Eat Me. Drink Me.

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

Category: Novelty Dining

I Give Some Lip to a Piece of Tongue, Some Peace of Mind is Retained

by lyzpfister

This is exactly what it looked like:  as if someone had hacked off a foot, boiled it, and dressed it in a little white boot.  It was like finding something from Dexter in my soup pot.

How I ended up making tongue for dinner is a roundabout story.  What I really wanted was to try out this adorable sounding Fergus Henderson recipe for crispy pig tails.  And I figured, in my neighborhood, with its preponderance of funny animal bits, I would definitely be able to find them somewhere.  So I walked to the carniceria on the corner and asked for pig tails.  The butcher laughed at me.  And I thought – really? – because I’m staring at a pig’s head next to a goat’s head, right above bins of offal and piles of trotter.  And he laughs at me for wanting pig tails?

So he gives me the address of a few more carnicerias in Bushwick and I begin a trek into the hoods of Brooklyn looking for pig tails.  No luck.  One butcher didn’t even know what part of the animal I was talking about, and we played an embarrassing game of charades trying to determine just what the tail of a pig was.  I drew curlicues in the air.  Despondent and luckless, I hopped on the train to Union Square to see what the early Spring Greenmarket had to offer.  Not much yet, a few root vegetables and hardy winter greens.  But I did find some beautiful broccoli rabe and a jar of silky creamed honey, some Jerusalem artichokes and a perfectly round, perfectly yellow squash.  No pig tails.

Having given up on the pig tails (for now, just for now), I took the train back home to Brooklyn and walked back into the carniceria on my corner.  “I’m back,” I said, and the butcher, a young guy from Mexico, not much older than myself, shook his head at me.  I told him I’d given up on the pig tails and would settle for something else – something fatty and a little tough so I could braise it.  But I couldn’t find a cut of meat to suit.  I didn’t want chops or ribs, much less feet or innards.  I saw a bin with smooth, round organs, which would have fit perfectly in an open hand.  The label was in Spanish and the only word I recognized was toro.  Bull.  I thought – no – it couldn’t be… And so I asked my new friend the butcher – we’d been chatting over cuts of meat and ways to prepare various dishes – “What are these?”  He looked down and his voice lowered.  “Testicles,” he said.  “Are they… good?” I asked as I felt my face contort into an expression less than attractive.  “Yeah, you know, you got to boil them, then slice them up and fry them with some peppers.  Kind of chewy.  But it makes you strong.”  He grinned and made a muscle with his arm.  It makes you strong.  Of course it does.

I almost, almost bought some bull testicles.  But in the end, it didn’t quite fit with the broccoli rabe salad or the vegetables I wanted to roast.  And then I caught sight of the tongue.  Perfect, I thought – something weird, something sort of tough that I can braise into submission, something I’ve never made before.  Tongue – what could be so hard about it?

This was before the boot.  This was before picking long, black cow hairs from taste buds, which looked so much like my own taste buds and felt so much like my own taste buds rubbed against the roof of my mouth.  The experience was uncanny, as if I were preparing my own tongue for dinner, or at least some human tongue, bloated to three times its normal size.

But I am an adventurous cook, and I’d just had ox tongue at St. John (though the texture of cooked taste buds is definitely a thing…), so I gamely washed my tongue and placed it in a pot with onions, carrot tops, peppercorns, cloves, and the Simon and Garfunkel quartet of herbs and set it to simmer.

Fast forward three hours.  The boot in my hand.  I’d done some preliminary tongue prep research online, and the recipe I’d found said peeling the outer layer of tongue away was simple, like peeling a banana or slipping off a sock.  I was confused, as I held my boomerang-shaped tongue, now condensed to half its original size.  I ran a knife slit around the tough outer layer and tried to peel it off.  It was stuck to the rest of the tongue tighter than a limpet to a rock.  I made another knife slit.  Nothing.  I giggled a little out of nervousness.  I still had about two hours of braising to do and a dinner guest arriving in half an hour and there was something desperately wrong with my tongue.  I went back to the internet and googled “peeling a tongue” and sifted through some interesting hits.  Among the medical mysteries and strange sexual fetishes, I found a few forums on cooking.  Everyone said, oh, peeling a tongue is easy, like peeling a banana or slipping off a sock.  I began to despair.  What had I done wrong?  How had I deserved this?  And what would I feed my dinner guest?

