Food Chimeras

A chimera (kí-mer-ah) is a fantastic three-in-one beast first described by Homer in the Iliad. It had the head and body of a lioness, the tail of a serpent and emerging from the lion’s back, the neck and head of a goat that breathed fire! Over time the chimera has been taken up by other cultures influenced by the Greeks. The combination of features and qualities would change to meet local sensibilities. In Medieval Europe, chimera icons were often incorporated in illuminated manuscripts to depict the raw forces of nature, as well as hypocrisy and fraud. Chimeras were satanic creatures. They have remained popular in fantasy literature, film and television today and are featured in many video games. I’ve never come across a chimera in contemporary arts who was an ally. They are mostly creatures one needs to destroy. Chimeras are very much a meme of the moment.
Chimeras are metaphors, the most popular and productive way of developing new meanings in language. The recipe is simple. You take two (or more) things that are very different from each other and then speak of them as if they were the same thing. “All the worlds a stage” combines the ‘world’ with the image of a theatrical performance. But the world is not really a stage; it’s a world. It is only a stage in speech. Both the world and stage are next to each, but the actual connection between them is called juxtaposition, side-by-side as if their edges were touching (Can words have edges? another metaphor!). Metaphors exist in all modes of communication: speech is the most common (Homer’s description of the chimera), but also visual modes (a mosaic or a statue of a chimera), auditory modes (a recording of lion roars, goat bleats and serpent hisses, simultaneously), olfactory (imagine the smells of those animals combined), and haptic (a menacing presence which suggests a chimera through shadows and flashes of recognition). To transmute a metaphor is to take it from one mode to another: from a literary description to a mosaic to a statue, to a sound recording or song, to a (noxious) perfume to a special effect in movie or video game, while still retaining the qualities that give meaning to the original metaphor. It should not surprise us that the underlying logic of the chimera will proliferate in popular culture. Like all metaphors, it offers a fertile ground for the imagination.
My list of modes in which chimeras may dwell has omitted one important mode. Up until recently, I did not find much evidence of the chimera in the taste of food. Obviously no one is going to sit down to a burger that combines lion, goat and snake! But such a literal interpretation of the chimera misses the qualities that make the gustatory mode of communication work. Metaphors in this mode push our tastes to the limit and ask us to imagine the possibilities of tastes that have never existed before, just as Homer’s chimera was a beast that had never existed before, a singularity. Creating a new taste would be a truer transmutation of the chimera into the realm of foods.
I’ve been thinking about chimera foods lately based on several experiences I’ve had while living in Vienna this autumn. The first is the street food called Currywurst and the second is the bakery curiosity known as the Laugencroissant, or Laugenkipferl. These are both chimeras, even though neither of them contains any lion, goat or snake.

The story goes that Currywurst originated in Berlin in 1949 when an sausage stand owner named Herta Heuwer was given some Worcestershire sauce and curry powder by occupying British troops. She mixed them with tomato paste as a substitute for the hard to obtain ketchup that was a regular condiment for pork sausage that she sold at her kiosk. (Slackman, Michael, “National Dish Comes Wrapped in Foreign Flavoring”. The New York Times Jan. 26, 2011). This is the stuff of myth. That is not how such things originate. It is more likely that several snack food owners had been experimenting with alternatives for ketchup during the war years and that the curry ketchup now served with pork sausage was the outcome of this collective experimentation (Petra Foede, Wie Bismarck auf den Hering kam. Kulinarische Legenden. Kein & Aber, Zürich 2009; ISBN 978-3-0369-5268-0). This way of serving sausage has spread throughout the sausage stands of the German-speaking world.  I did not have chance to eat Currywurst when I was in Berlin, but I did eat it in Vienna. The server took an ordinary bratwurst, a pork sausage similar to an mild Italian salsiccia (N.B. this is not the same as what is called bratwurst in North America). He cut sausage into pieces on its paper plate, dusted it with a bright yellow curry powder. He then picked up a plastic squeeze bottle containing a think brown sauce and squirted this all over the sausage.

