The Pasty’s Place in the Sun: a Not-So-Menacing Menu

For this, the second installment of Menacing Menus, I bring you… something which contravenes the entire spirit of Menacing Menus, actually.  Enjoy.

Terroir is a word that gets thrown around a lot in my Food class, but for good reason.  No longer limited to the realm of wine–how passé–it is now used to describe any and all of those inimitable factors, from climate to cultivation techniques, that leave a unique stamp upon a particular agricultural product–indeed, define that product.

And boy, is it a nebulous term (quoth the anthropologist).  For one, there are no stipulations of scale; terroir can be as vast as a region–like Champagne–or as minute as a plot of land–like Jean Pierre’s patch in the corner.  In our forum, we like to talk about the possible intangible factors of terroir, the social context which is, arguably, inextricable from the soil.  Suffice it to say that terroir is a fecund field for debate, which is exactly what the French Institut National des Appellations d’Origine does when it assigns protection to various regional goods.  And just as the Anglophone world has appropriated the word terroir (to be fair, it is said to be untranslatable), so have we adopted the appellations, only we call them Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and Protected Geographical Indication (PGI).  And by we, I of course mean the EU; we in the US would like to retain our right to call things by what they are not in order to push more product!  To learn the slight difference between PDO and PGI and search the database (you know, just for funsies), click here.

Okay, that was a long-winded introduction for a recent announcement which has really got me exited, and that’s that the Cornish pasty has, at long last, been awarded PGI status! In the case of the pasty, terroir represents  a sense of place more than of practice, though there is absolutely a technique to it.  And the Cornish are fiercely proud of their iconic gift to Britain and the world.

Protected status for Cornish pasty

A member of the, ready for it, Cornish Pasty Association, beams with pride!

Thanks to their new status, all pasties must now be made in lovely lovely Cornwall, though they can still be baked elsewhere in the UK.  Sure, there will still be pretenders, with their stodgy pastry, bland filling, and wonky crimp, but they shall never again bear the hallowed name of PASTY!

If you haven’t already guessed, Cornish pasties are a true favorite of mine.  I first had one in Bath in 2008, and it was love at first bite (wah wahhh).  Not long after, I was gushing about the experience to my grandma and her friend in Devon (near to, but falling just short of, Cornwall), and she furnished me with the following brief history.  For your edification:

Cornish pasty

Robust pastry, chunky beef and veg, and pitch-perfect seasoning make for a not-so-menacing national treasure.

The Cornish pasty began as a handy pack-lunch for Cornish miners.  They would hold the pasty by its knobbly, crimped edge, so as not to spoil the meal with their dirty hands.  When they were finished, they simply threw the crust away.  (At this point in the story I am sure I had to stifle a horrified gasp;  I am, and always have been, a great lover of crusts.) But the most fun bit is surely the extent to which these pasty bakers sought to encapsulate a full meal within this toothsome little shell; originally, pasties had a chamber for savory, and a chamber for sweet.  That’s right, meat in one end and pie filling in the other.  Have I converted you yet?

Here is the the regulation pasty, straight from the source:

“A genuine Cornish pasty has a distinctive ‘D’ shape and is crimped on one side, never on top. The texture of the filling is chunky, made up of uncooked minced or roughly cut chunks of beef (not less than 12.5%), swede, potato, onion with a light seasoning. The pastry casing is golden in colour, savoury, glazed with milk or egg and robust enough to retain its shape throughout the cooking and cooling process without splitting or cracking. The pasty is slow-baked and no artificial flavourings or additives must be used. It must also be made in Cornwall.”  – Cornish Pasty Association

Spokesperson for the CPA David Rodda has said, “Receiving protected status for the Cornish pasty is good news for consumers but also for the rural economy. By protecting our regional food heritage, we are protecting local jobs. Thousands of people in Cornwall are involved in the pasty industry, from farmers to producers, and it’s important that the product’s quality is protected for future generations.”

All the more to celebrate my beloved pasty.  Click here for the CPA’s traditional recipe.

… and tune in next time for a possibly-Menacing-but-maybe-relenting-depending-on-food-news-and-my mood Menu!

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Menacing Menus, or My First Featurette

The BBC does an educational sketch show called “Horrible Histories,” based on the books by Terry Deary.  It may be for school-age kids (shown on CBBC, one level up from the toddler channel, CBeebies, a.k.a. the cutest word a British child could possibly utter), but it is, frankly, hilarious.  Seriously, their hip-storical  songs are the neck-tie-sporting nine-year-old’s Lonely Island.

