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I was, at the time I started this blog, part of a class at Kalamazoo College on food and travel writing. So if you like food, or travel, or participating in interesting discussions having to do with both or either of those things, you are in the right place. Also, you should check out my classmates' blogs because they're awesome.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Miracle of Drunken Noodles

I like food, in case anyone hadn’t figured that out yet. I like the names of foods; there’s something almost magical about them. Don’t ask me to explain it, because I’m not sure I could. I don’t know what I’d call something new that I made up, but it would have to be a good name. Fantastic food needs a fantastic title. Maybe I like food names so much because I don’t actually know what goes into a lot of the food I eat here in the caf, so I don’t know what to call it. Sometimes after I finish eating in the caf, I sit and I think about how I-had I the money and the time-would have made the same food they served us  and what I would have called it. Pizza turns into a mantra of flour, yeast, salt, milk, cornstarch, baking soda, garlic tomato paste, Mama’s fresh-made mozzarella, shiitakes, olives onion. Noodles with fake parmesan sprinkles turn into a list of everything that goes into one of my younger brother’s spaghetti dinners (those are his specialty: he puts just a bit of red wine in the sauce and he makes the best garlic bread ever). Their names have meaning—noodles mean oh-crap-there’s-a-football-game-tonight-and-we-need-to-feed-my-brother-something-fast-before-he-has-to-go-get-ready-to-carry-45-pounds-of-tennor-drum-on-his-shoulders-for-four-hours. Spaghetti means: IT’S FRIDAY!!! And this summer, my sister brought home stories of drunken noodles until my mother got curious and decided to make them, thus, drunken noodles for dinner means that my sister has come to visit.
Since I keep talking about the importance of the names of foods, before I get into the specifics of this fabulous dish I feel should probably explain just where it gets its name. “Drunken noodles” is a literal translation of the Thai name for this dish: Pad Kee Mao, named thus due to the fact that usually those who ate it were either very, very drunk at the time or were a good portion of the way to being very, very drunk. This makes it a very odd dish to be having at my house, as my dad is the only one who ever drinks any kind of alcohol ever and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him have more than three beers in any given week. (This makes sense, given that his dad was a cop, so my dad probably learned from a very early age about words like drunk and belligerent and DUI.) Pad Kee Mao is a stir-fried dish, made in a wok. You can put in as many or as little vegetables as you like, plus meat and/or a vegetarian option (e.g. my mom uses tofu). Add in various amounts of garlic, onion, ginger (LOTS of ginger), Thai dragon peppers (which have a lovely warm flavor that is spicy, not burning hot, and stays in your mouth without burning the back of your throat and making your eyes water), green onion, and fish sauce to the cooked meat and veggies, but what makes drunken noodles into drunken noodles is unmistakably the Thai basil. Thai basil is different from regular basil in that not only do the leaves of the plant look different, but it also has a different flavor. Thai basil is a deeper, spicier flavor than its more widely-known cousin. The first time my mom made drunken noodles she used regular basil, and let me tell you, it was not even close to the same as the batch she made with Thai basil. The last ingredient in drunken noodles is the noodles themselves: wide, flat rice noodles. These are not the crap you get in take-out Chinese. These are noodles about half an inch wide and as long as my palm, made from rice flour and consumed all over Asia, the genuine article. (My mom had to find an oriental market in Grand Rapids to get some of the ingredients for drunken noodles, since regular grocery stores didn't have them.)
Drunken noodles is not only an amazing dish with an equally amazing name, but it also represents the expansion of my own culinary horizons. Given I had the right ingredients and the time, I could make this dish. And it would be delicious. But before my sister brought the idea home, I would never have even considered eating Thai food. I was fine with the familiar American food I knew and loved. Not so anymore. There are more interesting, amazing foods out there like Pad Kee Mao, so I am going to find them. And eat them. And learn their interesting names. Maybe not on the scale of Tony Bourdain, but there will be more adventuring. I’ve always liked adventures.

