August 23, 2010
As I was reminded on a trip to a packed Target the other day, the back-to-school season is upon us. Seeing carts filled with things like electric hot pots, microwave popcorn and instant soup got me thinking about dorm life…which brings me to our latest Inviting Writing theme: College food.
As always, the rules are simple: Tell us a story! We’re looking for true, original, personal essays inspired in some way by our theme. Please keep it under 1,000 words, and send it to FoodandThink@gmail.com with “Inviting Writing: College Food” in the subject line. 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).
Fluff and Nonsense
By Amanda Bensen
I accidentally became a vegetarian a few weeks before my freshman year of college began, and I decided to stick with it. But while young adulthood may be idiomatically called one’s “salad days,” I didn’t eat much in the way of leafy greenery that year. “Carbs and sugar days” would be more accurate. In my dorm-room hot pot, I cooked up vast quantities of macaroni and cheese, minute rice and ramen noodles. I ate any kind of snack that could be bought in bulk and stowed in a plastic storage bin for weeks at a time: Goldfish crackers, chips, pretzels, Twizzlers, Skittles, M&Ms, Swedish Fish, matzo bread, animal crackers. I experimented with dipping all of those things—and even, occasionally, sheets of raw ramen noodles—in Marshmallow Fluff. (Yes. I know. I should have warned you not to read this while eating.)
In the cafeteria, I gravitated toward cereal and dessert, sometimes combining the two (frozen yogurt mixed with Corn Pops! giant rice crispy treats!), and felt justified in this because, hey, it wasn’t meat, after all. As long as I wasn’t eating that, my diet must be “healthy,” I figured. I mean, who ever heard of a fat vegetarian? (Ah, the wisdom of a 17-year-old brain.)
Then, one day, a friend casually mentioned a fact that rocked my world.
“Did you know gelatin isn’t vegetarian?” she said, gesturing at my bag of Skittles. “It’s made from animal bones. So real vegetarians don’t eat it.”
That stung. Given the sketchy circumstances of my conversion, I was eager to prove to the world that I was a “real” vegetarian. I’d read the brochures about animal rights, and I’d heard the statistic about how dozens of hungry people could potentially be fed with crops grown on an acre of land that, used for cattle grazing, would yield only a handful of hamburgers. A copy of “Diet for a Small Planet” was prominently displayed on my bookshelf (though I hadn’t actually read more than a few pages at that point). I was serious about this, gosh darn it!
So I gave up gelatin. Since this suddenly ruled out things like rice crispy treats, Fluff, and many types of candy, I was forced to adapt my diet. I finally read that book, and a few others, and learned about the importance of balancing one’s carbohydrate, protein and fat intakes. I started eating more salad, and less sugar, from the cafeteria. I discovered chickpeas and hummus. The “freshman 15″ disappeared rapidly.
College, I realized, is all about learning to balance—time, workload, opinions, allegiances and so on. Food is only the beginning, but it’s a good first step when still recovering from the wobble of leaving the nest.
By the start of my sophomore year, my roommate Jenna and I formed a pact, scribbled on a sheet of notebook paper and officiously signed by each of us and a bemused “witness” (the girl who lived across the hall). I still have a copy. It’s about boys, because we’d just had a shared epiphany that they could be a terrible distraction from more important matters such as studying, exercising, and staring dreamily at world atlases.
We promised, in writing, never to let ourselves become inordinately obsessed with a boy. And if I did?
“My roommate, Jenna, has permission to force-feed me gelatin.”
July 26, 2010
We’re taking a road trip this month for Inviting Writing, and Lisa drove the first leg (rather queasily) last week. Today, we’ll head to Paris with Anny Wohn, a D.C.-based pastry chef who previously contributed this lovely essay on Korean picnics.
If this inspires your inner Kerouac, there’s still time to send in your own story about road food. E-mail submissions to FoodandThink@gmail.com with “Inviting Writing: Road Trips” in the subject line by August 1st.
Our Moveable Feast
By Anny Wohn
On the first morning of our trip to Paris, I awoke to Andy pacing around our darkened hotel room, deliberately trying to get my attention. That rainy November day began with his words, “I can’t sleep knowing there’s a city full of pâté out there!”
When you are a pastry chef married to another chef, all vacations, conversations and road trips converge on food. After three days in Paris of continuous eating punctuated by museum visits, we were about to embark on a 307-mile voyage through northern France, dipping under the English Channel for 20 minutes, before arriving in London via the countryside of Kent.
