Love, Loss, and What We Ate—a review

Love, Loss, and What We Ate—a review

Love Loss

 

I like autobiography.  I like allusions.  I like food.  Love, Loss, and What We Ate (Harper Collins, 2016) by Padma Lakshmi has all three.  The book begins as a recollection of her romance, marriage to, and divorce from celebrated author Salman Rushdie.  The book opens in 2007 with Lakshmi in a residential hotel having just left the New York townhouse she shared with Rushdie during their marriage.  As she struggles to recover from their breakup, she realizes that for her, resilience must come with a menu.  But so must celebration, mourning, work, socializing, travel, and relaxation.

 

The title, an allusion to Love, Loss, and What I Wore by Ilene Beckerman (1995), hints at the book’s somewhat unorthodox form.  Beckerman’s memoir intersperses traditional narrative with her own drawings, decidedly inexpert according to her, of her outfits through the years.  Lakshmi does something similar, including recipes for foods that comfort her along with tales of when she has eaten them and assessments of the difference they have made in her wellbeing.  The namesake book was inspiration for a well-reviewed stage play by Delia Ephron and Nora Ephron in 2009.  It may have been this production, combining levity and pain, that inspired both the memoir’s name and Lakshmi’s choice to intersperse disparate elements in a single volume.

 

Though the book spans much of Lakshmi’s life, all its elements exists in the shadow of her relationship with Rushdie.  Lakshmi defends it, extols it, details its disintegration, and indicate that it still haunts her.  When she first encounters Rushdie, he is married to his third wife and living in the shadow of a fatwa issued in the wake of The Satanic Verses (1989) .  She describes their initial encounters as suffused by her admiration for him.  His words, and her simple joy in the fact that he pays so much attention to her, seduce her into beginning a relationship that leads to their 2004 marriage.

 

Yet Lakshmi’s depiction, even when she’s recounting being breathlessly in love, leaves the reader with a sense of foreboding.  She admires him in ways that seem to preclude the kind of relationship she wants.  His intellectual and professional achievements intimidate her in ways that lead her to compare her own accomplishments and aspirations unfavorably. Almost immediately I was left to wonder how she got to be this person who moved so successfully through fabulous social circles while thinking so little of herself.

 

Lakshmi reveals aspects of her upbringing in New York, Kerala, India, and Los Angeles that help explain how she got into the relationship and telegraphed its painful ending.  She recounts a childhood where older men are kinder than younger ones and where food, culture, love, and adventure are all extensions of one another.  Being taught the former via painful circumstances makes her learning the latter an important step toward her coping with the vagaries associated with people’s erratic behavior and with the need to consistently readjust to new environments.

 

The book is immersive, in part because of Lakshmi’s way with metaphors.  She calls her reaction to Rushdie telling her during the early part of their affair that he was divorcing his wife “fully emulsified mixture of shock and guilt.”  The phrase gets at the surprising and tenuous nature of an emulsion made for immediate consumption.  As the food comparison momentarily removes the reader from Lakshmi’s response to his phone call, it lands temporarily mid-meal preparation, giving the sense that timing is of the essence and that whatever is coming to culmination has been made deliberately.

 

In fact, this metaphor works well as a way of understanding the narrative as a whole.  Lakshmi writes of an unintended consequence using an action that implies a larger plan.  Throughout she writes of actions that seem counter to intentions or perhaps taken without regard to the outcomes.

The Polish Boy

They're not pretty sandwiches.  And this one had a car ride.
They're not pretty sandwiches. And this one had a car ride.

My name is Tracy and I can’t find the right sausage. When I go into stores, I see lots of bratwurst and hot dogs.  I can get locally sourced, cruelty free, sustainable, handmade, creatively-combined tube meats that can be really tasty.  But they don’t do the trick.  I want Polish sausage—preferably beefy.  But I’m in Wisconsin where the ingredient I want doesn’t show up readily.  They have their own thing.