Reading Response 4: A Cook's Tour Part 2

            So much to identify with, so little time. Bear with me, I’m reacting to things as I’m reading, so if it sounds like random bits from different parts of the book, there’s probably a good reason. Okay. First, my dad has been to China twice on business trips, and his tales of the Taxi Drivers from Hell pretty much match Tony Bourdain’s. After their near-death encounter with the water truck, Bourdain says, “Philippe just looks at me, shaking his head, says ‘Are we still alive?…I…I was sure that truck went right through us.’ He’s not joking” (129). That paired with the description of Philippe’s whiter-than-white-knuckled grip on the armrests of the seat matches my dad’s description of attempting not to show just how terrified they are almost word for word. His description of the Japanese toilet on page 147 was also exactly as my dad described the ones in the Japanese airport to be when he stopped there for his layovers on his way to China.
            I was glad I wasn’t eating when Bourdain and Philippe (and, I’m sure, the ever-present camera crew) got dinner at the restaurant that lets you look your food in the face before you eat it. I might have turned vegetarian. (Not that I have anything against vegetarians, mind you, my mother and my older sister are both vegetarian and I happen to think tofu is delicious.) I think the idea that food—especially meat—was once alive is very foreign to a lot of Americans, as Bourdain points out rather graphically in the first part of the book. I’m sure that to a large number of Americans, the only way meat comes is in a Styrofoam tray covered in clear plastic at a store. In a phrase: "It's so...depressing." (Marvin, from A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.)

            On a lighter note, I was fascinated by the description of the river traffic near the city of Cai Rang. Starbucks boats, pho boats, baguette boats; pick a food, any food, and there’s probably a boat that has someone on it making that food. In a way it reminded me of this book, with its long lists of delicious foods that remind me of something out of a Redwall feast scene; umpteen different foods and cultures crammed together in one enormous, glorious mish-mosh. Bourdain’s writing is so chaotic and stream-of-consciousness that the reader stops and takes note when he says things like: “A hundred years from now, the Commies will be gone—like us, another footnote in Vietnam’s long and tragic history of struggle—and the rice paddies of the Mekong Delta, this market, and this river will look much as they look now, as they looked a hundred years ago. I like it here. I like it a lot” (135). I thought the juxtaposition between his love of the chaotic market and his admiration of the fact that the lives of the Vietnamese have been mostly the same over a large portion of history despite varied attempts to change it was interesting. It’s like he’s taking a step back from all this wine and fish and sheeps’ balls and veal-face and overfed-goose-liver to get just a mouthful of plain, cold, water. I think I like it. It’s…refreshing.
            Moving on to Japan, I have to admit I laughed at Bourdain’s description of “the awe-inspiring, life-changing mother of all fish markets” (139) and his expert guide, Togawa-san. Also, I had to go back and read that name twice. The first time I read it as “Tokugawa-san,” as in the Tokugawa shogunate that ran Japan from 1600 until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. (WOOHOO!! FRESHMAN SEMINAR REFERENCES!!!) Now I am forever going to be thinking of this chef as “Mr. Tokugawa” and picturing him as a ruthless shogun in some great shadowed hall, clad traditional Japanese samurai armor but wearing a toque instead of a helmet.

            After the epic failure that was the episode in Cambodia (I still can’t figure out why he actually bothered to go there) the switch to England was abrupt but also a rather welcome relief. Especially after Cambodia. Note to self: do not ever visit Cambodia. The subjects Bourdain uses to start off with were in a style I’m beginning to think of as uniquely Bourdain. He grabs the reader’s attention at the very beginning of the chapter with one of three things: something gruesome, something having to do with sex, or something having to do with food.  Sometimes, as with the England chapter, it has to do with all three, going from mad cow to hoof-and-mouth disease, from that to a random food war with two vague factions that apparently “already have their operatives in place…They want to take your meat away. They even want your cheese” (187). Honestly, the first time I read it I thought he might have been smoking some funny cigarettes during his recovery from his Cambodian misadventure. Then he went into the differences between Japanese, German, American, and British porn, stating that he’s “leading up to an allegory” (187), but honestly, I wasn’t sure I wanted to know this allegory. I was relieved when he ended up simply comparing English chefs who work in actual restaurants to the cheesy TV-chefs. I did like the part where Bourdain reveals his deep and abiding respect for Fergus Henderson and his “nose-to-tail” menu. I think Bourdain’s respect of this man says a lot about what he values in life: hard work and ingenuity, but also courage to proclaim who you are and where you come from to the world in general. Bourdain likes Mr. Henderson because he’s got guts—literally and metaphorically.
