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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.

Never Attribute to the Supernatural That Which Is Adequately Explained by a Golden Retriever

Nov.22.17

Never Attribute to the Supernatural That Which Is Adequately Explained by a Golden Retriever

by Martina Žoldoš

Pan de muerto in Mexico

It was mid-October when Fernando bought a fresh pan de muerto in a nearby bakery for the first time this year. It was warm and soft, lightly sweet, and smelled of orange zest and roasted sesame seeds: a familiar smell that would guide deceased relatives to the house two weeks later. While my daughter was loudly praising the bread’s taste, I remembered my first experience with it four years ago, before she even existed.

My small family—me, eight months pregnant, my partner Fernando, and our golden retriever, Pek—had just moved to Puebla and we were crashing at my parents-in-law’s house. Day of the Dead was just around the corner and my partner’s mother had set up an altar made of papel picado, a special type of ornamental paper with motifs of skeletons, photographs of the loved ones that had passed away, marigolds, candles, a glass of water, some salt, tangerines and guavas, a skull made of sugar, and pan de muerto. I was told that the deceased ones from the photos would visit us on the Day of the Dead, and treat themselves to the food placed on the altar. On the morning of Nov. 2, we discovered that someone really had feasted on these offerings: the bread was missing.

Pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, has a special meaning in Mexican tradition. Its circular form represents the cycle of life and death. It has a small bump on the top that represents a skull, while four shinbones, placed in a shape of a cross, reference the four directions of the universe or the four cardinal points according to the Aztec calendar, related to four principal gods: Quetzalcoatl, Xipetotec, Tlaloc, and Tezcatlipoca. It is believed that in the pre-Hispanic times, blood—obtained from human sacrifices—was added to the dough.

Today, the bread retains its traditional shape, but it’s made with different techniques, ingredients, and recipes depending on the region. In central and southern Mexico, they sprinkle it with white and red sugar or sesame seeds, while in other parts of the country they fill it with chocolate, dried fruits, coconut, nuts, cream, apples, or even pumpkins and parmesan cheese. Usually, it’s available only in October and November—the first of many signs that Day of the Dead is approaching. On Nov. 2, it’s impossible to find any other bread in any local bakery, so you involuntarily end up eating it for breakfast.

That morning four years ago, we set the table with pan de muerto, freshly squeezed tangerine juice, and hot black coffee. We were grateful for the opportunity to spend the day together, and satisfied with our first Day of the Dead. Our golden retriever was satisfied, too. He got his share of pan de muerto: the night before when nobody was watching.

Jubilation, Unprintable Expletives, and KFC in the Middle of Zimbabwe’s Coup

Nov.21.17

Jubilation, Unprintable Expletives, and KFC in the Middle of Zimbabwe’s Coup

by Kate Bartlett

Sadza nuggets in Harare

When I was growing up in Zimbabwe in the 90s, we didn’t have KFC, or many other fast-food joints for that matter, and most people lived primarily on the maize-meal staple, sadza.

So it was strange to be back, 17 years after I left, chowing down on KFC’s deep-fried sadza nuggets for breakfast during a military coup. Maybe it was just my euphoria at being back home and covering the story of a lifetime, or the jubilation of the Zimbabweans all around me at the downfall of a despot, but those sadza nuggets were divine.

Sazda has the consistency and appearance of mashed potato. It’s a carb-heavy comfort food usually consumed with some kind of relish–spinach and peanut butter is a common side dish. KFC’s sadza nuggets are a modern, greasy twist on an old classic: rolled into little balls, dusted with KFC spices, and deep-fried with a gravy dip.

My fixer, Problem (actually an extremely helpful guy saddled with an unfair name) and I were eating the nuggets as we walked down the road with the hundreds of thousands of people who had turned out for a rally against Zimbabwe’s longtime leader, Robert Mugabe, who had been placed under house arrest by the military days earlier. He resigned Tuesday evening.

The atmosphere was electric; people were singing and dancing, hugging random strangers. Hooting minibuses, decorated with names like “No food for lazy boy” and “God’s protection,” were overpacked with people coming to the rally, some hanging precariously from the roofs.

If I hadn’t been working so hard reporting the story, I might have had more time to dwell on my return to a place that, I now realize, I never quite recovered from leaving. But even as I worked, adrenaline pumping through my veins, I took it all in: the orange of the princely flamboyant trees and lilac of the avenues of jacarandas, the smell of summer rains on the long grass, the red mud, the soft sounds of people speaking Shona, the taste of the sadza.

