Eat Me. Drink Me.

Why We Eat. Why We Drink. Why We Write.

Month: April, 2009

Why You Could, But Might Not Want To, Subsist on Pine Trees (a post by Lyz)

by lyzpfister

Wild Foods Workshop

“There go the toxins,” says Mark, gleefully pouring the first batch of boiled water out of a pot of pokeweed. That’s a reassuring comment considering pokeweed is a poisonous plant whose litany of effects include severe stomach cramping, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, slow and difficult breathing, weakness, spasms, severe convulsions, and death. Delicious.

The snack of boiled pokeweed is the culmination of a wild foods workshop, where we’ve spent the last five hours learning about the medicinal qualities of dogwood leaves, English plantain, and mullein, among others. Although I have been momentarily tempted to wander through the woods eating leaves and cutting bark from every tree I passed, the lessons, peppered with casual references to plants that will make you convulse for hours if you happen to nibble, makes me think twice. “Oh yeah, you might not want to eat that.”

Wild Foods Workshop

The high incidence of edible plants having a poisonous look-alike make foraging something you should only do if you’re absolutely certain about the plant you’re about to eat. Mark, our instructor, tells us one story of a woman leading an edible foods workshop who accidentally fed her class a plant that burns human tissue instead of a very similar looking plant that tastes a little like cabbage. Of course, that reassured us for having signed up for the class.

The plant world is an absolutely fascinating and relatively untapped realm – untapped, at least, by American society. Mark showed us countless plants, such as jewel weed, a natural cortisone producer, which are far more potent than their man-made, pill counterparts. Dogwood leaves, for example, will cure a migraine in an hour. A tea made from the leaves of English plantain lowers blood pressure. Mullein, boiled in water and inhaled, relieves allergies. I could go on.

Dogwood blossoms

Mark brings in the trunk of a youngish pine tree, “sacrificed” (I believe he used the phrase, “and then I talked to the tree” when describing the ritual) for yesterday’s class and now being used for ours. He scrapes off the outer bark with a knife to reveal a smoother, light brown bark that sounds spongy when he taps on it. This is the inner bark. Apparently, it’s edible. Once he’s cut off enough outer bark to expose a strip of inner bark the size of his pinky, he makes four deep incisions to form a rectangle. And then he peels it off just like a sticker. Underneath is the wood, creamy beige.

He moves aside as we grab our knives and start working on our own pinky-sized patch of bark. The excessive knife waving makes me a little nervous, but I’m not going to miss the chance to try a piece of pine bark. Mark tells us about his knife injuries as we work.

Although Mark had warned us about the turpentine taste of pine bark, I wasn’t expecting my arms to explode into goose bumps with the first chew. Turpentiney doesn’t even begin to describe the intense taste, which I find can be simulated by eating a Pine-Sol coated two-by-four. After fifteen minutes of chewing, however, the pine bark takes on the texture of a too-tough piece of meat that has lost all flavor. And that’s kind of pleasant, especially when you factor in the novelty of eating a tree.

The inner bark is packed with nutrients, including proteins, fats, carbohydrates, phosphorous, iron, riboflavin, thymine, niacin, and Vitamins A and C. Mark mentions methods for making pine bark pasta, bacon, and flour, all of which seem like more palatable methods to get the health benefits. We proceed to try pine pollen, pine shoots, and pine needles, all in an increasing progression of unpalatability. Which is really a shame, since it seemed like such a good idea. Luckily for us, we pass a sweet briar bush on our walk through the woods, and wash that piney taste out with the tender, pea-like taste of the shoots.

edible sweet briar

Mark points out a number of other plants, such as heal-all, Queen Anne’s lace, and sweet gum, and how to prepare them as medicines or food, but leads us finally to a clump of weeds growing in between a cemetery and a parking lot. This is the pokeweed. One professor who’s along for the trip tells us how his mother used to fry up pokeweed and eggs for breakfast. He tells us this right after Mark tells us how poisonous pokeweed is, and what I want to know is how people figure this stuff out. “So I cooked the whole plant, and Larry died, but then I had those top couple leaves and man, was it good.” Poor Larry.

