The Daily

On Food

A Millionaire’s Money Can’t Buy

February 26, 2014 | by

chock full

Photo: nikoretro, via Flickr

“I didn’t even know you could still get that!” exclaimed a rather fabulous looking tiny woman in a turban and plaid coat. I had ordered a date-nut bread sandwich with cream cheese. We were on line at the Chock Full o’ Nuts kiosk located in my neighborhood Gristede’s.

This supermarket is notable partly for its mysterious principles of organization: spices, for instance, can be found in three different aisles in the store. When I need something that defies obvious shelving classification—liquid smoke, say, or rice noodles—I come here, just to challenge myself. (In those two cases, I failed and ended up having to ask for help. The items were in, respectively, the salad dressing and “International Foods” sections.)

Anyway, I had gone to the Chock Full o’ Nuts to get my usual: the “Chock Classic” sandwich, a bargain at $2.99, so rich and filling that it extends to at least three small meals. (For the uninitiated, the business did start as a nut stand in the twenties. A few years ago, Chock had to add the slogan “NO NUTS! 100% Coffee” to its packaging.) The sandwich was an economical standby on the menus of the restaurant chain, which used to be all over New York, and now serves as a reminder of Chock’s glory days. It was this that caught my neighbor’s eye. Read More »

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Strawberry Fields

February 11, 2014 | by

tuxedo strawberry ash berlin

Photo: Ash Berlin, via Flickr

It has been some years now since I mastered the art of dressing strawberries in tuxedos.

I was first introduced to the skill at a friend’s baby shower in Rhode Island; a young woman demonstrated how one dipped the strawberry in white chocolate, and then, after letting it dry, dipped it again, at an angle, in milk chocolate. One appended a small chocolate bow tie and perhaps, with a toothpick, shirt studs. (And, if feeling really ambitious, made a distaff counterpart, all in white chocolate.)

My first strawberry-in-a-tuxedo looked like he had just come off a week-long bender. His lapels were smudged, his bow tie askew. But by the time I had dipped my fifth—I think we were supposed to stop at two, but I couldn’t—that out-of-season berry was a veritable Brummel. (Just in case one of them needed to attend a summer dinner-dance or something, I made one in a white dinner jacket, too.) The trick is letting it dry properly between dips, and holding it aloft while it does so. Read More »

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Chocolate: A Confession

January 30, 2014 | by

drowning_in_chocolate

A still from Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 2005.

Even at my loneliest and most cynical, I have always liked Valentine’s Day. The commercialized romance bothers me not a whit—I like watching couples being romantic, or awkward, or goofy. But this I will say: for those of us who don’t love chocolate, the onset of February is, well, disheartening.

Nowadays, scientists like to point to the fact that eating chocolate somehow mimics the physiological characteristics of female arousal, but one doubts that science is behind the ubiquity of the heart-shaped variety box. After all, the whole connection between chocolate and courtship goes back to the nineteenth century. I’m no historian, but I’d imagine it’s more a “sweets for the sweet” bit of marketing that struck an immediate chord.

If we are going to talk about amateur modern chocolate historians, Roald Dahl cannot be ignored. As anyone familiar with his oeuvre knows, the man loved chocolate. But the full extent of his feelings cannot be understood until one has read the manifesto “Chocolate,” in his highly idiosyncratic Roald Dahl’s Cookbook. Talking of what he terms the “Chocolate Revolution” of 1930–37, Dahl declares,

The dates themselves should be taught in school to every child. Never mind about 1066 William the Conqueror, 1087 William the Second. Such things are not going to affect one’s life. But 1932 the Mars Bar and 1936 Maltesers, and 1937 the Kit Kat—these dates are milestones in history and should be seared into the mind of every child in the country. If I were a headmaster I would get rid of the history teacher and get a chocolate teacher instead and my pupils would study a subject that affected all of them.

(Not that one imagines he went in much for Valentine’s Day.) Read More »

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Sleeping Beauty

January 27, 2014 | by

strong coffee

Photo: Cory Doctorow, via Flickr

My life boasts few distinctions, but I make the worst coffee you will ever drink. It’s almost as if, on the day I was born, the fairies stood over my cradle (okay, incubator) Sleeping Beauty–style, and the first good fairy declared, “She will be able to remember the lyrics to eighties cartoon themes her entire life.” And the second good fairy said, “I give you the gift of teeth that in the eighteenth century would have seemed straight but look kind of crooked now that everyone else has braces.” But then the malevolent enchantress appeared, cackled, and cursed me with the words: “She will never make a potable cup of coffee.”

