Was in another lifetime . . .

I posted this in 2005, when it seemed the dire situation had progressed to direst. And here we are again: In a #RepublicanDisaster:

Almost exactly a year ago, I survived what felt like an untranslated eternity in an Italian hospital by traveling nonstop in my mind. I couldn’t walk to the bathroom three steps from my bed, but I could go back to every wondrous destination (and a few grim ones, too) where my consort has led me in 24 years of sharing a home (anniversary No. 2). And one day in one city gave me incalculable pleasure to relive: Thanksgiving 1994 in New Orleans.

I could lie in that miserable bed and somehow be zipping along in a rental car on an impossibly bright afternoon, crossing the Mississippi from Algiers back toward the French Quarter after turducken at Kelsey’s, John Hiatt’s “Buffalo River Home” blasting from the tape deck (“tearing through the cotton fields and bus shelters, the South running helter-skelter;” “I’ve been taking off and landing but this airport’s closed;” “just when you think you’ve been gypped, the bearded lady comes and does a double back-flip”).

 I went that first time after my consort moved there for a couple of months to shoot it for National Geographic, back in the good old days when a photographer could actually be underwritten in his desire to live and breathe a story. I joined him for one week in slave quarters converted into a rental apartment in the Garden District, and we just soaked the place up, to the point that I noticed a Times-Picayune story about a do-gooders’ plan to serve 25,000 or so turkey dinners to the poor and had to make my way to the Convention Center to help. Surprisingly, almost more volunteers than takers showed up — it was pretty much a horde of white people in “Feast of Friendship” commemorative aprons standing around with a bunch of photographers. I remember being dejected but hopeful: Maybe poverty wasn’t so bad in a city that had already struck me as one of the most troubled in America, with blood almost literally running on the sidewalks. Maybe all the needy were off having the Norman Rockwell experience on their own?

I think I knew even then how silly that was. But that day we just blithely got in the car and went to eat turducken (overrated) and then to a run-down house where the young cooks from Nola were holed up and had invited us for their potluck after Bob struck up one of his singularly engaging conversations while we ate at the pizza bar one night. That was a revelation, too: guys sleeping on mattresses on the floor in otherwise empty rooms for the chance to cook with Emeril, a hero a couple of them had not even met. But they could cook — I had the best duck of my life, in confit with rosemary. Everyone had kicked in a specialty: pot stickers; smoked turkey glazed with roasted garlic; apple-habanero chutney; New Mexican carne adovada; mushroom soup, even canned cream corn, with six types of bread. It was so New Orleans (as was seeing a great-looking young black guy with his girlfriend being fawned over at Nola another day and wondering what celebrity he might be, only to learn he was an employee who was being treated to lunch to experience how patrons were treated — a concept every restaurant should adopt, actually).

The rest of the trip was a heady blur, although I’ll never forget the artist who shared a joint before taking us to a three-hour lunch at Galatoire’s and too many drinks at the Napoleon House, or Jamie Shannon serving us amazing gumbo and then driving us in his little red convertible to meet his seafood supplier and refusing Bob’s quicker route because he thought it was too dangerous, or Anthony at Ugglesich’s talking us into his trout Muddy Waters and barbecue oysters and crab cakes, washed down with a Barq’s and a $2.50 chardonnay, and the local arts official we ran into afterward at a coffee bar saying he could tell by the smell where we had just eaten. Duck at the Upper Line, biscuits at the Sonniat House, a muffuletta from Progress Grocery, a Ferdi po’ boy with debris at Mother’s, Vietnamese food after the surreal farmers’ market out near the Versailles apartments in New Orleans East, Sazeracs and snapper with crab at Brigtsen’s with Susan Spicer across the room on a Saturday night — those are memories I will always be almost able to taste.

It was a truly enchanted city. Bob was so smitten he wanted to move there for good, but reality reared its unavoidable head. Even then it was clear that it would be an impossible place to make a living in, and not just because temptation beckoned from every corner. A good friend once posited that the only way to thrive in New Orleans would be as an alcoholic millionaire. And has that ever been made clear, in the cruelest way.