And then at the bottom of a Yahoo Answers page, someone else had written: “I boiled a tongue once. It was barely peelable even after boiling, and it looked like a little boot.  Yeah, once.”  I took comfort from this blurb.  There was nothing to do but press on.

I got my biggest knife and started hacking strips of tough, white taste buds from the muscle underneath.  Relieved of its coarse coating, the tongue was less terrifying.  Less foot-like, and more like something else.

I quickly cut it into harmless steaks.  The doorbell rang.  It had taken me forty-five minutes to peel the tongue and I opened the door still holding the knife and dripping tongue juice from my hands.  I giggled nervously – again.  “I’m about two hours behind and this might be… interesting,” I said.  Giggle.

I laid the tongue steaks in a baking dish and scattered it with mushrooms, carrots, and onions, some olive oil and red wine.  “Can I offer you some cooking wine?” I asked, “Because I’m going to make you wait two hours to eat.”

So we sat at the kitchen table, drinking cooking wine, listening to Manu Chao, catching up, slowly growing hungrier.  At hour one and a half, I decided to taste the tongue.  The braised meat was lovely – deep brown in hue, fragrant and earthy.  The tongue itself was – chewy.  A nice flavor, for sure.  But chewy, definitely.  I wondered if maybe I should have gone with the bull testicles.

“It’s a little – chewy,” I said.  I offered him a bite.

“Yes, it’s a little chewy,” said my dinner guest.

We poured the last two glasses of cooking wine.

“If worst comes to worst,” I said, “We’ll cut it into little cubes and deep fry it.”

I pulled the broccoli rabe out of the fridge, figuring that that at least would be a safe bet and if the tongue turned out inedible, we could just eat broccoli rabe and bread.  I whisked lemon juice and olive oil with garlic, salt, and pepper and tossed it with the washed and trimmed broccoli rabe.  We slid two rolls in the toaster oven and sat down to hope the last half hour would work miracles with the tongue.

The toaster dinged, the rabe had soaked, the oven was opened.  We served ourselves slices of tongue with giant heaps of broccoli rabe salad and hot rolls.  And the tongue was – a little chewy – but the flavor was good, and cut into thin strips, splayed on a hot roll and topped with broccoli rabe, I was happy with it.  Though I’m not sure I’d put myself through the experience again.

Our meal saved, we made a lot of tongue jokes, and it ended up being a good night.

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The Spoon Stands Alone

by lyzpfister

A fork is just a spoon with holes.  How primitive, a set of little spears, to prod, poke, pierce, and rent.  Where is the elegance of the spoon’s soft curve, the spoon’s caress of a pumpkin soup, its languid dive into pudding, the easy crunch with which it drops onto the caramel hat of a crème brulé.  A fork is crude, a tine nothing more than a galvanized toothpick.  Give me the heft of a spoon’s curved bowl cradled in the hand’s palm, the sensuous glide of the tongue beneath its cambered base, the upper lip’s sweep into the lightly sloping dip.  How lovely, a piled stack of peas, pearls of tapioca suspended in pale pudding, a melting marble of ice cream lifted easily to the mouth in the safety of the spoon’s arms.  A steak, you say?  What good is a spoon for a steak?  None whatsoever, but for that I have my fingers.  What is a fork, after all, but a bourgeois approximation of a hand?  As if the hand were too delicate to grasp a breaded pork chop or a broccoli floret, as if the teeth weren’t meant to bite through veal or a tender medallion of filet mignon.  There is that crassness in a fork, a pretention that one shouldn’t feel the food one eats, a pizza must be prod and cut before it can be chewed, a tomato surgically sliced.  A fork is redundant as is a knife, but a spoon – a spoon extends the hand as if the palm were mirrored past the fingers.  How painstaking it would be to lap milk from a bowl of cereal or eat yogurt one finger’s sweep at a time.  A fork and knife are just reductions of what we already have; the spoon completes the hand.

Eating Blind

by lyzpfister

I have developed an irrational fear of flying.  It’s impractical.  Its source is unknown.  But there it is.  I have become the person that grips the edges of the seat and dons a horrified expression at a hint of turbulence.  I am the one frantically slinging back seltzer and wishing I knew a good Hail Mary.

