January 30, 2013
In praise of pastrami
You know you’re getting old when every meal starts and ends with an admonition about how food will kill you.
For a few years now, whenever my friends and I sit down to eat, the conversation veers toward illness, and how to avoid it, and somehow, it all comes down to food. No fat, no sugar, no salt, no wheat, no dairy, no bread, no carbs, no meat, no tuna, no alcohol, no caffeine, but maintain a well-rounded diet. Tap water is polluted with carcinogens, and bottled water is polluted with plastic, which is also a carcinogen; rainwater has acid, and well water has gasoline particles, but drink at least eight glasses of water every day. Raw meat and vegetables can give you salmonella poisoning, which can kill you, but nonstick cookware, glass, plastic and earthenware can give you cancer, which can also kill you. Fruits are sprayed with poison. Restaurant food is unclean; organic is a hoax, and even if you dug a hole in the floor of your apartment and grew your own food, the compost is contaminated with hormones, pesticides and other deadly agents.
To me, all this implies an overabundance of optimism on the part of the speaker: that, A) she won’t be hit by something and die instantly the minute she gets up from the table, and B) she can avoid illness and death by maintaining a diet of boiled whitefish farmed in her own bathtub and steamed spinach raised with music and conversation and, for dessert, fresh mint steeped in hot water, no sugar, honey or other sweeteners added. It’s a very “California” mentality — this idea that if you eat dinner at 4 p.m. and run up and down the Santa Monica steps 110 times a day, you’re going to feel good, look good and not die.
I try to point this out every time my friends go on about the latest Dr. something or other who’s charging $800 a visit to cure them of all their ills, but that always casts a pall over the group, because no one likes to be told that they’ve just wasted a bunch of money, starved and exerted themselves and are going to get sick and die anyway. The truth is, I don’t have my friends’ discipline or dedication; I’m too cheap and pessimistic and enamored of coffee.
And you know you’re getting old when your friends are afraid to take you out to a restaurant, because you’ll inevitably misbehave.
Whenever we go out to some swanky new place, I either offend the maitre d’ by refusing to sit at the table nearest the bathroom when all 300 other tables in the restaurant are empty, or scandalize the waiter by pointing out that there was a time, not so long ago, when EVOO (extra virgin olive oil) was just something you cooked with, and not considered worthy of mention as a “side item” on the menu.
And you really know you’re getting old when you lobby in favor of eating at Canter’s, at 8:30 on a Saturday night, on the occasion of a dear friend’s birthday.
That was last week. We were a party of six. The guest of honor had decided she wanted to live dangerously without risking clogged arteries; she was tired of boiled fish and steamed spinach, so she picked somewhere we’d never been before, called on Tuesday to make a reservation and was laughed out of town.
“You mean, this Saturday night?” the person on the other end had asked.
No, in 2015.
I personally would have told the guy he’s booking tables for dinner, not performing liver and kidney transplants, and hung up. Then I would have opted for some boring old place that served bad things like bread and cheese. But my friends are not as curmudgeonly as I; they don’t eat bread or cheese. And this place, they had been told, offers new and exciting options. It put out a cookbook that was voted one of the “Top 10 of 2008” by National Public Radio. It’s called Animal — on Fairfax near Melrose, a quarter of a block down from Canter’s, across the street from a kosher butcher. It’s a steakhouse that offers only one kind of steak, because steak is bad for you.
So my friend called in a half-dozen favors until, finally, we managed to “secure” (isn’t secure a word you use when the plane’s about to crash and someone’s telling you that the seatbelt, if “secured,” will save you from dying in a fiery inferno?) a reservation for 8 o’clock.
So we turn up on time and are told by the very sweet hostess that her No. 1 priority this night is to give us a table, but that we’re going to have to wait outside on the patio, which is really the sidewalk. I get the bright idea to look at the menu while we wait. I take out my reading glasses and turn on the flashlight app on my iPhone. I hold the menu right-side up, think I’ve made a mistake and turn it upside down, then over and back, and still, I must be reading wrong — there are things on this menu that can’t be, not in California, anyway, and certainly not on Fairfax, practically next door to a Jewish deli:
Buffalo-style Pig’s Tail. Pig Ear With Lime and Chili. Crispy Pig’s Head With Pickled Vegetable Aioli. Pork Cheek With Burnt Apple and Cauliflower.
I’m the most unhealthy eater in this bunch, and I can’t fathom eating from a kitchen that cooks this kind of food. Then again, it’s a birthday dinner, someone’s promised her firstborn to get this reservation, and I don’t want to be the poor sport who ruins the great adventure. At 8:30, I take advantage of the fact that we still don’t have a table and suggest, ever so cautiously, that we modify our risk taking and walk down to Canter’s to eat. The birthday girl won’t hear of it: She can’t digest pastrami, she says, and matzah-ball soup has too much salt.
“Have you seen this menu?” I ask.
“It can’t all be bad stuff,” my friend assures me. “There’s a whole lot here that’s not pig.”
Yeah, but we don’t know what it is because we’ve never heard of it. Poutine. Skate wing. Pho fumet.
“Really, guys, is pastrami that bad for you?”
At 9, I try again, but pastrami is out of the question. So is Canter’s.
Tandoori Octopus. Beef-heart Babaganoush. Crispy Beef Tendon. Beef-tail Stew Over French Fries.
At 9:15, I try a different tack: “Aren’t you cold? Or tired of waiting for the table?”
If the Donner party could brave snow and sleet by setting off in rickety wagons across Utah and Nevada, our group can weather the patio in 68-degree weather for a few more minutes.
Veal Brain. Chicken Sweetbreads.
When we finally sit down, someone pulls out a phone with a dictionary app, and we all spend a good half hour looking up the meaning of one item or another on the menu. It’s 9:30, and we’re beginning to understand the Donner party’s dilemma over cannibalism versus death by starvation. The healthy eaters locate kale and lettuce in the midst of all the novelty, and I, the eternal slob, have located something resembling ravioli drenched in butter, sour cream and cheese.
As for bread, it’s something sliced paper-thin, dried out, and smeared with oil and garlic, and served, four pieces a serving, for a dollar apiece. I eat that, too, but my friends decline. Then it’s time for the birthday dessert, and the waiter announces, ever so remorsefully, “It’s too bad you don’t like pork or I would recommend the bacon chocolate crunch bar with salt-and-pepper ice cream.”
But the nail in the coffin — what makes you a certified walking corpse just taking up space on this earth — is when you leave dinner at a swanky new place, then tell your husband, “We should have gone to Canter’s,” and ask him to stop at a Rite Aid because you need to pick up some Alka-Seltzer.
Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain.” Her column appears monthly in the Journal.