October 11, 2011
Just because this is a food blog doesn’t mean we can’t talk about other things, like relationship issues. A while back on Inviting Writing we asked readers to tell us about foods that marked their break-ups, and another invitational garnered heartfelt essays about people’s relationships to their kitchens. This time, let’s consider food as a vehicle to get two entities back together. The stories could be about reconciliation between you and a foodstuff with which you’ve had tempestuous relationship, or perhaps how food was used to patch up a rocky—or broken—connection with another person. I’ll get the ball rolling, exploring my estrangement from a certain, wobbly dessert. And if it involves edibles, surely the best part of breaking up is when you’re making up.
If you have a story that fits with this month’s theme, please send your true, personal essay to FoodandThink@gmail.com by Friday, October 7 October 14. We’ll read them all and pick our favorites, which will appear on the blog on subsequent Mondays.
Making Room for Jell-O
Appendixes are funny things. You have only one of them and they go wonky just once, which means you need to be intuitive enough to tell the difference between a gnarly case of food poisoning and the sensation of the right side of your body getting ready to pop a seam. If the lightbulb goes off in your head early enough, you can get to the doctor and have the residual organ lopped off in a grand act of outpatient surgery. Otherwise, if you let it go so long that it erupts, you could develop a deadly case of peritonitis. Many famous people have gone this way: magician Harry Houdini, silent screen actor Rudolph Valentino, painter George Bellows. Thankfully, when my appendix decided to self-destruct when I was 14, I made it into the operating room, but the appendix burst mid-procedure. For the next three days I was stuck in the hospital, subsisting on a diet of broth, Italian Ice and Jell-O. Three times a day, without fail.
My mom used to do lot of fun things with Jell-O. She’d gel a sheet of the stuff and use cookie cutters to make novelty-shaped jigglers, or fold in some Cool-Whip while the gelatin was beginning to set for a completely different flavor and texture. And then there were the plastic egg molds she’d bring out at Easter to create three-dimensional artificially flavored treats. Jell-O was so much fun, so pure, so seemingly impossible to ruin. Yet the hospital cafeteria managed to achieve just that with their Lysol-colored cubes of lemon gelatin that had grown a peelable skin atop the wiggly insides, the lot of them twitching in a bowl. By the time I got home, my love affair with Jell-O was over, to the point that just the smell of the stuff being prepared made me feel ill. After a few years I could stomach it if it was mixed with other ingredients—lots of them. But standalone Jell-O was an absolute no-go.
A month or so ago I was in the local Goodwill thumbing through a bin of vintage cooking pamphlets when I found a copy of The Joys of Jell-O, a cookbook first published in the early 1960s that campily hails the glory of aspics and novelty desserts, all in the uniquely awful palette of mid-century color printing. Contained therein were pictures vegetables trapped in suspended animation and recipes calling for ungodly-sounding pairings—pineapple, lemon gelatin and mayonnaise anyone? The food presentations aspired to elegance, yet there is something inherently tragicomic about the sight of shrimp fastidiously arranged around the sides of an atomic green ring mold. These images that reinforced my idea that this is surely what they serve in Hell. Nevertheless, my deep-rooted love for kitchen kitsch trumped my longstanding prejudices and I picked up the book.
On a rainy day, I decided to attempt the rainbow cake: five layers of whipped Jell-O piled one on top of the other with the whole shebang encased in a layer of whipped cream. It was the kind of dessert that looked wonderfully ridiculous, and yet it seemed quite edible compared to its cookbook counterparts. That day I learned that Jell-O molds are hard work. One must be attentive. If I timed things just right, I could ply my hand mixer in a bowl of not-quite-firm gelatin and whip it up so that it frothed and doubled in volume, pour that layer into a ring mold, wait for that to cool and then try to prepare the next layer. It was an all-day affair, and I didn’t quite get the hang of the process until about layer three—orange.
From an architectural standpoint, the resulting cake was an epic disaster, splitting, sliding and wobbling every which way. Of course it all dumped nicely into a bowl and was consumable. The layers that turned out more like a traditional batch of Jell-O failed to make me gag. (Still didn’t think well of them, but even those sentiments could be considered progress.) But the ones that came out as they were supposed to tasted fantastic, surprisingly light and fluffy with a texture like an unusually moist cake made from a mix. Perhaps I misunderstood this neglected, complex foodstuff that had so much more potential beyond the “set it and forget it”-style dessert item I initially thought it to be. Perhaps this is a relationship that merits more thoughtful exploration.
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!
September 26, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing series, we asked for stories about food and independence: your decisions about what, how or where you eat; the first meal you cooked; or about how you eat to the beat of a different drummer. Debra Kelly and her husband have taken food independence to an extreme: They have lived on 23 remote acres in California since 1978, experimenting with solar energy and eating organic, home-grown food. And sometimes fighting for it.
