The legendary chef answers the question…What did you eat today, Jeremiah Tower?
One of my heroes is the chef Alexis Soyer, and not just because he invented the modern kitchen. I like the fact that he is one of the inventors, also modern, of simplicity. “It is against my principle,” he wrote, “to have any unnecessary ornament in a dinner.” He knew how to make much of not very much, taking pains with the most modest of dishes. Which is why the mid-19th century London novelist William Makepeace Thackeray (Vanity Fair) once broke a dinner engagement and crossed the road to Soyer, who was dishing up boiled bacon and beans. But not all was reformation at his famous Reform Club, and occasionally Soyer delved into a less modest dish (another reason I love him) like the one when he took the plump little noix that we know as the “Oyster” from the back of various fowl. In this case from capons, grouse, pheasants, partridges, plovers, quails, snipe, woodcock, and pigeons. Not content just with trying to find such oysters in the back of a quail, he cooked them all in the fat of green turtles. Either upper or lower shell, not sure which, but if you were from New Orleans at the time you would know which one was considered best. I am already swooning as I think of this dish, especially for its delicious over-the-top-but-still-masterly-restrained-touch garnishes. The braised combs of cocks, slices of black truffles, chopped white mushrooms, and thinly sliced asparagus tips. For dessert there was a boar’s head made from sponge cake, the whole thing shaped and smoothed in chocolate icing, its tusks made of pastry paste, its eyes “fierce red cherries,” and eyebrows made of pistachio marzipan. No wonder, then, that I was a bit daunted when trying to decide what to cook for dinner today.
The chicken heads at the chicken woman in Santiago market produced no menu. The pig lungs hanging up on hooks at the next stall were also non-productive. Wasn’t in the mood for testicles and I didn’t see any cockscombs. All the wings had been sold as the sun came up, and I wasn’t with it. But the pile of “huevos de patio” caught my eye. Those eggs collected in the backyards of the pueblo, raising the chickens somewhere out in the Yucatecan jungle. Back at the house browsing the 1973 Salvador Dali cookbook called Les Diners de Gala (punning on his wife’s name Gala and gala dinners), I looked at and passed on making “Thousand Year Old Eggs,” “Sea Scallops with Soft Boiled Eggs,” or sponge cake for “The Breast of Venus.” I would love to have done a version of my favorite Tete de Veau with a hard-boiled egg Remoulade Sauce using “Ox Snout” as he suggests, but nothing hanging on nearby hooks looked like the nose of anything. Was I really going to have to settle for an omelet? Wandering over to the vegetable stall to look for little white onions and artichokes, I passed my breakfast taco stand, La Lupita. It was early so they still had the delicacies that are usually devoured by regulars by nine o’clock. There in a little dish keeping warm were what I knew (as a regular) to be lamb brain fritters. It was one of those eureka moments. Bought a few and took them home. Just finished making a frittata with the chopped up brains mixed into the eggs with butter-stewed onions (there were no artichokes), garlic crushed with salt, and chopped cilantro leaves. Will serve it with a thick sauce of cilantro stems crushed in my molcajete with just a little Thai green curry paste and moistened with a broth perfumed with lime leaves off the tree next to my pool. After a few tequilas I might even believe that I am on Laem Sing Beach in Phuket. // Jeremiah Tower