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.

Categories
Mucho Gusto

Lauren’s Lemon Bars

We are currently accepting applications for a summer session of Gusto! Applications are due on Friday, May 29 and can be found here. Questions? Email us at bcgustomag@gmail.com.


This is the twenty-first installment in Mucho Gusto, a recipe initiative by and for students to help connect us through food in times of isolation. If you’ve got a recipe you think would make a great addition, reach out to us!

Make if you have: Lemons, flour, and eggs

Summer is the ideal time for bright and fruity desserts, and lemon bars fit the bill. A layer of lemon custard sits atop lightly salted shortbread in this tried-and-true bar. What’s more, this recipe is far from labor intensive (you don’t even need a mixer!). 

2 cups all-purpose flour, plus 2 tablespoons

1 cup salted butter, softened (not melted)

½ cup powdered sugar, plus extra for dusting

4 eggs

2 cups granulated sugar

1 tsp baking powder

½ tsp salt

4 tbsp lemon juice (this will likely require 2 lemons)

First things first: set your oven to bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Next, mix the flour, softened butter, and powdered sugar in a bowl with a fork. All ingredients should be thoroughly distributed, and the combination should look crumbly. Scrape the contents of the bowl into a greased 9 x 13 pan, and use the fork to press the crumbs down, creating an even layer of shortbread across the pan. Bake for 20 minutes.

While your base is in the oven, combine the eggs, granulated sugar, salt, and lemon juice in a bowl. This is when you add the additional tablespoons of flour, as well. Mix these ingredients until they are all incorporated. When the shortbread is done baking, pour the liquid mixture over top and place it back in the oven for an additional 20-25 minutes, or until the sides have grown slightly brown. Take care not to overbake these; you want the lemon layer to remain a bit gooey under a crispy surface. After the bars have been removed and cooled, dust the tops with powdered sugar to finish!

Optional:

I made these bars for a birthday, so I added crystallized flowers as a garnish. Should you choose to do the same, all you need is 1 egg white, granulated sugar, a paint brush, and freshly cut flowers. Simply whisk the egg white until it is of a smooth consistency, and use the paintbrush to coat the flower(s) in egg white. Dust sugar over top, and be sure to cover the surface without weighing down the flower. The sugar should have a sparkly sheen to it (if it clumps together, it loses its shine). Allow the flowers to dry in a bright, dry place for 12-24 hours, then place on top of the bars.

Categories
Mucho Gusto

Lauren’s Maple Granola

This is the tenth installment in Mucho Gusto, a recipe initiative by and for students to help connect us through food in times of isolation. If you’ve got a recipe you think would make a great addition, reach out to us!

Make if you have: Rolled oats, almonds, maple syrup 

Baking your own granola will make the entire kitchen smell incredible, not to mention opting for homemade over store-bought granola will save an item on your shopping list the next time you venture out for groceries. Maple syrup pairs with brown sugar for a warm and just subtly sweet flavor, one that pairs well with yogurt, milk, smoothies… or stands alone.

3 cups rolled oats

¼ cup chia seeds

¼ cup flax seeds

½ cup sliced almonds

1 tablespoon dark brown sugar

1 teaspoon almond extract

½ cup maple syrup

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon nutmeg

To begin, preheat your oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Once it reaches temperature, scatter your almonds over a baking sheet lined with parchment. Place them in the oven to toast; this should take about 15 minutes.

In the meantime, combine oats, chia and flax seeds, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Stir until combined. Next, microwave the maple syrup for 30 seconds, and then mix the brown sugar into the syrup until fully dissolved. Add almond extract.

When the almonds are done, add them to the dry ingredients and mix. Then pour the syrup mixture over the dry ingredients, fully coating all of the oats. Spread the mixture evenly over a baking sheet lined with parchment. Bake until lightly browned on top, for about 25-27 minutes. Let cool before breaking into smaller pieces, and store in an airtight container for up to two weeks. Enjoy!

Categories
Mucho Gusto

Lauren’s Goat and Pear Flatbread

This is the fifth installment in Mucho Gusto, a recipe initiative by and for students to help connect us through food in times of isolation. If you’ve got a recipe you think would make a great addition, reach out to us!

