November 1, 2012
There comes a point in every person’s life where they must decide how to take care of their mortal remains. There are tons of possibilities. There’s traditional: the crematorium or a simple pine box set six feet under. There’s the avant garde: artist Jae Rhim Lee’s prototypical mushroom suit where fungus spores grow on and break down the corpse. Some get especially inventive, such as comic book editor Mark Gruenwald, who had his ashes mixed in with ink and used to print a comic book, or Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry who had his ashes launched into space. There’s also the debate as to whether to care for the dead at home or let a mortician handle the job, an issue explored by journalist Max Alexander. There also comes a point where you need to figure out how to feed the living as many cultures respond to death through food—and those responses are similarly rich in variation. And with people celebrating the Day of the Dead today—the Mexican festival that commemorates the deceased—it’s a perfect opportunity to look at some of these funerary foodways.
In a funereal setting, food can serve a number of functions, some of which are contingent on one’s spiritual convictions. In some rituals, food is meant to sustain the deceased in the afterlife. The ancient Egyptians were notable for placing edible offerings in a tomb in the belief that a person’s spirit could thus be sustained for eternity—and in some cases the food itself was mummified and wrapped, as was the case with the joints of meat found in the tomb of priestess Henutmehyt. Similarly, Day of the Dead festivities include creating an altar in one’s home where food—usually the deceased’s favorite dishes—is laid to nourish traveling souls. (And in many communities, families will pack a picnic lunch to bring to the family cemetery plot where they eat pan de muertos, a sweetbread with bone-like decorations.) Other traditions incorporate food to ward off evil. At one time in Jewish tradition, bagels were meant to protect against the evil eye—although this bread is eaten, usually with a hard boiled egg, because the round shape is meant to symbolize the cyclical nature of life. In Japan, mourners may sprinkle themselves with salt as a ritualistic purification of the body or use it in the corners of their homes to ward off evil spirits—and it’s a tradition that inspired sculptor Motoi Yamamoto to create intricate, large-scale images with salt in response to the death of his sister.
But perhaps most importantly, food is meant to sustain the living, not just nutritionally but spiritually. In Molokan communities in the United States, the funeral dinner is a major social and spiritual event with hymns and prayers sung between courses, which can include dishes like borscht, boiled beef and a dessert course of fruits and pastries. The immediate family of the deceased, however, abstains from eating, showing that “spiritual food” is enough to tide them over during their time of grief.
When my paternal grandfather entered end of life care, neighbors and extended family came with boxes of food to load up Grandma’s pantry and freezer. When he passed and it came time to arrange the post-funeral meal, the family didn’t have to worry about preparing anything, only what items to pull from the fridge to set out for guests. The table was laid out, buffet-style, with platters of ham biscuits, deli meats, cheeses and slaw with desserts—two pumpkin pies and an Angel food cake—nearby on the kitchen counter. After an emotional afternoon at the cemetery, the mood lifted somewhat as people packed their plates and shared a meal and their memories of Grandaddy Jim. And the combination of good company and good eats is certainly helpful when processing the loss of a loved one.
October 15, 2012
At about this time every year, Michelin begins releasing their vaunted series of international restaurant guides that highlight the best—and worst—places to sit down for a meal. While one of the best-selling dining guides on the market, they are not without detractors—notably British critic A.A. Gill who, in a Vanity Fair editorial, dubbed it an “assassin of the greatest international food” and finds the books to be limited in scope and guilty of food snobbery. Now, when I think Michelin, I think about cars and that charming little man made out of pneumatic tires. Their association with haute cuisine was something I just accepted and returned to my local newspaper/word of mouth/urbanspoon app for dining ideas. But why do we look to on automotive company to highlight the best in international cuisine?
The answer does indeed begin with cars. In late 19th century France, brothers André and Édouard Michelin were leading the pneumatic tire industry with their greatest innovation—tires that did not have to be glued to a wheel rim, but rather, easily removed and replaced—were outfitting bicycles and automobiles. Motor tourism was on the rise in and at the same time, there was also an increasing interest regional gastronomy, which was believed to contribute to the nation’s culinary richness. The Michelin grew out of this point of national pride, and when the guide first appeared in 1900, it provided information on how to change a tire, where to find Michelin dealers and a list of acceptable places to eat and sleep when on the go. But once car culture became more established, and repair places became easier to find, editions printed after World War I focused more on food and lodging, with it’s now-famous starred rating system introduced in 1931. In his book, Marketing Michelin, author Stephen Harp points out the following statistic: “In 1912, the guide had over 600 pages, 62 of which concerned tires. By 1927, however, the first section of the guide devoted to changing tires included only 5 pages, out of 990 total.” The flagship product took a back seat to people’s stomachs and with over a million copies of the guide sold between 1926 and 1940, it was clear that the tire company was defining quality French cuisine.