 

That sauce tasted more like a sweet mango chutney than a tomato ketchup,

but ketchup is itself within the family of chutneys. Kecap/ketjap refers to any fermented sauce in Indonesia, which is where the flavor profile of modern ketchup originated. Sweet chutneys have the same flavor profile, but add vegetables or fruits that are salt-pickled before being cooked in the spices.  The stuff served with Currywurst isn’t really a tomato ketchup with curry powder, although in supermarkets I have seen bottles of curry ketchup that are little more than that, and tomato paste continues to be an ingredient in curry ketchups. The street version is an entirely new approach to ketchup: sweeter, and sourer at the same time, with fruit accents in the aroma and the taste. In fact, the only quality that is similar to tomato ketchup is the consistency. The sprinkling curry powder was almost tasteless. It had none of the acidic bite of the cumin and powdered cayenne in most well made powders. One could imagine a full-bore Indian curry with sausage as the focal ingredient. But Currywurst would not be that dish. In Berlin, though not in Vienna, the Currywurst is often served with French fried potatoes. That suggests to me that the sauce is actually the taste appeal of the dish. Currywurst is a chimera. It juxtaposes three classes of food, sausage, potatoes and a curry ketchup to produce a taste where the elements remain separate, but still combine.

The second chimera food I encountered is the Laugenkipferl.

Laugenkipferl

This is a cross between a croissant (Kipferl in German) and a pretzel. Just to add an exclamation point to the beast, the baker will sprinkle some sesame seeds or course salt grains on the top.  “Wait,” you say, “those are two completely different textures! how can you combine them?” You got it in one! That combination of textures is what makes this a chimera. The secret to a pretzel’s texture is that the dough is briefly boiled in a solution of sodium carbonate (washing soda, soda ash). This salt is used to regulate acidity, keep powders from caking in high humidity, and when mixed with mild acids will produce carbon dioxide gas and  cause a dough to rise.  It is one of the components of the alkaline salts used to give raman noodles their characteristic flavor and texture. In China, it is used in the crust of traditional Cantonese moon cakes, and in many other Chinese steamed buns and noodles. It is also used in the production of the sherbet ice cream. When we eat sherbet the heat of our mouths causes a chemical reaction between the sodium carbonate and citric acid in the flavoring that releases carbon dioxide gas and gives us the cooling and fizzing sensation associated with sherbet.  But back to the Laugenkipferl. After boiling, the pretzel dough is then baked. The heat of the oven causes a very strong Mailliard reaction on the surface of the pretzel resulting in the characteristic brown color. Small amounts of sodium carbonate on the surface also result in a distinctive “drying” sensation when we eat a pretzel.

A croissant, as readers of this blog know, is my favorite breakfast food. It is made from yeasted, puff pastry. This in itself is a delicate balance of forces. Puff pastry has tons of butter in it. The butter and yeasted dough are folded and rolled many times to create thin, alternating layers of butter and dough.  Yeast and butter do not get along very well. To make them work together takes patience and skill. The dough must be allowed to rise after rolling and shaping until it has doubled. The croissant is a stunning achievement of the baking arts. To this balancing act, the inventors of the Laugenkipferl take the risen dough and throw it in boiling solution of sodium carbonate. Then they bake it. The yeast continue to grow and produce gas (carbon dioxide and water vapor) that is trapped between the butter layers of the dough, causing the pastry to rise dramatically and produce the swirling diaphanous interior crumb and bicolor segments on the outside.  The result is a juxtaposition of textures: pretzel on the outside, croissant on the inside.

 

 

Dominique Ansel, the New York pastry chef, invented the cronut a few yeas back. That is a croissant/donut chimera. Croissant is arguably a pastry that lends itself to combining with other textures. With the Laugenkipferl we have a combination that is regionally meaningful: love of pretzels plus love of croissants equals love of Laugenkipferl. And they are not just for breakfast anymore. The bakeries will sell them to you stuffed with ham and lettuce.  This could give bánh mì shops (Vietnamese sandwich shops that fill mini-baguettes with Southeast Asian ingredients) a run for their money. Consider: a Laugenkipferl stuffed with Currywurst!  That’s a chimera worthy of Homer.  

 

 

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A Meditation on Tipping

Tipping is one of the everyday experiences of living in a new place that makes you immediately aware of being away from home. When at home, I understand food service workers, taxi drivers, package delivery people, hotel bellhops, and valet parking drivers to be among the more poorly paid workers. I tip to the maximal extent of the socially acceptable range. I don’t usually think too much about how that range comes about.

