DINNER DIARIES OF 1985, ST. MARTEEN IN THE RAIN AND THE OTHER HOT DOG STAND

Dinner Diary         May 4, 1985

 

 

This is still a good menu – if you squint a bit while looking at it. OK, shrimp & scallops AND prusciutto with melon AND guava spread & cheddar cheese AND fettuccini with saffron cream sauce continue to be a “little” much.  I mean, even my note says, “too much at the same time”.  There is an explanation for the excess of food – I’m of Polish ancestry.  This ancestry, as with many other ethnic groups, requires that you make twice or three times the amount of food that could possibly be consumed at the event, thus ensuring that there will be enough for the invited guests and any Mongol Hordes or smaller third world countries that might show up uninvited.  Who knew that the guava spread is supposed to go with a nice Spanish or South American cheese? I gotta’ try the orange stuffed with orange mousse again (BA = Bon Appétit, May 1985 and NYT Mag = New York Times Sunday Magazine, March 10, 1985).  As I, somewhat hazily, recall this was a great “presentation and taste” dish.  Cold strawberry soup sounds too 80’s.  It would be nice to find some way to give it a little savory flavor.  Maybe accomplish that with rosemary, lime zest or goat cheese or feta even something as simple as sour cream or mascarpone; something to counter the sweetness of the berries.    The salmon steaks with tarragon mayo are good and easy (BA= Bon Appétit, March 1982).  Mayo makes a nice marinade and pan sautés or grills with just a bit of a crust.  

Alison and Bill!  Alison has been Bonnie’s friend basically from Genesis.  Bill and I came along later and we all love each other dearly.  Alison has never hesitated to honestly comment about my cooking.  Actually, she doesn’t hesitate to comment honestly about much in life and that’s a good thing.  I know that I’ve previously written about how people enter and leave your life.  However, it’s always nice to have some constants.  It’s not as though we see each other every weekend.  Sometimes a month or more goes by, but each knows that the other is there and can be counted on.

 Beth and Neil were part of the circle at the time and there’s a great story about Beth and me that Bonnie won’t let me tell.  And, no, Beth and I did not have sex.  You’ll have to pay me $10.00 to get the story.  Wait, Bonnie’s saying no to that also.   

 

St. Marteen In The Rain

Before we were married we took a vacation to St. Marteen.  The best that I can say about the island is that it was nice; I much prefer Jamaica and St. John’s.  Before we left I had talked with several people that had been down there and I had a list of some, supposedly, good restaurants.  When I’m on vacation anywhere I sure don’t want to eat the same food that I can get back home and this is what I thought that the recommendations were getting us – some down-home, local food.  So Bonnie and I decided to try one of the recommended restaurants. 

That evening we got a little dressed up, that is to say that we weren’t wearing bathing suits and T- shirts, exited the hotel and set out on foot to find the restaurant.  We actually found the first  restaurant on the list without too much trouble, went in and were greeted with – blaring disco music (not reggae) and a full menu that offered such indigenous Caribbean specialties as hamburgers and pizzas (if it had been Conte’s I might have stayed).  OK, scratch that idiot who recommended this from the ‘friend’ list.   I talked to the idiot who recommended this place, now ex-friend, when we returned saying, “What the hell were you thinking of to recommend that shithole?”    She replied, “It has air conditioning”.

The town wasn’t that big by my standards.  No more than one mile or so from one end of the main street to the other.  I said to Bonnie, “Let’s just walk along here and see what we can find.  There’s bound to be something.”  Yeah, there’s bound to be something.  She agreed.  She can usually sense danger earlier than I can, but when she tells me, I seldom listen.  We hadn’t walked too far, had seen one or two restaurants that we (actually I) dismissed and …… the first raindrop fell.   My reasoning to Bonnie: this is the Caribbean in the spring, the rain can’t last long, it’ll just be a sprinkle.  We walked a little farther, dismissed a few other nondescript restaurants and it rained a little harder.  Did I tell you that we were a ways from our hotel by now?  I was pretty pissed off at not having found a suitable indigenous restaurant and affected a double-time march step thinking that if we picked up the pace it would change things.  We still had not found a good restaurant, it was raining to a degree that some might have termed it a heavy rain and Bonnie was beginning to have ‘that look’ in her eyes.  No, not the good ‘that look’, the other ‘that look’.  Ignoring the facts that every step we took squirted water from our shoes and that our eyeballs should have been equipped with windshield-wipers (I was better at ignoring the light mist than Bonnie was). I pleaded with her to just go a little farther, I was sure that we’d find a restaurant.  Game lass that she, is we did go a little further and stepped into a half-way decent place.  We might have stayed there, if Bonnie hadn’t gotten a look at herself in a mirror located in the lobby.  In all honesty even I have to agree that she looked as if she had just walked, fully clothed, from the swimming pool, hair a little ‘wettish’.  I made a very small joke about Bonnie’s entering a wet T-shirt contest.  I thought that the joke was much funnier than Bonnie did.  Bonnie announced, “WE’RE GOING BACK TO THE HOTEL”.  The way that she said it I knew that I shouldn’t make any sudden moves, make no more jokes about wet T-shirt contests, end the restaurant quest immediately and agree with everything that she said.  If I didn’t follow those rules I would, at best, be risking divorce (Hey wait! We weren’t married yet!) or, at worst, I would be made a gelding.

We walked quickly back to the hotel (yes it continued to rain) and entered our room.  Bonnie stood in the middle of the room and a very substantial puddle of water formed around her and she did look, how shall I put this: DROWNED.  She ran her hand through her hair and a torrent of water joined the small pond that was forming on the floor.  Sandbags would soon be needed to keep the rest of the suite dry.  She looked across the room at me, the implied threat being that I might still end the night as a gelding.    I suffered the verbal wrath that I deserved, not even mentioning the fact that I too was ‘damp’.  I have had enough experience in dealing with women to know when to keep my mouth shut, but I can only manage to keep my mouth shut about 10% of the time.  Her tirade had some merit: why couldn’t I just ‘settle’ for a restaurant instead of dragging her through the rain drenched streets until she looked like a drowned rat?  I had answers for this but, being a man who knows women and restaurants, kept my mouth shut.  I mea culpa’d, and I meant what I mea culpa’d, and pleaded with her to give this expedition one more try (I was really hungry).  We changed out of our damp clothes, put on fresh clothes and ventured out again.  The rain had let up a bit; we found a good restaurant not too far away and had wonderful ‘scallops’ of turtle meat in a green peppercorn sauce.  I still wonder about the restaurants at the end of Main Street that we didn’t get to see, but I happily traded that opportunity so that I could remain a stallion.

There came lunch the next day that, dare I say it, ‘washed’, whatever foul memories of the slightly drizzly evening from our mind.  We had rented a car.  A car about the size of a wheelbarrow, but it did have an engine and we did have to pay to rent it – so, we shall call it a car.  A car so close to not being a car that it slid backwards on the steep hills where the pavement was still wet from the previous night’s rain.  We resorted to backing down the hill and getting a running start on the flats so that we’d be sure to crest the hill.  Vacation thrills!

The day was travel advertisement perfect: sunny skies with a few perfectly white clouds, caressing warm breezes, the azure blue seas and sugar white sands.  We drove along the coast smiling at life and our love for each other and happy to be in the moment.  We felt hungry and, despite our not so easy experience of finding and actually eating at a restaurant the previous rainy evening, we were ready to try it again.  We saw a sign at a small building by the water that said, succinctly, “Food” and figured that we had nothing to lose.  It wasn’t raining and at worst we could just keep driving back and forth across the entire island looking for another, “Food” sign.  So, we pulled over and entered.  So far so good, the fact that we found a restaurant that looked OK was a small victory.

 

GECKO – NOT THAT GECKO

 

It had a small podium at the entrance where the hostess held court and a beautiful deck with the tables stretching along the water’s edge.  Built of rough hewn trees, the roof, swear to God, of simply thatched palm fronds.  Beautiful, perfect, simple, real.  Basic wood tables and chairs with a patina of time and use.  Bonnie loved the small geckos that darted along the tree trunks that held up the roof.  And the menu: local foods, fresh and, from the way that the dishes were described, prepared simply.  The menu was truth.  I know that we ordered several courses (how could I not, being who I am?  Being who we are.), but what Bonnie and I remember to this day is the most simple of simple: wonderfully prepared escargot in a garlic and wine sauce, nothing more-nothing less, a crusty chewy bread that would be at home at Balthazar’s and a perfect crisp white wine to balance the garlic.  Couple all of that with all of the ambience and nicely demure service and we were in heaven.  We sat there, eating this wonderful food, looking at the sea and the sky and looking at each other. 

There was nothing in time or space before or beyond each of the seconds that we savored this experience.  We will remember it forever.

OK, the escargots were probably not indigenous, but hey, we were on the French side of the island. 

The Other Hot Dog Stand – Dilly’s Corner, Centerbridge, PA

Dilly’s isn’t Hot Dog Johnny’s, but then it’s not in Buttzville either.  I have to digress.  One weekend, when I was about 9 years old, I would have loved to have had my parents take me to Johnny’s.  Then, when I was in school on Monday and the teacher asked, “Did anyone go anywhere special this weekend?”   I could have sprung my trap by raising my hand and having the teacher asks me ……..

Teacher, “David, please tell all of us where you went this weekend.”

David, “It was a really great place!”

Teacher, “I’m sure that it was a special place and that you enjoyed it very much.  So, tell us exactly where you went.”

David, “I went to BUTZVILLE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

David (now screaming the name and laughing uncontrollably), “I WENT TO BUTZVILLE!!!!  BUTZVILLE!!!!!!”

At this point all of the other 9 year old boys are laughing and shouting out, Butzville!!!! Butzville!!!!

Teacher, “David I want you to stop saying that this instant and to bring your parents to meet with me tomorrow!!!!!!”

I’ve explained to Bonnie that a male’s level of sophistication regarding humor peaks at around 13 years of age and remains there for the rest of his life.  She’s come to believe me. 

 

 

Let me count the ways that Dilly’s is not Johnny’s.  To begin with the name Centerbridge doesn’t have the same potential for frolic as Butzville.  That doesn’t necessarily make it better or worse, just different.  Dilly’s is located at the intersection of Pennsylvania Routes 32 and 263.  If you’re in Stockton, NJ you can ford the Delaware River by walking across Centerbridge–Stockton bridge.  Dilly’s is, quite literally a stones throw from the river.  Dilly’s food is consistently very good: hot dogs, Dilly Dogs (A huge tube of meat on a torpedo roll slathered with sautéed peppers and onions), chili dogs, burgers, french fries, onion rings, soft ice cream, root beer floats – all of the classics.  I seem to remember that they serve a veggie burger, but that would be so wrong I must be mistaken.  All of this wedged into a little corner of land with a gravel parking lot, the cook house some tables under the heavens and some tables under a canopy.  They keep track of the orders by handing you a playing card when you place your order and calling out, let’s say, FIVE OF HEARTS!, when your order is ready.

During the high season it is chock full of customers.  As the roads in the area on both sides of the river really lend themselves to absolutely joyous motorcycle rides the parking lot always has more that its share of bikers.  There’s no reason to fear the bikers as many bikes these days will set a rider back about $20,000 to $30,000.  You don’t usually find Hells Angels on the bikes at Dilly’s – you’re more likely to find stock brokers and attorneys.  That raises the question of which you would rather have sitting beside you at the picnic tables.  Every once in a while, because of the gravel, a biker will fall over, while still on his bike.  This of course brings forth a lot of snickering and derisive pointing from the other bikers.  I told you about humor and the American male.

Ya gotta go!  Great food, good prices and an ambiance you’ll find in few, if any, other places.  When you’re enjoying your root beer float, chili dog and onion rings think kindly of me.

 

Dessert: Tales of Thanksgiving

I very much appreciate your sharing your Thanksgiving stories with me and the readers of this blog. 

Our Thanksgiving went well and we enjoyed our guests.  My cooking on the other hand wasn’t entirely successful.  I keep telling myself, and now I’ll tell you, you can’t cook and play host.  You’ve got to prioritize and if you’re chefy that means that cooking comes first.  So, while enjoying conversation and a glass or two of wine with our guests a couple of dishes that I had placed in the toaster oven got really well done – burned would be the exact word.  The ‘casserole’ of mushrooms, leeks and goat cheese was too ‘crisp’ to serve.  What brought my attention to the fact that a dish had gone overlong was the fragrance of the blackened, burned, brussel sprouts in a dish that contained brussel sprouts, shallots and walnuts.  There are few fragrances that can compete with burned cabbage.  Dinner was not spoiled by the two missing in action dishes – it just could have been better.

C. had a family of ten at the dinner table and I envy her for that.  It always struck me that Holiday dinners should be as crammed with people as possible.  Truly, the more the merrier.

Not surprisingly two of the funnier tales, I write funnier because I wasn’t there and it wasn’t my house, involved attempts to fry a turkey for Thanksgiving Dinner.

S. was able to convince her husband G. that they really ought to give this frying thing a try.  S. had spent time in Paris, loved good food and they were both up for the adventure.  The turkey, fryer and 20 gallons of frying oil (just kidding – a bit) were secured.  G. had seen the videos on You Tube of houses burning to the ground in an attempt to fry the Thanksgiving turkey so he prudently decided the set up the frying rig on the front lawn.  The reasoning being that it would be easier for the firemen, or ambulance, to access that location.  Understand that S. and G. live in a neighborhood where you don’t usually find turkey fryers, or cars up on concrete blocks, on the front lawn.

T–Day dawned cold, with clouds and the weatherman calling for the possibility of rain.  G. reasoned that the turkey would be fried before any rain came along.  Mans hope springs eternal and there is that tipping point where pride makes its entrance. 

The fryer was set up, the turkey was ready and the oil was at a good hot temperature when the first raindrops fell from the sky.  For those of you that have never fried food you have yet to experience what happens when water, or drops of water, hit boiling hot oil.  When the raindrops hit the oil large dollops of boiling hot oil threw themselves from the cooker onto any exposed bit of flesh: hands, arms, ankles, the face, ears.  You’ve seen the siege of the castle where the invaders are repelled when the castle inhabitants pour caldrons of hot oil on them?  Raindrops in the turkey fryer create the same pain.  S. and G. grimly tell of the mad scramble to find something to cover the oil – finally settling for the summer beach umbrella, a nice blue umbrella with a radiant, smiling sun.  The reality of the cold grey rainy day thumbed its nose at the sunny and happy graphics on the umbrella.

