This week I want to promote my second, more readable, edition of Cookbook for the Poor (COPYRIGHT© 2013, 2021 by Freeflow Publishing), which will be available after Tuesday, May 11 (I’ll make sure to include a link in the next Friday Freeflow). It’s a “Best Of” pick after a mid-career point of hack writing. I got the idea from a biography a friend lent me about the famous French chef of Victorian England, Alexis Soyer. He was active in advocating soup kitchens during the Irish famine and wrote a very popular pamphlet, The Poor Man’s Regenerator. I’ve picked out an essay with its signature recipe from my book and hope you can find the time to read between meals. I’ve also included a restaurant review I wrote back in 2013 to add to my application for food critic for the Post Standard in Syracuse, NY. (I didn’t get the job, of course). Fine cookery is a must for those who choose poverty in moderation. We’re not teaching our young how to be happily successful in the kitchen or in life. This book won’t do either, but it will help pass the time on a rainy day with a slow chili. ¡Salud!
I am a cook. I have been for a long time. My first job was dishwasher in an Italian-American restaurant. I got hired by the same chef who packed school lunches for my mother when she was a little girl. My grandparents owned a fine dining steak and potatoes restaurant on Route 5, before the thruway had its say about bypassing humanity throughout New York State. The chef’s name was Eddie Masters. He changed his surname from its original geographical certainty of “Masterangelo” in order to be accepted into a white Anglo-Saxon country club. I guess Eddie loved golf more than pride.
He would often come up behind me as I was washing dishes, thrust his forearm between my legs, hoist me in the air, and land punches up and down my arms and legs. Probably getting back at the memory of a little girl having her lunches prepared by the chef. I would wake up the next day black and blue, begging my mother not to call and complain.
What a life the chef had to the eyes of a sixteen-year old boy! Red convertible car, a stocked bar, interesting people, dressed up and laughing, clinking of silverware, linen smells, surprisingly pleasant garbage odors. Eddie kept a loaded .38 in his knife drawer. The cook’s line was directly behind the dish station. He would throw pans at the wall in front of me. Bang! More than once I imagined my last pot scrubbed.
It was tough work. Eddie called up my mother once to tell her how capable of a worker I was. True enough I was terrified not to be.
After the dinner rush he would have me and another dish boy peel garlic into fish tubs. It made the flesh beneath our fingernails burn for days. Such was the trial of a dishwasher, my first foray into the working class kitchen.
Then I went to college and studied history, I guess subconsciously intent on never leaving the working class kitchen. By then I was a capable prep cook and student of “the line”. Recently I read in a science magazine that high-naveled humanity is biologically more suited for sports than those with lower belly-buttons. It means better balance, which explains my rapid rise in the line-cooking ranks at an early age. I performed well. Very well.
At the same time I was raising my first daughter on $6.00/hr. I had a vegetable garden every year out of college, and came across my first cookbook bought on purpose. James Beard’s Theory and Practice of Good Cooking. What fascinated me most about learning to cook outside of the professional kitchen, was the art itself. How to make something wonderfully satisfying out of practically nothing. To wake up with the sun dreaming a soup du jour. My daughter was fed the experiments from my hovel kitchen. Why pour milk on processed cereal when she can have buckwheat pancakes? And how affordable it was to roast a chicken that I could purchase after just 45 minutes of paid labor.
We were poor. Living check to check, always in debt, barely making the rent, and a week late at that. Still, I insisted on teaching myself to cook. Gas and water were included in the rent. So I could afford to be hygienic and also create my heart’s every culinary desire (limited by ability of course).
I remember a prep cook at the time who admired my scratch cooking methods admitting that he tried it once, but found it to be too expensive. This confused me. What was he buying processed that was cheaper than a head of garlic or bag of flour?
And the joy of cooking! Seasonal ecstasy. The smell of the pork laid in fat sizzling on a windy Saturday morning in November. The rush of good feelings flowing throughout your body. I sing the mind electric! That sort of euphoria which only good ingredients and time to use them can inspire.
