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Essays

Backseat Musings

When I was in middle school, my Nana picked me up once a week to drive me to martial arts lessons. She always brought a snack to fuel me for all of the punching and kicking. I enjoyed the occasional banana, but there was usually a yogurt tucked into the backseat cupholder. Vanilla Greek yogurt made the most frequent appearance. I always looked forward to the special kind with the little pocket of crunchy, chocolate-covered rice puffs that I dumped into the creamy white base. It probably wasn’t the most nutritious choice, but I embraced it whenever I could. 

Sometimes, Papa tagged along. From the safety of the backseat, I watched the two squabble about everything from directions to driving techniques. 

“Watch out for that red light, Ann!” 

I know, John, I see it too!”

Image Courtesy of Eater.com.

Most of the time, he requested a stop at Starbucks so Nana could get him a small black coffee. In the winter, the windows were shut tight against the cold. Soon enough, the hot air from the heater wafted toward me and carried the strong, rich scent of espresso along with it. It sometimes made me want to drift off to sleep. Nana warned Papa not to drink the coffee in the car. I guessed she was afraid that a sudden stop would send the scalding liquid flying as he took the lid off to let it cool. But he probably snuck a sip or two in when her eyes were on the road. 

Bumpy roads and unexpected red lights didn’t always provide the best environment for snack enjoyment, but I tried my best. Peeling back the yogurt wrapper was the most difficult part. Just like Papa, I had to be sure not to spill anything on the car’s clean interior. Napkins were a definite necessity. Luckily, there were never any disasters. A plastic spoon did the trick so that I could easily dispose of the container and utensil together. 

Although I was preoccupied with the yogurt ordeal, the stop for coffee always appeared to me as a small, even inconvenient gesture. My younger, energetic self grew restless as we neared the martial arts studio. I couldn’t wait to get out of the car and get to practice. Why did we have to delay the journey any longer? A Starbucks break seemed to pale in importance to getting where I needed to go.

All I saw back then was my grandparents coming to pick me up from school. What I didn’t realize was how selflessly they were acting. A stop for coffee wasn’t just for Papa’s enjoyment, it was an extra moment of time that we could spend together. Nana’s snacks and driving weren’t services provided simply because my parents were unavailable, they were a way for us to strengthen our bond. These were a couple of the many ways that my grandparents showed my cousins and me that they loved us. And I may not have told them that during all those times when I was anxious for the car ride to be over. I may not have relayed my appreciation as I rushed toward the studio doors, with a hurried “Thanks, love you” and a brief kiss on the cheek. But I know that they always put my happiness first. Spoken or unspoken, through car rides, yogurts, and coffees, the love was there. 

Eventually, the arguments over directions and red lights were resolved. I always got to my lessons with a leisurely ten minutes to spare, in true Mahoney fashion. I could take a deep breath. There was no need to be nervous in the first place. Now, I would gladly welcome another stop for coffee and a conversation about my day just to sit in the backseat of that old Toyota one more time. When I was a carefree middle schooler and my biggest worries were punctuality and what kind of snack I would get. Because my grandparents always made sure that I would never have to be concerned about anything else.

Cover Photo Courtesy of Dreams Time.

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Essays

A Lost Recipe

My great-grandmother’s blueberry coffee cake is supposedly fantastic. This is according to my dad, whose words fell on overly traditional ears when he asked to make it for the family. My parents tend to use a core rotation of beloved recipes, unwilling to reinvent the wheel every time they pull out the mixer. 

We were able to stall Dad’s pleas for a good year, distracting him with tried-and-true crumb cakes and muffins. Then one day, there it was, in all its glory. A tiny recipe card scavenged out of the many cookbooks and recipe boxes he had taken on his trek across the US, from Oregon to New Jersey. My dad uncovered the tiny type-printed set of instructions and placed it triumphantly on the kitchen counter, where he was determined not to let it go ignored. My mom took it from him and skimmed the ingredient list, her nose wrinkling with just a hint of indignation. 

“It calls for Jiffy mix?” She asked. My dad brushed it off.

“Mmm-hmm.”

My sister and I jumped directly onto my mother’s bandwagon. Spoiled with the luxury of frequent homebaking, the superiority of scratch over store-bought had been impressed upon us from a young age. 

