Archive for February, 2012


“To every thing there is a season.”

-Ecclesiastes 3:1

I have a confession to make. I have lived in Michigan for twenty-one years, and I’m pretty sure I hate winter more than I hate politics. Both have nearly ruined me as a human being.

I can never be right in politics no matter how hard I try. Maybe that’s why I quit trying.

Seven years before coming to grad school, in a time when I was a budding academe, I decided to attend my final astronomy lab despite the white-out conditions we were expected to get. I watched the road vanish under threads of snow as I drove. They wound and unwound together with every passing vehicle.

The lab lasted for two hours. In that time frame, the world became an impassable blank screen. My fair-weather drive home was twenty minutes. This time, it took me an hour and a half. I cruised at the speed of twenty-five miles an hour with my teeth clenched and my arms tensely glued to the steering wheel. Every time I hit the brakes, I prayed to God that I wouldn’t skid into the intersection or get rear-ended. Every turn was a white-knuckled tango with old man winter. Four-wheel drive SUVs sped past my 1997 Plymouth Neon and cast a blanket of snow over my slow-moving car. I would have given anything to see them roll into a ditch.

Have I mentioned that my battery light was on the whole way home?

Neons have a few nasty habits, but one of the worst is corrosion on the poles of batteries. A bluish or greenish chalky substance forms around the poles and cuts current to the rest of the car but only if the car isn’t running already. For some reason, it reminds me of cocaine. It certainly cuts the car’s capability to function.

When I got home, my parents told me, “You shouldn’t have gone out in that shit, but I’m happy you’re home.”

I responded, “I didn’t really have a choice, now, did I? I had to turn in my final project or else get docked for being late.”

Our conversation is a real show of values. The way I see it, they have no sympathy for someone who (in a manner of speaking) wades through a bunch of shit to ensure success. My rebuttal says that I value success more than self-preservation.

You would think by now I had learned my lesson, but no… schoolwork comes first no matter where I go. I expect to piss a lot of people off during Spring Break because of it. Then again, they aren’t the ones with the mile-long to-do list mocking them every step of the way.

Ultimately, my season of reprieve will come when I have that fancy piece of paper in my hand, the one that says, “I did a bunch of shit while putting up with even more shit from people who don’t get it. Here’s the document saying I did so with the president’s John Hancock and the official University seal.” Until then, I will be in a perpetual season of work regardless of what it’s doing outside.

I said earlier that I hated winter, but there are things I like about it. No, it is not the damn snow or the laughing children who play in it. It is not building my upper body strength by scraping an inch of ice off of the car or earning my badge of courage by wading through an ice-encrusted campus to retrieve a graded final paper.

Winter is not just snow season.

It is asparagus season.

Suddenly, the Filet Mignon of vegetables drops in price from an average $3.00 a pound to anywhere between a dollar to a dollar and a half. Aside from the pine trees, it is the only green thing in sight, and as far as soup goes, it is far more valuable to me than a Christmas wreath… unless it were a Christmas wreath made of asparagus. Now, that would be something.

I have assigned my own significance to winter. When the snow hits the ground as it did this past Friday for practically the first time all winter, I had only one thought on my mind.

Curry.

Last year, Michigan was buried under an obscene number of snow storms. Several Tuesday evenings were buried under about nine inches of the white, powdery stuff, and unlike my first institution of higher learning, this one values the lives (and probably wallets) of its denizens. Classes were cancelled for two Wednesdays, and on one, they were delayed until noon.

I woke up at seven-thirty on the first occasion and blinked against the blue-gray stuff that would grow to a white glare as the sun continued to rise. How could the world change so much in eight hours, and how could I be so oblivious to it? Granted, I have been more oblivious to more pressing changes like current events, but the snow reminds me just how blank my days among the books really are.

What could I do to liven things up?

The answer is curry. It is practically always curry. I used what I had on-hand since the roads were impossible and cooked a double-batch. During Snowmageddon: The Sequel, I thawed out the leftovers. In both instances, I devoured a bowl of the luscious, exotically flavored concoction while working on onlines attempting to get a clue about genre analysis, which I’m still not entirely sure I understand despite what my academic record says.

This past Friday was a particularly bad day for snow because I had to trek across campus in backless heels and a dress coat. I was one of six Writing Consultants selected to workshop with students competing in the New Venture competition. “New what?” a friend of mine asked during our weekend phone conversation.

“New Venture. Business students basically pitch ideas for companies. They compete nationwide for the top prize of $30,000.”

“And you had to dress up for this?”

“Yeah… apparently, someone who went last week wore jeans and never heard the end of it.”

“Oh… was the student you worked with dressed up?”

“Well.” I’m loathe to say it. I’m loathe to even write it. “Ironically, he was wearing pajama bottoms and a hoodie.”

I feel like I was duped into wearing those backless shoes. Winter tricked me, so what better way to get back at it than to show it that I have enough control to cope with its shenanigans? I turn up the heat a few notches on Sunday morning and get to work. For the next few days, I will be enjoying curry asparagus soup in the hopes that it will discourage this season enough to stay away until I am safe at home for Spring Break, engaged in doing exactly what I would be doing if I were snowed in at Mount Pleasant.

This bowl is a minor triumph over circumstances beyond my control.

What now, winter?

The Sixth Bowl

Curried Chicken and Asparagus Soup for the Sole

(Based very VERY Roughly on Slightly Plagiarized From Inspired by This Recipe)

Ingredients

  • 3 chicken tenders, defrosted
  • 1 lb asparagus
  • 1 tbsp garlic, minced
  • 2 tbsp olive oil, separated into 1 tbsp portions
  • ½ tbsp butter
  • 2 tbsp flour
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 1 cup half and half
  • 1/3 cup lemon juice
  • 1 tsp curry powder
  • ½ tsp garam marsala
  • ½ tsp black pepper

Directions

A Cautionary Foreward: For those of you who have not cooked with asparagus before, the bottoms can get a little, shall we say, woodish. I’m talking “chewing on a Popsicle stick” woodish. Unless you enjoy gnawing on lumberesque substances, I would recommend breaking one stem beforehand and then chopping the very bottoms off. See pictures two and three in the slideshow for a detailed shot.

