I’d forgotten how satisfying a proper Mexican breakfast could be until last week, in La Paz, Mexico, in Baja, when I had the above sunny-side up eggs on blue corn tortillas and both red and green salsas (called, owing to the red-green divide, Heuevos Divorciados, or Huevos Navidad, depending how cynical or sentimental you are, I suppose). But it makes a fabulous breakfast—nutritious, just filling enough to last a whole day, and perfect if you’re about to scuba dive or swim with whale sharks in the Sea of Cortez.
Or these quesadillas with cheese and mushrooms and squash blossoms.
These meals stood out because almost every other meal we had in La Paz was uniformly mediocre. So I thought about breakfast. Just the week before Ann had sent me an article in The Guardian, pegged to a new book called Spoon-Fed: Why Almost Everything We’ve Been Told About Food Is Wrong. The author, Tim Spector, a professor of genetic epidemiology, is a man after my own heart, urging common sense, flexibility, and continual skepticism of just about anything food manufacturers present as “facts” intended to encourage you to buy their food.
The book’s main argument is that to find the best way of eating we need to ignore much of what we are told. Spector’s myths include the idea that fish is always a healthy option and the dogma that “sugar-free foods and drinks are a safe way to lose weight”. … He convincingly argues that coffee and salt are healthier for most people than general opinion decrees, while vitamin pills and the vast majority of commercial yoghurts are less so. He is in favour of vegetables – as diverse a range of them as possible – but does not rate vegan sausage rolls as any healthier than the meat equivalent.
The aforementioned article focuses on breakfast, because breakfast offers the particularly glaring examples of food misinformation and muddy thinking about all of our meals. Indeed! This is why I called a chapter in my book, Grocery, “Breakfast: The Most Dangerous Meal of the Day,” and wrote about it for The Washington Post. Why most dangerous? Because of the tenacious myth, propagated by none other than John Harvey Kellogg, that it’s the most important meal, when in fact it is likely the most deleterious.
In America, at least, where typical breakfasts are composed almost entirely of processed cereals (complex sugars) and sugar—waffles, pancakes, corn flakes, muffins. The Mexican breakfasts feature some refined grains in the form of tortillas, but they are combined with egg and cheese and meat and sauces. At home, my go-to is a poached egg on a Bays English muffin. Carbohydrates combined with fat and protein.
Bottom line: evaluate how you feel after you eat and how quickly you crave more food. Spector says much the same. “Try skipping breakfast,” he says, “and see how you feel.”
I’ve always loved the ideal breakfast described by my first boss, the Cleveland ad man David Stashower: “Crest and coffee,” he advised.
Good advice for him, but we all have different bodies and different metabolisms. Use good judgment and common sense, pay attention to how how you feel after you’ve eaten, and cook your own food.
Perhaps the most fun meal we had in La Paz, and the most tasty (after Baja Club’s breakfasts), was at Bandidos. We’d been drawn by a gimmick: the promise of burgers grilled under the hood of a car.
We arrived at the restaurant, just beyond the Malecon, on a corner enclosed by palm trees tall as a house. We entered the festive glade and were seated right before what looked like a pickup truck rigged as a two tiered grill, the center piece of the restaurant. One’s first impulse is, of course, to pull out the iPhone and take some shots. We were seated by an enormously friendly hostess who remained available and talkative all night.
This was an Americanized place. Burgers, fries, steaks, chops, real onion rings, with an endlessly delightful music you’d have heard on American radio in the sixties (Jerry and the Pacemakers’ “Ferry Cross the Mersey” played as we sat.) Our fries hot and crispy, onion rings, hand battered and crunchy as tempura, arrived promptly with Pacificos. And soon our burgers.
What I admired most about the restaurant was its grill master, Davíd. Almost every main course on the menu was grilled. I’m guessing the restaurant seated 80 to 100 seats, so Davíd basically cooked everyone’s meal. I loved how he controlled his heat, his various temperature zones, and how he knew just when to empty the lower grill of all his orders in order to scrub the grill, then lift it to feed more wood and bricks of charcoal to keep it as consistent as a live fire can be.
I’m a grillman, and admire those who are expert. It may have been foreordained, as my father, Rip, loved to grill, even in the middle of the week in a Cleveland 1972 blizzard in our detached garage. I suspect he’s why I always ended up on the grill station, whether at the CIA or at the only non-CIA restaurant I worked in, Sans Souci in Cleveland. I loved the grill because I felt this was really cooking. The fire was alive—you didn’t just set your gas flame to medium high and turn the knob as you needed. You had to tend the fire as much as you tended the food. You had to maintain cool spots and hot spots. At Sans Souci I had to keep spots for the salmon and halibut very hot and oiled or the fish would stick and I’d find myself going down in the flames. I had to keep feeding the fire at the right time with fireplace-sized logs.