So, in your minds eye you may now picture G. on the front lawn, in a cold rain, wearing a raincoat and boots, hovering just outside the beach umbrella because there isn’t room under the umbrella for both G. and the turkey fryer, grimly monitoring the frying of the bird.  Picture how, every so often, the wind whipped rain will sneak under the beach umbrella and remind G. of just how hot the oil is.  Picture the small holes that the boiling oil melts in his raincoat when that happens.  Later that day he will look with curiosity at the small round burns on his hands and arms and that one odd one on his earlobe.

Where are S. and their guests while G. tends the turkey?  Being sensible they are inside the house, watching G. through the windows at the front of the house, sipping wine and enjoying appetizers and the warmth of the fireplace.  Had S. abandoned G.?  Not in the slightest for at one point she donned a raincoat and went to G’s. side – to give him a cell phone so that he could call those safely ensconced in the house to apprise them of the turkey’s progress.

The day ended with one waggish neighbor coming from the warmth of his home to the fryer/beach umbrella and saying, “G., you know you’re really bringing down the property values.” 

YOU’VE BEEN WARNED!

 

My brother Mitch was party to a turkey fryer ‘incident’ this year.  He and his wife Chris would be spending Thanksgiving with her newly married daughter, newly minted son-in-law and the new in-laws.  Chris and Mitch, being the master planners that they are, made contingencies for the possibility of error or catastrophe.  One turkey was purchased for the fryer and a second would be cooked at Mitch and Chris’s home.  The newlyweds not having an oven large enough to accommodate the turkey. So, one turkey was ready to eat and the second would be done in the fryer.

All the men gathered around the turkey fryer ready to do battle.  And yes, they were smart enough not to place the fryer on the houses wood deck.  The fryer got off to a good start.  The temperature of the large quantity of expensive peanut oil almost being hot enough to put the bird in when – the flame went out.  Let the parts cool down, inspect the parts, reassemble the parts, relight the flame, get the oil almost hot enough and – have the flame go out again.  With the late fall darkness descending and the appetizers long gone the scenario of  ‘almost hot enough-flames out’ was repeated several more times.

Grimly the men inspected and reassembled the fryer parts one last time. With fingers crossed they lit the fryer one more time.  This time the results were different.  Not in a good way.  The entire base of the burn shot flames about five feet into the now dark fall sky.  Cool heads prevailed, short straws were drawn and one brave soul (not certain about the bravery, but he certainly did draw the short straw) shut down the burner a final time.

Dinner was served.  The turkey that had been cooked may not have been as warm as one might have liked and there might not have been as much as one might have liked, but by God dinner was on the table.

Where was my brother Mitch?  Standing by the propane grill on the deck, in the dark, grilling the turkey that was to have been fried.  Did it work?  Perfectly.  Goody-bags of grilled turkey were distributed to all and only one guests arm hair had been singed away.

I hope that everyone had a great  Thanksgiving!

Next Week:  The Dinner Diaries of the Christmas Brunch

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1984 DINNER DIARY AND THANKSGIVING MENUS AND STORIES

A change of plans: 1984 and 1985, St. Marteeen in the Rain and another hot dog stand at a later date.  Instead – Thanksgiving stories and menus.  It seemed more appropriate.

 

Dinner Diary  –  September 9, 1984

 

By this date Bonnie was solidly my girlfriend.  She may say that she didn’t know that, but there’s no hiding from the truth.  We loved and cared about each other very much, enough to  wonder about marriage.  That was down the road a piece, but not a far piece.  For now, we were having a very nice time together. 

 Mark and Chris are very old friends.  Mark and I worked as architects and Bonnie and Chris worked together in a library.  You’ll see Mark and Chris’s names in many of the diary entries.  Bonnie and I enjoyed many meals at their home and Mark and I would drink, play guitar and all of us would sing; we actually sounded pretty damn good!  One Christmas found the four of us walking through the streets of Princeton caroling.  We enjoyed ourselves tremendously and from the applause of those who heard us and the shops that gave us hot chocolate and such we must have sounded pretty sweet.  What, you don’t like sappy!?  Come here and I’ll give you sappy. 

 Ah, that constant of change.  In time, our friends moved a long way away.  Unfortunately, but inevitably, not the last time this has happened.  In this case, they were searching for something that Bonnie and I thought that they had here.  That was our perspective.  Obviously theirs was different.

 In retrospect I like this menu.  It’s nothing flashy, but has simple food cooked so that the flavor of the main ingredient is enhanced.  The pesto is a basil pesto.  The perfect time of the year for it, the tail end of the harvest. God, I love basil pesto.    I could eat it with a spoon; use it on salads, lamb, fish, chicken, toast and ice cream.  Do you think that I’m joking about the ice cream?  I am most certainly not, though it’s not exactly basil pesto ice cream.  I make a basil and lemon sorbet and Granité and use them in small amounts as a palate cleanser, the intermezzo in a multi-coursed meal. 

 Use some common sense in the amount of basil pesto, or any other ingredient, that you use in a dish.  Unless you’re eating basil pesto with a spoon from the jar, you don’t want to taste only the basil pesto. Make the dish work as a whole, highlight something if you’re so inclined, but don’t put so much, in this particular instance, pesto on the pasta that you lose the flavor and texture the pasta.  Of course there are exceptions.  If I’m making crostini and topping them with some basil pesto, well yeah, I want you to taste the pesto first, the bread is second to it.  Think about what you’re trying to say, what you want the flavor/taste to be, the textures and mouth feel to be, with the dishes that you’re serving.  Think about it, use common sense, and don’t be afraid to fail miserably and hugely, you’re (probably) not going to kill anyone with your cooking.  Think about what it looks like and taste the dish as you’re cooking it – you’ll be just fine.

 A few lines back I wrote that September is the perfect time of year for the basil, the tail end of the harvest’ as it were.  Some of the dates that our national holidays fall on are all wrong.  In particular: Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Actually Christmas can stay where it is; I’ll go along with December 25.  It’s Thanksgiving that has got to be moved.  To begin with it’s way too close to Christmas.  There’s never enough days between the two to get everything done that I want to do without going a little crazy – crazy in a bad way – I want to hurt Santa.  Thanksgiving is a harvest festival.  It’s impossible to find a good ripe tomato in the northeast in November.  So let’s move Thanksgiving to the end of September or somewhere around there so that we can really celebrate the harvest.  The weather should be beautiful, fresh fruits and veggies will abound and the turkey will still be ready.   We might have to move Labor Day.     

  

Thanksgiving Dinner At Noon 

I absolutely do not understand people who do not want to cook.  Literally, I don’t get it. How could you not want to cook?  My mother-in-law is one of those people.  Bonnie, tells me that, at one time, her mother often made cream puffs from scratch but, I don’t believe it.  She also tells me that her mother served her family Spam and would have them eating off of paper plates for extended periods of time – so I really don’t believe the cream puff story.  Paper plates inside the house?  A picnic inside the house? 

Bonnie regales me with tales of the Thanksgiving dinners that her mother served.  The invitation was for dinner at NOON.  The act of ‘Dinner At Noon’ is one of those things that find Bonnie’s parents and me living on different epicurean planets.  For Bonnie’s family dinner at noon meant that you sat at the table and began eating the main course at NOON.  No appetizers, no alcoholic drinks (God help me), no before dinner conversation –  no foreplay.  Just sit down and eat.  I do it differently: you arrive at noon, we have some appetizers, some drinks, nice conversation and sometime thereafter we sit down to dinner.  Bonnie tells me a Thanksgiving tale, collaborated by her friend Alison, of the both of them arriving at the Brown Thanksgiving table at 12:07.  NOT 12:00.  The family was in fact eating, had not waited the seven minutes for them to arrive and they were almost hostile to Bonnie and Alison for their ill-mannered ways.  Yikes!  Bonnie’s family was kind enough to invite me to a Thanksgiving dinner, and I honestly thank them for it.  The rituals that Bonnie had described were in fact true, SEATED AND EATING AT NOON.  Bonnie had not told me about her two year old nephew, Michael, who was seated next to me.  During the dessert course this brave young lad took his pumpkin pie in his tiny little hands, raised it high in the air and smashed it onto the top of his head, kneading the filling into his thin young hair – it looked like someone had shit on his head.  I couldn’t help but gag, but then I don’t do diapers either.  It’s been more than twenty years since that incident and now that Michael’s older I take great delight in relating it to his girlfriends. 

Dinner Diary  –  Thanksgiving 1984

 

 

This is the first Thanksgiving Dinner in the Dinner Diaries.  The dishes are pretty much the same as those served for Thanksgiving 2008.  After all, it is Thanksgiving and that menu demands certain dishes doesn’t it.  The menu is good; nothing flashy, but solid.  There are many things that I’d like to bring to the menu, but so far I haven’t been able to convince other folks of the wonderous tastes of such dishes as roasted brussel sprouts with shallots and walnuts, succotash, grits, creamed onions, mushroom and leek ragu. You know what – I’m serving what I like regardless of what they want.  I’ll ‘expand their culinary horizons’!  Will I leave the dinner guests with nothing that they’d prefer?  No, but they’ll be some new additions to this years menu. 

As I wrote previously people tend to come and go from my life.  A core of friends, but at least in my case, I feel that those that come and go make up a larger group than the core.  The dinner guests here are a case in point.  They are friends of Bonnie’s; Leo is now living in Colorado and he and Bonnie correspond at Christmas, Didi has since, truly, passed on and I don’t believe that we know the whereabouts of her daughter Leslie.  Ah well, it was fun while it lasted and we have good memories of these folks. 

As I wrote; there isn’t a lot of difference between the 1984 and 2008 Thanksgiving Dinners.  I was feeling under the weather for the 2008 dinner and appreciated Bonnie and Cindy’s help with the meal.  As you see, the diary entry contains much more information than 1984.  It’s an analysis of what went right, what went wrong and how to do it better or as well, next time.  My comments to you are in italics.  Yep, I’m more than a little anal about this cooking thing.

 

Dinner Diary – Thanksgiving 2008                                       November 27, 2008

 Cindy, Gary, Michael, Bonnie and me 

–         Cheese and crackers

–         Melted brie and almonds on baguette from Cindy.

The appetizers could have had a little more zing to them. 

–  Duck Ravioli with Corn Relish

I bought a package of Lucy’s lasagna noodles and thinned them out on the pasta machine to make the ravioli dough.  I stripped the skin from a duck breast, rendered the fat from the skin and poached the chopped up breast in the fat with fresh and thyme.  It doesn’t take long to cook the duck, maybe 10 minutes or less.

Let the duck sit in the fat overnight in the fridge and drained it.  Poached a fine dice of butternut squash in a little bit of chicken stock for just 3 minutes to soften it a bit.  Mixed the duck, butternut squash and drained rum soaked currants for the ravioli filling.  Cooked the ravioli for 6 to 8 minutes in boiling salted water, drained and served with my corn relish.  Made the day before and cooked just before serving.  This was OK, just OK.  The filling needs to be juicier.  Maybe just add the duck to the corn relish and serve with a sauce appropriate to the corn relish seasonings.  Also, make sure that the ravioli are well drained before you plate them.  Finish cooking them off in the sauce that you’ll serve over them.

Lucy’s Ravioli Kitchen makes great pastas (and other comestibles), including the sheets of lasagna noodles that I used here to make the ravioli.  I’ve finally come to the conclusion that the duck breast is never going to be as succulent as duck legs confit.  So from now on this is made with the duck legs confit.  This was served as an appetizer at the table.

–   Seafood Soup

This was pretty good.  Bacon, with shallots sautéed in the bacon fat.  The broth was a combo of milk and heavy cream, seasoned with salt pepper, fresh thyme and a bay leaf.  When the broth is hot, but not boiling add chopped clams and cubed cod.  Cook it for a few minutes, without boiling, to make sure everything is hot.  Add crumbled bacon.  Make the day before and reheat.

This is a nice little soup, pathway to many other dishes.  Thicken it with a velouté sauce, some vegetables, a little more seafood and you’ve got chowder.  Keep it as a soup, use different seafood and seasonings and it can go in a million directions.  This is the joy of cooking, no pun intended.  With all soups, stews, chowders ragus and the like unless an ingredient is going to go bad overnight I like to have them sit at least a day to give the flavors a chance to marry. 

–   Green Salad

From Cindy.

–  Apple and Fennel Sorbet

This didn’t work; you couldn’t taste the fennel (one half bulb, one Granny Smith), I added a little bit of simple syrup and less cream.  Still too much cream, it coated your tongue.  Made the day before.

Once again, as it often does, perfection has eluded me.

–     Turkey

16 pound DiPaola from PQM.  Stuffed and cooked for 5 hours at 325°.  Rubbed the entire turkey with butter, I put cheesecloth and foil over the breast, basted the breast every 20 minutes or so and removed the cheesecloth and foil for the last hour or so.  The turkey turned out well.  Maybe this is the way to go. 

This was a good turkey.  DiPaola (no website) is one of our local turkey farmers (farmer?).  Their turkeys are not organic, but they are not factory farmed, they’re fresh – not frozen, they cook up great and at this point in time I can’t afford $8 a pound for heritage turkey like a Bourbon Red.  PQM is one of our local food markets and you can pretty much count on them for having what you need.  I’ve been cooking turkeys for more than 20 years and have tried every conceivable method of cooking them except frying one.  This method worked well and I’m sticking with it this year.  My theory is that the cheesecloth retains the basting liquid, the foil retards the cooking and in the end you get a turkey where the legs and breast are finished cooking at the same time and the breast meat retains its juices. 

–   Bonnie’s WASP Dressing

No more need be said.  Made the day before.

Actually, more does need to be said.  Bonnie has to have her WASP dressing.  For those of you that have forgotten that acronym stands for, White Anglo Saxon Protestant.  Our group also calls it White Girl dressing.  There is little in this dressing beyond bread.  I abhor it because it’s rather tasteless and dull.  It’s white bread, a little celery, a little onion, a little butter and a little broth.  I’ve had to convince her to add salt and black pepper.  I make it for her because I love her.

