December 12, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked for stories about holiday foods that make your holidays. This is a rich subject for Smithsonian and its readers; we have run stories of holiday lefse (and other time-consuming traditional foods), lutefisk, rice grits, sugar plums and the great debate over whether latkes or hamantaschen are the perfect Hanukkah food. Susie Tilton, who has written for Inviting Writing about mysterious greens called cardoons, starts us off with a story about mysterious cookies called… something. She blogs at Sweetie Petitti.
Pasquale’s Italian Wonders
By Susie Tilton
My parents have a Christmas party every year without fail. Even now, with my dad well into his 80s and my mom not far behind, they are making copies of the song book; my mom is practicing the carols on the piano; and the freezers are filling up with party foods.
The highlight for me, for many years, was made the day of the party. My dad, Pasquale, would crank out sheets of sweet dough in the pasta machine. He would then cut the dough with a fluted pastry cutter and fry it in spirals. He would pile the pastry spirals up like a pyramid and cover it in warm honey and nuts. We called it shca-te-la. And therein lies the problem.
One year, when the Internet was still young, I decided that I was going to make them. My dad’s recipe had no name. So I started researching. It is nearly impossible to find anything on the Internet when you have only a phonetic spelling (of a foreign language, no less). I couldn’t find another recipe, history, photo or anything on these things. I am sure it is because we didn’t pronounce the name like most Italians would. My family is from a small mountain town in Puglia, Italy, and the dialect is unlike any other in Italy. There is a lot of French influence in the region, and even many Italians have no idea what people from there are saying! I live in a close-knit community with a fair amount of Italians, so I got on the phone and called the Italian who owns the grocery, the Italian who owns the liquor store and the Italian who has the pasta market, to no avail. They all wanted to help, but when I said shca-te-la, they drew a blank. But I got my dad’s recipe, so I went to work and renamed the pastries Pasquale’s Italian Wonders.
On a recent trip to my ancestral town in Italy, I met the most amazing people. The language barrier was still an issue, but when I said shca-te-la, eyes lit up. They knew exactly what I spoke of! The spelling is schart’llat, which returns no answers in a Google search (although I intend to change that with a blog post), and it is similar to scallidde, a pastry found in some more southern areas of Italy. The pastries were made in spirals as a symbol of approaching heaven, and they are indeed heavenly. I have decided that having the proper name is reason enough to crank up the fryer and make a batch this holiday. But we decided that naming them after Grandpa Pasquale will be the new tradition!
November 30, 2011
Being pregnant during the holidays has its pros and cons, I am discovering. On the upside, I’m counting on getting some maternity clothes for Christmas or Hanukkah, sparing me an expense that would otherwise be an annoyance (after all, I’m only going to wear the stuff for a few months).
On the downside, though, expectant mothers are told to avoid a whole roster of foods that can carry some sort of risk to the fetus: cold cuts, unpasteurized cheese, high-mercury fish, eggs that aren’t cooked through, and the list goes on. After sushi and sunny-side-up eggs, the thing that I am missing most this season is being able to have a glass of wine or a celebratory cocktail. That beer my husband and I are home-brewing? Off-limits for now.
So, lately I have been getting acquainted with a part of the menu I used to ignore: “mocktails.” Going beyond the usual soft drinks, some bars and restaurants are starting to get creative with their nonalcoholic beverages—good news for pregnant ladies, designated drivers, people younger than 21 and anyone else abstaining from alcohol.
I got my first taste of mocktails as a little girl, ordering a Shirley Temple on those rare occasions when my family ate out at a real restaurant. Even though I never saw an adult drink one of these sugary concoctions, I always felt very mature ordering one. It had all the trappings of a grown-up drink: multiple ingredients, a flashy name and, most important, a maraschino cherry garnish.
