Summer 1996 – Since opening City restaurant in 1982, Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger have been on the cutting edge of cuisine in Los Angeles. These days they are co-proprietors and chefs at the Border Grill in Santa Monica, hosts of ‘Good Food,’ a radio show that airs Saturday mornings at 11:00 a.m. on KCRW, and have a cable TV show, ‘The Two Hot Tamales,’ that runs for a half an hour every day on the Food TV Network. Milliken and Feniger are long-time fans of farmers markets. One foggy Saturday morning, they took time out from an excursion through the Santa Monica market, shopping baskets in tow, to sit down for a cup of coffee and share their thoughts about food. They wouldn’t budge from their optimistic view of the future.
‘I think L.A. is ahead of the rest of the country. When we go back to New York, we have to beg for vegetables, every time we go to a restaurant.’
BOOKS BY MILLIKEN AND FENIGER
Cooking With Too Hot Tamales: Recipes and Tips from the Television Food Network’s Spiciest Cooking Duo
By Mary Sue Milliken, Susan Feniger and Helene Siegel
Mesa Mexicana: Bold Flavors from the Border, Mexico, and Beyond
By Mary Sue Milliken, Susan Feniger, Helene Siegel
By Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger
Cantina: The Best of Casual Mexican Cooking
By Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken
Q: Southern Californians these days have access to a greater variety of fruits and vegetables than anyone ever, yet this region is the world capital of franchised fast food. Isn’t standardization winning out over diversity in the American diet?
MILLIKEN: When I moved here 15 years ago from Chicago, I was really impressed with Los Angelenos and how they were willing to try things. All through the 80s, it was a steadily better and better customer base for us to cook for. And I think it’s still happening to a large degree. I mean this farmers market has grown in size and in popularity incredibly in the last five years. The great thing about L.A. is the diversity. All the Asian influence, the Latin influence. So you can come to a market like this and find things like pea shoots and sweet potato greens.
Q: But is an appreciation for new and different foods filtering into mass culture?
FENIGER: I don’t think it’s yet to the masses, but I think it’s going that way. I think the fact that so many of these markets have popped up and they’re busy is a good sign that there’s a demand for it. When we first moved here, there was a Santa Monica farmers market and maybe one in Plummer Park. In the last several years new markets have started in Beverly Hills, Culver City, Westwood, the Valley, Laguna. Now every single day there’s one or two markets. And every day you go to the market, it’s jammed.
Q: And yet by one estimate, processed and packaged foods will account for 90 percent of expenditures on food in the United States by the turn of the century.
MILLIKEN: There’s definitely a bit of a crisis. When I lived in France, I was impressed with how every bus driver, every street sweeper, placed a lot of importance on food. Here many people don’t think about their next meal until they’re so hungry that they’ve just got to go to In-N-Out Burger or something.
There are some big problems. But they’re not unrecognized. Even at the level of the federal government, which is usually the last to notice anything, there are big changes in the school lunch program. It’s not just in what they’re getting kids to eat. They’re really talking about educating children to get them more excited about choosing a healthier lunch, so that they’re not just getting fruits and vegetables that go in the trash every day.
I’m always an optimist. I have visited a number of public schools—including my son’s school in Culver City every day—and I have found that kids are a microcosm of L.A. And I think L.A. is ahead of the rest of the country.
FENIGER: When Mary Sue moved here, she was always saying how blown away she was by how different the customers are here compared with Chicago. And when we go back to New York—
MILLIKEN: —we have to beg for vegetables, every time we go to a restaurant. They’ll give you this big hunk of protein and they’ll put a couple of little pea pods and carrots on the plate. And these are the five star restaurants.
FENIGER: It does seem like L.A. is way ahead in every respect in that way.
Q: I recently spoke with the sales manager of an heirloom seed company. They tried to generate some interest in rutabagas by resurrecting a Vermont family’s heirloom variety. But they had few takers for the seeds. The sales manager thought rutabagas might be a lost cause. Are some foods destined to drop out of the diet?
FENIGER: That’s so funny because rutabagas are one of my favorite vegetables.
MILLIKEN: You know what I think. Farmers need to be more connected with chefs. If they want to launch something that’s got a bad rep, like rutabagas or brussel sprouts, they’ve got to go the extra mile. If they’re making that choice anyway, they’re choosing to go the hard road, as opposed to farming grapes or heirloom tomatoes. But they’ve got to be creative. If that’s what their passion is, if they want to farm rutabagas, they’ve got to find chefs like Danny Meyer [of Union Square Cafe] in New York and they’ve got to pump them up. It’s easy for chefs to get excited about rutabagas.
