thoughts on food, culture, and community

Archive for the month “March, 2013”

Water, snow, sun, and sky: 8 people who define my memory abroad

The following people I met only once and will never meet again, but they helped me along, taught me lessons about generosity and about language — and define my memory all the same.

1) To the blue-eyed man on the Rue de la République in Avignon in 2005: I saw you begging for change every day in front of the Shoppi while I bought bread, and you were the first person that I ever dared give my spare coins to. (I have never met a homeless person before.) I didn’t even have to speak to you in halting French, for our eyes met, and you looked so grateful in a way beyond language. Thank you.

2) To Romina who robbed me in Strasbourg in 2007: Because of the blue-eyed man, I thought that trying to help you on a cold winter’s morning while I ate roasted chestnuts would have helped me understand something noble about me and love and poverty, but instead, you humbled me and made me grow up a little. I still wonder about you and hope you’re all right.

3) To French tourists in Avignon in 2005: A group of friends and I were standing among the cafés on Place Pi in the darkness of early evening when you approached and asked me in French where to find a particular street. You have no idea how much it flattered me that I could be mistaken for someone who knew, but the fact was, that I did know, and I directed you to where you needed to go. In the time of my life when I felt furthest from home, you showed me that I was already there.

Avignon, France, Spring 2005

Avignon, France, Spring 2005 (Katrina Charysyn, All Rights Reserved)

4) To the newspaper boy in south London in 2007: I know I asked you for directions three times in the growing dusk, and I’m sorry I kept trying to imitate your accent — and then kept trying to stop myself from imitating it — in a way that made me sound neither American nor French but German, as you properly pointed out. I was pretty stressed at the time. I hope you realize I really did have a bus to catch and was not intentionally blowing you off when you suggested we grab a drink. Anyone who was willing to help someone so flustered would have been awesome to know.

5) To the couple in the campground near les Chemin des Dames in 2010: Lynn Palermo and I had been hiking all day under the July sun on a road without trees, and I was slumped up against a shade tree next to your campsite with the summer heat press against my throat and cheeks like a fever, and at this moment you emerged from your trailer with two cups of ice and a full liter of water to share. I do not even know your name. This was the most singular event of kindness that I think I have ever received.

6) To the elderly shopkeeper in Greystones, Ireland, in 2007: When I walked up to you on the edge of the town to the sound of crashing waves by the sea and asked you if it was a far walk to Bray, you chuckled and said, “Nooo, tisn’t, as long as ‘ou gott two strong legs.” I’m sure you’ve long forgotten me, but I have been absolutely charmed — and I mean charmed — by your accent ever since.

The English Channel between Greystones and Bray, November 2007

The English Channel, viewed from a coastal hike between Greystones and Bray, November 2007

7) To the Swiss farmer outside of Grindelwald in 2008: You leaned on your pitchfork inside a warm barn while snow flew across the Alps outside, and you listened to me as I translated my father’s questions about dairy farming into haphazard German. When I spoke the words for “I see one cow, two cows, three cows…” and then gestured toward your herd, your eyes lit up and you said, “Ahhh, ich habe fünfzehn Kühe,” and I understood you. We somehow talked in German for an hour during which I managed to grasp that you had a neighbor farmer with our ancestors’ last name, and that you took your cows into the mountains in the summer and let them roam free because of their bells. Your patience — despite the fact my father and I had simply parked the car in a blizzard and walked into your barn — still stuns me.

8) To the man in the sea near Claxton Bay, Trinidad, in 2010: I was swimming at dusk with friends in a little alcove near the bay, and you bobbed up behind me and said, “Welcome,” in a voice as deep as the sea. I learned for the first time what it was like to be known as a foreigner by the color of my skin, but when you welcomed me in, you were smiling, and that made all the difference.

