Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

In Berlin, They Call Berliners Pancakes

frying Fasnet's cakes (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

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.

beignets (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

opa (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

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.

composition: cross, oettinger, donuts (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Fasnet cakes (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

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. » Continue reading this post…

All Roads Lead to the Marais

brown bag surprises (Eat Me. Drink Me)

croque madames, Paris (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

“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.

Fluorescent macaroons, Paris (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Jam jars, Paris (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

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.

Sunlight and the Eiffel Tower, Paris (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Shoes near Sacre Coeur, Paris (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

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.

Tetris Paris (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Paris, unfurling from the top of Sacre-Coeur. Domes and spires and hedges of tetris-packed buildings rolling out like a concrete sea. » Continue reading this post…

Spitzen

Spitzkraut (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

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. » Continue reading this post…

Welcome Home, Berlin

Sardines on toast (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

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. » Continue reading this post…

Pilgrimage

Bone marrow and parsley salad (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

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. » Continue reading this post…

Frühstück and Vespern: Friedel’s Fleischsalat

Laugenbretzel (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

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. » Continue reading this post…

Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle: Cruzan Mojitos

The aging room (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

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.

Barrels of rum (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
In the distillery (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

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. » Continue reading this post…

Eating Blind

unsicht-Bar (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

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. » Continue reading this post…