Waiter Confidential: The Dark Side of Parisian Dining | Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street

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Episode 633
December 9, 2022

Waiter Confidential: The Dark Side of Parisian Dining

Waiter Confidential: The Dark Side of Parisian Dining

This week, we go behind the scenes of French restaurants with writer and former waiter Edward Chisholm to experience the chaotic rush of Sunday brunch, discover where waiters go on their time off and find out what happens to your food before it reaches the plate. Plus, we investigate a street food mystery in India with journalist Barkha Kumari, Adam Gopnik gets in a pickle about fermented foods, and we make the Moroccan beef and chickpea stew harira.

Questions in this episode:

"What's a great, show-stopping vegetarian dish for the holidays?"

"I have too many muscadine grapes. What should I do with all of them?"

    Books 1 Morgane Lequand

    Christopher Kimball: This is Milk Street Radio from PRX. I'm your host Christopher Kimball. Edward Chisholm didn't know how to wait tables or even speak French, but that did not stop him from getting a job as a waiter in Paris. Today, he provides a behind the scenes account of what goes on in a Parisian restaurant, including the most chaotic meal of all Sunday brunch

    Edward Chisholm: It is a little bit like a storm brewing in the Atlantic. It starts slowly with the orders firing down through the computers into the depths of the restaurant, and then slowly it builds and builds and builds and builds, and then eventually spills out of that swinging door and into the restaurant. I mean, it was never ever a relaxing day a Sunday.

    CK: But before the Parisian bistro we're heading to the streets of Bengaluru, India. Here you might find a vendor selling a mysterious snack known as Bhoochakara Gadda or Ram Kand Mool

    Barka Kumari: What is your name

    Vender: My name is Shawn Sunder Jada.

    BK: How did you get the idea of selling kand mool?

    Vender: when I came to Bengaluru, my mentor told me about this snack. He said if you are interested in selling it, you can do it. Then I started buying the stock and I've been fending it ever since.

    BK: What do you know about kand mool?

    Vender: It's a root. It cools the body he prevents pimples clears out kidney stones. This root is extracted once every 15 to 20 years. The supplier says he gets it from Andhra Pradesh But where exactly in Andhra Pradesh I don't know.

    CK: Journalist Barka Kumari, spoke with Shazam as part of her investigation into the true identity of the snack. Even though it's sold all across India, it seems that no one knows exactly what it is where it comes from, or why vendors are so secretive about its origins. Right now. Barka joins us to share more from her investigation. Barka welcome to Milk Street.

    BK: Thank you so much, Chris.

    CK: So, we're talking about street vendors, and a very particular snack that they serve. Now, where were you when you first saw it?

    BK: I was in my city, which is Bengaluru in the southern state of Karnataka. I had just learned driving and I was practicing how to drive on the roads when my partner who was sitting next to me, he yelled and said, stop. And he just jumped out of the car. And then I saw there was this huge trunk that this vendor was preparing to cut into slices and give it to us. And he tells me it's a root.

    CK: So, before we get into the mystery here, let's just describe it's like three or four feet tall. It’s huge. It was like a foot and a half in diameter maybe, it was white fleshed, and they slice they use sort of a curved like machete to cut off thin slices. I mean, it's like could this really be an in ground root? That's that large. I mean, it's it's huge, the things huge.

    BK: I agree with you. And that is exactly why I was skeptical. So this guy tells me the vendor tells me that you know, it comes from a climber a vine and I'm saying that, you know, the basic science I know, makes me disbelieve that this can be a root, and this can be so huge for a climber.

    CK: I mean, the thing that struck me is trees don't have roots that look like this right? I mean they don't go deep into the ground straight down. So, first of all, I assume you you bought some and tasted it. What does it taste like?

    BK: Yes, of course. It takes on the taste of any seasoning you add to it. So, the one that I had had salty and chili powder seasoning. But two months later, while I was still practicing my driving, I spotted another vendor. I jumped out of the car. I ran towards him brother please stop brother please stop. People around me on the street were looking at me. What has this brother done, why am I going for him? And when I ate at that time, I told him Do not add any lime or salt or sugar. I want to eat it as is. And that day I realized oh my god, it was obnoxious. It smells like yogurt, and I hate yogurt. But yes, it's very crispy, very juicy, very crunchy.

    CK: So, then you start this search to determine where it comes from what it is botanically. But there's this was a long, confused search that didn't necessarily fully resolve the issue. So, one of the things in your piece I found interesting is that when you talk to the vendors, they weren't really going to help you very much right? (Not at all) It was a secret right?

    BK: Yeah, it is a secret, and the funny thing is, even before I was speaking to you half an hour before I called up one of the vendors again to try my luck. And he maintained the status quo, which is, I get it from another vendor. I have never seen the tree in person. I only know that it is sold in the religious places. So, there is a bit of a mythological story attached to this root, you know, so that we have this Hindu mythology called Ramayana, where we have this Lord called Rama, he was banished into a forest with his wife and during the exile, they subsisted on this tuber on this root. So, there is this consistent storytelling across the length and breadth of the country. It's healthy, it's medicinal, it's religious. It's a root. We get it 200 kilometers from wherever we are. Nobody knows where they get it from, but it continues to be sold.

