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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Feature Fri Dec 25 2009

The Bonds of Eating

I just returned from a surprising meal at a new restaurant in my hometown. The Thomas House was recently opened by family friends and seems to be breaking new ground in the eating landscape of our small Wisconsin town. In my formative years of eating, our options were limited to Perkins, McDonalds, and a variety of fish fry and fried chicken options at what were essentially bars with stoves. If you think about restaurants as extensions of patrons' own kitchens, this perhaps isn't so strange--we go out to either eat what we can't make or don't feel like making at home, to socialize, to share an experience with others. Ideally, anyway.

So let's just say that the experiences I'd had eating out in my hometown had not been, for the most part, "ideal." The meal at the Thomas House was, however, great--on all counts. A salad of delicately shaved cucumber slices shaped into a figurative rose started things off--fresh, crisp cucumber nicely offset by spare crumbles of sour feta, a few halved, sweet cherry tomatoes, and a surprisingly smoky and hot chipotle-inflected creamy dressing. And there were basil oil drizzles on the plate! Plate drizzles!

Ten years ago I would have swooned into this plate, and couldn't control the upshot of my eyebrows even now. It was a dish I would make a version of at home, perhaps--but not this well, in either planning or execution. The rest of the meal only further reinforced my delight--a plate of large, well-seared scallops accompanied by an identical number of house-made tortellini, a delicate sauce with big, seafoody notes and that distinctively resistant bite of homemade pasta melting into the hidden interior filling. A perfectly done (and generously portioned) rack of lamb, well-seasoned without being overpowering, and sitting atop perfectly done risotto. Flank steak with a meaty, spicy jus and truffled potatoes. Truffles! And basil oil drizzles! And a waiter (a classmate's younger brother) who spoke knowledgeably and passionately about the menu and chef, excitedly forecasting a Metaxa brandy reduction for the flank steak, coming soon in the New Year. Had I passed out on the way to the restaurant and ended up in Madison?

The meal, riveting though it was both on its own culinary merits and its pure unexpectedness in my meat-and-potatoes hometown, was besieged by interruptions by friends. Between hometown classmates I hadn't seen in years, friends of my younger brother worried about his traveling home for Christmas through a predicted snowstorm, and former neighbors now with fiancees and spouses in tow, it seemed everyone I knew in town was crowded into one restaurant on one night. While we all raved about the food, we also caught up, however briefly, on each others' lives--one of my secret favorite rituals of both a small town and the social window of the holidays, when more of my far-flung peers are around visiting parents and siblings.

I've been thinking a lot lately about how food brings us together, in big and small ways. Run-ins in restaurants cab throw us unexpectedly together--or offer structured moments in which we can gather from disparate schedules, locations and lives to spend some time as a group. The traditions we create in the kitchen for holidays like Christmas cement family rituals, build expectations, and signal peace and cohesion at a hectic time of year. I know my mother is feeling extra frazzled when she eschews baking over-laden trays of cookies around the holidays--as when my parents were moving into a new house a few years ago around Christmas. And I know equally well the enjoyment that comes from working with her in the kitchen--spreading the melted chocolate over a tray of toffee bars, picking through the recipe cards to find old favorites, making sure those cookie trays are overflowing.

For the past several years, we've made a small batch of brown butter cookies from a 2005 Gourmet recipe--which we've come to call "The Cookies Made With Tears" after the author's accompanying hyperbolic and martyring article. They're not the easiest cookies to make--the butter has to be browned to an exact point, the dough has a tendency to frustratingly crumble into sandy bits when shaped, and every single year the perfect cooking temperature and duration seems to elude us. When I heard a few months ago that Gourmet had suddenly and unexpectedly ceased publication, I wrote my mom an immediate email titled, "But where will we find new ridiculous cookie recipes?!" and was only half-joking.

One of the defining characteristics of food is that it defines us, culturally, socially and to some degree emotionally. Its value beyond the nutrition needed for basic survival, scholars tell us, is its civilizing nature. The primitive fundamentals of this act of sharing are hard to escape, even when we eat alone (consider the interactions with the helpful grocery guy, or delivery driver who are so integral to even those solo meals). It should seem as no surprise that communities around food spring up regularly, often in inspired ways.

I got an email earlier this month asking me to participate in a recipe exchange--sort of contemporary chain email, though with a demonstrated payoff. By submitting a recipe and sharing the message with 20 of my own contacts, I received seven recipes in return, from dishes as disparate as "stick soup" (this is the entire recipe: "Bring a 3 qt sauce pan to boil, add teaspoon of salt, melt bouillon, then add chopped celery and sticks. Boil uncovered for fifteen minutes or to taste. Garnish with twigs." Har har), to Spanish white beans with spinach--a recipe shared at a "wake" for Gourmet. Most of these recipes came from people I don't even know--but given that they throw mourning parties for departed food publications, know how to write some very entertaining recipe narratives (sample line from gumbo recipe: "Cook roux to a peanut butter color. It should smell like the flour is burning and your shirt should now covered with a fine layer of oil because the vent hood is woefully underpowered"), I think we'd have a lot in common.

The bonding power of shared food, whether fully formed or in instructional form only, has not been lost on other organizations looking to foster a sense of community. I've received several emails this month from my alma mater, driving potential donors to their site with a Chicago "Cooks' Collection" of well-tested recipes. I think this is kind of genius, and not just because I always wondered what my U of C Humanities professors made for the holidays (fall squash risotto, apparently). A school friend of mine summed it up well, after tackling sports economist Allen Sanderson's sour cream pound cake: "I have to say, all these years as a starving grad student, and this is the one time i actually considered sending them money. That is the power of food." Amen, brother.

So in the spirit of eating, regardless of how you feel about the holidays, may your day be filled with good friends, good food, and lots of love. And if you're feeling short on the warm-glowiness this year, try a new restaurant in your town, order takeout with your favorite people, or just give these puppies a whirl, a much-loved recipe I received from a friend in the email recipe exchange, guaranteed to put a smile on your mouth:

Sausage Balls

1 lb Breakfast Sausage (like Jimmy Dean)
1 lb Cheddar Cheese
3 Cups Bisquick

Mix all in a bowl until thoroughly combined. Roll into walnut sized balls. Bake on a cookie sheet at 350 degrees for 10-12 minutes. They should be a little golden brown on the top. Makes about 25 balls! If you've got a lot of people to feed we like to double the recipe and use 1 lb of Regular Sausage and 1 lb of Hot Sausage. Or add some other spices to spruce it up if you want! But this is definitely an easy winner!!


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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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