–    Dave’s Stuffing

This is a good stuffing, maybe classic: pork sausage from Cherry Grove Farms, sourdough bread, onion, fennel, bacon, butter, chicken stock, apple and celery root.  Made the day before, stuff the bird the day of.

Now this is a stuffing (dressings are cooked outside the beast, stuffing is cooked inside the beast).  Very flavorful, it compliments the turkey and I like it – nuff said.  In all the years that I’ve been roasting turkeys I’ve stuffed them.  No one has ever gotten sick (I stuff the bird just before I cook it) and the flavor and texture that the stuffing takes on from being cooked inside the bird is heavenly.  Cherry Groves Farm is one of the wonderful family farms that we’re blessed to have in this area of New Jersey: organic, grass fed lamb and beef, pastured pigs, free range chicken and their own cheeses.  This year, for comparison, the pork sausage is from Ely’s. 

–   Cranberry Sauce

Just cranberries and sugar.  Made by Bonnie the day before.

There is absolutely no reason for you not to make your own cranberry sauce.  You can chop it in a food processor, add some chopped oranges and some cane sugar and let it sit for a day or two to marry the flavors.  You can cook the berries atop the stove with a bit of water and sugar.  Cook it until the berries burst and then cook it a little longer until it’s something like a jam.  Yes, there’s a variety of ways that you can season this: oranges, apples, cinnamon, nutmeg, Chinese Five Spice, make a chutney!     Nothing on your dining table, nothing that you’re going to eat should ever have rings molded into it from the can that it came in.

–    Mashed Potatoes

Three large potatoes for five people worked out fine.

I peel and boil the potatoes, heat up some milk and butter, mash it with an old fashioned non-electric potato masher and season with white pepper and salt.  Add the milk/butter liquid a bit at a time so that you get the consistency that you want.

–      Squash with Cranberries and Apples

From Cindy, good.

–    Green Beans

Pan sautéed in a little butter and water.

–     Pumpkin Pie

Made by Bonnie the day before.

–    French Apple Pie

Made by Bonnie the day before.  Very good.

Bonnie is the queen of pie crusts and pies.

–     Vanilla Ice Cream and Whipped Cream for the Pies

HAPPY THANKSGIVING EVERYONE!

 

I hope that you all enjoy your Thanksgiving festivities.  The photo was taken by a dear friend, Mary Carol.  And yes, it was posed.  I don’t carve my turkeys in exactly that manner.

I’d be interested in hearing what you served or partook of for your Thanksgiving.  Any interesting foods, any tofu turkeys (you are probably a member of PETA if that’s what you ate), are any of you not having a turkey, will there be any good stories?  Let me know and I’ll let the rest of the world know.  I must say that some of my dearest friends eat tofu and you are welcome to it, my portion too.  Eat your tofu, you’re my friends and I’ll love you regardless.  This is probably as close to being a parent as I’ll get.

I’ve yet to do it, but have always wanted to serve a Thanksgiving menu that’s closer to what the Pilgrims might have had: clams, oysters, lobsters and fish; wild turkey and quail; pork, venison; hominy and corn; corn pudding; squash, potatoes and cranberries.  Maybe next year. 

 AND

Don’t sweat the cooking and the food. 

Enjoy the company; give thanks and a good meal will follow.

I will give thanks and I will enjoy the company.

I will still sweat the cooking and the food.

Next Week: 1985 Dinner Diaries, St. Marteen in the Rain, Spam and Tak-A-Boost and another hotdog stand

DINNER DIARIES OF 1984, POUFFY SLEEVES AND THE SORCERESS OF SOUP AND HOT DOG JOHNNY’S

The Dinner Diaries 1984 

Dinner Diary  –  May 22, 1984

 

 

Wow!  I’m the Harem Chef!  Sometimes you just get lucky.  I know 1984 is missing from the date on the page, but the entries that proceed and follow this are 1984 so I’ll just make a leap of faith here.  This diary entry is special; it introduces Bonnie, my beloved wife and best friend.  

Who the hell are all these women?  They are the leader of and members of a ‘relationship therapy group’ that Bonnie and I participated in.   We didn’t know each other when we started attending the sessions.  We met in this group, fell in love with each other and, down the road, got married.  The details of that journey are another book.      

The premise of the group was that we, the participants, were all to greater or lesser degrees LOSERS when it came to being able to sustain a relationship for any meaningful period of time and that through this group therapy we would learn how to do so – it was the 80’s.    The therapist running the group did not intend it to be a match-making service.  However, during the course of the groups’ lifespan Linda stayed with her husband Art, Bonnie and I fell in love, Jane and Michael got together, Debbie and Barrie got together and latecomer Evan started dating the receptionist. Robin; I don’t know.  So, the group obviously met its stated goal.  Bonnie insists that she was brought into the group as a ringer, because she likes to talk, sometimes a lot.  Bonnie also says that she didn’t know that I was actually dating her when we started dating.  She thought that we were ‘just friends’.  Well, Bonnie and I were not dating on May 22.  Though the seeds of that thought had been planted.  Dinner for the group was simply the efforts of a sensitive new age guy to cook dinner for his friends – really.  

The menu might be considered a little much by some.  Chefy was not pleased with ‘The Silver Palette’s’ Seafood Pâté, but what specifically displeased him? The carrot salad in a berry vinaigrette (B.A. = Bon Appétit, April 1983) and the Phyllo wrapped veal roll (again; B.A. = Bon Appétit Magazine, April 1983) sound good and worthy of another go.  ‘Fettuccini with Saffroned mushrooms’?  How about Saffroned fettuccini with mushrooms if we want to correctly title the dish.  I’ve commented on this pairing before.  Despite the fact that I’ve made that combo before, saffron/mushrooms, I’m kinda wary of those flavors together – So, try it anyway! Chefy was also less than thrilled with the sugar cookies and the lemon crème (again, Bon Appétit).  Chefy says that the crème didn’t set up and the cookies were too thick. Picky, picky chefy.  Chefy, among his many ‘issues’, has a love hate relationship with the magazine ‘Bon Appétit’ more of that farther along in the diaries.

 Pasta in a cream sauce, asparagus in a cream sauce and strawberries with lemon crème.  That all sounds a little too creamy, sloppy and way too heavy.  I was just cooking dinner for my friends, not fattening them for the slaughter. 

My advice to myself regarding this menu;

– The seafood pate may be interesting, but it may not belong here, maybe an odd flavor pairing with the rest of the meal – make an antipasto.

– Keep the carrot salad/berry vinaigrette and the veal roll. 

– Fettuccini is good, saffron is good, it just needs a little cream, or olive oil, to coat it, not so much that it over whelms it.   

– Asparagus roasted, grilled or pan sautéed with just a little olive oil and lemon juice. 

– The strawberries, bowled sugar cookies and lemon crème, or sabayon, can stay.

– There, much nicer.

 

Pouffy Sleeves And The Sorceress Of Soup  

In our early dating days, Bonnie and I used to go to a wonderful restaurant in Princeton.  It was cheap and the food was not at all flashy, but was perfectly prepared.  The restaurant was located one flight down from street level and despite it being inexpensive, boasted cloth napkins and tablecloths, candles, shining silverware gleaming glassware.  A subdued light subtly tinged with rose infused the air – dark enough for lovers or failing Princeton professors with stained shirts, cliché corduroy sport coats and days unwashed hair.

One of my most cherished memories of our meals together here, a place that has since gone chi-chi (Oh the humanities!) involved a soup course.  We sat on opposite sides of the table, our eyes locked on each other clearly conveying the passion and depths of our affection – really.  The waiter must have come and gone at various times and we must have ordered food because it appeared on the table before us.  But that evening our eyes saw only each other in a Jacquelyn Suzanne glow of love and passions to be later unleashed.  Until, in an instant, my eyes strayed, the intense gaze broken.  What broke my gaze?  A waitress about to drop a tray of food?  A beautiful waif of a Provincetown Portuguese Bakery maiden?     Jacquelyn Suzanne herself?  No.  Though all of the aforementioned are yet to come, and would certainly break my gaze, what did it was the blouse that Bonnie was wearing.  My eyes were riveted by the wonder of the blouse.  Any man understands how certain blouses can catch and hold your eye – inspiring dreams of prowess never to be attained in the reality of the 5:30 AM alarm – but in this case it was something else entirely.  Bonnie was wearing a blouse the sleeves of which would well be worthy of the adjective, ‘POUFFY’.  We’ve all seen the episode, Bonnie actually wore the blouse. 

There was about three or four yards of fabric in each sleeve and what was happening with one of these theater curtain size sleeves held my gaze as if I was staring into the eyes of a cobra, as if I were watching the two cars the instant before they hit each other head on.  I was absolutely enthralled, for a fold of this sleeve happened to be resting in what had been a full bowl of the soup that Bonnie had ordered.  A fine bowl of soup, worthy of this restaurant, with a light, flavorful broth.  But now, the bowl of soup was empty! 

Not empty because Bonnie had eaten this soup, but empty because, by magic, the fold of this ‘SUPER SLEEVE’ had snuck into the soup bowl and, without alerting Bonnie, had managed to suck up all of the soup.  Yes, she’s a natural blonde, but that doesn’t explain everything.  The following dialogue ensued.   

Me, “Bonnie, your sleeve is full of soup.”

Her, “What?”

Me, “Really, look at your sleeve.  It’s sucked up all your soup.”

Her, “Oh My God!”

Me, “Waiter, could we have some extra napkins please?”

Waiter, “Certainly sir.  Would that be to clean up the soup that’s been sucked up your companion’s pouffy sleeve?”

Me, “Yes, it would, thank you.”

Her, “Oh My God!”

Waiter, “Would you care for another bowl of soup?”

Me, “No, no more soup, thank you.”

Her, “Oh My God!”

Me, “Waiter, have you ever seen anything like this?”

Waiter, “No sir, I have not, and I’ve been in the service of this restaurant for quite some time”

Her, “Oh My God!”

Bound by the spell of this sorceress with a mane of hair the color of sun-danced gold, the waiter and I gazed as though bewitched as Bonnie slowly raised her arm, lifting the sleeve from the now empty soup bowl.  Shades of Gandalf, the soup REMAINED within the fabric of the sleeve!  Shadows in the corners of the room darkened, all conversation faded and then stopped and, in The Faraway Lands, dimly at first, but increasing in volume and tempo, the chanting of the coven was heard.  Bonnie, moving in slow motion, reached out to the sleeve with a fingertip.  Was her fingertip glowing with an ethereal light or was I imagining it?  With her blonde maiden sorceress touch, the fingertip finally rested on the sleeve. And then – the spell was broken – the soup once held captive was released in a single, thin, stream to the floor beneath our feet.  

       CAPTURED AND RELEASED BY THE SPELL OF LOVE!

 

Dinner Diary  –  July 7, 1984

 

 

OK, full size ribs are a bit much for an appetizer.  Especially when I’m serving Beef Kabobs as an entrée.   Dave’s Potatoes on the other hand are a masterpiece and I SWEAR TO GOD that I was the first to come up with this recipe.  Hey!  How come I didn’t have a date for this dinner?

Dave’s Potatoes

– Russet potatoes sliced lengthwise into wedges.

– Boil the potatoes until they’re a little bit done.  Now you know par-boil.  I  include this step because I think that the seasonings are better absorbed by hot potatoes than cold potatoes.

– Toss them while warm with salt and pepper, butter, Worchestshire Sauce, Colemans mustard. 

– Bake on a cookie sheet in a 350° oven, and as Chef Barry says, “Cook it until it’s done”; until they’re crispy and dark golden brown.  

This menu introduces another staple in my repertoire – Broiled (or grilled even better) Shrimp with Green Grapes and Curry Sauce.  As Heloise says, “quick, easy and tasty” – NO, it’s not a Heloise recipe.  It’s so simple:

–         Marinate shelled shrimp and the grapes in a curry/oil/citrus zest concoction for a while, maybe a half hour plus.  Don’t use any citrus juice, vinegar or wine – you don’t want to make a ceviche.

–         Make up your own concoction, I won’t give you mine.

–         Skewer the marinated shrimp and green, or red, grapes.

–         Make it look damn nice when you do this skewer. Skewer the shrimps so that the ends of the shrimp wrap around a grape with grapes on either side of the shrimp.  Whatever, made it look good; make it look like something that you’d want to put in your mouth.

–         Best to grill them, but broil, or pan sautéing will work too.

–          Yes, cook it until the shrimp are done and the grapes have grilled a little   – about 1+ minute per side over a hot pan or griddle or fire.  Shrimp cook up so quickly, please don’t overcook them.  A little char on the grapes is great; they get intensely sweet and soft.

–         Use the green peppers or not, they give a nice little crunch to it.

–         Serve hot or at room temperature.

–         That wasn’t hard, was it? 

Corn on the cob.  There are as many ways to do it well as there are to make a mess of it.  I don’t like to get to fancy with a lot of seasonings on it.  Fresh corn is just so damn good I don’t know why you’d want to mess it up.  Butter and salt is all that it needs.  Corn relish being the exception to that rule; my corn relish is righteously seasoned and tastes so damn good that you want to roll in it.  I like corn on the cob boiled, but doing it on the grill is good and convenient if you’re out there with other dishes.  The Golden Rule of Corn On the Cob – don’t overcook it.  Overcook it and I’ll have you arrested.  I once had someone ask me, “How long should I boil the corn for?  Fifteen minutes or twenty minutes?”  No, I didn’t harm them, though I would have been within my rights to do so.  If you love corn on the cob and served on my jury, you would have acquitted me.

Beef kabobs are a classic.  Do it right and make sure that the onions, peppers, beef and whatever else you might have on there finish cooking at the same time.  Jesus I hate eating raw onion and dried out beef.    At times I have resorted to pre-cooking the skewer ingredients to a degree that they’ll all finish at the same time.  Other times I’ll just let it cook a while over a lowish heat, brushing often with a good marinade, making sure that everything’s cooked and nothing’s dried out. 

The blueberry – lemon ice cream sounds great: a vanilla ice cream base with blueberries, lemon juice and lemon zest.   I’m going to have to do that one again some summer. 

