They worked They were always on time They were never late They never spoke back when they were insulted They worked They never took days off that were not on the calendar They never went on strike without permission They worked ten days a week and were only paid for five They worked They worked They worked
(I’ll put the disclaimer up front: I am not a food industry expert. The expressions contained herein represent my opinion, no more, no less. Any inferences to the contrary will be met with indifference.)
These days the word “Chef” has taken on a hyperinflated connotation. Television leads us to believe that a Chef is someone who is an acclaimed culinary guru, a wizard who has mastered creativity, technique, taste, and presentation. The Chefs are lofty professionals who prepare absolutely every dish from scratch, using their own exclusive recipe that has never, ever been duplicated elsewhere. Chefs are the Iron Chefs, the hosts of their own programs, the authors of expensive cookbooks, the proprietors of five-star restaurants, who merit our awed reverence.
So when we hear of a new restaurant headed by someone whose name is preceded by the esteemed title “Chef,” we know that the fare at this eating establishment must be exemplary, extraordinary, exquisite. And if a lavishly written and photographed feature on the restaurant graces the pages of the Sunday paper’s supplement, if the place has a chic Twitter and Facebook presence, and if multiple Twitter friends and celebrities (ohhh, they must be the illuminati!) post gaudy Instagrams of their cheerful banquets at the locale, then a visit to that restaurant becomes a mandatory bucket list entry.
I decided that we should make a visit to this restaurant on Mother’s Day. I was looking forward to impressing my wife and mother-in-law by my choice of a great dining experience. I called and made a reservation for four, and swelled with pride and anticipation.
On Sunday, the appointed hour arrived and we climbed out of the car onto the street in front of the locale. The first thing that struck me was that its visual appearance of a rustic chinchorro was at stark odds with the hype I had seen. Oh well, I thought, after all, this is Las Lomas, not the Condado. We climbed the entrance and, once inside, were plunged into a steamy mass of sweaty bodies, a few seated at tables but most standing, waiting. Overhead a big screen TV was showing NBA action. Ahead a girl was frantically punching orders into a touch screen as two waiters weaved back and forth through the crowd delivering attractive plates of food to customers seated above on the second floor. Beyond was a dark bar, behind of which reigned The Wizard: The Chef we came to see, directing the whirlwind of activity like an orchestra conductor. As a handful of worker ants cooked entrees, he efficiently composed dishes on large white plates: neatly molded mounds of rice or mofongo, a filet of fish, chicken or churrasco cocked at a studied 37.5 degree angle against the mound, a ladle of sauce applied longitudinally along the fillet, and finally an understated flourish which dispersed a garnish of chopped green herbs over the entire ensemble.
The most astounding thing was that The Wizard…er…the Chef was not safely esconced behind the curtain or a wall, but was there in plain sight, sweaty, beard stubble on his face, extraordinarily human. I felt a little sorry for him, as I did for the Wizard of Oz when he was discovered to be just an ordinary Kansan.
The girl eventually made the fatal mistake of looking away from the screen, and I and several other customers competed for her attention. I informed her that I had a reservation for four, and she dutifully added my name to the same hand-written list where the walk-ins were annotated. I asked her what was our estimated waiting time, and without missing a beat chewing her gum she responded with something unintelligible.
After waiting for about ten minutes and not seeing any names getting crossed off the girl’s list, I suggested to my wife and 89-year-old mother-in-law (who were still standing) that they might be more comfortable waiting in the car; that my son and I would stay here and that I’d call when the table was ready.
The next twenty minutes were an illuminating experience. My son and I came out as the true illuminati…
An employee went out to a freezer and brought back an armload of frozen food: A large bag of frozen amarillos, a bag of Kirkland frozen mahi-mahi, a bag of frozen Kirkland shrimp, a bag of frozen Kirkland boneless chicken breasts. Stacked against the wall behind the chef were two cases of jars of Classico brand Alfredo sauce. My son and I looked at each other incredulously. The ingredients were all from Costco! For a restaurant to use frozen meat is understandable, as long as they don’t try to pass off the mahi-mahi as freshly-caught. But I was disappointed that the amarillos and mofongo was made from frozen, and that the Alfredo sauce was packaged and not the cook’s own recipe! I felt disillusioned that the menu apparently does not contain any truly original creations. (To be fair, their propaganda does not suggest that all of its creations are original and unique.) My son summed it up succinctly: “There’s nothing here that we couldn’t make ourselves at home!”
I ascertained that my name wasn’t moving up the list. I asked the girl if they really do honor reservations. Her answer was the same masticated unintelligible utterance.
