thoughts on food, culture, and community

Archive for the month “October, 2011”

Friday Photo: Kill Your Television

Uptown, Harrisburg, October 2011

I found these words on a street on which I’ve never walked before.  I do not know the street name, but what I know for sure it was north of Maclay, the unofficial dividing line between Harrisburg’s Old Uptown and “real” Uptown, between poverty and prosperity, between black and white.  When living on the farm in Shippensburg, I never understood how it was be possible that the contrast between city neighborhoods could be so stark, but the answer as I see it now is both complex and simple: differences in money and thus schools, differences in traditions and thus legacy, differences in opportunity and thus the lack of it, which both enrobe and result in the mistrust of a stereotype.

But here’s a fact that brings us together: in 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans over the age of 15 spent an average of 2 hours and 45 minutes watching television daily, making TV-watching the most third-most prominent activity in our lives.  (As the survey includes retirees and teenagers and charts daily activity, including weekends, sleeping tops the chart at 8 1/2 hours, and “work-related activities” only clocks in at 3 1/2 hours).  This means that watching television one of the most unifying activities across races, genders, and age.

There’s a problem in this equation–for all of us.  Norman Herr, Ph.D., author of the textbook The Sourcebook for Teaching Science publishes on his website that, by the time a child finishes elementary school, he has witnessed 8,000 murders via television, and will watch 400,000 violent acts by the time that he reaches 18.  He also writes that many of Americans are so “hooked” on watching television that the act, for some, fits the criteria for substance abuse (usually defined by answering “yes” to two or more of the following questions): 1) the substance is used as a sedative; 2) it is used indiscriminately; 3) the user feels a loss of control while partaking; (4) the user feels angry with himself for using too much; (5) he feels an inability to stop; and (6) he feels miserable when the substance is being withheld.

(Does “I accidentally stayed up until 2am watching Breaking Bad” sound familiar to anyone?)

It’s easy to laugh off these occurrences, but with these statistics in mind–along with well-popularized figures of increasing childhood obesity rates–it is no longer funny.  I originally read the message I found with the violent wording (“Kill,” not just “Turn off”) in a rough neighborhood as being fueled by one resident’s frustration about and awareness to the role that excessive television-watching plays in the cycle of poverty and abuse, but apparently, the message is for all of us–south of Maclay and otherwise.

Truth and Lies: A Emailed Memory from France

Below is an unedited email sent home from Talange, France, dated October 22, 2007.  The story is regarding an incident which took place on October 21.  This reprint is dedicated to the story’s four-year anniversary.

Winter has come to this area of France exactly three days after I realized that it was fall.  On Tuesday, I accompanied a class on a field trip to eastern France (the region of Alsace), and it was then that I was surprised to see that the leaves were changing colors in the mountains.  I was going to write to you and say that Talange is so industrial that I can’t even see the seasons, but today after several hours spent shivering in the cold in eastern France, I have a larger story to tell.

Sometime earlier this week, I became strong on the idea of hunting for what is really France.  I realized I have been on a quest to capture what France is so that I can see it and taste it and consume it all, but when I scrolled through my photographs, I was not convinced that I was doing anything justice.  My photos are basically focused on what everyone would expect to see from France: the stained glass of the cathedral in Metz, a florist’s face at a market, the arrival of a train at a station.  I started wondering (since I do not have my German roommate yet, I spend most of my evenings wondering) if the whole perception of France that I am trying to give to others is off-base.  Not all French cities are picturesque and cobblestoned with restaurant menus in fancy script. France can be surprisingly dirty; the high-rises are cheap and thin-walled and colorless; and the Talange skyline is one of smoke stacks and electric lines.  Am I really no better than the tourists the come, take pictures, and leave only trash on the city squares?