Only a soulless dry drunk of a millionaire would let it be devastated and then just make photo-op cracks about the good times he let hurl there.

“Step Inside This House”

I always coveted my in-law equivalent’s cake pans, from the first time I used them after her husband/my consort’s dad died and she acceded her kitchen to Bob and me to stink up the pristine joint with the likes of crab cakes and duck legs without benefit of an exhaust fan. Anyone who has tried to excavate an eight-inch layer from an aluminum pan would lust for these, designed as they are with a revolving “spatula” in the base to separate cake from metal, no wax paper or parchment required. But it never felt right to take them while she was still among us, despite how adamantly she insisted we should from the nursing home where we brought her her literal last Thanksgiving dinner and then her literal last birthday cake (German chocolate, Stan’s favorite). Knowing her house, especially the kitchen, was intact seemed so vital even though she knew as well as we did she would never see it again.

So when Gloria suddenly joined the choir invisible in May, 13 years after her husband, one day after her 97-year-old sister, (again) right around Bob’s birthday, those pans were the first thing I thought of as we looked around the three floors where she had lived for 57 years and contemplated what a Sisyphean task it would be to clear out all that life, all those memories. After the funeral I pulled them out of the cabinet I knew so well and marveled again at not just the design but the condition. They looked brand-new. Among my many regrets will be never asking how she kept everything in store condition. These pans alone had to have been used for birthdays alone at least 86 times. Dishwasher or no dishwasher, that reflects raised-right dedication. 

We didn’t take much more, only her 18-pound blender, still showroom-gleaming chrome and glass even though it is decades older than the grimy plastic one Bob brought to the consortium in 1981 and even though I am now totally a stick devotee. I carried that home in my carry-on for complicated reasons, but for sentimental reasons we USPSed to our kitchen her beautiful green-stemmed dessert bowls, whether we will ever use them or not, and her huge box of “silverware,” which I love thinking might have been among her wedding gifts even though it was not logged along with the “six bottles Scotch” from a Mrs. Someone. We took some cat-motif tea towels we’d given her, and some beautiful bird-motif dessert plates we’d given her (see what we did there?) We took an iron trivet in the shape of the Polish eagle symbol. And we took the smallest of the oddest array of possessions we unearthed underneath the fly strips in the attic: two little rooster salt-and-pepper shakers, the tiniest of the maybe 30 items in her “who knew?” cock collection of ceramics.

I took some cookbooks, too (about which another post). But I left behind many that tracked our complicated progression as a family. In the beginning, my (and my friends’) inscriptions started with Mrs. Sacha. By the end they all said Gloria.

Hesses sez hi


          If Hudson Valley Harvest were a just-announced startup, you might think it was heirloom-apple pie in the sky, even with all the right buzzwords. The company gathers local, seasonal, sustainable food from a network of farmers mostly in the Hudson Valley and distributes it to restaurants, stores, corporate dining rooms and universities mostly in the city. Instead of farmers coming to market, it brings the market to buyers.

          But it’s the step in between that makes HVH, after going on seven years, look like the future for the local food movement. Every item it brokers, from eggs to butter to sea salt, is traceable, with a label showing exactly where it was produced. If a restaurant menu lists Fledging Crow organic beets, they are guaranteed to be from those fields. In return, farmers know what they are turning over will be traced right back to a payment for them.

         And to keep the business thriving year round, in barren snowy season as much as at whoa-too-much-zucchini harvest time, HVH created a huge inventory of both frozen foods, from pork to goat to corn to kale, and “value-added” products, like an applesauce that now has a cult following. Again, everything is traceable: If you pick up a jar of HVH salsa, the label spells out that the organic tomatoes, chilies, onions and garlic it contains were “grown at Hepworth Farms in Milton, N.Y., and traveled 19 miles to HVH’s plant in Kingston” to be transformed into chip dip.

