January 24, 2011
This month’s writing invitational is about heartbreak and its best treatment: food. Lisa started us off last week with a story about Break-Up Cake, and this week reader Julie Munroe shares her story. Munroe is a children’s minister and singer/songwriter in Dallas who blogs at The Potluck Diaries.
Since it’s been a short week for those of us who had Martin Luther King, Jr. Day off, we’ve extended the deadline for submitting stories. Please send yours in by Wednesday, January 26, and we’ll consider running it in Food & Think. Just a reminder that the story should be a true personal narrative about food (not necessarily cake) and doomed relationships. Please e-mail your submission to FoodandThink@gmail.com.
The Wedding Cake that Wasn’t
By Julie Munroe
I think I am getting married. I haven’t heard from the groom in a while. Years, actually. The last time we talked, though, that was the plan. Confused? I was too, for a little while. Let me tell you the long story of how I became estranged from my Mr. Right.
I met him during my sophomore year in college. I was 18. He was handsome. He had big muscles. At 18, you kind of always go after handsome with big muscles. He played basketball. I was a cheerleader. He grew up in Germany with missionary parents. I took German in high school while living in New Zealand with my missionary parents. We were meant to be. After one date he decided that he didn’t want to go out with me. We hung out one afternoon and he kissed me… yes, on the first date. Don’t judge. So, I was momentarily broken-hearted until I found out that he had other girls he was hanging out with (and kissing) all at the same time. In fact, I forged a friendship with a couple of the girls he had kissed, and we bonded over our mutual misfortune of having fallen for him. I also became good friends with his sister, and we spent plenty of time together so that I didn’t really even miss him. I moved on.
I was teaching at a private school in Nashville, living my life, when my brother told me that this blast from my past was going to be at a conference for missions at his church. My Mr. Germany was coming to town. I had mixed emotions, but I made plans to attend the meeting where he would be speaking. I went. He preached. He was still handsome, still muscular, and still single. The following three weeks were kind of a blur. He stayed in town for a week or so, and he made his intentions clear. After the first few days of flirting, he starting talking about serious things. Marriage. Missions work. I was skeptical. He had broken my heart, however slightly, five years before. I wasn’t sure if he could be trusted. He told me that he had some speaking engagements in Florida and would be gone for two weeks, but he was going to use Nashville as a temporary home base and would be back. He went. I waited. I didn’t hear from him much while he was gone, but after two weeks he flew back and I happily picked him up at the airport. Then he started talking details. He was in the States for only a few more months, and he had churches all over the U.S. to visit. The plan was, though, that he would be back to Tennessee in November (this was September), and he wanted me to fly back with him afterward to his home in Texas and meet his people. Then at Christmas, I would go to Germany with him to see if I liked it. We would go from there. He left me with the appropriate sentiment of two people in a serious relationship. Hugs and goodbyes were exchanged, and he drove away to California to return a car he had borrowed for his furlough.
I never heard from him again. I called his cell phone, and he never answered. I left voicemail and got no response. I emailed but got nothing. They always say that no news is good news. Probably not when you are planning to marry someone.
Thankfully, I had been a little guarded. I was surprised but not devastated. I didn’t waste any time looking at bridal magazines and picking out honeymoon locations.
He is now my Facebook friend. He didn’t have the decency to officially dump me, but he did accept my virtual friend request. If he were an active Facebooker, I would harass him endlessly about our upcoming nuptials. After all, if an engagement plan is never called off, isn’t it still an engagement plan? I would pick out flower arrangements and post them on his wall for his approval. I would ask if he wants to wear a black suit or a tuxedo. I would send him invitation samples and ask how to spell his parents’ names, just to make sure I get it right on the final printing. We would definitely have German chocolate cake as the groom’s cake.
January 21, 2011
I have always been a fast eater, and even as a kid I was not picky. So I never really built log cabins with my carrots or sculpted my mashed potatoes into gravy-spewing volcanoes.