I’m in a plane now, and I’m thinking back to the other times in life where I have been as paralyzed.  Once, on the Appalachian Trail, caught in a raging lighting storm coming off the Blackstack Cliffs, shaking in lightning position, crouched low on one foot and singing the chorus to Amazing Grace over and over again, feeling hailstones hit my back.  Once, flying through terrible winds, the plane plummeting and soaring like a whipped rag, with three failed landings.  And once, eating at unsicht-Bar, the blind restaurant in Berlin.

What all of these experiences have in common is the sort of fear that grips the bottom of your stomach and wriggles up through your chest, shortens your breath, makes you know a panic attack is just around the corner.  And there is helplessness.  You are not in control.

unsicht-Bar is fashioned around the concept of blindness.  Diners eat a four course meal in complete blackness, and the restaurant is staffed entirely by the blind.  In the marble lobby, on plush lounge chairs surrounded by candlelight, you are given a menu whose dishes include such enigmatic delicacies as “The Frisian nobility is on fire and looking for acquaintanceship with the French underworld to practice love things.”  It’s charming.  We thought eating blind would be fun.

After making our dinner choices, we were introduced to our waiter, Harald.  Harald instructed us to grab on to the shoulders of the person standing in front of us.  I watched my mother grab on to Harald and Elisabeth grab on to my mother.  I took Elisabeth’s shoulders and felt the train whisk forward into the thick velvet drapes like some Wonderland bound vessel.  We wound around and when we stopped, we were in total darkness.  You could stand in a dark room and close your eyes and it wouldn’t be as dark as this room.  I waved a free hand in front of my face.  Not even the impression of a hand sweeping past, fracturing light.  We found ourselves whispering.

Harald seated us one by one, instructing us not to move unless sanctioned to do so, and then he had us feel our plates, our forks, knives, soup spoons, napkins.  He brought us wine.  We felt our glasses.  He brought us bread and we touched that too.  And then we sat in that giant, dark room.  I was massive and miniscule at the same time.  Totally alone without my sight.  I couldn’t see my hands.  I couldn’t remember if they were there.  I moved my fingers.  I blinked and nothing changed.  It felt futile, attempting to penetrate a black blankness.  I reached for my mother sitting next to me and grabbed her hand and then we both grabbed for Elisabeth across the table.  I breathed slowly, connected to two other people in the darkness, proof I wasn’t alone.  Unobtrusively, the darkness opened up and I became aware of the tinkling of glasses, a woman’s laughter, the feeling of being in a vast space.

We talked to hear the sounds of each other’s voices, to locate ourselves.  We loosened our shoulders, though our laughter was still tinged with nervousness.  The food was delicious.  Delicate.  It had to be good – we couldn’t rely on our eyes to fool us into instilling taste into an artful cylinder of yams.  And we had no idea what we’d ordered beyond fish, fowl, or vegetable.  But my risotto was rich, the flounder fresh, and I ate bite after bite to figure out what that delicious vegetable was – sweet, slightly firm, a tuber?  What was it, what was it… We exclaimed over our food.  Oh!  Look what I found!  I thought I was done!  Try this – where’s your hand?

There was the moment when I reached into the bread basket for a second roll only to find it empty.  I had two, said my mother.  I had two, said Elisabeth.  When you’re blind, no one leaves the last bread roll.  You eat as much as you want and no one knows.  I brought the empty fork to my mouth countless times, sometimes even upside down.  Mom was eating with her hands.  At one point, one of us (who shall remain unnamed) flashed the entire restaurant.  Not even the others at the table had any idea.

We moved through appetizer and salad, main course and dessert, by this time at uneasy peace with the dark.  Once, I put my hands over my ears to see what it would have been like to be Helen Keller and I almost screamed just to control something.  The thing about that darkness is, there is no relief.  Deep breaths.  The taste of fresh fruit.  Finding a closed jar on the plate.  Figuring out how to open it.  Reaching inside and touching firm pudding.  Making everyone open the jar to touch the pudding.

Harald came to take our plates and offered to take us back into the light.  We thought for a moment, silently communing.  No, we’ll stay a little longer.  There’s a word in German, seltsam, which describes the moment.  Sitting in the dark was uncomfortable, but when would we ever know it again?

