Eat Me. Drink Me.

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

Category: Social Commentary

Turn Around, Bright Eyes

by lyzpfister

“But you have a Kochgefühl,” – a feel for the kitchen – Sylvia says to me when I tell her I don’t think I’ll ever be as good of a cook as my mother.

I’ve been saying things like this a lot lately, loosing the leash of my inner Thomas. Will I ever be a great writer? Should I even be writing? Are my dreams too outlandish? Should I just settle for some mildly literary career – if I can even find a job to begin with? Am I interesting enough? Am I pretty enough? Do I blink too much?

It’s exhausting, to doubt this much.

I’d been speaking with a friend recently about job searching and how incredibly despondent it makes us – the longer we look, the more depressed we are, and the more despondent, depressed, and desperate we are, the less likely we’ll be to get a job. Cruel, cruel circle. What we need is a turnaround. The German word for this is Wende, a word I find incredibly beautiful. It floats, a gentle turn, like a child tucking into his shoulder as he falls asleep. I stand by this interpretation of the word, even though in a historical context, the word Wende is fraught with the political and emotional turmoil following the fall of the Berlin wall.

But maybe that element isn’t too irrelevant to the metaphor I’m about to make. Because I think a Wende often begins with a sharp and incisive moment whose total import may or may not be apparent immediately. Sylvia’s comment was like an incision into the boggy doubt-world I’d been swirling around myself.

Of course I can cook. Maybe I’m not as accomplished as I might be someday, but I have a feeling for food, the way ingredients fit together. I am a cook.

Maybe I don’t have the accolades and collection of published pieces I’d like, but I have a feeling for words, the way they fit together. I am a writer.

The best adjective for doubt is insidious. It sneaks into the way you think about yourself, what you know about who you are, and wedges the heft of this knowledge apart like kudzu creeping up the side of a house. Breaking doubt apart is difficult, much like the removal of invasive plants. Though often, when you start to pull one strand, another cluster falls away.

The other night, I decided to invent a recipe, something I haven’t done in a long time. I’ve forgotten to rely on myself, my Kochgefühl to guide me in the kitchen. Sylvia had sent me home with a packet of Bulgarian seasoning, whose actual contents are unknown (lots of Bulgarian on the package, little, ahem, no English), but which is probably sharena sol (love the internet) – a blend of summer savory, thyme, basil, and lovage – along with her Wende-provoking comment.

I decided to make meatballs – something not usually in my repertoire. I sat in my little kitchen, chopping onions and garlic, guessing which herbs and spices to add, improvising a tomato sauce, deciding at the last minute to make a garlicky sauce with an almost forgotten open tub of sour cream, cilantro, garlic, and lemon.

As I watched this meal come together, I thought about doubt and its artificiality. Of course we have limitations. Of course we’re not flawless. But we each have unique sets of skills and capabilities defined by and defining a knowledge of who we are and what we need to be complete. What I do, I do because it is me. When we doubt, we undermine this knowledge of our selves.

In the days since my Bulgarian meatballs, I feel as though multiple doors on many fronts have been opened at the same time. Maybe Susan Miller saw it coming – but I prefer to believe that good things come, not to those who wait, but to those who cease to doubt. Open mind, open heart, or as Popeye said, “I yam who I yam.”

Bulgarian Meatballs in Tomato Sauce

Combine equal parts ground beef and ground pork with salt, pepper, paprika, Bulgarian seasoning*, cumin, 1 finely chopped onion, and 1 finely chopped clove of garlic. Mix thoroughly and thoughtfully and chill for 30 minutes. While meatball mixture chills, heat olive oil in a skillet. Sautee 1 chopped onion and 1 chopped clove of garlic until translucent. Add 1 can diced tomatoes, turn heat to low. Add splash of white wine, Bulgarian seasoning, cumin, sugar, salt, and pepper and simmer until flavors meld. Form meatball mixture into small patties or balls and cook over high heat in batches, with a small bit of oil in the pan to keep from sticking. When meatballs are cooked all the way through, nestle them into the tomato sauce. Serve over bulgur with a side of cucumber and tomato salad (cucumber, tomato, red pepper, garlic, lemon, olive oil, salt, pepper) and a sour cream, garlic, lemon, and cilantro sauce which you’ve made at some point while the meatballs are chilling in the fridge and the tomato sauce is simmering on the stove.

