Rick Nichols: A 15-year feast

Staff of the Jamaican Jerk Hut in 2005: (from left) Tom Bedell, Nicola Shirley, Alpha Kasongo, Donovan Brown, Cebert Hall, and Nepthi Spence. The Hut was the subject of the first column in 1995.
Staff of the Jamaican Jerk Hut in 2005: (from left) Tom Bedell, Nicola Shirley, Alpha Kasongo, Donovan Brown, Cebert Hall, and Nepthi Spence. The Hut was the subject of the first column in 1995.

Morsels from a columnist's notebook as he heads off to try his next thousand courses.

Posted: February 24, 2011

In an expansive mood, I once described writing a food column as "not really a job, but a lifestyle."

Did I know an editor was within earshot? Is it my imagination, or did the raises slow to a snail's pace after that?

But you know what? I don't care. I said it and I meant it. I've been at this preposterous scam for 15 years now, almost half my career here.

And nobody shadowing me on my rounds of kitchens and cheeseries and farm markets could ever say: "Wow, that guy looks like he's hard at work."

I'm hanging it up this week, leaving The Inquirer, setting out, as a friend mockingly called it, on "the next chapter of my life."

That would be writing enduring literature, teaching impressionable youth, and disovering what it's like to dine without an expense account.

I've also been implored to continue to send in dispatches. And, thank you very much, I'd love to do that. Now and then.

When I started in 1995, jerk wasn't immediately thought of as a food, and the Future Farmers of America was dropping "farmers" from its name, becoming simply FFA. (Now, becoming an urban farmer is the coolest thing a kid can do.)

The local schools were still pushing soda in the halls. (We paddled them for that. And they've cleaned up their act.)

Incandescent talents on the order of Marc Vetri and Jose Garces were yet to make their bones. (Same for our Boy Wonder reviewer, Craig LaBan.)

Harry Ochs, the grand butcher, seemed like he'd never die. And Fritz Blank, the chef? Who thought he'd up and decamp to Thailand? Or that the seminal Steve Poses would still be catering?

Tall food came and went. Pepper hash and snapper soup moved onto life support. But the Oyster House finally nailed one thing - a great, top-split lobster roll.

I've reported on chicken-killing day in Vermont, and huckleberry politics in Montana. On fish tacos in Baja, and salt caramels (inspired by the Jersey Shore) in Los Angeles.

But most of my 1,000-plus columns have come out of my native Philadelphia and environs - the white-borscht eateries of Port Richmond, and water-ice carts in West Philly, and the thriving Koreatown at the northern edge of the city.

They've come out of mills in Lancaster County where they grind cornmeal for scrapple, crab joints on Delaware Bay, the Rodale organic homestead in Emmaus, Pa., and Hunter's corn farm "settled in 1760," in un-rural Cinnaminson.

Those have been my chomping grounds. And sure, I'll continue to send along occasional reports, even as I depart my staff status here, Negroni held high, oysters iced, roast pork and red cabbage braising, visions of dried plums and gingerbread dancing giddily in my head.

 Here's a look back at Rick Nichols' columns over 15 years:

 The Jamaican Jerk Hut is born, along with Rick's first food column in Sunday Magazine, May 7, 1995

Split-in-half chickens slow-grill back of Nicola Shirley's brave new place - the Jamaican Jerk Hut - on the other South Street, in Possibility Land, just beyond the ruins of the old Royal Theater. And just before, if you're heading east, the future - the artsy Arts Bank on Broad.

"I'd try jerk places in the city," she says, "but I'd say, 'This isn't even close. This isn't what I got on the island, what my parents would bring back in the middle of Saturday night, wrapped up in newspaper, right off the grill.' God forbid if we found that newspaper in the trash the next day, and they hadn't woken us up. . . . "

Follow the ice, and see the sizzle of a city; Aug. 11, 1996

 By 4 in the morning, the little glacier has started its slide out of the cornfields of Lancaster County, the first 22 tons of it, crushed and bagged and stacked in the giant Peterbilt that Bradley Schnader guides through the dark, headed for hot town, summer in the city.

. . . Everyone wants their ice when they want it - the bakeries to chill overheated dough, the meat houses to cool cooked meat so it doesn't overcook, the poultry processors who debone breasts in Philadelphia and send them back out to rural packers.

Thomas Jefferson University Hospital wants it for the salad bar. The crab suppliers need it. So do the beer distributors, the marinas, the Parkway festivals, the clubs. Pat's Steaks needs it when its machines get overwhelmed.

Temple University's lunch trucks get it; Reading Terminal's fish stalls, too.

And up and down the numbered streets of Center City, as the sun is just starting its climb, just stoking demand, the hot-dog carts are waiting for their piece of the rock.

Soon, the Ice Man, just like in the old days, will be coming.

They'll hear him, talky John Green, before they see him: Ice Man! Ice Man! he cries, bearing the bags with the Polar Bear.

In Greek accents, sometimes, echoes sing back: AYE-saah Mahn!

