A college student in Seattle, WA confronts food in its many forms - in restaurants, the quick bites in between classes and work, and, perhaps most importantly, she confronts the great puzzle of how to feed herself now that her mother doesn't make dinner...
Tuesday, June 10, 2008
I found this to be amazingly awesome and relevant - my Anthropology of Food class just took a field trip two weeks ago to visit the Pea Patches of the University District. I had never heard of Pea Patches before this class, at least not in this context. The idea of a small subsistence garden in an urban environment had never even occured to me - though it did interest me immensely. I've actually given quite a lot of thought to starting a container garden of a few favorite herbs and vegetables, though I've since realized there is not enough sun on the small covered porch of my current apartment. However, the idea interests me enough to have sufficient outdoor space/light as a new consideration when looking for my next apartment.
I guess I was astonished that the people who build this brand-new housing complex were so aware of this burgeoning interest in home gardening that they integrated it as a key feature in their new "green" living space. Though I'm very wary of any and all who immediately hop on the new "green" bandwagon, it seems that this particular feature might actually be aimed less at making a profit off of trendsetting consumers and more at meeting a genuine demand for genuine change.
Monday, June 9, 2008
Image courtesy of: wertsgw.com
Potatis Korv. Now there’s a word you don’t hear every day. Actually, until I had to look it up, I didn’t even know how to spell it. I thought it was Patati Skorf. I’d never seen the words written down because, like all good Swedes, my Nana didn’t have an actual recipe. No, she knew the main ingredients, and knew when it looked and tasted right. That was all she needed.
When I was very young, my Nana would occasionally go to the trouble to make Potatis Korv, or Swedish Pork Sausage. I was so young that I don’t really remember it that well. I remember watching her mix the pork, potatoes, and onions together. But the image of her stuffing the pork casings escapes me – perhaps my psyche has shielded me from that memory. By the time I had grown older, so had Nana, and she no longer had the energy to make Potatis Korv. She bought the sausage at the Scandinavian market and brought it home, boiled it, and ate it. I remember eating this sausage and disliking it, especially the grisly texture. Nana insulted the sausage, saying that it wasn’t as good as her homemade, but ate it with gusto nonetheless.
Potatis Korv is a potato sausage associated with a traditional Swedish Christmas. For Swedes, the most important day of the holiday season is Christmas Eve, and this is the day that the big meal is eaten and the presents are unwrapped. Instead of a multiple-course sit-down dinner, as is the custom in many European countries, the Swedish lay a Smörgasbörd, a giant spread of many dishes so that all the family and guests may serve themselves. Just as a ham and figgy pudding are central to the English tradition, so is Potatis Korv essential to the Christmas Smörgasbörd.
But, as a fellow blogger put it: “It smells. It's ugly. And like lutefisk, it has a reputation that can't be overcome” (Tieck). So I guess that would make Korv more akin to fruitcake than figgy pudding. There are not many people out there who truly love the stuff, but it’s tradition, so it makes its way onto the menu year after year. It seems to be the older members of the family who make the decision as to what is served on the Smörgasbörd, and they are somehow motivated to make Potatis Korv. In her article, Around the Tuscan Table, Carole M. Counihan interviews elderly Tuscans about their food preferences, and finds that their taste is dependant on habit and acculturation, among other things. “Today I remember the foods that we used to eat then and I eat them willingly. That means I must have eaten them willingly as a child, because if not, I wouldn’t eat them again happily” (24). Swedes of the older generations, much like Counihan’s subject, were accustomed to eating certain foods in the “old country” as children. Because these foods are not associated with negative memories, and indeed may represent happy normalcy, they are cooked and eaten again in adulthood.
