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坚持(jiān chí): To persevere in Boston’s Chinatown

Cynthia Yee strides into Eldo Cake House and greets everyone in loud and confident Cantonese. The elderly customers dressed in purple puffer jackets and compressed socks shift to make room for Yee and her guests, as if for a respected family member. The women behind the counter, dressed in classic Eldo green vests, get ready to prepare Yee’s go-to order: nai cha with no sugar. It’s a traditional Hong Kong-style milk tea. 

“They call me Missy. You know why they call me Missy?” Yee says, who is a blogger that writes about growing up on 116 Hudson St. in Chinatown. “They are making fun of my name because I am a teacher.” 

The Cantonese banter continues. Laughs and playful insults bounce around the cafe as one of the women who work there prepares four aromatic nai chas. Yee calls it the bakery dialogue.

Eldo Cake House has been a staple bakery on Harrison Avenue in Chinatown for around 30 years. Famous for its perfectly sweet and savory char siu buns, deliciously creamy egg custard tarts, and fluffy fruit cakes, it’s a casual bakery with neon lights outside, a stainless steel kitchen lined with clanging pots and pans, and the smell of sweet char siu wafting in the air – a homey place with three square wooden tables along one wall. 

But Yee also remembers the small mom-and-pop grocery store that was once in the spot Eldo now occupies, owned by two generations of a Taishanese family. 

Chinatown is a 9-block enclave in the middle of Boston, shrouded by high-rise apartment buildings and offices threatening to further encroach on its borders. It’s home to a densely packed food haven, with over 100 related food businesses that were hurt badly by the Covid-19 pandemic and also face racism and xenophobia. Although life is slowly returning to its small alleyway, that’s not nearly enough to keep these businesses afloat. Preserving Chinatown means saving tradition, but a new generation is also stepping up to revitalize this neighborhood. 

“It was empty,” Yee says with her hands around a warm nai cha in a small cream paper cup. “These ladies worked every day, but you couldn’t even sit down.” With restrictions to indoor dining, and a lack of outdoor seating on Chinatown’s cramped one-way streets, many businesses saw a huge drop in customers. 

Some pockets of the Chinatown Yee remembers remain, though a few are left. Beside the iconic Chinatown Gate are elderly East-Asian men playing chess on the concrete tables. Cantonese, Mandarin, and other dialects mix together in that playful banter. But beside them is a plastic playground, with no children playing on it.  

Chinese lanterns in red and gold hang above the chess tables, but in the backdrop is a high-rise apartment building with rent starting at $3,000. 

Some restaurants hang up neon signs that create a soft, colorful glow at night. There are faded menus with 100 food items. The smell of smoking woks laced with Chinatown pollution hangs in the air. But beside those “hole-in-the-wall” restaurants are chain stores that only appeal to wandering tourists. 

Chinatown is a home, not just a tourist attraction where outsiders get their once-a-month ethnic fix. But Asians now make up less than half of Chinatown’s population. 

Despite all the changes, Yee still goes through the extra effort to come to Chinatown during the pandemic. “I made my car a mobile cafe because I didn’t want to stay at home,” Yee says. “So I had to turn the AC on, get my nai cha, and drink in my car. I just couldn’t stay away from my nai cha habit.” 

Restrictions on indoor dining weren’t the sole reason Chinatown became a ghost town. Around the country, the number of hate crimes against Asians rose as much as 73 percent last year, according to the FBI. The terms “China virus” and “kung-flu,” perpetuated by former President Donald Trump, entered circulation. Memes targeted East-Asian restaurants, based on rumors of Covid-19 having come from Chinese bat soup. 

The FBI recorded 310 hate crimes involving 408 victims in Massachusetts. In the early morning of February, 69-year-old Liem Tran was violently beaten and robbed in the North Quincy Red Line station. Tran still relives that fear and anger everyday. In May, 100 people gathered in Boston Commons for a Stop Asian Hate protest. Former Mayor Kim Janey said at the protest, “From the Chinese Exclusion Act to the internment of Japanese Americans to the sexualization of Asian women in our culture, this latest surge is part of a long dark history,”

The rise in anti-Asian hate is rooted in America’s immigration history. Chinese immigration to Boston began in the early 1870s as Chinese immigrants fled from racial persecution on the West Coast and looked for new opportunities. Some settled in Boston’s Chinatown – known as South Cove at the time. But only bachelor men could immigrate after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first and only law that prohibited people from a specific race and ethnic group from entering the United States. 

Despite the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the Geary Act of 1892, Boston Chinatown’s population slowly grew, from just 250 residents in 1900 to 800 in 1930. After the exclusion act was repealed in 1943, streams of women and families began to settle there. Parents worked in restaurants, factories, and garment industries while the children roamed freely and played in the street. That’s the Chinatown Yee remembers and loves. 

The owner of Eldo Cake House casually walks into the store. It’s 3 p.m. He greets the women in that familiar stern tone of Cantonese. Yee gestures with frantic waving hands for him to sit. The old-timers around the area know him only as Eddie. 

Eddie has been the owner of Eldo Cake House for around 20 years. He came to Boston from China in 1973 by himself at 19, working as a waiter, butcher boy and even ran a school for a few months before opening his car shop. Eddie bought Eldo Cake House with some friends as a retirement project. 

“When we [first] came, you cannot even have a bakery here.” he says. “Never mind you got dim sum, never mind. You just come in and point with finger, and I want this and this, that’s it.”

The pandemic hurt his business and others, Eddie says. 

“Empty, nobody came out,” he says. “But, you know, during that time we still open. Very hard, hard for everybody.” 

Eddie remembers the stories of recent rising crime around the area. “Everybody robbing everybody,” he says. The cashier at Eldo Cake House was robbed during the pandemic, and the tip jar was emptied four or five times by thieves.

“Now, it’s getting a little better in the weekend,” he says, “but not in the weekday. A lot of people get used to stay home and work so they don’t come out.” There are far fewer people in the office buildings nearby to come for snacks or lunch.

This has been the fate of many Chinatown businesses post-pandemic. As rent increases and the neighboring Financial District draws closer, the vitality of Chinatown is in the crosshairs. Compared to other busy restaurant areas such as Newbury Street and the North End, where reservations are sometimes required a week or more in advance, Chinatown remains emptier than usual.

