The Annual Report (vol. 4)

16 Jan

I say this every January, but last year feels like a total whirlwind. Suddenly here we are, at another new year. January 2016 feels so close and so far at the same time. It seems like just yesterday that I was wandering Nashville’s streets with my mom–my first trip of 2016. And yet, so much has changed that the feeling I had back in Nashville isn’t even a feeling I can access anymore.

I always take time to reflect on my year and try to remember where the time went. It’s easy to remember the big things: my trip to Japan, my new job, the beautiful weddings I attended. But I like to look back on smaller things, too. My diary isn’t very typical. I don’t use it to express myself or track my emotions. Instead, it’s simply a log of all the things I did in a year that seemed notable when they happened. I started the log in 2012 when I was new to San Francisco and created a “San Francisco to-do list,” organized by neighborhood. I started writing down what I did every week, too. Looking back at my log makes me smile, because it reminds me of all the little things that made a year great. Things like brunch with friends, trying that new restaurant, finally making it to some part of town I’d wanted to see, trekking to some far-off bakery. It always makes me happy to see what I did, and who I did it with.

So, as I’ve done for a few years now, I used my personal log to write a sort of “annual report” for 2016. Here we go!

teavel-betterNo wonder it felt like I missed a lot of 2016 in San Francisco: I took 22 trips last year! That’s a lot of time away from home. Trips encompassed everything from Ohio to Portland to Maryland. Work and leisure travel were actually pretty balanced, with a slight tip toward business trips. 2017 will definitely look different, since my new job doesn’t require much travel.

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I baked WAY more in 2016 than 2015, but the breakdown didn’t change much. Cookies continued to rule, making up 56% of the 68 recipes I baked in 2016. You can find more details about my year in baking over on my other blog.

Some 2016 Fun Facts: 

  • Meals at my favorite local Moroccan restaurant: 8
  • Bamboo forests explored: 1
  • Trips to wine country: 4 (including 2 birthday bus day trips) 
  • Museums visited: 7
  • Cat birthday parties attended: 1 
  • Magnitude to which I felt grateful for friends and family: as always, non-quantifiable

I wrote 23 posts for Culture Cookies this year, just 1 shy of last year’s total. I would have loved to post more, so I’m a little bummed by that number. But I also wrote 47 posts for my baking blog last year, so of course I couldn’t do it all. As cheesy as it sounds, I give myself permission to write less frequently for Culture Cookies. This blog digs deeper into analysis and commentary, while Sugarsmith is more about personal stories and recipes. That blog is simpler to write and since I bake so often, I constantly have new material. I used to get more annoyed about the lack of posts here, and I still wish I posted more often… but I also know that things get busy, and I can’t do it all. And that’s ok!

Top New Posts of 2016

  1. Talkin’ Bout My Generation
  2. Off the Road
  3. When Suggestion Engines Get It Wrong
  4. Much Ado About Toast
  5. At a Crossroads

1 Older Post that Technically Cracked the Top 5:

  1. How do YOU Flâner?

My Favorite 2016 Posts Not in the Top 5: 

Thanks to everyone who reads, comments, debates, and shares!

Off the Road

11 Dec

This time last year, I was staring out a hotel window at a smoggy LA scene. The day before, I was in Austin. The week before? São Paolo. I wasn’t on an intentional adventure–this was business travel. All three stops were for focus groups. I tried to make the most of it: an early morning dash for donuts in Austin, a quick museum stop in São Paolo, trying a new restaurant in LA. Mostly, though, I sat in focus group facilities, scribbling notes about consumer behavior and eating an inordinate amount of M&Ms (a focus group staple).

And now here we are, a year later, and I have zero business trips planned. After 7 years of frequent, often chaotic business travel, I’m officially off the road. It’s largely a relief–but there’s also something bittersweet about it that I’m still trying to process. My new job will involve the occasional business trip, but most the time, I’ll be home sweet home.

Switching myself off from business traveler mode has actually been one of the weirdest adjustments to my new job. On the one hand, I’m elated. Business travel can be so tiring, and it made my life really fragmented too. I could never quite plan ahead, I never committed to weekday plans more than a week out, and I always knew there was the possibility I’d have to hop on a last-minute flight. I struggled to set good habits because once I’d gain momentum, the next trip would come along and disrupt it.

