Wednesday, November 24, 2010

T-minus to Turkey

Cranberry orange relish, check. Gingered butternut squash soup, check. Pumpkin ginger cheesecake pie, check. All that's left is the cauliflower gratin, the roasted brussels and the herb butter basted bird. And of course the table setting, the gravy, the last minute inevitable chaos. And accommodating the seven other sides being supplied by others.

Only six for Thanksgiving this year. I'm so used to cooking for crowds that this feels ironically more challenging. Note to self: do not make a vat of anything.

My family is one of the "you don't mess with classics" variety. For many years I found that stifling and bland. I always introduced one new dish to the classic line up, on principle. It was also in hindsight what spawned my growing obsession with cooking. Thanksgiving for me was a time to try things out in a safe environment where my experimenets were backed by many, many other tried and true recipes to fill in if I failed.

All these years later, and hosting another Thanksgiving with friends instead of family (albeit only the second time I've ever not been with my family) I find the menu I gravitated towards to be a mix of favorites, experiments and dishes I've tried but are on their way to being classics.

Ironically it's not the turkey that inspires nerves. Can I do the cauliflower the way my mother, grandmother and aunt have? I've never done it solo. What if it's not the same? It's the one dish that's a nod to my family traditions this year. The butternut squash soup is a favorite of mine, easy, delicious and healthy. The pumpkin ginger cheesecake pie was a hit at a few events last year, courtesy of another blogger friend. The roasted brussels are a common table adornment around here, having emerged as the only way I like the veg. And the potluck component of most meals at 1660 ensures that there will be plenty of new dishes to try.

In some ways my Thanksgiving table resembles my approach to life these days, a nod to tradition but the curiosity to keep experimenting.

Happy Turkey Day.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Vacation, in the Vernacular

Vernacular: of, relating to, or characteristic of a period, place or group. In essence, native.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how travel and food intersect. Not just because I’ve only recently returned from a fabulously food filled vacation, although I have, but more because I find the two interests so intertwined as to be nearly inseparable. And then today, voila, an online chat about the New Yorker’s food issue with three writers supplied the term I’ve been searching for. Writer Calvin Trillin said he mostly writes about vernacular food, food attached to a specific place. He said his dislike of fancy restaurants often comes from the sameness you can encounter.

It’s perfect. Yes, I can eat Turkish food in the U.S. versus traveling there, and have done so deliciously twice in the last seven days, but what I loved about both meals was how firmly grounded they were in being Turkish. I might not NEED to travel to Turkey to eat those foods (though I would love to) but I do want the meal to make me feel as though I did.

I think I’d take Trillins thought one step further to include the totality of what vernacular means, essentially that a meal can be tied not only to place, but to the when and who of a meal as well. The experience of eating something is inextricably bound up in where you are when you consume it, when you consume it and who you share it with. Eating is about things that taste good, but as I’ve said on this blog before I don’t believe it’s only about what tastes good.

October brought a wonderful two week vacation that was very much about vernacular food and encompassed a trio of locales. A pitch perfect week in London with BOG /W, a long weekend in Kent for the wedding of PA/A, and four days in Barcelona to round it out. It was far flung and wonderful and full of fun, dear friends and delicious food.

In fourteen days we ate more than I could possibly include in one blog post, I’ll have to dissect and describe the culinary compendium later. But suffice to say highlights, in addition to the seaside paella, included: curry near Brick Lane; pad thai at a restaurant that features chilies so hot they brought the fire department, literally; grilled razor clams at a tapas bar inside La Boqueria; partridge cooked in a pear cider sauce in a 17th century inn in Kent; wonderful, lemony Afghani food in a tiny London storefront; churros and chocolate during a festival celebrating a saint represented by flies (long story involving French invaders and swarms of defensive insects supposedly sent by a dead saint); cozy soup in a cook book store turned cafĂ©; and countless other meals.

Why is it that food tastes so much better when we’re traveling or on vacation? Even basic things seem luxurious. Is that because we’re paying more attention? Because drinking that bottle of wine at lunch on a Tuesday seems just a wee bit naughty? Whatever the reason I seem to find all my meals memorable when I’m traveling. And this trip was no different. The multi-cheese picnic consumed on the train after strolling around Borough Market stands out in my brain just as clearly as the two fantastic tapas meals I had at Tapas 24 in Barcelona. Go figure.