Saturday, October 31, 2009

Best and Worst Halloween Candies

Every year at this time the internet becomes filled with commentary on what the best and worst Halloween candies are to give out to trick-or-treaters. Taste in candy can be subjective so it makes it difficult to gage what others will enjoy. However, the one rule of Halloween that everyone should follow is only give out candy! Trick-or-treaters do not want to receive raisins or other dried fruits on this long-awaited, candy-filled holiday, and they definitely don’t want toothbrushes. Let the children’s parents worry about cavities—Halloween is one night when teeth are supposed to be coated in a thick, sugary mess.

My personal dislikes for Halloween candies are candy corn and Smarties. Otherwise, I’m not too picky. Candy corn seems to always come up in lists of worst Halloween candy, and I have to agree. It’s so perfectly themed for the season that I want to like it, but every time I eat it I just don’t enjoy it. Since this candy seems to cause such debate, my recommendation is to get a stash for yourself to eat if you enjoy it, but don’t subject others to the sickenly sweet, waxy pieces of corn. Smarties are probably the most boring candies to get for Halloween. Their not actually that bad, they just can’t really compete with candy bars, Pop Rocks, or gummy candy shaped like pumpkins and monsters.

This leads me to my favorite Halloween candies. Pop Rocks are probably the best thing to get for Halloween—not only do they come in tasty flavors, they are actually exciting to eat. And there’s nothing better than receiving a candy that both turns your tongue colors and creates odd, sparkling sensations in your mouth. You also can’t go wrong with candy bars or anything chocolate. My personal favorites to hand out are Snickers, Milky Way, and Hershey’s varieties, but almost any candy bar is a great thing to get in a Halloween bag. I don’t know how other people feel about gummy candies, but I love them. This year I discovered Lifesavers gummies shaped like witches, pumpkins, mummies, and other Halloween symbols. They are great, but I’ve mostly eaten the entire stash and it’s still a few hours before trick-or-treaters will be arriving.

That’s just my personal opinion on appropriate Halloween candy. Whatever you decide to hand out, just make sure it’s something you will enjoy eating if you have any left over.

Happy Halloween everyone—I hope you all have a fun, spooky, and sugary night!

One more rule: don't hand out rocks!!


Myths are driving forces in our lives—they are stories based on fact that became central to our understanding of the society we are in. Even though we often know that myths are not real we still embrace them because they define our culture and our place in time. Halloween is one of these myths in American culture. Though it is based on historical events and has roots in Celtic and Christian traditions, we often don’t think about the reality of the myth—we prefer the fantasy. Halloween is one night of the year when over-protective parents decide it’s okay for their children to take candy from strangers, rambunctious adolescents can egg and toilet paper helpless suburban homes with no fear of punishment, and everyone gets to wear a disguise.

The myth of Halloween perpetuates itself through the practice of different traditions. Many of these Halloween traditions involve food—bobbing for apples, trick or treating, and carving pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns. The sight of those bright orange bulbous gourds always evokes the sense of autumn harvest and, of course, the coming of Halloween. They provide food in the form of pumpkin pie, pumpkin soup, and roasted seeds, but one of the greatest joys a pumpkin can provide is the jack-o’-lantern.

The introduction of the jack-o’-lantern to America is generally associated with Irish immigrants who came to America in the nineteenth century. The Irish believed in the tale of Stingy Jack, who was a man that tricked the Devil so often that when Jack died the Devil wouldn’t let him claim his soul in the afterlife. Stingy Jack was forced to wander the earth and carried with him a hallowed turnip with a burning coal held inside. In an effort to keep away Stingy Jack and other evil spirits the Irish traditionally carved scary faces into turnips or potatoes, placed a light in them, and set them out on All Hallows Eve. The English also followed this tradition but usually carved the faces into beets. After immigrating to America in the nineteenth century, the Irish chose pumpkins as the best choice to keep away terrifying spirits.

