I moved to New York to find love. There are 11 million people here. The odds must be terrific. They have to be terrific, right? Thus far, I…have seen a lot of cute dogs out for their walk.
Some say that the route to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Therefore, I decided to find my heart via my stomach. I’ve started cooking again in earnest. It’s nothing new. For a significant portion of my life, beginning with my first year in college, I’ve been cooking my own. After 18 years of my mother’s cooking—which was all I knew about food until I turned 18—I discovered that the food at UNC-Chapel Hill was lethal. And it didn’t taste good. I reasoned that if I continued to eat it, I might not live to see my sophomore year, which was the most successful of my career, granting me a spot on the dean’s list and a Fiat 124 Sport Spider. Both were the work of a very generous, very kind god.
When I was a little guy, my grandfather was impressed with my ability to take in and process food. He once quietly said to me, “We’re going to have to build you another rectum.” He referred to my mouth as the subway entrance—obviously foreshadowing my move to New York, where he landed in 1910 from Warsaw, Poland. My grandmother gave him notoriously small portions whenever she cooked—and when I use the word “cooking” to refer to what she did in her kitchen, I’m taking a generous leap. She made delicious rugelach, but that was the extent of her talent.
I remember those days when I could commandeer chopped liver sandwiches on rye,
like the huge ones served in the hotels in Miami Beach. I could polish off entire jars of Vita herring in cream sauce (with crackers) in a single sitting, and then have canned tuna fish with gobs of mayonnaise and Campbell’s Tomato Soup—all in a single day. Those days, however, are gone like pay telephones.
When I think of what I’ve seen other people eat, or even of my father’s severely limited diet, I feel pretty good about my own intake thus far, though it was seldom at its present standard. For my last semester at UNC, I bought someone’s contract for a campus dorm room, which was a dreadful mistake in itself, despite the dorm’s cast of colorful characters. One very southern, pudgy little guy with a big mouth (his surname was Sasser) ate mayonnaise directly from the jar with a large spoon, daily. And a few of us, myself included, assembled at 10pm with some regularity to make stacks of pancakes and eat them just before bed. That would be absolutely unthinkable today. Today I’d never fall sleep after such an ill-timed feast and I’d never wake up from it, either. I’d just lie in bed in a pancake-induced stupor while the ghosts of Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Butterworth worked their way out of my digestive system.
My mother—who was always either on a “diet” or about to embark on a new one—excelled at setting a beautiful table every night for supper. And she was a great cook, too, which was nothing short of a miracle, or a great cosmic accident. Her mother was Brooklyn-born (there’s another ancestral NY connection), a little Irish gal who worked all her life selling women’s wear, retail. Her husband jumped ship after 12 years of the marriage, so Nana Marion had my mother and my Uncle Bill all to herself. Cooking was mostly not in her script until she became the babysitter for my sister and me. Then she usually made hamburgers, which she broiled down almost to nothing. There was zero chance that anything evil (or good) was alive in those burgers once Nana rescued them from the oven. That was years before the modern scandals about tainted beef. Who knew? Maybe Nana Marion was prescient. Maybe she saved our lives.
So my mother did not learn cooking from her mother. My family did not pass their secrets down through the generations, so none of us made any real evolutionary headway. If my mother cooked as her mother did, it might have been good enough for my father, who ate mostly because he had to. And he ate so fast that his taste buds barely had a chance. His diet? Funny you should ask: meat, meaning beef or lamb chops; potatoes, preferably baked; a salad of lettuce only; and green peas. Green peas were the only vegetable my father even recognized, and I doubt he recognized that peas were vegetables. He did have his standards, though. We ate at McDonald’s with him exactly once. After his first bite of the hamburger, his expression turned to utter disgust, and he said something which nicely complemented his expression. Then he threw the thing on the ground, and we got in the car and left the joint.
My dad never ate pizza. He never ate cheese. He abhorred ketchup, which my sister applied liberally and with much glee to nearly everything she ate, much to my father’s consternation. We went to an Indian restaurant once. He made unhappy, “what-is-this-crap” faces during the entire meal. But he loved matzo crackers spread with butter, which is not, I think, something truly devout Jews do to matzo. And he loved soup, hot soup, and the hotter, the better. His default meal when Mom didn’t cook was Lipton’s soup, in the handy single-serving pouch—just add hot water, and presto!—and that buttered matzo.
