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Essays

Grocery Stores in Other Places

I wasn’t hungry, but I wasn’t going to let the opportunity to do my favorite thing abroad pass me by. I walked into the grocery store.

By “grocery store” I don’t mean Starmarket or Shoprite; those don’t exist here in Parma, Italy. The biggest supermarket near me is called Conads, and it’s a fraction of the size of the average American supermarket. Furthermore, there’s no need to go there for fresh produce or even meat. My Italian host parents explained to me that the food in the small local produce and meat shops are fresher and more flavorful than that of the supermarket. 

I love exploring food stores and shops in other countries, because you can better understand the culture this way. Most places outside America don’t have huge supermarkets with every imaginable item; instead, the food available is grown nearby, and in turn is cooked into long standing traditional dishes. 

The shop I entered held juicy grapes, sweet oranges, crunchy apples, and yellowing bananas. There was fennel, onion, cabbage, and the most delicious tomatoes. Most of the fresh produce was from Sicilia. A few types of pasta lined the shelves, accompanied by sauces suggesting potential partnership. Nuts that I didn’t recognize sat in wooden barrels, not because they were completely unfamiliar but because they were unshelled. Italians do the cracking themselves. 

“Ciao!” The shop owner said to me. I tried my best not to seem American. I wanted to practice my Italian.

“Ciao!” I responded. He asked me if I was looking for anything, where I was from, and what I was doing there. It became pretty obvious I wasn’t Italian when I struggled to respond. It turned out it didn’t matter, because he didn’t speak English anyway. My quest to become fluent continued.

I didn’t want to buy anything in the store, but after our conversation he sent me home with a kiwi, an apple, and a banana free of charge. I told him I didn’t need a banana, and I wasn’t kidding. When my host mother asked me what I usually eat for breakfast, I said during the week I’ll usually have a banana. She returned the next day with fifteen bananas. I tried my best to eat them all, but to no avail. With nine very ripe bananas, I knew what had to be done. 

I made banana bread. 

My host family had never heard of banana bread or “pane di banana” (which literally translates to bread of banana). I overbaked it but my host mother said it wasn’t overdone. Apparently Italians like their bread a bit more crunchy. While I prefer my banana bread “morbido,” meaning moist, I do greatly enjoy the crunch of one famous Italian item.

In the small grocery shop, there weren’t just vegetables and fruit, nuts and pasta. There was also a shelf of Italian snacks, called taralli. The shop owner explained that a fresh shipment had arrived that day. 

“Non da una fabbrica,” He said. I knew this much Italian; it was not made in a factory. The taralli here was handmade. 

There were different flavored taralli, which he described by pointing to various items in the small store. There was olive oil, red pepper, onion, and garlic. I asked what the best one was, and he said they were all amazing but you have to be careful because it is easy to get “grasso” eating them all day, using his hand to gesture toward himself. Grasso means “fat” in Italian. In the end I couldn’t decide, but he already had a bag of taralli open. Before leaving the store, he gave me one along with my paper baggie of fruit. 

“Taralli alla cipolla,” He explained. He raised his hand and pointed toward onions sitting casually in a wooden box. Grabbing his gift, I took a bite.

My teeth munched down on the circular stick of water, flour, and yeast. Yet it would be a shame to describe it so simply. The olive oil allowed for an almost buttery sensation, the crunchy treat easily dissolving into my mouth with a sweet, oniony taste. Maybe it wasn’t dissolving so much as I was eating each bite with unparalleled agility. I wanted more. As a college student on a budget, with plenty of food at home and scared of getting fat (I could have easily eaten the whole bag) I left the store. 

I saw a bag on the shelf of the supermarket a few days later, labeled “taralli integrale,” or whole wheat taralli. I was happy but skeptical. Was it possible? Could I eat more taralli and not get grasso? I took my chances; I bought the bag. Then I took a bite.

I could not taste the onion, because it was lacking. I could not taste the sweet olive oil, because the whole wheat overpowered the flavor. However, what turned me off the most was the texture; it did not melt in my mouth. With each bite the mixture of flour and yeast seemed not to disintegrate but to break down into smaller particles, creating a dusty feeling between my teeth. Disappointment encompassed me.

On my walk home today I passed the same little grocery, where I waved to the nice man who had given me fruit for no charge. He called me inside, where we conversed in Italian, which was slightly improving on my part. He packed me three clementines, for which I felt like it would be wrong not to buy something. I knew what I wanted. I figured it was OK to be a little grasso.

At home I sat eating my taralli alla cipolla, savoring each bite. For dessert I finished off the banana bread. 

Italy has a lot of very good food. Not only cooked dishes, but fruits and vegetables with more flavor than I thought they could ever have. If you travel to another country, please, do it right. Walk into a grocery store. You don’t have to examine everything, but look around. If a vegetable or fruit starts singing to you, focus your eyes and answer the song; ask the price. Talk to the local shop owners, they’ll point you in the right direction. 

If you’re reading this, you’re a person who appreciates delicious food. Be adventurous. Try something different and unique to where you are. Of course, you’ll bring your own culture too. Slowly, we can show the whole world the greatness of banana bread. And for the love of God, save the whole grain flour for your pasta or toast if you want. Just buy the plain white flour taralli. I recommend it with olive oil. Also onion.

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Essays

Thursday Nights in Italy

It’s the night before Friday. 

I don’t have class tomorrow, and hope swims in my heart like that of a small child who finds out there is a snow day, school is cancelled, and they will have three days of play. The numbing quality of the stressful week weighs me down, as though I was eating a pepper so hot that my taste buds couldn’t handle it, and then suddenly I could taste nothing. Many people start to suffer from this numbness by Wednesday, and on Thursday nights, they often step into the streets with drinks, other people, and the moon. They come to have fun, to discover another person looking for an adventure, or just to chat before their next meal or sleep. In Parma, Italy, there is one beautiful element to Thursday nights which excites people like myself beyond all the rest. 

Aperitivo.

This magical event occurs during Italy’s happy hour. In America, everyone knows it must be five o’clock somewhere. I learned this by the age I was six, listening to Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffet singing through the speakers on our deck while my Dad was on the grill. The smoke of Bubba burgers dancing in the air was just as important to the song of summer as was Buffet’s melodious voice. I reflected that Jackson and Buffet had a good point, it is always five o’clock somewhere. 

I don’t know if I realized at age six that the phrase serves to reassure Americans they can drink at whatever time they like and they don’t have to feel bad about it. If I grew up in Italy, I’m not sure I would have learned the phrase at all. Italians normally eat dinner around nine o’clock at night. Happy hour starts two hours prior: it’s seven o’clock somewhere.

So here I am on a Thursday night, sitting outside next to a lamp heater with an aesthetically pleasing fire grumbling inside. I can sense that there is food coming. I toss my black-and-white scarf over my mouth to help with the task of staying warm, my eyes sparkling with the reflection of fire as they shift to watch others. People walk past me on Via Farina, most likely on their way to find their own lamp heater outside a restaurant or bar serving aperitivo. My eyes diverge when I spy my waiter walking out the door, slowly carrying his tray like a wealthy man deciding who he should throw his money at next. My stomach does cartwheels in excitement once he arrives at my side. He announces two Tuscan wines and one Aperol Spritz. His bountiful treats have arrived, and I feel rich. 

