Wednesday. Hump Day.
In an attempt to be considerate, I refrained from enticing my friends into a night of debauchery and adult beverages in the middle of the week, and instead pondered a fun, tame, civilized event for my first anniversary of turning 23.
Growing older in body but not in spirit, I wanted to turn the clock back and forget that I was a mere 365 days from reaching the quarter-century mark. I wanted to bring back a childhood memory to offset my first full year of being a real adult.
And then it hit me.
A welcome addition to Cole Valley, a quaint, 1920s-era soda fountain recalls the days of yore when a frankfurter cost a nickel and your grandfather had to walk to school uphill. Both ways. In the snow.
Ice Cream Bar takes you back in time, and makes even those who weren’t around in the proverbial “day” feel like kids in a candy store. This was precisely what I needed.
So, as a few of my closest friends and I descended upon the shop, we were warmly greeted with cool samples of anything (and everything) our hearts desired.
Why yes, we WILL try those!
Here, we sampled some of their signature ice creams, including cherry, butterscotch banana pudding, basil, and my personal favorite, honey buttermilk. The cherry had whole hunks of fruit still inside and retained a tart quality, while eschewing the artificial flavor that plagues so many of its kind. The banana pudding tasted as if it had little chunks of Nilla Wafers inside: a huge bonus. The honey buttermilk was not for the faint of heart - heavy handed honey came together in harmony with the slightly sour buttermilk for a super strong honey-forward offering.
The space is split up into two main areas: the standard ice cream case upon entry, and the more luring, neon lit bar toward the back, complete with stools, tinctures, and your very own jerk.
Chris, Tending the Bar
Chris was tending bar during our visit, shaking up all the goods before our eyes. Since the menu is a tad more eclectic than is typical, Chris happily explained the subtle differences between latcarts and, phosphates (don't ask me to explain - something about imparting different favors. They both turn the drinks fizzy: it’s science).
Two such concoctions were “The Valentina” with strawberries, rosewood, rosemary and pineapple, and the “Stalk in the Park” with celery seed and mint. Both fascinating in their own way – The Valentina with a bright strawberry soda flavor that was elevated with the herbaceous rosemary, and the Stalk in the Park with a pungent, unmistakably celery essence that almost made me feel healthy for having tasted it – they were both evened out by the cream and syrups as to not be overwhelming.
Their milkshakes, for example, are made without ice cream as has become custom over the years. Instead, these hold true to their name: milk (and/or cream), shaken with raw egg, house made tinctures, malts, flavors and syrups combine for a surprisingly lighter take on the creamy treats as we know them today.
I know, I know – cream, eggs and sugar hardly sounds like a “light” take on anything. Comparatively, however, these creations are thinner and more easily consumed than the thick, dense, heavy milkshakes we’re used to, but not in the watered down kind of way. Full flavor, and rich to be sure, but silky smooth and easy doing down. By far, the crowd favorite was the "Too Good to be True." Living up to its name, butterscotch and blackstrap molasses infused with the raw egg and milk to create a sweet, rich, caramel-laden drink that knocked my socks off.
But all of that "light" business went out the window come to the “The World’s Best Pistachio Milkshake.” Claimed to be “made for two,” it was more accurately made for twelve. Which was great, because there just so happened to be about a dozen of us. Pistachio ice cream buzzed with raw Sicilian pistachio syrup and cream to form a viscous, meaty behemoth of a drink which was deliciously pure in its own right. The kicker here, however, was the hand whipped cherry whipped cream that topped the goblet, and dripped ever so elegantly down the sides.
Chris Pouring the World's Best Pistachio Milkshake
Tart Cherry Whipped Cream
As I do, I wanted to go off menu, and created a milkshake of my own with vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg which turned out to be the most luscious horchata for which I could have hoped.
If these oddities are too much, the traditionalists still have their say here at Ice Cream Bar. Decadent ice cream sundaes and banana splits are piled high with all the typical fix-ins, though they will do you one better. The bananas are lightly coated in sugar and torched for a crispy, caramelized shell atop the soft, warm fruit.
Leeann and her Banana Split
An odd dichotomy exists at the Ice Cream Bar – the décor and ambiance turn back the clock, but the flavors and innovations draw you back into the present.
Yet as we closed down the bar, what struck me most was how much everyone was smiling.
Jacob and Leeann
Sharing is Caring
Dan, Ally and Joe
I’d like to think it was because everyone was so thrilled to celebrate my birthday with me. Getting closer to the truth, it was probably the sugar-induced hyperactivity from the sweets of the evening.
