Categories
Poem

You seem like the type of person to like breakfast

Few words have hit me the same way as these

Brunch shift, a coworker put me at ease:

“You seem like you’d enjoy breakfast,” he said

Was it just me… were my eyes growing wet?

The meal of all meals, the best of the three

And here he thought this one represents me?

Hand on my heart, I move to speak,

“It’s breakfast cuisine that makes me go weak…”

Oh breakfast, sweet breakfast, start to each day

My heart is yours; here it is, if I may

Options abound, there’s an entree for all

Elderly folks and infants who crawl

Oatmeal with honey, cinnamon, and cream

Scones scathing hot that come bursting with steam

Pancakes, waffles, toast of French roots

Drizzles of syrup give all these a boost

On-the-go breakfasts are small and contained

Still, muffins and pastries? None have complained! 

Donuts deserve a saga of their own… 

And bagels––sweet breads trigger satisfied moans 

Eggs are magnificent, pleasing to crowds

Circles of sunshine on tiny white clouds

All by themselves they deserve celebration

Though multiple forms lead to menu frustration

Scrambled or boiled? Fried, poached, or steamed?

Indecisive eaters might as well scream

If solo they ride, eggs act well alone

Yet Benedicts also place eggs in their zone

Eggs garnish a toast (or serve as a dip)

With a carton on hand, you’re well-equipped

Fancy, late brunches are now all the rage

I swear society’s just in a stage

Breakfast and lunch, a nice pair, for a bit

But former will triumph; lunch will submit

The truth is that breakfast’s a cut above

Its long list of foods fits guests like a glove

While eating early, you dream up big plans

The whole day laid out before you, it spans

Then an idea strikes, eyes all a glimmer

“Of this I’m sure—I’ll make breakfast for dinner!”

Cover Photo courtesy of CotterCrunch

Categories
Essays

Tattoos & Taboos

The white screen of the TV washes my grandmother’s front half in a cool, technological glow. The lights in the living room are all off, the curtains pulled shut. I went simple for this presentation—black typing over the default Google Slides theme.

Marie Clapp is the most risqué relative I have, and she also happens to be my favorite. She has a few powerful principles, as all strong people do. One of them is to never, ever, get a tattoo. My younger sister stick-and-poked her way through this rule eight months into her first year away from home. Then again, two months later. And again (permanently) in another six. Lindsey has the impossible combination of a youngest sibling’s flippant confidence plus the aged wisdom of the oldest. 

The screen. My clicker. Our gurgling stomachs, and the scent of dinner wrapping the room. “Grandma…” I begin, “I have some exciting news. I don’t know whether you’ll find it exciting, but it’s important to me that you at least know.”

Artwork is my first line of logic. Er, string of logic—line of attack. My attempt at an appeal to logos. I am a student. I’m fortunate enough to be immersed in the world of higher education. I am cultivating an appreciation for the arts as I’ve never before. Tattooing a piece of art onto my body is a tribute to the great realm. One wonders whether it’s not a pathetic tribute at that. My half-an-inch by two inch design is not particularly pronounced. 

Grandma’s smile has pinched itself into a grimace. Next slide! 

More logos. The screen darkens a bit as a collage transitions onto it. Last night, I painstakingly copy-and-pasted 37 photos of every family friend and celebrity who have tattoos. I couldn’t find photos of the tattoos themselves, so instead I just used the faces of their owners. 

“Emma Stone, Orlando Bloom, Emma Watson…” I can’t bring myself to look at her face, so instead I rattle off the names of my role models in body art.

The following slide is a clipart photo of rum and another of coke, lined up side-by-side. Grandma’s second principle is to avoid drinking. In typical “do as I say, not as I do” fashion, she has plenty of first-hand experience(s) with alcohol. One story I’ve only grown to love more with each passing year of college. While my mom and uncle were young, she went dancing with some friends and confronted the unruly power of the Mixed Drink. Diet Coke shrouded the flavor of the rum until it was too late. She spent the entirety of the next day in bed, and Grandpa had to tell my uncle that she was under the weather. 

I turn back to face her. “Everybody makes mistakes,” I say, and despite my nerves a grin unexpectedly crawls onto my face. We banter like this. She can handle it. 

The next slide is a photo of the two of us on Halloween. She’s dressed as Little Bo Peep and I’m a tiny witch. The point is this—she knows me. So well. I think it’s working, a bit. The gears are turning. Time for a wrap-up hit of pathos

“Johnny Depp once said,” I read off a piece of printer paper, now wrinkled from the sweat of my hands, “‘My body is my journal, and my tattoos are my story.’” 