 

Wisconsin food traditions took me by surprise.  Although I am from Cleveland, I lived nearly as long in Los Angeles before moving to Wisconsin.  When I got here, I saw foods I had never seen before.  Cheese curds, poutine (which I know is not from Wisconsin), and Bloody Marys with meat garnishes all took me by surprise.  To be honest, so did bratwurst.  I don’t think I had ever eaten it; it’s not that I was avoiding it for any particular reason.  But it wasn’t served in any of the little neighborhood restaurants I had visited.

 

When I did have non-breakfast sausage while growing up, it was almost always Polish.  With hindsight, I see the cultural logic of at work here.  Cleveland was a city of tightly knit neighborhoods, in part due to entrenched segregation that remains today.  One thing that’s different between when I was growing up and now is that ethnic lines existed along with racial ones.  By the time I was 10 or 11, I knew that there were Polish neighborhoods because I could recognize which street and church names that accompanied various groups.  I had internalized the city’s segmentation so thoroughly that it never occurred to me that people in other places might live differently.  It also never occurred to me that even though I had few substantive interactions with many of those groups, their foods had influenced my eating habits.

 

Once I left Cleveland I realized that somehow I absorbed enough from eastern Europeans to think of paprika as a kitchen staple.  Then there’s the Polish sausage.  It was in our local grocery stores.  But my most significant consumption is in the form of the Polish boy.   It’s a Polish sausage on a bun with fries, coleslaw, and barbecue sauce.  It’s as messy as it sounds.  I can’t hold a complicated sandwich to save my life and the plastic utensils don’t stand much of a chance against a good one.  Fortunately, this is almost always a carryout food.  I can be alone with my food and grab a real knife and fork.

 

My favorites have beef sausage that’s a bit gristly and a bit spicy, medium sized, crisp browned fries, a basic creamy slaw that’s more cabbage than mayonnaise, and slightly sweet, spicy barbecue sauce.  The bread is an afterthought for me.  As long as it doesn’t interrupt the experience, I’m fine with it. That means no fancy or chewy rolls allowed.  It should come with two wrappings—an inner paper one and an outer foil one.  It drips anyway.  As I’ve gotten older I’ve developed much broader appetites and I’ve come to think about how the food I eat influences my health.  But I still crave Polish boys.  They’re good.  They’re so very good.

 

I can’t buy one in Madison.  At first I thought it was because of the lack of black-owned barbecue places (There is one now that we hope to feature soon).  There’s an entire saga waiting to be told about the lack of black-owned restaurants and bars here.  That may be forthcoming too.

 

What I didn’t know is that I can’t buy the sandwich here because it’s a Cleveland thing.  I only discovered that a few months ago when I went online to try to figure out the closest place to get one or at least a good sausage to make one myself.  Although the rest of the country has no idea what it’s missing, they’re only served in Cleveland. Even with that, the dish is kind of Internet famous.  If you Google “Polish boy” images, you’ll get more than 30 sandwich pictures before you get to a few snapshots of smiling Polish kids.

 

I know I’m biased toward this taste of my childhood; but my memories of Polish boys from several local barbecue joints is such a warm one and such a common that I couldn’t imagine how relatively rare my experience was.  And my neighborhood restaurant visits were so consistently segregated that if I ever thought about what might be at non-black barbecue spot.  Places like Hot Sauce Williams, Open Pitt, B & M, and many now-defunct businesses were our preferred destinations rather than consolations.   could only imagine a larger physical space, but never thought it would have something we didn’t.  In fact, I imagined fewer menu items, less spicy food, no vegetable sides, and no cake. I imagined they would charge more.  I didn’t think they’d have Polish boys. Years later when I ventured out to those places, I realized my assumptions were correct. I assumed it was all a matter of taste.

 

Yet I went through a lot of my adult life thinking that at least around the industrial north, black barbecue places would have Polish boys.  They don’t.  I never thought they would have much traction in white owned places.  They didn’t. But another thing that happened when I searched the Internet for Polish boys is that rather than any of the places mention above or those that have gone by the wayside, I kept getting recipes from Food Network regular Michael Symon and a lot of articles praising place called Seti’s.  I had never heard of them.  So I looked them up and discovered that they had become Food Network famous and raised the price of their Polish boy to $7.  That’s not proper Polish boy pricing.  And they offer cheese, which feels very wrong and as the kids say, disrespectful.