More accurately - I think - was that we too often fail to recognize the simple pleasures in life, like an old fashioned milkshake or a simple scoop of ice cream with friends in a time much less complicated than the present. We always strive to arrive at the next stages in our lives so quickly – getting our drivers licenses, going to college, getting a job, marriage – that we forget to live in the present, or never realize how carefree it was to be a child.
And maybe a dose of the past is just what we need.
Whoever said that the bacon fad was over clearly didn’t get the word out to these people:
The third annual San Francisco Bacon Takedown (part of The Takedown Series
) hit Pubic Works on Sunday as my foodie world came full circle. This event holds a special place in my heart for many reasons. First and foremost, it is a competition dedicated solely to bacon.
More importantly, this was the springboard for my culinary adventures in San Francisco, after which there was no looking back.
It was exactly one year ago that I attended this event as a spectator thanks to a tip from my sister (best sister EVER, by the way), and ever since have kept in contact with many of the participants and organizers. So, when Takedown creator Matt Timms
needed a judge, my connections paid off in dividends. A mere twelve turns of the calendar and I found myself on the opposite side of the event that started it all.
This year, fourteen bacontestants, all local and from the Bay Area, went belly to belly for the Takedown crown. The only rule: use 15 pounds of Hormel Bacon.
First up – Krista (who works in software) served the ‘Lil’ Squealer’ – a meatball composed of mostly bacon, with some ground pork and ground beef for texture, gently sauced with her mother’s marinara and sprinkled with a bacon Parmesan bacon crumble.
Shea and Krista
The Lil' Squealer
The texture was phenomenal - the little nuggets of bacon stuck out while the ground meat kept it on the traditional end of the spectrum. The marinara sauce has clearly been passed down from generation to generation: rich, deep tomato flavors burst through with an underlying basil note and a nice salty bite from the tons of Parmesan cheese. Personal preference, I like my sauce to be a little thicker, and while this was on the smoother, creamier side, I enjoyed the balance it struck with the chunky meatball that crumbled under my tongue. A spectator referred to this as the “unsung hero” of the day – the dish that was not overly complicated but perfectly executed.
Next came last year’s champion, Ivy Something
! An artist developer by day, Ivy was inspired by a desire to take her first ever trip to Hawai’i, so she topped a bacon waffle with coconut-dusted chicken and drizzled a creamy ginger pineapple key lime sauce.
Coconut Chicken and Bacon Waffle with Creamy Ginger Pineapple Key Lime Sauce
The chunks of white meat chicken were incredibly moist. The toasted coconut crust was light and simple, and the ginger pineapple key lime sauce that I assumed was going to be overly complicated actually managed to elicit each flavor subtly enough to strike a wonderful balance. With one bite I was whisked away into a tropical paradise. The bacon waffle, however, was light on the bacon, a bit soggy and just seemed out of place.
No stranger to the Takedown was three-year veteran Dontaye Ball – who many of you may know as the mastermind behind Good Foods Catering
, offering some of the best damn barbeque this side of the Mississippi. Bringing his famous pork belly sliders, Ball built belly, bacon barbecue sauce, and bacon mayo between buns.
(There were cherry tomatoes and greens, too, but that threw off my alliteration.)
Good Foods Catering
Pork Belly Slider
Having experienced his cooking before, I knew I was in for a treat. The only word I have for the barbeque sauce is, “Bangin’!” I can’t tell you why, but that is the only one that comes to mind. Smokey, salty and sweet – it struck every perfect chord I could have fathomed possible. I could happily eat this by itself. Hell, I'd brush my teeth with it and you would enjoy my breath. Seriously, this was by far and away the best barbeque sauce I have ever had. Ever.
Unfortunately, the belly was a little bit too tough, the edges not crispy, and the ratio of bun to filling was not in the meat’s favor by a long shot.
But that sauce…
Gerald and Ed of B. Street Waffles
warmed their signature maple-bacon varietal for their entry.
Ed and Gerald
Having returned from a trip to Belgium where he witnessed happy-go-lucky pedestrians enjoying handheld waffles while roaming the streets, Gerald wanted to bring the concept to the States, which he has done over the past year.
“Fresh baked waffles with your choice of topping baked in!” Gerald explained.
“Well, if they’re baked inside, you can't consider them toppings, can you?”
"No no no - the toppings are baked INSIDE the waffle."
"...right, but...never mind."
