One Night in Venice

Sunset in Venice (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Venice is a sinking city. Its buildings slowly groan into the ground some one to two millimeters per year, the dark water lapping up lower staircases and sidewalks, consuming the city from the bottom up. “How many basements have water in them?” we ask our gondolier. “All of them,” he replies.

But Venice is also a city which begs you to sink into imagination. It’s not hard to picture it the way it was hundreds of years ago, full of merchants and nobles, beggars and peasants, reeking of silky sewage and stink. You can imagine the jostling crowds rummaging for room on the narrow paths, ducking beneath an archway where a dreamy girl looks out for her Casanova – or, more likely, chucks dishwater onto the street below.

Blue doorway in Venice (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Venetian canal (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Doorbells in Venice (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Doorbells, detail (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

The city was once a world power – a hub of commerce and conquerors. It was the birthplace of many great minds and, through the years, a rite of passage for many others: Goethe, Mozart, Vivaldi, Marco Polo, and Thomas Mann all lived and worked within whispering distance of the dark green waterways.

Today, it seems to be a rite of passage only for the tourists, brandishing selfie sticks and Bermuda shorts and shopping bags full of leather-bound journals, carnival masks, and everything made of Murano glass. There are 60,000 people living in the historic city of Venice, but some 50,000 tourists thronging there per day. Walking along the winding streets, there are so many glossy glass windows filled to the brim with Murano glass, it makes you start to feel that you should decorate your whole house with it.

Pizza shop in Venice (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
House in Venice (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
View from a gondola (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Gondola ride in Venice (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Even the famous gondolas are now reserved for strictly charged and strictly timed pleasure rides. And the gondoliers no longer sing, though they still wear striped shirts and pole those long, flat-bottomed boats through the shallow canals like slithering eels. » Continue reading this post…

Market Day: Roasted Beet Salad with Gorgonzola and Balsamic

Roasted beet salad with beet greens (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

The Winterfeldt Market is a circus of color and noise. On Saturday mornings, it’s filled with people shopping for fruits, vegetables, cheeses, and baked goods of every hue. There are buckets of olives and pastes made with roasted eggplant, arugula, paprika, garlic, or chives. There are barrels of blooming flowers bursting with pops of purple, yellow, and pink. Trucks sell swirls of fresh pasta and raviolis alongside plastic tubs of pesto and long glasses of olive oil. One stand sells grilled fish, skin charred over an open flame – another sells raclette, silky with pungent cheese and brightened with fresh parsley and red chili flakes.

The market is walking distance from my apartment, at the end of a route that feels accustomed to my feet. Wherever I live, I find myself tracing familiar routes for as long as I can, before my destination chooses my route for me. If I were a river, I’d carve canyons along these trusted paths. Fanning like a star from my apartment, there’s the road that leads to the train station and the road to the park where I do my morning run, scattering rabbits breeding like clichés. The road that leads to work snakes through back alleys, through a school playground where I have to dismount my bike and walk between the shouting, shifting kids, up and around a grungy park, over a stretch of cobbled street and unpaved road that spills out onto the main thoroughfare. And then there’s the road that leads everywhere else: Out the door, a right, a right, and a left to Hauptstraße – Main Street.

Market day snack (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Greens and raw garlic (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

I pass the Baptist bookstore on the corner where they sometimes put out piles of free books. Dan Browns and romance novels, 90s teen fiction with faded purple covers and curly script. There’s a second-hand shop around the next corner, and I always glance in the big glass windows. » Continue reading this post…

In the Land of the Midnight Sun

Window to another world (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

I spent the week reading Murakami. It was a little joke, to read Norwegian Wood in the Norwegian woods. But a fitting one – Murakami’s dreamlike writing, a story within a story within a story, was like a murky mirror to the feeling that I myself had been dropped into another world, off the grid and off the beaten path. Living another life in another story I could tell myself later on.

I woke in the mornings to the persistent, endless sun streaming through the cracked slat of the wooden tipi’s window. I’d nestle deeper into the stack of reindeer hides that was my bed, the gentle tickle of soft fur brushing my skin. Eyes open, I rested, feeling the cool breeze from outside across my face, breathing in the scent of ashes and wood smoke lingering from last night’s fire.

Grazing sheep (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Coffee and a homemade granola bar (Eat Me. Drink me.)
Farmhouse and sheep (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

90s album cover with sheep (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

I took my time getting ready. Brushing my teeth with water from a bottle, scattering spit foam in the gravel stones outside my hut. I’d walk to the spigot down the road and bathe in the ice cold water, splashing it first on my face to shock the sleep out of it. I’d dry off briskly with a towel, the cool morning wind sweeping like silk over my clean-scrubbed arms. I’d dress in the hut, make up my bed, and tidy my things, then step out for a day in the bright and green Norwegian woods.

