November 14, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked for stories about thanksgiving, with or without the capital T. Stories about the holiday, being thankful for a certain food, or edible expressions of gratitude. Our first story comes from Hope Yancey, a freelance writer in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is thankful for a relationship that thrives in spite of food.
The Bacon is Faux, but the Love is Real
By Hope Yancey
The smell of vegetarian bacon aromatizing our kitchen as it steams up the microwave is enough to send my husband running the other way fast. He would probably classify the assault on his nostrils as a pungent odor rather than a mere smell. I heat my strips of veggie bacon for breakfast, sometimes enjoying them accompanied by eggs or arranged on a sandwich roll with a little Miracle Whip and dash of black pepper. Served over toast and sliced tomatoes and topped with prepared cheese sauce, it makes a nice version of Welsh rarebit for an easy lunch or supper.
We have a long and storied history with veggie bacon in our relationship. It was one of the first meals I cooked for my husband after we met about 11 years ago. He kindly pretended to savor it, only confiding much later how truly unpleasant he found my morning meal of choice. I’m sure he wondered what other gustatory delights awaited him in his future. Maybe it’s an acquired taste, but I like the stuff. I harbor no delusions that it tastes like real bacon, though I wouldn’t really be qualified to say because that’s a flavor I haven’t experienced for myself since at least 1990. It doesn’t particularly bother me that veggie bacon’s texture is such that it fails to crisp, hardening instead. No matter: What it lacks in authenticity, it compensates for in other ways.
Veggie bacon served its purpose, as it proved to be the gateway to a string of other meat substitutes my generous husband would go on to bravely endure in the name of love. There’s been veggie sausage (patties and links), veggie hot dogs, veggie burgers and much more. He views some products more favorably than others. Veggie corn dogs, like veggie bacon, are decidedly not a favorite of his, but for different reasons in each case: “The veggie bacon definitely smells the worst. It’s just outright offensive. And the corn dogs taste the worst,” he said recently. Harsh. Fortunately, he does have an affinity for some of the veggie meatballs he’s tried. All is not lost.
Carnivorous lunches with one of his brothers represent a brief but regular weekday reprieve for him. He indulges in foreign meals that are scarce in our household—things like turkey sandwiches, ham and sausage calzones and delicious Teriyaki chicken, all made with actual meat. While he’s toiling away at the office, I’m able to luxuriate in my veggie bacon with abandon. As I pull the familiar, slim package from the freezer, I can be secure in the knowledge that the aroma in the air should have ample time to diminish before his arrival home. It was a revelation for me that there also are homemade versions of veggie bacon out there; that’s a whole new delicacy waiting to be discovered. It could be a game-changer.
In the meantime, I’m thankful for a husband who tolerates my self-imposed dietary restrictions so gracefully and occasionally even joins me in a meat alternative. I feel like a wife ought to do more to demonstrate her gratitude. I should really bake him a cake. Was that a recipe I saw online for frosted maple-bacon cupcakes garnished with pieces of veggie bacon?
November 7, 2011
After a month of reconciliation stories, it’s time to move on to a new Inviting Writing theme. For November, we turn to the subject on many minds: Thanksgiving, with or without the capital T. Whether you have a story about the holiday meal itself, being thankful about something related to food, or edible expressions of gratitude, we want to hear it. Send your true, original essays to FoodandThink@gmail.com, along with a couple of biographical details (name, location, personal blog URL if you have one) before November 11. We’ll read them all and post our favorites over the next few Mondays.
I’ll get things started.
You May Find Yourself in Another Part of the World
By Lisa Bramen
Every so often I have a David Byrne moment. I’m referring to the Talking Heads frontman who, in the song “Once in a Lifetime,” asks, “Well, how did I get here?”
One of those moments was a couple of weeks ago, as I sat around a bonfire at the pig roast and potluck dinner being thrown in the parking lot of the local motel, eating deviled eggs and baked beans and listening to my neighbors discuss the merits of various forms of home heating—a frequent topic of conversation in these northerly parts.
Seven years ago, I was still living in Los Angeles, drinking appletinis or mojitos or whatever was then in vogue, in bars where the talk often centered on the machinations of Hollywood. I hated my job in advertising. I hated my life. So, as I chuckled to myself about the strange twists of fate that brought me to an aging motel’s parking lot on a frigid October evening, my follow-up thought wasn’t, as in the song, “My god, what have I done?” It was, “Thank God.”