Despite not comprehending the joke, he handed me a waffle with a smile. While others incorporated waffles into their dishes, this was the only one that made the cake a centerpiece. The sweet maple flavor dominated, with the bacon coming through lightly at the end. And while I appreciated the hunks of pork inside, I found the waffle greasy - mushy on the outside and extremely chewy and dense, even a bit hard, on the inside.
Elaine and A.J. attempted a healthier take on the otherwise artery-clogging dishes of the day - a nearly impossible task. Quinoa was tossed with bacon, black beans, celery, orange bell pepper, scallions and herbes de provence. A cool, summery salad with bright fresh notes would have been ideal for a picnic in the park. The bacon itself had been cooked with chili flakes, giving the whole salad a warmth that contrasted the otherwise cold mixture.
A.J. and Elaine
Bacon Quinoa Salad
It was a good dish, to be sure, and probably the only one that I would eat on a regular basis. It was seasoned extremely well and the quinoa was cooked to fluffy perfection. But given the fact that this was a bacon competition, after all, I really needed some more bacon.
A lot more bacon.
Much respect for trying to up the healthy standard, though!
‘S’more Bacon Please’ was the creation of Facebook employee Joyce and her fiancé Kevin who is the first elevator salesman I have ever met. Home made from the bottom up, a crumbly yet soft graham cracker served as the base for a sliver of candied bacon, hand-crafted torched-to-order ooey gooey marshmallows and a squirt of salted caramel sauce for this open-faced campfire delight.
Kevin, Torching. Joyce, Saucing
S'more Bacon, Please!
I loved how the graham cracker had substance but wasn't too crisp - it toed the line between cookie, cracker and cake. The candied bacon and salted caramel sauce each had the right sweet/salty balance, and the marshmallow, while delicious and smooth, should have had a better shell on it from the blowtorch. Instead, it essentially melted the mallow into a paste.
Stephanie spent three whole days making mini sourdough bread bowls for Thomas' bacon, potato and cheddar soup. The presentation was awesome, and freshly baked bread was phenomenal - a true San Franciscan sourdough. Unfortunately, the 'soup' was thick and gritty, relatively plain, and caused the whole dish to turn into a sloppy mush. Not a huge fan, here.
As a bonus, they served a scoop of not-quite-set rum bacon, which was a huge savior. Sugar, rum, bacon. That is a recipe for success! It was super salty in the best way, and the rum came on strong without having an alcoholic bite to it. If that had set fully into a brittle or caramel, I might have passed out with joy.
Sourdough Bread Bowls with Bacon, Potato and Cheddar Soup
Stephanie and Thomas
Rum Bacon. RUM FREAKIN' BACON!
The would-be sous-chef of Stephanie and Thomas, Dennis, decided to go rogue and enter his own creation into the fold with his partner Nina.
Dennis and Nina
German (Left) and Asian (Right) Baco-Yaki
Pancake-esque balls, deemed “Baco-Yaki,” were done two ways: the German style mixed potato, caramelized onions and bacon, topped with an apple fennel slaw and mustard aioli, while the Asian twist featured extracted kimchi juice. The fritters have their roots in the Japaneese takoyaki, which are ball-shaped snacks generally grilled or fried in a special pan.
Crispy outsides gave way to silky smooth interiors that captured the essence of each region. The German variety took me back to the beer hall meals I had in Munich, though in an infinitely smaller portion.
The Asian version tasted almost like a mini sushi balls, sans rice.
I can honestly say this was the first time I've ever complimented another man on his balls.
One contestant snagged two entries. Christy Canida’s
goal in her culinary efforts is to make food that people find so odd that they might simply pass over – and boy did it show! I can honestly say I have never seen anything like her two dishes.
Bacon Pixie Stix
After reading the name "Bacon Pixie Stix," I had no clue how to prepare for what was to come. Would it be sweet? Salty? Sour?! Canida managed to replicate the exact texture of the childhood candy (using molecular gastronomy, I can only assume) that melted away as soon as it touched my tongue. As for the taste? Incredible. Smokey bacon powder dissolved in my mouth and was gone as quickly as it had arrived, though I longed for it to return.
Her second submission was bacon Jello strip. I've never been a fan of gelatin-based desserts. I often find them to be flavorless and plain. This was no exception - while there was bit of artificial apple wood bacon essence, it was mostly a watered down jiggly rectangle. Though I was impressed with the presentation as a bacon strip!
