August 15, 2011
Our last Inviting Writing prompt called readers to contemplate the relationship they have with their kitchen, which garnered stories that ranged from cooking in a dorm to trying to make good with a neglected kitchen. For this go-round, focus your thoughts on another culinary space: the cafeteria. Be it in school or at the workplace, these communal dining areas have a vibe all their own, a product of the people who eat there, the staffers who keep everything running, the food being cranked out and even the physical building itself. As we prepare to go back to school (or back to work after a summer vacation), think about the sights, smells, personalities, eating rituals, survival tactics or other experiences that solidify the cafeteria dining experience in your mind.
Send your essays to FoodandThink@gmail.com with “Inviting Writing” in the subject line by Friday, August 19. 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 the ball rolling.
By Jesse Rhodes
Lunchtime was memorialized thusly in my senior yearbook: “Lunch is the time of day every student waits for. Some favorites include Subway subs, Little Caesar’s pizza and Boardwalk Fries. Some students choose to finish off their meal with the cheesy taste of Doritos and Cheetos or the sweet taste of M&Ms brownie ice cream sandwiches or Snickers cones.” That pretty much sums up the cafeteria cuisine in a nutshell. At the time, participation in the federal lunch program was optional at the high school level, and I’d just as soon forget the culinary standards my school was setting. The sandwiches Mom made and packed for me, on the other hand, were the stuff that garnered me monetary offers from my fellow students. But really, it was the people who made lunch at Henrico High School stand out.
Although Henrico was my home school, most of my friends came from all over the county, spending ungodly amounts of time on a bus to attend one of the academic specialty centers: the Center for the Arts for those who have a knack for the visual or performing arts or the International Baccalaureate Program geared to the slightly masochistic student desiring a challenging-yet-enlightening curriculum. (I cast my lot with the latter.) Being a good 45-minute drive away from almost everyone, lunch was the closest thing to a regular hangout time that we had. Keeping an eye on the black-rimmed clock, my 25-minute turn in the lunchroom was carefully blocked out, affording 10 to a maximum of 15 minutes to stuffing my face—always in the order of fruit first, then sandwich, then whatever dessert item Mom had packed—so I could freely chatter away before the closing bell sent us all back to our midday class.
Lunch was a test of one’s mettle. Survival of the fittest, really. During the first few weeks of school, speed walking to your designated cafeteria was a must as those buildings were incredibly crowded and one had to stake out a spot and make sure that spot was continuously occupied so that everybody more or less knew it was yours. My fellow lunch-bringer friends and I had a distinct advantage. While the bulk of the student population was waiting in line for their french fries and subs, we could stake a claim at one of the brown wood-grain laminate tables and hold a few seats for the rest of our group, who would usually come to the table giggling over something that happened while they were getting food. Like the day when Crystal was dubbed “ham girl” by the lunch lady on account of the daily Subway ham sandwich that made its way onto her lunch tray and was always ritualistically deflated of its excess shredded lettuce and dressed with two to three packets of mayonnaise. She remained “ham girl” to the group through high school, to the point that someone—and I wish I could remember who—made a gift of a box of 500 mayonnaise packets for her 18th birthday. I seriously doubt it ever got opened.
Jean and Rachel were other lunch table mainstays, both of whom were in the Center for the Arts and themselves friends attached at the hip since the fourth grade. Lunch bringers, they were the ones who usually helped hold a table and (sometimes vainly) tried to ward off other students who came by to snap up one of the empty chairs. And Jean was a keeper of quotations, carrying a little spiral-bound notebook in which she chicken-scratched the non sequiturs, entendres (double or otherwise), slips of the tongue and the rare bit of crafted wit that came up during the day. Granted, I think trying to make people laugh while their mouth was stuffed with food was something of a communal sport, so absurdity (and certainly some less-than-refined humor) was certainly encouraged. Reading back over the printouts that Jean compiled at the end of every school year, many of the cafeteria sound bites bring back memories of certain days and entire conversations had around the table. However, I can’t recall the social context would have prompted Bill, the aspiring veterinarian, to remark, “That’s no pig, that’s my baby!”
On the odd occasion we had more transient members of the lunch table. The friend of a friend who decided to switch tables for the day. The romantic interests of regulars that none of us could stand. Or the girl who, audibly whispering, asked another table member my name for the sole purpose of requesting a few of my jellybeans. I will always remember her name (which I’ll omit here) solely for this.
July 29, 2011
When I was in New York City earlier this week, I decided to check out Eataly, the Italian food emporium slash gastronomic theme park that opened near the Flatiron building a year ago. (There are also locations in Italy and Japan.) Aside from a large selection of imported products—pasta, anchovies, olives, oils, spices and much more—the complex includes six restaurants. Rather than specializing in different regions, each eatery focuses on a different kind of food: pasta, pizza, seafood, salumi, etc. Chefs Mario Batali and Lidia Bastianich are partners in the venture.
