforsaken grapes, that, in hundreds and hundreds of years of viticulture, wine consumption, etc., have never gotten traction because they are rarely of interest.” Recommending that people drink blaufränkisch, according to Parker, was something akin to the “propaganda machines of totalitarian regimes.”
I recently picked up a copy of Mediterranean Cooking. It’s an attractive book, with a pretty plate of pesto pasta on its cover and recipes that seem solid inside — each with their own full-sized photo. As I flipped through it, I thought about how it was the kind of cookbook I’d maybe like to cook with. Upon taking a closer look, I found the book was missing something major: an author.
At first, I didn’t believe such a nice-looking cookbook could be authorless. I looked even closer at the cover, searched for a name on the title page, and then flipped to find author information on the back dust jacket. No author name in sight. Just an anonymous cookbook packed full of creditless recipes. I wondered: Who wrote the introduction? Who created these recipes? Who gets credit for the cookbook’s success?
It’s certainly not a party of one in the Authorless Cookbook Club. I’ve noticed more and more authorless cookbooks cropping up. They usually deal with a trending food issue or ingredient. In fact, the market is now flooded with such titles: The Clean Eating Cookbook & Diet, Allergy-free Cooking for Kids, The Candida Free Cookbook, and all sorts of “Fill-in-the-blank for Beginners” books about canning and preserving, fermentation, juicing, the paleo diet, green smoothies, and edible wild plants.
Towards the end of our foraging journey, there was a flurry of excitement. Someone had spotted a lone morel mushroom growing on the side of our trail. This sought-after fungus, for which connoisseurs will pay up to $35 per pound, was the most valuable find of our entire trek, but no one ventured to pick the specimen — perhaps because of its neighbors. The cone-shaped mushroom grew right next to a leaky-looking battery and just steps away from a rusty razor blade.
We weren’t foraging in a beautiful park or someone’s woodsy backyard. No, on this Sunday morning, we were looking for edible and useful plant life in “The Cut” — an abandoned, four-track-wide section of Philadelphia’s abandoned Reading Viaduct railroad, sunk some 40 feet below street level. We entered, somewhat ironically, through a chain link fence separating the encroaching wilderness from the employee parking lot of a Whole Foods market. A few members of the tour took the opportunity to forage for some coffee inside before signing the requisite waiver form and venturing down the parking ramp and into the unknown. After circumnavigating a moderately sized pile of general trash, it quickly became clear that this little section of abandoned city space was home to more than just weeds and rats (and a few vagrants). Tall grasses, sprawling bushes, and full sized trees had spent the previous few decades reclaiming The Cut and creating an impromptu slice of nature.
“It’s not about a recipe,” said chef Riccardo De Pra. “It’s about a concept.” He was talking about spaghetti alla carbonara, the humble bachelor’s dish of pasta, eggs, and bacon that he serves “deconstructed” at his Michelin-starred restaurant, Dolada, in the foothills of the Alps, overlooking the serene Lago di Santa Croce. On the last evening of a very strange trip, I ate De Pra’s deconstructed spaghetti alla carbonara, paired with a profound Piemontese white wine made from an ancient grape called timorasso that had been rescued from near-extinction, and I wondered seriously if I would ever find my way home.
I’d been stranded in Italy for several days. This was in the spring of 2010, when an Icelandic volcano with the unpronounceable name of Eyjafjallajokull erupted, spewing tons of ash and causing havoc for air travel. Many, at the time, called Eyjafjallajokull the worst disruption in the history of transportation. My trip was supposed to be a four-day jaunt to visit wineries in the Veneto, focusing on Prosecco, Soave, and Valpolicella. The plan: jet in; visit a dozen wineries in four days; jet out; return home; write article. Like millions of others during that shutdown of European airspace, I hadn’t factored a volcano into my plans. So the airline canceled my Sunday morning flight from Venice, with the earliest possibility of return on Thursday. MORE