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The Long and Winding Road to Tacos

The car moved slowly down the road. My mom pressed lightly on the brakes, carefully turning the wheel and navigating the sharp turns. We were returning from a hair-raising climb to the top of Pikes Peak in Colorado Springs, CO. It was a 19-mile drive to the top, and once at the summit, we were almost above the clouds. The air was thin and the sun nearly blinding, but the view was incredible. Mountains and lakes stretched out before us in a beautiful tapestry. 

One thing was for sure: after the descent down the mountain and the two-hour drive to Denver, we needed some food. Denver was the final destination of our four-day trip around Colorado. I had never been to the state before, and it was amazing to see all the natural wonders it had to offer. Red rocks, stunning mountains, and majestic pine forests aside, one aspect of vacation never changes: the task of finding a restaurant for dinner. 

I knew from research that Denver was growing in popularity, and so was its restaurant scene. When we got to the hotel and settled in, my first task was to find somewhere to eat. I dove into the depths of Google reviews and Apple Maps, comparing cuisines, ratings, prices, and locations, hoping to cook up the perfect recipe for a perfect last night of traveling. I spent hours scrolling through “best of Denver” articles, scanning the pages for anything that jumped out at me. Yet, I couldn’t seem to find the best fit. On a hectic night in a city, everywhere seemed to be booked.

But buried in the search results was a restaurant that I kept overlooking. It was called Tacos, Tequila, Whiskey. It wasn’t at the top of my list earlier in the evening, but as the rain and dark clouds picked up outside, and the clock ticked closer to 7 p.m., the better some good old Mexican comfort food sounded. After all, we wanted to see the downtown area, and going out to dinner was our excuse to do so. 

I’ve always loved exploring new cities through checking out the restaurant scene, and Tacos, Tequila, Whiskey proved to be a great choice. Although it was dark and gloomy outside, the atmosphere inside was vibrant. The restaurant only served single tacos, and the waitress handed us menus on which we could mark the quantity of each taco we wanted. I was delighted to see not one, but three different vegetarian options. 

My mom and I sipped margaritas and enjoyed an appetizer of coconut shrimp, and before long, the tacos arrived. I had spicy ahi tuna, vegan walnut chorizo, and the special of the day, beer-battered cod. I’d never tried walnut chorizo before, and the meaty texture of the walnuts blended perfectly with the warm spices. The spicy tuna, however, tested my tolerance for heat. The protein itself was flavorful, but the chili flakes were even more powerful. I certainly warmed up from the chilly rain. My mom enjoyed her carne asada and pork belly tacos, and we clinked our glasses in celebration of our time together exploring the mountains and the food scene of Colorado. 

With the weather worsening outside, we saw the city of Denver through its restaurants. Just as we navigated the long and winding road to Pikes Peak, climbed through the red rocks of the Garden of the Gods, and reflected by the still waters of Emerald Lake in the Rockies, the delicious tacos marked another adventure completed. After a delightful dessert of churros with chocolate and tres leches cake, we drove back to the hotel in anticipation of our next great culinary outing.

Cover photo courtesy of Gillian Mahoney

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Essays

Fourth of July Phases

There’s nothing that makes me think of the Fourth of July more than a 45 minute drive down to my aunt and uncle’s house in Hopkinton, MA, sitting on a sunlit porch surrounded by extended family, eating cheese and crackers, and telling infrequently seen relatives about school. Mix that in with two rambunctious six- and seven-year-olds frolicking around in the expansive backyard, two family dogs sniffing around for scraps, and debating whether to swim in the pool, and I’ve got myself an Independence Day cookout. 

