Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Julia Child meets Caliban: More Adventures with a Culinary Virgin

Pygmy Watermelon w/Chinese Cleaver

Saturday I manned up to a pygmy watermelon. Recently I'd purchased this fruit, thinking it was a Tuscan melon. I had in mind to prepare melon with prosciutto and fresh mint, per Chef Maili's recipe. (Mint is the elevating touch). However, I discovered later it was not a Tuscan melon (even though, hello, it had green stripes like the recipe said!) So I rolled it into the fridge and ignored it, thinking it would go away. But every time I opened the fridge, it squatted there all striped and pert, beseeching me. So Saturday I took pity, plunked it on the cutting board, pulled out the Chinese cleaver a man had given me one birthday long ago, and cut it in half. Wait one stamp-lickin' second. Where were the black seeds I remembered from watermelons of yore? Did pygmy watermelons not have them? Had the traditional black seeds been bred out? If so, why? By the way, in case you want to give someone a big old knife on their birthday, you should know that the Chinese consider this not only bad form, but bad luck. Whether that man long ago knew this, hmm, we can only speculate -- as we chop.

Instead of eating the pygmy watermelon -- which I dreaded since I've never liked melon, least of all watermelon -- I sliced and arranged it on the cutting board. Stop playing with your food and just eat it already, said the voice in my head. Plus I felt it was my duty to give all foods their chance now I was on this cooking odyssey. Perhaps in my new expansive cook-mode I would taste something I'd missed before. So I ate the thinnest sliver (see proof in pic above) -- and what do you know, it wasn't bad. Biting into the fruit yielded a refreshing, watery burst of almost flavor.
Pygmy watermelon goes mod!
I realized some people might have yet a greater appreciation for the subtleties of the fruit, so I put the other three slices on a plate and carried it up to...
About to interrupt Angel
 ...the guy working on the upper part of the house, Angel.

Angel at my table

I guess Angel liked that pygmy watermelon, or sandia as he called it, which admittedly sounds more appetizing. Even poetic. Not only did Angel come down with the empty plate and a smile, but he fixed the screen door which hadn't closed properly in months. When I asked Angel why, he told me the door didn't fit any more. He showed me how the lower portion of the door had what amounted to an overbite. What?

"Houses, they move. They don't stay straight," he said.
Dutch tumble house
And it hit me:  that's what I felt like. A house shifting on its very foundation. Adjusting, sometimes not fitting, but stretching toward a new shape.
What else was in the fridge that I needed to address? A partial quart of buttermilk. Leftover blueberries. Yet nothing would be addressed until I prepared my morning latte.
You see the one culinary skill I'm proud of, the one technique I mastered many years ago, is steaming milk. There's an art to it, one that took me a whole summer to learn.
Eli Zabar outside his E.A.T. cafe, circa 1982
The year was 1982. I had just completed my freshman year at college when Eli Zabar hired me to work at E.A.T.,
his outrageously overpriced cafe for the rich on 72nd and Madison in New York City.
I wore a white shirt, black pants, and a white chef apron tied smartly around the waist. My responsibilities varied. One early morning I was frantically arranging blood oranges in what I hoped was a perfect pyramid in the window. Thud. An orange rolled and, before I could catch it, thudded to the white and black checkerboard floor. I heard Eli quickly pacing toward me, swooping down to pick up the orange and slamming it into my hand with a citrusy slap.

"You idiot!" screamed Eli, his pale blue eyes flaring. "You go to Yale? You've got to be fucking kidding me! Get it right! Customers are coming in half an hour!"
Klaus Kinski, "Fitzcarraldo"
Eli swore by the Angriest Boss In The World model. The early 80s was a time of swagger, casual violence and cruelty in the workplace, and boatloads of cocaine. Eli -- who looked like the cousin of another madman, Klaus Kinski -- was furious in his pursuit of perfection.
Elizabeth Ray, former mistress, aspiring actress/comedienne (didn't pan out)
Another time, the infamous political mistress Elizabeth Ray called to place an order for a small linzer torte. One. She sounded in a rush. The order seemed odd to me, but then, it was Elizabeth Ray, the woman who'd brought Congressman Wayne Hays to his downfall in 1976. Who declared "I can't type, I can't file, I can't even answer the telephone." Who was I to question? She had her appetites. I hurriedly chose the most perfect linzer torte I could find, fussed and worried over the decorative raspberries, their size, their symmetrical placement, the texture of the latticed crust, whether there were any nicks or crumblings, were the preserves a seductive ruby-color -- then, satisfied, packed it carefully in a pastry box. Delivered it to Eli. Eli didn't even look, hurled his keys at me.

