an excerpt from another paper of mine. (see posts entitled "cooking up a new south african identity" for other clips.) as before, citations are posted on the critical citations page. this first excerpt discusses food and stories, freezing and saving food, and farmers' markets finds at home and abroad. as before, i didn't take the time to reformat the excerpt to my lazy, e.e. cummings-ish blog style. opinions on reformatting or not are not needed - please don't share them - but i hope you enjoy the content of the piece.
The stories of our foods, the images, people, and emotions they recall, are intensely powerful. The power we perceive comes from the simple element that it utilizes all of our senses. Exploring the potent powers childhood cuisine in Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love, Lara Vapnyar sees the world through the eyes of Russian immigrants in America. With a motley of characters, each with a different yearning and sense of connection to their homeland and new life, she takes on Salad Olivier, Puffed Rice and Meatballs, and Borscht and does battle with broccoli and spinach. At the heart of her short stories is a glimpse into the difficulty of living in limbo, where the kitchen becomes a space that the heart and the body can reunite in a rainbow of borsht.
My kitchen is small, but it’s mine. I would love to spend hours messing away in it, feeding hungry hoards of (currently absent) friends. Like Nina from Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love, though, my kitchen is currently a graveyard – the freezer the least-morgue-like space in the room. For the past few months – when I have the time or when I’m alive in the morning – I’ve made my way down to the Waverly Farmers’ Market by Johns Hopkins’ main campus. Eggplant, jalapeños, tomatoes, fresh green beans, cucumbers have all found their way to untimely (okay, more like slow – lingering) deaths in the produce drawers of my fridge. The worst are the herbs. Parsley, dill, rosemary, basil have all been subjected to ruthless experiments as I attempt to prolong the shelf life of their poor, severed stalks. (Having gone through depressing rounds of pre-washing, paper-towel wrapping, poorly freezing, my current solution is to pre-wash the herbs, trim the stems, and keep them – out of the fridge and the freezer! – on the counter in jars of fresh water. Periodically I’ll re-trim the stems and replace the water. It may not improve the shelf life by much, but it’s aesthetically appealing and I’m more likely to remember I have them to use. I guilt trip myself into getting my money’s worth in this way.)
Every time I go to the farmers’ market I can’t help but think how markets like these flourish all over the world. I have a picture of a giant artichoke from Seattle as the wallpaper on my phone. Maybe a little ridiculous, but the pictures of giant fruit and vegetables inspire me to think of what could be created. (Pictures of people just remind me I’m behind in all the mundane tasks I should be doing. Or that I haven’t called my grandmother in a while.) Why waste time being responsible when I could be making Sea Bream with Artichokes and Caper Dressing? Or just searing golden artichoke hearts and tossing them in olive oil and salt? The Seattle open-air farmers’ market was wake-up call to the diversity of food. Despite having been cooking for a while and surviving a year of culinary school, the food I cooked was still very separate from its source.
It’s difficult when you’re traveling tourist-style to visit markets. Not physically, but mentally. Traversing up and down stalls, taking in the piles and piles of food, the mountains of possibilities, and not having a kitchen to play in is the cruelest joke. In South Africa, pillars of pineapples and oversized avocados greeted us at almost every market we visited. At one point the group I was traveling with bought two bunches of avocados and proceeded to let them rot for the next week and a half on our tour bus. Looking back from the warm space of my kitchen, I imagine that was a sign of foods to come and go – uneaten. Unlike the homogenous, food-only market in Seattle, the markets in South Africa were a free-for-all, with food being sold along side bead necklaces and stylized paintings. I still regret not buying flip-flops made from recycled car tires. Where South Africa glorified vegetables and fruits, a market I visited recently in Jerusalem took food an extra step further with candy and pastry stalls intermingling with meats and vegetables. Every few feet a falafel stand stood hidden behind a crowd of customers. Earthy spices stained everything and everyone.