Monday, February 22, 2010

Waffle House

When traveling in the South one absolutely must visit local diners around breakfast time. Here I am in Canton, North Carolina. As a child I used to go to camp near here. I completely forgot about the smell, that awful smell, that fills the whole area from time to time because of the paper mill. En route to Charlotte to catch a plane back home to Tartu tomorrow, I couldn’t resist a short detour to Canton early this morning. And the awful smell made me want to eat at none other than—the Awful Waffle.

Waffle House is an American diner chain, especially popular among highway drivers. If you’re in a hurry, just go here because you already know what the food will be like. That’s why Americans eat at McDonald’s in Paris. You can only eat frog so many times on one trip, and you have four museums and two monuments to cover before dinner. “Tom’s a tickin,” as the locals say. In English, this means, “Time is ticking,” or you don’t have much time. And it does take time for virgin tourists to the South to get used to the accent, especially as it’s a different accent every couple hours on the Interstate.

Any breakfast diner is going to serve greasy food akin to what your doctor specifically tells you not to eat. But if you haven’t had a proper breakfast in years—at least, what I consider a proper breakfast, based on what I had in my childhood—it is simply amazing. I ordered the All-Star Special—a couple fried eggs, breakfast sausage, a waffle, biscuits and gravy and an extra of hashbrowns. Scattered, smothered and chunked, of course.

The breakfast sausage is an American specialty. That doesn’t mean it’s good, but I haven’t seen it anywhere else. The closest thing in Estonia is the raw sausage in lamb intestines. And it’s not that close. And the waffle is not the gigantic Belgian waffle (I heard there’s a place in Tartu that sells them now) but just a small, thin, griddled pancake. Not a crêpe, but a pancake. “Cake” implies that there is something magical in the batter that rises. Crêpes don’t rise, so the Estonian pannkook is an incorrect term.

Watching Americans eat pancakes and waffles is a bit sickening, if you pay attention to what they’re doing and think of the consequences. They are first fried in butter or oil (the pancakes and waffles, I mean), then smothered with more butter, then maple syrup is poured over them in large quantities. It reminds me of Billy Connolly’s rant about Americans eating food out of a bucket, in reference to a bucket of fried chicken or a bucket of popcorn at the movies. Barnyard animals eat out of buckets, he says. But damn, this waffle tasted good.

Biscuits and gravy is a Southern specialty. I make biscuits in Tartu as well—it’s very easy. The secret is buttermilk. Pett in Estonia is an excellent substitute, maybe even better than Southern-style buttermilk itself. I won’t describe what they’re like, but I’ll give you my recipe at the end of this review and you can try them for yourself. Meat-based gravy is optional. I prefer honey or jam.

Hashbrowns are an amazing dish. I don’t think it’s possible to make them in Estonia, unless you have a potato ricer—basically a large garlic press. You slice up the potatoes (or shred them) and they’re pressed in the ricer, to get all the extra starch and liquids out. When you cook the potatoes, they are nice and fluffy, not oily and soggy.

There is one item, only available in the South, called grits. Basically a coarsely ground corn meal porridge. You can make them in Estonia, but I can’t remember what grain to use, because I have never had a grit in my life. Grits are insanely popular in the South, but I just can’t bring myself to try something that is rumored to be an effective ant-killer. The rumor is that you can put dry grits around an anthill, they will eat them and as the meal expands, they burst. This in turn reminds me of the emergency room horror stories about little children who eat dry cat food.

I ordered a coffee for just over a buck. Eleven kroons is a dollar right now. Every time my coffee was only half full, the waitress—Christina—refilled my mug. “You want some mo’, suga’?” she asked in a raspy voice that suggested she had inhaled too much of North Carolina’s cash crop. “Yes, ma’am,” I politely replied. Ma’am. Southern for “madame”. I’ve always heard that you know you’re from the South if you need extra syllables for words like “dad” or “yes”. Day-ad, yay-es. Reminds me of the Saaremaalese õ.