Each room of the house brings a similar experience. The indoor porch is perhaps the most popular seating area, housing around 20 guests. Some of them crowd around the L-shaped couch, grabbing potato chips, cheese and crackers, and sipping on seltzer. Others stand and hover near the water pitcher or the cooler. Inside, various aunts and uncles prepare the dining room table, which they will soon don with side dishes, burgers, and hot dogs. On the deck, my uncle stands guard by the grill and takes a tally of who wants what. Unfortunately, I no longer take part in this note taking. No beef for this pescatarian. And finally, there’s the cousins’ haven by the pool. Here, we can sit on the lounge chairs, munch on snacks, and catch up on one another’s lives. This, the appetizer stage, in the initial hour after arrival, is the most social. Small bites lend themselves to mobility. I can snag a chip or refill my drink and float from room to room, from inside to outside, chatting with a different family member in each space. I field questions about school, my friends, and my travels.

Everyone eagerly rushes into the dining room for the dinner, or “linner,” phase, as this happens in the late afternoon. Each person files into line in an orderly fashion. We go around the table, selecting from a variety of plates. Most people go for the burgers, but my favorite meat-free option is the pasta salad. It usually consists of cheese tortellini, sweet cherry tomatoes, and a light and crisp dressing—it’s perfect for the summer. The “linner” phase is the heart of the celebration. Everyone settles into their eating spots, parking themselves on the couch, the deck, in the coolness of the air-conditioned living room, or in the warm, sunny poolside patio. I’m usually content to sit by the pool all day, so I take my plate over and chat with my cousins for a couple hours. The main meal is my favorite part of the afternoon. The house and backyard are more peaceful environments, and people are seated, relaxed, and enjoying classic cookout food. 

This is the classic family Fourth of July celebration, the one I’ve been attending since I was a kid. 

The dessert phase closes out the day. Beautifully frosted cupcakes, chocolate chip cookies, blueberry pie, and ice cream are often the first things on my mind upon disposing of my dinner plate. My littlest cousins, who can barely see over the top of the table, wear expressions of delight and wonder as they gaze at the sweet treats. I build a plate of variety, trying my best to sample one of everything. I still sit by the pool, maintaining the tranquility of the afternoon, and watch the sun sink lower in the sky. Laughter and conversation still fill the air, but not as loudly or energetically as before. The baked goods are everything I’d hoped for: a perfect, sweet note to bring the cookout to an end. Everyone knows it’s time to leave soon, but no one really wants it to end. Yet, just as an excellent meal goes through its courses, the family cookout has just finished its third and final phase. 

Cover photo courtesy of Country Living

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Essays

Bitter and Sweet

Finally, the ceasing of motion. The car rolls to a stop in the driveway, and my dad unloads the luggage from the trunk. A cloudy sky and a sprinkle of rain are there to enhance my homecoming. I slowly make my way into the house, fatigued from two plane rides and a hike around the Logan Airport central parking lot, which entailed a winding maze of concrete before we found the car tucked away in an obscure corner. 

I step on the welcome mat for the first time in five months, and I’m home. I brace myself. Will my living room feel unfamiliar, the kitchen a foreign space? Will my bedroom feel like someone else’s? Both feet are on the threshold now. The door eases open, and… it almost feels like I never left. A whole semester spent abroad in Granada, Spain, and now I’m back to reality. 

“Are you getting hungry for dinner?” my dad asks. I eye the clock, which reads 5 p.m. I laugh a little. “That’s so early to eat! It’s practically the middle of the day!” At least one hint of reverse culture shock comes through: the Spanish eating schedule. 

It was tough to adjust to the first few days in Granada. I ate breakfast at a normal time, but would need a midday snack to hold me over. The biggest meal of the day, lunch, was not until 1:30 or 2:30 in the afternoon. Another afternoon snack served as the bridge, crossing over the large gap between lunch and dinner at 9 p.m. The combination of late mealtimes and an especially late sunset in the spring months made the days stretch out, elongating the afternoon by several hours until 5 p.m indeed felt like the middle of the day. Although the most substantial meals came at later hours, I always looked forward to breakfast.

