Thinking Out Loud… Über-Trendy Rich New Yorkers & Ethiopian Cuisine

 

Manhattan is where the trendy chic food trends begin, for the most part, right?  It has always seemed that way to me anyway, although I think LA may be able to take most of the credit for strip mall sushi, and Mexican fare.

 

Every time I’m in NYC, it seems that someone always suggests dining at some new kind of restaurant that until that moment, I didn’t really know existed.  It’s always good in some ways, but it’s never the kind of food of which anyone takes large bites, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone out for spaghetti and meatballs after dinner and goodnight.

 

I was in the city on business some years ago, dining with the CEO of an international conglomerate type of company who had wanted to dine at what looked to be a Chinese restaurant, but was supposedly representative of some far out province near the Mongolian border where yak was a delicacy, or whatever.

 

I’ll never forget it because he ordered the unbelievably expensive Bird Nest Soup for the table… if memory serves it was about $600 for maybe eight of us… and I am not making this up, you can ask someone else or look it up online.  As I was blowing on a spoonful wondering how I was going to get out of this gracefully… he leaned over to tell me what a delicacy it was because, he said in a hushed tone, it was made with “real bird spit.”

 

“WHAT?”  Unexpectedly taken aback for a moment, I had inadvertently blurted it out much louder than I would have liked.  Not really noticing my reaction in any detail, he only repeated himself.

 

“Oh,” I said.  “Real bird s-p-i-t… got it…wow, that is amazing.  I thought you said… “

 

Spoon in hand, he had returned to focus on the contents of the ornate blue and white lacquered soup bowl in front of him.  “Never mind,” I mumbled almost to myself.

 

Real bird spit, while considerably more palatable than its misheard alternative, was still not doing much for me.  I remembered that I once had pretty much gagged on a spoonful of egg-drop soup that my daughter ordered and insisted that I try.  And I figured that if I didn’t like egg in my soup, it seemed unlikely that I would end having a taste for a soup made from the nest in which the egg could have been laid.

 

 

And besides… REAL bird spit?  As opposed to what, perhaps?  Was there a company manufacturing fake bird spit and passing it off in cans as being the real thing to chefs in Mongolia?  That was only my first thought on the subject.  My second thought was that, although I detested that stuff referred to as imitation crabmeat, it was quite possible that bird spit would prove to be one of the few things in the world that given the choice, I’d probably just as soon opt for the fake one.

 

I peered into my spoon’s contents noticing the soup’s undeniable spit-like texture, and then as I watched him slurp it down like it was Campbell’s Chicken Noodle, I pretended it was still a bit too hot and returned my spoon to the bowl.  Recognizing that a diversion was going to be needed, I simply waited a minute before knocking my water glass over and in the flurry of apologies and confusion, fed my bird’s nest soup to the oriental carpet.  “Mmmm…” I said a few minutes later.  Delicious,” and thankfully no was the wiser.

 

But, it was far too close a call and I made a mental note to do more to avoid getting pinned down in such dicey dining situations.  I had learned this lesson before too… people with the means to eat absolutely anything are often drawn to really primitive peasant food and you have to watch them carefully or you could end up having to make a run for the relative privacy of a restaurant’s back alley in order to heave beyond the purview of the other guests.

 

I was in Helsinki some years ago for a couple of weeks and in case you get the chance to visit Finland… my knee-jerk response would be to yell out… No, don’t do it!

 

For one thing it never gets dark there so you can have the front desk book your tee time at midnight.  But trust me on this, golf is frustrating enough during the hours in which it’s normally played.  No one needs to be teeing off straight into the wind on a narrow 200-yard Par 3 with water on both sides at 3:15 AM, especially right after some 6’6” chick with blond hair and unusually muscular forearms named Maijuska, just opened your seventh beer at the turn.

 

For another, never attempt to spend time in a country where they have street names that make use of the letter ‘N’ five times, three of which being consecutive.  Just try finding “Uudenmaankatu Ullanlinna,” after a couple shots of vodka at the hotel bar.  Actually, it’s not that hard… it’s just past the intersection of Hietassaarenkuja and Porvoonk and if you hit Teollisuuskatu, you’ve gone too far.  If you rent a car, you’re all but certain to be killed in a rear end collision as you attempt to decipher enough of the data involved in the decision of turning one way or the other.

 

I was there at a conference of the World Health Organization, my father’s doing, not mine, and so we were attending these hoity dinners at which I can only assume the academics and government officials had simply eaten everything the world had to offer and so were being fed things that the rest of us would likely view as “experimental” before we’d identify with it as food we might want to eat.

