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Awake at the Whisk: Lessons from Legend Darrell Corti

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Lessons from Legend Darrell Corti

Is food sacred in America? What’s special about Sacramento as a food town? Will Corti Brothers grocery store close?

Two nights ago, Sacramento food legend Darrell Corti sat down with award-winning food journalist Elaine Corn as part of the Living Library discussion series sponsored by Time Tested Books and Midtown Monthly for a conversation about—you guessed it—food!

Aside from the occasional opportunity to ask for his opinion on a bottle of wine at Corti Brothers, I can’t say that I know him at all. Only, that is, by reputation.

For those of you who don’t know, Darrell Corti, owner of the fine foods grocery store Corti Brothers, isn’t just a legend in Sacramento. He’s world-renowned, according to his website, for his “encyclopedic knowledge of food and wines.” You’ll find his name in the memoires of former Gourmet Magazine editor, Ruth Reichl. Both Reichl and Corti are among those credited for putting California on the map for its great food and wine.

In 2008, Corti was inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame by the Culinary Institute of America for his vast wine knowledge. He is known world-wide for his incredible palette as a wine judge and as an expert in Italian foods—and any other food, for that matter. He has also been named a “Cavaliere” by the Italian government for promoting Italian foods, so he’s essentially a sort of “food knight.”

Having heard much ado about this culinary champion, I was eager to find out what gems he would share about the Sacramento food world. So I joined the packed crowd at Time Tested Books to hear him speak. Here’s what he had to say…

Food as Sacred
When Corti was a young boy, his grandmother hit him for setting a loaf of bread on top of the counter upside down. She was angered that he showed such disrespect for the bread. That was the day young Corti learned that food is sacred.

Yet, to his sadness, Corti believes that most Americans have an utter disregard for food. We don’t eat leftovers. We buy more food than we need, and when it spoils, we throw it out. Yet, we want to buy this food in bulk, and buy it cheap.

“If we’re so wealthy [that wasting food doesn’t bother us], why does food have to be so cheap?” Corti asks.

Americans as Cooks
Elaine Corn asked Corti for his impression of Americans as cooks. Corti responded, “Americans are next to the Japanese in being able to imitate things.” Because we can master the recipe for any number of ethnic recipes, and then make them our own, Corti is impressed by the American cook.

Making Ingredients from Scratch
On the subject of making food from scratch, Corti responds like the practical grocer that he is. “If you can buy quality ready-made products, do it! It’s what you do with it that matters.” He described an Italian friend who long ago shunned the notion of making pasta by hand once he discovered a wonderful brand sold at Corti Brothers. If the final product can’t be improved upon, why bother? Cut yourself a break and use the products off Corti’s shelf!

He makes a valid point when he describes the home cooks of yore, pounding away at large bricks of salt and sugar with a mortar and pestle. “When granulated sugar and salt were invented, man never looked back!” he said.

Yet, when it comes to “people who actually cook out of a microwave? That I find reprehensible!” Corti declares.

Genetically Modified Foods
Corti believes that modern agronomical science has its place. But his main concern when it comes to food is taste. Regarding scientists tinkering with plants, he believes that the main outcome ought to be to make them taste better. End of discussion.

14.5% Alcohol Wines
Corti says there are wines that taste good with more than 14.5% alcohol, but he has no use for them in his store. He won’t sell anything higher than 14.5%, and believes that consumers should vote that way, too.

Is Sacramento the New L.A.?
According to Corti, it is, indeed! He explained that 30 years ago, people in L.A. had to travel to San Francisco for good food. Until recently, Sacramentans did the same. Yet, Corti believes we’ve always had “reasonable cooking here.” And today, he beams with pride over restaurants like Biba and Mulvaney’s. He said that what makes Sacramento a special food place is that “for a very long time, it considered that it wasn’t.”

The Fate of Corti Brothers
In 2008, the Sacramento community was in an uproar when Corti Brothers nearly lost their lease. After protests and local media storms, today Corti proudly informed us that his grocery store now has a 10-year lease. You can expect to find him in his shop on the corner of Folsom Blvd. and 59th Street for another decade to come!

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