Issue #01 — Globalized Nature
«Oh My God! It’s Brain !…» HIAS chef Leoni is having one of her «kitchen talks» with Emily Jones
Leoni: First of all, I would like to know where you come from, what brought you here and so on, just so that we know who we’re dealing with today.
Emily Jones: So, originally, I’m from Indiana in the U.S.A. but I live in Washington State in a very small town called Walla Walla.
That sounds very cute.
It is named from one of the local Native American tribes that originally occupied the area, so that means that we also have a lot of wonderful food and besides my work, food is a big passion of mine, so this is very exciting for me. And then professionally, I wanted to come to HIAS because it is such an amazing opportunity, the fellowship is great, but also because I have a long-standing love affair with this city. I spent a year here in 2002/2003 as a student at the university and everything that I have done since then has been with the goal of getting back to Hamburg for some time. So, I’m very happy to be back here in the Land of Franzbrötchen!
I’m very happy to be back here in the Land of Franzbrötchen!
Here at HIAS I am working on a new book that will hopefully help us to think differently about the relationship between plants and people through the specific question of plant propagation. So, I am looking at seeds and especially the kinds of plants that just grow everywhere, those things that we call weeds. And that’s a category I want to challenge with this work. So now we know.
I have a little quote for you: “What we cook is an expression of who we are and where we come from. Food is closely linked to people’s cultural identity, for example the way in which they define and distinguish themselves from other groups. As part of this cultural identity, the term cuisine is used to describe certain cultural traditions of cooking, preparing and eating food.” I read that somewhere and I think this is so true. It’s just like everybody has something from their upbringing that is associated with food. The food they were served was what they grew up with.
Is there anything like a favorite food from your childhood? Or something that makes you think of your parents or of being at home?
Definitely. So, this is a big topic in my family because my mom is also an excellent cook, she actually started cooking family dinners for her family when she was, I think, 12 or something like that, when she was pretty young. She has a long family tradition of Appalachian and Southern food. And that’s really the kind of food tradition that I grew up with. Things like green beans that have been cooked with a little bit of pork. They’re very, very soft and most people would say that’s not the proper way to cook green beans, but they’re very delicious that way. I grew up in the Ohio River Valley, just downstream from Cincinnati, and we always had Cincinnati-style chili growing up, which is very, very different from a Tex-Mex chili. So, when most people in the United States say chili, what they think of is big chunks of beef and lots of peppers and big chunks of onions and so forth, and something that’s very, very spicy. But the chili that I grew up with is finely ground meat, tomatoes, onions, maybe, but not always, red beans, and it’s got the spice blend that I read somewhere came from the influence of Greek immigrants to the area that has cinnamon in it. So, it’s almost sweet but it’s got a little bit of spice to it and then you finish it with a little bit of chocolate.
It’s so funny because that’s actually the way I cook it. I sometimes put in some corn.
I always think of my mom’s Thanksgiving dinner. She does the whole turkey stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy thing. But the lead think that our family does special is a potato roll, which is not that unusual at a Thanksgiving dinner. It is just very light, fluffy, almost lighter than air bread. And we always make it in the shape of a number eight. And I have to do the hand movement when talking about it, so you cut out this infinity kind of shape. So, you use a donut cutter to cut it out and then you twist it once over and make it that way. It creates these amazing crevices and then you brush them with butter when they come out of the oven.
Is there anything you will always have in your fridge?
I always have cheese in my fridge, usually at least four or five different kinds. I always have Parmesan because I cook a lot of pasta, partly because I love it and partly because it’s fast and easy and the kids will actually eat it. Here in Germany, I always have a couple of different kinds of classic breakfast cheeses, Gouda, Butterkäse, nothing very respectable, but delicious. And then I usually have one kind of fancy cheese that I bought for some fancy occasion, so right now there’s a little block of Taleggio, that I hope to eat with some fancy crackers I got in an Italian shop.
Is there anything you would not eat? Like never?
So, this also goes back to local food traditions from growing up. The town that I grew up in is famous for its brain sandwiches. Pork or veal brains. And I would never ever eat it in one million years. And for what?
Is it just because of the brain thing? Have you tried it?
Oh my god, it’s brain!
