His preserved memory is acute and finely textured, rich with rollicking tales of late-night muskrat feeds in the Jersey marshlands, and of the grandeur of his German grandmother Oma's turtle soup, the toast in its day of the saloons of Pennsauken.
But at 68 and a few pounds heavier, chef Fritz Blank confesses that this week's visit home from Thailand has not been merely exhausting; it has been, he says frankly, disorienting: "I had trouble remembering where Broad and Market was."
It has been less than three years now since he closed his long-running French classic Deux Cheminees on Locust Street, so named for its profusion of fireplaces. The dining rooms were chandeliered, the crab soup silkily rich (laced if you wished with an optional shot of Scotch), an occasional Polish or German interloper tiptoeing onto the otherwise strictly haute French menu.
Blank retired after a couple of false starts and headed off to Thailand. He sends e-mails to old acquaintances, ruffling feathers, weighing in on Philadelphia culinary flaps of the moment: A proper hoagie's lettuce should be leafed, "not shredded," he opined in June. "The tomatoes should be [very ripe] sliced to order, not presliced and stuck in the Fridge. . . . the roll should be inside-out, as they say, the doughy center removed to make it more a salad sandwich than bread bomb."
He signs his missives variously. Sometimes faux formally, chef retraité, denoting his retiree status. Or when feeling friskier, Fritz-of-the-Jungle - in boldface.
His first choice for a last stand, if all the world was available, would have been Vienna and its seductions. But his dear friend and former partner (in the business and in his personal life), Leonard Bucki, had preceded him to Thailand where, among other properties, he owns a lovely beachfront home.
The two men live near each other now in Pattaya (though Bucki is with another companion), taking breakfast among friends at a local hotel where, by now, "we are known."
Upon his return there on Tuesday, things are set for Blank to move to a six-bedroom Japanese-style villa on a 12-acre spread to the south, goldfish ("not koi, they're nasty") in the ponds, taro-root farms all about, fields dotted with Brahman cattle, and pheasantlike jungle fowl bred to be fighting cocks.
So it will be, finally, Blank and his cat Bobo, a fixture who prowled the upstairs residential quarters and sprawling culinary library at Deux Cheminees, and Bucki and his current companion.
If you look into the distance, he reports, there are groves of coconut trees and, beyond that, smoky mountains that cool the breezes that blow over them and, eventually, into the Thai kitchen where Blank cooks (often freezing meals to eat later) without recourse to air-conditioning. "I'll bring three nanny goats to be lawn mowers," the chef says. "I'll milk them and make cheese."
OK, there are the snakes and poisonous lizards, too. And some scary food - a particular fermented black crab dish pounded with chilies in a mortar - that can render your entire head numb for an hour. C'est la vie.
Blank was a microbiologist, once, and a dairy scientist, but more prominently a scholar here of local foodways - an authority on terrapin lore, and Pennsylvania Dutch fare (which he often served at staff meals in his copper-pot-lined French kitchen).
He would often note that Philadelphia's routine colonial trade with the Caribbean gave it a taste for creole flavors: "Pepperpot was a gumbo," he reminded an audience one night last week at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library of the University of Pennsylvania.
The library's parquet-floored Rosenwald Gallery is lined with an exhibition drawn from Blank's gift to the library - his vast collection of vintage cookbooks, autographed menus (including daily prison menus presented to him by a former dishwasher who did time), and victus populi, pamphlets hawking Jell-O, Cheez Whiz, and "foods of the people."
In his single earring, scuffed Birkenstocks, and checkered chef's trousers, Blank was feted at library functions all week (there's another one today, a cocktail reception for friends). He drew 150 to an "Ask the Chef" session. He hosted an informal talk to students of writing professor Tom Devaney, who had rummaged through boxes of Blank's ephemera to inform essays. He was an honoree at a dinner that re-created ("But in name only," the chef sniffed afterward) a dinner he'd once composed in tribute to Marian Anderson, the heroic Philadelphia contralto.
His acts of generosity were recalled fondly. Author Jessica Harris noted that when her mother passed away, he'd sent her the lamb stew her mother had always loved. But his assessments of the current food scene were less kind. Little he finds there seems to please him.
A visit to the acclaimed Talula's Table in Kennett Square left him impatient with the small portions. The rolls at DiNic's Roast Pork in the Reading Terminal Market, where he grabbed a sandwich with pal Nick Malgieri, the celebrated pastry chef, weren't up to what Blank remembered.
Then again, one's memory is a slippery thing. Which is why we have libraries, after all. And why this week it was a small comfort to see Fritz Blank's un-Googleable archives still intact, if unsprung from sturdy Hollinger file boxes, reminders of our time at the table, not simply in Deux Cheminees' twilight, but at fire department muskrat feeds, and staff meals - bowls of German potato salad warm and glistening, grainy hot-dog mustard runny and sweet - that shall not soon, to my deep regret, pass this way again.