My Night at the Beard Awards

My story about Ken's Artisan Bakery garnered a nomination for the James Beard Foundation journalism award. I didn't win, but like any good freelancer took the opportunity to write about it. This article appeared in Willamette Week in 2004.

ames Beard Foundation 2004 Nominee Newspaper Feature Writing

ames Beard Foundation 2004 Nominee Newspaper Feature Writing

James Beard considered fresh, local foodstuffs a birthright and fundamental to good eating. “The triumph of cooking,” he wrote,” is to be able to produce the simple things so that they taste as they were meant to.” The big man might have called it “delicious irony” that the long weekend of celebration in his name took place in a town where fresh and local usually means Chinese takeout from the place on the corner, and the $500 tasting menu constitutes the triumph of cooking.

That celebration was the 2004 James Beard Foundation Awards in May, and it spanned a handful of Manhattan nights filled with congratulatory talk, well-dressed people, free-flowing Champagne, and, of course, food. While some of that food might’ve fallen short of Beard’s triumphant standard, I don’t think it would’ve kept him from enjoying it.

“He loved to eat,” Beard’s childhood friend Mary Hamblett told me once, “plain food, fancy food, anything as long as it was good.”

Well, so do I. I went to New York because I’d been nominated for a Beard journalism award (for Yeast of Burden, WW, January 2003; I didn’t win), but I planned to do some serious eating, too. The Beard events promised plenty of opportunities to sample from name-brand chefs

The flavors of Latin America were the theme for the food at the Beard events, and the journalism awards dinner narrowed the focus to the Caribbean. Appetizers included hearts of palm wrapped in ham and coconut beef carpaccio on crispy fried plantains. The little cones of avocado ice cream flavored with chili probably seemed like a good idea, but they sent me looking for something to get the taste out of my mouth. A shrimp and lobster cocktail with roasted tomato and pickled jalapeño did the trick, and the passion fruit gelée hidden at the bottom was a nice surprise. Subsequent courses of guava-cured snapper and cumin-rubbed skirt steak were good, but the the meringue served for dessert, a strangely tasteless mound of fluff in a chalky red bean sauce, left me wishing for a banana.

The Chefs’ Night Out party sponsored by Bon Appetit magazine at the new Time Warner building offered the most promise for cutting edge food. High profile chefs Thomas Keller, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Masa Takayama, and Gray Kuntz have restaurants in what’s basically a very high-priced food court in an equally upscale mall. Kuntz, whose Cafe Kuntz was still under construction, made an effort with scallop ceviche, foie gras pate, and Vietnamese-stlye lettuce wrapped beef. The V Steakhouse apparently offered some kind of meat, but the crush at the door made it impossible to get any. Keller’s Per Se, recently reopened after a nasty kitchen fire, took the clever but easy route with truffled popcorn. Very tasty, but disappointing given the hype.

The chef and restaurant awards gala, often called the “Oscars of the food world,” lived up to the comparison by going on and on. I slipped away before the last awards were announced and headed straight for the food, set up in an adjacent ballroom. Ahead of the crowd, I worked the scattered tables representing the work of nearly 40 guest chefs from across the Americas. I managed to try salt cod pasteles with coconut sofrito, foie gras escabeche with mashed boniato and quince paste, arepa chips with chicken and avocado, yuca rellenos with scallops, Argentinian blood sausage, Brazilian feijoada, Columbia arepas, Oaxacan moles, at least two variations of Cuban whole roasted pig, Mexican cabrito flavored with achiote, and Peruvian potato cakes filled with fresh water prawns before small-plate gridlock set in.

This was seriously good food, but the best meals I ate in New York weren’t part of the Beard festivities. New York has the most diverse collection of ethnic restaurants on the planet, so I’d asked my online friends from eGullet, the food discussion web site, to set up lunch at one of them. At Kang Suh, a midtown Korean restaurant, we ate dishes I’d never seen in Portland. Tteokbokki combined different shaped rice cakes and noodles thick as your finger in a brick red sauce spiked with the hot red pepper paste called gochujang. The Korean version of the scallion pancake included oysters and the fiery pickled cabbage called kim chee; yuke was raw beef mixed with Asian pear and more of the gochujang. We tossed thin slices of short rib on the table’s built-in grill, than wrapped them in lettuce leaves with shredded scallion, a fermented bean paste called saemjang, and whole cloves of raw garlic.

