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Mariel Sullivan

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What is Polish cuisine?

What is Polish cuisine? One year ago I traveled to Poland for my first exploration of its food and culinary traditions. I was both surprised and intrigued by the vitality of the whole sector, the quality of ingredients, the works of producers, and the creativity of chefs. I was so captivated by what I saw that I kept going back, most recently in a culinary trip to Warsaw and the Western cities of Poznań and Wrocław organized by the Polish Cultural Institute in NYC and Polish Plate.

A few visits later, and with a better (although not extensive enough) knowledge of the culinary scene in the country, I realized how unusually urgent the question about what is Polish cuisine seems to have become. I have had the opportunity to sit on panels, participate in public and private debates, and serve as a judge in competitions focusing on specialties ranging from nalewki (the local spirits made by steeping fruits, wild berries, and other ingredients in alcohol) to czernina (a soup that features duck blood) and stuffed goose. The conversations often veered towards the very nature Polish cuisine and what makes it unique and distinctive.

It is ingredients? Dishes? Specific habits and traditions? Or it is rather a question of who produces and prepares what is eaten? Is it necessary to dig back into the near and remote past to identify specific customs and flavors profiles, or should one stick to contemporary practices? The answers to these questions run the gamut from the desire to find essential (and unchanging) characteristics to a more nuanced appreciation for the recent resurgence of food in Poland in terms of quality, visibility, and relevance in public discourse.

As a scholar in food studies, participating in these conversations has prompted other, maybe more reflexive (more “meta,” as we like to say when we use jargon), questions: why are all sorts of stakeholders in the food system discussing what is Polish food? Why now? What are the motivations and the goals of such discussions? Are these topics of interest to large segments of Poles, or are they rather the exclusive domain of producers and other actors on the culinary scene, from chefs to media and tourist operators?

There is definitely a widespread interest about reconnecting (“rediscovering” is often the preferred expression) with local and traditional ingredients and dishes that are at times perceived as threatened by globalization and the growing popularity of foreign foods, at times experienced as unfortunately left aside because considered too rustic, or backward, or plain. Sitting in fine-dining restaurants such as Dom Wódki Elixir in Warsaw, Toga and A Nóż Widelec in Poznań, or Jadka in Wrocław you have the impression that traditional elements are already successfully integrated in modern, current culinary styles that can definitely hold their own on the international stage. Enterprises such as Pszczelarium and Nalewki Staropolskie (arguably the most recognizable nalewka production in Poland) in Warsaw, or Folwark Wąsowo and the carp ponds of Stawy Milickie in Lower Silesia, all appear to seamlessly connect past and present, merging old techniques and know-how with modern distribution and marketing savvy.

It is not easy to pinpoint the origins of this renewed interest in defining Polish food and in appreciating local and traditional ingredients and dishes. In part, Poland is reflecting a global trend among the rising middle-classes in post-industrial societies, for whom food has emerged as an important area in the formation, negotiation, and performance of individual and collective identities. As Poland transitions out of its post-communist phase and into a more mature – although not less troubled – political landscape, and consumerism in embraced as the standard lifestyle, food plays an increasingly relevant role in defining the cultural outlook, social status, and political worldviews of citizens from all walks of life.

This growing importance and visibility of food manifests itself in the success of culinary shows and media, also among the large majority of Poles that otherwise may go to restaurants only rarely and think twice before purchasing an expensive product. Among the middle-class, especially in urban environments and the younger generations, such relevance reveals the characteristics of what we could call “global foodie cosmopolitanism,” which expresses itself – in Warsaw as in Brooklyn, Rio de Janeiro or Bangalore – through specific sensory aesthetics in terms of flavors, dish presentation, environments (bar, restaurants, cafes), packaging, performance of preparation, service, and consumption. Heavily tinged in hipster undertones, this cosmopolitanism also supports the appreciation for local and traditional culinary elements that are globally hailed as a form of resistance to globalization, transnational corporations, and environmental disaster.

