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.
March 14, 2011
This month’s Inviting Writing series focused on food and dating. We got some great contributions: sweet stories, quirky stories, sad (but triumphant!) stories. Today’s entry, sweet but very tangy, comes from Christie Zgourides, who teaches college English, grows her own vegetables, cooks from a range of cuisines and travels to try even more new flavors.
After the jump, see her recipe for Greek soup, interpreted for the novice. “I pulled the battered, hand-written recipe card from my file,” she wrote when we asked for the recipe, “and realized I will have something of a task getting this into a form that someone can actually work from.” She did, though, and it looks like a worthy challenge.
Secret Soup Strategy
By Christie Zgourides
I had been dating a guy, George, for a while and his birthday was coming up. He was living many states away from his parents, and had been lamenting that he hadn’t had his mom’s Greek soup in some time. This was the early 1990s, before the Internet or Facebook, so all I had was directory assistance. As his last name was Zgourides, I thought, how many could there be in a small Texas town? I got his mom on the first call! She secretly sent me the recipes, and I made Avgolemono (Greek) Soup with the eggy foam, chicken served on the side, and a Greek salad. I had never seen Greek soup much less made his family’s rather tricky recipe. When he came over on his birthday, he stepped through the door, and without even saying hello, said, “I smell Greek soup!” He went into the kitchen and said quizzically, “this tastes just like my mom’s!” Then I handed him the envelope with his mom’s handwriting. He was shocked and delighted I had gone to the trouble to contact his mom and surprise him with his favorite soup!
The funny part was the recipe called for three lemons. I had no idea what size, and bought three “Texas-sized” lemons at the store because, well, his family is all from Texas. The soup was so lemony George was the only one who could eat it, and he was delighted because he said he didn’t have to add lemon—for the first time ever! He pronounced it better than his mother’s.
I topped it all off with a lemon and white checker-board cake. The man loves his lemons.
He has since said he should have had the sense that day to get married, and we finally did a few years (ahem) later. We have been married 13 years, and I have made Greek soup many times since—with far less lemon. So everyone else can eat it. :-) He adds lemon, but still says it is better than his mother’s.
When most restaurants serve Greek or Avgolemono Soup, it is without the egg foam on top. There is no way to accomplish that feat in a restaurant setting, however upscale. It simply has to be done at home. The wrong pan or a mistake in temperature ruins it. This is not a recipe for the beginner or faint of heart.
Here is the recipe for Avgolemono (Greek) Soup. Be forewarned: there are
as many “true Greek” recipes for this as there are Yiayias in Greece, and
everyone thinks their family’s version is correct.
March 9, 2011
Yesterday was Mardi Gras—that last hurrah before Lent. Traditionally Catholics are called to three practices during Lent: alms giving, prayer and fasting. The first two are generally satisfying to most people. The third not so much.
The tradition of the Lenten fast as we know it likely didn’t develop until the 4th century; there was a divergence of opinion on the nature and duration of the pre-Easter fast (as well as the very date of Easter itself) among authorities in the early Church. One locality might require fasting for all 40 days, another might call for a fast throughout the season of Lent but not on every day. Some required fasting only during Holy Week (the week before Easter), another only during Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. The number 40 could refer to either the 40 days Moses led the Hebrews in the desert, the 40 days Christ fasted in the desert, or even the tradition that Jesus spent 40 hours in the tomb.
As for the fast itself, some in the early Church abstained from all meat, others were allowed to eat fish, others wouldn’t eat eggs or certain nuts, some ate just bread the whole time.
But back to us. One of the first pitfalls you encounter when fasting is falling into a morass of legalism. To satisfy the minimum requirements of the Church, Catholics fast on Ash Wednesday (that is, today) and Good Friday, and do not eat meat on Fridays during Lent. Sundays, being the day of the Resurrection, are always feast days, no matter what part of the liturgical year. Go crazy.
The Lenten fast consists of one full meal during the day, preferably at noon (no fair breaking it into two small meals with a long break), with the allowance of a collation (small meal) in the evening. The idea of the collation began sometime in the 9th century as a way to give sustenance to those who performed physical labor during the day. Unless filling the office printer twice in one day is manual labor, I’m not sure how most of us get away with that one. Oh, you’re also allowed to have coffee or another drink in the morning and perhaps a little bit of bread or a cracker to get you going. This is beginning to sound a little less like a fast, isn’t it? It reminds me of the scene from Seinfeld where a fasting Elaine asks Jerry if he has ever had to fast. “No, but once I didn’t have dinner until, like, nine o’clock. That was pretty tough.”