It is not expensive to eat. First, one must dream well and then love well. No life should cook for itself only. Not for long periods of time anyway. There should be a muse for art and creation, even if imagined. But appreciative ghosts only last so long. That is why this book works best for the young who are ready for new love, or the old who have given up the ghost and no longer strive. It will be replete with anecdote and story made from my writer’s desk of young woe and wonder, but consist of few recipes. The latter which I provide will be tried, maybe true, but sure enough, everlasting. This book is not for anyone with an affordable car payment, nor for the couple who can afford a $2500 couch more than once in their lifetimes. Read the practicing cook’s inspirations while bubbling stocks on a Sunday afternoon. He might have some infusion to offer that will improve digestion.
A Thursday Afternoon
This is a perfect day! The town is erupting with autumn color. Kevin came to my door—not Jeff, although Jeff came later, at the moment I turned to Rose and said, “I hate my life”. But Kevin came first. He peeked his head in the doorway and swore, pretending to be Jeff. We went out to breakfast at Joe’s dirty diner and filled up on bacon omelets and Italian toast soaked in butter. I cannot successfully relate to you the actual, incredible horror of Wade’s Diner in Oswego. If you could stand five minutes of the pent-up aching misery showing on the faces of its clientele, or swallow your food with ease after speaking to one of God’s dumbest earth creatures (the American diner waitress); if you could stand the nicotine-stained floral pattern on the wall, just talking and chewing for five minutes and not be moved by the hideousness, chances are that you don’t read anything outside the celebrity sex chronicles in the aisle of the supermarket anyway, and therefore my little book does not exist for you. Chances are that you are one of these zombies terrifying me today. If so, then the chance is great that a pig is luckier than you.
When I am bitter I can paint quite a negative portrait of Oswego. When I am bitter, which is often, I hate the people of America, or any truck stop of a country of pot-bellied, middle-aged, dangerously educated human beings. When I am happy, any moment can be the start of a perfect day. I feel smart to myself and overwhelmingly secure and fizzing inside. At these moments of clarity there are two of me; one is constantly skipping, punching at the air and singing, while the other pretends not to notice and thinks only of how to subdue his friend, the incorrigible opposite. Today there are two of me walking, and there is Kevin. I have fixed the holes in the ceiling, smoothed joint cement over the cracks, and said the word “Dostoevsky” to myself three times, which repeated just twice on a fall day becomes an incantation. Blue sky, white clouds, St. Petersburg in 1865. Dostoevsky. Next to you stands a constant reminder of death. Your sister is white with the cholera. You shit in a box, and the richest gentleman on the street walks with a cane and dresses smart, but smells like an outhouse. The middle class of Dostoevsky’s neighborhood are intelligent enough to seize the opportunity to read and practice their signatures, while in the most ironic juxtaposition, the coddled of today, have dropped their intelligence to such a degree that it can be read like a book laboriously written by a thirty-one year old insurance agent, a man who reads the Sunday paper and watches professional wrestling on TV.
Dostoevsky. Are there many words as rich as this one? More terrifying? Does anyone feel ashamed to hear it? I do. But to myself, not to men. Kevin is here, and we will drive to breakfast... Stop.
In St. Petersburg there aren’t any buildings taller than those in Oswego . Horses, kalomp, kalomp, clippety-clop, walking and trotting, whips, black carriages, dung, urine, and top hats. Kevin locks the door to his boardinghouse and whistles down the steps onto the busy street. The sun is bright. The air is brisk. The morning is noisy with the sound of human traffic. Walkers are dressed to their class, their caste. No free state. No free men. Just rich and poor people. Human walkers and horse stompers, carts, carriages, kings and crooked constables. He walks and tips his hat to the ladies. He says, “Good morning gentlemen,” to gentle men discussing business. Can Kevin see their breath? Yes. He passes by. One man grunts. He hears the grunt loud and clear. Pigeons coo at his feet. Geese fly overhead. The clouds are miraculous. The morning is alive. Thank God he doesn’t have rabies! He walks along feeling the way a clover senses the many moods of the fall equinox. He is “affected,” to say the least.
