Eat Me. Drink Me.

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

Category: Travel

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.

A Murmur, the Wind, Some Fish, a Sea

by lyzpfister

Everything sounds like ocean in the Baltic. The wind brushing through the tops of trees, sand sweeping against itself, the hypnotic hiss of fire on wood – even the ocean sounds like ocean. I felt disoriented my first morning, awake before the rest of the house and out for a walk. There was a brisk wind carrying the smell of brine and fish, driftwood and the specific salinity of coastal air.

Our house was part of a series of small summer houses, all pained the same cream color with the same thatched roof and thick green shutters. There were clearly big plans underway, and the clean green lawn outside our windows dropped off to an abrupt construction site. Swaths of bare earth still half frozen with winter, caked with the ridges of a dump truck’s wheels and forlorn palettes of latticed wood and bricks – this was our ocean view.

I wandered around the development, even ventured into the woods where I found an abandoned locker room whose placement I couldn’t quite comprehend. Why one would need to shower and change so far from the water was a mystery to me. The only solution being that the badgered ground was covering up the remnants of an old swimming pool. Children’s summer sunshine memories buried under frozen dirt and soon covered with vacation homes. We must give the archeologists something to do.

For a while it was nice to be in the open air. Smelling ocean. Blinking in unadulterated sunlight. No big buildings, no noise, no city hemming-in. But I had underestimated the wind and I desperately wanted a cup of coffee.

Back in the house, people were waking up, and our bedraggled-looking crew grew in the kitchen. The sound swelled, murmurings, an oceanic susurrus with the break of laughter.

Officially, we sat down to breakfast around noon – but for that, the spread was plentiful and pretty. Rolls, butter, honey, fresh fruit, scrambled eggs with tomatoes, onions, and chives, müsli, pickled herring and smoked salmon from the fish stand on the beach.

It made me nostalgic for my college spring breaks, where my friends and I would drive to the lake house in western Maryland, which, though it was really Kevin’s lake house, we all began to think of as our lake house. The entirety of the group shifted year to year, but the core of us stayed the same. We wouldn’t leave the house all week. I lived in my mumus and a giant Davidson sweatshirt, only changing to get into the hot tub. We watched a lot of movies, did a lot of lounging, a lot of drinking, and a lot of cooking. Everybody had their specialties – Mark’s jambalaya, Andy’s barbeque chicken pizza, the Oreo balls Liz made that disappeared from the tray before they’d even had a chance to cool. It may not have been a traditional college spring break, but it was perfect; absolute laziness, my dearest friends. And a hot tub.

I was a relatively new addition to this group of people – and still, being together in that house by the sea reminded me of those other weeks tucked away in Maryland. Especially when we sat around the table, playing dice games that involved drinking and gambling and nonsensical rules or eating breakfast together at the long wooden table, lounging around on the couch or in front of the outdoor oven and exchanging the lighthearted teasings of camaraderie.

On our last evening, we made pizzas. We formed a casual, rotational assembly line. Now rolling out dough into imperfect crusts, now topping a pizza with ruccola and feta or roast vegetables and gouda, now placing in or taking out of the oven, slicing up, carrying to the table or the empty chopping block back to the stove. Sandy and smelling of wood smoke, we sat around the table snatching up slices of hot pizza as soon as they appeared. The city seemed far away, though the next day we’d be back in it. We’d have laundry to do, errands to run, work to go to, appointments to keep. But as soon as we’d begin to think about another day’s responsibilities, there’d be a new pizza to haul from the oven, dough to roll, toppings to choose. We’d forget the have tos of tomorrow and just let the ocean carry us away.

Homemade Pizza Dough

Have I really never given you the recipe for homemade pizza dough? I can’t believe that. But it’s true – and I’m sorry. You should never have had to go without. There’s nothing like homemade pizza dough – warm and fragrant, delicately yeasty and chewy. And you get to do some kneading, which is one of my favorite things to do in the world.