Both the restaurant guides and their tire industry has endured, the former being a wonderfully ironic piece of marketing that works keep the Michelin brand in the public eye. Plug food to sell tires—who’d have thought? But, as with any curated list, the question always arises as to whether said list is worth its salt. Personally, I find guides to be helpful, but only when I find one that seems to sync up well with my own personality. (For instance, when I took a trip to New York, I used the Not For Tourists Guide to the city and was able to find great food where the locals actually ate. It was a great way to feel like I fit in with new environs, and most of the places they recommended were spot-on with the cuisine.)
Do you think that the Michelin guide is a solid means to finding good food or do your sentiments fall with those of Mr. Gill and feel that it does more harm than good? Share your thoughts—or any experiences you’ve had dining in a starred establishment—in the comments section below.
September 14, 2012
The summer days are wasting away and there are roughly 15 weeks left until Christmas. It feels a little strange to already turn one’s attention to the winter months; however, as some of you may recall, I made a few food-themed New Year’s resolutions, and with my colleagues beginning to celebrate Rosh Hashanah this weekend (that’s Jewish New Year to my fellow goyim), it’s a perfect time to take stock of how I’ve done so far. Here’s the original post with all the self-imposed benchmarks. Now, let’s review.
Resolution 1: Add new meals to the repertoire. By and large I still stick to the same core meals that I’ve happily lived on for the past couple years. Tried a few that I need to make up again—a fab vegetarian artichoke and potato soup—and have put the Crock Pot through its paces with a couple new recipes. I’m also trying to be a little more resourceful, occasionally scrap the cookbook and try on the fly to figure out what foods will work together. Most recently, a few sauteed summer squash with tomatoes, fresh herbs, a little onion and garlic made a fine meal when paired with a bag of tortellini hiding in my freezer. All in all, I think I can do better on this resolution—and I’ve still time to do that.
Resolution 2: Bake more. 2012 was the year where I finally got a handle on making a solid pie. Crafting crust was always my Achilles heel, but America’s Test Kitchen’s foolproof recipe involving vodka allowed me to up my game. Four cherry pies later, I’m feeling very zen with the baking. I’ve also dived into bread making. Dad used to make beautiful, round loaves of pagnota—white, crusty Italian bread—and when you grow up around that, it’s difficult to subsist on the squishy store-bought loaves. While two loaves of homemade wheat bread require a fair investment of time—I have to make the starter and soaker the night before and the next day it’s two hour-long risings and about an hour to bake off—the results are worth it. Flavorful bread that doesn’t back any of the fillers or preservatives that I find on the store shelves. As god is my witness, I’ll never buy Wonder again. At least that might be my goal for 2013.
Resolution 3: Entertain more. Have I done a ton of entertaining in my home? No, but I started off with a fondue party with just a couple buds (see Resolution 4), which went off pretty darn well. Everyone seemed to enjoy the Swiss/avocado appetizer, the red wine-based braise for the meats course and a dessert of macerated oranges with zabione. (Why be predictable and do three courses of fondue?) I also recently hosted a board gaming night where the fare was simple—hummus for appetizer, rolled out a few pizzas, key lime pie (see Resolution 2), DIY orange sherbet for dessert, bourbon-laced sangria to wash it all down—but all in all it went off well. It was also the gathering that let me know that, at most, I can comfortably accommodate 5 people in a 530 square foot apartment with one air conditioning unit in the window. But the other plus of entertaining? I found that I plan for gatherings like the rest of my family: convince yourself you’ve nearly enough food, overdo it at the grocery store and then find yourself with gobs of leftovers. While it may have been a slog to do all the prep work, there are a few post-party days where I can coast and graze off what’s left in the fridge. I can totally make a meal off a veggie platter.
