December 30, 2011
This is our last Food & Think post of the year. Sadly, it also happens to be my last ever—or at least for the foreseeable future. With my due date approaching in a few months, I’ve decided one full-time job (I am a senior editor at Adirondack Life magazine) plus new motherhood is about all I can handle for a while. I have learned so many interesting things about food in the last two and a half years of writing for the blog—and I still plan to, but now as a reader instead of writer.
I’ve compiled a list of some of my favorite posts of the year—those that I either particularly enjoyed reading or writing. If you missed any of them, I hope you’ll go back and give them a look.
1. Beer Batter Is Better; Science Says So. Without T. A. Frail’s important batter research in January, we all might have eaten inferior onion rings in 2011. Thank you, Tom.
2. Unwrapping the History of the Doggie Bag. Also back in January, Jesse detailed how the practice of wrapping up “bones for Bowser” evolved into bringing home leftovers never intended to touch canine lips.
3. Renaissance Table Etiquette and the Origins of Manners. Jesse’s look at pre-Emily Post do’s and don’ts includes one of my favorite lines of the year: On farting at the dinner table, Erasmus writes, “If it is possible to withdraw, it should be done alone. But if not, in accordance with the ancient proverb, let a cough hide the sound.”
4. Inviting Writing: When in Rome. Inviting Writing has always been one of my favorite parts of the blog—to both write and read. Of the ones I wrote, the one reminiscing about a perfect meal in Rome was particularly enjoyable.
5. Law and Order: Culinary Crimes Unit. That Jesse had the material to write not one but six posts on food-related crime is both astonishing and entertaining. Read them all: the original; Jell-O Gelatin Unit; Ice Cream Truck Unit; More Culinary Crimes; Even More Food Crimes; and New Culinary Crimes.
6. Science in the Public Interest: The Beer Koozie Test. I’ll admit, this one was fun to both research and write. But, like T. A. Frail’s onion ring research, I believe it performed an important reader service.
7. Inviting Writing: What to Eat When You’re Adopting. One of my favorite guest essays this year was by Amy Rogers Nazarov, who wrote a touching piece on learning about Korean food while waiting to meet her adopted son.
8. The Other Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Jesse tells us about the cookbook written by Alice B. Toklas, famous as the longtime lover of Gertrude Stein and the title subject of one of the celebrated author’s best-known works.
9. The Gingerbread Man and Other Runaway Foods. Who knew there was a whole literary genre of runaway pancakes? Well, anyone who read Jesse’s enlightening post from earlier this month.
With that, I bid you adieu. Have a wonderful 2012, everyone.
Ed. note — Thank you, Lisa, for the 272 posts that carry your byline. You’ll be dearly missed and here’s to a very happy and joyful 2012!
December 27, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked for stories about foods that make your holidays complete. We’ve read about pizzelles, mystery cookies and mashed potatoes, and today’s essay is about roti, a specialty that comes from Trinidad by way of India, China and Queens. Linda Shiue is a San Francisco-based doctor and food writer who “believes in the healing power of chicken soup.” She blogs about food and travel at spiceboxtravels.com and you can follow her on Twitter at @spiceboxtravels.
Ravenous for Roti
By Linda Shiue
Ask any Trinidadians what they’re hungry for, and the answer will be “roti.” This refers not only to the Indian flatbread itself, but the curried fillings which make Trinidadian roti the best hand-held meal you’ll find. Curries in Trinidad are served with either dhalpouri roti, which is filled with dried, ground chick peas, or paratha, a multilayered, buttery flatbread. You wrap the roti around some of your curry filling and eat it like a burrito. It’s sold as a common “fast” food in Trinidad (the cooking of the curry is not fast but the serving of it into freshly prepared rotis is) but also prized enough to be served at family gatherings and celebrations. For members of the Trinidadian diaspora, like my husband, the hunger for roti is profound. If you live in New York, it is not too far of a trip to find yourself a decent roti—Richmond Hill in Queens is home to a large Trinidadian and Guyanese community. Trinidad itself is only about a five-hour flight away. But if you are on the West Coast, you’re out of luck. Visiting Trinidad requires almost a full day of air travel. Last time we checked, there was only one Trinidadian roti shop in our area, over in Oakland. It was a musty, dim (as in unlit until customers rang the buzzer) shop, and the owner was equally dour. Even as I paid for our lunch, I felt the need to apologize for intruding. The rotis were pallid, dry and lifeless.
