Faggot

Heart and LiverI hate everything about this word. I hate the look of it, I hate the hard sound of it, I hate the power of it.

I hate the hate of it.

There is nothing pleasant about the word “faggot”. Even when taken to mean “a bundle of sticks tied together to be used for kindling”, the relative innocence of this definition has disappeared, thanks to the idea that, in a time when people were burned at the stake for unorthodoxy,  people like me were thought of as so unworthy– so beneath contempt– that they were denied the simply dignity of their own bonfire, but rather, bound together and set afire en masse.

Like a bundle of faggots.*

In cooking, a faggot is something made from the ground up guts and off-cuts of pig or lamb; a lowly dish made from the cast-off  animal flesh. Faggots are made from things that would have otherwise been thrown away or fed to the dogs.

I have spent so many years confused and angered by the word. I have been held back by the power of its shame; irritated that anyone would think I am worthless by virtue of the simple fact that I was born gay. I have avoided writing for weeks because, every time I sat down to think about this word and the recipe associated with it, I would walk away mad and surprisingly frustrated. It was clear to me that, after all these years, the word “faggot” still made me angry.

This first time I can remember hearing the word, it was whispered to me in the library of my elementary school.  I was looking for a book on the lives of U.S. presidents when a boy cornered me in the stacks. He kept repeating the word over and over again as he hit me hard in the stomach and arms and chest.

“Hey, faggot!” He smiled when he said it. “You think you’re a smart little faggot, don’t you?” There was a tone of disgust in his voice that surprised and hurt more than any of the punches he was throwing. “You like that, faggot?” I didn’t, so I did the only thing I could think of to make it stop.

I punched him in the face.

He walked away from the fight with a bloody nose, but I walked away with an understanding that there was someone in the world who wanted to hurt me because of what I was and—more frightening to me at the time—what he correctly perceived me to be: gay.

I felt humiliated, loathsome, and fearful of exposure. There was no one I could have turned to at the time; no friends or parents or priests I would have trusted with such a thing.

There was no escaping from the idea that what I was was wrong. In the rare instances I saw a gay man depicted on television or in film, he was the sassy neighbor, the outrageous drag queen, the psychotic murderer. He was the butt of jokes, the object of scorn, the source of evil. I learned to hate myself from the words and jokes I heard from the media, adults, other children in school. I’m certain that’s where the boy in the library learned to hate me, too. He had to have learned it from somewhere.

He was the first, but he certainly wasn’t the last person to call me a faggot.

Meat GrinderFrom then on, each time I heard the word, I tried to ignore it or pretend it didn’t bother me.  I kept quiet and swallowed the shame and pain of it like little bits of lead that slowly ground up my guts and poisoned my brain into believing that I was as disgusting and ugly and unlovable as the word itself.

And I know I’m not the only one who did that.

I’ve watched others destroy themselves trying to kill the pain of this word– and all the cruelty behind it– with drugs and alcohol, sex, anger, and suicide. I watched the gentlest man I’ve ever known eaten alive by AIDS yet go to his grave denying he was gay because his shame was so deeply rooted he could never let go of it. I don’t know a single person like me who has not been scarred in some way. Some people never get over it.

Fortunately, there are multiple, overlapping paths that lead us away from that pain if we can simply find them. Maturity, coming out, therapy, our friends and family, the gaining of a broader sense of the world, an understanding that the disgust some people feel for us is their shame and not ours —if we let all of these ideas and people into our lives, we get a clearer sense of ourselves and our worth. We discover that we are not unlovable; we are not awful and disgusting because we happen to be gay.

Things can and do get better , even though there are times in our lives when we think they never will. It may take a lot of work to get to that point in our lives when we love ourselves enough– and grow brave enough– to take on that word and punch it so deservedly in the face. But when we do get there, our lives are so worth living.

It takes courage to live our lives openly, unashamedly, and unapologetically.

It takes guts to be a faggot.

Faggots

Faggots

I wanted to make this recipe for months but was uncertain how to go about it. How does one write about an essentially unappealing dish whose name evokes pain and anger in some of us, hate and contempt in others? I filed away the recipe—and the idea—until I felt I could deal with it properly.

Every time I sat down at my computer, I’d see the bookmarks for faggot recipes staring me in the face, taunting me like so many elementary school bullies. I knew I needed to do something about it, so I finally decided to take them on.

I have a habit of taking the bits and pieces of my life, turning them into food, and then eating them. It’s my way of digesting things– therapy on a plate, if you will. Neither this activity nor this particular recipe is for the faint of heart.

It takes guts to make. For some of you, it may take guts to eat as well.

Whatever the case, I would like to thank Tony Cervone for supplying me with the literal guts to make this recipe and all the wonderful people in my life who help give me the guts to be what I am and like it ( Yes, Tony, you’re included in that group, too.)

