My brunch today: eggs sauteed with a fresh tomato, a piece of toast with the blackberry-blueberry-elderberry jam I made last summer, fruit salad and herbal tea. As I was making my eggs, I remembered a story from my youth and felt compelled to share it.
Eggs sauteed with a ripe juicy tomato always were one of my favorite breakfast or dinner foods from childhood. Growing up on my grandparents' farm in the summers, us four oldest grand kids would race to the garden to pick ripe tomatoes and to the chicken coop to scoop up the eggs. Sometimes we'd get lucky with duck eggs, which were much larger and better tasting. We'd bring the goods to our grandma, she'd get her biggest cast iron frying pan out and start on the eggs, telling us all sorts of funny stories while we were waiting, eyes glued to her and the pan.
"First, we cut a little bit of butter to warm the pan up," my grandma would say as she went along. "Then take the chopped tomato and saute it in butter until some of its juice evaporates. And then, we break eggs right in, add salt and pepper to taste, mix everything and stir this beauty until it's done."
In about 5-7 min, the steaming and flavorful goodness was on the table, for only a minute or so as we would gobble everything up and then fight to dip and scoop out the remaining juice with the pieces of bread my grandma baked…
Fast forward some 15+ years later, I’m working as an interpreter for Arnold Saltzman, an American diplomat, businessman and philanthropist who was fascinated with Kyrgyzstan and opportunities it presented for new business after the Soviet Union fell apart.
Amb. Saltzman, as he liked to be referred, was 76 in 1992 when I was assigned to him on his exploratory week-long visit. I was 22. To me, he was a kind and noble American millionaire the likes of which you’d see in old movies. To him, I was a smart young woman he could gently mentor in the correct American English usage as I had been trained in classical British, which a lot of times created confusion and hilarity.
He was staying at what at the time was the only hotel built for foreign visitors. Nothing fancy for Westerners, but extreme luxury by Soviet standards, with a lot of granite, marble and open spaces. After I travelled the world, I’d say it was like a marbled Red Roof Inn.
The hotel had what was advertised as one of the best restaurants in town. Saltzman would have breakfast there every day, and then I and his security entourage would pick him up for a day of meetings and sightseeing. That was the time before cellphones.
On the third day of his stay, Saltzman asked me quietly at the end of the day if I could come to the hotel next day about 30 min earlier than the schedule and alone, without the security. I asked him if he had a problem with the hotel and he said, smiling, “No, I just want to chat with the restaurant staff and no one there speaks English.” Knowing how kind and attentive he was to people around him, I was not surprised and agreed.
I came by a public bus, about 35 min earlier than scheduled officially and found Saltzman at the restaurant reading a magazine. He got up from his reserved table for 4, sat me down like a gentleman and said, “I’m so tired of the same breakfast of fried eggs they serve me every day, I want you to help me get something different today.”
“Ok, what is it?”
“It’s a variation of an omelette but with added vegetables. See, they already have eggs with tomatoes on the menu,” he pointed at a line on a funkily translated menu. “Do you know what it is?”
I nodded and explained to him how the dish was made, my grandma’s way.
“Ah, then it won’t be too hard for them,” he smiled, “when the waiter comes I’d like you to just tell him exactly what I want.”
The waiter came right away. Saltzman let me order my fried eggs first and then said, “I would like your fried eggs with tomatoes, but prepared in a slightly different way.”
The waiter nodded, all politeness and attention, ready to take notes on the order. Hospitality and exceptional service in the ex-Soviet Central Asia was resurrected quickly after the USSR collapse. Must be due to the historical memory of being on the famed Silk Road.
“Do you have fresh shallots, bell peppers, and mushrooms at your restaurant?” Saltzman asked. I had trouble with the word “shallots” and he said they were younger and smaller onions.
“I’m not sure we have mushrooms, sir, they are not in season yet,” the waiter said politely, “but everything else - yes.”
“Could you please ask your chef to sauté onions, peppers, and tomatoes together for about 2-3 min and then pour over them a couple of eggs beaten with milk, just like for an omelette? Cook on low until done without stirring or flipping.”
“I’ll ask, sir,” the water said, and repeated back the sequence, wide eyed.
