Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Shopsin's of My Very Own

Dear Mr. Shopsin,

This letter may be a little long. I apologize for that; I tend to get a little verbose, especially when I think I have something important to say.

I want you to know, before I begin, that I'm sitting in my kitchen, part of which is pictured to the left, composing this letter after having made myself an unconventional brunch inspired by the upcoming Passover week: matzoh ball soup, latkes and bacon. Yeah, I know, which of these things is not like the others?

Several years ago, 2002 in fact, I ran into a New Yorker article about your know...the one written by Calvin Trillin. Two things fascinated me: the crazy menu items (Cotton Picker Gumbo Melt Soup, the Egyptian Burrito, and Mashed Potato Radish Soup, to name a few) and the two photos showing a steampunked warren of a kitchen piled high with nooks and crannies for storing odd-shaped implements, spices, stockpots, and various other sundries. Google was young then, and I couldn't find anything about your strange and mysterious restaurant. I was desperate to find out what went into the making of Indomalekian Sunrise Stew. Or Taco Fried Chicken. I came up empty handed, and so I meant to keep the article. But, as these things usually go, I forgot about it and threw the magazine in the recycling.

For years I could not remember the name of the crazy diner with the curmudgeonly but brilliant short-order cook. Every now and then, I would attempt a Google search, looking for "Greenwich Village" and "restaurants" to no avail. And then, as luck would have it, I was rummaging around in the documentaries on Netflix, looking for a film more edifying than my usual Asian horror flick, when I ran into the title I Like Killing Flies. It seemed like something that might satisfy both my yen (pardon the pun) for violent horror films while somehow educating me at the same time. Then I read the description. "Oh, my God," I said to myself, "I think I've found the holy grail I've been looking for all these years." I hit the "Watch Instantly" button, and there was the diner, in all its greasy, messy glory.

I cried at the end of the movie, yes, partly because Eve died (and I'm so sorry for your loss), but also because of what you said about raising your kids. You see, the week previous I had yelled at one of my classes for not paying attention during a mini-lesson, gave them a pop quiz over the lesson, and put them in a seating chart--as if they were high school students (I teach college writing). I felt like a bitch and couldn't seem to shake the guilt. But then you talked about your philosophy that we're all just assholes who occasionally do good things. I've read a lot of philosophers. I've read a lot of books on Zen Buddhism, meditation, getting organized to relieve the stress of life, etc. basically wasting my time when the person who held the key to the universe was happily busy flipping burgers in Greenwich Village all along. The guilt I felt over being so harsh to my students suddenly lifted: we were all just a bunch of assholes. That was mostly what made me cry.

After watching the documentary, I Googled your name. How fortunate Google has grown up, because the first item in the search results was a link to your cookbook on Amazon. I had to have it. I read it from cover to cover in one day, even reading the instructions for every dish. And I'll be damned if I didn't cry at the end of it, too. And not because of all the onion chopping required by almost every dish that ever appeals to me, either (the onion, is without a doubt, my favorite edible thing in the whole wide world).

The last sentence reads, "On the simplest, most basic level, I have never been happier than I am today." I realized in that moment that I could not say the same thing. That was what made me cry. Weep, actually. Tears, blubbering, the whole nine yards.

If someone were to have asked me a few weeks ago if I liked to cook, I would have said, "I hate it, but I'm very good at it." I realize now that I love to cook; I'm good at it because I not only love it, but I practiced at it pretty hard in the early days of my adulthood. No one puts 100% into practicing something they don't love. The problem is that I have been spending the better part of my eight-hour work day doing stuff that isn't covered in my personal mission statement, so I was coming home mentally, psychically, and physically exhausted, too tired to cook.

Too tired to cook, too tired to concentrate on my teaching and my students, to backpack, to hike, to canoe, to go with my cousin to take her horses for a ride, to write poetry, to read, to work on the novel I conceived of 10 years ago. All because I spent the day updating Web sites and creating Excel spreadsheets.

So I stepped down from some responsibilities, happily watched some other responsibilities come to an end, and vowed not to take on anything that didn't directly tie into doing the things I love. I also re-arranged the kitchen, trying to get everything a person needs to cook as close to the range as possible, which, from the scenes in the documentary, I gleaned is what you try to do in your own kitchen. I decided that a short-order cook probably has better recipes for getting dinner on the table in a hurry than a certain 30-minute celebrity I won't name here. And I started cooking again. I began with your ingenious African Green Curry Soup, using green onions (of course), collard greens, green beans, peas, cabbage, and spinach. So weird: really? peanut butter? and Thai green curry paste? are you sure? But so damn fast, so damn healthy, and so damn good!

