The lineup card for the Twelfth Annual Culinary Jeebus and Purim Baconfest said nothing about toffeed bacon, really it didn't. So no one was mentally prepared for it. When it appeared like Venus from the sea, it was instantly clear to all present that here was a madness at work, yes, but also a genius. A mad genius. My god, the very notion... bacon candy... no, no, it's too much, it's just too much.
But wait, that's the end of the story; let me begin properly, at the beginning....
So a quick train ride whisks Lisa and me from our island homestead to the festive Garden State hamlet of Metuchen. It's a springlike March day in suburban New Jersey, and the plan is to meet up at the train station with foodies Elyse Fradkin, Tse Wei Lim and Jay Miller, all easy to spot due to their bearing of various containers, bags and satchels full of potential culinary magic. One six-minute walk later we arrive at foodie central, Eden & Jody Blum's capacious bungalow, ready to kick off the Ninth Annual Celebration of all things foodilicious.
So who's this Tse Wei character, anyhow? He appears to be about fifteen, and claims to be an old pal of Yixin's. Despite that dubious association I decide to give him the benefit of the doubt, although more observation is warranted.
There is a brief flurry of activity as we unpack, unzip and assemble our wares and weaponry. As I'm stashing my ingredients in the surprisingly empty fridge there's a knock on the door--here's Jeff Grossman, and now we're all met.
Here follow a few uncomfortable moments of nondrinking, as everyone has brought things to match with their various dishes that oughtn't be opened right away. This is something we'll have to remedy next time: someone needs to supply starter wines, at least two, just to keep the wheels greased. As it is now, we're forced to the extreme of having to chat with one another without benefit of alcohol. It's pretty grim, until Tse Wei mentions that he's never met this Brad Kane we're always talking about, which sets everyone going on a boisterous round of borderline-slanderous Kane stories, some of which are even true.
After the festive Kane bashing the conversation turns serious, weighing the observant Jew's duty to become intoxicated on Purim, drunk enough to be unable to distinguish good from evil or Haman from somebody or something. Jay brings up Maimonides' notion that one could interpret this to mean merely being drunk enough to pass out, at which point one would be asleep and unable to distinguish good from evil or anything else, but the group seems to find that a bit of a lawyer's dodge. Plus, no one's quite ready to pass out at this point in the festivities.
"Of course, women aren't included in this duty," sighs Eden.
"You know," I offer, "This is the kind of conversation that ensues when we don't have any starter wines." Rueful nods.
Okay, let's get down to business: we need to start eating so we can start drinking. Eden sweeps into the kitchen and returns bearing warm truffle-frothed oysters. Jay wants to get his gewürztraminer going around, but she pairs it with a Wolfberger Cremant d'Alsace Brut NV. It's bright, uncomplicated and not terribly complex, but frothy and friendly, with a bit more boisterous fizziness than I'd have expected. There's a pleasant neutrality that serves the dish well; it's mostly texture and structure, not a whole lot of overt flavorosity. Subtle enough to not overwhelm the delicacy of the oysters.
Jody and I spar over the first batch of Jay's cardamon rolls. Or are they cardamom rolls? I know I like one but not the other, but whichever is which these are the one I like. If that makes sense.
Suddenly Jeff points towards the window. "Hey, look!" Out of a clear blue sky on a sunny fifty-degree day, it's snowing.
"It's a Purim miracle!" cries Eden. And for about fifteen minutes it is.
Back at table, it's time for Lisa's award-winning lomi-lomi salmon. Jay is continuing his campaign to get us to drink the gewürztraminer, but I veto it. "Too overpowering for lomi salmon," I explain. Instead we go with another fizz, a Vatan Pere & Fils/Château de Hureau Saumur NV. Bright, lemonstony, charming stuff. Not a great deal of depth, but restrained, lightly floral bubbly with good focus, crisp and clean tasting.
Lisa has brought this weird two-piece silver device that's supposed to be a butter press, but no one can figure out how to work it for that. Instead she uses it to shape her lomi-lomi, which is artfully arranged with slices of lemon and lime and one and a half macadamia nuts per plate. She does presentation really well, something I'm simply terrible at. It's beautiful, really. I've never been much of a salmon fan, but this wins me over. Of course, I'm biased.
Finally Jay just grabs my hand and forces me to drink some Ernest Burn Gewürztraminer Goldert Clos St. Imer 2000. Mmm, smells perfumey-fruity, soft white peach and lychee, touch of rose petal, touch of almond. Tastes creamy-rich, lightly sweet and pillowy, with a flash of bitter almond on the finish.
The soft low-acid fruitiness of the Burn reminds Eden of Zind-Humbrecht wines, with the important exception of the turnip and parsnip notes she always finds "even in perfect bottles of Zind-Humbrecht."