“We never been the same,” Eddie says. 

But Chinatown has its allies. With more than 80 civic organizations helping fund and offer resources to the Chinatown community, there is still hope for this cultural hub. 

One such small organization is The Chinatown Project, co-founded by Aubrey Tang and Billy Chen,  which showcases the small voices of Chinatown, from small mom-and-pop shops to second-generation Chinatown kids opening businesses in this new landscape. It uses photography and videography to connect with a broader, younger audience on social media. The Chinatown Projects celebrated its first anniversary this month. 

“Seeing the rise of anti-Asian attacks and xenophobia in general in this sort of national reckoning,” Tang says, “me and my partner Billy was just sitting on the dining table and thinking what are ways we can possibly contribute to these communities that have been affected by both these two pandemics – the racism, the disease.” The Chinatown Project was born.

Tang is a 24-year-old graduate student at Dartmouth College, and 28-year-old Chen works as a digital designer in Boston. But their passion for preserving Chinatown stemmed from their childhood experiences. 

Chen grew up in Rhode Island, where there wasn’t a Chinatown at all. “[My parents] would bring us over to [Boston’s] Chinatown with our cousins and our large family,” Chen says. “It’s funny because as a kid, you just look at these things, and you’re like it’s just food. It’s not a big deal. You would never think of it as a tradition, or something that is so important to you.”

Tang, too, would visit Chinatown as a kid. “Looking back at it, I wasn’t able to really verbalize it or really put my finger on it,” she says, “but there’s just something so comforting about being in a place among people that look like you, speak similar languages to you, … it just feels right. You feel like you belong here.”

Among their many interviews with business owners, one sticks out to Tang and Chen the most. It was February with Sonny Chan, the owner of Hot Pot Buffet at 70 Beach St. 

“He said that the rent prices are just so high, and there’s no people coming in here, ‘I just don’t know if we’re even going to make it to be honest,’” Tang says. “We were kinda trying to pull answers from him, we want that hopeful answer. But in the end we realize this is the reality. They really might not make it until the next month without any other sort of income.”

There is still a sense of resilience and perseverance among Chinatown business owners. Many use the Mandarin phrase, 坚持 (jiān chí), meaning to persevere and persist on.

“It just goes to show that they are still fighting to survive here,” Tang says. “Among all these other things, they are just fighting to even be able to keep their businesses open and continue to support their families. If they don’t have this, what else are they going to do?”

Many of these first-generation business owners did not receive quality educations or learn good English. Cooking became not only an expression of their culture and home, it became a lifeline. 

“I think preserving the culture of Chinatown, that’s important to us because we see it in our families, we see it in our food we eat as well, and that’s something we don’t want to see go away,” Chen says.

With a new generation of Asian Americans moving in, preserving Chinatown also includes developing a new pan-Asian and Asian-American culture. Tang has seen a growing number of modern Asian restaurants opening in Chinatown. For example, Brian Moy, a second-generation Chinatown kid, owns popular restaurants Shōjō, BLR, and Ruckus. 

“That really goes to show the direction that Chinatown is going in, and how a new generation is starting to take place.” Tang says. “People are changing, our experiences as Asians and Asian Americans are changing … I think it’s necessary for Boston Chinatown in order to bring a new crowd of people in.” 

Transformation is coming. But how can change both preserve tradition and integrity, while also developing modern, long-term solutions to keep Chinatown away from hungry business developers? This is the balance that Chinatown is dealing with.

As the nai chas cool and char siu buns are consumed, Yee sits back in her chair and sighs a big sigh. 

“If we ever took [Chinatown] out of the American fabric, it’s a big loss,” she says. “It’s the food, it’s the histories; we have a lot to learn about history of Asian-American immigration, the exploitation, the oppression – but the resilience. We survived no matter what.”

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The Ancestry of a Bagel

Any time that my family gathers together, one thing remains constant: food. As a bold, chaotic, but always unconditionally loving Jewish family, the most pertinent question before each gathering is always “what are we eating?” Spreads of New York bagels (I swear the water makes them different) with the perfect ratio of crispy crust to chewy interior line the counters with every topping you can imagine. Special deliveries from family members in the New York Area are a must, as other bagels simply do not compare. Lox and red onion and capers and dill and every flavor of schmear you can think of sit beside the bagels, all combined to create the perfect breakfast bite. Sweet bagels topped with chocolate or cinnamon sugar partner perfectly with a fresh strawberry cream cheese, while the sharpness of an asiago bagel mingles with the tang of a cream cheese loaded with chives. The bagel is the most versatile, yet underappreciated carbohydrate, a canvas for experimentation at any mealtime.

Immersed in the Jesuit values of Boston College, I often lose sight of my Jewish roots. Just 4% of the Boston College population identifies as Jewish. However, I often am grounded again in my ancestry in the foods I choose to eat. My Sunday morning bagel and cream cheese may seem just as ordinary as the next. For me, though, this bagel has a special meaning. Each bite of my most favorite glutinous treat takes me back to years of family gatherings and time spent with the people I connect with most.  

The bagel we know today originated in Poland in the early 17th century. The word “bagel” is derived from the Yiddish word “beygl,” a variation of the German word for “ring.” While you can find a bagel at just about any grocery store, coffee shop, diner, and convenience store, not all bagels are created equal. Some are baked, some are boiled, some are even steamed. Factory bagels often come perfectly circular with a flawless cut out in the middle. Real, handmade bagels, though, often swell so much in cooking they just become a glorified bread roll, with no distinguishable ring shape. Even though the bagel is literally named to look like a ring, I truly believe these hole-less bagels are the best kind. Regional varieties of bagel have even emerged, ranging from the New York style to the Montreal style, and even a St. Louis style. A quintessential part of a weekend brunch, most Americans can say they’ve eaten at least one bagel in the past month, though most could not begin to identify where the round doughy delicacies’ roots lie. 

