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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

You can help by leaving comments on posts and by becoming a follower. I'd really like to know who you are and what your thoughts are on what I'm doing. To date, more than a quarter million people have viewed the blog and that's great. But every great leader needs followers and if I am ever to achieve my goal of becoming the next great leader of the Italian culinary world :-) I need followers!

Grazie mille!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

No Catchy Headline: Just Something to Restore Your Faith in Humanity


I'm a cynic, a skeptic, and a curmudgeon. Part and parcel of getting old, I guess. Then, doggone it, this guy named “Jake” comes along and makes me feel all warm and fuzzy.

I've written a lot about manners and etiquette in restaurants. And I've often decried the general lack thereof, especially among clueless parents with bratty kids. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the root of the problem lies with the clueless parents rather than with the bratty kids. In most cases, the kids wouldn't be bratty if the parents had a clue.

This philosophy has led to “kid free” zones in some restaurants. There are even eateries that entirely prohibit children. A lot of parents complain about this, but I – curmudgeon that I am – applaud the effort because I don't like kids running around a restaurant screaming and playing while their self-absorbed idiot parents sit by and pretend their little darlings aren't driving everybody else in the place nuts. Besides being incredibly rude and annoying, it's not particularly safe for the kids, for the other patrons, and most especially not for the staff who have to dance around the little monsters while carrying trays full of hot food and beverages.

I'll admit it – I'm a jerk. I've asked to be moved to another table if a family of screaming meemies is seated next to me. At the very least, I've girded my loins and gritted my teeth and muttered, “there goes the neighborhood” when a passel of kids sits down at the next table, fully expecting my quiet dining experience to be shot all to hell.

I raised two fairly rambunctious boys. They played hard and rough and did their best to maim or kill one another from time to time. But all that rambunctiousness came to a screeching halt when they hit the dinner table. There they were expected to behave like civilized human beings. I'm proud to say I never once got a complaint from fellow diners about my boys or even so much as a dirty look. In fact, quite the opposite was true. Didn't matter if we were in a four-star restaurant or a roadside diner, I frequently fielded compliments from strangers who thanked me for having such well-behaved children. I was proud of my boys for their behavior and proud of myself for my insistence upon it. And I have paid it forward, often taking a moment to pause at a table on my way out and thank the parents for the deportment of their kids.

But this “Jake” guy makes me look like a piker. And, frankly, I'm glad of it.

According to a report by ABC11 in Raleigh, NC, there was this single mom who took her kids to a local Pizza Hut for a weekly Friday night dinner. She was in the midst of a messy divorce, and was having a generally rough time of it, but she wanted to provide her children with this one little bit of stability. On top of it all, one of her sons is dealing with ADHD and his meds were wearing off when they hit the Hut. To her credit, she forewarned a man seated in a nearby booth that things could get a little boisterous and apologized in advance. The guy brushed it off with a smile and assurances that he, too, had kids and he understood her situation. And that was that. Or was it?

The young mother did her best to keep her kids in line as the meal progressed. Unlike idiots who just let their kids run wild and crazy in public places, oblivious to the needs of others, this mom stayed right there with them, talking to them and trying to keep them under control. The report I read said she attempted to “engage with her kids to keep them on their best behavior.”

Eventually, the gentleman seated near them finished his meal and left. It's at this point in the narrative that I have to admit I don't know what I would have done were I in his position. And I've been somewhat in his position. My wife and I were enjoying a nice quiet meal at a Pizza Hut one evening when the staff started pulling tables together next to us and seated a large family with five or six very young children. We braced ourselves, but the expected rowdy behavior never happened. We were delighted and stopped to compliment the parents as we left the restaurant. But this guy – Jake – had a little different experience. The story doesn't indicate that things ever really got out of hand, but the implication is that the mother had her hands full, so Jake probably didn't have the best dining experience as a result.

Anyway, time came for mom to gather up the kids and pay the check. But the waitress told her that the young man seated next to her had already paid her bill. What's more, he left her a Pizza Hut gift card to cover a future meal. And he wrote her a little letter. If you start tearing up as you read it, it's okay. I did, too.