I decided to try out my newfound accent. “Excuse me, may I ask a question?”
—Of cose!” she said with a broad smile, crow’s feet covered up with layers of makeup. Was her last name Baker by chance?
“Out of curiosity, would it be possible for me to sit here all day?”
—Umm, sho’, but you’d have ta ordo sumpthin.
“Don’t worry, Ah won’t sit here all day, Ah’m jist wonderin’,” I reassured here. She smiled even more, her teeth impossibly, unnaturally white, especially considering her supposed habit. “Ah’m doin’ sum research for mah writin’,” I added.
—Oh yeah? Whatcha’ writin’ ‘bout?
“Jist food, for back hoh-ome.”
—Where you from, honey?
“Where do you think Ah’m from?” I wanted to get some feedback on my accent.
—Charleston. Sumwheh neah the bea-each, she posited with confidence.
“Close. Ah live in Estonia.”
—Really? Is that neah Denmark? Mah ex-husband’s from there.
“Pritty close, yes ma’am,” I answered with a grin. Thing is, I already knew there was a village in South Carolina called Denmark, right next to another called Gastonia. And I thought Estonia was small.

I continued my conversation with Christina, and found that my cup of coffee was theoretically bottomless, but only half the coffee served in their diner was actually coffee. The rest was decaffeinated coffee, or decaf. A lot of Europeans, more often than not Estonians, can’t understand why the hell anyone would drink decaf. What’s the point, right? Well, some people actually like the flavor of coffee, but want to go to sleep at some point in the next week. Or maybe they can’t have too much caffeine, like me. I would drink coffee in Tartu’s cafés much more often if I could get decaf lattes, decaf espressos (hint, hint Tartu!).

My verbose and polite waitress started laughing when I asked her how much tap water cost. “Nuthin’ of cose! Who charges for watah?!” Estonia, I replied. So water, ketchup, coffee creamers, bread as various types of appetizer—all free. Everywhere. Free refills on coffee, Coke and so on.

“Could Ah have some more jam for my biscuits, please?” That was free, too. How could they give away everything for free, and the meal itself cost just seven bucks? I was stuffed! It’s because of buying in bulk. The more restaurants a chain has, the lower the unit cost. Simple economics. Apart from McDonald’s and Hessburger in Tartu, I can’t think of any restaurant chains. Maybe a pizza place. “Why is Estonia so expensive?” I frequently wonder. The inevitable reply is that it’s a small market. “But the European Union is the largest single market in the world,” I persist. I thought joining the EU was supposed to take care of the high prices in Estonia, that Estonia would no longer be a small market, but part of the largest in the world. I’ve never got an answer to that one. We still don’t have Ikea. Why?

I went to the cash register to pay my bill, and smelled the smoking section. For a seven-dollar meal and conversation, I left a three-dollar tip. Almost fifty percent! And it still wasn’t really that much. I walked back to my rental car, a Ford Taurus. My reservation was for an economy-size car, but when I landed, I didn’t like the car very much because I couldn’t sit in it without bumping my head on the roof, and I’m not that tall really. They bumped me up to full-size, no charge. I made the mistake of messing around with the Bluetooth feature on the radio with my cell phone. The result was that I couldn’t listen to anything but the radio. I can’t wait to get back to Estonia and hear boom-boom techno and eighties music. Anything but religious rock and round-the-clock prayer.

The world’s stereotype for Americans is that everyone is fat. On this trip, I did see a lot of overweight people, but nothing surprising for what I usually see in Estonia. What I did not see, however, were those truly obese people who are the frequent butts of jokes. Most of the people, to be perfectly honest, seemed fairly healthy, in good shape even. “Geez no, I never eat in Waffle House or Burger King,” is a common response. “I love Applebee’s.” Never been there myself.

Never had a grit, never eaten at Applebee’s, never liked religious rock. As I get older, I just want to stick to the things I know. Who cares about broadening your horizons, right? Everything’s fine the way it is, right? While there is not a single breakfast place in Tartu, you can get an inverted hamburger bun with cheese at McDonald’s, called McToast. Pass me some more bacon.


