I never thought I would say this, but I may be “foie gras-ed out.” My friend, Jaimee, would probably come to Wisconsin to check my temperature if she read this. Maybe my friend Millie would too.
In days past, I used to dream of having more time in Chicago to dine on Graham Elliot’s foie gras lollipops. I used to hope to see foie gras on more common menus in other places. Locally, in Wisconsin, I ordered it most recently when I saw a chef’s rendition of a foie gras crême brûlée. It was beautifully done, so much so that we ordered two. It isn’t part of the culinary lexicon of most Wisconsin commercial kitchens, only the bold and higher-end establishments. Its scarcity has always made me want it more.
When foie gras was recently featured in Art Culinaire, a quarterly food magazine that doubles as an art gallery of modern, international cuisine, I cheered at the resurgence of traditional charcuterie.
In my life, I have always towed the line of never buying lobes of foie gras, because of the way in which “gavage,” the force-feeding of ducks, occurs. I always approached the line, knowing that it was something that I ought to teach my students to prepare, but I never crossed it until this year.
Personally, I told and still tell myself that someday I will become enlightened and be a vegetarian, with enough practice of inner patience and inner connection to the universe and animals as a whole.
I admit my weakness. Foie gras has been at the crux of a very real, gastronomic dilemma for me. I have only ever taken a fair-weather stand on the ethics of foie gras. If the animal were already dead and people were already selling the lobes, why not eat it?
I always ate it whenever it was presented to me, because I love the taste and feel of it. I love the decadence of it. It is the only organ meat that I would call unctuous. So what has happened?
Cookies, especially small ones, remind of Mrs. Thomas, my first piano teacher in Port Washington, Wisconsin.
By the time I was four and old enough to follow my brother, Gus, into her home to take piano lessons, she was fully white-haired. She had friendly, Mrs. Santa Claus glasses and an up-do to match. Her thin, patterned print dresses loosely swayed around her legs whenever she answered the door. She moved slowly and very intentionally to welcome us. We might have been among her youngest students, but despite the difference in age, she understood us, our motivation, and the root of our happiness.
I took piano lessons, because I would do almost anything for a free, homemade cookie. And Mrs. Thomas made the perfect sugar cookie, a slight crunch on the outside and chewiness on the inside. She appreciated my desire to play piano and encouraged it. She didn’t know the whole story of why I had become her student.
I took piano lessons as a four year old, because I was born with a jealous heart.
Mom says that I was jealous of the time she spent on the piano bench teaching Gus to read music. I was desperate for her undivided attention. She is right about that, but the sibling rivalry only ever reached actionable heights after Gus would come home bragging about how great it was to go to the piano teacher. He talked non stop about the sugar cookies he loved, not the music.
Mrs. Thomas baked and handed out different kinds of cookies made daily by her. How this woman kept up with all that baking and all those students will forever be a mystery to me. The cookies were never too big and as I recall, the polite thing was only to eat one, maybe two cookies. Every piano lesson was coupled with a lesson in social graces.
When I reached Mrs. Thomas’ designated ‘age of acceptance,’ Mom finally offered me the opportunity to take piano lessons too, to have that special time with her on the piano bench.
I loved how Mrs. Thomas laughed and trilled at the way I played. Her joy fueled mine. The cookies always came after the lesson, after we were done playing the piano. A small plate sat to the right of the music and, I believe, I played for her praise and for her joy, but mostly for those cookies.
Soon after I started excelling at music, Mom pulled me out of lessons. Gus didn’t want to play this instrument that he quietly loved if his younger sister was going to make a competition out of it.
It was the right thing to do.
Gus went on over the years to play by ear, to play by heart. At every Christmas holiday together, he sits for hours playing out his newest heart songs and all the classic favorites of the season. His joy is apparent and resonates through the very notes and chords he strikes. His wrists move like water over the keys and the rhythm in his legs, that had to keep an invisible beat through every church sermon to the chagrin of my mother, has its rightful place under the piano.
By contrast, I played and learned new skills and gained agility in my finger to impress Mrs. Thomas, to make her smile. Back when I was four, I wanted each cookie, each an acknowledgement from Mrs. Thomas of a job well done. The expression, “Wanna cookie?” that sheds light on people’s basic desire to receive recognition, was already mine from a young age, and the truthfully, the answer may always be “yes.”
Mrs. Thomas baked and handed out cookies made daily to her students at every piano lesson. How this woman kept up with all that baking and all those students will forever be a mystery to me. The cookies were never too big and as I recall, the polite thing was only to eat one, maybe two cookies. Every piano lesson was coupled with a lesson in social graces. Mom offered me the opportunity to take piano lessons too, to have that special time with her on the piano bench.
