Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Nigerian Easter pie

I realize that I'm a few weeks behind here, but I can't miss the opportunity to tell you about the delicious pie that wasn't . . . 

James, my housemates and I invited Abigail and her family over for a good old-fashioned Easter celebration.  Egg-dyeing, candy-hunting and general tomfoolery.


I was excited to bake a 'real American' dessert for the occasion - pie.  Since pie is an unknown entity in Nigeria, James had to bring me pie plates from home (along with Cinnamon Life cereal, Cheez-its, peanut M&Ms, lavender and a vegetable peeler).  I proudly showed them to Abigail and assured her that my pie would knock her socks off.  She would be converted to the Way of Dessert.  But then, instead of baking a know-it's-going-to-be-good apple pie like a sensible person might, I decided to get tropical: I would bake a mango pie.  A beautiful, tasty culturally-symbiotic pie!


Unfortunately, my pie was kind of yucky.  It looked like a pumpkin pie, but tasted like a weird eggy mango custard.  Good thing we had Starbursts to eat after the egg hunt!  While the other Easter festivities were a roaring success, mango pie was not . . . so, lesson learned?  Eat pies.  Eat mangos.  Separately.

(James claims to have liked the pie.  
But he's very committed to Team Pie in the eternal pie vs. cake debate.)

Scones and Work

Do you ever feel like you are just going to die if you don't get something as soon as possible that is sugary, breadlike and goes well with an afternoon coffee?  No?  Well, good for you, although I don't understand you at all.  I get those urges a lot, and Niek's suggestion to go eat a piece of fruit to stifle that craving is insulting.  Firstly, gross, fruit and latt├ęs don't go together at all.  Secondly, I have tried that trick before and no matter what nutritionists say, an apple does not make my desire for cake go away.  If anything it leaves me irritated, because I feel full from that stupid piece of fruit but completely unfulfilled.

I'm trying to get myself into a bit of a re-writing frenzy (when am I not doing this?) so I can finish a chapter and send it to my advisor.  This means spending a lot of time at home willing myself to be productive and taking lots of "breaks" with housework and yes, occasionally baking.  There's nothing particularly Dutch about the scones I made for myself during one of these said breaks.  Regan could even make these in Nigeria if she could her hands on some chilled butter.  Fortunately the Dutch are plagued/blessed with a surplus of dairy cattle, so that's not a problem for me.

In fact, the price of milk and butter is shockingly low here, probably because they've been conditioned to consume dairy in large quantities.  It's the only place I've ever been where it is standard practice to serve milk and buttermilk as drink options during a conference lunch.  I've been to a few history conferences here, and it's always the same lunch: lunch meat sandwiches and cheese sandwiches (but never meat and cheese together) and your choice of milk or buttermilk.  You should have seen the look the caterer gave me when I practically had to beg for a glass of water instead.
So when I found myself needing a snack to go with my coffee, I went for quick and easy.  A few turns of the food processor and fifteen minutes in the oven later, I had dense scone topped with some sugar and cinnamon to complement the coffee and work.  So much more satisfying than an apple.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

How to tell it's April in Amsterdam

1.  The daffodils are almost finished blooming and the tulips are almost ready.

2.  Amsterdammers are sitting on terraces and drinking witbier.

3.  We slept with the window open last night.

4.  The dog has been led deep into the wilds of the park in search of the sources of the million smells his nose is taking in.

5.  I ran outside in shorts, a t-shirt, no hat, and my ears and hands didn't get the least bit cold.

6.  The sun now sets at 8:30 p.m.

7.  There are lambs interspersed throughout the herds of sheep.

8.  I have this relentless urge to eat salad.

9.  People just keep smiling as the whiz past on their bicycles sans coats, gloves or scarves.

The real reason that I know it is truly April in the Netherlands can be summed up into one foodstuf.  Guess what I had for dinner tonight.

10.  This right here is spring on a plate...
That's right.  I had white asparagus for dinner.  Asparagus season is upon us, my friends.  I think I've almost wrangled Niek into a trip to the fields in the south of Limburg just so I can experience it in all its glory.  I hope to tell you about it once I convince him to go.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Omnivore's Dilemma and The Netherlands

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” -Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food (and in other stuff written by the author)