The tradition of carving jack-o’-lanterns is based in these past events but has transformed and evolved in our modern culture. Today, although the pursuit of processed sugar and polyester costumes has become a focal point of this ancient holiday, we still take the time to carve our jack-o’-lanterns every year, passing on this tradition to future generations. We continue to spook ourselves with ghost stories, listen for the sounds of the supernatural when we switch off the lights, and let the myth of Halloween glow strongly through those scary pumpkin faces.

Happy carving everyone!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Trick or Treat!

Be warned--if you don't treat you might get tricked!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Quote of the Week: A Feast for Ghosts

Lord Henry and his lady were the hosts;
The party we have touch'd on were the guests:
Their table was a board to tempt even ghosts
To pass the Styx for more substantial feasts.
I will not dwell upon ragouts or roasts,
Albeit all human history attests
That happiness for man—the hungry sinner!—
Since Eve ate apples, much depends on dinner.

—Lord Byron,
Don Juan, Canto the Thirteenth

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Hot Apple Cider

On a dark and stormy October evening there’s nothing better than a steaming mug of hot apple cider to keep you warm.

The roots of cider as we know it can be traced back to the Norman Conquest in 1066 when cider was brought to Britain from Normandy. By the seventeenth century the production of cider was still thriving, particularly in southern England, and was made from apples and pears.

Hailing from England, the Puritans and Pilgrims that traveled to the New World in the early seventeenth century brought with them many English customs, including the production and consumption of cider. Cider, among other alcoholic beverages, was a daily part of the colonists’ diet in New England. In 1740 an English visitor to Boston observed that “the generality of the people” drank cider “with their victuals.” Few households had the equipment to make cider and many colonists procured their cider from a local cider mill. Cookbooks of the era also contained recipes and instructions for making cider.

The cider we drink today is generally nonalcoholic unless we specifically purchase or make “hard cider” that has undergone fermentation. However, that delicious apple goodness is still a large part of the fall season in New England and New York where apple orchards abound. Rather than going through the process of fermenting cider, try this tasty recipe using regular cider that can be purchased at any orchard and just add a little spiced rum if you wish.

1 apple

2 teaspoons whole cloves
1 orange, sliced
2 quarts apple cider
1 teaspoon allspice
½ teaspoon nutmeg
Cinnamon sticks for garnish
Spiced rum (optional)

1. Stick the cloves into the apple.

2. Combine all the ingredients except the cinnamon sticks in a pot over low heat and bring the mixture to a simmer.

3. Allow the mixture to simmer for at least ten minutes to let all the flavors combine.

4. Ladle out the deliciousness and add a cinnamon stick for garnish. (Optional: add a splash of spiced rum)

So sit back with your warm cup of cider, listen to the October rain, and maybe even pop in a scary movie as you indulge with this tasty autumnal beverage.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Quote of the Week: Fire Burn, and Cauldron Bubble

"Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;

Eye of newt, and toe of frog,

Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,

Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg, and owlet's wing,—
For a charm of powerful trouble,

Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

Double, double toil and trouble;

Fire burn, and cauldron bubble."

—William Shakespeare, Macbeth

This is Halloween

For the next two weeks this blog will be dedicated to one of the greatest holidays of the year—Halloween. This candy-filled and spooky holiday generates some of the most fun for children in America. It’s the one night of the year where they get to go door to door and demand candy from strangers. What could be better?

Fond memories for me involve trick or treating, going to the haunted house at the local fire department, and then coming home and sorting through my candy while watching The Simpson’s tree house of horror specials on TV.

To get into the Halloween spirit this year let’s take a look at one of the most basic recipes of the season—roasted pumpkin seeds. When you are carving your pumpkin don’t throw away those seeds. Instead, keep them in a bowl and rinse all the pumpkin guts off them.

Preheat the oven to 300°F. Toss the seeds with some salt and vegetable oil, olive oil, or butter. Spread the seeds out on a cookie sheet and bake for about 45 minutes or until golden brown.