With the exception of scrawling smiley faces with his catsup, says Carl Warner, he didn’t play much with his food, either. Yet in 1999, the British still life photographer gathered some portobello mushrooms at a market and assembled and photographed them in a way that made them appear like massive trees on the African savannah. The experience changed the way he looked at food. He began to envision coconuts as haystacks, ribeye beef joints as mountains and fortune cookies as folded rugs.
Warner has since made a career of capturing whimsical “foodscapes”: a smoked salmon sea rimmed with new potato and soda bread boulders, the Tuscan countryside with Romano pepper Cypress trees and a London skyline complete with a Big Ben of green beans and a rhubarb-spoked London Eye, among others. His work, reminiscent of Guiseppe Arcimboldo‘s edible portraits, appears in his new book Carl Warner’s Food Landscapes.
Last week, I spoke with the photographer about his unique relationship with food.
I think everyone looks at broccoli and naturally sees little trees. But you take that much further.
It was just a progression from that to see what other things reminded people of. I didn’t really think at first that there were many other opportunities. I thought broccoli was the major player. But I was just exploring what else could be achieved using food. Now, I’m making houses out of loaves of bread, submarines out of aubergines and all sorts of things. It’s like being aware of a palette of colors and saying, well, everyone knows red, but what else is there? You suddenly realize that there is a whole spectrum of colors you can use.
What ingredient have you found to be the most versatile?
Definitely the kale. Curly kale. It’s a very robust green cabbage. You can pin it to distant mountains and make it look like rainforest or you could have it as bushes in the foreground. It’s very tough stuff, as opposed to something like coriander, which will just kind of wilt the moment you cut it from the pot and stick it under the light. Coriander is a beautiful herb. The leaf shape is wonderful. But I know, if I’m using it, then I am just going to put it on at the last minute, when everything is ready to shoot.
What else is difficult to work with?
I think anything that dries out quickly. We treat stuff like avocado, for example. You have to soak it in lemon juice to preserve it for longer. If you cut slices of potato, it will quickly discolor. There are certain chemicals that we will put potato in that will keep it white all day long. We will cheat like that in order to save having to keep replacing it.
In your book, you mention a time when you used the skin of an apple to create a red roof. Are there other instances where you think you’ve worked an ingredient into the landscape so well that it is unrecognizable as itself?
Yes, I think a lot of that goes on. For example, in the fishscape, the roofs of the houses there are made out of seaweed. But I prefer people to be able to find them and discover them themselves, like a Where’s Waldo type thing. It kind of defeats the objective if they are not recognizing it as food. Sometimes I think I’ve gone too far and I have to sort of rein it back a bit and keep a simplicity there so that people have the knowledge of the ingredients and therefore appreciate that.
Where do you find your inspiration?
The inspiration comes from the natural world, but also ideas come from films and books. I think often the works are a mixture of many different influences. The broccoli forest, for example, is a slight homage to my love of Ansel Adams’s work. It’s got that sort of Yosemite Valley feel. But at the same time, it has a yellow turmeric path, which is the yellow brick road. We stuck peas into the broccoli trees, which kind of reminds me of those trees in The Wizard of Oz that throw apples at Dorothy when she discovers the Tin Man.
Has it changed the way you sit down to dinner?
No, not really. I love cooking, and I am real foodie. But I have a very different hat on when I’m cooking at home. When we spend all day pinning and gluing and sticking wires down green beans, the last thing I feel about my work is hungry. I see the food as having made the scenes, but I don’t get a mouth-watering appetite appeal from the food at all. I just see them as props.
After a shoot, you divvy up the food with your team. So, what is the strangest thing you’ve cooked from the leftovers?
I turned up with a bag of stuff after the end of a shoot and my wife just kind of said, right, okay, so we’ve got like 15 packets of green beans and four cauliflowers. I think what I bring home quite often tends to be a bit like one of those veg boxes, where you have to be inventive and creative. You need to get the cookbook out and say, what can I do with okra? And what can I do with that or this root vegetable? Beetroot is a wonderful thing if you find some great recipes to do. Roast them in the oven with balsamic vinegar and serve them with steak, and all of a sudden it’s like, let’s go for it. I’ve got four kids, so we’re always trying to encourage them to try different things, eat healthily, appreciate what’s grown locally and eat what’s in season.