  1. Dice chicken into cubes.
  2. In 3-quart sauce pan, brown chicken in olive oil. Dice asparagus.
  3. Once chicken is browned, add garlic. Saute for additional 1-2 minutes until garlic is golden.
  4. Add butter, remaining olive oil, and flour. Mix well to make a roux.
  5. Add chicken stock to pan and whisk until roux dissolves.
  6. Add cream, lemon juice, curry, and garam marsala. Simmer 25-30 minutes until chicken is tender.
  7. Add asparagus. Cook until crisp-tender (about 10-15 minutes). Add black pepper to taste.

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I have always done my best thinking in the shower.

Perhaps it is the five years of childhood I spent swimming, throwing myself into frigid water on sixty-degree summer mornings. It could also very well be the years I spent on the boat with my parents, casting lines and catching perch or dangling my feet off the edge of the tiny white plastic platform screwed on next to the motor.

Is it a coincidence that both have ruined my otherwise perfect dental work?

I was seven, kneeling backwards on the boat. “Don’t do that,” my mother chided. “You’re going to get hurt.” But I laughed and ignored her. Just two minutes later, we hit a wave that gave my mouth an up close and personal encounter with the plexiglass edge. Tears were immediate. “Damn it, Amanda. Let me see.” She pulled back my lips, shockingly unwounded, and locked her eyes on my front tooth, one of several that were now permanent teeth. “Yep… it’s chipped.” I cried harder, not for the pain but for the loss I felt in that moment.

It was the moment I realized that unlike my dad’s chili, I wasn’t perfect.

Dad's Chili

No one can beat dad's chili. ^_^

Two years later, I was doing backstroke at a swim meet. I was in the middle of a 100 IM, getting ready to face the breast stroke. All I could think of was how much I hated it because no matter how hard I tried, I was never really frog enough to master it.

The world suddenly went black for a moment.

I must have miscounted my strokes. I had a vague recollection of being in the water, but for three seconds, I couldn’t act. I just sort of hovered there, suspended between the bottom of the pool and the surface. I was supposed to be doing something… what was it?

Oh. Breaststroke.

For my trouble, I got third place in the IM. The white ribbon reminds me of what the pool took from me that day: one tiny fragment of my leftmost eyetooth.

Neither defect is noticeable to the average person’s naked eye. Dentists, on the other hand, love to remind me of my less than perfect mouth and insist on crowning these unnoticeable scars. Each visit yields much the same conversation. “You ought to get those teeth crowned. Other than that and a little bit of crookedness, your mouth is perfect. I wish you’d get braces to straighten out those bottom teeth…”

“Look,” I interrupt. “They aren’t rotting and falling out of my head, and they don’t hurt when I eat, so as far as I’m concerned, they’re fine.”

“Well, then don’t hurt now, but one day, that’s going to cause some serious problems.”

“And one day, when I have the money to pay for cosmetic work, I’ll do something about it. For now, they’re fine.”

I never try to explain that these little defects are part of who I am.

In the middle of one recent shower, I paused in the middle of shampooing my hair as a hazy, vague sort of memory surfaced. It was the end of my Victorian literature class, and I had just waited ten minutes to discuss an assignment with a very in-demand professor. We determined to meet the following Wednesday at 12:30 to discuss it. The recollection was an image of her face, animated but somehow weary, accompanied by the words, “Be sure to send it to me beforehand. That way, our meeting goes quickly.”

It was 11:35 on Tuesday when this fact hit me. After washing the burn of shampoo out of my eyes, I swallowed my grumblings. This memory is sending me downstairs to send an e-mail when all I really want to do is go to bed.

Why not get a bowl of soup while I’m at it? I’m feeling inspired, so I need a little brain food anyway.

This shower yielded one additional worthwhile thought. Just a fistful of minutes before my memory kicked into full throttle and sent me careening off of my routine, I saw the last parallel I ever thought I’d see, and it all began with a question.

How is soup like writing?

I came up with three possibilities in the course of my mental meanderings.

They are both delicious. Given, but relative. I work with a student who loathes academic writing with every fiber of their being but who professes a great love for soup. This common ground somehow gets us through every session without stewing too much.

Good soup and good writing rely on balance. Any cook knows that one extra dash of pepper could spoil the golden equilibrium in a piping hot bowl of soup. As a sole chef, I have to gauge this on a much smaller level than I’ve been doing for the past year and a half because my typical six to eight cups of cooking liquid must be reduced to between three and four. In terms of balance, this poses unique challenges. One potato too many, one chicken finger too many, and what was a good idea in theory quickly becomes a recipe for potential failure that can only be rescued by some last-minute tweaking on my part… as is the case with good writing no matter what the genre. Creative writing is the eight-quart pot, scientific writing the three-quart pan, and literary analysis somewhere between the two. All of them are sustained (and sustain the reader) through balance.

More than all of this, however, I realize that good writing and good soup are good by mere virtue of their perpetual incompleteness. Soup and writing will never be entirely done.

I default to my curry recipe for an example despite the fact that it is not soup.

curry

Look at that delicious bowl of chicken curry goodness!

My parents came home one day from the store to find their house smelling a little like India. “What are you cooking?” my dad asked, dropping a load of grocery bags on the table.

“Curry.”

He looked at the dusting of curry on top of rice and lentils in the pan.

