August 29, 2012
The unassuming town of Buñol, Spain, home to 9,000 residents, is situated along the quiet Buñol river. It boasts a great paella, along with its many fruit, almond and olive trees, and compared with its neighbor to the east, the city of Valencia, is rather sleepy.
Until 40,000 people from around the world start throwing over 100 metric tons of tomatoes at one another.
La Tomatina, Buñol’s annual tomato throwing food fight, took place this morning with participants trying hard to reach one goal: to throw as many tomatoes as possible in what has come to be known as the world’s biggest food fight. With one single fruit and one single color, it might not be all that aesthetically pleasing, but you’d have to be crazy to say that it doesn’t look like a hollering good time.
The event began with its traditional Palojabón (literally, hamstick), a greased wooden pole two stories high topped with a delicious-looking Spanish ham. One brave participant must climb the slick stick and retrieve the ham in order for the events of La Tomatina to officially begin. This year, like most, nobody reached the ham. And this year, like most, it did not matter. People began throwing tomatoes anyway. Heeding only a few rules–tomatoes must be squished before being thrown to avoid injury, and tomatoes are the only weapons to be used–participants in this year’s festival donned protective glasses and gloves to protect themselves from the flying fruits. You may be asking yourself, what is the point of such chaos? It is just that. Pure, chaotic tomato-celebrating fun.
But La Tomatina is not only a food fight. Though the tomato throwers might be the most memorable part of the week-long event, the festival is a true celebration of cuisine and the end of the summer. It features paella cook-offs, parades, dancing and fireworks and attracts tourists from around the world to enjoy the scenic city and take part in its local pride.
The origins of the tomato fight, which dates back to the 1940s, is unclear. The AFP says that it began with a friendly, neighborhood food fight, while townspeople in Buñol claim that the first tomatoes were thrown by residents angry at the city’s councilmen. Whatever its humble beginnings, the event is now an internationally recognized event.
Dictator Francisco Franco banned La Tomatina for its lack of religious ties, but when he left power in 1975 the event was swiftly resumed. While most raucous, obscure European traditions seem to date back centuries (Oktoberfest, for example, began in 1810), La Tomatina is a relatively new event, fueled by a nationalistic passion for celebrating even the most everyday oddities.
When the fight ended and the participants were covered in tomato puree, the streets were left cleaner than they were before. Bunol’s officials say that it is the acidity levels of the tomatoes that scrub the concrete clean, but it might also be the water used, sourced directly from a Roman aqueduct. Town residents kindly sprayed down a couple of hundred residents, while other tired food fighters headed to the Bunol River to wash themselves free of tomato residue.
It’s a shame they never added any garlic or basil to the mix, to spread over a nest of angel hair, but we can only hope that tomato fighters will be more industrious and culinarily-inclined in coming years.
August 20, 2012
When James Joyce sat down and wrote, in Ulysses, “Her griddlecakes done to a goldenbrown hue and Queen Ann’s pudding of delightful creaminess,” he probably did not imagine that decades later, bloggers in the 21st century would be attempting to cook the very foods he described. But in the past few years a proliferation of literary food blogs have crept up all over the internet, claiming the recipes for literature’s most epic delicacies and culinary disasters.
With both real and invented recipes, today’s literary food bloggers attempt to recreate not just a dish, but also the scene surrounding a dish in its greater literary context. The chocolate cake in Roald Dahl’s classic Matilda, for example, is not just an ode to gluttony but also a symbol of the Trunchbull’s demented torture tactics as she forces poor Bruce Bogtrotter to gulp down the cake in its entirety.
Nicole Villenueve, author of the popular Paper and Salt literary food blog, digs deep to find the real recipes of famous authors and literary personalities. “I can occasionally find the recipes that they used themselves,” she says, “whether in their letters or their collections of papers.” Villenueve focuses not only on the dishes in fiction but also on the real life favorites of authors like E.B White and Raymond Chandler. (Most recently she posted the recipe for Robert Penn Warren’s favorite cocktail).
Cara Nicoletti, a blogger, baker and butcher in New York, invents recipes inspired by literary food scenes on Yummy-Books, a blog that relies mostly on literary descriptions. “Most fiction novels don’t have actual recipes in them,” she says, “which is what makes them so creative and fun. My favorite literary food scenes are somewhat vague—like the unspecified red berry pie in Steinbeck’s East of Eden—because they leave me lots of space to interpret and imagine.”
On the other end of the spectrum is Nicole Gulotta, whose blog eatthispoem invites readers to try recipes inspired by basic fruits and seasons. She uses the framework of a poem and develops a recipe that “reflects the essence of the original text in some way.” The recipe follows the sentiment of the text as opposed to a measured formula. “The poem now lives on and off the page,” says Gulotta.