These same elements—with slightly more sophisticated ingredients—form the modern mocktail. There are whole books of mocktail recipes aimed at pregnant women, including Preggatinis: Mixology for the Mom-to-Be, by Natalie Bovis-Nelsen (who blogs as The Liquid Muse) and Margarita Mama: Mocktails for Moms-to-Be, by Alyssa D. Gusenoff. The drinks have names like the Cosmom, the Baby Bump Breeze and the Swollen Feet Fizz.
Some mocktails are simply “virgin” versions of common cocktails, altered only by the omission of alcohol, or with a little seltzer, ginger ale or another ingredient replacing the booze. A Virgin Mary, for instance, might have tomato juice, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, horseradish and celery salt—everything but the vodka.
But there’s no need to stop there. Herbs, spices, unusual fruits and flavorings can all elevate a drink to mocktail status. One restaurant near me makes a drink with pineapple, lime and orange juices, seltzer and fresh basil leaves. Martha Stewart combines ginger syrup with sparkling cider and garnishes it with cinnamon sticks and crystallized ginger.
Ethnic markets and the international aisles of the supermarket are good places to look for other ingredients to play around with: tamarind (often available fresh or in juice or concentrate form at Latin American or Asian grocers) for a spicy-sweet flavor; rose or orange blossom water (at Middle Eastern markets); pomegranate syrup (ditto); or one of the unusual soft drink flavors from the U.S.-based Latino brand Goya or imported Mexican sodas (Jarritos is a popular brand), including Jamaica (hibiscus flower), pineapple and “cola champagne”.
The best part of going alcohol-free is that you won’t feel like George Foreman after the Rumble in the Jungle the next morning. Unless, of course, you’re suffering from morning sickness.
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 5, 2011
Every year I try to plan ahead and think up a clever Halloween costume, only to end up rushing around the day before a party trying to scrape up something passable. It helps to have a theme; one year I was invited to a “one-hit wonders” party, to which I went as Jennifer Beals in Flashdance, with leg warmers, an off-the-shoulder sweatshirt and a welding mask. The food world is also rife with costume potential. Although you could go as or with a food itself, like a bunch of grapes made out of balloons, I think character-based looks are more fun.
Here are a few ideas to get your creative juices flowing while there’s still time:
Paula Deen: The Food Network’s high priestess of high-cholesterol food is easy to emulate. Just don a white, feathery-coiffed wig, a generous amount of mascara and a pastel-color collared shirt. To complete the look you’ll need some reference to her favorite ingredient, butter—maybe wrap a couple sticks of yellow-painted styrofoam in a butter wrapper (or waxed paper) and turn them into earrings.
The Swedish Chef: If only all cooking shows were as entertaining as this recurring sketch on The Muppet Show. And considering that a new Muppet movie is due out this holiday season, the cheerfully indecipherable chef is newly relevant. You’ll need a chef’s hat and either a chef’s jacket or a pin-striped shirt, bow tie and white apron, a bushy orange wig, mustache and eyebrows. If you ever run out of party conversation, you can always retreat into character, lilting, “Bork, bork, bork!”
Colonel Sanders: The KFC founder’s secret fashion recipe was simple—white suit, string tie, horn-rimmed glasses and a cane. And don’t forget the white hair, mustache and goatee. Bonus item: a classic red and white chicken bucket, which can double as a trick-or-treating basket for the kiddies. In fact, this look works for kids too—I mean, how cute is this?
Wendy and Jack in the Box—the couple: What if two of the burger world’s biggest celebrities got together? One half of the couple could go as freckle-faced Wendy, the other as cone-hatted Jack. The pièce de résistance: their globe-headed, red-braided baby. I thought I was pretty clever for thinking this one up, but it appears others have beat me to it. Oh well, chances are no one at your party will have seen the idea before.
The Unknown Restaurant Critic: The supposed anonymity of critics has been a topic of foodie discussion this year, with one Los Angeles Times writer outed—and kicked out—by an irate restaurateur. You could go two ways with this: either a paper bag over the head with eye holes cut out, à la the Unknown Comic, or a classic nose-mustache-and-glasses disguise. Either way, you’ll need accessories to indicate you’re a food critic—maybe a reporter’s notebook and pen, and a napkin tucked into your collar.
