Elementary school, junior high school and high school came and went. While there were a lot of incidents, I don’t recall many of them as being related to food. The ‘Coffee And’ continued as did my absolute fear of the holiday hard boiled egg and faux communion wafer. I guess that experimenting with alcohol consumption and mixology might be considered a mere hint of the cooking that was to come. In these experiments I learned that you could not drink huge amounts of screwdrivers (vodka and orange juice) without getting very sick for what seemed to be a very long time, nor could you substitute root beer for coke, simply because they were the same color, mix it with whiskey and create something that would stay in your stomach for any length of time. One of my girlfriends, Diana, gave me a chocolate bar that was flavored with a hint of oranges for a birthday present. She asked me to guess the combination and of course I did. It was a wonderful present.
All of us went to McDonald’s and got hamburgers that cost us, if I remember correctly, about fifteen cents in the sixties. Everybody sat in their cars to eat; the first McDonald’s in our area offered window service only. We would go to any number of Dairy Queen type places for milkshakes and when we were old enough to drive down to the Rhode Island beaches for the weekend we would eat potato chips all weekend because we only had enough money for gas, potato chips and beer. We were honest to goodness surfers and surfing was the only thing that really mattered. And I continued to eat without giving a thought to cooking.
Through it all Mom and Dad loved their three sons very much, worked hard to do their best for us, kept us clean, tried to teach us right from wrong, showed us some of the world outside our hometown, taught us the importance and beauty of books and writing, continued to ‘make bread’, taught us to eat in a restaurant and, yes – taught us to EAT lobster. And, now, I wanted to get out there and walk that wire without a net.
Who says that you can’t mix them? Granny Smtihs and Navels
He Did Get Into RISD!
In 1968 I was free of home, away and in a college and a city which I came to love. I would eventually graduate, work as an architect and carpenter in construction sites throughout New England, meet a woman and marry her for better or worse – turned out to be the latter. But most importantly, finally, I began cooking.
I was absolutely thrilled, just couldn’t wait, to get out of my home town and go away to college. I just wanted to be away, not to have Mom and Dad over me – the same plea that a gazillion other 1960’s teens wanted. Hometown wasn’t bad but, parents were parents and I was a teenager so that’s all you need to explain the testiness between us and my desire to go. I had no thoughts of going to a school to learn how to cook, no thoughts about cooking anything. I didn’t even know that there was such an institution or career path as the Culinary Way (why weren’t guidance counselors telling me about arbitrage and other Wall Street careers in the 60’s?).
I was absolutely certain that I wanted to be an architect and, despite my high school teachers actually trying to discourage me from it, I applied to colleges with architecture programs. One of my high school teachers thought so little of my aspirations that when I asked this art teacher for some advice about some drawings that I had to do as part of the entrance exam she told me, “You should just stop wasting your time with this. You won’t be accepted”. Maybe I misheard her. Maybe she said, “You’ll shoot your eye out kid”.
Well, I was accepted, attended and actually graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) with a degree in architecture (a huge FU to the high school teachers that told me to forget architecture school). So if I’ve got a degree in architecture, why aren’t I doing that instead of writing this? Real simple answer – because sometimes people change. They change because as you travel your merry path, if you’re lucky, you come to know yourself and this world better. Maybe you find something that you didn’t even know existed. Maybe you come to want more. Maybe you come to want different. Maybe ya just gotta do something else.
I will always be grateful for the education I received at RISD (I could have gotten so much more out of it if I had really APPLIED myself) because the most important thing they taught me was to be able to tap into my creativity and use that creativity in every aspect of life. How can you do anything without creativity – especially cooking?
In the RISD of the late 60’s you could only live in the dorms during your freshman year. After that you had to get an apartment where you could, in addition to sex, drugs and rock & roll, COOK. It was great! The sun rose, skies were blue, birds sang, gentle breezes blew and I began to cook. I don’t remember what I was cooking to start, probably packaged and frozen things, steaks, hot dogs, I would not be surprised if I had used canned things – the usual college student fare. But, somewhere along the way the cooking began to evolve and take over my soul. Somewhere is that early summer walk home with Ellen, when I cooked us dinner.
Joe’s, Haven Brothers And How The Other Half Live
It’s been said by some, even my wife on occasion, that I’m impossible to live with (I won’t even begin to go into that) so pretty quickly I got my own apartment and lived alone or with a girlfriend who cared about me enough to tolerate me. No dorm life, all the better to be cooking. I thought that Providence, Rhode Island was great even in the 60’s and 70’s. Hell, I didn’t leave the city until about 1979. It had a rawness to it, a ‘real’ place that was ready to explode into something spectacular. Even then, you could feel the vibration of this huge engine that is the city growing stronger as it accelerated towards its current renaissance. And even then it had FOOD. God bless the Italians, good pizzas, Casserta’s spinach pies, scungili salad, the restaurants on Smith Hill and, not Italian at all, Haven Brothers food wagons and Joe’s Sandwich Shop on Benefit Street.
