on cuisine, class, and change

kolache_Prague

When I was planning my 2011 visit to the Czech Republic, I dreamed of kolache bakeries on every corner. I thought I would eat some schnitzel with gravy, some stroganoff with rice, some goulash with potatoes, and all of the soft and sweet breakfast pastries I could ever want. Feeling homesick for Texas, I was beyond excited to have some familiar, authentic Czech cuisine.

When I arrived in Prague, however, I quickly learned that my expectations were a bit… off. I only found one koláče bakery in the entire city—and trust me, I had to hunt for it. (Meanwhile, the koláče bakery in Hukvaldy strictly served unfamiliar pizza-sized versions.) I saw no sign of schnitzel nor stroganoff. I ordered my hovězí guláš with a side of bread dumplings. Most frequently, I dined on a dish I had never even heard of in all my years: svíčková, which consisted of braised beef, a sort of sweet gravy, cranberries, and whipped cream. On more than one occasion, Seth enjoyed a whole fried trout. But the most surprising discovery of all was the exorbitant amount of Neapolitan-style pizza.

When I was growing up, the majority of my friends ate very “American” family dinners of chicken pot pie, meatloaf, or pot roast. My friend Ashley, whose mother was from Scotland, often helped her mom make bangers and mash or shepherd’s pie. My friend Kathryn, whose maternal grandparents were from Italy, attended weekly pasta al pomodoro dinners with her extended family. When I had the pleasure of staying at my grandmother’s house over the weekend, I ate one of my favorites—veal schnitzel (which my grandmother lovingly dubbed “chicken fried steak”) with brown gravy and a side of white rice. At a young age I was well aware of heritage cuisine, so I assumed that while Ashley’s family’s food was distinctly Scottish and Kathryn’s family’s food was distinctly Italian, my family’s food was distinctly Czech. It was not until I visited the Czech Republic that I learned that our food was not really Czech at all.

Last night while watching a season-two episode of “The Sopranos,” I was intrigued by a scene on cuisine and class. Italian-American Paulie visits the Motherland for the first time, and he is uncomfortable with the local cuisine. Having eaten veal parm, baked ziti, and cannelloni his whole life, he is displeased with the seemingly foreign cuisine in front of him. Linguine with clams and squid ink? I’ll pass, he thinks. He calls the waiter over to the table. “Can I just get some macaroni and gravy?” Realizing that the waiter is confused, a dining companion looks at Paulie and says, “He doesn’t know what you say.” Paulie looks at his dining companion incredulously. “Gravy! Gravy! Tomato sauce!” he says with emphasis. The dining companion and the waiter go back and forth, while a third customer mumbles with frustration and annoyance, “And you thought the Germans were classless pieces of shit!”

When Paulie’s Sicilian family emigrated to New York sometime during the Great Wave of 1880-1920, they brought with them their peasant foods: pasta, rice, gnocchi, bread, and tomato sauce. When they realized financial success in America, however, they continued their economical methods of cooking out of tradition and familiarity. Thus their recollection of Italian food was essentially stuck in a particular moment in time; what they perceived to be authentic was no longer so. One hundred years later, many so-called “old school” Italian-Americans still consider the more delicate, labor-intensive counterparts of their contemporary cuisine—for example, baby octopus, beef sirloin carpaccio, and agnolotti—to be little more than trendy distractions.

bandeja paisa

I predict that in one hundred years, Colombian-Americans will experience the same bewilderment and difficulties in trying to accept their native country’s evolved foods. In Colombia pechuga a la plancha (grilled chicken breast), pollo al horno (baked chicken), chuleta de cerdo (pork chop), sobrebarriga (flank steak), and higado (liver) will no longer be accompanied by today’s beans, rice, salted potato, plantain, and yucca; it is possible that they will not be served at all. In a century’s time the factors that currently prevent Colombia’s cuisine from developing—that is, rampant poverty and inadequate infrastructure—will likely fade. Poor Colombians will get richer and winding roads will get straighter, thus (literally) paving the way for more seafood, produce, and plant protein. Meanwhile, those immigrants who set up shop in Miami will raise their kids on familiar meats and starches, and in turn their kids will raise their kids on familiar meats and starches, and so on until traditional Colombian cuisine becomes inauthentic and modern Colombian cuisine becomes unrecognizable. The bandeja paisa—Colombia’s national dish, at a mere 60 years old—will long remain a fixture in Colombian-American homes, despite its irrelevance in the urbanized Motherland.

