Austrian Food Memories

Food always shows up in my memories I have realized. I am currently taking a cooking class at a local community college, and we were asked to write about our food memories. I noticed how many of my food memories are connected with growing up in Austria and the desire to find the same flavors and dishes again even when living abroad. Our instructor asked us to write about foods we hated but now love, special foods, and foods associated with the seasons.

Foods that I Hated but Now Love

I have noticed that most of my loves and hates in connection with food have stayed the same over the years; the only exception is foods that I first ate prepared differently from what they were meant to be.

For example, I have never really understood the excitement about fried chicken (and now I cannot believe I ever thought that). I did not really hate it, but if I had a choice, I would have eaten nearly anything else rather than fried chicken. I found the breading rather tasteless, rubbery, and greasy covering dry meat. That was when I ate the European version of fried chicken, which usually means a thick layer of breadcrumbs and panfrying/roasting in about half an inch of oil. Then, I had fried chicken in a U.S. military messhall and prepared by a chef who grew up in the South. It was a revelation – the chicken was moist and not greasy at all and the breading actually added to the taste. Now I love fried chicken – if it is prepared well (which for me so far means made by a chef who uses Southern recipes).

Another example is fries; the only American-style fries I knew from Europe were McDonald’s fries since McDonald’s was the only U.S. fast-food restaurant I have known. I actually liked those fries, but when I moved to California, everyone always mentioned how I had to try the fries at In-N-Out since they were so great. The first time I tried the fries, I thought they were too dry and too thick; I was not a fan, but people continued to tell me how good they were and always wanted to eat at In-N-Out instead of any other burger place. After a few more visits, my taste changed, and I actually started to like the fries. I have not eaten at a U.S. McDonald’s in years, and I am one of these annoying people now who always try to convince others that In-N-Out has the best fries.

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Fries and burgers at In-N-Out; photo by pointnshoot from Oakland, California, USA (via Wikimedia Commons)

 

Foods that Remind Me of Special Occasions

One dish that always reminds me of family dinners for Christmas or Easter is my grandmother’s stuffed veal breast. It is a traditional Austrian dish and pretty common, but it is a large piece of meat that is rather expensive, so we usually ate it only for special occasions. The boneless veal breast is cut open to create a pocket that is filled with a mixture of parsley and  old bread soaked in milk and white wine. The stuffed breast is sown shut and sitting in a liquid of wine and butter is then roasted in the oven for two hours and regularly moistened with the liquid. It is served with steamed cabbage, bread dumplings, and boiled potatoes that soak up the juice from the meat. Since the death of my grandmother, I have never eaten this dish again because I am nervous that it would not be as good as her version (she never shared her recipe) and that I would “ruin” my memory of the amazing taste.

 

Foods Associated with the Seasons

Since I grew up in Austria, many of associations are still made based on the weather and local ingredients there, which is very different from California with its much warmer weather. This has sometimes become frustrating to me since I cannot find the same foods and puzzling to friends, who become excited about pumpkin in fall for example, which as a vegetable has really no special memory or season associated with it for me.

Spring:

It can snow in mid-May in Austria, so I do not necessarily associate fresh vegetables and lettuce with spring. In fact, many of the greens that can be grown in California in February would not show up in Austria until April and even then most likely from a greenhouse. I am still amazed by what can be planted when here in Northern California. So when I think of spring, I think of special dishes associated with carnival, Lent, and Easter, large celebrations in spring. The dish associated with carnival is called Faschingskrapfen, a type of donut filled with apricot jam and powdered sugar.

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Faschingskrapfen – Photo by Wikimedia Commons/KarlGruber

Lent is connected with creamed spinach and a fried egg, the typical dinner for Maudy Thursday, which is focused on green foods.

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Creamed Spinach and Fried Eggs (photo by belu1004 on Pixabay)

Easter is associated with Osterzopf, which at first glance looks a lot like Challah bread but is much sweeter and a dessert by itself or a breakfast bread.

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Osterzopf – Photo by Capri23auto on Pixabay

Summer:

I associate summer with red currants, berries that grow like weeds but do not do well in the heat of the Sacramento Valley (I have tried growing them here). I remember there were weeks and weeks of summer where I would pick and de-stalk currants nearly every day. Most of the red currants were made into jam or thick juice to be mixed with sparkling water all through winter till the next summer. My favorite way to eat red currants is as a yellow sponge cake with a layer of the sweet-sour red berries topped with thick waves of meringue. The recipe does work with frozen berries, so I can recreate it with frozen red currants usually found at Russian supermarkets in Sacramento, but it does not taste quite as good as it would with fresh berries just picked from the backyard.

