Monday, November 27, 2006

The Sick Passenger

For years I've been hearing about the sick passenger. My morning commute has been delayed countless times by this person. Who is he? For some reason I usually conceptualize the anonymous victim as a "he." It’s probably a guy thing. Anyway, who is he, and why doesn't he stay home if he's so sick?

He's never on my train; it's always the one ahead of mine. "We are being held at the station due to a sick passenger on the train in front of us. We hope to be moving shortly. Thank you for your patience."

Of course, nobody is patient. We all want to get to work. Who does this sick passenger think he is, holding us all up? Can't they just kick him off the train and leave him on the platform until medical help arrives?

Do I sound heartless? Perhaps, but for years, during rush hour, I've been hearing the sick passenger story, and frankly it strains credulity. Sometimes I'm convinced that there's no sick passenger at all, that it's just a way to take the blame off the MTA for what is probably a mechanical problem. Call me cynical.

Of course, if there really is a sick passenger each and every time they say there is, I suppose it makes sense it would happen during rush hour. That's the busiest time for the subways, after all. Several million people are traveling through the system during a rather short time span. It's only natural that medical calamity should occur. Death too, I should think.

But I've never witnessed a death on the subway, or even a sick passenger in my car. Now I'm starting to think that's unnatural. You'd think that after riding the subways for something like thirty years, day in and day out, I should have had somebody kick the bucket in front of me. Who knows, maybe they have and I was just too engrossed in my book.

I should probably be more sympathetic when I hear about a sick passenger, but the anonymity stands in the way of sympathy. "Sick passenger" is an abstraction. You can't really sympathize with an abstraction.

Perhaps if they identified the victim, humanized him or her, as it were, we'd all have a bit more compassion.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we are experiencing delays due to the fact that Mr. Arthur Wilson of 245 West 72nd Street is suffering a massive coronary on the train ahead of us, which is currently being held at Grand Street. Mr. Wilson appears to be in critical condition as we await medical assistance. We thank you for your patience, and we hope to be moving shortly."

Who of us would be so callous as to think of our own need to get to work? Surely we'd all bond together and pull for Arthur.

Yeah, right.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Coffee on the Arbat

I’ve only gone on one full-fledged, organized tour. It was a one-week tour to the Soviet Union, three nights each in Moscow and Leningrad, in 1990. The deal was too good to pass up. The tour, offered by Pan Am Holidays, cost a total of $1500; that included round-trip airfare from New York, hotels, transport between the two cities, guides and three (bad) meals a day. Pan Am was on its last legs, and they were giving away such incredible mileage bonuses to drum up business that I actually racked up enough points for 3/4 of a free ticket to India.

This was during the final days of the Gorbachev regime, and his reforms were in full swing. The tour took place around Orthodox Easter, and for the first time in Soviet history services were being televised on Russian television. Also on TV, much to my surprise, was a gender-bending, androgynous male vocalist who wore makeup and sang “Feelings” in English, changing the refrain to “I’m feeling so gay.”

The hotels were pretty awful, and we took most of our meals at them. Breakfast was especially dreadful because we couldn’t get a decent cup of coffee. Dishwater would have been an improvement.

One day, toward the end of the trip, I was strolling down the Arbat, Moscow’s famous pedestrian-only shopping street, with two women from the tour, sisters from Akron or Columbus or Toledo (I’m sure it wasn’t Cleveland or Cincinnati). We had been lamenting the lack of decent coffee. A few minutes later, as if by divine providence, I smelled the most wonderful, intense, fresh-ground coffee aroma. “Do you smell what I smell?” I asked the women, wondering if I was hallucinating.

“Coffee!” they said, in unison.

“We have to find out where it’s coming from,” I said. Like some cartoon character I began to follow the scent, leading with my nose. I was on the right track, because the smell kept getting more intense. Finally we reached Mecca. It was a dark, little coffee bar with an Italian-style espresso machine. I couldn’t believe my luck.

At the time I preferred to drink coffee with milk. I had taken a surprisingly effective two-day Russian for Travelers class at the New School, so I had a few phrases and a little vocabulary under my belt.

“U vas jest coffee s’malako?” I asked. (“Do you have coffee with milk?”)

“Nyet, tolka chorniy,” the counter man replied. (“No, only black.”)

So I ordered a black coffee. What I got was a full cup of intense, delicious espresso, a triple at least. I can’t remember how many rubles or kopeks it cost me, but it was incredibly cheap, something like a quarter.

It may not have been the best coffee I’ve ever had, but it was definitely the best in context.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Santa Fe Meets St. Paul

Back in March, around the time of my birthday, I had lunch with Holly Anderson. As we awaited our Shanghai soup dumplings she handed me a gift-wrapped package. I wasn't expecting a gift, and I told her she shouldn't have. "It's a Minnesota thing," she told me (Holly grew up in St. Paul). I unwrapped the package to discover a pound of wild rice.

I gave up cooking years ago. Now I specialize in eating. So what was I going to do with a pound of wild rice?

It didn't take me too long to figure out what to do. I called a friend of many years, the most serious non-professional chef I know, and told him that I had received a pound of wild rice as a gift and would gladly donate it if he would invite me to dinner and cook up something interesting. I thought that was a pretty generous offer. He replied, "What, you don't think I have wild rice?" He did, however, accept my generous offer.

