It seems like everybody starts by talking about what Mom made and eating at home, that sort of thing. Which in my case is a little different. My mother taught home economics in high school, but she was not a good cook. She said it herself: she could follow recipes. I seem to recall eating a lot of American chop suey, which was spaghetti with red sauce and ground beef baked in a casserole. And a lot of meatloaf. Oh yes, and frozen fish sticks. Frozen fish sticks were very big in our house.
There’s not a whole lot to report from childhood. My mom’s stuff was just . . . I think she cooked out of the Betty Crocker cookbook and it’s not that it was bad. It’s just it was boring. Spicy stuff never happened at our house.
My father would do burgers on the grill and once in a while, a great while, a steak. But the repertoire was limited. I had two younger sisters. Neither of them are particularly enthusiastic about cooking.
Although, although — it’s all coming back. Christmas was a real mixed bag. I don’t want to get into it too much but my mother grew up in a circumstance in which Christmas was never a good time at her house. As a consequence, unfortunately, Christmas was never very much of a good time at our house either. Although, every year at Christmas my father would go out – he worked in Manhattan – and he would come home one night with a bucket of shucked oysters and they would make baked oysters in cream. And that made everything else worthwhile. I would sit there, telling myself, This is so good. Even though the day typically ended in tears, not necessarily mine, that was just like Wow.
I remember my mother made bread pudding and it was sort of a caramel, burnt sugar flavor which I really liked a lot. But, man, I can remember eating Hostess Twinkies. I still shudder to think. I liked them then. I had a friend who used to say, When I see a Twinkie I want it. It was a joke. It was around the time when people were saying, How long does a Twinkie last? I went out and got a pack and I bit into it and I can’t believe this is something that I ever liked. I could tell it was this sort of artificial moistness. I remember loving them and then, years later, being, My god, these are awful!
My parents grew like three strawberry plants. Oh, and we grew rhubarb, now that I think about it. And strawberry-rhubarb pie was a thing. There’s something that my mother made, that I thought, I like this!
I have a memory of the very first diet sodas. There was something called like Diet Lite. There was a place that was out of New York that was called Hoffman Beverages that made it. Mom was definitely on the ball on that part. We didn’t drink Coke with sugar in it. We drank artificial sweeteners. This is way back when.
I would say that 90% of my neighbors were people who had grown up in Queens or Brooklyn, started their families there, and then moved out to the burbs. That’s what you did. When I think about it, it was really a pretty narrow demographic. I certainly don’t remember the kind of thing that I had later in life, where another family would invite you over, where families would eat together. That just didn’t happen. I don’t know how they got into this but my parents had bossa nova lessons in the basement with a bunch of the neighbors. It was like 1962, 1963, and bossa nova was like the thing. Dancing. And the cha cha. They’d have friends come over at night and they would like play bridge. They would also go out to dinner and then come back. They would entertain at home, but not dinner. Cocktail parties, dance parties, that sort of thing.
Dad rode the Long Island Railway every day. They used to call it “the route of the dashing commuter.” Running after your train! He once brought home a cartoon book and it was called Change at Jamaica. It was sort of a comedic thing about what it was like to ride the Long Island rail. Change at Jamaica!
Where I lived they were still carving out farmland and building tract houses on it. There was still Vito’s farmstand. And now that I think about it, I remember walking from my house down to the main road – this is probably when I’m a teenager – and it was like half a mile. They raised their own corn. And you could go out and pick it yourself and it was cheap as dirt. And we would get it home and we would eat it right away. It still had the sugars in it. That stuff was good. And, similarly, all along, sort of the edge of where our little tract was, was farmland right there. And the border was honeysuckle. And we would go, when we were little kids, and we would pull the stems out of the honeysuckle and suck on them. Because they were sweet. That was a happy thing!
