Monday, January 16, 2012

Central Location

Sometimes even the most intrepid need a break from the Lehigh Valley for a weekend.  When that happens, the valley's central location makes any number of different adventures possible all within one hundred miles.  Just North there is skiing; further North, the Poconos.  Directly East is New York City; to the South-East the Jersey Shore.  To the South, Philadelphia.  To the South-West Amish County.  To the West gorgeous Farmlands and the Allegheny Plateau.  Something along all the rays of the compass rose.

Historically, it was this central location which made Allentown important as a commercial and industrial hub in the 19th century.  Coal produced in the anthracite regions had to pass down the Lehigh & Delaware Canal (through Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton) and later the Lehigh Valley RR before reaching ports in Philadelphia.  Even today, the Lehigh Valley sits at the population center of the Atlantic Metropolis which makes it an ideal location for shipping and distribution (as evidenced by the trucking centers at the Western edge of Lehigh County).  Since its first moments, the Lehigh Valley's identity has been tied together with its proximity to both a rural hinterland and the great metropolitan markets of the Mid-Atlantic seaboard.

While these commercial concerns may not have much to do with an exciting quality of life, the physical proximity that creates the Valley's distribution success means varied activities and landscapes are quickly in reach.  This weekend, I ventured Northward to the county seat of Pike County--Milford, Pa.

There is not too much to say about visiting a small town like Milford.  The place speaks for itself.  The old brick courthouse bespeaks a time when civic pride rose high enough to finance grand public buildings.

And where people may still genuinely have pride in their sense of political community.  The cynic in me does sometimes ask how much this "pride aesthetic" is done for the tourists--though probably not that much as it was the middle of winter and about 10 degrees F (-12C) when I visited--not peak season.  And, even if the town's aesthetic and way of life is maintained by outside money, what is the harm in that.  What greater truth suffers violence by letting others see a particularly pretty way to live one's communal life.

Inside the Milford Dinner was an actual picture of life in the town.  Because It was so cold and so off season, there did not appear to be many tourists in the place.  People sat and had eggs and coffee in the warmth.  There is a particular yellow hue to the place that made it very inviting compared to the cold, biting, blue sun outside.

Before leaving Pike County, I made one last stop, to Raymondskill Falls, just outside of Milford.  The Waterfall is the highest in the Commonwealth and even though I had once worked as a counselor in a camp about two miles away and had jogged by it nearly every day, I had never taken the time to stop and admire it.  I was afraid that the falls would lack contrast without the verdant warmth of spring or summer.  Luckily, the freezing-cold played wonderful visual tricks with the water.

Instead of the still and clear rush of warm water, the creek that fed the falls was interspersed with flows of ice.  The ice swam like dye in the water, circling and eddying in the complex hydrodynamics of the natural pool.  The gentle spirals it formed contrasted by the crystal clear water and washed marbles of the upper pool bed was hypnotizing even in the bitter cold.  Then, out of the gentle circles, a piece of ice would gently slip into the main current channel and be swept away and down a plunging white torrent framed by draped ice.  The complexity of the ice choreography was profoundly more difficult and more elegant than what the human imagination could imagine.

As the water and ice passed the mouth of the falls, it plunged downward across sheer rocks into a second pool.  And there with the force of its fall crystallized into a mist of ice in the cold.  This micronic ice then billowed up out of the churning pool into the sky.  Back as high as the first pool and higher still until you were enveloped in ice and it coated your body and clothes.  The sides of the falls, exposed as they were and in shadow built up up thick deposits of brilliantly pure ice.

Trying to describe in words or in a picture the tremendous beauty of great natural monuments is an insane folly.  They must be experienced.  Thankfully, the Lehigh Valley is so near that its possible to venture out and experience all of this on little more than a quarter tank of gas.  Another reason for to appreciate living here in Allentown.


Sunday, January 8, 2012

Kiffle Kulture: Technique for Making the Perfect Traditional Hungarian Kiffle

(Video of Kiffle Making Process Included at Bottom)

One of the big themes I want to emphasize about Allentown is cultural interaction and growth.  A fundamental qualitiy of American life is inclusiveness of different cultures.  It is with pride that we call our selves "the melting pot" of the world.  Granted, there is always friction at the edges, but, the history of America is the history of cultural inclusion, growth, and opportunity.

The real Flakey Deal

It is possible to watch the interactions of people through the foods that they eat.  We are programmed from birth to appreciate certain familiar flavor palates and foods.  We are often suspicious of a new food or flavor when it is presented to us.  Its part of a natural conservatism, probably with evolutionary roots, meant to protect ourselves from possibly harmful foods.  However, because of it power to prevent us from trying things outside of the familiar, it also has a social tendency to create barriers between different peoples--to form in groups and out groups.

As an example, think of the countless representations in film of someone (say a businessman) going to a new culture and eating its local foods in front of the group of local people.  The apprehension and tittering are all about the interaction of an outsider with a group of people tightly connected through the foods that they eat.  The businessman shows that he is willing to break through the apprehension of the cultural clash by engaging with an act fundmental to members of a another culture.

