The airplane meal service is an unexpected return to school days. Business class passengers are private school kids, receiving chef-approved meals with a heated dessert; eager economy travellers are lucky students from good public schools, getting first pick off a limited menu; back row passengers are students from poorly performing schools, left with other’s rejected dishes. We pretend to ignore this stratification. After all, we’re adults. We’ve bought out seats and chosen our fate in a way the schoolchild eating industrial mash for lunch can only dream about. Yet, whereas in school we were limited to an institutional tray, we forget a plastic airplane meal as it slips into the background of a trip. In the tight economy cabin the meal service occurs according to the deliberately vague mini-menu. If ‘tender chicken in a creamy mustard sauce’ isn’t available, nod politely as a flight attendant assures you that ‘beef chilli con carne’ makes an exceptional substitute. Don’t point out that the menu confusingly bills the former as ‘grilled chicken’ and that including ‘beef chilli’ in the name of the latter makes ‘con carne’ redundant. The juxtaposition of name and description parallels Alain de Botton’s description of airplane food in A Week at the Airport: ‘aeroplane food stands at a point of maximum tension between the man-made and the natural, the technological and the organic.’ This tension arises not only in how the food is processed, but also in how the cabin space and airline influence our interpretation of the meal. ‘Beef chilli con carne’ needs repetition to synthetically reinforce the meat’s taste, which is only a vague notion in the dish itself. We shouldn’t question the disparity between ‘grilled chicken’ with ‘creamy mustard sauce’ because the gap manifests our performance of an ordinary act, eating, in an extraordinary location, thirty seven thousand feet above sea level. Yet the plane, with its collapsible trays and electronic monitors, constructs an environment that ignores the remarkable as it attempts to reproduce the normal. This space, like the school cafeteria, isn’t for discovery but for refuelling as we move from one curiosity to another. During my last flight I ate ‘fusilli pasta,’ which was described as: ‘spiral shaped pasta in a tasty woodland mushroom sauce. With Italian shaved cheese.’ I decided this would be tastier than chicken with ‘mashed potatoes, leeks and grilled vegetables.’ Pleasingly ‘tasty woodland sauce’ was really ‘macaroni and cheese,’ which the menu could have described as: ‘pasta baked in a creamy Italian cheese emulsion. Studded with mushrooms and aromatic herbs.’ Just like the pasta meals served in school, the noodles melted on your tongue; the vegetables hinted at wholesomeness; and the cheese was dried out on one side. It wasn’t a ‘tasty’ meal, but rather the idea of one. The unexpected bonuses truly make me feel as if I’ve entered an airborne cafeteria. I’m embarrassed like a school kid by the footnote besides ‘pudding’ that informs me that the term means ‘British for dessert’ and not ‘pot of custard’ as my untrained mind erroneously assumes. After learning my cultural translations, I deserve a reward. Or rather, I deserve ‘pure indulgence’ and to ‘let [myself] go.’ Like earning a gold star, the bequeathing of this good thing follows strict rules: you’ll enjoy, you’ll take what’s give to you, refuse or ask for anything else and you’ll get a punishing stare. When in a building full of adolescents, or on a claustrophobic plane, it’s a wise idea to grin and bear it rather than stand out. Then there are times when receiving such stares feels like the only option. There are times when the thought of a banana pudding over the north Atlantic makes your stomach turn. The eyebrows of your seatmates raise and, for a moment, the plane has eyes just for you. Because even when we want to participate in the communal ‘yum, yum’ of afternoon tea (‘that great British tradition’) sometimes our personal sanity is more important. Other passengers open that cardboard box like a horde of teens foraging for their afternoon snack, but participating in their community becomes irrelevant as the plane descends slowly and the school day winds down. After your brief vacation from the real world, everything takes on new meaning. All you have to do is remember your industrial meal to realise how good you have it on the ground.
In the structuralist’s world ‘Oslo’ is the fixed signifier of ‘expensive.’ Or rather, dining in Oslo makes the budget traveller picture a thick pile of kroner flying out the window. Guidebooks and travel blogs agree: Oslo is nice, but be prepared to eat fast food or starve. The city’s central youth hostel understands the money-conscious traveller’s predicament. To satisfy them the hostel offers a free breakfast buffet. That is, if your idea of a bountiful morning meal is a plate flooded with canned pickled herring, cucumber slices and processed cheese.
