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A Personal Take on Food Network

As a kid, Food Network was my second Disney Channel. Immediately going for the couch and turning on Food Network was an essential part of my after-school routine years ago. For as long as I can remember, I have been drawn to the kitchen. The creativity and care behind cooking intrigue me. In the grand scheme of things, meals are culinary visions that have come to fruition. What’s better than a network that consistently broadcasts these ideations? 

Giada at Home was energizing, yet relaxing. Chopped was an inspiring thriller. Worst Cooks in America was informatively hilarious. Something that I have always appreciated about Food Network is that it does not limit the scope of food. Its shows are hosted by a broad range of people who represent different cuisines and diverse personalities. The channel is a haven for culinary education and caters wonderfully to those who are interested in expanding their skills in the kitchen. My love of food is greatly attributed to my long-founded respect for Food Network. 

Two predominant categories characterize Food Network: one-on-one shows and competition shows. Both of these categories are uniquely valuable and provide viewers with distinct viewing experiences. One-on-ones are typically the most personal. They feature chefs who craft recipes while speaking to the audience, instructing viewers on following specific recipes. Helpful tips, step-by-step instructions, and reassurance permeate these programs. They are largely informational and, in my opinion, mainly meant for viewers watching at home to replicate the dishes they see on screen. Though not as entertaining as competition shows, one-on-one content is probably best for those who are trying to learn new cooking techniques. Barefoot Contessa and Giada at Home, examples of this Food Network genre, are shows in which the chefs/hosts address the audience as if they were friends absorbing their detailed suggestions. 

Photo courtesy of Barefoot Contessa

Competition shows differ tremendously. The dynamic of competitions typically follows a template––contestants are gathered to battle against each other for a grand cash prize. A fundamental component of competition shows are time limits, which elevate the intensity of battle and captivate the audience amidst chaos occurring on screen. Contestants are usually tasked with speedily preparing a dish with some sort of common theme or unifying element, which all participants are to abide by and individually interpret. The hosts of these shows are usually chefs themselves and provide knowledgeable commentary or instruction while the participants are frantically cooking. 

For example, Chopped successfully entices viewers by emphasizing both the harsh time constraints provided and the obscurity of the “mystery basket ingredients” which contestants are required to incorporate into their creations. The main purpose of competition shows on Food Network is to shed light on culinary determination; contestants on these shows sign up for personal reasons, whether it be to validate their careers, garner funds for their restaurants, or learn more about the art of cooking. Competition shows engage audience members by portraying heightened concentration among contestants, spontaneous creativity, and hunger for victory. By watching competition shows, I have learned that properly preparing a dish requires extensive precision. Judges are essential to competition shows, as they ultimately decide the winners of challenges based on performance. With their refined palettes, judges in this genre inevitably pinpoint the flaws or shortcomings that they observe in the participants’ creations. Minor mistakes send contestants home, reminding viewers that cooking is an art: in the kitchen, success mandates care and attentiveness.

Despite their differences, both Food Network styles embody the passion that food entails. On virtually any show on this channel, you find people who love being present in the kitchen so much that they feel compelled to share this profound enjoyment on a large platform. Whether you diligently take notes as Ina Garten explains her grilled cheese’s special ingredient, or you hold your breath as Bobby Flay hurriedly plates his entrée on Iron Chef America, it is obvious that Food Network shows are collectively meant to illuminate the innovative nature of gastronomy. On this channel, food is utilized as a vehicle for creative expression, and it knows absolutely no limits. What kept me so engaged with Food Network as a child, I believe, was the fact that I learned something new every single day. One day, I found out that pasta water is a thickening agent in sauces, another day I was instructed on how to dice an onion. The constant learning that I experienced endowed me with the insight that one never stops gathering knowledge about food. Nifty tips, recipes, and techniques know no boundaries. 

Photo courtesy of Entertainment Weekly

Presently, I do not watch Food Network as often as I used to. I attribute this unfortunate decreased investment to my busy schedule, which involves less time to keep up with what’s new on the channel. However, I still keep up with Worst Cooks in America because of how humorous (and empowering) it is to watch clueless recruits grow as cooks and acquire new skills. 

Reflecting now on the impact that Food Network has had on my life, I can confidently say that the channel has taught me just how influential food is. By that, I mean that food has the power to touch the lives of so many people. The reasons behind food’s vast influence are the various individuals who can approach it their own way. As I alluded to before, assorted cuisines and differing personalities encompass food’s interpretation. Food Network shows represent such a wide array of cooking styles that audience members are bound to find at least one show on the channel that is relevant to their own cooking styles or kitchen experiences. On another note, watching shows that explore unfamiliar cuisines propel viewers to expand their realms of taste and share newfound recipes with family and friends. Tuning into Food Network means immersing yourself into a world of gastronomic spirit and divergent perspectives. Throwing yourself onto a couch and dialing the channel number on your remote is only the beginning: Food Network is a mindset changer.

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Essays

In Defense of DIY Pumpkin Spice

String the two words “pumpkin” and “spice” together, and you’re left with one delicious thought: fall. The flavor appears beyond pumpkin pies, breads, and even the infamous Pumpkin Spice Latte, as seasoning infuses just about every food and drink that can’t be nailed down.

Two years ago, my mom and one of our closest family friends got into a battle of commercially autumn-ized foods. From mid-August to the end of October, each time they came across a new pumpkin spice item, they bought two; one to try, and one to give the other person. It wasn’t difficult to do. That year I realized the enormous scope of pumpkin spice. The ambiguous flavor had seeped its way into every corner of the food market. 

Both in and out of grocery aisles, pumpkin spice represents the commodification of an entire season. One night, between laughs, my Dad reported to the family that an auto repair shop he passed daily had a new sign, boasting, “We now offer pumpkin spice motor oil!” If you can’t beat them, join them, right? 

I labelled pumpkin spice “ambiguous” only because nearly every time it appears in a processed seasonal food, it seems to have a different presence. Some versions place greater emphasis on the squash-like essence of pumpkin itself, and others play up the cinnamon with a whisper of pumpkin afterward. Given the context, a world in which a person can find pumpkin spice in everything from Cheerios to KitKats to Silk almond milk, the seasoning starts to resemble a marketing ploy more than a genuine flavor. Pumpkin isn’t exactly honored in Quaker brand’s Pumpkin Spice oatmeal, a product that could only be bothered to list “spices” as an ingredient with no mention of actual pumpkin whatsoever. Images of the orange gourd, however, are carefully printed across the packaging. This makes sense, seeing as companies are probably more focused on selling the idea of fall over nailing the accuracy of the spice blend.

Photo courtesy of The Crumby Kitchen

Every year I buy pumpkin spice coffee creamer, and every year I’m disappointed. Maybe this says more about me than it does about International Delight. On the other hand, I would argue that something is missing from the creamer. The “natural and artificial flavors” are fine, but they don’t hold a candle to the experience of sprinkling pure pumpkin spice directly into a mug.

