Long considered the ‘coffee shop desert’ of Manhattan, the Upper West Side now boasts coffee and pastries to rival the Stumptown’s of Flatiron and the Blue Bottles of Brooklyn. The uniting appeal in the coffee shop explosion of recent years lies in owners’ singular commitments to both quality and happiness.
Sometimes, life gets weird. It all happens in a very short period of time. Coincidences, accidents, fate, luck, bad luck, good luck, providence, misfortune, destiny, doom, kismet, the way the cookie crumbles. Whatever you want to call it, I’ve basically imploded emotionally this semester. But somehow, I made it through and have kept going to class and going to club meetings and editing the blog, though with no posts of my own. And so, I introduce my first post back in a while (and one of my last for the semester-finals are approaching and I’m all too aware of them) with this explanation for my lack of posts (and also as an answer to people who keep asking “Yo, where you been this semester?”).*
I’m not alone in this struggle, I know. Students here are easily swept up in the stress of life, and for good reason, too. We all strive to be our best selves, and even then, set goals for who we think we are and who we think we can be. No one holds us to higher standards than ourselves. Sometimes we try to blame it on the institution, or even our peers. But at the end of the day, I know that I hold myself accountable for everything I do, and that’s one factor that makes being a student here so exhausting. However, even in my darkest moments, I’m getting better about realizing that there’s always one thing that makes me feel a lot better: getting out of my room/library/office for a break with friends.
Last night, after a particularly intense roller coaster day, I was prepared to curl up in my bed and hide from everything when I decided to go out with my friends for dinner at Max Soha. We ate outside, and it was delicious and lovely. My roommate Allison went back early for orchestra rehearsal for the Varsity Show (which opens tonight and you should all go see!), so Christin and I went to Kitchenette next door for some dessert. While Kitchenette (Amsterdam near 123rd) is a favorite of mine for brunch and hamburgers, I had never had the desserts (even though they’re a prominent local bakery). Christin showed me the wonders of the dessert case. We were scrambling for small change, and our nice cashier told us she’d take the six dollars flat for my dessert but Christin and I scrounged up 80 cents in dimes and pennies and made it work.
Christin and I went for a walk over to “Broadway Malls,” a mini-garden with a plethora of spring flowers and a cozy sitting area. It’s finally warm here in New York, after a very long winter, and even though I was still a bit anxious, the lovely weather and the great company of the evening just made everything better. Christin shared bites of her banana cream pie (delightfully crunchy crust, smooth pudding texture) and I ooh-ed and aww-ed over my pudding. Sold in a little jar (and they even give you the cap), Kitchenette’s dark chocolate pudding varies in density depending on how long it’s been allowed to set. I actually enjoyed this–the top part of the pudding was thicker and more viscous, whereas the middle section was still light and creamy. Probably unintentional, I enjoyed this peculiarity anyway. Flavor wise, the pudding was spot on.
To be fair to the nature of the fika, it wasn’t the food that I ate that made this fika so special. It was, to be honest, the joy and pleasure and relief of being reminded that there are people who genuinely care about me. These are people who not only put up with my silly shenanigans (jumping on benches to sneak up on them) and with my sad/stressed out nonsense (mood swings), but love me in spite of and perhaps even because of the combination of the good and the bad. While this semester has been very difficult for me personally, I really do feel so lucky to realize that there are some people who always come through for me. And I hope I do the same for them, because they make life here worth it. With every fika and non-coffee-related-hang-out, these friends have brought me literally out of my sadness and out of my room. So shout-outs to these friends: Allison for putting up with everything and picking up milk for my room-fikas and taking tea breaks, Christin for always being game for every possible fika location, Rachel for making me coffee for 10am Brit Lit, Nicole for the cupcakes (yum), Eddie for more cupcakes and fueling my caffeine addiction, my mom for sending me Nespresso capsules on rush order and getting phone-conversation coffee with me, Allie for the late night Starbucks visits, Ben and Amelia for being too loud in Hungarian Pastry Shop, writing folks like Ryan and Davis and Kal and more Ben for pizza and ice cream, the exec board staff of Culinarian for just being boss, and to all my other friends who have been down to grab a fika.
