I partake in a true sharing economy–and not surprisingly it involves food.
Once a week (twice in the summer) I meet with friends over lunch or dinner for a shared meal: shared ingredients, shared labor, and shared eating. Menus are typically discussed in advance but often involve a fair amount of inspiration from whatever is on hand.
A year and a half ago, I took my first clay class. Sure, my fingers had shaped chocolate-colored small-coiled bowls in elementary school, but that was the extent of my experimentation with ceramics.
I signed up wanting to handbuild. While there is magic in a lump of clay transforming thanks to steady hands and the centrifugal force of a pottery wheel, I was taking clay class to slow myself down. The wheel sped me up. I was also taking clay class to use my hands to build things in a different way than I do building with words, fingers, and a keyboard.
Five classes later, I now eat off and drink from what I have built. My homemade porcelain dinner and dessert plates are stacked next to my homemade bowls. My mugs come in various sizes and shapes–some pressed intentionally to form the exact grip of my hand. Meals take on a new meaning when you cook them yourself. They also take on a new meaning when you not only make the food, but the wares as well.
Artist Itimar Gilboa has given meaning to his meals by casting in plaster a representation of every item he consumed for an entire year. The result was The Food Chain Project, a traveling installation of over 8,000 items, each one for sale and with a percentage of the profits supporting organizations that address global food supply and demand issues.
As an Israeli working in The Netherlands, Gilboa was inspired to track his meals when he noticed how his consumption habits changed after moving from Tel Aviv to Amsterdam. Seasonality, accessibility, and affordability all contribute to the food we buy.
The Food Chain Project makes meaning through what the 8,000 pieces represent, as well as what their sale in part provides: the funds to feed people. Gilboa observed that his meals in turn supported the meals of many more. “What I ate turned into art, which, when sold, can again become food.”
Dabbas, the stainless steel stackable lunch boxes most widely used in India, have starred in recent films like The Lunchbox or the documentary The Dabbawallas, featuring the astonishing network of 4,000 delivery men (dabbawallas) who deliver more than 100,000 lunch boxes daily to offices across Bombay.
Many years ago, friends gifted me with a personalized dabba from Bombay. Until lately it was a patient presence in my kitchen, awaiting action that never came because my leftovers required a microwave’s touch.
One morning I had a flash of inspiration: what if I baked personalized pies in each of the dabba layers? What if, after they baked and cooled, they were stacked, tucked into my bike basket, and served as is at the dinner party?
Look, Ma. No pie pan.
The inaugural pies were a mixed berry trio of raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries. This particular dinner party was an intimate affair, so I baked off three individual pies in the oven in their dabba layer and let them sit until they came to room temperature. I then assembled my dabba and hit the road.
My first transport test was the five miles from my home to the University of Washington Seattle campus. I checked the pies upon arrival at work—perfect. They remained unscathed from the elevation gain from the Burke-Gilman Trail to the Upper Fremont dinner party destination, where I triumphantly handed over the dessert dabba to my hosts. We ate them under an outdoor canopy. All that was required was forks.
That’s one of the keys to reveling in the biking life: it might take me longer to reach my destination, but I’m happier (and hungrier) when I get there. Especially when I arrive with pie.
The lively city of Antakya is nestled in a valley formed by the Nur Mountains, only 14 miles from the Mediterranean Sea in the southernmost tip of Turkey. Last month, as my plane banked and shuddered through the updrafts for a safe landing at the Hatay airport, I was mesmerized by the stunning natural beauty of the region. Green-carpeted mountainsides and sweeping deep blue skies greeted me as I poked my head out of the plane into the fresh air. It was hard to believe that 12 miles away in Syria was, and is, a war zone.
I traveled to Antakya to deliver a three-day humanitarian communications training for GOAL SYRIA, a country office of GOAL, the Irish international development organization headquartered in Dublin.
For safety reasons, the GOAL SYRIA office operates out of Turkey, with Syrian nationals on staff crossing the border regularly to deliver aid and manage rebuilding programs. GOAL SYRIA is currently one of GOAL’s largest operations, given that the war has displaced almost 8 million Syrians internally and sent another 3 million across country borders seeking refuge. While the scale of human suffering is hard to fathom, GOAL CEO Barry Andrews gave it a good try at TEDxUCD in Dublin last June.
