Saturday, April 22, 2017

From Culinary Tourism and Curiosity to Comfort Food: North African food in Wisconsin (April 22, 2017)

I wandered into Zuzu CafĂ© 3 years ago when I was visiting my two sons in Madison, Wisconsin. Located next to the zoo (free admission), we went in to get coffee and a sandwich. Their menu, though, caught my eye—North African breakfast and other specialties. Of course, I was curious and had to try the breakfast, lablabi, a bowl of beans topped with a fried egg and harissa (chili) sauce. Delicious!

 Unexpectedly, I found that I was spending a good deal of time in Madison when my oldest son was diagnosed with 4th stage colon cancer. Healthy and fit, a life long vegetarian and vegan, and only 30, the diagnosis came out of the blue. It now meant 7-hour drives from home to be able to be there when needed. Friends put me up—and nurtured and distracted me with music, food, conversation, and friendship—and I often myself exploring both the incredible diversity of food venues in Madison and the wonderful parks (with free public beaches for swimming!!).

I went back to Zuzu several times to try other items on the menu, which now leans to sandwiches and salads. During one of these trips, I was working on editing and writing entries for the Ethnic American Food Today: A Cultural Encyclopedia, a massive 2-volume project with an additional cookbook, Ethnic American Cooking: Recipes for Living in a New World. I realized that information was lacking for some of the North African entries, so I headed over to Zuzu. The owner, Sabri Darsouni, was born in Algeria and came to the US 25 years ago. He was more than happy to help me, explaining that Tunisian and Algerian food shared many commonalities—including influences from Italian colonization—but that Tunisian dishes were distinctive in their reddish color and their use of tomato paste. He also pointed out that the food fit more closely with other Mediterranean cuisines than with African or Middle Eastern, even though politically, culturally, and geographically Algeria is frequently lumped in with those cultures. An interesting point that I’ll follow up another time. 

I approached Zuzu very differently this time I visited (April 2017). I drove up just to spend the Easter-Passover weekend with sons. We had a wonderful day and a half of going to their favorite vegetarian restaurant, watching movies, and talking. Then, on Sunday, instead of the anticipated trip to a meadow where my oldest had been working on ecological restoration projects, we took him to the hospital instead. It’s been 7 days now, and he’s still here, stabilized, but still weak and in pain.

During the times that I’m not sitting by his bedside, I’ve gone over to Zuzu several times for coffee, breakfast, and a sandwich. Instead of the curiosity that first took me there, it was the familiarity and friendly welcome that brought me back. Life feeds into scholarship, and vice versa. This time I have with me the book on Comfort Food that I recently edited with Michael Owen Jones. I showed it to Sabri, and he started musing about how Algerian food—and traditional food in general—was always comforting. It’s only with modern conveniences and modern stresses that we eat food out of season, from factories, and without thought of it being comforting. I add my own thoughts that at least some of that stress is due to the current administration’s attitudes towards anyone different from their own narrow conception of who can be an American. Zuzu displays a sign next to its door stating that everyone is welcome and that there is no Islamaphobia—and any other phobias—inside. That welcome makes the food even more comforting to me, to know that I am eating food that was once “foreign” to me, but now familiar, and that it was prepared by like-minded people who also want to approach others with compassion, respect, and understanding. That comforts!

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Honey: Sweetness in Bitter Times?

Honey is on my mind this week. Partly because I received the jacket cover draft for a book on honey I wrote that will be published this spring. It’s part of the “Global History of…” edible series by Reaktion Books, fairly short and concise books packed full of information as well as recipes. I, of course, hope the book is favorably received and finds its way onto many bookshelves and coffee tables (it makes a great gift.).

I found the research on honey both fun and fascinating. I had no idea it has had so many different meanings and uses throughout history and around the world. One of those uses brings me to the other reason honey is on my mind. It has frequently been used as a medicine and a tonic, with different varieties thought to have different properties. One variety, manuka honey, comes from New Zealand from the flowers of tea trees. Tea tree oil has recently become popular for skin ailments, and the honey has been reported to have healing affects also—especially for individuals dealing with cancer.

My oldest son was diagnosed three years ago with stage four colon cancer. There is no history of such cancer in our family background, and he has always been very fit and healthy—and a vegetarian and vegan for much of his life. His profile does not fit the usual colon cancer patient. Needless to say, the diagnosis was traumatic for all of us.

