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.
August 10, 2011
I don’t know whether or not the members of Depeche Mode were right when they asserted in their 1984 song “Blasphemous Rumours” that “God has a sick sense of humor.” But I’m pretty sure that whoever decided that St. Lawrence should be the patron saint of cooks—or, more specifically, grilling—had a dark funny bone. You see, Lawrence, a deacon in Rome during the third century, met his martyrdom being roasted alive on a gridiron.
If the stories about him are true, the saint would probably appreciate this bit of perverse humor. He is said to have greeted his death cheerfully, quipping something along the lines of, “Turn me over, this side is done.”
What will Catholics eat today in honor of the saint’s feast day? Some traditions call for cold cuts and other uncooked foods, in pious avoidance of anything that would too closely resemble Lawrence’s burned flesh.
But others go the opposite direction, celebrating the manner of his death with a barbecue. As Evelyn Vitz, author of A Continual Feast: A Cookbook to Celebrate the Joys of Family & Faith throughout the Christian Year explains on her blog, “We decided that serving barbecued chicken is a great way to signify his triumph over the fire.” A contributor at the Catholic Cuisine blog interprets the theme another way, with cupcakes decorated to look like grills, complete with little shish kebabs made of frosting.
Some scholars now believe that Lawrence was actually beheaded. I don’t even want to think about what this would mean for his feast day menu.
If your culinary endeavors require the assistance of more than one patron saint, never fear. St. Lawrence is only one holy helper in the panoply of saints associated with food:
St. Macarius of Egypt (feast day January 2) is the patron saint of cooks, confectioners and pastry chefs for the straightforward reason that he was a successful merchant of fruits, confections and pastries before he converted and became a monk.
St. Honoré (feast day May 16) is the patron saint of bakers because of the miracle he is said to have performed, turning a baker’s peel into a tree. The French created an edible homage to celebrate his feast day, the decadent cream-filled St. Honoré cake.
St. Arnold (July 8 ) is the patron saint of brewers. The Catholic Drinkie blog explains that this is because the 6th-century Austrian priest spread the gospel of beer throughout the land, as it was considered healthier than disease-carrying water.
St. Martha (feast day July 29) is the patron saint of cooks and housekeepers. According to Catholic Foodie (I had no idea there were so many Catholic-themed food and drink blogs!), this is because she was the one who toiled to clean the house and prepare the food when Jesus came to dinner, while her sister sat adoringly at his feet listening to him speak.
March 9, 2011
Yesterday was Mardi Gras—that last hurrah before Lent. Traditionally Catholics are called to three practices during Lent: alms giving, prayer and fasting. The first two are generally satisfying to most people. The third not so much.
The tradition of the Lenten fast as we know it likely didn’t develop until the 4th century; there was a divergence of opinion on the nature and duration of the pre-Easter fast (as well as the very date of Easter itself) among authorities in the early Church. One locality might require fasting for all 40 days, another might call for a fast throughout the season of Lent but not on every day. Some required fasting only during Holy Week (the week before Easter), another only during Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. The number 40 could refer to either the 40 days Moses led the Hebrews in the desert, the 40 days Christ fasted in the desert, or even the tradition that Jesus spent 40 hours in the tomb.
As for the fast itself, some in the early Church abstained from all meat, others were allowed to eat fish, others wouldn’t eat eggs or certain nuts, some ate just bread the whole time.
But back to us. One of the first pitfalls you encounter when fasting is falling into a morass of legalism. To satisfy the minimum requirements of the Church, Catholics fast on Ash Wednesday (that is, today) and Good Friday, and do not eat meat on Fridays during Lent. Sundays, being the day of the Resurrection, are always feast days, no matter what part of the liturgical year. Go crazy.
The Lenten fast consists of one full meal during the day, preferably at noon (no fair breaking it into two small meals with a long break), with the allowance of a collation (small meal) in the evening. The idea of the collation began sometime in the 9th century as a way to give sustenance to those who performed physical labor during the day. Unless filling the office printer twice in one day is manual labor, I’m not sure how most of us get away with that one. Oh, you’re also allowed to have coffee or another drink in the morning and perhaps a little bit of bread or a cracker to get you going. This is beginning to sound a little less like a fast, isn’t it? It reminds me of the scene from Seinfeld where a fasting Elaine asks Jerry if he has ever had to fast. “No, but once I didn’t have dinner until, like, nine o’clock. That was pretty tough.”
For those inclined to know exactly just what is and is not permitted, right down to the crumb, the Church has made it fairly easy. But there really isn’t a one-size-fits all when it comes to Lenten fasting. After all, vegetarians who subsist on a couple of salads a day could get by well within the letter of the law without breaking stride. And if you’re a one-meal-a-day person anyway, Lent can seem like a breeze—maybe even an indulgence.
Basically, good fasting consists of walking a line between health-endangering practices on one side and mere form on the other. Perhaps the best rule is this: If you feel as if you are cheating, you probably are.
