Leftovers on Lettuce: ABCs of a life in food

this essay was first published in Middlebrow Magazine, February 2013


Leftovers on Lettuce:   ABCs of a life in food

 “And now with some pleasure I find that it’s seven; and must cook dinner,  haddock and sausage meat. I think it is true that one gains a certain hold  on sausage and haddock by writing them down.” – Virginia Woolf

Anticuchos are grilled marinated beef hearts. They were among the indigenous specialties of Peru that an ex-boyfriend had encountered during his Peace Corps stint and that he introduced me to at our local Peruvian restaurant. I tasted them, warily, and was surprised at how lean and tender and  tasty they were. He went back to Lima for a visit and brought me a cookbook. It was in Spanish, but with a smattering of the language and a little help I was able to decipher many of the recipes. I made Papas a la Huancaína, cold potatoes with a spicy cheese sauce, and a couple of fish dishes, but not anticuchos—I was too squeamish to touch bloody cow entrails. He, however, had no qualms about manhandling my tender heart. I’d been swept up in all the new experiences he exposed me to early in our relationship, when he exuded disingenuous charm from every pore. I sent him packing—with the cookbook—when I learned of his infidelities, but memories linger in a musty mental file of mistakes I don’t seem able to delete, even after thirty years. Anchovies, abalone, artichokes: they all have stories to tell. Why did I start with him?

Bacon is the only food I missed during my venture into vegetarianism in the seventies. It was the thing to do back then, aided by Diet for a Small Planet and its protein-balanced recipes interspersed with dogma and shocking truths. Did you know that the grain fed to American beef cattle is enough to feed all the world’s hungry? But I wasn’t sufficiently motivated to maintain the regimen beyond several months. I stopped eating meat again five years ago, this time for personal convictions rather than to follow a fad or make a political statement. Bacon was my downfall the first time, and it’s still the litmus test of my commitment. I no longer yearn for it, don’t salivate when I hear it sizzling or smell it cooking. At a New Year’s brunch I eyed a tempting platter of rashers, not too crispy or too greasy. Why not, I thought, picking up a slice. I bit into it—Ah, yes!—but that was enough.

Chocolate. I was a dark chocolate devotee long before it was fashionable, before it was acclaimed as healthy, a panacea for heart disease and depression. Oh, but it’s such a cliché of the female experience. Instead, I could write about cottage cheese, a childhood favorite with canned crushed pineapple; or about cookbooks, how I swooned when Jacques Pepin autographed my food-stained copy of Simple and Healthy Cooking; or about carrots and candy, how my mother used to send me to the movies with a bag of carrot sticks instead of giving me money to buy candy, which brings me back to chocolate….

Diets. Blessed with a slender frame, an “Energizer Bunny” metabolism, and an abundance of self-discipline, I look askance at diet fads that play on people’s—women’s—insecurities, promising fame, fortune and the mate of your dreams if you adhere religiously. And if you’re not successful, it’s your own fault, because it works for others, right? Look at the testimonials, the before and after photos. I try, as certain supercilious Christians boast so disingenuously, to spurn the sin but not the sinner, to not let my disdain carry over from the diets to the dieters, among them a couple of good friends whose on-again, off-again efforts I try to support. There but for the grace of my lucky genes go I.

Eggs are good scrambled, soft and fluffy, whites and yolks whisked into a buttery froth. I loathe fried eggs, poached, boiled, hard or soft, two minutes or five. My daughter loves deviled eggs. When she was young I taught her how to make them and said, “You’re on your own now, kiddo.”

“Food in my life; my life in food” was an early title for this compendium, envisaged as a chronology from childhood to present. I came to prefer the serendipity of the alphabet, the memories it invoked, and the more elusive title. Food is my hook into memories and moods. Some people remember names or faces; I’m good at both but even better at meals. I recall my first artichoke, puzzling over how to eat it, what to do with the fuzzy stuff, worrying about looking foolish in front of my date (whose name and face I’ve forgotten). I remember the first meal I fixed for my husband—angelhair pasta with basil, tomatoes and mozzarella—and knocking over the wine (an Italian red) when we got cozy.

Garlic wards off vampires and evil spirits, sometimes friends and family too. My husband’s siblings claim to be allergic to garlic and predict that it’s just a matter of time for him. Grounds for divorce, I tell him. It’s a bone (bulb? clove?) of contention in the office lunchroom—antisocial, some would say. Flash to a weekend retreat in the mountains. Several of us went up a day early and, all garlic fanatics, staged a blow-out feast. Whole roast bulbs smushed onto crusty baguettes, garlic-stuffed mushrooms, pasta with pesto. I made a take-no-prisoners Caesar salad. When the others arrived the next day, they gasped at the fumes that greeted them and taunted us all weekend about our stinky breaths.

