By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
What is patriotism but the love of good things we ate in our childhood?" wondered Lin Yutang.
Lin, I'm guessing, was not thinking about fettuccine alfredo when he wrote that, but I am. I'm thinking about gloppy alfredo sauce out of a jar from the grocery store, the dim ghost flavors of rubber and chemical stabilizers kicking around the back of my tongue. I'm thinking about the contemporary equivalent, the Olive Garden's alfredo dipping sauce: that cheez-intensive goo, that awful, artificially sweetened, corporate-vetted alfredo-esque nursery-school paste it serves with its breadsticks. One of my service-industry-specific nightmares is that a whole generation of kids will grow up eating at the Olive Garden and assuming that's what alfredo sauce is supposed to taste like. It's not, but a lot of people believe it is, and that's kind of like thinking Crunch Berries are an actual fruit.
Lin probably wasn't thinking about spaghetti aglio e olio when he wrote that either, but I am. I'm thinking about Lisa, one of the few women I've ever worked with in the kitchen -- and the worst by a long stretch. Lisa had a scar running from under one ear, across her windpipe and up to the hinge of her jaw on the opposite side, as well as a second, thinner one that followed underneath the first for about half of its length, as though someone had inexpertly tried to cut her throat, then gone back for seconds. No one ever asked her about the scars -- how do you casually bring up something like that? Worse, what if she decided to tell you? Instead, I spent most of my time patiently trying to explain to Lisa how to do the simplest kitchen tasks -- making rice, tomatoes concassé, dicing onions -- things she would have known had she actually possessed the years of experience she'd claimed on her resumé.
Cozze impepate: $7.95/$14.95
Spaghetti and meatball: $9.75
Fettuccine alfredo: $11.95
Pasta pesto: $10.75
One night we planned to serve spaghetti aglio e olio as a special. This was one of those rare times when I had to consult a cookbook, because aglio e olio is a classic Italian sauce that's easy to screw up if you don't know what you're doing and tough to get just right. So I was hunched over a book with a couple of my cooks trying to figure out the process, when Lisa came over and told us not to worry, that her grandmother made a great aglio e olio, and she knew the recipe. Stupidly, I told her to go for it.
She spent hours making the sauce, which turned out to be the worst thing I'd ever tasted -- like burned garlic in a broth of carbolic acid. We canceled the special that night, limped through service, and Lisa was a no-show the next day. And the day after that. And the day after that. In fact, she never showed her face in the kitchen again, and I inherited her knife kit -- a few hundred dollars in assorted culinary-school Sabatiers, very poorly cared for.
And it's very unlikely that Lin was thinking about eggplant, but I am. I'd always hated eggplant, because the only eggplant I'd ever eaten was eggplant I cooked myself, and I'm apparently incapable of making good eggplant. Because I was an arrogant young cook, I figured eggplant was just nasty, and if I couldn't do anything with it, no one could. Now, however, I realize it's a genetic thing. Somewhere buried deep in the twisting double helix that turned me into a cook is a broken base pair in my eggplant gene. I burn it, undercook it, turn it mushy with too much oil, over-bread it, under-salt it -- it's always something, but it's always my fault. I know that because I've finally had eggplant done right, done perfectly, done better than I (still stubbornly clinging to a few shreds of my former culinary hubris) ever thought possible.
Bambino's Ristorante, an eighteen-month-old Italian eatery in the Golden Triangle, serves a melanzane e pomodoro that's changed the way I'll think about eggplant (and my own cooking skills) forever. It stirs up an alfredo sauce that should be given like a polio vaccine to babies still cutting their teeth, inoculating them for life against the evils of Olive Garden, and an aglio e olio that brought up the specter of Lisa -- a person I hadn't thought of in years -- and her awful, awful version of this delicate classic.
On the inside fold of Bambino's menu is that quote from Lin Yutang, printed all alone on the page: "What is patriotism but the love of good things we ate in our childhood?" Fourteen words from a Chinese writer dead almost thirty years on the menu of an Italian restaurant in Denver, Colorado, but more lovely and more true than any of the 200,000 of mine that have seen print on these pages over the past year. What is love of one's country but the love of its food? And, by extension, what more grievous insult than to have someone else -- a corporation; a crazy, talentless, possibly suicidal line cook; some arrogant, mutt-Irish hack -- do that food badly?