*If you can’t find this in a store, I would suggest combining the following dried herbs to achieve a similar taste: oregano, parsley, mint, basil, thyme


All Roads Lead to the Marais

by lyzpfister

“Have you ever noticed the farting sound the doors to the metro make as they’re closing?” Jamie says to me as we step into the train heading south from the antique markets at Porte de Clignancourt. I hadn’t – but now it’s all I hear. Soft little train tufts.

We finally felt comfortable in Paris. It had taken a while. First, there were the overwhelming tourists. And because of the overwhelming tourists, there were far too many underwhelming restaurants. Our first few days in Paris, I’d found myself disappointed. Untoasted slices of bread with dry paté for seven euros? Heavily salted, monochromatic beef bourgingnon for nine? A cappuccino for five fifty?  Kidding, right? We’d discovered a few gems – miniature croque madames carefully wrapped in brown paper, tight little cups of espresso over whose thin white lips we watched fashion’s finest stroll by, fluorescent macaroons with silky fillings – but our edible despondency was apparent.

Until the day before, when we’d walked across all of Paris, through the Latin Quarter and along the wide banks of the Seine, up to the top of the Eiffel Tower, and then up, over, and around the winding streets of Montmartre.

We sat on a small, grassy knoll just beneath Sacre-Coeur, Jamie sleeping off his jetlag. I watched lovers walk by, watched the women in stilettos, the baby buggies, the tourists with their tripods, the woman in the pink hat singing opera. A flock of pigeons landed beside us in a cooing frenzy and just as quickly fluttered off, the shock of air from their wings ruffling my hair. Parts of the Pompidou glinted through the haze like slipping silver fish. The light like rose water and creamsicles.

Paris, unfurling from the top of Sacre-Coeur. Domes and spires and hedges of tetris-packed buildings rolling out like a concrete sea. Even in the absence of a lover, the city was a big, white heart. Explorable, open, tender, full of secrets. I love Paris.

The first time I came to Paris, I was fifteen. I loved it then, too. Loved the city Victor Hugo so ferociously describes, loved the escargots and the fast-paced walking, the white bridges, and baubled shop windows. I came back to Paris when I was eighteen, on a trip across Europe with my best girlfriend and four boys. It was a very different trip – we stayed in a hostel in Montmartre, drank lots of red wine, marched up and down the Champs Elysées as if we meant to conquor it. But it was still love. This trip, my relationship was more complicated.

Cities are like lovers. I’m dating Berlin and in love with New York. In comparison, Paris almost seems like a sordid seaside love affair. Like revisiting an ex years down the road, when you’ve both changed and yet somehow expect your relationship to pick up where it once left off. You almost need to see Paris through the eyes of a local in active relationship with the city – like meeting up with an ex and saying, “Oh you’re married now” – a twinge of jelousy, remorse, longing – and then, perhaps, learning to love on another plane.

Thank God for JP. I’d met him about a year ago when I was working at the Urban Outfitters in SoHo. I’d shown him around Williamsburg, recommended a few good places to eat and thrift in Bushwick, but after that we really hadn’t kept in touch more than the occasional Facebook hello. But he’d offered to show me Paris if I ever came that way. I’m a taker-up-on-offers-er. And he obliged. Our first night in town, he took us out in the Marais, to La Perle, a small bar which swelled with Parisians as the night wore on, and then to an even smaller bar with cramped ceilings, dim yellow light, and ironwork grille around the stairs.

The next night, we met near Place Clichy at a local restaurant for a shared plate of charcuterie, cheese, and bread. We shared a bottle of white wine and sat, cramped in a window seat at a long wooden table, taking in the burble of French around us. Oh the French, the French! I love this language – and I loved unleashing it on the locals, making them have long, gesture-rich conversations with me about shoes, food, weather, anything for which I had the vocab set from the six years I took French in school. Six years ago, let me add.

We breathed a sigh of relief, sitting in that restaurant, slipping into the noise around us. I’d almost lost hope that Paris had any real pockets left. Even when you’re a tourist, you don’t want to be around tourists.