“A box?” our childish voices chimed in, with absolutely no regard for Dad’s feelings. We had seemingly forgotten the value pack of Ghirardelli boxed brownie mix, which rested as a staple on our pantry floor. None of us had an issue with tossing oil and an egg into a bowl of factory-packed chocolate powder. Family recipes were held to a higher standard, though. How could he gush over one that relied on such an obvious crutch? we wondered.

Image courtesy of I Am Baker

As a college student, box mixes are a lifeline that save many a sleepy meal. Sacrificing the label of “homemade” in order to fill a skillet with circles of pancake batter in less than five minutes is a triumph. There is a time and place for laborious recipes, and it certainly isn’t everyday. Like most life lessons, this was one that I had to learn with age. Ten-year-old me was much less gracious.

My mom was skeptical, but she made the coffee cake with him. I wandered through the kitchen from time to time, eyeing the dried blueberries that tumbled from the mysterious Jiffy box. I even tried one, a bluish candy-sweet ball of gel-like consistency. 

As the assembly came together, I learned that the cake had a thin layer of crumb topping, a pet peeve of mine. I typically like this layer to resemble small stones instead of sand. My favorite moment comes when slicing a square and launching an avalanche of crumbs, as the knife carelessly robs the next piece of its garnish. I like to greedily pile the extra clumps onto my own plate.

Perhaps my dad’s coffee cake had lost before we even tried it. Lifting forkfuls of the finished product to our mouths, my mom, little sister, and I weren’t willing to be awed. Chewing slowly, I could taste pieces of the blueberries that had melted into the batter unnaturally. It would have benefitted from a few boulders of butter and cinnamon topping. 

Suddenly guilty, I swapped sides. 

“It’s not bad,” I conceded, eyeing my dad. He was still excited, but a little sheepish.

“It’s not quite as good as I remembered,” He mused.

Image courtesy of Half Baked Harvest

Cover Photo Courtesy of Freut Cake

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Essays

Grazie a Dio per la Glassa Balsamica!

We stood in a ring around our stove, looking down at the frying pan as it sizzled with olive oil and released a salty aroma into the air. Salt and salt variations are the principle spices we rely on. It was 6:40 on a Thursday, and we were about to consume the same meal we’d been preparing almost every night for a month: vegetables, meat, rice. 

“What could we add?” Katie, always the leader, looked from the kitchen cabinet to the burners and back again.

“Balsamic glaze?”

There were nods of agreement. All we carried to the table were our steaming bowls, forks, and the bottle of Nonna Pia’s. Poor Nonna. Every single one of our meals seemed to rest on her shoulders.

I had thrown the glaze, an exciting Costco find, into a box of kitchen supplies at the last minute. A few days before leaving home, my mom offered it to me and while at first I said no, I thought better of it. “That could actually be fun to have,” I’d said, somewhat absentmindedly. College and all of its many complications never seem real until you’re there. Cut to two weeks later: my roommates and I were sitting down to our first home cooked meal, and something seemed to be missing. It was then that I remembered the somewhat flexible quality of balsamic glaze, and I held it up in suggestion.

Since that night, the bottle has been more than adjustable; it has performed back-flips in many a last-ditch effort to jazz up meals. A part of its appeal, for me, is for the visual effect. Whenever I text my parents food pictures, an artful squiggle of deep black glaze garnishes the top. I like to think it looks like I might’ve made a red wine reduction or a homemade teriyaki sauce. Of course no one really believes that, but I get a rush of maturity from adding such an adult-sounding final touch to my plates. Balsamic glaze. It isn’t elementary like ranch or ketchup, but it isn’t aggressive like oil-and-vinegar. Over the last two months, balsamic glaze has served as a makeshift salad dressing, sandwich condiment, and replacement for soy sauce. Nonna Pia would probably grimace in disgrace, and authentically Italian grandmothers would be even more appalled.

You have to stop drizzling balsamic on top of everything you eat, I always tell myself as I flip open the cap on our beloved sauce. But by then, it’s always too late. Katie can recite Nonna Pia’s life story after many an afternoon spent reading the label while she eats. With each passing week of the semester, the bottle has grown more sticky (read: more loved) as time goes on. Black dribbles leave stains of residue on the side.

