“The spice that we cannot stop sprinkling,” to quote Bon Appetit’s editor Sarah Jampel. Ms. Jampel, according to her web site, is a “recipe developer, food stylist, and chronic wee-hours baker in New York.”
Wee hours. Why not choose that topic instead? Why is the “w” called in English “double u” and not “double v?” In the park this summer, I met a charming elderly Italian-American lady whose name was Vanda. He was walking his shih tzu. I asked her why Vanda and not Wanda. She replied: “Because Mussolini banned the letter “w” from the Italian alphabet in 1929.”
But back to za’atar and the end of the alphabet. For this last blog I contemplated zest, zoodles or even zabaglione, which my mother used to make from scratch, all eight egg yolks, booze, and a good double boiler. Our lives changed when we got a real zester in our kitchen, the long kind with a black handle.(But you’ll survive if you have to use a regular multipurpose grater). I put orange zest in homemade salsa. Zest, from lime, is required on cooked rice right before serving. Somewhere in our pantry we have a zoodler (sp?) or zoodle maker. (If this device is sold in Spanish-speaking countries I cannot imagine how many words you need to brand it wisely!) Unfortunately, the zoodler has succumbed to idleness because the fad vanished. When was the last time you spotted zoodles in a menu? Wait, wasn’t I supposed to talk about za’atar? Well, next time, in the next alphabet, or as they say in Spain, la próxima vez.
Last January, while I was searing steak, I heard an instagram ping. It was from @thefilmzone, linking to Gaspar Noé’s 8-minute video for the YSL Summer 2021 collection. I met Gaspar, the son of my art mentor Luis Felipe Noé, when he was 9 years old, critiquing his father’s choice of colors with precocious audacity in their apartment at the House of 70 Balconies in Buenos Aires. He has lived in Paris since 1977 when the whole family had to flee Argentina’s military dictatorship and has become an enfant terrible of French cinema, venerated by many including John Waters.
This fashion featurette stars the actress Charlotte Rampling, 75, as a couture priestess in an empty theater. A bit like Ursula Andress in the sumptuous Cremaster 5 film by Matthew Barney. All is bathed in red, the red of velvet orchestra seats, the red of meaty rosebuds. The models, all skinny in their classically black outfits, promenade in an empty opera theater.
What do models really eat? (That is, if they eat at all.) Testimonies are contradictory. Supermodel Bella Hadid told WWD: “My diet is pizza . . .” but then “[…] protein, veggies, and green juice” when interviewed by Harper’s Bazaar. Christie Brinkley, 67, with 724,000 followers in instagram, starts the day with warm water and lemon, then a cappuccino. She not only drinks it but draws on the foam. Yes, it’s “latte art.” It could be a heart, or a letter, the face of Jesus- or a latter day saint—even a model walking down the runway.
One of the services my studio provides is indexing cookbooks. Having done it for more than ten years has given us a knack for snack alphabetizing. And adding some good recipes to our cooking corpus!
The first time I heard of xanthan gum must have been either in the Naomi Campbell 3-Ingredient Diet Cookbook or in some Keto Fest Cookazine. R studio T was thrilled to finally allocate a food item to this letter sometimes vilified by moralists and mathematicians, but not musicians (I always loved xylophones). The x in xanthan though, sounds more like a slurry “z” than the cymbalic “ks” of words like foxy, flux, and sex. Carbophobes use xanthan gum to emulsify a sauce or as an alternative to cornstarch or flour when thickening. Our friend Norman explained to me that a bacteria called Xanthomonas campestris, a plant pest, is part of this ingredient. The formula is C36H58O29P2 just in case any of you, like Ms. Campbell, has a lab set up in your second home in Malindi, Kenya where you can make keto-friendly xanthan gum. (I’d rather make papier mâché with real flour.)
Indexing cookbooks is challenging when you have a limited amount of pages to fit the beast. Is it kosher to group kosher salt and sea salt in one category placing the least used in parentheses? Do you list chocolate fudge sauce under Chocolate (yum!) or under Sauce, surrounded by sodium-ridden bottled concoctions? Is fish sauce a condiment or a “sauce”? Having grown up in a binary house (white and brown when it came to sugar), I was delighted to embrace the polysyllabic demerara, muscovado, and turbinado kinds in baking cookbooks. Under what category would you list roux?
After the crucifixion and Pentecost, Saint James, one of the 12 Apostles, went to Spain to preach the gospels. His name became Saint Iacobus, San Thiago, San Diego, Santiago. He is the patron saint of Spain and legend has it that he appeared as a ghost knight slaying Muslims (“matamoros”) and infidels—something that is no longer mentioned in the official web site of Santiago de Compostela, the city where supposedly his bones are kept. Its cathedral has been a pilgrimage mecca for thousands of years.