The final slide is a checklist. It reads “My tattoo is…” in bold Playfair Display font. Underneath are four boxes, all checked off. A symbol I will never tire of seeing. A subject that has transformed my life, forever. An image I find beautiful. Located somewhere discreet (that word is for her benefit specifically). 

All that’s left to do is one thing. I lift up my shirt. On the top right of my ribcage, to the side of my chest, sits a teeny, shaded croissant.

Cover photo courtesy of ful-filled

Categories
Essays

On Trying to be Cheesy

Trader Joe’s knows what they’re doing when they place the cheese aisle on the far-left of the store. Innocent shoppers cross the room like they would the page of a novel, wheeling their carts to the side. Instantly they are stared down by wheels and wedges of spoiled milk. Of course, this level of spoilage isn’t spoiled in the conventional sense, it’s actually highly desirable. Try to avoid the cheeses, turn and distract yourself with neighboring shelves of bread in every form, and they just bore holes into your back accusingly. The chunks, in their varying states, indignantly ask: what were you planning on eating that with? 

My fifth grade teacher used to quip, “Fake it til you make it!” This was puzzling to a troupe of eleven-year olds; it was as if she commended lies. Then again, the way I approach cheese could be interpreted as fake. When it comes to my relationship with the acclaimed dairy product, I often absorb the reactions of others and reflect them. In a way I’m acting. The more often I act, though, the less work it is to take on the role.

Aunt Jen and Uncle Ralph are only a few years younger than my parents, but they act like they grew up in a different era. Well-travelled and liberal on every level, they latch onto trends even before my sister and I discover them. It makes sense that they’ve been preparing charcuterie boards since I was a child.

Their first apartment, a corner property on a Philadelphia block bordering the Eastern State Penitentiary, was decked out in modern touches. They always had the same soap––Aveda Rosemary Mint––and it glistened white when you pumped it into your palm. Their sink faucets were beaming silver, their tabletop sleek, black granite. And each time we came to visit, a wooden board or ceramic plate would be centered sophisticatedly on said counter. Atop it would sit a pot of jam or honey, a cheese or three (probably from Reading Terminal Market) and at least two types of crackers. And meat! Sometimes pre-sliced, greasy pink circles that smelled pungent and left residue on whatever stylish serving tray they’d selected. Sometimes straight from the fridge with the wrapper rolled up around its sides. Aunt Jen devoured slice after slice, so I knew the circles must taste better than they looked and smelled. I trusted her. 

At home, we have cheese in one shape: rectangular prisms. As a child, vacuum-packed blocks of cheddar and Muenster were all I knew. I never paid much attention to cheese (maybe this unfortunate visual was the reason why). Every time I half-heartedly went to top a Keebler cracker with a slice, for little reason other than this was what I saw everyone else doing, I would hesitate with the butter knife poised in the air. “Which one is this again? Is it strong?” I’d ask. Sharp is the word I was searching for.

Carmen is the biggest cheese-lover I know. She can describe a wide variety of types and flavors, using their beautiful, exotic names which stretch vowels in ways I’m not used to. I comb my memories for any vague semblance of what Camembert might look like while she gushes about its flavor profiles. 

The most common time to find Carmen with a block of cheese is after dinner. Anything you eat after a full meal must be something you really love––at this point in the evening, I’m usually thinking about what form of chocolate sounds best. Not her. Carmen will crouch down to scan the lower level of our fridge door, which we have mutually agreed upon as our cornucopia of cheeses. She peels the plastic back from smoked gouda or white cheddar and cuts chunks or slivers off, depending on the type of day she’s having. I try not to stare while she chews absent-mindedly and spins around the kitchen, delaying her responsibilities for the evening. 

I once attended a charcuterie photo shoot. I helped select cheese, and then stood by and helped with whatever menial tasks I could. Most of my assistance came in the form of moral support (also in the form of behind-the-scenes polaroids).

We started with old reliable Joe and his trading stand in Brookline. Everyone was grabbing fruit and nuts and spreads, and the cart was steadily filling up, but I hesitated over every suggestion that popped into my head. I stayed mostly silent, and nodded along when anyone named a cheese product that they loved. I remember picking up Havarti, the fanciest cheese I had any experience with at the time, and searching for words to describe its rich depth. 

“This one is really good… it’s kinda sweet?” That was the best I could come up with. 

I neglected to mention that I’d made a dessert variation of a grilled cheese sandwich with it, swapping pound cake for bread and incorporating raspberries, mascarpone, and chocolate. There was a chance that the Havarti wasn’t even sweet, and I was recalling the chocolate and cake. It didn’t matter, because my partners-in-charcuterie were distracted anyway. I was poised to defend my selection, but they were dimensions away, visions of luscious pre-dinner spreads dancing in their heads.

