“Ahhhhh I just shattered the Rao’s!” I yelled out, staring in shock at the sea of red tomato sauce pooling on the floor.
“Don’t move!” my roommate said as she ran over. “I’m a pro at cleaning broken glass.”
I grabbed some paper towels to soak up the sauce as she carefully gathered the pieces.
“Oh, there’s still some left in the cracked jar!” I exclaimed. “We definitely have to save that.”
She looked at me like I was crazy as I scooped every bit of precious sauce clinging to the sides of the glass. She didn’t share my obsession with Rao’s, clearly.
Rao’s Homemade Marinara Sauce is the single best pasta sauce that exists on this Earth. It’s made with hand-picked plum tomatoes from Southern Italy. They are simmered in pure olive oil then flavored with garlic and onions. Basil, oregano, and pinches of salt and pepper compose the final touch, resulting in a mixture so delicious that you won’t even mind the $8 price tag.
Despite my tight college-student grocery budget, I still fit in this perfect pasta sauce week after week. I think the story of why this pasta sauce feels so close to my heart begins in a warm kitchen in a blue Victorian home about 30 miles north of my BC kitchen.
Ever since I can remember, pasta with cold tomato sauce—yes, cold—has been my very favorite comfort food. The rest of my family prefers to heat sauce up prior to serving.
“But the pasta is already warm! The sauce doesn’t need to be warm too,” I would complain, staring up at my mother as she stirred the sauce on the stove.
“You can put your Ragu back in the fridge,” she’d say, giving in. “I’ll just heat the Prego.”
Throughout my childhood, we had two different pasta sauces stocked up at all times. I insisted on only eating Ragu, but my mom was a strong supporter of Prego. She thought Ragu was too sweet, too kid-friendly. I thought Prego tasted too healthy, too adult. So, we purchased two sauces on each and every Shaw’s trip; polarized sauce preferences became essential personality components.
One day, I remember seeing the word “cheese” printed on the Ragu ingredients list and almost dropping the jar in surprise. Another essential part of my personality: I hate cheese. In fact, you could almost say I’m afraid of it. I was disgusted to learn that I had unknowingly been eating it and never consumed a drop of Ragu again.
Somewhere along the way, a friend introduced me to Rao’s.
“It’s healthier,” she said, “better for you if you’re going to eat pasta as much as you do.”
I was hooked from my very first bite. Enthusiastic about my new discovery, I announced to my mom that I would be switching my sauce brand.
We are the sort of family that takes pasta seriously and never dips under 20 or so boxes in the pantry. After my sauce conversion, my mom swapped all the Ragu for Rao’s on the shelves. Since I was a picky child, she was happy to buy food that I expressed interest in.
Many years beyond my Ragu days, my mom still swears by Prego. But for me, Rao’s has become an essential part of our pasta-cooking tradition. Instead of looking up at my mom now while she’s stirring her sauce, I stand side-by-side with her to prepare the pasta. She warms her Prego, and I pour out my beloved, chilled Rao’s.
Rao’s was born from an Italian family restaurant and eventually became a packaged sauce. I like that—a sauce that has a story. Certainly, it’s a central part of my story, or I wouldn’t have been so heartbroken to see it spilled on the floor. I’m still in the process of converting both my roommates and my family, but I know they’ll get there someday. Life’s too short to eat mediocre pasta sauce.
“Look, Alicia, I got another one!” my roommate called out to me. I looked up from my computer screen to see her unpacking a plethora of Wegmans’ bags. They consumed almost every square inch of our tiny dorm kitchen. She was holding a bottled brown sauce, and I immediately let out a laugh.
“Another peanut sauce?!” I cried, “We have, like four now, Steph!”
“I know, I know,” she said, also laughing, “but this one is different because it is specifically for cold dishes.”
“Ah, so it won’t be a contender for pad thai, then?”
“Probably not,” she said, “but it wouldn’t hurt to try!”
Since roughly the beginning of quarantining last March, I have made it a personal mission to find the perfect peanut sauce recipe—and my roommate has made it her mission to find the perfect bottled peanut sauce, apparently. Both my roommates at school and my family at home have been frequent taste testers of many a pad thai attempt, as I try out combination after combination of sauce ingredients.
They all call for roughly the same selection. Soy sauce is a must, of course, or tamari works as a gluten free substitute. Fish sauce is crucial for that authentic Thai taste, and rice vinegar to enhance the tangy flavor. Next, a sprinkle of lime juice for tartness and citrus flavor, and sriracha to add spice. To balance out all the salt and savory, I add sweetness in the form of brown sugar (maple syrup or honey are also options here). Now, recipes veer off from one another when it comes to peanut butter. Some say it is not necessary, while others call for it to give the sauce a creamy consistency. Personally, I always add it, as I love as much peanut flavor as possible.
While the ingredient profile and flavor palette is generally the same across sauce recipes, the measurements and ratios differ drastically. Often, when following one recipe or another I end up with sauces that taste too spicy, too sweet, or just off for some reason that I cannot put my finger on.
