World Cup of Food #4: American feasting

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World Cup of Food

Thanksgiving is my favorite American holiday.

It’s not pure, exactly—name me a celebration that doesn’t carry some baggage—but it is simple. Get together with people you care about, take a moment to reflect on what you’re thankful for, eat until your eyes roll around in your head. It’s very direct.

No country is as in love with itself as the US is, and nothing reflects that love as much as the Thanksgiving plate. It swoons over a glossy veneer, is driven by an ahistorical narrative, and demonstrates an addiction to traditions that only go back a generation.

Usually it’s centered on a meat that nobody really likes, since the only time you really see turkey outside is either when it’s pretending to be ham or when the eater is pretending to be Henry VIII devouring a massive leg at a Renaissance Faire. Meanwhile, there’s a motley cast of minor players that hang around at the edge of the stage, unholy concoctions across the board. Say hello to the green bean casserole, courtesy of Campbell’s soup company; or the sweet potatoes that may be accompanied by marshmallow.

Still, it’s the act of getting together more than the specific contents of the meal that matter. So in our Thanksgiving dinner, eaten with friends, the turkey was substituted out for a gigantic lump of rare beef, buttressed by some frilly yams, green beans, sweet glazed carrots, and a bready stuffing.

We got together with people we cared about, appreciated what we are thankful for, and ate until we were defeated. I’d call that success.

[Read more about the World Cup of Food.]

World Cup of Food #3: Polish pierogi

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I spotted Seakor for the first time when we were shopping for furniture a few weeks ago; it’s an unassuming Polish deli on a corner of the Richmond opposite a gas station, graced by a sign that says “& SAUSAGE FACTORY.” Who wouldn’t be intrigued?

It was always easy to get Polish food in the UK, one flat we had in Brighton was slapped next to a Polish corner shop (or perhaps the shop was slapped next to the flat) but although the shelves were stuffed with vowelless delicacies, I’d never really noticed.

At Seakor, I explained my World Cup odyssey to the chap behind the counter and asked him what a quick Polish lunch might look like. He wasn’t much interested in the football, but he did offer us some smoked sausage to taste. It was good, and they say it’s the best Polish deli in the city, so we got a lot of pierogi and a trio of the sausageman’s recommendations, along with some ginger cookies (the wrapper said OUTSTANDING SMACK, which was enough for me).

Meanwhile an older couple navigated their way through the food behind the glass, and a Polish woman chatted with me about the scorelines earlier in the day and Lewandoski’s missed penalty. Her boyfriend, she told me, was English—a couple of minutes later he arrived and revealed himself, disappointingly, to be an Arsenal fan.

We got home and threw the food together; a quick boil, then a fry to brown them off. They were sauerkraut and mushroom; doughy and heavy. Coming so soon after the German dinner, I had to take it slowly and simply—no extras, just a few nibbles. It was a hefty plate that gave me a lot of time to think.I thought about the missed penalty. I thought about the OUTSTANDING SMACK. And I thought, this food probably isn’t for me.

[Read more about the World Cup of Food.]

World Cup of Food #2: German essen

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German food gets a surprisingly easy ride. We all know the jokes about English cuisine, or the wincing references to Scandinavia’s pickled herrings, or the apparently endless parade of cabbage-based dishes that represent an Eastern European dinner table. And yet somehow German grub—which essentially combines all of those into a single menu—doesn’t come in for the same skepticism.

At least, that’s what I figure given the number of German food spots around the Bay. Sausage and beer are easy to come by at a range of places, even if covid did not give the area’s Deutschy places a particularly easy ride. Walzwerk, a cosy East German place in the Mission that I particularly liked, closed down in 2020; Lehr’s, a German import store in Noe Valley that I refuse to visit because of its longstanding front window typo, shut down but is apparently re-opening.

Schnitzel became a go-to comfort food for us during the pandemic, partly because the act of making it was enjoyable—hammering, breading and frying the meat gives you a feeling of accomplishment, plus I learned a kind of ad-hoc spaetzle recipe from Kenji Lopez-Alt that is both incredibly easy and fun to put together.

But I was interested in what the local restaurants could offer up—so we caught the beerhall vibe at Suppenküche, which occupies a little corner in Hayes Valley. It was a busy night, and it’s a noisy share-the-table kind of place, so we made our way through pretzel, reibekuchen, eggs, beets, and sausage before heading into schnitzel territory. Washed it all down with a dark beer. I think my family enjoy German food more than I do, and it sits heavy—I am still full 12 hours later—but it was a solid choice.

[Read more about the World Cup of Food.]

World Cup of Food #1: Qatari kabsa

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World Cup of Food

It was a weird day to start this project. Qatar kicked off the World Cup—Qatar, where being gay is illegal and potentially punishable by death. Here in the US, today is the trans day of remembrance; the night before, some mouthbreather in Colorado shot up and killed a bunch of people at a gay bar. These abhorrences are not unconnected.

