…mood changes, sadness, depression or fear.” Are you kidding me? Given the recent turn of events, I, as well as family and friends, have a pass on this one. Add to this the faltering economy, joblessness, recent storm devastation, other friends and family suffering from a variety of maladies, and the specter of having to put up with yet another election-season parade of out-of-their mind politicians provide ample reason to have “mood changes, sadness, depression and fear.” Thank you makers of Levetiracetam! (pronounced lev-eh-turr-RASS-ih-tam, anti-seizure med also known as Keppra)
The night before, the day after, food and music, Part I
It is the night before a second craniotomy. No midnight snacks for me. Clear liquids tomorrow morning, another MRI and then they go in again after I take the fluorescent pink dye which will help illuminate residual cancerous and necrotic tissue. The operation will be in the same location. I have already been assured that opening up my head along the existing scar line will not result in a Klingon-like ridge atop my scalp. The titanium screws and washers will be unscrewed, the “bone flap” removed, the dura opened again and the fishing expedition will begin. This is as I understand it as I am no doctor, and yet, eerily, one of the main protagonists on the hit show ER was named Mark Greene. He was balding, with glasses and was written out of the show after being diagnosed with brain cancer. Egads.
How poignant that my chosen topic for the moment is food and music. At least I can always eat the music. (music, Part II, will follow in another posting in due time)
“I need my Haydn! My Mozart! My Bach!” I pleaded as I sat up in my hospital bed, the morning after my initial surgery on August 2. With the room a storm of activity what with bells, buzzers, nurses, doctors, friends and family, I sought refuge in sound. Eating, for the moment, would happen only in a dream state. After multiple MRIs, which emanate a cacophony of industrial noise, something akin to the opening chords of the Beatles Helter Skelter but incessantly as if on a loop, any soothing music was welcome.
The importance of food and music in my life, to quote a past United States president, cannot be “misunderestimated.” (since the initial brain surgery and cancer diagnoses, I also cannot stop thinking of hapless V.P. Dan Quayle’s infamous quote “What a waste it is to lose one’s mind. Or not to have a mind is being very wasteful. How true that is.” (yes, he really said this) Thank you Dan. I think I still have a mind despite the craniotomy and “resection” of said 4.3 cm tumor in my parietal lobe. What was his excuse?
What gives us sustenance? What feeds us? What feeds you? What makes you feel truly alive?
The founder and director of The Greenwood School, Thomas Scheidler, used to share with new and anxious parents that one of the primary reasons he felt they had chosen to send their young children to such a special and unique school was that their children had “gone to sleep” and that Greenwood, hopefully, would be a place for them to re-awaken. Greenwood continues to raise these often closed, emotionally battered but talented children from their slumber. “Maximizing Potential, Awakening Talents and Transforming Lives” is their motto and they succeed beautifully in fulfilling this mission.
Many of us, caught in the daily maelstrom of life: jobs, children, parents, partners, spouses, finances, homes, have gone to sleep. It can be a struggle to find that space, that place, the time, to re-awaken. For some, it is fear of change: leaving a job or relationship, moving to a different town. This all takes courage and strength which can be hard to muster. For others, we are just to damned busy, or we let ourselves be too damned busy so that we avoid the harsh reality that change is necessary.
When I can, when I feel most alive, it’s time with friends, family, loved ones, community. It’s travel, a hike, a ski, a paddle, a walk in the woods or anything which involves music and food.
Faced with the physical and spiritual mountains I have yet to climb, some with sherpas, some solo, I have sought refuge in the comfort of friends and family but also in food and music. Listening to and playing (not well) music is indeed aural comfort food. And food is just that, a comfort. Even the act of thinking about music or food as I delve into my memory bank, which, since my first surgery, seems to have new room for introspection, is a salve. It’s as if a window has been opened, the screen removed and music is pouring in. The table by that very window? Full of my favorite meals.