Italians, like Americans, have certain customs. Americans, however, are a mix of many breeds. Italian customs are a bit older, often more particular, and I enjoy partaking in them very much. This way I can pretend to live another life in another place, although when my body sleeps in a house with an Italian family, and my tastebuds delight in Italian cuisine everyday, I don’t know how much “pretending” is really done. 

In order to experience the Italian aperitivo, I had no choice but to order the Aperol Spritz or red wine. My mouth pleaded for something sweet, so I ordered the Aperol Spritz. Aside from the fact that it would’ve been rude not to order the Italian cocktail, I wouldn’t receive any complimentary food if I did not select a drink. As an Aperol Spritz is usually around five euros in Italy, and the right restaurant or bar will serve cheesy focaccia bread as part of aperitivo, this order is as obvious as a Wendy’s vanilla frosty and fries in America. 

“Grazie,” I say to the waiter, as he places all of the glasses on the table. I take a sip of the fizzy drink. The bubbles swing around my mouth like a hammock in soft wind. 

Aperol Spritz is a warm sunset descending over the Bay of Naples. You watch the orange light while you sit perched on your balcony atop the cliffs of Sorrento. The prosecco, aperol, and splash of soda water mirror the symphony of the tangerine rays reflecting on the bay. The boats in the marina slowly and carefully cut through the song. Using my straw I fish my orange slice out of the bay of bubbles. I suck on the fruit of Sicilia. It is bittersweet, bitter from the Aperol, and stained slightly red from the liquor. Still, its sweetness is stronger. Oranges are in season in February. 

My Thursday night improves when the waiter brings the food. He holds a basket containing several delicacies. The centerpiece is cheesy focaccia bread, topped with small green balls of juice. People are very particular about their affection (or lack thereof) for this sweet, acrid, and salty fruit. I find them to be a delicacy, and even better in Italy, where many people grow the species of small tree themselves. The olive oil in this country is unprecedented. 

Surrounding the main features are sweet-and-salty peanuts, crunchy dried corn, spicy dried corn, more olives, potato chips, and tortilla chips. Just a reminder, this is what Italians eat before dinner. As a college student, a girl who loves eating appetizers for a meal on a budget, and someone whose mother serves dinner at 6:30 pm, aperitivo satisfies my meal. Yet for Italians, aperitivo is so much more than the sweetness of a beverage, or the saltiness of food. Aperitivo is play, sharing time with friends under the carolling moon on Via Farina. It is the joy of a child on a snow day.

Watching Italians around me walking, eating, and drinking is admiring the snowmen other children have made. Getting warm by the lamp heater is putting your hands by the fire as you wait for your mom to arrive with the s’mores materials. Biting into the stretchy, cripsy, and salty olive focaccia is the symphony of bells in the air pulled by magical reindeers. Sucking on your straw to be blasted with the cool, fizzy drink of warm orange sunsets is like riding your sled down the snow-covered hills of your hometown. The wind chills your lips, and when you laugh your mouth opens and is filled with the taste of happiness. It doesn’t matter if the happiness is warm or cold on your throat. The sheer feeling of it in your heart, your friend laughing behind you on a sled or next to you at the table on Via Farina, warms you up long after you reach the bottom of the hill or the sun fades away on the Bay of Naples. 

I flag down the waiter and order another Aperol Spritz. The air gets colder, but more neighbors come out as the moon brightens up. My heart warms up while I play. 

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Essays

The Magic of Possibility

Kayla Causey

When I turned eleven, I waited patiently for my acceptance letter to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. I knew it was a long shot—obviously, because I lived in America—but I held out hope. The wizarding world was a tantalizing dream locked behind the pages of my well-worn Harry Potter books, and I pined for the opportunity to trade P.E. for flying lessons, or science for transfiguration. I clung desperately to the hope that life might be hiding its hand, waiting for the right moment to reveal a side more exciting than what I experienced day to day. The mundane drum of reality, however, beat on and after a while I finally had to admit to myself that Hogwarts wasn’t real. I thought that meant that magic couldn’t be either… until the beans.

Two years ago, sometime over Christmas break, my siblings and I hurried a delightfully designed box to the table. Small though it was, especially placed in the center of our expansive wooden dining area, the box demanded attention as well as apprehension. Its colors were bold: red stripes that perfectly matched the blushed cheeks of a baby-faced clown, greens and blues that then filled in the outline of its hat. Most striking, however, were the yellow Grecian columns that framed the sides of a plastic window. The view left nothing to be assumed of what came nestled inside, yet the box’s real secret still remained hidden. Our only clue lay in the possibility of the name emblazoned on its front: Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans.

My sister peeled open the top, then tore the plastic inside letting the candy cascade out onto the table. Entranced by the release of the beans, my sister, brother and I sank slowly into our seats. No one moved to try one, we just stared. They looked like your everyday (muggle) jelly beans: bright solid colors like pink, red, and green were flanked by marbled yellows, reds, and browns. Each of us knew, however, the kind of flavors that lay in wait: “every flavor” meant any flavor.

It was a game none of us had played before. Looking around the table at my siblings, their eyes reflected my own giddy fear of the unknown tastes we were about to experience. We were older and more jaded than we were when we each picked up the first Harry Potter book, but at the whim of the beans, we became kids again, in a candy shop we thought could never exist. My brother and sister dove right in, picking through colors, guessing flavors, and reaping the rewards and consequences that came with each new bite: a sigh of relief and delight when the brown and cream bean turned out to just be marshmallow or a sudden convulsion when the overwhelming taste of a seemingly plain, white colored bean turned out to be soap. I, on the other hand, played the game much safer deciding to stick to the brightly colored solids. The blue was blueberry; dark green, watermelon; and medium green, apple. The worst it got for me was mistaking a cherry for the slightly darker colored cinnamon, until I realized I’d eaten all of the beans I’d deemed safe. What remained were the suspiciously colored stragglers even my brother and sister didn’t want to touch.

My sister gripped the pamphlet identifying the flavors of each bean. A dark red bean with scattered brown splotches lay in my hand, and its corresponding taste lay in hers. I had gotten away in the bean game unscathed so far, and now was my time to face the deep dark side of “every flavor.”

With foods you anticipate to be bad, always there is that first moment where you don’t taste anything. You know better than to let yourself be fooled, and yet you let your guard down right before it hits you. At first, it’s bad…but it’s not that bad…and then all of a sudden, it’s worse.

Earthworm. The name itself is so frank you can’t help but imagine on your tongue the dirt, the grit, that squiggly thing you try not to smush when you walk in the rain…that squiggly thing you ultimately do smush when you walk in the rain. The picture I had in my head was dark and damp, with an invasion of wet, slimy, faceless crawlers.

And that picture was only half of it. The Earthworm bean was suspiciously spicy, in that the taste traveled up my nose pooling in the orifices of my skull as well as filling the cavern of my mouth. Gasping for breath didn’t help much; the taste remained. And it was bitter, too, the kind of bitter that makes your face scrunch in newly discovered disgust. I thought maybe water would help, but much like a worm thrives in a moist environment, so did its taste.