FENIGER: It’s harder to get these customers excited about it. But it isn’t hard for us.
MILLIKEN: We’re in a position to educate people, to win them over. You put some rutabaga thing with your most popular lamb dish and people eat it and say, ‘I hated rutabagas all my life! I can’t believe it, I love these!’
FENIGER: One of the reasons we joined an organization involved in education called the Chef’s Collaborative is that we felt it was our responsibility to try and set an example.
Q: How long have you had cactus on your menu?
MILLIKEN: Since the beginning of City, since 1981.
Turning People on to Cactus
Q: Do people eat cactus because it is trendy or because they like it?
FENIGER: I don’t know. But it sells.
MILLIKEN: People like it. They have it once and they have it again and they’re shocked.
FENIGER: It sells as tacos, it sells as cactus salad. It sells a lot more than I ever thought it would. Things like anticuchos beef hearts, or lambs tongue, we eventually take them off the menu or maybe run them as specials because they don’t sell. But that’s never been the case with cactus salad.
Q: You have written in your cookbooks about your regular visits to Mexico and South America. What have you found that was especially interesting in farmers markets abroad?
MILLIKEN: I remember when we first went to Mexico in 1983. The first thing we did was go to the huge central market. It services the entire city. One thing that was great is that we could see giant piles and boxes of water cress. We never would have known that water cress was a big deal in Mexico because when you’re there, it’s very hard to find a good restaurant.
FENIGER: And here you never find water cress in Mexican restaurants.
MILLIKEN: But we love water cress. So we thought, great! That was license for us to use water cress whenever we want because we want to be in the Latin vein in the Border Grill. We also found all these different types of chiles and how they’d been processed and dried and smoked and whatever. And we talked to the people who were doing it.
FENIGER: When I was in India, I would go to the marketplace, and not only are the colors fabulous but the things they put next to each other are fascinating. They’re thinking about what goes together. It’s just this amazing visual experience that gets you excited and inspired about cooking. That’s another reason why I think the farmers markets here are great. It gets people excited about cooking.
Q: What do you look for on your visits to farmers markets in Los Angeles?
FENIGER: We don’t look for anything in particular.
MILLIKEN: The main thing we get here is inspiration. Like the day I was walking through the Beverly Hills market and found sweet potato greens. I bought them from an Asian man and I was talking to him. I bought the greens and I bought some of the sweet potatoes that they had grown from. And I thought these would be great together. We used to make this wonderful curry with greens and potatoes at City. So I went home and I made a sweet potato curry and added the greens chopped up at the very end. And it was great.
That’s the kind of inspiration we get. You’ve maybe had beet greens or turnip greens but you’ve never had sweet potato greens. When you see the sweet potatoes and you see the tops, things just kind of connect in your mind.
Greek Lessons About Amaranth Greens
Q: I bought amaranth greens here last fall. I stir-fried them and they were awful. What do you think of amaranth greens.
MILLIKEN: I love amaranth greens. We buy them all the time. But you’ve got to know how to cook them. When we were in Greece, we learned about amaranth greens and how to cook them. Now they’re eating a lot of garbage, but the Greeks have always had a really healthy diet, because Greek women would pick a lot of wild greens, especially amaranth and dandelion. They’re real bitter. But if you cook them in a big pot with lots and lots of water, and then you pull them out and squeeze them dry and dress them with extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice, they’re fabulous.
FENIGER: They’re still bitter. It’s an acquired taste.
MILLIKEN: That’s another interesting thing I’ve been learning. There’s a group called Earthsave that’s working with the Venice High School lunch program that we’re working on with Chef’s Alliance. Some of their ideas are a little wacky, but one of the things they have pointed out that I really find true is that the palate becomes really limited. I think the average mass American’s palate is very, very limited.
It happens to me. But because I’m a professional chef, I force myself to eat new things all the time that don’t taste that good the first time. What’s incredible is that the more I eat them, I start to really like that flavor. And then I start to crave that flavor.
It’s that way with a lot of these kids and people who haven’t eaten a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables all their lives. It just doesn’t taste that good to them. They’re not attracted to it. But you have to force yourself to do it again and again and again, and then all of a sudden you find yourself loving it. People have to get their palates reawakened to those flavors.
– Mark Thompson