I think that there is particular power in food to break down these cultural boundaries for two reasons.  The first is because food culture is so deeply ingrained within us.  Our flavor palates are formed since the time of birth.  Even before real consciousness, our minds are being stimulated with certain textures, flavors, and smells.  The strength of the neural pathways these form must be of immense strength.  Just consider, for instance, the often physical and primal reaction people can have to food taboos.  Thus, when one chooses to overcome that barrier, they are showing a real commitment to accepting another culture.  The second reason has to do with the universality of the act of eating.  Like rational thought, aesthetics, and morality, every human, universally, must engage with food.  We all have similar fundamental taste sensations, like sweetness, sourness, heat, and bitter.  Therefore, like an artwork of another culture, we are often able to see a universality of meaning in the things we eat.

That is to say, we can appreciate the other by reckoning that the experience they have when eating their own food is similar both to what i) I enjoy when eating their food, and ii) more generally that what their culture hopes to achieve in preparing their own dishes is also what my culture hopes to achieve in preparing its own dishes.  A lot of cultural distance can be covered with a fork.  And, incidentally, it might be one of the reasons that America has such an inclusive food palate.  Regional American specialties, and even international specialties, predominate in restaurants over the the regional food of one place anymore.  Though these restaurants may normalize the dishes to an American palate, we choose to draw from a tremendous number of different cultural influences in our food.

Kiffle's all in a row before baking.

And, so, this brings me to the humble kiffle.  Anymore, the kiffle is ubiquitous around homes in the Lehigh Valley and can even be found in local supermarkets depending on the time of year.  However, the kiffle is not traditional to the Pa. Dutch nor was it traditional to the Palatine on the Rhine region of Germany from which the Pa. Dutch emigrated.  In fact, the kiffle's roots are much further East in the Austro-Hungarian empire.  It was brought to the Lehigh Valley by eastern-European and Slavic immigrants around the turn of the twentieth century.

I have to feel that for the traditional Pa. Dutch, this influx of Eastern European immigrants would have been culturally difficult.  Not only were the languages spoken entirely dissimilar to Latinate and Germanic families, but, the religions that the new immigrants practiced was also markedly different.  While the Pa. Dutch favored modest rectangular churches in the Lutheran tradition, the new Eastern Orthodox churches were baroque, heavily adorned, full of incense, and topped by strange onion shaped domes.

It was into this culture that my paternal grandmother immigrated to from Hungary after the first world war.  She learned kiffle making from her grandmother and recorded the recipe on a simple 3x5 card:

The Orginal Recipie

Later, my grandmother, Helen, would marry my grandfather, Peter, whose family was of Russian decent and lived in Carbon County.  Together, they had my Father who married my mother who was of German and English descent.  Thus, within one generation, people in the two cultures were mingling enough to marry and have children.  That's really the promise and pride of the America experiment right there.  And, at the heart of it is food breaking down barriers.  My mom, when she asks after my paternal grandmother, always asks if she is still making kiffles.  They really are that good and that powerful.

I don't know too much about the food-history of the kiffle.  I can't even find an etymology of the word in Hungarian, English, or German.  They are a simple pastry made from flour, eggs, butter, and cream cheese.  Unfortunately, they have to be homemade if you want top quality.  Kiffles bought from the store taste flat and dull to me.  (They are also quite expensive and not worth the money).  Additionally, I am told that there is only one commercial baker in the Lehigh Valley who supplies all other retail markets so it is unlikely that quality in the retail kiffle market is going to rise anytime soon.

That said, a properly made kiffle is an incredibly light, flakey and buttery treat, with a slight hint of sour around the sides of the tongue from the cream cheese and a mild sweetness from the apricot or other filling.  If you have never had a real one and enjoy baking, it is worth the effort.  And it is a good reminder that even in the heart of Pa. Dutch country, cultural interactions happen and benefit everyone.  Which might also be a good reminder to get downtown and try a few of the Caribbean restaurants that are now open too!

Austro-Hungarian Kiffles

6 oz Cream Cheese
2 egg yolks
2 sticks salted butter (1/2 lb)
2 cups all-purpose or pastry flour
Pastry Filling (available from a bakery supply company or homemade)

1.  Two hours before work is to begin, remove the cream cheese, eggs, and butter from the refrigerator.  Allow the ingredients to come to room temperature.

Allow to come to room temp.

2.  If possible, employ your Austro-Hungarian grandmother.  She will probably work for kiffles.

3.  Cream together the egg yolks, cream cheese, and butter until smooth.

Cream baby cream. . .
4.  Slowly, about a 1/4 cup at a time, add the flour.  Start the process stiring gently with a spoon, however, the dough may become too dense and if it does, knead the flour in gently with the hands.  Do not over work the dough.

