The People I’ll Never Know

18 Jul

Cities feel alive. They’re pulsating, dynamic places where people circulate at all hours of the day and night. They breathe their energy onto you, which can be invigorating, but tiring too. They have personalities of their own, quirks, secrets, years of history folded into their streets. Sometimes I’m amazed by the immensity of what happens when you put so many people in a highly concentrated space.

Studying abroad in Madrid was my first experience living in a true city. Sure, I’d traveled to plenty of cities before, but I’d only ever lived in suburbs. And as I adjusted to the highs and lows of urban dwelling, I was struck by the sheer vastness of people that I saw on a daily basis. Of course, the suburbs aren’t people-free, and they have their own people-watching hotspots. But when you sit in your car shuffling from point A to point B, you don’t get as much interaction with people beyond your immediate scope. In a city’s public transit and on its sidewalks, you really see everyone, and everything.

In Madrid I took the subway everywhere. And I was always struck by the volume of people I saw in the stations and on the trains. People who I would probably never meet. People whose stories I didn’t know. In time, I developed an admittedly odd habit: whenever a subway car sped away, I’d look at it and think “goodbye, all the people I’ll never know.”

I’m not sure what was so striking about it. Perhaps the sheer volume of faces. Perhaps the fact that I was in a foreign country added a slight edge to the situation. I was just overcome by this realization that every subway car was filled with people I knew nothing about, and likely never would. There was something about this concentrated set of strangers, speeding away that really stuck with me. Yes, I could have gone up and tried to make friends in the subway. But I never would have met all of them. And the point was more than that, anyway: it was a reminder of how our own lives are just one tiny thread of what’s happening on this earth on a daily basis. We need those reminders sometimes, of the vastness of the world.  And in Spain, that vastness was amplified by the fact that I knew very few people in the city, period. Back in the US, I’d go to campus events alone or show up to the college cafeteria solo, assuming I’d know someone once I got there. At my Spanish university, I’d walk into the cafeteria and fail to see a single familiar face. It was a striking experience for me, as an extrovert who tends to bounce between groups of people.

These days, I see a lot of strangers on my daily commute. Sometimes I do talk to them, but only when there’s something that prompts natural conversation: the ticket machine isn’t working, a tourist wants dinner ideas, a toddler is making silly faces. I see some of the same people a few times a week, and always wonder if it’d be cool or creepy to go up to them and comment on the overlap, start a conversation, see what they have to say. With photo blogs out there like Humans of New York and Nola Beings, it’s becoming more common to celebrate the stories of strangers. But in day to day life, would people be as receptive? If I just walked up to someone and tried to talk with them for the sake of talking, how would they react? If I told the guy I secretly call my “bus buddy” that I realized we take the same bus several days a week, would he say he’d noticed me too? Or would he run away in fright?

I’m going to challenge myself to talk to 5 complete strangers in the next month, without any pretext. No cute toddler, no crazy bus driver, no bonding over our city’s bizarre bus doors. Just two people, talking.

Such A Treat

10 Jul

Growing up, trips to Los Angeles were a big treat. We only went a few times a year, and always for a specific reason like seeing a play or shopping in the Garment District. But no matter what brought us to LA, we ended our day the same way: with a trip to Canters Deli. Sometimes we ate dinner there, indulging in comfort foods like corned beef and matzo balls. Sometimes we just made a pit stop to pick up dessert. Either way, I always made sure to leave with one of Canter’s giant black and white cookies in my hands.

From the Brown Eyed Baker blog. Click through to see her recipe, which I fully endorse.

We all had our own favorite treat in the Canters bakery. Mine was that scrumptious cookie, a cakey base with two types of frosting. My brother’s was the chocolate rugula, my mom’s the chocolate-dipped cookies, my dad’s the hamentaschen. I was always happy to take a bite of my family’s picks, but I never wavered from my own ritual of getting a black and white. If you’re from the East Coast you may not understand my laser focus on getting one of those cookies, as they’re pretty popular pastries in your neck of the woods. But black and whites just aren’t that common on the West Coast, and trips to Canters were one of my only ways to get them. For me, black and whites will forever be intertwined with road trips, LA adventures, and shared family nostalgia. Canters is part of my family’s memory fabric, just like any other ritual we grew together. Even today, as I bite into a black and white (and as Seinfeld notes, you have to get a bit of black and white at the same time), I think back to all of the fun we had picking our pastries out of Canters’ beautiful displays.

