The daily soup special at the family restaurant in my new novel, What’s Left, was one way to introduce the now widely touted practice of local sourcing, perhaps with a hint of organic gardening. Here it begins when Cassia’s great-grandmother and her sister make rounds of nearby farms, gardens, and orchards in search of fresh produce, eggs and dairy, and perhaps meat. (I never get quite that specific, but a quick brushstroke will do.) The action picks up with her parents’ generation and its back-to-the earth movement – one in which I suspect some bartering might have occurred. Used cooking oil, for instance, has found value as motor fuel for some farmers.
Yeah, it seems everyone these days is on some kind of restricted diet. Just try throwing a party or inviting others over for dinner, you soon learn all about it.
My cardio incident has had me essentially eliminating eggs, butter, and cheese from what I eat – three glorious mainstays that now get in only as gingerly applied additives or, for the cheese, in low-fat and fat-free versions. And it’s red meat no more than once a week. Look up the Healthy Heart stuff if you want. I’m trying to be stricter than that, at least for a while.
Simply reading the labels on most prepared products is a horror story. Do you know how many bad fats show up in cookies or doughnuts or, oh my, just about everything snack like? And forget fast food along the highway. No, I’m not stopping at McDonald’s for a salad and having to inhale all that lovely fry-vat grease in the air. At least around the corner there’s sushi. Or a bagel with jam or jelly, no cream cheese, though lox might pass the test. You get the point.
My cholesterol levels weren’t bad before, but since the stent went in, my medical professionals want them even lower. Well, I pushed the profile down sharply in five or six weeks. It can be done.
I’m considering this as perpetual Lent of a Greek Orthodox sort, with a few tradeoffs like red wine thrown in. OK, mine’s not really that strict – I’m not vegan – but I am applying many of the lessons we gleaned from observing a strict Advent back in ’16.
Among the negative tradeoffs is caffeine, which my primary care physician wants cut down to a cup a day, max. I’m there now but do miss the second big mug (café au lait style, heavily laced with one-percent milk and sugar) as well as the midafternoon pickup. A substitute instant brew found at the natural foods store is surprisingly satisfying, apart from its lack of kick. The lingering question is do I shift to decaf, which strikes me like cheating but cuts out the caffeine? Any suggestions?
Well, the caffeine reduction is essential if I’m to address another issue. Will spare you the details, for now. Maybe forever.
At least the garden’s kicking in. A sorrel sauce on the asparagus almost has me forgetting mayonnaise, melted butter, or a runny egg or two atop the spears. Do I cheat with the fresh whipped cream when the strawberries hit in a few weeks? I’m already planning on that low-fat mayo when the tomatoes finally flood us in August – you don’t need the bacon to create a great sandwich, especially if you use basil instead of lettuce.
I hate to sound grumpy. This getting older does have its downsides, doesn’t it?
Successful restaurants, or so I’ve read, can go downhill overnight. The public can be fickle, on one side, and the operation itself, on the other, can implode. Oh, the stories we could tell!
In my new novel, What’s Left, her parents’ generation takes bold steps to anticipate changes in American food tastes. They brazenly agree to slightly re-position their landmark burger-and-fries restaurant (now called Carmichael’s Indiana) and the bar (the Taverna) while adding two new venues, one upscale (Carmichael’s Starlight), the other vegetarian (Bliss).
Though I cut this from the final version, I still love the taste of it on me tongue:
And the new Carmichael’s Stardust usually offered something daring, for our neck of the woods, depending on how we were feeling and how adventurous our customers were responding. Lamb shanks, anyone? Artichokes? Cornish hens? Brussels sprouts? We were expanding their horizons.
Well, that would have been pretty daring for the mid-’70s! We’ve come a long way since, something I’ll assume the Stardust menu has pursued. Vegetarian, meanwhile, has become both stricter and more innovative through its vegan adherents. I’m not at all surprised to find how often our meals fall into its range, even without trying. As for a late-night gathering spot? The Taverna strikes me as a step up from a typical bar. Makes me think, in fact, of the late lamented Barley Pub here in town.
