Archive for the ‘Weird Things Americans Eat’ Category

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September 05, 2012: Irish-American Cuisine at the Showa Institute

September 5, 2012

Thanks to the Showa Institute, Yoshio and the students of Showa for having me once again for a talk on Irish-American cuisine, yesterday. Yoshio and I treated the Japanese students to some Irish-American recipes of Corned Beef and Cabbage; Soda Bread; Codling Cream; and Colcannon. Yoshio also presented them to a few American oddities such as buttermilk, peanut butter and jelly and Fluffernutter sandwiches.

I, in return, got a few examples of Japanese “power food” such as a kale drink and dried umeboshi (salted and pickled plum) which was quite delicious!  Thanks to everyone at Showa for a wonderful day!

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August 27, 2012: Taste there is just no…

August 27, 2012

Call me “radical” ‘diplomatic” “bi-polar” or even just plain “odd,” but I love the alternative perspective. The concept that the ideas and things that I accept as a truth (or rather, the habit of truth) might have another viewpoint worth listening to, I feel is not only a healthy one, but fascinating. Whether it’s inside looking out, or outside looking in, the ability to be flexible and accepting of perspective is the font of knowledge and growth of thought. Of course, that’s when it applies to thought. In action, however, I tend to be more of a “Think before you leap” kinda guy. I have this crazy idea that if we just thought about the foods we eat, before actually eating them, it might help curtail our dietary excesses, and that possibly seeing what we eat through another viewpoint might help us stop and think, before consuming.

Outside Looking In: No Chocolate-mint for Japanese Students
Two years ago I was helping Yoshio teach his classes at the Showa Institute. Yoshio does this really clever thing by teaching American culture through our foods. He covers all the sundry styles of our cooking, and the Japanese students pick up a lot about American history and cultures through his class. Yoshio was taking a group of them around one of supermarkets, which was entertaining in itself, as the large grocery stores we have in America don’t exist in Japan. The group of students were hovering around the cookie aisle, and I boldly recommended my favorite cookie, the Pepperidge Farm Mint Milano. After Yoshio translated my enthusiastic praising, I was disappointed to have the students (every single one of them) pass on the Milanos as they bought other cookies. Later, I asked Yoshio why and he replied that Japanese detest the chocolate-mint combination. “Buuuut….why?” was my incredulous response. Yoshio thought for a moment and said “To them, it’s a little like brushing your teeth with a mint toothpaste and then reaching for a chocolate bar.” I’ll never stop loving the chocolate/mint taste mixture, but it’s fascinating that pretty much an entire culture cannot even fathom it!

Inside Looking Out: No Vegemite for American Rodents
A number of years ago I had an exchange student from Australia. Emma was a bit of card, and through her I got a good representative of the outrageous Australian humor, which entailed a lot of “taking the piss out” or as we say, “yanking the chain” of her hosting Yanks. Emma decided she would introduce us to that uniquely Australian “delicacy,” vegemite. Made of brewer’s yeast, salt, and mashed into a brown paste, Australians generally put vegemite on toast with a little butter as a breakfast food. When she passed it out to us all, I kinda got that Emma was going to enjoy our reactions to vegemite a little too much, so after a bite, I told her, “Well, it’s definitely an acquired taste!” Inside I was screaming, “OMG, that is the most VILE thing I have ever tasted. It tastes like what the bottom of a garbage can smells like!” Emma said that perhaps I had applied a little too much on my cracker. All I know, is that we had a mouse harboring itself in our basement that winter. The last person trying the vegemite, on Friday, left out the crackers with the vegemite. When I came in the next Monday, despite the temptation of tasty, unguarded crackers, the mouse came nowhere near! I was convinced it was the smell of the vegemite that drove him away.

The Tongue of the Beholder:
I was telling the vegemite story to my friend Miquel recently and he replied “Well, you like cheese don’t you?” The Chinese think that cheese is just disgusting! Think of how they must see what cheese actually is!” I thought to myself, “Oh, right: curdled, congealed bovine milk.” I once had a friend who hated tomatoes. “How could anyone hate tomatoes!” I asked. “Really, what is there to like?” my friend replied. “Seedy, watery bags with a semi-solid, pudding-like skin on the outside, with almost no flavor.” I still enjoy tomatoes (particularly fresh from the garden) so this perspective doesn’t stop my liking of tomatoes, but I do think about my friend’s opinion every time I cut into a tomato. Talking to my sister recently about a tofu-based dish I had created, her instantaneous reply was “Tofu….oh, yuck!” I didn’t pursue this as I could easily see tofu from her perspective as a flavorless, watery, protein sponge. If I had pursued it, I could have said that a mark of a good chef is a someone who can make even tofu taste good!