The first bite into a bagel’s crunchy exterior followed by the delight of a doughy interior sparks fireworks in my taste buds—there is simply nothing as fulfilling. As fad diets come in and out and culinary trends progress, the bagel should not fear; it will never lose its seat at Sunday brunch. I hope that it’s rich cultural background will one day rise to the forefront, and those so deeply appreciative of its creation will give credit where credit’s due. Next time you grab your carby-treat, make sure to think back to its 17th century roots across the Atlantic.  

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Fall Consumerism

Fall makes its yearly introduction with an explosion of pumpkin flavored products on Trader Joe’s shelves, a takeover of cinnamon scented candles at Target, and flannels of every color combination in millennial closets. The transition is sudden, all before the leaves truly transform into staggering shades of auburn, burnt orange, and mustard yellow. It’s the season of overpriced warm pumpkin spiced lattes (even though deep down you knew the classic iced latte would’ve satisfied you more) whilst you sit in a quaint cafe to do an hour of work as you watch the leaves graciously fall. 

Fall is predictable, yet we gobble it up every year as if a new Trader Joe’s pumpkin spiced waffle and pancake mix (made gluten-free!) will make the season ten times better than it was a year before. But what is it about this consumerist season that engulfs our mind in a daze?

Entering Felicita Kostianis’ 2K double room, there’s a eucalyptus and palm scented candle surrounded by an assortment of mini pumpkins and green streaked squashes. The aura of the room hugs you tightly as you peer up to see fake amber orange leaves flank the ceiling along with the warm glow of fairy lights. All around the kitchen are polka-dot pumpkin printed tea towels as the smell of the apple cider hand soap lingers. By the window sill are slightly nourished plants, and above are acorn and yellow leaves window stickers. 

“I think [fall is] the only reason I’m okay with summer ending,” Kostianis says, who certifies herself as a dignified fall lover from New Jersey, “We all hate the cold so we glorify the season before.” Glorification may even be a slight understatement. Especially for someone who did not grow up with the classic American consumerist life. 

Clementine Paris, from France, sits with her mouth open as Kostianis beams at the thought of fall. “Halloween is a bit of a thing [in France],” she says, “but it’s a holiday, not a season. America celebrates seasons.”

Perhaps it’s precisely the back to back holidays of fall that makes this season so easy to commercialise – Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Black Friday. Then again, what other country erupts into a branded fall commercial for three months? It’s not just about the celebration of leaves; we spend time, money, and energy to appreciate the beauty of fall through overpriced apple picking and decor. 

In fact, there might even be a psychological reason why fall fanatics boast about the changing season. The inherent coziness of the season linked with cooler temperatures extract a sense of nostalgia and calm. Holidays and traditions anchored in this season bring up happier memories and the reassurance of safety. Spring doesn’t give as many cozy vibes, and for many, it’s a season of stuffy noses, tissues, and eye drops. The summer is wrongly spent worrying about beach bodies and obsessing over tropical vacations. In such a state of solace during fall, it’s no wonder brands reach deep down into our pockets,and trick us into believing that buying an extra fluffy blanket, this time with pastel pumpkins, will soothe our minds. 

“Yeah, consumerism in America is obvious,” says Paris, “but it’s easy to get used to. As much as they overdo fall, Americans overdo everything so it doesn’t come as a shock.”

America seems like the land of over-the-top marketing, but you’re immediately immersed, or rather brainwashed, by the consumerist culture that the constant Instagram ads may not even be that surprising. 

Paris grabs a glass of apple cider, freshly produced and purchased from a recent trip to Honey Pot Hill Orchards in Stow, Massachusetts. She takes a swig, licks her lips, and makes a funny face, saying, “Apple cider is just apple juice made with not so great apples.”

 There are still some things that are too fall for Paris. 

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A Taste of Home

If you were to walk into my home on any given evening, you would most likely be greeted by a harmony of aromas. You would also notice a hint of Sazon, my mom’s go-to seasoning, accompanied by whiffs of cilantro and garlic. A couple steps closer to the kitchen would reveal the sizzling of empanadas or tostones being fried to perfection. When everything comes together you’re transported out of my dining room and into a typical kitchen in Colombia, my family’s home country. 

In the midst of Hispanic Heritage Month, I’m reminded of how much I miss home. September 15 to October 15 is dedicated to Spanish, Mexican, South and Central American people, offering space to celebrate the history, culture, and contributions of the hispanic community. Authentic hispanic cuisine is difficult to find in my town, let alone around Boston College. Thankfully, a variety of clubs, organizations, and offices coordinate events and meetings throughout the month. These events showcase typical foods and traditions, and they elicit important conversations about celebrating diversity.

Boston College is filled with latin flavor during this month. Various celebrations are held to highlight the rich culture and bold cuisines of the hispanic community. The Thea Bowman AHANA and Intercultural Center lead the way by planning a multitude of events. This year, the annual Opening Ceremony was held in Gasson, a stark contrast to the virtual format from last year. The ceremony, which featured a wide array of prominent hispanic faculty and staff, included a dinner that emulated traditional meals from hispanic countries. Throughout the month, the BAIC has also led efforts to highlight the Hispanic/LatinX community on campus in other ways. Whether through posting on social media or educating the student body on significant historical figures, the BAIC offers a taste of hispanic culture.

OLAA (Organization of Latin American Affairs) is another of many clubs on campus that puts together events for Hispanic Heritage Month. This year they were thrilled to organize a wide array of celebrations, shifting from the predominantly virtual model of last year as well. Mikayala Sanchez (MCAS ‘23), co-director of social and political actions of the OLAA, expressed how appreciative she was of the events organized this month. She talked about an OLAA event where they played traditional games such as Loteria and dominoes while eating food that reminded her of home. Sanchez described that while she and her friends have family in many different Latin American countries, food is one of the things that brings everyone together and makes BC feel like a home away from home.  

While my mom holds the culinary skills to replicate a traditional hispanic meal, I have not been lucky enough in my own kitchen while at school. I’ll sometimes joke to her that I wish she could ship my roommates and I meals from home with the slightest hope that she’ll catch on and find a way to do so. Until then, I, like many of my fellow hispanic peers, cherish home-cooked meals during school breaks and a taste of my roots through BC cultural celebrations.

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Mor Chikin or Moral Chicken?