Anyway, this beloved TV/book series has inspired me to create a satirical serial of my own: in Menacing Menus, I will introduce an arguably unsavory element of British culinary history and comment on its staying power or welcome retirement.

This week’s installment: Spotted Dick (and by extension, custard).

Unfortunate in every sense of the word, spotted dick is a steamed cake, or pudding (of which the British have many steadfast and stodgy favorites–to the effect that all desserts now tend to be referred to as “pudding”), made with suet and dried fruit, usually currants.  The currants are responsible for the first part of the name, and one theory for the second part is the corruption of “pudding” into “puddink,” then “puddick,” then simply “dick.”*

Ok, I did choose the poorest picture. Wouldn't you?

Like most puds, it originated in the Victorian era.  Also like most puds,  it’s usually served with lashings of warm, bland, phlegm-like custard.  I have to admit I can’t stand the stuff, treasonous as that statement might be.  While the basic recipe, cream or milk and egg yolks, sounds invitingly rich and smooth, the fact is that “to the British it is more likely to be vivid yellow and made with custard powder than the calm and pallid creme anglaise favoured by the French” (Nigel Slater, Eating for England).  Terrified that it might curdle, seemingly unpredictably, many home cooks (and indeed pub cooks) have banished fresh custard from their repertoires.  Just as well, I suppose, because by now the British love the ready-made stuff.

I could certainly learn to love it more if it did anything for the pudding.  Spotted dick, synecdoche of the Great British Pudding, shares with its countless cousins what Slater calls “the glue factor” (ibid); i.e., it’s based on flour and water (glue), and as such tastes (if that’s the right word) “bland, blond and boiled.”

If you’re waiting for the silver lining, here it is: at least no one will ever accuse spotted dick of being cloying.  I appreciate the distinct lack of sugar in many boiled puds (or at least the masking of that sugar with paste); it’s a refreshing contrast to the usual sickly-sweet compulsions of the British (why do you think Chicken Tikka Masala is a national dish?). But it does taste like biting into a tepid dish-washing sponge.

To be fair,  I ought to give spotted dick (and custard) another try, from someone who knows what they’re doing.  Maybe they’ll even get crazy and throw in some aromats.

*A note on the name.  Apparently some council-run hospitals and cafeterias changed the name to “Spotted Richard” on their menus for a while, until they decided to be adults about it and change it back.  Which is not to say that I didn’t make a prolonged spectacle of the thing to my family and later to my friends when I first encountered it on a trip to the UK at the tender age of 16.

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Oh, just an update on my body.

I had two (literally two, not litote two) rum and cokes (or rums and coke? Attourneys General?) tonight

…and felt pukey. 

I’m either getting older or younger, and I ain’t no Benjamin Button.

On the bright side, that oh-so paradoxical accompaniment of appetite meant that I got to polish off my leftover kedgeree cold from the fridge. Never fails to satisfy.

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Internships, visas and biscuits, oh my: Octnocember update!

WELL, haven’t I been a busy bee!  I feel like only days ago I was complaining of having little to do in the yawning gaps between classes.  Now the weeks have all rushed together into one massive Octnocember (otherwise known as “fall”) blur.  It’s like I’ve just finished drawing the doodles in the corners of a blank notebook, and now I’m flipping the pages to bring the animation to frenetic life.   Consequently, it’s been so long since I’ve updated that I’ve equipped myself with my trusty planner (otherwise known as “life support”) to help with all the details.  Ok, quit your belly-achin’,  just the highlights.

1.   By the end of October, I was on the prowl for an internship to satisfy my Directed Practical Study module.  This class is about as specific as it sounds–do work, get experience.  Novel, eh?  Well, actually, it is, at least to me.  Convinced as ever that it’s tough on the streets for an anthro-grad, I decided not to put all my eggs in one basket and inquired into several opportunities.  And, lucky me, within the span of about three days I managed to persuade two unsuspecting organizations that I was worth having around for free!  Time to recalibrate my self-deprecation regarding job opportunities!  Granted, the road is paved with rejected grant proposals more often than gold, but there’s still hope.

The first is FoodCycle, a nationwide charity that seeks to raise awareness of food waste and combat food poverty in the local community.  Volunteer-based branches collect surplus food from supermarkets and prepare nutritional meals at an accessible venue.  As one of several managers of the SOAS branch, I won’t need to supervise the cooking every Sunday, but weekly administrative demands mean it is still a substantial job.  I thought, this will be fine; it’s something I’m interested in, it’s affecting positive social change, it fulfills the DPS requirements and still leaves me some leisure time.

