Monday, December 11, 2006

Ennio & Michael, kohlrabi, umlauts, Mordechai Kaplan and other things

December 10

My friend Clark Mitchell had a bad week and welcomed the opportunity for a Sunday night of Italian comfort food at Ennio & Michael.
Ennio Sammarone and Michael Salvarese met years ago when they were both waiters at a now-defunct Greenwich Village restaurant named Joe's. They opened their own place in the Village 28 years ago and have been at their current location on LaGuardia for the past 18 years.
Mr. Salvarese, a native of Naples (Mr. Sammarone is from the region of Abruzzo) said NYU — their landlord and also an important customer — started tightening its belt in 2005, which included cutting back on entertainment. That has affected Ennio & Michael's bottom line, so they're trying to drum up some press.
Often when a restaurant invites me and a guest to come to dinner, it gets the added bonus that my guest also is involved in food on some level.
That's certainly the case with Clark.
I met Clark at a party thrown by our friends Karl and Margaret. Karl's an old college buddy of mine who at the time was picture editor of Margaret was a manager at Magnolia Bakery, where Clark was a freelance cake froster when he wasn’t teaching German at Columbia.
At the party, Clark told me about his interest in becoming a food writer and expressed particular admiration for James Beard.
"What are you doing on Wednesday?" I asked him. I'd been invited to the Beard House that night and was asked to bring a guest. I hadn't found one yet.
"Nothing," he said.
So I took Clark to the Beard House and within the next year or so, quite coincidentally, he joined the editorial staff at Travel + Leisure, where he still is today. We continue to go out to dinner together with some frequency.
Clark's a fluent German speaker with a master's degree in linguistics, and a fairly observant Episcopalian, having converted from the Southern Baptism on which he was raised in Arkadelphia.
I'm a mostly-lapsed Reconstructionist Jew who speaks French, Thai and Mandarin Chinese, so we have fun talking about religion and linguistics as well as food and a variety of mundane things.
One topic today was the origins of the word kohlrabi. Clark said that there's debate whether it means "rabbi's cabbage" or "cabbage root." His master's thesis was on the umlaut, so he's something of a vowel expert, and he argued that the German word Rübe — which can refer to a variety of root vegetables — would not evolve into "Rabi" because the first vowels are so totally unrelated. "Rabbi," on the other hand, could easily become rabi, and it would not at all be unusual for a vegetable to be attributed to a group or even a specific person, such as a rabbi who was fond of it or who grew it in his garden.
(Kohl, of course, means "cabbage," as in cole slaw).
(it turns out, however, Clark later told me upon doing further research, that the root, so to speak, of kohlrabi could come from the Latin word for turnip, "rapa". As he phrased it: "p and b are made at the same point of articulation, one voiceless, one voiced. [V]owels on the ends of words can go crazy, so there's no telling what that's about.")
Discussion of vowels led to discussion of Hebrew, which famously isn't generally written with vowels.
Vowels are used in Hebrew prayer books, however, as well as poetry and in educational texts for non-native speakers. I wrote out the Hebrew alphabet (I don't speak it, but I know the alphabet and how to sound out words) and showed Clark the various markings for different vowels.
Then my own Reconstructionist roots came up and I explained its basic, left-wing approach to Judaism (in brief, that Judaism is an evolving organic civilization whose shared history and customs, rather than specific theological doctrine, are at its center) and to God (defined not as a supernatural being but as a natural collection of forces and processes that allow humans to achieve their potential).
Just for fun I paraphrased Reconstructionism's founder, Mordechai Kaplan, on his explanation of how the notion that God is a process (or collection of processes) rather than a being doesn't take a way from God's existence (Kaplan's writing was obtuse and lacking in beauty and thus lends itself well to paraphrasing).
Fire used to be thought of as a god, then it was thought of as one of four elements and now is seen as the process of rapid oxidization. The fact that fire is a process and not a god does not make it any less real or its effects less felt.
Food for thought.

Speaking of which, we ate:
Mussels and clams steamed with white wine and herbs
Fried calamari with marinara sauce
Squid ink tagliolini with spice calamari
Penne portobello
Steamed salmon
Veal scalopppine sautéed in olive oil and baked with tomato sauce and bufala mozzarella
Calf liver sautéed in olive oil and onion and sprinkled with wine and balsamic vinegar.

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