This is a pretty diverse group of folks.  John and Nina the artists, the other John and I architects, Randy a construction manager, John’s wife, Mary, and Randy’s wife, Sue, were at home moms,  Jane a chemist and a member of the therapy group, Jane’s boyfriend, Michael an academic, Linda, an interior designer, and her husband, Jordan, with an airline.  Who says that we all can’t live together in peace? It’s always interesting with a group like that, there’s always some common thread of interest or knowledge that joins people together, folks ‘riff’ off of other folks tales and everybody’s happy –  most times, not always.  I’ll eventually tell you about the unhappy dinner.

 

Dessert: Hot Dog Johnny’s, Butzville, New Jersey

A few weekends ago Bonnie and I took advantage of some beautiful weather to make the drive up to Hot Dog Johnny’s in Butzville, New Jersey.  Yes, there really is a town named Butzville.  It’s located more or less at the intersection of State Routes 31 and 46.

Hot Dog Johnny’s

  

It was an autumn soft, clear blue sky day making for a nice drive up Route 29 through the river towns of Stockton, Frenchtown and Milford and up along Route 519 through the farm country and New Jersey hills.

Hot Dog Johnny’s has been around, in various iterations since 1944.  The area is pretty rural now; I can’t imagine how rural it was in ’44.  Johnny’s is truly a New Jersey institution, a legend.  A round hut type building with the serving windows and some tables on the inside, more tables outside with all of this nestled between the Pequest River  and Route 46.  The hot dogs are fried and served with a choice of mustard or diced raw onions; a pickle nestled along the dog in the bun.  Good French fries.  A variety of sodas are available, including birch beer and you can get a glass of butter milk (I love butter milk, but I don’t have it with my hot dog).  No chili-dogs, no burgers, no veggie burgers, no salads – this is Hot Dog Johnny’s!   So Bonnie and I got our dogs, fries and birch beer.  We also got a large order of disappointment.  The dogs had fried long enough to be wizened and wrinkled without having a crispy crunchy casing (the best fried dog in the Garden State – Rutt’s Hut, Clifton, New Jersey).  The onions tasted a little long in the tooth and would have been much better if they were a sweet onion.  As it was we ended up scraping most of the onion out of the bun.  By the way, we had a dog and a half each so as far from perfection as those dogs were they weren’t THAT bad. 

  

Was this a disaster?  A wasted trip?  Hardly.  A beautiful day, a nice ride and my lover and best friend by my side.  We did muse on the possibility of how much better this would have been with a better dog and a sweeter onion, but hey, ya deal with what ya got.  Will we go back to Hot Dog Johnny’s?  Absolutely, it’s Hot Dog Johnny’s and it’s in Butzville!  

 

For Your Edification:

The ‘Blogroll’ in the right hand column of the blog contains connections to the websites of various venues that I write about or reference in the blog.  Such as, ‘Hot Dog Johnny’s’.  It also holds connections to the websites of other blogs or blog directories where ‘The Dinner Diaries of an Intrepid Amateur Chef’ appears.  I’ve included in the Blogroll ‘Anton’s at the Swan’.  It is a superb restaurant and though I don’t write about Anton’s until farther along in this memoir I’ve chosen to include it ‘before its time’ because their chef, Chris Connors who’s cooking I very much admire, has followed my blog from its first posting, and for that I’m thankful.  Also on the Blogroll is ‘NJ Spice”.  This site is a showcase of the local gourmand scene and is authored by my friend Faith.  Some interesting observations and well worth taking a look at.  Nope, I don’t get paid a dime for any of these connections.  They’re listed because I think that you’ll want to know a bit more about some of the people and places that I write about.  Enjoy, Dave  

Next Week: Dinner Diaries from 1984 and 1985 and St. Marteen In The Rain and another hot dog stand

THE FIRST DINNER DIARY, YOU F***ING BASTARD AND MORE DINNER DIARIES

THE DINNER DIAIRIES 

As with so many things in life I suspect that it was a combination of circumstances that lead me to start the Dinner Diaries.  Obviously, the date of the first entry is October 16, 1983, but I don’t recall anything exceptional in regard to the date and I don’t recall myself pondering a rationale that led to my deciding to keep a record of my culinary efforts.  But something clicked, some cog in my mind turned and it was done.  Just like that summer in Providence when I cooked Ellen dinner.  There was something right about it, something that I needed to do.  Of course I can’t leave out ego and compulsion from the mix.  I wonder if a friend might have made the suggestion.  A friend, a dinner companion that thought enough of my cooking to think that it should be put to paper; a dinner companion who knew just how obsessive I could be.

I’m disappointed that I didn’t start writing them sooner because so much is lost: the honey-almond mousse, the first glazed ham, the first burned turkey and the last Adelle Davis dish.  When I started writing them I was cooking a lot, regularly had friends over for dinner and was always looking for new dishes to cook and new ingredients to cook with.  OK, some things haven’t changed.  I was getting pretty good at the cooking thing, loved it, and I wanted to remember what worked and what didn’t, what I had served to friends so that I didn’t serve it again the next time I hosted them, how long something should be cooked, what amount was enough for how many, which dishes would become icons and which should be consigned to an eternity in the trash can.  The diaries are contained in two handwritten volumes that run from 1983 to 2002, after which I began putting them on the computer.  I prefer the torn, stained, smeared, warm reality of the handwritten pages to the computer, but the diaries now contain a lot more information than they used to and my cramped hands aren’t up to all the writing.  I haven’t included all of the diaries.  Some of them are boring, some of them are repetitious and some just don’t have a tale in them.  I have included those diary entries that are noteworthy for any number of reasons: funny, sad, instructive, something that I felt was important, a good tale.  

It’s a memory lane trip to go back through the diaries – and there is, of course, good and bad and sorrow and joy in that journey.  The diaries are the keys that unlock ‘the rest of the story’.  Through them I can conjure up the ghosts of that particular slice of time: lovers, friends, jobs, family, homes and kitchens and, most importantly for this story – the cooking.  They are my own time machine. 

I look at them, read them and think that, despite the fact that my life’s been pretty much plain vanilla, it’s been pretty damned good.  There’s been a whole lot of living, a whole lot of cooking and there’s a lot to be said for a good plain vanilla.

The Dinner Diaries – 1983

 Dinner Diary  –  The First Dinner Diary Entry   –  October 16, 1983

1983-1016-dinner diaries-no name

Is this history or what?  It seems such a long time ago in so many ways from my current perspective.  What I knew then about food and cooking, how I approached my life and what part food and cooking had it that life.

This is a nice little menu and a good start to the Dinner Diaries.   While looking back at the Diary, I’m struck by several things.  The fact that I love cooking enough to keep a diary about it, that I’m egotistical enough to want to tell you about it, the people that move in and out of my life, that so many of the menus are so good and that, thankfully, not many of the menus are too bad.   A whole lot of cooking.   A whole lot of living.   

Nina and John, both ‘art people’.  He, a well know ceramist.  She, a ceramist who later went into ceramic and leather fashion accessories.  Nina’s accessories were so ‘hot’ and ‘au current’ that she was made an offer that couldn’t be refused by a world famous shoe designer in Milan, Italy to design for his company.  Talk about not knowing where life’s going to take you. Of course she accepted, she’d have been a fool not to.  No, John did not go with her.  So, who’s Maura?  A woman that I was dating at the time.  You don’t need to know more than that.  She was very nice, but the relationship didn’t really go anywhere.  More often than not they don’t.  At the time I was still renting the small house in Princeton that I had been when I was married to Swintbn and still enjoying Conte’s pizza, but nowhere near as often as I had previously.   

I remember that the kitchen in the house was small, but you know, you manage to work with what you’ve got.  I’ve never, yet, let a kitchen dictate what I wanted to do.  In a pinch, there’s always the propane and charcoal grills. 

This menu isn’t too bad, maybe a little overboard and heavy.  You’ll soon see a trend in that regard.  I don’t remember suffering any histrionics, gnashing of teeth or screams during the preparation of this meal – maybe I’m blocking.  It seems that it was one of my first times making Osso Bucco – what a SUPER dish – how did I live without ever having tasted this wonder!  God Bless Bone Marrow, our children should have it at least once a day.  I use marrow bones in soup base when they don’t need to have a clear broth.  If Santa really thought that I was a good boy, he’d have brought me a set of marrow spoons by now.   The ‘N.Y.T.’ is my abbreviation for Craig Claiborne’s, The New York Times Cook Book, which is the source of the recipe.  Another in the pantheon of great cook books mine attests to its place on the podium by its missing dust jacket, split spine, one cover falling off and many stained wrinkled and pot burned pages.  When I cook the Osso Bucco these days, it does not have, “too much liquid”, I have learned to do sauces and reductions.  Sometimes I finish the cooking in the oven, sometimes on the stove top and once in a while in the pressure cook (a great too l-  it’s fast and yields a finished dish that’s flavorful, tender and moist).  The Fettuccine with pine nuts is my recipe (OK, so it’s pretty simple) and I still think that it works well.  I made the fettuccine on an Atlas pasta machine (I used to have more time) and I hope to God that I toasted the pine nuts.  While it does need butter or olive oil and cheese it probably did not need, “plenty of butter and cheese” as an accompaniment.  I’m intrigued by the “Bitter Chocolate Ice Cream with Orange Confit”.  The recipe’s from ‘bon appétit’ magazine.  They usually do a pretty good job of making their recipes ‘work’.   I’ll have to try that recipe again – I’m assuming from the notations that Chef didn’t do a good job making it.  Buried at the bottom of the page, herbed zucchini.  Eat your vegetables.

 

Dinner Diary  –  November 19, 1983 

1983-1119-dinner diaries-no name

Rice with mushrooms and walnuts paired with shrimp and scallop curry?  What was I thinking? That’s a horrible combination.  However, with the exception of the rice/walnut/shrooms the menu isn’t too bad.  I’m also ignoring the fact that, in my review of this menu, the rum raisin cake doesn’t really “go” either.  OK, I should have left it at the shrimp/scallops, served that over a basmati or jasmine rice and kept the salad.  For dessert? Seasonal berries and sabayon, a lemon or orange mousse or home made sorbets.

Maura has been introduced in the previous diary.  Kev is one of my brothers, Shawn is his wife.  My brothers, Kevin and Mitchell, and I used to get together more often in the past.  John and Mary, a wonderful couple and, at one time, close friends.  People do drift in and out of each others lives.   John and I worked together in an architectural firm. He was more driven and focused than I and has become one the principals in the firm.  I, on the other hand tend to wander.  He and Mary were wonderful enough to invite me and my current significant others to dinners at their home.  Chris and Pat were introduced to me by John and Mary.   See, I can meet new friends!

 It’s always nice when that kind of thing happens.  When old friends lead to new friends.  John had, hopefully still has, a good, dry, wicked, witty sense of humor and I remember one dinner at their home where he served  appetizers from an attaché case that was brought to the cocktail table.  Speaking of appetizers, where the hell are they on my menu?  

Once upon a time I was more concerned with each individual course, rather than the menu as a whole, but boy did that viewpoint ever change.  For me nowadays the whole damn thing better work together, “a superb pairing”, AND each dish should be GREAT – not necessarily fancy just – GREAT.   

 

You F***ing Bastard! 

The single life continued and as we all know there are many dangers inherent with that lifestyle – most of them worth the risk.  Most, not all.  I was enjoying a nice relationship with a lovely lady, a relationship that found us enjoying, among other earthly delights, cooking and going to restaurants.  Actually, I was doing the cooking including parties at her house for her friends.  She would show me off as if I was a trophy at those events, “and yes, David did all the cooking!  Isn’t he wonderful?!”  Yes, I am wonderful!  Sometimes it’s nice to be the trophy.  The cooking; as I recall there was still no rhyme or reason to the menu.  No thought given as to how all the courses worked together.  That came with time, but at this particular point it was simply, “let me figure out how to make a crème bruleé.”

Our time together included a long-planned vacation trip.  But alas, for me, by this time, my affection for this wonderful woman was heading south.  I was beginning to feel that this relationship wasn’t going to go anywhere; that I didn’t want it to go any farther than it had.  She was really looking forward to the trip, so I figured that I couldn’t let her down – not at that moment.  Yes, I felt very conflicted.  Bonnie has often chided me about this, accusing me of letting her pay my way on the vacation – not true, paid my own way – and saying that if I had any backbone I would have kissed her goodbye before the vacation – easier said than done from my perspective.  And so we went on vacation and it was good, not great, but good.          

The week after we returned I drove to her house on Saturday morning, was let in and given a hug, and I then said to her, “Please sit down, I’ve got to talk to you.”  She sat and I knew that puzzled and apprehensive look on her face.  It had been on my face several times in the past.  I took a deep breath and in a shaky voice said, “I don’t think that we should see each other anymore.  I’m sorry, but I just don’t feel the same way about this relationship as you do.  I’m sorry, but goodbye.”  For her, there was much gnashing of teeth, soul wrenching sobs and rivers of tears, but I was out less than 10 minutes from when I entered.  For me, blessed relief, tinged with sadness.  I do find it hard to intentionally tell someone something that’s going to hurt them.  Unintentionally I do it all the time because I’m something of an idiot. 

You out there!!!  All the women that are at this second trying to find out where I live so that you can find me and take part in providing me with a very slow and agonizing death – stop.  The clean and quick goodbye is the way to go.  Isn’t it better and more truthful to have it done in a second rather than spreading it out over months?  Like getting a tooth pulled.  Like pulling a Band-Aid off.  She may have a different take on that.

Just like they say, payback IS a bitch.  She called a month or two after my departure.  I was startled when I picked up the receiver and heard her voice, as the conversation proceeded, she sounded rational and I could hear no ‘institutional sounds’ (clanging shut of cell doors, roll calls, activity announcements, calls for medication) so I thought that the call might go OK.  She asked how I was and said that she’d like to see me for dinner, just to say hello.  I was so startled that I said yes. 

When will I learn that public venues, restaurants in particular, may not be the best place for a Grunwald to be when ‘there’s something in the air’?  Probably never, I’ve repeated it too many times.  Before any of you go out to a restaurant in the northeast you may want to call and ask if there’s a reservation in my name.  If there is, I leave it to you to decide whether or not to stay home, out of the line of fire, or come and enjoy the possible show.   

I picked her up and we were seated in the restaurant, so far so good.  For my part, I was a tad nervous.  We each had a drink, dinners were ordered, I kept looking for the glint of a knife blade and saw none other than the butter knife and fish knife, I saw no inappropriate bulge that a gun might make, no shadowed thugs hung by the door, small talk of what we’ve been doing (I made NO mention of anyone that I had been dating) and I actually began to relax a bit.  I should be relaxed.  It was an expensive restaurant with good food and service to match. 