At the end of October, my mom drove up to Boston. I was heaving a bag of winter sweaters out from the car when she reached over to pull a fuzzy beige one from the top of the stack. Underneath rested four unopened bottles of glaze, still in their plastic shipping bags. 

“Oh my God,” I said, laughing. “We haven’t even finished the first one.” Did she think we’d been drinking it? I thanked her genuinely, but assured her we had more than enough. I love my roommates, I really do. But the taunting I would have received if I lined the back of our cabinet with tiny Nonnas waving out at us? It was unimaginable.

Some people associate college with a specific brand of liquor, or a take-out restaurant chain. I’m both embarrassed and amused to admit that I will forever associate my junior year with the essence of balsamic glaze. Just like our first apartment, it’s a sweet security blanket of a step into adulthood. Plus, it looks kinda pretty.

Cover photo courtesy of I Heart Naptime

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Essays

The Forest’s Gold

Imagine taking the first steps into an ancient forest. You have just left the dirt road and entered into a kingdom filled with densely packed trees, occasional rock formations, and all sorts of animals and insects, many of which most people have never heard of. The sun has barely risen, and you can still see the morning dew on the grass beneath your feet. The air is thick from the scent of damp moss on the forest floor. The space feels shielded, like a safe haven on Earth. You take a deep breath and inhale all the goodness the forest has to offer, and it’s like your body immediately adjusts to the quiet and slow paced surroundings. As you continue deeper into the forest, it feels as though all your troubles magically disappear, and the only thing occupying your mind is the treasure you came for: the forest’s gold. 

After what feels like hours of walking, you see something yellow in the distance. Could that be it? No, just a couple of yellow leaves that do their best to mimic the forest’s gold. You suspect that someone might have already been here and taken the precious gold you came looking for. You are about to head back to your car when you fall over a tree stump. You land in a shrub of blueberries and decide to try some. They’re sour, not quite ready to be picked. Out of curiosity you look to the side, and there they are: yellow hats with lanky legs, partly hidden under soft green forest moss. The chanterelles are beautiful, golden yellow like the sun and soft to the touch. Thankfully the chanterelles grow in larger groups, so you quickly fill your basket until it’s almost too heavy to carry. 

image courtesy of The Spruce Eats

During the Texas autumn I sometimes long to be back in my favorite Swedish forest. Although it was often rainy, mushroom picking season was my favorite time of the year. My dad and I could be gone for hours on end, hiking in the deep green forest, carefully searching for the delicious golden mushrooms. My dad knew many secret spots that were great hunting grounds for chanterelles. For forest-loving Swedes, chanterelle spots are kept a secret; they’re not even disclosed to close friends and family. Thankfully my dad had found them when he was a young boy, so we always came back home with at least a half a basket of mushrooms. Covered in mosquito repellent and rain gear, we would try to search for what I referred to as the forest’s gold until our basket was filled to the brim. We could always spot some deer and forest rabbits, and if we were lucky, a moose or two would come across our path. We never saw a bear, but they were out there too. Everytime we came back from the forest, we would immediately begin cleaning our catch of forest chanterelles and other mushrooms we had picked. My dad told me how important it was that all the dirt came off, but we still had to be careful not to rub any of the skin away, as that would make it lose all of its hearty goodness. I remember it being quite a slow process, but the chanterelles’ lovely flavor made up for it. Their silky smooth texture and their peppery, but fruity, flavor was what made them so desirable. 

As we usually found several baskets full of chanterelles, we would parboil the mushrooms and let them cool off before freezing them for another time. However, we always saved the best specimens for immediate enjoyment. As we sautéed the fresh chanterelles with butter and salt, we heard our stomachs rumble. We were so excited about all the amazing food we would make during the coming year: chanterelle toast, chanterelle stew, steak with chanterelle sauce. The options were truly endless. I knew one thing for sure––no matter the occasion, you can never go wrong with chanterelles.

