Mex Without Tex

December 14, 2018

In Oaxaca I wanted to make sure to do two things: eat grasshoppers and drink mezcal. Nailed em both. 

The tiniest hoppers taste and chew like very salty sunflower seeds. They’re a great source of protein and may become one of the precious few remaining if Exxon & pals manage to ravage the rest of the biosphere. Get used to it. I did.

As I learned, mezcal — the speciality of the state of Oaxaca — is not tequila, though both come from the same agave plant (and the part you need is buried underground, it looks like a huge pineapple when uncovered). But the place we visited treated its wares more like wine: we had a tasting of five or six different pours, each of which came from a different strain of agave, and we could really tell the difference! (No worms in the bottle, but if you insist, you can enjoy chopped agave worms at any decent restaurant.)

We went to the woodcarving shop where Miguel’s mom from COCO actually works! Well, the model on which Pixar’s pixies based the character. (They spent four years in Oaxaca researching the movie.) But shoot, she was off that day. 

I did learn that my spiritual animal is the coyote. Each visitor was assigned their animal based on the day and date of birth. Exit thru the gift shop — but, si, it worked, there is a tiny carved coyote in my home today. And at a magnificent pottery studio I saw a Day Of The Dead skull which I took home too.

There are many more artisans in and around Oaxaca City, including some of the finest weavers you will ever behold. And the Mexican food is astonishing because everything is pure and fresh. (Still, you have to be careful with the tap water.) 

One year ago we were watching COCO at one of those Barfalounger theaters in La Jolla. I think that affected our decision to visit the source. I was delighted by our found wisdom. 

Unlike all the other photos, this one was shot in my home in New York. ¡Viva Oaxaca!


June 29, 2013


Let us turn now to what has been my favorite food ever since I was old enough to pronounce the word “hangbooger” to every adult’s delight. Yes, I have never forsaken that childhood treat: a ground-beef patty on a bun, slathered with good stuff, and mom, keep away the bad stuff. In the ensuing years, I’ve come to prefer bad stuff like lettuce and onions, and have done a complete about-face on raw tomato. Now I not only welcome but even require it – amazing how your tastes change – but I never allow “ketchup” on either my burger or my fries (sorry, John Kerry!). Mustard if you please, mayo if you must, but keep that sugary red stuff offa my plate unless you’re dumping a shitload of horseradish into it for an improv shrimp cocktail sauce. I trust we’ve now left this “catsup” issue behind. (Sorry, Ms. Heinz Kerry!*)

Burgers are a bitch to make at home if you don’t have a grill outside so you can charc em just right. (I can pan-fry em fairly well, even today, but I have to sit there and watch; one mistake and the kitchen turns into Wuthering Heights.) I can’t remember whether we had an outdoor grill back in Norfolk, Virginia in the late Fifties – we’re talkin middle class, but our fireplace burned coal, children, and there was still a milkman – but I do remember cultural jubilation among mothers who could suddenly drive their sweet little angels to joints where a thin patty on a clean warm bun could be acquired for 10, maybe 15 cents. Not just McDonalds, also Carrolls (“FLAME-BROILED!”). I got to ride in a bread truck a la MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE with a delivery person who stocked not only grocery stores with bread loaves, but also several burgerslingers, including Carroll’s, with fresh buns. The trip backstage was as revelatory to me as your trip into the Copa was in GOODFELLAS. The delivery guy was my dad. Long story. Don’t think I’ll tell it to you right now. Just note I was real happy to be there with him and leave it there.

A Big Boy.

A Big Boy.

Shortly after primitive fast-food burgers emerged in Norfolk – changing everything; it was the pizza of the late Fifties, trust me – money started sniffing around and decided, Jaysus, let’s krush Kroc in his krib! So Shoneys (“Bob’s” to many, including the AUSTIN POWERS producers) hyper-promoted their “Big Boy,” a double-decker samwidge! The local schnook who hosted the afternoon cartoon show, “Poopdeck Pappy” (see, he was a friend of Popeye’s), demonstrated by tryin to get his mouth around a Big Boy Sandwich. Couldn’t quite do it. (A later thought: arthritis?) We saw it, grokked it, thought about it for a moment, and then SCREAMED TO OUR PARENTS: proffer one of them there Big Boys forthwith!!! Shoney’s (Yankees, just think “Bob’s,” just as we have to think “Krystal” whenever you say “White Castle”) has survived, but it’s devolved into something like Denny’s: good enough for TIN CUP, but no longer famous for a transformative burger. Man, can we please get back to a real, genuine burger? My mouth’s frickin waterin.

There are three, and only three, regional superburgers. I am about to present them to you. There are tons of fantastic mom-&-pops, but that’s not what I’m talkin about. And forget fast food. Want a Big Mac? You’re probably ten minutes away, so to hell with ya, get in yer car right now, and good frickin riddance.

