I’ve been reading Buttermilk Grafitti, a food memoir by Edward Lee. Lee explores melting-pot cuisine across America. His writing deftly examines cities and communities and how immigrants and cultural forces shape a cuisine or local specialty. Lee shares anecdotes and conversations with chefs, cooks, restaurant owners, food enthusiasts, and passersby on his travels. Here’s an excerpt from the chapter, “The Palace of Pastami.”
Brian Shapiro, Shapiro’s Delicatessen, Indianapolis: “All the chefs these days are artists, and that’s fine, but then you have a restaurant linked to an individual, not a tradition. There will never be a restaurant that lasts one hundred years anymore. Chefs change their food depending on the trends. We don’t.”
Chef-author Edward Lee: “So there is no chef here?
Shapiro: “We don’t call them chefs. It is family recipes that are made by everyone. It speaks to the culture of the group, not an individual. If we persist in making food that is an individual expression, our restaurants will only last as long as the artist’s whim or the public’s attention span. This…” He gestures to the room. “This can go on forever.”
This passage sparked a lively conversation when I posted it on Facebook. For me, Shapiro doesn’t entirely discount the impact of chefs as artists who may adapt to trends. His primary point is that adhering to traditional recipes and preparation methods have been the key to his family’s kosher delicatessen over four generations.
Operating since 1905, Shapiro’s focuses on a specific culture and its foods. It makes sense to emphasize the consistency of preparation and quality over time. The pastrami sandwich, stuffed cabbage, matzo ball soup, and other dishes are standbys. They are tried-and-true touchstones for regular customers that have been patronizing Shapiro’s for years. These prepared foods upholding Jewish traditions are also a draw for tourists and food lovers seeking genuine tastes.
There’s something comforting in eating food like this. Don’t fix it if it isn’t broken, whether it’s classic Italian-American cuisine based on family recipes brought from the old country or fried chicken that stands the test of time. Clearly, Shapiro’s has found a successful approach that pleases customers and generates profits. Otherwise, change would certainly happen if the business weren’t making money.
Underscoring Shapiro’s point, the focus centers on the food preparation more than the cook or chef making it. The culture of the group, the tradition of the family, whether tied to ethnicity or regional style, supersedes the influence of any one person.
A $6.95 Chinese buffet banner hangs above the front door. It is a tempting lure; however, that price applies to the lunch buffet. Later, the young woman behind the register said that a dinner buffet might be available in coming weeks. Meanwhile, I was hungry and curious to see what else Kim Son’s had to offer.
The menu offered both Chinese and Vietnamese dishes. In need of updating and reprinting, the menu has a number of items that are crossed out. I opted for #14, a Vietnamese dish made with ong choy and pork belly served with rice.
Ong choy is also known as morning glory, water spinach, and many other names. If you haven’t had ong choy, then seize the opportunity to eat a dish that features it. Ong choy is an oft-eaten staple in Thai and Vietnamese households. Abundant and available at Asian markets, inexpensive, and delicious, ong choy is also nutritious as a leafy green.
I haven’t seen the vegetable as an option in Vietnamese restaurants around Kansas City. Maybe I just haven’t noticed it. Regardless, this dish had a home-style cooking feel to it that made it more appealing.
I failed to jot down the Vietnamese name of the ong choy dish I ordered at Kim Son’s. The proper name of the dish is similar to rau muong xao toi, or ong choy stir-fried with garlic. The menu has options for at least two other dishes featuring ong choy besides pork belly, but I cannot recall whether it was catfish, chicken, or other protein. Odds are you can order a vegetarian dish of it that would also taste great.
The plant has a thin, long, and hollow stem and a slender triangular-shaped leaf when uncooked. Whether stir-fried or steamed, ong choy has the light taste of fresh leafy greens with no bitterness and a tender texture. Thin watery sauce in this dish added subtle sweetness and hint of salt. A wedge of lime squeezed onto the dish provided a suitable amount of acidity for balance.
Thin pieces of pork belly were mostly lightly rendered fat that added layers of flavor – a faint sourness reminiscent of cured Chinese pork sausage, a hint of sweet fatty bacon, umami, and salt.
Cooked ong choy is easy enough to eat with chop sticks. Transfer a mouthful from the main dish onto the rice mounded on a separate plate. Scoop underneath and guide the mouthful to its destination. A fork and spoon may make the handiwork easier for those not adept with chop sticks. Be sure to spoon some of the sauce from the plate onto the rice so it soaks up the combined flavors. Don’t waste a drop of sauce or grain of rice.