        Farmers’ markets originated as a way to eliminate the middleman in the local food chain, but it turns out that that may be exactly the link that has been missing. At a time when individual farmers are competing harder and harder for sales in Greenmarkets and with CSAs, even as demand is growing for local/sustainable foods, HVH is the savvy go-between that gets the apples into Google’s cafeteria, the herbs into Whole Foods. As co-founder Paul Alward says: “We let farmers do what they do best: create food.” HVH does the rest, especially the hardest rest: Persuading big buyers that sublime food from tough-tilling farmers is worth a premium.

           “The basic issue is, people are expecting more from food,” Alward says. “Flavor is the thing now. People expect it at work and at school. Local wins. People start thinking about how an animal lives, about pollution runoff.”

            And they will seek out his products in shops like Lifethyme in Greenwich Village and Westerly Market in Hell’s Kitchen and restaurants like Maysville, City Bakery and ABC-V near Union Square.

           Now that Amazon has bought Whole Foods and is also selling groceries online, Alward sees opportunities for HVH with brick-and-mortar markets. One farmer might have a tough sell; a network draws them in. “Hannaford knows HVH brings people into the store, so they put local stuff at the center of the store. We’re not a regular green bean. We’re local, traceable, sustainable.”

            Alward, who grew up on a farm in Massachusetts, was once himself farming 15 acres in New Paltz and selling his organic vegetables and heritage-breed, pasture-raised pork, beef and poultry at a farmers’ market, in 2011, a rough time after the financial crisis. A good customer who would become HVH’s angel investor suggested “there has to be a better way” to connect the valley’s cornucopia with the 8 million mouths just a couple of hours south. Alward and  co-founders Sam Ullman and Joe Katona took over an IBM factory that had been abandoned for 20 years and went to hard work.

              From the beginning, the concept was that “everything we do has to be made accessible to three markets: retail, restaurants and institutions” because “there’s a big difference between selling radishes on the corner and selling on a large scale.” The founders went restaurant door to restaurant door to persuade chefs to buy, then, after making deliveries, would go store to store.

             In Manhattan, Alward says, “we got laughed off the island,” because square footage is so pricey, so they kept moving deeper and deeper into gentrifying, immigrant-rich Brooklyn. “Once we were in 15 Associateds, we got into FreshDirect.” That company’s “chief food adventurer” and co-founder David McInerney said HVH was a solid bet because it could provide high-quality, local products  with transparency and great flavor all year round.

             HVH soon got a contract with the New School, whose dean acknowledged that the products were expensive but vital to students who care about what they eat, how it is raised and by whom. Today HVH supplies 15 colleges and universities, including NYU, as well as businesses like Google, Goldman Sachs and Chase Bank, where food is considered a key amenity. It works with Blue Apron as well.

            On a sunny day last August, the walk-ins at HVH were packed with fresh vegetables, cartons of eggs, butter, cheese and more; the meat freezers were bulging with beef, pork and poultry. Huge racks in another room held dry goods like local flour, beans, maple syrup, honey and sunflower oil. A whiteboard near the walk-ins listed all the products trucked in from farms that day; from it a master list is made available to customers. (The HVH bounty is also available online to individuals, with orders to be picked up at the Kingston headquarters or shipped.)             Alward now works with 60 farms, conventional and organic, ranging from a few acres to a thousand. Or, he says wryly: “We have the problems of any farm times 60.”

           HVH also encourages farmers to maximize their contributions. Soil celebrity Ray Bradley, who sells tomatoes and pork through the company, now raises duck eggs; a beekeeper now has hives on a number of farms. Alward also searches out products like the black walnuts he found a 95-year-old farmer harvesting near Niagara Falls.

          Farmers who network with HVH can also sell in farmers’ markets, as  Bradley and Greenmarket mainstay Locust Grove do. And if a farmer needs to buy back products to stock his own farmstand or market stall he can. HVH works on a seniority system and has a waiting list to join, Alward says.

