Saturday, March 31, 2012

Sweet Sorrow

Po Boy Views
Phil LaMancusa
Sweet Sorrow
Hopelessly Optimistic
            We live in a technological age where we can come up with a myriad of gizmos and toys and smart things and “I”thats and yet we cannot find cures to heartbreaking ailments; regardless of who does a concert; how many 10Ks are run; how many fund drives we contribute to or how much money is thrown at researchers. That’s enough to piss anyone off, isn’t it? Or don’t you think about such things. (and) Well, you had better.
            My doctor told me last week that there are now many cases of young people who contract Alzheimer’s disease and she was dead serious. As young as twenty-seven. The causes are many; the chances of remission are miniscule. If you get it, it’s curtains.
            You are now at an age where, no matter how good you are, bad things can happen to you. You live in a city where your health and safety are on the line daily and I can give you dozen very real threats that can prematurely end your life as you know it; real threats that, pretty much across the board, you can do nothing to evade or forswear, given your present behavior. That goes for any and all of your friends, foes, family and folks that you may pass on the street.
            Of course in New Orleans there is no terminal condition that we can’t party away from thinking about or you might say that we are in our own world most of the time and don’t think too deep about things anyway. And besides, why fret about something in the future you can do nothing about, right? And shucks, if you catch Alzheimer’s, you wouldn’t be aware of it, right?
            Alzheimer’s has about five and a half million Americans in its grip; deposits of a protein (beta-amyloid) accumulate in spaces between nerve cells and cut off communication between receptors and leave as consequence: disorientation, mood swings, poor judgment, memory loss, an inability to perform normal tasks and/or  think abstractly. It doesn’t happen quickly… like you wake up and BAM! You’re gonzo. It happens slowly and with early detection you can be aware of just how screwed you are for a long enough period of time to drive you to tears, drink or insanity. To me losing my memory would really bite the big one and even though there are some things that I would rather forget, I would prefer it be me that makes that decision.
            Haruki Murakami, in one of his novels, speculates that people’s memories are the fuel that they burn to stay alive, and that our memory is like drawers crammed with stuff, mostly useless. “Whether those memories have any actual importance or not, it doesn’t matter as far as the maintenance of life is concerned. They’re all just fuel.
            “Advertising fillers in newspapers, philosophy books, dirty pictures in a magazine, a bundle of ten-thousand yen bills: when you feed’ em to the fire, they’re all just paper. The fire isn’t thinking, ‘Oh, this is Kant’ or ‘Oh this is the evening edition’ or ‘Nice tits,’ while it burns.” To the fire of life it is all the same, there’s no distinction, it’s all just fuel. His character posits that’ “You know, I think that if I didn’t have that fuel, if I didn’t have these memory drawers inside me, I would’ve snapped long ago. I would’ve curled up in a ditch somewhere and died.” And goes on to say:
            “It’s because I can pull the memories out of the drawers when I have to—the important ones and the useless ones—that I can go on living this nightmare of a life.”
            Clearly confused by this minor crisis, I woke up in the early hours in the deafening silence around me and opened some of my memory drawers. I did this because my clouded view of reality, as I see it, was pushing me toward feelings of hopelessness and impotence (a slippery slope if ever there was one).
            Oxymorons aside, I felt, for some reason, oddly comforted, you see; because memories are in the past, they are not real; if they’re of situations that hurt you, you can learn from them. If, on the other hand, they are pleasant (and hopefully they are) you cannot but smile and feel good. If they are nostalgic, you can be wistful; and if they are poignant and touching, you can shed a tear.
            My saddest memories are those where I was helpless to influence the outcome of a circumstance in my favor; that’s a polite way of saying that it hurts to remember when life has kicked my ass. Those are memories that I need to work through and I do that in my own time at my own pace. I keep them in the drawer until such time as I feel strong. Needless to say, the memories that I drag out in the middle of the night are happy ones and like counting sheep, are pleasant and restful.
            Like the character in the novel, I need to have those memories and if I lost my memory it would be as debilitating as a terminal illness, physical injury or some tragic occurrence. Alzheimer’s does that. It sucks you out of your body and leaves a shell to shrivel and die. Possibly starting at age twenty-seven. It scares me.
            No one knows the cause except that unhealthy lifestyles are suspected of contributing to it. Everyone knows that there is no stopping it and that there is no known cure.
            There’s a game that we play about which of your five senses do you think you would be most reluctant to lose. Sight; hearing; smell; touch; taste. For me it would be the uncounted sense of memory. Think about it.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Letter from a fellow chef

