August 2, 2010
For the third leg of this month’s Inviting Writing road trip, we’ll follow reader Kevin Weeks‘ nose to the best bratwurst in Munich. These days, Kevin is a personal chef and cooking instructor in Knoxville, Tennessee, but once upon a time he was just a very hungry hitchhiker…
(If you’re new to Inviting Writing, read this.)
Bratwurst & Fries
By Kevin D. Weeks
There’s nothing in the world that will wake you up quite the way a Gauloises will. The nicotine punch is pretty fierce and the inevitable coughing fit will finish the job. Frankly, it’s not my favorite breakfast. But it was sunup, I was in a tent somewhere between Salzburg and Munich, there was no coffee, I’d run out of the English cigarettes I’d been smoking, and the two guys I was with were French.
This was in 1970 and I was 17, hitchhiking across Europe. The Frenchmen, not much older themselves, drove a funky little Renault and had picked me up outside Salzburg after the worst night of my life.
As usual, I’d arrived in Salzburg to find the youth hostel was full: the hostels were always full. To get out of the rain, I ended up in a building under construction, hiding from the night watchman. I had huddled on a cold and damp concrete floor while the temperature dipped to near freezing. The next morning I just wanted to get out of town.
It took a few hours, but then my luck changed and I found a good ride. The two young Frenchmen were also on their way to Munich. That evening we camped. They shared their food and tent with me and, the next morning, their cigarettes. Then we drove on to Munich, where they dropped me off.
The first thing I noticed was that something smelled delicious, and I was starving. I followed my nose to a kiosk selling bratwurst. I bought one, which came with a hard roll and a large dollop of mustard.
I don’t know if that was my first bratwurst ever, but it is certainly the first one I remember. I had never had such an extraordinarily good sausage in my life. I sat down on the curb dipping one end in the mustard and alternating with bites of the roll, juice rolling down my chin while I watched the traffic.
Then I wandered on, rubbernecking, until I came upon another kiosk. This one was selling French fries, so I bought an order of them. Again, it was an epiphany! I had never before eaten such delicious fries—golden and perfectly crisp on the outside, soft and tender inside.The fries I’d had in American joints couldn’t compare to these perfectly fresh, twice-fried potatoes.
I had many other such meals during my overseas adventure, but that bratwurst and those fries were my introduction to the wonders of European street food.
July 23, 2010
The bowl was proudly passed around the living room like candy, obviously intended as a treat for the visiting Americans. My new South African relatives each picked up a bite-sized flake of something reddish-brown, savoring it on their tongue with a sigh.
Chocolate? Dried fruit? I ruled out those options as I got a closer look. No, more like bacon, or…
“Is this jerky?” I asked. Eyebrows shot up as if I’d said something a bit rude.
“No, no. Much better. It’s biltong. It’s a special kind of dried meat,” someone offered. “You must try it.”
Tom-ay-to, tom-ah-to, I thought to myself. Sounds like jerky to me. (Biltong, I learned later, is made from strips of rump meat and literally translates from Dutch to English as to “butt tongue.” Kinda glad I didn’t know that.)
I hadn’t eaten anything resembling jerky since stumbling into a decade of vegetarianism in my late teen years, perhaps to atone for the disturbing number of Slim Jims I consumed in junior high. (Now, those chewy, cylindrical snacks strike me as eerily similar to certain treats in the pet-food aisle.)
But these dear people had invited us into their homes—and their lives—in Cape Town, because of my brother’s marriage. The least I could do is be grateful for whatever they fed us. And the braai they greeted us with had been delicious!
The texture was tough, but not as shoe-leather-like as I expected—I could tear it with my fingers. It tasted salty and rich with umami flavor. Maybe they were right; this wasn’t the stuff of American gas-station gastronomy and vending machines. More like charcuterie than jerky, in fact.
I wished I could say that to the family member who had brought the homemade biltong, but he is deaf and lip-reads only Afrikaans, which I don’t speak. So I simply gave a thumbs-up and reached for seconds. He grinned and rubbed his belly, nodding.
For more about different types of jerky—pardon me, dried meat—around the world, such as Chinese bakkwa, read this interesting piece by Oyster Food and Culture blogger LouAnn.
July 20, 2010
I spent last week in and around Cape Town, South Africa, traveling with my mom to attend my brother’s wedding. All we knew ahead of time about South African cuisine was that they love a good cookout, and sure enough, our first meal there turned out to be a braai (Afrikaans for “roasted meat,” though like “barbecue,” the word is used to describe the event as well as the food itself) at the home of my brother’s new in-laws.