It was our turning point. Later that night, we met up with a New York friend at Les Étages, a small bar, furnished like a boho-chic living room with cushiony chairs and Christmas lights and then had a late-night snack of fried potatoes at Les Philosophes down the road. It would seem we were drawn to the Marais like moths. Akiko and I headed off to Social Club – David Lynch’s Parisian dance club – where, surrounded by beautiful Parisian men and women, we danced until the trains started running again at five. (Jamie still sleeping off his jetlag.) The next day, walking around the Marais (again), window shopping, discovering the most magnificent pastry – une cigar, doughy marzipan wrapped in honey-drenched phyllo – at a Jewish bakery, people watching at brunch. And then, late at night, finding a real Parisian bar in our neighborhood near the Rue Mouffetard and sharing a carafe of wine, later wandering into a hookah lounge, drinking pot after pot of the most delicious mint tea as smoke hazed around us.

It took a while to find this Paris. Maybe the city had changed – I really couldn’t remember this many tourists, or the prices being this expensive. But more probably, it was that I had grown apart from the city. Estranged lovers. Finding each other. And though Paris had disappointed me a few times (being jilted when you least expect it always hurts…), I thought back to the hilltop under Sacre-Coeur, where all of Paris promised herself to me.

Our last day, a quiet Monday, we walked from our hostel in the Latin Quarter through sloping, white, clean-swept streets, along the sunlight-laced Seine, past Hugo’s Notre Dame, and into our Marais. We’d been to the Marais every day of the trip, and still, we found ourselves drawn to this area more than any other. And making a connection with at least one part of Paris made it feel to us a more real place. Less bombarded with tourists – a city we could love, a place we could live. We bought falafels for five euros and ate them in an alley, yogurt and garlic mixing with vinegar and juicing down our hands as we bit into slick strips of eggplant, warm, fragrant falafel bits, onion and cabbage.

I bought another cigar, we crossed the Seine one last time, and then we headed for the airport, got on a plane, and flew back to Berlin, home.


by lyzpfister

My great uncle had always been old. From the time I was young, he’d been the same Hansvetter – I remember him in a newsboy cap, a cigarette in his hand, his feet covered in slippers. He loved to watch the planes take off from Stuttgart airport. He lived nearby and kept his TV programmed to a bluescreen listing of departures and arrivals so he’d know which planes were heading where as he watched them fly into the sky. When I’d visit, he’d ask when I was leaving, what plane I’d be on and tell me he’d track me as I took off.

A few distinct memories recur when I think of my great uncle. Every time we came by he’d ask, in a slow, loud Schwäbisch drawl if we understood what he was saying. It can’t be reproduced in print, but it’s something like that joke about Americans speaking loud, slow English in foreign countries as if it turns their words into something other than loud, slow English. For Hansvetter, it was a question of whether we could understand his dialect. And no matter how many times we said, yes, this crazy south German dialect (incomprehensible to even many northern Germans) makes complete sense to us, he’d always shake his head astounded and say, “Well, you just speak such good German.” Well, yes, we’ve been speaking it our whole lives.

I drove to the South this weekend for Hansvetter’s funeral. On my way there, I thought of how our language and our dialect works to shape our selves. Such a large part of why I’m in Germany is to understand myself as well in this language as I do in English. Yes, Hansvetter, I grew up speaking German, but in a way, you’re right – it’s a foreign language to me still. And yet it’s personal. A whole half of my family is German, a whole half of me exists in another language.

We drove to the cemetery, passing a giant trailer full of cabbages, and then another, and another. These were the largest cabbages I’d ever seen, round and full at the bottom and then spiraling up into a peak. Spitzkraut, it’s called, or Filderkraut, after the area in which it’s grown. But I prefer Spitzkraut. It reminds me of what Hansvetter used to call my youngest brother: Spitzbub, an impish boy. My middle brother had even said, when we’d telephoned earlier in the week, “It’s weird not to have someone calling Michael Spitzbub.” – as if Hansvetter had a monopoly on the term.

We stopped at a stand whose placard, written in the Schwäbisch dialect read:

Wer im Herbscht

Sei Spitzkraut kauft,

der hot em Wender


The rough translation would be, “Buying Spitzkraut in the fall means winter saurkraut for all.” We bought a Spitzkraut and stuck it in the car before we went to the funeral. It might sound macabre, to take such joy in finding out about a type of cabbage I’d never seen before, right before going to a funeral. But I think Hansvetter would have appreciated my delight in the Schwäbisch saying on the sign, in a traditional Schwäbisch food. His grandfather, after all, had been a cabbage cutter.

It was like having a dialogue with Hansvetter – we talked about words and dialects, about how what we speak makes us belong to a place. I forgave him for always asking if we could understand. Then, it seemed a bit insulting, but I suppose that for him, my brothers and I were wonders – we lived in America, spoke English, and yet could understand a dialect most Germans from the North can’t comprehend.

