Which is my Shrimp Fork?

Always pass the salt and pepper together. Cut one bite at a time. Your bread plate is to the left; your drink is to the right. Pass food to the left; but first, offer it to the right. Enter your seat on the right side. Only butter one bite of bread at a time. Do not take a sip while you have food in your mouth. Use your finger bowl one hand at a time. Indicate you are finished by laying your silverware at 10 and 4, fork on the bottom, knife facing in. But, this is only if you are eating American style. Dining etiquette may seem overwhelming, especially when under the watchful eyes of an interviewer or professional foodie, but with common sense and respect anyone can look like a professional eater, and not of the hot dog variety.

Margaret Visser notes in The Rituals of Dinner that dinner rituals were first created for safety. She says, “Eating is aggressive by nature, and the implements required for it could quickly become weapons” and, thus, rules were made to ensure no violence erupted at the table. While I agree that some rules are necessary for a meal to flow smoothly, I think some of the minute details of etiquette are absurd. For example, while most of us know that soup should not be slurped and the bowl should never be brought to our lips and thrown back like a shot, how many people know that chunky soups are to be eaten off the end of the spoon while thinner soups are to be taken off the side of the spoon? I can’t imagine what good reason there is for this rule. Perhaps it forced ladies to pucker their lips, thereby distracting men from potential violence?

There are numerous misperceptions regarding manners. Growing up, children are always told, “NO ELBOWS ON THE TABLE.” Hopefully, all parents didn’t yell as this would also be rude and not proper etiquette. But, elbows are in fact allowed on the table once everything has been cleared. Even professionals do not know all of the rules of etiquette. I was at dinner with a famous cookbook author, restaurant chef, and TV host a few weeks ago when she chided me for cutting my salad. I have been self-conscious ever since because I always cut my salad. I have been wrestling for weeks now with how to evenly distribute all of the distinct components of salad. While I hate to succumb to such contrived rules of society, I hate more to be wrong and embarrass myself by not knowing. Turns out, thank god, you can cut your salad! But, you are only supposed to cut small sections at a time; so, I am still left with the quandary of how to achieve a well-mixed salad. While I still haven’t solved this great mystery, I am comforted to know that even famous foodies do not know all the proper etiquette.

Queen Elizabeth once followed the lead of a foreign guest and picked up her finger bowl and drank it like a soup to ensure her guest would never know he had committed such a social faux pas. While the basic tenets of etiquette such as how to indicate to the wait staff you have finished with your plate are absolutely necessary to participate in the unspoken conversation of dinner, many of the nuances are completely unnecessary. At its core, etiquette is simply a set of rules to ensure respect. Do not be distracted about whether you should be eating your avocado with your fork or spoon (fork if it is sliced, spoon if it is served in its shell). Simply remember to respect others, ensure their comfort, and, most importantly, enjoy the food!

If only the food was good

A mixture of sunscreen, grease, and sweat dripped down my chin while a plate of nachos rested atop my swelling stomach.  I had never been lazier or more gluttonous in my entire life.  In theory, I loved being able to order food and boat drinks without ever having to leave the comfort of my lounge chair by the pool.  In reality, the food was tasteless, the drinks overpriced, and the situation was far from luxurious. 

The best part of vacationing with my parents in Cabo was the lifestyle; none of us had to cook or clean and we could relax all day.  Like the swim-up pool bar that allowed us to drink and swim, ordering food while lounging breaks social norms by encouraging us to eat while almost lying down.  These acts of rebellion reaffirmed you were on vacation and livin’ the good life.  Poolside lunch ordering allowed laziness to reach new heights.  Despite being able to see the restaurant in front of us, my parents and I usually opted to save the 5 calories needed to walk 100 feet to the restaurant and had our lunch delivered.  While the thought of walking back to our condo to make a decent lunch did cross my mind, I thought I would rather turn into a fat lard than break a sweat.  I love to eat, I love to lie out in the sun, and I love to be pampered.  So, I was the first to be surprised by how unpleasant it was to do all of these things at the same time. 

The concept and experience of ordering and eating food poolside is great.  I relished the fact that I did not have to move for lunch, that I could continue to tan while eating, and see a whale spout as I took my first bite.  The food, however, was absolutely miserable.  Over the course of the week, we unhappily ate dry fish tacos, tough ceviche, a fruit plate with hard fruit and watery cottage cheese, mushy French fries, and the single worst meal I have ever had –nachos.  The chips were soggy, the meat was tasteless, and the cheese suffocated all other ingredients.  My small, lounge chair island became defiled as my greasy fingers stained every corner of my towel. 