“This is so citrusy,” Stephanie said after trying out one of my latest attempts.
“Really? There’s not even that much lime juice, though,” I responded, confused.
We both got up from the table to look through the ingredients, all still littering the counter with their half-closed lids. Clearly remembering that I had only put in a cap full of lime juice, I was stumped as to the source of the overpowering citrus flavor.
“Wait, look,” she said, “the garlic has citric acid in it.” As a precursor to stir frying the chicken, red peppers, and bean sprouts, I always lightly toast garlic in the pan with sesame oil.
“Oh, that must have been it,” I said, feeling satisfied that we had located the issue, but frustrated that it was a factor I hadn’t considered in the cooking process.
“Well, back to the drawing board, I guess!”
Sometimes, at lunchtime on lazy afternoons or dinners on busy nights, I make a peanut-based stir fry with roughly the same ingredients as pad thai, but I never grant it that name. These are usually the times I resort to the bottled sauces in the fridge, and skip out on chopping up scallions, peanuts, and lime wedges for garnish. I like to call these easy meals “lazy pad thai,” mostly because they don’t require the painstaking process of creating the sauce.
For me, the heart of the pad thai cooking process lies in achieving the perfect peanut sauce. Beyond this, it is a relatively simple recipe with a short cook time. While it is something I have made very often, I always hesitated to call it my “speciality” until I was satisfied with the sauce.
One Tuesday evening, my roommate asked if I could make a batch of pad thai for dinner. I quickly ran through the ingredient list in my mind to make sure I had everything. Chicken? Check. Rice noodles? Check. Eggs? Check. Peppers? Check. Bean sprouts? Check. Scallions? Check. Peanuts? Check. Now, for the sauce. I had never made it for this particular roommate before, so I really wanted to make sure it came out well.
“Can I help with anything?” she asked.
“If you want to start the chicken,” I suggested, “I’m going to concentrate on the sauce for a minute.”
This time, it was Stephanie’s turn to call out to us from her laptop in the living room, “Why don’t you guys just use one of the bottled ones?”
“No, no, no,” I protested, “I got it this time. I promise.”
Staring at the ingredients placed neatly around a small bowl and measuring spoons, I scrolled through the familiar recipe options on Google. I tried, but I kept getting confused about which ones I had tried and not liked, tried and liked, or hadn’t tried at all—they were all mixed up in my mind.
You know what, I thought, why don’t I just try an equal amount of everything?
Smiling at how simple it was, I measured out two tablespoons of each of my seven ingredients—except sriracha, of which I did half this amount. Whisking everything up until the brown sugar dissolved and the peanut butter separated, I resolved to just go with this intuition, and not try to change anything. I always find that when I start adding more or less of various components, I lose track of the desired flavor profile and overanalyze the taste.
After mixing everything up together in the large wok I had brought from home, I plated the steaming noodles and garnished them with scallions and peanuts.
“Looks good!” my roommates declared.
“I know, now let’s see how it tastes,” I replied nervously.
I watched in anticipation as Stephanie brought a sticky, light-brown noodle to her mouth with a chopstick. While chewing, I watched the corners of her mouth rise into a soft smile.
“It’s perfect!” she declared. “Much better than the bottle.”
On a rainy Thursday evening, with the wind whipping outside, Justin and I began the daunting process of cooking a Thanksgiving meal in a dorm room kitchen. While I boiled potatoes to soften them for mashing, he roasted the squash he had delivered from Instacart that morning. “See! I told you it always takes so much longer to soften them than it says in recipes!” I joked, referencing the 45-minute mark on the potatoes compared to the recipe’s false proclamation of perfect consistency around 10-15 minutes. “Thank god we didn’t wait to cook this until Saturday morning like we had planned,” he laughed. As two of the three seniors in our 4Boston group, we shouldered the responsibility of cooking two key components of the meal: mashed potatoes and butternut squash casserole. The third senior roasted the turkey, so he definitely deserves an honorable mention. We had a Friendsgiving scheduled for that Saturday night, one last hurrah before much of our small group headed home for the remainder of the semester.
Since we’re close outside of 4Boston, Justin and I worked together to discuss what we would make and split the prices of wine and cider for everyone. As two of the seniors, it makes sense that we would share responsibilities of planning and providing, but here’s the catch: this is my first year in 4Boston. Taking a nontraditional path of joining the largest and most prevalent volunteer organization on campus in my final year at BC was an unusual choice. Justin recommended I join his group back in August, as I was looking to find a new community at BC coming into this semester. Now in November, we jointly prepared for the group’s Friendsgiving together in my kitchen. While he peeled apples and I mashed my finally softened potatoes, I asked him about his decision to include me, and a little about his experience in 4Boston as a whole.
“I had concerns about it,” he admitted, “definitely was excited to have you but obviously there are concerns when you bring in someone close to you to a group outside of your immediate circle.” He quickly added, though, “but I love how it has worked out.” By this point, he was forcefully jamming the potato masher into the tough, white pieces (I guess they weren’t as ready as I thought). I snuck some apple slices from his dish while he helped me, and asked him about what he thought would look different about Friendsgiving this year, compared to his past experiences with this annual event that is a definite favorite of his.