It is likely that most late-generation Swedes (like myself) dislike Potatis Korv because it is so unlike any of the foods we have grown up with in America (and, indeed, in modern-day Sweden). The most remarkable difference between this food and the ones we are accustomed to is the ingredients – specifically, the fact that we know what all of the ingredients are. I’ll happily eat deli pepperoni all day long. While it is made from many stranger things than what is in Potatis Korv, it is presented in a friendly red and green plastic package with a stay-fresh zipper, and its burnt-red color is bright and uniform. I am so far separated from the manufacture of the pepperoni, let alone the origin of the ingredients (among which are sodium phosphate, pork fat, and bone meal) that I don’t bat an eye. But in seeing the creation of Potatis Korv, I am less inclined to eat it. Specifically, I am made very aware that the ground meat and potatoes are stuffed inside pork casing, which is the polite term for a pig’s intestine. It is much easier to imagine these ingredients as part of an articulated animal, and this is heightened by the fact that those around me helped to make the food I am to consume. The deindustrialized nature of Potatis Korv means that I am much closer to the origin of my food than I am when eating the pepperoni, rendering the potato sausage almost taboo.
But why exactly was Potato Sausage eaten at all in Sweden? And why did it come to be a dish representative of the Christmas season? Not much is known of the origin of Potatis Korv. However, some primary sources say that this particular sausage was born of the Swedish immigrants’ poverty. There wasn’t enough pork to make regular sausages, so diced potatoes were mixed with the meat “to stretch the meager food supply” (Tieck). No one seems to know why this food became iconic, but it came into being much the same way that Florentine food did – because it was cheap (Counihan, 25).
Though it is made with few ingredients, that doesn’t mean that Potatis Korv doesn’t vary from one family or region to another. Though the main ingredients are the same: pork, potatoes, onions, and pepper, some other ingredients are occasionally added, including beef, nutmeg, and allspice. Several bloggers report suspicions that misguided Norwegians are responsible for the rogue ingredients. However, even when the recipe is limited to the core constituents, there seems to be no agreement as to an exact ratio. In fact, my Nana didn’t even own a recipe. When we asked how much of something we needed, she would say, “oh, about this much.” The decision was entirely based on personal experience, trial, and error. Counihan observes, “though [one] claims an unchanging cultural identity, in fact Florentine cuisine and culture were inexorably changing… and pomarola was not always pomarola” (20). A similar process is taking place in the creation of different potato sausage recipes.
In researching Potatis Korv for this project, I have had to dig up a lot of memories, and non-memories, of my Nana. What I mean by non-memories, I guess, is regret. I never seemed to share my Nana’s enthusiasm for potato sausage, perhaps because I was too young. It is only now that I have realized that I want to know more about this special dish, and it is too late. I almost wish that she were a louder, more insistent person, that she had made us learn how to make Potatis Korv, and made us listen to the history behind it. But she was a quiet woman, and she became quieter as she got older. In the last couple of years of her life, I don’t know if Nana even had store-bought potato sausage. Perhaps she’d lost the taste for it. Or perhaps she’d given up on us – sensed we weren’t interested in learning, or that we would never be able to appreciate it. I don’t know whether to attribute it to having grown older, or perhaps to the fact that this class has opened my eyes, but I feel that I would now be able to set aside my reservations about Potatis Korv enough to try to make and enjoy it. I wish that I could have done so sooner so that I might have learned more about a recipe, a holiday celebration, a family tradition, and a cultural history.
Sunday, June 8, 2008
When David Giles, a PhD candidate at the University of Washington and the Anthropology Department's resident Punk came to talk to our class last week, I could relate to a lot of what he was saying. David spoke with us about Dumpster Diving, a topic that also came up in this week's reading, The Raw and the Rotten: Punk Cuisine by Dylan Clark. David talked a lot about why, specifically, mainstream society throws away so much food. He divided them into three categories:
- Convenience. We throw away a lot of our food because it is inconvenient to do anything else with it. If you have food left over at a meal, but there isn't enough to really bother with putting it in a tupperware, you throw it away. And if you've made too much caserole, but you know you won't want to eat it tomorrow or the next day, you could, perhaps, go find a hungry person on the street to give it to. But most of us won't do this, because it's uncomfortable and unorthodox and takes up time - it's inconvenient.