I’ve been known to buy expensive sneakers because they were made of recycled plastic and claimed to be closed loop. Is the business women-owned? Well, I do consider myself a woman who supports other women. Add to cart. And I’m a sucker for organic, natural, recyclable, fairtrade, sustainably-caught, free-range, cruelty-free, non-GMO, smiling, happy cow labels.

Bjorn from my environmental science class would tell me that these purchases are just an attempt to assuage my guilt of contributing to the destruction machine that is our immoral capitalist society. I would tell him no, my purchases are *actually* saving the planet. I’m using my power as a consumer to support the good and push the market toward more equitable and ethical practices.

Despite my attempt at being a conscious consumer, I have a few weaknesses. I order my textbooks from Amazon because the thought of waiting in line to pick up my textbooks at Mac is ulcer-inducing. I still sometimes shop at Forever 21 or Zaful because I’m a poor college student and that $12 shirt is such a great deal. And when my sister asks if I want to go Chick-fil-a after an adventure to Target, my response is, “Should we split fries or do you want your own?”

For most of my childhood, the only problem I had with Chick-fil-a was that it wasn’t open on Sundays. It wasn’t until I came to college that I had to face its much more problematic element. One day, my fellow midwestern-raised friend and I were talking about food we missed from home: custard concretes, gooey butter cake, puppy chow—and Chick-fil-a.

“Wait, you guys actually go to Chick-fil-a? Don’t they hate gay people?” one of our Northeast born and bred friends asked.

 It’s tough to “well, but…” that one. It’s also, I might add, easy to judge when you’ve never had those waffle fries. It’s not that I hadn’t questioned it before, but it’s much easier to quell the critic inside your head than actually having to cogitate the ethical dilemma of eating a chicken sandwich.

The particular appeal of fast food is in the name. We pull into the drive-thru for the ease and the speed. Deep thinking usually isn’t factored into that time table. Besides, considering the ethical implications of your choice of dinner is about as unappetizing as listening to your friend talk about the implications of the 13 shots they took the night before.

But hey, there’s nothing like the onset of a global pandemic-induced quarantine to free up that time you’d been setting aside to question the world around you.

First, let’s consider the aesthetic and gastronomic value of Chick-fil-a: the waffle fries with their hot, crispy outsides and pillowy, fluffy insides; the steam that wafts off of the fries and billows out of the aluminum sandwich bags; the excitement of realizing your eight piece nugget order actually has a bonus ninth nugget; the Canadian-level niceness of the red polo-clad employees; and last, but not least, the amber glow of the Chick-Fil-A sauce that I may or may not be known to steal packets of as I’m walking out the door.

Now to the moral values: Is it “right” to support a corporation that actively works against a cause you support? Can we really justify spending our money somewhere if we know that a portion of that money works to suppress the rights of others?

When we start to ask those questions, Chick-fil-a’s sickly sweet lemonade starts to taste a little bitter.

Chick-fil-a has a long history of donating to anti-LGBTQ+ organizations. The Cathys, the founding family of the company, have been accused of homophobia and voicing their support for a definition of marriage matching that in the Bible. Franchises have been boycotted by LGBTQ+ organizations and their allies. Despite recent commitments to focus their philanthropy toward education, homelessness, and hunger—Chick-fil-a has struggled to shed this anti-gay image. However, it remains, reportedly, the most profitable fast-food chain.

While C-suites have placed a growing emphasis on corporate social responsibility and the threat of “cancel culture” looms, Chick-fil-a seems to be largely unaffected. In fact, there appears to be a puzzling contradiction: In the same decade that support for LGBTQ+ rights has rapidly expanded, so have the number of Chick-fil-a franchises. Most of the fast food industry has experienced a decrease in demand, but not Chick-fil-a. In 2018, sales grew by almost 17%, making the company the third largest restaurant chain in the country. As rivals court the coveted millennial dollar through campaigns like the introduction of vegan burgers (Burger King), ingredient sourcing transparency (Chipotle), or sassy Twitter personalities (Wendy’s), Chick-fil-a’s marketing remains focused on cows telling us to “eat mor chikin.” Chick-fil-a doesn’t even participate in what is perhaps the epitome of virtue signaling: the rainbowfication of company logos that occurs every June.

Interestingly, despite this (mostly deserved) stigma, Chick-fil-a is also known to be one of “the most socially advanced companies in terms of treatment of employees” and plays an active role in the communities it serves. The Chick-fil-a in my hometown held plenty of fundraisers for my high school and donated quite a few sandwiches and nuggets to school functions. Still, the troubling debate between right or wrong remains. How much right can correct a wrong, if it’s even possible at all?

My first thought was maybe it’s just another example of the divide between red and blue America. The crowds that gather for Pride parades are diametrically opposed to the crowds gathering to win a free year of chicken sandwiches whenever a new Chick-fil-a opens. It’s true that Chick-fil-a restaurants are more concentrated in the South and Midwest, but in the last few years, franchises have been cropping in liberal bubbles like New York, Massachusetts, and California. In fact, my freshman year, Boston College’s campus activity board organized a “field trip” to the Chick-fil-a in Dedham, Mass; it was swarmed by liberal arts students (and maybe a few nurses and finance majors) eager to cram onto a sweaty yellow school bus to drive 25 minutes just to eat some chicken.   

So maybe this is a bipartisan issue. Could it be that the last remaining universal American experience is our collective guilt over eating a certain chicken sandwich?

Or is it more likely that our knack for pushing away the nagging feeling of guilt is simply a reflection of our privilege that allows us to ignore the guilt in the first place? Of course it’s easy to ignore the negative ramifications when we aren’t on the receiving end. It’s even easier when doing so becomes convenient. It is ultimately the same reason we buy all the other fast fashion, fast food, and other “fast” consumer goods.

I had a professor tell me once that whenever she went to Chick-fil-a, she would look at the receipt and donate that same amount to the Human Rights Campaign. It’s not a perfect solution; maybe it even allows us to buy off our guilt even more. But it also might force me to confront the “is it worth it” question. Thinking about being a perfectly ethical consumer is a long, deep, philosophical rabbit hole—one that has me thinking it’s most likely a futile exercise. But I do think we all—myself included—can be more conscious about our purchases. And if we do succumb to the craving of a particular chicken sandwich with a large side of waffle fries, is there room to balance the cosmic scale? I’m not quite sure.