An order of ong choy with pork belly was an ample portion for one, but easily shared between two people. While the amount of pork belly wasn’t substantial, its contribution to the overall flavor of the dish was evident. Pork belly played a supporting role while ong choy shined as the star of the show.
Kim Son’s menu has plenty of other familiar Vietnamese dishes, including spring rolls, pho, and banh mi, as well as classic Chinese fare. If inclined, try some of the less-familiar selections. The prices are super affordable. My initial unplanned visit was rewarding enough to merit return trips and sample other dishes.
Beyond the Buffet
A final note on appearances.
Don’t venture to Kim Son’s for the decor or ambiance. Indoors, it is a colorful mishmash of low-key design and startup decor – think Las Vegas palace meets Chinatown meets restaurant makeover candidate. There’s an over-sized fish tank of goldfish trolling around in yellowish water. Even so, don’t expend effort knocking the venue for its looks. After all, it takes a lot of $6.95 lunch buffets to cover overhead.
Here’s what I’m saying: Go for the food and simplicity of the experience.
There’s something delightful and understated about a suburban Vietnamese-Chinese restaurant in the sleepy nook known as Gladstone. The city’s modest civic revival hasn’t quite reached every shopping strip and parking lot filled with more pools of amber light than vehicles on a quiet weekday winter evening. With luck and time, joints like Kim Son’s and other Vietnamese restaurants and eateries in nearby Gladstone Plaza will find a growing audience for their food and drink. Kim Son’s has homestyle appeal with potential for growth. Hopefully, that sidesteps the formulaic offerings of a chain restaurant, an all-out dumbing down an “ethnic” eatery to accommodate timid diners, and hip takes on classic cuisine that render its spirit impotent.
On the other hand, if you want a large volume of assorted food at a cheap price point, Kim Son’s will gladly welcome you to its buffet, too.
These restaurants seem like the kind of modest venue that the late Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times restaurant critic, might explore. Famous or not, the intent is not to be a foodie prima donna or a colonist, who “discovers” or denounces a “find” based on self-appointed criteria and standards. Instead, try savoring a single unfamiliar dish. See if it stands out from the usual array of greatest hits that normally constitute menus in Asian restaurants. Meet the food, culture, and experience on its own terms. Enjoy the detour.
You cannot touch smoke. Smoke touches you. The scent of smoke from wild plum, oak, grapevine, and lavender clings to my skin, my hair, and my clothes. Smoke hangs on with persistence, a ghost that lingers, a presence that is intangible but most certainly there.
As the chef and brand/event manager at Fence Stile Vineyard and Winery, I spent the afternoon preparing ingredients for a farm and market-themed wine and small plates dinner taking place on November 18th in the Tasting Room. Near a pond with a slushy iced surface, I built a small fire to grill radishes and smoke leeks sourced from farmers Tom Ruggieri and Rebecca Graff at Fair Share Farm, based in Kearney, Missouri. I used wild plum wood obtained from farmer Linda Hezel at Prairie Birthday Farm, also based in Kearney, and oak and grapevine from the winery estate. A single piece of oak formed the foundation of the fire. Smaller pieces of wood tilted at angles on both sides of the oak like church rafters. Brisk November wind blew across the pond and fanned a flame. Kindling shriveled into glowing orange threads and ash. Soon the fire roared as wood crackled and hissed.
The upcoming wine and food dinner highlights ingredients and products from Fair Share Farm and Prairie Birthday Farm. Also, Dr. Janet Smith of Borgman’s Dairy Farm, based in Holden, Missouri, supplied milk, cheese, yogurt and other products made from goat milk.
Several varieties of French-American hybrid grapes grow along ten hilly acres that surround the tasting room at Fence Stile. Owner-winemaker Shriti Plimpton launched the winery and vineyards nearly ten years ago. The winery is known for its dry and semi-dry wines, but has a wide range for those with sweeter palates. The upcoming dinner is an opportunity to offer a showcase for how three wines produced onsite – Vignoles, Backpack Red, and Vidal Blanc – pair with seasonal farm ingredients prepared to their utmost flavor.