Ingredients:

1 lamb heart, cut up into thick chunks

½ lamb liver, sliced into large pieces

½ of a yellow onion, sliced into quarters

2 cloves of garlic

5 to 6 sprigs of thyme

Equal parts water and red wine (about a cup each) or enough to just cover the entrails for braising

½ cup  freshly ground beef or lamb fat

½ to ¾ cup of fresh bread crumbs

1 egg

Salt and pepper to taste

2 tablespoons each of olive oil and butter for frying

Preparation:

1.  In a meat grinder, grind your fat into a fine grind. If you do not have a grinder, ask your local butcher to do it for you. When I asked the man behind the counter if he had any fat I could buy, he told me he didn’t sell that sort of thing, but that he’d just thrown a pile of beef fat in the garbage. Since this dish is essentially about making something out of what most people consider unworthy of eating, I asked him for some. He looked confused. He didn’t think it was even worth charging for. Wash thoroughly. Set aside, covered.

2.  Preheat oven to 350F. In a large sauté pan, place onion, garlic, heart, and liver pieces in a single layer. Pour over water and wine mixture over until everything is just barely covered. Add thyme sprigs to the top, then place pan in the oven, where it will stay until the onion and garlic have softened and the heart and liver have been thoroughly cooked through. About 45 minutes. Remove the organs and other solid matter from the liquid to let cool. Reserve liquid. Keep oven on.

3.  Place the organs, onion and garlic into the bowl of a food processor and pulse until the everything has been broken down into small pieces then transfer to a large, clean bowl. Add fat, egg, and bread crumbs. Mix thoroughly using your hands. Add salt and pepper to taste, then mix again. Form the ground-up gut mixture into balls and set out onto a plate.

4.  In another sauté pan, heat olive oil and butter until just sizzling. Add the faggots to the pan and brown them, top and bottom. Add the braising liquid to the pan, then place the pan into the oven and cook for 15 minutes. Remove them from the pan and serve with pride hot with the pan gravy over mashed potatoes. Fearlessly.

* The accuracy of this etymology is highly debatable, but the idea behind it has taken hold. For an interesting take one this, watch this poker scene from the television series Louie. Warning: contains (very) adult language.

Advertisements
Posted in Rants and Helpful Suggestions, Recipe | Tagged , , , , , , | 82 Comments

We Have A Winner!

Finally.

Okay, I simply forgot to post the winner because I’ve never done a giveaway before and I am perfectly imperfect.

Congratulations to Rebecca of Foodie with Family! She is the soon-to-be proud owner of a dead person’s cake comb. Why? Because she intends to brandish it in front of her male offspring in order to look as menacing as possible in a frilly apron.

I just can’t think of a better reason to own one, can you?

Thank you, everyone who entered. I hope the rest of you aren’t too disappointed. I’ll have more giveaways in the future. Ones that will be unlike any others you’ve seen.

And that’s a promise.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Dead Giveaway: Enter to Win!

A little while back, I was ranting about the epidemic of food bloggers giving away free stuff in order to entice people to their websites.

Win a free immersion blender! Win a free sous vide machine! Win a free kidney!

All you have to do is leave a comment on my blog telling me why you love blenders/gummable meat/kidneys and you could win!

To me, it seemed like a dead giveaway that these bloggers had no real substance to them; that they had to resort to bribery to get people to visit their sites.

Comment whoring, I thought. Pure, unadulterated begging. Like a grandmother enticing her children’s children with promises of cookies and savings bonds if they’d just come visit a little more often. Bloggers who might ordinarily receive 10 to 20 comments can find themselves bloated with 600 of them, if the prize is a good one.

And who provides these gifts? Sometimes it’s the makers of said blender/sous vide/human organ products. These bloggers are just grabby, corporate pawns.

I rather enjoyed the view from my high horse.

And then I saw that The Pioneer Woman was giving away an iPad, so I entered her giveaway contest.

Yes, I am a hypocrite. I’d spell it out for you, but it’s already spelled out there, 13 words ago.

Why was it okay for me to enter her contest and look down upon those of others? Well, for one thing, she made her readers work for it by taking a pop quiz, which I loved. For another, she disclosed that the gift was purchased with her own money and offered as a token of thanks to her readers. Oh, and because it was an iPad.

Even though I lost the contest due in part to the fact that I am terrible at mathematics, I enjoyed taking the quiz and browsing a part of her site that I’ve never browsed before. Her giveaway was delivered with good will and good humor. And I like to think it softened me up, just a little.

I looked around at other blogs with giveaways. There were a few that did, in fact, annoy the hell out of me, but I noticed something else– there were people out there whom I respect immensely (and like personally) who were doing it as well.

I climbed of my high horse as quietly and as meekly as I could.

What was my beef with giveaways? Was I mad that no cookware company was sending me merchandise to pawn off to my readers? I think there was some of that in the mix. Was it my issue with shameless self-promotion? There was some of that, too, but my therapist and I have been working on that one for a little while now. I’m sure the reasons are myriad and complicated, but let’s just say that I was feeling more than a little ashamed of myself for being so judgemental.

And I’ve reconsidered.

If you’ve got a product, you might as well promote it. Often times, that product is you– your blog, your image, your brand. If your aim is to attract people to that product, you might as well dangle the shiniest, most valuable carrot in front of people to get them to where they can see it.

So today, I thought I’d finally join that chorus of giver-awayers and do my own, special kind of giveaway…

A Dead Giveaway

Because it’s almost Halloween. Which that means that Day of the Dead isn’t too far off, either. And I just like the sound of it.