texas, our texas / new york, new york

For fifteen days, Seth and I returned to the Homeland for some Texas-sized fun.

We dined at Underbelly with our dear friend and classmate Caryn.

We walked through a village of Christmas lights just outside of Giddings.

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We stood in line at Snow’s BBQ in Lexington, home of the most delicious brisket in existence.

I drank iced coffee with Sarah at our usual Starbucks and craft beer with Kyle at The Hay Merchant.

I baked cupcakes from scratch—one batch of double gingerbread cupcakes with cinnamon brown sugar buttercream and one batch of spiced eggnog cupcakes with vanilla-rum swiss buttercream.

We spent Christmas Eve with my family and Christmas Day with Seth’s family.

We explored the peaks and caves of Enchanted Rock State Natural Area. I made it through my first camping experience in nearly freezing-cold weather. (Unfortunately, I did not earn my honorary Polar Bear patch.)

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We sipped whisky from Seth’s new “Dizzy” glasses, designed by Sebastian Bergne. “Ideally suited to whisky drinking, they will slowly make your head spin. A gentle ‘ping’ sounds as they touch and turn.”

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With Seth and Eliot’s help, I took a few food photos for their parents’ restaurant, Texastar Kitchen.

Seth and I, along with our friends David and Jess and Seth’s brother Eliot, toured four wineries near Fredericksburg, including Hilmy Cellars, Torre di Pietra Vineyards, Pedernales Cellars, and Woodrose Winery. We came home with two bottles from our first destination and one bottle from our third. Afterward, Seth took me to Uchi for an enchanting evening of succulent sushi and smooth sake. On top of an already decadent dinner, our waiter brought us a complimentary dessert of  ginger and lemon gelato with pistachios and white balsamic.

We partied the night away on New Year’s Eve. I wore red lipstick and a matching backless dress.

On January 3, we flew to New York to reunite with some of our closest friends and classmates.

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JP, Toine, Seth, and I ate handmade penne vodka with pancetta and fresh, crusty bread at Pepegiallo in Chelsea. Elena later joined us for happy hour, and we sipped beer from small steins at McSorley’s Old Ale House. We eventually walked a couple blocks over to Ippudo, where we feasted on steamed pork buns and ramen.

Toine, Seth, and I finally got our dim sum and milk tea fix. We walked off some of the calories as we shopped in Soho. That night, while the others ate at Mission Chinese, I met my old friend Kristin for drinks at the oh-so-cozy Experimental Cocktail Club on the Lower East Side. Afterward, we tipsily trotted one block over to Public, where we munched on a plate of grilled kangaroo (no joke!) and a salad of herby lentils. As we nursed two glasses of pinot noir, the bartender sent us complimentary samples of the house’s Stealth Margarita—a chilled concoction of tequila, St. Germain, lime, cucumber, chili tincture, and cayenne salt. Kristin hailed a taxi home, and I reunited with the old crowd plus Jonathan, Elena, Kate, Courtney, Sean, Brian, and MJ at Piano’s.

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JP, Toine, Seth and I brunched at Five Leaves in Greenpoint. I order my first sweet breakfast in ages—ricotta pancakes with honeycomb butter, banana, blueberries, and strawberries—while the others opted for more savory items, including Moroccan scrambles (JP and Toine) and pork belly sandwiches (Seth). We explored Williamsburg and caught a subway to Greenwich Village. We sipped sangria at Wine Spot, one of JP and Toine’s usual hangouts, before meeting Ethan at Café Gitane for a Moroccan meal of salmon pot pie and spicy organic meatballs.