There are many, many food things that I want to do: Thai floating markets, the Taj Mahal. I’d like to make Venice out of pasta. There is no end to it really. I am working on a children’s book where we are making different landscapes out of one color. We built this wonderful orange landscape made out of pumpkins, cheese, clementines, kumquats, carrots and dried apricots. I am also trying to get a children’s animated TV series off the ground. My idea is that it would be to food education what Sesame Street is to literacy. I think it is really needed at this time to combat a lot of the problems we face here in the U.K. and I know that you face in the U.S. I don’t want my work to just be pretty pictures made out of food. I want it to be used as a vehicle to do some good and to bring about a change in our food culture. My work brings a smile to people’s faces. It’s nice for people to think, if this man can do this with the contents of his fridge, then what else can we do?
January 20, 2011
Listen up, boys and girls. In my day, bacon knew its place: squarely next to the scrambled eggs as part of “this nutritious breakfast.” No one dared to—or, for that matter, had occasion to—utter the words “artisanal” and “marshmallow” in the same breath. No one even knew what artisanal meant. And gorging yourself on an entire pizza the size of a garbage pail lid was considered a sign of an eating disorder, not a qualification for hosting a show on the Travel Channel.
But those days are over, and man, am I glad. All of the above are expressions of the same trend: America’s current infatuation with food. As annoying as the more obsessive-compulsive aspects of this food fetish have occasionally become, I think the net result has been positive. People are becoming more adventurous eaters, cooking and growing more of their own food, and thinking through important issues about where their food comes from and the effect it has on our health and the environment.
I am glad that even my tiny rural community in upstate New York now has places where I can get an horchata cocktail or gourmet poutine. I’m glad that I can read an entire book about the history of salt. (O.K., I haven’t actually read that one, but I’m glad it’s out there in case I’m ever curious about the subject. Which could happen.) And I’m especially grateful that I get to make part of my living researching, thinking about, writing about—and even occasionally cooking and/or eating—food.
The editor of the new food section at Good, Nicola Twilley, has been moderating a multi-site discussion this week called Food for Thinkers (of which this post is a part) with the following question as a jumping-off point:
What does—or could, or even should—it mean to write about food today?
For one thing, it means we have a lot of company. Have you noticed that suddenly every time you go to a restaurant people are photographing their meals? Food bloggers. We’re everywhere: on food magazine sites; on sites like this one, for magazines that aren’t specifically about food; on personal blogs. There are recipe sites, restaurant review sites, sites that explore the politics of eating local/organic/nose to tail/out of a Dumpster. And there are backlash sites devoted to mocking extreme foodies (which is kinda like shooting sustainably sourced fish in a barrel). “Please, stop talking about ramps,” urges the blog Shut Up, Foodies!
It’s a crowded field, to be sure. But, as reading the Food for Thinkers entries posted so far demonstrates, food is an endlessly versatile subject. An architect wrote about building models out of edible materials, and designs inspired by food. A librarian explored what old menus can teach us about demographic and cultural changes. And a Tibetan blog explained how food is “a tool of national identity and political resistance” there. I’ve discovered some new food blogs I’ll be following, and I hope some new readers discover this one. There’s a lot to talk about.
But, please, can we give the bacon a rest?
Food for Thinkers is a week-long, distributed, online conversation looking at food-writing from as wide and unusual a variety of perspectives as possible. Between January 18 and January 23, 2011, more than thirty food and non-food writers will respond to a question posed by GOOD’s newly-launched Food hub: What does—or could, or even should—it mean to write about food today? You can check out the conversation in full at GOOD.is/food, join in the comments, and follow the Twitter hashtag #foodforthinkers to keep up-to-date as archaeologists, human rights activists, design critics and even food writers share their perspective on what makes food so interesting.
January 19, 2011
Every January, as sure as the wind blows cold, my two erstwhile friends show up. I call them Diet and Denial, and together we put the body back in shape.
