THE BLOG
09/18/2014 02:25 pm ET Updated Nov 18, 2014

Is It Food, or Is It Foodiness? Let's Ask Platina, the 15th Century Vatican Librarian

Who, you ask? You know, Platina! The guy who wrote what is considered the first cookbook...?

Oh come on, you don't know who Platina was? The Italian Renaissance humanist writer and gastronomist? Really? Where've you been?

Well, neither did I until I had to start teaching all of culinary history in one hour out of the thousand-odd hour curriculum at the culinary school where I taught for fifteen years. Anyway Platina was an Italian, born in 1421. He worked at the Vatican starting in 1462 and published what is widely considered the first printed cookbook. His close acquaintance with the renowned chef Maestro Martino in Rome (remember him?) provided inspiration for a theoretical treatise on Italian gastronomy. De Honesta Voluptate et Valetudine, or "On honourable pleasure and health". By Bartolomeo Sacchi, aka Platina. So, he was basically the Rachael Ray of Rome? The Pope even made him Vatican librarian! Oh, and also he was locked up a couple of times for being a heretic.

I learned about him back then and thought, wow, that is crazy! Because he's also a real estate developer in south Florida who named a walled-in condo fortress after himself!

My mom lives in such a gated community in Boynton Beach, Florida. One of the many condo fortresses that were just plunked down on land that had been teeming wetlands filled with seagrasses and mangrove swamps, or later, cattle ranches and citrus groves. Totally disconnected to their location, they serve one purpose and that is to warehouse snow-weary northerners and protect them from the outside world. I'd rather have seen the seagrasses and swamps, or even the ranches and citrus, but now all that has been drained, dried up, paved over and planted with tough, scratchy green grass and ornamental palm trees and hibiscus bushes. With artificial lakes scattered around the ersatz Spanish-Mission style or faux Mediterranean or mock-tropical British colonial style developments with meaningless names like "Aberdeen Estates at Fountain Bluffs" and "The Palms at Shady Green Meadows" and the "Citadel at Majestic Shores". Masterful, poetic, pretentious names with no meaning or roots. Like "Del Boca Vista" Or...wait for it...Platina! Which is where mom lives. Yeah, a condo development in Boynton Beach Florida, named for our friend, the vatican librarian and food scholar.

But nobody at Platina knows that, that Platina himself was who he was, I mean, I didn't go around asking...I had told my mom about him years ago, but she forgot. In the same way that she forgets how to use the Internet all the time. But ironically, in their own way, the residents of Platina are also gastronomists and masterful recorders of their local "honesta voluptate et valetudine", too. Just eavesdrop on a few of the poolside conversations on any given day and you'll hear brilliant, insightful and endless commentary on food and health, and on the local dining scene. Particularly if you are a fan of dining on the earlier side, which is so un-Roman-like. The white-haired crowd shuffling into the local ristoranti and trattorie at 4:30 would be met by bewildered, sleepy waiters and cooks just emerging from their afternoon siestas, barely conscious and a good four hours away from being ready to serve any sort of dinner. But ask for an opinion on where to get the best overcooked, broiled slab of nearly extinct fish, with a baked potato, vegetable and salad for $12.95? A veritable Vatican library of wizened, learned scholars.

Now I know, there are still beautiful places in Florida, wild, undeveloped places and pristine beaches, I've seen them. But those just aren't the places where middle-class Jews from Long Island go to retire. Especially older single women like mom. I was just there a few weeks ago, visiting her for a couple days and then returning to Brooklyn in a depressed heap.

What depressed me wasn't the place itself, though it certainly had the potential. Nor was it the alter kockers and their kvetching, or the spray-foam construction of the pastel elder-fortresses, or the endless shuffle loop of shopping plazas and chain restaurants.

No, what really did me in (other than the untimely death of Joan Rivers, who'd never have been caught dead in a retirement village) was the lack of real fish. Real fish? Yes. Real fish. Because in that semi-tropical peninsula called Florida, surrounded by water, there seems to be no fish anymore. Granted mom is on a tight budget and I'm thrifty, so we didn't seek out the finest, most upscale offerings in town, but we did go to the supermarket. Her local market, part of a huge chain that dominates the Florida landscape on nearly every corner. I naively figured, hey I'm in the fishing capital of the south, must be something good here today, right? I didn't want to approach the fish counter with my usual jaded eyes, scanning the slabs of farmed salmon and nearly-extinct tuna chunks and nasty industrial tilapia from places I don't what to know about. But no. It was all the same stuff. The same Foodiness farmed fish, the same factory fishiness, the same old, same old. We were less than two miles from the Atlantic ocean, less than a hundred miles from the Gulf of Mexico, so why were our options Chilean, Costa Rican and Filipino, with a few sad clams gasping for air and dreaming of Wellfleet? And what was that pinkish stuff that oozed out from the "crabmeat" stuffed fish filets in the open-topped freezer case next to us?