“This year I was really focused on Friendsgiving being a communal gathering where everyone shared and brought food,” he said, “because we have missed certain opportunities to come together as a group this year because of online volunteering.” In light of the pandemic, 4Boston has looked a little different this year, but Justin knew it was important to safely share a meal together before saying our goodbyes until the spring.
After a socially distanced gameday Saturday, Justin and I headed off-campus with our final products in hand. I held my tupperware of garlic truffle mashed potatoes and a bottle of apple cider, while he carried his butternut squash casserole topped with apples and a crumble topping made of pecans, brown sugar, and butter. Other group members brought a turkey, stuffing, cornbread, cookies, and various other sweets and sides. While we ate together in a living room decorated with earthy, fall colors, we went through our highs and lows like we always do. Rather than the formal atmosphere of our weekly second-floor Gasson reflections, the cozy setting of a festive living room allowed for natural conversation and authentic connections. The evening was full of home-cooked meals, classic rock, a little Christmas music, and endless giggling games of Never-Have-I-Ever and cards. I left feeling happy and whole, and Justin declared on the bus ride home that it was his favorite Friendsgiving yet.
As a senior who has had far too much time to self-reflect this year, I’ve realized a Boston College student is composed of their enmeshed memberships to various networks and circles. We all have our roommates, our classmates, our clubmates, our abroad friends, our retreat groups, and the list goes on and on all the way down to the people we recognize from that Tuesday night spin class we occasionally attend. With COVID-19 concerns, many of us are experiencing burnout from our immediate friend groups this year, finding it hard to reach out to our more peripheral associations. At least, I am. While sitting in an intimate living room holding a plate full of food with people I’ve only known for a couple months, however, I got that warm feeling of community that is so precious in today’s socially-distant world. In a non-traditional senior semester, I found in my 4Boston group the spirit of togetherness that is, fundamentally, the soul of BC. To freshmen, I’d say—as someone who’s been in the group the same amount of time that they have—it’s never too late to add a new niche.
October is a wonderful time of the year to take a trip home to the north shore of Massachusetts. The changing colors of the leaves decorate the sides of the highway, framing the windshield on the picturesque drive. The air is just brisk enough to cozy up to family in the evenings, but not so cold that you feel trapped inside. In fact, most years during fall break I am outside as much as possible—apple picking, hiking, decorating for Halloween, and attending an annual fair. I drink pumpkin lattes with friends in the mornings and roast pumpkin seeds with family in the evenings. I walk the dogs with my brother and wince through horror movies with my dad and, no matter what else the weekend entails, I always, always make apple crisp with my mom.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve looked forward to my mom’s apple crisp each and every fall. I can recall many an autumn evening cooking together in our cozy kitchen, helping her peel apples as she worked on the more complicated parts of the dish. When I was little, she used to call it “Brown Betty,” like her mother called it and her mother’s mother, too. As far as anyone remembers, this delicious fall tradition originated with my great grandma Doris, my grandpa’s mother. My grandparents used to enjoy the dessert when they visited her, and soon my grandma began baking it herself. My mom says she made it on her own for the first time a few years out of college and distinctly remembers calling her mother for clarifications on the recipe. From that fall on, she made it every year. My immediate family has shifted the title to “apple crisp,” but the recipe itself has remained unaltered through the generations.
This year, I made this fall family recipe on my own for the very first time. Taking a trip to the grocery store with my roommates, I tried to remember all the ingredients we needed. Standing in the fruit aisle, I could hear my mom’s voice in my head reminding me McIntosh apples are the best. McIntoshes have soft red and green skin and juicy white interiors. The flavor is a little tart when raw, but they sweeten perfectly when cooked. Golden Delicious or Gala would probably work too, but I know she would say they aren’t the same. A decent-sized portion of apple crisp requires around seven to nine apples—which takes a ton of peeling. The apples need to be as close to completely bare as possible, as little bits of leftover skin will interfere with the rich smoothness of the dish. As I picked out the biggest, juiciest apples, I realized I sadly couldn’t delegate this monotonous task to my younger brother this year.
After peeling, we always cut the apples into thin slices—small enough for a bite but not so small that they will dissolve in the oven. I did this cutting part both at home and at school, as I don’t trust others to achieve that perfect thickness. Once there are enough to fill a few layers in the pan, my mom always coats them in lemon juice and a dusting of cinnamon. The lemon juice balances the sweetness of the McIntosh slices, she says, adding a tart kick to the flavor. On the side, we prepare a mixture of brown sugar, flour, and butter crumbles, sprinkling it evenly over the apples. This entire dish goes in the oven for about an hour, which is when we begin making the best part: the hard sauce!