When I came across a plastic McCormick container in our spice drawer, labelled “Pumpkin Pie Spice,” my eyes nearly popped out of my head. I was under the tragic, misinformed impression that “pumpkin spice” refers to a concoction of flavors which each brand designs for itself. “So it’s real?” I wondered to myself. I thought pumpkin spice was the invention of advertising campaigns, an ever-changing mix of spices which companies deemed autumnal enough to sell as such.

Pumpkin spice has developed a bit of a bad rep. Sucked into a whirlpool of commercialism (the same way every processed food comes in peppermint after November), it can be hard to separate pumpkin spice from consumer culture. This is at no fault of the flavor itself, which is a sweet, nostalgia-evoking way to add dimension to fall dishes. The only elementary quality of pumpkin spice is the fact that so many companies have attempted to streamline it, and some have cut corners in the process. 

Even back in 2017, Forbes wrote, “With the over-saturation of players now trying to take advantage of our insatiable, sweet appetite, there are also speculations that we may be at ‘peak spice.’ The numbers are starting to justify that claim, too. Analytics company, 1010data saw that from August to December of last year … there were 50% more [pumpkin spice] products offered by companies, but sales climbed a meager 21%.” 

Is pumpkin spice exhaustion a thing? I wouldn’t know. I literally go weak at the knees at the first pumpkin-flavored product I see in stores––and then I buy it. I love fall, and I’m a sucker for strategic marketing. What I’m realizing is that I’ve lost sight of what actually constitutes pumpkin spice. What is most unfortunate about the boom in this seasoning is what has been lost as a result. 

So what’s a consumer to do if they want to embrace the flavor authentically? My unsolicited advice would be to separate the parade of products resembling pumpkin spice with a staple you can hold onto year-round. Either invest in McCormick Pumpkin Pie Spice, a jar of Simply Organic’s Pumpkin Spice, or whip up your own––all you need is four to five ingredients. After cross-referencing recipes, I found that cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg are all essential. You can choose whether to add cloves, allspice, or both, but definitely pick at least one. 

This way, you can choose which companies to rely on when it comes to getting the flavor right. And if anyone falls short? You need only head to your drawer to find your own stash of guaranteed fall infusion––no gimmicks, no false advertising, just a cozy and fine-tuned blend of spices.

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Essays

Whirley Pop Watch Parties

I barge into my brother’s room and declare,“Time to watch!” He swivels around in his desk chair where he’s hunched over the PlayStation controller, fully absorbed in his Call of Duty game. “Okay, okay,” he laughs, switching the screen to Amazon Prime Video, where the long-anticipated newest episode of The 100 finally appears on the screen. 

I excitedly clear some room on the little red couch in his bedroom, relocating the mess of laundry, deodorant sticks, and empty seltzer cans, sinking blissfully into my spot on the right side. Soon, our two dogs nudge their noses in, and they joyfully join us in the small space between my brother and me. 

This is our quarantine routine. My brother, Brett, plays PlayStation until it’s late enough to switch to the nighttime activity: watching our show together. Our most recent show is The 100; after maxing out its Netflix reruns, we proceed to the current weekly additions to the seventh and final season. We sit with the dogs and watch.

However, there’s one more crucial component to the nightly ritual. Every single time we watch, Brett presses pause within the first couple minutes, turns to me, and says, “Want to make popcorn?” Regardless of the time of night, regardless of how hungry I am, I always say yes. 

Keeping the show on pause, we bounce up from the couch and race to the kitchen, where we assume our designated roles in the popcorn process. I pick the red Whirley Pop up from its resting spot on top of the fridge, and Brett grabs the butter from its resting space in the door. I turn the stove burner on and pour some vegetable oil into the red metal pot with the wooden handle, while my brother slices the butter stick into thin, small segments. The next step is adding the kernels, which collide with the metal bottom of the pot with a familiar clang. 

As they tumble out of the plastic container, I pay close attention to ensure I put in just the right amount. I’ve found you want a similar measurement to an ice cream scoop—although measuring would probably result in more accuracy, I always prefer to eyeball it. Once the kernels almost cover the surface of the pot in a thin layer, it’s time to close the lid and start stirring. The first couple minutes of heat are crucial—if you don’t churn the handle in that initial time frame, you’re probably going to be disappointed with some burnt pieces of popcorn later on. 

The attention required for cooking in this stage is why my brother and I always say making popcorn is a two person job. While the oil starts to sizzle, and I continuously stir the kernels around with the handle, Brett finishes up slicing the butter. Once the oil is hot enough and the initial kernels begin to pop, he throws the butter into the microwave. We have this down to a science. Popcorn takes approximately three minutes and somewhere around 40 seconds is the sweet spot for melting, so it’s best to start the butter about two minutes into the popping process. This way, both pieces of the savory snack finish simultaneously. 

When using the Whirley Pop, it’s best to continue swirling the handle until there’s too much resistance to stir, since this means the pot is so full of popcorn that there is no more space. When this happens, I quickly grab two large plastic bowls from the cabinet opposite the stove, preparing them on the counter. As I move, I listen to the sound of the slowed popping, counting as the amount of seconds between each pop! lengthens from less than a second, to a second, to a couple of seconds. Once there are about two to three full seconds between each, it’s time to remove the pot from the heat. Any longer than this, and the kernels will burn, but any shorter, and there will be too many uncooked pieces. 

Holding the Whirley Pop by the wooden handle, I carefully separate the steaming popcorn into the two bowls, trying my best to evenly distribute. This is somewhat of a messy endeavour—a fact well-known by our two dogs, who religiously rush over to collect any precious pieces that may accidently escape to the floor. Once the pot is emptied of the popcorn, I place it on an unused burner to cool off. 

Next is the mixing process. Brett and I both like the charred, half-popped pieces the best, so it’s important to have a fair mix of bright white fully-popped pieces and darker brown half-popped ones in each bowl. I typically try to turn one bowl over on top of the other, placing their sides together to create something like a makeshift maraca. Once they seem as sealed as two smooth plastic surfaces can get, I shake the contraption vigorously to integrate the pieces. This is another potentially messy part, probably the second favorite step of the dogs. 

After there seems to be a solid mixture of different types of popcorn pieces in each of the plastic bowls, it’s my brother’s turn to take over. Using a potholder or paper towel to help with the heat, he slowly drizzles the sizzling melted butter over each bowl. Once half the butter is on, he picks up each bowl and tosses the popcorn pieces in the air, thoroughly mixing. Next, he can finish pouring the rest, while I retrieve the pink himalayan salt shaker. 

Salting the popcorn is the final step of the process, and the only one that we do truly individually. I am a huge salt fan, so my taste buds prefer more of a salty coating to the popcorn than his do. I grind the salt onto my bowl while he finishes buttering his, and then he finishes off the process by slightly salting his pieces. Together, we rinse off the butter bowl in the sink, grab some paper towels, and head back into his room to resume watching our show.