"I do not know your back story,” he wrote, “but I have had the privilege of watching you parent your children for the past 30 minutes. I have to say thank you for parenting your children in such a loving manner." The man continued, "I have watched you teach your children about the importance of respect, education, proper manners, communication, self control, and kindness all while being very patient." "I will never cross your path again,” he said, “but am positive that you and your children have amazing futures." The letter concluded, "Keep up the good work, and when it starts to get tough, do not forget that others may be watching and will need the encouragement of seeing a good family being raised. God bless! -Jake"

If that doesn't restore your faith in humanity and inspire you to be a better person, you may be beyond help. It certainly got to me and now I may have to go and rip up all my cynic, skeptic, and curmudgeon cards. Thanks to this display of selfless kindness, the next time the opportunity presents itself, and if the situation warrants, I will go beyond a simple kind word myself.

Bless you, Jake, and thanks for sharing the planet and making it  better place.

And, speaking of sharing, I couldn't come up with a single snappy header that would give this post better SEO, and the search engines are just going to ignore it. So if you liked the story and if it made a difference in your day, share a link to it with somebody else, okay?

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Minding Your (Italian) Manners


10 More “Food Rules” To Keep In Mind When In Italy

I recently read an article on the Huffington Post in which blogger Whitney Richelle discusses the “10 Essential Food Rules for Americans in Italy.” Ms. Richelle brings up some good points and her article is definitely worth a read. Find it here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/whitney-richelle/americans-dining-in-italy_b_4097722.html. I'm going to supplement a few of these “food rules," also known as "manners," in just a second, but I'd like to rant about another issue first. Some of the comments attached to Ms. Richelle's article are troubling. Like this one:

“If the Italians are looking askance at what or how you're eating you just hit the table hard and forcefully say 'Basta'!”

Yeah, I can see that working well. Or this one:

“It seems like some of these [rules] are mostly concerned with impressing others. Enjoying my meal is more important to me than impressing people.”

You know, there are other notes on the scale of life besides “mi, mi, mi, mi.”

This one is my favorite: “With all due respect, those 'Essential Food Rules for Americans' only apply to Americans who want to do things the way the Italians do them. Even when traveling, Americans and all other people should do what makes the most sense for them. If a person wants to eat the apple with the skin on, eat the damn apple with the damn skin on. If you love eggs for breakfast, have eggs for breakfast. Why would anyone really care whether Italians do likewise or not? Is someone trying to pass as Italians? Does someone think Italians really know what's best for the whole world?”

Well, I'm certainly glad this ignorant screed was tendered with “all due respect.”

Obviously, these folks are not aware of the term “ugly American,” a pejorative used to refer to the common perception people in other countries have of Americans as being loud, arrogant, demeaning, thoughtless, ignorant, ethnocentric louts. These commenters exemplify the breed, but in typical “ugly American” fashion, they probably don't give a damn.

The comments also reflect behavior typical of us “Baby Boomers.” We're also known as “the Me Generation” because we abandoned our parents' Depression-era ethics of dedication, self-sacrifice, and the postponement of gratification in favor of the new mantras of “me, me, it's all about me.” “Me first.” “Make sure I get mine.” “Do your own thing and to hell with everybody else.” “I am the center of my universe. The world revolves around ME, so I don't care what you think.”

While America can justifiably boast about being the best in the world in a great many areas, it is still just one of 196 countries that populate our planet. Each country has its own unique culture and each culture is an integral part of the grand tapestry that covers the globe. And if you possessed two working brain cells, you would understand that the ability to appreciate the diversity of the world's cultures is one of the things that makes for an educated, sophisticated, civilized, well-rounded individual. Oscar Wilde said it best: "America is the only country that managed to go from barbarism to decadence without passing though civilization."

<Drag, scrape, drag> (Putting the soapbox away.) Okay, let's talk about more Italian table manners.

Hold The Cheese

Ms. Richelle mentioned not asking for “salad dressing” and being sparing in the use of condiments. This also extends to that Italian staple, Parmesan cheese. In the U.S., you can't go to any “Italian” restaurant or pizzeria without encountering the ubiquitous little shakers of grated Parmesan cheese. Either that or the server comes around with a grater.