In America, the only cheeses which we label as sharp are cheddar. Sharpness, when applied to flavor, is defined as “pungent or biting in taste.” What mysterious process could turn milk sour, but leave it safe for consumption? The answer is time.

Coagulation is a scientific process at the heart of cheese production; its products are liquid whey and solid curds. Curds are pressed into shapes which are then aged for a set period. The more time that the bacteria and coagulant have to form compounds within the curds, the more intense a cheese’s taste becomes. The unpredictability of this flavor range may explain my ambivalence toward cheese––I can never be sure exactly what I’m in for.

High School Musical’s final installment offers several bonus scenes, and one of them incorporates a line that has been etched into my mind ever since I watched it at eight years old. Troy offers Gabriella a strawberry, but she turns it away. He’s unfazed, and holds it up to her anyway.

“This might very well be the best strawberry in the whole world,” He says, staring at her with eyes that rival the innocence of a newborn chocolate lab. The face that captured the hearts of a generation. Troy’s next words come to me in the most random of instances, far more often than I’d care to admit: “But you wouldn’t know it, because you’re not gonna eat it.”

Charcuterie actually has nothing to do with cheese. The word itself is of French origin, and can be interpreted in two ways. One, as the definition of a store dedicated to the retail of these meats. Two, as the combination of two words, the first (chair) meaning flesh and the second (cuit) meaning cooked. Generation-Z has now commandeered the term, for better or for worse, and transformed it into a trend. In America today, charcuterie is misconstrued for any assortment of foods that fit together aesthetically, gastronomically, or otherwise. All one needs is a board/plate/flat surface and slanted stacks of food. I’ve seen arrangements of chicken nuggets and sauce containers mislabelled as “charcuterie.” 

Aunt Jen and Uncle Ralph have two girls, both younger than me and both with more developed palettes than I. They’ve eaten escargot in Paris. Mira, seven years my junior, loved avocado even before I knew what it was, much less how it tasted. Little Lexi once threw up because she ate too much salami off of a charcuterie platter. Both girls, like their mother, are cheese fiends. 

The French do most things better than Americans, and sharing cheese is one of them. A proper meal has a whole course devoted to cheese, falling just before dessert. The goal here is to maintain camaraderie around the table, to keep the joyful momentum going before reaching the finality of rich sweets. Also, wine is a motivator. Wine-and-cheese pairing is a faultless combination.

That being said, one can assume that if your hosts are pulling out a platter of cheese after dinner, this is a sign that they want to prolong their time with you. The minutiae of the cheese course offers even further opportunities to express affection for those you’re with. The mere act of slicing cheese is a perfect example: ideally, you should cut each sliver in the shape of the cheese’s given form, so that each person is left with the same ratio of cheese to rind. 

The first time I sat nestled on the couch with Mira and reached for a sliver of Manchego instead of spreading fig jam on a cracker, I was momentarily shocked. Then again, I’ve always heard that we are an average of the five people we spend the most time with. It just so happens that all of those people, for me, happen to be cheese lovers.

Categories
Essays

Chopping Up a Memory

Several nights ago, I found myself at the kitchen table doing dinner prep alone. Instances like these are rare. I’m used to cooking with at least one other person, and singing while we do it. All day long, I’d had the (now-vintage) Taylor Swift song “Last Kiss” stuck in my head. When I entered the kitchen and popped in earphones, I queued it up. Then I got out the cutting board.

As the gap between its 2010 release date and the present day widens, “Last Kiss” has grown into itself in my head. Ten-year-old me hadn’t kissed anyone, nor had I lay in bed saying “I love you” at 1:58 am. Not to expose myself here, but I still haven’t done all of those things. And yet, I now know (at least a little better) from where Taylor was coming. Her words settle onto my ears differently, and tug at memories that didn’t exist a decade ago. 

So. Dinner. I don’t remember what I was making, but I started by chopping a yellow onion, because that’s usually what I do with my roommates and I’m nothing if not a creature of habit. Instead of standing high above the plastic chopping board, though, and looking up intentionally to spare my eyes from the acidic spray, I kept my face angled down. I focused my eyes on the knife’s edge, and when the tears came, I leaned into them. 

Our kitchen was made for late-spring early-afternoon light. We keep the windows constantly cracked, and they let in just enough breeze to toy with the gauzy white curtains filling them. These are the curtains from my childhood princess-themed bedroom, but on afternoons like these, nothing feels farther from that reality. When sinking sunlight is filtered through them, the effect is almost cinematic. Is it a Wednesday night in Brighton, Massachusetts, or am I alone in the center of an obscure city?

