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Taste-ful memories and modern updates

by Jan Wheatcroft

Okay, so here I am writing another piece about food. I guess I do spend a large amount of time and energy thinking about and eating food. I watch a great variety of food programs on television, read recipes as if they were short stories and can get lost in any kind of market as a browser as well as a buyer. And I come about this quite naturally as my mother was a “foodie,” not only as the shopper and preparer of our meals but as one who enjoyed the entire process with her whole being.

My mother read cookbooks like novels and loved to try out dishes that no one else was eating among my friends. She enjoyed giving dinner parties and serving rather exotic dishes that were not commonplace in North Hollywood in the fifties. We ate braised rabbit, snails (escargot in the French manner, dripping in garlic butter), Indian curries with a host of side dishes as well as a huge, whole pig that was roasted for Christmas dinner when I was 10 years old. The reading of cookbooks and the planning of meals was something that gave her great pleasure. She disappeared into her own world, licking her lips in anticipation, often sitting up in bed with a list at her side. We were a meat-eating family, with beef being the meat of preference. I remember big 7-bone roasts, all crispy and salty on the outside and rare and juicy inside. We had stews encased in rich gravies, beef encrusted in a savory dough, roulades with lovely fillings, lamb, pork roasts and a variety of chops, from the hearty pork chop with homemade apple sauce to the delicate little lamb chops with mint jelly. Rice dishes, potatoes and vegetables took second place to the main, meaty meal. 

My favorite meal of all time was made by Sirreaner Malone, the woman who cared for me growing up and kept our lives in order for many years. She made the best fried chicken I have ever eaten (and it just gets better with every passing year of my memory). The meat was juicy and the outside so crisp and flavorful that I would happily stuff myself and then chew and crunch the bones until they were small shards left on the plate. The fried chicken was always served with buttery mashed potatoes and peas.

The dessert was Sirreaner’s apple pie, the pie that I hold as an unmatchable measure to every apple pie I now might eat. The crust was light and buttery (or maybe it was lardy) and the inside sweet and soft, and it was always served with vanilla ice cream. No one has ever matched that perfect meal. I always ordered it for my birthday dinner.

For her birthday meal, my sister liked to go to the Imperial Gardens, a Japanese restaurant at the top of the Sunset Strip. It was exotic and different. We sat on cushions on the floor in a private room and ordered beef Sukiyaki cooked at our table by a woman in a kimono and ate our food with chopsticks. Remember, this was over 50 years ago. I didn’t know other families who did this. It was a special treat. 

Today we have farmers’ markets bringing us fresh produce, chefs who pride themselves in creating dishes from locally sourced meats, cheeses, oils and vegetables and mixing cuisines and techniques. I prefer the rustic, simple fare. Even when I travel, I prefer to spend my money and my mealtime in the local bistros and trattorias trying local dishes. 

When I go to London, I make a pilgrimage to a sweet South Indian Vegetarian restaurant in Hammersmith called Sagar. Sometimes the meals are better than others my friend Frances says but the pompadums are wonderful, the thalis are better than anything I’ve had in the LA area and I rarely deviate and try something different.

In Arcadia, there are some very good dumpling restaurants where one can watch the men making the dumplings as fast as they can, as the places are always crowded. However, my favorite dish there is the green beans in garlic, which is just delicious. I once spent 2 weeks in Sri Lanka at an organic yoga retreat center doing a writing course. There was a special outdoor open room painted orange and blue with benches all around the sides. We ate 2 fabulous vegetarian meals a day placed on the center floor on huge platters. There were mounds of local eggplants, squash, beans, rice, potatoes, exotic greens and more all highly seasoned with local herbs and spices and homemade breads for dipping and scooping up the food. It stimulated all the senses with great smells, beautiful, colorful foods, wonderful textures and delicious tastes. That was the only place I ever saw such an array of tempting dishes that more than lived up to their smells and visual seductiveness.

Frances and I spent some time driving along the canals of France stopping along the way to walk, browse, explore and eat. I remember having long, wonderful meals at simple inns overlooking the canal. One meal went on and on and we almost missed the dessert as we rose to leave the table after a cheese plate and were told to sit down by fellow diners who had been served their dessert before us. 

In Madurai, South India we found a worker’s cafe—all vegetarian—that served the best thalis I have ever eaten. Thalis are served on a large plate or big banana leaf and consist of a center of rice and small pots of wet and dry curries, sauces and lentils or dhal, raita or yogurt sauce, and perhaps a sweet and includes a bread as well. One mixes the sauces and curries with the rice and eats with the right hand or a spoon if there is one. We went back to this small local restaurant every day that we stayed in Madurai and loved to see the happy, smiling faces of the young serving boys who heaped our plates full of the very best tasting Indian food. 

In Hoi An, Vietnam, Frances and I wandered along the quaint but touristy streets and finally settled on a restaurant called Morning Glory, which was also a cooking school. We really feasted there, ordering fabulous dishes and sharing them all. We ate a shrimp stuffed pancake, a dish of sautéed pumpkin with crushed peanuts, garlic and basil, a fish baked in a caramel sauce, sliced duck breast with mango and passion fruit sauce and coconut rice and a fresh morning glory salad. It was a feast and we left nothing. After that meal, nothing we ate was quite as good except for the Mekong Delta Sour Fish Soup cooked at our table at a small working man’s cafe.  The soup pot seemed to contain a fleshy white fish, tomato, greens, pineapple, lemon juice, sprouts basil green onion, celery and some fish sauce (nuc mam).

I find that as I age my taste buds are not as sensitive as they once were and I need food to be more highly flavored. Long ago I gave up eating red meats and pork but once a year I get a yen for a good piece of beef and no one can grill a fillet like my friend, Kim Ridder. 

I am sad to say that I have already eaten this year’s plate of her perfectly grilled beef and twice baked potato and now have to wait another year. I have inherited my shape from my father—round, heavy—and from my mother a love of eating, experimenting and discovering the richness and variety in all dishes the world over. This has produced a traveler who enjoys new places but also savors world travel through food in all its glorious aspects.

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