February 15th, 2012 § Comments Off § permalink
Several months ago, I spent a weekend at the Wellesley College Sustainablity Co-Op, aka SCoop. I was well-fed there, and well-conversationed; one of the meals which lingers is the late tea of sliders and, well, tea.
I pulled together a quick batch of buttermilk biscuits, and while those were baking, we made patties out of the seitan in the fridge (Faithful Minion J., whom I was visiting, made a disapproving face when she saw it and muttered dark statistics about the collateral impact of such fake-meat products), sautéed them lightly on the stovetop, and grabbed ketchup and shredded cabbage (no lettuce, it wasn’t the season yet, the greenhouses on the campus hadn’t finished baking the mesclun, so to speak), before spending the next few hours engrossed in chat and discussion that covered everything from childhood books we have known and loved to the topiary on the Wellesley campus to the various glaciers around the world.
Which is really my point: I don’t think anyone needs to be told how to make hamburgers, which is really all sliders are, only miniaturized, and if they do, I am not the person to tell them. There are some people who are very good at teaching the basics, at breaking down recipes. But it’s not my thing. What I can do is talk about the resonances of food, the context (historical, especially, but also political and otherwise) of what we eat, how we decide what to eat, and other things. The power in that late tea, the reason I remember it, wasn’t in the food itself, wasn’t in the consumption of calories, wasn’t in the baking powder or the heat of the oven. It was in the feeling of friendship, the shared jokes, the sense that nobody at that table had anywhere else they wanted to be.
March 25th, 2011 § § permalink
Every now and then, a spate of posts go around the foodblogosphere about guilty pleasures. The objectively gross foods you love that aren’t local or sustainable or nutritious (Easter Peeps come up a lot, for some reason); the foods that break every food resolution you’ve got (I know at least one person who calls herself a baconaterian; she’s a vegetarian….plus bacon, because bacon is “the food that makes other food worth eating”); the foods you would never, ever admit to buying or eating, in the company of your fellow foodies.
I can’t link to those posts because I didn’t delicious them; I generally don’t open them in my browser when they come through my RSS reader; when I stumble across them in my day-to-day surfing the web, I close the tab as fast as I can. My attitude toward those posts can be summed up very simply:
Fuck. That. Shit.
A partial list of my fuck-that-shit-I-love-this-and-I-refuse-to-be-ashamed foods includes:
- candy corn, straight out of the bag (the ones made with honey taste like honey, and that is all wrong)
photograph by Muffet
- overpriced Sabra’s hummus
- bubble tea (there’s a place in Boston that makes taro bubble tea, it is bright purple and it tastes like strawberry shortcake and I swear they lace it with hallucinogenic substances; every time I drink it, I emerge blinking and bewildered and utterly satisfied)
photography by scaredy_kat
- Freihofer’s chocolate-chip cookies, heated in the microwave for fifteen seconds
- Stewart’s Fireworks ice cream (this is so disgusting, the ice cream is creepily gummy, but it is vanilla ice cream with Pop Rocks mixed in, and it is so much fun to eat, and it tastes like childhood to me)
Watch: as soon as I hit “publish” for this post, I will think of half a dozen things I should’ve put on that list and forgot. But I will not go back and edit it, for the simple reason that this post is all about giving the finger to the idea of “should” — specifically, what we should want.
January 21st, 2011 § § permalink
The winter can be a hard time for those of us with mental illnesses. I’ve caught myself watching the snow drift higher and higher up the steps to the house and thinking this is how the inside of my head feels. Depression can be like being trapped in a cold sunless landscape and every moment only mounts up the obstacles to wade through.
And the holidays which break up the cold months of the Northern Hemisphere are even more fraught when dealing with so much as getting out of bed and showering is a full day’s work. Families can be wonderful and supportive when you’re dealing with mental illness, and they can also do an amazing job of leaving you shattered and defenseless. Anna at Jezebel wrote a nice little Social Minefield post on how not to kill your family over Thanksgiving, but she was assuming that her audience was made up of people who could control the inside of their heads.
(I don’t, here, mean to imply that mental illness is the same for everyone; I’m generalizing from my experience. Take everything I say here with an entire salt shaker — not supplied by management — and attach the riders “mileage may vary, objects in mirror may be closer than they appear, etc., etc.”)
I’ve talked before about the importance of a tea ritual for me in handling anxiety attacks. This time, I want to take a look at comfort food. Holidays often come with a ritual sacrifice — as the character Anya in Buffy the Vampire Slayer says of Thanksgiving, “To commemorate a past event, you kill and eat an animal. It’s a ritual sacrifice. With pie.”
Comfort food is not really about the food; it’s about the memories associated with the food, the experiences surrounding the preparation and consumption of the food. Comfort food is often something we had as a child, or something which is easy to prepare so we can be sure of getting it when we feel at our worst. My comfort food is canned black olives, probably because I have such good memories of fitting them onto my fingertips as a kid (and because olives are delicious and briny and salty, but that’s the grownup in me talking). A friend’s comfort food is stuffing from a box — or, as she calls it, “mushy starch.” The “mushy starch” category of comfort food is pretty large: mashed potatoes are common, as is macaroni and cheese, French toast, and rice pudding. Or there’s the chocolate end of the spectrum: brownies, chocolate silk pie, Hershey’s Kisses.
