January 20, 2012
The Perennial Plate is an online documentary series by Daniel Klein about food and communities. Season 1 had a Minnesota and Midwest focus. Season 2, which is still being rolled out, covers the continental United States.
Gilt Taste’s stories section is also worth watching as a “must-read” site. It started up last spring. While the section can get a little recipe-heavy during the holiday season, it features stories about food and culture from a wide variety of writers.
McSweeney’s, the book publisher, is putting out David Chang’s dude-centric Lucky Peach and also, get this, a cookbook written by Eat Pray Love‘s Liz Gilbert’s grandma.
Nicola Twilley of Foodprint/Edible Geography. She writes about “smellscapes,” the odors that define certain places; wacky food-based artists; edible insects; and she runs a lot of Q&As with interesting characters.
October 17, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked for stories about food and reconciliation: how food repaired a relationship of some sort—or didn’t, despite your best efforts. Our first essay comes from Alexia Nader, a graduate journalism student at New York University and a freelance writer.
How Do You Apologize in Italian?
By Alexia Nader
I was up to my elbows in raw ground beef, anchovy paste, capers and onions, and completely panicked. “Call your mother now and tell them that dinner is going to be late, tell them to wait an hour,” I yelled to my boyfriend Marco as my chest sank—I had already ceded complete success. It’s bad form to show your dinner guests the frenzy of preparing a big meal; when they enter the door, the cook should have everything under control in the kitchen and look calm and composed. I was walking around the kitchen barefoot with frizzy hair and no make-up, wearing Marco’s dead aunt’s ancient apron and sweating profusely in the August heat. But I was determined to put on the table the meal that I had traveled two hours to Marco’s tiny hometown of Russi, Italy to prepare. It was my last plea for Marco’s family to forgive me for stealing their son away to America.
Two days before the Sunday lunch, I gleefully sketched out a list of dishes and ingredients for the meal. Having just returned from a month-long, self-guided exploration of Basque France and Bordeaux, I had foie gras confit in my pantry and memories of gambas and steak tartare at the forefront of my mind. What really determined my menu choices, though, was my refusal to make Italian food for Marco’s family after attending one inimitable lunch at Marco’s grandmother’s house. I could never compete with her four courses, honed to perfection by hundreds of years of Emilia-Romagna tradition—the antipasti were diaphanous slices of mortadella, prosciutto and coppa; cappelletti in brodo, puffy lunettes of fresh filled pasta that were the product of hours of painstaking craft, floated in a savory pork broth for our primi; tender and hearty roast rabbit with mashed potatoes followed; cake, coffee, and sorbet felt like a symphonic coda. Much of the same audience would soon be eating my food. I wanted to dazzle them with the exact opposite of rustic, traditional cuisine: an understated meal that, for them, would evoke both the exotic and urbane.
The attraction of the unknown had worked well when I first started dating Marco three years earlier. I was studying abroad in Bologna. He was an engineering student, precise and methodical in his thinking, shy and naïve—the complete opposite of the quick-talking city people that I usually befriended. Some months into the relationship, I learned that he came from a family of farmers. His uncle still owned a peach grove where Marco picked peaches for ten euros a day every summer, and his grandmother was the type of person who could wring a chicken’s neck for dinner without batting an eye and pick out a ripe cantaloupe by rapping on its tough rind.
On our first date my lack of an extensive Italian vocabulary prevented us from talking about most of our interests, except for one—our obsession with trying new food. I learned that Marco would try any dish at least once and, despite his hometown’s lack of foreign restaurants, had discovered and fallen in love with Japanese food. He learned that my childhood—living in Miami among people from all over Latin America and the Caribbean—had given me this compulsive need to sample and cook with as many flavors as I could get my hands on.
For our many meals together in my cramped apartment, I cooked everything but Italian food—lentil lettuce wraps, arroz con pollo, tacos al pastor, panang curry—all dishes that made his eyes widen in surprise upon experiencing a flavor he had never known existed. I got an immense feeling of satisfaction when he called his mother and excitedly told her what new food he had just tried. He had lived for 19 years eating an unadulterated form of his regional cuisine; I relished corrupting his palate with my bastardized, global cooking repertoire. Marco was a convert, but his family, whose members had never been on an airplane or lived outside the humble, rural province of Ravenna, wouldn’t be so easily won over.
I decided on a three-course menu: mâche salad with foie gras, black grapes, and balsamic drizzle; steak tartare with toast points and truffle oil; and a fruit salad. These choices were a product of many hours staring off into space and mentally aligning different factors: the season, how hungry Marco’s family would probably be at 4 p.m., the late afternoon heat, how much truffle oil would cost and the day of the week. When I was growing up, Sunday was when we ate a Lebanese version of steak tartare called kebbeh nayeh; I planned on telling Marco’s family this as I set the plates of tartare on the table.
