David Blanks

Professor of history

Stories from David Blanks

Monday, May 7th, 2012

Since the revolution more Cairenes have been spending more money on more dining out than at any other time in the history of this city. Perhaps it's an end-of-days scenario and people want to go out with a bang. Perhaps it's pent up demand after months of being trapped at home eating nothing but chicken and rice. Or perhaps it's the need to escape the responsibility of preventing the parental units, who have also been trapped at home, from tear gassing each other. Although I have no statistics, I'm willing to bet that the birth and divorce rates are at an all time high as well.

Sunday, April 29th, 2012

Foodism is here. I mean, when you can dial a hotline and have delivered to your home an Australian wagyu beef fillet, an entire salmon, a kilo of sushi grade tuna, or a dozen Clevedon Coast oysters on the half shell, you know that Cairo is changing. New, hip restaurants and clubs are opening all over town, and budding, upwardly mobile foodists are both keeping them in business and investing in the businesses themselves. Justine, the Automobile Club, Chaîne des Rôtisseurs? Forget it. It's not your daddy's food scene anymore.

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

In Egypt we crave sauces. The meat is secondary. Vol-au-vent, sharkesa, fattah, ayy hagga b'il béchamel-the main ingredient becomes lost in translation in the same way that when we tell a story (or teach for that matter) the central facts are less important than the way the story is told. We embellish our monologues with stylish rhetoric and our food with stylish reductions.

Sunday, May 15th, 2011

Many of us put on a little weight during the Revolution. Three weeks of tension, stuck at home in front of the television, mother-in-laws and other female family feeders hovering about, the ever present temptation of comfort food: by the time the regime finally collapsed I, for one, was thick and tired.

Now comes the reckoning. Herself has put me on a diet.

“Is this democracy?!” I cried. “Is this freedom?!” “Isqat al-Nizam!!!!”

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

One of Egypt’s most pungent food prejudices is a near total aversion to Indian food. “Too spicy!” people complain before tasting so much as a samosa. At the mere thought they wiggle their noses upwards, squint their eyes, and do that scrunchy face thing, the universal Egyptian expression for “how disgusting,” or “I want you,” or sometimes both.

Sunday, April 3rd, 2011

Food becomes less shocking as you get older. Everything does. —and as you get older, certain truths reveal themselves. In the present instance, that soup and fish explain half the emotions of human life.

The steam, the smell, the deep flavors of a well-cooked soup, these are the embrace of family, the love and soothing warmth of the childhood kitchen.

Fish are slippery and powerful and sensuous. You either understand that now or you will in the years to come.

Saturday, March 26th, 2011

Cooking is like driving. You don’t have to pay close attention. Like when you’re on your way to campus, Bruno Mars pumping on Nile FM, and you’re thinking of a million things, swerving in and out of traffic. You’re on auto-pilot.

Hell I wrote this whole column in my head on the way to work—with only two minor close calls and one major OMG moment.

Sunday, March 20th, 2011

The problem with Mexican food is that three or four days after you eat it you’re hungry again. The other problem with Mexican food is that outside of Mexico, you can’t find it. There are versions of it—mostly Tex-Mex versions—but rarely the real deal—and even the Tex Mex one encounters is vivaciously challenged.

Friday, March 11th, 2011

My stepfather once gave a Valentine’s Day card to my Mom that read: “To the apple of my eye from the potato of your couch.” It was funny but unfair. To the potato.

In reality potatoes are good for you, with lots of protein, carbohydrates, Vitamin C, Vitamins B3, 6 and 12, and iron. Sure they are associated with the freshman five—the five kilos a girl puts on during her first year at uni—; but if you deep fried tofu and ate it with a cheeseburger and milk shake you would have the same issue.

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

The most disgusting thing I ever ate was Penang rojak. It was years ago on a beach in Malaysia and even now the memory brings colon spasms.

As you know, outside of processed food and fast food I am fairly forgiving: a calf’s head in a Parisian bistro; catfish in Nigeria; guinea pigs in Lima; tiny birds—beaks, feet and all—in Beirut; black carrot pickle juice on the Galata Bridge in Istanbul. I cannot stomach a fillet-o-fish sandwich, but if something is natural and authentic, I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.