I know this is a long post, and it’s only a little bit about pudding, but I recommend to all those who read this who find themselves a bit under the weather to take a break and change it up. Go to a dessert place you’ve always wanted to try. Switch up your morning routine and grab a new cup of coffee. Text that friend that you keep meaning to text about getting coffee. Especially that last one–it’s friends, and coffee breaks with them, that will make our undergraduate career far more rewarding than tearing ourselves down in our rooms over our doubts and our regrets and our studies. I love you, my fika-mates.
Also, now that it’s finals season, I’m pretty much down for coffee at any time, so send me a text and hit me up. A Turkish proverb says, “Bir fincan kahvenin 40 yil hatiri vardir” which translates to “One cup of coffee remains in the memories for 40 years.” So, y’all ready to have some really awesome coffee conversations that we’ll remember for (at least) 40 years? Because I sure am.
Also, not sure what a fika is? Click here to find out.
*There are a lot of long sentences and parenthetical statements in this post. Just as a warning if you’re not down for lots of thoughts that may or may not be directly connected.
Having had the opportunity to live with a Danish host family over the last two months, I have come to recognize that the Scandinavian relationship with food is quite different from that in other parts of the world, especially the United States. Here are a few adjectives that I would use to characterize this Scandinavian culture of eating.
Scandinavian cultures place a lot of emphasis on time spent with the family, as evidenced by their work days, which typically end in the mid-afternoon. Families will often go to extreme lengths to make sure that everyone can be home for dinner together each night.
Perhaps the most informative way to look understand this emphasis on togetherness is through the Danish concept of hygge. The word is typically considered to be un-translatable, but perhaps the closest word we have in English is “cozy.” Hygge is a verb (sometimes even reflexive) and a noun, and can also be used as hyggeligt, which is an adjective describing the state of hygge.
Linguistic properties aside, hygge is a very important concept to the Danes, who strive to achieve it in nearly all aspects of life. Hygge is characterized by a warm sense of tranquility and calm, especially in a group. You can’t be hyggeligt when someone is missing! So, of course, there is a tremendous emphasis on inclusiveness in society generally, which even extends to meal habits and the importance of being together during meal times.
By and large, Scandinavian dinners are prepared from scratch at home, and this is especially the case in family units. This norm likely comes from a variety of social and cultural influences.
Most simply, it is simply a result of the high cost of eating at restaurants. To give you a sense of the cost, one could expect to pay at least the equivalent of $10 (USD) for a modest meal at McDonald’s, and it is quite rare to find a sit-down restaurant with meals for anything less than $30 (USD); based on my travels, I can also say that this is not only true in Denmark, but also in Oslo, Helsinki, and Stockholm. Those prices even make New York look reasonable!
But perhaps more importantly than simple economics, cooking at home is simply more hyggeligt. The delicious smells from the kitchen slowly intensify as dinner approaches, and as you sit down to dinner the whole family has the satisfaction of sharing from a common source of food lovingly prepared by one of the family members.
As a side note, fitting with Scandinavia’s progressive attitudes towards social matters, it is typical for both partners to share cooking responsibilities, or for the task to be delegated on the matter of simple preference rather than gender roles. When dating, men will often invite women to their homes for a homemade meal to show off their cooking skills. The goal for these suitors is to make complex meals but act as though it were no effort at all. Special schools have even formed in a lot of the larger cities that specifically cater towards adolescents for this reason.
Everything about food is taken very casually in Scandinavian cultures, with an emphasis on leisure and relaxation. Cooking at home is a good example of this mentality: cooking is a very leisurely activity, only to be undertaken by those who have the time and mental energy to devote to its execution.
The meals themselves are also consumed at a leisurely pace, with plenty of conversation lasting long after the food has finished. It is not uncommon to sit at a Danish dinner for an hour or longer.
This is not to say, though, that there are not ‘rules’ during Danish meals. There are some strictly regimented idiosyncrasies of Danish meals. Here are a few:
- Toasts are usually offered after a few bites have been taken already, rather than at the very beginning of a meal.
- Glasses are not usually clinked at toasts; it is more common to make eye contact with each of the other members of the table.
- Smørrebrød sandwiches (to be covered in a later post) are eaten with a fork and knife and are consumed in a certain order (fish first, then meat).
