How I Don’t Get Bored

Lately, people have been asking me if I’m bored of my website or, more specifically, if it’s become a chore. Let’s face facts: when you’ve been writing about food for more than two years in a blog format, it becomes difficult to surprise yourself. It also becomes difficult to grow your audience beyond whatever audience you’ve achieved. When I started out I was a ball of needy energy: I wanted fame, glory, riches and free stuff. Now that I’ve gotten some of that, the question becomes: what are my blog goals? Where am I headed? How do I not get bored?

I’ll confess, I sometimes get bored with the routine I’ve adopted: take pictures of whatever I cook or eat out, load the pictures on to Flickr and somehow frame them into a narrative that describes–sometimes with a recipe–what it is I consumed. The excitement comes in figuring out new ways to frame the material. The post beneath this, for example, allowed me to feel creative while describing a French pizza with anchovies. Writing a play with a talking anchovy may not be the most professional way to tackle Pissaladiere, but it keeps it fun for me and hopefully for you. The trick is keeping things fresh. And after two years, that can be hard.

The one thing I miss about my blog is the sense of constant reinvention that was present in the early years. I did a Food Network Marathon, I started Carbohydrate Awareness Day, I did profiles of weird fruits I found at Whole Foods. These were the days of my reckless foodblogging youth; I hadn’t yet been absorbed by the larger foodblogging community (or, for that matter, the larger blogging community.) Things were more alive back then. I miss the electricity, man. It’s like we’re in a band that started out in punk clubs and now we’re playing Shea Stadium. We need to go back to our roots.

Ok, ok, I’m exaggerating. I still do weird stuff. I wrote a poem about peanut brittle that had the word “poo” in it and I still make movies and songs when I get the chance. I’m just sharing with you some of the “behind the scenes” thought processes that plague this foodblogger when he isn’t foodblogging. And I wanted to answer the person’s question who asked me if I get bored. Now you know the truth. And the truth stings like a viper. Now on with the routine… a grapfruit granita post… how can I make this interesting? [NOTE: Most likely, when you read this, the grapefruit granita post will appear above this. Keep in mind that this grapefruit granita post was created in reaction to this post so it should be filled with fun and charm. If it isn’t, you have permission to delete my blog from your blogroll.]

What I Can Tell You About The Taping I Attended of “Iron Chef America” Without Having To Pay The Food Network $1,000,000

IMG_1.JPG

The Food Network really doesn’t want me to tell you what I witnessed on Monday, January 23rd. Upon arriving at The Food Network studios in The Chelsea Market, they had my companions and I sign a piece of paper that made us swear we wouldn’t reveal any secrets from the episode we were about to see taped of Iron Chef America. Especially: which Iron Chef would do battle; the identity of the challenger and, most importantly, the secret ingredient. The penalty would be–according to the document–$1 million. Plus they’d send Mario Batali to walk on you in his orange clogs.

What follows, then, is a carefully guarded account of our experience there. Please don’t ask me any questions like “What was the secret ingredient?” because answering that [fennel!] might cost me my future livelihood. [Just kidding, it wasn’t fennel. Stop asking.]

News of the Iron Chef tickets reached my e-mail box a few weeks earlier. My wonderful agent, who plucked me from nowhere and placed me on the road to somewhere, informed me that she had two tickets: one for me and one for my editor at Bantam/Dell. The taping would be Monday at 2:30, we’d meet out front at 2:25. She also attached a letter from The Food Network that ended thusly:

“DRESS IS BUSINESS CASUAL. PLEASE REFRAIN FROM WEARING JACKETS, AND TIES. NO LARGE LOGOS ARE PERMITTED. SOLID DARK COLORS ARE PREFERRED. NO CAMERAS OR RECORDING DEVISES OF ANY KIND PERMITTED

ALSO, YOU WILL BE REQUIRED TO SIGN A COFIDENTIALITY AGREEMENT WHEN YOU CHECK IN FOR THE PRODUCTION. ALL GUESTS OF THIS PRODUCTION ARE REQUIRED TO DO THIS.”

As you can see, they are VERY serious about this confidentiality agreement. I don’t know why you keep bugging me to reveal things like who the Iron Chef was [Sakai!], they’re seriously going to sue me. [Just kidding, Sakai isn’t on Iron Chef America. You got so rocked.]

