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Tapas Reflect Barcelona’s Captivating Essence

Traveling to Spain always attracted me growing up as I have Spanish heritage on both sides of my family and because the country itself exudes vibrancy, cultural richness, and culinary excellence. My Aunt “Lulu” and younger cousin Marcel are based in Barcelona, so I frequently pictured how enjoyable it would be to visit them and explore the city with their guidance and recommendations. I was never able to see this dream become a reality until summer 2016 when my parents gifted me a month-long trip to Barcelona for my fifteenth birthday. To say I was excited would have been an understatement. To visualize the wonder of a city for so many years is one thing, but to know that you are actually going to see it for the first time with loved ones is utterly thrilling and almost overwhelming. Traveling alone for the first time on an eight-hour flight intimidated me, but certainly did not overcome the joy I felt about immersing myself in Barcelona.

Barcelona is obviously the best place in the world to try tapas, and eating this type of cuisine was undoubtedly one of the highlights of my trip. Native to Spain, they are a culinary staple in the country and are served in numerous restaurants there. Tapas are small plates of savory foods, like snacks, which can be served either warm or cold. They come in many different forms, each bursting with flavor and leaving one wanting to try more. Looking back, it strikes me that so many of the specific tapas that I tried during that marvelous summer reflect unique elements and characteristics of Barcelona as a city.

Perhaps the most recurring tapa that I consumed while in the region of Catalonia was jamón serrano, or serrano ham, a dry-cured meat. Frequently served in extremely thin slices on top of crispy baguette pieces, serrano ham’s deep salty essence is a reminder of Barcelona’s rich history. The aging process for serrano ham can sometimes take years for optimal taste, highlighting the sense of tradition and dedication that goes into crafting this intense yet delicate expression of pork. 

The Barcelona Cathedral was one of the sites that I encountered while roaming the streets of Barcelona with my aunt and cousin, and it took my breath away upon a simple gaze. This building is a Roman Catholic, Gothic cathedral that was built between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. The distinctive style of architecture embodied by the Barcelona Cathedral reminds one that the (roughly) 800 years for which this building has been standing have only enhanced the impressive nature of its unique, intricate design. Similarly, serrano ham’s extensive dry curing process proves essential for developing its concentrated flavor.

Patatas bravas is another tapas dish that I savored during my visit and which reflected the city of Barcelona itself. Patatas bravas are fried potatoes with a spicy garlic aioli drizzled on top. The potatoes are crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, brought to life by the explosive tang of the bravas sauce. Eating patatas bravas in Barcelona means allowing spice to introduce another dimension of culinary delight to potatoes, which can be boring to eat if not accompanied or seasoned properly. The bravas sauce’s bright color, a combination of pink and orange, encapsulates the energized tones of red, orange, and yellow spread throughout Barcelona’s landscape. Exploring Barcelona means walking past countless buildings that consistently display these colors, radiating even more when hit by the summer sun. Dim colors rarely catch one’s eye when roaming the city, but rather a scenery of crimson, tangerine, and pastel yellow inspire one to revel in the beauty of travel and culinary appreciation. Patatas bravas show that a blank canvas (like potatoes) can be enlightened by a daring kick (spicy garlic aioli), much like the colorfully vibrant city of Barcelona.

Heading over to Barcelona, I did not expect the Spanish tapas dishes I tried to visibly and flavorfully capture elements of the city’s physical appearance and history. Apart from treasuring time spent with family members that live an eight-hour plane ride away, I learned during my trip to Spain that cultural foods like tapas do more than just utilize specific native ingredients. They magnify the splendor and essence of the city they originate from.

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Essays

The Sixth Love Language

In the ceremonious birthday week of my mother, I’ve come to reflect on her most distinct love language—food. My mother is a leading exemplar of the argument that food is, in fact, the sixth love language, posed next to touch, quality time, gifts, acts of service, and words of affirmation. Elegant and poised, she softens our hearts with beautiful meals that are never served on a cold plate. However similar, this love language label is not to be confused with “acts of service.” Her cooking is to be enjoyed as a collection of metaphorical words in its own right, strung together as an equally magnificent sentence of affection. 

