Tuesday, January 29, 2013

From The Dept. of Cute Old Men

So there I am at the Harris Teeter Pharmacy in Chapel Hill in Meadowmont, where the wonderful old Yankees frequent, and the pharmacist tells me that once again they've screwed up my prescription, so could I come back in a few minutes? And I say, yeah, I'll go shop for some things for supper and I turn, and this terrific little old man says in a Queens accent, "That's a good idea honey . . ." I laugh and walk off, do my shopping - a bottle of chianti, a steak, and some broccolini, and I return and get in line behind a woman who seems to be having the same troubles as me with the pharmacist, and I hear someone clear their throat, and I turn, and it's him, the little old man, and he says, "WAT, I'm behind you again?!" And I say, "WAT, you had your chance." And then he holds up his grocery bag to show me, "I just bought plantains, I thought they were bananas! You ever had a plantain?"
"Yeah," I say.
"Are they any good? Do they taste like bananas?"
"Well, yeah," I say, "but greener, stronger, they're good if you fry them."
"Fry them? I gotta fry them?"
"Well, you can eat them raw I guess . . . "
The pharmacist reached over the counter and handed me my little paper bag, and I turned and told the old man, "It's your turn."
"Well it's about time." he said, "Don't get in my way again!"

Friday, January 11, 2013

Nothing Strange About Loving Spaghetti

I don't know about you, but when I was a kid, Barbara Stanwyck only meant one thing to me - she was that mean old bitch in the gauchos on Big Valley - I wanted nothing to do with her. But Double Indemnity and The Lady Eve changed my relationship with Stanwyck forever, once I saw those movies and just about every movie Stanwyck ever made, well I was a changed woman.

Have you ever seen The Strange Love of Martha Ivers? Good and Evil couldn't have a better fight than this one - Stanwyck is conniving and calculated and brimming with sexual energy that you just don't get in the movies these days. But I don't want to talk about her, or Kirk Douglas' first major film performance, or Lisbeth Scott's throaty voice and adorable smile, or Van Heflin's Bad-Boy-Turned-Good-Guy, no, right now I want to talk about the spaghetti scene.  Food rarely catches my attention in film noirs, but lately I've been looking a little harder because of the restaurant scene in this movie. About half way in, Van Heflin takes Lisbeth Scott to the Italian restaurant in town, and she's nervous as a cat cause she's handed him over to the Bad Guys, and Heflin is just mad about her, he's never been so in love with a girl, and there's a bottle of chianti on the table, the kind that's wrapped in wicker, the kind I can get off the shelf at the Food Lion here sometimes, and the girl at the register always says, "Oh I love these bottles, I want to decorate my kitchen with these bottles, but I don't drink wine . . . " anyway - the waiter arrives, a big guy in a clean white jacket and little black bow tie and he puts two huge beautiful plates of spaghetti with meat sauce down and Van Heflin says, "Mmmm that looks wonderful," and he picks up a spoon and a fork and digs in and poor Lisbeth Scott is having an anxiety attack because she's betrayed Heflin and he pours her some wine and she just can't eat, she wants to tell him how awful jail was and she's trying to apologize in advance for the beating he's going to get in the alley and Heflin wants nothing of her story, he wants the little bowl of parmesan cheese across the table. And the whole time I'm watching the scene, I'm torn between continuing to watch the movie and running into the kitchen to make spaghetti.

So for Christmas last year, not this year, this year I got a Cossack hat and new sunglasses to replace the ones I lost when I tripped in the grocery store parking lot, oh never mind - last last year my sweet husband gave me an amazing cookbook - my husband who cooked spaghetti for me on our first date - Vincent Price's A Treasury of Great Recipes, published by Doubleday in the year of my birth, 1965. Vincent Price, the one and only thespian of celluloid and stage, had a thing for art collecting and cooking and food and restaurants. And his treasury is bound in leather and gold and has silk page markers and it's one of my most treasured possessions now. Vincent and his wife Mary recount all their favorite restaurants around the world and they give you the original menus and the recipes for their favorite items on the menus. Technicolor photos find Vincent and Mary dining at Luchow's in New York and Rivoli in Mexico City. See Vincent tasting crepes suzette at Chicago's Whitehall Club and best of all Mary and Vincent in their own fabulous Moroccan style kitchen in California. But before I go on and on about Vincent and Mary hosting the Queen of England and the President of the United States at a special dinner in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond or veer off on a tangent about The Raquet Club in Palm Springs where my stepfather had drinks with William Powell once, well before I go all wild about that photo of Vincent in Antoine's wine cellar in New Orleans, I shall give you Spaghetti Alla Bolognese from Ristorante Tre Scalini in Rome. Straight from Vincent Price himself:

