December 15, 2011
Shopping this time of year is nothing short of stressful, especially if you (like me) are still trying to figure out the tokens of affection and appreciation you are going to give to those you hold dear. Throw in a mob of similarly indecisive and uninspired shoppers, and the ability to enjoy this time of year can go down the tubes. For those considering food-themed gifts this year, here’s hoping the following gift ideas will ease your last-minute shopping woes.
Food: Let’s start with the obvious. Food can make a great gift for people who are impossible to shop for, are downsizing or trying to de-clutter their home, or really don’t want anything material for the holidays. Consider their everyday eating habits and give them foods that you know they’ll love and maybe throw in a few things that might expand their horizons a bit, but aren’t so off the beaten path that they’ll go to waste. (For example, if they enjoy a cup of hot tea, offer something standard like Earl Grey or English Breakfast and pair it with a blend from your local tea shop that you probably won’t find on your standard supermarket shelf. Throw in some teatime nibbles, maybe some tea-themed trivia cards and you have yourself a themed gift basket.) If you’re going out of town to visit friends and family, give foods from your hometown or state, like peanuts and ham if you’re from Virginia. It takes a little bit of careful thought and planning, but a DIY food basket can make for a very considerate present.
Jewelry: Have your food and wear it too! But if you are in the D.C. area and can make a trip out to the American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery gift shop, they offer a selection of pins created by artist Debbie Tuch, who encases foods—from slices of citrus to candy corn and peanuts—in glittery resin, turning them into wearable, fabulously fun pieces of food art.
Toys: A while back I did a post on food-themed toys for the young and the young at heart, and of the items on that list, the lightsaber chopsticks would be a fun stocking stuffer for older children and teens. I can also personally attest that the newly redesigned Easy Bake Oven, which forsakes the soon-to-be-retired 100 watt lightbulbs in favor of a built-in heating element, hit store shelves for the holiday season. For kids who see the kitchen as a science lab, ThinkGeek offers a home carbonation kit that lets you add some fizz to your favorite drinks by way of the chemical reaction between baking soda and vinegar. (Don’t worry, those ingredients don’t make it into whatever you’re sloshing down.) For the baby who has everything, they also offer an illuminated bib with the picture of an airstrip and an accompanying jet-shaped spoon, perfect for an epic game of “here comes the airplane.” And again, be mindful of shipping deadlines if you need to have your internet-ordered goods by a certain date.
And then there are gifts for the bookshelf.
Feed Our Small Word: For little chefs, this Disney book introduces children to international cuisine by way of simplified recipes and fun facts. I also appreciate the few recipes where the authors point out that cooking is a creative medium and that it’s OK to do something different from what’s pictured—like trying different fillings for quiche, finding your own mix of veggies to use in quesadillas or making substitutions to suit your palate, like using kielbasa to make a mild version of paella.
Culinary Reactions: Learning about chemistry shouldn’t be relegated to the classroom, and Simon Quellen Field’s book explains why food does what it does. The writing style is very personable and he does a great job of illustrating concepts with recipes, such as a tutorial on homemade cheese after a lesson on suspensions and emulsions.
Essential Pépin: Chef Jacques Pépin has been in the business for six decades and here he collects some 700 recipes, revised and updated for the modern cook. Each recipe is preceded by a short introduction from Pépin that offers advice for preparation as well as personal anecdotes. It reads like a warm invitation from a master chef to come into his kitchen and savor a meal, and with recipes that range in difficulty, there ought to be something in here for everybody. And for those who need a little extra help, an DVD explaining all the techniques used in the book is also included.
The Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook: This is an old standby that I think is perfect for someone who is hesitant about cooking or is just starting out. I probably use this one the most for my day-to-day cooking. It gives you nutritional information and cooking times for recipes, which makes it easier to figure out if something is going to ruin your diet or if you can manage to fit it in your busy schedule. (College students and young professionals, I’m looking at you.) Furthermore, I like this one because the recipes, while good on their own, are also basic enough that anyone who is culinarily curious will feel free to tinker around with recipes to personalize them.
Menu Design in America: If your interests include both food and the visual arts, there is no passing on this extensive volume published by Taschen. A stunning compilation of menu art from the 1800s through the late 20th century that documents changes in dining culture and graphic design, it’s the perfect accompaniment to your coffee table.
December 8, 2011
On a recent visit home, I pondered what I have always thought to be the most perfect gingerbread man ever. The cakey confection with a delicate balance of seasonings, an almond nose and raisin buttons and eyes comes from Ukrop’s bakery, and Mom and I have searched high and low to find a comparable recipe and figure out how they are made . Thus far, success has been elusive. The gingerbread man always stares back with his silently taunting grin. My thoughts then turned to the other gingerbread man who runs and runs and fast as he can, sassily tormenting those who want to eat him along the way. It turns out the tale of the gingerbread man is part of a genre of folklore about goodies gone wild.