So yeah, weird day.

But the World Cup is so compromised that I knew it wouldn’t be anything else (John Amaechi says it best, perhaps.)

Despite everything, it seemed appropriate to start my food odyssey with Qatar, but my research suggested there’s not a lot of local food in the Bay Area. There’s a lot of Arabic cuisine, much more than a few years ago and—at least to my tastes—better, too. I live near Beit Rima, a lovely Lebanese spot that opened before the pandemic and made it through; a new mezze place opened just a few blocks away. But not a lot of Qatari food.

So I asked a friend who is in the know, and she recommended Yemen Kitchen, a little hole in the wall in the Tenderloin: they serve kabsa, also known as machboos, a traditional peninsula dish that blends spices, vegetables, rice and meat. This place’s kabsa was very close to the Qatari version, she said, although can be on the dry side. So we ordered lamb kabsa, a little chicken, some falafel, some hummus, some bread. (Sunday night, we ordered takeout rather than eating in.)

And it was, broadly, great: Lamb on the bone that fell apart, fragrantly spiced but not overpowering rice, with enough texture to keep it interesting and a dusty set of flavors that I loved. The portions were huge; a single bowl of kabsa pretty much fed three of us, although I think traditionally it’s eaten as a sharing platter so I suppose that’s the point. The falafel was good, maybe the best I’ve had here—crunchy on the outside and fluffy on the inside. The main downside was the disappointing bread, basically just a bag of pita straight from the wholesaler (I’ve noticed this happening at a few places recently.) But we’ll be eating there again.

In the meantime, I matched the amount we spent on food from Yemen Kitchen with a donation to Trans Lifeline, a volunteer-led hotline for trans people in trouble.


[Read more about the World Cup of Food.]

Things I liked this week (46)

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Link / Media / Things my friends have made

• Laura Hazard Owen’s Nieman Lab piece on what journalism will lose if Twitter goes away brought many of the costs of the current drama together in one place. I’ve downloaded my data and mothballed my account.

• Sorrow compounded when I finished reading Lincoln in the Bardo. I’d picked it up after hearing George Saunders interviewed by Alexis Madrigal on KQED radio, having enjoyed A Swim in the Pond in the Rain last year and dipping into his Substack from time to time. What a sad, beautiful, funny book. I’m annoyed with myself for not reading it sooner.

• Perhaps relatedly, I happened on this VQR piece on funeral traditions in Black America struck me. The piece feels a little cursory; I could read something much more substantial. But still.

Introducing my World Cup of Food (Bay Area edition)

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World Cup of Food

I love the World Cup. Football all day for weeks on end, players from all over the planet—the greats, the unknowns—thrown in together, each one hoping to get their moment in the spotlight. Amazing victories, drama, tragedy, high stakes games, athletic prowess on full display? It’s amazing.

At the same time… I hate the World Cup. Or, more specifically, I hate this World Cup. I wasn’t too keen on the last one in Russia, either, but this year’s is troublesome for a range of reasons, not least because Fifa’s corrupt decision to award it to Qatar back in 2010 was one of the early salvoes in the current era of sportwashing by problematic regimes. (Believe me, as a Chelsea fan, I’m very well aware that we basically fired the starting pistol on all of that.) And as well as the human rights and labor issues, there’s so much that’s weird about this year’s competition—taking place in the winter, mid-season, many big names missing because of small injuries, teams lacking preparation, and all held essentially in a single city.

But still, for all its problems, I love the World Cup.

I also love food. Eating it, making it, thinking about it. I don’t mean that I love fancy restaurants or celebrity chefs—honestly, that’s all a bit much. I just love grub. We’re lucky that San Francisco has a vibrant food culture, reflecting the wide array of immigrant cultures here in the Bay Area.

So I thought: why not bring these two together?

So here it is, my World Cup of Food (Bay Area edition.)

The challenge is this: Between the opening game of the World Cup on November 20 and the final on December 18, I plan on eating a dish or meal from every country taking part in the competition. That’s 32 teams across 29 days.

Many countries are easy. USA! Mexico! I live in California, come on. Some cuisines are very common, like Japanese and French. And I’m English, so that one’s easy to cover.

But there are a few tough options. Who serves genuine Qatari and Saudi Arabian cuisine? What places can dish up Croatian and Serbian food? Where are the good Ghanaian meals, as opposed to generic West African? If you have any ideas, please leave a comment.

While I’m prepared to do some cooking at home, hopefully this will give me a chance to explore some new foods, go to some new locations, and maybe meet some interesting people along the way.

I’ll keep this page updated with new additions as we go along.

Let’s go.

