Categories
Essays

Feeding Family, Past and Present

As a little child, setting the Altar de Muertos felt almost like putting up the Christmas tree. In Mexican culture, el Dia de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, reflects a fascinating and not-so-colloquial view on death. It portrays death as perfect and marvelous, as a spiritual transmutation worthy of celebration. It emphasizes that death is not only the ending of a person’s life, but also the ending of cycles, estates, and a rite of passage. 

October sets the scene for the Day of the Dead in November. All the houses horridly decorated, the visceral legends told, and the choosing of hair-rising costumes for Halloween appeal to the morbidity of life. Halloween is all about fearing death, but that narrative seems to be terminated when the Day of the Dead starts. Combining the Christian tradition of All Saints’ Day and the indigenous custom to celebrate death, it is believed that during the Day of the Dead the doors of heaven open for the souls of the deceased to visit their loved ones for twenty-four hours. The streets are full of lights and laughs. Families congregate at night in cemeteries and surround the tombs to tell stories. This time however, the stories are not about vampires avidly searching for your carotid, but of the time Uncle Alonso decided to bring two huge stuffed animals on the plane just to give them to my sister and I, or the time he let us eat guacamole without silverware to anger my mom. These 24 hours are not about torment and pain, but ironically about vivacity portrayed in singing, dancing, and feasting. 

According to the tradition, the dead endure an arduous journey back from the Land of the Dead to the Land of the Living. In order to welcome, honor, and refresh our loved ones, altars are beautifully set. This is no easy task, as it requires immense talents from cooking to decorating and painting. Every year, as the first of November approaches, the organized planning of the Altar de Muertos is crucial. In my family, each of us is assigned a specific job. For my little cousins, the path of the cempasuchil flower entertains them. With its bright color, the cempasuchil serves as a guide to the spirits. My grandma spreads salt all around the altar to protect our loved spirits from corruption in their passage through the realm of souls. My aunt, an amateur photographer, searches for the pictures of our dead. The process is meticulous as the pictures’ main purpose is to revive certain memories. Aunt Martha, the family artist, is in charge of the papel picado and the calaveras de azúcar (sugar skulls).  These beautiful and festive decorations promote the celebratory nature and beauty of death. My mother, as a life-giver, places a cup of water on the altar, which symbolizes the origin of life. 

Image courtesy of The Curious Mexican

The final step is my favorite as my sister Roberta and I have to find the favorite foods of the family that passed away and prepare them. Attention to detail is key, as the character of our loved ones can be easily reflected in their favorite foods. Strong-willed but kind, my grandpa’s favorite food was mole. While mildly spicy and fierce, mole has a sweetness to it which accurately depicts my grandpa’s character.  

The food’s purpose goes beyond the characterization of the dead; it is also a tangible form of deep love. It feels like whoever is preparing your favorite food does so because she has taken the time to really get to know you. It is a sign of “I thought of you and wanted you to feel happiness.”Almost like when you come back to your college dorm after a failed midterm and your roommate, who paid enough attention to your favorite type of chocolate, bought you Ferrero Rocher to overpower the negative feelings with some endorphins. Similarly, just as my mom cooked my favorite chicken noodle soup whenever I had a stomach ache, on el Dia de Muertos, she cooks her sister’s favorite tortilla soup to commemorate her life. The message of food on the altar is strengthened by the idea that leaving the meals out throughout the night, will give the souls the opportunity to refuel and fill themselves with some delicious food that was cooked especially for them. Meanwhile, the family congregates around the altar awaiting their arrival with one cup of Mexican hot chocolate on one hand and a Pan de Muerto (sweet bread) on the other. 

Showing our love and care, and in honor of those who died, the Day of the Dead brings my family together. We sing, we dance, we feast. We commemorate. Because no one is really dead until someone stops uttering their names.

Cover photo courtesy of The Spruce Eats

Categories
Essays

Pumpkin vs. Apple Pie: A Battle?

