This is the first installment of Indefensible Food - a series in which our intrepid team will sample products we all see on the grocery and liquor shelves, yet never quite have the moxie to try.
Don't ever buy a bottle of anything called "wine product." It tastes like sugar juice haunted by grapes. And don't cook with it.
It's illegal to sell wine in grocery stores in New York City. It has something to do with local wine and liquor stores and laws that have helped them stay competitive. I didn't know this. I just grabbed a bottle of something called "Chateau Diana California Merlot" at the grocery.
You see, I was on a mission to make dinner for my girlfriend. I decided to bust it fancy and make her a "Coq au Vin." Which in English, means chicken and wine. In my experience, chicken and anything is a great culinary bet. Chicken and waffles. Chicken and dumplings. Chicken and ice cream (that last one was something I invented with my friends Ben, Jerry and the Colonel.)
It took two glasses of water and a bowl of white rice to douse the fire set by a forkful of Washington D.C. Kung Pao chicken.
I love spicy food, and so did my dad. He's where I got my masochistic love of foods that taste like the business end of a flamethrower. Growing up, grilled Serrano peppers were a frequently side dish to any Mexican food my mother whipped up. Legend has it that my mother tried to get me to stop sucking my thumb as a kid by soaking the digit in jalapeno juice. This plan backfired.
The first food rebel I ever met had a mustache. Granted, J.C. was all of 13 years old, but those wispy sprouts of hair dotting his upper lip made him seem sophisticated and mature. He knew a thing or two, I was immediately sure of that.
It was a crowded day at my junior high school cafeteria when I asked if I could grab the empty seat next to him. I did, and I saw him do the unspeakable: He took the wilted lettuce drenched in ranch dressing that passed as a salad and slopped it onto the soggy burger that was being served. He then took a handful of french fries and mashed them into the burger as well.
He looked over at me and said, “I call this the super burger.” Such bold nonconformity was shocking. I imitated him immediately. Suddenly, my dreary lunch was exciting.
The first time I ever had meatloaf, I was 10 years old. I was at a friend’s house for dinner, and when the menu was announced, I was overcome with curiosity. Meat - what? My friend rolled his eyes, disgusted. “Not again,” he murmured before collecting himself. He took the debate to the kitchen floor. A point of parliamentary procedure: Could we have a frozen Mama Celeste's pizza instead? His mother - eggs and meat coating her hands like gory mittens - stopped kneading and announced that if I also didn't want the meatloaf she was making, we could have frozen pizza.
I blurted out "I want the meatloaf!" I then shrugged at my friend, my best friend forever, the guy who I was sure would end up an astronaut exploring the crater and crannies of Mars alongside me - even if his name currently escapes me.
I was familiar with homely staples like mashed potatoes and peas, but what was this "meatloaf," this dish that combined two of my favorite words into one, namely "meat" and "loaf?" The next most mind-blowing combination would have been the words "cheese" and "cake," but my young mind knew that such a godly fusion could never be realized on this plane of existence.
Down South, it's not breakfast without flaky, fluffy lard biscuits born of a cast-iron skillet. They are more than just morning fare; they're time machines that transport some of us back to years far leaner.
My old man was a Baptist preacher's kid, during the Great Depression. He grew up poor.
He had an enormous appetite, and enjoyed all kind of new and exotic foods. I like to think of him as a sort of proto-foodie. He would always clean his plate and proudly slap me on the back when I was able to inhale everything served to me and still ask for seconds. It wasn't until I was older that I understood that when you go to bed hungry as a kid, you grow up making sure you eat every single morsel presented to you. Because you never know when it's not going to be there.
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