PLASTIC RATS, THE BANK AND CRANBERRY-ORANGE TEA BREAD

Nearing the end of my fourth year at RISD I was fortunate enough to get a job with a New York architect who was responsible for a 30 story bank building in Providence.  Lucky, lucky me.  The job continued through my fifth year and after graduation.  To be working with a New York Architect, while still in school, part time, 30 story building, making a couple of bucks, guaranteed a job after graduation – Very Cool.  I don’t usually get that lucky.  Maybe there is a balance in life.  

Yes, there is balance.  The architectural position was preceded by my working in a knitting mill, Atlantic Knitting Mills, where I ran knitting machines.  Working at the mill was a huge step up from my previous job.  The previous job found me sitting in front of a buffing wheel in a plastic paper weight factory – the opposite end of the balance of the architects’ position.  In my hands were clear plastic paper weights the size of index cards, about one half inch thick.  These paperweights were a give away to doctors from some pharmaceutical company.  Inside the paperweight was a cross-section drawing of a rat in vivid color showing the course of some drug as it wound its way through a lab rat’s body.  I sat in front of this buffing wheel polishing the front, back and four edges of these paper weights for eight hours a day, five days a week, for more than two months.  I swore that my brain had turned to a thin mush from the ceaseless boredom of this work and was leaking out of my ears. I would catch myself with my mouth open; slack jawed, drooling onto these paper weights as I polished them.  I quit two days earlier than I said that I would.  I absolutely could not, would not continue with this torture.   Almost in tears from the mind melting labor I called the factory owner and explained that I just could not and would not buff those rats anymore.  He didn’t seem too upset.  He was probably thinking, “Oh God, another one’s gone over the edge.  I hope that he doesn’t come back and force me to call the police like the last one did.”       

The work at the knitting mill was part time during the school year and full time during the summer.  It was a really nice job and I remember it fondly.  The owners treated us workers nicely; nobody cared that my ponytail might get caught in the knitting machines.  I learned to run a knitting machine and to tie the proper knots between the bobbin of thread that was almost empty and the waiting full bobbin and during lunch I got to sit on the roof looking at huge rooftop ventilators that looked like the helmeted heads of Roman Legionnaires, the armies turning in unison with each gust of wind.  

The mill gave its workers free turkeys at Thanksgiving and Christmas and I thought that was pretty damned cool.  It was the early 70’s and by God I was actually cooking those turkeys.  I had begun to invite friends over to cook dinner for them.  The details are lost.  I’m sure that there were good turkey dinners and less than good turkey dinners.  I suspect that some of the dishes came from cans or the frozen food section of the market.  I suspect that some of the dinners were ‘potluck’.  But, I do know that meals were cooked and shared with lovers and friends and that cooking was on its way to becoming an increasingly important part of who I was. 

I was a bit surprised that the bank agreed to the architect’s hiring me considering that, at the time, my hair hung down to the middle of my back when it wasn’t in a ponytail and I had a full, full beard. This was not the look one normally associated with anyone remotely connected with a bank in the 1970’s.  A great photo from that time shows the back of five people looking at the horizon from the roof top heliport of the newly constructed bank building.  All dressed in suits – only one with his hair down to the middle of his back in a ponytail.  My suit came from the Salvation Army.  The bank asked me to wear it for whatever ceremony we were having on that day.  

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The ‘Custom House Tap Crew’: George G., The Curmudgeon Chef, Frank T., Robert M. and Peter R.

 

The bank people could not have been nicer to me and I, believe it or not, I even made some good friends.  It was a time in our great country when the lunches that we – architects, contractors and bankers – went out to daily included three or so drinks with our meals.  We’re talking wine, yes, and beers and gin and tonics and lots of other concoctions.  Then, with lunch over, we would actually go back to work.  As out of place as it may be today, this lunch menu was considered absolutely normal – nothing out of the ordinary. Of course there was the fact that my architect boss kept a quart bottle of scotch and a quart bottle of antacid in his lower desk drawer and that was considered normal too. God, I miss those days.

The gourmet in me was growing.  In addition to cooking meals for friends the bankers were initiating me into the world of their private clubs.  We are not talking about strip clubs here, though as I recall that was the case a couple of times.  We’re talking about the type of club that is located in the understated mansion, the club that announces itself with only a beautifully aged mahogany front door and a small brass plaque upon which was engraved the club’s name or just the street number, the kind of a club where four or five courses were routinely served for lunch and the wine selection was modest, but impeccable.  There were so many pieces of silverware at the place settings that I knew whichever piece I chose it would not be the correct one.  Multiple courses, cloth table cloths and napkins, candles and impeccable service.  I’d seen this level of service a few times with Dad as my guide, but now it was me being treated as an equal (more or less) by my employers – Wowee Zowee!  I was about 23 years old, in Capitalist Pig Heartland – and I loved it!  Revolution?  What Revolution?  My Chassagne-Montrachet is losing its slight chill.  There were people in these places whose names I’d seen in the newspapers many had been on TELEVISION: mayors, the governor, senators, bankers and the television weatherman.  The club members were men. Rarely one or two women guests might be seen. 

