thoughts on food, culture, and community

Archive for the month “May, 2013”

Friday Photo: Strawberry bread soup

Strawberries, sugar, bread, and milk. June 2012.

Strawberries, sugar, bread, and milk. June 2012.

When I wrote fiction as a kid, my characters lived idealized versions of my own life. I must have been interested in food as long as I can remember, for the characters in my stories always ate my favorite foods, starting their meals with sauce chicken and brown-butter noodles and ending with the dish in the photo above — strawberry bread soup.

Strawberry bread soup is a simple concoction made of slivered fresh strawberries (local only — any other strawberries are imposters), cubed bread, sugar, and milk. My mother used to measure the farm-fresh milk out in quart canning jars and served the soup in a large bowl as a dessert for our family of six. I loved this soup for the unusually sweetened milk, the milk-soaked bread, and tangy bite of the fruit.

I honestly thought everyone in the world dunked stuff in milk and called it soup (kind of like I thought everyone ate cottage cheese with apple butter) until I found this dish to be a subject of much teasing. However, a few weeks ago, I found a recipe for “Cold Bread Soup” in my cookbook From Amish and Mennonite Kitchens (next to “Coffee Soup”), along with a nearby note that reads: “These recipes probably came about during the Depression. But I still get hungry for a bowl of Coffee or Cold Bread Soup at breakfast or lunch!”

So bread soup — just another sign of the Mennonite’s incredibly thrifty background.

I felt incredibly vindicated.

Both recipes follow.

Cold Bread Soup

Cut bread into chunks or cues. Sugar to taste and pour cold milk over bread and sugar. Huckleberries, cherries, or peaches in season can be added. Serve in large soup bowl.

Coffee Soup

Break 1 piece of bread into a cup. Fill cup with hot coffee: add sugar and cream to taste.

From Amish and Mennonite Kitchens by Phillis Pellman Good and Rachel Thomas Pellman.

The morning I believed in time travel

Despite now studying French, I still have the honor of delving into my English-teacher roots by daily tutoring two boys via Skype in English language conversation in South Korea. Due to a guest post on my blog a few months ago, I already had a vague idea about celebrations of Buddha’s birthday (which just passed on May 17) and the traditional game of gonggi. I knew vaguely that South Korea is 13 hours ahead of Pennsylvanian time, although I always forget and cheerfully say “Good morning!” to my two students, who giggle and reply with equal amusement, “Good evening!” I’ve met their parents and their non-English speaking grandmother, who has shown me traditional New Year’s clothing, has promised to buy me Korean ice cream if I visit, and blessed the kimchi that I am making this weekend. All of this is special, but not too shocking; in a virtual world, this is almost to be expected.

But the morning I believed in time travel was when the family pulled back the curtains in the computer room to show me the pitch-black night and the rows of well-lit apartment buildings that stand opposite theirs. “We live on the third floor,” one of the boys pointed out, and I nodded with understanding. (The writer of the blog post on South Korea had including a photo of apartment buildings.) But floating in the window, in the middle of the city lights, was the reflection of my Skyped face, glowing brightly from the computer screen — existing 13 hours ahead of Pennsylvania time and 7000 miles away.

Everland Snow Festival, South Korea.

Everland Snow Festival, South Korea.

On countrysides and coming home

You’re a young adult (whatever age that means), and you’ve been told to “get out there.” See the world. Experience new things, and become a better person because of it.

I absolutely agree with this philosophy, for it was definitely applicable to me. Before going to college, I had only met a handful of people who had been born outside the U.S. I had never seen a bagel or eaten granola, and I laughed awkwardly at jokes that contained pop culture references I’d never heard of. Before studying in France, a glass of wine in my hand was evil, not a sign of sharing; before visiting my family in the Netherlands, I laughed at adults who rode their bike to work instead of driving a car. (Bike rides were for kids. Real adults owned four wheels.) In the decade since I’ve left my hometown, I have learned to ask questions about other people’s beliefs instead of recoiling in disgust when our opinions don’t match. I learned that humanity is more beautiful than I had thought. I learned that I have a place when I create one, and yes, that I am capable of drinking espresso, using chopsticks, and driving aggressively in heavy traffic, as I had once thought growing up should entail.

But there is another side to this story. On May 2, NPR interviewed comedian Jim Gaffigan about raising five kids in Manhattan. Of city-dwellers, he said, “They’re well-adjusted. They’re not freaked out by two men holding hands. They’re not freaked out by socio- or economic or cultural differences, and that’s, I think, an important gift to give children.” Gaffigan’s point jives with me, whose process of “growing up” and “getting out there” entailed directing my footsteps toward cities of various sizes. Cities expose you to others’ differences, whether you find them at the laundromat or sitting next to a stranger on a bus; cities present you with an array of experiences from the Peruvian restaurant down the street to the political rally of a cause you’ve never heard of. For me, cities around the world have succeeded in giving me the chance to broaden myself, to expect change, and to be unafraid of other people. Like Gaffigan, I’ve viewed living in cities to be a gift.

However, what Gaffigan is missing is an acknowledgement of the countryside and the importance of coming home.

