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usually, it's a prank
june 1, 2010
Several years ago I published a list released by the Texas penitentiary system giving the top requests by Texas inmates on death row for their last meal. Not surprisingly, comfort foods rated high on the list. If you're about to be given a lethal injection, you probably would prefer to die with the taste of a cheeseburger in your mouth. And by all means, do not hold the fries.
We have a book in our cookbook library that gives, in some detail, the "last meal" a lot of famous chefs would want to eat just before dying, Last Suppers, complied by Jeremy Gunn, published by Nadder Books. It's fun to flip through.
But I think the condemned murderers list is probably more honest. Sure, who doesn't want to eat Hot Pot of Sporting Birds with Wild Blueberries (one of Nicholas Gill's choices), or a Sea Bass with Pyefleet Oysters and Sea Urchins (one of Colin Pressdee's choices)? But is that really your favorite food? I love caviar, absolutely lust for it, but if someone offered me a choice between caviar and a really great pizza, I'm lifting triangles.
James Beard, who did so much for American cuisine, and deserves far more credit than he has received (I love Julia Childs, but James Beard really was the force behind the renaissance in American cooking, and the star of the first cooking show ever aired on American TV, before Julia's), once described his favorite meal. Thinly-sliced raw red onions, placed in a sandwich of white bread where the bread had been squeezed flat, with mayonnaise. The sandwich was then refrigerated until it was chilled.
Not for me, especially the chilled part, but I totally get that most people who love food, even though they may thoroughly enjoy duck tongues or lobster liver, tend to have rather simple tastes when it comes to favorite foods.
Here are my top five favorite simple foods.
Fifth Most Favorite Simple Food
Some of the best French fries I've ever had were from a lunch truck that used to come by each day to the site where I worked, at Infomag in Goleta, California. I was a spot welder, working on credit card readers. My weld was made not with a flame, but an electrical charge. The weld was so small, it had to be done under a microscope. The interesting thing about the fries on that lunch truck was that they weren't always good. It was kind of hit or miss. But when they were good, they were Heaven. The food truck served what was known as "plank fries" or "steak fries", depending on where you live in the country, meaning rather large fries, cut into wedges rather than sticks. At their best, their outsides were biteable, their interior creamy. After you passed up your money to the guy running the truck that day, he would hand you down your change first, then this small white paper sack, its sides hot and already getting greasy. The fried potato wedges inside the sack, jutting above its saw-toothed rim, were already glittery with salt. All that was left to do was pick up one of the red squeeze bottles of ketchup on the side of the truck, invert it, and aim straight down. If Mary and I had a time machine, we'd whirl back to that food truck, have those wonderful plank fries one more time, then travel further into the past to prevent the assassination of President Kennedy (if we still had enough fuel left.)
The best fries are the ones made at home. Which are remarkably easy to do. Get some Idaho russet potatoes. Chop off the dirty beige rounds of their ends. Knife down to separate the potato into half-inch strips. Wait until the oil in a skillet is hot, 350 degrees, then lay the strips in that bubbling. Cook them until they're translucent, not brown, then spatula them out onto paper towels. Let them rest half an hour. Reheat the oil to 375 degrees. Put the limp strips back in the oil, and fry them until they just start getting stiff. Lift them out. Sprinkle them generously with salt and black pepper while they're still hot, so their heat can draw those spices into their soft interiors. Trail a French fry through a pool of red ketchup, and put it in your mouth. Do it as soon as possible. The heat of the hot oil may slightly burn your mouth, but not much. And that is a French fry. There should be some surface resistance as you bite into it, but that resistance should then pop with a slight stiffness under the pressure of your bite, your teeth sinking into the soft interior.
And just so we're clear: French fries should only be eaten with ketchup. Any other dipping sauce, including mayonnaise, is just wrong. You want the hot starchy plainness of the fry as a backdrop to the red tang of the ketchup. Anybody who offers you something else with your fries is a fool trying to turn you into a fool. It's like seafood and butter. We already solved this problem.
