corned beef sandwich rye bread This is what I know:

The warm, spice-crusted pastrami on thin-sliced rye from Ben’s Best Deli, a few blocks from my childhood apartment in Forest Hills.

The tiny black handgun that my father kept buried under his Bar Mitzvah tefillin in the top drawer of his highboy dresser. We grew up together — the pastrami, the gun, and I; my father introduced us the same day.

*

After my mother had gone into the city to have her hair done at Vidal Sassoon, my father took me out for an illicit sandwich at Ben’s Deli, which was right next door to The Ballet Academy. It was there where I, at age three, had bald-faced lied to my teacher — a broad-hipped thirty-something dancer named Miss Carolyne — and told her that I’d forgotten to kiss my mother goodbye at the start of my class. I excused myself, packed up my tutu, and found my mother standing out on Queens Boulevard having a cigarette in front of Ben’s. Each time the door opened, the smell of pickle brine and schmaltz wafted out and engulfed us. I handed my mother my pink patent leather ballet tote, and told her I quit.

The afternoon of my mother’s haircut — four years after I abandoned my chance to be a ballerina  —  my father ordered pastrami sandwiches for both of us and they arrived unadorned, on two small white Buffalo china plates. There was no fanfare or accoutrement; just seeded bread and dark red meat edged with ripples of lace-white fat. Half-sour pickles bobbed like apples in small metal vats on each table, next to cups of yellow mustard and the can of Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda we shared. Up to that point, I had never eaten pastrami because, for one thing, my mother hated it. For another, it had long been considered adult food in my family; it was a little bit hot, a little bit greasy, and therefore, a little bit dangerous. Instead, I had been relegated to milder meat, like tongue. But when I tasted the pastrami that afternoon for the first time, I loved the salt and the smoke and the brine, and the way the blackened ends of the meat, pungent and crisp, were softened by the caraway in the bread.

We ate in silence; my father seemed preoccupied. When our sandwiches were done, we left and walked hand-in-hand the three blocks to our apartment, until I let go and skipped down 67th Avenue ahead of him, past the tiny Orthodox synagogue and the back entrance to our pool club stinking of chlorine, and the old people’s sitting park where I’d learned to walk, right after we moved in in 1964. Deli_Sign_Snapseed There’s something I want to show you, my father said solemnly, while we were standing alone in the elevator, on our way up to the eighth floor.

When he opened our door, he patted our dog on the head, and I followed him past the kitchen and into the bedroom he shared with my mother. We stood together in front of his tall dresser, facing their new, fourteen inch Zenith television.

He slowly pulled open the top drawer, took out his phylactery, and tossed the jumble of cracked leather straps and wooden blocks onto the bed. Underneath it was a shiny brown cordovan arm holster, shaped like a triangle; he lifted it out of the drawer like a stillborn baby and unsnapped the top flap. Inside was a small black handgun with a black trigger. tefillin_Snapseed I never want you to touch this; I want you to know that it’s here, but you can’t ever touch it. Not without me holding it.

Is it real? I whispered, looking up at him.

My parents had just taken me to see The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, and even at the age of seven, I understood the possibility of guns.

It shoots tear gas, he said, almost apologetically.

My father let me hold it; I cradled it, and instantly turned it around and looked down the barrel, to try and determine whether it was the sort of gun that shot bullets, or, as my father claimed — perhaps to protect me — shot tear gas; it felt heavy and solid and gorgeously weighted, like the western, pearl-handled six-shooter cigarette lighter that my father’s friend, Bill, had sitting on his coffee table. When I gave it back to him, my father snapped it back into the holster, slipped it over his shoulder and fixed the belt around his ribcage, like Gene Hackman in The French Connection. We looked in the mirror, standing side by side. He patted it, took it off, put it back in the drawer, and covered it back up with the blocks and straps of his tefillin. gun_holster_Snapseed For the years that followed that afternoon of forbidden guns and deli, I touched that pistol almost every day, because that is what children do. If you entice them by introducing a proscribed object to their lives and you tell them not to go near it, they will go near it. They will eat the pastrami; they will play with the gun. Nearly every afternoon, if I was alone in the apartment — and even if I wasn’t; my grandmother essentially lived with us — I’d skulk into my parents’ empty bedroom, open his dresser drawer, shove his tefillin to the side, and take out his pistol. And every time I did that, I would look down the barrel of the gun and stare, wondering whether or not it was real.