They were nothing like the roti I had devoured in Trinidad. On my first trip to my husband’s home, my future mother-in-law (herself a Chinese immigrant to Trinidad from Canton) served me some curry tattoo. What’s tattoo? Better known around here as armadillo. Despite having recently completed a vegetarian phase, and despite the still visible markings on the flesh of the armadillo’s bony plates, I tasted it. You could call it a taste test, under my mother-in-law’s watchful gaze, with the emphasis on “test.” This taste was the beginning of what was, on that visit to my husband’s home village in the South of Trinidad, an eye-opening journey to a land of culinary delights I had never imagined. On this trip, which happened over Christmas, I was led from home to home, eating a full meal at each stop. I was presented with plate after plate of curried dishes, condiments (including kuchila, tamarind sauce and fiery Scotch Bonnet pepper sauce), pastelles (similar to tamales, but with a savory-sweet filling of minced meat, olives, and raisins) and the rice dish pelau. Since then, I’ve learned to cook a pretty mean curry myself. But I have not yet mastered the art of roti making, and this is a cause for sorrow. We make do with eating curry and rice when we are without roti, but whenever we can find time and an excuse to go to New York, we have one mission: procure roti.
There is no such thing as “going too far” to sate the hunger of the expatriate. When it is for something as tasty as Trinidadian roti, a cross-country flight is not considered unreasonable. So we go to New York for a Christmastime visit to my New York-by-way-of-Trinidad in-laws. There is no Christmas goose or ham on the dining table at this Trinidadian Christmas celebration. When we announce our plans to visit, our family knows to make the obligatory run to Singh’s for curry goat and chicken, aloo pie and doubles, to bring it over to my mother-in-law’s for a welcome feast. But they have also learned over the years that they should check in with us for our “to go” order of unfilled roti. We’ll order half a dozen each of dhalpouri roti and paratha, carefully triple wrap them individually, and freeze them overnight to bring back with us to San Francisco. By the time we get back, they are starting to defrost, but they’re the first thing we unpack (and refreeze), because this is some precious loot. The handful of homesick Trinidadians we’ve collected over the years here is always thrilled when we organize a curry night, and there is never enough roti.
December 19, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked for stories about foods that make your holidays. Our first essay was about a mystery cookie from the Italian Alps, and today we have a story about a main-course dish: mashed potatoes. Judy Martin, from Cupertino, California, appeared here before with an essay about food and dating.
The Mashed Potato Monster
By Judy Martin
Every holiday meal must include mashed potatoes. But my mother made them from a box. I never could understand why she liked those flat, dry, ragged little flakes that pretended to become potatoes when hydrated. Even my elementary school made real mashed potatoes. Except for the time they turned out to be mashed turnips. That was a nasty surprise for a first grader!
When I was 10, I spent a week visiting my cousins. One night, a small sigh of pleasure escaped my lips at the dinner table. There were lumpy mashed potatoes on my plate. What a treat! My aunt heard my sigh and demanded to know its cause. I responded that the potatoes had lumps. This was the ultimate compliment. It meant the potatoes were real. But she refused my compliment. No matter how much I tried to explain, I don’t believe she ever forgave me for commenting on her lumpy mashed potatoes.
We ate mashed potatoes often when I was growing up, and I continued the tradition with my own family. For everyday meals, they were made with margarine and low-fat milk. But for holidays, they were dressed up using my grandmother’s preparation method (no flakes for her) with lots of real butter and pre-heated evaporated milk. Sometimes I even added sour cream or cheese. I was proud that my son Matt grew up eating real mashed potatoes. He didn’t care what else was on the holiday menu as long as there were mounds of mashed potatoes.
The first holiday Matt spent with his new wife’s family in California was a culture shock. He was horrified to learn that not everyone eats mashed potatoes on holidays. In fact, his wife’s family never eats them at all. His mother-in-law’s potato casserole just wasn’t an acceptable substitute. He marched into the kitchen and prepared his own mashed potatoes. I was mortified to hear this story; I had created a Mashed Potato Monster.
Matt’s in-laws are good sports and, unlike my aunt, don’t offend easily; they found his mashed potato obsession humorous. Now we often spend our holidays all together and to avert another holiday crisis, I make sure there are mashed potatoes on the menu.
