Steinbeck’s description of the children watching hungrily as the tractor driver ate his spam sandwich (page 36) prompted me to research the eating habit of the Great Depression. When I think of spam, and its uncouth color/shape, I can’t imagine myself longingly watching someone eat it. In many cultures, times of economic strife force people to be creative in adapting to new eating habits. As I began my research, I came across The Food Timeline Organization which provided a myriad of information and further research on the history of food.
The Great Depression left many people too poor to afford everyday foods such as meat, vegetables, and fruit. Those who could afford certain food luxuries made their rations last longer than they were accustomed to. Many people turned to bread and soup, hence the bread lines and soup kitchens. The Food Timeline Organization describes this trend by saying, “throughout time, in almost every culture and cuisine, soups and have been the primary foods consumed by people with not much money. It is economical […], simple to cook […], easy to serve […] and requires minimal clean-up. Bread also has a long history of filling empty bellies during the worst of times.” Soup is also logical in times of economic turmoil because the poor can make use of all scraps and leftovers. Upon further research I came across a NYTimes article in which Thomas Moon, a man who endured the Great Depression, remembers his families eating habits during the 1930’s. He recalls, “there was nothing thrown away. We’d make soup out of the feet that was delicious. The gizzard, oh, man, that was choice meat, everybody loved the gizzard.”
Although the poor were frequenting bread lines, penny restaurants, and soup kitchens, others in the country were able to occasionally treat themselves to a variety of new mass production food brands introduced during the Depression. Some of the more notable and popular food brands introduced in the 1930’s were Wonder Bread (sliced), Snickers, Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup, Ritz Crackers, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, and Hormel Spam. With the introduction of the New Deal, food programs were offered to those in the worker relief program, the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC camps created menus that could feed the men that worked in the camps. In one menu I looked at, the camp fed 115 men for a little over one dollar a person. The carefully thought-out menus provided each man 4 meals throughout the day.
So, I’ve learned that if your diet consists of stale bread and watery soup, spam can be considered a rare treat.
It’s my understanding that most people get the urge to travel in order to visit the old cities of their ancestors, symbolic religious monuments, great artistic masterpieces, or decisive historical sites. However, more often then not the very hunger that drives me towards travel is inspired by none other than hunger itself, and the knowledge that the most scrumptious feasts await me at my destination.
Sometimes I’ll literally sit with a pen, writing down places I’d like to travel, as I watch programs on the Food Network, like “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,” with Guy Fieri which takes the viewer to some of the most interesting and unique restaurants across America. I actually have an entire itinerary for a road trip across the U.S. which is completely dictated by my cravings for the BBQ belt, and the Soul Food I’m dying to try in the South.
Naturally my choice to come to Argentina was easy enough as I fantasized of endless banquet tables pilled high with different varieties of this infamous Argentine beef I’d heard so much about. I romanticized the notion of backyard asados, dimly lit parillas with gauchos as my waiters, and this dulche de leche which was apparently so ubiquitous that it ran down the walls. After brushing up on my vocabulary of all the different cuts of meat in Spanish with my tutor, I felt I was completely prepared for just the kind of traveling I like.
As though the food wasn’t amazing enough, the exchange rate makes it simply impossible to refuse a steak dinner every night. And each bife is better than next, so that you become ravenous in the quest for the ultimate lomo! Sometimes you walk into a parilla and the air will be so thick with a savory ambrosial scent that you will just know that your are about to have a religious experience.
I reached this place of nirvana just this past Saturday, it’s called “La Cabrera.” This Palermo restaurant (which can be found on the Hedonist’s Guide to Buenos Aires) looks like an old time French bistro, with dark mahogany moldings, old clippings and photographs on the walls, mercury glass mirrors, and neon signs. At La Cabrera It best to bide one’s time waiting for a table outside—with your complimentary glass of champagne—because the magnificent sight of the juicy bifes and the delicious odor inside is enough to make a person do crazy things.
Once inside you are presented with an overflowing basket of assorted breads and a variety of tapenades, dried tomatoes, and spreads. It’s necessary at this point to muster all the self control one possesses, in order to carry on with polite conversation, for of course, all parties involved are aware of the great anticipation which is distracting everyone from saying anything meaningful.
After every crumb of bread has been eaten, the jars of tapenade have been scooped clean, and conversation has become strained, the waiters finally arrive with both arms fully extended bearing smorgasbords in each. At this moment the only feeling that can be had is utter excitement, a kinetic energy that surges as they begin to lay the plates on the table before any bites are taken.
