August 22, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing series, we asked you for personal stories about cafeteria culture: the sights, smells, rituals and survival tactics of shared mealtime. Our first essay comes from Katherine Krein of Sterling, Virginia, who works in a middle school in the special education department, helping students in math and science classes. She charts the skills one learns to master over time as the cafeteria poses new and more elaborate challenges.
Learning Cafeteria Culture, Grade by Grade
By Katherine Krein
School cafeterias from my youth are first remembered by their artifacts. I can visualize several things: the hard and heavy rectangular trays, the substantial metal silverware, the breakable plates filled with food, the little milk cartons, and the thin plastic straws. Lunch was paid for with change in our pockets or purses. Learning how to carry the heavy tray in order to balance the plate of food, silverware, and milk was a proud accomplishment for me as a young girl.
Social navigation was the next thing that had to be learned. You had to make friends and form a pact that you would sit together day after day. This could be hard at first if you were the new kid in town. My family moved about every two years throughout my elementary schooling, so I had to be brave and friendly. Trying to fit in would sometimes put me in a morally uncomfortable position. I have a recollection of making friends with a group of girls whose leader was a little mean. I remember one day she put potato chips in the seat of an overweight girl. When the girl sat down and flattened the chips everyone, including me, giggled. This memory still haunts me and fills me with shame.
By junior high school everything became smoother. I had grown, and carrying the full heavy tray became easy. My father’s job no longer required us to move, and we settled into our social surroundings. Knowing where to sit in the cafeteria became routine, and it no longer filled me with uncertainty. But social faux pas were still rather common. I remember sitting across the table from my friend Lisa when somehow milk came shooting out from my straw and ended up in Lisa’s face and hair. I’m not sure how this all transpired, but I am sure that I must have been doing something unladylike. Lisa did not speak to me for the rest of the day, and later in the week she got revenge by flinging peas in my hair and face. We remained friends through it all.
In high school, manners and appearances became more important as I began to view boys in a new way, and I began to notice them noticing me in a different way. Keith was a boy my age who I thought was very cute, and we were sitting across the table from one another. He was playing with his ketchup packet as we talked and flirted, and in an instant the packet burst. Ketchup squirted in my hair and on my face. Shock and surprise turned into laughter. What else could I do? We did end up dating for a while until my interest moved on.
I can barely remember specific foods from my K-12 cafeteria days. In California I loved the cafeteria burritos. Fish was frequently served on Fridays. Pizza is remembered from high school because my sister, two years older than me, could count on me to give her half of mine. Last but not least are memories of the mouth-watering, gooey, sugary and aromatic cinnamon buns. Eating them was such a sensory and sensuous experience.
I have a theory about why I don’t remember more about the food. As a student my brain was bombarded with numerous new and nervous social situations, and I was busy trying to analyze and remember new and complex ideas. Eating was a response to being in the cafeteria, and my primary consciousness was busy with socialization and academic learning. Eating did not require much of my thought.
July 18, 2011
For this month’s writing invitational, we asked you to tell us about your relationship with your kitchen. We got some terrific essays that we’ll post on the next several Mondays. First off is Ashlee Clark’s reminder that, no matter how small or inconvenient or outdated your current kitchen is, chances are you had it worse in college.
Clark is a freelancer writer and editor in Louisville, Kentucky. She writes about local food and frugal eating at her website, Ashlee Eats.
By Ashlee Clark
I traveled through a medley of kitchens befitting of the life of a young adult during my college years. Dormitory kitchens were the worst.
These kitchens were dark and abandoned rooms at the end of the hall outfitted with a stove, sink and little else. The rooms always smelled of stale pizza and popcorn from other students’ half-hearted cooking endeavors.
In the three dorms I lived in during my time as an underclassman, there was usually just one kitchen on each floor. I had the misfortune of always being on the opposite end of the hallway from aforementioned cooking spaces. Every time I got an itch to eat something that required more prep than tuna salad, I would have to gather my meager collection of utensils in a plastic grocery bag, go to the kitchen, make my dish, then take it all back. God forbid you leave your cooking tools in a communal kitchen. It would take only five minutes of your absence for your cookware to end up in the trash or in someone else’s grocery bag.
Making pigs in a blanket, a comfort food that nourished me through many Western Civilization study sessions, was a true test of patience and stealth. I never realized how much it took to make this tasty treat until I had to carry it down a long, The Shining-esque hallway. There was the tube of crescent rolls, the package of hot dogs, the cheese slices. The Pam, the baking sheet, the oven mitts. The knife, the spatula, the plate.
I would spread my supplies across the Formica countertop and assemble my meal by the dim light above the oven. But slicing and stuffing a hot dog with cheese and rolling the creation in dough was simple compared to getting my meal back to my room with the original number of pigs in a blanket in hand.
The scent of processed meat quickly slid under the doors of my neighbors as my meal baked. Hallmates to whom I had never spoken would slide down to the kitchen and create some idle chitchat before finally asking me to share. My hungry belly wanted to yell out, “Make your own, buddy,” but my Southern manners always made me oblige their request.
So to avoid sharing my bounty, I had to cook with ninja-like stealth. As soon as I slipped my baking sheet into the oven, I began covering my tracks. I threw away plastic cheese wrappers. I vigorously washed my utensils. I gathered everything I could back into my grocery bag and waited for the dough to turn a golden brown and the cheese to start dripping down the sides of the meat. At the first sign that my meal was complete, I took the tray in one oven-mitt-covered hand and the grocery bag in the other. I peeked my head out the door and sprinted down the hallway before someone discovered my culinary delight. This task was made difficult by the clanging of the utensils against my aerosol can of cooking spray, but I never stopped. If someone stepped out of their room, I gave them a simple nod without slowing my pace.