The young man knows what is good
My standard for pizza was a place called Ann’s on Long Island. We did take-out once in a while but actually we would go there for dinner, you know, Mom and Dad and the kids. And order this big cheese pizza. And we’d eat it all. And I also remember one particular time when I was like 8 or 9 years old and my parents were drinking beer. They let me smell it. I’m going to say that was ‘59. Twenty-five years later I went into a store on Newbury Street in Boston and bought a bottle of Pilsner Urquel back when it was made in Germany. And I took it home and I opened it up and it smelled just like the Miller High Life that I had smelled in 1959. I called my parents. I said, I can’t believe this, and they said, Well you know, Miller High Life, it used to be really good.
And the other big thing that I remember — and again it’s restaurant stuff – is actually going with my father to get Chinese take-out. The Chinese take-out place was in a strip mall and it had big plate glass windows but they were covered with black curtains, so this mysterious place that you went inside. Dad would go in and I’d sit in the car and wonder what was going on in there. That was my first experience with cheesy Chinese spareribs, the ones that seem like they had red licorice melted over them. And I loved them! It’s funny, my wife teases me about not chewing on bones, well I used to chew on those bones!
Another restaurant memory, probably from around the time I’m 12, 14, 15 years old. One town over, there was one of these restaurants – I haven’t seen one of these in a long time – but they would have this sort of Tudor theme and they would be steakhouses. Ye olde something or other. I just had a memory of a waitress asking me what I wanted on my baked potato. And I said sour cream, and she says, The young man knows what is good.
Again, from when I was a pre-teen. I don’t know how it was, but there was a German baker near the primary school in the town I grew up in. Every once in a while, we would get a cheesecake from them. I still remember, to this day, those were still the best cheesecakes I ever had. There were no gimmicks. It didn’t have fruit on it. It didn’t have any of that stuff. It had this sort of light brown crust and it wasn’t gelatinous or anything. It was sort of dry. And it was delicious.
The other thing, now that I think about it, was that in summertime, in this little suburban town on Long Island, there were ice cream trucks. I mean there weren’t like one or two, there were three or four. They all came around either late afternoon or evening after dinner. That was the first time I had a popsicle. And there was what I still think is the classic thing, an ice cream bar. There was something called a Nutty Buddy, which was a cone that had chocolate with nuts on it. In the latter days it was the Mister Softee truck. Mr. Softee kind of drove everybody else away.
I’ve been an adventurous eater from the get-go
My earliest memory of looking at food as something special was in the 5th grade in school. There was a teacher there who was from Hawaii and of Oriental descent, and she brought in sushi for several of the classes to try, including mine. Without really knowing what it was, I just chowed down on it. My teacher remarked, Look at him, he’s just eating this stuff! I don’t know how I got it but I’ve been an adventurous eater from the get-go.
My parents were friends with a couple in which the wife and my mother had been college roommates. This woman had married a guy from India who imported brass bells. Very well off, had an apartment on Park Avenue and all that. One night, I forget what the occasion was, they took us to a place called the Ceylon India Inn. And I ate poori for the first time and obviously lots of curry. I liked all of it and yet there was no follow-up. It was years before I ate Indian food again. But I do have a memory of that. It was this sort of dark place with a lot of red and black going on. And the food was very good.
Then, when I went away to school in a little place in central Ohio, first off I got a job in a kitchen. Dishwasher, mind you. But I got to see sort of big-time food preparation up close. What it took and how it worked, which was very interesting. Also, I had a friend in my Freshman year who had a car. We would go out into the countryside in Knox County and we would buy summer sausage and cheeses made by the Mennonite farmers who lived around there. That was a whole new thing, discovering this kind of food.
When I was 22, 23 years old I got married to a woman who was from suburban New York, Westchester County. And her parents took me to . . . I actually think it was called The Flower Drum. I believe it was the first big-time Szechuan restaurant in New York. I have a vivid memory of the waiter bringing us something and taking a chopstick and pointing at the peppers, going, Don’t eat! And then my father-in-law goading my brother-in-law into eating one anyway, after which he required several martinis. We have since learned that yogurt is the proper applicant for your mouth. So that was some more sort of exotic stuff.