Our trip to the States was both exhausting and elating. We enjoyed spending time with our friends and family, eating our fill of American and ethnic foods, and experiencing temperatures outside the 50-70 degree range.

our first thanksgiving

I remember spending only two Thanksgivings away from home. The first was in the fourth grade, I think, when my parents and I road-tripped to Florida to meet dad’s side of the family—my uncle, my aunt, and my only girl cousin. We arrived at our Pensacola condo only to learn that the others were trapped in a snowstorm with little to no probability of escaping their Tulsa confines. Needless to say, it was a quiet Thanksgiving. (And no, I will never tell you where or what we ate for dinner.) The second was in the eighth grade when my parents and I spent the break in Spain while my dad played in a golf tournament. I don’t recall exactly what we ate for the Big Day. That Thursday I might have been bedridden with a high fever, or I perhaps ate a meal of paella. With the exception of my fourth-grade memory, I have always looked forward to and enjoyed Thanksgiving. It has always been one of the few holidays where I can just relax with family, friends, good food, and good conversation—no gifts, no pressure.

This Thanksgiving will certainly go down in “the books”—or, more accurately, my blog—as one of my most memorable. While I cannot say that this was my first Thanksgiving away from home nor that it was my first in a foreign country, I can say that it was MY first dinner. Seth and I made the turkey, the (out-of-bird) stuffing, the mashed potatoes, the giblet gravy, the green bean casserole, the mashed sweet potatoes, and the pumpkin pies all by ourselves. Of course, we could not have done it without my mom, who so kindly mailed us four cans of Libby’s 100% pumpkin, two large cans of sweet potatoes, and a bag of pecans, or without Seth’s mom, who so kindly e-mailed us her recipes for stuffing and green bean casserole. Despite our lack of a proper carving knife or a meat thermometer, the turkey was near-perfect (if a little salty due to its pre-brined condition). The stuffing was flavorful; the mashed potatoes were smooth; the gravy was thick and creamy; the green bean casserole was a welcome, hearty shade of green (if a bit picante for our guests’ tastes); the sweet potatoes were rich and decadent; and the pumpkin pies were the ideal ending. Among all of the dishes, the stuffing and the sweet potatoes seemed to be the stars of the show; our Colombian guests raved!

We had seven guests in total, not including Seth or yours truly. A couple stayed the whole time, but most came and went. We ate dinner, drank beer (Colombian, American, and Mexican!), chatted, took photos, and watched a few games of college football. The day was everything I hoped it would be and more. In other words, we have leftovers!

deep in the ♥ of texas

“Cruisin’ down the freeway in the hot, hot sun” is not nearly as sweet when you are anxiously waiting the approval of your work visa. Oh yeah, that’s right; after seven months of filling out, apostillizing, translating, and (again) apostillizing paperwork, and waiting, waiting, and waiting some more, I am officially—finally!—a licensed architect in Colombia. Unfortunately, being in possession of a real, live matrícula profesional de arquitecto does not in fact make me a legal entity in the Colombian workforce. So here I am, back in the good ol’ U. S. of A., passportless and jobless (well, for the time being).

When Seth and I first arrived Stateside before dawn on Tuesday, March 27, I thought the visa process would be a cinch. I had visited the Consulate three times in December, so I knew what to expect: all documents processed, signed, and notarized, in order, with meticulously crafted dates. I compiled all six of my documents (Though, I will reiterate, that sixth document was responsible for those aforementioned seven months of paperwork, etc.), and I drove to the Consulate with confidence. I had everything on their requirements list; I would have my visa at last! WRONG! The elusive Wizard-of-Oz-type spectre behind the counter refused my documents outright simply because I did not have a cover letter from my boss begging his Majesty’s mercy. (WHAT?!) Basically, he wanted some kind of antiquated, faux-diplomatic gentleman’s agreement, and I only had six days to 1) have the letter in my possession 2) return said letter to the Consulate, and 3) have my visa processed before I was scheduled to fly back to Bogotá on Thursday, April 5. Yeah, right. After shamefully asking my boss for the superfluous document, I had it in my hot little hands at two o’clock on Monday April 2. Of course, those impossibly hard workers at the Consulate close their offices at said hour, so I had to wait. The next morning, I awoke bright and early, sat in rush-hour traffic, and, more or less, awaited my sentence. The Consulate surprisingly—shockingly!—agreed that I had everything in order. “I realize that this is a lot to ask, but if you get this cover letter to us, we can process your visa in like, a day,” the clueless clerk told me, in broken English, the week prior. “Your visa will be ready on Thursday, April 12,”—an entire week after I was scheduled to leave!—the second, painfully more experienced clerk told me this week. How convenient! Gee, THANKS!

