By Elizabeth Speth
I love lists. I really do. I love the lists I make — several every day — as well as the lists upon which I stumble. They have the most marvelous way of prioritizing things. Streamlining. Directing. Funneling our energy.
How often in life do we get the loud and clear message: First, do this.
Then, do this.
And so on, and so on, and so on. Without lists, life is ambiguous. With them, we have a mission. Broken down into manageable sections.
Our lists say a lot about us. They reveal our aspirations, as well as the things we cast aside. Show me your grocery list, your To-Do column, and I will tell you who you are.
If ever you want me to do something, put it in a list format and I’m your huckleberry.
Recently, I was browsing a favorite web destination, the Huffington Post’s Taste section. And I found (cue long drumroll and then angel music): The List To End All Lists.
It is called: 25 Things To Eat Before You Die.
This is a win-win-win-win list. It involves many of my favorite things. First: Lists. Second: Eating. Third: Food, prioritized. Four: Something To Do Other Than Dying.
Without further ado, let’s get started.
Number one item is: Chocolate Chip Cookies from Levain Bakery . Never having heard of this place, I had to look it up. It is A Thing. A Very Serious Bakery. You can find one in Harlem, one in the Hamptons, and one in New York’s Upper West Side. A gift box of four Levain cookies retails for $27. Plus shipping if you buy them on-line. Obviously, based on the price, and on the website pictures of several tiny angels hoisting one of these miraculous cookies toward heaven, these are The Best Chocolate Chip Cookies In The World. Obviously, we have to have them. We have to travel to one of these Levain bakeries, or order them on-line. But first we have to save some serious cashola. Or take out a second mortgage. Or wait for a significant inheritance.
Now, this is where you do NOT despair. This is a gastronomic bucket list. If it were easily dispensed with, death would be imminent. Right? Think about this for a moment: You are not allowed to die until you eat these things.
Take your time on this. Please.
Second item on the list: Sweetbreads. You know what that is, right? It’s not a variety of rolls and loaves sprinkled with sugar. We’re talking calf or lamb glands.
Don’t cringe. We have to trust The List. Have a little faith here. If it takes you a few years to work up the nerve, no worries. You’ve got a lot of living to do yet.
Item number three: A roast chicken that you make in your own oven. This, my friends, is so easy. I’ve already done this for you. Please check out my recent blog post: https://mostlybeautifulthings.com/2014/03/14/a-letter-to-my-children-about-love-butter-and-chicken-bones/.
Four is: The Lobster Roll. This is a very beautiful thing. Ideally, you should travel to Maine for this. If you cannot, it is a very easy thing to make for yourself. Check out my favorite recipe for this, from Ina Garten: http://barefootcontessa.com/recipes.aspx?RecipeID=837&S=0.
We are talking lobster here, and fresh dill, mayonnaise, capers, a crisp roll. Beer.
But really? Go to Maine. There is time.
Next item: Real ramen, not from the package. So, not those little plastic-wrapped, freeze-dried bricks starving college students are famous for being able to afford.
This seems like a very worthwhile thing to eat, doesn’t it? Since Ramen is a Japanese dish, and this is one of 25 dishes standing between you and death, you obviously have to go to Japan to have this wonderful combination of fish broth, onions, noodles, eggs, pork, seaweed and heaven knows what else.
In the meantime, to tide you over during your very long life while you are waiting to eat ramen in Japan, do what my son does. Spend a few cents on one of those freeze-dried bricks. Any flavor. Follow package directions. Add anchovy paste, minced seaweed, fresh shrimp or beef or chicken, hot chili oil, chopped scallions. Just a few minutes before you serve, gently crack an egg into the bubbling broth and let it poach. Ladle the ramen into a bowl, pierce the egg with a spoon and let its yolky contents run amok over everything else. Slurp. Dream of Tokyo.
Number five is: Beignets at Cafe Du Monde.
You can buy a mix for this. You can find the recipe online. Don’t do it. Life is short enough as it is. Grab yourself some beads and a mask, and go to New Orleans. No rush.
Moving steadily along to the next item: Raclette .
This confused me, a bit. It appears to be a heaping pile of cheese. Swiss cheese. Melted over an open fire and piled onto whatever you already happen to be eating. Potatoes. Maybe with pickles and cured meats. It’s got to be good, because the Swiss are very proud of it. As I sit here in front of my computer in America, something is lost in the translation. I’ve got nothing against melted cheese — I love it — but this is apparently something special. Melted cheese to the nth degree. Hence, we must go to Switzerland. Clearly. Whenever it is a good time to do so. No hurry.