Believe it or not, there is a classification system for the stories that we usually hear at bedtime, all neatly grouped and numbered based on their shared motifs. Folklore can be organized into animal tales, fairy tales, religious tales and so on. Of special interest—at least for this post—are the stories in group AT 2025, or more colloquially, ”The Fleeing Pancake” stories. No matter what part of the world you’re in, the basic ingredients of the story remain the same: a baked good pops out of the oven, runs or rolls away and escapes a series of pursuers before being eaten. What changes—and what makes this story fun to look at across different cultures—is how the details are changed. In European versions of the story, it’s a pancake—or sometimes a cornmeal johnny-cake or a bunnock, a small cake of oatmeal and treacle—that lifts itself out of a frying pan and goes on a spree. In some German tellings it willingly offers itself to two hungry children. In Norway, the pancake is ultimately consumed by a pig, and in other places it’s a fox. Every time the pancake encounters a hungry character, he mockingly lists all of the others who unsuccessfully tried to scarf him down; in Russian versions the pancake’s boasting is in verses meant to be sung by the storyteller.
The American variation of the story, “The Gingerbread Boy,” was first printed in the May 1875 issue of St. Nicholas magazine, the landmark children’s literary journal. Before that, the story seems to have belonged exclusively to oral storytelling traditions. “‘The Gingerbread Boy’ is not strictly original,” the unnamed author explained. “A servant girl from Maine told it to my children. It interested them so much that I thought it worth preserving. I asked where she found it and she said an old lady told it to her in her childhood.” (Though I have to admit, as fun as it was seeing how the story originally appeared, I missed the “Run, run as fast as you can/ You can’t catch me I’m the gingerbread man” chant I remember from how the story was told in my childhood.)
It’s also a story that has been re-imagined by others. Author L. Frank Baum, best remembered for writing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, used the folktale as inspiration for his children’s fantasy novel John Dough and the Cherub. In this story a baker uses a magical life-giving elixir in his batter for a life-sized gingerbread man who sets out to explore the world—and is pursued by a villainous character intent on eating him so that he might enjoy the benefits of the magic potion by proxy and live forever. The Stinky Cheese Man has a little humanoid mass of smelly cheese running around town with no one wanting to follow him on account of his odor. In The Runaway Latkes, the potato pancakes traditionally served during Hannukah decide to make a bit of trouble.
For those interested in reading other takes on the gingerbread man, the University of Pittsburgh has an online collection of tales from all over the world. Tell us about your favorite spin on the story in the comments section. And if you are traveling through Richmond, Virginia during the holiday season, find a Ukrop’s bakery for one of their gingerbread men. I’ve yet to have one escape my grasp.
November 23, 2011
When I first set out looking for references to the Thanksgiving celebration in literature, I had a hard time finding them. A few people suggested Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie. Although the series is set in the latter half of the 19th century, after Abraham Lincoln encouraged the celebration of Thanksgiving as a national holiday, there’s no apparent mention of its observance by the Ingalls family (I searched in Google Books and on Amazon).
That other 19th-century classic about a struggling rural family, Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, also contains no mention of Thanksgiving, but in 1882 the author released An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving. First published as part of a series of short stories narrated by Jo (the aspiring writer sister from Little Women), the children’s tale is like an early version of the movie Home Alone—with slightly less mayhem.
When their parents are called away to Grandma’s deathbed the day before Thanksgiving, the Bassett children decide to prepare the meal on their own. Prue pulls the wrong “yarbs”—herbs in the country dialect Alcott uses for her rural New Hampshire characters—and puts catnip and wormwood in the stuffing instead of marjoram and summer savory. The kids nearly shoot a neighbor friend who comes to the house dressed as a fearsome bear (a misguided prank). In all the commotion, the turkey is burned and the plum pudding comes out hard as a rock. But all’s well that ends well, and Ma and Pa return in time for dinner, along with some other relatives, explaining that Grandma wasn’t dying after all—it had just been a big mix-up.
Before all the hullabaloo, Ma has this to say about the effort that goes into the annual feast:
“I do like to begin seasonable and have things to my mind. Thanksgivin’ dinners can’t be drove, and it does take a sight of victuals to fill all these hungry stomicks,” said the good woman as she gave a vigorous stir to the great kettle of cider apple-sauce, and cast a glance of housewifely pride at the fine array of pies set forth on the buttery shelves.
