Almost Enough Caviar ~ Michael Cohen

I was perhaps twenty-three when I first ate almost enough caviar”

 —M. F. K. Fisher, With Bold Knife and Fork

I. The Savory Science

Sitting in the grill room of the Savoy Hotel in July, 1990, with a plate of salmon with sorrel sauce before me, I indulged in a peculiar fantasy. I imagined the sous-chef who prepared the sauce moving from the veal stock pot to the stove, adding the puréed sorrel and some cream just as he had been taught by the sous-chef before him in the same kitchen, and back and back through successive chefs and trainers of chefs to Auguste Escoffier himself, who organized and simplified the Savoy kitchens when he went there with César Ritz in 1890.  From hand to hand, sauce pan to stock pot to stove, there was a connection between my forkful of savory sauced fish and the hand of the great man himself a hundred years ago.

This conceit was not original; I stole it, with some changes, from A. J. Liebling, whose descriptions of Paris meals eaten in the thirties can still evoke the musty, pungent aroma of truffles and cause an involuntary squirt of saliva under my tongue. Leibling was also a noted writer on boxing.  He begins The Sweet Science by tracing his own pugilistic lineage back to the renowned boxers of the nineteenth century such as Gentleman Jim Corbett and John L. Sullivan:

It is through Jack O’Brien . . . that I trace my rapport with the historic past through the laying-on of hands. He hit me, for pedagogical example, and he had been hit by the great Bob Fitzsimmons . . . .  Jack had a scar to show for it.  Fitzsimmons had been hit by Corbett, Corbett by John L. Sullivan, he by Paddy Ryan . . . and Ryan by Joe Goss, his predecessor, who as a young man had felt the fist of the great Jem Mace.  It is a great thrill to feel that all that separates you from the early Victorians is a series of punches on the nose.

No more fanciful, I believe, was the connection I felt with the gastronomic past and the great chef Auguste Escoffier as I sat at the Savoy Hotel eating salmon with sorrel sauce. The veal stock itself was of course one of Escoffier’s tremendous innovations in food preparation, while the nouvelle version of the sorrel sauce made famous by the Troisgros brothers uses no veal stock.  My meal was a history lesson much more pleasant than a punch on the nose.

That I could make such a connection, though, between the people who had just prepared the meal I was eating in a quiet dining room off the Strand in London and the man who codified classic French cooking, meant that I had come a long way.

 

II  Growing Up Hungry

I did not have a food-aware childhood.  My mother was a widow supporting three kids on a nurse’s salary, and she lacked the time, the money, and perhaps the imagination to get past hot dogs and sauerkraut, Spam and baked beans, or a dish we called goulash: she would brown a pound of hamburger, sprinkle flour onto it until the grease was absorbed, then add some water from the pot where she had boiled a couple of cut-up potatoes.  She heated and stirred the meat, flour, and water until a gravy formed, dumped in the potatoes and a package of frozen peas, added a little salt, some thyme, and some oregano, and it was dinner.

My food awareness changed in my early adolescence when my mother remarried.  My new stepfather was a doctor, and though my mother worked for a while as his nurse receptionist, eventually she was free to think about furnishing fancy houses and entertaining guests.  My stepfather liked to cook and encouraged my mother to try interesting recipes.  Also we often traveled on vacation to foody towns like San Francisco and New Orleans, always eating in good restaurants.  My tastes, very unschooled at first, gradually began to widen.  During a whole year my restaurant meal choice was a shrimp cocktail followed by whatever sort of skewered beef the place featured.  Eventually I would discover the sauces, and I can still remember my astonishment at the dish Brennan’s called Eggs Hussarde, with its brown and hearty marchand de vin sauce and its delicate hollandaise.  My parents registered my pleasure and steered me toward other sauces: mornay and other varieties of béchamel with fresh fish (another novelty to my Arizona-bred palate), beef and chasseur sauce, with its minced mushrooms, shallots, and parsley.  When I discovered béarnaise, that became my choice at every restaurant that served it, with whatever they wanted to put it on.

By the time I went to college I had developed enough taste discrimination that I could not stand to eat in the school cafeteria for more than a couple of days together; since I had a meal ticket this made for budget problems when I wanted to eat in restaurants. As Jonathan Lehrer says “This is the power of cooking: it invents a new kind of desire.” And then, in my sophomore year I went to Europe.

