Echoes and Mementos

Thoughts and pictures about cooking, eating, reading, writing, and living.

Tag: cheese

On My Doorstep: A Taco-Selling Truck

A truck sells tacos on my doorstep at least once a week. My building’s door slides open, I walk out into the world, and there’s the truck broadside to the sidewalk, marigold-orange and grill sizzling. Deftly, the truck has parallel parked. I know because I have seen these food trucks wiggle into car-sized spaces. Deftly he has parked; every twenty minutes, a new boatload of people too tired to cook are coming home from work via the ferry.

In the past few years, Americans have developed a fierce appetite for Mexican food. Californians have long raved about crema and carnitas, and now New Yorkers and Philadelphians can too. Last September, in Philadelphia, I was thrilled when at a Mexican restaurant, Tequilla’s, the waiter whispered to me about an off-the-menu Oaxacan treat: grasshopper tacos. The tacos were grassy and nutty, pleasantly so. The tacos were a door to another culture, the Mexican-American culture, and I enjoyed how it felt and tasted.

But, zoom out. In the US, the general love for Mexican-American food stands in contrast to how in general Mexican-Americans are perceived and treated. Logic and Compassion tell us we’re out of line here, and so does History. From where do Americans come? One hundred years ago, the immigrants were Italians and Irish, the grasshoppers, spaghetti and potatoes.

Walk through Manhattan’s Little Italy, or Philadelphia’s or Boston’s, and you will see. (Less so Boston; the North End is only more slowly eroding.) When I go to Little Italy in New York, it is because Little Italy is in the way of Chinatown.

Little Italy is two streets wide. Its tenants and their descendants have dissolved into the population and dispersed across the land. Evidence of Little Italy’s erosion stands in Chinatown. On Mott Street, you will see a few lone Italian restaurants in the sea of Chinese shops. The impression is, to the new viewer, that the whole neighborhood was once Italian. The old neighbors have slowly moved out.

On a national scale ( for how else could I be eating grasshoppers at a latitude of 40 degrees North?), new neighbors are moving in. They are bringing red cooking and tacos. Sounds to me like a party.

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Recipe Cards

When you read books of fact someone is telling you about the past. You are mostly passive, a listener. When you read recipes you are actively reconstructing and exploring the past. I once read a few Roman recipes. They were from the empire, and they were translated from Latin. Pasta had not yet evolved. Romans instead ate a polenta made from wheat; corn was stuck in the Americas, and so was a favorite jungle-fruit of mine: the tomato. Cooks seasoned food with garum, a fermented fish sauce, similar to the condiment popular in Southeast Asia today. People and foods change; through old recipes we can imagine how we used to be.

My grandparents recently sent me some recipe cards. Mostly, they come from my great-grandmother, who herself came from Avellino, Italy (near Naples) to New York by way of Albania and Budapest. (Recall: the woman who gave me the idea for eggles gnocchi.) She settled in the West Village. Here is a curious fact, for in the West Village I have idled away some Saturday afternoons, slinking into shops, wandering, buying tea and cheese. I am interested in the recipe cards for the food, yes, but also for the portal to Italian-American New York of a century past.

“Christofer,” my Nanni recently asked, “where do you get your tripe?” I don’t know where I get my intestines for cooking, because I don’t know anyone who will eat them with me, except maybe Shadow, but now that I have a recipe for the spongy organ I will search for a butcher who carries it.

Look for some of these foods in the coming weeks and seasons.

American Cheese



A Farmer’s Pasta in Six Ingredients

“Guanciale” comes from guancia, the Italian word for cheek. Guancia also means pillow, for where do you rest your cheek at night? Guanciale, a strip of meat, comes from a pig’s cheek that has been cured. The cut is some 90% fat. I seldom eat meat, but in the hour before I do, something like guanciale arrives on my cutting board.

My favorite pasta calls for guanciale, spaghetti, onions, olive oil, tomato purée, and Parmesan cheese. Should you be unable to find guanciale, pancetta can substitute. But Guanciale gives the pasta a deeply animal flavor that takes you to a place out of time, to a sad barn in the hills, to the campfire of Stone Age hunters, to a savage and dirty place where tofu and cream-white chicken have never been tasted.

I learned to cook this pasta in Italy, from the owner of a farm near Bologna, where I worked a few summers ago. “A farmer’s pasta,” he often said while preparing the dish. (It appears on menus as spaghetti amatriciana.) Here’s his version:

And mine:

And a recipe:

Spaghetti Amatriciana (“a farmer’s pasta”)

Serves 2

1 tbsp   olive oil

1/4 lb   guanciale, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1            small onion, chopped

1 cup     tomato purée (or crushed tomatoes, etc.)

1/2 lb    spaghetti

Parmesan cheese to taste

1) Put two paper towels on a plate beside your stove. Sauté guanciale in olive oil over medium heat, stirring often. After three or four minutes, when the guanciale is browned  and a pool of grease coats the pan, transfer guanciale with a slotted spoon to the paper towels. Use paper towels to lazily wrap the guanciale.

2) Sauté onion in the guanciale’s grease for three minutes over medium-low heat. Pour in tomato purée. Let simmer, stirring occasionally.

3) Cook the spaghetti in salted water (about 1 tsp. salt) until al dente. Drain spaghetti. Add to simmering sauce. Add guanciale. Kill heat. Stir well. Sprinkle Parmesan onto the pasta. Eat.