Tickets for “Iron Chef America” are invite only, which is why attending the taping is so special. We gathered in a room on the ground level of the Food Network studios in the very back of the market. Sandwiches and cookies from Amy’s Bread were available and of course I couldn’t refuse a cookie. On a TV screen they showed previous battles as Food Network employees collected the signed forms and began to herd people into an elevator.

Before we got on, we were asked to turn our cellphones and pagers off. “You’ll have a chance to turn them back on after the battle’s over, before the judging.”

The elevator took us up six flights and they led us into another waiting room. From here, you could kind of see into the Iron Chef studio. The feeling was similar to that of waiting for a Disney ride: fog from fog machines rolled in through cracks in the curtain, and you could see bright spotlights up ahead.

While we waited, we could watch what was going on in the studio on a TV monitor placed before us. We watched the challenger (who, I didn’t recognize and never learned the identity of anyway!) choose his Iron Chef for combat. We then watched him do it again. And again. These things, you see, require multiple takes.

Just then, some fanfare as a curtain parted to our left and the secret ingredient was wheeled in on a prop-like tray that looked like something from a poor man’s production of “Pirates of Penzance.”

“It looks like there’s a body in there,” said my agent.

“Maybe there is and that’s the secret ingredient!” I suggested. A woman to my right sneered.

Eventually they led us into the studio. The space was surprisingly small and fake-looking. Kitchen Stadium in Japan looks like a real stadium or at least a space that has some significance, even if the whole mythology is made up. Here: the room was a giant black box with a wheeled-on set. This is the same room, we later learned, where Emeril tapes “Emeril Live!” and (gag!) Rachel Ray shoots her show.

There are two sets of seats for audience members. The VIP seats, where we weren’t sitting, and the not VIP seats where we were sitting. These faced the Iron Chef directly; the Challenger’s side faced no audience.

To my right they pushed on Alton Brown’s set piece: the panel with computers where he does his color commentary during the show. And then out came Alton Brown, looking just like he does on TV only a tiny bit sweatier. What follows is a glowing paragraph in praise of Alton Brown.

Alton Brown is a genius. Or, to rephrase: he’s a genius at what he does. He’s a brilliant television personality. Whenever they shot a segment with him, he told them to turn off the teleprompters: he didn’t need them. And then he’d say something funny to make the director laugh or the crew laugh and each time he was a consummate professional–never fudging a word, always crisp and clear and smart. And then there’s the fact that for the entire one hour battle that ensues he speaks the ENTIRE time. It’s truly remarkable. The Iron Chefs are talented men and women, but for my money the show wouldn’t be watchable without Alton’s quick wit and intelligent observations of what’s going on. He’s the glue that holds Iron Chef America together.

[However, his earring is awful. Yes he has an earring. So does that useless sidekick Kevin. They both have the same earring. Are they in a cult? Or did they go through a joint midlife crisis?]

Alton aside, the experience of watching Iron Chef live is a bit like the experience of a child who believes with all his heart in tooth fairies catching his mother put money under the pillow. The whole thing’s a sham!

No, it really is. I’m sorry. When we sat down, both chefs had pots already boiling: sure it’s probably chicken stock or other kitchen essentials, but there was something very predetermined about what was going on. When they revealed the secret ingredient–ooh! ahh!–the chefs looked like they were being read the serial number from the side of a library book. There wasn’t a nerve in the air. And every action we observed felt the opposite of spontaneous. These people KNOW or at least have a very good idea of what the secret ingredient is going to be. And with all the stops and starts and editing and lack of music, a live performance of Iron Chef America is as tense as watching two 90 year olds play a game of hopscotch.

However, with that said, there is something wonderful about observing a brilliant chef in action. And in this case the Iron Chef was a pleasure to watch. The assistants too. Watching them buzz around the kitchen, grilling, sauteing, setting things on fire: it’s quite entertaining. That hour goes by very fast.

At the end, they have the five plates they’re required to finish by the time the buzzer sounds. Then they have an opportunity to plate the plates for the judging. Here’s where I was confused: the Iron Chef went first. Didn’t the Challenger’s food get cold? It takes 45 minutes to get through the judging. Doesn’t that put the Challenger at a huge disadvantage? Especially with foods that need to be served right away?

I don’t have an answer. I actually couldn’t stay for the Challenger’s judging, I was late for class. [My agent informed me who won over e-mail.]