Little darlings;

Dec. 12, 2001

 The clementine was a charmer, all right, a spunky Iverson on a roster of giants. It didn't have the tartness of tangerines, or the seeds. It was school-lunch compatible. It might as well have had a zipper, it was that easy to peel.

Who you calling 'Food Nag'?; April 17, 2002

 It is perhaps inevitable that scrappy Marion Nestle (rhymes with "trestle") has become red meat for the knee-jerk guardians of Americans' right to know less about the foods they eat.

They are especially upset at the parallels she draws between the strategies of a humbled Big Tobacco and those of Big Food - the manipulation of health messages, the teary appeal to "free choice," the lust to snag younger and younger customers.

A mother's work; June 19, 2002

 She was 88 - thousands upon thousands of meals served to her husband and children. They were, on the whole, good and decent fare. But we teased her about the fallbacks - suppers of chopped hot dogs in a simple white sauce, "gravy bread," and once, when my father was briefly out of work, a panicky recourse to fried bananas.

Her background was Pennsylvania Dutch; her maiden name was Esbenshade. So she had a small repertoire of Lancaster County specialties - magically magenta pickled eggs; supremely flaky, big-pan chicken pies; some sort of thin flank steak (I think it was) rolled around a filling of chopped onion and suet and secured with a long needle.

It may have been suet guilt or perhaps some food-page article in the late '50s, but there was also a hellish health-food phase.

. . . So she tried, as mothers have always tried, to navigate the contradictory agendas that land on the table at every mealtime: How to satisfy the appetite for the soul foods of tradition? How to accommodate the latest data on healthful eating? How to get the family fed after a hectic drive home from the Shore?

Ricotta from down under; Oct. 27, 2002

 The last hand-maker of ricotta in South Philadelphia tells me: If I want to see a fresh batch coming out, come back at 8:30 that evening and take the steps that go down from the sidewalk into the basement.

. . . Am I an opera lover, Phil Mancuso asks, not caring to hear the answer. "Come back and I'll take the ricotta out and we'll go to Franco & Luigi's and I'll sing you a song. What's better than that!"

Becoming Grandmother's house; Nov. 27, 2002

 We are, I finally realize, Grandmother's house now, and there is much care and feeding to be done - and pliable young dispositions to be properly bent.

Consider the huckleberry;

Sept. 23, 2004

 This has been a season of considerable discontent and not a little soul-searching in Montana's normally bountiful huckleberry patch.

Hmong grandmothers complain that it has been taking three times as long to pick the indigo berries they sell by the Ziploc bagful at Missoula's Saturday farmers market.

Local defenders of the endangered grizzly have their own beef: Overharvesting, they contend, has robbed the bears of the huckleberry fix they need to bulk up before hibernation, forcing them to raid suburban bird feeders and apple orchards.

. . . But this has been an exceptionally lean year, and the huckleberry - as American as apple pie - has found itself in the middle of the unending American struggle between free markets and the limits of nature, between the wants of humans and the needs of the wild.

The Stein way; Oct. 9, 2003

 It had been a lovely spring evening, [Neil] Stein scruffy in an untucked shirt and sneaks, knocking back another Belvedere martini before patrolling, a bit unsteadily, the restaurant's open kitchen.

It was vintage Neil Stein, nine lives already behind him - blowing a little smoke, promising the moon, whistling through the graveyard.

 Corn porn; Sept. 7, 2003 

 We pass the girl picking sunflowers, and the late-ripening heirloom tomatoes. The stalks of Mirai are farther apart than typical corn, the ears fuller. [Pete] Flynn cracks one off.

I strip it: It is a voluptuous, corn-poster beauty, creamy yellow with, as they say in the trade, "good tip fill."

I take a chomp. The kernels are deep and full, their skin startlingly thin and taut. Every bite pops off the cob, as crisp and juicy as a water chestnut.

"Commod bods"; Nov. 3, 2005

 Indians themselves have a word for brothers and sisters who have ballooned on fast food and high-carb government commodities: They call them "commod bods."

Hi, I'm your new kitchen; June 14, 2007

 Our kitchen makeover . . . took six months, about twice as long as we'd counted on, which seems about average. It's finished now, as much as these things ever are.

But while I can't say I'm not happy with its fresh face and clean lines, its big stone sink and the way the vent hood's downlighting makes the stove alcove glow like a hearth, it's not quite what I'd call "mine." Not yet.

The strange career of the pawpaw; Sept. 27, 2007

Larry Rossi's piece of Eden is situated in a crook of Neshaminy Creek, a floodplain off Bridgetown Pike in Langhorne, where after 10 hard years, his efforts, finally, are bearing fruit: This month he's picking his first crop of pawpaws.

It is tempting to regard him as a single-minded, perhaps quixotic figure - a Johnny Pawpawseed, say - obsessed with reviving the fortunes of America's largest native fruit, storied once for its creamy, aromatic banana-mango flesh; all but forgotten today.

