Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Catalog Family

When we were spic-and-span clean and ready for church, our grandma Opal liked to remark, "Why, you look like you've just stepped out of a band box." I'd puff with pride, even though I didn't have the foggiest notion of what a band box was.

These days, when I see a well groomed, coordinated family, I like to remark to myself, "Why, they look like they've just stepped out of the same catalog," whether it's The Gap, JC Penney's or Neiman Marcus.

We are not that family. We are the poster family for mix-it-up diversity. We don't worship at the same churches, dress from the same catalogs or order the same thing in restaurants. And, most of the time, it works for us.

George is a blue-eyed, English-Irish Mayflower descendant. I'm a Hapa, with my mother contributing the kimono-wearing Japanese half and my dad the kilt-clad Scottish side. Cindy is a raven-haired beauty with family roots in Jalisco, Mexico. When it comes to religion, I like to call us the "ABC family" with an agnostic, a Baptist-Buddhist and a Catholic under the same roof. No problem.

As for catalogs, I gravitate towards the classics in J Crew or Banana Republic and throw in a touch of vintage for panache. George (and I hate to admit this) is partial to JC Penney's with no added panache. And it's impossible to confine Cindy's sense of style to a single catalog. Suffice it to say that she would not be caught dead in either Banana or JC Penney's. Again, not a problem.

But what's a family to do when the taste buds swing farther apart than the catalogs?

Let's start with a simple family pasta dinner. I like my pasta cooked al dente, but 18-year-old Cindy and George prefer their noodles wiggly. Cindy, who still has the taste preferences of a pre-schooler ordering from a kid's menu, loves penne pasta with butter and Parmesan cheese. At least she shuns the sawdust in the green can in favor of the freshly grated variety. Of course, sugar-laden Spaghetti O's are still a fave. (Although, now that I'm home from Hotel Hope, I've banned their presence in our pantry.)

George's favorite dinner is spaghetti with meat sauce, salad and bread. Sounds simple enough, but we're palate opposites in every category. He likes my doctored-up version of sauce in a jar with ground meat, fresh herbs, crushed red pepper and wine. I'm in heaven with fresh tomatoes from the garden with plenty of fresh-picked basil cooked up in lots of garlic and olive oil.

For George, salad is based on the "polyester of lettuces," Iceberg. Throw in a few tomatoes (even when they're anemic and out-of-season) and a chopped carrot, top it with bottled Thousand Island dressing and he chows down. The bread should be soft on the outside and soft on the inside. (All of this, of course, is even more upsetting to me than shopping trips to JC Penney's.)

So what's a mom/head cook to do? Take the hard line, "If you want it YOUR way, then cook it your way" tack? Go for the least common denominator and serve up something acceptable to everyone? Bite the soggy bullet and settle for water-logged instead of al dente pasta? Keep trying to introduce my family to the virtues of designer lettuces, home-made balsamic dressings and crusty breads? Sigh.

I'll bet the family in the JC Penney's catalog doesn't have these problems.

COMMENTS: When it comes to food, are you a catalog family? What challenges does your family face?

On a Roll

I had my first taste of cabbage rolls in Sardis, West Virginia, about 40 years ago, and the Allen clan is still talking about that memorable first. When Nathan's mom, Kathleen, served cabbage rolls, I went back not once, not twice, but at least five times for more from a huge pot simmering on the stove. I couldn't get enough.

I was excited but nervous when Nathan announced that Frances would be making the cabbage rolls from his mom's recipe for my visit to the Circle A Farm. Would they live up to Kathleen's legendary cabbage rolls of the sixties? Would my more "sophisticated" palate dismiss them as hillbilly comfort food? Could reality compare with nostalgia?

As it turns out, my nervousness was needless. Frances's cabbage rolls did in fact live up to the legend and the legacy of Kathleen. As the band Foreigner would croon, "It felt like the first time."

It was finally time for me to ask for Kathleen's acclaimed recipe. The recipe started out looking pretty standard (ground beef, sausage, rice), but the last two items surprised me: turmeric and cumin, two standard ingredients in Indian food.

This was a revelation. I searched through at least 100 of the more than 800 cabbage roll recipes on to see if this was a common addition. Not a single one of the recipes I surveyed included these exotic spices.