And I ate with old friends in a little trattoria in Brooklyn that would’ve fit right in here in Portland. At Locanda Vini e Olii we ate fresh fava beans tossed with cubes of pecorino cheese and olive oil, Venetian-style fresh sardines in saor, and fresh pastas made with chestnut flour and flavored with wild dill. The use of seasonal produce in simple preparations that tasted “as they were meant to” reflected Beard’s philosophy more than frozen avocado ever could. I felt like I was back home.

Ode to Cabbage

I wrote this for the defunct website Culinate in the early 2000s

I love cabbage.

And I’m not talking about Savoy cabbage, the frilly version that’s been tarted up with a first name hinting of royalty. Or the other members of the Brassica oleracea family, including the various kales and collards, broccoli, kohlrabi, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts, deliciously gorgeous as they are. Or the strangely compelling relatives from central Asia, original home of turnips, broccoli rabe, bok choy, tatsoi, and mizuna, all part of the Brassica rapa clan.

No, my heart belongs to the ordinary, everyday cabbage, its pale green leaves tightly bound into a waxy ball, the humble heads tucked coyly away in the corner of the produce section. It’s cheap, reliable, and flexible; who wouldn’t fall in love?

It doesn’t hurt that cabbage is good for me, lends itself to last-minute cooking, doesn’t cost much, and grows, relatively speaking, in my own backyard.

Humankind’s relationship with Brassica started early. In his encyclopedic work Food: An Authoritative and Visual History and Dictionary of the Foods of the World, Waverley Root relates one ancient Greek belief of its origins: Dionysus, the god of wine, caught Lycurgus, the Edonian king, pulling up grapevines. While awaiting punishment, the king wept, and from his tears sprang cabbages.

An alternate myth has Jupiter sweating as he tries to explain contradictory oracles, and the cabbages sprout from his perspiration.

Those ancient Greeks might’ve been on to something. But given my devotion it seems more likely that Eros, the god of love, was involved.

Wild cabbages, resembling kale more than my beloved green globes, grew along the Mediterranean coast, and according to Harold McGee, in his book On Food and Cooking, the “salty, sunny habitat accounts for the thick, succulent, waxy leaves” that make cabbages so hardy. Domesticated about 2,500 years ago, cabbage spread across Europe.

Because it tolerates cold weather, cabbage became an important staple farther north, and we typically associate it with the hearty cuisines of climes damp and gray.

But the Romans, like me, loved cabbage, and they’re probably responsible for the selective cultivation that resulted in so many disparate variations. By encouraging an existing tendency for the curling leaves to form more tightly packed bunches, those early Italian farmers created today’s well-known “heading cabbages.”

Our name for these derives from the colloquial French word for head, caboche.

Vegetable lore tells us that the Italian Catherine de’ Medici brought cabbage to France when she married fellow 14-year-old Henri de Valois, the Duke of Orleans and, eventually, King Henry II. History is silent as to whether she called him mon petit chou, or “my little cabbage.” But the endearment reflects the continuing French love of cabbage, from the choucroute of Alsace to the thick stew called gabure in the south.

Early cabbage fanciers also associated it with good health. Egyptians ate it with vinegar to prevent hangovers, Greeks dribbled cabbage juice into sore eyes, and Romans packed aching muscles with cabbage poultices. Herbalists today recommend cabbage for its anti-inflammatory effects, telling breastfeeding mothers to tuck a few bruised leaves into their bras for relief. It’s got lots of vitamins A, B, C, and E, and a study at Georgetown University showed how phytochemicals in cabbage might reduce cancer risks.

However, those same phytochemicals provide the frequently noted boardinghouse smell of overcooked cabbage, something that bothers others much more than it bothers me. Maybe I’m blinded, in an olfactory sense, by love, suffering from a cabbage-passion-induced anosmia. Or perhaps my approach to cooking mon petit chou reduces the breakdown of glucosinolates, the sulfur-containing compounds released when cabbage is boiled too long.

More likely, it’s the variety of cabbage. Brussels sprouts contain more of the healthful and stinky compounds than any of the other Brassicas. Heading cabbages, with their residual sugars, offer a sweeter love.

Farmers here in the Pacific Northwest harvest cabbage from mid-July through the end of December. Properly stored, it keeps for up to six months, so it’s theoretically possible to eat local cabbage all year. Prices vary, with conventionally grown cabbage usually less than a dollar per pound, organic about half again as much. Just before Christmas I bought an enormous head at a farmers’ market for only two dollars.

So, how do I love cabbage? Let me count the ways.