The motel is one of only a handful of businesses in my small hamlet in the Adirondack Mountains. The others are a post office, an upholstery shop that doubles as a music and theater venue called the Recovery Lounge, and the library (not technically a business, I know). There used to be an antiques barn and a bakery that was open only on summer weekends, but they, along with about a dozen houses—including the home of the widow of late toy designer/theme park pioneer Arto Monaco—were destroyed when Hurricane Irene veered inland this August and caused the Ausable River, which runs through the center of town, to rise some 12 feet above flood stage. Thankfully, no one died in the flood, save a retired amusement park pony named Pickles, who was swept away in spite of the valiant rescue efforts of my neighbor. But in a community of less than 200 people, it was a major blow.
Still, having lived through larger catastrophes elsewhere—I was in college in San Francisco during the 1989 earthquake and in Southern California during the 1994 Northridge earthquake—I can say with confidence that no one does disaster relief like a small town. Since the flood, nearly every weekend has had some kind of aid event: a firewood donation drive, library clean-up parties, fundraising concerts. The potluck and pig roast was one of them.
I’ve lived in this place for two years now, and I already know far more of my neighbors than I did in any of the cities or suburbs where I lived for up to 10 years. These neighbors come from all different backgrounds, many quite different from my own, though most are good company around a bonfire. Many of them know how to do something useful in an emergency—wield a chain saw, fix a generator, bake a half-dozen pies. Quite a few volunteer on the local fire department or ambulance squad; they helped rescue stranded homeowners from the flood.
I sometimes miss things about city life—not least the availability of good, multi-ethnic food. But all things considered, I’m just fine with deviled eggs and baked beans. Even thankful.
October 31, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked for stories about food and reconciliation. The range of responses was surprising: We heard about a failure of familial reconciliation, a longstanding family disagreement about bologna on the wall, and today Somali Roy reveals her fraught relationship with pumpkin and reminds us of the usefulness of younger siblings. Roy is a freelance writer in Singapore who has previously written about her relationship with her (mother-in-law’s) kitchen and the joys of eating in a Kolkata cafeteria.
Giving Second Chances
By Somali Roy
At a very early age I came upon the profound wisdom that siblings, especially younger ones, are tiny minions sent by God to make growing up easy and entertaining. I engaged mine as a playmate when friends weren’t around and would occasionally bully her. But mostly I used her as a means to escape eating unfavored food by shoving it onto her plate when nobody was looking. And that condemned food, which my sister grew up obliviously consuming in copious amounts, was pumpkin.
Unfortunately, because it was my mother’s favorite, there was no escaping this soppy, milquetoast, gourd-like squash. I liked to characterize vegetables as people with real feelings. “Pumpkin is not assertive. It has no defining taste or character—it’s mild, squishy and uninviting,” I ranted. Being opinionated and judgmental about vegetables certainly didn’t help. Wasting even a mote of pumpkin under my mother’s supervision was sacrilege, so I had to improvise.
There were several variants of pumpkin dishes cooked in our house, mostly influenced by traditional East Indian recipes. Two of them that were remote possibilities for my palate were Kumro Sheddho (boiled and mashed pumpkin seasoned with salt, mustard oil and chopped green chilies) and Kumro Bhaja (thinly sliced pumpkin dredged in batter and deep fried). Both recipes successfully masked the pumpkin taste that I so resented. Anything other than these was offloaded on my sister, who was too hypnotized by the cartoons on TV to notice the pile on her plate.
When college started, I moved to another city and lodged with my grandmother. She, I discovered, nursed an even greater love for the vegetable. My days were peppered with pumpkins of all shapes and sizes. I missed my sister terribly. Once again I was forced to improvise. I offered to help my grandmother with her chores, and the responsibility of grocery shopping was readily relinquished to me. Starting then, the pumpkin supply at the local bazaar suffered, either due to untimely monsoons or truck strikes and roadblocks or just bad crops—whichever excuse suited my whim. I was thankful that my grandmother never compared notes with her neighbors.
Two decades passed in successfully dodging and evading this vegetable in a world that’s enamored with pumpkin so much that it’s used as a term of endearment: I love you, my Pumpkin. How was your day, Pumpkin? Come to dinner, Pumpkin Pie. It may be the 40th most beautiful word in the English language (according to a survey by British Council), but I knew I wouldn’t have coped well with this moniker.
However, December 2008 had different plans for me. We were relocating to another country and it was my last Christmas in Munich. The day before our office was closing down for holidays, a colleague invited me to share her homemade lunch—a steaming bowl of pumpkin soup. My heart sank. Already burdened with the pain of leaving a city I had come to love, I definitely did not need “pumpkin soup for my frayed soul” to lift up the mood.