What my mom and grandma have always called “hard sauce” is basically a variation of icing, but with an important consistency difference—it’s thicker and therefore, “harder.” The ingredients are the same as the homemade icing we make on birthdays: butter, powdered sugar, a capful of vanilla extract, and skim milk. However, for apple crisp we always use more sugar and much less milk. Inevitably at home, I always accidentally pour too much. “Really,” I instructed my roommate like my mom always reminds me, “only a tiny drop.” The sweet, creamy mixture will still be smooth at first, but after cooling in the refrigerator, it develops a thick, solid consistency. The pairing of the cool hard sauce with the warm apple mixture creates a perfect blend of temperature, flavor, and sweetness. Each spoonful melts in your mouth, the gooey apples mix with the crunch of the coating and the smooth, sweetness of the sauce.
This October, I will not be making the trek north through the red and yellow covered highways. I’ve decided not to go home until Thanksgiving due to the pandemic, so I don’t risk infecting my family. My BC friends all made the same choice, so I recreated the fun fall vibes I have at home every year here with them instead. We got a pumpkin to carve in the daytime, toasted the seeds in the oven, and seasoned them with salt and pepper. At night, we watched horror movies in anticipation of Halloween—I even asked my dad for recommendations. We didn’t make it to apple picking, but I made sure to get a bundle of McIntosh at the store.
But of course, the most memorable part of the weekend was making apple crisp. Just like my mom a couple years out of college, and my grandma after eating it at her mother-in-law’s, I now have my own story of continuing the fall family tradition. Although I definitely had to call my mom a time or two to double-check the specifics, I assumed her role with my roommates, teaching them what she taught me. It was a change to bake it in a dorm room oven as opposed to the warm, coziness of my kitchen at home, but at least I had some new people to delegate the apple peeling to!
After class on a rainy Wednesday afternoon, I woke up from my cozy couch nap in my on-campus apartment to a sweet scent coming from the kitchen. Peeking out above my fuzzy blanket, my tired eyes were surprised to see my roommate Stephanie cooking with her younger brother Thomas. It’s a running joke in our room that Stephanie never cooks, so it took my groggy mind a minute to process what I was seeing and smelling.
“Steph?” I asked, “What are you making?” She turned around towards the common room, where I laid sprawled on the couch, and began laughing at the sight of my surprised expression.
“A traditional Chinese meal,” she replied. “Thomas came over for dinner, so I wanted to cook him something special.” I looked over at Thomas, a newly-arrived BC freshman, and got up to give him a welcoming hug. At the stage of meal-preparation I had woken up into, Stephanie was stirring tofu in a pot while Thomas chopped up onions.
Stephanie explained that they had just started, and asked if I wanted to eat with them when the food was ready. I was planning on eating my leftover takeout Chinese food in the fridge for dinner, and had been excitedly anticipating my beloved pork fried rice.
“If you like takeout Chinese, you should try this! It’s a traditional Chinese dish called Mapo Tofu.” Since she is notorious for never cooking, and I am equally as notorious for never trying new foods, I hesitantly expressed my worries that the flavor pairings would be too spicy for my picky palate.
However, on this particular Wednesday, something drew me in. Maybe it was because I was disoriented from my midday slumber, or maybe the swirling smells drifting through the small apartment compelled me to take a closer look, but regardless my interest was piqued. I stepped up next to Stephanie and asked her to walk me through the cooking process, hoping seeing each ingredient go into the dish would increase my willingness to try it.
“Well first, you cut the tofu into small cubes,” she said. “You begin to boil it in water, while dicing up onion, ginger, and garlic on the side.”
While monitoring and stirring the tofu, Stephanie began to fry sichuan peppercorns in olive oil in a separate pan. She explained it’s best to get pepper oil, but this works as a substitute in a pinch. While the pepper seeped into the oil, she began preparing minced pork in a bowl, marinating it with soy sauce, salt, and red pepper flakes. She told me you can use ground beef or pork for the dish, but that she had chosen pork this time.
Next, she added the onion, ginger, and garlic to the sichuan pepper oil. I was mesmerized by the resulting smells—a heavenly medley of sweet and sour, the nutty aroma of the ginger mixing together with the sharp spice of the pepper. After a minute or two of sauteéing, Stephanie added in one big scoop of bean paste, which comes in a small jar mixed with chili oil.
“This is the most essential ingredient,” she said, “it solidifies the spicy flavor.” Since the paste is thick, it’s important to add about half a bowl of water into the pan at the same time. She then cooked this on low fire uncovered for a couple of minutes, until it started to slightly boil. Next, she added the raw, seasoned pork at the same time as the tofu from the pot. Now everything was in one big pan, the different flavors combining in a diverse mixture. Together, they cooked for about five to ten minutes, which Stephanie stirred occasionally until the pork was fully cooked.
As she poured the steaming contents into a large ceramic bowl, her brother, Thomas, threw some white rice packets into the microwave. I was instructed to grab three small rice bowls, and three sets of chopsticks.