image courtesy of honest-food.net

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Essays

My First 4Boston Friendsgiving

On a rainy Thursday evening, with the wind whipping outside, Justin and I began the daunting process of cooking a Thanksgiving meal in a dorm room kitchen. While I boiled potatoes to soften them for mashing, he roasted the squash he had delivered from Instacart that morning. “See! I told you it always takes so much longer to soften them than it says in recipes!” I joked, referencing the 45-minute mark on the potatoes compared to the recipe’s false proclamation of perfect consistency around 10-15 minutes. “Thank god we didn’t wait to cook this until Saturday morning like we had planned,” he laughed. As two of the three seniors in our 4Boston group, we shouldered the responsibility of cooking two key components of the meal: mashed potatoes and butternut squash casserole. The third senior roasted the turkey, so he definitely deserves an honorable mention. We had a Friendsgiving scheduled for that Saturday night, one last hurrah before much of our small group headed home for the remainder of the semester. 

Since we’re close outside of 4Boston, Justin and I worked together to discuss what we would make and split the prices of wine and cider for everyone. As two of the seniors, it makes sense that we would share responsibilities of planning and providing, but here’s the catch: this is my first year in 4Boston. Taking a nontraditional path of joining the largest and most prevalent volunteer organization on campus in my final year at BC was an unusual choice. Justin recommended I join his group back in August, as I was looking to find a new community at BC coming into this semester. Now in November, we jointly prepared for the group’s Friendsgiving together in my kitchen. While he peeled apples and I mashed my finally softened potatoes, I asked him about his decision to include me, and a little about his experience in 4Boston as a whole.

 “I had concerns about it,” he admitted, “definitely was excited to have you but obviously there are concerns when you bring in someone close to you to a group outside of your immediate circle.” He quickly added, though, “but I love how it has worked out.” By this point, he was forcefully jamming the potato masher into the tough, white pieces (I guess they weren’t as ready as I thought). I snuck some apple slices from his dish while he helped me, and asked him about what he thought would look different about Friendsgiving this year, compared to his past experiences with this annual event that is a definite favorite of his. 

Image courtesy of Pinch me, I’m eating

“This year I was really focused on Friendsgiving being a communal gathering where everyone shared and brought food,” he said, “because we have missed certain opportunities to come together as a group this year because of online volunteering.” In light of the pandemic, 4Boston has looked a little different this year, but Justin knew it was important to safely share a meal together before saying our goodbyes until the spring. 

After a socially distanced gameday Saturday, Justin and I headed off-campus with our final products in hand. I held my tupperware of garlic truffle mashed potatoes and a bottle of apple cider, while he carried his butternut squash casserole topped with apples and a crumble topping made of pecans, brown sugar, and butter. Other group members brought a turkey, stuffing, cornbread, cookies, and various other sweets and sides. While we ate together in a living room decorated with earthy, fall colors, we went through our highs and lows like we always do. Rather than the formal atmosphere of our weekly second-floor Gasson reflections, the cozy setting of a festive living room allowed for natural conversation and authentic connections. The evening was full of home-cooked meals, classic rock, a little Christmas music, and endless giggling games of Never-Have-I-Ever and cards. I left feeling happy and whole, and Justin declared on the bus ride home that it was his favorite Friendsgiving yet. 

As a senior who has had far too much time to self-reflect this year, I’ve realized a Boston College student is composed of their enmeshed memberships to various networks and circles. We all have our roommates, our classmates, our clubmates, our abroad friends, our retreat groups, and the list goes on and on all the way down to the people we recognize from that Tuesday night spin class we occasionally attend. With COVID-19 concerns, many of us are experiencing burnout from our immediate friend groups this year, finding it hard to reach out to our more peripheral associations. At least, I am. While sitting in an intimate living room holding a plate full of food with people I’ve only known for a couple months, however, I got that warm feeling of community that is so precious in today’s socially-distant world. In a non-traditional senior semester, I found in my 4Boston group the spirit of togetherness that is, fundamentally, the soul of BC. To freshmen, I’d say—as someone who’s been in the group the same amount of time that they have—it’s never too late to add a new niche.

Cover photo courtesy of Taste of Home

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Essays

Feeding Family, Past and Present

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

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

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

Image courtesy of The Curious Mexican

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

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

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

Cover photo courtesy of The Spruce Eats

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Essays

Pumpkin vs. Apple Pie: A Battle?