The tears, beginning to pile up in wet clumps under my jawbone, feel real. The moment is my own, and the apartment feels that way too. Taylor’s words are not hers, but mine. I whisper-sing, I’ll watch your life in pictures like I used to watch you sleep. I brush the water from my face, and simulate a moment of utter heartbreak. 

The music slows to a crawl, and I’ve stopped chopping altogether. I let myself stare into the tapestry hanging adjacent to our window, relaxing my eyes while my brain moves a mile a minute stirring up a story. A mirage of feelings, moments, unrequited exchanges blur into one another. 

Ding! The default text notification prickles out of my earbuds, cuts off Taylor during the last refrain. All that I know is I don’t know/ How to be… My roommate messaged me in a panic, the door was locked and she forgot her key. “Are u home??” She typed hastily. I blink. I suppose I am, though for three minutes I fully left the kitchen on Sutherland Road. 

Categories
Essays

A Lost Recipe

My great-grandmother’s blueberry coffee cake is supposedly fantastic. This is according to my dad, whose words fell on overly traditional ears when he asked to make it for the family. My parents tend to use a core rotation of beloved recipes, unwilling to reinvent the wheel every time they pull out the mixer. 

We were able to stall Dad’s pleas for a good year, distracting him with tried-and-true crumb cakes and muffins. Then one day, there it was, in all its glory. A tiny recipe card scavenged out of the many cookbooks and recipe boxes he had taken on his trek across the US, from Oregon to New Jersey. My dad uncovered the tiny type-printed set of instructions and placed it triumphantly on the kitchen counter, where he was determined not to let it go ignored. My mom took it from him and skimmed the ingredient list, her nose wrinkling with just a hint of indignation. 

“It calls for Jiffy mix?” She asked. My dad brushed it off.

“Mmm-hmm.”

My sister and I jumped directly onto my mother’s bandwagon. Spoiled with the luxury of frequent homebaking, the superiority of scratch over store-bought had been impressed upon us from a young age. 

“A box?” our childish voices chimed in, with absolutely no regard for Dad’s feelings. We had seemingly forgotten the value pack of Ghirardelli boxed brownie mix, which rested as a staple on our pantry floor. None of us had an issue with tossing oil and an egg into a bowl of factory-packed chocolate powder. Family recipes were held to a higher standard, though. How could he gush over one that relied on such an obvious crutch? we wondered.

Image courtesy of I Am Baker

As a college student, box mixes are a lifeline that save many a sleepy meal. Sacrificing the label of “homemade” in order to fill a skillet with circles of pancake batter in less than five minutes is a triumph. There is a time and place for laborious recipes, and it certainly isn’t everyday. Like most life lessons, this was one that I had to learn with age. Ten-year-old me was much less gracious.

My mom was skeptical, but she made the coffee cake with him. I wandered through the kitchen from time to time, eyeing the dried blueberries that tumbled from the mysterious Jiffy box. I even tried one, a bluish candy-sweet ball of gel-like consistency. 

As the assembly came together, I learned that the cake had a thin layer of crumb topping, a pet peeve of mine. I typically like this layer to resemble small stones instead of sand. My favorite moment comes when slicing a square and launching an avalanche of crumbs, as the knife carelessly robs the next piece of its garnish. I like to greedily pile the extra clumps onto my own plate.

Perhaps my dad’s coffee cake had lost before we even tried it. Lifting forkfuls of the finished product to our mouths, my mom, little sister, and I weren’t willing to be awed. Chewing slowly, I could taste pieces of the blueberries that had melted into the batter unnaturally. It would have benefitted from a few boulders of butter and cinnamon topping. 

Suddenly guilty, I swapped sides. 

“It’s not bad,” I conceded, eyeing my dad. He was still excited, but a little sheepish.

“It’s not quite as good as I remembered,” He mused.

Image courtesy of Half Baked Harvest

Cover Photo Courtesy of Freut Cake

Categories
Essays

Grazie a Dio per la Glassa Balsamica!

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.

“Balsamic glaze?”

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

Categories
Essays

Coffee & I

I can always hear the beginnings of coffee before I can smell them. My Dad’s feet brush against the wooden floors as he sleepily shuffles to the kitchen, not quite lifting them to take full steps. He fusses around his corner of the kitchen, the spot where he drops his briefcase on the floor, and his coffeemaker rests on the table space above. Unfolding one of his many foil bags, he pours out a stream of beans, and they rattle into a plastic container. A few seconds later, the coffee grinder revs to life. The gruelling sounds of the motor––eeeeerr––travel into the living room, over the upstairs banister, and into my oasis of sleep. Sometimes I can roll over and fall asleep, but usually the sounds of coffee beckon me toward consciousness even before the drink has touched my lips. I’m officially awake.