Santiago’s symbol is a shell, like the vermillion and gold logo designed by Raymond Loewy for Shell, the oil and gas company. Those shells contain the delicious scallops—which are actually the adductor muscle of the animal-. The most famous dish is Coquilles St. Jacques. At almost $30 a pound nowadays, I am very wary how often I buy these mollusks—but both John and I love them. Just searing them for minutes makes a great dish. What’s your favorite scallop recipe?
Back to the pilgrimage. Since the Middle Ages, the 500-mile (825-km) hike was based on fervor and dedication—even indulgence. But these days it’s all about fitness. Social media ads for immersive art shows and classical music by candlelight(*) accost me these days. After joining a medieval art online group, I started getting sponsored content for El Camino de Santiago tours (The Way of Saint James). “Are you looking for the perfect excuse to get moving and crush your fitness goals? Your activity will automatically upload to your challenge’s virtual map and leaderboard! Plus you’ll get a Fitness Tracker with heart rate and blood pressure kits and a pulse oxymeter app—compatible with both iPhone & Android.” Something that centuries ago, devout pilgrims with hypertension and worn out shoes probably never foresaw.
Roland Barthes was a French essayist, social and literary critic specialized in semiotics. He smoked. He was born in Cherbourg, famous for historic disembarkations and umbrellas. Died at 64, as a result of a car accident.
My friend the artist Mirtha Dermisache (1940-2012) created unique books and periodicals filled with asemic writing starting in the 1970s. One of her Diarios is currently displayed at MoMA in room 205. In Variations sur l’écriture (Variations in Writing, 1973), Barthes says: “There are writings that we cannot understand, and yet, we cannot say they are indecipherable, because they simply are beyond decipherment: those are the fictitious writings that certain painters or certain subjects imagine.” As examples of this, he mentions the work of artists like André Masson, Henri Michaux—and Mirtha Dermisache.
Our friend Norman, who is pursuing a Master in Food Studies, just e-mailed me his most recent paper: Fish on Friday: A Barthian Approach. In a succinct and engaging five-page essay, he travels through early Christianity, symbolism, metaphorical cannibalism, and a pinch of Tennessee Williams. In the concept that “to eat is a behavior that develops beyond its own ends […] and it’s asign,” Barthes provides Norman with the arc to tie all those ends and beginnings. I ask myself: what “signs” were in my mother’s brain when she chose which fish to cook in our Catholic stove any given Friday?
Quiche?Kitsch? Quip? K’iche’ or Quiché? Quiché are indigenous people of Mayan descent. Their myths and legends are compiled in the Popol Vuh. The word “man” in quiché has multiple versions according to a man’s attributes or actions: man (n) achi; man or animal which has greatly multiplied (n) winaqal wächaj; man who doesn’t want to stay in house (n) mun ach; man, great man (n) nimalaj achi; man’s skirt (n) rawa’; man-animal who frightens people (n) subunel.*
I have read the Popol Vuh, but never read Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche, although it hit the market the same year that I arrived in this country. It stayed in the New York Times bestseller list for 53 weeks. (Its hardcover edition is retailing at $596!). As a real man, man-animal who cooks (n), I decided to make my first quiche.
Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso, the real women who sometimes want to stay in house (n) and 1980s bestselling authors, were my guide. I got my premade frozen crust at Gristede’s, heavy cream, and eggs. Briefly baked the crust. Sautéed a bunch of vegetables that were in the fridge like asparagus and onions (If you use zucchini, make sure to drain them before you add them to the pie crust). In a 375º oven and after 25 minutes, the quiche looked done, presentable, firm yet bubbly.
My grandfather was born in Pontecurone, a small town in Piedmont, Italy, two hours east of Turin. He emigrated to Argentina sometime in the 1880s as a teenager. He met my grandmother in Buenos Aires. She was also Italian-born. Perhaps they fell in love on the ship, during the transatlantic journey. Giuseppe (“José”) Prassolo went back to Italy for reasons unknown and died there. My grandmother died in Buenos Aires, after raising seven kids. My mother was the youngest—and only woman.
I contacted the comune of Pontecurone and Ms. Gabriella Sala is searching for records. In the meantime, our friend Mark, whose passion is to decode family trees, has found revealing clues in ancestry sites. In facebook I met a second cousin once removed living in that region. He looks just like my uncle Federico. He loves to cook and speaks English perfectly. But he looked puzzled when I mentioned the word “kudos” during a WhatsApp video chat.