Another pitfall of fasting is to avoid the mortal sin of gluttony. At first you might think this would be easy. It doesn’t sound logical to be concerned with too much if you’re eating much less, but this is because of a misconception of what gluttony is. The Church defines it not as eating too much, but as having an inordinate preoccupation with food, and nothing causes us to think of food more than trying to avoid it. Suddenly every commercial is food-related, every meeting in the office has a box of donuts brought in by the devil. Our hearing becomes incredibly acute—we never noticed before just how many times the office microwave beeps during the average work day.
A third pitfall, and perhaps the most insidious, is the insistence of certain green-uniformed groups on selling cookies outside of Mass. Here we are torn between our command to charity, and our command to fasting. Fortunately the confessional is not far away.
As Lent approaches, I’ve become “Super Catholic.” Those of us who are “reverts” (lapsed Catholics who have come back to the fold with the zeal of a convert) typically make things difficult for ourselves, probably to make up for our misspent youth. Also our misspent pocket change—I’m the type who can hit the candy machine at work three or four times a day. This year I’m taking a page from the early Church. Fasting all 40 days, no meat on Fridays. I imagine I’ll be finishing up about the time that the first steaks of summer are hitting the grills in the back yards all around my neighborhood. That’s probably like running by a mattress store on the last mile of a marathon.
—By Erik Washam, Smithsonian magazine’s associate art director
February 2, 2011
Last Friday a friend and I decided to grab dinner at a Chinese restaurant down by the D.C. waterfront. We indulged in the hot and sour soup and plates of steak sauteed with scallions and red onion and dark chicken meat marinated in garlicky soy sauce and served with a medley of nuts. And when all that was left on the white stoneware serving plates was a stray cashew or two, the waiter kindly offered us a dessert menu. Tempted, though having had my fill, I was quite content to settle for the dessert that customarily comes with the check. The fortune cookie—that crunchy confection whose unobtrusive vanilla flavor is always a welcome complement to a heavy, savory meal. It’s also the only time I appreciate my food talking back to me. My little strip of paper offered the chipper observation: “You are well liked and valued by those around you.” Who am I to argue with what a cookie tells me?
Argument has, however, arisen when it comes to determining this cookie’s actual national origin. It’s a quintessential element of the Chinese food experience here in America, yet both Chinese and Japanese immigrant populations in this country have claimed the confection as theirs. The issue became so contentious that it fueled a 1983 court battle wherein the judge gave a split decision ruling that the modern fortune cookie was born in pre-World War I San Fransisco; however, he declined to decide which nationality had claim to the treats.
The fortune cookie and its murky history is a recurring element in Jennifer 8. Lee’s The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, an in-depth exploration of Chinese food in the Western world wherein she traces the beginnings of Chinese dining hallmarks such as home delivery and General Tso’s Chicken in addition to exploring darker subjects such as how the Chinese restaurant industry dovetails with the human trafficking industry. But divining whence fortune cookies came required a lot of detective work that ultimately brought her to Yasuko Nakamatchi, a Japanese researcher who was able to cleave through decades of folklore and hearsay-based creation stories.
Fortune cookies are most likely of Japanese origin. In the course of her detective work, Nakamatchi came upon a handful of family-owned bakeries near a Shinto shrine in Kyoto who continued the local tradition of making tsujiura senbei (“fortune crackers”). Flavored with sesame and miso, the cookies are larger and browner than their American cousins, and the little paper fortunes are found on the outside, held in the cookie’s little “arms.” The clincher was an 1878 Japanese block print of a man preparing senbei using the same hand-operated cookie grills still used in the Kyoto bakeries. (Of course, at least for the American market, the manufacturing process is automated.)
Dessert was never a strong point in Chinese cooking. ”Traditional Chinese desserts, as any Chinese-American child will tell you, are pretty bad,” Lee writes in her book. “There is a reason Chinese cuisine has a worldwide reputation for wontons, and not for pastries.” So how did the Chinese inherit Japan’s fortune cookies in the United States? During World War II, Chinese food spiked in popularity and, at least on the West Coast, dinners were commonly accompanied by fortune cookies; however, when Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps, their bakeries that produced the cookies were shuttered. Chinese entrepreneurs stepped in to fill the void and by the end of the war they were indelibly associated with fortune cookies, whose popularity had spread nationwide.
So, if you’re ushering in the year of the rabbit tomorrow, there are more traditional, definitively Chinese foodstuffs you can include as a part of your celebration. Nevertheless, I think there’s something to be said for the sheer fun of cracking into fortune cookies with a group of friends and each person reading aloud the random pearl of wisdom they received—perhaps adding a line of innuendo for a bit of innocent fun. However you choose to celebrate, here’s wishing you all a very happy Chinese New Year!
November 22, 2010
We’ve received such wonderful stories from readers in response to our latest Inviting Writing theme about eating at Grandma’s house—thank you! This one, a richly detailed recollection of Southern-style family dinners in the 1950s and early 1960s, seems perfect for Thanksgiving week because it’s a veritable feast of description. The writer, Mary Markey, has a knack for preserving the past: she works at the Smithsonian Institution Archives.
