When Memory Lane Is Full of Potholes (FBC2)

This entry concerns the “Massachusetts” episode of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.

Featured image Anthony Bourdain (left) poses with fellow kitchen staff at his first restaurant job in Provincetown, Massachusetts. (Photo: zsreport on Reddit)

I have seen about half of the nearly 50 episodes of Parts Unknown, the foodways-travel-cultural-critique show hosted by chef and cynic Anthony Bourdain. “Massachusetts” was not even close to the first episode I saw, but I choose to write about it now because it’s a good one to start with. Bourdain visits Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he lived as a young man.

Provincetown takes some serious effort to get to. (Apple Maps)

Bourdain reminisces about his young adulthood spent frequently high and almost vagrant in that beachside community. It was a bit of a Bohemian refuge, far out on a peninsula, and so it supported a community of various kinds of nonconformists—in terms of attitudes toward recreational drugs, sexual orientation, politics, and you name it. I admit that I was at first caught off guard by Bourdain’s revelation that he had been a heavy drug user, including heroin and other very dangerous ones. On the other hand, I found it refreshing that he was secure and courageous enough to own up to it and face it squarely—as a fact of his youth and as a sadly worsened scourge of rural areas all over that state.

A long-established local seafood joint in Provincetown. (Photo: BostInno)

Ultimately, what I want to point out is that we will occasionally push the boundaries of what you might consider foodways to include things that might be dangerous, offensive, even frightening for some. If we gather it, prepare it, ingest it, we can propose to understand it in personal and cultural terms. In this way, the current Massachusetts heroin epidemic (and Bourdain’s past with it) are certainly worth studying.

Incidentally, it was in Provincetown that Bourdain found himself working at his first kitchen job. It was the first step on a long and winding and occasionally bumpy path that led him to be the subject of this and perhaps a dozen or more of my class’s blog posts.


Find a grocer (FBC1)

My mom is a relentless and talented cook, very creative and able to stretch short budgets into long meals. She was raised in Germany during WWII and still carries a “waste not want not” sensibility. Food was nourishment but always delivered with interest and as a social thing for our family. When we traveled to different regions of the U.S., I learned it is fun to sample the new things I might encounter there—often unheard of, usually enjoyed, sometimes best forgotten.

I became an adventuresome sampler. Perhaps my favorite such surprise was a New England dessert called Indian pudding. I had it in a sandwich shop in Vermont and it slayed me. November in my house now is not certified until I’ve made Indian pudding for the family. I’ve added my recipe to the Recipes discussion.

Indian pudding
Indian pudding: My oh, my. It’s served piping hot, tastes a lot like pumpkin pie, and has a vanilla ice cream garnish. Photo: Elise Bauer, SimplyRecipes.com.

After traveling a good amount as an adult and living in different regions of the U.S. and twice in England, I discovered that the best first thing to do when I go somewhere new is . . . visit a grocery store. Go shop for food where locals do their shopping. If you want to get a crash course in the basic parameters of a group’s foodways, go where they get their eats and look around.

Chinatown NYC streetscape.
China Town, NYC. (Photo: C. Antonsen)
This Chinatown open market shows the importance of fresh seafood in local foodways. (Photo: C. Antonsen)

In Chicago’s and New York’s downtowns, you’ll find small, cramped stores with an economy of high-interest items targeting those who live within a few blocks (see the featured image, above). In Germany, you’ll find a preference for mouth-watering baked goods and fresh meats. In England, the fare seems bland until you discover they sell beer in plastic litre bottles like we sell soft drinks. And in the American South: A better selection of biscuits (fresh and frozen) than anywhere else.

In the long run, I’ve discovered I am a foodie and enjoy experimentation. What I love best of all when away from home is “reading” how a community’s or region’s foodways grant us insights into what makes the locals tick. It comes as no surprise to me, then, that I find myself teaching a university-level foodways course.

Featured image info.: Inner-city groceries like Westside Market in New York often spill out onto sidewalks to draw passers-by into the incredibly maze-like warren of goods. (Photo: Grocery Headquarters)

Nothing says “happy birthday” like a big-ass doughnut

Today is my elder son’s twentieth birthday, and I write this with a birthday songs playlist ready to start as soon as I hear him get up. His mom just left to get what we think will begin another tradition: The Pandamonium Birthday Cake Doughnut.

Panda logo
The Pandamonium Doughnuts logo, making mouths water since 2013.

Long story short, one of my co-teachers and her husband started Pandamonium Doughnuts (check out their Instagram feed), an artisan doughnut company, and now it’s A Thing. Their food truck is brilliantly awesome, and their doughnuts are spectacular. They cost a lot ($2-3 apiece) but they’re made from fresh ingredients daily, and each is a handmade work of art. Flavors include Bacon Maple Fritter, Fresh Raspberry, Earl Grey Tea and Meyer Lemon, or Nutella Royale. They rock.

