When I was young and had no deadlines or mortgages (or a blog), I was footloose-and-fancy-free right after I finished college. So just about the day after graduation, I hitched on a backpack and headed to Europe. In was the 80′s and it was the thing to do. As I traversed the continent, I met scores of other kids my age doing the same thing and we world-wise travelers (or so we thought of ourselves) were a friendly bunch and would easily meet up and just go off and travel together. My fondest memory was when a small merry group of us banded together and decided to hitchhike through the former Yugoslavia with the intention of ending up in Turkey where we’d explore the entire country in one exhilarating month.
One fellow that came along was a very, very blond fellow named Kaj, who was from Finland. His hair was stark-white and wherever we went, people would drop everything, stop and gape, having never seen locks so blindingly void of color. Occasionally, their curiosity would get the best of them and the locals would reach over and caress his hair. In addition to his popular noggin, Kaj was a vegetarian, which made dining out a challenge. Luckily the Turks are very friendly and they were happy to take us into their restaurant kitchens to look over what was available so we could decide without deciphering the menus. Speaking no Turkish, Kaj would point at the various pots and cauldrons simmering away and ask, “Meat?” while pointing at one. Then “No meat?” while pointing at another. Then “Meat?”…No meat?…Meat?…”, while working his way through all the dishes simmering away.
It because a source of amusement during our travels and the question would crop up at the most unusual times. Whether we were sitting on a bus taking one of our many long voyages, shopping at the Grand Bazaar, or just sunning ourselves on a pristine beach, one of us would completely out-of-the-blue pop the eternal question…“Meat? No Meat?”
I don’t know where Kaj is now, but he would have not been very content traveling with me this time during my recent US tour. I ate so much meat that I’m about to get fitted for a turban and become a card-carrying veg-head for a few weeks. Yes, I think I’ve reached my fill of ‘ol Bessie. But let’s face it, it’s hard to beat meat. She’s an integral part of American cuisine. We Americans are real meat eaters and in between the most exceptional plates of beef ribs I had for lunch in Fort Worth, Texas at George’s Bar-B-Q, to the beef brisket I had at Sonny Bryan’s in Dallas, I sampled the best of the best.
The original Sonny Bryan’s in Dallas opened in 1910. Nowadays the parking lot is full of pick-up trucks and once you step inside, it’s pandemonium trying to reach the counter to place your order. Even though I live in France and am used to people trying to wedge in front of each other, I assumed that it’s not prudent here to cut in line…especially after eyeing the fully-loaded gun racks in the trucks parked in the dusty lot outside.
Seeing as I left my overalls back in Paris, I did my best to fit in and ordered a combo plate, speaking with a bit of a drawl. My platter was some soft, warm slices of beef brisket and turkey (I added the turkey since I’m beginning to sport a ‘muffin-top’ after this trip.) But I couldn’t resist those jumbo, cripsy onion rings, which tasted every bit as good as they look.
Armandino Batali is the owner of Salumi. And if his name sounds familiar, his son is the muffin-man himself, Mario Batali. After years of working as an engineer for Boeing, Armandino packed up and went to Italy to learn the art of air-curing meats and making sausages. And when we showed up, the line was out the door with locals waiting for warm sandwiches crammed with slices of porchetta and spicy oxtail meat.
As we crowded around the table, the family-style meaty platters began descending on the table. The first sausages were thin rounds of mole salami, with a curious chocolate flavor from a good dose of Guittard cocoa powder (which Armandino told me was very popular with the local Mexican community.) There were also slices of prosciutto made with flavorful lamb and cured pigs cheek, called guanciale. Armandino used to teach a class, ‘Make Your Own Prosciutto’, which sounded like great fun. On the first day, you’d be presented with a pig leg, then you’d return each week to rub your leg with spices and whatever else goes into making prosciutto. He had to discontinue to classes since he no longer has the time.
He then presented us with enormous, steaming bowls of tiny French green lentils from Puy, topped with warm rounds of cotechino sausage, softly-scented with real vanilla. The course that really got the most comments were little toasts covered with just-melted aged cows-milk cheese, topped with crunchy nuggets of salt. Yum! Was that ever good. And I ate pig’s ears for the first time (I abstained from eating the stewed tripe so I figured I needed to keep my ‘cred’ and not look like a lightweight with all those famous eaters around the table.) So I ate all my pig’s ears, which were really quite good. Served on a pile of mixed salad greens, the crunchy slivers of pig’s ears tasted like faintly-cooked, crunchy onions, but with a bit more ‘bite’.
Taking a non-meat break, we had a fabulous platter of giant white beans tossed with tinned white tuna, finely-sliced red onions, all tossed in a simple dressing of olive oil and vinegar. It was great, and I made a mental note that it would make an easy, and nice summer salad if Paris ever warms up.
At that point, I was begging to stop so Judy reached in her purse (is there no end to what a woman will pull out of her purse?) and brought out the Italian secret weapon: grappa.
Packed like cigarettes, each cylinder was a thin glass tube of grappa, a perfect shot of this high-test liquor, which primed us for the few more courses that were to follow.
Finally, after eating way too much and trying to scribble notes, we all begged ourselves away from the table before Armandino could set another platter amongst us.
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