When I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it…— M.F.K. Fisher
(Search Twitter or Flickr for “comfort food” and you learn more about the various commonalities and differences in people in five minutes than an anthropology degree could give you in an undergraduate career. It’s fascinating.)
Holidays tend toward the ritualized anyway: midnight Mass, kissing when the ball in Times Square drops, reciting a specific blessing and lighting the shamash. (And less joyful ones as well: that political fight that your family’s been having ever since 1987, the pressure to wear clothes that don’t suit who you are, forced attendance at religious services you don’t believe in. Those rituals suck, and they can be really hard to reject, even if that’s what’s best for you.) Ritualized food is powerful; witness the piles of Ocean Spray cranberries in U.S. supermarkets the weeks before Thanksgiving, even, perhaps especially, in areas of the country where cranberries are not native. Most people don’t eat cranberries much the rest of the year, except maybe in muffins; I’d actually venture to bet that most people don’t like cranberries much, their tartness and not-quite-citrus flavor. (Which I don’t understand, because cranberries are delicious, but whatever.) But Thanksgiving isn’t Thanksgiving without cranberry sauce, and so we have it.
Winter’s rough for me, I won’t lie about that. But it’s made a little less rough by keeping black olives in the pantry, by making latkes if I can dredge up the energy, by meeting friends for a round of sufganiyot when I venture outside into the dark and cold of the world beyond my head.
This post was written in response to the call for submissions for Potluck.
June 19th, 2010 § Comments Off § permalink
In some ways, summer sucks for me in terms of cooking. Oh, I delight in the all the myriad delicious things in the farmer’s market, I relish the chance to eat everything raw, and the extended daylight hours means I get the chance to explore markets other than my local one, but still. Summer is the season when my roommates go away on fellowships and family command performances. Right now, my roommates are in three different states. Possibly three different time zones, I’m not sure. And I can’t cook for them.
I’ve mentioned before that cooking for one isn’t my idea of a good time. When you cook for yourself, no one pays you compliments! And there’s no one around to chat with while doing boring prep work, and no one to delegate the dishes to. What, I ask you, is the point of that?
So lately I have been making a lot of one-pot steamed-rice-and-fish-fillet-and-vegetables dinners. I mean, they’re good, don’t get me wrong, but there is a limit to how many times I can talk about them and be excited. I can swap out the seasonings (I’ve taken to cooking the rice in instant miso soup, for example) and change the kind of fish (haven’t gotten up the nerve to try steaming bluefish yet, I admit, but hake and cod and haddock have all been delicious) and vegetables (there are some days I have been unmotivated enough to use frozen mixed vegetables, I will not lie). But that’s about it.
It also doesn’t help that it is hot in New York City in the summertime. I live on a relatively high floor, so I can catch breezes off the Hudson, but I don’t have air conditioning, and sometimes the prospect of turning on the oven or even a burner is enough to make my spirit wilt. I’m not ashamed to admit that I will occasionally have popsicles for dinner when it gets over eighty-five degrees Fahrenheit. (Edy’s has pomegranate popsicles! They are delicious and corn-syrup free. I recommend them.)
photograph by Pink Sherbet Photography
So honestly, that’s why it’s been quiet around here recently; I’m steaming vegetables and rice and eating raw produce and popsicles, and neither of those is much to talk about.
October 18th, 2009 § § permalink
So, some of you might have heard that I have some news: I’m joining the Board of Directors for the Organization for Transformative Works in January. This is tremendously exciting, because it allows me to work toward a world which celebrates something I hold very dear — the non-zero-sum economy.
There’s a lot of discussion going on of late about food scarcity, the encroaching famines and water deprivations of the 21st century, and I don’t deny that these are serious and important problems. I do, however, deny that food and cooking are a zero-sum game; that making a pound of bread means that there is one less potential pound of bread to be made. Every time I make bread, I learn more about how to do it, and how to make it better — and I can teach someone else to do it with more authority, more understanding of the possible variants. And if I make food for you, and you look up from your plate to say, “This is amazing, can I have the recipe?” my writing out the recipe doesn’t mean that I can’t make it again.
photograph by deb roby
More than that, your rendition of that recipe will not — cannot — be exactly like mine; your eggplant may be more bitter, your flour may be white whole wheat where mine was all-purpose, you may have run out of oregano while I use it with a generous hand. You may want to emphasize the crispness of the batter when you make zucchini fritters and I was showing off the deep emerald and lemony skin of the fresh squash I bought that morning. And that is as it should be!
That is what is supposed to happen. This is the great joy of cooking, that the universe of gastronomy constantly expands, that we learn from each other and learn to see things anew and afresh, experiment and adapt. And that is what fannish behavior is all about — pushing the limits of a known universe, saying what if, asking questions, combining ideas in new ways and approaching the same materials from different angles.
