Mar 7, 2013

Repairing the Food System: An Affirmation of Taste

(Published in the NYU Food Studies’ journal, Fork, Pen and Plow)

“Taste seems to have two chief uses: It invites us by pleasure to repair the continual losses brought about by life.  It assists us to select, from among the diverse substances that nature presents, those that nourish us best.”

– Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, On Taste

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Confronted with daunting issues such as diet-related health epidemics and environmental devastation wrought by mass agriculture, it’s natural to look to other industrialized countries whose problems seem to exist on a smaller scale for insight.  Take the French.  American agricultural practices, eating habits and values are often juxtaposed as diametrically opposite to those of our Gallic cousins. Yet in practice we are not necessarily so distinct, and the truths inherent in our food system ills are more complex than prevailing clichés (diet-obsessed yet still fat, fast-food craving Americans vs. food-literate and cultured French) might lead us to believe. Nevertheless, if I took one thing away from a recent trip to the French countryside with a group of fellow food culturists, it is that the concept of taste is fundamental to the French, while to Americans it remains on the periphery.  

While the food movement in this country is evident and growing, the concepts of taste, sensory experience and cultural nourishment are limited to the self-selecting group of “foodies,” those who can afford to care about taste and where their food comes from, and remains isolated from discussion of access, ethics and sustainability.  In France, where food and identity are so vocally linked, the division is not so prevalent.

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This past summer in June, driving from dairy farms to cheese caves, the pastoral landscape extended before me. Farm rows, wet with rain, met wild, rolling green hills that merged into forests dotted with rocky cliffs that were golden in the warm afternoon light.  After spending a week in Paris comparing French and American approaches to framing food, the eighteen of us arrived in the Jura, a remote agricultural region on the Swiss border to begin our study of taste and terroir, the French notion of how place influences the flavor and character of food and wine.

We were there to study Comté cheese, the complexity of its flavors and its historical development.  Comté, a regional staple, is an alpine cheese with a dense, creamy texture, and a range of earthy, complex flavors formed by the land and seasons. It takes many farmers in cooperation to supply the 450 liters that make a single wheel of Comté, which ages for 4 to 36 months. 

The name Comté is a certified label under AOC (appellation d’origine controlée) guidelines, a trusted quality control standard for regional food and wine. Comté, like other AOC products, is strictly regulated by the French government.  A rulebook defines production, aging and distribution to protect artisanal craftsmanship and geographic origin, and, in doing so, does not leave room for industrialization in any part of the supply chain.  The label guarantees a higher price to the farmers and cheese-makers involved.  Receiving adequate compensation allows dairy farmers to farm (rather than having to work a primary income job like many in the US).  One farmer we visited expounded the generations his family has spent on this land increasing biodiversity.  There is a reason why in the Jura, they referred to pasteurized milk as “lait mort,” dead milk.

Historically, people in this region survived the 200-day-long winters before grocery stores existed in part because of Comté.  The French demand that their government protect agriculture and craftsmanship because they are so deeply rooted in their gastronomic traditions.  A diet that values taste and traditional foods employs whole ingredients that have served generations, and thus it depends less so on processed foods (they exist in France too, but on a different scale). Taste, the integral link between mind, body and food, connects the French to their food and land.

Consumption and utilization are the results of decision-making, a product of our habits. In the moments of pleasure that taste can bring, positive memories form and give food significance.  Those associations build up over time and inform how we purchase food. Since food is not mere sustenance, food that tastes good does not need to be a luxury: form and function should coexist. In the US, we have culinary traditions based in regional agriculture that taste good and are not expensive, and food grown in healthy soil often has more flavor.  Engaging the body and senses in the present enables us to see when we have eaten enough.  Food education through sensory experience can provide the relevant and missing link between access, availability and utility.  And understanding how to discern what to eat by using the senses empowers people to make well-informed decisions that will add up over time to a demand for more transparency in our supply chain.