The best part, though, came during the Iron Chef’s judging. Without revealing anything, the judges were ambivalent about a few dishes and then they raved over one particular dish. As they raved, one of the Iron Chef’s assistants came out to the audience with a plate of this particular dish. When it passed my way, I lifted a sample of this expertly prepared secret ingredient and placed it in my mouth. It was truly divine: a taste memory I’ll never forget. I can’t tell you more ’til the episode airs.

And that’s essentially what the Iron Chef taping experience is like. Oh, but there are smells too. I forgot to mention that: the smells that waft over you as you watch are really wonderful. If Smellovision is ever invented, Iron Chef America will be the show to watch. In the meantime, I can’t tell you anymore. I’m sorry. Unless you send me $1 million and a picture of you in a Speedo. Then I might consider. Otherwise, in the words of my uncle: Allez cuisine!

Revelations of the Oven Thermometer

The Revelation of The Amateur Gourmet, which his new oven thermometer gave unto him, to shew unto his readers a new way of baking: blessed is he that readeth, and they that readeth will baketh better forevereth more…

For I, The Amateur Gourmet, have seen the light. Many a baker, many a cookbook has told me to purchase an oven thermometer. My attitude’s been similar to that of the lookout at Pearl Harbor who was told “watch for planes.” “Sure, sure,” he probably thought. “I’ll watch for planes.” Well we know what happened to him. He starred in a movie with Ben Affleck and Josh Harnett. Me? I’ve been cooking at the wrong temperature for more than a year now.

Last night I roasted chicken (see post below) and I wanted the oven at 425. I inserted the oven thermometer:

IMG_1.JPG

And turned the oven on to 425.

IMG_2.JPG

I waited til the timer went off telling me it was preheated and I checked the oven thermometer:

IMG_3.JPG

Can you see that? I made the picture small cause it’s an ugly picture. Ok I’ll make it bigger:

IMG_4.JPG

400.

Ok, ok, so maybe it just needs more time. I waited another 10 minutes. Still at 400.

So let me get this straight: I heated my oven to 425 but my oven’s 425 is really 400?

I reset the oven for 450 and waited. The thermometer went up 415. I raised it to 470 and finally the thermometer read 425.

This is the revelation of the oven thermometer: your oven temperature is not what you think it is. Go forth and purchase an oven thermometer and let the light of truth shine, finally, into your oven. The time is at hand.

Sometimes Good Food Looks Like Vomit

I have been viciously attacked in my asparagus risotto post by some who’ve critiqued my technique (even though it’s not my technique, it’s Rose Gray’s technique) and the “baby diaper-ish” quality of the end product. Inkadinkadoo (who has “doo” in his/her name) writes: “Some of those pix look like stills from ‘The Exorcist’ puke scene.” James Kew’s linkblog linked to my post with this comment: “Adam’s not afraid to post his flops, but this is the first one, I think, where he counts a recipe as a success while his commenters howl failure.”

The thing of it is, I’ve made many things in the past that look like vomit and/or feces that tasted delicious. Like the last time I made risotto, for example:

IMG_1.JPG

Or the time I made Jacques Torres’s chocolate mudslide cookies:

IMG_2.JPG

Sure, it looks kind of nasty, but it tasted delicious.

And then there was the time I made this cake, which looks rather innocuous:

IMG_3.JPG

but it tasted like vomit because it had ricotta cheese in it.

So in conclusion, some things in this world look fine and taste like vomit. Other things look like vomit and taste great. Asparagus risotto is one of those things. Don’t knock it ’til you try it!

When I Get That Feeling I Want Proustian Healing (PLUS: Rainbow Cookies!)

Many food writers, at some point in their careers, drop the Proust bomb. Whether they’re eating mushrooms in a field in Jerusalem or slurping noodles in downtown Beijing, at some point their soul will be stirred, a childhood memory emerges and they write: “Like Proust and his madeleines, I feel myself whisked away to the past…” Heck, even I’ve done it.

Yet how many of these food writers have actually read Proust? How many of you have actually read Proust? All we really know of Proust is that he ate a madeleine and felt memories wash over him.

That’s about to change. See, it just so happens that the current book on my summer reading syllabus (built from the lectures Nabokov gave at Cornell) is “Swann’s Way” by Proust. It’s the first book in his massive six book masterwork “In Search of Lost Time.” I like this quote from Virginia Woolf on the front flap: “My greatest adventure was undoubtedly Proust. What is there left to write after that?”

