“Do y’all have good food up there?” That is the question I most often get asked when I go back to my hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. They don’t know how I survive in the North without barbeque, fried veggies, or a million different kinds of cornbread. And because it’s often the case that Southerners stay right where they are — in the South — surviving without these and many other foods just seems impossible.
“Peppers are not spicy,” my dad declared at dinner one night. I had mentioned that the vegetables we were eating were spicier than usual. However, they had been cooked with bright red Cayenne peppers, and this had caused my father to issue the clarification.
At the time, I thought he was implying that he was invincible.
I tried not to grimace as I took a second swig of rakija from the tall plastic water bottle. I winced slightly, but then smiled and was met with chuckles and applause. I don’t usually drink straight booze at lunch, but I couldn’t refuse, not just out of politeness, but also out of curiosity. As the warmth of the homemade moonshine spread through my body, I looked toward my boyfriend’s grandfather for approval. The snow-haired man who I was told “only puts his teeth in for pictures,” flashed me a toothless grin that told me I’d crossed some sort of threshold of acceptance. He was entertained by how obliging I’d been; taking a swig every time he nudged me playfully with the bottle. We did not speak each other’s language, but I didn’t need a translator to understand that his cajoling was a sincere attempt to make me feel welcome. Despite being an American, if I could handle the drink, that meant there must be some Croat in me somewhere. MORE
Self: “Hello, my name is Erica.” (Insert handshake).
Prospective Employer: “Erica, nice to meet you. Tell me about yourself.”
Self: “I just finished working on a cruise ship in Hawaii.”
Prospective Employer: “A cruise ship! Doesn’t everyone on the ship have to be analyzed by a shrink? Who knows whom you may be living with!”
Self: “It wasn’t the crew I was worried about.”
She sat with perfect posture at a table for two next to the ship window, book poised in her hands as if it were a bird. Her eyes flitted up at me when I approached her side. “Could you stand toward the end of the table, please,” she inquired. “My neck cramps when I turn it too much to the left,” she explained.
“First you add the crushed fenugreek seeds,”
I crinkled my eyebrows and frowned, clueless.
“What?” I asked. My mother pointed at a small tin cup filled with the seeds. She pinched a few and I heard the crackling and popping of the oil as she threw them in the pan. The long process that is dinner in my home had begun.
“I’d go with the Ewephoria. It’s under the ‘stoic’ category.” I scanned the menu for a description of “stoic.” It read “big, hard cheeses.” I peered over my glass of red wine from the Douro Valley as the attractive bartender flipped painstakingly perfect, wavy, grey-streaked hair out of his blue-grey eyes. I bet it is, I thought to myself.
The bartender at Tria, the Philadelphia wine and cheese bar, may have gotten the job based on merit alone. But placing attractive people at the front line of any business in the service industry isn’t just useful when it comes to female bartenders in nightclubs with barely-there outfits. The memory of an attractive person preparing your food or drink, no matter where it is, must stimulate some sort of pleasure center in your brain that keeps you going back. (It certainly keeps me going to a certain coffee truck between classes.) MORE
It was Friday, one o’clock in the morning, four hours into my supposedly two-hour homemade mozzarella recipe, and I found myself standing before a pile of cheese more akin to a ball of warm cauliflower than an artisanal dairy product. The “cheese” crumbled between my fingers like wet sand, and when I cautiously sampled a pinch of my work all that came to mind was damp, salty cardboard.
My desire to make cheese arose from my desire to eat cheese. I have an old habit of researching foods I tend to eat, and that research often results in an attempt to recreate my favorite dishes at home. As a student of the sciences, I set out on my cheesemaking ordeal under the impression that if I could solve differential equations, analyze blood flow models, and pass a course titled “Chronobioengineering,” I would have no problem separating curds from whey to make a little cheese.
Usually, when I go to a wedding I bring a check as my gift. But one Saturday morning in November, I found myself trying to explain in my neatest small penmanship inside a sparkly wedding card that my present for the bride and groom was waiting for them in my basement chest freezer.
I bought them a fraction of a cow.
It was 20-some pounds of local, grass-fed, CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation)-free beef to be precise. This may not at first seem like the ideal wedding gift. But hear me out:
These two are some of my closest friends, and moreover, they are probably my favorite couple to eat with. They’re the rare pair with no real food hangups, weird picky preferences, or dietary restrictions. At least they were until recently, when the groom became increasingly educated and concerned about the realities of factory farming and the meat that makes up most of the conventional food supply. Disgusted, he practically stopped eating meat.