Buttermilk biscuits

two cups flour
one tablespoon baking powder
one tablespoon sugar
three-fourths teaspoon salt
one-half teaspoon baking soda
five tablespoons cold vegetable oil
one cup buttermilk (pett)

First, mix the dry ingredients well. Add the oil with a mixer to form coarse chunks of oil and flour. Add the buttermilk and stir with a fork just until there are no bits of dry ingredients, but be careful not to overmix. The chunks of oil are supposed to stay there. Place golfball-sized bits of batter about five centimeters apart on a baking sheet, and bake at two hundred twenty Celsius for about twelve to fifteen minutes. Great for sandwiches, too!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Maurice's Gourmet Barbeque

“Sure, I’ll be back in a couple weeks,” I told Mrs. Mingus when she asked me to go grocery shopping. I hopped on a plane and flew to the States. Shopping for food in Tartu can be a maddening experience. If you have a specific dinner in mind, you need specific ingredients. Which are all, for the most part, available in Tartu. If you can find them. There is not one grocery store that has ever had everything I need. They’re always out of one thing, or another item has been discontinued.

Grocery shopping always involves a trip to Rimi, then Selver to get the thing Rimi didn’t have, then Kaubamaja’s Food World to get the thing Selver didn’t have, and most recently Retroo cheese—so vital to my preparation of Mexican food, and found only in Food World—was no longer made, and I’d remembered a possible substitute available at the first shop I’d gone to—so back to Rimi. All that driving gets expensive.

After flying for hours I landed somewhere in the American South and rented a car for virtually no money. Driving was easy because of the spattering of snow and near-total lack of traffic. I drove for a couple hours and saw a curious billboard with a bunch of flying pigs, advertising a fast-food barbeque joint called Maurice’s. I decided to give it a try. It was a good decision. I bought what’s called the Big Joe Basket. Hush puppies (deep-fried and seasoned corn bread, essentially—a Southern specialty), fries and Coleslaw were the sides. Coleslaw is the American version of the omnipresent Estonian cabbage salad. Shredded cabbage dotted with traces of carrot and whatnot—whatnot is also a popular ingredient in the Estonian kitchen, usually in the form of a leftover ingredient that by itself is not large enough to constitute an actual dish. A small handful of raisins, a half-eaten apple. In the States it’s usually mayonnaise, at least in Coleslaw.

Let us not forget the sandwich itself. Barbequed pork, in this case “pulled” pork, where the meat is ripped off the carcass and shredded after spending all day cooking in a hole in the ground (a pit barbeque). Then it’s mixed with barbeque sauce. At Maurice’s BBQ, it’s a heavily mustard-based sauce—I’ve had this sauce before, as it’s sold across the country. It’s amazing on any meat, and would probably do wonders for the Estonian mystery meat burger as well.

It reminded me of something. I glanced at the wall covered in pigs flying in heaven. Why were they in heaven? Oh right, I was eating them. And then it hit me—America! It reminded me of America. That’s a new place opened in the Sõbra Keskus (Friend Center) in Tartu, by a guy apparently interested in, well, America. His previous restaurant went bust. It was called Rodeo Saloon. The owner is also interested in poisoning his customers, as his fries have the largest concentration of potato spice outside of the Narva Spice Mines themselves. But the “grillburger” (yet again the word “grill” apparently means “beef”) deserves special mention. It’s the largest hamburger in Tartu, and probably the best. I don’t know what sauce they put on it, but it is very similar to Maurice’s BBQ sauce. Mrs. Mingus and I actually had a fight over who got to eat the grillburger, because I made the mistake of ordering their kebob as well, for variety. So the Southern States have Maurice's Gourmet Barbeque, and Tartu has America's grillburger.

This Maurice guy—the owner of the flying pigs restaurant—seems to be an interesting character. One of those guys who is stuck in the details of the past, incapable of looking to the future. In the unlikely event of the South actually rising again—successfully this time—he would be called a Founding Father and a patriot, and money would be printed and songs written about this hugely fat old racist who flies the Confederate flag at his restaurants in lieu of the American flag, but who can also make a very good pork barbeque sandwich. But until that happens, I’ll just think of him as the brothel owner from the movie Porky’s.