Confronting a Nemesis
By Debra Kelly
I live on a remote mountaintop. A four-wheel-drive kind of place. Living here requires independent thinking and action. In this place are deep canyons and heavy forests of redwood, oak, pine and madrone, crisscrossed with old logging trails and overgrown with brush. Our homestead is a solitary retreat. It is modest and handmade. We travel along eight miles of pitted, potholed and curvy dirt road—like a stream bed in some parts—until we reach pavement. In this setting, independent people and food grow and thrive.
Living far from a town makes you self-reliant. We planted a garden and fruit trees to supplement our diet. We were well on our way to a nice harvest of veggies, and our fruit trees were still young and fragile, when we noticed ominous signs on the ground. A presence pressing in on us. It ravaged and stalked our homestead in the middle of the night. It peeled the limbs off our young fruit trees, like you would peel a banana. It tore a path of destruction through our place like a rototiller without a driver. It was wily and fast afoot. It has tusks it could use if it were challenged. Although this independent food is prized by famous chefs around the globe, it was my nemesis. It was the wild pig.
Wild pigs began roaming the mountains in increasing numbers. One pair was so bold that they dared saunter up on our deck at night! Our St. Bernard lay silent as a lamb as they approached him. I heard a noise and looked out the window to see one pig at his head and one pig at his tail. He was afraid. I stoically said to my husband, “the pigs gotta go.”
We hatched a plan. We knew their habits. The problem was that their hearing was so acute. They could hear our footfalls inside the cabin, which would send them running into the darkness and safety of the woods. How then would we be able to shoot them? They would hear us get out of bed, climb down the ladder from the loft, get the gun and open the door. SIMPLE. We decided to shoot them without leaving our bed!
Yes, it was a master plan by masterminds….
Our bed was a mattress on the floor of a loft. It faced a picture window flanked by two smaller opening windows. We would leave one window open, just to slide the barrel of the gun out of it, as we lay on our bellies, ever watchful. My role would be to hold a powerful flashlight and turn it on the pigs below. My husband would finish them off. We’d have a luau and a boatload of meat for a season! We pledged to stay awake. It would be a piece of cake.
Midnight passed—no pigs. One in the morning passed—no pigs. I yawned and said, “this will be the only night they fail to come.” More time passed and we fall fast asleep. Then it happened. I awoke abruptly to the sound of a snort and a rustling below. I carefully, gently, shook my husband awake. He rolled into position and gave me the signal to turn on the flashlight. So I did. All hell broke loose, in an instant. Instead of the light piercing the darkness below, it bounced off the picture window glass, reflecting back at us, our own image. In a split second, my husband let loose both barrels, out of the window to the ground below. A short squeal resulted and they thundered off into the forest. At that moment, with the sound of the blast reverberating off the walls and ceiling of our small cabin, my heart pounded like a Ginger Baker drum solo. We looked outside to find no blood, and no pigs anywhere. Our master plan thwarted. We missed. The food got away!
September 19, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing series, we asked for stories about food and independence: your decisions about what, how or where you eat; the first meal you cooked—or ordered in—after moving out of the house; or about how you eat to the beat of a different drummer.
Our first story is about the thrill of illicit food. Nikki Gardner is a writer and photographer who lives in Williamsburg, Massachusetts. She blogs about art, food and stories at Art and Lemons.
A Mission for Candy
By Nikki Gardner
After years 7 years of living under my mother’s strict sugar-free household rules, I couldn’t take it anymore. It wouldn’t be far off to say that I kind of freaked out. My mission, which I bestowed upon myself, was to sample as much sugar as my stomach and allowance allowed.
My younger sister and I were allowed an occasional doughnut before a special Sunday church outing, a piece of birthday cake, or ice cream scoop. But there was a red line between candy and me: it was NOT allowed.
I remember clearly the ride home from school that day. I rode up to the stoplight, smiled and waved at the crossing guards, and made it through two crosswalks. Then I stopped. Parked my bike outside the Burger Dairy, which was another mile or so from our new neighborhood. The fluorescent lights flickered inside. One wall was dedicated to butter, bread, cheese, eggs and milk. Staples we often stopped for between trips to the grocery store. This was my first time there alone. The woman behind the cash register sized me up. We both knew I wasn’t in it for the milk that day.
She wore one of those black hairnets and snap-up white jackets like the lunch ladies at school. I was nervous and broke from her stare and busied myself with the business at hand. The coins in my pocket jangled recklessly, ready to be laid out on the counter. In a moment of haste, I pulled out 30 cents or so and quickly did the math. Thirty cents could get me a box of Lemonheads or Boston Baked Beans, a cherry Blow pop, a Fireball, and 2 pieces of Bazooka comic gum.
The cashier popped and cracked the small pink stash of gum in her mouth. She seemed as old as dust to me and she was all business. We were alone in the store and the small bubbles she blew between her coffee-stained teeth echoed in there.