The rice packets were scooped into each of our small bowls, and we sat down together for the meal. I had never tried tofu before, so I was a little hesitant, but it smelled too good not to give it a try. I cautiously rose a bite of pork to my mouth first. As Stephanie instructed me, I combined it with the white rice, to neutralize the spice. While I slowly chewed, she and her brother looked at me expectantly for a reaction.
“Wow!” I exclaimed, “This is actually amazing!” We all laughed, surprised and pleased that Stephanie’s first attempt at cooking one of her family favorite meals turned out so well. For the next hour or so, the three of us sat around the table, eating and talking about Chinese dining culture.
“So usually when we have dinner as a family,” Stephanie explained, “there would be four or five dishes in the middle that we all share.” They told me their family, like many other homes of Chinese families, has a lazy-susan-style table to facilitate this communal eating tradition. Each person typically has their own bowl of rice and chopsticks, while the main dishes are all shared.
Another common style of eating in their home is hot pot. In this set-up, there is either a boiling pot in the middle of the table, or each person gets their own small one. There are a diverse variety of broths in the pots, which can be homemade or purchased pre-packed from a grocery store. The eating process then involves cooking your own raw meat and vegetables, and adding whichever sauce you would like—these are usually peanut or sesame-based. For hot pot, Stephanie recommended Q Restaurants in Boston.
Given my love of takeout Chinese food, I was interested to hear their opinions on takeout, or otherwise Americanized Chinese restaurants. In Stephanie’s opinion, the dishes at many of these places are sweeter and less spicy than typical Chinese cuisine. There is also less diversity, as they’re most often based on Cantonese food (from Hong Kong/southern China) or Sichuan.
In China, each province eats differently and has dishes that they are particularly known for. In Shanghai, Xiaolong Bao is the most famous regional dish—soup dumplings filled with chicken, pork, crab meat, or many other opinions. The food in each district has its own prevalent taste, she explained, and Shanghai tends towards the sweeter side. Another example is the Shanxi province, where Stephanie and Thomas’ dad is from, which is famous for a large variety of shapes and sizes of noodles. Noodles are my favorite, so I told Stephanie she should try cooking a dish featuring these next.
While we were cleaning up from dinner, I asked Stephanie about all the new sauces that had appeared on our counter since her most recent grocery trip. She told me she went to a store called Hmart, an Asian supermarket in Cambridge. She said she loves stores like Hmart, and a similar one called Super 88 Market, because they carry a larger range of Asian products. In other grocery stores, it is harder to find the variety of sauces needed for traditional Chinese cooking, as well as certain ingredients like tofu skin, fish balls, and salted duck eggs.
When it was time for Thomas to go back to his dorm on Newton, I thanked them both for teaching me how to cook Mapo Tofu, and talking to me about their cultural traditions with meals, opinions on Chinese cuisine, and recommendations for restaurants and grocery stores. Foregoing my typical pickiness, I exclaimed “Let’s go out for hot pot some time soon!” Stephanie excitedly agreed, and we decided I would accompany them on their next trip to Hmart as well.
On that rainy Wednesday, both Stephanie and I tried something new for the first time. She cooked a meal all on her own, and I discovered I liked the combination of the spice in the bean paste, the salt in the soy sauce, and the sweetness of the ginger—the rich blend of flavors present in Mapo Tofu. As we go forward into our senior year at BC, I can’t wait to try more of Stephanie’s cooking. Through both grocery shopping and cooking meals together, I am excited to bring cultural aspects and cooking traditions from each of our own homes to our new home together at Boston College.
I barge into my brother’s room and declare,“Time to watch!” He swivels around in his desk chair where he’s hunched over the PlayStation controller, fully absorbed in his Call of Duty game. “Okay, okay,” he laughs, switching the screen to Amazon Prime Video, where the long-anticipated newest episode of The 100 finally appears on the screen.
I excitedly clear some room on the little red couch in his bedroom, relocating the mess of laundry, deodorant sticks, and empty seltzer cans, sinking blissfully into my spot on the right side. Soon, our two dogs nudge their noses in, and they joyfully join us in the small space between my brother and me.
This is our quarantine routine. My brother, Brett, plays PlayStation until it’s late enough to switch to the nighttime activity: watching our show together. Our most recent show is The 100; after maxing out its Netflix reruns, we proceed to the current weekly additions to the seventh and final season. We sit with the dogs and watch.
However, there’s one more crucial component to the nightly ritual. Every single time we watch, Brett presses pause within the first couple minutes, turns to me, and says, “Want to make popcorn?” Regardless of the time of night, regardless of how hungry I am, I always say yes.
Keeping the show on pause, we bounce up from the couch and race to the kitchen, where we assume our designated roles in the popcorn process. I pick the red Whirley Pop up from its resting spot on top of the fridge, and Brett grabs the butter from its resting space in the door. I turn the stove burner on and pour some vegetable oil into the red metal pot with the wooden handle, while my brother slices the butter stick into thin, small segments. The next step is adding the kernels, which collide with the metal bottom of the pot with a familiar clang.
