I’m going to admit it right now: when I meet someone, then get to know them a little better, one of the things that comes to the forefront of my mind is food. You may be picturing me standing there, oblivious to chatting, with only a cheeseburger craving on my mind. No, it’s not like that. I mean, their food. Their food history, their experiences, their likes and dislikes. I’m not performing a secret food-background check on everyone I meet, either. Call it…the anticipatory excitement concerning the potential for a food journey? Something like that.
Growing up, I’ve always tried to be open-minded about food, because when you consider food as more than just itself—molecules and calories and nutrients and texture—oftentimes you find there is a story. An experience. Nostalgia plays a large role – I guarantee anyone will smile if you ask them to recollect a memorable meal eaten, a dish they learned to cook from Mom or Dad, a kitchen accomplishment. It draws you closer to them, and at the same time widens your own horizons.
The summer after my freshman year, I found myself in Northern Sweden, quite near the Arctic Circle, staring down a bowl of reindeer (or was it moose?) soup. For a while I had been an off-and-on vegetarian, for reasons unclear even to me, and now I was curious and slightly timid about this soup. I was visiting the Swedish grandparents of my boyfriend at the time. He told me that his grandfather’s favorite part of the dish was skimming a layer of pure fat off the top with a spoon. His grandfather was over 75 years old, had one lung, and still worked around the clock, farming and hunting. He spoke no English so we chatted to each other in our respective languages, nodding politely and gesturing, a slightly futile but wonderful, touching attempt at connecting. I ate the hearty soup that his grandmother had made, thinking of all that had gone into making it, appreciative of getting to try a staple dish that was a big part of their culinary life.
Over the course of my next month in Sweden, I would eat fermented herring that, according to Wikipedia, was found to have “one of the worst smells in the world,” and wash it down with fiery schnapps that made me gasp. I would receive chewy, tough reindeer jerky from said grandfather for a hiking trip. And though I couldn’t say these made my top food lists, I asked people to tell me stories about them. My boyfriend recounted childhood midsummer celebrations and his love of his hard-working grandfather. Here I was, getting to sample some of their past.
(Food journeys exist in the future as well as the past. Going on a local quest to find a food you’ve never tried before, a favorite dish, or the best pad thai creates experiences with someone that are fun and out of the ordinary. Push your boundaries – it’s just as valuable to know what you don’t like as what you do like – and explore. The notion of stuffy, expensive dinner dates with white napkins and unpronounceable menu items, while fun, is, well, stale. Run down a local food truck. Walk into an eatery without having read a single review. Order food for one another.)
The following recipe doesn’t contain reindeer, schnapps, or smelly fish. Rather, it is a translated recipe for one of my favorite Swedish dishes, which has its own memories attached. It’s light and delicious. I licked my plate clean.
Kenzie Zimmer has been known to eat just the chocolate off of entire bags of Peanut M&Ms, much to the dismay of people around her, who cease to judge once they realize they want the leftover peanuts.
Kladdkaka (Chocolate Sticky Cake)
Makes 1 8-inch circular cake
1 1/4 cups sugar
1/2 cup butter
1 cup flour
4 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla sugar (substitute vanilla extract if needed)
pinch of salt
Preheat oven to 400°F. Butter pan. In a mixing bowl, mix together eggs and sugar until just combined. Melt butter in a pot on the stove using low heat, then add to the eggs and sugar. In a separate bowl, mix together flour, cocoa, vanilla sugar, & salt. Combine wet and dry mixes. Stir well to avoid lumps.
Pour into prepared pan and bake for 12-15 minutes. The cake will be moist—when checked, it should not jiggle in the middle, but a fork might not come out clean when done. Let cool, and then serve with fresh, unsweetened whipped cream and strawberries.