All Fall Down

February 9, 2014 · 28 comments


My mother and I have a longstanding joke — not really a joke so much as an observation — that my beloved grandmother, Clara, who died in April of 1982 when I was at college, was among the world’s great fallers.

Of all the stories of my grandmother falling, my mother particularly likes to tell about the time in the late Fifties when she came home from a weekend on Cape Cod and found her mother sitting in the living room with her arm in a sling.

“What happened, Ma?” my mother said.

“I fell off the television set,” my grandmother answered.

“What were you doing on the television set?”

“I was standing on it, so I could dust the crown molding.”

Vintage television isolated on white

As a child, I remember my grandmother falling constantly; sometimes, she would be standing in front of our stove, humming to herself, about to broil the beef liver she was making me for dinner, and spontaneously break into a soft shoe. One foot would get stuck behind the other and down she’d go like a sack of potatoes, with me and my Airedale, Chips, watching her. Other times, she’d be marching down the street on one of her daily neighborhood constitutionals — she believed in marching Like a soldier, she used to say— which is what she was doing the afternoon that she tripped in front of our local dry cleaner’s; down she went, only then it was more serious – she landed on her elbow, fractured it, and had surgery a day later. A few years later, she fell on her way into the Russian Tea Room on West 57th Street, the night we’d taken her to hear two of my parents’ friends — musicians with the Houston Philharmonic — play Beethoven at Carnegie Hall with Itzhak Perlman. Grandma pushed herself up to a sitting position near the bar, helped by three fake Cossacks who had just finished delivering bowls of borscht to a nearby table. She dusted herself off, ordered a plate of blinchik, and had dinner.

When my mother talks about my grandmother’s propensity for falling, it’s a way of objectifying her, but also keeping her alive, and keeping her older. Memories of my grandmother’s tumbles — she was never hurt, except for that one time in front of the dry cleaner’s — are always accompanied by my mother’s eye-rolling chortles and the certain belief that she fell because she wanted to, or because she was too busy trying to march like a soldier, or because she was looking for attention. Or because she was foolish enough to stand on the burled walnut console television in order to dust the crown molding while my mother was off on Cape Cod, enjoying herself just a little bit too much, while my grandmother was stuck at home in their dim apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Banana Peel

This wasn’t lost on me back at the end of December when, after an incredibly trying year, Susan and I rented a light-splashed loft in the Sausalito hills. We didn’t do much more than sleep — I was getting over the first of three bouts of flu that knocked me on my ass this winter — and cook, read, and see a few friends. The day before we were leaving for home, I awoke to four messages on my cell phone, left in the middle of the night.

I’m at the hospital, my mother said. I fell. Like grandma. I don’t know how. I don’t know what happened.  

I could hear it in her voice: she was scared, and embarrassed.

I fell. Like grandma. 

I was three thousand miles away, staring out a wall of windows at the Marin foothills; my mother fell, on the other side of the country. Did she bang her head? Did she slip? Did she faint? Emergency rooms are notoriously non-plussed when it comes to connecting fallen mothers with their grown daughters who are off joyriding on another coast while they’re laying there, broken and bleeding.

She called again while I was dialing her, and this time, got me; she was fine. Bruised, but okay. She was severely dehydrated. She was hooked up to an IV. She was telling them about all of her allergies: to latex, to sulfur, to the color pink. They were trying to get her to eat a turkey sandwich. Her best friend was there, waiting with her, and then taking her home.

They were trying to get her to eat. 

I breathed, 3000 miles away, trying to keep my hands from shaking. I wanted to know it all: what happened, did she remember anything. And most of all, I wanted to know what kind of food she had in her house. Because I was certain that sustenance would not only keep her healthy, but would keep her safe.

I’m not hungry, she said. I don’t have to eat if I’m not hungry. 

You have to eat, I told her. It’s probably why you fell. Because you don’t eat. 

It is not why I fell, she said.

I’ll send you food, I told her.

I don’t want your food. Your grandmother ate like a horse, and she still fell. What was HER excuse?