It was in that air of normalcy that her SCREAM was so absolutely unanticipated by me, as well as the rest of the diners. I almost hid under the table, I almost ran for the door, but the intensity of that scream had me frozen in my chair. It was a scream that immediately drew everyone’s attention; all heads swiveled to look at us.  On reflection I am tremendously impressed by this scream as it seemed to rise from the very depths of her tortured and vengeance craving soul; so dark and full of anger that it froze my blood and stiffened the hairs on the back of my neck (and I almost peed in my pants – almost).  It was a scream that both literally and figuratively started on a high note, “YOU F***ING BASTARD!  Do you think that you can just go on vacation with me, tell me that you care about me and then just say GOODBYE!?!?!?  The hell you can!  How could you do that to me!?  I thought that you loved me!?  I was crying for days!  I gained ten pounds!  I haven’t slept!  And, And, And, I missed my period and thought that I was PREGNANT! Well, I’m not, but you are a damned bastard and I hate you! I wish you were dead!”  There was more, quite a bit more, but you get the gist of it.

As you know I’ve been a member of the cast in this play before.  I’ve also been in the audience.  In one of our dining experiences Bonnie and I have seen a woman stand up, throw her drink in the face of her male companion and say, “You bastard!” and walk out the door.  Now that was a good show: short, to the point and it leaves you to ponder exactly what it was that he did or said to her.  My dining companion told the audience exactly what I did to her – from her perspective.  There was nothing to ponder.  Having been in the audience and on the stage, I think that it’s much more fun to be in the audience.

The ambush was over, the bastard had been outed; I’m still betting that one of her girl friends talked her into it.  Eventually she was calm enough so that we could leave the restaurant, without eating of course, and I drove her home – blessed silence for the entire trip.  The irony – I ended up paying the dinner bill.  Maybe I got off cheap after all.

And now in the rearview mirror were college, entrance into adulthood (arguable, I know), an introduction to life’s dramas and routines, and a divorce.  Paths had been taken, but I knew that I didn’t have to stay on them and ahead I would be meeting the love of my life.  Life had been full of surprises so far and I knew that was the one thing that I could count on ahead.  When the craziness got to be too much, or simply because I wanted to cook, I could escape to the food, stove, pans and my knives. The Dinner Diaries had been started; the quality level of the dishes improved and the menus began to come together as a whole.  I was beginning to realize, more and more, just how important the cooking and the food were to me; sanctuary, friendship, love and sharing.    

The Dinner Diaries – 1984  –  Dinner Diary  –  January 14, 1984

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This is a very good menu – simple, not overloaded. Iconic dishes: Bouillabaisse and the Baklava recipe from the Apollo Phyllo dough package.  Attended by brothers Kevin and Mitchell, Kev’s wife Shawn, our family friend Greg and I’m still dating Maura.  Most dishes made ahead so that I could join in conversation with my guests – an unusual situation, the usual situation being a mad hurried dash to complete the cooking and plate the appetizers, yelling at my wife about the table not being set as I envisioned it and gulping down martinis trying to stay calm.  I have happily ceded the table settings to Bonnie, because she does such a spectacular job of it. 

Bouillabaisse, what a wonderful dish: the fish, the saffron, the good bread to sop up the broth. This is one of those recipes that there is no ’single’ recipe that is the ‘correct one’.  That’s why I picked and chose from both a ‘New York Times Sunday Magazine’ article’ and ‘The Silver Palate Cook Book’.   There are required basics such as the saffron and tomato broth, good fish and maybe shellfish; the rockfish (rascasse) is supposedly ‘de rigueur’.  But it is most certainly open to improvisation.  It started as a peasant dish, a dish for the working stiff.  Do you think that some poor fisherman wasn’t going to make it because he didn’t catch any rascasse that day?  

 

Fisherman Jacque, “Fisherman Pierre.  Make us some bouillabaisse tonight,     no?”

Fisherman Pierre, “No, no, I cannot do zeese.  While we have many, many fish, we have no rascasse!”

Fisherman Jacque, “No rascasse!  Sacre Bleu!  Then we shall have no bouillabaisse tonight!”

 

So it’s tough to go too far astray making this,  though you could; you could leave out the saffron and you could use Tilapia, one of the most tasteless fish in the sea, rather than a fish that has some flavor and character.  This is a great dish to kick back with: elbows on the table, tear off hunks of bread with your hands and pinch your lover’s butt when they get up from the table to get another bottle of wine. The Saffroned rice with mushrooms: a redundant flavor with the saffron and unnecessary.  Stick with the Bouillabaisse served in oversized bowls, a good bread and salad. 

The Baklava recipe on the Apollo Phyllo Dough package.  As far as I’m concerned this is one of the defining Baklava recipes, if not THE defining Baklava recipe.  You could screw their recipe up, if you didn’t like to cook, or tried to cut corners (I know!  It’s just SOOOOO hard to get fresh lemon juice from a lemon), or tried to make it ‘low fat’.  You could substitute Splenda for sugar, margarine for butter, those pre-made crescent dinner rolls that come in a cardboard tube for Phyllo dough ( I mean really – hasn’t the manufacturer suggested that you can substitute these dinner rolls for everything from pizza to socks to Tilapia?) and bottled lemon juice instead of fresh lemon juice.  We should kneel and kiss the Apollo people’s feet – it’s that good.  Keep it real.  If you don’t, I’ll hunt you down and deliver justice.

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 At one time in my culinary life I gave a Baklava cooking demonstration in conjunction with a Christmas Celebration that a nearby town was holding.  I see nothing odd about a Polish lad giving a cooking demonstration for a Mediterranean dessert.  Do you?  I’ve still got my ‘battle plan’ notes (Mise en Place babe!).  It was fun, I made no errors and I managed to stop the little girl who was going to mix the nuts, sugar and cinnamon with her bare hands from doing that until she had washed them.  I had seen her out of the corner of my eye, picking her nose moments before she offered to do the mixing. 

I went all out here!  I had one Baklava that I popped in the oven when I got there so that folks could eat it as they were ‘making’ the second Baklava.  The recipe had been copied so that everyone could have one.  I had all my ingredients, all the utensils.  I had checked out the venue a couple of days earlier to make sure that I had a sink and a working oven.  I don’t know about you, but for me perfect doesn’t happen all that often.  Perfect it was, I was loved by one and all and Santa was good to me that year.

Next Week: Dinner Diaries from 1984, Pouffy Sleeves and the Sorceress of Soup and St. Marteen in the Rain

         

DIVORCED, I’M NOT THE FATHER AND THEY KNOW MY VOICE; PEACH DAIQUIRIS AND RAVING IDIOTS; DON’T TELL THE CHEF THAT I COOK AND MODESTY FLEES THE SCENE

Divorced, I’m Not The Father And They Know My Voice 

And so, Swintbn finished school in Philadelphia and we moved to her home state of New Jersey.  I’ve married real honest to goodness ‘Jersey Girls’ twice.  I’m batting .500 – more than 20 years with Bonnie, she’s a keeper and I am damn lucky to have her love.

I had managed to land a good architecture job in Princeton and, having been raised in the ‘burbs’, I was always more of a ‘burb’ boy than a city boy.  I wanted to get back to my ‘roots’, as shallow and suburban as they might be.  We were lucky in that we found a small house that we could afford to rent in the Borough.  How cool, room for both a garden and a grill.  Swintbn was thrilled that I would no longer be hanging the grill from a second floor window.

Life proceeded in a not too happy state as far as the marriage went, unhappy enough that we did get divorced.  It was not fun but it certainly was necessary and for the best.  The irony is that we lived together without benefit of marriage license longer than we were actually married.

The sturm and drang of divorce found me, initially, with little inclination to do any cooking.  This was during the whole ‘woe is me period’ and before the ‘hey why don’t we go out tonight and come back to my place later for a late dinner’ – I had remembered that lesson.  So I was depressed enough so that I didn’t want to cook, but still had to eat.  The solution – Conte’s Pizza, Princeton.  They make an absolutely superb pizza; the crust is thin but not too thin, and crispy, but still chewy – perfect.  Couple the crust with a good tomato sauce, good cheese in the proper amount and homemade sausage and I’m in heaven.  Oh, did I forget to mention beer and wine?  Not only is the pizza perfect, but the venue is perfect too.  A good sized room with a looooong bar on one side, glass behind the bar of course, Formica topped tables and chrome edged dinette chairs with red vinyl upholstery, columns in the room are covered with tiny mirrors – good Lord it’s the 1950’s, the perfect 1950’s and it’s real – no Disney Land.  It’s good enough to go out of your way for and to wait in the long lines. It was close to where I was living so I availed myself of this wonder on more than one occasion.

One night at Conte’s several of my friends and I were sitting at a table having, of course, pizza and beers.  I removed my face from my beer mug to see a pregnant woman at a table near ours fling herself from her chair to get on her feet.  A woman so pregnant that I’m wondering how many seconds from now will she give birth pregnant.  She begins to waddle (sorry moms, no other way to describe it) in the general direction of our table, no, wait, she’s waddling right towards our table, Sweet Jesus she’s waddling right up to me and saying, “Are you Dave Grunwald?”  Here’s this woman: pregnant, looks around my age, certainly attractive enough that I would have been happy to assist her in getting pregnant, I had been tom-catting around as they say to some degree at that time, in the grief of my divorce I did at times drink to the point where I didn’t remember EVERYTHING and she’s asking me to confirm who I am.  Me, a father?  That didn’t mesh at all with the motorcycle that I was thinking of buying.  And I refuse to do diapers – I gag.  My friends were of no help.  Not a one of them threw her to the floor, yelled fire to empty the place or said that they were me – nothing to help me escape.  They sure as hell wanted to see if I was going to be a daddy.  For my part, I could have said ‘no’ in a foreign language (if I knew one) or simply run out the door, but I figured – what the hell, let’s see what life has blasted me with this time.  So I said, “Yes, I’m Dave Grunwald”.  I was ready to immediately cover my eyes with my arms and hands so that when she threw acid in my face I wouldn’t be blinded, just horribly burned and scarred forever.  Her response to my admission: “HI! I’m Belle Star (the name has been changed to protect her innocence); we went to high school together in Connecticut.  I was just in town seeing some friends, and I can’t believe that I ran into you here!”  All that worry about nothing, silly boy!  I was more careful after that encounter.  More careful in that before I entered Conte’s I would sneak up to the door and peer inside to see if any pregnant women lay in wait.

The frequency or which I was availing myself of Conte’s perfect pizza was driven home with the force of a sledge hammer one night.  The evening that found me sitting at a table inside Conte’s and encountering Belle Star wasn’t the norm.  As I was still a bit on the morose side about my life and the divorce I usually phoned my order in, picked it up and went home to eat.   That night when I phoned my order in the conversation was somewhat different from the usual.

Me, “Hi, I’d like to order a pizza to go – medium with sausage and mushrooms.”

Contes, “Will there be anything else?” 

Me, “Nope, that’s it.”

Contes, “That will be ready to pickup in about 20 minutes.”

AND I COULD SENSE THEM HANGING UP THE PHONE

Me, “Wait! I screamed into the phone.  Don’t you want my name!?”

Contes, “Don’t need it Mr. Grunwald – we all recognize your voice.”

 

Was it time to cut back on the frequency of my pizza orders?

Is it a good thing or a bad thing when everyone at the local pizza emporium

Recognizes your voice when you phone in your order?

It’s a wonderful thing – I consider it personalized service.

And I am grateful.

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Peach Daiquiris And Raving Idiots

There is something about putting a Grunwald in a restaurant that for, whatever reason, on occasion, sends things a little out of kilter and creates incidents and situations.  Some of these incidents are funny to everybody including the Grunwalds while many of the incidents are funny to you because you’re not a Grunwald   As I’ve related, as I child I was taken by my parents to restaurants more often than I expect that many children were.  You’d think that I had learned the consequences of bad behavior, the possibility of the ‘Grunwald Restaurant Surprise’, the fact that alcohol does indeed loosen the inhibitions giving way to behavior and words that may be embarrassing in the next days light of sobriety.  You’d think that I would have learned to bolt for the door, throwing dollar bills behind me to slow the mob, that I’d have learned not to order the duck a l’orange in ‘Bob’s Beef Hut’.  You’d have thought that with my cumulative restaurant experiences, including cooking in one (for however short a time) that I’d have restaurants and me down cold.  Don’t I wish that I did.

Parents get really interesting when the fruit of their loins is going through a divorce.  There is absolutely no attempt to hide the fact that, in my case, they were 110% in their progeny’s corner, vilifying the ex-spouse Swintbn to a degree that would make the accusers of the Salem Witch Trials blush.  And so it was with my parents.  My mother was particularly rabid as she was protecting her first born.

I forget what summer celebration brought us to what is a superb restaurant located on a farm in the quiet corner of northeastern Connecticut.  I know that it was the early 1980’s because Swintbn and I had just bid each other adios.  With Mom and Dad, individually with our own families and with friends’ families we have enjoyed many meals at this venue.  Superb and inventive food, cocktails before dinner, peach daiquiris as I recall, sipped (OK, gulped, “May I have another please?”) while sitting on the elevated deck of the dining barn overlooking a tranquil pond with Great Blue Herons stalking the shallows as the sun lazily drifted down towards the fading horizon of farm fields, New England stone walls and rolling hills.  That night it was the Grunwald family and, for those of you who may be speculating, yes, it was, shall I say, eventful.  Behavior that was out of place in such a genteel setting manifested itself.  The food that night was as wonderful as we recalled from the last visit.  Even in memories that are peach daiquiri faded and blurred I recall my delight at being here and enjoying this food.  Do I remember the specifics of the menu?  No.  Do I remember Dad holding the empty bread basket above his head?  No, but he probably did.  Do I remember that the divorce had recently been finalized – you betcha.  I remember that in my eyes, at that moment in time, I was a failure.  I couldn’t hold a marriage/love together.  I would never be loved by anyone ever, ever again and, for that split second, I thought that the divorce was my fault (OK, perhaps I was wallowing a bit).   My mother’s timing was impeccable, worthy of an Academy Award, for at the precise instant that I felt responsible for the marriage going south and certain that I would never again be loved by anyone as wonderful as Swintbn, Mom said, “She was never good enough for you, you should have never married her, and she’s a horrible person.  I’m glad that she’s gone.”  Timing is everything.  How could she say that, my Witch was absolutely wonderful – the failed marriage was my entire fault (Of course that’s not true, I was wallowing). 

