Jewish World Review May 11, 2005/ 2 Iyar 5765


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Consumer Reports

No Need for Black Truffles: Here's to Chicken Livers | Thanks to Sam Sifton the black cloud that hovers over my head when reading The New York Times was briefly dispatched last Sunday morning. It's not often that I spend more than eight minutes with the paper's weekly magazine but Sifton's byline— he was once an editor at New York Press —stuck out like a green thumb on Mother's Day, and his article about ravioli was a delight.

He hit all the right buttons, starting out with a nod to the restaurant Babbo, noting the difficulty of securing a table there and the enthusiasm of its waiters. Because the food is excellent, Sifton writes, one might overindulge, forgetting about the tab and concluding the evening with a glass or two of grappa. One of my brothers' favorite quips is that if you even think about ordering a cordial with coffee after an excessive meal, it's time to call for the check. And that goes double for grappa.

Sifton writes: "Grappa, an alcohol distilled from the skins and seeds of grapes used to make wine, is occasionally used to fuel airplanes. Its human application promises clarity but more often delivers headaches…"

In the course of a piece that sensibly advocates using pedestrian ingredients while cooking Italian food at home instead of trying to replicate the work of professional chefs, Sifton also reiterates a bit of truth that might not go over well at the Times' many consumer sections but is welcome to a reader. "There are far more pasta machines in the United States than you would think," he says, "most of them residing, tarnished and dusty, in kitchen cabinets above refrigerators, obscured from view by boxes of cereal." What yuppie, to revisit an ancient slur, didn't once own a pasta machine to go along with the game "Trivial Pursuit" and copy of Bonfire of the Vanities? I received one as a present about 20 years ago, tried to figure it out, made a complete mess of it all, and wound up selling the incomprehensible appliance for five bucks at a yard sale.

My favorite part of "The Cheat: So You Still Can't Get a Reservation at Babbo?" was Sifton's celebration of a much-maligned edible, the chicken liver. He suggested substituting the liver of a chicken for Babbo's squab in a ravioli sauce, quoting the restaurant's Mario Batali as saying "Ravioli are just a delivery system for leftovers."

Chicken liver, in the modern age of cholesterol obsession, might as well have a skull and crossbones attached to containers of the slimy organ meat at supermarkets.

Perhaps, like foie gras, this cheap and delicious scrap will one day be seen as a medical miracle, but in the meantime I can't think of the last time I've even heard chicken livers discussed in polite conversation.

I like them a lot, remembering from childhood when my mother, at cocktail parties in Huntington would offer wedges of crummy cheddar cheese, celery slathered with cream cheese and chicken livers wrapped in bacon as "fancy" appetizers to go along with Manhattans and bottles of Schmidt's beer. Back in the late 70s and early 80s, as a struggling entrepreneur in Baltimore, I often cut financial corners by making a meal centered on chicken livers.

One Sunday, before the widespread availability of ATMs, I had five dollars to last until the next morning. I was going to see the Hoboken-based band The Bongos that night, and my press pass got me in free and access to gratis drinks, but how to budget the Lincoln until 9 p.m. was a quandary. I skipped the morning paper, bought a pack of cigarettes, a quart of beer, and made a satisfying and economical dinner with a bunch of chicken livers that cost less than a buck, two onions, a tomato, some rice and a few mushrooms. I suppose this wasn't the most health-conscious use of the dough, but it didn't leave me any worse for wear.

Anyway, Sifton's common-sense recipe was a necessary balm from all the nonsense that the Times had printed (or posted online) in the last week. Last Friday, for example, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced at 8:30 a.m. that the surprising number of 274,000 jobs were generated in the United States during the month of April— as well as revising upward figures from February and March— the paper's website accentuated what it perceived as the negative news. Using the far-from-objective Reuters wire service, whoever has the duty of providing a synopsis of the report, chose the following route. Headlined "Jobs Growth Was Surprisingly Robust in April," the blurb below read: "The unemployment rate, however, which is calculated from a separate survey, was unchanged at 5.2 percent in April."

Op-ed columnist Paul Krugman, currently on a tear about Bush not fitting into Robin Hood's costume with his flexible Social Security reform proposal—to which the Democrats, champions of "the people," are mute—hasn't yet weighed in on the April jobs numbers, but we can be sure he'll say it's a mirage and will demand a recount.

By contrast, The Washington Post, using an Associated Press short, put the employment snapshot in a more accurate light. That paper's headline was "Hiring Boosted in April," followed by the tease: "Employers add 274,000 jobs last month, almost 100,000 more than expected."

Another example of the Times' willful condescension, or just clueless writing, didn't appear in the paper itself, but was in an internal memo that was posted on Jim Romensko's media website on April 21. The subject, addressed by Times metro editor Susan Edgerly, was columnist Paul Vitello leaving the battered boat known as Newsday for the Times.

This is priceless: "Paul Vitello, the Newsday columnist, is coming to The Times to cover Long Island.

"For close to 20 years, Paul's column has perfectly distilled Long Island's strange brew: its immense depth of humor and lunacy; the sad and startling gaps between races and paychecks and accents; the rollicking corruption and infuriating patchwork of dubious governments. And he has been a true reporter among columnists, escaping from the Melville newsroom and using his notebook to give voice to hundreds of intimate stories amid the island's cacophony. Long Island may lack a center, and it may lack a common purpose beyond hatred of the LIRR, but it has had a singular storyteller, and now he's ours."

So there's a "strange brew" that defines Long Island? Would that be the Cream song or a mug of beer? As a native of Suffolk County, I always liked the LIRR (still do, especially compared to Amtrak) and while I never discerned a "common purpose" there, what community has that characteristic? Certainly not Manhattan. Why Edgerly didn't simply announce Vitello's arrival and wish him good luck, instead of dressing up the appointment with a flowery description of the Island's "cacophony" is beyond me. I guess it's just a language or "accent" barrier.

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JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- was the editor-in-chief and CEO of New York Press. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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© 2005, Russ Smith