We all have foods like that, don’t we? Foods that transport us to happy times, to shared memories, to family love. Maybe it’s the lasagna your mom made every Saturday, or the tacos you only got with your grandpa because your grandma thought the restaurant was too unsanitary. Perhaps it’s the diner you visited on vacation in Florida every summer, or the sandwich shop you’d go to twice a week with your high school classmates. Food isn’t just physical sustenance: sometimes it’s very tightly woven into our nostalgia and emotion.

These days, I rarely make it to LA, and even more infrequently to Canter’s. Oddly enough, my black and white habits have shifted somewhat to the East Coast. Whenever I travel East, I make it a point to snap up whatever black and whites I encounter. Sadly, I’m often disappointed- bad icing, stale cookies, weird flavoring. I probably should have expected disappointment when I bought one at a New Jersey roadside bagel shop earlier this year but hey, you just never know!

My version of Brown Eyed Baker's cookies. The chocolate frosting still tasted delicious, despite its rather ugly appearance.

My version of Brown Eyed Baker’s cookies. Note the gloopy chocolate frosting. They tasted better than they looked, I promise.

To fill the West Coast cookie void, I recently made my own batch. I’d attempted black and whites a few years ago and didn’t like how they turned out, but this time I was really happy with the recipe I used. I then took the cookies to a picnic, where they were declared delicious by the masses. So if you want to try your hand at them, I highly recommend using this recipe from Brown Eyed Baker. Lemon extract and cake flour seem to be key ingredients here, and the recipe is pretty simple. I did have some issues getting the chocolate frosting spread on before it thickened up - guess I’ll have to keep making the cookies until I get it right!

I got curious about black and whites as I wrote this, and browsed the Internet a bit to learn more about how they became so ubiquitous with Jewish delis. There’s a good article at Eater NY, if you’re interested. And just because: check out this guy’s black and white review site. He stopped his reviews a while ago, but it’s still worth a browse and a laugh!


A Touch of Class (Picture Prattle)

23 Jun

At first glance, this room looks just like any other classroom. Tables, chairs, a whiteboard.  But this particular college classroom profoundly shaped who I am today.

I had my freshman intensive seminar in this classroom. It was one of the most influential classes I’ve ever taken, focused on global culture and cultural differences. We used that whiteboard to map our perceptions of each other, to list the labels we used to describes ourselves, to chart the way we felt when we had a frustrating cultural experience. We spent many hours in that room debating the merits of looking at things from other perspectives and trying to understand the world beyond your own cultural defaults. During every class session we pulled those chairs into a circle to facilitate open dialogue.

I also had my research fellowship seminar in that classroom. My fellowship was a really unique program, an opportunity that I was lucky to have. As a junior, each student in the fellowship picked a research topic and a mentor. We then spent the next 2 years doing independent research, evolving our hypotheses and writing myriad papers on our individual topics.  In my cohort of 5, our topics ranged from Kierkegaard to Chinese economics to feminism. My research explored how Mexican journalists shaped their identities while at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris. In that classroom we taught each other what we’d learned, shared our papers, learned from our Professor, debated our ideas. We grew as scholars, as writers, and as friends.

Those two classes were almost bookends to my college experience, the very beginning of my academic explorations and the pinnacle of it. And in between those bookends,  I had French classes in that room, group meetings, club meetings. I had some of my most fundamental discussions from college in there. I had some of my most challenging moments in there, too.

Sure, at first glance it looks like a boring classroom. But it’s not about what’s in the room. It’s about what came out of it

Around the World

6 Jun

When you think about foreign countries, what comes to mind? Most likely, it’s monuments and museums, delicacies and diversions. But when you move beyond the things tourists go out of their way to see, the bulk of what happens in any given country is everyday life. Most people aren’t going to the Eiffel Tower or enjoying high tea or taking a narrated tour down a canal. Most people are just going about their lives – sleeping, eating, trying to make a living.

From the photo series: a Vietnamese rice farmer and his daily sustenance. Click on the photo to access the full article about this project

There’s been a slew of photojournalism features floating around the Internet that show people around the world in their everyday lives. For example, a recent series compared the daily diets of people across continents, social groups and economic classes. These series take seemingly mundane daily experiences, and show how many differences there are in the simplest things. Do you think that hard about your choice as you reach for your daily Cheerios? Probably not, because it feels like a given that you’d eat cereal, and a given that you’d pick Cheerios. But when you look at pictures of breakfasts around the world, you remember that very little is a given. We all have defaults, many of them culturally-derived. Your “normal” is someone else’s “abnormal.”