    CK: You went down this rabbit hole full tilt. Why did you get so interested in this? What was it about it that was so mesmerizing for you?

    BK: Not mesmerizing. I mean, the real word is I was frustrated. I feel so silly as a journalist. I've been a journalist for 11 years and the only investigative story I've done in my life is on a street snack. But I am a person of scientific temper. And nobody was telling me facts. Everybody said, okay, we have seen it. But we don't know where it comes from. And I could not take that as an answer. As a journalist. I called up lots of taxonomists, lots of botanists, and I was getting my phone number to random people on the street shopkeepers, food vendors, cops, I was like, if you see anybody selling this snack on the road, just call me just take my number.

    CK: I mean, it's so interesting that something so big and so distinctive, is shrouded in mystery. Right?

    BK: I'll tell you, one of these botanist in Pondicherry, which is in the southern part of India. You know, he has taken a vow as I have taken a vow to resolve the mystery around it. And he is planning to do an all India identification search of this plant, he has gotten mad, like I have.

    CK: Some of the botanists you spoke to have gotten close to identifying the plant. You wrote that the strongest piece of scientific evidence came from a DNA sample in 2010. So, what were the results of that test? What was it?

    BK: So yes, in 2010, two students decided to run a DNA barcoding and they found 89% of eight matched to that of an agave. What they were not able to conclude which species that is whether it's Agave Solana, or its Agave Americana. And they continue to tell me they cannot ascertain that until they see the plant in its natural habitat. And the Pondicherry scientist has given another dimension to this story. So many years ago, a taxonomic friend of his ventured into a forest in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, and he saw a bunch of vendors trying to cut to an agave plant. He has documented it not knowing that the entire world is trying to find out the mystery around it, they have figured out that it perhaps is Agave cantilena. Not even Sisalana or Americana. So now there is a third suspect. And this publisher scientist is very sweet. He has offered to grow Agave cantilena in his university campus, from scratch, and he's just going to wait for years and years and years until it flowers, then cut it down. And then perhaps conclude if it really is Agave cantilena. But yes, it is agave.

    CK: Okay, so now we know it's an agave plant of some kind. But if that's all it is, why is everyone keeping it such a mystery? I think you wrote in the article that perhaps agave can be poisonous have eaten in large quantities. So maybe they want to keep it a secret because it's poisonous. Is it illegal? Maybe they are not supposed to be harvesting it. You know, it's just something else going on here.

    BK: You know, they constantly kept on telling me that they're sourcing this plant from deep inside the forest. And then I decided to call up forest officials and ask them, you know, do we need permission to remove a tree or a trunk or any part of it from the forest? And they categorically told me yes. But there is a problem with this theory because agave literally grows everywhere in the country. So that is why the trespassing theory doesn't hold ground for me. The second thing why they were so secretive. I think they know deep down that yes, eating it in large quantities could be poisonous. The third thing is, I feel by maintaining the secrecy around it. They create this magic and aura around this plant. You know, things related to my theology need not be answered. So, it helps to create and keep this mystery going around it.

    CK: Barka it's really been a pleasure. The mystery I think is nearly solved and thank you so much.

    BK: Thank you. Thank you so much, Chris.

    CK: That was journalist Barka Kumari. Her article for Gastro Obscura is the mysterious street snack that has baffled botanists for decades. Earlier we heard from vendor Shan Sundar Yadav with translation from Sean James. If you have a lead on the identity of Bhoochakara Gadda, or another culinary mystery you want us to solve we want to hear from you. Please call our tip line 617-249-3167 That's 617-249-3167 you're listening to Milk Street Radio. Up next, we'll look at Paris through the eyes of a waiter. That's right after the break.

    Rose Hattabaugh: Hi, this is Rose Hattabaugh since I've started working at Milk Street my cooking has really gone up a notch. I'm making fast, easy, bold and really interesting food for my family. Learn more about Milk Street membership options at 177 Milk Street.com/plan.

    CK: This is Milk Street Radio. I'm your host Christopher Kimball. Right now, it's my conversation with Edward Chisholm, when he moved from London to Paris in 2012, he found work as a food runner and then a waiter. He ended up staying in the restaurant industry for the next four years and wrote about the experience in his amazing memoir, A Waiter in Paris. Edward, welcome to Milk Street.

    EC: Thank you very much for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.

    CK: So, I just have to say right at the outset that your book A Waiter in Paris, I just could not put it down. Because the level of detail and the world in which you take us behind the scenes in a French restaurant is it's like the seventh layer of hell. It's just unbelievable.

    EC: Yeah, well, I mean, thank you so much strange kind of view. But yeah, it's funny the description of hell, I guess is quite useful because I, I started to see actually the world behind the scenes as well, more of a purgatory. Actually, the world of waiters is a bit of a purgatory.

    CK: You move to Paris with your girlfriend. You don't have a job. I think it was someone next to you and one of the cheap apartments you were renting. He brings you in and you get a job as a runner. You buy a suit, that is the typical waiter black suit, white shirt. You show up the next day. This is like the worst nightmare you have with a college exam you haven't prepared for.

    EC: Yeah, it was awful.

    CK: So, you're standing there. I'm just going to quote, I have no idea what's on the menu, nor how to take orders nor indeed if I should. I have no idea where the food comes from, how it's made, or even who makes it. This image of you with your new shiny, cheap suit. (Yeah) Standing there. You could not really understand what people were telling you. (No) I mean, how did you get through the first day?

