April 11, 2019
This little bit got left on the cutting room floor in the editing process. But I thought you might be interested….
When my first interview with Calvin Trillin was printed in the Los Angeles Times in the mid-eighties I woke up in the middle of the night feeling sick. I’d misspelled his name, I was sure of it, and it was too late to fix it.
My nausea was so intense that by morning I could not even look at the paper. I drank my coffee, expecting an angry message from the celebrated writer. Any minute my editor would open the paper, and I waited, trembling, for the call that would end my career. “How could any decent reporter misspell Calvin Trillin’s name?” he would shout. “You’re fired!”
When I finally had the courage to look at the story I saw that Trillin was correctly spelled. My crazy nightmare was brought on by writing about someone I so deeply admired.
Calvin Trillin wasn’t just another writer who occasionally took food as his subject; he was the one who deflated the balloon, took the hot air out of food writing. And he did it without ever descending to being snide.
I’d been reading him for years, quoting him for years. He was the one who initiated the phrase “Maison de la casa…” and laughed at restaurants with menus bigger than your head. He celebrated regional dishes
That was a long time behind me, and over the years I’d come to know Mr. Trillin well enough to call him Bud. Still my hands were shaking now as I punched in his phone number. I really wanted him to write for Gourmet, and despite our friendship, I was not convinced he’d do it.
I did, however, have an ace in the hole. His name was Nick.
“So what did you and Bud do after the game?” I asked my son the first time the two vanished into Chinatown intent on beating New York’s most brilliant chicken at tic tac toe.
“Eat.” Nick was vague.
I pressed on. “Where?”
“In a restaurant.” Although Nick and Bud had a standing Chinatown date, my son remained maddeningly mum about the details. He would, occasionally, admit to having stopped in to see the Egg-Cake Lady, who baked irresistible little cookies in a sidewalk lean-to on Mosco Street. “I ate ten,” Nick told me once. “I just couldn’t stop. They’re hollow inside!”
Bud answered on the first ring. “Is it time to visit the chicken again?” he asked.
“I’m not calling about Nick,” I replied. “I have my editor’s hat on, and I’m hoping you’ll write for us.”
The ensuing silence was not promising. “You can write about anything you want,” I urged. “I’ll send you anywhere in the whole world.”
The silence continued, but at least I could hear him breathing. It seemed like a good sign. “Well,” Bud drew the word out into many syllables, “I did eat these fantastic peppers a couple of years ago in Spain. Pimientos de padron are sneaky; most are mild and flavorful, but every fifth pepper has real heat. I can’t stop thinking about them, but they’re not grown here. The only way you can get them is to go to Spain.”
“Spain!” I leapt on this idea before he could have second thoughts. “We’ll send you. How soon can you go?”
“If The New Yorker wants the story….” He was hedging, but I knew I had him. Back then The New Yorker rarely did food stories, and they would have no interest in sending a writer to Spain, at great expense, in search of some obscure pepper nobody had ever heard of.
I was thrilled to have Bud writing for Gourmet, and even more excited when the piece came in; he was an editor’s dream. Unlike most writers, a Trillin piece always arrived on time, at the right length, and with scrupulous documentation to back up every assertion.
Beyond that, everything he wrote had legs.
“Bud called,” Nick reported a year or so later when I got home from work.
“Are you going off to try and defeat the chicken again?”
“They retired the chicken,” he said, with some disgust. “Some animal rights group……”
“So what did he want?”
“He wants us to come eat pimientos de padron.”
“He wants us to go to Spain?”
“No!” Nick was gleeful. “There’s this guy in New Jersey who smuggled in pepper seeds from Spain, and now he’s growing them. He’s sending some to Bud. We’re going, right?”
Pimientos de Padron alla Trillin
When Bud’s story ran in November 1999, there was not a single pimiento de padron grown in the United States. Today farmers markets everywhere are filled with them. So begin by buying making a trip to a farmers market and purchasing your peppers.
