Thursday, January 29, 2009

Eat, Speak, Love

Allow me a brief linguistic digression, if you will.
In my heretofore monolinguisity, I´ve always felt like a stereotypical American (and in a bad way). True, I´ve done my fair share of traveling, but always with handy phrase " do you speak English?" in the local idiom. Among other things, my Colombian adventure is an attempt to correct this shortcoming and finally achieve something akin to proficiency in a language other than Pig Latin. It has been hard for me to listen, and listen, and still not understand. I find myself frustrated by the inadequacy of my Spanish vocabulary to express my English thoughts. Pero, me encanta español. I like this language so much that I feel like Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love--inclined to read my Spanish-to-English dictionary for the sheer joy of new words.
Medellin is an especially ideal place to learn Spanish, I believe, because of the similar enthusiasm that paisas seem to feel for their slang-laced paisa speak. Not a day goes by without my professor slipping some new morsal of paisa into our lesson, all of which I collect and chronicle and strive to incorporate in my speech. A disproportionately large amount of my paisa seems to have been spawned in Medellin´s shady narcotrafficking past, but I still love the words. "Be careful that you don´t dar papaya (literally, to give a papaya) walking around at night"; in other words, don´t unnecessarily expose yourself to danger. When you go out on the weekends you´ll most likely be found "levantamiento de codo" (raising your elbow--aka taking a drink). And I´ve been informed on more than one occasion that "el mundo es un pañuelo" (the world is a handkerchief) to explain why I keep running into people I know in the must unexpected places. Amusingly, everyone has a different explanation for this phrase.
But studying Spanish has afforded me more than just an opportunity to expand my vocabulary and send excited emails about cognates (whoa! "crepusculo" means twilight, and hey, in English, when you descibe something as "crepuscular" it means you do it in the evening. SOOO COOL!). My studies, brief as they are, have given me a whole new perspective on how we use words to communicate. I´ve noticed how certain words are a sort of key to a conversation, without which all the rest might as well be nonsense. The chasm of difference between signifier (the word) and signified (the thing, tangible or abstract, that the word references) has never been more apparent to me. Words on their own mean nothing; they are as ambiguous as the letters that form them. In many ways, words are social creatures, and as a student of Spanish I am learning their social norms. Ocassionally I´ll stop in mid-sentence and suddenly exclaim "I said that idea correctly without having to think about it!". My listeners are usually kind enough to congratulate me on my small victories.
At the same time, I am engaged in a process of meta-learning--thinking about thinking, learning about how I learn. This morning, I met with my conversation partner, Andrea, and we read to one another from children´s books to practice our accents. Towards the end of my story (about a frog with too-tight pants and a fondness for beer), I suddenly realized that the whole thing was written in rhyming verse. In my halting Spanish I had understood the story but missed the sense. Andrea turned back to the beginning and read a few verses for me so that I could hear the rhythm of the words. That´s what I´m looking for, really. Rhythms of speach, patterns in my mistakes as well as in verb conjugations. Details are important when learning a new language, absolutely. But just as salsa is more than just a series of steps, Spanish is an integrated amalgam of rhythm and patterns. I think I´m starting to feel the beat.

Monday, January 26, 2009

I´ll Have What She´s Having

I can pinpoint the moment when I relinquished any residual vestiges of picky eater-ness. I was in Turkey, traveling with four other girls, and we were dining at the home of family friends. I can´t remember most of the details of that feast (other than the fact that it was all indescribably delicious), but I do distinctly recall that one course featured whole artichoke hearts. I had spent the previous 18 years declining all things artichoke for no better reason than that they looked weird, but my desire to be a good guest overrode the force of my habit. I took one bite and I swooned from gastronomic delight. And I thought to myself, “My god! What other glories of the table have I been neglecting out of ignorance or fear?”

Ever since, I have made a point of trying any and all local delights, no matter how unusual. In Chinatown, I slurped my way through chicken foot soup, in London I tried jellied eels (actually not one of my most successful gastronomic adventures, but a good story nevertheless). Now that I’m in Colombia and happily ensconced with a host mother, I’m wolfing down Colombia´s “comida tipica” with daily delight.

I knew that I would love Luz Elena, my host mom, when her first order of business upon my arrival was to take me grocery shopping. We filled a grocery cart with fruits, vegetables, and the trappings of the illusive Saturday “Bandeja Paisa” (the Colombian version of Sunday dinner), and as we left the store she bought me a cup of freshly squeezed sugarcane juice. The sugarcane juice sealed the deal; I would go to war for this woman.

