Archive for March, 2012


Mother nature is a bitch, and I’m not just saying that because my ovaries feel like they’re going to pop out of my gut like an alien. I’m saying that because I finally found that heating pad, and I can’t decide whether my back or my stomach hurts more. I’m saying that because, despite nine hours of sleep and an iron pill, I still feel like I’ve been run over by an entire garage of semi-trucks.  I may also have been influenced by Michigan’s schizophrenic climate, which heard all of the people complaining about how hot it was and decided to throw in (hopefully) one more dose of winter before finally letting Spring take the stage.

I don’t have to look hard for the signs of a budding spring. I can already see them. The tiny appendages that will soon grow into leaves dot the end of each branch, and the cherry blossoms on our tiny trees have already bloomed. In places, they echo the snow that for some reason has left us alone this year. It is 7:30 and full daylight. The day looks inviting… until you open the door and say, “Sweet Jesus! It is only 30 degrees!” It’s enough to send me climbing back under the covers… but I don’t, because there is too much work to be done and too much to think about to waste time sleeping.

Friday alone blew my mind in terms of news. Expecting a phone call about my impending move to Japan, I answered my obscenely old cell at work only to hear a strange voice. “Amanda?”

“What?”

“Amanda?”

“…I’m sorry. Who is this?”

It turned out to be a friend of mine I haven’t heard from in two months.

“I’ve got some news for you.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah.” She paused. “Guess who’s going to be a Godmother?”

I’ve spent my whole life hating children… namely children that can’t behave, so I guess I’ve really spent my life hating parents that can’t take time out of their busy Farmville schedules to raise their kids. Determined not to have children of my own, I can’t help but look forward to the prospect of being able to sugar what (or is it who at this point?) I now call “the little bean” up and send him/her home to his/her parents. “That’s fine,” the expectant mother told me. “But no noise toys.”

“Exactly. Sugar wears off, but that noise maker will be there for months until daddy ‘accidentally’ steps on it.”

On the exact opposite end of the “awesome” spectrum, my friend lost her cat this past week. Although the cat was ailing, she was not given the opportunity to give her feline companion a fond farewell. Instead, her parents stupidly put the cat down without her input and then acted like it was a big secret. Now, as someone who lost a nineteen-year-old cat just after learning that I obtained a graduate assistantship, I can honestly say that that is grounds for never speaking to someone again. Ever. There are three things people should never come between in life: a woman and her food, a woman and her work, and a cat and its person. People are serious about their cats… and about their friends. Case and point: I am angry, and it isn’t even my cat.

When I was originally planning my next soup, I planned to make potato and leek. I am still working through the leeks, which only come in bundles of three, and I know there is a potato in my cabinet, but all of that changed on Monday, the day of cookery.  By then, I am totally burnt out on my thesis, which I have been notified is in severe need of some connective repairs. Mother nature is cracking her whip, and I’m downright miserable no thanks to the joys of being a woman. What I needed was a hug in a bowl, something comfortable and classic. Something that reminded me of overcoming trials.

The first time I had the pleasure of homemade chicken noodle soup, it was not because I was sick and my mother decided to cook it. I was staying with a friend (the same one who is pregnant) and came down with the sinus infection from hell. She went through the motions of boiling the chicken, of making the noodles from scratch, and even if it didn’t cure the problem, it made me feel like I was swaddled in soup. Best of all, through the dull, woody taste of illness, I could detect the flavor of chicken, and that is the most joyous moment a sick person can have. After a bowl, I comfortably got back to studying, sustained by the savory flavor and its warmth.

Cue big news number four. I got a phone call after cooking my soup, and four days after I expected it. The company offered me a position in Nara-shi (奈良市). Suddenly, Japan seemed very real, not just some far-off exotic place but somewhere that I will actually be going.

I think I might need another hug… and another bowl.

——–

Evidently, this has been a week of coincidences, and it’s only Tuesday. Monday, I managed to sneak into my thesis adviser’s office for some suggestions, and not a minute too soon since I’m leaving for a conference on Thursday. Today, life threw another curve ball at me, the sudden cancellation of class as a result of the instructor still experiencing another side-effect of spring: allergies. Although I am grateful for the extra time, I am also conscious of how much it sucks  to be sick and soupless, and isn’t it amusing that I just so happen to have cooked the soup to counter the cure this week?

