Before deciding whether to trade in his green card for a U.S. citizenship, Simon Majumdar knew he needed to find out what it really means to be an American. So he set out on a journey to discover America through the thing he knows best: food. Over the course of a year, Simon crisscrossed the United States, stopping in locales such as Plymouth, Massachusetts, to learn about what the pilgrims ate; Kansas, for a Shabbat dinner; Wisconsin, to make cheese; Alaska, to fish for salmon alongside a grizzly bear; and Los Angeles, to cook at a Filipino restaurant in the hopes of making his in-laws proud. Along the way he makes some friends and digs in to the food cultures that make up America—brewing beer, farming, working at a food bank, and even tailgating. Full of heart, humor, history, and, of course, food, Fed, White, and Blue is a warm, funny, and inspiring portrait of becoming an American in the twenty-first century.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.81(d)|
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LIST OF IMAGES
Page 1: Leaving my mark on the beach of Cook Inlet, Alaska.
Page 11: With AJ and Reggie Liongson at Salo-Salo Grill in West Covina, California.
Page 23: Supporting “the Bear” at the Wing Bowl.
Page 37: The Bay Rat and the Rebel in their happy place, out on the water.
Page 51: Baron Ambrosia, King of the Bronx.
Page 65: I’m just about to be on the receiving end of three hundred pounds of Wampanoag fury at Plimoth Plantation, Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Page 79: I love the smell of lobster in the morning.
Page 91: The honorary captain of the girl’s bed push race team in Pequot Lakes, Minnesota.
Page 105: Learning all about the “money muscle” from champion pitmaster Matthew Burt.
Page 119: I’m about to break down a side of beef with Dr. Dennis Burson of the University of Nebraska Animal Science Department.
Page 135: Breaking bread with Yosef Silver and Mendel “BBQ Rabbi” Segal at the second annual Kansas City Kosher BBQ Festival.
Page 147: Cheese maker Andy Hatch of the Uplands Cheese Company showing me why the land and dairy cattle of Wisconsin combine to make world-class cheese.
Page 161: My night out with the Seoul Sausage Company boys. If I had known how I was going to feel the next morning, I might not have been smiling so much.
Page 177: Bill Esparza, my expert guide to the Mexican culinary delights of Los Angeles.
Page 189: With Cynthia Sandberg and my new friends at Love Apple Farms. (Image © Tana Butler)
Page 201: With Skip Madsen and his brewing manager, Dan, enjoying a pint of fantastic beer from the American Brewing Company.
Page 213: With Dr. Terry Simpson, just after our plane landed at Cook Inlet, Alaska. Thankfully no bears in sight. (Image © Katherine Gottlieb)
Page 225: Farmer Matt Romero showing me why New Mexican chiles are the best in the world.
Page 237: At my first University of Texas Longhorns game. I probably shouldn’t have worn blue.
Page 251: Helping in the food pantry at Williams Memorial Methodist Church during my visit to Texarkana.
Page 265: Hunting down in the Delta. No animals were harmed in the taking of this photograph. (Image © Jeff Chao Chao Photography LLC)
Page 279: Riding the pig-mobile with my chum Chef Michele Ragussis as we head to feed the crew of Richard Petty Motorsports (thankfully the beard did not last long).
Page 299: Flying the flag. I may now be a citizen of the United States, but the journey continues. Any ideas?
Simon Majumdar and I met on the set of a program called Next Iron Chef back in . . . well, quite a while ago. When the producers first suggested him as a judge for the series, I had to admit I’d never heard of the guy, so off to the webbernetter I ran. Interesting fellow, I thought. I discovered that he’d had a serious career in publishing, then went “off-res,” so to speak, to eat everything on the planet. He’d written a book about it called Eat My Globe, so I figured I’d give it a read. After all, what red-blooded male can resist a man/suitcase love story?
Turns out Eat My Globe wasn’t a travelogue or a gastro-journal but something much better. This Simon guy went looking for answers, and big ones at that. He was trying to figure out who the hell he was and where he fit in on planet Earth, using his stomach to mine the mysteries. By the time we met on set I’d already decided he was a kindred spirit. The only problem was that he’s so much smarter than me it was all I could do to keep up. Our first conversation, which, if I recall correctly, concerned the intricate history of chicken tikka masala, solidified my respect for him. Since that big globe head of his seems to retain every fact his being stumbles across, and those jug ears capture every word spoken in a thousand-foot range, Simon is something of an encyclopedia of edibilia. And yet instead of coming across as a know-it-all (nobody likes a know-it-all), he has evolved into an evangelist, a kind of Johnny Appleseed hell-bent on spreading the word of world cuisine.
