Wednesday, July 29, 2009

My History with Food

These days it always comes as a big surprise to me that I’m an “eat-whatever’s-in-front-of-me” kind of guy. From the time I was a kid up until my mid-20s, this wasn’t the case at all. As a kid, I was very limited in what I would eat in most cases. Surprisingly, I did like just about all vegetables, which is a rare case when it comes to kids. I blame Popeye for this. I was a big fan of the cartoon sailor and when he told me to eat my spinach; I did as I was told. That also opened the door for other vegetables and I can’t remember really disliking any vegetable, although I remember not being all that fond of peas for some reason.

But when it came to meat, I was super picky. I would eat hamburgers, hot dogs and fish sticks, but anything else had to be chopped up in a casserole for me to consider it. I didn’t like steak. I didn’t like fried chicken. Anything other than fried fish was shunned, although I did like canned tuna to some extent and my favorite dish was my Mom’s Tuna & Noodle Casserole. I had a real problem with eating anything on the bone. The whole idea made me sick to my stomach. (I still have a small problem with bones, but only if I bite into something that is not supposed to have a bone in it and find a small chip or something, like I have in sausages now and then.)

To this day, if someone held a gun to my head and made me choose between vegetables or meat, I would easily choose the veges.

As a kid, I preferred white chocolate to dark chocolate (and still do). . I hated milk (and I’m still not fond of it), although I loved milk products like cottage cheese and ice cream. I liked most fruits, except for apples. I didn’t like apple pie at all, preferring pecan pie, which I absolutely loved. I thought avocados were delicious and was really happy we had a tree in our back yard, as well as a fig tree, which I thought were weird, but I liked them. I absolutely hated Mexican food, but liked most of the other ethnic foods of the time, which were Americanized versions of Chinese and Italian dishes. My hatred of Mexican food can probably be traced to my grandmother, who loved to make tamale pie and then would force me to eat it. It got to the point where the smell of anything Mexican would make me nauseous.

All this pretty much persisted as I grew older. Going out to eat to me was going to Burger King or Der Wienerschnitzel. Occasionally, I would eat at a Denny’s or a local Italian joint, but that was rare. I remember liking Coco’s as well. But I certainly stayed away from any food I didn’t recognize or that seemed weird to me, although in my 20s, I discovered delis and decided I liked knishes and matzo balls, as well as sliced meat sandwiches.

Then, at the age of 25, I met Skip and everything began to change. He grew up in a Navy household and his mother had entertained people in their home from all over the world. Because of this, she learned to cook many of the ethnic favorites these people ate in their countries. Skip grew up eating them and so had a much more rounded view than I did about what was edible. I remember one of the first places he took me to was a French restaurant and he wanted to get escargot. I was horrified at the idea of eating snails, but he got me drinking wine and before I knew it, I was tipsy enough that he talked me into trying one. I was shocked. I actually liked the slimy little thing. It was chewy, but tasted of butter and garlic and I loved that flavor combination. Before long, again with the help of alcohol, Skip had me eating squid, and I was beginning to realize that maybe I didn’t really hate all these things I thought I hated. In short steps and over time, he even got me eating Mexican food again. (It’s currently one of my favorite types of foods, especially when we get into the very regions that are very different from standard American/Mexican food, like Oaxacan.)

But there was still a lot of stuff I was afraid of. Most seafood still left me cold and I couldn’t even think about eating internal organs. Then I started touring Europe with Thin White Rope. I had always wanted to travel the world and working with the band finally gave me the chance. I was determined to experience these cities and countries as the locals see them. Working with a band is a great way to do that, as the local promoters take you to places that tourists would never set foot in. They were very proud of their local restaurants and I quickly realized that it would be very rude not to at least try what they gave me to eat. So I would close me eyes and steel myself to the horror, and I was always surprised how much I usually liked many of these strange items. I learned to love wild boar in Denmark, periwinkles and octopus and rabbit in Italy, anchovies and blood sausage in Spain, liver and kidneys in England, and beets in Russia. Once I tasted something, I found that I usually liked it. It took me a while, but each year I would add another couple items to my edible list. I’ve eaten alligator and crocodile, snake, kangaroo, and a whole slew of exotic animals in South Africa. One of my favorite dishes is huitlacoche, or corn smut, which is a black fungus scraped off corn and made into a sauce for meat and fish. It may not be pretty, but it tastes like heaven to me.

And now, here I am. I will eat anything put in front of me. Most recently I enjoyed a meal at Incanto in San Francisco, a restaurant known for its offal dishes, and greatly enjoyed a pasta dish with shaved salt-cured Sardinian tuna heart and a wonderful tripe salad. I also loved the brain raviolis at Mozza here in LA. There are two dishes from my past that I didn’t like. I had sea cucumber at a Chinese restaurant in Alhambra that didn’t sit well with me. There was also a Burmese restaurant where I tried a dish called sour vegetables that seemed like a giant pile of horse manure to me at the time. Both of those were years ago and I’m determined to try them both again. I’m willing to bet my tastes have evolved enough that I will like both of them now. After all, I had always hated eel and then just recently realized how much I liked it during a great sushi meal at Matsuhisa.