I’ve finished the first part of the first section, “Combray” and on page 45 I suddenly spotted that passage that was known to me before I even began the book. It’s like seeing clips from a famous movie that you’ve never seen—like “Here’s looking at you, kid” or “Rosebud”–and then actually watching the movie and understanding the context. The madeleine episode in “Swann’s Way” comes at the end of a long lyrical account of some of his childhood; specifically the desperate need he had for his mother to kiss him goodnight. I won’t spoil it by revealing what happens (and it may seem, when you start reading it, that not much is happening at all: but eventually there’s story) I’ll simply jump to the cookies.

I ate these rainbow cookies the other day on Bleeker Street with friends:

IMG_1.JPG

If I were deceitful, I’d tell you they whisked me away to my childhood home, where mom would surprise me with packages of rainbow cookies from the bakery. And it’s not that that’s not true: she did surprise me with rainbow cookies from a bakery. But the thing is she still DOES surprise me when I come home with rainbow cookies so they’re a constant; that memory has never been deeply buried and suddenly shot out when triggered by one of my senses. That’s why reading Proust himself is helpful: he has a very clear definition of what it means to have a madeleine moment.

“It is the same with our past. It is a waste of effort for us to try to summon it, all the exertions of our intelligence are useless. The past is hidden outside the realm of our intelligence and beyond its reach, in some material object (in the sensation that this material object would give us) which we do not suspect. It depends on chance whether we encounter this object before we die, or do not encounter it.”

The madeleine bit lasts for three pages. I recommend that if you are going to read the book, you don’t read the following quotes because they’re so much more magical to encounter in context–after getting there with Proust. But if you’re a lazy ho-bag, here’s the bit where he puts it in his mouth:

“…I carried to my lips a spoonful of tea in which I had let soften a bit of madeleine.” (NOTE: his mother offers him tea which he usually refuses but this time he accepts.] “But at the very instant when the mouthful of tea mixed with cake crumbs touched my palate, I quivered, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening inside me. A delicious pleasure had invaded me, isolated me, without my having any notion as to its cause. It had immediately rendered the vicissitudes of life unimportant to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory, acting in the same way that love acts, by filling me with a precious essence: or rather this essence was not merely inside me, it was me. I had ceased to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Where could it have come to me from–this powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected to the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it went infinitely far beyond it, could not be of the same nature. Where did it come from? What did it mean? How could I grasp it?”

He goes on to identify the memory–it takes him a while–and “as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine dipped in lime-blossom tea that my aunt used to give me (though I did not yet know and had to put off to much later discovering why this memory made me so happy), immediately the old gray house on the street, where her bedroom was, came like a stage set to attach itself to the little wing opening onto the garden that had been built for my parents behind it….”

That’s a beautiful passage, is it not? And I love this bit that comes before it: “But, when nothing subsists of an old past, after the death of people, after the destruction of things, alone, frailer but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, smell and taste still remain for a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, upon the ruins of all the rest, bearing without giving way, on their almost impalpable droplet, the immense edifice of memory.”

If that weren’t the grandest defense ever for writing about food and caring about food, I don’t know what is. “Smell and taste”: this is what you pay for when you go to Masa, or Jean-Georges, or Babbo; this is what you long for when you remember your grandmother’s cooking or your last trip to Europe. I remember when my great-grandmother Helen died we still had some of her nightgowns hanging in our closet (she sometimes stayed with us) and they smelled like her. I missed her so much (she was the jolliest woman ever) and I remember going into that closet and smelling her clothes to try to bring her back a little. It’s amazing how the brain works; how sensory triggers can unlock buried treasure chests of memory.

So in conclusion, before you drop the P-bomb, remember not to take it lightly. Proust’s madeleine ain’t no rainbow cookie. It’s a spiritual thing, a matter of chance, not something you can self-induce. Have you ever been taken by surprise tasting something, smelling something, hearing something that you couldn’t identify but that conjured up your past? Congratulations. Proust dropped his bomb on ya.