The prize? Well, it’s more than likely from a dead person (I have no absolute proof of this. In fact, I can scarcely remember where it came from. Given its approximate age and purpose, I feel I can safely say that it was originally purchase by someone who is either currently dead or is not far of from that Big Sleep some people like to call “Eternal Peace.”

Okay, so do you still want to know what I’m giving away?

It’s a cake comb. Yes, I said “cake” and “comb.” Some people refer to it as a “cake breaker”, but I think that– all gory Halloween talk aside– “cake comb” sound much nicer, don’t you?

Enter to win!

I realize that there are many of you out there who will not put forth the effort to win this beautiful free item. For example, my friend Jennifer has stated that she will never purchase any previously-owned item from a thrift store or online auction site that could have in any way been used to dispose of a dead body. Just how a cake comb could be used in such an activity is uncertain to me, but I’m certain that, if anyone could come up with something, Jennifer could.

However, if you just feel you can’t live without this beautiful, arcane, and slightly menacing-looking, free kitchen tool, here’s how you can win it!

Just tell me why it is you don’t think your life is complete without one of these babies and what, precisely, it is you plan on doing with it. The most fascinating answer gets the prize.*

ENTER TODAY!

*Judged by me, of course, because I’m looking for a healthier forum in which to be judgemental.

Posted in Rants and Helpful Suggestions | Tagged , , , , , | 52 Comments

My Calabria: My Rosetta Stone

My CalabriaAbout a month ago, I received an email from a woman named Roberta Klugman asking me if I remembered the conversation we’d had more than a year ago about an upcoming cookbook called My Calabria when she came to lunch at my restaurant.

Of course I remembered. I even went as far as telling her the precise table and seat number at which she sat when she told me about it. I didn’t go further– to tell a lady what she ate last year seemed more than a little impolite.

When Roberta asked if I would like to celebrate the launch of the book at the home of its author, there was no way on earth I would have said no.

I am almost precisely half-Italian, genetically speaking: Sicilian-stock grandmother, Calabrese-gened grandfather. Both born in America. But it was my grandmother’s family who dominated, which is always the way– recipes and food traditions are typically passed down through the female line. As a result of this feminine dominance, the traditions and food ways of my grandfather’s family were not so much diminished as they were totally ignored. I knew nothing about my Calabrese history. Nothing at all.

If one were to look at a map of Europe, Calabria is often looked upon as the toe of the Italian boot. It can be seen kicking Sicily, which appears as a large rock in Italy’s way, further out into the Mediterranean. In my family, the rock had the last laugh. It more or less broke the Calabrian toe, taking it out of the game.

Thanks to Rosetta Constantino’s My Calabria (written with Janet Fletcher) and the interest it has sparked in me, I feel as though the old toe is finally beginning to heal. The book is a long-overdue source of pride and celebration for those of us whose families emigrated from there. For those who are not of Calabrese heritage, it brings this remote area of Southern Italy closer; it sheds light upon the cuisine of a region that has been largely ignored by the rest of the world. Through its writing, recipes, and gorgeous photography by Sara Remington, the warmth of this previously mysterious land have been translated into words and flavors and images we can all understand.

It’s little wonder I like to refer to this book as Rosetta’s Stone.

“When I was young, I didn’t appreciate how clever Calabrian cooks were  in making so much from so little,” says Constantino in her introduction. “Simplicity is the cuisine’s hallmark, resourcefulness the Calabrian cook’s signature and strength.” When I sat down among the other guests on the terrace of Constantino’s home in the Oakland Hills, simplicity and resourcefulness underscored the menu– all of the vegetables prepared for the meal came directly from her garden: San Marzano tomatoes, eggplant, onions, zucchini, and peppers both sweet and hot. All those staples of Calabrian cuisine surrounded us and were, appropriately enough, ripe for the picking.

As I chatted with other guests, I found myself tucking into one of the many simple dishes that can be found in her book: Peperoni Fritti con Acciughe (Whole Fried Sweet Peppers with Anchovies, p.241). Tasting the ripe, blistered intensity of a sweet pepper paired with the salty umami boost of one, perfect anchovy slipped inside of it took was like taking a summer holiday to a place unknown but strangely familiar. That the plant which gave birth to the pepper I was chewing was brushing up against my leg made the effect all the more satisfying. And pleasurably surreal. I went back for more.

Near the end of the meal, when her guests were warmed by the enviable combination of sun, good food, and wine, all the friendly chatter momentarily stopped when Rosetta descended the stairs with dessert. As I tried to focus on the platter she was carrying, I squinted a moment, quickly assessed its content,  and thought to myself, “Sugared peaches?” I wasn’t so much disappointed as I was confused. To roll perfectly ripe peaches in sugar seemed wholly unnecessary and decidedly un-Calabrese in its lack of simplicity. But what did I know?

