Jeremiah Tower 1989
This ad made me smile the first time I saw it –– a dapper fellow balancing a Liliputian stone arch on a Dali-ish crawfish tray with a whippet bearing Scotch doubling as an armrest.
Salvador Dali Telephone, 1936
The playfulness continued with copy that read “Aristocrat, confident and a self-described monarchist. “Everyone likes to have things their own way, I just admit it.”
The star of this ad was Jeremiah Tower –– a patrician renegade –– a guy who made a Molotov cocktail with a Dom Pérignon bottle and an old Hermes’ scarf and loved Kettner's Book of the Table(that I wrote about HERE) –– my kind of guy. The Wall Street Journal’s brilliant Bruce Palling called him the Orson Welles of food.
Most of you know him as one of the founders of what has come to be known as California Cuisine through his own Stars Restaurant in San Francisco and Berkeley's Chez Panisse, but you may not know that his innovative nature had a classical grounding –– he has a deep love for culinary history that appeals to me enormously. He had an enviable library of over 1000 cookbooks from the 17th century to signed modern classics that he shared through annotated book-notes at the end of his fabulous autobiography, California Dish: What I Saw (and Cooked) at the American Culinary Revolution –– just for that I loved this book. He brilliantly advocates for rare entries like Elizabeth David's much loved What shall we have to-day by Marcel Boulestin as well as so many other shouldn't-be-forgotten gems on this list. Many are a revelation. I asked Tower why he included the list in his autobiography and he replied "for fun, information, something new."
After Stars closed he moved to New York and then New Orleans after 9/11. Hurricane Katrina took many of Tower's books, the rest were sold at Omnivore Books in San Francisco in 2012. “I sold what was left of the books because I was living in a tropical climate and that is no good for leather bindings or paper. Also I had read all of them, including the 18th and 19th century books, a few times, was completely inspired by them, and it was time for them to go on and inspire their new owners.” (Cindy Pawlcyn got an Elizabeth David and Thomas Keller snagged Fernand Point’s Ma Gastronomie).
Young Tower from California Dish
Palling’s great interview with Tower revealed that Tower’s love of food started at 6 when an Aboriginal showed him the secrets of coconut cracking and fish grilling in Australia.
The rest of his peripatetic childhood (nearly devoid of parental oversight) found Tower using elegant restaurants, dining rooms and kitchens all over the world as playgrounds –– on land and at sea. His father’s work had the Tower family traveling a good deal in his youth, although after Australia, he was mostly raised in England (staying in great hotels, beautiful country houses and ocean liners when he wasn’t in odious boarding schools). He also had an Auntie Mame - aunt named Mary who was married to a white Russian rocket scientist named Constantine Levovitch Zakhartchenko who taught him about the even finer things in life (specially vodka and buttery blini) and bankrolled eating trips to Paris. You can see the results of this upbringing in everything Tower was to become.
”Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play” (Heraclitus) –– so true.
Aside from having a great sense of play in their work, the best artists have a substantial foundation in the craft and history of their art –– knowing what has gone on before them puts more colors in their crayon box –– Tower had this grounding, often fed by the work and friendship of legendary food writers like James Beard and food-poet Richard Olney.
Tower recalled being bowled over by his The French Menu Cookbook in the 70's. In it, Olney wrote “The rock on which my church was built was the provincial kitchen of my home in Iowa.” from this Tower, "... wondered what he would think of my rock: eccentric lives and the life of travel around the world with its great hotels, ships, and trains. I had been, like Olney, “cooking with a passion that could be gleaned from books –– Escoffier, in particular.” We must be eternally grateful that Tower held on to his youthful notebooks so that many important Escoffier-inspired or Tower generated menus in his life have been saved. The menus are an education (and yet another reason to buy his autobiography).
He said the first menu he wrote in his culinary notebook in the 60’s was one for a party given by Cecil Beaton in the early 1930s at Lapérouse in Paris. From it he conjures a whole evening, fleshing out characters, surroundings and the rarified tastes of the group –– one of the highlights of the book. “Following the turtle fat with foie gras tells me also that whoever ordered the menu was very securely a gourmand of deep appreciation for the art of dining: knowing how to push one’s guest’s sensibilities to the limit without embarrassing them with a troubling surfeit later in the meal. Obviously they were all aesthetes, and saw themselves that way.”