Jan 15, 2013

Sauerkraut

[recipe]

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This recipe yields a tangy and slightly sweet sauerkraut, fragrant with caraway and black pepper — the added sugar cuts the acidity, making it a bit more round.  Savoy cabbage gives a nice texture, crunchy and mouth watering, not too toothsome. Click through for the how-to.

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Jan 7, 2013

Drink this and feel better: Turmeric Milk

[recipe]

Dragging your feet from cold symptoms?  Here’s a traditional Indian remedy that will boost your immune system and make you feel all warm and fuzzy.

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Nov 20, 2012

Please, Don’t Order These

My boyfriend loves deviled eggs. Because we are both Southern, deviled eggs are welcome, old friends of ours. But, unlike him, I don’t order them at restaurants. 

Deviled eggs are delicious, but they are banquet food, funeral food, or picnic food.  It just doesn’t seem right to see them come out a restaurant kitchen, no matter how gracefully executed. He orders them whenever they’re on the menu, and I oblige with a smile and share some because they make him happy. 

But, it seems a little wrong, weird… even uncool. Like taking a bath when you have three other roommates who use the same shower/tub.  Or like sharing a bowl of ramen — really, who shares soup?  Lots of people, I’m sure, but that doesn’t make it okay.  Maybe it’s because I’ve been riding a high horse about, well, everything ever since I worked back of house.  Or because here in north Brooklyn, you can’t take a step without stubbing your toe on an establishment that serves up those glossy, sunny, hemispheres. 

Either way, it’s a terrible secret to hold onto for someone who loves to eat out.  But I could never tell him; it would ruin them for him.  And you can never mention it if you meet him.

Nov 15, 2012

Apple Galette with Brown Butter and Bourbon

[recipe]

This recipe won first prize at the McCarren Park farmers market against 10 other contestants, judged by the lovely owners of Ovenly in Greenpoint. It was my first attempt at pie, and it’s even better than it sounds. Click through for the recipe.

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Oct 17, 2012

Lunch

I brought home a bag full of pig bones and scraps after assisting a whole pig butchering class taught by Josh, the head butcher and owner of Fleischer’s. He was a vegan for 17 years before opening the shop. In an early attempt at opening a restaurant with his wife where they would source the most humanely raised meat possible they found no reliable source for meat direct from good farms. Discovering this gap, they decided to address it themselves, and made the switch from restaurant to butcher shop.

This morning I roasted the bones and tail off to make stock for cooking beans and soups and ran out to grab some tortillas from the tortilleria in my neighborhood. Once the pieces were nice and brown, I took them out and picked the meat off — just enough for a few tacos — before tossing the bones into my pressure cooker.

Lunch Today: Pulled pork tacos with red pepper puree, radishes, crispy fat and shiso leaf salt with home made chicharrones on the side.

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Oct 4, 2012

Sweet Bean Ragu

[recipe]

One of my go-to and favorite meals at any time of year is a bean and vegetable-based ragu, served easily with crusty bread or over pasta. An earthy, sweet ragú that’s hearty but not heavy reflects this time of year. And, it’s bean harvesting season; the flavors are in their prime. Colorful pods spill out of boxes at the farmers’ market containing beans that, when cooked fresh, taste a bit sweeter, stronger and creamier than their dried counterparts. Look for long pods that contain fully developed and round beans. Don’t waste your time shucking small, underdeveloped ones. Recipe follows.

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Jul 16, 2012

Essaouira

From Marrakesh, it takes approximately 2.5 hours to get to Essaouira; it took me 10. Built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, this colonial town hosted the opening ramparts scenes from Orson Welles’ Othello and was a favorite haunt of Jimi Hendrix. The Atlantic breeze cools the coast, and in light of the 48°C (118F) heat of Marrakesh, I was not the only bright mind to try and make a move that Sunday morning.

I booked a room in a riad in Essaouira’s medina and left the hostel. Arriving at the tourist bus station, all tickets to the coast had been sold out for the day, and with them went my chance for an air-conditioned ride through the desert. I tried for awhile to gather a group to fill a grand taxi to no avail. Making my way to the local bus station on the other side of town, I bought a ticket for the next bus and stood where the policeman directed me. I waited and waited under the mid day sun, standing in a group of women, understanding the necessity of staying covered in spite of the heat. Most women in my generation wear universally contemporary clothes, long sleeves and pants covering their arms and legs and head scarves. Some of their mothers wear burqas and know that their daughters live in a newer world.