 

I remember breakfast vividly, for the most part, it was always a herring buffet… all different kinds of herring prepared in every conceivable way, although some of which I’m certain I would never have been able to conceive.  And if you’re thinking that the problem was that herring alone isn’t all that filling, don’t worry… that was not the problem, and it was all the herring you could eat.

 

With that as breakfast fare, it was barely a surprise to find out that these world-renowned intellectuals with means eat porridge for dinner, but we’re not talking about Cream of Wheat with brown sugar, in this porridge there was invariably either reindeer or blood sausage involved.

 

 

I’d offer to describe its taste, but for 10 straight days, I consumed only two foods and one drink: 1. Boxes of what appeared to be the Finnish equivalent of Lorna Doones.  2. Very large bowls of Beluga and Osetra caviar on toast points with a squeeze of lemon and chased by innumerable ice-cold shots of Finnish vodka.

 

After that, while traveling in the Baltic, First Class on a cruise ship headed for St. Petersburg, I quickly discovered that I was unable to come within six feet of a huge vat sitting right in the middle of the breakfast buffet table every morning.  I was told that it contained oatmeal, but I knew they were lying because although I will readily concede that “oatmeal” can spoil… it doesn’t die.  And there was no question in my mind that whatever was now inside that giant vat, it had not walked among living creatures for many years.

 

So, you’d think that I’d have learned my lesson after all these years, but the last time I was in Manhattan someone said, “Hey, let’s go have Ethiopian food,” and inexplicably, I replied saying, “Okay, sounds good.”  I heard myself say it… wanted to take it back, but it was too late, my host was already into telling me how much I was sure to love it.

 

Ethiopian food?  Really?  To my ears, it sounded like “jumbo shrimp.”  I thought food in Ethiopia was at least somewhat a rarity… maybe not compared with Chad or Somalia, but up against Tribeca or the East Village, for sure.

 

Twenty years ago the epicurean daredevils would have been touting “Sushi,” which today, I admittedly find delicious, but that doesn’t change the fact that a country’s cuisine made up of small pieces of raw fish could only develop in a country where you can’t afford a whole fish per person and you lack the electricity or gas to allow most people to own stoves.  If you have the yen, you order up a filet at Morton’s way before you develop a diet based on bite size pieces of raw fish… and rice.

 

And it makes sense to me because Japan is a rock about the size of New Jersey in the middle of the ocean; only one-seventh of the rock is arable… and historically speaking, the land nearby is generally jam packed with marauding hordes of one kind or another.  Much safer if you learn to feed the people on your rock without anyone having to leave it, no question about it.  So, rice and small pieces of raw fish rules the day, and I completely understand.

 

Another example is found in the tortillas with which so many Americans have become enamored.  I mean, they’re fine for holding whatever you put inside them, as long as it’s beans, rice, and some kind of meat, and the whole thing will taste great given sufficient amounts of salsa, guacamole and sour cream, which is the same sort of principle under which some consider snails to be a delicacy, just replace the condiments with garlic and butter.  Actually, I’ve often thought that I might be able to eat most of an economy car, given copious amounts of garlic and butter.

 

But tortillas couldn’t have been everything their inventors were striving for, right?  They had to be the result of people not being able to afford whatever they needed to make bread. They weren’t anyone’s first choice.  Like they got sick of eating so much bread that they switched to tortillas?  I seriously doubt that.  Every time I hear someone ask, “Flour or corn?”  I can’t help but think to myself, “Paper or plastic?”  I mean, who cares?

 

How about this for an answer: Whichever promises to most significantly reduce the probability of food inside ending up in my lap.  With that in mind, you make the call.

 

Just like matzo, for the Jews in the audience, which was also no one’s recipe, but rather is the sort of outcome possible when a bunch of slaves, on their way to a 40-year trek in the Sinai Desert, unexpectedly have to leave town in a hurry.  Why we have to relive the outcome of planning so poorly thousands of years after the event is beyond me.  I mean, come on already… let my people go.

 

And don’t start with that “tradition” nonsense.  I don’t need a Tevya in my life unless he’s being played by Zero Mostel, capisce?

 

 

You don’t see any Jews volunteering to wander around for extended periods in the desert for tradition’s sake, do you?  Not a chance.  The closest thing to that you’ll ever see from today’s Jews occurs when Walter Annenberg and his wife spend a week or two at their place in Rancho Mirage.

