thoughts on food, culture, and community

Archive for the month “August, 2012”

Friday Photo: Cornucopia: A brief history of sweet corn and field corn

Trinidad, August 2010

The Americas’ relationship to corn is an interesting one. From elementary school up, we’ve heard of how Squanto used fish to help the Pilgrims grow corn in the new world, and corn today — at least in my family — is still part of our traditional Thanksgiving meal, along with mashed potatoes, turkey, cranberry sauce, and stuffing.

However, sweet corn — as opposed to “field corn,” or a variety of corn that’s harder, starchier, and primarily used for animal feed in the US — really is an American phenomenon. According to the blog “Food for Thought,” the United States is the leading producer and exporter of sweet corn in the world, meaning that other countries do not have the same relationship with sweet corn as we do.

I was shocked, for example, to find that it’s still uncommon to eat cooked corn at a French meal. Even though France is the fifth largest producer of corn in the world, they export 75% of it canned or frozen (no July corn on the cob for them).  My students in Talange — located in the northeast of France, while sweet corn is primarily grown in the southwest near Spain — were so grossed out by the notion of eating corn for dinner that one of my first activities as their teacher was to buy canned corn, heat it in my apartment, and serve it with butter out of Dixie cups. “Le maize, il est pour les cochons,” said a student — “corn, that’s what pigs eat,” and he’s right — sort of. I remember trying to explain the distinction between sweet corn and field corn but translating “sweet corn” as “sugared corn,” which made the student’s face sink into even a more-concerned frown.

For the US, the typical difference between “sweet corn” and “field corn” is the one is humanly edible and the other is not (appropriate for ethanol, scattering to chickens, and grinding into silage for my father’s cows), respectively, but other cultures further muddle the borderlines. For example, in Trinidad, field corn is boiled in coconut milk, a little sugar, salt, and seasoning for 30 minutes (much longer than the 3 minutes my grandmother recommends for sweet corn). It is so popular that boiled corn is sold in stands along the shoulder of the interstate highway. In this Friday Photo, my friend Anne is purchasing these slightly-savory ears of corn through the open car window.

Friday Photo: ‘Holy basil’ seed tea, Cafe di Luna, Harrisburg

Cafe di Luna, August 2012

Cafe di Luna, August 2012

For my boyfriend Jon Hoey, a sales representative for Troegs Brewing Company, Hershey, culture can be as evident in a beverage as it is in food. This means that an international meal can be complimented by much more than regionally-grown tea or a local beer; it can include mango lassies, yogurt drinks, bubble teas, Shandy of Trinidad, bottled juice of aloe vera, and more. For me, I’m constantly surprised by how variant and creative beverages can be; the daughter of a dairy farmer, I am still just shocked to be reminded that people routinely drink more than milk.

Two weeks ago, I asked Cafe di Luna owner Ambreen Esmail what she recommended for a light, hydrating summer drink. She produced to me a cold herbal tea made of basil seeds suspended in a vibrant red syrup that was cut by a single ice cube. Made with pure cane sugar, this drink was extremely sweet and fragrantly perfumed, like bananas, flowers, or incense. According to Ambreem, basil seeds are actually considered to be holy in the Hindu faith and are widely used in Chinese and Thai beverages for their health benefits, which include regulating common digestion issues including nausea and constipation.

The drink was incredibly sweet to my taste, but I loved the rubbery, squeaky seeds, which could be slurped, chewed, or swallowed whole.

Imported bottles of basil seed tea can be also purchased at GM International Grocery on 3918 Jonestown Road as well as other local Asian and Middle Eastern food markets.

Café di Luna
1004 N. 3rd St.
Harrisburg, PA 17102
(717) 233-3010

Friday Photo: Roasted fish, spiced lamb, and the philosophy of ‘No Plan B’


roasting lamb, June 2012

It wasn’t long ago that I met up with Ibrahim, a tall, slender man born in Niger, at Cafe Fresco on Paxton Street. We’d met through a French group, a Harrisburg-based social group, made up of everyone from former French teachers to disillusioned college graduates, who met one evening a month to converse in French. But one day over coffee and without the group, Ibrahim faced me with a request I did not respect. He hesitantly slipped a thick handful of handwritten notes, swirled in delicate French penmanship, from a folder and across the table. “Pouvez-vous traduire ça?” he asked — could you translate this?

Eventually, I would translate for Ibrahim one fable as well as two versions of a political screenplay, but it was nothing compared to what he shared with me.

His friendship first came in food: fish roasted whole with the heads still on and eye intact, delivered to my door with slivered tomatoes and onions in an aluminum foil pan; a platter of a dark, roasted meat that I did not recognize, handed to me along with a draft of our project. (When I asked him about the meat, c’est quelle type de viande, ça, his response was a beaming smile: “La coeur du mouton” — lamb heart.) Ibrahim slow-roasted chickens for my boyfriend and me which we ate with our hands and washed down with bitter north African tea; I handed him a tin of Christmas cookies.  Around Thanksgiving, he bought me a turkey for the family, the largest in the supermarket — not believing that Grandma Grove had already purchased one, as she always does, weeks in advance — but he did allow me to freeze it until January when my boyfriend and I could cook it and invite friends over for a mid-winter holiday. When school let out in June, Ibrahim cooked me lamb dusted with an African spice, and with an overenthusiastic “mange, mange, Sylvia!” we gnawed at the bones until they were bare. But by that time, I had understood that the food was a pretense for conversation — that sharing meat and fat and tea opened the venue to talk about philosophy, politics, and culture in kind of a heart, trustworthy way; that two people sharing food meant that we could share life.

