David is my pal, keeping me from getting too frisky on the page. Here he relates his “fascinating” (ahem) resume from his formative days in the culinary corner.
Cooky Cat

My Early Culinary Roots
By David D. Wronski

When I was a boy I liked food. (Still do.) All kinds. Maybe except for canned okra and canned green peas. And my Polish mother’s spaghetti. And that pickle soup with bowtie noodles that I still feel queasy about in remembering. (Please, Polish dill pickle soup is great, don’t let me dissuade you. Just, maybe not with noodles of any kind.)

My checkered so-called career in food began early. In the broad sweep it encompasses me as avid eater, shopper, experimenter, explorer, home preparer, caterer, restaurant cook, cooking instructor, institutional kitchen manager, and now—arguably the pinochle of my career—as a writer/editor. In that last capacity I advise my friend Cooky Cat editorially, slip in a few words here and there.

As a growing boy I had a healthy appetite. Spinach? Keep it coming. Coney Island chili hot dogs, my record is 5 at a sitting. Not up to Nathan’s Coney Island Hot Dog Contest standards; but, not too shabby for an 8 year old lad.

At home, we ate well. My mother was a scratch cook, with a solid background in the traditional Polish standards. I didn’t much take part in the kitchen, except for the front and back end jobs; prepping vegetables and taking out the garbage. But I did observe. And I believe that some of my natural ability in the kitchen may have been inherited that way.

My one fairly regular homage to my mother is what I call the summer chopped salad. A chunky mix of garden tomatoes, cucumbers, and sweet onions. Oil and vinegar dressing, but with a good dose of sweetness. That extra bit of sugar is from mom. I sometimes alternate with honey. Try it; you’ll like.

The other thing from my mother was the admonition to keep the kitchen secrets. In other words, what happens in the kitchen, stays in the kitchen. If you have some kitchen disaster on your way to the table, don’t serve that news with the meal. As dear mother would so often say, “No one the wiser”.

Once as grade school project I made butter. My mother set me up with the cream and a trusty Mason jar. I put in the muscle and after an eternity there it was. I took it for show and tell, and it was judged good enough to give to the parish pastor, the forever unsmiling Father Alexander Cendrowski. He and I went on to have quite the history as you can read in another story.

The first thing I recall ever preparing myself was many a snack plate of canapés. Not your snooty little airy tidbits, but a boy pleasing, belly stuffing concatenation. My favorite at the time was the careful assemblage of Cheeze Wiz on Ritz crackers, and on each a garnish of a half of pimento stuffed olive. Even now, that and a cold beer and . . . the boy is back! But maybe now with a thin wheat cracker and some righteous aged artisanal Cheddar.

My dad pretty much stayed out of the kitchen. Those were the days where the division of labor was pretty well delineated. He worked by the sweat of his brow to put the food on the table, so he deserved to have it lovingly prepared. His one job that I vividly remember was to prepare green beans with papers spread on the kitchen table to collect the trimmings. Once, however, he did make something very special. Cured green olives. He got a recipe from who knows where and put up several jars of cracked green olives. It was a pretty exotic seeming recipe with those olives in jars surrounded by all kinds of unidentifiable herbs and spices. The end product was delicious; but very, very bitter. Similar to the kind you can get in a good store selling Middle Eastern foods.

Just to mention, on several occasions I would sauté a big mess of sliced onions in butter as a late night snack. Accompanied by some good Polish rye bread. A meal in itself. (Totally unsociable breath-wise the next day, however.) This is almost a guilty admission for me. Imagine, a plate of sautéed onions. Oh yes, now I recall, with ketchup.

A regular Saturday night ritual was the Jackie Gleason show, followed by the Lucky Strike Hit Parade. (LSMFT, if you know what I mean.) Part of the total experience was a whole pepperoni pizza in front of the television. The thing was though, I made the pizza myself, from scratch. With a little help from Chef Boyardee and his famous Pizza Kit. Most Saturday’s for quite a long time I would make the dough, oil a large round pizza pan and lay out the sauce, cheeses, and liberal amounts of sliced pepperoni. My brother taught me to accompany my spicy pizza with a large glass of cold milk. Good advice. I’ve since graduated to beer with my pizza, but milk still does the trick.

Even at a young age I was adventurous, food-wise. There was the venerable J. L. Hudson Company department store in Detroit, Michigan. I combed the entire store as a boy. It had an international food department, rather forward thinking for the mid-1950s. It was there I saw a demonstration of the first Amana Radar Range. I also tried a tin of fried grasshoppers from their gourmet shelf. Tasty, but no takers at home for more of those or other exotic insectavora for the family table. Now I notice the food shows are gradually featuring the insects, and especially from Mexico. It’s still off my map as a general staple. Besides, where in tarnation do you get those things, anyway?