I was making my dinner last night, pasta with tomato sauce and anchovies (nothing but the best for a Monday), and it just suddenly popped into my head that Niek and I eat quite differently than we used to.  That's due to quite a few factors, actually, and is tied up in the practical concerns of keeping our weekly shopping routine within our budgetary constraints, my desire to eat a more well-rounded diet, my unexplained loathing for taking vitamins, all while we continue to truly enjoy what we eat.  I love to eat; I see it not only as a necessity but also a daily pleasure.  I also hate hearing that there are bad foods and good foods.  Food is just food, isn't it?  Shouldn't it exist outside some sort of moral sphere?  Food never makes choices about what it's going to be or how its going to be consumed.  Those are choices for an individual to make.  You can talk about good and bad systems for growing or slaughtering or processing and packaging foodstuffs if you are talking about those things in terms of their impact on the environment or causing suffering. You can talk about good or bad diets, although I also take issue with moralizing a diet.  If you watch The Biggest Loser, which I have been known to do on a weekly basis occasion, you can see how easy it is for the trainers and the show to demonize inanimate objects (food) and watch as the contestants are redeemed from their unhealthy (bad) ways and become reborn as happy, slender, healthy (good) individuals.  The show icks me out a bit, and yet I continue to watch it.  Hmm.

If you think I'm starting to sound like I've read too much Michael Pollan, then you would probably be right.  I've only read his Omnivore's Dilemma and in that book I found an individual grappling with the choices he makes daily about what he is going to eat.  I loved that he wanted to understand the systems at play in the U.S. that bring him so many food choices, and I loved that he wanted to find a balance between feeling good about his food choices without making every trip to the grocery store a moment of crisis in his life.  If you haven't read the book, I would suggest it as a a nice, easy weekend read. I've heard great things about In Defense of Food, too.  His revelations aren't groundbreaking by any means, but he presents them in an easy and entertaining way.

Pollan's book was just the last in a series of progressions in my life that have truly forced me to think about my food.  In my early twenties, I saw Supersize Me just like the rest of my cohort.  I read Fast Food Nation, which to this day has put me off chicken nuggets.  (If you want to know about the lives of packing plant employees you can read Fast Food Nation, or you can also ask my mom about the summer she spent teaching English to Mexican immigrants working at a local meat packing plant in Nebraska.  They did not have easy lives and most definitely did not have easy jobs.)  I have perused countless articles in magazines like The Atlantic, The New Yorker and the Dutch De Groene Amsterdammer.  I'll just mention in passing a pretty disturbing program on PBS about aquaculture that ended my love affair with farm-raised salmon and shrimp.  Reading Pollan's book was no big jump for me, and it reinforced the ideas behind the way I eat more than it changed it.

Do I sound like an overly-sensitive, overly-educated, tree hugging, organic cotton wearing academic/intellectual to you yet?  I think that I do.  For the record, I don't own any organic cotton clothing...yet.  I would say, however, that growing up in the Midwest with parents deeply committed to conservation efforts (shout out to Ducks Unlimited and Quails Forever) and eating well had just as much to do with the way I look at food as the books and articles I've read as an adult.  My dad often went hunting and fishing when I was a kid, and I cannot tell you number of times he reminded me that we should only ever bring home as much as we could eat.  Seriously, I'm pretty sure he said that every single time I sat with him the boat.  My dad deeply dislikes trophy hunting, and I think he gets a little sad when he thinks about it.  Do not ask me how my mom found the time to cook a nice supper every night or how she was able to can like crazy at the end of the summer when all the produce from the garden started coming in.  She doesn't can anymore (although she freezes a lot of summer fruits), but when she gave me her canning equipment a few years ago it was like Christmas in August.  Sometimes I feel like some sort of strange amalgam between Midwestern practicality and liberal higher education with a sprinkling California Cuisine philosophy for good measure.

So what does all of this have to do with food and the way I eat in the Netherlands?  Well, quite a lot.  Los Angeles made it easy to eat and cook the way I wanted to without much effort, much easier than in the Midwest.  Do you realize there is more than one strawberry season in SoCal?  I would notice it every few months when the price of strawberries would drop in the stores.  "Ah, must have been time for another harvest in the Central Valley," I would think.  I could splurge on some locally grown stuff at the farmer's market when I felt like it, buy conventionally grown produce at the Persian Market for the whole week for about $15, and get my hormone free milk and Greek yogurt at Trader Joe's.  It was fabulous, and I loved the routine I had created for myself in L.A.  I hated that I had to drive to get to all of those places, but I loved that I could go months without needing to set foot in a regular grocery store (except for baking necessities like highly refined sugar and cake flour).  Now almost two years after my move to Amsterdam, I am still struggling with my shopping routine.  The struggle is probably why you have to read about it so often on this blog. So, sorry about that.