Back in the U.S., I always gravitated toward dinner. But one food item in particular persuaded me to switch sides: the tostada con tomate. Or, simply put, toast with tomato. Good quality fresh bread, with a layer of mashed tomato spread on top. Typically served with a bottle of olive oil for the consumer to drizzle on at liberty, and a generous dash of salt. The mighty little carb and veggie combo, with the occasional addition of manchego cheese, convinced me that breakfast was the most important and delicious meal of the day. It contained the foundation of Spanish cuisine: bread and olive oil. One of the first facts that our program directors proudly boasted upon our arrival was that Spain was one of the top two producers of olive oil in the world, alongside Italy. When I first tasted it, I flinched at the bitterness. As it turned out, it was this strength of flavor that I lacked in my previous olive oil usage. And so, the olive oil flowed. It was present at every meal at the residence at which I lived, bottled up in little containers at the cafés, right there for the taking. 

Photo courtesy of Spanish Sabores

It was at these cafés that I enjoyed the tostada the most. One café stands out as my favorite, called Café Cuatro Gatos. I only went once, but it was incredible. It was the last week of my study abroad, and we were done with finals. A couple of friends and I walked up the cobblestone streets and found a table in the sunshine. The Alhambra palace, or the old Moorish fortress, loomed in the distance, glowing a rusty gold in the light. 

My friend Amanda recommended the café’s specialty: the tomato and manchego tostada with orange juice and coffee. We ordered identically, and the plates arrived minutes later. I gazed at the thick slices of soft, somewhat dense wheat bread, topped with a thin layer of mashed tomato and delicate triangles of manchego. We passed around the olive oil, each dousing the tostada with the bitter substance and a healthy sprinkle of salt. The sweetness of the tomato and the richness of the cheese melded with the salt and pungent oil for the perfect bite. 

Each memory of tostada connects to a different moment. All the time spent at cafés between classes, talking and laughing with my friends, or sitting alone, absorbed in a book, each leading to a different conversation, a different state of mind, a different day gone by that I’ll never be able to replicate. There’s something unique about each day that I went to a café in Granada and ordered a tostada, but they’re all tied together by the fact that they were times spent immersed in a new culture and environment that I knew I would have to hold onto and look back on fondly. Standing in my home kitchen, staring at the clock, I smile when I think of that last tostada at Café Cuatro Gatos. The combination of flavors, the hearty talk with friends. I’ll remember all five of those months overseas with each attempt to recreate my favorite dish—although the olive oil will never taste the same.

Cover photo courtesy of freepik

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Essays

Tables and Worlds Apart

Walking on the Marginal Way in Ogunquit after two years of being away makes me feel like I never left. There are fewer of us this year, with some cousins away at work and others deciding to forego the annual trip with the extended family for a more exciting vacation. Even though the crowd is smaller, I’m happy to be back.    

The sun begins to sink down as we set off on the mile-long trek towards Perkin’s Cove. There is a dazzling view of the beach from the path, with seagulls lazily coasting in the air and some beachgoers trying to take in the last few rays of the sun. We can even see some sailboats in the distance. The walk along the Marginal Way has its perks. The stunning views of the waves crashing against the rocks. The soothing crunch of gravel underfoot. Moving my legs after a day’s hard work while lounging in the hot tub starts to build up my appetite. I already know what restaurant we’re going to—Jackie’s is the only place to take large parties at the last minute—and what I’m going to order. One of my habits in advance of going to dinner is looking at the menu ahead of time. 

We all chat as we huff and puff along the crowded and narrow path. I laugh along with my cousins as we blink the sun out of our eyes. Somehow, I always manage to leave my sunglasses back in the hotel room. 

And then, in the distance, the restaurant appears: we complete our journey and sit down, stomachs rumbling and hands eager for menus. The “kids,” or everyone under 30 by now, and the adults are at their respective tables, just like it has always been. 

I agree to split mussels with my cousin Erin, and I order the shrimp scampi as my entree. When the appetizers arrive, I can finally fulfill my stomach’s demand for food. Erin and I bring up the same topics of work and school as we pry open the shells and devour the briny mussels. Our parents at the neighboring table howl with laughter as some uncle draws out yet another “Seinfeld” joke or an aunt relates a story from work. The younger generation will never understand the “Seinfeld” references, but they manage to come up at every family gathering. And without fail, at least one person manages to order a cranberry juice with seltzer. 

