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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.

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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.

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Essays

Oatmeal Done Right

If someone were to ask me what my favorite breakfast food was, they’d probably expect me to say something like pancakes, french toast, or waffles. Don’t get me wrong, I love something that’s fluffy and light on the inside and crispy on the outside once in a while. But I need something reliable, something that doesn’t feel too much like dessert. And when I’m in a rush or feel lazy, I need something that isn’t too time-consuming. My go-to breakfast is oatmeal. Not the plain, bland, mass of mushy-water-soaked oats that some might think of, but my special recipe. I love oatmeal because it’s so customizable. The oats can take on different flavor profiles depending on the different toppings and ingredients I throw in. It’s up to me to figure out what works best. The result is a breakfast that’s not too sweet or filling. It feels healthy, but it also acts like a comfort food as it warms me up in the morning. The oats are a blank canvas, and I can add whatever I want.

During the busy mornings of my middle school years, pre-packaged Quaker oatmeal made a frequent appearance alongside the always trusty Honey Bunches of Oats. I enjoyed the Apples and Cinnamon variety the most. But I definitely didn’t have enough cooking experience back then. Most of the time, the oats came out slightly overcooked, and I always ate them without toppings. Although the sheer sweetness of the added sugars provided enough flavor to mask the questionable texture, all those years took a toll on my favorite breakfast. There were only so many mornings of pre-packaged oatmeal I could take. I abandoned it for a while in search of a more texturally sound morning meal. For a long time, English muffins with peanut butter and different varieties of breakfast sandwiches replaced the sturdy oat. 

Photo Courtesy of Pinterest.

Only the dark ages of quarantine could persuade me to change up my breakfast routine once again. Getting a break from smoothie bowls and omelettes gave me something to take my mind off of TikTok dances and whipped coffee. This time, there were no packages of oatmeal in sight. It was up to me to finally try to assemble the dish from scratch and find the right combination of toppings. I started by mixing oats and water and microwaving them until they soaked up all the liquid. Then, I topped them with chopped strawberries, almond pieces, and vanilla yogurt. It seemed like a good blend of textures and flavors. I placed the bright red strawberry pieces in one section of the bowl, spread the yogurt on the other side, and sprinkled the almonds in the middle. A scoop of peanut butter in the center was the final touch. The mix of colors and the perfectly arranged toppings combined with the natural light of the kitchen in the morning made for a great photo. But while the contents of the bowl were visually appealing, the combination of toppings didn’t taste as good as they looked. 

I soon discovered that the yogurt cooled down the temperature of the oats, making them lukewarm instead of nice and hot. The almonds added a certain dry saltiness that didn’t exactly pair well with the strawberries. And the oats, after all this time, were still overcooked. What had I done wrong? I thought that making my own recipe would improve this journey back in time— a blast from breakfasts past.  

It all came down to the oats. The foundation of the dish. If they didn’t have good flavor, the dish was ruined. The Quaker packaged oats had been too sweet, and the homemade oats too bland. I needed to find the perfect blend. I suddenly remembered a method that I had used a while ago to make overnight oats that would work for this recipe. Mashed banana and cinnamon would enhance the flavor of the oats as they cooked. First, I added milk to a bowl instead of water to make the oats creamier. Then, I whisked cinnamon into the bowl to infuse the milk with more flavor. After that, in went the oats and the mashed banana. The banana added the perfect amount of sweetness because of the sugars it released while cooking. It also added some moisture to the oats to keep them from drying out and overcooking, and enhanced the overall texture to make the oats less chewy. I topped the oatmeal with blueberries and peanut butter while it was still hot so that the peanut butter melted a little into the mixture. Since developing that recipe, I haven’t looked back.

Cover Photo Courtesy of Lexi’s Clean Kitchen.

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Essays

An Open Love Letter to Wegmans

In one of my discussion groups, we start class every week going around the circle with our highs and lows from the week. My high is very often—nearly always—my trip to Wegmans on Saturday night. I said it jokingly at the beginning of the semester, struggling to come up with something interesting but not too personal to share with this group of mostly strangers, but it felt right. I am twenty years old, which most people associate with being young and fun and adventurous, and the highlight of my week is a Saturday night in a grocery store.