"Take the van. Get the tart to Elizabeth Ray in perfect condition -- and be back in half an hour. Go!"
I stared at him, panicked. I'd never driven in NYC, didn't know the streets, and I'd never driven a van. Plus, I had to shepherd a little linzer torte with its delicate crust and its gently but precariously placed raspberries -- while I no doubt careened around the city through a sea of bleating honking taxis.
I had no choice. Somehow I made it, rattled and disheveled, and arrived at Elizabeth Ray's apartment door. She opened it, hard-eyed, blond hair the texture of straw, slender in a silken thigh-high kimono though it was already late afternoon.

"Your tart," I said.

"You're late," she said. "Give it to me." Then Elizabeth Ray opened the box. She squinted, her brow knit into an ugly line.

"This is the wrong size!" she screamed. "You stupid girl! This is a small linzer torte! I ordered a large one! I'll have your head!"

"Let me fix it," I said, every organ pulsing and pounding. "Please. Let me..."

"Wait 'til Eli hears about this," she said, and slammed the door. Bolts, latches and chains slid ominously into place. For a few minutes, I sat on the floor holding the pastry box in my lap with sweat-stained fingertips, unsure what to do.

When I returned to the cafe, shaken and terrified I'd be yelled at, lose my job -- Eli laughed. You never knew what would piss him off and what would amuse him. Although he himself was extravagantly rich for the times, with his own private plane, houses everywhere, a habit of jetting off to France for things like weekend cheese-buying trips, still, he did not consider himself part of the wealthy class. And oftentimes he would delight at their distress and indignation.
To wit, there were no prices on anything. When I was serving up plates of hand-picked international delicacies from the perfectly groomed case, I had to improvise prices on the spot. Our job was to invent them according to whim. I think Eli got a kick out of this. Not only were we constantly on edge, pressured to create pricing, but the wealthy customers often got hoodwinked or straight-up cheated. For Eli, it was win-win. When customers complained they got charged more than another customer for the same items, we made up stories. But sir, what I served madam was made from day-old malassol caviar. Yours was delivered fresh this very morning.
I made a habit of charging customers I disliked exorbitant prices. Every woman who entered the store with a Chanel bag and a miniature lap dog peering out from the quilted interior got charged double. Whatever we charged, most didn't blink. Perhaps they were high. Though Eli thought all the rich were just naturally spacy.
Eli had other peculiarities. Like, no lunch breaks. If we were hungry, we could stuff our faces with whatever we liked -- and keep working. Many times I had to swallow a mouthful of unchewed veal shank or half-masticated leek and bacon quiche so I could wait on a customer.
Probably co-workers were doing a lot of coke, but I was geeky, so concerned about doing the job well, I guess no one offered it to me.
I focused instead on learning how to steam milk.

When I found out E.A.T. stood for Eli and Abbie (his wife) Together, I almost choked on my chicken curry. Imagining Eli married stupefied the brain. Imagining him romantic resulted in complete neural short-circuiting.
I hardly ever went back to retrieve foods fresh out of the belching black ovens. Jerry the Chef was back there, sweating and limping in his fiery domain. This was long before chefs were celebrities. Jerry was a cripple; he'd been born with one leg shriveled and almost useless. He never came out to the front. I couldn't help thinking of Caliban. Jerry's foul tongue added to the Calibanesque effect. Yet what he summoned forth from his stovetops and ovens were nothing short of miraculous. I remember Maili saying some chefs cook out of a desire to nurture. These are usually ones who've grown up with family members cooking and eating together.
John Belushi, "Samurai Sushi Chef"
Others cook out of anger. Often times they didn't have enough to eat growing up, or no one paid attention to food. Looking back, I realized Jerry was cooking from a deep rage. He might be back in his cave, sweltering, limping, spewing invective over the hot stove -- but the dishes he brought forth were always valiant and skillful attempts at perfection. And in the delicately pouffed souffles, the lamb so tender it melted from the bone, the artfully formed petit fours, perhaps he found redemption. Maybe he was hoping if he created the perfect dish, his body would become whole, too.

