July 8th, 2009
You’ve heard us say it before, and we’ll say it again (and again and again): the world’s a great big place, and eating is the perfect way to learn all about it! This usually comes to mind while experimenting with a new cuisine or cooking up a dish “from the old country” shared by a friend’s grandma. While eating, we talk about cultural flavor profiles, wonder about the relationship between the ingredients, culture and geography, and ponder the connection between the spices used to those used in other cuisines. But this past weekend, I remembered another way that food opens up the world: it exposes us to our own cities, towns, neighborhoods, and the wonderfully diverse people who live in them.
The obvious way to use food to teach our kids about other cultures is to use cuisine as a springboard for discussing the larger cultures and peoples of faraway countries. But our lessons don’t always have to be so far flung. They can be as simple as learning about our closest neighbors or discovering new nooks of our hometowns.
Before the ChowBaby was born, the ChowPapa (then ChowHubby?) and I used to regularly hop in the car or on the subway to explore authentic eateries and groceries all around NYC. We reveled in discovering the best, most authentic Indian, Pakastani, Thai, Mexican, Jamaican, and Chinese (to name a few) restaurants and markets. The places where immigrants from these countries ate and shopped for their home cooked meals. (The same way my family trekked from Jersey to Astoria, Queens to get Greek specialities for holiday meals.)
Aimlessly exploring a neighborhood is not as easy to do with a baby or toddler. At least not in a relaxing way. Or maybe we just got provincial? Lazy? Whatever the reason, we broke the cycle this weekend with a trip to very nearby Greenpoint, Brooklyn, known for it’s Polish (and, increasingly, hipster) population. It’s not like we haven’t been to Greenpoint before. We love getting breakfast—and glorious coffee—at Brooklyn Label. But we haven’t spent any time strolling around for good eats the way we did this weekend.
An old clipping from the NY Times (which I can’t find online!) served as our guide. We didn’t spend too much time wandering—we wanted the trip to be manageable, to ease us back into such explorations—and, thankfully, sticking to Nassau Ave proved completely satisfying.
In a small stretch, we were able to grab: pierogies, homemade sauerkraut (which can be used in this Slow Cooker Pork recipe), mizeria (a traditional cucumber and sour cream salad), kielbasa, smoked kielbasa, rye bread, freshly baked… ummm, fried… raspberry paczki, and a pineapple and cheese crumb pastry. All while eavesdropping on the Polish conversations being spoken all around us. It was a lovely adventure that reminded me of the glory of my city—and why, despite many challenges, I’m glad that the ChowBaby is growing up here.
Our finds came together in a delicious Polish meal of grilled kielbasa smothered in sauerkraut accompanied by potato & cheese pierogies (boiled then sauteed in butter) topped with butter carmelized onions, cooling mizeria, and this roasted beet salad with creamy dill vinaigrette (*I skipped the walnuts and oranges, used sherry vinegar instead of citrus juice, and substituted dried dill for fresh, and this salad came out better than ever).
I realize that living in NYC makes these kinds of excursions particularly accessible but, if you look, EVERY town has culture to share. Whether it’s a local Pennsylvania Dutch specialty (check out Michelle’s family’s Pickled Red Beet Eggs), an ethnic store in the neighboring town (like this great Eastern European gem that Yiayia and Mata Dave discovered in the most unlikely place near their Florida digs), or your neighbor’s dinner table.
Even with the entire city at our fingertips, we remembered this weekend that you don’t have to go far. So use food as a way to learn about new cultures… and your hometown. Your kids will love learning more about who lives nearby, how and what they eat, and where their traditions came from.
Check out these resources for other ideas on using food to teach your kids about the great, big, wonderful world around them: