Eating as I Go

Eating as I Go: Scenes from America and Abroad

Doris Friedensohn
Photographs by Carol Kitman
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    Eating as I Go
    Book Description:

    What do we learn from eating? About ourselves? Others? In this unique memoir of a life shaped by the pleasures of the table, Doris Friedensohn uses eating as an occasion for inquiry. Munching on quesadillas and kimchi in her suburban New Jersey neighborhood, she reflects on her exploration of food over fifty years and across four continents. Relishing couscous in Tunisia and khachapuri in the Republic of Georgia, she explores the ways strangers come together and maintain their differences through food. As a young woman, Friedensohn was determined not to be a provincial American. Chinese, French, Mexican, and Mediterranean cuisines beckoned to her like mysterious suitors. She responded, pursuing suckling pig, snails, baba ghanoush, tripe, jellyfish, and anything with rosemary or cumin. Each rendezvous with an unfamiliar food was a celebration of cosmopolitan living. Friedensohn's memories range from Thanksgiving at a Middle Eastern restaurant to the taste of fried grasshoppers in Oaxaca. Her wry dramas of the dining room, restaurant, market, and kitchen ripple with tensions -- political, religious, psychological, and spiritual. Eating as I Go is one woman's distinctive mélange of memoir, traveler's tale, and cultural commentary.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7140-1
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-v)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vi-vii)
    (pp. viii-x)
    (pp. 1-8)

    A few years ago, when she was visiting New York, my granddaughter Emily, then nine, proposed that we have lunch at La Bicyclette, a French bistro she remembered from an earlier visit. “We could eat Italian,” she said, “but the restaurant is noisy and you wouldn’t like it. Or we could have sushi, but my Grandma Jane took us to a Japanese restaurant last night.” Emily is a discriminating restaurant goer. Had I pressed her further, she might have suggested an Indian place where the dal reminds her of lunches at home in Kathmandu, or a Peruvian hole-in-the-wall where everyone...

  5. Part 1. Delicious Acts of Defiance
      (pp. 11-12)

      My favorite egg foo yung is the one I ate religiously—in an ammonia-scented Cantonese dive on upper Broadway—every Yom Kippur during my high school years. At Yum Luk, three crunchy “omelets,” neatly stacked and bulging with bean sprouts, onions, and diced roast pork, rose high above a sea of gluey brown sauce. Sweet and salty, crisp and moist, garlicky and pungent: the tastes fused in my nose before the first bite reached my mouth. When we initiated the ritual, more than fifty years ago, my friend Ruth and I devoured the exotic concoction in a record three and...

      (pp. 13-17)

      The first kitchen I called my own was the one I shared with fifteen other female graduate students on the second floor of Yale University’s Helen Hadley Hall. The building, which opened its doors in 1958, the year I entered graduate school, was a tasteless concrete box. But our sparkling virgin kitchen offered ample compensation. Light poured into the big room through a wall of picture windows and onto six round, blond wood tables. U-shaped spaces at the north and south ends contained a built-in stove, a double sink, a large refrigerator, and cream-colored Formica counters with cabinets above and...

      (pp. 18-22)

      Dos margaritas,” I said, showing off my Spanish. “Lo mejor que tiene,” the best that you have. In 1969, Eli and I didn’t know brand names of tequila or whether Cointreau made a richer drink than Grand Marnier. We had been nibbling fiery peanuts, and a fresh taste was required immediately to cool down the chili powder and garlic. But we also needed something special to mark the occasion. Had we been drinking on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande, without spicy nuts, Eli probably would have ordered Beefeater martinis, straight up, with onions, very dry. He might even...

      (pp. 23-27)

      When the doorbell rings at 6:45 on a sour Friday evening, I am busy slicing onions and holler to Eli to get it. The bumper-to-bumper traffic following a Friday afternoon meeting at the college has left me frazzled and pissy. Now all I want is to get the liver and onions into the skillet and onto the table before my martini catches up with me. Adam, with a nine-year-old’s mix of curiosity and closed-mindedness, has already checked out the menu and registered his disappointment.

      Laughter in the front hall disrupts my kitchen musings, and I strain to identify the intruders....

      (pp. 28-31)

      I can always count on a certain phone call in early March to bring out the worst in me. Once again, it is Gerry, my eighty-eight-year-old aunt, phoning about plans for the forthcoming family seder. She is having the usual “interesting” group at her house, and she certainly hopes that Eli and I will be free and can join them. The older she gets, the more elaborately Gerry spins out the requisite forms of politesse—gentility cloaking her command that I participate in the holiday ritual. “Which night?” I ask, using the question to delay for a few seconds my...