In the first place, the powdery substance in the little shakers bears little resemblance to real Parmesan cheese. It's nothing but a bulk food service version of the abomination in a green can that you buy in grocery stores. What the server grates over your food has the benefit of at least being fresh and some sort of real cheese, although it's not likely to be Parmigiano-Reggiano. It'll probably be some form of domestic Parmesan or maybe a pecorino.

Either way, the practice is frowned upon in Italy. Unless it is explicitly offered, you shouldn't ask for cheese. American stereotypes aside, Italians don't put Parmesan cheese on everything. They especially don't put it on pizza. That will get you some really funny looks.

Bread Is Not A First Course

Ms. Richelle also addressed “fa la scarpetta,” or using your bread to mop up your plate. But something she didn't mention; in Italy bread is not considered a first course.

Here's how you judge the authenticity of an “Italian” restaurant in the U.S.: If they don't throw a basket of bread at you as soon as your butt hits the chair, you're in an authentic place. Bread is intended as an accompaniment to your primo and secondo courses. You don't fill up on it as a pre-meal snack or as a course unto itself.

Garlic bread,” the way Americans know it, doesn't exist in Italy. Slices of bread slathered in garlic-infused butter and served with “Italian” seasonings on top are strictly an American creation. And while “dipping oil” like they serve at some Italian-American places is not unheard of in Italy, it's not terribly common.

One more note on bread etiquette; break the bread, don't cut it. Italy is a country steeped in religious symbolism and this is an old custom that can be traced back to the Christian Eucharist. At the Last Supper, Christ did not whip out a knife and slice up the bread for his disciples. He broke it by hand. Doing so at your table won't make you holy, but it will make you mannerly.

Sedersi e Mangiare (Sit Down And Eat)

This was sort of included in Ms. Richelle's rules when she talked about taking time to enjoy your food, but I'd like to expand on it a bit. In the first place, it is considered ill-mannered to get up from the table before the meal is finished. Unless your pants are on fire – or unless you really have to “go” – you remain seated at the table until everybody has finished eating. The self-centered idea that “I'm done now” permits you to be dismissed doesn't fly at an Italian table. Sit down. Your life can wait five minutes more.

Secondly, you should literally sit down and eat. The concept of grabbing something and chowing down on the run is totally foreign to the Italian way of eating. You seldom see Italians walking around stuffing their faces with some form of hand-held food. It runs counter to the whole philosophy of Italian food culture. The one exception might be an afternoon gelato. Everybody likes to get a little gelato and go for a stroll.

A Meal Is Not An Eating Contest

This sort of ties in with the idea of “sit down and eat” except it should be noted that nobody eats until everybody eats. Even if you haven't seen food because you've been wandering in the desert for forty days, you don't just rush to the table and dig in. Italian eating is almost ritualistic. It follows a specific form. Once the call to the table is given, everybody moves to the table. There's no “just a minute,” “I'll be right there,” or “let me just finish this.....” It's call, boom, move. Everybody is seated but nobody touches so much as a fork until mama, papa, the host, or whoever is in charge of the meal gives the signal to begin. And then there's no wild free-for-all where everybody lunges for whatever is on the table, heaps it on their plates, and then mows through it in order to see who finishes first. It's an orderly process of passing and receiving. Oh, it can be loud and boisterous, but it's always orderly. And there's no heaping and no rushing. Which leads to the next rule.

Don't Be A Pig

Abbondanza! is mostly an American marketing gimmick. Italians don't serve food in great heaping portions. That's one reason why their obesity rate is among the lowest in the world. Food is served in moderate portions and if you are serving yourself, it is expected that you will only take a moderate portion. It is perfectly acceptable – indeed, complimentary – to ask for more, but don't load up from the beginning. You'll look like an ill-mannered pig.

When Is The Head Not The Head?

When it's in the middle! In many cultures, including American, the host or most important person sits at “the head” of the table, meaning they sit at one of the far ends. Not so in Italy, where the host is seated at the middle of one of the long sides. An important guest is seated immediately to the right of the host. If there is a hosting couple, they sit opposite each other on either side of the table.