 

No one WANTS to eat matzo, which is why even Jews only consider doing it over the course of maybe a week a year.  I somehow manage to choke down half a sheet sheet of the stuff annually, but only if I can find the Egg & Onion flavor and slather it in butter and salt, which is basically the same sort of scenario under which I would be willing to eat shirt cardboard.

 

And, by the way, eating matzo without some sort of liquid within reach kills more people each year than any other food except improperly prepared blow fish.

 

Matzo was simply the best the Jews could do in a pinch.  If you don’t have a pharaoh on your tail who’s bent on exterminating your entire clan, and there isn’t a guy named Moses running from hut to hut yelling, “Let’s go, for Christ’s sake,” then you let the bread rise and leave the following day.

 

 

So anyway, that’s what we did… we went out for Ethiopian food, which I soon learned is not all that far from what I expected would be the cuisine of a poor African nation that, for most of my life, was at war with neighboring Eritrea.  And, why a country plagued by drought would attempt to develop an economy based almost exclusively on agriculture is one of those head scratchers for smarter minds than mine.

 

Didn’t they learn anything from Las Vegas?  I know they know about Vegas because half the cab drivers in Vegas are either from Ethiopia or Eritrea, so you’d think that by now someone would have sent a postcard home with a few tips, at the very least.

 

Or maybe it’s that, “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” thing at work.  (Okay, I apologize for that.  It was entirely uncalled for and just plain wrong.  You have my word that it won’t happen again.)

 

So, after being seated at a table for four, the six of us perused the menu in complete silence until it was awkward.  And just my luck, our waiter, who was a dead-ringer for Ziggy Marley, approached my side of the table first, saying…

 

“Are you ready to order, Mon?” 

 

“Yes. I think I’ll have three small bowls of paste and a basket of sandy sponges.”

 

“Very good, sir.  What color pastes would you like?”

 

“Hmm… let’s stay with Earth-tones… oh, and nothing purple,” the last thought having been inspired at the last moment as a table nearby received its order as I was finishing mine.

 

“Great, and to drink?”

 

“Let’s see… which do you recommend… the Desert Brush Tea or the Clay-aide? Never mind, I think I’ll have the tea.”  The waiter had already turned his attention to the next order but when I mumbled under my breath, “I drank too much clay last night,” he turned back to me.  “I’m sorry, did you want to change something?”

 

“No, I’m fine,” I replied.  “Absolutely perfect.”  Great, I thought.  Now he’d probably spit in my tea before bringing it to the table.  I started imagining that I was Larry David in an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

 

Our host loved his meal.  You could tell that he was literally enthralled by the overly cultural experience… he even knew how to pronounce his selection, although I decided not to ask him to translate it, even though I was 90 percent sure that he didn’t order goat entrails, so it probably would have been fine if he did.  At moments like that, I guess I just figure… why tempt fate, if you know what I mean.

 

So, would you like to know how I liked my Ethiopian meal?  I’ll tell you… it made me want to starve to death.  I hadn’t realized it before, but the occurrence of starvation in Ethiopia is probably a choice in many instances… people just can’t face another bowl of paste and sponges.  The country’s slogan could easily be changed to read…

 

Come to Ethiopia – A Wonderful Place to Miss a Meal

 

As I sat there, at first strategically moving my food around on my plate, and then generously offering everyone at our table and even those seated close by the opportunity to try what I had ordered, describing its taste like someone hosting an infomercial, I could tell that Ethiopian food was so 2010.

 

 

It had shown the world the many ways that sand, clay and brush could be transformed into dishes with varying amounts of moistness… some merely damp, others entirely soupy.  And now there would be something new… something with even less appeal than eating what falls on the floor of the African continent.

 

These multicolored pastes and play-doughs, it occurred to me, had been brought from the Horn of Africa to Manhattan for no discernable reason other than to provide upscale foodies a taste of what it feels like to be malnourished.  I decided that I would endeavor to impress my friends back in L.A. by finding out which country’s cuisine was likely to become the next trendy eatery for the recession-proof, restaurant addicted segment of our population before I left town.

 

I asked around… nothing.  I tried the Zabar’s shoppers, and still… no ideas.  Then, I figured that maybe the best way to find America’s next trendy dining experience might be to check the other countries where starvation has traditionally flourished.  Would there be restaurants serving food from Darfur or Somalia, for example?