A village near Bethune, France; 2010

near Bethune, France, 2010

I was in Strasbourg this weekend, the capital city of France’s easternmost region called Alsace, to visit an American friend named Hillary.  Alsace is the easternmost sliver of France that has been heavily fought over between the Germans and the French, so Alsace carries with it the Germanic charm of wood-timbered houses, red blossoms in flowerboxes, and good beer.  Hillary and I spent the afternoon exploring a nearby village called Colmar, eating tarte flambés and drinking coffee to keep warm.   I was loving it until I saw tourists with cameras glued to their faces and then I couldn’t stop wondering if the buildings were timbered just to please the people who pay to see it.  At that point, I started looking for an Alsace behind the Alsace that everybody sees—a France behind the France, as if there was a secret nation that lies behind the tourism and the money, only accessible to the foreigners if you really merit being part of it.

Sunday, I went into the city alone to explore before taking my train back to Talange.  Strasbourg is beautiful—home to the European Parliament, the Heiniken brewery, and also the most gorgeous cathedral and city centre that I have found yet.  Built out of rose-colored stone, it soars at a breathtaking height over a central square.  I leaned against a lamppost on the square in the shadow of cathedral, holding a bag of hot roasted nuts and watching the crowd thicken and thin.  An accordionist and bass violinist tightened their scarves against the cold and played traditional songs in the corner of the square.  Cigarette smoke curled up and disappeared into the winter sky.  I looked at the tourists and tried to divide them into the half of Europe that I was trying to know, the daily life Europe that hides within Europe, and to separate them from the Europe of the tourists with a painted exterior.

Suddenly, through the crowd, I spotted a woman, begging for money.  She was definitely not French, wearing a scarf around her head, and she had no gloves despite the cold.  She stood out sharply against the wealth of the tourists, the beauty of Strasbourg, and the magic of a chilly day.  I wondered if she was experiencing Europe with a non-painted exterior—the type of life that does not make a good photograph or a good story.  As if she knew I was thinking of her, she came over to my lamppost.  I handed her a banana and a tin of tuna, which was my lunch.  She did not leave immediately, so I asked her if she was okay.  She was not beautiful, and her French was broken and halting, but she answered me, told me about her children.  Her passport was Romanian.  Her name was Romina.  She smiled when she heard the accent of my name.

She asked me again for money, but I stood and gathered up my bags and told her that we were going to a supermarket.  I had ten euros and I was willing to buy her some groceries.  We left the square together, and she told me that her oldest daughter’s name was Andrea, like my younger sister.  I told her too that I was a foreigner.  I told her that I was homesick and scared sometimes but that I had work and enough to eat.  In a moment of silence, I realized that the night before, I had slept on a line of chairs in Hillary’s apartment since my luggage had accidentally gotten locked in the train station, so maybe I understand poverty more than I let on.  I noted to myself also that I still do my laundry in my bathtub to save money, and that I really need to get over the urge to horde every scrap of paper that I gain just so that I can say that I own something.  Romina and I were halfway to the supermarket when I reached for my purse to explain something to her, and I realized that my purse was gone.

“Romina!” I cried.  “Quick, back to the square!”  We were several blocks away, so we hurried through the cold, Romina moaned and asking worried questions the entire way there.  When we returned to the square and looked to where I had been sitting, of course the purse was gone.  I glanced sidewise at her.  Had she taken it?  Certainly not.  She knew that I was going to buy her food.  I had trusted her, but I had held my purse to my side my entire time.  I had listened to her story because I listen to other people’s stories.  I noticed a felt a lump in my jacket and realized that it was my cell phone.  “Look!” I cried to Romina.  I started dialing the United States to cancel my credit cards, but then as soon as I turned around, Romina was gone.

Her sudden disappearance melted my confusion into anger.  Of course it had been her, a part of me said.  She wouldn’t have left you otherwise.  How could you be so stupid?  You are never supposed to talk like people like that.  Another part of me echoed back: Don’t you dare say people like that.  It couldn’t have been her.  You had been cautious.  Then something in me screamed, “Sylvia, think about your PURSE!  You have NOTHING!”

