Forgotten Foods TM_FF_ENTRE_FI_001

For me, entremets are the food history equivalent of Gozer the Gozerian. You know, Gozer – the lace-body-suit demon lady from Ghostbusters? Venkman tells everyone not to think of a form for it to take, and Ray immediately thinks of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. It’s that classic brain gaffe – if someone tells you to not think of something, you can’t stop thinking about it.

That’s what happened to me when I looked up entremets in one of my favorite books, Alan Davidson’s wonderfully comprehensive Oxford Companion to Food. If you will forgive me the fifth-grade-essay transgression of beginning a piece with a definition quote, here is Davidson’s entry on entremets in its entirety:

entree, entremets a couple of French terms which no doubt retain interest for persons attending hotel and restaurant courses conducted under the show of French classical traditions, but have ceased to have any real use, partly because most people cannot remember what they mean and partly because their meanings have changed over time and vary from one part of the world to another. Forget them.

Forget them? Davidson, my man, come on – when almost everyone else has forgotten about something, that’s the time when you should remember it. Those almost-forgotten things are where fantastic weirdness usually hides. In the case of entremets, that fantastic weirdness is young boys singing duets with deer and roast pig heads vomiting fire like drunk dragons. But more on that in a moment.

Contrarian TM_FC_SIDEWLK_FI_002

Ah, spring is here and sidewalk cafés are again blooming across America! Some of my friends are thrilled at this seasonal turn. I am not.

My memories of outdoor dining skew toward the mildly traumatic. Such excursions often begin with companions who all but squeal “Let’s sit outside!” Confronted with such enthusiasm, it’s hard to argue for an indoor seat, and if I do I’m accused of being a troglodyte and killjoy. Enduring a long, silent, and pouty indoor meal is never fun, so I usually capitulate and go outside. Thus I leave the comfort of civilized shade and air-conditioning, and take my seat in the petting zoo set aside for masticating humans.

And here I sit — next to an overflowing dumpster screened partially from view but not in the least from aroma by cheap latticework from Home Depot. Or I’m curbside on a city street where every few minutes a bus passes and emits a great sooty plume of diesel exhaust, which gently alights upon my meal like finely ground pepper. Or, perhaps in the saddest tableaux of all, I’m sitting outside in front of a strip mall, corralled by some cagelike ironwork posted with stern wording against seating yourself, and overlooking an asphalt lagoon consisting of thousands of car windshields each reflecting the sun’s rays directly at me, as if I’m part of an experiment involving thresholds for scorched retinas. I once had to wear two pairs of sunglasses to make it through a lunch.


From Mama’s Kitchen

Our photographer's perfect lunch in a tiny, family-run Positano restaurant


This summer, photographer Rachel Wisniewski found herself careening up the side of a mountain in Italy – toward what turned out to the best meal of her life (so far). Check out her photos below.

“As our tour guide, “Crazy Carmine,” drove us up the winding mountain road in Positano, Italy, I felt my stomach lurch. By the time we reached the mountaintop, I swore that I’d be sick. I didn’t expect Carmine’s next announcement: “It’s lunch time.” He quickly ushered my family into a small, stone home. The sign over the door read “La Tagliata Fattoria.”

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    The best tomatoes I'd ever eaten grew in Mama's vast garden — firm on the outside, yet surprisingly succulent on the inside. I popped one into my mouth; as I chewed, my disposition changed instantly from nauseous to ravenous. I couldn’t help but pluck a few more from Mama's basket before she left.
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    It wasn’t until we neared the end of the trail to La Tagliata that I realized how high up we were. The garden extended dangerously over the side of the mountain — allowing us to see turquoise water for miles. The air was sweet, but the view was much sweeter.
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    The first wave of appetizers: peas, eggplant, chickpeas, broccoli, and fried cauliflower. Each vegetable was prepared simply—accented by herbs, but not overpowered by them. I took second helpings of everything.
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    I indulged in several balls of Mama's homemade mozzarella. The cheese was undeniably fresh; as I cut into it, buffalo milk oozed onto the plate.
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    The pasta course began with gnocchi filled with buffalo mozzarella, blanketed with a thin tomato sauce, and garnished with basil and cherry tomato halves. The mild sauce allowed the light, fluffy gnocchi to shine.
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    Strozzapreti, a hand-rolled pasta that reminded me of cavatelli, was covered in a chunky sauce made of pumpkin, mushroom, and basil.
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    As we dug into the tomato sauce-bathed ravioli, Carmine informed us that Mama had woken up at 5:00 that morning to make them by hand. In addition to ricotta cheese, the pasta was stuffed with minced, smoked eggplant – a vegetarian's dream.
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    For dessert, homemade limoncello and apple liquor accompanied a dessert plate with ricotta and chocolate cheesecakes, fruit tarts, chocolate-dipped profiteroles and “Mama’s cake.” We couldn’t eat much before our already-stuffed stomachs cried for mercy.
First Person CRUISE_FI_001_1

Self: “Hello, my name is Erica.” (Insert handshake).
Prospective Employer: “Erica, nice to meet you. Tell me about yourself.”
Self: “I just finished working on a cruise ship in Hawaii.”
Prospective Employer: “A cruise ship! Doesn’t everyone on the ship have to be analyzed by a shrink? Who knows whom you may be living with!”
Self: “It wasn’t the crew I was worried about.”