      (pp. 32-36)

      A large white tent shimmers in the September sun. Beneath it twenty round tables are covered with sparkling white cloths and whimsical bouquets of fall flowers. Overhead, the sky is clear and big. On the western edge of the horizon, the Shawangunks (a.k.a. the “Gunks”), where my son, Adam, has climbed for more than a decade, loom like citadels of mystery and spirit.

      When the flute and continuo strike up a William Byrd processional, Eli and I take our places among the assembled wedding party. The rabbi, with his guitar, embroidered silk Rastafarian beanie, flowing white robe, and rainbow-coloredtallith,...

      (pp. 37-40)

      I shift the heavy shopping bag, brown paper in white plastic, from my right hand to my left, flexing the tired muscles before I press the elevator button marked “8.” The tall, burly man who has come in after me inspects my parcel, sniffs for telltale odors, and then abruptly glues his eyes to the elevator door. “Happy holiday,” he says unexpectedly, exiting on three, and I just about manage a “You, too” before the door shuts and he is gone. I check my watch, knowing full well that it is already 7:00 p.m. and that I am uncharacteristically late....

  6. Part 2. Crazy Salad
      (pp. 43-53)

      I watch the tiny, wizened woman on the line in front of me selecting her lunch. She points an arthritic forefinger first topancit(Filipino noodles), then to a chocolately brown pork adobo (pork belly marinated in vinegar, garlic, and soy sauce), then to a sculptural wedge ofchicherones(pork cracklings), and last to goldenbrown fried bananas. When the man behind the counter gestures encouragingly toward the fried plantains, the woman responds with a cackle and shake of the head. The two have been chatting nonstop in what I recognize as Tagalog. “You know my weakness,” I imagine her saying,...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. 54-77)
      (pp. 78-89)

      This is embarrassing. I am calling Alan Wong’s, one of Hawaii’s premier restaurants, at 11:00 on a Monday morning hoping to reserve a table for that evening. A New Yorker knows better. Alan Wong’s received a James Beard award in 1996 as the Best U.S. Restaurant in the Northwest. The chef, Alan Wong, embodies the East-West hybridities for which his kitchen is famous. He is Japanese born, Hawaiian bred, and mainland U.S. trained, with Japanese ancestry on his mother’s side and Chinese and Hawaiian on his father’s. Wong’s coffee-table cookbook,New Wave Luau, promises the likes of drunken duck on...

      (pp. 90-95)

      It happens to me all the time. Shopping in the mall, I’m suddenly gripped by late morning hunger pangs that must be assuaged. My first thought is the Starbucks knockoff, where $2.75 will get me a disappointing cappuccino, which I’m likely to order rather than a perfectly acceptable regular coffee. After all these years, I still resonate to the mellifluous sound of the wordcappuccino.

      I remember standing at a coffee bar on the Via Veneto in Rome nursing a cappuccino. It was the end of my first year in graduate school, and I was eager for romance. A few...

      (pp. 96-114)

      I load ten plastic containers and several Styrofoam-wrapped packages into the large red-and-white cooler: whole cabbage kimchi, radish kimchi, shredded daikon, spinach and cucumber salads, dried squid, sweetened dried fish, black soybeans, dried baby octopus, baby clams, japchae, scallion pancakes, and sesame chicken. Everything is double-wrapped in clear plastic, including the crack between the cover of the cooler and the base. I’d wrap my entire truck if I knew how. But to no avail. No matter what precautions I take, my Honda Accord will arrive at Rachel and Shale’s place in central Vermont reeking of garlic, hot red pepper, ginger,...

  7. Part 3. A Global Appetite
      (pp. 117-118)

      At the luxurious Hotel Ngor, on the Senegalese coast facing the Atlantic, Eli and I begin lunch each day with a perfect mango. The gleaming orange flesh, carved into a crown of cubes and triangles, is sweet, firm, and silky smooth in the mouth. Each bite releases in us a flood of French superlatives:étonnant, parfait, merveilleux, incroyable, extra.

      Chedli, our regular waiter, beams in response to this extravagant but heartfelt praise. It’s for him, too, he feels. After all, the incomparable mangoes are fruits of his earth. Planted and tended by brothers and cousins, they pass through his hands...

