Does anyone remember Father Divine (1876-1965)? He was a small (five feet two) African-American man who claimed he was God. He attracted thousands of followers even though he preached celibacy and denounced alcohol, smoking and gambling. His movement had chapters throughout the United States (mostly African-American in the Northeast and white, middle class in other areas.) Divine’s glory years were 1932-1942. In 1932, Divine was living in Sayville, N.Y. and was charged with disturbing the peace. Judge Lewis J. Smith described Divine as “a menace” and sentenced him to a year in prison. Shortly after the trial, Judge Smith died of a heart attack. Divine’s followers characterized this as divine retribution and Father Divine’s popularity soared. Father Divine moved to Harlem in New York, bought hotels and other properties to house his followers and operated low cost clothing stores (Very popular during the years of The Great Depression). Father Divine gave great feasts and banquets for his followers and those interested in his movement (cult?). The food was carefully planned. First there were platters of beans. Then came potatoes. These were followed by courses of collard greens, string beans, lettuce salads, etc. When the banqueters were stuffed, some meager platters of chicken appeared. HG recalled this at dinner last night. HG/BSK’s guest was the distinguished (and hungry) educator/historian/ novelist David F. With St. Patrick’s Day in the offing, BSK prepared traditional Irish corned beef and cabbage. Earlier, HG bought a robust piece of corned beef (properly brined and spiced) at Whole Foods. BSK placed it in the slow cooker with water, onions, garlic, pepper corns, bay leaves. Let it cook on high for seven hours. BSK prepared BSK’s perfect boiled potatoes (in their skins) and crisp sautéed cabbage (This wasn’t the sodden boiled cabbage prepared in the Irish and English manner). The table was set with five varieties of mustard; dill pickles and cornichons. Ample chilled Guinness Stout and Sierra Nevada ale. The corned beef was plucked from the cooker. Alas. It had shrunk into a very small size. Tender and tasty, yes. But, very tiny. A big platter was brought to table. Massive mounds of cabbage and boiled potatoes. Hiding behind them were a few demure slices of corned beef. A true Father Divine dinner.
This cliche of an adage is true for Kokoman, the very odd and wonderful wine/beer/liquor store near HG’s New Mexico home. From the highway (285/84) it looks like a ramshackle joint catering to impecunious drunks. The exterior is plastered with signs adverting beer bargains. Then you go inside. Surprise. On the right are three aisles and a back wall. First aisle: French brandies (Cognac, calvados, armagnac, Prices rising up to the hundreds); Single malt scotch whisky (All the greats); Tequila (Vintage brands including rarities); Whiskey ( Definitive selection of rye, bourbon, Canadian, Irish, Japanese); Sake (all the best); Vodka and gin (There are rarities for the connoisseur). Second aisle: The great, expensive Belgian beers and ales; scores of bitters and mixers; jug wines. Third aisle: Beer heaven (Hundreds of selections from craft breweries throughout the United States plus imports from all over the world including bottles of Britain’s best ales). Back wall: Every brandy, eau de vie, liqueur, aperitif you’ve ever tasted or heard of plus a strong selection of grappas. The left side of the store is devoted to aisles and walls of wine. Very carefully curated. Sound values on drinkable, pleasant wines. Plus all of the world’s greats: California’s cabernets; France’s burgundies and bordeaux; Italy’s Super Tuscans; etc., etc.. HG enjoys strolling through the enticing wine section. Always buys more than anticipated. Temptation overwhelms. One of Kokoman’s missions is to educate the palate of wine drinkers. There’s a themed wine tasting every Saturday afternoon. :Last week it was the U.S. Northwest coast. This week it’s Portugal. In the offing is Germany (the Kokoman wine director says the Teutonic wines have vastly improved. He promises surprises.) The wine tastings draw folks from all over New Mexico, some armed with two glasses–one for white and one for red. The tastings are festive, joyous events. One more reason HG/BSK are glad to live in The Land of Enchantment.
No, not the vast, chilly region of Russia but the equally frigid and unattractive part of a restaurant where tourists, bad tippers, poorly dressed or unfashionable couples are banished by a maitre d’. HG is very choosy about where HG/BSK are seated in a restaurant. In addition to Siberia, HG does not wish to be seated facing or adjacent to restrooms. Ditto service stations that are sources of clatter and destroyers of conversation. Ditto doors to the kitchen. In winter, HG does not wish to be seated near front doors with their chilling drafts. HG always tries for a larger rather than a smaller table. HG loves the banquettes in many Paris bistros where HG/BSK can be seated side by side and enjoy the animated scene before them. BSK finds HG’s finicky attitude about seating maddening. However, HG persists. That’s because dining out is, in part, a theatrical experience. Ambience and people watching are part of it. So, having the right seat, as in the theater, is essential.
Mussels are (or used to be) HG’s favorite food. For almost half the year. HG/BSK live on Prince Edward Island, the delightful Canadian island where the oysters are among the best in the world. Scallops, clams, tuna, cod, hake are also wondrous. (In fact, the tuna is so good that it is often snapped up by Japanese buyers before HG/BSK get a chance to sample). PEI has been most famous for its excellent mussels (they are identified as such at fish counters and restaurants throughout the United States). When on PEI, HG/BSK get their mussels freshly harvested from nearby St. Peters Bay. They should be very good. They are not. Nothing wrong with the taste but the mussels are very small so the great funky joy of mussel eating is lost. (The PEI mussels sold at Whole Foods are both tiny and tasteless). What happened to those big, plump, juicy mussels HG/BSK relished for many years? HG is yet to get a satisfactory answer. If you want to taste great mussels you have to go to Belgium or France. Sad.
