Thursday, November 29, 2007

Food Writing: the Holiday Gift Edition

I'm excited for this: although I found his United States of Arugula to be amusing but a little overhyped, David Kamp is back.

According to Sara Dickerman in the Slate piece (linked above), it looks like it may be a food version of the Preppy Handbook, whose droll text was a hit of the 80s. Consequently, it might also run in a similar vein to The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy and An Incomplete Education - as it were, staples on my bookshelf. The only concern with this is that the number of food snobs might actually increase - after all, some people ended up taking the tongue-in-cheek Preppy Handbook as gospel.

The article also comments on the Food Lover's Companion and its references to Asian food, which makes me glad that something besides consomme is acknowledged...which somehow leads me to my next point: the Harvard Book Store has a lot of great food writing - and not just cookbooks. The staff does a great job of picking books to display, and the food section - towards the front of the store - is prominently featured in the front of the store. If you're in the Cambridge area, check it out.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The elusive Veritaffle... its natural habitat: my plate.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Quick hits: six dining halls

Although I'm currently sitting in a real kitchen (and therefore, not in my Cambridge dorm), I've finally compiled my thoughts on a few upperclass dining halls. As I've briefly explained before, Harvard has twelve houses (thirteen if you count Dudley House) which serve as residential communities. Residents take pride in each of their houses' vibe - even as they are randomly sorted into it.

In any case, my friends and I - as well as probably a good portion of the freshman class - have made it a goal to try all twelve upperclass houses before we are assigned to our official houses in February. Of course, our opinions of the dining halls have influenced our current opinions of the houses. We won't lie - the dining hall decor plays a big role. After all, who wants their claustrophobia to overpower their omelet? So expect some candid reviews until February, because come then, my house will naturally have the best food. Brief reviews for five of the d-halls follow.

1. Annenberg
Oh, Annenberg. The dream of overeager prefrosh: "Oh-my-goodness-I'm-in-the-Harry-Potter-dining-hall!" The fact that Annenberg is a freshman-exclusive dining hall during lunch and dinner - not to mention the gorgeous views from the third-floor classrooms above the cafeteria - only adds to its allure.
But sooner or later, freshmen (including me) soon discover that there is a tradeoff between proximity of classes and quality of food. (A perfect example for Ec10.) Given that it's meant for 1600+ freshmen, food is served in large batches and is neither as warm nor appetizing any other cafeteria. (On any given day, the same menu is served across all dining halls.) To its credit, the salad bar is much larger than other houses - but after three weeks of drizzling Thai Peanut dressing over spinach, the sodium overload might kill you. As for dessert, we get fewer occurrences of cake, and when it is there, it's usually dry - one horror story: we found mold on my chocolate cake in September, which I almost mistook for "green dust." Despite that, the rocky road bars (s'more bars without the overly-buttery graham cracker crust) are worth standing in the usual thirty-person line. The line only gets bigger, especially when people are waiting for one of the six Veritaffles irons at Sunday brunch.

2. Adams

Admittedly, I have a small bias towards the Adams dining hall. My host treated me to Sunday brunch at Adams, where I first encountered the elusive Veritaffle. I am not (entirely) kidding when I say that the Veritaffle was the other major factor in my college choice, although little did I know that I would be waiting forty-five minutes for one at Annenberg weekly. I also discovered the wonders of rosemary-crusted chicken at Adams, although since I have been here, I have not found it since.

I would argue that Adams has the best desserts, the nicest salad bar and one of the more freshly cooked hot bars. And not only are they also the closest upperclassman house to the Yard, they have gold-and-wood-paneled walls. This might make it the best of both worlds - were it not for the fact that freshmen are not allowed in Adams from 6-7 pm, on Sunday brunch, and during lunch too.

I'll take this time to elaborate on interhouse restrictions. Each house is allowed to set its own rules on whether non-residents are allowed to eat in the dining halls, and for the most part, every house has some restriction. Adams is by far the strictest, and my entryway never goes there to eat together based on the knowledge that we will never be able to enter together. That said, Adams is awfully good. They just happen to be awfully mean.