Even the night afterwards was garish.  Stucco gritted out in plain relief, brilliant colors, textured wooden window-sills, and space.  So much space around us.  I wanted to look everywhere at the same time.  I wanted to stretch my arms out and know nothing was in my way.  I was in control again.  I barely remembered the fear, outside in the open air where I could see.  I tried to recreate it – I closed my eyes, but everywhere was still the impression of light.

Fear is a funny thing.  Our mind remembers, I was afraid, but like pain, our body cannot spontaneously recreate the stomach’s clutch or the chest’s arching tightness.

Today in my plane, the ride is relatively smooth, but just a few seconds of drop and rise, and how quickly fear blooms.  I wish it weren’t so restrictive – that instead of paralysis, we can link in to the fear and find the seltsam, the unique experience of near death, and the joy of finding ourselves alive and unscathed afterwards.  To taste the food with our eyes closed, so to speak.  Because we can never feel truly safe unless we are scared every now and then.

Totally Bizarre Thing I’m Kind of Obsessed with Right Now

by lyzpfister

Mozzarella with butter.  Not mozzarella and butter.  Mozzarella made with butter.  It sounds gross, I know.  It even looks gross.  And eaten cold, um, well, it’s butter.  Which is kind of gross.

But melted together on a pita or bagel or pile of potatoes, it’s amazingly delicious.  Melted mozzarella is the stuff dreams are made of – it’s the cornerstone of pizza and cheese sticks and anything requiring gooey, stringy, hot cheese.  And melted butter makes everything especially bad for you, which is a euphemism for extremely delicious.  As the saying goes, more is more.  Skeptics be damned, mozzarella and butter is not too much of a good thing.

My mother and I found this interesting specimen at an Italian deli on Grand St.  (and corner of…Mulberry?), where they also sell the most phenomenal Sicilian Black Pepper Cheese and excellent prosciutto and whose next door neighbor is a charming, wonderful, amazing pasta shop where is made the most charming, wonderful, and amazing pasta (pumpkin ravioli! black pepper and cheese tortellini! tomato basil linguine!).  We are curious people.  And buy weird food – just because we can.  And what is weirder than mozzarella with a chunk of butter cradled inside?

The last time we were at the shop, we opted for the traditional mozz, but after we had made our purchase, we overheard a pregnant lady raving about the mozzarella with butter.  At the time, I remember someone remarking, “Oh, trust the pregnant lady, they eat a lot.”  But in retrospect, mozzarella and butter strikes me as just the sort of pregnant lady craving everyone disparages.  I’m thinking pickles and peanut butter.  Together.

Although, maybe mozzarella and butter is like that too.  But in a good way.

Anyway, anyway, anyway.  I just got sort of excited about it right now – I made a “pizza” for dinner with pita, butterella, oregano, jalapeño, sundried tomato, and salami slivers which was just great.

I’m not really sure where else in the world you can find mozzarella and butter.  I mean, I guess you could melt them together – but that somehow feels excessive.  I have no solution for you, really.  But if you want to melt butter on your next pizza, I won’t tell.  You’ll probably like it.

Tailgating at 9am (a post by Josh)

by johamlet

From my limited understanding about tailgating, what you do at a tailgate is stand around the back of a truck, grill, drink, and stand in a parking lot. How American. That’s not what I ended up doing at nine am yesterday, but I did tailgate. What? Stop confusing me.

Read the rest of this entry »

Because the Only Conceivable Thing to Do When it’s Snowing is Eat Snow

by lyzpfister

Well, it’s snowing again.  And once again the bitter, endless winter kicks our hopes of impending spring in the shins.  I am tired of walking through slush, shivering in my coat, walking with my head down and shoulders bunched, shuffling over ice, trudging through drifts, and ruining all my shoes with salt.  I am ready for short skirts and sandals, lazy ambling, sunshine, popsicles (that are not my numb toes), rooftop barbeques, green leaves, summer reading, and happiness.

Winter, winter, please be over soon.

Alas, until that beautiful day arrives, I’ll content myself the little joys – slippers, hot soup, mulled wine, candlelight – and eat the snow that spites me.

I’ll admit that when I woke up a few days ago and soft snow was drifting down and settling like ganache on the tree outside my window, I smiled.  I thought of snow angles and snowmen and snowball fights, and my personal childhood favorite, snow ice cream.  Snow ice cream is simple.  Milk, sugar, and vanilla folded into powdery snow until the consistency rests between crunchy virgin snow and wet slush.  It should be delicate and still light, but softened by the milk and vanilla.  It is cold and sweet and good.

