Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Phat Tuesday

Conversation a few months ago over lunch at the Union Station Hotel….

Me: This olive bread is great….You know, I've never, ever made bread?

An Editor: Well clearly you've just lost your position as the food writer.

She had a point. It’s kind of a basic food thing, and I’ve been talking a big game about baking bread for months. But I admit I’ve been partly intimidated by Jeffrey Steingarten's essay on making bread in The Man Who Ate Everything. I remember it sounding like a major process involving chemistry and math – two subjects I’d rather keep stashed away with other horrors of high school.

But at the same time, I’ve been intrigued by bread-making because I keep hearing about it’s meditative qualities. How it’s one of those activities that requires attention, keeping us truly in the moment.

I was finally forced into making bread a couple weeks ago while working on a story about foods from famous Carnival celebrations. 

I went to Carnival in Trinidad a couple years ago, and tasted “doubles” – chickpea sandwiches between slices of puffed, fried flatbread spiced with cumin and turmeric. The island – being a blend of cultures – has fabulous food, and doubles come from East Indian immigrants who came to work on sugar cane plantations.

Much of my Trinidad trip was a haze of rum and cold medicine, sequined tassels and gigantic headdresses. I was fighting off a nasty cold, and it didn’t break until one morning when we woke at 3 a.m. for J’ouvert, or “dirty mas” (as opposed to “pretty mas” in the glittery costumes on Fat Tuesday). J’ouvert welcomes in the Carnival season with a nocturnal, raunchy version of Mardi Gras parade. We marched down dark roads (no street lights that I could see) caked in silver mud between rolling bar-cars and flatbed trucks carrying gigantic walls of speakers.

The party didn’t begin to wind down until the sun came up as we were still chipping and whining through Port of Spain. I remember this conversation shouted over the music between two of the other journalists I was traveling with: “You know what sucks about this?!?!!,”...(pause)…“Nothing!!!”

As for making the doubles, I didn’t quite reach a deep mindful state while kneading the dough for flatbread, but I did really love using my hands to feel the flour and the elasticity in the gluten. I loved knowing that the bread was ready to rise because of how it felt, not because of a specific cook time. I once read that Eric Ripert says chefs should use their hands more often to measure spices or to really feel the food. Makes sense, and I think about his comment often when I reach for a measuring spoon that I probably don’t need.

Speaking of intuition, I also love watching the photographers from work get inspired. When shooting the doubles and other Carnival foods, Larry McCormack, bless him, went belly-down on my floor for a stream of light he just couldn't resist.

Check out his final product here. For the doubles recipe, visit Saveur magazine here.

Dinner music: Rum and Coca Cola by The Andrews Sisters

Along with steel pan, Trinidad gave the world calypso. This version of Rum and Coca Cola became popular in the '40s when an American group covered it – despite the fact that it criticized prostitution, high prices and other problems brought on by the American military base on the island. 

Guess the Americans were too rummed up to notice…("Oh you vex me, you vex me…”)

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