And it was true.  I had no idea where the police station was.  I had no money to buy a train ticket back to Talange.  I had a limited number of minutes on my cell phone and a limited number of battery power, and when both of those ran out, I had no way of buying more, but I needed to cancel my credit cards before I lost all power on my phone.  I had given my food to Romina, so I had not had breakfast or lunch.  My luggage—including my passport—was locked in the train station, but I did not have the proper paperwork to retrieve it.  When I hung up the phone with my father, I had paced so quickly away from the square that I no longer had any idea where in the city I was.  Alone in a foreign city with growing cold, the cell phone in the palm of my hand was the only thing that I had.

A taxi driver heard me out and gave me a tram ticket for free to get back to the train station.  A young girl explained which tram to take and when.  When my brother called me back with the numbers of who to call to report theft, I ran up to complete strangers on the sidewalk to use their pens to copy down the digits on scraps of paper.  I managed to call Hillary and ask her to bring me twenty euros.  I spoke with my French credit card company and blocked my credit card, just before the power died out on my phone.  Hillary’s money got me a one-way ticket to Hagondange; I filed a report with the police which took a lot longer than it merited.  While waiting in the office, shivering, blowing on my hands to keep them warm, the thought suddenly shot through my head: is this France, unpainted? The sheer randomness of it all, the interaction with so many various people, the telephone calls across the globe—all of that mingled in with the roasted nuts on the square.  I felt raw, humiliated, almost violated.  How could I have searched to understand something larger but in the end, had it only made me no less than a vulnerable foreigner, a tourist, a target?

“Madame?” said the officer behind the counter.

“Oui?” I said to him, and it hit me that we had been speaking French the entire time.

“Sign here, please,” said the officer, and I took the pen from him, punctuating my signature with a strong, angry, triumphant, sick flourish.  I will not know if it was Romina, I don’t know exactly if I have concluded anything about a real France or stereotypes or poverty, I am still sick and angry and disappointed and hoping that whoever took my money really needs it.  I am safely back in Talange, getting new keys made for the apartment and trying to be at peace for having lost my American driver’s license, but I realized that in the panic of the moment, it was French that had come from my mouth and not English to the Strasbourg police, the French bank, the taxi driver.

Ironically, after everything, I had forgotten how to be scared of French.  It had been a flawless French day.

Friday Photo: Silver-Platter Sauce Chicken

Friday Photo: Childhood on a Platter, 2011

So what’s this colorless Central Pennsylvanian meal doing on my parents’ wedding china?  It’s the meal of my 27th birthday, of course, of brown buttered egg noodles, “sauce” chicken, and freezer corn.

I had requested this same meal for my birthday when I turned eight (or was it nine?), a fact that I only remember because that year I had taken to writing an entire account of my birthday week on a typewriter — epic.  Even though I currently can’t find this diary, I still am fairly certain — just because the very act of just writing it down solidified memories — that my birthday in 1992 (or was it 1993?) was on a Tuesday because on Monday my mom had made pork chops, which look just like “sauce” chicken in the oven.  This fact had distressed me greatly because I thought she had screwed up and was making my birthday meal a day early.

From the moment I heard it frying in the kitchen, “sauce” chicken was one of those dishes that made me exceedingly happy as a child, even happier than Pizza Hut Pizza or homemade hamburgers.  According to my mother, the recipe for “sauce” chicken came from my health-conscious Grandma Charles under the strange misnomer of “BBQ Chicken.”  It consists of chicken thighs rolled in wheat germ, fried, and doused in a homemade sauce of ketchup, mustard, sugar, and Worcestershire sauce.  The dish gained its current name because the crispy wheat germ and ketchup and mustard congeal into this wonderfully clumpy sauce, although now I admit that clearly someone should have given me lessons in writing recipe titles.  (To give you a perspective, “egg stuff” is another family favorite.)

If food displays the cook behind it, my birthday meal indicates humble roots: cornfields, butter browned in a cast-iron skillet, and my formerly-Mennonite grandmother.  But I love it nonetheless, especially when rimmed by fine dishware, a silver platter of a childhood.