On Food and Writing (Part 1 in a 62 Part Series)

When Arthur Miller wrote “Death of a Salesman” in 1948, he built a cabin “to sit in the middle of it, and shut the door and let things happen.” He built a desk out of an old door and “started in the morning, went through the day, then had dinner, and then went back there and worked till…one or two o’clock in the morning.” The play, he says, “sort of unveiled itself. I was the stenographer. I could hear them. I could hear them, literally.” [These Miller quotes are taken from John Lahr’s priceless book of profiles, “Show and Tell.”]

For everyone with a kitchen and writerly aspirations, I have exciting news for you. I believe that your kitchen is your very own fully functional Arthur Miller cabin. A zone of meditation and deep concentrated thought, your kitchen can be your very own Yoda swamp. I believe that the skills and techniques you learn from cooking will make you a better writer. I believe that’s happened to me: not only the hair club president, but also a client.

On a very basic level, a story is like a recipe. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is structure. A basic structure starts with exposition, which we might liken to a gathering of ingredients. Here’s where we meet our characters, get our setting, our environment, our weather, our tone. And then: the point of attack. This is what sets the story in motion. We turn the oven on. We crack an egg. We get things moving. Willy’s come home from Yonkers and hasn’t made a sale. Biff and Happy are upstairs smoking. Linda’s worried that Willy’s trying to kill himself. How will this all turn out?

Cooking, like good writing, is inherently dramatic. We follow all the steps right but still, our souffle might not rise. Our asparagus may be soggy. The meatloaf may be dry. There’s risk involved: something’s at stake.

I challenge you to find a great work of literature (film, theater, books) where nothing’s at stake. You won’t. Godot’s gotta come, we gotta kill that shark, Frodo’s gotta destroy the ring or we’re all…gonna…die…

Process matters too. If we’re J.R.R. Tolkien, how are we going to get Frodo through Mordor to destroy the ring? What obstacles will he encounter? A giant spider? A gang of orcs? A tap-dancing monkey?

Similarly: if we’re the Amateur Gourmet, how are we going to light our Boeuf Bourguignon if we don’t have a lighter and getting the match close enough might incinerate our hand? Hold the match with a pair of scissors? Just drop it in? How will we fish it out?

Surprises in the kitchen are like surprises on paper: some are happy, some are not. If your character suddenly kills everyone in the room and is left, alone, on an empty stage with nothing to do–that surprise isn’t happy. You need to start again. If, however, the character reaches for a gun and falls over hitting his head on a frying pan which initiates a full-scale musical number starring Carol Channing that surprise is…well…happy or not happy depending on your fondness for Carol Channing.

It’s the same in the kitchen. You know this. You may be out of ginger and the recipe calls for 2 Tbs so you use cardamom instead or cinnamon or something different and it either tastes great or it tastes awful. These are the trials we go through as we cook up dinner and we go through the same tribulations when we cook up stories. We take risks. They often pay off and sometimes they don’t.

But here’s how we weave it all together. Back to the cabin we go. Writing, at its best, is a period of sustained concentration, meditation, and imagination. Most good writers I know have experienced “the zone.” It happens in writing like it happens in cooking. You’re standing in your kitchen and you’re whisking your filling while the tart shell cools and just at the right moment you lift the mixture from the double boiler and pour it into the crust and it settles perfectly. You put it in the oven and wait for it to brown. Will it brown? Will it brown? It does brown. Success. Glory. Hallelujah.

That’s what good writing feels like. You’re flying high. You’re hearing voices, like Arthur Miller. You can taste the results and yet you’re engrossed in the process.

Another thing occurs to me. Great writing happens when you care about what you’re writing–when the subject is close to your heart. Same with cooking. If you’re microwaving frozen noodles that sat in your freezer for eight months, the results will be dismal. If you make, from scratch, the recipe your great-grandmother smuggled across the ocean while fleeing cossacks in Russia, then the results may be spectacular. Or they may be awful. But they’ll be awful in a big way.

Then there’s the concept of sharing. You can bake a glorious pie and eat it all yourself; you can write a glorious poem and never show it to anyone. Or the opposite. Make a feast and feed swarms of happy people; write an epic fantasia on AIDS and watch it blow up into a multimillion dollar extravaganza with Meryl Streep and Al Pacino. (Yes, that’s an Angels In America reference.)

