Notes from Portugal: Rossio Square | Lisbon

Notes from Portugal

I thought I’d send a quick note from Lisbon to say bom dia. I’m here for the month on a research trip for my cookbook, to be published by Clarkson Potter in 2009. I’ve rented an apartment on the upper reaches of Sé, a sliver of a zona that takes its name from the city’s famed Sé cathedral. Farther up the perilously steep hill, with its zigzag of stone steps, is the Castelo de São Jorge, the mighty fortress that once protected this part of the city. Every few minutes, below my window, I hear the eléctricos, early 20th-century trolleys, clattering their way through the tortuous streets of the old sections of the city.

Rossio Square's black and white waves in LisbonMy days are divided between intensive Portuguese lessons (no, I can’t speak fluently, even though I grew up in a Portuguese-American home), writing and researching, and, when my friends are convinced I’m permanently fused to my chair, some fantastic meals — many made by them.

Being a café society, Lisbon offers lots of places to sip uma bica and people watch. One of my favorite spots is Nicola, the Art Deco coffeehouse that has been the haunt of Portuguese writers ever since the original was built in the 17th century. Lots of people call it a tourist trap — after all, it sits right on the impressive Rossio square with its famous black and white wave cobbled praça—but I’ve been able to sit there with my laptop for hours, nursing nothing but an água com gás or two, with not even so much as an evil glance my way from management. In fact, I’m writing this post from there. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon and 1,15 eiros. But if it’s excellent pastries and salgados (salty snacks) you want, wave over your waiter and ask for “a conta,” or the bill, and walk to A Brasileria, around the corner in Chiado. Which is exactly where I’m headed. Tchau.

Tales of a Supertaster

Super Taster

Being a supertaster was the last thing on my mind when my dentist said, “Don’t eat anything for the next few hours,” snapping off a pair of latex gloves and dropping them into the trash. “You could bite your cheek or tongue. Could be nasty.” I’d been white-knuckling it in the chair for almost an hour because I had to get a filling regrouted. Owing to a pain threshold of a third grader, I insisted he dope me up as much as possible. The result was my mouth was numb from the divot of my upper lip all the way back to my right ear. I rubbed my fingers across the side of my face; it felt as if I were touching the stubble of an unkempt stranger. “Remember —” he called after me as I walked out of the office.

2006 Bert Greene Award


Best Food Writing 2006

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“No eating, got it,” I said and headed to my favorite burger joint. I’ve downed hundreds of thousands of meals in my life without incident, I reasoned, I’m sure I can manage another.

As I took a bite of my cheeseburger, I experienced that curious post-dental sensation, as if I’d lost muscle control on the side of my face. I couldn’t tell if the food was being demurely chewed or was dribbling down the doughy-feeling chin of that stubbled stranger. But an even curiouser thing happened: On the numbed side of my mouth, I couldn’t taste anything. It was as if my taste buds had been Novocained, too. I wasn’t about to let a little anesthesia keep me down—there was food at stake here—but after a few more bites, I gave up. The anxiety of wondering if I looked like a slobbering Saint Bernard proved too much, and I headed home. Read more »

Playing with Fire: Sweating it out with Barbecue Pit Master Ricky Parker

Traveling west between Nashville and Memphis, across the rhinestone buckle of the Bible Belt, I headed deeper into the South’s other and equally worshipped belt—that of barbecue. Every few miles, advertisements for pulled-pork sandwiches shared billboard space with promises of salvation from ministers who looked as if they should be presiding over a congregation of used-car salesmen, not sinners. Stapled to telephone poles were handmade signs with the letters “BBQ” and a hastily drawn arrow underneath.

2006 Bert Greene Award


Few things other than barbecue could wrench me from the familiar comfort of my air-conditioned New York apartment and drop me into western Tennessee, especially in the torpid heat of late June. It wasn’t because of any abiding love for the food, but rather because of a colossal, unmitigated lack of understanding. Having been raised in New England during the culinarily unenlightened ’60s, I took anything my father put on our hibachi to be barbecue. Steak? Yep. Hot dogs? Certainly. And while you’re at it, why not grilled cheese made with Velveeta? But later, as the cult of pork crept north, I found myself at swank eateries downing Kansas-, Texas-, and Memphis-style barbecue, and I was none the wiser. It seems no two people who have ever huddled over a pit have agreed upon what animal to cook, how to cook it, whether to sauce it, or when to season it. There isn’t a technique that confounds me more, and, considering how barbecue is suddenly the food of the moment, I figured I needed to learn more.

I contacted my friend southern food writer John T. Edge, a short, wiry man whose face has the scrubbed shine of a just-opened lichee nut, and asked him where I could go to learn about barbecue firsthand. Read more »

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