Bobbie’s World Cup of Food (Bay Area edition)

Group A: Ecuador, Netherlands, Qatar, Senegal
Group B: England, Iran, United States, Wales
Group C: Argentina, Mexico, Poland, Saudi Arabia
Group D: Australia, Denmark, France, Tunisia
Group E: Costa Rica, Germany, Japan, Spain
Group F: Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Morocco
Group G: Brazil, Cameroon, Serbia, Switzerland
Group H: Ghana, Portugal, South Korea, Uruguay

Full of passionate intensity

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Media / Quotes

Joan Didion, for all her complexities, continues to have… a moment? No, it’s too extended for that. And she was too anxious, too awkward for it. Still, it’s happening: even though she died last year, her words keep coming. Even her stuff keeps coming.

I loved this explanation of hers, from a talk (via Lithub) that’s in her book released earlier this year.

During those years I was traveling on what I knew to be a very shaky passport, forged papers: I knew that I was no legitimate resident in any world of ideas. I knew I couldn’t think. All I knew then was what I couldn’t do. All I knew then was what I wasn’t, and it took me some years to discover what I was. 

Which was a writer.

By which I mean not a “good” writer or a “bad” writer but simply a writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper.

It’s those obsessions that shape what we are, really. Underneath we’re the nouns, not the adjectives.

A foul buffet

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Smells are brilliant and infuriating for writers because they are just so hard to express. Here’s an Atlas Obscura piece, an excerpt from Jessica Leigh Hester’s Sewer, describing the waft of fatbergs that clog the pipes beneath London.

You can live with the smell of poop, Howard said. Over time, it even starts to smell sweet, he claimed. You get used to it.

No one gets used to the stench of a fatberg.

It’s a foul buffet. There’s the stink of rotting eggs, courtesy of hydrogen sulfide. Then, something cooked in old, rancid oil. “It’s the smell of fries, constantly bombarding you,” Howard said. (Maybe—but cold, greasy, and laced with poop.) Gases get trapped beneath a crust on top of the fatberg, Stuart explained. Step too hard and the crust can break, inviting eruptions. Some gases, like methane, are odorless at room temperature. And when other smells are so spectacularly and constantly bad, the nose is no longer a good barometer of danger.

These moments that overwhelm the senses are fascinating.

Things I liked this week (45)

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Media / Recommendations / Things my friends have made

Weird, the Al Yankovic Story was brilliantly stupid. This is a group of people living their best life: Weird Al just having a ton of fun, Daniel Radcliffe continuing to go off. (Asked recently by a Guardian reader “Do you just tell your agent: “As long as it’s weird, I’m in?””, he replied that his approach to scripts was: “If you sit down and lecture somebody on how shame keeps us from love, that’s quite dry. But if you make it a farting corpse being used as a jetski… that’s a conversation.”)

Proper explained “why we’re still talking about gorpcore.” Never have I felt so behind the zetigeist.

• Former colleague Eileen Guo continues to trace the trail of havoc left by Washington’s hounding of Chinese-American scientists (AKA the Department of Justice’s “China Initiative.”) This time around she covers the case of Sherry Chen, the National Weather Service hydrologist who was just awarded almost $2m after being wrongfully dismissed and accused of spying for China because she used a shared password.

Keep your ears up, rabbit

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You can call it on the Golden Age of Podcasting™: it’s over, it’s done. What started, sort of, with Serial has come to an end—and not just because Adnan finally got out. After a blossoming of studios and projects over the last decade, things hit a plateau when the services all rolled up into a handful of dominant players, and we are now going through an inevitable and depressing dip as the dominance turns into a shakeout. It’s obvious to anyone with eyes that the good days are done.

But to anyone with ears? There are great moments out there.

Listen: Avery Trufelman’s podcast about clothes, Articles of Interest, is back. It’s got a different flavor this time around: a long-burning interrogation of a single topic—America’s never-ending fascination with the preppy look (AKA “American Ivy”) rather than changing subject episode-by-episode. I never thought I’d be intrigued by the history of popped collars and khaki pants, but she’s such an engaging storyteller and ties the influences and interconnections together in an intriguing way that I’m all in.

Listen: Audrey Gillan’s Bible John, which is partly about the unsolved case of a serial killer who terrorized Glasgow in the late 60s, but is really about rebuilding the past, changing attitudes, and how the deaths echoed through from a particular place, a particular time, and reached into the future. It’s got a lot of potential to be yet-another-true-crime story, but she deals with the material so sensitively and puts so much humanity into the victims—poorly served by misogynistic police—that it turns the series into something else. It shouldn’t be a surprise, one of her previous series, Tara and George, is a fantastic, human depiction of a pair of rough sleepers in London.

Maybe the golden days are still here after all. You just have to listen out for them.

(Previously: Spotify’s podcasting struggle | My 2021 podcast recommendations)