In these seconds, suspended in time, you are almost paralyzed with elation looking down at the feast of caramelized meat medallions, and the vast array of delectable accoutrements—like mashed pumpkin with raisins, beet puree, and baked pearl onions in wine. It’s almost too beautiful to touch—but of course you do. And when that steak melts in your mouth, it is truly a moment of enlightenment.
I’ll state the assumptions I’m working with in writing this letter to you forwardly: that you are exactly like me. I know it might seem silly to tell you that I’m writing from my own perspective in such a blatant manner, but I guess I just have no way of telling how any given individual will respond. A lot of people, based on the feelings I’ve expressed in past posts and what I know from conversations with other NYU students, have had differing or even opposing experiences than what I’ve had. I’m sure it’s the case going into any study abroad program, so I guess I’ll make that be my first piece of advice: don’t make the assumption that your reaction to a new place will be the same as anyone else’s. This is along the lines of don’t bring assumptions about your abroad site to your abroad site, as NYU so often advises—but I think I’m adding an important dimension by advising you to also leave your assumptions about how your own culture will react to the place you’re going at home, in your own culture. People grow and change abroad and it’s really beautiful to watch it happen, but it’s important that you know that you won’t all grown and change in similar ways.
Most people probably don't think of Cape Cod as a premier Spring Break destination. (Well, some people do). In March, it's cold. Very cold. And due to the Cape's highly seasonal economy, many stores and restaurants aren't open until May. But that didn't stop my friends and I from hopping a Chinatown bus to Boston and driving out to spend a week in at the Commodore Inn in West Harwich. It was quiet, chilly, and completely lovely. One of our only scheduled activities during the week was eating.
Leaving your hometown and eating elsewhere raises interesting questions about the relationship between place and food. Specific memories, senses, and associations are deeply assigned to certain spaces, but this sensation is highly subjective. According to Tuan, when a space feels familiar, it has become a place-- but the definition of space and place vary by individual. Beyond that, every individual's personal sense of place is ringed by a haze of mythical space, which is the "fuzzy area of defective knowledge surrounding the empirically knowns; it frames pragmatic space." Mythical space is the area with which we are familiar, but weren't necessarily taught, and it is often too abstract to be illustrated. For some places, physical structures are representation enough (i.e., the Empire State Building = NYC), but for many others, it is fleeting sensations and memories that describe them best.
With relation to food, this mythical space can be understood as the knowledge that certain regions have certain specialties: in the US alone, think of chowder in the Northeast, muffalettos in New Orleans, or bagels in New York. We may not like these foods or ever have eaten them, but our inherent knowledge that they represent a place can convince us of their place value. We need not necessarily consume these foods to feel connected to a place-- oftentimes, the mere mention of them ("imagined consumption”) is enough. The consumption, or the idea of the consumption of these foods can become a physical representation of an “intimate experience of place.”
When I was in Cape Cod last week, I found myself affected by a common travel-diet sensation: the desire to eat foods representative of the region, i.e., chowder or stuffed quahogs. On a superficial level, it's simple: I can't get quahogs in New York, therefore, I should take advantage of them on the Cape. But after a few days, I began to question my subconscious motivation: am I ordering X, Y, or Z because I want to, or because I think I should? Because by eating this bowl of clam chowder I can shift my experience of Cape Cod from a space to a place?
A big part of why we travel is not only to participate in new, novel experiences, but also to become a part of older, more established ones. Foods are one of the most tangible manifestations of mythical space. Eating a black-and-white cookie in New York or deep-dish pizza in Chicago is a simple way to make those spaces more familiar--that is, to make them a place.
When I told my extended family over Thanksgiving dinner that I would be spending my spring semester in Paris, the first thing my wine/cuisine expert uncle did was promise to send me a comprehensive list of all the best restaurants in Paris that he knew of. A few weeks later, I got it, six pages of tiny print, detailed reviews of dozens of incredible sounding places, names, addresses, personal anecdotes, even citations from professional restaurant reviewers. Each one sounded unique in its own way; there was La Cave de L'os Moelle, the all-you-can-eat-for-20-euros place set up like an old French cafeteria (long hefty wooden tables, a fire burning in the back, laughter, smoke and conversation amongst strangers) where foods like rabbit mushroom stew, full roasted quail, and homemade tarte tatin are served on huge platters next to baskets of fresh made bread and jugs of hearty wine; Astier, one of the more expensive places ("...maybe save this for when your parents come visit and take you out to dinner...") which boasts high quality French fare, three full courses and wine, at the end of which an enormous platter of cheese, every kind of cheese one can imagine, is served and left on the table for as long as you can bear to keep eating; and Domaine de Lintillac, the "pretty much all duck so if you don't like duck, don't bother going here" place. I love duck. Anything duck. I booked this one immediately.
