I spent the spring semester teaching at a small college in Virginia. One of the perks of the gig was an unlimited meal plan at the university dining hall. That meant that I was entitled to three daily all-I-could-eat buffets of undergraduate fare: pasta and pizza and twenty varieties of breakfast cereal. There was a rotating menu of meatloafs and baked potatoes and unspecified Tex-Mex dishes. The kids went crazy on grilled-cheese day, but their obvious favorite was a meal of tator tots and dino nuggets: chicken compacted into the shape of stegosauruses. The lacrosse team ravaged them like blood-crazed raptors. Most of it tasted good at the time, but made you feel terrible later.
When the semester ended and I went to Iceland, I vowed that I would eat better. As with any vow made during thirty sleepless hours of travel, it was ill-conceived and extreme. I committed myself to a summer spent cooking my way through Allyson Kramer's Great Gluten-Free Vegan Eats From Around the World. Yes, that's right, I'm using a cookbook that eschews meat, cheese, gluten, and anything else that might be delicious. And it's vaguely ethnic, too! My philosophy has always been that if you're going to do something, you should do it in a way that makes your friends roll their eyes and look for someone else to talk to.
Allyson Kramer is probably a very nice person. She provides a glossary of "global ingredients" (many of which seem to be available only in a few U.S. health-food stores), and she gives both imperial and metric measurements. And, being a nice person, she rarely lies: she doesn't pretend that her recipes are quick or easy, and sometimes she doesn't even claim that they're all that delicious. Her best descriptions are of the tasty, meat- and gluten-filled foods that these dishes are imitating. But the pictures are gorgeous, and I was determined to make a go of it.
I started in Africa, attempting the "Easy One-Pot (Jollof) Rice With Cinnamon and Curry." It tasted like Christmas poverty. Next up was "Peanutty Parnip and Carrot Soup," which was described as a "fusion dish with peanut butter." Imagine a Play-Doh smoothie. The situation improved markedly with "Bulgogi-Style Tofu," which, despite requiring two days and every pan and bowl in the house, was pretty good. I've actually made the "Fiery Gingered Yam Salad" twice now, successfully enough to feel comfortable foisting it upon people who were too polite to refuse.
There have been a few other mild successes, and a couple of abominations, but I don't know if they can be rightly ascribed to the cookbook. The book, despite its in-depth guide to finding the right farmers' market for you, requires a lot of ingredients that just aren't available in Reykjavík. Honestly, I'm not sure I could find fresh galangal, jackfruit, or dulse flakes in Austin, so I think I can be forgiven for making some Icelandic substitutions. I have, so far, resisted the urge to sneak heavy cream or ground lamb or a whole donut into anything, but it's becoming more of a struggle every day.
I'm writing all of this as a pre-emptive apology. Gluten-deprivation is slowly transforming me into a monster, and I fear what I might do. If you see me and I give you a hungry look, it's probably because I'm imagining you as a lightly breaded triceratops. You should probably run. The best-case scenario involves a lecture on sustainable ethnic cuisine and the importance of manganese in your diet, and the possibilities just get worse from there. Happy summer, jerks.