Dispatches TM_FP_Tea_AP_004

As I was sitting seiza, kneeling on thin tatami mats with my legs folded tightly underneath my thighs, my feet began to go numb. Our host had yet to even enter the room, still outside of it preparing the utensils on her tray. I had only been seated in the position for a few minutes and was already concerned about the lack of blood flow to my ankles. I worried I wouldn’t make it through my first Japanese tea ceremony, let alone any of my future lessons.

One of my instructors, Drew, was busy explaining the hanging scroll in the cove in the corner of the tea room — too busy to notice my very visible physical discomfort. On this snowy morning, the scroll featured Japanese calligraphy and the characters for beautiful, moon, and flower. “It serves as a reminder that beauty can still be found even in the depths of winter,” he said calmly, “and that the snow will eventually melt its way into spring.” I did my best to embrace his message as I felt my body shivering from the cold draft entering the tea room from outside.

Below the hanging scroll rested a narrow vase with a simple flower arrangement, which Drew also pointed out to our small class. “The flowers chosen for each tea ceremony will always represent the current season. I picked these from my garden this morning,” he said proudly. Every other student in the room listened carefully and attentively while I fidgeted in my spot, struggling to focus on anything besides the lack of sensation in my legs.

This was my first of many Japanese tea ceremony classes, which I attended for four consecutive weeks at the Shofuso Japanese House and Garden in Philadelphia. Early every Saturday morning, I rushed to get ready in my messy studio apartment and make it to my 9 AM lesson on time. When I arrived, I shuffled out of my puffy winter jacket, slipped out of my salt-covered boots, and tied a wide sash around my waist before gliding onto the tatami mat flooring in my mismatched socks.

Bookshelf TM_BK_KNISH_FI_001_1

Laura Silver is a woman on a mission. When her favorite knish bakery, Mrs. Stahl’s, closed, she embarked on a round-the-world quest for the origins and modern-day manifestations of the knish that would take her from Brighton Beach to Jersey and across three continents. Her forthcoming book about her journey, Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food, will be available from Brandeis University Press on May 6, 2014. In this excerpt, we meet, and lose, Mrs. Stahl’s and Fritzie Silver, the author’s grandmother.

The knish situation in Brooklyn is not what it once was. I can say that because I’m third-generation Brooklyn, once removed. Queens, where I was born, had knishes, too, tons of them. I took them for granted, then they were gone.

More than latkes, matzoh, or the apple-and-walnut charoset that crowned the seder plate, knishes were my family’s religion. For knishes, we went on pilgrimages. For knishes, we traversed Long Island, top to bottom, from northern Queens to southern Brooklyn. For knishes, we drove Northern Boulevard to the Grand Central, past LaGuardia to the BQE, through to the Prospect Expressway, which deposited us on Ocean Parkway amid old trees and religious Jews, a straight shot to Mrs. Stahl’s.

A knish is a pillow of filling tucked into a skin of dough. The ones at Mrs. Stahl’s were baked round mounds, each plump with a stuffing, savory or sweet. Each piece — the size of a fist or just bigger — revealed a hint of filling on the top, a bald spot, as if for a yarmulke. But the real secret to the construction of a Mrs. Stahl’s knish remained hidden: Yet if you cut the knish in half, the cross-section revealed a membrane of dough that split the innards into chambers, like those of the human heart.

Forgotten Foods TM_FF_DEATHFOOD_FI_001

Oh, how many of us yearn for a simpler time and place? A time before cell phones, when people couldn’t always reach us. A time before the Internet, when we didn’t accidentally read Game of Thrones spoilers on our Twitter feeds (I’m still bitter about the Red Wedding). A time before Nicki Minaj, when all of the beez were free.

You know that wholesome time I’m talking about – that time when little children would sit around, eagerly waiting for someone to die so they could eat funeral cookies.

Lest you think I’m romanticizing the past, allow me to offer this selection from an article entitled “Scotch Funerals,” published in 1883’s The Living Age:

My grandfather…always had one or two of his grandchildren awaiting his return from any burial he attended, who were often not disappointed in seeing the coveted morsel produced from his pocket and having it shared among them.

If only today’s children knew what treats they were missing out on, they might do like children of yesteryear and eagerly await the death of others!

Breakfast TM_BR_ENGBRK_FI_002

Ask ten Londoners what a traditional English breakfast should include and they’ll give you ten different answers.

“I swear by blood pudding.”

“No way! I only eat white pudding. I don’t want blood in the morning.”

“As long as you fry the bread, puddings don’t even matter!”

Fry the bread? Just buy a toaster already!”

The squabbling could go on forever – though it’s in a British accent, so who’s complaining? Most can agree that a traditional English breakfast includes fried eggs, bread – either toasted or fried, sautéed mushrooms, fried tomatoes, sausage of some kind, bacon, and Heinz beans. And yes, it must be Heinz, the same company we all know in the States for its ketchup. Even restaurants will boast Heinz brand beans on their menus. Sometimes black or white pudding is included (black is fat, oatmeal, and blood in a sausage casing, while white is everything but the blood).

Holiday TM_HL_MINCE_FI_001

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

Dispatches TM_BK_BRAZIL_FI_002

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.

First Person TM_DI_PIEROGI_FI_001

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.

Thanksgiving TM_FF_ANTIPMPK_FI_002

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

Thanksgiving TM_CU_TURKEY_FI_002

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


A Chesapeake Classic

True Marylanders don't settle for store-bought crab cakes


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

Snack Break TM_SB_FOCACC_FI_002

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.

First Person TM_FP_RAKJIA_FI_001_1

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 Person Saucepan overflowing on stove

“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.

The Brew TM_BR_SAISON_FI_001

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.

Wine 101 TM_W1_CLOSE_FI_001

“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?”