“SAUCE” CHICKEN (original email from my mother, dated June 14, 2011)

6 chicken thighs (plus or minus) — skin off, wash and roll in wheat hearts or germ and fry a little in canola oil, both sides.  Place in baking pan and mix together sauce to pour over:

1/4 cup ketchup
1/2 cup water
1 tsp salt
1 tsp mustard
1 tablespoon sugar
a little Worcestershire sauce

Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour.

Friday Photo: Doritos Birthday Love

“What do I find priceless about [Pennsylvania]?  Fall colors.  Open spaces.  School buses.  Soft cookies.  Bacon.  Beautiful Hollywood cinematography.  Swedish fish.  DORITOS NACHO CHEESE.”
–  my journal, March 8, 2008, Talange, France


In the course of human events, I’ve learned that my deepest life loves seem to be more evident to me when I’m abroad.  I remember sitting on my creaky wrought-iron bed in my apartment in Talange, France, with my journal splayed open before me, thinking, “Yeah. I could KILL for Doritos.  Like, right now.”

But I’m not abroad, not right now anyway.  I’m living a moderately-controlled, semi-normal life, with a structured job teaching grammar.  But what I’ve found is that my secret passions, the ones you don’t bring up in polite conversation, still come out — in my grammar sentences, of all things.

“You see,” I say, facing a class and beaming, “‘Doritos’ is plural.  So when acting as a subject, ‘Doritos’ would have to be paired with the plural verb, such as in the sentence, ‘Doritos are my favorite snack.'” I write the sentence on the whiteboard in squeaky black marker.  “What if you flip it around?  ‘My favorite snack is Doritos’?  Then Doritos becomes the predicate nominative, making the verb agree with the subject, which is now singular.  Neat, huh?!”

But to be honest, I’m not the type of person that has a stash of Doritos snack bags in the pantry for lunches every day.  I’m not even the one always responsible for those bright sparkling bags of chips that show up mysteriously at your appetizer table, the bags that I always somehow seem to finish.

I rarely even buy Doritos.  Except for that time in 2008 when I was in the deserted town of Beersel, Belgium, with my boyfriend Jon, and we noticed that Spicy Thai Chili Doritos were actually sold in Europe.  (I seized one bag which we shared for lunch with some pigeons and a bar of chocolate.)  Or that time that when Jon and I accompanied Anne Timothy to Newark Airport at 2:00 in the morning, and I made Anne buy us Doritos when we stopped for gas.

Today, my eighth grade students surprised me with a gift for my upcoming October 12 birthday: six brightly-colored bags of Doritos in multiple flavors, which they insisted I “save for later” while they divvyed up the streamers and chocolate icecream pudding cake.  As they ate, they were surely thinking merrily about Doritos as direct objects and objects of preposition, receivers of the action in passive voice and givers of the verb in active.

But I was thinking about the Doritos, and how maybe my students know something I don’t acknowledge.

When teaching, I am in denial of a lot of things: the constant worry that I’m interesting, the worry that I really don’t know what I’m talking about, the concern that I’m nothing but a French grammar Eiffel Tower freak.  I acknowledge openly to a lot of people that teaching is a tiring job, sometimes too tiring.  But despite this, I also deny that I secretly love having a classroom because through it I have the ability to share with my students what I don’t share with other people who are close to me: stories about growing up, the fears I held in high school, the poetry I wrote at age 15.

I know my students through their behavior, attitudes, and grades, but they also know me, too: the lies I told my sister Andrea about eating soap (and how this relates to trust), the emails I get in my inbox (and how the grammar of some of them helps me detect fraud), the difficulties of teaching in France (and how French relates to English).

As I teacher, I overemphasize and underemphasize facets of myself in order to make a point.  But with a gift of Doritos, my students pinpointed something different: that they knew me too in a different way than some.  By giving me a gift of a part of myself that I thought was an exaggeration, I realized that they had found a truth.  I was excited to have six bags of Doritos for my very own.  Like, I’ve-been-stranded-in-France-for-six-months excited.