After all, is my one loop through the drive-thru going to set the LGBTQ+ movement back a decade? Of course not. However, if I applied that same logic to my other purchases—what’s the point of buying closed-loop sneakers or thrifted clothes if my single purchases doesn’t make a difference?—then I’ve caught myself in a bit of a moral maze. If I believe my individual actions can make a difference in those situations, why should it be any different when it comes to fast food?

It all circles back to that pesky collective action problem, that little thought we all have: If others are saving the world, surely I can get by with a little deviant behavior. Or perhaps worse, if I’m the only one trying to save the world—what’s the point?

Of course it’s that “what’s the point?” question that has been plaguing philosophers and psychologists and political moderates since, well, ever. Going through life asking “what’s the point?” might make for an examined life, but probably neither a fulfilling nor happy one. At some point, we will all have to justify our decisions to ourselves, to others, or maybe to the same higher power that Chick-fil-a believes in so strongly—so why not begin now? I’m sure it seems a trivial contemplation of the naval-gazing variety to examine the ethics of a fast food order. On the other hand, if we can’t even consider the inconsequential, what’s the hope for our muses of the momentous in life?

I’m not trying to grandstand or argue that everyone should boycott Chick-fil-a. Morality is, of course, objective. This whole dialogue may actually even be a selfish endeavor—a quest to absolve my own self. In doing so, however, I’ll argue for a particular type of hedonism. If biting into that warm, crisp, pickle-blanketed chicken sammy brings you true joy, then order it. Order 100 of them. You have my blessing. But if, when all that is left is the wrapper, you feel that tinge of guilt, that ick in your psyche, maybe it’s not such a joyful endeavor after all.

What my “friend” Bjorn failed to appreciate about the “immoral capitalist society” is perhaps the hallmark of capitalism itself: choice. First, we can choose to ignore or accept these whispers of our conscience (remembering that sometimes, it is in our best interest to ignore our persnickety conscience). But if we choose to listen, we have the choice to go to one of the thousands of other establishments that offer a warm, happy, meal.

There’s probably not a perfectly moral chicken sandwich (we could, after all, debate the ethics of eating meat in the first place) but is there, perhaps, a “moral-er” chicken sandwich? I’m optimistic there is. Instead of eating mor chikin, I think I’ll focus on finding mor (moral) chikin.

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A Perfect Circle

While the Coronavirus has shuttered restaurants and left many others relying on take-out as life support, there is perhaps one dining experience that is getting a boost compared to the pre-pandemic days: bar food. 

In August, Governor Baker’s statewide mandate banned the operation of bars that don’t also serve food and required any alcohol orders at restaurants to be accompanied by food orders. 

As a result, college students around Boston are becoming intimately familiar with the menus of bars they never realized served food in the first place. The Circle was previously known for its black box and BC football player bouncers, but it has now become one of the go-to spots for BC seniors to go sit at a table and drink with the same six people they already live with. 

The pandemic might have been the best thing to have happened to the Circle. Before the coronavirus shut everything down, the Circle was outshined by the grimmer, marquee-less Mary Ann’s (may she rest in peace), the bigger White Horse, the DJ booths of Tavern in the Square, and the underage-approved Wonder Bar. Now, MA’s is the future home of a dispensary, White Horse is trying to rebrand itself into suburban acceptability, Tavern in the Square’s biggest draw is the mac and cheese, and Wonder Bar is closed forever. The restaurant industry as a whole might be collapsing, but it’s collapse has directly correlated with The Circle cornering the market on the wallets of the mostly functioning, not anonymous, alcoholics of Boston College. 

Like any good hole-in-wall bar, the Circle sits inconspicuously between a Vape Shop and a convenience store. In the summer, guests might even catch views of the crashing waves of the public pool. Outdoor dining has been phased out as the temperatures dropped, but those lucky enough to have stopped by in warmer weather may have enjoyed one of Boston’s most glamorous al fresco experiences. In reclaimed parking spots cornered off by orange traffic cones and a cement fence, empty silver kegs and rustic plywood tables dotted the pavement, all of it illuminated by the headlights of cars screeching down Commonwealth Avenue. 

The Circle is most known for its pizza, but a quick glance of the menu shows that they also serve pasta, subs, burgers, chicken tenders, and also for no apparent reason, “authentic” Spanish food. I imagine that ordering Spanish food at the Circle would be like ordering lobster at a diner  – it’s an insane enough choice they might write an SNL skit about it. 

The Circle doesn’t yet have a brunch menu, but they do offer mimosas for those early afternoon football games. The orange juice isn’t hand-squeezed, but we did once spot the owner, George, walk to the 7/11 next door to buy the Minute Maid– so you can at least take comfort in the fact that management appreciates the value of local ingredients. 

As for other drinks, a favorite choice among the female clientele is the fishbowls of spiked seltzers – which were probably intended to be a group cocktail, but because sharing drinks is a bit of sin in the coronavirus age, you just might have to drink it all yourself. 

The atmosphere is an eclectic blend of McMansion style kitchen stonework, the fragrance of stale beer, overdressed college students and a few underdressed middle-aged men – all capped off by the bellow of WAP in the background. As he makes his rounds around the tables, George vacillates between lukewarm ambivalence and yelling at students to “sit the fuck down” if they pause to chat with another table in route to the bathroom. 

Even though the law mandates everyone must order food, that doesn’t always mean that the food ordered is eaten. In fact, whether or not someone eats the bar food that is brought to them is often a good indication of their intoxication. That said, the first time we tried the pizza at The Circle this semester, one of my roommates declared that it was “better than Pinos” – perhaps the highest level of praise a slice of cheesy tomatoey bread could ever receive. According to our scientific research, the individual slices of pizza taste better than slices you get from ordering a whole pizza. The best tasting pizza, however, is the kind that appears seemingly for free – the pizza that arrives at the table without anyone remembering they ordered it, but that must be devoured quickly before someone realizes it may have been delivered to the wrong table.