My relationship to language is not an easy one – I am constantly reminded in Germany of how much I fit in and how apart I still am. But in memory of Hansvetter (whose comments always managed to bring up all my conflicted, complicated, defensive feelings about language), I made something simple. I took my Spitzkraut (thinking of Hansvetter calling Michael Spitzbub, how Spitz means point, pointy, top, the tip, peaked, how cabbage and children can be given the same prefix) and made a Krautsalat – just finely grated cabbage, vinegar, salt, pepper, oil, honey, and lemon. And that was enough.

Fall Homage, In Memoriam

by lyzpfister

Well, I’ve done it. I’ve bathed my laptop in liquids one too many times and I have killed it. Killed it dead. Marley was dead: to begin with, as my dear, dear Dickens said. And it’s getting to be that season anyway, though the weather is unseasonably warm here in Berlin. I took a long bike ride today, partly because the weather was so nice – and partly because I had to go to O2 to see if they could get the internet to work on this wonderful computer my dear friend Elisabeth has lent me – they can’t.

So, my laptop, my love is dead. My internet does not exist. I am shut off and out of the world. And here’s a secret. When, after two hours, the nice man at O2 told me the internet wasn’t going to work, I cursed the heavens silently, first, and then I felt – relief.  Although I don’t know if that is exactly the right word. There should be a word that means something in between resignation and freedom. So don’t tell anyone, but I don’t think I’m upset to be shut off and out the world. I can feel my brain blossoming.

Of course, the only thing to do the night I broke my laptop was to leave the apartment. To find my way to a champagne party whose address I wasn’t quite sure of since the internet had failed before I could plot my meticulous way across the city. To leave the scene of horror, half-sopped liquid still puddled on the floor, and go to meet people and drink champagne with berries and talk it out and then go dance it out. I know nothing more cathartic than hip hop and sweat. But the next day, my first day, waking up to a laptop pried open and drying on a chair, battery expunged (I learned that much from the first time I dropped a drink in the keyboard…), I didn’t know what to do. What could I do. Read. Write. Cook. You know, the things I moved to Berlin to do more of.

I finished The English Patient, I started Beloved, I even read some of Ezra Pound’s cantos over breakfast. I arranged the poems in my book, I edited them; I wrote letters and started a short story. And at first it was strange, luxuriating in a novel. Reading a hundred pages without getting up to check my email or rearrange some files or just do something else because I have become incapable of sitting down and breathing.

The computer compartmentalizes our lives, and not just when we’re using it, there where we live in multiple windows, web pages, in an online, app-driven multi-taskedness – the computer makes us take that hyperventilating approach into the outside world. We spend ten minutes on this before we think of that, are constantly syncing our e-lives, our cell lives, our paper lives together, don’t even know how to do one thing at a time. We have forgotten how to breathe, how to experience, how to think.

I won’t lie and say, I’m going to be even more of a technological neanderthal than I already am. When I finish writing this blog, I’m probably going to play a few rounds of spider solitaire on the computer. I never got around to downloading that game on my mac, and it’s pre-programmed on a PC, and I do love spider solitaire. When I go home at Christmas, I’ll be buying myself a new computer and instantly installing the internet on it. And organizing my itunes, my photo library, downloading apps and skype and all the rest of it.

For now, I won’t complain. I’ll be harder to reach – which is hard, since it’s already difficult to organize meetings with people I don’t really know but want desperately to be my friends. But I’ll write more. I’ll sit down and write blogs like this in one sitting without checking my email every three sentences – because there’s no email to check. I’ll read. Maybe I’ll actually get around to memorizing some poetry like I said this summer I was going to.  Or, like tonight, I’ll come home later than usual, after the biking and the errands and think, it’s late, but I’ll cook because there’s nothing else to do.

And when I finally eat my pumpkin soup, I am so glad I took the time to make it. It’s the most amazing pumpkin soup I’ve ever eaten. Spicy and deep with berbere and Jamaican jerk seasoning, earthy and sweet with cinnamon and nutmeg, and garnished with creme fraiche and green onions. But maybe it’s also so good because while I sat at the kitchen table, listening to my soup simmer, I read a letter from a friend, I wrote a little, and in the linear space I now inhabit, I gave my thoughts the space to grow.

