January 5, 2011
2010 was a good year.
We started it off by gabbing about the weird things people put in coffee, the evolution of the sweet tooth, and the history of cereal boxes, among other topics. We explored five ways to eat many kinds of seasonal produce. We launched a new Monday feature called Inviting Writing, and you all have been responding with wonderful stories on themes like road trips, college food and eating at Grandma’s house.
Yes, it’s been a wonderful year. But personally, it’s not just 2010 that I’m wrapping up and waving goodbye to… I’m also leaving Smithsonian to work for another magazine. While that’s certainly exciting, it’s bittersweet, since it means parting ways with Food & Think, the blog I helped launch just over two years ago. We really hit our stride last year thanks to Lisa Bramen, the fantastic freelance co-blogger who joined me “temporarily” and is still going strong. You can look forward to reading more of Lisa’s work here, as well as posts from a few new and returning writers in months to come.
It has challenged to me to pay closer attention to serious issues of the day like food safety, childhood obesity and sustainable seafood, as well as track down answers to not-so-serious questions like “Does cheese pair better with beer or wine?” and “Why are chocolate Easter bunnies hollow?”
And it has inspired me to taste or cook many things for the first time: fresh sardines, jellyfish, lionfish, biltong (South African jerky), poutine, kohlrabi, sunchokes, purple long beans and more. Heck, I’d never even cracked into a crab or a whole lobster until I became a food blogger! I’m grateful for those opportunities, and to all of you for reading.
Happy New Year, everyone!
September 27, 2010
Now that we’ve been schooled on college food, it’s time to graduate to a new Inviting Writing series. This month the topic is something on the minds of most American children this time of year, and anyone else who passes the seasonal displays in the supermarket: candy.
Send us your personal essays about trick-or-treating or other sweet memories. The only rules are that the story you tell must be true, and it must be in some way inspired by this month’s theme. Please keep your essay under 1,000 words, and send it to FoodandThink@gmail.com with “Inviting Writing: Candy” in the subject line. Remember to include your full name and a biographical detail or two (your city and/or profession; a link to your own blog if you’d like that included).
By Lisa Bramen
Candy and fear have always been intertwined in my memory. My earliest trick-or-treating outings were haunted by the 1970s hysteria over razor blades hidden in apples. I always figured that this was an urban legend started by clever kids hoping to discourage the do-gooders who gave out healthy alternatives to candy, but according to the myth-busting site Snopes.com, there really have been a number of cases of apple and candy tampering since the 1960s—although many were probably hoaxes. In any case, the fear of sabotage led parents to lay out trick-or-treating ground rules: anything homemade or not in a wrapper got tossed, and—the torture!—nothing could be eaten until it was brought home and inspected.
But my most traumatic candy experience wasn’t on Halloween. It was selling chocolate bars as a Camp Fire Girl.
Camp Fire Girls (now Camp Fire USA) is a club started in 1910 to give girls an experience similar to Boy Scouts; I joined my local troop in around 3rd or 4th grade. According to the Camp Fire USA Web site, wilderness outings are an important part of the program. But instead of walks in the woods or roasting marshmallows over a campfire, the only outings I recall my troop making were to the regional gatherings at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles. Even worse than the morbid venue, the Whitman’s Sampler chocolates we were given as a special treat appeared to be as old as some of the headstones—and of a similar texture.
Renting out a cemetery isn’t cheap, I suppose, so another part of Camp Fire Girls was raising money through the annual chocolate bar drive. This was problematic for me in a couple of ways. First of all, unlike the ossified bonbons in the Whitman’s Samplers, the chocolate bars we were entrusted with selling were delicious. Giving an 8-year-old sugar fiend a box of candy she is not allowed to eat is like asking a drug addict to guard a pharmacy. As anyone who’s watched The Wire knows, the best dealers don’t touch their own product. I’m pretty sure I used up all my allowance money eating through my inventory.
I was already a poster child for the dental perils of sugar; the earliest consequence of my addiction (apple juice was my gateway drug) was that my two top front baby teeth rotted when I was a toddler and had to be capped in stainless steel. Who knows—maybe a future rapper saw my blingy smile one day, inspiring the grill trend of later decades?
An even bigger challenge than resisting temptation was door to door sales. I was a shy child, and I didn’t know most of our neighbors beyond the ones next door. I avoided it as long as I could—my parents brought boxes of bars to work to guilt their colleagues into buying, and group ambushes, when my fellow troop members and I stood outside the supermarket hassling potential customers, allowed me to stay in the background and let the more outgoing girls do the work.
