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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.

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Essays

The Delivery

I did some math. He must’ve been about 80, 85 years old, which means he must’ve been born between ’35 and ’40. That makes him too young for World War II, and fifteen years old at the start of the Korean war. They didn’t ship 15-year-olds to war, did they? The next closest war was Vietnam, and that went on for 20 years, so he could’ve deployed anywhere between his 15th and 35th year. 

I decided, then, that he must’ve been between 15 and 35 years old when he lost his legs. Probably in his early twenties.

Meanwhile, it’s the summer after my freshman year of college, I’m 18, and I spend my time driving for DoorDash. I leave my house at around 4 p.m., wait for my phone to give me an order, and then do its bidding. I drive to sushi places, pizza parlors, burger joints, ice cream salons, taquerias, Chipotle, Thai restaurants, noodle shops, and, occasionally, McDonald’s. I park, unplug my phone from the aux cord, head in, and ask for any take-out orders. I see couples on dates, men eating alone, high-schoolers socializing. I hear the rustle of silverware over the loud hum of voices, and, if I’m lucky, I get to see what’s going on in the kitchen. 

The cooks are playing insouciantly with fire, clanging stainless steel pans on the gas ranges, flipping sautéed dishes in the air with reckless abandon. God, they make it look easy. Then, the host will come out with a plastic bag tied up with a knot on top, and I leave the cacophony of life for the confines of my 2011 Honda Fit, a small red car that should look cooler than it ever does. I turn the engine on, put on “Your Cover’s Blown” by Belle and Sebastian, and make my way to someone’s home. 

They might live in the hills, or they might live by the highway, but they get their food delivered to them by a dejected college student all the same. Regardless, I dash to the door, knock, and hand the person their food. DoorDash, the great equalizer. I came to learn that the name that appears on the app is practically meaningless. Curmudgeonry, misanthropy, bonhomie, and vivacity know no names.

I repeat that sequence some ten or fifteen times. Drive, enter, wait, leave, drive, knock, smile, leave, drive, and so on. Sometimes someone is visibly drunk, or abnormally nice, and it stays with me for the next delivery or two. At this point, with nothing clear in the future, I graciously accept an iota of kindness wherever I can find it, like a dog scavenging for a lost treat. Somewhere between an overlong time behind the wheel directly related to a singalong session in the haven of my Honda, I decide to go home, where I heat up some leftovers, and after having spent so little time with so many people, I sink into the couch and let the day wash over me. It’s not a bad life. It feeds something in me, my curiosity, my extroversion, my restlessness. But, I’m still hungry.

One evening, I take an order from Curry Up Now, a local chain offering decent Indian street food (on an admittedly flawed scale, if Trader Joe’s frozen Tikka masala is a one, which is underrating it, and Zareen’s is a ten, Curry Up Now is about a six) sometimes in the form of gimmicky mashups like naan pizza. I pick up the order without a hitch, but when I see I have to deliver it to Louis at the local Veterans Affairs, my heart sinks a bit. It’s far, and the food won’t be as fresh when I get there, so I feel disappointed at the faceless Louis on my phone for even ordering something for himself so inconvenient to begin with.

I make my way over and get lost. I pride myself on having a decent sense of direction, but the VA and its 40 parking lots constitute some sort of perverted labyrinth, where buildings have numbers but aren’t numbered, and there’s nothing to distinguish them. I’m supposed to go to X but I have no idea how to get there. I call Louis through the app, but he won’t pick up. I send texts and texts, and I get radio silence. Am I getting left on read by someone I’m delivering food to? So, I sit in the parking lot, alone and hungry, calling DoorDash service to find the quickest way to eat this meal without repercussions. They tell me to wait 30 minutes, and if I hear nothing after that, the meal is mine. I put on a podcast and let the countdown begin.

The food, now certainly cold, is filling my car with the aroma of saag paneer, garlic naan, and samosas. Just as the timer is going to run out, and I can treat myself to a Dionysian feast inside the prison that is my 2011 Honda Fit, I get a text from Louis. It’s frantic and apologetic and quickly guides me to his location. It was surprisingly easy to find.

I enter the sterile hall whose walls are decorated with war memorabilia and find myself among seniors, nurses and administrators. And right there is Louis, who sees my bag, calls my name, and makes his way over in his wheelchair. Louis is old, Black, and has no legs. He is probably hungry too, yet he still treats the petulant child who was about to eat his saag paneer with kindness.

“Is it good?” He asks me. “I haven’t tried this place yet.” 

“It’s one of my favorites,” I tell him.

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Essays

The Power of “Pán de Yuca”

Although my parents immigrated to south Florida shortly after marrying, I consider Guayaquil, Ecuador central to my life origins. It is a place cherished by every relative I know and love, and the connection my family holds to Guayaquil is undeniable. Through my travels there, Guayaquil has revealed to me the fulfilling and transformative power of exploring one’s cultural roots. 

Flying from Miami International Airport to José Joaquín de Olmedo International Airport is nothing short of invigorating. Welcomed by family members that I do not get to see as often as I would like, I feel endless warmth upon arrival. Embracing my grandparents, uncles, and cousins at the airport is a moment that I look forward to every time we visit. While they rejoice in our return, we rejoice in their kindness. 