3. Quincy
Quincy, like Lowell, is one of my "backup" house decisions for dinner, as they don't really have any interhouse restrictions. The food is decent, though lacking at the salad bar, and it isn't as warm as Adams food. In addition, the layout of the dining hall is a little strange, because you have to go back and around the side for drinks and dessert, while the froyo machine is located in the opposite corner of the cafeteria. As for seating, the dining hall is more modern than other houses. But when I mean modern, I mean tapestries and murals that look like they should be upholstered and a dimly lit dining hall on top of concrete legs. The plus of Quincy? They have a flavored water machine like the one in my high school cafeteria, except Quincy isn't constantly running out of strawberry-kiwi syrup. They have green tea with honey ginseng in the water machine as well. Rumor has it that Quincy is the pilot project for the flavored water machine, so hopefully it'll be installed in the other houses next year.

4. Kirkland
A small secret: Kirkland is where my floormates and I go for brunch. Why? Like Lowell - again - there is no line for Veritaffles on Sundays. Located closer to the river in the cul-de-sac, you might expect freshmen to be heading the other direction towards A-Berg, but the detour is worth it. Kirkland, by far, is the most homelike dining hall that I've been in so far. The interior is white and full of light, and the cafeteria is partitioned into several rooms: a room for the grill and hot entrees, and then another room for the salad bar and everything else. Little encouraging decorations ("dream," "love") add to the "awww" factor. Kirkland's hot food quality stands between Adams and Quincy, although their desserts leave something to be asked for. In previous visits, the only desserts were a strangely flavored and fluorescent whipped cream concoction as well as a cherry pie with a hard crust.

5. Pfoho
Short for Pforzheimer, Pfoho forms the Quad houses with Currier and Cabot. In general, Quad houses are supposed to have better rooms and better food, given their desperate distance from everywhere else (3/4 mile away from the Yard), and yes - Pfoho has better food. The food is warm and flavorful without being too oily - in fact, it might have been the best so far. In one visit, the pasta and pesto was a standout. And although the Pfoho dining room is more modern, it is, after Kirkland, the coziest; the second level that surrounds the main dining room from above is also a neat feature. To boot: they are the only dining hall so far to have large marshmallows for their hot chocolate.

6. Currier

On the other hand, Currier did not reinforce the negative correlation between distance from the Square and tasty food. To their credit, they do have Tazo chai, and their drink bar is in a convenient location. But everything else isn't quite as good - the food is dimly lit and oily, though warm. Furthermore, the night I visited, the majority of the food was mislabeled, and I couldn't recognize some of the food until I tasted it (it was a dry chicken breast, too). And while the food was visually unappetizing, the only food I was willing to eat at the salad bar - mandarin oranges - had run out, as did the dessert. I ended up scrounging for cookies that were only made better by the chai.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

the obligatory Thanksgiving post

Not unsurprisingly, my Thanksgiving involved quite a bit of food from the get-go, and then some. My original intention was to grab a quick meal at Quincy House (since the freshman dining hall, Annenberg, was closed today) and then catch my flight. Although my alarm clock caused me to forgo that plan, I found a well-hidden (though extensively bruised) in a corner of my backpack and consequently escaped short-term starvation.

Upon arriving at the airport, I headed towards Au Bon Pain, colloquially known as ABP. ABP
is my East Coast-fairly-cheap-and-fast-culinary-friend. Though PETA activists have protested the Harvard Square's use of "innocent eggs," I take a sympathetic stance towards the company. Especially since their ubiquity ensures almond croissants on every corner. I bought a piece of Southwestern cornbread ("it's spicy," the cashier warned me), and chewed it fast.