Now I'm thinking that this skinny 12-year-old girl must have had an early appreciation for nuanced flavors. And I'm wondering if this early Asian exposure has anything to do with my nearly fanatical love of Indian food. I introduced my brother Robert and my niece Emily to Indian food during a visit to LA a decade ago, and they too were instantly smitten. Now when Emily visits, the first restaurant she wants to hit is an Indian one.

And for this, and the recipe for the best cabbage rolls ever, we thank Kathleen, Nathan and Frances.

Kathleen's Famous Cabbage Rolls

2 lbs Ground Beef
1/2 lb Sausage (Reg. Mild)
Salt & Pepper to Taste
2 Slice of Bread (Crumbs)
1 Cup Of Instant Rice
1 Egg
1/2 Teaspoon Cumin
1/2 Teaspoon Turmeric

Mix together ingredients and shape in to fist size (or
whatever size your prefer) meatballs. Roll up in cabbage
leaves that have been parboiled until tender.

Put in a large pot and cover with tomato juice, about one
quart can or more will cover the rolls. Simmer until done,
about 1 1/2 hours.


PS Hint, hint: When I get out of the hospital after my stem cell transplant and you're thinking
about dropping off food for the family . . .

Almost Heaven

Now that I'm back in Southern California, I've swapped calorie-dense foods for nutrient-dense ones and artery-clogging delicacies for the artery-cleansing variety.

Thanks to my brother Robert, I brought back three jars of the coveted Duke's Mayo. But on Thursday, I met friends for lunch at Cafe Surfas before surfing the food-lovers Mecca in Culver City. I brought home a specialty balsamic vinegar, EVOO and loquat white balsamic vinegar. (Two of these will be "prizes" at the Italian-themed wedding shower I'm hosting later this month for my friend Terry.)

I scarfed down high-fat biscuits and gravy twice in West Virginia, but now I'm back to my favorite breakfast of non-fat plain yogurt with antioxidant-rich, fresh berries. With a cup of hot green tea on the side, it's the perfect anti-cancer indulgence. (Hey, this is Cancer Banter; I figured I better start working that word back into the posts.)

Since my return, I've enjoyed a healthy cobb (no bacon or other high-fat ingredients) salad at Cafe Surfas, indulged in regional Italian cooking from a class at the Old Town Cooking School and eaten Vietnamese baguette sandwiches with a friend at a Pasadena park. Tomorrow I plan to have a bowl of ramen at Daikokuya, the Jonathan Gold-recommended ramen restaurant in Little Tokyo. Then we'll catch the special exhibit on Japanese gardeners at the Japanese American National Museum.

West Virginia might be "almost heaven," but the diversity and quality of foods (both high-fat and low-fat) in Southern California makes this place a little slice of heaven for me.


The way I figure it, there are three kinds of people in this world: the kind who see the sign for "HOGGS DOGGS" and keep on driving (perhaps a little faster than before); those who have to stop immediately and those who think about it and return later.

Put me in the third category.

While Daddy and I were headed for the all-you-can-eat buffet at the Golden Corral in Gallipolis, Ohio, we passed the sign for HOGGS DOGGS in Millwood (population: 1,200). If the name doesn't bring a smile to your face, then the site of the American flag, an ice machine and the quintessential West Virginia hub cap collection should.

Daddy and I chuckled at the name and went on to our buffet feast, where I tried desperately to find a food that wasn't deep fried or cooked in hog fat. But the next day I couldn't get Hoggs Doggs out of my mind. After a rigorous workout at the local gym, I paid the cafe a visit.

True to the name, almost everything on the menu comes from a hog or a (hot) dog.

I settled on a hot dog, West Virginia style, with sauce and cole slaw. And I couldn't resist ordering a bowl of beans with a side of cornbread.

When you pay $.99 for a hot dog and $2.99 for a bowl of beans at a joint called Hoggs Doggs, you expect to be served on paper plates. But they don't call it a cafe for nothin'. My food was served on colorful Melamine plates and came with real silverware.

The red and kidney beans were flavored with bacon (hogg) and sauteed onions. I got into a discussion with another diner about the best way to cook beans. Then I asked the unthinkable question, "At what point do you add the onions?" She looked at me as if I had just asked, "Who is Julia Child?"

"You don't COOK the onions," she sighed. "You chop up a raw onion and put it on the beans AFTER they're cooked."

"Yes, that's how we ate our beans when I was growing up, but I noticed that the cook here adds sauteed onions," I countered. And I'm sure that she was dying to add that "beans" in West Virginia means navy beans, not red or kidney.