Back to Saturday, and that buttermilk that was about to ruin. Time for another batch of buttermilk and blueberry pancakes!

When I poured out the buttermilk, I realized I only had 1 1/2 cups. Uh oh! The recipe called for 2 1/2. I had to think fast. It was already nearing 1pm. I was meeting a friend to see "Eat, Pray, Love" at 4pm. I hadn't eaten except for a few slivers of pygmy watermelon. I had to finagle the recipe to make it work -- and trust. Even though baking is closer to an exact science than stovetop cooking. You had to measure and calibrate or things could easily go flooey. Time to let go of perfection. Time to improvise.
I reduced various measurements on the fly. 4 eggs would be 3. 2 cups of flour would be 1 1/2. 3 tablespoons of butter, not 4. And so forth. I made sure to avoid mixing the dry and liquid elements too much so the baking soda could work and the cakes would rise in the skillet.
Then I began production. The trickiest part is heating the pan right. Another tricky part, I discovered, is figuring out what size pancake to make and how to flip it! Because this is what happened the first time. Batter everywhere.
Then I tried two spatulas, and voila!
I knew I'd have to cook all the pancakes, even though it was just me. Batter doesn't last; this I'd learned from checking with Maili. Better cook them all, and freeze the ones you don't eat. You can easily defrost and heat them up in the oven. I've done it and they're still delicious...
I ate two and froze the rest. Then I dashed off to Malibu to meet Nicola Goode-McFarland, an old friend and college roommate for three years, to see "Eat, Pray, Love" and discuss the film and our own memories of Italy over dinner. Post coming soon to a computer near you!
Meanwhile, I thought about the search for perfection, and how I'd always been so competitive and concerned with making mistakes. How often I'd beaten myself up for those mistakes, and allowed them to destroy any feeling of satisfaction. Cooking provided a return to innocent play. Permission to indulge in joyful experimentation, where mistakes were part of the fun.
Julia Child with big ol' fish
I thought of Julia Child whose TV show I watched now and then when I was a kid. The cooking didn't interest me as much as her improbable height, the absurdity of the apron, her exuberant comic gifts. The one scene I recalled vividly was Julia, cheerful, towering over a kitchen island, blithely and zanily chopping a floppy fish.

"First, you've got to cut it up with your big knife," she said in her odd, melodious voice while drinking a glass of wine.

Then she slashed -- and the fish head flipped into the air and fell onto the floor. Without hesitation, Julia swooped down, picked up the slippery fish head, and put it right back on the cutting board.

Here is one of her most famous quotes:

"The only stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking, you've got to have a what-the-hell attitude."

If I can cook, anyone can.



  1. I grew up with Julia Child. She was my neighbor. I can still remember when we realized the huge, funny lady was on television. It seemed more amazing that she was an object of interest, to others, than that she was cooking tasty things in an offhand, quirky manner. At least at first.

    I had to share my Christmas Carol Book with her and her little husband, Paul, when the neighborhood gathered for caroling the block. (Daniel Patrick Moynihan did the sleigh bells, a long string of real sleigh bells that wrapped around him like a python. Galbraith's kids, Peter and Jamie, would yell "Trick or Treat!" as we caroled each home.) So, I saw her in full-on "What the Hell" mode, more so singing than cooking. And it was the kind of singing you'd expect from Julia, like a truck-horn blaring, like a bagpipe through a speaker system, like a flock of poisoned geese. Paul was the silent one, making them the original Penn and Teller.