While composed of many small (yet crucial) steps, the entire popcorn popping process takes us less than five minutes. Sometimes we talk during it, sometimes we sing, sometimes we fight about who’s going to rinse the dishes, but regardless of any debate that occurs, we always slip into our familiar roles to get the job done swiftly and successfully. 

In a time when so much feels disrupted and different from our old lives, sticking to routine has been a blessing to help me get through monotonous days. While popping is a short routine, and not a very significant one, these small moments that I share with my brother have meant a lot to me in the recent months. I love popcorn regardless of how or where it’s made, but Whirley Pop watch parties have a special place in my heart. 

In the next couple weeks, the life we’ve come to know will be upended once again. Brett will head to his apartment in Amherst, and I’ll move back into BC. Despite watching the previous seven seasons together, when new episodes of The 100 come out in the fall, we’ll have to watch them separately. 

Recently, my roommate has been sending us screenshots of supplies she’s buying for our new kitchen—pots, pans, spoons, measuring cups, knives. “What else do we need?” she asks in the group chat. Although I like to eyeball the measurements and never use an ice cream scoop for the kernels anyway, I feel the need to suggest we get one for our room. I like the security of knowing it’s there in the drawer if I need it. I like its smooth red handle and familiar resting spot next to the silverware in my kitchen at home. 

“Maybe an ice cream scoop?” I text back, knowing they’ll probably assume I mean for ice cream. But secretly, I know its real purpose, popcorn. “And I guess we need a butter dish?” I suggest sadly, as it sinks in that I’ll have to take over Brett’s butter melting process all on my own. 

Although I don’t suggest it to the full group, of course I know that I’ll need to buy a Whirley Pop. Our dad is from the midwest—as are Whirley Pops—so my brother and I grew up making popcorn with the appliance. It’s a family tradition that has since become a sibling tradition. After five months of religiously popping popcorn on the stove, the microwave bags I’ve made in previous dorm rooms are just not going to cut it this year.   As my brother and I move into our separate apartments to begin our sophomore and senior years of college, respectively, I’m left to reminisce on all the late nights we shared together during quarantine, eating popcorn and binge-watching Netflix. Maybe my roommates will learn to like the Whirley Pop as much as my family does, or maybe popping popcorn will become a solo tradition at school. Either way, I will find a way to continue my popcorn-making process at college this fall—Whirley Pop pot and all!

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Essays

Little Miss Sfogliatell’

Here’s a sentiment contrary to much of what we’ve published here on Gusto: “Not every problem can be fixed with food.” So spake the sagacious A.J. Soprano on a show concerned chiefly with three things: capitalism, sin, and baked ziti. Spoilers ahead for The Sopranos.

Italian-American food can seem so pervasive in stories about the Mafia because its story is emblematic of the American immigrant experience. The wave of Italian immigration into the U.S. at the end of the 19th century forced an entire culture to adapt to what was readily available—that is to say processed meats, larger portions. A trace of the true self exists in the false self. Got any macaroni and gravy? 

The mob, on the other side of the same coin, is the much-mythologized story of an illicit economy that operates under the economic rules of capitalism but above its moral ones. Instead of memos and conferences, you have sit-downs and coercion at gunpoint. Instead of layoffs, you have “whackings.” The explicit violence of the mob reveals the implicit violence in any capitalistic society; instead of winners and losers, you have the alive and the dead. There’s nothing but brutality. Inequity. Pain. Above all else, absurdity. 

How do we escape the guilt we all feel from this implicit violence we know exists in our daily lives? Well, therapy, obviously. But Tony Soprano, boss of the Soprano crime family, after seven years of therapy, goes nowhere. He can’t break out of his indulgent lifestyle and the violence that permits it, even though the show gives him seven seasons of chances to do so.

Tony binges. A glutton through and through, he binges on alcohol, drugs, sex, and more than anything else, food. Because food, as wonderful as it is for bringing us closer to others, is not the answer to the problem of personal responsibility. Instead, we hide from our true problems behind it. 

At the end of season one, Tony talks to his family at Artie Bucco’s restaurant during a scene so idyllic I thought it was a dream sequence; he tells them, “Someday soon, you’re gonna have families of your own, and if you’re lucky, you’ll remember the little moments like this, that were good.” The entire conceit of the show is encapsulated in this moment. Tony set Artie’s restaurant on fire earlier in the season and is now proselytizing the sanctity of family. 

Or consider the season finale, which took place at a dinner table. What the food and the dinner table represent, namely family connection and commitment to the people close to us, are ultimately just the necessary setting for what is a completely disinterested future. Tony lives, Tony dies, Tony grows angel wings and soars out of Holsten’s, it doesn’t matter. The universe slouches forwards and the answers to our questions about it all, unfortunately, do not lie in the onion rings (best in the state!).

That’s the blessing and the curse of food writing; you can find the poetry in even the smallest things, the meaning in all the morsels and mealtime conversations, but you never get closer to changing. The great lie of any type of analysis is that it is an end in itself. It is a stop on the journey, the destination is something far greater. Fail to acknowledge this, and you remain like Tony at the end of the series, drenched in guilt and absolving yourself through psychotherapy and family.

If you think religion is the way out, think again. Father Phil, a character who literally stands as a mouthpiece for God, uses the innocent façade of food to masquerade his deeply repressed sexual feelings for the women in his life. Carmela even calls him out on it!

Food in The Sopranos eventually comes to represent the gluttony of the everyday American, be it the literal indulgence in plates of “fat and nitrates,” as Meadow puts it, or the psychological absolution of guilt by masquerading one’s shadow aspect as an innocent acolyte of tradition. Food, like religion, is not our ticket out of guilt in the modern world, as much as we’d like to pretend it is.

This might seem like an overly cynical take, but The Sopranos is an overtly cynical show, one that spends seven seasons telling us, in Emily VanDerWerff’s words, that “though people can change, most are unwilling.”

So, what’s the way out of this endless cycle of self-justification? The “stagmire,” as Little Carmine would have it? The answer might be in Little Miss Sunshine

Gabagool is the trigger for many of Tony’s panic attacks, which Melfi connects to Marcel Proust’s madeleine from his tome In Search of Lost Time, where a bite of the cookie releases in him a torrent of memories. Little Miss Sunshine, the movie playing during Silvio’s last appearance in the hospital, references both Proust’s and Nietzsche’s belief that true change only happens through suffering. Regarding Proust, Steve Carrell’s character says, “…he gets down to the end of his life, and he looks back and decides that all those years he suffered, those were the best years of his life, ’cause they made him who he was. All those years he was happy? You know, total waste. Didn’t learn a thing.” 

