|Signorina Valeria at the doors to Eataly|
I introduced Valeria to one of her country's most delectable cheeses, Sottocenere, a creamy cow's milk cheese laced with black truffle and whose herbed ashen crust provides its name, "sotto cenere" meaning "under ash." Then we went on to prowl the produce section.
The fruit and veggies were all very well-lit, all very pretty, considering the barren wintry landscape outside, though a lot of it came from Florida and California (there was a smattering of Hudson Valley farms represented). I also found a satisfying variety of weird vegetables and fruit, including red watercress, finger limes, and an admirable mushroom section.
At last, we came to the main attraction, the curiosity that had summoned me to this realm called Eataly in the first place: The Vegetable Butcher.
|Someone please tell me why they are put scare quotes |
around "Vegetable Butcher." Is it all an ironic joke?
Like the Wizard of Oz, the Vegetable Butcher is a symbolic figure that goes beyond the identity of merely one person, the green mantle having been handed off to various wielders of the bloodless knife since the inauguration of the position last September. The whole concept of this in-store vegetable mascot, a hearty carver of edible plant matter there to slice, delight, instruct, and dice, sprouted to life over late-night glasses of fine wine in the back of a swanky restaurant, as New York creation myths often seem to go. Impresario Mario was chatting up conceptual artist Jennifer Rubell, niece of Studio 54's Steve but more importantly for us connoisseurs of the alimentary fringe, a conjurer of food as art and art as food. Her show Icons, which was a dinner at the Brooklyn Museum of Art's fundraising gala last year, included Fontina cheese casts of her own head suspended upside down to melt (under heat guns) onto stacked snack crackers, carrots to be plucked and munched from a seed bed in the shape of artist Vito Acconci's body, grotesquely decadent meat and vegetable spreads, and for dessert: a 20-foot-tall pinata of Andy Warhol's head, which was bashed in to release rivers of Twinkies, Ding Dongs, Yodels, Sno Balls, Suzy Q’s, and Ho Ho’s. Yum!
|cheese head pre-melt...|
|What if the hors d'oeuvre were the oeuvre d'art?|
|a chipped pyramid (these & more here)|
|Jennifer Rubell with cleaver & cucuzza squash |
(source: New York Post)
“I like to expand the vegetable kingdom for people.”
“I’m just like a bartender. But the advice customers seek from me is about what to do with vegetables, and to introduce them to unfamiliar ones like cardoons and celery root.”
By the time I arrived on the scene, Rubell had already split for stranger pastures, but Valeria and I were able to spend some quality time over sliced celeriac dressed in olive oil, lemon, and salt with the gracious Milan, that day's Vegetable Butcher.
|Valeria grills the Vegetable Butcher, Milan (also her hometown)|
Responding good-naturedly to my barrage of questions as he selected a hefty celery root for his demonstration, Milan observed that baby artichokes seemed to be the most frequently butchered vagetable at his station (people not knowing how to deal with the thorns and the fuzz, it seems), followed by winter squash. "A lady once asked me to basically scalp a pumpkin for her," he said, while I gasped in shock at the barbarousness of the request, before realizing that that's what we do to all our tough-skinned Cucurbitae, though we call our actions by other names. Truly scandalous, however, was the customer that once had him mince something like forty garlic cloves (I didn't note down the exact number, but it was something ridiculous).
I tried to drag some juicy dirt from him on his job, but the most I could get was that he's bothered by the excess plastic packaging used to box up the sliced veggies and that he's against slicing up mushrooms too far in advance, thus degrading their integrity into a slimy mycological travesty. My main disappointment was that they hadn't come up with any signature vegetable butcher "cuts" with diagrams like the ones you see of cows. But perhaps we of the vegetable community can reflect more on this question and provide further ferment for innovation in vegetable preparation.
As we were talking, a woman came up to have her cauliflower dissected, and Milan sliced it to order ("How small do you want it? Florets?") while she shared with us her preference for pureed cauliflower over mashed potatoes because of its lighter texture. Then we all considered how celery root, also a bit more delicate than the potato, might add a complementary tone to the cauliflower.
Here is Milan's celeriac demonstration, in which I learned that celeriac/celery root can be eaten raw (duh, I know, but I did not know). Please do try this at home. Also, that person who sounds like a total valley girl giving useless color commentary is NOT me.