And then, some years later, going to a family-style restaurant in San Francisco. I’ve long since forgotten the name, but because it was family style they just brought stuff out. My wife and I are sitting at the table with a group of six gay guys – which is not surprising, it’s San Francisco – and they were great. This new dish came out and I say, What is this? and the guy looks at me and says, Don’t ask, just eat it. It was tongue, and I liked it a lot. That was yet another adventure. That was my introduction to organ meats.
Years later, in Paris with L, at a restaurant called L’Oeillade, they had brains — calves’ brains — with a crust of ground pistachio nuts. Once again, it was served family style. It came out of a big bowl, and I ate some of it, and it was like, This is great. This is really good. I think that was one of the times that our waiter was sort of like, Oh, not all Americans are afraid of this stuff.
Then, in 1988, 1989, I had a writing assignment that took me to Hong Kong. Without having any idea that I was doing it, I went into what turned out to be an all-vegetarian Chinese restaurant. That was the kind where they had mock duck, mock beef. I remember thinking, The texture on this stuff is kind of strange. But it was good. I was pretty intimidated by a lot of Hong Kong restaurants. It’s one of the few trips I took when I actually lost weight. On the other hand, I did have tea-smoked duck, where they smoked the duck, cooked it, cut it into little rectangles, and then put it back together again. So when you used your chopsticks you could just pick up these little bite-size pieces. I can still almost bring it back, the smokiness and the flavor of black tea. And of course that duck fat is really sort of unctuous. It was good.
The person who actually taught me to cook was my first wife’s grandmother. She was born in the Bronx, Italian, and she used to tell me that she would go down to Macy’s – this is about the 1940s – and they used to have cooking classes. She would go down here and take that stuff. But I know that, really, she knew how to do the classic Italian red sauce stuff. That was a time of realizing, yes, I like restaurants and I like restaurant food, but sometimes the stuff that was homemade was the best. I mean something really simple. Spaghetti and meatballs that her grandmother made, and they were terrific. And they had what my father used to call Dago red, unspecified Italian red wine, that you have with it. We must have had spaghetti and meatballs at home at one time or another, but eating Mrs. M’s was like a whole different experience. Something that my mother never did, she actually took me to the kitchen and said, Here, here’s how you do this. And that’s how I learned how to brown garlic without burning it, how to put together a little potpourri of spices that you put in the pot and take it out. I learned how to make braciole, simple stuff like a well-made lasagna. There was nothing particularly exotic in it, but it was really well made and it was really good to eat.
Even then I had a preference for wine
As soon as I turned 18 and went to college, I started drinking. Beer and wine. Even then I had a preference for wine, but I didn’t really know what the heck was going on. I had Boone’s Farm or whatever it was. The big moment – this I do remember vividly – I was working for a trade magazine and I was covering the metals industry and there was a big conference in San Francisco. And my editor sent me there and my first wife – this is very unusual – came with me on the trip. There used to be a restaurant in San Francisco called Ernie’s, long gone, in the financial district. They had great Italian food and they were famous for their wine list. Well, I drank wine but I didn’t know nothing about nothing. Looking at the list and it’s all Italian and French wines and I don’t know how to say the names, I don’t know what’s going on. And I see Joseph Phelps Cabernet Sauvignon and I think, I know how to say this. And I ordered it and, literally, you could see the lightbulb going off above my head. It was like Wow, this is different!
And of course the great irony is that not long after that I got into European wines, and I basically didn’t think much of California wine ever again, but I do owe the Phelps people for that one. There was aroma, there was flavor, there was nuance. The first glass was not like the last glass. This was very entertaining to me. That was the beginning. Then I went back and I started paying attention to wine. After that first experience I was never afraid to, like, say the name wrong, or pretend to know something when I didn’t know it. Which, when I got into the business, became an even bigger thing – because there’s so much bullshit in the wine business.