Paul Dano’s character is a Perspectives student who reads Nietzsche for the first time and decides that no one understands him, tortured soul that he is. Tellingly, Nietzsche was unapologetically pro-suffering. The Nietzschean Übermensch is the person who can find meaning and growth in the suffering, thereby not only overcoming the pain of life but evolving because of it. And since society is relentlessly evolving, it behooves us to change with it. 

Many, many characters on The Sopranos suffer. Angie Bonpensiero suffers not only the complete and abrupt unknowing of Big Pussy’s fate (sound familiar?), but she suffers the indignity of continued harassment by Tony and embarrassment in front of Carmela. In one scene, she’s seen giving out samples at the grocery store. Carm finds this embarrassing for Angie, but it can also be seen as Angie shedding that behind which she hides her full potential, as she literally gives away food. It is after this that we see her evolve into one of the most high-functioning people on the show. She takes this suffering and reinvents herself, fundamentally changing and rising above Carmela especially, whose own addiction to Tony’s lifestyle makes her resent Angie all the more.

Because while Tony represents the outward violence and brutality of capitalism, Carmela represents those of us addicted to its indulgent lifestyle, stuck in the tension of hatred towards it and dependence on it, frustrated and longing for an escape we can never find. Even worse, Meadow and A.J. represent future generations, by which creator David Chase seems to tell us that there simply is no easy escape from the cycle, whether you’re a college dropout or a Columbia grad.

Suffering is the only true way out of this vicious cycle of indulgence that only seems to beget more guilt and self-loathing, because it is the only thing that fundamentally changes us. Ultimately, you can’t control what happens in this world, and pain is going to come your way. How are you going to create meaning from this pain? Are you going to retreat to drugs, like Christopher? Are you going to indulge your machismo and violent tendencies instead of owning up to yourself and making a change, like Melfi gives Tony so many chances to do? 

Suffering is something we must embrace and not shy away from. If The Sopranos is about people who want to change but can’t, one hypothesis Chase gives as to why they fail is because they don’t fully acknowledge their suffering. They cover it up, chiefly through food. 

Tony and Melfi’s therapy ends with her realizing that someone like Tony will not only refuse to grow and learn from therapy, but will use the lessons learned in therapy to improve his illegal actions. The same can be said about food and what it means to us. If we want to grow and change, food can promote that and bring us closer to ourselves and to other people. But if we have no desire to because we’re comfortable in our old ways, we will use food as both sword and shield; it becomes at once the absolver and the indulgence. I wish someone would write 95 theses about this.

Food is a wonderful thing, and it can help us find meaning in our suffering. When Artie Bucco, after six seasons of humiliation and denigration by Tony and the Mafia (they stuck his hand in a pot of boiling marinara!), finds himself with burns on his dominant hand and an ego torn to shreds, he finds his meaning again through a recipe for rabbit from his father. It’s a powerful scene, because it’s Artie finally being honest with himself and facing the future in the best way he can. As Hemingway wrote, “a man can be destroyed but not defeated.” 

The fatal flaw of so many characters on The Sopranos is their belief that they are defeated when they’re not even destroyed. Maybe the way out of this self-pity lies in the Ojibwe saying that makes its way to Tony’s hospital room in season 6A.

The world is bigger than us. Food can represent that enormity, the beauty of nature and our ultimate subordination to it, and can reveal in us the ability for goodness and concordance that we all have inside of us. But we have to stop hiding behind our myopic view of it.

Only when we are honest with ourselves can we find the uninhibited beauty in what we eat. 

Will you be indifferent?

POSTSCRIPT: So what, no fuckin’ ziti now? 

My take on The Ending

As we’ve discussed above, The Sopranos is full of people who talk a lot about changing, but who don’t. Instead they believe. Believe in God, believe in themselves, believe in others, you name it. I don’t think Chase is a proponent of atheism, but I do believe he’s interested in the idea of how to act in a post-God world — by which I mean a world whose people have to make their own meaning since industrialization shattered the omnipotent notion we had of religion. 

The song goes, “don’t stop believing,” but Chase ends it after  “don’t stop.” Abruptly. Because the idea isn’t to believe anymore. It’s to do. Don’t stop, that powerful imperative from one of the most iconic American songs, is a call to action.

Showrunners are like gods. They create and control lives, the choices people make, will manifest occurrences that can be punitive or merciful, and exist in a mode of time that is separate and more infinite than that of the characters in a TV series. Chase sets up all sorts of possibilities for Tony’s fate and then cuts us off in an attempt to clue us into how it feels to have your God be killed. That’s why it’s so visceral. 

But he tells us, in his final words, “don’t stop.” Not believing, but being. Because ultimately it isn’t our beliefs that make us who we are, it’s our actions, how we conduct our being in our every waking moment.

When confronted with the indifference of the world, don’t stop. 

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Home is my Mom’s Lasagna

Culinary bliss, in my perspective, is defined as a moment of gastronomic euphoria. When in a state of gastronomic euphoria, one revels in the delight that food can ignite. As a person, I consider myself to be extremely detail-oriented. Whether it be through sight, smell, or taste, my attentive nature seldom falters. Unfortunately, this heightened sense of observation causes me to automatically pinpoint shortcomings or deviations of preference when it comes to food. When taking the first bite of a dish, I immediately determine if it appeases my palette. Before eating, my stream-of-consciousness always poses the question, “Will this meal be a hit or miss?” Lasagna is a masterpiece that undoubtedly transports me to a state of culinary bliss. Always a “hit,” lasagna is my absolute favorite meal to savor. 

Italian cuisine, in particular, satiates my taste buds like no other. Chicken parmesan is always a treat when in the mood for poultry and fried calamari is a gift of the sea. Within this realm of food, pasta is a culinary star. Its delicate texture and ability to soak up flavor cannot be overlooked! 

Photo courtesy of The Spruce Eats

Pasta has the undeniable ability to complement the various sauces that could accompany it. Creamy sauces enhance the richness of pasta; the acidity of tomato-based sauces beautifully cuts through pasta’s starchiness. Lasagna explores both of these dimensions. Béchamel sauce, the buttery and smooth white sauce that is typically used in lasagna, indeed highlights the richness of the layered noodles. Blanketing your taste buds with a subtle savory pop, béchamel sauce is a crucial component of successful lasagna. On another note, the tomato sauce fused with ground beef takes your taste buds in a completely different direction, heightening your meter of enjoyment. The tomato paste usually added to the tomato sauce provides a strong concentration of tomato flavor, emitting subtle acidity while also bringing out the saltiness of tender beef. 