I needed to save us from this looming dining disaster. I called Macaroni Grill and asked how long the wait time was. The answer: “Ninguno!”
We left, returned to the car, and drove to Macaroni Grill. My wife and mother-in-law were pleased; they like Macaroni Grill. There were a couple of new entrées on the menu. We had a great meal.
Macaroni Grill??? Sure, their ingredients may be frozen, but their sauces aren’t sold by the case at Costco, and their food is consistently good.
I have no problem with restaurants using pre-packaged ingredients. I also understand that using fresh ingredients rather than frozen can result in higher costs. The challenge for the customer is to ascertain what is the actual practice of a given restaurant. Some restaurants are very open in providing this information. Those who do not provide this information, or who do not permit customers to see the kitchen, just may have something to hide. It’s not always easy differentiating between a Chef, a chef, and a cook.
The following day, as I was coming out of Costco, I followed two uniformed men straining as they pushed their heavy flat trucks of Kirkland frozen food and cases of Classico Alfredo sauce. I asked one of them, “Is this for a restaurant?” He answered disdainly, “Yes.” “May I ask which one?” He answered with the name of another local restaurant supposedly headed by a Chef.
In our family’s anecdotal history, today marks the date that the restaurant P. F. Chang’s initials became forever after immortalized as Precaution: Flying Chile. Let me explain.
It all started on a sunny Sunday afternoon, when we invited Doña Patria to accompany us to eat at P. F. Chang’s new restaurant in Plaza Las Americas. Just managing to eat there was a feat in itself; the event had so many factors conspiring against it:
Being new, the restaurant had long waiting lines in the first several weeks after it opened, and we were planning to go on a Sunday afternoon, itself a busy time for any restaurant.
Luisa dislikes Chinese food in general, especially the greasy stuff served at cheap Chinese restaurants where they use industrial quantities of MSG to cover up the fact that their food doesn’t really taste good anyway. Also, she has had unpleasant reactions to MSG in the past, and has been leery of almost all Chinese restaurants since. The only exception has been Back Street Hong Kong in the El San Juan Hotel, which she loved, but it closed several years ago, much to our dismay.
Doña Patria had seen the façade of P. F. Chang’s from the outside, and the imposing horse statues and dark color scheme gave her a foreboding of a place that she wouldn’t enjoy entering.
But today, despite all odds, as we say in Borinquen, el evento se dió.
We were lucky to find parking right in front, which was good, so that Doña Patria wouldn’t have to walk very far. To our surprise, the wait for a table was less than ten minutes. Doña Patria surveyed the ambiance and thought, "bueno, no está mal." We inquired whether they used MSG in their dishes, and the waitress inquiry to the kitchen and our own Google inquiry came back with the same answer simultaneously: No, they do not use MSG.
Things were definitely looking up.
I myself was eagerly looking forward to this. I love good Chinese food. Heck, I even love lousy Chinese food.
My mind drifted back, back into the distant recesses of my memory, back when I was in graduate school and worked summer jobs for the State of Kansas, which involved traveling the entire state, visiting each and every county and its respective county seat. I remember being amazed how there—in the middle of the homogeneous plains—a few gems of diversity glinted like a galvanized steel-sided grain elevator in the afternoon sun: Almost every small Kansas town had one Chinese restaurant. Run by real Chinese who, although they were second- or third-generation Chinese-American, still spoke Chinese between themselves, and to the rest of they world they drawled the same folksy, affable Kansas drawl that all Kansans do. Where did they all come from? Well, their grandfathers and great-grandfathers had come over from China in the mid and late 1860s as indentured servants to link the East and the West: They built the great transcontinental railroads. Swinging pick and axe, tossing and catching railroad ties, hammering down millions of spikes to hold down the rails, their sweat contributed to the very lifeblood of our adolescent nation and its economy. Many of their offspring stayed put, and found a niche to fill: they established Chinese restaurants.
But I digress… (Dx: major digression)
We ordered tea and drinks and appetizers, and then ordered the main course. (I won’t give you much detail here; this is not a restaurant review but rather a food-related anecdote. Bear with me.)
My main dish came out cold. No surprise. That has happened to us so often in larger restaurants on Sunday afternoons that I suspect that it may be one of the culinary laws of nature: In a busy restaurant on a Sunday afternoon, food will be served cold 90% of the time. In case I am the first to have ever put this down in writing, let it be known henceforth as Ficek’s First Culinary Law. (insert standard copyright disclaimer here) I complained to the waitress and suggested that she have it nuked. She apologized and informed me that no, she would not have it warmed up. Instead, they would cook up a fresh dish right away, and that I could be assured that it would be served hot. And it was. The food was without exception delicious.