Bear in mind that you should conduct yourself in life as at a feast.” – Epictetus (55AD-135AD)
“I’m at the age where food has taken the place of sex in my life. In fact, I’ve just had a mirror put over my kitchen table.” – Rodney Dangerfield
Oysters. The act of eating oysters is akin to watching a horse race. There is anticipation, palpitation, anxiousness, eagerness, excitement and then the gates open. Within a matter of seconds (certainly less than the fleeting two minutes of the Kentucky Derby) the oysters, melting like butter, taste buds firing in a neuro-frenzy, release the cool, salty sea and oceanic flesh. They are gone in an instant. And I, intoxicated, am in bliss.
Abe’s and Son Deli, off Bustleton Avenue in Northeast Philadelphia. Bagels as large as hub caps. Corned beef the way it ought to be: sliced thin, moist, meaty. Memories of Grandma Green’s Sunday brunch on “D” Street. A table replete with three different kinds of lox, sable, smoked whitefish, herring, slices of fresh tomato, chopped onion, cucumbers and capers. Lou Rawls on her stereo console, with his soulful, mellifluous voice wafting in the background. It was one of the few times I remember grandma dancing. She was so happy, feeding us and listening to “Lady Love,” dancing her Grandma Cha-Cha dance to the disco-groove. Ethel Green, raised in Laurel, Delaware was a school teacher and nurse. She was a short, feisty woman, replete with a healthy dose of Jewish guilt to be slathered on when she deemed necessary. Grandma Ethel was a cross between Clara Peller of Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef” fame and the mother in Woody Allen’s Oedipus Wrecks from the film New York Stories who dogs her beleaguered son Sheldon even in the afterlife by appearing in the Manhattan sky. And she loved food. She was learned and took classes in various subjects right until she could no longer get out of her apartment. Before her decline, dining out was a delight for her and dining with her, be it at Fisher’s or the Melrose Diner, was always a treat.
While I could argue that coming of age in the 70’s and 80’s did not afford nearly the same number of culinary options my children now have, via either market nor restaurant, I was not particularly sheltered.
Yes, my daughters Hannah and Libby have grown up, practically from the time they were able to digest solid food, eating Korean, Japanese, Indian, Ethiopian, Chinese, Italian, authentic Mexican (just say NO to Chimichangas and say YES to ceviche, tamales, carnitas de michoacan and mole!) Middle Eastern and Thai, to name a few, but I also have plenty of joyful memories revolving around gastronomic delights.
There were the rare but exciting ventures to Le Bec-Fin, reserved for special occasions, the famed Georges Perrier creation. Equally as thrilling were the family style Italian restaurants in South Philadelphia. To this day, I recall my father taking us to a local favorite of his, in the spring of 1980. I was thirteen. It was a few weeks after a brutal Mob hit left Angelo Bruno, known as “The Gentle Don,” dead, his bloodied head thrown back, splatter everywhere, as he sat in his car outside the very restaurant in which we were about to enjoy the best homemade meatballs and pasta anyone could fathom.
The local rag, The Philadelphia Daily News, the equivalent of the New York Post, had no problem publishing the horrific image on the front page. At my young age, it was a photo which would give me nightmares for years. It was a very painful time for cities like Philadelphia. The Frank Rizzo years, a mean, corrupt, paranoid mayor. Police brutality. The radical and suicidal group MOVE. The Mob. Ahh, but the cannolis!