I wasn’t prepared for the variety of foods I found when traveling, not only in moving from Germany to France to Italy to Greece and Turkey, but also the regional variety between a Milanese cutlet and a Tuscan beefsteak.  And in truth I sampled very little of it, lacking the money, the languages, and the imagination to go beyond some of the simpler dishes.  But what a revelation they were!  I reveled in pasta with meat or fish sauces so complexly flavored, so savory they compelled slower eating.  Late in my trip, in St. Germain-sur-Seine, the father of a friend taught me the rhythm of one bite of food, one small sip of wine, as we ate his superb lapin au vin blanc.  “It dissolves the fat,” he said.  But in Italy, early on, there was one discovery after another.  In Rome I ordered a plate of spaghetti alla vongole at a waiter’s recommendation (though neither of us understood the other’s language—and the menu had no translations) and found with surprise that the excellent sauce was filled with tender clams.  Like Henry James some time before, I was pleased, surprised, and curious about how long all this had been going on over there.   Adam Gopnik describes a similar experience as a young teenager when he and his family spent a year in Paris: that first night, he writes, “we went out for dinner and, for fifteen francs, had the best meal I had ever eaten, and most of all, nobody who lived there seemed to notice or care. The beauty and the braised trout alike were just part of life, the way we do things here.”

While I was in Europe my parents moved to California. My first artichoke I ate in Huntington Beach, where my parents’ apartment was in a complex across the street from artichoke fields, less than three miles from the beach itself.  Here, too, I had my first taste of Sand Dabs, that delicate Pacific flat fish, usually no more than six inches long, with buttery flesh.  I’ve never seen them in a restaurant away from the California coast. The frog’s legs I ate at Le Petit Moulin in Santa Monica one Christmas vacation I would never have ordered; they were a surprise on the prix fixe dinner: tiny little joints in what must have been a classic poulette sauce of white wine and mushroom stock.

My next big food revelation came when I married and my wife Katharine and I moved to New Orleans in 1970. I know that my first encounter with whole Blue Crabs was in our first days there, at the lakeshore restaurant called Fitzgerald’s—gone even before we left the city in 1976.  Katharine waited patiently, having already finished her own dinner, while I worked slowly and awkwardly through a dozen of them.  Later I learned faster techniques from the locals.

Our first batch of whole boiled crayfish came at the French Quarter apartment of Bill McCarthy, Cormac McCarthy’s brother, who taught with us at Louisiana State University in New Orleans, later renamed the University of New Orleans.  Pounds of heaped, steaming crayfish at the center of a newspaper-covered table, with bowls of red beans and rice on the side, and a technique considerably simpler than that for Blue Crabs: pull off the head and suck its juices; put a thumb on each side of the projecting tail shell from the bottom and push with the fingers, cracking the tail open.  Learning the speedy separation of a crayfish tail from its shell gives almost as much pleasure as eating the little morsels.

Where did I have my first oyster?  I can’t recall, but when Katharine and I moved to New Orleans in 1970 I had already developed a taste for them, and sometimes made a lunch of a couple of dozen with saltines and a Jax beer—made down on Decatur Street until the brewery was closed in our third year in town.  I often went on oyster hops, eating two or three dozen at several places such as the Acme, Felix’s across the street, and the Desire Oyster Bar on Bourbon.  As I have said, one can make a meal of two dozen oysters, eight or ten soda crackers, and a couple of beers that will now have to be Dixie, since the Jax brewery is closed.  I have eaten eight or nine dozen without feeling I had overdone it.

Another life-changing food experience was our first trip to Spain in 1983. I started keeping a journal during this trip.  Katharine and I took a swing north from Madrid through León, Cantabria and the Rioja and then back to Madrid.  Later we were joined by three close friends for a drive down through La Mancha to Jaén and then on to Córdoba, Seville, Granada and the Mediterranean coast.  My journal records sightseeing, but it mostly talks about what we ate.  And the meals were worth recording.  It was my first exposure to many foods: my first baby eels, eaten as a first course for lunch in the basement comedor of the Alfonso XIII Hotel in Seville (eels Bilbao, with garlic and a trace of peppers), my first suckling pig, at Botín in Madrid, a restaurant famous for the dish.  At El Caballo Rojo in Córdoba I had my first taste of the meaty vegetable from the thistle plant, cardos, or cardoons in English.  Cardos are the bottoms of the European wild thistle, Cynara cardunculus, like a miniature artichoke heart, sweet and tender, served in this case in a cream sauce flavored with jamón serrano.  “Cardoons with ham’s cream” was the quaint translation on the menu for the English-only speaker.  Cardoons sounds distinctly Scotch, and I suppose Scotland is known for its thistles, but the cultivated cardunculus is a southern European phenomenon.  Other foods that I had disdained before, I found prepared in magical ways on this trip.  The homely eggplant in the hands of a cook in Almagro became a savory appetizer; elsewhere, prepared with ham or with cheese it had inspired the sixteenth-century poet Baltasar del Alcázar to sing its praises.  Spinach, never a favorite of mine, was transformed by sautéing with a little olive oil and pine nuts into a delicious side dish. In a marisquería in Madrid’s tapas zone around the Plaza Victoria my friend David Earnest introduced me to percebes, goose barnacles, steamed and requiring a fair amount of unwrapping of tough hide to get to the tender meat, juicy, salty, and with the slightest hint of iodine. The many novel tastes overwhelmed the other novelties of this trip.