However, Simon’s not just about the food. Sure, he’s developed the palate of a world-class food critic, and his sharp wit and voluminous vocabulary (not to mention that damned accent) have made him the darling of culinary competition show producers everywhere, but what he really digs are the people behind the food. Simon sees cuisine as the connective tissue that holds humankind together, and he’s dedicated himself to traveling the planet in an attempt to map that tissue. In doing so, he’s collected enough passport stamps to join the exclusive club to which only the Bourdains and Zimmerns of the world belong. And yet his greatest challenge was still to come, because this citizen of the world has decided to become an American.
Even though he hates pizza.
We’ll have to work on that.
Being Simon, he figured that if he was going to join our star-spangled club he should take a little road trip and discover his new country the way he has the rest of the planet: with his stomach. And he came up with an interesting and thoroughly modern way of doing it. Through his website and social media (and good old word of mouth), he invited people to tell him where to go and what to eat. And it turns out plenty of people were willing to tell Simon where to go. The following months had Simon crisscrossing the country, stitching together a fantastical culinary quilt. This book is the story of that journey. Whether hanging out with fishermen, learning the truth of American meat production, roasting chilies, tailgating in Texas (wish I could have seen that), making beer, or freezing his butt off for barbecue, Simon has done here what he does best: eat, talk, write, repeat. In that order.
Did he come back with a better understanding of what it is to be American? To be honest, I think not. I think he came back an American.
Welcome, brother Simon.
Now, about that pizza.
Green Card, Green Light
“What is the purpose of your visit?”
The stocky man seated in the immigration booth wore the dark blue uniform of the Department of Homeland Security and a tag on his lapel that declared his name to be Gonzalez. He didn’t crack a smile as he leafed through my documents. The people who greet you at immigration seldom do. I guess it is part of the training, to make people nervous enough to give away clues to their bad intentions. It worked. I stammered through my answer even though I had nothing to hide.
“Er, um, er, I live here,” I replied, pointing to the much-coveted green card that had slipped from between the pages of my passport and onto the desk before him.
He grunted and looked up, giving me a cold, hard stare that convinced me he suspected I was harboring a dozen Indian relatives in my small backpack, intending to free them the moment I stepped through customs.
“So, how long have you lived here?” he asked sharply, adding quickly, “Are you planning to become a U.S. citizen?”
The first part was easy enough to answer. I had moved to the United States in 2010, when I decided that uprooting myself from my beloved London and moving six thousand miles across the globe was a tiny price to pay for the chance to live with the most amazing woman I had ever met. The second part, however, was trickier to answer. I am very proud to be British, and the notion of changing allegiance in my middle years had actually never crossed my mind.
“Er,” I stuttered again, adding, “I’ve never even really thought about it.” It wasn’t the in-depth answer he may have been hoping for, but it seemed to do the trick. He stamped my customs form, thrust my prized burgundy European passport back at me with another grunt, and waved me through to baggage claim to endure the inevitable tortuous wait for a reunion with my bags.
My wife, Sybil, was waiting for me as I emerged blinking into the bright lights of the arrival hall, and after a quick hug we made our way to the parking lot. As we pulled out of the lot and onto the freeway, she turned to me and asked, “Why so quiet, honey?” She was right; apart from a few words when we met, I had barely said a word since I had passed through immigration.
I made some excuse about jet lag and stared out the window, engrossed in my own thoughts and the traffic that was clogging Los Angeles’s notorious I-405. I realized that the immigration officer’s question had struck a nerve, and although it had never even been an issue until that moment, at the back of my mind the first seed had been planted on what exactly it might mean if I did ever decide to become an American citizen.
That night over supper, I explained to Sybil why I had been sucking on such a thoughtful tooth all the way from the airport. Moving to the United States had been challenging enough—if I was actually going to become an American it would be another matter altogether. I was not even sure what that process might entail, practically or emotionally.