- Decay. There are many conventions of society that tell us when food is no longer "good" to eat. Use-by dates are probably one of the biggest reasons to throw out food. I know last week I cleaned out the fridge, and there were 3 packages of hummus that had all expired. However, only one was actually growing things - the other two probably would have been safe to eat. But the use-by date was past a month, so, encouraged by my roommate, I went the "safe" route and threw it out. But there are conventions other than the use-by date, such as color and softness (I'm thinking specifically about produce here), or mold on things like cheese. I was actually taught by my grandmother to never throw out a moldy block of cheese, because you can always just cut off the mold and eat what's inside. After all, cheese is just moldy milk, right?
- Obsolescence. This, David told us, is why most of the food in supermarkets is thrown out. Produce, even perfectly good produce, is continually rendered obsolete when a newer shipment comes in. Like an apple that has been bruised - one could easily cut the bruised part off (or just eat the bruise, like I do). However, when an unbruised apple is sitting right next to it, a consumer will reach for the more perfect fruit. There's also something in here to do with the economics of shelf space - essentially, it costs more for a seller to keep an obsolete product on the shelf, with the liklihood of its being purchased becoming less and less, than it does for them to cut thier losses and toss the obsolete product, thus freeing up space for a newer, more sell-able product.
One thing that I wanted to ask David was about the categorization of "compromised" merchandise. For example, we occasionally recieve a box of yogurt where the foil lid has been slightly torn. And sometimes a sandwich will come unwrapped, and we can no longer sell it. What of these products? They have lost their exchange value - we can no longer charge people money for them. But it's still perfectly good food. I would imagine that this sort of situation would fall under obsolescence, but I am not perfectly sure.
Most of the time, what I throw away falls into the category of Obsolescence. The pastries can no longer be sold, because those delivered fresh the following morning render them obsolete. I've always wondered if we could wrap them in plastic wrap and sell them at a discount, but HFS (the company I work for) makes it a policy not to sell day-old pastries. I'm guessing that the chief reason for this is to maximize the number of fresh pastries that are sold. In a University setting, at least, there are enough consumers that are strapped for cash to prefer the day-olds over the fresh pastries. But if the day-olds aren't available, then students are forced to pay full-price for a slightly fresher donut.
But this is where I sit - at the exact moment where food goes from being a commodity to being waste. I try my best to mitigate my feelings of guilt - for that is what I feel when I'm forced to throw out food. If the amount of waste is small, I'll bring the pastries and sandwiches home for myself and my three roommates. However, if there's more (and very occasionally, there's tons - 50+ pastries!), I'll wrap them in plastic wrap and cart them to the University Food Bank. There are pros and cons to this. I know that pastries aren't nutritious, and that the foods that people can't afford are healthy ones. And I know that this particular food bank is housed in a church, making many hungry people wary of going there for fear of being preached at. However, at the moment, this is all I can do.
Friday, May 30, 2008
I went grocery shopping with my mother last weekend. While I no longer live with my parents in Bremerton, I do go home about every other weekend to see my parents and my pets... and to have my parents buy me things. I'm a typically poor college student who lives on her 20-hour-per-week job as a barista... so it's nice to be able to get my parents to pay for some of my groceries. It's also really nice to go shopping in my hometown of Bremerton, because our grocery store is the Bangor Commecery - a grocery where just about everything, but especially meat, is deeply discounted for the military families that patronize it.
My mother and I were walking through the bakery - one of the first things that you see when you walk into the store. I told my mother what I had read in Pollan's book - that grocery stores are set up in a certain way in order to make people buy things. For instance, research shows that people will buy more food when they smell bread baking - so that's why most grocery stores now have a bakery that churns out French bread 'round the clock. "And do you know why the milk is at the back of the store?" I asked my mother. "Tell me," she said, now probably sensing that I was about to enter into a long shpeal about corruption in the supermarket. "Because milk is what everyone comes to the store for, so they're forcing you to walk past a bunch of other products in hope that you'll be seduced into buying more than you originally intended."
And it continued. Mom asked me to pick out three Bakers - I told her about genetically modified potatoes (like the ones in All Over Creation), and about the way that people normally chose the perfectly oblong potatoes, staying away from the ones that were misshapen because they did not conform to the mental image of the ideal Potato. As we walked past the bagged salads, I told her how baby lettuce marketing was concieved of on a smallish farm in California, and about how it's easier to grow them organically because they only stay in the ground for about 30 days before they're picked, giving them less time to be attacked by pests and choked by weeds. And I told her about the way they grow and harvest the lettuce, the overtilling of the soil, and about the lettuce's refrigerated journey from field to table.