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

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

Image courtesy of Simply Recipes

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

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

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

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

Cover photo courtesy of Taste of Home

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Essays

A Slice of Home

Oddly enough, whenever I think about pumpkin bread, I don’t think about pumpkins. The orange vegetable that people carve for Halloween does not come to mind. Instead, I picture Libby’s pumpkin puree. A delicious item with the texture of mashed potatoes that mixes with cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg, and bakes into an excuse to eat dessert for breakfast. When an image of an actual pumpkin pops into my head, with the pale seeds and stringy guts in all their glory, I marvel at its transformation. The humble squash goes from rags to riches, from a vegetable to a treat that’s more like a cake than bread. 

When I was younger, my dad used to bake pumpkin bread all the time. He would stockpile cans of Libby’s in the pantry. Whenever I unloaded the weekend’s groceries, the perfect slices of pumpkin pie jumped out at me from the orange can wrappers. When I came home on Saturday evenings, a new loaf awaited my consumption. It sat on the kitchen table shielded by tinfoil, like a present I itched to unwrap. Those Sunday mornings were always a treat for me. My dad woke up bright and early, but what finally got me out of bed was the thought of my breakfast. I always made sure to cut a thick slice and slather it with butter before microwaving it. Tiny tendrils of steam floated up from the craggy surface. As I sat down to enjoy the meal, my dad briefly looked up from his reading to say good morning, and smiled upon seeing the plate in my hands. “It’s really good,” I responded when he asked for feedback. 

There was always something special about my dad making the bread from scratch. I admired the time he took to gather the ingredients and blend them into something we could share. It wasn’t just about having something sweet to eat in the morning. Even though my dad cooked dinner for me all the time, we both had established breakfast routines. For him, it was a slice of toast with peanut butter each day, almost without fail. I liked to pick a dish and stick to it for a few months at a time. It could be anything from cereal to smoothies to egg-and-cheese sandwiches. The bread waiting on the table on a random Sunday morning allowed us to give in and deviate from our routines, just this once, to come together in a new way. 

Image courtesy of Food Network.

I learned that as I took on the task for myself. When my dad was too engrossed in reading books or articles to bake on the weekends, I busied myself with making the batter. My favorite part was smoothly scooping the puree out of the can and watching it slide into the glass bowl. I loved dusting in the spices. As a treat to myself, I added some chocolate chips to the top of the loaf. My dad would not have preferred such decoration, but it was something I added for myself up until I came to college. 

I cherished pumpkin bread as a slice of home when I returned to school after fall break last year. The loaf was my trophy for all my efforts in lounging around the house, enjoying home-cooked meals as I wrapped myself in blankets and let my eyes glaze over in front of the TV. Back in my dorm on a gloomy October morning, I retrieved my prize from the fridge. I gingerly peeled away the tinfoil to reveal the golden brown dome of bread. The sweet smell of the cinnamon and the sprinkling of chocolate chips fought off my sleep deprivation. With an unexpected burst of energy, I adorned my desk, the only thing reminiscent of a table in my compact double, with my breakfast spread. Paper plates and stolen plastic utensils from the dining hall would have to do. Strawberries and blueberries glistened appetizingly. I served myself a generous portion of the bread and remembered to spread a decent layer of butter before heating it up. Finally, I was ready to eat. 

After weeks of rushing to finish my dining hall cereal in the mornings before class, it was a relief to have a Sunday morning with baked goods from home. My wooden desk chair could hardly replace the comfy couch on which I usually ate, but the warm meal deterred any other complaints. I had brought this piece of home with me. The smallest loaf of bread reminded me of all the mornings my dad and I had together. And even though I had made this particular loaf myself, before leaving, I still thought of the hours that my dad had taken out of his busy weekends to bake for us. As I spent that October morning hunched over my desk and looking out at the gray sky, I was far from home. But just as my dad and I interrupted our rigid routines for a treat, I knew that I could always take a moment to remember that home was never too many miles away to bring a slice of it with me. Even if it was in bread form.

Cover photo courtesy of Greatist.

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Essays

Eating Alone

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy of Booking.com

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

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

Cover photo courtesy of Los Angeles Magazine

Categories
Essays

Fika Like a Swede

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cover photo courtesy of Eventland.