No, the three lovelies I’m about to cite all demand that you wait for them, so they don’t spit out at you right away. If you want to grab & gulp immediamente, then drive-thru, my brutha. I’m talking about delicious, not-so-fast, multi-store megaburgers. There are only three in our whole nation: (SPOILER ALERT: VEGANS CLICK AWAY RIGHT NOW!!!)


East: Shake Shack.

This is the creation of uberchef Danny Meyer, who probably thought he was just goofing. But his original Shack, a hot-dog-esque cart in Madison Square Park (pssst: the dogs are fantastic too!), became so popular that he installed a webcam to let you know in your office upstairs when the lines were finally winding down. Now he’s codified it, paid some attention to the prep, and every Shake Shack offers freshly-cooked sandwiches with brand-new everything. Meyer called the zeitgeist just right, and now there are a precious few Shake Shacks elsewhere, including in Citi Field, home of my beloved New York Mets.


Midwest: Steak ‘n’ Shake.

My brother Rick, who knows my burgeration, pulled into the “drive-thru” one day and said, “We’re gonna just wait.” Thus did I behold my first delicious steakburger. I know that’s what you call it b/c the waitress on my next visit recoiled when I ordered a “hamburger.” “Sir,” she exclaimed, as sternly as any nun ever has, “we do not serve ‘hamburgers’. What you might want instead is a ‘STEAKBURGER’.” They are indeed sublime. Again, it’s the cut of meat. Midwesterners know what I’m talkin about: Roger Ebert used to lean over to David Letterman during the commercial breaks and whisper the Steak ‘n’ Shake slogan.


West: In-N-Out.

I’m an In-N-Out Scientologist, or whatever it takes. Sit down and shut up. They’ll make your burger in their own good time — after they cut the potato up for your fries — you want fresh, they got fresh, homies! I beg people to take me there whenever I go out West. They look at me like I’m crazy: these places are on the freeway! But listen: that’s the best burger (mom-&-pops not included) west of the Rockies.

OK, now it’s your turn. Burg me back.

*A week or so after I wrote this, Teresa Heinz Kerry was hospitalized, but by 7/9/13, she appeared to be turning the corner. Nothing personal meant, ma’am — it’s the ketchup and the ketchup only — and I join the Secretary and the rest of your family in wishing you a speedy and full recovery.

7/6/13: In the just-dropped August issue (the cover story is no less than “Vegetables Now!”), Food & Wine readers vote their top 5 chains thusly: Five Guys, Shake Shack, In-N-Out, Umami Burger, and Bobby’s Burger Palace. Here are some more mouth-watering reader picks.

8/14/13: Shake Shack just anted up and said, from now on, we’re cutting our fries in front of your eyes. Frozen no more.

How To Frickin Make A Frickin Italian Frickin Dessert

April 7, 2013

I was so proud the first time I prepared homemade tiramisu that I almost ordered a chef’s toque. After a little bit of cursing, I learned how to fold and separate (um, dudes, that’s quite different from lift and separate, which I learned about long ago, if you’re following me here), I beat the hell out of everything, ladled it out perfectly, let it sit overnight, and our guests thought it was glorious. What a cook, what a man, what a plan, Panama.

What this dish looks like in a fancy restaurant. Mine looks like hell but tastes like heaven.

What this dish looks like in a fancy restaurant. Mine looks like hell but tastes like heaven.

The very next day I opened our freshly-arrived copy of La Cucina Italiana, the bitchin Italian recipe mag, to find a feature on – no lie! – tiramisu! I started to read with great excitement until I completed the first frickin paragraph: tiramisu is such a SIMPLE RECIPE that it’s frequently the FIRST ONE Italian CHILDREN learn to prepare, so we’re going to tart up this INCREDIBLY EASY-TO-MAKE DISH with a few variations, thusly… All I could say was, vaffanculo, La Cucina Italiana! You just rained on my festa!

So now I’m sneered at by a magazine. Therefore, I will prove it wrong by showing you just how tough this dish is to make for normal guys. Behold my tiramisu recipe — with some genuine tips youse can use!


featuring Tom’s tips

3 large eggs, separated

¾ cup sugar

1 (8-oz) container marscapone

Pinch of salt

½ cup very cold heavy cream

2 cups brewed espresso or very strong brewed coffee [Tom: just triple the grounds], cooled to room temp

2 Tsp sweet Marsala wine

18 savoiardi (crisp Italian ladyfingers) [Tom: if the neighborhood grocery doesn’t have them, try Whole Foods or Fairway. If you can’t find them, forget this recipe and have some pudding for dessert instead]

¼ cup good bittersweet chocolate shavings (not unsweetened; shavings made with a vegetable peeler) or 2 Tsp unsweetened cocoa powder [Tom: hey. Kid. C’mere. Don’t look around, you’re fine. Let my boyz do the watchin. Now, kid. Do yourself a favor and just buy a honkin tin of Ghirardelli Sweet Ground Chocolate powder and fuggeddabouddit: the only person who will know the diff is your wife, who’ll be all upset because you didn’t grind any bittersweet shavings, but your diners will still call you a genius, and you’ll have enough of this stuff to avoid shaving for about five years’ worth of tiramisu. I’m just sayin, my brutha]

This is all the

This is all the “shavin” you’ll ever need to do, stud hoss.