There is something unique about food that defines itself to be a new dimension in expressing love. It is an indescribable, all-encompassing experience, when performed, shared, and enjoyed. There was once a time when I was young, aflame by my own feminist ideology, and holding onto a slight resentment of cooking, hating comments that combine a woman’s worth with the quality of her cuisine. Pulling away from the kitchen in fear of becoming tailored to an ill-fitting, pre-modern identity, I disserviced myself in a way, inhibiting the commencement of my favorite hobby. Now, learning to reweave the conversation, I have replaced the idea that cooking is a responsibility with the idea that what I produce in the close corners of my kitchen carries a derivative of affection that I am not forced to, but desire to share with others. It is expressive and filling, in more than one way. 

I thank my mother for teaching me to love cooking and how to show love through cooking. Her plated meals, and her beautiful glide through the kitchen, radiates a passionate warmth. Despite the common linkage between cooking and motherhood, I love to see how she adopts it as her personally chosen language of love for everyone she meets. Now, living apart from my mother, I aim to recreate the tender atmosphere she nurtures in our home. Every Sunday morning witnesses me dancing in the kitchen in harmony with the percussion of my spatula on the counter. The symphony of the hour complemented by the sizzle of butter in the pan and, of course, the quintessential and corny accompaniment of Jack Johnson’s “Banana Pancakes” playing its soft tune in the background. Palms down on the counter, slowly tapping my fingers, I await the browning edges of gooey batter, perfectly content in my patience. Where restlessness finds me almost everywhere else—grocery store aisles, books with elongated plots, and slow traffic in Chestnut Hill—cooking pancakes pauses time and pleases me with a sense of peace as I think of others’ pending smiles and satisfied stomachs.

From all this reflection, my current penny thought is this: of course, you should make an effort to cook for others if you wish, but also let others cook for you. The catch is that you should make sure to sit and watch. There is a perfect mutualism present in this event. Keeping my mother company as she prepares a meal for me (and vice versa) arrives in synonymy with a sentiment of love. I’ve spent too many evenings tucked away while someone else is making a meal for me, missing out on the unmatched experience of seeing someone show me affection in their favorite frame. 

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Essays

Eating My Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Essays

Plantains Breed Delicious Creativity

According to the Observatory of Economic Complexity, one of Ecuador’s top exports is bananas. In fact, Ecuador was the world’s largest exporter of bananas in 2019. When reflecting on Ecuadorian cuisine and its significance to me, I cannot help but fixate on one ingredient that graces a multitude of dishes: the plantain. Plantains are a type of banana characterized by their starchiness and firm texture. From maduros to patacones to bolones to tigrillos to chifles, plantains can be prepared in so many different, scrumptious ways. Ecuador is the South American country where my family is from, meaning that I have been there multiple times in my life and enjoyed the food of my culture alongside close relatives. Throughout the course of several years, my appreciation for plantains has drastically increased because of the creativity which Ecuadorians implement when crafting plantain-based delicacies. The particular delicacies which I most enjoy when visiting Ecuador are the bolón and tigrillo mixto from Café de Tere in Guayaquil, Ecuador. They are mouth-watering dishes that I look forward to eating with my loved ones every single time I travel to Ecuador. I cannot leave the country without doing so; it’s that simple.

Eating at Café de Tere is always a planned event that my grandmother and uncle help facilitate. We typically select a specific day to eat there, and on that day they drive me to this esteemed restaurant where we never fail to exchange laughs and smiles while recounting old, humorous memories over a spectacular breakfast. Upon arriving and parking, we head over to the ordering area outside and wait in line until our turn arrives. Café de Tere is such a popular culinary destination in Guayaquil that long lines are seldom unexpected. Routinely, I analyze the horizontal and bright yellow menu above my head, though I know exactly what my order will be once the cashier calls us forward: a bolón and a tigrillo mixto paired with orange juice. After placing our order, we make our way to an empty table outside and excitedly anticipate the arrival of our food.