    EC: Yeah, I mean, it was a mixture of things. Like a child learns by copying, I just watched what people were doing. And most the time I get in their way because these these big Parisian restaurants, so any big restaurant them, they're a well-oiled machine. And fortunately, you know, one of the waiters took pity on me, I guess. I don't know why and said, you know, you're a runner. It's quite simple. You run you pick up dirty plates, you bring them back here, and then you just put these prepared plates on the table number I tell you, and at this point, I didn't want them to know I couldn't speak French because I was so desperate for the job.

    CK: So, let's describe the geography of the restaurant and the people who worked at the various stations. So, starting with the dining room, there's a hierarchy to where you get seated. So let's start with that.

    EC: Yes. So how you are seated in the dining room is a reflection of how you're viewed by the hostesses. The closer to the center of the restaurant, were the people who are either rich or famous or good looking. And if you had all three, you were sort of the Holy Grail.

    CK: Well, you had a long relationship with a woman who ran the front desk, and you said that she would look at people's shoes. (Yes) but it wasn't the shoes. It's how they wore the shoes. So, she had a very keen eye for style, which isn't necessarily the same thing as money.

    EC: No, exactly. It was more of it was yeah, it was a style, it was something you carried with you, or confidence, or most, which all of us can pull off usually, at least once,

    CK: Then you spend a lot of time discussing the pass. You say this low ceilinged, six square metered, purgatory, is where all food and drink will pass.

    EC: Yeah, so the past was this kind of small room where all the dollies left the service lifts would be connected to and food would come there from the lower kitchen or the upper kitchen. And the people working in here were all Tamils. So, they're all from Sri Lanka, and they'd fled Sri Lanka because they'd been Tamil Tigers, which basically became a guerrilla Fighting Group per se. The idea is very hard men with stories that could you know, regale you for hours and hours and hours, you know, placing up food and shouting at you and making you coffees and stuff.

    CK: Well, you say any runner waiter worth his salt knows a smattering of Tamil. But she said also that these people shouting at the waiters are adept at hand-to-hand combat, and they will have a plan and execute a guerrilla attack on an armed convoy. Yes. These are tough guys.

    EC: These are tough guys. And that's actually a funny thing you mentioned the Tamil because, you know, when you're learning a language, I just assumed everyone was speaking French. And it was only after some weeks that I realized it wasn't just French, everyone was speaking but Tamil and Portuguese and Russian and all sorts, especially for swear words.

    CK: So, there's a moment when in the past, a bunch of plates crash to the ground. And you write new plates are taken. And using our hands we pick up from the floor what we can still make use of. I'm just going like this is my worst nightmare.

    EC: Yeah, exactly. I mean, the reality of what's happened on your plate before it's got to your table is probably better not knowing I guess, you get one of these, you know, hold that just collapses like an iceberg, you know, crashing into the floor. And suddenly, we'll either we're going to have to reorder everything and mess up all these other orders, or the quickest thing to do with the subpoena. Steal a few haricot beans from some other plates and you know, service continues.

    CK: Okay, so that's the pass. So, the the main kitchens upstairs, right, that's in a different place. Yeah, this is the Corsican. This is the this is yeah. So, you wander up there. I'm not quite sure why, which you're not supposed to be there. There's yelling and shouting. And when he sees you, he tells you to get the blank out. You say, I stand there like an idiot with a blade outstretched. He charges me with a giant knife. (Yeah, it was it was) I don't know why I'm laughing but

    EC: Though, because this is a thing for you as a waiter you’re put into these situations where you have no choice really. So that happened because, you know, we'd served some I think filet of beef or something to a diner. And she was indignant and said, this is this is not medium. And we're in such a stress and such a panic in the middle of a in a big service, I was on how the most efficient thing to do would be taking myself to the other kitchen. I mean, that was a huge error. I've been I've been warned many times. I think I described in the book as a sort of forgery in a Roman outpost or something. It was just like, you know, this man screaming into little interphone and people are whacking pieces of meat and knives and sounds quite impressive. And then obviously, the last thing he wants is some little English guy coming in with with his broken French saying that he hasn't cook something correctly. And he did lose it. I mean, he held the knife very close to my face. But yeah, I never went back into the upper kitchen again, suffice to say,

    CK: One thing I never considered is you might have an hour off between, say lunch and dinner service but you have no place to go. I mean, if you have money, you can go sit at a ___ and cafe or whatever. But in the early days, you couldn't afford that. So, it was all about finding the best public restroom in the best hotel.

    EC: Yeah, it was. In summer, it's not so much of a problem because you can lay down the park or sit on a bench but in winter, I didn't know what to do. I just had nowhere to go. I couldn't sit in, you know, restaurants and stuff. And so the best thing I found was to find the five-star hotels, and then stroll through the lobby with purpose. Ideally, if I could pick up one of the international papers because they wouldn't assume a waiter would be reading The Financial Times or something. I had to take that under my arm and make a beeline for the time toilets in the depths of the hotel, and they would be the cleanest place in Paris, warm, marble. Lots of expensive soaps and all these kinds of things. Yeah, I just use the newspaper as a sort of pillow and sleep for half an hour or something.