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Red Currants – Photo by danigeza on Pixabay

 

Fall:

Fall is connected with roasted chestnuts and new red wine – a combination that is particularly popular in Northern Italy and in the Austrian state of Tyrol (see a previous blog posting). In the US, most people think of pumpkin when they think fall – as seen with the excited social media postings about pumpkin flavors being offered again at Starbucks and other places, but I am not used to the pumpkin obsession. For me, pumpkins are associated with a dark pumpkin seed oil available and used all year long and roasted pumpkin seeds on breads and as snacks, also eaten throughout the year.

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Starbucks Pumpkin Meme Found on the Site Your Tango

 

As a child, I associated fall with hiking through forests to collect mushrooms, especially mushrooms of the Boletus family such as Bay Bolete and Penny Bun. I learned early on as a five-year old how to identify the edible mushrooms from the poisonous ones, how to cut them correctly, so they would grow back next year, and how to clean them. Fresh mushrooms would be made into a thick sauce that was a meal by itself with bread or bread dumplings. We also dried pounds and pounds of them to be used in soups and sauces throughout the year.

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Mushroom from the Boletus Family – Photo by czu_czu_PL on Pixabay

 

Winter:

Winter is closely connected with gingerbread and a variety of cookies that are made only around Christmas time, but usually so many pounds are made and received as gifts that we ate Christmas cookies till long into January. Many of the cookie dough recipes include nuts such as almonds, hazelnuts, or walnuts. One famous Austrian cookie is the Vanillekipferl, shaped like a crescent moon (see a great recipe here). Another popular recipe is cinnamon stars (see a recipe here). All the cookies seem much less sweet than American desserts and a lot drier; an American chewy chocolate-chip cookie seems undercooked to me for example, but my American husband compares Austrian cookies to wood chips or bread, and the possibility for Austrian cookies to stay fresh in an air-tight container in a cool place for weeks is not a good sign for him.

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Vanillekipferl – Photo by Blueeyes on Pixabay

 

Reflecting on foods has shown me how closely all of my especially favorite memories are connected with foods. One of the main reasons why I have become interested in cooking and taking cooking courses is because I want to recreate flavors that are connected with special memories, places, and people . Since I have moved around quite a lot in my life, I have learned that it is often futile to try to find a restaurant or bakery that offers these flavors from my past, so it just seems easier to learn how to create them myself instead of looking for someone else who might be able to do this.

PS: When I am around food, I seem to be more focused on eating than taking photos, so many of the photos in this posting are from Pixabay, a site with free, high-quality images. Thank you to all the artists who make their work available for free (and also take much better pictures than I can).

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Most Fragrant Season in California

A short period of about three to four weeks in early spring (the length is dependent on the weather) is my favorite season in Northern California; it is also the most fragrant season. It is orange-blossom season! Well, it is actually citrus-blossom season but that just does not have the same ring.

In late winter and early spring, all the effort and time to wrap my citrus trees on cold nights to withstand the few hours a night of temperatures close to freezing are finally paying off as the the first trees start to bloom and envelope the backyard in their potent, sweet smell.

Covered Orange Tree

The daily ritual before cooler winter nights – swaddling the citrus trees in tarps and blankets. Once they are taller than 7 feet, the endeavor becomes quite challenging.

The fragrance is hard to describe, and none of the scents captured in bottles ever come close to the real thing; the smell is sweet and potent, even stronger at night, and very different from the smell of an orange fruit or peel. In my backyard, the limes and mandarins bloom first, then come the grapefruit trees, and last but not least the orange trees that seem to do double duty by still carrying some fruit while already blooming and working on this year’s crop.

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Close-up of Blossoms

The white, star-shaped flowers attract honeybees, bumblebees, butterflies, and hummingbirds to the backyard, and at times “air traffic” becomes too busy for me to sit nearby.

Sure, the golden-orange California poppies cover the hillsides in spring and acres and acres of almond trees blossom in the Central Valley, but nothing is quite as impressive as the aroma of orange blossoms. Walk through the suburbs or through downtown, and you are sure to catch a whiff of the sweet smell every couple of hundred feet or so. This is the most fragrant time of the year in California and nothing quite compares for me.

PS: Last spring came close to this experience as  I spent a weekend in Sorrento, Italy and on Capri, where I was  embraced by the fragrance of lemon blossoms every corner I turned (and that might be the reason why I enjoyed that trip so much).

