The most embarrassing moment of my life came when, as Nation Chief of the YMCA’s Indian Guides, I appeared in a full Indian-like headdress in a parade honoring the pioneers of the Conejo Valley.
From my limited knowledge of where I once lived, the first pioneers of this vast valley straddling the Ventura and Los Angeles County line, arrived shortly after World War II and immediately built three- and four-bedroom tract homes on lots the size of postage stamps. A decade or two later, a new set of pioneering developers tore down the original homesteads and replaced them with bigger tract houses on the same tiny lots.
The only thing that remained of those halcyon pre-pioneer days were rattlesnakes and cat-eating coyotes, both of which the encroaching crowds deserved.
The Indian Guides program was started in 1926 as a way for fathers and their children to build relationships while teaching respect, reverence and strong family values. The original intent was to honor Native Americans by borrowing from their traditions and lore.
Rather than actually studying Native lore, however, the program quickly devolved to borrowing from Hollywood’s racist stereotypes. There was the “talking stick” one had to hold if one wanted to say something; there were faux rituals, regalia and tom-toms; there was a significant use of “ugh” and plenty of “woo-woos” and “hoo-hoos.” Requests were usually begun by saying, “me want-um…”
I cringe even thinking about it. (Thankfully, the program’s name was changed to Adventure Guides in 2003.)
On occasional weekends the Tribes of a Nation would have a pow-wow in some 1930s-era dilapidated camp in some faraway woods or mountains. There would be a lot of parent-child activities until the kids fell asleep and then the fathers would drink heavily and/or pass the peace pipe, if you catch my drift.
It was at one of the winter soirees in Big Bear, California, that I had my first revelation about American gluttony.
I had asked one of the fathers who had been to this particular camp in years past how the food was.
“It’s awful,” he said, grimacing. He then cheerfully added, “but they give you a lot of it.”
Call me an ungrateful snob, but large portions of bad food are nothing I have ever desired.
I have been documenting stories of bad food experiences ever since.
Long before I was participating in desecrating Native culture (although we really didn’t know it at the time) Geri and I were taken to the newest, hippest restaurant in all of Southern California, Michael’s. The place was notable for nouvelle cuisine and high prices. In the days before ATMs, this place was only missing an on-site loan officer to offer assistance paying your tab.
This is when I was introduced to tiny portions of food presented on plates that could easily hold a whole turkey. The food might have tasted great had there been more than one bite per course. I’ll never know. After paying what seemed equal to down payment for a house in the aforementioned Conejo Valley, we bid our hosts goodbye and did a drive-thru at a McDonald’s a few blocks away.
Our hosts went to Taco Bell.
Food has been something of an obsession of mine for what seems an eternity. My road trips are planned around where to eat—a favorite Mexican restaurant in Idaho, a great pizza joint in Utah, the best Thai place in Las Vegas, a Greek café in Baker, California. It’s the Tasting Tour to Los Angeles.
When flying domestically one can only wonder about the hundreds of great restaurants 33,000 feet below while you’re eating stale crackers and processed cheese.
One time I was having to fly somewhere and when I boarded, there at the end of the ramp was a folding card table loaded with brown-paper lunch bags. I thought maybe the airlines was having a bake sale. It turned out that the bags contained our in-flight meal which, if I recall correctly, was two cookies and a 7-ounce can of 7-Up. I looked into trading, but everybody had the exact same thing.
Well, I huffed to myself, I’ll never fly this airline again.
Who am I kidding? I’m not going to boycott an airline because they once insulted my palate with a couple of pecan sandies. Also, if I happen to want to go to Terre Haute—and who doesn’t?—and that’s the only airline… Nobody is so principled that they’re going to walk.
I have great empathy for people on restricted diets, except maybe vegans. Why should I care about somebody whose idea of manna is kale. I also don’t understand completely why if one wants a plant-based diet there is such a clamoring for fake eggs, fake cheese and Impossible meat? I can’t even pronounce the chemicals it takes to turn a zucchini into something that resembles a strip of bacon. I like both zucchini and bacon in their somewhat natural state.
Of course, there are great philosophical, moral and ethical questions regarding the slaughter of livestock for human consumption. Cruelty is always at the crux of the argument. Is it cruel to kill a cow so we can eat steak? Well, killing isn’t usually a pleasant thing.