 

III. Julia

Before I came back from my trip to Europe in my college years, Julia Child was already starting to make an impact.  She changed my tastes as she changed many Americans’  tastes, though the process probably took ten years or more after the publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  My friends and I are all children of Julia.  I was nineteen when she began her television program on WGBH, and I watched it when I could, but the book she did with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle was the place where I and my friends learned about shallots and lemon zest and copper pans for egg whites; we didn’t always make the complicated four-page preparations, but we let her teach us about techniques and above all about appreciation.  She made us into skeptics who asked, when we were reading The Joy of Cooking  or Fannie Farmer, “does it really need to cook that long?”  But I don’t remember watching any other cooking program except perhaps a few episodes of The Frugal Gourmet when I was in graduate school. Up until I read Bill Buford’s New Yorker article on TV cooking shows (“TV Dinners: The Rise of Food Television,” October 2, 2006 ), it had puzzled me why I and most of my friends don’t watch more of them.

According to Buford, there is already an “old days” era in food shows, epitomized by Julia Child, who clearly made food a draw for television in the first place, but who is now seen as old-fashioned.  Buford has a curious take on the revolution Child created: he thinks she came off as an amateur who wasn’t really sure of herself, while those of us who actually watched those shows know that it was a combination of her mastery of technique and her supreme self-confidence that enabled her to convince us that we could do that—make that omelet or pick up that dropped chicken and go on with that coq au vin.

Modern  food shows are replete with what the food network executives Buford interviewed call “television values”—not an oxymoron but a matter of lighting, close-ups of food with the camera always subtly moving, audiences filmed during the lunch hour before they’ve eaten to prime them with hungry reactions, and personalities whose actual knowledge of cooking is deliberately upstaged by their energy or sexiness.  These shows go for the lowest common denominator—the casual viewer who knows nothing about cooking—and they direct that viewer to assemble rather than to cook, taking advantage of the already peeled, cut up, and even cooked ingredients every large supermarket now carries.  These shows don’t have anything to teach us, whereas the “old-fashioned” ones, especially Julia’s, did.

It’s different with cookbooks. Here the problem is so many. Jane Kramer says there are more cookbooks published than novels or self-help books.  She thinks that American women became so crazy about cookbooks because “they left their mothers behind in Europe” and weren’t taught in the kitchen the cooking secrets that came down through generations. In our house, aside from Julia, we use Charlotte Walker on seafood, Penelope Casas on Spanish food as well as the Ortegas’ 1080 Recipes, now in an English translation, my old copy of Myra Waldo’s  Cook as the Romans Do, and a few others.  But now we mostly learn from each other and from restaurants.

 

IV. Eating My Friends

When my wife and I moved to the little west Kentucky town where I taught for many years, there were no good local restaurants.  There was a decent steakhouse ten miles away where one could bring a bottle of wine in.  (I should explain that the county, like many others in Kentucky, was dry—meaning that no liquor was sold in stores or restaurants.  The law has since changed, and restaurants in town can sell liquor by the glass, and there are even package sales.  The restaurants, as a result of this change, are getting better.)  We were lucky in finding friends who liked to cook.

At Charlotte Foreman’s house we might be served Chinese chicken salad.  To cooked chicken on shredded lettuce with lots of beni shoga (red pickled ginger), she added a dressing of soy, salad oil, sesame oil, rice vinegar, and a little sugar and dried mustard. She always topped the salad with mai fun (thin rice) noodles she’d just fried.