No Thanksgiving food coma is properly induced without a generous slice(s) of pie. Americans eagerly anticipate Thanksgiving every November, and there is no question that food is a heavy, if not a quintessential, factor of the holiday. There’s turkey, stuffing, mac-n-cheese, sweet potato casserole—the dinner table seems endless. While reflecting this year on what I particularly look forward to eating every Thanksgiving day, I kept thinking about the one dessert that seldom fails to make it on the menu: pie. Now which kind is my favorite, you might inquire? That’s my dilemma: I do not know

Of all the things I treasure most about food, variety sits at the top of the list. Pie, specifically, can be prepared in a seemingly unlimited number of ways. When crafting this pastry, no fruit nor filling fails to disappoint—at least in my opinion. However, when deciding what my preferred type of pie is, my mind reaches a deadlock––pumpkin or apple? Both hold special places in my heart and my taste buds. In order to reach a solid conclusion about which one takes the throne, I have to engage in analysis. What qualities do both possess that I so thoroughly enjoy? Why is it so difficult to make a choice? Let’s discuss, shall we?

Image courtesy of Simply Recipes

Pumpkin pie is unmistakably decadent, unquestionably a Thanksgiving favorite. When you dig your fork into a slice of pumpkin pie, it’s quite mesmerizing to see your utensil glide through the smooth filling and gently cut through the flaky crust on the bottom. Upon having your first bite of pumpkin pie, you immediately get a wonderful kick of spice: a splendid mix of cinnamon, nutmeg, and ground ginger. Pumpkin pie spice generates a lovely sense of warmth in your stomach, acquainting your taste buds with the pop of flavor that instills life into a dish. The focus of pumpkin pie filling is pumpkin puree, of course. The taste of pumpkin transports you to a state of autumnal paradise, characterized by pleasantly sweet and robust notes of flavor. Key to creating the creamy texture of pumpkin pie filling is sweetened condensed milk. Already delightful by itself, the sweetness of the condensed milk complements the pumpkin’s natural sweetness while also infusing the filling with a wonderfully-rich consistency. The pie crust’s importance need not be overlooked, as it provides a buttery and crisp contrast to the smooth filling, rounding out your eating experience with balanced textures. Indulging in custardy pumpkin pie is always one of the highlights of my Thanksgiving meal, as it never fails to deliver a powerful punch of seasonal deliciousness.

Apple pie offers a different eating experience in several ways. To be frank, apples of any kind are always enjoyable to eat because they present a fantastic combination of natural sweetness, acidity, crispness, and juiciness. These elements are perfectly embodied in apple pie. Apple pie filling is a bit more tedious to make than pumpkin pie filling, but it’s completely worth the effort. Medium-sized apple wedges are seasoned with cinnamon, nutmeg, ground ginger, and brown sugar, which collectively add a dimension of spice to the sweetness of the apple slices. The filling is never complete without two key ingredients: lemon juice and flour. These might not automatically come to mind when thinking of apple pie, but they make a significant difference in the final product. Just a tad of lemon juice brilliantly accentuates the acidity of the apple wedges and the spices seasoning them while the flour acts as a thickening agent, merging with the lemon juice and moisture of the apples to create a sturdy sauce that binds the entire filling together. If baked correctly, the apple slices retain their firmness and equally showcase a tender and far-from-crunchy texture. The luscious spice sauce coats the apple wedges evenly, preserving the apples’ inherent sweetness and acidity while skillfully incorporating moisture into the pie. Since apple pie is typically baked with crust on the bottom and on the top, the first bite of apple pie opens with a buttery crunch and gradually moves on to a satisfactory freshness from the apples and warmth from the spices (strikingly similar to pumpkin pie). As a dessert, apple pie represents an unmatched fusion of tanginess and sweetness, of fresh produce and rich flavor.

The reason why it is so difficult for me to make a decision about my preferred form of pie is because pumpkin and apple pie each carry strengths that the other lacks. 

The smooth custard of pumpkin pie is simply not present in apple pie, though the latter offers an expansive variety of texture that pumpkin pie does not. It is virtually impossible to compare pumpkin and apple, as they only share sweetness: pumpkin has a pungent flavor while apples are subtly acidic. Despite their differences, pumpkin and apple pie are both extremely important menu items for me because their very entities radiate comfort and, as stated earlier, warmth. Thanksgiving is a holiday based on togetherness with family and friends, on giving thanks for the blessings that you have been granted, and on appreciating the way that food can symbolize the emotions associated with human connection. Resembling the way that family and friends can provide the comfort and warmth needed to endure these challenging times, pumpkin and apple pie do the same through their shared spices and overall delightfulness. If you asked me now what my favorite Thanksgiving pie is, then (after careful thought) my answer would be simple: both. Though that may seem like an inconclusive response, it is wholly honest. Both pumpkin and apple pie are Thanksgiving essentials in my book, it is impossible for me to make a choice. They are distinct enough to satisfy a craving for variety, yet they share an unmovable place in my family’s Thanksgiving menu. I cannot wait to indulge in both types of pie later this month, surrounded by my loved ones. Why should I have to make a choice in the first place? Why not both?

