Digesting art and history — good memories

Two menus occupy special places in my heart and in my home. They couldn’t be more different.
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When in Rome

The first is a colorful, poster-size graphic from Da Meo Patacca, a memento from a first “Roman holiday” when I was 21. I still smile every time I look at it, remembering how impressed I was with the white-shirted waiter who unfurled the almost three-foot-long roll of paper with a deft flick of his wrist.  I don’t remember the food of that long-ago dinner table, but I can’t forget the experience, and the framed menu has graced my kitchens and pantries for longer than I care to admit.

The classic restaurant is still serving its traditional fare in Rome and, by all accounts, still delighting tourists from all over the globe. It is now possible to purchase the extravagant vintage menus on ebay or etsy, and I suspect that many, like mine, are still kept as keepsakes.20160110_120156

I treasure the memory; I also delight at the items priced in Lira. A mixed salad for 250, garlic bread at 100, saltimbocca a la romana at 950, gelato for 300 and a bottle of wine at 2500 – dinner easily required counting out bills running to multiple thousands! Truly, that was culture shock. However, the exchange rate at the time was around 600 Italian Lira to a single U.S. dollar. My dinner, I am sure, was quite a bargain! I returned to Da Meo Patacca a few years ago and came away with a later version of the menu, this time with prices in Euros. I also took away a renewed appreciation for this lively eatery that has served generations of diners during its five decades of operation. I know there is better food in this ancient city, and trendier trattorias. But this is a tradition of sorts and, on a pleasant evening, the patio is friendly, the wine is abundant, and the music can be fine!

Viva la France

The second menu is not as vibrant in color, but it boasts fascinating pastel drawings of animals around its edge – elephant, bear, camel, kangaroo, cat and rat – along with frivolous hot air balloons floating over the countryside. It is dated “25 Decembre 1870 – 99eme Jour du Siege” from Voisin in Paris. It is in French. And, no, I did not eat there. Rather, I was entranced by the images and by the subject.

I have loved this menu for years, knowing it was not a real menu. I thought it was simply a quirky take on French culture and paid little attention to the actual items: Haunch of Wolf with Venison Sauce, Cat flanked by Rats. Jugged Kangaroo and Elephant Consomme20160109_171810Among the Hors d’Oeuvres: Butter, Radishes, Stuffed Donkey’s Head, Sardines. It includes other food choices as well: Wild Mushrooms Bordelaise and Rice Cake with Preserves. Again, I thought, a nod to French ingenuity, or an attempt to be entertaining. I thought nothing of the English translation at the bottom of the poster. I investigated no further, and simply enjoyed the artwork of my charming wall hanging. Until just recently.

The Back Story

Around Christmas, I happened across a blog post with an intriguing title. With an audible gasp, I realized that it was the story of my menu. I now know about the Franco-Prussian War, about the long and celebrated history of Voisin Restaurant, about how adaptable French cuisine can be, and about the suffering and endurance of a proud people during hard times. I know about how a renowned chef was truly creative and managed a Christmas dinner that must have been quite a treat for wealthy diners, and that at least one other restaurant routinely served equally bizarre dishes. By discovering the history of “my menu,” I have gained a new understanding of life, and of war and survival. During this siege, not even the well-to-do were spared hunger and deprivation.

The City of Light has known some very dark times. The French surrendered to the Prussians in 1871, when the citizens of the city were truly half-starved. I still love the depictions of the animals in their faded watercolor reality. But I will never again look at this menu in quite the same way. And I now view history very differently.

Learn more about the war, the zoo and the dinner.

Also included, between the French and English versions of the historic menu, is a letter to “Dear George,” signed “See you in Boston. Hopefully, Charles.” Perhaps it’s a figment of someone’s imagination. Or not.

Among other things, the letter states: “The Prussian encirclement of Paris is now so complete that no word is getting out except by carrier pigeon or balloon. As the besiegers have become increasingly adept at shooting down the balloons or tracking them to their destinations, the government will probably soon abandon the balloon service.”

It continues with the odd statement: “I think you will enjoy the enclosed Christmas menu from Voisin’s where I dined yesterday. As you can see, hunger forgets squeamishness.”

Pleasures and Pitfalls of Olive Oil

Recently, at a local farmers market, I stopped at an olive oil display and was transported – in memory – to my first encounter with the mystique of locally-produced olive oils. I learned that today, in Texas, there is not a “lone olive ranch” in the Lone Star state, but several. It seems this state is better suited for black oil than olive oil, but with time, luck and persistence, some olive ranchers are making a go of it. Texas A&M explains that climate is a limiting factor.

The oil pressed from trees has a long, rich history, and was commonly known as the “gift of the gods” by ancient civilizations. There is a bit of doubt about which gods first introduced olive oil to humans, and where exactly, but no doubt at all about its continuing popularity among Mediterranean peoples. That’s how I first was introduced to its wonders.