So that got me thinking about foods Americans eat and don’t ever consider how an objective eye might look at them. I’ve already done Fluff, so I’ll leave that off the list, but here’s a few others:

“American Cheese”:  Essentially, make a facsimile of a slice of cheese. Mix milk, whey, sundry protein concentrates. Remove most nutrients. Add yellow #6 to put in some color that resembles cheese. Liquefy to make a pourable product. Add aerosol to spray it. Legally cannot be called “cheese” as there is no actual cheese present. As an aside, the term “whiz” should never, ever be paired with food. Just saying.

Pickles:  Take a perfectly good small cucumber and boil just enough to remove most nutrients. Bottle in a salty vinegar with spices. To fully negate any of remaining nutrients left, add sugar.

Jell-O:  Take the bones and hides of various animals and boil them down. Remove water. Grind to a powder and add sugar and food coloring the shade of neon.

White Bread:  Grind wheat down and remove the healthy fiber  and any nutritional part. Bleach. Add yeast, water, salt and a little sugar. Pump artificial nutrients in to replace the ones you originally took out. Bake.

“Cheeze-Balls”:  Take corn and make into a mush. Blow air into the mush and bake into perfectly identical marble-shaped spheres. Coat with an iridescent cheese-flavored powder the exact color and luminosity of certain glow-sticks.

Smores:  Take a sugary cracker, add a block of chocolate, top with more sugar (in the form of a marshmallow) and top with another sugary cracker. Toast over an open flame. Have Bactine handy for the singed digits from flames and drips of molten chocolate and sugar.

“Buffalo” Wings:  Cut wings from chicken, keep fatty skin attached. Add more fat by frying wings in oil. Add even more fat with a butter and pepper sauce so hot that it makes the eater sweat, wince, and eyes water.

“Salad Dressing”:  Make a facsimile of mayonnaise, lowering the fat content by reducing egg yolks and add more sugar. Have endless debates with the mayonnaise crowd about the relative “values” of two fatty, largely tasteless condiments.

“Crab Rangoon”:  Take faux-crab and mix with cream cheese and wrap in a ravioli. Further increase the fat content by frying this in oil. Give it a faux Chinese-sounding name even ‘tho your average Chinese chef would shake their head at the mere thought of such a recipe.

Spam:  Chop and blenderize various pig parts with potato starch and sodium nitrate. Can. Import to Hawaii during WWII to make it a national meat of the islands. Cement Spam forever into popular culture by having Monty Python write a sketch about it. Further add to the odd ubiquitous history of any other processed meat product by naming unwanted email after it. Add with pineapple onto a pizza to create what is known nationwide as a “Hawaiian Pizza,” possibly the most bizarre American concoction ever.

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December 25, 2011: Drops of Water on Stone; Fruitcake Vindicated

December 25, 2011

Yeah, I know there’s a lot of you that profess to have fruitcake-hate. It’s almost a Christmas cliché to hate fruitcake. I have a couple of theories about this, but it is almost impossible to resolve most of these because when I start to talk to people about fruitcake, I usually get shut right down with a “Nope…fruitcake is not for me. Don’t like it. Never have. Never will.”

And before I go on…yes, I know there are more important things to address this Christmas. I’ll do “World Peace” or some other worthy issue some other Christmas, but today…please indulge me.

I have never lied to you, dear readers, and never will. I am officially coming out as a fruitcake lover!!! OK, my own peculiar infatuation aside, would someone please tell me: what the hell is there not to like about fruitcake!!!? C’mon folks, really? You’ve got dried fruit. What’s wrong with that? You’ve got nuts. Everyone likes nuts. And you’ve got cake. Who hates cake? Plus, you can soak fruitcake in brandy or a nice bourbon and it just improves the whole mélange of tastes.