I was unable to move from my seat and I couldn’t pay attention to anything but the Earthworm bean that was still very much thriving in my mouth. I gagged. I tried milk. I tried food. I tried everything and yet it persisted. Even though I’d never tasted a live earthworm before, there remained little doubt in my mind that that was indeed what I was tasting. It was uncanny how thoroughly I was convinced. Inside that one little bean was the world I had so desperately wanted to be a part of since the moment I had been introduced to the world of Harry Potter.

The beans were no flying broomsticks or talking painting, but they were still enchanting in so far as they removed me, in that moment, from the everyday. Not only had the beans transported me from the time that the Earthworm bean remained in my mouth into the body of my younger, more idealistic self, it had brought me face to face with what I had previously thought was impossible. For lack of a better word, it was magic.

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Essays

It’s All Alien to Me

Alex O’Connor

Five p.m., five hungry stomachs, a stocked refrigerator, a preheating oven, and important first impressions: the steaks had never been higher. Pun intended. Steak was not on the menu, it was something much simpler but equally as exhilarating. The meal? Chicken, rice, and broccoli—I had never cooked a meal for myself, let alone for five people I only vaguely knew, so simplicity was essential. I didn’t want to set myself up to fail. The night was about first impressions, but not only that, it was about first-time cooking experiences. If I messed this up, the repercussions would be immense.

I was preparing to undergo a month and a half process, a process that would lead to the production of a play called “The Aliens.” And as the director of the play, I was not only the organizer of the production, but also the emotional and spiritual leader of the team. If their first impression of me was a night spent writhing in pain from salmonella, the quality of the show would certainly suffer. I couldn’t mess this up—the show depended upon it.

I wanted the cast and crew to trust me, and what instills more trust than the incredibly domestic and familial activity of cooking? Nothing. Therefore, I assembled my team so that we could all meet for the first time, and I could establish myself as not only the director of our ensemble, but also the head chef of our metaphorical kitchen.

Like any good play, the dinner was full of zany characters: Will, the heartthrob, Ally, my strong-willed and unforgiving stage manager, James, the goofball, Matt, the pleaser, and Devyn, the quiet and sweet one. Will was the first person to arrive, and he did so just in time to help me lather curry powder onto the tender chicken breasts. Next Ally arrived. She and Will began chatting while I put the chicken in the oven. James arrived soon after and introduced his presence with some witty humor; I knew I cast him for a reason. He announced that he smelled burning, making us all laugh. He was preparing to play one of the more comedic roles in the show, and so perhaps he was engaging in some method acting. The chicken was now cooking in the oven. Next up was the rice.

How much water did the rice need? I honestly had no idea. Too much water, and you end up eating soupy rice; too little water, and you end up with teeth-cracking pieces of rice. I didn’t want to compromise the million-dollar smiles of my actors. The problem of when to start the rice so that it was ready at the same time as the chicken also remained! I decided that I would follow the instructions on the box and cook it with a two-to-one water to rice ratio, but I wouldn’t start cooking it until after I had flipped the chicken in 15 minutes. My anxiety was clearly visible, I had no idea what I was doing, but as soon as Matt arrived I felt a weight lift off of my shoulders. His warm and gracious presence lightened the mood in the room and our cast really started to feel like a family. A zany and anxious family.

Devyn arrived soon after and our family was complete, but she also commented on the burning smell, (thanks Devyn). Devyn’s comment wasn’t funny like James’, but was filled with genuine concern and worry. The oven is very old, and as soon as you turn it on there is a vague burning smell. The culprit was not the chicken, I reassured her. Even if it was, at least no one could contract salmonella from burnt chicken.

Things were rushing by rapidly, so I thought I would slow down the pace of the night with a poem from an author who is referenced in our play, Charles Bukowski. It was a poem called, “Dinner, 1933,” which seemed relevant, but what I didn’t realize was the poem was about a child who didn’t like their parents cooking. The poem is quite blunt: “The food that I had eaten and what I had seen was already making me ill.” I should have read the poem beforehand. As the metaphorical parent of this production, I felt slightly attacked. Was it possible that I was sowing the seeds of dissent within my own cast and crew?

Fifteen minutes quickly passed and everyone was having a pretty good time, quietly chatting on my living room couch. I asked if everyone was ready for the beef bourguignon—the joke was met with mild approval. I flipped the chicken and it looked like it was browning nicely; maybe this would actually work out. I put the rice on and gloated to my cast that I was actually doing alright. One by one they came to micromanage my cooking process, though, judging the pot I used to cook the rice, my rice to water ratio, and even my choice of seasoning for the chicken. Was it too late to hold a second round of auditions? It seemed as though my cast was bonding and getting along quite well, but perhaps they were all united by a common enemy: their director.

We all tentatively waited, with Will and James in particular drooling in hunger. Will periodically helped me check on the rice; it was still soaking in water, so perhaps I got the ratio wrong in the end. Will and Matt insisted that I remain steadfast, but the colander sitting in the kitchen cabinet began to look ever more appealing. Luckily the rice started to harden up.

Five minutes until showtime. I went to cook the broccoli in a pan with olive oil, but before I could cook the broccoli, I had to wash it! The sanity, sanctity, and general sanitation of the whole operation would be compromised by unwashed broccoli. Unfortunately, I had already cut the broccoli—it was in a thousand pieces, so I gently tossed a few pieces back and forth in my hands under running water. I have to assume there is a better and more efficient way to clean away bacteria from broccoli, but this was the best I could do. As I prepared the pan to cook the broccoli, I accidentally put too much olive oil in and also turned the heat up too high. The olive oil started boiling on the pan and making a mess. A few droplets of olive oil bounced onto my skin, leaving me with little burn marks around my hands. Luckily, no one in my team noticed, or they were too nice to say anything, maybe too diva-ish to care about my pain.

The moment of truth was almost upon us, so I took a moment to reflect. What an incredible opportunity to direct a play, and what an amazing moment in time, the inciting event of our whole theatrical process. This dinner, this cast, and me, being worshipped by them, I the chef, with my eager eaters. Lotus eaters.

The time had come. I ran to take the chicken out of the oven, and I beckoned my cast into the kitchen and handed them each a plate and told them to serve themselves. My face was too close to the oven when I opened it, and I almost scalded myself. Matt made sure to point out that I shouldn’t put my head in the burning oven. Thanks Matt. I put on the oven mitt, but the oven mitt was more of an old kitchen towel rag, and I burnt my hand on the pan trying to remove the chicken from the oven. I still have a mark on my right pinky from the accident. But I played it off like no big deal as to not alarm anyone, and the cast began to serve themselves.

A single tear rolled down my cheek.

I had forgotten beverages, but the night would have to continue with parched mouths. We all took our seats around the table and I put on some smooth jazz. Will was excited about my music selection, but I suspect no one else was. I could barely eat the food as I tentatively watched them, wondering whether they were enjoying it. They all had their fair share— Matt even went back for seconds, but Will barely even finished his first portion. Yikes.