Haggis became the Scottish national dish after Robert Burns wrote “Address to a Haggis” in 1787: Great chieftain of the sausage race! Above them all you take your place.… Mix sheep’s offal with onion, oatmeal, spices and stock; stuff it into the animal’s stomach and simmer for several hours. Our host on a 1995 trip to Scotland was Anthony, whom we’d met in southern England two years earlier. At a country pub outside of Edinburgh I hinted at my curiosity about the dish, my reluctance to order it. Anthony generously obliged and offered me a taste. The stench was like decaying roadkill; I had to hold my nose in order to get it to my mouth. I braved a perfunctory chew, then swallowed quickly. Anthony cleaned the plate with gusto.

I eat, therefore I am. In the painful barbs exchanged during the waning days of a relationship, my companion of seven years accused me of having no values, of being more interested in my next meal than in the world around me. This in spite of the fact that our first meeting and many of our shared activities centered around social and political issues. He said, “If someone asked you what you believe, you’d say, ‘I believe I’ll have another beer.’” His indictment stunned me, and twenty years later it still rankles. Where was my snappy comeback, my assertion that “the personal is political,” that we are what we eat?

Jackie’s Jams are made here in San Diego with fresh organic fruit in 26 flavors. My favorites are strawberry rhubarb and Chambord blueberry. There’s a scene in “Gosford Park” when Tom Hollander as despondent Anthony Meredith (“When you’re ruined, there’s so much to do,” he tells his unsympathetic brother-in-law) slips down to the servants’ quarters, where a kitchen maid finds him dipping a spoon into jars of berry jam. She understands the yearnings that have brought him there and offers a bit of homespun wisdom about love—“Not just getting it, but giving it”—that sends him bounding upstairs to embrace his surprised wife. I think the jam helped too.

Key lime pie. Nora Ephron died in June. I write a tribute, watch her movies and reread her books. In her last collection of essays, I Remember Nothing, she reflects on aging and death. She catalogs things she won’t miss (dry skin, dead flowers, funerals) and those she will: her husband and sons, spring and fall, walking in the park, reading in bed. Waffles and the concept of waffles, Thanksgiving dinner, dinners with friends, intimate dinners for two, butter. In the thinly-fictionalized Heartburn her protagonist makes a key lime pie (recipe included) that—spoiler alert!—she smashes into her philandering husband’s face.

Leftovers on lettuce. Rich with subtext, I think, don’t you? This was to be the title of a personal essay about a short-lived liaison with a gourmet cook and connoisseur of fine dining (he came after the Peace Corps guy and before my “another beer” politico if you’re keeping track) with whom I had memorable culinary adventures. When our fling ended, I went back to my frugal but inventive meals at home, which often consisted of reconfigured leftovers on a bed of greens. I wrote the story, and it won an essay contest, but with a different title.

“M” for Mom’s meals—there was meatloaf and meat pie, mac & cheese, macaroons, mashed potatoes, myriad M’s and mmmm’s. Watch people’s faces light up when they talk about the food of their childhood. The nostalgia as they recall birthday and holiday traditions, burning marshmallows on a coat hanger over a campfire for “s’mores,” hand-cranked ice cream with fresh peaches, grandma’s fried chicken or turkey enchiladas, the best ever peanut butter cookies. Even the horrors, like choking down liver and onions, are retold with fond chuckles. Like when, reminded of our good fortune compared to that of the world’s starving children, we would look up from the gristly bits or runny globs on our plates and say: “Ick—send them this!”

Nutella crepe. My friend smacks her lips as she places her order. I’m surprised that so many people seem to love this oily paste. It advertises unadulterated contents: roasted hazelnuts, skim milk and a hint of cocoa. No artificial colors or preservatives, gluten free, kosher too. Spread on bread, “Breakfast never tasted this good.” But read the label, and you find that the first ingredients are sugar and highly-saturated palm oil. Like a candy bar, according to the California mother who sued for misleading advertising and was awarded $3 million. Nutella was developed in Italy in the 1940s to stretch rationed chocolate. Chocolate is plentiful now, hazelnuts too. And they’re great together. But Nutella? I don’t get it.

