Cabbage with a College Education

In Thinking About Food on February 23, 2010 at 6:01 pm

New Year’s resolutions have always rubbed me the wrong way. I can’t remember ever keeping one, and that’s probably somehow related to the fact that I can’t remember ever making one. (The real annual fresh start, at least to me, has always been the first day of school.) I’ve never understood the hype about New Year’s Day being symbolic; apart from having to buy a new calendar and get used to writing the last two date digits differently on my rent check, January 1 seems pretty much like every other month to me.

But I can’t avoid the resolution-mania that dominates every conversation, every yoga class, every Facebook post, once New Year’s Day rolls around. Since I work in a grocery store, it’s even permeated my workspace. Sales of decaf coffee skyrocket; wine and beer sales slump. There’s a Master-Cleanse-mad-dash for lemon juice, cayenne pepper and bottled water. People start asking for bulgur and miso and kombu – then look both stricken and terrified once you hand it to them.

But a year ago on January 1st, they handed out these semi-blank buttons at work. The top half said, “My New Year’s Resolution starts with…”, and the bottom half was blank. Predictably, the game became to write a super-offensive, -ironic or -subversive resolution and see how long you could wear the button before a higher-up noticed. “Roofie coladas” and “the job section on Craigslist” were a couple of the early victims; I also really liked “stopping making resolutions” for its nod to the odd grammatical setup on the button’s top half. (Really, why not just “My New Year’s Resolution is to…”?)

I looked at the MadLibs-y button for a while and was sort of torn. Which game to play: the cheerful, chirpy corporate grocery store one, or the obviously more fun, under-the-radar, honest human being one? I couldn’t think of anything that would be sincere for the former – nor, frankly, could I think of anything sufficiently funny for the latter– so I started to put the cap back on my sharpie. Then I thought of it: a new food every week.

Perfect. The aisles at work are brimming with weirdo foods just daring me to try them: kefir, agave nectar, matcha, goji berries, kombucha, umeboshi plums. They’re also filled with totally ordinary foods I’d either never gotten around to trying – like green tea and silken tofu – or that I’d eaten lots of times but never actually tried cooking with, like steel cut oats or lemongrass. And since we live in Chicago, we’re surrounded by tons of tiny little ethnic restaurants: empanadas, bahn mi, bao and cevapcici are all just a train stop away. It was the only New Year’s resolution I’ve ever made, and the only one I’ve ever kept, so I was feeling pretty smug about my 100% completion rate when December 31, 2009 rolled about.

For 2010 – and the foreseeable beyond – I re-resolved the resolution: a new food every week, either trying it or preparing it. Or both, even. And I upped the ante, because this year I’m going to blog about it. Though I’ll give recipe-ish type descriptions and instructions, this blog won’t be an instructional cooking site, because I tend to play fast and loose with ingredients and measurements– a trait that my husband finds maddening when I’m trying to tell him how to make a vinaigrette or a meatloaf. Expect details of my travels to crazy grocery stores in the city’s various ethnic neighborhoods, but if you’re looking for a comprehensive guide to Chicago’s ethnic eateries, well, keep looking. Great photography won’t follow until I acquire a better camera than the one in my phone (and maybe not even then). I’ll give some background on and details about the ingredients I’m using, but since I’m neither a culinary anthropologist nor my own research assistant, sticklers for gastronomic accuracy should probably cut me some slack.

What I will have in this blog? Well, I’m not sure yet. Honesty and a sense of adventure. A healthy dose of self-criticism, because almost nothing I make is ever good enough (see?). Some tips on what to do when you’re cooking, and –almost as importantly – tips on what not to do. I may talk a bit about things that have nothing to do with cooking, like music and my family and Chicago. You’ll probably read about my book club and the food-related books we read; we’re also ripping up our backyard and starting an urban communal garden (hi, landlords! surprise!) this spring, which may evolve into its own blog altogether.

Things I already know I want to try my hand at:

  • pickling
  • pate a choux
  • canning
  • besan (chickpea flour)
  • making vinegar
  • quinoa
  • goat
  • soursop/guanabana
  • making pasta
  • pierogi
  • phyllo dough

And I’m open to suggestions, too, so if there’s anything you think I should try making, drop me a line and let me know.

So I guess I’m not all that far off from the folks who come into the store in January clutching shopping lists chockfull of unknown ingredients. I’ve bought things with the best of intentions, things that now stare at me balefully every time I open the pantry, like the quinoa I bought last April. Sometimes I buy things without any intentions at all, like cans of “Greek tomatopaste double concentration 28-30%” or ghee, both of ended up in my pantry simply because I thought the labels looked cool. I’ve got jaggery and popcorn in my cupboard, and haven’t the faintest idea how to prepare either. I’ve made sushi but I’m still kind of scared of my mandoline slicer.

And I haven’t the faintest effing idea how blogging works (what the hell is a pingback?), so the experiments will not just be culinary. You’ve been warned.

  1. I love it! Very well written and I want to read more. I hope that you keep this up. I would make suggestions, but everything that I think of I’m pretty sure you’ve already tried. 🙂

  2. This is pretty awesome…I love cabbage, and I consider myself pretty intelligent, so I guess it was preordained that I would like this blog…keep it up!

  3. You should be scared of your mandonline slicer. Very scared.

  4. Very cool! Reading clever food blogs is actually a bit of an obsession of mine, therefore I’m on board 100%. Enjoy your journey through the wonderful world of exotic culinary treats!

  5. Thanks, everyone — I’m flattered!

  6. Always been baffled by the grocery shelf appeal of quinoa. As ethnic-sounding rice substitutes go, it’s got nothing on cous cous. Nevertheless, I, too, am greeted by the site of it every time I open my cupboard.

    Why can’t it just go ahead and rot?

    Fine reading so far, Sunshine. Keep it up.

    • I feel the same way about bulgar, frankly. And millet: it’s birdseed, people! But I’m trying not to write foods off before I taste them, so they’re on the list. Not very high up on the list, but still.

  7. I look forward to more….this has been a great read so far! I’m reminded of when you sent me a package of bagels in college (NMU circa 94). I still have a recipe in my little book titled “sunshine bagels” that makes me smile.

    • Thanks, Katie! That’s super-sweet — especially from a new mom whose time is clearly at a premium! I remember those bagels well — I’m actually teaching those in my breadbaking class next month.

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