Vintage reviews, vintage menus; and something guaranteed to improve your Thanksgiving.
Will this election ever be over? If you’re like me, it’s still very much on your mind, and in that spirit I offer this article from a long-ago election.
The truth is, I’ve always wanted to tell the real story of what happened at Chasen’s that night.
The white-haired man who had a bottle of Corton Charlemagne hidden beneath a bottle of milk? That man hiding behind his menu? He was a famous television evangelist. One of my guests returned from the restroom to report he’d met the evangelist there. “He told me to hold out my hand,” Bruce said, “and filled it with a heap of white powder.” Bruce looked down, shocked, and the evangelist clapped him on the shoulder and said, “Go ahead, be a man.”
For some reason, my editors excised that from my piece. They also thought it was a poor idea to publish the fact that the waiter didn’t just drape his arm around my shoulder; he tried to pick me up. (I just said no. )
But a long time has passed, the former Chasen’s is now a supermarket and the evangelist and the waiter are surely history. As for the other reviews: I’m a little surprised they let me print those, but every word is true.
“Somewhere between a peach and a prayer.” That is how the poet Diane Ackerman describes eating an apricot. And that’s just for starters: she goes on to compare the taste of apricots to cool fresh well water, butterscotch and eventually lust.
I can’t argue with that. Nothing beats the flavor of a truly great apricot. But chances are you’ve never tasted one.
Blenheim apricots – named for Blenheim Palace where Winston Churchill was born – entice you with an intoxicating scent of honeysuckle and vanilla, a perfume intense enough to knock you over. Take a bite and you discover that the sweetest apricot you’ve ever eaten is also tart. The experience is exciting; the fruit goes leaping through your mouth in somersaults of flavor. And where ordinary apricots can be dry and wooly, a juicy Blenheim leaves you with sticky fingers.
Eating a fresh Blenheim is one of life’s purest pleasures. It is also among its rarest. Blenheims are delicate creatures; their fragile skins bruise too easily to permit travel. You have to go them – to a farm (or a California farmers’ market) during their brief summer season.
But Blenheims have a secret: unlike most fruits, they’re even better dried. These apricots revel in sunlight, and a few days in in the summer sun concentrates their finest qualities, turning them into irresistible natural candy. One which also happens to be good for you. High in fiber, Vitamin C, iron and potassium, dried apricots make a perfect portable snack.
Blenheims first arrived in America in the late eighteen hundreds when farmers discovered that California’s interior valleys (Santa Clara, Sacramento), with their hot days and cool nights, were the perfect environment for the fruit. During World War One, when European supplies of dried fruits were cut off, sales soared. By 1940 there were 60 orchards south of San Francisco dedicated to the fruit. Sadly, only five remain: the American Blenheim is in serious danger of disappearing.
What happened? Four words: Turkey and Silicon Valley. “Twenty years ago,” says Patti Gonzalez, a fourth-generation apricot farmer in Hollister, “Turkish apricots hit the market and the dried fruit packers began buying them because they were so much cheaper than ours. A lot of farmers went out of business.” Go to your supermarket and you will find the shelves filled with insipid Turkish dried apricots. With their pallid hue and dull flavor, they do not resemble Blenheims in any way.
“We were lucky here at Apricot King,” says Gonzalez, “we simply reinvented ourselves.” When processors said their apricots were too expensive they began drying them at the farm, spreading them across nine acres to bask in the sun. “We used to sell apricots by the truckload,” she says, “now we sell them by the half pound.”
How long will Blenheims last? It’s anybody’s guess, but there are fewer every year. If you want to taste a fresh one you’ll have to wait til summer. But dried apricots – those little edible prayers – are just a click away at Apricot King.
I always have them on hand at Thanksgiving, because I’ve been making Martha Stewart’s Fruit and Nut Stuffing since she first published it in the New York Times Magazine in the early eighties. (Full disclosure: I also make a traditional sausage and mushroom stuffing.)
Back in the eighties, when everyone was starting to talk about California Cuisine, Jeremiah Tower had the foresight to consider the cuisine of the other states. At the time nobody thought much about the food of the midwest, which is why I found this dinner at his Santa Fe Bar and Grill particularly interesting.