Fat of Turtle
Chateau d’Yquem 1860
Cold Foie Gras
Truffles poached in champagne
Canard Rôti Lucullus
Burgundy, a priceless one
Doyenne de Comice pear, juste à point
Romeo and Juliettas
First Dinner in Our Own Kitchen
Saumon en gelée aux truffes
Filet de Boeuf périgourdine
Strawberries and French Cream
Sercial Madeira 1884
Ad that Jeremiah Tower answered (California mag)
His first menus for his Chez Panisse “audition” in 1971 were simple ––considering a full, 4-course meal there was only $4.50:
Gougére à la bourguignonne
Haricots verts natures
Matelote à la normande
Madrilene of beet and onion
“Haricot” of oxtail, Alice B Toklas
Tower and Willy Bishop from Chez Panisse 40th Anniversary Book
Alice B Toklas and her wonderful cookbook (that I wrote about HERE and HERE) inspired Chez Panisse a good deal. A now-famous menu from 1974 came in the form of a poem with a marvelous Gertrude Stein stove drawing by Willy Bishop:
Menu from California Dish
It was only a matter of time before American food was taking center stage for Tower –– inspired by a recipe for Mendocino corn chowder in one of his favorite 19th century cookbooks. Tower wondered why he couldn’t do that at Chez Panisse. “ I reread Charles Ranhofer’s cookbook from Delmonico’s The Epicurean[that I wrote about HERE]. I realized I had been improvising for years, so why fret any longer about authenticity of “French” ingredients for French regional food? Why not just go shopping in Northern California and call that the region.”
Tower from Chez Panisse 40th Anniversary Book
The Northern California Regional Dinner
October 7, 1976
Spenger’s Tomales Bay bluepoint oysters on ice
Cream of fresh corn soup, Mendocino styles, with crayfish butter
Big Sur Garrapata Creek smoked trout steamed over California bay leaves
Monterey Bay prawns sautéed with garlic, parsley, and butter
Preserved California geese from Sebastopol
Vela dry Monterey Jack cheese from Sonoma
Fresh caramelized figs
Walnuts, almonds, and mountain pears from the San Francisco Farmer’s Market
Jeremiah Tower upon opening Stars in 1984. Photo: The Chronicle/Pete Breinig
By the time he got to his own restaurant, Stars, his cooking had been further distilled to clean flavors with great ingredients. He said while still in college, ''My goal was to cook the way Balenciaga cut clothes -- simple in form, without ornamentation, always in harmony with the lines of the body.” His menus of the period express this philosophy:
A Dinner for Sophia Loren
March 31 1995
Fava beans and purple asparagus
Oven-roasted vegetables and lamb’s lettuce salad
Warm ginger cookies
I wondered if Mr. Tower had any predictions for food's future and asked him, "Do you think food is blending regional/national cuisines like language in Blade Runner? Do you think it's going to destroy
regional personalities or strengthen them?" His succinct reply, "Making new regions." Queen's Bhutanese and Los Angeles Mexican is already happening but so are New York, Chicago and San Francisco styles that are often tied to local ingredients.
After all these years I still make so many things from this book. His aunt’s coleslaw, lamb hash, duck sausage, pumpkinseed sauce, berry puree, spicy lamb sausage, corn soup with crayfish butter, ham with black beans … and black bean cakes. I love those black bean cakes.
Since my task this month for the Creative Cooking Crew was cocktail appetizers for Thanksgiving, I wanted to gild the bean cake lily and Tower’s recent description of a Duck Mole he had just thrown together brought my dish together brilliantly –– Duck Mole on those black bean cakes sounded fantastic. I also added lime-ginger-pumpkin sour cream (which is fabulous) and beet and chili salsa instead of the traditional sour cream and tomato salsa. It tastes like a refined, deconstructed chili with beans made into a cake instead of in the chili. I got my gorgeous Rohan duck from D’Artagnan (you can get it online HERE). Should you desire, this can be made with bone-in chicken thighs or even left-over turkey. If you want to go vegetarian or very simple, just skip the duck mole altogether.
This dish is best prepared over two days. The mole does have a lot of ingredients but it comes together fairly quickly –– it's my favorite mole recipe (although lighter than usual because I burned my first batch of chilies thanks to a phone call and didn't have enough anchos left for the mix!). You will have lots of extra mole which freezes beautifully and can be popped out of the freezer for a quick meal with chicken or duck that tastes like you've worked all day. If you want to use all the duck mole, you will need to double the bean cake recipe. The original was only sour cream and salsa.
