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Fried Butter

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"Clever and witty."—Chicago Tribune

"The writing is offbeat, achieving the trick of seeming at once grounded and untethered. . . . Elemental acuity and the burlesque combine here to delicious effect."—Kirkus Reviews (starred)

"A joyous revelry in good food even when the memories evoked are bittersweet."—USA Today

"Mixes humor and wisdom. . ....

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Overview

"Clever and witty."—Chicago Tribune

"The writing is offbeat, achieving the trick of seeming at once grounded and untethered. . . . Elemental acuity and the burlesque combine here to delicious effect."—Kirkus Reviews (starred)

"A joyous revelry in good food even when the memories evoked are bittersweet."—USA Today

"Mixes humor and wisdom. . . . Full of piquant philosophical asides and fascinating culinary lore."—San Francisco Chronicle

"Opincar’s bites-of-passage are ruefully funny."—The New York Times Book Review

Foods, flavors, textures, aromas are like memories for Abe Opincar. He remembers leaving his wife the night he baked chicken, being criticized by French hosts for not properly eating ripe peaches with a knife and a fork, eggs sunny side up and first sex, cornmeal mush and his dotty aunt, garlic and his father’s love. We might look at a photograph or memento. Opincar’s recollections are summoned by food.

His life in California, Kyoto, Jerusalem, Paris, Istanbul and Tijuana is all called up by flavors that bring back the moments and places and people he broke bread with and loved. What’s recalled and savored is sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, or insightful and poignant, but it is always witty and penetrating and wholly beguiling. We eat what we are. Food is life, and Opincar relishes it.

Abe Opincar has published countless articles and writes for The San Diego Reader and Gourmet. He lives in Southern California and New York.

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Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
It's hard to understand how something that tastes sweet in one person's mouth, in another person's mouth can taste so bitter," a friend tells Abe Opincar, whose memoir, Fried Butter, explores the ways in which memory dictates gustatory preference. For others, it's a matter of social class. In Rosemary and Bitter Oranges, Patrizia Chen's grandfather banned onions and garlic for their rusticity; years later, Chen served him a dish laced with the forbidden seasonings. He praised her culinary genius. "But Nonno never found out about my Machiavellian deviousness," she writes. "I loved him too much to show him, at the end of his life, how his inflexibility had deprived him of one of life's great pleasures.

In South India, as Shoba Narayan relates in her memoir Monsoon Diary, food is enriched by ritual importance, from the choru-unnal (the first meal of an infant) to the elaborate feast that commemorates a marriage. When she left Madras to attend school in the United States, Narayan craved bowls of yogurt and rice to ease her homesickness: "While the foreign flavors teased my palate, I needed Indian food to ground me."

Rather than seeking refuge in food from home, Victoria Abbott Riccardi, a New Yorker, learned to refine her taste buds during a year in Kyoto. In Untangling My Chopsticks, Riccardi recalls her exploration of chakaiseki, a ceremonial meal of simple, seasonal courses that reflect the ritual's monastic origins. "Like a junkie, I initially craved my stimulants," she writes. "But then, ever so slowly, I started tasting -- really tasting -- the ingredients. It was like entering a dark room on a sunny day."

(Andrea Thompson)
Publishers Weekly
In this debut volume, Opincar delivers an evocative book filled with reminiscences conjured up by food. Traveling between past and present, he recollects ingredients from the black radishes that take him back to waiting in Paris with his friend Sophie as she anticipates her husband's return, to the taste of a Chateau d'Yquem that reminds him of a dying Dalia, who was responsible for his overseas education and pushing him out into the world. In turn, recollections generate memories of food, When Opincar was sent to school in France at 15 he learned proper French table manners, though he mis-speared an under-ripe peach to disastrous effect, an anecdote he recounts as farce. Not all memories are his own; some are from such friends and acquaintances as Iranian Reza (of saffron), as well as from Niang (with her sad memories of childhood and yams in China); and Opincar's mother remembers the soothing smell of eggs frying in butter when she was pregnant with him. While each group of memories forms an interconnected chapter, the volume lacks an overall structure, sometimes seeming as if the stories were picked at random. Despite this slight drawback, the book is a charming read and a nice addition to the world of food writing. (Apr.) Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Food as memory, memory as food, experienced with the unexpectedness of déjà vu, knocked between melancholy and humor, as summoned by newcomer Opincar. In this short, intense memoir, the author ranges freely as he looks back on the food in his life and how it has intersected and toyed with his emotions. The writing is offbeat, achieving the trick of seeming at once grounded and untethered. With twisted charm, Opincar will praise the hen for its "inexplicable, almost comical" selflessness, or, in the process of buying basil plants, note that most of the plant professionals he has met are "thin, strange, and practical." He offers a savvy little disquisition on turmeric, a sweet vignette of a taco stand in Tijuana, and a funny description of the curious cheese fleur de maquis, which "looks like something an animal buried in the forest . . . like something only a brave person might poke with a stick." Opincar is just the man for the job. Example follows savory example of all the instances when food triggers memory: an aunt hurling cornmeal mush at his father, saffron evoking the sadness of exile, an abortion tied to chocolate and cinnamon, black radishes conjuring up rainy days, and garlic reminding him of the affection of his parents, while the non-garlic-eating couples filed for divorce, Opincar remembers "my mother in a loose shift dress, my father in shirtsleeves
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781569473597
  • Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 4/1/2004
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 150
  • Product dimensions: 4.60 (w) x 7.70 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Abe Opincar was born in San Diego, attended high school in Bordeaux and Kyoto, and studied in Jerusalem. He has earned his living as a writer since he was 20. He now writes for the San Diego Reader reviewing and ranking places of worship (how California can you get?).