Fourth Most Favorite Simple Food
Where do I begin? We don't eat sushi , because it's not safe. Mary and I were living in San Francisco when the sushi craze first hit America, in the late seventies, early eighties, and at least once a week there'd be a new horror story in the Chronicle or Examiner about someone who had eaten improperly prepared sushi. (I won't go into details.) The real skill of sushi preparation is not just the mixing of ingredients or the rolling of the presentation: It's about choosing seafood that is safe to eat raw. Which takes years of training. A few years ago I read about one Japanese sushi master who said that there are probably only five restaurants in America that prepare sushi safely. Five restaurants that do it right, out of thousands of restaurants that do it wrong. But because sushi has become so popular, it's everywhere, being prepared by people who have no idea what they're doing. Incredible as it sounds, you can even buy "sushi" in some supermarkets now. Sushi rolls that are made by someone who has had no formal training, and which are allowed to sit in a refrigerated case for hours (sometimes days) before they're consumed.
Some seafood can be eaten raw, of course. I love raw oysters, and always buy them during the "R" months (never eat raw oysters, clams or mussels during the "non-R" months, meaning the warm months that don't have an "R" in their name.) Caviar is another favorite, when it's unpasteurized. I'm not a fan of ceviche, but that dish is also safe, because the seafood has been "cooked" with the acidity of the lime juice with which it's prepared.
The same goes for pickled herring, which is raw, but "cooked" during the pickling process. This method of cooking preserves the texture of the raw herring, so that it's more chewable than heat-cooked fish. It's almost like eating a tiny steak, but with completely different flavors. I prefer herring preserved in white wine and raw onion, but there's also a variant where the herring is preserved in a sour cream sauce. Herring is widely available in American supermarkets, where it's sold in squat glass jars in the refrigerated section. Once I open a jar, I don't stop spearing with a fork the thick strips of herring curled inside until all are gone. Edelweiss Restaurant in Fort Worth serves a delicious herring in sour cream as an appetizer, with a pickle on the side, a traditional garnish.
Third Most Favorite Simple Food
This is a Greek roe spread that's served at room temperature or chilled, often with warm triangles of pita bread for spreading. Taramosalata is made from cod or carp roe that has been salted and cured, then combined with bread crumbs (or sometimes mashed potato), and lemon juice, vinegar and olive oil. It has a fantastic raw, complex flavor. It's one of those foods blessed with a unique taste you just can't find anywhere else, although eating it, you might pick up hints of caviar (since it is a roe, like caviar.)
I first tried Taramosalata when I was a teenager, working at Cuff's Stationary in Old Greenwich, Connecticut. As it happened, there was a Greek restaurant next door. Soon after receiving one of my first paychecks, which back then was only a double digit amount for the week, I decided to celebrate by treating myself to a Greek meal. I'd never had Greek food before, but I've always enjoyed trying new things. When the waiter came over I just pointed to the unknown, multisyllabic meal names on the menu, and eventually, using that method, I was served Taramosalata. It's been a favorite of mine ever since. I wish I could remember the first time I knife-spread that smooth, pale pink thickness across warm pita triangle, but of course I can't.
I've been fortunate enough to eat Taramosalata freshly prepared in a number of Greek restaurants around the United States, but if you're unable to get a homemade, family recipe preparation of the food, the Taramosalata put out by the distributor Krinos is absolutely acceptable as a substitute, found in a number of high end supermarkets. When I buy a refrigerated jar of Taramosalata, I tend to eat half the jar the day I open it, the rest of the jar the following day. At this point, I don't even use pita bread as a base-I just spoon the Taramosalata out of the glass jar, into my mouth. If you like caviar, you will love Taramosalata, and it's much, much cheaper.
Second Most Favorite Simple Food
A sliced tomato sandwich.
Here's where we really get into simple foods.