These days at David Earnest’s, dinner is likely to be something out of the ordinary like anticuchos—marinated beef heart seasoned with fiery peppers and cooked on the grill. When we first came to town, it might have been a recipe from graduate school days, like the simple one-dish meal David called lime beef. He would cover ground beef with lime juice for a few hours. Then he’d sauté garlic cloves, green onions, and chopped serrano peppers with the beef, throw in coarsely chopped Bok Choy, sprinkle everything with soy sauce, cover it up and steam it for a few minutes.

Another bachelor friend, Richard Steiger, makes a specialty of roasted chicken, which he prepares in various ways.  Charlotte Beahan, who teaches Chinese history, makes jao-tze, delicious steamed pork dumplings. Pam Cartwright serves a low-country breakfast dish of shrimp and grits.

When my wife and I invited people in, we often served them the flank steak that our old friend Cynthia Doster showed us how to prepare. She marinates the flank steak in equal portions of oil and lemon juice (with the lemon’s zest) and soy sauce, adds a healthy dose of minced garlic, a teaspoon of brown sugar, and—the heart of the marinade—a teaspoon of fresh ginger. This dish remained a staple in our household even after the price of flank steak—very cheap in our graduate school days—rose to rival that of the tenderer beef varieties.  We grill the meat on a barbecue cooker until just past rare, slice it into thin strips, and almost always serve it with twice-baked potatoes.

We might begin with an appetizer of ceviche.  Pat Kent, my oldest friend, dead now these many years, showed me the simplest and best ceviche preparation I know of.  He put bay scallops in lime juice for 24 hours, drained them, and added pico de gallo—chopped fresh tomatoes, serrano or jalapeño peppers, onions, and cilantro.  Bay scallops, smaller than sea scallops, are just the right size to be cooked through by the lime juice in a day.  I add some olive oil along with the salsa, and of course, salt.

 

V. Don’t Try This at Home

My friend David Earnest has a habit of saying about a dish he’s enjoying at a restaurant, “We could do this.”  Of course we all get ideas from restaurant preparations. (At the Brasserie Le Coze in Atlanta, I was served a salad of Belgian Endive with a mixture spooned onto the leaves consisting of some of the endive centers chopped with Roquefort and a little vinaigrette dressing. Unlike some dishes, its ingredients and preparation were patent, and I now serve this endive dish as an appetizer and a salad.)  But my ordinary reaction to a good restaurant dish is just to enjoy it. The restaurant experience, for me, is partly the pleasure of having someone else prepare the food (and wash the dishes).  Moreover, I like to think of each restaurant as the place where a favorite dish lives, a place I must visit in order to enjoy the black ravioli stuffed with lobster (Nais Cuisine in Havertown, Pennsylvania), or the oysters marinated in lemon juice and served with chopped endive and spoonfish caviar (Maisonnette in Cincinnatti, which, alas, I can visit only in memory). The conviction that the taste remains attached to the place is even stronger for those dishes served in restaurants in Spain or France or Italy.

My stepfather and mother also suffered from the knowledge that they could prepare a restaurant dish they liked, and I can see them analyzing as they chewed, even before one asked, “Is that tarragon?”  or “Did they use asiago in that?”  I can hear my stepfather asking, “Why should I pay twenty-five dollars for a dish I can make myself at home for five?”  There is no answer to this question, once it has been said aloud.  A restaurant meal for me is not a regrettably expensive substitute for eating at home.

“Going out,” we call it, and it is out of the everyday and domestic and into the world.  We break the routine and seek novelty, even when the restaurant is well-known to us. Even at the familiar restaurant, which we may love because of its consistency, there is the possiblity of surprise, of “the special.” Dining out has an element of travel, of visiting new spots or revisiting favorite old ones.

 

VI. A Clean, Well-lighted Place

I made a list of a dozen wonderful restaurants where I have eaten and found another element in restaurant dining: the ephemeral. Here is my list:

Beijing in Vancouver

Nais Cuisine in Havertown, PA

Monti’s La Casa Vieja in Tempe, Arizona

Le Petit Moulin in Santa Monica

Maisonette in Cincinnatti

Mario’s in Nashville

Le Midi in Charleston, South Carolina

La Mer à Boire in Montreal

Brasserie Le Coze in Atlanta

Le Bistro in Tucson

Le Bec Fin in Philadelphia

Le Ruth’s in New Orleans

 

A random list of favorites scattered around the continent rather than a “top dozen” or otherwise ranked or categorized list, this group of restaurants includes only places where I have eaten more than once. Le Bistro in Tucson was almost a neighborhood restaurant for me and my wife, a regular weekly stop. But no more. The first three restaurants on this list are, at the moment I write this, still going; the last nine are gone.

