GRAZING: A quizzical inquiry: Why is a transient cat eating better than her human host?
Not all great chefs feed humans. We’ll get to that, but first I should explain that I’m not a homebody. I’ve always seen my psychology clients in my home office in Grant Park, but I’ve done most of my writing in coffee shops. I even dedicated my 400-page doctoral dissertation to the staff of the Ansley Starbucks. Now, thanks to COVID-19, I have no choice but to sit in place at home. That brings me to the front porch of this house. It’s purple, as Prince would have it, and it’s up a flight of stairs so steep that I’ve frequently seen delivery drivers slow down, look up, and keep driving. The sad thing is that despite the pleasant view, the porch has had no furniture in the 25 years I’ve lived here because, well, sitting should occur at restaurants and coffee shops.
Since I can’t hang out in coffee shops now, in August I finally retired my Bialetti moka, and bought a cheap but deservedly well-rated espresso maker from Hamilton Beach. I’ve taken to making lattes and sitting on the steps mornings because I have to socialize with a tortoiseshell cat that has taken up residence on the porch. She started hanging out behind the house in mid-August, frequently peering through the glass panes of the door, making an unearthly sound — something like a squeak that turned into a high-pitched whine. We figured she was yet another starving stray we’d end up letting in the house. She looked skinny, so I took out some Hill’s dry food, which we feed our cat Patricia. I have never seen food disappear so quickly. I noticed she was wearing a tag and mentioned this to Wayne. He read it. Her name is Quiz. He managed to wrangle her into a crate after two days and walked her over to her owners’ house on a street barely a block away. That was that. Obviously, she was feigning hunger because her owners said they feed her regularly. They explained that they had adopted her from a nearby resident who moved and couldn’t take her with him. She has lived outdoors all of her estimated 15 years.
A month later, I was sitting on the steps with Quiz shortly after I got out of bed around 12 noon. She came back to the purple porch after Wayne carried her home. Then the owners came over, and we crated her for a second trip home. She had a great meal there, hung out with a neighbor … and returned to the purple porch. So, there we were on September 12, watching a bunch of masked people who were hanging out at the coach house across the street, laughing, listening to faint music, drinking coffee, and eating pastries. It turned out to be a new pop-up, Café Nube, whose theme is the culture of Miami, where co-owner Raul Peña, a first-generation Cuban immigrant, was born. He and his wife Liz Peña both lost their jobs, thanks to La Corona, and decided to create Nube, which means “cloud” and alludes to “the magical sunsets and clouds that Miami is known for,” according to Liz. Her background is in event production and marketing. Raul, a DJ and producer, was in the film industry, and the music angle is what makes Café Nube especially unique. Besides traditional Cuban pastries and coffee drinks, they collect and sell vintage vinyl records. Raul curates gift packs of five records.
The pop-up in front of the house was their first, and because of my late rising and sitting on the steps in boxer shorts, I decided to not risk indecent exposure while senile by walking across the street. Later, I chatted with Raul, who told me he is making flan and pastelitos, the traditional Cuban puff pastry typically filled with guava. I’ll be honest. Guava’s not my fave. I ate several tons of the sticky stuff after I married a Cuban woman when I was 20. I don’t get it. What I do like is Cuban coffee. Raul makes it in the traditional stove-top moka, like the one I just retired. People often equate Cuban coffee, “cafecito,” with Italian espresso, but it’s different. At least it is in Miami. Typically made with very strong, finely-ground coffee like Bustelo, it’s somewhat bitter but super-sweet because it is combined with a frothy blend of sugar and a few teaspoons of coffee. It looks like Italian crema, but it’s not. Café Nube serves four coffee drinks and several mysterious sodas based on Cuban cocktails. Liz infuses them with CBD, which means they cure everything. Check out their Instagram for dates of upcoming pop-ups and go early. They sold almost everything, including the record packs, during this first pop-up.
When Quiz returned after the two attempts to reunite her with her owners, I became suspicious. The couple, Matt and Tina Lunalover, seemed extremely nice, despite their weird surname. But maybe they just had too much on their plate. They had disclosed that they own four additional cats and two dogs (including one kitten and one puppy). We swapped a lot of email while Quiz continued to rule the purple porch day and night. The Lunalovers mentioned during the second attempted abduction that all of their pets’ food is homemade. I inwardly rolled my eyes, remembering my mother scraping all the day’s leftovers into a dog bowl. How do people not understand that dry food like Hill’s is finely tuned to a pet’s nutritional needs? Maybe Quiz, like all wise inhabitants of the planet, knew a healthy diet was life-giving. I mean, we all read the nutritional analysis on food labels to make sure we are getting everything we need, right? But I’m not calling DFACS for CATS, and I agreed with the Lunalovers that the only way Quiz was going to return home was if I stopped feeding her altogether. I tried, but my heart is gold. Like a Pavlovian rat, I wasn’t able to go longer than 15 hours before I rewarded Quiz’s shouting for kibble.
Then the Lunalovers, both former Apple employees, bomb-shelled me. It turns out that making gourmet raw food for cats and dogs is actually their livelihood. They operate Rebel Raw, continually grinding up organs, muscle, skin, and bones of everything from rabbits to turkeys and lambs in a facility near their home. They use restaurant-grade meat and only add vitamins and minerals — no filler. Customers have the option of delivery or picking up their orders from a freezer on the Lunalovers’ front porch. As if to add more absurdity to this drama, it turns out that Matt is the nephew of Paul Luna — the infamous, temperamental, and brilliant chef who opened many restaurants here, the last one being Lunacy Black Market. Matt’s father, Albert Lunalover, who changed his name from Luna to be cooler, worked with Paul, developing Eclipse di Luna and Luna Si. Then he created Avocados and Hopscotch in downtown Gainesville. Matt and Tina use the same suppliers as most restaurants do, including Springer Mountain chicken. (Paul now resides in Winterthur, Switzerland, where he operates JesusRICE!)