Swimming at sunset, near Claxton Bay, Trinidad, July 2010

Swimming at sunset, near Claxton Bay, Trinidad, July 2010

Chinese food that isn’t: All about American Chinese buffets {a cultural project}

“All about…” is a series of culturally-driven posts by guest writers who have lived, worked, or studied in a culture different than that of central Pennsylvania. These essays are not comprehensive cultural guides; rather, their purpose is to expose misunderstandings, clarify stereotypes, and highlight the similarities between familiar and unfamiliar cultures.

However, that being said, I have never set foot in China, nor have I ever traveled west of Italy. But I did write this article for a May 2010 issue of TheBurg after wondering about the extreme oddities of a Chinese buffet (especially a jumbo buffet) where overstuffed Americans are shuttled in rapidly to dine in gorgeous settings, plates are cleared silently by beautifully-dressed women, and the myth is perpetuated that Chinese cuisine, via these buffets, is something that Americans are familiar with and somewhat appreciate. No doubt a Chinese buffet is a cultural experience, but of what kind? 

This article was reprinted on on May 4, 2010.


Chinatown, Philadelphia, Summer 2012

Chinatown, Philadelphia, Summer 2012

The Chinese buffet is an American guilty pleasure.

The spacious booths, the gilded gold artwork — everything about a Chinese restaurant appeals to the American preference for having as much salty food as one can handle, the convenience of not cleaning up and the comfort of never running out of Coke. While this may sound uncouth, even I have to admit that I visit a buffet at least once a month.

We in Harrisburg have more Chinese restaurants in a 10-mile radius from our state Capitol than we have McDonald’s and Burger Kings combined. Good Taste on 3rd Street in Midtown (carry-out only) is for lunch, dinner and midnight cravings, offering an extensive, reasonably priced menu of lo mein, chow mein, beef, pork or chicken. Asian Empire Bistro on Union Deposit Road is a sit-down, white-tablecloth venue geared toward dinner or drinks, providing new twists on old favorites like orange beef and shrimp in chili sauce. If this isn’t enough, there are approximately 70 other Chinese restaurants in the Harrisburg area, catering to patrons’ every white rice, rice noodle need.

According to the U.S. Census, the state of Pennsylvania saw a 61% growth of the number of Asian residents between 2000 and 2010. However, for many of us, a Chinese buffet is as much of Asia as we will ever see. While we hold chopsticks and name our Chinese zodiac, we have to admit we know very little about China. Instead, we secretly believe that every meal in China is deep fried and soaked in sauce. In our eyes, Chinese homes probably come standard with an electric waterfall and a tank of live fish.

According to Indigo Som, manager of the blog “Chinese Restaurant Project,” American Chinese buffets are less windows into a foreign culture than they are mirrors of our own. The very existence of a “Chinese buffet” caters to the American need for choice and individualism. Equally, the idea that food should be heavily fried and rapidly consumed parallels the basis of our fast food culture.

Jingxia Yang (Judy) Stiffler, part-time professor of Chinese at Juniata College in Huntingdon, PA, said the Chinese view food much differently than the idea promoted at a buffet. While most clients finish a meal at a Chinese buffet in under an hour, an authentic Chinese dinner is an opportunity for patience and togetherness. The family sits around a circular table where several main dishes are placed on a large, central lazy Susan. It is culturally acceptable to eat from your own plate, from the dish in the center or to pass food from plate to plate with a quick “Here, try this.” At buffets, we clutch our plates to our chest as we wait for our share of General Tso’s, but Judy explained, “In China, there is no such thing as your ‘own plate.’ Eating is very communal.” A meal with friends can last four hours or more, starting with a cold salad and liquor and moving to stir fries, meatballs and soups. Dessert is only served for special occasions.

Traditional Chinese food differs from what we find under our buffet heat lamps. The country has five to six major types of cuisine that vary by region. Food from the Chinese province of Szechuan, for example, tends to be spicier (think Szechuan chicken) while food from the north of China is similar to that of Russia (like noodles and pickled cabbage). Vegetables such as bok choy, kai-lan, tomatoes and carrots are central to certain dishes, whereas American Chinese food pushes vegetables aside as garnish.