They seemed surprised that I was so impressed by the wood-fired brick oven built into their outdoor patio—apparently those are about as ubiquitous in South Africa as backyard gas grills are in America. There, as here, the grill tends to be literally manned, while the kitchen is women’s turf (at least in the homes I visited). On that particular Sunday afternoon, a guy named Willem was the chef d’jour.
See the boxy metal container inside the grill in this photo? That’s where Willem stoked a wood fire for at least an hour while the meat marinated. From time to time, he shook the container so that hot embers fell out and could be raked into a layer under the rest of the grill, creating a low, even source of heat.
“A good braai can take all day. It’s not just a meal, it’s an occasion, a time to get together and talk and relax outside,” he explained as my stomach rumbled. Finally, he brought out the meat, starting with a long rope of boerewors (sausage) which he coiled inside a clamshell-style metal grilling basket.
When I asked what was in it, he shrugged.
“I don’t know, just minced meat. Boer means farmers, and wors means sausage,” he explained.
“So….it’s made of minced farmers?” I responded, generating a round of startled laughter.
Next up were chicken sosaties, or what I would call kebabs, one batch marinated in mustard and yogurt and the next in a sticky-sweet barbecue glaze. Then came lamb chops, and finally, some three hours after it all started, the food was ready to eat.
I don’t usually eat much meat, but when traveling, my mantra is “be open,” which extends to both mind and mouth. Besides, I was ravenous! So I dug in, following the lead of others. We ate the meat with our hands, dipping pieces of wors in a sweet curry sauce, picking up the lamb chops like sandwiches, and plucking bites of wonderfully tender chicken off the skewers. For side dishes, there was also mealie pap, a kind of corn porridge served with tomato and onion sauce, and a salad replete with chunks of avocado (or just avo, as they call it).
Pretty tasty, but if I were braai-ing, I’d love to try some vegetables and fish, or even a pizza…
April 8, 2010
Have you had a chance to read the April issue of Smithsonian yet? I recommend “Breeding the Perfect Bull,” a wonderfully written feature by Jeanne Marie Laskas about a family of cattle ranchers in Texas. Judging from readers’ response, she really captured the flavor of the modern cowboy’s lifestyle, as well as explaining the scientific and practical details of breeding cattle.
There was one sentence in it that puzzled me, though: “All cows eat grass.”
I paused when I read this. It unsettled me somehow, and not just because it was the mnemonic device we learned in high school band to interpret the bass clef.
I’ve heard a lot about grass-fed beef lately, and how it’s healthier and tastier than cattle fattened in a feedlot on corn and who knows what else. But if Laskas is right—and she is; though it may be only as calves, all cows eat some grass—does the term “grass-fed” really mean anything?
I called Carrie Oliver, founder of the Artisan Beef Institute, to see if she could shed some light on this and other terms consumers might run across when buying beef. Turns out, I know next to nothing about beef—which, given my recent tale of stumbling into vegetarianism, probably doesn’t surprise you! (For the record, I’m not vegetarian anymore. But I generally don’t eat meat unless I know where, and how, it was raised.)
She dispelled my first misconception even before we spoke, with the tagline on her Web site: Psst! It’s not about the marbling! So, I asked, what is it about? What should consumers be looking for on labels?
Oliver uses the term “artisan” to describe meat from suppliers who are focused on raising flavorful food, rather than trying to produce “as much, as cheaply and as uniformly as possible,” she says. It’s more of a mindset than a strict definition.
“From a big picture perspective, the meat industry is really focused on speed, yield and uniformity,” Oliver explains. Her institute focuses on different criteria: The beef must contain no artificial growth stimulants or antibiotics, be “gently handled,” and be a breed or cross-breed that makes sense for the region where it was raised (for example, Black Angus should be crossed with something more heat-tolerant to thrive on southern ranches, she says).
Oliver compares fine beef to to fine wine, because “unique flavors and characteristics emerge from influences of the breed, growing region, diet, husbandry and aging techniques.”
That’s right, aging techniques—another thing I didn’t know about beef (I assumed the fresher, the better). Oliver explained that aging produces a more intense flavor and tender texture, depending on the process used. (This article by Brooklyn-based butcher Tom Mylan explains the difference between dry vs. wet aging.) But much of what you see in the supermarket isn’t aged at all, and she thinks that’s a shame.
