Charlie Trotter’s | A Memory

Approximate Reading Time: 12 minutes

The entire length of Chicago can be traversed, north to south, by car, of course, but it’s one of our biggest cities, and that can be a challenge. However, the Chicago River, dwarfed by the nearby Lake Michigan, is nonetheless a major waterway. A far more relaxing way to get around is by Chicago Water Taxi.
If you have nothing better to do, there are also regular tours by boat of the city from this special vantage. You do pass under a lot of bridges as there is a bridge about every two blocks (the River divides the vital lakefront of the city from the rest of it). The Lake Street Bridge, which is actually a drawbridge, and is the bridge closest to the only inlet from the lake, which means it’s the only way to get boats into or out of the lake from the interior.
This bridge, and Lake Street, are very near the heart of the Loop, and the fabled Golden Mile. It is about a mile and a half from the Lincoln Park neighborhood, where Charlie Trotter’s eponymous restaurant, and the subject of this essay, was located. (photo: H. Dinin. © 2018.)

The last time I was in Chicago was May 2002. I was with my late wife on what I want to say was a business trip, but I don’t recall the details. And besides, no matter. It turned out to be a lovely time of the year to be in the Second City, for sure for the weather. However what made the trip memorable was my primary reason for being there.

Linda may have been there for business. She was manager of a global program that was one of a broad range of corporate services offered by a company called IBM. However, I was on a rare excursion to accompany her, because the fates and the many interconnecting gears of business had fortuitously aligned so that, after years of enticement, we could fulfill a long held out invitation from one of my closest friends. A former colleague, which was how we originally met, Philip had come to be a regular at gatherings all over the country. He was an account supervisor at an industrial ad agency based in Boston that represented, aside from a full roster of industrial, commercial and technology clients, a number of trade organizations.

One of Phil’s more interesting accounts entailed some wing of the turkey growers of the United States. It was his job to oversee the formulation and execution of communications strategies to ensure Americans ate a growing share of their diets in the form of the flesh of the bird that Ben Franklin preferred as his choice for national bird of the country he was instrumental in founding. No doubt part of the reason for more and more year-round meals including turkey was a product of the intentionality of a sustained marketing campaign. A large part of the major objective of the advertising and pr effort was to ensure that people understood that turkey was, in effect, not just for Thanksgiving.

Among his duties, Phil was expected to accompany food service industry bigwigs – people like the national food and beverage managers of major restaurant and hotel chains – when they assembled for the larger trade shows. There was no bigger show than the one for the National Restaurant Association, or, as it’s known, “the other NRA.” The gustatory version is impressive in its own right. At present, it serves over 380,000 member eating establishments. It was of comparable size in 2002, and attendance at their annual convention, always held in Chicago and usually in May, was a necessity for exploiting the leverage of having so many important target customers accessible for schmoozing.

After years of wining and dining the executive managers and chefs of the restaurants among the most recognized, prestigious, highest volume, or distinguished for gustatory excellence in the country, Phil had acquired a cadre of restaurateurs, maîtres d’, hosts, bookers and the like at the most desired tables in Chicago. He was recognized on sight, and a last minute reservation was usually no problem.

For the course of our friendship of over 20 years at that time, Phil and I shared a love of food savory to the palate and lovingly prepared. This meant we mainly enjoyed the fruits and the comforts of entertaining one another at home. Or, once we no longer worked under the same roof, gathering for lunch, which was easiest, or dinner at a restaurant, usually a hidden gem or little-known local masterpiece of a dive that happened to serve incredible dishes. More often than not it was ethnic.

Indeed, it was our great fortune that what is still the best Turkish restaurant I’ve ever dined at—idiosyncratically open only for lunch, mainly because of the location, which was the only spot the immigrant chef/owner could afford at the time—was two blocks from the office we both worked at mid-way in our careers as ad men. “Sultan’s Kitchen” has opened, and quickly found itself serving lines out the door, on Broad Street in the financial district. That’s because that’s where the greatest concentration of an audience jaded on fast food and sandwich machines congregated every busy day, on account of they had to for work, and they appreciated inexpensive, healthy, incredibly delicious meals prepared to order, and could be done either dining communally on the spot, or taking an entire meal back to the desk, and all for about ten bucks.

That’s the kind of fare Phil and I especially appreciated, but mainly for the care in the preparation and cooking, the quality of the ingredients, and the infectiously friendly attitude of chef Özcan Ozan. But I have gotten ahead of myself, and diverted you from my tale of a visit to a meal at the signature restaurant of another master of the kitchen, an American named Charlie Trotter. So, let’s back to Chicago from our detour to Boston. By the time, Linda and I showed up there, Phil had become as conversant with the bill of fare and the wine list of Chicago’s finest. As conversant as he and I had become with the variety of kebabs that Ozan had on offer every weekday.

In 2002, Charlie Trotter was at the pinnacle of the culinary food chain in the United States. Always named as one of the top three chefs on virtually any list at the time, Trotter was a known genius for inventiveness, for being an unrelenting perfectionist in every aspect of fine dining, and, at time, it was said, a ferocious boss, who earned the respect of his staff, but was inflexible in demanding as much from each of them as he clearly did from himself. There was a softer side to Charlie, which he wasn’t afraid to hide. A human side. Evident enough in the daily presence of his mother, who served as a kind of auxiliary host and ambassador of the mission of the Trotter eponymous restaurant on Armitage in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, not too far from the lake.