Judy maintained that American Chinese buffets aren’t necessarily poor representations of her country’s cuisine, but we need to regard American Chinese food for what it is. It represents both a nation of 1.3 billion people and a nation with a population one quarter of China’s — ours.

In Harrisburg, Paxton Street’s Jumbo Buffet welcomes the same patrons as the nearby Planet Fitness. Evergreen Chinese Buffet on the Carlisle Pike serves clients in a neonlit former diner. Across social and ethnic boundaries, we value equally the ability to promptly cater to our own tastes, and we rub shoulders with the neighbors with whom we would otherwise never speak. A Chinese buffet becomes a cultural intersection — a place where we are fully American and then some.

Miracle milkshakes? Burgatory Bar, Waterworks, Pittsburgh

Caramel Pretzel, Burgatory, February 2012

Caramel Pretzel halo, Burgatory, February 2012

I never thought I could be impressed by a milkshake enough to think that it was a gift from Heaven. However, those from Burgatory, a little joint that markets itself as serving up a “Helluva Burger” and “Heavenly Shakes,” might as well be.

I don’t even know what “house-turned vanilla bean ice cream” is (is “turned” Pittsburgh-ese for “churned”?) — but when spun with organic local ingredients, served in a frosted glass with a straw that’s finally an appropriate thickness, and pushed across the bar with the extra drippings in the metal canister it was mixed in — these milkshakes are not for the weak.


Friends required.

My Caramel Pretzel ($6) milkshake was crusted with salty pretzel chunks and wore a halo of lusciously-thick whipped cream, so decadent that by the end of my glass the caramel tasted like straight corn syrup — but I was willing to forgive.

Also available are the divinely-conceived Salted Nutella Crunch (with Nutella and Nestle Crunch bars), Coffee & Donuts (with Kona coffee and donut pieces), and a line-up of hard shakes, such as the Apple Pancakes and Bacon, Burnt Toffee, or Grand-Dad’s Secret. (The complete list of Burgatory shakes is available here.)

Unless you’re training for a food-eating competition or up for testing your virtue of patience, I strongly suggest eating the burger on a separate visit and consulting the wait-time for tables online before you go (visible on the right side of the homepage).

Fox Chapel / Waterworks
932 Freeport Road
Pittsburgh, PA 15238
(412) 781-1456
(View full list of locations.)

Sunday-Thursday 11AM – 10PM
Friday and Saturday 11AM – 11PM

Transcending Erasure: All about… Palestine {a cultural project}

“All about…” is a series of culturally-driven posts by guest writers who have lived, worked, or studied in a culture different than that of central Pennsylvania. These essays are not comprehensive cultural guides; rather, their purpose is to expose misunderstandings, clarify stereotypes, and highlight the similarities between familiar and unfamiliar cultures.

This week’s post is written by Kara Newhouse, author of the blog Rogue Anthropologist. She published these posts individually for Israeli Apartheid Week, a week focused on educating people about “the nature of Israel as an apartheid system” and the injustices therein.

Kara taught and reported from Palestine in 2010. She is now a journalist for the Perry County Times and fights for the human rights of all people in Pennsylvania. Additionally, Kara is an aspiring children’s author, tinkers in portrait photography, and sells hand-woven scarves.


I’ve lived in an unusual array of places in my young life, and I try to be compassionate in my responses to the misunderstandings I hear about those places. I don’t shout when I’m asked if I was forced to wear a burqa, and when someone substitutes Pakistan for Palestine, I chalk it up to alliterative confusion. When people tell others I lived in Israel or ask me what it was like to live in Israel, though, my reaction is a bit different. I have never lived in Israel, nor have I ever said I did, since that would be political erasure of a people and their history. I lived in the city of Nablus, which is in the West Bank of Palestine. Here are five things you might not know about Palestine.