Make if you have: Flour, water, olive oil, anything that could constitute a flatbread topping

Makes 2 flatbreads

This dough is incredibly simple, and the end result will look (and taste) like you spent hours on it. The best part is arguably its flexibility… no topping is off-limits. Impress your partners-in-quarantine with crispy, homemade flatbread as a snack, appetizer, or meal. 

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon table salt

1 cup warm water

3 tablespoons olive oil (plus about 1 tablespoon extra)

2 handfuls of cornmeal

1/2 cup chopped walnuts

4 ounces of goat cheese

1 pear, finely diced

2 teaspoons balsamic glaze

Any additional (or different) toppings

Start by preheating your oven to 550 degrees Fahrenheit. Next, use a food processor to blend the flour and salt. Add both the warm water and 3 tablespoons of olive oil, and allow the mixture to blend until a dough has formed and clumped together into a ball. This should take a little under a minute. Next, remove the dough from the food processor and knead it on a floured surface for about a minute.

After the minute has elapsed, use a knife to slice your dough in half. Roll each portion out to an oval with about ¼-inch thickness. Take a handful of cornmeal to each baking sheet, and sprinkle it across the pans. Lay each piece of dough on its respective sheet on top of the cornmeal (this will prevent sticking). Finally, use a fork to poke holes across the surface of each flatbread. Place them in the oven for five minutes to par-bake.

Afterward, pull your flatbreads from the oven, and use the extra olive oil to brush a light layer atop each. You will now dress the flatbreads for their second round of baking. Due to the versatility of potential toppings, this step will look different depending on how you decide to garnish the flatbreads. You can truly go in any direction… consider experimenting with eggs, peppers, and onions for a breakfast pizza, or brie cheese and apples for a sweet version. A good rule of thumb is to add some type of cheese prior to the second bake, any sauces, and/or any fruit or vegetable that you want to soften. To make the pear and goat cheese flatbread, spread 2 oz. of goat cheese atop each to create a thin layer, and then sprinkle on chopped walnuts.

To complete the final bake, place both flatbreads in the oven for an additional five minutes. For the last minute, switch the oven setting to broil on high. Upon removing the flatbreads, add any additional toppings. For this recipe, distribute half of the diced pear and a drizzle of balsamic glaze to each flatbread. Serve warm, and enjoy!

Recipe adapted from Kylie Lato’s Midwest Foodie Blog

Categories
Essays

Indulging in the Process

My dad loves to cook. To sear, season, and sautée. The timeline of his day, unfortunately, doesn’t allow ample time to produce a meal from start to finish. Our kitchen, in all of its preparatory glory—a steamy cloud of scents, all four burners occupied, ingredients strewn across every inch of counter space—is an atmosphere of organized chaos just before dinner. Returning home from his IT office, my dad will drop his leather messenger bag in the corner and proceed to dump his keys, wallet, and phone next to the coffeemaker. Immediately afterward, he launches into a string of offers to assist in any outstanding dinner tasks for my mother: “Should I fire up the grill? Can I put this glaze on? I’ll make the rice!” Given the opportunity, he jumps to contribute. My mom jokingly swats away his attempts at help, though, preferring to finish what she has started without explaining her every move to the latecomer.

“If we waited for me to get home,” he always laughs, “We’d end up setting the table at eight!” His removal from this process of making dinner, typically a high-stress and time-constrained experience, means that when he prepares food it is for sheer pleasure only, and at a leisurely pace all his own.


“We have grown accustomed to bursting through the door on weekends, only to find my dad transfixed in a peaceful atmosphere of kitchen alchemy.”