Kevin has arrived and I am already up at my writing desk. There is wood in the stove and the coffee is still hot. My boots are old leather. I offer him the chair. He throws me my cloak and laughs, “The day is new,” he says. “Why do you want to ruin it?”
So we take our poetry out onto the street. There is nothing in store for either of us. We are two poor enthusiastic idiots. September. Vladimir. Plague. Landlord. Horse and Buggy. The Laundry Girl. Green Grass. Clean Sky. The First Time in Man’s History That Love is Tangible. These are words and it is words that keep the young men occupied on the first park bench planted in St. Petersburg. We share a loaf of fresh baked bread. We hold the warm crust between our fingers. We are dreaming out loud of things to come. Man’s accomplishments are prodigious. We don’t know what that word means because we are Russian. We are affected, alive, and always despairing because it’s St. Petersburg, 1865. God’s bells are ringing from the churches, but there is a pile of human waste in the church puddle. There’s an orphan selling pencils, and a cart full of corpses riding by. Our laughter is a hearty kind; its like unheard of today. A hearty laugh can be frightening because it bursts forth from a mouth that knows immense suffering.
“Dazzling and tremendous, how quick the sun-rise would kill me
If I could not now and always send sun-rise out of me.”
Dostoevsky is only a word, yet it is a kind of word that sustains me. To express the history of humankind there are books of words men have invented to record their good deeds. Words upon words upon words, ad infinitum. It began innocently enough. The wonder of a word might be expressed by a bourgeois’ gratitude. He will have it inscribed on a gold plate below the gazelle head in the parlor. It might be “prodigious,” and it makes the simpleton dream of America and the Wild West while his wife and their servant girl wash dishes in green putrid water. Their social wonder might bring the opportunity to bend over and kiss the Czar’s hand. “Hope” is a hard word that back in a hopeless time was the living word day after day. I would guess that for more people than not, just to be alive was fortunate, or lucky, or divine. To have life with a national currency... To buy an ottoman and a train ticket south to the palm trees when the wife was pale again and coughing blood... Oh my God the happy wonder of a European Nineteenth Century! For once in human history some content fool could look up at the sky and shout out an ecstatic “Yes!”. Back in America Walt Whitman was giving his people these joyous revelations, although some of these people were still raping brown women in a wood shed. Some were beating up their wives with a coal shovel, or sneaking guzzles of whiskey in the cow barn to push life’s misery out of their minds. Not Mr. Whitman. “Wow, I have a body. She has a body. My voice is my voice. I can stand here for five minutes and not starve to death. What the hell am I doing here? I shall jump up and down on this rooftop and yawp yawp about anything which pleases me.”
I am like Walt Whitman when it comes to yawping. There is so much to yawp about on a Thursday afternoon, even if one is down on his ass in a dirty diner. I tell Kevin these thoughts and I try to get him to yawp, like I try to get Rose to yawp. I would try to get the waitress to yawp if she had just a breath of life in her. But she wouldn’t change her approach to the table if the sun just blew out and the coffee turned to ice. I am reading a free weekly newspaper entitled The Oswego Shopper. In times past I brought Hamsun, Thoreau, or Giono into diners for breakfast. Now I carry “The Shopper”.
1999. The human world as seen by the editors of a free weekly newspaper. One, sometimes two, is dropped at every doorstep in Oswego. “Don’t Be cruel To Your Domestic Pets”—the title to a weekly column. There is a picture of the author hugging a poodle that she loves more than her dead husband. That’s okay. I don’t love her dead husband either. A picture of four local business people holding golf clubs between their legs. A benefit. A birthday party. The Oswego Shopper puts out the same continuous stream of trite and inane crap when earthquakes swallow up Turkish cities. They have printers employed there. They are unhealthy, well paid and regulars at Wade’s Diner. The boys wear baseball caps and the women chose never be desirable again. They ride around with their moronic husbands in big trucks. They don’t cry. They say “minga”, which according to the FDRA means either “dick” or “hey” in Italian. The Future Dumb Rapists of America sat next to Rose and me at the movie theater. I wanted to stand up and murder each one of them, and cut them, and cook them, and feed them to their parents. Rapists aren’t born, they are raised. Mom and dad have a hand in every forced entry that has ever happened.
