At A Ripe Early Age
I have a confession to make. I’m not proud of it. I wish I hadn’t done it, but it was over 50 years ago and it’s time to let it go. There were eleven children from two different wombs in my family; that’s a story for another day. I was born to please. I learned early on that if I did the “right” thing, I would get the food that I wanted and liked. If I played my cards right, I could count on privileges my siblings were unaware of, and further, it was not my place to tell them. At the ripe old age of 12, I volunteered to do the weekly grocery shopping. With a family as large as mine, door-to-door delivery was necessary and fortunately for us, free. My neighborhood grocery store knew my family; I’m certain they were grateful we were catholic (usually an absence of birth control) and big eaters. You may be thinking that I was a good kid to relieve my mother of this cumbersome chore, but alas, I had an ulterior motive. Each week I would purchase cake and sweets which I did not send home with the delivery boy (always boys — I later became one myself). I coveted these ill-gotten goods and devoured them on the way home. This would explain my pudgy teenage physique. What I couldn’t eat I hid for later consumption. I committed this heinous crime for quite some time; my parish priest was never told at confessional (also for a later blog). Finally, a combination of guilt and excess pounds forced me to give up my criminal behavior. Lighten up, I’m no George Santos.
I’m afraid this was not my only crime. As the eldest son of divorced parents, I was charged with the task of taking the Brooklyn N train to Coney Island. I would meet my father at Carolina Restaurant for family meal (when restaurant staff sit down to eat before service); we spent ten quick minutes eating peasant Italian food and sharing not-so-pleasant stories about my mother and stepfather. Toward the end of our weekly ritual, I’d stick out my hand for the cash I made the trip to secure. Collecting and doling out our weekly allowance was solely my responsibility. I did not take this task lightly, in fact, I saw this as a huge burden. A burden deserving of compensation. Confession #2, I paid myself a salary for my hard work getting each of them their cash on time each every Tuesday, and me, worse for the wear. My earned bonus went toward the purchase of Coney Island confections at the sweets counter under The El: taffy, chocolate covered peanuts, huge colorful jawbreakers, and jellies. I had 20 minutes on the train home to hide the evidence in my belly.
I’m ashamed of these deceptions; however, they mark the beginning of my fascination with all things culinary. My desire to have all kinds of foods led me to a lifelong struggle with guilt, weight loss, and
the avoidance of food related lies. It feels good to report that most of these issues are under control. Although this is my first time publicly admitting my egregious wrongdoings, I have come to terms with my past and I forgiven myself. After all, we were dirt poor and my entrepreneurial spirit just needed channeling in a more positive direction. It it my hope that my siblings do not read this blog (I’m certain they won’t actually). I’m positive several of them would hold me accountable and might even go so far as to seek retribution — I imagine years of skimming off the top of their allowance, added up. My parents are long gone; they probably would have laughed about it and patted me on the back–afterall, it was their DNA that got me into that mess in the first place.
“I know once people get connected to real food, they never change back.”
– Alice Waters
Fast forward to college and beyond. As a college student, my school loans went toward buying food and eating out. I borrowed books and used the reference section of the library in order to spend less money on books for school and more money on good food. My father cooking was sublime; his knowledge of food extensive, and so, he consequently, spoiled me for life. I can’t be happy with MacDonald’s or canned beans. Like most incurable illnesses, I cannot be blamed for this affliction. Food has taken me to places I never imagined I would go. Dinners with Julia Child, business trips with Jacques Pépin, curriculum meetings with José Andrés, a lifelong friendship with the former editor of Bon Appetit, Barbara Fairchild, who is one special human. I realize it all started from a series of lies, but they were miniscule lies in the scheme of things. I have fond memories of discussions with Anthony Bourdain, although I never ate his food. My friendship with André Soltner will always be cherished (owner of Lutece in NYC). And 16 years at The French Culinary Institute was the single greatest gift of my life; the marriage of education and incredible foods doesn’t get any better. And as an added bonus, I met a few people there who have become lifelong friends. Not just foodie friends, they’d take a bullet for me friends.
“My weaknesses have always been food and men – in that order.”
– Dolly Parton
The FCI, eating at the #1 restaurant Francescana, cooking without recipes
Why I love Food
My father gets 100% credit for my love of good food. In addition to being a fabulous cook, he also loved food from all around the world. On his day off from work, he often took us to restaurants in our very diverse neighborhood. But I do have a story to share:
I was visiting him in Florida after he retired there. I told him I was taking him out for Chinese food; however under one condition: I would be ordering the food for us (I was a precocious twenty year old). He insisted on knowing why. I was quite frustrated with his resistance; he always ordered the same three dishes and I wanted him to try some Chinese food he’s never eaten. After a couple of hours of telling me I was ridiculous and stubborn, he gave up the fight. I ordered five or six exotic Chinese dishes: shark fin soup, abalone in garlic sauce, fried mashi; to name a few; I ordered a lot.
My dad was open minded, but he liked what he liked and he did not like dinner that night. He didn’t complain during the meal; however, after I paid the check he said, “From now on I’ll pay for my own meal and order whatever the hell I want.” He was right of course; I was an SOB.
It’s a Blessing and a Curse
Have you ever gone into a restaurant and found a dish so sublime you couldn’t get it out of your head? Two weeks later you return to said restaurant only to find out the chef left or he’s away for a few weeks or they’ve taken the dish off the menu and they’re not sure if it will ever return or the purveyor no longer carries that cut of beef or it just doesn’t taste the same and you don’t know why? This is the story of my life. Whenever any of the aforementioned happens, I am devastated and ruined for the day.
On the flip side, there are foods and dishes that I love that will never go away for the following reasons:
- I cook them.
- Many food brands have been around for 100 years.
- Brooklyn and all of it’s wonderful ethnic restaurants is here to stay.
- It comes from the ocean.
- People would revolt if pizza and/or hamburgers went away.
- They’ve been around for many centuries (e.g., nuts, rice, vegetables, bread, pasta).
- Salt & pepper will be here long after we’re gone.
Fine dining is nice on occasion. I ate at high end, expensive, popular, talented chef restaurants, for so long it became tedious; if I’m going to be honest, I prefer either my own cooking or a neighborhood restaurant with good food. I can’t do super rich anymore; my digestive system just can’t handle it. I’d rather have a nice meal at a good price and take home the leftovers. When I really want to eat well: fresh, simple, and delicious . . . I cook. Cooking is my Zen place.
Then there is the wine — I’ll leave it at that.
Fort Lauderdale (Deerfield Beach) in two weeks, then Nantes and Pornic, France, Liverpool, England, and Marseilles, France — Nantes and Pornic are happening on the same trip, over a four day period. Other holidays planned later in the year. Biggest trip of 2023 will be Dubai, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, and Hong Kong — end of October to mid-November. This will be an adventure of a lifetime that has been postponed three times due to COVID.
I am over two months into a co-coaching experiment I will write about soon. There are two things I want to tease you with:
- We sometimes limit ourselves in what is possible due to financial situations. This is unfortunate; I’ve learned there are many constructive things you can do with your life that cost nothing or next to nothing.
- Doing a deep dive into what emotionally and psychologically ails you is not easy, but it can be the most rewarding thing you will ever do.
I commissioned Lori Owens Kostiuk, a very talented artist friend, to do a watercolor portrait of Paco. She truly captured the essence of Paco in his Sweet Pea harness. Thank you Lori. If you’re interested in a portrait of your pet, private message me for her details or find her on FB, LOK Studio 6.
“I cook with wine. Sometimes I even add it to the food.”
– W.C. Fields
This was a fun blog to write. Thank you for reading.