Charlie Trotter’s was considered a kind of mecca—a clichéd designation for a place that, in fact, was substantiated and reinforced by invariably being named the best restaurant in a city full of great places to eat. On the one hand, it was the kind of place that could still require “gentlemen will wear jackets in the dining room,” but, on the other hand, this kind of requirement seemed not too fussy when it was well-known that you couldn’t get away without spending well over a hundred dollars a person for dinner, and far more with wine. And yet, tables were impossible for dinner except well over a month or two in advance.

When I had first-hand experience of how my friend Phil was excluded from such obstacles, not only at Trotter’s, but virtually any other table in the city, I was very proud of him for having acquired the skills necessary to thread that particular needle. He had given me a standing invitation, any time we could manage to be in Chicago to join him for dinner—even if, and I didn’t understand the import of this provision at the time, it was a last minute rendezvous. He said I simply, if possible, someday had to eat at Charlie Trotter’s.

Which is how we ended up at the front door of what I otherwise thought looked like not much more than a stately urban brownstone building of an owner who was enjoying a solid, if modest, round of success. Phil met us at the door, and we entered, and immediately Phil was greeted by everyone on staff within eyesight, including the maître d’, by name, with a broad smile. We knew instantly we were in for a memorable evening.

Seeing my friend enter, restaurant staff faces brightened. They said his name and greeted him hands outstretched. There is little that compares to being known as one in the party of greatness, however parochially it may be defined. And there is nothing strictly parochial about the most fundamental of affinities: true friendship. Not only were we glad to be in a literally world-famous restaurant, about to be seated to dine. We were glad to be in the select company of those recognized as “one of us.” Moreover, I was glad, petty as it was at bottom, that all this greatness was not for a single centavo to be at my expense. We were invited as Phil’s guests.

He was paid semi-handsomely for his exertions on the part of the turkey growers, as well as other clients. A significant part of his emolument was a personal expense account, on the one hand potentially taxable as income, on the other, amounting to such a munificent sum annually that strategically his bosses put him in the position of using it up, according to that poetic bit of doggerel philosophy, “use it or lose it.” So that night, he was showing an important IBM executive and her husband his appreciation in the form of a very nice dinner. And he simply refused my participation.

There was another remarkable occurrence, long before food began appearing systematically and with a certain arcane periodicity at the table; clearly not as a dish was ready, and clearly not some rigid mechanical interval. Linda had ordered the vegetarian “Degustation,” which is what fancy places such as this called what has become the prosaic “tasting menu” (and more on that phrase later), while I had the default omnivore’s portions. Not at all alike, each course was, nevertheless, perfectly in sync with all components. But that memorable presence I alluded to was not substantive and plated, so much as maternal. No other than Charlie Trotter’s mother appeared at our table, warm, congenial, welcoming, with an aura that softened the somewhat austere ambiance of the decor.

Not tall. Not short. Not thin. Not heavy. Neither overtly stylish, and by no means haute couture, but appealing and modest, understated while at the same time very present. Her smile was genuine. Her hair, grey, was genuine. Her loving praise of her son’s cooking was genuine.

She seemed genuinely pleased we were there to partake of her son’s handiwork – more than that, of course, it was universally accorded to be overall the artisanship of food as attained by genius, with or without a mother’s validation. We were promised an evening of superlative wining and dining, but what became memorable in larger part, at least for me, was this note of grace and warmth. And all afforded by the simple gesture of having the chef’s mother glide around the room putting every guest at ease and in a positive frame of mind. It was singular, and in my experience, it has remained as much. Nothing speaks of being welcoming than to make people sincerely welcome.

By this point in my life I have eaten in thousands of establishments in North America and Europe. And surely the mother of more than one restaurateur or cook was somewhere in the vicinity, though not, to my perception, in strong evidence. None, other than Mrs. Trotter, ever introduced herself or otherwise made her presence known. I remember the meal that night most generally as overall a classic display of haute cuisine, brilliantly prepared and plated and presented with a level of service to match. But no one dish was so singular as to distinguish itself or the evening – to make it memorable as only a unique detail can render one’s clear recollection – as much as the presence of that pleasant woman of, shall I say, advanced middle age, gracefully introducing herself, announcing her preparedness to answer any question about the menu, or her son, and offering her assistance with meeting any reasonable need.

In case you haven’t picked up my gist, and an appalling lack of testimony about the menu, or the food it proffered, or the wine, or any of the no doubt fine details of smoothly functioning service, let me be clear. I frankly remember almost none of it.

I know we had, as I mentioned, the two menus on offer, one for omnivores and an alternative for vegetarians. I know there were eight courses – or was it ten – including the desserts, which I remember least of all. Not to suggest that the food we were given was not superb. I’ll stake my unsupported belief in it to say that it was. I just remember none of it.

The fault is no doubt mine. It takes quite a bit for me to remember specific dishes I’ve had, especially in venues I’d never been to before and to which I have never returned. And returning by now, for sure, would be impossible, because Chef Charlie died in 2013, of somewhat indeterminate causes given the vagueness of the reporting about the autopsy performed on him, aside from drugs or alcohol or foul play being ruled out, as well as the dismissal of any chance of a notorious rumored burst aneurysm on his brain.

His brilliance lives after him by lingering reputation, and more substantially in the form of several enduring cookery books. The one I prefer is the one he wrote about cooking at home, called straightforwardly enough, Charlie Trotter Cooks at Home. Though the more defensible landmarks of his are a series of genre cookery books: one devoted to Seafood, one to Vegetables, one to Meat and Game, and, of course, one to Desserts. The more compendious general subject of his innovative way with classic dishes and the freshest ingredients, and titled simple, like the restaurant was, Charlie Trotter’s is still in print, in hardcover, after 24 years on the market, and five years after his death.