All this shopping for food and pork got me thinking about something I’d recently heard from an American friend—I’ll call him Mr. World. It is extremely annoying to watch the Travel Channel with Mr. World because he keeps shouting out, “I’ve been there!” He pointed out some interesting reads on the food processing industry. What you’re about to read may sound alarmist, but that’s why I’m going to tell you.

Supposedly three-quarters of the ground beef products in America (the country, I mean) have connections to one single beef processing company. They take the leftovers—the half-eaten apples—from slaughterhouses across the country and make a paste the industry calls “pink slime”. This stuff is full of ammonia, to kill off pathogens. Fast-food companies, school cafeterias and a lot of other places buy their product, and sometimes as much as fifteen percent of the burger you’re eating contains pink slime. In America at least. But I somehow doubt the European Union is much better.

In the United States, and for the moment that includes the United Kingdom—an EU member—if you criticize the food industry, you can be sued, even if you’re right in what you say and can back it up with fact. This is due to “food libel laws”, evil evidence of the lack of real free speech in the Free World. Hippies unite, right?

There’s a lot of talk of going green, an eco lifestyle and diet. Of course that sounds attractive, and I always love the Lettuce Ladies. Can you name one person on this planet who would voluntarily, consciously choose to eat chemicals instead of fresh, organic foods free of pesticides and growth hormones and antibiotics and artificial flavorings and preservatives? Well, that’s probably an easy one, but I mean a person who is more intelligent than a fruit fly.

The problem is, there are a lot of people on our planet. Somewhere in the neighborhood of seven billion. On a side note, Estonians should keep that in mind when they get bitter about Kristiina winning a silver medal in this week’s Olympics. As Mr. World wisely pointed out, she competed against the best of the best of the best. Hell, we should all be proud of her just for being good enough to go race in Vancouver in the first place!

But seven billion screaming, hungry mouths. It is simply not possible to feed them all without industry. For the time being, we have to face the facts: the eco lifestyle is a fringe society, available only to a few people out of all those who live in the industrialized, modern world. I simply don’t have the time or the land to be a hunter-gatherer. If humanity all at once decided to boycott any foods tinged with industry, we would all die, be it from hunger or economic collapse—again resulting in hunger.

People might find the pink slime story disgusting, but that’s only because we’re talking about dead animals and guts. If you can silence your personal biases against the meat industry for a moment, I promise you the veggie industry is no better. It is, after all, organic matter we’re talking about. Any successful farm buys poison by the tank to spray on your food.

Modern food processing might not be sustainable in the long run, but a system of private, organic farms feeding everyone is even less sustainable. Think potato blight. Think of progress. We might not be anywhere close to harmony and success as a species, but we’re better off than just a few decades ago, when famine really was a reality for a majority of the world population. We need corrupt politicians, greedy bankers and racist sons-o-bitches just as much as we need informed citizens, hippies and in-your-face vegans and Lettuce Ladies to fight them. That is learning. That is progress. Even the authors of the Bible realized that. Perhaps these food libel laws are necessary to prevent a panic and ensuing collapse of industry. This makes me think of a run on the bank. Remember when, in Estonia, a currency exchange company spread rumors of the devaluation of the kroon, and made tons of money? Instead of everyone studying law and economics, maybe we need more food chemists? To help us move past this unattractive step in our social and technological evolution. In the meantime, I’m going to eat my chemicals. I don’t really have much of a choice anyhow.

I’ve been hospitalized in Estonia twice. And while I was impressed with the care I received, I could not understand why they were serving coffee to patients in the cardiac intensive care unit. I also could not eat the food served. I would say it was not unlike paper soup, but I’ve never had it, so I can’t be certain. As long as we live within the confines of economics, however, paper soup will remain on the menu.