As we were getting close to finishing our meal, there came a sudden commotion and the sound of something small falling behind us, in the entrance to the kitchen. Immediately Joey and I got splattered by something on our heads and shoulders. Our table also got splattered by something. It took a full minute to discover exactly what had happened: a waitress leaving the dining room for the kitchen lost control of a tray, and a small container of red chile sauce fell to the floor. Its sudden deceleration and acceleration back away from the floor sent its contents flying a prodigious distance through the air—a full twenty feet across the first row of tables into our table in the second row.
The appearance of red chile sauce on clothing is not a pleasant sight. It gives the unsightly suggestion that the clothing’s owner may not practice the same kind of personal hygiene as the majority of civilized folk. On the front of a shirt, it gives the impression that its wearer is a hearty but sloppy eater, an impression that is entirely forgivable. However, when the red chile splashes are on the back, shoulders and neck, the uninitiated observer has no clue how this may have come about, and can only draw the conclusion that the red-splotched individual (now blushing a similar red color) is someone who befalls strange and unusual manifestations of fate, and is someone to be avoided by as large a distance as possible.
Indeed, the wait staff wished to have as little to do with us as possible, and only after considerable pleading and motioning to the manager, did we succeed in having them deliver to us half a dozen wet wipes which Joey and I used on each other to try to remove the splattered sauce from our clothing and hair. Our attempts to remove the stuff were largely ineffective; several large reddish-brown stains had already penetrated our respective shirts and wouldn’t come out with such meager measures.
Luckily, the aerial range of red chile sauce from a ceramic container dropped onto carpet was limited by the laws of physics and aerodynamics to just twenty feet. Had it reached twenty-three feet, the caustic capsicum concoction would have landed in the faces and eyes of Luisa and her mother, who were seated opposite us, facing directly towards the scene of the accident. Luckily for us, so many laws—physical, culinary and whatnot—were present and were being applied in the circumstance that there wasn’t any room left for Murphy’s Law, which is what saved the two ladies from being blinded by flying chile sauce.
Postscript: The manager knocked off a sizable discount from our check, and gave us a dessert on the house.
Post-postscript: And we forgot the brown bag containing our leftovers on the table in the restaurant.
Cooking and eating is a very complex activity, it consists of much more than going through the mechanical motions of preparing, cooking, and serving—so many psychological, emotional and cultural factors also come into play. Case in point: the asparagus that I roasted for supper.
Asparagus is a phallic food, and cooking and eating it is a sexual experience, even though we may not consciously realize it. (If you have doubts, check out the History section of Wikipedia’s Asparagus entry). Asparagus is a perennial that has a deep root mass, from which tender shoots emerge every spring. And its figurative roots go very deep, all the way back to my childhood on the farm.
We had an asparagus patch back in the corner of the small, unfenced grassy field at was the site of our galvanized steel grain storage structure, and where we parked numerous farm implements. It is interesting to note that the asparagus patch wasn’t anywhere near the vegetable garden, which was plowed every winter. Being a perennial, it had to be in a place that would never be plowed.
In the spring, tender green shoots would emerge from the ground, stretching upward towards the sky, growing in girth as well as in length. They would remain tender until they reached about a foot in length, at which point they would start to get woody, branch out with feathery green leaves, and eventually reach 4 or 5 feet in height. In the summer they would bloom with little quarter-inch white flowers, and by fall these would be replaced with little round red berries which were said to be poisonous to humans, although birds seemed to love them. Once an asparagus stalk started branching out, it was past the edible stage, and was left to flower and seed out. We always let a certain number of stalks go to seed on purpose.
At some point during my early childhood I discovered how delicious a fresh, super tender stalk of asparagus tasted. I would occasionally sneak into the asparagus patch, snap off a few shoots and pop them in my mouth one at a time, savoring their crunch and slightly bitter, slightly sweet taste, not too different from raw peas.
Eating the raw produce from the garden was not prohibited; we purposefully planted an excess of peas every year, with the knowledge that some would make it to the supper table, some would be canned, and some would be stuffed into bursting jeans pockets to be enjoyed while strolling across the fields or while perched high up in a maple tree. The asparagus patch, on the other hand, was limited in size and production capacity, and was therefore little tolerant of “friendly poaching.”
One day at the supper table, where topics of discussion included “the state of the farm,” my mother expressed her concern that the current year’s crop of asparagus seemed to be smaller than usual, and that she had no idea why. There didn’t seem to be any unusual I gestation of insect pests, and neither had the cattle gotten out of the pasture to munch and trample indiscriminately.