Cover photo courtesy of Taste of Home

Categories
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.

Categories
Essays

Eating Alone

One of the things that nobody tells you about when you move off-campus is that some nights, you will cook and eat dinner entirely alone. I didn’t expect this. For the past two years, I was used to the loud background noise in Lower dining hall, seated at a long table with several friends or roommates. We’d order whatever looked best—chicken and two sides, probably—and chatter aimlessly while we ate, discussing weekend plans, complaining about professors, or sharing the latest gossip. Dinner was often the only time I saw some of my friends in-between classes, rehearsals, and long library hours. That half-hour in Lower was almost always the highlight of my day, and it certainly wasn’t because the food was extraordinary. The act of sharing the meal was far more important than the meal itself.

I haven’t set foot in a campus dining hall since March 13. I miss nothing except the breakfast potatoes. Though I do live with roommates off-campus, the realities of our night classes, study schedules, and work hours mean that we are rarely able to cook and eat at the same time. More often than not, I find myself in a quiet kitchen with no witnesses to my nourishment for the evening.

It’s oddly difficult to motivate myself to cook when there is nobody to share it with. Somehow, it doesn’t feel worth the time or energy. My dinner has become nothing more than a quick study break, something pulled together with a minimal amount of effort before returning to stare blankly at my interminable to-do list of discussion post responses. While my stack of cookbooks glares accusingly from the corner, I scramble eggs or smear peanut butter on toast before hunching over the kitchen table to eat while mindlessly scrolling Twitter.

These dinners, efficient though they may be, don’t give me the same joy I found in the crowded dining halls last spring. I have realized that a meal is only truly satisfying when it is shared in some form of community, whether someone has made it for me or I have made it for them. Without any part of the experience being shared, dinner becomes no more than just a lonely, lifeless, literal means to an end.

In the past month, however, I have been on a crusade to change that for myself. We are still in a pandemic. The world is on fire. We are one week out from the presidential election. Zoom University is soul-crushing on the best of days. One of the very, very few things that I can control is what I eat for dinner. Why should I subject myself to any more sad, lonely meals?

There are two crucial aspects to enjoying a meal alone: the preparation and the meal itself. The chosen recipe should take a moderate amount of time—almost enough time that you wonder if it’s worth doing all this just for yourself. (It is). When we cook for others, we are likely to invest far more time in the preparation than when we cook for ourselves. We put in that time and energy because we want to show our guests that we care. There is no reason not to care for myself just as much as I care for my guests.  

Image courtesy of Booking.com

The second, equally important part of enjoying a solo dining experience comes after the time has been invested and the meal is ready. I set the table, use a real plate, and try to do something other than stare at my phone—usually, I read a few pages of a book that is not remotely related to my schoolwork. I’ve recently been loving Liane Moriarty’s Nine Perfect Strangers, but if TikTok does it for you, there’s nobody around to judge.

To cook for yourself—beyond microwaved mac ‘n’ cheese or a cold sandwich—feels like an impossible luxury. Perhaps the time might seem better spent replying to Canvas discussion posts. But it will always be worth it. It will save you money (no UberEats delivery fees) and time (one good dinner can provide days of leftover lunches). It might just save you. And if you cook for yourself enough times, it might just sink in that you matter, even when no one is watching. 

Cover photo courtesy of Los Angeles Magazine

Categories
Essays

Fika Like a Swede

My cheeks were as pink as a rose in full bloom, and my hands were so cold that I could barely move them. It was already dark outside, and Grandpa had walked for one long mile in the knee-deep snow to pick me up from preschool. As he searched for the keys to the front door, I struggled to remove my snow-covered boots. As soon as the door sprung open, I crawled out of my blue winter overalls and ran as quickly as my tiny, size-four feet could carry me into the ‘70s-style kitchen where my grandma was preparing the daily afternoon fika. The house was filled with the wonderful smell of cinnamon, fresh cardamom and sugar. As I sat down at the wooden kitchen table and gulped down three glasses of homemade strawberry lemonade, I watched my grandpa sip his black coffee. I told my grandparents about the snowman my friends and I made earlier that day, and I made sure they could hear every minute detail of what I said. To me, a 3-year-old toddler who barely knew how to tie her own shoes, fika meant consuming as many cinnamon rolls and drinking as much lemonade as my stomach could tolerate in 30 minutes. To my grandparents, fika was a social opportunity filled with joy, love and laughter. It was three o’clock on a dark January afternoon in Uppsala, and I had yet to realize that today’s fika was something I should not have taken for granted.

