Recent talk of Nobel Prizes and god particles filled me with curiosity last week. Then again, I spend most of my day navigating the glamorous world of charred meat so it really doesn’t take much to astonish me these days. Some would argue that a cook’s relationship to protein does have its own cosmic story. Everything I handle once lived here on earth with us but faced its end at the hands of something bigger than itself, that is true. But generally it’s difficult to find poetry in the day to day. The physiology of life, the predictability of heat and its effects on blood, flesh, sinew, bone. Most of the time it just feels like cooking. And none of it is even half as mysterious or interesting as Romanesco.
I admit to staring at Romanesco a little too long when I first laid eyes on it, not unlike that moment when you walk past a beautiful woman on the street. I think it was the mesmerizing quality, its ability to capture order so naturally, that got my attention. It was the kind of thing that anyone who spends their days creating order, pattern and pleasure for others would truly appreciate. I see it in designers, musicians, artisans–those who work tirelessly and with purpose to achieve magic.
Romanesco was cultivated in 16th Century Italy, where my culinary universe itself began to expand like an infinite black mass. My wife told me to take a trip with her that she had already been on (she always wants me to see cool things that she has already seen). We walked through ruins, across sleepy countrysides and vineyards, and over rocky shorelines that Vikings haunted. From a hilltop patio, we ate Branzino from the Mediterranean and watched the sun set over the sea as church bells echoed from heaven. It was a brief but perfect introduction to food for pleasure; food for company. I remember everything we said and how doing nothing in particular felt full and complete.
When we got back to New York, I realized that I had just been hustling and bullshitting my way through this town with no order or purpose. I felt like I had wasted most of my days before her being an ornery drunk at my favorite bar after pulling obscene shifts as lowest-common-denominator in various shitshow kitchens. I wanted to tell my parents that I was doing something important and working toward my dreams, but I was really just binging on free booze and skating by on some good instincts and passable knife skills.
It was a dark time, but somehow required reading for becoming a real-life New Yorker. Apparently, that can sometimes involve bathing in the wretchedness of your own shit until your hard work results in something incredible. Things did get a little better before they got worse, and then they got better again. Now life is just happening and I see everything before and after me like distant stars with their inevitable beginnings and endings. Romanesco.
The most tedious if not practical part of preparing Romanesco is the shock. If you’ve never shocked a vegetable before, then you might want to try at least once and enjoy the lightly maintained, nutty sweetness and perfect texture that comes from a good old-fashioned shocking. It basically involves creating an ice bath for your blanched vegetable. As the bewitching love-child of broccoli and cauliflower, Romanesco is the perfect candidate for this extra little step. Such a beguiling character can not simply be boiled, broiled, steamed, or fried. It must be treated with the care and attention deserved of its purposeful little breed.
It’s the season of Romanesco at work and no, my daily interactions with the beauty probably do not awe me as they used to. Just as the love I feel today does not much resemble the love I felt at 18. Now I just see it come and go on the arm of vibrant (and probably much wealthier, more well-connected) lobster and quietly reminisce about first-kisses and nervous hands fumbling in the dark. The mysteries of its shape and origins, though, cannot just be given away to the highest paying customer. To have appreciation for things beyond calculation is a treasure bestowed to a lucky few. I am happy to say that the chronicle of how it came to me over space and time – that will always be mine.
I am the proud owner of a dirty, mustard yellow Hamilton Beach Scovill blender circa your grandma’s house, early 80’s. She smokes up and makes the sound of a truck in desperate need of a new transmission if I run her on anything past stir. My wife is convinced that she’s possessed and this tenement is going down in flames if I push her too far. I told her the sparks were just how she communicated her love to us and that she’s so thankful about still being useful to us, even after all these years. I’m not sure I know how to explain to anyone that I just can’t quit this old girl.
Like most New Yorkers, we’ve developed some creative habits around our space-challenged kitchen. We seem to fall into extreme food patterns like doing takeout for so long that we forget the kitchen exists. Or like this last Spring when we went on a focused if not misguided mission to experiment with a single ingredient. I will admit our gluten-free flour baking stint did produce several rather interesting sand-flavored biscuit recipes. We did it for science.
In the summer I decided to revive a new-ish project I began the year before that yielded some surprisingly successful results. I called it The Hot Sauce Factory, and what I learned from the previous year was that the hot sauce factory would need my ugly little blender as much as she needed the job.
S pice is serious business at our house. The wife pretty much keeps peppers in a satchel around her neck in the off chance that an unexpected meal is in her future where she won’t have access to any spicy accoutrement. I was born in the South where hot sauce is actually a food group. I knew as I wandered up to Union Square Market this year, I’d be able to assess the available pepper batches and make some decisions about whether or not The Hot Sauce Factory would be in commission.
I could almost sense their presence from down the block. How could I not feel energy from a plant with the power to move blood, sweat and bowels? So few things in life have such natural potency. Eventually I came upon them.. Fatalii, Scotch Bonnet, Cherry Bomb, Habanero… enough pepper varieties to make an arsenal of military-grade pepper spray that could take down an army. All of them had come in from ever-fruitful Eckerton Hill Farms in Pennsylvania. I carefully gathered my soldiers for this year and threw them into the crisper when I got home, committed to dealing with them after going through some fermentation books I’d borrowed from a friend.
Last year’s Scotch Bonnet batch had been a resounding success. I’d brainstormed with a fellow Southerner on the type of pepper and the details of the recipe and we’d made our first ever batch of hot sauce. We’d found some tiny condiment bottles and handed them out to friends — thrilled with the gift but perhaps a little disappointed with the size (that’s what she said?) I tried to compare our offering to saffron or truffles, such awesomeness could not just be duplicated and divvied out with total abandon. We faced the the reality was that we were still in our experimentation phase and hadn’t made enough to last through the year. This time, I knew I had to be more prepared.