And, as I walk down the food-laden memory lane of the City of Brotherly Love, let me not forget the cheese steaks: Pat’s please, with mushrooms and the faux-cheese “Cheez Whiz”, with its highly unnatural yellow hue, for which Philadelphia holds the title of largest consumer per capita. The soot-laden, empty-calorie but temporarily delicious soft pretzels. Reading Terminal with bonneted, soft spoken Amish ladies serving up baked goods while the bearded men presented artful cuts of meat and sumptuous sausages. Scrapple anyone? It’s a brick of meat containing whatever they don’t put in sausage. The Korean groceries which popped up like so many dandelions as that immigrant population swelled. Sadly, though, that was about it. The rest included such regular horrors (sorry Ma) as tuna casserole, Hamburger Helper and Howard Johnson’s fried clams which, to this day I believe, were really defective rubber bands, deep-fried and masquerading as food. Thick-cut, nitrate-free applewood smoked bacon? Not a chance. Cheap, fatty, chemical-laden bacon which, when cooked, left a stringy pile of fatty, oversalted and crispy meat not worthy of Bacon-Bits. Kale? No, Iceberg lettuce was the only choice. Oven-roasted, honey-brined chicken? Nope. Instead, a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken (now, not so cleverly, re-titled KFC, as if we somehow forgot what the acronym’s roots were) We had miles to go before we ever learned to eat with a modicum of health in mind. Localvore? Huh?
Growing up in a largely Jewish region, the irony of the popularity of local Chinese restaurants was not lost on any of us. “Trayfe” still tasted good, be it the glutinous, insulting, “shrimp with lobster sauce” or fried pork won-tons and egg rolls. The eating of bottom-feeding crustaceans or swine rolling in their own feces was given a pass when it came to dining out at Chinese restaurants.
Speaking of bun-oriented food, I pine for the days my Mother would take us to watch Dad play in his softball league. This was a passionate group of dads, playing with a fever stored up after a stressful week at the office. Tempers flared from time to time, but in the end it was a fraternity of fun. And Mom would bring hamburgers she had cooked at home. Wrapping them in tin-foil, by the time we would reach the ball field they would have a certain twice-cooked taste. They had steamed themselves, so that the flavor of the meat had permeated the bun itself. They were divine and to this day I cannot seem to re-create this comfort food.
One particularly fateful Sunday, when Dad, as he slid into home plate playing on the fields of Haverford College, slammed into the unsuspecting catcher, soaring, twirling in the air only to land awkwardly, with a loud cracking of his leg heard in the outfield, (he also broke the catcher’s shoulder) I remembered the fear in my mother’s eyes. I recall the green wool army blanket they had thrown over him and the ambulance driving onto the field. But most of all I remember how good those burgers had tasted just before Dad’s valiant effort. Oh, and by the way, his slide was declared safe and the run was counted. Dad would later take refuge with his full-length cast in the basement, having a beer, listening to Paul McCartney and Wings or Cal Tjader.
If we are not ourselves, most of us have friends who are, in no particular order, vegetarians, macrobiotics, vegans, lactose-intolerant, gluten-free, low-carb, no carb, raw food, etc.. We are inundated daily with information about how to eat, how much to eat, what to eat and where to eat. The diet industry is a corrupt multi-billion dollar scam, for the most part. Want a great diet (to which I sometimes and sometimes do not ascribe) without the pills and the gimmicks? It’s rather simple: Eat less junk. Eat more fruits and veggies and exercise daily. Ta da! Done!
We are indeed living in a strange world where on the one hand many of us can enjoy heirloom tomatoes, heritage turkeys, organic everything, grass-fed beef, free-range chickens and cheeses of world-class designation and on the other hand, have one of the most unhealthy societies in the world where statistics for diabetes, obesity and heart disease are very grim indeed.
I deeply admire those who eat with conviction especially if that choice, they feel, will lead them to a better state of mind and/or conscience. I remain torn between pursuing a diet which I know would lead me and my body to a “purer” or at least healthier path and simply enjoying art and beauty of all that tremendously good food.
We are all on a learning curve. For some, that curve never really curves and remains flatlined. For others, there have been peaks and valleys. Given the brain cancer news, it is indeed a fact, not myth or legend, that the best outcome and indication for survival is based upon numerous factors including the aggressiveness of the cancer, how much of the tumor has been removed, and one’s mental and physical health. A healthy diet is critical in so many ways.
Even before the “event” (or “The Big Surprise,” one of my favorite Felice Brothers songs of late) I was trimming my intake of red meat. Given that I am also prone to colorectal cancer, as I have tested positive for the inherited APC gene, it makes sense.