Ever since my arrival in Colombia, people have been bringing up bandeja paisa repeatedly and asking me if I have yet experienced the magic. It really doesn´t take much to get my hyped up at the thought of food, so by the time Saturday rolled around my anticipation had reached a fever pitch. After attending mass, Luz Elena and I made our way to the home of her 93-year-old mother, where I expected to eat prodigious quantities in the relatively calm company of a few close family members. Instead, upon my arrival, I discovered that I had stumbled into an unofficial, unexpected extended family reunion for Luz Elena´s cousins, nieces, nephews, children, and friends. Everything before had been merely an introduction, THIS was a Spanish immersion experience. I did my best to answer questions about my journey and my hometown, and what I liked best about Medellin. I received unreasonably generous compliments about my Spanish (the fact that I frequently had to ask for them to be repeated, but slower, ought to give an idea of my hosts´over-kindness). Eventually, we migrated to the tables, and the feast began.

We began with a simple bean soup, sopa de frijoles, which I laced with avocadoes. We followed the soup with rice, salsa, carnida molida (cooked beef that has been finely shredded), chorizo sausage, fried plantains (both the sweet, mature ones that cook down like bananas foster and the immature green ones that fry up like potato chips), chichorones (heavenly bits of fried pork skin that melt in your mouth with a entirely misleading suggestion of airy lightness), and of course the ever present arepa, Colombian corn cakes. All the while Spanish was flying thick and fast—jokes cracked, stories related, congratulations and condolences offered all around. I was content to be a quiet member of this gathering, the adopted gringa for the afternoon whom everyone silently welcomed even as they talked past her at 500 words per second. After dinner someone brought out a tub of ariquipe, a caramel dessert made according to the family recipe. I found myself eating the ariquipe with the same helpless craving with which I attack peanut butter. Eventually you give in and start eating it by the spoonful rather than the serving. Colombians, I have learned, generally eat the largest meal of the day for lunch, and after Saturday I could see why. I needed the better part of the day (spent wandering the grounds at a gorgeous country house, to be chronicled shortly) simply to digest my meal.

Now, I have not yet made any of this myself. But I purchased a bag of arepa flour tonight and I am working up the courage to reenter the kitchen after the disastrous experience of my wild yeast bread. So, “good Lord willing and the creek don´t rise” (as we say in Georgia), I will soon be bringing the secrets of Bandeja Paisa to any other good eaters out there who also travel with minds and mouths open.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Accidental Farmers Of Medellin

More so than at any other time, when I travel I begin to employ all of my senses, rather than relying on sight alone. The odor of exhaust intertwines with the warm, golden aroma of unfamiliar pastries and the steamy smell of pavement after a rain. I run my hands along carved marble facades or feel the uneven pitch of Bogota´s cobbled streets. under my feet . I revel in the rich, creamy texture of carimoya (to look at, uglier than celeriac, but to eat, reminiscent of a sweeter, fruity avocado) and take delight in the fact that, instead of the canned melodies of an ice cream truck, here in Medellin I am serenaded by a banana salesman with a PA system. At night, I fall asleep listening to the periodic whistle of the night watchman. (Apparently armed only with a whistle and a stick, he wanders the neighborhood from dusk til dawn whistling every so often to scare off malcontents. This one man "security force" is endearingly reminiscent of bear deterrent strategies for the woods like saying "go away bear!" in as deep a voice as possible.)

I travel for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the wake-up call to life that accompanies this sensory barrage. It can be exhausting sorting through and make sense of the accents, the vocabulary, the utterly unfamiliar ways of doing the most mundane tasks. But when I happen to look down and notice that paisas (the people of Medellin) are using peanut plants, with their clover-like leaves and petite yellow flowers, as a lawn cover, I can`t help but grin, and wonder what other familiar sights and sensations are hidden amidst the exotic ordinariness of Medellin.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Saludos desde Colombia!

Put aside, if you will, the saga of my wild yeast bread. I've taken two lessons from that little mishap: 1) don't begin blogging a process until you have seen it through to its (successful) conclusion first, and 2) don't try to make bread with wild yeast, MK. Suffice it to say that while the final product was indeed edible, it looked more like a cross between a frisbee and one of Jupiter's moons than a the bane of Dr. Atkins. If I were to blame human error for my outcome, rather than taking the easy way out and claiming that the wild yeast in my kitchen was clearly at fault, I would have to admit that I refreshed the initial concoction 12 hours later than I was supposed to and that I forgot to reduce the heat in the oven from the preheat temperature of 500 ° to the baking temperature of 400° . Hey, I was trying to cook dinner for eight at the same time as bake my bread. I may come back to it, try again, and finish posting the recipe if it works. Until then though...