And yet: there’s something beautiful about popping up all over the place. Business trips took me places I probably wouldn’t have been to otherwise: far-flung suburbs, extremely small towns, medium-sized towns that just don’t make most tourist itineraries. I’m full of stories from the last 7 years, some treasured and some reviled. That time I got lost in Alabama and ended up at a pecan farm. All the late, late night drinks and early, early breakfasts with NYC pals, crammed in to accommodate my work commitments. The months I spent staffed in New Jersey, barely seeing anything beyond my hotel and my client site.

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Waking up in Sao Paolo

This lifestyle shift is really impacting me right now. I find myself thinking about the feeling of checking in at a new hotel, pondering how much time I spent in airports, remembering all the times I dragged my suitcase around a new place. Planes and hotels were such a big part of my life for so long, whether I liked it or not. Being on the road had some exciting moments but more importantly, it was familiar. Lack of routine was my routine for so long, and it’s sort of bizarre that the pattern ended.

A more open calendar means opening up my life: the lack of movement means I can move forward in new ways. But, I’m still figuring out how this whole “non-business traveler” thing works. I’m trying to establish a better routine. I’m saying yes to weekday plans. And above all else, I’m savoring the feeling of staying still.

Since I keep a sort-of diary, it was really easy to map the places I’ve traveled for work. So naturally, I had to do it. This map only reflects locations, not frequency. For example, I hit up LA a few times in 2013 alone. Maybe someday I’ll add frequency in… but for now, the data-geek side of me finds this map pretty satisfying on its own.

Don’t Walk and Eat

27 Nov

When I was in Japan a couple months ago, most mornings started at a local bakery. Every morning we’d stop by a different place to pick up pastries and coffee to fuel our day’s adventures. Naturally, we got more than 1 pastry a day: after all, we wanted to try as many local specialties as we could. From melon buns to red bean rolls to taro danishes, we nibbled our way through a whole new realm of baked goods.

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That green pastry is a melon roll, and it was divine.

Japanese neighborhood bakeries are “self-service,” with pastries laid out buffet-style. You walk around with tongs and a tray to pick your bounty, then an employee rings you up. You can opt to dine-in, or take away. We always opted for takeaway since we had a jam-packed itinerary and wanted to jump right into sightseeing.

But, our desire to hustle created a bit of a cultural conundrum. See, on Day 2, our chosen bakery laid down some rules for us. They had this sign posted right by the tongs and trays, specifically to school hurried tourists like us.

do-not-walk

We giggled at first. After all, it felt a bit silly that the bakery was trying to monitor how we’d consume their baked goods. So they didn’t want us to stand directly in front of their door? Well, ok, I guess that could look tacky to passerby. But why did they care if we ate while walking? How would that impact the bakery at all?

We assumed the sign was trying to steer us away from cultural gaffes. While eating and walking is a popular combo in the grand ‘ol USA, that’s not the case worldwide. When I studied abroad in France, my professor gave us a long list of tips to “blend in.” One tip was exactly what this sign forbade: don’t eat and walk. She was so right! I rarely saw locals eating and walking when I was in France, or when I studied in Spain later on.

So that does that make Americans heathens? Or are we simply different? Who’s to say which way is “right” and which way is “wrong?” When we’re abroad, is it automatically disrespectful to do what we do at home? And on top of all that: is it this bakery’s business to tell us how to act?

I like to think that the bakery was simply looking out for us, like my French professor, and counseling us on how to blend in (or, really, how to stand out less). It’s not like we were about to get ticketed for eating pastries in the streets. But, they were guiding us to act like locals do, perhaps to save us embarrassment, perhaps to save the locals disdain. We did notice that the streets were impeccable in Kyoto, and could imagine the bakery wanting to inspire respect for their beautiful public space.

It’s so hard to respect local customs when you travel, because you can’t know all the rules off the top of your head. Without context, this sign just sounds a tad judgmental. But there are so many little things about cultures that vary around the world. It’s so easy to offend someone simply because you don’t have the right context. And in that sense, I think this bakery was just trying to help us get by.