Add 1 ½ tsp active dry yeast and a pinch of sugar to 1 ¼ cups warm water. Let sit for 5-10 minutes until frothy. Sift 4 cups all-purpose flour and 1 tsp salt into a large bowl and make a well in the center. Gradually pour in the yeast mixture and 2 tbsp olive oil. Mix until just cohesive, then flip onto a clean, floured counter and knead about ten minutes, until the dough is smooth, springy, and elastic like a fat woman’s thighs. Be aware of the dough. Feel how the lumps work themselves out under your hands. Feel how the dough warms up, responds to your touch. A fully kneaded ball of dough will do anything you ask of it. It would rob a bank for you if you wanted it to. Grease a large bowl with olive oil and place your ball of dough in the bowl. Cover with a cloth and let rise in a warm place for 1 ½ hours. When you’re ready to make pizzas, knead the dough for 2 minutes to warm it up, then divide into four equal pieces (more if you want to make mini pizzas or very thin pizzas). Roll out each piece into a 10-inch round, stretching and piecing together any uneven or torn pieces of dough. Add your toppings and bake in a pre-heated 425º F oven for about 15 minutes.

A note on toppings: While you can put virtually anything on top of a piece of dough and call it a pizza, there are a few really lovely combinations that I find myself coming back to again and again. For instance: caramelized onions, gorgonzola, and walnuts. Roast vegetable medley (eggplants, zucchini, onion, etc.) with basil and fresh mozzarella. Olive oil, roast garlic, ruccola, feta, sautéed mushrooms. You get the idea.

In Berlin, They Call Berliners Pancakes

by lyzpfister

Well, it’s edible, says my grandfather, as he pops a hot beignet into his mouth and then quickly shakes the heat of it from his fingers. This means that it is actually very good. My grandfather is Schwabisch, where the phrase nichts g’sagt ist Lob g’nug, meaning nothing said is praise enough, is, in fact, nearly the highest form of praise. As far as I can tell, the most generous expression of delight is: Man kann’s essen, which means, you can eat it.

My brother and my grandfather and I are standing in the kitchen, deep-frying Fasnet’s cakes, the south-German name for beignets. We’ve developed an assembly-line of sorts – I’m rolling out dough and cutting it into diamonds, my grandfather is manning the deep-fryer, and my brother is dusting the cakes, blistering with hot oil, in powdered sugar. We’ve developed an unhurried camaraderie, mock-criticizing each others’ methods, telling old jokes, jostling against each other with batches of dough, making faces, taking pictures. The kitchen is warm and smells sweet.

This picture freezes in my mind. My grandfather grins at me in a half-laugh and shrugs his shoulders as if to say, Well, what do you think about that? His eyes are wrinkled into crescents, his eyebrows lifted like a mischievous child’s as he swings a bottle of Oettinger Pils up to his mouth. And then his back is to me as he flips the Fasnet cakes in the deep-fryer. My brother catches the hot cakes on a plate of sugar and the powdered sugar he dusts onto them melts.

Fasnet (aka Fasnacht, aka Carnival) is mainly celebrated in the southern, Catholic parts of Germany. In Berlin, there were a handful of people who looked at me with confusion. They’d never heard of it.

In Burladingen, however, people belong to Fasnet clubs (called Vereins) which supposedly exist solely to march in the parades and plan parties during the two weeks or so that Fasnet is celebrated. However, upon further inquiry, it turns out that the clubs meet at least once a month or so throughout the year to talk about next year’s plans, or reminisce about the last year’s Fasnet, or drink beer.

Each club has a traditional costume which members spend vast sums to purchase and which they are only allowed to wear during the parades. In the weeks ambling up to Fat Tuesday, a loose affiliation of neighboring towns hosts these parades, sometimes a parade a day, especially as the specter of Lent looms nearer. The costumes are elaborate, hand-sewn with hand-carved masks of wood, specially suited to each individual’s face. When you join a Verein, you’re in for life. I guess this means people don’t move from town to town very often, I tell my cousin. She looks at me with mock horror, Don’t even suggest it!

