Table for One

I often eat lunch alone. I’ve have been married to the same person for over forty years and we eat together every night. But whether I’m at work or at home in the middle of the day, I’m likely to eat alone. I never thought it was odd to eat by myself in a restaurant at lunch. Certainly there were plenty of other solo diners around me. It seems like an effective way to eat and get back to work.

Eating with another person has its place: more elaborate preparations, more time spent together, good conversation, no diversions from media, and ultimately more to clean up. Eating alone also had its place: a shorter time from start to finish, a relaxing silence where one can focus on the food, an embrace of the diversions offered by media, and a quick clean up. Eating in company is work. Eating alone is less work. Both can be enjoyable.

I was reminded of these facts while reading a recent post from Eric Kim, a senior editor at the Food 52 website. His article, This Solo Dining Trend is Changing the Way People Eat, highlights a growing food movement in South Korea, honbap, that emphasizes eating alone in public. Public dining has generally been the domain of pairs or groups of eaters. Solo eaters often feel exposed and perhaps even stigmatized. The honbap movement aims to make solo dining a positive experience. It has influenced both diners’ behaviors, menus and restaurant design. In the U.S., this is a practice that always had followers, whether of necessity or by choice. One could argue that the restaurant bar affords a “table for one” without a reservation, and without judgement. The bar menu has all the elements of single dining in both portion and price.

Some restaurants are already opening their dining rooms to singles, recognizing that sitting at the bar is not always convenient or comfortable. Serving a single customer, diligently and caringly, is still rare enough that doing so will almost certainly guarantee a return visit.

My interest with this trend was sparked by another point in Kim’s post. An important influence on Korean social media, and former K-Pop Girls Generation singer, Tiffany Young, has embraced and popularized honbap. She did so by posting a video of eating ramen by herself on YouTube. In that post she outlines a series of increasingly challenging honbap situations, urging others to follow her lead in eating alone in public places that are considered less welcoming to solo diners. Here is her list:

  1. Eating kimbap or ramen alone
  2. Eating at a cafeteria or food court alone
  3. Eating at a fast food restaurant alone
  4. Eating at a cafe alone
  5. Eating at a Chinese or naengmyeon restaurant alone
  6. Eating at a popular date-night restaurant alone
  7. Eating at a family restaurant alone
  8. Eating at a Korean BBQ restaurant alone
  9. Drinking alone at a bar

Kim points out that many of these situations are Korean specific, but it doesnt take much effort to insert the U.S. equivalent of a naengmyeon (pizza instead of noodles) or a Korean BBQ (fine dining). Similarly, Americans may be more comfortable drinking alone at a bar. We should reorder Young’s levels as well, switching 1 and 3 perhaps, or 6 and 7. An American list, then, for climbing the ladder of solo dining might look like this:

  1. Eating from a food truck alone
  2. Eating in a fast food restaurant alone
  3. Eating in a cafeteria or food court alone
  4. Eating in a coffee house or cafe alone
  5. Drinking alone at a bar
  6. Eating in an ethnic restaurant alone
  7. Eating in a family restaurant alone
  8. Eating in white table cloth restaurant alone
  9. Eating at a popular date-night restaurant alone
  10. Eating at a high-end, fine dining restaurant alone

I don’t know what prize you would win if you actually accomplished these ten solo dining experiences. Maybe it would only be the satisfaction of knowing that you successfully participated in this new food movement. Or, maybe you would discover an approach to tasting food that was more mindful. Andrea Camilleri’s popular detective hero, Commissario Montalbano, always insists on eating alone, or if that is unavoidable, at least eating in silence. It remains to be seen if this food practice will take hold among American diners.