We couldn't get our schedules to mesh for months, however. In the interim I had gone to New Mexico. While I was in Santa Fe I picked up some dried chiles as a gift for him. I called him from Santa Fe and said I had a new generous offer. Now that I had bought him chiles he was welcome to come up with a menu that tastefully combined wild rice and chiles. He said "Sure," but he didn't sound as enthusiastic in accepting the offer as I was in making it.

We finally got together for the Minnesota-New Mexico menu last week. I asked if I could write about the meal and take some photos. He agreed on condition of anonymity.

I suggested he invite our mutual friend Manda, who happens to be both a serious foodie and good company. So there were six of us at table: my anonymous friend, Mrs. Anonymous, the two Anonymous children, Manda and me.

My friend has the most formidable kitchen of anybody I know in New York, and he's a passionate, versatile cook. I wonder if his two young sons think that everybody eats at home the way they do.

To my friend's credit, he didn't try to force a Southwest-Upper Midwest fusion. Instead he tastefully captured the down-to-earth style of both regions. The centerpiece was a braised pork shoulder, seasoned with, among other things, three types of dried chiles (he added anchos to my guajillos and pasillas), Mexican chocolate, and a Oaxacan mole blend he had brought back from a recent south of the border jaunt. The sauce was later thickened with masa harina. The pork was excellent, moist and delicious, but it was the sauce that made the meal. It was spicy and hearty, yet somehow still delicate. The rice was prepared with monastic simplicity, and the sauce tasted great on it. The mole earthiness and the wild rice earthiness were a surprisingly perfect match.

I think I'll make my friend generous offers more often.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Throw Off the Yolk of Idiocy!

It’s amazing how many idiots are out there. All right, it’s not amazing. Still, I’m always both amused and annoyed to see so many people–all right, idiots–ordering egg whites for breakfast, presumably under the mistaken impression that egg yolks are bad for you, a veritable poison. So what do these idiots do? They order an egg white omelette with cheese and bacon or sausages. I see this all the time–at the corporate cafeteria, at the deli takeout counter, at the Greek diner. Are these people so deluded? Are they that stupid? The only logical answer to one or both of these questions has to be “yes.”

Egg yolks contain dietary cholesterol–this is true. But dietary cholesterol has very little to do with creating cholesterol in the human bloodstream (there are numerous studies and governmental reevaluations), and it’s blood cholesterol levels that put one at risk for heart disease (though this theory has its naysayers*). Saturated fats create and elevate blood cholesterol–saturated fats in foods like cheese and bacon and sausages. These egg-white people–er, idiots–are doing much more potential damage to their health than if they had eaten three whole eggs (preferably fried in olive oil–tastes great) without the cheese or meat.

I always feel like saying something, showing them the error of their ways, but I never do. When all is said and done, I’m really a wimp. So I vent here.

By the way, don’t worry about the dietary cholesterol in shellfish either.

* See Thomas J. Moore's Atlantic Monthly article here but ignore the rest of the linked commercial website.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

My Lunch with Ed Koch

Well, I didn’t actually eat with him, but we were in the same restaurant at the same time. The restaurant was Sun Lok Kee, which happened to be Koch’s favorite Chinatown restaurant. I went there with a group of coworkers, and as we were traveling I mentioned to them that this was the restaurant where Koch had choked several years earlier*. The story was big news. Koch had choked during a meal and required the Heimlich maneuver. The official story from the mayor’s office was that he had choked on something innocuous, sauteed watercress if I remember correctly. But it was later revealed that he had, in fact, choked on a piece of spare rib. Apparently, the spin doctors didn’t want to alienate the Jewish vote by letting on that hizzoner had choked on pork, so they came up with the green vegetable ruse. When one of the waiters was interviewed after the spare rib revelation he said something to the effect of, “The mayor was shoveling food in his mouth with chopsticks and talking at the same time. You shouldn’t do that.”

Koch and I crossed paths in 1988, toward the end of his third and final term. By this time I hated Koch with a passion. He was shrill and arrogant and had gone progressively right wing after a career as a model liberal congressman. By the end of his mayoralty New Yorkers either loved him or hated him. When my coworkers and I entered the restaurant we noticed that Koch was holding court at a big, round table. Just then the devil got into me. In the loudest possible stage whisper I said to one of my colleagues, “So Howard, who do you think will be the next mayor? David Dinkins? Ruth Messinger? Anybody would be an improvement.” The mayor and his cronies looked our way. From then on they were a bit less animated, more self-conscious.

As the mayor and his posse were leaving the restaurant a toady at another table said, “Your honor, what do you recommend.” In his cracked, whiny, nasal voice Koch replied, “The uh steamed oysters in the uh shell are very good.”

I don’t remember what we ate, but it was one of my most memorable lunches. My only regret is that I didn’t get to see Koch choke again.

* July 26, 1981

Pete Cherches, Unduressed

Last week I changed the description that displays under the title of this blog. The original description, "Pete Cherches blogs under duress about food, travel and other stuff," was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact, recounted in my initial post, that I was mercilessly cajoled and browbeaten into blogging. If you're a regular reader of "Word of Mouth" you've no doubt noticed that I’m quite enjoying this enterprise after all. So I figured it was time to drop the duress shtick. I've also changed the "other stuff" part to "NYC stuff," since I seem to be writing a bunch about life in New York, or at least my life in New York. This will remain primarily a food blog, with a smattering of travel, but I might season it a bit more often with New York observations.