 

It was strange to see this place featured so prominently as a long-standing Cleveland purveyor of the Polish boy.  I feel too young to think that any business that started after I had finished college can have legacy status.  And what about the people who have been putting their own special twists on the sauce, or ordering their own special sausages for decades longer?  Is it habit, or politics, or aesthetics, or the corralling of financial rewards that keeps them from widespread recognition?

 

This last concern is one of the reasons that Dark Meat exists.  There are a lot of people making great food who are are exiled from the admiration heaped on the stars.  What would be the stakes in changing the landscape of the culinary adoration world?  Is it possible to have a superstar restaurant with a primarily black clientele?  Would the recognition be worth all the complications that accompany it?

 

 

 

something to food about – a review

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Now that I’ve read Questlove’s something to food about, I want to experience it another way.  Do I nap with it? Take it dancing? Watch it get into conversations with my other books?  The latter is certainly happening as I sort my responses to the book.  It’s a Questlove-curated collection of interviews with ten chefs whose work has inspired him in some way.  All of the people he includes are currently working in their own restaurants in the United States.  The places are pricey; although the expensiveness is not the focus, both he and the chefs actively consider how few people have access to their dining rooms.  In some ways, the rarified atmospheres are inevitable.  He wants to talk to people at high points in their careers, specifically exploring the idea of a creative “early middle age” that he asserts describes both his state and theirs.  They discuss how each became successful in crafting not only food, but also the entire dining experience so carefully cultivated in their restaurants.

 

For food geeks, especially those inclined to become fans of particular chefs’ approaches to planning and cooking, the insights into how restaurants are made can be riveting.  Questlove’s enthusiasm makes him a perfect guide.  He pushes his interviewees to think about their food in terms of creative outlets that are not necessarily familiar to them.  When he asks Daniel Patterson which other art provides the best analogy for his food, Patterson balks, insisting that cooking is a craft rather than an art.  His goal of creating affordable, high quality, quick meals is reflected in that answer.  With a little prompting, more than a few chefs talk about their practice in terms of music.  Daniel Humm’s entire ethos is based around Miles Davis.  Dominique Crenn and Dave Beran talk a lot about writing in its more florid and formidable forms as essential to crafting a menu.

 

The question about a complementary or comparable art form arises in all the conversations; perhaps it is Questlove’s favorite.  Mine is the question about the chefs’ first memories of eating in a restaurant.  I have a longstanding fascination with autobiography that’s tickled by this inquiry.  The restaurants range from fast food to Michelin starred eateries, with some chefs remembering what they ate while others were fascinated with the rituals.  This question, which I can imagine many of them had not been asked before, really helped to differentiate them for me.  The memories the recounted felt less rehearsed, less studiously considered than those about their steps from their early careers to their current places.

 

I know that desire for a different kind of story is a personal nitpicky frustration of mine.  It doesn’t come from the interview questions which I really enjoy.  I think it comes from our culture.  There’s a history of the Ben Franklin self-made man ideal that encourages all these conclusions within a life story.  Most of the chefs describe themselves as achieving a level of technical proficiency that enabled them become creative.  While I’m sure that’s true in absolute terms, I hate the narrative shortcut.  I want to know how the story would have been told without the ability to say there was an endpoint to training.  I want the stories of how they knew or who doubted them or doubts them still.  I want to ask whether they have worked with someone whom they consider as good as they are, or better who remains outside the spotlight.  After reading the interviews, those transitions remain elusive for me.  I’d like more.

 

Another factor to be aware of is one that Questlove marks at the beginning of the book.  The world he is exploring is mostly white and mostly male.  The Ben Franklin kind of narrative I describe above is one often said to the dominant American male form of autobiography.  I spent enough time steeped in studying autobiography to become hypersensitive to the patterns.  Most people won’t notice them.  But for me, Dominque Crenn’s chapter felt very different than the ones that came before it. Her descriptions of the information and emotions she wanted to convey in her cookbook and of the kinds of events that inspire her menus left me with more clarity about her process even though it seemed to take a few more questions to ge there.  I responded similarly to Daniel Patterson’s discussion of his place in the world; his discussion helped illustrate the place of fine dining within a larger culinary landscape in a way that felt satisfying even as he insisted that he does not have all the answers to the larger societal problems that surround him.

