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As the cold Northeastern winter laid yet another wet snow on New York City, Back Forty West, Peter Hoffman’s wonderful restaurant at 70 Prince Street, sported its sixth annual celebration of cassoulet. As Hoffman said in his introductory words, each year this festival brings folks together to enjoy different incarnations of this wonderful, rich slow cooked bubbling mixture of beans and meats.
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Adam Gopnik, who has written extensively about cassoulet in his book, “The Table Comes First,” reminded us that the cassoulet originated in the south of France, but variations of it are found in most countries of the world — feijoda in Latin America; solet in Hungary; cholent, a traditional Jewish stew; fabada asturiana in Spain; pasulj in Serbia, or even just baked beans, sausage and sauerkraut as my Swedish mother loved to assemble. It is a simple, traditional mixture of slow-cooked — often on their own — white beans, and then added to any combination of lamb, pork skin, sausage or duck confit. The dish is named after its traditional cooking vessel, the casserole, a deep, round, earthernware pot with slanting sides, but any large, heavy Dutch oven or stainless steel stew pot will do.
Each year, Hoffman seeks to benefit a different charity. This year’s Back Forty evening benefited Drive Change, an organization that mentors, hires and trains formerly incarcerated youth in order to prepare its fare and operate the nonprofit’s food truck. Drive Change chef Jared Spafford, who was formerly from Marlowe and Daughters and Flying Pigs Farm, was one of five chefs whose cassoulet graced the evening. Spafford’s interpretation consisted of rabbit confit, smoked pork belly, and black garlic sausage (recipe below).
Chefs who contributed a cassoulet
Jon Check from Buttermilk Channel in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, divined an original Southwestern interpretation of cassoulet that included Rancho Gordo heirloom beans, lamb shoulder, pheasant sausage and pork belly.
Hoffman’s was a more traditional presentation coming straight from a heavy iron pot that was cooked over the fabulous open fire in the Back Forty West dining room and included a delicious mixture of Flageolet beans, duck confit, chorizo and smoked pork belly.
Sara Jenkins’ delicious addition of lamb shoulder with a small merguez sausage laid on the lentil bed was another original interpretation. Her restaurant in the East village, Porsena, focuses on inspired pasta dishes.
Peter Lipson from Northern Spy Food Co. on 12th Street concocted an original mixture using cattle beans, guanciale, merguez and pork belly with quickly cooked veggies and a garni of crushed spicy corn chips, cilantro and sour cream. A Southwestern delight.
The meal ended with a radicchio citrus salad followed by grapefruit and orange sorbet on a spoon.
Upon leaving the restaurant, we visited the Snowday Food Truck parked out in front and were offered a Maple Snow Lolly (traditionally served with hot syrup dripped on snow).
A fabulous dining experience with a side of social change.
Rabbit Confit, Smoked Pork Belly and Black Garlic Sausage Cassoulet
Cassoulets can be a simple throw-together meal made of leftover meats and beans. Recipe courtesy Jared Spafford
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: Brine for 24 hours
Total time: About 24 hours
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
1 quart whey
3/4 cup shallots, sliced
1/2 cup ginger, sliced
4 cloves garlic, smashed
2 Thai red chilies, split
2 kaffir lime leaves
8 sprigs thyme
4 bay leaves
1 1/2 tablespoon white peppercorn
1 1/2 tablespoon mustard seeds
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon curry powder
1 rabbit, cut into 6 pieces
1. Bring whey to a simmer, cut heat, stir in all ingredients besides rabbit.
2. When solution cools, add rabbit. Place in ziplock bag and remove air; brine for 1 day.
1 to 1 1/2 quarts lard
4 stalks celery
4 shallots, sliced
4 cloves garlic, smashed
8 sprigs thyme
8 sprigs parsley
3 bay leaves
3 puya chile
1 cascabel chile
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon turmeric
2 tablespoons salt
1 tablespoon white peppercorn
1 teaspoon cardamom
1 rabbit, brined for 24 hours
1. Warm lard until it turns liquid, add all ingredients except rabbit. Let ingredients steep for 30 minutes, add rabbit.
2. Cook in oven at 300 F for 2 to 2 1/2 hours, until meat pulls away from bone cleanly. Remove from oven, let cool.
3. Place in fridge overnight (2 to 3 days is optimum).
Prep time: Soak overnight, sprout for 2 to 3 days
Cook time: 6 to 7 hours on low heat
Total time: Several days of preparation
3/4 pound scarlet runner beans
3/4 pound yellow eye peas
3/4 pound navy beans
2 quarts pork stock
1 quart water
1 cup cider vinegar
1 cup maple syrup
2 bay leaves
8 sprigs thyme
8 sprigs parsley
1 1/2 tablespoon mixed peppercorn
Peel from one orange
Peel from one lemon
1/2 cup salt
1. Soak beans overnight with 3 times volume of water. Drain next day. Leave beans in colander on counter for 2 to 3 days, rinsing beans until water runs clean a few times a day.