Oh my god, it’s brain! I also grew up when mad cow disease was kind of a big story in the news. I find the smell of it very upsetting. And I’m sure there are social pressures too, like the people who eat it are not people that I would associate with very much, which is an incredibly snobby thing to say. But no, so my hometown has the second biggest street festival in the US after Mardi Gras. And they sell all kinds of bizarre foods there. It was the first place I ever saw alligator, like alligator nuggets or ostrich burgers. But they always have brains sandwiches there. So that’s something I would never ever eat.
Do you think that those food festivals that offer, like you said, bizarre food, do you think they really are into the bizarre thing or just because it’s tradition?
No. And in fact, it wasn’t always like that. So, when I was growing up there were brain sandwiches because they were very traditional. But you know, it was a lot like brain sandwiches, fried waffles, I forget the German name for them, but I saw them at the Dom last week the same thing. A lot of German influenced foods because there were a lot of German immigrants to my hometown. There’s always one or two booths that sell what they call küchen, meaning Kuchen, cake. So, like a traditional Streusel, like Gedeckter Apfelkuchen, sometimes with Streusel. But it’s a traditional food that they sell. And then, sometime in the 90s, I think, people started wanting to try to get the strangest thing, just to sell more. The whole fair is for charity. And so, you know, the organization that first started selling alligator sold an unbelievable amount of food and made a lot of money for that organization. So, it became a kind of one-upmanship. Whoever could sell the craziest things made the most money.
Do you think it is bad for the environment? Or is there any influence on environment?
Certainly. I think, as with all things, it’s a question of where your exotic meat comes from. And then, it’s a church youth group selling alligator nuggets, they are not hiring some people on safari to go and shoot exotic, endangered alligators. It’s some kind of farmed meat. And so, yes, on the one hand, it has all the environmental implications, both bad and good, but it is not as if they are selling tiger. And at the same time, some of the more exotic meats that they sell are actually quite sustainable. So, ostriches are not what you did think of as a sort of food staple in North America, but they can be farmed relatively sustainably on relatively little farmland. So, some of these things aren’t actually as bad as one might think.
Is there a fantasy dinner date, real or fictional? If you could invite or go to dinner with anybody you wish for, who would that be and why?
Well, I am not going to say Buddha or Jesus Christ because that seems like a stereotypical answer.
Well, if it were…
How big is my dinner table? If it is one-on-one, I definitely want someone who is a good conversationalist and someone who is hopefully not going to disappoint me, which is hard, actually. I mean, at that point, I probably don’t want to invite a rock star because I don’t think they’re anywhere near as interesting as they might seem on stage. Probably same with actors. Although, I always thought that Kate Blanchett would be lovely to meet. I think I am going to just be a nerd about it. I think I am going to say the guy that I wrote my dissertation on, W.G. Sebald, who died in the very early 2000s.
Likely because I think a lot of the scholars who work on him take him very seriously, as if he had no sense of humor whatsoever. But I think that his books are really funny in some places and that’s something that I try to tease out in my scholarship on him. And then, I did meet someone once who said that he was an extremely funny guy. They did work together on some projects. I did like to get a sense of what that figure actually was like in life. But again, I can think of a lot of people I’d like to invite for dinner.
This is a really, really cool answer. Because that’s somebody who inspired you. And you want to know more about the private things of those who inspired you. Thats really cool.
What food would you take with you from Hamburg when you go back?
Yeah, I knew that.
So, what food I absolutely will take back with me is a suitcase full of chocolate. Chocolate here is delicious and not nearly as expensive as similar quality chocolate at home. – Chocolate to be very specific. It is my favorite.
Listen to the entire conversation here:
is Associate Professor of German Studies and Environmental Humanities at Whitman College.
Her research engages with contemporary literature’s engagement with the environment. She is interested in the intersections between literature, art, history, and the natural sciences, particularly in the way that these various modes of interacting with the world can work together toward a more ethical engagement with the other than human world in the era of the climate crisis.
Leoni Schmitz—a studied designer is known throughout Europe as a «multitool» with experience in journalism, PR, graphics, community management and street music. For almost 20 years, she has been cooking in other people’s kitchens for—and often with—people who are strangers at first, but who have become friends by the end of the day!
Sina Schwarz, Novamondo