I asked them what they thought, and they all reassured me that they liked the food. Their so smiles indicated mild satisfaction; it didn’t seem like any fireworks were lighting up on their taste buds as I had expected. They were also all very quick to leave after they finished eating, probably a bad sign. Did they not realize the magnitude of the situation? Families are built around the dinner table—rule one of domestic life— and yet they all scurried off like they were eating at some fast food buffet style restaurant. I was heartbroken.

After all was said and done, the food’s reception was lukewarm, but honestly, I’m just glad there was no vomiting involved. This wasn’t the perfect night, but it also would not be the perfect show—there would never be a perfect performance, not in the kitchen or on the stage. What I was sure of was that there would be smiles, laughs, tears, and probably a few more burn marks along the way.

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Essays

Indulging in the Process

by Lauren Blaser

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.

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Essays

Le Restaurant des Rêves

Christopher Sundaram

On a small Parisian street tucked behind the Place des Vosges sits a beautiful little restaurant. One may even walk past the small red door and not think twice about glancing in the windows on either side of it. To do so would be a grave mistake. This past January, when traveling to France to visit my girlfriend, Allyce, we decided that we would go out to one fancy meal. We do not get to see each other much, as she goes to school in France, so the night was already special. Allyce had gone to this place a couple of months back, and I had been there years ago, and we had both loved it. We decided on it and then, on a quiet Tuesday night, went over to the Place des Vosges. After a pre-dinner drink, we walked to the restaurant at around seven p.m. The atmosphere was warm and welcoming, and the tables were placed closely together, as if the goal was for everyone in the restaurant to feel like they were eating the same dinner. The only two diners there, however, were Allyce and me, as people usually eat later in Paris. In certain restaurants, being the only ones there may have been a little bit awkward, but not at Le Bistrot de L’Oulette.

After greeting us with a graceful “Bonsoir,” the waiter brought Allyce and me a couple of steps into the restaurant and sat us down across from each other. I could tell from the beginning that he was a kind man. He was middle-aged, with warm eyes set behind his glasses. As he began to point out our options, he spoke with a voice full of vivacity and passion. As I scanned through the entrées, plats, and desserts on the menu, I saw traditional French dishes such as snails, foie gras, roasted duck breast, and crême brulée. It was a special occasion, so my girlfriend and I decided to get an appetizer, a main dish, and a dessert. First, however, as with all French restaurants, the wine had to be chosen.

Allyce and I are not wine connoisseurs, so our waiter excitedly brought out a couple bottles he thought we would like, splashed a sample of red into our glasses, and asked us to try it. After a taste, the waiter poured the other sample for us, and seeing our faces widen, told us why. He described how there are different kinds of grapes, and pointed out that this wine, a Languedoc from southwestern France, had a flaveur rond or “round flavour.” I could see what he was talking about, as the texture of the wine was rather soft and soothing instead of crisp, and almost seemed to match the calm and warm environment around us.

After a couple sips of wine and a few bites of country bread, the beautiful aura of the Bistrot became apparent to me. At the far end of the restaurant, a man, presumably one of the owners, was doing some paperwork. He looked up, smiled, and gave me a wave, which I returned with a smile and wave of my own. Behind him was a square opening lined with wood where the waiter would get the dishes, and behind that I could see the chef making our meal. As my chestnut soup arrived, the waiter, who seemed to have taken a liking to us, engaged us once more in conversation.

The restaurant was a conversation lover’s dream, as there were only about two steps separating me from the waiter, who was behind the counter. Both Allyce and I deeply appreciated this man’s passion for what he did. He was smiling, and loved telling us about his life, whether it be his wine expertise, his days working at a vineyard, or his children. While he did not elaborate fully, I can only imagine the life this man had lived, as he carried with him a sense of elegance and experience beyond his years. I pictured him spending years looking after a vineyard, making wine, and having the same kind of family dinner that Allyce and I felt we were about to have. Before taking a sip of the soup, my experience was already special. I had been sipping on a wonderful, silky glass of wine with my loved one across from me, and the best waiter I have ever had making us feel cultured by telling us about wine. I could have been served a Big Mac and would still have had good things to say about the experience. I have always thought that a restaurant can be best measured by its food, and I still do, but this waiter was beginning to make me rethink what a restaurant is all about.

Regardless of my epiphany, to ignore the food would be a disservice to it. As I looked at my soup, I saw a deep marigold yellow, creamy liquid with some herbs and a few pieces of duck scattered around. As I blew on the soup and took my first taste, I experienced a combination of soothing warmth, startling freshness, and soft texture that made both my taste buds and my heart go buzzing. I told our waiter how amazing it was, and, once again, he told me why. There were six succulent pieces of duck in the middle of the soup, and he said that the ducks are treated very well. They roam free and live a wonderful life, which, apparently, was why they tasted so good (a bit morbid, I know). While wine and free-range ducks are not my primary interest, I was so happy to hear the passion with which our waiter spoke about them.

A man entered the restaurant, increasing the total number of diners to three. Despite the new company, it felt as though Allyce and I still had the place to ourselves. I savored every last sip of the soup and, with another glass of Languedoc in hand, conversed with Allyce. In between each course, we would smile at each other and just take in the moment while enjoying each other’s company. As the waiter placed the cassoulet in front of me, my eyes sparkled with joy. I wanted to devour it immediately, but two things were preventing me from doing that: 1. It was really, really hot, and 2. I felt like I had already eaten dinner. After my first taste, however, I knew that I had to finish it. I got that same heartwarming feeling I had just received from the chestnut soup. Something about the restaurant, whether it was the decor, the food, the company, or the staff, or everything together, made it feel extremely homely. 4000 miles away from my house, the intimacy and familiarity I felt from both Allyce and L’Oulette reminded me of a family dinner.

The plat gave way to the dessert. While I got a simple chocolate cake with ice cream (which was absolutely delicious), the real thing to write home about was Allyce’s chocolate sphere. With a jubilant “Voilà,” hot chocolate from the pitcher in the waiter’s hand flowed all over the sphere, which caused the chocolate ball to melt and give way to a stunning praline mousse. It was as if the food had sprung to life.

At the end of the meal, I got ready to tell the waiter how special a night he gave to both my girlfriend and myself. The only thing that beat me to doing so was something I will always remember: as the waiter handed us the bill, he said how much it meant to him to have people like us at his restaurant. I responded with a smile and thanked him earnestly for the experience he gave us. I tried to say more, but due to the fact that I was speaking French, I found it hard to fully express what I was feeling. The waiter understood the impression he had on us, however, as I touched my heart and said “Merci.”

As Allyce and I paid and finished our last sips of wine, we noticed that the restaurant around us was quite full. The waiter became more preoccupied with the multitude of new diners, and the night began to draw to a close. The splendor of the evening dawned upon both my girlfriend and me. While he may not have known it, this waiter helped to give me one of the most beautiful memories of my life. It is touching and heartwarming to know that there are people out there who enjoy their job so much that it brings others joy to hear them speak about it. Throughout the rest of the trip, Allyce and I would keep on reminiscing on the beautiful dinner we had at L’Oulette. Months have passed and I still remember that night vividly. The joy in my girlfriend’s eyes, the passion and voice of the waiter, the warmth of the chestnut soup, and the distant visual of the cook making our food behind the small opening in the restaurant wall. When going to a foreign country, what more can someone want than being with a loved one, conversing with a local in the language of that country, eating the country’s food, drinking the country’s wine, and feeling truly at home? It is moments like those that are fitting of a restaurant that I will forever think of as the restaurant of dreams, or, more fittingly, Le Restaurant des Rêves.