Before we’d left for California, I’d stayed overnight at her apartment and cased her refrigerator, as I always do when I’m there: there was half a sweet potato loosely draped with non-cling plastic wrap, half of a rotisserie chicken with telltale midnight fork scrapings shredding the remaining breast, one half of a banana sheathed in what was now black skin flecked with a hint of its former yellow, a few wedges of Laughing Cow low fat cheese. And a box of Mallomars, torn open in what I recognized from my childhood as one of her 3 am fits of craving-related fury.

Two days after I returned from California, I checked her fridge again: the banana was still there, along with a lone wedge of Laughing Cow, a loaf of her diet white bread — each slice as thin as the host — and a tub of margarine.

My mother lives alone in Manhattan; she doesn’t cook — she refuses to, on principal; the idea of cooking for herself is too depressing, she tells me — but living where she does, she really doesn’t have to. She orders in food a few nights a week, and has leftovers the rest of the time. When I come home from work and call her before I take my coat off, the first question I ask is What did you eat for dinner.

Sometimes she tells me. Sometimes she doesn’t. Sometimes she gets furious that I’m keeping tabs on her. Sometimes she embellishes just a tiny bit. And sometimes, even though it’s nearing 9 o’clock at night, she tells me I haven’t even thought about dinner. And deep down, I know she won’t, for the rest of the night. Because, for her, food is an afterthought; for me, it’s about sustenance, and care.

Eating alone, she says, reminds her that she is alone.

When she does eat — if we take her out for dinner, or she goes to the actor’s association luncheons she attends every once in a while — she suddenly has energy.

I feel so much stronger, she says.

That’s because you ate, I tell her.

I don’t think that has anything to do with it, she says, rolling her eyes.

Last Saturday night, round about the time I was pouring myself a small bourbon, and thinking about putting the lemongrass, ginger, and chile-rubbed pork shoulder I’d marinated the night before into the oven, the phone rang. My mother had fallen again — this time in the street, this time while she was out with friends — and cut her brow bone and her cheek. She was at the emergency room, where she told them about her allergy to latex, and to sulfur, and to the color pink. She asked if we would drive in and take her home, and stay with her. We did. 

What happened, Ma, I said, finding her in a wheelchair in the waiting area of the emergency room. There were six navy blue stitches over her eye and a nasty bruise on her cheekbone.

I fell again, she said. Like Grandma. 

We took her home and sat up talking late into the night, she, in my grandmother’s favorite Louis XIV chair in the living room. The next morning, we shopped for her and filled her refrigerator with the things she purports to love: herby roast chicken, low fat cheese, challah with raisins, sweet Irish butter in a tub, good organic peanut butter, whole roasted Brussels sprouts, emerald green broccoli dotted with flecks of nutty, golden garlic.

She was furious. She ranted and raved and cried with thanks. That night, she told me she had chicken and Brussels sprouts for dinner. I breathed a sigh of relief. She would be safer, healthier, and stronger if she ate. She would be less apt to fall.

I stopped in to see her the next morning on my way to work; while she was laying down, I snuck into the kitchen to peek into the fridge. There was one Brussels sprout missing from the container; a chicken wing had been carelessly twisted off its carcass. There was no plate in the dishwasher or the sink. She had “eaten dinner” standing up. Forkless. Grazing.

We fought. She yelled.

I yelled.

Like your grandmother-the-faller, she said, this is who I am. I will not eat alone. But I would love it if you’d join me for lunch. 

Pan-Braised Chicken with Lemon, Thyme, and Olives


Years ago, on one of her overnight visits to our house, my mother parked herself at our dining room table and watched me cook a few feet away.

Don’t make anything for me, she said, I’m not hungry. 

This sort of thing happens a lot; my mother’s timing for letting me know she doesn’t plan on eating my food is impeccable and usually designed for maximum psychological impact. Is it because I’m cooking it, or is it because she’s really not hungry? And if she’s really not hungry, could it be because she gnawed on half a Chunky candybar (the other half of which she left hidden between the pages of an old copy of Vogue that was sitting on our kitchen island, like maybe we wouldn’t find it?) an hour before I started cooking? These are questions I will likely never know the answer to.

Still, there are some things she cannot — and will not — resist, like my chicken with lemon, thyme, and olives, which I first made for her that night, above, as sort of a Chunky chaser. This very traditional one-pan braise is earthy and pungent, fresh-tasting and briny, and that night, I witnessed my mother-the-food-hater go so far as to use her finger to wipe up the remaining sauce after she cleaned her plate.

