The traveling Tuckerberries have been on the road for the past few weeks — speaking about cancer in Texas, reading short stories in Denver and signing at book fairs in Wisconsin and Maryland. The trip leaves me with a few observations about the state of the restaurant meal in this great country of ours.
Vegans, rejoice! Hummus abounds in the land! Hummus is in every strip mall and chain; it’s the new bagel — in that it’s been completely homogenized and de-ethnicized. White people and gentiles from Boise to Tuscaloosa are spreading Arabic paste on Jewish bread for their afternoon snack. Praise the Lord! It works for us because Jill is never without something vegan to tide her over. Even in airports.
Allora. In general, restaurants in the boonies are more savvy and sophisticated than they used to be. Everyone has a celebrity chef – even if his or her celebrity only travels as far as the local zip code; everyone has hopped on the farm-to-table bandwagon; everone now has properly spelled Italian words on the menu, which is refreshing (although “bruschetta” must be the most oft-mispronounced word in America).
Farm-to table is great. Who can argue with farm-to-table? The problem is that between the farm and the table, the food has to go through a cook and if the cook is mediocre, so is the food — no matter how organic the farm; no matter how gracious the table. We used to say that there was one great Chinese cook on the Upper West Side who jumped around nightly to the various restaurants in the neighborhood. If you happened to get lucky and he was cooking where you were eating, you could dine brilliantly. If you happened to catch one of the fifty other Chinese cooks in the area, you were stuck with bland food cooked in old oil. I’m talking about the days when we had good Chinese food on the Upper West Side. Now it’s all in outer boroughs where the rents are cheaper.
Some cooks have the touch and most cooks don’t. It’s like in the acting profession — you can train someone for years at the finest acting school in the world but if he can’t act, he still can’t act. It has to be in the blood; in the soul. Our favorite trattoria in Umbria, Il Palazzaccio, has a dish called Ravioli Letizia – named after one of the granddaughters in the family. The ravioli is stuffed with an eggplant mixture and sauced with tomato and olives. It’s a great dish.
The three sisters who run the place – Danila, Teresa and Nicla – learned to make ravioli from their mother, who learned it from her mother and on down the line. These girls could fashion ravioli with their two-year-old hands before they could say the word ravioli. It’s not in the brain; it’s in the fingers.
I once stalked a cook in Los Angeles. I followed him for years from one restaurant to another because his cooking dazzled me. I couldn’t get enough of this guy’s food. I followed him from a high-toned Italian place in Beverly Hills to a second-floor trattoria in a strip mall in the Palisades all the way to his own eponymous restaurant — Il Ristorante di Giorgio Baldi — where he held sway until his death last year. Giorgio had the touch; that’s all there is to it. I would have followed him anywhere.
Allora. We ate well in Boulder at a place called Frasca, which specializes in the food and wine of the Fruili region of Italy. The chef, Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson — a nice Italian boy — has a superb background – from Paris to The French Laundry. His partner and sommelier, Bobby Stuckey has assembled a wonderful wine cellar. It’s an impressive place. A quibble would be that their salume is imported rather than house-made. I think they should hire a local from Fruili who knows how to cure meats and let him set up shop in the basement. Just my opinion.
Less impressive was Cinghiale in Baltimore’s brand-new Harbor East neighborhood. Cinghiale makes all the right moves — lots of Italian words on the menu, big, impressive wine list — but the execution doesn’t live up to the hype. They lost me with the first course, which were variously-topped bruschette – a lovely way to start a meal. But instead of on toasted bread, the toppings sat on hard, flat toasts – like boxed Melba Toast – remember that? They lost me right there — on the texture. The wine was good, though.
Worst of all was at the bar in a Marriot Suites Motel in Wichita Falls, Texas. Are we surprised? They told me they’d stay open and serve food until 10:00, which was great because I always want to eat after a gig – never before. It was a bar menu – sandwiches and salads, which was fine. So we got back to the motel around 9:00 – after our speech and went down to the bar.
“How’s the burger?” I asked the guy.
He frowned and shook his head, so I took the cue.
“How about the chicken sandwich?”
“Oh, that’s really good,” he said enthusiastically because he was already guilty about trashing the burger. I ordered the chicken sandwich.
While we were waiting for the food, Jill peeked behind the bar into the kitchen.
“Honey,” she said. “I think we have a problem.”
“There’s no kitchen back there.”
“What do you mean?”
“There’s no kitchen in the kitchen.”
I looked through the swinging door and she was right. It was a storage room. With a microwave. We were going to dine on nuked boxes of plastic with old food sealed inside. I ordered another drink immediately.
I tried to get the chicken sandwich down; I really did. But it was vile. It was the worst thing I’ve ever had in my mouth – and that includes some non-food items. It gives me the shivers to think about it.
Jill? She had the hummus.