Hands Up!

Well, not “up” as in above your head, but certainly above the table. When they are not actively engaged in transporting something from the plate to the mouth, your hands should rest above the table at the wrist (never the elbow) and they should be apart, not touching. It goes back to medieval suspicions about hiding weapons under the table. I don't suppose there's much to fear from hidden daggers anymore, but modern Italians still like to see where your hands are.

I Have A Fork And I Know How To Use It

You know, of course, that the Italians are responsible for the introduction of the dining fork to Western European culture. That said, Italians are still very fond of their forks.


In Italy, as in the rest of the Continent, they practice – ta dah! – Continental dining etiquette. This means that the fork is always held in the left hand with the tines pointed down and the knife stays in the right. There's no switching around and back and forth as in the American style. However, unlike the rest of Europe, if you're eating something that doesn't require the use of a knife – pasta, for instance – you don't have to keep holding the knife. It's okay to set it down.

Also unlike other parts of Europe, in Italy there are very few “finger foods.” Small items such as olives, pieces of cheese, slices of fruit – even French fries, or “chips,” when you can find them – are eaten with a fork.

And now for the really devastating etiquette bomb.......in Italy, pizza is not picked up and folded. It is eaten with a knife and fork. I'll wait until the New Yorkers stop howling. It's true. Even in Napoli, the birthplace of pizza, it is generally considered maleducato to pick up a slice of pizza. In the first place, Italian pies aren't served “sliced.” You get the whole pie and you use your knife and fork to cut it into quarters. Then you continue to use your utensils, especially for the first few bites. After you work your way up toward the crust, it's usually okay to pick up what's left and finish it off. But the whole “pick up a slice and fold it” phenomenon is an Italian-American affectation that would get you disapproving looks in an Italian pizzeria. Sorry.

Another place where the fork rules is in the pasta bowl. Here the fork is king. No knives and no spoons. I know, I know.....every “Italian” restaurant in America sticks a big spoon in the pasta bowl so you can use it to help twirl up your spaghetti. Not in Italy. Spoons are for children. Little children. Pre-school children. By the time you reach the age of five or six, you are expected to know how to put your fork into the pasta and lift up a few strands, which you then continue to lift and twirl around the fork until you have a manageable bite. The bite should fit neatly and completely into your mouth and should you have to deal with a stray dangler, you do so discreetly without an overabundance of smacking and slurping. Taking big sloppy bites that end up dangling from your lips and being slurped into your mouth is rude even for children. And we won't even address the disdain for those who chop spaghetti up into tiny fragments and eat it with a spoon.

Fido Will Have To Fend For Himself

Italians don't do “doggie-bags.” The simple rule is don't take more than you can eat. If you do leave a little food on your plate, you'll likely have a concerned host or waiter asking if everything was alright. If you leave a lot of food on your plate, you'll probably encounter a very insulted cook. Italian-American restaurants serve outrageously gargantuan portions and “to go” containers are common. That's not the case in Italy, so do yourself a favor and don't ask.

Si Beve, Si Beve (You Drink, You Drink)


Ms. Richelle correctly noted that an Italian table offers two drinks; water and wine. Italians believe in the purity of the taste of their food and they don't want anything messing with that flavor. Wines are selected and paired to compliment the food being served. And water, of course, has no effect on flavor.

Yes, Italy has water taps. Free-flowing taps and fountains of potable water have been around since Roman times, but you'll seldom find tap water being served at the table. It's always bottled water. In fact, Italians are among the highest consumers of bottled water in the world. You will be offered your choice of plain water – naturale – or sparkling water – gassata or frizzante. You might also be offered minerale, or mineral water. But you'll have a hard time getting a glass of tap water. There's nothing wrong with the water. Italians just don't serve it. And don't look for a lot of ice. Like most Europeans, Italians aren't big on iced beverages.

Almost nobody drinks soft drinks like Coke or even lemonade with a meal. This goes back to the diluting the flavor issue. Same thing with beer, although both beer and soft drinks are sometimes served with pizza.