    CK: Sunday service, or, as we call it brunch here. You say it's not restaurant work. It's attrition. It's a storm. So why was Sunday service so hard, you just had to serve hundreds of covers quickly.

    EC: Yeah, it's the thing where everybody in the city wakes up with the idea of going for brunch or Sunday lunch. And they think they're the only person with this idea. And it's just it's so compressed. It's so many people in such a period of time you know and it's a little bit like a storm brewing in the Atlantic before it hits the seaboard. It starts slowly with the orders firing down through the computers into the depths of the restaurant, and then slowly it builds and builds and builds and builds, and then eventually spills out of that swinging door and into the restaurant. I mean, it was never ever a relaxing day on a Sunday.

    CK: Did you get good; you probably did at reading people?

    EC: Yeah, I mean, it's a wonderful profession for people watching, you're on the shoulders of people, essentially, who are having a quite intimate or private conversations. Dining out is kind of a ceremony. And your part of that you're sort of the priest of the ceremony if you will. So, you want to make sure you go unnoticed, except when they want.

    CK: So, what is it like being unseen, but you can hear everything that's going on?

    EC: Yeah, so this, this is weird on many different levels because you know, going to a new city, and then a new language and learning that language, you start to almost have another identity, which isn't your own one, you sort of build a new French identity. So, you're sort of anonymous on different levels. And then you're in a waiter’s suit and you go and remarked, and actually it's quite nice. It allows you to see the world a bit differently.

    CK: This thing about being a waiter or runner, you have this black suit you talk about you could recognize a waiter on the street. Something about the tired suit, the haunted look, the hurried yet fatigued walk, the worn shoes, the slick hair cut the thin frame, so that you became a character actor almost in the world of French waiters

    EC: Yes, no no completely and you know, going back to I said earlier about appearances and stuff. So, the same reason, you don't want to know what's happening in the you know, in behind the scenes, it's the same with a waiter. Uniform means we are all one form. So, you kind of take off your identities and you and put on that off the French waiter. And yes, so when I was around town afterwards, so when you finish a shift, you'd see these other people in their suits, which if you've got a bit too close, you'd see that the spilled or dried sauces on the lapels, because you probably only have one suit unless you've been doing for many years.

    CK: But but there's a point you say, where a lot of waiters start off going, Oh, I'm going to be an actor, actress, or I'm going to write a book or whatever. And so, they it's a temporary job. But for most, it becomes a lifetime job, right?

    EC: Yeah, I think in English, it's nice because a waiting tables and waiting for something is the same word. And a lot of these people, I think, started this hoping they would do something else was to be able sportsman or a writer or any of these things. And years slowly go past don’t they and then that dream starts to fade, and some of them nurture it for a bit longer. But at some point, the reality catches up with them. And they realize that waiting is what they'll do for the rest of their lives.

    CK: You make a point that in France, you are what you study, that is you can't escape your past, you can't escape your definition. And everybody needs to be clearly defined. It's it's a very rigid caste system, right?

    EC: Yeah, and this is pretty much why I ended up waiting tables, because I had a degree from university but because I hadn't gone and studied journalism, I couldn't do that job. So, in French, the word is encadrer, which also means to frame something. So, it's like putting something in a frame like a picture frame. I think it's maybe changing a bit now in France. But this idea of transferable skills that we have in in the US and the UK, if you you know, if you can do one thing, you could probably apply their skills to something else. This doesn't exist in France. And so, the longer you’re a waiter, you realize, in France, you can't do anything else, it's very hard to change.

    CK: You said that the restaurant is a good cross section of French society. What were some of the takeaways about French society in general that you got out of your experience?

    EC: France is it's highly nuanced, it's highly complicated. And that's what I wanted to try and explore in the book is to get a sense of what is France or French identity or Parisian identity, you know, and even in terms of what we're eating, like what is French cuisine because when you're eating something in a French restaurant, it's probably been prepared by a guy from Senegal and plated by a guy from Sri Lanka and served to you by an English guy who doesn't speak French at cetera, et cetera. So, the service is still French yet there's no one in that sort of chain of events, that's French. But then there's the tradition of the bistro. There's perhaps the recipe. So, you know, it's a wonderful amalgamation a soup with many ingredients, essentially. And it's hard to put your finger on it.

    CK: Edward, thank you A Waiter in Paris, my favorite read of the year. And thanks so much for being here on Milk Street.

    EC: Thank you for having me. It's been a pleasure.

    CK: That was Edward Chisholm. His book is A Waiter in Paris, Adventures in the Dark Heart of the City. All of us have a fascination with behind the scenes tell all’s whether it's Hollywood, broadway or a Parisian restaurant. We suspend our disbelief, but we're still hungry to know how the trick was done. The most compelling narratives are when the worst case is confirmed by firsthand experience. The food spilled on the floor is scraped onto fresh plates and served, the bathroom in the prep kitchen has no place to wash your hands. The greeter in the front of the house seats guests based on a private ranking system. So, if you get the table near the kitchen, you probably deserve it. Much like the 1959 Tell all book Hollywood Babylon we revel at the lowbrow goings on of the rich and famous. Rather than ruining the show. However, these tabloid stories make the fantasy even better. When chaos reigns backstage it makes the grease paint and footlights appear that much brighter. You listening to Milk Street Radio. Now it's time to check in with JM Hirsch about this week's recipe Moroccan Beef, Tomato and Chickpea stew. JM, how are you?