I’ll be honest with you, my loving spouse’s initial response to my question, “How does one become an American?” was not as helpful as I would have hoped. She smirked at me over the top of a large glass of good red wine and said, “Well, the first thing you are going to have to do is have an operation to remove that British stick from up your ass.” I sighed and rolled my eyes, but persevered.
This was a serious matter. Did becoming an American mean I would have to stop being British? That would never do. I was far too proud of the country of my birth to ever relinquish fully my claims on being a UK citizen, and that burgundy passport had proved useful enough in my travels around the world that I was loath to ever give it up.
Did becoming an American mean I would have to be subjected to American sport? (By the way, even if you were to lay me down on a bed of hot coals and have Butterbean do the Lambada on my chest I shall always insist on saying “maths” and “sport,” not “math” and “sports.”) I really hoped not. Baseball was the only game on earth I could imagine to be duller than cricket. I could live any number of lifetimes before I began to understand American football, and I certainly did not spend my formative years in the industrial heartland of Yorkshire supporting my local team through thin and thinner to demote my beloved “proper” football to a game called “soccer” that is seemingly only played by eight-year-old schoolgirls.
Did it mean I was going to have to change the way I talked? It was already hard enough trying to persuade Sybil that “schedule” should be pronounced “schedule” and NOT “schedule” (that doesn’t come out on the page quite as well as I had hoped, but if we ever meet, I will explain to you what I mean), and there was just no way I was ever going to ask for the “check,” require “aluminum” foil, or ever, ever, so help me God, ever say “to-may-to” without a gun being placed against my temple.
As she reached out to spear the last survivor of a pile of thick pork chops that had been our reunion supper, Sybil finally added something constructive. “If you want to know what it means to become an American, honey, you should go and meet some.” I smiled back at her for two reasons. One was that, as usual, her advice was bang on the button. The second was that, as always, she had used our dinner discussion as a diversionary tactic to ensure she took more than her fair share of food from the serving plate. All I could do was nod in admiration. If I had been quicker or smarter, I would have done the same thing.
Our mutual love of food was one of the many reasons I had fallen in love with Sybil in the first place. She was smart, funny, and beautiful, but most of all she shared my almost pathological obsession with food, a passion she had displayed during our first meal together, after I met her in Brazil, when I tried to take an extra portion from a platter of grilled chicken. She did not even look up as she grabbed my hand and said with cold steel in her voice, “Touch that piece and I will cut you.” I could tell that this was not a joke, and I knew then that I wanted to get to know this woman even more.
Fast-forward to eighteen months of a long-distance relationship that had involved regular commutes from London to Sybil’s apartment in Los Angeles, and I was certain that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. I proposed one afternoon in New York’s Central Park. Almost inevitably, the proposal came after a large lunch and, as we sat in the park basking in the glow of the summer sun and our new commitment, our first discussions were of what food we would serve at the wedding. I knew that it was a perfect match.
My own love of food is one that I inherited from my family. I come from a mixed parentage of Bengali father and Welsh mother, the combination of which not only provided amazing smells from the family kitchen most hours of the day, but also an interest in food that many people have told me borders on an illness. It is an obsession not just for me but also for the rest of the Majumdar clan, who spend most of our time together talking about what we have eaten, are eating, and will be eating in the future. If you doubt the level of our devotion, I offer up in evidence the response of my older brother, Robin, to the text telling him that Sybil and I had just become engaged. His reply simply read, “Good. How was lunch at Jean Georges?” (For the record: It wasn’t great.)
My long-held desire to “go everywhere, eat everything” became so overwhelming that, in 2007, I left my career of more than twenty years in publishing and spent a year and my life savings visiting more than thirty countries to follow my dream. That’s how I ended up first in Brazil, and now in Los Angeles, staring at an empty plate while my beloved happily sucked the last scraps of flesh from the bones of a pork chop.
Sybil wiped her lips with a napkin and turned her attention to a plate of cheese and crackers I had just laid before her. “It’s always about the food with you, honey,” she said as she sliced into a particularly whiffy slab of Reblochon. “You should ask Americans to tell you about their food.” Even though her voice was muffled by crackers and dairy, what she said made absolute sense—and so the idea for the book you are now reading was planted very firmly in my mind.