Despites these compliments to the pizza chef, the fact is, when it comes to bar food, flavor doesn’t even really matter. Anything would taste delicious after three shots of brown tequila served in warm fresh-out-of-the-dishwasher glasses. So the fundamental question here is, really, what is the measure of good bar food? Can you judge it purely on flavor as you would any other restaurant? Or is bar food a totally separate universe of food requiring totally separate quality metrics? I’m inclined to be on the side of the latter.

In Aristotelian ethics, the highest goods and the highest aims are those that lead to eudaimonia loosely translated as happiness, but more accurately translated by scholars as “human flourishing.” In the context of the food we eat at our favorite North End or South End restaurants, the traditional criterion by which we judge culinary experiences – taste, texture, creativity, presentation, aroma, balance, comfort, etc. – are absolutely relevant to the goodness of the experience. We feel the most happiness at the end of a meal that excels at all of these qualities. These qualities are the instruments that swell into a eudemonic glow as you sign the check at the end of the night with the soft lilt of some indistinguishable indie pop song floating your soul – and your stomach – to the heavens. 

To flourish at a bar during a global pandemic, however, is to find happiness in an entirely different manner. 

Music should be singable and loud enough that the tone deaf among us feel like we are just a recording contract away from performing a sold out shows at Madison Garden. Shots should get easier the more you take. Pizza should burn the roof of your mouth and leave a Rorschach puddle of grease on the paper plate. Fries should be yellow, glowing with steam, and so unassuming that you mindlessly eat the whole plate before the waitress comes back with the ketchup. At the stroke of midnight, when the fairy barmother’s spell runs out and the lights come on, mozzarella sticks should instantly transform from crisp, goldeny cheese pulls into bread crumb-covered rubber. The wine and salad list should be respected as merely decorative embellishments on the menu and not something to be seriously considered. By the end of the night your mask should be soaked in the river of vodka, Whiteclaw and RedBull  that flows into tributaries over the plywood table. You should pay the bill feeling simultaneously as if you spent too much, yet also as if you got an amazing bang for your buck. 

At all of these things, The Circle excels. 

For those who understandably might want to avoid dinning-in due to the aforementioned virus,  The Circle apparently also does takeout. But really what’s the point if you aren’t getting the full experience?

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Food Seasonality

Walking into almost any grocery store, you can find any produce that you want or need for your cooking endeavors. Watermelon can be bought in December, and butternut squash can be found in July. While consumers attribute these plants to seasons, all produce is available for purchase outside of its most popular season. This phenomenon of selling produce outside of its growing season introduces complicated problems for the environment and for consumers’ health. 

Each fruit and vegetable thrive during a specific growing season. During these, the weather and climate in a distinct region allows for produce to grow successfully. Growing seasons are at least ninety days long, but can span the entire year in certain tropical regions. Since farmers and growers cannot control the weather, the produce they are able to grow is at the mercy of the local climate and how well it aligns with the weather needed for certain crops to grow. In some tropical locations, the warm weather should allow for year-round crop growth, but excess or limited precipitation interrupts the crops’ ability to actually grow. The growing season of areas with stable precipitation are mostly dictated by the temperature; the cold winters are detrimental to plants’ ability to grow. The weather therefore dictates when certain plants are in and out of season and are able to grow. 

Despite the obvious time periods during the year when different crops can grow, consumers have access to the same produce year round, meaning that fruits and vegetables are grown outside of their natural window of ideal conditions. This is because of farmers’ manipulations of plants and the environments they are grown in. Season extension is the classification for different techniques for expanding the natural growing season of plants used by farmers.  For example, crops can be covered during the winter so that they do not frost over, allowing for them to thrive in cold temperatures. Techniques that allow for plants to sustain life during adverse climates enable farmers to sell and contribute fruits and vegetables when they are not naturally in season. 

These techniques are not utilized in countries other than the US, as climates differ and allow for year-round growing seasons. The ability of countries to grow fruits and vegetables have led to imported fruit being the majority of the fruit sold in America. Over half of all produce eaten in the US was imported, according to the Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service. This rapid increase in imported fruits and vegetables drastically impacted the market. As the quantity of imported produce increased, it has become more accessible and affordable for consumers to buy both in and out of season produce. Many public health experts view this shift in the market as a good thing because of the increased opportunities for the American population to eat plants in their diet. 

Americans having access to foods that are out of season, whether domestic or imported, has been associated with negative impacts on the environment. Domestic produce that was grown with many machines, tractors and pesticides, ultimately emit significant amounts of carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas that has been associated with increased temperatures). Even though local produce may be grown in a state close to where the food is sold, the process of growing and harvesting both in and out of season produce strains the environment. 

Yet concern about the environmental impact of importing food also exists. Imported produce must be flown and delivered to the US, traveling via cargo plane. The many miles that these foreign grown fruits and vegetables have to travel to reach the US relies on the burning of fossil fuels. However, other sources continue to argue that fertilizer usage in local farms emits more carbon dioxide than importing food on a plane.

While it is nice to buy butternut squash during June, the lengths that some farmers had to go to cultivate that crop are immense and could negatively impact the environment. Extending growing seasons, when done incorrectly, not only goes against nature but harms it as well. It may be impossible to always buy and eat food that was grown during its specific growing season, but it is important to reflect when possible. 

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Culinary Creativity at Local Cape Cod Farms

With every item and ingredient ever-so accessible in long, overstretched grocery store aisles, sometimes I feel as if my culinary creativity is slipping from my grasp. With every option and possibility at my fingertips, I find myself falling into the same patterns, looking at the same shopping list, and never forced to think critically or creatively to innovate.

We all fall victim to shrinking to what we are comfortable with—the same meals, the same clear-cut path through Trader Joe’s including exactly 7 turns, and 11 stops. However, have you ever sighed in mourning of the creativity you may have lost over the years? Do you desire the encouragement to still be as creative as you were at a worn-out desk in an elementary school classroom? I do. 

“Adulting” in some shape or form typically means cooking for ourselves, even if it is just a box of pasta or a half-salvageable burnt piece of toast. Although, I’ve decided that to repossess all the natural and childlike creativity we have to share with this world, it can be brought to us again in the kitchen. We don’t all have time to squeeze finger painting into our busy, “matured,” schedules, but we always manage to have time to eat. 

