I followed my brother through the drive thru at the burger joint. It is not that we had a car, we were not even old enough to drive. It is that they never allowed my roller blades inside, or as my brother liked to call them, “pussy boots.” He skateboarded, wore baggy jeans, a chain wallet, and could make armies tremble by the mere mention of his older-brotherness, at least in my eyes. He always got two double cheeseburgers and I would do the same. My 11-year-old 80-pound frame struggled to keep up with my brother’s imposing figure complete with budding beard, and digestion was always a process. I gained weight and we looked more like brothers than ever before.
This was back when I lived for supermarket hotdogs with fake cheese miraculously melded into the middle. I lived for white bread. After days of playing basketball with friends, three point contests and buzzer beaters, after we had designed t-shirts with sidewalk chalk for our beloved Sports Club USA and talked about building a score board to rest next to the hoop on the back of my garage, after I finally got hungry, I ran inside, took two pieces of the fantastically fluffy substance, removed the crust, made a tight ball and shoved the dense nutritionally void mass into my mouth and returned to the cement court. I never wanted dinner then, not only because my ball of bread was expanding in my stomach, but also dinner tasted. It tasted of food. It tasted of salt and pepper and spice and protein. All of these concepts were foreign and undesirable. I expressed my patriotism and American spirit by eating food so processed that it would survive any unjust war in which we engaged. Either that or it was just simpler my way.
My brother ate meat almost exclusively. He was employed by Plunkette Furniture as a stock boy moving furniture and the animal protein fit his carthorse after-school job. As his shoulders grew wider and his forearms more assertive, his hunger for meat grew exponentially. I tended toward the bun. He tended toward the burger. Hence the shock that ensued when he announced casually at the dinner table over taco bell that he was becoming vegetarian. “No more meat,” he said. By then, his skateboards and baggy jeans had been replaced by a poet’s pen and a vintage sport coat. The vegetarianism fit. My parents, supportive as ever, applauded my brother’s decision and immediately my mom starting conceiving recipes, which was no easy task, as my brother did not particularly like vegetables, or fruits, or grains, or legumes.
We would wrestle as brothers do. He was always stronger. He gave me a black eye once at his new apartment. It was an accident and he was quick to begin doting. He offered me ice but he had none. I asked for a steak and we both laughed and he put a frozen pizza on my face. The swelling went down and that is when I coined the term, “pizzatarian.”
A pizzatarian is a vegetarian who subsides on cheese and boca burgers, chick’n patties and tortilla chips. When he wants to feel that he has eaten especially healthy, he has a cookies-and-cream protein bar and a chocolate peanut butter smoothie with a boost of some chemical powder with a name like vitaburst.
Being the little brother I am, though, I eventually followed suit. My days of being happily drunk on simple carbohydrates were over as thoughts of B-12 deficiencies crept into my consciousness. Vegetarianism caused us both to think more about food. We started cooking. I calculated food miles and read about pesticides and endocrine disruptors. I scared myself into eating only local and organic. My brother, now working at an Italian risotorante, would watch as the chefs would prepare eggplant parmesan and caprese salads. A bowl full of spinach was not yet his idea of deliciousness, but steps were taken away from processed soy.
Yet for some reason I still wore the pussy boots, even in the kitchen. He would make falafel from scratch. I would make saffron risotto. He perfected pad-thai. I brought out an artichoke dip in a home-baked sourdough bread bowl. Recipe books were a thing of the past as our own artful concoctions came out of the oven. Vegetarian Thanksgiving became a competition; his golden mashed potatoes against my rosemary pumpkin soup.
We ate out differently as well. I chose raw restaurants where none of the food is cooked above 107 degrees and you can order a side of enzymes. My brother, after learning some Spanish from the chefs at the ristorante, knew where to find the perfect burrito. When he moved out, his favorite burrito corner spot was a deciding factor. He moved into the Puerto Rican neighborhood.
I moved to Paris.
I learned about how to describe the bouquet of a glass of wine and how it may or may not be long-in-the-mouth and do so in French. My brother knew what mix of oils made the perfect homemade French fry. He spoke Chicago street Spanish. I spoke 19th century poet French.
To this day whenever I make a dish with a reduction or an infused foam, my brother still asks me in front of my family, in front of whoever my girlfriend is at the time, if it is a good time for me to come out to mom and dad. I do not know when knowledge of truffle oil and what years provided a good grape harvest became immediately demasculating but if it is, I will wear the pussy boots because chicks dig ‘em.
I do know that I could cook my brother out of the kitchen and that he would say the same about me. I know that I would have more than just a pizza to offer him for his eye after a bar fight but I have no idea who is more likely to get into one. I see the conversation leading up to his brawl being over a woman or some insult directed toward a friend. I see mine as an off hand comment by some Frenchmen about the faults in the American educational system. His would be over beer and mine would be over a bottle of Absinthe.
I wrote this piece over a year ago. But lately, I have a feeling that all that as changed. I feel like through completely opposite paths we are arriving at the same place. We’d get along in the kitchen now, even collaborate on a dish.
And my sister, whose food path I know even less about, but I am sure is far more interesting, involving rainforest cafés and more restaurants than I could count, to a steady diet of pints of Guinness and nothing more, but my sister, my dear dear sister, I am sure, could now cook us both into oblivion with her top chef of a boyfriend. (Who you also have to love for his ability to enjoy a fresh herbed truffled white wine reduction as much as fried oxtails and chitterlings.
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