***

As one of the largest coffee-consuming nations in the world, Sweden is known for fika: a social activity that has become an integral part of the Swedish culture. Serving as both a noun and a verb, fika is difficult to translate into English. In simple words, the concept is similar to a coffee break. People can fika at work, at home, at a cafe, or even at school. Ideally, fika should be homemade, but any kind of fika is always better than none at all. To me, a typical Swedish fika includes coffee, strawberry lemonade, and some type of sweet treat like fresh cinnamon rolls or Swedish Prinsesstårta; however, during the month of December, the only acceptable kind is hot chocolate paired with paper-thin gingerbread cookies and saffron buns. Although it does not matter with whom one enjoys fika, it has to be done in a group setting; by definition, it is impossible to fika alone. Fika is an essential part of daily life, and Swedes take the tradition for granted. 

The most common type of fika takes place at home or at a cafe along with friends and family. It serves as a time dedicated to catching up on the lives of loved ones. Moreover, though it is different, fika at work is not regarded as any less important. Believe it or not, a “fika break” is embedded into employment contracts at most Swedish companies, and one can actually be seen as quite antisocial if he or she chooses not to fika within the group. During this contracted break, coworkers share stories and ideas, as well as any dwelling questions or concerns. As my parents usually tell me, conversations during fika at work can range from topics like midlife crises to birthday party plans. It is not uncommon for coworkers to share homemade muffins or treats at their daily fika as well. Fika solidifies relationships and builds new friendships that would otherwise not have been created.

Without this social, sweet coffee break, there would be no spontaneous family gatherings, fewer meaningful conversations with coworkers or friends, and less exchanges of new ideas and opinions at school or work. I have come to the realization that it is difficult to know how big of an impact something as uncomplicated as fika has on one’s life before it is gone.

When my family and I moved to the United States in January of 2014, I had a tough time building friendships with my new classmates. I felt as though I did not fit in with the American stereotype, which made it hard for me to feel a sense of belonging. With few people I could turn to, I had to navigate the complex environment of middle school by myself. Nevertheless, each afternoon when I came home, the daily fika would be waiting for me at the table, ready to be devoured. The Swedish buns and cookies were sometimes made by my grandma. Growing up on a farm, she would help my great-grandma, Astrid, bake the weekly batch. Astrid often spoke about the importance of fika for solidifying relationships within the local congregation and neighboring farms. Thus, already as a young girl, my grandma knew the importance of a good fika. She kept the baking tradition going, and following our relocation to Texas, a few batches of “Swedish Dream Cookies” would arrive at our doorstep every now and then. When my family and I finally all sat down around the kitchen table after school, I felt that sense of security and belonging I had been lacking throughout the day. As my nerves calmed down, I began to feel less out of place, and my body was sometimes even filled with a little bit of hope and confidence.

Now in college, I am farther away from my family than I have ever been, so I make sure to prioritize my fika break. Most afternoons I can be found sitting down at a bench somewhere on campus with my iced latte and iPhone talking to my family over FaceTime. Sometimes I even go out of my way to purchase a subpar red velvet cupcake at the dining hall, or if I am feeling fancy, a Boston Kreme doughnut from Dunkin’ Doughnuts on Commonwealth Avenue. During this 30 minute fika break we find answers to our problems, exchange opinions, reflect on our past and plan out our future. With all the stress that comes with being a freshman on the pre-medical track, a fika break is just what I need. Of course, my roommates still do not fully understand this Swedish phenomenon, and the fact that they do not like coffee does not seem to help either. Hopefully by the end of the semester, I will have taught them enough about Swedish traditions for them to acknowledge the benefits of a good fika. 

As far as I am concerned, fika has helped me be comfortable in my ever-changing environments. Moving away from the country I call home, to a state where pickup trucks and longhorns seem to be the only two things that matter, to a city of academia where its people call themselves “wicked smart,” fika has been the only familiar thing that has continuously stayed by my side. Everytime I feel stressed, I think back to that cold, wonderful afternoon in my grandparents’ vintage kitchen. I reflect on the memories I made during my endless fika breaks, and on how wonderful it is to take part in such an extraordinary tradition. As silly as it seems, fika enables me to view my problems from a new perspective. It provides me with an opportunity to discover what really matters: staying in touch with those I love. Even though I believe setting goals for myself is a fundamental part of living a fulfilling life, I know that I am never too busy to have some Swedish fika.

