Music'al Notes

Eating

“If you touch me again,” I yelled, “I will kill you”— and I meant it.

I travel quite a lot, and often the high point of the day is eating in local restaurants.

China.

On one of my many trips to China, I brought my son Ilan with me. Ilan is a chef of modest fame and loves to eat and try new things.

In Guangzhou we went out to a famous restaurant that specializes in exotic ingredients. After wading through various items like crocodile head and stinky tofu (disgusting), drunken shrimp (literally live shrimp swimming in alcohol that, slowly stop moving so you can pick them up, decapitate and shell them then pop them in your mouth) deep fried silkworms and two varieties of snake, Ilan called me over and said, “Dad we must try these.” He showed me a box full of large black beetles. They were about two inches long and very much alive. I demurred but Ilan insisted and we ordered them.

They arrived a few minutes later and had been sautéed in chili oil with scallions. They looked the same but they weren’t moving. I put one in my mouth and bit down. It crunched just as I thought it would and burst open. A yellow pus-like custard oozed through my teeth. I looked forlornly at Ilan and he said, “These are great.” He then gobbled down some more.

Italy.

My wife and I were driving through Tuscany and decided to look for a restaurant. We were descending towards the Mediterranean coast and entered a town. It was poor and run down and my wife Rita said that as Tuscany is so beautiful, why would we want to eat in such an ugly town? It was a logic that I couldn’t dispute so I made a U-turn and started to drive back the way we came. A few kilometers up the road we saw a sign advertising a restaurant at the next intersection. We hung a left and continued down a secondary road for about 20 minutes. I was about to give up when another sign with an arrow said restaurant ahead. Fifteen minutes later we came to a building nestled in some cypress trees. We entered into a yard that had about 20 cars parked in it. All of them had Swedish license plates. The building appeared to be some sort of hotel or hostel, but there was no one around. We walked through the corridor and entered a courtyard in the back.  There were some tables and chairs strewn around and the whole place was a bit messy. There was a makeshift kitchen set up near one of the entrances and a canopy was strung over one corner next to the wall. Sprawled out underneath, a fat man and a younger skinnier version of him were fast asleep, snoring. As we approached, the fat man snorted, woke up and rubbed his eyes.

I said, “Ristorante?”

“Si,si, entrare,” and he pointed to one of the tables.

We sat down and a few minutes later, after tucking his undershirt into his pants, he came over.  He produced a hand written menu and sat down beside us to help us choose. His English was quite good.

All the pastas were handmade by him and his brother. His mother made the sauces. The fish was Orata or Spigola, (all locally caught) there was Agnello (lamb) Manzo (beef) Vitello (veal) and Antara (duck)

We then noticed that there was a vegetable garden on the side of the courtyard and we started to experience that wonderful feeling you get when you realize something special is about to happen.

The meal was spectacular and the wine (Tuscan, of course) was delicious.

After the feast, I asked about the Swedish cars. He told us that every year for the past ten years, groups of Swedish tourists book this hostel for the summer months and a rotating group of Swedes spend their vacations there. He and his brother have the cooking concession. They cook them breakfast and dinner and during the day the Swedes, who all love to hike, explore the Tuscan countryside.

They told us that no one ever comes for lunch and it was their pleasure to cook for us.

Israel.

During the Yom Kippur war in 1973, my wife and I volunteered to work in a Kibbutz in the Galilee. It was situated next to an Israeli air force base and planes were taking off and landing all day long. Watching a fully armed Mirage F1 taking off at night is an awesome and fearful sight.

It was apple picking time and my wife and I had the stimulating job of sorting apples – thousands of them. They were bobbing in large vats of water and we had to sort the good from the bad and then sort them by size and quality. There are no words to describe the tedium of this job. Fortunately, I was called back to work after two weeks and we happily fled back home to Ra-anana.

It was a miserable time in Israel. Some of our friends were at the front. The fiancé of my wife’s cousin was a tank commander and he had disappeared. (His body was later returned from Syria thanks to Henry Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy.)