Maybe this rush - or the anticipation of real Thanksgiving food, whatever that may mean - caused me to appreciate the cornbread less this time, but I found myself losing affection for the spicy Southwestern cornbread. First of all, it wasn't that spicy. The small green specks on the interior might have been jalapenos, but for the most part, the cornbread tasted like a hybrid of jalapeno kettle chips and red pepper flakes - not a terrible combination, but selective enough to be only fitting for a craving. In addition, the cornbread had a strange texture on the outside - crusty, but not entirely so to be crisp - which made it taste like an overcooked muffin.

I wanted something more, which is why - of all things - I found myself in front of McDonald's.

(To clarify my stance on Mickey D's: yes, I read Fast Food Nation. Yes, I realize the extent to which McDonald's branding has penetrated society, especially children: in fact, my junior high science project was on that topic. And yes, I enjoy their French fries and soft-serve (which I daresay, is their best-kept secret). I even occasionally delight in a discreetly hidden and textureless McChicken sandwich. So in short, I'm still confused.)

Airport menus are particularly limited, so I encountered some difficulty in finding a snack-sized item. Then I had my decision made for me: a poster on the side declared "Snack Wrap." Since the word "snack" was in the title, I ordered that.

In short, I finally got a Chicken Select (capitalization not mine) wrapped in a limp wrap, with a ranch dressing the consistency of tartar sauce and a few scattered cheese strips that looked as if they had been stolen from a Taco Bell...there went my $2.

My next stop on my food quasi-adventure was the plane. Don't get me wrong - I actually didn't consume any food on the plane - not even a flimsy aluminum bag of cocktail peanuts. Especially since they too, like my snack wrap, were $2. Instead, I read The United States of Arugula by David Kamp.

When my pundit friend lent me the book a few months ago, I originally thought it referred to the campaign speech where Obama complained about the rising price of arugula. Actually, the subtitle of the book is "How We Became a Gourmet Nation."

The book is quite cleverly written, and for its size it goes into a good amount of historical depth. Kamp does trace the evolution of the American gourmand through the twentieth century, but ultimately his book seems to imply that cults of personality are what really caused this change. It is interesting to see the culinary world as one big, dysfunctional family full of juicy affairs, occasional cocaine usage, and entirely different perspectives on who contributed what to the field, all of which Kamp covers eagerly and footnotes with asterisks. Having read other food history books and memoirs first, it was rather pleasant to read through the chapters and automatically recognize the "big critics" of that era by their first name, although Kamp does take a different perspective on culinary disputes than those memoirists themselves.

Ultimately, The United States of Arugula serves as a breezier, introductory book for the history of food writing and cooking. While it was nice to finally read through a sampler of interviews and to actually form a timeline of food in America, I wish less emphasis was given to the celebrity status of cooks. While I understand that the business and publicity aspects is often overlooked in the recent history of food, it would have been nice to see more of what the American consumer was becoming interested in, instead of how foodies were catching onto the biggest trends.

I finished the book just as the plane landed, and shortly after arriving home, I was treated to Thanksgiving dinner. A family friend brought handmade wraps that tasted like naan. We wrapped the turkey, along with Hoisin sauce and green onions, up in the wraps to make "Peking turkey." And of course, we had plenty of veggies - roasted, corn-on-the-cob, and my absolute favorite - green bean casserole. I have no qualms about green bean casserole, even if it looks spartan grey. Sure - when it's made badly, it can be rubbery. But when it's good, it's amazingly comforting - and for the most part, the french-fried onions will cover any mistake made during the preparation.

The sweet potatoes were quickly cooked to retain a crispy-carrot texture and tossed with cranberries for extra tanginess, and the mashed sweet potatoes with the mushroom gravy (Mom's somewhat-classified recipe, of course) topped it all off, with fruit tart and pumpkin pie for dessert.

Delicious. It was wonderful and fully satisfying (maybe too much - I definitely ate my share) to finally sit down to a home-cooked meal, and the company made it great. Happily enough, my day started from a mediocre banana-on-the-run and reached its climax to an amazing dinner. If there wasn't evidence already: there is something transcendent when food and family collide.

(I think we call it joy.)