As they tumble out of the plastic container, I pay close attention to ensure I put in just the right amount. I’ve found you want a similar measurement to an ice cream scoop—although measuring would probably result in more accuracy, I always prefer to eyeball it. Once the kernels almost cover the surface of the pot in a thin layer, it’s time to close the lid and start stirring. The first couple minutes of heat are crucial—if you don’t churn the handle in that initial time frame, you’re probably going to be disappointed with some burnt pieces of popcorn later on.
The attention required for cooking in this stage is why my brother and I always say making popcorn is a two person job. While the oil starts to sizzle, and I continuously stir the kernels around with the handle, Brett finishes up slicing the butter. Once the oil is hot enough and the initial kernels begin to pop, he throws the butter into the microwave. We have this down to a science. Popcorn takes approximately three minutes and somewhere around 40 seconds is the sweet spot for melting, so it’s best to start the butter about two minutes into the popping process. This way, both pieces of the savory snack finish simultaneously.
When using the Whirley Pop, it’s best to continue swirling the handle until there’s too much resistance to stir, since this means the pot is so full of popcorn that there is no more space. When this happens, I quickly grab two large plastic bowls from the cabinet opposite the stove, preparing them on the counter. As I move, I listen to the sound of the slowed popping, counting as the amount of seconds between each pop! lengthens from less than a second, to a second, to a couple of seconds. Once there are about two to three full seconds between each, it’s time to remove the pot from the heat. Any longer than this, and the kernels will burn, but any shorter, and there will be too many uncooked pieces.
Holding the Whirley Pop by the wooden handle, I carefully separate the steaming popcorn into the two bowls, trying my best to evenly distribute. This is somewhat of a messy endeavour—a fact well-known by our two dogs, who religiously rush over to collect any precious pieces that may accidently escape to the floor. Once the pot is emptied of the popcorn, I place it on an unused burner to cool off.
Next is the mixing process. Brett and I both like the charred, half-popped pieces the best, so it’s important to have a fair mix of bright white fully-popped pieces and darker brown half-popped ones in each bowl. I typically try to turn one bowl over on top of the other, placing their sides together to create something like a makeshift maraca. Once they seem as sealed as two smooth plastic surfaces can get, I shake the contraption vigorously to integrate the pieces. This is another potentially messy part, probably the second favorite step of the dogs.
After there seems to be a solid mixture of different types of popcorn pieces in each of the plastic bowls, it’s my brother’s turn to take over. Using a potholder or paper towel to help with the heat, he slowly drizzles the sizzling melted butter over each bowl. Once half the butter is on, he picks up each bowl and tosses the popcorn pieces in the air, thoroughly mixing. Next, he can finish pouring the rest, while I retrieve the pink himalayan salt shaker.
Salting the popcorn is the final step of the process, and the only one that we do truly individually. I am a huge salt fan, so my taste buds prefer more of a salty coating to the popcorn than his do. I grind the salt onto my bowl while he finishes buttering his, and then he finishes off the process by slightly salting his pieces. Together, we rinse off the butter bowl in the sink, grab some paper towels, and head back into his room to resume watching our show.
While composed of many small (yet crucial) steps, the entire popcorn popping process takes us less than five minutes. Sometimes we talk during it, sometimes we sing, sometimes we fight about who’s going to rinse the dishes, but regardless of any debate that occurs, we always slip into our familiar roles to get the job done swiftly and successfully.
In a time when so much feels disrupted and different from our old lives, sticking to routine has been a blessing to help me get through monotonous days. While popping is a short routine, and not a very significant one, these small moments that I share with my brother have meant a lot to me in the recent months. I love popcorn regardless of how or where it’s made, but Whirley Pop watch parties have a special place in my heart.
In the next couple weeks, the life we’ve come to know will be upended once again. Brett will head to his apartment in Amherst, and I’ll move back into BC. Despite watching the previous seven seasons together, when new episodes of The 100 come out in the fall, we’ll have to watch them separately.
Recently, my roommate has been sending us screenshots of supplies she’s buying for our new kitchen—pots, pans, spoons, measuring cups, knives. “What else do we need?” she asks in the group chat. Although I like to eyeball the measurements and never use an ice cream scoop for the kernels anyway, I feel the need to suggest we get one for our room. I like the security of knowing it’s there in the drawer if I need it. I like its smooth red handle and familiar resting spot next to the silverware in my kitchen at home.
“Maybe an ice cream scoop?” I text back, knowing they’ll probably assume I mean for ice cream. But secretly, I know its real purpose, popcorn. “And I guess we need a butter dish?” I suggest sadly, as it sinks in that I’ll have to take over Brett’s butter melting process all on my own.
Although I don’t suggest it to the full group, of course I know that I’ll need to buy a Whirley Pop. Our dad is from the midwest—as are Whirley Pops—so my brother and I grew up making popcorn with the appliance. It’s a family tradition that has since become a sibling tradition. After five months of religiously popping popcorn on the stove, the microwave bags I’ve made in previous dorm rooms are just not going to cut it this year. As my brother and I move into our separate apartments to begin our sophomore and senior years of college, respectively, I’m left to reminisce on all the late nights we shared together during quarantine, eating popcorn and binge-watching Netflix. Maybe my roommates will learn to like the Whirley Pop as much as my family does, or maybe popping popcorn will become a solo tradition at school. Either way, I will find a way to continue my popcorn-making process at college this fall—Whirley Pop pot and all!