At the same time, Poland is inevitably dealing with the complexities deriving the presence along its history of various communities in the territory that now falls under Poland: Germans, Ukrainians, and Lithuanians just to mention a few. Such intricate past – which will come to the forefront in 2018 on the occasion of the 100-year anniversary of the formation of contemporary Poland as an independent nation-state – is also heightened by the presence of different religions (Catholic, Protestants, Jews) at different points in time. Moreover, some culinary traditions, while felt as quintessentially Polish, are similar to those in neighboring countries. As a consequence of all this, should we speak of Polish cuisine, or rather of the cuisines (in the plural) in Poland? And how would these two different approaches to thinking about Polish food fly in the present cultural and political climate?

 

More Healthful Kids Meals? Panera CEO Dishes Out A Challenge

Via Charles Krupa/AP

 

On an initiative bringing more nutritious options to kids menus…

Chicken nuggets. French fries. Pizza. Repeat.

This repertoire of kids menu items may seem familiar to many families, but one fast-casual chain aims to put a lot more options in front of its young customers.

Beginning this month, there’s a kid-sized version of almost everything on Panera’s regular menu. The portion shrinks, as does the price. “Kids now have the choice of 250 different combinations,” Panera CEO Ron Shaich told NPR.

So, how about a Greek salad with greens and quinoa? Squash soup or a whole-grain flatbread with turkey and cranberries? Maybe these could expand kids’ palates.

Read on at The Salt.

‘They’re Scared’: Immigration Fears Exacerbate Migrant Farmworker Shortage

Via Melissa Block/NPR

 

On some of the threats facing migrant workers…

On a recent, perfect morning at Johnson Farms in northern Michigan, workers climb wooden ladders high up into the trees, picking bags strapped across their bodies. The branches are heavy with fruit that glows in the morning sun. Their fingers are a blur, nimbly plucking fruit and filling bushel bags: about 50 pounds per load. It’s hard, sweaty work.

Apple season was just getting underway on Old Mission Peninsula, a finger of land poking into Lake Michigan, dotted with lush farms.

The pickers range in age from 21 to 65, and all of them are Mexican. As in the rest of the country, growers in heavily agricultural northern Michigan rely overwhelmingly on migrant laborers to work the fields and orchards.

Read on at The Salt.

How A Venezuelan Chef Is Teaching Women To Make Chocolate And Money

Via Cacao de Origen

 

How one woman is fighting back against instability in Venezuela…

Even when things aren’t going your way, there’s chocolate: a universal balm if ever there was one. While cacao beans –– the precursor of a chocolate bar –– grow in many places, one country where you can find superb specimens is Venezuela.

Unfortunately, for well over a decade, the country has been in a downward spiral. One woman is working tirelessly to circumvent this new normal. Maria Fernanda Di Giacobbe is a Venezuelan chocolatier who has dedicated her life to proving that her country’s cacao can propel an entire industry, even when the world around it is floundering.

Read on at The Salt.

Arkansas Defies Monsanto, Moves To Ban Rogue Weedkiller

Via Dan Charles/NPR

 

Another Monsanto product is causing widespread damage…

Arkansas is on the verge of banning the use, during the growing season, of a Monsanto-backed weedkiller that has been blamed for damaging millions of acres of crops in neighboring farms this year.

The weedkiller is called dicamba. It can be sprayed on soybeans and cotton that have been genetically modified to tolerate it. But not all farmers plant those new seeds. And across the Midwest, farmers that don’t use the herbicide are blaming their dicamba-spraying neighbors for widespread damage to their crops — and increasingly, to wild vegetation.

The issue has driven a wedge through farming communities in the Midwest, straining friendships and turning neighbors into adversaries.

Read on at The Salt.

Is Fondant Free Speech? Chefs Show Support For Gay Marriage As Court Case Looms

Via Kelly Jo Smart/NPR

 

On Chefs for Equality…

Bedecked in fondant and flowers, modern wedding cakes are the centerpiece of the marriage feast — an edible form of art. But are they also an expression of free speech?