- Every meal ends by thanking the cook.
Yet despite these ‘rules,’ Danish meals are still a very casual affair, even at dinner parties
The emphasis on leisure extends far beyond the home, as well. The concept of ‘to go’ is not well understood in Denmark; as a symbol of this lack of understanding, there is not a commonly used Danish term for the concept, so people just say ‘to go’ in English. When people do buy food ‘to go,’ it is usually to take it somewhere else to eat. Around hotdog stands, you will often find crowds of Danes standing around and eating the hotdogs they just purchased. It is quite uncommon to see people carrying cups of coffee on the street. Food is to be leisurely enjoyed to the Scandinavians, not eaten quickly on the way from one place to another.
One also finds this emphasis on leisure in the café culture. Like much of Europe (and indeed, most of the western world), people will gather at cafés for hours to leisurely chat with friends over coffee and a pastry. Perhaps nowhere is this better expressed than in the fika in Sweden, which Amanda excellently covered in her first Fika Friday post.
As I mentioned previously, in Danish households, it is customary to end every meal with the phrase tak for mad (pronounced “tock fo mel”), which literally translates to, “thank you for the food.” This simple, almost formulaic phrase, though, is just one manifestation of a deep-seated reverence for food. As I have written, Scandinavians take their time to focus on the food they are preparing and consuming, and almost always do so in the company of others. Very little is wasted, generally through carefully tuned proportions that end up being the perfect amount of food for the table.
The romantic, and probably somewhat valid, explanation for this thankfulness and reverence is the paucity of material abundance in the cold and rough Nordic regions, which causes people to be more thankful of what they do have. Alternatively, maybe it has something to do with the historical (and continued) importance of agriculture in the Scandinavian economies. Regardless of the ‘real’ reasons, though, I cannot help but hope that this overall mentality towards food becomes a more important part of Stateside culture than the lip service we pay at Thanksgiving.
So, what do you think of the Scandinavian way of eating? Let me know in the comments!
Amanda return for her second Fika Friday by taking an afternoon fika at a French bakery near to campus. Go get your own coffee and sweet treat, take a break, relax, read this post, and fika it up. After all, it is Friday. Not sure what a fika is? Click here.
Welcome to midterms week at Columbia. For the liberal arts students, there are about ten days in October that make you very concerned about how much you are actually capable of retaining in your mind. For engineering students, there is a “midterm” practically every week and this sort of trauma is somewhat expected. My fellow students, I know your pain. I too have been in Butler Library to watch the sun rise. I have seen the other side, the stunned expression of a Creative Writing major too far gone to remember the sweet naivete of a world without exams. But I want you to know about a beautiful place, a place where you can escape all of your worries.
Well, I’m being a little dramatic…you can’t escape all of your worries, but at least you can coax them into submission with a nice cup of cocoa.
There is a small neighborhood in New York, an enclave of others, known as Manhattan Valley. It is commonly defined by 110th street to the north, Central Park, 96th street to the south, and Broadway. For students, it’s the epicenter of Grub Hub delivery service. It is also the home of La Toulousaine, a French bakery on Amsterdam and 106th. I first came to La Toulousaine last year with Allison, my current roommate. This past Tuesday, I realized I needed another Fika at La Toulousaine, stat! After a quick coordination with Jonah, we walked in drizzling rain to the bakery. We recognized it through the autumnal trees lining the street by its long purple sign. Two colorful fold out chairs sit out front, waiting for sunnier days. Before I even walked through the open door, I encountered a waft of warm and sugary air, laden with the scent of fresh baguettes.
For Amanda’s first post of the season, she will spend the italics section of her post feeling a strange, out-of-body experience as she briefly wonders if her life is being narrated by herself OR Amanda explains what she means by fika.
Last spring, I read a magazine article that talked about how, in Sweden, people take “fika” breaks. Fika roughly means “to drink coffee with friends on a small break with a little snack” (or something along those lines) as in “Would you like to fika with me?” and “I had a great fika this afternoon.” I remember thinking, this is incredibly charming. I instantly realized that this is what the break rooms are really meant for in corporate buildings. We are meant to take breaks from our work at approximately 10:30 and 3:45 to enjoy the exhilarating refreshment of a caffeinated beverage compounded with the sugary rush of a small chocolate roll! I get it! I. WILL. FIKA!