“You know it’s supposed to be a sauce, right?”

“It’s a work in progress,” I responded.

Before attempt number two, several months later, I took a look at a recipe on the internet just to give myself a general idea of what I was doing. My parents were on vacation camping and had left me behind to guard the house and to work my minimum wage job. My success was a private one, celebrated on with a bowl of what at the time I thought must surely be nirvana.

Since that first batch, I have gone back to it again and again. The ingredients change a little every time in proportion and variety because of the same faulty memory that made me forget about sending my professor an e-mail. Then again, how I assemble my curry also depends on what I have in the freezer and what I’m in the mood for. Maybe I want potatoes in it this time. Maybe I just want the good old classic bag of frozen mixed vegetables. Maybe that’s all I have on hand. With a wooden spoon, I write a poem for my tongue in a pan and savor each syllable with a nibble.

My curry recipe will never be complete, and neither will this piece of writing. Like my forefather Walt Whitman, who was by some comedic cosmic twist born exactly 168 years before I was, I will continually fail in my endeavors to finish a draft because it will never be finished. Once this is uploaded, I will probably find some grammatical error and insist on fixing it, or I will find some point where the transition is lacking, much like the spicy zing of my last batch of curry.

Does this mean I am doomed to forever fall short of curry perfection, and does my writing stand to suffer the same fate? I’m a Master’s student. Shouldn’t I have at least touched the realm of near completion by now? When does a draft stop being a draft? Aside from one eccentric, soup-loving graduate student’s desperate attempts to avoid fast food, when does soup stop being a prelude to the main course?

Look at the chips in my teeth. They will give you a suitable answer.

Today, I spent two and a half hours shopping for a pair of shoes.

Very soon, I will be going back to Chicago for a second interview that could send me packing my bags and engaging on my first ever international travel, not as a vacationer but as an employee. I took a lot of things away from the first interview in November, the one where I applied too early and was thus simply invited back to an interview without having to reapply. Be as direct as possible. Stand so you possess more authority. Japanese students will generally not question the teacher because they respect you too much to. Speak slowly. Don’t wear a black blazer because every other company in Japan does. Oh, and backless shoes are not part of the dress code.

Damn it.

Since this interview is in two weeks and Monday is the new Sunday, I went on a hunt. Five stores and one-hundred fifty minutes later, I satisfy myself with a pair of heels that have textured bottoms and that are just comfortable enough to get the job done without making me want to tear them off.

I am certain that I was “that” customer today.

For those of you who have never worked in customer service, there are customers who simply have an aura of discontent about them. They think everything is too expensive and that nothing is ever good enough. At Pizza Hut, “that” customer was the guy who, five minutes after placing a counter order on a busy Saturday night when we were understaffed, came back for his food, and when told it would be out in another four to five minutes, said, “Lady, I just want my food.”

“That’s fan-frelling-tastic, asshole. Sit the hell down and I’ll pull it out for you, but you’d better not bitch that it’s undercooked.”

As much as I’d like to say I said this to his face and then stormed back into the kitchen, I shamefully admit that it didn’t, but it would have made for a great story, wouldn’t it have? Instead, I said, in my sweetest voice possible, “I’m sorry, sir, but we’ve got some new people working the kitchen and we’re really busy tonight. It will just be another few minutes.” He shook his head in dismay and disappeared back into his black pick-up. The other customers waiting at the counter stared at me in amazement, and one or two jaws dropped a little. Here I am, a 20-year-old wearing a work shirt with holes down to practically my waist in the arm pits, a hat that looks like it had an unfortunate encounter with a steamroller, and not one ounce of make-up. By that point in my career, used to juggling “that” customer, who thinks everything in the universe should revolve around him, with the more patient and understanding patrons. I’m glad I could demonstrate the fact that despite my minimum-wage, thankless job, I was more than competent enough to put up with “that” customer while maintaining professionalism.

A middle-aged woman approached the counter to pay for her carry-out order. “I’m sorry he was so rude to you.”

“Ah, don’t worry about it,” I reply. “I deal with people like him a lot in this line of work.”

My journey for the perfect shoes began at Kohl’s. After seeing a rather obnoxious commercial and being cheated out of a pair of sketchers by some rain check error and a lack of communication, I swore I would never go back, but a shoe sale enticed me.

Fact: Shoe sales are terrible ideas. They only occur when the most frequently worn sizes are gone, and for some reason, everyone deems it necessary to bring their screaming kids, which mingle well with neither PMS nor hunger.

Fact: You will inevitably find a pair of shoes you like, only to learn that a) the only pair left is the display pair, which are ALWAYS size 6 to 7.5, b) there is one pair of boots on clearance that, if your foot were only one quarter of an inch thinner, those boots would come home with you, or c) learn that they only come in brown.

There was only one thing to do: pick up and move on to Shoe Sensation, the equivalent of the second circle of Hell. At least here, I found shoes that fit, but they were shoes I could never have… at $70 a pair on clearance. The gentleman who helped me had a lisp like lavender and enough patience to make me regret not buying anything.

Cue stop number 3: JcPenney. I have had good luck with them before, but I neglected to remember that the one in Mount Pleasant, for some unfathomable reason, does not carry wide shoe sizes. Apparently, natives of this town all have skinny feet. But seriously… shoes aren’t like cabbage. They don’t have an expiration date. At the very least, they could carry a couple of pairs in wide for foreigners like me.

On a whim, I stopped into K-Mart. They have nice sandals, so I figured it was worth a shot, but the only pair that fit me was this hideous navy pair that woudln’t really compliment anything I plan on wearing.

By some miracle, I found a sufficient pair at Payless. It is the second time they have saved my ass for an interview of this nature.