I love what’s next on the list: French Fries with home-made mayonnaise. I love French Fries. I love home-made mayonnaise, which is so simple I don’t know why you don’t make it every day. Add herbs. Garlic. Spices. Customize it.
Maybe the fries should be home-made too. Yes. I think they should be.
This (discreet burp!) is fun. Carrying on:
Pimento cheese, aka ‘the caviar of the south’. It appears to be grated sharp cheddar, mayo and pimentos. In most of the recipes I see, it is pictured alongside Ritz-type crackers. I dunno about this. It does not appeal. Perhaps we can get a Papal Dispensation to skip this one, and double up on something else on the list. If I’m wrong, and it’s worth having, I at least exhort you to use the last of the home-made mayonnaise (see above).
Up next: Hot roasted chestnuts. I made these last year. They were good, rich, slighty suggestive of a macadamia nut, but very much less than that in terms of flavor. I suspect it is more the experience of warming your hands on a newspaper cone of them as you walk through the streets of London. Or Paris. So I’m going to suggest a side of London or Paris streetscapes at twilight with this dish.
All right…what’s next?
Oh yes. Yes, yes, yes indeed. This is marvelous, and there are so many south American and Mexican variations on this theme, all wonderful. There are entire restaurants devoted to the beauty that is ceviche. The main point is seafood, cooked only with an acid component like lemon or lime juice. Add herbs, toasted pine nuts, onions, avocado… Slightly charred tortillas or other flatbread. Beer. Shots of tequila. Oh yes. Yes, yes, yes. Indeed. You must eat this many, many, many times before you die. On the beach. In the rain. On a train. In a box, with a fox… But I digress.
Speaking of green eggs and ham, the next to-do on the 25 is breakfast at a diner. Any diner. Okay. Well, you’ve likely already done this, but it doesn’t count, because you didn’t know it was a Do Before You Die. So do it over.
I, personally, don’t get excited about diners. My husband, Neil, is passionate about diner breakfasts. On our very first date, we went to a diner. Where he would not allow me to order my own cup of coffee.
“We’ll share,” he whispered, leaning conspiratorially across the table. “Free refills.” Reader, I married him. I married him in spite of this.
Again, I think this is an atmospheric thing. I believe in simply prepared food, but diners are about cooking eggs in vegetable grease, and margarine on your thin toast, and corned beef hash from a can. Your gravy will likely come from a can too. Your hollandaise sauce may well have originated in an envelope of powder. I’ve given you the ammunition to wreak this havoc at home, but just get thee to a diner, and get it over with for $1.99. As a side dish…er…note, I imagine the appeal of this food improves dramatically just before or during a hangover. So maybe plan ahead, over-do it a bit on the tequila accompanying the ceviche, and kill two birds with one stone.
Up next: Hot stone bowl bibimbap. This sounds very much like something a hobbit would eat for third breakfast before setting out to recover lost jewelry. Not so.
This is a beloved Korean dish, a bowl of mixed rice with meat and vegetables. It sounds wonderful. Go to Korea. Eat this.
Did you save room for dessert? Well, we’re not there yet. You have to next eat the Stone Crab at Joe’s Stone Crab. Where the mustard sauce is apparently to die for. You will have to go to Miami Beach, Florida. Also, order the Key Lime Pie. Everyone says to.
I love the next item on the list. Strawberries picked fresh from the field. There are strawberry fields all over near my home in Loomis, Ca. The fresh strawberry stands pop up in early spring, and those berries are very fine, albeit it a bit tart and restrained. They are wonderful macerated in a bit of balsamic vinegar, sugar and pepper, and served over vanilla ice cream. I’m not kidding. About a tablespoon of very good balsamic, an eighth of a teaspoon of pepper. Sugar. Let it sit for a bit.
However, to really appreciate the lush, wanton, sensual pleasure of a strawberry from the field, wait until a few weeks after the really hot weather sets in. Heat does something to the sugar in the berry. You can smell it for miles in the summertime. All good things come to those who wait. Add nothing to these berries but your teeth. Eat with abandon. Life is short.
Home-made fresh whipped cream is on the list. This is too easy. It makes me uncomfortable, inching us ever closer to our mortality.