It would be interesting to see what would happen in Estonia if a Postimees newspaper reporter decided to investigate where America’s beef comes from. The place at Friend Center, I mean. Would this reporter find the same stuff? Maybe blue, black and white slime instead? Would anyone even care? Maybe Estonia’s burgeoning beef industry would sue. I think an investigation of Tallegg may be more relevant, but again—would anyone care what the findings are?

A Swedish friend once told me about “public” cemeteries in his country. Due to limited land, low-income, one-time clients would be removed (and the land “resettled”) after ten years of residency. In the past decades though, that residency has increased to twenty-five years, because the corpses just don’t decay fast enough. This is evidence of the despicable, right? Here’s the thing—worldwide life expectancies are rising.

I grabbed a bottle of Maurice’s barbeque sauce to take home to Mrs. Mingus. First, however, I looked at the list of ingredients. I fail to understand the difference between “natural flavoring” and “natural flavors”, both listed. I suspect one of them might not be exactly as they are described. And this, I admit, is the one major thing I despise about the food industry: the law requires them to list all ingredients, but it seems to apply only to the “natural” ingredients, including naturally occurring sodium nitrate. Every single processed product I have ever seen has a bafflingly vague ingredient in the plural. The public only needs to be informed if it doesn’t expose a secret recipe? That’s hardly consistent, but I suppose the secret recipe is so important to protect the product’s consistency?

Monday, February 8, 2010

La Dolce Vita

“What are you making?” I asked my friend Kristjan in Tartu over a decade ago, having just arrived for dinner. “Chinese food,” he replied. In the tiny, cold kitchen of a Soviet-era panel building partially completed at the end of the eighties, my interest was piqued. I had been in Estonia just over two years and had yet to find chicken breast or brown rice in a grocery store. I leaned over the table occupying the majority of the floor to get a look at the greasy stove. I just smelled boiling egg noodles. A rather cheap steam clinging to the cushioned wallpaper.

Kristjan peeled back some of the tape insulating the window and tied a string to a nail so the window wouldn’t open too far. A gust of cold air immediately filled the room, steaming up the glass. He lit a cigarette. It smelled better than the egg noodles. He was preparing an instant package of noodles, like Ramen, and was about to add the spice mix from the little plastic pouch. I noticed a bottle of ketchup standing upside down on the table. I got nervous.

I’ve always found it unfortunate that the first emissary of a foreign cuisine is usually instant whatever. Low standards for what is considered good, or even acceptable, are de facto set by a mammoth food-processing factory in Holland. Plastic bags assembled in China. That’s about as Asian as it gets.

The same applies to a lot of the early Italian food available in Tartu. Reinu Pizza cornered the market early on with their twenty-four hour delivery of cold crust and cat food. Apparently Neill Blomkamp studied in Tartu University. I ordered one that night at Kristjan’s, by his recommendation. It was delivered only partially defrosted, and when I slid it out onto the pan, it fell upside down. The meat substitute that burned on impact never came out of the Teflon® (the oven was broken). I bought him a new pan the next day.

And Salvest, the Tartu-based cannery that supplies the whole country with jarred soup and authentic international sauces, introduced its still-popular Italian Sauce. Just add pasta and you’re whisked away to Naples. Go to their website and read the ingredients for their Thai, Chinese, Italian and Mexican sauces. Apart from one ingredient, the only difference between them is the name on the label.

It is with this mentality that Priit Rajalo, a beat reporter for the Postimees newspaper, marched in to the newly opened La Dolce Vita about eight or nine years ago to write a review. He wrote, “A dark-skinned English-speaking man came out of the kitchen and started asking customers if they enjoyed their meals.” This too piqued my interest, and the next day I tried out the new pizzeria for myself. When I walked in, my first thought was, “He’s not dark-skinned, you moron! He’s Italian!” In a country with more tanning salons than dental offices, I found this remark more than ignorant. If you take the average tint of Estonians who tan on a weekly basis and those who don’t, skin color here is easily a couple shades darker than your average Italian. And why did it matter, anyhow?