1) Contemporary Palestine consists of two territories: Gaza and the West Bank (so named for being on the western bank of the Jordan River). In 1948, the creation of Israel through the forced expulsion of the Palestinian people who lived there sparked a war with surrounding Arab countries and Palestinians. At the end of the war, Israel had taken over 75% of historical Palestine and obliterated more than 500 towns and villages. What remained of the Palestinian land was the West Bank, which came under Jordan’s rule, and Gaza, which came under the rule of Egypt.

In 1967, Israel launched a successful surprise attack on Egypt and took over large swaths of land, including the West Bank and Gaza in what’s known as the six-day war. Israeli forces have continued to occupy these areas for the past 46 years—hence the term “Occupied Palestinian Territories.” This means that to get into and out of the West Bank, I had to go through Israeli border patrol. While this meant frustration and delays for me as an American, I met many Palestinians who had no hope of ever being able to get through those checkpoints to visit Jerusalem or another country. Military checkpoints are also set up throughout the territories to restrict Palestinians from free movement within the area.

Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is illegal. Under international law, is it not acceptable for countries to acquire territory through war.

israel-palestine map

Israel-Palestine map

2. I know dozens of Palestinians and zero terrorists. It hurts my soul that I even have to include this on the list, but the stereotype of Muslim terrorism broadly and Palestinian terrorism specifically is still present in America. Contrary to that image, in the six months I lived in the West Bank I was joyously invited into Palestinian homes and hearts in a way I’ve not experienced in any other place on the globe. When I have guests in my own home now I try to give back the same hospitality I received. The bar is high.


Samahair, director of the youth development center at al Aroub refugee camp. All rights reserved.


Hamoud, a charismatic 13-year-old selling corn in Awarta village. All rights reserved.

3. Palestine is not a desert, but the desserts are great. The images of sand and blood that characterize the modern Middle East in U.S. news and history books were the only ones I had to draw from when imagining the land I headed for in early 2010. To my delight, those images were far from accurate. Here’s a description I wrote that spring in my beloved new home:

“The region around Nablus is full of rolling green hills with craggy gray rock breaking out from the grass. A few weekends ago, the TYO staff went on a ramble (“hike” by Nabulsi standards, “long walk” by mine) through the countryside, where my spirit soaked in the sun and pastoral scenery of goats and sheep among the olive groves. Even on the city streets I pass lemon trees, orange trees and many flowers in bloom. My friend Mary constantly asks if I smell jasmine, although we haven’t actually seen the plants.”

I miss those olive groves and citrus trees, and I also miss Palestinian sweets, like kanafeh.


The land. All rights reserved.

Manarat Nablus Sweets Shop

Manarat Nablus Sweets Shop. All rights reserved.

4. Palestine is not underdeveloped. It’s been de-developed. I dislike the terms “underdeveloped” and “developing” as ways of describing countries. These words harm our understanding of people around the globe, and slide past the history and contemporary politics of the world economy with a one-dimensional economic attribute. The terms also hold an assumption that all countries are or should be moving on a trajectory toward being like the U.S. and other “developed” countries. What’s happened to the West Bank since Israel began building a wall between the two areas in 2002 is an example of economics working otherwise. An American woman I interviewed in 2010 who’d married a Palestinian before the wall was built spoke to its dramatic economic events:

“Palestine has been de-developed so rapidly. You know, people are so much poorer now than they were even ten years ago. It’s really remarkable, and pretty unusual to have within less than a generation — to have such rapid imposed poverty. I don’t think internationals can quite comprehend…how huge of an impact that has on the ability of Palestinians to effectively organize…Up until the second intifada and the beginning of the real closure, people could work. It wasn’t great, but farmers could sell their produce, and you know, all this stuff. It’s been literally in ten years, people going from okay, a low economic standard of living to real economic insecurity.”

Apartheid Wall Up Close 1

Apartheid Wall Up Close. All rights reserved.