I EXPLODED at Mom, “how dare you say that!”  In truth, my drunken defense of the Swintbn was much greater in length and more vociferous than that, but you get the idea.  In this genteel setting, uncaring of the other patrons’ comfort or my parents’ love, I did not keep my voice down during my tirade. 

Poor Mom, she was only protecting me.  Poor other diners, though I’d guess that such a scene had played before mine and will be played again you, the audience, are never really comfortable nor do you absolutely relish it (well, maybe a little) – unless it’s short and sweet or you watch Jerry Springer regularly.  Yeah, it’s kind of interesting, like the proverbial auto wreck you can’t look away from as you drive past.  You’re trying to be nonchalant, peering at it from the corner of your eye and whispering to your companion, “Wow!  Look at the drunken idiot at the side table.  What the hell is he screaming at his mother for?” The ranting of the idiot (Me) came and went quickly.  I made a very sincere apology to my family, they graciously accepted and the evening returned to normal, more or less.

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In the ‘Quiet Corner’ of Connecticut

The farm restaurant featured sing-along hayrides and I still remember the guitar playing and the dark haired beauty that lead the songfest.  We are talking an honest to goodness hayride; hay wagon, sitting on the hay, horses pulling, star filled sky and everybody singing.    I know, it sounds corny.  Believe me, it was not.  My tirade now just a (bad) memory, my brothers and I climbed on board and heartily joined in, singing along to James Taylor and The Eagles.  We do three part harmony very well.  I tried to get a date with the dark-haired beauty. 

How could I not as she was cute as hell and I was now single.   Normalcy had truly returned and the heavens breathed easy. 

And yes, we’ve returned to the restaurant after this using our real names to make the reservation and have been welcomed back. As the bard says, “All’s well that ends well”.

 

Please Don’t Tell The Chef That I Cook 

By now, you all know that my father often took the family out for dinner.  We didn’t go to restaurants every other night, or even once a week, but go we did – obviously, it’s a very strong memory for me.  He liked being able to take his family to restaurants because he liked to see us enjoying the experience, he was able to do something to make us happy, and because it served as verification that he had achieved a financial position where he was able to do so, something that his own father could not or would not.  He took us to a range of restaurants – Patricia Murphy’s, Avon Old Farms and the local pizza and hoagie joint.  Dad ate out often with his business cronies and seemed to be familiar with the whole dining out procedure.  Because of that I was always surprised in that he seemed to become a bit uncomfortable, even nervous, when we walked through that entrance door. When I say that he was uncomfortable and nervous I mean that his behavior was the kind that makes a child cringe, to greater or lesser degrees, depending upon the child’s understanding or empathy for the parent.  I took a long time for me to mature and gain any empathy (some say that I’ve still got a ways to go) for Dads restaurant persona.  As he would wildly wave an empty bread basket above his head while shouting to the room, “Garçon! Garçon!  More Bread”, my feelings were conflicted.  Here’s this guy who loves his family enough to take us out to dinner and here’s this guy that doesn’t care, or have a clue, that he’s embarrassing the bejeezuz out of his ingrate son.  My brothers and I and our wives and girlfriends would discuss upcoming restaurant ventures.  Our discussion theme being, “What do you think that he’s going to do this time?”  At various times during our restaurant adventures, our family might be found trying to hide under the table or run to the restrooms.  I am certain that, at times, the wait staff was running, decorously running, but running nonetheless, from him.  Dealing in our own ways with a man who always said, “Don’t fill up on the cheap stuff”.  Dealing with a man who loved us – and wanted more bread.  

As I started to do more and more cooking, my Dad introduced a new restaurant torture for me.  Dad took his Roman Catholic upbringing to heart and he would have been right at home during the inquisition; my nightmares found him dressed in a monk’s dark and shadowy robe, the hood up and covering his face, the long inquisitors table, the too few flickering candles in a dark stone room casting no ray of hope, me naked and hung from ropes that are tied to my wrists and drawn tight to the ceiling beams so that my feet barely touch the cold, blood slick floor.  It’s cold and I’m scared to death and I’m embarrassed, because there’s a great deal of shrinkage resulting from all that, the voice of my father screaming at me, “So, Witnesses have professed that you have said that you like to cook. That you have admitted to wanting to be a ………..CHEF!  Cast this CHEF in the pit!”   In truth my parents were delighted that all of their sons liked to cook.  But, Dad had no idea that what he was going to do would make me want to run and hide. 

Upon being seated in a restaurant my father would ask to speak with the chef and when the chef would arrive at our table, looking absolutely thrilled that he had had to leave a busy kitchen to deal with yet another nut customer, my father would say to him, “My son is a CHEF too!  He’s really good!”  Chefy asks, “What restaurant do you cook in?”  I mumble my reply, “I cook at home.”  The chefs would eye me and get a look their face that I interpreted as meaning, “So you’re a CHEF, an At-Home CHEF!  Wowee!”  Poor chefy, dragged out of his domain for this.  During chefy’s exchange with us the pastry chef has taken chefy’s place on the line and is overcooking the pan-sautéed red snapper, it will have to be redone and Table 4 will not be happy, because the rest of the dishes will be cold by the time the snapper is done again.  Chefy will blame us for Table 4’s unhappiness.  The chef is looking at me and I know what he’s thinking, “A Real Freakin’ At-Home Chef!  Well how about that?!  Well, how about I just gouge one of your eyes out and eat it while you watch with your remaining eye!  How about you just come into MY kitchen and I’ll brand the side of your face on the griddle!  How about that Mr. At-Home Chef!”  It’s torture, I’m wishing with all my heart that I were absolutely anyplace but where I am. 

I’m not this chef’s equal – he does it for a living, do or die.  I do it for fun, do or die too, but I don’t have to show a profit or get four different entrée selections to the table at the same time.  The homicidal glaze of the chef’s eyes clearly made a statement, but his parting words were always unintelligible as he would go back to the kitchen.  After such an event I would always give close scrutiny to the remaining dishes coming from the kitchen before partaking.   

 

All You Can Eat For $5 And Modesty Flees The Scene 

When Dad announced that he was taking the family out to dinner we could never guess where that particular dinner would fall in the range of gastronomic possibilities.  Often quantity would win out over quality. Dad was a true yo-yo dieter, often losing and then re-gaining 50 to 100 pounds.  He drove his doctors and his family crazy with this behavior.  He stated that his philosophy of eating was, “Eat to live, don’t live to eat.”  This was running concurrently with, “Don’t fill up on the cheap stuff” and, “I could make a meal out of bread”.  What he wanted was to be able to control his eating so that when he opened a bag of cookies, he wasn’t compelled to eat the entire bag in one sitting.  He never got to the point where he could do that for any meaningful period of time.  So, despite the fact that he enjoyed many restaurants that did not advertise ‘All You Can Eat For $5’, we sometimes found ourselves paying $5 per person.

One night Dad’s philosophy of more, rather than better, for $5 per person bit him, and all of us, on our collective asses.

Three brothers, one wife and one girlfriend were taken out to dinner by my parents, Dad choosing the venue, to a restaurant that was so obviously dirty that it made all of us except Dad want to run out the door as soon as we entered the place.  I swear that the soles of our shoes stuck to the floor and the air was hazy, visibility ten feet, with atomized grease.  You could feel pimples developing on your face in real time and you knew that you’d have to wash your hair at least three times to get the grease out of it. Of course the restaurant served tremendous quantities of food for a very low price.  As soon as we walked in the door Dad began enlightening the owner, whom Dad said was a ‘great friend’ of his, with the story of Dad’s life and accomplishments, while simultaneously saying to the owner things that owners, servers and chefs love to hear; “Please take this back and bring me something else – Bring me more of this – There’s not enough here, bring extra – I didn’t order this – I want more bread”  Nonstop and it was becoming obvious to all of us except Dad that the owner was reaching his limit with the antics of his ‘great friend’. 

Dad was salesman.  When he got wound up there was no stopping him, no off switch, ya just had to let the spring run all the way out.  Even though the flavors of one dish were nearly indistinguishable from another dish at one point during the evening a dish tasted a ‘little off’.  We had found, and passed, the limits of Dad’s ‘great friend’ and the seven of us returned home to my parent’s house to find out what comes with pissing off the proprietor of the ‘All You Can Eat For $5’ restaurant. 

Faint tremors of bodily discomfort flirted with us on the drive home, but we hoped against hope that they would leave unrealized.  Cold sweat on our foreheads.  Stomachs beginning to ride a roller coaster.  I forgot who got sick first, probably Dad, because he commandeered the one and only bathroom, but in very short order all of us became really, violently, sick.  Dad would not relinquish his domain in the single bathroom, some host.  That left the remaining six of us in self-designated areas in the backyard.  Outside, in the dark, each of us in our little dark world of pain, modesty had fled soon after this started (hell, anything in its right mind would have fled that scene), each of us clutching a roll of toilet paper.  I didn’t have the nerve to look at the backyard the next morning.  You should never, ever, wonder why all of us brothers, wives, girlfriends and Mom always felt a tremor of fear when Dad would say, “Hey!  Why don’t I take all of us out to dinner tonight?” 

Dessert: An Explanation and a White Bean Spread

Yes, I’ve changed the title of the last entry in the posting.  An amuse bouche is most easily described as a bite size morsel that better restaurants will serve, gratis (and well it should be considering that it is quite literally one small bite), soon after you are seated.  A little something to welcome you and show off the chefs skill.  Though my amuse bouche is a bite size morsel I have been placing it at the end rather than the beginning.  Hence, I’m changing the title of this section to ‘Dessert’. 

You should know that my addled brain has often written desert when I meant dessert and visa versa.  The early readers of the manuscript (much thanks to Alison, Brooke, Mary Carol, Maggie and of course Bonnie) have taught me that DESERT is the dry, sandy, place and that DESSERT is the fun course following the main meal.  I won’t make that mistake again.

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DESSERT: A new, and successful, dish; Pumpkin Flan

I recently had the opportunity to whip up a spread for an appetizer course.  It’s tasty and so easy that I hesitate to call it ‘cooking’.

WHITE BEAN SPREAD

Ingredients:

3 Slices Bacon

2 Shallots

1 Garlic Clove

1 Pound Cooked Cannelloni Beans; cooked dry beans or canned

Olive Oil as needed

Salt and Black Pepper to taste

1 ¼ Teaspoons Smoked Paprika – more if you like it as much as I do.  Just don’t add so much that it’s the only flavor that you taste.  If you make this spread with plain old paprika (which is fine for many other dishes), rather than the smoked paprika, the flavors of this will be lacking.

Preparation:

1. Coarsely dice the bacon.  Fry over medium high heat until crispy.  Remove the bacon from the pan reserving about a tablespoon of the bacon fat.

2.  Coarsely dice the shallots (or onions) and garlic, sautéing them in the reserved bacon fat until translucent (the garlic browns quickly, add it after the shallots have cooked a bit).

3. Place the beans, shallots, garlic and remaining bacon fat in a food processor.  Process the ingredients, adding olive oil as needed, until the spread is, no surprise here, a spreadable consistency.  Don’t process so much that it turns into an ugly paste.

4. Remove the spread from the processor, place in a bowl and stir in the bacon, salt, black pepper and smoked paprika until incorporated.  Taste and adjust flavorings as necessary.

5. Spread it on a piece of baguette or cracker and eat.  Actually, it tastes better if it sits in the fridge for a few hours so that the flavors can marry.

6. This should keep in the fridge for at least a couple days.

7. A few shifts with the seasonings and this recipe will takeoff in a hundred different directions.  Experiment and have fun.

Next Week:  The First Dinner Diary and You F***ing Bastard and yet more Dinner Diaries

You might want to keep the kiddies away from this posting.  Adult language and situations.

SWINTBN AND MARTINIS; GRAPES, GARBAGE DISPOSALS AND HIBACHIS; AND THE ITALIAN MARKET AND FOUR STAR HOTELS

Swintbn And Martinis

While in Providence I met a woman that I loved enough to marry.  She decided to finish her schooling in Philadelphia, so the late 1970’s found us leaving Providence.  It was tough to leave.  I’d done so much growing there, so much had happened, I’d learned things, made mistakes and learned not to make them as often and cooking had begun to be so very important to me.

It didn’t take long to see that the marriage was a mistake.  I should have taken her mother’s advice.  When we told her parents that we were getting married her mother broke into tears, telling me that it would be a mistake for anyone to marry her daughter.   Hey, what did I know, I was in love.  Her parents always treated me wonderfully and truly made me feel a part of their family and I loved them both.  For the purpose of relating this tale I shall call their daughter, my ex, ‘She Who Is Not To Be Named’ – Swintbn for short. 

However bad the marriage was it is to Swintbn’s father that I owe a great debt of gratitude.  This gentleman was absolutely down to earth, kind, with a great sense of humor and an appreciation for the finer things.  It is to this paragon that I owe my eternal thanks for many kindnesses and teachings and for introducing me to – the martini. 

Ah, the wonder that is this drink; gin, not vodka, it strikes one as impossible that it could look so crystal clear, the gin kept in the refrigerator, maybe the freezer, pouring not like a thin liquid but with substance, like a smooth polished crystal cord that you could almost pick it up with your fingers, the fragrance of the juniper berries and other botanicals, the ‘just there’ scent of a cedar forest in sunlight dusted with winter snow, the true basic color of the lemon twist or the olive and the vermouth with its delicate fragrance of spring herbs taking just a bit of the edge off the razor sharp gin.  Wow!   The taste: substantial in texture, for a split second it bites then pulls back and caresses (kind of like love!), the tempered taste of the juniper and the undercurrent of vermouth herbs full in your head.  Watch yourself because you will want more.

