Thursday, April 29, 2010

Nazi Vegetarianism, Sliced Bread, Criminal Chocolate, and More!

Okay, so maybe I'm getting a little sensationalistic, but I just wanted to drop you some morsels of what promises to be a mentally and gastronomically stimulating food studies symposium at UC Berkeley all day Friday, tomorrow--yes, I'm spreading the news right on top of the moment in typical doing-too-many-things-at-the-same-time fashion. The Institute of European Studies is hosting the event, and it is freely accessible to the public if you can track down the campus location. Below is a charming graphic, plus the general description lifted from the IES website.

Food: History and Culture in the West
A Symposium on Food Culture will be held on April 30 in 223 Moses Hall, sponsored by the European Union Center of Excellence, the Institute of European Studies, and the Institute of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. Scholars from the US and Europe will gather to discuss subjects from chocolate-related crime in historic London to saving the world through food.

The full schedule and titles of talks (including those alluded to in this post title!) can be found here. Why am I promoting this? Well besides the fact that there will be many new horizons in food and vegetables that will open up before our food-fascinated eyes, it is also part of my new job converting a portion of the proceedings into resource materials for local K-14 curricula in conjunction with the IES's outreach program. So here I am, reaching out to you!

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Weird and the Wonderful

I'm taking a break from my first attempt at making a leek tart (my Friday ambitions are overflowing), to upload a version of "The Weird and the Wonderful," an article I wrote on unusual fall/winter produce and the origins of San Francisco farmers' and alternative markets that appeared last fall in the San Francisco Panorama, a one-time newspaper that was an intrepid and gorgeously designed endeavor hatched up for the McSweeney's Quarterly Issue #33. Thanks to my friend Nick Sung for originally scanning it in for me when I needed a writing sample for a job interview. I'm not on the greatest terms with that cunning ol' rascal, Technology, so I needed all the help I can get. To the left is a jpg version and below is a link that will hopefully lead you to a downloadable pdf! And thanks to McSweeney's for asking me to contribute and for releasing all the copyrights for instant dissemination without legal repercussion!

Weird and Wonderful

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Edible Flowers

Spring is flowering all around us, and the farmers' markets are alive with lighter, fresher vegetable offerings, like snap peas and shelling peas, petite purple spring onions, and green garlic. I picked up this sample sprig of mustard flowers from Marin Roots Farm at the Ferry Plaza market last Saturday, and it reminded me of the roving flower feasts I plucked out on a friend's farm in Vermont last summer.

There was bergamot, also called bee balm, the red flower whose oil is most familiar to many of us in our morning or afternoon cup of Earl Grey tea. Steamed or applied, it is said to calm inflammations and soreness, both inside and out. Perhaps this balm lulls angry bees away from otherwise stinging thoughts? When I read that it was a carminative, I thought this had to do with its carmine hue, but the truth is much less poetic: it reduces flatulence. [oops update: my little rooty head got confused and it seems that Earl Grey actually comes from the rind of the bergamot orange and not this flower. See the comments section, where Marc has graciously cleared up this factual lapse of mine]

And I chewed borage, whose lavender blooms and peach fuzz are not at all rough and boorish as its name might imply. Possessing its own set of soothing properties, borage is also a traditional decoration for gin-based summer cockails, according to this site. Tuck a sprig in your salad, in your cucumber soup (its leaves taste like cucumber, some say), in your hair, and in your witch's herb box.

More familiar to me were...

the flowering arugula:

the flowering thyme:

and the green buds of the broccoli rabe:

What kind of sustenance do flowers constitute? Can that which satiates the eyes, the nose, and the passing pleasure of the delicate palate, but that leaves the stomach rumbling still be called food?

And what shall we make of the following take on edible flowers from that dog-eared favorite of every impassioned critic of the tyranny of the rational and of the methodical disenchantment of the world that confuses itself for progress, Adorno and Horkheimer's 1947 Dialectic of Enlightenment:

Eating flowers, which still occurs at the dessert stage in the near East, and is known to European children only in terms of cooking with rosewater and candied violets, is promise of a state in which the reproduction of life is independent of conscious self-preservation, and the bliss of the fully contented is detached from the advantages of rationally planned nutrition.

The passage occurs in the context of the episode in The Odyssey in which Odysseus saves his men from the blissful oblivion of the lotus eaters. Adorno and Horkheimer figure the epic's hero as the rational force of labor that charges through the indolent bliss associated with a regression to earlier days, when humankind gleaned "the fruits of the land and sea" rather than actively cultivating their production. For these Frankfurt School thinkers, "It is hardly accidental that the epic attaches the idea of the idle life to the eating of flowers..."

While there may be empirically demonstrable medicinal justifications for the eating of herbal flowers, I like this passage for suggesting that sprinkling flowers onto your salad or soup or grabbing a handful of petals to toss into your mouth while wandering up a grassy hillside is a way of tasting beauty and imagining, if only for a moment, that it might free us from the burdens of clock time and square meals.

Now begins the season for indulging in delirious interludes marked by the eating of flowers. These sheep would agree, wouldn't you say?

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Bitterest of Melons

O my vegetable friends, I've been away too long, my energies dispersed to the four winds like tiny mustard seeds traveling in search of a moment in which to alight onto a cool bit of loamy soil and marinate awhile in their spicy oils.