As Sybil turned her attention towards doing the dishes, I flopped down on our comfortable sofa to do what I always do when an idea takes hold of me and won’t let go. I took out my battered old notebook and began to write. I scribbled the word “AMERICA” in bold letters at the top of the page and, under it, began to place keywords that I thought might help my thought process.
I have had a love affair with America and Americans for as long as I can recall, formed during my early childhood while watching imported TV shows and cemented during my teenage years as songs about cars and girls flowed through the tinny speakers of my Hitachi music center.
America seemed like a magical, mystical place, and I longed to visit as soon as I could. I was fortunate enough that my career in publishing gave me plenty of opportunities to do so, as I took business trips to cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and, of course, New York. Added to which, every time I pondered on where to spend my few weeks of hard-earned vacation each year, it was nearly always towards a large map of the United States that I turned for inspiration. It never ever let me down, sending me to places as far afield as Graceland in Memphis, the vineyards of the Napa Valley, the dazzling craziness of Las Vegas, and the French Quarter of New Orleans.
Sybil’s suggestion made sense. If I really wanted to go and find out more about America and Americans, food was the best—in fact the only—way I should do it. I knew from all my previous travels that the moment you talk to people about the food they eat or, better still, ask to eat with them, they open up not only their kitchens but also their lives, allowing you to experience a side of them that you might never normally be allowed to see. I was certain that if I asked people to show me what it means to become one of them by allowing me to share their food experiences, the invitations would come flooding in. I began to make a list of what I was looking for.
I knew for certain that I wanted to spend time with those who grow, produce, sell, and cook the food that feeds the United States’ population of nearly three hundred million, from those who marshal the vast herds of cattle that satisfy the American love for beef to those who sell heirloom tomatoes at the growing number of farmers’ markets that are appearing all over the nation. From those who dedicate their lives to crafting extraordinary beer, wine, and spirits to those who brave the roughest seas to bring some of the very best fish and seafood to our tables.
I also knew that if I was going to become the United States’ most unlikely (who said most unlikable?) immigrant, I should go and meet some other communities of immigrants and find out what they were having for dinner. I made notes to reach out both to those who had been in the United States for generations, like the Germans and Italians, and also to the new wave of immigrants that have made America the melting pot of culinary creativity that it is, like the Filipino community that spawned my wife’s family and the Mexican community that provides the engine room for so many of America’s cities (and without whom the restaurant industry would probably have to shutter its doors).
And, if I was going to write about immigrants, then I should certainly try and meet with the community that was here before everybody else. That led me to Native Americans, without whose help the first settlers would never have survived. I had heard that many groups within this particular community had become revitalized over the last few decades and would have some great stories and some great food to share.
There were others. I knew that America is a nation that was built on the ability of its people to hunt and fish. So much so, in fact, that you could argue that without such skills America as we know it now would not exist. I wanted to meet the people who still call the outdoors their office, who hunt deer and game to fill their own larders and those of others. I didn’t just want to meet them, I wanted to hunt with them, prepare meals from what we caught, and share it with them.
Americans love to compete, and when they compete, they love to win. This is as true when it comes to food as it is to all other aspects of life. I should know—I spend a large percentage of my life judging some of the most competitive chefs in the country. I knew that there were entire circuits devoted to competitive eating and competitive cooking. I wanted to meet with the people who took part in these events, see what motivated them, and join them in their efforts to be the best in class.
If there are thousands of people who cook for a living in the United States, then there are millions who cook simply for the joy of it, and I wanted to meet them too. Those people who spend hours in the kitchen preparing wonderful meals for their families, not for any gain but for the simple quality time they get to spend together while eating great food. I was hoping that as I traveled around the country on my adventure, people would offer me the chance to share real American meals with real American people, whatever their religion or political persuasion.
Finally, I knew that I would also have to see the dark side of the American food industry. Although this country produces some of the best food on the planet, it also wastes more of its food resources than any other nation on earth. This is particularly striking when you see how many people, including the elderly and small children, are among the number struggling to find enough to eat every day of their lives. I knew that for me to get a true “warts and all” picture of America, I would need to spend time with the people who give their time to run homeless shelters, food banks, and programs aimed at feeding needy children.
An hour or so later, when Sybil came to find me, I was still sitting on the sofa and still scribbling furiously into my notebook.