The cheese in lasagna fosters intense satisfaction. Shredded mozzarella layered between the noodles functions as an adhesive, yet it also melts in your mouth and contributes a subtle hint of sweetness. Ricotta is another type of cheese that lasagna champions, also sweet and soft. My preferred way to eat ricotta in lasagna is when it is mixed with sliced basil, given that it acts as a vehicle for this herb to permeate the dish with aromatic freshness. Parmesan cheese is an ingredient that ties the entire dish together. Sprinkled on top of lasagna before entering the oven, parmesan cheese’s nuttiness and salty bite facilitate harmony amongst the meal’s components. While baking, the parmesan cheese forms a golden crust on top of the dish, balancing gooeyness with crunch. Once out of the oven, the scent of lasagna is pleasantly pungent and overwhelmingly inviting. The driving factor behind completed lasagna’s delightful scent is the dried oregano sprinkled on top before baking. Finished lasagna visually begs to be eaten. From the golden shade of the crust to the sight of texturally diverse layers, the dish is simply irresistible. 

Lasagna has been a personal favorite for an extended period of time. It is in the comfort of my home where I am able to best indulge in lasagna, as my mom cooks it with extra care knowing that I love it. Every time I find out that my mom is making lasagna, a huge wave of happiness overcomes me. It’s quite ridiculous just how ecstatic I get to smell the oregano, to marvel at the golden crust, to take the first bite from my plate. Apart from the sadness of leaving my family behind, a concern that crossed my mind before moving to Massachusetts was how much I would miss my mom’s lasagna. My perception of successfully executed lasagna is informed by my mom’s interpretation of the entrée, crafted with so much patience and attention. When away from home, moments of culinary bliss are few and far between. While at college, I crave the culinary bliss that my mom’s lasagna produces. 

It has become a tradition to eat lasagna every time I visit my family at home in Florida. Acutely aware of how much I miss her lasagna, my mom never fails to receive me at home with the dish as soon as I arrive from Miami International Airport. My flights from Boston usually arrive around lunchtime, so I practically start eating as soon as I get home. After quickly transporting my luggage to my room, I join my family at the lunch table and watch my mom cut me a piece of her culinary triumph. The mozzarella stretches and the steam rises, indicating comfort and warmth. 

As I take the first bite, my thoughts center on the perfection of this dish. There are no errors, the lasagna is out of this world. My mom’s lasagna fulfills the mental criteria that I judge lasagna by: it’s savory, it’s sweet, it’s velvety, and it’s crisp. A year into college, I view lasagna a bit differently. Though it remains a favorite of mine, the emotions I associate with lasagna are new. The culinary bliss that I always treasure when indulging in it is now accompanied by appreciation for returning to a loving home. The euphoric moment is, after all, fueled by thoughtfulness and kindness. I would not change a single thing about my mom’s lasagna, just how I would not change a single thing about the care and receptivity of my home.

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Essays

A Currency of Love

For a long time, whenever I heard the phrase “breaking bread,” I thought about a religious ceremony. I envisioned the flavorless, unleavened discs I grew up receiving at Catholic masses after they were lifted, blessed, distributed. It wasn’t until recently that I realized the phrase can (and often does) refer to any instance of communal eating. You don’t typically hear about a person breaking bread alone, although eating alone is common and perfectly acceptable. Breaking bread happens with others, a testament to the atmosphere of camaraderie established by sharing a meal. 

The last full day that I spent with my grandmother was centered almost entirely around the breaking of bread. I had planned a very last-minute trip from North to South Jersey, and when I called to be sure she was free for the day, she excitedly confirmed and said she would take me to lunch. That made me squirm a little. 

I love eating out as much as the next person, but I didn’t want her to feel as though she needed to feed me just to merit my visit. The purpose of my trip was to relieve a bit of her loneliness, if only for the day. I didn’t mind what we did as long as we were doing it together––we could’ve sat and talked in her living room for all I cared. In true grandparent fashion, though, she loved anything to do with entertaining her grandkids. I knew there was no point in suggesting we stay at her home.

The next day, one sleepy car ride and a huge coffee later, I pulled up to the sidewalk in front of her little white house. I lugged two huge cooler bags out of the backseat, and she opened her door just as I got to the front step. “You came all this way for me!” she said, a little teary eyed. 

Before lunch, we had some unpacking to do. Two slices of homemade chocolate cake from my mom were carefully placed in a container, as was a portion of our dinner from the night before. String beans from our garden, lollipops we thought she might like, half a loaf of banana bread. There were also frozen homemade meals for her to store, packed in small Tupperware with labels and dates scrawled on post-its. We wedged the additions into her fridge and freezer, emptying the bags.

The lunch spot of choice, pre-selected by my grandmother, was a small Italian restaurant called Carollo’s. They undoubtedly offered menus on-site, but she had me look up the digital version before leaving so we had extra time to pore over the options. New York arguably boasts some of the best pizza outside of Italy itself, and New Jersey shares this virtue. South Jersey streets are studded with pizzerias, and each takes itself very seriously. 

When we pulled up to the restaurant, she explained the pandemic-era procedure for Carollo’s take-out. We went inside, placed our orders, paid, and then waited for the food to be done (all while wearing masks). She had her pick memorized, and I only needed to skim the menu once more to make my final selection. I picked a table on their patio while she waited inside and eventually emerged with a tower of white Styrofoam and a huge grin.

We opened the boxes one by one and arranged them across the table. I was starving. She had a small container of hot French dip for her steaming sandwich, and there were several seasoned rolls to share. My mouth watered when I unboxed my summer salad, sprinkled generously with fruit, goat cheese, and chicken lightly charred on a grill. 

Carollo’s has a token dessert that greets guests as soon as they walk in. At the top of the glass counter, next to the register, a metal tray always sits piled high with what look to be slightly enlarged Munchkins. Zeppoles are small balls of fried dough rolled in sugar, and my grandmother never leaves without a few. We had a box of those as well.

Photo courtesy of cookscountry.com

The two of us chatted from our spot in the shade, laughing about family drama and wallowing in our self-pity over the uncertainty of the next few months. I told her about my plans for the fall, about our most recent beach trip, and about the ways I had been keeping busy. She was wise and witty in her responses, as usual. When we were both done eating, she asked if we could stay for ten more minutes. 

A few hours later, after we had taken the long way back to her house and finished catching up, I was getting ready to head back home. Just as I was about to leave, my grandma pulled out the same ice packs I had carried that morning, and then she began retrieving item after item out of her fridge. We reversed the entire unpacking procedure, as this time she prepared to send me off with her own gifts. Mozzarella cheese she knew our family would use. A box of donuts she told me she would never finish alone. A bottle of pomegranate juice “for the health benefits.” On a whim, she came across a tin of her Christmas cookies in the freezer and tossed them into the cooler as well. “Christmas in July!” she’d laughed. My grandmother’s holiday cookie trays are legendary. I had no idea that she kept an emergency store year-round. She also sent me with all of the zeppoles.

“Grandma!” I exclaimed with mock frustration, “save some for yourself!” She gave me a mischievous smile and waved her hand.

“No, I just had some the other week. You take them,” She insisted.

By the time I got it all into the car, the backseat was just as full as when I had left. I thanked her for the day and told her I would be back soon. We waved vigorously in favor of hugging each other (following pandemic protocols), and I was off.