The year before he moved out, my father started wearing his piece when he took the dog out after dinner; it was why he bought it in the first place, all those years before, he told me. By that point, I was fourteen, and the idea of my diminutive, Chopin-loving father packing heat was peculiar. Still, he was able to somehow justify it: it was 1977, Son of Sam was terrorizing our neighborhood, and he felt safer with it as he walked the dog to Queens Boulevard to get himself a felonious post-supper pastrami sandwich at Ben’s, without my mother knowing about it.

Do you really think that shooting tear gas at someone will make you safe? I asked him one night, sitting on his bed while he slipped his arm through the shoulder holster. My mother was out with clients, and had no idea that her husband had somehow turned into Clint Eastwood with the passing of the years.

He snorted and changed the subject.

Do you want a sandwich? he asked, turning around to glare at me.

An hour later, he appeared in my bedroom doorway with a brown paper bag stained with grease, stinking of forbidden pastrami brine and the half sour pickle that always accompanied it. The next day, before he and my mother got home from work, I put my schoolbag down on a chair in the living room, went into their bedroom, opened the drawer, took out the gun, looked down the barrel, and wondered what I had since I was seven: whether it was real.

That summer, I lay on my belly at the rifle range at sleep-away camp; eight of us were propped up on our elbows, listening to an unsmiling counselor hand down the rules: no shooting until he gave us the signal. Everyone got one bullet each. We were to unlock, load, aim, and when he said to, fire. And no one was allowed to get their target until everyone had finished shooting.

My mind was elsewhere that July: I knew that my parents’ separation was imminent. I wondered where I would live, what school I would go to, what would happen to the dog, and if I’d wind up on the stand, crying in front of a judge who would make me implicate one parent over the other, like in the movies. I mindlessly loaded, aimed, and fired, and the counselor screamed.

What the hell are you doing? You could kill someone if you don’t pay attention to me.

  I’m sorry–I said. I wasn’t thinking. And I wasn’t.

My throat tightened as the rest of the kids on the line called me an idiot, and the unsmiling riflery counselor grabbed the rifle out of my hands by the barrel and walked out to pull my target off its wooden backdrop. Instead of the target, he came back carrying a small, still, white bunny, a bright red splotch no bigger than an eraser head right between its pink eyes. You did this, the counselor said, as I stood up and ran back to my bunk, sobbing. I lay on my bed, crying, until the dinner bell rang. At the end of the camp session that year, in August, I was awarded a riflery badge for expert marksmanship; my grandmother wanted to sew it onto the navy blue, woolen CPO shirt my dad had gotten for me at the local army navy. I wouldn’t let her, and used my father’s plastic Bic lighter to incinerate it in our bathroom sink, where I could extinguish it before anyone knew.

That fall, right after school started, the man who owned the pizzeria across the street from my building was murdered one night, shot at point blank range as he walked the block from the shop to his apartment, four flights below ours. For weeks after, we would see his widow, a pale, red-haired woman, wandering our neighborhood in a daze until someone would bring her home. In early September, right before my parents separated, my father came downstairs one morning to the garage beneath our building, to find a small bullet hole in the driver’s side window of his Buick Electra. It went unreported and unresolved and, until he sold the car a few years later, unmended; my father said that it was a constant reminder of the fragility of life.

Before he moved out in 1978, my father up packed everything that meant something to him: his jazz records and his stereo, his cameras and his Navy flight charts, his Yiddish typewriter, his Philip Roth and his Henry Miller. He took me back to Ben’s for lunch; we ate pastrami sandwiches and half sour pickles and cans of Cel-Ray soda. My mother was at work, and after he dropped me off and drove away, I went into what had once been the bedroom he shared with her, and opened the top drawer of his empty dresser. The pistol was gone; all that was left was his tefillin and an ancient, dog-earred book of matches from Ben’s, stained with a telltale fingerprint of yellow deli mustard.

{ 17 comments }

So, it happened.

I engaged in something I swore I would never do:

I got into a knock-down brawl on social media.