So, when I came across the reports on manuka honey, I started searching for it. I also bought him buckwheat honey—more expensive than the lighter-colored blended honeys usually popular in the US, but available in ethnic groceries and some supermarkets. (I bought a jar in a Ukrainian store in the Cleveland, Ohio area.) The manuka honey, though, was not easily available, and when I did find it—usually in health food stores—it was very expensive. I ended up buying a small jar (about 4 ounces) for $26.  He stirs it into his tea. Does it work? We don’t know yet. He has just had his 3rd major surgery to remove yet more of his colon. Furthermore, considering that this is the week leading up to a an inauguration, along with the pain and exhaustion that accompanies recuperating from any major surgery, he now has to worry about health care. Certain Republican politicians are hell-bent on getting rid of “Obamacare,” even though the Affordable Care Act was built upon a foundation earlier Republicans had developed, and even though many Americans will now suffer physically, emotionally, and economically. The concepts of compassion and community have been trampled on by self-righteous assumptions of being the only ones who really know Truth. Rather than talk politics here, though, we need to listen to each other’s stories. Here is Ian’s: 

In the meantime, I will continue to search for ways to help him heal, and the honey will at least add some sweetness to his day. (Note--Do your own research on honey as medicine. I am not an expert on this. In this instance, I'm just a mother. )

Friday, January 1, 2016

New Year’s Food (Somali)--Jan 1. 2016

New Year’s Food--Somali meal--Jan 1. 2016
I celebrate every holiday with food in some way. (Actually, I celebrate every day with food, but that’s a different story.) The meal for New Year’s Day in my southern (Appalachia and piedmont NC) family was traditionally black-eyed peas, ham hocks, and rice. We ate black-eyed peas at other times of year, too, but on New Year’s, they had to be served with rice, and we called it hoppin’ John. After living in and celebrating New Year’s in many different regions and countries, I have expanded that repertoire—although I will be eating hoppin’ John later today. In the Midwest, it’s usually some kind of pork and sauerkraut (never chicken since chicken’s scratch backwards and pigs root forward.) On the east coast, it tends to be some kind of Asian cuisine—frequently Vietnamese since that’s a comfort food for me. With my sisters, it usually includes a pig of some sort—a peppermint pig, a German gingerbread pig-shaped cookie, or a Swiss sweet bread shaped like a pig.

This New Year’s day, in between social visits, I happened across an African restaurant, featuring “Somalian and Italian cuisine.” I couldn’t resist. Walking in, I was greeted by a young man who eagerly showed me photos of the dishes offered and explained their provenance. Most were Somali, but Ethiopian and Kenyan were included, as well as dishes showing Indian, Persian, and Italian influences. Breakfast included “foul mudammas,” a fava bean dish common throughout North Africa and the Middle East. The most typical Somali dish was a goat meat stew, but I opted for a chicken dish also very typical—chicken kalenkal. Delicious choice—marinated and grilled cubes of chicken with rice (long grain seasoned dry rice, similar to Persian or Pakistani rice dishes), grilled vegetables (broccoli, zucchini, cauliflower, carrots, broad beans, onions), and lettuce salad with creamy Italian dressing. Way too much food for one person for one meal, but very, very good. Before the main dish was brought out, though, I was served a cup of broth (goat or beef), pineapple juice, a banana, and hot Somali tea (sweet and spiced similar to chai, but not milky). A hot sauce (very hot) was offered alongside.

It was an excellent way to celebrate a new year, but as I sat in the small restaurant I also thought about the people who shared it with me. Mostly men, but a few women also—all looked like they were from Somalia or surrounding regions. The women, who wore colorful headscarves, sat apart from the men, but conversed with them in a lively conversation in the Somali language. (I had to ask what language it was; many immigrants speak multiple ones.)

I can’t imagine what their lives have been like, having to leave their homes, and live through the terrors of war, displacement, and finding a place in a new culture with very, very foreign customs and values. I can sympathize. I have lived in many cultures as well, and oftentimes feel somewhat displaced wherever I am (do any of us ever really fit in?), but I have never had the hardships of being a refugee. Seeing the strong sense of community displayed at this restaurant along with the obvious pleasure they all seemed to take in conversing and being together strips away the baggage of the past and reminds me of what things really matter in life--relishing the moment, the people in our lives, the tastes available to us and being grateful for those moments. Here’s to many more in the coming year!