They have their work cut out for them because for as long as I can remember, December is the month when my people have made and eaten the caramels. We thought nothing of the extra heft we were acquiring over the holidays as we gobbled up the smooth confections that my grandmother Margie Mathews made, and that her mother made before her. My mother wasn’t much of a caramel maker. She lacked the patience to stir and stir over a warm flame until the sugar and cream came to just the right consistency. So at an early age, I took up the candy-making mantle. To this day, I work off of a recipe that my 8-year-old self carefully copied from my grandmother’s tattered hand-written page.
My mother’s family hails from the hardscrabble hills of Western Pennsylvania. Our forebears are a mix of Scotch-Irish and German and, some say, a little of the native people that my ancestors displaced. They lived in shacks until they had money to build stout houses. They either farmed or worked in the steel mills. At my grandparents’ farm, just outside of the small township of Dayton, the caramels were made in a cauldron on a gas stove atop a dangerous oven with hot sides. Kids got a smack if they got too close. The kitchen was huge. The nearby pantry was as big as my own kitchen. Extra chairs for visitors or for the hired farmhands rimmed the walls of the spacious room. A big, yellow aluminum table was the focal point of this warm and friendly old farm kitchen. It was there that Grandma would turn out the hot syrup into huge trays. And then with the muscle of a farm wife, she’d scissor the caramel into pieces the size of large plums and wrap them in wax paper. You could read a whole book chapter in the time it took to finish a savory chunk of caramel; slowly sucking it until the last of its buttery, sweet flavor melted away.
Now, I had it in my mind that this candy-making tradition in my family was something that the Scotch-Irish carried over when they came from Ulster as immigrants to the United States between 1710 and 1775. I presumed that the traditional British hard toffees were somehow ancestor to the soft American caramel. So one day while relaxing before a roaring hearth, I turned to my trusty old pal, Ms. Google, to see if I could anchor this notion somewhere in the annals of history. Surprisingly, the caramel has an elusive past. After obsessively researching it (working my new iPad until it had to be recharged), I concluded that caramel dates to a moment in time when either an American, Arab or French chef boiled some sugar and cream to just the right temperature and said, “Eureka!”
Many have tried to trace its history. In 1923, the indomitable Tribune Cook Book editor Caroline S. Maddox, who wrote under the pen name Jane Eddington (her name is often accompanied by the phrase “economical housekeeping”), pairs the candy with an equally elusive Viscount Caramel. The Viscount apparently forgot to write his name down somewhere where a search engine could pick it up. But in the far distant corners of the Internet, Viscount Caramel is credited with having discovered the “seventh degree of cooking sugar.” Obviously, the Kevin Bacon of his time.
Jane, the economical housekeeper, helps out with a little etiology of the word. The mel in carmel, she says, comes from “from mellis, meaning honey, from which originated our English word mellifluous.”And, indeed, that is frequently a word that comes to mind when sucking on one of my grandma’s caramels.
Other online e-know-it-all sources credit Arabs with caramel discovery, dating that event to as early as 1000 A.D. (I think all unreliable dates should default to the year 1000; it just has a legitimate ring to it.) The Arab word is “Kurat al milh,” which supposedly means “sweet ball of salt.”
Anyway, Jane reported on some amazing French chefs who sculpt caramel “up into books, fans, furniture. . .and a triumphal gateway made of it with the four horses and a chariot on the top.” Well I can assure you, this was not my grandma’s caramel.
One tangible connection is Pennsylvania candy man Milton Hershey. Turns out the venerable old chocolate maker got his start in caramel. In 1886, he opened the Lancaster Caramel Company. Apparently, early Americans had a pretty fine sweet tooth. By the mid-1800s, there were nearly 400 American candy manufacturers producing hard candies. But Hershey was the first one to add cream to the boiled sugar mix and make some caramels. Others, like the Baltimore company Goetze and the Chicago firm Brachs, eventually sold caramels.
But not on a par with Grandma’s.