I asked a kind woman about my ticket and she spoke slowly enough for me to understand that I had been directed to the wrong side of the bus station; trips to the coast leave from under the garage. I moved and waited again, this time next to a much older man who moved quickly and jauntily. We spoke in broken French and he bought me peanuts in a pack of folded paper, from a walking vendor, explaining that this ride was longer than 2.5 hours. He took a black leather bracelet off of his wrist and tied it around mine as the bus pulled up.

I took my seat and as the bus pulled out of the station, the attendant asked the driver to stop when he saw my ticket. He started yelling in Arabic and pointing at my ticket. I had no idea why and he didn’t speak French, and I knew I couldn’t win. The ticket office explained that I had missed the time window for my bus and I needed to buy a new one. I had to fight back tears as I grasped at the little French I could find in my mixed up brain.

A new ticket?? Do you think I want to hang out at the bus station all day instead of going to the beach like I wanted?

I was given a new ticket for free and specific directions about where to wait, and joined my new friend again. This time, he boarded the bus with me, spoke at length with the driver and sat next to me as it boarded. Then, I watched, shocked as he thrust his arm into my purse in my lap and fish around. He pulled out the pack of peanuts and placed them on top. He reached in again and took my wallet, placing it under his thigh. I slapped his arm and gave him a what-the-fuck-are-you-doing look. He put my wallet back and pointed to his eye. “Watch your bag,” a man in the row behind me said. Oh. Now someone speaks English. My friend, or whatever he was, gave a warm goodbye and left. The bus departed and I was still on it.

Four hours of riding through the desert with the afternoon sun glaring in the windows pulled sweat down the middle of my back in a river that pooled in my skirt. Men carrying large netted sacks of melons boarded the bus in the middle of nowhere with no roads in sight and exited at the one stop along the way in a shopping center of red clay and ochre hues and vendors selling grilled meat on sticks and in sandwiches.

Arriving in town in the cool, 70° breeze, I made my way to the main drag just in time for a street food dinner. One vendor served snails out of a smoky, dark broth. A couple standing in front looked familiar. How could anyone look familiar in Morocco? They did, and smiled and waved. I walked over and asked about the snails. They had seen me get kicked off of the first bus and we were fast friends, getting to know each other over a bowl of snails and cups of their warm, spiced, peppery, briny broth with a hint of mint. This is the best snack I’ve had in this country.

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For lunch the next day, they took me to the fish market on the water and picked out a few for lunch. We wound through the fish souks, stepping over puddles of brine and blood to a noisy eatery packed with families and smoke from the grill.

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You can have your catch roasted or fried, and it arrives on a blue vinyl-covered picnic table with traditional accoutrements of tomato, cucumber and onion salad, olives, khobz, and a spicy sauce. The char on the tender, salty meat is as exquisite as the feeling of being shown one of the greatest secrets to travelers here.

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My new friends are warm and generous companions. They are my age and were married just last week. The husband won the lottery for a green card to the US ten years ago and now works in hospitality in Las Vegas. Thousands of people apply every year and only a couple hundred win. Most of the Morrocans I’ve met have applied. She is a teacher, born and raised in Holland and comes from a traditional Muslim, Morrocan family. Their marriage was arranged. They were introduced by their families and in a short time thought they got along well enough to make a life together work. They argue in playful ways about where they will live and don’t know yet. People, mostly children and the elderly ask for money frequently. He gives them whatever change he has on hand, or buys them tea or juice every time, with no exception, happily. She is kind and warm, and we talk with slow, focused attention about her wedding and family and what we want in the future.