Admittedly, fruitcake is, for me, a comfort food. Every year, some business associate would send a fruitcake to my father, just before Christmas. When it arrived, each year, I would start salivating like one of Pavlov’s dogs. We had a family injunction against opening the fruitcake, but scamp that I was, I often opened it up anyway and blamed it on one of my siblings. I just couldn’t get my fix fast enough. Also, that fruitcake was the harbinger of the whole Christmas season, so I associated fruitcake with that ramping up of excitement for the main event of  the year in our house: Christmas.

OK, but that’s me. What about the rest of you? Well, one of my theories is that there must be some really awful fruitcakes out there somewhere. One thing that certainly doesn’t help is the addition of citron in most fruitcakes. I’m not sure who had the bright idea of adding dried citron to fruitcakes, but I personally blame this person for the downfall for what could be the perfect treat, fruitcake could be. Citron is the fruit of an Asian citrus tree. The fruit is similar to a lemon, but all I can tell you is that dried citron is bitter! Fruitcake makers have gotten wise to this and have reduced the amount of citron they put in. As a child, I used to pick out the citron in each piece for a more perfect fruitcake.

The other theory I have is that people are caving into popular opinion and just say they hate fruitcake…and I have the evidence to support this:  For the last five years I have gone to bat for my beloved fruitcake. Each year, I have walked up to the bakery section of my local grocery store and firmly, but politely asked why they don’t stock fruitcake. The standard reply was “No one likes it” to which I would reply “Well, I do, and I don’t believe I’m alone on this, so please order some next year.” It took five years, but I can be very stubborn and I was on a quest. Like drops of water wearing down stone, my resolve finally got results. Lo and behold, this year, I was pleased and surprised to see it stocked! In a return visit to purchase more, I ended talking to the person that ordered fruitcake to thank her. I noticed there was only four left on Christmas Eve and I asked her how many she had ordered. “Forty-eight” was the answer. I bought two. So, in my close perimeter, that makes forty-two other fruitcake lovers!!!

I have one young friend who has told me that she would never ever taste fruitcake again and that she loves all kinds of food! It made me sad that there are people of the next generation who may not have a fruitcake appreciation. I asked her when she first tried it and it turned out that she had it when she was very young, so maybe fruitcake may not be a good treat for the very young.

If you have ever had a bad fruitcake experience, do me  a favor: try to give it another shot. You just might be surprised. And, if you are one of those who say you don’t like fruitcake, just sneak it on the sly. I won’t tell. Promise. It’ll be our little secret.

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January 14, 2011: Grilled Olive Sandwich

January 14, 2011

When I think back, I feel so sorry for my mom. Poor lady. Not only did she have to cook and try to please the individual tastes of a family of ten, but she had this brat of a son, who was to grow up to be an amateur  chef, who even in childhood had discriminating tastes. Not finicky, so much…I tried just about everything, including the horror of my dad’s favorite: pigs feet. Whoa! No wonder I’m a vegetarian today! Not to say mom couldn’t get some things spot on: I’ve only recently mastered her homemade pizza and vegetable soup, and her deviled eggs were quite good.

Her daily lunches needed work, ‘tho. I remember her foisting her “meatloaf sandwiches” on me. Yeah, a thick slab of cold, congealed, tasteless meat on white bread. Right. They got flung to the back of pantry…purposely…knowing full well that it was my sister Mary Lou’s job was to clean the pantry and that she absolutely hated mold (you’re beginning to see what a brat I really was!)

Two sandwiches  mom did right quite well were grilled cheese and…(bear with me, if you’ve never had one)…cream cheese and olive. These seems to be either regional (east coast) or from that period of time, because I never see them offered anywhere! I decided to blend both of mom’s best and make a grilled cream cheese and olive.

These sandwiches couldn’t be easier: take two slices of bread (I used a rye and pumpernickel blend) and put a layer of spreadable cream cheese on each. Next, on the cream cheese, put a few slices of stuffed manzanilla olives (really a common misspelling of “manzanillo” olives: the small, green spanish olives stuffed with pimento.) I added a sprinkling of white pepper and Herbs de Provence. Then, cook as a grilled cheese sandwich (on medium heat, melt a pat of butter, add sandwich, flip when cooked, serve hot.) Delicious, easy, and quick!

I’m sitting for the girls tomorrow and I am excited to see if they like this sandwich as well as I did when I was their age. It would be good to “pass the baton” with this unique American comfort food!