The one thing I realized quickly about preparing hot sauce was the protective gear involved. It really did start to feel like I was in a lab at the CDC handling some new virus that had come in on the back of monkey hiding in a Pacific shipping container. I’d made due with a pair of old glasses, some fresh cleaning gloves, and a bandana around my mouth and nose. So really I just looked more like a fashion-challenged gang banger than a highly-trained disease containment specialist.
I blended, I mixed, I stirred. My wife screamed from the bedroom as she caught an unexpected wift (Not to worry, I found her hiding safely in the closet with a wet towel around her head. She said it was fine, kind of like practicing for a CIA training mission.) We heard the neighbors coughing from their adjacent apartments, unknowingly breathing in the steaming witch’s brew emanating from The Hot Sauce Factory.
With the completion of each blend, I had to carefully transfer the sauce into each jar. Old, ugly blender was excellent in this capacity. She tipped her little mouth over theirs in a loving kiss, giving over the precious elixir. She needed no protective gear or wet towel. She was impervious to the truly formidable materials in her belly. It was just another day on the job for the old girl. With the final transfer completed, I cleaned her up and put her back in her corner on the shelf, where she’d wait for another day where she could come down and prove that she belonged here in our forgotten little kitchen.
I may or may not believe in the end days.
It started with a Cormac McCarthy binge the summer that I got to New York and culminated into the night that superstorm Sandy arrived to the East Village. We lost power at about 8pm after the ConEd building blew up. Overcome with curiosity, we ventured outside to experience a blacked-out Manhattan, the stuff of pre-gentrification urban legend.
Bars were bustling with candlelit faces while cars blasting bass beats sped through intersections. Tourists and locals wandered the streets in hushed fascination, heady from cocktails and the Gotham City version of New York all around them. Some of the nearby blocks were being closely guarded by old-time residents holding brooms and making sure we weren’t looters.
After about an hour, we knew that we had to leave our home and find something we could recognize about New York City. At dawn we headed uptown, geriatric beagle in tow, to lights and friends.. to work and normalcy. What a privilege that was — to just decide that you want to do something and make it so. Not a single bomb or angry mob in sight. No political protesters or well suited army to sidestep. Just some down trees and overturned garbage cans blocking the sidewalk. We could just leave and start fresh because that’s what we had been doing our entire lives. We could let it all go so quickly, everything but each other.
All these years I had believed that California or Florida would be the first to go. One bursting into flames right before being buried under a mudslide and floating away, the other sinking into ocean and being preserved in myths like a poor man’s Atlantis (think more neon bikini shops and 7-11s). Every day I go outside and I think I’m invincible or important, that I made it out of my hometown and landed in the greatest city on earth and so I did something. Then things happen. A storm takes your grandmother’s house away. A fire consumes your vacation home. An army tells you to leave and never look back. Or, people say horrible things about you because you dare want more than them, than your parents, than everyone else around you.
Every day, there is some evil in the world that tries to take you down and every day, you have to get up, stare it in the face and tell it to fuck off. Prove that you’re better than that. I’m tired just thinking about it.
The artist makes something out of nothing. So now I’m going to just write and see if it becomes something. Where there was nothing, now there is something. And when the world ends, I’ll still have my mind and my dreams and my family. And I’ll still want more out of this world than it’s willing to give sometimes.
I was going through some of my old photos and found these scanned sketches from my art school stint. This was long before New York, culinary school, marriage and everything else. The age of innocence. (Actually, probably more like the age of drunkenness.) I think I was a little too obsessed with women. Also, I like bears? Honestly, wish I had time to do this more.
In the winter of ‘99 I was with my platoon, sitting high atop an up-armored Humvee in body armor with a .50 Cal, cruising around small landmine infested and bullet riddled villages of northern Bosnia.
During those days, much of my time was spent studying the countryside through rain-soaked goggles; a frigid, gray landscape that we all affectionally referred to as “Swiss cheese”. We policed the area, talked to the locals, guarded high ranking officials and marked landmines. There was really nothing else to do. It was actually pretty boring for a young soldier like myself.
At one point, we were driving through a village to check for developments and make sure the right people were moving in. I remember it was raining (it was always raining) and we stopped in the middle of town to talk to some farmers. A little further up, we caught a conversation with some soccer players before deciding to head back to base camp. I was able to see all around from the gunner’s hatch and caught quite a site in the distance beside a Swiss cheese house: two very large hairy pigs – mounted grunting beasts – making love amidst the war-torn landscape.
I watched with a sort of boyish fascination. Like a kid in my bedroom peering out my window in the dark to see a silhouette of the neighbors having sex. It was a pretty surreal thing to see in a land that reeked mostly of devastation. We were on the move so we didn’t stick around, but at that point I had really seen enough to keep the memory alive for a very long time. What the hell were these giant, curly-haired pigs? I thought they looked like wild boar but .. not really.
Years later, a buddy of mine told me about the Mangalitsa: the great woolly pig of the Balkans. This was it! It was no Loch Ness or Bigfoot, but a real live thing. And not only real, but apparently delicious.
Not long after we read the Times piece, Mangalitsa began to appear on every charcuterie plate in New York. Yes, we fell victim to the craze and discovered for ourselves that the horny little bastards were as delicious as reported. Everything familiar and satisfying about cured meat but with a gamey, complex newness that made us hate everything about ourselves for being common, lowly food-trend victims.
I’m just thankful to have a new memory to replace the Bosnian lovers. If you saw what I did, you would know how hard that was.