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Feckless Eating 

After a week of feral grazing, thoughtful food that you can eat out or take home

Wednesday, Jun 1 2005
When I read R.W. Apple's description of himself in the foreword to his new book, Apple's America, as "never a feckless eater," it was in reference to his "four decades crisscrossing the continent in professional pursuit of politicians ... [when] journalists in search of diversion, supported by expense accounts approved by indulgent editors, found and frequented good restaurants around the country." The phrase struck a chord with me, because despite my profession (a journalist in search of good restaurants around the city, with an expense account, though not Apple-scaled) I am often a feckless eater. The day after a fabulous seven-course tasting menu at the newest temple of gastronomy, I often open the cupboards and find them rather bare.

M.F.K. Fisher wrote about her own feast-or-famine diet in An Alphabet for Gourmets under "A is for dining Alone": She's not invited to share a home-cooked meal of "honest-to-God fried chops, peas and carrots, a jello salad, and lemon meringue pie" because "the kind people always murmur 'We'd love to have you stay to supper .... We wouldn't dare, of course, the simple way we eat and all.' ... with silent thanks that they are not condemned to my daily fare of quails financière, pâté truffé en brioche, sole Marguéry, bombe vanille au Cointreau .... I drive home by way of the corner Thriftimart to pick up another box of Ry Krisp, which with a can of tomato soup and a glass of California sherry will make a good nourishing meal for me."

My sherry is Spanish, and the can of soup is more likely to be Andersen's split pea with bacon, which I amp up with a few slices of quickly sizzled-and-snipped bacon (if I've got bacon on hand). Crackers are rare, because I find them too easy to eat (too many of); a slice of whole-grain toast is more likely. It's a decent single-girl supper, if not an inspirational (or aspirational) one.

But sometimes there isn't even a can of soup to be found in the larder. At times, especially after a visit to one or the other farmers' market, the fridge is bursting with good things to eat. The selection reminds me of Dorothy Parker's description (in "I Live on Your Visits") of what's stuffed in the tiny hotel refrigerator of a mother hopeful that her son will eat dinner with her on one of his dutiful but infrequent and brief appearances, the most poignant list in all literature: "There were a cardboard box of eggs, a packet of butter, a cluster of glossy French rolls, three artichokes, two avocados, a plate of tomatoes, a bowl of shelled peas, a grapefruit, a tin of vegetable juices, a glass of red caviar, a cream cheese, an assortment of sliced Italian sausages, and a plump little roasted Cornish Rock hen." When he doesn't stay, we know that all that provender, so lovingly and expectantly purchased, will molder while his mother drinks her dinner.

I love to open my refrigerator and be greeted by delicious things to eat. But occasionally, when whisking around the city distracted by other things, I'll let shopping, cooking, and even eating slide -- as I realized the other week when I emerged from the Castro Muni station and headed to opening night of the San Francisco International Film Festival, late and unfed. There wasn't even time to join the lines clamoring for snacks at the concession counter. I was reduced to rooting around in the festival's free gift bag in search of sustenance. I found a package of breadsticks, whose generous supplier I shall leave unidentified, because although I gnawed through each and every one, I found them distressingly similar to the wood after which they are named; and another of blue potato chips, with which I was also not completely thrilled, but still -- they disappeared. I was hungry.

I thought I'd found all the food, hidden among a nifty Stella Artois beer glass, Sundance Channel DVDs, an inexplicable "Meet the Fockers" plastic shot glass, and a (mysteriously emptied) miniature bottle of Skyy Orange Vodka. But a chance remark by a friend led me to return to the bag on the morrow, and breakfast (yes!) on the shortbread cookies and madeleine I unearthed after further careful investigation (upending the bag on the counter).

This was worse than feckless eating. This was feral eating.

I resolved to treat myself a little better. If I was too busy to shop or cook properly, I would make sure I was greeted by some nicely prepared, healthy takeout upon opening the fridge.