It might not be as exciting as trick or treating, but this simple, crunchy, and salty snack is a great way to get ready for the ghouls and goblins of Halloween. So is watching a little Nightmare Before Christmas...

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

I still remember being a kid and reading and rereading
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs written by Judi Barrett and illustrated by Ron Barrett. The timeless tale of the land of Chewandswallow and those engaging illustrations captured my attention every time I picked up the book. What kid doesn’t relish in the idea that pancakes could fall from the sky for breakfast or that a storm of hamburgers would rain down at dinner time? A few months ago when I found out that this amazing children’s story was being turned into a movie I knew I had to see it in theaters—especially when I found out it was going to be in 3D.

A week after the movie opened I had the opportunity to see it in Imax 3D. Although the screenwriters greatly elaborated on the book’s simple plot it was still a great film, and it definitely helped that I appreciated all the “cheese”y jokes and just inherently find the concept of food falling out of the sky mesmerizing and hilarious.

The basic concept of the book is that in the land of Chewandswallow the citizens of the land get their food through the weather. For example, eggs and orange juice could fall from the sky at breakfast time or a split pea soup fog could roll in at supper. In the movie, the writers call the land Swallow Falls—a small island that used to thrive off the sardine business until everyone realized that sardines were gross, leaving the island with no income and only sardines to eat. They also created the character of Flint Lockwood (voiced by Bill Hader), a scientist who creates a machine that can turn water into food. The machine gets launched into the sky and voila, hamburgers rain down from the sky. Now the sardine-ridden town can eat anything it wants, and the island is transformed into a tourist attraction called Chew and Swallow. And then things get out of control as the food becomes mutated and grows much too large (perhaps a warning regarding genetically modified food). The bad weather begins with a spaghetti and meatball tornado and things only get worse.

The best part of the film was when Flint generates a gigantic Jell-O palace for his crush, a weather reporter named Sam Sparks (voiced by Anna Faris). They bounce around in the Jell-O, eat the Jell-O, watch the sunset through the Jell-O…it’s quite magical. It was personally meaningful to me because I’ve always wanted to go swimming in a pool of Jell-O. Don’t ask why—I just think it would be an amazing experience. This is probably the closest I’ll ever get to actually doing it, so I enjoyed every moment.

The Jell-O palace for the movie was clearly inspired by the following page from the original book.

All in all, the movie was great—the 3D animation was incredible and the one-liners kept on coming. I loved it. If you were a die hard fan of the book you just have to let go of any purist ideals since they really don’t stick to the original. But what they do cook up is a lot of fun. If you have kids, or if you just think you are still a kid like me, then definitely go see the film. In addition to the film every kid and foodie should have a copy of this book in their collection. You should also probably eat a big meal before going to see the film—even though it is a cartoon it will still make you hungry!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Quote of the Week: A Necessary Ingredient

"I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it's a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope and that enables you to laugh at life's realities."

—Dr. Seuss

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Johnny Rockets

There is something about 1950s and early 1960s nostalgia that is so hard resist in American culture. We would like to believe that life was somehow better back then—it was a simpler time where all of life’s problems could be solved by a trip to the local malt shop, the Beatles just wanted to hold your hand, suburbia was growing, and the peaceable kingdom of television was entering everyone’s homes, spreading the message of a "Leave it to Beaver" philosophy.

We know realistically that this era was not all jukeboxes, burgers, and milkshakes, but it is still nice to imagine it that way. Johnny Rockets is the perfect restaurant to do just that. Although the first Johnny Rockets opened in 1986, the restaurants are themed with a 1950s malt-shop vibe. They describe themselves as providing “food, fun, and friendliness reminiscent of feel-good Americana.”