On a Saturday night at 9 pm, I went with my roommate to the 1eme location (there are 2 others, one in the 18eme near Montmartre, and one in the southern end of the 7eme). When we arrived, the restaurant was just starting to fill up, but our reservation had saved us a great big table near the back, and we shuffled in past the already drunk and feasting parties of Parisians, hours deep in duck and wine. The restaurant was beautiful, sweet, lit warmly by dozens of candles near the windows, each table covered in a classic red and white plaid tablecloth. The waiters were friendly and smiling (somewhat rare in a fancy Parisian place!) and brought over a wine list to start. We selected a bottle of fine red wine (9 euros, practically retail price) and ordered off the entree menu a duck pate to share. Now I had looked at the English language menu online (which was accompanied by pictures) beforehand to make sure I knew what to get, and judging by the placement of the item in the list of plats, I chose what I thought would be a thick duck steak for my main course. Not long after, our meals were brought to us, and I realized that I had been quite mistaken. What I had ordered, the boudin de canard, was in fact a duck black pudding pate with roasted potatoes on the side. At first I was nervous, but as I said, I love duck. Anything duck. So I dove in. It was delicious, salty and crumbling. The potatoes, cooked in duck fat, were sweet and crunchy and wonderful. The wine was tasty and bitter, a perfect compliment. I could barely finish all the food on my plate but I knew I'd regret it if I didn't. All in all it was an amazing meal, an amazing restaurant, and am amazing Parisian experience.
I apologize that this post is shamefully late; if I can be perfectly honest, I read the due date as March 21 instead of March 12. Sorry.
Tips for people studying/planning to study abroad: hardboiled eggs are one of the easiest things to cook. All one requires is a pot of hot water, no crockery or cutlery required, and no oil to wash out. However, as I've only recently discovered, it's apparently "very Asian" and the rest of the world doesn't seem to like it that much. Therefore, when I brought a dozen of them to a potluck at a friend's house, only two were eaten, both by me. Now I have ten hardboiled eggs sitting patiently in my kitchen.
According to the Institute of Molecular Gastronomy, the perfect egg is the 65-degree egg (149F, for Americans). If you’re interested in creating one of your own, you can follow the instructions in this article. However, as much as I would like to, it is absolutely unattainable here sans thermometer. Parisian kitchens tend to be miniscule, with electric heating plates and no ovens. In my tiny little kitchenette, the pan is bigger than the heating plate that takes forever to heat up, and the handle of the pan perpetually hits the corners whenever I try to turn it. As a result, all omelettes cooked on my stove end up half burnt on one side and uncooked on the other. Which is why I stick to boiled eggs.
Sitting here peeling eggs reminded me of being a kid. My extended family used to have a dinner every two months or so to celebrate whoever's birthday was in that time. In accordance with Chinese custom, there'd be a basket of red hardboiled eggs for us to take home. (Red signifies good luck) I didn’t actually really like hardboiled egg - I always found the white tasteless - but I was bored and they were fun to peel. When we got to the car, I'd have a half-peeled egg, red-stained fingers from the paint on the eggshell, and a mother yelling at me for dropping eggshell in the car.
I feel very Proustian.