Vineyard manager Shawna Mull tends to the vines year-round. Sometimes, a section of vine runs its course. Cut into small segments, this particular dry, dead grapevine in the heart of the fire had no more life to give as a lifeline for grape clusters. Burning vine and wood produced smoke that enveloped the bulbs of radishes with leafy greens still attached and a cluster of leeks thick as metal pipes.
You cannot touch smoke. Smoke touches you.
The wind shifted and smoke blew past my face, prompting my eyes to water. The smoke sent a signal, a reminder. Smoke and fire heeds its own whims and acts as its own master. I attempted to coax the smoke to lend its scent to vegetables on the grill. I tried to tame orange licks of flame to do by bidding. I poked and prodded and fed the fire’s appetite. Flames subsided into coals and smoke wafted at a steady pace, dancing around the radishes and leeks.
Slowly, the bright magenta skin of the radishes dulled and charred with black flakes. Most of the greens had burned away. Removed from the grill, the radishes more closely resembled baby red potatoes cooked directly in a fire. Grilling the radishes mellows its sharp peppery bite and introduces a soft sweetness. The subtle taste and aroma of smoke will interplay with the sweetness, a tart dash of lemon juice, creamy butter, and a dash of salt to unite the flavors.
The leeks grilled until they softened and charred at the edges. Once the coals were ready, I added stalks of dried lavender from Fence Stile’s flower bed to further perfume the smoke dancing around the leeks. After sufficient smoking, I plucked the leeks from the grill, doused the coals, and headed to the kitchen.
The leeks and radishes are only some of the produce received from Fair Share Farm. They also provided pristine small salad turnips with ivory skin and lush plumes of green leaves. I trimmed the greens and set them aside. They will be sauteed in a pan with Chinese broccoli and served with spelt, a rustic grain similar to farro. Salted and buttered grilled radishes will accompany the greens and spelt. I roasted the trimmed turnips with garlic cloves in the oven until they were tender, sweet gems.
After paring the charred tough outer skin of the leeks, I cut them into long strips and then chopped them into smaller pieces. The scent and taste of smoke on the leeks seemed to aggressive. Not only would it compete with the other flavors in the dish, it would overwhelm the wine pairing with Backpack Red. This light-bodied, dry red blend of Chambourcin and Norton offered a hint of pepper and earthiness on the finish. Bold smoke would wrestle and dominate the wine, altering the balance of the sweet, salty, earthy and smoky flavors.
I tucked the chopped leek into a food processor and pureed the contents. A light cloud of steam and smoke arose. Perhaps the leeks could become a sauce for oven-roasted turnips? Ransacking the refrigerator, I selected a jar of creamy goat milk yogurt from Borgman’s Dairy. Slowly, I spooned dollops of yogurt and sprinkled a bit of salt into the leeks and whipped them further. The leeks transformed into a creamy, thick sauce that still bore a hint of smoke. The savory, smoky sauce will provide suitable balance for sweet, earthy turnips.
Slowly, the various components of this dish, one of three, were coming together.Once assembled, plated and served, this melange of smoked, roasted and sauteed vegetables and grain should work in harmony. The goal is to stimulate the senses, appease the appetite, and illustrate how Backpack Red tastes with a variety of flavors while holding its own.
Other small plate dishes for the Farm and Market meal include a sweet potato, ginger, and turmeric samosa with curry goat’s milk yogurt sauce (paired with Vignoles). Dessert will be honey and apple sweet grits topped with Fence Stile blackberry compote and goat’s milk caramel sauce (paired with Vidal Blanc).
Smoking is one technique used to impart flavor and aroma to food. Its scent and taste connect with the primal parts of our brain and ancient appetites that learned how smoke adds character to food and drink consumed. Even when curls of smoke have dissipated, the aroma of smoke is a remnant of wood and vine that grew over years, served its purpose, and continues on its journey in an intangible form. Smoke is ethereal yet real like the memory of a remarkable meal or bottle of wine that makes a lasting impression long after the last bit and sip.
You cannot touch smoke. Smoke touches you. It sends a signal from past to present before continuing on for those ready to receive.
The first spoonful of chicken chorizo vegetable stew tastes rich and savory, slightly smoky with a faint residual heat. Hard nuggets of potatoes and carrots have slowly cooked into creamy, grainy morsels, rising as mountain ranges just above a sea of sienna-colored broth in the bowl. Scattered dark green islands of poblano pepper and specks of oregano form an archipelago. The broth glistens from chicken fat and tomato-chorizo stock, making each slurp feel more indulgent than wholesome and nutritious. Chunks and shredded bits of meat from chicken legs, thighs, and backs are distributed throughout the earthy stew.