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Read an Excerpt

fried butter

A FOOD MEMOIR
By ABE OPINCAR

Soho Press, Inc.

Copyright © 2003 Abe Opincar
All right reserved.

ISBN: 156947334X


Chapter One

I BAKED A CHICKEN the night I left my wife. It was a chubby-thighed roasting hen I rubbed with olive oil and salt and hefted into a 500-degree oven where I left it to sizzle for about an hour. The hen's buttery smell filled the kitchen. Soup I'd made with the hen's neck, giblets, and feet simmered on the stove. Out in the dining room, two guests, my wife, my stepson and his wife, chattered and laughed and complained they were hungry. Our Sabbath candles shone in their silver holders. The challah waited beneath its embroidered velvet cover to be blessed.

On Friday nights we gathered around that big oak table where I blessed my stepson and his wife, where I sang Aishes Chayil to my wife ("Who might find a woman of valor? Her value is far beyond pearls...."), where I blessed wine and bread, served chicken soup, carved juicy hens, chanted the Grace After Meals ("Blessed are You, our God, King of the Universe, who nourishes the entire world, in His goodness, with grace, with kindness, and with mercy....") For a long while I thought my life was full and sweet. For a while it was.

"He monopolized my time on my honeymoon," is what my wife told Star and Bob, our marriage counselors, by way of expressing her past and present dissatisfactions. Isat there and wondered about my wife's use of the possessive, "my honeymoon." But what did I know? I wasn't sure of much. The only thing I knew for certain was that I was paying $185 an hour to a husband-and-wife team named Star and Bob to listen to my wife complain that I'd monopolized her time on her honeymoon.

"Interesting," murmured Star, toying with her chunky ethnic necklace. Bob picked imaginary lint off his taupe corduroys. Star, eyes wide with bland compassion, turned to me. "What are you feeling?"

"I'm feeling," I said, "that I have to go home and bake a chicken."

I suppose every failed marriage has its own Dealey Plaza, Texas School Book Depository, grassy knoll. Its own Star and Bob. A mystery point where fatigue, despair, and anger find triangulation. Motives forever remain murky; history changed nonetheless. When I left Star and Bob's office, I knew I would never come back.

I went home and monopolized a roasting hen's time. As millions of Jews have done for centuries on early Friday evenings, I baked a chicken. Humming "Some Enchanted Evening," my wife cleaned the living room. She arranged daisies in a vase. The sun went down. She lighted and blessed two candles. The guests arrived and, a few minutes later, my stepson and his wife. Our meal began.

God created the Sabbath and said, "Israel shall be your mate." Rabbis further explained, "Accordingly, every week, Israel greets the Sabbath like a groom awaiting his bride." The Sabbath, too, represents a foretaste of Heaven, a never-ending honeymoon. I didn't want our meal to end. I wanted it to go on forever.

Our guests said good-bye. My stepson and his wife lingered. She got up and hugged me. "You're the father I always wished I'd have." She wasn't going to wish that for much longer.

They left. The house was quiet. My wife cleared the table, then went to bed. I fed the dog and went outside and stared at the garden I planted. Every seed I'd carelessly poked into the ground, every sunflower, every bean, every marigold, every gourd, every mint, every tomato, had shot up out of the earth. The tiny one- and two-leafed sprouts mocked me.

I crept back to the bedroom to take some clothes, a book I was reading, a leather satchel. My wife was asleep. Under the reading lamp, her long dark curls, her sweet pale complexion, glowed. Her lips were slightly parted. I wanted to kiss them again. I wanted to taste her breath again. I knew I could never make her happy.

The last time I saw it, our dining room was chilly. The candles in their silver holders flickered. (You don't blow Sabbath candles out.) Our dog, an aging black Labrador, snoozed beneath the table. In the kitchen, the refrigerator hummed.