Jay sniffs at that: "There are very few perfect bottles of Zind-Humbrecht."
Here's a Boyer-Martinot Meursault les Tillets 2005. Jeff is staring at the label. "What's a 'tillet'?" he asks.
"Till-ay," says Jay. "It's the name of the vineyard."
"Well I know that, I meant specifically, what does 'till-ay' mean?"
"I don't know that."
"What use are you, then, with your vague generalities?"
"Specifically," I chime in, "It's the French word for floor lamp. The vines have a distinctive floor-lamp shape that gave the vineyard its name."
"Thank you," says Jeff, "That's the kind of specificity I was looking for."
"I see," says Jay. "You prefer inaccurate specifics to accurate generalities. Fair enough."
"Life is a series of trade-offs," I explain.
Anyhoo, the Meursault is small and amiable, lightly lemon-creamy smelling, touch of vanilla bean, hint of pear. Tastes much as it smells, lightly creamy, touch of vanilla, medium acidity, fairly lightbodied. There's a certain wanness about the middle, but it's decent enough, and given the fact that it's chardonnay I applaud it. "Chardonnay competes in the Special Olympics of Wine," I quip. "We must give it credit merely for showing up and trying."
Jeff is amused, "You should write that one down!"
I puzzle over this. "My dear Grossman, would you make an utter egoist of me, jotting down my own witticisms? That's a job for posterity." I lean over to Lisa, ask her to write that one down. She nods, picking up her pen. Sometimes posterity needs a discreet shove in the right direction.
Next up is Elyse's parsnip soup, which is served with a Kurt Darting Scheurebe Ungsteiner Herrenberg 2000, which is a peculiar day glo orange-magenta color. "Roseanne Barr color," someone suggests. Eh? I'm trying to puzzle this out when the penny drops: 'rose-amber' color. But while the meal lasts this is the wine that's married to John Goodman. It smells of lipstick and fruit punch, with a light hibiscus florality up high. There's demisec-plus level sweetness that's sort of balanced by Darting's usual aggressive acidity. In fact, despite the sugar cushion, it's rather shrill in the middle. I dunno, there are good things here, but also an oddly advanced streak and a little too much of everything. Oddly though, the sharp acidity is a good match with the rich soup, cutting through the creamy parsippiness and adding a nice fruityfloral balance to the rooty-earthy-nutty soup.
We discuss some Japanese food that Tse Wei refers to as 'bean curd snot.' I try to remember the weird Icelandic fermented rotten shark thing that was on Tony Bourdain's show, but can't quite come up with it. It does, however, set the stage for a rousing discussion of the most disgusting things we've ever eaten.
Next up is Eden's lobster bread pudding, served with a Dr. Loosen Riesling Erdener Treppchen Kabinett 1999. Smells lightly of kerosene and burnt toast, with an odd scorched-raisin undercurrent that I can't quite put my finger on. Jody manages: "Whiskey barrels," she murmurs. "It smells just like whiskey, I can't get over it." Yup, there's a definite bourbonny streak in the nose. Tastes gently sweet, loosely wrapped and rather flat--seems tired, disjointed.
The bread pudding is not, as I had thought, a kind of sweet seafood dessert. In fact it's not very sweet at all, more of a savory seafood midmeal dessert. Very unusual, very interesting.
I panic briefly because someone suggests I'm up next, but it turns out Tse Wei's Lebron is on deck. We originally thought it was going to be a terrine, but it's apparently a Lebron. Wait, what? It's le 'brawn,' not a Lebron? What the hell is a 'brawn'?
Tse Wei is silent for a moment, then turns to me. "Soused pig's face!" he says.
What the...? Why you little punk, have you no respect for your--
Oh, wait. The dish, he's talking about the dish. I get it, it's just good old head cheese! There's also chickory, which is a bit much for my bitter-averse palate, but the head cheese is tasty. Eden chews thoughtfully. "Wow," she says, "I just had a good Jewish tongue moment."
And the traditional wine with Lebron head cheese is of course a Heinrich Mayr-Nusser Lagrein Sudtiroler Riserva 2002. Lightly vegetal smelling, a green-herb streak over barky cherryberry fruit, a good handful of dirt. Medium bodied, brightly crisp and rough edged, rustic but well honed. There's a certain withdrawn quality, a kind of stoniness at the center, but that just kind of makes me want to pour some more.
Eden gets down to brass tacks with Tse Wei. "So: you seem to know a lot about cooking... what's your culinary background?"
"Yeah," I chime in, "What are you, some kind of ringer?" He'll only 'fess up to "working in a few restaurants," "collecting artisinal caul fat," and "spending some quality time butchering hogs." I suspect he's holding out on us and cast a few sidelong glances at the others to see if, like me, they're thinking that a well handled broomstick applied to the soles of the feet will get things out in the open, but get no clear signal to pounce. He's even brought a hipster wine, damnit.