Oliver agreed that the term “grass-fed” can be confusing, although the USDA has defined it, and recently issued rules for organic beef to ensure it comes from cows who are at least 30-percent grass-fed. Perhaps the more important question is not whether the cow eats grass but what else it has eaten, says Oliver, particularly because grain feed often includes preventive antibiotics, growth hormones or other additives. She asks a series of questions before buying beef: Is it grass-fed? Has it ever eaten grain? No? So, is it grass-0nly?
The smartest thing consumers can do to ensure they’re getting the best beef is to find a good butcher, Oliver says. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done—traditional butchers are an increasingly rare breed in many parts of the industrialized world.
“But if we all start asking these questions even at the supermarket, it will start to have an effect,” she adds. “The more we ask, the more they’ll have to know. Start by asking what farm the meat comes from. If you get a blank stare, walk away.”
April 6, 2010
This is the beginning of an experiment. Hypothesis: Everyone’s got at least one good story to tell. And everyone eats, so I suspect many of you are harboring some wonderful food-related tales. Let’s hear them!
Here’s how it works: Once a month, I’ll give you a prompt—a word or general theme to use as a springboard into storytelling, such as “laughter” or “smoke.” If that theme makes you think of a story from your own life, please write it down and send it to us by the end of the month. (I confess this isn’t an original idea; I’m borrowing it directly from one of my favorite magazines, The Sun, whose “Readers Write” section is always the first place I flip to when an issue arrives.) It can be funny, sad, sweet, weird, whatever—just be sure it is true and involves food! We’ll publish the best ones on the blog.
Let’s start with “Manners” as a prompt. I’ll write my response first…then it’s your turn! Hope to hear from you.
The simple question, “So why did you become a vegetarian?” always made me cringe. I knew people expected a thoughtful, if predictable, response—animal rights, personal health, environmental issues, etc.—and the truth was so absurd.
Because I lied.
I was just shy of seventeen when I went on an “urban outreach trip” with a faith-based organization, in part because it seemed like a great adventure. I’d never been to the South before, and inner-city Atlanta sounded exotic to a New England girl. The organization’s brochure promised “two weeks’ room and board” in exchange for several hundred dollars, which I forked over from my recent winnings in a student writing contest.
The “room” was the shared floor of a church basement; the meals were whatever was being served up by volunteers in the sweaty shade of a mess-hall tent. But hey, I was a teenager on my own for the first time, fresh out of high school and eager to experience whatever the world beyond my small town offered. I had no complaints.
That is, until I reached the front of the dinner line that first night. A glop of what looked exactly like wet dog food—the Alpo brand we fed our dog, with chunks of mystery meat in a gelatinous gray sauce—hovered over my paper plate.
“Um, excuse me, what is that?” I asked the server as politely as possible.
“Scrapple ‘n gravy, honey,” the lady replied. “Made it myself. You want it or not?”
I was stumped. I had no idea what scrapple was, and was pretty sure I didn’t want to find out. But it would be so rude to reject it, especially in earshot of potential new friends, who might peg me as a snob.
“Um, I’m…I’m sorry, but I’m…a vegetarian!” I blurted out. She shrugged, and pointed to a pile of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
It hit me the next day as our group stood in the line at Taco Bell: I had to keep up this charade for the next two weeks, or I’d be shown up as a liar!
So I did. Turned out, there were a lot of good reasons to be a vegetarian. People kept supplying them for me: “I know, factory farming is terrible. I admire you for taking a stand,” one girl said. Note to self, I thought, look up “factory farming.”
Another asked: “Oh, are you a vegetarian because you read Diet for A Small Planet?” I nodded solemnly, promising myself I would buy the book as soon as I got home, so it wasn’t a real lie.
The funny thing is, after two weeks of bean burritos, PB & J and cheese sandwiches, I realized I didn’t really miss meat (although I did miss vegetables!). When I got home and did some background research, I became a true convert to vegetarianism.
In the end, it was manners, again, that broke me. While traveling in Europe after college, I was sometimes invited to dine in the homes of friendly locals. In the face of such hospitality, I felt it would have been unbearably rude to reject anything they served me, so I started eating meat again occasionally.
The lies finally caught up with me in Budapest, when a friend’s father cooked us some sort of meat cutlets for dinner. My friend talked to her dad in their own language while I smiled and took a big bite. They both stared at me curiously.
“But—I thought you were vegetarian!” she said.
UPDATE: Submissions can also be e-mailed directly to FoodAndThink@gmail.com. Please include your full name.