After coming to terms with the fact that I will owe hundreds of dollars in airline fees and that I will miss yet another week of work—when we are in the middle of two crucial deadlines, no less!—I have arrived at the conclusion that there is nothing more that I can do. I simply have to wait. In the meantime, I have tried to enjoy the springtime treats that Texas has to offer—margaritas, bluebonnets, barbecue, hot afternoons spent poolside—but I cannot help but feel guilty. I have been working for a mere two months; I certainly do not deserve this “vacation”! (Speaking of vacation, couldn’t this whole debacle have occurred in, say, July?) One thing is for sure: from the time I return to Bogotá until Christmas, I will be in the office.

the drunken clam

The past few days in Rockport have consisted of lots of fishing, crabbing, and, for the first time, clam digging. If you happen to have a good eye or a keen sense of feeling in your toes, clam digging can be quite easy. One evening, as my arms grew tired of scooping heavy, temperamental crabs, I lazily scanned the shallow waters of Redfish Bay for some pretty shells. I spotted a series of perfectly formed, one-inch specimens sitting in the sand. I bent over and picked one up. It had another half! I dropped it in my net and tested the others in the group. They all had other halves! I had eaten clams many times before in restaurants, but I had never steamed them on my own. Before I knew it, I had five clams, then ten, and so on. I even found several three- and four-inchers! That afternoon, we steamed them and separated the meat from the shells. The next day, Seth and I made a heaping pot of Giada de Laurentiis’s linguine with clams in white wine. I only wish there had been more sauce!

Also, I should mention the following: I know most of my entries as of late have centered around my kitchen and restaurant adventures. This is merely a coincidence. My life blog is not turning into a food blog. Promise.

crab people


This afternoon, Seth, Eliot, Eliot’s friend Matt, and I went to Redfish Bay in Rockport for some crabbing and wade fishing. There’s something very primal about crabbing. It’s just me and the net… hunting, chasing, catching. Ah, I just love it. In three hours I managed to catch sixteen crabs, but only eight of them were big enough to keep. Luckily, the boys caught plenty, too, bringing our group total to nineteen. We have enough to make crabcakes tomorrow!

Is it wrong that I was singing this song to myself the whole time?

lavender + pecans

In preparation for an excursion to the Texas coast, I thought I would make a road-trip worthy snack: lavender and pecan brownies. Even though lavender was originally an Asian flowering plant (not French, can you believe it?), its locations are now very diversified. In fact, many lavender fields can be found in the Texas Hill Country. I used the Homesick Texan‘s recipe for these delectable treats, but I swapped the walnuts for good ol’ Southern pecans and upped the dried lavender to a full teaspoon. Let me tell you, the brownies certainly smell and taste like home.

food photography: part one

Even though I might not be traveling the world right now, I do continue to see some pretty amazing things. For example, yesterday I visited Seth’s parents’ restaurant for some food photography and taste tests. (Okay, so maybe I wasn’t “testing” per se, but who else was going to devour that delicious grub after my hands had pushed and pulled it all over the table?) To be honest, there are few things that satisfy me more than a picture that looks good enough to eat. I was so excited to help. (All of the above photos are posted on the restaurant’s Facebook page.)