            The one and only time I have been jealous of Tony Bourdain while reading this book was during his trip to Oaxaca, where he ate Mexican food with Eddie and his family plus a whole bunch of their friends. I would have paid a large amount of money to be able to go with. That scene made me hungry. None of the others did.
            Then abruptly Bourdain takes us back to Vietnam for something like the second or third time—of course, he didn’t get enough the first two times he went there—and then poof! We’re in the French Laundry in Napa Valley. One of my favorite lines showed up here, while he is talking about the possibility that Chef Keller will be coming to New York: “I’m afraid. I’m afraid he’ll fail…but more, I’m afraid he’ll succeed. I like the idea of having to travel to experience a French Laundry meal. The journey is part of the experience—or was for me—an expression of the seriousness of one’s intent, and the otherness of everything Keller” (251). That last part about the journey being part of the experience made me want to do a dance. If I had to sum up in one sentence the reason why Bourdain wrote this book, that would be it.  
            The jump to Scotland really brings home the fact that this man is a professional chef, at least for me, especially when he says things like “The fish was great, the chips, as everywhere in the UK, were needlessly substandard, limp and soggy. Few chip shop owners bother to blanch their fries in low-temperature oil before frying, so they are never, ever, crisp” (252). It’s something in the diction, or maybe something in the tone I’m imagining him saying that line in, but for some reason that just really strikes me as something a chef would write. His other comment of “if haggis, right out of the oven didn’t look the way it did, we might all be eating it in America” (256), made me think of how in America we are horribly obsessed with appearance and being beautiful. Not everything ugly is bad, especially when speaking about food.
            …And back to Vietnam. I like his running commentary on Madame Ngoc, who I keep seeing in my head as something akin to Mulan’s grandmother (forgive my complete and total cultural ignorance). She also understands food, I think. “’You must give love. Give yourself to be success. You love people. They love you back’” (265). The woman knows her stuff. Food is love.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Reading Response 3: A Cook's Tour Part 1

            I hadn’t even gotten ten pages into this book when I decided I liked this Anthony Bourdain person. I had no idea what kind of person he was, no idea what to expect from him. He was a random face on the cover of a book. But then I started reading. He was blunt, in-your-face and completelty honest, sometimes using words other than what I might in the same situation, but what I got from that was that he gets it. Food, I mean. He understands it. Not cooking—anyone can cook, even if it’s just a freaking grilled cheese sandwich—but food. He says “Of course, I knew already that the best meal in the world, the perfect meal, is very rarely the most sophisticated or expensive one. I knew how important factors other than technique or rare ingredients can be in the real business of making magic happen at a dinner table. Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one’s life” (6). I read this and I wanted to jump up and down and do a dance, thinking oh my god, it’s a miracle. HE UNDERSTANDS!  He doesn’t discount ingredients, which I like because the quality of the ingredients does not a perfect dish make, but at the same time quality ingredients are an important part of every dish.  My favorite part, though, is his writing style. The way he writes—at least to me—feels like he’s sitting on a three-legged stool next to a restaurant prep station topped with stainless steel after everyone else has gone home, sharing a glass of wine with me like we’re old friends. It's a very up-close and personal tone, and I don't think I've ever read anything quite like it.