I repeated this process a few times each month for much of my college career. All that sneaking around taught me how to cook in an inadequate kitchen under extreme pressure. And I still have a soft spot for pigs in a blanket.
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.
March 29, 2011
Art and culture flourished throughout Europe during the Renaissance. It was the period when Michelangelo wielded his chisel, Galileo defied preconceived notions about the universe and William Shakespeare penned some of the most enduring dramatic works. It was also a period that saw the evolution of manners, as the article “Mind Your Manners” in the Spring 2011 issue of Folger magazine will attest. Manners were a response to the violence and crude behaviors run rampant in burgeoning cities and a means of reinforcing social order and distinguishing the privileged class from everyone else. A first generation of Miss Manners-es—typically men—took up the quill. And the newly defined codes of conduct were especially important at the dinner table.
Italy more or less led the cultural revolution, table manners included. Italian poet Giovanni della Casa advised in “Galateo,” his 1558 book on manners: “One should not comb his hair nor wash his hands in public… The exception to this is the washing of the hands when done before sitting down to dinner, for then it should be done in full sight of others, even if you do not need to wash them at all, so that whoever dips into the same bowl as you will be certain of your cleanliness.” To the modern reader, these attitudes toward public displays of personal cleanliness might seem a little over the top; however, considering that one’s hands were also one’s dining utensils, this sort of advice was of utmost importance. In his study on the social customs of this period, sociologist Norbert Elias noted that “In good society one does not put both hands into the dish. It is most refined to use only three fingers of the hand. … Forks scarcely exist, or at most for taking meat from the dish.”
That’s right: no forks. They were initially viewed as excessively refined or, in the case of men, a sign of effeminacy. The newfangled fork custom began in Italy and was a hit, but forks were slow to catch on in Northern Europe. The use of forks to get food from plate to mouth didn’t didn’t gain wide acceptance until the 17th century—and even then, only the well-to-do could afford them.
Utensils such as spoons were communally used—making the etiquette of eating soups a delicate matter. “If what is given is rather fluid,” Dutch theologian Erasmus of Rotterdam writes, “take it on a spoon for tasting and return the spoon after wiping it on a napkin.”
But in spite of trying to polish social customs, some human behaviors were deemed permissible at the dinner table. On farting, Erasmus writes, “If it is possible to withdraw, it should be done alone. But if not, in accordance with the ancient proverb, let a cough hide the sound.” Slick, no? However, lest you follow this example, modern manners maven Miss Conduct says that “civilized folk will protect others from any sounds or smells that may be displeasing.”
This is not to say that all Renaissance manners are outdated. On respecting fellow diners’ personal space, Giovanni Della Casa says, “It is also an unsuitable habit to put one’s nose over someone else’s glass of wine or food to smell it.” And again, from Erasmus: “It is rude to offer someone what you have half eaten yourself; it is boorish to redip half-eaten bread into the soup.” Anyone remember the “did you just double dip that chip” episode of Seinfeld? George Costanza was definitely a couple hundred years behind the etiquette curve. Even modern science shows that re-dipping partially-eaten foods is a great means of spreading bacteria. It certainly gives you an idea of what Renaissance society was trying to improve upon—and how far we’ve come since.
February 22, 2011
Our theme for this month’s Inviting Writing is food and dating. As Lisa explained in a story about three first dates at the same sushi restaurant, we were looking for tales of “first dates, last dates, romantic dates, funny dates, dates that resulted in marriage proposals, dates that were only memorable for what you ate.”
Our first entry comes from Helene Paquin of Toronto. She is a business analyst and social media specialist who blogs about her book club and wine.
Valentine’s Day à la Maine
By Helene Paquin
The last thing I want to do on Valentine’s Day is go to a restaurant. It’s full of potential pitfalls. There are the long lines, the service that is too fast for my liking and the atmosphere of being surrounded by couples who are out to appear normal and very happy when in fact they look miserable, starving for conversation and checking their watches because the baby sitter has to leave at 10:00. It’s like being surrounded by insincere, clichéd greeting cards. Nope, this is not for me.
For the past 20 years I have followed the same ritual. We stay in. We treat ourselves to some good champagne and buy live lobsters to cook at home. It almost didn’t work out that way. Our first Valentine’s together was also the first time we cooked live lobsters. How hard can it be? Boil water, add salt and pop them in there and voilà, a perfect meal. Easy peasy, right?
Let me just say something about live animals…especially live animals with claws. They are feisty creatures and will attempt to escape from a boiling pot onto your kitchen floor given the chance. We actually cut off the rubber bands on the first one and threw him in. However he quickly spread-eagled before hitting the water and wouldn’t fit into the pot. Grabbing tongs, we quickly forced him in, covered the pot and waited. It was awful. We could hear his clanging along the sides of the pot for a few seconds. We just looked at each other in horror and full of guilt. This was not very romantic at all.
Since then we’ve learned to cook lobsters properly. Rest them on their heads till their tails curl so they are easier to handle.
Maybe Valentine dates should be spent in restaurants after all. They hide where food comes from and spare diners from the realities of food prep. That’s definitely the more romantic way to go.