Hidden behind their masks, the paraders dive into the bystanders. Witches with apple-red cheeks and stringy black hair made from horse tails hurl themselves at attractive young women and bind their feet together with those plastic ties that get tighter as you squirm and can only be removed with a pair of scissors. They fling the girls over their shoulders and run a good portion of the parade route with them before letting them go. We later learned that most of the witches are actually teenage boys, the girls they “kidnap,” their classmates, and the Fasnet parade a coy ritual of flirtation.

Marching bands playing purposefully off-key trumpet down the street. The cats from Gammerdingen hop and the bells across their chests jingle in beat. A rogue bear grabs a bystander by the foot and won’t let go. A tree grabs my aunt and kisses her.

Every time a new group walks past, they shout Nari! to us and we answer back, Naro! The snow, which had fallen that morning, is still piled along the sidewalks. The witches flick it at us with their brooms.

My grandfather doesn’t go to the parades anymore. While we stand out in the cold, watching the devilment unfold, he works in the church. He is home by the time we come back, shivering and laughing, candy in our pockets. Most of my family has come down for the parade, and so we set up the living room table for coffee. People have brought cakes, my brother and I place our beignets from the night before on the table.

So you made the cakes after all, my aunt says as she slips a beignet from the stack. When did you have time?

Last night, I say, after you left.

Last night! She exclaims, and my brother and grandfather and I laugh. Because we’re remembering how we’d said goodnight to my aunt and an uncle late at night after an evening spent cooking pizza together, watching a few rounds of ice crushing, and learning to knit. We were tired and full and ready for bed. But the dough we’d made earlier in the day and forgotten about was still sitting out on the counter. These have to be made tonight, my grandfather said as he tried to send my brother and I to bed. To bed! We laughed – We’d never let you stay up to make these all yourself.

So we three stayed up, cracked open another round of Oettigners, and set to work rolling out dough, heating up oil, dusting with sugar.

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.

Welcome Home, Berlin

by lyzpfister

It’s been a long time, I know.  But I just haven’t had the inclination to write.  I’ve been doing other things – like moving out of New York, studying for the GRE, hiking in Colorado, making a beautiful assortment of to-do lists – and really, I just haven’t been inspired to write anything.  I’ve felt like every time I sit down to blog, I devolve into blasé maxims: food is good, food is love, food brings people together.  And I think all these things are true, but eventually, it’s boring for you to read – and boring for me to write.  I needed something new.

As I sat at my new kitchen table in Berlin, I was reminded of an entry I wrote long ago about sardines on toast.  This blog was begun as a class project almost three years ago, and when I first started blogging about food, I felt that every entry should be thoroughly researched – a blend of fact and memoir – though if you read through those early posts, they sound stilted.  The missing element, my advisor said, was spontaneity.  That day, I had a simple lunch – toasted baguette, butter, sardines – and the food was so good and unadorned, I immediately felt inspired to write about it.  I’ve written about the sardines and the writing since.

I think I keep coming back to that moment because it encapsulates an essential truth about both food and writing.  That both are acts of some skill rescued by intuition and a certain amount of receptiveness, and that sometimes a lesson is felt rather than explained.

Driving down the streets of Berlin from the airport to my new home, I felt both terrified and excited, thinking at the same time how wonderful it would be to grow attached to these streets, and yet, how different they were from my Brooklyn streets.  What possessed me to do this?  Why leave a place I love for a place I don’t know with streets that don’t belong to me and straight-edged buildings that all look the same?

And yet, every place looks all the same at the beginning.  Davidson was a sea of brick and white pillars, Brooklyn a slew of bodegas and graffitied grates, New York noise.  I came to love these places and the people in them until every detail – the worn dirt path cheated across the corner of the lawn on the way to the library, the brothers’ bodega with fresh, cheap cilantro, the bodega with the case of Polish specialties – was a disparate marker of my place.

I remembered this sitting at a kitchen table, the place where I feel the most safe.  And I don’t wonder that my first meal in Germany is one that represents, for me, inspiration, openness, and new beginnings.  And safety too.  Because I think that no matter how exciting this time is, how thrilling it is to feel the streets go from strange to mine, it’s also absolutely terrifying.  Food will always remind me that if I can feel the goodness of a single moment, the bigger piece will also be ok.