“What’s the first thing you think of when you hear ‘Alicia’ and ‘food?’” I casually asked my friend, Caroline, in the car. “PICKY!” she exclaimed, laughing. I rolled my eyes and looked out the window, smiling as I considered this. We and five of our other friends were en route to a quick weekend getaway in Maine filled with some much-needed swimming, canoeing, paddle boarding, relaxing—and most importantly for my friend group, cooking.
Despite the short duration of our vacation, we had packed the bed of a big black Toyota Tundra with enough groceries to last a week. Oat milk, gluten-free pasta, clarified butter, almond butter—you know, the essentials. When a nutrition major, a person with celiac, a vegetarian, two Paleo-enthusiasts, and a self-proclaimed “picky-eater” get together, the menu for group dinners has a restriction or two. Our meals are often gluten-free, dairy-free, and added-sugar free, but surprisingly, they are anything but bland.
Each morning, we ate avocado toast with Everything But the Bagel seasoning, or coconut milk yogurt with strawberries, blueberries, and granola. For lunch, we made kale salads with seasoned shrimp, fresh off the grill. Dinners took the most preparation and were always my favorite part of the day. The first night, we had a Spain-themed dinner, complete with a vegetable paella and a variety of tapas—bruschetta, serrano ham, brie, and oven-roasted brussel sprouts. All of us have spent some time in Spain at some point, and paella and tapas hold a special place in our hearts. On night two, we made a rice pasta dish with peppers, tomatoes, onions, and Rao’s tomato sauce, which more than justifies its price with the absence of added sugars.
Although I ate almost all of this, my friends still call me picky. It is definitely true that as an opinionated, particular child, I declared early on that I would not eat cheese, sandwiches, soda, eggs, and other common foods. In fact, when I was younger, it was easier to list the things I wouldn’t eat than the things I would. To this day I still don’t like any of the foods on that list, but my palette and willingness to try new foods have drastically improved. While there are a lot of factors at play in this widening of my culinary horizons, the biggest one is the strong influence of my friends.
Due to allergies, intolerances, and just general preferences, the vast majority of my hometown friends eat an objectively healthy, clean diet of whole foods. However, most of them did not always eat this way. As kids who grew up on sugary cereals for breakfast, the switch to avocado toast as adults was a big one. On one of our cloudy Maine mornings, I sat down with my friend Caroline, the nutrition major, to unpack the reasons for her personal health-food transformation.
“Food is medicine,” she told me, in reference to the time her doctor told her she could be on the path to diabetes if she kept eating the way she had been. With the switch to a healthier lifestyle (which included changes in her activity level in addition to modifying her eating habits), she noticed a reduction in joint pain and a better sense of overall well-being. This did not entail diets, which she called “unsustainable,” criticizing the role of targeted marketing and the promise of quick weight loss with too much restriction and rigidity. “It’s about finding the alternatives,” she said, “Eating as much as you want, but of the right, whole foods.”
Last summer, my friends and I decided to embark on a health-food expedition. Grocery shopping, meal-prepping, and cooking became exciting hobbies to fill the precious gaps in our otherwise overlapping schedules. Due to a mix of advice we’d heard and articles we’d read, we decided to try “food combining.” When preparing our group dinners during this time, we tried something completely new to me — steering away from pairing starches and proteins and instead placing vegetables at the center of the meal. Picky eaters tend to cling onto the things we do like, and we are often afraid to switch up our daily diets. I have always liked most meats, and my previous vision of a meal typically included meat, starch, and vegetables. I quickly learned I do not always need meat to feel full, and healthy pasta dishes with veggies are just as satisfying as pasta with chicken or meat sauce, for example.
With a (more than a few) “gentle” pushes from my friends, I tried things I’d never dream of putting in my mouth before: zucchini noodles, kale chips, chickpea pasta, kombucha, the list goes on. Most notably, the discovery of gluten-free toast with almond butter and fruit, or with avocado and tomatoes, has opened my eyes to a whole new world of breakfast foods and snacks. Following the summer, the specific guidelines of the “food combining” cleanse didn’t necessarily stick, but my new-found zest for finding healthy alternatives revolutionized the way I think about food, and transformed my eating habits in a sustainable way.
Everytime I cook now, I ask myself “what is the healthiest and tastiest way I can make this dish?” For example, when I stir-fry chicken, I tend to use liquid aminos rather than soy sauce for a lower sodium option. Each time I bake, I use recipes with almond flour and coconut sugar (I swear paleo brownies are better than the regular ones!). With the help and support of my friends, I expanded my ingredient repertoire. I discovered if I cooked my own food, I could pick the ingredients I wanted to pick, enjoying the taste more and feeling better both physically and emotionally as a result. I fell in love with the healthier alternatives, loving them both for the way they made my body feel and their clean, fresh tastes.
