Cooking is an exercise in communication: the ingredients communicate their freshness, the recipes communicate their patented formulas, the pans communicate their readiness, and the dish itself communicates the passion of the chef. What you place down before a loved one is a meaningful gesture, a symbol of your feelings as reflected in the portion size, the placement on the plate, and the thing itself. What did you cook? Did you microwave a hot-dog, or did you roast a quail? Did you microwave the hot-dog with love and roast the quail with indifference? These things matter.
The email said " Hey Julie! This is Adam The Amateur Gourmet. My book comes out in three weeks! If you're willing, I'd love to send you an early copy and if you're even more willing I'd love to visit your blog on my Virtual Book Tour."
Yes, reader, it really was from Adam, the Amateur Gourmet himself. I'd been anticipating reading his book. And now he had asked me and AFIEP to be one of the stops on his Virtual Book Tour. You can imagine my delighted reply. Six weeks and quite a few emails later, we would set out on a real-time food-crawl afternoon in preparation for this virtual meet-up.
Adam's blog The Amateur Gourmet has been a favorite read of mine for a couple of years now. His is the blog I often turn to when I need to lighten up, have a laugh, or find a new idea for something great to cook. For although I may have been cooking a good bit longer than Adam has, I get a great deal of inspiration from him. Adam, you see, like most of us food bloggers, is an amateur, in the very best sense of the word.
It’s always been a source of puzzlement to me that the word “amateur” has such a pejorative connotation in our culture. We tend to use the word to denote a rookie, a neophyte, someone without much experience or expertise. “A rank amateur,” someone will say, dismissing an artist’s life-long body of work. “Amateurish,” writes a critic, demonstrating his feeling that someone’s chef d’oeuvre should never even have warranted his notice, much less his review.
What the word really means is that one has passion -- passion enough about a particular art or skill or field or body of knowledge to pursue it without receiving financial gain. Adam might have described himself in the more negative connotation of "amateur" when he began his food journey -- when, as detailed in his book, he thought that dining out was going to The Olive Garden; cooking was popping a frozen pie from California Pizza Kitchens into the oven. With determined self-education, however, he became a dedicated lover of all things delicious.
Amateur, from the French, meaning "lover;" in turn from the Latin amare, "to love." That’s Adam all over: a person who throws himself headlong into his interest purely for the love of it. Even now that he's published his first book, Adam staunchly maintains his "amateur" status. After all, he doesn't earn a living from eating, or even from cooking, but rather from writing about these things. He's now a writer by trade, who comes to his calling through being an -- or rather, THE -- Amateur Gourmet: a lover of that which pleases the discriminating palate.
I had met Adam briefly at a number of food blogger events, but I wouldn't really say that I knew him. On the surface, we couldn't be much more different. Aside from the superficial attributes of gender and age, we've had very different upbringings, particularly in regard to food. Cooking, especially cooking from scratch, with at least some attention to seasonal food, was at the heart of my family's time together; dining out was central to Adam's early family life. My mother made soups and stews and homemade salad dressing; Adam's glamorous and beautiful mom made reservations.
So I read Adam's book. I could see where, despite the differences in our food histories and experiences, we were much alike -- and that I stood to learn much from him. The Amateur Gourmet: How to Shop, Chop and Table Hop Like A Pro (Almost) is billed as a book for those who want to become more knowledgeable food enthusiasts. But it's not just a book for the rookie. As Shauna says, Adam's book gives more experienced cooks and eaters a chance to go back to beginner's mind. We can all use a chance to remember where we came from, in order to continue learning. And now that I've spent an afternoon with him, I think of Adam as the Evolving Gourmet -- in the way that we all should be -- open-minded, curious, continually exploring.
Adam and I decide to have a food adventure together -- to explore Arthur Avenue, known as the Little Italy of the Bronx. The neighborhood, which is actually called Belmont, is well-known to me, since I've consulted for several nearby public schools. I haven't really spent much time there for a couple of years, so I'm eager to return. For Adam, it will be completely new terrain. How does the Amateur Gourmet approach fooding in unfamiliar territory?