I swear I shat green for a week, but I was, and still am, the happiest I've been in a long time. Perhaps even the happiest I've ever been.

With sincerest admiration and gratitude,

Jennifer Deering

And for those of you who read this blog I give you three recipes, none of which comes from Kenny Shopsin. You want his recipes? Buy his book: Eat Me.

Vegetable Stock
This is a great way to use up aging (but not rotten, for crying out loud) veggies.
1 onion
1 carrot
1 sweet tater
1 Idaho tater
As much garlic as you can find in the bottom of your vegetable drawer
3 celery stalks
6 cups of cold water
1 - 2 t. salt
pinches of the dried herbs of your choice (I use herbes de provence)
10 peppercorns
1 T. nutritional yeast
1 T. miso or Bragg Liquid Aminos

Chop your vegetables into large pieces--at least one inch long; quarter the onions. Leave the skins on (unless the onion skin has developed mold). Combine everything except the last two ingredients in a stock pot. Bring it to a boil, then let it simmer until all the vegetables have gone completely soft. Cool, and then strain. Put the vegetables on the compost pile.

Add the nutritional yeast and miso/liquid aminos. Ladle into three-cup containers and freeze for later.

Matzoh Ball Soup
4 eggs, separated
1 cup matzoh meal
1 T. baking powder
2 T. butter or olive oil
as much freshly ground white pepper as you can stand (I recommend going to the Asian store and buying Vietnamese white pepper; it's the best)
a pinch of cayenne
salt to taste (I go for 1 t.)

two carrots, chopped
two stalks celery, chopped
one onion minced
7 c. vegetable stock

Matzoh balls: Whip the egg whites until stiff. Mix the egg yolks with the baking powder, melted butter, pepper, salt, and cayenne. Gently fold into the whites. Add the matzoh meal in small portions, again gently folding it in. Place in the fridge for 1/2 hour. Shape into balls about the size of a ping-pong.

Soup: Saute the mirepoix (that's fancy-schmancy for "all those vegetables the recipe required me to chop") until the vegetables are soft. Bring the broth to a boil, add the vegetables, and deglaze the pan with a little of the broth. Add the matzoh balls, and turn the heat down to simmer for about 15 minutes. Eat.

Okay, so I cheat at this. Kenny Shopsin cheats, too: he does not make his own vegetable broth.
1 24 oz. package frozen O'brien potatoes, defrosted (this is the cheat: they already contain onions)
2 eggs
2 egg whites
2/3 c. flour
1 t. baking powder
1 t. garlic powder
1 t. salt
as much freshly ground white pepper as you can stand
olive oil for frying
sour cream or apple sauce

After you've defrosted the potato mixture, put it on top of several layers of paper towels, pull the towels into a ball and squeeze the ball over the sink until you have gotten as much water out of the potatoes as you can.

In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs until thick (if you replaced the word "eggs" with...nevermind). Add the flour, baking powder, and seasonings. Mix until the flour is fully incorporated. Add the potato mixture. Mix well.

Heat a skillet till it's good and hot. Add olive oil. Swish it around the skillet. Add latke mixture in large spoonfuls and immediately smash with a spatula. You'll know one side of the potato pancake is brown when it can be easily flipped. Brown the other side. Drain on paper towels. Fry in batches, adding oil as necessary.

Eat with sour cream or apple sauce. Or both if you feel like living dangerously.

If you have leftovers, freeze them. Thawed and baked in an oven, they come out pretty good.


  1. I love this post. Sorry I didn't see it sooner. Picture of your kitchen reminds me of Julia Child's. I cried too at the end of that movie. The whole Shopsin family stuck with me for a while after I saw the film. My favorite scene is when they are going down the street to look at the new place, walking like an unruly band of gunfighters.

  2. I actually sent the letter to him, with a different I had already posted at my old site on Tripod ( I've yet to hear from him, but then it took Derrida several months to reply to the letter I sent him, may he rest in peace.

  3. Oh, and BTW, I saw a slideshow of Child's kitchen as it is installed at the Smithsonian. That's where I got the idea for the pegboard. So you're right on the money!