Bulleit Bourbon Bacon Caramels
A duo of Bulleit Bourbon Bacon caramels (one with nuts, one without) were a solid entry. Sweet caramel, spicy bourbon, salty bacon. A no fail combination that was aided by the crunchy bacon bits (and nuts, in some) contrasting with the soft caramel, it was great. Nothing mind-blowing, and nothing too out of the ordinary, but the execution was spot-on and I would happily have these replace the Werther's Originals filling pocketbooks of grandmothers everywhere.
Jim Angelus needs no introduction, though you may know him better as the Bacon Bacon
Truck guy. No stranger to experimenting with bacon recipes, his Chicken Fried Bacon Bombs were indeed explosive – bacon wrapped belly, beef and bleu cheese, battered in a bacon, pepper and sriracha mixture and deep-fried with a secret sauce.
Jim "The Bacon Bacon Truck Guy" Angelus
Bacon, Bleu, Belly, Beef.
I feel terrible for those who didn’t have a chance to experience the glory that was this morsel from heaven. Deep frying anything makes it better. Deep frying bacon causes double rainbows. Deep frying bacon that is wrapped around tangy blue cheese, pork belly and ground beef, and you'll have world peace. Somehow, I could taste each and every element - none stronger than the next. The crispy outer shell gave way to the smokey and fatty bacon and belly, while the cheese provided some tang. The beef added texture and a "meatiness," though I could have done without it.
Speaking with him afterwards he did mention people already tweeting him requesting he bring these to the truck.
Keep an eye out.
Back for her second year was Chef Trace Williams
. After initially being denied entry into the venue, due to the fact that her assistant and son was under age, Chef Trace generously gave away nearly half of her entry to the homeless and passers-by, until she was finally granted access. What she did produce was a Baconnoli – a bacon lace cookie with a bacon and mascarpone filling.
Chef Trace and Her (Underage and Awesome!) Son
It was difficult for me to not to be biased, but her stuff still rocks. The lace cookies were nice and chewy, the kind where a little bit gets stuck in your teeth and you can save it for later (which I love...). The mascarpone filling could have done with some more salt (and by salt, I mean bacon...) and perhaps a touch more sugar. This wasn't overly sweet, and could see myself having more than one of these - something I can't say for many of the others.
Finally, we were given a deconstructed wonton. Consisting of a wonton wrapper fried in bacon grease, filled with bacon jam, topped with whipped avocado cream and sprinkled with lemon zest and smoked salt, this reminded me of a mini taco salad of sorts.
Mashing Avocado for the Whipped Topping
The avocado whipped cream was airy and wonderful. No lie, I could happily put that on top of ice cream or a for a pudding for dessert. The wonton shells, despite being fried in bacon grease, came across a little plain and the bacon jam, while good, was very typical.
As for the awards, the judges and the people’s choice were both extremely close.
The judges awarded:
Honorable Mention: Bacon Pixie Stix
Third Place: S’more Bacon Please
Second Place: Chicken Fried Bacon Bomb
First Place: Baco-Yaki
The People’s Choice:
Third Place: Potato Bacon Cheddar Soup with Sourdough Bread Bowls
Second Place: Lil’ Squealers
First Place: Chicken Fried Bacon Bomb
I guess it comes as no surprise that the man who has made a brand entirely based around bacon took top overall honors, but nonetheless it was well deserved.
The important thing to remember here, is that most of these chefs are just home cooks with a passion and a desire to experiment when they arrive home from their day jobs. Tech, art, sales - every one of these chefs put up some mighty fine food in an arena that was somewhat foreign. I, for one, was extremely impressed.
After congratulating Thomas on his award, I asked him if he had fun. He explained that competing [and winning] against professionals, amateurs, and those in between, was a blast!
Cooking is fun.
I used to think that there was a limit to bacon's potential - but the chefs today proved once again that there is always room for innovation and creativity (BACON PIXIE STIX?!). The same can be said for any type of cuisine, and it is those that push the boundaries of what food currently is in order to explore what food can be that keep us on our toes and excited about the adventure.
As for me, I may take a shot at entering as a contestant next year and complete the trifecta of possible roles at the Takedown. Either way, I've made some new friends, recognized some old faces from last year, and if they'll have me, I'll be back (bacon) in 2013.
Be sure to be on the lookout for more Takedowns in a city near you. Rumor has it that "Ice Cream and Hot Sauce" may find its way to the Bay Area soon. But you didn't hear that from me...
Call it bread, call it pita, call it dough. Or, if you are willing to embarrass yourself in front of Chef Boris Portnoy, try to call it by its real name.
If you can pronounce khachapuri.
A native of Moscow, Portnoy has pulled from his childhood influences, as well as his experiences at The Restaurant at Meadowood, to create Satellite Republic – a moped outfitted with a tandoor oven for crafting made-to-order breads for sandwiches, snacks and street food.
