Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Eat Locally...Really Locally

From Amsterdam to L.A. to Davis, CA in less than a week.  I've been up here in northernish California since last Monday visiting some good friends.  I have forgotten how incredibly hot it can get up here in Davis, and while the heat of the mid-afternoon sun leaves me heading for the nearest air-conditioned spot, it's apparently very good for the produce around here.  Notice our crazy adventures in my friend's dad's garden.  Her parents had been on vacation for a few weeks, and we volunteered to go over and do a little gardening only to be attacked by the largest zucchinis in the world.  They were everywhere and they were gigantic.  You can see in the picture below that I was nearly swallowed whole while picking them.  Thank goodness we had some zucchini bread recipes.  I also made one of my favorite soups all with ingredients from the garden.  It's during moments like those that I am a little sad that all I have is a balcony with a herb pots, but after an hour trimming the blossoms off of chard plants in 95 degree heat, I wasn't so sad about not having my own garden.
There's a reason why the local food movement has taken a firm hold in California.  When you can grow almost any summer fruit or vegetable imaginable within a 60 mile radius of your house, it's pretty easy to eat locally.  I'm not knocking it.  I do love to walk through farmer's markets like the one I went to on Saturday in Davis.  One sweep down the aisle left me feeling hungry and ready to dive into a crate full of tomatoes.  We talked to the blueberry farmers from Fresno and even the local woman selling worms for all your backyard composting needs.  

Outdoor markets in California, for all their beauty and variety, always have an air of unattainability and superiority to me.  Going to a farmers' market is a little bit like how I browse through designer boutiques; I might get a few small items here and there, but I'm not going to buy a new wardrobe in one afternoon.  It must be the artisnal cheeses and the twenty varieties of baby beets for sale that give off the slightly elitist vibe, although I readily admit that I love the market just the same.  After all, I was the one standing there plotting ways I could hide 8 oz. jars of lavender honey in my carry-on luggage.  California markets are just a fun diversion that present you with a bunch of inspiration for cooking and living.  If I hadn't seen all those stalls selling crate after crate of gorgeous figs, I probably wouldn't have felt this insatiable need to make something right this second with figs.

Lucky for me my friend's brother had a fig tree bursting with fruit.  I can eat a lot of figs on my own, but even after living without them since my move to Amsterdam, I couldn't finish a few pounds before they went bad.  A few minutes of searching online  coupled with a need to cool down led me to a fig ice cream recipe and a really nice food blog.  Locally grown tastes really good covered in sugar and heavy cream. 

Saturday, June 26, 2010

O, dear blog readers, the end is drawing near.  
I leave Nigeria for the United States in less than two weeks 
. . . and I still have so much to tell you about my life here! 

Let’s start with this: my housemates and I just returned from a trip to Calabar in eastern Nigeria.  It was beautiful.  Wonderful.  Awesome.  I am now wondering why I was smart enough to get into graduate school but not smart enough to choose the nice part of Nigeria to study.  JK, western Nigeria.  Kind of.  

I have to admit that it took a trip to the east to help me realize that 'interesting' is not the only positive adjective to describe Nigeria; it can also be beautiful, peaceful and relaxing.  Traveling home on the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, it occurred to me how much the insane population density of western Nigeria effects how people live and move and relate to each other - in ways that ratchet up the intensity of day-to-day interactions.  And yet I like the challenge of living in Ibadan; it is endlessly fascinating to reflect on how both the remote and more recent past have shaped this society.  Also - you never run out of things to complain about.  How convenient for those of us who enjoy such a pastime!

Back to Calabar, where I traveled the Delta creeks by boat, swam in a waterfall, visited a drill monkey sanctuary and knocked back a few shots of locally-distilled gin . . . all in the name of research.  One of the fun things about visiting a new region was seeing the different foods it offered.  We ate delicious suya covered in a groundnut spice, tender chicken pepper soup and whole roasted fish, basted in a sweet pepper sauce.  We also found some new fruits that we can’t buy in the west: lychee and an ugly brown nut with velvety skin.  When you pry it open, you find that the flesh is a brilliant orange.  We couldn’t figure out the name of this fruit, so we call it orange nut fruit.  Creative, right?!



