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Breakfast

Eating the World Every Morning

There Is Fried Fish on the Road Back to the Land

Jul.07.15

There Is Fried Fish on the Road Back to the Land

by Mark Hay

Catfish in the ACE Basin

It’s hard to be a morning person in the muggy spring of the ACE Basin. Dripping with Spanish moss and teeming with life growing on other life, this vast swamp (formed by the excesses of the Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto Rivers—hence ACE) stretches across much of the lower coast of South Carolina, from Charleston to Hilton Head. Many resort communities, built on the islands peppering the Atlantic and in the remains of massive rice plantations, conquer the humidity with air conditioning and sweet tea. But here in the dead of the swamp, the heat-blanket air, thick with last night’s grimy rainwater, makes everything slow and heavy. Which is to say, thinking I could get up at seven, walk out to the open-air bar beside my plywood shack guesthouse, and grab some breakfast before tooling around the swamps was a big mistake.

I spend a good two-to-three hours scribbling in my bright red notebook and listening to work drums and the shuffle of groggy villagers waking up before other folks start to congregate around the café with a bit of hunger (but much more sleep) in their eyes. I have no idea what breakfast will be. But that’s par for the course in the town of Oyotunji.

A self-declared independent nation, African-American nationalists carved Oyotunji out of a bit of Sheldon, South Carolina’s old Tamale plantation in the 1970s. These men, disenchanted with the pervasive racism of American society even after the civil rights movement, were determined to create their own community, defined in its culture and governance by Yoruba (West African) traditions, ostensibly picking up where their ancestors left off before being dragged into slavery. Over the past forty-some years, the city-state has gone through spurts of overpopulation and depopulation, ideological shifts and dynastic transitions (they’re ruled by a divinely ordained king—the Oba). But at its inception and now again, the community’s anchored in a back-to-the-land ethos.

The village is dotted with micro-gardens, and every day, folks trundle down to the rivers to see what they can pull out of the swamp. Some of the twenty-odd residents aren’t into this nature provides philosophy, so they still live on Entenmann’s sweets from the convenience store out on the highway (much to the reigning Oba Adefunmi II’s chagrin). Likewise, the breakfast menu at this nascent guesthouse (a bid to capitalize on interest in their community from spiritualists and nosy outsiders like myself) is sometimes just processed cheese on a bun with some peppers and onions slapped in for good measure. But sometimes, like today, it’s whatever the young man trudging up from the river has in his white bucket.

It’s a slew of catfish and white fish. Boku, a priest initiate and the local chef par excellence, jumps up, gutting and slicing and battering and frying-up the fish with some French fries. It’s a slow process, as he handles each fillet more like a meditating dervish than a line cook, but it’s worth the wait. There’s something especially juicy about fish when you get to eat it within half an hour of its death (that’s the appeal of ikizukuri, but I could never manage to eat a fish while still alive). It’s also psychologically appealing to know exactly who breaded and fried the fish, and with what. There’s something communal about sitting around and shooting shit as Boku slings each cut into a Styrofoam container. And I suppose this is the promise of the back-to-the-land ethos—the restoration of flavor, knowledge, and community in your food.

The problem is that while I experience this sense of community many times over a week at Oyotunji (crab bakes with children running underfoot and venison roasts while Michael Jackson movies play on a projector in the center of the open-air bar), as of yet it’s unreliable. Oyotunji isn’t self-sustaining—far from it. WalMart products still abound, despite the Oba’s best efforts to get everyone to eat a handful of mustard greens or kale from the micro-gardens with each meal.

The Oba doesn’t yet grow enough crops to feed the village, but he’s getting there. Yet the real problem isn’t a lack of resources. It’s the fact that breaking old eating habits and tastes is hard. And the fact that while back-to-the-land-ism is a big part of this village, not everyone’s as willing or able to be a part of that element of life. That’s not just a problem at Oyotunji. It’s a recurrent spoiler in almost every one of America’s countless intentional communities, where utopian visions of a natural life give way after a few years to the tempting eases and artificial deliciousness of modern life. For now, Oyotunji is maybe one-fourth fresh catfish and three-fourths fried dough. But that’s not so bad in the grand scheme of things. Even that’s more than I get in my usual, ho-hum Brooklyn life. So I embrace this sizzling, moist cut of fish and the drugged-out peace of a slow-moving, shit-shooting swamp morning, while I can.