Adam shows up at our home a little after 11:00, where I'm hoping to impress him with a moist, crumbly apple-plum ripple coffee cake ostensibly baked for G,
whose love of apple baked goods has been duly documented here. Such baked goods are also handy to have on hand when other food bloggers drop by to in order to have them admire your baking prowess. A true food hound, Adam immediately hones in on the baking pan in the kitchen, saying "What's that?" He has only a small taste, however, since he's cleverly saving his appetite for the delights of Arthur Avenue. But he further endears himself to me by telling me how much he likes our kitchen and our home -- what I sometimes despair of as havoc and clutter and disorder, he admires as cozy and lived-in.
Dear, long-suffering G is our chauffeur up to Bronx (at this point, I'm going to refrain from telling you my seasonal Rosh Hashanah joke about blowing the shofar). He drops us right in the center of Belmont, Arthur Avenue and 187th St., and goes off on his own errands.
Like Kevin, I have taken Adam's book along for the ride, but the author himself remains my focus on this tour. Where to begin? We go to Casa Della Mozzarella, noting the gourd-shaped scamorza cheeses the size of small asteroids, as well as the guy in the back stretching massive hanks of pliant mozzarella by hand. I point out the Full Moon Pizzeria, one of the spots I used to hit for lunch. But I've already recommended that we eat at Mike's Deli in the Arthur Avenue Retail Market; when you're the fooding guide, it's your sacred responsibility to show off all your absolute favorites.
We pass the butcher shops with entire dead beasts hanging in the window, the seafood and fish emporia that sell freshly opened clams to eat while walking down the street. I show Adam the Star of David mosaic at the threshold of Teitel Brothers. It's a shop with a name that seems a bit out of place in this neighborhood of Biancardis and Madonias and Borgattis, but it offers what are probably the city's best prices on Parmigiano Reggiano, prosciutto di Parma, excellent olive oils, and a host of other delicacies.
The Arthur Avenue Retail Market is really the heart of the neighborhood. It's the closest thing in NYC's five boroughs to a European-style covered market. At Mike's Deli, where the old LIFE magazine cover of Il Duce glares at us from the back wall, the much more welcoming counterman banters with us for so long we're not sure he's going to let us go eat the sandwiches he's bullied us into having. He makes us a gorgeous prosciutto/fresh mozzarella creation with roasted peppers, and a delectable veal cutlet with baby peas and minced peppers in a wine-laced sauce. He insist that we have two glasses of homemade red wine (which we're sure Lenn would say tastes, ummm, well, homemade). When we demur, he asks if we're driving. Adam blurts, "No -- her husband is," pointing to me. "Her HUSBAND!" the counterman snorts in mock outrage. "So you two are off here having lunch, without her HUSBAND!" He thinks he's got us figured out.
Almost satiated, we continue on to the dessert portion of the tour. Everyone has their favorite pastry shop in this neighborhood, but I'm a hold-out for the crisp cannoli at Madonia Brothers, filled with fresh ricotta cream only when you order. We get large ones to eat as we continue walking down the street. They're obscenely delicious, and Adam agrees -- by far the best cannoli either of us have ever had. The lady from the flower shop stops us and we have a long conversation with her as we eat cannoli. She convinces us that we will both have to go to Sicily -- probably the only place we'll ever find better cannoli.
Incidents like this one are commonplace on Arthur Avenue. Everyone is friendly, and disposed to chat. No-one seems to think twice about striking up a conversation with strangers. It has almost the feeling of a village, but one that's disposed to be open and warm to outsiders rather than the opposite. The flower lady tells us her life story, and describes how she, recently arrived as a businessperson on this strip, was overwhelmed by the outpouring of holiday gifts for her little daughter from fellow merchants. "It's like a family here," she says. As we continue our walk, Adam and I agree that there's something wonderful about this neighborhood. Despite the way it attracts tourist and day-trippers like us, it maintains the quality of a place that hasn't been changed all that much by time.
It's a gorgeous day, the last of summer shading into fall, and Adam and I continue our lunch conversation as we walk. We do have a lot in common, really. Of course we both love food. God, do we love food. But there are other things as well. We're both romantics at heart, with strong ideas about what make relationships work; we're both very attached to family, but sanguine about the players in our respective family dramas; and we're both strongly pulled toward social responsibility. When I talk about my dream of reforming NYC public school lunches, Adam says excitedly "Let's do it! I'll do that with you!"
Going fooding with Adam, I really do get to know the guy who wrote this charming book. His enjoyment of the moment, his endless curiosity and boundless enthusiasm would make anyone an amateur of the Amateur Gourmet. As my own mother would have said, what's not to love?