On the way back from an NYU-sponsored trip to the beautiful and historic town of Olomouc, a rather small college town a few hours outside of Prague, I was finally falling asleep on the bus when I was disturbed by feedback on the bus’s crackling p.a. system. Rather irritated and annoyed, I listened half-heartedly to the news that we were stopping at a small town in Moravia called Litomysl. Half enthused, I attempted to drift off to sleep, but to no avail. As we pulled into town, it was as if we entered a completely different dimension. Warm sunlight brushed upon my skin; Vitamin D production at last! Sunlight flooded the bus, inciting giggles and shrieks of delight from my fellow NYU in Prague students, as this was a stark contrast to the usually gloomy and drizzly weather in Prague. Rather than joining the excitement that permeated the air on the bus, I just wished everyone would shut the hell up. I was tired and irritable, after a long night the day before, though I realize now that it was mostly my doing. Blinds were suddenly pulled up onboard on the large panoramic windows and despite my best attempts to have the person next to me close them again, they revealed a town of glittering cobblestone that could belong in any snow globe. Coming up a steep incline, the bus pulled to a halt as everyone onboard eagerly waited to go outside and explore. Our tour guide Marie Homerova, was almost knocked down in the process. Rather than being excited to see the sights of the city, I thought this would more than anything make an excellent excuse to go grab a bite to eat, as I realized soon after stepping off the bus that I was famished. Golds and ornamentation laid upon the tops of buildings glinted in the sunlight, beckoning us to come forward.
“Omega” is a word that appeared frequently in my adolescence, usually completely out of context. An omega is simply the 24th letter of the Greek alphabet, or, when used as a noun, the ending or last occurrence of an event. My high school newspaper was called "The Omega." The cheapie dry cleaner on Highland Avenue was “Omega’s.” And the 24-hour diner across the street from my school was named OMEGA.
It was there, in the smoke-heavy, vinyl banquettes of the inexplicably named OMEGA, that I experienced the most essential parts of teenagerdom—trying my first cigarette, dipping French fries in chocolate milkshakes, stopping in before prom to show off my seafoam green dress. Countless nights ended with Ross, Brian, Theresa and I pushing out curfews by camping out at OMEGA, ordering a cup of coffee just to get the free bread basket that waitresses were obliged to set down.
The place was a complete dump. Shades of burgundy and orange cast unflattering hues across everything, the menus were laminated in burn-spotted plastic, and the staff was a haggard, harried bunch. The menu was biblical in proportion, though I rarely strayed from cream of broccoli soup or French toast. I would come home reeking of smoke and grease, and my mother would ask me if I was high. OMEGA had few redeeming qualities beyond it’s 24-hour accessibility, but we always preferred it to the Steak n’ Shake down the street, which was also open 24 hours a day, but attracted a different, more posh crowd under its faux-retro fluorescent lights. OMEGA was boring and comfortable, an inevitable last resort after a night of driving around, something we alternately dreaded and expected.
It’s dinnertime in India. Oh joy. Let the guessing game begin. The waiters throw down the plates: Spices. Heavy spices. Burn-your-taste-buds-until-your-tongue-falls-off spices. And curry. Multicolored, thick and goopy curries. And then there’s that stuff. Goat stomach? Sheep’s tongue? I don’t even know. I can’t, nor do I want to, identify this heap of tissue on my dish. I am from America, I am American, I am the daughter of a system of nutritional facts. There are labels even on water. I miss my USDA. I want my FDA guarantee. There is no guarantee here. Nothing is guaranteed in India.
I get up to wash my hands. They are dirty from the naan and sauce mishmash. It was like finger-paints. My hands are simultaneously dripping and cakey. India’s culture has spoiled them. Thanks a lot tradition. I bow down to you, ancestors of old. Yea right. Sure, I’ll sacrifice my shorts, a few hours to jetlag, even my cellular addiction, but not my fork, knife, and even napkin in order to “respect” the customs of this place. I hate this mess. I feel like a barbarian. This isn’t my idea of a family vacation. Why did we have to come here? Only to get our hands dirty?
As my interest has risen in the passionate culture of Brazil, I have explored their music, their language, and their…appearance. I had not as of yet made much of an effort to taste their cuisine. I had a vague inclination that the food in Brazil is tied closely with that of Argentina – specifically, I had decided that these two countries had little in common with the strict diet of comida tipica found in many Central American countries. (In my experience, comida tipica changes a little bit in each place, but revolves around rice, beans, and some sort of meat fritado.) I also had been exposed to cachaça, the elemental native Brazilian liquor. I enjoyed my shot of cachaça. I could not describe it any more that “enjoyable,” because I don’t remember. A quick Wikipedia search and I was inundated with different styles of cooking from different sections of Brazil. That only makes sense, of course, seeing as the landscape and cultures from these different sections are very varied. From the northeast, which sees seafood on its plate often, comes Moqueca, a seafood stew. Strangely this stew is cooked without adding any water – the stock liquid is palm oil and coconut milk.