Satisfaction came eventually in a Google-book search. There on page 171, in a book by one Mark F. Sohn, called Appalachian Home Cooking, in a chapter entitled “Sweet Endings,” was just the history that I sought:
During the Christmas season, many mountaineers [aka My People] serve homemade candy: chocolate, vanilla, peanut butter, cream, and caramel. Making candy is a common practice, and frequently it brings different generations together. Grown women make candy with their mothers while young children go to their grandmothers. . . . Usually, the older cook teaches the young one.
And there, right there, on the iPad screen, I’d found it. The origin of grandma’s caramels.
January 18, 2011
Was your New Year’s resolution to write down that food-related story that’s been knocking around in your head, and send it in to Inviting Writing? I hope so! Maybe you’ve just been waiting for the right topic to inspire you. Well, the subject of our next series is something that most people, unfortunately, can relate to: breaking up.
To have your story considered for publication, please e-mail your submissions to FoodandThink@gmail.com by this Friday morning, January 21. We’ll read them all and pick our favorites, which will appear on the blog on subsequent Mondays. As a reminder, we’re looking for true, original personal narratives of about 500 to 1,000 words. The rest is up to you!
Here’s my own tale of heartbreak to get things started:
By Lisa Bramen
The words that launched my first real relationship were, “I bet you’d make a decent girlfriend.” I should have known right then that the romance wasn’t destined to become my last.
I was a junior in high school and had recently moved to a new city. Dave, my wooer, was 18. He was a high-school dropout who worked as a cable installer in my former hometown, about an hour’s drive from my new one. So he wasn’t Lord Byron. He was funny, at least to my 16-year-old sensibilities. And he was cute, in that skinny, feathered hair way that was fashionable in the 1980s. I was bored and lonely in an unfamiliar place. Aside from his other character flaws, I overlooked the fact that Dave had already been in a relationship with my close friend that had ended badly (this was a breach in the Girl Code that a third member of our clique would later repeat.)
Dave drove down to see me most weekends in his black Camaro. We would drink coffee and eat french fries and hot fudge cake at Bob’s Big Boy. Then he would blast the Beastie Boys or Guns N’ Roses on his car stereo and drive around the parking lot doing donuts. The local police did not like him much. Neither did my parents, but—maybe out of guilt for moving me away from my friends in the middle of high school—they didn’t forbid me from seeing him.
Although he did little to deserve it, I did my best to live up to Dave’s prophecy and be a good—I mean decent—girlfriend. About six months into the relationship, for his birthday, I told him I would make him a special dinner. I think my parents were even going to be out, so we could play house and have a romantic evening alone.
I had never cooked a full meal on my own (unless heating frozen taquitos in the toaster oven counts), so I’m not sure what I was thinking. In any case, I decided to start with the cake. I had also never baked a cake on my own, but I was undeterred. No mix for me—I borrowed one of my mother’s cookbooks and set to work. Three hours later, the kitchen looked like a bomb exploded in the baking aisle, but I had produced a lovely chocolate cake.
I was also nearly out of time. There was no way I was going to be able to prepare a meal before Dave arrived. I decided I would take him out to dinner and then we could come back for cake. As I waited for the sound of Dave’s V8 engine to draw near, I sat at the kitchen table admiring my handiwork. I imagined how impressed the birthday boy would be.
He was late—this was not unusual. Maybe there was traffic on the freeway. Maybe there had been a cable emergency. Then he was really late. By the time my parents returned home from their evening plans, he still hadn’t arrived. I tried calling his house, but I got the answering machine. In the days before cell phones it was a lot harder to track a person down if he wasn’t home. I left a message, trying not to let my voice betray my annoyance. What if something had happened to him? By the next day, when I still hadn’t heard from him, I was wavering between fearing he was lying unconscious in the hospital and hoping he was.
Two days later I finally reached him. Now the emotion in my voice was unmistakable. Dave didn’t have a good excuse for standing me up. He hemmed and hawed. We argued. He told me he couldn’t fall in love from an hour away. I yelled, “but I spent three hours baking you a cake!”
There was a pause. Then he said, “I thought you were making me dinner.”
Those were the words that ended my first real relationship.