Earlier this evening, I debated what I should eat for dinner after waking from an afternoon nap. My head was still groggy. My muscles sore from work over the weekend. I thought about visiting the newly-opened Black Sheep + Market, a farm-to-table restaurant and market from chef Michael Foust and his partners at The Farmhouse. Or, perhaps I could head to The Rieger for the debut of their new fall menu.
Recently, someone had shared a photo of the gargantuan pork tenderloin sandwich at The Firehouse on 20th Bar and Grill The image inspired a craving for the tenderloin and cold, cheap beer. I wrote about that impressive made-from-scratch sandwich three years ago. The sandwich is big enough to constitute two meals. Customers often buy an extra bun for fifty cents and take home the leftovers for a second meal.
However, after splashing cold water on my face, I resorted to peering inside the refrigerator. As often as I open the fridge, you’d think I would have its contents classified and memorized like it was my social security number. Whether it is before midnight, first thing in the morning, or just as hunger pangs inspire action for supper, I often take a gander inside the fridge. Sometimes I’ll also peek in the freezer and then double back to the fridge in case I missed something. At first, I’m reacquainting myself with what’s there or, more often, not there. Other times I open the door and look inside. I’m full of hope as if I’m scratching away at a lottery ticket to score $500 or a beef Wellington. Usually, I’m either assessing leftovers or calculating ingredients and what can be composed into a meal.
I opted for the container of chicken chorizo vegetable stew. Technically, the food wasn’t leftover but instead a dish I prepared a few days ago from various ingredients lying around. I threw them in the crockpot, cooked and seasoned the stew, and then stored it for later in the week. I waited impatiently for the stew to reheat in a deep saucepan on the stove. I could have abandoned the preparation and easily bolted for a restaurant. There, I could sit, drink, and indulge in someone else’s cooking. Yet, I’m glad I didn’t tonight.
I don’t mind spending money on food and drink prepared and served at local restaurants. Not only does it support the local economy, but it also breaks up the monotony of cooking and eating my food daily and nightly. Eating out provides ideas, inspiration and social interaction, a chance to see the results of another cook’s labor and creativity.
Sometimes eating a home-cooked meal provides its own reward. The sensory payoff of a dish’s flavor, aroma, and presentation makes the effort worthwhile. Tonight, the decision to stay home and eat rustic, hearty chicken chorizo vegetable stew paid off.
Two days ago, the last day of summer ended and autumn began in the northern hemisphere. The stretch of daylight has regressed as evening grows dark earlier. It’s a time for festivals, harvest and rituals that prepare us for darkness, cold weather and a slower pace for some. Eating simple meals like stew prepared at home offers comfort and satisfaction. And opening the refrigerator door, a daily ritual to peer from the outside in, is a sort of kitchen equinox that observes a transition from dark to light, from indecision to inspiration. The possibility of hope and pleasure that awaits serves as a reminder that I can nourish myself no matter how many meals await elsewhere far beyond the refrigerator door.
Thirty minutes past two in the birth of today. Unreal Ocean, a selection from a white noise generator app on my phone, fails to lull me to a deep sea sleep.
I stir and tumble out of bed like a clumsy gymnast impressing no one with my floor routine. Hunger tugs.
I scramble two eggs from Stanberry Community Farms. The eggs were nestled in a gray cardboard carrier. Each carton of eggs includes a slip of white paper eight-and-a-half inches wide and about an inch high. A handwritten message or poem is photocopied on the paper. The homespun message or observation bears a mark of humanity unlike any fortune cookie’s neat and pat wisdom printed in tiny typography.
Worry is a futile thing
It’s much like a rocking chair
although it keeps you occupied
It doesn’t get you anywhere
True enough. I save these slips of paper behind a magnet on the refrigerator. This lazy scrapbook reminds me that someone took the time to write and include a message in a carton of eggs produced by hens at a farm operated by a farmer an hour-and-a-half north of the bed where I can’t sleep.
I fold the scrambled egg whites and yolks into the blanket of a white flour tortilla, add yellow shredded cheese produced from some factory, and tuck the warm meal into a handheld roll. The morning breakfast doesn’t last long. It rouses hunger even more. I obey.
