June 1, 2009
“May I photograph the interior of your fridge?” That’s a question photographer Mark Menjivar asked people as he traveled around the United States for three years working on a project about hunger. He describes the project, called “You are What You Eat” on his website:
a refrigerator is both a private and a shared space. one person likened the question, “may i photograph the interior of your fridge?” to asking someone to pose nude for the camera. each fridge is photographed “as is.” nothing added, nothing taken away.
these are portraits of the rich and the poor. vegetarians, republicans, members of the nra, those left out, the under appreciated, former soldiers in hitler’s ss, dreamers, and so much more. we never know the full story of one’s life.
The photos, which you can see in this gallery, come with brief biographical sketches of the fridge owners. A carpenter in San Antonio has a freezer full of plastic baggies of meat from a 12-point buck. A bartender who “goes to sleep at 8 a.m. and wakes up at 4 p.m. daily” has a fridge crammed with Styrofoam take-out boxes. Documentary filmmakers, their fridge stocked with what looks like high-end beer and wine, “have helped send millions of dollars to children in Uganda.” Really, you’ve got to see these photos.
I asked Menjivar a few questions about the project:
What’s in your fridge right now?
Apple sauce, asparagus, eggs, salsa, yogurt, spinach, Real Ale beer, etc.
What was the most surprising thing you saw in someone’s fridge?
Definitely the snake. [Caption: Short Order Cook | Marathon,TX | 2-Person Household | She can bench press over 300lbs. | 2007 ] Was not expecting to see that when I pulled open the door. Also, in one refrigerator there was a small bunch of herbs in a glass of water that looked so beautiful it changed my whole perspective that day.
In addition to what you mentioned in your Statement, are there particular lessons or insights from your three-year project you’d be willing to share?
As part of my exploration of food issues and as a self portrait, I wrote down everything that I ate for 365 days. This exercise made me realize the realities of my food habits and has helped change the way my family eats. I thought that I only ate fast food a couple times a month, but found out it was sadly more often that that!
At the heart of this project is the fact that too often families struggle to fill the fridge with nutritious and dignified foods. I was constantly amazed at the ingenuity of people in the kitchen when they only have a few food items. I have also had the opportunity to see the incredible safety nets that food banks and other organizations provide for so many. So much is being done, while we still have a long way to go.
At this point, a few different organizations have hosted the exhibit in their communities and these times have been very rich to experience. There have been lectures, sermons, pot luck groups, book discussions, gardening workshops, action groups formed, etc. My hope is that I will be able to partner with like-minded organizations in the future to continue this kind of dialog about our food choices and the impact they have on self and the world around us.
April 13, 2009
It’s the most wonderful time of the year—the day after Easter, when all the strangely shaped candy is on super sale. Quick! Get to a grocery or drug store today to buy the last Peeps, malted milk robin eggs and hollow chocolate bunnies of the season.
Even if you don’t eat the stuff (and it is pretty low-grade; what tastes so good is the nostalgia), you may want to stock up for the sake of your inner artist. The Washington Post holds a delightful art contest every year for the best Peep-based diorama (bet you thought you’d never need that particular elementary school skill set again).
Mike Chirlin (a friend of one of Smithsonian.com’s web editors) and Veronica Ettle are semi-finalists for their Peep*E post (and video, above). They confirm that making these dioramas is a lot of work. Veronica explains:
Michael and I came up with the idea for our diorama about 2 or 3 months ahead of the due date, which was mid-March, so we started gathering supplies like old bike parts then. I had to go to a few different bike shops to find the specific parts we needed that they were planning on throwing away.
It took a few weeks for Michael to build the shelves since it was sort of a trial and error process. I mainly worked on the background objects with sculpey and painting the background. It’s harder to sculpt a miniature boot than you would think.
We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback, a lot of friends and family members saying “I never even knew a contest like that existed”, and a few saying that they will be our competition next year.
You can view the winner and 39 finalists here. What are your favorites? I highly recommend #5 (RelativiPeep), #8 (Mrs. Peepcock, in the Conservatory, with the Revolver) and #40 (Sweet Revenge).
December 31, 2008
After elaborate Christmas or Hannukah meals (see the comments from our previous post for some great descriptions of absurdly time-consuming puddings, potica, buche de Noel and almond macaroons), and after plenty of champagne toasts on New Year’s Eve, it’s no wonder traditional New Year’s Day meals tend to be humble.
Humble in the hope of wealth, that is. In the South, people eat black-eyed peas on New Year’s, the logic being that if you eat poor at the beginning of the year, you’ll eat rich during the rest of it. Collared greens, another tradition, are supposed to represent money.
The hope for a prosperous year pops up all over the world. In the Philippines, round fruit are supposed to represent money. Lentils serve the same purpose in Hungary and Italy. And in Spain people eat 12 grapes at the strike of midnight, a tradition that supposedly turns 100 years old today.
Happy New Year! And enjoy whatever food or drink are part of your celebration.
Image courtesy of Piano Castelluccio/Wikimedia Commons
December 23, 2008
Does your family have a traditional holiday dish that you eat at only one time of year—and for good reason? It’s not that the dish tastes bad. Maybe it requires obscure ingredients or specialized equipment, or maybe it takes an absurd amount of time or upper body strength to prepare. Is there some recipe you make that, in its disdain for modern conveniences, makes you feel sort of Amish for the day?
