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Breakfast

Eating the World Every Morning

A Culinary Middle Finger to the President-Elect

Nov.29.16

A Culinary Middle Finger to the President-Elect

by Sara Nasser

Shawarma in Istanbul

After Donald J. Trump won the presidency, a full 24 hours after a Twitter troll became the de facto leader-of-the-world in waiting, I mourned his ugly victory the only way I knew how: kabsa, shawarma, hummus.

I went through the motions with a bunch of young Americans in Istanbul, our voices strained, our eyes watery, our emotions running high as we licked our plates clean. Bite, chomp, stew, digest, vent, repeat. It was our form of protest, a culinary middle finger to a man who’d won by demonizing everything we ever cared about, everything that surrounded us now. What better way to say ‘Not My President’ than by chowing down on some Syrian food?

We went to Al Rayan, a Syrian joint tucked away in a side street jutting off of Istiklal Avenue. To find the place, you orient yourself between Hüseyin Ağa Camii (Istiklal’s only mosque, built in the 1590s by a eunuch-turned-statesman) and the Demiroren (a glitzy, multi-storied mall). Between the Ottoman and the post-modern, past the pedestrian thoroughfare filled with ice cream sellers, street musicians, and TOMA vans, runs Atif Yilmaz Sokak—a street studded with restaurants from the Levant. Tarboush is popular; there’s a Palestinian place as well. We ended up choosing Al Rayan because the Syrian-American in the group suggested that it was the best of the lot.

There were four of us, three of us women. Some of us had Muslim backgrounds and immigrant parents. I am an immigrant to the United States. We tried to console each other at the dinner table, our own Venn diagram of who Donald J. Trump hated the most. We ordered more than we thought we could handle, telling ourselves that we could always take it home. We had kabsa, a mound of spiced yellow rice with cashews strewn about, and chicken shaved from the rotisserie spinning right next to us, its warmth and its smell intensifying our hunger. There were two whole plates of shawarma, rolled, crisped and cut into pieces, better for dipping into the garlic mayonnaise sauce. The sauce is so addictive I slather it on everything, even the carrots, cabbage, and tomatoes thrown in for complimentary nutrition. That night, Syrian food was our soul food.

We finished everything, washing it down with our Diet Cokes. How could this have happened? We asked each other, dazed and afraid. More than 60 million of our fellow citizens had just voted to reject the most fundamental aspects of ourselves. Our layered identities, once a point of pride, part of our life’s work abroad, were now bruised and battered, and celebrated no more.

Wiping away the tears, I realized I was naive about how I saw myself. “I’ve met real Americans,” an oud seller once told me in Istanbul, eyeing me up and down. I’ve known that look my whole life.

Fresh, Ripe Tomatoes: the Culinary Opposite of Airport Curries

Apr.24.17

Fresh, Ripe Tomatoes: the Culinary Opposite of Airport Curries

by Andrew Strikis

Breakfast in Cyprus

As the rosy-red flesh of tomatoes basked in the light streaming through the stone-and-timber window frame, I could sense Karen’s reluctance as she mentally prepared herself for that first bite.

Less than 48 hours earlier we were in the U.K., slack jaws mechanically processing a lukewarm airport curry, a flaccid coda to our exploration of Scotland’s bonnie but slightly stodgy shores.

The tiny, cobblestoned village of Vavla, in Cyprus, was our new home, and we were hoping for something, anything, to resuscitate our neglected taste buds.

Over mugs of hot coffee, we could hear our hosts Donna Marie and George nattering back and forth in the kitchen; she with her Yankee drawl, rusty from disuse, he with his thick, gravelly, Greek-inflected English sporadically tumbling forth like slow-moving boulders, a verbal dance born of decades of practice. They met in the U.S., but Vavla is their home now, and food was the pivot on which their lives spun gently.

First, a simple plate. Humble fare, familiar not just to Cypriots but to the Mediterranean. A basket of freshly baked bread, thickly cut and steaming. Sliced cucumber, tomato, halloumi: green, red, white. Threatening to none except Karen: since childhood, tomatoes have been her culinary nemesis.

Not this morning. With eyes wide, we shared a moment of revelation from the most unexpected of sources: tomatoes. Sweetness, with barely a hint of acidity. Here, you were just as likely to pick up a tomato as an apple for a snack.

The term ‘foraging’ is everywhere now, but for Donna Marie and George, this is their life, and they laugh to hear the terms ‘organic’ and ‘foraged’ used with such reverence. To wander their garden was an education, as they shared their knowledge of the land, the seasons, and the fruits of their labor.

George’s eyes lit up as he spoke of his passion for split green olives. With a generous measure of diced garlic and a splash of lemon juice, these are still the best green olives we’ve ever woken up to. Also on the table: Mosphila berries transformed into the sweetest of jams, a small bowl of local almonds, freshly squeezed orange juice. And yet more olives, air-dried and packed with umami.

