Getting to Know You

The Express gets a new food writer. Plus, highlights from the Armenian Food Festival.



Yes, it's only been a few months since John Birdsall took over the Express' food coverage. But now I'm taking over for him, after he accepted a full-time position at I've been writing about food for years, but I'd rather skip the yawn-inducing details of my résumé. I'll just tell a story.

Three years ago, I was living in the culinary mecca of Brooklyn. I had just relocated from a stint in the Midwest (think: deep-fried everything), and I felt immensely blessed for my newfound playground. I loved a good urban escapade, especially when there was a beach taco, a Korean stuffed chicken wing, or a perfect pastrami waiting at the other end.

One night, my friends and I had clam pizza in our sights. It's a white, thin-crust pizza, topped with plump littleneck clams, olive oil, oregano, garlic, and a handful of grated cheese. We had read a lengthy article exploring the origins of this regional treat (pleasure reading for food nerds), tracing it back almost eighty years.

We tracked down Franny's, a joint legendary for clam pizza wizardry. Franny's put some tweaks on the traditional clam pie, foregoing cheese, lacing the crust with white wine and heavy cream, adding a bit of chili pepper fire. Maybe non-conventional but still, a revelation. After a couple of slices, I felt beholden to (and smitten with) our chef. We ordered more pizzas, including one with a baked duck egg in the center.

And damn, was that a fine egg. Rich, unctuous, almost aggressive, its memory has eclipsed anything else on the pizza (figs? offal? cheese?) We were seated near the controlled chaos of the open kitchen, and I yelled to the chef: "That egg was the best thing I ever ...." He stopped me short. "Duck is good and all, but you know what lays the perfect egg? Goose. It's totally overpowering, makes a fucking incredible omelet."

After that night's brilliant dinner, I trusted the chef implicitly. If he said goose eggs were the best, then they must be. I had a new grail.

Clam pizza had proven to be a straightforward quest, but I would spend countless man-hours scouring food message boards, calling poultry farms, and trolling off-brand ethnic markets in search of the elusive goose egg. Duck eggs were easy to find in Chinatown, and I saw goose carcass hanging in the Greek butcher's window every day. But goose eggs? I got a lot of shrugged shoulders and shaking heads.

A couple of years went by, and I moved to the Bay Area. I had all but given up on my quest. Until, at a farmers' market this summer, on the counter of an unremarkable chicken egg booth, there were two goose eggs, each as big as a grapefruit. By week's end, I had scrambled one, poached the other, and closed the book on another food adventure.*

Goose eggs were just the beginning of my Bay Area culinary wish fulfillment. Abundant, year-round produce; fresh-caught Atlantic seafood; carnitas burritos .... Honestly, you're probably sick of hearing East Coast transplants rhapsodize about your food. But I can't help it. I feel very fortunate to write on something I'm so passionate about, in a place so rich with material. I hope I can convey that.

Taste of Armenia

Tell people you're going to an Armenian food festival and see what happens. Puzzled faces mostly, with heads tilted to the side like a cocker spaniel. If they care (or want to do a good job pretending), they'll try to place Armenia on the globe, then deduce the cuisine based on its neighbors. "Lots of onions? Lamb? Hearty grains?"

Throw in some phyllo dough, cheese, and gobs of butter and you've nailed much of the fare at last weekend's Armenian Food Festival at St. Vartan's Church in Oakland. Though the diet-minded could nibble on a limp side salad with vinaigrette, most items brooked no dainty eaters.

One highlight was the koofta, aptly described as "meat stuffed with meat." No turducken this, it's a dense little hockey puck of lamb-on-lamb action. Despite its simple look, koofta preparation is a two-day ordeal: First some lamb is mashed with onion and spices, then left to firm for a day in the fridge. Next a springy outer shell is created with more lamb and bulgur, and a portion of lamb paste is injected into each one. At the St. Vartan's festival, one 97-year-old woman oversaw all koofta aesthetics, by all accounts a pretty tough customer.

Next was the beoreg, phyllo dough (in a continental flair, the festival described the dough as "French puff pastry") baked around lamb and onion paste or parsley and cheese. This was a bulls-eye find, as we've been trying to locate beoreg's Balkan cousin, burek, since moving to the Bay Area (I used to bring a few slices from New York in my suitcase). Burek was often denser than the Armenian version, each slice weighing over a third of a pound, and the Armenian cheese was an oddly inauthentic Monterey Jack, unlike the salty feta-like filling I expected.

The Armenian sarma, little grape-leaf cigars surrounding lamb and rice, was virtually indistinguishable from a Greek dolma. In fact, in a bit of cross-cultural fusion, the festival sold T-shirts that boasted: "My grandma's dolma is better than your grandma's."

*How was it? I'll let you have your own adventure.