Back when I was four, I wanted each cookie, each an acknowledgement from Mrs. Thomas of a job well done. The expression, “Wanna cookie?” that sheds light on people’s basic desire to receive recognition was already mine from a young age, and the truthfully, the answer may always be “yes.”
Chocolate in almost anything is good. I was nostalgic in looking at my old blog posts and pulled this one back up, because of how much fun I had cooking with Jules Blanc. She is a pastry chef extraordinaire. She calls me “Cocoa Bean,” one of my favorite nicknames. I’m hoping to do more pastry work someday. For now, I rely on Saucy Guy to do a lot of the baking while I chase my Saucy Boy (who is nearing 2 years old) around the house. The photo above is evidence of Saucy Guy’s genius. He put dark chocolate into the bottom of a pecan pie. He elevated the pie right into the atmosphere!
Archived from 2010
My apologies for being remiss in writing. I have been altogether lost in the rapture of chocolates, cooking for another Taoist retreat in Colorado (read more in Mind Body Meditation Food), and food writing in other spaces. I am back and excited to share culinary adventures with you again.
Valentine’s Day began early with the mailing of exquisite chocolate truffle figs from my new Paella Sister (see Secrets from a Paella Sister to learn more about Jules) who wanted to share with me what a good brandy can do for Mediterranean figs and truffle cream.
See www.bobondehigo.com for rabitos royale and experience a plump explosion of rich berry-like flavors and cacoa in your mouth. These Spanish truffles come individually wrapped in silver in a box that has a nice little nesting spot for each chocolate. In sliding the box open, I felt like I might be receiving an undeserved award of some sort—and it was in a way. Although the figs are dried, their juiciness makes them feel almost like fresh figs in the mouth. I ate one a day for breakfast until they were gone (and somehow managed to share some with my husband).
Along with the box of truffles came a singular bar of Blanxart organic dark chocolate, a bar that tastes best when you suck on it, allowing it to develop stronger flavors and to stick to the roof of your mouth in a decadent masquerade of mysteriously smooth peanut butter textures. This bar I did not share. Not everyone appreciates the purity of this bar’s cacoa taste or its roasted simplicity. In some ways, this bar is for purists. See http://www.blanxart.com/www/index.php?lang=en for more on this great chocolate bar.
Next in my line of recent chocolate experiences, I road tripped to Madison to see Gail Ambrosius’ chocolate shop and wrote the following article on her single-origin chocolate box for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel—http://www.jsonline.com/features/food/115525774.html?page=1
As an emerging food memoirist, I am beginning to write beyond the pages of this website and continue to look for new food finds about which to write. If you have any suggestions, FB message me.
Ambrosius’ chocolates are exceptional and almost express a pastry chef’s knowledge of combining exotic spices against a creamy backdrop. She contrasts textures in each bite which stimulate the palette. There is passion in Ambrosius’ truffles, and perhaps there is no simpler way to tell someone you love him than by handing him a box of these chocolates. And yes, Ambrosius really is her last name. Stay tuned to hear more Ambrosius’ flavor profile influences in an upcoming feature on her mother’s chocolate pudding and Ambrosius’ jarred chocolate sauce that sells in her stores.
Lastly, but only chronologically speaking, I learned to do an amazing thing last week. I made a chocolate mold for a gluten free sponge cake under the supervision of pastry chef, Jules (aka Paella Sister) at the Taoist retreat I mentioned. We combined melted, chopped chocolate with coconut butter, patiently spun it around a tinfoil lined cake pan, and alternately walked outside into the cold Colorado mountain air (post-snow storm) and stuck the pan in the freezer for intensive chilling, until we could work the chocolate up the sides of the pan with a pastry spatula. The end result was a sponge cake with a layer of brandied blueberries topped with coconut cream (none of that “light” stuff) sitting inside of a beautiful chocolate mold. I never knew how good gluten free cake could be, or for that matter, how sexy coconut butter is when mixed with chocolate. Once Jules sends me the recipe, I hope to share it with you.
“Remember to use one green one and one red,” Bonnie said as she glanced at the peppers in the colander, “they taste different. If you don’t, it won’t be the same.” She gently rinsed them. Her blue eyes looked up, twinkled, and paused on mine. As if by habit from her work as a Long Island nurse, she spoke as though she wanted to remind me to take all of my meds, not to skip doses out of convenience. “You’ve got to have the right ingredients to make macaroni salad for Fire Island,” she cautioned, smiling.
Bonnie seemed healthy today. As she set up the cutting boards, her lively movements never revealed her body’s historic battles. To date, she had beaten cancers that afflicted her pancreas and liver.
In 1983, doctors told her that people with Stage IV pancreatic and liver cancer survive only 4% of the time, “maybe a couple of years.” Bonnie told them that she had four children who needed to be raised, by her. She promptly dismissed their stats.