I have this “society” paper in my hands and I am perusing the want ads. “Perusing” is a word 18 year old girls use when attending a poetry reading and paying for their coffee with a bank check.
Frankly I am not too interested in finding a job. I listen to Kevin. He tells me to slow down. I eat too fast. All our lives we have waited for this. One Christmas Eve I didn’t care if the world exploded, as long as my wonderful Santa came. He came and he came, year after year, and then all of a sudden... nothing. No more. Jesus! That’s the sorrow of it! But I will continue to eat my omelets fast, vacuum the floor fast. I will talk fast, drive fast to some place, any place that is always in a minute, just a second, by 9 o’clock, and I will begin to hunch over slightly, just enough to notice my belly-button becoming more elliptical. “I am turning into one of them,” I’ll say. Rose will say “Nonsense,” and “I love you”. So I am bound to forget that I am a man, eventually. But not now. There is still some fight left in me on this perfect day.
Yellow leaves on a Thursday afternoon. They remind me of shiny yellow lemons. I can throw one a hundred yards. Let me explain...
Four years ago on a rainy September night I borrowed Scott’s car because I was poor and extremely happy, but tired of making Rose think she was doomed to walking an entire lifetime with me. I was going to surprise her with a fresh baked quiche, a bottle of wine and a car for the night. Scott had a Pontiac Trans Am which made me feel very sinewy behind the wheel. I knew that Rose knew it was a big fake-out. She understood I had nothing but my daughter. Wonderful! The night was going perfectly. We set up our picnic at Rice Creek. We drank the wine, ate the quiche, and rushed home to make love. Afterwards she walked around topless in jeans, which was quite nice because it was the first time any woman did that for me. What joy! We listened to “Mozambique,” and “Black Diamond Bay,” and with the rain, the rain smells, and the wet, taillight traffic shining out the window, I decided to drive back out into the night and do something special for her. We drove to the market, bought six lemons, and then rode over to the high school football field. A very wet and dark night. I sent her to the opposite goal post. I could barely make out her yellow raincoat while I launched all six lemons in her direction. She was supposed to mark where each fell. She claimed that she did just that, and I threw one a 100 yards. “Really?”
“Yes, and one bounced even further.”
That was my success, and I bragged about it often to Kevin and Joe. Neither believed me. Joe said if it was true, then I’d be pitching in the majors. Then I guess it wouldn’t matter if I pitched the ball over the upper deck or over the plate. I am a distance thrower, and far from accurate.
Anyway, last spring I took Rose and Rachelle out to the field again. This time on a windlass, sunny evening. I could throw the lemon a measly 85 yards. That was it! Oh how terrible getting old and set in my ways. Then Rose admitted that maybe she was counting bounces on that fateful night back in ’95.
I was crushed.
Today I am happy and can ignore the past. Also, the king shouldn’t care if his loyal subjects stretch the truth for him. Everyone fires at the same target, but I am told it was my shot that killed the stag. Rose loved her king. She was acting on my favor. I will throw one of these lemons the length of the field. Kevin will be shocked. I will be as calm as can be, for I believe in the unbelievable easily, without much reason or intelligence. When the sun shines stark and brilliant and the air is cool enough for a wool shirt, then I become very mentally retarded, and accomplish the impossible with ease.
92 yards. I say 94, but Kevin says 92. That is good enough for me. Plus, I have the excuse of a very heavy bacon and cheese omelet weighing in my stomach. Next time there won’t be any excuse.
So on a Thursday afternoon at the dawn of the 21st century, what can I believe?