Let’s get one thing clear: I’m not a “when-we”–the name given to nostalgia-prone white Africans who long for “the old days.” I don’t long for Rhodesia; in fact, I never knew it: I was born in 1983 in a newly independent Zimbabwe.

Having grown up with leftist parents who had moved to the country post-Independence on a wave of optimism, and a mix of black and white friends, what I long for is the Zim I knew in the 90s–when there were good schools, good healthcare, and the country was still somewhat of a model for southern Africa.

That Zimbabwe is no more after years of misrule by Mugabe and his vicious, shopaholic wife, Grace.

The people had had enough long ago, essentially voting Mugabe out in the 2008 elections, but the opposition here has been violently repressed, and now it has taken a military coup—thankfully bloodless—to get the old man out.

Whether what comes next is good is unclear, but Zimbabweans say they are sure it can’t be worse.

Back at the rally, Problem and I were enjoying the creative banners protesters had made for the occasion. “Leadership is not sexually transmitted,” read our favorite, which showed a picture of the first lady with a red cross through it. Mugabe, at 93 the world’s oldest leader, had favored his wife to succeed him and wanted to create a dynasty.

Grace Mugabe is widely loathed in this plundered country for her penchant for high-end brands and fancy cars, while her children cavort in the most expensive clubs in Johannesburg. One video doing the rounds on Zimbabwe’s social media shows one of Mugabe’s sons pouring champagne all over his expensive watch.

“Gucci rags pack your bags,” read another banner referring to the first lady.

“Hello, I’m a journalist, can you comment on why you’ve turned out to protest today?” I asked a young man walking alongside me.

He let off a colorful string of expletives about Mugabe.

“I can’t publish that,” I told him, laughing.

Then I ate another sadza nugget.

No Matter How Old You Are, Chilled Butter-Cream Was Best When You Were Young

Nov.21.17

No Matter How Old You Are, Chilled Butter-Cream Was Best When You Were Young

by Shirin Mehrotra

Makkhan-malai in Lucknow

Growing up in Lucknow, a city in the north of India where winters were always bone-chilling, there were only two things that would make us crawl out of our cozy blankets—catching up on the morning sun and the cry of makkhan-malai on the streets. I have feeble memories of an old guy, standing at the doorstep with a huge basket on his head.

The contents of the basket always appeared mysterious to me. I’d look with wide-eyed wonder the way the old man scooped out a bit of cloudy, unsalted butter, placed it in a bowl made of a dried leaf, topped it with cream, and handed them over to the patiently waiting buyers. And I would happily take one, despite not being too fond of the dish.

Sold only during winters, makkhan-malai (literally, butter-cream) is a dairy product that every North Indian swears by. Saffron-flavored milk is thickened by boiling for a few hours, left in heavy dew for the night, and then hand-churned early in the morning. The churning creates stiff, frothy butter, which is then removed and kept aside.

In past times, the hawkers carried this butter and cream—which come from the same milk—in a basket, placed on top of slabs of ice. The ice ensured the butter wouldn’t go bad in the heat. Today the ice slabs and cane have been replaced by wooden ice boxes carried on a bicycle. Take a walk at the Chowk area in Lucknow, and you’ll see multiple vendors with conical glass cases, selling makkhan-malai. While it’s available from November onwards, the real deal is made only during peak winter, when the dewfall is heavy.

The dish has various names: makkhan-malai or nimish in Lucknow and Kanpur, malaiyo in Varanasi and Daulat ki Chaat (named after the shop owner who first started selling it) in Delhi. The Parsi community makes a version of the same dish which they call doodh no puff.

While makkhan-malai has travelled places and now sits on the menu of one of India’s most celebrated restaurants—Chef Manish Mehrotra of Indian Accent has the dish on his menu, where he tops the delicate butter with rose petals and palm jaggery—my heart belongs to the one from my childhood, sold in the tiny by-lanes of Lucknow.

Will Someone Please Make Us This Yemenite Pancake Hybrid Stat?

Nov.20.17

Will Someone Please Make Us This Yemenite Pancake Hybrid Stat?

by Malou Herkes

Lachuch in Tel Aviv

The first time I met Irit, she was running around her tiny hole-in-the-wall café, blistering aubergines and squeezing oranges, chopping salad and plonking plates onto tables. All the while, she screeched Hebrew greetings and orders to her customers. Her long grey hair was scraped into a messy bun and she wore a t-shirt with the words “I DO WHAT I WANT” on the back.