 

Doesn’t it just figure that in this country, where we have so much food we that throw away inconceivable amounts on an hourly basis and literally pay farmers millions of dollars not to grow stuff… that we’d have trendy intellectuals gravitating towards the trappings of the impoverished?  It’s a lot like the untold millions of Americans who claim to be, “lactose intolerant.”  Is anyone lactose intolerant in Darfur?  I’m thinking… not, but what do I know?

 

So, unable to find anything worse than Ethiopian dining to hang my hat on as being the next new thing, but with the rich getting ever richer in this country every day, I started thinking that perhaps I should design the next trendy chic haute cuisine for those with discerning taste and sophisticated pallets, and open a restaurant myself.

 

But what could be even more primitive than eating Ethiopian style? It’s hard to beat sand and clay for dinner in terms of making a foodie with bank feel like he or she’s living large.

 

And then it hit me… Cuisine de Composti… A menu of delights made exclusively from refuse.  The toniest locales could have their compost trucked in daily… fresh from Central Jersey, or in LA’s case, flown in fresh from Fresno.

 

 

Perfect!  What’s even worse than eating in Ethiopia… eating right here at home in these United States.  Heck, we’ve got closing in on 50 million on food stamps and at least four million homeless already… by next year those numbers will have both gone up.  I’ll market the chance to experience the dining during America’s Great Depression, Part 2, to those not being given the chance to participate in it.

 

Opening the restaurant won’t cost much because it will be in a foreclosed and already decrepit building that we could be evicted from any day now.  We’ll keep trying to get the sale postponed and letting the patrons know what’s happening so they’ll never know when the sheriff might arrive and have them removed… how exciting for them.

 

This is going to be huge… a way for the uber-rich to live like the neo-poor, but instead of Ethiopian poverty, we’ll let them experience what our own country’s bottom rung people get to taste and smell every day.

 

We could call the place… La Maison des Ordures (French for “House of Garbage”), and I’d write the first review…

 

New LA Dining Experience Says You Won’t Refuse the Refuse at

La Maison des Ordures

 

I recommend the Rancid Chicken in Curdled Cream for sure.  Consider starting with the Romaine a’la Ptomaine, which is the chef’s signature salad. 

 

For meat lovers, don’t miss out on trying the Putrescence of Pork which is prepared with a Diphtheria Glaze, and it is something you’ll likely remember for days or even weeks afterwards.  And what this place does with its Decomposing Flap-Steak Fat is already said to be inspiring chefs around the world.

 

Don’t forget that upon request any of the meat dishes can be prepared to be served “extra rank,” which uses a rub made from a balanced blend of “miscellaneous droppings, lint scrapings and soap powder.”

 

Other popular items include the Stinking Fish with Reeking Cheese Potatoes and Insufferable Sauce, and for the real gourmand who isn’t allergic to petroleum-based products, the Eel du Oil is in a class by itself, but check the signs in front of the Arco across the street before ordering, as the price of this dish does fluctuate. 

 

And for pasta lovers don’t pass up the Petrified Noodles, which are traditionally served with various larvaes in a mucous-based marinara… portions are generous so consider ordering one dish for the table and sharing.

 

On the lunch menu is the Canine Rigatoni… it’s a brand new addition so ask your server for details, and there’s the fabulous Hirsute Herring Chowder, which is served unshaven with a selection of moldy breads and crusty sponges. 

 

And for either the children, or the un-tenured assistant professors from New York City College, along with any other budget conscious guests, there’s the always hearty, “Fetid Franks & Things,” a casserole dish that looks every bit as interesting as it smells.

 

Desert is certainly worth leaving room for… and the most popular are the Spoiled Crèmes in Kleenex, which is served sprinkled with a mix of coffee grounds, dust and acetaminophen… and who could forget, the dish that started it all, the Crème du Stench, which is truly a bouquet of aromas that shan’t be forgotten. 

 

And for those adventurous diners, who don’t shy away from diseases born south of the border, there’s the Lumpy Crème de Cagada, which for a few dollars more can be ordered without lumps but this change does add about 20 minutes to the preparation time, so be sure to order ahead of time.

 

After dinner, patrons are welcome to linger over a cup of what appears to be the restaurant’s own coffee, look for it to be listed on the menu as “Steaming Hot Brown Fluid.”  Its further description only says that it’s, “a proprietary blend,” and it seemed that by stopping short of disclosing what exactly was being blended, our table’s after dinner conversation was much more lively than usual.

 

 

Or, maybe not.  I don’t know… now I seem to have lost my appetite…

 

Besides, I’m just thinking out loud.

 

Mandelman out.


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