When my spouse Diane and I moved to the Iowa food-belt, we found the perfect administrator’s house with a large yard for the August barbecue welcoming new faculty, a dining area for the December smorgasbord, and landscaping lovely enough for the catered graduation brunch. In the same week that we closed on the house, adoption officials in the state we had just left contacted us with the news that a special-needs infant needed us.
We had adopted before and immediately foresaw our future. Instead of bar stools, we would be buying a high chair. Instead of gourmet meals, we would be planning on Gerber.
We needed day care more than a good caterer.
Five years later, our yard features a trampoline, wading pool and dog pen; the gazebo doubles as our son’s personal bike riding rink; and our house is strewn with baskets of wash, chests of toys and walls of Crayola hieroglyphs.
While our domestic situation made regular entertaining difficult, it also sparked a new tradition -- cooking for the faculty at monthly meetings on campus -- which bonded colleagues in diverse cultural and deeply anthropological ways.
Since my arrival in Ames five years ago, I have prepared more than 40 meals for professors and staff at Iowa State’s Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, introducing recipes that define who I am culturally (Mediterranean), ethnically (Maltese) and personally.
Recipes have that power. They comprise your gastronomic genome suggesting the heritage of your parents, the locality of your upbringing and even where you traveled and whom you loved. In my repertoire are such dishes as Swedish pea soup and Carolina sweet potato pie as well as Maltese cheese pastries from my mother, Sicilian pastas from my New Jersey childhood, Austrian pork and cabbage combinations from my study abroad there, and Midwestern meat and gravy mainstays from Diane’s pioneer great grandparents.
Take your own culinary inventory -- if not your own creations, then your favorite recipes -- and recall whom you romanced, where you lived and what was savory enough to introduce to friends, colleagues and students.
An aspect of diversity in the Greenlee School not only concerns our monthly menus but regular potlucks by graduate students from South and North America, Western and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia, teaching us about their cultures via cookery.
In The Raw and the Cooked, anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss recounts the mythology and symbolism of food. In simplest terms, he notes, the raw represents nature and the cooked, culture. How you apply the heat -- baked, boiled, broiled, poached, grilled -- often is a giveaway as to locale (as are spices, breads and wines). Your features are in the feast.
In a recent work , Feast: Why Humans Share Food (Oxford University Press), archaeologist Martin Jones documents how our earliest ancestors used fire to prepare food and establish social connections as powerful and communal millennia ago as today. “In other species,” he writes, “fire is not the only element of this scene that would spell threat and danger. Direct eye-contact is more typically hostile, as is the opening of mouths and the exposure of teeth.”
Direct eye-contact, open mouths and exposed teeth also have defined a few faculty meetings over the course of my career. What better way to convey shared governance than by sharing food with the director serving colleagues a lunch that he prepared?
Our building has a break room with microwave and refrigerator, to which a staff member added a crock pot and I, a large electric skillet, toaster oven and other utensils.
Our meetings are at noon on Fridays. I plan the menu a week in advance and purchase ingredients on Thursday so they are as fresh as possible. Sometimes that evening I’ll do some prep work, such as slicing vegetables. On Friday morning, I rise before dawn and start cooking, using catering trays and plastic containers to transport the goods to our building.
If soup is on the menu, the crock pot comes in handy. For some dishes, like pastries, the toaster oven is a must. The skillet and microwave are also essential to warm fully cooked foods in time for the meeting.
At 9 a.m. or so, I send an e-mail titled “Lunch on the House,” describing the day’s meal.
Here’s an example from August 31, 2007, launching the last academic year:
On the menu for lunch: Pork loin roast with ginger/curry wine reduction. Sides include Austrian red cabbage and onion, Maltese-style broccoli, slow-roasted cinnamon carrots, green salad with Brandywine tomatoes from our garden. We'll start our faculty meeting with brief announcements at noon, including ones from the Student Services Office. Betsy Hoffman, executive vice president and provost, will join us for lunch at 12:15. …
Finally, no state or donor funds were used in the purchasing or preparation of today's lunch.
At that particular meeting last year, our provost inquired whether we had not gone to the trouble of preparing food on her behalf. “No!” several colleagues replied. “It’s a tradition.”
I have come to see the significance of that tradition in ways that I never would have envisioned. Ultimately the inherent narrative of shared food represents openness, an aspect of governance, elevating the group over the individual.
Communal meals also symbolize the liberal as well as the culinary arts. Is it a coincidence that the mythic “seven-course” menu (appetizer, soup, salad, sorbet, poultry, meat/fish, dessert) corresponds in some measure to the medieval arts, with grammar, dialectic and rhetoric sharpening the tongue; geometry and arithmetic, honing the portions; and astronomy and music, stimulating the senses?
Maybe I’m reading too much into the reason that I cook for the faculty. It’s a matter of manners. If we require attendance at noon on Fridays, the least we can do is provide the meal.
Here are some of the faculty’s favorites, beginning with roast loin and keeping in mind that Iowa is the top pork-producing state. I’ll also share some vegetarian, Mediterranean and multicultural recipes with the disclaimer that you prepare these dishes at your own risk, ensuring that you cook meat thoroughly and refrigerate anything that spoils. Finally, I end with some guidelines for the chair, director or dean transparent enough to cook for his or her constituents.