“So, baby”—she smiled as she sat next to me and nestled her head on my shoulder—“what did you decide?”
I smiled back. “I decided that I am going to go and look for America.”
“Cool,” she responded, adding, “bring me back something good to eat.”
I knew I would. Like I said, it’s a perfect match.
Sybil is Filipino American and, among the many other benefits of being married to such an incredible woman (and, no, she is not dictating this) is the opportunity her heritage has given me to indulge my passion for what I believe is one of the most underrated cuisines of Asia. It’s an indulgence that is made even more available by the fact that Los Angeles is home to one of the biggest communities of Filipinos in the United States.
My deep affection for Filipino cuisine began before I met Sybil, during my first visit to Manila. It is fair to say that, despite the fact that I spent only a short time in the country, I immediately fell in love with the people and the food. Indeed, if I were ever pressed to choose the best meal of my entire life, I might well pick a lunch prepared for me by noted Filipino artist, writer, and gourmand Claude Tayag, at his home in Angeles in the province of Pampanga. As we sat in his “Bale Dutung,” or wooden house, he presented me with course after course of food so astonishing that it totally redefined my limited expectations for Filipino food. I can still recall every bite—it remains a meal that lingers in my memory both for the amazing tastes and the incredible hospitality. When it came time for me to leave the country, I promised myself that this would only be the first of many visits to the Philippines, and I am delighted to say that I was right.
Much more important, this newfound love was cemented when I met Sybil during a short stay in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil. It wasn’t long before we were bonding over a mutual devotion to pork. By the time it came for me to say good-bye and continue on with my travels around the world, I was pretty certain that this was the woman with whom I wanted to spend the rest of my life.
I pursued her with laudable determination, and in 2010 we married in a small but beautiful outdoor ceremony in Los Angeles. It was at the reception, as I fought my way through a crowd of her relatives intent on molesting a whole roasted pig, that I realized, along with a beautiful new bride, I had gained an entirely bonkers and entirely wonderful coterie of Filipino in-laws. Over the last four years of marriage, my wife’s relatives have made me feel incredibly welcome in my new family and have also taken such a delight in introducing me to Filipino food that I have become one of its biggest advocates—and gained twenty pounds.
In addition to force-feeding me on every possible occasion, my new family has also spoken with such pride about their heritage that I have become intrigued not only with the country but also with the fascinating but checkered history of Filipinos in America. It made sense that one of my first adventures on the Fed, White, and Blue journey should be to find out more about the food and culture of my adopted family and the Filipino community near Los Angeles.
Since the mid-1980s, the Philippines has ranked behind only Mexico as the source of most immigrants to the United States and as of now is behind only China as the country of origin for the most Asian Americans. There are currently more than 3.5 million Filipinos in the United States, yet, despite their numbers and their undeniable contribution, they often remain decidedly reticent about promoting their achievements, their culture, and their cuisine. In fact, so unwilling are they to blow their own trumpet that you will often hear them referred to as or even calling themselves “the invisible minority.”
This, it would seem, runs far deeper than just food, and I have found a number of reasons that might help explain it. The first is that, above possibly any other immigrant group in the United States, Filipinos have been hugely successful at assimilating into American society. More than half of the arriving adults in the last twenty-five years had already earned bachelor degrees before coming to this country. Also, as English is a common language in the Philippines, most arrivals speak excellent English, making their entry into the skilled job market and general community that much easier.
The second reason has to do with the impact of nearly three hundred years of occupation on the Filipino psyche. Starting with the Spanish in the late 1500s and then continuing in 1898 with the United States after it bought the country in a job lot with Cuba and Puerto Rico for $20 million, occupation lasted until the Philippines declared independence in 1946.
The Spanish occupation, in addition to creating this reticence, resulted in the early arrival of Filipinos into what is now the United States. In the 1760s, AWOL “Manila men” who had labored in appalling conditions on Spanish galleons founded the town of Saint Malo in Louisiana, and in 1781, a gentleman with the rather impressive name of Antonio Miranda Rodriguez was one of the envoys sent by King Charles III of Spain to form what is now the city of Los Angeles, although illness caused Rodriguez to arrive later than his companions.