Buying shoes is such a damnable task. After spending the day as “that” customer, I sit down to a bowl of the chicken and dumpling soup I cooked yesterday, realizing as I devour the bowl that this soup will always succeed where shoes will fail: it will always be a comfort, and it will always help me stand through any challenge, whether that is a to-do list near completion or an interview that threatens to change my life forever.

Chicken and Dumpling Soup for the Sole

(Based roughly on this stew recipe.)

The Sixth Bowl

Ingredients (S0up)

  • 3 Chicken Tenders, Frozen
  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 2 bay leaves
  • ¼ teaspoon dried basil
  • ¼ teaspoon dried thyme
  • ½ cup baby carrots, cut into round discs.
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 2-3 stalks of celery, diced

Ingredients (Dumplings)

  • ¾ cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 ½ tablespoons butter
  • ¼ cup milk
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon pepper
  • 2 tablespoons dried parsley

Directions

  1. In a 3-quart sauce pan, combine broth, bay leaves, basil, and thyme.
  2. Add frozen chicken tenders and cook for about 20 minutes.
  3. While chicken is cooking, combine flour, salt, pepper, parsley and baking powder in a mixing bowl. Cut butter through flour with a fork until small lumps form.
  4. Add milk and mix until dough is combined. Set aside.
  5. When chicken is finished cooking, remove from pan. Shred chicken. Add vegetables and chicken back to pan. Cook until veggies are approaching tender (about 15 minutes).
  6. Form ½ inch balls with your hands and a fork/spoon and drop dumplings into broth. Cook uncovered for about 5-10 additional minutes.
  7. Optional: If soup has not thickened to desired consistency, add 1 tablespoon corn starch to cold water. Stir in and cook for an additional two minutes.

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Eggshell Pages

When I rummaged through the fridge for my first meal yesterday afternoon, the last of the chipotle chicken chowder, I found something more than lunch. This final bowl was a treasure map that has led me to something I long forgot and long neglected to use.

Unbeknownst to me, there were, and still are, eggs in my fridge. The carton has been a tenant since September of last year. Its four residents are well past their expiration date of October 2011. There they sit, denying that they are nothing more than myth, asserting their existence in their feeble Styrofoam package.

I dislike eggs. They taste like wasted potential. The only reason they are on the shelf at all is because I bought a half-dozen to bake something, then simply forgot about the remaining four. If I had not inured them once again before taking out the trash, if they had not hidden like mischievous children in a small corner where I can’t find them, they would have gone out with the rest of the rubbish because I have no use for them. They are perfectly camouflaged in their white carton; they match the interior of the fridge perfectly and escape notice every time.

I opened the carton this morning and stared at them. Their blank shells charm me, smooth jazz that is undoubtedly rancid at its core.

I have done nothing but onlines since the third week in January. The only things I have to interact with are my Grooveshark playlist,the paper in question, the cup of coffee I bought in a desperate attempt to keep myself conscious, and a stray orange candy amidst a less desirable sea of peppermints. Aside from that, I captain the front desk, telling visitors where to sign in, what information to include… and I also get the occasional interruption to answer an APA or grammar question.

Quintessential Onlines

My companions in labor. Long may they serve me!

On Wednesday, I worked with a human being face-to-face for the first time in about four weeks, excluding my regular appointments on Tuesdays. He had a glazed look as if the concept of “Writing Center” were too much for him to handle. There at his instructor’s bequest and with a paper that I have seen in the hands of other students countless times in the past, I completed the session without diverging from my task or his requests. Neither of us acted conscious of the other consultant’s eyes while she observed the session, but I was conscious of her gaze and the scratching of her pencil, drowned out by the dialogue of other sessions.

After the session ended, the consultant and I withdrew into the director’s office, empty and dimly lit by the light filtering in through the window. It’s almost like I’m in a consulting session, sitting in the student’s seat with my adrenaline thudding in my ears and my hands shaking… a year and a half ago, this would be me, but this time, I was calm and ready to face the heat.

“Well, overall, I think you did a really good job,” she explained to me. “You seemed like you were really positive, and I liked how you tied everything back to what the student asked for at the end.”

“To be honest, that’s why I wrote it down. I lose this information sometimes when I’m working, so I need to keep it where I can see it.”

“Yeah, that’s a really good idea. In fact, I think I’m going to have to start doing that.”

As she departed and left be alone with my observation form, a neat collection of words  legible enough to be deciphered lined up straight like gray rows of eggs,I prepare myself to return to the computer.

I couldn’t tell her that I had forgotten how gratifying it was to work with a student face-to-face, how amazing it was to see not an inert computer screen but a face that goes from anxious to easy in one fraction of the time it took for me to do the same when I first came to the Writing Center.

It took me six weeks to acclimate to work I had already been doing as an undergraduate, and during that time, I was trained to complete onlines.

Sometimes, when students walk in for their appointments and I turn away from the screen, their faces look foreign. Only then do I realize I have forgotten and been forgotten. I am imprisoned by eggshell white pages that exist somewhere beyond touch. I feel the keys beneath my fingers, too smooth to be natural.

They tap out a waltz worthy of working by, and the hours pass by on a conveyer belt of text. My text in the comment boxes shaded with Easter egg pastels. The writer’s text on the screen, immaculate if not for the clarity and APA issues.

I try to see gratitude situated between the lines. All I can see is the phantom i-beam, whose metronome flash reminds me to keep moving.

Of Bread and Biscuits: A Slice of Life

My apartment has betrayed me again.

Somehow, it always happens when you least expect it. Your environment reassures you that you are far from harm, then suddenly shifts one element just enough to throw off the balance. There are one too many potatoes in the pot now, just enough to make the soup splatter all over your immaculate stovetop. This shift could be anything, but mark my words, they always happen because of time.