      (pp. 119-129)

      We have rented a white house with sky-blue shutters on a rocky outcropping facing the Mediterranean. It is a serene retreat, twenty minutes by car from the Tunisian capital and my job at the University of Tunis. I open the shutters each morning to catch the rising sun and the sounds of the advancing tide. From our living room, french doors lead onto a red-tiled terrace, where I sun and doze and fret over unfinished lectures. The broad, sweeping beach, empty from October through April, is two flights of stairs below. On mild days, I watch our neighbor Françoise adjust...

      (pp. 130-135)

      Our neighbor Francisco, a portly man of sixty, hangs out weekends in the doorway of his street-front garage. Weather permitting, he soaks up the sun while gossiping with friends. When he spots Eli and me heading his way, arms laden with books, beer, and bread, he beckons us inside. The dim room resembles a hardware store. Metal shelves, brackets, tins of nails, and stacks of cardboard boxes cover the concrete floor. “From my factory in the north,” he says in Portuguese, gesturing at the clutter. “We manufacture.” I’m puzzled. Surely Francisco hasn’t invited us into the garage to admire his...

      (pp. 136-146)

      The breakfast buffet at the Hotel Polana is thirty running feet of elegant imports: decadent patés and seductive herring, vegetable salads and classic French cheeses, fruit pastries and croissants, fried eggs, sausages, and, for the cholesterol conscious, granola and yogurt. Self-indulgent on my first working day in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, I sample almost everything and reject the compunction to clean my plate. Still, my pleasures give me pause. Mozambique in 1993 is one of the most woebegone countries in Africa. On the UN’s quality-of-life chart, it ranks close to the bottom. How can I reconcile this five-star extravaganza...

      (pp. 147-149)

      The fruit trees ringing the house at Pharping produce apricots, peaches, cherries, and pears—amazing pears, my son Adam boasts. The air is sweet and fresh; it’s the opposite of the killer exhaust and rotting garbage that clog our nostrils in Kathmandu. “We should all go up for an overnight,” Adam says, “and let Sangita feed us dinner. That way you’ll understand why Laura and I bought the place—how peaceful we feel there.”

      Running a business in Kathmandu doesn’t allow Adam much peace. He worries about the competition—all those other solar energy businesses that have sprung up since...

      (pp. 150-157)

      Ahmed stares at the photo of Fatima Abbasi. The young professor from the West Bank studies the beautiful woman with coal-black eyes and a direct, unsmiling gaze. She stands at a table in her kitchen, stuffing grape leaves with a mixture of bulgur, ground lamb, onions, and currants. The narrative on the wall next to the photo explains that Mrs. Abbasi and her family came to the United States from Jerusalem via Jordan in the late 1970s. The dolmas she is making, with olive oil from her family’s groves outside of Jerusalem, are destined for Ali Baba, the family’s Middle...

      (pp. 158-170)

      On a blisteringly hot afternoon in Oaxaca, my friend Nancy and I stroll north from the Zocalo in search of a restaurant called Las Quince Letras. The guidebook warns that Las Quince Letras is easy to miss: we’re to look for a plain purple entryway and a sign saying “restaurante.” We fail to spot it on the first pass, peering foolishly at rows of unmarked doorways for the address, Abasolo 300. The street is deserted, soundless. We feel disoriented. Behind the ubiquitous closed shutters, are local residents eating theircomidain silence? Or, having finished the midday meal, are they...

      (pp. 171-181)

      Arriving at London Heathrow from Newark, I check the boards for my British Air flight to Tbilisi, the capital of the Republic of Georgia. Terminal 1 for European connections, the signs announce, and Terminal 4 for Asian connections. The map in my head isn’t helpful. It shows Georgia at the crossroads between Europe and Asia—wedged between the Caucasus Mountains and Russia to the north, the Black Sea to the west, and Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan to the south. A sympathetic clerk directs me to Terminal 4, where I queue up behind a group of chatty diplomats and NGO staffers....

      (pp. 182-188)

      “Abueng has done us a great favor,” my nephew Eric announces. He pauses to fill four glasses with South African sauvignon blanc. His parents and I are relaxing on the terrace of the Johannesburg house that Eric, his wife, and his daughter have rented for the year. Wine is a huge industry in South Africa, and our white is crisp and delicate. “I’d be happy drinking this at home,” I say, thinking more about the politics of consumption than the particular grape. Until 1994, when elections and a new constitution ushered in democratic South Africa, we boycotted the wines of...

  8. Part 4. Cooking for a Change
      (pp. 191-192)

      The FoodBank’s community room is festooned with red and yellow crepe paper streamers. On the wall behind the chairs of fifteen Food Service Training Academy graduates are their names in large black type. Blue balloons above each chair, with “Congratulations” and “Good Luck” in bold yellow script, thrust heavenward: ordinary markers of an extraordinary event.