    But she wasn't 'what-the-hell' when she shopped! She shopped like a Ph.D candidate, researching every detail to make sure the orals would be flawless. She wouldn't buy shrimp, because she couldn't find out exactly where and when they were caught. She was very fussy about certain types of fish and meat, tossing leafy greens like a comic magician juggling tissues. (And she wasn't such a good politically correct model for progressive thinking, either. But I'll let the uninitiated dream on about her goodness.) She was a lot of fun, a horrible but full-volume singer, and once the extremely picky process of finding her ingredients was over, she had a great joy of life in the kitchen, endless stories, generosity in sharing favorite recipes.

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  3. When I was in college, I had the work-study job of working in the coffee shop, which was one of the centers of social life at Reed. On a Saturday night, when the movie let out, people would trickle into the coffee shop and start ordering snacks and sandwiches. The custom orders got absurd very quickly.

    A student ordered a chocolate shake. The next would want the same but with coffee grounds added. A game of "Can You Top This?" ensued. A young woman dressed in a medieval gown would want a chocolate shake, coffee grounds, malt, and vanilla extract. A bearded Lou Reed in Bay-of-Pigs wraparounds would order all of that, plus a scoop of strawberry ice cream added in. And so it went, Saturday night, one blender, a line clogging the food prep area, resembling a stalled New York elevator.

    Sandwich orders were warped. CST -- Cheese, sprouts, tomatoes -- on whole wheat would evolve into:

    "I want a three-cheese, tomato, avocado, mushroom, green pepper, peanut butter sandwich with jelly, gravy, sardines and ketchup."

    The crowd would chuckle and hoot: "Oooooh!" "Awwwww!" "Omigod!" Some folks would drop out of line to watch the poor bastard eat that sonofabitch whole grain cluster cloud, all toasted and melted and spiced. And, when it was over, there was curiosity. How far could they push themselves in ordering? In eating?

    It was a game for absurdist dorks, who would, ultimately, find one another at forty-five in the dirt pathways of Burning Man, in full Napoleonic regalia or dressed as semi-nude medflies.

    Was there any value to it? Well, the sense of "What the hell?" served them well to live life a little fuller, more freely, more daringly, in color.

    I make salads fearlessly, partly due to those experiences. It's like improvising music. Flavors have a tone and there is a (musical) scale on which they can be played, intuitive modal choices for any salad bowl. No recipe, just imagine flavors combining. Sometimes I'm not sure about a flavor, or a spice, and I have to play it, add the spice, taste it. Once I do, I know more. I found that cardamom pods busted open, fresh seeds spilled into any salad usually works. Playing makes for growth in every endeavor.

    Julia inspired creativity and playfulness even before she was famous. I remember kids buzzing about home-made chocolates on Irving Street one Halloween. We rushed there. They were disappearing. Oh, man! The big lady served them on a large tray, warning:

    "No more than two. Share them with the others!"

    This was war, man. This was taste bud heroin.

    We all ran home and created new costumes so she couldn't recognize us. I remember laughing at some of our combinations: flippers with a Fred Flintstone toga, bee antennae, and six guns.

    JULIA CHILD: "Oh, Good Lord, what are you supposed to be?"

    KID: "Existential Dilemma."

    JULIA CHILD (To Paul): "A lot of professor's kids tonight."

    It wasn't a good thing to do. But we pushed ourselves out of the box. We knew enough to know outstanding chocolate. What the Hell?

  4. "....Elizabeth Ray, the woman who'd brought Congressman Wayne Hays to his downfall in 1976. who declared "I can't type, I can't file, I can't even answer the telephone."
    A tart for a Tart. Life Is so poetic sometimes you just have to smile.
    Terrific as always Rachel.
    Donzo, lol where's your blog?

  5. OK, officially hooked. Where are my fucking pancakes? Let's defrost. See you next week Madam Cookstress....

  6. Love this post. Great to see the pictures of Angel bearing the green plate, and your smiley melon rinds. Shows what a powerful thing it is to share good food. Beautiful writing as usual :-). Eli Zabar and Elizabeth Ray - fascinating stuff.

  7. Just want to say that you're an awesome photographer and visual designer as well as a magnificent writer

  8. Love your adventures at the nyc cafe and of course the tart for a tart.