When I was in the fourth grade, our class field trip was to Chicago’s Union Stockyards to see how cows became food. It’s only in retrospect that I realize that I went to a very tough school. Most kids got to go to the Brookfield Zoo to look at animals that were still breathing. Nine years old might be a little young to witness cattle being hoisted in the air by their back legs only to have their throats slit while hanging upside down. Though not a deal breaker, it is a vision that tends not to fade.
When Sinclair Lewis wrote The Jungle (1906), his intention was to promote socialism in a society that cared little for the working poor. The reading public tended to focus on the deplorable sanitary conditions of the Chicago Stockyards. Generations have sworn off eating meat after reading the novel.
“I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach,” Lewis said.
Under any circumstance the stomach is a bad place to be hit, especially if you’re sick enough to end up in a hospital. Like airplane food (except in Europe), hospital food (except in Europe) is notoriously bad. This is something that has confused me for many years.
First of all, let’s assume that most of the people eating in hospitals are either sick or are employees who forgot their lunch at home. Let’s further assume that all of those sick people are at the hospital to get better. I was raised to believe that nutrition is an important part of maintaining one’s health and therefore any food you consume in that process should be good for you.
The hospital argument is that the food the staff prepares is good for you. My argument is that if it tastes like crap you’re not going to eat it and you will therefore not benefit from its consumption. It’s a vicious cycle.
Over the past seven years, I’ve been unfortunate enough to have gained significant experience in the world of institutional eating in five different places. My first experience was so bad that Geri brought salmon from our restaurant for the hospital’s kitchen to cook for me. I’m not alone in my assessment. When Jim Harrison was in that same hospital, I would bring him bowls of Italian meatballs. For Mike Art, it was grilled quail and veal saltimbocca.
The food at our new hospital is actually quite good. I’ve even gone there specifically to have lunch a few times. But something happens to the food between the kitchen and the patient rooms. Magically the flavor disappears—maybe into the elevator shaft.
When I was in Denver, I had a choice of several facilities that offered the physical rehabilitation I needed to face surgery. I chose the one that actually mentioned food in its brochure. As bad as the food was at that version of Shady Pines, I was glad that I hadn’t opted for any of the others.
Two of the things that contribute to great food are salt and fat, especially fat. Sadly, they are items that apparently aren’t allowed in hospital kitchens.
I found it oddly ironic that the best tuna fish salad sandwich I’ve ever had was at National Jewish Health in Denver. Another staple of the Jewish palate, chicken salad, was also quite good. I would have liked to have tried the matzoh ball soup, but it wasn’t on the menu.
And why isn’t wine served in hospitals? It is in Italy, which is the next place I want to get sick.
Photography by Courtney A. Liska
This simple, elegant meal can be found in trattorie throughout Rome. The name “saltimbocca” means to “jump in the mouth.”
freshly ground pepper
4 slices imported Italian prosciutto, cut in half crosswise
16 large fresh sage leaves
3 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil, or as needed
6 Tbs. unsalted butter
1/4 cup marsala
1 cup chicken or veal stock
sautéed spinach, for serving
Prepare the spinach by cooking in oil, flavored with garlic. Remove it from the heat and cover the pan to keep it warm.
Season the scallopini lightly with salt and pepper. Cover each scallopini with a half slice of the prosciutto. Place two sage leaves over the prosciutto and fasten each in place with a toothpick, weaving the toothpick in and out.
Dredge the scallopini in the flour to lightly coat both sides. Tap off excess flour. Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil and 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat until the butter is foaming. Slip as many of the scallopini, prosciutto side down, into the pan as will fit without touching. Cook just until the prosciutto is light golden, about 2 minutes. Turn and cook until the second side is browned, about 2 minutes. Remove and drain on paper towels. Repeat with remaining scallopini, adding more oil if necessary.
Remove all the scallopini from the skillet and pour off the oil. Return the pan to the heat and deglaze the pan with the marsala. Add the remaining 4 tablespoons butter and cook until the wine is reduced by about half, about 3 minutes. Pour in the chicken stock and bring to a vigorous boil. Tuck the scallopini into the sauce. Simmer until the sauce is reduced and lightly thickened, about 3 to 4 minutes. Taste and season with salt and pepper, if necessary.
To serve, spoon the spinach in a mound in the center of each plate. Arrange the saltimbocca over the spinach. Spoon some of the pan sauce over the scallopini and serve immediately.
(*) For four servings, have your butcher cut eight, two-ounce portions of veal top round pounded to about 1/8th of an inch thick.