I had the opportunity to find him at his San Francisco debut in front of No Shop on Valencia (next to Four Barrel). Judging from the line that had formed by the time I arrived, there was no doubt in my mind that his was going to be a successful San Francisco institution.
Line Marveling at Chef Boris Portnoy's Satellite Republic
The oven was a sight to see. Covered with a black iron disc, the tandoor measured approximately a foot and a half in diameter, a foot deep, and reached a scorching 800˚ F. To bake the bread, Portnoy lightly stretched the dough onto the end of what looked to be a flattened cloth-covered sand bag, bravely reached his hand inside of the inferno and slapped it against the wall – removing his hand and the paddle safely out of harm’s way.
As I waited, watched, and pondered the menu, it struck me that I had no clue whatsoever what my options were. Of the eight words on the menu, I understood three: ‘lamb,’ ‘sandwich,’ and ‘with.'
Luckily for me, no one else seemed to speak Russian/Georgian either, so plenty of explanation came forth as Portnoy multi-tasked from behind the cart.
The first item confirmed my best guess - an open-faced lamb sandwich. Fresh, warm, hot bread straight out of the oven served as the base, and was topped with delicious slices of fatty lamb (cooked perfectly medium-rare at the bottom of the tandoor) from Don Watson in Napa, raw onions, cilantro, and a sour plumb sauce called tkemali.
Despite being so thin, the bread had a great crisp on the bottom where it had stuck to the inside walls of the tandoor, and a still fluffy top upon which the filling rested. The sour plumb sauce was truly unlike anything I’ve ever had – a really nice balance of sweet and tangy that complimented the lamb extremely well. My only gripe was the mound of fresh cilantro, which overpowered the other flavors. A few leaves would have done the trick – I got a small shrubbery.
That didn't stop me from scarfing it down, mind you. The melding of flavors and textures made for a perfect, elevated light lunch on the run.
Then came the menu item of which I could comprehend only a single word:
Imereti Khachapuri: Georgian Cheesy Bread
Imereti, Portnoy educated, was the region in Georgia from which this dish originates, while khachapuri (pronounced ka-chee-poor-ee) was the bread itself. Stuffed with a thin layer of feta and mozzarella, it fell somewhere between pita and naan. Thin but chewy and surprisingly moist, it was the Georgian version of cheesy bread. Instead of warming inside of the tandoor itself, however, the cheese melted as the bread crisped atop the tandoor cover (as seen in the Menu picture as well as the final photo of this post). Over the high heat, the layers puffed away from each other, expanding like an oblong balloon before Portnoy flipped it and quelled the rebellion of tiers before the pocket burst at the seams.
But the kicker here was the final word around which I couldn’t wrap my lips. Adjkia, a deep red, mole-colored spread made from chilies, basil, garlic and marjoram, among other components, graced the top of the khachapuri. It had a smoky/sweet quality I equated to harissa, which cut through the gooey, salty, creamy cheese without dominating it.
This was his first day, so there was plenty of room for trial and error. The tandir bread was a little burnt, and the wait was long – really long, and for made-to-order breads I can understand some of the delay. But if this is to become a viable, long term, feed the masses type of venture, something is going to have to give.
In terms of quality, flavor, and uniqueness, there is no doubt that this can be a huge hit - and I for once sincerely hope it is. The ingredients were fresh, the tastes were different yet friendly, and the concept is one-of-a-kind. But if Satellite Republic is going to succeed, Portnoy is going to have work out some of the logistical kinks - which I have no doubt he will.
Apologizing for the wait, he explained that not only was his first trial run for the public, but that he was not used to working in such a small space. However, when I asked him if he was having fun, a wave of joy spilled over his face and smile stretched from ear to ear.
“Oh yeah! This is great!”
Chef Portnoy, Hard At Work
On June 29th, fewer than 24 hours before the Kickestarter deadline, Iso Rabins
’ Forage Kitchen became a reality.
Rabins, the brainchild behind Forage SF, The Underground Market, and The Wild Kitchen, had just raised the requisite $150,000 to fund his most recent venture, Forage Kitchen.
For those not familiar with any of the buzzwords above, you can check out the Forage Kitchen website
. For those of you too lazy to even go that far, here’s the gist:
- A shared kitchen and shared office space, equipment rental, and business support center that will enable small, artisan producers to build their businesses from the ground up
- All of the above, but for a home cook to jar those preserves he/she has been dying to make with abundant fruit in the yard, can the veggies growing in the garden, create gigantic dishes for that Chanukkah feast he/she been meaning to throw.
