Bourdain at 50

(by Michael Ruhlman, guest blogger)

So attention must be paid. Thursday night a group of about 50 friends and sinister types surprised Tony Bourdain in honor of his half-century on earth. Lured to Siberia on the pretext of an interview with Rolling Stone, Tony had little inkling of the party, judging from the unseemly blubbering that followed the revelation. The heroic drunkenness for which he is highly esteemed, however, was not long in waiting. He’d been out with Mario the night before until dawn; presumably Mario was sleeping it off, but Bourdain himself was as ever in fine form.

Laurent Gras showed and I learned the hopeful news that he’s close to signing on a Manhattan space where he can hang his own shingle. Those who ate at Fifth Floor in S.F. or at Peacock Alley in Manhattan know why this is good news. Gabrielle Hamilton appeared, babe attached like a lamprey the whole time and unfazed by the deafening jukebox. I’d been eager to meet her because she’s that rare creature, a genuine cook and chef who can really write. I love her restaurant Prune and am eager for her memoir. However, she was deeply skeptical of me when I introduced myself, and clearly could not be swayed even by enormous amounts of charm, so I cut my losses moved on to…Bigfoot. Bigfoot, the restaurant guy described in Kitchen Confidential, and Tony’s trauma scars remain raw and sizzling. “To this day I wake at 6 am because of this guy, no matter what country I’m in,” he repeated in front of the man. And Tony’s mom! His mom was there! Gladys. She’s a copy editor on the Metro desk at the Times, clearly suffers no fools, and was unabashedly proud of her son (and surely thrilled that he was here on his 50th rather than in jail, which is what she would have predicted twenty years ago). A delight, actually to speak with her, very elegant lady.

Lots of media folks, his publisher and publicists, his show’s production crew, zeropointzero, finer folks there never were, I worked with them on Tony’s Vegas show, they’re pros and bring some genuine originality to TV food and travel.

And a man named Bulldog had come up from Maryland. Bulldog has a talk radio show there from 6 to 10 am and was due back at what was now this morning. Before catching his limo south, Bourdain insisted on being on his show the following morning. Now Bourdain is a well-known media magnet and resists no opportunity to flog his books (he considers being on book tour to be like running for public office). So it surprised me little that he was angling, drunkenly, for more media even at his own party. And it is exactly at such a moment when I am most eager to loathe the scoundrel—our relationship has been schizophrenic from the beginning owing to the lies he has spread about me in public (people along my street here in Cleveland have actually whispered to my neighbor Betsy, “I didn’t know Michael had a drinking and gambling problem”; I’m totally serious, this is what I put up with)—he turns around and undoes me with an act of unabashed generosity. It wasn’t himself he wanted on the radio, he wanted both of us on and he wanted to extol the virtues of my book. As I learned later from Bulldog, Tony had privately insisted, insisted, that not a single mention of his book be made on the air. The call from Bulldog came at 9:45 the next morning, and so it was to be.

And I didn’t even bring the guy a present. It was very late when I had the good sense to zigzag toward Ninth Avenue and raise my arm for a taxi, leaving Tony, the formidable Grillbitch who’d organized the night’s festivities, and Tony’s Noam-Chomsky-quoting fascist Milan consort, in a giddy haze of cigarette smoke and garbage fumes…. Ah, to be Bourdain at 50…seems he’s having quite a time of it, but I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

If you, like me, have…

If you, like me, have become totally obsessed with high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS is the new EVOO) and are trying to avoid it, you might be interested in this natural cola called Cricket Cola. Says the reviewer: "It's hard to describe exactly what it tastes like, but imagine Coke if Coke was made from natural ingredients instead of in a chemical plant. That's what it tastes like. It's good." I haven't seen it yet but it sounds intriguing, if you like to drink cola.

Monster asparagus

Giant asparagus

At my grandparents house we had the last of the asparagus with our dinner. I captured this picture before my grandmother tossed it in the pot. And note: I do not have freakishly small hands. It's really that big.

Strawberry taste test

Hi there, Jason here…Meg's husband. Every year around this time, Meg starts jonesing for fresh strawberries. Fresh strawberries and cream, fresh strawberry ice cream, fresh strawberry jam, fresh strawberries prepared every which way. Her preferred dealer in this regard is her grandparents' strawberry patch in central Massachusetts.

Earlier this year, before the strawberry season had begun that far north, I suggested that she hit the Greenmarket for some New Jersey berries to satisfy her cravings. Accompanying a harrumph of epic proportions was her statement that "those berries aren't as good as the ones my grandparents grow". And so, the gauntlet having been thrown down, a strawberry-flavored Pepsi challenge was arranged.

Returning from Massachusetts recently with two quarts of berries fresh from the family patch, we procured single quarts of two competitors: one from Staatsburg, NY and one from Norwich, NY, both recently picked as well. With Meg out of the room, I prepared three berries for her to sample, one from each batch of similar size and color. She then tasted bites of all three while I took notes. Here's the final ranking:

1. The family berries
2. The Staatsburg berries
3. The Norwich berries

The top two were close. The Staatsburg berries smelled the sweetest, but her grandparents' berries were the juciest, had the sweetest taste, and had "good berry texture". The Norwich berries were the clear losers, the "least sweet" by far. And once again, Meg demonstrates that she knows her food…either that or she was peeking around the corner during my secret berry selection.