As much of a shock as it may be to Americans, your kids aren't going to become rampant alcoholics if they are served wine with a meal. In fact, studies have shown the opposite to be true. At most Italian tables, home or public, kids drink wine with their meals. Little kids get it watered down a bit, but by the time they're teenagers, they drink the same wine the adults drink. In 2013, the Italian government raised the legal drinking age from 16 to 18, but enforcement is likely to be spotty, especially where family meals are concerned.

Finally, nobody has mixed drinks or cocktails with a meal. Such can be offered before or after a meal as an aperitivo or a digestivo, but never during a meal.

There you have it. More annoying, restrictive “rules” for proper behavior. My rebellious peers did a fine job of tearing down “The Establishment” back in the '60s. Unfortunately, they hadn't a clue of what to replace it with, so a form of social anarchy prevailed. Manners and customs are sometimes all that remain to remind us of the need to be civilized. So, Mr. “Do-Your-Own-Thing” Commenter, do Italians really know what's best for the whole world? No. No more than Americans do. But they do know what's best for them. And there's always that age old adage; “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Try it. You might like it. And who knows? You might learn something about other people who share your world.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

What's Behind the Food Network Ratings Decline? (Hint: It's NOT Paula Deen)


Taking the “Food” Out of “Food Network”

A recent Bloomberg Businessweek headline screamed “Since Dumping Paula Deen, Food Network Ratings Have Continued To Slump.” The story went on to note that the network's overall prime time ratings have dropped as much as 6 percent with a whopping 13 percent drop in the target 18 to 49 demographic. But does Paula really deserve the blame/credit?

Paula Deen's supporters like to think it's karma or divine retribution or something. Not so much. The Queen of the South's numbers were headed south long before the network gave her the heave ho. She was a classic case of overexposure. “Hey, y'all!” was getting on the nerves of all but her most ardent fans, and, ratings-wise, her slip was staring to show. Her diabetes debacle and her “n-word” meltdown just gave Food Network the excuse for which it was already looking.

No, if you want to know the real reason Food Network's ratings are slumping, look no further than the guide feature on your TV screen. In spite of what the network suits are trying to tell themselves, when people turn on the Food Network, they want to see programming about food. They don't want game shows, they don't want competition shows, they don't want “reality” shows that focus on struggles and problems in the lives of other people. Most folks have enough struggles and problems of their own. And they certainly don't want “hidden camera” shows that purport to depict what “really” happens behind the scenes at America's eating establishments.

Food Network has gone the way of MTV, A&E, Biography, History, TLC, and any number of other cable nets that have turned their backs on the viewers that built them. Does anybody remember that “MTV” stands for “Music Television” and that they used to actually play music videos as their main programming staple? I don't recall when I've seen anything remotely artistic or entertaining on A&E, the network dedicated to “Arts & Entertainment.” Oh, yeah. “Duck Dynasty.” That's art. Could someone please explain to me how “Ghost Bait,” “Flip This House,” and “America's Supernanny” have anything at all to do with biography? Same for the relationship between “Pawn Stars,” “Swamp People” and history. And of course I learn so much from Honey Boo Boo and the other toddlers with their tiaras over on TLC, aka “The Learning Channel.”

Now, to be fair, Food Network does accidentally have a few programs left that have something to do with the preparation of food. On “Chopped” and “Iron Chef America” you can watch people cook. They're not necessarily there to teach you how to cook, but you can still pick up a few tips and tricks by watching them, so that's something. I used to like to watch Robert Irvine cook his way out of “impossible” situations on “Dinner: Impossible.” All Robert does now by revealing the filth and family drama on “Restaurant: Impossible” is make me want to avoid eating in restaurants.

Maybe the Scripps Network execs should consider another “spinoff” network. They can call it “Guido TV” and they can regale viewers with 24/7 programming featuring Guy Fieri. Of course, that's pretty much what they do on Food Network now.

And lest you think I'm just a lone curmudgeon complaining in the wilderness, here are a few of the reader comments that followed the Bloomberg Businessweek piece:

“Food Network's problem is that it has veered away from the basic concept: teaching people how to cook. The majority of shows now are reality shows. Boring.”