As Rosetta and her mother plated up the peaches with bowls of ricotta gelato (page 345) and began passing them around, the chatter among the guests returned. Upon closer inspection, the “peaches” were, in fact, little hemispheres of sponge cake held together by pastry cream, shaped and colored to fool the eye. I looked at mine before I cut into it and thought that, besides looking so peach-like, it reminded me of a human brain. It was that smart. And good. The ingenuity of these Pesche con Crema (page 333) made me think that, if the ‘Ndrangheta ever decided to use their powers for good, the might do well to take a cue from the pastry chefs of Calabria by channeling their energies and trickery into the making of some rather fascinating desserts.

pesche

When the luncheon was over, I felt warm and full and connected to a cuisine that has so long been overshadowed by Sicilian food in my family. Rosetta signed my copy of My Calabria with the words “Keep our Calabrian traditions alive.” I swelled with a pride I’ve never felt before for a place I’ve never been and I cuisine I had never tasted until that day. It was an odd, wonderful feeling.

I have no intention of ever giving up on the Sicilian traditions of my family. They will, however, have to make room for some new (to me) Calabrian ones. I’m planning on obeying the command of Rosetta Constantino by keeping the traditions of her family and mine (however distant) alive. Learning more about the culture and cuisine of my Calabrese side has provided a sort of balance, culturally speaking.

With one historic foot planted in Sicily and another more recently-secured one in Calabria, I like to think that I might, on occasion, bridge the two cultures, as they have been genetically brought together in me. Two similar yet very distinctive cultures; one no more important than the other to me. No Scylla and Charybdis preventing the crossover.

As odd or as hopelessly corny as it may sound, even though I’m only half-Italian, after cuddling up to My Calabria, I feel just a bit more whole.

No, really.

And though I have not yet gotten up the nerve to make those “peaches”, I have made the roasted peppers with anchovies. In fact, I have followed Rosettas advice below and slipped them between two slices of crusty bread.

To put my feelings about it into plain Calabrese: Oy. Veh.

Peperoni Fritti con Acciughe*

It is worth seeking out elongated sweet Italian pepper for this recipe instead of bell peppers. Look for them in farmers’ markets and specialty produce stores beginning in late July. The have thin skins that don’t need peeling and relatively thin walls, so they soften quickly when pan-fried. The anchovy fillet tucked inside softens, too, seasoning the pepper flash with its saltiness. You can cook the peppers several hours before serving and keep them at room temperature.

We eat peperoni fritti as a side dish, but they’re appropriate as part of an antipasto course and delicious tucked between two slices of crusty bread for a sandwich. Don’t leave the stove while the peppers are frying or you could burn them beyond recovery. You really have to baby them.

8 long sweet Italian-style peppers, red, green, or a combination

8 flat anchovy fillets

Extra virgin olive oil

Kosher salt

With a paring knife, cut out the stem and core of each pepper, leaving the seeds and ribs inside. Insert one anchovy fillet into the cavity of each pepper.

Put 1/4 inch (6 millimeters) olive oil in a 12-inch (30-centimeter) skillet. Add the peppers in a single layer. It’s okay if they fit snugly. Turn the heat to moderately high. Cover and cook until the peppers are blistered on all sides, about 10 minutes, turning every 2 to 3 minutes. To minimize splattering, remove the pan from the heat before you uncover it to turn the peppers. Keep a close eye on the peppers to prevent burning.

Transfer the peppers to a serving platter and sprinkle them lightly with salt, keeping in mind that the anchovies are salty. Drizzle with a little olive oil from the pan. Serve at room temperature.

Serves 4

*Reprinted from MY CALABRIA: Rustic Family Cooking from Italy’s Undiscovered South by Rosetta Costantino with Janet Fletcher (c) 2010 by Rosetta Costantino and Janet Fletcher. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Posted in Books I Love and Loathe., Recipe | Tagged , , , , | 16 Comments

BlogHer Food: Thank You.

I was a kinked up coil of nervous energy when I woke up Friday morning. In an hour, I knew I was going to have to walk into a room filled with food bloggers I’ve read and read about for some time. People I respected, but did not know. People I assumed all knew each other. People who do what I do, but do it better.

I felt like a junior year transfer student on his first day at an All-Honors high school where everyone was smart and funny and popular. Would these people let me sit with them at their lunch table?

Oh, dear Lord in heaven. Lunch.

I couldn’t bear to think about the meal because I knew that, afterwards, I was expected to get up on a stage and be an “expert” on writing. On storytelling. On using one’s own voice. In front of smart people. As I walked up the stairs to the third floor conference rooms, I had half a mind to turn right back around, go home, and crawl back into my bed. I wanted to hide.

Fortunately, I never got the chance to do that.

I wasn’t five steps into the room when a man I’ve long respected but never met before (only Tweeted with) yelled, “Michael!” in his booming voice, gave me a big bear hug, and pulled me into the room. I was taken by surprise, but all of my anxieties were squeezed away when he put his arms around me.

That one, kind action from him made me believe I was welcome in that room. That brief moment allowed me to feel as though I belonged there.

It was the first of many gestures that blew my mind and made my heart want to explode. The warmth, heart, good humor, and generosity I felt from so many people over the last weekend has overwhelmed me. It’s two days later and I am still high from it.

I have decided to follow at least the first part of Mr. Hemingway’s advice again and write drunk; edit sober so, while I am still intoxicated by the experience, I want to write it all down and thank those of you who got me high in the first place. No names. No particular order. If you happen to read this, you will hopefully know who you are.

To the man who gave me that bear hug: Thank you. You already know what that meant to me.

