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.
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.
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
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Screaming Yellow Zonkers
Lincoln Snacks asserts that they were the first food item to be packaged in black. 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.
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