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December 12, 2010: “Salt” Potatoes

December 12, 2010

Here’s a treat from my neck of the woods, Central New York: “Salt” Potatoes. These are baby potatoes (Yukon Gold or Red) boiled in a saturated salt mixture (1 part sal de mer to 3 parts H2O). Keep the jackets of the potato on, just wash before boiling. Potatoes are done when you can insert a fork in the largest potato. The potatoes will rapidly dry and the jacket will be covered with a fine dusting of salt. Butter and pepper and eat when hot. They used to serve “Salt” Potatoes at carnivals and fairs when I was young (perhaps they still do) instead of french fries. “Salt” Potatoes definitely have less grease than french fries, but if you have sodium problems you might want to settle on plain boiled.

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May 12, 2010: Too Much Fluff

May 12, 2010


“A man loves the meat in his youth that he cannot endure in his age.” (Shakespeare: “Much Ado About Nothing”)

Well, I haven’t had meat in many a year, but you could easily swap “sweet” for “meat” and that would just about define my recent experience with that American treat: Marshmallow Fluff.

Creating the Bento lunchboxes the other night was an all night affair. I didn’t mind, as Yoshio is always great company, I learn a tremendous amount about his Japanese-fusion style of cooking and he feeds me very, very well! We took a break half way though and he made me a delicious tomato sandwich with melted boursin cheese on Italian bread. There were great snacks available from what he was creating. That night it was fresh mango, perfectly blanched fresh asparagus, and his delicious gourmet rice, all with the constant green tea. All very healthy fare, until, after dawn, he pulls out a jar of “Fluff” and decides (with his mischievous sense of humor) that we take a “Fluff Break!” [It should be explained that Yoshio had never had it before, but living in New England for so long, he knew of it, and he always has a sense of adventure to try a new foods.] Familiar with Fluff (but not having had it since my youth) I suggested why not make a “Fluffernutter Sandwich” and have the real “Distinctly American Treat!”

To those of  you not familiar with Fluff: Marshmallow Fluff was invented in 1911 by Archibald Query in Sommerville, Ma. Originally called “Toot Sweet (hah!) Marshmallow Fluff” (they quickly dropped the faux-french part.) It is  a mixture of corn syrup, sugar syrup, vanilla flavoring, and egg white. OK, let’s break that down: sugar+more sugar+a little vanilla+egg white+air= Fluff. Essentially it is a more malleable marshmallow, one shade denser than the spun candy you get at fairs…only not pink (unless you buy either the strawberry or raspberry varieties of Fluff.) It is the essential ingredient of traditional American snacks like: the “Fluffernutter Sandwich” (Fluff and peanut butter usually on Wonder Bread, with the optional banana slices); “Whoopie Pie” (two small chocolate cakes with Fluff between); “Rice Krispie Treats” (Rice Krispies cereal stuck together with Fluff and baked.) Not to mention “Smores” (slab of chocolate on a graham cracker, topped with Fluff and heated to a gooey puddle of sweetness.) Modern recipes using Fluff are the “Fluffacino” (espresso, amaretto, with spoon of Fluff on top) and the aptly named drink “Coney Island Men’s Room” (a blue martini with a scoop of strawberry Fluff on top) Brrrr!…the thought makes me shudder!

As the quintessential comfort food, Americans love their Fluff. 2006 was big letter year for Fluff: Massachusetts Senator Jarrett Barrios lobbied a proposal to limit Fluffernutter sandwiches to reduce the amount of junk food served in our schools. The proposal just…well…went away! The same year State Representitive Kathi-Anne Reinstein made a proposal that the Fluffernutter be designated the official sandwich of Massachusetts. 2006 was also the first celebration of Fluff called “What the Fluff” in it’s hometown of Sommerville:

http://www.unionsquaremain.org/committees/Special%20Events/fluff%20alt.html

Sweet, versatile, Kosher and gluten-free. That’s Fluff. For me, it was a good “blast from the past” to try it again. I don’t think I will make it a main part of my diet anytime soon, though. As a kid, I couldn’t get enough of the stuff. Of course, I could eat anything then and be OK. With the excess of sugars, alcohol, meat, and carbs finally eliminated from my diet, I feel pretty good. Part of a healthy adult life is getting rid of too much fluff!

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