I find that coordinating cuisine and creativity is the perfect complement—synchronously nurturing our minds and, of course, our stomachs. But, nonetheless, being creative is not an easy feat when the automatic door slides open and everything and anything can be found and rung up by a cashier. 

I often see myself in this compromising position, where the freedom to choose what I want inversely inhibits my mind’s capacity to create. However, living in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, I have discovered the abundance of small family-owned farms and markets to be the perfect solution. Trailing through a supermarket does not do our creative instincts any justice, yet local farmer stands, with little on display and sometimes just a basket of mix-matched produce placed in your hands, functions as the best creative exercise. 

This creativity routine seems to find me like an inkblot. If you’re familiar with the inkblot practice, it is where you are given a just splotch of ink on paper and urged to draw something from its organic and unique form. The produce at local farms display a similar test. They provide an exercise to work our creativity muscles as we encounter the unpredictable. 

The local, in-season, and fresh produce change rapidly. Every trip to the farm stand feels like a brand-new canvas that invites me to use different colors and techniques. This is why spotting a farm stand lays witness to a beautiful sort of spontaneity. I typically have no idea that it is just down the street, and then one day, I stare at the sign a short second longer, pull into the drive, and here I meet my creative match in a basket of watercress greens. 

I take what is given, yet limited, and create a meal. There’s no overthinking, just the transformation of produce to product. It is nearly an unconscious exercise to measure my creative potential. In this process, I feel more attachment to my food, as I can personally testify to its transition from farm to table. In this repeated experience, I have found that it is ever-so important to re-attach ourselves to the process. Yes, a meal can be bought and prepared with ease and efficiency today. Yet, there is a symbiotic relationship between investing in local farms and investing in ourselves. When we leave the grocery list and meal-prep ideas behind, we can allow ourselves to discover new greens, fruits, and more. We can present ourselves simultaneously with a challenge and magnificent experience to reignite our inventive side. 

I urge everyone to forget the overpriced tabs and many mediocre meals gone bye. Rather, take on the distinctive creativity-inducing experience that is delivered through local farms and home cooking this summer season.

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The Home Test Kitchen

Balancing Creativity and Calculation in Cooking

Teaspoons. Tablespoons. An assortment of measuring cups including ¼, ½, and ¾. A timer on standby. A printed out recipe or well-loved cookbook lying on the counter with hand-written annotations in the margins. All set to cook.

In the midst of the pandemic, about 54% of American adults report cooking more, with 75% saying they have become more confident in the kitchen, according to 2020 research by HUNTER. Naturally, with this rise in cooking, a rise in searching up relevant recipes is sure to follow. In fact, 34% of adults surveyed shared that they are looking for more recipes. This can range from healthy recipes, recipes for how to use existing ingredients in one’s pantry, or just searching for simple, practical recipes. Recipes give solutions, guidance, and instruction. How might one’s relationship with recipes affect their approach in the kitchen? There is certainly a practical element of cooking (sustenance for survival), though individuals decide the extent to which they choose to be explorative when cooking. Stick to the recipe? Veer off? Try something different? This differs on a person-to-person basis.

Personally, I have always approached cooking in terms of measurements, precision, and planning. Following a recipe to its definite measurements offers a sense of security and repeatability. If I repeat the same sequence of steps in the same manner, a good product is guaranteed every single time. After spending hours in the kitchen, working with all sorts of ingredients, who would not want a palate-pleasing outcome? 

There is no harm in following recipes down to the footnotes. However, in my effort to shoot for only positive outcomes, I realized something deeper at stake: my fear of failure. My pursuit of perfection suppresses my creativity, innovation, and freedom to experiment in the kitchen. I soon discovered there comes a point when depending on solely measurements becomes limiting instead of liberating. My grandmother’s style of cooking helped shift my perspective to welcome more experimentation.  

My grandmother, who I affectionately refer to as “Nanidear,” keeps the precise measurements mostly for baking. Everything else she measures her own way. Eye-balling it, a handful of this, a pinch of that but it really isn’t a “measurement” as I previously understood it. It is cooking by taking context into account, changing up ingredients based on what we already have, trying something new by modifying a base recipe, adjusting accordingly, or having fun with it. “Made with love,” as Nanidear says. And boy, is her food heavenly. Cooking with her allows me to contemplate the role of calculation and creativity in preparing food.

On a chilly mid-May day (New England weather is like this), Nanidear brought me into the kitchen to show me how to make Hyderabadi chicken korma. “I want you to make it,” she told me with a smile. Ah, the classic “learning by doing.” No printed out recipe here. 

Bewildered since I didn’t know the exact specifics of the recipe, I hesitantly took out ingredients I thought would go in the trusty pressure cooker. Chicken (obviously), Desi yogurt, ginger garlic paste, fresh mint leaves, almonds, assorted spices, oil, fried onions… I’ve watched my mother make the dish hundreds of times, but somehow I felt unsure without a recipe to cling to for safety. 

Image address from Tea for Tumeric

My grandmother then directed me to put all the ingredients in the pressure cooker. “Uh… how much of each ingredient do we need?” I asked. Nanidear knew I was a stickler for measurements, so with a twinkle in her eye she urged me to try my best without measuring tools. I had to figure it out myself using only a wooden spoon and my hands. I carefully placed each ingredient in the pressure cooker with how much I thought would be needed. All Nanidear would say was “a little bit more” or “that’s enough.” I was challenged to really scrutinize what I was putting into the pot, and “feel” how much was best in order to understand how the proportions of ingredients work together. So if I was changing the serving size from small to large, I would know how to adjust accordingly. 

Since this version of cooking chicken korma is done using a pressure cooker, it is simple in that all ingredients go into a single pot. Once all the ingredients were in and well-mixed, we turned on the stove and let it cook. “That’s it?” I asked. “That’s it,” she nodded, then added “So easy, right?” She was right. It was easier than I imagined. Not to mention, I didn’t have to wash a pile of different measuring cups I would have otherwise used. Yay.