Thanksgiving Alfresco and “Stray” Aliens in California

Another November in Northern California, and another reminder how amazing the weather is here. While I see postings about European Christmas markets opening up and about snow angels in the northern parts of the US, I am able to have Thanksgiving dinner outside. Sure, we are not quite as lucky as those in Southern California and still need a jacket once the shadows get longer and the sun sets, but it is still unfathomable to me that I can actually sit outside for hours and be comfortable at the end of November.

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Abundance: Under an Orange Tree

Tee by the Fire

Tea by the Fire Pit

 

Even though I do not have a close connection to Thanksgiving since I did not grow up with this tradition, I have become rather fond of this holiday by now; what is there not to like when it is mostly about giving thanks and of course food – and more food – and then even more food.

Turkey on BBQ

Turkey on the BBQ

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Pie Buffet: Banana, Pecan, Blueberry, Apple, and Pumpkin (under the Glass)

Even though some dishes are traditional and expected at Thanksgiving, most families also seem to include at least one dish connected to their ancestors; American Italians, for example, seem to serve ravioli, and our Thanksgiving dinner included sauerkraut and Polish sausages.

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Sauerkraut and Polish Sausages

As a foreigner/alien without a large family nearby, I have been invited for several years now by American friends that lay out one of the largest spread for the dinner (made from scratch). All I need to do is show up, bring appetite, and take leftovers home (and I don’t even need to bring any boxes for the leftovers). I jokingly observed that I have been taken in like a stray kitten, and like with any stray cat, once fed, I am hard to get rid off and come back again and again.

 

Over the years as I moved from country to country and continent to continent, I have often been invited to share holiday traditions and meals with locals. Thank you to all those who take in those “stray” aliens without family nearby during holidays.

 

How to Illustrate an Austrian in California

In a literature class we have been discussing images and symbols, and students created symbolic self-portraits and tried to show their interests, desires, fears, and traits with visuals only (no words allowed). This got me thinking about a visual representation of an Austrian in California when I came across this photo opportunity.

Austrian/Bavarian Tracht in In-N-Out

Austrian/Bavarian Tracht in In-N-Out

Not many pictures can so clearly express Austrian in California than an Austrian-Bavarian dancer in lederhosen eating a burger at In-N-Out. Well, I guess I could have asked him to stand up so the short lederhosen are completely visible or asked him to put on the traditional hat with the eagle feather; and I could have hoped for a surfer walking past in the background or at least a palm tree visible through the window. So there is room for improvement and a reason to keep looking for an even better illustration of the concept of an Austrian in California.

In case you are curious, In-N-Out Burger is a fast-food chain founded in California in 1948 and still limited to the West Coast of the States, so it is often associated with California. When I was in Italy this spring, an In-N-Out burger with extra sauce was really the only food I missed after a while and was looking forward to when coming back to California. Some argue that In-N-Out is all a hype and not that great, but it does seem to get associated with California usually (read about the hype in this article about Hillary Clinton stopping at an In-N-Out – although I am not sure why this is newsworthy). And in case you are wondering why one runs into a guy in Bavarian/Austrian outfit in Northern California, the answer is that Oktoberfests with traditional dancers are becoming more and more popular on the West Coast as well.

Traditional Bavarian Dancers

Traditional Bavarian Dancers at an Oktoberfest at the Budweiser Brewery in Fairfield, CA

Truly American Experience: The Rose Bowl

I will be spending four months in Europe this spring for work with the majority of the time in Florence, Italy but also nearly a month in Austria. So the blog will include a lot more photos and stories about Italy than fits the name of the blog. But before I left the U.S., I made sure to “pile on” truly American experiences and that included in addition to the Rose Parade (see previous post) the Rose Bowl itself – because what is more American than football at the oldest bowl game in the U.S.?!?

The Rose Bowl – also called the “Granddaddy of them all” – is the oldest of all college football bowl games (playoffs). In 1902, the first post-season game in the nation took place here between Stanford and Michigan (Michigan won 49-0). The Rose Bowl included many firsts –  for example, the first transcontinental radio broadcast of a sporting event in 1927 as well as the first national telecast of a college football game in 1952.

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Iowa Hawkeyes Fans – Love the Hat!

The current Rose Bowl Stadium was built in 1922 and is listed as a National Historic Landmark because of its importance in American culture and history.

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Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, CA – 2016

Even though the team we rooted for (Iowa) was beaten badly in this year’s game against Stanford (45-16), the Iowa fans kept up the good mood and atmosphere in the stands and made this a great experience as my last big event to visit before I go to Europe (there were some grumblings and complaints about the Stanford band making fun of Iowa and sticking to stereotypes that showed very little knowledge of Iowa and made me question the maturity and creativity of Standford students, but that is a different story – read more here if you are interested: Article on Stanford Band). Although I am excited and curious about Italy and look forward to spending some time in Austria, I am a little sad that I have to miss the Super Bowl experience in San Francisco this year (it is not that often that the event is that close to where I live). Next time, I will be posting from Florence. Ci vediamo!