Once, when we met at the buzzing African joint called Mariam’s African and Jamaican Cuisine on 150 S. Cameron St. in Harrisburg, where Ibrahim knew everyone including the owner and cook, I forked into a platter of lamb with a ground peanut sauce served over white rice and asked him the same question I ask to anyone from airplane seatmates on international flights to French exchange students: what are the best and worst aspects of America. It’s a pointed question, one where I always try to anticipate the recipient’s reaction but never can. Over the past few years, answers I’ve heard for the positives include our general wealth (as compared to Africa), the structure of the medical systems (as compared to China’s), Duncan Donuts (from a teenage Frenchman), our friendliness (as compared to Montreal). Negatives include the lack of respect for authority, our inability to recognize our privileges, our lack of public transportation, our views on alcohol and gun possession, and our racial tension.

Ibrahim and I have talked at length about what he likes about the US — our educational system — so today I focus on the negatives. Ibrahim sips water and pauses, looking at the ceiling. The hum of African-accented French rises around us and falls. “I dislike that, here, you always have to have a Plan B,” he says finally.

This is not at all what I’m expecting. “A Plan B,” I say. “Yes, of course.” I love Plan B’s. My daily planner is full of them. If a friend is late for coffee at Little Amps in Harrisburg, I will have essays to grade. If I get stranded on a standby flight from Miami to Santiago, Chile, I will have a couchsurfer lined up. I like to know the destination of my attempts to stretch myself, a safety net in case I fail.

Ibrahim continues, “In America — if you take someone out to lunch, like this — ” he gestured to my plate — “you must have at least $40 in your pocket: $20 for today’s meal, $20 for tomorrow.”

I nod, wondering if I’m missing the point. “That’s called being responsible.”

“No,” Ibrahim says, and now I feel mildly insulted.

“Well, what do you call it?”

Ibrahim continues. “In my country, if you take someone out to lunch, you only need to have $20 in your pocket, because you know that tomorrow, if you are lacking, someone else will pay for your meal.”

I’m writing this blog post because this conversation happened a year ago, and I still cannot get the philosophy out of my mind. If a stranger pays for your meal, do you eventually have to pay them back? What if you can’t? Do they get angry if you find you cannot reciprocate? Or is there just a greater brotherhood among people who understand that money comes and goes, for they know that eventually it will be they who must survive by relying on the kindness of strangers? I can barely imagine this.

I was taught very pointedly that I was not meant to be a burden on anyone, overstay my welcome in another person’s home, to replay what I borrowed and to return what was due, but this is type of foresight and responsibility is, for better or for worse, the problem of a developed country, one where we have the luxury of borrowing and returning, hoarding what we feel we have earned. Rather than distinguishing the merited, Ibrahim sees this philosophy has separating our similarities.

Most of us cannot live fully without a Plan B in modern American society, for our system rewards the self-sufficient. Many Americans tire quickly of supporting those who have less — think of the wide-spread criticism on welfare, for example.

But when I traveled to Alaska this summer and spent an unexpected overnight in Phoenix with a friend I’d never met, his response was, “I figured you’d do the same someday.” And when a friend was stranded in Harrisburg from Montreal en route to Tennessee, I was cheerful when he stayed an extra two days.  And I think of Ibrahim as I prepare to go to grad school this fall and try to construct myself an escape route in case all goes wrong — I could still change my profession, I could always transfer — and I wonder, maybe I can figure this out tomorrow. Maybe, for once, I can just be.

Friday Photo: Going Dutch (Cookie-wise) in Central Pennsylvania

Jennie Groff displays Stroopie’s cookie press, June 2012

This article first appeared in the August 2012 issue of TheBurg, greater Harrisburg’s community newspaper.

Hold on, biscotti. Take a back seat, pizzelle. And welcome a new international cookie, the stroopwafel, to central Pennsylvania’s confection scene.

A stroopwafel is a traditional Dutch cookie, literally meaning “syrup waffle.” The “stroopie” consists of gooey caramel syrup pressed between two pie-crust-thin, cinnamon-spiced waffles. Traditionally, the cookie rests on the rim of a hot cup of coffee for a few seconds before eating to soften the caramel—an ode to taking time to eat, to drink and to be.

“My customers keep saying, ‘Oh, they’re caramel! Oh, they’re Dutch!’” said Ambreen Esmail, owner of Café di Luna on N. 3rd Street in Midtown. Esmail has carried the cookies since late June to complement her array of small batch, independently made desserts and internationally inspired coffee beverages. “Not many people have heard of stroopwafels, but they’re delicious,” she said.

