Confessions of a Hired Belly

Confessions of a Hired Belly

Nothing elicits mock pity at cocktail parties faster than when I complain, “Food writing is a really hard job.” Until the head-on assault of the Food Network a decade ago, food writing made even soft journalism, such as fashion and gardening, look butch. But average Americans now know their chefs and food writers like they know the members of their favorite rock bands or sports teams. The best dish at the dinner table these days is usually the fight that breaks out over the latest restaurant review.

Nonetheless, despite the boost up the food chain, so to speak, I still maintain being a “hired belly,” as James Villas refers to our kind in Between Bites: Memoirs of a Hungry Hedonist, should come with hazard pay. Yes, all of my jealous friends are partly right; I have been invited to my fair share of ultra-chic restaurants. But for every Daniel Boulud and Alain Ducasse, there are dozens upon dozens of chefs, cooks, and desperately clueless people wielding spatulas who think their creations should be adored by the newly ensconced dining class. Needless to say, acid indigestion is my constant companion. Read more »

Devil with a Red Apron on

Devil With a Red Apron On

Enter my mother’s kitchen, a domain she’s ruled with benign autocracy for more than 45 years, and all physical laws and culinary edicts cease to exist there. It’s like finding yourself in the loony world of a Warner Bros. cartoon where pain is comical, time and space are elastic, and gravity acts as if it never heard of Sir Isaac Newton. For example, when making garnish for a dish, my mother will grab a gargantuan bunch of parsley and, with the ferocity of the Tasmanian Devil, buzz through it in seconds, leaving a thimble-size pile of green flecks. She is a human Ginsu knife.

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2005 Bert Greene Award

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Apparently, in her kitchen, short tempers seem to cause short cooking times, too. Proof: She will fill a pot with water, dump in three fistfuls of dried fava beans, add a 10-ounce link of Portuguese sausage, called chouriço, and crank the flame to high. If she’s had a rough day, she’ll give the pot a hooded glance, and the soup is roiling in minutes. Whoever said a watched pot never boils never knew my mother.

On her “Me Days,” though—peaceful afternoons when all she has to do is write several dozen e-mails, wash and iron my father’s underwear, and reorganize the silverware drawer—she’ll go through the identical process of soup making. Yet the pot, even though set over the same heat, will only burble, never boil, no matter how long it’s been on the stove. Considering her preternatural ways in the kitchen, it’s no wonder that until the age of 12 I was terrified that I was a real-life Damien, as depicted in the film The Omen: a prepubescent possessor of dark and supernatural powers. Read more »

The Goose of Christmas Past

The Goose of Christmas Past

I’ve been a haunted man for 13 years, and I place the blame squarely on Tiny Tim’s crooked little shoulders. It was December 1990, and I had just finished rereading A Christmas Carol. Inspired by Tiny’s exultant prayer, “God bless us every one,” I decided that I, too, would have a proper Christmas dinner. The next day I marched into my local butcher shop in Brooklyn and ordered a goose. Luigi, a short, rotund man who had to stand on a milk crate to talk to his customers, leaned over the meat case and cocked an eyebrow: “Have you ever made a goose before?”

“Puh-lease,” I replied, even though the only experience I had cooking fowl was microwaving Swanson turkey dinners. “Plenty of times.”

“What size do you want?” he asked, obviously trying to entrap me. But I outwitted him.

“Oh, the usual.”

When I returned several days later to collect my bird, Luigi instructed me in the ways of goose cookery. While he babbled on about something to do with pricking the skin and draining the fat, I imagined myself parading into the dining room with a bird so splendiferous, my guests couldn’t help but break into a chorus of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Read more »

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