     One of the happiest times we ever spent in Rome was on a quick visit we made there one December. The city had thrown off its summer torpor and it bustled with Christmas animation. We arrived in the early evening after two weeks in Greece and Turkey, and we were starved for Italian food, having had our fill of lamb and rice and vine leaves stuffed with Zeus knows what.
     With one mind we decided that the only place for us that night was Tre Scalini, on the Piazza Navona, where we could  dine to the music of Bernini's fountains. In the summertime, Tre Scalini has tables on the piazza under a flapping awning. There, cooled by the fountain-conditioned air, you can eat the superb Italian ices and ice creams for which Tre Scalini is renowned. Their specialty is an ice cream made with white Italian truffles, the recipe for which is such a jealously guarded secret that we didn't dare even hint that we might be interested in it. (It's not my favorite ice cream, anyhow.)
     But that December night, surfeited with Turkish delight, we craved good, old-fashioned Italian cooking with no nonsense. And so we ordered spaghetti with meat sauce, of all things! And it was fabulous, as only Italian pasta can be. That recipe, so much less exotic than truffled ice cream, the chef imparted to us gladly, plus several good tips on how to boil spaghetti. I suppose you could dine in Rome for a-thousand-and-one night without exhausting the marvelous variety of foods and restaurants there. But somehow on your first night revisiting the city you return to a favorite place and a favorite dish, and are never disappointed.

SPAGHETTI ALL BOLOGNESE (Spaghetti with Meat Sauce)
Serves 4
The best known and best loved pasta dish in all Italy is probably this one. The city of Bologna has a gastronomic fame for more than the sausage that bears its name, and the Ragu alla Bolognese, this rich meat and tomato sauce, is used on many other pasta dishes throughout Italy. Every chef varies it a bit to suit himself, and this recipe has evolved slightly from the Tre Scalini original since we have have been using it. Try this sauce on conchiglie, the little shells sometime. They hold more of the sauce because of their shape, and you might prefer it that way.

tomato puree
bay leaf
chicken livers
dry white wine
beef stock
Parmesan cheese
salt, pepper
olive oil

1  In a heavy skillet heat: 2 tablespoons butter and 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add: 1 onion, finely chopped, and cook until soft. Add: 3 rashers lean bacon, cut into small pieces, 1 carrot chopped, and 1 stalk celery, chopped. Sauté over medium heat until lightly browned.

2  Add: 1/2 pound beef, coarsely ground, and stir until meat is coated with fat. Add: 2 chicken livers, minced. Stir until meat browns evenly.

3  Add: 2 tablespoons tomato puree, 1/2 cup dry white wine, 1 cup beef stock, 1 bay leaf, and 1 strip lemon peel (thin yellow skin only). Season with: salt, freshly ground pepper, and 1 clove garlic, crushed.

4  Cover and simmer for 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove bay leaf and lemon peel and allow to simmer uncovered until sauce thickens slightly. Just before serving stir in: 1/4 cup cream and reheat sauce. (Makes 1 pint.)

1  In a large pot pour: 3 quarts of water. Rub a little olive oil or butter around the sides of the pot above the water line. This will prevent the water from boiling over when you cook the spaghetti.

2  Add: 1 tablespoon salt and bring to a rapid boil. When the water has been boiling briskly, take 1 pound spaghetti and feed by handfuls into the boiling water. Dip one end of the spaghetti sticks into the water, and as they get soft let them coil into the pot. Never break them. Stir with a wooden spoon occasionally.

3  If you are using packaged spaghetti, cook for about 12 minutes, or according to directions on the package. It should be soft but firm when you bite it. (The Italians call this al dente, or "to the tooth.") Homemade pasta will need less time to cook--only 5 to 7 minutes. Drain cooked spaghetti in a colander. You can keep it warm by placing the colander over a pan of boiling water and covering it with a towel wrung out in warm water.


Place spaghetti on a warm platter and dot with: 4 tablespoons butter. Sprinkle with: 4 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese. Serve with meat sauce on the side, or in the center of the platter with the spaghetti around it. Pass a bowl of freshly grated Parmesan cheese with the platter. 