I hunt and peck in the refrigerator. Out comes a hunk of pork loin. Bunches of shiso mint, peppermint, and Italian parsley look like limp pom-poms from an underfunded junior high school in a town you’ve never heard of.
A black cast iron skillet is called up for duty. I slake its thirst with sunflower oil. Heat soaks into its dense hide.
I wash the herbs and cut a generous pinch from each bunch on a white cutting board. The nine-inch knife slices and minces the aromatic green leaves and stems like a scythe sails through stalks of wheat. I toss the herbs in a bowl.
The refrigerator is an easy jailbreak for a hunk of white onion and its partner, a lemon that’s been partially amputated. I liberate a narrow wedge of onion, mince it into a flash mob, and add the bits and pieces to the bowl of herbs. The amputated lemon cries a river after a rough squeeze. I lightly toss the mix with a fork, season it with a brief April snowstorm of kosher salt, and set it aside.
A single red baby potato doesn’t stand a chance against the knife. Sorry, babe. Slices lie flat, devoid of expression, still in shock.
The cast iron skillet is a teenage dragon, all fumes and attitude, smoking, just sitting there doing nothing.
Baby potato slices scream in the hot oil sauna. Sugars in the creamy white flesh slowly caramelize into golden brown.
I grab the pork loin and trim out an oval medallion about three-quarters of an inch think. Salt and pepper applies a tag-team seasoning whammy. One, two, pow, bang.
The potato slices are flipped, browned, removed, placed on a plate, and salted again for good measure.
The pork is presented as an offering to the dragon. It hisses with appreciation.
As the pork sears and sings one last song, I arrange six coins of browned potato in a circle on a white plate. I anoint the end of each slice with a dab of brown mustard.
I turn the pork cutlet over, sear it off, season it, and gently arrange it in the middle of the petals of potato. Next I spoon a generous amount of herb garnish atop the pork. The garnish adds much-needed color and a pop of savory mint-lemon flavor to each bite. The mustard’s sharpness offsets the light greasy potatoes and plays sidekick to juicy pork.
As I eat, deeper into the morning, I read a passage from “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” by Denis Johnson, p. 40. The character Bill Whitman, who is “just shy of sixty-three,” muses in bed, unable to sleep.
“I note that I’ve lived longer in the past, now, than I can expect to live in the future. I have more to remember than I have to look forward to. Memory fades, not much of the past stays, and I wouldn’t mind forgetting a lot more of it.”
“When Kansas Was America’s Napa Valley” is the title of an essay I wrote for the series What It Means to Be American, a project by The Smithsonian and Arizona State University in conjunction with Zócalo Public Square.
Below is an introductory excerpt from the essay. Visit the links below to read the entire essay.
When Kansas Was America’s Napa Valley
Located in the northeastern corner of Kansas, Doniphan County’s eastern edge is shaped like a jigsaw puzzle piece, carved away by the flowing waters of the Missouri River. The soil is composed of deep, mineral-rich silty loess and limestone, making it ideal for farming—and, it turns out, for growing grapes and making wine.
California wasn’t always America’s winemaking leader. During the mid-19th century, that distinction went to Kansas and neighboring Missouri, where winemakers and grape-growers led the U.S. wine industry in production. Bold entrepreneurs, industrious Kansas farmers—many of them German-speaking immigrants—produced 35,000 gallons of wine in 1872. That volume jumped more than six-fold by the end of the decade.
But the growth in Kansas’ wine industry (and its sister industry, brewing) coincided with dramatic changes in the state. From 1860 to 1880, Kansas’ population mushroomed from 107,206 to nearly one million people. Kansans battled over slavery in the Kansas-Missouri Border War (1854-1861) and again during the Civil War (1861-1865). Kansas vintners faced a dynamic and challenging moral, social, business, and political climate. The region’s civic and religious leaders railed against the use of alcohol, which they believed contributed to moral decay and spiritual rot, leading them to implement the first statewide prohibition on selling and manufacturing alcohol in the United States in 1881. For more than a century, this ban caused a slowdown from which the Free State’s winemakers are only now beginning to emerge.
Image caption: Still photograph of teetotaler women from the satirical short film Kansas Saloon Smashers (1901), which spoofs the Wichita temperance activist Carrie Nation. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.