Over the years, I have confronted the notoriously evil Valentine’s Day with viewpoints as numerous in the spices in my cabinet. I have tried to be sagacious about it, maintaining a woody indifference while nurturing hope in silence, the kind of hope that you can only taste once something has stewed for three-hundred sixty four days. As a child, I maintained a bland indifference, took it with a grain of salt. One year, I took a lesson from cinnamon and decided to sweeten things up with a bunch of my single friends. Mainly, I tend to spend the day over-beating myself until I’m too stiff to stand one mention of it. Although I am not qualified to participate in the festivities, I am reminded everywhere I turn that every single human being in a twenty-mile radius is planning on some grandiose gesture of love and affection to what’s-his/her-name. And why shouldn’t they? That is the purpose of Valentine’s Day according to modern America.

Now try being happy when you’re the coconut truffle in a box of cherry cordials. You are blatantly excluded from all their cordial games and banished to the land of the defective conversation hearts.

Of course, on the outside, I am my typical bubbly self. I gratefully accept conciliatory chocolates from janitors and friends. I even laugh as one of my students, single like me but from overseas, wishes me a Happy Valentine’s day in broken English that sounds like the hollow rap of conversation hearts being poured into a glass bowl.

Almond Chicken Ding

Aside from gin, this was my only friend.

Yesterday, I spent Valentine’s Day with a bowl of leftover Chinese take-out and a bottle of gin. I used the same bowl that has housed many leftover bowls of soup, and after taking two straight shots of a liquor that tastes like Christmas or like some uninhabited forest of pines. As always, I had the opportunity to do my drinking among company, but being more salt than sugar, and more orange pith than either, I thought it best to withdraw into the pages of Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley for the evening.

I wanted nothing to do with soup.

Gin makes my clumsily penned handout sound perfect, and even when I get up in the morning to give it one more comb-over before the big presentation only to find that it is anything but perfect, I still appreciate the effort. Soup doesn’t have that kind of power. There could always be more salt, fewer noodles—the potatoes aren’t quite right and the flavor is off just enough for me to know.

Gin makes me forget about all of that.

With Gin, I sigh dragon’s fire after just one sip, and all is made right with the world.

Taking drinks of gin straight from the bottle and devouring a forlorn container of Almond Chicken Ding is a recipe for just one more night alone. The fiery liquor and the take-out make it feel more like an ordinary day despite the fact that I hardly indulge in either. At last, I am as still on the outside as I am on the inside, and both are covered in the mold that will inevitably accrue when one loafs around for too long. It’s a good thing I’m turning pages at a rate of 75 per hour. This motion, the way the text clings to my mind, the scratching of a pencil against the margin of every page… all these things keep me from becoming too stale. Without them, I would absorb too much light and water. A feathery mold would cling to me, delicately eating away at my skin until it reaches my acrid core and dies from the sheer gall of it.

I am a plant killer. My bamboo died this summer. This is why I rely on others to take care of growing the seasonings I use in my soup. No one savors the taste of blighted basil.

Perhaps that is why I shoved soup away on Valentine’s Day. Because even when I eat it alone, even when I swallow it half-chewed while working desperately on my thesis, soup is still a reminder of the inevitable connections I have with the world outside. In a course of study that isolates, soup sustains the body, the sole, and the strings that attach me to the outside world. Every bite is a memory of cooking with a friend or of the feeling that comes after eating the second serving that neither of you needed. It can’t be helped, though, because that soup is just too damn good to leave alone.

That feeling is misery, stewed in groans and laughter.

I’m planning to have a leftover bowl of chowder for dinner, so I opt for a sandwich for lunch. George Foreman will help me transform it into a Panini. I can almost taste it already.

The bread on the table beckons me. I am proud of this bread; I bought the pre-sliced multi-grain loaf for three dollars, never mind the tax. This bread is more than just a sandwich fixing. It shows how grains can work together to create something better than they are when apart. It shows that processing really takes the life out of them.

Chowder and Shirley

In all things, progress tastes of chowder.

I extract the only partly eaten loaf to find all of my hopes in vain. Unable to cling to me, the mold has instead settled on my otherwise in-tact loaf of bread. It still gives under the slight pressure of my hand and springs back instantly. I sigh and throw the loaf in the trash. It ends with a bang, and the cabinet door whimpers as I shut it out of mind.

I glance to the table and find that the biscuits I made two days ago have more than enough of me in them to scare the mold off.

Perhaps a bowl of soup would be nice after all.

I just bought my first box of saltines since 2010. These crackers are fit for all manners of cheese, particularly those deli slices of colby or colby jack. They are also fit for my off-brand peanut butter. And if I am having a bland day, I’ll eat them plain. They are, in short, the ideal snack food because of their versatility. They don’t taste like anything and can therefore be topped to the choosing of the consumer, or else devoured naked in times of duress to satisfy a salt craving.

But they are not fit for my soup.

Imagine, if you will, building a house (or any sort of structure, which, for the record, you don’t want my help with. I will make your construction gents lemonade and feed them with whatever I have on hand, but if you give me a hammer, I will somehow manage to lodge it in the concrete foundation or get it stuck in the PCP pipe… never mind how. I will manage. Trust me.). Now, a house is a very personal thing because it needs decorated and furnished with lots of stuff that speaks about who you are. You put stuff in it. Make it your own. Hang pictures on the walls. Throw area rugs on the floor. I’ve seen this happen with soup: some people delicately dip their crackers as they do biscuits (re: cookies) into tea. Others feel more destructive and crush the offending wafers to a fine powder, then sprinkle their remains into the bowl like the ashes of a cremated fisherman. As for me, I’m a dipper, and if I get oyster crackers, I will eat them prior to taking the first bite of the soup.