Perhaps one of the reasons why I deeply savor plantains in the form of bolones and tigrillos has nothing to do with the dishes themselves, but the memories associated with eating them at Café de Tere with my grandmother and uncle. The restaurant’s outdoor setting allows us to relish in the blissful heat and breeze of Guayaquil. Before our food and drinks are even placed on our table, we have the opportunity to catch up with one another. We observe how busy the restaurant is and discuss how Café de Tere grew from a small business to an Ecuadorian empire; it’s inspiring to reflect on how well-prepared, culturally authentic food knows no limits when it comes to success. Café de Tere’s beautifully chaotic environment allows one to enjoy their food even more, given the restaurant’s bustling and community-based nature. Café de Tere’s sunshine yellow aura increases one’s excitement to eat plantains—the menu’s fundamental ingredient.

Eventually, our tray of food is brought to the table and my eyes meet the bolón and tigrillo mixto I ordered. Bolones are made by boiling plantains until they are tender and then mashing them to form balls or dumplings, which are then fried for a crispy exterior. White crumbly cheese is typically added to the plantain mash, which makes for velvety bolones once they are finished cooking. When I take the first bite, I experience the crunchiness of the outside and then immediately taste the simultaneously sweet and savory flavor of plantains. The smoothness of the mash merges wonderfully with the gooey consistency of the cheese, almost melting in my mouth. The cheese itself provides the dish with a pinch of saltiness, which contrasts with the aforementioned sweetness of plantains. The tigrillo mixto accompanies the bolón in a heavenly decadent fashion. 

Tigrillo mixto can be described as a deconstructed bolón, since it takes on a different form though it shares a few of the same ingredients. Tigrillo mixto also involves the mashing of boiled plantains and the inclusion of white crumbly cheese, though it is not served in the shape of a ball. Specifically, butter is heated on a pan and the plantain mash is added to that pan. Afterwards, the white crumbly cheese is stirred into the plantain mash. Once the cheese has softened, whisked eggs are incorporated. The eggs, once delicately scrambled, create a creamy and irresistible plantain mixture. Pieces of fried pork belly provide the finishing touch to tigrillo mixto. I transfer a morsel of this plantain, cheese, pork belly, and egg scramble from the plate to my mouth with a fork, watching the cheese expand before my eyes. The fried pork belly counteracts the creaminess of the cooked egg yolks with salty and crispy accents. Tender, scrambled egg whites establish another dimension of texture to tigrillo mixto, complementing the smoothness of plantains. The acidity of the orange juice wonderfully cuts through the starchiness of plantains.

I understand why bananas, and hence, plantains, are one of Ecuador’s highest exports: people from all over the world must crave the creativity and depth of flavor that plantains make possible in dishes like the bolón and tigrillo mixto. Plantains have the undeniable ability to reward gastronomic imagination and to spark a variety of ideas that exquisitely come to fruition. For those who value the combination of tradition and ingenuity in food like me, I cannot think of a better ingredient to appreciate than plantains. 

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Essays

Cacao Currency

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

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

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

Now, it was time for chocolate. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Essays

Chopping Up a Memory

Several nights ago, I found myself at the kitchen table doing dinner prep alone. Instances like these are rare. I’m used to cooking with at least one other person, and singing while we do it. All day long, I’d had the (now-vintage) Taylor Swift song “Last Kiss” stuck in my head. When I entered the kitchen and popped in earphones, I queued it up. Then I got out the cutting board.

As the gap between its 2010 release date and the present day widens, “Last Kiss” has grown into itself in my head. Ten-year-old me hadn’t kissed anyone, nor had I lay in bed saying “I love you” at 1:58 am. Not to expose myself here, but I still haven’t done all of those things. And yet, I now know (at least a little better) from where Taylor was coming. Her words settle onto my ears differently, and tug at memories that didn’t exist a decade ago. 

So. Dinner. I don’t remember what I was making, but I started by chopping a yellow onion, because that’s usually what I do with my roommates and I’m nothing if not a creature of habit. Instead of standing high above the plastic chopping board, though, and looking up intentionally to spare my eyes from the acidic spray, I kept my face angled down. I focused my eyes on the knife’s edge, and when the tears came, I leaned into them. 

Our kitchen was made for late-spring early-afternoon light. We keep the windows constantly cracked, and they let in just enough breeze to toy with the gauzy white curtains filling them. These are the curtains from my childhood princess-themed bedroom, but on afternoons like these, nothing feels farther from that reality. When sinking sunlight is filtered through them, the effect is almost cinematic. Is it a Wednesday night in Brighton, Massachusetts, or am I alone in the center of an obscure city?