There is always something interesting about the great divide between the tables. Most of my cousins are adults by now, with the two high schoolers lingering behind. The waitresses set a variety of plates down, including my shrimp scampi and a plain hamburger for my younger cousin. The twenty-somethings flex their actual adulthood with gestures for a refill of pinot grigio. Even with the age gaps at the kids’ table, some things tie us together in a way that solidifies the few feet of space between parents and children. The confusion surrounding dated television jokes is just the beginning of our bond.

As an only child, my cousins are the closest thing I have to brothers and sisters. They’re around my age, working through the same things that I am. The kids’ table is for those of us who are still figuring out our lives. The people that we grew up with but don’t really know. The people that are sometimes like my siblings, yet those who I feel like I constantly have to catch up with. Sometimes we don’t know what’s going on in each other’s lives, and sometimes the cousins are the only people I can confide in. All this because we share appetizers and pass each other bread.

As we wind down to the last few bites, I’ll share some laughs with my family. After all, it’s our last night of vacation. A celebration of hard times being over and a promise to stay with one another through the hard times ahead. We fill our stomachs with pasta and seafood and too many rolls, but I’ll always be hungry for more moments like these. I bookmark this feeling in my mind. When my only responsibility is to dine and converse and enjoy the view. And when I’m missing the blend of intense Red Sox discussions, rants about college, and the next new struggle of being a teenager, I’ll open to this page again. 

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Essays

Eating My Words

Sometimes, it gets too loud in my head. There is constant noise from my thoughts, or music, or whatever podcast I’m listening to. It’s an ongoing conversation, even if I’m not saying a word. As I sit at my desk at my summer job, my brain tells me that it’s time for a break. I need to focus on something else, something that will finally allow me to relax. Thank God for lunch breaks. That blissful time of day when it’s just me, the food, and a good book. I might just be ungracefully eating out of a Tupperware, but I guess that’s part of the adventure. 

The key to a perfect, relaxing lunch break is the combination of reading and eating. I need to take my eyes off the laptop screen after a few hours of working, and I need a meal worth eating to make the most of it. But what’s different about this method of calming down is that it immerses me in another reality: instead of tuning into my surroundings and living in the moment, I’m diving into other people’s stories. Although it’s silent, it’s like I’m listening in on their conversations. 

I’ve tried to maintain a good variety of lunches so the days don’t completely turn to monotony. On my first day, I brought the classic peanut butter and jelly, though I’ve since spiced it up with pasta, dumplings, curry, and pizza. I even made a trip to a new local Japanese market for some onigiri and sushi. 

Sometimes, I find that I can really savor my food when I’m reading instead of watching a show or movie. The carefully written words give me the headspace to connect with what I’m eating, whether it’s a sandwich that’s been quickly put together or flavorful leftover stir-fry from last night’s dinner. My brain isn’t trying to focus on whatever fast-paced action or intense drama is on the screen. At other times, however, I get so absorbed in the plot of a novel that I barely glance at what’s on my fork. I need to hone my multitasking skills to fuel my brain and stomach simultaneously.

My most recent attempt at wrestling the two wasn’t so far from reality. I read Crying in H Mart, a memoir by Michelle Zauner. The book is a reflection on Zauner’s mother’s battle with cancer, Korean food and culture, and her passion for music. Her poetic language perfectly blends her childhood experiences with food and her connection with her Korean heritage, making it a great read for someone who also loves food and writing. There’s something about reading about food while eating that makes me appreciate the food even more. I find myself getting food envy whenever I watch a cooking video or read articles about the latest dinner trends. I might not even be hungry, but whenever I read about Zauner traveling to Seoul for fresh seafood or scooping up warm rice to serve with a tofu dish, a craving for some type of snack emerges. As my eyes skim over the mouthwatering descriptions of her culinary outings, I am all the more grateful for the meal in front of me. 

