Oddities and Obsessions
What exciting news this past week! “The Woolly Rhino – a new species of ancient rhinoceros found in Tibet.” And, it's only 3.7 million years old!
Not that my first thought was how to prepare a Woolly Rhino that has aged for 3½ million years, (obviously one can forego the tenderizer) and if it is that ancient, how long should I cook it. Well, actually it was my first thought, though I hardly think it would be a Paleontologist’s.
Not without guile, I turned to the internet for Woolly Rhino recipes, and – quite naturally since you can find anything on the internet – I found one on CLUTCHFITNESS.COM: where research meets reality! (“a cutting edge power building, body building, fitness and nutrition forum”)
To say that truffles are an acquired taste for me would be an understatement; I can’t ever think of a moment when these heady gems crossed our family table growing up. Truffles and Tex Mex don’t normally hang out together, you know. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I had my first taste of the powerful fungus, and if you’ll allow me to be dramatic for just one second, it literally knocked me off my feet.
Much has been said about the beauty and rarity of truffles, so I’ll go ahead and leave the praise and culinary history to the professionals. By now you probably already know they are fungi and that they are harvested by dogs and pigs in Italy, France and the Pacific Northwest of the United States. You probably already know that they can fill a room with their aroma, but did you know that I know a Fed Ex driver who curses and swears each time he makes a white truffle delivery? Hey, I could think of worse smells for the inside of a delivery truck, can’t you?
My favorite sandwich as a child was a Grilled Cheese. It still is today. I'm continually amazed at how something so basic – bread and cheese – becomes something so sublime. I think I could eat one everyday and never get tired of it. Especially considering all the bread and cheese
choices out there. It boggles the mind and whets my appetite. Want
something more substantial add a little ham to it. Now, it's a real
meal and even more delightful.
Until two years ago, I never imagined this classic pairing could be improved upon. And certainly not with something so ordinary as an egg. Sometimes food takes you by surprise, though I find this happening less and less as I get older. I was wary of ordering my favorite sandwich, with a fried egg on top– a concoction that was called a Croque Madame – but I was trying to branch out and it was my birthday, so I figured what the hell.
Once upon a time, a long time ago, I decided to go on a liquid fast to lose weight. Needless to say, living on 400 calories a day of fake “milk shakes” is hell, but one strategy, which may sound counter-intuitive, was particularly helpful in getting me through 14 weeks of deprivation: I kept a stack of cookbooks next to the couch and another one by my bed. Reading recipes replaced eating recipes, and I lost a lot of weight. By the time I was ready to eat again, it turned out that I had replaced one addiction for another. My craving for cookbooks filled five shelves and then spilled onto the counters in my den.
Coupled with the many boxes of antiques scattered around the room, I kept expecting the camera crew from “Hoarders” to knock on my door. But what was I to do when I bought Susan Hermann Loomis’ “Farmhouse Cookbook” for its Best-Ever Chocolate Cake recipe, and then, five years later, her “French Farmhouse Cookbook” is released, with another chocolate cake recipe that says, “I thought I’d found the best-ever chocolate cake…but just when you think you’ve tasted the best there is, something better comes along”? Naturally, I had to buy that one, too. Eventually, it dawned on me that even if I made a new recipe every day for the rest of my life, I still couldn’t make all the ones I wanted to try in my 250+ cookbooks.
There’s no denying it – I am a pork-man through and through. Though I am not one of these 20 or 30 something dudes with a pig’s head tattooed on his forearm who from time to time is adoringly featured on Food Network, pigs and me go way, way back. Though I am a Jew, blade-cut pork chops, pickled pigs feet, Canadian bacon, rolled pork butt, breakfast sausage and the piece du resistance of my childhood – spare ribs (usually slathered in Duk Sauce – a sugary, vaguely fruity tasting, thin jelly with chunks of plums and something I later learned was ginger, that came in a tall jar with a label featuring a racist caricature of a smiling buck-toothed Chinese man wearing a coolie hat and sporting a queue [the Chinese government abolished the queue in 1911 but it seemingly persisted on labels of Duk Sauce at least through the early 1970’s]) were a staple of my New York childhood.