The tears, beginning to pile up in wet clumps under my jawbone, feel real. The moment is my own, and the apartment feels that way too. Taylor’s words are not hers, but mine. I whisper-sing, I’ll watch your life in pictures like I used to watch you sleep. I brush the water from my face, and simulate a moment of utter heartbreak. 

The music slows to a crawl, and I’ve stopped chopping altogether. I let myself stare into the tapestry hanging adjacent to our window, relaxing my eyes while my brain moves a mile a minute stirring up a story. A mirage of feelings, moments, unrequited exchanges blur into one another. 

Ding! The default text notification prickles out of my earbuds, cuts off Taylor during the last refrain. All that I know is I don’t know/ How to be… My roommate messaged me in a panic, the door was locked and she forgot her key. “Are u home??” She typed hastily. I blink. I suppose I am, though for three minutes I fully left the kitchen on Sutherland Road. 

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Essays

Bitter Avocado Toast

It is difficult to fully comprehend the importance of taste and smell until they are gone. Prior to the pandemic, few people thought about the impact of these senses on their daily lives. However, since over 86% of COVID-19 patients report at least some loss of taste and smell, their significance has become increasingly noticeable.

When I tested positive for COVID-19 back in January, I was honestly a bit surprised. I had been home for winter break for a couple of weeks, but had barely seen any of my friends or been anywhere other than the grocery store. Thankfully, the virus did not hit me too hard. Unfortunately, I lost both my sense of taste and smell, but it didn’t really hit me until after about a week later. What if I would never be able to taste my mom’s cooking or smell her perfume again?

 I vividly remember the moment when I realized what my life would be like if I didn’t regain these senses. I was making avocado toast one morning, and like every other 19-year-old college student in the U.S., I decided to add some of the holy Trader Joe’s “Everything but the Bagel” seasoning to it. I bit into the piece of toast, but instead of tasting the sweet and creamy avocado on the nutty bread topped with the salty seasoning, all I could make out was bitterness. I tried to replace the foul-tasting toast with a glass of water, but of course, that only made things worse. A couple of hours later, I decided to give food another go, and I cut up a red honeycrisp apple. To my surprise, the apple was even worse than the toast. 

As the anxious, pre-med hypochondriac that I am, I did the one thing that is completely forbidden in the pre-med world: I Googled my symptoms. I read article upon article about people who had yet to regain their smell, despite not having any other symptoms of the virus. It made me worried, of course, and I couldn’t stop myself from spiraling into a dark hole of anxiety. I began to imagine how different my mornings would become without being able to smell the wonderful aroma of coffee, and how devastating it would be to never be able to taste my favorite foods again. 

Photo Courtesy of Jessie Day.

Smell, and thus taste, are two of the most important senses for people. Since smell is so closely linked to memory, it plays a major role in people’s lives; however, the majority of today’s society does not take the time to reflect upon this phenomenon. The sense of smell allows individuals to better engage in their everyday lives. It provides them with opportunities to find comfort, and thus subconsciously supports both their mental and physical health as well. Taste, on the other hand, can be described as being a close cousin to smell. When people chew food, it touches their nasal epithelium, so almost everything that people say they can taste is actually only a smell. True taste is what is described as sweet, sour, bitter, umami, and salty—or bitter, in my case.

As miniscule as it sounds, not having the ability to smell anything was a problem that basically took over my life for the entire month of January. I was constantly worried that I would never be able to reminisce about memories from my childhood as a result. Although I would not wish this virus upon my greatest enemy, I am thankful for what I went through. As I try to see the silver lining of everything, I recognize that this experience helped me understand how wonderful it is to be able to use these senses as a way to think back to memorable experiences, people, and places. Smell and taste are unique in the way that in only a few seconds, they are able to bring back memories from times that would otherwise become forgotten.

Cover Photo Courtesy of Nora Cooks.

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Essays

Caffeine Fiends

Take two steps into my apartment’s kitchen, and you might assume that you’re walking into an underground local coffee shop operated by college students. You would be mistaken, but you’re also not entirely wrong to assume so. 