By Mary Markey
Every year, my mother and I took the train from Illinois to spend the summer with our family in Georgia. The “Nancy Hanks” would pull into the little train station in Millen late in the evening, where we were met by an uncle and aunt or two and whichever of my cousins had begged the hardest to make the trip. Our trunk was loaded into the bed of the truck, the cousins and I clambered up after it, and we were off to Granny’s house in the country.
In the immense dark, her porch light glowed like a beacon. And there she was, wiping her hands on her homemade apron, come to the doorway to meet us. Small, round, and soft and rosy as a withered peach, Granny was the heart and soul of our family.
Aunts and uncles and more cousins were soon assembling on the porch. Transplanted early to the Midwest, where I was already a lonely outsider, here I was content to be taken back into the fold of a large, extroverted Southern family. I looked forward to a summer of many playmates and indulgent grownups.
Cuddled in with a few cousins in the spare room’s creaky iron bedstead, I smelled the deep, mysterious odors of Granny’s house—old wood, damp earth, wood smoke, cooking and the chamber pot that we had used before turning in. On the porch, the adults would stay up late talking as they rocked in chairs or on the glider. Their laughter was the last thing I heard as I drifted into sleep.
When we woke, the uncles were long gone to the fields, and the aunts were at work in the textile mills in town. My mother was in the kitchen, helping Granny prepare the noon dinner. We snatched a cold hoecake or leftover biscuit smeared with jelly and took off on our own adventures.
Granny’s house was a one-story frame building that had once housed a tenant farmer on my grandfather’s farm. The dining-room was light and airy, with windows on two sides curtained in the translucent plastic plisse curtains that the dime stores once sold to poor people, but the kitchen was a dark, close little room. In the even darker little pantry were Mason jars of home-canned food, plates of leftover breads and biscuits, and an occasional mouse.
My nose remembers these rooms best: open Granny’s big freezer, and you smelled frost and blackberries. The refrigerator held the sharp tang of the pitcher of iron-rich well water cooling there. The kitchen was saturated with years of cooking, a dark, rich scent of frying fat and spice overlaid with the delicious smells of whatever was being prepared for dinner that day.
Almost everything was raised by my family and if not fresh, had been frozen or canned by Granny and the aunts. Meat was the anchor of the noon meal, and there were three possibilities: chicken, pork, or fish. The fish, caught by my Aunt Sarah from the Ogeechee River, were delectable when dredged in flour or cornmeal and cooked in Granny’s heavy cast-iron skillet. (Did you know, the best part of a fried fresh fish is the tail, as crunchy as a potato chip?) My favorite dish was chicken and dumplings. Granny made the dumplings by hand, forming the dough into long, thick noodles to be stewed with the chicken until they were falling-apart tender.
There was bread, though nothing leavened with yeast. Instead, there were biscuits, rather flat and chewy, speckled brown and gold. We had cornbread at every meal, but it wasn’t “risen”; we had hoecakes, light and sweet with the flavor of fresh cornmeal, cooked quickly on a cast-iron griddle. There was always rice, cooked to perfection and topped with gravy or butter, as you preferred. If we were eating fish, we fried some hush puppies along with it, airy puffs of cornmeal and onion.
And the vegetables! Granny’s table had an infinite variety: fresh green beans, black-eyed peas, crowder peas, lima beans. Collard, mustard and turnip greens had been picked last fall and stored in the mammoth freezer. Okra was stewed with tomatoes, boiled with butter, fried to a crisp or just sautéed until it fell apart. Fresh tomatoes were served cold, sliced, and dusted with salt and pepper. There were yams, candied or simply baked and buttered. Green vegetables were cooked a long time with salt pork—no hard, unseasoned Yankee beans for us, please.
We washed it all down with heavily sweetened iced tea served in mismatched jelly glasses, or aluminum tumblers in jewel colors, or in that cliché of all down-home clichés, Mason jars.
Desserts were simple, probably because too much baking would heat up the house. There was an abundance of fresh fruit—peaches and watermelons were favorites, with or without store-bought ice cream. My aunt Camille would sometimes bring a spectacular caramel pecan cake with dense, sugary icing. Aunt Carmen was known for her sour cream pound cake. Granny often made a huge blackberry cobbler, served drenched in milk. I was torn between by love of its flavor and distaste for all those little seeds that got caught between my teeth.
As small children, we cousins ate at the kitchen table, watched over by the women. It was a day to remember when you were finally thought old enough to sit at the big table in the dining room, and since all of us were all within a year or two of each other, we graduated pretty much en masse. In adolescence, we cousins often preferred to perch in the living room to talk, pawing through Granny’s photo albums to laugh at our parents’ (and be embarrassed by our own) baby pictures. We returned to the big table more often as we moved through our teenage years, and one day, as a married woman in my twenties, I looked up from my fried chicken to see a kitchen table ringed with my cousins’ children. The cycle was completed.
(More from Millen after the jump…)