            As for the book itself, on the one hand I’m not sure I like this sudden and complete immersion into a whirlwind tour of a mad conglomeration of foods and culture. There are just so many different things that he mentions; things I’ve never used while cooking, things I’ve never eaten, things I’ve never even heard of, and they all just fly by in quick succession, which is something akin to having only fifteen minutes in a giant Ghirardelli chocolate store and having no freaking idea where to look first because I want to get everything but I know I have no time to go through and examine them closely. I did think it fit Bourdain’s style to simply throw the reader straight into the middle of a rural Vietnamese meal within the first sentence on the first page, but I admit that it took a few paragraphs for my brain to start processing the idea that he was talking about real things that had at one point actually been caught and cooked and eaten by both him and his ever-present film crew.  (Oh, that poor film crew. I wonder if they knew what they were getting into when they agreed to do the show.) On the other hand, I think the total immersion is fantastic. He is getting adventure as an appetizer and magic for dessert with a large helping of exploration with food and culture and far-away places as a main course, so I basically have jealousy coming out my ears.
            The scene with the pig and the lesson he learned about “the seemingly casual cruelty that comes with living close to your food” (28) really stuck with me not because of the fact that they killed the pig—it was gruesome, yes, but as Bourdain points out, it was doomed anyway—but because I can relate. My mother buys all our chicken fresh from the same dairy where we get all our milk (whole milk, so fresh you have to skim three inches of cream off the top before you can drink it).  She usually buys the chickens ten at a time right after the dairy has a butchering day, then we bring them home and we have massive chop-fests where the chickens get turned into breasts and thighs and drumsticks and wings and their carcasses go into my mother’s massive stock pot to get boiled and turned into chicken stock that she uses for soup. So while I might not be there for the butchering, I understand what it’s like to have to stick your hand inside a dead animal and rip its guts out. It is not one of my favorite pastimes. (Fun fact: For those of you who are wondering, with a sharp knife I can have a whole chicken cut into its various parts in less than ten minutes, but with my mom helping me, we can do all ten chickens in something like forty five minutes, which breaks down to about four and half minutes per chicken.)
            Also, did anyone else nearly cry during his trip to France with his brother Chris? Because I almost cried when he figured out that he hadn’t gone back “to see a house in which strangers now lived, or to climb a dune, or to find a perfect meal. [He’d] come to find [his] father. And he wasn’t there” (46).
            I’m also becoming a fan of his random tangents having to do with television, especially the one where he got food poisoning from the foie gras (or maybe it was the tĂȘte de veau). Something about it just struck me as absolutely hilarious. I completely understand how miserable he was—I’m going to bet it’s quite similar to having a really nasty round of flu—but the actions of the cameraman made it hilarious. At least to me, but, then again, things are usually funnier at two in the morning for some strange reason.
            Also, being a coffee lover myself, his description of Vietnamese coffee was nothing short of mouthwatering: “The proprietor [of a coffee shop], a toothless old woman, has a suggestion. She brings out another coffee, this time with a tall glass of ice and a can of condensed milk. When the coffee has filtered through, it’s poured over the ice. Mingling with the milk below, it’s a slow, strangely mesmerizing process, delightful to watch and even better to drink” (59). He continues with “As the black coffee dribbles slowly through and around the ice cubes, swirling gently in dark-on-white wisps through the milk, I feel Vietnam doing the same thing to my brain. I’m in love. I am absolutely over-the top gonzo for this country and everything in it. I want to stay forever” (59). Add to that the fact that he actually uses the word “gonzo” (which immediately makes me think of the Muppet named Gonzo), the paragraph those quotes come from is just the most fantastic thing ever.
            Overall, I like this book, I just wish he’d take a freaking breath and give us a little bit more of the connecting bits between the places he visits. Okay, so he went Morocco, he went Vietnam. Big deal. Why did he go there?  Why those places? Why France and Spain and Russia but not Germany, or Bulgaria? I wish there was a little bit more of the getting there along with the fabulous amounts of eating that go on once he gets to whatever random place he happens to be going to next.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Bosco Breadstick Incident

            The driving force behind the Bosco Breadstick Incident really had its roots in elementary school, when my brother and I would beg my mother for hot lunch because all the cool kids got hot lunch. Like it was for Bit, lunches at my elementary school were a status symbol. Getting hot lunch meant your parents had enough money to buy you lunch all year instead of sending one from home. They never had Bosco breadsticks (Boscos, for short) in elementary school, so hot lunch there—at least for me—was never a big deal. It was mostly just a day when my brother and I got something that wasn’t from home for lunch (I was particularly fond of the mac and cheese). When I got to middle school, however, things changed.
