Tuesday, May 27, 2008

My New York Thanksgiving

While on the subject of food and culture…

In the early 1980s, a friend and I spent Thanksgiving weekend in New York City with another friend, Nitza, who is Puerto Rican. We were going to have Thanksgiving dinner with Nitza’s family in Queens and I didn’t want to go empty-handed so I decided to make pumpkin bread. My mother says that specialty breads – cranberry, rhubarb, zucchini, and, of course, pumpkin – are typically Midwestern, my geographic roots.

Early Thursday morning, we scoured every mom-and-pop grocery (bodega in New York parlance) in Brooklyn for canned pumpkin, without success. We did find fresh pumpkin, but this farm belt kid had only used canned and was mystified by pumpkin in the flesh. But my East Coast urban friends showed me how to cut and boil it into the prettiest purée I had ever seen.

We arrived at Nitza’s aunt’s house, which was packed with people, and stuffed ourselves on chicken and rice, of course. After the meal, Nitza tracked me down and said, “My grandma wants to meet you.” An elderly woman came up to me and in a flurry of Spanish, grasped my hands and kissed them. Nitza burst out laughing and said, “She likes the bread! She just blessed your hands!”

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Cultural tastes

I was making dinner the other night and started chuckling to myself. I was making my own version of stir-fried Thai noodles with chicken and vegetables when I remembered making the same meal a couple months ago for two Italian teenage boys who were staying with us as part of a student exchange with my daughter’s school.

I placed a big bowl of my concoction on the table and said, “Help yourselves.” The boys kind of stared at it and didn’t know what to do. When we all helped ourselves, they followed suit and put a small helping on their plates. The each took a forkful, nibbled it suspiciously, and didn’t say much. In the end, they ate very little and I was left with a huge bowl of food because, after all, I was making dinner for the family plus two teenage boys.

I’m not sure what the problem was. Although I’m not an elegant cook, the food was edible, and I thought surely they’ve eaten stir-fried noodles before, even in Italy. You can hardly walk down the street of any city of any size anywhere in the world these days without seeing a Chinese, Thai, or “Asian” restaurant. Even if it’s not someone’s food of choice, I think most people have at least tried it.

I think they were perhaps waiting for a starter and then an entrée, Italian style. I think they were shocked that this bowl of mixed glop was all there was for dinner! (And you should have seen their reaction the night I made tacos! I served meat sauce in a soft tortilla. I left the tortilla open on their plates so they could add tomatoes, lettuce, etc. as they pleased. They literally looked the tortillas and asked, “What do we do?” Once again, they ate very little.)

I think this affirms my long-held contention that food culture is one of the last bastions of national identity. You can put people in a pair of jeans and a t-shirt so they all look the same, but when it comes to food, cultural roots are long and deep.

This reminds me of a story an Estonian acquaintance once told me. She was working at a restaurant in Estonia during Soviet times and the restaurant was hosting a group of dignitaries from Africa. Everyone in Estonia loved bananas, which were hard to come by. That night they made several elaborate Estonian specialties garnished with bananas. The staff drooled in anticipation of the uneaten bananas that would be returned to the kitchen after the meal. But when the platters came back, all the bananas were gone and the rest of the food barely touched.

Cultural identity leaves a strong aftertaste!

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Here we go!

Greetings from Kvicksund and Kvick Thoughts, a blog about life by an American in Sweden.

Tomorrow is a big adventure. My daughter and I are taking the train, SJ, to Stockholm. When you take SJ you never know if and when you will arrive at your destination. On Tuesday on my way home from Stockholm, the train was more than a half hour late. Those of you who know me will know how much I hate SJ, a company that can do no right.

Any business pet peeves you want to share?