There wasn’t enough time to Google pumpkin-induced allergies (if any) that I could fake. So I obliged my host and perched myself on the kitchen chair, staring haplessly at the bowl for an entire minute. There was nothing else to do except take that huge leap of faith. The rich, creamy taste, mildly sweet with a hint of cumin and ginger spiked with a dash of lemon was not something I was expecting at all. While going for a second helping, I double-checked that it was genuinely pumpkin, in case I didn’t hear it right. Could it be carrot or yam? She assured me it wasn’t, so I asked for the recipe.
Thus began a phase when I ordered only pumpkin soups for appetizers while eating out. The result was undisputed. Pumpkin finally redeemed itself and bagged a one-way entry ticket to my humble kitchen. When I made my first pumpkin soup using my colleague’s recipe, it was sensational and a comforting reminder that giving second chances are worthwhile. As for my sibling, she grew up to love pumpkin—whether on her own accord or as a result of intervention remains ambiguous.
October 24, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked for stories about food and reconciliation—reconciliation with a food or a loved one, or even a food-related failure of reconciliation. Today’s story comes from Kelly Robinson, a freelance writer for Mental Floss, Curve and other magazines, and the author of an earlier Inviting Writing essay about addiction to Tab. She blogs about books and writing at Book Dirt, and can tell you without equivocation that she didn’t do it.
The Case of the Criminal Lunch Meat
By Kelly Robinson
I read nostalgic food memoirs with a skeptical eye, especially the ones that are sweet as cotton candy unicorns. They’re true, I suppose, but the Norman Rockwell-esque scenes just don’t jibe with some of the most memorable moments at table with my family.
Sure, we had our share of dinnertime jollies—my toddler sister eating mountains of chicken livers because she was told they were chocolate cake, for example—but they’re so easily eclipsed by images of things like my Aunt Nancy in a white nightgown, covered from top to bottom with blood-red beet juice. I’ve never seen Carrie in its entirety. I don’t need to.
There’s also my other sister, who spilled her drink at something like 3,057 consecutive dinners, giving our mother fits that left no tooth ungnashed. Our mother seethed just as much when we had guests one night and the lid to the butter dish was removed to reveal the Twisted Sister logo my metalhead brother had carved there.
And then there was the incident of the gritloaf, which I’ve promised my mother never to speak of again.
The real family drama, though, the one that surpasses even metal bands in the butter or horror movie nightgowns, involves a single slice of bologna. It was 1979. My sister, brother and I were anticipating our mother’s arrival home, and for once, we scrambled to make sure things were in order: no plastic bags tied to the cat, no stray Weebles on the floor. We were neatly lined up on the couch, wondering what stunt Yogi Kudu would pull next on “That’s Incredible!”
Mom walked in, surveyed the room slowly, then stopped suddenly and screeched: Who put the bologna on the wall?!
And there was, indeed, a single slice of bologna, red plastic ring outlining its shiny meat circle, adhered to the wall, slightly above and to the right of the television set. The denials came in rapid fire, and once the interrogation was well underway it was clear that none of us seemed to have done it. None of us admitted it, anyway.
I don’t recall the actual punishment. I may have blocked some it out of my mind, but I know it was severe. I’m sure we were grounded for life plus twenty years and cut off of Little Debbie snack cakes. We probably didn’t get to watch “That’s Incredible!” that night, either.
The bologna game of whodunit still rages today, and it rages hard. We’re now entering our fourth decade of pointing fingers and making accusations. You’d think someone would be mature enough to cop to it, but no one has ever cracked, and whoever it was, the other two of us didn’t witness the deed.
The feud still rages, yes, but the more time passes, the more the feud bonds us rather than divides us. We’re parents of children who have moved out of state or joined the Army. We work in very different fields. We sometimes go months without seeing or talking to each other. But, come holiday time, when we’re all in one room for what might be the only time until next year, there is no conversation so awkward or silence so deep that it can’t be completely turned around with the question, “So who really put the bologna on the wall?”
I fume. I didn’t even like the smell of bologna, I insist. My sister points the finger at my brother, who is my prime suspect this year. He thinks it was me, and that my dislike of lunch meat smell is a lifelong cover story.
It might seem odd by some family’s standards, but it’s how we communicate, and there’s comfort in knowing that’s how we always will.
I’ve always wondered if a deathbed confession might be what it would take to ultimately solve the mystery, but it hardly matters. In fact, it’s far more likely that one of us would slowly wheeze and cough out last words from the hospital bed and say, “I-i-i-i-i-t wasn’t m-e-e-e-e-e-e-e.”
The only proper response from the rest of us would be, “We love you too.”
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.