Categories
Essays

Mamá Dora’s Ceviche

Carolina Gazal

I am convinced that my grandmother has healing powers. Mamá Dora, my petite five-foot-tall, white haired and freckled grandmother, has the antidote to nearly every ailment. Within my family, we refer to her powers as brujería, which translates to witchcraft, because some of her cures and concoctions defy the staunch American medicinal traditions we’ve been coddled by. For instance, if I complained about an earache, my grandmother would roll up a newspaper, carefully lodge it in my ear, light a match, and my pain would vanish. She was well aware of the cupping method decades before athletes co-opted it, and knows how to “properly” do so without leaving bruises. She even dispels evil spirits and energies from our home with a mere white egg and her secretive whispers. However, her cooking has proved to be the most magical remedy of all her tricks and cures. Her recipes are like potions, undoubtedly guaranteed to heal and cure the most aching hunger to the most painful heartbreak.

I’ve watched in quiet admiration as Mamá Dora has treated and fed every cousin, uncle, aunt, and everyone in between. One of her specialties is ceviche, a dish made of fresh raw fish cured in lime juice, thickly chopped onions, and bits of spicy yellow ají. Mamá Dora’s ceviche is the perfect remedy for the type of sadness that induces hunger, the answer to every exasperated “I miss home.” Ceviche has cured my hunger and homesickness more times that I can remember. It has saved my mother from the anxiety of coming home empty-handed, and is the neutralizer that keeps our family gatherings tolerable. Instead of receiving a pale and tasteless chicken noodle soup when we’re sick, we receive a spicy bowl of ceviche. Mamá Dora’s potent ceviche has cured us all, and it is only made from a few ingredients. All she needs is one white fish, an onion, some limes, and cilantro to make a fulfilling meal, like an alchemist turning common metals into gold.

The origins of ceviche are hazy and often argued about. Most people agree that it was founded in Latin America, but Peruvians like myself believe the legend that ceviche was created when an Incan emperor demanded fresh fish, but could not travel the distance to retrieve the fish. When it was discovered that lime juice would keep the fish as fresh as possible when traveling from the sea to the top of the mountains, an important part of Peru’s national heritage was born. I imagine a chasquis, a professional Incan runner, balancing a carefully constructed bowl of raw fish and lime juice while dashing back to Cusco. Ceviche’s legacy has been passed down from the hands of Incan royalty to my grandmother’s compact and sun-spotted hands, marked by decades of sitting under the sun, slicing avocados, raising every child in the family, and cooking more than fifty years’ worth of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners.

My grandmother must have perfected this recipe more so out of convenience rather than tradition. My grandfather, Papá Lucho, was a fisherman who had access to the finest fresh fish on a daily basis in Peru’s chief seaport, Callao. My mother often reminds me of how hard life was back then. Even though Mamá Dora is a skilled cook and healer, she lacked the education to secure a steady job amidst the rocky political climate. Surviving off a fisherman’s wages was not easy. After an earthquake destroyed their town, they were forced to uproot and move to a safer neighborhood. My mother still dwells on all of her precious childhood mementos that she was forced to leave behind, but notes that this relocation brought her a better life. Although they spent most of their time at school or on the beach, their city was still unsafe. They were forced to live by citywide curfew in order to protect them from criminals that lurked around during the night. They persevered, and even grew stronger from all that they endured. Mamá Dora was able to make her meals a constant in their unpredictable lives. They could always count on ceviche to fulfill their hunger, and I believe this is what makes Mamá Dora’s ceviche so strong and so good.

My mouth waters when I think of the ceviche Mamá Dora must have concocted, using only the best fish from the oceans of Peru, and freshly picked cilantro that my mother purchased at the local market. Although my mother never specifically speaks about eating ceviche in Peru when she was my age, I have the most vivid vision of what this scene would look like. I see Mamá Dora, short but sturdy, slicing onions but not crying because she is immune to the smell. I see my grandfather, standing tall and dancing to the Beethoven he still plays in his senile state today. I see my mother with the same unruly hair and petite features that I have now inherited. She is squeezing limes next to her two statuesque brothers. They are all tan from days spent at the beach. They tower over my grandmother, helping to cook what is now my favorite meal.

Although my siblings and I don’t get to see our grandmother as often as we would like, a few hours is enough to indulge our cravings for a good meal. Our stays include my grandfather wagging his finger to the sky to the tune of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” my mother whispering secrets to my grandmother while she steams sweet potatoes, and an occasional guest who heard Mamá Dora was cooking. Cousins and uncles that I haven’t seen in months will suddenly appear at the door when she is cooking. Mamá Dora always welcomes them in with a hug and a plate. Ceviche not only has the power to convince me to eat raw fish, but also to teleport relatives from all parts of New York to the very end of Long Island.

One warm spring afternoon a handful of years ago, Mamá Dora decided that ceviche would be the first meal we learned to properly cook. She placed a single piece of white fish onto a wooden cutting board in front of my sister and ordered her to chop it into small chunks. I was on cilantro duty, washing each sprig and plucking only the “good leaves” off of the stem (the bigger leaves without spots). This assignment proved that I was not trusted with a large knife. After Mamá Dora noticed that the pieces of fish were too big, and that I had placed too much cilantro into the bowl, she laughed at our pathetic attempts. I wondered how a dish with so few ingredients could be so complicated. Although Mamá Dora wanted to help us perfect our ceviche-making skills, my mother hurriedly took over, exclaiming that we didn’t have enough time to learn how to make ceviche.

Just as champagne is best served in a flute washed in hot water, ceviche is best served on a flat and wide bowl. It is best displayed to show off the bright orange flecks of ají, the pale white raw fish, and the scattered leaves of dark green cilantro. My mother likes to add her own flair to her ceviche, placing slices of cooked sweet potatoes around the rim of her special ceviche plate, which perfectly absorb the lime juice and add a shocking taste to the plain sweet potato.

Ceviche is the perfect meal to eat on a hot summer day. The lime juice, cold and refreshing, is guaranteed to cool you down while the spiciness of the raw onions and ají will surely wake you up. My summer weekends are filled with family gatherings in my grandmother’s tiny and un-air conditioned apartment, but none of us complain because we are eating ceviche. My Tío James sits on a stool smiling, telling my siblings and me that ceviche is good for your lungs and improves your circulation. My grandfather grins without teeth, still wagging his finger to the sky. I reach for seconds and thirds, savoring my grandmother’s meal while it lasts.

If you are truly feeling down, Mamá Dora prescribes a spoonful of Leche del Tigre, or Tiger’s Milk, the juice that remains at the bottom of the ceviche bowl. Best consumed with your largest metal spoon, the juice is fiery and has collected all the cilantro leaves that have been marinating under the fish. If you are feeling brave, drink straight from the bowl. Beware the splashes that can feel like a cold splatter of salty seawater on a sunburn. One spoonful is all you need to quench your desire for flavor. First you will feel the zesty juice tickle your lips, urging you to drink more. Tears may spring to your eyes if you are unaccustomed to this kind of spice. Then you will feel a cool and invigorating splash on your tongue, quelling the itchiness on your lips. Drink until you feel it in the pit of your stomach, filling you with the strength of a tiger.

