Cooking Chapbook

Notes from my kitchen in the D.C. area & beyond

Month: July, 2013

Guy Friddell, columnist and tomato lover, will be missed

tomatoes

When I started at The Virginian-Pilot as an intern, Guy Friddell was a faithful figure in the night newsroom cast. He was legendary for his thoughtful columns and his decades covering Virginia politics. I can still see him, frail by then, in his 80s, walking slowly through the newsroom on a quiet evening, framed by his oversized glasses and kindly smile.

By the time I arrived, his column focused more on tomatoes and Boomer the dog than Richmond politics. It was a highlight of my night to rim a Guy column, though I knew it might come with the challenge of writing a fresh 1-column headline on another vegetable laudation. I loved his gentle prose, poetic in a way rare to reporters.

Guy was generous to all, and the copy desk was no exception. He would tell his editor, even an uncertain intern young enough to be his granddaughter, how much she improved his column with the tiniest suggestion. He was humble, sweet, sincere. He gathered devoted followers and fans like no other columnist I know.

Guy was a Tidewater icon, an old-school newspaper writer, and a Southern gentleman.

Earl Swift has written a wonderful tribute to Guy, who passed away this past Sunday at 92.

Of course, it includes a section on tomatoes. No one loved the tomato like Guy.

Earl writes:

His attention often lingered on nature’s contributions to his diet. Columns celebrated the taste and texture of buttered corn on the cob, decried the indifference accorded to okra, referred to black-eyed peas as if old friends. Apples, peaches and plums, squash and strawberries, pumpkins, onions, leeks – if it grew, Friddell ate it, loved it, and wrote about it.

Two fruits held special rank in his heart and stomach. Scores of his columns enumerated the merits of the watermelon, instructed the reader on how to pick a good one, or featured one as a central player in the narrative.

His feelings for the tomato, however, bordered on exaltation.

“With spring coming and summer close behind, thoughts of tomatoes tend to occupy my mind,” he wrote in March 1998, a year in which his byline appeared over 10 columns praising his favorite fruit – a tally he matched in 1990 and 1991, and topped with 12 in 1995. “Improve the tomato?” he wrote another day. “How can one perfect perfection?”

Left to his own devices, Friddell might have lived on tomato sandwiches: “Has it crossed your mind,” he wrote in August 1994, “that to eat a tomato sandwich, as well as build it, is a work of art?

On Michelin-starred meals

"Duroc" pork belly marinated red cabbage from Fischers Fritz in Berlin

“Duroc” pork belly marinated red cabbage from Fischers Fritz in Berlin

Once a year since we moved to Europe, my sweetheart and I dine at a Michelin-starred restaurant.

Pre-Europe, the Michelin-star system meant nothing to me. It fell into the same bowl as the Zagat system, or the Mobil ratings, or the AAA stars, or Tripadvisor circles.

I still couldn’t tell you much about those other rating methods. But what we’ve learned is that in Europe, the Michelin system seems to pluck out a very fancy sort of place with exquisite, creative, unusual food.

And we do love our food.

Michelin is excellent about covering restaurants in Europe, even in tiny German towns. But in America, Michelin only surveys three areas: New York City, Chicago, and California. Any amazing restaurant elsewhere is left off.

(The business side of me understands this. America is a huge country. But the foodie in me mourns the little undiscovered gems in Virginia, New Jersey, D.C., etc.)

I feel a little sheepish about this little once-a-year luxury. The prices can be a bit insane, and the waiters are either wonderfully precise or anal, depending on how you view it. They often wear white gloves and act with flourishes, like setting down your plates in synchronous fashion. The utensils are silver. The dining room is hushed, just the way we quiet people like it. It feels like church for chefs. Pretentious? Maybe. Maybe yes.

But then I think, well, concerts or sports events or plays can cost $100 a seat before food, beverage, and souvenir.

Instead, we go to a performance of food.

It’s an experience we talk about for months afterwards. And like an unusual art exhibit, a well-crafted, innovative meal leaves me full with ideas.

I think about the flavor combinations: olives and chocolate.  I consider the artful plates: four-leaf clovers laid out so prettily. I contemplate new flavor vehicles: lacy, savory lollipops.

And I marvel at how sweet it is to be married to a fellow foodie, who enjoys the evening of fancy plates as much as a symphony, who looks as giddy across the table as I feel when a bite of the sea explodes in my mouth.

Special meals like these remind me that we create our own world by our experiences, many of which we choose to have. We have to seek out the life we want. And for us, one Michelin star a year adds a lot of sparkle.

Dessert at Onyx, Budapest

Dessert at Onyx, Budapest

The first year, we went to Onyx in Budapest, one of two Michelin-starred restaurants in all of Hungary. Elegant dining room, artful plates, meticulous wait staff.

(Tip: The three-course lunch runs 5,990 Hungarian Forint, which is about $26. It was like catching a first-rate Broadway play for half-price.)

I was captivated.

Cabbage at Fischers Fritz, Berlin

Cabbage at Fischers Fritz, Berlin

The second year, we went to Fischers Fritz in Berlin. The food was beautiful and unusual, but my tastebuds didn’t swoon. I wasn’t so starry-eyed after that lunch.

This year, we went to Olivo in Stuttgart, Germany.

Olive lollipops at Olivo

Olive lollipops at Olivo

It was marvelous.

Four courses over four hours. A myriad surprise courses courtesy of the chef. Bites that made my sweetheart roll his eyes back in delight. Plated creations worthy of Miro. A treasure box of house-made chocolates at the end.

It deserves a post on its own. Coming soon.