In conclusion:  Nigeria is beautiful.  The fruit is amazing.  Lychee tastes like candy.  Towns with trees and sidewalks are nice.  A lot of people live in this country.  They deserve to have a functioning government which can sustain an expanding economy and provide social services.  The end.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

L.A. Burgers

Now that the stresses of preparing for a conference paper are behind me, it's time to return to the writing that really matters...blog posts.  If my advisor is reading this, just kidding about that last comment.  Anyway, my good friends took me out for a bite to celebrate the achievement of my first ever conference paper.  We could have gone anywhere for any kind of food imaginable; it was L.A. after all.  However, when my friend suggested a hamburger place they have been meaning to try, I was on board and didn't give any other food another thought.

I think a lot of people would be surprised to know that L.A. is definitely a burger town.  Sure, it gets a lot of press for its frozen yogurt and diet food fads, but burgers are a deeply ingrained part of food culture.  Why?  That's a great question, and I have no idea.  I always considered it part of the L.A. food paradox.  On the one hand you have the health obsessed, the organic food markets, the Pinkberry, and the raw food.  On the other, you've got hot dogs, chile rellenos, Korean barbecue, and some of the best hamburgers and fries I've ever had.  It's all part of this crazy city with a million and one identities, and really, I cannot tell you how I have missed the occasional good burger.

We went crazy, cool, (slightly) hipster for the evening.  I lived on the west side of the city when I lived here, and I was pretty loyal to Hamburger Habit.  This time, though, we spiced it up by heading into the heart of Hollywood and eating at Umami Burger, think fairly minimalist decor with a fairly minimalist menu.  C'mon, when you've got a good burger, you don't need to have an extensive menu.  I would like to say that it is probably one of the best burgers I have ever had in my entire life (and believe me, I have had a lot of hamburgers).  If you want to experience a wonderful balance of flavors and textures packed into the tiny package of a bun with ground beef, this would be the place to do it.  Yes, I realize that sounds kind of corny to talk about a burger that way, but seriously, it was good. You can enjoy the burger, fries, and beer while you watch the "cool" parent with his trucker hat at the next table feed his daughter specially sauteed mushrooms or while glancing at the barely legal blonde in her too short baby-doll dress in the corner.  It was fun, it was L.A., and wow, it was delicious.

So glad to be back in the States for a while, soaking up some sun while I reacquaint myself with some California culture.

Sorry there are no pics.  I forgot to bring a camera.  I took some pictures with my friend's phone, and I'll post them when I get them.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

James eats plantains.

James visited Nigeria nearly 2.5 months ago and sent me the following blog post two weeks later.  And one week ago I took a picture of plantains to include in the post, which I'm finally getting around to putting online today.  Oops.  Well, better late than never (which is what I’ll be writing as I continue to post about Nigeria for months after I’ve returned to LA)!

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I'm sure that everyone out there who reads this blog has been wondering when I would do a guest post.  I know people need a break from perfect sentence structure and grammar.  So, here it is. 

Dodo!  I finally had Dodo!  No, not the dodo bird but the Yoruba word for fried plantains.  It has been five long years without a proper fried plantain.  Sure, you can get them at Cuban restaurants or by busting out your frying skills (with a fire extinguisher) at home.  But, they just aren't as good.  The market women really know how to fry up a delicious plantain. 

{dodo with moin-moin and vegetable}

The banana family is not indigenous to West Africa, but they have been around a good long time.  Plantains are plentiful all year long and are a staple in Nigerian cooking.  You can pretty much do what ever you want with a plantain: boil, fry, mash, and roast.   Another bonus is that you can have it savory or sweet.  I'm a little curious what a plantain pie would taste like (wink, wink Regan).  One of my favorite snacks is a roasted plantain right off the grill.  