There was nothing the likes of Joe’s in my boyhood hometown. Sandwiches that had names, crowded with college kids, foods that I had never heard of before and it wasn’t run by Joe – it was run by Dewey. People eat tongue sandwiches? Not in central Connecticut. I recall Joe’s sandwiches as being phenomenal. They didn’t close until late on the weekends and it was located in the middle of the RISD environs so after a night of 1960’s debauchery, or in the middle of it, you could go to Joe’s with minimal money in you pocket and get Swiss cheese on a good hard roll with tomato and lettuce and dress it with Nance’s Mustard – chase it down with Mountain Dew. God that was a great sandwich. In my memory I remember the ingredients of those sandwiches being absolutely perfect – the Kaiser roll had taste and texture to it, it was chewy maybe with a hint of the tang of yeast, the lettuce was Iceberg (no 90’s Frisée) with crunch, moisture and a taste of greenness, the Swiss cheese nutty-sweet, not toooo soft, the tomato was ripe and tasted like a tomato – YEAR ROUND – (probably not but, that’s what I remember), and the Nance’s Mustard – I never knew about Nance’s Mustard until then; a sweet mustardy gift from the Gods. And – it was wrapped in a wax paper with a pickle, something that this lad had never seen. The Mountain Dew chaser – bubbly light, citrusy, chartreuse in color and a different flavor. The first faint beat of my gourmet heart: I found the Mountain Dew much more of a compliment to this sandwich than the too sweet Boone’s Farm Apple Wine. Ah, Boone’s Farm Apple Wine. A youth wine crafted to be swilled down in copious amounts while listening to Led Zeppelin and Santana at full volume and dancing with your girlfriend, and everyone else in the room, as if you were a demented Dervish. As with all food and meals, it wasn’t the sandwich alone that made it great – it was the context. The times, the people, you. A friend pointed out that I had forgotten to add drugs to that small list. I don’t dare try that sandwich today. Why chance to lose such a great memory?
And there were the Haven Brothers food wagons. In the center square of the city right in front of city hall, about mid evening or so, the food wagons would begin to arrive. They would not relinquish their domain until the very wee hours of the morning. We’re not talking a push cart with an umbrella over it. We’re talking wagons the size of small diners – they are small diners. I vaguely remember that they had a few seats inside, but I took the normal route and placed my order at the outside window. Sometimes I thought that I was ordering by yelling at one of the windows that was not in fact the order window – we’re not always where we think we are. You had to be a hardcore regular to rate an inside seat. It was grimly rumored that to be knighted a hardcore regular there was an initiation that involved used frying oil and the gorilla at the Roger Williams Park Zoo. The food wagons were the carnival come to town. The wagons loomed above you as they rested on what seemed like R. Crumb cartoon tires: oversized, midnight black, over shiny, with Mr. Natural truckin’ along beside you. The silvery stainless steel bodies of the wagons gleamed and blinded and pulsed in the mid-summer sun bright arc lights set up to light the area in front of the wagons, I remember the sounds of amusement ride gasoline generators, or maybe it was just the truck engines, and the crowds of people of every description, some scary as hell. The aroma of frying Italian sausage, hamburgers, hotdogs, pizza, French fries, coffee – It Was A Carnival! Some nights, a real honest to goodness freak show. In the world of Haven Brothers, it never rained, was never too cold, was never too hot and it was always arc light bright. We ate standing around these wagons, sitting on the street curbs or City Hall steps and sometimes we brought the food back to our nearby studios. The Haven Brothers should receive an honorary degree from RISD for sustaining many a student as they pulled an all-nighter to get their projects completed for the next days ‘crit’. These food wagons were so absolutely cool to this eighteen year old kid. I had never imagined that you could go to the carnival every night of the week without Mom and Dad yelling at you to behave.
I only realized how small my boyhood world was when I stepped out of it to go to RISD. I guess that there are no surprises in that. My cloistered central Connecticut schoolmates’ included no one of the Jewish persuasion. It did include one African American girl (her mother was the cleaning lady at the small private school in town), WASP’s, Irish, Italians, Scandinavians, Polish, Lithuanians, Germans, Dutch, Mongrels and I’m certain that a couple of the families were from Mars. We kids didn’t notice any of these ‘distinctions’. You were nice or a bully, you could hit a baseball or not, you would or wouldn’t tell if I snuck a kiss from you while riding in the Kindergarten school bus – it didn’t matter what your ‘ethnicity’ was (ethnicity is a horrible word, responsible for way too much hatred).
In talking with the African American woman at one of the two high school reunions that I’ve ever attended (God I hate those things) I discovered that she was now an insurance potentate working in the DC area. I was compelled to ask her how she felt growing up as the only black girl in town. Her response surprised me. She said that,”I never felt different”. Her memories were that we had always treated her as just another friend, just another kid. No more than that and no less than that. I suspect that there were too few of us in any one ethnic category for that category to claim the scepter of ruler and lay waste to the minority, consequently we just didn’t care. Sure, there were bullies, but they came from every ethnic category.
Can you believe that this was my central Connecticut in the 50’s and 60’s? You could get more isolated, but you’d have to work at it. The fact that the world was much larger place than my home town was brought home to me with a jolt when, upon waking up one morning not long after college had started, I found one of my roommates, a guy, in bed with, another guy. I’d never seen this before. Even at Boy Scout camp. I had much to learn about the world outside my hometown. Wow! So this is how the other half lives (that’s what Dad was always saying). Hometown and boyhood were receding at warp speed.
So Haven Brothers food wagons, Casserta’s and Joe’s Sandwich Shop figured mightily in my culinary awakening. Amidst such plenty neither the body nor the mind would starve.
A note: Several of you have asked when the Dinner Diaries make their appearance. The answer; at the proper time. Hang in there.
NEXT WEEK: PLASTIC RATS, THE BANK AND CRANBERRY ORANGE TEA BREAD