For the Love of It

Wayne Booth (1921-2005) was a long-serving professor of English Literature at the University of Chicago, and through his landmark work, The Rhetoric of Fiction, he helped establish the basis for rhetorical literary criticism. He wrote many other books, but my favorite is For the Love of It: Amateuring & Its Rivals (University of Chicago Press, 1999). This is the book I am most likely to give as a graduation present. It speaks to me like no other book I’ve ever encountered. To understand why, I have to reveal a bit about myself. I am truly happy when I am engaged in learning something new. This had been a truth about me ever since I was a child. As a result, I have had many interests over the years. I once made a list of my various engagements ( my wife calls them, not altogether inaccurately, “obsessions”) for my daughter a few years ago. It was over a page and half long, single spaced! There were probably many more that I explored, but that failed to grab my attention. Once I am fully committed to a project, I will follow it through for anywhere from three to five years. Then, it is time to look for the next new thing. I even picked a profession that is so broad I can focus on many different topics in depth, and still be within the mainstream of the discipline. I have one life-long passion, cooking and baking, and even here my interests wax and wane across the world’s cuisines and various cooking techniques over time, as evidenced by the bookshelves groaning with cookbooks bought in the pre-internet days. My projects have involved book learning, sport and fitness, listening to different forms of music, crafting, and writing. You might say I am accommodating to an attention deficit condition, as I flit from project to project. You might ask what I have to show for all this manic learning? Could all that energy and drive not have been focused on becoming a true expert in at least one of these interests? When guest remark on the quality of the food I serve by suggesting I should open a restaurant, I am truly perplexed. Why would I do that? It would take all the fun out of cooking.

Into this storm of self doubt, Wayne Booth provides me with both the apology and the direction for my manias: the importance of doing something for love, rather than gain. As he tells it, he had the good fortune to marry a woman who was a professional violinist. From time to time, handsome young men would appear at their front door with instrument cases under their arms, and whisk his wife away to an evening of quartet or ensemble playing.  So, to have an excuse to tag along, he took up the cello at the age of 31. No one takes up the cello at that age! The fingers will never be nimble enough. No matter how much you practice, you can not compete professionally with people who began playing the instrument as children. He persisted initially because he wanted to fully participate in the life his wife was leading. But soon he was playing for the love of it. He discovered fellow students, teachers, workshops, summer camps, and performance opportunities that were geared to adult musicians with his skill level. Pursuing his instrument ushered him into situations that he characterises as among the most meaningful individual experiences of his life.

But why do this?  Booth says that if anything is worth doing (emphasis on the ‘worth’), it is worth doing badly! It’s not an original quote. That just means he was not the first to try to describe the value-added of amateuring: joyful friendship, ecstatic transport beyond oneself, and gratitude for life’s unearned gifts! If that strikes you somewhat overwrought, then you don’t know what you are missing!

Amateuring is the antidote to a neoliberal work ethic, a world that demands that we pursue gain, that we plan our time to best advantage, that we develop our acquaintances strategically, and that we practice the nimble arts of opportunity seizing.  Amateuring accomplishes none of these. It is useless. That is its greatest virtue. It has nothing to do with killing time or escaping from boredom. Because it often involves rigorous, demanding technique that can never be completely mastered, the pursuit of the thing suspends the linear flow of time. Playing the instrument, painting the canvas, knitting the sweater,  constructing the dish take us nowhere. We are materially no better off than when we started. In fact, it may even have cost us money.

In the spirit of this season of graduation speeches, I recommend the possibilities of amateuring as a life goal to young people. Even if they flit from activity to activity, as I did, as long as they are moving forward in the pursuit of the ‘useless,’ they will be happier people.

Buffet Dreams

Sometimes you have to leave home to get a perspective on the things you take for granted. For anyone who travels, the hotel breakfast buffet can be an oasis of culinary inspiration, and at other times a scared landscape of desolation. I’m writing this from the table of a Hilton Hotel in Philadelphia with an outstanding buffet in the American style. There is very little innovation here (with the exception of slices of smoked salmon by the yogurt and cereal selections), but the quality is consistently high. Yes, I sampled everything. It’s my responsibility to you, dear reader. You expect nothing less.

The more common breakfast buffet experience is about as pleasant as hospital food. I wouldn’t be surprised if it all didn’t come from the same food service supplier: stale cereal, doughy waffles, cheap breads and rolls, tasteless pastries, rubber eggs, sausages that taste more line spicy candy bars than pork, bacon so thin it crumbles as you try to put it in your plate, watery juices, and brownish water for coffee. In contrast, today’s breakfast had eggs scrambled from something that came in a shell, rather than a paper carton, sausages that a butcher would be proud to call her own, thick, hot, steel-cut oatmeal, really ripe melon, berries and pineapple chunks, fresh breads and pastries that looked like a human had actually made them. Did I mention the smoked salmon? Some of you will remember my post on a breakfast in a hotel in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a few years ago. I’m sorry to say that Philadelphia is too far south on the Atlantic coast for its guests to expect a pot of baked beans in their breakfast buffet. And too far north for them to feast on grits or biscuits and gravy. The lack of a regional identity to the offerings can be forgiven as long as the quality of the usual and customary fare is high, and it was superb.