I usually go for the sweet ones, because the "green" ones make me too thirsty.  Of course, that is a good excuse for an ice cold Coke.

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E kuuse, James!  Remember how you ate that entire bowl of pepper soup the first time we visited my host family in Ghana and they told me that you were the better African?  Alas, it is probably true.  (Thanks for visiting me and for writing a post with good sentence structure.  You're awesome.)

Rainy Season Food

I talked to Regan for a little bit last week, and her internet connection was even good enough to support Skype's video function. It's apparently rainy season in Nigeria right now, and then I thought about how it has felt like rainy season here for months.  A few weeks ago, we had a terribly rainy and cold Sunday, and the weather enticed me to stay inside and make some comfort food.  When I was a kid and it was raining, nothing seemed to hit the spot better than grilled cheese sandwiches with a bowl of tomato soup.  I have luckily landed in a country that loves grilled cheese.  They call them tosti's here, and they are made with Dutch cheese and Dutch bread.
It's a horrible admission to make, but I have to confess that when I first came here I was incredibly disappointed by the bread.  I think I was expecting to get the same kind I ate when I lived in Germany, especially the little breakfast breads, brötchen.  I ate those things every morning and sometimes stole them from the basket for my lunch, too.  That's not really how bread is here.  Your average bread looks kind of like plain, old sandwich bread.  My expectations to have a crispy crust with a soft center were dashed to pieces that first time around.  Since that first visit, I have amended my opinion of Dutch bread considerably, and I've come to love it, especially now that I've found a good baker nearby.  As good as it is I still have no clue how the Dutch can eat so much of it.  Niek's eight and ten slice a day habit makes no sense to me.  Even I as a carbaholic cannot fathom that.  Still, I like making my tosti's with it, and it the absolute best food for a rainy day lunch.  
The weather seemed to break in the afternoon, so I thought it would be a perfect time for a run.  When we only had a few miles left to go it started to rain, and then it started to hail.  The dog was not amused.
Sorry for such a short post.  I'm leaving for a conference tomorrow, and I've got a billion things to do before I go.  Can't wait to eat Mexican food in L.A., oh and give a presentation. 

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Doing Dutch Things and Eating American Stuff

In the past week, I've done a bunch of things that have made me feel really Dutch, or at least have given the appearance that I am becoming "integrated" (ugh, I shudder at the use of that word to describe immigrants in The Netherlands, but that's a different post, a really different post). Here are a few of the things I have done after which I realized I would do almost none of those things in L.A.

1) Right before catching the train home from my day at an archive, I popped into the drugstore at the train station and bought candy. I stood there at the buffet of candies just like all the other Dutch professionals looking for a nice sugar fix to get them home.  I even tried again to like black licorice, going so far as to sample one while I was stuffing my pointy bag with gummi bears.  Blech, big mistake.  It was a harder, salty kind that at first lulled me into a false sense of security.  In fact, I almost liked it and thought that would be my turning point moment.  I could write a post about the day I taught myself to like anise.  But then as I was standing in line to pay, still chewing on that piece of candy, because it took like five minutes to chew completely, the flavor went from slightly salty licorice to the taste of ammonia.  It was like I had bleach flavored candy in my mouth.  That was it, I'm done with the black menace for at least another six months.  The other candy was heavenly to eat as I sat in a train and watched the Dutch landscape go by.

2) My bicycle got a flat tire a few weeks ago while I was riding it in the rain (super Dutch thing to do), and I finally got around to fixing it this weekend.  Never in my life have I fixed a flat tire on a bike.  Before coming the Netherlands, I don't think I had been on a bike in years, and I had somehow gotten through my entire childhood without ever getting a flat tire. Niek isn't a fan of fixing his flat tires; he usually takes the bike to the bike shop down the street when there's a problem.  However, I was feeling a bit embarrassed that I didn't know how to solve a seemingly simple problem.  I went to the bike supply store, which is kind of like going to NAPA Auto Parts except this time it's for your bike, and had the nice gentleman behind the counter help me locate a tube repair kit.  It was obvious I had no idea what I was doing, so he told me to bring it in if I couldn't figure it out.  Lucky for me Niek is Dutch, meaning he was born with the knowledge of basic bike repair, even if he doesn't use that knowledge very often.