Mark tells us that we’ll be gathering the pokeweed for our snack, which means that I’m going to have to trust the ten other people in my workshop to not pick any of the poison-laced, low leaves. For a minute I consider not gathering any myself and just monitoring everyone else’s pickings, but then I realize that they, too, are trusting me with their lives. There’s something touching about this ragged group of students, professors, and townies running around a little, weedy patch, picking poisonous plants to feed to each other. I don’t remember the last time I picked the food I was about to eat myself, much less the last time I picked food for someone else.

I hope some of us have taken at least a few of these lessons to heart, or at least realized that supermarkets or drugstores don’t have to be the only places we shop. We can, and should, supplement our lives with nature’s offerings. It was making cortisone long before we were, after all.

I, at least, gained a little more respect for the natural world. Which is not to say that I’m going to leave my life and root around the woods. But pine bark pasta? That’s something I want to try.

sweet briar shoots sauteed in butter

pine bark fried in bacon grease

Make sure you’re actually about to eat a pine tree and not something similar. Peel off the tough outer bark to expose the inner bark. Cut an incision into the inner bark and peel it off in strips. Fry strips in bacon grease and plenty of salt.

pine branches for bacon

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I’ll Have the Meal in a Pint, Cheers (a post by Josh)

by lyzpfister

The myth is true. It is no longer a myth, but a fact, truth, honesty. The myth that I’m talking about is “the closer you get to Dublin, the better the Guinness.” I never made it to the factory itself, which I’m sure was “well worth it” but I did make to the “smallest pub in the world” in the heart of Dublin to enjoy a hearty pint.

It has really been these past few rainy days that have gotten me to thinking about that small pub. Because, during these grayed afternoons, all I’ve pined for is a cozy place to sit with friends and to enjoy a drink. Not coffee, but a pint of Guinness. This may be contradictory to my personality, but hear me out on this one.

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Nothing is Sacred (a post by Lyz)

by lyzpfister

As I was packing up to leave home after a relaxing Easter break, I realized there was nothing left in the house to eat.

By nothing, I mean, there was lots of leftover ham.

Hungry, and inspired by an almost hidden recipe in Gourmet, I decided to give in and eat ham again, but this time as miniature ham croquettes. Only a little bit daunted by the recipe’s injunction to “deep fry” the croquettes in a stomach-churning amount of vegetable oil, I dutifully followed the recipe, mashing white rice, ham, parmesan cheese, salt, pepper, and egg together into sticky balls and rolling them in bread crumbs. Maybe I didn’t let the rice cool long enough, or maybe my egg just wasn’t enough like cement, but my croquettes looked more like misshapen footballs than the cute, symmetrical spheres in the magazine’s pages. Armed with the longest spoon I could find, I plopped those tentative blobs into the hot oil and hoped they wouldn’t disintegrate too much. And then, as I noticed the thick smoke billowing through the kitchen, I mercilessly abandoned them as I frantically opened all the windows and doors within a fifteen foot radius.

Miraculously, the croquettes were only mostly burnt.

The good deed done, the leftover ham used up, I took my benighted croquettes to the table and took a bite.

Bland. Bland, bland, bland.

Why, you may ask, am I telling you this? Let me tell you.

I am telling you this because it teaches some valuable lessons about cooking. One, that not everything you make will be good. Two, that some things will be bad. And three, that the recipe is never sacred.

Taste copiously while you cook to make sure that it’ll turn out all right, and if it doesn’t taste good, add something new, like horseradish or cumin or caraway seeds. If you’re cooking with raw eggs (see: this disastrous attempt), you may not have that privilege. And in that case, when it’s done and it’s awful, call on your friends Harissa or Texas Pete, and invite them to dine. Unless it’s completely and utterly charred, spoiled, smashed, or exploded, don’t throw it away. Almost everything is a little bit salvageable.

In this case, I slathered those deep-fried bundles with either wasabi or Dijon mustard, and ate them with a little more appreciation.

Alas, as I went back to the fridge to rummage for more condiments, I heard a thud behind me and whirled around to see Molly the Beagle chomping the last of them with much more gusto than I had mustered.

So then I had a deviled egg.