It’s good to be back.


by lyzpfister

I stopped speaking.  I vaguely heard the man beside me rant about the Americans as my friends gossiped about mutual acquaintances and all around in the rest of the restaurant was the low hum of conversations, women laughing, sniffs at swilled glasses of port, the rustle of waiter’s whites as they brushed between tables and the open kitchen at the back.  But for me there was nothing but toast spread with bone marrow, pungent sea salt burning my lips, vinegary parsley salad cut with capers and paper-thin slivers of garlic.  My mouth smeared with grease.

This was heaven.  This was the silly smile of kissing, the quiet of vacation mornings on the beach.  Bone marrow and parsley salad at St. John’s Restaurant in London, my own nirvana.

Fergus Henderson’s restaurant is on the tip of one of those winding London streets that fork abruptly into other cobbled lanes, overshadowed by low-storied buildings that lean precariously over street lamps and clustered packs of suited, smoking office workers.  Inside, warm lights glint off steel trim, the décor is simple and white, the floors stone.  The waiters are attentive – coats are hung, dropped scarves quickly scooped from the floor, chairs pulled out, menus discreetly slipped onto the tablecloth.

We set our shopping bags under the table, slipped into the silk of quiet conversation, took sips of syrah, spread thick smears of butter on bread.  Already the atmosphere of the restaurant, casual yet completely elegant, impressed itself into our attitudes, and we sat with the sensual, fluid postures of posh and wealthy women.  Not that that’s not what we were.

The food was unassumingly described.  Ox tongue and chips.  Pigeon and beetroot.  I told my waiter I was deciding between those two things; he said, well, the pigeon was a really lovely gamey bird, perfect if I liked gamey meat, but the ox tongue, oh, the ox tongue was nice.  I told him he hadn’t been very helpful and asked whether he’d rather have chips or beetroot.  Oh, chips for sure, he said, and so I ordered ox tongue and chips.

But first there was this bone marrow and parsley salad.  Neither Ambrice nor Utsha had ordered an appetizer, so I was the only one eating – of course I gave them a taste – but the rest was mine.  I am selfish.  I didn’t care.  I didn’t care that our food wouldn’t come until I had finished eating, that they wouldn’t begin to cook it until I had finished eating.  And I didn’t care if they were hungry.  I took my time.  Because this was one of the most extraordinary things I’d ever eaten.  The process was refined, with an undercurrent of visceral energy.  One hand holds a thin, long spoon, silver with a lobster imprinted in the handle, and the other grips a hewed-off chunk of bone, glistening with grease and dripped fat from the animal’s self.

I actually dreamt last night that I had somehow missed all of the marrow in a piece of bone and no matter how furiously I scraped, I couldn’t seem to get it all.  And then, suddenly, I found the font and my silver spoon excavated mound after miniature mound of creamy marrow.

I think I’ve mentioned that I’m in love with Fergus Henderson – I have been, ever since I read his cookbook, The Whole Beast, a year and a half ago and subsequently spent ten days shoving groceries around a giant hunk of pork belly brining in the fridge.  That belly, boiled for hours and served over supple, slow-stewed lentils, was the best thing I’ve ever made.  I haven’t made many more of Fergus’ recipes – partly because they involve hard to find ingredients like lamb’s brain or pig’s blood and partly because they usually take more than ten days to make.  As soon as I booked my ticket to London, I told my friends that the only thing I wanted to do, the first thing on my list of things to see, was Fergus Henderson’s restaurant.  They were obliging.

We sat in the center of the restaurant, pointing out beautiful men as they wandered in, peeking into the bustling kitchen, just sitting and drinking and listening to the tinkle of expensive conversations.  The clientele was mostly older, CEOs with slicked-back hair and trim suits, women dripping pearls from their necks, but there were also younger couples, a woman in a green sweater and leather boots, two young men in jeans.

Our waiter glided to the table with three plates, large, white, simply plated.  There was mutton and lentils for Ambrice, stewed rabbit for Utsha, and my tongue with chips.  We tried bites of each others’ meals, gamey mutton and rich rabbit, tongue with the disconcerting ripple of taste buds running over taste buds but lovely and darkly dense, changing consistency from one part of the muscle to the next, some bites almost melting the way pork fat dissipates without having to be bit.  We all stopped speaking.