“I've been a huge fan of Food Network from the beginning and I get tired of these new "reality" shows after a few episodes.”

“I want to see shows about cooking or how about an independent review show of kitchen appliances and new gadgets. I'm so sick of everything having to be a damned competition! Who cares if some chef can make something edible out of two cans, a boot and a licorice whip in 20 minutes. Maybe he could instead tell me what to do with all the chicken in the freezer. Get back to basics!”

“Any slump in the Food Network is not due to 'no Deen' -- it is due to the poor selection of programming. At any given time, I can tune in and get multiple showing of Diners & Dives; or Top Chef variations with 'Top Cupcake or Top Cake or Top Something with a 'twist'... most of which tell me nothing about the food or cooking but are showcases for 30 minutes sprints to make a 'nice looking plate' of something. I'd rather have someone show me how to prepare a buttersquash or why thyme works on one thing and not another rather than the 'all flash and no useful information' shows.”

“No more cooking on the Food Network it seems. America's Test Kitchen and Cook's County on PBS have FN shows beat by a mile on that score.”

“I miss the days when you tuned into Food Network to watch a cooking show.”

“Since the creation of their sister network The Cooking Channel, Food Network wanted to focus more on various levels of competition, and reality shows. Their bread & butter (no pun intended) was when the stars like Bobby Flay, Alton Brown, Emeril Lagasse, and others were doing cooking and teaching. Who didn't like Emeril Live, Good Eats or Boy Meets Grill? If you want to capture the 18-35 demographic, then go back to the basics and include young, enthusiastic individuals who love to share their knowledge about food and cooking. I for one would love to have a show teaching people how to make delicious meals from different areas of the world.”

“I used to love watching the food network when they had shows about cooking, they've gone away from Alton Brown (Good Eats, science of cooking was awesome!), Mario Batali (History of food was awesome!), Tyler Florence (History again), Emeril & Paula (Most food was really extreme, but good shows none the less). Now everything is a competition trying to do trivial challenges with a bunch of idiots to create drama. I end up watching Cooking channel much more and they're even turning away from cooking and going more toward an obnoxious host to go around and visit different places. I think they've overreached and tried to get into the reality craze and should go back to what brought the audience in in the first place.”

Hello? These are real people talking, not overpaid consultants and analysts. Did you catch the references to the food programming on PBS? America's Test Kitchen, Cook's Country, Lydia Bastianich, Mary Ann Esposito, John Besh, Ming Tsai – there's a lot more food and cooking going on there than there is on the network that's supposedly dedicated to food. And one commenter noted, even Scripps' knock off “Cooking Channel” has become a parody that has more in common with the Travel Channel than it does with cooking.

Are Bob Tuschman, Susie Fogelson, Brooke Johnson and the other occupants of Scripps' executive offices deaf and blind? Or are they just dumb? You know the old axiom that for every person who complains, there are 10 people who don't speak up? Some make the ratio 1:25. Others go as high as 1:100. So, including my own, I've just registered somewhere between 90 and 900 complaints. And that's just the tip of the iceberg from feedback on one article. I've seen hundreds of similar thoughts expressed in dozens of other published sources, which, by rule, would add up to tens of thousands of people who don't like where Food Network is going. That would certainly account for the 6 percent overall drop in ratings. The Deen disaster probably didn't help, but the root of the real cause goes much deeper.

Here's my recipe for a Fallen Ratings Cake:

Ingredients:

1 Ivory Tower full of overpaid, under-qualified idiots
1 cadre of overpaid, under-qualified consultants and analysts
1 dozen meaningless “reality” shows
1 dozen pointless competition shows
1 dozen mindless “food story” shows
a handful of “hidden camera” shows
a generous helping of talentless “talent”

Method:

After straining out anything that resembles food or cooking information, mix all of the above ingredients into a schedule that repeats and repeats and repeats until the viewer's eyes bleed.

Yield: 1 failed network

One last commenter sums it all up: “Why did they fix something that wasn't broken? We liked these shows because they weren’t drama filled nonsense with no substance. We liked being taught how to cook. Period. Can we get back to that or is it a lost cause?”

Anybody at Food Network listening?