Incidentally, it’s a little-known fact that there is a huge vitamin-D deficiency in Estonia. Maybe that’s why tanning is so popular. But that’s like smoking so you can relax. Usually when one country is absolutely in love with a particular food that the rest of the world finds revolting (pultost in Norway, and seal excrement among the Canadian Inuit for example), that indicates some sort of vitamin deficiency. A lot of the food in Estonia is pickled or eaten with vinegar. I’m not entirely sure of how to interpret that though. The Italians eat a lot of pasta and ze French eat a lot of, well, anything.

Mr. Priit also complained that his pizza had hardly any toppings. Just tomato sauce and cheese. He failed to realize that he had ordered the Margherita, the most classic, simplest (and at La Dolce Vita, the cheapest) pizza around. Perhaps if he had not been so stingy, he would have enjoyed one of the many delicious pizzas I’ve come to love over the years. That’s what happens when you pay cheap and expect amazing.

That first week of business, I went three times. Except for the occasional trip to Tallinn, I hadn’t had a proper pizza for years. I couldn’t get enough. I dragged a couple farners there the third time, and after the third round of beer, when we ordered a fourth, Kristiina (it was her first waitressing job) began to make faces at us. When we ordered the brewskis, she actually asked, “More?!” in a hideously disapproving tone of voice. She wouldn’t serve us a fifth round—she flat out refused—so the dark-skinned man himself came out and had a couple beers with us. I vaguely remember him giving us a dessert pizza on the house.

La Dolce Vita has been one of the more popular restaurants in Tartu for years now. Set in the basement of a former police station on the corner of Gildi and Kompanii Streets, it has what I consider to be the best interior of any place to dine out in Tartu. Arched ceilings and windowsills big enough to be used as tables (and many customers do eat on the windowsills) make for a cozy dinner. I’ve always liked their jaans. At least the men’s. A photograph of Sophia Loren makes you sad when you’re finished. Conceptions of “beautiful” and “sexy” may change over time, but Sophia is the hottest septuagenarian alive. I wonder if there is a Godfather-era poster of Marlon Brando in the jaana.

The Capricciosa used to be my favorite pizza. My new favorite, for years now in fact, is the Diavola. It’s spicier than black pepper, so it’s more of a hit among farners. All pizzas are baked in a wood-heated oven, and sometimes you can see the chef on duty tossing the raw crust up in the air. The pasta dishes on the menu are also quite tasty, although from time to time there is an off night. My only complaint is that there seems to be somewhat of an abundance of salt, on a regular basis. Or maybe I personally tend to be more susceptible to salt, as I rarely cook with it. I want to live past fifty. Regardless, order plenty of water.

And top off your meal with some authentic Italian ice cream. Unlike most restaurants, you can choose your ice cream by looking at it first.

A couple of weeks ago I was simply exhausted. No way I was going to cook, and I didn’t have anything in the fridge either. No problem. We called La Dolce Vita and placed an order. I had to go pick it up myself, but the food was still warm at home. The waitress who rang me up at the register—Krista—for some reason did not recall that I had spoken with her a mere twenty minutes previously. She thought I wanted to order takeaway from the bar, and remarked that someone had just ordered precisely the same combination of menu items. “That was me,” I politely volunteered. There was a bit more confusion, but it worked out in the end. This was not the first time Krista had been confused about an order I had called in at La Dolce Vita.

I once asked the owners (there are two Italians) where they got their ingredients. “We import our tomatoes,” was the unexpected answer. Something about Italian tomatoes being better for Italian food. And while their ravioli is good, I somehow doubt they sit in the kitchen making it by hand. Especially as an order of ravioli comes out of the kitchen in just a few minutes. I haven’t seen similar stuff in the shop though, but so what? It’s good.

There’s a courtyard behind the building, accessible from Gildi Street or through the restaurant itself. The patio, open in summer, is always a nice place to grab a bite and a beer, or coffee. There’s hardly ever any direct sunlight there, due to the courtyardiness of the courtyard. The air is a few degrees cooler there, and the patio has an interesting wall made of firewood. Some of the logs jut out, flowerpots resting on them.