One night I will never forget—when everyone in the entire restaurant who wasn’t ordering the salmon or halibut ordered steak. All these dishes came off my station. For about an hour I was basically cooking for the entire restaurant, while my fellows on the line, leaned back against their stations, arms folded, watching me do 360s, lifting not a finger to help (assholes). My fire almost went out until Paul, the expediter, who had been warning me, “Watch your fire, man,” came back behind the line to feed it for me (I had a million sides and sauces needed to finish each plate), shaking his head.
Getting your ass handed to you on the line burns into your memory. Fall 1997. Twenty-five years ago. Could be yesterday. My first book about chefs and cooking, The Making of a Chef, was about to come out and my proposal for The French Laundry Cookbook, had just been accepted at Artisan, allowing me to give Chef Claude my notice and end my career as a line cook. A good thing for all concerned, I would say now.
So that’s why I was so impressed with Davíd. Virtually everyone ordered something off the grill. So he was cooking for the entire restaurant all night long. He grilled everyone’s burger, steak, and porterhouse pork chops big as a plate. And he loved it, he told me.
But here’s the thing. David was a guy who had to monitor countless pieces of meat on the grill, all of which had a specific temperature, and do it all night long. But this ingenious marketing gimick of a grill ensured that all night long everyone stopped to take pictures. And more. They wanted their pals to take pictures of them manning his grill, in the thick of service. And he let them all. He calmly left his post so tourists could take photos of themselves tending his grill, even fucking with his meat, flipping it back and forth, throughout service. This was grace under pressure combined with a generosity of spirit I could never have mustered. Here was a craftsman. I loved it.
If you go to La Paz, we highly recommend Bandidos for the experience (and the some of the only decent food in town).
We had a lovely midwinter break there, and our hotel, Baja Club, was spare, casual, and elegant, with an inviting courtyard, fires lit every evening, and a bar on the rooftop to enjoy the uncommonly dramatic and diverse sunsets. The beach was across the street. The servers were decorous and friendly. But I’ve never had more problems with language, as I speak virtually no Spanish, and they no English. I’ve become so used to expecting everyone to have some facility with English, that when they don’t, well, room service brings you two cinnamon rolls and a pot of jam when you’ve ordered two coffees and an orange juice. Shame on me. I vow to study the language before I go, no matter where I go.
La Paz, the capital city, is decrepit and crumbling off the main drag, the Malecon. Cheap clothing stores, electronics shops, and enough shoe stores to keep all of Mexico from going barefoot line the broken, hilly sidewalks. Ann and I took a long walk our last night in search of a hot dog stand Ann had heard about (these hot dogs, not good, are a city specialty), but the streets were dark and so sparsely populated, we were glad to be back on the Malecon.
So the real treasure of La Paz is what’s in the gorgeous, pristine waters of the Gulf of California, and the beaches leading into those waters. Anyone looking for water experiences, Scuba diving and such, I recommend Cortez Expeditions. And we had one fine afternoon swimming with the whale sharks who winter in these waters. And a lovely afternoon on Tecolote beach.
A first for us! So much fun to discover a food we’ve never heard of. Apparently these clams, named for the shade of their shell, are only found in these waters. Served raw with lime and a side of crackers, the multi-colored flesh is abundant, chewy and tastes of the sea.
For more on Chocolate Clams, read this piece in Saveur.
What we’ve been watching…
Lots of movies, but we’re feeling either out of touch or just old, or I don’t know. Because movie critics gush over movies that baffle us. The perfect example this week (not unlike The Disciple from last month) is Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, from Japan and nominated for a best picture Oscar.
Everyone seems to be gushing over this quiet, contemplative film about an actor/director who has endured a terrible loss, and endures another in a story about grief and art (“a quiet masterpiece,” says The Times). We thought this would be right up our alley. The film is beautiful to look at, I was never bored during its three-hour run time (not truly), and the acting is uniformly excellent, but, alas, the story was perhaps too subtle for us.
We couldn’t wait to see The Worst Person In the World, because of all the buzz, but a … anh. Ann liked it all right. I never tired of the exquisite face of the lead, Renate Reinsve (she won best actress at Cannes for her performance), but that, alas, was the most engaging part of this story. Essentially about a young woman navigating two different romantic relationships (and lives), the story was so nebulous, I had to look up The Times review to remember what it was about, and even that didn’t help! And also, like the ridiculous (but well-acted) Licorice Pizza, everyone seemed to be running everywhere without any destination in mind.
