Wednesday, February 4, 2009

On Leaving One's Comfort Zone

Towards the end of last month, we took a family car trip to Florida. About a third of the way into the sixteen-hour return trip we stopped briefly at a gas station/convenience store, and while I was waiting for various family members to be ready to continue the trip I wound up staring at a rack of commercial baked goods with Spanish labels. While I'll freely admit to being an adventurous eater, I found the names and visible contents to be somewhat dubious. I mean, I don't like Twinkies or most store-bought cookies, and here was an array of factory made "food" that apparently is geared to patrons of Mexican gas stations.

So I bought some.

I picked out the most unusual and oddly named items I could find and thus begins the tale of the trying of three products: Pingüinos, Gansitos, and the ever-appetizingly-named ¡Sponch! Into the grocery bag they go, and into the car, and down the road for ten interminable hours, and once we were home I shoved the bag into the back of the pantry to save them for later without worry since they had an expiration date that was sometime in the later half of the 32nd century.

Thus when Avelyn, my apprentice, came over for dinner on Sunday (broiled steak seasoned with coriander and ginger, rice steamed with coconut milk and currants, and fresh asparagus), I was ready with something truly educational for dessert. We cleared the dinner dishes away, got out the grocery bag of dread, and started dividing things up.

Penguins are good, right?

The first thing we tried were the Pingüinos, and they were a bit of a disappointment. In appearance they're indistinguishable from hostess cupcakes - right down to the loops of icing on the top and the plastic tray. That's about where the similarity ends though, for Pingüinos have all the chocolaty flavor goodness of potting soil and a moisture content like that of dryer lint. Of the five people at the dining table, only the nine-year-old child liked them.


After the Pingüinos we decided to jump right in and try the scariest looking thing here - ¡Sponch! It was obvious right off the bat that this wasn't like any snack cake I'd encountered before. It consists of a square shortbread cookie (imprinted on the bottom with the word ¡Sponch!) topped with four mounds of alleged marshmallow, with a bit of jelly at the center and the whole thing sprinkled with coconut. Apparently ¡Sponch! comes in a variety of flavors. I had purchased a package of "strawberry" (hereafter referred to as PINK) and "grape" (hereafter referred to as PURPLE).

By far, ¡Sponch! received the most reaction from our intrepid team (actually, I think we were all very trepid). Avelyn said the PURPLE flavored ¡Sponch! tasted like chewable vitamins. The eleven-year-old said it tasted like children's chewable Tylenol. The nine-year-old took the tiniest of nibbles from the PINK flavored one and then (wisely) refused to eat it. For some strange reason nobody wanted the PURPLE flavored one that he didn't touch. The general comment upon tasting was something like "Um ... urgh ... ghah!".

How can you go wrong with something called "Little Goose"

Gansitos were by far the best of the lot. They were small (somewhat stale) yellow cakes topped with a strip of jelly, topped in turn with a strip of white fluffy stuff, then coated in chocolate and sprinkled with "chocolate" sprinkles (the shape of which had disturbing connotations when connected with the phrase "Little Goose"). The eleven-year-old said he liked them (but didn't want the extras), the nine-year-old tasted it and decided he was done. I thought the jelly had an odd, acidic, almost alcoholic taste to it. LU Biscuits makes a kind of cookie (PIMS) that are vaguely similar in flavor (but a whole lot nicer).

On the whole, it was a fun thing to do for dessert, and while some things tasted strange (¡Sponch!) none of us got sick or anything.

What does this have to do with Medieval Cooking? Not a heck of a lot. But part of researching culinary history means trying foods that look strange and/or have weird ingredients. You have to be willing to go beyond what is normal for your culture, and you find yourself asking things like "Do people really like this sort of thing? If so, why?" and "What flavor were they trying to get here?"

Hmm ... maybe I need to make another trip to the international section of Jungle Jim's International Market soon. They've got some really weird stuff there!

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