I can believe that The Eternal Husband was in my hand once when I was desperate and spending lonely nights on the streets of New York. I can believe that I never finished The Idiot because during that early autumn of several years’ past there was a stream of glorious white cloud and blue sky days. So instead, I walked about town in sneakers and stopped to write about wonder in my journal. I remember one extremely cold and snowy winter when I brought Crime and Punishment into a myriad of hot baths and then into my bed by the bay window and the howling wind. I believe that is all the Dostoevsky I have read. That is enough if one has an imagination. One need not read past the point of realization. That would be overkill.
All that a fool has to do is think about what is wrong, to know it is wrong, and to want to do right. Modern life is a horrifying series of juxtaposition and irony to the sensitive man. 1865 Russia. 1999 America. Neither of the two are right, but one is better. If only one Thursday afternoon in my lifetime allows me to see this, then that is enough. I hope.
A Better Wade’s Diner Breakfast at Home
1 big red or white potato
Any herb, dried or fresh
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 slices of homemade bread (see bread recipe from The Seine)
Slice potato into thin pieces.
Heat olive oil in medium pan.
Add potatoes. Stir or toss and cover. Set heat to medium-low.
After about five minutes, uncover and add herbs. Cook until soft through and potatoes brown up.
Add salt and pepper to taste.
Add 1 tablespoon of the butter. Stir. Then put on plate.
Wipe out pan with napkin, paper towel, or toilet paper. Set to medium-high heat. Drop bread in toaster.
Add butter to pan. Then crack eggs into melted butter.
Turn heat down to medium and cook eggs to preferred doneness.
Add salt and pepper.
Spread remaining tablespoon of butter on toast. Cut slices in half. Set on plate of potatoes with eggs.
Have good ketchup in refrigerator. (Weakness my own).
Review of Restaurant Auberge du vieux Cahors
Last October I traveled to Southwest France for a brief artist residency in a 12th century Bastide. My first stop after a five hour train ride from Paris was Cahors, a small city on the Lot River about 50 kilometers east of my final destination. I would spend a night there and take the bus out to my residency the next morning. Even with a severe case of travel fatigue, I was determined to get out and indulge in some local architecture and cuisine.
At the hotel I was told that all of Cahors, its shops and restaurants, practically shut down on Sundays. This was my second reminder that day of the popular misconception Americans have that France is a wild place for closet nudists and surrealists to let go and unwind after a lifelong buildup of puritanical behaviorism. Hours before in Paris I noticed the streets clean and clear on Sunday morning. An old man, dressed for church, was picking out the day’s bread at a corner patisserie. My cab companion explained to me how Paris is closed on Sundays for families.
Back in Cahors the hotel attendant recommended the one and only restaurant open to travelers like myself. It was a walk across the city to its east side where eight hundred year old alleyways conducted business in an economy known especially for its Malbec, or the cherished black wine of medieval Popes.
Not a car passed by on my walk across town, which was eerily silent for 6 p.m. Restaurant Auberge du vieux Cahors (Restaurant Inn of Old Cahors) sat across the street from a flowered courtyard where two alleys of the old town converged. A medieval structure built before the time of the Iroquois, it had the omnipresent French bistro red awning with French doors letting me know my credit card was accepted. Wood tables and chairs were a bit too close together for my comfort, and the room was painfully quiet for a hyper-sensitive France newbie like me. However, the low, warm lighting was just the thing to ease my traveler’s anxiety. Across the room, behind an old oak bar, the waiter and his manager stood wiping down silverware while attending the diner’s needs. The boy waiter, (not a day older than sixteen), approached me at the door and accepted my very bad French with a nod, pointing out a corner table, of which I was grateful, for it hid me from the view of the other patrons, the French speaking ones, comfortably seated at their place on earth.