Friday, October 4, 2013

Could I Interest You In Some Beaver Butt Ice Cream?

Okay, You've Been Warned

Have you ever found out something you immediately wished you hadn't? Well, I just did. And if that scares you, don't read any further.

Okay, you've been warned.

In my tireless search to keep you informed about what you're eating these days, I made a discovery that.......I found something which........let's seeeeeee........how can I say this?.......how about, “OMG! This is so gross!”

Ever hear of castoreum? Yeah, me neither. At first glance, you tend to think it's related to castor oil or something else made from the castor bean. Oh, but I wish it were so. This is worse.

Castoreum, it turns out, is a sticky yellowish-brown substance produced by the castor sac in adult beavers. Beavers have a pair of castor sacs and they are located right there by the anal glands under the base of the animal's tail. The beavers use castoreum – mixed with urine – to mark their territory. (Here comes the gross part.) People use it as a food additive!

That's right, boys and girls, there are people walking among us who actually go out and lift up beaver tails, milk those anal glands, and extract that fluid. (Excuse me now while I go wash my hands. They suddenly feel yucky just from typing that sentence.) Now, they don't get a lot of the stuff in total. Just under 300 pounds a year. I don't know how much castoreum an average adult beaver produces, and I really don't care. I've read where the harvest is rather meager because neither the milker nor the milkee much enjoys the process. I can certainly see where that would be the case.

And what, exactly, do these beaver-butt-milkers do with that extract? Well, folks, they say if you put your nose right down there in the beaver's business end, it smells like a musky vanilla. So there you have it. Next time you eat something that says “vanilla-flavored”........

Sadly, I'm not kidding. According to the FDA, castoreum produced by beaver butts is a GRAS food additive. GRAS means “generally recognized as safe.” Personally, I think it's a GROSS food additive, and that statement shouldn't require any further clarification.

And it gets better! Because it is an FDA-approved GRAS food additive, manufacturers aren't required to tell you about it when they stick it in your vanilla ice cream or whatever. All they have to do is list it as a “natural flavoring.” And, brother, it don't get any more natural than that, does it?

Oh, by the way, castoreum is also used to enhance the flavor and aroma of cigarettes. If you haven't already decided to quit, think about that one the next time you light up. “Mmmmmm! Smells like beaver butt! Tastes like it, too!” Never mind lighting up a Camel; you just lit up a beaver! GAHHHHHHH!!!!

And people wonder why I'm so adamant about making everything fresh from scratch. I can tell you with great assurance that when I add vanilla to whipped cream or cake frosting or whatever, it comes from a bean and not from the south end of a northbound beaver.

Go on, now. Go get yourself some store-bought vanilla wafers and think about it.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Italian Way of Eating: Everybody Come to the Table


If you've ever watched Lidia Bastianich on either of her PBS programs, Lidia's Italy or Lidia's Italy in America,” you'll be familiar with the Italian phrase with which she closes every episode: “tutti a tavolo a mangiare!” But you may not be familiar with what it means.

The simple English translation is, “everyone to the table to eat.” But it actually means much more.

In the traditional Italian culture, sitting down at the table to eat isn't just a matter of parking your butt in a chair for a few minutes while you wolf down whatever is in front of you so you can get back to your game or your TV show or whatever else you consider to be more important. The true Italian dining experience is radically different. There's almost a sacramental transcendence involved in which the participants in the meal are bound in another state of being to the shared rapprochement coming together over food imparts. “Tutti a tavolo a mangiare!” doesn't just mean “come and eat.” It means “come together.” Don't just bring your appetite to the table; bring your day, your thoughts, your happiness, your sadness. Bring your life to the table and share it.

My sister and I both married people from the American South. The phrasing there is different – “y'all come and eat” – but the sentiment is much the same.

Unfortunately, I have a few in-laws who were apparently not brought up in the same traditions. Or maybe they just lost them somewhere along the way. Either way, there is nothing – I say again, nothing – that frosts my cupcakes faster than announcing that a dinner I have spent a great deal of time preparing is ready, only to have my announcement ignored by people too busy watching TV or carrying on discussions or playing games or whatever. “Yeah, okay. I'll be there in a minute” is the quickest way to see what my temper really looks like. There's an old saying in Italian kitchens; “Pasta waits for no one.” And neither do I. You come to my table ready to eat when I call you, or you can go eat cold leftovers in the garage.

