Cooking is the one thread that runs throughout my life. I’ve had a lot of jobs, I’ve been a lot of places, some might say I’ve even been a few different people. But cooking is just about the only thing I’ve been able to pick up and take with me over the last twenty years.
I’ve been cooking since I was old enough to reach the counter. PBS had cooking shows filmed inside professional kitchens, not that food-themed advertising they make now. I devoured them. I read every cookbook I could find. Barbara Tropp, Alice Waters, Jacques Pépin were my heroes. I was reading Food & Wine at twelve or thirteen. I didn’t find Marcella Hazan until later, even though she had the biggest influence on my life. I cooked at home, in bakeries, in pizza shops, ocean-side haunts, I even did a stint as an apprentice at a fancy French restaurant, the kind with starched white linens, real silver and butter in everything. They don’t make them like that anymore. Sicilian cooking existed but it was distant, and it was boring. Abruptly, I quit cooking professionally.
I left home at 19 and moved to New York City with a shitty pickup truck and $300. I shared a room on the lower east side with an actor-furniture-mover-junk-collector who called himself Vlad but was really named Steve. The old people called the neighborhood “Loisaida” (lower-east-side-ah) and addressed envelopes that way. I didn’t cook much but man did I eat. I drank coffee with condensed milk, with old Cubans and young Puerto Ricans. I ate pasteles and mofongo and a million iterations of rice and beans. I ate the egg breakfast at The Sidewalk when it was a dollar fifty. I bought Marcella Hazan’s Classic Italian Cookbook for a quarter off a card table on Avenue A. I spoke a little Italian and pretended to speak Spanish. I learned to play dominos. I watched a man kill a rooster with his bare hands. This all happened between Houston & 8th Street, between Avenue A & Avenue D. The rare occasions I would take a cab home I’d tell the driver where I lived and he’d usually say, “I’ll drop you at A or you can get out now.”
I moved to Astoria, Queens. I lived above a pizza shop owned by a Romanian, but we were surrounded by Greeks. I tried lamb, whole shrimp with the head on, whole grilled fish, potatoes with lemon, moussaka. I played a card game with the Romanian’s dad and his friends that my father called briscola but they had a different name for that I can’t remember. The game was the same. The Romanian Dad made terrible wine that we’d drink, and we would shower him with compliments about it, which he deserved, because he took the trouble to make it. I ate a lot of pizza. I had a nice kitchen and a regular schedule, I rediscovered cooking. I started with Julia Child and the haute cuisine of her era. I used a lot of butter and cream. We were young and we drank a lot of wine late into the night. I had a good job and I pissed away every nickel on good burgundy and prime meats. I discovered farmer’s market shopping. I discovered sustainable agriculture. I saw and tasted and smelled the difference. Everything I ever read from California authors suddenly made sense. Italian cooking crept into my repertoire, starting in the north. I was fascinated by egg pastas and risotto, as was America. I rejected the Sunday gravies of my childhood. I was an asshole. I met a sweet boy and fell in love.
I moved to his place in Chelsea. We made a home together. I cooked everything. His family was mostly vegetarian and I learned about Persian Jewish cooking. I made kugel. I was in love, what can I say? I cooked Chinese food (thank you, Barbara Tropp & Jim Lee). I worked on a show with Madhur Jaffrey and went out and bought all her books and cooked Indian food. I still cooked French food. I fixated on regional Italian cooking. Marcela Hazan’s books piled up on my nightstand. I started blogging and found a community. I met people who were passionate about cooking from all different traditions. Some were crazy but mostly they were and are awesome. I started wondering what I was doing with my life. I wondered if I should be working with food. I admitted to myself that I hated New York. Good friends moved away from New York to California and then more of them. I broke up with the sweet boy. I was miserable.
I moved way uptown. I hated it. I hated it from the first day and the first long subway ride up the west side. But I had bought the place and I tried to make the best of it. I rediscovered Italian-American cooking and how good it can be when it’s done well. I made a lot of fresh pasta. I made it with whole wheat flour, chestnut flour, rye flour, buckwheat flour. I made it with eggs, water, spinach, tomato juice. I started working with semolina. I was briefly obsessed with Paul Bertolli. My blog had amazing traffic. In retrospect, I didn’t know as much as I thought I did but what young man does? I flew to San Francisco. I went to Berkley. I ate at Chez Panisse. I gathered borage and wild strawberries. I drove to LA. I went to the Long Beach gay pride parade and saw the most amazing kind of small-town life that I didn’t even know I was missing. I decided to leave New York.
I moved to Long Beach. I bought a Spanish colonial house with a red tile roof four blocks from the ocean. I rode my bike everywhere I could. I wore flip flops in everyday life. I had so many friends around me and they seemed to come over for dinner every night. I cooked glorious vegetables like I never saw before. I made Mexican friends and cooked with them. I ate tacos – real tacos – and menudo and pozole. I ate chile relleno and when I asked the woman cooking it if it wouldn’t be better if she used homemade chicken broth she rolled her eyes and told me her mother made it with the cube and she didn’t see any reason to change. She was right. I got to know cilantro – we’re good friends now. I grilled anything that can be grilled. I put citrus on everything. Try a paper-thin slice of meyer lemon on an In-N-Out cheeseburger. You’re welcome. 2008 came. The crash. Work dried up. I lost everything. I cooked soup both because it’s cheap and for the reassurance that everything would be ok. I went to New York for a gig and met a boy. I had absolutely no intention for anything to come of it, but it did. It was all wrong but I did it anyway. I had to sell the house so I did.