In my apartment of four roommates, we have three coffee drinkers and eight different coffee machines. That’s three French presses, two Keurigs, two Vietnamese drip coffee filters, and a Nespresso machine. While we like to drink the beverage, we differ in our particular preferences and our rituals surrounding coffee. 

Ian, the only non-coffee drinker of the house, despises the smell and taste of coffee and finds our drinking habits ridiculous. “There are two main things I don’t understand. First: can you people decide what coffee machines you use and don’t use?” he said, admitting that he passive-aggressively puts them away on the top shelf, so it’s hard for the rest of us to reach. (Ian is the tallest in the house at 6’3”, so that’s no harmless action.)

Due to miscommunication on all of our ends when moving in, we now have an excess of coffee machines. Peter and Sean each brought their Keurigs and French presses because they assumed no one else had any. A week later, I received a French press as a housewarming gift from my girlfriend. We continued to expand our brewing horizons as the semester went on. Peter got into Vietnamese drip coffee, first purchasing a small, followed by a large, drip coffee filter. Not to be one-upped, my girlfriend surprised me with a Nespresso machine for Christmas, which I keep in my room for special occasions. 

Ian also doesn’t understand the appeal of coffee or the ritualized nature behind it. “The second thing I don’t understand is: aren’t you supposed to drink coffee in the morning? There is no time in this house where someone isn’t drinking coffee,” he explained.

Sean wakes up every morning to a cup of coffee, and he describes it as an essential part of his morning routine. “I’m completely dependent on coffee, without a doubt,” he admitted, sharing that he probably drinks way more coffee than the average person. 

As of recent, the ever-present coffee smell in the kitchen has dissipated. While Sean used to brew French presses every morning, he realized that he needed more caffeine. Now, he stops at Starbucks before class and orders a large latte with three espresso shots to get him through the day. During finals season, he goes a little haywire on the coffee consumption, confessing, “I might have upwards of around eight shots of espresso a day.” 

Peter, as of the last month, has completely stopped drinking coffee. He would drink two cups of coffee a day at his peak, but he began to realize that he was dependent on caffeine. Without a cup in the morning and the late afternoon, he wasn’t able to wake up or do work. Peter stopped drinking coffee cold turkey, supplementing his intake with less-caffeinated teas. He swears that he hasn’t felt better since.

I am the last coffee brewer in our house. While Sean drinks his coffee solely in the morning, I, on the other hand, reserve my coffee-drinking for the second half of the day. I drink my first cup around 1 p.m. when I begin to fall into my afternoon slump, and my second cup of coffee after dinner around 7:30 p.m. I know it might sound crazy, but this allows me to have enough energy to stay up and work on my assignments while still going to bed by 1 a.m. I might sneak a third cup of coffee somewhere in between these times, depending on the day and how I’m doing. As if the caffeine isn’t enough, I drink my coffee with two large spoonfuls of sugar and some caramel creamer in each cup. I have an ongoing love/hate relationship with the taste of coffee, so the sugar makes the drink even more addicting.

While I might not have the healthiest attachment to coffee, I’m not ready to give up my ritual of coffee drinking just yet. No matter how many times my roommates and friends mock me for drinking too much sweet coffee too late in the day, I’m comforted by the familiarity of the drink. My go-to brewing method is the Keurig; I enjoy packing my pre-ground beans into a refillable pod, pouring 10 ounces of water into the machine, and waiting as my coffee turns out the same every day. This method is quick and reliable,  I know what to expect every time I press the brew button. If I’m working on a large project or just exhausted, I’ll turn to my French press, brewing a larger batch of coffee to consume over an hour. And as I said before, my Nespresso machine is reserved for special occasions, like preparing for job interviews, drinking coffee with friends, or if I just feel like treating myself. Whatever method I choose, a cup of coffee keeps me on task for homework sessions and ultimately keeps me functioning. 

The coffee machines are still on display in my kitchen, with several currently out of commission. Twice a day in my apartment, you can expect to catch a whiff of the classic coffee smell when I’m brewing up a cup. Maybe this summer I’ll try to wean myself off coffee, but realistically I doubt I’ll ever give it up. 

Cover Photo Courtesy of Roasty Coffee.

Editor’s Note: This article was edited on May 1, 2021, to reflect two word changes on behalf of the author.

