More cheese in art

I was in Amsterdam for a couple of weeks in July. It reminded me how much I’ve always liked the city—although July is not the best time to visit. I was last in the Netherlands about 6 or 7 years ago, and my culinary memories of that stay are packed with bread and sandwiches. This time I wanted to go to town with the cuisines of former Dutch colonies—Indonesia and Surinam in particular. The food and cooking of the Indian subcontinent is everywhere in Britain, so I assumed it would be easy to find plenty of what I was looking for in Amsterdam. Not so. Maybe I was in the wrong part of the city? Maybe the cuisines of its ex colonies haven’t had much impact on Dutch eating and food culture? Maybe I need to do more research before any future trip?

So I more or less gave up on that quest and resigned myself to a fortnight of bread, bread, and more bread. Look, the Dutch do bread well, especially fruit breads, but there really are only so many sandwiches a girl can eat.

Prayer without End

I went to the Rijksmuseum to look at their still lives. Early to avoid the crowds and queues. I found less cheese on the walls this time. This painting of an elderly woman at prayer by Nicolaes Maes is titled Prayer without End. Hmm … could she be praying for a meal that doesn’t involve a lot of bread?

The only other ‘cheese painting’ on display was one from about 1615 by Floris Claesz van Dijk. More generally, I noticed that as well as peel, cracked nuts and half apples, all manner of hungry insects populated these seventeenth century still lives. Reminders of the propinquity of death and decay.

After slim pickings on the cheese in art front I turned my attention to the artistry of cheese shops. The produce on offer was green, red, orange, brownish, almost white, and every shade of yellow. Row upon row of Edam and Gouda flavoured with different herbs, spices and weeds. Given my interest in edible weeds, of course I had to try what was described as a farmhouse lunch cheese made with nettles. And yes, it did taste very good.

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In the absence of Indonesian or Surinamese dishes, I organised my culinary itinerary around fruit breads and cheeses.

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Bengali burrito

America is cheesy. Very cheesy, and I’d had enough of it. My mission was to find a lunch that didn’t involve cheese.

I’m just back from a research trip to the US, most of which I spent in New Haven, Connecticut. My previous New Haven visit was in March/April 2012, and based on that experience, I was planning to write about food deserts …

Food deserts are neighbourhoods where residents have little or no access to fresh and affordable food within walking distance or a short public transport ride. Twenty years ago the term didn’t exist. That some areas had more bottle shops and fast food outlets than decent supermarkets was just a fact of life. The typical explanation is a lack of demand. That’s PR-speak for: the locals are poor and won’t buy enough to guarantee the required level of profit. Until a couple of years ago (when a Stop & Shop and a large grocery store-cum supermarket opened) New Haven’s downtown was a food desert, and—despite various community garden projects—parts of the city are still officially classified as such.

My mental sketch map of New Haven has Yale University in all its autumnal and academic splendour surrounded by a vast sea of social disadvantage. Every morning I put a handful of $1 bills in my pocket to give to people begging on street corners, or huddled on church steps in the hope of a soup kitchen. When my day’s supply of notes is gone, that’s it until tomorrow. I came up with this strategy on trips to India—never did I imagine I’d need it for North America.

Bengali burrito cart, Oct 2013

It was the food carts that steered me away from food deserts. I was vaguely aware of them my first visit, but this trip I discovered them big time. There are apparently 3 main concentrations in New Haven: Long Wharf, the part of campus known as Science Hill, and the one I most frequent which occupies a stretch of Cedar Street outside the Yale-New Haven Medical Centre. The cuisines on offer here are predominantly Asian, so a non-cheese lunch should be no problem. There are stir-fries, Taiwanese noodle soups, bibimbaps and—wow, Bengali burritos. I’m fascinated by cultural and culinary hybrids, so of course that’s what I order: one beef and one vegetarian. Then unroll them to see what’s inside: onion, cabbage, carrot, lightly spiced beef or potato all topped with chilli sauce, a yoghurt/mint dressing and a sprinkling of lettuce. The enclosing bread is a paratha, or maybe a roti—I’m never entirely sure of the difference between these 2—and the whole thing is delicious. Cheese free and not too big. Like the original Mexican burritos before they got supersized into American fast food.

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The burrito has a lot of creation stories, but most agree that it arose in northern Mexico and migrated along with the farm labourers to California and elsewhere. It existed on the culinary borderlands for several decades before becoming widely available in the 1960s—in the US. I don’t know when burritos first appeared on Australian menus …

The Tex-Mex chain Taco Bell opened in Sydney in 1981, relaunched in 1997, and by 2005 had pulled out of the country. Should you have a sudden craving for their fare, our nearest Taco Bell is now in Honolulu.