Pumpkin Soup
Cover the bottom of a pot with olive oil; saute 2 small onions and 1 shallot until translucent. Add 1 small pumpkin (about the size of a baby’s head…), cubed, and 2 medium-sized potatoes (about the size of a leprachaun’s head…), cubed, and saute with salt, pepper, Jamaican jerk seasoning, berbere, and cinnamon until soft. Don’t be afraid of adding generous amounts of all those seasonings – but remember, it’s soup, the flavors will intensify as the soup cooks, so always just add bit by bit, and not all at once, over time, until the flavor is where you want it. Cover with water and add 1 vegetable bouillon cube. When water boils, reduce to low and simmer until pumpkin and potatoes are meltingly soft. Add a pinch of nutmeg. Blend until smooth (either with an immersion blender or in a food processor). Serve with a dollop of creme fraiche and chopped green onions.

Doomsday Dinner

by lyzpfister

I figured I’d go out with a bang.  Something simple and celebratory that said, “Good food is a good life” and “I’m really tired from work” at the same time.  It was time to dig through the pantry for cans unopened, vegetables unused, ideas unexplored.  I found harissa.  I thought: cinnamon, sweet potato, collards.

I played Adele very loud at the inconvenience of my neighbors.  I sang along even louder.  I thought, I have yoga-d, I have showered, and now I am cooking in the warm light of my kitchen.  This is as ready as I’ll ever be to meet the hereafter. Assuming the hereafter is upon us in the next twenty minutes.

I remembered that when I was doing yoga, the rooster crowing at five in the afternoon was a sign.  A frantic and unheeded sign.  But now, with the sweet potatoes softening in a bed of onion, garlic, cumin, harissa, and cinnamon, I remembered also that the rooster starts to crow at three in the morning and crows, like sick clockwork, seven times in a row every nineteen minutes apart, until late in the afternoon.  And by the end of the day his crows are like death throes, implausibly persisting croaks.  And before, I had felt the rain to be ominous, wet foretaste of horror.  Now, it brought a cool evening breeze through the window and a calming patter.  I remembered that I like rain.

I snapped open a bottle of Weihenstephaner, my right now favorite wheat beer.  The apocalypse postponed itself, I think to give me time to really taste crisp wheat and honey, blue sky, the remembrance of bananas.  I remembered that I don’t like bananas.

Two tortillas grilled on the gas stove’s open flame.  Collards just simmering into a spicy tomato-laced harissa sauce.  Crumbled feta.  Everything wrapped in the tortilla.

I ate and drank and waited.  And as rain calmed away into cool spring night I forgot to wait and simply sat, listening to the sound of children playing somewhere on the sidewalk and lovers whispering carelessly over a bottle of wine, birds twittering, the rooster crowing his death groans.  And as I forgot the fear of fire rain splitting the sky in half and earthquakes and floods, I remembered what I had always known, that the only frightening thing about death is the time we waste in worrying about it.

A Good Last Meal

Heat olive oil in a skillet.  Soften one yellow onion, chopped, and two large cloves of garlic, minced, in the oil.  Add ¼ of a medium-sized sweet potato, cut into cubes and sauté until sweet potato is almost soft.  Season with 1 tsp cumin and salt.  Add 1 tbsp or so harissa paste and enough water to cover the base of the skillet.  Cook until sweet potato is soft.  Add 1 tbsp tomato something, be it salsa, paste, or sauce and a splash of rice wine vinegar.  Simmer briefly.  Add a bunch of collard greens, washed, trimmed, and ripped into chunks.  Cover the skillet with a lid and simmer until collards are soft.  Stir frequently, adding water or olive oil when sauce begins to stick.  Season to taste with salt.  Heat two corn tortillas over gas burner (or in a skillet if you have an electric stove).  Top with collard-potato mix and crumbled feta cheese.

Resolutions and Assorted Thoughts on Salt and Things

by lyzpfister

It’s been a minute.  I’ve missed you.  I never told you about Thanksgiving or Christmas or New Years and all the magnificent food I cooked and holiday observations I made.  I didn’t write about the Greek Meatballs or the Fancy Vegas Dinner, the Skirmish with Lamb Marrow, or the Million Clove Dinner Party.  I took a few pictures, but not enough.  I let my errands run me.  But now I find myself wedged into a MegaBus seat with no WiFi, my copy of Fear and Loathing (plus commentary) finished, fifteen minute nap done (and besides, I told myself I wouldn’t nap this time), and I think it’s time to write a little.  It’s part of my New Years Resolution, I guess – to write more.  That, and to actually remove the makeup from my face before I go to bed, keep my toenails painted, and use my Crockpot more often.  And to be generally nicer.