    J M Hirsch: I'm doing great.

    CK: I've been to Morocco a few times over the years. And there are sort of the classic tagines and pesty and those sorts of things. But harira is actually one of the most common dishes there. But one that I don't think people know much about. What is harira and when you were there, how did you learn to make it?

    JM: Yeah, you know, I was really, really thrilled by this recipe because at its heart, it's a beef stew. It's a tomato, beef jerky stew. And it has a lot of those familiar notes but also it just puts it outside of familiar in a wonderful and kind of exciting sort of way. So, I was in the Medina of Fez which you know, as you know, is this labyrinth of some 10,000 shops and stalls it's very easy to get lost in by the way, I did it multiple times. And one type of stall is a soup stall, and they are open from morning until night and in the morning, they serve bessara which is a creamy pureed fava bean soup, you know iterations of what you see across that region. But in the evenings, they switch over to harira this wonderful and savory and ever so slightly sweet from the tomatoes, beef, chickpea tomato soup, often has some spice to it usually from harissa or chili's and I encountered this one stall run by this guy Bourachdi’s and he works with his mother who spends all day making the soup. And then he carts it to his stall three huge stainless-steel tankards of it every evening and sells it and he just like he owns the corner of the Medina. He is the Cheers of the fez, Medina everybody comes, he knows their names. They sit down, they have a bowl of soup, a hunk of bread, a piece of honey cake, and it's just this wonderful ambiance. So, I ate it. It was delicious. It was so wonderful. And I begged him to take me to his mother's house so that she could teach us the recipe. And she was very sweet but said no. (Really?) Yes, there were many harira stalls in the medina in the Fez, and she didn't want to give away her secrets.

    CK: So, I guess once in a while, someone says no

    JM: And this was one of those times, so I found another home cook Houda Mehdi, who makes her own harira and she did welcome me in and offered to teach me her recipe. As often as she makes it with beef. She does it with chicken or lamb. She made it with beef for me that day. And it's such a simple soup. It's red onion, olive oil, turmeric, celery, cilantro, chickpeas and beef. She pressure cooks it but you don't need to. And it just blends together, and it just creates this wonderful, again, very familiar and yet once you add the spice, you know the combination of turmeric and harissa, this spicy chili paste that takes that familiar beef stew that we know and just pushes it over in such a wonderful way. And then she had a great trick which we have adapted to our own recipe that I just loved. Oftentimes harira is thickened with a traditional route of flour and fat. She doesn't like to do that because she feels it makes the soup heavy. And so instead, along with all the other ingredients, she cooks some potatoes and a couple of carrots and some veggies. And she scoops those out at the end of cooking and purees them and then adds it back. And it's a wonderful technique because it does thicken the soup, but it also sweetens it, but it keeps the flavors clean and light, you know, you don't get that kind of heft that you would get from a roux. And it just wonderful affects you. It was just a delicious recipe.

    CK: I think I need to write a cookbook called chicken soup and beef stew is you could go to almost any country, and they'll have one or both of those.

    JM: Absolutely, yeah.

    CK: And how they treat it is so interesting because it tells you so much about the culture. JM thank you Moroccan beef, tomato and chickpeas stew harira very similar in many ways to what we have done here in North America, but so much more interesting. Thank you.

    JM: Thank you. You can find this recipe from Moroccan beef tomato and chickpeas stew at Milk Street Radio.com

    CK: This is Milk Street radio coming up Adam Gopnik gets in a pickle that's up in just a moment.

    RH: Hi, this is Rose Hattabaugh since I've started working at Milk Street my cooking has really gone up a notch. I'm making fast, easy, bold, and really interesting food for my family. Learn more about Milk Street membership options at 177 Milk Street.com/plan.

    CK: I'm Christopher Kimball and you're listening to milk Street Radio. Now it's time to answer your cooking questions with my co-host Sara Moulton. Sara is of course the star of Sara's Weeknight Meals on public television. Also, author of Home Cooking 101. Sara before we take a call, I have a question. You know a lot of families around the holidays have a breakfast thing, especially on something like Christmas. Do you have a special breakfast or is it like just coffee and cognac?

    SM: Yeah, we absolutely do. And I'm looking at my dad in heaven because it was his thing, which is scrambled eggs low and slow. My dad only cooked two things that and fish chowder but low and slow he'd do it in a cast iron skillet. He'd use that old fashioned thing that you turned what are those called eggbeaters. And he was known for that. But what we also added to it was my brother-in-law makes the Jordan pond popovers and those are so good

    CK: What are Jordan pond popovers?

    SM: You know Jordan pond that's on Acadia National Park. Jordan pond is there and they have the most amazing popovers on the planet. You have to make the batter the night before, but they're amazing. So that's what we have and then bacon and Canadian bacon because you can't just have one bacon. How about you?

    CK: I usually do waffles or pancakes.

    SM: Your pancake king really

    CK: We do waffles on Saturday, pancakes on Sunday, every weekend

    SM: Or for a special occasion. Why not?

    CK: Or both

    SM: Yeah, there you go.