Tina provided all the details about the inadequacy of corporate pet foods, which you can read about on the Rebel Raw website. The more she said, the more I felt like an inadequate parent. She wrote me: “We know you mean well by feeding her but realize that … dry, hard pellets are nutritionally insufficient and consist of processed non-foods. Kibble is coated with chemicals and appetite enhancers to get cats to eat what is nowhere near their natural diet. Think the cat equivalent of corn syrup and MSG. Thus cats become ‘addicted’ and eat way more than they need to … Why do you think so many cats have kidney disease? Their kidneys have been overworked trying to process kibble all those years. Cats’ digestive systems were not designed to process hard, dry pellets. Those were made for shelf life and human convenience.”
OMGMEOW! A few days later, I was hauling about 10 days’ worth of chicken meals out of the Rebel Raw freezer. Quiz started eating it straight away, but I confess I left some kibble in her bowl at night. Big mistake. If she doesn’t get it, she truly turns into a banshee withdrawing from crack, screaming at the back door. Hopefully that will be fully resolved by the time you read this. It’s true that some cats do become fussy, but the Lunalovers suggest experimenting with different ground meats when that occurs. Rebel Raw also sells tempting side dishes and treats like pig ears, chicken necks, beef jerky, sardines, and other items that will make life a daily nightmare for vegetarian animal activists. (Yes, I know about evolution.)
Why would Quiz abandon her owners who have comfy porch furniture and provide a fancy resting space for her, whereas we have no porch furniture — only a cardboard box. Ultimately, we concluded that Quiz took up residence on the purple porch, not because she loves us, but because, after 15 years of outdoor living, she hates dogs. The Lunalovers have two, and the neighbor Quiz visited regularly had been hosting a friend’s puppy for a week. Quiz abandoned her too. So Quiz remains a citizen of the world, not a mere pet, although she started coming inside occasionally. She is grateful. I know this because she left a dead mouse on the purple porch, standing a few yards away, happily squeaking. Inside, she prefers my office, particularly the chair where clients usually sit. Like some clients, she talks continually — something I learned is common among tortoiseshell cats. But now, the tide has turned. She jumps on the table where I am eating one of my many guilty pleasures, the frozen Thai eggplant from Trader Joe’s. It is my favorite of all their frozen dishes, but it has an absurd quantity of salt in it, as do the Indian meals I most frequently consume, especially the butter chicken which is also slick with cholesterol. In other words, La Corona has me eating really bad. But I won’t quibble with Quiz about human kibble.
Last month, admitting my TJ COVID-19 Diet, I promised to name my favorite salt licks there. Here we go. After the microwavable Indian foods and the Thai eggplant, I most enjoy the kung pao chicken, the extremely popular Mandarin orange chicken (with sickeningly sweet sauce whose dose I cut in half), the spanakopita (the triangles, not the pie), the chicken pot pie (though the pastry is temperamental), the shepherd’s pie, the cauliflower gnocchi (as well as the “real” gnocchi), and the steak and stout pies. Anything cheesy is usually good. I don’t like their Mexican food because it has the usual Texxy-Mexxy overdose of “chile powder.” Okay, the microwavable frozen chicken burrito with green salsa will pass. Minus the lasagna, I have found the Italian dishes pretty mediocre, although I was surprised by the realness of flat bread topped with burrata, super-micro-shaved prosciutto, and arugula.
Speaking of arugula, that and red bell peppers are the only produce I buy at Trader Joe’s. They are high-quality and cheap while most other vegetables are overpriced. The only bread I much like is the ciabatta rolls, but be warned: These, like most TJ bread, sprout mold in just a few days because they are preservative-free. The solution is to freeze the bread; it doesn’t affect quality. I also like the crumpets, something hard to find anywhere else in the city, and I like to slather them with either the store’s lemon curd or fig butter. Nearly every aisle of Trader Joe’s is topped with cookies and crackers. If you don’t buy the triple-ginger snaps, you are dumb. So, what to avoid for sure? I haven’t eaten everything there, but the frozen “bowls” like the Mexican burrito bowl and the Cuban one are really bad. Looking over this list, I realize that with the exception of the Indian and Thai dishes, I use a real stove and oven for dishes that need browning, even though they are microwavable. Sometimes, I actually add ingredients. Props to me for that homey touch.
“Is this an ethical dilemma?” I ask Quiz. “Why should I buy you the raw flesh of slaughtered, ground-up animals, just because you are a cat, while I eat cheap Trader Joe’s stuff because I don’t want to cook or spend the money on healthy precooked meals?” She does that cat-stretch thing, turns and heads to the comfortless purple porch where nobody owns her and the space is pure feng shui with only her cardboard box. Annoyed, she seriously didn’t come back inside for another 24 hours, even during a thunderstorm. She is well fed. She is fearless. She is a loving con. —CL—
Café Nube, 305-303-9614, cafenuberecords at gmail.com, @cafenuberecords.
Rebel Raw, 404-382-7729, rebelraw.com, questions at rebelraw.com, @rebelrawfood.
Paul Luna, facebook.com/JesusRiceByChefLuna/.
Trader Joe’s, traderjoes.com. (Note: TJ’s stores are open 8-9 a.m. for disabled and senior shoppers only, due to the COVID pandemic.)