Walking with Hajj Rashad

Rashad Abdel Rahman is 70-years-old and the head of the village council of Isla, where Israel’s apartheid wall has cut villagers off from their land, olive trees, and livelihoods. All rights reserved.

5. Refugees. For my first three months in Nablus, I taught after-school art classes to children from the city’s refugee camps. “How can there be Palestinian refugees in Palestine?” a friend recently asked me. In 1948, when Palestinian villages were burned and families fled the area that is now the state of Israel, they escaped to Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. Some also took refuge at camps in other parts of Palestine—the territories that are now the West Bank and Gaza. Sixty-five years later, those refugees and the subsequent generations still identify their homes as the land across the border, which they cannot go to. “I live in Nablus, but I’m from Haifa,” is a common thing to hear, even if the speaker is 20 years-old and has never seen Haifa or the Mediterranean coast along which is sits.

While the refugee identity and belief in the right to return endure, other features of the camps have changed. Mainly, the population in camps has grown exponentially while the amount of land allotted for them to live in has remained the same. For example, Balata refugee camp — where many of my students lived — is home to 20,000 inhabitants in a 1 square-kilometer area. Contrary to the popular image of refugees, the dwellings in these camps are not tents. They are concrete apartments squeezed in between and on top of each other as the population has swelled. Many of the homes get little sunlight, and children — like my students — have limited areas to play in.

Balata produce seller

Balata produce seller. All rights reserved.

TYO Art and Storytelling Class

Kara surrounded by her art and storytelling class. All rights reserved.

This post cannot encapsulate all that is life in the West Bank–nor even, can the six months I spent there–but calling the place by name and listening to the stories of the people there is a start to understanding all of the beauty and suffering of contemporary Palestine.

On becoming more selfless and others-aware: All about… Seoul, South Korea {a cultural project}

“All about…” is a series of culturally-driven posts by guest writers who have lived, worked, or studied in a culture different than that of central Pennsylvania. These essays are not comprehensive cultural guides; rather, their purpose is to expose misunderstandings, clarify stereotypes, and highlight the similarities between familiar and unfamiliar cultures.

This week’s post is written by Katy Weyforth of Fallston, Maryland.


After graduating from college with a degree in geology, I interviewed all summer for jobs that I didn’t even want to do. With college loans looming overhead and credit card debt accumulating up to my eyeballs, I decided to do what I thought any normal 22-year old would: apply to teach English in South Korea. In truth, I had been insanely jealous of my many friends who had studied abroad during high school or college, so I wanted my chance to shine — my chance to get out into the world, to learn a completely new language, to become a pro at traveling alone, and to grow outside of the comfortable bubble of Bel Air, Maryland, that I called home.

Though I had soaked in every word of the 20-page information packet given to me after I was hired as a teacher, I didn’t do much research about South Korea prior to my arrival. I expected that Koreans would stare at my long red hair and that I’d have to learn to bow to others instead of shaking hands. But what I didn’t expect was to become puzzled, confused, embarrassed, and even disappointed about some aspects of Korean life only to find myself later admiring the very things that frustrated me in the first place.

1. Embracing the future means respecting the past. The first thing that amazed me was the vibrant and progressive nature of Seoul. Having been born and raised in the suburbs of Baltimore, I was enthralled by the stunningly-designed high-rise buildings that were interlaced with traditional Korean houses, farmers markets, and historic Buddhist temples.

This intermingling of modern and history is a theme visible in all aspects of Korean culture. On a normal subway commute to work, I would often see groups of aged adjusshees (old men) in the subway station playing ancient Korean board games, oblivious to their contrast to the hurried women clad in fur, heels, and Louis Vuitton handbags. If there was ever a collision between a woman and one of the adjusshees, the woman would quickly bow to the old man, humbly assume responsibility for her error, and continue on.

This modern city simply respects the role of the aged. Instead of demolishing or redesigning their country to reflect South Korea’s growing place in the global economy, Koreans embrace the history that built their nation and honor those that came before them.

