The Other Georgia, Part II: Stepantsminda

Stepantsminda, Georgia (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

The morning dawned weakly and dull the day we embarked for Stepantsminda – a village lying at the base of Mount Kazbek, the seventh-highest peak in the Caucuses. The riders in the subway were half asleep, and we ourselves only jerked awake outside the Didube station to the shouts of vendors hawking small lemons and nuts, hot khachapuri and coffee. Marshrutka drivers were looking for passengers to fill their vans. They shouted out destinations – Kakheti, Gori, Mtskheta – places we had seen the day before and places we had not.

A driver hustled our direction and asked where we were going. “Stepantsminda,” we replied, and he gestured toward his weathered red van. That was just the route he was taking, he said. “Are the roads safe?” I asked. It had been unseasonably warm in Tbilisi, but this was February after all, and there was no telling what conditions were like at higher altitudes. “I am from there,” he said. And while I couldn’t have known it at the time, I later found out that what he meant by this was, “No, but I’m used to it.”

We bought a quick breakfast from a nearby stand – crescent-shaped khachapuri stuffed with hard-boiled egg – and ate it as the van hobbled along the highway out of Tbilisi. We were tired and fell asleep, but soon woke to the jolt of the road, littered with potholes and dirty slush.

The road up the mountain, Georgia (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Monastery on the road to Stepantsminda (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

At a monastery, we scrambled out to take pictures. Snow patched the ground, and wet drizzle chilled my bare hands. Below us, the river sluggishly plowed along the banks, freezing in the shallows. The road continued to climb, and the next time we stopped, there were old women wrapped in headscarves and wool selling fruit leather and churchkhela hanging in long, burgundy rows. » Continue reading this post…

The Other Georgia, Part I: Tbilisi

Tbilisi, Georgia (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Tbilisi is a city of crumble and construction. The gondola sways up over the river, over close, claustrophobic streets seeming to fold in on themselves. Here, dented tin and red-tiled roofs cover haphazard buildings slouching into gray courtyards. There, a stunning twist of ultramodern architecture sits wrapped in glass. Bruised and dented cars give guttural chugs around tight corners, slipping past pedestrians who hug the sides of buildings where there is no sidewalk.

Tbilisi, Georgia (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

From above, it seems convoluted, but calm. A sleepy city, settling with dust. On street level, there’s clamor, construction sites and bridge beggars, vendors hawking homemade sour plum sauce and dark purple churchkhela – walnuts strung together and dipped in thickened grape paste. There are wine shops on every corner and little grocery stores with bins of fresh herbs, potatoes, and fruit.

But David and I are hungry. We curl down the twisted streets from our Airbnb apartment to the river and find a restaurant with big glass windows overlooking the water. It’s simple inside – rows of wooden tables and big picture menus, a TV playing an advertising reel in the corner, a case displaying sweets. But all around us, people are tucking into big plates of food – dumplings and stews, warm bread and parsley-laden salads.

Narikala Fortress, Tbilisi (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Flame-grilled kebab (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Cold stew with eggplant and potato (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

We order khachapuri – hot, chewy bread baked with rich, slightly sour cheese. It’s still bubbling when it arrives. David orders fire-grilled pork kebabs covered in slivers of sweet raw onion, and for me there’s a cold stew of eggplant, potato, pepper, tomato, and herbs.

Reinvigorated, we explore the city from the top down. Narikala Fortress is a well-kept ruin stretching along a low-lying ridge. Weather-worn stone steps turn into scraggly gravel and rock, which we climb to get a better view. To our left, Mother Georgia – silent and strong. » Continue reading this post…

Eat Me. Drink Me. Goes to the Movies: Philly Roll

Philly Roll (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

I’m never quite sure whether the Berlinale is pure torture or if that torture isn’t tempered with an edge of pleasure. I do always seem to miss it when it’s done. For a week and a half, we wake up at 5:30 in the morning, dragging our unkempt, sleep-deprived bodies through the chilly Berlin dark to spend hours waiting in line with other unkempt, sleep-deprived people. We pick up reams of tickets and spend the days sprinting through all the city’s theaters watching films – many bad, some bizarre, others baffling. It’s a rare film that has it all – a good story, believable acting, a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Of this year’s 22 films (a few shy of last year’s 28), four were good, four were bad, and the rest were middling, clunkers earnestly attempting to fly, good ideas with bad execution, stilted acting undercutting interesting stories, tired stories propped up by excellent acting. Of all the films I’ve seen so you don’t have to, War on Everyone and Alone in Berlin are at the top of the list. For a story whose real-life stakes were so incredibly high, Alone in Berlin manages to have none. By the time the couple is executed (surprise!), the only thing that moves you is how Daniel Brühl, a German, has managed to sound like an American speaking with a German accent for two whole hours. And War on Everyone, well, unless you enjoy watching people be offensive while suffering under the illusion that they’re being ironic, don’t waste your time.