            I think most people can identify with the floundering that comes with trying to find one’s social niche after arriving at a new school. It was especially hard for me, since my best friend at the time was going to a different school and I really didn’t have any other friends than her. So I watched, I stayed quiet, and I got good grades. People mostly left me alone because they didn’t know what to do with me. (When I asked the teachers why everyone left me alone, they said it was because I was more “mature” than a lot of the other people in my grade were. I didn’t know what that meant at the time.) I eventually made a few friends, but we were never as close as I was with my best friend. 
Sixth grade was the time for experiments. I hadn’t yet learned that the cafeteria was the place of social maneuvering and that was not anything I wanted to join in, so I would find a spot with some of my vague friends and watch the posturing of the popular people like something narrated by David Attenborough. The popular kids took the row of tables along the wall across from the windows, and the closer to the center two tables you were, the higher your status. If you sat at one of the popular kid tables before the popular kids got there, you would get dirty looks when they did finally show up, and then they would proceed to sit around you and pretend you didn’t exist. (I know, I tried it once.)  Sixth grade was also the year I figured out that I was weird because my mom still packed my lunch. All the cool kids either packed their own lunches full of junk food and brought them in brown paper bags, or got hot lunch. Hot lunch consisting of Boscos and a drink.
Bosco breadsticks were the blessed food in the cafeteria. Pizza was acceptable, as were the “sub-sandwiches” that were a healthier option if you didn't feel like going for all-out junk food, but if you were really cool, you got Boscos. They came in a white paper bag printed with a boy with a red hat proudly presenting a breadstick with a red label that said "CHEESE" behind him and "BOSCO STICKS" under his feet. They were baked, but they were still full of grease and they had mozzarella cheese—or at least, the GFS equivalent of mozzarella cheese—in the center. If you got to lunch right away, the breadsticks were soft and chewy and sprinkled with fake parmesan cheese. If you go to lunch late, however, chances were that they were either gone, or over-baked into hard, brown, inedible shells with cheese that had collected in the bottom of the hollow hole running down the middle of them. The thing was, Boscos were the prized possession of those who ruled the social hierarchy. The popular kids got first pick, because the teachers let them out first, so they got to the cafeteria first. If you happened to somehow beat the popular kids to the line, you deferred to the rulers and let them go ahead of you, because that was just what you did.
I don’t know exactly when, but somewhere during sixth grade I became enamored with Boscos. My mother was—and still is—big on nutrition, so I knew at the time that most of the cafeteria food was terrible for me, but something about the combination of soft dough filled with melted cheese and the fact that they were the unofficial property of the popular kids and thus out of my reach called to me. In my head, they taunted me. Come eat us and you can be cool too, they said.  This is what McKenna’s comment in class helped me to realize: wanting them had nothing to do with the nutrition facts or the fact that it wasn't my mom's cooking. It was about fitting in, and like Bit, I desperately wanted to fit in.
