Eat with Pleasure

Stories and Recipes by Jenny Holm

Posts from the ‘events’ category

Lately I’ve been struck again and again by the way seemingly solitary activities like blogging and tweeting have paved the way for real-life connections. The past two weeks have been filled with food-related adventures and discoveries, made possible largely by the community I’ve found myself a part of online.

The ball really got rolling at the DC Food Bloggers Happy Hour I attended at Indique Heights earlier this month. In addition to enjoying some devastatingly delicious half-priced cocktails like the Tamarind Margarita and Jaggery Martini, I got the chance to talk to several other bloggers and “food people” about their labors of love.

Image c/o pickleproject.blogspot.com

I met Lubos Brieda of SlovakCooking.com, whom I was curious to talk to about similarities between Slovak cuisine and the Russian dishes I’m more familiar with. He made the point that American cooks looking for ways to cook and eat more sustainably and waste less could learn a lot from their central and eastern European counterparts, who still learn these habits in the kitchen from childhood. I’d like to explore this thought further in a future post. In the meantime, I’ll also be keeping my eye on The Pickle Project, the efforts of two former Fulbrighters to document traditional Ukrainian foodways with a focus on sustainability, community, and change.

Image c/o BrewersArt.com

I also got acquainted with Asya Ollins, manager at The Brewer’s Art restaurant and microbrewery in Baltimore. I was already planning a trip up to Baltimore to visit a friend from college that weekend, so Asya encouraged us to stop by. Little did I know that Brewer’s Art is where my friend and her crew typically gather on weekends! After a fantastic dinner at The Helmand Afghani restaurant nearby (whose pumpkin in garlic-yogurt sauce will definitely be recreated in my kitchen soon), we headed over to the bar.

Asya was kind enough to give us a tour of the back rooms where they brew all their drafts in-house. (Six are on tap at any given time). We took the cargo elevator upstairs to see (and taste!) the malted barleys they use in each beer, peered into the huge tanks where the barley is mashed with water, and examined the fermentation and conditioning tanks where the real magic takes place. Unfortunately I had forgotten my camera in my travel bag so I have no pictures of the process, but I did get to taste the outcome: I opted for the Resurrection ale, a smooth, malty brew that’s simultaneously dark and fruity. Luscious!

I didn’t get a chance to chat with Sala Kannan of VeggieBelly.com, but sent her a message afterwards when I found her blog through Sandhya of Vegetarianirvana, another South Indian food blogger we’d both talked to at the event. Sala and I ended up meeting for lunch at Northside Social, my new favorite coffee shop/wine bar in Arlington. She graciously let me pick her brain about everything from her globe-spanning travels and gorgeous food photography to Web traffic-boosting tips and Mark Bittman gossip. Sala also got me excited about Karma Kitchen, a weekly Indian meal and “experiment in generosity” that she started in DC with a group of friends two years ago.

Last but certainly not least, an idle tweet I posted a few weeks ago about wanting to learn to like mussels prompted a response from Olga of Mango & Tomato, who generously offered to teach me how to cook them. She came over for a lesson and dinner last week, a bag of orange-zest brownies in hand. I’ll save the story of that evening and all the helpful tips she offered over the course of it for my next post.

For now, suffice it to say that while these serendipitous meetings and connections may seem like simple good fortune (“I happened to be in the right place at the right time,” I might remark), I think there’s more to it than that. It seems to me that when we pursue a passion for no other reason that because we find joy in that pursuit, and when we open ourselves to connections with others for the pure pleasure of their company and their unique perspective on that shared passion, we cannot help but discover the wealth of generosity, inspiration, and support that exists around us. Even as we sometimes lament the “loss of community” that the Internet Age has supposedly sped up intensely, let us not ignore the new, very rewarding real-life communities we can build through it.

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As we continue to feast, toast, and drink, the musical entertainment begins. Five young men have been hired to regale us with Georgian folk songs and the occasional Russian or Georgian bubble gum pop tune for the duration of the evening. Folk music is extremely popular here, even among teenagers, and it’s easy to understand why: the men’s voices ring with strength and pride in their country’s culture and history, and the driving beat of the drums behind them set even the most lethargic feet to tapping. {Pardon the poor quality of the attached video clip.)

Bussers continuously circulate, collecting sauce-smeared plates and replacing them with clean ones, taking away gnawed chicken bones, and piling fresh dishes atop the platters already covering the table. I fill my plate with achma (brined suluguni cheese melted between layers of lasagna-like noodles), khashlama (tender chunks of fatty beef stewed with garlic, black pepper, and bay leaves), tkemali (sour plum sauce spiked with herbs), and mchadi (dense fried corn cakes, perfect for soaking up extra sauce). In between bites, I cut myself slices of cool tomato and cucumber from the whole ones peeking out from underneath a nearby platter.

Soon Shushana whisks me away to the family’s seats where I’ll have a better view of the bride and groom, sitting together at a raised table facing everyone else, and of the tamada, who continues to intone extended toasts to parents, children, the deceased, women, and other broad categories of society. My American sense of decorum finds it odd that no one seems to be listening to these toasts: conversation continues at full volume through each of them, and few heads turn towards the front. Nobody else seems to mind, though, so I figure the man is used to this and won’t be offended.

I’m given a fresh plate and poured another glass of wine. There are different dishes close to me in this new seat: ostri (beef and potatoes in a spicy, tomato-based sauce), satsivi (bone-in chicken served in a cool, creamy walnut sauce), borano (chunks of salty cheese floating in melted butter), and, of course, the ubiquitous khachapuri. Square slices of homemade layer cakes squat among the array of savory dishes. The groom’s mother and a small army of her friends made 25 cakes, I’m told, each one composed of three layers separated by sweetened cream. The platter closest to me is piled with chocolate, cherry, honey, and “Snickers” versions.

I’m ready to burst by the time the dancing begins, so I’m only too glad to get out on the floor and jumpstart digestion through clumsy albeit well-meaning attempts at Ajaran folk dancing. My friend Khatuna shows me how it’s done:

With the music in full swing, the men at some tables take over from the tamada and pronounce their own toasts, becoming increasingly rambunctious as the evening descends into night. Getting into the spirit, I propose a toast to sisterhood with Khatuna, linking our elbows and drinking while intertwined as I’ve seen others do when they drink to “bruderschaft.” What I did not realize was that this particular toast requires one to drink the whole glass in one go. Oops! Sorry, Khatuna. By the time the bride and groom make their exit around 10:30 p.m., I’m ready to crash into bed.

The event continues the following afternoon back at the banquet hall, though today only the closer family and friends are expected to come (That is, 200 people instead of 500.) The same dishes are arrayed on the table, the same music is played, and the same tamada is back for more action. I still feel full from yesterday, but I can’t resist a taste of a dish featuring chopped heart and liver of an animal I can’t recall, fried eggplant slices wrapped around garlic-walnut paste, and a steaming hunk of roast beef (one of the only dishes served hot today). The “official” wedding cake is served today, but I opt for the baklava instead, another requisite wedding dessert here in the Ajara region.

The party winds down around 6:30 p.m., and all of us, I think, are ready to relax. I’m glad to have experienced the whole shebang, but am now thoroughly convinced that one day will be plenty for my own wedding!

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My host sister Diana got married last Sunday and Monday. Yes, weddings here last two days, the average one nets 500 guests, and 95% of those people don’t even witness the marriage ceremony. At least in Diana’s case, that five-minute piece seemed like pure formality: the wedding really begins with the reception, which is as much a celebration of food, wine, and folk dancing as it is of the couple themselves.

When we (the wedding party and closest family friends and relatives) arrived at the banquet hall where the reception was held, the rest of the guests were already digging into the plates and platters of cold dishes arrayed before them. I found a seat between a jolly older man named Jumberi and a young friend of the bride, Khatuna. No sooner had I filled my glass with sparkling water (no still water was served) than Jumberi had requested a second for me so he could fill it with wine: the tamada (appointed toastmaster) was announcing the first toast over his microphone.

“This is a toast to our motherland, to Georgia,” Zumberi explained to me in Russian as the tamada waxed poetic about the glories of Sakartvelo (as “Georgia” is known here. Georgian belongs to a language family all its own: while it has borrowed words from various conquerers over the years–Russian, Turkic, Persian–it is not related to any of them.)

He filled the juice glass the busser brought with amber-colored wine from the nearest pitcher. The wine, which was homemade by the groom’s family, is technically a white but takes its color from the grape skins, which are fermented along with the grape must in the Georgian tradition. No red wine was served, which I’m told is the norm at long feasts like this one: they believe you can drink more white wine than red without getting completely slaughtered.

If Georgian women pride themselves on their ability to produce awe-inspiring spreads in tiny kitchens, men here tell each other stories about how much alcohol they can put back without losing their composure (or so it seems to them, anyway…). They gulp–not sip–wine, so “wine glasses” are considered impractical and are rarely used.

Zumberi and I clinked glasses with those around us. “Gaumarjos!” we said to one another, the Georgian equivalent of “cheers.” The wine tasted sweet and fruity, with none of the acidity I’ve come to expect from homemade wines here. It’s a heartier white than most, which helped it stand up to the bold flavors on the table: red meat, smoked cheese, garlic, fresh herbs, pomegranate and sour plum.

I began sampling from the dishes nearest me. First, pkhali, a pungent puree of beet greens, garlic, and walnuts sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. Then a slice of white bread spread with butter and topped with salmon roe. A spoonful of mayonnaisey chicken salad, corn grits (ghomi) and smoked cheese, and a chicken thigh and leg, skin fried to a pleasantly salty crisp. Another toast, this time to–what else?–love. Though I’ve only drunk a sip, Zumberi is obliged by tradition to refill my glass to the brim.

“You must do better than that next time!” he urges me on with a smile. And, oh, how many “next times” there will be over the course of this celebration!

Stay tuned for the rest of the story.

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Join Slow Food enthusiasts, newcomers, and  friends for a happy hour tomorrow, Tuesday, May 18, at 15ria Restaurant from 6-8 p.m. This is an informal event for anyone interested in learning more about our mission and activities, meeting fellow food lovers, and enjoying delectable drinks and snacks made from fresh, local ingredients.

The restaurant has graciously extended their happy hour discounts until 8 p.m. for us, so come and enjoy mini grilled cheese sandwiches with sundried tomato jam, wee frankfurters cradled in puff pastry with a tickle of apricot mustard, and the restaurant’s signature cocktails. Try the Blueberry Smash, with Bacardi Limon, fresh blueberries, and mint on the rocks, or the Ria Green, that melds flavors of melon and kiwi in a summery, vodka-spiked cooler.

15ria

1515 Rhode Island Ave. at Scott Circle(restaurant co-located with Doubletree Hotel)

Tuesday, May 18, 6:00-8:00 p.m.

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Everyone is welcome to join me and other members of Slow Food DC for a happy hour at Poste Moderne Brasserie on Tuesday, March 30 from 6:00-8:00 p.m. This informal event is a great opportunity to find out what Slow Food is all about, network with other Slow Foodies, and enjoy some great local food and drinks in a beautiful space. Arrive on the early side to enjoy $5 glasses of wine or beer and $5 orders of truffle fries; these special prices last until 7:00 p.m.

Situated in the 1841 General Post Office on 8th Street in DC’s Chinatown, Poste gets many of its ingredients and inspiration from the producers at the Penn Quarter FRESHFARM market nearby, and also maintains its own organic vegetable and herb garden.

Poste Moderne Brasserie
555 8th Street NW
Entrance on 8th St. between E St. and F St. (through the archway)

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