If hotel breakfasts are expanses of unbridled abundance, hostel breakfasts show corresponding restraint. Reviews of hotels and hostels can easily be divided into those which praise the breakfast buffet, ‘I need 3 pages to compliment the breakfast buffet .… Waffles, donuts, cereal, toast, bagels, fruit, sausage patties … ’ or those that lament it, ‘the offerings were the same everyday even though it states on the web site that the options change.’ In these reviews, abundance inspires good feelings and lack of variety causes disappointment. Since plenty breeds positivity, hostels provide a similar quantity as hotels at a lower quality. Hotel breakfasts don’t occupy space in our minds because they offer good food, but because they offer choice. Choice transposes marks the food, causing the guest to taste it as superior. As Julian Baggini points out, ‘all-you-can-eat plugs into the primitive hunter-gatherer urge to stock up on calories while we can for tomorrow we might starve’ (Baggini, 161). We’re not eating at the breakfast buffet to taste carefully crafted food, but rather to savor primal abundance. Thus, hostels can give you plenty of food that mirrors what you might normally eat at breakfast. After all, abundance in Oslo is priced beyond the hosteller’s reach.
The breakfast buffet is a choose-your-own-adventure game: savoury or sweet? Oslo central suggests savoury. Plates of sliced cucumber, tomato and peppers sit under a cooler next to thick pieces of processed meats and cheese. An overflowing bowl of pickled herring and an unidentified meaty terrine rest on the cooler’s side. For those who want a cooked breakfast, there’s a boiler for eggs and a toaster for an oversized loaf of crumbly bread. Two types of crisp breads mark the transition from savoury to sweet (the crisp bread display seems plentiful until you buy lunch at the supermarket and realise that even the smallest grocery store stocks at least five varieties). There are several jams and a jar of chocolate hazelnut spread filled to the brim as if some people thought to take jam, only to dump it back in jar. The same goes for the faux-nutella, though the few trails of chocolate-stickiness on the counter show that someone ate a sweet meal this morning. If none of this excites you, you could choose a bowl of imitation corn flakes, faux-cocoa pops or banana stuffed muesli topped with UHT milk. It may take a few moments to wrap your head around the foods on offer, but when you do, you’ll likely be left wondering: is this a bountiful breakfast buffet?
The sense of scarcity is the hangover after lavish offerings from previous hotels. Gone are the typical hotel indulgences of pastries and bacon causing Oslo’s version of plenty to appear as nothing. Your motivation at previous breakfasts was different from your motivation in overpriced Oslo. In Italy, hostellers and hotel dwellers opt for breakfast to avoid the perpetually sugar coated options at the local cafe. In English hotels, they have the luxury of a cooked breakfast. In America, the hotel breakfast helps them avoid the sausage-egg-pancake diner breakfast. The decision to capitalise upon Oslo’ expensive reputation presents the budget traveller as a figure destined for suffering.
Rather than help them, Oslo’s youth hostel exploits budget travellers and their desire to save a few kroner. From the plate of pizza at reception that’s discreetly advertised for 5 euro to the ban on eating outside the kitchen the hostel insists that Oslo prohibits a frugal traveller from exploring the city through food. The fact that money-conscious tourists continue to arrive and spend indicates that Oslo’s signification oscillates between ‘expensive’ and ‘experience.’ A cheap hostel breakfast is acceptable both because it exploits the traveller’s lack of kroner and because it says: ‘let me give you an experience that you’ll keep talking about.’ It’s true. The bleak pickled herring, inedible muesli and depressing faux-tella made the worst meal I ate in Scandinavia, while Oslo was my favorite city. Yet maybe we ought to be thanking Oslo and their perplexing hostel breakfast. As Tom Haines comments while describing the rise of America’s one-size-fits-all hotel breakfasts, ‘… as individuals, we miss the discovery that can come with the unexpected.’ Looking at a breakfast buffet that challenges our expectations forces us to encounter and become comfortable with plurality and new meanings. Oslo doesn’t exist in a structuralist world, but rather one in which it can mean several things at once.