When I’m talking martini I am not talking about some bastardized, pretender to the throne, vodka thing that has no taste.  I am not talking about anything that’s made in a Martini Bar.  Martini Bars should all be sent to Cancun; they’re appropriate in that venue.  I am not talking about a Green Apple Martini’ or a Chocolate Martini.    Who the hell drinks those abominations?  I’ll tell you who – 20 year old girls who don’t like the taste of liquor, but want an excuse to allow their loins to be tickled.  And, if you’re a guy ordering a martini that’s made of anything other than gin, vermouth, and an olive or a twist of lemon, you should make an appointment with your doctor to have your chromosomes checked.  Really, a man ordering a Chocolate Martini what are you?  Whatever you are, you should be embarrassed.

The ex-father-in-law knew well the wonder of this drink – not to excess.  This velvet smooth, no kidding around, mellow out here, elixir that has calmed me and put the world in perspective and on the other hand has gotten control of me on occasion.  In my early martini years I was one of those who merely waved the bottle of vermouth in front of the glass of gin so as to impart the thought of vermouth to the gin.  However, with the passage of the years I have come to appreciate, and find necessary, the flavor of the vermouth (always Tribuno for me) to complete the wonder of it all.  Not the ten to one ratio that the original recipe calls for, but enough to make it taste “right”.  What kind of gin?  Entirely up to you – it just damn well better be gin and not something else.  I prefer the London style gins, Coates Plymouth Gin, Bombay Sapphire, Tanqueray, Hendrick’s and Gordon’s (my vin-ordinaire).  Does a list containing several gins indicate an indiscriminate palette?  No way, each has its own nuances and should be appreciated on its own.  Some of the newer gins are way too over the top for my tastes – where’d the gin taste go?  Thank you ex-father-in-law.  Your place is preserved in my heart of hearts – and not only for the martini. 

It is time to pay homage to the only diet book that has ever worked for me: “Martinis & Whipped Cream: The New Carbo-Cal Way to Lose Weight and Stay Slim”.  By Sidney Petrie in association with Robert B. Stone, Parker Publishing Company, copyright 1966.

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The Grape, The Garbage Disposal And The Hibachi 

The late 1970’s and early 1980’s found Swintbn and me living in a floor of a Philly row house.  She was in school; I was working as an architect and doing all the cooking, which suited me perfectly.  I loved the cooking, but had yet to be hit with the desire to start the Dinner Diaries. So, while various food adventures that I experienced in Philly are lost, there were some pretty interesting incidents that will never be forgotten.  Never to be forgotten be me, and I’m certain never to be forgotten by the innocents that also came to be involved.

One of these less than perfect moments found me attempting to make Sole Veronique.  This is a pretty damn nice fish dish.  As the Master Craig Claiborne says of the dish, “The name Veronique in French indicates that white seedless grapes are used in preparing the dish”.  The sole poached in a wonderful broth and served warm with a delicate cream sauce and white grapes – wonderful, clean, flavors and several textures.  The singular taste of sole melting in your mouth with a ‘just there’ texture, the sauce countering and complimenting the burst of flavor from the sweet grape, the grape juice creating a new sauce wrapping itself around the flavor of the Sole.  What a wonderful imagination someone had to create such a dish.  What possessed me to try the recipe; easy, the recipe struck me as elegant and tasteful.  And because it’s relatively simple, it’s a challenge to do well.  

At the time I was living in Philly every corner had a produce and flower stand manned by an Asian.  I walked, or rode a bicycle, to and from work and it was really a joy to be able to go to the Italian Market at lunch for the evening’s entrée and pick up the accompaniments from the corner stands on the way home. 

So, I picked up the sole at noon and kept it in the office fridge, nice and cool, until I headed home.  Actually remembering to take the fish with me when I left work I stopped at the first corner produce and flower stand.  I asked for white seedless grapes and was told, “Just green grapes with seeds, no seedless white grapes”.  No problem, I’ll just go to another corner.  Second stand – same response as the first.  Third stand – same response as the first and second. 

At this point those little tingles of nervousness start.  I mean, I could make some other dish with the sole but, by this time the thought of making Sole Veronique had become a battle cry in my mind.  By God, we’re having Sole Veronique for dinner or, by my decree, heads will roll!  One more corner stand – one more negative response.  I am willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish whatever I become obsessed with.  If the goal requires that I give no quarter and take no prisoners than by God that is the way that it is going to be.  So – I bought the green grapes with seeds.  I figured what the hell – I’ll just remove the seeds. 

I got home and began making the dish.  The grapes?  I cut them in half and did in fact remove the seeds with my handy little paring knife.  Is that extreme?  Not in my book kiddo.  Sure, some of the grapes no longer looked pristine and perfect and we probably had a late dinner, but it was done and it was a triumph.  No, I haven’t made it lately, but I will.  Keep it real, but sometimes ya do what ya gotta do.  Genius is being able to correctly determine what ya gotta do.

Living in Philly was interesting for a whole lot of reasons.  Most importantly the up and coming restaurant scene but also for: the guy that died in the brownstone across the alley from us whose summertime death wasn’t discovered until it became olfactorily apparent; the guy that attacked people with an axe on the bus that I sometimes took (I did not take it that particular day); the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the efforts of the fledgling torturers at Penn’s dental school; Beato’s pizza; the Italian Market; Mummers; many wonderful things.  It was also the first time that I had the use of a garbage disposal.  You know, one of those things in the sink drain that supposedly will grind up ANYTHING and send it on its merry way.  The dreaded garbage grinder into which, from a distance of three feet away, you toss the dinner leftovers into its screaming maw – any closer and it will reach up and seize your fingers and arms.  I was enjoying the use of the disposal as it really did send many food items on their way that would have otherwise stayed in the house longer than they should.  However, I found out that it would not accept everything. 

The fateful dinner that night included – fresh, whole artichokes.  I remember that the artichokes were very much enjoyed and after dinner I did the cleanup.  What to do with the artichoke leaves?  Why, send them down the garbage disposal.  I mean there are caution stickers all over this thing saying that it will eat your fingers and hand alive, pulverizing the bone, so how hard could artichoke leaves be to get down?  They would be – impossible.  Start the water running, turn the disposal on and start feeding the leaves down the drain.  Going fine for about 15 seconds and then, sounds from the disposal began to scream my name as if a knife had been plunged into its nether regions, the entire sink and kitchen counter was shaking as if Philly was having an earthquake and the water, ah yes the water, rising higher and higher in the sink.  The artichoke leaves? They just sat there, actually they were jammed into a solid mass the consistency of concrete in the opening of the disposal.  In retrospect all of this took place in the time span of a very few minutes before I shut off the disposal switch and the water.  In those few moments the laws of physics deserted my portion of the universe, with the exception of the water rising higher and higher in the sink time and motion were frozen.  It took the rest of a long night to remove all of the leaves to the point where the disposal would run without making death throe sounds.  As it is said, “a man’s got to know his limitations”, as do garbage disposals.

Using a charcoal grill also got pretty interesting while in Philly.  We were renting the second floor of a three story brownstone.  I love to grill, despite my initial experience with hamburgers, and figured that I’d just keep grilling as I had in the past – except that I would hang the grill from the second floor window rather than have it on the ground.  How hard or illegal could this be?  I rigged up a neat little 50 pound frame from rigid metal conduit and hung this, holding the 75 pound cast iron hibachi, out the second floor back window.  This would be great!  It was la beautiful late spring evening and I wouldn’t have to miss the pleasure of charcoal grilled burgers for another second.  I filled the grill with briquettes, doused it with charcoal lighter (which I stored a gallon container of in a closet in the apartment – cooking and idiocy trumping safety and common sense) and applied a lit match.

Things – unexpected, but I should have anticipated these types of things – got interesting pretty quickly.  To begin with, everyone in the building was home – this would make sense as it was dinner time which was in fact why I was cooking at this moment. 

Then, the initial 10 foot high Moses In The Desert Wrath of God pillar of orange and yellow flames (later calming down to a moderate 4 to 6 feet,) accompanied by boiling smoke as black as squid ink, got the attention of the third floor tenant pretty quickly; one could say that it immediately got her attention.  Her window above the grill was open and she later said, which may have been true, that she could, in fact, see the flames, the smoke was pouring into her apartment and consequently she was somewhat concerned that – THE BUILDING WAS ON FIRE! 

She was quite animated and vocal as she expressed this concern to me after I opened our door in response to her pounding upon it and screaming, “Fire! Fire! The Building’s On Fire!  Everybody Get Out!!!”  Now there’s a good neighbor.  When I explained that I was simply grilling dinner she screamed other phrases at me too. The new phrases she screamed did not, as her original exhortations had, evidence any concern for my well being.    

       By this time I’m beginning to be concerned that I am ‘losing the heat of the coals’.

The first floor tenant had, God knows how, heard this commotion and ran into the courtyard at the rear of the building to see what the situation was.  Believe it or not, he was somewhat concerned when he looked up to see a brazier full of red hot coals suspended directly above his head, with flames and smoke erupting from them, held there by my contraption.  Little did he realize that I was, in fact, a registered architect and perfectly competent in my ability to design and construct, such a contraption.  He too said things to me that I did not entirely deserve to have said to me.  Something about removing my head and using my neck for an unintended purpose if I did not remove the ‘contraption’ containing the red hot coals.  The literal and figurative fires both died down leaving me without the pleasures of the grill as long as I lived in that apartment.  Suggestions to Swintbn that we move to a place where I could grill without attracting the attention of our neighbors were met with a murderous glare.  Couldn’t I have seen the divorce coming?  Her priorities were all wrong!

  

The Italian Market And Four Star Hotels

In addition to presenting adventures in grilling there were other wonders to be experienced in Philadelphia by those who worship the culinary arts.  The Italian Market.  My enjoyment and thrill at going to this market has endured beyond the time of Swintbn; there have been periods when Bonnie and I go there regularly.  The market is a wonderful series of main streets and side alleys, all of them packed with people, the streets and alleys narrowed by the bins and tables showcasing the stores wares.  None of the shops is too large, some are tiny carrying every available staple and delicacy – if you’ve seen ‘Rocky’, you’ve seen it – but you haven’t experienced it.  Spices, coffees, cheeses (Oh my God, the wonderful cheese!), shellfish, fish, meats – there aren’t too many places on the east coast that you can find sheep’s heads and goats heads in the shop window displays, goats/sheep/lambs hanging from hooks in front of the shops (not as much nowadays as they used to), scungili (I make a mean scungili salad), earthy mushrooms, spring green lettuce, baking breads, octopus and rabbits. The song of the Italian Market is loud, turbulent: the duet of vendor and buyer, the stacking of wooden crates, knife edge on sharpening steel, the rolling of the meat hooks on their iron tracks and the paper grocery bags being shot open.   The fragrance in the air is like nothing else, most of the time it’s exotic, every once in a while….. well, exotic isn’t the right word.  The fragrance is a mixture of the streets, blood, seawater, earth, produce, spices, coffee, hard working men and women, bustle, and dreams of wonderful meals to come. 

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Not if, but when, you go to Philly you absolutely have to go to the Italian Market on Saturday morning.  Even if you’re staying at that four star hotel on the Parkway, buy a small lamb from the market butcher shop for your grill at home.  If the Manager at the front desk gives you trouble about it when he sees you carrying it up to your room, or if the other guests on the elevator with you gag as those drops of blood fall to the floor and then run to snitch on you, or if the chambermaid is surprised when she finds it hung in the shower to age, tell them all to talk to the chef.  The chef will fully understand why you had to buy a lamb from the Italian Market.  I wish that I could be standing at your side to help you when management says that it’s against the hotel’s policy to have a dead animal carcass in your room (little do they know how often this happens, I mean, look at some of these hotel guests and tell me if they don’t look like dead carcasses). 

If management won’t bring the chef into the discussion, and I will not be there to help you, I suggest the following.  Go ultra pro-active, remember this manager may look better than you, but on his salary, unlike you, he can’t afford to stay at any four star hotels. 

Play offense, loudly and angrily say, “I want my lamb carcass put in the dry aged beef case IMMEDIATELY and you had better make GOD DAMN CERTAIN that no one takes ANY of the meat from the cheeks!”  I have NEVER had my lamb carcasses treated like this in ANY other hotel I’ve stayed in!  When I get home I’m writing a letter to your headquarters informing them of exactly what’s gone on here and how poorly my lamb carcass and I have been treated!  YOU RACIST!  I certainly expected better from this four star hotel!”  I’ve found that, usually, they’ll be stunned for a long enough period of time for you to be able to empty the mini-bar and flee with your lamb carcass.   Think Rocky Balboa.

By the way, my scungili salad is nice and simple: scungili (very coarse chop), olive oil, a little red wine vinegar, garlic, salt and pepper, a squirt of lemon juice, a little chopped red onion and parsley – that’s it.

 

Dessert: Screaming Yellow Zonkers

I received several emails from folks that weren’t familiar with the snack treat ‘Screaming Yellow Zonkers’ that I mentioned in the last posting.  So here, courtesy of Wikipedia, is the story.  Why do I still remember these?  A crazy, at the time, snack food for a crazy time.

 Screaming Yellow Zonkers

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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Screaming Yellow Zonkers

Screaming Yellow Zonkers was a snack food, first produced by Lincoln Snacks in the USA in the 1960s. Screaming Yellow Zonkers are popcorn with a yellow sugary glaze, in a black box.

Lincoln Snacks asserts that they were the first food item to be packaged in black.[citation needed] The box contained humorous print, such as humorous suggestions about what to do with Screaming Yellow Zonkers, or that 8 oz. (226g) equals 1/4,409 of a metric ton. (This comic content was provided by Allan Katz and Howie Krakow who wrote the copy on the first several boxes, and the award-winning TV and radio campaigns.) Zonkers were geared towards those who enjoy sweetened popcorn without nuts, as opposed to products like Cracker Jack. Screaming Yellow Zonkers were kosher, but did contain dairy products.

While the front of the package was simple and understated, the rest of the Zonkers box was completely covered with absurdist copy, accompanied by illustrations, informing the reader everything from “how to wash Zonkers” to “how to mate them”. The bottom of the box explained how to determine if it were indeed the bottom. “Open the top, and turn the box upside down. If the Zonkers fall out this is the bottom. If they fall up, this is the top. If nothing happens, this box is empty.”

