By Francesca Arniotes
I’m going to tell you a story about my grandfather. To appreciate it, it may be necessary to remind readers who have not been on the planet for at least a half century that in the olden days, when there was no internet, information-on-demand looked a little different than it does today. One could find someone who was likely to be familiar with the subject of interest and ask them. Books were a big source of answers, especially encyclopedias, depositories of information about every subject under the sun, for which there were door to door salesman, and if a household harbored one or more intellectually curious members, a set of 30 glorious leather-bound volumes complete with bookcase might be delivered to the house one volume at a time upon receipt of weekly payments. An extensive answer to some question might require a trip to the library to find a book on the subject. For learning about food and cooking of course, then as now, there were cookbooks. The Sunday newspaper had a food section with recipes for interesting new dishes and while it wasn’t information-on-demand, it offered glimpses of new and different frontiers beyond our known food universe, sparking new questions.
My grandfather was a scientist at heart. Almost all Italian immigrants made their own wine; my grandfather had not only dug an extensive wine cellar for the barrels of different varietals he made each year, but also built a chemistry lab downstairs so that he could test, refine and blend his wines and eventually learn to make sparkling wines. Incidentally, it’s a whole other story, but that latter effort had a steep learning curve and involved the violent pulverization of the cellar stairs and a narrow escape from certain death.
He loved good food, but went to restaurants primarily to seek out new dishes, new flavors, and exciting presentations. Then he would read, research, experiment, and test until he reproduced the food experience he was after. Some dishes were for the pleasure of the family. Many were adapted as innovative offerings in our meat market or for a catering or for one of the huge parties he and my grandmother threw. My earliest training in food -- both retail and cooking -- included exacting attention to detail, taking best advantage of color, design, balance and flavor to surprise and delight the consumer. Even the canned goods were arranged to be pleasing to the eye.
I remember a period of time when my grandfather was obsessed with the cocktail sauce at The Old Original Bookbinders, a renowned seafood restaurant on the docks in Philadelphia. He thought it extraordinary and it became his mission to reproduce this sauce not only because we enjoyed loads of shellfish at our table, but to impress the illustrious persons at the local hospital’s monthly Board of Directors meeting which we catered and whose standing order included 5 pounds of jumbo shrimp. He returned to the restaurant a few times and chatted up his waiters trying to wheedle a recipe for the sauce out of the kitchen. He was fairly certain he wasn’t going to get the recipe, but he might count on them revealing one of the ingredients. He sent his nephews, one by one, out to dinner at the restaurant, being sure they’d order the shrimp cocktail, comment on the sauce and see what they could find out. By and by, my grandfather duplicated the cocktail sauce, using his taste analysis plus knowledge of the ingredients he and his gang had gotten various Bookbinders staff to mention. It received rave reviews everywhere it was served. He never claimed it as his own. I don’t know if this is right or wrong, but he proudly presented it as Bookbinders’ cocktail sauce. Whether his satisfaction in giving credit to the restaurant came from the fact that he alone was able to offer this exclusive condiment or because he had so painstakingly figured out the recipe of such a hot eatery, I don’t know. But I do know this was only one of many such missions and I suspect that it was, for him, all about the thrill of the hunt. Indeed, when in the early 1970’s Bookbinders opened a food division and came out with a line of food products, including jars of its famous cocktail sauce, he was not dismayed. We continued making it ourselves, as I still do, and in a pinch, on a road trip for example, we could buy a jar.
I can’t tell you what the label read in the 1970’s but I can list for you the ingredients on today’s label: tomato paste, water, high fructose corn syrup, distilled vinegar, horseradish, salt, lemon juice concentrate, soybean oil, beet powder, natural and artificial flavor, xanthan gum, potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate and EDTA-Calcium disodium. In a way, figuring out the recipe for the cocktail sauce served in the restaurant was a great service to history. Whether the company succeeded in bottling the exact taste and texture of the sauce or it just comes close, my family knows it as it was when it was all simple ingredients and people found it extraordinary. Today you can Google a dozen recipes in an instant for anything you like. But for that favorite restaurant dish, you might want to gather some accomplices and experience the thrill of the hunt.