Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The purpose of writing and Freehold NJ

Gary Allen, cannibal, posted a thoughtful comment on my last entry: Why do people write? Of course to remember, when you begin to mistrust your brain to do it. But also to forget. I don't mean to distract you from everything else - though that is a very real reason I write. I mean to edit, to choose the things that stay in your memory so you can leave out the rest. Pictures do that in a very violent and artificial way. At least they decide for you the images that stick in your mind. But when you write things down, you can reconstruct them, creating your own personal history. Not for others, but for yourself. I say that now, realizing that I did in fact begin this blog for my own personal recollections. But I've kept a journal for 20 years now. Not really sure why I was doing it. To remember, and forget.

I am also spurred on by yet another really pathetic foodie book. An American eating adventure, or something like that, by a guy who made a few day trips outside of NY and then looked everything else up on line. How do these things get published? I know I am either in a really foul mood when I start scribbling violently in a book half way through and then throw it somewhere, or the book just sucks. It's a shame, the author seems like a really nice guy. Maybe food was not supposed to be his topic.

So I will take a moment, if you will indulge me, in a Proustian moment:

I grew up in a an unpronounceable place (Manalapan) just next to Freehold NJ. This is, despite what people think about Asbury Park, the hometown of Bruce Springsteen. And the people there have bumper stickers that say "My Home Town" and "Born in the USA" as if they'd never actually listened to the depressing lyrics of either song. Bruce and I lived near each other for many years I guess, and he's a year older than my brother. But listen closely to the way he speaks. Tidewater, the South. Two miles north is a NY suburb. My mutha says butt-uh. I of course learned to speak from the TV. Honestly, I could never stand Springsteen, only because everyone else adored him. I thank him, indirectly for my addiction to Bach.

But I am writing about food, damn it! Freehold was the place to go, for a real bakery (it was my father's only real weakness in life - crumb cake and sticky pastries - gevalt). Also Federici's - serious pizza, thin and slightly charred, I swear as good as Sally's or Peppe's in New Haven, and yes the same family of that guy in the E Street Band. But when I was young Atillio's was definitely the favorite, mostly because closer. Your standard 70s pizza by the slice. But who names someone Atilla? And there were restaurants: Vans, which I think is still there. A real "continental" operation from the 60s or long before, in a refurbished house. White bread and iceberg lettuce. But also the first place I ever ate olives. Still my favorite food. Oh and the American Hotel, long gone, which had black lawn jockeys lining the hallways and pictures of prize winning trotters and pacers. And my favorite painting, of the hotel entrance in the 1830s with news of the Mexican War being read in front. They had a buffet at which allegedy I scandalized eveyone by eating only lemons and rice at age 5 or thereabouts. My sister had her sweet 16 there too. And not to forget the kitchen at the Synagogue, where a one-toothed growling old troll by the name of Meyer turned out what adults conceded was some of the best food they had ever eaten. Cholent I can still picture and almost taste. There was also the place my high school friends hung out after we returned home, pathetically jobless after college to drink - Frebbles. Or at the Court Jester, which had sandwiches named after local lawyers, one of whom was the father of my girlfriend senior year. It was like bacon and spam with pickle relish or something like that. Then there was the mythopoetic Sorrento's Subs, out on Route 33 - enormous vinegary oniony behemoths filled with everything in the house - salami, coppa, cheese, ham, etc., enough to feed a whole family, or my brother and me. You could smell someone who had eaten it a block away.

But what I can't forget, because it is seared into my senses, is Battleview Orchards. On the field where the battle of Monmouth took place. Also a state park. It is still the first place I hit when I visit. Apples like none I have eaten on earth - winesaps and Macs, later Empires and McCouns. Only directly off the trees, preferably stolen, though now adays pick your own. Sour, ineffible crunch, no explosion of apple in your face. You have to eat at least a dozen per visit, because if you take them home, you might as well just make pie. Which works well too, with brown sugar and a splash of apple jack (made not in the south, but in Scobeyville a few miles away, since the 18th c.) There was also real unpasteurized cider at teh orchard years ago, and the best doughnuts on earth made from it. I have eaten only a few doughnuts in the past decades, only because I know nothing on earth could possibly compare. Crispy and hot right from the fryer, sprinkled with cinnamon sugar. The last few times I've gone, I could taste the apple juice in the batter. But the apples they can't fake. And the orchard is still there.

Ok, so next time we take venture from New Jersey, taking in "THE City" and DC, and lots of other places I've lived. Then across the globe. And at the end we make a book out of it. Any interested publishers or agents out there?

Friday, July 20, 2007

Beans: A History

Recently arrived on my desk is this lovely little thing. Time to crack open some bubbly. There are actually two different covers, this one for Europe and a noisier one with jars of beans on it for the US. Go figure. The latter fits the content better, but I have to say I've grown rather fond of this one.

The gestation of books is actually a really odd process. You turn it over complete and then it mysteriously reappears in the mail, in this case quite quickly only 6 or 7 months later. Sometimes its a year or more.

Having worked as a production editor one fateful year between degrees (and I ruined a lot of books for Garland Publishing too) I know exactly what's involved, but it still seems so mysterious when it suddenly shows up. Somehow you think - did I actually write this? Maybe the mind blocks it out, like childbirth. Ok, the metaphor is inept - as any woman who has given birth will remind me, but I do think of these like children. You just dont get to see them for a long time after you finish writing, proofing, indexing intensely. It disappears for a long time and then a stork drops it in your mailbox. As if a surrogate had given birth to your baby.