Because I have lived only in large cities throughout my life, and didn’t even sit behind the wheel of an automobile until the age of 29, the network of transit systems is my “open road” of possibilities wherever I journey in the world.
Preparations for the 2-hour-and-15-minute train ride from Gare du Nord to London’s St. Pancras Station on the high-speed Eurostar began early on the day of our departure. During our breakfast at the café near our hotel in the 5th arrondissement, we pocketed leftover tabs of Isigny butter wrapped in foil paper.
Then, traversing the Seine over the Louis Philippe Bridge, we arrived in the 3rd and 4th arrondissements, where we hunted for unpasteurized cheeses and pâtés, and gathered nutty financiers and boozy cannelés for dessert. I peeled away the woolen gloves from my frozen fingertips to linger over my last chocolat chaud of the trip.
Breaking a long crusty baguette in half (breaking this pastry chef’s heart to compromise the integrity of the beautiful loaf) in order to conceal it in my carry-on bag, we finally ducked into the metro and headed for the train station.
Weaving through the crowd, passing French police dogs whose discerning noses were unperturbed by pungent cheese, we stepped across political boundaries at the immigration desk and onto our train as the door clipped at our heels. As we were just placing our bags overhead, the more punctual couple in our four-person seating pod was already clearing their lunch of fast food purchased from a stall at the Gare du Nord. We sat facing them, yet avoiding eye contact, and strategically positioned our feet to avoid knocking knees.
Andy left to find the café car—where he exchanged the last of our euros for a Stella Artois and a bottle of mineral water—while I watched the scenic frames of northern France whizzing past at 186 m.p.h. When he returned, we set up our feast in an assembly line, stretching across our half of the table surface from window to aisle.
I spread the baguette with the golden butter made of grassy Norman cows’ milk, and passed it onto Andy, who topped it with any one of the full kilogram (2.2 pounds) of treats we’d purchased. There was country pork pâté, unctuous rabbit terrine, duck liver mousse and Pounti, a dense Auvergne-style meat loaf studded with sweet prunes.
After that, we unleashed our cheese course of Saint-Nectaire, followed by a sweet ending of pistachio-brown butter cake with sour cherries and cylinders of rum-soaked custard pastry (cannelés).
Upon detraining at St. Pancras and following the stampede through the labyrinthine Underground, we emerged from the Sloane Square Tube station, walked a few blocks to my sister’s flat, bearing small gifts of colorful macarons from Ladurée and a tin of crêpes dentelles from La Grande Epicerie.
We were just in time to join the expats for a Thanksgiving dinner in London.
July 19, 2010
It’s time for a new Inviting Writing topic. This month’s theme is one of my favorite summer activities—road trips.
The rules are simple: Tell us a true story that somehow relates to that theme (and food, of course), and e-mail it to FoodandThink@gmail.com with “Inviting Writing: Road Trips” in the subject line. We’ll pick three of the best, lightly edit them and publish them over the next few Mondays here on the blog. For more guidance, please read this and peruse last month’s stories about “picnics.”
I’ll get things started with a story of my own. Surprisingly, as much as I love taking to the open road, the only food-related road trip story (actually, two) I could come up with isn’t very appetizing. Let’s see if some of the budding Jack Kerouacs out there can do better—it shouldn’t be hard.
ROAD TRIPS, or WHAT HAPPENS ON THE WAY TO VEGAS…
For my 30th birthday, a couple of good friends and I decided to take a road trip to Las Vegas from Los Angeles. We planned to gamble a little, sit by the pool, maybe see a show—nothing unusual. But my first indication that things weren’t going to go exactly as planned was that another friend, who had been living overseas, decided to surprise me by flying in to join us for the weekend trip. That was great, but the real surprise was that she also needed to crash at my cramped 1-bedroom apartment for the next month.
I shrugged off this unexpected twist and we were on our way. Driving from L.A. to Las Vegas on a Friday evening is rarely pleasant. A good portion of the 17 million or so inhabitants of the L.A. metropolitan area funnel onto the 10 and 15 freeways heading east, trying to get home to the suburbs or out to the desert for a weekend escape. A trip that would take about four hours without traffic can stretch to hours longer, as cars crawl along the blacktop.
I made my first gamble of the weekend before we even crossed the Nevada state line: hungry but not wanting to add more stops to our stop-and-go journey, I ate a sandwich from a national-chain sub shop located inside a gas station mini-mart.