HG has a daily swim before dinner in HG/BSK/s indoor lap pool (The lap pool is in a separate building with a wall of windows and a toilet room, a changing room and a shower room. New Mexico luxury). Feeling healthy, exercised and super clean, HG sips a bitters and soda drink and listens to music. HG/BSK’s musical tastes are eclectic. Jazz: Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli; Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Ruby Braff, Billie Holliday, Fats Waller, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Blossom Dearie; HG’s late, dear friends, Jackie Cain and Roy Kral. Plus the extraordinary Chet Baker (HG often wonders why such a handsome man and a supreme trumpeter and singer could destroy himself with drugs at such a young age). Other favorites are from foreign lands. From Cuba: Bebo and Cigala. From Capo Verde: Cesaria Evora. From France: Serge Gainsbourg. From Jamaica: Deadly Dragon Sound Mix CDs. From Brazil: Antonio Carlos Jobim (The Jobim Songbook on Verve has a virtuoso jazz-samba scat by Ella Fitzgerald). While dining and wine drinking, HG/BSK switch to classical music. Yo Yo Ma; the Jascha Heifetz- Gregor Piatigorsky concert series. Plus select Vivaldi, Beethoven, Mozart and Bach CD’s. (Sometimes there is no classical music but rather the mellow, beautifully phrased songs of Tony Bennet). After dinner it’s movie time from Netflix. Lately, HG/BSK have been exploring little known but critically acclaimed foreign movies. “Divided We Fall” from Czechoslovakia. “Seraphine” , a French-Belgian production. “Diplomacy”, a French-German production. No movies on nights when “Better Call Saul”, “Downton Abbey,” “Breaking Bad”, “Homeland” are (or were) on TV.
HG has never had great Risotto in a restaurant. Okay, there’s an exception: Harry’s Bar in Venice. No place else. To make wondrous Risotto it is necessary to have a strong arm and lots of time. It is so labor intensive that restaurateurs have thought up many time saving techniques for making Risotto in a time-starved kitchen — the result is an inferior product. It should be removed from menus. But, apparently inferior Risotto has its fans. Must be the same folks who order their steaks “well done.” Though Spring hasn’t officially arrived, the sun is shining and the first happy yellow daffodils have poked their merry heads out of the earth. Indeed, HG/BSK live in The Land of Enchantment. Since nothing (except daffodils) heralds Spring like the first asparagus of the season, HG/BSK decided to have Asparagus Risotto for dinner. BSK did a masterful stir fry of the asparagus, crisp but cooked. HG had the more laborious job, making perfect Risotto. Here’s how HG did it. (HG modestly admits that HG Risotto is state of the art). HG started with excellent ingredients: Carnaroli rice (Italian import); Sicilian extra virgin olive oil; Kerrygold butter; Free Range Chicken Stock (HG likes Trader Joe’s); grated Italian Parmesan. Plus a sweet onion. BSK suggested that HG used a heavy, fairly deep Creuset pan. Round, enameled but with a cast iron interior. The Perfect pan (BSK is always right). HG heated a generous pour of olive oil and a bit of butter in the pan. Added a thinly sliced, roughly chopped half onion. When sufficiently softened, added a cup of rice. Stirred until rice was well covered with the oil-butter-onion mix. (Some recipes call for the reduction in the mix of a half-cup of white wine. HG skips it. Finds it adds nothing to the Risotto). Meanwhile, chicken stock heated on an adjacent burner. HG added a small ladleful of broth to the rice mix. Stirred in a soft, swirling movement until the broth was absorbed. This technique continued for some 20-25 minutes (it can’t be rushed) using almost two cartons of broth. When the Risotto was almost done (HG seeks a creamy firm-soft texture and tastes often until this ideal is reached), the asparagus is gently mixed into the rice. Right before serving, HG hits the dish with a chunk of butter and parmesan cheese. More parmesan on the table plus smoked black pepper. Granite Coast Pinot Noir from California. Heaven.
HG is very fond of Tofu (bean curd). Made from soybeans, the silken substance is one of the world’s healthiest foods, full of valuable nutrients, low in calories and no cholesterol. Prevents a variety of cancers. It has the virtue of making HG feel virtuous while devouring many dishes. HG’s favorite Tofu dish is Agedashi Tofu. Cubes of Tofu are dusted with potato or corn starch and deep fried to a golden brown. The hot Tofu is served in Tentsuyu (a broth of dashi, mirin and soy sauce) and topped with grated daikon radish. Shohko Cafe in Santa Fe serves a very good version. When living in Vancouver, HG/BSK often enjoyed Tofu with spinach at the Fortune Garden restaurant. Fiery Ma Po Tofu (Tofu, ground pork, scallions, garlic, ginger, hot chile oil, Szechuan peppercorns, peas, peanut oil) was a specialty at Congee Noodle House in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood (restaurant was very close to HG/BSK’s loft). HG/BSK would often get takeout containers of this dish (plus poached chicken or barbecued duck) for casual dinners at home. Here in New Mexico, BSK makes a comforting version of Ma Po Tofu as well as a warming soup of Tofu, spinach (or watercress) and smoked ham. At the pleasant Saigon Cafe in Santa Fe, HG often lunches on Pho, the great Vietnamese noodle soup, with Tofu replacing the usual strips of beef. The eatery also makes a good version of Chow Fun noodles with Tofu. On hot Prince Edward Island summer days, cool comfort is provided by Hiyayakko, a dish of chilled soft tofu flavored with organic soy sauce and grated daikon. Gives HG enough energy for long walks by the seashore and refreshing dips in the sea.