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Essays

An Ode to Rao’s

“Ahhhhh I just shattered the Rao’s!” I yelled out, staring in shock at the sea of red tomato sauce pooling on the floor. 

“Don’t move!” my roommate said as she ran over. “I’m a pro at cleaning broken glass.”

I grabbed some paper towels to soak up the sauce as she carefully gathered the pieces. 

“Oh, there’s still some left in the cracked jar!” I exclaimed. “We definitely have to save that.”

She looked at me like I was crazy as I scooped every bit of precious sauce clinging to the sides of the glass. She didn’t share my obsession with Rao’s, clearly. 

Rao’s Homemade Marinara Sauce is the single best pasta sauce that exists on this Earth. It’s made with hand-picked plum tomatoes from Southern Italy. They are simmered in pure olive oil then flavored with garlic and onions. Basil, oregano, and pinches of salt and pepper compose the final touch, resulting in a mixture so delicious that you won’t even mind the $8 price tag.

Photo Courtesy of Food Navigator.

Despite my tight college-student grocery budget, I still fit in this perfect pasta sauce week after week. I think the story of why this pasta sauce feels so close to my heart begins in a warm kitchen in a blue Victorian home about 30 miles north of my BC kitchen.

Ever since I can remember, pasta with cold tomato sauce—yes, cold—has been my very favorite comfort food. The rest of my family prefers to heat sauce up prior to serving.

“But the pasta is already warm! The sauce doesn’t need to be warm too,” I would complain, staring up at my mother as she stirred the sauce on the stove. 

“You can put your Ragu back in the fridge,” she’d say, giving in. “I’ll just heat the Prego.”

Throughout my childhood, we had two different pasta sauces stocked up at all times. I insisted on only eating Ragu, but my mom was a strong supporter of Prego. She thought Ragu was too sweet, too kid-friendly. I thought Prego tasted too healthy, too adult. So, we purchased two sauces on each and every Shaw’s trip; polarized sauce preferences became essential personality components.  

One day, I remember seeing the word “cheese” printed on the Ragu ingredients list and almost dropping the jar in surprise. Another essential part of my personality: I hate cheese. In fact, you could almost say I’m afraid of it. I was disgusted to learn that I had unknowingly been eating it and never consumed a drop of Ragu again.

 Somewhere along the way, a friend introduced me to Rao’s.

“It’s healthier,” she said, “better for you if you’re going to eat pasta as much as you do.”

I was hooked from my very first bite. Enthusiastic about my new discovery, I announced to my mom that I would be switching my sauce brand. 

We are the sort of family that takes pasta seriously and never dips under 20 or so boxes in the pantry. After my sauce conversion, my mom swapped all the Ragu for Rao’s on the shelves. Since I was a picky child, she was happy to buy food that I expressed interest in.

Many years beyond my Ragu days, my mom still swears by Prego. But for me, Rao’s has become an essential part of our pasta-cooking tradition. Instead of looking up at my mom now while she’s stirring her sauce, I stand side-by-side with her to prepare the pasta. She warms her Prego, and I pour out my beloved, chilled Rao’s. 

Photo Courtesy of Serious Eats.

Rao’s was born from an Italian family restaurant and eventually became a packaged sauce. I like that—a sauce that has a story. Certainly, it’s a central part of my story, or I wouldn’t have been so heartbroken to see it spilled on the floor. I’m still in the process of converting both my roommates and my family, but I know they’ll get there someday. Life’s too short to eat mediocre pasta sauce. 

Cover Photo Courtesy of What’s Gabby Cooking.

Categories
Essays

Where Leadership and Almond Croissants Unite

It was a regularly scheduled Thursday night Zoom meeting for the Emerging Leader Program (ELP) at Boston College when almond croissants appeared on the horizon of our conversation. ELP is an organization for freshmen that helps build leadership skills through service and education. The program is overseen by Boston College’s wonderful Assistant Director for Leadership Development, Katherine Waxstein (affectionately known as “Kat”), while alternating groups of ten sophomore facilitators help guide and advise the first-year students. For the last eight months, I have had the privilege of serving as a sophomore facilitator for ELP. One of the features of ELP I most appreciate is its implementation of constant and intentional reflection, which never fails to spark meaningful discussions.