Fika seems to be like a more elaborate version of the Yiddish nosh. Fika is a bona-fide social institution in Sweden (people don’t play when it comes to their breaks). According to Culinary Cultures of Europe by Stephen Mennell, the fika is an important part of everyday Swedish life as it provides a chance to say hi to your mother, take that cute guy from the elevator on a date, and tell your buddies about your new motorcycle. Even government employees are known to take breaks from work to fika. Fikas are what we Americans traditionally think of as the “coffee date” (ie precursor to the tension-filled drinks or high-pressured stakes of dinner), but function even better as “non-date dates.”
This being said, the fika is no light-hearted matter if you’re a host…
It only comes once a year, and no, I’m not talking about Christmas.
It’s a special time of the year. The early fall crispness lingers in the air and 18th Street smells distinctly of chocolate. In the weeks before Thanksgiving, 75 chocolatiers convene in the Metropolitan Pavillion for the annual NYC Chocolate Show. It is an absolute center of chocolate creativity and artistry as elaborate showpieces are constructed and daring flavors are combined in new and unexpected ways. And the best part? The conference of sweet confections is open to the public!
The Culinary Society sent down 25 of our most dedicated chocoholics. Putting aside midterms and finals (yes, they’re here already) preparations, we gladly made the journey. Arriving on the scene, words such as “heaven,” “dream,” and “spactacular” were used to describe the conference center. Imagine a space about the size of Roona auditorium, but it fill it with chocolate and a bunch of people whose only job is to give you free samples. It’s almost mind-boggling how much chocolate is in the pavillion. We were engulfed by the presence of chocolate. You could smell it, see it, taste it. You could even wear it, Continue reading We Came, We Saw, We Ate Chocolate!
Immediately upon entering the Metropolitan Pavilion, one is hit with the scent of chocolate. Soon after this, the visual over-stimulation begins. There is chocolate everywhere the eye wanders–chocolate bars, chocolate candies, fruits and marshmallows covered in chocolate, chocolate teas, chocolate cocktails and drinks… There are even chocolate clothes! Then comes the tasting. There are over 70 vendors, each with samples. The chocolates come in crazy flavor combinations such as rosehip pistachio and lavender salt, but the more traditional combinations are not forgotten (Caramel, orange, and hazelnut never get old.). The origins range from the more familiar Madagascar to the obscure Djakarta and Sao Tome. The ensuing stomach ache is only a sign of time well spent.
This is the Chocolate Show, a showcase of some of the world’s best chocolatiers. Every year, New Yorkers are treated to their confections. After an hour and a half of tasting, I finally made my final decisions on my personal favorites.
First, I headed to purchase Fika’s annual line of hand-painted truffles. This year’s theme was the elements: earth, wind, fire, and wind. Not only are these chocolates beautiful in their craftmanship, but they taste unbelievable, boasting exotic flavor combinations. They literally take 3 days to make per batch!
Second, I went to Chocolat Bonnat of France. Every year, I search out my favorite 100% bar of chocolate. This year’s winner was Chocolat Bonnat’s Madagascar 100% Criollo. Truly amazing with tangy hints of banana and mango, this bar of chocolate will not disappoint.
Lastly, I picked up some of my staples to send back home. Francois Pralus, which features single origin chocolates from over 20 countries, just came out with a new package featuring 10 chocolates. Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Sao Tome, Trinidad, Venezuela, Tanzania, Ghana, Madagascar, Colombia, and Ecuador are all represented. My personal favorites are Madagascar and Djakarta (although this one was not featured). Just by the way the people from Pralus talk about chocolate, you can tell that they are passionate about their line of work. This little set of chocolates was perfect for my friends who could not make it to the Show. I also picked up some “No Chewing Allowed” Mon Ami truffles. If I neglected to pick these up, my sister would have killed me.
The Chocolate Show features familiar favorites such as Jacques Torres, Callebaut, Francois Payard, and Valrhona along with notable newcomers such as the Trade Company of Ecuador and Pure Chocolate. But hurry–the Show ends tomorrow (11/14)! Take Sunday off and have a chocolate feast!