I carried on my affair with pigs when I went to the pork bastion, North Carolina, for law school. One Saturday in the fall of 1974, I was invited to a ‘pig pickin’ in Chatham County, outside of Chapel Hill. I arrived early in the day, fascinated by the prospect of actually witnessing the roasting of a whole hog – a feat that had fascinated me since my mother told me the story about how the Chinese created roast pork.
I think I’d heard of loquats before, but I’m not sure. They certainly don’t grow anywhere I’ve ever lived (Michigan, Ohio or Massachusetts) and if I’ve seen them as I enjoyed the beaches and tropical drinks of warmer climates, I didn’t know what they were.
Recently, I was invited to participate in a Sweet Potato recipe contest for bloggers, sponsored by the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission. The deadline was coming up quickly, and I felt serious pressure as I rejected all of the usual offerings - sweet potatoes with marshmallow topping, sweet potatoes candied, or my standard sweet potatoes boiled and mashed with Indian spices. It had all been done. Thinking “Iron Chef: Battle Sweet Potato” I went all Bobby Flay on the problem, and considered a sort of hot and spicy Southwestern version of the tuber involving maybe, a sweet sticky substance like honey or jelly, and some diced, fresh chile peppers. If I had actually had the ingredients and been able to let the games begin, I might have worked through it and come up with a side dish to make the angels sing while flames shot out their tiny pink ears. Instead, I kept coming up with reasons that nothing new could possibly be invented. I thought about being sued for stealing a recipe I didn’t know about and winning the competition. I thought about the judges reading my recipe, smiling knowingly at each other, and burying it under the pile of Truly Brilliant Submissions. I gave up.
I have known my friend Vicki since we were twelve. Without being excessively specific, that’s a long, long time. I met her when I got involved with our community theater, where she was already in a play (I was, at that point, just providing a baby doll to serve as a prop) and I knew instantly that she was not only taller, but quite a lot cooler than I was. For the next seven years we were in plays, orchestras, quartets and classes together, and spent a fair amount of recreational time together, too. Her legs alone are taller than all of me, she is a math whiz, she is the only person I know who was simultaneously in band, choir and orchestra, she has a rapier-sharp wit, and (perhaps most important) she is a loyal and kind friend, and a really good mom.
We live in the same place again now, after my years of wandering, and she recently returned from a trip South with a bag of goodies for me including fig jam, barbecue sauce and the unfortunately named “Butt Rub.” (Hereinafter “Stuff.”) Since I am a delicate and ladylike person, it took me a little while to get over the shock of seeing the, um, “Stuff” on my counter. (I am one of those extraordinarily old fashioned mothers who will not allow my kids to say the word “butt,” at least not in my hearing). There is also the inevitable, and probably intentional evocation of Desitin to deal with. I am far, far too pure to live in this world of sin and crudity….
I’ve always been a sucker for colorful vegetables. But hand me another dark, drizzly day, and you’ll find me going gaga at the grocery store for anything chartreuse…or fuchsia…or sunset orange. I need the color to stimulate my senses.
But sometimes I get myself in trouble. Take this whole green cauliflower thing. I love this stuff, which I happen to call Broccoflower®. Because that’s what it’s labeled at my grocery store. I included a side dish recipe for it in Fast, Fresh & Green, and developed a pasta recipe with it for my next book. The problem came when I asked my cross-testers, Jessica and Eliza, to go find Broccoflower in their grocery stores. Initially they both said they couldn’t find it. But both had the presence of mind to call me from the grocery store and describe what they did see. So after cell-phone exchanges and emailed photos, we determined that what both of them found was a very similar vegetable labeled “green cauliflower.”
I’m not quite sure when it happened, but somewhere between my childhood and early teenage years I stopped believing that I was capable of doing anything. We all did. Knowing better overruled my sense of creativity and ability to imagine any possible combination of outcomes.
Last night I sat next to my best friend of 24 years, on the floor of her Los Feliz apartment. Each with a computer on our lap, we wrote our stories. I remember when we used to sit together and, instead of just creating fictional characters, we were those characters. Our imaginations transported us like a time machine to wherever we wanted to go, as whoever we wanted to be.
I can recall being a shopkeeper – and a damn good one at that – at age 5. Kate and I would block off the kitchen and charge our parents a nickel every time they wanted something out of the fridge. In retrospect, we were genius. Back then, we weren’t intentionally manipulative or greedy money makers. No. We were just doing our jobs- because after all, we were shopkeepers. And it was awesome.