I’ll send you home with leftovers, I said.

Don’t bother, she replied. Unless you’re coming with them. 

 Serves 4 with leftovers (except for my mother)

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 3-1/2 pound chicken, cut into 8 pieces

2 garlic cloves, finely minced

8 sprigs fresh thyme, divided

3 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

Freshly ground black pepper

2/3 cup chicken stock

1 cup dry white wine

Juice of 1 large lemon

2 lemons, cut into eighths (wedges)

3/4 cup pitted green olives

1/2 cup pitted oil-cured black olives

kosher salt, to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Heat the oil in a large, oven-proof saute pan with a lid (I use my Le Creuset 12″ Bistro pan), over medium heat until just rippling.  Add the chicken pieces, skin-side down, taking care not to crowd the pan (do this in batches if necessary). Brown the skin well, remove to a platter, and wipe out all but approximately 1-1/2 tablespoons of oil from the pan.

Add the minced garlic and saute until soft, about 3 minutes. Lay 4 sprigs of thyme over the garlic, and return the chicken pieces to the pan, skin-side up, arranging them on top of the thyme. Add the smashed garlic, scattering the cloves around the chicken, and lightly season with pepper.

Pour in the stock, wine, and lemon juice, and bring to a low boil. Reduce to a simmer, add the lemon wedges, and scatter the remaining thyme sprigs over the chicken. Add the olives to the pan, cover, and place in the oven for 45 minutes, basting frequently with the pan sauce.

Remove the cover, increase heat to 450 degrees F, and continue to cook for another 10-15 minutes, until the chicken is a deep golden and the sauce has thickened. Let rest for 5 minutes before serving in shallow soup bowls, with a slice of crusty garlic toast.

















Trout Crispy

February 1, 2014 · 11 comments


(Note: this fish, above, is not a trout. It’s a striped bass, caught in the waters off Brooklyn.)

Many years ago, when I was living in New York, I had the distinction of being fed a special lunch by a local Thai restaurant on Ninth Avenue, the owners of which claimed to have a simple and healthy but still festive cure for the excesses of the holiday season that had just passed. The place was tiny and perpetually dank, and lit by two dangling pink-toned incandescent bulbs that cast a warm, slightly lewd pallor on food and patron alike. Convinced that their cure was exactly what I needed, I ordered it — the server called it trout crispy. What arrived was a whole fish of indeterminate species resting upright on its broad belly; its jaws had been pried open and stuffed with a dollop of jellied sterno which was then set ablaze with a match. Angry blue flames leapt out of its eye sockets and gills, and straight through the top of its little ginger and garlic-infused head. The dish, while in fact crispy, was neither festive nor healthy and as the flames grew more threatening, I had no choice but to extinguish them with a small glass of water, which sent small plumes of sesame-scented smoke into the soggy, mauve air.

I never went back.

But somehow, the act of eating fish — a lot of fish — in the earliest months of the new year took hold, and has stayed with me all this time; the older I get, the more it shows up on my table in the dead of winter. (I’m not sure whether or not that’s just a natural progression that accompanies age; by the time she was seventy-five, my grandmother was eating broiled fillet of sole three times a week, lightly dusted with paprika, but only in the winter. She also had a stash of stolen Sweet n Low packets living in the zippered compartment of her purse, along with sucking candies wearing jackets of fuzz. I’m not there. Yet.) Most people like dark and murky stews this time of year; I want pan-seared mackerel with a squeeze of lemon, or a dribble of bright chermoula. While meat makes me feel warm and cozy during the winter, fish makes me feel less, well, thick.


