Penwhisk

Food with a Slice of History

Boris Fishman Savage Feast

Beets, the main ingredient in Borshch, a dish in Savage Feast

Beets, the main ingredient in Borshch, one of the dishes in Savage Feast. (Image courtesy of Monika Grabkowska on Unsplash)

In his memoir with recipes Savage Feast, Boris Fishman tells stories about family meals and vexing conversations revolving around them.  The meals are made up of dishes from the Belarusian Jewish heritage of his parents.  The conversations test Fishman’s patience and ability to explain to his mom and dad from the ex-Soviet Union his aspirations as a young man who was born in Belarus but grown up in the USA.  Most importantly of all, he is struggling to make understandable both to them and himself the issues in his protracted relationship with Alana, an American woman with whom he shares an “attraction that would make Gabriel García Márquez sit up,” but which unfortunately proves insufficient to sustain a satisfying long-term relationship.

Right in its prologue, Savage Feast sets up multiple questions that on a single weekend kept me reading right to the book’s very end. Would Fishman eventually reconcile his ex-Soviet immigrant heritage with his American identity?  Would he be able to find a partner with whom he enjoys a healthy, harmonious relationship? And would he share at least one meal with his Belarusian Jewish family, savoring delicious dishes without being upset and disappointed at their inability to understand him?

I appreciated the honesty and directness with which Fishman relates his frustrations in the interactions with his parents.  In my experience, Eastern European families don’t openly acknowledge problems and disagreements.  This makes it close to impossible to resolve thorny issues and patterns of dysfunction.  It falls on children to tackle troubling matters in order to clear the path to their own well-being.  A lot is at stake here and I couldn’t resist gobbling up Savage Feast so that I could find out whether Fishman would succeed.

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Parisian Food

A pan with a kitchen towel on a table

Image courtesy of Caroline Attwood on Unsplash

In my memory, Parisian food is wrapped up in a stream of rapid speech: agile words of which I miraculously manage to keep abreast even though they often try to get away from me and even gull me.

I’m in the ill-appointed kitchen of a student dorm in the fourteenth arrondissement of Paris.  Around me are young people who chatter in a rapid flow, which makes my ears ring.  They’re here not just to feed themselves, but to get some necessary social interaction: joke, tease, laugh, argue, negotiate or merely exchange information.  I’m able to catch an occasional word here and there.  The rest of the babble washes over my drowsy, jet-lagged brain.  While I’m chopping my onions, I duck my head in an attempt to avoid eye contact in order to remain as unobtrusive as possible.

Right across from me, a young woman is putting together a salad.  She has neatly braided hair and is wearing an impeccable cotton blouse.  I watch her competent moves as she washes lettuce and tears it into pieces, then combines it with olives, hard-boiled eggs, fragrant tomatoes, and some fresh green beans.  She is making a version of Salade Niçoise, which I soon learn is not really Parisian food.  (In the early days of my stay in Paris, I lacked the right French words along with the cultural competence to identify this.)  A fine art deco gold ring with a carnelian stone on one of her supple fingers catches my eye.  I fill in the blanks that my insufficient French throws right in my face with information gleaned from my neighbor’s appearance: an upper-middle-class fresh-food-connoisseur for sure, an experienced cook who shares my interest in artisan early-twentieth-century objects. A smile flutters over my lips while a group of fellows bursts out laughing. It doesn’t really matter that we are cheery for different reasons: it still looks as if I have understood enough to join in their merriment.

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Bulgarian beans and lentils

Stuffed zucchini
Stuffed zucchini at Hemingway restaurant in Plovdiv
Image by Penwhisk

There must be a mistake. I am standing in front of a restaurant in the center of Plovdiv, reading through the menu. My eyes move hungrily from line to line looking for a dish of Bulgarian beans and lentils. There is none that I can see. That is hard to understand. Beans and lentils were at the heart of my grandmother’s cooking. For me, they are indispensable to Bulgarian national cuisine. In my disbelief, I seek help from a young waiter, who happens to be standing by. He raises his eyebrows:

“Bulgarian beans and lentils? No one has ever asked me for those, not that I can remember. We have grilled meats, kebapche, fish, shopska salad, as well as cucumber salad with yogurt and walnuts. This is what people want to eat. No one goes out for Bulgarian beans and lentils.”

My mother is standing at a safe distance a couple of steps behind me. I sense her embarrassment.  When I join her, she looks at me.

“Don’t you realize that asking for Bulgarian beans and lentils comes across as an insult? Bulgarian taste has risen in sophistication above beans and lentils. They are a thing of the impoverished communist past. Why do you always want to provoke? Must you come back home after ten years and make people uncomfortable with your unsettling questions?”

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Mon Chéri

Hollyhocks flowers in a garden

Image courtesy of Stella de Smit on Unsplash

A Mon Chéri was my first bite of capitalism.  I couldn’t have been older than five.  Unease gripped my throat as soon as I bit into the crisp, thin chocolate exterior and liqueur ran down my chin.  Just a second later, a sticky wave of panic washed over me: my top would stain, and my grandfather would yell at me back home.  My clumsy fingers quickly shove the rest of the praline into my mouth.  I stole an anxious glance at my grandmother’s stained dress but the alcohol got to my head and within seconds, I felt slightly elated.  The neat, white curtains couldn’t stop me from glancing through the window.  The hollyhock blossoms out in the garden on the other side nodded conspiratorially at me.  Their vibrant colors looked even more radiant and tempting.

