How to survive a campus tour without throwing your kitchen gadgets out of the pot
Heading off to New England, I decided to be mature about the whole college tour and look on the bright side. It is a rite of passage and I didn’t want to spoil it for Willem. I think I pulled it off despite the lousy fish and chips, the lousy clam chowder, and don’t even mention the lousy biltong in Manhattan.
Okay, so how did I get from there to here? “There” being my precious early morning quiet time, lounging on the couch, contentedly sipping my coffee while browsing the news. “Here” being on the same couch, but with a two-month-old puppy on my lap, nipping at my coffee cup every time I try to take a sip. The pup thinks it’s hilarious of course, but I totally fail to see the humour in it. I didn’t even want a puppy in the first place, but here I am at six in the morning, my wife and son slumbering blissfully, while I am locked in combat with this fur faced little demon. We got him from the animal shelter four days ago and he already has my number. Where will this end, I wonder. Oops, puppy in the dishwasher?
Speaking of puppies and getting from there to here, or here to there. We’ve just returned from a two-week long trip visiting college campuses in New England and New York and I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Suddenly everything was just happening too quickly. Way too quickly. It feels like yesterday when I was pushing our little baby boy around the block in his stroller. It feels like I’ve hardly had time to process the fact that we have a child and now we’re looking at colleges.
When Willem, our only child, was born I was nearly 50 and comfortably entrenched in my early middle-age ways. We travelled a lot. Our time was our own. I cooked really fancy food. My peaceful morning coffee and newspaper browsing was sacrosanct. Even the birdies cooperated by not chirping too loudly. There was always soothing classical music playing quietly in the background. Or melancholy Portuguese fados. At least I think there was. And then, bang! Everything exploded. A baby in the house! Everything changed. And at some point, this baby started playing jazz saxophone. And I survived. Somehow. Now suddenly that same baby is planning to leave us and be an adult somewhere and I’m not sure I’m ready for it, yet. Can’t we get just a few more years?
The reality of Willem’s imminent going away finally dawned on me a few months ago when he asked me to teach him to cook a few one-pot dishes because he didn’t want to live off junk food in college. If you’ve ever tried to teach an iPhone generation kid how to cook, you’ll know where that ended. Willem is very sweet and easygoing and not a total iPhone addict but it just is what the young generation do. They google every single thing you tell them, which makes for a very challenging teaching environment, especially if you’re a cranky impatient grump like me. So by mutual consent we just kind of drifted out of that situation. But however much his iPhone checking rankled me, I will miss having him in my kitchen.
I decided to be mature about the whole college tour and look on the bright side. It is a rite of passage and I didn’t want to spoil it for Willem. After all, I can think of a lot worse places to visit in the US than New England. I also figured it would be an opportunity to sate my hunger for fish and chips. It’s probably a lockdown thing but I have been craving fish and chips for months now. And New England is of course famous for its crab shacks with clam chowder, crab cakes, and yes, fish and chips.
We started the tour with three days in Boston. I haven’t been there since my first visit to the US in 1977 and I must say, after Chicago, it’s the only other city in America that I wouldn’t mind living in. Since we started travelling with a kid we like to stay in hotels with self-catering kitchens. They have become quite popular across America and Europe. I usually cook dinner and breakfast in the little hotel kitchen and then we only eat lunch out. Not only does it save a lot of money but I hate looking for a breakfast spot first thing in the morning or forcing down a dreary, over-priced hotel breakfast surrounded by other bleary-eyed, half-asleep hotel guests.
These hotel kitchens are very basic, so it’s like camping cooking. It drives Jill crazy but I delight in setting out and finding the local supermarket and seeing what’s available in a strange city. I usually end up with little bottles of cheap olive oil and vinegar, salt, ground pepper, thyme and, very important, celery salt. The magic ingredient. Oh, and garlic powder. I have no shame. And like camping cooking, for some strange reason, these rudimentary dinners always taste totally delicious. I’ve never figured it out. God forbid I tried the same thing at home. Two tips; I always tuck a decent chef’s knife in my checked luggage (not my best, but a good one), and I buy a cheap, non-stick pan on my first supermarket foray. Totally worth the investment, unless you want to spend the rest of your trip trying to dislodge fried eggs from beat-up, buckling aluminium pans at breakfast time.
