Friday, September 28, 2007
(Cover courtesy of Clarkson Potter)
Table manners, dining etiquette and proper ways to host a dinner party might might seem to some as much of a lost art as duelling, blacksmithing or going fox hunting. To author Lynn Rosen, however, the traditions and lore of the dining experience are vital and necessary. Her book, Elements of the Table (Clarkson Potter) is a witty primer on proper dining etiquette. The work is full of fascinating and useful information, history and instruction. Ms. Rosen was nice enough to check in with this site about her book, her own dining experiences and why her friends might be nervous about invinting her over for dinner.
M & L: How long had you thought of writing this book?
LR: "I have long been obsessed with table setting. As I say in the book, it was one of my main household chores as a girl, and my mother was very strict about my doing it just right. It occurred to me that I could turn my obsession into a book a few years ago. I began shaping it, wrote the proposal, and was lucky enough to have Clarkson Potter want to publish it!"
M & L : Were you surprised that there was enough material to construct an entire book about this subject?
LR "You should see how much material my editor cut! However, from the start, Elements of the Table was meant to be a brief and practical book. I never doubted that there was enough info to fill a book about how to use all the items on the table, because there are so many of them, and so many of them befuddle us! What did surprise was the richness of the history of dining I found. I was completely fascinated by the historical aspects of how we eat, and read every book I could find on the topic."
M &L Was there any bit of information that surprised you in the research or writing of this book?
LR "What really surprised me was that my mother wasn't making this stuff up! I was surprised how steeped in history our table customs are, and how deeply important doing things the right way is to so many people. Also, lots of the specific historical tidbits I turned up surprised me. Like that people used to collect lots of silver tableware as a way of showing off how rich they were. Or that people did not wash cloth napkins very often, and used napkin rings to identify their own dirty napkin from one meal to the next. Or about how key historical figures had a role in something table-related, like when Count Richlieu dictated that table knives had to have rounded tips so no one could stab him at dinner! Fun things like that!"
M & L: The photos and illustrations are very striking. What kind of input did you have in this respect?
LR "Thank you! Well, I became a photo stylist for this book! I arranged all the stuff you see in the photos, set the tables, ironed the linen, held lights, and more! I was lucky enough that some wonderful companies agreed to loan me all the beautiful products in the photos. (Alas, like Cinderella, I had to give them back at the end of the shoot!) Then I persuaded my parents to loan me their dining room. I told them it would be for a few weeks but it wound up taking three months. And then I had two fabulous volunteer photographers: my father Walter Rosen (a talented amateur) and my friend Patrick Snook, who really is a professional photog, but usually shoots people and not plates. We just tried a bunch of stuff, consulting with our great art director Marysarah Quinn at Clarkson Potter, and found the right look. Glad you like it as it was a lot of work!"
"As far as the illustrations, I envisioned the look I wanted and they were brought to life by another talented artist, Sherry Berger."
M & L: Has writing this book changed the way you view going to a restaurant or eating at a friends house?
LR: "Well, my friends don't invite me over anymore because they are afraid I am going to grade them! Just kidding! They do get a bit more nervous when I come over than they did before I started writing this book. The most important thing I learned from my research for the book is that, if you see something done wrong at a friends table, just keep quiet about it. Don't complain, don't rearrange the setting, just deal with it. I would never insult a host by criticizing. But mostly I don't need to. Everyone entertains in a different way, and I just like seeing everyone's different styles and appreciating them. As far as restaurants, I am pickier. If I am paying for service, I expect it to be good. I worked for a caterer for a while, and I know how hard it is to provide good service. So now I notice how I am being served, and I can tell if it is being done right."
"I attended a wedding recently at a fancy hotel, and the server at my table was excellent. She did everything right (for example, served from the left, cleared from the right), and did it pleasantly and unobtrusively. When the meal was over I complimented her and thanked her for her service. She seemed surprised to have been noticed and grateful for the kind words. But if the service had been bad, I wouldnâ€™t have said anything."