Ingredients

About 4 servings

  • 1 1/2 pounds of fish fillets (basa, swai, tilapia or flounder) diced into 1 inch pieces
  • 1 red onion, thinly sliced
  • 2 ají amarillos, veins and seeds removed (if you like it spicy do not remove the veins or seeds)
  • 1/2 cup of freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 2 teaspoons of chopped fresh cilantro leaves
  • Salt to taste

Garnish

  • 2 sweet potatoes, boiled, peeled and cut 1/4 inch thick
  • 2 ears of corn, boiled and cut in half

1 Rinse the fish in cold water, drain well and salt to taste. Soak the sliced onion in room temperature water for 5 minutes, drain well and set aside.

2 Meanwhile, place the lime juice, ají amarillo and one piece of fish in a blender until smooth. Place fish in a bowl and pour in the mixture, mixing well. Stir in the chopped cilantro. Let it marinate for 10 minutes.

3 When ready to serve, arrange slices of sweet potato and ceviche, and top it with the onions and cilantro.

Note: Ají amarillo can be found frozen or canned in most Latin American supermarkets. Mama Dora’s choice is frozen

Categories
Essays

Two Sisters and the Soul

Meg Loughman

Gravy, transcendence, and Sunday afternoons in Mississippi

I remember my first truly transcendent culinary experience like it was only weeks ago. Of course, it wasn’t any Michelin star-studded dining establishment —probably not even a place that high-brow critics would look twice at (though a decent chunk of lucky locals and tourists know the truth and often take to Yelp to sing its praises). But, on that warm and sunny afternoon in Jackson, I thought the heavens had cracked open and poured into this one rickety Victorian home-turned-buffet restaurant right off Congress Street by the State Capitol. Two Sisters Kitchen was the place where I first felt that food could be not just blissful, but wholly transformative, and that its powers of unification were not to be understated.

Growing up in the Bible belt, nestled deep in the southern crooks of Mississippi’s bayou-speckled coastline, being Christian was an unspoken assumption. For years, I didn’t even realize there were people who weren’t Christian; some of my most formative years were spent in this world of perpetually being late to church on Sundays, where “Jesus camp” was a summertime staple and ‘atheist’ may have just as well been a curse word. But in such parts of the Deep South, this common belief in an all-powerful, all-loving God is a thread that strings everyone together—a thread strong enough to keep some semblance of hope in the most impoverished areas of the country, to breach the sting of racism past and present. And I say this even now, after my own break-up with Christianity and falling-out with the conservative Catholic teachings of my youth. In fact, I believe there are very few things that can transcend the gaping wounds in the sticky hot Mississippi South—God is one of them, but I’ll be damned if a good meal isn’t the other.

In fact, I believe there are very few things that can transcend the gaping wounds in the sticky hot Mississippi South—God is one of them, but I’ll be damned if a good meal isn’t the other.

It was the middle of March. Or maybe the end. I was in high school, brought three hours north to Jackson by a less-than-successful scholarship interview and leaving it even more riddled with nervousness about my impending college decisions. But, as my father and I stepped onto the former home’s front steps, the air swelling with the aroma of yeast rolls and okra and fried chicken, we stepped out of any temporal confinements and entered into a strange, glowing vignette of the present moment. We had just barely beat the inevitable post-Church throngs, settling into a sun- warmed spot on the patio before ordering our sweet iced teas and beelining for the buffet.

There’s something about Southern food that truly does heal and nourish the soul. I piled my robin egg-blue plate sky high with fried okra, sweet cornbread, rice and gravy, green beans, and buttermilk biscuits. The list goes on: chunky mashed potatoes, bread pudding, award-winning fried chicken, and some mysterious casserole that I could have eaten every day for a month. And then there was the creamed corn—my dad and I couldn’t shut up about it the whole drive home (I specifically remember him saying “I think God reached down and scooped this creamed corn onto my plate. Seriously.”). One man sat perched in a shady corner of the back patio, his saxophone oozing with velvety afternoon jazz, and everybody—me, my dad, the Churchgoers in their Sunday best, the woman who nearly passed out from her meal and was fanning herself on the front steps—we all sat together, sharing in that warm, woozy fullness that is at once uncomfortable and purely blissful, soaking in every second.

A couple of months ago, I had the misfortune of stumbling upon a Facebook article shared onto my timeline bearing the bad news that Two Sisters Kitchen was closing down for good. My heart broke a little for that sacred place—a rare corner of the world where time slows to a lazy crawl, where all kinds of folks come together in a sort of fellowship over the near-transcendent beauty that is a warm patio and a heaping, steaming plate of real Mississippi soul food. I could hardly believe that I’d never again dip my fork into a bowl of that doughy peach cobbler, that I’d never again taste the sweet and savory nectar of that miraculous, mysterious chicken casserole.

The truth is, though, that there will always be another diamond-in-the-rough Southern food joint that goes heavy-handed on the salt and sugar in all the right places. Two Sisters Kitchen is not an anomaly, by any means, but its closure still compelled me to look back on what made it so damn special in the first place. Suddenly I found myself confronted with these nostalgic intricacies of home, and how they had become so dreamy and distant to me as I dwelled in my very different present-day Boston reality.

When I first arrived at Boston College, I found myself as the spokesperson for what life in Mississippi is really like. Sentences like “Wow, I’ve never met anyone from Mississippi before!” became commonplace in small talk and introductions—I was fascinated by the sheer volume of my peers who really knew nothing about the present-day realities of my home state. For the past three-going-on-four years, I’ve become something of an expert at conveying my experiences in the Mississippi public education system, in one of the most religious parts of the country, and, perhaps most notoriously, in a state still bogged down by its problematic history and racist realities (for Christ’s sake, there’s still a Confederate flag in our state flag).

I piled my robin egg-blue plate sky high with fried okra, sweet cornbread, rice and gravy, green beans, and buttermilk biscuits. The list goes on: chunky mashed potatoes, bread pudding, award-winning fried chicken, and some mysterious casserole that I could have eaten every day for a month

What surprised me most of all, however, was not some kind of stark departure in my upbringing from that of my friends’—instead, I found that many people warped the South (and Mississippi, especially) into some faraway land untouched by modernity and riddled with deep- seated hatred and racial tensions. A declaration of my hometown was often met with a response of shock tinged with pity. Now, I won’t go so far as to say that Mississippi doesn’t have more than its own fair share of problems—as I grew older, I became disillusioned by the hyper- religious, ultra-conservative norm, and I couldn’t wait to run off to some ivy-covered northeastern college and get away from it all. But as I settled into life in Chestnut Hill, surrounded by bleeding-heart liberals in their comfortably pristine all-white neighborhoods, I began to realize that Mississippi’s demons aren’t all too different from anyone else’s.