What, You’ve Never Had Bright Red Foam on Your Drinkable Oatmeal Before?

Sep.21.17

What, You’ve Never Had Bright Red Foam on Your Drinkable Oatmeal Before?

by Allegra Ben-Amotz

Atole rojo in Oaxaca

It was my first time with a tour group. I’d come to Cuajimoloyas, in the northern highlands of Oaxaca, to forage for wild mushrooms during Mexico’s rainy season. Instead of navigating the forests alone, I joined a band of women and their local guide, a man named Celestino, for the town’s yearly Regional Wild Mushroom Festival.

We’d spent the previous day hunting, trying to collect the greatest variety of edible and non-edible toadstools. We woke up early the next morning for the announcement of the winning team by the fairgrounds at the base of the mountain.

I’d packed poorly for the July chill, and wandered the booths proffering various mushroom-based dishes in search of something to warm my bones. I spotted Celestino huddled under a tent, blowing on his hands as he waited for his breakfast. He was having atole, a traditional corn-based beverage thats something like a drinkable oatmeal. It sounded perfect. I ordered my own and we waited at the sole vinyl-covered table under the tent, elbow-to-elbow with an elderly Mexican couple.

When Celestino’s aunt, the woman running the booth, brought over two brown ceramic bowls brimming with bright red foam, I tried to tell her this was not what we’d ordered. “You’ve never had atole rojo before?” Celestino asked. “It’s for special occasions.”

Flavored with a powder of toasted corn, cacao beans, and brick-red achiote paste, the atole was steamed and then frothed on top to create a crown of festive bubbles. I dunked a strip of pan criollo (rich, eggy local bread) into the biggest bubble on top, tasting the icy foam. Celestino held his bowl in his hands, slurping it like a mug of coffee. I followed suit: the bowl was hot to the touch, the initial chill of the top layer giving way to an earthy, slightly-sweet molten drink.

Celestino poked my side. “That’s us, second place!” he said, and I heard the judges repeating our names. We went up to accept our prize, still clutching mugs of our celebratory atole in our hands.

Breakfast in Kashmir is So Good, They Have it Twice

Sep.19.17

Breakfast in Kashmir is So Good, They Have it Twice

by Sophia Ann French

Czot in Kashmir

It was my first time on a houseboat and my first trip to Kashmir. Standing on the deck of the boat, I was excited to start working on my first film when Ajaz, the owner of the houseboat, brought me a cup of tea. It was the first time I tasted Kashmiri nun chai. We Indians love our chai with milk, sugar, and, at times, I add a dash of cardamom seeds to make a Mumbai-style masala chai, but nun chai wasn’t like any other tea I’ve had. It was pink, and salty. (It’s usually served with milk, but I had it without.) I took a reluctant sip and was surprised to enjoy the unusual flavor. Over the three months we spent in Kashmir, nun chai became a staple at every breakfast.

The union of bread with tea is an age-old tradition, and a Kashmiri breakfast pairs the savory tea with fresh-baked loaves from a kandar waz—these bakeries are found in every neighborhood across the valley and the bread is baked in a wood-fired, clay tandoor. On the first morning, Ajaz served us czot and lavasa. Czot is made by mixing refined white flour with water and kneading pieces of dough into thin rectangles. The kandar makes impressions on each piece with his fingertips before putting it into the oven, so the bread has ridges across the surface. I’d smear dollops of butter across its auburn crust and dunk it in nun chai. Lavasa is an unleavened flat bread with a blistery surface. I didn’t enjoy its stretchy texture when dipped in tea, so a Kashmiri colleague made me a delicious roll by stuffing the lavasa with barbecued meat and chickpeas.

The Kashmiris love their bread and chai so much they have it twice every morning. The film’s crew would leave for reconnaissance soon after breakfast, but I stayed back on the houseboat to interview the locals about militancy in Kashmir. The valley has been disputed territory between India and Pakistan for decades. Kashmiris who cross the border into Pakistan and return to India to fight are called militants. Ajaz, like many young Kashmiris, didn’t go the militant way, but is caught between the crossfire between the militants and the Indian army.

