March 28, 2011
This month’s Inviting Writing challenge was to tell us about the most memorable meal of your life. We got a wide range of entries—stay tuned each Monday for a new one—and Erika Janik starts us off with a story about the best and worst of meals.
Fed by Thugs
By Erika Janik
My most memorable meal came from a deep and abiding lack of good food. I was in London, in Europe for the first time, as a 20-year-old taking a course on British politics for a month. We spent three weeks in a cheap hotel near Kensington Palace, eating breakfast every morning and dinner every night in the subterranean hotel restaurant known as the Zebra Club.
Every morning we descended into the basement to the sounds of techno and roving colored lights on the dance floor. The Zebra Club clearly took its “club” designation seriously, morning or night, though I never saw anyone dancing. Breakfast was cold toast, served angrily by a man who doubled as the front desk attendant by night. Coming off an all-night shift, he finished his day at 8 a.m. by shoving cheap slices of store-bought bread onto one of those toaster conveyor belts common to cafeterias. He glared at me, daring me take a slice that he had slammed down. Often, he missed the plate and the errant toast would skitter across the crumb-covered tablecloth and onto the floor.
Other breakfast options included stale wheat flakes, worse than the store brand my roommates and I bought to save money back home, and stewed prunes that only old people in children’s stories seemed to love. There was also a pitcher of warm whole milk that tasted incredibly thick and strange to someone who’d had only two percent or skim milk before. We washed all of this down with weak coffee and pitchers of orange-colored but orange-flavor-less juice.
Breakfast was also when we selected which of the two dinner options we wanted. Everything, meat or pasta (and those were the two options all three weeks), came covered in a viscous, metallic-tasting sauce that was either pale red or highlighter yellow. Potatoes, carrots, everything tasted like I imagined the metal filings at the hardware store would taste. Failure to clean your plate—and I failed most nights—often resulted in a menacing visit from the tattooed Eastern European chef who came to my side with a chef’s knife in each hand and a maniacal grin. I’m sure he thought he was being funny, but his thick accent, torn shirt, and inked pictures of knives, blood, and pirates covering his arms somehow failed to make me laugh. Instead, I kept a careful watch on the kitchen doors, feeling nauseous each time they even so much as fluttered. I think I lost ten pounds.
So it was with extreme relief that I checked out of my room for our class road trip through several English towns for the final week of class. Our first stop was Stratford-upon-Avon, where we stayed in a half-timbered hotel straight out of a storybook. We trooped down to the hotel restaurant for dinner and were greeted with platters of food served family-style: plates of potatoes, broccoli, carrots, lamb, beef, bread, and fruit.
Nervously, I placed a single brown potato on my plate to start. I cut it open and took a tentative bite. Three weeks of the Zebra Club had made me fearful of food; I never thought that would happen. The first bite was amazing. It was the most delicious potato I had ever eaten simply because it tasted of nothing but potato. A tear ran down my cheek before I could wipe it away. I looked anxiously around to see if anyone had noticed. I felt ridiculous at my joy over something so simple, but extreme hunger for something familiar and pure can do that to a person. I had no trouble cleaning my plate several times over that night. My unintentional diet was over. And eleven years on, that meal remains one of the most memorable of my life.
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!
October 4, 2010
Our Inviting Writing theme for October is candy, as Lisa revealed last week, and we’re eager to hear your tales of trick-or-treating and more. We’re off to a sweet start with this essay by Kate Blood of the blog Something We Dreamed. (She previously wrote this piece about eating on a Mexican canal boat for our “road trips” theme.)
If you’d like to share your own story, please e-mail it FoodandThink at gmail.com by October 8th.
I Dream of Candy
By Kate Blood
As a seven-year-old, Halloween was not just a day. It consumed me for weeks. While I should have been doing my homework, I was imagining how I’d look dressed as my favorite TV characters.
I came to the conclusion that my 43-inch, 50-pound frame could pull off an “I Dream of Jeannie” outfit complete with bare midriff, chiffon veil and blond wig. I kept this idea to myself until minutes before the trick-or-treating began. I suppose I imagined I had the same powers as Jeannie: with the bob of my head, I would instantly turn into a 30-year-old sexpot.
Mother put an end to these delusions by yanking a pillow case over my head.
“You’re a ghost,” she said, cutting two eyeholes for me to see out of. “And like it or not, you are wearing a sweater.”
“She’s a ghost in a sweater,” laughed my older sister as she ditched me, running ahead along the sidewalk of our suburban Seattle block. The street was swarming with packs of children dressed as Cousin It, Superman, pirates, Batman, and a flying monkey or two. They pushed and shoved their way to the front doors of my neighbor’s homes. Bells were rung, threats were made; candy exchanged hands.
It felt like the first night of my life: I’d never been alone in the darkness. A skeleton pushed me aside on his way to another candy theft.