If you are going to do this right, you then invite a group of friends to come to your house wearing indestructible clothing. Invitations sent, you hop on your bike and peddle to Chinatown, where you buy, in no particular order:
If you’re in a good mood you go on to Little Italy, where you purchase salami, prosciutto bread and really good parmesan cheese.
For your last stop you go to the local artisanal ice cream store.
You fill your refrigerator with beer and wine (preferably made by Bud’s good friend Bruce Neyers), and you set the takeout food out on platters.
You fill a large pot with Wesson Oil and allow your friends (if you’re very lucky this group will include Robert Sietsema), to take turns dropping the pimientos de padron into the hot oil for a couple of minutes until they wrinkle up. You put them on paper towel-lined plates, sprinkle them with salt, and eat them with gusto.
April 6, 2019
This is from the chapter called Enormous Changes which begins on page 149.
Willoughby agreed to make the trip from Boston, but I had the distinct impression that he had little interest in a new job. “I’ve been longing to visit the Conde Nast Cafeteria,” he admitted..
Si would have been pleased; this was exactly why he’d lured Frank Gehry to Four Times Square. The cafeteria might masquerade as the company canteen, but Si had wanted to create New York’s most exclusive club.
It was a singularly brilliant move, and it worked exactly as planned. The cafeteria got so much press that the whole world yearned to visit Gehry’s soaring space with its sinuous glass panels and curving titanium walls. The fact that an invitation was required made it that much more enticing.
For prospective employees the cafeteria was always an attraction. This was fine with me; I like interviewing people over lunch. You can learn a lot about a person by watching them eat and I wondered what I’d glean from my meal with John.
He walked in and looked around, seeming suitably impressed. He pointed to the Chinese-food line, where a famous actor was waiting. “Is that . . . ?”
On any given day, the Condé Nast cafeteria was packed with celebrities whose agents had wangled invitations. John slipped in behind the star and watched a cook toss tough nuggets of precooked chicken into a wok, add some limp, overcooked vegetables, and smother it all with garlic-free kung pao sauce. Tugging on his apron, the cook gave the mess a listless stir. “That looks dreadful,” said John, slipping out of the line.
I herded him toward the sushi station, where “sushi chefs” were arranging pre-sliced fish onto soggy seaweed. The skinny Vogue assistant in front of us leaned in to negotiate.
“Will you please cut my tuna roll in twelve?” she asked the chef.
“Eight!” he said curtly.
“Please.” She actually batted her eyelashes. “Please cut it into twelve. For me. I’m on a diet and it makes it seem like more.”
John gave a shout of laughter and edged out of the line to move on to the steam table, where a pair of GQ editors was earnestly discussing the merits of lukewarm fried chicken. He shadowed them as they surveyed a vast tray of macaroni paved in a thick orange crust. “I’d bet my life that’s not Velveeta!” said one.
John looked at the oozing tray and shuddered slightly. “But everyone says the food here is good!” His disappointment was palpable, and
after we’d wandered around the cafeteria he said, “Would you mind going somewhere else for lunch?”
He’d aced that part of the interview. We went out for oyster stew.
Oyster Stew for Two
Carefully open a dozen and a half oysters and save the liquor. Combine the oyster liquor with ¼ cup of bottled clam juice in a saucepan, along with 2 tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce , 2 tablespoons of butter, ½ teaspoon of paprika and 1/4 teaspoon of celery salt. Bring it just to the boil over low heat and add one cup half and half. Gently add the oysters, lower the heat a bit and cook just until the oysters’ edges begin to curl.
Transfer to a bowl, add a pat of butter and a sprinkle of paprika.
April 5, 2019
This is from the chapter called Editor of the Year, which begins on page 215
“Ruthie,” Lou Di Palo cried when we walked through the door. He emerged from behind the counter, and as he gave me a brief, unaccustomed hug I inhaled his scent. He had the clean smell of cheese and toast. His brother Sal and sister Theresa contented themselves with small waves.
“We’ve known Ruthie forever.” Lou released me and turned his considerable charm on Tony. “In those days she was just a neighborhood kid who liked to cook. Who knew she would rise to such heights?”