To the show-tune loving lady who soon after told me I had a beautiful voice: Thank you. You helped give me the courage to use it.

To the mother of the wide-eyed child who, in the middle of our Storytelling Panel, thanked us for talking about telling stories: Thank you. I was unsure I was getting my message across coherently in that darkened, post-lunch room. You turned the lights on for me. You made me feel like I was making my message clear.

To the cute young man I liked to think of as my Prom Date to the conference: Thanks for keeping my spirits high. That meant a lot.

To the Merman-loving redhead who dares to name food items “thingies”: Thank you for charming the socks off of me and showing me that people can find success and still maintain  a sense of humility and quirky humor.

To the sexy blond woman who sat with me over dinner in that over-priced Asian restaurant: Thank you for sharing your stories of waiting tables with me. It made me feel as though I’m not alone in my struggle. You feel like my soul sistah.

To the lady who sat next to me on the stage: Thank you. You were my very first blog crush. You did not disappoint.

To the Canadian lady who sat next to the lady who sat next to me on the stage: Thank you. Our prior discussions and questions really helped me to organize my thoughts. You helped me to think and think clearly. Besides, you know I have a thing for Canadians.

To the spiky-haired lady who takes pictures: Thank you for the late-night talk and for letting me eat all that garlic with you. Your power to inspire people is crazy, crazy strong. The force is with you. You might want to think about starting your own cult if the photography thing doesn’t work out.

To the lady with the flower in her hair who gave me a ride home: Thank you for asking me “What’s next?” Thank you for your willingness to listen. And to talk.

To my adorable part-Calabrese paisan: Thank you for being the glue that holds many of us together. I know I’ve already told you that, so thank you, too, for always being around to hear me complain, give me advice, and set me straight (a-hem).

To the woman who stood at the back of the conference room with me, shared some spiked coffee, and told me that a tampon dipped in boiling water is ideal for creating steam in food styling situations: Thank you for always making me feel like I’m smart enough to be in the room with you.

To the unbearably cute girl I met in the elevator, whose mother I hoped wasn’t a famous T&A television star: Thank you. Your energy and excitement were so palpable that I think I fed off of them in that tiny little space. Like a vampire or something. You, Bear Hug Guy, and I need to continue our conversation. I think something amazing could come from it.

To the exquisitely armed woman I keep running into over and over again through the years: Thank you for showing us that funny, smart, geeky, kind, and sexy are not mutually exclusive qualities.

To the straight guy with the guns: Thank you for underscoring for me the joys of following one’s own path. And, of course, for the trivia lessons. I’ve never met anyone quite like you. We really need to work on that cheese idea.

To the beautiful, quiet woman who sat at the back of the room as I nattered on about storytelling: Thanks for letting me know that I’m not the only one who leaves off writing until the last minute; that it’s good to keep things spontaneous and raw. And thank you for inspiring me to get out my brother’s old camera and shoot real film– it makes me feel closer to someone I miss every day of my life.

There are so many other people that I want to thank, and I will. Right now, however, I have to make my re-entry into the real world and go to work.

Thank you, everyone, for making the BlogHer Food 2010 Conference a wonderful experience. I hope I never entirely sober up from it.

Posted in Places | Tagged , , | 44 Comments

Eat Me

Let’s pretend for a moment you were asked to translate yourself into a plate of food.

If you were to turn the phrase “You are what you eat” on its ear and attempt to eat what you are, what exactly would you be eating? What would it look like if you laid bare all those little bits of yourself– your own, personal ingredients, I suppose– and put them on a plate for all the world to see?

And what would you taste like? Would everyone want a piece of you? Would you wind up as bland and dry as  Zweiback toast? Or would you be so off-putting that you’d just sit there, scorned, like a half-melted aspic on a  cruise ship buffet table? It’s a little unnerving to think about.

Unnerving, but interesting.

At least, to me it is.

Discovering My Inner Dish

Wandering into work one evening not very long ago, I grabbed a little food and sat down to eat in the back of the restaurant at the long, oaken table where my co-workers were doing likewise.

My friend Amelia, who was sitting across from me and quietly folding napkins, looked up said in a sing-songy voice:

“Uh-oh, Procopi-o’s.”

And then she went back to folding. It was just her silly way of saying hello.

“Uh-oh, Procopi-o’s?” I repeated.

“Sure, just like Spaghetti-o’s, but more Procopio-ier.” In all my years on earth, no one had ever set my last name to a commercial jingle for canned pasta, nor had anyone ever used the adjective “Procopio-ier”.

Amelia alternately suggested I might make a lovely breakfast cereal of some sort, but I was more enamored with the idea of becoming pasta. Perhaps if she had pitched the breakfast food idea at one of our pre-lunch service meals, I would have been more inclined to see myself as coated with sugar and drowned in milk.

All evening, I kept hearing her voice in my head singing that little, highly-personalized jingle, which made the instance when she came up behind me to sing it in my ear all the more wonderfully disturbing. I may have been chatting with my guests about goat stew and fried cheese, but all I could think about were Procopi-o’s.