A couple hours later, after the traffic had thinned and we were driving through the night on the lonesome desert highway, an ominous gurgling in my gut told me that I had made a bad bet. There was nowhere to stop for miles, and I wasn’t about to squat behind a tumbleweed in the dark, where I was sure rattlesnakes and scorpions were lurking. Luckily, a small cluster of lights soon appeared on the horizon, indicating my salvation—a clean public restroom—was near.
The only other time I experienced food-borne illness was also on a road trip, although not in the classic sense—I was on an overnight bus trip between Istanbul and the Cappadocia region of Turkey, during a solo European backpacking adventure in my 20s. This time, the fact that I was alone among strangers in an unfamiliar culture made the onset of the gut-gurgling even more disconcerting.
I was laid up for three or four days in the small village of Göreme with what some travelers call “Sultan’s Revenge.” During that time, multiple locals tried to cure me with home remedies—the pansiyon (guesthouse) owner urged me to drink a glassful of equal parts honey and water; the tour-office worker’s concoction included hot water, honey, lemon juice and salt; and the restaurant owner insisted that raki, the ever-present anise-flavored liquor, was the cure for what ailed me. A visit to the doctor, facilitated by the raki-pushing restauranteur, finally did the trick.
Other than the first day, during which I was feverish and bedridden, being sick may have actually been a positive thing in the long run. Forced to slow down and hang out in town rather than go out exploring the area’s tourist sites, I got to spend a good amount of time talking to the local Turkish people.
That’s the great thing about road trips—you don’t always know where they might lead you.
July 12, 2010
We couldn’t decide between several of the short, sweet stories you sent us in response to the latest Inviting Writing prompt about picnics, so we decided to share the whole spread today—enjoy!
From John Haddad (Epicuriousity):
Many of my memories involve food and traveling. Fish & chips in London, waffles in Bruges, Guinness in Ireland, and lots of pasta in Italy. In particular, I have very fond memories of a trip to the south of France in the Spring of 1990.
The details are a bit fuzzy, but I remember being stranded with a group of friends in Aix en Provence on a Sunday during a train strike, with hardly two francs to rub together. Somehow, we pooled enough money together to buy provisions at the market for a picnic. We walked down a dirt road into the countryside for several miles until we were nearly in the shadow of Mont Sainte Victoire—a scene made famous by the Impressionist artist Cezanne—and sat in a field of flowers.
We lounged for hours in those fragrant fields, forgetting our worries, eating and drinking like there was no tomorrow. We filled ourselves with bread and cheese, saucisson and tomatoes, washed down with cold white wine and luscious strawberries that I can still almost taste today, twenty years later.
From Dale Elizabeth Walker in Kansas City, Missouri:
Some years ago, I found myself the proud owner of a magnificent hand-crafted picnic hamper, complete with glass champagne flutes and plates, metal silverware and cloth napkins. It was a generous gift from a client whose kitchen I’d been painting for several weeks, during the phase of my working life when I ran a faux finishing business.
I had grossly underbid the job, which started as a repair job on a faux marbled-feature wall but soon extended into tedious wallpaper removal and painting one-inch striping on the remaining walls. Though I had never bid my jobs very well, this one was a particular disaster. My client knew it and offered to pay more, but I felt bound by my contract and refused.
A personable, energetic woman, my client and her husband owned an older home in a charming urban-residential neighborhood. They had packed a gourmet kitchen into a tiny space, with windows pushed out into a shady yard where their cats could perch and watch the songbirds flitting by. It was summer, so we chatted about the local Shakespeare in the Park performance that I planned to attend with friends. I talked about how we would all bring sacks full of tantalizing treats and bottles of our favorite wines to share, and how the ripe fruits and savory cheeses always seemed to taste better in the open air.
When I had finished putting the last stripe on my client’s wall, packed up my brushes, cans and miles of narrow blue painters tape, she handed me a check and asked me to wait a minute while she got something else. That was when the hamper emerged, delivered with her thanks and a warm hug.
I have since wisely quit that business and now earn my living in marketing, but I will always remember her graciousness every time that hamper comes off the shelf and gets packed for another outdoor theatrical performance.
From Jessica Harper (The Crabby Cook):
I love the Hollywood Bowl, but I love it for the wrong reason.
