Tuesday, 11 October 2011

An (Un)intended Food Migration: Texas, Germany, Northern India, and Back to Ohio... All in One Night

Yesterday, I noted my excitement for tonight's Northern Indian dinner in one of our campus dining halls, under the direction of visiting Sodexo and Executive Chef Sathish Kumar. Well, as we press on with on-going post-pre-orientation programming and gatherings, and continuing to build on this year's "Migrations" theme with a truly inspirational and powerful play which concluded this evening, the stage seemed to have been deemed from the very beginning as set to translate the message of food identity, culture, and migrations this evening. In fact, I felt particularly moved when I heard many times over in the food line today, "Can I have a little bit of everything?" What courage, what bravery, what culinary gastronauts! And what a great day and series of events to celebrate my one-year anniversary with Denison!

My evening began after work with a dinner hosted by President Dale and Mrs. Tina Knobel, in honor of this year's pre-orientation staff and students. Seemingly quite perfectly timed, the weather, ambiance and company further supported the occasion which was highlighted by Texas barbecue and chosen not only for taste but as a way of bringing the Knobels' lived Texan experience to the table. In addition, Mrs. Knobel also offered a wonderful broccoli bacon salad which was quite refreshing and texturally complimented the chicken, sausage, and beef brisket. Moreover, I was intrigued by the equally (and surprisingly) refreshing German potato salad. Other than focusing on a heavy starch as the potato, I don't know what was particularly "German" about it, but I can share that many German potato salad recipes I've skimmed through on-line use a vinegar base for its dressing. Perhaps this helps cut down the "heaviness" I expected from the salad upon first inspection. Along with baked pinto beans and one of my favourites--corned cornbread (at least, that's how I've named it in the past)--this meal was truly special, especially set against the context of food migration. Without question, this is a true representation in my book of sharing a part of one's identity through food.

And yet, something comes along that surprises you and reminds you of the melody of flavours and travels when it comes to food. Taking a bit of a southern journey, and even further south into Central America, red velvet cake and pumpkin went through a bit of food fusion and took on the form of chocolate chip red velvet brownies and mini pumpkin cookies for dessert. The brownie itself seemed to have been topped with the perfect amount of frosting to smooth out its the rich texture, and greeted the mouth with the textural difference provided by chocolate chips (much like is the case with my dark chocolate chocolate chip pudding brownies which I made this morning for the I, Too, Sing America! cast party). The pumpkin cookie, already moist because of the pumpkin in the batter, was topped with a great cinnamon(?) frosting that brought a sense of Thanksgiving to the palate. Certainly, this was a night among many nights to be thankful for!

Following dinner #1 (no worries, I paced myself all night), I made my way from one dining hall to the next, first picking up a tray of cookies for the I, Too, Sing America! cast party, and then heading toward tonight's Northern Indian meal. As noted above, the Global Chef program vis-à-vis Sodexo provided a Northern Indian experience for the campus community. Perhaps it is because I was intentionally approaching my meals tonight with a migratory theme in mind, but I felt much more focused, aware, and in tune with what I was about to eat. Indeed, as I approached the dining hall, I could distinctly smell the spicy aromas and heat exuding onto the campus grounds. "Authentic," or rather in this case much more "aggressive," flavours rang through the air, drawing me into the experience that lay ahead. And I mean this in a good way; what I would be eating would be packed with spice, heat, and the necessity for sauces and lots of drinking water. These were indeed the spicy flavour combinations I have learned to expect with Indian cuisine and which naturally identify Indian cooking as having medicinal health benefits.

First up on tonight's tasting plate was the Chicken Tikka Masala (tandoori chicken in a rich tomato gravy), this particular dish of which is one of my favourite Indian dishes.

The second protein of the night was an even flakier cut of fish than yesterday, Tava Fried Fish (grilled fish in Indian spices). While better tasting texturally, I found this to be one of the spiciest components of the menu; this being said, I found much solace (okay, perhaps not to that extreme) in the coolness of the mint sauce.

For the main starches and vegetables for the night were Peas Pulao (basmati rice with green peas and cumin) and Aloo Shimla Mirch (potatoes and bell peppers), respectively. Again, this evening the rice was cooked perfectly though in re-reading the name, I feel a little confused as to where the peas were. Despite the actual reason, I will say for the time being that the carrot-sweetened rice still tasted great and served as a distraction to the heat. In contrast to yesterday's potatoes, tonight's did seem a bit more al dente.

Tonight's main accompanying sauce of sorts was Dal Makhani (black lentils cooked to a creamy texture with tomatoes and butter). Unsure as to how else to eat this, I added it to my rice which added additional spices and heat flavour.

For dessert, I was presented with Kheer, a dessert with milk and rice, flavoyred with saffron and garnished with dry fruit. While it was served as unquestionably warm and comforting, I must admit I had a bit of a textural barrier to try and overcome.

And finally, this brings me back to Granville and specifically to the cast party for Denison's "Migrations" play, I, Too, Sing America! Bringing together the voices and experiences of a brilliant cast of 19, the final production of only three weeks of work yielded a quilt of notes strung together to present a harmony of living colour and varied experiences. The premise of situating one's individual story against and within the backdrop of the everyday person's experience in America (and on campus) is both an absolutely relevant and unique angle in interrogating and celebrating individual and group identities. In addition, I found the courage of the students sharing their own stories to be absolutely moving, their very raw honesty translating as a glimpse into stories and moments which at times are so very personal. Yet, as a member in the audience and even as a staff member who works with cross-cultural groups such as this one, we are nevertheless pulled in and welcome (sometimes unworthily) to learn from the table of experience, to be encouraged and supported in our growth and optimism. Should we emotionally invest ourselves in the play in front of us (which, especially tonight came off to me as everyone fully enjoying and having fun with this final performance), we are challenged (or arguably forced) to face the realities of difference and the comforts of similarities. Moments are offered as clear points for audience members to take part in the collective voice for change; if again fully invested, those in the audience did not leave as the same person as when they entered. One of the most poignant moments of the play in my eyes was unsurprisingly situated in the second act, within the context of the collective dinner table and food memory. The word choice and emotion poured into phrases celebrating food identity and familial food practice speaks to not only the students' experiences but, in many cases as is the case with other identities, to the experiences of those in the audience. Shared notes bind the familiarity between two or more-- strangers, friends, or otherwise. In those moments, especially, food transcends all identities and creates community. In being a part of the committee to help bring the resources together to make such a production work itself out, I recognised a role for myself in this process, i.e., that I connect to food whether figuratively or literally in bringing food to the table, and in so doing find happiness in helping to "feed the experience."  In addition, I, too, have fully appreciated the energy of the cast and crew for truly running with the resources and ideas. Without question, everyone touched by this production is hungry for change, hungry for movement, hungry for more.

To check out many more photos from my physical migration from place to place this evening, click here.

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