Monday, March 23, 2009

Ruminations: Space, Place, and Diet

Leaving your hometown and eating elsewhere raises worthwhile questions about the relationship between place and food. I've been reading Yi-Fu Tuan's Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience and it's gotten me thinking:

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 known; 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 specialities: 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 value. We need not necessarily consume these foods to feel connected to a place-- oftentimes, the mere mention of them (imagined consumption) is enough.

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? The consumption, or the idea of the consumption of these foods can become a physical representation of an intimate experience of 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.


Cape Cod Redux

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 M, D 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. We ate long breakfasts, visited Plymouth Rock, and drank a lot of wine. Here's what some of those breakfasts, plus a few lunches, looked like:

Two eggs over easy over corned beef hash with toasts and homefries, @ The Lighthouse Cafe, Harwich
Bacon, cheddar and onion omelette with toast and homefries @ The Lighthouse Cafe, Harwich
"Bacon bennies" with homemade hollandaise and homefies @ Sandi's Diner, Chatham
Cranbery pancakes and two eggs over easy @ Sandi's Diner, Chatham
We didn't always eat eggs: grilled cheese sandwich with chips and a pickle @ The Lighthouse Cafe, Harwich
Fried shrimp "early-bird" special @ Captain Parker's, Yarmouth
And last, but certainly not least, "meal unto itself" clam chowder @ Captain Parker's, Yarmouth


Saturday, March 14, 2009

Secret Supper Club

The menu, and a view from above.

Secret supper clubs are a buzztopic that have been making the rounds for some time now (see here, here, and here), but I always assumed the trend would pass me by, partly because I've never sought them out. Well, assuming makes an ass out of you and me, because after months of ambivalence toward these little gatherings, I was invited to one. What's it like to be in with the in crowd? I'd tell you, but I'd have to kill you...kind of. While the details can and should remain hazy, let these photos give you some clues as to what the scene was like:

The handwritten menu this week had a loose Southern theme, in celebration of visitors from Atlanta. Gritz-Carltons (see photo below), buttermilk biscuits with pulled short ribs and pickles, a Dirty South salad with buttermilk dressing and bacon, and classic chicken'n'waffles all made appearances. Without giving too much away, the dinner was in a private home, prepared and served by an incredibly gracious and talented couple who actually find the time to entertain weekly. It's not a publicity stunt in any way-- more like a classy (but not stuffy) dinner party, with seriously home-style dishes (and plenty of wine).
Buttermilk biscuits with pulled short ribs and pickles--way better than trendy sliders.
Chicken'n'waffles'n'mashed potatoes'n'gravy. The thumbs-up pretty much says it all. Amazingly, this chicken was fried in a skillet, not a deep-fryer, but it still came out crispy and tender in all the right places.
Dumplings in a spicy tomato sauce .
The Gritz-Carlton in all its glory-- grits in a spoon, with spicy merguez sausage .
Caramel apple cake, which was later topped with homemade lemon-thyme ice cream.

It was quite a spread, quite a crowd, and quite the night. I hope that I passed the initial testing period and will be invited back. Because what's better than going in to eat?


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Unicorned Rainbow Cake: A Photo Essay

A few weeks ago, in my house, The Best Cake Ever was made. Notice that "it was made," not "I made it," since I hate baking. I just found the cake and then forced my roommate and friend to make it instead.
Also, I stole the idea from Omnomicon, but we changed the recipe a lot, so that instead of using diet soda and no-sugar pudding mix, we used full-fat, full-sugar EVERYTHING. Now that credit has been given where credit is due, let's move on to appreciating the extreme beauty and ridiculousness of the Unicorned Rainbow Cake.

This cake is not something to be casually whipped up. You will have to separate and mix many bowls of colored batter. You will have to use vaguely mathematical calculations to ensure your layers are layered correctly. But it's totally worth it. I don't know why bakeries don't make all of their cakes look like this, since everybody seems to love them.*

Actually, we made two completely separate cakes with reverse-corresponding color layers, and then put one cake on top of the other.

As if the cake itself isn't enough, we then proceeded to decorate its exterior with a unicorn. A glittery unicorn. Oh yes. The design was sketched out beforehand, and then applied with a steady hand and a damp paintbrush. I again must give full props here to D and J, who made this artistic fantasy a reality.

So now we're at the party, and obviously Dave and Marci are impressed with the outside of the cake. They see the unicorn and the glitter and the frosting and start fawning already. Little do they know what treasures lie in store beneath the layer of frosting! And actually, neither did we, since after we baked all the layers of colored batter, we couldn't really cut into the finished product. The moment of revelation was upon us, and lo, it was awesome. Check it!

After hours of labor, we were left with the glittery, desecrated remains of the unicorn. RIP, Best Cake Ever Made. You will be missed.

*Upon further thought, I have realized that a large part of the reason people do love this cake so much is its novelty, so perhaps it's better that bakeries aren't pumping them out en masse.


Friday, March 6, 2009

Monday, March 2, 2009

On Bubbies and Babka

The epic smoked meat counter. Take a number, or else.

Despite living in New York for nearly five years, I for some reason had never been to Zabar's until recently. Zabar's is something of an institution here, billed as "New York City's Gourmet Epicurean Empire!" It's been around since 1934, and currently takes up almost an entire city block on the Upper West Side. It's known for selling gourmet coffees and cheeses, plus smoked fish and other Jewish-style appetizings. And since the Upper West Side is populated almost exclusively by old Jews, I felt completely at home when I paid a visit.

Look, here we are at the Strudel and Knish Corner! YAY! They sell strudel at by the foot here. I ate six inches of cheese-filled before heading to the fish counter.

Where this guy grudgingly gave me many, many samples of lox (or, as my great grandmother Bibby used to say, "novie."). I also tried some pickled herring. I smelled great!

This woman cut me in line for the novie. Look at the indignant expression on her face! I almost slapped her. But then I was soothed by a sample of some chocolate babka.

Overall, a worthwhile adventure. As an added bonus, Zabar's in conveniently located next to H & H Bagels, which may very well be the finest bagel producer in the city. I concluded my visit by sloppily arranging a half pound of sable on a fresh onion bagel on the streetcorner. It wasn't the prettiest scene, and I reeked for the whole subway ride downtown, but there's nothing I love more than getting in touch with my cultural jostling with 50 other crotchety grandparents for a slice of smoked fish.