During the time of the American occupation, Filipinos arrived in great numbers into the United States, often brought over to provide cheaper labor than recently emancipated African Americans. They occupied the lowest rungs of society and were subject to a great deal of racial abuse and discrimination from those who believed that they were taking jobs from local people. The clamor to stop the immigration of Filipinos, as well as a general growing anti-Asian sentiment, resulted in the passing of the 1934 Tydings-McDuffie Act, which limited the number of immigrants from the Philippines to a mere fifty people a year.
Everything changed during World War II. Many Filipinos joined the U.S. Navy because of the large U.S. naval base in Subic Bay. They primarily carried out the menial tasks of cooking and cleaning and were repaid, after the conflict, with the repeal of the act in 1946. This saw numbers rise to almost twenty thousand new arrivals into the United States every year. Since that time, Filipinos have contributed massively to American society at all levels, and yet they still remain one of its least visible ethnic minorities. All aspects of their culture, including Filipino cuisine, have only recently begun to emerge from under the shadows of other Asian American communities.
I decided that I wanted to spend time in the kitchen of a Filipino restaurant and accepted an invitation from my friend Aldous Liongson, who is the head chef of Salo-Salo Grill in West Covina. I first met AJ, as he prefers to be known, during a now-infamous family meal where I lost the fierce “Battle of Crispy Pata” with my wife’s eighty-four-year-old Auntie Minda. She emerged with the pork, and I was left with nothing but a wound on my left hand to show where she had stabbed me with a steak knife.
We had ordered a great deal of food that day, even by the standards of my family, and AJ had come out of the kitchen to see which table was putting such a strain on his line cooks during the hectic lunchtime service. As he introduced himself, he nodded approvingly at the assortment of empty plates that had accumulated on our table. Having just admitted defeat in the war for pork, I excused myself and stepped outside the restaurant to spend some time chatting with him as he took the opportunity to break for a cigarette.
AJ was born in Quezon City and moved to the United States in 1987 at the age of six. He attended culinary school on the West Coast and then headed east to develop his skills, spending six or seven years working in top-level kitchens in New York City before being asked by his father, Reggie, to move back to West Covina and take over as head chef at the restaurant he had opened in 2001.
It was a tough time, he explained. Both he and his partner, Liz, found the move from East to West Coast a huge lifestyle change. I could identify with that, as at the time I was struggling with my own move from London to Los Angeles. AJ wrestled in particular with his work because he had gone from the blisteringly creative cooking environment of one of the world’s greatest eating cities to one where the cooking was rooted in tradition to the point where it could easily be accused of being old-fashioned.
“I am trying to change the menu a little, to lighten up some of the heavier dishes, so we can attract new customers,” he told me between drags on his cigarette, “but it’s a very slow process. My father has final say and we don’t want to scare off our loyal customers by altering the food too much.” He pointed back into the restaurant, filled almost entirely with older Filipino Americans, to make his point.
It was a conversation I’d had with many people before—and since—meeting with AJ. It’s part of the balance chefs of all ethnic cuisines have to achieve in America as they try to respect the traditions of their culture while attempting to introduce their food to as wide an audience as possible. If you change the food too much, the old guard will soon let you know that what you are doing is not authentic. Leave it just as it is, and you risk consigning a wonderful but possibly challenging cuisine to a culinary ghetto, where its audience will decline over time.
AJ told me that, much as he respected his father and the regulars who had kept his restaurant going for over a decade, his time in New York had given him the hunger to take Filipino cuisine to the next level. Having just eaten his food, I had to agree that he had the skills to do it.
Before he went back to work, AJ suggested that I should come back and spend some time with him in the kitchen. He would show me how to make some Filipino classics as well as some of the newer dishes he was trying to persuade his father to add to the menu. When the idea for the book was born, I decided to take him up on the offer. Not only would it give me the perfect opportunity to spend time with a young and talented chef who was also a Filipino immigrant, but anything I happened to pick up about preparing Filipino cuisine could only earn me plus points back on the home front. As we planned my visit, AJ upped the ante by suggesting we invite my relatives back for another meal on my last day in the kitchen so they could give their opinions on my culinary efforts.