Returning to my point: say you’re at a diner and you order a bowl of soup. It looks a little like Progresso. This calls for some crackers, as they are the closest thing to pleasant texture you are guaranteed to get out of that bowl.

Say you’re in Mount Pleasant at The Brass Café, and you order your nine dollar sandwich with soup (which you always should at The Brass). You order the three bean (you’ve already had the chicken and rice once before, and it was good, but you’re looking for something a little different). It comes out. It’s tomato based and spicy enough to make your nose run a marathon but not spicy enough for you to lose IQ points by continuing to eat it. Aside from cooling your mouth with the water you ordered, you cut the flavor’s intensity with the crackers. Joy and bliss ensue as you finish the soup. It’s nice soup, and you don’t really have any alternatives for dipping because you bought it from someone else.  Similarly, when you buy a house, you don’t have much choice of what’s already in it, but you can change it once it belongs to you.

Just so with my soup. I spend a good, hard hour and a half in the kitchen manufacturing the Monticello of soups (I wouldn’t compare it to the Sydney Opera House or Frank Lloyd Wright’s stuff, but in terms of quality, it’s decent enough to be a Monticello), cutting vegetables into uniform chunks and turning my little slice of heaven into the Tower of London by torturing myself half to death with the smell of it cooking. The last thing I want to do is default to painting all of the walls white and buying my furniture from WalMart (unless your wallet necessitates it, which, if you’re building the Monticello, I doubt you are in poverty). I don’t cook anything I don’t like, and I happen to enjoy my soup quite a bit. In fact, it’s probably my favorite thing to eat. So, if I’m spending that much time on my soup and plan to dunk something in it, why not make it something worthwhile?

Generally, I think soup is fine as it is and doesn’t need any help, especially if I’m in control of everything that goes into it. In week 2, I bought a nice bakery loaf of multi-grain bread to go with my chicken broccoli-cheddar soup. This week, just before going to work on my chipotle chicken chowder, I decided that something delicious needed to go in there, and what better than some garlic-cheddar biscuits? They’re the only reason I ever want to go to Red Lobster and Ruby Tuesday’s (I’m still weary of fish, and while Ruby Tuesday’s has a decent salad bar, I personally think that Bennigan’s has better burgers), and if I had know they were so easy to make, I would never have had a reason to set foot in either establishment in the first place (if not for Ruby Tuesday’s Salad bar, that is).

Although I don’t trust in skinny chefs, I do believe in eating healthy, so I’ve altered a recipe I found online to omit the butter (gasp), and they turned out fine. The world did not careen off of its axis or anything drastic like that, and I didn’t miss the butter flavor once I sopped these in chowder stock. I would call them Monticello windows, but that’s carrying the metaphor too far, don’t you think?

Chipotle Cheddar and Garlic Biscuits for the Sole

The Finished Product

Ingredients

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup milk
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • ½ tsp. baking powder
  • 1/8 tsp. salt
  • ½ tsp. sugar
  • 2 tbsp. canola oil / butter
  • 1 tsp. olive oil / more butter
  • 3 tsp. parsley flakes (reserve 1 tsp.)
  • 3 tsp. garlic powder
  • ¼ cup shredded chipotle cheddar cheese

Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. In bowl, mix flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, sugar, 2 tsp. parsley flakes, and garlic powder.
  3. Add oil and milk. Mix thoroughly with a fork.
  4. Fold in cheese.
  5. On a baking sheet, spoon dough.
  6. Top with olive oil and remaining parsley and pat down lightly.
  7. Bake for 15-20 minutes.

Yields 9-10 biscuits, just enough for me to perform quality control.

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I spent a great deal of my undergraduate days at the food court, a tiny corner in the middle of the main building (actually composed of four halls linked together). They served a variety of overpriced food items that I could make for probably a quarter of the price at home, but convenience and an empty stomach devoured every frugal thought. I needed sustenance. It was for my mind’s sake, and regardless of what dollar amount universalizes append to such things, what surcharges and registration fees and peaceful hours you must relinquish to higher education, you can’t put a price on a well-cultivated mind.

I ordered snacks from this food court on most days: pudding cups with Oreo crumbs and what I think was supposed to be whipped cream, pita triangles with a single tablespoon of hummus. On occasion, I would have a Chicken Sonoma salad, a delectable salad with fresh grapes, strawberries, and almonds, and I would devour these in my fish tank, a tutoring room lined with windows on two sides. But it should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me well enough that the main attraction of this food nook hastily became their soup selection.

I fondly remember their chicken noodle. It was, for a while, the closest thing to homemade I got. They used the frozen Reames noodles, which were the thickness of a children’s book and which were always overdone by the time I got to eating them. I remember their tortilla, which to this day I am certain was made with a jar of cheese sauce. If I think hard enough, I can even remember the taste of the turkey and rice, whose gummy grains sustained me through yet another shift at my location of employment, or else a lecture on American literature, which was comparatively worse for a self-proclaimed Victorianist like me.

Although I say all of these seemingly negative things about the soup provided at Cafe de la Alma Mater, I still stand by the fact that for soup that had to be kept at a hot temperature for three to seven hours, it was edible, and it tasted a hell of a lot better than the sandwiches, who were syllabus left to marinate in their own moisture until they were the consistency of a soggy diaper.

Aside from feeding my growing soup addiction, this particular food nook introduced me to someone I now consider a good friend: chowder. I remember our first meeting. It was a cold March day, and there was more snow on the ground than I care to discuss (in my opinion, even a dusting is too much), and as I marched into the building, half-frozen by winter’s insistent grip donning my trusty winter coat and gloves, I started sliding past this culinary corner to nutrition class.

Pause. I am now no longer rushing to nutrition class because I am faced with what sounds like an excellent idea.