I needed to get them out of my system. And, according to my own, special brand of logic, getting them out of my system could only be done by getting them into my system. I decided to make myself some Procopi-o’s, whatever those might be. I would take little bits of myself– metaphorically speaking– and put them into a recipe. I was going to find out what I was made of, throw it all together, and see how I turned out.

In essence, I was going to eat myself.

I tossed the idea around for days. Pasta? Of course. And said pasta would have to be circular because, after all, I was making Procopi-o‘s. But what to serve them with? How should they be dressed?

I wanted something cheesy and saucy and spicy, but with a little bit of ham thrown into the mix.  I thought about adding a bit of bitterness to the dish but, upon second thought, I decided to remain intentionally self-delusional and opted instead for a little bit of flat-leafed parley– purely decorative, which is how I like to see myself on my better days.

But there was something missing. “Oh, it needs a little booze,” I thought. Not to function, mind you, but merely to loosen things up.

I would look up recipes, because I allow myself to be influenced by others. I would sift through them and filter them to suit my tastes. And, being the genetic mutt that I am, I would hybridize: Pasta alla Vodka meets Pasta all’ Amatriciana. Boozy, hammy, and biting.

How appropriate. How perfect.

Or so I had hoped.

There was one small problem with this idea– I have a low opinion of vodka. To me vodka: a) It doesn’t taste like anything and b) serves no purpose except to make fruit juice boozier (see: girl drink drunks). I’m a gin man, so gin it would have to be. But would gin actually work in a pasta sauce?

Why not? It would certainly add a little note of interest that vodka could never provide. And, before you ask: yes, I do like to think of myself as interesting. Doesn’t everyone? I think it’s part of how we all get through the day.

Putting Myself Through The Wringer

handlerolling the pasta

I’d never given much thought to pasta-making, but when I pulled out my grandmother’s old machine, I realized three important things:

1. I haven’t made pasta since the late 20th Century

2. I lost the little clamp that holds the pasta maker in place at some point during the 21st Century.

3. I had absolutely no idea how I was going to form my pasta into cute little “o” shapes.

And then I thought to myself, “This is exactly why you should make this– you never really sure of what you’re doing anyway, so just do what you always do and make things up as you go along.”

I hunted around the kitchen looking for a way to make “o” shapes. At the back of a little drawer where all the small, unused cooking implements go to die, I found my grandmother’s cannoli forms. Those would do very nicely, I thought.

The making of the dough was simple enough: two kinds of flour, some eggs, a little olive oil, and a splash of water. Make a little well, mix it all up, and knead, knead, knead. Rather than knead by hand, I remained true to my own laziness and let my stand mixer do all the work. I thought about how that little machine was working so hard at developing the dough’s gluten. And then I thought about how it has been more than a year since I’ve been to the gym. I took another drag off my cigarette and continued to watch.

I turned the dough out onto a floured cutting board and shaped it into a disc and let it sit, covered, for thirty minutes to let it rest. I followed its lead by crawling back into bed for the same amount of time with a collection of James Thurber’s short stories.

You know, for inspiration.

After the dough and I were sufficiently rested, we met up again in the kitchen. I fed it bit by bit into the pasta maker, holding onto the machine with my free hand so that it didn’t fall over onto the floor and onto my feet, all the while imagining myself being put through that same wringer. “Well this feels familiar,” I said to the dough as I thought of the ghosts of boyfriends past.

I managed to achieve the shape I wanted for my pasta by rolling it around the cannoli forms, but worried how the pieces would perform when thrown into hot water. Would they hold up or would they fall apart? It amused me to think that nearly every step of this whole food preparation process had some sort of glaring corollary to my own life.

There was nothing to do but plunge the Procopi-o’s  into hot water.  It was mildly discomforting to stand over a pot of boiling pasta and stare into it as though one’s life depended on it. But, there they were– those little bits of me slowly floating to the top of the foaming water, surviving. And mostly intact. I scooped those babies out of the pot with a little bit of their bath water and let them cool. Then I tasted one of them.

I was disappointed.

It’s hard to imagine what it was I expected from a small circle of flour and egg. It tasted like pasta. Of course, it was pasta– a little doughy, but pasta, nonetheless. I was disappointed not because it was bad, but because it wasn’t perfect.  I caught myself staring at a bowl of pasta– one that was supposed to represent me– with scorn.

“Well, there you have it,” I thought, “So self-critical that I’m shaming myself over a fucking bowl of pasta.” Was I really so upset that it wasn’t perfect? Temporarily, yes. I stepped back for a moment and thought how ridiculous I was being.

And then I thought back to what a friend of mine said to me the other day. He left a comment on one of my previous blog posts stating that he was a little relieved I couldn’t come to a party was throwing, because I would have “spotted the flaws” in his desserts. He was nervous about “having a gaggle of food bloggers” standing around, judging them. In response, I wrote the following:

Dear Honky,

But here’s the thing… I adore flaws. Flaws are like fingerprints; they express an unavoidable individuality. To me, a home made dessert with a little flaw thrown in is infinitely preferable to the factory-made, calibrated sameness of anything that is store bought.

Long may the flawed flag wave.