That is the question the Supreme Court will consider this fall when it hears the case of a Colorado baker who refused to make a custom wedding cake for a gay couple because he said it would violate his religious beliefs.

“You’d think cake would be apolitical, and yet here we are,” muses baker Catherine George of Catherine George Cakes.

She was among the Washington, D.C.-area pastry chefs who crafted 18 elaborate tiered wedding cakes to show their support for marriage equality. Their creations were on display Tuesday night at the sixth annual Chefs for Equality in D.C., a fundraiser hosted by the Human Rights Campaign. Some 140 chefs, pastry chefs and mixologists participated in this year’s event. The theme: “Who Can Resist?”

Read on at The Salt.

At Duke University, A Bizarre Tour Through American History And Palates

Via Jerry Young/Getty Images

 

On a culinary project at Duke…

Eighteen doughnuts, toasted Brazil nuts, a can of deviled ham, an avocado “pear,” and Worcestershire sauce: No, this list doesn’t comprise an especially malicious ingredient basket for competitors on the Food Network’s Chopped.

Instead, they are the makings for the “Goblin sandwich,” a Halloween recipe published in a donut-maker’s 1946 cooking pamphlet. The donuts are sliced like bread, and the other ingredients are mixed into a highly seasoned spread.

That theoretically edible but unpalatable recipe will long live in infamy at Duke University’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Books & Manuscript Library. Jacqueline Reid Wachholz, who directs the library’s John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising and Marketing History, made the dish, and wrote in a blog post that, frankly, the ham was “not unlike dog food.” She gave it to her husband and a particularly daring colleague to try, but most of her library mates declined.

Read on at The Salt.

This Tiny Country Feeds the World

Via Luca Locatelli

 

On the future of farming…

In a potato field near the Netherlands’ border with Belgium, Dutch farmer Jacob van den Borne is seated in the cabin of an immense harvester before an instrument panel worthy of the starship Enterprise.

From his perch 10 feet above the ground, he’s monitoring two drones—a driverless tractor roaming the fields and a quadcopter in the air—that provide detailed readings on soil chemistry, water content, nutrients, and growth, measuring the progress of every plant down to the individual potato. Van den Borne’s production numbers testify to the power of this “precision farming,” as it’s known. The global average yield of potatoes per acre is about nine tons. Van den Borne’s fields reliably produce more than 20.

Read on at National Geographic.

Global Plan To Streamline ‘Use By’ Food Labels Aims To Cut Food Waste

Via mrtom-uk//iStockphoto

 

On an initiative seeking to reduce food waste…

An estimated 133 billion pounds of food is wasted in the U.S. each year, enough to fill Chicago’s Willis Tower 44 times. Globally, 1.3 billion tons of food is lost or wasted annually.

And one major culprit? The confusion over “date” labels on foods. Once a “sell by” date has passed, lots of us have tossed out food that’s perfectly safe to eat. The typical family in the U.S. spends about $1,500 on food that is thrown away. This adds up to billions of dollars of waste.

A new initiative, announced Wednesday, aims to harmonize “use by” labels around the globe.

Read on at The Salt.

Lessons From Katrina: How Restaurants Can Be Beacons In A Catastrophe

Via Ian McNulty

 

On the economic and cultural contributions of restaurants following disasters…

After Hurricane Harvey, it was no surprise that restaurants in New Orleans quickly became a hub for many local efforts to help.

In the long haul, though, it is restaurants in the very areas hard-hit by Harvey that will be their own sources of community self-help.

That’s one lesson from New Orleans’ experience after Hurricane Katrina, and it’s one that translates to others facing monumental loss. It’s the way restaurants, fancy and modest alike, become beacons, and how the principle of service reaches beyond hot meals and cold drinks.

First, though, those restaurants have to get back open. Restaurateurs have to find the means, and they also have to make the decision to do it. That’s not always as simple as it sounds.

Read on at The Salt.