2. When beans have begun sprouting, add to Dutch oven with rest of ingredients.
3. Braise beans covered at 300 F for 4 hours. Remove cover and continue cooking until soft, 1 to 2 more hours. Remove from oven and let cool.
4. Let beans rest in container overnight (2 to 3 days is optimum).
1 pound slab bacon
Score skin in a diamond pattern. Roast in oven at 300 F for 2 to 3 hours, until fat is fully rendered and skin is crispy. Remove from oven and weight down in a pan over night in fridge to compress belly.
Black Garlic Sausage
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes
Total time: 55 minutes
1 head garlic, roasted
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 head black garlic, mashed
2 teaspoon ground white pepper
2-plus tablespoons salt
2 pounds ground pork
1. Mash all garlic together in mortar to form a paste.
2. Thoroughly mix garlic paste, salt and pepper with ground pork. Cook small test piece to check seasoning, adjust with salt and pepper as needed.
3. Let mixture rest overnight.
4. Form 3/4-inch balls with sausage, do not overwork. Cook in oven at 400 F for 9 minutes. Remove and drain off drippings.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 45 minutes
Total time: 50 minutes
1 cup white onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 (16-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
1. Sweat onions and garlic until they turn light brown.
2. Add tomatoes and stir to combine.
3. Roast in oven uncovered at 375 F for 30 minutes. Reduce to 300 F and continue cooking for another 30 minutes. Remove and let cool
1 rabbit confit, meat shredded
Smoked belly, sliced
Black garlic sausage
Fold all ingredients together and place in oven at 300 F to warm through. Let stand for 15 minutes before serving. Dress with parsley, bread crumbs and maple syrup.
Main photo: A hearty cassoulet featuring rabbit confit, smoked pork belly and black garlic sausage helps ward off a cold winter night. Credit: Jared Spafford
Travel through Northern California and signs of the severe drought are everywhere. In suburban Healdsburg, front lawns are dead, flowers faded, home vegetable gardens finished weeks early. The same can be seen in Sebastopol, Sonoma and Santa Rosa. The Russian River above Redwood Valley is dry.
An article in “The Press Democrat” in Santa Rosa reported a high school sophomore’s unique water fence concept, a fence that stores rainwater. Ingenious. But there’s been no rain to store for at least three months.
California’s groundwater resources are in jeopardy, declining for many years at rates never seen before.
“Reliable groundwater supplies in California are essential to the health and well-being of all Americans. About half of the fruits and vegetables are grown in California. Without an improved management of groundwater in the state, California’s agricultural capacity will become smaller and unreliable,” says Miles Reiter, chairman and CEO of Driscoll’s, a leading supplier of fresh berries.
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How are wineries faring in drought?
If the drought is endangering fruits and vegetables, what are its effects on the region’s vineyards?
Quivira and DaVero, two vineyards in the Dry Creek Valley, have incorporated the practices of biodynamic farming.
Biodynamics is a spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture, food production and nutrition. It stresses a holistic understanding of agriculture, treating all aspects of a farm, from soil fertility to the livestock, as interrelated. The principles, that agriculture seeks to heal the earth, were introduced by Rudolf Steiner in 1924.
People tending biodynamic vineyards have spent years conditioning their soils with preparations made of fermented manure, minerals and herbs, and understanding the use of earthly and cosmic rhythms and cycles in creating a healthy farm.
Biodynamic farmers also pioneered some of the first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) ventures. CSAs began taking root in Europe and Japan in the 1960s, and the movement had come to the United States by the mid-1980s.
Quivira Vineyards and Winery specializes in small-lot wines from varietals specifically matched to the effects of hot summer days and cool coastal nights on its soil.