When I was young, and my parents had still successfully written off coffee as an “adult drink”––“Caffeine is a drug,” my dad would say in between sips––the sound was temporal. It came every morning, along with my mom moving the curtains across the rod to let in sunlight and murmurs of early conversation before the whole house was up. 

As I grew, so did my interest in coffee. The whir of the grinder, funnelling the fragrant beans into a coarse powder, became less abstract. I heard it as an invitation.

Like so many middle schoolers in my generation, I dabbled at first. My earliest coffee experiences were in the form of frappuccinos; cream and sugar with just a hint of espresso. It took me a while to realize that the ever-trendy (for its time) Cotton Candy Frappuccino was not, in fact, coffee-based at all.

My initial attraction to the drink was most definitely social. During my junior and senior years of high school, I watched my friends set thermoses of coffee on our designated lunch table, where we waited each morning for the first bell to ring.  Then, I started to do the same. My favorite mom-and-pop spot in my hometown became Factory Fuel, a pottery kiln-turned-café whose coffee is far too strong for me but who I continue to support anyway. My sister and I take coffee runs with the same reverence and regularity that others attend church. Sometimes, I don’t even order. It’s as if I’m able to absorb and reflect the love that she has for coffee, just by watching her enjoy it.

Image courtesy of Factory Fuel Co.

Whenever I’m at home, I relish the cranking gears and occasional java scent that wafts its way up to my room. Unlike when I’m on my own or at school, my dad’s coffee doesn’t ask anything of me. No hike to the nearest Starbucks or dining hall, no bills to be forked over. I need only head down our carpeted staircase before my dad calls out cheerily, “There’s coffee!”

For all his resistance in years past, he loves that my sister and I are invested in his favorite drink. A caffeine dependence seems a small price to pay for the unfailing presence of the steaming beverage every morning and the chance to share it. 

When I smell coffee, my first thoughts might be scattered. Filtering through my to-do list for the day, eyeing the shade of brown inside my mug to determine whether or not more cream is needed, mulling over breakfast options. But, beneath those surface-level concerns rests the presence of one person: Dad

Categories
Essays

In Defense of DIY Pumpkin Spice

String the two words “pumpkin” and “spice” together, and you’re left with one delicious thought: fall. The flavor appears beyond pumpkin pies, breads, and even the infamous Pumpkin Spice Latte, as seasoning infuses just about every food and drink that can’t be nailed down.

Two years ago, my mom and one of our closest family friends got into a battle of commercially autumn-ized foods. From mid-August to the end of October, each time they came across a new pumpkin spice item, they bought two; one to try, and one to give the other person. It wasn’t difficult to do. That year I realized the enormous scope of pumpkin spice. The ambiguous flavor had seeped its way into every corner of the food market. 

Both in and out of grocery aisles, pumpkin spice represents the commodification of an entire season. One night, between laughs, my Dad reported to the family that an auto repair shop he passed daily had a new sign, boasting, “We now offer pumpkin spice motor oil!” If you can’t beat them, join them, right? 

I labelled pumpkin spice “ambiguous” only because nearly every time it appears in a processed seasonal food, it seems to have a different presence. Some versions place greater emphasis on the squash-like essence of pumpkin itself, and others play up the cinnamon with a whisper of pumpkin afterward. Given the context, a world in which a person can find pumpkin spice in everything from Cheerios to KitKats to Silk almond milk, the seasoning starts to resemble a marketing ploy more than a genuine flavor. Pumpkin isn’t exactly honored in Quaker brand’s Pumpkin Spice oatmeal, a product that could only be bothered to list “spices” as an ingredient with no mention of actual pumpkin whatsoever. Images of the orange gourd, however, are carefully printed across the packaging. This makes sense, seeing as companies are probably more focused on selling the idea of fall over nailing the accuracy of the spice blend.

Photo courtesy of The Crumby Kitchen

Every year I buy pumpkin spice coffee creamer, and every year I’m disappointed. Maybe this says more about me than it does about International Delight. On the other hand, I would argue that something is missing from the creamer. The “natural and artificial flavors” are fine, but they don’t hold a candle to the experience of sprinkling pure pumpkin spice directly into a mug.

When I came across a plastic McCormick container in our spice drawer, labelled “Pumpkin Pie Spice,” my eyes nearly popped out of my head. I was under the tragic, misinformed impression that “pumpkin spice” refers to a concoction of flavors which each brand designs for itself. “So it’s real?” I wondered to myself. I thought pumpkin spice was the invention of advertising campaigns, an ever-changing mix of spices which companies deemed autumnal enough to sell as such.