    CK: Either are on the holidays.

    SM: Yeah. Wow.

    CK: Okay, time for a call.

    SM: Yes. Welcome to Milk Street. Who's calling?

    Caller: Hi, this is Emma from Napa, California.

    SM: Hi, Emma, from one of the prettiest places in this country. How can we help you in the culinary department today.

    Caller: I'm a nearly lifelong vegetarian and a passionate home cook and I'm pretty confident in the kitchen. But I like to keep my menus exciting year after year for the holidays. And I certainly have, you know the seasonal veggie sides that I love making but where I seem to be coming up short, is in the creation of a signature meat free main dish. So, in past years, I've sort of tried at all I did a vegan cassoulet with braised fennel and white beans one year I did a lentil and veggie shepherd's pie one year and they were really good and well received but not particularly showstopping. I'm curious what your initial thoughts for an inspiring holiday meat free main dish might be?

    SM: Okay, so a couple of questions are eggs and cheese. (Okay) And the other thing when you say show stopping when you mean it looks like woo woo

    Caller: Yeah, you know, like, I just think that at the holidays, they're, you know, the center of the table tends to be a bird or a pot roast or ham. I like the idea of even a meat eater being very wowed by whatever this centerpiece thing is,

    SM: Have you ever made an egg roulade?

    Caller: I have not.

    SM: You'd make it in a jelly roll pan. And it's like, you know, a very, very thin egg cake. It's just mainly egg. And there's a tiny bit of flour in there and you make it and bake it. And then you can actually make it bake it and freeze it. And then what you do like a jelly roll cake is you fill it with whatever you want roll it up. You could say it's almost like the Buche de Noel but a savory version, you know, this huge like rolled up thing or a couple of them you could do in the middle of the table, and you could fill them with whatever you wanted in the way of vegetables. And that is pretty attractive looking. You could put some cheese on top and run it under the broiler. And you can make it ahead.

    Caller: So, this is actually the perfect segway because a friend just recently brought up the idea of making a timpano which is a really interesting thing. So, I love that idea about the roulade, but I wonder about now my brain is on timpano

    SM: Well, you know you're a brave woman because that is not easy to make. You could certainly do a timpano another thought I had was moussaka. But in place of the ground lamb lentils, so layered eggplant and bechamel on top and then lentils in the middle. And that's sort of an adaptation of a hearty dish but using beans instead. Another thing we used to do at Gourmet that I sort of took off with is inside out eggplant parmesan rolls. So, you slice the eggplant lengthwise. you season it, you bake it till it's tender, so you don't have to use all that oil that you usually use. And then you make little croutons. And so that's the inside out part. And so, you stuff the eggplant with the croutons and some parmesan and some mozzarella and roll it up and then top it with garlicky marinara sauce and bake it and it's pretty nice looking. One of the things I've done is giant stuffed mushrooms using portobellos. That makes a statement. Another one is doing a crostata you know a freeform pie where the crust is on outside, not on top. I did one with rustic greens and mashed potato, but you could put anything again that you want and it's big and it's round and you fold in the edges, so it looks really pretty. Alright, but now I know Chris is of course there's butternut squash lasagna. Okay. I had to throw that in there. Anyway, Chris, I know you have some ideas.

    CK: I fortunately, a couple years ago traveled and to the Middle East and I spent some time with a Palestinian family, and they make maqlubeh or m-a-q-l-u-b-e-h, but it's spelled ten different ways. It's a large pot that's essentially rice with vegetables. You could also add lamb or meat, but you don't have to. Sometimes they stuffed the vegetables before they put them in. But what they do is take the pot, and they turn it upside down onto a huge of these huge silver platters. And it's very dramatic just before serving you unmold it. And then they take a spoon or a couple spoons, and they open it up and you see what's inside. It makes a terrific centerpiece, and you don't have to use meat. You can use any vegetable you want. If you wanted a real showpiece, that would be it. That's definitely what I would do.

    Caller: So, what's holding it together when you turn it out onto a plate, what's the binder?

    CK: The rice has starch in it, right so the rice helps to bind it together. So, it will if you do it carefully, you put the serving platter on top of the pod. Take potholders flip it over. And gently this is kind of the dramatic moment, release the pot and pull it up. And it will stay intact because of the rice obviously has starch. But what's really cool is then you open it up and you see all the treasures inside whatever you want to put inside. So, it can be as glamorous as you like, but it's the unmolding that's fun and the presentation’s terrific.

    Caller: Okay, yeah, no, I love these ideas. And that does sound much easier than the timpano which I think the main thing about the timpano that I was interested in was that presentation of being able to cut into something and seeing layers.

    CK: Yeah, there's I've done. I've done an easy version of that dish. I used to do it all the time a long time ago. It's pretty cool. And you can do it with a simple sort of sour cream pastry around it. If you do a simplified one. That's a good choice too

    Caller: Right, right Yeah, and I love the idea of a crostata too. Those are fantastic thank you.

    CK: Okay, give that a shot. Let us know.

    SM: We’re rooting for you Emma

    Caller: Okay, thank you so much.

    CK: Bye

    SM: Bye.

    CK: This is Milk Street Radio. Sara and I are ready to solve your toughest kitchen questions just give us a call anytime. 855-426-9843 that's 855-426-9843 or just email us at questions at Milk Street Radio.com Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?