Pandamonium doughnut truck
Kids in a summer camp I run visit the Pandamonium truck.

The Pandamonium truck visits sites around Champaign-Urbana on six days per week, most of them to the area of the University of Illinois campus. My elder son studies Engineering at the U of I, and he faithfully treks across campus for a doughnut at least once per week. He’s a fan. This morning, he’s going to get his first-ever Pandamonium Birthday Cake Doughnut. It is the first, but I am willing to be it won’t be the last. Next birthday up in our family calendar is my own (April), and I expect I might have one for breakfast too. And so on.

That’s the nature of tradition. We do things all the time, rarely thinking much of most of them. Sometimes, though, a Thingwedo strikes us as good, meaningful, and worth repeating. Then we repeat it and it becomes a tradition. That’s the formula; simple as that. Folklorists will stand by this. It’s gold.

Back to birthdays. I write this blog post while my wife treks downtown to get the big-ass doughnut. Will he wake before she returns? Will there be bites out of it before he gets to it? These are new things to worry about on birthdays in my household.

Something Wing Day this way comes (FBC1)

They say that a father’s deepest desire is to provide a better life for his children than he had. If that is the essence of parenting, I am hereby done. My two sons have grown up knowing the crusty, saucy, savory-sweet, hot, sticky, handheld messes that are Buffalo wings (capitalized because they originated in Buffalo, New York). Whether those my family enjoys come from a restaurant or are homemade, when we chow on this dish, it brings us together and fulfills us for a little bit. The ambience mostly sounds like we’re agreeing a lot but without any real conversation: Oh, yeah. That’s right. Mmmmm hmmmm. Yes.

We all have to have something to blame and resent our own parents for, right? I didn’t know Buffalo wings until I got to graduate school. That’s on my parents. Square. Honestly, I don’t get how I found meaning in my life as a younger person without them.

It was a muggy, gray summer night in Columbus, Ohio, in the early 1990s, and my fellow folklore Ph.D. students and I hopped out of Jim’s car and walked to the restaurant. . . . The joint was known colloquially as BW-3 (for Buffalo Wild Wings and Weck, a story of its own and then another), now known as Buffalo Wild Wings. I found out while writing this entry that that Columbus location was the very first BW-3. Now the chain has more than 1,000 outlets—wings are big business.

Picture of the first Buffalo Wild Wings and Weck restaurant
The original Buffalo Wild Wings (and Weck), Columbus, Ohio. (Photo credit, below.)

Anyhow, we went in, and I had no idea what to expect. I’d never had anything remotely like Buffalo wings. It was crowded, freaky crowded. Jim and Larry and I ordered draft beers, and Larry ordered a basket of wings—fifty of them—with the traditional red-peppery hot sauce that characterizes Buffalo wings. That sounded like an awful lot. We drank, shout-talked, and had a great time while we waited for the food.

Then the wings came. Fifty of them. I discreetly took one and ate it. It was an unfamiliar but transcendently holy experience of flavors unlike anything I’d ever had or imagined. I could forgive my parents. They hadn’t put wings before me, but they’d sent me on that road that led to wings. Larry, Jim, and I chowed and laughed and had a ball. We finished the 50 wings with surprising ease.

Then came fifteen more with the hottest sauce they made. Our happy talk, taste for wings, and of course the beer had primed us perfectly for this next adventure. We knew we were real men for whom an oral death trap of fiery heat and destruction would be child’s play, a sort of dessert to top off Realmantime. Into my mouth went one fiery hot wing. That abruptly ended our dinner and our fun. Nope. No way. No Realmantime. Not that night. Not ever. Big mistake. Life is a series of lessons, and that was one of them.

Nowadays, my family and I eat wings out when we can and make them at home several times per year. We go with traditional sauce, spicy but fit for Smartmantime. It’s a family event that we all look forward to. Next Sunday’s Wing Day occasion is the Super Bowl, but that’s really just an alibi. We want wings. We don’t care about the Super Bowl teams this year. It’s a better world with wings on Wing Day at my house, whatever day it may be.

Restaurant photo source: http://www.citypages.com/news/buffalo-wild-wings-and-the-triumph-of-the-chicken-wing-6746668.

A small drink is for savoring

Years ago when I was in college, I was in a special singing group at the University of Illinois called The Other Guys. In one year, we sang a hundred or more shows in the Midwest, on the West Coast, and in Europe. It was an exhilarating time for the eight of us.

On a trip to the San Francisco area, we sang for a distinguished group of Illinois alumni and had a ball hobnobbing at the St. Francis Yacht Club on the bay. We felt like big shots. Although we had a sumptuous dinner there, I can’t for the life of me recall a single thing we had. The food was surely good but must have been unremarkable. We were among strangers.

What I do remember well, and it made a sizable impression on me, was a single shot of espresso.