I took the leftover baked chicken with me and ate it in my motel room the next afternoon for lunch.

My parents sent me to school in France when I was fifteen. The French family I lived with, the Rampillons, owned a large estate in the wine country outside Bordeaux. Former colonials, they'd migrated to France after Moroccan independence in 1956, and, like many former colonials, were touchy about their place in French society. They were well educated. They had money. But to the wine country's stuffy old families, they were outsiders. The Bordeaux region is known in France for its conservatism. To assuage their insecurity, the Rampillons seized upon the conventions and manners of Bordeaux's upper-middle-class as only true outsiders could. The Rampillons' Sunday lunches filled me with dread.

I couldn't have been more primitive if I'd crossed their threshold on all fours. I was from Southern California, which to the Rampillons was as faraway and exotic as Borneo. I think they invited me into their home in the same spirit as those families who adopt chimps in the hopes of teaching them sign language. They were at first charmed by my rudimentary attempts at communication, but it soon became clear that I lacked even the most basic skills to participate in bourgeois domestic life. I once appeared barefoot in the television room. Arching an eyebrow, Madame Rampillon pointed at my naked feet and said, "Franchement, je trouve ça très sale." Frankly, I find that very dirty.

From then on I went barefoot only when I bathed.

There is perhaps no better environment for learning a foreign language than one of intimidation and fear. A mistake made once is not one you're likely to make twice. The Rampillons were determined to civilize me and as Frenchmen they believed there was no higher mark of civilization than the correct use and pronunciation of the French language. Even the maids and groundskeepers were enlisted in this effort, although Monsieur Rampillon warned I would do best not to imitate their accents. While in the Rampillon home, or on the acres of land surrounding it, I could not open my mouth without hearing five or six strident voices barking out corrections. If I made grammatical mistakes while asking the cook for an afterschool snack, she reported them to Madame Rampillon who, later in the evening, made sure they did not go uncorrected. Even guests chez Rampillon were invited to polish my use of the subjunctive.

During meals, speaking good French while minding bourgeois table manners was as simple as simultaneously playing a violin and tuba. The Rampillons tried to be patient, but they were faced with someone who did not know that one must never use a knife on any food-with the exception of bread-that has a crust.

My knife was poised above a slice of quiche when Monsieur Rampillon glared at me. "You insult the cook. You are implying that the crust is too hard to cut with your fork." My table manners improved while I was with the Rampillons. I also lost weight.

After months of strict training, when I could finally be depended upon not to use a knife on my quiche, or laughably mispronounce words like serrurier, locksmith, the Rampillons decided it was safe to invite an important guest to Sunday lunch. He was, I remember, a widely traveled and elderly professor of agriculture. To show off, I suppose, their success in exotic animal husbandry, the Rampillons seated me next to him. Before us lay the impressive Sunday lunch table: damask tablecloth, antique crystal, sterling silver, the best Bordeaux wines. The lunch at first went well. I embarrassed no one. The professor chatted with me about Southern California. "Your young American," the professor said to Madame and Monsieur Rampillon, "speaks French well." They beamed.

The meal, of course, had to end with fresh fruit and the maid brought peaches to the table. Everyone around me steadied their peaches with their forks and, with simple finesse, began to peel them with their fruit knives. I stared at my peach as if it were a live grenade. Peeling a peach with knife and fork was one trick the Rampillons had not taught me.

God may protect children and drunks, but He's careless with young Americans in France. The late-spring peaches weren't very ripe. I jabbed a fork at mine and even now I can see it hop from my plate and roll, as if guided by an unseen malevolent force, toward the professor's red wine glass. There was something obscenely inevitable about my direct hit, about the way the crystal exploded when it fell, the way the dark red wine surged onto the white tablecloth. In my mind I've replayed the scene thousands of times. For me, the peach and wine glass have lost none of their sick fascination.

The French often do have beautiful manners. No one laughed. No one stared. No one stopped the flow of conversation. The professor simply tossed his napkin over the mess. Monsieur Rampillon called the maid in from the kitchen. "I believe our young American would perhaps prefer a banana."

Chapter Two

My neighbor Arlene, a grave older woman who drives a Trans Am, leaves sacks of persimmons by my front door. The trees in her backyard are so heavy with fruit their branches bend low to the ground. In the late afternoon blue jays mass in the branches. Bright orange pulp shines on their beaks. I stand in the alley, watching the feast. "Hey, leave those trees alone!" I shout, wave my arms. The blue jays ignore me.