    Caller: Hi, my name is Lauren, I'm calling from Maryville, Tennessee.

    CK: How can we help you?

    Caller: Well, every year, in September and October, we like to muscadine grapes and most years we'll get a few gallons this year with the drought we didn't have quite as much. But I'm wondering what I can do with my muscadines?

    CK: Well, first of all, what volume are we talking?

    Caller: I have about a half a gallon. And just to give you an idea of some things that I've tried in the past, I have juiced. So, I've made some different drinks like shrubs or cocktails with the juice, I've made sorbet. I've made ice cream. My mother-in-law has made jam, we have a friend who has made wine. So, we've tried a lot of different things in the past. And I'm just looking for a new idea. I was kind of thinking vinegar.

    CK: Yes, you can make vinegar. The easiest way to make vinegar is to start with vinegar and then use like a Bragg's unfiltered vinegar, cider vinegar and then wine. I did that myself. And you just keep adding wine to it and to the crock and you make vinegar after a couple of months. I think if you're using a fruit to start, you're going to need to add alcohol to it. So, it's not just vinegar, any water, some sugar and some grain alcohol to it. But you could certainly do that. But the problem with that is you're not going to use up a lot of the grapes. You know, you might use a few cups of them. You mean how much vinegar can you use? So, it would be something you could do. But it's also easier just to take wine and Bragg's cider vinegar and throw those together. Jelly, I assume that's the sort of obvious thing.

    Caller: My mother-in-law typically does jelly

    CK: Yeah, but then again, how much jelly can you make? (Yeah) Sara, anything else?

    SM: Yeah, I was thinking, you know, I'm always thinking about how can you reduce it and volume and get into the freezer. And you already said you use it and shrubs, which means that you juice it? (Yeah) And then do you reduce that liquid or just add that liquid to some seltzer or some other ingredients?

    Caller: Right. So typically, we just get the liquid and then add that to when I made shrubs. I've added vinegar to it. And then I'll mix it with some other mixer,

    SM: Right. By the way, we should mention that muscadine is how you pronounce it. (Yeah) that they have thick skins and big seeds. So that's Yeah, that's right. That's a little bit of a problem in terms of processing but if you juice it, you could also simmer that juice down to make a bit of a syrup. And then you could freeze that. I don't know how sweet muscadines are, but you could add sugar or not add sugar or add a little bit of lemon juice and sugar to balance it and then reduce it down and freeze it. And then you could use it in desserts like just over ice cream, or over fresh berries in the springtime. Let's say you make a cake that needs a little bit of moisture, you could drizzle it on top of that cake.

    CK: Can we ask a question? First of all, do you like muscadine grapes? I mean, is this because you have them, and you don't want to just not use them, or do you actually really like them?

    Caller: Well, definitely I don't want to waste them. But we do like to eat them. The problem with eating them though, like you pointed out is the skin is so thick. And then the seeds are just yeah, not easy to deal with.

    CK: Reducing it down to a syrup. Makes sense. So maybe you should try it and see over the winter whether you use the syrup, and the other thing you could do with the syrup is freeze it in ice cube trays and pop them out and put them in, you know, freezer bags.

    SM: Yeah, definitely. I definitely thought she should freeze it.

    Caller: I like the idea of the syrup

    CK: I might just forget that I had them, what about that.

    Caller: I don't know this is just a fun project.

    CK: But it's guilt. I mean, we're dealing we're dealing with primal fruit guilt here.

    SM: Well, any rate vinegar, syrup

    CK: You do the vinegar and that's probably of all the things I suggested but that's not going to use up a lot of grapes.

    Caller: Would you heat the vinegar, I found some recipes using like you said grain alcohol, sugar and then the recipe says to heat it after you have let it do its thing for a couple of months.

    CK: Before you bottle it you do but I think when you're making it well it's fermenting, etc. Now, make your own vinegar is great because it's so much better than the garbage you buy in the supermarket.

    SM: Well, hey, listen, think of it as gifts for the holidays.

    CK: Vinegar is a good gift. Yeah

    SM: It's so unusual.

    Caller: That’s a great idea. Yeah

    CK: Okay, we finally arrived it.

    SM: Okay,

    CK: We're all there, good luck. Good luck. Thanks for calling

    Caller: Thank you so much.

    CK: Thanks for calling. Bye

    SM: Bye

    CK: You're listening to Milk Street Radio. Next up, let's check in with a resident philosopher Adam Gopnik. Adam, how are you?

    Adam Gopnik: I am well Christopher. How are you?

    CK: You sound upbeat, cheerful

    AG: I am upbeat and cheerful. I have got the ruins of a recently devoured lunch spread out on my writing desk before me. And I realized that they include a just finished bottle of kombucha and a bit of Korean kimchi. And it got me to think about what is, I think you probably agree with me the single biggest new fashion and food over the last 10 years which is of course, the rage for the fermented and the pickled.

    CK: Yeah, it's a classic case of something done to preserve foods for practical reasons that have now become cultural highlights.

    AG: Right. We're bombarded by everything from fermented lamb to pickled rutabagas and pickled cauliflower. And I've been trying to figure out what is it about the fermented and the pickle that appeals to us so much right now?