A burrito consists of a wheat flour tortilla wrapped around a filling. In Mexico they’re generally small and slim, with only a couple of ingredients—a little meat or fish, plus rice or beans. In the US burritos are longer and fatter, stuffed with way more than the basics.

The land of plenty. It drew the poor and huddled masses across the Atlantic, and it permeates American politics, values and eating habits. The belief that bigger is better seems to hit some kind of national sweet spot. Everything becomes bigger, not just burritos. Take nouns—US English supersizes them with extra syllables: transport becomes transportation; wonder lengthens into wonderment.

Salsa overtook ketchup as America’s favourite condiment a while back. Now tacos and burritos have pretty much lost their ‘ethnic food’ tag, and tortillas outsell burger and hot dog buns. The food of its southern neighbour is America’s food of choice even as armed vigilantes trawl the US-Mexican border for illegal immigrants.

Belgali burrito making

You can tell a lot about a place from browsing the cooking section of its bookshops. So having read about this conquest by quesadilla and a million jars of salsa, I decide to check out New Haven’s biggest bookstore. This  branch of Barnes & Noble has shelves of special diet books, loads of picture books about cupcakes, and plenty about modern American cooking using local and/or healthy ingredients. France is well represented, likewise Italy, and there’s quite a large Jewish section—larger than we’d see in Australia. By contrast, Asia is scarcely a dozen titles. I expect Mexico to be well-supplied … but it’s not. I count only 5 books. Wow again. This cuisine’s history may barely register in the official American story, but go to the supermarket and you find aisles packed with hot sauce, corn chips, frozen enchiladas, DIY tamales, etc. And there are Latino restaurants and food outlets all over the place. Maybe that’s it? Mexican food has been embraced with gusto—as an everyday, workaday, ‘blue-collar’ cuisine.

Once upon a time in Australia we got all our Mexican tastes by way of the US—heavy on sour cream, short on subtlety. Taco Bell may have upped and left, but over the past few years other Mexican themed franchises have spread across the country: Mad Mex, Montezuma’s, Guzman Y Gomez, Taco Bill’s. But alongside this ‘casual dining’ expansion I’ve noticed growing interest in Mexico’s rich and incredibly varied regional traditions. No mountains of guacamole going brown at the edges. No blizzards of cheap grated cheese.

The burrito is portable, adaptable, a constant work in progress. I’ve seen burritos wrapped around leftovers; around salad and sautéd tofu; Korean-Mexican fusions with kimchi and bulgogi; kosher burritos packed with pastrami; breakfast burritos with bacon and egg and the inevitable cheese. As for the Bengali burrito, a.k.a. kati roll, it’s not so much cross-culinary invention as an exercise in linguistics. A description for locals more familiar with Mexican food than that of the subcontinent. The kati roll is a popular street food from Kolkata. Like the burrito, there are many stories about its origins, and like the burrito it accommodates a diversity of fillings: Thai and Chinese as well as pan-Indian.

And the exchange runs both ways. Bangalore hosted India’s first Taco Bell in 2010, and in 2012 the company introduced its own take on the kati roll in its Indian stores: the ‘Kathitto’ is a combination of kati roll and Mexican-inspired burrito.

Bengali burrito

My desire for cheese-free lunches takes me back again and again to the food carts on Cedar Street. Don’t get me wrong, I like cheese—in its place. Cheese that tastes of something. It’s bland, mass produced American ‘Jack’ cheese I dislike. I can’t understand why anyone with any degree of kitchen literacy would buy it. Until I read about Dairy Management …

As well as pushing to expand the use of cheese in processed foods and home cooking, Dairy Management teamed up with Domino’s to develop a new line of pizzas with 40% more cheese. The pizza may have improved Domino’s financial health, but one slice contains around two-thirds of the maximum recommended daily intake of saturated fat. And you know what’s really bizarre? Dairy Management is a marketing creation of the US Department of Agriculture—the same agency at the centre of a nationwide anti-obesity drive—Go figure. The cheesiest of the Domino’s bunch is called the Wisconsin 6 Cheese Pizza. It’s not available—as far as I can ascertain—in Australia. But if it were, this is what you’d get: 6 cheeses on top (mozzarella, feta, provolone, cheddar, Parmesan & Asiago) and 2 more in the crust. Sounds like it should come with a coupon for the cardiac unit, doesn’t it?

The Bengali burritos are popular with staff and students from the hospital and surrounding departments. The food carts are an important part of New Haven’s eating environment, and they’ve shifted my thinking about New Haven, and about American food more generally. Yes, I can see the downside: the poverty, the waste, the wages so low that people have 2 and 3 jobs to survive and no time to shop and cook. But I can also see that it’s a country where fusion—culinary and otherwise—occurs with ease and frequency.