Very unexpectedly, just five days after I saw her, we received a call explaining that my grandmother had passed away. Who knew that our day together in late July was the last time I would have the privilege to break bread with her? After years of holiday dinners, preschool lunches (she was my first babysitter), and summer breakfasts, the last hours I spent with her were at yet another table together. It was ninety degrees outside, social distancing measures were still in place, and neither of us could be sure how the next few months would look. In that moment, together, none of it mattered. We loved each other, we were happy, and we were content to wonder at the joy that a good meal brings in even the craziest of times. Our conversation wouldn’t have been the same if it wasn’t over food.  

There is something incredibly satisfying about nourishing someone you love. To sit shoulder to shoulder or face to face while you eat together, sharing bites and pausing to chew and swallow. Nourishment can also happen from a distance. Shipping cookies in a care package to someone far away, grocery shopping for a significant other … or exchanging miscellaneous foodstuffs through your granddaughter. Separated by a few hours of highway, my mother and grandmother spoke everyday on the phone, but that was something entirely different from opening food that was prepared ahead of time for each other. Food is a currency of love.

Thank goodness my grandmother requested lunch together. I have to get through every meal for the rest of my life without her. What I initially saw as an unnecessary expense for my grandmother is now engrained forever in my memory as one of our most impactful days together. She was one of my favorite people in the world, and we showed affection for one another in many ways, but food allowed us an unparalleled platform for love.

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Essays

The “Picky” Perspective

“What’s the first thing you think of when you hear ‘Alicia’ and ‘food?’” I casually asked my friend, Caroline, in the car. “PICKY!” she exclaimed, laughing. I rolled my eyes and looked out the window, smiling as I considered this. We and five of our other friends were en route to a quick weekend getaway in Maine filled with some much-needed swimming, canoeing, paddle boarding, relaxing—and most importantly for my friend group, cooking. 

Despite the short duration of our vacation, we had packed the bed of a big black Toyota Tundra with enough groceries to last a week. Oat milk, gluten-free pasta, clarified butter, almond butter—you know, the essentials. When a nutrition major, a person with celiac, a vegetarian, two Paleo-enthusiasts, and a self-proclaimed “picky-eater” get together, the menu for group dinners has a restriction or two. Our meals are often gluten-free, dairy-free, and added-sugar free, but surprisingly, they are anything but bland. 

Each morning, we ate avocado toast with Everything But the Bagel seasoning, or coconut milk yogurt with strawberries, blueberries, and granola. For lunch, we made kale salads with seasoned shrimp, fresh off the grill. Dinners took the most preparation and were always my favorite part of the day. The first night, we had a Spain-themed dinner, complete with a vegetable paella and a variety of tapas—bruschetta, serrano ham, brie, and oven-roasted brussel sprouts. All of us have spent some time in Spain at some point, and paella and tapas hold a special place in our hearts. On night two, we made a rice pasta dish with peppers, tomatoes, onions, and Rao’s tomato sauce, which more than justifies its price with the absence of added sugars.

Although I ate almost all of this, my friends still call me picky. It is definitely true that as an opinionated, particular child, I declared early on that I would not eat cheese, sandwiches, soda, eggs, and other common foods. In fact, when I was younger, it was easier to list the things I wouldn’t eat than the things I would. To this day I still don’t like any of the foods on that list, but my palette and willingness to try new foods have drastically improved. While there are a lot of factors at play in this widening of my culinary horizons, the biggest one is the strong influence of my friends.

Due to allergies, intolerances, and just general preferences, the vast majority of my hometown friends eat an objectively healthy, clean diet of whole foods. However, most of them did not always eat this way. As kids who grew up on sugary cereals for breakfast, the switch to avocado toast as adults was a big one. On one of our cloudy Maine mornings, I sat down with my friend Caroline, the nutrition major, to unpack the reasons for her personal health-food transformation.

“Food is medicine,” she told me, in reference to the time her doctor told her she could be on the path to diabetes if she kept eating the way she had been. With the switch to a healthier lifestyle (which included changes in her activity level in addition to modifying her eating habits), she noticed a reduction in joint pain and a better sense of overall well-being. This did not entail diets, which she called “unsustainable,” criticizing the role of targeted marketing and the promise of quick weight loss with too much restriction and rigidity. “It’s about finding the alternatives,” she said, “Eating as much as you want, but of the right, whole foods.”

Photo courtesy of jessicagavin.com

Last summer, my friends and I decided to embark on a health-food expedition. Grocery shopping, meal-prepping, and cooking became exciting hobbies to fill the precious gaps in our otherwise overlapping schedules. Due to a mix of advice we’d heard and articles we’d read, we decided to try “food combining.” When preparing our group dinners during this time, we tried something completely new to me — steering away from pairing starches and proteins and instead placing vegetables at the center of the meal. Picky eaters tend to cling onto the things we do like, and we are often afraid to switch up our daily diets. I have always liked most meats, and my previous vision of a meal typically included meat, starch, and vegetables. I quickly learned I do not always need meat to feel full, and healthy pasta dishes with veggies are just as satisfying as pasta with chicken or meat sauce, for example. 

With a (more than a few) “gentle” pushes from my friends, I tried things I’d never dream of putting in my mouth before: zucchini noodles, kale chips, chickpea pasta, kombucha, the list goes on. Most notably, the discovery of gluten-free toast with almond butter and fruit, or with avocado and tomatoes, has opened my eyes to a whole new world of breakfast foods and snacks. Following the summer, the specific guidelines of the “food combining” cleanse didn’t necessarily stick, but my new-found zest for finding healthy alternatives revolutionized the way I think about food, and transformed my eating habits in a sustainable way. 

Everytime I cook now, I ask myself “what is the healthiest and tastiest way I can make this dish?” For example, when I stir-fry chicken, I tend to use liquid aminos rather than soy sauce for a lower sodium option. Each time I bake, I use recipes with almond flour and coconut sugar (I swear paleo brownies are better than the regular ones!). With the help and support of my friends, I expanded my ingredient repertoire. I discovered if I cooked my own food, I could pick the ingredients I wanted to pick, enjoying the taste more and feeling better both physically and emotionally as a result. I fell in love with the healthier alternatives, loving them both for the way they made my body feel and their clean, fresh tastes.  

Today, I don’t focus too much on the “rules.” If I feel like having ice cream, I don’t criticize myself for breaking the goal of eating mostly dairy-free. I am not fully “free” of any food group, but rather, I am conscious of my overall food choices and find healthier and tastier alternatives when available. While I’m sure many people would still call me “picky,” I don’t completely agree with that anymore. Sure, I’m never going to like cheese, but my palette has expanded dramatically, and in an absolutely positive direction—much of which can be attributed to the strong role models I have in my friends. As we sat around the camping table filled with colorful, well-balanced plates in Maine, I felt so much gratitude for my friends’ beneficial influence on my eating habits. I’m still picky, but at least now I’m picking the things that feel right to me!

