Food, Glorious Food

Much as I own, I owe
The passers of the past
Because their to and fro
Has cut this road to last
I owe them more today
Because they’ve gone away.

-Robert Frost (excerpt from Closed for Good)

Well here it is around 3:30 in the morning (an hour I almost never have had the opportunity to participate in, let alone, luxuriate in the very wee small hour of late evening.) I know late evening is a love of many. Writers find their muse and solitude, others find their peace, many find it the time to party, but for me it is the hour to be avoided. Its purpose is to provide a gracious time to sleep through all the trouble the world unfolds.

Tonight though, I woke up with a start, feeling an immediate need to describe the call of the food and the power it has to satisfy one with love through comfort food. This is really quite peculiar because I can’t even boil water. I love gardening and know a great deal about plants and trees, but I know nada about the culinary art of food preparation.

If abandoned by my wife, our maids, gardeners, laundresses, etc., I would be completely lost. I probably wouldn’t starve, but I definitely would be lost without numerous boxes of cold cereal.

Just like our beautiful oasis of a pool, which I have swam in less than five times in 25 years, I cannot ever recall turning on the stove.

So what makes me at 3:30 in the morning, wake up with a sudden start with a clear notion of being famished, and knowing what I love about certain foods?

It started at about 11 p.m. last night when I was watching (on television) one of my few favorite shows. It is called “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” in which a spiked haired, tattooed man, goes from one road food joint to another throughout America and describes how all this extraordinary, bizarre, American food is prepared. He and I are two people that you would normally see as incompatible. But, oh…how I love this man, how I love this food, and I love his enthusiasm. In fact, I wish I had his job, though instead of driving up in a vintage, ugly, American, muscle car I probably would like to approach my travels in a Bentley driven by Michael and his bow tie.

The show runs the gamut from breakfast fare to lunch and dinner, with a dab of this and a ton of that. There are no delicate recipes. It is all home grown and made to taste. It is all mixed in large containers, stirred, whirred, boiled baked, fried, lathered, salted, caressed, kissed, and by the time he finally taste the Piece-de-resistance I am starved. This gentrified, elegant, photographer is in love with fast food cooking, done to perfection. I love the atmosphere and the smell of home cooking.

There is barbeque in Memphis and in South Carolina, Po-Boy’s and Muffuletta Sandwiches in New Orleans, Blue Corn Pancakes in Santa Fe, Philly Cheese steaks in Philadelphia, Cat Fish and Tamale Cakes in Greenwood, Mississippi, and the quintessential American Hotdog at Nathan’s in Coney Island, New York. I love them all.

From the earliest time I can remember, people always cooked for me (euphemistically referred to as the help) but they were much more than that to me. When my parents were gone (which was most of the time) I would eat in the kitchen with the help. First, there was Mary and Charles, a small Scottish family that would prepare what I referred to as my scotch lunch, which was their version of a shepherds pie.  As I was very young, and only went to school a half-day, I can remember coming home at lunchtime and loving the smells emanating from the kitchen. It all felt so cozy and secure.

Then came the Germans, especially Martin and Fritze, the true loves of my life, my surrogate parents. Fritze was a fabulous cook. She made Vienna schnitzel, bratwurst sandwiches, German stews with potatoes and carrots, and as a ode to their American citizenship, in the summer when my parents were around, they would make my all time favorite, classic, American meal.

When my parents were home and we were all together at our summerhouse, we would come home late in the afternoon from a day of beach or golf, and there would be Martin preparing the grill with the smell of charcoal wafting through the garden. He would be preparing a steak that rose at least six inches high, purchased at our prime butcher swanks, who knew who they were dealing with. It was the most tender steak I had ever had, accompanied by fresh corn on the cob from a local farm, and home grown tomatoes, with cherry pie for dessert. To this day I love this meal.

And lastly, along come Tilda. When my father died, my mother removed herself completely to Manhattan with Tilda, the Austrian woman who took care of the apartment and cooked Austrian fare that was perfect.

For two summers in my very early college years, I had a summer job where I worked as a travel agent at Atlantic Pacific Travel for the infamous George Tobias. There are stories to be told, but right now the story is about food. I hope you are getting as hungry as I am. At this job I worked beside Henry Winkler, who later became “The Fonz.” Of course he wasn’t known then, he had gone to Emerson College and was about to enter Yale drama school. We sat next to each other and laughed a good part of the summer. I had a very serious girlfriend, whom I later married, but he was free and all the girls in the office liked him. By the end I think he probably dated every cute one.

Anyway, like clockwork, when the elevator worked, I would walk the five blocks to my mother’s apartment at lunchtime and Tilda would have laid out a table fit for Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna. There were always beautifully cut flowers, the table and silver set to perfection, and a plate of roast chicken or something fabulous, with a homemade dessert. Everything was just right. What a way to spend a lunch.

In 1972 as I marched on Washington in the anti-war movement demonstrations, my friends and I had the most beautiful picnic lunch, laid out and prepared by Tilda. They still kid me about it to this day.

So, if you were to ask me today what is my favorite New York Restaurant, which I have had many years to evaluate, I would have to say it comes down to this.

On east 52nd street is my favorite restaurant in the world, La Grenouille. It is French, formal and beautiful. It is an oasis from the noise of New York. The service is impeccable, and it stands for life, as it should be. It is as if Tilda was still setting the table for me. It is probably far from the most adventurous and extraordinary food in the world, but it takes the cake for pride of place and I loved it 40 years ago when I went there with my Father, and I still love it today. It is far, far from a Diner or a Dive, but it is close to comfort for me. Now for the truly hard part, because this is where love and food intersect. Where my youth and my present join hands and give thanks. Because I love barbeque my favorite barbeque place is Hill Country Barbeque on 26th street in New York. I love a brisket sandwich at Katz’s Delicatessen, the corn on the cob at Cafe Havana and others. All this from a person who cannot boil water.

So in conclusion, for all the photographers in you, who are wondering what this has to do with making pictures, let me give you a little sagacious advice. When I had my first large advertising assignment, over 30 years ago, my good friend and my first client in advertising gave me this poignant advice, “Roddy,” he said “remember the cardinal rule of advertising is that you can never, never spend too much money on food.”

So forget the pictures and get right down to the heart of the matter, your stomach, and fill it with all the fun and comfort you can find.