Anyone else have fun food-related costume ideas?
August 29, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked for stories about cafeteria culture: the sights, smells, rituals and survival tactics of shared mealtime. This week’s entry takes us a long way from American middle schools. Somali Roy, a freelance writer living in Singapore who last wrote for Food & Think about her mother-in-law’s kitchen, takes us to lunch in Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta).
A Wildlife Cafeteria
By Somali Roy
As I squint to proofread the fine lines of advertising copy on my computer screen, a message box pops up: “Lunch?” I look through the glass wall at Jatish, who gives me the perfunctory nod and ambles towards the cafeteria with his stainless steel lunchbox. I scoot off to catch up.
On our way, we grab Seema, our third lunch-mate, and settle down at our standard spot. When the lunch boxes open and the captive smells of mixed spices and herbs waft through the air, bellies grumble and roar here and there. People waiting to buy lunch shift their gaze sheepishly.
The food in our lunch boxes differentiated us, in a way nothing else did. Jatish, being Gujrati, mostly brought thepla, a spicy, whole wheat flatbread accompanied by some chutney. Seema, a Punjabi, had split peas or kidney beans in red curry sauce with paratha. And I, a Bengali plus a sloth, did not bring any regional specialties to the table except some drab looking sandwiches. When Anoop Nair, a strict vegetarian Brahmin from Kerala, cared to join us, we formed a mini India around the table.
This was the routine for the two years I worked in a newly built four-story multiplex in Kolkata. Designed by one of the most prominent architects of the country, this swanky building with its transparent glass façade, English speaking service staff, plush movie theaters and other modern trappings, was surely bulldozing a good number of old and rusty single-screens but was seen as a welcome change by the city’s young, educated, bourgeois crowd that represented the modern and developing Kolkata, a crowded metropolis in east India.
All was good except that the building lacked a cafeteria for its employees. While moviegoers happily stuffed their faces with popcorn, soft drinks and other goodies, we employees had to fend for ourselves. Much to my dislike, I began carrying lunch to office, which was packed by our maid, who was not exactly known for her cooking skills. I joined the petition for a cafeteria soon after examining my lunch box one day: a burned sandwich that had gone soggy from mushy fruits on the side.
Our plea was sanctioned, but until the cafeteria was built in line with the design and decor of the rest of the building, a makeshift arrangement took shape on the terrace. Four poles were lodged at the four corners, and a musty, threadbare cloth was mounted as a cover. A much-needed coffee machine appeared, a dozen white plastic chairs and tables hop-scotched across the floor and a temporary cooking area was set up at the far end with necessary accoutrements.
As most employees were local, the lunch menu was typically Bengali, with little or no variation to the permanent rice, lentils and spicy fish curry, much to the disappointment of others. Though a purebred Bengali, I too denounced the menu—rice makes me soporific, especially in the afternoons, and fish isn’t a favorite. Looking at the bright side, I am glad I escaped being mocked as “Fishy Bong,” as the fish-eating Bengalis were dubbed.
If I had to advertise this facility, I would have touted it as “lunching amid nature and wildlife.” Crows, sparrows and cats that pecked at leftovers or begged for food often greeted us with their cawing and purring. When the cloth ceiling leaked at places during monsoons, we huddled together around dry spots. On scorching summer afternoons we gobbled everything in seconds and rushed into air-conditioning, and dust storms made us take shelter behind a semi-constructed brick wall.
Yet we came, every single day, climbing two flights of stairs, crossing over half a dozen pipes and passing by loud and trembling generators to have our lunch, talk about our day, complain about the system, lament over the workload, gossip about the latest love affairs. This transient, tent-like cafeteria was tacky, morbid, far from the real deal but we went there because it added color to our plain vanilla workdays.