The sight of my father in the kitchen was deeply disturbing to me as a young boy. My father belonged in his office, or in the mens’ card room at Raleigh Country Club, or on the golf course. Foraging in the kitchen, which was indeed a room in the house he himself bought, he was utterly and completely out of his element, and he looked it. He was a desperate, hungry, nearly hopeless man in the kitchen, his body and soul rescued only by soup mix and matzoh. He never cleaned up after his work. He always left the remains of his efforts on the counter. You can guess who the clean-up artist was.
I think many people today want to put the right stuff in their tummies. And for some of us, eating is fraught with angst. Pesticides proliferate the food supply unless you eat organic, which will reduce your intake of them. But my favorite crackers, Whole Foods’ Organic Golden Rounds, were recently found to contain a considerable amount of Monsanto’s glyphosate, which, in the Wikipedia article I linked, is described as a “broad-spectrum systemic herbicide and crop desiccant“. In simple terms, it kills a wide variety of plants and dries them out. Yummy stuff, huh? Just what you wanted with your meal. Debate about glyphosate is raging. The State of California has added glyphosate to its Proposition 65 list of carcinogenic chemicals. Monsanto, whose ad slogan used to be “Better living through chemistry,” is the nice, civic-minded corporation that produced Agent Orange for the Vietnam war. Monsanto has a history of destroying plant life. And it’s a publicly-traded corporation with heavy investments in genetic engineering. Monsanto’s main concern is—duh—their bottom line.
I’m not going to regale you with story after scary story about the food supply and global corporate corruption and utterly irresponsible government organizations meant to protect us, organizations we fund by paying taxes (which we might do out of fear of the IRS). You can read about all that stuff if you like. The local food movement has come about in part because of the lies and cover-ups of corporations like Monsanto and the malfeasance of the FDA and USDA, which have become little more than pawns of the food “industry.”
About every other minute another food authority pops up, claiming to have the final word. There is a ton of information out there. Who you gonna believe? Never in the history of mankind have so many things we commonly eat been so deadly. Of course, never before in our history have there been so many “foods” in cardboard boxes and cans and other cleverly designed, easy-open packages stamped with those very reassuring expiration dates. Have you ever seen one of those date stamps on a pear?
I know the angst. Caught in the winds of confusion between cooking and eating out has, just prior to many mealtimes, reduced me to a quivering mass of flesh running in circles between the front door and the kitchen. It happens after I look inside the fridge and see all the interesting new life forms in there. I want to do the right thing by my body, but cooking seems like a ton of trouble. I’m talking shopping and cookbooks and maintaining inventory like you’re running a business. And then there are all those little jars of spices that you have to buy every time you try a new recipe; you’ll use a shake from each one once and that’s it, at least until you make the dish again. It’s more than enough to make a grown single man throw up his hands in despair and go to Burger King.
I have eaten and enjoyed my share of BK Broilers, but I have never eaten a Big Mac, or whatever McDonald’s calls their current model burger. I gave up beef in 1975 without drama or heavy philosophical inquiry. I simply thought, “I’ve eaten enough of this.” Since then, I had beef once. That was in 1996, when I stayed with my parents while I made a run for US Congress for the Natural Law Party. My mother cooked filet mignon one night. The smell was intoxicating. “Do you want one?” she asked.
I certainly did. She cooked it. I ate it. It was delicious. Running for a national office makes a guy want to eat like his constituents, like a good ol’ regular guy instead of a tofu-chomping weirdo. Since then, I’ve had no desire for beef; beef no longer has power over me. Chocolate cookies can hold me hostage—though that may be only matter of time. In some circles, chocolate is a most holy substance, so I keep my mouth shut and eat up.
Enough of the horror stories. On to some practical info you can use.
Here’s what I generally do for lunch, my main meal of the day, using a gas range, in a tiny apartment in Manhattan. Your cooking times/locations may vary. I begin by bringing 1/4 cup of basmati rice to a boil. You know how to cook rice, right? If you start the rice first, it’ll be ready when you’ve finished the veggies.
—chop some peeled fresh ginger root, about a half teaspoon of it;
—grate some fresh peeled turmeric;
—slice a small piece of carrot and some butternut squash (peeled and seeded).