The older I get and the more I read, the more shopping for food becomes a conscious act of making choices: choices for nutritious food, choices about sustainability, choices in support of humane livestock operations.  Some things are really easy for me; I just don't buy chicken or eggs unless I know the chickens did not live their lives in cages.  (I have been to large-scale chicken operations, and I hate them.  You try not feeling disgust at a factory farm.  Go ahead, just try it.) The gray areas begin and the choices becomes more difficult when I consider grains and produce.  With the newest catch word in "responsible" food choice, "local," swimming around in my brain, I start to wonder about the food in my basket.  Can I buy that kiwi? It had to be flown from New Zealand to get here, so I don't think it's particularly fresh or environmentally friendly, but it would taste so delicious in a fruit salad.  Should I buy this bag of bulgur even though it had to come from Turkey to be here?  What about the figs from Morocco and the blood oranges from Spain? I can't quite give up imported produce and subsist on the fruits and veggies grown locally in the Netherlands in the winter.  That would involve months of nothing but root vegetables and stored apples, and that sounds not at all appealing to me.

The way people eat is also just so different here.  Correction, the way I want to eat and the lengths I need to go to eat that way lead me to conclude that people eat very differently here.  I didn't notice it at first, but it's become more and more apparent to me in the last year.   Perhaps you are thinking to yourself, "Duh, Diana.  It's a foreign country, of course it's different."  Obviously I know it's going to be different, so maybe what I should say is that it seems like food is unvaried.  I can't really say with any authority at all how varied a typical Los Angeleno's diet is, but I do know that the options felt so limitless when I lived there, and I feel kind of fenced in here.

I suppose my efforts for better eating, and to some extent more responsible eating, has focused on cooking as much with whole foods as possible (whole grains, dried beans, good nuts, butter, olive oil, blah, blah, blah), giving myself lots of choices, and not overdoing it on the processed foods.  I love sweets, and I eat something sugary everyday, but I wouldn't define that as overdoing it.  Eating should be enjoyable and I enjoy my sugar.  Creating too many rules and restrictions around food could make anyone, but definitely me, cranky and unhappy.  I "heart" Michael Pollan's book so much, because he wants you to enjoy the food you eat, and part of that process is through variety.  This, unfortunately, is why Amsterdam  can continue to feel like a foreign place to me.  I want variety with my food choices, and I haven't been successful at finding that here.  Maybe I'm not looking hard enough, but I keep finding the same food wherever I go.  I find lots of Gouda cheese (yum), lots of bread, lots of meat, and a few of the same fruits and vegetables.  When I want whole grains or beans, I go to the Moroccan market and shop with the other immigrants.  If I want fish that doesn't show up on a list of unsustainable species, I have to work really hard to do so.  And when I want whole wheat flour, well you already know, I throw a temper tantrum and realize I'm not going to get it. 

So last night as a I finished eating my spaghetti I thought about Michael Pollan and his eating philosophy.  I thought that sometimes it can be really frustrating here to find the ingredients I want in order to enjoy my dinner.  I also thought how much easier it is for him as a resident of Berkeley, CA to eat the way he wants to.  I thought that I might have taken my time in L.A. too much for granted, although I don't regret leaving it.  Living in Amsterdam, in any foreign place, comes with its challenges, and as an ex-pat food is one of my greatest challenges and joys.  I can eat the way I want here, but I have to be willing to work a little harder at it.

Hey, Regan.  I loved your posts about the market.  Looks like you don't have a problem finding lots of locally grown food. :)

Saturday, April 10, 2010

A public service announcement.

Don't warm up food in the oven while it is wrapped in newspaper.

[Good thing we just received a key to the porch door so that we have a second escape route in case of fire!]

Friday, April 9, 2010

Grocery shopping, Ibadan style - Part II

And now to finish the shopping trip.  I hope we've all had time to sit in the shade and have a snack - maybe a FanYogo or a cold Coke - and we feel ready to get back out there and bargain some more.  Meat doesn't buy itself, people.

But it does come delivered, carried on a piece of cardboard by an obliging young man [always a man: women don't sell meat, they sell vegetables - but not carrots, men sell carrots . . . ah, the gendering of the marketplace . . . another post, another time].  Abigail has to bargain harder for a good price on meat than for other food items.  I usually wander away so as not to taint the proceedings with my oyinbo presence.  As you've probably realized, I would likely starve to death without Abigail.  My diet of Cheese Balls, Coke and oatmeal would result in malnutrition and eventual brain stoppage.  And then who would write a dissertation on the development of a book market and the social implications of literacy in twentieth-century southwestern Nigeria?  Oh.  Someone else.

  I can, however, get a great price on bananas and cans of tinned milk with my mad bargaining skills.

And I like to throw my hat into the ring when it comes to fish bargaining.  The fish in the picture above is waiting for a price to be agreed upon so that it can go to a good home.  To be made into stew.  Yum!


I love grocery shopping in Nigeria because the markets are full of tastes and smells that I've never experienced - buckets and baskets piled high with beautiful mounds of food that I've never seen.  But I also enjoy taking part in what is a daily ritual for so many Nigerians, especially the women who do almost all of the shopping and cooking.  I certainly don't blend in, but when I'm waiting for the fish to be chopped up or the egusi seeds to be ground, I feel like I have earned the right to be here.