The comparisons are endless. Cooking and Writing both inform each other in exciting ways. I’ve argued from the writer’s perspective how cooking helps, but even from the cook’s perspective there’s virtue in writing. After all, at some point a 4-star chef has to decide what the menu will say regarding his foie gras appetizer. He (or she) has to articulate what he wants from his sous chef in a way that ensures that ingredients and time won’t be wasted. The string of words he uses–“Fry the egg and slip it on top of the bacon”–employs the same economy of means that a good writer employs. The instincts are the same.

Is it any surprise, then, that so many writers are well-fed and so many cooks are well-read? Hemingway, in my mind, is the mascot of the well-fed writer. And Mario Batali embodies the well-read cook. (Watch just one episode of “Molto Mario” and you’ll see what I mean.) It’s no coincidence that they’re both masters of their craft.

Thus I conclude Part 1 of this 62 part series. I truly believe that nothing can serve the aspiring writer better than learning his or her way around the kitchen. It may seem loopy, but the connections are deep and true. You know how some people argue that video games will make you a better pilot? It’s kind of like that: only truer.

What am I, Chopped Liver?

A sore throat, a runny nose, even a repetetive sneeze will spray me south two stops on the NR and then two Avenues east, past the trendy people in the East Village, to that bastion of restorative medicine: The 2nd Ave. Deli, home of the city’s most mystically curative chicken soup.

I’ve lived here since August. In that time, I’ve gone to the 2nd Ave. Deli three times for three separate bowls of chicken noodle soup which means I’ve had three colds since I moved here. Maybe it’s the germs on the subway or all the people I make out with. In any case, The 2nd Ave. Deli always succeeds in making me feel better (although it costs a pretty penny). Today I decided to be economical and order soup and half a sandwich (as opposed to a whole sandwich).

Which brings us to the title of this post. This post isn’t about soup. It’s about my sandwich. What was on my sandwich? The Jewish foie gras: Chopped Liver.

IMG_1.JPG

When I told the waiter what I wanted on my sandwich he smiled. In that smile we communed for a moment. “Ah, chopped liver,” he projected, “You’re a real Jew, aren’t you? Who else would order that? I’m impressed. Shalom! Long live Israel!” (He was a long-winded projector.)

There are some Jewish foods I’ve seen my non-Jewish friends eat. Matzoh ball soup, for example. Bagels, of course. Lox even. Maybe a hamentaschen here and there. But never, never ever ever have I seen a non-Jewish friend eat Chopped Liver. I imagine that given the prospect most of them would go: “Blech!”

Are you going “blech” right now? Why are you grossed out? Is it because it’s liver? Is it because it’s chopped? ARE YOU AN ANTI-SEMITE?

Chopped liver was a simple standard of my childhood. It’d be mounded (as it is in the above picture) at family functions and Bar Mitzvahs and weddings, usually with chopped hard-boiled eggs and raw onions. We’d eat it when we’d go to the deli or the bagel store. That is until my grandmother interceded and told us: “DON’T ORDER CHOPPED LIVER. IT’S AN ORGAN MEAT!”

That’s one of the trigger responses chopped liver has for me now. You say “chopped liver,” I hear my grandmother say: “It’s an organ meat!” Meaning, it’s horrible for you. Don’t eat it.

And I haven’t really eaten it in the latter half of my life. It’s been a while. Until today. Today I ordered chopped liver with my soup. The waiter smiled. Jews nodded in approval.

Then it was brought and I bit in and—blech? Not quite. It just took some getting used to. The chopped liver I remember from my childhood had a sweetness to it, perhaps from carmelized onions that get chopped up with it. Maybe this was low on the onions? The texture here was also unpleasant: it was dense and sludgy. Perhaps it was sophisticated. Perhaps this is what real Jews ate when they came over from Russia or Hungary or wherever it is they came from when they brought chopped liver across the ocean. Shall we defer to Joan Nathan’s “Jewish Cooking in America”?

Joan Nathan offers little. She talks about chopped liver sculptures at Jewish weddings. Can you imagine being paid to sculpt chopped liver? There’s also a recipe for vegetarian chopped liver, which my grandmother buys religiously from Whole Foods in Boca, and which I made once for a Passover seder (it involves plenty of onions and then green beans and walnuts to act as “liver”). But as to the history of chopped liver, little is written.

Although it’s not that hard to figure out. When you are poor, what do you do? Use every part of the animal. So as not to waste precious chickens, I’m sure converting the liver into something edible and even enjoyable was a necessity. (Much like the pork uterus that we laugh at in my Chinatown video may have been first cooked out of necessity). Necessity is the mother of invention, no? Such is the way with food.