There is much gastronomical news to tell over my next few posts, the first of which involves my meeting of two founding members of the National Bitter Melon Council, an exciting and formidable society dedicated to the furthering of knowledge and enjoyment of the much-maligned bitter melon. Recently relocated from Boston, bitter councilors Hiroko Kikuchi and Jeremy Liu have been feeling out the lay of the land, splashing about in the bowels of the Bay Area gastro-intellectual foodist complex, and bumping up against the likes of yours truly at the Gastronomica UC Berkeley event two weeks ago. Expect a Weird Veg + Bitter Melon Council steaming hot pot conversation post to ensue.

These bitter melon agents have so swimmingly plumbed the depths of the bitter melon universe on their pleasingly designed website [side note: Weird Veg redesign coming soon!] that I feel I can add no further metaphor, can lead you down no additional information superhighway. I can only gesture mutely toward their copia of bitter melon aliases--Balsam pear, balsamina (Spanish), ku gua or foo gwa (Chinese), and assorossie (French), point you in the direction of their Bitter Melon Homeopathy for Urban Renewal: Bitter is Better public garden-intervention project, which included the construction and launching of bitter melon seed bombs, and instruct you to follow their advice on cooking the bitter melon.

But as in other times when I find myself at the outer limits of my ability, I turn to the Joy Luck Club ethos of my inscrutably Asian mother, who finds no greater pleasure than showering her lucky golden dragon sweet river pearls of wisdom upon my humble head. According to Cô Thao, as you may address her:

1. Eating the burnt edges of toast makes you stupid

2. You should never give a knife as a gift because it will cut up the ties of your relationship to that person. But if this should ever happen accidentally, the giftee should give the giver a penny so that the gift becomes transformed into a purchase, and all potential curses are thereby lifted.

3. Drinking bitter melon tea will lower your blood pressure. This ancient pearl actually comes from my grandmother, whom I address as Ba Ngoai and who drinks dried bitter melon tea she gets from Seattle's Chinatown. My mom was recently diagnosed with high blood pressure and so has taken to buying whole bitter melons and boiling one for an hour, then drinking the bitter water for a circulatory relaxation effect. This benefit has not been medically proven and does not occur on the Bitter Melon Council's list of bitter melon health benefits or ethnomedical uses, but my mom says it works and so does her home blood pressure monitor. In S.F., the Alemany and Heart of the City Civic Center farmers' markets are good places to find bitter melon in addition to your average Asian-owned corner market.

Below, Cô Thao demonstrates the preparation of the bitter melon:

First, slice it open lengthwise.

Then pull the halves apart.

Using a spoon and strong twists of the wrist, remove the central pith and seeds, which pinken as the gourdy fruit matures, and are more bitter than the green meat.

Continue to scoop (disembowel) the melon. Yours will not look as neat and easy as this.

If you are just boiling the bitter melon for its strong tea, then slice it only as needed to fit in the pot. Otherwise, you can cut it into thick segments to be stuffed with ground pork, or slice it thinly to stir fry with garlic, onions, cilantro, and ground pork. It also makes a very nice soup, with ground pork.

Before eating, emotionally prepare yourself for the bitter punch. It can get addictive.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Gastronomica Rumblings

If you are kicking around Berkeley at noon tomorrow with nothing better to do than think about food and identity in a global context, you should come hear what promises to be a thought- and hunger-provoking discussion with Darra Goldstein, founder and editor of the food and culture journal Gastronomica (not to mention endowed professor of Russian literature at Williams College) in conversation with USC sociologist Barry Glassner. The event is free and will happen in the most frustratingly labyrinthine building on campus, at 3335 Dwinelle Hall (it's on the "C" level--trust me, this information will be useful). Full event info.

The event combines a celebration of Gastronomica's 10th anniversary, crowned by the publication of the Gastronomica Reader, with a series of food talks that UC Berkeley's Institute of European Studies (IES) will host this month. I expect my food horizons to broaden with my summer gig working with the IES to convert Friday's talk, as well as the proceedings of their food studies conference April 30, into materials to be used in local K-12 school curricula. More on the IES events here.

If you're not familiar with Gastronomica, the journal is a gorgeously photographed and designed, densely filled quarterly published by the nonprofit UC Press. Goldstein's careful curation of essays, art, poetry, and journalism maintains an intellectually rigorous approach to food issues as they pertain to culture, politics, history, and the environment while also speaking to the multi-sensory pleasures and simple fun of food. Weird Veg friend Andrew Simmons has a thoughtful account in his post on Friday's event at SFoodie. And just in case you weren't sure, that's kim chee in the Chanel bottle in the upper left cover (Summer 2009 issue; art by Hongtu Zhang).

"Enjoy your weird nubbins"

Is what my friend Toby said to me yesterday after my visit with this magical fuzzy creature,

whose name is Lola. She likes to lick tiny squares of white cheese out of your outstretched hand.

As I left their house in Oakland, I asked for some of the hefty lemons that were burdening the front yard tree, and noble Toby complied by plucking down the intricately formed creature above, the yellow nubbiny one, that is. Though it could be mistaken for its look-alike cousin, the Buddha's Hand citron, this is indeed a lemon! Below is a Buddha's Hand I picked up at Berkeley Bowl in December:

While we usually cover vegetables rather than fruit here at Weird Vegetables, I would like to invoke the clause whereby fruit is actually a subset of the vegetable universe (Cf. the lemon cucumber post) in order to feature these "weird nubbins," as Toby christened them.

Look deep into the nebulous form of this citrus fruit and tell us what you see. Your answer may hold the key to the makeup of your very soul.

The Alice in Wonderland caterpillar contemplating the nature of identity and the identity of nature from a slightly reclined, hookah-toking lotus position?

Or posing in the role of Alien Baby Sucking on Tentacle in Escape Pod?

Rorschach's got nothing on this lemon blot.