When I was in my early twenties, I rented a third floor apartment in Fairfield, Connecticut. It was my first apartment. The street I lived on was filled with three-family houses, meaning three story houses where each family/individual rented one floor, with its own kitchen, bedrooms, bathroom, etc. This was a popular rental arrangement in New England (and elsewhere) back then. The landlord usually lived on the first floor, and rented the two stories above. Those rents paid the mortgage, so the landlord essentially lived rent-free. Once those two rents paid off the mortgage over the course of thirty years, the landlord had a nice monthly income to supplement Social Security. In my case, the landlord was an elderly German woman whose son was an Assistant D.A. in San Francisco. I just remembered her name. Mrs. Schneider. The living arrangement was very different from what you find today, where people live in large apartment complexes where you really have no contact with the owner, and in fact have no contact with anyone associated with the apartment unless the next door neighbors are too loud or your kitchen sink backs up, in which case you contact the managers of the complex (an arrangement whose anonymity I prefer, by the way.) While I lived at the apartment, I'd see Mrs. Schneider at least once a day (you had to pass the open door of her kitchen to go up the back stairs to your own apartment), and it wasn't uncommon for her to knock on my door and my neighbor's door downstairs once in a while with a Tupperware container of, for example, homemade potato salad left over from that day's church social. That was some good potato salad. (I myself, back then, was a terrible, terrible cook. I remember I wanted to make a meatloaf one night, and decided to add a tall can of Campbell's Chunky Beef Barley Soup (or whatever it was) to the ground meat to add flavor. As I watched the meat loaf cooking, thinking I was a culinary genius, the excessive moisture and unstableness of the Chunky Soup ingredients caused the meatloaf to slowly lower on the cookie sheet, spreading wider and wider, until, once it was finished, I didn't have a meat loaf as much as a meat disc about eight inches in diameter and one inch thick. Truth be told, I never really became a good cook until Mary and I got together.)
Anyway, there was a couple who lived in the three story house next to mine. I don't remember their names right now, but I'll call them Worthless Piece of Shit and Wife of.
They'd invite me to their parties. One time, at an outdoor barbecue at a nearby park, sitting around a green park bench, we were loading up our burgers, and WPoS was adding iceberg lettuce to his burger, but no tomato slices. I was really surprised. (Back then in New England, hamburgers served with lettuce and tomato were called California Burgers, I suppose because, with the vegetable additions, they seemed healthy and exotic.) "You don't like tomatoes?" Turns out he had a bad experience as a kid. The first time he was given a tomato, he thought it would be like an apple or pear. Solid throughout. He bit into it, there are all these chambers inside, and seeds, and he absolutely freaked out. Thought the moist, chambered hollowness of it meant it was bad. Never ate a tomato since.
So why is he a WPoS? Before that time, when I was working at Brooks Brothers in downtown Manhattan, I met Bob Dylan and got his autograph on his album John Wesley Harding. As you might imagine, a treasured possession of mine. WPoS was a Bob Dylan fanatic. Once he learned I had a personally autographed album, he asked if he could please, please borrow it to show it to a friend. So, good guy that I am, I lent it to him. Which is the last I ever saw of it. A week or so later, he and Wife of moved to northern New York, so he could pursue his dream of becoming a forest ranger.
He probably has my autographed LP to this day, framed in his man cave, getting drunk on beer in the television darkness while Wife Of number three, upstairs in the kitchen, whispers into the telephone, deciding at what motel she and the guy from the town parks department who trimmed the street's trees last month should meet for their next assignation.
Or so I hope.
My only consolation in all this-what I have to settle on for revenge-is that he's been denied a lifetime's enjoyment of eating tomatoes.
And tomatoes are a truly great food.
When you get a perfectly ripe red tomato, where you can smell the tomato from a yard away, where the outer skin has some give, and is slightly loose around its interior bulk, but not much, the urge is to slice it.
Once I slice the perfect, juicy, red ripe tomato, pink fluid pooling on the white plastic of the cutting board, I take out two slices of bread, be it white or wheat, and place them like square wings across a small plate. I slick the top surfaces of both bread slices with mayonnaise, kind of thick, then start arranging the moist tomato slices on one of the mayonaised slices, overlapping red circles. Each time the slices are fully overlapped, I shake down salt and black pepper. Once I have two or three layers of sliced, overlapped tomatoes, I place the top slice of bread atop. Pick it up in my two hands. The trick then is to eat the sandwich quickly, seeds dripping, before all the moisture from the stacked tomato slices creates a soggy, orange, bottom bread slice.
It is Heaven.
You get the unique moisture of tomato slices, plus their mild acidity, plus the richness of mayonnaise, and the high notes of salt and black pepper. That's just about the perfect sandwich.
All you have to do afterwards is wipe your mouth with a white paper towel and give thanks to God.
Most Favorite Simple Food
I don't remember when I ate my first liverwurst sandwich, except that I was quite small, and I took to it immediately. I assume my mother made it for me.