Beat together yolks and ½ cup sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium speed until thick and pale, about 2 minutes. Beat in marscapone until just combined.

With cleaned beaters, beat whites and salt in another bowl until whites just hold soft peaks. Add remaining ¼ cup sugar a little at a time, beating, then continue to beat until whites just hold stiff peaks. [Tom: if you do not know how to separate eggs, find out right now, or else have some ice cream tonight, because this recipe will not work otherwise, and by this point you will already have found out. If you still do not know, throw everything away, b/c you have already ruined your silly attempt at tiramisu.]

Beat cream in another bowl with cleaned beaters [Tom: no kidding: no water, not even a drop!] until it just holds soft peaks. Gently but thoroughly fold cream into marscapone mixture, then fold into whites. [Tom: get your wife to show you what “folding” food means.]

Stir together espresso and Marsala in a shallow bowl. Dip one ladyfinger in espresso mixture, soaking it for about 4 seconds on each side [Tom: much too long: these bad girls suck up the coffee instantly], and transfer to an 8-inch-square glass baking dish (1-quart capacity). Repeat with 8 more ladyfingers, trimming them [Tom: CRAMMING them! You’re welcome] as needed to fit snugly into bottom of dish. Spread half of marscapone mixture evenly over ladyfingers. Make another layer in same manner with remaining ladyfingers and marscapone mixture. Refrigerate, covered, for at least 6 hours. [Tom: You don’t have to, but if you don’t let this sit overnite some ladyfinger ends may be crunchy…not what you want.]

Just before serving, sprinkle with chocolate. [Tom: HAAAAAAAH! That trusty Ghirardelli tin! Sit back and enjoy, and don’t forget to take yer bows!]

P.S. When the wife suggests spooning your tiramisu into a “trifle bowl” rather than “an 8-inch-square glass baking dish,” either ask what in the heck that is, or else get her to haul it out her own dadburn self! You will then have a curved dessert rather than the flat one shown in the photo up top. Think of it now as a pie. The best deep-dish pie you will ever eat in your whole frickin life.

This, my little droogies, is a

This, my little droogies, is a “trifle bowl.” Looks like more than a trifle to me. Go figure. Over and out.

This Stuff Tastes Like Jackson

March 8, 2010


When our boys marched home from WWII, they brought some interesting stuff back with them. Down South, #1 was the realization that “darker folk” were just like them!, every bit as brave, resourceful, etc. This was the cultural crack that began to corrode the odious Jim Crow edifice from within, and helped topple it some twenty years later.

Another exotic thing the Southbound grunts brought back was a hearty Greek salad dressing, bursting with garlic and onions. It ain’t French. It ain’t Thousand Island. What it is, is what you call your “comeback.” Different cities in the Deep South actually have their own specific versions of this elixir, but the following is the actual recipe of “Kumback” a la Jackson, Mississippi, still served today at spots like the Mayflower, the Elite, the Cherokee, the Crechale’s (but I kid Bob Crechale), etc.

Jim Dollarhide, a very fine filmmaker (full disclosure: we worked together a lot back in the Eighties whenever he needed a writer), swears that this version was originally made at The Rotisserie. “Later on, other restaurants adopted copycat versions: Mayflower, Primos, Dennery’s, etc.” All I can tell you is that I’ve made this recipe, and it rocks. Let’s go to the kitchen:


1/2 cup Wesson oil
4 teaspoons mustard (from a jar, not the spice rack)
1/2 cup ketchup
2 teaspoons black pepper
1/2 Tablespoon paprika
1 teaspoon Worcestershire
2 cups mayonnaise
1 lemon, juice of
5/6 garlic cloves or about 2.5 – 3 tablespoons of minced garlic
3 Tablespoons Heinz chili sauce
2 Tablespoons onion juice (or just chop up a bit of onion very finely)

Put all ingredients in blender and mix thoroughly.

Hoss, this is the real stuff, it’s tres easy, and it keeps! It also sparkles when poured over most hot veggies.

EDIT: Here’s a buncha information on the history of kumback, including a great Clarion-Ledger piece from ten years ago: sort of the one I wanted to write, except I would have studded it with direct quotes. But let’s get one thing straight. As Malcolm White sez in the C-L piece (and below), and as Jim Dollarhide attests in the comments below, kumback was introduced by the Rotisserie, not the Mayflower!

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