The Turkish delight was, in retrospect, a pretty big mistake. We were browsing a Middle Eastern market near our home in upstate New York, a festive, mom-and-pop place where I tend to buy way more than I need. It was winter — cars plowing down Genesee Street beyond the front window throwing plumes of brown slurry — and I needed a pick-me-up in the worst way. When I saw that box of candy, I was basically powerless to resist. It was obscenely large, the size of a cookie sheet or a generous end table, and it was on sale. For reasons that seem a little sad to me now, that candy felt like an opportunity.
My husband looked anxious when I approached the checkout line, box tucked up under my arm like a surfboard. Over the years, Rog has watched me eat a lot of things saner adults revile — like circus peanuts, or those pumpkin “mellocreme” things that taste like candy corn but are somehow worse. I’ve eaten marshmallows so old they’ve fused together in the bag and become indistinguishable. I’ve eaten gummi worms and gummi sharks and ancient, ossified Jujyfruits that threatened to yank the fillings from my head. My lust for sugar is disabling, literally self-destructive.
“I’m not helping you with that,” Rog pointed out. “You’re on your own here.”
“Did I say I needed your help? I’m perfectly capable, thanks,” I smiled.
I was already feeling better about my day.
Ah, spring is here and sidewalk cafés are again blooming across America! Some of my friends are thrilled at this seasonal turn. I am not.
My memories of outdoor dining skew toward the mildly traumatic. Such excursions often begin with companions who all but squeal “Let’s sit outside!” Confronted with such enthusiasm, it’s hard to argue for an indoor seat, and if I do I’m accused of being a troglodyte and killjoy. Enduring a long, silent, and pouty indoor meal is never fun, so I usually capitulate and go outside. Thus I leave the comfort of civilized shade and air-conditioning, and take my seat in the petting zoo set aside for masticating humans.
And here I sit — next to an overflowing dumpster screened partially from view but not in the least from aroma by cheap latticework from Home Depot. Or I’m curbside on a city street where every few minutes a bus passes and emits a great sooty plume of diesel exhaust, which gently alights upon my meal like finely ground pepper. Or, perhaps in the saddest tableaux of all, I’m sitting outside in front of a strip mall, corralled by some cagelike ironwork posted with stern wording against seating yourself, and overlooking an asphalt lagoon consisting of thousands of car windshields each reflecting the sun’s rays directly at me, as if I’m part of an experiment involving thresholds for scorched retinas. I once had to wear two pairs of sunglasses to make it through a lunch.
Pity the turkey. Capons are sauced, cranes are lifted, partridges are allayed, geese are reared. Turkeys are, to use the proper historical carving vocabulary, simply cut up. The ritual carving of the turkey is one of the few vestiges of a past, glorious tradition that once wowed diners at spectacular feasts, and yet, the prosaic words for slicing up the turkey do not seem to match the grandeur of the deed.
Once, carving was held in high esteem. It was less about serving base bodily needs for nourishment and more concerned with spectacle and performance. Those who carved (and those who had carving done for them) were not concerned with where their next meal was coming from. It was a demonstration of power: the ability to muster a bountiful feast and an exhibition of control of the body (both that of the carver and of the animal carcass to be consumed). In full view of the diners assembled at the table, the carver hoisted the bird aloft with one hand, while wielding a razor-sharp knife in the other. Slices from the cooked carcass floated down to the plate. MORE
“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.
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.
Americans love a blueberry festival. This year, they’ll celebrate the small fruit in Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, North Carolina, Alabama, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Virginia, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Vermont, New York, Washington, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, and Maine. In states red and blue, blueberry fans will pick blueberries, eat blueberry cakes, drink blueberry milkshakes, watch blueberry pie-eating contests, buy blueberry art, and run blueberry 5Ks to celebrate nature’s synchronous gifts of berries and summer. MORE
One day I hope to sit down with Heywood Gould — the novelist and screenwriter who wrote Cocktail, the movie — and have a drink with him. Maybe even a Cognac or Polish Martini. That’s what Heywood used to drink as a bartender in Manhattan during the 1970s. Definitely a few shots of Old Overholt Rye Whiskey. That’s what he drinks now.