To the surprise of those doctors, Bonnie went into remission—a medical miracle. But in 1997, breast cancer separately arrived. With children in college or working, she underwent chemotherapy again and joined a women’s cancer survivor group that took fishing trips together. Today was a good day, several years before another prognosis would arrive, the fatal one.
Bonnie’s son and I had planned a week-long vacation on Fire Island. He and I dated long distance, so we flew from Boston to Florida and back, Florida to New York, and Boston to New York, regularly. Bonnie was forever picking one of us up at an airport or train station, so that we could spend time together. Her son had requested that we make his favorite island dish, so it was time for me to learn how to make macaroni salad.
Bonnie held up the green pepper in her hand before placing it on the cutting board. Glossy and plump, it was familiar to me but never made it onto my grocery lists. Between mergers and acquisitions in my life as an attorney, I ate mainly at the building’s catered cafeteria, high end restaurants in downtown Boston, and out of a cupboard in my Cambridge condo filled with cans of ‘healthy’ soups.
There had never been time to notice that a red pepper tasted different from a green.
ARCHIVED FROM 2009
“In chemical farming, it’s about the plant, pesticides, herbicides and designing the plant to take it all up. The focus is on the plant. In organic farming, the focus is on the soil. You feed the soil; then you do the worms, air, microbes, sun and water … all forces of the earth working on the soil. The same thing is true of a person’s life. You can treat yourself chemically with all the ‘shoulds’, ‘oughtas’ or you can feel the soil that nurtures the spirit [organically]. You know what feeds you: good relationships, food, good music. If you live chemically, you beat yourself up.”
Ed believes in the truth of the old saying, “As above, so below.” Put simply, he proclaims, “if you nurture the soil, the dang gone seed knows how to grow.” He claims that when you start messing with the seed, things don’t turn out the right way. Undoing the hard-wiring of the seed through genetic modification and through the use of chemicals during plant growth attempts to fix something that would otherwise already work.
When asked what Ed would say to people who don’t know understand the buzz about organics, he responds very thoughtfully, “It’s hard to talk someone into organics. I’ve not seen that happen to people. I’ve seen people do it out of self-interest and then out of enlightened self-interest.” Ed identifies different philosophical levels of understanding organics that influence choosing organic foods. There are the ones who say, “the food I’ve been eating messes with my allergies. So, these people choose organics.”
By contrast, he says, “The enlightened belief is that it’s going to be good for you and the earth.” According to Ed, other enlightened levels of understanding occur when, “You look at it and you think, ‘oh, yeah.’ You really get it. The last thing is that you do it, because you are people of the soil. You make an identification with the sun, the light and the air.” With an almost Walt Whitman-esque inspired sense of connection, he hesitates, not wanting to sound like a hippie despite his conviction to the underlying meaning of what he has just said and is about to say, “You are part of the light.” He confesses honestly, “I’m at all four levels at different times.”
Ed Taylor grew up farming. His cool blue eyes twinkle as he talks about the touch of soil and raising food naturally. He recalls his family storing potatoes in the ground under pine straw with a sheet of tin over them.
He began farming first in Rome, Georgia when as he says, “conventional was organic,” because there were no pesticides. Ed keenly points out that what they had been doing as farmers was simply “conventional, not chemical. We weren’t talking organics in the ‘60’s,’. . . It was after the 50’s and the war with the nitrates from munitions plants that were left over that we had pesticides. One day after I had been spraying, something I had sprayed made me sick. Something about that doesn’t seem right. I started reading stuff about organics and everything about it made sense . . . I would have a hard time thinking it wasn’t ‘sensical.”” Given Ed’s background as an engineer, he had been trained to make observations and use scientific methods to deduce and predict causes and effects. Through observation, he believes it is pretty easy to make sense of organic farming. He sees the results in more vibrant, flavorful foods, and he doesn’t get sick from the chemicals anymore.
ARCHIVED FROM 2009 (Note: The husband I refer to is now an ex-husband, great guy. We had an amicable divorce.)
I am a woman obsessed. I sleep with one eye to the window and think of stories of how cowboys sleep. By the morning, I conclude that they don’t. After traveling 800 plus miles to Atlanta with my husband, we had stopped at the Motel X at 1:00a.m not wanting to disturb relatives or friends only a mile away. My husband was traveling for continuing education, but my main mission was to spend time with relatives and purchase San Marzano tomatoes in bulk at the Dekalb Farmer’s Market.
We drove straight from Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia. After thirteen hours in our packed Subaru, we wanted sleep.