…but I couldn’t resist the British Library.  I was awestruck after visiting with my class to hear a presentation about relevant foodie resources we might find there.  I know this is a cliche to top all cliches, but there truly is so much information at your fingertips.  Trying to wrap my head around the sheer volume of their collections (so vast that the slightly less requested items, an enormous percentage, are kept off-site… in Yorkshire, of all places) reminded me of elementary science lessons about stars and cells and other inconceivable quantities.  I knew that the BL was just as much a museum as a library, and in my keenness to get some experience in curating, I cornered the Social Sciences librarian after her presentation to ask about possible internship opportunities.  And oh, happy day, she was eager for help!  How often does that happen?!  I’m currently working on topical bibliographies to improve the food studies and anthropology portions of the BL website, and soon I will write some pages about food and the Olympics to add to their new website, which regards the 2012 Olympics through the lens of social science.

So, in case you’re keeping track, that leaves me with one free day a week… hich will be swallowed up by a new class next term.  WaHoO?!

2.  I turned 23 and got to have a fancy dinner with a fancy boyfriend (and a fancy cake!)

3.  My visa was rejected by some simpleton(s) at the Home Office who did not read my UA transcript correctly.  I won’t offend you with expressions of how I feel on this subject, except to say that British bureaucracy is ineptitude incarnate.  While it’s in appeals I can stay in the country, but this could take months, apparently (?!@#$).  So, I had to cancel Christmas plans with the other love of my life.

4.  I got to enjoy two Thanksgiving feasts this year, one en famille (though unfortunately not my famille) and one en… casual get-together with friends and friends-of-friends.  Didn’t try anything too crazy, just brought my apple-red-onion-dijon potato salad, a chocolate pecan pie and a pumpkin pie.  Ok, Steph made the pumpkin pie.  And the crust for the pecan pie.  Basically, he did what I was too lazy to do without Kitchenaid’s help (‘Mixy’ and ‘Blendy’ reside in Bristol, which tends to preclude Mon-made pies in London).  The meal was jazzed up with a few Italian and Chinese dishes from our non-‘Merican friends… giving it just the ethnic spin necessary to recreate the first Thanksgiving?  Well, whatever we were celebrating, it was delicious.

5.  I formulated a tentative dissertation topic: reading popular ethnic cookbooks in the UK through the lens of Edward Said’s Orientalism and/or comparing these texts to tourism (ad) literature.  I figure it makes use of my English degree, my super-interesting tourism class, and my insuppressible love of cookbooks (read: I WILL enjoy my thesis this time around).

6.  I baked these babies:

Tessa Kiros’ Kourapiedes (koo-rah-bee-EH-dis)

from Falling Cloudberries

(Makes 45)

1/2 lb. butter

2 tbsp. confectioner’s sugar, plus 3 c. for dusting

1 egg yolk

1 tsp. vanilla

1 tbsp. brandy

3 c. plain flour, sifted

1 tsp. baking powder

Preheat to 350 F; like a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Beat the butter until pale and thick, about 8 minutes.  Beat in sugar, then yolk and vanilla, then brandy.  Sift in the flour and baking soda and bring together, until it becomes difficult to mix.  Turn out, form into a ball and wrap in plastic.  Chill for 30 mins.

Form into CuTe LiL’ cHeRrY tOmS or crescents and place on baking sheet. Bake for 20 minutes, cool 10 minutes, then dust to your heart’s content (actually, bury: remember Mexican wedding cookies? they’re like that).

(Photo from Food Network UK)

Lightly sweet shortbread that melts in your mouth, anyone?  Do have tea/milk/coffee at hand, they’re a doozy to get down.

7.  I had my first pop-up restaurant experience!  It was certainly a charming little affair, set in a quirky-art gallery and called The Poacher’s Pocket.  I would describe it in detail, but my friend Rachel has done it more informatively and with more atmospheric precision than I could hope for this late in the evening.  Read her post here, and be sure to note the ultra-sophisticated page theme she chose for this, her latest blog ;)

8.  I’ve just returned from a day in Bath with the girls (plus Steph, for part of the time).  We made plans ages ago to visit their Christmas market, which, for whatever reason, I never got around to the year I was in Bristol, despite living mere minutes away by train.  We filled our bellies with mulled wines and ciders and whiskey and cheese samples and chocolates.  I was especially thrilled to taste Stichelton, however, the raw-milk cheese equivalent to Stilton (or, rather, what Stilton would have been before earning its PDO status, which stipulates that it must be pasteurized).  The makers call it Stichelton because that was apparently the original name of the town, as seen in the Domesday book, and well, medieval lit references never fail to excite me.   We capped the day with a lovely dinner at the Moon and Sixpence.  I got partridge, sans pear-tree.