Domestically, Stroopwafels are made at Stroopies, a Lancaster-based company managed by a husband and wife team, Jonathan and Jennie Groff.

“We both grew up in small family businesses, and we wanted one of our own,” Jennie said, herself the daughter of a dairy farmer. Jonathan is the son of the founders of Groff’s Candies in Lancaster.

Owners Ed McManness and Dan Perryman founded Stroopies in 2008 to make cookies and provide jobs to underprivileged men and women. They operate a branch in, of all places, Moradabad, India, with six full-time workers. Jonathan and Jennie joined the company two years ago and wanted to market the cookies in Pennsylvania. Since then, laboring in the back room of Groff’s Candies, they have made every stroopwafel from scratch.

Four cookie-size balls of homemade dough are placed on an authentic Dutch stroopwafel griddle and pressed for 80 seconds. Each waffle is transferred to a cutting board, filleted in half and drizzled with house-made caramel syrup. The halves are then pressed back together, cooled and hand-packaged.

“Our very clean hands are all over the stroopwafels that you buy,” laughed Jennie.

In addition to traditional stroopies, the Groffs offer stroopwafels dipped in Wilbur’s dark chocolate from Lititz, PA. They are experimenting with gluten-free stroopwafels, fresh pecan stroopwafels and chocolate dipped stroopwafels that are sprinkled with locally roasted espresso from Lancaster’s Square One Coffee.

There’s a balance between keeping it simple and being creative, Jonathan said, “but I do think the espresso stroopwafels are out of this world.” The couple hopes to eventually introduce a new stroopie variety each year.

Like the India branch, the couple hopes Stroopies can provide employment opportunities to immigrants in central Pennsylvania. “Specifically, we see a need among refugees that the U.S. has welcomed,” Jonathan said. “Sometimes they have a hard time finding work. We love working with internationals, so to be able to provide work for people from other parts of the world would be an enjoyable privilege for us.”

That inspires Café di Luna’s Esmail. “I promote Stroopies’ cookies because they bring people together,” she said. “So much is lost these days with the way we rush. I believe we need to go back to our values, and I try to promote products that do the same.”

105 Old Dorwart Street
Lancaster, PA 17603

Café di Luna
1004 N. 3rd St.
Harrisburg, PA 17102
(717) 233-3010

Friday Photo: A farm girl’s guide to end-of-the-season sweet corn

Great Aunt Esther, Summer 2008

Great Aunt Esther, Summer 2008

Each year, my family “puts away” corn, meaning that we husk dozens of sweet corn (at one point, it was around 100) picked from our field, boil it, cool it, cut it off the cob and pack it into freezer containers. When I was younger, this meant taking one full Saturday away from playing badminton and devoting myself to husking, silking, and stacking corn cobs into newspaper-lined crates with my cousins. The older brothers and fathers would boil and cool the corn; the women would cut it off the cob, and we’d all come together to eat an enormous barbeque.

I wasn’t often asked to help pick the sweet corn that is sold beneath the shade trees of Gro-Lan Farms in Shippensburg, but because I never ate out-of-season corn (like what’s sold at Kentucky Fried Chicken) until high school, I still have strong opinions of what kind of corn I’m looking for. For me, it’s not the size or the color (white, yellow, or mixed) of the kernel that counts; it’s how easily the kernel comes off the cob. Corn grown for shipping has a tougher kernel that’s genetically modified to better ensure the jostling of freight or boat, but locally-grown corn has a smaller, softer kernel that bursts pleasantly in the mouth and runs more richly with juice. Whether drowned in Land O Lakes butter and salt — my family’s preference — or grilled with goat cheese, mayonnaise, and fresh lime juice (as served at the Snack Bar of Troegs Brewery in Hershey), locally-grown sweet corn is what I prefer to sink my teeth into.

In south-central Pennsylvania, most sweet corn is typically in season from July to August, although this year’s warmer temperatures and earlier planting caused the season, as reported by The Shippensburg News-Chronicle, to begin about two weeks early. This means that even though it’s early August, some farmers are approaching the end of their sweet corn season while others, like my father, have already finished

To still secure the best corn you can, find a local vendor, such as Oak Grove Farms (846 Fisher Road, Mechanicsburg, (717) 766-2216) or Basehore Farm Market (6080 Creekview Road, Mechanicsburg, 717-691-9349) who pick the corn, can tell you its origin, and will sell it to you fresh.  If you do not have the time, look for “locally-grown” sweet corn in the produce section of the grocery store.

When selecting sweet corn that is not my father’s, I personally look for leafy, not dried, husks that cover up firm, evenly-spaced kernels. Overly-firm or puckered, discolored kernels indicate to me that the corn is old, and, as corn begins losing its sugar content the longer it’s off the stalk, it’s best to secure corn the day it’s picked. To boil corn, husk it and plunge it immediately into salted, boiling water for no more than three minutes. My 91-year-old grandmother will fly into a rage if you cook our corn longer than that.

Keep warm by draping the corn with a dishtowel until serving.

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