There is also a fascinating parallel to be drawn between amateurism in cooking and in art — not everyone wants to be Alain Ducasse or John Grisham. Some of us just want to bake cornbread on a Saturday morning and eat it with honey, or explore the questions that Star Trek didn’t get to. There’s room for both of us in this world.
OTW is currently running its biannual donations drive, so they — we — can continue doing the work which is so valuable: preserving that economy of gifts and excess, making sure that the history of the community is not erased, ensuring that amateur (a word, I remind you, that comes from the Latin for love) fair use is not chased out of the world in favor of corporate interests. It would mean a lot to me if you would visit the OTW site and think about supporting the organization; it is a federally registered 501(c)3 not-for-profit, so (a) your donation would be tax-deductible in the United States to the fullest extent of the law (international donors should consult a local tax authority) and (b) we are dependent on support from generous donors.
October 14th, 2009 § § permalink
I am embarking on a noble experiment: cooking black beans from scratch. No, I have never done this before. No, I don’t have any idea of what I’m doing. Yes, my countertops are already stained a quite pretty grey-purple because I spilled when I was draining the soaked beans. Yes, I am using a very Anglicized recipe from the New York Times. Yes, this escapade will most likely be a disaster.
photograph by adobemac
While I am hanging out and waiting for the the beans to cook, I want to talk about something that is not a disaster. Ever.
One of the many many things I love about food is its relationship with language. I don’t mean just the specialized vocabulary of cooking, although I do love that dearly (whisk! spatula! temper! velvet! satsuma! fudge! cruller! nonpareils! gnaw! salt cellar! I can go on). I mean the special relationship cooking and food has with verb tenses. Food has, I think, a way of existing never quite fully in time; there’s always the thousands of years of agriculture and domestication and foraging behind everything we eat, there’s always the knowledge that we need to eat in order to survive, trying to persist into the future.
I’ve been reading Samuel Delany and Joanna Russ’s science-fiction criticism lately, and there’s some really interesting discussion in there about how science fiction is written in the subjunctive mood1; how science fiction is stories that hover between fantasy’s “events that couldn’t happen” and realism’s “events that could happen.” Another term for science fiction is speculative fiction, and I can see why; it’s always interested in the hypothetical.
Food has something of the same indefinite quality; Nora Ephron notwithstanding, it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve done something in the kitchen before, it can always go wrong in new and interesting ways. There is a story in my family about the time that chicken soup and matzah balls turned — I am not making this up — blue.
There is a danger in cooking. Food poisoning or allergies can kill someone, and the experience of sharing meals is such an intimate one that it can be frightening. We use language to bridge that gap — Do you like mint tea? I care passionately for olives. — to try to create connection, to enjoin the desire to feed someone with the desire to make them happy. Cooking and food are about hope and love and connection, all of which are speculative and uncertain and subjunctive in the very best sense.
1 The subjunctive is a grammatical mood (others are the indicative and the imperative), which denotes “states of maybe” — wishes, hopes, speculations, conditions, hypotheticals, and so on.
December 17th, 2008 § Comments Off § permalink
If you can eat it and it doesn’t give you food poisoning, it’s not a failure.
That said, pretty much everything I have made over the last two weeks or so has been….not really something I want to admit to cooking. Beef stew that didn’t thicken (I blame the crockpot, which I am really unenamored of), coffee cake that was wet in the middle, salmon with yogurt sauce that was utterly tasteless, potstickers that tore and tasted unspeakably foul, grainy butternut squash risotto…It’s been a bad run. I did make one kickass vegetable stirfry, one night when I desperately needed some comfort food, and the stars aligned or something, because I got my comfort dinner. Other than that, though, it’s been Annie’s mac and cheese and carrot sticks and hummus and sandwiches from the panino place in the next building. And ginger tea, because my body was cranky about not being fed well (and therefore rejected all food pre-emptively. Good call there.) while under stress anyway.
Whether the inability to judge a recipe and ingredients came first, a sort of culinary myopia, leading to my brain’s current thinking strike, or whether I couldn’t think straight about dinner after long days spent putting out fires and acquiring new assignments at work and feeling out of control there, doesn’t really matter. It’s been a bad run in pretty much every way imaginable.
And I’m not sure how to break it; some superstitious part of me wants to salt the edges of the kitchen, maybe the apartment, paint runes on the doorjambs, something symbolic. I could go on as I’ve been doing, and wait for some invisible seismic shift in the world, cooking only the things I can make with my eyes closed (I’ve never yet messed up oatmeal, for example, although I did manage to burn rice last week), and hope I manage to re-learn whatever the hell it is that I’ve forgotten. I could give myself a sabbatical from cooking, declare that I am off the hook for making anything edible for the next….week maybe? However long I need to stop feeling dread when I go into the kitchen.
One of the many reasons I love cooking (usually) is its mysterious combination of magic and chemistry; if you melt butter and whisk flour into it, it will get thick! Every time! And yet — souffles fall, vanilla floats invisibly in the back of chocolate-chip cookies, madeleines make Proust tremble in a trance, and we can’t put our finger on why. But it doesn’t feel like magic right now. It feels like work.