Take It, It's Free!

A Chef’s Foraging Journey, Urban and Ancient

Photo by Sanford D'Amato

Photo by Sanford D'Amato

Story by Sanford D’Amato
Photograph by Dominic Perri

I was weaned by a professional shopper, my mother. I must have spent half of my early years in her tow shopping the meccas of my hometown, Milwaukee, through the 1950s. You could find me sitting for hours in the dreaded chair posted outside of every dressing room, waiting and waiting while the controlling person with the money tried on every stitch of available clothing. This was always followed by a placating reward: a visit to the deli for a tasty treat.

To balance out that early experience was my father, a grocer and a fruit and vegetable savant. I would accompany him on his daily trips to the early-morning produce markets, where we would scour various purveyors’ wares to find the most luscious examples of the season’s bounty. After we loaded the station wagon, we were off to a satisfying workingman’s breakfast. 

That Pavlovian training laid the groundwork for the “pro shopper” that I am today. I understand discounts and sales and have the patience to spend hours sliding hangers on a sale rack until that real deal appears. That patience and eye for detail has carried over to my cooking profession. I always “work” a farmers’ market by getting there right before opening and checking out every booth for quality and price before making any purchases. 

As much as I revel in a good deal, there is one word that transcends it: free. Those magical four letters send my adrenaline into hyper-flow, whether it’s a trade show where I leave with two shopping bags full of promotional key chains, wristbands, and sun visors, or braking to a screeching halt at a street-side “free” sign to load whatever it is into the back of the car for closer inspection. 

I realized I was hooked during my first week living in New York City in the early ’70s. I muscled an oversized wing chair with rotted fabric—but a still-sturdy frame—from the spot where it was left out on the street up to my miniscule fourth floor walk-up apartment, where the only place it would fit was in front of the stove. 

Ironically, I have spent my life in a profession built on the concept of free product. In the earliest days of cooking, all cooks were first hunters and gatherers. This brings me to one of my most admired avocations: foraging. Foragers are the sultans of free, possessing skill and knowledge that most of us have lost through centuries of pre-packaged commodity food.

Throughout the years of my cooking career, I have worked with many foragers, but beyond digging up clams on the Connecticut coast or stumbling over puffball mushrooms larger than a beach ball, I’ve always just waited for the delivery rather than make that sometimes life-or-death decision (as with some mushrooms) on my own. Beyond the wealth of young dandelions growing in the cracks of the city sidewalks, the urban setting in which I spent most of my life was a barren foraging location.

With our move to Hatfield, which is plopped right in the middle of prime rural farmland on the banks of the Connecticut River, our former scenario has taken a fast 180° turn. After 30-some years of buying foraged fiddleheads and ramps for our former restaurants, now I just have to hop on my bike and, within minutes, I’m filling my lined backpack with a mother lode of each—fresher than I’ve ever had. And I know that this is just the appetizer to my years of gathering ahead. This balance between hunt and reward is my dream shopping experience. Only one thing makes it better—they’re free! 

Read more about foraging for fiddleheads in our Cover Story

Pop Culture

By Sanford D’Amato

As a baby boomer I was a witness to the first generation of convenience foods. Not just a witness, actually—I had a front row seat from the age of five, from behind the counter of my dad’s grocery store.

It started in the freezer, with Swanson’s turkey TV dinners. Once the floodgates were opened, they would never close.

Up to this time all our meals were “Leave It To Beaver”-like, with my mother making everything from scratch. But when convenience foods slowly crept onto our dinner table, there was no shame—just the opposite, as each new product was unveiled with the excitement of a Broadway opening!

Somewhere between the time I was waiting for the Sara Lee Cheesecake to defrost and the Pepperidge Farm Raspberry Turnovers to rise in the oven, the coolest thing happened: It was 1964, the year that the Beatles invaded the United States, the first Mustang was released, and the Civil Rights Act was signed into law. And in the food world, the first Pop-Tart was unleashed on the public.

I couldn’t wait as my dad brought in the case from the wholesaler. We extracted a box and pulled out the 1960s-appropriate foil packaging—almost Tang-like—which held two flat toaster-ready strawberry-jam-filled rectangles. Within seconds the toaster in the store’s back room set off its Pavlovian “cha-chink” and we were both juggling and blowing on the hot pastries at the same time.

This was a magical moment—until the first bite: kind of dry with really mediocre gluey, friend-of-strawberry filling! That may sound harsh but I’ll admit it: I’m a candy/dessert snob. My credentials? 1955–1968: Official Candy Taster, D’Amato’s Grocery. I tasted every one of the 80+ types of candy that would cross our counter to be purchased by the salivating crowds. My self-appointed duties also included tasting every new sweet or savory product that was introduced over the years.

Even though the taste of the Pop-Tart made it a “NOT-Tart” for me, I still thought the idea was absolutely brilliant. So on the 50th anniversary of the Pop-Tart, I’m making a tart influenced by both the original and my dad.

At this time of year at the winter markets, it’s a toss-up which is the quintessential late-season fruit. Apple is the undisputed leader, being synonymous with cider. But even though I will consume almost my body weight in fresh-picked apples through the season, I still crave the perfectly ripe pear.

My first, and still favorite, pear is the Bartlett. When its skin turns that beautiful warm yellow, that is the day I take a bite and know there is no better fruit. With the rugged Bosc pear it is trickier to capture that perfect moment, as they are a drier sort. But when you do, they are full of deep, assertive, complex flavors.

My dad was a pear whisperer. He would pick one out of the large case when he was stocking the store shelves and set it aside. Some 14 to 53 hours later, he would pick it up, cut it in half, remove the core, and slice it into wedges. He would then muscle out the half wheel of Pecorino Romano from the unrefrigerated case in the back and cut a mess of finger-sized pieces of the pungent, slightly salty cheese. As fragrant as the cheese was, the ripe pear gave it right back, a yin-yang combo that influenced how I ate from that point on.

This recipe is based on the flavor profile I learned at an early age. It affected how I make desserts as I always try to balance on the savory side of the sweet. I feel the combination of the fragrant rosemary in the dough and the slightly spicy candied ginger in the filling balance off the sharp Tomme from Robinson Farm over in Hardwick and sautéed pears.

Don’t be afraid to pop them in the toaster to reheat, as almost every pastry is better when warm. After 50 years, it’s still a brilliant idea!