At least The New Yorker felt as I did: “a sham except for its lead performance.”
Two lauded movies we loved—it’s become such a pleasant surprise these days!—were Parallel Mothers and Flee. Parallel Mother’s is another Penelope Cruz-Pedro Almodovar collaboration. What a filmmaker he is, and what a stunning actor and presence Cruz is. It’s an uncommon babes-switched-at-birth story, and while some of the responses to the dilemmas early in the film resulting from the switch strain credibility, the film is ultimately a delight. (If you haven’t seen it, don’t miss Almodovar’s autobiographical Pain and Glory.)
Flee, which I didn’t want to watch because I didn’t like the trailer, is fantastic. It’s an animated documentary, a memoir of a boy who must flee his homeland, that includes actual footage from Afghanistan during the 1970s before and after the revolution there. The medium—animated memoir-documentary with live footage interspersed—may be the only way this story could be told.
Finally, I’ve been reading a lot of noir stories for a volume I’m editing and thinking about the noir form. So Ann suggested, mid week in La Paz, and in bed after a sun- and water-soaked day, that we watch Double Indemnity with Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson, from a novel by James M. Cain, directed by Billy Wilder, and written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler. The movie is a noir masterpiece.
What we’re reading…
I took Ann’s advice, and borrowed her copy of Free Love by Tesse Hadley, about an affair between a middle-aged housewife and a younger man, in a late-1960s, provincial England straining against the countercultural tides. Hadley is a wonder, showing effortless control over the narrative as she jumps into and out of any number of characters’ minds and moves seemingly willy-nilly through time, without losing the story’s cohesion for even a moment.
Ann is always far ahead of me in the books dept. Here are her recommendations this week:
A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor (a biography of her by Nicola Beauman is actually called The Other Elizabeth Taylor) for our flight to La Paz, Mexico. If you haven’t read her yet, please start. A British writer who lived from 1912-1975, her novels will transport you. Start with Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont and just keep going.
Now I’m on the glorious ride that is Jonathan Evison’s Small World, a book I’m happy is almost 500 pages because it’s so darn good.
And I’m listening to Sara Freeman’s hypnotic, lyrical novel Tides, which explores grief in a way I’ve never read before.
And the husband must weigh in with a reminder to pre-order Ann’s new memoir, Fly Girl, about her years as a TWA flight attendant in the 1970s and 80s and how changes in the mores of airline travel reflected broader societal changes (and, of course, great stories along the way, of romance in distant cities, of the passenger in first class breast feeding her cat, the veracity of the mile high club, and so on). Ann reads the audible version. It publishes on May 3rd.
Links we’re liking…
Speaking of flight attendants, last week The Times Magazine published a story about how defiant Covid-era customers turned a dream job — flight attendant — into a total nightmare.
Part of our morning ritual is to do the NYT’s Spelling Bee and the relatively new game phenom, Wordle, in which you have six tries to guess a five letter word. For us, it’s a daily pleasure (addiction). For Denyse Holt, of Illinois, Wordle literally saved her life when a naked intruder broke into her house and threatened her life.
We’re happy to see our old friend, Russ Parsons, author and former food editor for the Los Angeles Times, in print once again from his new outpost in Waterford, Ireland. Here, he rhapsodizes on caramelized onions, a love we share.
We’re very much looking forward to Kenji’s latest book, The Wok: Recipes and Techniques. His blow torch lo mein was a revelation and we expect lots more in his new books. Check out his site for a schedule of his spring tour. He’ll also be covering many of the recipes on his popular Youtube channel. Pre-order the book, which publishes March 8, here.
Writer Tom Levin published this funny parody of comments on The New York Times cooking site on Medium.
We were happy to see this Q&A of one of our favorite chefs, Jonathan Waxman, an originator of California cuisine in the 1970s and, today, chef-owner of Barbuto in NYC, by one of our favorite writers on food, Adam Platt. “I like to think of myself as an aging toddler,” the 71-year-old chef tells Platt in Grub Street.
And finally … when it was a better Russia:
Given the horror show happening in Ukraine as autocrat Vladimir Putin rolls his tanks and bombs into a sovereign nation, the first instance of a full-blown war in Europe in more than 75 years, it’s important to remember a Russian leader who helped to open up the world, rather than to attempt to dominate it with tanks and threats of nuclear war.
(“When the capitalists come to us dying of hunger, we shall sell them … pizza.” —After Nikita Khrushchev.)
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