In my family it’s lefse, a Scandinavian potato tortilla (basically). You peel potatoes (get all the eyes or they’ll come back to haunt you), boil them, mash them, rice them, mix them with flour and cream and butter and sugar, press the mix into loaf pans, chill overnight (yes, it takes two days), cut into slices, roll VERY thin, use a lefse stick to drape one piece onto a lefse griddle, bake, flip, and fold. Then slather it with butter and sugar, roll it up, and eat. (Or follow the directions in poem form.)
Several people around Smithsonian.com HQ have similar stories. Sarah from Surprising Science says her mom makes Polish cookies: “Cruschiki are little knots of crispy fried dough covered in powdered sugar. The recipe has several steps, and the dough is hard to roll out.”
An associate editor’s parents make baccala, a fish soup. The hardest part is finding the main ingredient—salted, dried cod—and then you have to soak the cod until it’s plump and some of the salt has dissolved away.
Beth, from Around the Mall, brought in caramels the other day made according to her grandma’s recipe. Beth says that if the preparation goes really wrong, the burned caramel sticks to the pot and you have to throw the pot away.
A Venezuelan friend of Diane makes hallacas. You roll a complicated mixture of meats and spices up in a cornmeal dough, then wrap with plantain leaves and steam. A lot of work, but a great excuse for friends or family to sit around a table together getting their hands dirty.
Anika‘s mom makes Jalebi, “a fried funnel cake covered in sugary syrup. It requires saffron, cardamom, and a kadhai (the Indian version of a wok).”
Andrea, who used to live in Greece, says cookies called melomakarona appear there this time of year. They are made of honey, lemon juice, walnuts and semolina. She points out that the ingredients would have been available in ancient Greece, possibly traded by the Phoenicians, and an alternate name for the cookies is “Phoenikia.”
Jesse‘s dad’s side of the family makes fried oysters, which used to be readily available only around Christmas. His mom makes pizzelles—thin, waffle-like cookies that require a special iron, and are “supposed to be the culinary equivalent of catching snowflakes on your tongue.”
Aside from a few odd proteins (or, in Hugh’s case, ethanol), most of these family traditions seem to involve a lot of starch and sugar, nature’s two finest food groups. Everybody feeling nostalgic now? Or maybe just hungry? Let us know about your own quirky traditional dishes.
December 22, 2008
Latkes (potato pancakes) are a traditional Hanukkah food—and while I was growing up, the only “latke debate” that I was aware of was whether it was best to eat them with applesauce or sour cream. (The correct answer: Applesauce. I have supporting documentation…)
But years later, when I was living in Chicago, I became aware of another dispute that has engaged some of the greatest minds of our era: “The Latke-Hamantash Debate.”
It began in 1946, at the University of Chicago. According to anthropologist Ruth Fredman Cernea, who has edited a book on the topic, the debate was the product of a chance, street corner meeting in Hyde Park between Hillel Director Rabbi Maurice Pekarsky and two Jewish faculty members. Morale on campus was low. With few occasions for casual student-faculty get-togethers and high pressure for academic achievement, young Jewish students felt uncomfortable and lonely at the university, especially at Christmas time. (Even today, the University of Chicago, with its intimidating gothic buildings, is a bleak place, especially in winter. The students quip that the campus is “where fun comes to die.”) And Jewish professors often felt compelled to submerge their ethnic identity to gain wider acceptance.
The solution? A satirical debate between Jewish faculty members, attended by students, contesting the merits of two holiday foods: the Latke and the Hamantashen (triangular-shaped cookies traditionally eaten during Purim). As Cernea notes, “The event provided a rare opportunity for faculty to reveal their hidden Jewish souls and poke fun at the high seriousness of everyday academic life.”
The debate also owes its origins to the festive Purim tradition of mocking serious rabbinical studies. (See, for instance, the discussion of whether dinosaurs are kosher, mentioned at Smithsonian’s Dinosaur Tracking blog.)
The rest, as they say, is history. The Latke-Hamantash Debate became an annual event at the University of Chicago, and soon spread to other campuses across the country. The participants have represented a “Who’s Who” of academia, including Robert Sibley, dean of the MIT School of Science, who noted that Google returns 380,000 hits on a search for “latke” and only 62,000 for “hamantashen.” (Sibley has also claimed that latkes, not hamantashen, are the dark matter thought to make up over 21 percent of the mass of the universe.). On the other hand, Robert Tafler Shapiro, when he was president of Princeton University, made the case for the hamantashen’s superiority by pointing out the epicurean significance of the “edible triangle” in light of the literary “Oedipal triangle.”
Other contributions to the great debate have included “Latke vs. Hamantash: A Feminist Critique,” by Judith Shapiro, “Jane Austen’s Love and Latkes,” by Stuart Tave, and “Paired Matter, Edible and Inedible,” by Leon Lederman.
So, after more than 60 years of rigorous academic debate, which is the superior holiday food? Nobody knows, and that’s largely the point. “There is no winning, only the symposium going on endlessly, like the study of the Torah,” said Ted Cohen, a professor of philosophy, who moderated the University of Chicago event in 1991. Or, as the famous Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt once said: “I have yet to see any problem, however complicated, which, when you looked at it in the right way, did not become more complicated.”
– guest post written by Smithsonian senior editor Mark Strauss