9.  Christmas plans are in the works: Steph and I are looking for places to stay in the east for a few days, probably via Cambridge as I still (gasp!) have never been.  What I most look forward to is bumping into Bill Bryson in the market in Norwich, which will surely happen.  Surely.  Ohh, speaking of that handsome devil, read this–it’s his new(-ish) book and it’s Grrrreat!

10.  For the sake of an even 10.

That’s all I have to report for now.  Soon it will be Christmas, and like all flip-book cartoons, the spastic little man of my imagination will come to a sudden halt, awaiting reinvention (if only the addition of a great ‘stache), to dance another day.

You know, just an animation from our H2P II movie.

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Holy Cow!

I have got to say, I’ve never been tempted by the vegetarian persuasion.  I’ve been accommodating and respectful, even interested, but never tempted.  It’s not that I live for meat; delicious as it is, I rarely crave it.  But I could find no reason to… justify the hassle of such a selective diet.  Oh, yikes.  Somewhere a properly discerning foodie is rolling in their grave.  Well, for the first time in my life, my carnivory has put me in a small minority.

The topic of discussion today was “Food avoidances and prohibition, with a focus on vegetarianism.” A quick poll revealed that most, most of the class was or had been vegetarian.  I had known that many of my friends were veggies (so far we had only ever been to veg restaurants for our Friday after-class ritual—not that anyone complained), but I was surprised to see an exponential increase around the room.  When the prof asked about their motivations, naturally there was a variety.  Some chose vegetarianism for environmental/sustainability reasons, others for health, and still others simply out of compassion.  This latter rationale is perhaps the most stereotyped, but I liked the way my classmate articulated the argument.  She could never eat something with which she could identify so closely: something that has eyes like hers, a liver like hers, and so on.  She seemed to imply that it was like cannibalism to her, or at least the suggestion of it.  Then she quoted Thoreau, saying that humans will eventually stop eating things that are offensive to the imagination.  Without even mentioning the slaughterhouse, she was able to cast carnivory in a freshly grotesque light.

Still, I wasn’t charmed.  Honestly, I could suppress my imagination for a good bacon sandwich.

Genius in its simplicity.

But I will say this:  they make a mean plate of food.  Yes, of all the vegetarian meals I can remember in my life (most of which were delicious, of course), I think few stack up to the ones I’ve had since I’ve been in London, with people who know where to look.  Take dinner tonight, at inSpiral in Camden Town:  I had a pitch-perfect vegan lasagna with side salads of sweet carrot, pickly cabbage, and rocket and raw parmesan.  Scrumptious, satisfying, and decidedly clean-feeling.  Dessert, however, was a religious experience.

 

RAW. CHOCOLATE. PIE.

 

Imagine this: raw cacao blended with avocado, sweetened with agave nectar and brought together with a soupcon of coconut oil, all piled on a toothsome pecan crust.  It was the silkiest and most intensely chocolatey chocolate pie in all my 23 years.  Suddenly Graham Hill’s “weekday vegetarian” plan seems more palatable…  Holy cow, indeed!

The truth is that it’s just one more classificatory system, of which humans have many.  No matter what food you approve of, you’re still eating far less than is biologically edible and therefore engaging a highly critical prohibition of your own.  Yes, sustainable meat production is important for the future, but howsabout we see what else is out there?

 

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Week 1: Now It’s Official

I’ve been in London nearly a month, but classes only started Monday.  With Week One under my belt, I’m finally starting to feel like a grad student; I’m bona fide!  Having my internet installed at last on Tuesday certainly didn’t hurt, either.  Feel free to welcome me back to the land of the living.

