Chances are you live a stone’s throw away from a Thai restaurant in your neighborhood, and you’ve got a go-to local favorite for pad thai. These days I often find myself traveling north of Berkeley, where there’s quite a few wonderful Thai eateries clustered in Albany, El Cerrito and San Pablo locales.
Thy Tran writes literary nonfiction about food, the rituals of the kitchen, and the many ways eating and cooking both connect and separate communities around the world. She co-authored the award-winning guide, Kitchen Companion, and her work has appeared in numerous other books, including Asia in the San Francisco Bay Area: A Cultural Travel Guide and Cooking at Home with the Culinary Institute of America. Her writing has been featured in The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Fine Cooking and Saveur. A recipient of a literary grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission, Thy is currently working on a collection of essays about how food changes in families across time and place.
Though trained as a professional chef, she works on cookbooks by day, then creates literary chapbooks by night. An old letterpress and two cabinets of wood and lead type occupy a corner of her writing studio, for she is as committed to the art and craft of bookmaking as she is to the power of words themselves. In addition to writing, editing, teaching and printing, Thy remains active in local food justice and global food sovereignty movements. Visit her website, wanderingspoon.com, to learn more about her culinary adventures.
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Once upon a time, hens took a break during the winter, waiting for the arrival of longer, warmers days to lay their eggs and hatch their chicks. Although we’ve entrapped them in an endless summer of egg production, it’s good to stop occasionally and remember that so many basic foods, especially the ones we take for granted, are still wonders of nature.
With spring just a few weeks away, it’s a busy day at the Sacramento Beekeeping Supplies. In between ringing up jars of local honey, three generations of the Stewart family answer a stream of questions with both patience and passion. If you’re curious about how bees make honey, which size wick to use in your candle-making, the science of animal communications or the health benefits of bee pollen, there’s no better place to spend an afternoon. If you’re already a dedicated beekeeper, well, then, you’ve probably already met Nancy and Fred, the proprietor and the talker, respectively, who run this gem of a shop.
As someone who’s been kicked out of countless grocery stores, camera in hand, I especially enjoyed the contraband video that Carl Willat, a San Francisco-based animation director, recorded with his humble Treo. Although the chain has stopped carrying some of my favorite products — oh sweet, spicy ginger gelato, where did you go?! — I still stop by their SoMa store before any major baking session. Nuts and dried fruit for me, unpasteurized orange juice and onion rye bread for my husband.
As a Californian trapped indoors by East Coast snow, I was running out of things to eat. It was way too cold to leave the house. A whole day stretched ahead, wide and open. If you have a TV, then you’re set. If you don’t…well, thank goodness for friends who happen to have a big dining room table, a pile of apples in the corner and enough curiosity to humor a restless house guest.
Because, to pass the time, I suggested a lesson on stretching strudel. My host, who once watched his grandfather from the Old World make the famously flaky pastry, had never tried it. We set about updating his memories to include an actual recipe. One day soon, he’ll be able to pass along the tradition to his own little daughter when she’s ready to tie on an apron.
Along with 4 million other people in Washington, I’m trying to figure out how to keep warm and dry while waiting (and waiting…) to witness history in the making. Fuzzy boots and mittens with hand warmers and puffy rain pants are my own fashion statement for this inaugural ceremony. And while the 44th POTUS settles into his luncheon, enjoying “A Brace of American Birds” beneath a painting of Yosemite Valley, I’ll be making my way very very very slowly back up to Tenleytown…to a crock pot full of warming chili.
No need to shock my system by going cold turkey. With one final, brave stick of butter and lots of booze still in the house, I turn to an old favorite for winding down slowly.
For those trying to watch their cholesterol intake, you can stop reading right now. Ditto for the vegetarians and the hard-core dieters. Teetolers might also want to move along.
For those remaining — those of us who still manage to reward ourselves during these darkest days of January — it’s time to whip up some chicken liver paté.
Although I didn’t make it Saul’s Deli this year for their annual Neverending Latke sidewalk fest, a lingering craving for piles of crispy potato cakes convinced my husband to brave the task of grating and frying.
He more or less followed a straightforward recipe from Gourmet and managed to deliver, with his first try, a most excellent feast.
Sometimes, when it’s cold outside and you’re bundled in bed incapable of cooking and yet you need some food that feels and tastes homemade, but your mom is maybe 1,500 hundred miles away, it’s time for the smart shortcuts.
That’s when you call for an order of pai gwat, those savory little tidbits of pork spareribs that dim sum houses and any decent, neighborhood Cantonese restaurant list on their menus. Then you dig around in your vegetable bin for any possible hint of vegetables, preferably a not too wilted head of mustard greens or a bunch of watercress or even, in desperate times, a well-rinsed bag of baby spinach already past its prime.
While water wars seem like the concerns of distant communities, experts predict that towns across the US will also soon be struggling to provide clean, affordable water to their citizens. An award-winning documentary, Flow, one of the post powerful and elegant films in the recent 3rd I Film Festival, tackles the complex issues embedded in a simple glass of water. From Bolivia to India, from Michigan to our very own California, access to water is being contested.
The cookbook with the most stains in my collection is also the first one I ever bought: a copy of the 45th printing of the 1975 Joy of Cooking. It helped me survive my teen years, and then it helped me graduate from college with a bit more meat on my bones. I never did upgrade, and that white bible of the American kitchen (complete with its two silky red ribbons) is still my go-to tome for pancakes, muffins, cakes, pies, dinner rolls, dressings, and quick breads. I’m still discovering new foods in its pages. A recent addition to our family favorites is a Tran variation on a Rombauer adaptation of a Davidis classic: German pancake with apples.
It didn’t take long to figure out my contribution to an election night potluck: celebratory jiao zi dumplings made with bipartisan dough. Inspiration came from the toothsome, homemade, two-tone dumplings served during a recent 9-course dinner at China Stix
in Santa Clara. The meal, hosted by the Association of Chinese Cooking Teachers, included a hands-on demonstration of dumpling making with owner Frank Chang and his head chef. Tucked in the corner of a nondescript strip mall, the restaurant is nothing much from the outside. Once inside, though, you’ll find some of the best northern-style Chinese food in the Bay Area.
Hideaki Nishikura, a baker at Wild Flour Bread, took our intrepid New Yorker and me, along with a doting grandmother and a giggling son, on a personal tour of his hometown, Sebastopol. I feel privileged to have this insider’s peek into a little known community and hope to inspire a few of you to take the trek north to visit the town during this time when autumn’s colors and flavors are at their peak.