My childhood was imbued with Italian flavors: my mother made vitello tonnato, bagna cauda, pizzas, and of course homemade ravioli (with a flutted wheel that my sister still has). My father assisted her with the artisanal pasta every Sunday morning, while the ragù was simmering away. In the U.S. I learned to push Malbecs aside and appreciate Piedmont wines: Barberas and Dolcetto d’Alba. Although Prosecco has taken over the bubbly market, I still love a fizzy Asti Spumante, specially when served with a portion of meringata, another Piedmont classic. My mother also taught me how to play the piano. With effort or, as printed on scores, sforzando, “sfz.”
Oliver Sacks was a neurologist, best-selling author, professor of neurology — and hard-core biker. Music and cycling were our initial bonds. Living two doors apart from each other added frequency. We used to go biking early in the morning all the way to Wagner Park from our Horatio Street apartment building. When he asked me what time I got up and I said 6 a.m. he replied: “Too late!”and he smirked. He once dropped me a note: “A friend is staying over tonight, bringing his bicycle, and we plan to go for a ride at 5 a.m. [underscored on the original note] Join us if you wish or look by later.”
I remember when Dr. Sacks moved into our building. He was shy, I was respectful. I hadn’t read any of his books, so my friend Jane — who is probably mingling with him in Heaven — recommended Oaxaca Journal. I decided, one day I had made meat empanadas, to drop off some for him as a neighborly gesture. I left them in a plastic bag by his door, without knocking. Then went home and started reading Oaxaca Journal.
In the first chapter, Oliver is served an empanada on the flight bound to Mexico. “I wanted the chicken or fish […] I dislike the empanada, but eat some as part of my acculturation.” I rushed out the door to grab my token of friendship but it was too late. It wasn’t there. Either he had enjoyed them — he never said, I never asked — or he dumped them. I was initially dismayed but later on, after we became friends, he placed milk on his threshold for my Siamese cat. Leo used to wander in the hallway. He hated milk. Idylls are sometimes born out of steps that French call faux.
April 23rd, 2021 was “ñ” Day according to Google Doodle. Many languages accessorize vowels and consonants with the little wavy line to modify the recipient’s sound, but the “ñ” is its own independent letter only in the Spanish alphabet. The tilde is technically called virgulilla. Isn’t that an awesome word? It means a very little thin line.
Ñow that I come to think about it, perhaps I should have chosen this letter as the only tattoo on my body instead of the aleph.
One of my favorite dishes is gnocchi, which in Spanish we call ñoquis. I make them from scratch, following Marcela Hazan’s recipe (Now her son makes them). Although safe if married with pesto, I prefer them with a simple sage garlic butter sauce: A few tablespoons of butter warmed up in a pan, pressed garlic cloves, and a dozen sage leaves pithily frying in the bubbly mixture. It’s not only a fragrant mix, but a colorful one: the translucent, almost vintage yellow of the clarified butter against the grayish green or greenish gray (depending which Josef Albers painting you are looking at) of the sage. Finish it up with a sprinkle of grated pecorino and abundant black pepper. There is a tradition in Argentina that if you have ñoquis on the 29th of the month and place a dollar bill under your plate, you will be showered in luck and prosperity. Pay-day superstition? Too late to switch alphabets? Sí, una eñe en vez del aleph, tal vez.
One of my guilty pleasures —besides binging on Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks— is a banana and Nutella crêpe. The combination of banana, cocoa, and hazelnut makes it irresistible. Or is it its 50% sugar and palm oil content?1
My maternal grandparents emigrated from Piedmont, Italy to Buenos Aires, Argentina in the 1890s, as you’ll find out in one of my next STRIP-TEASES®. Piedmont is rich in great food and wine. The province of Alba was the birthplace of Nutella. And in the hilly long areas (the Langhe or “tongues”), local vineyards produce Dolcetto d’Alba, a dry wine with tones of cherry and plum2. During World War II, and thanks to courageous resistance fighters, Alba declared independence —for shy of a month— from the short-lived Fascist Republic of Salò founded by Mussolini. After the triumph of the Allies in 1945, Pietro Ferrero sold the first “300 kg (660 lb) of pasta gianduja, the predecessor of Nutella.”
Another guilty pleasure is morcilla (Look it up!), or boudin noir, as the French call it. The last time I was in Paris, my friend César and I had lunch at a 7th arrondissement restaurant, not far from Pont d’Alma where Princess Diana’s life came to an end. Waiters were serving the boudin noir lunch special left and right, accompanied by steamy, heaping portions of mashed potatoes and affordable glasses of Bordeaux.
—New York City, 5/4/2021
1 In the United States, Nutella’s ingredients are: sugar, palm oil (50%), hazelnuts (13%), cocoa (7.4%), skim milk (8.7%), reduced minerals whey (milk), lecithin as emulsifier (soy), and vanillin, an artificial flavor. 2 Many thanks to Pier Paolo Prassolo for this information.