At first, the atmosphere reminded me less of Italy—one of my favorite places—and more of a high-end and very crowded food court. It wasn’t until I ate something that I was transported. I sat at the counter of the pasta/pizza restaurant and ordered the daily special, half-moon spinach ravioli in a lemon sauce, sprinkled with pistachios. It reminded me of something I had tasted in Rome years ago, at dinner with an American expat acquaintance and her Italian friends that has crystallized in my memory as my quintessential Roman experience.
Afterward I roamed the food aisles, not buying anything because it was mostly too expensive. Then I spied the candy counter. At the end of a row of chocolates was something I hadn’t encountered since that Rome trip: marrons glacés, or candied chestnuts. These ultra-sugary confections are popular in France and Italy, and although I don’t always like overly sweet sweets, I remembered liking their earthy, nutty flavor when I tasted them more than a decade ago.
But they were $4 apiece for something smaller than a golf ball—two or three bites at most. I could have gotten a whole dish of gelato for the same price. Then again, gelato is relatively easy to find in the United States—if not always of the same quality you’d find in Italy—but a marron glacé is a rare sight. I decided to go for it.
It was worth it. As I bit into it, I was immediately hit with a sugar rush. The finely granular, almost creamy texture was similar to some Mexican confections (also very sugary) made with sweetened condensed milk. But then there was the unmistakable warm chestnut flavor, which anyone who has tasted roasted chestnuts from a New York City cart in winter (or elsewhere) would recognize.
For a piece of candy, it was expensive. But for a one-minute mental vacation to a favorite memory, it was a bargain.
The reason candied chestnuts are so pricey is that it takes a long time to make them, plus the cost of importing them—I don’t know whether anyone makes them domestically. You can make them yourself, if you have four days to spare this winter, when chestnuts are in season. There are also shortcut versions that take only an hour, but that seems like sacrilege.
As for me, I’ll probably just wait until the next time I encounter one—even if it takes another 15 years.
July 5, 2011
We introduced two Inviting Writing themes in June, one about bizarre dining-out experiences, and the other about food and sickness. Our grand finale for the latter category comes from Victoria Neff, a computer programmer who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan and blogs at I Need Orange.
A Long Recovery From Chocolate
By Victoria Neff
When I was five, someone took me, my friend, and his little brother down the street for ice cream. I remember we sat up high, on counter-side stools, and I remember all three of us chose chocolate.
That was the last time I ever wanted chocolate ice cream. All three of us (and our mothers) were up all that night, while our bodies did everything they could to get rid of whatever contaminant was in that ice cream. For years after that, even the thought of chocolate ice cream would turn my stomach. My little-kid brain put hot chocolate in the same category, and I couldn’t stand it, either.
Eventually disgust reduced to indifference. The time came when I could eat chocolate ice cream, or drink hot chocolate, but I never enjoyed them.
Fast forward to the summer of 2010, when I had the chance to spend three weeks in France with my daughter, exploring different regions and cuisines. We started in Bayonne, the capital of France’s Basque country. Bayonne is known for ham, Espelette peppers and chocolate.
One lovely morning (all our days in Bayonne were lovely), we strolled over the bridge spanning the river Adour, to the old part of town. The narrow, cobbled street leading to the cathedral is lined with bakeries, boutiques and chocolate shops. Cazenave is known as one of the very best places for chocolate. In addition to dozens of varieties of fancy chocolates, its attractions include a hot-chocolate and tea room. The tea room is a charming place, with white wooden chairs, lace, brown-sugar cubes, tiny napkins, cute china and historical information in four languages. It has been serving hand-whipped hot chocolate for over 100 years.
I ordered tea. My daughter ordered the hand-whipped chocolate. The tea was fine. The hot chocolate was much better than “fine.” Here, at last, was the hot chocolate that was able to overcome my aversion. Here was hot chocolate that was delicious. Chocolatey. Bitter. Rich. Complex. Creamy.
We delighted in a large variety of wonderful foods in France. It’s hardly a surprise that it was there that I recovered an ability to connect with chocolate. I didn’t miss hot chocolate, and I haven’t missed chocolate ice cream all these years, but as I write, I wonder if French chocolate ice cream may be as delicious as French hot chocolate. Perhaps, next time I am there, I will eat ice cream, and will be glad I chose chocolate.
April 18, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing series, we asked you to tell us about the most memorable meal of your life. A pattern emerged from the stories we received: nothing focuses the mind on a meal like hardship, hunger or disgust. Today’s entry reminds us that meals don’t have to be traumatic to be memorable (and that sometimes food tastes even better if you reject standard table manners).
Emily Horton is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C., who specializes in food and culture and is an enthusiastic cook. As she explains about her story: “What inspires me most, as a cook and a writer, are traditional foodways and remarkable ingredients, which is where the food I wrote about in this essay takes its cues. This meal was so memorable to me in part because it was so fresh in my mind, but also because it epitomized what I value most in cooking: simple, unfussy food made stellar by way of local and seasonal ingredients, and the shared experience of cooking and eating with others.”