As anyone who frequents social media — Facebook, Twitter, etc — knows, there is a whole universe of people out there with enormous amounts of time on their hands, and who run the gamut from your average textbook bully (often known as trolls, and generally too cowardly or insecure to crawl out from behind the anonymity that digitalia affords) to the know-it-all blowhard (who has anointed himself expert in all things) to the meme-loving-wrist-slapper (who pointedly posts soft-religious/quasi-Buddhist quotations not necessarily because they themselves believe or adhere to them — usually it’s the polar opposite — but as a way to not-so-subtly stick it to someone they’re trying to call out in public. Generally speaking, it winds up backfiring). There are the political banterers, the over-sharers, the wingnuts (both left and right), and the folks who, never before having had a public soapbox, shout their opinions for everyone to hear. That’s human nature, of course. (The opinion part, anyway. Guilty as charged.) Finally, there are the people who almost gleefully post incendiary articles guaranteed to raise the hackles of their community; either they honestly want to have a genuine discussion/debate with the hope to come out of it enlightened, or, like Julius Caesar having a tuna sandwich at the Forum, they simply enjoy watching others have at it, as subjective discussion turns to argument, and argument devolves into a cortisol-fueled, gladiatorial blood-letting.

On the other side of the aisle, of course, are those who actively engage in social media and manage to sidestep any of the steaming street poo. They tiptoe through the tulips. They smile and say whatever. No one attempts to pick arguments with them because it is widely understood that they simply will not engage. Will Not. Engage. (This is a sign of either a lot of therapy or just a sane disinclination to get into debates with people they don’t even know. Obviously, these people are not Jewish girls from Queens whose childhood dinnertime conversation regularly included serious fights over the fact that grandpa only wanted one piece of gefilte fish on Shabbos, and not two. [I'm giving you two, my grandmother shouted. I only want one. You'll eat two. I only want one. Did you have pastrami for lunch again? What is it to you if I eat pastrami for lunch? I'm giving you two. I ONLY WANT ONE. YOU'LL EAT TWO. ONE! SO YOU DID HAVE PASTRAMI---WAS IT WITH THAT NUN?....WHAT DOES SHE TAKE ON IT- MUSTARD OR MAYO?])

KnifeChoppingBlock

Anyway. I was involved in a heated discussion the other day when one of my friends innocuously posted, on her Facebook wall, an article about Noma versus Chez Panisse. (Or at least that’s what Slate.com’s SEO-sticky reprint of the article was called; originally published in The Breakthrough, it was titled something rather more pointed: Beyond Food and Evil: Nature and Haute Cuisine After the Chez Panisse Revolution. The “evil” to which Emma Marris, the author, refers, is open to interpretation. It might be the ubiquitous Monsanto. Or GMOs. Or the so-called didactic hegemony of Alice Waters, to which the palpably irritated Marris refers repeatedly, both directly and not.)

Centrifuge rotor

In the piece, Marris argues that Noma‘s Rene Redzepi and Coi’s Daniel Patterson are among the “new generation of chefs” producing futuristic “techno-cuisine” by marrying wild and hyper-foraged ingredients to technology, thus creating food that is modern, local, and a natural response to forty three years of the aforementioned “didacticism of Chez Panisse and its ilk.” The result, then, is a sort of toppling of the Chez Panisse “revolution” (which Marris attributes without attribution or reason more to Jeremiah Tower than Waters) and along with it, Waters mythic culinary ethos, as Marris sees it. The author’s bottom-line argument? The rhapsodic, over-simplified, hyper-elite, farm-to-table gastro-political aesthetic of Chez Panisse is buckling beneath the weight of the modernist fantabulism that comes out of kitchens like those of Noma, and Coi.

CountryKitchen

Ultimately, the article was laden with everything from contradiction to inaccuracy to an obvious personal disdain for Waters, to downright swooning over the handsome “bro-horts” who populate the world of modernist chef-dom:  “[Alice Waters] cooks peasant food, but only rich people can afford it,” Marris says, two paragraphs after she describes the “stratospheric price” of dining at Noma and Coi. She catches herself by claiming that “The conceit that farm-to-table cuisine comes straight to the diner unmediated by the kitchen obscures the enormous cost and expense associated with producing such food in the field and pasture. If nothing else, places like Coi and Noma do us a service by making those costs more apparent.” [My emphasis.]