 

If you’re food fan, or a Questlove fan, or a fan of dynamic interviews, read this book.  It’s a great effort.  It will make you both hungry and curious.

 

 

Randoms that Didn’t Fit into the Review:

 

  • The book has really wonderful photos by Kyoko Hamada. Each chef gets a photo section.  They’re bright, crisp and appealing.
  • Nathan Myhrvold, the food scientist of the collection, is doing amazing work excavating older forms of cooking and working with foods in new ways. He has a lab.  He’s doing fascinating things.  Now I want to read his 2500 page book, Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking.
  • How do I get to eat with Questlove, or at least get a list of his cheaper recommendations?
  • When the chefs were comparing their cooking to another art form, no one chose painting. What’s up with that?

 

 

 

A Reminder that Cuisines Aren’t Static

A review of a new cookbook, written up in NPR’s The Salt:

“People usually think Mexican food was, oh, the intermarriage of Spanish and Mexican,” Jinich says. “No way!”

Less well-known is the culinary imprint left by large waves of Africans brought to Mexico as slaves during the Spanish colonial era; by Japanese, Filipino and Chinese immigrants (the latter of whom created a Chinese-Mexican fusion food just south of the U.S. border); and by the many Lebanese who arrived after World War I — bringing with them the technique of roasting meat on a turning spit for shawarma. That became a gastronomic ancestor to tacos al pastor,now a signature street food of Mexico City.

Dynamics of Gender and Food

One of Lucky Peach’s recent essays, Between Machismo and Matriarchy, about female entrepreneurs in the Mexican dining scene, reminds me of the complex dynamics of gender and food, as constructed by culture.

The confidence, economic freedom, and culinary ingenuity of Cámara, and of women like her, converged into a muscular fulcrum that elevated the dining scene. In creating a class of restaurants that generated international acclaim and drew the elite upper class to indigenous and regional Mexican food, these women were challenging the male-centric culture at large. They could be spokespeople and icons of the country; they could be powerful entrepreneurs; they could spearhead a culinary movement. Women had always toiled in the kitchen with no status or prestige; these women demanded that the profession be elevated beyond blue-collar work.

For all of the inspirational females, the field still has persistent biases. Last September, Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants feted their annual list in Mexico City. Out of the ten Mexican restaurants that placed among the fifty best, only two of them, Rosetta and Dulce Patria, had a female executive chef. Rosetta’s chef, Elena Reygadas, also won the Veuve Clicquot Latin America’s Best Female Chef category. Cámara quips, “So the 50 Best comes out with the woman-chef category to compensate their macho leanings. Why do they have to make a special category for women? It just highlights how unequal the profession actually is.” At the very top tier of Mexico City fine dining— Pujol, Amaranta, Biko, Kaah Siis—men are in charge. Now that the occupation has become something desirable, men are leaning in. “Make no mistake, the bro-y, dude thing is going on here, too, specifically at the high end,” Cámara says. Ironically, though it was Mexican women who inflated the status of cooking from mundane, domestic work to celebrated art, the arena long defined as “women’s work” is now a space where men attempt to prove their dominance.

 

Sriracha and Immigrant Foodways

Goodbye Ketchup, Hello Sriracha! How Immigrants Transform US Cuisine, published by The Voice of America, has a nice exploration of how the rise of sriracha in “American cuisine” reflects earlier patterns of how different waves of immigration have changed American cuisine.  It also has a nice interview with Krishnendu Ray, professor of food studies at New York University and author of The Ethnic Restaurateur.  A quote from the article:

“Overall, immigrants have been way over-represented in the feeding occupations in American history. When we match the occupations and birthplace data, we see baker, butcher, green grocer, saloon keeper, tavern keeper, subsequently cook…they’re all foreign born,” Ray said, “meaning that 70, 80, 90 percent of bakers, butchers, saloon keepers in New York City [and] in the major cities, are foreign born and in the rest of the country, in the smaller towns, they add up almost to 50 percent.”

