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Some situations sharpen the appetite better than others.
You’ve experienced this, haven’t you? Senses are piqued, perceptions are expanded, every aspect of being is enlivened, made electric, distinct.
Food tastes better, deeper, richer.
Nothing produces this condition more effectively than a bit of excitement — agitation and activity give way to a surge of appetite, and the consumption of food produces a wave of endorphins.
A precious cycle: excitement to satiation.
The equation is clear: Agitation plus the right eats equals enhanced gustatory pleasure. Therefore, ultimate agitation should equal ultimate eating pleasure. A big blast of adrenaline-driven nervousness should create optimum eating conditions and maximum endorphin-soaked pleasure, right?
So, let’s get to it. You want the primo food experience?
Answer this question.
What are you going to eat just before THE END OF THE WORLD?
THE END OF THE WORLD is just around the corner. It’s the Mayan calendar thing — the End Day — Dec. 21. It’s all over, finito. No Christmas this year. The Mayans said so, and if you can’t believe the Mayans, who can you believe?
I’ve had different cataclysmic scenarios thrown at me, but the upshot is the whole shebang is ready to fly apart in December. It’s inevitable, it’s imminent and it ain’t gonna be pretty. This time, it’s for real!
There have been plenty of theories about the final blowup, and I’ve been worked up about all of them.
Aliens are rocketing toward the earth inside a fake planetoid in order to battle with a race of small but powerful gray beings who live in the bowels of the earth. This orb of ours is doomed, kids. What is now solid and sensible will soon be chaotic plasma.
Or, the cosmic fabric will soon be ripped by a profound supernatural imbalance. The space-time continuum is about to be shredded like a piece of cheap wrapping paper at the orphanage Christmas party. There are at least ten dimensions and we are about to experience every one of them, first hand.
Or, an asteroid is shooting through cold, dark space — a sinister glob of icy stone is hurtling toward a collision with a small town in the Ohio River Valley. It’s ice age time boys and girls, and only the voles will survive.
Or, a tectonic tango is about to begin, with the plates in the earth’s crust on the cusp of a wild geologic dance, set to grind away all traces of human existence. Mountain ranges will rise and fall in a moment’s time, seas will change location, the magnetic poles will reverse, Vancouver will cease to exist.
Or, cult-crazed berzerkers are going to empty petri dishes full of mutant organisms into the atmosphere. We’ll all grow tails, then we’ll die.
Or, a brutal one-world government will take control of all aspects of human society and force the entrapped populace to watch Jerry Springer reruns on television, 24-hours a day. We’ll all grow tails, then kill ourselves.
Or, there’s those darned chem trails being spewed into the atmosphere by commercial and military aircraft, the concoctions designed to make us vote Republican. For sure, we’ll kill ourselves.
Pick a scenario, any scenario.
But, this Mayan calendar thing … this one is for sure.
It’s gonna happen. It’s grim.
So, let’s cheer up and conceive a Millennium Menu, so we can deal with our inevitable demise, brains awash in endorphins.
It’s Dec. 20. You’ve got a few hours left and you’re hungry.
Hmmm. What’s it gonna be?
I asked Kathy this question, and she answered immediately, in her typical down-to-earth way. She should have been Amish.
“Pot roast, roasted vegetables and mashed potatoes.”
A bit Norman Rockwell, but very comfortable. All the males will wear bow ties, all the females will sport frilly aprons, all the kids will be rosy-cheeked, well-scrubbed and on their best behavior.
I posed the END OF THE WORLD menu question to a grumpy pal. He muttered for a moment then constructed his ideal last meal.
“Hot links, with chile, chopped onions, sauerkraut and cheese — Monterey jack. And there need to be some outrageous beans involved too. Really spicy. I’d dump the whole garlic thing into them.”
I should have known: Leave it to this guy to come up with a tailgate party prior to the final moment.
Another friend needed time. He wouldn’t succumb to impulse with such a grave matter at hand. Academic guy that he is, he pondered an answer for two days. He took notes, made charts, agonized over his choice.
Finally, he decided he would opt for a breakfast, THE END OF THE WORLD being, in a manner of speaking, the start of a brand new day.
He selected an omelet, “with all kinds of good Mexican spices, and jalapenos. And grits (Southerner, to the end!) on the side. I’ll need some strong coffee. Make it Colombian.”
Good choice of beverage; if you are going to take part in the ultimate disaster, you should be wide awake, nerves buzzing with a monumental hit of caffeine.