We need to start several thousand years ago to understand the moral basis of this outwardly simple exchange. The word ‘gratuity’ is the same as the word ‘grace’, ‘congratulations’,  and ‘charisma’, but also merci, grazie, and gracias! [1] They all derive from a word-root found in the southeast range of Indo-European languages, exemplified by the Sanskrit gir, a song or hymn of praise, but also of grace, or to give thanks. [2] These come into the northwestern languages through the Greek Χάρις (Charis), charity. Benveniste notes that this semantic heritage requires us to understand ‘gratuity’ not as a isolated grant or benefit, but as the locally-correct behavior governing relationship between kin, between strangers, between socially superior and inferior persons, and between dependent and independent persons.

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Gratuities are given not in order to obtain an economic return but to give pleasure within the parameters of these relations. “Rounding up’ as the servers make change sees their task with almost no effort on the diners’ part. As such tips exist alongside ordinary exchanges, but operate from a different social logic: they calculate social position instead of value. We can exchange in many ways with other people: “pleasures, woes, secrets, marriageable children, insults, vengeance, hospitality, conversation, stories or songs, and above all gifts, but the economic justification for exchanges based on a calculation of value is subsidiary or lacking altogether.” [3]

Gratuities are double-edged. They can be used to honor or to shame, express sympathy or to make one feel needy. If the tip is too large or too small for the context, it can humiliate or incite anger. This is why we feel anxiety around tipping. If you get the amount wrong, even a small gift can have the unintended effects.

A gratuity in a restaurant or taxi is a paradox. It is a gesture that purports to be complete in itself. It only requires acceptance to active its goal, which is to establish a tie of mutual respect between the giver and receiver. Here is the paradox: that tie almost always ends as soon as the tip is received. It cannot be given with the intention of receiving anything in return since the service was already completed. The expectation of a future relationship between the parties is contingent on factors beyond the control of either. If a tip is given in expectation of future service, it abuses the notion of generosity. And if it is not given in the hope of some return favor, then the receiver could interpret it as a gesture of pity, an arrogant demonstration of the superiority of the giver.  This ambiguity could be resolved by the size of the tip. When does the receiver of a tip feel honored rather than humbled? When the size of the award exceeds expectations. Where do these expectations come from? The tips of other patrons. In this way, an auction of sorts ensues the end result of which is a growth in honorable tips from 5% to 10% to 15% to 20%, and in the future, farther still.

The tipping practices are not confined to their place of origin. People travel. The effect of Americans in Vienna is bizarre. Servers come to expect that those patrons identified as Americans, Canadians or Mexicans (primarily through their accent in English and/or their inability to communicate in German) will leave a 15-20% tip, “as is the custom in their country”. If they don’t, the servers feel ‘stiffed!’ Place of origin determines the rules of morality, a very Roman concept (natio) but one that is alive and well in Viennese tourist districts.

Notes

1. The English word ‘thank’ shares the same semantic space as these words, but derives from think and seemingly has nothing to do with gratuity, except in practice.

2. Benveniste, Emile. 1969. Le Vocabulaire des institutions indo-européennes, Vol. 1, Economie, parenté, société. Paris: Editions de Minuit. P. 199.

3. Pitt-Rivers, J. , 2011, The place of grace in anthropology. HAU 1(1). DOI:http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau1.1.017.

The Viennese Brunch Bunch

While walking down a main street in Vienna at 11:15 AM this fine Saturday morning, I was struck by the crowd in the Josef Brot bakery. This is one of four artisan bakers left in city that once had an artisan bakery on every block! I wasn’t buying the $8, 1lb. loaf of handmade, organic bread, but I went inside anyway to see what they were offering. That’s when I notice a large, full dining room to the side of the bakery counter and a line of people waiting for tables.

BRUNCH! I wrote an article about Viennese mealtimes back in 1981 and brunch was not one of those mealtimes then. I wasn’t so much surprised to see people eating a meal at 11:00 AM on a Saturday as I was drawn to the sheer size of the crowd, and the number of people at the tables. It was Brooklyn-esque in it’s magnitude.