[A disclaimer: grocery stores, the kind with shelves and price tags and freezers, do exist in Nigeria.  I just don't go very often because they're expensive and carry the same foods as the market.  Also, the local Food Co. doesn't make for very interesting pictures.  But people do shop in these kind of stores.  Just so you know.  (But also, mostly people shop at markets like the one described above.  Where else can you buy your cassava powder and stock fish?)]

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Easter, and just for fun, 2nd Easter

Yes, I realize that Easter was already five days ago, and I should have posted this much sooner.  It's just that Monday was Second Easter Day here, and I've been trying to catch up with a bunch of work ever since then.  Oh, yes, the Dutch have second holiday days all the time: Second Christmas Day, Second Pentecost Day, Second Ascension Day.  I think when I first visited during the winter Holidays, I wrongly assumed there was a Second New Year's Day.  It's a big ploy to wrestle a day off work from all those religiously categorized, yet now fully secularized, official holidays.  Now that I think about it some more, I'm going to do some research to find out the processes that took place in order to make all of these government sanctioned days off from work.  Almost all the public holidays here have a connection with Christianity.  The Dutch State has a very unique history with its relationship to religions and one that I'm not going to get into right now.  Honestly, do you really want to read about that because how much time do you really have?  If you're bored, just look up pillarization some time.  Actually, here is the Wikipedia entry.  Not the best explanation of it, but I guess it will do.  I had to know about it for my comprehensive exams although, early-modernist that I am, I would be hard pressed to talk about it with any authority.

Right, well back to Easter and the fabulous food...which I did not make.  We spent the weekend at my in-laws' house where the kitchen, to which I have only recently been granted access in the form of a lowly sous-chef every now and then, is the domain of my father-in-law .  It was only last month I was allowed to slice a mango for a salad when he was in a time crunch.  (By the way,  I totally rocked that mango.  Thank you, Jamie Oliver, for teaching me how to do it all fancy like.  If you're curious to know, he did it just like this)  It's always fun spending a few days in Utrecht with Niek's family.  We walk around the center of the city, enjoy the charming coziness of its smaller streets and two canals, and we also eat much too much good food.

I can't really tell you what a "traditional" Easter meal is in the Netherlands.  It's sure to involve a lot of meat and starches.  Going by that logic, our brunch was pretty Dutch.  It had delicious coffee, freshly squeezed orange juice (for some reason Dutch people just love o.j.), lots of bread products, cheese and meat.  We had salmon for the bagels, too.  Although ours had to travel from Alaska to be with us, salmon appears on a lot of brunch menus here. 

The sun even came out for a a few hours, before it decided to hail.  We didn't color any eggs this year, but I did see them in the store, and the Dutch children I saw went on their Easter egg hunts probably with as much enthusiasm as their American counterparts.  I haven't thought too much about Easter eggs, but now I'm curious if most of Europe adheres to this tradition.  Anyone know? 

Hope you all enjoyed your weekends and ate well.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Grocery shopping, Ibadan style

On the way to the market.

James is on a plane somewhere between Lagos and Atlanta right now and I'm back in my living room in Ibadan.  Boo hoo!  Luckily, we've had electricity all night and morning, which eases the pain a little . . . 

See?  I'm easily satisfied.  It also helps that we've begun the countdown to my return to Los Angeles.  I'm going to try to soak in all of the Nigerianess that I can over the next three months.  Then it is back to West LA, where I won't be able to see cute little goats everyday but I will have an uninterrupted power supply.  You know, trade-offs.

So, join me on a very Nigerian experience: shopping for groceries at Bodija Market.

A view down the main market road.

We usually start at the plaintain seller's stall, where we buy the plantains and yams and then leave them until there until the end of the shopping trip.  

Buying groceries in the market takes a long time.  Weaving in and out of the stalls, buying each item from an individual seller, negotiating every price, entertaining people with my attempts at Yoruba, eating snacks . . . no quick trips to the store around here.

Doing the grocery shopping is an all-day event!

Buying the vegetables and canned goods.

I'm obviously not in any of these pictures because I'm behind the camera, embarrassing Abigail with my constant requests to "ya a photo."  (And if I do make an appearance in any market picture, I will be the woman with the bright red face and crazed look in my eye.  Watch out.)  Since I've been shopping at Bodija for about six months now, the sellers have seen me around and are gracious enough to allow me to take photographs of them at work.  I've had to promise not to make lots of money selling the pictures to 'my people in America.'  Instead, I say that I will show people the pictures so that they want to come and visit Nigeria.  

So, people of America, this is grocery shopping in Nigeria - come see for yourselves!

A lovely oil seller.

(To be continued.)