But we can go even further. The mother of all breakfast buffets is one I encountered in Berlin. It happens to be at the Crown Plaza off Kurfürstendam, the center of the city’s commercial district. This hotel caters to travelers from all over the world. So, it’s breakfast buffet, which is included in the price of the room (a European practice that I wish American hotels would adopt), is the most diverse I have even seen. For travelers from the Atlantic Coast and the, British Isles, there was chocolate ( yeah, that’s a breakfast thing in Holland), kippers, bangers, streaky bacon, mushrooms, and grilled tomatoes. For those from Scandinavia, several kinds of herring, pickles and rye flat breads. For visitors from Eastern Europe and Russian, there were mayonnaise salads, sourdough rye breads and fine salumi. For France, they provided a great baguette and perfectly ripe, white-rind cheeses. But wait! That’s not all. For guests from the Middle East, they offer numerous spreads and salads with fresh pita. Those who have traveled from China and Southeast Asia have a choice of two soups, as well as rice porridge with several savory add-ins. For Japanese diners, there is fragrant steamed rice with natto. They offered perfectly cooked soft boiled eggs in the shell and freshly scrambled eggs in a warmer. A cook in a starched white tunic stood ready to take any egg order you wanted, from poached to omelets of any combination. The coffee was available as a drip brew or as an espresso. A barista stood nearby to assist you in preparing your café au lait with whatever dairy or non-dairy “milk” you prefer. The tea selection was superb. There were red, oolong, and green brews prepared at the perfect temperature. Or you could order a fresh pot from the barista. The juices were all fresh pressed. The fruit selection was seasonally appropriate and carefully prepared. The pastries were hand-made viennoise. The tea cakes were of the drier, intensely flavored variety preferred by Central Europeans. The croissants were so fresh that they shattered into an explosion of flakes. We had four nights in this hotel and four breakfasts. We never ate the same breakfast twice.

What message was this buffet sending to the guests? “You are welcome here” might be an obvious answer, but it isn’t the only one. “We are a distinctive and discriminating establishment that knows the world and the diversity of its breakfasts” is another one. After all this hotel is located in that part of Berlin that has always been considered a showplace of consumption, from the Kaufhaus des Westens diagonally across the street the Europa Center one block away. But there are more. “Guests at our hotel are comfortable with diversity and enthusiastic about sampling breakfast items from around the world, including those of your home country.” And finally, “We invite you to travel a little further and experience the breakfasts of another land at our sumptuous buffet.” Can you imagine such messages being conveyed at the breakfasts of the highway hotels in the Untied States? Or even the more stately city hotels, like the one I am currently staying in? This strikes me as just one more sign that the current jingoism in pubic forum in the U.S. was predetermined in the breakfast offerings of the nation’s hotels. Breakfast is destiny!

Men Playing Dress up

I have always liked wearing uniforms. Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, High School Band were attractive to me for lots of other reasons, but the best part was dressing up to meet with your co-ornati. Yes, the Latin word for uniform is ornatus, the same root as ornament and ornate. I was of a member a fraternity in high school where we decked ourselves out in tuxedos, capes and swords! So, you can see where I’m coming from with uniforms.

Takay, Dec 2001/Jan 2002, in.pinterest.com

Takay, Dec 2001/Jan 2002, in.pinterest.com

The more time I spend in Vienna, Austria, the city that has been the site of my ethnographic research for over forty years, the more I find points of connection between my costume-love and the clothing priorities of the people who have deeper roots in this place. Paintings of ‘turn of the (20th) century’ Vienna portray men taking every opportunity they had to wear uniforms. There were hundreds of possibilities: every military regiment had their own colors and regalia. Some of the hats alone were two feet high! The university had a uniform for everyday wear, apart from the gowns worn at graduation and such cermonies. Doctors had a uniform. Lawyers had a uniform. Officials of the government wore uniforms. Tram conductors were very proud of their uniforms.. Housemaids  wore uniforms that have since become Halloween cliches. The various ministers and members of religious orders each had their own, some of which were just as elaborate as the military uniforms. The different guilds had their uniforms. You could tell a carpenter from a butcher by what they wore when they were not working. Bankers all wore the same clothes, just like today. And there were social class uniforms too. And today, we find various uniforms in and around hospitals, military installations, stations for first responders, clubs for post-punk musicians, and sports events, to name only the most obvious.