So on that morning, I pulled on a pair of boots over my pajamas, stuck a hat on my head, and trudged out into the cold to find some clean snow in my industrial-looking Brooklyn.  Though not as good as rural Pennsylvania snow, New York snow is not too bad, just a little metallic.  It’s still lovely to watch fall, and since playing outside no longer appeals to me quite so much, I’ll settle for bringing a little of the beauty of falling snow inside and eat it as I snuggle underneath my blankets and wait for winter to be over.

The Man for Me (a post by Lyz)

by lyzpfister

“An ox tongue in brine […] or a bucket of cabbage salting in the corner of your kitchen, what could be more reassuring?” says Fergus Henderson, author of The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating.  My new culinary grail is a celebration of all those animal bits that are so often overlooked in the western kitchen like tripe, ears, feet, tongue, and brains.  Seeing as unusual cuts of meat have been on my mind lately and since they are so conveniently sold at my local grocery store (and my new best friend the butcher’s place), this book came along at a time in my life when there were too many trotters and not enough recipes for them.

I never read recipes.  This has gotten me into a lot of trouble on occasion.  For instance, when halfway through making dinner, I get to the part of the recipe that says, “chill overnight.”  Or when I’m canning zucchini and see the words “mix” and “rest for ten hours,” I assume, foolishly, that the recipe means mix all the ingredients and not just the zucchini and salt, at which point I must cancel dinner with my friends to make zucchini relish out of a bowl of sloppy zucchini mess.  Even when I read through my food magazines, I read the headnotes to recipes but leave the recipe to skim only if I end up cooking the dish.  Reading recipes seems so boring.

But not with Fergus.

With Fergus, each recipe is lovingly related, as if we were old friends cooking side by side in a small, stone kitchen somewhere in the English countryside.  For example, in his recipe for Saddle of Rabbit, he writes:  “Serve the rolls with a salad that captures the spirit of the garden, made up from, for example, scallions, baby carrots, radishes, peas, fava beans (if in season), rocket (arugula), and chopped parsley (and a subliminal caper if you feel so inclined—I do!).  dress with Vinaigrette and eat with the succulent rabbit.”

This excerpt also happens to capture the other thing I love about Fergus, namely the lack of prescription in his recipes.  For Fergus, there are no absolutes.  Cooking is about taste and feeling and improvisation.  In a recipe for Salt Cod, Potato, and Tomato, he asks you to cook potatoes, tomatoes, and garlic until they’re “ready.”  Or in this recipe for Stake, Capers, and Bread: “Add the lemon juice, allow it to sizzle and turn brown, and add the capers.  At the last minute add the parsley and straightaway pour over the fish.”  There’s something refreshing about a recipe that doesn’t rely on minutes, but on the senses.  And learning to rely on yourself rather than a “rule” in a book is what turns a competent cook into an intuitive one.

My first foray into The Whole Beast was a recipe for Boiled Belly and Lentils, whose headnote reads: “This dish celebrates the not quite meat, not quite fat, quality of pork belly.  There’s nothing like a pork belly to steady the nerves.”  The recipe calls for brining a slab of pork belly for ten days, then cooking it slowly over low heat in a broth of vegetables and pepper and serving it with garlickly lentils.

Ten days is a long time to prepare for a dish.  It’s a long time to be unsure about whether or not you’ve brined something correctly – whether the piece of pork belly you got from your local butcher (the store is called “Meats” with Bushwick’s usual candor) is even good – and whether it’s going to matter that you couldn’t find juniper berries and caster sugar.  (The story with the caster sugar:  In the ingredients list, Fergus calls for “2 cups superfine (caster) sugar (many suggest brown sugar, but not me),” so I figured that the mere mention of the possibility of using brown sugar was really his backhanded way of saying, “If you must, you can use brown sugar,” which I proceeded to do.)

For ten days, as I prepared other dinners, I had my brining pork belly in my mind.  Every time I opened the fridge, I wondered what magic was happening in that lidded Tupperware.  And on the tenth day, I rinsed the residual salt from my brined belly and put it in a pot to cook.  A beatific moment to be sure.