Think of your own tastes. Which of the restaurants would be your first choice?
For me, it’s:
- Pie, rather than cake.
- Really creamy vanilla ice cream.
- Or gelato. I’m more open to other flavors here, too. Unless it’s Tahitian vanilla, which comes close to ambrosia.
- My wife’s really changed my mind here.
- Anything creamy, actually. Tapioca float, panna cotta, custard – she knows the long list.
- Crème brulee. Don’t tell me it’s mostly custard, not when it’s done right. And that shattery top is like walking on ice-covered puddles when we were kids. You just love to hear it crackle.
- Blueberry torte, as my wife makes it. With our own blueberries, natch. Makes a great breakfast, too.
- A hearty red wine accompanying a chunk of dark chocolate.
- Or their cousins, creampuffs or eclairs.
- Fresh strawberries, as in shortcake. (Well, you wouldn’t call that cake now, would you?) Although actually, I tend to think of this more as starting the day.
What would you add to the list?
Of course, this is totally unrelated to the theme. Just another thing on my mind.
There’s no escaping food itself or American culinary trends in my new novel, What’s Left – not when the family’s livelihood and fortune are built around their landmark restaurant. What I did, however, escape is a story relating the day-to-day cartoon sequences of a kitchen demimonde of cooks, dishwashers, and wait staff, out of sight in the back, and the quirky demands of customers beyond the swinging service door and long countertop, out in front. My daughter, a pro in the hospitality industry, already has a fine draft of a novel addressing those, thank you. Besides, I touched on some of those incidents in the opening chapters of my novel, Promise.
Since my new work grows out of a template established at the ending of my first published novel, where her parents’ generation is already immersed in change, it seemed natural to have them look toward innovation and evolution rather than remain tradition-bound in hamburgers and fried chicken. For one thing, they were toying with Buddhism, with its vegetarian traditions.
Let me say simply that the possibilities have led to many heated discussions in our household, married as I am to a well-informed foodie and genius cook in her own right. And that’s before we get to the aforesaid daughter.
In the time since Cassia’s parents’ marriage, the awareness of food options and availability of ingredients in America has advanced by light years.
It’s prime time for hot soup. We’re not talking about anything out of a can or a package dropped into boiling water. These are the ones made with fresh ingredients – or things you froze in season for use later. Probably with a good homemade stock, too.
- Tomato. Seriously, my wife’s is always a hit – and the glutten-free, lactose-intolerant, or vegans aren’t left out of the pleasure. Our secret ingredient is the tomatoes we cook down and stick in the big freezer in high summer in anticipation of this.
- Potato-leek. Simply comforting. Again, with our own leeks. Storing them through winter is a special challenge – so far, we find peat moss works best in buckets placed at the back of the cellar.
- Split pea and/or lentils. I imagine there are whole cookbooks devoted to the possibilities.
- Ramen. Remember, Japan created restaurants purely for this. Forget that cheap stuff in the plastic bag – though if you do, add tofu, the way we do.
- Pho. A hearty Vietnamese dinner in a wondrously big bowl.
- Seafood, meaning clam chowder or lobster bisque. (OK, that’s two. I just love both.)
- Hot and sour. Fresh Chinese bamboo shoots can make a world of difference.
- White bean. Last one I had was an Iranian version with lamb’s neck and another eight or nine ingredients. It was heavenly. Or you can stick to a hambone. Just don’t disparage good beans, OK? (Well, let’s add a footnote for turtle black beans, especially as a great Cuban bowl.)
- Ravioli. Yes, as a soup. Slurp ’em up!
- Asparagus. We put those stems we cut off to work later.
Well, India’s Mulligatawany belongs on the list, too. I doubt we’re done here yet.
What would you add to the list?
In my new novel, What’s Left, her great-grandparents parlay a hot dog shop into the purchase of a burger-and-fries joint at the edge of campus. Carmichael’s is a local landmark, even before her family takes over. And then they start buying up neighboring properties.
Her parents’ generation boldly sets out to enlarge on that base. They even buy out a dusty textbook store next door without quite knowing how it will fit into their business model.