A view from my apartment window shows the stark contrast between older Korean buildings and the modern apartment complexes and high-rise office buildings adjacent to them.

A view from my apartment window shows the contrast between older Korean buildings and the modern high-rise offices.

2. A large population requires a large effort. After about a week in Seoul, I noticed that there were no public trash receptacles in the city. I had thought that a bustling city with so many people constantly getting quick bites to eat should absolutely have public trash cans; however, I was wrong! The population density of Seoul, when combined with the global initiative to “go green,” translates into a high level of environmental responsibility from its residents.

I absolutely cannot tell you how it worked, but the city expects all residents to separate their home trash into a billion different colorful bags categorized by type of waste. You are then supposed to find the correct dumpsters in which to dispose of it all. I could figure out the bags, but I could never figure out the pick-up days — anytime I noticed bags accumulating on the sidewalk in front of my building, I’d tiptoe downstairs and add mine to the pile.

However, in my 27 months of living in Seoul, I never saw a rat or a mouse, even during the year in which I lived above a restaurant. The subways were nearly spotless, streets were generally litter-free, and the only pest was the occasional stray cat. The extra communal effort of cleanliness and ‘green living’ made Seoul one of the cleanest cities in my book.

Baskin Robbins: An example of the "Americanization" of Korea.

Me and several friends at Baskin Robbins: An example of “Americanization”

3. The peace of public safety. As ominously vast, busy, and crowded as Seoul was to me, I felt safe in every location and at all times of the day. I noticed police cars on only three occasions: first, when half a park bridge fell into a stream; second, during a highway alcohol screening when every driver was given a breathalyzer test; and third, when masses of young officers were bussed in to prevent rioting on Buddha’s birthday. The only time I saw a gun was on the belt of a bank officer inside my bank on the day I set up my bank account. This was a whole new world for me, a girl who had lived in the suburbs of Baltimore and whose father basically hides an arsenal of weapons around the house! Despite my limited understanding of Korean and my anxiety when following directions in unfamiliar locations, I had peace wandering around Seoul, learning that it can be fun to explore when lost and that back alleys hold the best tea shops.

Just one of the amazing floats contributing to the Buddha's birthday parade.  Though most of the country is now Christian, thousands of people come out every year to enjoy the celebration of their country's founding religion.  Buddhist ideology still runs rampant throughout every aspect of Korean culture.

Just one of the amazing floats of Buddha’s birthday parade. Though most of the country is now Christian, thousands of people come out every year to enjoy the celebration of their country’s founding religion.

Rooted deeply in the Korean psyche is the desire to act for the sake of the family or a group instead of one’s self. Many times I found I had to sacrifice my own desires and accept what my friends wanted instead. I had a difficult time adjusting to this, but after some introspection and a few conversations on Western and Eastern cultural differences with a dear Korean friend, I realized that I was being stretched out of my independent “every-man-for-himself” ideology to become someone who was more selfless and others-aware.

Modern wedding: An example of how much Korean culture embraces the family unit: instead of having a small wedding party and taking photos with immediate family members only, Koreans have their photographer gather every friend and family member together for one big picture after the wedding.

Instead of having a small wedding party and taking photos with immediate family members, Koreans have their photographer gather every friend and family member together for one big picture.

This understanding and respect for those around you, woven like a thread through Korean culture, is what surprised me most about living in Seoul. Even though these aspects of Korea were tedious at first, I eventually learned to step out of my limited zone to appreciate the larger picture of involving others beside myself. When I returned to America, I returned with new insight about how all our actions, no matter how large or small, impact those around us — those of the past, the present, and the future.

Ancient Herbs: I found this tiny shop walking down a back street.  Though there are small pharmacies on every street corner, the value of the ancient remedies can not be understated.  Displayed are containers of herbs and roots with medicinal uses dating back thousands of years.

Though there are small pharmacies on every street corner, the value of the ancient remedies can not be understated. Displayed are containers of herbs and roots with medicinal uses dating back thousands of years.

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