It’s not just a grocery store. It’s Wegmans. People are obsessed with Wegmans in a way I couldn’t quite comprehend when I moved out to Boston from my Midwest hometown. It’s consistently voted one of the top 100 places to work in America by Fortune magazine. Someone once proposed inside a Wegmans, because he and his now-wife spent so much blissful time there together. A group of Massachusetts high school theatre students wrote and performed an original musical about the store, which drew so much local interest that they expanded their performance schedule. People don’t care that much about grocery stores in Illinois. I’ve lived in Massachusetts and shopped at Wegmans for almost three years now; and I have fully, unhesitatingly joined the ranks of Wegmans super fans.

I love the person that I become in Wegmans. Suddenly, I’m not worried about the pile of readings on my desk or my essay due in two days. When I’m wandering the aisles, I become someone who has the time to bake her own bread, someone who thinks nothing of waking up on a Saturday morning to make a batch of wild blueberry scones, someone who might whip up homemade chicken soup for dinner. There is possibility around every corner, quite literally. After I come home from Wegmans loaded up with reusable tote bags and inspiration, the dopamine rush continues. My roommates will emerge from their rooms and say, “Something smells amazing!” I get to tell them that the banana bread will be out in twenty minutes or that there’s key lime pie in the fridge or that I’m just about to put double fudge brownies in the oven—courtesy of the Baking Essentials aisle. 

Everything feels the same this year. The days and weeks blur together. The only thing keeping me from completely losing my mind is the punctuation of a solid routine. I can count on Wegmans on Saturday nights. I can count on the comforting sameness of grocery aisles. Everything will always be in its place. I know that no matter what happened in my week, the fruit will be piled in the front of the store, and the bread guy will wink at me, and I will never, ever be able to find the artichokes.

My daily life as a college student in a pandemic is full of “no.” No parties, no seeing too many friends, no in-person classes, no going out to eat, no traveling, no seeing family. No fun.  In Wegmans, there are small delights that I’m allowed to say yes to, like honey goat cheese, a bunch of pale orange tulips, and sourdough that’s still warm. 

Cover Photo Courtesy of Pinterest.

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Essays

A Special Ingredient

Like any other Swede who has moved out of Scandinavia, I have a special place in my heart reserved for Swedish food. Even though I have lived in Texas for the past seven years, I honestly do not think I have gone more than a week without either eating or making something Swedish. It not only brings me joy and a sense of security, but it helps me feel connected to everything and everyone back home.

During lockdown last March, I fell in love with baking. This was not so much because of the baked goods themselves, but more because of the joy it brought to my family. Baking provided me with the opportunity to connect with my brothers on a different level, which is something I was extremely thankful for since I would be going off to college in only a couple of months. I remember baking a cake with my youngest brother the weekend before leaving, cherishing every moment of our time together. 

As one can imagine, I had been completely deprived of baking after living in a 16-square-foot dorm room without a kitchen for three months. Since baking serves as a form of subconscious therapy for me, it was in the forefront of my mind when my plane landed at the airport the day before Thanksgiving. I was more than excited to try all the new recipes I had saved during fall semester.

Photo Courtesy of London Eats.

I wanted my first project to be something that everyone in my family would enjoy, so I decided to make a household favorite: my grandma’s famous drömmar, which translates into “dream cookies” in English. These crispy yet fluffy cookies are fragrant dollops of goodness, and I can guarantee that every Swede would say that they deserve a spot on their top five list of treats. Even though I grew up eating them at least every other week, I had never made them myself. Fortunately, the recipe did not ask for many ingredients; a simple mixture of sugar, butter, flour, vanilla sugar, and raising agent would do. The last ingredient in the recipe caught my eyes; it was something that I had never eaten nor heard of before. Surprised, and a little bit confused, I read it out loud to my mom: hjorthornssalt. In English this translates to “deer horn’s salt,” but it is not actually made out of deer antlers (anymore). Of course, the chemistry nerd in me decided to do some research. 

Photo Courtesy of Confectionary Tales.