These series have become popular partly because the photography itself is so striking. The photos tend to be of a single subject, and that subject’s objects or food. The result is vivid commentary on consumerism, on culture, on global awareness. The photo show nuances of lifestyles, and all the different ways you can go through the human experience. They remind us that not everyone lives the way we do, that not everyone has the same preferences, that not everyone has the same priorities. They remind us that even with the internet and world tours and all these things that seem to keep us so connected, we’re still quite out of touch with what “reality” means for a lot of other people out there. How you decorate your child’s bedroom may not feel like a cultural statement to you, but it is. Your daily breakfast is a testament to your defaults. What you drink with dinner speaks to your framing of human needs. But sometimes you need a point of comparison to actually put your own behaviors and preferences into context, especially when the bulk of people immediately around you seem to have pretty similar behaviors and preferences.

My challenge to you today: as you go about the rest of your day, think about why you’re doing what you’re doing. Where did those choices come from? How firmly rooted are your beliefs? Would someone around the world find your “normal” to be “abnormal?”

My challenge to you as you travel: try your hardest to get beyond the museums and monuments, and try to learn about what it’s like to truly, really live somewhere else. Where would you buy your food? What would you eat? What toys would your kid use? Would your life look remotely the same?



On to the Next One

31 May

This is the cake I would buy for my blog if it could eat cake… Maybe I should just get one for myself? Picture from the Sweet Shop Lulu blog (click on the picture to see their super cute party supply shop)

This week marks my blog’s 3rd birthday – and I’m so happy to celebrate with you! It’s been another good year, full of twists and turns between baked goods and marketing and travel stories. I’ve debated whether it’s fair to expect other countries to feel “sufficiently foreign.” I introduced you to one of my favorite professors and her charming memoir about studying abroad in France. I’ve traced the role sugar played in the development of modern consumerism (and for the record, I’m really proud of that post’s title). I’ve looked at what happens when Abercrombie and Fitch declares they don’t want to sell their clothes to people above a certain size. There was an ode to traveling alone, encouraging everyone to try to it, even if it’s just for a few hours. I rambled on about the virtues of gooey butter cake. There was nostalgia for a week spent wandering around D.C. I shared the recipe for a successful cookie swap, and praised the deliciousness of frozen s’mores.

But most of all, dear readers, I got to engage with you. I appreciate every single one of you who ever clicks on this blog, whether it’s via the WordPress homepage, an email subscription, a link from a friend, or maybe even one of my shameless self-promotions on social media. As we head into Culture Cookies’ 4th year, I’d like to thank you all for coming to my little corner of the Internet. And I’d like to encourage you to comment on what you read here, tell me what you think, maybe even challenge me. The best writers grow with feedback, and the best thinkers grow with debate.

Til next time, my friends.


What A Spread

23 May

In its original form, Supercrema. Nutella is probably a better name, but I sort of like the mental image of a chocolatey superhero

I’ve always thought of Nutella as an indulgence, something I buy when I want to add a touch of decadence to what I’m eating. And despite the company’s attempts to market their spread as a health food (which resulted in a false advertising lawsuit), Nutella falls under the “occasional treat” category for most consumers. As it turns out, Nutella’s very existence is rooted in this idea of a small luxury. I recently read a BBC article that explained the company’s “origin story,” as we call it in marketing. According to the article, Nutella’s inventor came up with the idea for the hazelnut spread in the years after WW2, when a lot of people couldn’t afford to buy real chocolate. The story goes that founder Pietro Ferrero became obsessed with creating a chocolate treat for the masses. First he produced a chocolate hazelnut loaf, which had to be cut with a knife. In time he invented a recipe for Supercrema, a spreadable form, and the roots of Nutella as we know and love it today.

Supercrema helped reinvent how the masses interacted with chocolate. As the BBC article says, “spreadability meant that a small amount went a long way.” Meaning, the spreadable format more or less diluted the cost of the ingredients, and made Supercrema much more affordable for the masses. The spread format also changed the confection’s perception from a treat or dessert into any “anytime” thing. Suddenly you could put a dab on bread, have just a spoonful, and indulge whenever you wanted. Supercrema helped shift people’s ideas of when it was acceptable or allowable to eat chocolate. It became a permissible indulgence rather than a twice-a-year treat. It was never exactly a “necessity,” but it was an affordable luxury, a pleasure you could have without feeling guilty about spending too much money.

Italy has a commemorative stamp to mark Nutella’s 50th birthday

Over time, Supercrema became Nutella. Though Nutella has long been popular around the world, it’s somehow only become really popular in the U.S. in recent years. But that popularity has exploded, to the point that the Eataly Italian food markets in Chicago and NYC now feature Nutella bars. In fact, Nutella has become so popular that it’s spurred a lot of copycats, from Hershey’s to boutique brands. That’s good news for consumers, as product choice in a category like groceries usually means accessible price points and lots of promotions. But it’s really not so great for Nutella and its market share! (Yes, these are the things I think about while grocery shopping. Doesn’t it make you want to go with me?)