Thursday, September 20, 2007
Kristin Davis at the AHAVA launch in the Weather Room at "Top of the Rock" (Plus the birth of the 'M. Rhodes')-Read on!
Lynn, I and Eileen were lucky enough to get an invite to the AHAVA party at "Top of the Rock" in the Weather Room at 30 Rockefeller Plaza the other night. Oddly enough, the party was on a Tuesday and we were unsure of weather to venture into Manhattan near rush hour on a weekday and have to be driven back to Long Island afterwards-The promise of Sex and the City's Charlotte York, aka Kristin Davis was enough to tip the scales and motivate us to push forward with an adventure into Manhattan-
Luckily, the weather was perfect and our driver Dennis was clearly an old pro at getting into the city with savvy and good instincts. We arrived a few minutes after 6 (the party was 6-8) and were whisked through a couple of checkpoints into a private elevator that took us up to the 67th floor at "30 Rock" (The top of the elevator played a projection of many decades of NBC highlights as we shot up story after story).
At the point we got to the party, there were maybe 65-70 people in attendance. The Weather Room has a kind of outdoor rooftop area that is enclosed in a ten foot glass fence. The view is genuinely breataking as the Empire State Building stood guard on one side and Central Park stretched out before us on the other side. We were quickly offered Bellinis and Hors D'oeuvres. The best food was the asparagus wrapped in salmon and the bartenders (from Cipriani's no less) made amazing martinis. I asked for my favorite drink; A Vodka Martini with a dash of Campari. The bartender did not know the drink and asked me if I had a name for this concoction. Unwilling to dissapoint the suave bartender, I mentioned that I called it an "M. Rhodes." This seemed to please him and he said he would try to rememember this if and when he might serve it again.
Lynn met up with the AHAVA reps who could not have been nicer or happier that we accepted their kind invation. There was much chat about the environment, the great weather, business, restaraunts, etc. I had another martini and the sun began to go down and the Manhattan skyline looked even more striking as the late afternoon turned to early evening.
About halfway through the gathering a buzz commenced and we anticipated that Kristin Davis might be making an appearance (it was said she was eating downstairs when we first got to the party). Soon enough, she was being introduced and she wafted through the corridor and took her place at the podium. Lynn was struck by how pretty she was (Lynn was so moved that she cried). Indeed, she had on a swee orange chiffon dress and she exuded a lovely spirit when adressing the gathering.
After her brief speech, Ms. Davis stood there for a few minutes for "photo ops" while photogs snapped away. Lynn and I are the veterans of a thousand such events and the time lapse between an actor/celebrity being accessible and whisked away is razor thin. Lynn, sensing this, finnessed her way into Ms. Davis' area and made eye contact with her. Ms. Davis warmly recieved Lynn when Lynn asked for a picture. The actress asked Lynn "Is that your friend?" (meaning yours truly) and complemented us on being a "cute couple." A couple of publcists tried to whisk the actress away (as it is publicists job to limit, not maximize their clent's exposure), but Lynn and I had made a favorable impression on the charming actress and she was happy to accomadate us. I, not known as a photographer, took a very great picture under considerable pressure (we weren't going to get another shot so to speak). Lynn and Kristin Davis both looked great. I rose to the occasssion, Lynn rose to the occassion and Ms. Davis rose to the occassion. We left shortly thereafter, happy with a great memory intact...
The Weather Room at Top of the Rock
30 Rockefeller Plaza
(Entrance on 50th Street between 5th and 6th Avenue)
New York, New York
Utica's justifiably famous restaraunt Ventura's was just the kind of low-key, comforting Old School Italian place Lynn had always missed when she moved away from upstate NY. We had the chance to go with some friends on the 15th of Sept. and it was great with very nice, regular food and predictably great drinks...