Cover photo courtesy of Eventland.

Categories
Essays

Apple Crisp is Non-Negotiable

October is a wonderful time of the year to take a trip home to the north shore of Massachusetts. The changing colors of the leaves decorate the sides of the highway, framing the windshield on the picturesque drive. The air is just brisk enough to cozy up to family in the evenings, but not so cold that you feel trapped inside. In fact, most years during fall break I am outside as much as possible—apple picking, hiking, decorating for Halloween, and attending an annual fair. I drink pumpkin lattes with friends in the mornings and roast pumpkin seeds with family in the evenings. I walk the dogs with my brother and wince through horror movies with my dad and, no matter what else the weekend entails, I always, always make apple crisp with my mom.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve looked forward to my mom’s apple crisp each and every fall. I can recall many an autumn evening cooking together in our cozy kitchen, helping her peel apples as she worked on the more complicated parts of the dish. When I was little, she used to call it “Brown Betty,” like her mother called it and her mother’s mother, too. As far as anyone remembers, this delicious fall tradition originated with my great grandma Doris, my grandpa’s mother. My grandparents used to enjoy the dessert when they visited her, and soon my grandma began baking it herself. My mom says she made it on her own for the first time a few years out of college and distinctly remembers calling her mother for clarifications on the recipe. From that fall on, she made it every year. My immediate family has shifted the title to “apple crisp,” but the recipe itself has remained unaltered through the generations. 

This year, I made this fall family recipe on my own for the very first time. Taking a trip to the grocery store with my roommates, I tried to remember all the ingredients we needed. Standing in the fruit aisle, I could hear my mom’s voice in my head reminding me McIntosh apples are the best. McIntoshes have soft red and green skin and juicy white interiors. The flavor is a little tart when raw, but they sweeten perfectly when cooked. Golden Delicious or Gala would probably work too, but I know she would say they aren’t the same. A decent-sized portion of apple crisp requires around seven to nine apples—which takes a ton of peeling. The apples need to be as close to completely bare as possible, as little bits of leftover skin will interfere with the rich smoothness of the dish. As I picked out the biggest, juiciest apples, I realized I sadly couldn’t delegate this monotonous task to my younger brother this year. 

Photo courtesy of Live Well Bake Often

After peeling, we always cut the apples into thin slices—small enough for a bite but not so small that they will dissolve in the oven. I did this cutting part both at home and at school, as I don’t trust others to achieve that perfect thickness. Once there are enough to fill a few layers in the pan, my mom always coats them in lemon juice and a dusting of cinnamon. The lemon juice balances the sweetness of the McIntosh slices, she says, adding a tart kick to the flavor. On the side, we prepare a mixture of brown sugar, flour, and butter crumbles, sprinkling it evenly over the apples. This entire dish goes in the oven for about an hour, which is when we begin making the best part: the hard sauce!

What my mom and grandma have always called “hard sauce” is basically a variation of icing, but with an important consistency difference—it’s thicker and therefore, “harder.” The ingredients are the same as the homemade icing we make on birthdays: butter, powdered sugar, a capful of vanilla extract, and skim milk. However, for apple crisp we always use more sugar and much less milk. Inevitably at home, I always accidentally pour too much. “Really,” I instructed my roommate like my mom always reminds me, “only a tiny drop.” The sweet, creamy mixture will still be smooth at first, but after cooling in the refrigerator, it develops a thick, solid consistency. The pairing of the cool hard sauce with the warm apple mixture creates a perfect blend of temperature, flavor, and sweetness. Each spoonful melts in your mouth, the gooey apples mix with the crunch of the coating and the smooth, sweetness of the sauce.

This October, I will not be making the trek north through the red and yellow covered highways. I’ve decided not to go home until Thanksgiving due to the pandemic, so I don’t risk infecting my family. My BC friends all made the same choice, so I recreated the fun fall vibes I have at home every year here with them instead. We got a pumpkin to carve in the daytime, toasted the seeds in the oven, and seasoned them with salt and pepper. At night, we watched horror movies in anticipation of Halloween—I even asked my dad for recommendations. We didn’t make it to apple picking, but I made sure to get a bundle of McIntosh at the store. 