In the middle of his interview, Ajaz excused himself for a few minutes and returned with a tray of the pink tea and bakarkhani, a round bread that looks like puffed pastry. It’s brown and crispy on the outside with soft fluffy layers on the inside. I’d never seen this at breakfast, and Ajaz explained that the Kashmiris have specific breads for specific times. Bakarkhani and nun chai became part of our 10 a.m. ritual, when Ajaz and I ruminated over the differences between Kashmir’s past—when it was a center for Sufism and Shaivism—and its fraught present.

If Nothing Else, This Experimental Utopia Has a Pretty Good Café

Sep.18.17

If Nothing Else, This Experimental Utopia Has a Pretty Good Café

by Ranjini Rao

Bagels in Auroville

With the blaze of the August sun in our eyes and yet a lightness to our step in Pondicherry, India’s beloved, dreamy beach town, and an erstwhile French colony, we set out for Auroville to have breakfast at the Auroville Bakery Café.

Our host—a dear friend who had grown up talking, breathing, and eating all things French in Pondy—had raved enough about it for us to want to sample the food there.

Auroville is an ambitious utopian living experiment, courtesy of the vision of philosopher-guru Sri Aurobindo and his colleague Mirra Alfassa, aka The Mother. Founded in 1968, it was designed as a village-for-all, governed by multicultural harmony, where people from all over the world are welcome.

The foundation for the bakery was laid by an Austrian banker, Otto, who moved to Auroville in the 80s and collaborated with bakers in the area for a while. The café in the back is a recent addition to the bakery, we were informed. The bakery was created by several eager hands, trying and testing recipes ranging from brioche to knackebrots to provide an excellent patisserie for Aurovilleans in the 90s.

The café’s newest crew—a German, a Ukrainian, a handful of Indians, and a couple of French nationals—came aboard in the 2000s, and decided to offer beverages, too. They started the café out small, with a few vibrant chairs and tables assembled under the trees in the backyard garden, but they were determined to serve big, satisfying breakfasts.

The menu was handwritten on an overused blackboard, and didn’t seem too exciting at first. But on closer inspection, we saw the items of which we’re sadly deprived in Bangalore: bagels with cheese, salads loaded with proteins, fresh fruit platters, wholewheat sandwiches with fresh cheese, quiches, tarts, croissants.

We ordered a bagel with cheese, a fresh fruit platter, and a grilled vegetable and cheese sandwich to share, plus juice, tea, and coffees.

The bread in the sandwich was a far cry from the supermarket variety to which we’re accustomed, which is softened and aerated with additives. This bread was crusty, substantial, with a nutty, earthy taste. The cheese was fresh, thick-cut, and refreshingly light on sourness and saltiness, unlike the aged cheeses sold outside, preserved with chemicals. It was a delicious morning.

A Delicious Breakfast Ruined by Reality

Sep.15.17

A Delicious Breakfast Ruined by Reality

by Corinne Redfern

Barbati in Bangladesh

It’s our third day of reporting in Jessore, and we’re starving. A tightly-bound team of four, we’re supposed to be covering child marriage—a weighty topic that’s reduced our sleep and raised our stress levels—and our stomachs are the ones suffering for it.

Somehow I’ve taken to subsisting on peanut butter scooped out of the jar with the end of a pen. The roadside café near our hotel doesn’t appeal—five men hover on the steps outside and stare. But our fixer is insistent: it’s time to find food. Plus it’s shaded, and there appears to be tea.

Female foreigners don’t come here often, we learn. The proprietor, Mahmoud, nervously knots and unknots the front of his navy-blue lunghi as we help ourselves to the pots of food: shoveling saucers full of rice onto wet stainless steel plates and drowning everything in heavily-spiced daal.

The food is good; hot and heavy. But it feels like we’re getting in the way. We push our chairs back to leave, and relief flushes Mahmoud’s face.

Less than 24 hours later and we’re back. It’s barely morning, but the day’s interviews are already going awry and we need to regroup. Today, Mahmoud is waiting. As we elbow our way to reach a space at the back, the 66-year-old stands beaming before producing a red plastic lunchbox from behind his back. A handmade paper bag follows; unwrapped to reveal eight flour-soft pathiri folded in four. Water is procured and ceremoniously poured.