The boy, neither rude nor polite, yet not speaking, handed me a dinner and wine menu. Without opening the latter I asked for a glass of Malbec which warranted a smile from him and a relief in me of getting past another traveling dread—trying to communicate in an unknown language. The dinner menu was another challenge I feared would out me as a clumsy Americain. It listed traditional fare, straight out of Gastronomique. About thirty entrees of different meats, poultry and fish matched with a specific sauce. I could have been anywhere at anytime since the first days of the revolution. I imagined myself dining between the world wars with the pointillist painter Henri Martin, a Cahors native.
• Filet de Boeuf sauces morilles (filet of beef with morel sauce)
• Escalopes de Ris de Veau sauce Porto (veal sweetbread cutlets with a port sauce)
I chose the familiar (or so I presumed) house entree: Canard Cassolette, at 21 euro.
Oops. Another language mishap. I have made “cassoulet”, the traditional white bean and pork dish that appears simple enough but takes days to prepare. However, “cassolette” in French means a small, heatproof porcelain container with handles used for savory ragouts of all varieties. A few minutes into my wine the waiter came back to take my order, after seating an older couple from southern England, who I saw earlier on the other side of town taking pictures of the 13th century Pont Valentré.
Ah, English! My confidence soared, another glass of wine poured, and I was thankful for conversation, yet hoped I was not putting off the couple who might have been in Cahors for reasons other than small talk with a chatty American. The waiter arrived with the cassolette, and I went silent while eating, enjoying what I dreamed would be a traditional French meal in France.
I was not disappointed. The black enamel cassolette was served on a large white plate along with a homemade fettuccine pasta tossed with butter and fresh parsley, whipped butternut squash, and sauteéd zucchini and onions. A crunchy piece of baguette was served on the side.
The cassolette held a rich, deep flavored brown sauce with tender escallops of succulent slow-braised duck. I was tempted to spoon the sauce into the fettuccine, and did so with careful awareness. This was my first trip to France, and I knew from research that I had better slow down through meals and savor my food and wine. I set down the fork and knife many times throughout dinner, sitting back, pleasing the senses, sipping the “black wine”. The sauce made the meal. From personal experience and years of stock preparation I was able to appreciate a three-day sauce that I have heard is routine in many French kitchens. Not so in Central N.Y. One would be hard-pressed to find a well made sauce in the best restaurants of Troy or Binghamton, cities equivalent in size to Cahors. I just happened upon one in the only restaurant open on a Sunday night in Southwestern France. Probably not a coincidence.
Tales about butter use among the French are not exaggerated. It was heavy. The squash, sautéed zucchini, and the fettuccine were glistening with fat. Delicious, yet without the wine to break it down, (a third glass already poured), it could prove deadly on my walk back to the hotel.
I soon realized that although I came to paint religiously at a residency, I would have to allot at least an hour a night for supper with my hostess. France is slow food, especially in the homes, which I would come to find out later in my stay. In a world where daily fine dining is rare among the peasantry, the French are blessed with a classless cuisine. In the United States French cooking is elitist. In France, it’s dinner.
The dessert menu was less endowed, which I always consider a good thing. Cakes stale quickly. Custards leech liquid. Ice cream crystalizes.
My choices were: Ile Flottante (floating islands), Carpaccio d'Ananas Frais (carpaccio of fresh pineapple), or tarte tatin (French apple upside down cake). I chose the latter, to compare it with mine at home, which is a Throop staple every October after a day of apple picking.
It was served warm with fresh lemon whipped cream. The crust was buttery, the apples browned, the juice syrupy. I wondered what apples were featured, (I use Golden Delicious), but would never attempt that conversation with my waiter. It was enough just being delicious.
Coffee was offered yet I refused, and asked for my bill in what three glasses of wine assured me was perfect French. I bid adieu to my new English friends, and strolled back to the hotel a great man. The entire French Restaurant experience plus gratuity cost 52 euro (about $71.00 USD). Well worth the trip to the only restaurant open in Cahors on a Sunday night.
Just one more thing. This video clip of David Bowie talking about his feelings on art and artist. I relate.
Thank you so much for reading!