There is also a floor-to-ceiling window on one side, and it belongs to another property. I don’t know what is in there (an office maybe), but I clearly recall one summer day when my older daughter had just learned to walk. We kept our eyes on the only exit, and we failed to find anything she could cause trouble with, so we sort of relaxed our parental duties and left her to her own devices. Which turned out to be banging on this huge window, making the man inside who had been taking a siesta fairly irate with us. It was like interrupting performance art. There were no curtains, and he was sleeping on display to a café. Nothing to indicate it was his home. What kind of company has a bed in its office?

Unfortunately, these Italians are from Italy. They do make good pizza—no question about that—but they’re not from Chicago. The pizza of my heart’s desire has and always will be the upside-down, deep-dish, Chicago-style pizza. With what the Americans call Italian sausage, something that doesn’t actually exist in Italy. But that’s just my “premisconception”. It’s only natural that we all have them. And Ramen noodles, after all, are authentic Asian cuisine.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

House of Mingus

Guest blogger: Kristopher, from Blue, Black and White Alert, reviews Mingus, the self-appointed restaurant reviewer, during a recent weekend visit.


"How about steak on Friday and couscous on Saturday?" Mingus asked me over Skype chat. "And I'm making an American apple pie."

I really wish more chefs would do that—coordinate menus in advance and ask if there are any dietary issues.

At the same time, there was also a hint of decorum and declaration. It reminded me of the time in 2007 when Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and his old lady outed each other to the magazine Oma Maitseand sent the editors a calligraphed menu/invitation to lunch at Ärma Manor.

There was no objection from me. The menu Mingus proposed/announced was his trinity of food as I understand it—1) he loves beef; 2) he bakes, bucking gender roles, at least in this country; and 3) couscous, well, that is a legendary Mingus meal. It all started in the communal kitchen in the dorm in France that housed Mingus in his university days. Mingus had been assigned to the African and American section and the place was full of heady intellectual ferment and l'esprit de banlieue.

Maybe because of his associations with Algerians and moonlighting as a sax player for a funk band on the Rhône, there's nothing snooty about Mingus, but otherwise he is a very European American. Today his otherwise conservative appearance is subverted by a few mild vices and practical jokes (none of which are food-related pranks, luckily).


Estonia was in the icy grip of a high-pressure system and our trip coincided with the two coldest days of the year. It was dark when our train pulled in to the city's northern terminal. Mingus was there to meet us. After a quick patdown by his handlers, we piled into his solid European vehicle and entered a warren of one-way streets in a wooden part of town. We passed by a villa with intricate trim, and I may have spied a manor, then we got to Mingus's 1930s building.

Mingus's kids were eating honey. I noticed this a number of times—they are always eating Estonian honey. But they eat it in a dainty manner, walking around the house with little spoons full of crystallized nectar, making it last and never getting it on any furniture. Remember this real good, I told my son, who gobbles sweets down like he's about to be cut off by his old man, which he probably is.

Mingus was making a Béarnaise sauce to go with the steak. As an exchange high school student in Sweden, I kept on running into the stuff, except in bastardized versions. As a result of these traumas, I associated Béarnaise with pork schnitzel in a pool of ghastly yellow tarragon-flavored melted shortening.

I had never messed with classic French sauces myself, beyond a basic roux or Béchamel. With good reason. The Béarnaise was a lengthy scientific process, involving a double boiler and a number of steps, some of which were pungent and others, irreversible. Why were the Swedes so fond of it? Come to think of it, what was Mingus, who by his own admission didn't care for Western European food that much, doing? Then I remembered how highly he prizes beef, and what is Béarnaise if not the classic pairing for steak?

"This is going to smell up the house," Mingus said. He was over the stove, reducing vinegar with tarragon and white pepper. I wafted cautiously. Sure enough, it was a little overpowering, but I wouldn't say bad.