For those inclined to know exactly just what is and is not permitted, right down to the crumb, the Church has made it fairly easy. But there really isn’t a one-size-fits all when it comes to Lenten fasting. After all, vegetarians who subsist on a couple of salads a day could get by well within the letter of the law without breaking stride. And if you’re a one-meal-a-day person anyway, Lent can seem like a breeze—maybe even an indulgence.
Basically, good fasting consists of walking a line between health-endangering practices on one side and mere form on the other. Perhaps the best rule is this: If you feel as if you are cheating, you probably are.
Another pitfall of fasting is to avoid the mortal sin of gluttony. At first you might think this would be easy. It doesn’t sound logical to be concerned with too much if you’re eating much less, but this is because of a misconception of what gluttony is. The Church defines it not as eating too much, but as having an inordinate preoccupation with food, and nothing causes us to think of food more than trying to avoid it. Suddenly every commercial is food-related, every meeting in the office has a box of donuts brought in by the devil. Our hearing becomes incredibly acute—we never noticed before just how many times the office microwave beeps during the average work day.
A third pitfall, and perhaps the most insidious, is the insistence of certain green-uniformed groups on selling cookies outside of Mass. Here we are torn between our command to charity, and our command to fasting. Fortunately the confessional is not far away.
As Lent approaches, I’ve become “Super Catholic.” Those of us who are “reverts” (lapsed Catholics who have come back to the fold with the zeal of a convert) typically make things difficult for ourselves, probably to make up for our misspent youth. Also our misspent pocket change—I’m the type who can hit the candy machine at work three or four times a day. This year I’m taking a page from the early Church. Fasting all 40 days, no meat on Fridays. I imagine I’ll be finishing up about the time that the first steaks of summer are hitting the grills in the back yards all around my neighborhood. That’s probably like running by a mattress store on the last mile of a marathon.
—By Erik Washam, Smithsonian magazine’s associate art director
March 7, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked people to share their stories about food and dating. Of course, as in Lisa’s starter story, dates don’t always end well, and sometimes, in some way, the food is to blame.
Today’s story comes from Evelyn Kim, who lives in Berlin and writes about food and sustainability issues at the cleverly titled blog Edo Ergo Sum (I eat, therefore I am).
The Matzo Ball Blues
By Evelyn Kim
There is that moment when you are dating someone and you realize that as much as you think the family accepts you…they don’t. I dated this man through college, after college, and for a time I was even engaged to him. But after we split up, I knew that no matter how many brises, weddings, or bar or bat mitzvahs I went to, I was never really part of the family. How did I know? It was the matzo ball.
I made really lousy matzo ball soup. The soup part was fairly easy, but those matzo balls! I could never get them to turn out right. They had the consistency of school paste and the density of doorstops. They were basically rubber balls in kosher clothing.
It was not for lack of trying. I received all sorts of advice. Trust me, I asked around. Moms, aunts, cousins, rabbanim, the Korean deli on 76th and 3rd—they all had their own methods: club soda, finely ground matzo meal, lard (Kosher food rules were clearly not part of the licensing exam for Korean deli owners in New York), whipped schmaltz, The Jewish Book of Why. None of them worked. I suspected that until I married the guy and converted to Judaism, Moses (or my boyfriend’s grandma) wouldn’t divulge the secret to light and fluffy matzo balls.
For years, I thought dumpling dilemma was due to my lack of culinary skills. Maybe I had the wrong matzo meal. Maybe the eggs were too old. Maybe God was punishing me for eating bacon for breakfast. Clearly, I thought, there was something wrong with me. Maybe the matzo ball and I were like Romeo and Juliet–star-crossed lovers that were only to end in tragedy.
After five years of dating, the guy and I split up. There were the usual reasons: arguments ending with “why aren’t you in therapy,” or “I really don’t care about your career.” But then there was his family: “Oh, I forgot. You’re not Jewish,” “This brisket is good, but not as good as fill-in-the blank,” and my favorite, “But you’re Korean.” Needless to say, I never did get the matzo ball recipe.
And I really didn’t think about the matzo ball—until about three months after we split up, when I sat alone at a deli and blubbered into my hot, steaming bowl of matzo ball soup. I really did miss him. I missed the relationship. I missed his neurotic over-analyzed family. I even missed the smelly shedding cat. And I still couldn’t make those stupid matzo balls.
I knew it was time. Time for the matzo ball showdown. With my self-esteem in the gutter, I trudged through the Safeway aisles. I was determined to make the ur-matzo ball, and nothing was going to stop me.
By 2 a.m., I was a hot, sticky mess. I had egg whites floating all over the place. I had almost exhausted my three-box supply of Manischewitz matzo meal. Little bits of chicken fat were clinging in my hair making me the first Asian with dreadlocks. And in my frustration, all I could think about was those stupid quenelles I mistakenly ordered when I first met his parents in college. Why did I order those pretentious, French fluff-balls?