When the last hunks of bread had been dipped into Utsha’s rabbit sauce and the last sips of syrah drunk, we quietly gathered up our bags and stepped outside, solemnly, as if a great pilgrimage had just been completed.  Or maybe that was only me.  Maybe it was just for me that the air was crisper, the stars brighter, the food coma miraculous and magical in its weight.  Probably.  But in the tube on the ride home, I stared at my warped reflection in the window opposite, and it looked like a drip of bone marrow, just slipped from the bone.  Pork belly, I’m sorry, but I have a new obsession, it seems.

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).


Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle…

by lyzpfister

Everything I might have learned on the rum tour I promptly forgot at the tasting session, where our Hawaiian shirt-bedecked tour guide shot generous splashes of Cruzan rum into plastic cups.  Coconut, mango, guava, raspberry, some scary-looking molassesy black label concoction, cream rum…  If only we hadn’t gotten there right before closing time.  Though maybe that was for the best.

Cruzan rum is manufactured on a smallish plot of land on the western side of the island of St. Croix.  The whole walking tour takes about fifteen minutes, from the office across a pebble-strewn lawn to an open warehouse with giant bins of fermenting alcohol, past a tower, storage facility, and trucks.  The occasional chicken clucks past, and the whole operation looks more like grandpa’s moonshine still in the backyard than a legitimate rum factory which turns out something like 575,000 opaque, tropical cases of rum each year.

The fermenting house is really a raised platform built around large metal vats of water, yeast, and sugarcane in various stages of fermentation.  The smell of raw alcohol sweetness, like mashed apples and burnt sugar, is overwhelming, especially in the heat.  From these vats, where thefermenting liquid spends about two days, the mash is transferred to a tall tower where it undergoes something called five-column distillation.  In this process, the mash is pumped through a series of columns which remove aldehydes, esters, and other various trace compounds.  This process also removes fusil oils, light oils formed during fermentation that accumulate during distillation and are often blamed for hangovers.

We say, “So we can drink as much Cruzan as we want and not have a hangover?”  Our tour guide says, “I’m not saying that.”

After fermentation and distillation, the rum is cut with rainwater and placed in handcrafted wooden barrels for aging.  Around 23,000 charred oak barrels of maturing rum line the shelves of an extensive aging warehouse, where the rum just sort of hangs out for at least two years – and up to twelve – thinking about who it wants to be.

Aged rum is dumped and diluted to 80 proof.  This is what dumping is like:  In a room off to the side of the aging warehouse, a guy with a metal pipe hits a barrel of rum and pops out a wooden cork and spills the rum into a trough lined with charred wooden chips.  This rum is fierce – we all dip our fingers in the stream and taste.  It evaporates in my mouth and tastes a little bit like petroleum and rubbing alcohol.

Here more than anywhere else I’m impressed with how rustic this process is.  There’s just a guy, whacking a barrel, and rum flowing out of a hole in the barrel.  It’s very Pirates of the Caribbean.  The factory puts out an impressive amount of rum – and very good rum – but it all comes back to this guy whacking a wooden cork out of a barrel.

I’ve had a lot of Cruzan rum this week – nothing says tropical vacation better than pina coladas with coconut rum, mojitos, mango and strawberry daiquiris complete with pink umbrella, and other fruity frozen concoctions.  And every one of those pretty bottles came from an open-air factory where geckos scuttle over railings and each barrel of rum is opened by a guy in a sweat-covered green t-shirt swinging a stick.

The rum is bottled and flavored in Florida rather than St. Croix, which means that each clean, colorful bottle of rum has been shipped to the mainland before it gets to come back to the tasting room at its own factory.  I would like my own trajectory to be like Cruzan’s.  New York is great, but there’s not enough water, not enough sun, and not enough rum.

Cruzan Mojitos
Muddle the juice of ½ lime, about 1 tsp sugar, 4 mint leaves in the bottom of a glass, then add a healthy jigger of white rum and ice, then top off with tonic.

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.