My predecessors all select their suppers, mostly composed of pizza that would bring any Italian to tears. “Hello, what can I get for you?” asks the gentleman at the register.

This man is not skinny.

In terms of body language, this means I can trust him.

“I’ll take a bowl of your chicken and corn chowder, please.”

“That will be $2.50.”

The soup comes in six-ounce Styrofoam container with a translucent plastic lid and a pair of saltine cracker packets. I retrieve a plastic spoon and take my bounty upstairs.

The first bite is so euphoric that I would offer winter a bite if I didn’t want every last drop of it for myself. I feel myself getting a little feral, which I tend to do when I feel my food is in danger, and consume the rest with relish. For a moment, I’m not a student approaching a Bachelor’s degree in English; I am the king of the world, and this bowl was made by my private chef. An average dish was made great by novelty and by excellent timing. Perhaps the same can be said of all things average.

I never could have guessed three years later that I would be turning that dish into a soup for the sole with a twist courtesy of parental oversight.

Last weekend, my phone rang at 10:30. My parents had been on the road for a half an hour. My first fear was that something had gone wrong on the drive home, mainly stemming from my own car troubles. Since practically everything else had gone wrong since their first attempt in mid-January, I wouldn’t be surprised if poor luck followed them homeward. They came up to visit me on Saturday for the first time in six months, courtesy of chaos on my part and on my dad’s. One of the main attractions on this trip, a new Greek restaurant, perished before the weather cooperated well enough for them to make it. I checked the building out two weeks ago to find the windows dark, the tables staring mockingly at me from the windows. “See if you ever sit on us again,” they said, then laughed with their legs as I paced away. Instead, I took them to The Market on Main, a new artisan grocery store with all manners of unusual, delicious cheese, meat, microbrews, and the like, all at a price that no grad student in their right mind could afford. My dad made three purchases: a bottle of ginger beer, a wedge of blueberry shifton, and a slightly smaller wedge of chipole cheddar.

Instead of bad news, my dad simply said, “We forgot the cheese.” This isn’t an unusual occurence; in fact, I would call it relatively commonplace, but like my encounter with chowder, this average was of a higher order. The sweet dairy bounty of neglectful neurons was all mine for the taking.

These two average events, by their powers combined, yield this week’s soup for the sole, a tongue twister of a chowder that is much easier to eat than it is to name. I speak from experience: this soup is anything but average.

The Fourth Bowl

Chipotle Chicken Chowder

Ingredients

  • 3 chicken tenderloins, frozen
  • 8 oz chicken stock
  • 2 chicken boullion
  • 1 pint half and half
  • ½ onion
  • 1 giant potato
  • 1 cup chipotle cheddar cheese, shredded
  • 1 cup frozen corn
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • Black pepper
  • Cayenne pepper to taste

Directions

  1. Dice onion and sauté in butter.
  2. While onion is cooking, defrost chicken tenders. Dice potatoes. When chicken is done defrosting, dice chicken.
  3. When onions begin to caramelize, add flour and mix.
  4. Whisk in chicken stock. Add chicken and potatoes.
  5. Add half and half and chicken bouillon. Mix well. Simmer for 45 minutes, or until potatoes are nearing doneness.
  6. Whisk in cheddar in small batches.
  7. Add corn, black pepper, and cayenne pepper.
  8. Serve with chipotle cheddar and garlic biscuits [here is the link, as promised].

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Endnote: Chipotle cheddar is admittedly hard to find, not to mention it isn’t very cost effective. The average treated me kindly this time, but it may not do the same for you. This recipe would actually be good with regular old fashioned sharp cheddar (I have made a non-sole version of this recipe that utilized sharp cheddar). To get the chipotle flavor, a couple of canned or dried chipotles should do the trick. To preserve tonsils and lining of the stomach, make sure your chipotles are seeded. Consider it friendly advice… I know this from experience.

This week, I took an unplanned trip to nostalgia… and Midas.

When I was six or seven years old, my dad began preparing his own Chinese food. Takeout could not compare in the least. I remember sitting at the table with my mom and talking, about what I don’t know, but the air was full of steam and ginger.

There wasn’t a single unappealing dish on the table. The ribs were marinated to perfection. The pork loin was moist, and its accompanying dipping sauces were the closest to heaven a six-year-old could get. The fried rice… well, it could admittedly use a little work, but it was still delectable.

And then, there was the soup.

For me, it was the crowning achievement of the dinner table, a bowl of what my father refers to as “Long Soup.” There is nothing remarkable about this soup. It’s got strips of pork and some kind of noodle. There are water chestnuts and cabbage and scallions. All of this is immersed in chicken broth flavored by ginger and splashed with a bit of soy sauce and toasted sesame oil just before serving.

It tasted exotic.

I’m sure it has been over a decade since I have had a bowl of that particular soup, one that takes me back to childhood. Over time, the table became too crowded with other delectable Chinese dishes to harbor even one iota of space for something so negligible as soup. The ribs in black bean sauce, the stir-fried noodles, the beef and broccoli… the usual rotation kept reappearing, but the soup seemed forever absent, almost as if the soup itself had turned to steam and fogged the windows.

My father once confided to me that it was in part a time constraint. “There’s so much food already,” he would say when I voiced my disappointment. “And besides, I spent so much time wrapping egg rolls that I just ran out of time.”

He made plans repeatedly, only roughly hewn but balanced in their own right, beautiful and ornate. Life simply shrugged before casting that orderly dish onto the floor. Did he cut his hands when he tried to pick up the fragments? Did the rough edges of ceramic bite into him on some level I can’t see? If I had to wager a guess, I would say no. He is more Taoist than he knows, letting the flow of life simply sweep him along without resistance, whereas I am constantly swimming against its current and half drowning on my own shattered plans.