An even earlier book about rural New England life was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1869 Oldtown Folks. Stowe describes celebrations from her childhood, including “the king and high priest of all festivals,” Thanksgiving. She explains that preparations took a whole week, because at those times even the conveniences of her adulthood, such as pre-ground spices, were not yet available. In one passage she muses about something that remains a staple of the Thanksgiving table, pie:
The pie is an English institution, which, planted on American soil, forthwith ran rampant and burst forth into an untold variety of genera and species. Not merely the old traditional mince pie, but a thousand strictly American seedlings from that main stock, evinced the power of American housewives to adapt old institutions to new uses. Pumpkin pies, cranberry pies, huckleberry pies, cherry pies, green-currant pies, peach, pear, and plum pies, custard pies, apple pies, Marlborough-pudding pies,—pies with top crusts, and pies without,—pies adorned with all sorts of fanciful flutings and architectural strips laid across and around, and otherwise varied, attested to the bounty of the feminine mind, when once let loose in a given direction.
Another giant of American literature, Mark Twain, included a quote about Thanksgiving in Pudd’nhead Wilson, his 1894 novel. Each chapter begins with an aphorism from Pudd’nhead’s calendar, including this witticism:
Thanksgiving Day. Let all give humble, hearty, and sincere thanks, now, but the turkeys. In the island of Fiji they do not use turkeys; they use plumbers. It does not become you and me to sneer at Fiji.
A century later, Philip Roth found meaning in the Thanksgiving bird as the great equalizer of American society in his Pulitzer Prize–winning American Pastoral:
And it was never but once a year that they were brought together anyway, and that was on the neutral, dereligionized ground of Thanksgiving, when everybody gets to eat the same thing, nobody sneaking off to eat funny stuff—no kugel, no gefilte fish, no bitter herbs, just one colossal turkey for two hundred and fifty million people—one colossal turkey feeds all. A moratorium on funny foods and funny ways and religious exclusivity, a moratorium on the three-thousand-year-old nostalgia of the Jews, a moratorium on Christ and the crucifixion for the Christians, when everyone in New Jersey and elsewhere can be more irrational about their irrationalities than they are the rest of the year. A moratorium on all the grievances and resentments, and not only for the Dwyers and the Levovs but for everyone in America who is suspicious of everyone else. It is the American pastoral par excellence and it lasts twenty-four hours.
Finally, a number of contemporary novels use Thanksgiving as the backdrop for family dysfunction—perhaps none so disastrous as in Rick Moody’s 1994 The Ice Storm, about two suburban families during the 1970s. For example:
Thanksgiving dinner at the O’Malleys, as Benjamin had often pointed out, was like waiting for the end of a ceasefire. Billy and her father would assume a guarded silence until the first drinks had been consumed. Then Billy would launch into his list of dissatisfactions beginning with, say, her father’s preposterous support for the House Un-American Activities Committee. Open disgust was not far away.
Here’s wishing all of you a safe, happy and relatively dysfunction-free Thanksgiving!
November 10, 2011
Mealtimes are fairly well represented in fine art. Wayne Thiebaud had an affinity for deserts. Manet gave us images of Breakfast in the Studio and Luncheon in the Grass. And I think Da Vinci may have a dining scene in his oeuvre as well. And then there’s Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s instantly recognizable scene of a convivial bunch of diners enjoying a summertime meal alfresco. Completed in 1881, Luncheon of the Boating Party is one of the most famous midday meals committed to canvas, but it’s curious to note that in spite of the title, there’s precious little food to be seen. Taking a cue from Clara Peller, I have to ask: where’s the lunch?
“It’s like a painting about the most perfect meal that ever was—but you can’t tell what most of it was,” says Phillips Collection Chief Curator Eliza Rathbone. By the time we see the table, all that’s left are a few not-quite-empty bottles of wine and a compotier of fruit such as grapes and pears, perhaps a peach or two. “It’s the end of the meal. And I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s such a beguiling picture. It’s of that time that comes when everyone has had a delicious meal, they’ve all gathered, they’ve focused on the food and now they’re just focusing on each other and this beautiful day and they don’t want it to be over. And we’ve all had those kinds of experiences where you want to linger and those are the best meals we ever have.”
The scene takes place at the Maison Fournaise, an open-air café on the Ile de Chatou where people of all social classes mixed and mingled as they enjoyed their leisure time away from the bustle of the city. In its heyday the Maison was a popular hangout for artists. It remains open for business, although the scenic views have changed a bit since Renoir’s time.
But it seems Renoir wasn’t much of a foodie. In a memoir, son Jean Renoir, who made a name for himself as a film director, remembers his father preferring simple fare, even when finer things—like veal and soufflés and custards—were laid on the table. In terms of food as a subject for his paintings, actual foodstuffs crop up most often in his still lifes, and even then, his attentions turned to raw ingredients instead of finished dishes. “He could paint a beautiful onion,” Rathbone says. “They’re the ingredients in their most natural form, which is their most beautiful moment. Let’s face it, a chopped onion isn’t nearly as beautiful as an onion whole. I think Monet and Caillebotte did more prepared food in their still lifes than Renoir did. We have a wonderful still life in the collection that’s a ham and it’s a marvelous subject in Gauguin’s hands. He makes the most beautiful ham you ever saw.”
