November 15, 2011
From guest blogger Derek Workman
The menu fixed to the restaurant wall in front of me proudly offers 176 rice dishes. The first question that springs to mind is: “How?” Followed rapidly by: “Why?” How can you possibly prepare that number of dishes using the same main ingredient, and why on earth would you want to do so, anyway? But this is Valencia, on Spain’s eastern seaboard; they take their rice seriously hereabouts.
Paella is often dismissed as the catch-all cuisine of Spain. This iconic dish first saw light of day in the campo around Valencia City. During the Moorish reign from the early 8th century until the time of Columbus, this was the most agriculturally productive area in the then-known world. The vast watery tracts of the Albufera, the freshwater lake to the southeast of the city, provided not only the water that irrigated the paddies, but also the fish, eels and fowl that bred there.
The romantic (although some might say ridiculous) origin of the name paella comes from a story that the dish was first cooked by a young man for his lover—he made it para ella (for her). The more realistic origin is that the dish takes its name from the shallow, two-handled frying pan in which it is traditionally cooked and is derived from the Latin patella.
To the uninitiated, a paella is a paella is a paella, but the subtleties of its preparation, the exact timing of when to add the water and for how long it should lie before being served are the subject of fierce debate.
There’s a legend that there is a Spanish restaurant in New York that imports its water from Valencia to make paella. Valencianos believe that a true paella can be made only in Valencia because the water has as high concentration of calcium which affects how the rice is cooked. If they go to the mountains or somewhere else to make paella, they take the water with them.
The basis of paella is very simple; it was a poor man’s food at a time when most people lived at subsistence level. You used what you had around you: tomato, a little garlic, meat, a few vegetables and then whatever else you had to hand. But you never mixed meat and fish, a modern deviation for the guiris, a tongue-in-cheek name for a foreigner. But the essence of the meal was rice—and everyone has different opinion about how to prepare it.
Just as a flamenco aficionado will tell you that only a gypsy born of poverty in the south of Spain can truly dance flamenco (which rather flies in the face of the fact that the flamboyant dance form actually came from India), a Valenciano will tell you that only a true son of the Valencian soil will be able to make a genuine paella, and each will guarantee you that his own recipe is the best—although they had to chew on their words a bit when a Japanese chef won the region’s main concorso de paella (paella competition) two years in a row.
Every Sunday morning I go to the campo with my pal Vicente and a group of friends to work on a patch of land he’s trying to bring back to horticultural life. Once a month he’ll make a huge paella and invite family and even more friends, as is the Valencian tradition. Everyone stands around throwing in advice while nursing a beer or a glass of wine, although they seldom actually make any effort to help in the preparation or cooking. “Put more water in.” “No, you’ll make it to soggy!” “That’s too much garlic.” “You need to let the meat brown more.” Vicente ignores them all and sticks to the same recipe his ma handed down to him. It’s a big family event, and when it’s ready we devour it in the traditional way, everyone sitting at the same table, eating out of the pan using their own wooden spoon.
Derek Workman is a journalist living in Valencia who “delights in searching out the weird, the wonderful and the idiosyncratic, which Spain has by the bucketful.” He blogs at Spain Uncovered.
September 6, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing series, we expected some horror stories about cafeteria culture. Instead, writers have shared largely positive memories: learning social customs in the United States, creating an open-air lunch spot in Kolkata and today, a civilized taste of socialized shrimp in Luxembourg. Helene Paquin lives in Toronto and blogs about books at the CrackSpineDrinkWine book club. Her twitter handle is @CrackSpineBkClb
Cafeteria Culture? It’s Not All Bad
By Helene Paquin
Business travel can be taxing. The time spent at airports instead of at home with family. The challenges of inventory control as you’re living out of a carry-on for a week. The unfair reality that the Earth rotates around the sun and therefore you will be jet lagged. It’s not all negative, however. Business travel does provide an opportunity to visit places that you wouldn’t likely visit on your own. In my case it was Luxembourg, not exactly on my bucket list of must-see. I’d been asked to attend a week of meetings, and having no real choice in the matter, my answer was, “Oui, I shall go.”
After managing five hours of sleep on the flight, I take a taxi to Luxembourg’s second largest town, Esch. As the taxi pulls up in front of the headquarters I’m struck by the architecture of the building. A giant stack of red plastic building blocks in the shape of a V greets me. In contrast, next door is what appears to be a dilapidated steel plant facing foreclosure. I hand over 75 euros and in my best French I manage to squeak, “Merçi, au revoir” to my driver. I’m determined to use my native language while I’m here despite my Quebecois accent.