Jim Barauski, the biodynamic guru for Quivira says, “Going biodynamic was a decision made with a conscience toward moving away from cultivation and building better soils. Anthroposophy is the spiritual science behind biodynamics. If we take something out of the soil, we put something better back in. We feed the microbiotic life with natural, time-tested techniques.”
The winery’s large demonstration garden is a real awakening. The herbs and berries are neatly arranged in beds, the signage hand-printed and not a weed in sight. The beehives — a design called Golden Hives — were designed for the health and development of the colony and to minimize the impact from human interaction (more frequent opening of hives weakens their health).
Vineyard manager Ned Horton says he quietly works with the bees and rarely, if ever, gets stung.
“The health of the bees has been challenged on many levels, and the difference in bien (one-being, or oneness, that describes a bee colony) has to be understood within the context of the global landscape and the current one-dimensional human world view. The challenges for the well-being of the bees reflect our own struggle in our striving for health and happiness. The bees are intended to support the gardens and herbs, and the gardens of course, support the wines,” Horton says.
Each year, Quivira also plants a substantial amount of cover crops, which helps conserve water use. These plants also decompose, fortifying the soil, and open pathways for worms that aerate the soil, eventually creating a balance or a homeostasis.
Winemaker Hugh Chappelle says, “The light from the environment falls into matter so there is some quality of light in the wine. The entire vineyard is, in a way, like a human being, so complex and so individual. But as much as possible, each living thing on the farm supports the other.”
Winery started with olives
DaVero Farms and Winery, started by Ridgely Evers and Colleen McGlynn in 1982, is a 30-acre farm on which the couple had planted one olive tree. In 1990 they began to import olive trees from Tuscany. Through the years, their olive oil has been acknowledged as some of the best in the world.
In 2000, the couple planted their first small vineyard in Sangiovese and then the rare Sagrantino, Italian varietals because the Dry Creek Valley’s climate is similar to that of the Mediterranean region, characterized by hot, dry summer days and cool nights.
In 2007 Evers and McGlynn began the process of converting DaVero to biodynamic. Mary Foley, the original soil manager, transformed the soil into a vibrant, healthy farm. Foley, however, moved to the Sierra and advises from afar; Michael Presley now has the job.
As the tour finished with a lunch and wine tasting, the temperature at the vineyard had hit 95 degrees.
Presley promised it would begin to rain on Sept. 22. “It always does,” he claims.
Having seen a series of seemingly magical transformations through biodynamic gardening at the wineries, anything seemed possible.
It rained on Sept. 18.
Colleen McGlynn’s Roasted Cauliflower
Main photo: Quivira Vineyards and Winery’s Jim Barauski has posted a sign outlining the tenets of biodynamic farming. Credit: Katherine Leiner
On a recent visit to Northern California, I wanted to see how art and wine mix in Sonoma County’s famed wine country. My sister, who works in public relations for the wine industry, took me to visit one of her clients, Paradise Ridge Winery. The Santa Rosa vineyard has a view of many appellations in Sonoma County. The fog, responsible for the deep flavor that imbues the Paradise Ridge Winery wines with their distinctive tastes, was just rolling in. There was a crescent moon. And as a complement to the divine Sauvignon Blanc I was drinking, the evening’s festivities included a tour of the winery’s sculpture gardens that change annually.
Marking the winery’s 20th year, the new exhibit in this natural outdoor gallery — the 20@20 Sculpture Exhibition — is inspiring, with many pieces created by Burning Man artists. (Burning Man is a weeklong annual event that began in San Francisco’s Baker Beach and migrated to the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada.) The food we enjoyed was from Rosso Pizzeria, cooked on site in a state-of-the-art pizza oven, and made with homegrown tomatoes, herbs and Sonoma County cheeses.
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Sonoma theater production
The night also included the first presentation in the newly built “Field of Dreams” amphitheater, which had been created for Transcendence Theatre Company (TTC), a nonprofit theater company in Sonoma that brings Broadway stars to wine country to entertain in open-air venues. This year’s, “Oh What a Beautiful Mash-Up,” starring Stephan Stubbins and Leah Sprecher, both well known to “Broadway Under the Stars” concerts, was a funny, touching and uplifting evening and a great beginning for Walter Byck, a founder of the winery and the man behind the amphitheater, who intends to have the artists perform at the winery each summer.