The reason is simple. Despite having become a successful writer, Gould still speaks like a bartender, the type of bartender I’ve always enjoyed sitting across from: a raconteur, keen observer of humanity, and someone who understands that the reasons people enter a bar are varied, but rarely do they really have to do with flaming orange peels or flipping bottles. MORE
A marriage may be between two people, but weddings tend to be between the couple and everyone else. Wedding guests called upon to bear witness to the ceremony, and to shower a new couple with verbal and financial blessings, can shape the proceedings and meanings of marital rites as much as the bride and groom do. I’ve played a number of performative roles in the weddings of loved ones — bridesmaid, maid of honor, toast-giver, poetry-reader, choreographer, and stage manager — and from the wings, I’ve observed how often the friends and family of the new couple feel entitled to weigh in on what is and is not done properly. Personally, I lucked out: My own parents’ rules for the ceremonial passage into a hallowed state of matrimony were simple and few.
Rule 1: Don’t get married until you’re 30.
Rule 1b: But you don’t have to get married ever, if you don’t want to.
Rule 2: If you do decide to marry — after age 30, that is — you are entirely free to elope, and save the money for a washing machine or something.
Rule 2b: But you do have to bring your mother a piece of wedding cake.
If you are an inmate in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s prison system, and you misuse food items, refuse to return uneaten food items, destroy or throw food items, or use food containers to throw human waste, you may be assigned a Behavior Modified Meal the state calls “Food-Loaf.”
The public recently had a chance to experience Pennsylvania’s Food-Loaf at Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary. The historic site was the world’s first true penitentiary; with the urging of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, the state opened the site in 1829. It aimed to inspire true penitence through isolation and silence. Eastern State closed in 1971, but in 2013, it was back to serving meals, if only for two days.
What do we make of Michael Pollan’s seventh book, Cooked? Is it, as the subtitle suggests, a “natural history” which examines the science and paleoanthropology of cooking? Is it, as many of Pollan’s promotional interviews suggest, a polemic and a manual which tells us how and when to cook in order to repair the social fabric and national health of the United States? Is it a memoir of meals past, with ample nostalgia for a simpler time measured out with head-shaking over the bustle of the modern world? Is it the foodie equivalent of a travelogue, tracing the author’s encounters with cooking techniques in such exotic locales as Korea, Portugal, and North Carolina? Is it an intellectual history of cookery, attempting to establish the cerebral value of the culinary arts through the theories of French anthropologists and philosophers? Or do this book and its promotional tie-ins comprise an elaborately executed piece of multimedia performance art, a parody of the foodie intellectual on the level of Joaquin Phoenix growing a beard and releasing a rap album?
America was booming in the Gilded Age, the era after the Civil War when robber barons hammered out vast empires and enormous fortunes were made overnight in New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia. At the same time out West, American chefs were refining their own contribution to international culture: Fast food.
“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.
When I studied abroad in Rome a few years ago, my travel packet included a primer for ordering espresso from the little museum café around the corner from our classrooms. To begin with, we were warned, don’t order espresso, a term which refers to a technique and not a beverage. Instead order caffè — short for caffè espresso, there’s no other kind — and embellish the word with lyrical phrases to indicate how long to let water seep through pressed grounds and how much milk to add and when.
“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
More than creatures of habit, we are creatures of fatuous trends. Nowhere is this more plainly obvious than in drinking. Periodically, we see seismic shifts in the drinking fashions when a new movie or television show features a classic cocktail and the throngs of followers now have their golden fleece to pursue – whether it’s James Bond’s “shaken not stirred” martini or Don Draper’s old-fashioned. Of course, the trend is replete with era-specific costumes, and thus even more sad, because I’d like to think social mores march to progress over time, rather than falling back on era-specific rationales about when “men were men” and other such obsolete banalities.