Holidays Are for Eating (a post by Lyz)

by lyzpfister

There’s this thing we do in my family which is our way of letting each other know that one of us is in the way of the other. The key to understanding this action is that there are absolutely no words involved. Say, for instance, that I’m standing at the silverware drawer, putting away the knives and forks, and my mother needs a skillet from the cabinet that’s directly behind me. Instead of saying, “Excuse me, could I grab a skillet from the cabinet directly behind you,” she maneuvers me out of the way with her hip, grabs the skillet around the still open silverware drawer, and leaves me wondering what happened as I find myself four feet away from the drawer with a lonely spoon dangling from my fingers.

This is normal.

Imagine that times five hundred. This is Easter.

Holidays at my house revolve around food, which means that holidays at my house happen in the kitchen. This Easter, my four other family members plus Elisabeth, a German TA from Gettysburg College, swept through the kitchen in a psychotic, gyrating mess attempting to make a cohesive dinner appear. I was in charge of the menu–molasses and rum rubbed ham, roasted potatoes with caper butter and breadcrumbs, green beans, caramelized pearl onions and grapes, cheddar biscuits, and the coup-de-grace, fennel and lemon glazed cake (which, of course, my younger brothers wouldn’t eat, citing the cake’s “cabbage” content).

Being in charge of Easter is an interesting change of pace for a former holiday peon. One year, you’re the kitchen multi-tool, you peel potatoes, trim green beans, and of course, put together deviled eggs which are always made and never eaten. The next, you’re telling someone else to wash and cut, boil water, and watch as your mother takes charge of the deviled eggs, while you now make sauces, crumble spices to just the right proportions, and prepare the ham. Being in charge means you pretend to be much more organized than you really are, and believe firmly that you are (yes, you are) good at multitasking cooking times and micromanaging a set of underling chefs. You are under a lot of pressure. You could Ruin. Everything.

As I rush between glazing the onions and making sure the biscuits aren’t being burnt and figuring out when, exactly, I need to put the green beans on the stove, my mother offers me this helpful comment: “Chef Ramsay would say, ‘Get your kitchen under control.'”

This is a hard thing to do when usually, you cook for one person and you make one dish, and suddenly today, you’re cooking for six and making six dishes all of which have to be on the table at exactly the same time. This is stressful. Especially when you’re also trying to solve the mystery of why everyone needs to simultaneously be in the same corner of the kitchen.

There are moments, however, in this frenzy, when everything is exactly where it needs to be, and I have time to lean against the kitchen counter and breathe in the smells of sherry, sugar, and spices mingling in the crowded kitchen. I take a sip of champagne and watch my family flurry around me in time to the accordion-infused Amélie soundtrack playing in the background. It’s good to be home and good to be together.

And then a pot of water boiling on the stove is overflowing and my father is trying to fix the espresso machine and Molly the beagle is running across the kitchen floor with a stick of Very Expensive Butter.

Miraculously, through this chaos, we put everything on the dining room table in time for a two o’clock lunch, the butter and a few burnt breadcrumbs the afternoon’s only casualties. Lunch is quiet compared to the cooking. Maybe we’re all tired from running around or maybe we’re savoring the flavors on our plate, but maybe the celebration of Easter is more of what goes on in the kitchen and less of what happens at the table. Perhaps we’re most ourselves when we’re hip-ing each other around the kitchen, when we’re helping each other find the sharpest knife or the rum, when we’re loading and unloading the dishwasher or tasting things before they’re ready. I realize that what it means to be at home for me is not how perfect the end result is but that we’re able to laugh at the messes and miracles of the process.

Someone brings up our Easter egg-battling tradition, a game my parents’ Bulgarian exchange students taught us in which two people grip their selected eggs and on the count of three smash them against each other. The person with the unbroken egg is declared the winner and challenges the next player. This year, Elisabeth and her indestructible egg emerge as the undisputed winners, and when the game is over, we laugh at the bits of eggshell scattered around the room. This, too, is what it means to be home. To sit, to laugh, and to let the eggshells lie until they need to be cleaned up.

Bless Your Good Corn Bread (a post by Josh)

by lyzpfister

It’s funny how, despite my multiple heritages, I claim certain aspects more. For example – I claim my Polish heritage more than anything else. But when asked where I’m from in the States, I say the South nine times out of ten.

It is true, I am from the South. I was born in Virginia and now live in North Carolina. But for my more formative years (ages 4 – 18) I lived in New York. I guess my nomadic lifestyle has allowed me to claim the best of either of the worlds.