Recently Transcendence was named Theater of the Year by Broadway World San Francisco for its 2013 Season. The company is made up of musical theater artists with Broadway, national and international tour, and film and television credits. TTC’s summer season includes the “Broadway Under The Stars in Jack London State Park” and the “Transcendence Artist Series” concerts, as well as the Broadway Kids Camp, “Skits Under The Stars” community nights, and community service, engagement and education programs throughout the entire Sonoma Valley.
Through an innovative arts and parks partnership, TTC is partnering with a nonprofit park operator, the Valley of the Moon Natural History Assn., to bring live theater and cultural education programming into Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, Calif.
Paradise Ridge’s beginning
Paradise Ridge is a 156-acre estate owned by the Byck family, and established in 1978. The estate’s integrity was initially maintained by planting only 17 acres of vines in and around the majestic oaks and the other established trees, none of which were cut down.
With the severe drought currently affecting California, Paradise Ridge Winery and other vineyards across the state have put in place conservation measures to preserve their aquifer. Dan Barwick, Paradise Ridge’s winemaker and a member of the Byck family, says “the most important concern for the vineyard this year is maximizing water efficiency while maintaining healthy soils and vines.”
“One of the great fortunes of our paradise is that we are self-sufficient with the water for our vineyard, winery and all our hospitality efforts. Our water is completely independent and we use it mindfully, appreciating the scarcity of this natural resource,” Barwick says. “In the vineyard during drought years, we deeply soak the vines in the winter to allow the route system to deepen and spread so that when vines awaken in the spring they will be strong and vibrant. Our access to estate lake water allowed us do this in December and January, ensuring healthy vines as we moved into the 2014 vintage.”
“During the rest of the year, we water our vineyards in response to the needs of each vine, as opposed to a set regime of irrigation. We have recently overhauled our irrigation to pinpoint specific zones. We now have the ability to water only those areas as needed, as opposed to irrigating the entire block,” Barwick says. “These changes allow us to irrigate far more efficiently and save hundreds of thousands of gallons of water per year.”
Winery’s water conservation methods
Paradise Ridge Winery also had plans to cultivate a sustainable vegetable garden in 2014 to supply their winery, weddings and special events with produce, but because of the water shortage, they are delaying that venture.
The Herb Garden & Wine Sensory Experience established at the Tasting Room in Kenwood, Calif., by Annette McDonnell is a natural attraction for the winery. The idea of matching Paradise Ridge wines with various herbs is innovative. “Herbs like lemon basil, known to have citrus aromas often associated with Sauvignon Blanc, are also found in Chardonnays and Rieslings. The citrus will bring out the bright qualities in white wines while helping highlight fruit characters,” says McDonnell.
The sensory experience was created to showcase the chemistry of the wines and their relationship with herbs as well as cuisine. The garden has been divided into four areas and wine can also be broken down into similar groups:
Bitter – High acid, low to no sugar
Bright – High acid, low sugar
Savor – Moderate acid, moderate sugar
Sweet – Low acid, high sugar
The herb-and-wine experience encourages you to trust your palate when pairing wine and food.
Paradise Ridge Winery was a good way to begin my fun and educational trip through Sonoma wine country. The vineyard offered a complete wine-country experience: tasting superb Russian River Valley wines that had been paired with thin-crust pizza made with fresh herbs, taking in the magnificent view of the vineyard while strolling among world-class art in the outdoor gallery, and being entertained by Broadway stars performing under a crescent moon.
Main photo: Visitors enjoy the outdoor sculpture garden at the Paradise Ridge Winery in the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County, California. Credit: Paradise Ridge Winery
“Snowday,” the first food truck from the social enterprise Drive Change, showed up this spring at Brooklyn Bridge Park for the annual NYFEST soccer tournament. The sky was blue, relief from the unremitting winter finally in the New York City air, and the soccer players and their families were famished. I bought grilled maple cheese sandwiches for my son and granddaughter and found the food inspired, with what Drive Change calls “a side of social change.”
Drive Change hires and trains formerly incarcerated youth to prepare and operate the nonprofit’s food trucks. “Our values are rooted in the belief that young people with criminal histories can live crime-free, bright futures full of opportunity,” founder Jordyn Lexton said. “Our trucks are our vehicles for social justice — allowing young people to have hands-on experience and develop transferable skills to become leaders in today’s society.”