To celebrate my 201st posting I offer up an email that I received from a fellow chef, proving that not only is fact greater than fiction but also that I couldn't make this kind of stuff up!! (and wish that I could)

Two things, there are two things I did this Saturday past that I knew better than to do, but did, in fact, anyway, thereby causing myself a certain degree of both misery and pain.

In reality, one of them began far earlier, as I was pontificating in a Chefly way about hors dooveries we could serve at a big ol' wine tasting event (400 guests) and posited how it might be nice, and something no one else would be doing, to make and serve empanadas; yes, little pastry crescents filled with an attendant goodness.
My boss, said, "oh cool" or the equivelent thereof and so it was to be.
The week arrived upon which the party was to be held and thinking ahead, as I am occasionally prone (prone indeed) I asked the chubby officious little kitchen manager to order me 20# of boneless beef chuck that I would braise, days in advance, in a low and slow fashion, so as to have time to shred it and mix it with various and unique flavoring agents.  I ambled into the kitchen two days before the blessed event (lots of ambling going on when this is the only gig of the entire week) to get that big chunk o' meat in the oven along with some onions and garic and chiles and red wine, and blow and leehold, the big ol' chunk of meat is NOT 20# of beef chuck, but is instead, two 10# tubes (yes, 20#) of ground chuck; boneless, yes, but hardly suitable for our purposes.
So we did a lot of phonin' and we did a lot of moanin' and finally we arranged to have the 20# of boneless beef chuck delivered, but because it came from somewhere far away it would not arrive until the morning of the day before the blessed event.
I proceeded to put the large chunk of chuck in the oven, along with a variety of aromatics, juices and flavoring agents and started it off on it's long relaxing journey to tenderness, although this did not come until waaaay later in the day, when I had left the building.  I did manage to get five sheet pans of garlicky cheesy mushroom risotto made in the meantime (where does the phrase/word "meantime" originate from, anyway?  yeah, I know, google it), and all the sauces for both the risotto (which would be turned into tiny pankoed cakes) which would get a nice rich green herb aioli (based on a huge amount of scallions) and red and yellow roasted pepper sauces for the empanadas.
So we arrived, the noble and hardworking Pedro and myself at 9:00 yesterday morning knowing that we had to cut and panko (my kind of verb) the risotto cakes which would be a snap, if a time consuming one, but also that we had to assemble the fucking empanadas from scratch.  And this is where the first of my knowing better bells began to ring in the larger of my two heads.  "This was dumb" it rang, "this is going to suck", it pealed.  And I tried not to listen, but it was far too late.
So, we shredded the 20# of oh so very tender boneless braised beef chuck, blenderized it's pan drippings and the attendant flavoring agents (lots of onions) once they were defatted, and mixed them with  several cups of roasted corn I had stashed away and frozen back in the season, several more cups of nicely soaked golden raisins, and five or six finely chopped jalapenos.  The clock was moving.
