Eat Me. Drink Me.

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

Month: July, 2012

Digits

by lyzpfister

Here is a true thing: food tastes better stuffed into your mouth with your hands. I decided this definitively at Cucina Casalinga. Drew was visiting. Emboldened by the presence of another American, I scorned the German habit of slicing pizza (pizza!) into bite-sized pieces with a knife and fork and instead shoveled triangles from tip to crust into my hungry little mouth.

I took a few experimental bites with a knife and fork. They didn’t taste as good.

It’s common knowledge that before the wheel was invented, our bushy and laconic ancestors developed the spoon.* Primitive priorities. The wheel was only practical. Sure, it got you from point A to point B a little faster – but the spoon – the spoon had the capacity to distinguish between the classed and the uncouth. Urklk still eating wolly mammoth with his fingers? For shame.

Humans have always loved to make distinctions.

Which is why, sitting in this pizzeria along the canal, surrounded by beautiful people (why are there so many beautiful people in Berlin?), I feel like I should feel ashamed to be greasing up my fingers with hot chili oil and melted mozzarella. For shame, for shame, I hear in the metallic clink of slicing knives, the screech of a fork against a plate.

But what of it? My pizza belongs to me. If I want to dissect it with my hands in public, well, who will be hurt? Society? Propriety? My neighbor’s refined aesthetic?

Is it an American thing to love finger foods? Think of all the wonderful things we eat with our hands: hamburgers, barbeque ribs, pigs in a blanket, corn on the cob. Not only do we revere these foods, we seem to revel in the mess they cause. Say… sloppy Joe’s?

All I can say is that the Europeans are missing out. If it’s habit, fine. Though I can’t quite sympathize, I can, at least, understand. But distinction? No. There’s too much tactile pleasure in the shape of a grilled cheese sandwich, too much joy in licking a line of watermelon juice slipping down your arm. When we eat with our hands, we throw decorum out the window. And maybe this is why the Americans love finger food so much – we have a history of flaunting how little we care about what we should do.

So Let Urklk eat with his hands. You know you want to, too.

*This may or may not be a wholly invented fact.

Every Kitchen Gets a Post

by lyzpfister

In my new home, we have a tablecloth. It is a dusty pink tablecloth and on top of it are placemats upon which we eat. Our china is rimmed with roses. Our mugs match. At last, I think, I have arrived.

In the last three years I’ve had five different kitchens, and I’ve written about most of them. First there was the Davidson kitchen where this blog began, and my ever-recurring ancestral home’s blue-walled affair. There was the first kitchen in New York, which was tiny – enough counter space only for the mice. Then there was my second kitchen in New York, which stood unused for a long time while we were too busy battling bed bugs to cook. There was the kitchen in Berlin, shower beside the stove. And now there is my new kitchen. Where we use tablecloths.

We are three women in my new kitchen, and of course the tablecloth may have something to do with that. Which is not to say that men don’t care for tablecloths. Just that, well, I don’t think they do.

Normally I’d balk at the idea of living with only women. There’s too much estrogen. Too much makeup, too much body lotion, too much bickering and gossip about boys. But my new little Neukölln apartment is different. It has a good feeling, something I sensed the first time I went to see the place – calm, relaxed, communal.

The kitchen is our shared space. There’s always someone in it – reading the newspaper, doing the dishes, cooking something. It’s also the first time I’ve lived somewhere where there’s an absolutely effortless attitude about food and sharing it. Whoever’s cooked, cooks for whoever else is home. But it’s not as stressful as being required to cook for everyone. It goes more like this: someone cooks, someone walks into the kitchen, food is shared. Unobtrusively, casually.

Last night, I made Ethiopian lentils in order to use up the last bits of vegetables from the fridge. A friend was over for dinner, so I was already making a bit more than usual. But lentils are one of those things that expand, like hot air balloons and lies. My roommates wandered in and out of the kitchen – to chat, to prepare lunch for the next day, to make a cup of tea. And when the lentils were done, there was more than enough to share, and I fed them, just as they have fed me.

Ethiopian Lentils

Heat 1 tbsp oil in a skillet and when hot, add 1 diced onion. When the onion is translucent, add ½ chopped eggplant and cook until eggplant is soft. Add 1 chopped yellow pepper, 6 chopped mushrooms, and 4 chopped prunes. Season with salt, pepper, berbere, turmeric, cumin, and Jamaican jerk seasoning. Cook until vegetables have softened. Add ½ – ¾ cups quick-cook red lentils and just cover with water. Stir in 1 tbsp tomato paste and cover skillet with a lid. Turn heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until lentils are cooked. Serve with freshly crumbled feta.

The One and Only

by lyzpfister

Let me tell you something about standing downwind from the pungent armpit of a singing Turkish man.

Garlic is better in than out.

Thank God for the breeze blowing up the smell of the Marmara Sea, for the perfection of the gulls as they glide beside the boat. I’ve never noticed before how they hold their stick legs taught against their tails when they fly. How effortlessly aerodynamic they are. The other passengers on the ferry chuck scraps of bread to the gulls. Every few minutes, a man with a tray piled high with simit scoots past our knees and sells these ring-shaped breads doused with sesame seeds. Most of them end up bobbing in the ocean in bits after having been thrown to, and rejected by, the gulls.