 

 

Just the previous day, I had the pleasure to read Adam Yuet Chau’s article on menues, Culinary Subjectification: The translated world of menus and orders. The premise of the article is intriguing: “How would one translate the word “menu” (i.e., restaurant menu) into the native languages of people without any experience of restaurants and menus? And how would you explain to them how ordering from the menu works? It quickly became clear that translating the word “menu” entails not only translating the world of restaurant-going and ordering from the menu but also our (i.e., ideal-typically Western) very conceptual and social world, which is another way to say that what seems to be a humble piece of paper listing a certain number of dishes is itself made by the world in which it is found and in turn contributes in a significant way to making that world.”

His conclusion is that a menu is a world defining artifact, a cosmo-menu that is “[m]ore than merely a piece of paper (or cardboard), the menu is at once a parole
(though the broader menu universe carries langue qualities), a cultural logic (or
menu-logic?), a sociocognitive tool, a generative and structuring principle, a narrative,
an organizational device (conceptual, taxonomic, as well as social), a civilizing machine, a conduit of (culinary) governmentality, an ideological vehicle (e.g.,
about choice, freedom, taste, culturedness, civility, cosmopolitanism, social class,
etc.), an ideological state apparatus in the Althusserian sense, a textographic fetish
or text act, and so on.” He explains all of these terms in the article for readers who are not cultural anthropologists. Suffice to say, you can read a lot of how people construct their realities from a restaurant menu!

A glance at the menu reveals both Viennese and international items. The first two items on the left are traditional Viennese coffeehouse breakfasts: Several pieces of bread and rolls with marmalade and butter and a soft-boiled egg.  The second adds some fresh white cheese and slices of ham to the plate with the bread and egg. The rest of the menu items are in English and should be familiar to anyone reading this blog. That is its parole, the way it speaks to us in a language we can understand. There is a logic to the arrangements of items, with breakfast items on the left and above the bold line, and more lunch-y items below. The bold line (a textographic fetish?) signals the menu’s iconographic power to ground memories and enact narratives (of breakfasts and lunches). The menu is ideological in that it permits us the freedom to choose from among the items the kitchen can produce. It then demands that we do so (or leave).  The items include both locally indexed dishes and cosmopolitan ones. The menu enacts class distinction by taking a coffeehouse standard and adding locavore adjectives, appealing to educated, aspirational customers.   All the civility of eating out is present: children locked into high chairs, multigenerational parties, public eating decorum (no throwing food, putting feet on table, public drunkenness, etc.).

What struck me as particularly important here was the menu as sociocognitive tool: The people who ordered from this menu, after having stood in line for the privilege of doing so, knew themselves to be people who would order from such a menu. Their identity as Viennese (there were no tourists here) was bound up with this act in ways that were not apparent to me before, having studied Viennese eating patterns since the mid-1970s. This was a new, desirable way of eating in public made possible by the menu. This is a new and a desirable way of being Viennese (the “Brunch Bunch’). Thank you for these tools, Adam Chau!

 

Refugees from that Other War

What does it mean to be the last on one’s generation? As the last remnants of the young Europeans who experienced World War II die, what becomes of those memories? We have the good luck to know one of these persons. Her name is Susanne Bock and she is 97 years old. Though physically frail, she has a sound mind and is still an active intellectual. In fact, she just published her third book.
We had a chance to talk about one of the major features of the war years for her today, her residence in England as a refugee from Austria. She showed us the exhibition catalogue prepared by the director of Verein Kunstplatzl named Sonja Frank, who had interviewed Susi. The exhibition was entitled Austrian Refugees in Britain: The Fight Against Fascism in World War II. It was mounted at The London School of Economics’ Atrium Gallery between November 16 and December 11, 2015.
The refugees who were fighting against fascism were all members of a progressive umbrella organization called the Free Austrian Movement (FAM). This organization provided help to refugees from Austria, coordinated the antifascist actions among its component groups, the support of Austrian fighting in the British army, and assisting the BBC in its propaganda programs aimed at Austrian audiences. The component groups included the entire spectrum of Austrian progressive political organizations, with the conscious exception of the Democratic Socialists, who officially embraced the unification of Austria with Germany.
The exhibition was an effort to capture the experiences of as many individual refugees as possible by interviewing them or their children, by collecting photographs and refugee documents, and by extracting contextual stories from period English and German-language publications. Each refugee that Frank could find information on was given their own entry, with biographical information, activities while in Britain, and photos. As one read through the entries, the commitment and antifascist fervor was evident in every entry. These were the active resistors whose country had been stolen from them, and who were determined to get it back. It is a very different refugee story, one that emphasizes agency rather than victimization.
Sonja was particularly interested in leafing through the catalogue since both her parents were part of this group. She found a short citation about her mother, who was active in the London group before meeting her father.
Susi pointed out that the people featured in the catalogue were primarily the ones located in and around London. There were two other concentrations of young Austrian refugees,, one in Oxford and one in Brighton. By the time Frank was conducting her research, none of the people active in those locations was alive to interview. Sonja’s father, who died in 1993, was living in Oxford and associated with the Czech refugee equivalent of the FAM, even though he was a native German speaker.
Our attention was drawn to Susi when she repeated her statement that Oxford and Brighton were ‘lost.’ This was important enough to her that she wanted to make sure we focused on that. The picture of FAM that we were discovering through the catalogue was an incomplete picture. It would always be incomplete. The research had come too late. Oxford and Brighton were forever lost.