And why do this? What good is it to eat like characters from a novel? For most, it’s the chance to insert oneself into a favorite novel or poem by sharing in the most quotidian of human activities: eating. “Because I connected so deeply with these characters,” says Nicoletti, “eating the food they ate just seemed like a very natural way for me to be closer to them.” Cooking the food dreamed up by a favorite author can make us feel part of the bookwriting process, because, as Villenueve adds, cooking “is a very similar process to writing.”
The process works both ways; on the one hand, eating like a character from a novel invites readers into our favorite books, but it also beckons our favorite characters out into the real world.
No one has brought more attention to this theory than historian and curator Lucy Worsley, who performs the feats (most notably by cooking the same foods) of famous historical figures in an effort to experience what life must have been like in say, the days of Henry VIII. On any given day Worsley can be found buying pounds of pheasants and gulping gallons of saltwater. Lauren Collins, in her profile of Worsley in The New Yorker, describes this phenomenon precisely: “Food and drink are perhaps the most effective of Worsley’s tools for revivifying the past.”
Food scenes stand out to readers in the same way that food-related memories seem to triumph over even the grandest events in real life. Of all the scenes in a book, the most memorable are often the ones with visceral descriptions of food, the kind that leave you either starving or retching. “I remember certain scenes in books based soley on the foods that were eaten in them,” says Nicoletti, “but it goes the other way too. My memories of certain foods are bound up in my memories of reading certain novels, as well.”
If food is the way to a man’s heart, then descriptions of foods might be the way to a reader’s eyes. And cooking those descriptions brings them right to the table. “Food often allows you to step into the story just a little bit more than you otherwise could,” says Villenueve. “You may not have been to Paris, but with Hemingway you can down a few oysters and live vicariously through him.”
What food from literature would you most want to be able to cook for yourself? Let us know and we’ll pass along your requests!
August 13, 2012
New York City tap water is consistently rated the best in the country, and New Yorkers believe that only their water can create the best tasting foods. “Whether it’s actually true that New York water makes better bagels is irrelevant,” writes Jessica Sidman in the cover story of the latest issue of the Washington City Paper. “The difference is that New Yorkers want to believe it.”
Sidman’s reporting looks at how the municipal water treatment agency, DC Water, wants restaurants and breweries to tout local water as a deciding ingredient in their recipes. DC Brau Brewery take pride in the fact that they use local water, albeit filtered, and the Pretzel Bakery‘s Sean Haney says that D.C. water is a key ingredient to his perfectly-textured goods. Some complain that the amount of chlorine in D.C. water negatively affects the taste of baked goods, while others claim to see no difference in tap versus filtered water. But the big change most recently hasn’t been in the filtration process, but in the marketing. DC Water has spent $160,000 to change its public persona (especially needed after an image-damaging lead incident), and one of those major initiatives is restoring faith not only in the cleanliness of tap water, but in the magic of it as well.
It’s not about the water, it’s all about confidence and pride. Florence Wilpon, the owner of internationally ranked Ess-a-Bagel in Manhattan, is no exception. She believes in bagels. More importantly, she believes in her bagels. I asked her if she thought being in New York makes bagels taste better. “Yes,” she says. “Yes. Absolutely.”
“People think it’s the water, but it’s not the water,” says Wilpon (sorry, Baltimore). “It’s the people and the culture and the time.”
Where did this long-standing belief come from? The claim has always been that because of a superior water supply, bagels are simply not the same anywhere else. The argument goes that the water in Brooklyn, New York, which comes from the Catskills and picks up a wide array of sediment along its way to the pipes, contains the only successful chemicals in the world for making good, chewy bagels. CNN reveals that the Brooklyn Water Company has created an entire franchise based on this belief alone, recreating the exact composition of Brooklyn water from Florida to India. Steven Fassberg, a co-founder of the Brooklyn Water Company and its CEO, says that “there is a science behind it and I believe in it enough to prove that science.”
Slate’s Explainer points out why that’s all wrong. “Water chemistry influences baking, and New York’s somewhat unique water probably plays a minor role in making tender and chewy bagels,” he writes. But he argues that the real difference between bagels in New York and bagels in the rest of the world is just a matter of cutting corners. The dough must be allowed ample time to ferment, and the bagels must be boiled before baking, a process that is both expensive and time consuming.
There are bad bagels in New York, but the places that serve up these spongy, bland products stand little chance in a city that takes so much pride in its bagel industry. And that pride, says Sidman, comes from a citywide confidence in tap water. If DC Water has its way, Washingtonians too will have bragging rights.