Black Bean Cakes with Duck Mole, Pumpkin Sour Cream and Beet Salsa (serves 4 as an appetizer or makes 16 hor d'oeuvres)
3 cups cooked black beans, left out to drain for 2 hours - they will look nasty but it works
1 T ancho chili
1 T cumin
1 small hot green chili, finely chopped
½ c chopped cilantro
¾ t salt
¼ c duck fat, lard or olive oil
1 recipe Lime-ginger-pumpkin sour cream
1 c duck mole
¼ c salsa
24 sprigs cilantro
fresh chili rings from 1 or 2 chilies
2 shallots sliced thinly
Put the beans through a food mill or in a grinder (my food mill did not work well since it has small openings, a processor was easiest). Add the spices and cilantro leaves and salt. Make into 4-12 balls depending on whether you are making appetizers or snacks.
Put between wax paper and press, they should be around 1/4" high (although the originals were 1/8").
I like the crisp outside and moist inside.
Top with a spoon of duck mole, a spoon of cream and a bit of salsa. Garnish with cilantro and chili rings.
Duck meat, torn from carcass and shredded (you could do a pound or so of chicken thighs or leftover turkey)
Start with 1/3 of the mole sauce and see what you would like for consistency –– you may want to add more.
5 ancho chilies, seeded
3 guajillo chilies, seeded
1 chipotle chili, seeded(optional)
1 T oil
¼ c raisins
3 cloves garlic
2 T duck fat, lard or oil
¼ c almonds
¼ c shelled pumpkin seeds
½ cinnamon sticks
2 star anise
½ t peppercorns
1 bay leaf
1 t dry epazote (optional)
1 t oregano
3 T sesame seeds
1 c chopped tomatoes (fire-roasted muir glen are great)
1 to 1 ¼ c stock (your duck broth is perfect for this)
1 to 1 ¼ c chili soaking liquid
½ tortilla, darkened in cast iron skillet and torn into pieces
salt to taste
2 T kejap manis, dark soy sauce or molasses or to taste
3 T dark rum
1 oz chopped bittersweet chocolate, melted.
Preheat the oven to 350º. Rub your hands then the chilies with oil. Cook the chilies on a baking sheet for 5 minutes till fragrant (pay attention, they burn very quickly, especially if they are not moist). Remove and cool. Crumble and put in water to cover with raisins and prunes.
Soak for 1 hour.
Put the peeled tomatillos (you remove the paper husk) in the oven and roast for about 10 minutes.
In a cast iron skillet, toast the almonds and pumpkin seeds with the cinnamon stick. Put aside. Add the spices and sesame seeds and toast. Set aside.
Saute the onion, garlic in the duck fat till softened and set aside.
Strain the chili mixture, reserving the liquid.
In a large blender or food processor, add the chili mixture, tomatillos, onion mixture, seeds and nuts and spices. Add the tortilla and tomatoes and some of the stock and strained chili liquid and blend, adding the rest of the stock and chili liquid as needed to blend (you want less liquid at the beginning to get a good creamy texture, only enough to move the blades. Add the chocolate, rum and ketjap manis or molasses and salt to taste. Set aside. It is better the next day.
1 Rohan duck from D’Artagnan (you could use bone-in chicken thighs as well - 2 -3 pounds)
1 T garam masala
1 T salt
1 stick celery
2 star anise,
1 coin size piece of ginger
1 t peppercorns
Heat oven to 275º. Rub the duck with salt and garam masala.
Roast the duck for 1/2 hour, breast side up in a pan with the vegetables. Turn and roast for another hour. If you use chicken thighs, only roast 1/2 an hour, skin side up.
Remove the duck and put into a stockpot with all the accumulated juices (if you don’t have one that is large enough, cut the duck in ½). Add vegetables and spices, cover with water and cook 1 to 1 ½ - hours at a very low simmer or until tender. Remove from pot and cool. Take the meat off the bones and put the bones and skin back in the pot and simmer for a few more hours to make a strong stock.
Lime-ginger-pumpkin sour cream
½ c sour cream
3 T pumpkin pureé
2 T lime juice
½ t grated lime peel
½ t grated ginger
Combine and let sit for an hour.
Beet Chili Salsa
2 cooked beets, diced
1 small chili, diced (with or without seeds depending on how hot you would like it)
1 small shallot, diced or sliced
¼ t cumin
3 T lime juice
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