I put all those in a large frying pan into which I’ve already spooned some ghee that I make myself. I cover the pan and cook for 5-10 minutes on low heat, stirring things around a bit at times. Then I add a handful or raisins and cashews, which give some sweetness and a satisfying crunch. I slice some green beans and add them. If I’ve made some panir, I’ll cut it into cubes and add it next. Panir is great stuff, quite magical to make, and very nourishing. You’ll need to attend to the panir cubes so they don’t burn: flip them around so all sides get braised.
Then, in 5-7 minutes, add some sliced zucchini, chopped red pepper, broccoli, or whatever veggies you like. Let them cook for a few minutes. It looks like this now.
Then you can chop up some kale or chard or any leafy green you like. I strip the leaves off the kale stems because the stems take so long to cook. Put the kale on top of it all. I like to sprinkle some salt and pepper on everything at that point. I have a grinder for handling coarse Himalayan pink salt, which is said to be the very best salt, and a grinder for black peppercorns. If, as I once did, you recoil at the mere thought of eating kale, this is a great way to have it in a tasty form.
Next, I put a little hot water in the pan and put the cover on. Then I raise the heat a bit. That gets some steaming action going, which cooks the kale and anything else that needs more cooking. Adding the water and steaming everything helps keep the dish moist. But the water’s optional.
As a topper, I chop some fresh cilantro and have it ready to sprinkle on the veggies.
In the easy moments while I’m waiting for something to cook, I make a simple lassi and set some organic corn chips in a dish. Lassi refers to a variety of mixtures of yogurt and water, as you’ll see in the link. I make mine from a little vanilla yogurt and water. It’s very refreshing, goes well with the veggie dish, and is good for digestion.
Here’s the usual finished product—including a small amount of applesauce that works like a sweet chutney. Yummy. And I’m finding that it’s so good, so satisfying, that my well-known sweet tooth isn’t tugging at my heartstrings lately.
Think of this for a moment: what you eat and how you eat is one of the very few things in life over which you have some control. When you’re young, say 35 or younger, your body will let you get away with some shenanigans. But after 35 years, your body may begin to ask for more careful, thoughtful attention. In Ayurveda, the ancient Indian knowledge of health and the body, there’s an aphorism that goes like this: without good diet, medicines are of no use. With good diet, medicines are of no need. The conclusion is easy to see. Even fast food companies are starting to change their ways as the food consciousness in the US rises.
I understand how intensely personal our dietary preferences can be, how attached we can be to certain eating habits. Therefore I make no prescriptions in these words. I will say that cooking for yourself might create a fresh wave of appreciation in your life for some other aspects of your life. At first, cooking may seem like an ordeal. But if you make a routine of it, you might actually enjoy the process. That’s exactly what happened to me. And that surprised me, because New York almost beckons you to try its many restaurants. Many restaurants here are good, but at none of them can I enjoy what I make in my kitchen.
I’m having some trouble adjusting to being without a daily job, But as lunchtime approaches and I start cooking, the cooking process definitely lifts me up. I feel energized when I cook because I’m doing something that nourishes me very directly. I enjoy going to the market and selecting the raw ingredients. I’ve started working at food coop nearby, the 4th Street Food Coop,
which is operated entirely by volunteers. Of the many tasks, I like cashiering the best, because I get to greet people, smile at them, and in general do my stuff. The customers like it when I call the prices out after I weigh the produce. It’s a great thing to serve the people of New York because typically, they appreciate good service. I’ve observed and admired supermarket cashiers for a long time. Now I am one, for a little time every week.
It’s the biggest little store in Manhattan Everything in it is organic—even its members!
Eating is one of the primary ways your nourish yourself to keep your life going strong. If you begin to find more satisfaction there, my prediction is you’ll find more satisfaction in many other facets of your life. Just take it easy, do what you can, and enjoy it, no matter what.
Turn off that cell phone or TV, put a Beethoven sonata on the box, and enjoy your own cooking. Before I close, I want to thank my great friend Jean Tobin for getting me onto the road of home cooking with her supremely simple basic strategy; my late mother for all her wondrous efforts in the kitchen; my late father, for showing me how not to eat and for sticking to his guns at McDonalds that day; and anyone who has ever cooked for me—I love you all.
I ♥ NY.