Nothing was quite so nice as to slice up chunks of pork belly, the salty, rich meat complimented by fat so tender it absolutely melted in my mouth.  Of my own volition, I would never have eaten the fat, but Fergus, dear Fergus said, “Encourage your dining companions to eat the fat and all.”  And I thank him for that, because I would have missed a most amazing thing.  Pork belly fat doesn’t taste like other fat, which can be chewy and leave a behind terrible residue.  Brined pork belly fat, especially with a spoonful of staid lentils, is soft and flavorful and wonderful to eat.

Even after cutting the recipe in half, I still had belly and lentils for a few days afterward, but it’s just one of those things that keeps getting better with time.  I guess, when food sits in brine for ten days, it learns patience.  It learns to not reveal its secrets too soon, to wait until its “ready.”

What’s next for me and Fergus?  Bone marrow?  Blood cakes?  I don’t know what it will be, but I think I’ll know when the time is right.

Boiled Belly and Lentils (adapted from The Whole Beast)
Serves 2 (with lentils left over for days)
Fergus has this to say about pork belly:  “Pork belly is a wonderful thing.  It’s onomatopoeic, belly is like it sounds – reassuring, steadying, and splendid to cook due to its fatty nature.  It’s not a cut of meat to rush; with that, a certain calm is imbued in the belly.”  I’m not sure how verbatim I can copy this recipe, but I’ll try to leave as much Fergus in there as I can.  Quantities are adjusted to the amounts I used and I’ve mentioned some of my techniques.  But I think Fergus would be ok with a little improvisation.

The Brine
1 cup brown sugar
1 ¼ cups coarse sea salt
8 cloves
8 black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
2 quarts of water (enough to cover the belly)

The Boiled Belly
2 lb piece of pork belly with skin and bones
1 carrot, peeled
1 onion, peeled and stuck with 8 cloves
1 leek, cleaned
1 stalk celery
1 head garlic, skin on
dried thyme and rosemary
black peppercorns

The Lentils
Extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, peeled and chopped into thin slices
1 leek, cleaned and chopped into thin slices
5 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
2 carrots, chopped
1 pound lentils
bundle of thyme and parsley
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
handful of chopped curly parsley

Combine all the brine ingredients in a pot and bring to a boil so the sugar and salt melt.  Decant into your brining pot (made of a non-corrodible material – I used a large Tupperware container with a lid, Fergus recommends a bucket) and cool.  When cold, add meat and leave it in the fridge for “a nice 10 days.”

Remove and rinse your meat.  Place the pork belly and all other ingredients in a pan and cover with water.  Bring to a boil, skim (if any fat rises to the surface), reduce to a gentle simmer with the water barely moving, and cook for three and a half hours, “until the flesh is soft and giving, but not collapsing.”

While your belly is cooking, start on the lentils.  Cover the bottom of a large pan with olive oil and sweat the chopped vegetables.  When they have just started to soften, but not color, add the lentils and stir for a few minutes to coat.  Cover with water and “nestle in the thyme and parsley bundle.”  Reduce the heat to low and stir infrequently.  “You want the lentils soft but not squidgy, so that they have reserved their lentil integrity, but are not still individual hard nuts.”  The cook time should be about forty minutes – add more water if they start to dry out but are not done.

“Now season, which, particularly with lentils, is a very exciting moment.  It is amazing what simple salt and pepper do to the flavor of lentils – they make lentils of them.”  Stir in chopped parsley and a splash of olive oil just before serving, which will “give a shine to your lentils, as they can veer to the dull side.”

Remove the pork belly from the water, slice, and serve with lentils.  “Encourage your dining companions to eat the fat and all.  With the rich and fatty belly you want quite dour lentils.”

New Zealand Memories (a post by Lyz)

by lyzpfister

Recently, for lunch, I made myself a meal that I hadn’t had since the winter of 2007, when I went WWOOFing through New Zealand.  WWOOF, which stands for Willing Workers on Organic Farms, is an ingenious program which allows volunteers to work on farms in exchange for food and lodging.  I had just finished my semester studying abroad in Melbourne, Australia and since New Zealand was so close, decided to drag two of my newfound friends, Emma and Dan, with me to see the country.  Since we were broke, we hit on WWOOFing as a brilliant travel method.