These were also the type of club where a dress code was in place and rigidly upheld requiring, at a minimum, a sport coat and tie – a suit and tie were preferred.  My co-workers dressed to the code, but I was just some hippy dippy kid in school wearing jeans, a gaudily colored shirt and Vasque hiking boots.  The suit in the photo was a rare change from my usual outfit, hanging forlornly in the closet, waiting for a suit emergency.  So, most of the time, upon entering these clubs I was whisked away by the maitre’d before any of the Club members could catch sight of such a derelict and given a sport coat and clip on tie that I’m sure they bought for fifty cents at the Goodwill store.  The sports coats that the maitre’d loaned me never fit.  They came in only two sizes; too large or too small.  If the jacket was too large, the bottom of the jacket came down to my knees and the cuffs had to be rolled up to the elbows.  The too small version found the bottom of the jacket at my waist, the cuffs at my elbows and the back seam threatening to split open if I took a breath.  I looked like an organ grinder’s monkey. 

All of these coats were of an indeterminate color and fabric.  I always wondered what the person whose coat I was wearing had died of, how long they had left the coat on the body after he died and if he had died of anything that was contagious.   The ties were usually black or maroon and always stained.  The net effect of my own clothes, the borrowed jacket and the clip on tie was to make me look like a derelict clown.  No, with my hair and beard I looked like a young Santa on skid row.  I gotta love those bankers because no one ever laughed or made me feel out of place.

The construction of the bank reached completion and the night before the grand opening found all of us who had been responsible for this building caught up in the proverbial whirlwind of attending to last minute details.  The bankers, being above all sensible-buttoned-down-trust-your-money-to-folks, came up with a plan for our remaining sensible while attending to the completion of the final details.  The plan being that the group of us would attend to ‘a detail’ after which we would retire to The Custom House Tavern (AKA the Tap to regulars like us) to restore our energies so that we could proceed to accomplish the next detail whereupon we would retire to the Tap to re-energize ourselves and so on and so forth – you get the besotted picture.  There were many, many details we had to attend to that evening. 

The Custom House Tavern is a venerable institution.  I remember it as wood paneled without being over the top, quiet, no live music the way they have today and it was here that on a cold, bleak and rainy day  I was introduced to the wonderful combination of Amontillado Sherry and walnuts – perfect.

At the time I was living with a young beauty who, when we graduated, had become an art teacher in a public school, a career path that many RISD graduates before and since have followed.  She was having a bake sale at school the day of the bank’s grand opening and I had agreed to bake some cranberry orange tea breads for the sale (the recipe is very good, better than yours, try it – but use butter, not margarine – I knew less than I do today – I hope). 

 07-0928-dinner diaries-daves cranberry orange tea bread

 

The timing of baking the tea breads and ensuring a sufficient retirement fund for the Tap owner required that I use all my skills to successfully balance both these Herculean tasks.  To this day, I have no idea what time I jumped, or stumbled, out of the Custom House Tavern – Finish The Details – Custom House Tavern – Finish The Details loop.  The sun had not yet risen so I had plenty of time to make the breads.  I managed to get home and assured a very dubious companion that I would in fact make these breads and that she should go back to bed (I guess that I did wake her up when I stumbled in.  Yeah, I was stumbling a bit) and sleep pleasant dreams.  It was HARD making the damn tea breads!  To begin with I really strained my eye in this task.  Yes, eye, singular.  I found that if both eyes were open, I had twice the images that I actually needed. I repeatedly damaged any remaining brain cells to make certain that the quantities were correct, that I hadn’t already added that particular ingredient, that the pans had been buttered and floured, that only a minimal amount of skinned fingertips and blood had gotten into the orange zest, and that the temperature was correctly set on the oven, that the oven was in fact really ‘on’.  I got the batter made, into the pans and the pans into the oven AND set the timer.  Now it was time to close my eyes for just a few moments for a little nap. 

WHAT THE BLOODY FREAKIN’ EARTH IS ENDING HELL?!

What’s this roaring in my head like a jet engine?!  A plane’s landing on my head! The world’s ending!  And in a sense it was in fact – for me.  I shot out of bed, actually fell out, opened my eyes and found my companion holding a hairdryer that was going full blast in one of my ears (I know that if she had a second hairdryer I would have gotten it in both ears). She turned the weapon off and sweetly said, “David, David, your breads are done”.  I had slept (not passed out, I’m certain of that) through the timer alarm.  The breads looked like large charcoal briquettes.  No, she didn’t leave me that day.  Not that day anyway.  Boy, you try to do something nice for someone and it just gets you nowhere.  It took a very long while for the psychic toxins of the slightly over baked breads to depart our abode.  You know that saying, “It’s the thought that counts”.  It’s a bullshit saying.

