Monthly Archives: July 2014

Portugal Food Tour

Portuguese food porn.

Portuguese food porn.

You may have noticed that a lot of my blog posts here are about food. Scrolling back through my posts over the past several months, I’m only just realizing  how much of what I write is about eating and drinking. Or about everything that surrounds that consumption – be it shopping for perfect produce at supermarkets, getting served food at restaurants by overly friendly waitresses, struggling to finish super-sized servings, or consuming food and drink in all manner of ways, be it it’s double dipping chips, multi-tasking during meals, downing bottomless drinks, or minding your manners with your fork faced down.

It makes me realize just how important food is to place. When you ask an expatriate living abroad what they miss most about home, nine times out of ten they will answer by mentioning some food they can’t get overseas (and yes, that includes Americans complaining about not being able to get good Mexican food abroad). So, when I returned to the US after nearly a decade of living in Europe and Africa, no wonder I’ve been blogging mostly about “comfort foods” that remind me of home, such as macaroni and cheesecinnamon buns, or peanut butter chocolate.

Conversely, food is a reason for traveling, and an integral part of my experience of any place. Most of my memories of the places I visited are inextricably tied up with my experience of food in that place. For example, when I traveled to Texas for the first time in April, my blog posts that week ended up being all about Texan food: think chicken fried steak and Frito pie (and heart attacks). My memories of my summer in Philadelphia will always be wrapped up in warm-sweet-buttery-salty-tasting pretzels; my year in New York City with pizza by the slice and black and white cookies; and my visit to San Diego with chicken and waffles.

So food and place are one and the same. Food is both the reason you travel and the thing you miss from home. And that is why I am entering the contest to Win A Food Tour of Portugal, which is organized by the APTECE Portugal Food Stories Blog. Because I can’t imagine any better way to see Portugal than to eat my way through it. I expect to eat bacalhau and beyond, snails and seafood, pasteis de belém and galão coffee, feijoada and caldo verde, and plenty of port wine…  fingers crossed I’ll be blogging to you about it all from Portugal.

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Mind your manners

Out with the barbarians!

Out with the barbarians!

I have a distinct memory of one of the first meals I ate with my British coworkers shortly after arriving in the UK in January 2005. It was one of those small but embarrassing moments that somehow get imprinted in your brain and, years later, randomly reappear and induce a new flush of shame.

We were at a pub and I had ordered your standard meat and veg fare. When the food arrived, I did what I’d always done – I took my fork in my right hand and my knife in my left hand, stabbed the fork perpendicularly into the middle of my steak, and then proceeded to cut the steak into bite sized pieces with my knife. At which point one of my coworkers, a middle-aged British male with a typically British sense of sarcastic humor, proceeded to thoroughly mock me for my barbaric American manner of eating.

After suffering that embarrassment, I quickly learned to eat the European way (which I still do to this day, so thoroughly ingrained is the habit) – the fork in the left hand, tines facing downward; the knife in the right hand; individual pieces of food are cut as you (slowly) eat them; and the tines of the fork remain facing downward at all times throughout your meal, with the knife being used to push food onto the back of the fork (which always poses a unique challenge when eating peas).

Perhaps my methods were somewhat uncouth even by American standards.  I believe the “proper” way to eat in the US is to start with the fork in your left hand and the knife in your right hand, and once you are done cutting your food, put your knife down and switch your fork from your left to right hand, finally proceeding to eat with the fork “right side up” (tines facing upward). This is the so-called “cut and switch” or “zigzag” method, a clumsy Americanism (even most Canadians eat “continental” style).

I’ve also noticed that many other (most?) American people eat without a knife at all. When I stayed at my brother’s house, I’d have to get up and fetch myself a knife from the drawer every time we ate a meal, because they set the table with a fork only. The strangely-awkward-yet-elegant downward-left-handed-fork etiquette has become such second nature for me that I can no longer eat otherwise (unless, of course, I’m eating with my hands, maybe something like a Frito pie).

Who knows what is right, or what is best. But for sure, if you “cut and switch,” you might as well be waving an American flag at the dinner table. Brits just don’t do that, not even from a young age. Indeed, I have another distinct memory of being in a restaurant in Hove (a town on the south coast of England) and seeing a toddler (yes, a toddler – he was sitting in one of those children’s high chairs that restaurants have) primly eating his kiddie meal with his fork facing downward in his left hand and his knife in his right hand. Gotta love the Brits.

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Pretzels

You have me all tied up in knots.

You have me all tied up in knots.

I went to a BBQ yesterday and I stopped by the store on the way to pick up some snacks. I bought a bag of pretzels. Principally because I love pretzels and pretzels are awesome.

I’m talking about the dry, crunchy, salty, mass-produced pretzels that come in a bag and are a staple snack food (and which can, incidentally, be double dipped in mustard dip, onion dip, or whatever other communal condiment you wish to sully).

So there I was at the picnic table, crunching away at my Rold Gold pretzel thins, when another guest shows up with – prepare yourself – a box of fresh, warm, hand-rolled, Philly-style soft pretzels from a local pretzel bakery. Damn do I love pretzels. And those were pretzels.

Normally when it comes to fresh pretzels, I’m less classy and I settle for Auntie Anne’s pretzels, an American shopping mall food court essential. I grew up eating Auntie Anne’s pretzels. I am physically incapable of passing one of their warm-sweet-buttery-salty-smelling franchises without buying one of the warm-sweet-buttery-salty-tasting pretzels. Indeed, an Auntie Anne’s pretzel was my first purchase upon my return to the US in January (paid for with my vestigial collection of coins which barely covered the pretzel plus tax). Now that was money well spent.