When Marco’s family arrived at the apartment at 5:00, the tartare was setting in the refrigerator, my balsamic glaze had reduced and I had conscripted Marco for the duty of brushing slices of bread with truffle oil. Marco’s father and brother gathered around the table that I had set up near the balcony, trying to keep their fidgeting inconspicuous. Marco’s mother offered to help out in the kitchen. I burst out with a sharp no, and immediately stopped short, telling myself that subjecting your boyfriend’s mother to your control-freak cooking tendencies is not a step in the right direction. I brought out the courses, spread them family-style around the table, sat down, and tried to loosen up with a big gulp of prosecco.
There is one key element of a successful meal that can’t be planned in advance—lively, continuous conversation. Even though Marco’s family ate everything on the table, the unfamiliar food made them uncomfortable. I gradually understood that, for Marco’s family, casual conversation was not appropriate for a fancy meal. They ate their foie gras and truffled toast points in silence, save for a few comments about how fresh the meat tasted and what a nice touch the balsamic glaze was. I tried to stimulate small talk but my attention was divided between eating my food and spying on everyone’s plates to see how much they were eating.
That the food was too strange and foreign was as much of a white elephant as the fact that the meal was meant as an apology. I was the reason that Marco was leaving his family; no amount of pleasure that could be garnered from my impeccably planned meal could obscure my role in the matter. My first try at mending bridges with food failed. I realized that, for a meal to meld, both the diners and the cook need to put their ideas of what the food should be and mean aside, and simply eat. Had we done that, we would have been a happy group of four Italians and one American interloper, enjoying some delicious summer fare on a sticky August afternoon.
October 3, 2011
When we put out a call for stories about about food and independence for this month’s Inviting Writing series, we weren’t expecting such drama in real life! Last week we read about a dark-of-night battle (with a pig) for control of a farm. Today Sara Davis shares a bloody tale of a hard-won lesson in independence.
Davis is a an English PhD student in Philadelphia writing a dissertation about food scenes in contemporary literature. She blogs at Scenes of Eating: Reading Foods and Consuming Culture.
An Aesop’s Fable of Independence
By Sara Davis
When I relocated to Philadelphia for grad school, I moved thousands of miles away from family, friends, a city I loved and everything I knew. My mother helped me move to my new apartment and unpack all the things from my previous life: furniture I’d had since college, pounds and pounds of books, and going-away gifts from friends. One of these was a nice, shiny set of Cutco knives gifted to me from a friend who worked for that company. I’d been the resident cook in my peer group but didn’t have many nice tools, so it was a thoughtful and appropriate gift. This considerate friend is not to blame for what follows!
The evening after my mother left, I settled down to my new life alone in a strange city. I put on a movie and started to make myself dinner. With the noise of a familiar film in the background, I fell into a comfortable rhythm cutting chicken into small pieces for the skillet. Without thinking, I glanced over my shoulder at the screen—and sliced off the tip of my thumb.
It didn’t hurt right away, so I sat down to think about what I knew about first aid. (Not much.) I didn’t have health insurance, and I didn’t have enough supplies in my brand new apartment to tape myself up, so I wrapped a towel around my hand and walked to Rite-Aid. My first meal alone was delayed due to an unexpected test of survival skills.
After a month or two, the tip of my thumb grew back. I’d cut past the white edge of my thumbnail, but in time my thumb regained its domed shape and the whorl of my thumbprint. My new thumb is composed mostly of scar tissue: It’s tough, less flexible and acts as a built-in defense against any future slips of the blade. In other words: an Aesop-level allegory for independence acquired the hard way!
June 6, 2011
Last week we invited you to send in your stories about food and sickness: things you eat to make you feel better, foods that keep you from feeling under the weather or stuff that actually makes you physically ill. Maybe our writerly readers were feeling too sickly to type since response to this month’s prompt has been, well, flat-lining. (Though admittedly, after a long holiday weekend, it takes a wee bit longer to get the creative juices flowing again.) Just the same, this week we are pleased to have Around the Mall blogger Jamie Simon offer her memories of trying to find foods she could stomach while abroad.
For the rest of you, may ye be of sound health and mind so you can send in your essays by Friday, June 10 to FoodandThink@gmail.com. We look forward to reading them and will post our favorites on subsequent Mondays.
by Jamie Simon
In 2009, I spent ten days in Bangkok, traveling with my father who was attending a Peace Corps Medical Conference. I had never been to Asia and was looking forward to taking in the local culture and trying to blend in as much as my very Western (and very pale) self would allow. I ate exotic vats of simmering meats at the Floating Market, tried my first dandelions at Cabbages & Condoms and mustered the courage to try some of the street food along Sukhumvit Road. Even though I was familiar with American Thai food, the authentic stuff was an entirely new experience. I was never quite sure what I was eating, but there was always a clarity, a hominess and, of course, a brilliant amount of spice to it all.