Every Thursday night from 6-8 p.m. this past year, the Leadership Team has gathered on Zoom to discuss programming updates, forthcoming events, and the general implications of our roles. We start every meeting by sharing our “highs and lows,” the best and worst moments/experiences that stood out to us from that week. This activity provides us with the extremely beneficial opportunity to catch up with each other, which allows us all to be on the same page and work effectively together. During one fateful Thursday meeting in the fall semester, Kat shared a high that irreversibly impacted me: she mentioned that every weekend, she visits a bakery in Boston where she orders an almond croissant. Eating an almond croissant at this bakery, she told us, has become an enjoyable ritual of her adult life. At that point in time, I had not yet eaten an almond croissant, but I internalized her words and decided that I eventually wanted to.

When I returned home to south Florida for winter break, I was ready to indulge in the flavorful array of food that my hometown had to offer. My mom eventually brought my attention to a new bakery that opened in town, Bonjour French Bakery and Cafe, tremendously praising its authentic French sweets. Trusting my mom’s judgement, I drove to Bonjour, where I was greeted by a cozy, vibrant, and welcoming French atmosphere. From cheesecake to crème brûlée to lemon pie, the desserts on display were an abundantly glorious sight. The time had come for me to choose what I wanted to try from this esteemed bakery, and I was at a loss: every single baked good looked fresh and visually stunning, like it was made with love. When my eyes lingered on the almond croissants, though, I immediately knew what my taste buds were going to encounter. I purchased one almond croissant to-go, and quickly headed home to take my first bite. Remembering Kat’s high from several weeks prior, I was ready to finally experience what she so thoroughly savored.

Photo Courtesy of Playing with Flour.

Based on mere appearance, the almond croissant was a joyous sight. The dough sported a striking golden shade, completely risen so that you could see each layer build upon the other. Powdered sugar elegantly accentuated the croissant’s color, mimicking the finest snow. The toasted almond topping tied every element of the croissant together, reminding me of its fundamental ingredient. Actually tasting the almond croissant, however, completely transcended the state of awe I was in solely based on its presentation. The crust had a buttery and almost savory flavor, accompanied by a crisp and flaky texture. Within the crust lived a delicately-risen dough, layered with care and flaunting deep buttery notes. Perhaps my favorite element of this croissant, though, was its creamy and decadent filling: almond paste. Evenly distributed across the entire croissant’s interior, the almond paste was smooth, rich, and balanced. The nutty flavor paired beautifully with its sweet undertones, both of which contrasted pleasantly with the saltiness of the croissant itself. The toasted almonds on top skillfully reinforced the flavors of the almond croissant, and introduced a pleasant crunch. Overall, the pastry was a magnificently scrumptious medley of almond flavor, bolstered by harmonious textures and subtly sweet accents.

Even though leadership and almond croissants seem like totally unconnected entities, they actually share several characteristics. As a participant and facilitator for ELP, I have learned that leadership is multilayered. It is much more than taking the initiative in a group project or speaking up first when presented with a question; leadership is about serving others, being a role model, staying true to your values, and holding yourself accountable to growth. In a similar fashion, almond croissants are certainly not just plain croissants with a few almonds sprinkled on top. The almond paste filling and the powdered sugar topping elevate this baked good to a point at which earthiness and sweetness delightfully merge. Leaders––like almond croissants––are multidimensional. 

Not only have almond croissants become one of my favorite hometown treats, but they have also taught me something valuable about life. Food offers more than just satisfaction for your stomach, or time to share with your family. Although these are important things, it is also imperative to recognize just how reflective food can be of personal endeavors. Since I have started college, leadership has become a passion of mine. Growing in this area involves motivating and guiding others to be the best versions of themselves, which has not only developed my own confidence but the confidence of those around me. Leadership is comforting, yet challenging; serious, but also light-hearted. It can be demanding, but exponentially rewarding. Leadership–in all its complexity–has grown close to my heart, likely contributing to my decision of purchasing an almond croissant at Bonjour Bakery and Cafe back home in Weston, Fla. Kat’s “high” inspired me to indulge in a baked good that proved to be tremendously fulfilling and enlightening, much like leadership itself.

Cover Photo Courtesy of Jeanie and Lulu’s Kitchen.