Food Culture TM_FC_TRIANG_FI_001

What are we talking about when we talk about food?

It’s almost easier to describe what food isn’t. Eggplant and potatoes become food if you cook them long enough to soften their tough fibers; if you did the same thing to paper, you could swallow it but not sell it as the hot new restaurant trend of 2013. Jell-O wobbles onto the dessert plate by way of proteins boiled out of animal bones, cooled, then boiled again at home; few other foodstuffs would still be considered comestible if subjected to the same treatment. Even plants and animals whose tissues are digestible, palatable, and nourishing might be overlooked as foodstuff if we are not taught to eat them: there were certainly many years that I threw away the leaves and stems of beets and carrots, not realizing that they too can be edible and tasty.
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Food Culture TM_FC_DATES_FI_001

I usually don’t make much conversation in cabs, but this cab driver had many questions. What kind of music did I want to listen to? He thought I might prefer one station if I was going to a club, another if headed to a date. Was I going on a date? Ah, a double date. Did I know the other couple well? Going to a nice dinner?

I fell quiet after this deposition, but after a few minutes of cruising downtown in the rain, the driver surprised me with another question. “What is the alphabet of dating?” he asked.
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Food Culture TM_FC_STEAL_FI_001

I’m not sure how it came about, but one day my co-workers and I literally stood around the water cooler and casually discussed the pocket-sized items that we, or someone we knew, had smuggled out of restaurants and hotels.

The first impenitent confessor was a coworker whose family takes a cruise every winter. Every year when they were small, she and her younger sister would pocket a fork from one of their dinners on board. Many years later, my colleague created a mobile of the “souvenir” forks and gifted it to her younger sister. It’s a sweet story, but I was initially astonished that the coworker, to all appearances a steady and law-abiding character, shrugged off this youthful indiscretion as a fit of childhood caprice, a sweet and whimsical memory.
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Food Culture TM_FC_VDAY_AP_008

There’s nothing romantic about February. In most of the northern hemisphere, the shortest month is also the dreariest: a gray, wet, slog through yet another winter month, with spring a little too far away to offer much hope. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that some of the world’s most madcap celebrations take place in the February gloom: Mardi Gras and other pre-Lenten bacchanals tend to fall in this month, and the young men of ancient Rome celebrated Lupercalia mid-February by running naked through the streets and slapping young women with strips of leather.

Between the middle ages and the industrial era, St. Valentine’s feast day had something of this carnivalesque character in England, though more restrained. February 14th was one of several feast days that offered a brief reprieve from the grind of work and prayer, and the celebrations were playful, giddy, perhaps even a little irreverent. Unmarried village men and women played fortune-telling games to divine their future mates; one such game involved dropping names into a box and drawing out the name of your “valentine,” or the person Fate was disposed to match with you. Songs were sung, small gifts were exchanged.
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Food Culture

A Load of Guac

How avocados made it to the Super Bowl

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I once heard that more avocados are consumed on Super Bowl Sunday than on any other day of the year. This is wrong: Super Bowl Sunday doesn’t touch the 14 million pounds of avocado consumed on Cinco de Mayo. Still, about 8 million pounds of avocado have reportedly been mashed into guacamole in honor of the big game in recent years—about 5% of total sales, nothing to scoff at so long after the crop’s seasonal peak.

Most of the avocados we buy to make a summer dip in the dead of winter are Hass avocados, grown in coastal California or, since 2007, in Mexico. (The avocado tree originated in Mexico and Central America, but those zones were closed off to U.S. importers until recently due to an apparently unfounded fear of fruit flies.) Avocados are technically in-season almost year round. The fruits don’t ripen while on the tree, so they don’t have the limited harvest window that other temperate-zone tree fruits have, and avocado fruits can mature all year in the hot, humid climates they prefer. But mature fruits are more sparse in midwinter than they are in the summer months, which is usually reflected in the grocery store price. MORE