Our hotel in Boston was next to Fenway Park, Boston’s baseball stadium. This was not accidental. To my consternation, Jill and Willem have become baseball fans and they were absolutely thrilled to stay next to the famous stadium. I must admit, there was a certain charm to the Fenway Park, built in 1912 and home to the Boston Red Sox. It, and Wrigley Field in Chicago, built in 1914 and home of the Chicago Cubs, are the only two original stadiums to survive. All the other stadiums around the country have been demolished and replaced by featureless monstrosities covered in huge billboards.
We are not a sporty family so it’s kind of odd that the two of them have become Cubs and Red Sox fans. Mind you, I’ve come to realise that baseball is quite an eccentric and quirky game which gives it a certain appeal. It’s also played mainly in the northern industrial cities so it’s not a redneck game like American football so I don’t find their newfound fandom objectionable.
Anyway, back to my quest for fish and chips. I had fish and chips in Boston and it sucked. Okay, I thought, Boston is not Cape Cod, so no big deal. Cape Cod also happened to be our next destination so off we set, me with great anticipation. Boston is not the easiest city to navigate so we did drive in a few circles and there were a few terse exchanges about map reading abilities before we found the exit sign. After all, I’ve driven in places like Madrid and Lisbon and lived to drive another day, so I can take anything an American city can throw at me.
Well, Cape Cod came as a bit of a surprise. Bisected by a multi-lane highway, and dotted by strip malls, it could have been anywhere in American suburbia. Sure, there are cute little harbours, but to get to them you have to make your way through kilometres of used car lots and and all sorts of cheap furniture stores and stuff. Our reason for visiting Cape Cod was to take a break from college tours and spend two days relaxing and enjoying nature. So much for that.
And I had fish and chips. On Cape Cod. Twice. And it sucked. Both times. I’ve had far superior fish and chips in many little corner cafes all over South Africa. What is it about batter that Americans don’t understand? Why is it so difficult to make crisp, golden, thin and light batter? It’s either over fried and dark brown, or spongy (the worst), and always too thick. Mind you, the famous Cape Cod clam chowder that I tasted wasn’t much to write home about, either. Willem had just finished reading Moby Dick and consequently ordered clam chowder at every opportunity.
Clam chowder is basically very simple but like many simple dishes, it’s easy to screw up. The ingredients are live clams, salt pork (not bacon), onions, potatoes, white pepper (not black), salt and full cream milk. And absolutely no flour. If you disagree, go read Herman Melville. Add flour, and you end up with sludge, which is what I think the problem was with the clam chowders I tasted. And a lot of them used bacon, which overpowers the subtle flavors of the dish with smokiness.
After Cape Cod as we meandered south along the coast touring colleges, I essentially gave up on the idea of fish and chips. And then I had a bright idea. I remembered that Rhode Island was home to a huge Portuguese community and Portuguese food is not exactly common elsewhere in America. Whereas the Portuguese that migrated to South Africa were mostly farmers, they migrated to America mostly for the whaling and fishing industries.
Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island was on our list so I figured that after my fish and chips misfortunes, the Portuguese will save the day. And we struck gold.
It was a little family-owned restaurant kind of on the wrong side of town and if we hadn’t been looking for it we would have walked right by it. As we walked in I knew we had finally hit the jackpot. Families talking loudly in Portuguese were crowded around formica tables piled with bowls of prawn shells, crusty rolls and empty wine bottles. And everybody working in the restaurant seemed to be related. Finally I was in piggy heaven. Clams in garlic and wine sauce, jumbo peri-peri prawns, Lisbon style steak with gravy, egg and chips, grilled fish, Douro wine, Sagres beer. Not only was it the most delicious meal we had on our trip, it was by far the cheapest. It felt like we could have been in the Bairro Alto or Alfama, down to the obligatory bunch of old guys at a corner table, nursing cups of coffee and little glasses of something strong and arguing animatedly about soccer, or whatever old Portuguese guys usually argue about.