The (Re)Rise of African American Farmers

Yes Magazine has a great article out on the recent regrowth of African American farmers.  As the article explains

 

For decades, the U.S. Department of Agriculture discriminated against Black farmers,excluding them from farm loans and assistance. Meanwhile, racist violence in the South targeted land-owning Black farmers, whose very existence threatened the sharecropping system. These factors led to the loss of about 14 million acres of Black-owned rural land—an area nearly the size of West Virginia.

To put a plug in for one of my colleagues, Thomas Mitchell, he has an even more in depth analysis of this history in an article published in the Northwestern University Law Review back in 2005, entitled From Reconstruction to Deconstruction: Undermining Black Landownership, Political Independence, and Community through Partition Sales of Tenancies in Common, and proposes a number of reforms related to this topic.

In addition to helping African American landowners as a group stabilize their common property holdings, the federal government should restore land to black farmers who lost their land due to foreclosure by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The settlement of the Pigford class action lawsuit provides for limited land restoration, even in those cases in which the USDA played a significant role in driving successful black farmers into bankruptcy. Such broader land restoration would be consistent with the recent efforts made by countries such as South Africa to return land to individuals and communities who lost their land due to unjust governmental actions in a prior period in the country’s history. Even if land is restored to African Americans or tenants in common are given the right to reorganize their landownership under another, more stable form, poor landowners often do not have access to lawyers who can help them manage their land effectively or fend off those who seek to acquire ownership of their land against their wishes. Congress should expand the mission of legal services to allow poor landowners access to legal-service lawyers. Such an expanded vision would recognize that there is as much value in preventing those on the cusp of distress from falling into the ranks of the economically disenfranchised as there is in trying to help those already destitute survive on the margins.

He’s been working on this ever since, including in a recent law review article, Reforming Property Law to Address Devastating Land Loss, published in the Alabama Law Review.

The Changing Meaning of “American” Food

NPR’s The Salt has an article entitled At Food World ‘Oscars,’ Category Sneakily Redefines All-American Cuisine.  It talks about this year’s James Beard awards for “American classics,” and their growing inclusivity, covering restaurants that would once have been grouped as “ethnic,” including Mexican American, Japanese, Chinese, Native American, and Lebanese cuisines.  Which we at Dark Meat, with our focus on minorities in the food system, welcome!  It’s great to see the concept of “American” reflect more and more the wide range of what it means to be American.

Immigrant Kids and Their Lunches

Public Radio International has an article out entitled Kids made fun of my ‘stinky’ lunch, which taught me a hard lesson about life in America that captures a lot of my childhood experiences.  I grew up eating the Cantonese food described by one commentator’s classmates as “gross” in the article.  Unlike her, I didn’t reject that food, perhaps because I was bullied already in so many other ways that one more way just didn’t seem like such a big deal.  But it came at a cost.  While others were eating “normal” food, mine was considered anything but.  Chicken feet, pigs knuckles, soy sauce eggs–these registered to my classmates as disgusting, and this me–by association–as disgusting.  (Of course, I had already claimed the title of Grossout Royalty for myself, so I was sort of okay with that.)

But it’s also why, nowadays, when the foods of my youth have ended up being popularized by hipster restaurants, that I have such mixed feelings about it.  I wonder to myself, are the people enjoying this food now the same people that made fun of me when I was a kid?  (Or the same sorts of people who made fun of kids like me?)  And, if so, what does it mean?  Have they changed in any significant way, or is that bullying impulse still there, just redirected?

That said, there seems to be some promise of change in this article.  I checked out the Guide for School Food in Culturally Diverse Communities mentioned in the article (put out by the Massachusetts Farm to School Project), and it seems useful in terms of countering some of these harmful school dynamics.  As it points out

 

Identifying and incorporating even a couple of culturally appropriate menu items has the potential to help validate students from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. It celebrates and can normalize the experiences of students from multicultural backgrounds, while also potentially extending “children’s understanding and appreciation of their own world and that of others.”

As such, it recommends a number of steps that educators can use to build cultural relevance into school meal programs, and they all seem concrete, effective, and do-able.  So, kudos to the Mass Farm to School Project!  And to others thinking about these issues today.