If the rules are suspended when travelling, they disappear when travelling during a foreign holiday. Although I knew the Swedes celebrated Midsummer primarily at their country homes, I didn’t anticipate their exodus from Stockholm. Without any residents, every store — from the Coop supermarket on Odenplan to the H&M on Drottninggatan — closes for the holiday. The remaining residents and visitors queue up at Skansen to celebrate in a simulated rural environment.
My mother and I didn’t join the others at Skansen and we didn’t join them at the only open restaurant on Birger Jarlsgatan. We slummed at Max Burger, Sweden’s answer fast food of choice since 1968, and, for 138 SEK (about $20), shared two sparkling waters in soda cans; a grilled chicken burger of dubious origin; a fish burger crusted in rice krispies; french fries that resembled potato stix; and a side salad with a single cherry tomato. Included in the price was also a table bolted to the floor, a solid plastic booth and a window with a scenic view over a grey, empty Stockholm. It wasn’t what either of us had in mind for midsummer dinner, but came to symbolise travel’s topsy-turvy nature for us.
Fast food in the 21st century exists on society’s fringes. Although McDonalds has traversed the globe, enter into any restaurant — as McDonald’s prefers to call them — and you enter an ‘other’ space. The rules as they exist outside the sliding door are suspended. From the smell and the music to the furniture and the lingo everything within the fast food outpost is a carefully crafted mirror of reality. If you glance quickly, Max Burger’s plastic chairs could pass for an IKEA-cheap take on Scandinavian style. They’re white with clean lines and none of McDonald’s misguided modern clown colours. If you ignore the pervasive fried aroma, the large windows could indicate a nicer-than-average dining experience. At a distance, Max Burger resembles a 60’s space age fantasy. The white is too shiny; the blue is metallic; and the orange similar to a rocket from a child’s drawing. The tall, slight domed ‘A’ in the logo looks like a rocket, suggesting that a meal at Max Burger will propel you into another universe. Order your meal at the computerised express counter and you transform into a denizen of the Max Burger galaxy. Order you meal at the counter and you enter the traditional fast food realm, complete with photos of your meal and a dizzying number of options.
Eating midsummer dinner at Max Burger was an alternate reality. For a few moments you imagine that you don’t have a ticket to Oslo the next morning. Like the other diners, you’re a Swede, enjoying a nostalgic meal on a special day. Max Burger’s insistence on their Swedish heritage ensures the generic details retain a thrilling exoticism. This isn’t just a fast food burger; it’s a Swedish fast food burger. It’s the burger advertisements declare ‘astonishingly utsökt’ — that is to say it’s Sweden’s tastiest burger. Max Burger’s all-Swedish radio station rattles off songs you’ve never heard of outside of Eurovision. The people around you aren’t chomping down on ridiculed fast food because they chose to, they’re enjoying an ironic meal made acceptable by Max Burger’s image as an alternative: it’s the Swedish answer to McDonalds and the response to the Swedish problem of midsummer dinner.
The numerous jokes my mother and I have made about Max Burger aren’t comments about the food, but about the ridiculous, uncomfortable and ‘other’ situations you encounter when travelling and travel’s ability to excuse judgement lapses. At home you have the knowledge and ability to pick a fast food alternative, when travelling it’s an acceptable first choice. After all, without a childhood spent at Max Burger, it’s unlikely you’ll believe you’re eating Sweden’s tastiest burger. Travel allows you to bypass these questions. Max Burger remains an exotic mistake and an opportunity to indulge in a tantalising what if: if you were born Swedish, Max Burger might be your midsummer tradition the way Chinese food is the American Jew’s supposed Christmas ritual.
Whether or not you encounter fish patties coated in rice krispies when travelling, being in a new space allows the ‘other’ to pass from overlooked to thrilling. Bolted down tables and plastic space age chairs are no longer strange reminders that you are in a time-free area where a kid’s play den coexists with 60’s nostalgia. Meanings as you know them cease to exist. Bad meals become cherished memories; mistakes become delightful adventures and a wasted day provides entertainment for weeks to come.