Enough. This is on amazon if anyone's interested. Being shipped across the Atlantic now I'm told and will be here in September. Another perplexing thing about publishing. But it's quite cheap and I think a fun read. Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Back from the buttel / Cravings

This charming fachwerk street is in Wolfenbuttel, from which I just returned after a month's research on fasting. Luckily the food there was exceptionally good, so I had no incentive to be influenced by my new maudlin topic. We shall see what it does long term though. Maybe a new weight-loss plan?
In any event, it was very interesting that there were certain things I craved while away. It might seem the nature of craving is merely to desire what we can't have, and I have to admit upon returning home among the first things I went out to buy were my favorite cerignola olives, an Il Fornaio cibbata and a bottle of decent zin. Can't explain any of that, as there were very good olives and extraordinarily good bread in Germany, and even zins - but for some reason I had to have these. And now I could really go for a few filets of raw herring and a good rye bread. And a heady dunkel. So maybe it is wanting what you can't have.
But I think there is also something physiological at work, informing our cravings. CertainlyI find jonesing for salty things is triggered by a real metabolic imbalance. This explains potato chip cravings too. And sometimes there is nothing that satisfies like a really sour food. A proper kosher dill, Bubbies of Stockton are among the best I have ever tasted in a jar. But for some reason, which I attribute to my own particular chemical makeup, I never crave sweetness. Ice cream is ok, but I'd take good cheese over it any day. Chocolate is lovely but I've never gone out of my way to get some. Cake is among the most boring things in the world to me.
Can it be that each of us, have not just favorite foods, but things our bodies demand to keep us going in good order, that the hypothalamus, or whatever part of the brain it may be, triggers us to desire? Intensely, uncontrollably? Triggered like the libido, sometimes against our better judgement. When chips call, there is no denying them. I think that may be the only craving I absolutely have no control over. They must not be in the house, or I will consume them, as quickly as possible. Even to the point of nausea.
Is there anyone else like this or am I just mad?

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Cooking With Practically Nothing

Are there any of you challenged and excited by the prospect of making something edible out of the last remains of a week's shopping? Somehow I think it's even more thrilling when you're challenged by space, equipment, all the seasonings you're used to having stocked, and especially the lack of familiar ingredients. Cooking while away is always like that. You cant afford herbs and spices, which are sometimes a crutch anyway, and as for equipment, its a pot and a pan, and a knife. Tonight was one such adventure. Not that making noodles is ever so hard, but I had a kind of raw spreadable salami that was pushed on me a few days ago a the market. A little disconcerting, but very tasty. And I thought, what the hell, cook it. With onions, some tomatoes and throw it on the noodles. German noodles no less. But no herbs, or garlic, or wine, I wasn't about to let that go into the pan instead of down my throat. And somehow it turned out marvellous. Shortcuts I would never have taken in my own kitchen, somehow made sense here. And letting the noodles cook in the sauce, something I practically never do, did the trick perfectly. There was so little of the sauce that it kind of lightly covered everything, and you could still taste the noodles. Which I admit rarely happens when I do my full-blown ragu at home. Maybe the change was good for a lesson learned.

So if you have the urge, tell me some stories of your own triumphs in adversity. Cooking in an unfamilar kitchen with no amenities.


Sunday, July 1, 2007

Ein Außerordentlich Tag!

Yesterday in Wolfenbüttel was rainy and cold as usual, and I woke up very late, so I curtailed plans for a longer trip. And the market was beckoning, with chantrelles, smoked eels, white asparagus, organic brown bread, cured meats and sausages of every shape and color, cheeses of indescribable stinkiness. It was gorgeousness and gorgeosity.

After that, I decided to spend the day reading in the Bibliotek annex, which is housed in the 17th century armory across from the castle. Huge imposing building with walls 8 feet thick. So there I am happily reading Erasmus in the stacks upstairs, a lovely story of a doctor in Basel who ate pork during Lent, made a jerk of himself and was captured and condemned to death - for some reason for treason and blasphemy, for which they split his skull open and extracted his tongue from the inside. Lovely. And of course the time whiled away, but I had no plan to stay long. So around 1:30 I head downstairs. To find everything dark and shut. I mean literally closed down without warning and not a soul in sight.

My first vision was of spending the night, no - weekend there. No emergency exits. Only two massive bolted doors through which they used to wheel cannons. I tried phoning outside, with no luck, and certainly didnt want to call the police. After about a half an hour, I climbed up a book shelf, shimmied over to a window, which I managed to open and gingerly dropped down, probably no more than 6 feet, luckily.

And of course there were tourists gawking, and a brass band playing on the tower. My first instinct, like a proper criminal, was to get the hell out of there. And far. As far as I could. I actually went a few miles north of town and hiked in a gorgeous dense forest (Lechlumer Holz) for the next three hours or so. Sure that an investigation team would be tracking me.

A lovely little inn on the way back, with plenty of good beer, roast duck (my favorite food in the whole world) with red cabbage and potato poufs made everything better. As did a Jagermeister, which is made here, and not as I thought a think peppermint schnapps, but more like a Fernet, a green herbal bitter. Quite nice.

Next time I check the hours before going in.