      The graduates look sharp in full whites and chefs’ hats. Chef Robert and Chef Jimmy wear chefs’ dress blacks. Tables at the back are set for a hot buffet lunch and desserts, including an oversized graduation cake decorated with roses. I look around nervously at...

      (pp. 193-195)

      “You have to be here,” Chef Jimmy announces. “Every day. On time.” His booming voice, like a drill sergeant’s, fills the classroom. It’s January 3, 2004, the beginning of another cycle of the Food Service Training Academy’s free fourteen-week program. This is Jimmy’s third year at the school, and the fourth year of the academy’s existence. Out of seventy accepted applicants, only thirty-five have showed up for the first day. Women, about a third of the group, are clustered at the front of the room. They sit behind black tables with their notebooks out. Most of the men, hanging back,...

      (pp. 196-199)

      I notice, parked outside of the FoodBank on a chilly January morning, two beatup vans with the logo “Feed Our Sheep” in bold white letters. In smaller print are the name and address of a Newark church. Soon, FoodBank workers will help load these and other vehicles, destined for soup kitchens, day care programs, and emergency pantries. Some of the dry goods and canned goods are slightly dented. Most of the fruits and vegetables appear to be fresh. Nothing is rotten except the system that requires this desperate battle to keep hunger at bay.

      The phrase “Feed Our Sheep” gives...

    • BURNED
      (pp. 200-201)

      Chef Jimmy bangs his fist on Chef Robert’s metal toolbox. “It’s Clint!” he roars. “I can’t believe what that guy has done! Less than two months on the job and he stopped showing up. Just walked away. I used my contacts to get him the job, and now he’s burned me. He’s burned the program.”

      I remember Clint, a stocky man in his forties with a history of drug abuse and some time in prison. I happened to be in Chef Robert’s office the day Clint heard about the job offer. Robert and I were talking about race, poverty, and...

      (pp. 202-203)

      “It all started when I was five years old,” Tracey wrote in her in-class essay “A Memorable Meal.” She remembers her grandmother cooking for the family and welcoming homeless people to her table. “I admired my grandmother for that. Watching her help people that couldn’t or wouldn’t help themselves made me feel good inside and blessed. I started to stick around in the kitchen and help her.”

      As a teenager, Tracey began honing her skills. “I am the cook of my family. When there is a gathering with friends or family, they call on me. I am a perfectionist. I...

      (pp. 204-206)

      Entering the kitchen on an April morning, I confront a mosaic of white chef’s hats framing black faces. A dozen students are busy: turning Betty Crocker mixes into cakes, cantaloupes into fruit salad, the previous day’s baked potatoes into twice-stuffed potatoes, and chicken breasts into fried chicken. Justice is standing alone between two pairs of bakers, dreads halfway down his back, at leisure. He flashes one of his megasmiles in my direction. “I owe you an apology,” I say. He looks confused. The knot in my stomach relaxes.

      Apparently he’s forgotten the exchange we had the morning before. Or maybe...

      (pp. 207-208)

      Eddy, the volunteer chef-instructor, checks the grill and the warming ovens. He pokes his head into the fruit salad and then into the walk-in refrigerator. His movements are twitchy and abrupt, like a dog with fleas. “Take this pan, quickly. No, put it here. Who’s got potatoes? Get the chicken in.” He harangues the students in a shrill, scratchy voice. When he spots me chatting with the pizza makers, he approaches with an officious “Can I help you?” “No,” I say, “there’s nothing I need.”

      I remember when Eddy appeared, on a Saturday in March, in the midst of the...

    • INTERN
      (pp. 209-210)

      I was in Chef Robert’s office during the first week of classes when Nelson dropped in for a chat. A youthful forty-two, Nelson sported a clean-shaven head and a neat black mustache. The second student to serve as sous chef for the day, Nelson was taking the assignment seriously. The sous chef, a rotating job, plans the day’s menu and supervises the students in the kitchen. His grade depends in part on their performance. He asked Robert about how the steaks for the following day’s lunch should be marinated and what guides the choice of a dry or wet marinade....

      (pp. 211-214)

      Waretta, who completed the Food Service Training Academy program and graduated in December 2003, was the last of her cohort to find employment. As a student, Waretta never missed a day and never shirked a task. She earned a standout grade of 95 on the national certification exam. School was Waretta’s oasis. After two years in prison, she was assigned to a halfway house, where she shared a dorm room with twenty other women. In those crowded quarters, someone was always stressed and making trouble for the roommates. At the Food Service Academy Waretta found peace and a purpose.


