Goulash, not ghoulish

Meyer Lemon Savarin

Happy New Year!

Here’s a dirty little secret about me: I like reading the obituaries in The New York Times. There’s nothing ghoulish here. I actually think of these as sparkling little pocket biographies, for, if you are written up in The New York Times on the occasion of your death, chances are you did something notable in the years preceding.

Edie Stevenson, the woman who created the “Hey Mikey! He likes it!” television commercial? She was there last week. (My name is Michael. You can just imagine how many times I hear that line when I’m about to taste someone’s cooking.) She was right alongside Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong-Il. How’s that for democracy in death?

I’ve read some screenplay-worthy stories of folks by reading the obits: Gene Tunney, the championship boxer? Great story. The obits also tend to make an excellent history lesson, albeit one that is centered mostly on the mid to late twentieth century.

Hey, I realize this isn’t for everyone, but personally I found the story of the creation of the Dorito inspiring. No less inspiring than the fact that Arch West, the former Frito-Lay exec who helped create what is considered one of the ultimate “junk foods” lived to the ripe old age of 97.

I had a college art professor who was fond of saying, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” At the time I thought this was almost horrifically jaded. Now I get it. That was his way of saying, “Yes, by all means celebrate creativity. Just remember that someone may have done it before; it’s your version of it that moves things forward.”  (Plus ça la change:  the more things change, the more they stay the same.)

Blogs about food? There may be one or two others besides the one you’re reading. But this one is different because I am writing it. (I didn’t say better, just different.) I don’t claim to be moving blogs—or even food writing forward, but I’m trying to do my own thing. I’m following a path well trod by M.F.K Fisher, Craig Claiborne, Benjamin Franklin, and countless cavemen sitting around a fire.

This is true of the world. The computer? Done. The cell phone? Done. But then Steve Jobs got a hold of them…and no I’m not comparing myself to Steve Jobs.

When it comes to food we always have a foot in two worlds: the first is where we came from and the second is where we’re going. We can’t help ourselves: someone served us something that soothed our soul when we were young and impressionable (last week.) That is now the barometer by which we measure future, similar meals. Today’s earth-shattering discovery is tomorrow’s touchstone.

But then there’s the magic surprise of the new and undiscovered that is always lurking around the corner with everything you eat. Maybe it is a new flavor of ice cream, a different way of grilling a steak, or even a cookie with that slight twist you never thought you’d like. (Sea salt on chocolate chip cookies? Who knew?)

That’s why I enjoy old recipes so much. I could never navigate a slavish route through Julia Child’s oeuvre. I’d be stopping every few pages with my own “What ifs?” What if I used olive oil here or Asiago cheese there? (I do that in the supermarket too. Don’t go shopping with me if you want to get in and out of the market in one day.)

Last summer a man named George Lang was written up on the obit page. He took a dark, dusty old restaurant on the Upper West Side, cleaned a few murals, and made the menu a bit more accessible. Café des Artistes became a legend, as much a pre-performance location for Lincoln Center audiences as a neighborhood “place” replete with atmosphere provided by interesting locals.

On the surface his story may appear to be of interest only to foodies. But he wasn’t born with a menu in his hand, and indeed it was the life lived before Café des Artistes came under his purview that is the really interesting part of his lore. (I won’t recap it here. Follow the link and read for yourself.)

A couple of years ago after the restaurant closed its doors Alex Witchel wrote a wonderful memory piece in the Times. The article was accompanied by a recipe for Orange Savarin, a wonderful, rich “continental-style” cake that was served toasted, splashed with a shot of rum, and “mit schlag”—with whipped cream.

George Lang is gone, his version of Café des Artistes is gone (although the restaurant is again open, now as “Leopard at des Artistes”) but I’m serving the savarin to my friends this New Year’s Eve as a nibble to accompany champagne. My version is made with Meyer Lemons which are plentiful this week in my market, and I’m skipping the splash of rum, but the “schlag” will be there if anyone wants it.

One step forward, two steps…


Click here for the recipe for Café des Artistes Savarin.


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