On the table: For these visitors, writing isn’t the only challenge

Mark -- photo by Rachel Jessen
Mark Angeles shows off his kitchen. — photo by Rachel Jessen

While nobody is keeling over dead at the Iowa House Hotel’s continental breakfast or fainting of malnourishment in workshop, the 34 fall writers in the International Writing Program are winding down their season at the university with a residency-adjusted diet. Iowa City prides itself on having a little of everything in the food scene, but sometimes having a little of everything just can’t measure up to having a little slice of home.

“In the Philippines I normally eat fried eggs, garlic rice—fried rice—for breakfast,” Mark Angeles tells me in the lobby of the Iowa House Hotel. “So that’s what I’m trying to look for here.”

Angeles, a talented multi-genre writer from the Philippines, opens his laptop and loads the Wiki page for “tapa,” dried beef that is spiced and fried or grilled, then commonly served in the Filipino breakfast dish Tapsilog.

“Sinangag is the Filipino term for fried rice, and fried egg is itlog,” Angeles says. The words combine to become the term used for a very popular breakfast plate—so popular that it’s usually less than a dollar for the full meal at small tapsilog restaurants, he says. The wikipedia page shows a photo of the three components dished together: the rice balled and sprinkled with onion; the beef in thin, moist chunks. It’s definitely not a bowl of Cheerios. And it’s a far cry from a photo Angeles posted on his personal blog of his attempt to recreate the dish he missed so much from home—using only his hotel-issued microwave.

“I wasn’t sure how I could survive with just the microwave. I tried to look for some things you can do in it,” Angeles says.

The majority of the IWP residents spend their few months here living in the Iowa House Hotel, located on the west side of the Iowa Memorial Union, where they are granted several hotel amenities: nice rooms, a minifridge, a microwave, a common space, even a daily continental breakfast. But there is no kitchen beyond the bedroom set-up. There is no stove, no oven, no rice cooker. There are the writers and there are the microwaves.

The university gives writers a monthly stipend for grocery shopping—an endeavor which must take some careful planning and a lot of aisle exploration. University vans cart them to Hy-Vee—a stark contrast to the wet market in Manila where Angeles buys fish, vegetables and meat for his week’s meals.

For the writers, this isn’t an impossible lifestyle; but it is an added challenge to being abroad and concentrated on work.

“I bought the beef from the Korean restaurant in the mall, Seoul Grill,” Angeles says. “The nice thing is the big plates are enough for two people. I usually eat a small portion of the beef and the rice, then take the beef home.”

Angeles took the beef home and attempted to poach an egg in his microwave to create something like his favorite breakfast meal—it doesn’t have quite the same effect. And unless the writers want to eat out or eat raw, they have to get creative with the microwave.

“Here I bought big mushrooms—shiitake, maybe—and I poured the grease from sausage over them,” says Angeles. “I just invented something.”

According to Fall Residency Coordinator Joe Tiefenthaler, the two main reasons why the Iowa House, despite it’s limited household amenities, continues to be the frontrunner for writers in the IWP are the program’s inability to provide enough furnished apartments to meet the number of writers, and also the program’s incongruence with the 12-month lease calendar of Iowa City landlords. Tiefenthaler explained that for the purpose of the program, which is, of course, writing in a literary setting with incredibly talented peers, the Iowa House is a great fit.

“…It allows the group to live side-by-side, making the exchange we hope for readily available when they want it,” he wrote in an email. The convenience of it is unmistakable.

And yet, there is something about making food for friends and breaking bread together that feels so valuable and gets lost in this hotel shuffle.

Mark -- photo by Rachel Jessen
Key components of Erez Volk’s Iowa City diet — photo by Rachel Jessen

“Everyone was planning to make food,” says Erez Volk, a translator, linguist and educated pastry chef from Israel. “We’ve basically been wandering the streets of Iowa City looking for a kitchen.”

Volk is exaggerating a little and says he definitely isn’t suffering. As a vegetarian on the trip, he has had the added task of finding satisfying meals on group outings and locating really fresh foods.

“It’s changed my diet a little bit. At home, I eat a lot of fresh vegetables and food and it’s kind of hard to get them here. Even though I have this microwave, I eat traditional Israeli salads—tomatoes, onions, olive oil and lemon juice. I can make that here,” Volk says, “I feel like I’m eating a lot of bread for some reason.”

When the writers have parties, they share creative dishes like Volk’s berries with crème and chocolate, and later his experimental chocolate-based microwave crème. His interest in pastries and baking stems from hours of reading cookbooks that his parents stored in his childhood bedroom. He later took an intensive culinary course in Paris where he learned that baking requires precision and a perfect repetition of the recipe.

Volk says that he mostly misses his pure chocolate breakfast brownies, and even more than those—bold flavors.

“I am really, you might say, addicted to spicy food, and I haven’t been able to get ahold of really spicy food in Iowa City,” Volk says.

But, during a residency trip to New Orleans, Volk came back with a stockpile of Dave’s Hot Sauce—known for its fiery flavors—to dress up his meals.

On his residency trip to San Francisco, Angeles discovered his favorite food on the trip: the cronut. Part croissant, part donut and not yet a trend in Iowa City, he told me it resembled a Krispy Kreme.

When there is so much creative talent and opportunity in one place for three months, it is definitely hard to complain about the circumstances. Before long, the writers will make their ways back to their respective countries with the literary experience in tow, but hopefully also a few exchanged recipes and fond Iowa City dining memories.

Until they find themselves in the warm embrace of home and normalcy, they have their microwaves and mini-fridges to stock. And Volk tells me what any good sport would. “We make do.”

Elle Wignall is on a quest to create the perfect whole wheat chocolate chip pancake.