Being half-British comes with its fair share of cross-cultural personality quirks. Most of them are minimal and usually go unnoticed, but during the holiday season certain traits and affinities become more pronounced, particularly when it comes to my cooking and eating habits.
The weeks leading up to Christmas are spent assembling the usual array of annual holiday snacks. We nibble on flaky sausage rolls, soft almondy Bakewell tarts and cup after cup of tea as we plan the menu for Christmas dinner. Once the type of roast has been determined, and side dishes are designated, our minds turn to the last course. When it comes to quintessential British desserts, I can take or leave a Christmas cake or figgy pudding. It’s the traditional mince pies that I look forward to the most. MORE
In this excerpt from D.O.M.: Rediscovering Brazilian Ingredients, author and chef Alex Atala explores the role of ants as an ingredient in the Brazilian Amazon. The book is available now from Phaidon Press, in bookstores, and on Amazon.
“Which herbs did you put into this dish?”
“I would like to know which HERBS you used in the recipe.”
“Son, there’s only ants.”
This conversation took place in São Miguel das Cacheiras in the very north of Brazil. The person asking about the herbs was myself. And the woman answering my questions was Dona Brazi, a member of one of the 23 ethnicities that inhabit the region and who sells delicious food in the town’s central square. She did not speak Portuguese very well and, after trying her food, I thought she had not understood my question. I wanted to know which herbs and seasonings she had used to make her delicacies. But she had understood perfectly what I was asking. And the answer was simple. The seasoning used in that recipe was ants.
Some grandmothers send you home with handmade pies after each visit. If you’re lucky, you have a grandmother who slips you a $20 on your way out the door. Not mine. Instead of baked goods or money, she fills my arms with large plastic bags of frozen pierogi.
I can’t remember a time I’ve left her house without a dozen in hand. At every family gathering, our Mom Mom generously distributes her homemade pierogi to my sister, cousins, and me. We’re all mostly in our twenties now, and the pierogi often come in handy later as a quick and easy solution for dinner.
Though I’m grateful for her efforts to ensure I always have a dozen in my freezer throughout the year, I most appreciate Mom Mom’s seemingly endless pierogi supply around the holidays. Without them, Christmas Eve would lack my favorite family food tradition, and I wouldn’t be found shoveling the potato-stuffed dumplings into my mouth at a rate only my late grandfather could match.
Rallying against the overabundance of “pumpkin” flavored and scented items that fill our coffee-shop menus and store shelves is like worrying about Miley Cyrus’s future or whether you left the oven on when you’re on vacation: it might feel important, but you can’t do anything about it. By now, we all know that many of the “pumpkin” treats marketed at us don’t have any actual pumpkin in them, right? Rather, “pumpkin” has become shorthand for a comforting combination of seasonal spices. I get it. Saying “pumpkin” or “pumpkin spice” is easier than “cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, and maybe some allspice latte.”
So, if telling you that there’s no pumpkin in a lot of pumpkin-spice stuff is akin to telling you there’s no Santa Claus, is informing you that there was no actual pumpkin pie at the first Thanksgiving like telling you that the Easter Bunny is fake too? While the pumpkin is indigenous to North America and they likely had a pumpkin dish at the first Thanksgiving, they didn’t have the wheat to make the crusts at the time.
Rather, the pumpkin and the pumpkin pie are American nostalgia foods – and they’ve been that for a long time. MORE
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
As a third generation Marylander, I spent many summer days of my childhood hiding under the picnic table watching my parents and brothers — from an up-wind safe odor-free distance — as they enthusiastically did their crab picking and eating. Even at an early age I knew that I was missing out on an important part of being a true Marylander, and an important family gathering. But I also knew what my family was doing when they picked crabs, and it wasn’t appealing.
My family ate every part of the crab except, of course, the grey lungs (or “devils-fingers” in Maryland jargon), which not only taste terrible but could leave you with a nasty stomachache. After discarding the lungs and sucking down as much crab meat as they could find, they even ate the kinky yellow guts and the mysterious bitter golden crab mustard that many Marylanders refuse to touch. How much nicer it was, I thought, to eat something ripped apart from itself before it reached your table. MORE
There are times in life when, for brief moments, everything seems perfect in the world. One of those times, for me, was one late summer afternoon on my honeymoon, sitting on the upstairs patio of a café overlooking a busy outdoor market. There was chilled, slightly fizzy white wine on the table, and a small tray with salami, olives, and bread. I remember the long, flowy skirt that I was wearing, and my new husband sitting across from me, a mischievous smile on his face.
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
“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.
It’s springtime. The April rain is falling, the flowering trees are in full bloom, and the quintessential seasonal ale know as saison is hitting the shelves at the local beer store. The production and consumption of these dry and earthy beers are so intertwined with the seasons that their moniker “saison,” simply translates to “season” in French. These ales are typically refreshingly dry for daytime refreshment yet still spicy and complex enough to serve as contemplative night-time sippers. From humble beginnings, this style has become a darling of modern craft brewing. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
“Oh no!” I heard my friend shriek from her kitchen. Had a mouse just run across her foot? Was an oven mitt on fire? Did someone put too much soap in the dishwasher? I couldn’t quite tell, but the loud slamming drawers and cabinet doors sounded rather serious.
“I can’t find it anywhere!” She came running back into the room, her hands full of various utensils. “What about a knife? Or maybe scissors?” she asked with a puzzled expression. “Do you know how to uncork a bottle with a fork?”
With March 17th just around the corner, it’s time to start planning the St. Patrick’s Day menu. Tradition states that one eats corned beef, boiled potatoes and steamed cabbage on this greenest of holidays and most years, my household has followed suit. It’s a meal towards which I look forward each year, as I’ve found that there’s really no way to go wrong with tender beef and soft, floury potatoes (particularly when they’re served with a dab of grainy mustard).
It’s not until you get to the cabbage that I find myself balking in the face of tradition. I don’t think it does it justice to the cabbage to boil or steam it into submission. The end result develops a palid, near-grey complexion and ends up tasting horribly bland and watery. There are better, more delicious ways to tackle cabbage and make it fit into the framework of your St. Paddy’s celebration.
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.
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 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