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Baking Soda

A glass full of carbonated water

Image courtesy of Karim Ghantous on Unsplash

“I need a drink with baking soda … my throat is burning and I can hardly swallow.”  This was my grandmother’s signature phrase.  Her custom was to deliver it with urgency and pathos at the entrance to my parents’ living space in our family house in Plovdiv.  She would lean forward through the half-opened door.  Her hand timidly rested on the door handle.  My grandmother’s craving for the unassuming white powder hovered over the table in our dining area.

As I grew older, I learned to recognize the slight variations in tone and wording depending on the person who my grandmother addressed.  I sensed that my grandmother’s need for baking soda revealed something crucial about her personality.  It also had to do with her position in our family.

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Kozunak

Kozunak

Kozunak (image by Penwhisk)

The list of ingredients in my grandmother’s Kozunak, the sweet bread she baked on Holy Saturday before Orthodox Easter, was as follows:

First, civil disobedience.  (I will explain this one later.)

Second, raisins that had arrived in a package from my uncle, an enemy of the Bulgarian communist state, who lived in West Germany.

Third, my grandmother’s legendary skill in the kitchen.  The kneading, done in a particular way to produce the light, thread-like texture of the buttery dough, took hours on end.  My grandmother braced herself weeks in advance for this exacting baking task, like a wrestler in anticipation of a rigorous match that would consume all her stamina and will.  My mother would not even dare attempt to make Kozunak.

Finally, white flour, eggs, butter, yeast and milk.  These ingredients tested my grandmother’s ability to secure foodstuffs during the hungry years of Communism.

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Lindsey S. Love Chickpea Flour Does It All

birthday cake by Lindsey S. Love

A Late-Summer Birthday Cake (Recipe by Lindsey S. Love & Image by Penwhisk)

Last night when the smells from my kitchen lulled me to sleep, I felt sweetly content: I had finally managed to bake the Chocolate Banana Loaf from Lindsey S. Love’s fine Chickpea Flour Does It All.  The recipes in this fresh-ingredients cookbook are gluten- and dairy-free.  Fortunately, none of my loved ones are gluten intolerant.  However, we all feel nurtured and nourished when eating Lindsey S. Love’s food.  My family regularly feasts on dishes using her delectable recipes.  The Moroccan-Spiced Lentil Burgers, Mung Bean Pancakes and Caraway Spätzle are steady favorites of ours.

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Cooking with Yotam Ottolenghi

Apricot and Walnut Cake by Yotam Ottolenghi

Apricot and Walnut Cake by Yotam Ottolenghi (Image by Penwhisk)

Complicated is my relationship with Yotam Ottolenghi, the eminent Israeli-British chef, owner of notable culinary establishments in London and author of award-winning cookbooks.  Ottolenghi and I have never met and we appear to be at very different stages in life.  Currently, I am a stay-at-home mom and house-wife, an occupation, which, going by the look on the faces of those with whom I share this piece of information, makes me neither capable nor accomplished.  I have won no awards as a stay-at-home mom.  (This is fortunate, for I associate such distinctions with the Mother’s Cross of Honor, given to women in Hitler’s Nazi Germany.)  Nonetheless, there are some things that Ottolenghi and I have in common.  Firstly, both of us hold advanced degrees in Comparative Literature — he a M.A. and I, a Ph.D.  Plenty More is the second thing we share.  He wrote it and I must have used it cooking at least 150 times in the past year. 

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Shoba Narayan The Milk Lady of Bangalore

a cow

Image courtesy of Derek Story on Unsplash

I knew that in India cows were considered holy beings, but it was only when I read Shoba Narayan’s latest book that I understood how the relationship to these animals enriched the exchanges between humans.  The Milk Lady of Bangalore tells a captivating story about Sarala, who tends to her cows in the midst of the rapidly developing, bustling capital of Karnataka state in South India.  Narayan’s decision to buy raw milk from Sarala’s cows sets her on a path of unexpected discoveries about the life of urban farmers like Sarala, the bond they nurture with their animals, cultural beliefs about the wholesome qualities of cow urine and the purifying properties of cow dung.  However, most importantly of all is that Narayan’s narrative reveals the ways in which two human beings who inhabit radically different worlds can share rich moments of understanding and intimacy.  In an age when we rely predominantly on social media to connect and communicate with others, and even to maintain our friendships, it is both eye-opening and much needed to engage with Narayan’s thoughtful and compassionate narrative of her interactions with her milk lady.

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Mother’s Day Story

A basket with pastries in the form of little peaches

Image courtesy of an acquaintance

A dear acquaintance emailed me this snapshot, which brought to my mind a story about Mother’s Day that’s waited to be told.  The image reminded me of a home-made pastry that used to fill me with longing when I was a child.  On birthdays, my schoolmates would bring these little peach-shaped cakes as a special treat for the class.  I would follow the tray with my eyes while it was passed around the classroom.  My mouth would water and, when it was finally my turn, I would carefully lift a peach and place it on a napkin in front of me.  The sugar crystals would stick onto my fingers and I would lick them first, before I picked up the little cake once again to carefully examine it.  The color captivated me.  My mother never used food coloring and I couldn’t even imagine how it worked.  How was it possible for someone to make a little cake that looked like a peach?  In my mind, one must be able to work magic in order to conjure a flawless fruit, perfectly ripe but free of the slightest sign of decay.  When I would finally put the little cake in my mouth, the sponge would be soft and sweet.  The two halves of the fruit were attached with some jam, which tasted even sweeter.  When I was done eating the treat, I would smack my lips in honor of the class-mate who had a birthday.  I was elated whenever someone would bring a tray with these home-made delights to share with the class.  It was even better than having a birthday myself. 

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