A few weeks after we talked, I pulled into the parking lot of Salo-Salo at eight-thirty a.m., as requested, to find AJ waiting for me by the back door of the restaurant. Before we got down to work, he gave me a tour of the kitchen space. It was much smaller than I had expected but spotlessly clean, with food dated and stored properly in both coolers and walk-ins. “We are sticklers for detail here,” he said as he pointed towards a number of notice boards with cleaning schedules, house recipes, and staff instructions pinned to them.
As more of the staff began to arrive, my attention wandered to two pots that were already bubbling on the stove. In one, large slabs of pork belly were simmering away in a broth flavored with onions, carrots, celery, and garlic. They had been brined first and after cooking would be cooled, dried in the oven, and then deep-fried to order to make the famous Filipino dish of lechón. “I add lemongrass to the brine too, to freshen up the flavors,” AJ told me—just one of the small changes he had made to his father’s traditional recipe.
In the next pot were pork knuckles that had also been brined and would be braised, oven-dried, and fried in a similar fashion to make the crispy pata that had so entranced Auntie Minda that she was prepared to draw my blood. The lechón would be served with Mang Tomas, a sauce made from pork liver, while the crispy pata would be accompanied by a sharp dip of palm vinegar and soy sauce.
“We don’t like to waste much,” AJ said when he saw me looking at the pots, adding that the braising stock would also be used. Some would go to a deliciously tangy soup called sinigang, which would be soured in the traditional way with tamarind, and the rest to the dish that we were just about to work on, kare-kare.
Kare-kare is one of my favorite things to eat. A stew traditionally made of oxtail that is thickened with ground toasted rice and ground roasted peanuts (for which, these days, peanut butter is often a regular substitute), it’s a distinctively Filipino recipe.
First, AJ had me dry-roast short-grain rice on a low heat in a wok and then grind it to a fine powder in a hand-cranked mill before passing it through a sieve to clear out impurities. I then poured a small amount of oil into another large hot wok on the stove and added minced garlic and diced onions. “Filipino soffritto,” AJ said with a laugh, referring to the base of onions, carrots, and celery so common in Italian cooking. “We use it as the base for just about everything.”
Once the onions and garlic had begun to take on some color, I added the ground rice, a few ladles of the beautifully rich and fragrant pork stock from the bubbling pans of pata, some pungent patis (powerful Filipino fish sauce), a little achiote paste for the deep red color it brings to the final dish, and then the contents of two enormous jars of smooth peanut butter. It was an unlikely combination, and I have to be honest that at this point it looked very, very far from the appetizing dish that I have come to love so much over the years. However, once I began to stir the mixture together, the familiar smell of kare-kare soon began to fill the air.
AJ nodded at my efforts, and I continued stirring until the contents of the wok had become a thick golden brown paste that would form the base of the finished dish. We had enough for about twenty portions, and once it cooled, I spooned it into containers ready for the line chefs to use during service.
By the time I had finished preparing the sauce, the restaurant had opened and orders were already beginning to trickle in from the first few customers. I watched as one of the chefs grabbed one of my containers and added it to a wok with stir-fried eggplant, bok choy, onions, garlic, and more of that amazing pork broth to form a sauce. He added four glistening chunks of oxtail that had been braised until the meat was falling off the bone and left it to simmer for a few minutes, until the sauce formed a thick coating around the meat. Before the chef sent the order out from the kitchen, he passed me a spoon and motioned for me to take a taste.
One bite reminded me why this might well be one of my all-time favorite dishes. The meat was juicy and soft, the vegetables added crunch, the fish paste made it fragrant, and then there was the sauce from the paste I had made, which offered up layer upon layer of flavor that lingered on the tongue for minutes after I had stopped eating. Tastes have the ability, more than just about anything else, to take you back to other times and other places, and I was immediately transported back to my first night in Manila and a restaurant called Abe, enjoying my first-ever taste of kare-kare.
It was all AJ could do to stop me from finishing off the entire order, but I pulled myself away and watched as he plated up the kare-kare and sent it out to the customer with bagoong alamang, a traditional condiment made with fermented shrimp that added saltiness to the dish.
As service began in earnest, I stepped in to help AJ and his crew deal with the tickets that had begun to flow steadily. There are few things that I find more enjoyable than watching a well-oiled kitchen at work, and here it was obvious to see that everyone knew exactly what they were doing.