She sat with perfect posture at a table for two next to the ship window, book poised in her hands as if it were a bird. Her eyes flitted up at me when I approached her side. “Could you stand toward the end of the table, please,” she inquired. “My neck cramps when I turn it too much to the left,” she explained.

First Person TM_FP_HOTTIES_FI_001

“I’d go with the Ewephoria. It’s under the ‘stoic’ category.” I scanned the menu for a description of “stoic.” It read “big, hard cheeses.” I peered over my glass of red wine from the Douro Valley as the attractive bartender flipped painstakingly perfect, wavy, grey-streaked hair out of his blue-grey eyes. I bet it is, I thought to myself.

The bartender at Tria, the Philadelphia wine and cheese bar, may have gotten the job based on merit alone. But placing attractive people at the front line of any business in the service industry isn’t just useful when it comes to female bartenders in nightclubs with barely-there outfits. The memory of an attractive person preparing your food or drink, no matter where it is, must stimulate some sort of pleasure center in your brain that keeps you going back. (It certainly keeps me going to a certain coffee truck between classes.) MORE

Food Culture TM_FC_DATES_FI_001

I usually don’t make much conversation in cabs, but this cab driver had many questions. What kind of music did I want to listen to? He thought I might prefer one station if I was going to a club, another if headed to a date. Was I going on a date? Ah, a double date. Did I know the other couple well? Going to a nice dinner?

I fell quiet after this deposition, but after a few minutes of cruising downtown in the rain, the driver surprised me with another question. “What is the alphabet of dating?” he asked.

Food Culture TM_FC_STEAL_FI_001

I’m not sure how it came about, but one day my co-workers and I literally stood around the water cooler and casually discussed the pocket-sized items that we, or someone we knew, had smuggled out of restaurants and hotels.

The first impenitent confessor was a coworker whose family takes a cruise every winter. Every year when they were small, she and her younger sister would pocket a fork from one of their dinners on board. Many years later, my colleague created a mobile of the “souvenir” forks and gifted it to her younger sister. It’s a sweet story, but I was initially astonished that the coworker, to all appearances a steady and law-abiding character, shrugged off this youthful indiscretion as a fit of childhood caprice, a sweet and whimsical memory.


No Reservations

Why it's more romantic to just stay home on Valentine's Day


My husband Dan is not what you would call a romantic. On one of our first Valentine’s Days together, when I had my first foolish glimmer of hope that I would receive an engagement ring, I got a cast iron frying pan instead.

Last February, I was working in an office full of cubicles and women. I knew that one by one my coworkers would retrieve their bouquets at the reception desk and if I didn’t get one I would feel terrible.

Several weeks in advance, I put my foot down about this goofy holiday. “You must send flowers to my office on Valentine’s Day,” I told Dan. “If you don’t, I will be humiliated and I will be angry.” He acquiesced. Flowers were ordered and delivered to my desk. I was spared embarrassment and we didn’t have to fight. MORE

Culinaria TM_CU_CELEB_FI_001

What sinister historical forces have converged to create the freakish likes of Sandra Lee, Emeril Lagasse, Gordon Ramsay, and Jamie Oliver? As with so much else in the history of dining, we can trace the rise of celebrity chefs to the early 1800s, when he was transformed from a humble artisan into a revered artist — the modern Prometheus.

Of course, there have always been great cooks throughout history, but they stayed out of the limelight, as anonymous tradesman in the sooty kitchen. Since the Middle Ages meals were, first and foremost, about extravagant presentation, and the most celebrated figure was the maître d’hôtel, or steward — the front man who designed all the special effects of a banquet. It was he who chose the dishes, oversaw the decoration of the table, arranged the entertainment and choreographed the guests. MORE

Questionable Tastes TM_DI_JNOMA_FI_003

Few consider the faith of the food writer. And this is probably a good thing. I won’t say that to worship food and drink is to pray to a false god. But even with all the high-minded talk of farm-to-table or Slow Food movements, of molecular gastronomy or urban gardening, of locavorism or fruitarianism or whatever-the-latest-ism, in my experience it rarely leads one down the shining path of enlightenment.

Or at least that’s what I believed until this past spring, when I spent one of the most glorious weeks of my life eating my way through Copenhagen, capped off by a 25-course, five-hour lunch at Noma, considered by many to be the best—and most thought-provoking—restaurant in the world.

“Some people see going to Noma as a religious experience,” said Michael Bom Frøst, a food scientist and director of the nonprofit Nordic Food Lab, which was established by Noma’s owners. This was several days before my own meal at Noma, and we stood in the lab’s shiny test kitchen, inside a houseboat moored across the canal from Noma. The brilliant Nordic sun shone in the bluest Nordic sky as we ate a pink ice cream made from seaweed and looked across the cold water toward Copenhagen’s center. MORE