The group of men beside us is now singing dirty Turkish songs. Not that I speak Turkish, but a dirty song sounds the same in any language. The second verse breaks off into raucous laughter, someone makes a jibe – the laughter doubles. I am also inclined to believe these are dirty Turkish songs, because they’ve just finished comparing the size of their willies with each other. Classy.

The men are silent for a while. They lean against the railing and throw bread to the birds. One man begins to sing alone. It’s a sadder song, and even though his voice isn’t very good, the rest of the group listens quietly as he sings, and when he stops it is quiet again.

I have found nothing endearing about this group of men. They are as crude as a group of drunk fußball fans singing national songs in the U-bahn or that group of guys at a party doing keg stands. Awfulness is not restricted to one specific culture. And yet it is this solitary singing that makes me feel the most out of place. It’s a beautiful moment – but it isn’t meant to be shared. Their boys’ club is enacted in a public space, but me? – I’m a non-entity. This public space may as well be private. It is theirs.

We keep comparing Turkey to other things. The highway looks like I4 in Orlando. The passageway in the Hagia Sophia smells just like the line to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney. These villas could be in the Mediterranean.

The mass of Istanbul rolls over us, and the more we compare it to other places we’ve seen, the more I think – maybe Istanbul is its own place. Maybe we’re trying so hard to place it because we can’t. (I swear the city looks exactly like Naboo.)

There are so many people everywhere. It’s a huge change from Berlin, where the streets are wide and there’s an overabundance of greenery. Istanbul is cramped. The streets, half made of steps, charge upwards at vertical inclines, and buildings tip precariously along them. Feral cats stake out their territory; if you look at them, they give you the evil eye. (My family is nervous about me and feral cats. We have a history.) Even along the waterfront, the press of people doesn’t stop until the shoreline opens up on the Bosporus.

The only Turkish word I know is merhaba – hello. I use it for everything. “How are you?” sounds like this: merhaba. “Yes, please” sounds like this: merhaba. “How much is ½ kilo of beef and can you show me how big that is?” sounds like this: merhaba merhaba? In the butcher shop, after playing the pantomime game and managing to receive a beautiful piece of steak, I learn a new word. Teşekkür. Thank you.

At home, in our apartment near the Blue Mosque, I cook a birthday dinner for Ben. He’s twenty-one. Mom says, “Now you are responsible for anything you do in every country.” What he refuses to be responsible for, however, is choosing what he wants to eat for dinner, so we play a game. “Meat or vegetarian?” “Meat.” “Beef or chicken?” “Beef.” “Ground or whole?” “Whole.” “Grains or vegetables?” “Vegetables.” “Warm or cold?” “I don’t care.”

So I make thinly sliced steaks marinated in olive oil, lemon, garlic, and mint; skinny green peppers roasted over the gas stove and served in olive oil and garlic; a meze of tomato, eggplant, and onion slowly cooked down to nothing; and corn salsa with fresh tomato, onion, feta, oregano, and mint. We wash it down with cold Efes, the only Turkish beer we know.

There’s a lot of bread in Turkey. There’s a simit cart every ten feet, each meal comes with massive loaves of inconsequentially airy bread, and even the döners are mostly made of bread. This disappoints Michael, who is on the quest for the best döner in Turkey. I tell him – they’re better in Germany – but he will not be dissuaded. We walk down every restaurant gauntlet and stop to look at the döners while overzealous hosts accost us. “Yes, please. What do you want? Here is the most delicious food.” We shake our heads no, no, no (merhaba, merhaba, merhaba) with panic in our eyes and run away. This is how we end up eating mostly street food or snacks from small shops – flaking börek, one filled with cheese, the other meat, which we eat on a concrete dock along the water, sandwiches of freshly grilled fish with lemon and salt which are cooked on boats all along the coast.

We walk and we walk and we walk. There are people everywhere. In the Spice Bazaar, mountains of turmeric and sumac glitter against the copper of coffee pots and pepper mills. The floor is littered with powdered sugar fallen from jeweled pieces of Turkish delight. Vendors hawk silk scarves, carpets, bronze antiques, key chains, leather bags, and silver bracelets, knockoff Ray Bans, painted pictures, pistachios, glazed bowls and serving platters, wooden spoons, and lamps.

We find our quiet spaces in the city. In Café Pierre Loti overlooking the Golden Horn, where we drink strong Turkish coffee and çay (tea) served in thimble-sized glasses, or our favorite haunt, the Marmara Café, a shisha lounge draped in rugs and glittering glass lights. It has its own collection of feral cats which weave between the table’s legs. One wall is completely open and looks out across the Marmara Sea. We come here almost every night for the çay, the grilled vegetables and kofte. I learn to play backgammon. And win every game.

The prayers begin. The eerie call of the Muezzin echoes from the walls as it is projected across the city. The melody is strange to me, but beautiful. In the Marmara Café, it is quiet. There is just the clink of backgammon pieces, of tea glasses, the sleepy sweet smell of shisha and the long blue of the water. Below us, Istanbul writhes.