Easter is the perfect example of my picking and choosing of my heritages. When it comes to Easter, I think of two things: chocolate and ham. Those years I was a vegetarian, I would think: chocolate and yam. Almost ham, but not quite. It’s a joke, roll with it.

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Rouge Paris (a post by Josh)

by lyzpfister

Sometimes certain smells rip me back to a particular past. If I smell this one perfume, I’m back in my elementary school, walking through a hallway doorway, on my way to 5th grade graduation. Sometimes, this happens with foods too. If I see a large head of cabbage, cut in half displaying the white and purple labyrinth – I am back in the Marais, waiting in line for my second falafel in two days.

If you’ve never been to Paris before, picture this for me – small streets framed with bright white, red, yellow, green and blue door fronts. Hundreds of people packing them on a Sunday afternoon. A cold chill is in the air, so people hunch a bit, and talk louder than Paris normally permits. Groups are stationed as obstacles for the moving, waiting for Ruggelach, shawarma, or falafel and a warm shelter for ten minutes. This is the Marais, “the swamp,” “the fourth,” or the Jewish section of Paris.
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Space vs. Taste: What Makes a Coffee Shop? (a post by Lyz)

by lyzpfister

The best cup of coffee I ever had was in a coffee shop on Lygon Street, in Melbourne, Australia. That cappuccino, rich, strong, and smooth, convinced me that Lygon, where the Italian cafés and restaurants were located, would become the perfect place to find a coffee shop in which I could both work and happily feed my caffeine addiction. So I started looking for the perfect place – somewhere with good coffee, tables big enough to hold my laptop and books, outlets, and maybe even an upstairs or back room where people sat and worked in silent solidarity. I wanted a blend of socializing and working, but in Australia, the cafés I found were not work-friendly. Most of the customers were engaged in conversation at the rickety, round tables with the capacity for a coffee cup or two, no one had a laptop (not to mention that there were absolutely no outlets), and the lighting inside was dim.

As the search for the perfect coffee shop on Lygon Street became an increasingly frantic journey, I found myself frequently ending a futile morning of searching at Starbucks. This was particularly frustrating, because not only was the coffee worse than at the cafés along Lygon – where every cappuccino I ordered had a heart drawn into the foam and the espresso was strong but not bitter–but the coffee was exponentially more expensive. Whereas I could get a delicious cup for around $2 anywhere else, at Starbucks I paid close to $6 for the exact same burnt and bitter coffee I could buy back in the States. But Starbucks had what I needed, an expansive upstairs area where students sat and studied, outlets for my laptop, and good lighting.

Oh! the irony of having found the most delicious coffee in the world but not served in the space that I needed. In my six months of searching, I only found one coffee shop that met all of my criteria. It astounded me that a country with such delectable caffeine missed the wonder of the all-purpose coffee shop. In an attempt to understand why every city, town, and hamlet in the US boasts an independent coffee shop, I started looking into the history of the modern coffee shop, and found, to my surprise, that it all began with Starbucks.

Starbucks, founded by Jerry Baldwin, Zev Siegl, and Gordown Bowker, was originally a place to buy freshly roasted beans back in the 1970s, when most coffee came from poor quality beans mass-processed by companies such as Folgers or Maxwell House. By 1980, when Siegl sold his share, Starbucks was the largest roaster in Washington and had six retail outlets, and in 1982, when Starbucks hired Howard Schultz as head of marketing, it was primed for expansion. Schultz, however, had a radically different vision for the company than its owners. Baldwin and Bowker were committed to selling beans and reluctant to let Schultz pursue his dream of starting an Italian-inspired coffee house where people could either grab a cup on the run or stay and socialize. Baldwin and Bowker allowed Schultz to experiment in one Starbucks store with a small stand in the back of the shop. It was an immediate hit.

Today, there are over 7,500 Starbucks in more than thirty countries. The next largest chain, Caribou Coffee, languishes behind it at 300 stores. Starbucks, the Goliath of the coffee community, has received criticism for its aggressive expansion and overpriced drinks, but clearly someone is buying the coffee. Schultz believes this lies in the concept of the third space, a place that is not home and not work where people can either socialize or be alone. This principle is something deliberately and carefully constructed in each Starbucks. In the book, From the Top, Schultz says, “In the focus groups we’ve done, people talk about how social Starbucks is. And then we say, ‘How many people did you talk to while you were in the restaurant?’ ‘I didn’t talk to anybody.’ So we have learned that it’s the experience–the music, the theater, the romance of coffee and the break that we provide.”

