It Is Difficult (Though Not Impossible) To Misuse Garlic
by Lew Rosenbaum
In the spring of 1965 I moved into my own apartment. Located on the corner of Zonal Ave. and Soto St. in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, it had once been a physician’s office in Hollywood. The office had been sold, cut in half, and one half moved to the site i moved into. The bottom floor was occupied by a family with small children. The top floor was accessible easiest by a flimsy, rickety outside staircase, which opened into the living room. Three of us — Steve, Art, and I — occupied the apartment. The digs were cheap — we split the $70 rent, Art paying the least because he got the least cubby-hole for a bedroom. The landlord, whom we knew as Don Julio, lived next door, and behind his casita he raised vegetables, chickens, and I think a goat. On the occasion of moving into a place with my own kitchen, my sister Greta gave me a cookbook — actually a pamphlet from Jay Rosenberg, a philosophy student at Reed College, called The Impoverished
Student’s Book of Cookery, Drinkery and Housekeepery. From Jay Rosenberg I learned important life lessons: The proportion of water to rice that makes good RICE; the role of spices in transforming cheap eats; and that it is difficult (though not impossible) to misuse garlic.
Rosenberg categorizes impoverished students into two groups: the merely impoverished and the really poor. He wrote the cookbook for the first group, not the second (who could not afford to buy a cookbook, or even food). I actually belonged to the latter group, and, having been gifted the cookbook, have spent the rest of my cooking life learning to adapt its methods to various cuisines, heavily seasoning what is obtainable cheap. Or free. I will not regale you with my methods of obtaining fresh meat for free. Use your imagination. No it wasn’t from Don Julio’s yard.
I spent the summer of 1966 in Planada, a small town East of Merced, with five other students. We were on a fellowship designed by the Student Health Project — Margie and Effie, two nursing students from Vallejo, CA and Chicago, IL, respectively; Dave, a dental student from UCLA; and Dale and I, both from USC Medical School. We were documenting health care delivery to San Joaquin Valley farmworkers. The three men rented a small house for the summer and shared cooking responsibilities. Because chicken was cheap (remember: I was a really impoverished student) — 19 cents a pound on sale — that’s what we had when it was my turn to cook. Relying on the Rosenberg manifesto, I stocked the kitchen with garlic, rosemary, paprika, and tarragon. From there I launched my varied chicken recipes from the pages of that amazing tome, to the surprise and delight of my roommates. It was difficult to use too much garlic.
A few years later I explored the “Drinkery” part of the cookbook. That section gives directions for making your own beer. This was long before yuppie beer-making kits and fancy equipment. Once again my sister Greta indulged me, allowing me to use her basement to store a large plastic trash can within which the various beer condiments — sugar, malt, hops, yeast — were allowed to ferment for the prescribed time after which, with the assistance of a plastic tube, I siphoned the liquid into bottles I had assembled for the purpose. Then with a bottle-capper and fresh bottle caps, I finished off the process. To this day, my niece Ronni and a number of my friends — those who are still alive from that time — whenever we see each other we recall those halcyon days of drinking the magnificent home brew. It gets better with every remembrance. Perhaps I need to say here, brewed without garlic.
The other evening, after dinner, a friend was telling what repetitive task she zones out on. When I mentioned I meditate while washing dishes, she invited me over (please come frequently). I might have said the same thing about cooking. Chopping vegetables. Slicing meat. It’s almost ritualistic. Forget the almost. This is especially true about my approach to Chinese style cooking. Eating in Chinatown, Los Angeles, is where I developed my respect for this cuisine. My lab partners at USC, Ed and Sam, would frequent Chung Mei for late night rice porridge — congee is what it is called on most Chinese menus, but we knew it as “juk,” a Cantonese variant. Then there was Green Leaves, a restaurant just down the hill from where I lived in Chinatown, and where my wife Lee and I would have dinner frequently. We came in so often, and always asked the waiter to hold the MSG, sugar, and salt, that he would chuckle as he approached us to take our order. “I know: No msg, no sugar, no salt, no taste.” One shop in Chinatown sold kitchen utensils and other goods made in the People’s Republic of China (every other place only dealt in Taiwanese or Hong Kong commodities). Along with my long gone Mao jacket, here I purchased a prize: a wooden handled, Chinese cleaver. I named it Eldridge and it accompanied me when I moved to Chicago.
In the intervening years of betrayal, I changed the cleaver’s name to Kathleen and began to fear that the wooden handle was disintegrating. My good friend and spiritual advisor, pastor Barry, accompanied me to Chicago’s Chinatown in search of another cleaver. After weighing all options, the most important of which was “How much does it cost”? followed by “Does it feel balanced when I hold it?” I found one, obtained an ecclesiastical blessing on the implement and whatever it participated in making, and have made it my favorite for slicing garlic and everything else. The ritual — remember the ritual? — a bowl for every vegetable or meat to be cut: mushrooms, bok choy, bitter melon, onion, red bell pepper, lap cheung (Chinese sausage), you name it. When it comes to garlic, I take a bulb, smash it with the cleaver on the top to separate the cloves, and then take a quarter of the bulb. Then I look at what is before me and probably add another two cloves. Hold the cloves on the cutting board with one hand, slice the garlic fine with the cleaver with the other, then holding the cleaver with both hands mince the garlic. You can never have too much garlic.
Today I’m making a pork based chili verde. It’s going to cook all day, the flavors slowly melding together. I didn’t get poblano peppers, so it won’t be really green. I’m starting with a little more than a pound of pork stew meat. I’m used to slicing the meat into smaller sections that make them easier to sauté, as in Chinese cooking, and so that’s the way I start. (I don’t deny it. As I cut the chunks of meat I think of all the metaphors that pork or pig calls up, what does the pork represent in political and police culture. I kind of revel in the thought of pork barrel. Maybe I wield Kathleen and think I hear the Black Panther slogan, “Off the pig.”). Then I brown the pieces in a “Dutch oven” coated inside with olive oil. After ten or so minutes, as the meat browns on all sides, I add a can of pinto beans (for this amount of meat, a 30 ounce can will be sufficient). While they are simmering, I take four tomatillos, of course take the papery covering off, then wash, quarter them and then cut the quarters once or twice more. Putting the tomatillos in the pot, I turn to cut an onion in half, core the end out and peel that half (the other half goes in a container in the refrigerator). Dicing the onion makes me cry, even though I’ve run cold water over it. Perhaps in spite of myself, I’m thinking of the porker in the White House who praised in a speech last night the “heroes of ICE and the Border Patrol” which by itself is enough to make me sob.
Now I slice a green pepper in half and put one half in the refrigerator for another recipe. I take the stem and seeds out of the half that I am holding, slice the pepper lengthwise into about 6 or 8 pieces, and then cut each into half inch sections. Add the onion and the pepper to the beans and pork, add generous amounts of black pepper, cilantro (fresh, diced is best; dried is OK too), and cumin (both ground and whole seed — a generous amount). One whole seeded jalapeño is good; one-half jalapeño with seeds still in if you want a kick, something like what happens when the white house takes away your food stamp benefits. Not really, the jalapeño tastes good, the government action is in bad taste.
Now is when I pick up the garlic bulb. And the thought shatters my mind: how do I protect myself, my friends, from all these vampires clutching at my pocketbook, taking away my medical care, pricing me out of my home. There isn’t enough garlic I can wear, give to all my friends, that will drive them away, is there? Have I got enough with six large cloves? I still have my first cookbook, weather beaten, acid stained, falling apart though it may be. Nah! Add another couple or three or more. Especially when you are fighting vampires, you can never use too much garlic.