Wait. What's 'caul fat'?
Oh never mind, I probably don't want to know.
Next up are my tiny inamona-coconut-crusted yin/yang lamb chops with star anise gravy on a tiny bed of routed potatoes. The yin/yang arrangement is Lisa's idea, me being presentationally-challenged. It's nice to have a comely lingerie model-cum-physician to fill the gaps in one's skill set, isn't it?
Here working with new equipment throws me. My own (gas) oven tends to run about one hundred fifty degrees too hot and loves to incinerate things the moment you look away. Eden's (electric) oven seems to run cool. What I think ought to be about four minutes under the broiler runs to six, then eight, then ten, and there's still a disquieting amount of pink. So the crust isn't terribly crusty. Like all good craftsmen, I blame my tools. Happily, it's hard to go too far wrong with baby lamb chops, idnit?
Tse Wei wonders aloud why the five spice powder in New York's Chinatown is different from the five spice powder in Singapore. Apparently there's coriander but not ginger in theirs, the opposite over here. I can shed no light on the matter.
With the lamb we have a Château Musar Lebanon 1997. A sniff; ah yes, the expected hint of acetone, muted bricky redfruit, touch of leather--argh, there's a light mustiness here that I don't like. I run my glass in to Lisa, who sniffs at it and shrugs, "I see what you mean, but I think it's okay. Let it sit." Of course with Musar that's always good advice--sometimes the flaws tend to cancel one another out and a stronger whole emerges. Tastes crisp and rather surprisingly lean, more earthy-bricky flavors, some rough tannins. Ultimately the mustiness seems to mostly blow off, although some doubts remain.
As is our custom at these foodie events, there are extended arguments over how many of these there have been, and where, and when, and who was there and what they cooked. In accordance with custom, no one can agree on anything. I'm sure the second one was the one Lisa and I missed, but others insist we were there, but not at the third one, which I clearly remember attending. Off on a tangent, Eden swears either Lisa or I made some kind of plum chicken at Jay's old apartment, but neither of us has any memory of ever cooking such a thing. I suggest that she's perhaps too drunk to distinguish Haman from plum chicken, poor thing.
Here's a Breton Bourgueil Grand Mont 1989. Light hints of shy redfruit laced with rocks and pine needles, not much going on aromatically. A sip, and it's even less demonstrative, hard and lean and mute, completely shut down. I've kept dawdling about opening one of these, and I think I'll stop and just let them rest a few years more. And then put them away somewhere dark and cool for a few years. And then give them a few years to come around.
Now it's time for Jeff's cassoulet, suffused with all kinds of meats and unidentifiable chunks of things that I occasionally have to wave around and query the chef about. It's the last main course and I've got a very large bowlful of the stuff to work through. In I go!
With the cassoulet we have a Azienda Agricola Giuseppe Sordo e Figlio Giovanni 1962. Muted dusty cherry, crushed brick and a touch of sherry at first, then flashes of cedar, dried flowers & tar. Faded, yes, but lightbodied and lean, with a pretty wiriness to it. Giuseppe & Giovanni's baby is forty-five and still kicking. I'd cried out in dismay at the notion of pairing old Barolo with cassoulet, but this is a fairly delicate cassoulet and a fairly wiry old Barolo, so the match works.
I eat my bucket of cassoulet for about fifteen minutes, but the amount on my plate isn't getting any smaller. I point out that Jeff has some portion control issues; he confesses that it may in fact be so.
Jay's handcrafted pumpkin pie is up next. It's awfully yummy, but once again, because Kane's not here and I didn't bring any, there are no dessert wines. Why does everyone dislike dessert wines so? It's a strange world we live in.
We finish up with Tse Wei's 'Mignardises,' apparently the French term for macaroons mingled with shortbread cookies and toffeed bacon. Damn, the French have a word for everything!
Wait: did you say toffeed bacon? Toffee-dipped bacon chunks? Bacon toffee candy? It's long been my mantra that everything tastes better with bacon in it, but this is beyond my imagination, a universe-expanding moment when the shackles of convention drop away and you realize that you've been free all along but just didn't know it. We really CAN put bacon in anything.
"Of course you can," says Tse Wei, "have you never had chicken fried bacon, or millionaire's bacon? In fact, if I'd remembered it was Purim I could've made bacon hamantaschen!"
Yesterday I'd have laughed at the notion, but wouldn't have believed someone would actually do it. Today, I believe. Eden had floated the notion of a picnic jeeb on the island, perhaps an all-bacon menu? My spine shivers with electricity at the mere thought.
"Next year, in Metuchen!" shouts Jay. And with that we're out the door, clutching quart containers of cassoulet and fistfuls of toffeed bacon.