Cooking Under the Gun—and Sustenance by the Sea

by Isaac Cronin

My career as a food professional did not begin romantically. It started with a death in the family.  James Carr, a former convict and ex-member of the Black Panther Party, died a violent death just as Jimmy’s brother-in-law Dan Hammer and I were finishing the first draft of Jimmy’s autobiography, BAD, a tough tale of life in South Central and the prisons of California. Very much a book of that time.

Our first reaction was to assume that his former comrades had gotten wind of Jimmy’s political change of heart and wanted to silence him. Of course, that had nothing to do with it. He was likely another victim of the disinformation network of COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program, a broad-based FBI strategy authored by J. Edgar Hoover and aimed at the Left and the civil rights movements) that spread disinformation (bad or rat jacketing), hoping the paranoia of the party members would do the rest. And, in Jimmy’s case, it apparently did.

Believing that we might be the next targets of assassination, Dan and I decided to separate and lay low. In my case, ironically, that meant moving from San Francisco to a location closer to the scene of Jimmy’s murder, Santa Cruz. My girlfriend Jeanne and I were offered a third floor room in a classic Victorian in the West Cliff district with a panoramic view across the bay to Monterey.  Jeanne found a job as a waitress at a seafood restaurant on the wharf. I returned to commercial fishing with a boat and crew out of Moss Landing, a small harbor twenty-five miles south of Santa Cruz. I began working on the Three Sisters , owned and skippered by a second generation Sicilian, Nardo Olivieri.

Nardo, a jolly, husky, fiftyish guy’s guy, had hired a ragtag crew of scruffy, hardworking pirates: hippies with earrings, ponytails, tattoos and beards—Rube, Billy, Ron and me—because we kept him entertained. And besides, who else would endure staying up all night doing the dirty work of pulling in the bulging net by hand in a tossing sea when there were fish to be found, and getting paid nothing on the nights that there was no catch?  Ron was the glue that kept the crew together, an ex-Valley dude, free love Casanova, former high school football star and awakening Shakespearian romantic who was crazy in love with the sea. He recruited us all and vouched for us, working to overcome our weaknesses whenever necessary with his passion and strength.

On the nights when the nets were full of squid or anchovies or herring, the bait, as it was known in commercial fishing terms, would attract other, larger fish, and those were ours for the keeping.

A few days sleeping to the sounds of crashing surf and playing backyard volleyball with the surfers, students, and hippies had calmed me down, though I still found myself looking over my shoulder every once in a while for a possible hit team. But then another more immediate problem took over. Food. Though Dorothy, the proprietress and preparer of the evening meal, was a delightful person to have a Chardonnay wine spritzer with, she was an unimaginative cook quite willing to serve lentil soup for dinner every night. In fact, she did. A week of this and I was ready to mutiny. But then it occurred to me that this unbearable situation actually presented an opportunity to be both diplomatic and self-serving. I told Dorothy that if she gave me a two-dollars-per-person grocery allowance, I would do the cooking for the whole house, all fifteen of us, and keep the spending under $30 per meal. It was an offer she couldn’t refuse, in part, because she probably hated her own cooking too. What I had going was a free supply of just-caught seafood from the Three Sisters. I was buying vegetables, bread, rice, and sauce and salad ingredients, and Dorothy was providing the wine—jugs of Paul Masson and Almaden.

Every afternoon I would open up the Larousse Gastronomique, her only cookbook, with its abbreviated dictionary entries that outlined ingredients without going into much procedural detail, and come up with a menu based on whatever I had brought home the night before: rex sole, squid, flounder, smelts, salmon, shark. I created detailed shopping lists, and step-by-step procedurals for each dish. Nine years later, I published a squid cookbook based on my research.

My cooking was informed partially by my memories of eating in Paris, but basically I was winging it. Volunteers from among the residents would show up from time to time in the afternoon, and I was prepared with detailed written instructions.

I would make elaborate meals with hors d’ouevre, a vegetable soup, and a main course that might be poached filets in cream sauce, a tomato-based fish stew, or a seafood salad. Gradually I expanded my research and spent time in the local library reading and pulling recipes from Gourmet magazine and Julia Child’s Mastering the Art French Cooking.