But the day finally came when I would have to knock on my neighbors’ doors. I dutifully donned my official blue felt vest and white blouse, and set out on my Willy Lomanesque quest. The first few doors weren’t too bad. I made a sale or two, and even those neighbors who turned me down did so nicely. My confidence grew.
Then came the Tudor-style house with the turret entry near the end of the block. I knocked on the heavy wooden door with the black wrought-iron knocker. Someone opened a small window in the door and peered at me through an iron grate. I couldn’t see more than her eyes, but I could tell from the way she screeched, “what do you want?” that she was very old and not very happy to see me. I wanted to turn around and run back to my mother, who was waiting for me at the bottom of the driveway, but I stammered through my sales pitch anyway. The crone, apparently judging me some kind of third-grade con artist, shouted: “You people were just here last week. How do I know you’re even a Camp Fire Girl?”
I ran down the driveway, tears forming in my eyes, and told my mother what had happened. I’m a little surprised that she didn’t head back up the driveway and give the woman a piece of her mind for treating a little girl that way, but I guess she knew what I have since come to realize: She was probably just a confused old woman who was as scared of the people on the other side of the door as I was.
My mother consoled me and allowed me to cut my sales trip short. I probably even got a chocolate bar out of it.
September 20, 2010
This is the final installment in our series of reader-penned tales about college food—look for a new Inviting Writing theme to be announced next Monday. Many thanks to all who participated. Since there were so many good ones, we couldn’t run them all, but we loved reading them!
This sweet story comes to us from Lori Berhon, a self-described “fiction writer by vocation; technical writer by profession” based in New York City.
By Lori Berhon
At my freshman orientation, the culinary high note was that a former alumna had set up a fund to ensure that every student, lunch and dinner, had access to fresh salad. In other words, an iceberg lettuce fund. In those days, you couldn’t find arugula unless you were Italian and grew it in the yard. Julia Child was just wrapping up The French Chef, and easy access to things like balsamic vinegar, chutney, or even Sichuan cuisine was still a couple of years in the future. In short, the American Food Revolution hadn’t yet begun.
Hopping from room to room, looking for likely friends among the strangers, I noticed that a girl named Susan and I had both considered a few books from Time-Life’s “Foods of the World” series important enough to drag to school. I had The Cooking of Provincial France, The Cooking of Vienna’s Empire and another about Italy, I think. (I know one of Susan’s was Russian Cooking, because we used it the following year to cater a dinner for our Russian History class…but that’s another story.)
It was astounding to find someone else who thought reading cookbooks was a reasonable hobby, not to mention someone else who understood what it meant when the instructions said “beat till fluffy.” Susan and I became firm friends. Over the course of our college careers, we swapped a lot of recipes, talked a lot of food and teamed up to cater a few theme-heavy history department functions. But to this day, if you ask either one of us about food and college, the first thing that comes to mind is our favorite midnight snack: chocolate fondue.
If you were in New York in the 1970s, you’ll remember the fad for narrowly-focused “La” restaurants: La Crepe, La Quiche, La Bonne Soupe (still standing!) and of course, La Fondue. Eating at these, we felt very adventurous and—more importantly—European. In this context, it shouldn’t come as a thunderbolt that my school luggage contained not only a facsimile of Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, but also an avocado green aluminum fondue pot, a set of forks and an illegal electric burner.
The “illegal” bit is crucial to the experience. Our dormitory was built in 1927 and, at the dawn of the consumer electronics age, hadn’t yet been rewired. We were told not to use hair blowers in our rooms, and we were not even supposed to possess such things as burners, toasters, irons, televisions…and certainly not refrigerators. We were supposed to avail ourselves of the common-use shelf on each floor, which had an electric burner and a grounded plug. No one listened. Everyone had some sort of appliance for playing music, and I had a television, as I considered myself constitutionally unable to study unless seated in front of one. Susan had a bar-sized refrigerator that masqueraded, under a tablecloth, as a storage box.
I can’t remember how it started, but the routine was always the same. Throughout the term we kept boxes of Baker’s chocolate and miniature bottles of flavored liqueurs—Vandermint, Cherry Heering—in the metal safe boxes nailed near the doors of our bedrooms. When the craving would strike, we spent two or three days filching pats of butter (that’s where the refrigerator came in), stale cake and fruit from the school dining hall. It was pure forage—whatever we found, that’s what we’d be dipping. The anticipation was intense.
