Tour of a Witch’s Garden

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The Mulford Farmhouse in East Hampton, NY, is described on multiple websites as “one of America’s most significant English colonial farmsteads.” Being a bit of an early colonial history aficionado, I eagerly searched online for what traits made this farmhouse so ‘significant’ – maybe it housed a legendary colonial figure, or stood on the site of some crucial battlefield – and found…not much.

Mulford Farmhouse, you tease. Of course we had to go check it out.

We ended up getting a tour from an enthusiastic woman, a self-confessed colonial re-enactor whose reenactments had crossed from her work life into her home life – she described how her husband had built a bed with straw bedding and rope slats, as well as a full-on 18th century fireplace in which she made a turkey that she brined, soaked in alcohol, stuffed, and cooked over the course of four days.

As an added bonus to our tour, we received a human rights lecture and other political statements, but the real highlight was our tour of Rachel’s Garden, an herb garden where familiar herbs took on significant and mystical meaning. They could reveal to you your true love, they could save you from smallpox, they could cure the common cold.

By the end of the tour, I almost believed what she had said, not only about the extraordinary healing powers of herbs, but also about the completeness of colonial life. She gushed about her four-day turkey as the most flavorful, most tender turkey she had ever had and recounted how fermented food had saved Civil War soldiers from disease. She wondered out loud whether our diet and lifestyle today was missing something, if we had lost something crucial along the way.

And while I don’t condone a return to the colonial way of life – after all, the Mulfords owned slaves and women were treated as witches, or worse, property – I do wonder about how different, and simpler life was back then when it seemed that good things would happen if you believed hard enough.

We now live in an age where we don’t even know where most of our food comes from (though that’s slowly changing) and yet we know the contradicting statements our politicians have made, we know about conflicts in Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. It’s difficult to imagine a time when people had such an intimate relationship with food that they believed it held supernatural powers.

So maybe I still don’t know what makes Mulford Farmhouse so ‘significant,’ but I’m glad their attempt to attract more tourism enticed me to visit. We laugh at the superstition, the ignorance, of the colonial era, but would they not laugh at us for our ignorance about how to produce our own food, our own clothing, our complete dependence on others for our comfort – and survival?

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From Hungary, With Love

IMG_1519Before my sophomore year of college, I knew little about Eastern Europe and even less about the little country of Hungary. Back then, I was a self-proclaimed francophile, and in true French spirit, I also had an interest in Japan. (To be fair, my interests lay in Japan’s “economic miracle” rather than the artistic glorification of Japanese culture, but close enough.) I took a class on the the history of financial crises and completely by chance, my academic focus changed completely.

Each student had the opportunity to choose a country that had been affected by the 2008 financial crisis. I was (surprise, surprise) sick on the day we chose countries, so I missed out on Japan and France. My professor suggested Hungary. I agreed, apathetically believing that I would have to write yet another paper about a topic for which I cared little.

However, Hungary turned out to be more enthralling than I could have imagined. Since that initial paper about how Hungary was one of the countries in the Eurozone hit hardest by the crisis, I have since studied everything from why the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 failed, to brain drain and refugee inflow problems post-1989, to the evolution of Hungary’s citizenship policies. The political culture of Hungary has proved especially fascinating, as more extremist parties gain power amidst riots and general social unrest.

When I started this blog, I knew it was a matter of time until Hungary made its inevitable appearance. Friends who’d visited Hungary while abroad raved about the food and the beauty of Budapest and I realized that while I might intimately understand the political culture, the simple culture remained an unknown. I came across a recipe for Budapest coffee Bundt cake and decided to do a little research on the name. Turns out, Hungary once had a thriving coffee house culture before even Paris or Austria. Not only did Hungarians brew great coffee, but they also made delicious cakes and pastries in accompaniment. Artists and writers, many of whom had no heating in their homes, flocked to coffee houses for the warmth, but also the company and the refreshments. (The stereotype of ‘starving artist’ has deep historical roots – just look at what happened to poor Mozart.)

However, Hungary fell under the iron curtain after World War II and the Soviet Union, fearing that the coffee houses would become hotbeds of dissent, moved to shut them all down. In the 24 years following the fall of the iron curtain, coffeehouse culture has made a sort of comeback, though many coffee shops are frequented by tourists rather than locals.

While I continue my quest to learn everything (literally, everything) about my new favorite country, I’ll content myself with enjoying moist, cinnamon-cocoa slices of Budapest coffee cake and imagining the day when I can actually visit the vibrant coffee houses of Budapest. One day.
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Ready-Made

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As a kid, I rarely ever experienced pre-packaged food. The “TV dinner” (and TV in general) remained a mystery to me, a concept that existed only in the fantasy world of books and movies. I remember sneaking in little snippets of TV shows on the rare afternoons when nobody was home. Lunchables were another forbidden fruit, neatly packaged in colorful plastic, the ultimate cool kid’s lunch.

My parents always emphasized the importance of home-cooked food. Even as my mom went back to work and everyone grew older and busier, we did our best to never reach for any pre-made dinner in a box (even Trader Joe’s pre-made Indian dinners, which are actually really delicious and managed to derail even my family). Eventually we resorted to takeout Thursday and reheated lasagna.

Simultaneously, my dad began to develop his latent and extensive cooking talents using all the weird left-over ingredients in the fridge. (Seriously, he’s at the point that he can taste dishes at restaurants and basically recreate them. It’s semi-frightening.) My sister spent a summer at culinary arts camp and…never ever cooked any of the dishes she learned for us. The point is, for my family, the home-cooked meal never lost its allure.