The plan was to have all Syria-based staff join my training in Turkey. However, the Turkish government closed the border a week before I arrived so more than half of the participants had no choice but to use the online platform Blackboard Learn in an environment with already fragile Internet connectivity. On top of that, two of the cities where the majority of the Syrian-based participants live were bombed the night after our first day of the training.
One participant named Walid Almawas was particularly determined. He managed to log onto the online platform and follow along with the entire training, regularly typing thoughtful comments and questions in the chat box. On the second day of the training, when it was time for the participants to head out into the glorious sunshine for a story photo shoot, his question to me in the chat box shook me to my senses. While Walid was geographically as close as the crow flies, his situation was worlds away from mine.
How can I complete this assignment, Anita? It is not safe to go outdoors.
I thought fast and typed faster.
Walid, you don’t have to go outside to tell a story. I bet there’s a story you can tell inside your home.
He answered immediately.
My wife is making breakfast. Do you mean I could tell a story about that?
When we think of humanitarian agencies, we often think about them as being in the business of providing things–tents, water, blankets, and food. GOAL recognizes that providing stories such as Walid’s is important, too, and that those stories must be told. War zones, disease outbreaks and natural disasters can quickly turn humans into abstractions and statistics. Humanitarian communications is about ethically documenting stories within communities that showcase resilience and optimism in the face of unspeakable sorrow and staggering perseverance. Or just the simple fact that life continues amidst atrocities, and in the morning you make breakfast for those you love.
Relief agencies like GOAL are intentionally non-partisan, yet they do bear witness to the events that unfold around them. The stories that they capture and share at a grassroots level become part of the country’s collective memory. And we all know that compelling stories from the field inspire vital donations. But, perhaps most importantly, GOAL communications share stories in a way that preserves the dignity of those involved and reminds us of what we all have in common. Instantly. Everywhere.
Walid sent me his photo essay that evening. His wife preparing food at the stove. A second photo of his 3-year-old son in front of a tray of food. His infant son in a highchair. A self-portrait.
In a war zone, the ritual of breakfast at home with your family is more than just an act of love. It’s hope.
G, as friends and I called her, was a poet, a professor, and a playwright. Her life was the stuff of movies: influential encounters as a teen with Amelia Earhart; groundbreaking work in phoniatrics and laryngolngy when few women earned PhDs, let alone tenure track positions; and a blue Sunbeam Alpine convertible she drove from Philadelphia to New York City in one hour flat–not once receiving a speeding ticket.
G died last November at the age of 95. Her body got old, but G remains one of the youngest people I have ever met.
We shared many more Maine meals after our first brunch, from picnics on her back patio to feasts at Frontier Cafe in Brunswick, the town where she lived. But of all of our gastro galavanting, G’s eyes lit up the most for gelato. Brunswick is home to the original Gelato Fiasco, and no trip to see G felt complete without a stop.
Gelato Fiasco boasts a dizzying array of flavors, all displayed with classic decorative sweeps and flourishes of “spatulart.” Servers will patiently and enthusiastically let you sample them all, if so inclined. The sheer number of choices might have paralyzed some.
But not G.
After all, this was the woman who once wrote, “How many kinds of freedom may be found during a lifetime!”
My first glorious spoonful of gelato this summer will be for her.
I have spent the last two weeks in the home where I grew up, sharing meals with members of my family who cheered me on from tween to teen to twenty-something and beyond.
My Philadelphia holidays are homecomings.
Many meals have table settings into double digits with an age spread of over 60 years. This was the first Christmas without two venerable matriarchs, my maternal grandmother being one of them. But her presence was made visible through the legacy of food she prepared so often and so expertly for all of us: apple pie, opera fudge, and cranberry sherbet, to name just three that surfaced this season.
Despite these keen losses, this was a Christmas of family expansion.