  9. Part 5. Eating Alone
      (pp. 217-218)

      I sit, squeezed between Adam and Sapana, on a narrow couch. On my lap I balance a snack plate containing half a hard-boiled egg, three rice balls stuffed with cooked vegetables, a few slices of pickled cucumber, and two pale pink rice wafers. The hard-boiled egg slithers around on the plate and drops into my lap. “It’s okay,” I tell Sapana, whose dark eyes register what she takes to be my distress. “These black pants won’t show a thing.”

      At least I hope they’re not showing almost two weeks of rough and tumble eating, much of it seated on cushions...

      (pp. 219-223)

      Just a few days before he died in August 1991, Eli asked me what I was planning for his funeral. He was sitting in the big round chair in my study, rail thin in his warm-up suit, his dense curly hair gone with the chemo. We were drinking coffee, and I had swiveled my desk chair around to face him. Of course, the funeral was on our list of items to deal with. Over the past few months, we had reorganized our finances and rewritten our wills. After reading Derek Humphry’sA Final Exit, about end-of-life choices, we collected a...

      (pp. 224-227)

      “I’m so sorry,” I tell Michi, “but my stomach is sending a message that I dare not ignore. I’ve been looking forward to our reunion, and especially the sea bass you promised to steam for me. ‘I’m in my element with fish,’ you said, sounding mystical. I almost asked you about the connection between fish and feminism. But I decided to save that conversation for dinner. And now I have to cancel. Even if I could get to your house this evening, there’s no way I could do justice to the sea bass.”

      I hang up the phone, relieved. It’s...

      (pp. 228-230)

      Maria is rolling up Joe’s wrap as I approach the counter. I watch her hands, in clear plastic gloves, press the bulging green tortilla into a neat roll. She cuts it at an angle, revealing a landscape of intense greens and reds in an ivory field, and wraps the two halves in brown butcher paper. “What’s in it?” I ask Joe, a thirty-something Latino. He reels off the ingredients—chicken salad, hummus, lettuce, tomatoes, sprouts, red pepper dressing, and a splash of balsamic. “Hey,” he says, “it’s Sunday.Verdad, Maria? I go all the way on Sunday.”

      My own Sunday...

      (pp. 231-236)

      Rinpoche presses his hands together and begins the mealtime prayer. He speaks in a low singsong, in Tibetan. Adam joins him. Sapana, sitting very straight in her chair, follows silently. Rahula, age five, probably knows this prayer but doesn’t participate. My eyebrows, should anyone be watching, signal amusement. More than sixty years ago, when my grandfather recited blessings, as if to himself, in a droning, Yiddish-inflected Hebrew, I averted my eyes and chattered with my cousins. Those ritual invocations were alien forms. Now, shifting my gaze between Rinpoche’s serene face and Adam’s uncharacteristically calm one, I strive to give the...

      (pp. 237-241)

      The voice on the phone is light and cheery, somewhat at odds with the formal diction. I imagine a woman who used to wear white gloves to church, even in eighty-five-degree heat. “I’m your Leonia neighbor, calling on behalf of United Way,” she says. “A close neighbor, actually. My husband and I can see your lovely dining room from our house on Eastview.” I hesitate, at a loss for words, before promising to put a check in the mail first thing in the morning.

      “How extraordinary,” I announce, as if to a room full of guests. After years of observing...

      (pp. 242-246)

      Pete, my plumber, stares glumly at his coffee. He is in what I think of as his office at the corner table of Happy Market, angled toward the front door. Next to him, two Latino day workers remove freshly made fried egg sandwiches from tinfoil and settle into their breakfast. I hesitate before approaching Pete. His body language signals that he’s still half in the sack. However, the half that’s up and running sends what passes for a welcoming glance in my direction. He waits, his long torso slumped over the small round coffee bar, for my opening sally.


    (pp. 247-250)

    Four months ago, in South Africa, I had a dream about this book. When I awoke, I wrote in my notebook:

    Once again I am a graduate student at Yale. In a cramped, gloomy office, one of my professors is admonishing me to pay attention to the reading list. You’ll have four chances to prove yourself, he says. Out in the corridor, I hear that a poetry reading is about to begin at Yale Chapel. Everyone in American studies will be there. After a brief hesitation, I head off in the direction of the chapel.

    Suddenly the scene changes. I’m...