30 April 2010

the cultural English Breakfast

I sometimes like to treat myself on a weekend with a Sunday Times, but only when I know I will be able to read all of it. I like to have civilised late morning reads with lots of tea, sunlight and perhaps classical music in the background. Yes, I am quickly aging from 26 to 60.

The other week on my splurge for a Sunday Times, I came across a fantastic article about the changing aspect of the English Breakfast and what that says about the cultural landscape of Britain. I love that food is the medium not only for the change in culture but, in this case, English culture itself is represented through the traditional breakfast. Seems to tie in nicely with my own experiences.


It is the May Day bank holiday weekend here in the UK, so with a bit more time to spare, I hope to have a couple of posts up by next week. Perhaps an English Breakfast?

19 April 2010

Food compulsion

I think I am developing a compulsion to feed people.

I'm pretty sure it hasn't always been this way for me, though maybe I am only aware of it now that I am thinking about food. When I am frustrated or worried or angry, I often bake (or clean, but that's a whole 'nother issue). When there is a family situation that is out of my hands and for which I cannot help, I want to feed people.

It is not the influence of my family as far as I can tell, because I don't ever remember my grandmothers or mother pushing food every time I had a bad day. No stereotypical Jewish mothers here; I think this compulsion is all mine.

Greek households, or at least the ones I have visited, will often push food onto you, but in a nice way. Their compulsion is to welcome people into their home and share one of the most basic yet intimate scenes of human society: breaking bread to share with fellow people in a sign of trust and companionship. With time, my fiance's grandmother's constant attempts to feed me, I know, are more than signs of welcome and are signs of caring and nurturing.

Maybe a new side of me is developing with age so that I feel a compulsion to care and nurture others as I prepare to care for my own children. I suppose at 26 I am well into the years that nature and evolution would have me reproducing and this could be another way to show my attractiveness to a mate. I'd like to think it's because I care for people and want to show my appreciation through something I know well, like food. If I had talents of painting or building or singing, it might be different, but I work with what I know. It's food or medieval history lectures and I think I have definitely chosen the more sociable compulsion.

In light of his birthday and a tough week with family issues, I gave into my compulsion and made my fiance a nice dinner. I roasted some carrots and potatoes, but the best part was the lightly grilled flank steak with a mushroom cream sauce. I wanted the sauce to not overpower the meat but add a little extra something to the meal.

I started by taking advantage of the dusk light and the beautiful chestnut mushrooms.

Aren't they gorgeous? I love mushrooms.

Then I sauteed some garlic, minced onion and lots of sliced mushrooms in butter.

I added a touch of water to the pan to deglaze, though you could easily use balsamic vinegar or red wine, and let the sauce simmer a bit to condense.

I then added the tiny bit of cream I had left in the fridge. I originally wanted this sauce to be creamier than it turned out, but it worked out so that the tablespoon or two of cream was just enough to make it have just a bit more oomph than just the mushrooms and juice on its own.

I sliced the flank steak and briefly placed the strips under the broiler/grill to cook and topped with the mushroom sauce.

Lovely, tasty and fulfills my feeding compulsion. Well, for today.

11 April 2010


Identity is a funny thing. It is one of the most interesting subjects for me to study in history and something that I think about often. It's also something that I never thought about in relation to myself until I moved to London. Throughout history and certainly now, identity and labels only become worthwhile and take on meaning and importance when in opposition to others. So when I first moved to London, I often had to proclaim that I was not a British citizen and was, in fact, an American. Perhaps it wasn't really that formal of a proclamation, but certainly one of the first things people asked about me. (And I always think that my accent pretty much gives it away that I am an American, but of course you cannot always tell just by an accent.)

Side note: A strange thing about the US is that people are constantly reaffirming that they are American and try to almost out-do others in American-ness. I wonder if this is because the idea of an 'American' has been created with a purpose, not grown organically, and anyone can still embrace this identity and make it their own. Some need to project their identity on to others I suppose, even when surrounded with those of the same identity, though I have found this more in the US than anywhere else.

Growing up, I never thought about being American. I celebrated Independence Day and cheered for the US in the Olympics but I did not sit down and think about what it meant to have to claim something that I have been given since birth. At the beginning here, I chafed at the idea of having to constantly label myself for everyone to lump with all other Americans, especially at a time when America was not too favored in the rest of the world. Although my citizenship has been with my my whole life, I had never had to identify myself under a citizenship label and I was not sure that I liked being burdened with this identity. What if I wanted to be known firstly as an educated woman, or as a historian? Why was this label of identity so important?

