Food As History
Thursday, June 3, 1999
Every man, it has been said, has in him an autobiographical novel. It has been even better said that in most cases it should be kept inside him. However that may be, all of us surely house within ourselves an unwritten book. This would consist of an account of ourselves as eaters, recording the development of our palates and the memories of the best meals of our lives.
So wrote Clifton Fadiman back in 1954, as part of the introduction of MFK Fisher''s seventh edition of The Art of Eating. This compilation of Fisher''s autobiographical works finds its genius in telling a life''s story through its accounting at the table.
Maybe each of us has different methods of recording our own histories, but I can''t come up with anything as accurate as food in terms of its recounting. You say "Memorial Day 1986" and I say "Grilled chicken and corn on the cob. Unseasonably hot. Made strawberry ice cream--twice. Scorched the custard the first time." I''ve long given up on keeping a journal. My history keeps itself in an eclectic assortment of cookbook notes, scribbles on menus, and memorable one-liners from dinner conversations immortalized onto the cramped confines of wine corks.
Looking back through recent archives, counted among the rosary beads of best edible moments are several Ave Marias, each experience deserving a choir of vestal virgins to sing their praises. Lighthouse Bistro''s Spanish-style oysters were so good on a recent dinner foray, that what started as an appetizer was ordered a second time for dinner. Dipped in beaten eggs and dredged in flour and breadcrumbs, after sauteing they are plopped back in the shell and gratineed. Sauced in a roasted red pepper and cream reduction, if you like oysters, these are dangerously delectable.
Ditto the shrimp cakes at Paradiso Oyster Bar on Cannery Row. Chef Nate Udomsri uses his own blend of sesame seeds, tamarind powder, lemongrass, key lime leaves and thai curry powder to season chopped shrimp meat. Lightly bound with breadcrumbs, they''re sauteed and served with sweet-sour dipping sauce, and could also easily become dinner. Or breakfast, for that matter.
My sympathies to members of the dining public who, without compromise, religiously and as a matter of course zealously shun and condemn the consumption of cream. I''ve dined with more than a few of you, and you scare me. How better to enjoy veal, butter-knife tender, than under a velvety blanket of madeira cream sauce and fresh morels? A timeless classic, at Raffaello in Carmel.
Butter-phobics are also advised to occasionally get over themselves. Sink your teeth into an almond croissant from Paris Bakery--flaky on the outside, creamy almond paste inside, redolent with the unmistakable taste and smell of butter. (Croissants, after all, are the whole reason they invented butter, anyway.)
Next, recorded in the highest notes of culinary sighs and moans, the focaccia Quattro Fomaggi, at Il Fornaio. You find it listed under pizza, and unlike more familiar types of focaccia, this one appears as a long, rectangular flattened loaf, crusty on the outside and emitting a warm avalanche of mozzarella, ricotta, gruyere and taleggio cheeses, upon slicing. Gloria, in excelsus deo. cw