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There's nothing like the first time

b
Bill Pisarra, Jr. Jul 14, 2000 01:57 PM

Interested in hearing what "first time" food experiences are most memorable to you. Perhaps your first taste of this or that food or beverage, perhaps your first exposure to a certain cuisine or restaurant...any first time experience that had an impact, good or bad.

I think of my first exposure to real Chinese food...first baklava...first eyeball,certainly....hard to choose, but I'll just share this one:

Fishing from the beach for bluefish, on a good spot, and only one other guy nearby. We catch some blues, there's a lull, we get to talking. As often happens when fishing, the talk turns to the best way to make whatever species you're catching. We agree that blues are generally best made whole, and trade ideas about doing them them that way.

A pause. He glances around as if to be sure no one is eavesdropping - even though there's nobody within a half mile - and says in hushed tones, "You ever have the cheeks?"

"Cheeks?"

"The cheeks, the cheeks," he says, indicating the blues.

"Uh...no."

"Oh gawd," he says, rolling his eyes. "The best!"

I rushed home, baked a whole blue, went directly for my first bluefish cheeks and, of course: the best! To this day I go cheeks first on whole fish (a spoon works well.)

Memorable firsts?

  1. t
    Tom Jul 29, 2000 12:04 AM

    Let's start by admitting my age. I was born in 1931. You do the math.

    From age 6 to 17, I lived in Charleston, W. Va. When I was very young, my mom and dad brought home some Chesapeake Bay oysters. I was about 8 at the time. They extolled the glories of this disgusting looking stuff to me. (I later found out that my dad hated oysters, but mom loved them) Mom proceeded to coat the oyster in something (bread crumbs?) and then fried them.

    I took a tentative taste and WOW, I loved them! From that day on, I have loved them any way they are served. Of course, in those days, God forbid that you would eat a raw one!

    My paternal grandmother lived in Marion, Ohio and mom would take me there every summer on the train to spend the summer with grandma. On the way, we had to change trains in Columbus, OH. One time,when I was 9, we had some time between trains so mom took me into the restaurant at the station in Columbus. (Yes, stations had good restaurants in those days) I ordered oyster stew, one of my favorite things. One taste and I realized that it needed salt. So, I took the salt celler, and shook it over the stew. To my dismay, the cap on the salt cellar was loose, and the entire contents spilled into the stew. I did what any sensitive young gourmet would do, I burst into tears!

    The waiter saw my situation and quickly brought another bowl of oyster stew to me and a new salt shaker! I have always loved oysters and after many trips to France since, I have enjoyed many platters of beautiful fresh raw oysters scented with the sea. But I rarely eat an oyster without thinking about that train station restaurant in Columbus, Ohio in 1940.

    I now live on the West Coast where we can get nice small oysters from Tomales Bay and from the waters around Seattle. I have no problem with the old question of who was the first person to eat an oyster. It was someone whose mother fried them for him of course!

    1. f
      FishManSam Jul 21, 2000 08:27 AM

      Back 25 years ago when i was cooking in Provincetown on Cape Cod, fried cod cheeks (and tongues!) was bar food at Cookie's Tap, the local fishermans' hangout. Tossed in commercial clam-fry mix and fried in rendered fatback, these delicasies put all other bar food to shame. Historical fun fact: In the old days of "handlining" for cod, each fisherman would cut the cheeks and tongues out of each fish they caught, then tossed 'em in a bucket with his name on it. That way, at the end of the trip, the Capt. could easily divide pay properly. Of course when the Fisherman returned to port,he immediately headed for a tavern. (See "Perfect Storm" for more details.) Unfortunately, self-appointed spokesman for American Cuisine,Chef Larry Forgionne, has let the cat out of the bag and put this once-secret delicacy on his restaurants' menues in the past, thus turning this one-time barfly secret into a $14.oo white table cloth "starter."

      2 Replies
      1. re: FishManSam
        m
        melanie Jul 22, 2000 03:32 AM

        Can't remember where I read this, but in very early days of Basque cod fishing (before Columbus arrived in the new world), the dried bacalao was such a valuable commodity the fishermen and their families only ate the heads and the tongues were a particular delicacy. Since the cod heads were never seen rumors arose that they had human heads. Cod is so entertwined with the fortunes of the Basques, it is even said that their unique language came from Cod.

        1. re: melanie
          p
          P'Town Prep Cook Jul 27, 2000 12:54 AM

          the good news is you can still get 'em at Cookie's during the winter, the bad news is now during the summer the place is over-run by tourists and day-trippers... they still served the best stuffed squid in the galaxy, but the drink prices would shock ChefSam and anybody else who learned their trade up here back when. sorry to be the bearer of bad news.

      2. d
        Dave Feldman Jul 14, 2000 04:12 PM

        If you are interested in this subject, please don't miss Anthony Bourdain's discussion of his "firsts" in "Kitchen Confidential."