Monday, January 7, 2013

Dress Shop

He followed the girl into a dress shop - he almost stepped on her heels exiting the revolving doors of the Apple store, his mind was reeling with spending $1700 to recover his laptop . . . but his novel was worth it, wasn't it? He thought about the Olivetti his grandmother gave him when he was in high school, he wished he still could write like that, banging on those mechanical keys, but he was ruined and now this. But the girl in grey led him past the water fountain and made him forget it was cold and now he was in a dress shop, and he decided to behave as though he were shopping for his niece even though he had no niece. The grey girl whisked through wracks of dresses, disapproving in the kindest way, he could see she had an occasion she was shopping for. He fingered silk blouses as though he really was considering them, but he kept one eye on the grey girl - she selected a pair of wide legged sailor pants, navy and heavy - ah, he thought, Hepburn and she rounded the corner and pulled a grey chemise off another sale wrack . . . he found a geometric bright thing and suddenly imagined the grey girl in it, she needed color in her life, didn't she realize? She was so business like in her grey car coat, and her black paddock boots. He spied mud on her heel, she was genuine he thought, genuinely horsey, although he'd never known a horsewoman in his entire life. She headed for the dressing room but paused to take a hat off a shelf, a felt thing with a sequin decoration and his heart jumped at the thought of her beneath the brim, "can I help you sir? Something special for your wife?"
"My niece . . ."
"How old is she?" He was in deep now . . .
"I have just the thing . . . " The shop girl beckoned him toward an armoire brimming with angora and glitter and he hesitated, the grey girl swooped into the dressing room and now he was presented with a handful of sweaters, "the girls are all wearing these this year, you'll be a favorite uncle if you send her this for Christmas . . . "
"a Monkey's uncle you mean  . . ."
"excuse me?"
"oh nothing . . . fine, I'll take one of those"
"do you know her size?"
"she's fourteen."
"yes but is she small? medium? large?"
"oh, she's very small, like her mother, lilliputian."
"lilli . . . "
"ah, nobody knows Lilliput anymore."
"shall i wrap it for you?"
"yes, yes, that would be fine . . . " the shop girl spun away with the angora handful and he spotted the grey girl putting the felt hat back on the shelf, and heading for the counter to pay. He crossed the shop and took the hat off the shelf and took his place behind her in the checkout line . . . she glanced back at him and he smiled, "Oh, you're buying the hat?"
"Yes, for my niece . . . "
"lucky girl, it was too big for me."
"Really? I imagine it would be just right for you" and suddenly he felt flush.
"Oh no, I look . . . "
"Try it on again, " he handed her the hat and to his surprise she put it on.
"See? it's too big." She smiled at him and it was a delightful crooked smile and he thought she and the hat were the most perfect thing he'd seen in years.
"Oh no, no it's lovely, far too lovely on you to buy it for my niece . . ."
"But I can't, you've got nothing for your niece now."
The shop girl called to him, "Would you like a greeting card to go with the wrapping for the sweater sir?"
"Yes, yes, that would be fine . . . see? you take the hat, my niece will never know, the sweater will be enough for her."
"If you insist," she twirled the hat on her fingers the grey girl did, and for a moment he wanted to ask her if she'd like to have coffee, but he only followed her because he needed a sketch of a girl for his new story, he didn't need a girl, he had a boyfriend at home already and now a sweater for a niece that didn't exist.
"I insist, but you must promise to wear it with something colorful . . . "
The grey girl smiled and turned away, the shop girl called him to her register and before he signed the receipt she was gone through the glass doors out into the snow that had just begun to fall.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

the turnip . . .

the radish queen is tired of home improvement
so she goes to the garden
and wheels the wheelbarrow around
in the rain
and rakes and pulls bright green weeds
under the bright grey 9 am sky
and there are sirens in the distance
so the hounds all start singing
but then everyone goes quiet
and the queen goes back and forth
to the compost pile and thinks about spring
and can she get all this cleaned up by then?
and right on time a turnip comes up
white as the sky against wet soil
promising as hell

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Master's Truck

On New Year’s morning i swerved into an almost empty parking lot at the Food Lion and i parked my red truck next to an older red truck an F150 of somewhat spectacular character -- two tone, quietly screaming with chrome and a raised grill practically lifted from Rolls Royce himself - the red bench seat made me think of the four teenagers killed just a few nights before, up the road, they had all been sitting side by side in a pickup truck, i thought maybe this was the sort of truck the boy had, something he’d worked on all summer in his father’s garage, but turned out wrong . . . i jolted myself from the terrible dream of their mothers and went in the store for my cooking oil, and stood for some time behind an 80-something year old black lady in a maroon beret paying for her few groceries from the seat of the electric shopping go-cart - pennies came from her change purse purposely as though a penny still meant something, but New Year’s day was grey and cold and empty and slow, and i enjoyed standing quietly in the empty grocery store listening to the clerks negotiate first breaks.

i caught up with the old girl outside, she was opening the door of the F-150 and putting her groceries up on that scarlet bench seat and before i opened my red truck door, i said, “Hey, is that your truck?” and she peeled a smile and said, “Oh yes, it’s my truck.”
“That’s a fantastic truck, ” i say and she says, “Everybody loves my truck. Everybody. I dedicate my truck to the Master, so it’s not my truck, it’s OUR truck.”
“That’s beautiful, ” i say, “You have a happy new year.”
And she put her cane in the truck and the smile went serious, “I don’t celebrate New Year’s but you have a blessed day.”
I thanked her and got in my red truck and patted the dashboard and hoped that the Master’s Truck had rubbed off a little while they were parked together, because i like to think that red Ford trucks are all connected somehow . . .

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New Year's Day Beagle

From the Department of the Best Thing I Saw Today: while sitting at the light Hwy. 70 and Hwy. 86, a 4-door circa 1980s black Mercedes sedan with tinted windows and a nice detail job, all the windows are up except for the passenger side rear window, from which an elderly tri-colored beagle sits, his chin on the window sill with the expression that he his being transported to a very serious and important destination on this rainy New Year's Day . . .