Eat + Drink » On the Table

Learning To Eat

A culinary bildungsroman. Part I.



Even in sleepy Tucson of the 1950s, I knew there was more to food than I had experienced. Tantalizing smells and tastes were embedded in my reptile brain: White Castle hamburgers, for instance -- the scent of onions steaming in beef suet. Chess pie, from a Tennessee roadhouse. Asparagus plucked from the ground, thin and crisp, eaten raw. Sour-smoky salt-cured country ham. All things I hadn't had since 1942 in Louisville.

There were flavors in Tucson, if you knew where to look. Avocados, in those pre-chemical fertilizer days, were richer (the best I ever tasted came from a tree with a rabbit pen at the base). Mama didn't cook much, but she made a killer pecan pie, a thin layer of crushed pecans bound with brown sugar, egg and dark Karo syrup, all slightly burnt. I had two maiden aunts who would occasionally buy a tiny piece of foil-wrapped Roquefort and mix it with an equal amount of cream cheese, served on Ritz Crackers.

And one thing that was a constant presence, even though I didn't know it, was lard. At 16 I used to drive downtown to buy "bean burros" from El Charro. Made with oversize Sonoran style paper-thin flour tortillas, they cost 75 cents, a dollar with cheese. I usually didn't get the more expensive kind; the cheap ones were magical enough. Only years later did I discover that they were filled with long-cooked frijoles refritos, enriched each day by minced onion and lard. When the amount of lard was about equal to the beans, they were ready for burros. (By the way, remember the original Ritz Crackers? Guess what gave them that rich flavor. Yep.)

I didn't fully appreciate Mexican ranchero cuisine until I moved to New York, because it did not exist there during my three years and I had to learn how to make everything myself or go without.

But my true introduction to the world of food came about when I left Tucson for graduate school at Stanford in 1959. Palo Alto was within striking distance of San Francisco, and two restaurants in the city were my introduction to the culinary arts: Omar Khayyam's on O'Farrell and Des Alpes on Stockton in North Beach.

Omar's was in a cavernous basement. Displayed on a table in the lounge was the largest piece of cheese I'd ever seen, a wheel of Emmenthaler the size of a concert bass drum. While waiting for your table, you took a knife and sliced off a snack. It all seemed very cool and grown-up.

We were seated in a curtained chamber out of The Arabian Nights. Flat bread, olive oil (was this the stuff my uncle took for digestive problems?) and marinated salted vegetables were on the table. Also "madzoon" (yoghurt) as a condiment (at a time when it was disdained by most Americans as "health food") along with wheat germ, brown rice and kelp.

George Mardikian, elegant in a Brioni suit, was our host, an Armenian immigrant who had introduced Persian and Greek cooking to the U.S. Seeing we were lost, he suggested the Kouzou Kzartma, roasted lamb shank in a paprika/tomato sauce, and his famous spinach salad. Raw spinach? I'd never heard of such a thing; all I knew was canned (which we had at home) and frozen (which tasted bitter).

Of course, nothing was really ethnically correct -- the spinach was dressed with a ketchupy French dressing, and garnished with chopped eggs and asparagus -- but to me it was exotic, and opened the door to my later finding good, cheap food at Greek cafeterias in Manhattan. The latter, of course, were authentic, the entrées dripping with olive oil, and more oil in a gallon can on the table! But that was Mardikian's genius, toning down and adapting to American palates. (Wait! Is this the same thing I often decry in Humboldt County, the "dumbing down" of ethnic food? I don't think so: In that day, ethnic cooking in the U.S. was pretty much limited to Italian and German except along the Mexican border.)

In this cave-like seraglio where the rumble of the Powell Street cable car shook the faux Persian hangings every 20 minutes, I was introduced to a world of possibilities. Armenian food shares ingredients with much of the Mediterranean, but there are hints of India, with koftas and keemas and flatbread, preserved lemon, mint chutneys and such.

My second, and more lasting lessons were at Des Alpes, a wee place in North Beach, cheap enough to visit two or three times that year. There was a single waitress for the room -- the proprietors' spinster daughter, smelling like fresh-baked bread, her hair up in a tight French braid. She brought an unlabeled bottle of cheap but potent red wine and simple Libbey 8-oz tumblers, rather than wine goblets.

I thought the cuisine was French provincial, only later learning that it was traditional Basque. Each course was served in a bowl for the table:

First course. White bean soup, served with individual bowls of garlicky beans. You mashed the beans with your spoon before adding them to thicken the broth. Sometimes the soup had pasta in it.

Second course. Always interesting. It could be cold marinated green beans or warm, mustard-cream shredded cabbage, or pickled mushrooms.

Third course. Usually potato salad, but nothing like the American Kraft mayonnaise-and-pickle-relish style: This would be warm slices of steamed new potatoes with capers and tarragon (capers? tarragon?) in vinaigrette. Occasionally, a lentil or garbanzo salad with roasted pimiento and onion.

Fourth course. Lamb stew with lots of garlic. At this point, if you'd been eating everything, you were full. I had to learn to pace myself, to stop, even though it was all wonderful.

Fifth course/entree. This is whatever you ordered at the beginning of the meal, the only real choice you had. Steak, lamb chops, roast chicken or pork, and a plate of French fries.

Sixth course. A simple salad of lettuce, maybe a bit of watercress or scallion, dressed lightly in olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper.

There was some kind of dessert, but memory fails me. Needless to say, it would have been simple and cheap (restaurants with elaborate desserts were far beyond my grad-student budget). But I learned that European family (or bourgeois) cuisine served different courses, each allowing its special flavor and texture to shine. This was not a middle-American concept. We served everything on the table at once, so it might seem bountiful even if humble. I now had something new, not better, but different.

I became increasingly aware of a new journey ahead.

I'm still on that journey .

So how do I end this column? Like this: To Be Continued.

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