Liverwurst has, to me, an extraordinarily rich, complex flavor. It's why we have tongues. Or at least one of the top reasons why we have tongues, along with being able to stick them out at people we don't like, which, when you think about it, is a rather odd practice, and using them to lick envelope flaps, the backs of stamps, etc.
During one of our visits with Mary's parents in Milwaukee, I was overjoyed, Mary and me checking out what the local supermarkets were like, something we always enjoy doing, to discover over a dozen different brands of liverwurst in the deli section. Himmel!
Liver has a pronounced, unique flavor. There's nothing quite like it. A treat for me, when Mary and I buy a whole chicken, is to remove the wet packet of organs inside, cut the liver into bite-size pieces, and quickly sear the pieces in a pan with some browned butter so that the outside is hot, and the interior still a rich, red-pink color. Never, ever overcook liver. That's a sin.
Of course, once you mention organs, most people hide behind their black capes, as if a kidney were a crucifix. I've never understood that squeamishness about such delicious meats. When I worked in Bridgeport, Connecticut, there was a Greek café a couple of blocks from my office whose owners, after I got to know them, were happy to prepare off-the-menu dishes for me, like lamb's heart.
I do admit, with a sadness in my heart, that most people do not like liverwurst. Actually, it's not that they don't like liverwurst, it's that they are unwilling to even try liverwurst. It's the "liver" in the name, even though liverwurst is only ten to twenty percent actual liver (the rest is pork, fat and spices.)
This aversion to unfamiliar ingredients has reached the point where Whole Foods, which prides itself on the breadth and depth of its food selections, does not offer a single brand of liverwurst for sale (at least in the Whole Foods where we shop in Texas.)
People nowadays would much rather munch on edamame, an absolutely hideous garbage food, than something as refined as liverwurst.
The perfect sandwich? The perfect snack? Buy a high quality roll of liverwurst, still chilled from the refrigerated section of the market. Bring it home, slice through its wrapping. Use that same sharp knife to patiently spread the rich, pale pink bulk of the liverwurst across a fresh slice of dark pumpernickel bread that's been thickly slathered with Grey Poupon mustard. Cap that glory with a second pumpernickel slice, also lathered with Grey Poupon.
No need to cut in two.
If you want to, put a half-sour pickle on your plate, preferably homemade (since commercial pickles have gotten so bad.)
Lift the dark sandwich by its soft sides. Start at one end, and slowly, gloriously work your teeth, tongue and palate through the heaviness of your sandwich.
The interplay of the rich complexity of the liverwurst with the mellow heat of the mustard is incredible. Extraordinary. This is being alive. This is living life with eyes wide open. This is biting your way to God.
There are always Honorable Mentions to awards lists, so let's do two.
Gorgonzola cheese. Moister than a standard blue cheese, with an aftertaste some people don't like. I love it. Take your blue cheese, Stilton, Roquefort, all the rest. I used to spend my newspaper route money buying a wedge of Gorgonzola, bone ivory shot through with purple-green veins, bicycling it home, gorging on it up in my room while I listened to Jay and the Americans on Cousin Brucie's show on WABC.
Anchovies. How did fish ever get to taste so good? Anchovies are used in all types of foods, as a flavoring, though most people don't realize it. The advantage to an anchovy is that it adds sodium to a dish in a much more complex, subtle way than simple salt. But I love anchovies in and of themselves, lifting them out of a small jar, their bodies curled around themselves like tiny rattlesnakes. I can go through an entire jar in one sitting. Once, when Mary and I were living in San Antonio, Texas, we ordered some home delivery pizzas for dinner, which we planned on eating while watching the latest first run episode of Twin Peaks. One pizza was fairly conventional, mushrooms and pepperoni and Italian sausage, but for the second pizza I ordered toppings of anchovies and jalapenos. About five minutes after we hung up the phone, rubbing our palms together, waiting for the pizzas to arrive, the phone rang. It was the manager of the pizza restaurant. "We just want to confirm you actually ordered a pizza with anchovy and jalapeno toppings. Usually when someone orders those combinations, it's a prank."
The Video Lately this month documents a trip Mary and I took a week or so ago to a Calloways to buy tomato plants.