1) I love it cooked in a little olive oil with onion. There’s a head of cabbage in the refrigerator and onions in the pantry most of the time, so I make this almost every week. Cabbage loves pork, and I love them together. Start with a little diced bacon, then sauté the onions and cabbage in the smoky fat. A dollop of crème fraîche makes both of these simple dishes unctuous and rich. 

2) A bed of shredded cabbage roasted under a chicken steals my heart.

3) I love how the cabbage I add to my feeling-a-cold-coming chicken soup gives it enough substance to fill me up.

4) I’m crazy for coleslaw, the green salad I turn to when winter’s lettuce comes wilted from a long truck ride north and again when the hot summer sun makes my garden’s leaves bolt and turn bitter. 

5) Je t’aime, choucroute braisée à l’Alsacienne: Julia Child kindled new passion for sauerkraut by teaching me to simmer it slowly for hours in crisp white wine. And Marcella Hazan makes me cry, “cavolo sofegao, come sei bella,” with her Venetian-style smothered cabbage, another slow-cooked dish transformed with a splash of vinegar. 

6) Te amo cocido, tambien. While these one-pot Spanish stews often call for whole chickens, pigs’ trotters, veal shanks, and a garden’s worth of vegetables, I make a simple version with just garbanzos, potatoes, and cabbage.

Cabbage love comes in many other forms, and though the steady routine of our long-term relationship provides familiar comfort, I don’t want it to get stale.

So I keep searching for new outlets for my passion, different ways to express my feelings, unexplored culinary territory where I can say, again and again, I love cabbage.

Celebrating James Beard, 1988

A version of this story first appeared in Oregon Focus, the old OPB program guide, in June 1988 in a regular column I wrote called Realm of the Senses. The article described one the first events of the newly formed James Beard Foundation, a week of eating to celebrate the life of Portland’s own culinary celebrity.

Life in the Food Lane

It’s the first day of spring and two weeks of balmy sunshine end abruptly with gray skies, falling mercury, and fat raindrops. On a day like this, cloistered inside, false hopes of early summer gone, it’s easy to let inertia take over, to just stare out at the rain and forget about trying to do anything. On a day like this, James Beard would know what to do. Eat.

“He loved to eat, plain food, fancy food, anything, as long as it was good,” says Beard’s lifelong friend Mary Hamblett. She watched him eat wild strawberries and her father’s oysters when they were children in the beach at Gearhart and fetched him illicit maple bars from Beaverton Bakery when, in his later years, he was supposed to follow a strict diet.

James Andrews Beard, author, teacher, TV chef, the “Dean of American Cookery,” championed eating all his life, beginning the day he crawled into his mother’s pantry and ate a raw onion, skin and all. Though well-versed in classic European cuisine, he was the antithesis of the highfalutin food snob. “The triumph of cooking,” he wrote, “is to be able to produce the simple things so that they taste as they were meant to.”

Dungeness crab, fresh asparagus, good cheese – these elemental foods were his passion, foods he linked to his childhood in Portland. The Northwest’s abundance of edibles and a mother whose notions about food Beard described as “revolutionary” helped shape his attitude toward eating. It boiled down to a simple premise:  find the best local, seasonal ingredients and don’t mess with them.

Beard ate rain or shine, but it seemed particularly fitting that a typically Portland rainy Sunday in March started a week of gluttony dedicated to his memory.

After Beard died in 1985, fellow gourmands Julia Child and Peter Krump formed the James Beard Foundation. The group’s primary goal was transforming Beard’s New York brownstone into a culinary resource center, and to raise money the foundation sponsors a week of food worship based on Beard’s approach.

Preferred Hotels, an organization of self-styled “independent luxury hotels” including Portland’s Heathman, runs the celebration at member inns from Orlando to Anchorage. Since Beard was a Portland boy, the local festivities spread beyond the Heathman’s Broadway and Salmon address.

The week began with brunch at Timberline Lodge. Many old friends and alumni of Beard’s summer cooking school in Seaside made the drive up to Mount Hood. They told their favorite Beard stories, like the time he was talking to a woman on the phone early one morning and told he was frying bacon stark naked. “Well, don’t get hot fat on the hot fat,” she replied. The menu included local specialties – blueberry muffins, a bowl of filberts – and old Beard favorites like Picnic Pate, a rich blend of chicken liver, tongue, and bacon, laced with cognac.