Arlene's generosity is one way I know time has passed. Living alone, the days run together. I can give a general outline of my life, but can offer few specific dates. When I come home and find a sack of persimmons by my front door, I know it must be mid-October. I stack the persimmons on the windowsill above the kitchen sink. In a few days they'll begin to soften.

In my unexpected bachelorhood, I tend my garden carefully. I mulch. I weed. I fertilize. I search catalogs for mints, sunflowers, unusual tomatoes. I ignore descriptions of fig trees and lemons, plum trees, apricots, persimmons. Of all the things I could grow, fruit trees would be the most wonderful. But fruit trees take years of care before they mature. I am rootless. I don't know where I might be a few seasons from now.

Arlene doesn't weed much, or mulch, nor does she often water. She tells me she planted her oldest persimmon twenty years ago. "But the two others were volunteers. They grew from seeds blue jays dropped to the ground. They came up just like that. Now they make more persimmons than I know what to do with."

She sometimes talks to me over our backyard fence while I weed and fuss with my lawn. She talks about her children. She seems to have several. There are grandchildren. I can never keep track. They rarely visit, at any rate. She doesn't seem to mind.

"You can raise 'em," she says, "but you can't live their lives for 'em. You do the hard work, then let 'em go."

She guesses her persimmons are the domestic American variety, Diospyros virginiana. I don't agree. American persimmons are round. Arlene's come to a point. I think they might be Hachiya persimmons, one of the Japanese varieties. Until ripe, they are, like American persimmons, puckery, astringent. In the morning while I make coffee I give the persimmons on the window ledge a little squeeze. They ripen from the inside out. The trick is to wait until they're soft inside, custardlike. They're very sweet and, to me, taste a little like pumpkin. This waiting, the watchfulness required, makes me think they're an old-fashioned pleasure. Persimmons are a patient fruit.

My mother comes to visit. I find her one afternoon parked before the kitchen sink, a half-eaten persimmon in one hand.

"When I was a little girl," she says, "we lived near a persimmon grove. I remember climbing up into the trees and eating all I wanted. Mother would say, 'Don't do that, you'll make yourself sick.' And I did make myself sick. I never listened."

She looks at me. "You always listened. You were a good kid. Before your father died he said that if he'd known they would have turned out just like you, we would have had more children."

Lately, she's given to that sort of introspection. My dead father. Her dead mother. My childhood. Nearly seventy years old, she sleeps deeply throughout the night. I hear her snore and murmur. In the early evenings she makes long phone calls to my nine-year-old nephew. She talks to him about school. She helps him with his math.

"That little boy is devoted to me," she says. "I don't know what I'd do without him."

In an offhand way she asks if I'll ever marry again. I say I doubt it. She changes the subject, picks up her needlepoint-a fat green toad crouched on a lily pad.

"Your father always wanted to bounce a child of yours on his knee."

The next day Arlene brings more persimmons. My mother meets her at the door. The two start to talk, to laugh. Both of them widows, unwilling survivors. I excuse myself and take out the trash. Dust blows down the unpaved alley. A dozen blue jays perch atop my weather-beaten fence. The birds look at me, then at Arlene's persimmons. In a rush of twitterings and chirps, they descend upon the fruit, or what's left of it. Half-eaten persimmons dangle forlornly amid the brown and red leaves. I start to chase the blue jays away, but I stop. There will be more than enough persimmons next year, I figure. And the year after.

I was planting Basil in anew raised bed when the radio announced that cheese would kill me. A nutritionist, her voice tinny and nasal on my cheap radio, explained how cheese lined arteries with "gluelike" cholesterol, leading to "premature aging and death." She talked about growth hormones, about insecticides in cattle feed. She said Americans had to "pay attention to what they ate, or face the consequences." I turned off the radio and watered my basil.

Before dawn on the full-moon day of the Hindu month Ashwini, women in rural India offer camphor, water, rice, and flowers to the basil plant in their courtyards. The women prostrate themselves before the plant. They sing hymns. In Hindi this particular species, Ocimum sanctum, is called Tulsi, the name of a goddess, wife to Vishnu, the Creator. To the devout Hindu, basil doesn't merely symbolize Tulsi, but is the goddess in physical form.

"O Goddess Tulsi," the women pray. "You who are the most precious of Vishnu, you who live according to His Divine Laws, I beseech you to protect the lives of my family and the spirits of those who have died. Hear me, O Goddess."

At ritual's end, the women eat a few leaves, linking basil's flavor with Tulsi, her great mercy, what she promises-loyalty, protection, righteousness. Throughout India, a basil leaf is placed in the mouths of the dying to insure safe conduct to the afterlife.

I've been told that in Iran mothers plant basil on the graves of sons, a symbol of mourning.

Continues...


Excerpted from fried butter by ABE OPINCAR Copyright © 2003 by Abe Opincar
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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