The scene:

My best Other Guy friend, Mike, and I were hosted for two nights by a husband-wife pair of surgeons who lived on a swanky ridgeline overlooking the city and bay area. The first morning, we arose to find a lovely breakfast on a spare table facing an entire windowed wall. Beyond the glass were the city, the bay, and the distant mountains:

View of San Francisco from Diamond Heights
The view at breakfast was much like this.

The male Dr. M. (host) invited us to sit and produced a single shot of piping hot espresso for each of us and himself. They were presented in the little ceramic demitasses customary for espresso, each accompanied by a pair of sugar cubes and a sliver of lemon rind. Neither Mike nor I had ever tasted espresso, so Dr. M. gave us a tutorial:

First, twist the peel to break the cells and rub the oils on the rim of the cup. Check.

Second, sip the espresso carefully—it’s hot!

Third, hold a cube just so one corner contacts the surface of the coffee. Watch it leech upward to saturate the cube (fascinating). Decide what you want to do: either drop it into the cup or pop it into your mouth.

Finish what remains in peace and contentment.

In that way, we shared wonderful, warm conversation and learned a little bit about savoring—a strong, flavorful treat, a view, one’s companions, and an everyday moment that can be special every day. This was a big lesson for me which I try to employ as regularly as possible.

Pic of mocha maker
A good moka maker. Italians differentiate between moka and espresso.

FWIW, I don’t have an espresso machine (I’m holding out for a real one, a very expensive one). I do have an Italian mocha brewer. It’s an excellent and inexpensive stand-in. I’m still waiting to get that Diamond Heights view out my own window.

Food as reminiscence

Although consuming food is done in the moment, right now, mouth chomping and mind activated, all of us know that food connects with memory and emotions. Lots of you will recognize this place: Great American Donut Shop in Bowling Green, locally known and beloved as GADS. My family lived in BG for almost a decade while I was a full time professor in Folk Studies there. We have many happy memories in Bowling Green, especially since my two sons did a lot of their growing up there.

We get back to town every few years and visit WKU and colleagues, old friends, and return to some favorite haunts. Most of those favorites are food establishments, highlighted by Yuki and GADS. We always make sure to step into the tiny little retail floor of the donut shop to get the tasty treats. We all agree that, for us, they’re they best donuts anywhere. Are there better donuts by many different measures? Sure, but that’s valuing them according to specific criteria like sweetness, flavor, appearance, texture, what have you. On those grounds, we think GADS is pretty great, but it’s more than that.

GADS gives us the whole bundle: donuts we love and the familiar surroundings that hosted lots of happy times in our young family’s life. Going to GADS, we get lots more than yummy donuts. We get to remember and feel things that made us who we were when we were all younger . . . and when we all fit more easily at one of those small booths for four.

Toby and Tris are a lot bigger now, but they still love their GADS.

Food is definitely about more than nourishing the body. It’s part of who we are and who we have been, and we can often summon that with a bite.

“What’s your desire in baked beans?”

You know, sometimes you get a text message from someone you love and it makes your heart go pitter-pat. The blood rushes to your cheeks in a warm blush. You feel warm inside. Amiright? Well, a text I just got a little while ago doesn’t look like one of those, but it is.

My wife texts me: “What’s your desire in baked beans?”

I mean, wow! That’s some sultry stuff, there. My woman texts me and it’s a come-hither-toned message about beans. But I’m glad she did it. See: Christmas Eve dinner is on the line.

So it’s Christmas in a few days, and in our household that means gearing up for our traditional Christmas Eve dishes. What we eat and when for Christmas is traditional for us though it’s not so common among most Americans. Christmas Eve is the more important date for us. It is when we do presents and enjoy wonderful, warm, intimate, reflective family time together. Likewise, our meal that evening is important to us.

First thing that’s a bit odd: We eat Christmas Eve dinner at about 10:00 pm, after we’ve opened presents and had a relaxing celebration together.

Next thing that’s a bit odd: We have no fancy dinner, despite the significance of the holiday. Dinner for us is hot dogs, potato salad, baked beans, and cold cuts with cheese on rye bread. This tradition began before I was born and comes to us through my side of the family. My mother is German (where they celebrate on Christmas Eve) and always prepped a simple picnic-like dinner, knowing that we’d all be hungry after the evening-long celebration and the last thing she’d want to do (as sole cook) is prep, serve, and clean up after an elaborate meal.

And so our Christmas Eve feast is like a picnic lunch. It’s also one of our favorite meals of the entire year, eagerly anticipated and always eaten with gusto.

Back to the beans. Our baked beans are a simple concoction of canned baked beans with browned ground beef and sautéed onions added. Then they’re put into a pot in the oven and baked on low heat from late afternoon until dinner that night. They’re delicious. They’re an integral part of this special meal. And Christmas Eve dinner wouldn’t feel right or complete without them.

My wife was at the store, getting things needed for that dinner in a few days. From aisle four, she sent me the picture atop this blog entry. When she asked, “What’s your desire in baked beans?” I felt like she was taking care of us properly. And all was good.