Pumpkin spice has developed a bit of a bad rep. Sucked into a whirlpool of commercialism (the same way every processed food comes in peppermint after November), it can be hard to separate pumpkin spice from consumer culture. This is at no fault of the flavor itself, which is a sweet, nostalgia-evoking way to add dimension to fall dishes. The only elementary quality of pumpkin spice is the fact that so many companies have attempted to streamline it, and some have cut corners in the process. 

Even back in 2017, Forbes wrote, “With the over-saturation of players now trying to take advantage of our insatiable, sweet appetite, there are also speculations that we may be at ‘peak spice.’ The numbers are starting to justify that claim, too. Analytics company, 1010data saw that from August to December of last year … there were 50% more [pumpkin spice] products offered by companies, but sales climbed a meager 21%.” 

Is pumpkin spice exhaustion a thing? I wouldn’t know. I literally go weak at the knees at the first pumpkin-flavored product I see in stores––and then I buy it. I love fall, and I’m a sucker for strategic marketing. What I’m realizing is that I’ve lost sight of what actually constitutes pumpkin spice. What is most unfortunate about the boom in this seasoning is what has been lost as a result. 

So what’s a consumer to do if they want to embrace the flavor authentically? My unsolicited advice would be to separate the parade of products resembling pumpkin spice with a staple you can hold onto year-round. Either invest in McCormick Pumpkin Pie Spice, a jar of Simply Organic’s Pumpkin Spice, or whip up your own––all you need is four to five ingredients. After cross-referencing recipes, I found that cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg are all essential. You can choose whether to add cloves, allspice, or both, but definitely pick at least one. 

This way, you can choose which companies to rely on when it comes to getting the flavor right. And if anyone falls short? You need only head to your drawer to find your own stash of guaranteed fall infusion––no gimmicks, no false advertising, just a cozy and fine-tuned blend of spices.

Categories
Essays

A Currency of Love

For a long time, whenever I heard the phrase “breaking bread,” I thought about a religious ceremony. I envisioned the flavorless, unleavened discs I grew up receiving at Catholic masses after they were lifted, blessed, distributed. It wasn’t until recently that I realized the phrase can (and often does) refer to any instance of communal eating. You don’t typically hear about a person breaking bread alone, although eating alone is common and perfectly acceptable. Breaking bread happens with others, a testament to the atmosphere of camaraderie established by sharing a meal. 

The last full day that I spent with my grandmother was centered almost entirely around the breaking of bread. I had planned a very last-minute trip from North to South Jersey, and when I called to be sure she was free for the day, she excitedly confirmed and said she would take me to lunch. That made me squirm a little. 

I love eating out as much as the next person, but I didn’t want her to feel as though she needed to feed me just to merit my visit. The purpose of my trip was to relieve a bit of her loneliness, if only for the day. I didn’t mind what we did as long as we were doing it together––we could’ve sat and talked in her living room for all I cared. In true grandparent fashion, though, she loved anything to do with entertaining her grandkids. I knew there was no point in suggesting we stay at her home.

The next day, one sleepy car ride and a huge coffee later, I pulled up to the sidewalk in front of her little white house. I lugged two huge cooler bags out of the backseat, and she opened her door just as I got to the front step. “You came all this way for me!” she said, a little teary eyed. 

Before lunch, we had some unpacking to do. Two slices of homemade chocolate cake from my mom were carefully placed in a container, as was a portion of our dinner from the night before. String beans from our garden, lollipops we thought she might like, half a loaf of banana bread. There were also frozen homemade meals for her to store, packed in small Tupperware with labels and dates scrawled on post-its. We wedged the additions into her fridge and freezer, emptying the bags.

The lunch spot of choice, pre-selected by my grandmother, was a small Italian restaurant called Carollo’s. They undoubtedly offered menus on-site, but she had me look up the digital version before leaving so we had extra time to pore over the options. New York arguably boasts some of the best pizza outside of Italy itself, and New Jersey shares this virtue. South Jersey streets are studded with pizzerias, and each takes itself very seriously. 

When we pulled up to the restaurant, she explained the pandemic-era procedure for Carollo’s take-out. We went inside, placed our orders, paid, and then waited for the food to be done (all while wearing masks). She had her pick memorized, and I only needed to skim the menu once more to make my final selection. I picked a table on their patio while she waited inside and eventually emerged with a tower of white Styrofoam and a huge grin.