At a theater last week, I came across a room full of men wearing uniforms. The women were more individual. It was much harder to discern common patterns. I’m sure someone who is more knowledgeable  of women’s fashions could have written a good analysis of them, but I’m too ignorant to do so. With the men, however, the elements of the uniform were clearer. Some of them, like the fellow in this picture, seemed to have stepped right out of a painting of a charity ball from 1900!

Photo: R. Rotenberg, 2017

Photo: R. Rotenberg, 2017

This fellow is a master in the guild of miners. They have a technical school in Vienna.  One sees these uniforms on the street often. I find the brass buttons on the coal black gabardine cloth really beautiful. It’s is actually unlawful for me to wear one in public, but more about that in a minute.

The other uniforms were more subtle. There was the standard, middle class sport jacket with tie, the artsy sport jacket without tie, sweater with tie, and sweater without tie. But no one had fewer than two layers on their torso.

Fashion and Self-Fashioning: Clothing Regulation in Renaissance Italy, Medievalists.net

Fashion and Self-Fashioning: Clothing Regulation in Renaissance Italy, Medievalists.net

Who can and cannot wear what has a long history in this Europe. Sumptuary Laws, as they are called, originated back in the day (late 13th century) when laws that reinforced religious morality were more common (I heard that snicker!). In particular, they helped people avoid the Christian sins of pride and greed. If you were punished for wearing garments that were too expensive for your level of earning, you had a good reason not to buy them.  Such laws are not exclusive to Europe. They existed in Ancient Greece, Rome, China, Tokugawa Japan,  and Medieval Islam. Most of the laws were directed at woman, both to limit ostentatious dress and to make it easier to identify prostitutes. Only they wore red dyed fabric in public.  The laws also made it possible to identify social rank and privilege. This made it easier to then discriminate against people of lower status than you. Uniforms were actually described in law for different occupations and statuses. That’s why the minor cannot wear my academic robes and I cannot wear his guild suit of ‘brass on black.’

These remnants of the sumptuary laws are a good example of what Bourdieu described as the internalised structures, dispositions, tendencies, habits, and ways of acting, that are both individualistic and yet typical of the social group, community, family, and historical position, while at the same time, an individual trace through this entire collective repertoire (1990).

Who is Ethical Hacker? | White Hat, Black Hat & Grey Hat Explained , YouTube

Who is Ethical Hacker? | White Hat, Black Hat & Grey Hat Explained , YouTube

So, this got me thinking what kinds of uniforms we might design for callings in life that were never imagined in the Classical and Medieval world. What might the uniform for computer hackers look like?  Which elements would be included and which specifically excluded? White hats and black hats, perhaps, but what style of hat? Baseball cap? Hipster fedora? Top Hat? Or,  member of the guild of direct mail soliciting for political candidates, polling, or charities. They are otherwise invisible and therefore, deserve a uniform.

Writeups.org

Drawing of Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, Writeups.org

Or, anthropologists! When I was first starting in the discipline, the AAA meetings had an opening ceremony on Thursday night (they were only three days long up until the late 1970s). Everyone put on clothing from the place where they did their research. This was appropriation then and downright insulting now. That option is out. Nor is it feasible for every archaeologist to wear an Indiana Jones hat and carry a bullwhip, though I have known archaeologists who have tried to pull that off (not recently). It would also not be the right thing for all of us to don the white lab coat of the bioanthropologist. Only a small portion of them wear such things even in their labs.

So, I invite you to offer your own designs. What selection of ornati would you recommend to recognize each other and be recognized for our special knowledge of the world?

Works Cited:

Bourdieu, P. (1990) The Logic of Practice. Cambridge: Polity.

 

Paella!