Of course, the two don’t always go hand in hand; not all Mississippians are Christians. I’d argue, though, that most of us know a thing or two about a real comfort food buffet. The cuisine of our home state—food born out of the struggles of slavery, from the impoverished lowlands of the Mississippi Delta—is one thing that repeatedly proves to have the power to unite us all together. At a place like Two Sisters Kitchen, Sunday mornings and soul food could bring about a harmony in diversity that many people would never associate with a place like Mississippi.

There’s a phrase that Southern folks use when someone has opened up to let the love of the Lord enter into their life, when they’re ready to drop everything and give themselves to God: it’s called getting “saved.” One reason I fell out of the religion that once steeped every facet of my life was a slow- but-steady realization that I’d never had a moment where I felt “saved,” that I found my prayers and rituals were empty and felt like there was nobody listening on the other end of the line (cue a well-placed Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret reference). Maybe I have yet to experience some higher reality through faith, and maybe I never will. But if I know one thing for certain, it’s that we were all transcended from the present earthly moment and held there, suspended in some transient space, on one sun-washed afternoon on the back patio of the formerly known Two Sisters Kitchen —“saved” at once by our common humanity and by the smoothness of live jazz and sweet tea—bellies full, but souls even fuller.

Categories
Essays

On Food Shopping

Claire Madden

I have loved many grocery stores in my life. They have been tucked into a street corner and have taken up an entire parcel of land, are painted cobalt or eggshell, are sterile or a bit grimy. They always hunker, loud or unassuming, in the center of a town or city, people always streaming in and out to nourish themselves and their families. They whisper or shout at us about their world-class produce or freshly warmed breads, their community connections, everything. We are asked to come in and provide for ourselves and for the people around us, if only by buying some semi-sweet chocolate chips or clementines.

I do not think I have ever seen food shopping as a chore. When I was younger, maybe eight or nine years old, our most coveted nighttime activity was going to the grocery store. One or two evenings a month, when the moonlight had begun to curl around the trees and our dinner plates had long been cast into the sink, my parents decided that our ingredients had dwindled too fast, and my father was to go to Stop and Shop that night. One of my sisters and I would be chosen to go with him—whomever was chosen would slip on shoes and bound into the car, rocketing over the hills along the river to the store to get cereal or cheddar cheese or cocoa powder.

There was something inherently magical and irresistible about the grocery store at night—something tangibly different. It was not the same space as in the daytime, with the sunlight filtering in through hulking window panes onto dull oranges and fluorescent-yellow cake mixes, not clogged with people wandering up and down the aisles to decide between two types of olive oil. During the daytime, the Stop and Shop was a stretching and teeming place, crowded with voices and elbows and overpriced almonds. At night it was quiet and glittering, the floor just waxed and the overhead music turned moody and slow. My father and I would move through the aisles leisurely, tiptoeing along to inspect the ripeness of stacked bananas, or determining whether the package of Dutch chocolate cookies we were cradling had any broken pieces. No one tried to rattle past us with a wobbly cart and a whispered caution, or brazenly reach in front of us to grab the last good block of parmesan. I was always in the way during the daytime. At night we chose our foods with ease and care, gingerly deciding which would have a home in our cabinet, which foods my baby sister would spread across the floor. The deli counter never had a line in the evening, so our samples of Swiss cheese and turkey were immediate and cherished.  

There was something inherently magical and irresistible about the grocery store at night—something tangibly different. It was not the same space as in the daytime, with the sunlight filtering in through hulking window panes onto dull oranges and fluorescent-yellow cake mixes, not clogged with people wandering up and down the aisles to decide between two types of olive oil.

During these nighttime trips, I was allowed to choose one sweet from the international food section. Stop and Shop had carved out a quarter of an aisle as a lackluster grouping of various ethnic products, and my favorite Irish chocolates were given just a sliver of this area. I was given the choice between a saccharine Dairy Milk bar, buttery Digestive biscuits, or a chocolate Aero bar pockmarked with bubbles. I nearly always chose the Aero bar, neatly snapping off one section to share on the winding way back home.

As lovely and thrilling as these night food shopping trips were, more frequently we went food shopping during the day, with each of my sisters and I given two or three items to track down in the cramped and towering aisles. When my father moved to the city, we took the subway to Grace’s Marketplace and Food Emporium along the churning East River. These stores, packed so tightly into the building that I thought the ceiling might buckle, always hummed with shoppers. There was no leisure or deliberate inspection—you were to move swiftly in and out. In Grace’s, the lines for the butcher or the bread and cheese counter had no clear beginning or end, so it was best just to squeeze yourself into a corner by the cheese twists and handmade pastas and crane your neck to look at the towering shelves while the crowd thinned. The air was always slightly frenetic, with business people and parents and students trying to make just the tiniest dent in the city and then feed themselves and their families.

These kinds of shops were where you could see the ways in which people nourished themselves—in Food Emporium and in the Gristedes near my father’s apartment, people’s hunger was on full display. You could tell when someone was throwing a dinner party—a gleaming jar of olives, a pound of briny shrimp, pâté and water crackers—or needed a moment to themselves—luxurious chocolate ice cream, a single serving of tomato soup, a bottle of white wine. When my father moved to New York, we used to buy pizza dough and Hunt’s tomato sauce, potatoes, and Nestle hot chocolate mix for my younger sister. The checkout clerks rarely commented on anyone’s purchases, just nodded at the many tubs of hummus or bottles of diet soda.

I don’t know why I am so taken with the way people grocery shop—I think I like the observation and possibility that comes with seeing people carefully or haphazardly take food off the shelf. You can see what someone is buying and you can imagine what their life must be like, at least a little bit. You can look at the ingredients and meals they haul up to the cash register and see who they are through the food they eat—what it is, how much, if they seem resigned or frantic or excited about what they are buying. It extends to where people shop, too—if someone is shopping religiously at Whole Foods or Star Market, you can imagine their tranquil morning of green smoothies and collagen or hurried scrambled eggs before class.

You can see what someone is buying and you can imagine what their life must be like, at least a little bit. You can look at the ingredients and meals they haul up to the cash register and see who they are through the food they eat

I think if one were to examine my life through my grocery shopping, they would not look at the sugary squares of Cadbury chocolate or my swift dodging of city shoppers, but my almost ceaseless failings at shopping for myself alone. One might look at the half-full boxes of crackers that I meant to decorate lavishly with a swipe of brie, or the unopened bag of frozen vegetables leaning against the freezer wall.

I have tried to carve out a place for myself at the closest Trader Joe’s, enticed by their vibrant packaging and impeccably written chalkboard signs. Here, I have tried to be conscientious and scrutinizing about my food shopping, to be an adult. I do my best to blend into the colorful and vibrant store in Coolidge Corner, less claustrophobic but still teeming with people. I am nearly always in the way. I am in the way of the cruciferous veggies, blocking the peanut butter, almost shoved out of the way of the brie and Romano cheese, too close to the dark chocolates. People always seem to know exactly what to buy here—they comb deliberately or aggressively through the aisles, with chicken breasts and sweet potatoes ready to meal-prep and thick strands of farfalle paired with a jar of pesto.