“I used to come here,” I slipped effortlessly into the familiar comfort of this conversation, “and stand in the endless line while Lou romanced the Mafia moms.”
“You didn’t hear that.” Lou reached out, miming covering Tony’s ears.
“‘You like to cook,’ they’d say to me and then start reeling off recipes. I was standing right here when I learned to make that fresh pasta in my first cookbook. And I still use the Sunday sauce I got from one lady.”
“I bet that was Mrs. Bergamini,” said Lou.
Mrs. Bergamini’s Fresh Tomato Sauce
This recipe relies on the irresistible taste of really good tomatoes, and it’s best in late summer, when tomatoes are at their peak. But in a pinch, you can use the rather insipid Roma tomatoes that are always in the market. If you do, add a couple of canned San Marzano tomatoes; the texture will be wrong, but they’ll add flavor. In high summer, however, this is, to me, the best tomato sauce in the world.
3 pounds fresh tomatoes
Splash of olive oil (a couple of tablespoons)
Pinch of red pepper flakes
Salt and pepper
1 pound spaghetti
Handful of basil leaves, shredded
2 tablespoons of butter
3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan
Boil a pot of water, and when it’s hot, toss in the tomatoes for a minute or so. Drain in a colander and run cold water over them to cool them down.
Peel the tomatoes. Remove the seeds and liquid, saving them in a bowl.
Heat the olive oil in a pan. Add the hot pepper flakes, then squish the tomatoes in with your hands. Add a teaspoon of salt, and a few grindings of pepper, and simmer the tomatoes for about half an hour, smashing them with a large spoon every few minutes. You want a chunky sauce.
Meanwhile put the seeds and liquid through a sieve, and add the liquid to the pot.
While the sauce cooks, bring water for pasta to a boil. Throw in the dried spaghetti, and cook about ¾ of the way through; the timing will depend on the type and brand of pasta you use.
When the pasta is almost done, dip a cup into the boiling water and extract some water.
Taste the reduced tomato sauce and add salt and pepper to your liking. When the pasta is ¾ cooked, use tongs to scoop it into the reduced tomato sauce. If the sauce has become too thick, add pasta water. Allow to cook for another couple of minutes, until the pasta is perfectly al dente. Stir in the butter, the basil bits and the grated cheese. Add more salt if needed.
Serve, to four ecstatically happy people.
April 4, 2019
This is from Attire Allowance, which begins on page 32
“She must have liked you better than you think.” Kathy’s voice was brisk. “Because Condé Nast just called to make an offer. Do you want to hear the terms?”
Two minutes later I hung up in a daze. All around me the newsroom buzzed, familiar, cheerfully distracting. My fingers shook as I dialed to cancel the reservation at Les Celebrites, the fancy new restaurant I was supposed to be reviewing; Michael and I could not possibly discuss this in the middle of a packed room, where we could be overheard. Then, still dizzy, I turned off my computer and picked up my purse.
I considered dinner as I rode the subway. I’d stop at Citarella to buy some shrimp, make that Marcella Hazan pasta Nick and Michael liked so much. I’d get a bottle of wine. A bunch of flowers. Bake brownies.
At home I stood in the kitchen, mind spinning as I stripped shells from the shrimp. In the living room Nick and his friend Zack were doing math homework. The murmur of their voices made this seem like any other day.
“You boys hungry?”
After years of insisting on five white foods, my son’s appetites had abruptly changed; he was now on the constant prowl for interesting snacks. “Any more of those deviled eggs?” he shouted back.
I put the eggs on a plate and carried them into the living room; they were slightly smashed, which gave them a rakish air, but the boys didn’t seem to mind. I’d finished cleaning the shrimp by the time Michael walked in, but I was still at the sink, my hands beneath the running water.
Celebration Shrimp Pasta (adapted from Marcella Hazan)
1 pound medium-sized wild shrimp in the shell
1/4 cup olive oil
3 garlic cloves, smashed
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 cup white wine
3/4 cups cream
salt and pepper
Shell the shrimp, rinse them well and dry them completely with paper towels.