I, too, had some trouble making my choice.
When you spend most of your time thinking about food, it is difficult — even when faced with THE END OF THE WORLD — to select one dish as the last you will taste, as the last fuel for the paramount endorphin experience.
I took considerable time paring down my options.
Tuna sashimi and some sushi — tuna, yellowtail, eel and shrimp — with shoyu and wasabi.
Carpaccio of salmon with slivered onion and capers, like they serve at old what’s his name’s place just a few blocks from the Louvre.
Duck confit, in a cassoulet.
Lobster thermidor (a tip of the hat to tradition).
Molé, complex, dark, irritatingly equatorial.
Filet of turbot with a simple sauce of butter and parsley.
All excellent choices, but then it struck me: Considering my extraordinary immaturity, why not retreat to childhood, to something fraught with sentimental value, gloriously alive with taste?
There’s only one place to go … back to Aunt Hazel, and the stuffed rigatoni recipe she learned from Dewey Bellodi. A fat kid’s delight — and the perfect way to fill up, to carbo load prior to THE END OF THE WORLD.
I used to help Aunt Hazel put this beauty together when I was a kid. I stood on a chair next to her kitchen table, steam fogging the thick lenses of my glasses, my little fingers busy stuffing the pasta, watching Aunt Hazel as she fussed and streaked around the kitchen chopping ingredients, tending pots, slamming oven doors. I fumbled with the pasta as I listened to her chatter about the people next door who had drinking problems and no wonder their two sons were in reform school and there was never a sight so incredible as the procession down The Mall during Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. Let them say what they will, Karl, but the Royal Family is the cornerstone of civilized society. When they go, the mundane will triumph.
Indeed, but not even the Royal Family can delay THE END OF THE WORLD.
You’ll need some time to prepare this dish, so let’s be glad we have a firm date for THE END OF THE WORLD. Some people will run out to loot stores in order to get in a day or two of high definition television before Zero Hour. Others will cook, crack the best bottle of wine they own, and eat.
Try to get to the grocery store before mass panic sets in and rioters destroy the joint. Pay for what you need: granted, it’s a mere gesture at this stage of the game, but good manners are a blessing during a crisis, the mark of a higher kind of being.
Make a half-and-half meat mixture of high quality do-it-yourself ground beef and ground pork (oh, wait, the lights are about to go out, so who cares about saturated fats and cholesterol — make it hot Italian sausage), salt and pepper, lots of minced garlic, oregano and basil, chopped Italian parsley, some freshly-grated Parmesan, a beaten egg and enough fresh, milk-dampened breadcrumbs to knit it all together.
Since time is limited, purchase a bottle of decent spaghetti sauce.
Make a couple cups of bechamel. Use lots of butter, whole milk and cream (refer to saturated fat and cholesterol, above). Season with salt and pepper and a touch of freshly ground nutmeg.
Cook medium-size rigatoni until half done. Do not cook all the way to tender, since this dish is going to bake in the oven. But, given the circumstances, if you make a mistake and the rigatoni is bit overdone, who’s gonna complain?
Carefully stuff each rigatoni with the meat mixture and place in a single layer in a greased baking dish. If there is a chubby little gap-toothed guy in the house, enlist his aid and yap relentlessly about members of a syphilitic German family who ascended to the throne of England then changed their name during World War I to hide their identity and save their sorry rear ends. Add that they remain royalty however and, thus, are better than the alternative. Note the size of the males’ ears.
Spoon a layer of white sauce over the rigatoni and top with dollops of spaghetti sauce. Sprinkle with grated Parmesan. Bake at 350 for at least an hour and a half.
I intend to serve the stuffed rigatoni with some warm, crusty bread, a carload of butter and a plate of greens, dressed with a simple vinaigrette.
I’ll load my plate and go out on the deck.
I’ll pop the top on that bottle of snooty Cabernet I’ve been saving for a special occasion (and, whoo boy, is this gonna be special!), sniff, swirl, savor the legs, note the lush berry-riddled bouquet (“with chocolate overtones and a rich oaky base”), give Kathy a smooch and sit back in my favorite chair.
Just as the fiery glow appears in a suddenly dark sky, just as the approaching shock wave crests Nipple Mountain and the Continental Divide, I’ll experience a blast of adrenaline, make a mental note concerning those incredible Mayans, shovel in a mouthful of those gorgeous rigatoni and …