The British chef Jamie Oliver created a tempest in the kitchen last week when he offered a recipe for Paella that included chorizo in the sofrito, the flavored oil that begins the process of cooking the rice and other ingredients. Social media lit up like a pinball machine with tweets lambasting the Naked Chef for a violations of some sort of food commandment. It is not as if this globally popular cook had never tasted paella in Spain.

This put me in mind of all those other instances in which the authenticity of a particular way of preparing a dish stands for defending the authenticity  of some group’s historical or social integrity. In this case, the good people of Valencia were impugned by the addition of a Spanish sausage to a Spanish dish. They are their paella, and their paella is Valencia.

This of utter nonsense, of course. It is romantic nationalism of the most egregious sort and stinks of the exclusionary nativist bullshit that is all too common in our current political moment. The truth is that there are hundreds of ways of preparing paella. Every province, every town, every restaurant, every home cook plays with the combination of braising rice in a flavored oil and flavored broth over high heat with other vegetable and proteins added along the way. According to David Rosengarten in a recent article in Savour, the dish “probably dates to the early 1800s and consists of saffron-scented rice cooked with rabbit, chicken, local snails called vaquetes, and three types of beans: a broad string bean called ferraura, a lima-like dried bean called garrofo, and a white bean called tavella.[Saveur, “The Art of Paella” (accessed 21 July 2015)]” This recipe worked well for over a hundred years as a rice dish cooked outdoors over a wood fire. The growth of tourism on Spain’s East Coast beginning in the 1960s changed all that. Tourists balked at the snails and the beans, inspiring variations in the protein ingredients. The cooking moved indoors to gas ovens. No more smokey wood! Today, a restaurant menu will offer paella Valenciana, and then as many as nine variations. The smoke of the original fire now replaced by the addition of smoked paprika, the main flavoring ingredient, by the way, in chorizo!

My authority for all things Spanish kitchen is Penelope Casas, an American who met her Spanish husband while studying abroad in the 1960s, lived her entire adult life in Spain, and published her seminal food ethnography, The Foods and Wines of Spain in 1972. It is still in print. She went on educate English readers to the variations of paella (1999), de-mystify tapas (1985), and celebrate Spanish home cooking (2005). She died in 2013. Even a cursory glance at the explorations of Paella across Spain in both restaurants and home kitchens shows that far fro being the regimented recipe of the imagination of Valenianian regionalists, paella is a canvas that is used to explore and celebrate the variety of Spanish ingredients. There is even one paella, prepared by the Clarisa nuns of the Santa Clara convent in Briviesca in the province of Burgos in the heart of Castile, in which the sofrito is flavored with chorizo. It also features green and black olives with red peppers, peas, and ham [Casas, Paella!: the Spectacular Rice Dishes from Spain, 1999, page 106-7)].

I guess they don’t know how to cook paella either

 

Kasha Varnishkas

Each of us is responsible for taking some piece of our parents and grandparents knowledge about the world into the future. If we don’t do this, who will? Wouldn’t the world be a more dangerous place if the only people who knew how to make pickles were huge corporations? The piece of that past that I am carrying forward is home cooking. I’ve been building my knowledge of what to cook and how to make it since I was a boy watching my grandmother make the foods I loved to eat. She would role out her own strudel dough on a bed sheet on the kitchen table until it was so thin you could read a newspaper through it. I still don’t know how to do that. She was gone before I had a chance to make strudel dough with her. I tried to make up for that by learning everything else that grandmothers around the world knew how to make, or at least dishes they were willing to teach their children, who then wrote cookbooks, food blogs, or You Tube videos, all of which I search out to learn to cook something new, forcing my long suffering wife, Sonja, to sample. Fortunately, I live in a diverse metropolis with many shops specializing in groceries from all over the world. But that is the subject for another time.

Last night I made Kasha Varnishkas as I do at least once a year, usually in winter. Sonja didn’t like this particular version. I had not roasted the buckwheat properly and the distinctive nuttiness of the grain was missing. She is my toughest critic. I can’t get anything by her. In one of its many variations, Kasha Varnishkas is a combination of four primary ingredients : cooked buckwheat (whole grain or milled groats of various sizes), onions, crimini mushrooms, and medium shell pasta. My grandmother made it for my father, sending a bowl of it home with him. He visited her on his way home from work every day. This ‘present’ was to my mother’s chagrin, since Grandma didn’t bother to ask her if she had anything planned for dinner. Dad preferred Grandma’s cooking over Mom’s any day. So did I. Mom wasn’t a bad cook. She was the product of the mid-twentieth century. Her imagination had been captured by ‘convenience’ processed foods. She knew better. Her mother was a great cook and taught her youngest daughter everything she knew. There was no organ in any domestic animal that my mother could not cook five different ways. For decorum’s sake you should trust me here when I insist that her skills extended to every organ. She insisted that nothing should be wasted long before contemporary chefs popularized the idea of respecting the whole animal.