When we finally had enough, we would muster our ingredients in one room or the other late at night, after studying to whatever goal we had set. While the chocolate and butter and booze melted together in my one saucepan, we cubed the cake and fruit. The smell of melting chocolate would snake out of the transoms (1927 dormitory, remember), driving everyone else who was awake in our hall half-crazy.
We listened to Joni Mitchell, stuffed ourselves with chocolate-covered goodness and talked for hours, the way you do in college. Afterward, we’d have to wash out the saucepan and the pot in the bathroom’s shallow sinks, with the separate hot and cold taps—not so easy, but a small price to pay.
There are photos that capture that memory. We sit on the floor by the painted trunk that, when not in active service between campus and home, did duty as my “coffee table” and held the fondue pot. There’s one of each of us, looking slantwise up at the camera while carefully holding a dripping fork near the pot of molten chocolate.
A couple of years ago, some friends pulled together an ad hoc dinner after work one night. The host had a brand new fondue pot and wanted to put it to use. Stepping up, I found myself in her kitchen, melting chocolate and butter and raiding her liquor cabinet for an appropriate soupcon. The smell floated out into the living room, drawing everyone near. People picked up their forks and speared strawberries and cubes of cake, and we sat in a circle dipping chocolate and talking for hours.
Don’t you love when your college education pays off?!
September 13, 2010
Today’s Inviting Writing post puts a twist on the college food theme by venturing beyond campus—and beyond the typical age range for most freshman students’ choice of dining companions. Our featured writer, Leah Douglas, is a Brown University student who contributes to Serious Eats and also has her own blog, Feasting on Providence.
By Leah Douglas
I’m not one of those people who loves to hate the food provided at my university’s cafeteria. Sure, the meat seems dubious at times and the “nacho bar” appears too frequently for anyone’s gastrointestinal comfort. But as a vegetarian, I appreciate the somewhat creative non-meat dishes, and the extensive (if a tad wilted) options at the salad bar.
All that being said, I do not reflect on my first year of college eating with rosy-colored glasses. I would go for days without much in the way of protein, and late-night burrito and pizza runs happened far too frequently. For someone who thinks, reads, and dreams about delicious food, I felt slightly stalled and unsettled by my limited options—but frankly, and perhaps fortunately, there were more important things on my mind than my next meal.
Except for the nights I ate at Red Stripe.
The French bistro, my favorite restaurant in the college neighborhood, is somewhat pricey and a bit of a walk from campus—two factors that keep the majority of the student population away. However, I am the truly fortunate student whose grandparents happen to live half an hour away from my dorm.
That’s right: Lucky duck that I am, I attend college within an hour’s drive of several family members. Suffice it to say that I never really had any problems with moving furniture, getting to and from the train station, or running out of shampoo during my first year. But neither did I have the expectation that my grandparents would end up saving the most valuable part of my person—my stomach—from complete deprivation.
I can’t remember the first time we went to Red Stripe, but I know that I ordered the “Everything But the Kitchen Sink” chopped salad. How do I know this? Because I have ordered the same thing ever since. Pshh, you’re thinking, she thinks she’s an adventurous eater?! Scoff if you will, but then try this salad. Hearts of palm, house-marinated vegetables, chickpeas and olives and tomatoes; oh my. It is heaven in a very, very large bowl. Not to mention the warm, chewy, crusty, perfect sourdough bread served endlessly on the side, with whipped butter…Excuse me. I may need to go get a snack.
My grandparents branched out far more than I, ordering everything from short ribs to grilled cheese. I appreciated their sampling, of course, since it meant I got to taste extensively from the bistro’s excellent menu. The food was prepared in an open kitchen by young, attractive chefs who liked to glance my way as I grinned through their hearty meals. Before long, we had a regular waiter who knew us by name, and with whom my grandfather found a partner in friendly rambling.
As we ate, my grandmother would hold my hand and question the sanity of my far-too-busy schedule. My grandfather would dutifully remember the names of two to three friends to ask about, and I would share as many grandparent-appropriate details as I could. I looked forward to their tales from “the real world,” where work ended at 5 and social engagements featured cheese plates rather than Cheetos.