See, in the Soviet Union we were used to doing things a certain one way. If it’s an omelette, it’s just eggs with milk or half-&-half, not even cheese. If it’s fried eggs with tomatoes, it was just eggs and tomatoes. No one in their right mind would have ventured to make the ragu Saltzman described, but with eggs. Those vegetables were simply incompatible with an omelette in a former Soviet mind.
The waiter went back to the kitchen and I started to ask Saltzman about this unusual dish: how did he learn it, how often he ate it, and was it good?
“I make it all the time since childhood, my grandma taught me,” Saltzman said, smiling. “Even now, I make it for my wife quite often. She loves it!”
“You cook yourself?” my naïveté and straightforwardness amused him.
“Of course! Why not? I love it!” he said, laughing.
I could physically hear a couple of stereotypes about men cooking and millionaires doing anything with their own hands shattering in my brain.
“Well, I always thought American millionaires had at least 10 cooks and servants working for them,” I mumbled, slightly embarrassed.
“And a butler, right?” He winked at me. “Just like in those olden movies.”
“Exactly!” I said.
“Well, I’m not that type of a millionaire. My father built our business in textiles from nothing, and I’m just trying to build on it. You’d be surprised, but I still make my own bed. Well, we do have a nice lady come in and clean our home about two times a week,” he admitted. “But it’s mostly because we both are getting old, the grip is not the same.” He pointed at his hands that had a pronounced tremor.
While we were talking, a waiter came back a couple of times with clarifying questions. Saltzman patiently repeated the sequence of cooking the dish again, and explained how much salt, pepper and herbs he wanted in his omelette. “And in the very end, some shredded cheese on top of it wouldn’t hurt,” he said, sending the waiter into a quiet panic mode.
In about 15 minutes, the main security officer emerged from the kitchen and headed straight to me, “Here you are! I’ve been calling your mom and school, thought you disappeared on us!”
I was still a university student then, living with my mom. That security officer calling my school and plucking me out of classes for translation was nothing unusual.
“He asked me to come earlier, I couldn’t say no!” I started to explain.
“You could have called me!” he hissed.
Saltzman felt the tension and said, “I hope it’s not a problem that I asked Lana to come earlier, I needed her help at breakfast. Would you like to join us, we can add your order.”
“I already ate at home, thank you,” the officer said, still upset with me.
“Well, order something like juice or a toast, it’s on me,” Saltzman insisted. The officer obliged, and shortly after the waiter brought out my eggs and Saltzman’s omelette.
It looked and smelled magnificent! Thick and fluffy, with vegetables cheekily picking through the yellowish white, it was a culinary piece of art.
“Mmmmm,” Saltzman said, trying his omelette under three pairs of eyes dead-set on him. “Would you like to try it?” he asked everyone, and even looked up at the waiter. I already knew that with Americans most of the times there will be no second offer if you say no, so I said I’d love to. I was just curious.
Saltzman took a spare plate and put about half of his big omelette onto it, “Too much for me anyway.” Each of us, including the waiter, tried a piece.
“Yummm,” I said, surprised by how delicious it was, “mushrooms!”
“Yes! Do you have any idea how hard it is to find fresh mushrooms here this time of the year?” the officer hissed at me quietly and I nearly chocked, laughing.
“Wait, is this why you are here?” I asked.
“Yes, imagine getting a call in the morning: Your precious charge wants fresh mushrooms! I had to activate all my city connections!”
“Where did you find them, they are delicious!” I said. The security officer only seemed mean and scary to other people; he was mom’s friend from work and I knew him well.
“Like I’d tell you my secrets,” he responded, munching on his piece.
When we were about done with breakfast, the chef himself came out of the kitchen to ask if Saltzman liked his omelette. Saltzman said “beyond words” and thanked the chef for exceeding his expectations.
“Would you mind, sir, if we include the item on our menu for future guests?” The chef then asked timidly.
“Of course I wouldn’t!” Saltzman exclaimed, “I have no proprietary claim to the recipe. Go ahead, delight your guests with it.”
If only he knew that the dish was on the restaurant’s menu for at least 10 years after, simply named, “summer garden omelette.”
P.S. I am including a story about the remarkable Amb.Saltzman here, with an embedded photo of a New York Times story about his visit to my then freshly independent country.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!