           John Altobelli, whose huge farm in Valatie, N.Y., produces much of the sweeter-than-Greenmarket corn HVH distributes, says the arrangement allows him to grow on a large scale without compromising his standards. “I’m not a Hunts Point guy,” he says, referring to the huge wholesale market in the Bronx, but he also recognizes that “in two lifetimes I could never get into the Friday Greenmarket at Union Square.”

           Similarly, Lisa Buhrmaster of Blackhorse farm in Coxsackie, N.Y., said teaming up with HVH has enabled her to get her crops, ranging seasonally from blueberries to pumpkins, into markets much farther afield. The partnership also motivates her to experiment with less familiar produce, like okra and kohlrabi, because demand always exceeds supply with this business model, where kale can go from supermodel to cliché before you can say avocado toast.

           Joyce Henion of Acorn Hill Farm in Walker Valley, N.Y., is also thrilled her goat cheeses are on tables in restaurants she would have had no way to get into (can you say Boston?). But she also notes that not having to schlep to farmers’ markets gives her much more time and energy to do what she likes best: Raise goats. Make cheese.

           Beyond the financial boost for farmers, Alward notes that the true-green enterprise has had a huge impact on the local economy. Fifty workers staff the main plant and keep trucks on the road; the Hilltown slaughterhouse nearby has added shifts to keep up with demand for meats and sausages.

           Alward admits he is well aware of competition from all sides, not just from larger distributors like Baldor that do all they can to incorporate local products into their systems but also from “many others who ‘greenwash’ their offerings to market ‘local’ but do very little to support regional farms.” Shorter? The website may say local. The deets go missing. HVH fills them all in.


Latte privilege

I lived there for three blissful years, but every time my consort and I go back I am still surprised by how melanin-rich Philadelphia is.

On our last trip, after we got off the false-advertising Megabus and used Amtrak’s Wi-Fi at the magnificent 30th Street Station to search out a lunch stop, we wound up at the new Walnut Street Cafe (best flack team working, apparently) and were impressed by how “diverse,” as HR would say, the front-of-the-house team was, from host to open-kitchen cooks to servers. You just don’t see that in Manhattan.

But as the Starbucks Incident down the street from where I once lived proves, it’s complicated.

Consider what happened when two white olds stopped for coffee in hopes of free Wi-Fi at La Colombe Torrefaction in scary-rapidly gentrifying Fishtown. We ordered two espresso, succumbing to the lure of the “workshop” blend for an extra 50 cents for one, then found seats and got the sad news that there would be no Wi-Fi. Then we waited and waited, long enough for me to find the facilities with no receipt needed, while Bob kept an eye on the barista taking just short of forever. Twice he went to the counter and saw cups lined up with his name noted, but still we waited and waited. Finally Ms. Easily Agitated threatened to go see why the joint was making Slow the Art of Coffee look instant and Bob jumped in to keep my crazy at bay. Within minutes we had two espresso in front of us, on the house, and a promise of the special on the way, also gratis. Turns out the barista was dissatisfied with what he’d been pulling, thanks to something to do with the unseasonably cold air swooping in every time the door opened, and the expeditor(/manager?) had not realized until Bob asked him to check when the order went in that we had, indeed, been waiting at least 20 minutes.

The E(/M?) came over to offer us free pastries to compensate and we said no, since we’d just had lunch at Cheu Fishtown, and then he offered a pound of coffee beans, ground to our specs, which Bob immediately accepted. So we were feeling pretty happy when he stopped back to ask how how the special was and give us a little advice on using their blend in our Illy machine at home. Profuse thanks were proffered from our side of the high-top table, and the E/M? said: “Well, you were so nice about it.”

The overkill-nice was all the more amazing when I made a second pit stop and looked in the mirror and realized I looked not just like an old but like a homeless one — because I hadn’t packed the right clothes, for warmth I was wearing one of Bob’s T-shirts under my Lucky-loud-Brand top, and inside-out at that, to hide the NOLA logo on its blue front.

I have no idea whether black patrons would get equal treatment there; I don’t even recall anyone but whites there at all.