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Jul 14, 2012

Lost in Fes

I arrived in Fes, Morocco in the early evening after a seven-hour train ride.  Despite recommendations to hire a guide for this complicated, ancient city, I went alone, confident after travelling around Marrakesh solo.  When I checked into the riad, an old mansion repurposed into a hotel, the eerie, dry, British concierge informed me of an eleven o’clock curfew for all female guests “due to previous incidents.” 

I left the riad to get dinner and see the city before nightfall. When my vegetable tagine arrived, steaming and fragrant of tomato, paprika, garlic, lemon and cumin, I devoured it in minutes and finished the meal off with a dessert of oranges with cinnamon, a revelation of simplicity. Walking back I wove through the brightly lit, smoky winding streets full of vendors standing behind mounds of mint and spices. Chickens stood chained to the tops of their cages and raw, red meat that smelled rank and looked dry dangled from hooks. Men stared as I floated through the crowds, a lone woman in a place where young women don’t go out alone. Within a short time, the city revealed itself as a beautiful, sensual place, but that isn’t always enough to make a trip good.

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Back at the riad, I drank a camel’s share of beer with the manager, a tall, half-Brazilian, half-Mali man in his early thirties with dark eyes and a darker grin. We talked about Africa and watched the city below until the roosters started stirring. He told me extravagant stories and asked me to travel the continent with him for six months. I didn’t believe him and went to bed.

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I woke up in time for a tourist breakfast: stale baguette with Nutella, hard-boiled egg, yogurt and coffee. I stopped for a big bottle of water and some Advil on my way to the center of the old city. Just before noon, shops in the souks, the covered markets, began closing quickly. I followed the confluence of men through narrow streets, walking in rhythm towards a mosque and stood outside to watch the beginning of call to prayer. Men sat close to one another on steps and ledges, holding their knees and shifting around to fit more.

Walking back I saw that the souks were empty, except for men and boys who didn’t work or go to mosque but spent their days wandering the streets. They were relentless, following me for long periods of time and trying to convince me that every direction was the wrong one. While some of the catcalls were amusing, like “spice girls” or “nice chicken,” they sounded twisted and dark, emphasizing the S in everything with a serpentine hiss. They did not listen to la shokran (no thank you) or even just la. 

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I knew I was really lost when I had walked by the only woman on the street a third time. Streets in Fes are not marked and never end up where maps say they will, and I had been followed and harassed for what felt like hours. A young boy walked up to me and offered to take me to the 1,000 year-old leather tannery that his uncle ran. He seemed earnest and said he didn’t want my money so I obliged. His uncle gave me a quick tour, asked for a tip, and then asked that it be kept secret. Inside, he started pushing sales I didn’t want and was joined by more salesmen, yelling from all corners of the shop. I told him he could use the nice tip I gave him to buy something and walked out.

Starting down the alley to get back to a main road I was stopped by a tall teenage boy. He grabbed me by the elbow and said I hadn’t paid him. 

“Pay you for what?” I asked.

“I’m the security guard at the tannery and you didn’t pay me. You need to pay me,“ he raised his voice and repeated himself.

Already furious from past few hours I fought and said, “No you’re not and I’m not paying you.”

I tried to pull my elbow away and he held on tighter. In the corner of my eye I saw the people that had been in the alley walk away. As we yelled and he held on tighter, shaking my arm, I focused on his eyes, trying find the fear that I knew was in mine.

Then my young friend showed up. He yelled something in Arabic and unlocked my arm and led me away. He begged me to have tea with him in his home, and I wanted to, but I was so tired of feeling tricked by that city. He led me back to one of the main streets and left, looking hurt.

I went to a British café for a late lunch and some western relief. I waited in the heat for service for an hour and ordered the Moroccan vegetable plate. It came, a colorful assortment of traditional sides on a large, wet romaine leaf: carrot salad, greasy eggplant in tomato, cumin and garlic, and undercooked lentils and beets. I ate all that I could stand and ordered an avocado jus, avocado blended with cold milk and sugar. This, no one can ruin and will always satisfy.

I went back to the riad and drank some mint tea. The manager offered to walk me to a look out point above the city. We hiked up and watched as the sun began to set over the sea of white roofs.