Food Culture

Consider the Cheeto

The simple pleasures of junk food are more complex than they appear

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There are always new studies coming out about why people eat junk food. Or rather, the studies tend to be about the effects high-fat foods have on other creatures, like rats and mice; from these effects, we try to extrapolate possible causes of human predilections for junk food. The most recent of these, as reported in the Huffington Post, noticed that mice fed a high-fat diet exhibited brain chemistry similar to that produced by depression; when their diet was changed, the fat-fed mice appeared to be more anxious and sensitive to stress than those in the study’s control group. These effects suggest a cycle: the poor mice suffered depression-like symptoms while eating their junky diet, and withdrawal-like symptoms when returned to healthier food.
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Food Culture

New Year’s, North and South

How what we eat symbolizes our hopes for the months ahead

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Typically, I plan party food according to two basic rules: one, make it delicious, and two, present it in a discrete form that can be picked up and brandished in the course of energetic conversation without spraying crumbs or dip everywhere. But for New Year’s Eve, which I usually spend with a close cadre of friends, I am willing to break the rules for lucky foods. New Year’s style so often seems to highlight glitter and glamor: sparkling beverages, spangle and shine on the clothes, twinkling lights—but the food is down-home, humble but filling and delicious. I simmer black-eyed peas to creaminess with a ham hock in a slow cooker. I leave the pork out of the collard greens in case of vegetarian guests, but I caramelize the onions with a smoky salt and deglaze with wine to make this humble green a little more dressy for the occasion. Soft, round  rolls and the various offerings of other guests finish off the meal. Napkins are required. When we eat, I recite a litany cobbled together from memory and the Internet: the green folds of collards represent paper money and prosperity; the pork is a nod to the forward progress of the pig, who can’t walk backward; the black-eyed peas are looking to the future. MORE

Food Culture

Can Food be Art?

Exploring the aesthetic value of what we eat

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You probably did not have to think about your answer for more than a moment: Whether yes or no, you likely responded to a gut feeling (if you’ll excuse the phrase). On the ground, most of us identify works of art with our own variations of the famous Supreme Court stance on obscenity—I know it when I see it. But try to expand your instinctive response into an argument, as William Deresiewicz did in American Scholar last week, and you’ll find yourself on shakier ground. For good reason: That tiny word, art, has launched a thousand volumes theorizing what can or should go by its name. To mine a few treatises on the subject: Should art teach and guide, or exist without purpose and for its own sake? Should looking at art feel violently awakening or pleasantly contemplative? Does the finest art refer to larger stories and ideas or nothing beyond its own composition? Deresiewicz makes his case that food is not art on the premise that art must be narrative or at least symbolic—which would also designate Imagist poetry, abstract expressionism, and numerous musical compositions as mere craftmanship.  It’s a good illustration that without a solid defense of what art is, any judgment about what art isn’t will be unsound.

But integrity of argument aside: “Is food art?” is the wrong question to ask.
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Food Culture, Thanksgiving TM_FC_TURKEY_FI_001

When I set out to learn more about the source of the word turkey and some of its idiomatic variants, I had no idea that the research would lead me, well, on a wild goose chase.

Let’s start with the word for the bird. Turkeys are North American in origin; the domesticated fowl we raise today is the descendent of a slightly smaller wild bird found throughout the continent, though a cousin of this bird was domesticated in Mesoamerica long before Spanish explorers arrived. The Spanish called Mexican bird pavo, or peacock, after another fowl with spectacular plumage. Further north, English colonists thought the wild turkeys looked more like guineafowl, a small African bird that was imported to England through Turkey. Due to their trade origin, the guineafowl were sometimes called turkeys—and thereafter, so was the wild North American bird. In the nation of Turkey, as it happens, the bird is referred to as hindi, or from the country of India; in India, the bird is called peru, after the South American country; elsewhere in Europe, the turkey is known most commonly as “French chicken” and or “Indian chicken”—the latter generally refers to continental India. MORE

Food Culture

Sugar Buzz

Printing 3D sweets

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The 3D printer, that marvel of modern
science that makes it possible to fabricate solid objects such as a piece of jewelry or computer part seemingly from thin air,  looks like something out of science fiction. I recently saw one in action at Hive, a science and education co-working space in Philadelphia, and watching three dimensional forms emerge line by line reminds me of the way a sketch artist builds depth in an image from lines and hatchmarks.