A talk show I watched in New Orleans in the 70s featured managers and owners of top local restaurants. Warren Le Ruth was there with managers from Antoine’s, Arnaud’s, and Commander’s Palace (this was before Emeril LeGasse had his own restaurant). One of the comments I remember was the statistic that less than ten percent of new restaurants are still open after a year in the same place, and less than five percent are still under the same ownership. The fearful attrition of even successful, established restaurants (all the ones on my list were going concerns) suggests that recalling any good restaurant meal is indulging in elegy, and unashamedly that is what I am doing here.

At Maisonette—which Mobil gave five stars for more years than any other restaurant—I might begin with a glass of Bollinger or Roederer or Entre Deux Mers with a leek and potato soup or an appetizer of ravioli stuffed with artichokes and arugula, with a sauce of tomato and arugula oil. The main course could be monkfish on a mousse of chervil and dill with a little crabmeat, or the rack of lamb, or brill and Florida lobster in puff pastry with a butter sauce. With the fish I would be drinking a Bernardus Chardonnay or a Pouilly Fuissé; with the lamb a glass of St. Francis Cabernet. The crême brulée was always good, but I preferred the combinations of white and dark chocolate mousse with various sauces.

Mario’s, where my wife and I often celebrated our anniversaries, burned in 2007 and has not rebuilt. Though not a very imaginative restaurant, Mario’s could produce wonderful manifestations of traditional dishes, and I remember with great fondness an appetizer special of crabmeat ravioli with a champagne cream sauce.

Le Ruth’s was New Orleans’ best restaurant (though not even in the city but across the river in Algiers) in the early seventies when the competition was stiff. Two dishes they did exceptionally well were the oyster and artichoke soup—the best example of this common New Orleans dish—and a sole rolled around an oyster and crab stuffing. Le Ruth’s almond torte was also a stunner.

Le Midi was only briefly alive in Charleston, but I managed three visits there during two convention trips. It was a small bistro that served provincial French cooking. La Mer à Boire in Montreal served the best snails I’ve ever eaten, in little pastry shells and caps with a superb brown sauce. The strange thing about the disappearance of this restaurant is that though you will not find La Mer à Boire, you will find a microbrewery with a similar name. La mer à boire—“the whole ocean to drink”—means a difficult task and is usually used in the negative: “Ce n’est pas la mer à boire.” The brew pub’s name puns on the idomatic expression and turns it into “L’Amere à boire”—the bitter (beer) to drink.”

 

 

VII. Eating to Live, Living to Eat

Of the important things in life, people, books, and food, food is perhaps the least important.  But this simple separation ignores the connections and parallels. Like the book, food has a double life. Books are commodities that can be bought or sold as well as repositories of ideas that can alter the world.  Food is also a commodity, one that exists only to be consumed—the ultimate commodity of a consumer culture.  But its material aspect shades off into the nonmaterial in its aesthetic and social roles.  Food can be art that satisfies sight with color and contrast, satisfies touch with texture and tastes of a hundred thousand subtleties. Food’s material presence literally sustains us; it is fuel.  It is also idea: through the senses it excites the mind.

The social aspect of food is a distinguishing feature.  True, I can remember the surroundings when and where I first read Saroyan and Joyce and the New Testament, but the people around me at the time are not a notable part of the memory. Reading usually substitutes its own world for the one surrounding the reader instead of heightening one’s awareness of that surrounding world.  Books are isolating in this respect; food brings people together and makes them remember the place, the time, the company. Bulwer-Lytton was simply wrong when he wrote “we can live without friends; we can live without books, / But civilized man cannot live without cooks.” Without the friends and the books, we aren’t civilized, and we can’t appreciate the cooks. And what we share with friends goes beyond the immediate breaking of bread: Brillat-Savarin , whose The Physiology of Taste has the subtitle Meditations of Transcendent Gastronomy, said that the last and most enjoyable sensation of food is reflection.

A friend who could not accompany us on that notable trip to Spain commented how she pictured us: “I see you all sitting at a table, eating and talking and drinking and laughing, with piles of fish in front of you.”  She was right on the mark, except that some evenings the piles were lamb bones or pig carcasses or rabbit remains. I would like to think my enjoyment of the friends, like my appreciation of the food, has refined and increased over the years.

 

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