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Lexton went to college at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. During her spare time, she volunteered at Middletown Correctional Training School, a juvenile detention center. After she graduated from college, she went on to teach English to adolescent men at Rikers Island’s East River Academy high school in New York City. She worked in difficult facilities known as “the Sprungs,” four trailers housing youths who were not yet sentenced. “So many of these kids were full of such potential,” Lexton said. Yet she saw a cycle: New York is one of the states that automatically tries 16-year-olds accused of committing crimes as if they were adults. Of the 13,000 students she taught, 67% of them returned to jail or prison three years after release.
Against that wearying backdrop, a culinary arts program stood out. “It was remarkable to witness how much pride these young people felt being able to cook and present food they had made. And within that devastating environment, feelings of this kind were hard to come by.”
That got Lexton thinking about food as a way of reentry for young people who rarely can find good jobs during parole, and when they do, find it difficult to hang onto them because they are untrained.
Lexton began to research ways to reduce recidivism by working in the reentry world at the Correctional Association of New York, the Center for Employment Opportunitites, CASES and Work For Success, a Gov. Andrew Cuomo jobs initiative aimed at lowering the rate of unemployment for formerly incarcerated people. She took a job as manager of a Kimchi Taco food truck. Two years later, Lexton started to piece together a plan of action. While traveling in Canada, she tasted a taffy-like maple confection called sugar on snow. “I’m going to open up a sugar on snow truck,” Lexton recalled thinking. “A food truck can hire, train and empower” formerly incarcerated young people, she thought. The program also had an opportunity to turn the spotlight on New York City as one of the few regions in the U.S. that automatically incarcerates and treats 16-year-olds as if they’re adults.
Culinary artists among the team
Lexton then composed a top-notch team that included Annie Bickerton, who oversees operations, and two culinary artists, Roy Waterman and Jared Spafford. The team developed an eight-month mentorship program, including two months paid training, four months (higher-paid) employment and a two-month transition with continued employment and a job placement strategy for young people coming home from the system. Training covers small business management, accounting, social media marketing and essential licensing such as a mobile food vendor’s license, a food handlers’ license and a G-23 license to operate propane for mobile cooking. Other New York City food trucks have already expressed interest in hiring program graduates.
Drive Change, which is still seeking funding, recently received a good-sized grant from the mayor’s office and the city of New York. The grant subsidizes some of the wages, which cover $8 an hour for each employee. Drive Change adds $3 to bump the hourly wage to $11.
As of this spring, eight young men (seven of whom are home after having been incarcerated) have been hired to head up and brainstorm the operation:
Spafford, who comes to Drive Change from Marlowe and Daughters and Flying Pigs Farm, had no background inside corrections but was looking for a more meaningful contribution to society. His working title is culinary arts director, developing the menu, and sourcing and prepping the ingredients.
Waterman serves on the front lines as a mentor and chef. He knows from his own experience how hard it is to get a job after having been inside. “Everything looks great until I have to fill out the infamous question on the form, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”
Roles change daily, but one worker is in charge of the maple grilled cheese. Two more take care of the kitchen prep. Another, who has been home since 2009, is a mentor in charge of developing curriculum for Drive Change. Still another, who came to Lexton’s program from the Doe Fund says, “There’s nothing that brings people closer than food. Food transcends everything and doesn’t hold anything against you no matter what your history is.”
Why call the truck “Snowday”?
“Snowday to us reflects the liberty of a day that integrates community, a day where folks don’t go to ‘traditional’ school or work but still get out in the world and explore — connect with nature and each other — and learn,” Lexton said. “Snowday is bliss, it is freedom.”
On the subject of sugar
All of the food on board the truck has a maple syrup component to honor Lexton’s first inspirational taste of sugar on snow. How about sugar being the object of food activists’ ire?
“The menu may not be health food targeted — we are not serving juice and chopped salads — but everything is locally sourced directly from New York state farms,” Lexton said. “Sustainability and healthy product are central to our mission — even maple syrup, which one could argue is high in sugar, is a natural sugar that has proven natural health benefits. Schools may avoid sugar, but they are mostly avoiding processed products and trying to get folks to learn about how to cook better for themselves and learn about where their food comes from — two things we pride ourselves on at Drive Change.”
On this particular Saturday, the inviting menu included:
Maple grilled cheese sandwiches, with the cheese from Hammond Dairy; little skievers with greens from Hudson Valley duck farm; apples from Migliorelli Farm; and bread from micro farming sourdough starter at Last Chance Foods. Even the water was locally sourced.