They all are enlivened with a quiet authority and assuredness about the food. Trotter was, as I have noted, known to be a perfectionist. He had a sure hand with the cooking, and a sure hand about how things should look on the plate, and how to taste once they arrived at ground zero, the diner’s palate. But getting there, for him, required the utmost care and preparedness.

Nowhere was this more evident at his restaurant than in the place that became the tableau and focus of what clear memories I had of that memorable dining experience. Not, as I have confessed, for the food, an evanescent collection of evidence in any event. And not even for that, I’ll admit, second-most memorable aspect of that evening, the engaging and warm presence of his mom – another deft touch on his part, accepting and also requiring her presence. A softening perhaps of the hard edge of his perfectionism and precisionism.

No, the most memorable part of the night came about with an invitation to tour the scene of the sorcery practiced every night in the fulfillment of ten measured courses of food. We were asked if we’d like to see the kitchen, and before anyone could say anything, I responded with an emphatic yes.

Entering was what I would have imagined it to have been like to enter the control room of a submarine in silent running, or given the amount of light and the sleekness of the overall design, it brought another kind of ship to mind. Something from the future, a starship’s bridge, with fewer seats and fewer dials and many hands on deck in immaculate whites.

What was most striking though was the silent operation. Sotto voce conversations; brief ones at that. No shouting. No scurrying. No wasted motion, though with all deliberate speed.

There was spotless stainless steel everywhere. Every station was well-lit. Every station was immaculate, even as they prepared meals for a dining room still full of patrons. Overall, the room was so quiet, I could hear the small printer that spit out short snippets quickly shorn from the lip of the machine and perused by a man, also in white, standing alone at the center of all the activity at the stations surrounding his post. The chef de cuisine.

He occasionally issued terse low-voiced commands to one cook here, or the garde manger there. It was more like he was coordinating a precise intensive operation, meant to save lives and not merely plate courses for some very indulged guests.

The air of calm and the steady intense intuitive sense I had of complete control under severe pressure never broke. As studiously as we observed the staff, no one changed stride, looked up or appeared interrupted. Discipline and order ruled, and as I say, proved far more impressive than the food. The fare had been exemplary, but the production of it – in a sense even more evanescent, because it existed only in time, possessed no mass or volume, but simply happened and was done. Altogether it was as much an unintended performance as a display of ingrained professionalism – yet repeated reliably and flawlessly six days a week.

I’ve had many great meals, and yet so few stand out. Usually the memorable dishes were individual; over a lifetime a scattered constellation of a great main course here, an unforgettable starter there. But only one kitchen operation stands out, akin to a great concert performance by a renowned orchestra start to finish, every movement perfection.

It’s possible, I suppose, for a particular dish to be so good it defies capture in the mind of anyone but the most practiced and refined connoisseur. I would never claim to be that, and I am prepared to be judged as one not capable of appreciating what appeared on the plates of a Charlie Trotter meal. And that’s the reason I suffer the anomaly of remembering a great meal, but being incapable of describing none of it from “amuse bouche” to the final sweet nothing of a mignardise.

But I have also seen many kitchens in full array during a meal, and there is still only the one I will never forget.

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Duncan Howard is My Name

Approximate Reading Time: 8 minutes

Well I’m tryin’ to get some sleep

but these motel walls are cheap
Lincoln Duncan is my name
and here’s my song
here’s my song.
My father was a fisherman,
My mama was a fisherman’s friend,
And I was born in the boredom and the chowder;
So when I reached my prime
I left my home in the Maritimes
And headed down the turnpike for New England,
Sweet New England.
—Paul Simon

Some children are prodigies. I like to think every child has some prodigious talent. Some parents think their children are prodigies in every way. Those parents should look a little closer.

My father always looked closely at me, and he wasn’t shy about suggesting there were ways in his eyes that I came up short. But from early on, there was one way he made clear that to him I had a precocity he admired. It made him laugh, which was a rare thing.

It concerned food. And even if not a demonstration of some gift, my obvious obsession with what I considered, at the age of seven, great food presaged my later life. I mean the one long after I left hearth and home.

How I developed a taste for beef, medium rare at that, I have no recollection, but some inner radar always alerted me to the opportunity to chow down. In retrospect it was probably not all that deep an intuition, so I don’t credit myself for that particular perspicacity. We mainly would go out to eat on weekends, because my father worked, of course, and excursions during the week were out of the question. In any event, weekends in and of themselves were only in the best sense triggering for little me. Saturday arrived and my taste buds tingled.

Howie at age seven

Portrait of the artist as a young restaurant critic

Probably our first, or at most our second, excursion on a brief road trip were primer enough for me to be alert to the potentiality for having meat. I know we went out often enough, and to a variety of destinations, that I quickly learned to indulge what has proven in the fullness of time to be a natural penchant for criticism. I thought I knew the difference between good and bad. Further, I was not shy to declare a particular meal to be prime or to have been a disappointing sub-par performance. As the case might be. The first time I declared my share of a bloody bit of steak to be “excellent,” I know my father burst out laughing, and not because I was being funny.