If terrible food comes standard with vacation living then I do not want it.  I want creative cuisine. I want my taste buds to be tantalized. I want my senses to be awakened.  If luxury resorts can put a bar in water and create an oasis in the desert, I would at least expect a crisp chip!

The Food is Better than Par

Now that is my kind of golf.  Not only do nearly half of the holes overlook an expansive, untouched white sand beach and whales spouting just beyond the wave break, but there is also a constant ocean breeze that tames the sun.  The ranking of 58th best course in the world suggests the rigor and quality of the course, but it does not hint at the course’s best feature – the food.  At the slider and smoothie bar at the driving range, I like to have a chorizo, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwich and a banana-mango smoothie before teeing off.  Everything is made to order in front of you by professionals who routinely go above and beyond.  I enjoy these pre-golf breakfasts while sunning myself on a cliff that overlooks the entire course while my Dad, the serious golfer, hits the driving range. 

Dad Teeing Off. The green is across the sand and on top of a bluff.

Just a couple of holes later, there is another comfort station. All stations have trail mix, sliced apples with peanut butter and honey, chicken and egg salad, sweet treats, and sodas, but this comfort station specializes in black bean and tortilla soup and Bloody Mary’s, which are appropriate as most tee times are in the early morning.  I like my black bean soup with sour cream and diced chicken.  Looping back by this comfort casita after a few more holes, I often grab a chewy, coconut cookie for the road. 

The back nine is where the really good food hides.  These are also the harder holes, but maybe that is just because I like margaritas and diamante juice more than Bloody Mary’s.  The comfort station for the back nine specializes in tamales and margaritas.  Although an unlikely location, these are some of the better margaritas and the best tamales I have found in Cabo.  The tamales have a high filling to corn meal ratio, are quite moist, and are doused in sauce.  On the second time by this comfort station I like to get a mini popsicle, mango specifically, to enjoy on the long ride to the magnificent, ocean holes.

Mom and Dad

Last, and certainly most deadly, is a mini station balanced on a cliff serving only Diamante juice and trail mix before hole 16.  This classy version of jungle juice is a mix of vodka, pineapple juice, grapefruit seltzer, and simple syrup. The trail mix is not that tasty, but after three drinks and too many holes of golf, I can’t stop myself from popping a piece or two every time I jump back in the cart.

Mango-banana smoothie, chorizo, egg, and cheese breakfast slider, apple slices, black bean soup, Bloody Mary, coconut cookie, mini chocolate bar, tortilla soup, Diet Coke, chicken salad, tamale, margarita, popsicle, trail mix, egg salad, crackers, mixed nuts, and Diamante juice – now, that is what I call a good 18!

Delicious Slime

Photo by mpieracci

Oysters have been pervasive in my food and literature class this semester.  My only previous experience with oysters began and ended one fateful night when I was not yet old enough to be skeptical.  Neither of my parents would ever let a slimy, grey, sea creature pass their lips, but agreed that it would be great entertainment to see how their adventurous kiddo would react.  Not knowing any better, I slurped up the small pile of goop, juice and all, and began to chew.  I continued to chew and chew and chew.  After I became visibly more uncomfortable, my dad suggested I just go ahead and swallow the now even goopier substance.  I tried, but my body simply refused to let it go down.  There, in the middle of one of Indianapolis’ finest dining establishments, I regurgitated the oyster.  Needless to say, I tried to block this experience and everything to do with oysters from memory.

But nearly 15 years later, oysters are everywhere in my life.  A few weeks ago we read The Gastronomical Me in which M.F.K. Fisher relays a story of two lesbian lovers sensually feeding one another oysters.  I later learned through research about the book that oysters are often thought to be an aphrodisiac because they are high in zinc which controls progesterone and, as a result, sexual drive.  Furthermore, since sexual appetite often starts in the mind and an oyster is reminiscent of the female sex organ, oysters may encourage a psychological effect on the libido.  The next week I read A Short History of the American Stomach, which, surprisingly, concludes with the history of oysters!  I learned oysters were once a staple food for colonists until they ate native American oysters to extinction; indeed oysters were the country’s first species eradicated by humans.  Now, scientists are furiously working to create a triploid oyster to ensure it can’t reproduce, which would decimate local ecosystems if a nonnative oyster were to escape, but also to ensure that all the oysters’ energies go towards growing big and delicious for human consumption.  Another interesting factoid is that all oysters are born male; then, upon reaching sexual maturity and every year for the rest of their lives, every oyster decides whether to remain male, become female, or be a hermaphrodite (about 1 in 50).  It is unknown why oysters change sex.  Simultaneously I was reading What Caesar Did for My Salad and learned that Oysters Rockefeller was invented in New Orleans at Antoine’s in 1840 and that the recipe has remained a closely guarded secret ever since.  The sauce for this dish is bright green, resembling a dollar bill; thus, it was named after the richest man in the world, John D. Rockefeller. Meanwhile, I am nearing graduation and have been told on numerous occasions to celebrate because “the world is my oyster.”

