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Bayou Fete VI

We were invited by an alumna to Bayou Fête VI on Saturday. Fifteen thousand pounds of crawfish, forty kegs of beer, unknown quantities of jambalaya, five hours of music, and an hour-long nap under the trees, accompanied by a mellow group of fifteen hundred adults and kids that ripped tails and, yes, sucked heads with panache. They were elegantly casual in their ingestion of so much shellfish, fingers skilled after much practice in taking apart Procambarus clarkii (or relations).

Bayou Fete VI

Bayou Fete VI

Crawfish, sausage, corn, and potato, a bowl of jambalaya…

Bayou Fete VI

LSU, Tulane, UNO, ULM, NSU, McNeese, Louisiana Tech alumni and future alumni…

Bayou Fete VI

Bayou Fete VI

Bayou Fete VI

Bayou Fete VI

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Quick daikon pickle
(adapted from Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art by Shizuo Tsuji)

Get home from work, look through mail, put junk mail in the recycling bag in the kitchen. Open fridge door thinking about what to make for dinner. Look through your vegetable bins. Push aside the funky lettuce and take out the daikons you bought at Whole Foods (when was that? two Wednesdays ago? Tuesday? Yes, when Wendy loaned you her car). Remember how you stood in front of the leafy-spiky wall of misted vegetables associating three medium-sized daikons with living in Japan—the first time was 1990 to 1992—when you met Carlos, when you met contentment. That night in Whole Foods you bought daikons to prolong your nostalgia. And perhaps to make a nice braised side dish.

Quick daikon pickle
Photo: Making quick daikon salt pickle—the one-hour press.

Take out Japanese mandolin (French-style would work fine, but you aren’t going to shell out the cash for one of those huge metal contraptions they sell at Williams-Sonoma—what a rip). Peel and slice the daikons fairly thinly, but not paper thin. Consult recipe in Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art for “Quick Turnip Pickle” looking for the correct ratio of vegetable to salt. Say aloud, “For fuck’s sake how much do ’12 medium turnips’ weigh?” Guess how much salt to sprinkle on the sliced daikon because the five tablespoons salt in the recipe is way too much. Add three heaping teaspoons kosher salt thinking daikons require much less salt than turnips.

Gently knead the salt and daikon slices until well mixed. Let the daikon sit a few minutes. Stare out window at bird feeder in backyard. See male cardinal eating seeds, his salmon-pink body so delightful you feel a rush of elation. Dump the daikon slices in a colander and press out as much liquid as you can. Squeeze hard. Take out a lemon and some kombu (dried kelp) that you bought at the Tsukiji Market in Tokyo last summer. Is this ma kombu or rishiri kombu? Can’t remember. The package has “kombu” handwritten (in kanji) with a permanent marker, the scribble of a busy merchant. Wonder how long kombu keeps. Cut off about four square inches of kombu and cut into four pieces. Peel three or four large strips of zest from the lemon. Mix lemon zest and kombu with the pressed out daikon, place in a bowl, cover with another bowl, and weigh it down with two 28-oz. cans of San Marzano tomatoes bought at the commissary on Fort Myer—must remember to reserve a ZipCar for Monday to go to your medical appointment. You should stop at the commissary and the exchange on the way home.

Wait an hour, give or take hanging a load of laundry on the rack in the back room and starting some rice in the rice cooker that you bought in Japan back in 1990. That rice cooker astounds you with its faithful service after all these years and household moves. Remove kombu from daikon, fluff slices with your fingers and serve. Your husband says, “Oooh it smells just like real Japanese pickles.” Take photo for blog. Eat some now, store rest in fridge for a week (or whenever you find the jar in the back of the fridge).

Quick daikon pickle
Photo: Quick daikon pickle.

Waffle iron
Photo: My Christmas present

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, mon petit chou had been asking lots of questions about breakfast foods: which were my favorites, did I prefer pancakes to waffles, if I could have anything for breakfast, what would it be? I have no idea how I answered him because it could be corned beef hash and two eggs over easy one day and a stack of pancakes the next.

In Japan, I craved the elaborate and savory breakfasts of grilled mackerel, grated daikon, tofu, rice, and pickles. In Naples, I had a cappuccino and a cornetto (croissant) or a graffa (sugar doughnut) at the bakery around the corner from our apartment. Once I learned the baking schedule I would arrive just as the graffe were hot and ready. I would greet the baker, the only Neapolitan I ever met who was shy and taciturn. After two years of nearly complete silence while I drank my coffee and ate my pastry, one day I informed him that we were leaving Italy. Then he talked to me for an hour, wondering at so much he hadn’t had the nerve to ask me before.