As there used to be an abundance of deer roaming around northern Europe, people would pick up the antlers after they had been shed, and use them to make this type of salt. Nowadays hjorthornssalt is a synthetically made ammonium bicarbonate, and it can be found in a plethora of countries across Europe. Since I am such an avid baker, I was shocked to find out that it is actually a common raising agent in several Scandinavian recipes as well. I was a bit skeptical to use it at first due to its pungent smell. Nevertheless, I opened the bag, and a scent reminiscent of cat pee began to fill my nostrils. As the hjorthornssalt converted to gas, the dough turned into a porous texture and the cookies that covered the baking sheet began to look like miniature summer clouds. Thankfully, once the cookies were fully done, the odor was replaced by a wonderful smell of vanilla. The salt gave the cookies a texture that was different than anything I had tasted before. These Swedish delights were fluffy and light but still had a good crunch to them, and their buttery vanilla taste gave them a perfect ratio of sweet to savory. As the name implies, these cookies truly tasted like little dreams in my mouth.

I am currently back at college, so dreaming about these cookies will have to do for now. My next project is going to be mastering the skill of baking cinnamon rolls, but that’s a story for a different time, with a different special ingredient. 

Cover photo courtesy of The Culinary Jumble.

Categories
Essays

A Food Breakup and New Beginnings

“Dinner’s ready!” I yell to my roommates as I place down a homemade platter of fried chicken, buttered corn, mashed potatoes, and gravy.

After stuffing our faces full, Peter and Will glanced at one another and then turned to me. “Logan, we talked about this and we think we’re going to go on a diet.”

My heart sank into my chest. I felt like I had just been broken up with. I associate diets with no more sweets, no more carbs, no more fats, and definitely no more fried chicken. Eating always comforts me. Being able to eat whatever I want feels so liberating; to take those feelings of freedom away just felt cruel. 

To free up time, my apartment serves family-style meals where each roommate cooks at least one dinner a week. I suddenly worried that our pasta dinners, stir fry nights, and Taco Tuesdays would disappear, replaced with flavorless meals of chicken and two sides. Grilled chicken can only be eaten so many times before it becomes outrageously boring. Nonetheless, maybe I needed a change. 

“We only want to add more vegetables to our meals and cook with less oil. That’s all,” my roommates clarified. 

I was skeptical at first, but I begrudgingly agreed to try it out. Rather than view these guidelines as limitations, I took them as a challenge. From now on, I would use these suggestions as motivation and turn these bland dishes into something flavorful and tasty.

After decent meals of butternut squash soup and vegetarian Mapo Tofu, Friday night came around and it was my turn to cook dinner. While I was craving breaded pork chops and rice pilaf, I scrapped that idea for a more ‘roommate friendly’ meal. I opened the fridge to see what we had: chicken breasts, spinach, mushrooms, and some old pizza. I shuddered. I had a flashback to my middle school cafeteria lunches of dry chicken, spinach slop, and frozen mushroom stew. Bringing myself back to reality, I knew I could do better. I chucked the pizza slices in the trash, grabbed my ingredients, and got to work. 

I sliced the chicken into pieces and coated them with salt, pepper, and garlic powder before browning in a pan. We had no heavy cream to make a creamy sauce, so I had to improvise. The chicken was replaced with butter and garlic and I worked on the sauce. I sweated out the mushrooms and added some chicken broth. I added in my spinach and threw my chicken back in, letting it simmer until the sauce thickened and the flavors melded together. I added salt and pepper to taste, and as a final touch, I grated fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano all over the meal.

Photo Courtesy of The Kitchn.

I did it. I not only cooked according to my roommates’ standards, but I also finished in record time. I am notorious for underestimating how long my meals take to cook—an estimated 7 p.m. dinner often turns into an 8:30 p.m. supper. I turned a meal I despised into something filling and flavorful.

I realize now that I limited my opportunities for food excellence by ignoring multiple food groups. I challenged myself to make a bland meal taste better, and mushrooms, spinach, and even grilled chicken can be delicious if cooked correctly. Although I prepare dinner each week, I only cooked to my tastes. This process made me broaden my culinary range and adapt my meals for my roommates’ taste buds. Pushing these boundaries led me out of my comfort zone and took my culinary skills to a new level. 

Setting down the platter of creamy spinach and mushroom chicken, I yell, “Dinner’s ready!”

Cover Photo Courtesy of Salt and Lavender.