We (I) moved into dough mode and began churning small batches of the empanada dough while the loyal, noble and hardworking Pedro began the rolling, filling, folding and crimping (yes, with a fork process).  And it was here that the second of the two misery and pain producing things that I knew FAR FAR better than to have done occurred.  On about the fifth or sixth, but could easily have been on the sixth or seventh, batch of dough I stopped the food processor because I didn't think the water I had just added had mixed in with the dry ingredients at the bottom.
  So (and here's where it comes, folks; "Don't do it, don't go in the haunted cave" they scream from the cheap seats) I stuck my right hand down into the bowl of the food processor and in doing so managed, unbeknownst to me, to hook my middle finger under the cutting blade.  And then what could have happened did.  Upon attempting egress with my hand I caught the fleshy part of the top digit of my finger against the blade and pulled up.  Halfway through the action and before it was complete I knew exactly what I had done.  I ripped my hand out, causing the bowl and the top parts to fly across the kitchen and screamed, "No, no, you stupid asshole, no!!!"  But it was too late.  I had opened up a big crescent shaped gash in the previously mentioned fleshy part of the top digit of the middle finger of my right hand.  And there was that moment, that priceless second where I looked at it and could assess the nature of the damage, just before the blood came pouring out.
So at that point the selfless, noble, long suffering and hardworking Pedro had to quit rolling and filling and folding and crimping (yes, with a fork) and also becaome the doctor.  I got a towel on that sucker as fast as I could and squeezed it for all I was worth.  Pedro got the goods and we proceed to first sterilize, then bind that thing as tightly as we could.  Oh yeah, and now it was big and a rubber glove wouldn't even fit over it, although Lord knows I tried.  And the clock was still moving,
It was now late afternoon and we were only up to 280 (four sheet pans) of empanadas.  We kicked it in, although I must say, it is no mean feat rolling out dough, and cutting, filling, folding and crimping empanadas with a finger the size of an andouille sausage.  Pedro, bless his noble and hardworking heart kept on rocking and rolling (not to mention, filling, etc...) and by 5:10 (we were to leave at 6:00 and still had to fry the cakes and bake the precious empanadas) we had 510 of those little suckers all filled and ready to go.
The final hour was a bit of a blur, but it all got done.  Every last one of those 1050 morsels made it from a sheet pan to a 2"hotel pan for transport in our cambros to the site of the blessed event, AND, every single one of them got scarfed down my a bunch of folks from West Salem who somehow all seemed to get drunk drinking one ounce of wine at a time.
So there we stood at the end.  Bloody but unbowed.  13 hours our feet without a break (except for the bandaging process).  My back ached from the time spent over the table lovingly preparing the empanadas and my finger was throbbing like the floor when you live over a houseparty.  Pedro, the hardworking, loyal, trustworthy, brave, clean, thrifty and reverent Pedro turned to me and said, "Chef David, when I work with you, even when I work hard I always like it and I always learn something."
I eyed him dimly, a certain amount of fatigue coloring my view.  "What did you learn today, if I may ask?"
He looked me right in the eye and said, "Never do empanadas for a big party."