A few hand-picked items have become my dad’s pride and joy, and he has undoubtedly reached a level of mastery over them throughout the years. If he hasn’t already coached me and my sister through the production of these favorites, then he has threatened to do so at some not-too-distant point in the future. Whenever the mood strikes my dad, he’ll meander into the kitchen and start to pull out the flour and baking spray. We have grown accustomed to bursting through the door on weekends, only to find my dad transfixed in a peaceful atmosphere of kitchen alchemy. He’ll look up at us, called back to reality by our turning of the doorknob, as he cheerily draws a tray from the oven. In these scenarios, my mom will typically be bent over the kitchen table, stacks of recipe cards in front of her, scrutinizing the numbered lists and weighing our options for the evening. My dad’s therapeutic baking sessions always earn him a playful roll of her eyes. “Must be nice!” she’ll pipe up from her chair, mocking the frivolity of his kitchen use. Thanks to my dad’s role modeling, though, I will never be able to bake absent of his influence.

Scones are my dad’s true pièce de résistance. Each batch is a new masterpiece of his. Unless my mom, sister, or I request a different flavor, his go-to recipe consists of a sweet butter dough studded with currants. Why he refuses to simply call the added fruit “raisins” has become easy for us all to understand. The kitchen is where my dad likes to play with the more artisanal side of himself.

Born in Oregon, my dad has a special affnity for berries. His home in the mountains made for a quaint, almost surreal summer job between the ages of ten and eighteen—a produce picker at a farm across the street from his neighborhood. Strawberries, raspberries, and broccoli in the fall…he grew up surrounded by fresh ingredients, and was exposed to almost every imaginable method of their incorporation when it came to food. This piece of his childhood manifests itself in the way he attempts to insert the tiny, gem-like fruits wherever applicable. If my mom is making pancakes, muffins…bread in any form, really, he’ll lean over her shoulder and ask whether she’d like him to retrieve some of our seasonal berry stores from the chest freezer downstairs. “Honey, this is cinnamon coffee cake—it doesn’t call for anything else,” she might respond in exasperation.

“I know, but there are berries…” my dad will trail off, realizing he isn’t clearing any ground. To this point, he will sometimes swap locally picked blueberries or peaches for his classic Sun-Maid currants in scones.

About halfway through his recipe, things start to get complicated. My family has a pastry blender that looks a little like a horseshoe, with five thick, silver wires bent into a loop and attached on either end to a thick rubber handle. In the only instances I’ve ever seen it put to use, my dad digs out this tool for the step of butter-cutting. Patiently jamming the wires into a room-temperature block of margarine, he uses a fork to scrape the resulting slivers off the metal. Painstaking and messy. If my sister and I are helping him, we attempt (with no avail) to speed through this process. “The butter is the most important part,” my dad explains, never possessing any sense of urgency. “That’s where the flakiest layers come from.” Envisioning the translucent sheets of dough, stacked piping hot under the shell of his golden biscuits, my mouth always waters. I stifle any harbored complaints.

With a handful of currants and a quick combination of wet and dry, my dad is soon placing eight evenly-spaced triangles onto our worn slate baking sheets. The fruits-to-labor ratio in this recipe is a source of personal frustration for me. An hour of work and only eight pieces in total? My dad, of course, doesn’t mind. Wielding a bristled brush, he furrows his brow and leans over the trays, lovingly brushing a coat of melted butter atop each glistening slice of dough. Deftly sprinkling raw cane sugar onto their tops, his goal is a delicate crunch with every bite. Then fate is left to the oven.

The art of cooking has never intentionally been gendered in my family. Preparing our meals does often fall into my mom’s hands, but this is a pattern which fell into place organically, following her decision to leave work and stay home with me and my sister. She has taught me most of what I know, in a practical sense. It is by her side that I’ve witnessed our family traditions in action: blending coleslaw dressing, rolling a fresh pie crust (store-bought would be sacrilege), simmering winter bean chili. Her wealth of knowledge is a source I will draw from for the rest of my life. My dad’s attitude, however—even more than his unique set of skills—is what will inspire me always.

The whimsical approach which my dad takes to food is one I seek to imitate. He has shown me the presence of bliss in the kitchen. By devoting energy to select cuisinal items, he has allowed himself to explore their intricacies, and so emerge with a level of personal satisfaction which I can only hope to emulate. The thorough advice he presents my sister and I comes from a place of passion rather than a sense of responsibility, and it sincerely shows. Everyone has to eat and drink, and from the point of creation to consumption my dad does so merrily.