It was decades before the Mediterranean Diet became codified; EVOO, at the time, was not in the vocabulary of most chefs. But, even then, olive oil was something special among the “initiated.”

Photo by Adrienne Cohen
Photo by Adrienne Cohen

I have written about olive oil in terms of its natural properties, and as a regional, historical and cultural component of diet and tradition. The following piece first was published on Yahoo Contributor Network March 3, 2013. It was prompted by a news story confirming the health benefits of olive oil.

I’d like to share it again (with minor changes and updates):

Eating Well, Staying Healthy Are Not Mutually Exclusive

Many years ago, while vacationing at a Caribbean Island resort, my husband and I met a vivacious Italian couple at dinner. They were older, by decades, than we were at the time, but just as active, full of curiosity and fun to be with. They were swimmers, reef explorers and divers, and had come to enjoy the beautiful waters of the Caribbean. We met and talked, and because we had lived in France and traveled in Europe, we shared our experiences with them; they asked us about our life in the United States. We found we had much in common, despite the differences in age and geography.

One night at dinner, we tasted what that Italian gentleman called his “secret of long life.”

Olive Oil

Pressed from olives grown on his trees on his land, and carried from his home in travel flasks, he passed it around the resort’s community table for all to sample, and to savor, with our bread. I still recall the color, the scent and the flavor of that olive oil. The couple was justifiably proud of the golden elixir.

As “20-somethings,” we were enthralled. We were captivated by the setting; by the sun and the sea, by the activities and the bountiful food. We were charmed by the company. This pair

Olive Grove, Tuscany' Photo by Davide Rizzo via Flickr
Olive Grove, Tuscany’
Photo by Davide Rizzo via Flickr

of free-spirited, fit, fun grandparents enjoyed life every bit as much as we did. They were only too happy to meet new friends and share good times, good conversation, good food and abundant wine.

This incident occurred before the current popularity of all things Mediterranean, including the diet. On vacation, we two laid aside moderation: We overdid the activity as well as the food, the sun and the drink; and we paid the price upon our return home.

Not so our Italian friends. They maintained their routine. A simple breakfast of bread, with the requisite olive oil, and cheese; perhaps a soft-boiled egg, and black coffee. For lunch, a simple salad, with fish or fresh vegetables, fruit and bread, with olive oil. Whole olives, too, if they were available.

They walked, they swam, they dove; they relaxed.

Olives ready to pick Photo by Jocelyn Kinghorn, Flickr
Olives ready to pick
Photo by Jocelyn Kinghorn, Flickr

And then dinner — long, multi-course dinners. Soup, appetizer, entrée, roasted vegetables, salad — and bread. Always with the olive oil. Good conversation, much laughter. Much wine. And then dessert.

No, we never saw them again. But we never forgot that olive oil.

When I heard on ABC News that new findings confirm that the benefits offered by the “Mediterranean Diet,” in particular its emphasis on daily consumption of olive oil, include an astounding 30 percent reduction in heart attack risk, I thought of those Italian friends from long ago. I doubt that they are traveling this earth still, some 30-plus years later. But I would wager that they did so for many years following our meeting, always with enthusiasm, with smiles and laughter, and with olive oil.

Note: Now that I have discovered, and confirmed, that olive trees grow in Texas, I am planning an upcoming visit to the groves. I’m really looking forward to exploring the modern process of producing that “divine” oil.

How to know if you’re a food snob

 . . . and what to do about it!

Some people celebrate their snobbery, of course, by reading restaurant reviews before making a reservation, cultivating their knowledge of the proper wine to accompany a rare steak or a traditional Welsh rarebit, diligently identifying every ingredient and perfecting the most unusual preparation techniques.

That’s okay — absolutely! The joys of cooking and eating are individual pursuits.

But good food is found in unusual places and, at least sometimes, under the oddest of conditions — on street corners, in out-of-the-way neighborhoods, in unexpected circumstances. Good food is also found, commonly and abundantly, around a simple family dinner table, whether it’s a hearty soup, a warm casserole, a generations-old treat, or a weeknight family get-together. Good food does not have to be fancy, and it can also be fast.

Food, at its best, is a celebration. Breaking bread together is an honorable tradition in every culture around the globe. It’s not in a literal sense that sharing food is so important, but in the wider sense of sharing a small slice of life with other people, be they family members or strangers, along with the slice of beef, the slice of pizza, or the slice of pie.

It’s the connection that matters; food is the glue that binds us together.

I happened to catch the last few minutes of a Jacques Pepin cooking show recently on PBS and was transported back to the time I spent in Paris as a young woman. French food was so good; learning how to prepare it properly seemed so unattainable. And then I learned.