We opened the boxes one by one and arranged them across the table. I was starving. She had a small container of hot French dip for her steaming sandwich, and there were several seasoned rolls to share. My mouth watered when I unboxed my summer salad, sprinkled generously with fruit, goat cheese, and chicken lightly charred on a grill. 

Carollo’s has a token dessert that greets guests as soon as they walk in. At the top of the glass counter, next to the register, a metal tray always sits piled high with what look to be slightly enlarged Munchkins. Zeppoles are small balls of fried dough rolled in sugar, and my grandmother never leaves without a few. We had a box of those as well.

Photo courtesy of cookscountry.com

The two of us chatted from our spot in the shade, laughing about family drama and wallowing in our self-pity over the uncertainty of the next few months. I told her about my plans for the fall, about our most recent beach trip, and about the ways I had been keeping busy. She was wise and witty in her responses, as usual. When we were both done eating, she asked if we could stay for ten more minutes. 

A few hours later, after we had taken the long way back to her house and finished catching up, I was getting ready to head back home. Just as I was about to leave, my grandma pulled out the same ice packs I had carried that morning, and then she began retrieving item after item out of her fridge. We reversed the entire unpacking procedure, as this time she prepared to send me off with her own gifts. Mozzarella cheese she knew our family would use. A box of donuts she told me she would never finish alone. A bottle of pomegranate juice “for the health benefits.” On a whim, she came across a tin of her Christmas cookies in the freezer and tossed them into the cooler as well. “Christmas in July!” she’d laughed. My grandmother’s holiday cookie trays are legendary. I had no idea that she kept an emergency store year-round. She also sent me with all of the zeppoles.

“Grandma!” I exclaimed with mock frustration, “save some for yourself!” She gave me a mischievous smile and waved her hand.

“No, I just had some the other week. You take them,” She insisted.

By the time I got it all into the car, the backseat was just as full as when I had left. I thanked her for the day and told her I would be back soon. We waved vigorously in favor of hugging each other (following pandemic protocols), and I was off.

Very unexpectedly, just five days after I saw her, we received a call explaining that my grandmother had passed away. Who knew that our day together in late July was the last time I would have the privilege to break bread with her? After years of holiday dinners, preschool lunches (she was my first babysitter), and summer breakfasts, the last hours I spent with her were at yet another table together. It was ninety degrees outside, social distancing measures were still in place, and neither of us could be sure how the next few months would look. In that moment, together, none of it mattered. We loved each other, we were happy, and we were content to wonder at the joy that a good meal brings in even the craziest of times. Our conversation wouldn’t have been the same if it wasn’t over food.  

There is something incredibly satisfying about nourishing someone you love. To sit shoulder to shoulder or face to face while you eat together, sharing bites and pausing to chew and swallow. Nourishment can also happen from a distance. Shipping cookies in a care package to someone far away, grocery shopping for a significant other … or exchanging miscellaneous foodstuffs through your granddaughter. Separated by a few hours of highway, my mother and grandmother spoke everyday on the phone, but that was something entirely different from opening food that was prepared ahead of time for each other. Food is a currency of love.

Thank goodness my grandmother requested lunch together. I have to get through every meal for the rest of my life without her. What I initially saw as an unnecessary expense for my grandmother is now engrained forever in my memory as one of our most impactful days together. She was one of my favorite people in the world, and we showed affection for one another in many ways, but food allowed us an unparalleled platform for love.

Categories
Essays

Grocery Cart Coping

I think I have a problem. It’s an obsession, really…with grocery shopping.

Perhaps this realization should have come to me freshman year. During those first few weeks, nearly all of my phone calls home included recaps of my latest food shopping ventures. In fact, one of my first trips off-campus was an Uber to Whole Foods with Anna, a girl who lived just two doors down. My parents would try not to sigh too loudly into the phone before reminding me of my meal plan. “Well, yeah,” I’d mumble. “But BC Dining doesn’t offer cranberry orange seltzer.” 

At my home in New Jersey, the local Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods each sit a solid 30 minutes from my house. My mom usually can’t be bothered to make an hour-long commute for groceries, so she leans on those within a two-mile radius: ShopRite, BJ’s, and Costco (the latter of which opened just over a year ago to the complete and utter joy of our entire town). The core of the matter was that I’d never experienced an alluring supermarket before. Whole Foods was polished and airy inside, mostly white with wooden accents. The scope of brands they offered was so wide, so new to me, that I couldn’t help but feel lured in. Trader Joe’s was like Whole Foods’ more affordable, eccentric little sibling. Cookies in every shape and flavor, a rotating cast of seasonal and holiday-themed products, and mini succulents by the entrance. Say less!  