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Back in town, we got started on dinner, making our way through the different street food carts. Cactus fruit is sold for a few dirham a piece, less than five cents. Vendors cut off the thick, green skin, bumpy like ostrich leather, of each egg-sized fruit, revealing the yellow flesh beneath. It is sweet, juicy, and full of large, crunchy seeds.

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Next we walked to a vendor selling sheep’s tongue sandwiches. He took large chunks of meat out of a steaming bain, chopped and seasoned it with salt, paprika and cumin and stuffed it into a pocket he made out of khobz, a round loaf of chewy bread that sits on every table at every meal in Morocco. We snacked on the tender and savory meat, picking up pieces off the cutting board as he chopped and dunking them into the spices. Next were small, densely layered pastries, coated in lots of honey and orange flower water, crunchy, sweet and sticky.

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We stopped for more jus and went back to the riad. I got my things ready to leave on a train the next day and went to bed. The street food may have been incredible, but I vowed never to return to that city where people are known for being tricky and I knew I couldn’t stand it anymore.

Jul 10, 2012

Petit Dejeuner a la Maroc

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Coffee spiced with Ras el-Hanout, a blend of 35 spices. Msemen, chewy, densely-layered flatbread made from semolina flour, with orange flower honey. Beghrir, sweet crepes that incorporate yeast to form lots of bubbles on the top and a spongy texture, served with strawberry jam. Salty eggs, barely scrambled flat with cumin. Pan cooked rolls and oranges.

Jul 9, 2012

Jemaa el-Fna

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In Marrakesh, all streets in the medina, the old city, lead to the main square.  No matter how far you think you’ve walked away, the winding alleys tend to empty out in the square.

Dozens of stands sell food, mostly fresh orange juice, which is delicious and necessary in this heat, and many sell nuts and dried fruit - almonds, cashews, pistachios, candied peanuts, figs, dates, pineapple, apricots. Men call out to you from everywhere.  Women beckon with henna pens from low stools.  Monkeys wearing diapers, chained by the wrist to their owners are toted around and placed on tourists’ shoulders.  Cobras perch, hanging still, looking at their charmers. Fascinating and disingenuous. And you can’t afford to get caught looking.

After sunset men approach much closer than they do during the day, whispering risque phrases so that only you can hear them as they pass by.  They crowd around street musicians, but there are no women in those circles. There, they get even closer, leaning against you at first as if they’re trying to pass by, but they don’t move, they just push closer.  And to this you walk away fast, wondering who didn’t walk away in the past.

Food stalls set up in the evening for dinner, cooking and selling kebabs, couscous, grilled fish, soups and pastries.  Adolescent boys hold menus and call you towards them. The air takes on a rich aroma of grilled meats, spices, fresh bread and becomes hazy with smoke.

Outside of the square you can hear the noises of families in their homes, babies crying, children playing and yelling through the night.  People walk the streets at all hours. The wind gains speed, cooling the air, and roosters crow until daybreak.

Jul 1, 2012

Hail in July

Went for a hike today with Bernard in the National Park of the Cevennes. I’ve been told that the people of the Cevennes are the people of stones, onions, and chestnuts. The morning was gray and cloudy, and the cool air hung thick.  Rocky paths wound around old onion terraces originally built by monks. The chestnuts are in bloom now, decorated with spidery fronds of yellow fuzz.

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Nine miles in with nine to go, we reached the summit through a series of steep scrambles up 3,300 feet, and enjoyed a lunch of baguette and comté, overlooking the valleys below. The descent was mellow, an old, dirt road, thick with tall, wispy grasses whose wet fronds brushed against my legs. 

After awhile, Bernard looked confused, and we backtracked a ways only to find an new landmark.  We turned back again, hoping to be led to familiar territory.  The dog trotted along happily and I picked bright red, juicy cherries from the wild trees that grew along the path.

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The clouds let out a little rain, which slowly grew into a full shower of large, heavy drops, and then broke into a thunderstorm.  Lightening approached and the thunder became much louder.  The skies grew dark, and the heavy drops started to hurt and turned to hail.  I ran for cover through the deep water rushing over the path and Bernard grimaced as he tried to protect his bald head. 