Our first farm was a fledgling vineyard outside of Nelson.  Alex and Gareth had started the vineyard only a few years before and were raising a young crop of grapes along with fruits and vegetables.  Their house, a simple, elegant building entirely made from wood, overlooked the sloping vineyard that ran into soft green hills, dark forests, and in the distance, snow-capped peaks.

Our work in the vineyard was relatively simple, but crucial, especially as the vineyard itself was only five years old, and many of the vines were in their formative growing years.  Each row of vines consisted of equidistant wooden poles strung with three horizontal wires on each side.  Approximately five stalks were planted between the poles and attached with string to the lowest of the wires.  This wire was fixed and provided support for the growing vines.  Hypothetically, as the vines grew, they would stay within the two additional wires, growing up of their own accord.

Realistically, vines are wayward things that like growing any direction except up, and preferably grow down.  Our job was to pick vines up from the ground and make sure each stalk was contained within the wires.  One of us would unhook the wire from its post, stretch it out, pull it towards the ground and sweep it up to catch all the straggling vines.  A second person tucked in any loose bits, and a third person did a final sweep.

On our first day, Alex had told us that they paid a woman to do the first twelve rows.  We calculated that if one person could do twelve rows in a day, three people could do at least forty.  Four hours later, we had only hit the twenty-third row and were exhausted—especially when we thought of the seventy-one remaining rows of vines we were to prune in the next four days.  By our last day of work, however, we had become pros, waking up early and finishing our average twenty-five rows before lunch.

Every morning, Alex would make us breakfast—two slices of dark, home made bread slathered with butter and topped with sliced tomato and fried egg.  Emma, Dan, and I along with Alex and her three children, Lily, Mia, and Yeshe, would sit on the expansive back porch watching the sun rise over the craggy mountains and eat enough to sustain us through the muggy morning heat.

Alex had learned that I loved to cook, and asked me to make dinner one night.  When I asked what she wanted, the only instructions she gave were, “Well, it doesn’t matter really.  We like to eat different things, but I don’t really want to go to the grocery store, so if you could make something with what we’ve got around the house, that would be wonderful.”

I looked through some cookbooks, found a recipe for Lebanese lemon chicken, and began the question game with Alex.

“Do you have chicken?”

“We have a neighbor who butchers them—it’s no problem for me to get some.”

“Do you have rosemary and fennel?”

“They’re growing down by the road.”

“Do you have carrot and kumura?”

“We can dig some up from the garden.”

“Do you have pickled lemon?”

“I pickled some last summer.”

“Well, great.  I think Lebanese lemon chicken is a go.”

So that’s how I found myself mashing herbs and spices with nine month old Yeshe swaddled to my back.  Five year old Lily pulled a chair up across from me and rested her elbows on the counter.

“Can I help?”

“Sure, Lily.  Can you go outside and pick me five pieces of rosemary this big?” I asked as I held up a stripped twig.

“Yes,” she said, and shook her head once.

“Can I help too?” Mia, three, came up to me and wrapped her arm around my leg.

“Sure, Mia.  Can you mix up this bowl of flour and these spices?”

“Can we help?” Dan and Emma asked as they walked in the door with a handful of fennel.

“Sure, guys.  Can you chop up those veggies?”

With the kitchen full of five industrious workers and one baby drooling into my neck, we promptly prepared a dish of chicken fried in flour, cumin, rosemary, fennel, chilies, salt, and pepper, baked on a bed of couscous, red onion, pickled lemon, carrot, and kumura.

After dinner and a desert of apple crumble, Alex’s friend Sarah and her son Harry, who had come for dinner, led us into the living room for a story.  We sat ourselves in a circle, Sarah’s soft voice working with the dusk outside and our postprandial somnolence.

“These are grandma’s glasses.  This is grandma’s hat.  This is the way we fold our hands and place them in our lap.”

The story she told was of a girl who had been sent to look for a house with no windows and no doors but with a star inside.  She searches far and wide, eventually coming upon an apple.  Here, Alex produced three apples from her lap and rolled them to Sarah, who cut them open through the middle to reveal the star-shaped pattern made by the seeds.

“One house for Mia, one house for Lily, and one house for Harry.”