I don’t love it because it’s a beautiful outdoor venue where you (and nearly 18,000 other patrons) can sit under the stars and hear the L.A. Philharmonic or Beck while crickets chirp. I don’t love it because it was it was designed by Lloyd Wright (son of Frank), or even because the Beatles played there in 1964.
I love it because it means that many restaurants and eateries in Los Angeles offer picnic baskets to go, all summer long. For those of us who are honing our cooking-avoidance skills, this is fabulous news!
I caught on to this when we canceled our plans to go to the Bowl for a concert at the last minute on a recent night. My daughter was late from work, my husband had a volatile situation at the office, the pre-4th traffic was insane, and it turned out the concert was a celebration of the L.A. Dodgers, a team none of us has an allegiance to. But the good news was that I’d ordered and already picked up a picnic for us at Clementine’s, a great local eatery. We ate al fresco on the patio, with our own private stars and crickets and about 17,996 fewer people.
So from now on, I plan to pretend to go to the Hollywood Bowl on a regular basis. I’ll order a picnic basket, and at pickup time I’ll exchange lively banter with the purveyor about who’s playing the Bowl that night and how bad the traffic’s likely to be. Then I’ll sneak home, mix up a martini, put on my L.A. Phil CD…and dinner will be so done!
July 6, 2010
Many thanks to those of you who shared your picnic-related stories for the latest Inviting Writing prompt—we hope this past holiday weekend was a time of making more good food memories! Today, we bring you pastry chef Anny Wohn’s story about “picnicking” in a New York City school cafeteria as a child. (You can also read about a Korean-style beach picnic on her excellent food and travel blog, Urban Egg.)
P.S. 32 Picnic
by Anny Wohn
I attribute it to the mountainous terrain or perhaps the four distinct seasons, but Koreans adore picnics. In fact, each spring and fall when the fragrant blossoms or the magnificent foliage paint the landscape, there are organized picnics known as so-poong for school children and their chaperones nationwide. On these school trips, each student-parent pair brings a do-shi-rak, a portable, multi-tiered lunch box with samplings of different dishes in each compartment.
A Korean child’s school lunch is akin to a smaller individual-scale picnic. The do-shi-rak my mother typically packed for me contained bulkogi (marinated grilled beef), blanched spinach tossed in sesame oil, marinated soy bean or mung bean sprouts, grilled tofu with a ginger-soy dressing, spicy cucumbers and steamed rice, each in its own neat little space within my portable lunch case.
My parents enrolled me at Public School 32 within ten days of our arrival in New York from Seoul. I ate my elaborate do-shi-rak at the school cafeteria, with curious stares and sometimes rude comments from my classmates, who ate their sandwiches from their all-American “Barbie” or “Dukes of Hazzard” lunch boxes.
It was 1979, after all, and Americans did not yet know Asian cuisine the way they do now. Chop suey and chow mein were still mainstays on Chinese menus, sushi was only just becoming popular among yuppies, and although hippies had long embraced Indian cuisine, it was hardly mainstream. And Korean? No one understood Korean food then.
About a week after I started at P.S. 32, I stood up to reach for my do-shi-rak in the cubby neatly lined with everyone’s lunch boxes, and to my horror realized it was not there—I had forgotten to bring it with me that morning! Panic set in almost immediately.
My astute teacher, Mrs. Modry, detected something was wrong and came to my aid. Though I had been tutored in some English words and phrases at the International School back in Seoul, I did not know how to say “lunch box.” Finally, after miming and playing guessing games, I conveyed to her that I did not have my lunch with me.
She escorted me to the school cafeteria with the class, and put my name on the list for “hot lunch.” It must have been a traumatic event for me, because I vividly remember every detail of what was on my cardboard tray: the hamburger patty saturated in gravy—a.k.a. “Salisbury Steak”—with floppy crinkle-cut fries, khaki-colored “green beans,” and one red-and-white half-pint carton of milk with a thin white plastic straw.
It was not particularly palatable, but I went through the motions, picking at the food with a “spork” until Jonathan, who had already built a reputation as the class scavenger, reached out a scrawny hand and asked, “are you gonna eat that?”
Just then, my mother showed up at the cafeteria’s back door with my do-shi-rak, a few moments too late. She was a lovely sight through my teary eyes, even with her face flushed from rushing. She spoke to Mrs. Modry and went to the principal’s office to pay the fifty cents owed for my hot lunch. I don’t know what happened to my untouched do-shi-rak, but I suspect Mom probably had her own picnic at home afterwards.