Moving on to my high school days, my very first job was at my Uncle Phil’s bakery, the Northtown Bakery in Detroit on 7 Mile Road just west of Van Dyke. Right after school on Fridays, I would bus over and work straight through to 6:30AM the next morning. Half hour lunch break at midnight. My first chore was to chop onions and mix with salt and poppy seeds for the onion rolls. They gave me a dull table scraper to chop the onions in a 5 gallon tin in which jellies and fruit pie fillings were packaged. Uncle Iggy would sometimes let me score the French loaves with a razor blade, but I never got it to his satisfaction. At the end of my shift I had the task of filling and glazing the jelly donuts. Since I am a lifetime jelly donut aficionado, when I had my hand on that filler machine I made sure that those things had a good dose of jelly.

I was no slacker as a youth and dear Uncle Phil paid me 75 cents per hour. I asked for a raise and got a dollar and change more the next pay envelope. “I asked for a raise, Uncle?” “I gave you one, 10 cents more.” I quit. Phil was a wealthy guy. No wonder, with the way he paid. He was surely out to teach me the value of a dollar; but not so much a lesson in my own self-worth. And, like other wealthy big shots in some families, he was looked up to, even sucked up to. My parents were upset that I should quit on Uncle Phil. But, I was adamant. No further mention.

Very soon I was offered a job to replace my brother’s good friend Bob at his Uncle Norb’s butcher shop. 12 hours straight every Saturday, starting at 6:00AM. But, within a year, I was taking home $24 dollars for the day; and that to a young lad was some serious change. Spending power.

Norb Szcygiel was a great boss and teacher, and I watched him carefully in his cutting skills and his outgoing charming way with the customers. “Tell me, is that meat tender?” many a customer would ask. Norb would often respond, “Lady, it’s as tender as your mother’s heart”. I tried it out on a certain customer, and the last I saw of her was her back as she stomped away, cursing and screaming out about how her mother’s heart weren’t tender. Not everyone is your customer; for what you’re selling, or for your jokes either. He gave me this advice, "The world hates a smartass, especially if he doesn't have any money."

But overall I did learn to kibbitz with the customers. And, to this day, I am well-known as a world class kibbizter. Not always successful, but mostly.

And, I did learn skill with a knife. The butcher shop was a small stall among many at the historic Gratiot Central Market, adjacent to the wholesale food delivery terminal near Downtown Detroit. We did not have any power tools except for the meat grinder and the steak tenderizer, for so called “cube steak”. (That’s a device with double rollers with small sharp and sturdy multiple blades. A thinish slice of tough meat is passed through and the rollers score-cut the grain to make it more tender.) Everything else was cut by hand. That’s with a knife, a cleaver, and a hand saw.

This teenager that I was became quite a proficient meat cutter. My biggest boast is in being able to take a whole lamb carcass and cut it completely into chops. That’s starting with having to split the carcass down the back with a cleaver then with a knife and cleaver cutting up the rest. The round bones required a wickedly sharp hand saw which Norb taught me to use properly and with which I never once had an accident.

The job in the butcher shop lasted through college until team sports events took me away on weekends. Norb’s sons were making appearances at the store and they became the next generation of help for the big Saturday selling day.

So now what. First a great and warm thank you to those Uncles who employed me and taught me how to work and develop hand skills. Phil, Norb, and  even Iggy.

The other things that I did in the culinary field were in the adult years, so I won’t go into the particulars much since this is about my experience as a youth. Let’s just allude to having been in on the first wave of fusion cuisine. Arguably, maybe even one of the first to experiment in that area. Co-owner of the acclaimed Polish Pavilion, caterer to the stars—of Brooklyn anyway. Then on-site party manager and head waiter for a prominent New York City caterer. Bar manager of the infamous Club Taboo, an afterhours illegal party scene somewhere on the high floor loft space of a mid-town Manhattan warehouse. Training in very high quality and strict vegetarian cooking while on staff at an ashram; and later supervising the meal preparation there and training and overseeing a volunteer staff. And, cook at Whole Wheat and Wild Berries health food restaurant in the Village.

So now I am in service to the top Cooky Cat. He runs a tight ship in his kitchen, and I run a tight grip on the editorial of his eponymous blog.

Thank you, my friend Cooky Cat, for giving me this space to show some of my stuff. There’s a nice kitty.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please leave a comment, or two.