Michele Humes (I live in New York and I write about food.)

America Through Japanese Eyes

I haven’t talked about Japanese food miniatures on this blog for a while. Mostly it’s because I recognized that blogging about it was a gateway to buying the stuff, and, while there was always that climactic moment of opening the box and squeeing at its contents, I came to see that tiny inedible food wasn’t a good use of money or space. I just don’t have the temperament of a true collector, I guess. (This is probably a good thing, financially.)

None of this means that I’ve stopped being delighted by miniature food. Every new collection from Re-Ment, the Rolls Royce of miniature-makers, is still a treat. Particularly when it touches on my life in some way, like the ten-box Americana collection billed as “Dreamy American Life.” This one feels extra-special, because it isn’t just cute (they’re always cute), but is loaded with all sorts of Japanese interpretations of and assumptions about American culture that are fun to unpack.

The premise of this collection, established through little leaflets that come with each box, is that a Japanese student called Mai travels to America on a homestay program. For five weeks, she stays with the family of a girl named Bess; the boxes are representations of her culinary experiences.

The series starts with the airline meal she is served during her flight to the US. What’s on the menu? Meatloaf and brownie, duh.

If this is a representative breakfast, it looks like life at Bess’s house is pretty sweet:

The milk bottle seems a little fanciful (unless Bess’s parents are raw-milk consumers, which is not impossible), and the side of sautéed mushrooms with a parsley garnish seems more British than American, but overall this is a recognizably American start to the day–if more in mythos than in practice.

At some point, Mai’s host parents take her to NYC for the weekend, and here’s where the collection really diverges from reality:

The bagels I can deal with, even though I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered one that was covered in pumpkin seeds, and the berry smoothie is perfectly plausible, if not at all unique to New York. But is my city really so lacking in iconic foods that one could be driven to invent “chili dip” and “fruit dip”? I truly have no idea what these items are or are attempting to be; if you think you do, email me.

The New York tableau feels oddly off-base for a company that is normally so attentive to detail. I mean, look at this box art from a different collection–”International Supermarket”–and notice that the taco kit is called “Young El Peso.” I die. (Admittedly, the “Pelodelphia” cream cheese doesn’t work as well.) And in what can only be a direct challenge to Hellman’s, the mayo is billed as “Fake Mayonnaise”!

But back to Mai, who’s back in strip-mall country, and eating dinner at TGI’s, apparently. This spread is pretty spot-on:

Re-Ment made a variation of this one, with ketchup instead of mustard, and rum instead of vodka, just to screw with the die-hard collectors. It probably worked.

On the weekends, Mai accompanies her host family to the grocery store, where she becomes acquainted with America’s favorite products: honey-bear honey, chocolate syrup, and frozen mixed vegetables (I love what they’ve done with the Jolly Green Giant there).

Notice that the name of the store is “American Market.” Re-Ment has noticed something that I, too, have observed: Americans love putting the word “America” in things. I swear, there is no other country in the world that is constantly making sure you’re clear on what country you’re in.

In her free time, Mai likes to take in a movie at the local multiplex, which serves an impressively soigné burger. (Can you even get a burger at a movie theater anymore?)

Sometimes she bakes cookies and cupcakes with her host mom, who is obviously some kind of weirdo and/or foreigner herself, because who are all these Americans drinking hot tea out of teacups, with lemon slices? Anything they don’t finish, they store in a cookie cooler. (That’s what that box is, right? The one marked “Cookie”?)

During her stay, Mai experiences her first American Halloween, filling her pumpkin bucket with all sorts of candy. (Is this the same girl who was drinking a lemon drop martini with her steak dinner earlier? Hasn’t she outgrown this?) This is my least favorite of the boxes: too much packaging, not a lot of charm, and who gives out whole bags of Jelly Belly and gummi bears, anyway? Bess must live in a wealthy neighborhood. I do appreciate the “gavacho cheese” fake Doritos, though.

Near the end of her stay, Mai celebrates a birthday. Her hosts throw her a party, complete with cupcakes stacked on top of a chocolate cake, and, bizarrely, sushi. This must be some kind of comment on Re-Ment’s part–not necessarily a critical one, just ethnographic–on what passes for sushi here in the US of A.

The five weeks fly by, and soon it’s time for Mai to go back to Japan. At the airport, she panics and realizes that she hasn’t bought any souvenirs for her parents, so she heads for the Duty Free and loads up on Hershey’s Kisses, generic crap chocolate (they did a good job with that box), and…Spam?

Oh, and how cute is that beef jerky?

That’s it for the ten-piece “Dreamy American Life” collection. It came out in 2004 and, like all Re-Ment sets, was quickly discontinued. You can now haggle over the boxes on eBay, but it might be cheaper just to eat the non-plastic equivalents. (The steak dinner/cocktail box is going for $64.99 from this seller. Applebee’s can definitely do you better than that.)

To get a better sense of scale and physicality, take a look at this video from YouTube user and fellow cuteness-enthusiast RRcherrypie:

If you’re curious to see other collections, check out Renatta Rasmussen’s expansive archive of her own beautifully crisp photos.

But for now, it’s back to my dreamy American life.