Ah, to Be Handed Deep-Fried Pork Skin by a Kind Stranger

Apr.21.17

Ah, to Be Handed Deep-Fried Pork Skin by a Kind Stranger

by Sarah Witman

Carnitas in Mexico City

The Mercado de Medellín feels like an open-air market stuffed inside an aircraft hangar. Whole baby sharks sit on ice, arranged artfully among freshly caught shrimp and starfish. Stall shelves are covered with neatly arranged apples, watermelon, plantains, and cartons of strawberries—the same brand I buy back home in Wisconsin. An entire wing is dedicated to flowers: fiery red lirios (lilies) and delicate gipsófila (baby’s breath).

The market is a cross-section of Mexico City culture, along the intersection of the traditional Roma Sur and hip Roma Norte neighborhoods. During the week it’s a sleepy, sensible grocery store. Saturday mornings are a different story.

Carnitas?”

By mid-afternoon on Friday, I had seen the carnitas vendors already beginning to set up: sharpening knives, wiping down gleaming metal workstations. This is what I’ve been waiting for all week.

“Si si si! Gracias…” I say, accepting the most succulent shard of meat I’d ever seen from the vendor’s outstretched hand.

“Dos tacos, por favor.”

No need to specify what type; there is only one. The carnitas are cooked on a steaming spit. It’s then chopped up fairly fine, and lovingly portioned onto two corn tortillas. The tortillas are fresher, and more substantial, than the papery rounds I’m used to getting in the Midwest. So instead of doubling up, I can split the carnitas among them to make four tacos.

I spoon on salsa verde, one taco at a time. There are the ubiquitous little dishes of chopped onion, cilantro, and lime wedges on the table, too. Mexico City has taught me to appreciate limes.

The vendor bustles back over, asking how everything is, and hands me a crispy piece of chicharrón, deep-fried pork rind, free of charge.

“Mucho gusto!” I say with enthusiasm. This is a rather formal way to say “pleasure to meet you.” But I think he got my point.

Pretty Much the Most Heartwarming Story About Shit-on-a-Shingle You’re Likely to Hear

Apr.20.17

Pretty Much the Most Heartwarming Story About Shit-on-a-Shingle You’re Likely to Hear

by Heather Arndt Anderson

Biscuits and gravy in Portland

Biscuits and gravy may be a bastion of Southern cuisine, but they have also been embraced in Portland, Oregon, the land of brunch lines and culinary trend-spotting.

Everywhere from greasy dive bars like The Trap to Instagrammy critical-darling Tusk has it on the menu. People queue up for an hour to order it at Screen Door. As a 4th-generation Portland native and historian of both breakfast and Portland’s culinary scene, I intimately understand the fuss.

I grew up below the poverty line, the firstborn to two ex-military kids on the cusp of their twenties. My mom had herself been the firstborn to two teenaged parents from Oklahoma, and her childhood had seen struggle.

Between her role as Alpha Sister to four siblings and her stint in the Marines (she was a corporal), she had learned how to stretch a dollar in the kitchen with simple fare. This often meant our meals focused around a pound of dried navy beans flavored simply with a ham bone and a bay leaf, but occasionally, when the food stamps had run low, she fell back on perennial classics like chipped beef on toast, known affectionately in our household as shit-on-a-shingle.

My mom’s version was as economical as it can get: ground beef crumbles simmered in a white sauce made with powdered milk, thickened with roux made from the hamburger drippings, served on a slice white bread. It was a study in beige. It wasn’t glamorous, but it filled our bellies. I always really liked it, and not only because it came with a free pass to cuss at the dinner table. I enjoyed the soft, white warmness of it. Similar iterations came in the form of biscuits and gravy, made with leftover Jiffy mix biscuits and the same pasty hamburger gravy, and I ate it all with gusto.

When I grew up and started dipping a furtive toe into the world of fancy food, one of my first experiences was eating at Bread and Ink Café on Hawthorne. Back in the mid-90s the street was only starting to get hip, and Bread and Ink was the nice place with real napkins and white tablecloths, in a brick building that had once been a grocery store. It was a little out of my price range, but breakfast was an affordable luxury.

The first time I had biscuits and gravy there, I wasn’t transported back to my mother’s elbow or anything so melodious, because although she could ably feed her family, my mom never derived any joy from it. This B&G tasted like love, not making-do.

I had never known that shit-on-a-shingle could be decadent, but here it was: a broad plate of tender biscuits flecked with butter, blanketed in silky cream gravy scented faintly with nutmeg and black pepper, punctuated with sausage bits and needlessly gilded with melted cheese. This was manna from heaven, if heaven was the once-nicest joint in a formerly working-class neighborhood and God was Baron—the venerable gentleman with the jangling chain wallet and slight limp who’s been waiting tables there for thirty years.

There are countless ways in which Portland has gotten too big for its britches, but Bread and Ink’s biscuits and gravy are my favorite example.

Nothing Primes You For a Papal Visit Like A Sugar High

Apr.19.17

Nothing Primes You For a Papal Visit Like A Sugar High

by Dave Hazzan

Cake and cookies in Rome

As kids in the 80s, my brother and I were bombarded, every Saturday morning during cartoons, by a plethora of advertisements for sugary cereals. An enormous-chested tiger told us we could ski Mont Blanc if we ate Frosted Flakes, a glue-huffing leprechaun promised us Lucky Charms were magically delicious, and a very creepy third-rate Bugs Bunny knock-off told us Trix were for kids.

Kids loved the idea of waking up to bowls full of sugar (duh), and billions of dollars rolled in to the coffers of Post, Kellogg’s, and General Mills, not to mention the manufacturers of Ritalin and the whole dental profession.

Today, I carry on the tradition of sugar for breakfast in Rome. When my wife and I arrived at our Vatican-side B&B, our host offered us an “Italian” breakfast option. We didn’t know that an Italian breakfast, per our hosts, includes more sugar than a case of Coke.

It begins with two pieces of spongy cake, shot through with chocolate chip shrapnel. Alongside the cake are four carefully chosen cookies: a long, puff-pastry finger biscuit; a chocolate cookie with white chocolate stars glued on; a circular butter cookie; and a tiny nub of cookie that is like a straight shot of solidified syrup. Accompanying that is a glass of very sweet pink grapefruit juice and a cup of espresso. Feel free to add sugar to the espresso, if you haven’t already slipped into a diabetic coma.

It’s a wonderful way to start your morning, or at least the first hour and a half of it. Nothing primes you for a visit to the Vatican quite like this plantation of sugar. From the apartment, it’s a 10-minute dash to St. Peter’s Square, and then an energetic hour in the papal mosh pit, elbowing your way to the front to see the Holy Father.

But sugar is a short-term drug, and when it wears off, things become dark. The mosh pit isn’t any fun anymore. That sun is awfully hot. Does that jackass behind you really need to whelp so loud? Does this guy really think he’s Christ’s living embodiment on Earth?

The energy is drained from you, like a high-octane gasoline burnt out of an Italian race car. The pope is done touring around in his Popemobile, waving at the crowds and kissing the babies. He’s gone home to his apartment, to rest his holy, weary feet. And you are alone, in the center of St. Peter’s Square, sad and faithless, because your high fructose breakfast has worn off.

Now comes the hangover. Or cake for lunch.

Photo by: Jo Turner

It’s No Deep-Fried Mars Bar, But It’ll Do

Apr.18.17

It’s No Deep-Fried Mars Bar, But It’ll Do

by Ella Rovardi

Crowdie in Edinburgh

Crowdie: a rustic, Scottish, soft, cow’s milk cheese.

How had I never heard of this before? Up until this point I had felt smug about my well-travelled palate. I’ve tried many weird and wonderful foods over my years of globetrotting: roast guinea pig (a bit like duck with long toenails); putrified shark meat (its chewy texture as unforgiving as its ammoniac stench); and meal-worm bolognese, which was actually pleasantly nutty. But here I was, back in the country in which I was born and bred, unaware of this humble cheese made right here in Bonnie Scotland.

Overcoming my embarrassment as a Scot having to ask an English waiter at our local Edinburgh gastropub to explain what crowdie was, I felt obliged to order the crowdie salad in spite of my appetite hankering over something more brunchy. Chunks of bleeding beetroot and charred pumpkin sat brightly among beige pearls of barley, and the crowdie, warmed, silkily coated the peppery arugula. Akin to soft goat’s cheese in texture—but less “farmy” in flavor—its creaminess was slightly sour, almost lemony.

This cheese has some pretty cool history. It is known to have fed revellers at traditional Scottish ceilidh celebrations, lining their stomachs along with oatcakes in preparation for the onslaught of whisky drinking. Its origins can be traced back to the Viking settlements in the ninth century, the tradition carried forward by Scottish Highlanders to this day.

Essentially a byproduct of butter-making, the process begins by skimming the cream from fresh milk and heating the remaining liquid until it curdles—historically, either in the sun or by the fire—before straining, separating the curds from the whey. Salt is added to the curds before being molded into a log shape and sometimes rolled in chewy pinhead oats and spicy crushed black pepper, known as “black crowdie.”

It becomes clear the more people I speak to that I am not the only one who had never heard of it. In spite of its availability, we in the south of Scotland are still reaching for the mass-produced tubs of soft cheeses, lining the pockets of food giants, as our local cheese sits on the shelves, invisible, undiscovered and as yet, unwanted. Containing only cows’ milk and salt, I can’t help but think this must be a superior product to consume than everyone’s favorite cream cheese?

It may not be as exotic as our haggis or black pudding, or as (in)famous as the deep-fried Mars Bar, but crowdie still merits a place in our homes and on our menus. A back-to-basics, local product, versatile in its simplicity; I am a convert.

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