Strawberry Fields Forever

strawberries.jpg

Do other families have a family fruit or vegetable, some sort of traditional crop that's with them across the years and generations? All I know is that for our family, it's strawberries. My grandfather's grown them for thirty-five years, and his father before that on the same plot of land: never for sale, just for themselves. When did he first plant them, I asked my grandfather.

Family prepares strawberries in the kitchen"Always has."

More than eighty-five years of berry-rows, uninterrupted.

When I was little, I helped pick the berries on hot summer days, but don't ever recall making it to the end of a row. It was just too tempting to eat the warm sweet fruit plucked straight from the stem: so while my mother and grandmother filled quart after quart, I would trail behind in the dirt, stopping each step to pop berries into my mouth.

These days, my picking is more productive, but that's because I relish the next step: hauling those berries into the kitchen with my grandmother to turn them into jam. Depending on the year, she makes anywhere from three to six batches, each batch requiring two quarts of berries to fill eight 8 oz. jars so that they gleam like rubies.

An old notebook shows 1907's harvestI'd always assumed jamming was rather complicated. Folks rarely make jam from scratch anymore, there had to be a reason why. But I can only think of one: they don't have a someone to guide them through the first batch. For my grandmother, that time came during World War II. With my grandfather overseas, she would stay at her in-laws' during strawberry season to help with the picking. She learned then how to make jam from her mother-in-law, and together they kept making it in the years that followed, until my great-grandmother passed away, leaving my grandmother to carry on the tradition.

A few years ago came my turn to learn at her side: late June and no AC in the kitchen, sweat running down the inside of my shirt. On the table, two fresh quarts of berries; the skimmer, the masher, a bowl, and a fresh bag of sugar.

"Let's take a look at the recipe."

My grandmother walked to the cabinet and reached in. I expected to see an old yellowed piece of paper: the family jam recipe, handed down from generation to generation. Perhaps I'd recognize my great-grandmother's crabby hand. Perhaps it would be stained with juice from years gone by. Instead, she reached for the box of Certo pectin, pulled out the instruction sheet and scanned through the recipes on the back. That's it? I thought. All these years, and it's just the recipe out of the box?

Skimming the strawberry jamWe begin with the old wooden masher that's lived in the kitchen drawer for eons. The juice squirts as I press down on the ripe fruit, sometimes catching me in the eye. After a few minutes, the pile of heart-shaped berries has become a pulpy slop, and I stir in the sugar; then, with a pat of butter to reduce foaming, the mixture goes onto the stove. The old electric coils quickly turn bright orange and the soupy mixture begins to boil. Steam rises and scalds my forearm as I stir. The bubbles increase in frequency, sometimes spitting hot jam on my hand, and once it hits a full roiling boil, the pectin goes in.

The recipe is specific on this point: after adding the pectin, return the jam to a full boil and cook for one minute. Here we deviate for no good reason except my grandmother likes to, counting an extra fifteen seconds before removing the pan from the heat. We skim the foam, then pour the hot jam into the waiting jars. The tops are sealed, the jars turned upside-down, and the timer set for ten minutes. After the flurry of activity, a cool drink around the kitchen table refreshes us until the buzzer sounds and we right the jars. As we clean up, we hear pops from the lids. The seals have formed and our jam is done.

My mother and grandmother look for ripe berriesBetween the first fruit in mid-June and the last ripening in early July, jam is only one part of strawberry season around the house. Most of the berries are eaten fresh, with plenty to go round: even the saddest of crops comes to fifty quarts or so, while a gangbuster's season can bring in six times that amount. During the few magical weeks the fruit is ripe, strawberries are served with every meal. For breakfast, strawberries and cream, or cereal with strawberries. Lunch finds another bowl of berries on the table, juicy and lightly sugared. After supper, dessert is strawberry shortcake, or another bowl of berries and cream. (For variety, we whip the cream some days!) Somehow I never tire of them. I savor each bite, knowing this moment won't return until next June.

Food traditions bind our family; I'm reminded of that every year when I drive to north-central Massachusetts to pick strawberries. When I get in that long row, and pluck that first berry of the year and immediately eat it, I'm part of a tradition of picking and jamming connecting me to my great-grandparents and all my relatives who've helped to pick berries and make jam each year. Each spoonful of jam in the winter and each fresh berry in the summer keep their memory alive. As my jam jars empty and I realize there are no more in my cabinet, I start to stretch those memories each morning on my toast. I start counting the days until I can make a new batch.

My grandfather looks over his gardenLately I think about the inevitable summer when there will be no more freshly plucked berries from that garden. My grandparents are in their mid eighties, and the time will come when planting and picking is too much for them, no matter how many of us lend a hand. And then? There's no next generation waiting to take over that patch of land and grow the peas and potatoes, raspberries and strawberries.

Strawberries represent not just a moment in the year, but also moments across the years. I fear the day the strawberries will go the way of other family food tales: little grandpa's homemade root beer, for which we no longer have a recipe, or great-grandpa's homemade strawberry ice cream. All things we remember with pleasure, but only remember; no longer recreate or renew, turn into a story of our present.

This past weekend my grandmother and I sat in the kitchen, listening to our lids pop. We talked of my aunt's upcoming visit, my coming back over the Fourth of July, and about how many berries would ripen and need to be picked. This might be the last year for strawberries, she said. But when you've always grown berries, that's hard to imagine. My gramp's already ordered his plants for next year.