The P.I.C.

I have begun to reread Robert Musil’s “A Man without Qualities,” a huge Austrian novel written between 1930-43. It is considered by literary scholars as one of the greatest novels of last hundred years and is easily compared to the best works of Joyce, Proust, or Mann. I was inspired to re-read it when I encountered a piece last summer by David Auerbach in the Los Angeles Review of Books in which he argues that Trump is not comparable to any of the other populist demagogues in the 20th century because he does not hue to an ideology. Instead, he only seeks to dominate others and not be dominated by anyone. In searching for a personality that accurately prefigures Trump, Auerbach lights on the character of Christian Moosbrugger in Musil’s novel. Moosbrugger is an uneducated carpenter who is also a serial rapist and murderer of women. Brought to account for his crimes, his trial becomes the talk of Vienna because of his eccentric behavior as a defendant. He applauds testimony in court that is damaging to him and basks in the fame and attention the trial affords him, frustrating his lawyers by commenting on the proceedings to the press. He contradicts himself frequently in giving testimony, and does so without a care, as if the truth is only what he chooses to believe in that moment. He is clearly insane, but in the way that people can be insane and still appear to be perfectly rational. This is the quality that fascinates the other characters in the novel, as they read about the case in the newspapers. 

I read the first part of the novel when I was an undergraduate. As with many of the works I read in that period of my life, I remember only the vaguest outlines of the plot and a few images. I even forgot about Moosbrugger. So I dove into this 1800 page monster looking to see what other gems Musil had offered that deserve to be better known as we start the 21st century in earnest. 

I was not disappointed. Only 130 pages into the book, Musil offers a biting critique of the aspirational language of organizations, political platforms included, in the form of a fake logical principle: the Principle of Insufficient Cause. Here is the passage in which Ulrich, the main character, explains the principle to Fischel, a bank manager who had been asked by Count Leinsdorf, a powerful aristocrat in the Austrian Emperor’s inner circle, to join Ulrich and several other notables in organizing a celebration of the Emperor’s 70th year of reign, the same year the German Emperor will be celebrating his 30th year in office, thus demonstrating Austria’s cultural, political and philosophical superiority to its Germanophone neighbor. The bank manager is trying to understand what the Count has written in the letter of invitation that describes what the project is about. That description includes the phrase “the true patriotism, the true Austria and the true progress,” which Fischel finds totally confounding. Ulrich, by the way, is quite cynical about the whole endeavor, but must remain guarded in offering his true opinions so as not to undermine his public reputation as a diplomat and a scholar, a reputation based not on actual accomplishment, but on, yes, the P.I.C. 