Pretzels are a typically American snack, but we must give thanks to their German forefathers. It is no mistake that Auntie Anne’s is from Lancaster, Pennsylvania or that Rold Gold pretzel company is from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was the German-speaking immigrants to Pennsylvania in the 17th and 18th centuries (the so-called Pennsylvania Dutch) who introduced the bretzel to the new world.  And what a wonderful contribution to our cultural heritage they made.

I spent one summer living in Philadelphia, and I gorged myself on pretzels. I remember intentionally showing up to the Auntie Anne’s pretzel shop shortly before their closing time and ordering only one pretzel, knowing full well that they would offer me a dozen pretzels from their excess stock for free (since there was nothing else they could do with the extra pretzels at the end of the day except throw them away). That was a good summer.

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Double dipping

Eww, don't give me your cooties.

Eww, don’t give me your cooties.

A foreign friend who lives in the US flagged “double dipping” to me as an American habit. Or rather, an American fear.

Because I’m sure people everywhere in the world “double dip” – i.e. take your chip/carrot, dip it into a communal salsa/sauce bowl, eat a bite, and then dip the bitten chip/carrot back into the communal dip (supposedly along with all your saliva, bacteria, and cooties).

But Americans are particularly paranoid and/or grossed out about it. Americans are sticklers for hygiene. Double dipping was the subject of a Seinfeld episode and is an American social faux pas. The etiquette suggests that if you can’t stop yourself from double dipping (you filthy, uncouth slob), then you should at least reverse the chip/carrot so the unbitten side touches the dip on the second go.

Other double dipping avoidance strategies (which I read about in article entitled “Defend Against Double-Dipping at Your Super Bowl Party”) are to serve guests individually packaged chips and dip, or to set out individual bowls so guests can double-dip from their own bowl, germ free.

If only these people knew that in many cultures – including several of the countries I visited in African and the Middle East – people eat food communally from a shared plate or bowl, with their bare hands. Now that is double dipping taken to the next level. Oh, the horror.

 

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Short shorts

So-called "butt cleavage."

So-called “butt cleavage.”

A couple of the countries I lived in during my time abroad, especially those in Africa, were fairly traditional. In Somaliland, a conservative Muslim country, I couldn’t leave the house without first fully covering myself with a long dress, shawl, and head scarf. In Tunisia, I wore western clothes to work, but always took care not to wear anything too revealing.

Even in Liberia, in West Africa, I was once told off by a coworker for wearing a dress that was too short. It ended just slightly above my knees. By the end of my stay in Liberia, I had switched over to an entirely African wardrobe of hand-tailored wax print dresses. They all went below the knee.

So, after 2 to 3 years of living in these relatively conservative environments, it was a bit of a shock to the system to return to the US and… see butt cheek everywhere. Apparently, in the 2.5 years that passed since I last came to the US in 2011, a new style had emerged: short shorts. Short short shorts.

Shorts have always been more popular in the US than Europe. I’m not sure if it is because of the cooler weather in many European countries, or a more refined sense of fashion, but I noticed that Europeans don’t really wear shorts (of any length), unless if they are children, or playing sports.

In the US, on the other hand, shorts seem to be *the* staple wardrobe item in the summertime, and not only is everyone wearing them, but they are are wearing less and less of them more often.

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Chipless and pinless

Magical microprocessor.

Magical microchip.

I’ve been making a lot of purchases with my debit card lately. Because, as I quickly realized upon returning to the US, nobody pays with cash anymore (although checks seem to stubbornly persist).

Sure, paying with your debit card can make life easier because you’re not required to carry cash around with you all the time. But, what’s with all this signing of receipts? In the US, when you pay for something with your debit or credit card, you often have to put pen to paper and sign to authorize the payment.

That’s not the way it’s done in the rest of the world. In fact, it’s a totally outdated technology. The US is the last major market to use the old fashioned swipe and signature system. In the UK, France, the Netherlands, and all the other European countries I’ve been to, debit cards use a so-called “chip and pin” system, also known as EMV cards (Europay, MasterCard, and Visa) or “smart cards.”

They’re smart because they have microchips embedded in the card which authenticate your identity in conjunction with your personal identification number (PIN). The microchip just looks like a small silver or gold square on the front of the card. But it makes life so much easier. Rather than swiping your magnetic stripe card and then signing a printed receipt to prove you’re you (or some fraudster forging your signature), you just insert your SMART card into the card reader and then enter your PIN into the payment device. Voila, payment complete! No paper, no signing. Ta-da.

In Europe, all merchants have the equipment to process chip and pin payments. At supermarkets, it’s usually a device fixed in place at the checkout counter. At restaurants, it’s a handheld device that the waiter or waitress brings to your table to stick your card into and hand to you for PIN entry. In recent years in Europe, this has been further evolving into contactless payments, where you just tap the card against the reader without even entering your PIN (this is usually limited to smaller payments).

And here we are state-side, writing checks and signing receipts… and I have a chip on my shoulder about it. (Yes, pun intended.)

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A jug of coke

I was looking to slake, not drown, my thirst.

I was looking to slake, not drown, my thirst.

DC is baking hot in the summer. I love it. But sometimes I get a little thirsty as I beat the hot pavement blocks. So I stop into the 7-11 or corner shop to buy myself a can of diet coke and quench my thirst.

The thing is, there never is just a can of diet coke for sale. Inevitably, the fridge is stacked full of those large 20 ounce bottles of soda. Why does everything have to be so BIG?

Who drinks that much soda? Even if you wanted to drink 20 ounces of soda, it would likely go flat before you reached the bottom. You’d have to chug it. And it is so unpleasant – for the drinker and for the environment – to drink from plastic. Eww.

I really miss drinking soft drinks from the reusable glass bottles that are commonplace in Africa. I swear the coke tastes and feels better in a bottle. Given the choice, I’d choose in this order: (a) bottle, (b) can, (c) plastic.

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