- Classes, tips and tricks of the trade from those who have been through it all, and best of all, no red tape through which to cut in regard to permitting and licensing
While Rabins was undoubtedly the driving force behind the project, it was by no means a solo effort – to the tune of 1,605 backers on Kickstarter, countless promotional tweets, and the brave Bay Area chefs who auctioned themselves off at The Underground Market celebration.
Jams at the Underground Market Celebration
Forage Kitchen Kickstarter
Backing a Kickstarter is one thing, but a collaborative effort to raise over $150,000 is an entirely different ballgame that speaks volumes about the people invested. So just who are these people, and why do they care so much about some social kitchen?
The decision of the various pop-ups and pseudo-professionals to donate to this cause is obvious: they want a home. They want a place where they can not only hone their craft, but also share it with the entire community without taking on the burden of start-up costs associated with small batch projects. They want a shelter that will offer them advice, support, and opportunity.
Yet it is evident that these are not the only people who made this endeavor a success. Home cooks and everyday, normal people contributed as well. Why? Well, I can only surmise, but here’s my theory: people want to cook. We enjoy feeding others, but are often times too overwhelmed with the demands of our work, family, and social lives that the art of food gets shoved to the back burner.
How many recipes have you clipped, pinned, bookmarked, and never touched again because you didn’t have the materials? The time? The space? I can think of dozens of challenges I let pass by because I was unwilling to invest in a piece of baking equipment I knew I would only use once and then stow in the back of my cupboard, or was too intimidated by a particular method and didn’t want to waste my time, money or energy on the very high probability I would screw up.
Back in “the day,” going out to eat was far and away the exception, saved for special occasions and random acts of romance. Now, it has become so commonplace to let others cook for us that many have lost an essential life skill. Why spend the time and effort to buy ingredients and materials when we can simply walk down the block and have a delicious meal there?
By no means am I saying that we should boycott restaurants and only make meals at home.
Seriously, I would have no website.
But I am saying that Forage Kitchen will give us the opportunity to expand our horizons, step out of our culinary comfort zones (or lack thereof), and feel empowered to take that leap of faith – whether you want to follow that dream you’ve always had to market and sell your grandmother’s super secret recipe, or to finally host that elaborate murder mystery dinner party you’ve been planning since college.
This venture says a tremendous amount about the values that San Franciscans (and those who contributed from afar) hold. Sure, we’re all foodies and will consistently wait in lines for brunch and pony up the dough for virtually anything “artisanal.” But something about this particular movement made me stop and look a little bit harder.
It means that we support a culture of entrepreneurship, and despite the “win-at-all-cost” mentality that pervades our society, we are not only willing, but have a desire, to help each other succeed. It says that we want a place to do all of these things but have always been too scared, too intimidated, too inundated with which to follow through.
Sure, we’ll all reap the benefits of the incredible food that will no doubt emanate from the Forage Kitchen by way of the extremely talented Bay Area chefs, but we might also find that we do have the desire to try something out for ourselves. And now we have a place to do it.
The success of Forage Kitchen says that we believe in our community, but more importantly, that we also believe in ourselves.
I had my first mudslide when I was 22 years old.
At least that's what I tell my parents.
Back home in Florida, we had this neighbor - Gregg "Mud" Lewis - and every time I returned from college for the holidays, he would invite me to have a drink with him at his favorite bar, J. Alexander's.
Gregg was a regular at J's. On almost any given night, you could walk through the door, hang a right, and there he was at his table; the last round booth on the left. Surrounded by his loving girlfriend, neighborhood friends, or the staff smiling at his presence, Gregg recognized essentially every face in the place. If he didn't, he must have made it a point to change that as quickly as he could, because he had the uncanny ability to converse with just about anyone within the establishment walls.
The table was "his" for a plethora of reasons, not the least of which was that he tipped more than a gang of bored country derelicts in a pasture at dusk. More likely was the fact that he treated every single server at that bar as though he or she were royalty. At times, I was hard-pressed to distinguish the patron from the employee. Always a please and thank you, and sure, sometimes a 'sweetheart' or 'my man' thrown in there for good measure, but never in a derogatory manner. There was constant playful banter - Gregg could take it as well as he dished it, and each party partook in plenty of both.
It's pretty easy to become a regular anywhere. Step one: show up.
But Gregg wasn't just any 'regular.' Instead of calling a cab for him after one (or five) too many, bartenders offered to drive him home themselves to make sure he arrived home safely - four minutes away.