The 3D printer “draws” objects from digital models; the printouts can take just about any form that can be created in three dimensions, and can be made with just about any material that can be extruded or pushed through a syringe—even the good stuff: sugar and chocolate.

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Food Culture

Freshly Minted

How mint became the default flavor of dental hygiene

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Once, and only once, I saw a stranger behaving curiously in the toothpaste aisle. He was standing with his arms crossed and brow furrowed; his eyes seemed to scan everything from the top shelf to bottom, then back to the top again. I waited some time for him to move before I realized that he was doing the same thing I had come to do: read the labels and frown. Cool Mint, Strong Mint, Radiant Mint, Fresh Mint, Clean Mint, Vanilla Mint, Spearmint, Cinnamint, Now With Intense Mint Flavor: there were no options without mint.

I can’t speak for the stranger, but my disappointment with this stunning variety was dermatological. In my early twenties I was diagnosed with a skin condition that was aggravated by among other things, mint oil. At the time, I was a serious mint user: I always had a pack of gum in my bag and thought Altoids were a required final course after every meal. I replaced the breath mints with xylitol-based fruit gums and the old-fashioned remedy of fresh fruit after a meal, but mintless toothpaste is a specialty item, difficult to find: for most toothpastes, mint is an essential feature, not an optional flavor. MORE

Food Culture TM_FC_CHCKN_FI_001

I rush home from work, change into my gym clothes, and scurry four blocks to my friend’s house. It’s a nice five pound one, she says. From Maryland. They didn’t have any from Lancaster this time. We wash and dry the chicken, slice lemons and peel garlic for the cavity. We work our fingers underneath the skin and slide sundried tomatoes and rosemary over the white breast meat. We work quickly, making jokes about chicken parts; we’ve done this often.

By the time I get back from the gym, the roasted chicken is golden brown all over. Crisp, salty skin pulls away from meat so tender that it falls off the bone. Maryland raised this broiler well.

We pull the wings and legs for our supper and divide the rest, picking the bones clean. The meat will be shredded into soups, salads, rice, or couscous through the rest of the week. The refuse—bones, gristle, and innards—will freeze until we have a chance to boil them with clean carrot peels, the coarser layers of onions, and stems from parsley and thyme. Her boyfriend calls it garbage soup but it yields such a savory broth that we don’t dare add vinegar or salt. MORE

Food Culture

A History of Eggplant in Four Languages

A savory fruit that goes by many names

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As the summer crop season draws to a close, the eggplant supply has dwindled. For awhile, though, there were eggplants every week—and as I sliced and salted, boiled and roasted, I began to wonder how we as a society decided that this stringy, bitter fruit was a worthwhile food source. To make eggplant palatable—let alone velvety-textured and flavorful—you often have to cook it twice. Salt it, rinse it, and let the bitterness drain away before you throw it into the stir fry. Or, oil it and let it roast for few minutes before you layer it into your lasagnas and moussakas. If you’re less ambitious in the kitchen, you can just boil it with salt and garlic until tender, or “forget” to take it out of the oven until your would-be lasagna slices bake into crispy chips.

Nowhere does the preparation involve or resemble eggs. How, then, did this vegetable come to be called an “eggplant”? An eggplant by any other name would sounds a little sweeter: aubergine in French and melanzana in Italian roll off the tongue, giving an air of refinement to the eggplant’s fussy preparation.  As it happens, the etymologies of these names tell stories; the history of the eggplant coincides with the history of changing commerce, travel, and horticulture in Europe centuries ago. MORE

Food Culture

Spread Good Taste

But don't spread it too thin

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Grey Poupon’s new marketing campaign seems to be designed to keep out as many potential consumers as it invites in. Though one may browse the brand’s Facebook timeline and Pinterest page, you are not permitted to join the brand-approved Society of Good Taste until your own profile is subjected to an examination and found suitable.

In truth, the Society’s standards are a little random: your profile is scanned for grammar, art and music “likes,” and restaurant check-ins, but like any algorithm it lacks human subtlety—you can re-apply and receive a drastically different score.  The contents, once you’re in, are more consistent: recipes, little notes and observations about good taste, gently worded polls about which hors d’oeuvre to serve at your seasonal party. Generally, these posts or pins have tongue planted firmly in cheek: MORE