We stood in a ring around our stove, looking down at the frying pan as it sizzled with olive oil and released a salty aroma into the air. Salt and salt variations are the principle spices we rely on. It was 6:40 on a Thursday, and we were about to consume the same meal we’d been preparing almost every night for a month: vegetables, meat, rice.
“What could we add?” Katie, always the leader, looked from the kitchen cabinet to the burners and back again.
There were nods of agreement. All we carried to the table were our steaming bowls, forks, and the bottle of Nonna Pia’s. Poor Nonna. Every single one of our meals seemed to rest on her shoulders.
I had thrown the glaze, an exciting Costco find, into a box of kitchen supplies at the last minute. A few days before leaving home, my mom offered it to me and while at first I said no, I thought better of it. “That could actually be fun to have,” I’d said, somewhat absentmindedly. College and all of its many complications never seem real until you’re there. Cut to two weeks later: my roommates and I were sitting down to our first home cooked meal, and something seemed to be missing. It was then that I remembered the somewhat flexible quality of balsamic glaze, and I held it up in suggestion.
Since that night, the bottle has been more than adjustable; it has performed back-flips in many a last-ditch effort to jazz up meals. A part of its appeal, for me, is for the visual effect. Whenever I text my parents food pictures, an artful squiggle of deep black glaze garnishes the top. I like to think it looks like I might’ve made a red wine reduction or a homemade teriyaki sauce. Of course no one really believes that, but I get a rush of maturity from adding such an adult-sounding final touch to my plates. Balsamic glaze. It isn’t elementary like ranch or ketchup, but it isn’t aggressive like oil-and-vinegar. Over the last two months, balsamic glaze has served as a makeshift salad dressing, sandwich condiment, and replacement for soy sauce. Nonna Pia would probably grimace in disgrace, and authentically Italian grandmothers would be even more appalled.
You have to stop drizzling balsamic on top of everything you eat, I always tell myself as I flip open the cap on our beloved sauce. But by then, it’s always too late. Katie can recite Nonna Pia’s life story after many an afternoon spent reading the label while she eats. With each passing week of the semester, the bottle has grown more sticky (read: more loved) as time goes on. Black dribbles leave stains of residue on the side.
At the end of October, my mom drove up to Boston. I was heaving a bag of winter sweaters out from the car when she reached over to pull a fuzzy beige one from the top of the stack. Underneath rested four unopened bottles of glaze, still in their plastic shipping bags.
“Oh my God,” I said, laughing. “We haven’t even finished the first one.” Did she think we’d been drinking it? I thanked her genuinely, but assured her we had more than enough. I love my roommates, I really do. But the taunting I would have received if I lined the back of our cabinet with tiny Nonnas waving out at us? It was unimaginable.
Some people associate college with a specific brand of liquor, or a take-out restaurant chain. I’m both embarrassed and amused to admit that I will forever associate my junior year with the essence of balsamic glaze. Just like our first apartment, it’s a sweet security blanket of a step into adulthood. Plus, it looks kinda pretty.
Cover photo courtesy of I Heart Naptime