I excused myself to the jaan, which was spacious, spotless, unisex, and also featured the thickest toilet paper I had ever seen. Double-ply would not describe it. Talk about luxurious. It was so luxurious that—I don't want this to seem weird—but I hoped that I could time things so I would get to use it before leaving.

When I got back, the Béarnaise was still in process, but there was a problem. It was close to -10 degrees F outside (-23 C) with near record-high atmospheric pressure. His pantry, uninsulated, hovered near freezing. Maybe because of this, or maybe not, food was behaving in mysterious ways. It had never done so before. It was not clear whether the eggs had curdled or the butter had not melted completely. Maybe both.

It didn't matter. There was a cardboard hogshead of wine (Chenet). And there was guacamole and pico de gallo de casa Mingus, which had been conjured into existence by Mrs. Mingus.

Now, that's not a pretentious way of saying that she "made" or "prepared" it, but that she probably magicked it to life. This is something you will notice about Mrs. Mingus, who is self-deprecating about her culinary talents. You never actually see her working in the kitchen but the kitchen stays in tip-top shape and good salads and side dishes materialize on a regular basis. Take the croutons for the salad, browned and covered in herbs. The pico de gallo was a Mr. Mingus recipe that involved radish, cucumber and piri-piri. I could have eaten a bowl of it like gazpacho.

As for the steak, it was good Estonian external fillet, in the narrow area of overlap where lean meets tender. It wasn't antrekoot with its sinews, that Mingus scornfully dismisses. Mingus had been to two stores to find external fillet. There was no question it would be a slam-dunk. In the end the Béarnaise was substituted for by Worcestershire. The steak was accompanied by frites. Some of the people at the table occasionally chewed with their mouths open but the food was hot and good. The Béarnaise had never mattered, not to me at least.


I am not an apple pie man, but I love me some good flaky or short-crust pastry. I've found it usually works out that way. There are some people who love the filling and others like the crust. Täpsustaksin: filling is just an excuse to eat crust, it's good if some filling gets on the crust, but otherwise it's not important.

I was surprised to learn that phyllo was not one of Mingus's favorites; but he has a foolproof recipe for a classic pastry crust that is probably healthier, too. After all, the key is to increase fat content and reduce water—that means none of those 70% butter spreads but only European 80%+ butters will suffice. Mingus has a cheat—he adds oil. As a result, the pastry also looked easy to work. He sliced the ball in half to make bottom and top crust and the texture of the cross-section was like food porn. By the time it went into the oven, the thing had an almost Norman Rockwell regularity about it.


Fifty-nine spice bottles line the shelves in Mingus's kitchen. The couscous involved several of them, chiefly fennel seed and cumin.

The bottles were made of slightly greenish glass as if they had been hand-blown. Mingus said that he had not been able to get any more than 59. And it wasn't enough. Spice number sixty-something—a recent acquisition—was a sealed plastic bag containing a kilogram of smoked paprika from an Israeli connection.

I remarked that similar glassware might be available at the Olde Hansa gift shop in Tallinn, but Mingus looked at me with about as much interest as if I had just said the A&O in Mõisaküla was having a sale on Tupperware. Of course he might have also been busy—if Mrs. Mingus uses magic, Mingus is a master methodician.

Mingus braised the chicken carefully for over an hour, letting it absorb the essential oils, then shredded it. Without having the authentic Moroccan preserved lemons on hand, somehow, by using some of the rind, and the right mix of spices, he was able to approximate the flavor. I would say that technically the couscous was a stew that was served over couscous. At least the time I ordered it at a restaurant in Morocco it all arrived in one dish. So in that sense, Mingus's dish reminded me more of the tajine cooked for us by our housekeeper in Essaouira, which was better than most restaurants in a country where much still revolves around the home.

Of course I'm partial to the whole continuum of North African and Middle Eastern flavors. And cumin for me is the king of spices, partly because it's so distinctive and powerful. An absolute ruler. It's impossible to argue with. As a result, I am not sure my review of anything with cumin can really be objective.

And then it was gone, like one of Baudelaire’s visions of seraphim, and I was too contented to think about much except maybe some more apple pie.