Over time, I have come to accept and embrace my American identity all over again in a pro-active and involved way that I never imagined could take place. Nothing has changed about me except that way that I interpret this label and what my American identity means to me. It means my values, upbringing, accent, family, and everything that goes with a culture and these are not parts of me that I want to forgo, but I want to carry them with me and share with others.

I wonder too about the labels of origin in food much the same way as people. Just because a dish now is known for being American does it mean it has always been that way? Maybe one culture commandeered a dish and made it famous even though it originated somewhere else. (I like to think of French fries this way though hardly a commandeering.) I suppose food is supple and can take having many labels, never minding what the labels mean or their association.

So today I made a traditional 'American' food: chilli and cornbread. Chilli is made thousands of different ways across the US and it seems like every family has their own recipe for it. We do too, and that's what I made.

Brown onions and mince meat/hamburger meat in a large pot. Or a pretty, new blue pot!

Then add kidney beans, chopped tomatoes and tomato passatta until a thick, but still soupy, consistency. You can also just add stewed tomatoes and a little tomato paste to boil down into a thick soup, but this will take a while.

Don't forget the chilli powder, which gives this dish it's name and a nice warmth.

At the same time, I made some cornbread to go with the chilli. Some eat chilli with rice or perhaps something else (noodles?), but I like it with some sweet cornbread. This type has butter, sugar, an egg, milk, flour, baking powder and cornmeal all mixed together with little ceremony.

Then pour into a pan and bake!

Really simple and it comes out beautifully springy, like cake.

At this point, the chilli has been simmering for a at least half an hour and can probably be eaten with some warm cornbread. Mmmmm.

Make this and you can feel more American too, if only for a meal.


In case you are interested, this is a really good recipe for cornbread that does not require buttermilk, which most seem to. Enjoy!

1/3 cup softened butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg
3/4 and a bit milk
1 cup and a bit flour
1/2 cup cornmeal
2 full tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt

Combine all ingredients in order, then pour into a greased pan, ideally square and not too deep. Bake on 400 F/ 200 C for about 22-25 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean from center. Makes 6 servings.

5 April 2010


For those of you celebrating this weekend, happy Easter. This is a long bank holiday weekend in the UK thanks to the Church of England. It also happens to be the Orthodox Easter as well, which is a rarity as the two easters usually fall on different weekends. (Side note: The difference in timings for Easter is one of the main differences between the Catholic/Protestant and Othodox religions and was a major issue when the churches split in the Middle Ages. Oddly enough, the Irish church followed the Orthodox timing of Easter for most of the first millenium of the current era.)

As it is the pinnacle of the Orthodox calendar, Easter means a lot of church services to attend. Well, for me they are a lot considering my family was more of the CEO type (Christmas and Easter only), if that. The Orthodox services, much like the Catholic stations of the cross services, re-enact the passion, mourning and resurrection of Jesus. My fiance's family usually attends the Friday night service to pay homage and kiss the funeral bier (epidafio), the Saturday morning service when the people makes lots of noise to represent Jesus rising from the dead and the culmination of the weekend, the Saturday midnight service which represents Jesus ascending into heaven.

The Saturday night service is the most recognizable as everyone holds candles to represent the spread of holy light and spirit and it is quite a beautiful scene. It reminds me of my undergraduate college and looking out onto all the lantern lights representing the light of wisdom being passed to everyone.

After this, my fiance tries to keep the light on his candle all the way home (through the rain and car journey) to bless the house. Dangerous? Maybe.

On Sunday, what I traditionally consider Easter, there is a service in the Orthodox church but my fiance's family does not usually go, which is a little strange to me. But I suppose if you have been the night before and stayed until after midnight, it's fine. But as it was Easter Sunday and on special occassions you should have special breakfasts (to start the celebrating off right), I made myself French toast.

Not that French toast is particularly hard to make or even takes a long time, but it definitely has an association with special days. And like all things with syrup, hardly anyone has had it here.

I feel silly describing how to make French toast, but for anyone who doesn't know it is simply bread dipped in beaten eggs and lots of cinnamon, then lightly fried in butter until the eggs are cooked.

Serve with syrup. Or powdered/icing sugar. But syrup is better.