I had a plan. I swear I did. As of two days ago, my Monday was reserved for nothing but homework. That was before the rear brakes on my car needed attention, before I had to spend nearly five hours sitting at Midas waiting for the repairs. As of two years ago, I was going straight to a PhD, but that was before I realized I was not seasoned enough. My life wants a little spice, maybe not to a Kung Pao Chicken level, but certainly a hint of ginger wouldn’t hurt. Last night, I was supposed to get eight hours of sleep, but I only got six. And this afternoon, I was supposed to write a semi-decent blog post, but for some reason, the day has overbeat me to a stiff sort of grogginess that makes the edges of every object seem less than real. I’m about ready to collapse like a roughly-handled soufflé, but here I am tenderizing my keyboard once again.

Yesterday, I was supposed to make soup, and I did… but it wasn’t supposed to have quite so many noodles. No matter, though, since they are the centerpiece of this particular soup, the slightly warped dish that came out of my careful planning. It is more stuff than broth because that is precisely what I have become.

My only consolation is that a bowl of nostalgia is waiting for me, waiting to ease away all of these rigors and, in the process, dissolve what remains of my plans to resist the current.

The Third Bowl

Chinese-Inspired Chicken Noodle Soup for the Sole

Ingredients

  • 3 frozen chicken tenderloins
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp pepper
  • 1 tbsp canola oil
  • 1 tsp fresh ginger
  • 1 tsp fresh garlic, minced
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • 1 can water chestnuts (8 oz)
  • 7 0z rice noodles
  • 2 heads baby bok choy
  • ½ bunch green onions, chopped

Directions

  1. Defrost chicken tenderloins for three minutes in the microwave. Cut into small strips. Dust with salt and pepper.
  2. In a 3-quart sauce pan, heat canola oil and fry chicken strips until they are golden brown.
  3. Add garlic and ginger. Sauté for additional minute.
  4. Pour chicken stock and soy sauce into pan. Add water chestnuts. Simmer for 30 minuets.
  5. Cook noodles according to package directions. Rinse under cold water.
  6. Chop bok choy and green onions. Add bok choy and noodles to pot. Simmer for 5 minutes.
  7. Add green onions. Simmer additional two minutes.
  8. Just before serving, add sesame oil and stir.

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On Wednesday night, I am back in the library coffee shop for another helping of leftovers, this time alone. The sparsely populated, blindingly lit room is full of empty tables. Two girls chatter over their Macs, their tones distinctly sorority girl-esque, but one can never be sure. Two tables down, another girl who was alone eating a chicken Caesar wrap now has a companion. Near the back is a man in a suit and tie, looking a little out of place among the more actually dressed occupants of this establishment. He is teaching another student a foreign language that I cannot identify from the “gus in front of verbs” comment I catch drifting through the air, practically devoid of people but cluttered with the usual coffee shop noises. Every now and then, someone else filters in for a soda or to use the restroom. As for myself, I sit next to two unoccupied tables with a black laptop bag overloaded with books. No one but today’s issue of the student newspaper sits next to me, strategically placed on the table to my left.

I’m waiting for my soup to finish cooking in the microwave, which is separated from me by a distance of roughly thirty feet. I’m much farther away from it. I’m immersed in pages written over a century and a half ago, determined to make every minute between the end of my shift and the beginning of my class mean something, even if it’s just turning one more page in the fictional Victorian saga of an independent woman.

This is my third time reading the novel. I’ve read it twice in the past nine months for my thesis, once as a preliminary glance to something that could be potentially useful, and once again not more than three months later as a text I planned to use for the fourth and final body chapter. Like my last bowl of leftovers for the week, I value this text no more or less than the first. I give it its due appreciation. I taste the subtle hint of feminism lurking between the black lines. I have covered its pages in my own annotations, hasty pencil strokes that look like they were made with a dull knife. This third time around, it almost tastes better than it did the first time, more complex, a polyphony of flavors, but it has definitely lost some of its power to captivate and compel. No longer am I infatuated by its suspenseful moments, nor am I duped by the hopes that this woman will be any different than her predecessors in my literary experience. Having gotten to the bottom of this particular pan twice already, I know that the dregs of these chapters are not exactly scorched. They do, however, have a smooth texture and a sharp flavor that reminds me of bleu cheese. I can appreciate it for what it is, but this particular flavor is one that I will never bring myself to fully like.

Like many Victorian women, and like all of her predecessors (at least the ones that I have encountered), this heroine inevitably relinquishes her independence for marriage. I see this happen in modern novels whose titles I will not mention to avoid spoiling them, and whereas most of my friends cheer for this fairytale ending, I find myself inwardly cringing.

Maybe it’s because I have practiced studying literature for longer than I have practiced cooking, but I have learned over the years that no ending can be entirely happy, not in Victorian literature, and not in terms of soup. By the time I eat the last bowl of a full pot, I am sick and damn tired of tasting the same flavors and running my tongue over the same textures. I crave a change despite my habit of supplementing these bowls with sandwiches, salads, and my fair share of nights out at the bar or at a decent culinary establishment. It isn’t quite the same with literature. Much like a frozen brick of soup in the back of my fridge, a book that has remained untouched on my bookshelf for an appropriate amount of time has a savory flavor once it has been extracted and thawed out. I find something new to appreciate as I turn the pages a second or third time, as I immerse my mind’s spoon in this bowl again, first sipping the broth tentatively, then devouring the page, noodles and all.

I can’t help but wonder, as I play the voyeur to Helen’s family drama, as I peer into her moments of fury and solitude, whether this view bears any relation to how I down day after monotonous day, soup after bowl of soup, from the same insipid pan. I find myself wondering if my life, or anyone’s, can really have a happy ending.

The coffee grinder whirs. The microwave dings.

And I turn just one more page.