Beard left Portland in 1922 to pursue a career in the theater, but discovered he didn’t have the voice for the opera. He was teaching French at a country day school in New Jersey when he met Bill Rhode at a cocktail party. They commiserated about the appalling food usually served at these suddenly trendy events, realized that there might be money to be made providing a high quality substitute, and within weeks had started a catering business called Hors d’Oeuvre, Inc. His first cookbook, appropriately called Hors d’Oeuvre and Canapes, was published in 1940.

At Portland’s Crepe Faire, the scene of the second celebratory meal, the appetizers included one of Hors d’Oeuvre Inc.’s most popular offerings, little sandwiches called “onion rings.” Instead of the battered, deep-fried version, Beard’s consisted of two rounds of heavily buttered brioche cradling a thin slice of raw onion; mayonnaise coated the edges of the bread, holding a layer of finely chopped parsley.

The next stop for the James Beard Celebration was the Heathman Hotel’s B. Moloch Bakery and Pub. Amid the fancy dishes such as Chinese Sausage with Five Spice and Ginger and Eggplant Stuffed with Ricotta and Sun-dried Tomatoes was what appeared to be lunch meat. Closer inspection and sampling confirmed the stuff was actually pimento loaf made in-house by chef Greg Higgins.

It was the kind of simple food Beard loved most. “After endless lunches in smart restaurants,” he wrote, “endless tasting, endless talk about food, one inevitably develops an apathy toward elegant cuisine.” He would often see something in the market, a fat chicken or the season’s first artichokes, and make a meal out of just that one thing.

The final Beard dinner, in a private dining room at the Heathman attended by men in bow ties (a Beard trademark), was anything but simple. It included Columbia River Spring Run Chinook in Three Peppercorn Cure and Spit-Roasted Squab in an Rosemary and Onion Nest. The main course, an incredible piece of beef tenderloin, came with a handful of tiny, marble-sized new potatoes, a Beard favorite, although he probably wouldn’t have peeled them. Most of his books include something about the beauty of potatoes “boiled in their jackets, with nothing more than salt and freshly ground pepper.”

The weeks’ food, like Beard’s ideas about cooking and eating, cut across artificial culinary boundaries. A dish like Higgins’ pimento loaf, could successfully rub elbows with the more uptownish fare because it was, in the end, good food.

Getting people to eat good food was James Beard’s mission, and he preached the gospel of de gustibus convincingly according to Crepe Faire’s Helen Hazen, who first met Beard in Gearhart, attended one of his first Seaside cooking schools, and went back every year. “Even the way he described food,” she said, “made you hungry.”

How I Stumbled Into the Olive Oil Business

 

I never really wanted to be in business, especially anything that had to do with selling. I fell into the olive oil biz to supply my own habit.

We took our first trip to Italy more than 20 years ago because my wife Judith is Italian-American. We loved the countryside, the food, and especially the people. And I had my olive oil epiphany. Most Americans never taste the kind of olive oil that really makes Italian food what it is.

I realized that the best olive oil is rarely exported. It’s not really economical since the good stuff is mainly produced in small quantities and can’t supply the demand of a mass market like the entire US. I knew I couldn’t go back to supermarket oil, so I carried home several liters, planning to hoard it until we could afford to go back to Italy.

We did make it back, and in 1999 we were driving from Sicily to Rome to catch a plane home. We had to spend the night someplace, and even though the restaurant was closed that particular night, we stayed at Don Alfonso. The next day chef and owner Alfonso Iaccarino showed us around the family farm, and we left with pasta, tomato sauce, and extra virgin olive oil.

We had to rush off because the road down to Sorrento was under construction and would be closed for the afternoon. In the car, Judith turned to me and said, “you should import that olive oil.” So it started.

On later trips I met Marco Bettini in Umbria, and decided to offer his family’s incredible olive oil. I was also able to finally start importing Olio Novo from Chianni, the little town in Tuscany where we stayed on our first trip. The Sicilian oil has special meaning for us, since Judith’s grandmother was born there in 1887. The California olive oil industry has matured and offers extra virgin olive oils as good as any produced in the old world.

My business plan was simple:

- Don’t lose any money.
- Have plenty of good olive oil in my kitchen.
- Go to Italy more often.

It's worked so far, although we don't go to Italy as much as we'd like to. Over the years I've found other things I want to eat, and I've added them to the Real Good Food offerings. What started as a way to keep my own kitchen supplied now provides extra virgin olive oil and other ingredients to Portland's best restaurants and home cooks. But I'm still my own best customer.