It’s always an interesting task to find a good balance between the words and the food. When I need to quiet all the noise, I get up from my desk chair. I watch the Tupperware spin slowly in the microwave. I keep an eye on the steaming contents and ensure the right temperature before taking a bite. I reflect on the taste, or I don’t. It depends on whose story fills the pages.

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Essays

Cacao Currency

“This doesn’t seem like the right way,” my mom remarked as we drove down a gravelly dirt road. She squinted at her phone again, trying to read the Waze directions. “There’s no signs––how are we supposed to find this place?”

“I don’t know,” I replied. “Just keep following the route, I guess.”

It had been another action-packed day in La Fortuna, Costa Rica. We started the morning with a tour of the Bolgarín park, our guide hauling around a telescope so we could see the sloths lumbering around the trees. We even saw a couple of toucans. Then, it was on to La Fortuna Waterfall. We descended 500 steps to the murky blue water below and peered up at the stream thundering down around us.

Now, it was time for chocolate. 

After some tricky navigation, we finally reached our destination: Two Little Monkeys Chocolate Tours & Workshops. I was excited to make my own chocolate… even if it meant watching as the machines did it for me. The farm’s owner, Ishmael, greeted us warmly. Everything was set up for the outdoor workshop right on the farm. There was a big table in the front adorned with a brightly colored tablecloth. A bowl of roasted cacao beans sat on the table, and their earthy aroma floated around us. Next to that, there were a few other ingredients, a couple machines, and two pitchers.

Ishmael held up a cacao pod as a sign that he was ready to begin. This was the origin of chocolate: the freshly harvested cacao pod and the raw beans inside. After breaking open the hard casing, he offered us a sample of the sugar surrounding the beans. 

“Is there a trash can?” my mom asked as she scanned the room.

“Just throw the beans out into the farm,” said Ishmael. “That way, new cacao trees will grow wherever the beans land.”

“What about cacao nibs?” I asked after tossing the beans away. I peered at the jar of cacao nibs on the table.

“That comes after the roasting and fermenting process,” Ishmael replied, inviting my mom and me to crush the roasted beans into nibs and sample them. They came with the expected bitter taste. My mom frowned at the lack of sweetness. 

 Ishmael explained that cacao nibs weren’t only used to make chocolate. He described the Aztec tradition of making xocolatl, a warm drink made with cacao, cinnamon, allspice, and cayenne pepper. “It’s the drink of the gods,” he added as he made a paste from the cacao nibs using a mortar and pestle. We watched as he scooped the paste into the metal pitcher and mixed it with cinnamon, allspice, and hot water. He then mixed a second drink from raw sugar, milk, and cinnamon. We poured each drink into small mugs and sat on one of the benches to enjoy them. The xocolatl was spiced and bitter, while the raw sugar drink was creamy and sweet. They complemented each other perfectly. 

I took a deep breath as I sat and sipped my drinks. My mom and Ishmael discussed his factory and life on the farm, and he gave us plenty of time to sit and enjoy our surroundings. The soft breeze continued to flow through the workshop area. I felt the dense humidity around me ease up slightly. The birds chirped softly in the distance, along with the occasional howler monkey. For the first time on the trip, I felt like we could enjoy a leisurely activity. I wasn’t worried about hiking a trail as fast as possible to reach a viewpoint and take pictures. I wasn’t thinking about checking all the boxes and seeing all the sights. Instead, we got to slow down our afternoon. 

The most important part of the workshop was learning more about the tradition behind making chocolate and the hard work that goes into making a high quality product. We took our time to talk to Ishmael about the different processes of crafting the farm’s products. He then brought out a small machine to make fresh dark chocolate from cacao nibs and raw sugar. The machine made a paste from the nibs, and then Ishmael applied heat using a blowtorch to speed up the process. I was grateful to simply observe the spectacle instead of making the product by hand.