After a couple of steams, we opened the lid to check on the chicken. This is where the variable nature of the pressure cooker comes into play. It is imperative to monitor the meat to ensure it is cooked all the way through. A recipe gives guidelines, but everything between each step is up to the cook. Not everything is written out, so developing a “sense” is critical. 

Nanidear shared with me that depending on the chicken, heat, cooker, and other factors, cooking time may be longer or shorter. She decided to increase the cooking time to allow the flavors to meld together and chicken to become tender. No korma dish will finish cooking at the same exact time. Therefore, it is important to adjust as needed depending on the context. 

Once the dish finished cooking, Nanidear opened the lid. The comforting, delicious smell of korma instantly greeted me. After Nanidear tasted the gravy, she pulled out our metal spice box to add a little more red chili powder. I tasted it. It was absolutely divine. Prepping the fresh naan and basmati rice is all that was left. 

My grandmother inspired me to view step-by-step recipes as tools to help with the direction of a dish. Not getting so caught up in the measurements as before, I welcome experimentation, and thus, the possibility of failure. However, it really isn’t a failure but an experience to reference in the future. Knowing how to adapt in different situations, like Nanidear changing the cooking time of the korma or adding more spices to taste, is a skill in itself. 

In my experience, destroying self-imposed pressures of perfection invited a sense of playfulness and creativity. Not only did I discover newfound freedom, but also strengthened confidence and trust in my abilities. Perhaps with more Americans embracing cooking as a result of the pandemic, attitudes towards recipes can welcome adventurousness and experimentation, like I am warming up to.

Of course, every person and circumstance is different. Calculations are necessary in many dishes, and straying too far from a standard can transform a dish into something completely different—for better or for worse. Recipes and instructions have merit. However, in dishes where there is some leniency, perhaps seeing a recipe as malleable instead of fixed could invite new creations. 

Experimenting outside a recipe can have its perks. For example, chocolate chip cookies were invented in the 1930s by Ruth Graves’ hard work testing, developing, and perfecting the cookie we all know and love today. A home test kitchen is born when calculation and creativity can intermingle. Both elements can exist and open the door to new possibilities. What is your next concoction?

Featured Cover Image by Williams Sonoma

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Soft-Boiled Patience and the Kingdom of God

This is a story of abject failure.

My forever-lack of a cardinal virtue, a lack I’ve contended with all my life. I’ve been in the ring with it and knocked it out even after it’s had me on the ropes. But every now and then I find myself face to face with the architect of my frustrations, the shadow that follows me on my brightest days.

I lack, and have always lacked, patience.

And so, when I decided to make some egg salad—egg salad! Of all things!—and found myself unable to sit idly by for ten excruciating minutes without prodding, poking, peeling, pretty much playing the perpetual pugilist to patience, I realized that I had been trying to stifle it. For the last two months I’ve tried to conquer patience—and eggs, for that matter—with brute force. 

And all I got was a disappointingly undercooked egg, lethargically spilling out of its membrane and onto my cutting board, destined for the trash can.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. If I had to pinpoint a place where it started I’d say it was the labor and delivery floor of the children’s hospital where I was born. That room was so stuffy and mechanical, I had to get out stat. I wept and screamed indefatigably to make sure my parents knew I needed to escape. And when I did, I became impatient to walk, stumbling over and over until I finally put one foot in front of another—and promptly fell to my knees. And then did whatever toddlers do. Toddle, I guess.

There were cuter moments of impatience, I suppose. I stayed up past the babysitter’s jurisdiction to make sure I got the glimpse of my parents I was owed after their return from some dinner. I pestered my mother with questions—specifically, when could I eat miso soup again (my favorite dish from fourth grade to this day)—and scavenged the house for flashlights so that I could read a chapter of a book that simply couldn’t wait until dawn. 

But these innocuous manifestations of my impatience don’t hold a candle to the mundanity that I find myself rushing for now. I find myself yearning for a faster-melting snow. I want the trees to blossom sooner. On rainy days I want the sun and when it shines I want the sound of rain so much I find a multi-hour loop of it to lull me to sleep. 

But when I cook, I become a demon of impatience. Baking was never for me, and I think this is why. When I see something in a pan, I hear it demand to be messed with. I can only let something sit and simmer or sear when I have another task to immediately attend to. As water boils, I chop my veg. When the pasta cooks, I heat up my sauce. Sounds okay, right? That is until my restlessness inspires me to zhuzh up a sauce with all-too much cayenne pepper, to the point where any sane person would call it inedible, but my pride says otherwise. 

This isn’t to diminish the fact that sometimes this works in my favor. Boredom is the root of all creative endeavors, after all. And sometimes the secret ingredient finds its way into my dinner in those moments where I lean against the kitchen counter.

…But not enough to justify the truly egregious mistakes I’ve made due to a simple lack of patience. Here’s the play-by-play:

I wait for the egg to boil. I set a timer for 8 minutes—knowing I’ll take it out at 7, obviously, and eventually taking it out at 6. Erstwhile I prepare a few wholly unnecessary additions to egg salad. Finely chopped celery and carrots? Fine. Rice vinegar to the mayo? More questionable, but we can let it slide. …Tabasco? I had to draw the line. There comes a point in life where you can’t, in good ethic and faith, add more ingredients to egg salad and still call it egg salad.  

image courtesy of whattocooktoday.com

I realized this and forced myself to stop. I lasted 30 seconds before I took the egg out prematurely. 

This is where I’m contractually obligated to say that I didn’t technically boil the egg. Rather, I boiled the water, turned off the burner and then let the egg sit there for about 6 minutes, all told. I did this because I read somewhere that it led to a “better boiled egg.” But that relates to a different sin of mine, overcomplication, one rife with anecdotes that might merit its own story.

Regardless, when it came time to evict the boiled egg from its shell, it wasn’t even close to cooked. It was a half-poached egg, guts spilling all over my cutting board. Certainly not something you could make egg salad out of. 

I felt rage towards this avian product of hate. Betrayal by egg. But in that swelling of frustration in my gut, I came to accept the hardest truth of cooking and perhaps that of the human condition. 

Sometimes all you can do is sit, and wait.