But of course, the most memorable part of the weekend was making apple crisp. Just like my mom a couple years out of college, and my grandma after eating it at her mother-in-law’s, I now have my own story of continuing the fall family tradition. Although I definitely had to call my mom a time or two to double-check the specifics, I assumed her role with my roommates, teaching them what she taught me. It was a change to bake it in a dorm room oven as opposed to the warm, coziness of my kitchen at home, but at least I had some new people to delegate the apple peeling to!

Cover photo courtesy of Kitchn

Categories
Essays

Figuring Out Fast Food

Chipotle, Chick-Fil-A, Panda Express, you name it. Fast food is everywhere, and not surprisingly. According to The Barbecue Lab, 83% of American families eat fast food at least once a week. Its benefits seem to extend far beyond taste. Fast food companies have lured the public into buying because of its fast and inexpensive offerings. But at what expense? 

Since the start of civilization, the act of eating has been more than a need: it has been a social ritual. Hunter-gatherer societies relied on community for safety and nourishment. This sense of community was taken to the table, or cave, where hunter-gatherers would come together to cook and enjoy their recently killed mammoth. During the Medieval Age, monarchies would introduce noble brides to kings during supper. In fact, entire courts like that of Louis XIV were known for vibrant and opulent kitchens. Nowadays, you can find families gathering on Sundays in Latin America to celebrate life or family picnics throughout Europe. Sadly, this tradition seems to have been weakened by the fast food business in the United States. The average American overall spends less time eating, therefore limiting the possibilities to strengthen connections in a community. A recent study published by FSR Magazine states that the average wait per party is 23 minutes. Twenty-three minutes to order, eat, pay the check, and leave. Is 23 minutes even enough to eat at a healthy pace without choking? 

Photo courtesy of Tasty Burger

Fast food does not only affect the creation and strengthening of connections, but it also undermines centuries of history and innovation in traditional kitchens. Mexican cuisine’s grandeur is the result of the use of fresh and native indigenous products and a mélange of the ingredients and spices brought from Europe by the conquistadors. At home in Mexico, it is not rare to eat mole for lunch. The peculiar and delicious taste of the dish, which involves chiles and chocolate, is always accompanied by my mom’s short history lesson. “You know, Regina,” she would say, “this dish was the product of desperation and interculturalism.” 

As the legend goes, colonial Mexico was waiting for the arrival of the viceroy Juan de Palafox y Mendoza. There was a welcome feast in a convent led by Brother Pascual Bailon. He was so profoundly nervous that he accidentally dropped ingredients of indegenous origin like chocolate and chiles into a pot where wild turkey was being cooked. He served the final result to the Spanish nobles, who were surprised at the sublime and peculiar taste. Fast food is not only too fast, but it fails to portray the richness of Mexican gastronomy, and instead emphasizes the stereotype that Mexican food only includes tacos and burritos.  Similarly, Chinese cuisine was influenced by the country’s geographical diversity. Different regions of China offer distinct agricultural and meat products to its magical, harmonious cuisine. Orange chicken lacks these contributions, those of which make such magnificent dishes possible. 

During the time of the pandemic, schedules seem to be more packed than usual, adding to the necessity of eating fast and efficient meals. One might think that fast food would come in a clutch. You order a burrito and eat it quickly as you type that annoying English paper you waited too long to start. Everything seems perfectly acceptable on the surface, but it might not be the perfect answer on a deeper level. The opportunity to sit down with friends and talk about the day was missed; maybe your friend had brought along a new person from class, who would have been interesting to meet. Instead of being able to enjoy food together, to energize, refresh, and inspire one another, you are left with a heavy feeling in your stomach. Is it ever really worth it to avoid the social ritual of a meal?

Cover photo courtesy of https://eatingdisorderspecialists.com/closer-look-food-addiction/ .

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Essays

Reservations Only

“RESERVATIONS ONLY,” cried the scribbled poster board tacked to the large oak in the parking lot. “NO WALK-INS ALLOWED.” The line of cars stretched for over a mile. On a bright September Sunday during a pandemic, the apple orchard is the hottest place in town. 

There is something particularly wholesome about picking apples in the fall: giggling children with the last of their golden summer tans tucked into sweaters and sent to run about an orchard, cheeks ruddy with the first brisk breezes. Parents lift their youngest up so they can delightedly yank their own prizes from the low branches. You’re not supposed to eat the apples while you’re in the orchard, but everyone does anyway. You’ll never see kids voluntarily eating more fruit. The sun-warmed apples only need a quick rub against a blue-jeaned thigh to remove the dust, revealing brilliant red shot through with yellow; the first crack of front teeth snaps through the skin to expose bright white flesh.