All of these readings transformed my opinions of oysters so that I, the once oyster-phobe, suggested our class go out for oysters.  Professor, nicknamed the Goddess of Food, had never eaten raw oysters either; so, she fully supported the adventure.  I found a list of the ten best places for seafood in the Charlotte area and selected one located conveniently close to Davidson College.  I found myself beginning to think about the pending dining experience days before the actual event.  I was worried that my uncontrollable gag reflex would spring into action; I realized I didn’t know how to eat an oyster; I was concerned that the oyster would taste revolting; I imagined myself with shell to lips, but unable to take the leap.  It would be the food equivalent of having toes curled over the edge of the diving board, but unable to flip.

We, professor and two students, arrived at Vinnie’s Raw Bar.  It was possibly the worse place imaginable to go with your professor.  This was the Hooters of seafood shacks.  Well-endowed waitresses were wearing tight shirts and tighter booty shorts that revealed many tattoos and piercings.  A party of firemen blasted hard rock.  Signs sure to offend every profession, race, and gender covered the walls. Having read Margaret Vissers’ The Rituals of Dinner that week, I could only imagine what Emily Post would have to say about this dive.  

We tentatively ordered a half dozen raws.  Thanks to the guidance of our waitress, who herself refused to eat oysters, we put the mollusk on a cracker and added a dollop of cocktail sauce and a squeeze of lemon.  Inspired by the Goddess of Food’s confident lead, I popped my tartine.  It tasted like lemon and the dominating cocktail sauce and it felt like cracker.  It wasn’t bad at all. In fact, it was good.  For my second oyster, which I eagerly scooped up, I tried a bit of horseradish instead of cocktail sauce.  It too was delicious! The oyster experience lasted only a few minutes and was almost a nonevent.  We moved on to fried oyster baskets and literary discussion as if we had not just enjoyed a small scoop of slime. 

Inspired by The Art of Dining by Tina Howe and The Rituals of Dinner by Margaret Visser.

Lemon Gold

She moaned with delight.  He begged for more.  No one could get enough.  The edges were crystallized with butter and the inside a little gooey; every taste was orgasmic.  Little did they know, this lemon pound cake nearly caused my demise.

Four weeks ago I purchased lemon pound cake mix in a brown bag tied up with a small cloth bow.  I had been eyeing this cake mix for months, but felt it was much too indulgent to cook this for myself.  But making treats for three people was just the excuse I needed!  I wanted to impress my professor and classmate, and I didn’t want to ruin our snack for class.  So, I read the list of needed ingredients (all three of them) every day for a week just to make sure I had everything.  I borrowed a bundt pan from a friend (and removed the spider webs); I was sure to save my last five free-range eggs from the farmer’s market; I bought a big batch of local butter; and I took a gamble and purchased lemon extract instead of lemon flavoring. 

In addition to triple checking the ingredients, I obsessed over my schedule on the big day.  I agreed to have lunch with a friend, but had to be back home by noon to give myself some leeway before class.  I arrived home at five til and was giddy with anticipation. I carefully picked up the cake mix that was so charmingly packaged that I was certain it was straight off a local Amish farm. 

Step 1: Grease and flour the pan.  I didn’t know grease could be a verb, let alone flour.  Perhaps now is the time I should disclose that my previous baking experience consisted of break and bake cookies.  But, I didn’t get into Davidson for nothing; I scooped up some butter and greased the pan.  Mission accomplished! I would deal with my butter manicure and my butter prints on everything in the kitchen later; there was a cake to bake!  Although I probably got as much flour on the counter as I did in the pan (I forgot about the hole in the middle of the bundt pan), I also “floured” the pan. 