December 12, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked for stories about holiday foods that make your holidays. This is a rich subject for Smithsonian and its readers; we have run stories of holiday lefse (and other time-consuming traditional foods), lutefisk, rice grits, sugar plums and the great debate over whether latkes or hamantaschen are the perfect Hanukkah food. Susie Tilton, who has written for Inviting Writing about mysterious greens called cardoons, starts us off with a story about mysterious cookies called… something. She blogs at Sweetie Petitti.
Pasquale’s Italian Wonders
By Susie Tilton
My parents have a Christmas party every year without fail. Even now, with my dad well into his 80s and my mom not far behind, they are making copies of the song book; my mom is practicing the carols on the piano; and the freezers are filling up with party foods.
The highlight for me, for many years, was made the day of the party. My dad, Pasquale, would crank out sheets of sweet dough in the pasta machine. He would then cut the dough with a fluted pastry cutter and fry it in spirals. He would pile the pastry spirals up like a pyramid and cover it in warm honey and nuts. We called it shca-te-la. And therein lies the problem.
One year, when the Internet was still young, I decided that I was going to make them. My dad’s recipe had no name. So I started researching. It is nearly impossible to find anything on the Internet when you have only a phonetic spelling (of a foreign language, no less). I couldn’t find another recipe, history, photo or anything on these things. I am sure it is because we didn’t pronounce the name like most Italians would. My family is from a small mountain town in Puglia, Italy, and the dialect is unlike any other in Italy. There is a lot of French influence in the region, and even many Italians have no idea what people from there are saying! I live in a close-knit community with a fair amount of Italians, so I got on the phone and called the Italian who owns the grocery, the Italian who owns the liquor store and the Italian who has the pasta market, to no avail. They all wanted to help, but when I said shca-te-la, they drew a blank. But I got my dad’s recipe, so I went to work and renamed the pastries Pasquale’s Italian Wonders.
On a recent trip to my ancestral town in Italy, I met the most amazing people. The language barrier was still an issue, but when I said shca-te-la, eyes lit up. They knew exactly what I spoke of! The spelling is schart’llat, which returns no answers in a Google search (although I intend to change that with a blog post), and it is similar to scallidde, a pastry found in some more southern areas of Italy. The pastries were made in spirals as a symbol of approaching heaven, and they are indeed heavenly. I have decided that having the proper name is reason enough to crank up the fryer and make a batch this holiday. But we decided that naming them after Grandpa Pasquale will be the new tradition!
December 7, 2011
One of my favorite things about the holiday season is that there are so many delicious foods that appear only this time of year—and every part of the world that celebrates Christmas has its own specialties. You could spend all of December eating a different regional food every night (hmm, not a bad idea). But, as Jesse wrote in this week’s Inviting Writing, most people have at least one favorite holiday food that they absolutely must have or it isn’t truly Christmas.
For French-Canadians, that dish is probably tourtière, a spiced meat pie that’s eaten around Christmas and New Year; it was traditionally served after midnight mass or at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. Usually filled with minced pork or a mixture of pork, beef and/or veal, it can also be made with other kinds of meat. Spices might include cinnamon, nutmeg, mace or cloves.
According to The Ottawa Citizen, the name comes from the dish used to bake a tourte, and the word tourte can refer either to the pie or to the passenger pigeon, a now-extinct species once used to fill the pie. The same article includes several intriguing variations on the basic tourtière, including one made with seafood.
I first heard of tourtière when I moved to the Adirondack Mountains in New York, a stone’s throw from the Quebec border. The French-Canadian influence here is evident in French surnames and place names, the popularity of hockey and curling, and the occasional appearance of poutine on restaurant menus. A few places around here sell tourtières around the holidays, but I never had one until this weekend, when I took a trip to Montreal.
I bought a mini-tourtière from a bakery in the indoor Jean-Talon market (a fun place to visit if you’re ever in town). It was made with duck, and the crust had a cute little duck cut-out on top. It was tasty—the crust was deliciously flaky—though I found the filling a little lacking in zing. I had read that some people eat them with ketchup or other condiments, so I decided to try some steak sauce. I don’t know if this would be considered an acceptable accompaniment by traditionalists, but it worked for me.
If you don’t live in the vicinity of a French-Canadian bakery and want to taste tourtière yourself, try one of the recipes from the Ottawa Citizen article above. A recipe from Serious Eats includes mashed potatoes in the filling, plus plenty of spices. You can even make a vegetarian version with TVP (textured vegetable protein), as in this recipe from Canadian Living magazine.
What’s your favorite holiday food?