The stately lines of apple trees are old and wise, their twisted branches heavy with dusty red fruit. Creaking wooden ladders litter the ground, ready to be set against a sturdy branch, if you can wait until the family of ten taking photos in matching black and red flannels finishes posing with them. Or, forgo the ladder and just climb. The best apples are the ones that you almost fall out of the tree to reach. 

Photo courtesy of Edwards Orchard.

After the bags are heavy and everyone has gotten sufficiently muddy, skinned an elbow or two on a branch, and perhaps been stung by a bee feasting on the overripe windfalls, orchard visitors inevitably wander over to the farm stand. This brilliant invention allows the orchard to make staggering amounts of profit on one simple item—the apple cider donut.

Is there any seasonal treat more appealing? An apple cider donut must always be served warm, so the sugar melts on the tongue, and the sweet apple cinnamon-scented dough collapses into soft crumbles upon the first bite. They’re liberally coated in crunchy cinnamon sugar, to children’s delight and mothers’ dismay, as the grains inevitably establish a presence on cheeks, under fingernails, and occasionally in shoes. After everyone has eaten their fill and an extra dozen has been placed in a paper bag for the road, sticky hands climb back into the car. 

Finally, you arrive home, where you open the trunk of the car to find that your charming little bags of apples, so carelessly pulled from the trees, seem to have multiplied several times over. Were the bags always this size? Did we really have to fill them up to the top? What are we going to do with 30 pounds of apples? A pie will use up seven or eight, that’s good, and a couple dozen apple muffins will get rid of four more. Maybe the neighbors will take some, and everyone’s lunchbox will have an apple nestled in the corner for weeks. Is this the year we make applesauce? For the next month, the pile of apples will sit in the corner of the kitchen, dwindling just a little too slowly, filling the air with the sour-sweet smell of the last days of fall.

Cover photo courtesy of Getty Images.

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

Midday Mapo Tofu

After class on a rainy Wednesday afternoon, I woke up from my cozy couch nap in my on-campus apartment to a sweet scent coming from the kitchen. Peeking out above my fuzzy blanket, my tired eyes were surprised to see my roommate Stephanie cooking with her younger brother Thomas. It’s a running joke in our room that Stephanie never cooks, so it took my groggy mind a minute to process what I was seeing and smelling.

“Steph?” I asked, “What are you making?” She turned around towards the common room, where I laid sprawled on the couch, and began laughing at the sight of my surprised expression.

“A traditional Chinese meal,” she replied. “Thomas came over for dinner, so I wanted to cook him something special.” I looked over at Thomas, a newly-arrived BC freshman, and got up to give him a welcoming hug. At the stage of meal-preparation I had woken up into, Stephanie was stirring tofu in a pot while Thomas chopped up onions.

Stephanie explained that they had just started, and asked if I wanted to eat with them when the food was ready. I was planning on eating my leftover takeout Chinese food in the fridge for dinner, and had been excitedly anticipating my beloved pork fried rice. 

“If you like takeout Chinese, you should try this! It’s a traditional Chinese dish called Mapo Tofu.” Since she is notorious for never cooking, and I am equally as notorious for never trying new foods, I hesitantly expressed my worries that the flavor pairings would be too spicy for my picky palate. 

However, on this particular Wednesday, something drew me in. Maybe it was because I was disoriented from my midday slumber, or maybe the swirling smells drifting through the small apartment compelled me to take a closer look, but regardless my interest was piqued. I stepped up next to Stephanie and asked her to walk me through the cooking process, hoping seeing each ingredient go into the dish would increase my willingness to try it.

Photo courtesy of curiouscuisiniere.com

“Well first, you cut the tofu into small cubes,” she said. “You begin to boil it in water, while dicing up onion, ginger, and garlic on the side.” 

While monitoring and stirring the tofu, Stephanie began to fry sichuan peppercorns in olive oil in a separate pan. She explained it’s best to get pepper oil, but this works as a substitute in a pinch. While the pepper seeped into the oil, she began preparing minced pork in a bowl, marinating it with soy sauce, salt, and red pepper flakes. She told me you can use ground beef or pork for the dish, but that she had chosen pork this time.