We went on to talk about other regional preferences in foods while she ate her BBQ pork sandwich. She complimented the chef on the sweet sauce, and he responded that many of his customers like their sauce a little more tangy. To satisfy their tangy cravings, he offers them jalapeno peppers.

"When people say they like tangy, they don't mean hot," she explained. "Most people in these parts like their sauce with a taste of vinegar."

Later on, my brother Robert pointed out another regional difference that the owners haven't mastered. I showed him a photo of the hot dog with cole slaw, and he looked puzzled. "That's cole slaw?!" I assured him that it was and quite tasty to boot. "Oh, usually out here the cole slaw is shredded very fine, not coarse."

The owners of Hoggs Doggs Cafe appear to be life partners as well as business partners. They're restoring a church as their home and the sanctuary with its soaring cathedral ceilings makes a striking living room.

The couple seem to be very popular among their customers, in spite of my concern that Millwood and Ravenswood are in the "Baptist Belt." It just goes to show you that if you serve good eats at good prices (a biscuit and gravy with a mug of coffee came to $2.12 the next morning), then people (even members of the religious right) care more about regional cooking preferences than sexual preferences. And if you can dish up some good talk about cooking, remodeling and decorating, as these owners do, then that's just, well, onions on the beans.

Put up your Duke's!

You gotta love a sandwich that has three of its five ingredients in the name. Is there anything more satisfying and easy than a BLT?

Last night, I made the first BLTs of the season with the juicy, ripe tomatoes from our back yard. Between the smoky scent of the bacon sizzling in the cast-iron skillet and the sweet fragrance of the sliced tomatoes, I was in sensory heaven while preparing this summer-time fave.

Instead of the usual Kraft or Hellman's mayo, we tried Duke's Mayonnaise, which I ordered online. Southerners claim that Duke's is the ONLY acceptable mayo for a BLT, and now I see why. The flavor and texture is as close to homemade as you can get out of a jar.

I've seen recipes for BLTs that incorporate basil leaves instead of lettuce, aioli instead of mayo and fried green tomatoes rather than the fresh red variety. But I say, why mess with perfection. We stick with toasted whole wheat bread, fried bacon, fresh tomatoes, Romaine lettuce and the now essential Duke's mayo.

Southerners often skip the lettuce and the bacon and feast on tomato (or "mater" as they say south of the Mason Dixon) and mayo sandwiches. Budget-conscious (i.e. poor) West Virginians have been known to eliminate the tomatoes and make a meal out of a slice of bread smeared with mayo and a sprinkle of Cayenne pepper.

What does any of this have to do with cancer? Not a darn thing, my friends, not a darn thing.

I'd love to hear your comments about:
- Do you have a variation on the BLT theme?
- How do you smear your mayo on a BLT? Cindy insists upon spreading both slices of toast with mayo, and that's just the way I do it too.
- Have you ever tried Duke's mayo?

"A" is for Appetite *

During chemo, my appetite falls off track faster than a 12th grader with senioritis.

I dutifully order the most nutritious items on the Hotel Hope menu, but a nearly full tray is whisked away hours later. And, I have to admit, that the possibility of the "second coming" (of the food, that is), is a powerful disincentive to chowing down.

The lousy appetite dogs me after my homecoming, but, like clockwork, it miraculously returns within 48 hours. After round one, the potato balls from Porto's Bakery reignited my taste buds. Pork and shrimp shumai from my favorite dumpling house did the trick after round two.

Two days after returning from round three, I offered to bring home pizza from Casa Bianca, a popular family-style Italian joint in Eagle Rock. My appetite hadn't returned yet, so I thought the large pizza pie sitting in the passenger's seat was safe. The aroma of the fennel-laced sausage hit me, and I thought, "Just one small square." But those tasty nibbles woke up my sleeping taste buds, and I couldn't stop myself. After consuming several more squares, I maneuvered the pieces around, hoping noone would notice that a fourth of the pizza was missing. (Unfortunately, I didn't fool anyone.)

Do you see a theme here? Carbs and fat are the perfect antidote to chemo-induced appetite loss. I'm already plotting a breakfast of old-fashioned, high-fat biscuits and sausage gravy to rev up my appetite after round four. Care to join me?

Foods, Prizes and Celebrations

I can't think or write about food on this blog without mentioning Jonathan Gold. He's been my guru since I "discovered" his genius for food and writing in the 1980's when he wrote the "Counter Intelligence" column for the LA Times.