“The P.I.C.?” Director Fischel repeated the letters in all innocence, this time not thinking that it was a joke, for although such abbreviations were then not yet as numerous as today, they were familiar from cartels and trusts, and they were very confidence-inspiring. Then, however, he said: “Look, please don’t make jokes. I’m in a hurry, I have a conference.” “The Principle of the Insufficient Cause!” Ulrich explained. “Being a philosopher yourself, you know of course what the principle of the sufficient cause is. Only, people make an exception where they themselves are concerned. In real life, by which I mean our personal and also our public-historical life, what happens is always what has no good cause.” Leo Fischel wavered, undecided whether to contradict him or not. Director Leo Fischel of Lloyd’s Bank enjoyed philosophising (there are still such people in practical occupations), but he was really in a hurry. So he replied: “Don’t pretend you don’t know what I mean. I know what progress is, I know what Austria is, and I dare say I know what patriotism is too. But I don’t know that I can quite imagine what true patriotism, true Austria and true progress are. And that’s what I’m asking you!” “All right. Do you know what an enzyme is? Or a catalyst?” Leo Fischel lifted one hand in a defensive gesture. “It’s something,” Ulrich went on, “that contributes nothing materially, but sets events going. You ought to know from history that there has never been such a thing as the true faith, true morality, and true philosophy. And yet the wars, and all the vileness and viciousness, that have been let loose in their name have fruitfully transformed the world.” “Another time!” Fischel implored, and tried to adopt an air of frankness. “Look, it’s like this, I’ve got to deal with all this on the Stock Exchange and would really like to know what Count Leinsdorf’s actual intentions are. What is he getting at with this supplementary ‘true’ of his?” “I give you my solemn word,” Ulrich replied gravely, “that neither I nor anyone else knows what ‘the true’ is. But I can assure you it is on the point of realisation.”

    The Principle of Insufficient Causes is a jewel of an idea because it is about the catalytic quality of words, the casual force of speech to bring things into the world and set events in motion that are truly transformative. In the case that Ulrich is dealing with, it’s a silly political celebration that will become as all consuming culture event and change people’s lives. In our case, it’s the formulas of populism, the “Make America Great / Put America First” slogans that  mean nothing, but catalyze actions that transform lives. And, I can assure you, it is on the point of realisation. 

    I can’t wait to see what Musil has in store for the next 1700 pages. 

    An Evening of Street Singers

    I’m walking thru the opera passageway from Karlplatz in Vienna, just checking out the new design (they took out the small shops and widened the walkway) when I see this guy walking the other way, singing a pop ditty in a moderate, but happily expressive voice. Of course, no one cared. I wouldn’t have cared either if he wasn’t the second guy I’d seen in five minutes who was singing to himself in public. The other guy was waiting for a train at Landstrasse. So now I’m at Volktheater changing to the U3 to go back to the hostel. Guess what? Another singer! This must be a very happy day for several Viennese. I mean, the weather is finally warming up a bit, but is that a reason to burst into song? Anyway, I’ll forego the urge for the time being.

    Pigeon Olympics

    Walking thru the Westbahnhof underground passageway at Mariahilferstrasse in Vienna is always a delight. The Ubahn station area is separated from the public passageway area by lines of three foot high stanchions, all painted orange. They look like fat croquet gates that have been bent into the shape of flattened keyholes. The passageway itself is open to the street at several places. It is not uncommon to find the occasional pigeon resting or warming itself in there. This particular version was of the mauve and grey breed, a strong, healthy specimen with a broad breast and smooth feathers. He was slaloming the orange barriers. That’s the only way I can label his actions. He would waddle between two stanchions from left to right, and as he rounded the gate, he would reverse direction. He kept this up for four gates! He was clearly in training for the Pigeon Olympics. In case you haven’t seen that reality show, pigeons compete in various events that show off their skills as urban athletes. Individual events include pecking at cigarette butts, “painting” statues with strategically deposited guano (style points for color quality), and of course, the stanchion slalom race. There are flock events as well, including the ever-popular rapid takeoffs from pecking at seeds as trucks drive at them at various speeds. I was quite impressed with the bird’s form and told him so. I’m confident enough in what I saw to place money on Team Vienna’s success in this summer’s games.

    Stupid Hat Contest

    The results are in for the annual Viennese stupid winter hat competition. It was a closer context this year. Several of last year’s runners-up really improved their game in the off season. Thanks to the liberal immigration policy there were several new contenders as well. The award ceremony was conducted on the platform of the U4 subway stop at Wahringer Strasser. The musical stylings of a busking harpist marched the contestants before the judges. In the end, it was a decision between the couple with the pompom caps in contrasting colors of orange and blue (He wore orange; She wore blue), and the old woman with the purple fuzzball clos. And the winner is the purple fuzzball. Thanks to all of this year’s contestants.