Moving on.

I have since arrived in Colombia and made my slow way by bus to the second largest city, Medellin. When many people think of Colombia, their first association may run along the lines of this, the trailer to Beyond Enemy Lines: Colombia. I am happy to report that the Colombia I am encountering bears no resemblance to this world of firefights, explosions, and secret jungle missions. What I have found, since my arrival Wednesday, has been an abundance of friendly people endowed with endless patience for my slow, grammatically-challenged Spanglish. Perhaps even more exciting, I seem to have landed in a Doctor Seussical land of strange fruits with unfamiliar names. Alina, my friend and guide in this new country, tantalizes me with the promise of a two story fruit and vegetable market somewhere nearby. I'm a bit worried that 10 weeks may not afford me enough time to sample sufficiently of Colombia's edible flora.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Boil, Boil, Toil and Trouble

The last time I tried to make spontaneously leavened bread was ever so disheartening. I made a mixture of only flour and water (as per instructions from the internet) and set it in the oven to ferment. To keep the temperature in the 70-80° range that yeast seems to like, I left the oven light on. I waited. And waited. Apparently, the yeast in Atlanta's winter air was of a lazy sort, but I was in no hurry. After about five days of minimal action on my starter's part, my mother forgot about my experiment and preheated the oven. Whatever yeast had been eeking out a slow existence was rapidly exterminated as my "starter" turned to glue.

This time around will be different, I'm convinced. To begin with, there is a large sign on the oven warning would-be-bakers NOT to preheat the oven. And, encouragingly, my starter has displayed a great deal more life than its lackluster predecessor. After one day, it was bubbling away happily; after 36 hours, it had nearly overflowed its bowl. The flavor was changing too--after 24 hours it achieved a faintly cheesy flavor, though nothing terribly potent. But as it surged against the confines of the bowl, the pungent sourness of natural yeast began to develop. Frankly, this was not the yummy, beery smell that I remembered from my last (successful) bread starter. This was stronger and less sweet, and I crossed my fingers that it was merely a step along my starchy journey and not indicative of the final product.

The starter should ferment for a total of about 60 hours (aka about 2 1/2 days) before it needs refreshing. I made a miscalculation and left it to its own devices for about 72 hours, by which point it had broken down most of the gluten, lost its structure, and become rather batter-like. Luckily, this fits the description in my cookbook, so I assume that I'm still in the clear.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Great Bread Challenge Begins

The more that I read about the loaf that is slowly taking shape in my kitchen, the more convinced I become that this bread-baking business may be the hardest thing that I have ever done. I'm also slowly realizing why the bread that I buy at market costs so gosh darn much--making a good loaf of bread is no cake walk. Heck, cakes are easy!

To preface this adventure, I'm not a stranger to ovens, by any means. I've been a baker since before I was even allowed to touch the oven (I used the toaster oven) and I licked the bowl before that. But my experience is primarily in sweet things, and I think that it is a good deal easier to disguise imperfections when you finish with chocolate ganache than when your only accompaniment is a plate of olive oil. In college, I was the proud owner of a bread starter, with which I made countless loaves of increasingly creative sweet bread. I made the strangest substitutions--pumpkin, chocolate fondue, peanut butter--and my bread never failed me. On a dare, I once tried to make a failed loaf, but even it was pretty tasty, at least fresh out of the oven.

That bread, I am now learning, is to the real staff of life what Candy Land is to chess against Bobby Fisher. The introduction to the bread chapter in my new Chez Panisse Cooking cookbook is eleven pages long: eleven pages of instructions on the proper temperature of ingredients, the sharpness of scoring knives (you need a straight razor, apparently), and the relative lengths of fermentations. And then it informs me that, even if I follow directions perfectly, the natural vagaries of wild yeast, organic flour, and the microclimate of my kitchen might still yield an "unpredictable and disappointing" loaf. Ooof.

Despite all of that, I'm not only trying to make bread, but I'm blogging the process. I have no idea if I will end up with a floury brick or a dense, chewy, flavorful loaf, but my fingers are crossed.

Spontaneously Leavened Sourdough Bread

A confession: I've already made a small miscalculation. I started this bread on Friday morning, planning to bake it on Wednesday for a dinner party. I thought that I had added up all of my fermentation, sponge, and risings times correctly. I think I'm actually a day short. Moral of the story, if you want to follow this recipe, ask yourself what you want to be doing in six days time. If the answer is not babying a loaf of bread, hold off until next week.