With time, I learned to breeze through my hauls so as not to concern the parents on every call. There was no need to further agitate them with tales of my semi-regular supermarket trips. Food is a necessity. Grocery shopping is practical. In my eyes, filling paper bags with fun, exciting items I’d never seen before––say, pomegranate Pop-Tarts––was merely exercising my new liberties as a freshly minted college student. 

That isn’t to say that mistakes weren’t made. Some of my least favorite, most regrettable finds from those months include pumpkin butter (never even opened) and watermelon beet juice. I distinctly remember sitting in the Fitzpatrick lounge, cracking open the seal on my seven-dollar bottle of antioxidants, ready to be wowed. Instead, I choked on the first sip and made myself take two more, not least because of the price tag. Later, I returned to my room in defeat and announced failure to my roommate, Tori. “Seven dollars!” I cried in dismay, as I cast it into the trashcan at the foot of my bed. Ah, freshman year.

As time went on, my enthusiasm for groceries began to carry over into long weekends and breaks spent at home. Packing for the return to Chestnut Hill involved more than just clothing. I’d arrange and rearrange my bags to include random food items my mom and I found while running errands together. Once, I crammed a box of spiced Kodiak pancake mix into my duffel bag. To my credit, I had aspirations to somehow use the powdered mix to concoct a mug (pan)cake of sorts. I swear, I do spend some time studying.

Fast forward to sophomore year, and some things changed; I had seven roommates as opposed to one and a kitchenette instead of a microfridge (read: we had extra cabinets). My passion for groceries remained a constant, even evolving a bit more. My designated shelf in the “kitchen” was always chock-full and apparently (as friends liked to point out) with items atypical of most college students. I am consistently generous when it comes to sharing food––the problem is that my offers often go unaccepted. My suitemate mocked me when I attempted in vain to have her sample my favorite nut butter (a blend of cashews and almonds with a touch of honey and blended Chia seeds). I once ripped open a bag of cauliflower straws and offered them to the room before seeking out a bowl. “Straws of what?” was the general response. 

Then came March, move-out, and quarantine. Dorm and kitchenette disassembled, I found myself back in Jersey. I stayed at home for weeks, wallowing in what so many have cited as social symptoms of the pandemic: frustration, loneliness, shock. My mom was the self-elected volunteer who first braved the grocery stores. She came back exhausted and anxious with tales of aggressive shoppers and barren aisles. Eventually, something sparked inside me. Food was just as essential as it had been a month ago. My mom was still leaving the house to buy food for us all. Why not come along? I could help shoulder her burden––I should help shoulder her burden––Clorox wipes, masks, and all. 

Friday is our new grocery day. My mom and I reserve the start of the weekend for gathering provisions. I could be in the worst of moods, but if she announces even a quick run for milk and flowers, I shake myself out of a stupor and shuffle on flip-flops. If I’m honest, when I tag along, it’s never just milk. We take the time to peruse produce. A lap through the bakery section is always a necessity. Rarely do we trek to Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, the seductive spots that I peruse in Boston, but for now, what we have in town is just fine. 

The world is a scary place. It’s always been that way, but 2020 has been a stern reminder of this fact of the universe. These days, sources of relaxation, happiness, and control feel few-and-far-between. Grocery stores have given me all three. Unanswerable questions about the future get left at the door, and inside, everything has its place. For an entire hour, I’m overwhelmed by the most trivial of concerns––which new recipe to prepare for, which coffee creamer to try next––and it feels amazing. 

Some aspect of my pandemic-induced anxiety right now is similar to the way I felt in the fall of 2018, stepping into the world alone for the very first time. I had no way of knowing what was to come, good or bad. Everything on the horizon was new, but there was little to do except face it head-on. Stocking my dorm room with store-ground peanut butter and Everything-But-The-Bagel Seasoning felt like a little act of self care, defiance in the face of the unknown. 

I also felt defiant last Friday, when I lugged a basil plant into my mom’s shopping cart and then spent a solid five minutes mulling over the available Ben & Jerry’s selection. I may not be able to freely navigate all of my favorite hometown spots, and I may not know where I’ll be living in the fall, but at least I can make homemade pesto on a whim and enjoy the comforts of Netflix-themed ice cream. Food remains essential, and consequently, so does grocery shopping. In summary––and to quote TikTok, another symptom of four months in quarantine––I think this is an obsession that doesn’t hurt anyone.


Disclaimer: This article was written prior to recent events suggesting that Whole Foods is unsupportive of the Black Lives Matter movement. Gusto firmly condemns those actions, and asserts that Black Lives Matter- yesterday, today, and always.