While the story had inspired us to seek our own sleep-inducing houses, it had awakened in the girls a pressing desire to hear more stories and tell some of their own.  So Sarah related one more story, and Lily told a rambling epic, before Alex called attention to the sun’s absence and announced that it was time for bed.

Dan, Emma, and I, tired but happy, wandered to our sleepout behind the house, played a lazy game of cards, and curled ourselves up to sleep.

Feeding Kittens (a post by Lyz)

by lyzpfister

This might seem off-topic, but the most cooking I’ve been doing recently is reconstituting tablespoon after tablespoon of KMR for two five week old kittens that I rescued from Tybee Island off the Georgia coast. Cooking for kittens is nothing glamorous. I’ve gotten good with a whisk and my mental math is certainly improving (if one cat weighs one pound and one cat weighs one pound two ounces and each cat gets four teaspoons per pound and four teaspoons equals one tablespoon and one teaspoon of powder – ). My hands smell faintly of babies and milk.

The first time I met the kittens, I was sitting in front of the TV, mesmerized by the slab of mayonnaise Paula Deen was putting into potato salad, when a wet, orange ball of cat, looking miserable, was plopped down on the couch next to me.  Who wouldn’t have picked the whole thing up in one hand and pressed it to her chest?

A neighbor had found the litter huddled under a wall. One kitten was dead, another missing and presumed dead, the mother totally uninterested. Only two kittens, the orange one and a white one, survived. We kept them in the closed-in porch and fed them cat’s milk, which turned out to be a bad idea, since kittens can digest nothing but their mother’s milk – or a formula replacement – during their first six weeks of life. I found that out after a few days of cat’s milk, as I’d become worried about their excessive and runny stool production. (That’s a nice way of saying shit was everywhere.)

I’ve come to enjoy watching the kittens eat. About half an hour before a meal, Celine and Ja’mie (don’t ask about their names, it’s a long story) begin to synchronize mew. Like the smallest bells in a handbell choir, they ping in alternating bursts until finally, they reach a simultaneous mew and having heard how loud they are together, mew as a unit until I give in to the pitiful sound. When they first started eating the Kitten Milk Replacer (KMR), I fed them in a saucer, and they’d fling their whole bodies into the dish. Their faces, chins, and paws would be covered with milk and they’d leave crusty milk paw prints across the bathroom floor.

These days, they control themselves a little more, hopefully because their bodies no longer tell them to frantically eat as much as they can in case the next meal doesn’t come. I also feed them out of small sushi dishes now, which limits how much of their body they can throw into their food. Still, with their first bite, they stick their entire face into the dish and surface for air with milk beards dangling from their chins.

I rescued the kittens when they were three weeks old, wobbly on their feet, eyes still bewildered and blue. Soon after I said I’d take them, they drove with me from Savannah to Davidson, Davidson to DC, and DC to Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Ja’mie wouldn’t drink out of a dish, so I sat at every fifth Cracker Barrel on the highway, trying to get her to unclench her teeth long enough to slip the rubber nipple of a bottle into her mouth. Ja’mie was already much smaller than her sister; I could have crushed her with one hand.

Watching the kittens eat and grow, I’m understanding the combination of necessity and pleasure that influences what we eat. When the kittens were hungry, they ate everything ravenously, whether it was the cat’s milk which led to severe indigestion or kitten’s milk eaten so quickly the gas would have to be rubbed out of their bellies. Necessity.

As they begin to trust that they’ll be fed regularly, they take more time eating, even preferring a bowl of more thickly mixed formula to a milkier one.  They eat half a portion, clean their paws, and leisurely finish the second half between bouts of play.  Pleasure.

Living a life with few financial responsibilities, I eat mainly for pleasure, but I’m entering a world where first I pay my rent and my utilities. And then I eat. I’ve learned from the kittens that being truly hungry is not something I want to be, so if nothing else, they’ve inspired me to look harder for a better job.

I’ve also learned not to take eating for pleasure for granted. While necessity is the driving force behind staying alive, pleasure is what makes staying alive worthwhile.

***

As a post script, I’m writing this at the Tea Lounge in Brooklyn, and eating the most delicious tomato and basil quiche. Quiches are often too eggy, but this one has plenty of smoothly blended cream and Gruyere to offset any harsh egg flavor. A flaky crust and the hint of basil and tomato curb the richness of cream and cheese. I was hungry, and this is delicious. Necessity and pleasure.

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