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Another morning find. This store didn’t lecture us about how to eat, but maybe they just never thought to do it 🙂

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Inside a high-end grocery store.

Much Ado About Toast

20 Nov

Midway through a recent flight, my seatmate turned and asked where I live. When I answered that I live in San Francisco, she started on a rant about SF’s fixation with high-end toast. Turns out: my seatmate makes her own bread, her own preserves, etc. So my usual “pricey toast is ok because you wouldn’t really make this kind of toast at home” argument didn’t work. Instead, she proposed that everyone should produce their own food. But that perspective doesn’t take into account the realities of how most people eat. Most people aren’t milling their own grains or making their own jams. They’re buying what’s easy to find, affordable to purchase and simple to use.

This is such an interesting time in American food culture. Still, we’ve seen some big shifts in mainstream food over the past few years. You can see which trends are going mainstream by looking at grocery store shelves. What you see at places like Target or Safeway reflects what most Americans have access to. Even the largest food companies are putting out products that emphasize “fewer negatives” or “more benefits.” That shift toward “better for you” products is a pretty significant change to the way people eat every single day.

Remember when Marilyn Hagerty made internet waves with her review of Olive Garden? Lots of people laughed at her review of such an “everyday place.” But couldn’t one argue that everyday meals are the most important? They may not provide our most treasured memories, but they do make up the bulk of what we eat. I love to follow food trends and read about new restaurants, but I think it’s equally important to understand what’s happening in mainstream food culture. America’s food culture is largely defined by what goes onto people’s dining room tables, and not just what happens on chef challenge shows.

The next time you’re at the grocery store, try planning a week of meals with products you wouldn’t typically buy. More expensive, less expensive, healthier, less healthy–makes no matter. Sometimes it’s just good to shake up your frame of reference and try to imagine a different day-to-day life. Try to imagine the everyday meals of someone not like you. What would they eat? What would their priorities be? What could you learn from them?

What’s Spaghetti?

30 Oct

I got into a debate about spaghetti the other day.

You might assume I got into a debate about the right type of herbs for the sauce, or how long to cook the noodles. But no: I got into a debate about spaghetti itself. What it even is, at its most basic level.

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From Kawaling Pinoy

It started with a dish called Filipino Spaghetti. This dish includes hot dogs and banana ketchup, adding up to a sort of sweet, sort of savory dish. I’d never had it before, and quite liked it. But then, my dining companion and I got to talking about spaghetti. He wasn’t a fan of Filipino Spaghetti, and said he prefers “Italian spaghetti” with a richer tomato sauce and savory herbs. Which is totally fine: to each their own. Still, we started wondering what makes spaghetti, well, spaghetti. Is it about the shape of the noodle ? The way it’s served? Who makes it?

Technically, “spaghetti” refers to a type of noodle. But when we hear the phrase “spaghetti,” we have specific associations of what that dish should look like. Same goes for most foods, really. What guacamole should be, what fried rice should look like, what ketchup should taste like. These ideas come from our individual food histories: what we’ve experienced so far and what we believe to be true about different foods. Coming up with a standard definition really isn’t that simple, though. There may be traditional ways to prepare foods, but who’s to say what the “right” way is, especially when variations persist across cultures? Where’s the line between “authentic” and “variation” and “reinterpretation?”

Defining dishes has been a hot topic lately because of chefs’ new takes on traditional foods. Recently I saw a discussion about paella that was altered so much, Spaniards didn’t think it should be called “paella.” I also saw a conversation about tacos that shouldn’t be called tacos, since their fillings were so non-traditional. I’ve seen people declare certain dishes a “mockery” of regional cuisine because of ingredient tweaks or technique changes.

When does something become a mockery, rather than a twist on a classic? Where is that line between “creative interpretation” and “offensive bastardization?”