Today, I don’t focus too much on the “rules.” If I feel like having ice cream, I don’t criticize myself for breaking the goal of eating mostly dairy-free. I am not fully “free” of any food group, but rather, I am conscious of my overall food choices and find healthier and tastier alternatives when available. While I’m sure many people would still call me “picky,” I don’t completely agree with that anymore. Sure, I’m never going to like cheese, but my palette has expanded dramatically, and in an absolutely positive direction—much of which can be attributed to the strong role models I have in my friends. As we sat around the camping table filled with colorful, well-balanced plates in Maine, I felt so much gratitude for my friends’ beneficial influence on my eating habits. I’m still picky, but at least now I’m picking the things that feel right to me!
It’s mid-March. I step off the plane into Logan Airport, and the initial breath of freezing air shocks my system, a precursor to the culture shock of readjustment that would soon follow. Just hours before, I had packed up my study-abroad life in sunny Spain, hurriedly giving the cultural “double kiss” to each member of my host family as they, too, prepared to flee the city in favor of a more remote, safe climate in the country. There was a growing sense of urgency during my final days in Madrid, a slow swell of panic culminating in closures and relocations. The warm spring air was thick with apprehension, a stark contrast to the typically calm, carefree atmosphere.
Although I could hear and see the anxiety poking through in her rushed tone and quickened pace, my host mom remained level-headed and practical on my final day. She walked with me through the city to tie up some logistical loose ends, like going to the bank to cash her final payment for my stay and dropping by the doctor’s office to reschedule her daughter’s upcoming physical. After the to-do list was efficiently completed, she told me in slow Spanish that we had one last stop to make: la panadería. Finally arriving at the little bread store, at least four or five blocks from the location of our last errand, my tired feet and anxious mind were instantly calmed by the savory scent. We were greeted by a smiling woman who happily helped my host mother decide which loaves she wanted. After the selection process, she placed the pan in an elaborate slicer, separating it into perfect pieces. The fresh, ready-to-eat slices were then tossed into brown paper bags faster than I could say, “¡Gracias!”
A few minutes later, we began the lengthy walk back to the family’s apartment, this time bogged down by the weight of six or seven pre-cut baguettes. Although I had a long journey across the Atlantic ahead of me, I remember letting out a genuine laugh in that moment. The world was turned upside-down by the coronavirus, and one of my host mom’s top priorities was to buy bread. This was made even better by the fact that we passed three or four alternate bread stores on the walk home. Although the several panaderías looked identical to me, my host mom was loyal to that particular one. The thick fog of disease had infiltrated her beloved city, but she maintained a sense of normalcy through the lens of her family’s favorite food. To her, bread was essential.
Many of my fondest memories from my time in Spain are of sharing meals with my host family. Although their spacious four-bedroom flat had a formal dining area, 99% of the time the five of us packed into a cozy, dimly lit table tucked away in the kitchen hall. Since dinnertime is much later in Spain than I was used to, most nights I arrived at the table around 9:30 PM, already showered and starving. I’m a bit of a picky eater, which I think my host family saw as a challenge for them to tackle, one meal at a time. They successfully got me to try almost everything, from anchovies on little bread crisps to jamon serrano (ham carved straight from the pig’s leg at the table, hooves and all).
Since we were all out during the day at school or work, and I traveled most weekends, it was during those weeknight dinners that I was able to bond with the family. I would listen as they caught up with each other about the day’s events and chime in when my understanding of Spanish felt sufficient enough to do so. Even in the moments where the conversation flew way over my head, I found comfort in their warm expressions and laughter. Dinnertime in my host family’s house was equally about eating and socializing, a designated opportunity each day to stop, share a meal, and spend time together.
Since my semester in Spain was my first time in Europe, there were many days when I came home to that charming flat in the Chamberí neighborhood feeling overwhelmed, anxious, and even defeated. Submergence in another culture and language is a tough adjustment, and I think all of the BC students in my Madrid program sought solace in one way or another. For me, daily dinners with my host family were a welcome source of both calm and connection. They were a reminder that I was a part of something in Madrid. Not just BC Abroad, or an exchange program at Universidad Comillas, but a Spanish family unit. Just as my host mom found normalcy in buying bread, I found comfort in the daily dinner routine.
Looking back on those late-night family dinners—and especially that final trip to the panadería—in mid-June Massachusetts from my childhood bedroom, I cannot help but smile. Although my last food-related purchase of choice would have been an iced latte and a bagel from my town coffee shop rather than loaves of bread, the cultural barrier disintegrated for me that day. I identified with her instinct to preserve some normalcy, as well as her loyalty to her favorite local food shops. I found her prioritization of particular food as “essential” to be very relatable amidst the impending controversies over which types of businesses would be allowed to remain open during the countrywide quarantine. For my host mom, her favorite panadería was top priority during the pandemic. When I am able to safely visit Madrid again, that little bread shop will be a priority for me, too.