She’s the type of person you can’t not like. Irit has a little place in the Yemenite quarter of Tel Aviv, just behind the main Carmel shuk. It’s a quaint neighborhood of one or two-story buildings with flat roofs, that make it easy to imagine the old Tel Aviv, the one before skyscraper hotels and shopping malls. In Hebrew, the area is known as Kerem HaTeimanim, which translates as Yemenite’s vineyard, and it’s here that she grew up, when camels and cattle still crowded the streets.

When I arrive, the place is full. So instead of waiting, Irit gets me squeezing lemons for fresh lemonade, serving shakshuka, and making lachuch; a cross between a crumpet and a pancake.

Lachuch is classic Yemenite-Jewish fare, and is now ubiquitous in Israel, along with a fiery, fresh coriander relish, known as zhoug, and a variety of sweet pastries and breads, including a layered sausage-shaped roll of pastry and margarine that’s slow-cooked overnight until it’s deep brown and buttery sweet, then eaten with an egg.

Yemenite food has become an intrinsic part of Israeli cuisine, introduced with the waves of Yemenite-Jewish migrants who came to Israel, fleeing worsening tensions during the 1950s. Irit’s parents were among them.

Lachuch is a basic mixture of flour, yeast, salt, and fenugreek, left to rise and bubble for an hour before being fried into an airy pancake. It’s comparable to Ethiopian injera, I suppose. But Irit’s version is crispy. And has an egg in the middle.

The batter is rising in a corner. The day’s humidity is doing its job as bubbles appear, crackle and pop on the surface. It’s been sitting for an hour, and she insists that any longer will ruin it. She stirs the gloopy, airy mixture in a clockwise motion with her hand, while a pan with oil heats on the hob. She then scoops out a ladleful of the batter, slops it into the pan and tilts it so the mixture spreads and covers the base in a thin layer. Little bubbles appear on the surface as the base sets and browns. The main rule is not to flip it, but instead to cook it until set. Irit cracks an egg into the middle, then folds it up and allows the hot pocket to cook the yolk, allowing for egg white to spill out and form crisp edges around the lachuch’s now golden crust.

The lachuch is flipped and slam-dunked onto a plate with smoky aubergine and a crisp salad of fresh herbs and red peppers piled alongside. Tahini is drizzled liberally on top. She hands me the plate brusquely, almost forgetting the obligatory side of fiery zhoug and grated fresh tomato. We eat.

Probably the Most Wholesome Breakfast Dispatch We’ve Ever Published

Nov.15.17

Probably the Most Wholesome Breakfast Dispatch We’ve Ever Published

by Laura Marie

Bircher muesli in Switzerland

I climb down from the top bunk in the renovated Swiss hospital where I am staying. The retreat center keeps prices down in expensive Switzerland by having us all participate in work around the building, and my shoulders are a good kind of tired after cleaning 18 bathrooms the day before.

There is no kitchen staff; everyone helps out with meals. I’m intrigued to see what was in the enormous, heavy vats that I’d carried to the refrigerator the night before, mysteriously capped with aluminum foil. They said it was “muesli,” but they seemed too heavy for the granola-like substance I knew to be muesli.

What greeted me the next morning in the quiet dining room, between carafes of coffee and plates of pastry, was… goop. The goop appeared to contain some granola-grains like oats, yes, but it also had dried fruit, fresh apple bits, a glistening layer of yogurt over all of it. It looked unappealing, but before I could pass it over, one of the breakfast hosts for that morning grabbed a cup and scooped me out a serving. “Trust me,” she said, as if she could feel my hesitation. “Try it.”

What I tasted was fresh, sweet, with a touch of cinnamon. It felt like everything healthy I could eat, all in one bite. The sun filled the room, reflecting off the snow-capped Alps. I was absorbed in the task of eating my muesli. The small cup I had was so filling I no longer needed the rest of the room’s breakfast bounty.

This goop, or what we know as Bircher muesli, was actually the first muesli (the crunchy stuff came later). When Swiss doctor Maximilian Bircher-Benner developed it in 1900 to improve his patients’ health, it was intended as a healthy substitute for dinner, not breakfast. His original recipe—oats soaked overnight, condensed milk, and raw apple—was both effective and delicious, and this meal helped spark Switzerland’s reputation as a wholesome, healthy-living nation. Now it’s a staple breakfast in western Europe, not to mention a mainstay in health stores and brunch spots in the United States.

I didn’t come here seeking the wellness cures of centuries past, but I can feel myself getting a little healthier, it seems, with every bite of this chewy, sweet, crunchy muesli.

L’Abri Fellowship
Chalet Bellevue
Route de Villars 89
1884 Huémoz
Switzerland

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