I’m on my way back to New York from a weekend visiting one of my oldest friends (by which I mean, we have been friends since the age of four) in State College, PA.  It’s a snowy drive, and the big windows are streaked with salt spray, which makes the view grim.  I feel especially sorry for the people who have been riding this WiFi-less bus since Pittsburgh.  Although it looks, at least, like everyone else’s seat reclines.

We’re pulling into a travel station, and I’m tempted to get a hot dog.  Nothing as extravagant, of course, as the hot dogs my friend said she used to get at Hoss’, where they’d carve her name into the unlucky wiener.  These are weird moods of mine.

It could be being back in Pennsylvania, where, growing up, a special meal out was at Applebee’s and something super fancy got celebrated at the Olive Garden.  I felt this strange pull to big-house chain food as my bus rolled into the WalMart parking lot on Atherton – we’d passed a Texas Roadhouse – and I thought – I want that.  So for our first dinner, Liz and I went to the Texas Roadhouse, where the waitresses all stopped and line danced to Devil Went Down to Georgia and at least five tables were celebrating a birthday that got Yee-Hawd.  But my pulled pork sandwich was good and the rolls, buttery and mashable and slapped with cinnamon butter, were delightful.  And for breakfast this morning, we went to a small chain breakfast joint, The Original Waffle Shop, much like an Ihop or Waffle House but with less slick and sticky patches of maple syrup glazed onto the tabletops.  My omelet, with feta cheese, tomatoes, and spinach, was good and the homefries were perfectly done, an ideal ratio of crunchy fried nubs and soft red-potato rounds.

What is it, I wonder, that makes me disdain chain restaurants.  Principle?  Glossy printed menus and servers who’ll “take care of me?”  Is it kitsch?  Middle America?  Clearly they must have figured something out to be so successful and ubiquitous in the American cultural landscape.  I will also admit, I have had worse meals at some private restaurants than at chains.  How do they do it?  It must have something to do with the Stuff On The Walls.  Or salt.

And then again, food in Pennsylvania is not just chain restaurants.  I always know I’ll eat well at Liz’s; her mother cooks classic Americana for dinner and there’s always something tasty lying around, like brownies or rich chocolate milk fresh from a local dairy.  And things I never buy for myself (like baby carrots with Ranch dressing), because I long ago learned that cereal always tastes better at other people’s houses.

This time, I woke up on Saturday morning to her parents sitting around the kitchen table measuring out 4-oz bags of chipped dried venison from an extra deer a friend had shot and killed.  The meat is taken to an Amish farm where it’s cured and dried and for an extra two dollars, chipped into paper-thin pieces.  For dinner that night we had creamed chipped venison based on a recipe from something like the 1975 edition of The Joy of Cooking.  The book was worn, with cracked binding and sauce-stained pages; the hallmarks of a well-loved cookbook.  I’ve been sent home with a bag of chipped dried venison for myself and a photocopied page of the recipe.  I’ll make it back in New York, a reminder of a place where food is simpler and cozy, a buttress against snow and cold.

As for the chains?  I’ll leave them for PA, for the home journeys where we meet for Margaritas at Chili’s or find ourselves craving cheese biscuits from Red Lobster or Olive Garden’s breadsticks.  Where simple food with lots of salt and butter overcomes the garish apparitions dangling from the walls.  Where really, it’s less about food and more about being back home anyway.  After all, I have resolved to be Relatively Nicer.

Dinner Stroll

by lyzpfister

Our apartment’s fire alarm is hyper-reactive, erupting into warning cries at just the intimation of heat.  This means that when I cook, I spend almost as much time running back and forth between the two alarms with a long wooden stick and disengaging them with a well-aimed prod, as I do standing in front of the stove.

I do a lot of walking in New York in general, so the fire alarm situation is nothing out of the ordinary.  The other night, I met a friend for dinner after work.  We were meeting at 6:15 and I was done with work at 5 – so rather than wait around uptown, I walked the thirty or so blocks from SoHo to 6th and 20th.  I like to walk casually but with purpose, separating myself from the throng on the city streets.  Everyone is stressed in New York, even the tourists, who must somehow subconsciously feed off everyone else’s frantic energy.  To set yourself apart from this and still be in it is an almost elevated feeling of peace, like every commercial where there’s that one guy standing there while the rest of the world blurs by like water.