While I wasn’t always a huge fan of Nutella, these days I’m a card-carrying member of the Nutella fan club. So in honor of Nutella’s birthday, why don’t we all treat ourselves to jars of the chocolatey delight?

If you don’t want to end up eating the entire jar with a spoon, here’s a few ways to work it into baked goods:

The most recent Nutella-based recipe I made:

Nutella-Stuffed Oatmeal Peanut Butter Cookies 

What I most want to make next (it’s a tie!):

Nutella-Swirled Peanut Butter Chip Blondies

Nutella-Stuffed Brown Butter Sea Salt Chocolate Chip Cookies  

Nutella Swirl Brownies



The Quandary of $4 Toast

14 May

San Francisco is at the center of many debates. Debates on housing, on politics, on toast. Yes, you read that right: toast is now a hot-button issue in the fine city of San Francisco. At least two local coffee shops serve toast that nears $4 a slice. In local media, that $4 toast has become a symbol for the city’s changing dynamics and gentrification. Some call the toast a status symbol of the tech-elite, proof that this much-maligned group is wrecking havoc on the city’s cost of living. Others say the toast is a sign that the artisanal food trend has gone too far. And some people just can’t believe others are willing to shell out $4 for toast.

Would you pay $4 for this? (Picture from Serious Eats)

Now, I’m not here to talk politics. I’m here to talk about the intersection of two other topics that I’m much more qualified to discuss: consumer behavior, and baked goods. Leaving all the social class and political commentary behind, I want to dig into this disbelief that $4 toast could be “worth it.” Those who love the toast are almost scared to admit it, and those who would “never” buy it are quick to judge others for doing so. In a world where people drop big bucks on cupcakes, coffee, frozen yogurt, why all the hate on toast?

Well… because it’s toast. Toast, in itself, is not very inspiring. You think of a toaster, you think of a slice of store-bought bread, you think of racing out your house on the way to work. Toast sounds so plain Jane and so cheap that the idea of spending a lot of money on it takes people by surprise. Many of us were also surprised when cupcakes became such a craze, because they’d never before been positioned as “gourmet” desserts. But cupcakes rose to a popularity that’s yet to be surpassed by any other mainstream baked good. Not everyone can afford to drop $5 on a cupcake, and not everyone wants to, but the mini cakes have become a staple in contemporary U.S. food culture.

Meanwhile, toast just sounds boring, and too easy to replicate. You can prep toast in a matter of minutes at your house. Why pay someone else $4 to do that for you? But you see, this $4 toast isn’t simply toasted, store-bought bread. It’s a thick slice of hand-baked bread, toasted and then slathered in toppings like fresh cream cheese or Nutella. You’re not really paying for the act of “toasting” it, you’re paying for the time and care that went into picking the ingredients, baking the bread, and choosing high-quality toppings.

A very famous NYC bakery sells 1 cookie for $4. Ridiculous, or acceptable?

A very famous NYC bakery sells one cookie for $4. Ridiculous, or acceptable?

Now, let’s think about what you spend on other baked goods. A very mediocre muffin at my corner coffee store costs $3. A bagel with cream cheese might set you back $3 too, even if it tastes like cardboard. And the baked goods at Starbucks can cost about $4 a piece. So why not spend $4 on delicious toast? How is that really any different from spending that money on a bagel? And isn’t $4 a pretty decent price for breakfast out? Well, my friends, it comes down to framing: toast hasn’t been able to shake off its reputation as “boring.” We think some level of expertise goes into muffins, we deem it hard to bake bagels, we love the experience of Starbucks. And then we forget that we’re spending the same amount, just on a different form of baked good.

For the record, I fell prey to the $4 toast quandary myself. A friend was in town, and we decided to check it out. Admittedly, we were somewhat intrigued by the price: how could it really be that good, we asked ourselves? And you know what? It was really, really good. It was a thick, delicious slice of bread topped with a generous coating of fresh butter and cinnamon sugar. Would I go back and buy it everyday? No. But as a shared snack, or as a solo breakfast, I would definitely buy it again.

And if you work for the National Toast Association, give me a call – I’d like to help you position your baked good.

If you’re interested in reading more on the SF toast debates, check out these links: 

In-depth profile on one of the women who offers $4 toast (a very touching story)

A criticism of the toast as a sign of the rising tech elite 


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