787 Lansing St, Utica, NY 13501
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Trevor with Toshi Sugiura, long-time L.A. sushi chef, CEO of the
California Sushi Academy, and one of the characters in The Zen of Fish (courtesy of Trevor Corson)
Trevor chatting with students at the California Sushi Academy, where
The Zen of Fish takes place (Courtesy of Trevor Corson)
Trevor Corson, the most interesting and idosyncratic writer of food lore and mythology today (here is your soundbite: 'Trevor Corson is a combination of MFK Fisher and Bill Murray')has been corresponding with me since early in the summer, promising he would be interviewed by MLF-In the meantime, I heard him on NPR, saw his book, The Zen of Fish (Harper Collins)on the shelves of Barnes and Noble and the like. Needless to say, I was very pleased and grateful when his interview popped into my inbox about a week ago-
Now, an interview months in the making:
MLF: Before you wrote this, did you know anything about the lore or
history of sushi ?
TC: No, I was clueless just like everyone else! And what a surprise it was to learn what I did. For example, sushi didn't originate in Japan, and had nothing to do with raw seafood. Another surprise: the type of sushi we know and love today is popular because of the policies of the American military. And on the streets of old Tokyo,
sushi was not a sophisticated dining experience but a cheap fast food -- like a McDonald's drive-thru for samurai. I also learned a slew of surprising facts about the ingredients as well, such as tuna, which the Japanese considered garbage fish unfit for sushi. It was Western influence on the Japanese diet that got the Japanese eating fatty, red-fleshed fish like tuna. And now the Japanese obsession with tuna
for sushi has, in turn, influenced us.
MLF. Are there things about sushi that are simply lost to history, or
are its origins well-documented?
TC: One of the great mysteries of sushi history is why sushi disappeared from China. The original form of sushi -- a combination of fish and tart rice -- was born in Southeast Asia, and then spread north into China and then through Korea and over to Japan. Early versions of sushi still exist in Thailand, Taiwan, and Korea as well as Japan, but today there is no native form of Chinese sushi. One theory is that sushi's disappearance from China is due to the Mongol invasion. The Mongols were big eaters of red meat from land animals, and it's possible that the popularity of fish declined in China as a result. Today, sushi is being reimported into China from Japan, and is growing in popularity there because of its status as a cosmopolitan
MLF: There doesn't appear to be too many (if any) Western books about
the history of Sushi-Why do you think this is the case?
TC: The obvious and biggest reason is that most of the scholarship on the history of sushi is written in Japanese. Probably another reason is that the rise of the popularity of sushi in the West has been fairly recent and quite sudden. It's only been in the past two decades or so that sushi has become anything more than an exotic novelty in the U.S. But over the course of the past few years sushi has become ubiquitous in the West. So I think the timing for my book was just
right -- and I was fortunate to have invested several years of my life into living in Japan and learning the Japanese language, so I was able to bring a lot of new information from Japanese sources to a Western audience.
MLF: What is the history of Sushi in America? Has it been completely
accepted at this point?
TC: Sushi entered the U.S. through Los Angeles in the mid-1960s, almost by accident, and it took a while for it to catch on. The key to its subsequent popularity was that Hollywood celebrities discovered and embraced it as an exotic novelty. Once movie stars started eating sushi, its success here was probably guaranteed. But even so, until recently sushi was limited mostly to the big American cities on the
coasts. The amazing thing that is happening these days, which I describe in the book, is that sushi is now exploding in popularity in the American heartland as well. It's spreading like wildfire across the Midwest.
MLF: How do you see the practice of eating/preparing sushi evolving
in the future?
TC: I think the future of sushi is really up for grabs, and I don't think anyone has a monopoly on it anymore. There are many Asian chefs making terrible sushi and some Caucasian or Latino and even African-American chefs making good or even great sushi. And sushi has evolved dramatically in the West, leaving behind its recent Japanese roots in some cases and staying very loyal to those roots in others. So we have a whole range of sushi now. And one of the take-home messages of my book is that the history of sushi is a history of constant change. In Japan in the 1800s it was a cheap fast food, and now just look at American supermarkets, where it's become a cheap fast food all over again. And of course there's the issue of overfishing -- the seas are rapidly running out of many kinds of fish. So who knows what kind of
sushi we'll be eating in the future. But as readers learn in my book, the word "sushi" refers simply to rice seasoned with vinegar and a little sugar and salt, so anything served with that rice can be sushi. The possibilities are probably endless.