My cousin and her fiancé hosted a meal this past Sunday where the parents met for the first time, along with aunts, uncles, and cousins. The meal was held in South Philly at Nomad Pizza, home to thin crust pies that cook in minutes and with one bite transport me back to Napoli, where such techniques originated and the best pizza in the world still emerges from fiery ovens.
There were 21 of us seated around a long wooden table, intentionally distributed so that our families blended from the moment the meal began. Drinks arrived and the arugula salads and meatball appetizers appeared as if by magic. The table buzzed with greetings and introductions.
Hello, my name it Anita.
It is wonderful to meet you.
As the pizza began to show up—two standouts were the truffle mushroom with a fresh farm egg and the kale with spicy chorizo—the conversations gained momentum and animation. Some musical chairs began, giving people a chance to talk to the other end of the table. By dessert it was discovered between bites of tiramisu that two couples at the table shared not only an anniversary year, but also the exact same day. Delight at this happy coincidence only underscored the welcome sense of co-mingling as an enlarged family.
By the time we tumbled out into the crisp South Philly air, handshakes that started the meal had turned to hugs at its end. My clan grew bigger as I beamed.
Earlier this month I packed my passport and headed north to Canada. Destination? Vancouver.
In the 20 years I have been taking weekend trips across the border, this city has never failed to hold me spellbound. Natural beauty and enviable access to forests, mountains, and water play a role. Then there is the public transit system that makes almost any US city look hopelessly antiquated by comparison. Film crews seemingly on every corner leave me starstruck. But a big part of the allure for me is how international the city is: Van appears to fit the entire world into its metro area.
One upshot of such diversity is incredible food.
My latest culinary swoon took place at Afra Bakery & Market, a Persian grocery and bakery in North Vancouver. (“Afra” means maple leaf in Persian–a fitting name for maple leaf mad Canadians.) My friends were established fans so knew that the action takes place in back at the bakery.
Afra produces sangak, a traditional Persian flatbread that dates back to the 15th century, when it was the bread of choice for the Persian army. Baked in enormous rectangles the size of tea towels, sangak is portable and adaptable–not to mention delicious, though one can imagine that it becomes more like hard tack as days pass. Afra bakes the bread in a ferociously hot oven on beds of small river rocks (sangak translates to mean “pebble” or “little stone”), ingeniously designed to turn on a center axis, so that the baker inserts the bread through one oven door and it emerges a minute or two later having made one rotation, at which point a second baker removes the bread from the oven and hangs it to cool on the wall.
Customers are welcome to enter the bakery and peer into the oven, which I naturally did, bewitched by the meditative quality of positioning the dough on a large paddle, the thwack of placing it on the hot oven floor, and then the seamless motion of extracting the bread and tacking it to the wall, creating a clothesline of edibles. Once cool, the bread is bagged and rolled. In our case, destined for a picnic up on Grouse Mountain.
The attributes that make sangak the food of choice for an army–portable and adaptable–resonate with the qualities of the Iranian diaspora, no doubt now producing this bread in neighborhood bakeries all over the world. Many Iranian Canadians left their homeland in haste, taking only what they could carry. But the brain is our most glorious suitcase of all. For many it holds entire cookbooks, an inventory of recipes to fill a library.
Afra Bakery & Market is more than a grocery store. It is an edible archive that links Iranian communities not only in Vancouver, but across the globe.
It’s as if someone read my mind. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a podcast where Margaret Cho, one of my favorite comedians, interviewed Billy Bragg, one of my favorite musicians? What are the chances? Right?
But in this wonderful world, it turns out that the chances are rather good. Both Cho and Bragg elevate their craft as activists for society’s marginalized while maintaining a wicked sense of humor, so it shouldn’t surprise me that Bragg showed up on Cho’s podcast (co-hosted with Jim Short), Monsters of Talk.
Listening to their 45-minute banter fest was like eavesdropping on a dinner party.
Highlights included Cho’s mobile phone ringing in the middle of the recording (“Oh, shit!”), Bragg’s discussion of his “grumpy face” when he’s reading the paper, and a history lesson on skiffle, a term that was entirely new to me.