When things really took off for me
On the food side, when things really took off for me, one of them was marrying someone who was a really good cook. And the other was I got this job with a company for people who organize conferences. And I got sent all over the world on their nickel and everywhere I went the host would say, This is the best we have – here, try this! I joke about it, going to Germany in April of some year in the 1990s, and it was asparagus time. And I was in Dusseldorf, then I was in Cologne, then I was in Bonn, and everywhere I went they’d come out with a big tray and go, “For guest special — Spargel!” I have to say they cooked it every way you could think of. I personally like it with bacon. But it was like a joke. Special for you. Let me guess, Spargel? But I got to eat bouillabaisse for the first time. I got to eat rabbit for the first time. I had frogs’ legs for the first time.
I did some work in Southeast Asia also. I have a famous story about my adventure in Taipei. My hosts took me out to dinner at this fancy place, and it was really classic Cantonese stuff. After the fourth dish came out they said, Arthur, We have special item for you, not on the menu. Stinky bean curd. I had actually heard of this, so I had some notion. And it comes and it’s rotted tofu and it smells like garbage. But I’m not going to lose face in front of these guys, right? So, I sort of stopped up my nose, and I said this is good for your cholesterol, Arthur. And I ate all of it. We’re all sitting at this big round table and there’s sort of this flash of Mandarin going around and I’m, Oh, ok, How else can we mess with him?
It wasn’t horrible. What was horrible was sea cucumber. I will eat anything; I will eat anything twice – but I will never eat sea cucumber again. It is just wrong. It is wrong in so many ways. The texture is sort of like a sponge covered with snot. And it tastes like iodine and sort of like dirty. And I ate it! Reluctantly. But I remember it was like, Oh, I’m never doing this again!
At that same dinner, they started daring me. So, Arthur, You ever eat Szechuan food, really hot? So on my last day in town they took me to the hotpot restaurant. You walk in and there are these ten round Formica tables with a gas ring in the middle of each one and a “lovely” orange hose that ran off to the side to wherever the gas source was. The waiter came out with a huge clear plastic envelope. I’m going to say it was 2 feet by 3 feet. You could see the red peppers glistening inside this. This was the broth that we were going to be cooking our food in. He cut the top off with a pair of scissors and dumped it all in. And then they waited for it to heat up. It was like fondue. They brought out duck hearts, tripe, pork intestine, all kinds of fun stuff. You would dip it in with your chopsticks and you’d take it out, look at it on your plate for a minute.
So I’m going through that. And I had been to the East Coast Grill in Cambridge before, where they used to specialize on really hot food, so these guys could not scare me with this stuff. Then they said, Arthur, do you want to try the broth by itself? By now, I’ve looked up and see that there’s this little crowd forming around, like the waitstaff. They want to see the gweilo freak out. I scooped in, took a spoonful, and said, Pretty good. Had a little swig of beer, took my spoon and started to dig in for another one and Mr. C. K. L., one of my hosts said, Arthur, Take it easy! At the end of the lunch at the hotpot restaurant, my next stop was the airport to go home. They gave me packets of Tagamet to have on the plane. Six months later my boss was at a conference on conventions in Chicago and the people from Taipei were there and they asked, How is Arthur?
Where can we eat the good stuff?
I still like to go out to eat, even when there’s no need. I’m married to a cordon bleu trained chef now. She and I travel on our stomachs. It’s like where can we eat the good stuff? Because I am who I am and my experience in the wine business, people often ask, What was the best wine you ever had? And the best wine I ever had came out of a pitcher and I don’t even know what it was. We were in Northern Provence, outside a town called Vaison-la-Romaine, which by the way is where Patricia Wells lived, and there’s literally a truck stop. I’m pretty sure it’s called Café Venus and we went in and we had composed salad. I forget what the entree was but it was rabbit or something and they had local red wine out of the pitcher. It was delicious. So much of the enjoyment of wine and food is context. It’s who you were with, time of day, where you were, how you were feeling.
I am basically a pretty shallow person. I’m just enjoying myself. There is an aspect of bragging rights – Yeah, I ate that! But also it’s realizing that everywhere you go, somebody’s making something good to eat. And oftentimes something good to drink also. Anthony Bourdain had a great line. He said, Your body is not a temple. It’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.