And my Mom was a great sport about all of this. She has told me that while I'm annoying sometimes, she actually likes to listen to jabber on about what I've learned in class - both because she can learn more, and because I can then retain what I've learned by teaching her. However, when we got to the meat department and I began to explain about the slaughter of beef, she'd had enough. "If you're this concerned about all of this, why don't you stop eating meat and just plant a few seeds?"
While my mother said this in frustration and jest, I realized that she had just made quite a profound statement. There was really not that much good to be had by my berating every item in the supermarket - mostly I just ticked people off. What the situation needed was action. Instead of complaining about everything, people (including myself) need to take some action when it comes to the food they eat. Yes, it's effort - but isn't it worth it when you consider the alternatives? I'm not saying I'm becoming a vegetarian. And I'm not going to stop going to the grocery store altogether. But I am going to try to buy as much as I can locally - from the Saturday Farmer's Market, from the stands at Pike Place, from the butcher on the Ave. And hell, maybe when I move out of my current apartment in the fall, into a new one that actually has a porch or balcony, I'll plant a garden - it'll have to be a container garden, but perhaps it will help make me even more aware - and more connected -to where my food actually comes from. Which is what Pollan's book is all about, right?
But my friend Chloe and I ate dinner at the First Hill Grill, a family-owned greek-style diner on the corner of 9th and Marion, just north of downtown in Seattle. Thing was, we didn't know it was a Greek diner. We had decided to go there because it was part of our mission to visit all of the "Neighborhood-name-here Bar and Grill"s in Seattle. Generally, these places have very grill-ey food: sandwiches, steak, soup, burgers, comfort food, maybe ribs. And lots of yummy cocktails. And all of the places we had been to so far (including the Eastlake Bar and Grill and the Greenlake Bar and Grill) have included somewhat hip and modern decor to emphasize their appeal to the young residents of the neighborhood. But the First Hill Grill was none of these things. The low brick building looked shabby from the outside, and upon entering, we were confronted with full-on Greek restaurant regalia: fake columns and ivy, murals of the Greek countryside and the acropolis, and a gigantic marble clamshell with Venus bursting forth in all of her Greek glory.
I was skeptical. And intrigued. And not terribly disappointed. I had been expecting one of our normal, modern bar-and-grill joints, and was looking forward to crab cakes with chowder and fries. But I'd never tried Greek food, and I've always said I'll try anything at least once, and I was being given that opportunity. And at first glance, this place proved to be more than sufficiently Greek for my "first time." Actually, I felt as if I'd stepped right into the set of My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
So what did we eat? We started with some sort of flambe. It was a soft sheep's cheese, doused with rum, lit aflame, and sprinkled with lemon juice. Served on pita, it was absolutely phenomenal... one of the most flavorful, yet light, cheeses I've had. Then came the main course... I believe what I had was called Souvlaki, skewers of oil-marinated pork with a greek salad. And here came the challenge. The pork was superb, and the feta in the salad was flavorful... but there, sitting atop my salad, was a plump purple olive. It looked different than the other olives that I'd eaten, the black, pitted, canned ones about which I had reached the conclusion that I did not like Olives. But this one was different... friendlier, plumper, and purply-er... and for heaven's sake, I was in a Greek restaurant! I was going to eat that olive.
But in the moment before I brought the olive to my lips, I was reminded of an article I read for class, entitled, "Food at Moderate Speeds" by Sidney Mintz. I had been presented with a picture of what Greek Food was by my cultural experiences - including, but not limited to, My Big Fat Greek Wedding. And the restaurant lived up to many expectations that had been set forth by these cultural dictums. However, the restaurant was also playing into these expectations. They knew that hungry diners would be looking for a completely Greek experience - thus the murals of the acropolis. The restaurant was playing into the cultural and cuisinal sterotypes in order to establish an identity and a clientele. While this could be seen as negative, it is, at the same time, bringing countless clueless olivophobes like myself to the realization that the cuisine is about more than the canned black olives with pimentos and frozen pasta-with-pesto entrees that may have given us our reservations or misconceptions. What I recieved for my dining dollars was both good and bad, from an anthropological perspective. While it compromised the overwhelming diversity of a people and a culture and a cuisine and presented it in the slightly one-dimensional format of a themed restaurant, it also was an improvement upon the faster-food-ification of Greek cuisine that I had ingrained in my mind and tastebuds.