        7 Replies
        1. re: Dave Feldman
          p
          pat hammond Jul 16, 2000 11:34 AM

          Dave: You took the thought right out of my head. Tony's first reminded me of mine: Going clamming with by dad as a child he would break a clam shell every once in a while with the clam rake and that clam was quickly scraped out of the shell and slurped down. We'd take turns. A good morning would yield a half dozen or so apiece. pat

          1. re: pat hammond
            t
            Tom Steele Jul 16, 2000 12:50 PM

            The first time I tried a taco, I was about ten years old, and it was the early 1960s in Toledo, Ohio, a city certainly not then known for its diverse ethnic cuisines. (There were only two Italian restaurants, a few Chinese, one Greek, two Jewish delicatessens, no French--you get the idea--but dozens and dozens of fast-food, steak-and-lobster houses. People of means tended to dine at private golf clubs, where the food was more than passable.)

            Anyway, there was one Mexican restaurant within hundreds of miles, on Airport Highway, called Loma Linda's. (It's still there!) The owners (or at least the staff) lived in a trailer in the rear parking lot. The place had a notorious reputation for its margaritas, a drink you couldn't find anywhere else in those days. The food consisted mostly of combination platters, all absolutely swimming in grease (probably lard), but thinking back, a lot of the food was pretty "authentic."

            My family (of six) was seated at a picnic table in this dark, smokey restaurant at the edge of nowhere. When the food arrived, I really had no idea how to attack the taco that was placed before me. Was I supposed to dig out the ground beefy salad inside with a fork? Was the shell even edible? I looked around for a full minute, and finally saw someone holding and eating a taco. I picked mine up and took a gingerly bite. The snapping contrasts of the effulgent, ruddy flavors, the interplay of crunchy and soft, warm and cool, spicy beef and bland chopped lettuce and salty cheddar cheese--I was hooked for life! I had never tasted anything remotely like it before (the Midwest in that era had its very own smug ideas about what made for good eating, and big flavors were NOT on the menu). But truly, nothing has ever quite matched the first time.

            1. re: Tom Steele
              t
              Tammy Jul 19, 2000 11:50 AM

              I just need to thank you for your post Tom. I have
              read it a couple of times & it has brought back such
              good memories.

              Honestly, I think we lived in a parallel universe because your first time taco experience mirrors mine almost exactly. My occured around the same age, in a small dark joint called Pepe's Taco in Bettendorf, Iowa. It was the only place around that served Mexican fare in the area.

              They had the standard menu of tacos, burrito's, tostada's and combo plates, but the hard shelled greasy taco's just made me reel. They definitely had a bit of spice in the meat, but I found the hot sauce on the table within moments of my first bite.

              I will never forget the crunch, the flavor, the atmosphere-I can still taste them. The restaraunt is not there anymore, but the fondness of that first time definitely is! Without a doubt, that started me on my life long mission of trying out all the newest family owned Mexican places...and we have some real gems around the Quad City area! Thanks again for your post!

              1. re: Tammy
                t
                Tom Steele Jul 19, 2000 03:34 PM

                The pleasure's mine, Tammy!

                Yeah, Mexican food appeared in very spotty places all over the Midwest in the '50s and '60s, and then came Taco Boy, then Taco Bell, and the rest is bland Tex-Mex history.

                But I forgot to mention that Loma Linda's is still there, on Airport Highway in Toledo, where it's been for at least 35 years, although it's been completely redone--not one thing is where it used to be, and the place is four times the size of the original. I was there for the first time in 20 years about a month ago.

                The food was good--very good--but nowhere near as decadent as it once was. Not a trace of lard (let alone freshly rendered lard), and there was a certain amount of restraint in the wrist that was flinging the grated cheese all over everything. But the prices were extraordinary--$5 platters for lunch and such. AND they made TWO KINDS of stuffed jalapenos--something you can barely find in Manhattan (The Alamo has great ones).
                And the margaritas still sing right on pitch. There's a Highway Patrol station right across the street--no doubt due to the vast number of accidents those margaritas have generated over the years.

                1. re: Tom Steele
                  t
                  Tammy Jul 19, 2000 09:34 PM

                  Although they have changed atmospherically wise (is that a real word???)after 20 years, at least you still have some remnants of your youth...how cool is that!

                  If I am ever in the area, I will be sure to sniff out
                  Loma Linda's, AND have a designated driver just in case I flip over those killer Marg's!

                  1. re: Tammy
                    b
                    bryan Jul 21, 2000 05:50 AM

                    It may be apocryphal, but my folks used to say the first time they let my twin sister and I taste caviar and champange (around 3-years old), my sister spat it out, disgusted, and I (precocious little bugger)looked to my Father and declared "Why haven't you told me about this before!"

                    1. re: bryan
                      r
                      Rosa Rasiel Aug 20, 2000 05:31 PM

                      Joseph Epstein mentions many firsts in a long, nostalgic article about a lifetime of eating out. His passage (near the end) about his favorite Chinese chef, Ben Moy, shows the heart of a chowhound. Of special interest to Chicagoans...especially those of, umm, mature vintage.

                      Link: http://www.weeklystandard.com/magazin...

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