5.  The dough is ready when it no longer sticks to the hands.  Once this point is reached, pull off about three-quarters of an ounce of dough and roll it in the hands to form a ball.  Place this ball in a baking dish that has been covered with a light sprinkling of table sugar.

Ummm, dough balls...

6.  Cover the baking dish with a piece of parchment paper.  Then, place the covered dish in the refrigerator for at least two hours to rest and chill.

7.  After the dough balls have rested, remove them, several at a time from the refrigerator.  It is important for the rolling process that they remain chilled.  Place the balls, one at a time on a lightly sugared counter top.  The ball is now rolled out into a disk.  To do so, the rolling pin is placed on the ball and pushed vertically once.  The oval disk is then turned 90 degrees and a second push is made in a direction perpendicular to the first push (see video).  This creates a thin dough disk about an 1/8 of an inch thick.  It takes a little practice to get right.

8.  The disk, while still cool, is then filled with about a teaspoon of pastry filling.  The filling should be spread on the disk in a thin layer, leaving about a centimeter around the edge of the disk without filling.  (See video).

Notice the Space along the Edge without Filling

9.  The kiffle is then rolled into shape.  Start from one end and begin to roll.  However, as you are rolling also gently pull outward in the direction perpendicular to the roll to create the ovoid shape.  (See video).

10.  Place the kiffles seam side down on a parchment-lined baking sheet.  Bake in a 350 degree over for about 20 minutes (this time is approximate and can vary).  Start the kiffles in the middle position in the oven.  Then, once the bottom has browned, move the sheet to the top rack to slightly brown the tops.  (The kiffles will darken slightly even after removed from the oven).

11.  Remove to a counter lined with parchment.

12.  Enjoy this Hungarian treat.

Video of Kiffle Baking

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy New Years!

It has been a great couple of days for Lehigh Valley culture!  The Farmers Market has been open, pork and sauerkraut has been braised, families ate together, and the people of Allentown celebrated the start of another 250 years as a city.  Showing the diversity of the town, last night, I ended up celebrating at four different locales--a house party, a formal black tie affair downtown, the Allentown Street Party, and an informal get-together at a friends house.  To protect the innocent, I'm not going to mention happening at private parties, but, that's more than equaled out by the fantastic show the City of Allentown put on downtown.

But, before diving in, I want to talk about optimism.  The city had reason to be proud last night for the great turnout at the street party.  This, however, wasn't reflected in the comments many people made on the morning calls website, such as this one:
No murders, stabbings or shootings yet?
This sure is not the same All-America City I remember as a child on the 200th Anniversary. There was a sense of pride and accomplishment in 1962.     That is missing today.
When we encounter someone like this, I think it is appropriate to ask them to be introspective for a moment--to consider if they are the one who actually lacks a sense of pride and accomplishment in their city.  When was the last time the person who wrote this actually went downtown and saw the gorgeous post-modern architecture of the new PPL building next to the art deco gem of the old?

Or, when did the commenter drive around Turner street to admire the architectural detailing on many of the fine brick homes.  Has this person ever seriously considered a different, more urban way of life and the benefits that urban living can have?  I don't mean to be flippant, but what Allentown really needs is people to believe in the idea of the downtown .  And that means optimism.  Optimism about the build environment, optimism about different peoples, and optimism in ourselves.  This spirit of the community is neither a conservative nor a liberal value--it should not be political.  Great advancement could come to the downtown with ideas from either side of the aisle so long as we care enough to try to communicate those political visions within the city!

A great example of this were the occupy Allentown protestors who were at the street party last night protesting against the new arena.  I don't necessarily agree with all the aims of this organization, but, it is important that they were out there expressing their voice and creating dialogue about what the downtown should be like instead of pretending like it is some giant black hole.

Something else I don't think negative commentators understand is that the downtown is not a human wasteland either.  There are plenty of people who care about what is happening there and who came out in the cold with their families to celebrate as a community--to recognize that urban space has been important in the Lehigh Valley for over 250 years.

This brings me to my final points which are replies to concerns raised time and again by naysayers:  crime and parking.  Both of these issues are incredibly complex to discuss in the abstract, but on the ground, they were not issues whatsoever.  Last night there were absolutely no problems at the street party.  I am aware someone was superficially wounded elsewhere in the city by a stray bullet but the police presence in the street was strong and the crowd was in incredibly good spirits.

Parking and traffic were similarly non issues.  Arriving at 11:00PM, there was still parking within 100 yards of Hamilton Boulevard.  Closer than what is typical at the mall.  Traffic ingress and egress was not a problem either.

This all goes to show one simple idea that bares repeating time and again--it is easy to cast stones in the abstract--to postulate about all these horrible problems.  But what you really need to do is get downtown and experience what it offers.  If you have issues after that point, there should be a dialogue about them and a fix if possible.  But, lets not just hate for the sake of hate.  What type of philosophy is that?  Why would a community want to make that its banner!

 Happy 2012!  Looking forward to another great year in the Lehigh Valley.