Check out much more about Trevor, his life and work at
Saturday, September 8, 2007
The Barbary Coast is a legendary bar in Wilmington, NC. As I remember, it was founded by a suitably colorful character in Port City lore: Tugboat Captain/Prizefighter "Buddy" Best (who was a client and friend of my Attorney Father WK Rhodes Jr.). In my twenties, the bar was a great haven because it had cheap beer, a great jukebox and a surprisingly cheerful, attractive staff. It's rougish repuation was well-earned, but it was much less dangerous than people percieved (mainly because owner Paul Best, son of Buddy, ran a tight ship and would not put up with any roughhousing). The result of this was probably the world's most comforting dive bar.
On my recent trip to Wilmington, I pulled in to see if the bar was the same. When I walked in, I was almost nailed by a dart as some guys were playing at 3pm on a dartboard next to the entrance. As I sat down and ordered a PBR it occurred to me that the place had not changed a bit (except for the Barbary Film Festival nights and free wireless internet access)-Great stuff here!
116 S Front St
Wilmington's Market located for a couple of blocks on Water Street on Saturday is a big improvement on the Market we went to last year. This year there were local farms with great selections of organic produce, eggs, cheese and the like. Of note were the offerings from Grassy Ridge Farm in Riegelwood, NC and Nature's Way Farm and Seafood in Hampstead, NC where we bought some excellent, reasonably priced goat cheese covered with pepper corns and some nice crab meat as well. Also, Hanchey's Produce in Wallace, NC had some tremendouse peanuts and Honeybell Farms in Leland had great, organic eggs including Abacor eggs (Martha Stewart's favorites I was told by the farmer).
Great stuff-Much improved-Now, if only some of the area restaraunts could pick up on this trend...
Is Nagila Wilmington's best restaraunt? Well, I think so, but I am not 100% sure since I can't completely remember what i ate there (blame it on the Isreali wine!) I do remember we had a mega sampler of Morrocan foods, some better than others, but all very exceptional. The truth is I, my wife, two stepdaughters and a boyfriend all shared our food in a way that seemed in the spirit of the evening and the cuisine we were eating. As mentioned before, the Isreali wine was true exotica and it had the confidence and integrity of any great California red you might imagine. The place has some things going against it 1. The location on Wrightsville Ave. is in a strip center which works against the exotic ambience of the place. The decor, while not exactly bad, is hit and miss. The best thing that the place has going for it is the cook/owner/waiter (whose name I can't recall) who had the silky charm and menace of a great character actor such as Sidney Greenstreet and his confident assertation that we were about to eat a great meal, drink great wine and have a great experience gave our table a charge. He was right.
3314 Wrightsville Ave
The restaraunt, Bon Appetit located on Carolina Beach Rd. in Wilmington was a pleasant surprise on our recent trip to Wilmington. The restaraunt serves great, cheap fare for breakfast and lunch and the catering arm of BA is quite accomplished having catered for the television show Dawson's Creek and having been featured on the Food Network as well. My stepdaughter, Kristina took us there with her boyfriend David-In particular the Shrimp omelet was superb and the toast was very good. As with many of these places the atmosphere is casual and friendly with issues of the local Star News lying here and there. The interior is spacious and there is room to maneuver in the place (not necessarily typical for a breakfast place). The service was good as well (a noteworthy thing in Wilmington)-Nothing amazing, but very solid and comforting.