Oleomargarine. It wasn’t butter, though that’s what my mother called the pale cubes she put on the table, not to deceive us, but in the same way that Miracle Whip “salad dressing” was called mayonnaise. Margarine and Miracle Whip were thrifty alternatives in households like mine. It started in the mid-nineteenth century when Emperor Louis Napoleon III of France offered a prize to the creator of a butter substitute that would suffice for the lower classes. Voila oleo! Its popularity spread and grew, especially during the Depression and World War II when butter was scarce. In the 1950s TV ads pitted margarines against each other and against “the high-priced spread:” “I can’t believe it’s not butter!” “Flavor so good, I feel like a queen!”  Butter and margarine are both 80% fat, but butter, being saturated, was the prime malefactor until trans-fats from the hydrogenation of margarine were found to contribute to high cholesterol. Now there are trans-fat-free margarines and other water-based, dairyless, guilt-free spreads. I grew up thinking I didn’t like butter or mayonnaise, but after I tasted the genuine articles, I realized what I’d been missing.

Pizza is one of two main dishes that will grace my last meal. Nora Ephron wrote poignantly about living life to the fullest. Whether talking about her fantasy last meal or just about doing what you want to do, the pearl of wisdom she dispenses is this: Don’t wait. Do it now, do it often. My friend Kate, distressed in equal parts, it seems, by Nora’s death and by disappointment with her own life, makes a tragic disclosure: “I don’t even know what my last meal would be!” Really? I enjoy my favorite foods often, including pizza every Friday night. I alternate between Bronx Pizza—those guys make a killer cheese pie—and Pizzeria Arrivederci, the “Siciliana” with anchovies, olives, fresh tomatoes and onions. The other entrée at my last meal? See “S.”

Quick oats, Nestles Quick, quick and easy everything. Not fast enough for you? Try instant oatmeal, instant cocoa and those ready-to-heat-and-eat meals. In the mid-‘80s a neighbor, taking advantage of newly available computer technology, typed in recipes and printed them out in a do-it-yourself  plastic-loop-bound book with a glossy cover: “Quick Breads by Kathy.” It didn’t bring her fame or fortune or a TV show, but it was cute and clever. The move toward fast and simple food preparation came out of good intentions, freeing women from bondage in the kitchen, but the value put on speed in all things seemed to go overboard. Once the pendulum swings to a certain point, however, it swings back in the other direction: let’s hear it for the Slow Food Movement.

Root vegetables of suspicious character and form appear frequently in my weekly CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) deliveries. I’d never eaten parsnips, turnips or rutabagas before the CSA, and frankly I can do without them. But I rise to the challenge and find ways to use whatever comes my way, relying on generous additions of garlic (see “G”) and butter (the real thing) to turn them into palatable soups, mashes and stir-fries.

Salmon, glorious salmon, fresh and wild from the Pacific: King, Sockeye or Coho. Grilled on a cedar plank with mustard, brown sugar and rosemary; fresh smoked with garlic and maple syrup from the Ballard Farmers Market in Seattle; cold-smoked—lox, that is—on a chewy New York bagel with cream cheese and black pepper, or on Wolfgang Puck’s immortalized pizza with crème fraiche and pearls of golden caviar. Poached in the garlicky salmon soup at Emmett Watson’s Oyster House; layered with cabbage, avocado and chipotle mayo in the tacos at Bo’s Seafood; raw on the “49er roll” at Akiko Sushi in San Francisco; canned, yes, even canned, bones and skin and all, in a loaf like mom used to make. My last meal—it’s to die for.

Trillin, Calvin, a treatise on Thanksgiving turkey: “Let’s have Spaghetti Carbonara instead!” Trillin points out that we really don’t know if the Pilgrims ate turkey, and whatever they ate probably wasn’t very good. He prepared carbonara for a family gathering one Thanksgiving. After giving thanks that they weren’t eating turkey, he told the story of the first Thanksgiving, at which the Indians, wary of Pilgrim cuisine, brought spaghetti carbonara, which their ancestors had learned to make from Christopher Columbus more than a century earlier. Offended by the Pilgrims’ high-hatted rejection of their offering, the Indians said: “What a bunch of turkeys,” causing the confusion that has led to our current tradition.