This went well beyond "Cheers" where everyone knew his name - everyone knew as much about him as anyone possibly could. Even more impressive, Gregg knew just as much about each and every one of them.
He even has is own drink - and not just in theory or in the way that people generally know what he's talking about when he orders, but an actual, programmed in the electronic register drink that, when the bill arrives, reads "Gregg Mudslide." Which is where this story begins...
My first "of age" experience with Gregg began like any other - I drank whatever he ordered, and first up was his signature "Gregg Mudslide." Instead of the traditional one part Bailey's, one part Kahlua, one part vodka and a splash of cream, this was closer to half top-shelf vodka and half Bailey's in an old fashioned glass with some ice cubes. As the sweet liquor hit my lips and went down as smooth as silk, I figured this would be a piece of cake.
"This is what he's drinking? This tastes like chocolate milk! I can do this all night!"
And then came another.
And then Patrón.
Needless to say, his "experience" certainly outlasted mine.
Back from college a year later, with my proverbial alcohol training wheels removed, we sat in for another round. Eerily similar to the last, I was able to hold my own this time, though certainly a little worse for wear. I did, however, bring him to a point where he let me pay for one drink, and that is something to which I will hold on dearly for the rest of my life.
Tuesday morning, Gregg lost his battle with a cancer that should have put him away almost a decade ago. We often joked that he was able to survive for so many quality years for two reasons: first, because he possessed the most incredibly positive attitude toward life and living, and even during the most uncertain times, he projected a confidence that good things lie ahead - no matter how far.
Second - all the booze.
And sure, both of those probably had a little to do with it. But if you ask me, it was the people with whom he surrounded himself that truly gave him the will, the drive, and the desire not only to live, but to live happily. Each chemotherapy session seemed to be worse than the last, putting him out of commission for longer stretches of time. Yet as soon as he felt up to it, he was walking his dog about block, chatting with the neighbors and inviting them to J's that very same evening.
He even got my mother, who gets tipsy from smelling a wine cork, to take a few shots with him: that's how much admiration we had for this man.
When I heard the news, 3,089 miles across the country from J. Alexander's, the only thing I could think to do was make myself a Gregg Mudslide; and I wasn't the only one.
My parents each ordered one that night.
My sister texted a picture from a bar in Boston - she ordered one that night.
His girlfriend, who hadn't had one in ten years - ordered one that night.
As I did my best to concoct my own, I toasted to a man whose zeal for life far exceeded that of any person facing a more certain future. I toasted a man who made me a better person for causing me to realize just how possible it is to live life to the fullest, even when facing the darkest hours. I toasted a man who made everyone around him feel important, special, happy and loved.
The first sip I took of my very own attempt at a Gregg Mudslide wasn't as sweet as I remembered it being back at his table at J's. Perhaps I just had the wrong proportions. Perhaps the cheap vodka I bought was a shock in comparison to that with which I was previously spoiled.
Or, perhaps a drink simply contains more ingredients than those which are present in the glass.
Gregg, this mudslide, and every mudslide, is for you.
Tomorrow, I begin training for the New York City Marathon, and as I mentally prepare myself for the road ahead, I find myself focusing a lot on food.
Then again, why should this day be any different?
Back in 2009, I had my first run at a 26.2 mile journey as I looked to tackle Chicago. Always in relatively good shape but without the desirable “six-pack abs” body to show for it, I decided this would be the perfect time to seize the opportunity and lose some weight, change my body composition, and take on a figure that would leave me unashamed to go shirtless as much as possible.
Even during the brutal Michigan winters.
During my six-month campaign, however, a combination of ignorance, self-consciousness, and information overload left me ignoring common sense and proper nutrition in favor of weight loss. Increasing miles and decreasing calories, combined with the low-carb craze was a perfect recipe for shedding away that belly I once possessed and despised.
When all was said and done, I finished the marathon in a time of 3:16:11, but at the cost of about 30 pounds: more than half of which I couldn’t truly afford to lose.
This mentality stayed with me for quite some time thereafter. I had already lost the weight, and feared that if I changed something, anything, that I might revert back into my previous “mediocre” physical state. Decisions on food consumed my life and altered my daily routine. Fortunately, with the help of family and friends, I can happily report that I’m right back on track to where I need to be.
This time around, I plan to do things a little differently. A lot differently. Completely differently.
Which is why I’ve recently been pondering my own eating habits. Since moving to San Francisco, I’ve definitely partaken in more than my fair share of Tartine pastries, Bi-Rite ice cream and Pliny the Elder. Excited to explore my new city through food, I may have floored it a little too quickly.