Over that large salad, in dim lighting and sipping an always-needed Diet Coke, I would feel the knots in my brain unwind and nutrition seep into my slightly neglected body. These dinners were heartwarming and soul-strengthening beyond their cost and deliciousness.
And at the end of another lovely meal, I would inevitably take home half my salad (I promise, it is huge) in a plastic container. This would be my late-night, or perhaps very early morning, connection to the world beyond exams and parties. If I couldn’t control what time my first class started, or whether my roommate had decided to host a gossip session ten feet from my head, at the very least I could satiate grumblings with a reminder of the food world I so missed. These treats were the bright spot in an otherwise nondescript freshman year of eating.
My grandparents will always insist I am doing them a favor by taking the time in my schedule for our dinners. Little do they know how much my stomach is truly indebted to their generosity.
September 7, 2010
This month’s Inviting Writing takes on the theme of college food, which, judging from all your responses so far, is the opposite of health food. Maybe that’s because the strange new taste of independence is so potent for many of us as freshman. It tempts us to eat crazy things like raw ramen noodles (yes, that was me) and makeshift Rice Krispy treats. Or just to eat at crazy hours, as in the case of today’s featured writer, Jennifer Walker of the Baltimore-based food blog My Morning Chocolate.
But it sure was fun, wasn’t it?
Late Night Eating
By Jennifer Walker
During my freshman year, I lived in a dorm with other students in my university’s Scholars Program. As part of this program, we took classes in a chosen specialty, and, in theory, lived on a floor with other students in our track. Yet somehow I ended up as the lone Arts student on an International Studies floor, across the dorm from my classmates.
Since I’m a quiet person anyway, I was nervous about living with a group of people who already shared a common interest. I felt like an outsider. But I quickly made friends, thanks in part to a classic college ritual: late-night eating.
Sometimes that literally meant going to “Late Night” at the university’s dining halls, which reopened between 9:00 p.m. and midnight to serve some of my favorite college junk foods: mozzarella sticks, burgers, French fries. (There may have been salad too, but I don’t remember anyone eating it.)
As long as I left my dorm room door open, anyone from the International Studies floors could become a dining buddy. Someone would inevitably pop their head in and ask, “wanna go to Late Night?” Then we’d walk to the elevator, picking up a few hungry hall mates along the way.
On these walks to the dining hall, I learned more about the people I saw only in passing during the day. There was Andrea, who shared my belief that typing (as in typing on typewriters) was the most valuable class she took in high school. And Ricky, who, like me, lived for the dining hall’s grilled cheese and tomato soup Fridays.
Granted, I barely said five sentences out loud. But I listened, and I felt like I was part of the group.
When we didn’t feel like walking to Late Night, having Papa John’s pizza delivered to our dorm was just as good. The same rule applied: if I left my door open, I could be asked to come to someone’s room for a slice.
My friend Steve was often the host. We would spread the pizza box on the floor, open up containers of garlic dipping sauce for our crust, and talk. As each person finished eating, he or she would stand up and return to their respective rooms.
These late-night eating rituals were a regular part of my week—and social schedule—until the end of the first semester. Then, looming finals meant I didn’t have hours to spend loitering in the dining halls or chatting over pizza boxes. Instead, I spent my evenings sitting at the desks in one of my dorm’s study rooms. It was there that I found a new type of late-night “cuisine.”
One evening, a group of us had taken over one of the rooms on the first floor. As the hours grew later, people dropped off, closing their textbooks in favor of sleep. Eventually, only three of us remained. We decided to pull an all-nighter.
“Let’s go get some coffee,” my friend Kim said. We left our books in the room and walked to the convenience store in the center of our quad. It was crowded. I wasn’t a coffee drinker at the time, but I still got in the self-service line, ready to fill a large cup with steaming hazelnut brew. Here, I also met quad mates who had decided to caffeinate themselves for late-night study sessions. We commiserated about our finals and the work we still had to do as we drank our coffee through the early morning hours.
I haven’t felt that same camaraderie since I left college. My dorm mates and I were all in the same stage then: living in a new place and asserting our independence, even if this just meant showing that we could eat French fries, order Papa John’s, or drink coffee in the middle of the night.
Today, more than a decade later, I’m a student again. This time, I’m already independent—a married woman with an apartment, a job, and several bills to call her own. I don’t even know where my university’s dining halls are, and that’s fine with me. Late-night eating with my husband just wouldn’t be the same.