He told his wife about us last night, Mahmoud explains, lunghi-knot intact as he checks the table arrangement one last time, and finally lifts the red plastic lid to reveal a hot, spiced pile of green beans and garlic. So she made us a breakfast of barbati, just in case we were still in town.

They were worried, he adds, in case yesterday’s food wasn’t good enough. That day, he hadn’t known we were coming. He hadn’t had time to prepare.
We try to send compliments back to the chef, but Mahmoud insists he could have cooked the barbati himself. It’s just a matter of heating salt, garlic, turmeric and onions, dicing potato and chopping up yard-long beans; stirring the ingredients with water until they soften and the spices find their way under the skins.

After all, he should know. He’d taught his wife the recipe himself two decades earlier, although she’s improved on it since, and won’t tell him what’s changed. How old was she when you married her, we ask, mouths full and distracted. It’s only as our breakfast digests that it dawns on us he answered “ten.”

Photo by: Rds26/Wikipedia Commons

Battle Lines Drawn in Philly’s Cookie Wars

Sep.14.17

Battle Lines Drawn in Philly’s Cookie Wars

by Gina Zammit

Spiced Wafers in Philadelphia

Like jack-o’-lanterns on Halloween, another black-and-orange tradition arrives each fall in Philadelphia. Spiced wafers from two dueling companies, Ivins and Sweetzels, appear on store shelves in late August.

These curious cookies have rabid local fans, outselling even Oreos throughout their autumn reign. But, come the first signs of peppermint sticks and jolly Saint Nick, which, sadly, increasingly encroaches on the fall season, just as mysteriously as they arrived, they disappear.

Spiced wafers are best compared to ginger snaps, although there are distinct differences. Containing a mix of autumnal spices including ginger, cinnamon, allspice, molasses, and cloves, these tough cookies have a more complex flavor than traditional ginger snaps. The wafers are baked three times longer than most cookie varieties, achieving a hard, but not rock-solid, texture, “born to be dunked.” They are best served alongside another fall favorite, apple cider (preferably from the local Bauman’s Cider Company), with a cold glass of milk, or spicy tea.

Although the cookies are confined to the greater Philly area, including parts of southern New Jersey, there is a fierce rivalry between the brands’ devotees. Sweetzels supporters favor the less spicy, sweeter version, while Ivins fans prefer the longer-lasting kick of allspice, and a cookie lighter on the molasses. But despite their loyal followings, the cookies’ origins are somewhat mysterious.

Sweetzels’ website proudly proclaims that “The Old Black & Orange Magic is Back!” and a “Philadelphia original since 1910!” Sweetzels were originally produced by the Tritzel Baking Company, which was based in the Philly suburb of Landsdale. Along with the cookies (Sweetzels), the company also manufactured potato chips (Chipzels) and Pretzels. Eventually, the company shuttered in 1965, was bought by the Borzillo family, and is now located in Nooristown in Montgomery County.

However, tracking down information on Ivins proved to be more challenging, so I went directly to the source. Danielle D’Elia, Communications & Government Relations Manager for the supermarket chain, Acme Markets, and Nina Borzillo, daughter of Sweetzels owner Robert D. Borzillo, both helped enlighten me.

Public information about Ivins is a little harder to discover, because it’s a proprietary brand of Acme Markets. But it didn’t start out that way.

According to Acme’s company records, Ivins Baking Company was originally located on Broad Street in Philadelphia. They sold their “penny cookies” at Acme Markets for a number of years, until the company closed its doors sometime around the 1960s. Acme Markets quickly swooped in on that opportunity and purchased both the company name and the recipe. Although the spiced wafers are no longer produced in Pennsylvania, they’re sold today at all 178 Acme locations and remain unchanged from the original recipe. (Sweetzels, on the other hand, are sold at most other stores, but not at Acme Markets.)

The wafers are rumored to have come from a German ginger-snap recipe, modified to its current version during the colonial era. Now, they are the essence of autumn in Philadelphia and a staple at tailgating events. Or, as Nina Borzillo prefers, with morning coffee.

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