9 1/2 Weeks Of Sourdough

Did you know I once taught English in a small language center in St. Petersburg, Russia, where the owner insisted we watch clips from 9 1/2 Weeks to spark discussion? She was a strange person. But nine and a half weeks is also the time that has elapsed since I began my sourdough starter, which I named Brodsky II after my late, lamented rabbit–the most handsome bunny that ever did live. (Bunny himself was named for the Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky, if you were wondering.) For nine and a half weeks, I have been baking bread.

But let’s backtrack a little bit, to just after Christmas, when I finally decided to buy myself a Kitchenaid stand mixer and figure out this whole dough thing. You see, I am a strong, capable cook–I have worked very hard to become one and I take enormous pride in it–but I never could bake worth a damn. There are a number of reasons for this, but the main one was probably growing up in an apartment without an oven, which is very typical in East Asia. It meant that I had no sentimental associations with baking, and that I could barely picture myself doing it.

In the end, it was a yearning for the soft, sweet breads of my Hong Kong childhood that helped me overcome, or at least ignore, my baking anxiety. They were the first recipes I tackled, and, what do you know, after a couple of missteps, I got competent pretty quickly. (Now that I had sunk all that cash into a stand mixer, I couldn’t just give up at the first hurdle.) Pretty soon I was producing fluffy little yeasted buns and rows of tear-apart yogurt-cranberry brioche.

The crumb you see below, which tears into wispy, gossamer-like strands, is very typical of Asian-style Western breads. It comes from long kneading (18 minutes in a stand mixer!) and the addition of a cooked roux into the dough:

When it turned out that buns weren’t so hard, I figured I might as well take on bread. Here are the first loaves I ever tried to make, which I am quite ashamed to post here, but will post nonetheless on the off-chance someone will find them–and my eventual progress–consoling:

Now, these dough sausages I produced tasted perfectly fine, with a soft and uniform crumb, but they weren’t anything like the baguettes I had eaten in France. They weren’t interesting. So I read around a little bit, and learned that commercial yeast and a two-hour rise time is only ever going to result in bland sausages like these. If I wanted something with a bit more character, I was going to have to raise my own wild-yeast starter.

And that’s just what I’ve been doing these last nine and a half weeks: fighting an uphill battle against temperature and pH and my own technical limitations, hemorrhaging flour, abjectly failing most of the time, and occasionally improving in tiny increments. I present to you now a progression, in pictures, from my first tragic loaf to my most recent, less tragic, but still far-from-ideal output. (This may not seem like very many loaves, but there were some in between that were so very hideous I couldn’t bring myself to record them.)

Along the way, I’ve enjoyed sourdough pancakes, learned to make a fine pizza (naturally leavened and not), purchased a digital scale, severed ties with volume measurements, become fascinated by the gut microbiome and its interaction with diet and health, and gone so wacky about live cultures that I’ve just started making my own kefir (which will no doubt be the subject of its own post once the stuff I make stops tasting like bitter, bitter poison). I suspect that any time you decide to acquire any kind of new skill or knowledge set, there are always going to be other, unanticipated skills and ideas that come along with it, which is a Wonderful Thing. I still have much further to go in developing my instinct for time, texture, and everything else, but fortunately I’ve reached the point where all of my failures are at least pleasurably edible.

New-To-Me Treats Of Polish Provenance

One of my first New York apartments was in Greenpoint, so there was a time when I was eating Polish food pretty frequently. But then I moved away and kind of forgot about it. That’s how it is in New York: Whether you realize it or not, the subway line(s) nearest to your house end up shaping the places you go, the things you do on the weekend, and even the romantic relationships you’re willing to have (“Too many subway transfers–this will never work”). Before I knew it, it had been five years since I’d eaten at any of my old Manhattan Avenue haunts.

Fortunately, they are still there. One of them, Krolewskie Jadlo (“King’s Feast”), has found such success that it’s expanded into Woodside, Queens. The restaurant has also started putting out free platters with every meal laden with light rye bread, chopped half-sours, and a lard spread called smalec. This was my first encounter with the spread, which has to be cognate with the Yiddish “schmaltz” (that version, of course, eschews pig for chicken), and in flavor and consistency is a cross between Ukrainian salo and French rillettes de porc. Fatback isn’t an expensive ingredient, but the complimentary breadboard still feels very generous. A New American gastropub could plausibly charge between 8 and 11 dollars for such a thing, with a bit more bread and pickle for padding.

Our remaining novelties both come in sealed jars. After two months of uphill sourdough battles, I am now baking fairly good (and naturally leavened!) bread, and so am constantly in need of nice new things to spread on it; a Polish grocery store has delivered two such items.

One is a plum butter (ingredients: plums, sugar) that is spectacular on my morning sourdough toast. I worried that it might be sweet and flat, like apple butter sometimes is, but instead it’s racing with fresh-plum acidity, not weighed down with pruniness. The other tub is a farmer’s cheese called twaróg, more or less identical to the Russian cheese I know as tvorog, only the Russians have never, to my knowledge, been inspired to flavor it with horseradish. Very good stuff, and nothing nasty in the ingredients. I put it on my own lightly ryed sourdough, with or without the fine kielbasa that I bought fresh from a Polish meat market, and it is savory and sharp without any overt aggression. Each of these spreads costs just $2.19 (how imported foods without any of our usual American garbage ingredients can cost so little never ceases to amaze me), and is definitely something to pick up next time you’re in Greenpoint.

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