Unfortunately, my stomach was not as big a fan of the food as my taste buds were. I had had some bouts of heart burn in the past, but nothing like what I felt about five days into my Thai adventure. Everything I ate seemed to cause an intense pain between my shoulder blades. After a brief consultation with 20 or so Peace Corps doctors (if you’ve got to be sick, be sick at a medical conference), I was told I was experiencing esophagitis and that I should take it easy on the spicy foods.
After a day of consuming only water and Thai Pepto, I thought I’d try and eat something in the hotel restaurant. The menu, though filled with Thai dishes, fortunately had a few American staples. After looking at my options (hamburgers with onions and peppers, ribs with BBQ sauce), my best bet appeared to be the spaghetti Bolognese—hold the hot pepper flakes. It went down OK and I was cautiously optimistic about my culinary prospects for the rest of the trip.
Alas, even the most banal of Thai food still upset my stomach and my back. To this day I have no idea what caused my sudden sensitivity (the docs seemed to think it was MSG), but I know that for the rest of my vacation all I could eat was the Thai facsimile of spaghetti Bolognese.
May 16, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked you for stories of lost foods—cereals, soft drinks, cookies or foreign foods that you savored once but can no longer easily find. Today’s memory comes from Susie Petitti Tilton, who works at Williams-Sonoma and has a small business baking decorated sugar cookies. She blogs about a town in Italy called Faeto where her grandparents came from—and recently heard from a man whose great-grandfather was her great-grandfather’s brother. “The Internet does indeed shrink the world!” she writes. Her website is called Sweetie Petitti.
In Search of Lost Cardoons
By Susie Petitti Tilton
I am the daughter and granddaughter of grocers; you could say I come from a lineage of foodies. When I was growing up, we always had the most amazing things to eat, even though we lived in a very small Iowa town. In addition to the products we sampled that came through the grocery stores, we had many relatives in Chicago, and our favorite Italian bakeries there were always on the must-visit list. We also had a garden that only an Iowa farmer could rival. I spent many summers with my dad picking beans, tomatoes, cucumbers and zucchini, among other things.
My grandparents were Italian immigrants, and I had a large extended family of great Italian cooks. One summer, my dad’s Aunt Molly arrived for a visit. We were excited to enjoy her amazing biscotti (which we still call, appropriately enough, Aunt Molly Cookies), home-made ravioli and her chocolate cake. She was a beautiful woman, very tall, and quite skilled in the kitchen. She headed out one day into our woods armed with a knife, and emerged with an arm-load of leafy greens—plants I had looked at my whole life with no idea what they were. They resembled rhubarb, but grew wild in the woods where I played. Aunt Molly called them cardoni; most would call them cardoon. She cut off the large leaves and cleaned the stringy stalks with a paring knife. I remember her dipping the stalks in egg and flour and then frying them in a pan until they were golden brown. We sprinkled salt on them and ate them as fast as she could make them. The flavor is unlike anything I have ever eaten in my life.
My whole life, I have been on a mission to find my childhood treat. I found seeds one spring—they are in the thistle family—and planted them in my garden. It was one of my first summers in the Deep South, and I was unprepared for the violent summer heat, and my cardoons did not survive. Recently, an international market opened here, and I have had a great time tasting all kinds of produce that hadn’t been available before. Imagine my surprise when I was shopping one day and saw cardones. The spelling was Spanish and they were cultivated in Mexico. They didn’t look like the cardoons of my childhood, which were much smaller, but I have since found there are many varieties. Of course I bought a large bunch and headed straight to the computer. Every article and recipe I found suggested soaking or cooking the cardoon in lemon juice to remove any bitterness, and then frying or cooking them in a gratin. I don’t remember the soaking step all those years ago, but Aunt Molly may very well have done this.
After cleaning the stalks with a paring knife, I peeled the largest of the fibers off the stalk, trimmed off any dark spots and cut the stalks into manageable 3-inch lengths. I soaked them in lemon juice for about four hours and then rinsed and dried them. I simply beat a few eggs and dipped the cardoon pieces in the egg, dredged them in flour and fried them in canola oil. Lots of salt is a must. Many people compare the flavor to artichokes, and they are in the same family, but I disagree. The flavor is unique. But sadly, my cardones weren’t exactly Aunt Molly’s Cardonis. They took me back to my childhood but were not as I remember. A trip to my small Iowa town is on the agenda for the summer, and while my kids are picking fresh sweet corn and nibbling mulberries, I will be wandering the woods looking for cardonis, just like Aunt Molly.