I blushed but said nothing. I realized then that the rest of the family would enjoy less asparagus that year because of my selfishness. And my mother probably was on to me. I stopped helping myself to asparagus in the field, and the asparagus crisis was averted.
Today, many decades later, I cannot prepare or eat asparagus without having these memories flooding back into my mind—the exquisite taste of the purloined tender shoot, the scratchiness of the old dry asparagus fronds, the fresh smell of the earth and the grass, the tickling of the breeze wafting across the countryside, and the warm caress of the sun on my shoulders.
Today is National Popcorn Day, they say. Who decides these things anyway? Is there some kind of national screening board that weighs petitions to designate a certain day of the year for a food (It’s also National Hot Chocolate Day), an attitude (yesterday was Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day), or an activity (it’s also Inspire Your Heart with Art Day)? Where do all these come from? Check out http://www.brownielocks.com/, http://healthfinder.gov/nho/, http://foodimentary.com/ for a eclectic sampling.
But I digress. Some people think that I suffer from major digression, but I’m just fine. Really.
We grew popcorn on the farm where I grew up. It started by my dad planting enough for our own use, perhaps four 200-foot rows in the garden, separated from the sweet corn to avoid cross-pollinization. We would gather in the popcorn in late October or early November, when the days were cold and the stalks were dry and brown. I loved shucking off the husks to bare the white, knobby ears, their pearly kernels hard and round and so smooth. I can remember kneeling in the calf barn in front of a galvanized washtub half full of ears of popcorn, content with my task of shelling the corn. Even inside it would be cold, and the task required removing gloves or mittens. I would start by rubbing two ears together to dislodge the kernels, which would rain down into the tub with a joyous sound. Once an area of the ear was cleared, I could rub off the remaining kernels with my thumbs, one or two rows at a time. After an hour of this work, my thumbs would be rubbed raw and red, but the reward would be a couple of quarts of popcorn, ready to pop. Well, almost ready to pop. There would always be some soft hulls from the cobs mixed with the kernels, but these were easily removed by pouring the corn from one bucket to another out in the barnyard, where the wind would carry away the hulls.
One year my dad came home with a red-painted cast iron contraption that looked like a small instrument of torture: It had a toothed wheel driven by a crank, a little hopper, and a clamp to affix it to a firm surface or board. ”What’s that thing, Daddy?” “It’s a popcorn sheller.” You fed an ear of popcorn vertically into the hopper, turned the crank, and the rounded teeth on the wheel dislodged the kernels as the ear spiraled downwards. The kernels fell into a washtub below, and the bare cob emerged at the bottom of the apparatus. This splendid example of farm mechanization technology was probably a hundred years old, but it certainly sped the process of shelling popcorn, and it also saved my thumbs!
We also discovered that the same sheller was quite effective at husking black walnuts, as long as the husks were reasonably dry. But I digress yet again.
For a few years my dad planted several acres of popcorn to sell. There was a company in town that packaged and distributed their own brand of popcorn, and they were happy to buy ours. Of course, this field was harvested with a tractor-drawn corn picker, and the ears were taken to town in a large wagon or truck.
My family was relatively large, besides my mom and dad I had four older sisters. With so much kitchen help, my culinary chores were practically nonexistent; my own chores were cattle- and yard- and tractor- and outside-related. I was, however, often tasked with going to the garden (if it was summer or fall) to get lettuce or onions or green peppers or vine-ripened tomatoes for the family meal. If it was winter, I would go down to the cellar and retrieve some jars of canned green beans or tomatoes or sour kraut, or a basket of potatoes.
But the only cooking task to which I was proudly entrusted was popping popcorn, usually on a Saturday night around the time Gunsmoke came on TV. We used a heavy cast aluminum pot, which I put on the stove, melted a nice dollop of—what else???—bacon fat, and when hot, poured in a measure of popcorn kernels and clapped on the lid. Within fifteen or twenty seconds the first kernels tentatively popped, rising to a crescendo, and then falling off as the last kernels were transformed to delicious, light little clouds. I would then dump out the popcorn into the large round bread pan, sprinkle salt and a little melted butter.
We used two main varieties of popcorn, white and yellow. I always preferred the yellow popcorn, which had a larger kernel, which popped bigger, and had a stronger corn taste.
A favorite winter holiday treat was popcorn balls. My mom would melt butter and corn syrup together, drizzle it over a washtub full of popcorn, and the then we would mix it with wooden spoons, quickly before it hardened. Traditionally we would butter our hands and form balls between baseball and softball size. These would keep for weeks in a cool place such as the basement pantry, but seldom lasted that long. Since you could burn your hands handling the hot mixture, we adopted a variation: After mixing, the mass would be compressed into a mass about 3-1/2 inches thick in a large buttered pan, and when cooled, would be cut into squares with a bread knife.