The morning meeting goes well and I’m invited to have lunch in the cafeteria. Flashes of high school flood my memory bank: long lines, steel trays steaming with the bland daily special, the refrigerated cases with slide windows to reach a chocolate pudding. Frankly I’m a bit horrified and do not have the best poker face. My peers immediately start explaining: The district is being developed and has no restaurants in the immediate area for dining. The office has planned for this and a subsidized cafeteria has been built for the employees. Apparently it’s the law for companies to do this. I fake a smile and we head to the second floor.
The elevator opens and I’m greeted with a display table featuring the season’s offerings. Giant white asparagus tied with string on a silver platter lie below vases filled with spectacular flower arrangements. A rectangular blackboard lists today’s menu choices written in white chalk. Employees pour in and say hello to each other as they swipe their employee cards. I ask about the cards thinking I may need one to order my lunch. I’m informed that employees swipe their card to prove that they have taken a lunch break. If an employee doesn’t swipe, his or her manager receives an email indicating the staff might be overworked. Again this is the law. The labor codes want to ensure health and wellness by encouraging breaks, eating meals and socializing. In my office we eat lunch at our desks while answering phones and typing emails.
There are five lines divided by meal types: grill, pasta, pizza, daily special and salad. I head to the shortest and quickly the chef asks what I would like. On my first day of travel I keep it simple: pasta with tomato sauce. “Voulez-vous des langoustines?” I grin widely. Why, yes, I would like subsidized shrimp on my pasta. He makes the sauce from scratch in a saucepan right in front of me. No bastions of steel trays filled with food that’s been sitting there for 3 hours. Everything is fresh. I look over at the others and it’s the same everywhere. The pizzas are made to order, so are the salads. This is unlike any cafeteria I’ve ever seen. Everyone looks happy, standing in line, talking to each other.
I’m handed my dish and head over to the fridges. There’s wine and beer! How civilized! I’d love to grab a red wine but my North American employment policy says not to. I make a mental note that I need to see about getting a transfer when I get back. The desserts are works of art. The shelves reveal crème caramels with slivers of chocolate on top, chocolate éclairs with fresh custard and what looks like a lemon cake. Want a coffee with that? Enter some coins in the espresso maker and a freshly brewed cup magically appears. I see my colleagues and join them at the cashier. She tallies my order: three euros. This is the best cafeteria ever! I sit at a table and stare at the trays filled with treasures from the kitchen. I’m overwhelmed and realize how grateful I am to be here among people who care so much about food and quality of life. I raise my water glass, “Bon appétit everyone!”
August 12, 2011
Last week Alina Simone wrote an amusing piece on the New York Times Opinionator blog about why Russians don’t put ice in their drinks. Any American who has traveled in Europe has probably wondered the same thing in many of those countries, where you might be served a few cubes of ice floating in your soda but rarely the glassful we’ve come to expect here. A better question might be, why do Americans love ice so much?
The answers Simone heard from older family members and from strangers in New York’s Russian immigrant–dominated Brighton Beach were all over the place: A Chechen antiques dealer said, “Who knows where that ice came from? It’s probably dirty.” A bar patron posited that ice dilutes a drink, but had no answer for why, then, it shouldn’t be used in water. A Siberian friend pointed out that they are already surrounded by ice for most of the year, and another said maybe it was because they have bad teeth that were sensitive to the cold.
One explanation I’ve heard elsewhere, and which may hold some truth, is that Europeans see ice as taking up valuable real estate in the glass, so that they would feel cheated if they got too much ice and too little beverage. This theory has two problems: It doesn’t explain, again, why water shouldn’t be served with ice, and it doesn’t take into account the fact that one is often served a whole can or bottle of soda, which could then be used to refill the glass. My guess on the first issue is that drinking water with a meal is (or at least was) less common in Europe than here—a Parisian waiter once sarcastically presented my requested water as “Champagne”—and since no one had become accustomed to ice in drinks the preference carried over to water.
The answer that Simone heard that was closest to the truth, I suspect, came from a waitress in a Russian restaurant: “That’s just how it’s always been.” With a question that could never be answered definitively, that seems as good a response as any.
As for the reverse question—why Americans use so much ice in their drinks—my theory is that it has to do with our “more is more” mentality. Because somewhere along the line free drink refills became the norm, giving customers lots of ice was actually seen as adding rather than subtracting value. It’s like the giant slab of cream cheese many delis slap on your bagel, when a light schmear would do nicely. Personally, I think they sometimes go overboard with the ice; I like my drink chilled, but not glacial.