“Go to that house,” he shouted. “She’s giving away full-size Milk Duds!”
Before long I had a paper sack full of Pixy Stix, Bazooka gum, Jolly Ranchers, Sugar Babies, Lemonheads, Oh Henry! bars, peppermint chews, Lifesavers and homemade popcorn balls. By the time I made it back home I felt like I’d walked miles and been gone for hours.
It was only 7:30, but I felt older. I’d seen the world at night—and the night was a strange and bewitching thing.
As I spread my candy collection across the living room floor, I predicted it would take weeks, maybe months, to eat what was surely the world’s greatest candy stash. I sorted the candy by type, then by color, then again in order of priority (Lemonheads, being a favorite, should be saved for last).
Mother allowed me one taste before bedtime and I chose a Reese’s Cup, savoring the experience by carefully separating the chocolate from the peanut butter, taking tiny bites and letting each little bit of deliciousness melt on my tongue.
In the morning, I couldn’t find my candy.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” mother said.
She pointed to six tiny samples: a lollipop, a Tootsie Roll, candy corn, black licorice, miniature Necco wafers and a match-sized box of Boston Baked Beans. “This is all you brought home. You must have imagined the rest.”
Halloween continued to haunt me for weeks. My dreams were filled with Wonka-esque images of chocolate flowing waterfalls. Even weirder, for the next month I’d open my school lunch box (with “The Munsters” on its cover) to find a surprising treat: Monday a Sugar Baby, Tuesday a box of Milk Duds…and Friday, my favorite—Lemonheads! It was magical: As if I did have the powers of a genie, with the bob of my head, a yummy piece of candy goodness would appear next to my bologna sandwich.
My obsession with candy began to lessen as Thanksgiving break rolled around, soon followed by Christmas with its sparkling lights and gaily wrapped gifts. It would be another year before my every waking thought began to revolve around which costume I could get away with.
It would be a couple more years before I figured out that on Halloween night one should eat as much candy as one can get away with before showing the stash to one’s mother.
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 24, 2010
Utica. The very name sets my mouth to watering. What? You don’t think of the Central New York rust-belt city as a center of culinary excellence? Well, neither did I until recently. In fact, the entire basis for my Pavlovian response is a single dish—Utica-style greens—that I have eaten only at a Lake Placid restaurant three hours’ drive north of Utica.
I have heard that Utica, which used to have a booming textiles industry, has a great selection of ethnic restaurants thanks to its diverse immigrant population. But on my only visit to the city, about a year ago, I completely missed out.
I accompanied Niki, one of my fellow editors at the regional Adirondack magazine where I work, on a road trip there to pick up some ice cream (packed in dry ice) we were going to write about. We had some other stops to make on the way, and we timed it so we would be in Utica around lunchtime. My stomach was growling by the time we reached city limits, but we figured we’d quickly stop to pick up our ice cream and then head off in search of lunch.
When we arrived at the little shipping store on a deserted side street in the industrial part of town where we were supposed to retrieve our cargo, though, the slightly creepy-seeming proprietor told us it wasn’t there. He made a call and, after convincing Niki and I that we would get lost if he tried to send us to the location of our package, told us to wait there while he went to get it. This was fine, except that he decided to lock us inside (to protect what, I don’t know, for the only items on view were some tacky tchotchkes). Maybe it was our overly active imaginations, or hunger—or maybe the picture of a scantily clad woman hanging in the bathroom—but the idea of being locked in the store made us a little nervous, a feeling that only escalated as the minutes dragged out to an hour or more. The only food in sight was a little dish of old hard candies on the counter. Desperate, I ate one. By the time the guy finally returned with our ice cream and we were able to leave, we were too hungry to go driving around in search of a good meal. We stopped at the first place we saw—a Little Caesar’s pizza—and scarfed down a greasy slice. So much for the culinary delights of Utica.
A few months ago, though, I finally discovered the city’s signature dish, though not on its home turf. It appears on the menu at the relatively new and oddly named Liquids & Solids at the Handlebar (the Handlebar was a previous establishment on the premises) in Lake Placid, where it’s made with Swiss chard mixed with garlic, cherry peppers, flakes of smoked trout and rock shrimp and topped with a gratin of bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese. I love vegetables even relatively unadorned, but this dish has enough flavor—spicy, salty, smoky—to satisfy greens-haters, too.
It turns out this version is a twist on the regional Utica favorite, where it probably originated with Italian immigrants. Although there are many variations, the most common ingredients are escarole (chard or other greens also work), prosciutto (adding the smokiness and salt), garlic, chicken broth and hot peppers—a recipe at The Cookbook Project appears to be a standard. The dish is so popular in the city that the annual Utica Arts and Music Festival (which I apparently just missed last weekend) includes a Greens Fest, with a tent serving versions from area restaurants.
I’ll be back, Utica.