Step 2: Add eggs, 2 sticks softened butter, and lemon flavoring to the mix.  Of course, my butter was not only in a tub, but it was also pretty solid.  I quickly converted sticks to cups (Iphone now also covered in butter) and went to creating my first butter sculpture.  The butter was easy enough to scoop out, but then I had to mold it into my measuring cup.  Butter manicure part deux.  Next, I cracked the eggs.  Judging my track record thus far, I was smart enough to break the eggs into a bowl separate from the rest of my ingredients.  Good thing. Half a dozen shell splinters fell into the bowl with my first egg.  Most of the second egg ended up on my chest.

Step 3: Mix ingredients together.  Batter quickly began to splat onto the coffee maker, the rice maker, the blender, the knife holder, and the pitcher full of kitchen utensils.  I set a timer for the required 5 minutes of mixing and watched the numbers slowly go down as I struggled to keep the batter in the bowl and incorporate all of the dry mix into my not-so-soft butter.  With a bright blue flash and a loud pop the engine on my little mixer blew.  I was way behind schedule so I decided to move on and pour the mix into the pan.  We didn’t have a spatula so I scraped as much of the batter in as I could and then spot cleaned the pan to ensure nothing burned.

I checked the cake ten minutes early and withdrew a clean knife from the depths of gooey goodness.  I let it cool while I gathered paper plates and spoons (we were out of plastic forks) for our feast.  I put on hot pads and flipped the pan.  Nothing happened.  I slipped a knife around the edges and jiggled some more.  Nothing.  Although disappointed my masterpiece would never be seen in full, I quickly cut slices and ran to class, now ten minutes late. 

If only... Picture by jimmiehomeschoolmom’s photostream

We all took our first bites and released moans of delight, murmuring “so fresh,” “so moist,” and “it’s melting in my mouth.”  They applauded.  They raved.  They thanked me.  I brushed off these compliments and said “oh, please! It was a piece of cake!”  Little do they know.

Inspired by The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender.

A Love Story: A Sustainable Fishery

The Power of Food

Many of my favorite meals have come to include a cheap starch, half-baked cookies, wine, and, most importantly, family.  One definition of family is those whom you share your meals with.  Through sharing meals over the last three and a half years, complete strangers have become my family.  We are an eclectic group including one bickering couple, a Fratstar, a budding Confucius, famed college DJ A Rel, an aspiring Olympian, a borderline hipster, and a foodie (that’s me).  Our hometowns span the country from New York City to Los Angeles to Asheville, NC.  We all have one thing in common, however, and that is a love of eating and friendship.

As seniors, most Davidson students move to a cluster of on-campus apartments which are complete with kitchen, a small table, and a living space.  Excited to be back for our final year, we all aimed to spend as much time together as possible, but between club meetings, basketball games, Frisbee practice, and not to mention homework, the first week quickly disappeared.  So, on our first Saturday back, someone suggested we cook dinner together – a dangerous idea for our cooking-impaired group.  Nonetheless, the tradition of family dinner was born.  While some weeks have fewer numbers than others due to formals or athletic tournaments, family dinner has earned top priority on all of our social schedules.  Reflecting as I type, I realize how incredible it is that we have come together each week for the last 24 weeks to share a meal.  It is a true testimony to the power of food. 

The reality of getting college boys to cook food is that it is nearly impossible.  While we all love eating, that does not mean that we all love cooking.  Thus, this task usually falls to the same two or three people each week and everyone else just chips in cash.  But for our Thanksgiving feast, we thought we would try something different; we would each contribute something special.  I made a pumpkin cake, the couple made mulled wine, someone made stuffing, and we assigned the fratstar and DJ, neither of whom have ever cooked much more than ramen, the task of purchasing roast chicken.  They did exactly as we told them; they went to the store and bought a chicken.  Unfortunately, they took these instructions too literally and bought a chicken, just one for the eight off us; and, let me remind you, one is training for the Olympics and eats at least three times as much as I do.  The proud shoppers splayed their first edible contribution to family dinner on a platter.  While it did look nice, this lone bird was lost in the sea of sweet potatoes and stuffing. I walked into family dinner and walked right back out to head to the grocery store.  I purchased four more chickens, which of course was scoffed at for being excessive, but we devoured them all.

The night turned into one of the best dinners yet.  We stuffed ourselves to the point of licking icing off our fingers while we shared what we are most thankful for.  In different words, we all said the same thing; we couldn’t be happier that our little group, one meal at a time, had transformed into a family.  Each week as the food and wine disappear and the laughter gets louder the worries of schoolwork, thesis progress, and the dismal job market quickly melt away.  No matter what happens, we will always have our family.

Inspired by A Short History of the American Stomach by Frederick Kaufman.