In my new novel, What’s Left, she’s grown up taking much of her family and its restaurant enterprise for granted. After all, every kid in her extended close-knit family has had to work shifts there. After the death of her father – her Baba – when she’s 11, she uncovers what had attracted him to the home she’s known.
Early on, his input into the expansion of the restaurant must have felt invigorating. Beyond its pure financial calculations came some intense consideration of spiritual values, growing culinary awareness, and out-and-out-sensory delight. Could you put these together as an artistic experience? That kind of thinking.
As background, here are some passages I cut from the final version of the novel:
Through Graham, Baba’s introduced to artichoke with homemade mayonnaise – not that we had much time to do stuff like this in those days, but when we did, watch out! And mushrooms, even if they did come from cans at the time. And cheeses, especially – quite a leap from the processed versions of his past. Even black olives – and then ones that didn’t come in cans or jars. That wasn’t all. As Manoula says, Baba was startled to see Graham instinctively jump in to pluck weeds from a garden row when they were visiting farmers who supplied the restaurant. Graham, the big city boy! He’s even the one who experiments with trying weeds in our servings – the whole foraging bit. The daylily blooms on salads are his biggest success. Not that we’d serve any of those in the restaurant. No, not back in those days.
With Barney, though, Baba really breaks free. There’s basic taste and pleasure, unlike Iowa, where salt and pepper and maybe onions were the extent of flavoring. Remember, Baba arrived here with the idealized meal consisting of a slab of meat and a potato, along with something else and a dinner roll. Breakfast usually came out of a box, maybe accompanied by Wonder Bread toast and margarine.
Here Barney throws him and shows him what’s involved in mincing garlic and dicing leeks and applying the definitive nuances of fresh herbs and spices. Instructs him in the importance and care of tools – knives, always sharp, especially. Be careful, too, to respect the zone of privacy and dignity each of the cooks demands, along with circumventing their eccentricities.
Though as Buddhists we don’t drink alcohol ourselves, we agree on serving choice beer and wine in the restaurant. After all, we already have the Taverna. Remember Baba’s illuminated beer screen? Our being vegetarians would not keep us from serving meat, either. Some dilemmas are unavoidable. Yes, the chef gets to sample the pots while they’re cook, meat sauce and all – as all of us agree, some dilemmas are inevitable.
As their thinking evolves:
We agree on a menu that offers both standard features and international specialties that vary daily, in part to take advantage of both season and locale, and in part to keep Barney and his assembly of talent on their toes.
What Baba returns to after his three years of Buddhist monastic seclusion, then, is hardly the circus he’d left. Even his beloved has grown in ways he needs to discover.
Let me confess that becoming vegetarian the first time really expanded my awareness of food. We were lacto-vegetarian, so cheese, eggs, and butter were all permitted, and the options were eye-opening. But this is America, and it’s hard to be out in the world long and still maintain the discipline. Two years spent mostly “out on the road” pushed me back into the mainstream at one point.
All the same, I eat much less meat than most people around me. Vegan, though, can be a challenge, as we discovered adapting it for the Greek-Orthodox dietary rules for Advent. That’s a whole other story.
Still, when we go out to eat, it’s rarely to a steak house. There are too many other fine options – or, as my wife likes to say, she wants to get something she can’t make better at home or, as I’ve seen, sometimes she wants to see how the pros make some dish she’s been serving us at home. (Falafel, anyone?)
What’s your favorite ethnic cuisine? What dish would you most recommend to a first-timer there?
In the family, Cassia’s great-grandparents would have had food like this.