So I ate the olive.
And you know what? It actually wasn't that bad. It tasted strongly of vinegar, and the mealy texture that I had so disliked in its canned cousins was absent. And while this particular olive was not brought to my table because of regional availability and tradition, as would a real greek olive, it was sufficient to allow me to change my mind, and my tastes, about Greek cuisine.
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
Ann asked us all to take a sample of the foods and to do a taste test. Not just eat them, she said, but taste them. Really observe what it is about the texture and the flavor that makes this food up... OK. The first thing I noted was that I would be preparing the Ramen differently than I normally do. I usually boil water, and drop the block of noodles in for about 5 minutes while the water continues to boil. Then I drain them, put them in a bowl, and sprinkle the seasoning on and mix with a fork. Today, I would be eating the noodles like "normal" people do - adding the flavor packet to the noodles, covering them with hot water and letting them soften for three minutes. So, though I had Ramen almost every day as a child and have it about once a week now as a college student, this would be a new experience.
The texture was very chewy - almost like calamari, actually. These noodles hadn't had time to be fully cooked (or rather, softened - Ramen noodles are already deep-fat-fried before they're packaged), and thus were not soft. The springy texture was accompanied by a very subtle flavor... a non-flavor, actually. Since I was not using a full block of noodles, I used very little of the seasoning packet. However, I had covered this yellow powder in water, thereby making a kind of broth - I guess the way you're "supposed" to make it. And it was very... blah. I'm used to a sharp zing with the first bite of my chicken-flavored-powder-covered noodles, and it wasn't there this time. It tasted very neutral, almost more neutral than water. Like this was my tongue's natural taste.
My reaction was a lot different from most people in the class, and I think it's because of the way I prepared my noodles... who knew there were so many different ways to make them?!? But I remember and understand what they were talking about... the jolt of spice and tang, followed by a homey, chicken-y taste... but is that really the way chicken tastes? We talked about this, about the way that chicken-flavored products actually taste nothing like chicken. They have been chickenized, and in consuming these products since the moment of our birth, my generation has been chickenized. I actually don't know if I've ever had real chicken broth by itself. My mother has used it in cooking, but I don't think I've ever had it on its own. The only chicken soup I've ever had is from Campbell's, Progresso, or Top Ramen. And this chicken-y flavor hardly bears resemblence to the taste of the whole roast chicken I had last week. However, it does give reminder of the chicken-n-a-biscuit crackers I ate when I was little... and of chicken nuggets. And all other manner of chickenized products that came before and after the ramen. But does it taste anything like the feathered, clucking bird portrayed on the packaging? No.
I also found it very interesting that there were a handful of people who had never eaten Top Ramen before. Never. In their entire lives. This was so hard for me to fathom, because I grew up LIKING the stuff. There was one summer in particular... I think I had to be about 9 or so... I would go over to my friend Sarah's house every single morning. We would play for a few hours, eat lunch and watch a movie, then go outside and play again until my Mom called me home. And every day... every single day, we ate Top Ramen for lunch. Sarah would boil the water, and then we would each make the big decision... Chicken, Pork, Beef, Shrimp, or Oriental? And we would prepare it in the manner I described above, fully cooking and then draining the noodles before adding the pungent flakes and powder of our selected meat. (Which, by the way, begs a question - what do Orientals taste like?)