Food has always been a source of connection for my entire family. While visiting our relatives in Ecuador, we relish in the country’s delicacies. For my Floridian family, shared meals foster invaluable connections with our Ecuadorian relatives. It is during moments of culinary togetherness that we extensively savor Ecuadorian cuisine. 

Food has bonded me to my maternal grandmother, “Abuela Nini,” one of the people with whom I spend the most time while visiting Guayaquil. Staying at her home in the neighborhood of Entre Ríos, I hold sacred the love she continuously offers and the laughs she ceaselessly produces. Over time, I have noticed that she and I both view food as an outlet for intense satisfaction. We relate in that we not only acknowledge but cherish the power of flavor. For us, food is not fuel; it is one of life’s treasures. Therefore, eating with my grandmother is nothing short of wonderful. 

While visiting Ecuador a few years ago, I had a profoundly special culinary experience with my grandmother. For an afternoon during my stay, I accompanied her as she ran errands around town. After a few hours of productivity, I suddenly recognized my surroundings from within her car; we were minutes away from Entre Ríos. Hungry after a long afternoon, I suggested that we eat at a restaurant called Naturissimo. Accepting my request with a smile, my grandmother soon made a right turn into Bocca, a nearby plaza where the restaurant is located. Among a wide array of city-wide locations, this specific spot is preferred by my family. Naturissimo is an Ecuadorian franchise known for offering delectable “pán de yuca” and yogurt drinks. “Pán de yuca,” a beloved baked good in Ecuador, is often viewed as a staple of casual dining. The dish consists of cassava cheese bread, always served warm. Every time I encounter it at Naturissimo, my taste buds are enlightened by the spirit of South American comfort food. 

Entering the restaurant with my grandmother, I was immediately welcomed by the colorful paintings on the walls and the kind staff members. Behind the counter, there were several páns de yuca kept warm by insulated display cases. In addition to ordering some of these, we both selected raspberry-flavored yogurt drinks, which were similar to yogurt milkshakes. After paying, we decided to dine outside. 

Sitting across from each other at a round table, we began to indulge. The warmth of the bread in my hands significantly elevated my excitement. Pulling the dough apart, I could see the steam rising and the cheese expanding. Pán de yuca has a crisp exterior, so every bite begins with a perfect hint of crunchiness. However, the inside of the bread is extremely delicate. The bread’s interior is like a savory cloud, melting in your mouth with every bite. The nuttiness of the cheese and the starchiness of the cassava complement each other, producing a blissfully warm sensation in your stomach. That day, the sweet-yet-tart raspberry yogurt drink exquisitely balanced the pán de yuca with bursts of fruitiness, beautifully contrasting the bread’s salty notes. Sips of the cold, smooth beverage highlighted the comforting warmth of pán de yuca. 

In the past, I always wondered how my Ecuadorian roots specifically touched my life. As a south Florida resident, there are many differences between my lifestyle and that of my Ecuadorian relatives. Often, I would feel culturally detached while staying in Ecuador; visiting felt like I was stepping into a world drastically different from my own. 

While eating at Naturissimo with my grandmother that night, I witnessed the joy that eating pán de yuca and sipping on raspberry yogurt drinks produced in us both. The happiness that I felt inside reminded me of the times that I had eaten pán de yuca in Florida. It suddenly dawned on me that every time I ate this baked good at home, I would think of the endless love that I have for my relatives in Ecuador and how deeply I miss seeing them during the school year. Looking into my grandmother’s eyes, I realized that Ecuadorian cuisine not only allows us to bond, but it also fosters thoughts that mentally unify me with my Ecuadorian roots.

The warmth of the pán de yuca equates to the loving warmth of my relatives abroad. For me, exploring my cultural roots means consuming Ecuadorian food and valuing the lovely thoughts that ensue. The food that pertains to my culture touches my life by reinforcing the respect I hold for familial ties. The pán de yuca and raspberry yogurt drink at Naturissimo taught me that love defies distance. 

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Essays

Grocery Stores in Other Places

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I made banana bread. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Essays

Thursday Nights in Italy

It’s the night before Friday. 

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

Aperitivo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Essays

The Magic of Possibility

Kayla Causey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Essays

It’s All Alien to Me

Alex O’Connor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A single tear rolled down my cheek.

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

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

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

Categories
Essays

Indulging in the Process

My dad loves to cook. To sear, season, and sautée. The timeline of his day, unfortunately, doesn’t allow ample time to produce a meal from start to finish. Our kitchen, in all of its preparatory glory—a steamy cloud of scents, all four burners occupied, ingredients strewn across every inch of counter space—is an atmosphere of organized chaos just before dinner. Returning home from his IT office, my dad will drop his leather messenger bag in the corner and proceed to dump his keys, wallet, and phone next to the coffeemaker. Immediately afterward, he launches into a string of offers to assist in any outstanding dinner tasks for my mother: “Should I fire up the grill? Can I put this glaze on? I’ll make the rice!” Given the opportunity, he jumps to contribute. My mom jokingly swats away his attempts at help, though, preferring to finish what she has started without explaining her every move to the latecomer.