Luckily, tucked away in a corner of the crushed-ice filled display, hiding like they were embarrassed to be seen with this herd of grain-eating farm animals pretending to be fish, were a few mackerel. Atlantic mackerel! My favorite fish. Rich, oily, delicious, and most important, still plentiful and sustainably caught! Now, these guys weren't exactly gleaming with freshness, they looked more like they'd taken the Auto-Train down south, instead of JetBlue, but I was willing to compromise. I had that whole fish in my cart and out the door as fast as a wild tuna, swimming through the thick heat and humidity and back to la cucina di mia madre under the watchful gaze of Platina's ghost asap, where I grilled it up and served it to my happy mom. She was just happy because I was there, she would have eaten the farmed fish, but I was the one who was thrilled, and that's what's really important. Platina himself would have nodded approvingly, too.

The next morning, my sister having arrived late the night before, we discussed dinner. Now I know, that the food scene around the US has exploded in the last ten years, and thanks to places like the culinary school where I taught, there are thousands of new young cooks out there opening fresh, innovative restaurants all over and celebrating the locally available bounty of their home regions. But not in Boynton Beach, Florida. Or at least, not that I could find.

Every place I viewed online was a chain, or a steakhouse, or an old school baked potato, vegetable AND salad kind of place. Not that I mind those places, but they're not exactly interested in local, seasonal or sustainable.

My sister said, "well, we're in Florida. How about someplace by the water where we can get some good fish"? I just looked at her and said, "There is no more fish, we ate it all." At least all our local fish. Which isn't exactly true, as mentioned before about the mackerel, but having grown up in a small Long Island fishing town, where if we didn't catch it ourselves, we could buy it right off of someone's boat, I think she needs to update her perceptions. I said, " I don't think it's like that anymore." Anyplace by the beach here might have some overfished local mahi mahi, or maybe some marlin or sailfish or Florida snapper, but it'll be $35 and overcooked, and may not include the salad...or the veg or baked potato. And most of it is so overfished that a lot of it comes in from Asia, from uncertain provenance...enough said.

As usual, I was the unfortunate voice of reason in the family. So we 86'd the idyllic dream idea of a fresh slab of marlin lightly grilled and served with local corn and tomatoes and key lime pie from actual key limes and not green dye and industrial thickeners... I'm sure that stuff also exists somewhere in Florida, but not where my mom chose to retire...

So we went to the Japanese buffet. Which was also loaded with farmed salmon and the last few tuna to swim the oceans and fake crab and deep-fried everything, but it also had huge platters of two kinds of seaweed salad and kimchi and mackerel sushi and yellowtail sashimi and sautéed spinach and good pork gyoza, all for $18.95/person, which mom thought was steep but we thought was a bargain considering how much mackerel and seaweed we ate. I only felt medium-level guilty about eating there. At least the poor fish were in tiny pieces, rather than huge overcooked slabs. Then I cooked at home again the last night, after mom suggested a chain seafood restaurant and I almost had an aneurism in the car about that.

We need to give our oceans and our fish friends a serious break from us. So here's what I'm proposing, for the future of our fish populations. If you want to eat fish, think oily fish and think small; anchovies, sardines, the occasional mackerel when your fish guy has 'em. Leave the big fish alone, they need a break. They've lived this long, let's let them retire in peace, maybe to somewhere like Platina? A gated, condo fortress for aged, large fish, built along the coastline in anticipation of rising sea levels? Turn all that seaside over-development, all those villages with their romantic names and under-used pools, which will be underwater in a few decades anyway, into luxurious, safe, piscatorial retirement living for elderly tuna and other large species. Give them a century or so to relax, to retire, to hopefully reproduce...I mean, what else is there to do in those place? And then we can talk about how to cook them. Properly. Shuffleboard courts AND salad included.