You would be forgiven, if you have read about my manifold culinary failures, for thinking that I can’t handle myself in the kitchen. In fact, I am pretty competent in that regard, which makes my persistent inability all the more mysterious. And don’t talk to me about single origins, rancid grounds, Chemex, French press, vacuum, toddy, cold brew, hand-grinding: it makes no difference. The curse is stronger than any of these trifling variables.

Sleeping Beauty was always my favorite Disney movie. I saw it with my mother in big-screen re-release when I was about four, and was enchanted by handsome Prince Philip and perfect Briar Rose and gruff, mannish little Merryweather, and of course the elegant Maleficent. I was fascinated by the notion that, no matter how far you run, you cannot escape your fate. (It was, I guess, many a child’s introduction to the classic tenets of tragedy.) Read More »

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Sin-Eaters

January 14, 2014 | by

tomato pie

Photo: woodenmask, via Flickr

“Please don’t confront me with my failures,” sang Nico. “I have not forgotten them.” I can sympathize. Said failures are particularly difficult to forget when they sit glowering at you from your refrigerator. I have often pitied noncooks who will never know the gratification of perfecting a recipe or the sense of achievement that comes from transforming disparate ingredients into something nourishing and pleasurable. But by the same token, these people will never know the heartbreak of a recipe gone wrong.

In her classic essay collection More Home Cooking, Laurie Colwin writes of attempting to make a custard in an inadequately equipped rental-house kitchen. When the mixture curdled, “I remember flinging the pot into the sink and flouncing out of the house in tears, which I wept bitterly in a pine wood surrounded by clavaria and Indian pipes.”

My mother recalls a similar incident from her childhood in Palo Alto. Her own mother, never the most confident of cooks, somehow screwed up a lemon-meringue pie (there are many components to screw up) and, most uncharacteristically, hurled the misshapen pie out the window in a fit of tearful frustration. To this day, says my mother, the memory of rushing out into the yard and gobbling down the offending pastry off the grass with her father and brother remains one of the most thrilling of her early life.

To the noncook, these reactions probably seem excessive. But anyone who has gone through the process of inspiration, planning, shopping, and cooking understands the sense of total emptiness that accompanies such disappointments. After all, if cooking and feeding are the ultimate in social bonding and expressions of love—and we’re constantly being told such things—then these failures strike at something deep. Read More »

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Big Trouble in Little Poland

January 10, 2014 | by

pierogi

Conspiracy lurks in every bite. Photo: Edsel L., via Flickr.

It is pierogi weather. Here in New York, that means going to Greenpoint, or one of the Polish or Ukrainian coffee shops in the East Village, or maybe one of the two warring dairy luncheonettes nearby. Fried or boiled is a matter of heritage and personal inclination; ditto sour cream and fried onions. I will not tell another person how to live his or her life. This is America. But here is what I will tell you:

I was walking down First Avenue, hell-bent on pierogis, when my way was blocked by a very short lady in a very voluminous house dress and a fur coat. Her manner was urgent, her gaze intense.

“There is something you need to know,” she said, with the air of a fellow undercover operative making contact.

We moved toward the curb so as not to block foot traffic, and she delivered her message.

She had, she told me, been eating stuffed cabbage at the Little Poland restaurant “for almost thirty years.” And yet, on this day, they had refused to serve her! “They said they didn’t have any,” she said, furious. “I know they were lying. I saw people eating it.”

And that is not all. Following this outrage, she had made her way three blocks south, to Veselka, because sometimes you need stuffed cabbage, and no one will argue with that.

“But,” she continued ominously, “do you know what?” I did not. She leaned in close and lowered her voice conspiratorially. “The exact same thing happened!

I agreed that this was terrible, and would have been on my way, but she had yet to impart the most important piece of information. 

“You know who they were serving?” she demanded. There was a moment of charged silence.

“Who?” I finally asked.

“Attractive gay men!”

She looked at me with an air of knowing triumph.

“I wanted to tell you especially,” she explained, “so the same thing didn’t happen to you.” And then, “Thank you for your time.”

I think we can agree that the gratitude was all mine. I did not attempt to order stuffed cabbage, because, really, life is hard enough.

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