Put the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook for a minute or so, until sends its fragrance into the air. Stir the tomato paste into the wine and add it, very carefully to the pan. Cook for about ten minutes, stirring from time to time.
Add the shrimp, salt and pepper and cook for a couple of minutes, stirring, just until the shrimp turn pink and lose their translucence. Take the pan off the stove.
Remove all the shrimp from the pan. Put half of them into a food processor, puree them and add them back to the pan. Cut the remaining shrimp into bite-sized pieces and set aside.
Add the cream to the pureed shrimp and cook, stirring for a minute or so, until the cream warms and the sauce thickens. Taste for seasoning. Add the remaining shrimp, quickly toss with a pound of cooked spaghetti and serve to 4 people.
April 3, 2019
This is from the chapter called Garlic, which begins on page 18 of Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir
With great relief I saw the waiter approaching our table. He was bearing a large antipasto platter, but as he set it down Si eyed the dish suspiciously. His nose twitched. “Is there garlic in there?” he demanded.
“Yes, sir!” The waiter said it with pride.
“I can’t eat garlic.” Si waved an imperious hand. “Take it away.”
The waiter looked agitated. “Sir”—he drew himself up—“does that mean the kitchen must avoid garlic in everything?”
Si gazed serenely up at him. “I told you,” he said sweetly, “I cannot eat garlic.”
The waiter remained rooted, not quite knowing what to do. I studied Si. When he’d suggested Da Silvano I’d been charmed; I’d recently reviewed the restaurant, saying how much I liked it, and it had seemed like an extremely gracious gesture. But now it struck me that an Italian restaurant was a strange choice for a man who shunned garlic. How would the chef manage? Would he even try? Si waved at the plate again and the waiter reluctantly picked up the rejected offering. I watched him hesitate outside the kitchen door, shoulders hunched in despair. He was, I knew, steeling himself for the chef’s wrath.
In 1998, unlike today, restaurants did not routinely ask if you had allergies they should know about, and most were oblivious to such requests. Now I turned to Si and asked, “Don’t you worry that the kitchen will try to sneak some garlic into your food?”
Si regarded me as if I’d said something stupid. “No,” he said at last.
I went home, of course, and cooked something for our family that filled the house with the wonderful scent of garlic. Now, every time I cook this, I think of Si.
Spicy Chicken with Peanuts
2 large boneless chicken thighs, cut into 1- inch pieces
2 teaspoons of cornstarch
5 teaspoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice wine
Mix marinade ingredients. Add a splash of water. Add chicken thighs and allow to marinate for half an hour.
While the chicken is marinating, prepare all the other ingredients.
2 cloves garlic
1 inch knob fresh ginger
4 tablespoons chicken stock
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice wine
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
¾ teaspoon sesame oil.
2 teaspoons corn starch.
1 tablespoon chili paste
10 fresh shiitakes, sliced
Handful baby spinach leaves
Grapeseed or peanut oil.
Mince the white parts of the scallions, smash the garlic cloves and mince the ginger. Set in a bowl together.
Mix chicken stock, soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, Worcestershire sauce and sesame oil and whisk in the 2 teaspoons of cornstarch. Set aside.
Measure out the chili paste (add more if you like really hot food). Measure out the peanuts and the spinach.
Get a wok very hot, add a couple tablespoons of oil, allow it to get hot and toss in the shiitakes, stirring just until they wilt. Remove to a plate.
Add more oil to the wok, let it get hot, add the marinated chicken pieces and stir fry for a couple of minutes just until the meat changes color. Remove and add to the plate with the shiitakes.
Add a bit more oil to the pot, let it get hot, and add the scallion-garlic-ginger mixture along with the chili paste. Stir until the fragrance is floating over the pan, then add the spinach and the chicken and mushrooms, along with the broth mixture. Bring to a boil and cook until the sauce begins to thicken.
Toss in the peanuts, stir well, turn out onto a platter.
Serve to two people, over rice.