    CK: Well, I think it's a merger or it's a cultural merger with the underlying driving force in food, which is health. So, I think it's it's fashion and health to coming together.

    AG: I think that's true. Now, exactly. What I was going to say is on the surface, at least all anybody talks about his health. It's your gut, right? The reason we want to eat pickled and fermented foods is because they’re filled with all this healthy probiotic plus or I as we say in Yiddish that will make you suddenly healthy. I'm always a little suspicious of health explanations of food fashions. Because if you remember, every food fashion since the invention of the restaurant has always been about promoting your health. And it can be something that looks to us now like it was, it was the worst possible idea like the all butter diet that the French advocated. You remember the restaurant itself takes its name from the restaurant, the restorative the healthy bouillon (right) that monsieur ___was selling. So, I'm always a little skeptical. I'm always extremely skeptical of health explanations and are always very susceptible to explanations that begin with the oscillations of fashion after all, one reason that classically hemlines go up is because previously hemlines had been down, there's a natural push and pull a tug back and forth within any fashion. The love of fermented is exactly in opposition to the previous food vogue or food craze. And that was what the seasonal right? We're not ever again going to eat a tomato in December because it's unhealthy in itself and its unnatural in some way for food to be shipped coast to coast. And if you think about it, pickling and fermenting are the classic deep seated human ways of stopping the seasons.

    CK: Yeah, I would say one other thing, though, in favor of fermented foods, is that soy sauce, fish sauce, kimchi, etc, etc. All these things are preserved pantry ingredients that have massive flavor. So, it allows you to cook any season, starting with a massive flavor boost, I think that is actually a good thing.

    AG: But you're absolutely right. It also almost as a byproduct, packs an enormous amount of flavor and it packs a specific kind of flavor. I think Chris sourness, right and (and umami yeah) and umami to sourness and umami, which have been previously sort of more marginalized on our palates. Right? When we emphasize the seasonal, we're usually not emphasizing the sour one of the ways that we detect the health of the season on our on our tongues is exactly that the fruit for once actually tastes sweet. And it's also it seems to me it's a way of subtly or even unconsciously if you like rejecting the dogmas of time of season. It is a way of getting ourselves deeper engaged in place, we’re able to enjoy the foods of places Scandinavia in the Nordic countries, most ostentatiously let it become temples of cuisine exactly through being temples of pickles.

    CK: What's really interesting is, is that pickled egg I was in Istanbul not too long ago, and they have pickle shops that sell nothing but pickles. I mean, hundreds of choices. And they have these huge like five-gallon glass containers of pickled juice. And you drink pickle juice as a restorative. (Ah) so I think we are starting in that direction. Coming soon near you there will be drinking pickle shop.

    AG: We’ll be drinking pickle juice

    CK: Yes. You heard it here first

    AG: Absolutely. If there's one other element I think and you know, whenever we're studying what it is that makes a fashionable thing fashionable, it's usually multi layered. Here's the other thing that involves our engagement with benign bacteria. That's exactly what goes on whether it's sourdough bread is the same thing, right? We live in a in a globe on a planet right now, that is in the state of constant panic about microbes of all kinds, right? We live within panic about viruses and recognizing that the world of the microbe includes all of this benign bacteria that we literally, Chris can't wash off our hands, that has some deep organic mystery about it that touches the edge of mysticism. All food after all, all cooking is about articulating a relationship to nature, we can try to overcome nature is in classic French cuisine by manipulating it so radically, that we almost no longer can recognize it. Or we can try showing our respect for nature by leaving it raw. In this case, I think we're trying to articulate a relationship to nature in which we recognize that the world is filled with invisible particles. But these particular invisible particles are the benign bacteria of our lunchtime pleasure.

    CK: It’s so interesting, that you take something as simple as pickle and find a deep philosophical river in it. And I will just end with the notion that maybe people like pickles, because it's flavor in a jar, it's convenient. Maybe that's why

    AG: Let me end them with a story that's that's ethnic but true at Schwartz's delicatessen in Montreal. There's a famous thing when the lady said to the waiter, don't you have any vegetables here? And the waiter said what by you a pickle isn't a vegetable lady.

    CK: Adam, thank you very much. That was an ode to a pickle

    AG: It was indeed, and a pickle is owed.

    CK: That was Adam Gopnik, staff writer at The New Yorker. That's it for today. You can find all of our episodes at Milk Street Radio.com or wherever you get your podcasts. To explore Milk Street and everything we have to offer please go to 177 Milk Street.com. There you can download our recipes, check out our membership options, watch our TV shows, and learn about our latest cookbook which is Cook What You Have. You can also find us on Facebook at Christopher Kimball's Milk Street on Instagram and Twitter at 177 Milk Street. We'll be back next week with more food stories and kitchen questions and thanks as always for listening.

    Christopher Kimball's Milk Street Radio is produced by Milk Street in association with GBH, co-founder Melissa Baldino, executive producer Andy Sensabaugh. Senior Editor Melissa Allison, producer Sarah Clapp, Assistant Producer Caroline Davis with production help from Debby Paddock. Additional editing by Sidney Lewis, audio mixing by Jay Allison and Atlantic Public Media in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The music by Toubab Krewe, additional music by George Brandl Egloff. Christopher Kimball's Milk Street Radio is distributed by PRX.