To the Edge of the Perimeter of Atlanta and the Ends of the Earth for San Marzanos
At the edge of Atlanta’s perimeter, the legendary circle that outlines Atlanta and separates suburbs from city life, Motel X looked like an ivory beachside motel with a rail-guarded concrete balcony running the length of each floor. One oversized street lamp in the middle of the parking lot towered above the main buildings’ three stories, illuminating the space like a beacon— signaling refuge for the weary at $29.99 a night. Its height dominates the scene over the clerk’s office building with its awkward, disproportionate size compared to surrounding structures.
A security guard stands in front of his car at the entrance to the parking lot nestled behind construction on the tributary road that feeds into the lot from the highway. My husband idles the car, while I go in to witness a transaction that moves in slow motion. The patron, a balding African American, in his early forties, is trying to fill out a form for a room. A small bullet proof collection window with just enough space underneath for the patron’s hand to slide money, separates him from the Indian clerk. The patron’s hands shake, and he cannot complete the form. Maybe he’s not literate? No, five minutes pass, and he is still staring at the form moving his pen back and forth over the paper as if trying to steady himself over the lines. The clerk finally says in his accent marked by a level of gentility and professional wisdom, “It’s fine. You don’t need to fill it out.” It seems clear that the patron is having a rough night. He nearly walks away without his change before he being called back to retrieve it. I realize now that his distracted nature and shakiness might signal alcohol or drugs. What strikes me more is that the clerk seems unphased.
After learning that the sign’s price per night was one only offered before 7p.m. and room rates hike up based on the number of people per room for the night, like Dorothy in Oz at the moment of recognizing she’s not in Kansas anymore, I begin to get nervous that there might be a dead witch somewhere. I leave the clerk to tell my husband about the room rates.
As my husband and I confer, the security guard flags us to move the car forward while a younger man in a bulky orange and white faux fox fur coat, draped in dangling necklaces, and topped with a baseball cap cocked to the side, jaggedly walks toward the clerk’s office moving as if his knees and hips want to slide out in front of him and separate at each joint.
Our car window was open to the thirty-something watchman with smooth skin, and I ask a naïve question hoping for honesty, but recognizing that my question was inappropriate. I glanced at the fox furred man and turned to the guard, “So, is it really safe for us to stay here?”
“Well, sure, I mean, I’m here.” His voice reflected his good nature, but didn’t sound secure about being there. I had rarely seen security guards at hotels standing in parking lots like a sentinel. He sounded as though his body was slowly deflating a balloon when he spoke, making me think that some kind of crime must have already happened at the hotel. I pressed him further.
“Do you think it’s safe for us to stay here?” I say again with a nod toward the man I saw.
He leaned closer in toward the window as if letting us in on the motel’s secret, “Well, how long are you staying?”
“Well, okay.” He rocks onto his back leg and stands upright again in a way that makes me think of a man snapping back his suspenders with a flair of confidence. “You know, I’m here.” He tries to smile.
That the number of days matters is not so reassuring to me. A stealth car whizzes past us in the lot, “Not a shabby car,” my husband says indignantly, frustrated with my caution, “it can’t be too unsafe.”
“Well, sure, not if you’re the drug dealer. I’m really not comfortable here. My intuition tells me we should find somewhere else.”
“But, we can’t shop around for motels all night! It’s time to sleep.” My husband is on the verge of irritation and condescension has crept into his voice. We leave and go up the road to another motel. Inside the lobby, this motel has the same bullet-proof window; but when I ask the lady whether it is safe for us to stay at the motel, she looks me straight in the eye with both surprise and confidence, “Yes!”
It doesn’t actually feel much safer than the other motel, except that the lighting seems broader over the whole parking lot. Also, there is no construction that makes the parking lot feel inescapable. No shaking people filling out forms. We head to our room with the laptops, luggage, and cooler only to run into what might have been a woman of the night, based on the strange dialogue taking place between the intoxicated young man and woman. To avoid them, we carry our things up to the second floor to grab the elevator. Outside the elevator is a large purse. It appears unguarded until we look across at the balcony where a woman done up with a beehive Beyoncé hairdo stares back at us. We step into the elevator which creaks its fatigue. For a moment we look at each other, wondering if we might be stuck in the elevator at this motel at 1:30 a.m. It moves again. Thank God.
When we reach our sad little room that smells like smoke despite the non-smoking sign on the door, we scan the room, and decide to sleep in our clothes. It looks as suspect as the activity outside it. People are walking the balconies on the lookout for others at such an odd hour of the morning. In the room next to us, we hear bedroom sounds, making us realize that the rate per person had the same effect and meaning that it did at the other motel. I send a text to a friend letting her know where we are. I fell half asleep reminding myself that I am here to provide company on the long ride, to see family, and to buy San Marzano tomatoes. Tonight, the culinary mission seems slightly out of proportion with my current predicament but was still worth it. I go to bed, anxious for the break of day.