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I Was A Late Starter When It Came To Cooking... But It All Worked Out

I grew up thinking the kitchen was a foreign, highly specialized place and not meant for me, except when I wanted to sneak in and grab something out of the fridge. I never washed a dish, poured milk over some dry cereal, opened a can or made a sandwich. Tragic! I was taught that that was girls’ work. My mom made our meals; my sisters may have helped in the kitchen. Wait, hold on— let me ask them. I just called Fern. She said she and my other sister, Michelle, didn’t help too much. “We pre-heated the oven… set the table,” she said. “We didn’t help with cooking. She was a horrible cook. Sometimes we washed the dishes, I think... We didn't help much.”

Then I went to college. My first year I lived in a dorm and ate my meals in the cafeteria. I didn’t pay much attention to food. I had never noticed my mother was a bad cook until my sister mentioned it a few minutes ago. Instead, I noticed my grandma was a great cook and it was always a treat to go eat over there. Look, “running away from home” for me was getting on a bus and going to my grandparents’ place in Bensonhurst. Anyway, the cafeteria food was just fine and I didn’t really understand why everyone was always complaining about it.

My sophomore year was a little different. Dean Tilley told me I was a bad influence on the other kids— I was the main campus drug dealer by then; the main county drug dealer if you want to believe the Suffolk County police. Anyway, Dean Tilley told me I couldn’t live in the dorms anymore. Most of the cool kids lived off campus anyway, so I was happy to move. My first house was a tacky new split level house in a thrown together suburban development walking distance from the campus. I don’t remember how I wound up there but there were 5 women and they welcomed me and one even gave me her bedroom and bunked with one of the others! They also did all the food prep, playing right into a weakness I still didn’t know I had to overcome, the sooner the better.

Then I found a girlfriend, Martha, and we moved into our own place— with some roommates— far from campus. She was a great cook— like a creative, conscious food maker. She was also a vegetarian, a state I was barely aware of. Since she was making the food and since she was at least as good as grandma, I instantly became a vegetarian too and I happily stayed that way— except for occasional fish— for the next 5 decades. She saved my life... even my doctor says so now.

So I went from the feeble state I just described to: Howie, master chef. I’ll briefly explain the transition. I more or less graduated and Martha had another year to go but we decided to spend the summer in Europe. We flew over on Icelandic Air ($99 to Luxembourg from NYC if you spent at least one night in Iceland) and then took a train to Wiesbaden, where VW made their camper vans, one of which I had ordered for $2,500 or $3,500; I can’t remember. That was my home for the next several years, not Wiesbaden, the van.

Martha had already turned me into a gourmand and we ate really delicious food, even if it was just sandwiches she made while I drove. Even the simplest food is much better in Europe. But in Spain, Portugal and Morocco there were wonderful inexpensive restaurants too. It was all over after the Isle Wight festival when Martha had to go back to the U.S. to finish school and I had to decide what to do with the rest of my life. I recall Dylan performing “I Threw It All Away” in the misty rain during the festival (this clip is of the actual show; I just found it on YouTube) and I wondered if that was what I was doing.

I dropped Martha off at the airport— feeling like my life was ending— and stayed with a famous groupie I had always warmly welcomed to the Stony Brook concerts, Susie Marijuana, for a few days in London before deciding to drive to India. I plan to spend plenty of time writing about the amazing experience of driving from London through Europe to Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Ceylon, Nepal and back but today we’re just talking about cooking and eating. After Martha left, I don’t remember eating anything ’til we got to Bulgaria. I mean I ate, it just wasn’t anything memorable.

(Background: I had no money, so I picked up a van-full of fellow travelers who were headed East and they would share the cost of gas and tolls, etc for the convenience of the van. Most people didn’t last long— for one reason or another— but eventually I had a whole crew of people I was happy to drive halfway around the globe with.)

What was so good about Bulgaria? I decided to get off the Hippie Trail and drive due east from Sofia to Burgas and up to Varna instead of southeast to Turkey. I left my crew in Burgas and told them that if they wanted, I’d meet them back there in 2 weeks after I explored eastern Bulgaria alone. Well, not exactly alone. I met two kids in Burgas who were excited about practicing English and driving around Bulgaria with me. They showed me the country and were my gateway into a non-touristic world I would never have seen. We ate wonderful meals every night, usually on collective farms with these amazing, generous famers who not only fed us delicious meals but loaded me up with food that lasted all the way to Afghanistan.

After Bulgaria came Istanbul, a city with a fantastic cuisine. I still love going back there and eating in their fantastic restaurants. Ever see the movie, Midnight Express? I was there, eating my meals in the Pudding Shop, when the real life version it was based on happened a decade earlier. Anyway, we were in the Islamic world now and people take joy in sharing their hospitality with strangers. We ate delicious food all across rural Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan.

It was in Afghanistan that I realized how lucky I was to be a vegetarian. Everyone traveling the Hippie Trail was really sick in Kabul. Ever hear of the Kabul Runs? It comes on with no warning, not even a cramp. It’s horrible. Everyone had it but me. They were eating meat; I wasn’t. The meat was in the open air markets and covered with shit-eating flies. Thanks, Martha.

Let me skip ahead a year or so. I’m penniless and at the end of my rope in Amsterdam. I don’t know what’s next. I didn’t want to go back to the States, which was still on a murderous rampage in Southeast Asia but I didn’t know anyone in Holland and I had no way of making any money that I could think of. I was still living in my van. The city-owned meditation center, the Kosmos, had a macrobiotic restaurant. A healthy, filling, delicious meal cost about a dollar. I could handle that. I ate every meal there. The people who worked there got to know me and invited me to wash dishes for my meals, which I found very meditative and relaxing. Soon I was working there full time and learning every job. Eventually the head cook, Marie, taught me how to cook and eventually I became a chef and later the manager. Some people liked my food a lot and I even had other job offers from restaurants in Amsterdam and other cities. I went to Berlin for a few months and taught people in a similar situation how to run a restaurant.

Once I moved back to the U.S., I didn’t have much time for full-time cooking until the pandemic grounded everyone. Now I’m a chef again. Roland says he prefers my food to any restaurant, but that might have to do with portion size. I don’t recall ever seeing the photo embedded up top. I found it when I was looking-- in vain-- for a picture of Otto. It’s me and Frances, one of my co-workers at the Kosmos and someone who helped me expand my cooking skills for several years. I don’t know her last name but I have it in a book of horoscopes I made which I’ve been looking for so I can remember my son’s name. I’d love to get back in touch with her. This is what she wrote on the back on the photo:

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