Keeping up with sources


A reporter is only as good as his sources. Without informants to tell us what is going on in the great, wide world, newspaper types would have to report only what we know. And the extent of our knowledge can usually be expressed in a short sentence: "Lemme call some people and find out."

So we spend a lot of time "cultivating sources." That means staying out of sight of editors. And it means when someone tells us something important, we try to spell his name right. Or, at the very least, we try to get the first name right.

I depend on my sources. They send me tributes to rhubarb. They tell where to get the best ice cream on Long Island. They tell me to ask probing questions about nipping the tail muscles of a shrimp.

It doesn't matter that I don't like rhubarb. Or that I live a few hundred miles from Long Island. Or that the number of shrimp muscles I have nipped is virtually nil. These are my sources, I go where they lead me.

The sage of rhubarb

From: Mildred Holcomb, La Crosse, Wisc.

Re: Column admitting no strong affection for rhubarb.

Dear Happy Eater,

H. L. Mencken of The American Mercury had an editorial about rhubarb. Later I put it together in this form along with my own thoughts and it was printed in newspapers in this area and carried in purses and pockets:

No poet has ever stuck his neck out so far as to write a poem about rhubarb. Because in rhubarb there is no poetry. It is only a common sure-crop plant that grows in every backyard, despised, unnoticed.

But not for nothing is the stalk of the rhubarb red as the sunset of the Gobi Desert, nor its leaves shaped like the ears of the performing elephants of Cathay. For the rhubarb has known the ancient exotic beauty of the Oriental gardens. It has been brushed beside tents made of cloth of gold, and the pitched yurts of the roaming nomads.

It had its part in changing the course of history when it revitalized the scurvied hordes of Genghis Khan. Its roots have traveled in caravans beneath the banner of the Cross of the Crescent. It has known the jeweled cities of the South, the poised rise and fall of galley oars. It came in treasure-laden ships, a long awaited, welcome gift from an old world to a new.

But all these things are as though they had never been because, rhubarb, as we all know, is only a common plant that grows in every back yard, despised, unnoticed.

Eater Replies: A moving essay to a plant whose only attribute, as far as I can tell, is that it gets the innards moving.

However, I did learn a new word, "yurt:" a circular, domed tent used by the Mongol nomads of Siberia. I had to look it up in a fat dictionary, the skinny ones didn't have it.

I tried to work "yurt" into casual conversation. But when I told people about the joys of "pitching a yurt in the woods," they lowered their eyes and moved away. I think I'll use "yurt" the way I use rhubarb, sparingly.

Long way to Long Island

From : Martin A. Reid, Ellicott City

Re: Column lamenting my failure to make a good chocolate chip ice cream.

Dear Happy Eater,

If you ever have reason to be in Valley Stream, Long Island, be sure to visit Itgen's Ice Cream Parlor. Walter Itgen Jr. runs the place, which makes homemade chocolates as well as homemade french ice cream. The chunks of chocolate from the candy make their way into excellent vanilla and mint ice cream. Each batch is a little different, but it is always a treat.

Eater Replies: I agree that a chocolate chip ice cream is only as good as its chocolate. And you have inspired me to get out the grinder, the salt and the sugar, and try once again to make the ultimate summer treat, homemade ice cream.

A second look at the shrimp nip

From: Louis N. Lehman, Columbia

Re: Column mentioning that cutting tail muscles of shrimp keeps shrimp from curling on barbecue grill

Dear Happy Eater,

I would appreciate a better "how-to" on cutting the tail muscles on a shrimp. A better locater on the shrimps tail muscle.

When nipping the tail muscle, do you nip [along] the body length or crosswise?

Eater Replies: To get a truthful answer I had to call some people.

Some of them knew as little as I did about shrimp muscles, but eventually I caught up with the expert, Gary Puetz, the Vancouver, Wash., chef who told me about this technique and who nips tail muscles daily.

He compared a piece of peeled shrimp to my curled index finger. In this position the shrimp is upside down. That meant, he said, that the "fan" or tail of the shrimp is where my finger nail would be.

The bands of muscle you want to cut are on the underside of the shrimp, he said, the equivalent of the "inside" part of my curled finger. Since the bands wrap around the shrimp the way a ring goes around a finger, you want to slice them using lengthwise cuts.

When this shrimp nip is completed, Puetz said, your tails won't curl.

Mystery meat

From: Mildred E. Brown, Hydes

Re: Column on eating in Spain.

Dear Happy Eater,

Can you answer one question about Moroccan food? We had a dish of meat and vegetables that was out of this world. The meat was very tender and tasty. Our Spanish guide said it was camel. Was it?

Eater Replies: After looking through several cookbooks, including "A Taste of Morocco" by Robert Carrier (Clarkson N. Potter, $30) I have a hunch that what you ate was a haunch of young camel.

It is made with Spanish olives, garlic, parsley, coriander, cumin, ginger, cinnamon, saffron, red peppers, olive oil, honey, lemon juice and raisins.

Sometimes camel is served with sweet potatoes. At least that is what my sources tell me.

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