But my favorite part of the conversation was their recollections of the hunt to find new music: growing up combing through record stores; seeking that sound you fall in love with instantly; friends referring them to new artists; or that discovery that made them feel more like themselves.
Today, we have more options for finding new music than ever before, though often it is curated for us: Amazon suggests bands we might like based on purchase history. The result of self-production is a galaxy of new music that could take light years to traverse. Often we are in musical ruts.
I feel the same way about apples.
Most grocery stores in Seattle will provide you with a range of choices, but in most Seattle grocery stores those choices reflect most Top-40 pop: sweet, similar sounding/tasting, and not particularly memorable.
Enter my friends, Jeny and Brenda.
In the space of 10 days they were responsible for expanding my apple repertoire significantly—and deliciously—providing me an important reminder that you have to hunt, ask, and nurture friendships to keep all your senses satisfied.
Brenda brought me seven Northern Spy apples from her parent’s tree in Chehalis, WA. She had me at the name. Spies are delicately sized (compared to the supermarket softballs), pinkish red, and the perfect balance of sweet and tart. I immediately regretted I had only asked for seven.
I met Jeny for lunch a few days later, and she produced an impromptu master class on baking apples—with the actual goods!—none of which I had ever heard of: the marvelously named Zabergau, Belle de Boskoop, and Rhode Island Greening, to name just three. (Don’t they sound like band names?) 24 hours later they were baked in a pie and I daresay it’s the best I’ve ever made.
So hooray for the hunt. Hooray for friends who tip you off to new tastes—be it in music or apples.
This Maine family of four thru-hiked the Appalachian trail, walking the spine of the East Coast from April to September. The day they reached Mt. Katahdin to finish the trek, they shared chocolate cupcakes at the summit with another thru-hiker who was celebrating a 33rd birthday. I bet they tasted tremendous.
Taking on the Appalachian Trail is a commitment. Any part of it. To thru-hike as a quartet with the younger ones each less than a decade old, is inspired. And inspiring. Meals take on a different meaning when you carry your food. They become fuel, first and foremost. But even on the trail meals are opportunities for fellowship. (Or cupcakes.)
Just recently the Kentucky Board of Tourism celebrated the inclusion of nearly 50 eateries featured in a new Appalachian food guide. Bon Appétit Appalachia! steers tourists to culinary destinations that showcase regional specialities like beer cheese.
Every so often the Kallin family would duck off the trail, spend a night in a hotel, and feast in a local restaurant. That’s the way to do it: subsist on the basics for long stretches with nature as your open-air restaurant, but now and again let someone else do the cooking for you.
Pear’s is an ice cream shop in Casco, Maine. It opens in June and until the ice cream runs out on Labor Day, scores of ice cream cones pass through the order window into eager hands of all ages. I should know: many times this summer those cones were scooped for me.
Mint Chocolate Chip.
My balanced diet this summer contained more than ice cream, though the sign Pear’s posted above put a smile on my face. In addition to food, my summers represent a balanced life that includes time in the East and time in the West. Time online and time offline. Time in the water and time on land. Time in the city and time in the country.
New York Times columnist Timothy Egan’s most recent piece reads like a welcome mat for me as I pack and plan my return to the Pacific Northwest this coming week:
“From a skyscraper in downtown Seattle, the core of a metro area of 3.7 million people, you can see three national parks — Mount Rainier, Olympic and North Cascades. In the heart of Olympic, the largest dam-removal project in American history has unshackled the Elwha River. Floating down that snow-fed waterway earlier this month, I saw sockeye salmon racing upstream in a big stretch of the river that had been blocked by a dam. Hope is the thing with feathers, Emily Dickinson said. On the Elwha, hope is the red flash of sockeye in a river wild again.”
Balance: the glitter of urbanity and nature’s own jewels that dazzle. Furthermore, in the space of a single column Egan mentions salmon, trout, and bison–all species making comebacks as public land preserves and encourages ecosystems that allow them to flourish. Each of them have at one time sustained the diet of people in the West, and in the case of salmon they very much still do.
The scales soon tip me West. But before they do I took one more visit to Pear’s for a cone. Let tomorrow usher in fall with the first day of September. Today was still summer, and it was mine.