Am I willing to give up entirely the exhilaration of a 100% organic, grass-fed, free range local beef burger, served on a grilled English muffin with Grafton cheddar? No. But no more than once a month. I love pretzels. My downfall. Carbs are generally bad. White flour is toxic. Whole grains all the way home. But will I stop ordering directly, by the 6-bag box, the most amazing pretzels in all the land, Martin’s of Akron, PA? No. But I will limit my snacking. I bike, I ski, I walk, I hike. I love, I laugh, I love. The battle is already halfway won. I will live to eat, not eat to live. Life is indeed too short to not enjoy the art and beauty of food.
Among my other savory experiences: Salmon cooked for hours by wood fire in Eric Aho’s Finnish fish smoker which he had custom-made in Finland and then dragged through the Helsinki airport en route home. Made of submarine-grade steel and quite heavy, the “savustus pönty” pronounced “savustus pöntul” is an exquisite invention. Applied with wood chips of hickory or applewood, the results are mouth-watering. Add to this his homemade graavilohi (gravlax) and the experience of sliding a shot of chilled vodka followed by eating a slice of onion and then smothering your face in a slice of pumpernickel and you are in Finnish heaven. (then off to the Sauna!)
Or perhaps dining at The Russian Tea Room, (before the renovations) with its upscale peasant food, glittery crystal and fine vodka. Or Sammy’s Roumainian Steakhouse (with a discount coupon for an angioplasty). Other delights include Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery , Katz’s Deli , or Doug Last’s expertly smoked turkey, painstakingly cared for over a thirty hour period with soaked applewood chips. Never have I had turkey like this. Melting off the bone and melting in your mouth. Maybe it’s Tim and Charlie’s hand-crafted Paella cooked in an authentic paella pan over an open fire, the saffron threads imparting a distinct and heavenly flavor throughout the chicken, chorizo, shellfish and short-grain rice. Lord I’m hungry again…
Add to this other memorable moments: snake brandy in rural China, fresh Dim Sum in Hong Kong, fried goat brains in Puerto Rico, bulgogi in Korea, and street-cart falafel in Cairo. If a reality show producer would listen, I would propose a show in which a participant is selected and the rules are simple: It is your birthday and you have, at the start of your big day, exactly twenty-four hours to travel the globe and indulge in culinary delights from around the world. Indulgent and gluttonous? Yes. But fun for sure.
Bread and Puppet, in Glover, Vermont, of which I was a resident member in the summer of 1991, Vermont’s Bicentennial, boasts several large clay ovens in which founder Peter Schumann’s famous hearty, old-world sourdough rye is baked. At the end of the summer, before the international cast and crew said their goodbyes, there was a feast. The wine flowed freely and in the clay bread ovens were several suckling pigs cooked divinely and served in a most elegant fashion. Forget the flowery language. Yum. Words fail. Oh to relive those days of Bread and Puppet, of roast pig and fine wine. Of aioli and rye bread. Days of preparing aioli for the masses left my entire body reeking of the sweet, pungent aroma of fresh garlic, which, I might add, is an excellent cancer-fighter.
I could, as you may have noticed, (and sincere apologies for the indulgent writing) go on and on, prattling and pontificating about the joy of food. Let us not forget the great food films: The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, Tampopo, Fried Green Tomatoes, Delicatessen, Babette’s Feast, and Ratatouille, to name a few. The books: Down and Out in Paris and London by Orwell, Mark Kurlansky’s forays into Salt and Cod, Larousse Gastronomique, Pollan’s In Defense of Food, and Omnivore’s Dilemma, anything by Ruth Reichl or Bourdain. The real dilemma is reading about eating leads to…more eating!
Next session, Part II will focus on post-op and music. For now, I am off to sleep, wondering what adventure awaits tomorrow. I leave you with a few favorite food related video clips. Thank you for reading. And no midnight snacks!
and not for the faint of heart, with all due respect and love for the late, great Julia Child:
Bonne nuit and bon appétit!