He immediately dubbed me “Duncan Howard.” It’s probably a designation that, as a review of a biography of my putative moniker states, needs explaining for most people under the age of 55. I’d make it even older, but that’s neither here nor there. With the age of the short memory of almost everyone, it’s best to explain it altogether.

Duncan Hines, Road Warrior and Cake Mixer

Duncan Hines was the name of a real person. A traveling salesman in his young manhood, and later. Hines loved driving the open road, and open it was in the 1920s and 1930s, when he did his major drumming (as the profession was called). In those days, not only were there no Interstates, there were few maps for the roadways that did exist. What he came to realize was there simply were no guides for travelers—whether itinerant and regular like him and all his sales brotherhood (I assume it was largely mostly a male profession), or occasional, for leisure weekends or the odd vacation excursion.

There simply was none of the apparatus for guidance we take for granted. Especially now in the age of the internet, when all we need do is reach in our pockets, and pull out a hand-sized device and instantaneously have access to, say, 4500 recommendations as to the best places to eat from here to Rangoon. There was no Tripadvisor.com. And to reach further back, to the ancient days of print, already nearly totally forgotten, there was no Fodor’s, not MobilGuides, and in this country there was certainly no Michelin guide (which has its own distinguished history, it’s true, and it dates back to 1900, but it helped *French* motorists, all 3000 of them back then, but only with information about the location of mechanics, gas stations, tire repair outlets, and the like; they didn’t begin listing restaurants until 1922, and ratings didn’t appear until four years after that).

Duncan Hines eventually took it into his head to let his fellow road warriors know, after his myriad experiences in hundreds of establishments had informed him, which were the best places for lodging or dining, and with the rarest of luck for both in a single venue. He turned it into a business, with the help of his wife. He was, at that point, it should be noted, 55 years old.

Duncan Hines, in an unattributed photo, designated Fair Use image in Wikipedia, the source.

In 1935 they prepared a book of listings for the benefit of friends, for a start, of hundreds of good restaurants – mainly local establishments, as there were but very few chains in those days. Hines was middle-aged, well into it, when he began his great work, and he had been on the road since at least the ’20s, plying his trade selling press time for a Chicago printer. That book about where to eat sold so well, he added another volume that recommended lodging. By the late 1940s he had a national newspaper column that appeared three times a week on a syndicated basis, called “Adventures in Good Eating at Home.” He had spread out his franchise by then, associating his name with the growing institution of home cooking. The column mainly featured recipes that the home cook could replicate from the restaurants he had come to know and recommend.

By 1953, which was the year my own burgeoning career as a junior version of the irrepressible Hines began, he had sold the use of his name to a partner who created a company to package products under that name to be sold in supermarkets and groceries. The “Duncan Hines” brand, which made its mark in particular with cake mixes, is still a familiar one. If anyone recognizes it, it’s as a cardboard box filled with flour, baking powder, and not much else.

The point is, so powerful was the brand that its other manifestation: recommendations to dine at a particular restaurant, were a guarantee to the consumer of a pleasing experience. And so people came to look for theelegantly lettered signs in black and white, as I remember them, hanging outside the door of a restaurant (or hotel), as near the main signage as possible. They declared simply that this establishment was “recommended by Duncan Hines.” And it became enough said.

In our family, my father insisted that we could not declare a meal dining out a success unless it received the imprimatur of myself. And he dubbed me, “Duncan Howard.” He’d ask as we finished, and around the time the check arrived, if this restaurant was “approved by Duncan Howard?” My sole criterion was the experience of eating that bloody bit of steer, and I was not generous in offering a recommendation. I have no memory, I’m sorry to say, as to whether I took into account the ambiance, what has come to be called in the Millennial shorthand, the “vibe” of the place.

My predilection for beef hasn’t subsided, though it’s sporadic, and I am not all that indulgent. Somewhere along the line from the seven year-old me to the present I learned about other cuts than sirloin, which was about the only one I knew back then, and it was I always ordered – again a source of mirth for my dad, who I think got a kick out of being able to afford to indulge his junior league restaurant critic of a son. These days, I order hanger steak when I see it on the bill of fare. This is a rare occurrence, so I don’t worry about compromising my smug self-assurance that I am not unduly endangering my health by consuming too much animal flesh.

Much more recently, I had occasion one spring about seven years ago to make regular visits to Philadelphia – what turned out to be prelude to my moving here permanently. Part of the routine that quickly ensued, and again, as a kind of reverberation of my youthful triggering associations, these excursions (at most a couple of hours portal to portal, from Boston to Philly) occurred on weekends. And I looked forward to them with an anticipation far transcendent of my childish fondness for red meat. We’ll just leave it at noting that these latter-day satisfactions had a much more powerful component of emotional fondness than they did any atavistic hunger for blood.

Downtown Philadelphia, showing City Hall, at 6am April 2011 from my room in Loews Hotel. (photo: Howard Dinin)

Nevertheless, not every moment was stocked to the brim with the fulfillments of deep amatory bliss – largely because the object of my hebdominal visits was not always free to get away. Yet, a man has to eat. And not knowing the city after a forty year absence – my last extended sojourn in Philly was as a graduate student – I was ignorant of its culinary riches, if any. And, ironically enough, given the theme of my writing today, I placed little stock in the recommendations of any self-appointed Anacharsis Cloots* on the internet, “citizens of humanity,” who seek to universalize and broaden the culinary interests of all by removing false criteria of old values and any mention of “the full dining experience.” I simply trusted no critic I could find readily who could point me to a decent meal.