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Shirts for the Super Bowl for Sale at the San Francisco Airport

The Huntington Near Pasadena, California: Worth a Visit

A trip to Pasadena, CA should also include a visit to the fantastic Huntington, which easily overwhelms with its seize. The Huntington in San Marino, CA offers a library with a collection of rare books, four different art galleries, a 120-acre botanical garden, a large greenhouse, a tea room and much more. We tried to squeeze everything into a one-day visit but had to skip some of the gardens just because there is too much to do and see.

The Library collection of rare books was exciting since it showed books that I have heard so much about during my studies as an English major: the Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a Gutenberg Bible on vellum, early editions of Shakespeare’s work and much more. The Gutenberg Bible (ca. 1450-1500) sparked a revolution throughout Europe in the way knowledge was presented and shared as previously nearly all texts were written and copied by hand. Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press and movable type changed the way books were created.

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Gutenberg Bible at the Huntington Library

The four art galleries on the grounds include a range of older to newer pieces with highlights such as Thomas Gainsborough’s Blue Boy and Edward Hopper’s The Long Leg.

A personal favorite that is not one of the most famous pieces of the collection was A Foothill Trail (ca. 1919) by Granville Redmond:

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The Huntington is actually the former estate of railroad and real estate magnate Henry Huntington (1850-1927), who at one point was on as many as 60 corporate boards at the same time throughout the U.S. I am always fascinated by how many ultra-rich people on the West Coast during and after the Gold Rush got rich because of the railroad (Leland Stanford, the founder of Stanford University, comes to mind as another example). The estate is so large that we had to skip some of the over a dozen specialized gardens that add up to 120 acres. Even though there are plenty of palm trees around California, I enjoyed the Palm Gardens the most:

After hours of walking through the grounds and standing in front of pieces of art, afternoon tea with scones and finger sandwiches was exactly what we needed (reservations are recommended for the Rose Garden Tea Room):

If you are in the LA area and especially if you are in neighboring Pasadena, I recommend a visit to the Huntington. For more information on opening hours and entrance fees, see: http://www.huntington.org/ . For more details about the Rose Garden Tea Room and to make online reservations for it, see: Tea Room.

Rose Parade

The Rose Parade in Pasadena, California on New Year’s Day is over a century old and is usually shown on American TV. 2016 marked the 127th year of the parade. All floats have to include only natural materials such as flowers, seeds, and grasses and most floats take a year to construct by mostly professional float-building companies. Seeing the parade live though provides a lot more behind-the-scene details and close-ups than ever shown on TV, and this year I had a chance to see the parade live.

What I did not realize was that people actually reserve spaces on the sidewalks along the over five-mile long parade route 24 hours before the parade starts at 8 in the morning on New Year’s Day. Plenty of people camp out over night just to ensure the best spots to view the parade.

 

Some people were really settling in for the night:

Side Walk Camping4

We went the more traditional route and put chairs out the day before but hoped they would still be there in the morning even if we did not spend the night. Another option was to spend money on grandstand tickets.

 

And it worked! Our chairs were right there in the front row waiting for us. Someone actually moved them even closer to the line during the night, so we sat so close that I was worried some of the members of the larger bands would actually trip over our feet.

There were so many large bands:

The floats were even more impressive close up than on TV since it was really obvious how many flowers were on these large constructions:

My favorite floats were the the ones with strong colors that popped against the bright blue sky and seemed to vibrate in the sun:

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Downton Abbey Float – Public Broadcasting Company

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“Treasure Life’s Journey” from Donate Life – all people on the flat actually received donated organs

Other details that the TV broadcast usually does not show is that many floats that are very high actually have to lower some of their parts to fit under the freeway and some of the floats break down and have to be pulled by a tow truck, which also leads to some delays towards the end of the long route:

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The large tower in the back had to be lowered to fit under a freeway.

Another detail is that the poop-scoopers walking behind the groups of horses in the parade actually get more applause than the bands and floats (I forgot to take a picture of them though – they are dressed in white and push a garbage can for the over five-mile walk). The parade is unique and more exciting in person than on TV even though it does take hours; this year’s parade featured 95 different participants: floats, marching bands, and horse groups. It is a New Year’s tradition just as the New Year’s Concert of Strauss waltzes in Vienna is an Austrian New Year’s tradition.

And there was even room for some political comments during the parade:

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Sky writing during the parade