It was finally time to decorate our own chocolate. Ishmael prepared molds for us to pipe in the melted chocolate, and laid out a variety of mix-ins like shredded coconut, almonds, sprinkles, and salt. My mom couldn’t resist taking out her phone to capture some photos (she loved posting on Instagram). We carefully piped the melted chocolate into molds; mine were shaped like pineapples, and my mom’s like butterflies.

As the chocolates set, Ishmael guided us around the farm and pointed out the wide variety of trees and other plants that grew there. He plucked leaves from different trees and smiled as we took in their earthy, medicinal scents. 

Tasting the chocolates on the ride back to the hotel reminded me of the simplicity of the whole experience. It was just cacao and raw sugar topped with almonds or coconut. This time, we engaged with nature in a different way. It was like an interaction, something more reciprocal. We slowed down and had conversations, and we learned more about the space around us. And just as nature gave us the cacao for the chocolate, I remembered what Ishmael said: we could always toss the beans back and plant more trees wherever they ended up. In that way, we repaid nature in cacao currency. 

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Essays

Oatmeal Done Right

If someone were to ask me what my favorite breakfast food was, they’d probably expect me to say something like pancakes, french toast, or waffles. Don’t get me wrong, I love something that’s fluffy and light on the inside and crispy on the outside once in a while. But I need something reliable, something that doesn’t feel too much like dessert. And when I’m in a rush or feel lazy, I need something that isn’t too time-consuming. My go-to breakfast is oatmeal. Not the plain, bland, mass of mushy-water-soaked oats that some might think of, but my special recipe. I love oatmeal because it’s so customizable. The oats can take on different flavor profiles depending on the different toppings and ingredients I throw in. It’s up to me to figure out what works best. The result is a breakfast that’s not too sweet or filling. It feels healthy, but it also acts like a comfort food as it warms me up in the morning. The oats are a blank canvas, and I can add whatever I want.

During the busy mornings of my middle school years, pre-packaged Quaker oatmeal made a frequent appearance alongside the always trusty Honey Bunches of Oats. I enjoyed the Apples and Cinnamon variety the most. But I definitely didn’t have enough cooking experience back then. Most of the time, the oats came out slightly overcooked, and I always ate them without toppings. Although the sheer sweetness of the added sugars provided enough flavor to mask the questionable texture, all those years took a toll on my favorite breakfast. There were only so many mornings of pre-packaged oatmeal I could take. I abandoned it for a while in search of a more texturally sound morning meal. For a long time, English muffins with peanut butter and different varieties of breakfast sandwiches replaced the sturdy oat. 

Photo Courtesy of Pinterest.

Only the dark ages of quarantine could persuade me to change up my breakfast routine once again. Getting a break from smoothie bowls and omelettes gave me something to take my mind off of TikTok dances and whipped coffee. This time, there were no packages of oatmeal in sight. It was up to me to finally try to assemble the dish from scratch and find the right combination of toppings. I started by mixing oats and water and microwaving them until they soaked up all the liquid. Then, I topped them with chopped strawberries, almond pieces, and vanilla yogurt. It seemed like a good blend of textures and flavors. I placed the bright red strawberry pieces in one section of the bowl, spread the yogurt on the other side, and sprinkled the almonds in the middle. A scoop of peanut butter in the center was the final touch. The mix of colors and the perfectly arranged toppings combined with the natural light of the kitchen in the morning made for a great photo. But while the contents of the bowl were visually appealing, the combination of toppings didn’t taste as good as they looked. 

I soon discovered that the yogurt cooled down the temperature of the oats, making them lukewarm instead of nice and hot. The almonds added a certain dry saltiness that didn’t exactly pair well with the strawberries. And the oats, after all this time, were still overcooked. What had I done wrong? I thought that making my own recipe would improve this journey back in time— a blast from breakfasts past.  