Lately, I’ve been eating a yogurt made by Pequea Valley Farm in Pennsylvania which is sold at the Del Ray Farmers’ Market. The yogurt is made from milk from grass-fed Jersey cows and is, therefore, a rich yellow color in late summer/early autumn. Lately it has become a little more white. Delicious.

Anyway, I love breakfast and don’t understand skipping this most satisfying meal.

Waffles
Photo: Oh deep waffle pockets.

Waffles! Waffles are inexplicably happy. I have no Proustian revelation when I eat them, just a general sense of contentment. But I’ve never owned a waffle iron. Now I do.

Cod
Photo: Cod with chips at Eamonn’s in Old Town Alexandria.

Oh chippers, with your golden crispy white flaky steamy fishy treasures. What mixed feelings I have about fish and chips…

Golden Hind: We lived in Marylebone during our two-year overseas tour in London. Carlos would walk to work straight down Baker Street to Portman Square. I took a train from Paddington Station to my office near Oxford. We drank at our local, ate at our favorite Lebanese place on Edgware Road, and shopped at our local butcher and at the Marylebone Farmers’ Market. When we wanted fish and chips, or when we were reenacting Ye Olde English tour for our houseguests, we’d walk down to Marylebone Lane, a narrow one-way, curving street that had once been a cart track beside a small stream. At the hanging sign with Drake’s ship, we’d enter the small chipper, point out the (decoration-only) antique fryer, sit in the “atmospheric” dining room, and order mushy peas and plates of haddock.

The Tool Kit
Photo: Tool kit.

Fryer’s Delight: Hell, every newspaper, every magazine, every Web site in Britain and Ireland does a periodic Best Chipper List. The reviews of Fryer’s Delight—written in breathless prose, which, in a time of no-fat eating, dared you to enter Sodom and Gomorrah—noted that they fried in beef tallow. So of course I headed east from Marylebone to Holborn to sit with the off-duty cabbies in a cloud of cigarette and grease fire smoke. The fish was oily and filling; it tasted of Geroge Orwell and D.H. Lawrence. I was sated but I never went back.

Eamonn's A Dublin Chipper
Photo: Eamonn’s

Eamonn’s, what’s all this Nostalgia? The place carries an aroma of fried food and homesickness for another country and another city culture. It pines for another time when the cod was cheap and plentiful. The chandeliers and wood paneling, the display of Cadbury’s chocolates, the chalkboard menu are trying to hit Joycean notes in an American town founded by Scots. You know this stage setting very well; it’s in every city around the world where there’s an Irish pub. Despite the Pogues playing on the sound system, we’re in America: the ketchup proves it.

Guinness

By the way, grouper doesn’t work for fish and chips. The taste was fine, but the texture too Sponge Bob Square Pants. Haddock was, and still is, the best replacement for cod in these dark days. Some argue, and I’d agree, haddock tastes better anyway.

Grouper
Photo: Grouper with chips.

Fish and chips is a strange delicacy. Two hundred years ago one could walk across the Atlantic on a bridge of cod. Today the Atlantic species are dying of overfishing and of global warming. Cod remains strangely resistant to human efforts to manage the fisheries. Even as haddock has slightly recovered, cod remains desperately threatened. I asked Eamonn’s for the source of their cod. I received a very friendly e-mail telling me it was sourced from Boston, caught by “day boats and shipped daily” to Alexandria. The foodie press, of course, rarely mentions the issue of the cod fisheries. Their silence is the silence I imposed on myself as I ate my meal looking at the front door with the motto: “Thanks be to Cod.” Thank you Cod, fare thee well.

Fish and chips shops must sell nostalgia because what was once the cheapest fish, the fish that fed so much of the Western world, is now expensive and scarce. We can continue to eat fish and chips using the less threatened fish, but a chipper is anachronism, a reminder of common meals for common people. In Old Town’s touristy and upscale streets, we drank expensive Guinness and ate our expensive and rare piece of dayboat cod. Even though the night we went the cod was excellent (the fries were just ok), I don’t know if I’ll be back.

Personally, I think aestheticizing the sense of taste is a classist, morally indefensible notion, a function of privilege rather than of necessity, especially when it comes at such expense…

Isn’t the economy collapsing precisely because the means of human subsistence have metastasized into abstract, tradable commodities, removed from the reality of daily life except as tools of finance?

—From “Comic Strip,” by Chris Ware, The New Yorker, November 24, 2008

Cukes
Photo: Preparing cucumbers.