There were two paths up to the farmhouse café – one through the woods, up a dirt and stone trail lined with thick green undergrowth and shaded by tall trees, the other along the gravel road, where sheep grazed nimbly, bells clanging around their necks, baas distinct enough to recognize them all by sound by the time the week was through. There were sheep everywhere it seemed, the mothers newly slim with bleating babes still suckling fiercely at their teats. » Continue reading this post…

Sweet and Sour Summer: Som Tum (Green Papaya Salad)

Som Tum (Green Papaya Salad) (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

When warm weather hits, there’s nothing I want more than Southeast Asian food. I want all the chili, all the lime juice, cilantro, Thai basil and green onion, palm sugar, brown sugar, fish sauce, peanuts, shrimp. I don’t care where in Southeast Asia my meal is from, nor do I care whether it’s stuffed inside translucent tacky skins of rice paper, flash blazed in a hot wok, or served cold with crunchy cabbage leaves. I want it all, insatiably, want my kitchen littered with red onion skins, my fingers rank with garlic’s stink. I want take-out pork grilled so that it’s sour and sweet and above all hot with tiny half moons of chili that sear the tender skin beneath my nose.

Crushing green beans (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Tomatoes, garlic, and green beans (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Not far from where we live, there’s a park whose real name no one really knows – we all just call it Thai Park. On weekends when the weather is nice, women and men set up small stands and cook. They sit on the ground or in low chairs with their makeshift hot plates and equipment, sauces lined up in plastic bottles, pre-made noodles and curries quickly heated in oil and a hot skillet. There’s crispy-fried fish, eyes crusty with panko, there are summer rolls and fresh dumplings, steamed buns, wok-shook vegetables with peanut sauce, pork belly fried with a toothy crunch of cartilage, spicy soups and salads quickly tossed together, dressed with liquid from those mysterious unmarked plastic bottles.

There’s tapioca pudding cool with coconut, milky Thai iced teas and coffee, steamed sweet rice wrapped in banana leaves and slices of sugared mango and mint.

Som Tum Thai Papaya Salad (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Green papaya (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

You see? It’s all I can think about, these flavors that heat you up and cool you down, that fill you up and keep you wanting more.

What started this season’s obsession was nothing more than a routine trip to the Asian grocery store to pick up a new bottle of fish sauce and some tahini paste. » Continue reading this post…

On Lost Knowledge

Homemade bread and strawberry-rhubarb jam (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Not long ago, while visiting family down south in the lush, low mountains of Germany, I spotted a cluster of sweet woodruff in the woods. The ground was covered with it, bright green fans of star-shaped leaves bursting with clusters of tiny white flowers. I plucked a leaf and crushed it between my fingers, inhaling its herbal scent, then snapped it up between my teeth, surprised by the tingly punch of cinnamon that pricked my tongue. It was then I remembered something about woodruff’s toxicity – the coumarin that lends it its sweet, grassy fragrance is also moderately toxic to the liver and kidneys. And I couldn’t quite remember if fresh woodruff was one of those things you weren’t supposed to eat. So I spat out the remnants of crushed leaves, still feeling the warm prickle on my tongue. Mother, I promise someday to stop putting unidentified foods from the woods in my mouth.

Processing pine shoots to make honey (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Making "Tannenspitzenhonig" (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Sweet woodruff – or Waldmeister, as it is known in Germany – had been on my mind since sampling a craft-brewed Berliner Weisse topped off with a cap of woodruff syrup the marshy color of a toad’s back.

A sour, cloudy white beer, Berliner Weisse is mainly a summer beverage, and people in Berlin drink it doused with a too-generous shot of garish-colored syrup. Red is for raspberry and green is for Waldmeister, but both taste the same – loud, sugary, and thick. The drink has fallen out of favor, especially with the younger generation. It’s too artificial for our coolly understated tastes. And so I was surprised – but maybe not too surprised – to find a stand at a local craft spirits festival serving the “real” stuff: Brewbaker Berliner Weisse with home-brewed sweet woodruff syrup.

It was nothing like its neon twin – a backwoods relative who scoops the potato salad out by hand at the family picnic. » Continue reading this post…

An Admission: Free-Form Mediterranean Summer Salad

Mediterranean summer salad (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

I am not very good at recipes, a fact which may surprise you, given that I write this blog presenting recipes that, ostensibly, I have written, and that are accurate representations of the photos I post.

Be that as it may, I am not good at recipes, either reading them or writing them. My memory leaves something to be desired, so when I cook from a recipe, I spend most of the active cook time re-reading the instructions. Was that 1 tsp. or 1 tbsp.? Was it fry-then-batter or batter-then-fry? It doesn’t matter if the answer is absolutely logical, i.e., obviously you batter the fish before you fry it – I always have to check. And check. And check again.