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Essays

The Multifaceted Beauty of Paella

Paella: a symphony of texture, flavor, and splendor. The culinary complexity of paella is unmatched, one’s taste buds go on a rollercoaster ride while indulging in this dish. Even though paella is a stand-alone meal, it is wonderfully intricate. My mother usually makes this recipe on warm summer days when the grill is practically begging for interaction. 

Throughout my entire life, I have enjoyed assisting my mother in the kitchen, whether it be slicing vegetables, stirring the contents of a pan, or seasoning the day’s protein. On paella days, I exult in helping with all three tasks. Before the action at the grill begins, it is crucial to engage in mise en place. This French term is widely utilized in the culinary world, and it means “to set up.” My mother and I evenly dice the red bell peppers and onions, sprinkle salt and pepper on all of the incorporated seafood, and slice the chorizo into fourths. After mise en place, crafting paella is a matter of assemblage at the grill.

First, we add long-grain rice to the hot pan and stir it for a while, along with olive oil, the diced red bell peppers and onions, garlic paste, and a key ingredient, saffron, which lends the rice mixture a color like pure sunshine. The time has come to add the seafood. From shrimp to scallops to squid to clams, the seafood in paella is the star of the dish. We transfer the heftily-seasoned marine delicacies to the pan where the saffron begins to transfer its rich and aromatic essence, taking its role as co-star. Once the shrimp turns pink, we submerge the contents of the pan in seafood stock, cover the pan entirely with aluminum foil, and close the lid of the grill to allow the rice to cook through. After about a half hour, the rice is tender and the time has come to add the pre-cooked chorizo. We let the chorizo warm up and become fully incorporated into the rice before the final step, which is to sprinkle a touch of salt onto the paella before serving.

Watching the grand paella pan make its way from the grill to the center of the dining room table is truly a magnificent sight. Before spooning the entrée onto our plates, my family takes a few moments to admire the masterpiece sitting before us. As the steam rises, we can smell the earthiness and sweetness of the saffron. The aroma of paella is spectacular, but the flavor is simply exquisite. As the combination of rice and seafood enters our mouths, we are immediately hit with the rice’s savory punch. Though the seafood offers the perfect bite, the shrimp, scallops, and squid eventually melt in our mouths. Seafood has a way of absorbing savory notes while also retaining its natural sweetness, a pleasurable dichotomy. The warmth of the dish engulfs our taste buds, providing us with intense satisfaction. The tenderness of the rice beautifully contrasts with the seafood’s firm texture. Paella, even by itself, never feels like an incomplete meal. As noted earlier, the dish is elaborate and multifaceted. Apart from the rice and seafood’s harmonious relationship, it offers the freshness of the vegetables, the spiciness of the chorizo, and the crunchiness of the slightly-burned rice at the bottom of the pan. When eating paella, our taste buds run in a million different directions. That’s the beauty of this meal. 

Paella is not the easiest thing to cook. In fact, successfully executing paella requires extensive organization and patience. However, the result is beyond worth it, and the process has its unique perks. Cooking meals can sometimes be frustrating because they can have various, seemingly unending components. Oftentimes, people have to worry about separately preparing sauces or side dishes. Although paella has an abundance of components, crafting it is a one-pan task. Once all of the dish’s elements have been merged in the pan, more effort is not required to complete your dining experience. Paella’s multidimensional nature makes for a well-rounded meal, no side dishes or sauce required. Once you have the pan sitting in front of you, your thoughts do not pose the question, “What else?” As soon as paella is introduced to your palette, your mind (and mouth) revel in complete satisfaction.

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Essays

Grocery Cart Coping

I think I have a problem. It’s an obsession, really…with grocery shopping.

Perhaps this realization should have come to me freshman year. During those first few weeks, nearly all of my phone calls home included recaps of my latest food shopping ventures. In fact, one of my first trips off-campus was an Uber to Whole Foods with Anna, a girl who lived just two doors down. My parents would try not to sigh too loudly into the phone before reminding me of my meal plan. “Well, yeah,” I’d mumble. “But BC Dining doesn’t offer cranberry orange seltzer.” 

At my home in New Jersey, the local Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods each sit a solid 30 minutes from my house. My mom usually can’t be bothered to make an hour-long commute for groceries, so she leans on those within a two-mile radius: ShopRite, BJ’s, and Costco (the latter of which opened just over a year ago to the complete and utter joy of our entire town). The core of the matter was that I’d never experienced an alluring supermarket before. Whole Foods was polished and airy inside, mostly white with wooden accents. The scope of brands they offered was so wide, so new to me, that I couldn’t help but feel lured in. Trader Joe’s was like Whole Foods’ more affordable, eccentric little sibling. Cookies in every shape and flavor, a rotating cast of seasonal and holiday-themed products, and mini succulents by the entrance. Say less!  

With time, I learned to breeze through my hauls so as not to concern the parents on every call. There was no need to further agitate them with tales of my semi-regular supermarket trips. Food is a necessity. Grocery shopping is practical. In my eyes, filling paper bags with fun, exciting items I’d never seen before––say, pomegranate Pop-Tarts––was merely exercising my new liberties as a freshly minted college student. 

That isn’t to say that mistakes weren’t made. Some of my least favorite, most regrettable finds from those months include pumpkin butter (never even opened) and watermelon beet juice. I distinctly remember sitting in the Fitzpatrick lounge, cracking open the seal on my seven-dollar bottle of antioxidants, ready to be wowed. Instead, I choked on the first sip and made myself take two more, not least because of the price tag. Later, I returned to my room in defeat and announced failure to my roommate, Tori. “Seven dollars!” I cried in dismay, as I cast it into the trashcan at the foot of my bed. Ah, freshman year.

As time went on, my enthusiasm for groceries began to carry over into long weekends and breaks spent at home. Packing for the return to Chestnut Hill involved more than just clothing. I’d arrange and rearrange my bags to include random food items my mom and I found while running errands together. Once, I crammed a box of spiced Kodiak pancake mix into my duffel bag. To my credit, I had aspirations to somehow use the powdered mix to concoct a mug (pan)cake of sorts. I swear, I do spend some time studying.

Fast forward to sophomore year, and some things changed; I had seven roommates as opposed to one and a kitchenette instead of a microfridge (read: we had extra cabinets). My passion for groceries remained a constant, even evolving a bit more. My designated shelf in the “kitchen” was always chock-full and apparently (as friends liked to point out) with items atypical of most college students. I am consistently generous when it comes to sharing food––the problem is that my offers often go unaccepted. My suitemate mocked me when I attempted in vain to have her sample my favorite nut butter (a blend of cashews and almonds with a touch of honey and blended Chia seeds). I once ripped open a bag of cauliflower straws and offered them to the room before seeking out a bowl. “Straws of what?” was the general response. 