But I do remember thinking, as I do every time we tow our bags across one of the bridges over the Schuylkill from that magnificent train station, of the young black man who was paralyzed by a police bullet and eventually somehow managed to hoist himself out of his wheelchair and into the river to drown. And that was 40 years ago. I love the city, but it has clearly not MOVEd on.

No béchamel senza whisk

At lunch with a certain investigative reporter in NOLA back in November, I mentioned my theory that the worst thing that could have happened to men was Hillary’s losing the electoral college. Cocking his head (see what I did there?), he responded: “Tell me more.”

And it’s not my theory but my conviction: If she had won, everything  would be business as usual. They could go on attacking her for Benghazi! and her “crooked” foundation and whatever new “scandal” they could dredge up while continuing to harass if not assault women with impunity and totally running the world. Instead, the fact that a far, far more competent woman was passed over, yet again, for not just a mediocre man but a sexual predator unleashed the furies.

 One night in the magic city made me even more confident that things have changed. I tried to do my usual dinner-alone strategy of walking into a top resto early and asking to have a drink and snack at the bar. This woman-owned one turned out not to have a bar, just a lounge where no food was served, so I asked the hostile hostess if she could recommend somewhere else nearby. Her suggestion came with a caveat: “The food is good, but not as good as ours.”

And it turned out to be a restaurant in a hotel where the crowd was loud and the bartenders in the weeds. It’s one thing to let a woman alone sit without even water for 10 minutes, but another entirely not even to make eye contact. When shaker/mover finally did come by, he gave me a happy hour menu and listed drink options that omitted my choice: White wine. “We’re sold out.” I looked at the food options, saw the likes of fried, fried and heavy and picked up my bag. On my way out, I approached the hostess: “This is an awkward question, but could you recommend somewhere nearby just to have a drink and a snack at the bar?” She offered the regular menu, but I said the bartender seemed overwhelmed. So she suggested a new place where she had not “dined” and I thanked her profusely. “No worries,” she responded. “We all have to stick together.”

I made a wrong turn and so had to stop in another bar, one where three women were drinking and one guy was playing the slots, to ask for directions. The woman bartender was effusive in helping me out, and all three barstoolers chimed in to be sure I would get there okay.

And it turned out to be a sleek, fancy joint with a very nice bar and an open stool, although one where the previous occupant’s mess had not been cleaned up. I waited and waited while two guy bartenders ignored me, one fussing with the teevee remote, and almost walked out when one finally cleared the bar and didn’t wipe it, just set down a fresh napkin. The menu was not promising, but I couldn’t leave, even to go back to Nice Hostess Resto. Finally a woman bartender approached and took my order with a “you got it, baby” and instantly brought a huge glass of sauvignon blanc (Whitehaven, one of my very favorites, for all of $10 when it retails for at least $20 a bottle in NYC).

While I ate, I saw her hustling nonstop, and then the remote bartender got her near the computer and grossly groped her shoulders while clearly dressing her down. After I had paid and tipped, she stepped away with a big smile, headed to the end of the bar and surreptitiously wiped her eyes, then bolted for the bathroom. I waited till she finally came back, then slipped her a note, my card and a couple more dollars. “I tipped you 20 percent, but the check said Anthony, so here’s a little more.” She gave me a big, perky smile and said: “No, I’m not Anthony. I’m Marlee.”

And then I walked back to Nice Hostess Resto to thank her for the suggestion. I told her what the bartender had had to do to put up with assholes and walked out hearing her first words: “We all have to stick together.”

No gumbo for all you guys, not least Besh, cuz I also heard happily hammered women in the Quarter yelling about other chefs whose empires would be coming down. And I experienced all this after lunch with a woman who had worked in the city’s top law firms and seen all men’s power plays and who had the dirt on another local chef who treats women as objects. And after a conversation with strangers at the bar at Cochon, one a woman who had been “the only skirt” at a presentation at a business conference that day and another a woman who prosecutes sex crimes against both kids and olds. (Yep.) Their contained anger was quite something to experience. 

Under President Hillary, we would all be living in the future now. None of this would be happening yet.