He's equally articulate at describing the best "roach coach" in town with the tastiest carnitas tacos or the finest French restaurant with the most delectable foie gras.

Yesterday, Gold became the first food critic in history to be honored with the Pulitzer Prize, the highest award in the field of journalism. Think Oscars for writers.

When I check out of Hotel Hope next weekend, I plan to celebrate my homecoming and Gold's prize by visiting one of his favorite LA food spots. (See the April 11 posting.)

A New Favorite Thing

After returning home from Hotel Hope, I developed a bad attitude about food. I still liked to talk and read about it; I just didn't like to eat the stuff. As hematology nurse friend Melanie warned, food becomes sustenance, not satisfaction.

When meal times rolled around, I would dutifully eat the most nutrient-rich foods possible. My brain said, "You need this," but my stomach cried, "Get away from me." Without an appetite, eating was just one more chore on my "to do" list.

That is until this morning. My 9 am Pilates class at the Pasadena YWCA was cancelled, but a staff member offered me a conciliatory potato ball from Porto's Bakery in Glendale. And since the Y had purchased these Cuban treats to commemorate 102 years of service in Pasadena, I agreed to try one.

A close cousin to the French croquette, the Cuban variety consists of seasoned ground beef surrounded by mashed potatoes deep fried to golden perfection.

When I bit into the savory treat, my taste buds immediately began a party. If I was a cartoon character, the animator would have drawn my mouth as a celebration, with flags flying and fireworks rocketing.

Although the ingredients are essentially the same, the Cuban potato ball bears no taste resemblance to its bland Japanese relative, the korokke. A few weeks ago, I learned to cook this popular snack food at the Pasadena Buddhist Church. But even with a dip in tonkatsu sauce, the Japanese croquette just doesn't measure up to its sassy Cuban counterpart.

I haven't yet tried the Dutch adaptation, the kroket, but I understand that it's so popular in the Netherlands that you can order a side of McKrokets with your Big Mac at McDonald's.

But I can't imagine anything cheaper or more delicious than the Cuban potato balls at Porto's Bakery. At 60 cents a piece, they have to be the most satisfaction per cent in town.

(Do you have a favorite cheap treat? Please share in the comments section.)

Dreaming of Food

I floated in and out of sleep last night with the Food Network chefs whisking in the background. At 2 am, I saw Rachel Ray whip up crab and corn chowder, served along a side of New England-style hot dogs with Napa slaw. Another chef, famous for using the ingredients in his freezer, created succulent quesadillas with frozen chicken thighs, the ubiquitous onions and garlic, cumin, canned Italian tomatoes and chillis.

Bobby Flay, by comparison, was too complicated and the high power gas stove and grill that he flaunts left me cold. But I like Sandra Lee, the queen of semi-homemade cooking, because she epitomizes the lazy but semi-stylish flair I like to emulate.

It's 8 am and the energetic Rachel Ray is back on with a recipe for Crouque Madame, a French ham and cheese sandwich (Crouque Monsieur) topped with an egg. Cindy and I had our first Croque Monsieur nine years ago after we Chunneled together from London to Paris for a three-day jaunt. Cindy was a notioriously picky eater, but she fell hard and fast for French breads (baguettes and croissants) and Croque Monsiuers.

Years later, the Croque Monsieur became a secret weapon. During her troubled teen years, it took serious bribing to get her to spend time with me. I knew I had used the last of my arsenal when she refused a lunch of a Croque Monsieur at the Le Petit Beaujais in Eagle Rock during those turbulent times.

Today as a young lady of 18, I no longer need to ply her with her favorite foods. Miraculously (and those who know our story realize that I don't use that word lightly), she looks for excuses to spend time with me. As a matter of fact, she is now slumbering in the cot beside my City of Hope hospital bed.

Room service has just called to take my order, but there are no Croque Monsieurs or Madames on the menu. Instead, I'll have herb tea, wheat toast with peanut butter and an orange while I replay the memory of a sunny French cafe with Cindy scarfing down Croque Monsieurs thick with rich bechamel sauce.

But I have a feeling that the memory of toast and a sleeping teen will be etched just as permanently on my mind.

Please share some more of your favorite food memories with me in the comments section.

These are a few of my favorite foods.

A few years ago, when the great state of Texas published the "last meals" of its death-row inmates, I developed a morbid fascination with the final selections. And, being Texas, there were plenty of menus to peruse.