“If we waited for me to get home,” he always laughs, “We’d end up setting the table at eight!” His removal from this process of making dinner, typically a high-stress and time-constrained experience, means that when he prepares food it is for sheer pleasure only, and at a leisurely pace all his own.


“We have grown accustomed to bursting through the door on weekends, only to find my dad transfixed in a peaceful atmosphere of kitchen alchemy.”

A few hand-picked items have become my dad’s pride and joy, and he has undoubtedly reached a level of mastery over them throughout the years. If he hasn’t already coached me and my sister through the production of these favorites, then he has threatened to do so at some not-too-distant point in the future. Whenever the mood strikes my dad, he’ll meander into the kitchen and start to pull out the flour and baking spray. We have grown accustomed to bursting through the door on weekends, only to find my dad transfixed in a peaceful atmosphere of kitchen alchemy. He’ll look up at us, called back to reality by our turning of the doorknob, as he cheerily draws a tray from the oven. In these scenarios, my mom will typically be bent over the kitchen table, stacks of recipe cards in front of her, scrutinizing the numbered lists and weighing our options for the evening. My dad’s therapeutic baking sessions always earn him a playful roll of her eyes. “Must be nice!” she’ll pipe up from her chair, mocking the frivolity of his kitchen use. Thanks to my dad’s role modeling, though, I will never be able to bake absent of his influence.

Scones are my dad’s true pièce de résistance. Each batch is a new masterpiece of his. Unless my mom, sister, or I request a different flavor, his go-to recipe consists of a sweet butter dough studded with currants. Why he refuses to simply call the added fruit “raisins” has become easy for us all to understand. The kitchen is where my dad likes to play with the more artisanal side of himself.

Born in Oregon, my dad has a special affnity for berries. His home in the mountains made for a quaint, almost surreal summer job between the ages of ten and eighteen—a produce picker at a farm across the street from his neighborhood. Strawberries, raspberries, and broccoli in the fall…he grew up surrounded by fresh ingredients, and was exposed to almost every imaginable method of their incorporation when it came to food. This piece of his childhood manifests itself in the way he attempts to insert the tiny, gem-like fruits wherever applicable. If my mom is making pancakes, muffins…bread in any form, really, he’ll lean over her shoulder and ask whether she’d like him to retrieve some of our seasonal berry stores from the chest freezer downstairs. “Honey, this is cinnamon coffee cake—it doesn’t call for anything else,” she might respond in exasperation.

“I know, but there are berries…” my dad will trail off, realizing he isn’t clearing any ground. To this point, he will sometimes swap locally picked blueberries or peaches for his classic Sun-Maid currants in scones.

About halfway through his recipe, things start to get complicated. My family has a pastry blender that looks a little like a horseshoe, with five thick, silver wires bent into a loop and attached on either end to a thick rubber handle. In the only instances I’ve ever seen it put to use, my dad digs out this tool for the step of butter-cutting. Patiently jamming the wires into a room-temperature block of margarine, he uses a fork to scrape the resulting slivers off the metal. Painstaking and messy. If my sister and I are helping him, we attempt (with no avail) to speed through this process. “The butter is the most important part,” my dad explains, never possessing any sense of urgency. “That’s where the flakiest layers come from.” Envisioning the translucent sheets of dough, stacked piping hot under the shell of his golden biscuits, my mouth always waters. I stifle any harbored complaints.

With a handful of currants and a quick combination of wet and dry, my dad is soon placing eight evenly-spaced triangles onto our worn slate baking sheets. The fruits-to-labor ratio in this recipe is a source of personal frustration for me. An hour of work and only eight pieces in total? My dad, of course, doesn’t mind. Wielding a bristled brush, he furrows his brow and leans over the trays, lovingly brushing a coat of melted butter atop each glistening slice of dough. Deftly sprinkling raw cane sugar onto their tops, his goal is a delicate crunch with every bite. Then fate is left to the oven.

The art of cooking has never intentionally been gendered in my family. Preparing our meals does often fall into my mom’s hands, but this is a pattern which fell into place organically, following her decision to leave work and stay home with me and my sister. She has taught me most of what I know, in a practical sense. It is by her side that I’ve witnessed our family traditions in action: blending coleslaw dressing, rolling a fresh pie crust (store-bought would be sacrilege), simmering winter bean chili. Her wealth of knowledge is a source I will draw from for the rest of my life. My dad’s attitude, however—even more than his unique set of skills—is what will inspire me always.

The whimsical approach which my dad takes to food is one I seek to imitate. He has shown me the presence of bliss in the kitchen. By devoting energy to select cuisinal items, he has allowed himself to explore their intricacies, and so emerge with a level of personal satisfaction which I can only hope to emulate. The thorough advice he presents my sister and I comes from a place of passion rather than a sense of responsibility, and it sincerely shows. Everyone has to eat and drink, and from the point of creation to consumption my dad does so merrily.