All summer long, the Snowday truck will be on Governor’s Island in New York on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Main photo: Drive Change founder Jordyn Lexton on the Snowday food truck. Credit: Tal James Luther
Ruth Reichl’s engaging books talk of her growing up years, her family and how she learned to cook. In her nonfiction titles she has written about waitressing in a restaurant where every worker was an owner and about her work as a food critic with the Los Angeles Times, as a food writer for the New York Times and as editor-in-chief at Gourmet magazine.
In one of her books I remember Reichl saying she learned early on that the most important thing in life is a good story. And that’s what we get in her first novel, “Delicious.” One of the reasons I love first novels is they often have an unrestrained, unbridled, generous energy that catches and pulls the reader in like a lasso and the wild ride through character and plot is exhilarating. And when there is food at the center of the story, I’m hooked.
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By Ruth Reichl
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As a child, Billie Breslin, our heroine in “Delicious,” spends much of her time in her mother’s kitchen. Her sister Genie says, “She’s always sniffing the bottles in the spice cabinet.” And sure enough Billie can deconstruct almost anything she tastes, including the gingerbread cake her deceased mother used to make every year for her father’s birthday. (Check out the cake’s recipe in the back of the book.)
The book opens with Billie, Genie and their Aunt Melba making cake after cake until they finally figure out the exact recipe. “It’s even better than your mother’s,” Melba tells Billie, who has inherited her mother’s natural ability in the kitchen along with her nose and delicate palate.
In Montecito, Calif., where Billie and her sister are growing up, they spend a summer making cakes to earn spending money. They quickly become somewhat famous in the area and end up having a company called The Cake Sisters. Their final cake sells for a huge amount of money, but it costs them dearly.
Eleven years later, our heroine moves to New York City and finds a job at a magazine called Delicious that operates out of the “stately, gracious, old Timbers Mansion in Greenwich Village.” Billie is an assistant to the director.
But before she is officially hired we are treated to a tour through restaurant kitchens, Italian charcuteries and farm markets. We meet cheese mongers, bakers and chocolatiers, each of them imparting their passion and knowledge. Their willingness to have in-depth conversations ultimately creates a community for Billie that we New Yorkers know and treasure.
The reader is exposed to amazing foods and herbs that include curry leaves, myrtle, cassia and hyssop. We discover Chinese blossoms called Osmanthus that are used for sweet and sour sauces and to concoct the most exquisite tea. When Billie is taken into a butcher shop, she smells the sweet mixture of sawdust that is on the floor “and the clean forest scent … mingling with the mineral aroma of good meat.” Who knew that there was a difference between fall Parmigiano and spring Parmigiano?
Ruth Reichl’s characters take readers through kitchens and food history
“Delicious” is full of interesting characters, each with a full-blown story that unfolds within the larger story of the magazine. We meet people such as Jake, the handsome director of the magazine who had some kind of intimate relationship with Maggie, who is now his angry friend and one of the test kitchen cooks. Thursday Brown is a terrific chef at The Pig, a pub that everyone at the magazine frequents so we can catch glimpses of her great food.
We also meet Sammy, who writes for the magazine and travels great distances and becomes close friends with Billie, with whom she shares her dark secret. The Complainer is one of my favorite characters and when Billie takes a Saturday job at Fontanari’s Cheese Shop, a distant flirtation begins around his choice of cheeses. Benny, who owns the butcher shop, teaches Billie “where the T-bone ends and the porterhouse begins.”
The novel continues to twist and turn through the streets of New York and we are folded into the hearts and minds of Reichl’s characters like the eggs of a good soufflé (and James Beard writes, “Don’t be afraid of a soufflé”).
There are secrets lives, secret rooms and secret letters exchanged during the early 1940s between Beard and a young woman trying to comfort herself after her father goes to war and disappears. There is loss, family history and tradition. There is even a discussion of how important food was for the war effort during WWII: “It took a ton of food to feed a soldier for a year.”
When Reichl worked at Gourmet, she gave us a worldly spread of the life of food and when the magazine abruptly folded, her agent reminded her, “You’ve always wanted to write a novel. Now’s the time.”