As a kid, I never fully appreciated how great it was to sit around the table with my family, just chatting and enjoying whatever my parents had made that night. I remember loving Lunchables because I could choose the ratios of cheese to sauce to pepperonis. I thought they fostered creativity. But at the end of the day, Lunchables are four ingredients in a little plastic box (as opposed to a refrigerator, which can literally house endless possibilities).

I’m proud to say that everyone in my family can cook. (And a little less proud to say I was the last one in my family to catch on.) As one of my friends said yesterday, cooking has ‘value.’ Now I just wish someone would let Stop N’Shop know stuff like this is not okay:

IMG_1485This is not a joke, not some plastic display of dishes offered in Asian restaurants. These are pre-packaged meals on a whole new level.

That being said, here’s yet another baking recipe. Sorry guys, I keep forgetting to take pictures of my dinners.

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Peach Treats

IMG_1438Have you ever woken up and discovered two cats in your living room?

Well, that’s how my Thursday began. I’ve never really been an animal person, not because I don’t love animals, but because I’ve had…bad experiences. It started out with Flopsy-Mopsy-Cottontail, my adorable little bunny. Apparently if you keep offering a bunny food, it will continue to eat, even after it has become completely satiated. Alas, six-year-old me thought I would help out by feeding the bunny…and I fed it to death. After that, we tried again with a hamster, but alas, he escaped his cage and burrowed into the floor in our basement, never to be seen again. After these two incidents, my family realized animals kind of hate us, and now, we just have fish in a pond outside. We throw them some food and they swim around and look pretty. It’s the perfect noncommittal pet-owner relationship for my family.

Our monstrously huge koi.

Our monstrously huge koi, battling for dinner.

So clearly, I do love animals, but these two cats, perhaps sensing that my love tends to kill, have done a fairly good job of avoiding my advances. I’m doing my best to redeem myself, but just today, I found myself falling back on old habits, a.k.a. trying to win them over with food. (Let’s be real, I apply that strategy to all animals that I encounter, humans included.) The kitten, still innocent and trusting, accepted the food happily. However, Blow, the momma cat, saw that accepting the food would only lead to trouble, and staunchly ignored my outstretched hand. Despite this inauspicious beginning, I’m determined to get pet ownership right this time around for Flopsy-Mopsy-Cottontail, may he rest in peace. For now, I content myself with stroking the cats as they run away from me.

Mo, the newest addition to our household.

Mo, the newest addition to our household.

And on that note, here’s a fantastic and easy recipe for toffee-dimpled peach cake. If you’re looking to buy love with sweets, this is the recipe you’ve been looking for. The sweet peaches, the slightly spiced cake base, the crunch of the toffee – it’s just the perfect combination of flavors and textures. I made it not even 24 hours ago and it has already been completely consumed, with rave reviews. Just…try not to overfeed anyone.That cause of death would just be embarrassingly tragic for all involved.

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Hungry Like the Wolf

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This past weekend, I witnessed something truly terrifying.

My family is comprised of me, my little sister, my mom, and my dad, who eats less than my mom. As a result, I have rarely been around growing boys at dinnertime.

All the women( and my dad) were in the kitchen, preparing dinner, (yeah, yeah, let the misogynistic jokes begin) when the boys began to literally circle around the kitchen table, asking when the food would be ready. We put out the chicken wings early to placate them. 72 wings, gone in a matter of minutes.

The rest of the food, the salad, the ribs, the steak, the giant bowl of soup, the three pasta dishes, were devoured in a similar manner. I felt as if I’d stepped into the world of mythology where chimeras comprised of vultures, hyenas, and wolves ate everything in sight.

My father once asked his colleague, Ed, if he ever took his family out to dinner. Ed replied that his family could only go to buffets because he had two boys. I never understood how having two boys could be so different from having two girls until I saw six hungry boys eat and eat and still clamor for dessert.

This chocolate cake was one of the desserts served. I had planned to take a picture of a cake slice for this blog post, but people were clamoring at me to serve the cake. It’s a fantastic cake. Easy recipe, moist with a deep chocolatey flavor, finished off with light yet decadent chocolate frosting. Added bonus: since the cake is so dense, it succeeded in finally sating the appetites of six hungry boys.

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Lemon Yogurt Cake

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So a few weeks ago, I inexplicably bought seven or eight lemons from Whole Foods. They weren’t on sale or anything, I just saw them and on an impulse, bought a whole mesh bag of them. I am proud to say that today, I have finally used up the last two. Thank god lemons have a freakishly long shelf life.

For a while, I felt terrible, thinking that because of my impulse, these poor innocent lemons would go to waste. But instead, my split-second decision resulted in a delicious lemon cake. As I was sampling the first slice, I began to wonder why I often condemn impulsivity and so highly value planning and organizing.

On the spectrum of thinking to feeling, I’ve always tested more in the thinking category. I like to do my research, whether it’s headphones, restaurants, or papers. Case in point, I spent three days researching headphones under $30. Three days for a pair of cheap headphones.

For me, impulsivity is freedom. For a brief moment, I can act simply because I want something. I can buy eight goddamned lemons if I so please, and I can be content with my choice. Recently, a couple of economists published an article on “choice closure,” essentially where second guessing leaves a consumer less satisfied with their choice. I over think in part because I’m scared of being impulsive. I’m scared of making the wrong choice.

But I don’t need economics to know that sometimes the right answer simply is the easiest one, the gut feeling.

You know that saying, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade?” Well, the good news is, life never only gives you lemons. It gives you sugar too. So you can mix them together, move forward, and maybe instead of making lemonade, you can instead try making this delicious lemon yogurt cake. Keep it creative. Keep it impulsive.

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