But in the bigger picture, he is one more foot soldier in a movement determined to bring back the taste of a paradise lost - the luxurious flavor of heritage pork before the fat was bred out, and Bourbon Red turkeys that fly; of heirloom cranberries (from a Pine Barrens bog called Paradise Hill); and, of course, the iconic buffalo (the heart-healthier red meat) that came close to extinction on the Great Plains.

 Why the Negroni will live forever; April 6, 2008

There are reasons that classic cocktails, like classic salads (the Caesar, for instance), stand the test of time: They deliver a surprising flavor experience so remarkably original, so unmistakably itself, that they enter a magical, even mystical, realm.

In the well-made Negroni, the experience comes from the juniper edge of the gin, tamed by the syrupy sweetness of the vermouth, then aroused again with the Campari's sexy bite of herbal - it contains 60 ingredients - bitters.

Whose Italian market?

Nov. 13, 2008

It's not just trash-phobic suburbanites who dump on the Ninth Street Market. The locals do a pretty good number themselves: They're in perpetual fret over its identity (Is it going too "Mexican"?) and its viability (Whole Foods is barely two blocks north, and weekly farm markets have popped up like chanterelles).

The question of its very relevance, after 100 years of ebb and flow, is not beyond intense discussion. . . .

Old soldiers never die;

Dec. 25, 2008

December is always hard on the man: This is his 60th by one count, though his exact age is fuzzy; he could be a little younger.

One crack slants above the right eye, a superior orbital fissure they call it in the jargon.

Another digs deep across where the collarbone should be.

Is he aging in the kitchen drawer? Mocking my own journey, knees getting hinky, neck stiff in the morning, his musculoskeletal system creaky, too, even though he has no muscles and nothing you'd recognize as a skeleton.

Beyond the steak house; June 11, 2009

On the feeding plain that is Center City, you have your choice these days of a flood tide of high-end steak houses. Small BYOs, French bistros, and burger bars are legion. You may select, as well, from a handful of soulless seafood houses, chains without resonance, the Bookbinder ships having sunk, and the once-bold Striped Bass with them.

What you are harder-pressed to find are 120-seat places on the order of Oyster House, now on its third generation of Minks, harking to the days when corner oyster saloons were as common as pizza stands, offering various fish chowders for lunch, fried oysters (in delicate corn flour, if you wish) with chicken salad, and plain grilled bluefish.

Missing Harry Ochs;

Dec. 17, 2009

What wasn't there [at butcher stall No. 620-616 in the Reading market], of course, was Harry G. Ochs Jr., who died a week ago Sunday after a cat-and-mouse game with cancer.

He was 80, a tough bird, and from that center stall, which he manned like the captain of a tugboat, such a fixture - hectoring (the guys), flirting (with the girls) - that it seemed he was an actual piece of the place, a barnacle of a butcher who'd screwed himself into the floor itself.

Please cry for me; Jan. 17, 2010

At his 6-foot-long stand (the shortest frontage permitted in Lancaster's old Central Market), Michael Long contemplates the future for his extraordinary horseradish - 48 hours old at the oldest if you buy it here, and potently pure. . . .

He is the fourth-generation Long about the business, a pedestal fan his only advertising; he switches it on at strategic moments, when he's grating another root - "I grate them, I don't grind them" - sending a sharp mist over the aisle. "The weeping fan," he calls it.

- Rick Nichols


Rick Nichols: Pepper Hash

Makes about 8 to 10 servings, as a condiment

1/2 medium head cabbage, chunked

3/4 green bell pepper

1/2 medium carrot, peeled

2 garlic cloves, grated on zester

1/4 cup cider vinegar

1/4 cup cold water

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 tablespoon salt

Pinch of red pepper flakes

1. Pulse vegetables in food processor until finely chopped.

2. In large bowl, mix vinegar, water, sugar, salt, and red pepper flakes.

3. Add vegetables, mix well, and refrigerate (keeps up to 2 weeks well sealed).

4. Use on hot dogs, sausage, pulled pork, or fish dishes.

- From Johnny's Hots, Philadelphia

Per serving (based on 10): 29 calories, trace protein, 7 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, trace fat, no cholesterol, 123 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.


Rick Nichols: Odeon's Sauteed Crab Cakes

Makes 4 servings

1 pound jumbo lump crabmeat

1/4 cup finely chopped parsley

1 cup thinly sliced scallions

3/4 cup fresh bread crumbs

2 eggs

1/4 cup milk

Cayenne pepper to taste

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

Salt and pepper to taste

Butter for sauteing

1. Pick over the crabmeat for shells and combine with parsley, scallions, and bread crumbs. Mix the eggs, milk, cayenne, Worcestershire, salt, and pepper, and pour over the crab mixture.

2. Blend gently, then shape into four patties. Saute in butter for about three minutes on each side, or until golden brown.

- From Odeon Restaurant, formerly on 12th Street

Per serving: 286 calories, 27 grams protein, 18 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 11 grams fat, 211 milligrams cholesterol, 582 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.

|
|
|
|
|