Uni is sea urchin, a delicacy that we are fortunate to have in fresh and plentiful supply here in San Diego’s placid waters. It is au courant at trendy restaurants; one reviewer described it as “coral-colored, spongy-velvety, sexy-tasting maritime fluff.” People line up at farmers markets for the dark spiky menacing-looking balls, like hand grenades nesting on a bed of ice. The vendor cuts them open with great precision and hands them to waiting patrons, who scoop and eat the innards out of the shell with plastic spoons. I had uni once, just once, on sushi, with the earlier-mentioned gourmet cook and connoisseur of fine dining. The squishy ochre globules smelled and tasted musty, with a lingering acrid aftertaste. The color and texture reminded me of brains, which I also sampled once. Aficionados urge me to try it again: It’s exquisite,” they say; “What you had must not have been fresh.”

Velveeta belongs to childhood. I’m weak-kneed at the thought of it melting—oh, how it melted—in grilled cheese sandwiches, oozing out the sides of the bread, tasty burnt bits crisp in the pan. But Velveeta isn’t cheese. It’s pasteurized processed cheese product, made with milk, water, milk fat and whey. The last ingredient, like an afterthought, is cheese culture. My cheese tastes have grown more sophisticated over the years; I’m partial to aged English cheddars, designer blues and ashy goats. I think I would still love creamy Velveeta, a thing apart from cheese, but I can’t bring myself to buy it. Still, it helps me better understand Nutella lovers.

Woolfophile. I’ve been a card-carrying Virginia Woolf scholar for more than twenty years. I presented a paper at the 2010 Woolf Conference entitled “A Certain Hold on Haddock and Sausage’: Dining Well in Virginia Woolf’s Life and Work.” My premise is that while she suffered at times from by eating disorders that accompanied her severe depressions, she loved food and wrote about it brilliantly, passionately. Meals and dishes form evocative passages in her novels, like Mrs. Ramsay’s boeuf en daube in To the Lighthouse. Her diaries and letters include mouthwatering details about meals she enjoyed. She loved French food—especially goose liver pate—and cream sauces, succulent roasts, mushrooms that she foraged from the Sussex woods. During the war she took pride in baking her own bread and making hearty and thrifty vegetable soups. She used the language of food vividly and playfully, describing someone as being like “a perfectly stuffed cold fowl” or “mute as a trout with the swift composure of a fish.” One of her most-quoted lines—on bowls and mugs, shirts and bibs, menus and notecards, posters and restaurant menus—is: One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well. I wish I’d said that in response to you-know-who’s “another beer” jibe.

Xerophagy is a kind of partial fasting—not to be confused with xerography, a dry photocopying technique—observed by some Eastern Christian religions during Lent. I don’t go in for fasting, whether for religious reasons, cleansing and purging, or to lose weight, just as I don’t relish pain and suffering. They happen, but I don’t go looking for them. Some people do, and some people fast. I endured a few 24-hour fasts back in the seventies, companions to my vegetarian fling. I remember going to bed early on those days, partly out of exhaustion, my energy depleted, and partly to get the blasted thing over with. On the morning after my first such deprivation I breakfasted on tea, orange wedges and toast. I spread the toast with peanut butter and cut it into bite-sized pieces. I raised the morsels to my mouth one at a time, chewing slowly, feeling life course back into my body.

Yellow mustard, French’s, is the only mustard we knew in childhood, the one we spread on our hotdogs and bologna sandwiches. I discovered Gulden’s brown mustard on a family outing to Dodger Stadium in L.A. when I was in my early teens. It confirmed inklings I’d had that my life thus far had been very sheltered and that countless delights awaited me. French Dijon, spicy German, and the very hot English Coleman’s: I would soon relish a veritable United Nations of mustard. I liked mustard on BLTs, and when I would phone my lunch order to the deli downstairs from my office, I didn’t have to leave my name. The Russian owner would say, “Ah yes, it’s you.”

“Zucchini and other summer squashes” is the last item in Alice Waters’ exquisite Chez Panisse Vegetables. She writes eloquently about the species’ history, its multi-hued and oddly-shaped varieties. She offers recipes for stuffed squash blossoms, zucchini fritters, ratatouille, and a cheesy zucchini gratin. Summer squashes, like root vegetables, appear in quantity in my CSA box. Unlike root vegetables, I am never at a loss to find uses for them. This week I had a sackful of baseball-sized, smooth pale green globes that Alice identifies as Ronde de Nice. I grilled them, sautéed them, and steamed them, then with the last ones created a cold soup topped with lemony shrimp, yogurt and parsley.


Do you know what the first entry is in Chez Panisse Vegetables? No, not artichokes, asparagus or avocado. Can’t guess? Amaranth greens! Is it too late to replace the anticuchos?