World class illustrators became a part of the Zonkers phenomenon. Airbrush artist Charlie White illustrated the front of the Circus box while Seymour Chwast’s work decorated the rest. White also illustrated a giant Zonkers circus poster, inspired by more of Katz’s copy. The poster was offered on the circus box for “$2.95 to include shipping, handling and profit.” The circus box ended up being displayed in the Louvre in Paris.[citation needed]

The product was discontinued after ConAgra acquired Lincoln Foods in 2007.[1]

And know you know the rest of the story.

Next Week: Divorced, I’m Not The Father and They Know My Voice; Peach Daiquiris And Raving Idiots; Please Don’t Tell The Chef That I Cook; All You Can Eat For $5 And Modesty Flees The Scene

DEER FLIES AND A VEGGIE DINNER, WHEN SNOW TURNS TO SLUSH THOUGHTS TURN TO FOOD, AND SOMETIMES NOTHING HORRIBLE HAPPENS

Deerflies and Dave’s Vegetarian Dinner 

I wrote in the last posting that at one point in my life I was a vegetarian.  At another point in my life I stopped being a vegetatian.  So, why did I stop?  I really missed hamburgers, I wasn’t certain of my commitment to the goals of vegetarianism in light of my consumption of ‘Snickers’ bars and Jack Daniels (not necessarily at different times) and I found that you could mix Red Zinger Herbal Tea with Yukon Jack for a truly comforting drink appropriate to three seasons of the year (yes, it could be stretched to four seasons). 

I also used to backpack, rock climb and cross country ski.  Looking at me now you would never believe this.  You would give more credence to my being a vegetarian.  I along with friends and family backpacked a lot in the 1970’s.  On these expeditions I discovered that I really hate deer flies.  The northeast plague from God three seasons of the year.  They swarm around you with this horrid buzzing sound.  I recall that I would start to whimper when I heard that sound because I knew what was to follow.  A gazillion flies would swoop and dive at my head from every direction, trying to distract me from the main attack.  My hands would flail about my head but I was powerless from keeping them from attacking the back of my head where I couldn’t see them to swat them.  They would land on the back of my head and one would take a huge freakin’ bleeding bite out of my scalp with a mouth that, when only slightly magnified, looks like a razor sharp pair of hedge shears.  Then, after that one has bitten and started the blood flowing, several gazillion ADDITIONAL deer flies swarm into a feeding frenzy that makes a shark feeding frenzy look like Disney World.  As I’m swarmed by fifty gazillion deer flies I find myself running, falling, stumbling blindly through the woods.  My hands flailing around my head, child birth like screams issuing from my mouth.  I run until I hit that tree trunk head on, fall to the ground and am eaten alive by the deer flies. Honest injun.

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So, I did my backpacking in the late fall and winter, often going out for several days with my trusty Kelty D4 pack on my back, and my feet strapped onto a pair of Bonna 2000 wooden cross country skis.   On one of these expeditions I drove from Providence, Rhode Island to the White Mountains of New Hampshire, got to the trailhead, strapped my skis on, got my pack on and headed into the mountains.  It was full blown winter, with lots of nice snow on the ground and no deer flies. 

I probably skied about seven miles in to a campsite by a river.  It was getting late in the day, and dark.  I set up my tent and started to prepare dinner.  This was so long ago that most of the rivers and streams in the higher elevations of the White Mountains were safe to drink from without any water treatment.  So, not wanting to waste time and stove fuel melting snow for water, I went to the river bank to get water to begin to prepare the vegetarian food fest that I was planning on having for dinner.  Yep, still a practicing vegetarian at the time.  At the river bank the ice extended a little ways out from the bank before you could get to flowing water. 

Being cautious and woodly wise I got a fairly big branch and pounded the ice with the end of it to make absolutely certain that the ice would hold me as I reached for flowing water.  Of course, when I stepped onto the ice I crashed through up to my knees in freezing water.  This should surprise none of you readers, but it sure as HELL surprised me.

I was so surprised that I sprang to the top of the river bank in a single leap – that whole adrenalin thing.  Shivering more than a little, I went for a dry pair of socks.  None to be found.  Dry long undies?  None to be found.  Didn’t I pack those?  OK, at least we can have a nice vegan dinner.  Dinner was to be reconstituted with boiling water, which was actually near boil before I knocked it over into the cold snow.  OK, I can boil more water – and I did!  I don’t remember exactly what dinner consisted of, probably: dried lotus root, dried onion, some dried seaweed, and maybe rice or buckwheat groats, LOTS of seasoning.  And before too long, dinner was actually ready to eat. 

This dinner tasted absolutely foul. I give this spawn of the devil an undeserved compliment by calling it dinner.  Its taste was so foul that to this very day I have nightmares about it.  In these nightmares executioners are holding on my back on a table.  They keep promising to feed me canned peas and spam, things that taste good in comparison to what I had made.  Just as they’re about to feed me the peas and spam, they whisk in the vegetarian mistake and put a shovel-sized serving in my mouth.  That’s how bad the vegetarian dinner tasted – canned peas and spam taste better. 

I wouldn’t have fed that mistake to my worst enemies (Yeah, I have a list).  New Hampshire Fish and Wildlife would probably have fined me for leaving this foulness out for the wildlife to eat if the wildlife had dared to even approach it.  So, I am wet, I’m cold, it’s dark and it’s the middle of winter, I’m stuck with food so incredibly bad that I wouldn’t eat it and I’m wondering what the hell I’m doing here. It was good weather, but it was winter in the mountains and a damn cold night was coming on. 

I DON’T HAVE TO STAND FOR THIS!  It was a beautiful full moon that lit up the mountains and the forest like the lights that they have on search helicopters when they’re hunting you down (not that I’d know anything about that).  I packed up camp and headed back.  It was a nice, gentle, downhill ski back to the car.  I loaded everything in, started it, turned the heater to HIGH and in the dead of night drove four hours back to Providence.  Several of the incidents that day were bad.  But, none were as unforgivable and terminal as the bad vegetarian dinner.

 

When Snow Turns To Slush, Thoughts Turn To Food 

In addition to the backpacking, my brothers and I, with our wives and girlfriends, spent a lot of time cross country skiing together in New England, in the 1970’s.   Of course, as with all things Grunwald, what would the skiing be without food!  For hot drinks we had a mulled red wine seasoned with Constant Comment tea; a Vino Caldo, which was perfect for the occasion, actually perfect for any hot mulled wine occasion.  The Vino Caldo – Constant Comment Red Wine Punch became a staple for the Grunwald family in the North Country winter and to this day holds a place at out winter table.  Of course, there were other libations; man cannot exist on mulled wine alone.  The food?  We stayed, as I remember, at relatively nice Inns and enjoyed their breakfasts and dinners.  It was the outdoor lunch cuisine that was of ours to develop.  We were skiing, physically exerting ourselves.  The usual sitting in the grass listening to a concert menu would not suffice.  The food had to sustain us in our winter skiing workout and, therefore, had to be appropriately hearty.  In addition to the thermoses filled with the hot mulled wine there were ‘Bota Bags’ filled with wine or Jack Daniels, gorp (raisins, M&M’s and peanuts), hard sausages, pepperoni, Screaming Yellow Zonkers, cheeses and crackers, maybe some dips and spreads.  I’m sure that brownies and baguettes were in there somewhere.  We carried packs of substantial size.  We knew that we absolutely needed this food to carry us through the heavy duty exertions of cross country skiing in the mountains and valleys of New England.  We disdained, unless we were tired or hung over, the groomed trail.  For us it was breaking trail through virgin snow!  We had been schooled well in winter lore.  We knew that without these large quantities of calorie laden food there was the distinct possibility of, dare we say it, death on the winter trail.  I am certain that the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) will attest to this.  It is a documented fact that in certain areas of the White Mountains of New Hampshire a full grown man can, in the winter, starve to death in twenty minutes.  In the three hundred thirty five years that the AMC has been keeping records of winter deaths, no dead body has ever been found dead carrying a pack full of food and two or three ‘Bota Bags’.

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THE CONSTANT COMMENT RED WINE PUNCH

                     

In that pristine and Godly countryside evil found us when the weather changed for the worse.  When blue skies, fluffy clouds and sun glittery snow gave way to pouring rain, sleet, ice and more pouring rain, we confined ourselves to the rooms at the Inn.  I’m not skiing in the rain any sooner than I’d eat a bad vegetarian dinner.   What to do, what to do?  Turn on the 1970’s television that got two or three channels, bring out the board (could be spelled bored) games, break open a book, relax and enjoy the kinship? 

Evil manifests itself to those souls imprisoned in this room by the unskiable weather.  Oh, it initially showed itself in a guise of innocence, but start it did and it would not leave until it was done with the devils’ work. One of us would say, at about nine o’clock in the morning, fifteen minutes or so after breakfast, “Does anybody know which backpack the gorp is in, I think I’ll have just a little bit.”  Ah, the beginning, so innocuous, so utterly normal.  About three minutes later someone else would be infected by the evil and say, “Why don’t you just put the gorp in this bowl.  I’m sure that everybody wants a little.”  When evil was certain that it had, to greater or lesser degrees, touched all in that room, the true madness would begin with someone saying, at about ten o’clock in the morning, “What the hell, I’m going to crack open one of the thermoses of mulled wine.”  The mulled wine was followed by the pepperoni, than the cheeses, then more mulled wine, then the Screaming Yellow Zonkers, the Jack Daniels and then it was noon and time for lunch. 

At this point in the day we were all a little bleary eyed, the boards for the board games had been ripped in half so that we could ‘ride’ them down the mattresses that were piled against the wall to replicate a ski slope, the television was tilted on its side so that the picture was properly aligned with your head when you were lying on the floor and the toilet had stopped working.  Evil, evil, evil.

The Bacchanal continued through the day.  We were in fact eating all of the food and drink that we had planned on consuming if we were skiing and burning 1,000 calories an hour for the entire day rather than sitting on our butts in our nicely appointed room maybe, and I’m being optimistic on this thought, burning 10 calories an hour reading a book.  OK, truth is that we were not burning ANY calories an hour.  We were in fact gaining about 5 pounds an hour as we wolfed down all of the food and drink that we had meant to partake of to insure our survival while skiing.  Evil had done its work and was ready to administer the coup de grace – always – the inevitable question, “What time do you guys want to go have dinner?”

And Sometimes Nothing Horrible Happens

Yes, we Grunwald boys do like to eat.    If you’re wondering, one brother’s in great physical shape and the other brother and I are our own persons.  Many of our family events, while not centering on food, have managed to include a goodly amount of food.  I recall a day-long concert at Tanglewood in the Massachusetts Berkshires that featured Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris.  Great Freakin’ Concert!  The family attendees: the three brothers and one brother’s wife.  Beautiful weather, great music and, of course, enough food to sustain for the duration of the concert and into the next decade if necessary – be prepared.

You may be picturing in your mind the beautiful, genteel lawn dining of Tanglewood patrons during the Boston Pops Concerts: cloth tablecloths set on the green sward atop hand woven cashmere lawn blankets, perhaps two or three directors chairs for the older folks, cloth napkins, silverware, fine crystal and candelabras.  It was a different scene at ‘Willie and Emmylou’s’.

A blanket on the ground (no lawn chairs, as we were still in our 20’s and our hip and knee joints were still flexible), paper napkins, paper plates and plastic cups.  I’m quite certain that we smuggled in something alcoholic, had to have.  Probably not a martini at that time in my life, but I sure hope that it wasn’t one of those ‘Midori Things’.

The usual menu of cheeses, crackers, dips, smoked oysters, nuts, pepperoni, meats, Screaming Yellow Zonkers (come on folks, some of you’ve got to remember those), sandwiches, chips, cookies, cake and candies.  As it was summer, there was no hot mulled wine.  We brought all of this in a full-size portable cooler, oh and backpacks too.  The kind of cooler that you might put 3 or 4 days worth of food and drink in.  Some people were outright staring at us as we commenced our bacchanal.  Staring at us?  These folks just didn’t understand the finer points of picnicking.  The finer points of picnicking being that it required food.  We assumed that they staring at us because they were jealous of the bounty we had brought – in comparison to the meager amounts of food they had brought. So what finally happened? Who got caught skinny dipping in front of 1,000 concertgoers?  No one.  Neither Kev or Mitch, not Shawn and not me. 

Nothing out of the ordinary happened except for my trying to pass myself off as the photographer for the RISD student paper so that I could take photos of Emmylou and Willie (my press credentials – my college ID card – were not found to be acceptable).  We had a great time, lots of food, beautiful weather, a gorgeous venue and the music of Emmylou and Willie.  The Grunwald Event Disaster that usually hovers over us did not make an appearance the beautiful day.  And, dare I say it?  Food may not have been the prime factor that day – but it sure wouldn’t have been the same without it.  

08-0617-Tanglewood-the Grunwald's

                                        TANGLEWOOD – Beauty and the Beasts

Dessert:  Dinner With New Friends

A few weeks ago four of us had the pleasure of being invited to dinner at the home of a couple who are mutual friends of us four.  The circumstances of how the four of us met the other couple bear telling.  K., J., Bonnie and I were slowly meandering our way back to K. and J.’s for a glass of wine after a town fest on a spring soft late afternoon when we happened to fall in step with R. and A..   K. is one of the most outgoing and vibrant people I’ve met and she easily engaged R. and A., folks that we had never met before, in conversation, inviting them to join us.  And they did. 

I probably wouldn’t want to invite folks that I’d never met before into my home.  I admire K. for being able to do so; to be so willing to engage with the unknown.  I sometimes wonder what I’ve missed by not being particularly spontaneous.

The upshot of all of this is that R. and A. have become friends and A. did serve of us a spectacular dinner; opening their home and themselves to us.  Again, it gets back to my pet theme.  That theme being that life is best when we all sit down around the table to share both the food and who we are with others.  I would like to think that A. enjoyed preparing the dinner as much as I do. As long as you want to do it you just can’t help but enjoy it.  The menu:

–         Empanadas stuffed with confit of duck, corn relish and butternut squash puree (courtesy of Dave)

–         Heirloom tomato tart (courtesy of K.)

–         Spicy seared scallops on a bed of wilted spinach.

–         Butternut squash soup.

–         Homemade fettuccini with garlic, basil and cheeses.

–         Pork tenderloin with baby red onions.

–         Chocolate cake with strawberries.

 

Next Week: Swintbn and Martinis; The Grape, The Garbage Disposal and the Hibachi and The Italian Market and Four Star Hotels