I moved to San Francisco, up the road from the entrance to Golden Gate Park. I briefly felt young and full of opportunity. I met dim sum. I found Asian open-air markets, bought whole fish from tanks, Chinese egg custards for four bits; I still don’t like chicken feet though they are good for broth. I spent too much money at some good restaurants and some very bad ones. I began to obsess about pizza. I read all of Peter Reinhart’s books, covered my house in fermenting dough and vegetables, trying to add wild bacteria to the air. I was a little crazy. I sold the place in New York. Work picked up. I saw a light at the end of the tunnel that might not be a train. But I was still miserable. I missed Southern California. I missed the landscape, I missed my friends, I missed regular life that didn’t involve talking about tech. I missed the spaceship diners and the Hollywood Hills and the blast of air rising from a hot sidewalk in the summer. Most of all I missed the sun. I made the boy miserable missing these things, to the point where he dumped me. I deserved it.
I moved to LA. I rented a white clapboard house in an old valley town with a wild garden and neighbors who grew up on the same block. I saw old friends; I made new friends. Sicily came back into view. I devoured every book in English on the topic and let me tell you some of them are really bad. I studied the Italian language with fervor (the real, contemporary language not “bullshit Brooklyn Italian” as Hank Cattaneo once said to me), coming back from Italy with stacks of books. I read about Sicily’s food, wine, language, culture, history, geography – all of which are deeply intertwined. I cooked every kind of animal from the sea; I got on the list of people the fishmonger would call when they got fresh sardines. I think it was me and three old Armenian ladies. I fried, baked, boiled and grilled eggplants into stews, sauces, cutlets, balls. When I couldn’t find eggplants that were Sicilian enough I grew them in raised beds in my front yard, in between cherry tomatoes and California poppies. I bought boxes of artichokes. I bought a dressed goat in an igloo cooler from a friend’s mom’s out of the back of her car. I drove all over Southern California finding olives and olive oil that fit Sicilian cooking. I found a crazy lady at a farmer’s market who sold citrons on the down-low – you had to ask for them. I went to Santa Barbara and gathered wild fennel and wild asparagus. I rendered lard. So. Much. Lard. I befriended the Mexican owner of an Italian deli who spoke Italian to me when I went there for the atmospheric benefit of the other customers. He called himself Caruso and I let him. He got me caciocavallo in blocks from Palermo and in teardrops from Ragusa. Pecorino from all over. Emerald green pistachios and almond paste that was soft as clay and so sweet you had to close one eye when you ate it. He had the best ricotta in Los Angeles. The clapboard house had a massive walnut tree out front and the owners had strung some globe lights up in it. I put an old pine table under the tree and we ate many memorable meals around it. I spent the three best years of my life up to that point in that house.
And then I had to make a decision. The owners of the house wanted to sell and offered it to me at a reasonable price. Around the same time, I got an interesting job offer: to move to Germany. Although I loved my life and I loved that house there was something missing that I just couldn’t quite put my finger on. My best friend told me I should just get a dog and he might have been right. I took the job.
I moved to Germany. I lived six months in a hotel in Cologne. I had studied German in another life, used it a lot but had forgotten most of it, now limited to a lot of technical terms. In the tiny kitchen I cooked eggplant parmigiana and meatballs and big frittatas. I tried embracing German cooking but it just didn’t click for me, learning along the way that most good German cooking is actually Austrian. I befriended an English barista who made the best cappuccino in town. I drank a lot of coffee. I took German classes with a Croatian waiter, a Basque programmer and a Korean girl who spent a lot of money on clothes and didn’t seem to do much of anything else. I was lonely.
I moved to Berlin. I was busy. In between working hundred-hour weeks I found an apartment in a cute neighborhood – as cute as any neighborhood can be that’s covered in graffiti. I made some friends, Italians mostly. I cooked when I could. I got the recipe of the day from giallozafferano.com.
The job blew up – the company’s top client left. I found another job; more ups and downs. I met another boy. I didn’t know it yet but this one I’d marry. We moved out to the suburbs and got a dog. We gathered mushrooms in the woods near our house and I cooked them (and we survived). I cooked giant white and green asparagus in the spring, but there was something missing. I realized I had a home town. And I was missing it – again – staring out the window at short, gray winter days. I had flashbacks. I told the new boy I had to go home and I wanted more than anything for him and the dog to come with me. I wanted them to taste Santa Barbara prawns and cherimoyas; I wanted to grill tri-tip for them and have a clam bake. I wanted them to know what an avocado is supposed to taste like. He said he would. I married him.
We rented another little white clapboard house, this time on the west side. We can smell, if not see, the ocean and I can ride my bike to work. We’ve got a big kitchen with a great view and a stove like a Ferrari that I can’t wait to cook on. Just waiting for the movers to come with the furniture and boxes of memories from Germany.
That takes us up to today. I guess what I’m trying to tell you is, I’ve moved again, with my family this time, to the place where I am myself more than anywhere else, for whatever that’s worth and whatever it might mean.
And I’m taking Sicily with me.