It all came down to the oats. The foundation of the dish. If they didn’t have good flavor, the dish was ruined. The Quaker packaged oats had been too sweet, and the homemade oats too bland. I needed to find the perfect blend. I suddenly remembered a method that I had used a while ago to make overnight oats that would work for this recipe. Mashed banana and cinnamon would enhance the flavor of the oats as they cooked. First, I added milk to a bowl instead of water to make the oats creamier. Then, I whisked cinnamon into the bowl to infuse the milk with more flavor. After that, in went the oats and the mashed banana. The banana added the perfect amount of sweetness because of the sugars it released while cooking. It also added some moisture to the oats to keep them from drying out and overcooking, and enhanced the overall texture to make the oats less chewy. I topped the oatmeal with blueberries and peanut butter while it was still hot so that the peanut butter melted a little into the mixture. Since developing that recipe, I haven’t looked back.

Cover Photo Courtesy of Lexi’s Clean Kitchen.

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Essays

Backseat Musings

When I was in middle school, my Nana picked me up once a week to drive me to martial arts lessons. She always brought a snack to fuel me for all of the punching and kicking. I enjoyed the occasional banana, but there was usually a yogurt tucked into the backseat cupholder. Vanilla Greek yogurt made the most frequent appearance. I always looked forward to the special kind with the little pocket of crunchy, chocolate-covered rice puffs that I dumped into the creamy white base. It probably wasn’t the most nutritious choice, but I embraced it whenever I could. 

Sometimes, Papa tagged along. From the safety of the backseat, I watched the two squabble about everything from directions to driving techniques. 

“Watch out for that red light, Ann!” 

I know, John, I see it too!”

Image Courtesy of Eater.com.

Most of the time, he requested a stop at Starbucks so Nana could get him a small black coffee. In the winter, the windows were shut tight against the cold. Soon enough, the hot air from the heater wafted toward me and carried the strong, rich scent of espresso along with it. It sometimes made me want to drift off to sleep. Nana warned Papa not to drink the coffee in the car. I guessed she was afraid that a sudden stop would send the scalding liquid flying as he took the lid off to let it cool. But he probably snuck a sip or two in when her eyes were on the road. 

Bumpy roads and unexpected red lights didn’t always provide the best environment for snack enjoyment, but I tried my best. Peeling back the yogurt wrapper was the most difficult part. Just like Papa, I had to be sure not to spill anything on the car’s clean interior. Napkins were a definite necessity. Luckily, there were never any disasters. A plastic spoon did the trick so that I could easily dispose of the container and utensil together. 

Although I was preoccupied with the yogurt ordeal, the stop for coffee always appeared to me as a small, even inconvenient gesture. My younger, energetic self grew restless as we neared the martial arts studio. I couldn’t wait to get out of the car and get to practice. Why did we have to delay the journey any longer? A Starbucks break seemed to pale in importance to getting where I needed to go.

All I saw back then was my grandparents coming to pick me up from school. What I didn’t realize was how selflessly they were acting. A stop for coffee wasn’t just for Papa’s enjoyment, it was an extra moment of time that we could spend together. Nana’s snacks and driving weren’t services provided simply because my parents were unavailable, they were a way for us to strengthen our bond. These were a couple of the many ways that my grandparents showed my cousins and me that they loved us. And I may not have told them that during all those times when I was anxious for the car ride to be over. I may not have relayed my appreciation as I rushed toward the studio doors, with a hurried “Thanks, love you” and a brief kiss on the cheek. But I know that they always put my happiness first. Spoken or unspoken, through car rides, yogurts, and coffees, the love was there. 

Eventually, the arguments over directions and red lights were resolved. I always got to my lessons with a leisurely ten minutes to spare, in true Mahoney fashion. I could take a deep breath. There was no need to be nervous in the first place. Now, I would gladly welcome another stop for coffee and a conversation about my day just to sit in the backseat of that old Toyota one more time. When I was a carefree middle schooler and my biggest worries were punctuality and what kind of snack I would get. Because my grandparents always made sure that I would never have to be concerned about anything else.