On the way out of the 2nd Ave. Deli, an old Jewish woman stopped me. “It’s a regular slip joint they’re running here,” she said.

I gave her a look that said: “Hmmm?”

“A rip-off,” she continued, “I go in there and ask for half a pound of turkey, some chopped liver, and pastrami and do you know what they want to charge me? $26!”

I shook my head.

“Look,” she said, “These are my people. I’m happy to shop here. But c’mon!”

I gave her a look that said: “What are you gonna do?”

She shrugged and said: “I’ll go to Katz’s.”

Tradition keeps Jews on roofs and compels us to pay exorbitant prices to eat foods our ancestors ate out of necessity. It’s a nurture thing. Cultural comfort food. Could we afford to eat chopped liver every day? Of course not. And besides…it’s an organ meat!

On Feasting and Family

IMG_1.JPG

For those not in the know, this Thursday is Thanksgiving. It’s a day where we awkwardly sit around and wait to eat lots and lots of food. Then we eat lots and lots of food. Some people watch football. Then we go home. Maybe “Home for the Holidays” will be on TV. We go to sleep in our tiny childhood beds and ponder the vast emptiness of the universe.

Sometimes there will be fighting. No, scratch the “sometimes”–there will definitely be fighting. X will comment that Y is drinking too much; Y will comment that Z had a little too much turkey; Z will accuse Y of not really being a vowel. People will chew. People will go home. Such is Thanksgiving.

But Thanksgiving is a feast—and when we think of a feast we think of celebration; of revelry. The god of Thanksgiving is Dionysus, not Dr. Phil. The original Thanksgiving was Pilgrims partying with Indians. There weren’t any parents, any aunts, uncles, brothers or sisters. No one to tell you that you’ve gained weight, that you’re a miserable failure, that you’ll never amount to anything.

Pilgrim and Indians had a lot to talk about. “What’s it like living in a tee-pee?” “What’s it like sailing across the Atlantic?” “Did you think Dances With Wolves offered a sensitive portrayal?”

Families have nothing to talk about. “Did you take the garbage out?” “YES, SHUT THE HELL UP, YOU DON’T OWN MY LIFE.” “Sorry grandma.”

My point is that it’s impossible to have a true feast–a bawdy, wild, spirited orgy of food and drink–when the majority of the bones being picked are your own. Thanksgiving has morphed into an impossibility: a soggy attempt to wed family and fun. It can’t happen. It doesn’t happen. Everyone’s miserable.

But then again, Thanksgiving has its perks. There’s turkey. More importantly, there’s cranberry sauce. I love me some cranberry sauce. There’s also sweet potatoes–sometimes with marshmallows on them. Yes, I know that’s tacky, but I’ll eat it. Maybe there’s brown sugar and cinnamon in there too. Maybe for dessert there’s pumpkin pie. I really like pumpkin pie. I’ll confess, it’s not my favorite but I’ll eat it.

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is something to watch dreamily, glad you’re not with the throngs in the street getting trampled on. Burly, manly men like me ignore the baton twirling and high school bands–we focus mainly on the show tunes. Katy Couric, Matt Lauer, and Al Roker add a certain debauched charm to the proceedings. We watch until the family decides to do something together like go to the mall. Then we have to miss the pre-recorded production numbers from “Wicked” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” We grow furious.

Dinner on Thanksgiving starts early. Like at 5. That’s really early. My family, this year, will go to a buffet which I will take pictures of for you. The last time my mom cooked a Thanksgiving turkey. Ha. That sentence was a trick. My mom’s never cooked a Thanksgiving turkey (at least I don’t think she has). I offered to, but my family is still suspicious of my ability to cook. Besides, going out is easier. Less dishes, less stains on the rug and, more importantly, a bevy of Pilgrims and Indians to interact with to make the feasting more feastable.

Perhaps not cooking a turkey at home and going out instead captures the spirit of the original Thanksgiving, where two cultures so unalike sat down at the equivalent of an Olive Garden and gorged on bottomless salad and all you can eat breadsticks. Of course, eventually, the Pilgrims would rape and kill all the Indians. And actually, they weren’t Indians–they were Native Americans. Indians live in India. Then there was that war in Iraq and the country went to shit.

Ok, on second thought, stay home–be with your family. They’re all you have.