I slid my money toward her. She wore black cat eye glasses. I noticed her eyes go squinty and small, like dots made with a ballpoint pen. I wasn’t sure what she would do. Rough me up a little about spending my college fund or give me some wisecrack about ending up like her one day, which seemed pretty okay to me.
“That it, sweetheart?”
A few gum cracks later, I walked out of there clutching my candy stash. I went back a number of times and it wasn’t until I developed a few cavities that I came clean, well not totally clean, but eating less candy anyway. So I switched to the fast food burger joint and replaced one restriction with another. But that’s another story.
September 12, 2011
Our last Inviting Writing prompt inspired some surprisingly pleasant memories of cafeteria meals, from the social dynamics of the school canteen to a fancy subsidized office food court. This month we move from the collective to the individual, exploring the theme of food and independence. Deciding what, how or where we eat is one of the earliest ways we assert our individuality. You might have a story about the first meal you cooked—or ordered in—after moving out of the house. Or about how you eat to the beat of a different drummer. Maybe you only eat what you grow or kill yourself, living independent of the food industry. We want to hear what food and independence means to you.
Send your true, original essays to FoodandThink@gmail.com with “Inviting Writing” in the subject line by Friday, September 16 (which happens to be Mexico’s Independence Day). We’ll read them all and post our favorites on subsequent Mondays. Remember to include your full name and a biographical detail or two (your city and/or profession; a link to your own blog if you’d like that included). I’ll get things started.
All Bun, No Burger
by Lisa Bramen
As a child, I was never a fan of meat unless it was slathered in barbecue sauce or otherwise camouflaged. My parents instituted a two-bite rule—I had to eat at least two forkfuls of everything on my plate, meat included, or no dessert. Although my family briefly flirted with vegetarianism in the early 1980s, after my mother saw a report on animal cruelty, the experiment didn’t last long.
Then, at the age of 16, as I was gnawing a piece of gristly steak at a cookout and thinking how gross it was, a revolutionary thought occurred to me: I didn’t have to eat meat, or anything else, if I didn’t want to. I was now old enough to make my own food choices.
The next day I declared my culinary independence to my mother, explaining that I planned to quit eating meat. As far as I remember she accepted my decision without objection. Although she didn’t cook separate meals just for me, I think she tried to accommodate my preference by making vegetarian side dishes that would work as my main course. In retrospect, she probably should have just told me that if I wanted to be so independent I should learn how to prepare my own meals.
My early years as a vegetarian weren’t always easy. It was still far from mainstream to avoid meat in the late 1980s, something that only wacky hippies did, and restaurants rarely had good vegetarian options, if they had any at all. A trip through Texas, in particular, proved challenging. Even a green salad was a rarity outside of the big cities there.
Still, I managed to avoid eating meat for almost a decade—not counting two times when I ate it by accident. The first incident was within a week of going vegetarian. I had somehow forgotten that one of my favorite after-school snacks, frozen taquitos, were filled with meat. I think I finished them anyway, as a last hurrah. The second time was a few years later, at a hostel in Italy, when I accepted an offer to share another guest’s pasta without realizing it contained beef. Too bashful and polite to point out my mistake, I ate a bowlful.
One day I tried ordering a cheeseburger with no meat at a McDonald’s. The cashier looked at me like I was speaking in tongues. He said, “You want a cheeseburger—without the burger?” When I assured him that was what I wanted, he puzzled for several minutes over how to charge me for such an odd request. I told him I didn’t mind paying the regular price, but he insisted on adding up the components individually—bun, cheese, mustard, ketchup, pickles. I think it ended up costing about 17 cents. When the cooks got the order, they came out to the counter, grinning, to get a look at the freak who had placed it. I have to say, though, it wasn’t half bad. Condiment burgers became a staple of my diet. In-N-Out Burger even added a meatless burger—they call it a grilled cheese—to their secret menu. Theirs includes lettuce and tomato; I recommend asking for grilled onions, too.
Being a vegetarian was much easier once I moved to San Francisco—where no one seemed to have realized that the 1960s were over—to go to college. The campus food court sold tofu burgers, and I discovered a vegetarian Chinese restaurant nearby that made to-die-for sweet-and-sour fried walnuts.
After nearly 10 years as a total vegetarian (and a brief stint as a vegan), my resolve broke down one day in France. I had been wandering for hours looking for something I could eat, when hunger finally got the best of me and I ordered scallops at a café—surely one of the least complex forms of life, I reasoned. From there it was a slippery slope. I gradually started eating other seafood. A few years later I started eating poultry and a few years after that, the smell of cooking bacon—the downfall of many an herbivore—proved too tempting to ignore.
I still eat far less animal protein than the average American, but I could no longer be described as a vegetarian. And other than those two exceptions, I still haven’t had another bite of beef in almost 25 years.