To cheer us up one night, we decided to go out for a meal. This was a big deal as we had little money and never ate out. We visited Mandy’s in Tel Aviv. Mandy Rice Davies owned Mandy’s. She along with Christine Keeler were high class “call girls” whose intimacy with the rich and famous eventually led to the downfall of the British war minister, John Profumo and the discrediting of the British Conservative Government. This was a big scandal in the early sixties and as a seventeen year old adolescent, I avidly scoured the newspapers for any salacious content. After the scandal abated, Mandy married an Israeli, moved to Tel Aviv and opened a restaurant.

The restaurant was low key and rather elegant. It was half full when we sat down. We ordered our meal and during the main course, I noticed this burly man with sunglasses checking out the place. Two other men in casual clothes, who moved from table to table looking at everyone, soon joined him. This seemed odd when suddenly, Moshe Dayan, Israel’s minister for defense walked in. He was accompanied by a couple of Israeli generals and a small entourage. They sat at the table next to us and seemed to be in a jocular mood. Their conversation was animated and judging by their levity, we deduced that something monumental was about to happen. This raised our spirits enormously and we went home feeling good for the first time in three weeks.

The next day the cease-fire with Egypt was announced.

France.

On a recent visit to Paris, my wife informed that we were going out to eat one night with an old art school buddy. He was an Israeli who had finished art school, subsequently moved to Paris and married a Frenchwoman. We arrived at the restaurant and a few minutes later, they walked in and joined us at the table. As Moshe sat down, I smelt the most god-awful stink. I couldn’t believe it. The guy must have farted when he sat down. I couldn’t breathe. We made the usual small talk and then he did it again as I experienced a wave of nausea.  I wanted to tell Rita but the only secret language we had was Hebrew. The food came and again he let go but it was even worse than the other two. I almost threw up and had trouble talking. I subsequently bowed out of the conversation. I really didn’t know what to do when, after the dishes had been cleared, the waiter came over to us and said, “I want to apologize for the smell, we have had a sewer break in the street and as compensation, we would like to offer dessert for free.”

Portugal.

On our last day in Portugal we decided to eat out in one of the many town squares in the heart of Lisbon. Our family, my wife, son and daughter, mother-in-law, my sister and brother-in-law, and their children had just spent ten days in Lagos in the Algarve. Lagos is a pretty town but it had been inundated with British tourists and residents and the character of the town was marred by their influence. Restaurants sold fish and chips, warm beer was available in the pubs and copies of the Daily Mail and Daily Express were everywhere. Food stores sold British canned food. The nadir was something called “Breakfast in a can”, or, “All day breakfast”. The slogan on the can read, “For an all day tasty filler with, Baked Beans, Sausages, Mushrooms, Pork and Egg Nuggets, Bacon”. Need I say more?

We had rented a beautiful house for this family reunion. The food markets had fresh seafood and produce and as we had a couple of chefs in the family, we ate well.

The restaurant in Lisbon was one of many catering to tourists. Most menus were rather similar, fish stews, roast suckling pig, rabbit, baccala (dried salt cod), “arroz de galo” (chicken and rice). The one we choose featured, “naco na pedra” (steak cooked on a hot stone).  We ordered some appetizers and a bottle of wine. At one point I went to the bathroom. The way there took me past the kitchen and I noticed some pieces of dried out, disgusting looking meat being reheated on the grill.  On returning I saw that the main courses were already served and on the plate in front of my daughter, I saw that shitty piece of meat I had seen on the grill. My daughter was trying to cut into it with little success when I said, “Stop eating, we’re leaving”. I calculated how much we owed for the starters, called the waiter over, handed him the money and told them that the food was unacceptable and we were leaving. We stood up to exit and he said, “Order something else”.

I said, “No! This food is an insult”

He put his hand on my arm and suggested we discuss this in the kitchen. I looked in and there were two large chefs with knives in their hands. I said no again and we started to walk away. He said he would call the police and I said, “Call the police. I want you to call the police”.

Until recently Portugal was a dictatorship and calling the police probably wasn’t a good idea, “They will be on his side,” said my wife.

By this time, the square was deathly quiet and everyone was watching. I started walking and that was when he grabbed me and a fury swelled inside me. Memories of all the bad meals I had eaten as a tourist over the years flowed through my head.

“If you touch me again,” I yelled, “I will kill you,” and I meant it. I went right up to him and stared into his eyes. He went white and slunk away. My wife was shocked, my children were full of admiration and I was spent. It took me a whole day to calm down.