Sunday, February 27th, 2011

As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, food is an important part of a balanced diet. Humans are omnivores and in order to remain healthy we must eat a little of everything. College students are really good at this. Each day most partake of the four basic food groups: the “caffeine” group, the “chocolate” group, the “salty snack” group, and the “whatever-it-is-in-the-aluminum foil-in-the-back-of-the-fridge” group. They’re keepin’ it real. They’ve got their poop in a group.

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

Man, revolutions are fattening. It began well— with lots of marching and such, the occasional full out run, staying up all night patrolling the neighborhood, building barricades. It was the most exercise I had had since the day the elevator broke down in the late 1990s. Tear gas, too, is an effective appetite suppressant.

Sunday, December 19th, 2010

Those like me who are serving a life term will remember how it used to be back in the day. No matter what we tell the younger generation about how spoiled they are and how great Cairo used to be, min zaman, let’s be honest, foodwise, it was Lame City: and for those of you who are new to this place, and think Cairo is a culinary wasteland, well, compared to the 1990s, let me tell you, you are living in the abode of the blest.

Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

When I first struggled to learn to use chopsticks, I used to console myself with the thought that somewhere in America there was some Asian guy cursing at his knife and fork. They’re tricky little devils, chopsticks, and like everything else that’s really cool and useful—the compass, printing, guns, toilet paper—the Chinese invented them. Some say they invented sushi too, but it’s not true.

Saturday, December 4th, 2010

Minding one’s table manners is a tricky business. What is considered the correct thing to do in some cultures—such as eating your deceased relatives—is regarded as rather impolite in others. Whereas you might feel belching after a meal is rude, it is not uncommon amongst the Pedi tribe of South Af­rica. I’m not talking about John Belushi style frat party belching, but a few burps after a repast of morogo wa dikgopana (cooked spinach balls dried in the sun) and masonja (mopane worms) will let your hosts know you enjoyed your lunch.

Sunday, November 21st, 2010

Getting a good pizza in this town is like playing roulette. Sometimes your number comes up; most of the time you’re just throwing your money away. My cat makes better pizza. A really great pizza—like genetic mutation or the perfect course schedule—seems to happen by accident. Sometimes you just get lucky. Once in awhile, for example, a cook will make a mistake and toss on “too much” tomato sauce; whereas the standard practice is to uncork the jar and just wave it around over the dough.  Some of them don’t even do that.

Sunday, October 31st, 2010

For at least 150 years, language tweekers such as Edgar Allen Poe, C.S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien have claimed that “cellar door” is the most beautiful term in the English language. It’s nice. Yep. It has musical beauty, is spare in clusters, and full of liquids, nasals and open syllables, with cardinal vowel nuclei. Can’t beat that. It’s kind of subjective though, don’t you think? Like music, or art, or the precise angle at which you should insert a cotton swab into your ear.

Bite Me Freezer
Saturday, October 23rd, 2010
The majority of incoming freshmen, when asked what they would like to major in, will say: “Either business or engineering.” When asked why they want to be a business person or an engineer, they have no earthly idea, but this rarely dampens their enthusiasm. It is all rather black and white.
Sweets
Friday, October 15th, 2010
Menu: rosemary olives, Old Amsterdam cheese, pickled onions, and liver canapés for starters; caprese salad and fattoush; grilled aubergines, kosa bi bechemal, pasta carbonara, and fakhda; grilled pineapple and ice cream for dessert—plus whatever appalling cake-like creation the guests bring from the bakery at the gas station. Event: Dinner for four. What is up with that?!

Koshari
Sunday, October 3rd, 2010

On the old campus there used to be this guy whose office was down the hall from mine. He taught American History, he loved Egypt, he loved Egyptian food, and every day he got take away from Koshari Tahrir. Seriously, every day. Now Koshari Tahrir is a fantastic place, but eating koshari, like falling in love, is a group activity. You can’t do it alone; or at least you shouldn’t.