More apparent, how? In the transferred costs of technology and the operation and maintenance of mechanical equipment—the rumbling centrifuges and Pacojets (the latter being what Forbes Magazine called a glorified, $4000 ice cream maker), the commercial foamers and the food dehydrators and the Thermomixes that Redzepi and Patterson require in order to produce their food, and which are unavailable to the home cook?  Call me crazy: I’d rather transfer my money to the small growers, ranchers, and farmers who supply Chez Panisse with their ingredients. And at home, I would rather spend $1000 a year on my local CSA then in a one-shot purchase of a centrifuge or a $4000 Pacojet, the way Ben Affleck and Matt Damon apparently did a few years back, when they supposedly exchanged them as gifts.

“Sensitive to the charge that hers was a cuisine for the rich,” Marris adds derogatorily, ” Water [sic] launched programs to bring organic gardens to schools serving underprivileged youth.” Nowhere does she mention that Waters’ well-documented “interest” in education comes directly out of her background as a Montessori teacher. Today, according to the Wall Street Journal, there are more than 2,000 Edible Schoolyards spanning 50 states and in 29 countries. So, love her or not, it can be argued that without Alice Waters fighting for how schoolchildren learn about food, not to mention what they eat every day, and without her relentless, singleminded dedication to local food, organics, and farming, farmer’s markets would likely not dot virtually every city and community in this country. And no one would question the poisonous dreck that crop dusters spew from their bellies and onto our dinner tables, the way they have for more than sixty years.

Personally, I prefer simple food; I’ve had ground-moving meals at Chez Panisse and others that weren’t quite as good, but that’s true of virtually every restaurant I’ve ever dined in. But I also unequivocally and loudly applaud the restaurant artistry of Redzepi and Patterson, along with every modernist chef out there who moves the creative ball forward. But why is it apparently so impossible to do this without simultaneously disparaging those who have gone before? Especially if, as Marris says, Patterson and Redzepi’s food as presented in their recent “cookbooks” is “uncookable,” while the books that have spilled out of the Chez Panisse kitchens for nearly 30 years sit stained, torn, splattered, and dog-earred in virtually every serious home kitchen I know (including my own). Sometimes the recipes work and sometimes they’re a bit dodgy — as with every cookbook — but they always provide inspiration and history and context. And never the conceit that the home cook would be “crazy” to cook from them, as Daniel Patterson is quoted in Marris’s article as saying about his recipe for Prather Ranch Beef Encrusted in Lichen, appearing in his new cookbook:

“If, for some crazy reason, you decide to make this dish, then we’ll need to have a talk about the lichen powder.”

That’s nice, Daniel; I won’t go to the trouble. I’d rather come to Coi and have you make it for me. You big, handsome fella, you.

I don’t recall Richard Olney, in his famous instructions for boning a chicken (page 296, The French Menu Cookbook, 1970) suggesting that readers might be crazy if they attempted it. Instead, he utters one of the most famous lines ever written in a recipe, before or since: “The chicken, at this point, is turned completely inside out.”

All of this said, I did not have my little social media spat with the author of this article; I had it with a gentleman who described himself as a player on the international dining community scene, who flatly claimed that a modernist-cooked (centrifuged? foamed?) potato would be more potato-y than a freshly dug potato steamed in its own skin, maybe sprinkled with a little sea salt and drizzled with a drop of olive oil Why?

Because it just would, he said. It would be better.

Better how? I asked.

Just better, he said.

Define better, I asked.

He couldn’t. Round and round we went, ultimately landing on the spot where he said that because I was not a player on the international dining community scene, I clearly didn’t know what “better” meant.

Still, this man’s qualifying modernist cuisine as better was food for thought: why is it that so many of us find honest food, unadorned by frippery or industrial technology — and the people who farm it, grow it, and raise it despite environmental problems, financial struggles, and the vagaries of fashion —  better? Why are we blind to the letters that writers like Marris love to paint on Alice Waters? Because I, and dare I say we, tend to have a fundamental, basic belief in the integrity and honesty of good ingredients, from the ground up, and I would challenge Marris to say that Redzepi or Patterson disagree. We believe in what Lynn Stegner in The Geography of Hope called “diligence and understatement” and the resistance of “sleights of hand, fabulous optimism, short cuts, and language for its own aggrandizement.” In honoring her father-in-law and his dedication to the environment, Stegner refers to his belief in “that which renders humanity a more humane species.” Similarly, honesty in food, connection to the earth and the seasons and the farmers and the foragers, both feeds us and preserves the land; it connects us to it, and in doing so renders us more human.

And that’s what makes honest food what it is: better.

 

{ 24 comments }

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