Simple Pork Loin Roast
- boneless pork loin roast
- 1 tablespoon dried parsley
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon pepper
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon ginger
Preparation: Mix dry ingredients in bowl. Divide. Rub pork loin with one-half mixture and then sprinkle rest on meat. Roast at 350 for 90 minutes (depending on thickness of loin). Test temperature with meat thermometer until it reads 160 degrees. Then let pork rest 20 minutes before serving.
Optional: Savory Gravy. Remove roast and leave drippings in pan. Place pan on burner turned to medium heat. Mix 1 tablespoon corn starch with 2 tablespoons water. Slowly blend in corn starch to thicken drippings into sauce. Note: For an American “pioneer” version of the gravy, add one tablespoon of molasses and a teaspoon of vinegar before thickening drippings.
Austrian Red Cabbage and Onion Dish
- 1 head of fresh red cabbage
- 4 medium-sized sweet onions
- 4 tablespoons brown sugar
- cup hickory barbecue sauce
- cup canola oil
- cup table wine
- cup balsamic vinegar
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 tablespoon pepper
Preparation: Julienne cabbage and onions and mix together in large bowl. In a separate bowl pour oil, wine and vinegar and blend in barbecue sauce and brown sugar. Transfer liquid mixture to large fry pan and cook on medium low heat for three minutes, stirring occasionally. Transfer cabbage/onion mixture and sprinkle salt and pepper. Cover fry pan and heat for 30 minutes. Remove cover and let liquid reduce until it thickens to sauce on low heat, stirring occasionally until cabbage is well cooked and onion, translucent.
- 4 heads broccoli
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 4 cloves garlic
- 1/4 cup white vinegar
- 1 small lemon
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon lemon pepper
Preparation: Boil four heads broccoli, al dente or fully cooked, whatever your preference. Drain. Place in serving bowl. Mince garlic on cutting board. Sprinkle salt on garlic. Using a fork, crush salt into garlic until it turns into paste. In separate bowl, mix olive oil, vinegar, with juice from one lemon. Stir in garlic and lemon pepper. Pour mixture on top of broccoli.
Optional: Top with 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese and sprinkle parsley to finish.
Maltese Pastizzotti tar-Rikotta (Pastizzi with Ricotta)
- One container (15 ounces) Ricotta cheese
- 2 eggs
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 3 cups shredded mozzarella
- 1/2cup grated Parmesan
- 1/2 cup chopped parsley
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp pepper
- 1 box filo dough
- Olive oil spray
Preparation: Set one half of the parsley aside. Mix in large bowl Ricotta cheese, eggs, garlic, shredded mozzarella, Parmesan, the remaining parsley, salt and pepper.
Set mixture aside.
Coat baking pans with a spray of olive oil (or PAM).
Peel off two sheets of filo for each pastry. Put the filo on a flat surface and spray olive oil (PAM) on it and on the top of the remaining filo to keep moist.
Put a tablespoon of the cheese mixture about an inch from one of the corners of the two filo sheets. Using thumbs and forefingers, fold the corner over the cheese mixture. Using thumbs and middle fingers, fold the sides of the filo toward the cheese mixture, and then roll the filo into a pastry.
Place the pastry on the baking pan, spray olive oil on top of the pastry, and sprinkle some parsley for presentation. Repeat until all the cheese mixture is used.
Bake at 350 for 30-40 minutes until pastries are golden and flaky.
Multicultural “Stuffin” Muffins
This combines Indian spices, German stuffing, and American cranberries and boxed mixes for a fragrant, filling muffin that is a meal in itself or complements turkey, pork and chicken dinners.
Note: This is a vegetarian variety. You can also fry a pound of ground pork sausage, drain, and add to the blend. This recipe also uses milk; for the lactose intolerant, or for a lighter muffin, substitute vegetable or chicken broth.
- 3 tablespoons cinnamon
- 1 level teaspoon cumin
- 1 level teaspoon curry
- 1 level teaspoon ginger
- 1 level teaspoon nutmeg
- 1 level teaspoon salt
- 1 level teaspoon pepper
- 3 stalks celery, peeled and diced
- 3 large carrots, peeled and shredded
- 3-5 peeled cloves garlic, diced
- 1 red onion, diced
- 1 cup sweetened dried cranberries
- Stuffing Mixture
- 9 ounces white cake mix (or one box white cake Jiffy mix)
- 12 ounces of your favorite boxed stuffing mix
- 1/2 cup vegetable or olive oil
- 1 cup sour cream
- 1 cup milk
- 5 eggs
Preparation: Mix spices in small bowl. Combine spices in large bowl with stuffing mixture. Add vegetable mixture to large bowl and blend with large spoon. Add other ingredients and blend thoroughly. Spoon mixture into no-stick or oil sprayed 12 cup muffin pans (13 ½ X 10 X 1 ¼-inch). Bake at 375 for 20-25 minutes or until golden brown. Garnish with fresh or flaked parsley
Final Guidelines and Cautions:
1. Use your own rather than state or discretionary funds because nothing spoils a meal as quickly as an internal audit.
2. Be mindful of what you put on the menu as food items such as pork, veal, beef and other proteins often convey cultural, religious, lifestyle or personal values. A diverse menu with alternative items shows that you understand and respect these values.
3. Try to have at least one vegetarian dish alongside a meat one and alternate menus so that some meals are meatless
4. Always list all ingredients in case a colleague is allergic to one or more of them, especially milk or egg products, easily overlooked.
5. Provide recipes so that colleagues can try out variations at home, which often results in their sharing recipes and expanding the culinary repertoire.
6. Don’t serve wine or any other alcoholic beverage at faculty meetings.
7. Avoid food fights.