Cities are not the only place in this world that have something to offer. Having come from a family farm in Shippensburg, PA, I assert that there’s something to be said about being “well-adjusted” to the depth of a truly black night sky. It’s extremely important to me to not be “freaked out” by spiders, of the smell of sweat, and the satisfaction of heavy labor. Exposure to others’ differences is a gift, but so is the ability to wave at your neighbors (I do this in Harrisburg, whether I know them or not), to run through cornfields, and to be embraced by the absolute sense of knowing where you’ve come from. For me, the countryside is an anchor to where I’m going, and this gift is not at all less than teaching children to not be startled by the sight of the homeless or of a hijab worn in a grocery store. The countryside, like the gift of a city, is a tool that must be used wisely.

Many of my friends, like me, have grown up in small towns, and have found ourselves at any given moment traveling or living across the state, across the country, or across the globe. Many twentysomethings have responded to the call of “getting out there,” whether to a city or not, and we’ve looked at our fresh perspectives and new stories with a certain sense of satisfaction. However, after these weeks, or months, or years away, there’s a point in time where many of us, with some awkwardness, find that we are back in the same town or state in which we started, and find this return viewed (by ourselves, if not others) as a backslide, a giving-in, a choice we are supposed to defend.

If I could change the call to our young people, I would first explain that it is important to get out of one’s comfort zone and to see other places. For those of us born among mountains and rolling fields, it may be important to spend some time in bigger places, but for many others, leaving comfort zones can mean camping for a weekend without showers, or learning to respect that truck-driving neighbor who never finished high school.

But after this experience, I’d explain to our young people that it’s okay to return home — with new perspectives, new distance, and new understanding. Returning home, if only temporarily — to re-find the place where your heart was, to where familiarity upholds, to where your new point of views can really make an impact — is just as much of a gift as being able to leave it.

Picking walnuts, 2008

Picking walnuts, 2008

Confessions of a caterer: 7 Things to remember when tipping your server

I have worked in the food service on and off since 2002, and tomorrow am returning to catering for the one hundredth time. The following article was first published on on February 27, 2010.


You are scraping up the last bits of dessert with your fork when the check arrives, and now it is time to whip out the credit card and calculate the tip. It’s a normal routine, an opportunity to voice your opinion on the quality of the food and the service, but for a woman in North Carolina, this routine became a legal issue. In February 2010, patron Monica Covington was banned from a Winston-Salem restaurant for having left poor tips.

We’re all guilty of it. Sometimes we don’t have enough ones, or sometimes we don’t have the energy to decide whether the meal was worth 15% or 18. Monica presented the restaurant with a petition of 300 signatures and demanded fair treatment, but her situation brings up an interesting question: how low of a tip is too low?

I, as a patron of many restaurants, am not complaining of our current restaurant system that allows us to deem ourselves worthy judges of our restaurant experiences. It allows our restaurants to push for exceptional quality and service. However, also having been a caterer on and off for ten years, I believe that there are several aspects about being a server that every patron must know.

1) Behind that black apron is a story. Serving tables is one of two options: a transitional job because nothing else is available, or a lifetime career because nothing else is possible. That young man who brought you your water without a lemon? He is either in the process of applying for grad school in fine arts or hoping to a young wife’s child on the way.

2) If your waitstaff remembers all of your order, it’s a miracle. In the US, a waitress’ questions are our appetizers: what would you like to drink? what sides? how do you want your steak? with what dressing? It is enormously difficult for your server to organize this information, not only for you but for everyone else at your table. Consider that your server is not a mental filing cabinet, and that sometimes recalling your preferences are as grueling as recalling formulas for eleventh grade physics.

3) Waiting tables is like attending a mandatory, eight-hour gym session. Ever tried to balance a dumbbell stacked with steaming, sloshing cups of soup? Your server, walking more steps in her shift than the average American walks in one day, is adept at lifting like a pro and holding poses like a dancer. Additionally, her job is a theater performance, complete with lines to memorize and a stage personna. She may be exhausted.

4) No one likes cleaning up after a messy guest. Clearing tables is one profession where someone is asked to clean up after one of your most intimate behaviors–your eating. A table of shredded napkins, spilled fruit punch, half-eaten desserts smeared with dinner rolls is not appropriate in day care, and it should not be appropriate at a restaurant.

5) You are not the only person on your server’s mind. Your server is routinely serving you and at least twenty-five other customers. If you ask for a fresh water pitcher, it is likely that the person on the table next to you needs a clean fork. If your server hands you the fork and her the pitcher, consider her stress level and attentiveness before getting angry.

6) Acknowledge the forced physical intimacy between you and your server. Not only are they shuttling back and forth between you and the kitchen with your requests for food, drink, or change in temperature, they are also leaning around you, bending in front of you, and breaking the barrier between your world and theirs. This also means that they are trying desperately not to listen to the story you are telling about your upstairs neighbor and her late-night visitors. They have their own worries, such as your request for a dessert menu, to contend with.

7) Your relationship with your server is one to be respected. It is a balancing act between your time off and her time to shine. Act courteously toward your server and it is likely that she will do the same. Good food that you did not have to cook is priceless, after all.

Friday Photo: May in Marseilles, France

Marseilles, May 2008

Interior, Notre Dame de la Garde, May 2008

Five years ago, I was traveling in Marseilles, France, after visiting my host mother in Avignon and returning to Talange, France, where I was to finish up my academic year as an English teaching assistant. These photographs were shot from the Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde, a church on the highest hill of Marseilles, about 162 meters above sea level. One photograph was taken inside the beautifully-painted chapel and the other, overlooking the city.

Overlooking Marseilles, May 2008

Overlooking Marseilles, May 2008

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