Step One: Sourdough starter
2 1/2 oz. peeled russet potato, cut into small pieces
7/8 cup water
7 1/2 oz. organic unbleached flour

Natural yeast is everywhere. My task is simply to cultivate it in a particular medium (in this case, flour, water, and mashed potato). To begin, combine 1 1/2 cups water in a small stainless steel saucepan. Bring the pot to a boil, then simmer for 15 minutes, until the potato is soft. Pour the potato and its water into a clear 1 1/2 quart glass or plastic bowl. This will be the holding tank for your starter while the yeast culture develops. Mash the potatoes and allow the mixture to cool to room temperature. Now gradually stir in the flour (N.B.: for greater accuracy, flour measurements are given in ounces rather than volumetric units like cups) until combined in a stiff batter.

Congratulations! Your task for the day is accomplished. Now cover your starter with plastic wrap and put it somewhere warm (70-80°) for 24 hours. You'll notice over the course of the day that your starter becomes a bit grayish. This is a result of the oxidation of the potato when it contacts the air and is ok. Here's what my starter looked like at the end of day one. So far, so good.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Felicitous Words for a Happy New Year

There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but we farmers tend to be a list-making bunch. When I visited Crabapple Farm for example, they showed me a farm to-do list so impressively exhaustive that it warranted photographic documentation. What my own lists may lack in length, they more than make up for in number; I am always scribbling lists on the backs of receipts or in the corners of envelopes. I love to scratch tasks off with inky finality: pear trees--planted, sweet potatoes--weeded. That lists can be straitjackets I well know, wedding me to a certain preordained trajectory and blinding me to potentially fruitful digressions or tangents. Nevertheless, list-making is a part of my nature which farming has fostered, if not required. Without my lists, I have an unfortunate tendency toward mental entropy and unintended baked goods. I know with a nagging certitude that there are always things to do and books to read, but, lacking the gentle pressure of a written list, I eventually find myself measuring out chocolate chips and baking powder. Idle hands make the devil's brownies, or something like that.

I've heard two arguments regarding lists: the first arguing that the act of writing a goal somehow intangibly helps you achieve it (or at least recognize once you have); the other warning that lists will consume you and keep you up all night. I've certainly experienced the second, as well as the junkie's fevered rush once I pare my list down enough to go to bed. But I'm also a believer in the actualizing power of the spoken (or written) word. I first came across this idea developed in the essay "Performative Utterances," by the philosopher J.L. Austin. Austin noted that, while statements ("the carrot is orange") could be classified as true or false, words forming what he called "performative utterances" are themselves effecting a change in the world. Take the naming of something, or the exchanging of vows, for example. These words change the state of the world, rather than simply describing it. Performative utterances are not true or false, but rather felicitious and infelicitious, depending on how well their speakers achieve the state of which the utterance creates an expectation. This recognition of creative power inherent in language, the idea that saying makes it so, rendered Austin's essay instantly appealing to me.

I think, in part, that performative utterances explain why I'm so attached to my lists. My lists are to me a mixture of promise and imperative, the critical first step toward completion of a task. They have force as well as meaning, for they direct me toward my future as they create a space in which that future may dwell.

And so, as it is a New Year and therefore a time particularly well-suited to list making, I offer to you this yeoman farmgirl's 2009 New Years Resolution List.
  • Bake Spontaneously Leavened Sourdough Bread and blog the process. I've been wanting to bake real bread--the kind that requires you to plan your schedule for several days around risings and kneadings--for years now, and since my schedule is particularly flexible at present, this seems like the ideal time. The recipe I'm following outlines a 5 day process, which I intend to document here day-by-day, like some love-crazed new mother showing off pictures of her newborn. Only, my baby will be a bubbling bowl of fermenting flour.
  • Learn to converse in Spanish. In fourteen days I travel to Colombia, where I will attend a Spanish language school, visit farms (the ones that grow veggies, not illegal drugs), and hopefully eat lots of bananas. My aim is to return with at least a the rudiments of conversational Spanish and no amusing anecdotes about that time I was kidnapped by the FARC.
  • Hunt and kill a deer. I already tried to do this once, with my uncle's careful instruction and supervision, but the deer were disappointingly unforthcoming. As my uncle noted, the only thing we killed was time.
  • And perhaps most importantly: farm with a joyful heart, efficient hands, and an ever inquisitive mind.