Well, helloooo, hypocrite! Suddenly, I thought of a little song and hummed it to myself, though not as tearfully as the little girl below:

I tend to give others (or so I like to think) very good advice, but I very seldom follow it myself. I’m flawed. You’re flawed. Everything that’s worthwhile is flawed. If anyone on this earth were perfect, he or she should probably be whisked up into heaven like Jesus’s mother because there would be nothing left to do or learn here.

Flaws are what make people interesting, myself included. If I were perfect all the time a) everyone would hate me and b) I would be a complete bore. And since I consider being a bore a major character defect, we’d just be getting back around to being imperfect, now wouldn’t we?

Flaws are what make us individuals.

With that in mind, I tossed my little Procopi-o’s into the gin sauce, put great spoonfuls of it into a bowl, topped it with its awaiting garnishes, and dug in. Not perfect, but warm and cheesy, a little smoky and a little spicy. And it did not smell of booze. It was oddly satisfying.

Just like me.

Pasta alla Gin

I hope you’ll forgive me for not writing down the recipe for Procopi-o’s. Like myself, the recipe needs a bit of work. Besides, very few of you reading this are real life Procopios anyway, and those of you who are more than likely won’t be making “o”-shaped pasta any time soon. I suggest you find your own shapes and dishes- ones that better fit your own preciously flawed self.

The sauce, however, is worth making. Seriously. With gin. If you’ve got pancetta or guanciale lying about, you could certainly substitute that for the bacon but, other than one or two people I know, who has guanciale sitting in their refrigerator? I’ve used ingredients that are more or less easy to find because, well, I’m more or less easy to find.

Serves two to four of you. Or two to four of me. Given the subject matter of this post, it’s nearly impossible for me to tell.

Ingredients:

1 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes (San Marzano, if they’re available to you)

1 pound of any tube-shaped pasta you like (penne, rigatoni, mostaccioli, etc.)

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons butter, salted or unsalted (it really doesn’t matter)

1 cup finely diced yellow onion

4 cloves finely minced garlic (garlic is minced, onions are diced– please discuss)

As much crushed red pepper flakes as you dare.

1 teaspoon of salt (or more, if you feel it needs it)

1/4 cup gin, stirred, not shaken. And very dry, please.

1/2 cup cream

Freshly-ground pepper, as much as you please

About 1 cup of freshly-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Finely-chopped Italian parsley

4 slices of bacon, cooked, cooled, and chopped into adorable little chunks

Preparation:

1. Bring six quarts of salted water to a boil, which means turning the burner all the way up to “11”. Dump pasta into the boiling water and stir. If you are using dried pasta, cook for 8 to 10 minutes (until al dente), if using fresh pasta, just cook it until it’s done. You’re a big boy/girl; go with your instincts. Save about 1/2 cup of the water, drain pasta, place in a bowl, and mix with the water (to prevent the pasta from drying out).

2. In a food processor (or food mill), purée the tomatoes. Stare at them for a moment or to for no other reason but that you think they’re pretty and wonder that, if you stick your finger in for a taste and accidentally cut yourself on the blade, would any one notice? Would it change color? Would bleeding into the sauce take this whole “cooking myself” business a step too far? Add salt.

3. In a large skillet, heat olive oil and butter until hot and bubbly, but not so far as to brown it. Add onions and cook over medium heat for about two minutes. Add garlic and crushed pepper flakes. Cook for another minute.

4. Add your (blood-free) purée of tomatoes to the pan and stir. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Add gin: 1/4 cup for the sauce, 1/2 cup for the cook. Continue to simmer for another five minutes or so.

adding the cream

5. Turn off the heat and add the cream, gently incorporating it into the sauce. Add ground pepper and about 1/2 cup of grated cheese and stir in. Taste again, adding more salt and pepper flakes, if you feel the urge.

6. Add pasta to the sauce, gently tossing so that each piece is coated thoroughly.

7. Transfer the pasta into either a) individual serving bowls or b) one, enourmous communal trough. Garnish with bacon (or pork product of choice), parsley, and more grated cheese.

8. If you are eating this dish alone, pour yourself a large glass of wine (or a martini, because it pairs nicely with this particular dish), pick up a fork, and slowly cannibalize yourself. If you are serving this pasta to guests, sit back and watch them dig in, all the while saying, in a quiet little voice, “Eat me.”

And say it like you mean it.

Posted in Recipe | Tagged , , , , | 43 Comments

Saganaki, Unflamed

SaganakiOne evening, as I passed the kitchen line of the Greek restaurant where I work, my chef asked me to run some food.

“Michael, this is for Bar seats 1 and 2,” was all he had to say.

I grabbed the plate and walked it down the hallway, through a brace of martini-drinking businessmen, around the  cougars who plant themselves in the middle of everything and sit all night, and over to two middle-aged men who sat at the far end of the bar. One of them caught my eye as I made my way to them. He quickly made space between them where I could place their food. He looked a little confused as I approached.

And then the look turned to one of disappointed as I put the plate down and said, “Your saganaki, gentlemen.” I squeezed half of a lemon over the bubbling cheese for them; it made a delightful hissing sound.

The tone of his voice matched that look on his face when he turned around to ask me, “Aren’t you going to serve it flaming?