I recently visited a Johnny Rockets for the first time. The décor was exactly the way that the 1950s are in my imagination. There are classic coca-cola posters on the wall, shiny chrome surfaces, smooth white walls, and even a mini juke box on every table. And the music was wonderful—Elvis was playing when we entered and the Supremes were playing on the way out. I periodically was distracted from my food because I was too busy singing along to classic oldies.
I was there with my boyfriend, and I really felt like Sandy in the movie Grease going on a date with Danny Zuko. I had the Original hamburger with cheddar cheese added—it came with lettuce, tomato, chopped onions, relish, pickles, mustard, and mayonnaise. Of course, I got fries to accompany the burger, and the waitress brought out ketchup and squirted it out in a smiley face shape into a little dish. My boyfriend got the Bacon Cheddar Single burger, which came topped with thick bacon, cheddar, lettuce, tomato, onion slice, and special sauce. He also got fries, and we both ordered a root-beer float with big scoops of vanilla ice-cream.

It’s amazing how nostalgic we can be at times for eras that we never actually experienced, and even people who were alive in those periods can fabricate memories that highlight the good times and eliminate the bad. Johnny Rockets is emblematic of our imagined version of 1950s America. If you are looking for a classic burger and fries meal, then take a little escape into the past at Johnny Rockets. You can check out their Web site, view the menu, and find a location near you here:

Even though this song has nothing to do with food, let’s keep traveling down memory lane with a little summer lovin’…

Johnny Rockets on Urbanspoon

Friday, October 9, 2009

Food as Text

Food is made up of a multitude of components. These different components are weaved together like threads to form one composite—like a text that can be read and interpreted. Those threads can be interrogated, deconstructed, and traced back to other composites of other objects, people, events, and ideas. Just as Proust’s Madeline triggered a string of memories in his mind, so can each piece of food or each dish carry an individual in countless directions. 

So what is food composed of if we look at it as text for deeper understanding? Food is not simply a conglomerate of different ingredients, though those ingredients may be the most obvious of the threads that make up a particular food. There are ingredients or nutritional elements, yes, but there are also scientific processes, chemicals, scents, flavors, memories, agriculture, and cultural meanings that are embedded within each dish. And these are only a few of the threads that can compose food. Two individuals who interact with same piece the food could be led in completely different directions on various threads. The reading of the text is unlimited, and there is an undeniable synergy as the components meld together. 

Take the apple for example. On one level, it is simply a fruit from a deciduous tree, with the scientific name malus domestica. It was one of the first fruits to be cultivated by humans and comes in a variety of breeds with different flavors, textures, and shapes. Apples can be sweet or tart, green, red, or yellow, and be used to make a variety of dishes. 

Beyond the basic components of the apple are the cultural meanings. As with most foods, there exists cultural constructions, symbols that we all appreciate. One might think of the healthy associations with the apple, and the phrase “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” might be uttered in one’s thoughts. It could also trigger the knowledge of Apple as a technological empire, indicating that at least one cultural thread leading out of the apple is tied to business and technology. 

There is also everything that surrounds the production of the apple, whether it’s plucked from the tree of a local farm or packaged in a plastic bag at a corporate supermarket. The piece of fruit’s waxy skin could be coated with pesticides or remain unaltered by chemicals. The tree could have sprung up in the forest on its own or a grower could have created hybrids and altered its genes, reflecting in one apple the ability of nature to produce a glorious yet simple bit of nourishment, yet also showing the potential of humanity’s power of technology and science. 

The apple could be found on the tree, at the store, on the kitchen table, in a lunch box, cut into French fry shapes at a fast-food restaurant, coated in caramel, or sliced in half and dipped into paint to create art. It could be stuck with objects to create a little apple person, thrown at someone, mashed into apple sauce, or used it as a symbol of New York state. Within this one piece of fruit each of these possibilities is apparent, and the context of the apple can change its meaning at any given moment. 

An individual’s involuntary memory could also be sparked by the simple interaction with the apple. Viewing the apple could conjure memories of apple picking as a child—of steaming hot cider, hay rides, and warm cider donuts. It could bring one back to the feeling of a simpler time of childhood and invoke a sense of the past. Perhaps the sight of an apple could conjure images of the biblical Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. 