Next, she added the onion, ginger, and garlic to the sichuan pepper oil. I was mesmerized by the resulting smells—a heavenly medley of sweet and sour, the nutty aroma of the ginger mixing together with the sharp spice of the pepper. After a minute or two of sauteéing, Stephanie added in one big scoop of bean paste, which comes in a small jar mixed with chili oil. 

“This is the most essential ingredient,” she said, “it solidifies the spicy flavor.” Since the paste is thick, it’s important to add about half a bowl of water into the pan at the same time. She then cooked this on low fire uncovered for a couple of minutes, until it started to slightly boil. Next, she added the raw, seasoned pork at the same time as the tofu from the pot. Now everything was in one big pan, the different flavors combining in a diverse mixture. Together, they cooked for about five to ten minutes, which Stephanie stirred occasionally until the pork was fully cooked.

As she poured the steaming contents into a large ceramic bowl, her brother, Thomas, threw some white rice packets into the microwave. I was instructed to grab three small rice bowls, and three sets of chopsticks.

The rice packets were scooped into each of our small bowls, and we sat down together for the meal. I had never tried tofu before, so I was a little hesitant, but it smelled too good not to give it a try. I cautiously rose a bite of pork to my mouth first. As Stephanie instructed me, I combined it with the white rice, to neutralize the spice. While I slowly chewed, she and her brother looked at me expectantly for a reaction.

“Wow!” I exclaimed, “This is actually amazing!” We all laughed, surprised and pleased that Stephanie’s first attempt at cooking one of her family favorite meals turned out so well. For the next hour or so, the three of us sat around the table, eating and talking about Chinese dining culture. 

“So usually when we have dinner as a family,” Stephanie explained, “there would be four or five dishes in the middle that we all share.” They told me their family, like many other homes of Chinese families, has a lazy-susan-style table to facilitate this communal eating tradition. Each person typically has their own bowl of rice and chopsticks, while the main dishes are all shared.

Another common style of eating in their home is hot pot. In this set-up, there is either a boiling pot in the middle of the table, or each person gets their own small one. There are a diverse variety of broths in the pots, which can be homemade or purchased pre-packed from a grocery store. The eating process then involves cooking your own raw meat and vegetables, and adding whichever sauce you would like—these are usually peanut or sesame-based. For hot pot, Stephanie recommended Q Restaurants in Boston.

Given my love of takeout Chinese food, I was interested to hear their opinions on takeout, or otherwise Americanized Chinese restaurants. In Stephanie’s opinion, the dishes at many of these places are sweeter and less spicy than typical Chinese cuisine. There is also less diversity, as they’re most often based on Cantonese food (from Hong Kong/southern China) or Sichuan. 

In China, each province eats differently and has dishes that they are particularly known for. In Shanghai, Xiaolong Bao is the most famous regional dish—soup dumplings filled with chicken, pork, crab meat, or many other opinions. The food in each district has its own prevalent taste, she explained, and Shanghai tends towards the sweeter side. Another example is the Shanxi province, where Stephanie and Thomas’ dad is from, which is famous for a large variety of shapes and sizes of noodles. Noodles are my favorite, so I told Stephanie she should try cooking a dish featuring these next. 

While we were cleaning up from dinner, I asked Stephanie about all the new sauces that had appeared on our counter since her most recent grocery trip. She told me she went to a store called Hmart, an Asian supermarket in Cambridge. She said she loves stores like Hmart, and a similar one called Super 88 Market, because they carry a larger range of Asian products. In other grocery stores, it is harder to find the variety of sauces needed for traditional Chinese cooking, as well as certain ingredients like tofu skin, fish balls, and salted duck eggs. 

When it was time for Thomas to go back to his dorm on Newton, I thanked them both for teaching me how to cook Mapo Tofu, and talking to me about their cultural traditions with meals, opinions on Chinese cuisine, and recommendations for restaurants and grocery stores. Foregoing my typical pickiness, I exclaimed “Let’s go out for hot pot some time soon!” Stephanie excitedly agreed, and we decided I would accompany them on their next trip to Hmart as well. 

On that rainy Wednesday, both Stephanie and I tried something new for the first time. She cooked a meal all on her own, and I discovered I liked the combination of the spice in the bean paste, the salt in the soy sauce, and the sweetness of the ginger—the rich blend of flavors present in Mapo Tofu. As we go forward into our senior year at BC, I can’t wait to try more of Stephanie’s cooking. Through both grocery shopping and cooking meals together, I am excited to bring cultural aspects and cooking traditions from each of our own homes to our new home together at Boston College.