Cheese in art

I remember a calendar. A gift from a family friend who’d been on holiday to the Netherlands. A different Dutch Cheese for every month. Most of the pictures were photographs, but there was a map of the different cheese areas, and a couple of paintings. Still Life with Pewter Jug, Fruit and Cheese plus another whose name I’ve forgotten, but which also dated from the early 1600s—from the period known as the Dutch Golden Age.

Floris van Dijck, Still life with pewter jug, fruit and cheeseFloris van Dijck, circa 1615-20

Still life painting flourished as a distinct genre during this time, the opening decades of the seventeenth century, a time of unprecedented prosperity. Instead of portraits and religious scenes, artists started painting things: candlesticks, canisters, flowers—and food. Lots of food. Local produce as well as exotic ingredients shipped in from the various Dutch colonies. The spectre of slavery hovers over these tables of plenty.

Cheese is centre-stage, an anchoring presence, in many of these delicious paintings. It was, after all, one of the pillars of the Dutch economy. Its meaning mercantile and domestic rather than religious. Near the beginning of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719, the newly ship-wrecked Crusoe compiles an inventory of his salvaged cargo: ‘bread, rice, three Dutch cheeses … ’

I’m fond of the novella form, and in 2007, during a stay in Amsterdam, I discovered Cheese. Kaas in Dutch. It’s a comic gem, ‘Edam’s great moment in world literature,’ according to its English publisher. Written by Willem Elsschot, a Flemish author and advertising executive, published in 1933, it’s both absurdly funny and terribly sad. Frans Laarmans is a shipping clerk in Antwerp. Pushing 50, on the corporate road to nowhere, he wants respect more than riches. To that end he becomes the Belgian sales agent for a Dutch cheese exporter and takes delivery of 10,000 wheels of Edam. But instead of concentrating on shifting his supply he focuses on setting up his office—buying a desk and typewriter, ordering letterhead, and so on. Meanwhile the cheese sits there, crates of it …

And Laarmans doesn’t even like cheese:

‘I stopped outside a cheese shop to admire the window display … Huge Gruyères as big as millstones served as a base, and on top of them were Cheshires, Goudas, Edams and numerous varieties of cheese that were entirely unknown to me, some of the largest with bellies slit open and innards exposed. The Roqueforts and Gorgonzolas lewdly flaunted their mould, and a squadron of Camemberts let their pus ooze out freely. An odour of decay wafted from the shop.’ From Paul Vincent’s English translation, 2002.

Must admit I identify with Laarmans on the matter of stationery. When I’ve got a deadline or some other urgent task, there’s nothing like a nice delaying trip to Officeworks or Dymocks to buy that all-important pencil or plastic wallet.

But it’s not only fine art and high culture. ‘That’s it Cheese! We’ll go somewhere where there’s cheese!’ exclaims Wallace in the animated short A Grand Day Out. And off they rocket to the moon, because as everybody knows, the moon is made of cheese. It plays a role in most of the Wallace & Gromit films, and in A Close Shave Wallace declares Wensleydale his favourite cheese—a preference credited with boosting sales of the crumbly Yorkshire staple.

Clara Peeters-Still life with cheeses, artichoke, and cherries c1625

Still Life with Cheeses, Artichoke and Cherries was painted by the Flemish artist Clara Peeters circa 1625. I doubt it was the other painting in that calendar of Dutch cheeses, but it’s interesting to note that there were women artists of the Golden Age.

Traditional art history read these luminous still lives as expressions of disapproval, criticisms of luxury and sinful excess. But others question that interpretation and argue for a more layered understanding. Me, I see them as feasts for the senses, celebrations of both life and life’s transience. The French term for a still life is ‘nature morte’ which translates as dead nature. Some of these Golden Age still lives include a dead fish or fowl, a peeled fruit starting to rot, even a part-eaten pie. Many of the featured cheeses are wedges, half-rounds, blocks with a corner cut off—someone’s breakfast perhaps? Peeters’ painting is more of a close-up than many. If you look carefully at the large pale cheese on the silver plate, you can see knife marks, slightly darkened edges where it has begun to dry out, a gouge where a plug sample was removed for testing.

These reminders that worldly pleasures are fleeting, remind me of those much quoted (but alas rarely referenced) lines by W H Auden: ‘although the great artists of the past could not change the course of history, it is only through their work that we are able to break bread with the dead, and without communion with the dead a fully human life is impossible.’ BTW it’s from his lecture/essay Words and the World published in Secondary Worlds, 1968.

As for that tear-off calendar, well, it did teach me that there was more to Dutch cheese than waxy red-coated Edam. My favourite was—still is—Leiden (or Leyden). That’s the one with cumin (and sometimes caraway) seeds.