Friday, March 9, 2012

Another Jazz Fest (2012)

Po Boy Views
Phil LaMancusa
Circus Overload
Another Jazz Fest
            Half a lifetime ago I got this crazy notion that New Orleans needed a vegetarian restaurant; coincidentally, at  that time, there was a defunct Tastee Freeze on Rampart and Conti St. that still had all of the equipment in it and I came up with an idea: a fast food vegetarian restaurant (!) and I was gonna call it McYogurt’s. This was in 1974. I signed ‘intent to purchase’ papers and then wondered how the hell I would/could come up with enough dough to swing the deal.
            I hatched a plan. My plan was to get a food stand at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and make big bucks… fast. My hook was to be a vegetarian food stand (a first back then) and I was going to sell broccoli and mushroom quiche and mango smoothies (go figure) and rake it in big time, thus securing my scheme and future as a food magnate. It was supposed to be a huge success and I put all that I could, as well as family and friends, behind the project.
            Picture first… McYogurt’s: a fast food emporium where you could get black bean burgers, malts, chili cheese fries, smoothies , greasy Popeye’s mockery chicken and even some killer Q; with all the sensory overload of sin and none of the guilt; in short order and at  reasonable prices.
Now picture a world where dedicated vegetarians with enough disposable incomes to spring for a Jazz Fest ticket and food booth considerations were scarce as soy teeth and watch me while Fest goers in 1974 bypass our stand in favor of Jambalaya, Red Beans, sticky ribs and beer. I was crushed, I was broken, and I was salivating for some dead pig and an ice cold Schlitz. Lesson learned. In 1974 nobody wanted to go to the Fest and eat healthy. Surprisingly, and until relatively recently, vegetarians at the Fest had no other option but to go to the kids area and buy peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and lemonade. They didn’t and still don’t allow you to bring in outside comestibles.
            Now, yes now, you can eat to your veggie and even vegan heart’s delight and excess at the Fest.  Me? I lost my shirt and had to leave town until the whole thing blew over and I ain’t eatin’ nuthin’ vegetarian at the Fest (joking). Be that as it may, New Orleans is still without and still needs a vegetarian restaurant. And why is this no-brainer so hard to get off the ground? I dunno. There may not be enough full time dedicated vegetarians to support one; but, I believe that there are enough people that would go meatless for a meal or two every week if the food was of high standards and ‘in your face’ with flavor; and I ain’t the brightest knife in the driveway. (If for no other reason than to claim that they did give their cholesterol intake a break once in a while).
            One would think that all it would take to open such a venue would be inspiration, desire, vision, business acuity, hard work, dedication, ambition, determination, motivation, foresight, hindsight, blindsight, insight, monster cooks and location, location, location, eh? Nope, actually all it takes is looks and a whole lot of money (and monster cooks).       
            Seriously folks, it’s 2012; cannot we do better than that? And seriously folks, I know that there are joints that have an obligatory VegHead addition to their menu; but, don’t you think that it’s about time that we have a restaurant, café, bistro, eatery or joint that can serve; not just good, but, outstanding food at reasonable prices without the crutch of spiritless seafood, bland bird carcasses or zip codes of dead cow taking up the center of the plate? Don’t get me wrong; I applaud all of those fine restaurants that can whip up a brainless Pasta Prima Vera, grill a mindless Portobello mushroom on a bed of super market salad greens and let’s hear it for the famous crudités with spinach and artichoke dip; hell, if one’s really hard pressed for a veggie dining experience you can always go ethnic… perhaps some hummus to make you falafel, an uninspired plain pizza or some chips and salsa with your bean-brained burrito. “YeeFrigginHaw!!”
            I know, I know, rogue nations are building nuclear weapons, the polar ice caps are melting, unemployment is high, gas expensive, entire countries are on the brink of default and you aren’t saving enough for your retirement; but, have you ever seen the mechanically separated chicken that you eat in them nuggets? Do you know what they do to animals that are raised industrially for your consumption? Ever been inside a slaughter house? You have killed your own food haven’t you? I thought not. The pain, the blood, the guts; it’s enough to put you off your feed.
Do you know the benefits of a plant based diet? Sure you do. You also know the benefits of not smoking, the dangers of drinking and dialing, the heartbreak of loving that loser and the futility of trying to remember all the words to Funky Cold Medina. You know, but you’re handcuffed by habits that aren’t beneficial to you and are in fact bad for you. Sometimes because they feel good and sometimes because you just are a tad shy on self discipline.
If you want the joy of animal eating because you are addicted to the taste there are surprises waiting for you. You don’t have to have blood on your hands to have great food. Give an animal a break on one of your Jazz Fest food breaks and see if you don’t feel good about it. And remember… Good Witch Glinda says “soy is your friend”.