What I needed was a revival of the Hines ethos. But what I gave myself was a slow tour, weekend by weekend, of the usual suspects to be found in any large cosmopolitan city. That’s right, one after another I knocked off the local installations of the finest chain steak houses in America: Ruth’s Chris, Morton’s, Capital Grille, and so forth. No place really stood out, but I can’t say either that I was ever disappointed. Not a bad piece of meat among them, though no hanger steak alas. All in all, for a few brief weeks of spring, Duncan Howard rose again.

*Anarcharsis Cloots was the pseudonymous identity of a Prussian nobleman who emerged as a singularly important figure of the French Revolution. Jean-Baptiste du Val-de-Grâce, baron de Cloots, argued strenulously (and donated a small fortune for fighters to do battle against tyranny) for the cause of world rule according to the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.” He preferred the title, by which he was known, as the orator of the human race.

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Jake

Approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes
Jake

Jake

[unpublished profile fragment: 22 October 2002; travels to U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Thomas]

Jake is a smart kid. Not the kid you want your kid to be necessarily, more the kid you wish you had been. He is from Montgomery, Alabama, as ignominious, if not notorious, a place as Providence, Rhode Island, or Newark, New Jersey. But he comes, given his roots and the far-reaching peregrinations of his young life, with the onus/appeal of an accent, from the unmistakably deep South, unmistakably American.

“I know I look 15, but I’m 24,” he tells you, and in case you are not aware of the advantage, he tells you about it. When you tell him that the real advantage will come when he is 50 and looks only 32, he readily agrees. The advantage is the sort, the only sort, that counts in a man’s life, when all accounting is done – for bartenders, artists, poets, politicians and nuclear physicists – the advantage with women. Jake implies he has been with many, and among the sweeter, indeed, was one where the age differential could only have been equitable if the female, in this case at age 44, had suffered none of the gravitational influence that terrifies all women living West of the Greenwich Observatory, East of the International Dateline. As he talks about it, the corners of Jake’s mouth twist slightly at the sweet memory. He reveals the true burden of his youth in not hiding the pride he feels in having been with what less imaginative people would call “a real woman,” and leaving the distinct impression as well that he had the stuff, his unblemished complexion notwithstanding, his 20-plus year deficit notwithstanding, to leave her satisfied. And gravity played no part for either party.

As you pull out a stool at Bobby’s Bar in one of the many arcades that provide cool passage between Main Street and Waterfront Highway in Charlotte Amalie, and when you ask if he is Bobby, as he rises from a stool on the money side of the small bar that juts into the main walkway, furtively snuffing a cigarette and slipping behind the bar, he tells you, not that he is Jake, but that he is “Bobby’s bitch,” and he works here for five dollars an hour, seven days a week. Bobby is “traveling,” (as he does, it turns out, periodically; working a month, and traveling a month, apparently for pleasure – the remittance man with the best justification in the world: he is padrone, boss, sole owner). There is a kind of swagger in all this, and you know, jaded Northeasterner that you are, that he means the “bitch” part, not in the way it’s meant at Walpole prison or in Boston’s south end, but in a kind of urbane ironic way. Jake is clearly a master at creating a sympathetic resonance with any customer, including two grizzled middle-aged white guys, stragglers of some sort, toting imposing professional-looking cameras and clearly not from any cruise ship – all cruise vessels being temporarily absent from the usually teeming Charlotte Amalie harbor. To hustle tips from tourists with excess discretionary income, especially in tough times, is a craft that even the most tender-faced must master. Jake knows this is a good job, even at less than the U.S. mainland minimum wage. He gives a tutorial in staffing tourist bars in the West Indies. Among the competition, there are at least two bartenders, spelling one another, by weekday, or day part. However, Jake insists on taking on all barkeep duties. He likes having things behind the bar his way, everything in its place – essentially as Jake defines it.

We are the only customers. It is 11:30 in the morning after all, yet appropriate for a first cocktail, especially in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where, for many, rum is a breakfast drink. Jake launches into a rap that, in retrospect, is clearly well-practiced. We learn that he has traveled: for one, to Dallas, for an extended visit after college. In Dallas, despite his youth, he worked hard, tending bar, befriending the bar owner, and endearing himself (not to mention proving his value) sufficiently that the untimely death of his friend led to a recall by his boss’s widow, and the subsequent bestowal of 30% ownership of the establishment for a mere ten thousand dollars. Every month, Jake still receives a direct deposit of 30% of all revenue. It’s clearly better than a Fulbright, a kind of bibulous McArthur grant, acknowledging the genius of his native acumen and hosting skills. Dallas has become for Jake, a life goal: a “great place,” his objective for settling down, and, once he has accumulated the requisite cash, the place where he will leverage his value by buying out the place.

Among his travels is a sojourn in Japan of three and a-half months, where he sat “doing nothing,” waiting on his girlfriend who was in the island empire doing something indeterminate. In some essential way American, peripatetic (that most American of qualities), this young wanderer has, nevertheless, never been north of Memphis. And so, your native Boston remains a someday destination. You can only suspect that if there were a dollar in it, or perhaps a woman, the visit would occur.

Jake has been in Saint Thomas for 14 months, living in Frenchtown, one of the communities that make up Charlotte Amalie, the great sprawling tourist mecca and native ghetto where it seems the population lives in a kind of dignified squalor. Frenchtown is, by any account, not squalid. It is a white enclave. Given his venturesome history, and his taste for edgy experiences, it’s a little bit of dissonance to hear that Jake has elected such quarters. Or maybe it’s that quite simply, when it’s time to go home and get some rest, he wants no excitement, or surprises. Only a later interview could clear this up, and you make a note to ask him at a later opportunity [which never does present itself].