For a recent dinner party, I decided to make spiced pecans, jambalaya, cornbread, sweet cucumber and radish salad, buttered peas and onions, and, for dessert, a fig, pecan, and bourbon bundt cake. The recipes come from The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook and a special issue of Gourmet which focused on southern food. None of this is food I ate growing up in Orange County, New York, about two hours from New York City. Some of it I have tasted in my travels, some I had never eaten before. I prepared my ingredients and cooked, even as I felt the weight of my foodie readings on-line and in print, including my collection of cookbooks, which are sometimes screeds advocating a “lifestyle”: vegetarian, flexitarian, locavore, nose-to-tail, the oxymoron “humane butchery,” faddist and deconstructed, old-fashioned and real—the philosophy of cooking loomed in the background as I sliced radishes.

I was making dinner for some friends. I enjoy the process of the handmade, the scientific and the mystical union of grain and water and heat: I like to cook.

Corn bread
Photo: Cornbread in cast iron.

I cannot cook from inside some authentic tradition, reach back to my roots, for my roots have been all but ripped out and discarded in the typical American hybrid fashion. Joined with my parents’ rejection of their ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds was the fact that we ate everything growing up. Ask me what a typical dinner was at home and I have no answer: typical was not knowing what we were going to eat. Sure, the plate was often composed of a meat and a vegetable and a starch, but I remember nights of the multiple artichokes or tempura or burritos or stir-fries. For special breakfasts, we’d eat bagels and lox or bacon and eggs. At the bachelor pad of my newly single father, we’d eat pickled herring in sour cream or Italian subs with mozzarella balls that had been scooped from the deli counter’s stainless steel vat of brine. In the summer at home we grilled corn and burgers, we ate “big salads” kept in a giant green Tupperware bowl in the fridge. If we named our food culture it might be “American sundry.” We had traditions like eating lobster at my grandparents’ home in Maine, but that was more an accident of geography than generational continuity. Perhaps there was an authentic fish stew or a beloved recipe from my grandmother for a uncooked cranberry relish that told us we were with family.

I held on to the mythology of a family recipe in the form of that cranberry relish. I ate it every year growing up and disdained the sad, canned, sweet cranberry sauce so often found on other tables. One year, far from family in Hawaii, my roommate and I were hosting a grand Thanksgiving. I called my grandmother for the cranberry relish recipe, and she said, “Well, it’s fresh cranberries, oranges, walnuts, and sugar, you just put them in the blender. It tastes better if you make it the day ahead.” I was taking notes, feeling pride in the passing of generational knowledge. She sighed, “I don’t know the exact amounts. You’ll find the recipe on the back of any bag of cranberries you buy in the supermarket.” Ah. And so I did. My tradition is therefore taken from wherever I choose to take it. At this dinner party I steal some southern cooking and make it mine.

Dishes
Photo: Cooking.

I steal from Naples, Laos, Hunan, Vietnam, Catalonia, Lowcountry South, Southern California, New England, Bolivia (more Chuquisaca than La Paz), Lebanon, Belgium, Morocco. Yet, I try to buy local food, local beef, pork, kale, radishes. I eat everything, but I sometimes revert to meatless eating because I apologize less to chickpeas than to chickens. And I really really love beets. I peel, I chop, I fry, I boil. Instead of grace, we have taken to saying a Zen prayer I found in The Tassajara Recipe Book: “We venerate the three treasures, and are thankful for this food, the work of many people, and the suffering of other forms of life.” Or sometimes it’s just a quick “Itadakimasu” (“I humbly receive” in Japanese).

Fig cake batter
Photo: Fig cake batter.

I am not much attracted to deconstructed food, food outside the context of shared enjoyment. I am not much interested in fads per se, but how can one ignore the news of what might be good, or more importantly, what might be rediscovered? The older I get and the more I cook the more I believe in simple food, housewife food, whether that be a housewife in Mumbai or Paris or Alexandria (Virginia or Egypt). I must steal recipes and make my own book of classics. Some favorites now include chickpeas and pasta from Naples (or rather, from inland Campania), a faux-Japanese steak salad from a Jamie Oliver cookbook, a “Moroccan” lentil soup from Fields of Greens, and now a jambalaya from the Lee Bros.

My aesthetics are in the work, the actual preparation and application of heat. I make dishes. I feed people. I dislike the word “foodie” because it implies some of us are not influenced by food, are not making conscious or unconscious choices about what we eat. Are we (fortunate ones) not eaters a few times a day? Perhaps you do not cook or think much about food, but if you eat, someone else cooked, someone picked, prepared, canned, and something died to feed you.

I like to cook and I have the time, so this is not a chore, but a privilege of leisure and wealth. I recognize this, and try to honor the food, where it came from, and the people that brought it to me. Itadakimasu indeed.

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