Honestly, it’s sort of hard to tell. Something like Filipino Spaghetti is, in fact, authentic to a specific culture. It is an adaptation that happened over time due to local contexts and local ingredients. This is true with most foods we eat today: few look like the original dish that our ancestors would have consumed centuries ago. Earlier this year, I read a fantastic book called “The Language of Food,” which digs into the linguistic roots of popular dishes to explain how those dishes evolved over time. Most things we eat today morphed over centuries of human migration, crop changes and cultural nuances. Did you know the origins of ketchup are a fish sauce created in 17th century China? That ketchup looked and tasted nothing like our ketchup today. If a restaurant served you that take on ketchup, would you protest it wasn’t ketchup? Or should we rename our beloved tomato sauce something else, instead?

In my opinion, Filipino Spaghetti is equally spaghetti-like to something smothered in marinara. But what about when it comes to more liberal takes on traditional dishes?

And that’s where it starts to get murky. There is a difference between creativity, and disrespect. I often think that switching around ingredients shows creativity, not insult.  I’ll gladly eat your Korean BBQ tacos and your butternut squash paella. But I do think there is a line to watch about respect, about mocking an authentic dish, about claiming authenticity. Which brings us back to the original question: when is paella not paella? Is it about some proportion of ingredients that got swapped out? Is it about who makes it?

Personally, I am satisfied with someone modifying the name of a dish to express that it’s been altered. “Butternut squash paella” or “soppressata kugel” are just fine by me. But I hope that chefs always respect the origins of the cuisine they’re adapting, and that they call it an adaptation rather than trying to claim authenticity or superiority. What ruffles my personal feathers is when chefs get snobby about how they’re “improving” a dish by using different ingredients or techniques–implying that the original dish was not sufficient on its own.

It’s a gray area, to be sure, because lots of people do get offended when they see their traditional dishes “re-interpreted.” But given how much food changes over time, I think respectful creativity is a delicious addition to our menus.

At A Crossroads

9 Oct
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Gion, Kyoto, Japan

Do you ever have those moments where something just clicks and you walk away with a renewed perspective on your world?

I had one a few weeks ago, standing at the very corner you see here. During an early morning stroll around Kyoto, Japan, I found myself at this beautiful intersection. At a literal crossroads, early enough in the morning that no one else was around. I stood there for a few minutes, just taking it all in. The architecture and the history, of course, but also what got me to that corner in the first place.

What brought me there? Change, friendship and a bit of serendipity.

I switched jobs recently, which always causes a shift in perspective. My whole routine changed–every little bit of it. I’m on different routes everyday, since my new office is across town from the old one. I see different people, talk about different things, think about different topics. My role itself is incredibly different from what I was doing before. Everything is new, exciting, intriguing and of course–sometimes intimidating, too.

I didn’t get much time off between jobs so I planned to take vacation pretty soon after starting the new position. I’d originally intended to stay home and take it easy–after all, I’m a huge proponent of staycations. But at the last minute, a friend tempted me to join her in Japan, instead. And I figured: why not? I had the miles, I had the time and most importantly, I had a dear friend inviting me to join her adventure. So off I went to Kyoto and Osaka for a whirlwind, delightful trip.

We crammed a lot into our few days together, exploring as much as we could. On our final morning in Kyoto I took a solo walk around the Gion district, famed for its high-end restaurants and traditional geisha culture. We’d already wandered thru this way at dusk, which is when the guidebooks tell you to go. I’m so glad I made it back there during the daytime, too. Something just clicked as I walked around, taking in the incredible wooden buildings and charming side streets. Soon I found myself at this crossroads, standing  utterly still, contemplating all the change and newness in my life.

I found a lot of peace in that moment. I probably looked crazy, standing there so deep in thought. But it was the perfect burst of serenity and reflection, self-love and self-care. I needed that moment. I needed to stand there and think about where I’d been and what was ahead.

As I stood there, I felt my brain and heart and soul click into better alignment. And I don’t want to forget how that morning felt. So I made this photo the wallpaper on my work laptop. And anytime I need a quick dose of inspiration or a quick brain refresh, I’ll take a peek at the photo and try to remember how it felt to be on that corner, in the crisp fall air, contemplating my world.

Travel Eats: Portland

21 Aug

I’ve found that one of the best ways to reset my brain is to wander a new city or neighborhood. Wandering provides the perfect mix of adrenaline, curiosity and relaxation. As I explore, my brain is so wrapped up in discovery mode that it forgets stressors and to-do lists.