Off-topic aside: Of interest to me was the Sept. 11 tribute on one of the windows-I had not ever seen one in NC-The owner, Eugene Costa, is a native New Yorker which makes sense-Still, with all of the New Yorkers in NC (my father in law, my stepdaughter and my wife's ex-husband are three) it is surprising that there aren't more of these kind of tributes-
As recently as a couple of years ago, you could walk into the Dixie Grill and experience downtown Wilmington as it was circa 1950. The grit, the layers, the menu, the pool table, the ex-cons all spoke to the tough seaport town that Wilmington was - and the Dixie was both a reminder of Wilmington's less genteel traditions and a rebuke of the attempts to gentrify the downtown area. The Dixie was so tough (and smelled like grease and fire) and oozed so much integrity (among other things) and gritty charm that if it were in another city like NY or a smaller, somewhat sophisticated place like Raleigh or Charlotte it might have found a hipster following. Hipsters in Wilmington never really picked up on the place (possibly because there are so few hipsters in Wilmington). But, it had a consistent blue collar following and a colorful staff (Bunny, one of the waitresses was cast by David Lynch in Blue Velvet-the woman who dances on top of the car).
It was only a matter of time until the Dixie got a facelift (this being Wilmington after all). According to one of the waitresses, the establishment closed for a few months at the beginning of this year and has just re-opened. The place is cleaned up (the smell is gone) and the menu is more healthy (the chopped salad is especially good) and the waitstaff is younger, but not as colorful. The large interiors of the place remain intact and there are nice touches here and there (an old sign from the 70's was apparently drug out and mounted behing the bar).
As with many places in Wilmington, the service is a genuine problem. The waitresses/waiters aren't rude, just out of it and distracted. We were the only ones in the restaraunt but it was like pulling teeth to get served. There were problems getting the check at the end of the meal and when I asked for a shot of vodka, the waitress brought me an orange juice glass full of vodka (which being a writer, I consumed without complaint).
Despite these misgivings, the Dixie has retained its old spirit despite its re-boot. Indeed, the upgrade was probably necessary to maintain the life of the place. If the service improves just a bit it could easily be a much cooler (and cheaper) alternative to places like the Cafe Phoenix and DeLuxe
Dixie Grill & Pool Room (910) 762-7280 116 Market St, Wilmington, NC
Unlike the rest of the world, Wilmington does not seem to be taken over by Starbucks. This is a surprise, since, according to my mom, every other week Wal-Mart closes at midnite to re-open a mega Wal-Mart at 1 am. Wilmington is full of chain stores and franchises and a drive down any of the major thoroughfairs will bear this out as there are numerous Hardees, TJ Maxx;, Barnes and Nobles, KFC' and of course Wal-Marts. Starbucks, however, does not seem to have a foothold in the community (yet). Why? My guess is that the Port City Java corporation has kept them at bay at least for now.
The first Port City Java opened around 1995 at a modest location near Tom's Drugs on Front Street. The then owner, Steve Cohen was its main asset as he seemed indefatigable and very, very cordial. The logo, branding and "style" of the place was pretty much the same then as it is now (if memory serves). Cape Fear Coffee and Tea was its main competition at that point, but somewhat lackluster ownership and an unwillingness to evolve helped PCJ (which definitely did evolve) become the "go to" coffee house in Wilmington within a couple of years.
According to the company's site www.portcityjava.com there are now PCJ franchises in 9 states, 3 international sites and 13 seperate locations in Wilmington alone. The danger for the place is that the market will become saturated or they might water down the brand. For what it is worth, it does not seem to have happened so far.
Now, for the coffee, it is pretty good. The regular coffee is better than Starbucks, but the coffee drinks were uneven (I ordered Cafe Au Lait's at a couple of different PCJ's and they tasted very different). The interiors are typically warm with free wireless and comfortable chairs. Despite this comfort, the decor seems a bit dated (many locales in downtown Wilmington seems somewhat stuck in the 90's), however. Indeed, the location on 21 N. Front Street looks like a preserved set from the series Friends, circa 1993. The art, most of it local, is also surpisingly bad. Again, despite this there is much to recommend; the free wireless internet is a great feature and the baristas were typically pretty competent and quick (not a trait that the laid back Southern lifestyle displays on a regular basis).