The art of preparing good food – Italian or otherwise – is an act of love. The cook – the good cook, anyway – does more than just throw a few ingredients into a pot. There is an outpouring of creative energy, of time spent planning and preparing. There is a thoughtfulness and care that goes on each and every plate. A well-prepared meal set on a well-prepared table is the ultimate act of love expressed by the cook toward the family and friends – or even complete strangers – for whom the meal is prepared and the table set. It is an expression of an artist's soul. And you're gonna tell me, “just a minute?” You're gonna tell me that my time and effort and love are worth less than your watching some damn TV show or something? Not in my world.

In my world, as in the Italian world in general, the call to the dinner table is inviolate. It's like a call to prayer. It's an invitation to come together as a family and share the dance of life. When the pasta hits the table, the butts hit the chairs and the dance begins. To say something like, “I'll be there in a minute” is the ultimate insult. It is a rude, classless way of saying, “I don't care about the time you put in or the money you spent. I don't care about your effort or your feelings. I don't care about being a part of the whole. I've got more important things to do.” It's not done in an Italian family and it shouldn't be tolerated in any family.

Deep breath. I'm fine, now.

Once the food is served, the magic begins. Separate entities become one as people share thoughts and experiences. Stories of the past are told and plans for the future are laid. Somebody tells a joke. Somebody else recalls a memory. Another person introduces a topic that changes the direction of discussion. Conversation flows freely and comfortably and there is a sense that, for a little while, anyway, the world can wait outside. The needs of both the body and the soul are met at the table.

Another thing that makes the Italian dining experience unique is what happens after the meal is consumed. Nobody is in a hurry to leave. You'll find this phenomenon prevalent at the Italian table whether it is located in a home kitchen or in a restaurant dining room. Mario Batali says it's a “rule” in his house that nobody leaves the table for fifteen minutes after the conclusion of a meal. He probably doesn't need an actual “rule,” because in most Italian homes nobody wants to get up and run after dinner anyway. In Italian culture, this postprandial time is the time for leaning back from the table a little and letting the easy flow continue. This is the time for talking about the meal and complimenting the cook. Don't worry about clearing away the dishes just yet. Sit back and relax awhile longer. There's time for one more good joke, one more engaging story, a few more sips of coffee or wine. The chores and the responsibilities and the world itself can wait for a few minutes more. This time is still our time.

This is actually one of the ways in which I grade a good Italian restaurant. In most eating establishments, profits hinge on turning tables. Get them in, feed them, get them out the door and bring in the next bunch. The more times you can do this in a lunch or dinner service, the more money you make. Now, nobody comes right out and says, “here's your hat, what's your hurry?” but notice that in most places that check hits the table pretty quickly and the dishes are promptly cleared away and the server whom you haven't seen much of suddenly appears and says, “will there be anything else” and you get the feeling that you're done even if you're not.

I have two favorite eateries in my area. One is a ristorante featuring a full menu of anything and everything and the other is a simple neighborhood pizzeria. One is run by an Italian family and the other by an Italian-American family. Both serve wonderfully authentic food, but equally as important, both have wonderfully authentic atmospheres. Okay, so I spend a lot of time and money there and I bring a lot of new people through the doors, so naturally they're going to call me by name and pay a little more attention to me, right? Uh-uh. In both places, you're a “customer” only once. By your second visit, you're family. For real, not just in some fake marketing slogan. And don't feel like you have to rush off when you're through eating. Stick around. Have something more to drink. How's your day? How's the family? Give me a minute, I'll come over and sit with you. That is vero Italiano. And it's something Olive Garden and Carrabba's and the other imitators can't touch.

Tutti a tavolo a mangiare, amare, ridere, e di essere una famiglia!” Everybody come to the table to eat, laugh, love, and be a family. Enjoy the food then sit back and enjoy the company. Savor the experience and appreciate life. That's the Italian way of eating.