Smelling the apple could trigger memories of apple-scented perfume, shampoo, or soap. What and who does the smell remind the individual of? Could it be a friend, a family mother, a stranger on the bus? And what memories do these references lead the individual to remember? It could lead to memories of the smell of apple blossoms, blooming just when the pear trees in the next orchard over are becoming bare and stark against the gray sky. Tasting the apple could remind one of grandma’s sweet apple pie, crisp leaves, and the scent of a loved one’s warm home on a cool autumn day. The sweet little bite could bring a sense of comfort in the midst of a hectic day—offering a relief with the taste of one of nature’s creations. The touch of the apple and its smooth waxy skin could remind one of the feel of the baseball, transferring the individual to a little league game or Yankee Stadium. 

Each apple, each cup of tea, each chocolate chip cookie, each piece of sushi, each grain of rice in each piece of sushi…they all have the ability to bring the individual on a journey through all of its components, to trigger memories, and conjure up cultural meanings. 

Everything in our lives is potentially a text for deeper seeing, understanding, and interpreting. All that potential is inherently present, whether it’s one’s sense of identity, a television show, or an old letter discovered in an attic. Food is no different. Rather than mindlessly eating, one can allow each interaction with a dish to be an opportunity to unravel the threads and experience the potential in each bite.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Quote of the Week: Ambrosia Under a Tree

"Bread and butter, devoid of charm in the drawing room, is ambrosia eating under a tree."

Elizabeth Russell

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Poached Eggs with Tomato and Basil

It’s Saturday morning—you sleep in, wake up to the sun shining, and actually have time to make something nice for yourself for breakfast. But what to make? There are, of course, the classics: fried eggs with buttered toast and bacon, pancakes or French toast with sausage…but how about something a little more interesting?

After mastering the poached egg a couple of months ago, I’ve been experimenting with different versions of the traditional eggs benedict. One of my favorites is poached eggs atop an English muffin with slices of tomato and fresh basil. This dish has a light and fresh taste and won’t weigh you down like so many decadent brunch and breakfast items.

Poached Eggs with Tomato and Basil


Extra-Virgin Olive Oil

1. The first step is to poach the eggs. This can be intimidating and might take a couple of tries to get it right, but it is worth it. I use Julia Child’s instructions for poaching eggs, which can be found in Mastering the Art of French Cooking or by searching on the internet.

Fill a pot with one inch of water and a splash of white wine vinegar and bring to a simmer—the water should really be barely simmering and definitely not boiling. Julia Child’s recipe states to crack the eggs as close as possible to the water and let them drop in and then quickly push the whites over the yolks with a wooden spoon. I don’t know how many hands Julia Child had, but this step is simply too complicated for the average cook to perform by oneself!

I recommend taking the egg and cracking it into a ladle. Holding the ladle in one hand and a wooden spoon in the other, carefully drop the ladle into the simmering water and let the egg slide off. With the wooden spoon gently push the egg whites over the yolk. I never know if I’m doing this step correctly so I basically just try to encourage the egg whites to stay close to the rest of the egg instead of wandering off into the water like a disobedient child at an amusement park.

Repeat this step with the other eggs.

2. After four minutes from the time the first egg was placed in the water, lift the eggs carefully out of the simmering water (I recommend using the ladle for this action—it’s less easy for them to slip off as they can do on a smaller spoon) and place them into a bowl of cold water. The cold water will stop the cooking and rinse off the vinegar.

If for some bizarre reason you want the yolks to be hard not runny, just let them stay in the simmering water for another minute or two.

The eggs can remain in the cold water for a while. Simply give them a quick bath in warm water to heat them up before serving.

3. Toast an English muffin.

4. Drizzle the English muffins with a little extra-virgin olive oil.

5. Place a large slice of tomato (or a couple of slices if the tomatoes are small) on the English muffin.

6. Cover with a few pieces of basil.

7. Place the eggs on top and sprinkle on little salt and pepper.

Voila! A delicious and nutritious breakfast.