Seriously, I am beaming at my newly found ability to perform a simple task, and also that I did it in a skirt and a white sweater without getting dirty.  When I told my in-laws that I patched my tire, they told me I am now qualified to be a Dutch citizen.  I somehow don't think tire repair is a portion of the citizenship examination, but it's still a good skill to have.

3) I ate appeltaart...Not really necessary to expand on that since I've made it quite apparent how much I love this food.  Eating it on a terrace on a beautiful summer day is what made it even more of a cultural experience.  I have been waiting patiently through all the cold and rainy months to talk about terrace culture in The Netherlands.  I don't know if terrace culture is really the right word.  The outdoor space a café, bar or restaurant has is always referred to as a terras in Dutch, so I'm just anglicizing the word.  When it is sunny and warm here, which it is maybe 10% of the year, the Dutch flock to outdoor cafés to enjoy the sunshine and a good witbier, or in my case this last time around, a good coffee.  They just sit for hours, talking and watching the world go by.  I love how busy and full outdoor spaces become in the summer, and it is by far my favorite summer activity.  You've got to soak it up and enjoy it while you can, because before you know it, the days will be shorter and it will be too cold and wet to be outside.  Niek was just excited to finally try the cinnamon ice cream.  He was pretty jealous that I had been here with Regan but never with him.  Yes, the ice cream and appeltaart did warrant such an enthusiastic response.  We sat and talked about politics and the economy since those things were on our mind with the big election for parliament coming up, and we basically just enjoyed ourselves.
Those were the three things I've done in the past week to make me feel really Dutch.  When all is said and done though, I can't help but still feel pretty American, especially in the kitchen.  Yesterday when I wanted something sweet, I still pulled out one of my American cookbooks and whipped up a concoction Niek had never heard of before: blondies (kind of like brownies minus the chocolate).  I had never made them before, but a few recipes for them have come up on my favorite baking blogs, so I figured I'd give them a try.  These particular ones called for brown butter, which I had also never made before.  I made sure to get a shot of my excitement after I had successfully created clarified butter, a lot of butter:
Oh they are so good.  Totally worth using up the last of my vanilla extract.  They go really well with Dutch coffee.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Farmer Regan

I’ve just entered into a long-term relationship – with a farm.  And I only have six weeks left until I go home.  Oops.

First, I have to say that the use of the word ‘farm’ instead of ‘garden’ for any plot of cultivated land is one of my favorite Nigerianisms.  That and ‘bum-bum’ and, more generally, the proclivity for swearing at the Nigerian state. 

Ok, now to my point: on Saturday, Abigail, Precious, Praise and Prosper helped me clear a (very) small plot for a farm in our side yard.  I mostly wanted to start a farm so that I would have an excuse to swing a cutlass.  And swing I did!  (Not before Praise warned me not to cut off her foot or my own.)  Also, I thought that it would make a good blog post.  Nigeria.  Growing food.  Having deep cultural insights (hey everyone: kids anywhere in the world will work for candy!) . . . it all fits the theme.

Now my farm and I have six short weeks to get to know each other.  The greens and okra that we planted have already sprouted, so we’re off to a good start.  If only a taco salad and a glass of milk came shooting out of the tropical soil, we’d really be in business!

(Sorry about the weird color of the pictures - they were taken with a (much appreciated) loaner camera.  My own camera recently took a nosedive from my arms onto the concrete floor of Kenneth Dike Library.  Sarah, my housemate, suggested that the camera might have purposely taken the dive after witnessing the decrepit state of the archives.  I have to agree.)

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The smell of home...

