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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.