I regret nothing.
But it did lead me to ask the question: What comprises a “healthy” lifestyle?
One of my closest friends recently took up the Paleo diet, which in short, attempts to mimic the lifestyle of those living during the Paleolithic era. Tons of lean meats and leafy greens make up the vast majority of his intake, with the occasional handful of nuts and even more scarce nibbles fruit, limited to dark berries. No dairy, no legumes, no grains. He, and many others, have expressed the wonders that this change has done for them in terms of both weight and overall well-being.
While I by no means contest their claims, I do have some qualms with the adoption of such measures. Personally, I am vehemently anti-diet, and have always been a firm believer that your body knows what it wants. Cravings are merely signals to alert your body that it requires something – nutrients, vitamins... – and that which you desire is the way in which your personal history remembers how to attain it. A craving for ice cream may not be as much be a hankering for junk food as it is your body yearning for calcium.
Diets by their very nature are restrictive, and it is this sort of self-imposed limitation that causes people not only to “relapse,” but also to overindulge when the time comes (and it will) to cave in. And when the stresses of ensuring you adhere to an arbitrary set of rules and regulations overpowers the joy you may receive from happily indulging in the occasional (re: occasional) sugary delight, what are you really sacrificing?
People often times underestimate the value of the psychological benefits gained from indulging from time to time. By no means am I advocating eating an entire pie in the name "emotional stability," but in evaluating the decision to indulge, the negatives (unhealthy, fattening...etc.) generally focus in the forefront. The mental benefits, however, are often put on the back burner.
Besides, it is a much more social (and healthier) venture to share a dessert than it is a salad.
More importantly, we have the ability to condition ourselves to recognize other sources, healthier sources, to achieve that same missing puzzle piece. By diversifying our food sources with a variety of fruits, vegetables, proteins, fats and carbohydrates, we can discover better ways to reach the desired goal of providing ourselves the nutrients we desire. As a result, the decision to reach for a bundle of kale to quench that very same calcium deficiency becomes just as turnkey as polishing off a pint of Ben and Jerry’s.
Well, maybe not that easily.
Yet this diversification comes with a qualification – it has to be real, honest to goodness food. We genetically modify and manipulate food so that people are able to have something similar to genuine fare, just so that it complies with the latest craze.
Comedian Lewis Black (crudely - NSFW) explains:
With so much uncertainty about what is and is not “good” for us, combined with the dominance of processed provisions in the supermarkets, convenience often takes precedence over health.
But look around – never has there been a time where organically grown fruits and vegetables are so ripe for the picking. Farmers’ markets abound! Natural, real food in such a variety of brilliant colors, shapes, sizes, tastes and textures are all so close at hand that it seems almost irresponsible to choose anything else. It is not difficult to appreciate all that nature has to offer us.
My consumption habits will almost certainly change, as the demands of pounding pavement for 40 miles a week will take a huge toll on not only my caloric needs, but my nutrient needs as well. Still, there are still questions to be answered and decisions I have to make:
Will I give up beer and bread?
You must be joking.
Am I going to skip out on my latte and saffron snicker doodle cookie at Blue Bottle on Saturday mornings?
No chance in hell.
Will I do all of this with a greater degree of restraint?
For me, it is all about having everything in moderation; junk food included. Those who propose any sort of diet subscribe to the notion that at any given point, a particular item’s detriment outweighs its benefit. However, this is merely a short-term snapshot. Over the long haul, I submit that the wider range of nutrients taken from various sources will improve our overall health by exposing us to a more in-depth spectrum of possible sources for life's essentials, while simultaneously increasing our ability to resist disease and allowing us to enjoy the food we eat that much more.
Economics teaches us not to put all of our eggs in one basket, and that diversification in the market is ideal. This is my philosophy when it comes to the foods I choose to eat. There is just so much uncertainty out there that I hesitate to entirely eliminate (or conversely, only consume) a singular set of anything. For every study that proves that a vegan diet is ideal, there are twenty more just like it showing that a strip of bacon a day keeps the doctor away.
That’s my kind of doctor!
Our bodies are all so unique and with different needs that I refuse to accept the fact that there is one specific method of dieting that is the end-all be-all solution to consumption. It just isn't possible. But by keeping processed items to a minimum, enjoying a blanketed menu of naturally occurring fruits and vegetables, and ultimately enjoying the food we eat, we'll all be just fine.
Nosh on (in moderation),