Resolution 4: Use the fondue pots. One of my pots was a family hand-me-down, the other was a Goodwill find. It’s a shame people seem so willing to part with their fondue sets—it’s a wonderfully social way to enjoy food. While waiting for one person to dunk a bite of food or waiting for said food to cook, the conversation flows freely. I’m not knocking the standard dinner plate, but with that presentation, people might be more inclined to sit down and shovel their meal. If you still have yours kicking around in the closet, I encourage you to crack it out. Of course, now that I’ve used them once, the trick is to make sure they remain in use.
All that said, how are you all doing on any resolutions you made this past January? Let’s celebrate (or commiserate) in the comments section below.
July 18, 2012
Would you be able to manage a kitchen if you no longer had the use of one—if not both—of your hands? This question came to me as a colleague—who is quite kitchen savvy and is a fellow brown bagger—had to go in for shoulder surgery, leaving her with only one usable arm for the next six weeks. She was told point-blank that cooking for herself was not an option and that family would have to fill in—and that just wouldn’t do.
Google searches for “cooking with a broken arm” or “one-armed cooking” were fruitless, with the latter phrase simply turning up lots of parenting sites. Perhaps everyone is told to grin and bear it while recovering from surgery and that’s the way things are.
But what if the appendage is permanently lost? Searching for “amputee cooking” didn’t generate a wealth of information, but it did bring up a YouTube video of Jennifer Griffin making brownies. Normally, this is an unremarkable activity. But Griffin is a quadruple amputee, the result of a sepsis infection. While some might see the lack of either hand—let alone both—as an end to a life of cooking, Griffin took a constructive attitude and figured out how to revamp and revise her methodology for pulling a meal together. She was kind enough to correspond via email to tell me about her new relationship to the kitchen.
What was your relationship to your kitchen like before the infection?
I enjoyed baking a lot and always have but I wasn’t cooking meals as much. My husband loves to cook—lucky girl that I am—and got me much more interested in taking time to learn about what I was eating and where it was coming from. That said, after I got sick I had more time on my hands (excuse the pun) and could learn. So I became much more interested after getting sick.
During recovery, did you raise the question of how to cook for yourself with your doctors?
It was interesting to me that cooking hardly even came up in discussions with my rehab doctors and therapists. I expressed an interest in wanting to learn how to manage the kitchen. So, one day I made lunch. Mac and cheese—great start! I’m not sure they knew exactly how far to take me so we pushed the envelope every day.
What kinds of resources were available to you that addressed cooking for people in your situation?
Not much at all. There is a site I use called Patterson Medical that offers some devices in addition to several items in Williams-Sonoma. However, I was looking for an instructional class with a teacher who could really think outside the box. No such luck.
What was the first dish you tried preparing?
The mac and cheese I made while in rehab and was a bit sketchy, but edible. Then I made brownies when I got home and the taste was great but I recall the presentation being a little questionable. The good thing on the brownies though was I remember having a desire to learn how to do it right and I started practicing!
What kitchen skill was the most difficult for you to re-learn or adapt?
I would say learning to stir, cracking an egg and cutting. If I’m not using a mixer, anything I stir moves the bowl around since I can’t hold onto it. So I’ve learned to have my bowl in a corner that the bowl can push into & stabilize or use something on the bottom that makes it stick.
Learning to crack an egg was fun. That just took trying over and over and now I do it without thinking. Since I can’t hold a knife it’s very difficult to cut/dice, etc. So, I’ve learned how to use a pizza slicer (ones with thick handles and I can grip it and use the rolling blade) and found a few good choppers such as this one from Williams Sonoma.
How did you navigate around the varieties of food packages?
It wasn’t like I had a real strategy for this. I just played with packaging and devices. Over time I came to realize what worked best. Most things that come in bags with a Ziploc type packaging and some boxes, I use scissors to open. I’ve learned to lay the package flat on the counter and open it with the scissors. The counter supports the scissors for me and I can open and close them in a special way. The one item I’m still having problems with are cans. I haven’t found an opener that I can use very well yet. Even if it’s electric I have to stabilize the can in some way. So, if you can work that out for me it would be great. [Readers: if you have suggestions, please leave them in the comments section below!—Ed.]
Reading your website, the Positive Living for Active youth (PLAY) Foundation was created to get amputees involved in physical activities. Is cooking/kitchen skills a part of PLAY Foundation programs?