Jazz Fest 2012 Mental Floss

Po Boy Views By Phil LaMancusa Jazz Fest Mental Floss or Doo Wacka Doo Wacka Doo. Well, here it is again Jazz Fest time and, as the world falls apart around us on so many levels, we can indulge in a few days of musical and culinary amnesia; for, as we know, the ‘real world’ still waits out there with all the trials, tribulations and digestive gases that make up our lives and existences. It’s nice to take a break, idnit? However, in these troubled times it does a mind and body good to contemplate the human condition for at least a few moments from time to time. Is it not true that all New Orleanians (when sober) are natural philosophers? And given a couple of drinks… are we not all friggin’ prophets? And as sages will do, we tend to gather in preferential spaces to commiserate in time well spent vocalizing theories and examining the world as we perceive it. A certain posse I know collects regularly at Liuzza’s By The Track and the group that assembles there, partaking in adult beverages and expounding viewpoints, makes Cheers look like a Cub Scout meeting. Wit and witticisms fly without safety net or laugh track. Luckily for us the kitchen closes at seven and the bar winds us down and home by eight or so. The other night Bobby, after reading the newspaper, comes up to Girlfriend and says: “what is this with vaginal ultrasounds and abortions?” he’s a little red in the face “I can’t believe that the streets aren’t flooded with women protesting, marching and carrying banners saying that they will refuse to have sex with men until they stop treating them as second class citizens!” This, I think, is the start of a great conversation; so I chime in: “Bobby, when women take to the streets, I’m gonna be right there with them”. “So will I, so will I!!” Bobby rejoins, getting a trifle louder (I check to make sure that there are no children about). “First” he continues “men tell women not to have abortions and then they tell them not to take birth controls! I mean, what’s the point?” I hear that train (of thought) a comin’. “I’ll tell you what the point is(!) he says: “the point is to keep women home-- having babies-- and not interfering with men’s bidnesses! See…(?) if women stop having kids (or have them when they want to), they might turn around and say “whoa, I got me an MBA and I’m gonna go get me some of that money too!”; ya see what I’m saying?” he continues, “and I for one don’t understand why women ain’t running for office and getting in there and changing stuff? I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHY THERE AIN’T BLOOD IN THE STREETS!” More and similar ideas and “yeah, you rights!” fly and about that time it’s time for us to trundle home (after a couple of drinks, I tend to trundle). On my way home and well into the next couple of hours I ponder (pondering is another of my drinking attributes). I have daughters and my youngest has three beautiful little girls; and for the life of me I can’t see her being oppressed by her husband. My other daughter who has no babies is also not oppressed. But Bobby has a point; it’s just that the point sounds better when he says it, so the point is kinda wooly at this point, if you know what I mean. Then the light comes on. My daughters are not in that category to which Bobby refers because their men are looking out for them and have their best interests at heart and if these guys who run things had women’s best interests at heart they would leave them the !@#$%^&* alone and let them make their own decisions the way that men make all their own decisions for themselves about themselves. I mean who knows better? Well, after the Jazz Fest dust settles at Liuzza’s (By The Track) and the next time I see Bobby, I’ve got one for him. In the New York Times this week, and I’m saving the article, eventually it will all be a moot point because men are going extinct. That’s right, “for a long while”, the article read, the Y chromosome which is responsible for connecting with the X chromosome to make boy babies has been getting weaker and the double X combination that make girl babies has been staying stronger so that eventually women will have to find alternative ways to get babies and as such they will be in charge of their own lives because men won’t be around in sufficient quantities to mess with them. Maybe if more of the men in charge (until the women take over) realize that they are an endangered gender they’ll cease and desist trashing the plant in the pursuit of the almighty dollar and stop sending their sons off to wars to fight and die for the unreal ideal of King and country. What do you think the chances are? Be that as it may; Jazz Fest is a particular and singular experience into an alternative and parallel universe. Whichever way you look at it, you leave the world behind when you enter and try to ignore it when you come out. Wish as we may, the world that we live in will never be the one that we leave at the track. As you sip your pre-Fest Bloody Mary or post-Fest Abita at Liuzza’s By The Track, as per your usual Jazz Fest ritual, you’ll ponder these and other things because, I believe, the joint’s built on ‘grey cell hallowed ground’ and you just might not be able to help it. Happy Fest!