Starbucks, with its deep green or maroon walls, pop art pictures of coffee beans and lattes, its dim lighting, is a soothing place to be, for some. For others, the repetition of design and of experience is nauseating. “I feel like a Starbucks–you get what you get. It’s always the same thing, nothing changes–you know what I mean?” says Megan, a barista at Courthouse Commons, an independent coffee shop in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The cloned feel of a Starbucks is precisely what spurs many caffeine consumers to seek out local, independent coffee shops, where the baristas know “your” drink and the beverage list is artfully chalked up on a blackboard.

However, what people don’t realize is that without Starbucks, independent coffee shop culture would not exist. According to Taylor Clark, author of Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Culture, and Commerce, “Starbucks didn’t invent coffee; it just did something with it that no one thought possible. The company took a commodity that Americans could get for a quarter at carts and diners, reshaped it into a luxury product, convinced customers to buy it at hugely inflated prices, and built stores only a few blocks apart in every major city, yet patrons continue to line up in ever-greater numbers to fork over their money.”

Pre-1990s, coffee was a middle-class commodity, a blue-collar drink watered down and served in seedy diners and breakfast joints. Starbucks made drinking coffee a social event, and the price of their coffee reflected the experience you paid for as much as the jolt of caffeine. Their bizarre lingo of English and Italian has become the most prevalent way to order coffee–the smallest cup of coffee is called tall, medium is called grande, and venti, the Italian word for “twenty” or “wind,” is as obtuse as they come. Dawn Pinaud, one of Schultz’s first employees, says, “It’s amazing to me that these terms have become part of the language. A few of us sat in a conference room and just made them up.”

Parker, a barista at Summit, a local coffee shop in Davidson, North Carolina, complains about the frequency with which customers ask for coffee in a Starbucks sized cup, yet also recognizes the importance of Starbucks in the independent coffee shop ethos. “Starbucks is the reason this place can exist–it got America hooked on coffee.” He goes on to explain that people are looking for the same sort of place wherever they go, whether they are the kind of person who wants to buy coffee from a Starbucks or from an independent coffee shop. He once made a drink for a woman who travels across the country trying out independent coffee shops. “It’s the same kind of different.”

And yet, independent coffee shops make a great deal of effort to distinguish themselves from Starbucks. The label on ground coffee sold at Courthouse Commons has a slogan that says, “Not bitter, just better!,” implicitly criticizing the bitterness of Starbucks’ coffee. At Smelly Cat in Charlotte, North Carolina, a sign on the counter reads, “We’re not Starbucks, it’s ok to say hi.”

While the catalyst for the existence of the coffee shops I so admire, Starbucks is no longer on the same level. Its aggressive expansionism, mechanized beverage production, drive-through windows, and exaggerated prices have made it the symbol for corporate America.

Starbucks is a relatively new phenomenon in Australia. Perhaps in ten more years, it won’t be so hard to find a coffee shop where I can plug in my laptop and write for hours. But maybe that change will also mean a change in the quality of coffee or the replacement of the casual, sit-down cafés for grab-a-cup-and-go sort of places. It’s a tough call, but I tell you that that cappuccino on Lygon Street would be a sad thing to let go.

The Word Buffet Doesn’t Translate (a post by Josh)

by lyzpfister

What they don’t tell you – when you are boarding the plane to Italy – is that your kitchen may be smaller than your bathroom.

But they do tell you a whole bunch of things that sound amazing, almost too amazing to be real. Like markets every day. No pesticides on the produce. Simple but delicious food. Beautiful people. Ground-breaking art. Breath-taking cities. Cheap travel.

By this point in the schpeal, I started to not believe a word they were saying.

But let me tell you that it’s about 90% true. That other 10% is just for wiggle room. Italy became my haven. Before I left, I tried to prepare myself for some culture shock, writing a mini-recipe for an ideal day in my life:

1. Run
2. Cook something
3. Go to a market
4. Have a good conversation
5. Devour

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