When you ask for a place to eat, not the usual tourist haunt, but a place where locals eat, Jake first mentions the obvious – well-known, unimaginative “safe” places for bourgeois tourists to congregate and consume familiar fare, as if all were adherents to the philosophy of “accidental tourism.” When you press for a name where the local fare is featured, Jake, almost apologetically reminds that he is in the habit of helping out his buddies who run several local favorite local eateries, but he does offer the name of Cozzin’s, a short walk away on Back Street (and, as it turns out later, what amounts to a sanitized version of local specialties, plus the usual offering of tourist fare: salads and burgers, with table cloths and laminated menus – you’ve been directed by Jake to what is no doubt another buddy’s place, and the closest no doubt that he can offer to what you’ve requested without compromising his loyalties). You can take the baby-faced white boy out of Alabama, you can take him around the world, but in the cultural plane you can not take him far at all.

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The Reading

Approximate Reading Time: 9 minutes

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Saturday of this past weekend was a banner day for the household. The book tour for MG’s latest opus (co-edited with her collaborator on this and other projects) began, auspiciously enough, at one of the destinations on everyone’s short list of great independent bookstores: Politics and Prose, in Washington DC. Setting aside the universal plight of all independent bookstores—how to stay viable and profitable in a world of online discount selling—we can take comfort that the strongest and most appealing of these stores, and Politics and Prose is one of them, seem to thrive. Sometime, in another post, I may end up musing on the qualities of these stores that allow them to survive where they are beaten every time on price, the factor that seems to trump all others in the book buyer’s decision process.

The book that was the focus of the event is an anthology of food writing, a collection born of a mutual interest on the part of the co-editors long since to teach this genre, drawing from a growing library and history of such works. Several years ago, in tandem, but on separate campuses, they offered what turned out to be very popular courses. One editor, whose expertise skews toward fiction, and scholarly inquiry into the nineteenth century novel in English, taught a curriculum that demonstrated a similar predisposition. Jennifer Cognard-Black is Professor of English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, an institution whose constituents, all and sundry, seem reflexively to add to the name, “the public honors college,” is a respected, if small, liberal arts college that is actually part of the State of Maryland system of higher education institutions. Hence it operates at the fiscal discretion of the Governor and the Maryland Senate and House of Delegates. All of which is by way of seeing that there’s an analogy here, between the plight of the independent bookstore, and the plight of the small college of liberal arts—also a struggling breed, except for quality institutions like St. Mary’s, which holds its own, with far smaller budgets, though at far less cost to its students, with its peer institutions, far better funded, more prestigious, and highly competitive in their selectivity.

One co-editor, Melissa Goldthwaite [full disclosure: she’s my wife], is a Professor of English, at St. Joseph’s University, a specialist in Rhetoric and Composition, and Creative Writing. St. Joseph’s is one of a whole network of Jesuit-affiliated institutions of higher learning throughout the country. The aims of the education have, still, at their core a dedication to providing a solid liberal arts education. I say still, because the challenge for any U.S. institution of higher education today is how to continue to instill not only a love for learning and an understanding that a broadly based education steeped in the cultural history of the world, with some requisite skills in analyzing the relevance and meaning of the substance of that history.

The impediment confronted on many campuses, regardless of how you categorize the institution, and not strictly an antithetical stumbling block, but in seeming counterpoise, is the acquisition of credentials through the study of more marketable subject matter. Strictly speaking, and increasingly, this means courses in business, or marketing, or economics—or any of the broadening array of sub-disciplines—that constitute a more practical species of specialized skill sets. It’s well and good to be able to suss out meaning that appeals to the heart and the mind in a poem; it’s another thing altogether to understand the arcane relations between columns of numbers in a balance sheet and what they might augur for the continued prosperity of an enterprise.

Smarter dispassionate heads struggle to prevail in the argument that these are not antithetical capabilities. Indeed, the subject areas in the classic curriculum collectively still referred to as the humanities provide a foundation in discovering a successful way of coping with life in the real world. Not every argument is won by the humanists. There has been a progressive retrenchment in traditional curricula and it’s likely at least three decades, if not longer, that colleges and universities have introduced, in a first wave, new departments and areas of specialization: women’s studies, gender studies, and targeted ethnicities, including African-American and Latino studies, being prime examples.

More recently, and in tandem with rising tuition costs on almost all campuses around the country (rising at rates that far exceed the rate of increase in almost any other critical economic marker), the entire industry, for that is, alas, what it has come to resemble, of higher education, has added courses of study that are directly and unambiguously platforms into seeking and achieving paying jobs within highly defined areas of specialization, in technology, finance, and entertainment. In ways that test the elasticity of meaning of a word that originally sustained little ambiguity given its roots, I mean the humanities, the new designers of academic missions and the supportive educational infrastructure argue—usually by way of mere lip service—that being human endeavors, the new subjects and courses are merely latter-day manifestations of this classic epistemology. Others, in a sense less cynical, say that the study of the humanities per se, with no qualification or abridgment of the standard meaning of the term, have become at best a luxury, and at worst a useless anachronism.