Anyway, it boggled my mind that there were people who had never eaten Ramen, when I was clearly raised on the stuff. And, after forgetting about it for about 10 years, I came to college and rediscovered it as the meal you don't have to really cook. But several students in my class said that their parents never gave it to them, and that they'd never tried it, even after they came to college. I suspect that it's a class issue. My family wasn't poor, but we certainly weren't rich. We lived in a duplex and then rented housing until I was 7 years old, but we always were working with my Dad's U.S. Navy salary. It wasn't until he made Chief when I was about 10 that we got more money, enough to be significantly choosier about our food. And that was probably about the time that the $0.20 blocks of starch disappeared from our cupboard. But I suppose there are people out there who have never been exposed to this. They're the same people who grow up eating vegetable plates and hummus for snacks. They're the same people who, now grown, feed their kids organic apples and Starbucks nonfat hot chocolate. But for those of us who didn't grow up that way, for those of us whose parents want to but can't afford to feed us those things... what is left?
Thursday, May 8, 2008
I'd been having a pretty bad week (a bad month, actually), so when my friend Chloe came to pick me up for our weekly Wednesday night dinner, she suggested that we go to my favorite restaurant, the Broadway Bar and Grill, a place famous for their comfort food. On our walk to the bus stop, I found a 20-dollar bill - a whole 20! - staring up at me from the pavement. So I picked it up and looked around to see if anyone had dropped it. But there was no one around us who had just crossed that section of sidewalk. Chloe and I decided that it was a sign from the heavens, and decided then and there to spend the money on fancy drinks we wouldn't have otherwise been able to buy. And thus the evening went from one of comfort food to one of comfort food and drink... a dionysian feast, if you will.
So what did this comfort-food feast consist of? Actually, we were very true to the typical comforting fare. Chloe and I split a bowl of the house soup, which is a tremendously creamy, rich, delicious blend of chicken, red beans, broccoli, and cheese. After allowing a few cocktails to comfort us further, we indulged in greasy goodness: Chloe had the breakfast scramble, and I had fried chicken with mashed potatoes and sauteed vegetables. And it was terrific - so delicious that I stuffed myself long after I was full. And of course then I felt guilty for eating so much of such a fattening food - but still terribly satisfied by the taste and feeling that lingered. And this led me to ask, why is it that certain foods are commonly identified as "comfort food?"
When I think of comfort food, I typically think of carby, starchy, fatty, sugary, greasy yummy food. Most people tend to agree. Sure, there are exceptions - certain people might really find chicken broth and celery sticks comforting. I'm sure there's someone out there who feels that way, and it's likely because there is some sort of childhood link or conditioned response that involves that particular food item. Many scientists think that psychological association is the main operator behind Comfort Food. And I'm sure that they're (at least partially) right - foods from childhood are familiar, and the familiar is comforting.
There's also the issue of conditioned response. I know that for me, cookies and milk are a special sort of comfort food. When I had bad dreams when I was little, I would go wake my mother up. She would put on her robe and slippers and lead me out to the kitchen, where she would pour two glasses of milk and put out a plate of cookies, and she would ask me about my dream. After perhaps twenty minutes I was calm, I had begun to realize that the dream was not real, and I would become drowsy because of the milk. So Mom would put the dishes in the sink and tuck me back into bed, and my bad dream was forgotten. So even now, I have cookies and milk when I have difficulty sleeping - it is one of my comfort foods because I have been conditioned to crave it.
However, it is puzzling that people have so many comfort foods in common. Why is it that almost everyone identifies mashed potatoes as a comfort food? Is it because everyone has a personal childhood association with the mutilated tuber? Or is it that greasy, sugary, fatty, starchy foods are inherently more comforting?
Science has several theories. In his article Comfort Food and You, David Lin briefly discusses the possible explanations of comfort foods' physical effects on the body. One of the most popular is that the consumption of carbohydrates increases the levels of serotonin (the 'happiness' neurotransmitter) in the brain. Others suggest that fatty foods register feelings of fullness and satiety more quickly than other foods, and that this, combined with the fat itself, produce an analgesic effect on the eater. Still others claim that it is simply the oral palatability of fatty and sugary foods that we respond to.
Honestly? I think that most of the comforting effects of Comfort Food spring from psychological associations. The fact that you are consuming a food that it almost universally recognized as Comfort Food would likely cause you to perceive a change in mood. But regardless, I am glad that these foods exist to quell the negativity of the week, and I'm sure next week I will curse them for what they have done to my waistline.