A couple of other things.

I have little patience for vegetarians, especially those who preach. As I said above, I love vegetables, but I truly believe that human kind is omnivorous and to eat nothing but vegetables is unnatural and ultimately, unhealthy. Meat isn’t murder…it’s the natural order. And I feel pretty much the same way for the mostly meat crowd. There is someone in my family who will only eat meat and potatoes. It makes me sad.

But I do believe that the meat industry has a lot to answer for and the way they raise and slaughter animals in this country is out of control and unhealthy. I really believe that we need to put more restrictions on the way they do business. I will avoid milk-fed veal, as I have no doubt that the way that calf was raised is torturous. But I don’t avoid all veal. If it’s not milk-fed then it is fair game in my opinion. I also don’t believe that foie gras (fatty duck and goose liver) is a bad thing despite what the animal rights people would want me to believe. I have seen ducks force fed to fatten up their liver. They run to have the process done. I never saw any fear in those animals and I refuse to believe that it is torture.

I like beer and most hard alcohols, but drink them rarely. Nothing goes with food like wine. I recently went to a beer and cheese tasting. The guys putting it on tried to tell us that beer naturally went with food much better than wine because wine coats the tongue and doesn’t let the full taste of the food through. These guys were full of crap. There’s nothing better to me than a great pairing of wine with food. I recently had a meal at Melisse in Santa Monica and one of the things that made the meal so damned great was that every wine paired with every course of the 10-course meal was absolutely perfect. (I’ll get around to talking about that meal in the next week or two.) There are times when beer goes with food very well. I also recently ate sausage sandwiches at Wurstkuchen in downtown LA and they were perfect with glasses of Belgian beer on tap. But on the whole, give me wine with my food and I’ll be a happy man.

I don’t like most fast food and won’t eat it these days. Fast food is unhealthy and unnaturally processed. I’ll make a few exceptions when I have to, but only when I really have to. I like the chicken ciabatta sandwiches at Jack in the Box, or the fish tacos at Rubio’s, for example. And just about everything at Zankou Chicken is amazing. But I won’t eat a burger at any of those places. That includes the overly salty and greasy burger at In-N-Out. And Taco Bell gives me the hives. The same goes for chain restaurants. Most of them specialize in large plates of bland food. I want my food to taste of something more than salt and trans fat please. Of course, there are a few chains I do like. California Pizza Kitchen makes salads and a few pizzas that I enjoy. Hamburger Hamlet has some really good burgers on their menu if I ask them to cook them rare. I used to eat at El Torito Grill every now and then until they gave money to the “Yes on Proposition 8” crowd. Now I’ll never eat there again. In the long run, I think that fast food and chain restaurants are too expensive. I feel I’m getting more for my money when I pay $60 a person for a meal at a great restaurant than when I pay $20 for giant plates of tasteless food at Denny’s or the Cheesecake Factory.

Now that you know where I stand on a few things, I’m ready to really get into this column. Next time I’ll be back talking about a few of my favorite meals recently here in Los Angeles. I hope you’ll all join in with discussion, or at the very least, send me the name of local restaurants you like. I like to travel and hope to be doing so again soon. I keep lists of recommended places from all over the world that I want to visit if I get to that country or city. So educate me and give me those suggestions. Thanks.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Pour Yourself a Drink and Relax

Hey folks,

Welcome to my brand new blog, which is devoted to all things related to Food & Drink. I used to run restaurant reviews and stories of my eating and drinking adventures in my other blog (The Top of My Head) and people seemed to enjoy them. In fact, since I've stopped writing about them, I've had more than a few requests to start up again. So that's the purpose of this new blog space.

I won't promise a regular schedule here. I'll just add a word or two or a story when I feel there's something of interest to share with you all. And I really do encourage comments and discussion. Please. Let me know your favorite recipes and the restaurants you just die for, even if they are in another city, state or country. I travel a lot and always keep a list of places I want to visit.

A few words about the title of this blog. A few friends and I wanted to start a small, manageable mailing list to share restaurant and recipe recommendations between the few of us. At the time, I came up with the name "The Order of the Omnivores" because it fit with this small group. We all liked food and we all like science fiction and fantasy, especially the Harry Potter universe. The name fit and was adopted. The mailing list is still going on and will remain just the few of us, but I wanted to expand on what I think is a good name and decided it was time for this blog.

I hope you will all enjoy what you find here. Please recommend it to other foodies you may know. I'll be back soon with my first post.

In the meantime, I will finally be going to one of LA's top French restaurants in a few days. We've been dying to eat at Melisse ( and are now using their tenth anniversary as an excuse. I'm very excited and I'm sure a full report will follow.