Kaska is the Russian word for porridge or gruel. For Russians it refers to any toasted grain cooked in a liquid until it softens. For Jews, kasha means buckwheat porridge. When these grains are toasted and cooked in water or stock, they form a mush, like oatmeal, that has a pleasing nutty flavor. If after roasting you allow the grains to cool, and then fold in a beaten egg yolk, giving the grains an hour or so to absorb it, when you then cook the grains in liquid they soften, but remain intact, like steamed rice. This was the preferred method for cooking buckwheat kasha among Ashkenazi Jews.

Varnishkas is the Yiddish form of the Russian word varenichki, the diminutive of vareniki. These are small, stuffed dumplings like Italian tortellini. The word can refer to any filled dumpling. For Eastern Jews, buckwheat kasha was a preferred filling for anything that could be stuffed. It filled bread dough pouches, like Spanish, actually Sephardic, empanadas. It filled potato dough, like Polish pierogi (Yiddish: kreplach). It filled strudel dough like a Turkish börek, at which point it became my Grandma’s kasha knish, the all-time favorite food of my boyhood. It was to make knishes that my grandmother rolled out that ultra-thin strudel dough.

The dish that Jews call Kasha Varnishkas, ironically, involves no stuffed dough of any kind. Instead, al dente pasta is folded into the liquid the buckwheat is cooking in with about five minutes to go. Mark Bittman and many other Jewish cooks insist that this must be falfalle, the bowtie shaped pasta. My Grandma disagreed with everyone else, as she so often did, and insisted on using medium pasta shells. She said they filled up with the kasha, and therefore tasted better. Neither the bow tie nor shell shapes are original to the dish. They both were adopted after immigration to the U.S. Joan Nathan cites the 1925 edition of the Settlement House Cookbook, a late edition of the first Jewish cookbook in English, where the recipe for Kasha Varnishkas is indeed kasha stuffed into little circles of dough and sealed, like Turkish mante, and served boiled with sour cream!

Of course, there is more to Kasha Varnishkas than pasta and buckwheat. Ask any Jew what the dominant flavor of Kasha Varnishkas is and they undoubtedly will say cooked onions. No less an authority on Jewish cooking than Claudia Roden insists the onions were always added after the pasta, so as not to diminish their assertive sweetness. It’s the same with mushrooms. Use chopped crimini and the flavor is lost in mix. Use bolitis or shiitake and the mushroom asserts itself against the onion. Both of these are strong umani flavors that are easily eclipsed if added to the buckwheat at the same time as the stock, itself full of umani flavor. Salt and pepper are added early and then again at the end to add balance in the final dish.

And then there is that last, secret ingredient: the fat from some form of fowl. For my Grandma, it was chicken fat. For me, it is the goose or duck fat I save from project cooking with these fowl around the holidays. Why add the fat? Aside from the few teaspoons required to fry the onions or mushrooms, some fat at the end brings everything together. This is true of other European dishes as well, whether it is olive oil or butter added at the end of the cooking to bring out the richness of the dish. For Eastern Jews, that function is performed by fat rendered from a fowl. Those two tablespoons will not be noticed in the six to eight cups of the finished Kasha Varnishkas, except in their absence.

A dish of Kasha Varnishkas is not only tasty on its own. It plays very well with roasted meats and tofu. When I eat it, I think of Grandma and all the things I should have asked her about the foods she knew and how she adapted them after immigrating. Was pasta ever added to other grains, like barley or millet? Did she ever add nuts to enhance the nuttiness of the buckwheat? What did she use for pasta before she found boxes of dried shell shaped pasta in American markets? Did she ever stuff dough as the original Settlement House Cookbook suggests? I’ll never know. That’s why I keep making these dishes, carrying them into the future before they, too, are lost.