Here are some other things I loved about this week:

  1. Anthropology of Travel and Tourism.  This class was a last-minute choice, one from a list of pre-approved electives to go along with my core course, Anthropology of Food.  But after one lecture and discussion I could tell I was hooked–I think I’ll like it just as much as my food course.  One issue in the reading for next week regards the ways in which a tourist is both pilgrim-like and child-like.  If you’re like me, first you pictured a tiny boy in buckle-clad hat and shoes alighting from the Mayflower and asking the first Wampanoag he sees where the nearest bureau de change is, but then you got really excited about the hot debate that would surely ensue from this oh-so provocative assertion!
  2. The Human Race–as in, my faith in it has been restored once again.  Because she’s wonderful, my mom sent me a few goodies through a fresh-food delivery company in the UK, Abel and Cole.  When the package didn’t come, I called the company only to find that it had been sent to the wrong address, another house on my street.  Since it was a day after the fact, I wasn’t holding out much hope.  “They’ve probably gorged themselves on the lot by now,” I grumped to myself.  Still, on my way past that morning I dropped them a humble note, in the hope that they’d find me pathetic enough to regurgitate my treats.  “It was a gift from my mom,” the letter bleated, “so if you still have it, could just put it outside, and I can pick it up on my way home from university? [you see, I am but a poor, lowly student?]”  Well, guess what I found on my way home?  Nothing.  Sigh.  But oh!  I opened my flat door to find the parcel there in our shared hallway! Meaning, the people down the street brought it all the way over, and my upstairs neighbors brought it inside for me!  This may not seem like much to you, but from the point of view of someone who still gets nervous walking into her flat when all the lights are off, it was like the ending of A Christmas Carol.  God bless us, every one!
  3. Tiny campuses. Thanks to the relatively very small size of SOAS, I run into my classmates on a minute-ly basis.  Very handy when the online timetable is still undergoing revisions.  Two days this week, I ran into the same friend just in time to learn that we didn’t have our food seminar until later in the month and our lecture is in a different room.
  4. My Food profs.  They’re hilarious!  Granted, we haven’t established that special small-program relationship just yet.  My first encounter with them was just after aforesaid discovery of classroom change, when my friend and I basically followed them from one building to the other.  All of the sudden, we were cheek to cheek in an impossibly cramped elevator.  Not the best time to introduce yourself, I reckon.  But there was time for that later, when we went around the room.  I was pleasantly surprised to hear how many people had considered culinary school before coming to this program (I thought that was a weird thought progression unique to myself) and not so pleasantly surprised to find that most of my colleagues have been out and about in the world for some years, and have vested interests in food security, etc. based on their experiences with various organizations.  Suddenly I felt like a baby again.  But that’s for another post, I think.  What I loved was that when one girl confessed to reading molecular gastronomy, one prof reassured her that “we’re all food nerds.”  It was the affirmation we needed to get past the formalities and closer to the discussion-led group they want us to be.
  5. Edith’s homemade César salad. A revelation.  I’ll never eat prepared Caesar dressing again.
  6. Brick Lane Market. Two enormous halls full of international food stalls, among other things.  Today I had Tibetan momos and Argentinian empanadas.  In retrospect, I guess my theme was “food folded into other food.”
  7. Night buses. I’ve found there’s nothing more relaxing at the end of a long day in London than to take the bus home.  It takes a while, so it’s cheaper than the tube, and much more attractive.  You can people-watch–and building-watch–from the comfortable perch of your brightly-upholstered seat as the bus bounces slowly along, lulling you to sleep.   Or, if it is earlier in the day, and you just have a bit of time on your hands, it’s great with a book and some music.  Like a super economical bus tour.

What I’m looking forward to next week:  Lori, o’ course!  So, you know, cake.

Welp, that’s all fer now, I ‘spect.

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Playtime down at the University

For some reason which now eludes me entirely, I always imagined that by the time I got to postgrad, college would seem a little less like pretend. My options as well as my goals would be clear-cut, or at least I would understand the system and it would work for me.

Ha! What foolery. Requirements are as inconsistent as ever, email replies, if they come, as vague as ever, and the logistics of actually going to class and getting a degree are even a little shotty. Today I met a woman named Angela from Dusseldorf. Ms. von Dusseldorf explained to me that she had come for a masters in Chinese Studies, but all the classes she chose were at the same time on a Monday afternoon. Odd. Consequently, she was told to either choose new classes or a new program. Odder. So, she chose Psychology, which, she assured me, is “almost the same thing.” Uh…huh. “Yeah,” I ventured, “and, uh, they’re so bad about responding to emails, aren’t they?!” But, no, actually they responded to hers uber fast. Well. This could all make a person very upset, if a person thought on it long enough. Or if a person had set career goals.

Luckily, as you may have guessed by now, I’m not that person. Also luckily, as Angela’s acquaintance reassures me, everyone else is still pretending, too. So if you’ll excuse me, I think there are
some free cookies waiting for me out on the playground. (Oh, there, I’ve tied it in to food.)

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