The backbone of Salo-Salo’s crew was its coterie of Mexican line cooks. “These guys are amazing.” AJ pointed with his chef’s knife over at a colleague who was manning the sauté station and overseeing half a dozen orders without batting an eyelid. “We simply couldn’t run the kitchen without them,” he added. It is a story that could be told in any one of thousands of kitchens across the country.
Over the next two days, AJ and I worked on the dishes we would place before my in-laws for approval. We made Talangkanin, a stunning dish of rice laced with alique—fat from crabs that AJ had lightly poached in oil—and pinakbet, an eggplant dish heavily scented with bagoong. “They are Filipinos,” AJ said, rolling his eyes slightly. “So they are bound to order a lot more than just three dishes. But if you prove you can make these, they’ll at least consider you worthy to be an honorary Pinoy.”
As we cooked, I was able to talk to AJ about his determination to bring Filipino food to the next level. The more I watched his terrific kitchen technique at play and listened to him talk about his heritage and cuisine with such passion, the more I began to suspect that Chef AJ Liongson might just be one of the new generation of Filipino chefs to take this cuisine forward.
On the one hand, he has enough respect for his father’s recipes, his customers, and his heritage not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. But he’s not so bound by these traditions that he’s afraid to use the techniques he’s learned to improve things where they need to be improved.
It had been, he acknowledged, a very hard struggle to get to this position.
“When I arrived back here from New York,” he told me, “I was convinced I knew everything and I had a huge ego. But working with these guys”—he pointed again towards one of his Mexican line cooks—“soon knocked it out of me. I think they respect me now.”
The next couple of days passed far too quickly. Although I was excited at the thought of feeding my family as my grand finale, I was also saddened by the fact that I would soon be leaving behind the camaraderie and good humor of AJ’s kitchen. I had enjoyed my short time there, and I knew for a fact that we would remain friends, linked by our mutual desire to see this underrated cuisine deservedly brought to the attention of a wider audience.
At around six p.m. on my last day, Sybil and my in-laws arrived and commandeered a large table at the front of the restaurant. As AJ had prophesied, they laughed at the notion that three dishes of food would be enough, and the table was soon filled with so many platters that more than one of the line cooks made semi-joking suggestions that I contribute some overtime payment to their weekly checks.
The dishes we had made all received a thumbs-up, and AJ was thrilled with the positive reception from his Filipino audience. “Now,” he told me, “we just have to get non-Filipinos to love it.”
Table of Contents
List of Images ix
Green Card, Green Light 1
Masarap: Delicious 11
You Heave, You Leave 23
The Bay Rat and the Rebel 37
The Baron and the Bronx 51
A Pilgrim's Progress 65
On a Roll in Maine 79
Minnesota, Nice 91
Freezing with the BBQ Brethren 105
From Pasture to Plate 119
Pressing the Shabbat Reset Button 135
Whey Out in Wisconsin 147
K-Town Rocks 161
North of South of the Border 177
Farm Fresh 189
Fed, White, and Brew 201
Bear, Where? There 213
Roasting in Santa Fe 225
Hook 'em Horns 237
Paying It Forward in Texarkana 251
Down in the Delta 265
Feeding the 500 279
Top Ten Eats of the Journey 304
Selected Bibliography 305
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Simon Majumdar
“The dangerously obsessive, staggeringly knowledgeable, provocative and opinionated Simon Majumdar knows his shit. No question about it….Plus—the bastard can write.”—Anthony Bourdain, author of Kitchen Confidential and Medium Raw
“I have crisscrossed this country a dozen times by car, by motorcycle, by train and light aircraft. I've eaten a thousand meals from the glaciers of Alaska to the bars of Key West. And if Simon Majumdar asked me to join him on a journey across that same edible landscape tomorrow, I'd go without hesitation, because, every mile (and meal) would be new again.”—Alton Brown, host of Iron Chef and Cutthroat Kitchen
“Simon Majumdar’s opinions often drive me nuts, but I usually let him get away with it. In part, it’s because he really knows about food, but even more so, it’s because he is so entertaining. I loved what he had to say about the rest of the world and I can’t wait to hear what he has to say about America.”—Michael Symon, Iron Chef and co-host of The Chew
“The Indiana Jones for the foodie set.”—Andrew Friedman, co-editor of Don't Try This at Home