Almost every morning on my way to work this time of year, bundled up to the eyeballs under layers of down and fleece, I walk through Grand Central Station’s food stalls and find myself stopping not at the meat concession — which purveys some of the best beef, pork, and lamb in the city — but at two (not one) fishmongers, to see what’s come in earlier that morning. I’ve got it figured out: one of the mongers has spectacular head-on prawns and sardines but their salmon always looks a little peaked. Their halibut is fabulous as is their Black Sea Bass (my favorite fish of the moment), but the price difference between the fillets of the latter and the whole fish is an utterly insane $16.00 a pound versus $6.99 a pound (buy whole fish, as a rule, except for shad which is a filleting nightmare, and learn how to fillet it yourself). Their stall is often so busy that when you buy one thing, you’ll take it home to discover it’s something else entirely: I once bought my beloved Black Sea Bass and spent my two hour commute dreaming of how I was going to prepare it. I got home, took my coat off, and unwrapped it only to discover they had given me Vietnamese Basa (also known as Swai, which is a kind of catfish) by mistake. You couldn’t possibly find two more different fish than Black Sea Bass and Vietnamese Basa, both in consistency and price; it would be like comparing filet mignon to beef shin.

The other stall, I discovered, is much better for hyper-local stuff — stripers that come in off the boats from Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, more Black Sea Bass, even Scup and Croaker — which, with the exception of wild salmon, mackerel, and sardines, is what I’m trying hard to buy exclusively. Everyone talks about the glories of local food, how great it is for us, the environment, the animals, the farmers — and it absolutely is — but it’s so easy to forget it when you’re talking about seafood; it’s almost like it doesn’t count if we can’t see it, if its living its life submerged rather than marching around a pasture munching on grass. Many winters ago, Susan and I went out for dinner in Washington, DC with my cousins, who took us to a truly fabulous fish house; we all ordered fancy-ish monster fish — the giant predators: tuna, swordfish, halibut — and Susan asked what the special was. The server tried to steer her away from it. Susan persisted.

It’s local, from Virginia waters, he said, sort of rolling his eyes and pushing her towards the swordfish. She cut him off mid sentence; her Red Drum arrived, lightly dredged in flour, pan-fried with a squeeze of lemon. We all took a bite and sighed; she had the winner. It was fresh, light, and sweet, and smelled like the sea.

It might have been the emotional distress caused by having to extinguish trout crispy all those years ago, but no matter what I do, I can’t help but prepare my fish simply; I mean, why would you take anything fresh and delicately-flavored and render it gastronomically indecipherable? It makes no sense, unless the fish is off (and then you wouldn’t want to go near it at all). My favorite methods of cooking fish take no time: if you’ve got fillets, dredge them in flour (I’m liking rice flour these days, not only because I’m gluten-free but because the result is super crispy and light) and pan-fry them in a little very hot neutral oil or ghee, or if you’re dealing with whole fish, slash the skin right down to the bone in a few places and massage them with an herb paste inside and out, and broil it on both sides for about 5 minutes each, until the skin is blistered a deep golden and pocked with char.

Roasted gilthead fish

But perhaps, the best method of all comes from Peter Kaminsky — fish-fanatic extraordinaire and one of the very best writers (on any subject) I know — by-way-of-Laurent Gras. In Peter’s great book, Culinary Intelligence – in which he derides the act of joyless, pleasureless dieting in the name of health (where food is treated as the enemy, to be beaten into submission) in favor of re-learning how to eat smaller quantities of fresh (real) food packed with flavor — Peter describes Laurent’s simple method which involves little more than taking a pound and a half of firm, white-fleshed fish such as cod, striped bass, halibut, or redfish, and searing it in a hot, olive oil-slicked pan. You add some fennel seeds, lemon wedges, and unpeeled garlic cloves; a bit of salt and pepper; and a drizzle of more olive oil. The pan gets tipped and the hot oil spooned over the fish, which then, pan and all, gets popped into a 325 degree F oven to roast for 6 to 8 minutes. The fillets are served with the lemon wedges and garlic alongside, and drizzled with the pan-liquid. I have made this dish countless times — I prefer it with striped bass fillets — and every single time I am astonished at how wonderful and easy it is.

It’s so easy to be fearful of fish — there are mercury issues to contend with, and PCBs, and they say if you’re pregnant you really need to be careful — but frankly, it’s easy to be fearful of everything we eat, which seems to me utterly ridiculous and to blame for so many of our food woes. I may admittedly eat it a little bit more of it than I should — when I’m on a tear I eat fish as often as three times a week — but I figure that just as long as it’s not spewing blue flames out of its eyes and gills, I’m fairly safe.





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