At the other extreme, in some countries—Turkey, for instance—hot beverages, like tea, are preferred in warm weather. The theory is that they cause you to sweat, which cools you down, while your body will have to work harder to warm a cold drink to your internal temperature, thereby making you even hotter. But, as Dean Edell points out, this theory doesn’t hold water: Neither a hot nor a cold drink in anything but an enormous amount can raise or lower overall body temperature. It’s “like throwing an ice cube into a tub of hot water,” he says. Any difference felt is an illusion.
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 15, 2011
How young is too young to drink alcohol? The answer differs in various cultures, but most would probably agree that a child who hasn’t yet developed fine motor skills shouldn’t drink anything that would impair them. Even in European countries that have looser attitudes than the U.S. about youthful drinking, toddlers aren’t swilling cocktails out of their sippy cups.
But that’s what happened a few days ago at an Applebee’s in Michigan, where a 15-month-old became intoxicated after being accidentally served a margarita instead of apple juice. The parents (themselves underage) discovered the mix-up when their little boy began talking to the wall and then put his head down on the table. His blood alcohol content was tested at .11—roughly equivalent to what a 200-pound man’s BAC would be after six drinks and well over the legal limit for operating a vehicle in most states. Fortunately, he had a designated driver, and he was cut off before he suffered anything more serious than a wicked three-day hangover. Now the parents are suing Applebee’s, which has said it is making changes in how it serves drinks to avoid this happening again (it wasn’t the first such incident at the chain). Olive Garden was forced to give a similar statement this week when one of its servers in Florida also had trouble distinguishing between sangria and unadulterated juice, in this case, contributing to the delinquency of a two-year-old.
For obvious legal and ethical reasons, little scientific research has been done on the effects of alcohol on young children, but in adults the range that can lead to serious impairment or even death is roughly .30 to .40. In January, a 4-year-old in Alpharetta, Georgia, died with a BAC of .272, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, after her father and aunt allegedly gave her alcohol. Both adults were arrested and charged with felony cruelty to children and felony murder.
In France and other countries that traditionally drink wine with meals, children are sometimes allowed to have small amounts of wine, usually watered down, at the dinner table. But even there, attitudes about the appropriate age for drinking have shifted; the legal age to purchase wine and beer was raised from 16 to 18 in 2009. The purpose was to curb binge drinking among teenagers, although critics of the law argued that it was counterproductive, pointing to the higher incidence of binge drinking in countries like the U.S., where the legal drinking age is 21.
They may have a point—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 11 percent of alcohol in the U.S. is consumed by people aged 12 to 20. A 2009 survey found that 42 percent of high school students drank some alcohol during the past 30 days, and 24 percent binge drank. In 2008, there were about 190,000 alcohol-related emergency-room visits by people under 21.
Like many Jewish kids, my first taste of alcohol was at the Passover table. I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I was allowed to trade grape juice for a few sips of sickly sweet Manischewitz, but I do recall the almost instantaneous warm, heady sensation it gave me.
The first time I drank enough alcohol to get drunk was when I was 12. It was New Year’s Eve, and my parents left me and their friends’ daughter home alone while the adults went out to celebrate. My friend and I raided her parents’ liquor cabinet, mixing small amounts from each bottle so their absence would be less noticeable, and then added some melted ice cream. Our cocktail tasted atrocious, but we drank enough to feel giddy at first, then a little nauseated, while we watched MTV. We didn’t get caught. As far as drunken teen (or tween, as the case was) escapades go, it was pretty tame.
Though I had wilder drinking days ahead, I’m fortunate I never became a serious binge drinker as a teen or adult. Aside from the obvious deadly stupidity of driving while impaired—there were 1,398 under-21 drunk-driving fatalities in 2009—the consequences of heavy adolescent drinking can be far more serious than a hangover. Research on teens, conducted mostly through self-reporting (those legal and ethical issues again) or on animals, has found that repeated binge drinking can have serious effects on brain and body development. A 2005 report by the National Institutes of Health lists findings on adolescent alcohol use that include: reduced levels of growth hormones in both sexes; adverse effects on the maturation of the reproductive system in female rats; lowered bone density in human males; reduced hippocampal volumes associated with alcohol abuse (that’s the part of the brain involved in memory and spatial navigation); and long-lasting changes in memory in adolescent rats.
Less serious, but worth noting: in the age of YouTube, alcohol-induced embarrassing behavior can be long-lasting, too.