These shoppers have figured out what it is to nourish themselves, to first choose how and where to buy food for themselves, and then to discern from the soaring and overwhelming shelves and stacks what you can feed yourself. It is something wholly astonishing and breathtaking. It is suddenly an enormous responsibility, essentially carrying your own nutrition along with you to the grocery store. It has taken me weeks and probably hundreds of dollars to figure out what I should and should not buy—I have spent far too much money on a chicken tikka masala microwave dinner and a box of raspberry lemonade, and then forgotten to buy eggs or frozen fruit that will not go bad when I do not eat it within the week. I have learned that you must buy a dark bottle of olive oil, salt and pepper to sprinkle over almost everything you cook for dinner, and at least two bags of spinach or kale to have some semblance of health in a half-hearted pasta dish. I gravitate toward the peanut butter every time I go to the grocery store, chunky with the crimson lid—it can be spread sparsely or luxuriously across a piece of toast or spooned into yogurt, or eaten late at night with a cluster of dark chocolate chips. I have gathered just enough eggs and sweet potatoes and ice cream to keep myself content, to make my kitchen feel like mine. I still cannot really cook, but I can grocery shop for myself, during the day and after dark. There is one grocery store in the smattering of towns I grew up in that says come home to its customers, and I think when we grocery shop we are coming home, we are creating ourselves.  

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Country Roads

Ileana Lobkowicz

My introduction to Indian food was a pretty average chicken tikka masala from Tandoor, a respectable establishment in my neighborhood that prides itself on providing customers with “an aromatic dining experience.” Tandoor was convenient to pick up on a busy day and varied the monotony of fajitas, pasta, or stew that rotated our family dinner menus. It came in metal tetra pack containers, scribbled with “rice biryani” or “extra garlic naan,” (at my brother’s behest). I’m not sure when my fascination for India first began. I had no tangible connection to the country, yet I had this itching desire to learn more about it beyond the realm of food—a feeling I knew wouldn’t be satiated by Tandoor, no matter how buttery the naan. My yearning led me to go on a creative writing workshop in India where I was met with an authenticity that I craved and an experience I couldn’t predict.

Titu is a renaissance man. There is seemingly nothing he can’t do. Throughout our month-long trip, he played the role of guide, teacher, and sometimes chef. On this particular night, he played the host: inviting a group of 12 college students and a professor to his home for dinner.

The walk to Titu’s house was a leisurely one, a mere 10 minutes down the winding gravel road we took from our abode, nestled in the hill station of Mussoorie, India. Enveloped by a canvas of thick pine forest and the distant horizon of the Himalayas, we veered off the main path as Titu led us down the mountainside forming the road. We made our way down a dangerously steep set of makeshift stairs to a collection of dilapidated metal storage sheds. They were morphed and crested into the earth as if they were one.

Titu’s home was lined with a walkway covered by an awning—big enough to shield from the region’s unexpected rainstorms while still revealing the breathtaking view. We took off our shoes outside and entered one of the several compartment-like rooms. We were welcomed by a small woman with piercing brown eyes, sheathed in a sari that draped her body in delicate layers. Titu’s mother imprinted a red bindi on each of our foreheads as we formed a procession as if meeting a head of state. We were presented with a basket of shawls from which we were to choose—a gift from host to guest.

We were gestured to settle on the floor, lined with unmatched carpets and small pillows. The looming loft where Titu slept suspended above us as we crammed ourselves in a conglomerate of crossed legs and touching elbows. Being a dinner guest in a different culture invokes feelings of anxiousness and humility. I felt an obligation to remain respectful to unfamiliar traditions while also appreciating the novelty. There was something equally satisfying about not knowing what I was going to be served. I sat in a kind of culinary trepidation as the smells teased my senses.

A number of Titu’s family members came in and out—all active participants in the cooking which simultaneously took place in the other room. I was ravenous and slightly uncomforted when we were informed dinner was typically served at 9 or 10 p.m. Much to my selfish delight, a tray of piping hot masala chai appeared before us. I gratefully wrapped my fingers around the teacup as if caressing it. I let the steam penetrate my face with a cloud of cinnamon, cardamom and peppercorn. Wide-eyed and curious, I lifted it up to my nose before I took my first sip. The complexity of spices infused in the black tea created a nuanced tasting journey on my palette—from unexpectedly spicy to a nectarous sweet. The milky tea traveled through my veins, pumping chai instead of blood. A plate of tea biscuits and masala chai-spiced chips accompanied the tea. The spice blend, I would soon discover, was no longer limited to its tea roots, but was rendered a flavoring for the most unlikely of foods. The teacups were filled the rest of the night, like bottomless coffee at a diner.

After rummaging through a box, Titu pulled out a large black album. He opened it and showed us old pictures of him and his family, some torn at the edges but discernibly taken in the very mountains that had become our temporary home. Continuing his show- and-tell efforts, Titu revealed an old black speaker that he said he found in the trash and then fixed. He plugged in his phone and scrolled to play what was purportedly the “only American song” he had. Suddenly, the familiar tune of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” started to play. We began to sing together, all sways and smiles, a song that felt so out of place yet so deserving of that moment. I knew it would be stuck in my head for the next week, and I was wholly okay with it.

We began to sing together, all sways and smiles, a song that felt so out of place yet so deserving of that moment.

Our kumbaya camaraderie continued as Titu recollected some of his impressive hiking feats, including carrying a woman on his back for 13 days when she was on the verge of death. In between oohhs and aahhs, a new aroma encircled the room—a kind of warm ambrosia that felt like it was sent from the Hindu gods rather than their Greek counterparts.

Plates and bowls of food began to appear in impressive mounds. A table visibly too small was placed in the middle of the room. We collectively stood up to help arrange the platters, our incentive to be useful more of a nuisance as we bumped into each other, distracted by the heaping pile of steaming hot roti, a traditional flatbread made with whole-wheat flour and water.

We were beckoned to grab a plate and serve ourselves. We hungrily encircled the table as Titu tried to translate the menu in broken English. One end had a bowl of fluffy white basmati rice, an Indian staple as common as bread and butter. Each grain retained its shape, perfectly intact and not mushy—an accomplishment that deserves as equal praise as al dente pasta. No meal in India is ever complete without dal, a nourishing lentil stew that is both hearty and wholesome—the plant-based protein for most vegetarians. Every spoonful tasted smoother and creamier than the next. The most memorable dish, however, was the medley of pumpkin squash: little golden nuggets lightly fried with cumin seed and turmeric. It was spicy yet sweet from caramelization. Some of them were mashed and others stayed whole in shape. I was mesmerized by the potency of its golden-orange hue. I savored every bite, chewing slowly and thoughtfully so as to remember the taste I would hope to recreate, though I knew it was impossible.

We all ate in emphatic delight, sopping up the lingering sauce and rice pellets with pieces of torn roti, wiping the bottom of our plates clean. I looked around as we all sat in this tiny room, filled with random trinkets and unmatched carpeting, sipping what was left of our now cold masala chai. This was nothing like eating Tandoor with my family out of takeout containers, but it still felt like home.
A mist now hung over the valley, letting in a breeze tainted with the scent of weed that grew as wild and free as grass in India. Convinced I was second-hand high, my belly full of dal, my heart warm with John Denver, I sat a contented dinner guest—relishing a fullness that I knew wasn’t just from the food.