Penwhisk

Food with a Slice of History

Category: Journeys

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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Sugar Cookies

Image courtesy of Austin Ban on Unsplash

The Bulgarian communist production system had its own version of the 1970s sugar cookie. The sugar cookies of my childhood came in a clear plastic bag with blue and red letters in the Cyrillic alphabet, which said something about zoo animals.  I’m certain that there was a hippopotamus and a monkey, maybe even a giraffe and a kangaroo.  The rest of the animal shapes I don’t remember.  Despite being a fan of these cookies, I have no recollection of their taste.  I enjoyed holding them in my tiny hands and running my finger over their surface to feel the texture.  The animal shape was the sole effort to appeal to the consumer that the communist centrally planned production system made.  The cookies had a neutral scent and the pale color of slightly under-cooked dough didn’t tempt me.  My goal was to get hold of as many cookies as possible so that I could arrange them and keep them away from my brother, who was known to devour anything, regardless of its taste.

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Banitza

Image courtesy of Caroline Attwood on Unsplash

Banitza, thin sheets of rolled out pastry filled with a mixture of eggs and crumbled feta cheese, was one of my grandmother’s specialty dishes, which I vividly remember.  I see my grandmother carefully walking down the steps from her kitchen on the very top floor, holding in her hands firmly but tenderly a baking pan, covered with a thin cotton cloth.  Underneath was her banitza, a cloud of powdered sugar, set on flaky pastry, which was delicate as egg shells in shades of buttery yellow and darker browns.  Where the shell had cracked, I glimpsed silky filling of feta cheese and egg yolk.  My eyes savored the banitza, while I had a distinct sense that it was not baked just to be eaten.

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