Alas, the site was discontinued, but my obsession with last meals continues. (The info. lives on at

In the last two weeks, I've consumed more than my share of "last meals" before my intense chemo protocol begins. My friend Melanie, a nurse in the hematology department at the City of Hope, warns that I may develop an aversion to eating. Food will no longer be a pursuit and a pleasure.

My last meals have included tender filet mignon and succulent lobster at JJ's Steak House in Pasadena. Pizza with crust as thin and crisp as a cracker at La Maschera. Oolong marinated see bass with ginger soy at PF Changs.

But my favorite foods remind me of why I love Los Angeles: It's teeming with inexpensive but extraordinary ethnic foods that just aren't available in Ravenswood, West Virginia. Last weekend, I had one of my all-time favorites, Vietnamese spring rolls at the Golden Deli Restaurant in San Gabriel.

Jonathan Gold, the food critic for the LA Weekly, first immortalized this popular treat more than a dozen years ago in his LA Times "Counter Intelligence" column. Since then, hardly a year goes by when he doesn't mention the spring rolls.

The New York Times even waxed euphoric about these crispy creations:

For the uninitited, Vietnamese spring rolls come with a plate of crispy romaine lettuce, sliced cucumbers, fresh mint and bean sprouts. Wrap the roll in the lettuce, throw in the assorted veggies and dip in a fish sauce. The result is a heavenly blend of flavors and textures that's impossible to beat.

My Vietnamese manicurist believes that the Golden Deli is not the best and observes that "A lot of Caucasians eat there." But, truth be told, I can't imagine a better spring roll.

Cap it off with a cup of French-pressed coffee, and I could die a happy woman.

(If I have time, I'll share a few more of my favorite foods in pre-treatment blog posts. Please share yours with me too.)

What's in YOUR back yard?

Since green has been a recurring theme in my blogs (It Aint Easy Being Green; Avocados, Anyone?; Holy Guacamole), it's only fitting that I tip my pen to St. Patrick today with another "green" posting.

After I blogged about the magical "leprachaun" who harvested several dozen avocados from my back yard, I learned that avocados are more than a guacamole ingredient (unless you're Kraft Foods). The nutrient-rich "alligator pears" are also steeped in cancer-inhibiting anitoxidants. Seems I should have been harvesting and eating those avocados all along.

When I came home from the office today, a fresh batch of guacamole was waiting for me, compliments of Andrew, Cindy's boyfriend. All three of the ingredients he used were found in our own back yard. I knew that Meyers lemons were in abundance, but I had no idea that last summer's tomato plants were still yielding fruit. The end result was a delicious and satisfying dip.

And the greatest satisfaction came from discovering, once again, something I'd missed in my yard and in life.

What have YOU recently discovered in your own "back yard" (both the literal one and the metaphorical one). I hope you'll share in the comments section.

Avocados, Anyone?

Yesterday, during one of my few lucid moments, I stumbled down the stairs to answer the door. I was going to pretend that I didn't see the person, but he could see me as clearly as I could see him through the glass panels.

A trim, energetic man introduced himself, told me he was 88-years old, and asked me if he could pick the fruit in our back yard. He explained that he was a good tree climber and that he had a ten-foot pole with a bucket at the end. He planned to share the fruit with senior citizens at a nearby nursing home. How could I say "no"?

Ten minutes later, I heard another knock at the door. The beaming man handed me a bag filled with two dozen fresh avocados. "Enjoy these or give em' to your friends," he urged. "Don't you need more to give to the seniors?" I asked. He pointed to two bags bursting with avocados. "I think I have enough and wanted you and your friends to enjoy 'em too."

He went on to tell me that he "still has all his own joints and teeth," is Irish (clearly with the gift of gab) and has a 97-year-old sister who's still climbing trees and picking fruit. I half expected him to do a jig on my front steps.

Now I'm racked with regret. If I had been feeling better, I would have scurried to the back yard t o watch this gentleman in action. Then I would have asked for his name and phone number so that:

  • He could come back in the summer to help harvest plums and apricots and in the fall to pluck persimmons.
  • I could introduce him to my new friends, a trio of peppy Japanese-American widows in their mid-80s.
  • Someone (Debbie at Senior Life?) could do a story about this fascinating guy.
I'm sorry I missed those opportunities, but I still have a bag of fruit.

Avocados, anyone?

(This essay first appeared at