Nori and sushi fillings (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

But let’s not dwell in negativity. The two best films I saw this year were miles apart in theme and temperament. Goat is a frightening, dark, and layered look at brotherhood and belonging (set at an American college fraternity). » Continue reading this post…

It’s Not You, It’s Me. It’s Not Me, It’s Mercury: Vegetarian Chili Bowl

Vegetarian chili bowl (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

I have broken nearly everything I’ve touched this month. Not just dishes and glasses, but hard-to-break things, like nail polish bottles and candles encased in heavy, shatterproof glass. I broke the little porcelain pig that holds the toothpicks, the Bodum French press, the bottle of hot sauce, the glass of anchovies that then dripped salty fish oil all over the kitchen floor. When I was making this vegetarian chili bowl, I showered the room with little bits of TVP as the bag fumbled from my hands.

Is this just a serious case of butterfingers? Or is it something more? January has been a hard month for me. My body aches like an old tooth. I’m cranky and easy to displease. I’ve had trouble waking up in the mornings and little energy for work. All of these things have made me an incredibly pleasant person to be around.

TVP (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

It’s especially frustrating because it’s exactly the opposite of what I want – not that anyone actively wants to be cranky and accident-prone. I’d set clear goals for myself for January, all of them designed to make me a more relaxed and easygoing individual. Read more books in the evenings, don’t use electronics before bed, don’t force yourself to keep working when the work day is done, make time for exercise, stretch in the mornings before work.

And this January, I’ve had about a 25% success rate for meeting my goals. When I manage to wake up without hitting the snooze button four times, I stretch – sometimes. When I don’t devolve into playing Hay Day on the couch at night, I read – sometimes. I’m more enticed by Facebook’s endless scroll than I’ve ever been, and the thought of addressing the email situation makes me feel like I’m willingly signing up to be Sisyphus. » Continue reading this post…

America and the Americans: Pineapple Mai Tai

Pineapple Mai Tais (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Everyone I’ve told about the cruise I went on in early January has asked me if I’ve read David Foster Wallace’s essay on cruising1. Yes, I have. And no, I don’t think there’s a cruise in the world that DFW would have enjoyed. It’s a tacky business, but in the best possible way. It’s like going to Oktoberfest in a dirndl and braids: You have to give yourself over to it. To the glitter and feathers at the evening show, the white pants and silk shirts, the poolside piña coladas, overpriced bingo games, the awkward audience involvement. You have to love it. And in return, it will love you back.

Meyer's Dark Rum and Añejo rum (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Mai Tai with lime (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

One of my favorite games has always been to pretend I’m someone else, to slip into another voice, another life. In fact, I was a theater kid long before I hit the stage. My grandma used to tell me how I’d stand in front of the mirror and practice crying, just so I’d be ready when real waterworks came in handy.

On a cruise, I get to pretend my life is always cocktails in the evening sun, that I’m in the habit of wearing cute skirts and high heels and bright red lipstick to dinner, that I keep my nails manicured and enjoy small-talk with strangers. I go to the sauna and to the gym and carry around a sparkling gold clutch as if I had anything more to keep track of than my little blue sea pass. There’s no internet to remind me of my responsibilities – or of my real life. All I can do is immerse myself in this alternate world. Yes, DFW, it’s a show. But if I’m already in it, I may as well live it up.

The ocean at Cozumel (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Pineapple Mai Tai Recipe (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

I spent a lot of time observing other people on the cruise, seeing small kindnesses in the buffet line and considerate gestures – and also moments of casual disregard for the crew’s constant service and hard work. » Continue reading this post…

It’s Time for a Reboot: Peppermint Marshmallows

Peppermint marshmallows (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

December is a wasted month. Or maybe it’s better put this way: for the entire month of December, I’m useless. It’s like my brain has decided eleven months is enough months of functioning, and that the twelfth month is a month of rest. While the pace of work picks up, my brain revolts. No, I will not perform for you this month, it says.

It’s a month of goofs. I forget major and obvious steps in the tasks I undertake (oh, there’s a whole middle of the film to subtitle?). I have trouble focusing (must wrap gifts, write recipes, send emails, clean bathroom walls, and paint toenails AT THE SAME TIME). And worst of all, I make mistakes so sloppy it pains my meticulous January-November brain (misspelling the name of a rather important email recipient? Twice? Check).