The food that nourished the radical movement during the ’60s and early ’70s was divided along racial lines. Black activists generally ate soul food—ribs, chicken, beans and rice, greens, grits. And the whites ate the hippie staples of the moment—brown rice, veggies, sprouts, served communal-style in bowls with a little soy sauce on the side. The Chicanos were lucky—they actually had a developed cuisine, and we envied the historical roots of their cooking, going back centuries to the Aztecs and the Mayans. When we made enchiladas it was a big deal.

That all changed for me on my second trip to France in 1970. A veteran beau combattant de rue  of the Latin Quarter riots of May 1968, Alan, was our host, putting us up in his Montmartre garret while he stayed with his girlfriend on Île Saint-Louis. One of his favorite restaurants for what was called propre French cooking was Le Bouillon Chartier in the 9th Arrondisement. Chartier, more than any other restaurant experience, changed the way I thought about food and eating. It has a bright, polished, mirror-lined interior, high ceilings and Art Deco lighting that celebrates its turn-of-the-century origins. The professional staff of waiters have worked at the restaurant for decades, and they have seen it all—the fights, the drunks, the broke clients running out on the check, the entire human comedy. To this day, the dishes are simple and elegant in a classic, respectful style, respectful of the ingredients and of the ordinary people who eat there regularly. Once I had a properly prepared rare steak au poivre  with perfect French fries, I knew that I would never be able to go back to the movement’s dreary, obligatory potlucks. Fortunately, the opportunity to master traditional French cooking presented itself in Santa Cruz.

It was a wonderful way to learn how to cook, because my clientele, so happy to have something other than lentils, appreciated everything, even my mistakes. It helped me build confidence, and I would try almost anything once, flambés and stuffed whole fish included. After the first few weeks, Dorothy and her husband Russ, a retired teacher and avid sailor, started inviting their friends over, so the 15 often grew to 20. They became a dining destination. A ritual developed.  After the long meal concluded, I would come out of the kitchen clad in shorts, T-shirt and long apron, and Dorothy, on her fourth of fifth spritzer, would toast me with some practiced platitudes, until I took a bow to applause and cheers. That was all the pay I got. The dinner party became an essential part of my life, and I became addicted to its social rewards.

As the summer faded, my obsession with cooking and its life-affirming commitment to sustenance helped me let go of the shock and grief over Jimmy’s death. Dorothy never even came into the kitchen except to ask if I needed her to go the store to pick up something I had forgotten. She was basking in the glow of her new found innkeeper status. She even mentioned the idea of opening a restaurant.

Dan would come over for dinner occasionally. He had only moved to a new address in San Francisco, so he was a short drive up the coast.  We renewed our vow to publish Jimmy’s autobiography. Like romantic radicals before us, we imagined that the easiest way to accomplish this was to go Paris, where black Americans had always found a warm reception. In those days, paying for and booking a plane ticket to Europe was simple, cheap and often spontaneous. On two or three days notice, after hasty farewells, you would be at airport with a few changes of clothes and a toothbrush. Radical publishing was number one on our agenda. But right below it was exploring the affordable neighborhood restaurants of Paris.



Squid San Jose

(from The International Squid Cookbook by Isaac Cronin, Aris Books, 1981)

Serves 4


2 pounds squid, cleaned and left whole
6 ounces mild cheese, such as jack
1 large can whole mild green chiles (Ortega is one brand)
1 cup canned tomatoes, drained and cut in half
Juice of two lemons
Salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Slice chiles lengthwise into pieces two to three inches long. Cut cheese into pieces of finger length, half-inch wide. Stuff squid bodies with one piece each of cheese and chile. Seal each end with a toothpick. Layer squid in a baking dish.  Sprinkle with salt, pepper and red pepper flakes.  Cover evenly with tomatoes and lemon juice.  Bake for twenty minutes and serve over rice.

Isaac Cronin is the author and editor of fourteen books, including six cookbooks.  He has been a commercial fisherman and a farmer, the marketing director of a cookbook publishing company, and a screenwriter.  He is a founding partner of Meteor Ovens, an Oakland company with a new ceramic that improves cooking speed and enhances food flavor.

One thought on “Cooking Under the Gun—and Sustenance by the Sea

  1. Great story – I just read BAD, so this article was even more meaningful in that context. Food and all that entails growing, harvesting, preparing, consuming, appreciating, is out greatest survival need as well as one of our greatest pleasures, and in this case, a way to process grief and reaffirm life.

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