Mixed salad greens (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

This is sometimes hard to reconcile with the way that I cook, which is to throw things together based on the pinch-of-this-dash-of-that philosophy. It’s a dreadfully exciting and, on the whole, rather unpredictable method of putting food on the table.

But I love reading recipes and cooking new things. Recipes inspire me. I especially love the complicated ones, with many steps and complex techniques. I love being surprised by new flavor combinations, love getting lost in the process.

Perhaps this all sounds rather contradictory: I’m bad at following recipes, but I love cooking from them? What this generally means in practice is that I read the instructions, read and re-read them as I cook, and then willfully decide to ignore them. I decide some step or other isn’t important, that an ingredient can be modified or left out entirely. I’ve cooked enough to trust my instincts, to know that everything will most likely be just fine.

Eggplant, zucchini, and cherry tomatoes (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Roasting veggies for a Mediterranean summer salad (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Veggies ready to roast (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

This way of cooking can make it hard to write recipes, however. If there’s a recipe I’d like to share on EMDM, I have to approach it differently. » Continue reading this post…

Dublin: City of Superlatives

The streets of Dublin (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Everything in Dublin was simply the best, and I know this, because all the signs in Dublin told me so. There was the best Irish dancing at the best dinner show. The best deals on souvenirs, the best pub in which to drink Guinness, the best breakfast in all Ireland. There was the best walking tour and the best little shop for all your cake decorating needs. There was even the best poem about a cat in the best book written by monks in the early 9th century: “I and Pangur Bán my cat / ‘Tis a like task we are at…”

Though beset by a bad case of the bests, Dublin is a sweet little city – a street-smart ruffian with a heart of gold, all dressed up in a bright new suit. I imagine him as an impish fellow: a pint in one hand and a ready joke in the other. He reads poetry on the sly, but always has a dirty tale to tell his mates hanging around a table in the back corner of a smoky pub.

The Guinness bird (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
A Dublin pub (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
A little building in Dublin (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Just another pub in Dublin (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

The city has a good energy, when you get away from the places where the tourists cluster like flocks of drunk ducks. (We paid Temple Bar homage, reluctantly, and briefly, and never again.) On Friday night, we joined an after work crowd at John Kehoe’s. Early in the evening, the pub was already packed with people sitting around tables and crowding into nooks to chat. The weather was holding steady, and the sidewalks were full of overflow from inside. As dusk dimmed into night, the conversations flowed, washed down with pints of dark and creamy Guinness and Smithwick’s Pale Ale. And the atmosphere stayed convivial.

Of course we made the round of pubs. We spent our last evening at The Brazen Head, Ireland’s oldest pub (another of those superlatives), built in 1198, but burned down and built up again who knows how many times. » Continue reading this post…

The Festival Season: Black Pepper Tofu

Black pepper tofu (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Life is slowly returning to normal post-supper club. The food-related nightmares have subsided, I can go grocery shopping without feeling panicked, and with the exception of the week I spent holed up in front of my laptop scavenging for stray commas and measuring margin sizes in the draft for the new issue of SAND that went to print on Monday, my to-do lists are feeling less pressing. Somehow, without my really having noticed it (I must have been buried in clauses), the tree in the courtyard exploded into bold green bedecked with conical rockets of white flowers.

Tofu (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Ground black pepper for black pepper tofu (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Shallots, ginger, garlic, and chili for black pepper sauce (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

May 1 came and went, and amidst the grumbles that no one is really protesting anything anymore these days, I gathered in Görlitzer Park with thousands of other Berliners soaking up the fresh spring sun like cats – protesting, for good or ill, nothing more than the warm beer being sold on street corners.

We’re entering the season of no work and all play. In just two weeks, there’ll be the Carnival of Cultures, a wild rumpus of color and sound, where the city celebrates the food, clothing, crafts, dance, and music of all its represented cultures. The streets are littered with crushed limes and plastic cups from Berlin’s favorite summer drink: the caipirinha – “caipi” for short – a mix of cachaça, cane sugar, and lime. Street vendors sell smoky jerk chicken and jollof rice. There’s kimchi and bratwurst, pierogis, falafel, empanadas, tacos, bulgogi… All the foods from all the places. The USA does soft-serve.

Diced ginger (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Blocks of tofu for black pepper tofu (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Shallots (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Festivals aside, the parks will be packed with sunbathers and kids flying kites. In Tempelhof, the cracking runways will be striped with rollerbladers and skateboarders zipping from end to end. Every table outside of every café will be crammed with people sipping coffees and reading the paper, their little dogs lolling beneath their chairs. » Continue reading this post…