As it happened, a couple of friends were under the weather and needed sustenance delivered. One had very specific requests, beginning with "organic" and following with a rather frightening list of foodstuffs to which she was sensitive. I went, list in hand, to Mistral Rotisserie Provençale in the Ferry Building, because the place uses naturally raised local meats and fowl and organic produce from the farmers' market right outside its doors. I chose a small, plump roasted bird, a real spring chicken, that had been rubbed with herbes de Provence (a seven-herb blend including thyme, rosemary, fennel, and lavender), potatoes roasted in the drippings under the rotisserie, simply steamed broccoli, and ratatouille. (Along with an epi loaf from Acme and a couple of strawberry-rhubarb tarts from Frog Hollow, both conveniently located right around the corner in the Ferry Building.) I also got a half-chicken plate to go for myself, with ratatouille and potatoes. The chicken was moist and fragrant under its herbed skin, the ratatouille chunky and well spiced, and those potatoes, floury beneath crunchy golden exteriors, were quite divine. (My friend's caregiver reported, happily, that she had eaten with real appetite for the first time since falling ill.)

When I took Jane to lunch at Delica rf-1, a Japanese deli that's the first stateside branch of a popular chain found mostly in major Japanese department stores, we had the same impression: The place had radically simplified its menu from when it first opened, concentrating on bento boxes, and also, we were glad to see, lowered its prices. (It still features the creamy crab croquettes and crispy potato croquettes I'd found seductive on first sampling.) Founder Kozo Iwata, impressed by the philosophy of Alice Waters, here uses all-natural, hormone-free meat and fresh seasonal produce, as well as panko bread crumbs made daily from Acme pain de mie. I chose a four-item bento box, with a freshly fried shrimp cake, steamed rice sprinkled with sesame seeds, and two salads: braised burdock, lotus root, and black konnyaku (mountain yam jelly) mixed with mizuna in a sweetish sauce, and a multitextured, refreshing hijiki seaweed salad with edamame, daikon, wild arugula, and fried tofu. Jane's bento box included a large, dense meatball made of ground chicken, tofu, water chestnut, and shiitake mushroom in a sweet chili sauce, along with steamed rice, a shredded chicken salad, and a wasabi potato salad with spring garlic, edamame, snap peas, and romaine. We grabbed a couple of cold teas from the cooler and two faintly almond-scented, milky puddings called blancmange topped with tiny diced fresh strawberries, and ate our healthy, tasty lunches at a metal table on the promenade overlooking the bay.

It was so delightful that a week later I returned with my goddaughter Anna, who's finishing up her last year at UC Berkeley and continuing her studies next fall in Ireland. She's so close to leaving that everything she does is "the last" -- the last piece she'll write for the Daily Cal, the last time she'll sell books to Moe's, the last time she'll take BART to S.F. (Not that she took BART often; it's too expensive, and Berkeley students get a free bus pass.) I was both a little shocked and a little pleased that she'd never been to the Ferry Building, so this was a first as well as a last. We wandered around, sampling things, and picked up a ham-and-cheese croissant at Acme and some cornmeal cake at Boulette's Larder (so our larder wouldn't be bare), before choosing our bento boxes at Delica rf-1. Anna couldn't resist the shrimp cake, with a piquant rice noodle salad full of shiny black mushrooms; I tried a sturdy tofu and chicken patty with hijiki and carrots in a pearly sauce, topped with grated daikon and chopped green onions, and a salad of slivered asparagus in sesame-miso dressing.

Anna, who hasn't eaten red meat or most types of fish in many years, shocked me by saying she'd decided to broaden her palate in Ireland. "When I'm there I want to try all kinds of different things -- like kipper! And liver! And other things ending in 'er'!"

We swung by Mistral, where I chose a three-item plate to go: a thick, chunky pork rib; a ladelful of white beans cooked with diced aromatic vegetables, tomatoes, garlic, and lots of pepper; and roasted sweet potatoes. I got two pleasant surprises. First, I thought I was getting a "special plate" (specialty meats or stew and two sides), priced at $12.50, but it was in actuality a "house plate" (half a chicken or pork rib and two sides), even niftier at $8.50. (The specialty meats include roast lamb and pork; the stews could be boeuf bourguignon or lamb.) The second surprise was that I had enough homey food for an ample supper and some leftovers to greet me when I opened the fridge later. Feral no more.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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