The Magic of Kale
By Emily Horton
Kale is best eaten with the fingers.
I don’t think we had specifically planned to make dinner. But it was already around 6:00 when my friend John came by; it was a Friday and warm, and there were dogs to be walked. This being March, when warm days are a tease and thus impossible not to ravish, I thought company would be just the thing. “I’m bringing kale,” he said.
In my kitchen he emptied his bag of its contents: a bunch of Siberian kale, sweet, tender and mossy-hued. If it’s not the variety responsible for inspiring those “Eat More Kale” T-shirts, it should have been. We cooked it in a Dutch oven over a low flame, slicked with a glug of olive oil, a few dribbles of water and some sea salt, until it turned into a silken, glistening heap. We emptied the greens onto a plate, grabbed juicy bits with our fingers. Forks have no place here. We’re not sure why. “It’s so much better eating it this way,” he said. I nodded. We finished the plate with fewer words; we hadn’t bothered to sit down. I credit the kale for its sumptuousness. John says my technique is magic (it’s nothing special, and I’ve since taught him how to replicate the results). But flattery gets a person everywhere, and when he asked if I might bring him another beer from the fridge (could I open it, too?), I only narrowed my eyes a little.
“I have an idea,” I said. I remembered a dish I had coveted all winter, refusing to make for one, that had seemed too lusty of a thing to be eaten in solitude. We set about cracking walnuts, pounding them with garlic (actually, John took both of those tasks because he’s a better sport than I am), grating copious amounts of cheese. We stirred butter into the walnuts, then the Parmigiano, then olive oil. We boiled fresh linguine, nutty with spelt and oat flour, saving a bit of the cooking water. I turned everything into a bowl. The pesto covered the pasta now like a creamy coat, and the heat coaxed such a fragrance from the walnuts, heady and floral, that we understood why adding herbs would have been something of an interruption. We took the single serving bowl to the table, two forks, in the interest of minimalism.
John sat back in his chair, the wicker one without a match, and closed his eyes. “Wait a second, I’m having a moment.” There were bits of walnut shell in the sauce that my teeth kept catching. I decided not to care.
April 4, 2011
Thanks very much to those of you who contributed essays to this month’s Inviting Writing project. The theme, introduced by Lisa, was “the most memorable meal of your life.” A surprising pattern has emerged from the submitted essays: many of the most memorable meals were sort of horrible!
This week’s entry comes from Kristen Freeman, a senior at the University of South Carolina-Aiken. She’s working toward a degree in Science in Secondary Education in Mathematics. She submitted this piece as part of her Writing in the University English class.
How Hard Can P.B. Be?
By Kristen Freeman
November 28, 2007 will always be known to me as the day I had surgery. Due to a birth defect, my left kidney was enlarged and obstructed in two places. The surgery corrected this life-threatening issue.
The days that followed will live in my memory for other reasons—such as being the first time I ever spat out a peanut butter sandwich. I had a three-inch incision on the left side of my abdomen. After being allowed only clear liquids and intravenous vitamins and minerals for 48 hours, the only thing in my mind that would make me feel human again was a meal. And I thought anything would have tasted appetizing.
Two mornings after surgery, I received a lunch menu. I scanned the various choices. Three words caught my eye like a nurse with a needle: peanut butter sandwich. I quickly checked the box next to the listing and smiled with pleasure. Messing up a peanut butter sandwich is impossible, right?
As the hours passed, my hunger grew for a plain peanut butter sandwich. Finally, I heard the creaking wheels of the food cart coming down the hall. The only thought in my mind was how wonderful that peanut butter sandwich would be. My mouth began to water as the thought of lunch filled my mind. As the squeaking cart stopped in front of my door, I quickly sat up and cleared off the small table at my bedside. A delightful atmosphere filled the room as the hospital worker carried in the tray. My stomach growled louder as the food was within reaching distance. All I could think about was the peanut butter sandwich I was about to devour. The two pieces of white bread with the creamy goodness between them had finally arrived.
I hurriedly unwrapped my meal, anticipating the mouth-watering sandwich. I lifted the sandwich and took a large bite. As I began to chew, my hunger quickly subsided as the flavor hit my tongue. While I looked around the tray for a napkin, my mother, who had been by my side since arriving at the hospital, knew something was wrong by the expression that came upon my face. The napkin became home to the only bite of lunch I ate.
“Mom, that is the worst thing I have ever tasted,” I said as I rinsed my mouth out with juice. “It’s worse than the medicine,” a horrible liquid I had received just before entering the operating room.
My mother assured me that my intravenous pain killers and other medicines were the cause of the disgusting taste. To prove her wrong, I made her try it. She pulled off a small portion of the sandwich and began chewing. All of a sudden, the same disturbing look that had come over me consumed her. She quickly grabbed another napkin and spat out the bite, apologizing and admitting how horrible the meal tasted.
My appetite had disappeared like a doctor being paged. The most memorable meal of my life is one I couldn’t allow myself to eat.