What I learned is that French cuisine, at its heart, is simple food. It’s crafted from simple ingredients, picked fresh from the garden, or purchased fresh from the market. It’s peasant food and, as such, often there are no recipes, just general guidelines. It’s meant to be shared, with friends and family, both the preparation of it and its consumption. It evolves naturally from what’s available.

Iconic French onion soup illustrates the point — humble onions and a bit of butter combined with dry bread and a some leftover cheese! It’s a classic. But, at its heart, it is simply a “make do” meal for times when no meat is available.

Although I never met him, I feel as if I know him. Jacques Pepin’s brand of kitchen reality resonates with me; he is the chef I would most like to spend time with in the kitchen, or have as a guest at my dinner table.

Yes, I know that he once prepared dishes for the presidents of France. I know that he’s a renowned chef, and that he has written cookbooks and mastered all the fancy kitchen techniques. I know all that, but as I watch his shows, and see him interact with his family and friends, I can’t help but appreciate how this 80-year-old chef views food, with a sparkle in his eyes, and a smile on his lips. It’s always a celebration.

“The love of food, and cooking, is passed down from generation to generation, with favorite recipes at the heart of every family. What do you say to that? Happy cooking!” Jacques Pepin.

I am convinced again that this is the way we all ought to approach food — in our own kitchens, laughing and sampling and experimenting — tasting as we go along — just the way Jacques Pepin does. My grandmothers did that too. They sampled food with their fingers, added a “bit of this and a pinch of that,” rarely followed a recipe exactly, and always let the “young’uns” lick the spoon and sample the pie crust tarts hot from the oven. They also learned to “make do” when necessary.

PBS stations around the country air a final 26-week series on Jacques Pepin, “Heart and Soul,” this fall. Check local stations for scheduling. Segments from a previous series, entitled “Jacques Pepin: fast food my way,” are available to watch online.

Exploring the world of fresh food on a road trip through America’s Heartland

A food writers’ conference, “Eating Words” sponsored by the Edible Institute, in Iowa City, Iowa, was ample incentive for a freelancer with that writing specialty; planned visits along the way at innovative restaurants, specialty food stores, farmers markets and a working organic farm with an aquaponics greenhouse promised subject matter for future stories. A brief respite from DFW’s mid-90s temperatures was yet another reason to drive away in early October. It all came together as a six-day road trip that spanned almost 2,000 miles.

There’s something about road trips! Turning off the highway can mean unexpected pleasures, even if it’s just the promise of a different pace. The stiffness that accompanies long hours of sitting seems to vanish quickly with the sight of a glorious sunrise, miles upon miles of golden corn fields, and the bucolic simplicity of cattle grazing on green hillsides. This trip showcased America’s Heartland at its best! And the unexpected pleasures just kept coming!

First dining stop was Anton’s in Kansas City, an unusual eatery that didn’t disappoint in any way. This relatively new taproom and restaurant, in an old brick building that once was Nabisco’s headquarters, began its life as a grocery store in 1898. Between bakery and today, it served for 30 years as Irene’s Restaurant and Lounge, the local “3 Martini” lunch spot. So, its current incarnation is entirely appropriate.

But it’s different.

There’s an aquaponics system in the basement, a great, funky bar and open kitchen on the main level and an art-filled dining room on the second floor. Waiters are friendly, the on-tap and bottled beers should satisfy any palate, the wine list is long and the food is delicious. Best choices, of course, in this beef capital, are the cut-to-size on-site aged steaks, your choice of grain-fed or grass fed.

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Being different, I chose a sampler of smoked salmon served with egg salad, olive tapenade and crostinis, with a side order of potato latkes. It was more than delicious. It was also more than I could eat. But smoked salmon for breakfast isn’t bad!

Following a morning walk to a nearby health food grocery that has been serving residents of the midtown neighborhood for more than 40 years, my “mate” and I drove to the impressive grounds of the World War I Memorial and Museum that dominates the skyline between KC’s Federal Reserve Bank and Union Station.

The site was originally dedicated in 1921, and the Egyptian Revival Liberty Memorial was completed in 1926. An underground museum and research facilities are more recent and the grounds are now designated as the National World War I monument. It was an unexpected surprise. Its grand dimensions, c20151002_095753oupled with its simplicity and its symbolism, combine to make it one of the most impressive monuments I have ever encountered. Visitors to the underground museum enter over a glass bridge spanning a field of red poppies — 9,000 of them, representing one flower for every 1,000 deaths in the “world war.” It boggles the mind. Visitors can also ride an elevator to the top of a 217-foot memorial tower for a spectacular view of the city and surrounding plains.

We left Kansas City then, driving on to Liberty, Missouri, for breakfast. But Kansas City will remain with us for a long time.