All-American ingredients (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Homemade marshmallows (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

I arrived in my ancestral country about a week ago and have done – nothing. I sit on the couch and brush up on my cell phone game skills. I read my book. I let my coffee be made for me and ushered to my slothful seat. My brain has entirely given up. And I’ve let it. It’s a wonderful feeling.

I’m a firm believer in viewing your body’s refusal to capitulate as a self-defense mechanism. Deny yourself any breaks from your to-do list, and don’t be surprised if your leg seizes up or a winter cold levels you full-force. Work your brain too mercilessly, and it might just give out.

Clearly, my brain needs a break. I let it wander. If baking cookies is too much work, I tell it, That’s fine. Go lie down. If it wants to take a walk around Baltimore’s cool, blue Inner Harbor, I follow it outside.

Hot chocolate with peppermint marshmallows (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Hot chocolate with homemade peppermint marshmallows (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

It’s kind of a wonder I managed to make marshmallows, which requires concentration and attention to timing – two traits that have fallen by December’s wayside. » Continue reading this post…

A Winter Slumgullion: Chicken & Shrimp Gumbo

Chicken and shrimp gumbo (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

I collect words. When I find a good one, I copy it into my little black notebook, the one that also contains restaurants and bars I’d like to visit, directions, sketches, snatches of poetry hurriedly composed in a cramped hand, email addresses and phone numbers, Spanish grammar tips, post ideas, books to read, little moments I’d like not to forget. And words.

I carry them around with me all the time – since my little black book is always in my bag – and read through them on occasion, rolling my tongue around and into those verbal nooks. There’s “pullulate”: “to exist abundantly, to send forth buds, to increase rapidly, teem.” Or “sirocco”: “any hot, oppressive wind.” “Quisle”: “to betray, especially by collaborating with an enemy.” “Collop”: “a small slice of meat, a small slice of anything, a fold or roll of flesh on the body.”

Garlic and thyme (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Living abroad, my vocabulary shrivels. Here, English lives within the law of averages, and if I remember from long ago math lessons (one thing I definitely don’t write down in my little black book are equations), an average sucks up the best and the worst and plunks you somewhere in the middle.

There are some words left languoring that way – and good riddance to them. I think “plethora” is the worst word in the English language, like a dull goat in an academic’s gown. Goodbye “myriad” and “veritable” and “moreover.” And truthfully, I’ve found that simpler words, when fitted well together, are often better at expressing ideas than all the viperines, girns and borborygamuses combined.

Okra (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Wintry chicken and shrimp gumbo (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

That brings me to this little gem of a word: “slumgullion,” whose meanings are as myriad as what it means: “A meaty stew, a weak beverage, refuse from whale carcasses, a muddy mining deposit.” I mean, wow, what multitudes! » Continue reading this post…

On a German Christmas Market

Christmas market in Braunschweig (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

There is little quite so lovely as wandering beneath boughs of evergreen with a sack full of chestnuts warming your hand as the smell of powdered sugar and melted butter mingles with pine sap and spice.

The Christmas market is a beautiful thing, a little glow of warmth and good cheer in the bleak midwinter. The crowd jostles along, surprisingly friendly in the crush. It must be the Glühwein – warm wine mulled with citrus and spice – that everyone drinks from tiny, commemorative mugs. Each stand has its own – a little brown boot, a red mug tiered like a whirling advent tower – that people love to pocket at the end of the night, considering the transaction paid for with their two euro deposit.

Spanferkel in a Mumme-roll (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Evergreen huts at the Christmas market (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Mumme-Glühwein (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Here in Braunschweig, they serve a special kind of Glühwein laced with Mumme, a malty extract that started its life as a sailor’s beer but today is mostly non-alcoholic in its uses. A shot added to Glühwein deepens the fruity sweetness with aroma, an invigoratingly dark swirl of flavor and warmth.

At the Mumme stand, they also serve Mumme beer and Mumme-baked rolls heaped with freshly-sliced Spanferkel – suckling pig slowly roasted until the meat is juicy and tender with fat that melts on your tongue like caramels and crisp, salty crackling. We top it off with Mumme-honey mustard and eat it standing up at packed wooden tables, where we wipe our grease-slicked mouths with paper napkins and wash all that goodness down with slugs of hot Glühwein that burns our tongues.

A German Christmas market (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Christmas sausages (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

But there’s more to the market than Mumme. There are tiny poffertjes, buttery, puffy pancakes made with buckwheat and yeast and sprinkled with powdered sugar. There’s a stand selling Swedish meatballs with lingonberry sauce and rosemary-roasted new potatoes. » Continue reading this post…