Salt cod: two words that sound pleasingly incongruous. ‘Salt’ is a noun turned into an adjective signifying the process of salting rather than saltiness. Through slowly drying out a food, salting transforms a highly perishable product — like fish, meat or cabbage — into a durable commodity. ‘Cod’ is simple: it’s white fish with relatively little flavour, gently chewy texture and, when cooked, easily flaked apart with a fork. Together ‘salt’ and ‘cod’ become so specific that the term’s meaning has mutated significantly. Salt cod is fish that’s been dried through contact with salt. This contact used to be natural — the fish was left to hang in the sun and the wind delicately blew salty sea water onto the fish — but nowadays it’s forced— the fillet hangs in a large room while fans and heaters throw salty air onto it. Once dried, the fish can last for years and must be soaked before cooking and eating. With its newfound durability, salt cod attains money-like value. The value this process gave to common fish allowed Bergen’s outpost of the Hanseatic League to use the fish as currency. The Hanseatic League was a complex trade organization that operated across Northern European from the thirteenth to seventeenth century. Members of Bergen’s Hanse dealt in salted fish. Nowadays, salt cod is better known as baccalà and gains an exotic aura through its association with Italian, Spanish and Caribbean cuisines. Though salt cod was once common in the US (in New England it was commonly cooked into fish pie) its lengthy prep time discourages its frequent use. I first had salt cod at Pingvinen in Bergen. I’d just visited the Hanseatic museum and gawked at the stockfish (salt cod made from generic white fish) hanging from the ceiling. Out front, the harbor side market capitalised on the tourist’s new interest in preserved fish, selling miniature pieces for outsized prices. Thus, when presented with the choice between whale steak and salt cod, I chose the latter. My meal was served with traditional potatoes and butter as well as untraditional tomatoes and chickpeas. Combined the effect was familiar and exotic, intriguing both the contemporary and historic palate. While salt cod might be an easy taste to adopt, it’s not about to become an easy weeknight meal. The long process of de-salting salt cod intimidates the modern attitude toward ‘convenience’ foods. After all, ‘[de-salting] is done by soaking the fish in a pot of cold water for 2 days or so — changing the water 2 to 3 times per day.’ This changes the texture changes from thick and unyielding to dense and chewy. Every mouthful feels like a historical relic, requiring one to chomp slowly through. In the modern culinary lexicon, salt cod’s gnaw-able texture finds comparison only comparison in the form of stale gummy candy. While salt cod’s flavor is slightly brine-y, it tastes more like yester-year’s fish stick than today’s Maldon salt garnish. Salt cod is a challenge for the home chef not only because of its required soaking, but also because of its unfamiliar texture and outdated utility. Salt cod. The words are strange, the consistency is unique, the process is daunting. Although it may seem outdated as a preserved product, it’s worthy of being kept around as it illustrates food’s changing meaning. Chewing on, thinking about and cooking salt cod reminds us what convenience or processed foods once were. While spending two days prepping fish for cooking may now be a foodie’s weekend project, salt cod was once a handy way of ensuring food was available. Convenience didn’t mean ready at will but ready when needed. Processed meant conditioned through several steps before consumed, not machine generated in a factory. Salt cod. Two strange little words with centuries of meaning that are still relevant today.
Browsing the cookbooks in an Italian bookstore is an interesting experience. Gone are the fancy coffee-table recipe collections. The blogger-turned-cookbook author doesn’t occupy much shelf space either. Ethnic cooking is barely represented. What you find instead oscillates between celebrity chefs, non-fussy recipe collections and a handful of ingredient-specific books.
Last year I would go to Feltrinelli on Saturday afternoon and browse. Sometimes the celebrity chefs fascinated me (read: Benedetta Parodi), other times I flipped through the ‘cooking in your dishwasher’ book (I don’t joke) and there were days when I couldn’t stop looking at Il cucchiaio verde, a riff on Il cucchiaio d’argento, The Silver Spoon.
Eataly Turin Lingotto doesn’t offer quite the range your average book store does, but what they do offer is fascinating. Who would think that a store which uses the slogan ‘Italy is Eataly‘ and greets you with Wendell Berry’s famous line ‘Eating is an agricultural act‘ would stock books about cake pops and cupcakes? I sure wouldn’t.
My favorite Italian cookbook story is this: there was an early cookbook that had a recipe for gnocchi. It listed the ingredients — potatoes, flour, eggs, etc — and under directions it said combine ingredients, boil and serve. Ever since I read this during my time at the British Library I’ve told the story countless times. It represents what Italian cookbooks are to me, though they evolved since then.
What’s your favorite type of cookbook?