I started crying all over again. What was wrong with me? Maybe I didn’t deserve to know the secret of the matzo ball. Maybe I didn’t deserve to be part of his family. They probably never liked me. That matzo ball was like Proust’s madeleine—but from hell—a constant reminder of a failed past. In my self-pity, I didn’t realize the answer was right in front of me. That stupid quenelle. If I made matzo balls like quenelles, they would be the perfect consistency. I picked up my pathetic puffy-faced self, and went back for more supplies. At 4:30 a.m., I had my soup. I did it myself. I had conquered the matzo ball. I was going to be O.K.
Schmaltz (rendered chicken fat) is the way to go here. You can also use duck or goose fat (it’s delicious). I suppose you could use butter, but the taste and texture might be off. And please, don’t use margarine. I tried cooking the dumplings both in chicken stock and in water. Chicken stock is tasty, but it will color your dumplings yellow. Either way, your tummy will thank you.
4 large eggs, separated
1/4 c. schmaltz (rendered chicken fat), room temperature
2 tbs. Italian (flat-leaf) parsley, minced
1/2 tsp. salt (kosher or sea salt)
freshly ground pepper
2/3 c. unsalted matzo meal
1. In a medium bowl, thoroughly blend egg yolks, schmaltz, parsley and salt. In another medium bowl, with clean beaters, beat egg whites until it holds stiff peaks. Gently fold egg whites into the egg yolk mixture, alternating with matzo meal, in 3 additions, respectively. Cover and chill until firm, about 2 hours (overnight is fine).
2. Bring a large pot of salted water or stock to a boil. Using moistened hands (the mixture WILL stick), form mixture into balls, about 1 1/4 inch in diameter. When all the balls have been formed, drop matzo balls into boiling water. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until cooked through, about 30 minutes, turning balls over once.
3. Drain and serve immediately with chicken soup of your choice.
February 28, 2011
For our latest Inviting Writing, we asked you to send in stories of food and dating: funny stories, sad stories, romantic stories, goofy stories—as long as they were true and involved food. This week’s entry is about being stood up for someone else’s date.
The story comes from Judy Martin, who works for a medical device manufacturer and lives in Cupertino, California. She writes a blog called Tastemonials.
Winner Winner Chicken Dinner
by Judy Martin
My husband and I were cruising down Highway 101 to Santa Barbara to visit my son during his sophomore year in college. About halfway there, the cell phone rang. It was my son. “Mom, I won’t be here when you arrive. I need to go on this beach camping trip.”
What! We’re driving seven hours for a visit and he won’t be there? “There’s this girl…” he continued. “There’s a group of us going and she’ll be there. I really want the chance to get to know her better. It’s only one night and I promise I’ll be back for lunch tomorrow.”
Sigh. We agreed to meet for lunch on Saturday. And true to his word, Matt arrived in time for lunch with a report on the previous night’s adventures. He related how they let most of the air out of the tires of our Honda Accord and drove on the beach trying to find the campers, and how the car almost washed into the sea as the tide came in. They had the car towed out of the sand several times and still never found the group with the camping gear. Would you tell this story to your parents?
But they did find the girls. Since they had no camping gear, they went to a friend’s apartment for the night. Fortunately, my son was in possession of the food for the trip. So around midnight, he cooked dinner for everyone and had the opportunity to talk to “the girl.” He was elated.
After lunch, Matt headed out for errands and hopefully some studying (?), and we went to the beach for the afternoon. Shortly after we parted ways, the cell phone rang. It was Matt again. There was hesitation on the line. “The girl,” he reported, was apparently impressed by his cooking the previous night and had invited him to make her dinner tonight. She requested the same dinner again—his secret grilled chicken recipe (marinated in Kraft Italian dressing, he later admits), grilled onions, garlic bread and beer. Remember, this is college.
Now, my son is a master at pleasing the parents. So I knew this was a real dilemma for him to consider ditching us again. This must be important for him to risk our displeasure after we’ve made the long drive to visit. He wouldn’t do this without careful consideration. With a disappointed sigh and a slightly threatening tone I told him, “go make this girl dinner. And she’d better be a winner.”
And was she? You bet she was! Was his dinner? I have no idea—I hadn’t eaten his cooking since his eighth grade Home Arts class. But she saw something in him or his cooking—enough to pique her interest and prompt her to invite him to cook dinner for her that night, their first real date.
Eight years later that special girl, who matured into an amazing woman, married my son. Now twelve years after that first grilled chicken dinner date, she is the mother of my adorable grandson. I have never regretted that I said “go” and he chose her over me for that dinner date. In the end, we were all winners.