Archive for the ‘Social Commentary’ Category

Let It Rise: Fasnet’s Cakes

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

There’s been a lot of yeast dough in my life lately. First there were Fasnet’s cakes, then I made donuts. Ok. So there were two instances of yeast dough in my life. But two yeast doughs within weeks of each other is more yeast dough than usually makes an appearance.

There’s something incredibly soothing about yeast dough. It takes time. And I think we spend far too little time taking time. What I mean is, I read this book called Momo, by Michael Ende (yes, yes, the very same Neverending Story mastermind) when I was living in New York, spending a lot of time regularly hyperventilating about how there wasn’t enough time.

Momo is a book about time and how humans construct it cleverly disguised as a children’s story. The sweeper tells Momo, “it’s like this. Sometimes, when you’ve a very long street ahead of you, you think how terribly long it is and feel sure you’ll never get it swept. And then you start to hurry. You work faster and faster and every time you look up there seems to be just as much left to sweep as before, and you try even harder, and you panic, and in the end you’re out of breath and have to stop – and still the street stretches away in front of you.”

I read that and I thought, Oh my God. Momo knows my life.

There’s this moment in the book where the grey men, bankers of time, visit each of the townspeople and convince them to put their spare time in a savings account. And when the people wonder how to save time, the grey men tell them, you know how to save time – spend 15 minutes less on each haircut you give or don’t drive all the way to the nursing home to eat with your mother –

I read that and I thought, My life is full of grey men. » Continue reading this post...

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...

The Appropriate Emoticon for a Butchered Chicken is :o

raw chicken (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Cutting up a whole chicken always seems to involve dangling it by some appendage. Grip the chicken firmly by the leg and lift it in the air as you slice your knife into the jointGrab the wing and pull it away from the body… Holding the chicken by one leg, place the tip of your knife…

It makes me sad for the chickens – not that they’re dead, but that in death, they must weather the ignominy of me ungraciously hefting them into the air by their prickled-skinned legs and hacking away as their naked little chicken bodies twirl away from the tip of my knife…

I will admit: I am an ungainly chicken partitioner. Don’t tell anyone, but sometimes I dig out the lower piece of breast with my fingers because I can’t figure out how to get a knife into that strange curved dip of bone. I can never remember where the drumstick ends and the thigh begins or whether there’s a better way to cut along the ribs. And then there’s all that dangling.

I try to do my butchering in secret, so that no one else must see the shame of what is really all that the connotation of the word butchering implies. I like to have my guests walk into the kitchen with the pan of Nepali chicken curry contentedly bubbling like the La Brea Tar Pits on the stove. The dinosaur extinction scene is just too painful to watch.

bubbling tar pits: Nepali Chicken Curry (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Speaking of pain, I’ve been thinking about emoticons recently, and how I think they’re a necessary function of modern communication. For a long time, I was resistant to using them, and I think I’m still a bit of a prude. My faces never sport noses, or stick their tongue out, and though I sometimes use the winky-face, I find it vaguely pornographic…

I had placed emoticons in the same category as “LOL” or “OMG” or “ROFLMAO” (I mean, OMG, what a string of letters – it takes me longer to work out what that means than to dissect a chicken) without thinking about the function they play in communication. » Continue reading this post...

Turn Around, Bright Eyes: Bulgarian Meatballs in Tomato Sauce

no raw meat in the rings, please (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

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

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

It’s exhausting, to doubt this much.

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

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

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

The Tea and the Honey Pot

the tea and the honey pot (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

If loneliness had a shape, it would be a cup of tea cooling on a white table. It is important that the table be empty, except, perhaps, for an open jar of honey and a naked spoon, just as it is important that the tea be cooling. The things themselves, hot tea and a honey pot are comforting things, but they are starkly separated on the table like sentinels. Nearly touching, but not. The cup will be blue and the honey pot smeared with stickiness along its sides. The type of tea won’t matter, but it should be sliced ginger and mint, so that the weak wisp of steam rising from the cup carries a faint, hopeless whisper of exoticism. The spoon will rest on the table like a compass point, as if to offer an answer. But the cup and the honey lie passive, waiting for an active agent – it must be the drinker of the tea – to dip the spoon in the honey, to drop a knob, sweet and the color of corn silk, into the tea. Are they any less lonely then, the cup and the pot? Or is it like this: the honey dissolves into the hot tea like a shipwrecked man in an ocean and the ocean is a little changed, but impassive and its own thing, alone. » 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...