To this day I can’t eat popcorn without being transported back to my bucolic childhood on the farm. And every time I visit the Midwest, I buy several bags of popcorn kernels to bring home with me.
Si yo fuera estadista, a lo mejor me mudaría al continente para disfrutar de la calidad de vida y tranquilidad que tienen mis paisanos allá. Porque como están las cosas aquí jamás lograremos convencer al Congreso de los EEUU concedernos ese titulo privilegiado. Yo nací allá, y al hacerme puertorriqueño perdí derechos de representación y de votar para mi presidente; me convertí en un “second class citizen.” Entonces, por qué me quedo aquí? Parece que sigo buscando vestigios del Puerto Rico del Encanto que me enamoró hace media vida atrás—el Puerto Rico de gente amable y cortés, gente que al decir “hasta mañana” te responden “si Dios quiere,” gente que te tratan como familia, orgullosos de ser boricuas.
El día que se extinga esa llama es el día en que cambiaré de estadista puertorriqueño a estadista kansano, tejano, ó missouriano. Hasta que se apague esa llama cálida, me quedaré aquí, estadista puertorriqueño frustrado.
Leí con mucho interés el articulo En ‘Primera Hora’ Proyecto social para frenar la violencia que arropa a Puerto Rico anunciando un nuevo programa social para “eradicar las diversas manifestaciones de la violencia que estremecen al país.” Utilizarán eventos en todas partes de la isla, una campaña publicitaria, y un lema que usaríamos ante una amenaza de violencia: “Pero hoy no es el día.” Hoy no es el día de dar a mi esposa ó a los niños. Hoy no es el día para dejarme explotar en “road rage.” Hoy no es el día de participar en los chismes crueles sobre aquel/aquella persona “diferente.” Hagamos excepción a cometer violencia. Hoy. Y mañana—tomaremos la misma decisión. Día tras día.
Muy bien. Cualquier programa social contra la violencia hace mucha falta. Cualquier manera de concientizar a la gente que existen alternativas a cometer violencia es buena. De todos los tipos de violencia que ocurren diariamente en nuestra isla, la mayoría son los que nosotros mismos cometimos, en nuestras familias, en la oficina, en el mall, en la carretera. Cuando nos hablan de la violencia en Puerto Rico, apuesto que esos tipos de violencia “suaves” no nos saltan a la mente, sino los espeluznantes asesinatos que nos manchan nuestros espacios públicos y carreteras como si fueran de una película de acción, y que demuestran una desvaloración de la vida que nos repugna. ¿Cómo pueden ocurrir esas cosas aquí, en La Isla Del Encanto, entre la gente más amable y guapa del planeta? ¿Cómo?
Los psicólogos y sociólogos nos dirían que todos los actos de violencia tienen las mismas raíces en nuestra sociedad. Pero yo no estoy de acuerdo. Yo creo que las raíces de la violencia relacionado a la industria de la droga y las armas son diferentes: están en la corrupción de los que se ciegan a la moralidad ante la tentación del dinero y poder. Una vez que descubren que pueden hacer dinero por medios ilegales sin consecuencias, se atreven más y más. No importa si son los grandes anónimos que compran protección entre oficiales gubermentales, legisladores y policías, ó los pequeños que trabajan el “front line” del punto. No importa si son oficiales que aceptan el soborno, ó el comerciante que ayuda a lavar dinero. Todos han cruzado la línea, y están conscientes de eso, y están cómplices en los sucesos ensangrentados. Y hay que decirlo claro: El que compra y usa la droga también tiene manchadas las manos.Pararnos en una demostración publica diciendo “Pero hoy no es el día” se sentiría arriesgoso. Lo podremos hacer dando mutuo apoyo. Yo estaré allí, y espero verte también. Eso es bueno.
Pero la violencia más horrible no se va a detener así. Hace falta que el usuario se detenga y diga “Pero hoy no es el día.” Hace falta que el oficial del gobierno ó de la legislatura ó de la Policia detenga su corrupción y diga ”Pero hoy no es el día.” Hace falta que el comerciante que ayuda a lavar dinero se detenga la practica y diga “Pero hoy no es el día.” Hace falta que todos los ciudadanos, padres de familia, hijos, hermanos, compañeros que están involucrados en esa industria de la muerte se detengan y digan “Pero no más. Hoy no es el día.”
¿Somos animales ó somos seres humanos? Hoy sí es el día para decidir.