Feb 06 2010

What I Ate This Week

by at 12:07 am

The easiest criticism of Twitter is the “what do I care that you just ate half a bagel?” complaint. So I hope you’ll indulge me as I describe my hilarious, very Swiss, meals this past week. I spent Monday through Friday (today) in Champéry, in the Swiss Alps, near France, at a tutorial on game theory and computer science. PhD students came from all over French-speaking Switzerland to attend, and breakfast and dinners were included every day. There were talks in the morning, a break from noon to 5pm for skiing (or other activities, I guess), and more talks in the evening, followed by dinner at a different restaurant in Champéry each night. Aware of the perils of trying to eat vegetarian and lactose-free in Switzerland, I didn’t come unprepared—a good part of my luggage was food, including butter and soy yogurt I planned to refrigerate by leaving outside on my balcony (a great solution until it rained on the last day!)



Before the first dinner, the organizers ask if anyone is vegetarian. Two (!) hands go up, out of the fifty or so people there. My extreme minority position leads me to not try to further marginalize myself by informing them of my lactose intolerance. That night, at the restaurant, a waitress comes around to find the vegetarians and at this point I ask about non-cheese options. She tells me not to worry, and I end up eating a salad plus salmon. I’m not so unhappy, all things considered. So far, so good.

Day 2


I go down to the buffet breakfast  at the hotel and see a sign next to the super-liquidy scrambled eggs saying that eggs can be prepared to order. I immediately inquire if eggs can be made for me without butter, with oil instead. Asked how I’d like them prepared I’m at a loss (later I recalled that scrambled eggs are called “mish-mash” eggs in French) so I just say that the way the super-liquidy ones were prepared is fine. And, having been taken at my word, a few minutes later I am presented with an unappetizing liquidy mush of eggs, presumably cooked in oil. Why should I have expected otherwise? When I taste them I decide they’re undercooked or swimming in oil. Or both. Needless to say, I don’t order eggs any of the days that follow.


I am informed that Coop (the supermarket in town) is closed at lunch time, so my plan to buy ingredients  and make my own lunch is dashed. Instead, I go to a restaurant advertising a lunch special (only 15 CHF or about $15) and order penne all’arrabiata. It’s not bad—except in retrospect when I describe it to Jackie and she points out that it sounds like they went to the store, bought penne and canned arrabiata sauce, and well, you can picture the rest. And then they charged me 15 CHF.

Later I get coffee at a cheese shop (I went in because they were advertising homemade hot chocolate—but the chocolate itself was made with milk, alas). After ordering and speaking French to the proprietor I hear her take a phone call and speak in perfect English. On my way out I check out the cheeses and find cheddar. Excited (and still committed to my French) I ask her about where it’s from. But then when I get to the word for the name of the cheese, I stumble: should I pronounce it “shed-air” or will that make me sound like a jerk? I cough and then pronounce it like they do in Wisconsin instead. The cheddar is from Britain and I buy some, planning to keep it on my balcony.


We go to a fondue restaurant. A big pot of cheese isn’t as bad for me as it sounds—they usually use aged cheese so I can have a few bites. And they usually also have rösti (big Swiss latke) on their menu. When I walk in I find a waiter and inquire about vegetarian options, informing him of my lactose intolerance. A few minutes later, a waiter comes to say they’ve figured something out! “Spaghetti bolognaise?” “Non, non. Je suis végétarien.” “Oh! Pardon.” Later they returned to find out if pasta with vegetables would be okay. This turned out to be exactly what they said—pasta with steamed vegetables and a tiny bit of sauce. Why should I have expected otherwise?

During the inevitable conversation about my lactose intolerance that ensues at the table someone asks if I can eat pasta. “Sure, why not?” “Well, doesn’t it have milk as an ingredient?” “No. Just eggs.” “Eggs? Really?” Instead of arguing (or checking Wikipedia) I turn to an Italian student who hasn’t been paying attention to the conversation. “Not to be racist,” I start, and am immediately called out for my typical American behavior. He is not offended—and he is very knowledgeable about pasta, even about making it oneself. (There are often eggs in pasta.)

Day 3


I bring down my jar of peanut  butter and eat PB&J. The Eastern Europeans I am sitting with this find this hilarious and once again I am called out for my Americanness.


I go into a bakery and buy my Swiss food of last resort: a tuna-fish sandwich. (See Jackie’s extensive run-down of Swiss sandwichery.)


As on the previous days, I ask a waiter about vegetarian options. “Fish?” they say. OK, I guess. A strange looking salad comes for everyone, including me. It’s a cold fish salad with one leaf of lettuce (no joke), including lox and some other types I can’t identify. And then the main dish comes. More fish. Recall that we’re in a Swiss skiing resort, a village covered in snow up in the Alps, in the middle of a land-locked country. How did the fish even get here? But we’re at a fish restaurant, so I guess I have no cause to complain about the food I’m being served, just about the very existence of the restaurant. Also, I don’t really like eating fish.

Day 4


Having made it to the supermarket to buy more soy yogurt, I eat it with granola. Very Swiss.


I go skiing for the first time, and find out what everyone who’d been skiing the whole week had been eating for lunch: nothing. After the workshop ends at noon, they immediately grab their skis and head to the slopes, and later they worry about food. Further evidence that Swiss people don’t really eat. I eat part of a Cliff bar during the ride in the cable car. After skiing, I try to find food in the restaurant at the top of the mountain. No luck—I eat chips and beer instead and then bread with cheddar when I get back to the hotel.


We eat in a meat restaurant. Not “meat” as in fleishik but a restaurant with a menu consisting only of meat. As an appetizer everyone is brought meat broth. I get cream of tomato soup (which is good—I eat it with lactaid pills). Then, while everyone else eats slabs of beef (?) I am served a surprisingly diverse set of vegetables plus morels (a type of mushroom). And they do something with the veggies that’s not just steaming them. I was happy. As were the meat eaters, because a short while after serving us, a waiter comes around with a platter of meat offering seconds. I ask a Swiss person about it and he claims that this is typical of fancy restaurants. Uh huh.

Day 5


More soy yogurt with granola.


The conference ends at noon so we head to the train station. With a little time to kill we investigate lunch options. Four of us go into a restaurant with a few people in it, though  none seem to be eating anything. But it’s 12:30—they must be serving food, right? After seating ourselves and waiting for a few minutes without anyone coming to talk to us I get up and go to the bar and inquire if they’re serving food. Nope! Just drinks. They point us in the direction of one of the restaurants we already went to, but first we try the Migros (the other supermarket). Closed at lunch time! In the other restaurant they have two types of sandwiches for sale: ham and salami.

On the train I’m currently eating my bread and cheese, and dry fruits, and chips, and peanut butter. I said I came prepared, right?

P.S. After another discussion about the relationship between lunch and laundry, I have news to share on the question of why Swiss laundry machines get a lunch break: back in the day (speculation was in the post-war era but people were vague on this point) women who didn’t work outside the house began to cook for their families around 10:30am or 11am. As a result, in order to ensure that circuit breakers didn’t trip due to the surge in electricity usage, laundry machines were set to automatically shut off for an hour. This is consistent with the fact that our laundry machine was off around 11am. But lunch isn’t until 12pm. But if you want to cook lunch for 12pm you need to start earlier! Case closed?

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