A while back, maybe a few months ago now, I bought a bag of barley.  I bought it for no other reason than the fact that it looked nice in the packaging.  When I first picked it up in the store I don't even think I knew what it was.  The grains sold at the Moroccan market usually come in plain bags marked only with the name, and I'll admit that my Dutch vocabulary doesn't always extend very far when it comes to agricultural goods.  Lucky for me, our house guest at the time is a historian working on the correspondence of a sixteenth-century merchant family, and he has been forced by necessity to learn the words for bulk-trade goods of the early-modern period.  Not me, though.  I work on overseas trade routes, so I can only tell you the Dutch words for luxury goods like pepper or nutmeg, or obscure medicinal plants.  Last time I checked the weren't selling Dragon's Blood at my local grocery store, so learning that word hasn't really helped me out in my daily life.

That package of barley has sat in the back of my cupboard all this time until yesterday.  Cooking has felt more like a chore lately than a joy, so I have done very little of it, and it's been pretty uninspired.  I think I'm just tired of pasta and rice, so tonight out came the barley.  When I opened the bag, I was struck by the smell.  It was wonderfully sweet and deep, and it reminded me of something.  It kind of smells like the steel cut oatmeal I like, but that wasn't really what it reminded me of.  Maybe beer?  There's a lot of barley in beer, but that wasn't the smell.  What was it?  Then it came to me...it smells just like a barn.  That's right, the food I made for myself last night reminds me of hay and manure, but totally in a good way.  In fact, the smell reminds me of my childhood. My hometown is tiny and located at the corner of pig farms and soybean fields, so suffice it to say, I know what the inside of a barn smells like.  I think I've mentioned that fact before, but I felt the need to mention it again, since it seems to have had such a profound impact on my sense of self. 

The sensory experience got me thinking about what I can define as my home.   Should I have really asked myself that last night.  Maybe it would have been easier to just enjoy my dinner, but then what would I write about on this blog?  The Midwest hasn't been my home for some time, although I've got a huge collection of childhood memories that will always tie me to it.  L.A. never felt very permanent, such is the transient nature of graduate school, although I always look forward to the visits that take me back to friends and good food.  Does that make Amsterdam my home now?  I mean home not just in the sense that it is the city where I live.  I also don't mean it in the sense that Niek and I have made a home out of our house.  I'm talking about feeling comfortable and at home in the culture.  Is Amsterdam my home because the experiences I have here and the relationships I build give me a sense of place and belonging? Furthermore, if you settle in a place as an adult and don't have all of those memories from your childhood to give you cues and references to the culture in which you are living, can you really feel like you belong?

I occasionally need to remind myself that I'm not just visiting Amsterdam anymore; I actually live here.  I speak the language, have a bank account and Dutch health insurance.  I read the Dutch newspapers and ride my bike to run my errands.  Dutch culture can be confusing to me (one of the reasons Regan and I started the blog was to explore some of our encounters with our new surroundings), but the Netherlands doesn't feel like a completely foreign place anymore.  Unfortunately it hasn't completely lost its edge of foreignness, either.  It does make me wonder if I will ever feel like I belong, or if I should even strive to feel that way.  Is a feeling of belonging required to create a sense of home? It's not the worst thing in the world to feel like an observor if you also love the place where you live.  I do love it, even if my oldest memories don't bring me back here.

I'm pretty sure these kinds of questions and ideas are pretty common for expats, and they're nothing new.  I like the adventure of living in a foreign country, frustrating situations included.  I also love my husband very much, and I gladly stayed here to be with him.  There are times, like last night, that I wish just for a second that I had never had the desire to leave the place where I was raised.  It would be so easy to have my family and friends close by.  I could know the place I live in a way you only can once you've lived there forever.  I did wish that for a second, because I liked the smell of barley so much and the wonderful associations it created.  That feeling passed, because I am who I am, and I never wanted to stay in a small town in the Midwest, even when I was living there.  I like being here in Europe with my husband and my dog.  I like the canals and the cheese the beautiful Dutch sky.  Maybe the next time I'm back in the States I'll smell something that reminds me of Amsterdam, and I will comment without thinking, "oh that smell like home."  I don't know what that smell would be, but I'll let you know if it happens.