Next Week: Wheat Germ, Lots of Wheat Germ; David Versus the Hibachi and Moussaka (Meatless)

Dessert: The Cape 2009

Bonnie and I were on the Cape last week enjoying beautiful weather, gorgeous bay and ocean, old friends, great seafood and several good and one not so good restaurant.  Hatch’s was as ever and that pleases me very much.

In previous postings I wrote about EATING the lobster and Hatch’s free lobster bodies.  It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words.  So, I’ve titled the following photo ‘The Remains of the Day’.  My apologies to Kazuo Ishiguro and to those of you with weaker stomachs than I imagined. 

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THE REMAINS OF THE DAY

The good restaurants are the ‘Blackfish’, Moby Dick’s’ and the ‘Karoo Kafe’.  The ‘Blackfish’ (no website) has a wonderful menu, perfectly cooked food, great service and a close darkish comforting ambience.  The appetizer menu items include such dishes as a confit of pork belly with hoisin sauce over white corn polenta (virtually the same as I dish that I serve at home.  Who was first and does it matter?), rabbit ragu over fresh Pappardelle ( excellent and one of Bonnie’s favorites), seared foie gras on toasted brioche with strawberry rhubarb compote and a wonderful homey dish; Provincetown mussels with fennel, sweet Italian sausage (I would use Linguica) and a savory cream broth.  Entrees included a tuna ragu over fresh Pappardelle finished with mascarpone cheese and lemon confit (I thought that the shredded tuna would be dry, but it was creamy and wonderful), Panko crusted sole with lemon  and caper beurre blanc, Braised organic veal with wild mushroom jus and a variety of Niman ranch burgers.  Yes, wonderful desserts.

Moby Dick’s is a classic clam shack; screened on all sides of the dining area with views of the salt marsh and picnic tables and benches for seating.  Bonnie and I invariably order the same thing all of the years that we’ve been dining there; a fried clam platter (with the bellies) and a fried oyster platter.  If it’s cool we’ll get some clam chowder.  The platters are simple, the shellfish expertly cooked and the quantities huge.  Each platter contains the fried shellfish; crispy hot and not a bit greasy, French fries and a good coleslaw.  We leave stuffed to the proverbial gills and extremely satisfied.  

The ‘Karoo Kafe’ in Provincetown is new to us this year.  We were introduced to the chef/ owner, Sanette Groenewald (Yes, the same name, Grunwald in the South African Boer language), by a friend of hers.  Ellysa told us about the ‘Karoo’ when I asked her about a spice that she had mentioned, Peri-Peri.  Elllysa suggested that we go to the Kafe and talk with Sanette.  It was an intro from a Graham Greene novel.  We walked in, walked up to this woman and said, “Ellysa told us to talk to Sanette about buying the Peri-Peri”.  The women looked us up and down, broke into a smile, laughed and said, “I’m Sanette.  I’ve been expecting you.”  Sanette is a native South African woman who has been living in the states long enough so that she’s become an American citizen.  Her laugh is easy and contagious.  Though we did not eat in the Kafe (scheduling with full bellies didn’t allow it) the menu is intriguing and the food that we saw coming out of the kitchen made us tear-up at that the knowledge that we had just eaten and couldn’t shovel in another fork-full.  Sanette also sells the spices and sauces, the ingredients and flavors of which are based on her South African upbringing.  Very, very nice flavors.  We did serious damage to the budget so that we might bring these flavors home with us.

The restaurant that disappointed us is ‘Mac’s Shack’.  We’d been here before and really enjoyed the food.  The menu is catholic including seafood, shellfish, burgers, sushi and sushi rolls.  This year the menu, and the cooking, seemed to have been ‘dumbed down’.  The oysters on the half shell that I had contained a lot of shell fragments, little oyster liquor and had not been completely shucked from the shell.  The clam fritters were absolutely raw inside, the sushi rolls were, for the most part, based on California rolls with a ‘squiggle’ of something on top.  Bonnie’s Caesar Salad had anchovies, but no dressing.  Her burger was cooked as ordered, but that’s about the best that we can say about our meal.  Ah well.

Friends sometimes ask me what my favorite restaurant is.  The answer is simple.  There isn’t any one restaurant that’s my favorite.  As I eat just about anything (no tofu or veggie-burgers thanks – eecchh!), hamburgers and hot dogs to foie gras and sweetbreads, I have several favorite restaurants.  If the ingredients are good and the chef and staff love what they’re doing, it usually works, that is, you’ll get good food and enjoy yourself.  Yes, many favorite restaurants.

And what did David cook while we were on vacation?  Very simple dishes; French Toast made with the Portuguese Bakery sweet bread, steamers (piss clams) with hot broth and melted butter on the side (this was not served with the French Toast), fettuccini with tomatoes, shallots, garlic, olive oil, little neck clams and mussels in a red wine sauce, smoked shellfish in pasta with just a little garlic and olive oil, lobster risotto and of course Bonnie and I canned 14 jars of rose hip jelly.   A great vacation.

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Lobster Risotto with a Salad of Boston Lettuce and Honeydew Melon Dressed with a Balsamic Reduction

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