“What am I supposed to do with all these?” I asked the students, feigning confusion.  “Save them for the Super Bowl?”

Yes, I thought.  The Super Bowl.  American upon American.

I opened a bag of my sacred Spicy Thai Chili, took a handful, and humbly passed the chips to my left: breaking bread with those who had read me between the lines.

Doritos Birthday Love, October 2011

‘Architecturally Speaking’ gives new perspective on old art

Steve Zeigler, September 2011

Drive past Steve Zeigler’s warehouse on Lexington Street in Susquehanna Township, and it’s likely you won’t notice anything besides a junkyard. Surrounded by a chain link fence, the warehouse faces an old coal shed whose storage bays spill with porcelain bathtubs, a blue park bench, a pile of metal grating.

Then you see the gates: enormous wrought iron towers with the high arches and plunging curves that evoke the entryway of a Victorian mansion.

“I’m not sure where they came from,” says Zeigler thoughtfully. “But I would like to use them over the warehouse entrance.”

This is the storage warehouse of Architecturally Speaking, a business that finds, makes, and sells repurposed industrial art for the home or garden.  Selling mostly from a stand at the Antique Marketplace in Lemoyne, Zeigler—a full-time landscaper, Dauphin County native, and the owner, artist, and picker of Architecturally Speaking—has been salvaging and selling his goods art for over 5 years.

At Zeigler’s business, every item has a use—and a story.

“This is a freezer door from the old Weaver’s on Derry Street,” Zeigler says, tugging at a massive wooden frame with a steel lock and peeling turquoise paint.  “I’d like to see this as a wall decoration.”

Nearby, next to a functioning coal stove, sits a length of wrought iron railing from a Pittsburg cemetery.  There’s a zinc façade from Sixth and Maclay Street, Harrisburg and street signs from New York City.  Zeigler even has the arched transom window from the boarding house that formerly stood on the now-vacant lot on the corner of Second and State Street, Harrisburg; the address is still printed in yellow on the glass.

“Other people throw things like this away, but not me,” says Zeigler.

Old park bench and iron work

Many of Zeigler’s finds are for sale “as is,” but Zeigler also sees the pieces as inspiration to create new art: organ pipe fences, clutch gear mirrors, heating-grate flagstones. Wooden desk drawers become shadow boxes, carefully filled with other found objects—like an old photograph of a Harrisburg flood paired with antiques that could have been found inside the homes. Patterned tin, like that which covers the ceilings of old buildings, is sanded, repainted, and stretched over a frame like a canvas.  A birdhouse is built out of old wood from a blacksmith’s shop behind Penn National Racetrack and then fitted with metal from a roof of a car.

Edgy, funky, yet consistently practical, this art pays homage to the beauty of the architecture from which the materials came.

“I can just look at an object and find another purpose for it,” Zeigler says.  “It’s fun.  I love it.”

Clutch Gear Mirror

The larger trend toward “industrial” art can be seen in popularity of exposed ductwork, brick walls, and the use of antiques as décor in restaurants, bars, and businesses across the mid-state.  The bell hung in the Midtown Scholar, Harrisburg, is from Manchester, England. In La Piazza of Linglestown, an Italian restaurant housed in a former church, customers wait for their tables by sitting on one of Zeigler’s found church pews.

Zeigler’s picking runs take him as far as New York City, Baltimore, and Virginia; and his art has been sold to customers along the East Coast. Creative and meticulous—he loves working especially with textures, especially metal—Zeigler views his own art not a challenge, not only for him but his viewers as well.

“The name ‘Architecturally Speaking’ asks people to take a different perspective on what’s around them,” he says.

Architecturally Speaking
(717) 903-6329

Sales: Antique Marketplace, 415 Bosler Avenue, Lemoyne
4410 Lexington Street, Harrisburg (by appointment)

This article first appeared in TheBurg, September 2011.

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