I like the introspection that comes along with walking – the mind’s mimesis of wandering feet.  And especially walking in New York, I have these moments where I thrill that I live here.  It’s a very special moment, to know where you are going, to know that after you leave your bank on Broadway and 10th, you can wander generally South and left (I actually do all my directions this way; I’ve mastered North and South, but I find East and West a little elusive), and you can pick up a bottle of cheap wine at the Broadway Liquor Warehouse, check on a new milk frother at Sur la Table and finally end up at your favorite pasta shop on Grand and Mulberry for fresh egg fettuccine and next door, a slab of Sicilian black pepper cheese.

I feel most connected to places in which I’ve walked.  Maybe this is why I’ve felt more at home in cities where I haven’t spent more than a few months total – Bremen in Germany, Melbourne in Australia – than in the town where I grew up.  It’s when I have the map in my feet that I think of a place as home.

I’ve had the last two days off work, and it’s luxurious.  I love running errands without a time constraint, and I tend to get more done when I don’t feel pressured to do as much.  I’ve also cooked a lot.  I had leftovers from Thanksgiving still – a whole pumpkin threatening collapse, chicken livers from a walnut and apricot stuffing, plenty of fresh herbs, shallots, and lots of other fancy things I don’t usually keep in stock.  And so, in between the Laundromat and the post office, I found time to make a pumpkin-turkey soup, roasted pumpkin seeds, and pasta with liver-butter sauce.

Cutting liver is unpleasant, like slicing a squeegee or hearing the accidental squeal of a piece of chalk across a board.  You can feel liver resisting the knife.  And badly prepared liver is ungrateful.  It is grainy and dense and dislikes being chewed as much as it didn’t want to be cut.  But good liver – good liver is my truffle.  Buttery, earthy, deep and graciously forgiving.

Learning to love liver is much like discovering a place.  At first, unknowable and a little off-putting.  Resistant, careful of its secrets, but approached with persistence, patience, and the desire to understand, yielding to the chef’s knife, the walker’s feet.

I cook the way I walk, a destination in mind but a less fixed route for the travel.  This way, I keep myself open to learn the secrets of a city or of a dish that harried preoccupation never reveals.  And so, as I run from one fire alarm to the other, I think, it’s not so bad; I know the secrets of my hallway well.

I can’t take credit for this recipe, so check it out here:

Frühstück and Vespern

by lyzpfister

My verbal skills are now thoroughly mangled.  I’m thinking in three languages, navigating through two cultures, and working my way through something like six time zones.  So I’m confused, mostly.  All I can say for certain is that my family is keeping me regularly caffeinated and fed (and caffeinated) and that they forgive me for whatever errors my German may contain.

Since joining up with them in the rural south of Germany, I’ve been playing a fun game called, “Can I Say This in Schwäbisch,” in which I say a sentence out loud and then in my head try to sound it out in the garbled southern dialect (the aforementioned third language) my family speaks.  Say: Meine Sprache ist ganz durch einander.  Think: Moi Sprach ist hey. The result is that I speak a very strange German:  either correct, crisp high-German pronunciation with a rolling Southern inflection or the reverse – as if an inhabitant from the Pacific northwest were to cleanly articulate the sentence, “That ain’t nohow the way to go ‘bout it.”

As I speak and eat my way through the week, I’m working out a theory that culturally, the difference between Americans and Germans is a principle of curves and edges.  Lets assume that we evolve angularly against our environments in order to navigate them, that in the yin-yang of the universe, there must always be a balance between curves and lines.  In this sense, the Americans are outwardly round and inwardly straight and the Germans are outwardly straight and inwardly round.

Pretend I’m not totally jet-lagged and work with me.  American culture is loud and big and comfortable.  Americans are easy to get to know, are chatty and open.  Advertising is seductive and billboards are filled with colors, scripted font, pictures, and sequins.  Yet Americans themselves are inwardly direct and goal-oriented, good at general friendships but wary of vulnerability, in relationships less earnest than flippant.  Germans, on the other hand, must navigate a squarely-cut culture, where you absolutely must wait for the light to turn green before you cross the street even when there are no cars, where you must separate trash, where this is done and that is done, where signs are two-toned, two-dimensional, and direct.  It is not easy to even get to know a German, but once you’ve entered into a pact of friendship, there is what I can only describe as … roundness.