Absolutely! We haven’t had anyone apply for that yet but we would support the request 100%. PLAY is all about getting out of your comfort zone and trying things that bring out the applicants strengths. If we received a cooking application, depending upon the request, we would find a chef or school that would be willing to work with that individual, provide the financial grant, and be the facilitator during the process.
Is there a key piece of advice you would offer someone in a similar situation who wants to get back in the kitchen?
My advice would be to not be afraid of exploring and start looking at a utensils for more than what they are (e.g. using a pizza slicer as a knife). There are ways of getting it done it just takes practice and the desire to accomplish a fun challenge!
July 9, 2012
While Julia Child may have popularized French cuisine in America, she wasn’t the first to lend it prominence in our culinary culture—that credit goes to Thomas Jefferson. Perhaps more precisely, credit should go to the slaves in Jefferson’s kitchen who were trained to cook in this style and were producing meals every day of the year. These highly-skilled people were running the kitchen of one of the most powerful men in the fledgling nation, and yet, their personal stories are aggravatingly elusive because few people thought to write about “the help.” The forthcoming book, Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brûlée, focuses on Jefferson’s life in France, during which time he made a deal with slave James Hemings that if he learned the art of French cooking and imparted this knowledge to another slave, James would receive his freedom. The bargain was kept, with Hemings ultimately freed in 1796 and his younger brother Peter taking the reins of Monticello’s kitchen. The book stops just as Jefferson becomes commander in chief of a fledgling nation, but doesn’t touch much on the cooking that was happening at the executive mansion. In 1802, Jefferson brought two young women, Edith Fossett and and Fanny Hern, to Washington and Monticello research historian Leni Sorensen is able to offer an impression of what life was like for these early White House chefs.
Fossett and Hern were 15 and 18 respectively when they were tasked with cooking for the president. Under the tutelage of a French chef for about six years, they cooked for Jefferson until his death in 1826. ”They were at the absolute top of the chef’s game,” says Sorensen. “But because they were women, because they were black, because they were enslaved and because this was the beginning of the 19th century, they were just known as ‘the girls.’ But today, anyone with that amount of experience under their belt would be Julia Child.” Furthermore, for cooking in their own homes, these women were living off the same foods as the other slaves at Monticello, such as corn, greens, beans, squash and field peas. So why were these two people who were versed in the foodways of the poor picked to prepare haute cuisine for Washington’s elite? Here, Sorensen could only provide a best educated guess looking at contextual evidence. ”We know that Edith was listed as the baby minder for Sally Heming’s daughter, Harriet,” she says. “We know that at 8, she was around the house. That’s exactly the child who might be recruited to do some scullion work in the kitchen. And if they’re the kind of child who is patient, interested, tractable, intelligent, companionable, capable—you keep them and you teach them. And I think that’s how Edith and Francis would have been recognized. At some point a few years later, they were tapped to go to the president’s house. Who’s more logical? Someone who has kitchen experience.”
And we don’t definitively know much more about Fossett and Hern outside of their duties, the children they had, where they lived and that they were ultimately sold. “We don’t even know if they liked each other,” Sorensen observes. “We don’t have a record of that. They worked together for all those years and didn’t manage to cut each other up. Well, OK. All we can really look at is: what are the processes that had to be done to make a meal that would suit the taste of Mr. Jefferson and see what it takes to do that: to grow it, to buy it, to store it, to cook it, to present it and then start again the next day.” And indeed, this was a tall order, cooking for anywhere between 12 and 25 people a day.
While we will never know these women in great detail, Monticello’s kitchen provides another impression of what their lives were like. “Go to the kitchen,” Sorensen recommends. “The first thing visitors are going to notice is this row of raised holes—the stew stove—and it’s that unit that really made a difference in cooking in that kitchen. At that time, it was like having an eight-burner Viking range. It gave you the ability to cook at waist height, to work with copper pots and to cook creams and sauces and all the delicate dishes that French cooking has in its repertory.” And although visitors to Monticello might not have thought to remark on the chefs themselves, they did remark on the meals while Edith served as head chef there. In 1824, statesman Daniel Webster described the food was “served in half-Virginian, half-French style, in good taste and abundance.”
If you’re planning a trip to Monticello, be sure to stop off at the kitchen—but for those with only a computer at your disposal, you can take a virtual tour of the state-of-the-art 19th century cooking space. Also, for a hearty helping of food, culture and kitchen savvy, be sure to check out the cooking classes offered by Leni Sorensen at her Charlottesville, Virginia, home.