            When I got to seventh grade, though, I had figured out that I was never going to be part of the highest social circles of my school, so I gave up. Generally when one does not wish to find a place within the established tiers of social acceptance, one has two options: rebellion or exile. I thought about rebelling, showing those popular kids just what I thought of their unspoken rules, but the knowledge that with rebellion came social suicide terrified me. Already my friends were few and far between, and I knew open rebellion would scatter what few I had like dandelion seeds on the wind. So I chose exile instead. First I hid in my science teacher’s classroom, even though it stank like parrot poop (he had an African Gray parrot named Oscar) and snakes. My science teacher was fond of animals. He even had a little fake pond in his room and kept live turtles and fish in it. Anyway, finally I decided that I really didn’t want to eat around the stink of parrot poop, so I started eating in the cafeteria again. This was a mistake. By seventh grade I knew that I didn’t like large crowds of people in one place, and that is what the cafeteria was. Every single person in my grade crammed into a space that was too small for our bodies and far too small for some peoples’ egos. I forced myself to eat there for a while, but then, as I said in my last post, I discovered The Library. The Library became my safe place. Shortly after I began seventh grade I split with the friend who was going to a different school after a sleepover that didn’t go well. That left me with exactly no friends that I felt close enough to talk to about anything, so I turned to writing. I started keeping a journal, and the library was where I wrote, sitting in the corner between the advanced fiction and the kiddie fiction. This was how I survived the rest of seventh grade. Yes, it was lonely, but I had discovered that it was better to be alone by myself than alone in a crowd.
           By eighth grade, one’s social status at my school was a cemented fact. However, as I mentioned before in my other post, I didn’t fit in anywhere. Thus: the library. Unfortunately, the library had been opened to the rest of the students during lunch periods, and was thus becoming a bit too full and noisy for me. I hid in my corner, but I could hear other people talking all the time—and not in the kind of voices that one usually uses in a library—plus they would walk past me, pretending again that I didn’t exist. Then in the middle of eighth grade, I got an offer from my algebra teacher that was something similar to receiving a teacher-approved secret hideout. She had a back room, and she had placed in it several comfy chairs, a couch, a rug, a large center coffee table, and a lamp. There was also an overhead fluorescent light, but I never turned it on. One day I stayed late after class talking with her, and somewhere in the course of our conversation I mentioned the fact that I hated eating in the cafeteria and the library was becoming overrun. Then she offered me the use of her back room. She called it “The Chat Room,” but not much chatting ever went on there. I would sit in one of the chairs and eat my lunch, and then I would read. Or write. Or do homework, depending on my mood. I lived pretty much inside my own head. I shared the chat room with a few of my vague friends, but they mostly talked to each other while I did something else that didn’t require social interaction. It was the best thing that happened all year, because I found a place where no one expected anything of me. I was free.
            Bosco breadsticks fit into this because the first time I ever had them was in my algebra teacher’s back room. My mom had finally relented and let my brother and I get hot lunch whenever we wanted, mostly to indulge us and not because she wanted us to eat that crap. She was letting us discover for ourselves just how disgusting it was. Somehow, one day I managed to get in and out of the cafeteria before the middle school royalty and all their loyal followers descended on the tables in hordes. I walked down the hall toward my math teacher's room, clutching a bag of the prized Boscos in one hand and holding a box of chocolate milk in the other. It felt wonderful; exhilarating, frightening, and a little bit victorious. I, a social nobody, had made off with a bag of Bosco breadsticks. I felt like I was the Robin Hood of the middle school, except I wasn’t going to be sharing these with the metaphorical poor of middle school society.
            I got back to my teacher’s back room and I put my prize on the coffee table next to the chocolate milk as I sat in my favorite chair. I remember I just stared at the bag for a good two minutes before I could bring myself to touch them. Then I ate them, and I was not arrested, nor did lightning strike me dead. I think it was that day that I realized I didn’t need to fit in. I could pretend if I had to, I simply chose not to do so. I had my imagination, and my books, and my vague friends. The Boscos were the trigger for my realization that I liked my self-imposed exile. It was my own way of asserting my independence; a subtle screw you to the world in general. I got Boscos many times after that, perfecting my timing so that I could get in and out of the cafeteria before the rest of the crowd showed up. But no longer was it about getting them because they were the chosen food of the middle school elite. It was because I liked them, even bad for me as they were. I stopped needing to have them, stopped needing to fit in. Then in high school I stopped caring about being popular at all and started just being myself, and I magically made friends. It was similar to Bit realizing that she was normal in her own way as soon as she stopped trying to be normal in a stereotypical way: I found a place I fit when I stopped trying to force myself into the spaces I thought I saw.