From under the trees, lightening struck all around us, and I tried to comfort the dog.  My clothes were soaked and cold, stuck to my skin, and the sounds of water and thunder crashing boomed throughout the woods. 

As the hail subsided the storm remained top of us.  Bernard said he was going to look to see if he could see something.  We were low, but I couldn’t help but stand back, astonished, as he followed the trail into a wide open clearing amidst the lightening.

I watched, pinned, as he walked, and time moved slowly. 

And then it became lighter, and I heard thunder in the distance as the rains let up.  He looked back at me and chuckled, “Ça va?”

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Jun 25, 2012

Naked Laughing

I took a nice bike ride 15k out of Montpellier alongside buzzing and clicking fields to a small beach town on the Mediterranean called Palavas-Les-Flots.

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Hot sand. Bright, strong sun.  Warm breeze.  Cold, clear, turquoise water.  Topless beach.  And when clothing is optional, I often opt out of it, happily.  So, as I walked out of the ocean my thoughts returned to Seinfeld.  Naked hair brushing, nice.  Naked coughing and naked crouching, not so nice.  This made me laugh out loud.  What about naked laughing?

I drank a glass of rosé and fell asleep for a short while to the sounds of the water lapping and the wind.  After, I became immersed in A Moveable Feast, and when I finally picked my head up around 6pm, the bar had been taken over by a hundred or so 18-year-olds, all running around getting ready for something.  Mostly girls, in different color coded outfits, many wearing the same shade of lipstick, as red as the tomato red shorts they wore that said LYON across the butt.  I noticed a box of pom poms.  I never thought that cheering existed in France.  I never cared, until now, when it meant I had to get out of there.

The line for the bathroom was about 12 girls long, all clutching make up bags. Too much to wait to change out of my wet suit.  Soggy bottom blues for the ride home, I guess.  As I walked away, the roar of a young, girly crowd resonated across the sand and I was happy to be on my way out.

The sun was still very strong, and the wind was blowing fast against me as I rode back to town, so I stopped for a break at a fruit stand.  Is there anything so nice as biting into a perfectly ripe peach? Sweet and tangy as your teeth break through the skin and the juice drips down to your elbow.  Salty, warm skin in the afternoon heat, happy and light.

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Jun 23, 2012

Southern Baby

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After a day of picking currants in the sun, I head down to the river that runs through LaSalle, the closest village from here.  Out of the house I walk through a narrow path thick with stinging nettles and thistles, lined with wild strawberries and fig trees.  Onto a gravel driveway shaded by tree cover and then the main road to town, passing by fields with many horses. A shortcut, dirt path winds through a sunny meadow rich with constant, textured sound. Buzzes, chirps, clicks.

It’s hot, mid 90s, and I’m sweaty.  But I’m a southern baby; I love the heat, especially when a swimming hole and cold brew wait at the end of the journey.

In town, there are narrow staircases leading down to the water between homes that line the river.  I tramp through the brush at the bottom towards a deep eddy and jump in, swimming to a flat rock in the sun to post up for the afternoon.  I crack my beer open and sip, reveling in the wonder that is Belgian beer.  Rich, smooth, and nutty.  Nice, but if I know anything, it’s that American beers are the best ones to drink out of the bottle, sharp and crisp enough to make these moments perfect. 

The waterfall nearby roars and an old woman donning a scarf around her head slowly crosses the bridge above.  I swirl my toes around in the water, thinking of the friends I used to do this with in Colorado and smile.

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(Source: herenessofdusk)

Jun 21, 2012

I DRINK PASTIS AND EAT CHEESE WHENEVER I WANT

because I’m American and I don’t care if “zatz seemply not done eere”

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About
I am a Masters of Food Studies candidate at NYU -- that is, policy, agriculture, economics, culture, and anthropology through the lens of food. I cook, write and make art. My writing covers the ties that bind us to land, the connection between our senses, knowledge, bodies and the things we don't see. Subscribe via RSS.