Of course there are exceptions.  And as a disclaimer, I’d like to say that this is not a studied, anthropologically measured dissertation, but rather the way I feel, as a German American, navigating my way between these two cultures.  It’s the cultural equivalent of synesthesia, where if I close my eyes, I see the color yellow and think of the number five.

As if in mimesis of my theory of roundness, Germans bookend their days with Frühstück and Vespern – breakfast and “dinner.”  I say “dinner,” because Vespern isn’t actually dinner, it’s a light evening meal of cold cuts, cheese, bread, and whatever happens to be in the house that doesn’t need to be cooked.  I just finished a Frühstück with my aunt in which, for two people, we laid out rolls, soft pretzels, butter, three types of cheese, lax, apple-onion spread, nutella, marmalade, honey, jelly, cereal, banana juice, mineral water, and coffee.  Not that we ate all of it or even had a little of everything, just that if, in case we wanted it, it was there.

And the other night, at another aunt and uncle’s house, we finished afternoon coffee and chatted until it was almost dark and then my uncle said, “I’ll just go ahead and make a Fleischtsalat.”  (Meat salad is probably a bad translation… you’ll just have to look at the recipe at the end of the blog.)  And instead of just a Fleischsalat, there was a plate of cold cuts and salami, a loaf of whole grain bread, olives, pepperoncinis, spreadable cheese, and cold bottles of hefeweizen.

What vespern and Frühstück have to do with my theory of roundness is that if you have already made it inside a German’s house, of course everything will be laid out for you.

I don’t want to confuse roundness with generosity.  The symbolism I see in these two meals isn’t about emphatic giving, although that certainly is a part.  The roundness comes rather from the time spent gathering everything together and the time spent eating and talking.  Every meal is somehow languid.

Now it’s noon; Frühstück is still on the table and I’m eyeing a pretzel, the butter, some lax.  I’ve spent the morning drinking espresso and writing – my favorite kind of morning – and thinking about how to reconcile the best of both my cultures within myself.  The edges are important too – lists and goals and drive – and I am American, after all.  But my meals, at least, I want them round.

Friedel’s Fleischsalat

Thinly slice into strips: cold cuts of Lyoner or leberkäse, emmenthaler, red pepper, yellow onion, and pickles or cornichons.  Douse with vinegar, vegetable oil, and a little water until contents are coated.  Season to taste (aka liberally) with pepper, salt, salad seasoning (a mix of herbs and dried veggies ground into a powder), and Maggi (a seasoning sauce).


Not Cooking

by lyzpfister

There is a point where what you don’t cook means something too.  Every day at work on my lunch break, the hectic rush to Starbucks, the deli, money spent.  Two weeks into moving and I still can’t make myself at home in the long kitchen – so new and full of stainless steel, without character or enough space to chop onions.  The fridge is smaller than me, there is no order to a glutted smash of plastic bags, yogurts, mustard, glittering cherry tomatoes in clear cases.  Yesterday I threw away spring onions, cilantro, lettuce, and cucumbers.  Forgotten in there.  Mom says, try Paxil.  But what I need is to christen the kitchen and to write again.  I miss those anchors of sanity.

What is there in cooking that saves me?  Stability: the heft of a knife handle in my hand, the rhythmic grind of the blade rubbing salt into a garlic clove.  Creativity: the unexpected sour hit of feta on spinach wilted in bacon grease.  Safety: fried eggs.  Escape: a pinch of berbere spice.  Comfort: pasta and basil, chorizo.  My eyes closed, eating tacos.

I am fearless in the kitchen.  A mistake is almost always fixable and sometimes leads to something better than what I had in mind.  I try to approach life this way – the best things unfold before me despite my efforts.  When I cook, it reminds me of the goodness of a greater plan.  When I don’t cook, I forget.  And I worry, about success and failure, jobs, getting a roommate, making phone calls, painting, finding time for yoga – as if I were picking apart the goodness of a whole orange and eating only pith.

Then I remember the soup I froze for bad times. Tuscan bean soup, thick with potato and butternut squash, smooth, sweet carrots cut through with the bitterness of kale.  Tucked into the soup is the love of standing over a stove in July’s heat wave, patience as beans soaked, as they melted into nothing like butter in a hot skillet; there is the organization of a recipe, my hands that have touched everything – and some amount of foresight.  The soup is like a balm.  I have that anyway.

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.