We love whipped cream in my house. Never out of the can or plastic tub. It has to be the real thing, with a little powdered sugar and vanilla, whipped just until stiff peaks form. My boys grew up eating it plain by the bowl. My daughter loves it layered with chocolate cookies that grow soggy if left to sit in fridge for a few hours. For a little bit of a lark, add Grand Marnier and a little grated orange rind. Stack it between layers of cake, fruit and more liquor and call it Trifle. I can’t help you delay this one. You are going to cross it off your list pretty quickly and easily, I’m afraid. Vaya con dios, my friend.
Ah, Lardo. There you are.
Lardo is not an unimaginative pejorative term for someone who is rotund, despite what my classmates called me in school. This is Italian cured back fat, and it is a fabulous appetizer. You want to hold it in your mouth forever, but it melts away too quickly. Don’t be squeamish about the fat. You’ve likely got some of your own, so no throwing stones. Eat with crusty bread and cheese, maybe some olives. A very robust Chardonnay, or a lovely rose. Maybe some fresh herbs and nuts. A light Pinot might work, too. Eat the lardo. Drink the wine. In Italy. Let the sun bake the last of the day away while you chew and sip outside, and slip into a twilight coma of bliss. You will forget about moving on to dinner. That’s okay. You have your whole life to eat dinner.
An avocado in its shell, with only a spoon. Huff recommends Hass. I, personally, never met an avocado I did not like. It’s green, earthy butter. Close your eyes while you let it glide across your taste buds. Show some respect.
Pancakes with real maple syrup. That’s easy. Just be prepared to shell out some money for the maple syrup. Brattleboro, Vermont is my favorite terroire for maple syrup. Chew slowly. We’re getting near the end of the list, and I, for one, do not have my affairs in order.
Home-made ricotta cheese. Why haven’t you done this yet? The hardest part of making your own is finding cheesecloth for the recipe. Here it is: http://allrecipes.com/recipes/cheese/ricotta-cheese/.
So stinkin’ easy. Drizzle the cheese with honey, serve with fruit. Figs are best. Thank me later.
Steak tartare. This is raw meat. Good quality raw meat. Some recipes call for raw egg in the preparation. I’m a vegan, but I’ll have to do this, obviously, when I am ready to die, or I won’t be allowed to. So do it I will. My grandmother, who remains the cook I admire most in this world — I learned everything I needed to learn about food fundamentals at her apron strings by the time I was twelve, and everything after that was just fleshing out what she taught me — loved raw beef. She would sometimes down a bit of raw hamburger meat while cooking. I won’t do that, but I understand that for some folks this is a big draw. I respect that.
Chocolate croissant from Tartine Bakery, San Francisco. That’s easy for me to say. I live in Northern California. But it’s cheaper (for me) than a trip to France, and Huffington Post swears these are better than the French make. There is, apparently, often a line out the bakery door and down the street, and they come with a good helping of attitude from the staff behind the counter, according to one reviewer.
A loaf of bread from Sfoglia Bakery. Easy for you to say. If you live in New York City. It’s nearly ten dollars a loaf. It must be good. Get a loaf, eat all ten dollars’ worth while you stroll through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is one of my favorite places on earth. Get three loaves. It’s going to take you at least three days to get through the Met.
Tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. Well. Duh. Campbell’s and Kraft slices and even Wonder Bread are just fine for childhood, or any day you need to revisit childhood. Give yourself permission. If, however, you are feeling like a grown up, roast the tomatoes with sea salt and then make the soup with good cognac. Use brioche for the sandwich, and chutney and brie and Gruyère. And butter. You’ll be fine. You’ll be better than fine.
Tamales. Well. This is a labor-intensive effort. But make no mistake — it is not a labor of love. In my native Santa Fe family, I remember the women working together to assemble these in mass quantities. While the men stood around and drank beer. So the women invariably complained about the men, comparing notes, working themselves into a bit of frenzy as they cushioned beautiful masa around slow-cooked pork and beef, wrapping it all in corn husks as austere as the robes of our priests.
These must be home-made. In my family, we turn them out every Christmas, and top them off with just-simmered mole sauce. My husband is smart enough to stay in the kitchen and help. However, if your tamales are plunked down a bit brusquely in front of you at mealtime, if you are glowered at and told tersely to enjoy them, you are likely a man, and you are likely in trouble.
And now, we come to the moment of reckoning. The end of the list. I have a few things I’d like to add (raw oysters, my grandmother’s Eggplant Parmesan, my grandmother’s Cioppino, fresh wild figs plucked quickly from a tree as you pass under it on horseback), but no one asked me.
I still (whew!) have a few items on this list I have not checked off. Eight of them, in fact. I am eight items away from the hereafter.
And you? How many of these stand between you and your ultimate reward?