Ironically enough, when Cohen opened the first PCJ in '95 there were rumors that he hoped that Starbucks would "buy him out" as a way to clear the decks for the ubiquitious Seattle chain to conquer the Port City. It hasn't happened yet.
Friday, September 7, 2007
THE LECTURE: Fondue is a traditional Swiss communal dish shared at the table in an earthenware pot ("caquelon") over a small burner ("rechaud"). The term "fondue" comes from the French "fondre" ("to melt"), referring to the fact that the contents of the pot are kept in a liquid state so that diners can use forks to dip into the sauce. The practice of Fondue hit a high point in the US in the 70's when it enjoyed a moment of popularity that was not sustained. In recent years, restaraunts in NY, most notably Dip, have revived this phenomenon. The practice is too much of a niche activity to realistically break back into the mainstream for very long, if at all. This is especially true since most thing devoted to single life are not front and center in the conciousness of the public.
The practice, however, will always have its devotees, and, for the hipster contingency, the practice will always be an appealing thing due to its 70's vibe and ritualistic nature. Anyway, Wilmington has a first rate fondue restaraunt called The Little Dipper (a too cute name for a place that has hipster aspirations). The restaraunt, located in the old location of Crook's Corner (a restaraunt that, if you can believe the rumors, lost most of its profits up its nose) near the Barbary Coast. The setup and menu are clever, The choice are set up as a three-course meal starting with a cheese appetizer for the table to partake. In addition, all of the tables are handmade with one or more common burners in the center of the table. The setup is unique in that all diners share a pot to cook in which requires all to agree on one common cooking style, including Peanut Oil, White Merlot and Vegetable Broth, Port Wine and Beef Broth or Chicken Broth.
The novelty of the place is considerable, and it has one great prop/conversation piece in the tank of jelly fish located near the entrance and bar (the bar appears to be pretty ordinary with stacks of Encore magazine and business cardsn nearby and not very interesting people sitting there watching sports)> TLD would be a great place to take a first date. My wife, stepdaughter and her boyfriend all went over Labor Day weekend and it was sufficiently removed from the collegiate shenanigans of Front Street to allow us to walk down to the Cape Fear River without the worry of dodging beer bottles from all of the "sophisticates" in Wilmington. (Personal note: It is funny the way things come full circle: I parked about a block away in front of an old girlfriend's house where my tires were slashed not once, but twice during the course of a week way back in 1994, by my girlfriends jealous ex-girlfriend-Thankfully, the tires were intact when I returned to our car).
The wine list was a great thing as well. Many of the wines were half-price (which means they were only marked up about 60%). We had two bottles of Hess Select (a very good first-rate, second rate wine) which were perfect and exceedingly reasonable at about 16.00 a bottle. The food was tremendous and surprisingly filling despite the fact it was mainly small bits of tuna, chicken, etc.
One small complaint: The serving style of waiters in the port city is depressingly casual. Our waiter, adept though he was kneeled down to take our orders as if we were in a bar-b-que restaruant and told us his name "Hi, my name is..." This is merely a small example of the over-familiar style of the southern service industry which is a small annoyance, but an annoyance, nonetheless. Less annoying was the reasonable price tag, as people can eat for about 40.00 a person (and eat quite well)
Check this one out, for a break from the tired Cafe Phoenix, DeLuxe routine-Also, check out the Hookah Bar (A Hookah Bar!) across the street!
138 S. Front St.
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Links of note from M & L...
- I (Mark) have written for The Christian Science Monitor, Clear Magazine, Picture Magazine, Film Score Monthly, Dan's Papers, Rue Morgue, In Flight USA and a lot more publications that I can't remember.... My wife Lynn was a model with the Ford Agency and her photography has been featured in most of the publications I have written for...