Then came March, move-out, and quarantine. Dorm and kitchenette disassembled, I found myself back in Jersey. I stayed at home for weeks, wallowing in what so many have cited as social symptoms of the pandemic: frustration, loneliness, shock. My mom was the self-elected volunteer who first braved the grocery stores. She came back exhausted and anxious with tales of aggressive shoppers and barren aisles. Eventually, something sparked inside me. Food was just as essential as it had been a month ago. My mom was still leaving the house to buy food for us all. Why not come along? I could help shoulder her burden––I should help shoulder her burden––Clorox wipes, masks, and all. 

Friday is our new grocery day. My mom and I reserve the start of the weekend for gathering provisions. I could be in the worst of moods, but if she announces even a quick run for milk and flowers, I shake myself out of a stupor and shuffle on flip-flops. If I’m honest, when I tag along, it’s never just milk. We take the time to peruse produce. A lap through the bakery section is always a necessity. Rarely do we trek to Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, the seductive spots that I peruse in Boston, but for now, what we have in town is just fine. 

The world is a scary place. It’s always been that way, but 2020 has been a stern reminder of this fact of the universe. These days, sources of relaxation, happiness, and control feel few-and-far-between. Grocery stores have given me all three. Unanswerable questions about the future get left at the door, and inside, everything has its place. For an entire hour, I’m overwhelmed by the most trivial of concerns––which new recipe to prepare for, which coffee creamer to try next––and it feels amazing. 

Some aspect of my pandemic-induced anxiety right now is similar to the way I felt in the fall of 2018, stepping into the world alone for the very first time. I had no way of knowing what was to come, good or bad. Everything on the horizon was new, but there was little to do except face it head-on. Stocking my dorm room with store-ground peanut butter and Everything-But-The-Bagel Seasoning felt like a little act of self care, defiance in the face of the unknown. 

I also felt defiant last Friday, when I lugged a basil plant into my mom’s shopping cart and then spent a solid five minutes mulling over the available Ben & Jerry’s selection. I may not be able to freely navigate all of my favorite hometown spots, and I may not know where I’ll be living in the fall, but at least I can make homemade pesto on a whim and enjoy the comforts of Netflix-themed ice cream. Food remains essential, and consequently, so does grocery shopping. In summary––and to quote TikTok, another symptom of four months in quarantine––I think this is an obsession that doesn’t hurt anyone.


Disclaimer: This article was written prior to recent events suggesting that Whole Foods is unsupportive of the Black Lives Matter movement. Gusto firmly condemns those actions, and asserts that Black Lives Matter- yesterday, today, and always.

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Essays

Pan in a Pandemic

It’s mid-March. I step off the plane into Logan Airport, and the initial breath of freezing air shocks my system, a precursor to the culture shock of readjustment that would soon follow. Just hours before, I had packed up my study-abroad life in sunny Spain, hurriedly giving the cultural “double kiss” to each member of my host family as they, too, prepared to flee the city in favor of a more remote, safe climate in the country. There was a growing sense of urgency during my final days in Madrid, a slow swell of panic culminating in closures and relocations. The warm spring air was thick with apprehension, a stark contrast to the typically calm, carefree atmosphere. 

Although I could hear and see the anxiety poking through in her rushed tone and quickened pace, my host mom remained level-headed and practical on my final day. She walked with me through the city to tie up some logistical loose ends, like going to the bank to cash her final payment for my stay and dropping by the doctor’s office to reschedule her daughter’s upcoming physical. After the to-do list was efficiently completed, she told me in slow Spanish that we had one last stop to make: la panadería. Finally arriving at the little bread store, at least four or five blocks from the location of our last errand, my tired feet and anxious mind were instantly calmed by the savory scent. We were greeted by a smiling woman who happily helped my host mother decide which loaves she wanted. After the selection process, she placed the pan in an elaborate slicer, separating it into perfect pieces. The fresh, ready-to-eat slices were then tossed into brown paper bags faster than I could say, “¡Gracias!

A few minutes later, we began the lengthy walk back to the family’s apartment, this time bogged down by the weight of six or seven pre-cut baguettes. Although I had a long journey across the Atlantic ahead of me, I remember letting out a genuine laugh in that moment. The world was turned upside-down by the coronavirus, and one of my host mom’s top priorities was to buy bread. This was made even better by the fact that we passed three or four alternate bread stores on the walk home. Although the several panaderías looked identical to me, my host mom was loyal to that particular one. The thick fog of disease had infiltrated her beloved city, but she maintained a sense of normalcy through the lens of her family’s favorite food. To her, bread was essential.

Many of my fondest memories from my time in Spain are of sharing meals with my host family. Although their spacious four-bedroom flat had a formal dining area, 99% of the time the five of us packed into a cozy, dimly lit table tucked away in the kitchen hall. Since dinnertime is much later in Spain than I was used to, most nights I arrived at the table around 9:30 PM, already showered and starving. I’m a bit of a picky eater, which I think my host family saw as a challenge for them to tackle, one meal at a time. They successfully got me to try almost everything, from anchovies on little bread crisps to jamon serrano (ham carved straight from the pig’s leg at the table, hooves and all). 

Since we were all out during the day at school or work, and I traveled most weekends, it was during those weeknight dinners that I was able to bond with the family. I would listen as they caught up with each other about the day’s events and chime in when my understanding of Spanish felt sufficient enough to do so. Even in the moments where the conversation flew way over my head, I found comfort in their warm expressions and laughter. Dinnertime in my host family’s house was equally about eating and socializing, a designated opportunity each day to stop, share a meal, and spend time together.

Since my semester in Spain was my first time in Europe, there were many days when I came home to that charming flat in the Chamberí neighborhood feeling overwhelmed, anxious, and even defeated. Submergence in another culture and language is a tough adjustment, and I think all of the BC students in my Madrid program sought solace in one way or another. For me, daily dinners with my host family were a welcome source of both calm and connection. They were a reminder that I was a part of something in Madrid. Not just BC Abroad, or an exchange program at Universidad Comillas, but a Spanish family unit. Just as my host mom found normalcy in buying bread, I found comfort in the daily dinner routine.

Looking back on those late-night family dinners—and especially that final trip to the panadería—in mid-June Massachusetts from my childhood bedroom, I cannot help but smile. Although my last food-related purchase of choice would have been an iced latte and a bagel from my town coffee shop rather than loaves of bread, the cultural barrier disintegrated for me that day. I identified with her instinct to preserve some normalcy, as well as her loyalty to her favorite local food shops. I found her prioritization of particular food as “essential” to be very relatable amidst the impending controversies over which types of businesses would be allowed to remain open during the countrywide quarantine. For my host mom, her favorite panadería was top priority during the pandemic. When I am able to safely visit Madrid again, that little bread shop will be a priority for me, too.