We ended the New England leg of our tour by dropping off the rental car in Poughkeepsie, upstate New York, and took the train to Manhattan. Quite spectacular because the train follows the Hudson River down the Hudson River valley all the way to Penn Station. My first time back in New York since the pandemic and what can I say. It’s still New York, muggy, loud, crowded, piles of garbage on the sidewalks. Apparently during the early lockdown days it was like a ghost town, but by the time we arrived, it had certainly bounced back to somewhat normal. Back in the Nineties Jill and I went to New York at least once a month. But either New York has changed or I have changed, and it has certainly lost some of its appeal to me. Maybe I was just tired after driving around college towns for two weeks.
Anyway, on the first night two South African friends and I ended up in a “South African” restaurant in the West Village called Jack’s Wife Freda. Cute, right? Apart from the Malva pudding on the menu, I couldn’t quite figure out the South African connection. I had the chicken kebab, billed as peri-peri marinated chicken with couscous. It turned out to be dry pieces of chicken breast on a stick vaguely tasting of peri-peri on a heap of dry couscous accompanied by another heap of chopped cucumber. Decidedly odd and flavourless. Jack and Freda, whoever they are, certainly aren’t enhancing South Africa’s culinary reputation abroad. The cross-continental mix of couscous and peri-peri should have tipped me off, but I was tired I suppose and not on my guard.
The next day I decided to stay with the South African theme and check out the New York Biltong Shop, also in the West Village. The shelves were stocked with all kinds of South African delicacies like Eat-sum-more, Lemon Creams, Cadbury’s Dairy Milk chocolate, Koo canned peaches and even Bisto and Aromat. I was immediately plunged into a deep depression because it reminded me of the culinary disaster zone I grew up in, the southern suburbs of Pretoria. Anyway, what kind of deprived moron comes to New York and buys Bisto? The mind boggles.
Behind the counter was a huge dude who looked like a contender for a forward position on the Springbok team. I mean, he made Siya Kolisi look frail. He turned out to be the owner and was patiently slicing a pile of about 50 strips of biltong by hand for a customer who looked like a retiree from Cape Town, living out his last years in Manhattan. If you own a biltong shop, surely you would think to invest in a biltong slicer. But what do I know. Because of the sheer size of the owner, I decided to keep my big mouth shut and not inform everybody that the biltong I had mail-ordered from this particular shop was what finally caused me to break down in desperation and make my own biltong. I politely declined to taste a slice, paid for my little jar of Peck’s anchovy paste, and got the hell out of there.
Our trip was drawing to an end but New York had one more little surprise in store for me. On our last night we had dinner out with my sister-in-law, who lives in Manhattan, and she decided on Babbo, which put me in a decidedly sour frame of mind. Not only is it hugely expensive, but it was also the flagship restaurant of the now disgraced Mario Batali, accused of sexual assault.
You will be happy to know that it lived up to my expectations. We were served overpriced, lukewarm Italian food, and there is nothing worse than overpriced, lukewarm Italian food. And my mood was certainly not improved by the clientele. Glitzy, loud New Yorkers, out on the town and totally oblivious to the mediocrity of the food. There were even a bunch of tough guys in suits hanging around discreetly. Who were they? Apparently I wasn’t very gracious about the whole experience. Oh well.
We made it back to Chicago. Willem had a great experience. I got over my craving for fish and chips. We had wonderful Portuguese food. New England was spectacular. All’s well that ends well. And then we got the puppy. So, as we say here, till later, dudes. DM/TGIFood
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