Instead, Renoir seems to prefer to focus on the social aspect of the dining experience. “He was a people person, and people love food. So I think the subject came to him naturally.”
Next time you are in the D.C. area, you can enjoy Luncheon of the Boating Party first-hand at the Phillips Collection, which is a short walk from the Dupont Circle metro.
October 28, 2011
Scary movies can be chilling works of cinematic art (see Hitchcock) or cheesy, clichéd teen exploitation flicks (the Friday the 13th series and many, many more). Either way, most share a few similar techniques, using music, lighting, and camera angles to build tension. And directors know that the quickest way to the audience’s gag reflex is through its stomach.
Here are a few of the most notable food scenes in the history of the genre:
1. Nosferatu (1922) So begins one of the most enduring horror movie themes: humans (or, in this case, human blood) as food. This vampire movie, a silent film, is more likely to make you chuckle at its awkward editing and melodramatic acting than cringe in terror, but this Dracula is truly hideous-looking, with sunken eyes and pointy, oversized ears. This is what vampires are supposed to look like, not the teen idols of the Twilight series or HBO’s True Blood.
2. Psycho (1960) Alfred Hitchcock used food, like every other detail, to advance the plot or reveal character. There are so many great Hitchcock food scenes that two French women even wrote a cookbook based on them (available only in French, it appears). One typical scene is in Psycho, when Janet Leigh’s character, Marion, pecks uneasily at her toast—perhaps sensing the meal will be her last—as she converses with the creepy young motel keeper Norman Bates in his room full of stuffed birds.
3. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) If you’re ever tempted to complain about your sibling, just watch this classic psychological thriller by Robert Aldrich. Bette Davis is deliciously wicked—and wickedly loony—as Jane, the has-been actress who torments her wheelchair-bound sister Blanche, played by Joan Crawford. One of the most unforgettable scenes is when Jane brings Blanche lunch on a covered tray, casually mentioning that she’s discovered rats in the basement. Blanche—and the audience—knows exactly what she’ll find under the tray, but she can’t help seeing for herself.
4. Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People (1963) What’s better than a B-movie about castaways on a desert island who turn into giant killer fungi? A B-movie about castaways on a desert island who turn into giant killer fungi that’s dubbed from Japanese. Be sure to watch the hilarious trailer to the end for a view of the fearsome mushroom people.
5. Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978) Technically, this is a comedy spoof of cheesy disaster flicks, but it still gives me flashbacks of a traumatic experience I had with a cherry tomato that exploded on me in preschool. The horror. The horror.
6. Alien (1979) The crew members of a space ship are eating together. As soon as John Hurt’s character says that the first thing he’s going to do when he gets back to Earth is get some decent food, you know that he’s a goner. Moments later, he starts gagging and writhing in pain. At first his crew mates think it’s bad indigestion—that is, until an alien baby bursts from his stomach. I sometimes feel like this when I eat too much. (Watching the video requires sign-in and age verification)
7. Poltergeist (1982) I was 11 when this movie came out, and it left me with two lasting effects. One was a fear of clowns. The other, I suspect, was the seed of what turned me into a vegetarian a few years later. The latter was due to the following scene, in which a young parapsychologist goes to the kitchen for a late-night snack while investigating the strange occurrences in a suburban house. He munches on a chicken drumstick and pulls a raw steak out of the fridge, which proceeds to crawl across the counter and then vomit its insides. The investigator drops the drumstick, which he then realizes is crawling with maggots. Warning: Watch this clip only if you have an iron stomach. I had to stop it because it made me gag.
8. The Stuff (1985) Another entry in the more-ridiculous-than-scary genre, this cult classic about a mysterious gooey dessert that turns people into zombies includes cameos by Paul Sorvino and Danny Aiello, and stars Saturday Night Live alumnus Garrett Morris as “Chocolate Chip.” Tagline: Are you eating it…or is it eating you?
9. The Silence of the Lambs (1991) I could do a whole list of just cannibalism scenes in horror movies, but I’ll let Hannibal Lecter’s chilling description of eating a census taker’s liver represent them all. It’s not a graphic depiction (unlike the sequel, Hannibal, in which Lecter feeds Ray Liotta pieces of his own brain), but it probably introduced more Americans to fava beans than any cooking show.
10. Se7en (1995) Trying to cure your cravings for carbs? Just watch this scene from the movie about a serial killer who tortures and kills people according to the seven deadly sins they represent. The gluttony target is force-fed spaghetti until his stomach explodes. The ultimate victim will be your appetite. In fact, I’ll spare you the clip. If you want to see it that bad, you can look it up yourself.
What’s your favorite horror movie food scene?