And “Delicious” is a swift ride. Billie Breslin comes into the novel with heartache. She grows, changes, makes peace with her past and finally finds happiness and love. Reichl’s philosophy bursts forth from her book: “The secret to life is finding joy in ordinary things … the pleasure of a perfectly ripe peach, the juice running down your arm … DELICIOUS.”
Main photo: “Delicious” and author Ruth Reichl. Credit: Fiona Aboud
For decades in Mumbai, famously efficient deliverymen called dabba wallahs or dabbawala (one who carries a box) have delivered as many as 200,000 hot meals a day, usually made in home kitchens, to doorsteps and businesses across the city.
The intricacies of this extraordinary colonial-era tradition are revealed in director Ritesh Batra’s new film, “The Lunchbox.”
The practice can be traced to 1890 when Mahadeo Havaji Bacche launched an operation with about 100 men. The system depends on teamwork, organization, color-coding and timing, using “tiffins” as the tin lunchboxes are called.
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The meals are collected by the dabbawalas from homes between 7 and 9 am. The hot food is kept warm by each cook wrapping the tiered lunchbox in a quilted carrier. Dozens of tiffins are slung over the back of a dabbawala, who takes them to the nearest railway station where they are placed on the platform and sorted by color codes that designate the area to which each tiffin is to be delivered.
The “Dabbawala Special” is a train that arrives between 10 and 11:30 a.m. and takes the tins to the various areas of the city where they are to be delivered. At each destination a dabbawala will then pick up 35 to 40 tiffins. It usually takes about 15 minutes for each carrier to locate all of his tiffins and arrange them on his wooden crate, which he then hauls either by hand or behind a bicycle and delivers at around noon. The dabbawala will then be responsible for returning the tiffins at the end of the day.
An intricate system
A single tiffin can change hands three or four times before it is finally delivered to its eater. Once lunch hour is over, the whole process reverses, returning the tiffins to the railway platforms, then to the dabbawala and finally to the suburban homes by 6 p.m.
The original dabbawalas are believed to have been descendants of soldiers of the legendary Maharashtrian warrior-king Shivaji who arrived in Mumbai from places like Junnar and Maashi. Now many are former farmers who couldn’t earn enough from the land or in their communities and hope that relatives in Mumbai already working as dabbawalas will find a vacancy for them. Each new dabbawala’s minimum requirement for work is some capital, two bicycles, a wooden crate for the tiffins, and at least one white cotton kurta-pyjama.
In 1970 the organization was restructured, and the dabbawalas were divided into sub-groups of 15 to 25, each supervised by four mukadams, which are the experienced old-timers who are familiar with the colors and codings of the lunchboxes. Growth in each of the sub-groups depends on what the market will support. New customers are acquired through referrals. But if a lunchbox is misplaced, stolen or lost, an investigation is initiated immediately and customers are allowed to deduct any costs from the responsible dabbawala. A 1998 study of the operation showed there was only one error in 6 million transactions.
A misplaced lunchbox
And this is where “The Lunchbox” begins. It is the story of a widowed office worker, Mr. Fernandes, who is nearing retirement, and a young neglected housewife, Ilya, who thinks her husband might be having an affair. After some advice from an unseen Auntie, Ilya decides that she can win her husband back by improving on the daily noon meal she cooks for him and has delivered by a dabbawala. We are witness over time to the most delicious concoctions: meals such a chicken xacuti, fish puttu, vegetable biryani, aadi perukku and an array of naans and chutneys that Ilya lovingly prepares.
On the first day of her husband’s new and improved lunch, the dabbawala misplaces her tiffin and instead, delivers it to Mr. Fernandes. When he opens his lunchbox to this new delightful meal he is astounded and confused. His enjoyment of that first meal is wonderful to watch.
As these wonderful lunches continue, the mistaken delivery is not reported by either Mr. Fernandes or Ilya. It is the kind of good luck that both of them appreciate. Good food can change a heart. Day by day the lunches continue to improve, and the two begin a simple exchange of letters.
I won’t tell you what happens, but just that the movie is full of delightful moments that made me whip out all of my Indian cookbooks. The serendipitous meeting of two people that occurs because of a mistaken delivery by a dabbawala in a city the size of Mumbai bringing about the end of loneliness is one in 6 million. Don’t miss “The LunchBox.” It will satisfy all your senses.
Top photo: Irrfan Khan as Saajan Fernandes in “The Lunchbox.” Credit: Michael Simmonds, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics