american cookies
May 11, 2006

I've been away. I've flown to Glasgow and Berlin, I've thrown a party (more to come) and I've bought a new hard drive. It's all been a little disorienting.

There are things you take for granted (that brown sugar is brown sugar, that apartments come with kitchens), things you can't count on once you've left your comfortable culturally specific tiny kitchen—which is, I guess, the point of traveling. My brother is living in Berlin and before I went to visit my mother told me to take him chocolate chips (which we later discovered that you can find in Germany, but you have to buy them in the American Food section of the legendary department store, along with the Betty Crocker, even though Nestlé is technically Swiss). I took two bags of Ghirardelli and promised to make him dinner while I was in town.

Berliners rent their apartments kitchen-less. So when I set out to bake cookies and make the Big Noodle, I go to work not only in a very tiny kitchen—but also a homemade one (and because Bryan's roommate stands somewhere north of six feet, the kitchen isn't built for tiny people; I'm very Lilliputian in it, but there's a step stool for washing dishes).

Our first challenge is the grocery store. We look up the German words for all my ingredients (because even though Bryan's German is very good, he's never gone looking for ground kalbfleisch before). Much of this forethought is in vain—some things just don't make the translation. Veal doesn't seem to be called veal when it's ground, although the second butcher we try (tapping into an apparent familial fear of butchers) assures us that our rindfleisch is at least partly young. Trying to describe cheesecloth is harder; we end up going to the pharmacy for bandaging gauze (alkohol-frei). The really troubling thing is when I realize that the brown sugar that I have always known and eaten by the spoonful is just not available—and what I'd call sugar in the raw is masquerading in its place.

The evening brings plenty of other dramas: I don't know why I assumed my brother would own a rolling pin (empty wine bottle with the label removed works fine) and wrapping the Big Noodle like a mummy doesn't hold it together while it boils (it's lumpy, but we just smother it in tomato cream sauce). And if I'd known the Ghirardelli website automatically converts to metric, I could have saved myself some math. But it's the brown sugar thing that rankles.

It seems that Berliners are unsuspectingly consuming raw sugar (brown in its own right, sure, but not brown) instead of the molasses-y stuff the modern world has made us accustomed to—which, I discover, has been refined and then had the molasses added back in (which possibly makes it better for us). I can't figure out why none of this translates to the Continent (or maybe just Germany), but I'm harboring some dark thoughts about "old Europe." The cookies come out okay despite this (as well as a mysterious substance called "vanilla butter"), and Bryan says he can't taste a diference...but I can.

The next morning I fly to London, then to New Jersey, and finally get myself home to Brooklyn. I'm exhausted, grumpy and confused; for dinner I eat three spoonfuls of real brown sugar.

It's good to be home. -->