There is one constant, however, and not paradoxically. If anything, the importance of the ability to communicate, especially verbally, has never been more of a manifest value. Which brings me back to the substance of the spanking new Goldthwaite/Cognard-Black opus. In food writing, I suggest, there is a rare amalgam, a blend of the two still viable contemporaneous disciplines: effective communication (dare I say, at the apex of its expressive qualities, attaining to literary worth?) and the subject of food in every conceivable aspect. The latter has long since been monetized in the still major media channels of radio, television, the Internet, and that strange space coextensive of the World Wide Web, proprietary social media. Food has become competitive sport, obsession, confessional, practical, salvational, healing, spiritual, and technological.

Books that Cook: The Making of A Literary Meal is, frankly, not an exponent of all these salient if divergent methods of inquiry into the subject. The editors being who they are, and with a more singular mission in their noble day jobs as pedagogues and mentors to would-be writers, have chosen not a more conservative course of activity, so much as a classic one. And on the Saturday, just passed, in question, seven of us read from our work, including the co-editors who were also contributors: Cognard-Black wrote a short story specifically for this volume, and Goldthwaite included one of her excellent poems. The other five of us, including myself (with a poem, commissioned for the volume, “How to Make the Perfect Fried Egg Sandwich”), and two other poets, an essayist, and memoir author.

We didn’t exactly wear our academic credentials on our sleeves—for one thing it was a very hot, beyond sultry, Washington DC day, and the majority of us were in short sleeves, if there were sleeves at all to our garments. In fact, to some greater or lesser extent each of us, as well as all the other writers in the book, were or are published authors. Our bona fides preceded us. The only criterion the works selected had to meet, aside from manifestly having food as a major theme, motif, or subject, was that each include a bona fide executable recipe within the text.

The publisher bankrolled a generous adjunct to the gathering, especially generous to the attendees who met no other criterion of admission than to show up, in the form of a smorgasbord of sample tastings of five of the recipes featured. In short, they paid a caterer to prepare and provide small, but ample, tastes of two kinds of cake, a vegetable soup, and a beverage, a punch. Anecdotally, I’d say, from the amount consumed and the overheard comments of approbation, the crowd was pleased.

The audience settled in, many of them with tiny cups of soup, sipped with even tinier spoons, and the reading began with a greeting from our merchant host, which, courtesy again of the publisher had provided stacks of volumes for purchase, and a traditional signing after we had all performed. We read in turn, taking from five to ten minutes each. Some of the readers bolstered the rendering of their contributions as published with yet more works of theirs along the same lines. In an hour, we were done. There were few questions, all asked with that earnestness that characterizes self-consciously literary crowds. And then the queue formed.

I was surprised to see that several folks bought multiple copies, each receiving a requested and different personalized greeting. The book is not costly, and I did not inquire as to any discounts, but three copies, let us say, which at least one generous soul had purchased, plus the local sales tax ate up most of a hundred dollar bill. I was further surprised to be asked myself to sign several copies, and I easily fought the temptation to disabuse the pilgrim of the likely value of my scrawl in any conceivable future.

I will admit personally to a certain sense of a kind of temporary dissociation. I for sure knew where I was, but I also wished I weren’t. I loathe crowds of strangers of any size. They intimidate me, and put me on guard. When it came time to read, I stood up, and didn’t quite entirely put aside my usual sense of confidence (bolstered by a rehearsal the day before at home, before my editor and our pooch, who both listened raptly as I easily gave a flowing reading of my free verse) as I hugged the podium and barely glanced at the equally rapt crowd. As I read, with the same well-paced cadences I’m sure in retrospect, all I could hear was a tremulousness in my voice, which I certainly felt. By all accounts that reading was as free of defect as the run-through, though it had seemed interminable to me. Barely noticing the applause, which had justifiably greeted each of the other readers, I regained my seat, as the sense of otherness enveloped me again.

Other than the pride in my wife’s accomplishment (and I was one of very few, present or not, with any acquaintance with the trials the editors together had undergone in seeing the book through its long gestation) my memory of the afternoon is hazy. It was, undoubtedly, a success, which I knew, having seen the number of copies the store had rung up. For all that, this was, I admit, my first opportunity to participate in a reading of this sort, from the other side of the lectern. Seeking no prior indoctrination, and even knowing my antipathy for crowds of strangers, I was interested to take in as much as I might perceive. For all the sales of the book that day (and to date, as it enjoys its inaugural weeks on sale nationally), the publisher had shipped what proved to be a significant surplus, no doubt in an established protocol of cautious optimism and preparedness. I happened to be at the check out at the front of the store, as the staff prepared for the next event, hard on the heels of our own. I admit as well, I cannot step into a well-stocked bookstore without spending some money (and I bested the outlay of the hundred dollar lady, with quite a much larger sum in a fit of spreading the wealth—I should disclose that my own copy of Books that Cook had arrived weeks ago at home, gratis). As I paid for my second purchase of the day, for another book, another audio CD, and a Lamy rollerball pen I couldn’t resist, I watched as two of the staff members, expertly stuffed what was left of an unsold pile of volumes of the literary feast into two sizable cartons, festooned with labels that looked familiar from a shipment long ago of my one published volume—probably the same production house. They had those cartons packed and sealed and ready for shipment back, all in the time it took to swipe my card and for me to sign the check.

All in all, and nevertheless, I am sure it was a good day for NYU Press, and Politics and Prose, and the co-editors. Later that same weekend, a check on Amazon of how the book was selling showed it had, for what it appears was a shining moment, achieved “best-seller” status, making it to the “Top 100” in three different sub-categories. I have no doubt with our next reading, scheduled for New York City, the home turf of the publisher, at a rare book library on campus, it will attain a few more moments of fame, and once again, even a few grains, like scattered salt crystals, will reach me.

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The book is available on-line, here http://www.amazon.com/Books-That-Cook-Making-Literary/dp/1479830216/ref=pd_rhf_ee_p_img_1, and here http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/books-that-cook-jennifer-cognard-black/1119220500?ean=9781479830213. And, of course, at your local independent bookstore. I know where I’d go.

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Some Loose Rules of Thumb for Americans in Rural France

Approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes

(inspired partially by Satchel Paige’s advice on “How to Keep Young”)

  1. Everyone moves at his or her own pace. You might as well do the same. No one is slowing down or speeding up for you, I assure you. They’ll get out of your way, if you’re polite about it. The corollary, even in the dead of night, in the middle of a village, is do not ever just step into the roadway to cross.
  2. No one is giving you the stink eye. Unlike Americans, Europeans have no trouble looking other people in the eye, or at least in the face. This is especially true of the French. They’re not sizing you up. They merely assume, if they don’t know you, that you are in the same state of mind as they. Cautious, guarded, and disinterested. And don’t worry, the French see you, and they’re not looking through you. It’s the Germans who don’t see you, and the Brits who look right through you.
  3. There is no such thing as a place in line. Everyone gets to be first, if they can manage it. There is no etiquette. Just step to the front like they do, and watch your elbows. The shopkeeper or vendor will decide who gets attention. If you’re a stranger or a tourist, forget it.
  4. The roads are much narrower than ours, and the cars, generally smaller. The trucks and buses don’t look it, but they are too. The advantage the French have is, they are used to it. You’re not. Amazingly they won’t hit you. Just don’t hit them.
  5. People on bicycles think they are the only ones on the road. This is because they have a priority. Don’t threaten them with your car. And use your directional signal when you pass them. More likely than not, there’s a car approaching in the opposite lane.
  6. Don’t hand a merchant a 50-euro bill for any sale less than 20-euros. They will always ask if you have anything smaller. So if you do, keep it out of sight, or you’ll make an enemy for the rest of your stay, or the rest of your life. Whichever is longer.
  7. Give a merchant exact change if you can. You will make a friend for, well, see Rule 6., above. Otherwise, those eensy beensy copper coins? They actually use them. If you don’t give them over, they’ll be handed to you. You can tell a merchant really likes you when he or she rounds the total down to the nearest euro.
  8. Don’t look back, because you can be sure someone is gaining on you, flashing his high beams. They’re not pissed or perverse. They just go at a faster pace than you, and want you out of their path. So move.
  9. They’re used to making fast moves with their smaller, faster, more maneuverable cars. They’re not trying to side-swipe you when they return to the lane after they pass. That’s just how they drive.
  10. Eat anything you like. It’s all good, and far better for you than the usual in the U.S. As long as you stay out of the fast food outlets. If you go to France and eat at McDonald’s, you’ve just spent a lot of money for no good reason. And I’m talking about the plane fare and the hotel. Not the Big Mac.
  11. The French, especially in the South, have been eating healthier than you, for a lot longer than you. Don’t get snotty when you tell them you’re a vegan and they seem not to know what you’re talking about. If you don’t eat whatever, just say so. You’ll still eat well. The French consider it an honor and a duty to make you comfortable and satisfied.
  12. Don’t ever raise your voice. At best, it just demonstrates you’re an American. At worst, you’ll be completely ignored. They hear you. Try a few simple words in French, in a normal tone of voice. It’s magical. Otherwise, see Rule 1.
  13. Don’t ever imagine that there’s anything remotely like marché in the ‘States. They do this every week, all year, year after year, and it’s as festive and uplifting for everybody as any Fourth of July. Get into the spirit of it, and enjoy yourself. There’s no cheaper way to get entertained, spend an entire morning amusing yourself for nothing, buy better produce, fish, cheese and meat, and raise your spirits. In the meantime, all those vendors are making a living and enjoying themselves while they do. Do you?
  14. If you think the coffee is bitter and strong, it is. There’s nothing wrong with it. Just a different palate. Just do what every American does and order a “café crême,” which is actually a cafe au lait. You can order a cafe au lait. They’ll simply repeat, “café crême,” and bring you the same thing, even as you have assured them you’re an American (or, at worst, they’ll mistake you for a Brit). If you order it after 11am, they’ll know you can’t be anything but an American, because no one drinks coffee with milk in France except for breakfast. You could get tricky and order a noisette, which literally means “hazelnut” though this has nothing to do with it. It’s a an espresso with a tiny shot of steamed milk. Saves you a euro, or more, and gets rid of some of the acidity. Might also allow you to get away with appearing French.
  15. No one eats dinner before 8pm. Not if they’re French.
  16. At someone’s home, if you’re lucky enough to get an invitation to visit and share a meal, show up ten minutes late, and it’s perfectly cool, often preferable. Show up late for a restaurant reservation and you may find yourself without a table. Go figure.
  17. Get used to dogs in any place that serves food and drink, inside or out. If you don’t like it, don’t go out. And even the most humble bistro will probably bring your dog a bowl of water, unasked.
  18. Large supermarkets and malls increasingly exclude dogs. Assume it’s the infernal Americanization of a great country that managed to get along nicely without us, until about 70 years ago.
  19. You’re not French. You will never be. You’re an American in France. Admit it to yourself, then forget it, and enjoy yourself. They actually like Americans. Can’t say as much for others.
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