The bartender gave me a look and a smirk which I deciphered instantly. To me, saganaki is simply a plate of delightful, artery-clogging hot cheese. To the bartender, it seemed like an opportunity for me to dabble in a bit of broad comedy. I’d didn’t dawn on me– as gay as I am and as long as I’ve been serving this dish to people– that I should interpret “Aren’t you going to serve it flaming?” as an open invitation to deliver appetizers with dramatic hand gestures and an Ethel Merman vibrato.

“Oh, we don’t do that here. I mean, just imagine the insurance premiums. Besides, Greeks don’t like to waste good liquor,” was all I felt like saying. I thought perhaps I should have been more specific with that first sentence. Instead of “Oh, we don’t do that here,” I should have said, “Oh, we don’t set our cheese on fire here,” but the opportunity was lost.

And then, as I considered that look the bartender gave (and I love this particular bartender– nothing is sacred with him), I thought to myself, “Well fuck that. I don’t do flaming anything for anybody. Not on command, at any rate.”

To Flame or Not To Flame?

When most Americans I encounter who actually know what saganaki is hear the word, they think, “flaming cheese.” It leads me to think that most of these people hail from Chicago, since that is where this whole over-the-top business of setting it on fire began. When one stops to think about it long enough (about 10 seconds will do), if there is any place in the world where flaming Greek cheese should come from, it’s Chicago because:

a.) There is a disproportionate amount of Greek people living in that city.

b.) Chicago is world famous for its fires.

c.) It’s unbelievably cold there in the winter, which leads me to believe that its citizens would be inclined to light their deep dish pizza on fire if it they thought it might help to keep them warm.

It is, however, not “authentically” Greek.

If one happens to be in Greece and one asks for saganaki at a taverna, the waiter may have to ask you to be more specific, since the term “saganaki” refers to a certain type of two-handled frying pan, the sagani. It is also a generic term for for a number of dishes made with cheese, especially prawns saganaki and mussels saganaki.

It would seem that a fondness for serving cheese with seafood is one of the few things the Romans did not steal from the Greeks.

If you then clarify that you would like the simple fried cheese dish, I suggest you do not ask for them to set it on fire unless you want the waiter to say, as one did to me the only time I ever dared to ask, “You must be an American.”

If you are from Chicago and insist that the cheese be presented afire, you will only be derided. The only thing your waiter is going to light on fire is one of the several filterless cigarettes he will be smoking during your visit.

What I suggest you do in this case is order your cheese un-flamed and ask for a round of ouzos. When your waiter has disappeared to smoke his fourth or fifth cigarette, douse your hot cheese with one of the shots of ouzo and do your own lighting up.

Just make sure you order a water back with your booze to drown the fire should it flare up and engulf your face in anise-scented fire because, if you have to spend the rest of your holiday without the benefit of your God-given eyebrows, everyone will mistake you for an off-duty drag queen, your friends will have a field day with their endless jokes about flaming, and you’ll never want to look at another piece of Greek cheese for as long as you live.

I’m not saying that that happened to me, I’m just saying.

Ouzo

Saganaki

My cheese of choice is kefalotyri, a salty, tangy, sheep’s milk cheese, which is what we use at our restaurant, which also means that I am in the fortunate position of not having to schlep down to the Greek import store in search of it. Besides the flavor and texture of kefalotyri, my favorite thing about it is that the name’s literal translation is “head cheese.” If anyone out there knows how this came to pass, please enlighten me, because I’d love to know.

If you cannot find kefalotyri, there are other cheeses traditionally used like kasseri, or (in Cyprus) haloumi, which may be easier to find. If all else fails, go ahead and use Pecorino Romano, which has a similar flavor and texture to that of kefalotyri cheese, but with a much less graphic-sounding name.

This is perhaps the most straightforward way to prepare saganaki– no muss, no dredging in flour, and a minimum of fuss.

Each slice serves 1 to 2 people who are decidedly not from Chicago.

Ingredients:

1 slice of kefalotyri (or other as described above) cheese, cut to a 1/2 inch thickness and about 4 inches in width.

About 1 tablespoon of olive oil

1/2 of a lemon (for squeezing)

A pinch of dried oregano (for sprinkling)

Preparation:

1. In a small, heavy-bottomed frying pan, heat olive oil over a medium-high flame until hot but before it starts smoking. You may very well want to have a nice sit-down chat with your olive oil prior to cooking about the health risks involved. Place cheese into hot pan and cook until it’s bottom is brown and bubbly. Flip cheese with a long, offset spatula and pray that it doesn’t fall to pieces. If this happens, keep going, you can reshape it again with the spatula as the second side is cooking. When the second side is equally bubbling and browned, it is ready to serve.

2. Place your pan on a trivet or towel-lined plate, squeeze lemon juice over it, sprinkle it with dried oregano, and serve with hunks of crusty bread.

Eat this immediately. As hot as you can comfortable stand. When the cheese cools, it turns into what I unaffectionately call “cheese gum.” I warn people of this fact when they sit gabbing with each other in the restaurant and let the cheese just sit there. I heap the responsibility upon them.

Serve with ouzo. To drink. If you poured it over your cheese, it would make me think you weren’t paying attention to anything I just wrote.

And that would make me very, very sad.

Posted in Recipe | Tagged , , , , , , , | 12 Comments