My husband Dan is not what you would call a romantic. On one of our first Valentine’s Days together, when I had my first foolish glimmer of hope that I would receive an engagement ring, I got a cast iron frying pan instead.
Last February, I was working in an office full of cubicles and women. I knew that one by one my coworkers would retrieve their bouquets at the reception desk and if I didn’t get one I would feel terrible.
Several weeks in advance, I put my foot down about this goofy holiday. “You must send flowers to my office on Valentine’s Day,” I told Dan. “If you don’t, I will be humiliated and I will be angry.” He acquiesced. Flowers were ordered and delivered to my desk. I was spared embarrassment and we didn’t have to fight. MORE
Growing up, my two sisters and I chanted loudly for foods most kids would grimace at. Lima beans in a stew of tomato paste and water, crushed garbanzo beans, chopped parsley. And the sounds that came from our mouths weren’t exactly words, but garbled attempts to pronounce the Arabic dishes we craved.
“It’s mmmmjuddara,” I said, of the traditional aromatic lentil and rice dish called mujadara (which has several alternate spellings), “As in mmmmm, yummy.”
“No, it’s juddarrrrrrra,” my sister replied, rolling her Rs.
We constantly begged my grandmother for Syrian dishes like fateyer (thick, buttery dough stuffed with minced lamb and pine nuts), hushwi (Syrian stuffing made from rice, lamb, pine nuts and spices – most notably cinnamon), tabouli (salad of chopped parsley, tomatoes, and bulgur wheat), hummus, ma’moul (heavy Semolina dough filled with nuts and rosewater and dusted with powdered sugar) or one of our favorites, a mysterious dish called lamtung. One night I asked my parents what it actually was. MORE
I used to envy people whose mothers taught them to cook, who learned ancestral ravioli recipes brought over from Italy by their wise old great grandmothers. But this was not to be. First of all, we weren’t Italian. Second, my mother did not like to cook.
She executed her kitchen duties as efficiently and conscientiously as possible and used a handful of battered cookbooks to get the job done. Cookbooks were not tomes to be thumbed through and dreamed over, but manuals in which she wrote her businesslike comments about what worked and what didn’t, when she’d made a dish, how it froze, whether her children liked it, how it worked for a party. MORE
I once heard an old wives’ tale about the origins of salat olivier, a Russian-style potato salad that was one of my favorite homemade dishes growing up. Supposedly, it was inadvertently invented when a chef decided to combine all of his leftovers together in one bowl. Considering the array of ingredients used in olivier—a combination of proteins, potatoes, and vegetables—this explanation seemed plausible.
It wasn’t until recently that I discovered the true roots of my childhood favorite meal. According to the School of Russian and Asian Studies, Olivier was the culinary brainchild of a French chef named Lucien Olivier, who ran Hermitage, a famous Parisian-style restaurant in Moscow in the 1860s. The original recipe included expensive game and seafood ingredients—veal tongue, grouse, crayfish, and caviar, to name a few—and was dressed in homemade Provencal-style French mayonnaise.
Legend has it that this salad was one of Chef Olivier’s most beloved dishes. He was fiercely protective of his precious recipe—so much so that he took it to his grave. But it was loosely reconstructed from the combined memories (and kitchen espionage) of Olivier’s sous chef, as well as some loyal Hermitage customers. It has since become a fundamental feature of any contemporary Russian party spread—the vodka of Russian salads, if you will – especially at New Year’s celebrations. MORE
Back in June, McSweeney’s ran “An Open Letter to People Who Take Pictures Of Food With Instagram.” The letter was not a supportive one. It echoed the sentiments of many an internet rant zone, where folks often complain about their friends (or “Friends”) who can’t go five minutes without tweeting what they’re eating.
Similarly, BuzzFeed’s “Why Instagram is Easily the Most Annoying App” is nothing more than slide after slide of DIY food shots with pissed-off commentary like “Thanks for making pizza look like herpes.”
“What happened to everyone complaining about how much they have to do today? Or the posting of emotionally ambiguous song lyrics?” reads the Open Letter. And later on: “. . . I really, truly, absolutely, do not care about you or your food.”