Cover Photo Courtesy of Dreams Time.

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Essays

A Slice of Home

Oddly enough, whenever I think about pumpkin bread, I don’t think about pumpkins. The orange vegetable that people carve for Halloween does not come to mind. Instead, I picture Libby’s pumpkin puree. A delicious item with the texture of mashed potatoes that mixes with cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg, and bakes into an excuse to eat dessert for breakfast. When an image of an actual pumpkin pops into my head, with the pale seeds and stringy guts in all their glory, I marvel at its transformation. The humble squash goes from rags to riches, from a vegetable to a treat that’s more like a cake than bread. 

When I was younger, my dad used to bake pumpkin bread all the time. He would stockpile cans of Libby’s in the pantry. Whenever I unloaded the weekend’s groceries, the perfect slices of pumpkin pie jumped out at me from the orange can wrappers. When I came home on Saturday evenings, a new loaf awaited my consumption. It sat on the kitchen table shielded by tinfoil, like a present I itched to unwrap. Those Sunday mornings were always a treat for me. My dad woke up bright and early, but what finally got me out of bed was the thought of my breakfast. I always made sure to cut a thick slice and slather it with butter before microwaving it. Tiny tendrils of steam floated up from the craggy surface. As I sat down to enjoy the meal, my dad briefly looked up from his reading to say good morning, and smiled upon seeing the plate in my hands. “It’s really good,” I responded when he asked for feedback. 

There was always something special about my dad making the bread from scratch. I admired the time he took to gather the ingredients and blend them into something we could share. It wasn’t just about having something sweet to eat in the morning. Even though my dad cooked dinner for me all the time, we both had established breakfast routines. For him, it was a slice of toast with peanut butter each day, almost without fail. I liked to pick a dish and stick to it for a few months at a time. It could be anything from cereal to smoothies to egg-and-cheese sandwiches. The bread waiting on the table on a random Sunday morning allowed us to give in and deviate from our routines, just this once, to come together in a new way. 

Image courtesy of Food Network.

I learned that as I took on the task for myself. When my dad was too engrossed in reading books or articles to bake on the weekends, I busied myself with making the batter. My favorite part was smoothly scooping the puree out of the can and watching it slide into the glass bowl. I loved dusting in the spices. As a treat to myself, I added some chocolate chips to the top of the loaf. My dad would not have preferred such decoration, but it was something I added for myself up until I came to college. 

I cherished pumpkin bread as a slice of home when I returned to school after fall break last year. The loaf was my trophy for all my efforts in lounging around the house, enjoying home-cooked meals as I wrapped myself in blankets and let my eyes glaze over in front of the TV. Back in my dorm on a gloomy October morning, I retrieved my prize from the fridge. I gingerly peeled away the tinfoil to reveal the golden brown dome of bread. The sweet smell of the cinnamon and the sprinkling of chocolate chips fought off my sleep deprivation. With an unexpected burst of energy, I adorned my desk, the only thing reminiscent of a table in my compact double, with my breakfast spread. Paper plates and stolen plastic utensils from the dining hall would have to do. Strawberries and blueberries glistened appetizingly. I served myself a generous portion of the bread and remembered to spread a decent layer of butter before heating it up. Finally, I was ready to eat. 

After weeks of rushing to finish my dining hall cereal in the mornings before class, it was a relief to have a Sunday morning with baked goods from home. My wooden desk chair could hardly replace the comfy couch on which I usually ate, but the warm meal deterred any other complaints. I had brought this piece of home with me. The smallest loaf of bread reminded me of all the mornings my dad and I had together. And even though I had made this particular loaf myself, before leaving, I still thought of the hours that my dad had taken out of his busy weekends to bake for us. As I spent that October morning hunched over my desk and looking out at the gray sky, I was far from home. But just as my dad and I interrupted our rigid routines for a treat, I knew that I could always take a moment to remember that home was never too many miles away to bring a slice of it with me. Even if it was in bread form.

Cover photo courtesy of Greatist.