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Feature Thu Mar 01 2007
These are a couple recipes from my old neighborhood in Chicago. In fact, they're from one of my oldest and dearest friend's mother, Lolita. She gets a kick out of the fact that I grew up to be a chef, considering I used to hang out in her kitchen as a kid.
You can't beat that recipe.
It was a natural for me. Ask anyone who knew me then and they wouldn't be surprised at all. I always knew where to find the best food. Chicago had plenty of it, and I had my finger on the pulse.
Once I actually left someone 20 miles from home in the middle of a snowstorm, when he dared to order incorrectly. "A hot dog at Al's? Sorry... I warned you, see ya."
A legendary move back in the day.
Early interests firstly with food, and later with cooking, began in my friends' and neighbors' homes observing the "best cooks in the world."
Gradually I became aware of the flavors, spices and techniques they used. Later I took those basic foundations with me into my own kitchens to develop and, truth be known, generally play around with.
It was that jazz thing, and I was improvising.
I had observed that most everyone liked to eat and most everyone ate well. At least that was my experience growing up. Chicago was, and is, very multi-cultural. Immigrant fare was everywhere.
Well before the rest of America knew from salsa and satay, I was growing up on it. How fortunate is that? I was born into it and destined to have it play a major part of my life. As everyone's childhood plays a major part of their life, mine had two main themes.
Food and music, although sometimes it was music and food.
I remember going to Steve's house as a pre-pubescent brat. If he wasn't home, I'd still stay and hang. The place had a great vibe. Everyone was welcome. That was just how they were. With all due respect, it was like a life size Italian curio cabinet. I loved it there.
Now I'm here to tell you, I had a Jewish mother, but we had nothing on the Italians. They even had the guilt... and the noise. Same difference. It's no wonder I felt so at home there.
For my 14th birthday, Steve gave me a kosher salami with birthday candles in it instead of a cake.
That says it all.
My Steve-less visits usually went something like this:
"Are you hungry Al?"
"No, not really."
"Are you sure you're not hungry, dear?"
"No, really, I just ate."
Then before I knew it, all sorts of delectable Italian foods would be on the kitchen counter. Sliced meats and cheeses, pastries, assorted interesting vegetables that I'm sure didn't come out of a can. Unreal. A revelation to a gourmand in training. (Of course, I was just attempting to be polite as it was pointless to resist. A tango of sorts. Defining moments that helped shape my palate.)
It was the type of food I missed when I was old enough to leave home, and it was the type of food I tried to reproduce when I originally started cooking.
Lasagna was one of the first things I learned to make, because there weren't that many ingredients to steal, plus we'd have enough for leftovers. We did buy the bread, though. By this time I was living in the Bay Area so the bread was Colombo sour dough. I can still see the green label.
I bluffed my way into the first job I ever had in a restaurant.
I just knew I could do it, even though I never had. One day, in hate with my job as a dialysis technition in a hospital (if you can believe that one) I opened the Chicago Tribune and looked in the want ads. When I got to "C" I stopped. That would be "C" for "Chef."
I called the owner and went for an interview. We just started talking food. Moments later, with saliva dripping from his lips and his eyes glazed over from the descriptions of the food I was talking about, he gave me the gig. Never checked my non-existent resume, never asked for references.
I learned at his expense.
The standing joke was that you knew the food was fresh because I'd wait for you to order it before I bought it. I was constantly throwing twenties at my dishwasher so he could run to the supermarket to buy the necessary things I had neglected to order as I read the ticket in my hand.
I really did not have a clue.
This happened at least a few times a night for the first month or so. Eventually, I got the hang of it. It's funny how such small things can be so huge from another's perspective.
I was turned on to Jazz that way as well. A seemingly small gift at the time it was bestowed unto me. One that would eventually shape many aspects of my life.
You just never know.
I say "unto" instead of "onto," as it really was Biblical in nature to me. I keep seeing Chuck Heston in full Moses drag, coming down from the mountain with a Pharoah Sanders record instead of the 10 commandments.
Right Moses, wrong pharoah.
Oddly enough, someone recently told me that, that guy I left back at Al's many years ago is a chef today as well. I can't help but wonder if I helped shape his taste buds that day? I still think he shouldn't have ordered a dog, though. I'll bet you he'd reluctantly agree.
So, knowing that I was in the process of writing this book, here's a couple Lolita recently sent me. God bless her. She still calls me "dear."