I switched jobs recently and wanted to reset my brain a bit before heading into something new. Portland, Oregon has long been on my mind as a potential vacation destination. I’d heard such good things about its scenery, its people… and of course, its food. So when I realized I’d have a few days between jobs, I booked a rather last-minute trip and finally got to see what Portland’s all about.

We spent 2.5 days wandering every neighborhood we could, and sampling every dish we could. We also rented a car so we could drive to Multnomah Falls, the second highest waterfall in the U.S.

I’d compiled our list of “must dos” based on lots of advice from friends, websites like Eater and a bit of Yelping. We found so many delightful spots on our trip, but today I’m just going to share the very top eats. This was supposed to be a top 5  list… but I couldn’t narrow it down to 5! So, here are my top 8 places to eat in Portland:

1. Chizu 

IMG_0636Chizu focuses on cheese, and its menu is mighty impressive. You can pick cheeses by the ounce to make your own plate or order “omnikase” style and let the staff pick cheeses on your behalf. We ordered $20 of cheese plus some duck charcuterie and were incredibly pleased with what we got. The platter included an awesome mix of hard and soft cheeses, served with accompaniments like honey and dried fruit. The staffe explained the back story for every single cheese we ordered. Plus the staff was super friendly and chatted with us about recommendations for our stay.

2. Hat Yai

IMG_0870Hat Yai is all over the “best new restaurant” lists for Portland right now, and the hype is definitely substantiated. We loved our meal of meat skewers, curry, roti and grilled corn. Everything was so flavorful, and so satisfying. We stopped here on our way back from the Falls and it was the perfect post-hike dinner!

3. MÅURICE

IMG_0907Maurice calls itself a “luncheonette” and is only open until early evening, so make sure you stop here for lunch! It’s adorable inside, and its food is simple but delicious. We got a wonderful shaved carrot salad, delicious scones and yummy open face sandwiches.

 

4. Shalom Y’All

IMG_0632.JPGThis recommendation came from my mom (hi Mom!). I love falafel, and Shalom Y’Alls take on falafel was truly incredible. Spiced with sumac, accented by the unusual additions of walnuts and feta – this falafel sandwich keeps calling to me in my dreams. I usually find falafel options disappointing and really wish I had a Shalom Y’All in the Bay Area! The PDX location is in a “food hall” with several other local favorites.

5. Nuvrei

IMG_0900This Pearl District bakery has the most beautiful display of varied pastries and croissants. I opted for the Kare Pan, a brioche bun stuffed with Japanese-style curry. This thing was SO GOOD.

 

 

 

 

6. The Meadow

IMG_0939This shop specializes in salts, chocolates and bitters. So in other words, it’s a foodie’s dream. I snapped up awesome saffron salt, and resisted the urge to buy every kind of chocolate they had in stock. There are two locations in Portland and one in NYC, plus an online store!

 

 

 

 

7. Cheese & Crack Snack Shop

IMG_0783I found this shop by Yelping “pickles” and man, am I glad we visited! We stopped here for snacks on our way to the Falls. We got a “cheese plate to go” that had a great selection of cheeses, crackers and spreads like honey and mustard. We ended up eating this overlooking a vista point. Turns out that cheese + vista points = the perfect combo.

 

IMG_06148. Simple Local Coffee/Sterling Coffee Roasters

Ok, I’m cheating a little, but both these shops serve the same brand of coffee. First we bumped into Simple Local Coffee, a charming shop downtown that serves Sterling Coffee. A couple days later, we sought out Sterling’s own shop over in the city’s Alphabet District. I drink my coffee black, and loved their flavorful roasts. Fun fact: there are remnants of an old tunnel in the lobby adjacent to Simple Local Coffee, complete with old tools. Pretty cool!

 

 

Here are just a few more snapshots of our wonderful trip. If you’re ever headed to Portland, let me know. I’ll give you all the dirt on different neighborhoods, eats, etc.!

 

((This entry is cross-posted on my baking blog, Sugarsmith

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