Even in cooking for myself, it seems like I can’t escape being somehow connected.

Chicken Noodle Soup for the Sole
(Note: Also includes leeks, mainly by necessity. If you don’t have leeks, use onions)

The Tenth Bowl

Ingredients

  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • ½ cup milk
  • ¼ cup lemon juice
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tbsp parsley
  • 1 tbsp sage
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp pepper
  • 4 chicken tenders
  • 1 leek
  • ½ cup carrots
  • ½ cup celery
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup egg noodles

Directions

  1. Sauté carrots, celery, and leeks in olive oil for two minutes. Add salt and pepper. Sauté for an additional 5 minutes.
  2. Add remaining spices. Continue sautéing for about two minutes.
  3. Add chicken stock, milk, lemon juice, and chicken tenders. Simmer for about 30 minutes uncovered.
  4. Shred chicken. Return to pan. Add 1 cup water and egg noodles. Cook until noodles are finished, about 10 minutes.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Advertisements

I am a square. A straight arrow. One of those people who colors inside the lines obsessively. If there is a rule, I will adhere to it with very few exceptions. If there are guidelines I don’t understand on a paper, I will gently pepper the instructor with questions for clarification. On occasion, I have been known to shift around policies without actually breaking them, but that’s only when I feel like I am to blame for a miscommunication with one of the Writing Center’s many online submitters.

One day, I came home from tenth grade and sat down at the table, and my dad said to me, “You’re such a good kid. Why the hell are you so good?”

“I don’t know.” I thought about it over an algebra problem. “Maybe I just want to make you guys proud, you know?”

“Well, that’s all good and well, but seriously… break the rules. Stir up some trouble. Start a fight.”

When he said that, a million little thoughts rushed into my head, thoughts I didn’t want to bring up.

The bullying stopped in ninth grade. From third to eighth, I was the center of attention, and not in a good way by the standards of the other children. I was hyperactive and bubbly on most days, but on others, I was overly sensitive. One look could make me cry. Quite frequently, I didn’t understand why I was in trouble since the other person was the perpetrator and, therefore, the ones to blame. Worse still, I took to new information like tomatoes to basil: we complimented each other perfectly. There were days when I had to redo homework, but only because my handwriting was messy from doing it on the bus. And because I worked hard, teachers liked me, and I liked them. I guess it got old in ninth grade. Most of the boys who tormented me had moved away, and the girls on the cheerleading squad finally decided they had more important things to do than tease me, and I had more important things to do than try to ignore them or come up with a witty reply on the spot.

I was seven when I got chicken pox. It was three days after my great grandfather’s funeral, and my cousins had bestowed the disease on me.  My second grade teacher, who I still occasionally contact for old time’s sake, made me a plate of fudge and called me at home to make sure I was doing well. Of course, I ate all of the fudge in one sitting and later threw it up, but that’s beside the point. The gesture said something about her view of me, and I liked what it said enough to make a poor life decision.

I had to come up with something better than that, though, something to prove to my father that I could make a little trouble when I felt like it.

“Well, what about that time in eighth grade I almost got a detention for swearing?”

He said it hardly counted, but it certainly counted for something when he got home that evening, namely a long and somewhat voluminous lecture on why young ladies shouldn’t say those words.

To hell with that. Between him and my mom, I am fluent in “sentence enhancers.” That whole “Do as I say, not as I do/Because I said so” thing doesn’t work with me… so maybe I’m a little less of a straight arrow than I first thought. I follow the rules, but only if there is a clear rationale for doing so, just as I work around them if the situation warrants it.

My most grandiose rebellion of all was becoming an English major. After one year of constant identity crises and attempting to follow parental expectations, I finally decided it wasn’t worth it and that I would do whatever the hell I wanted regardless of their approval or disapproval, so I quit school for a semester to sort everything out. Bad idea. I practically went stir-crazy. It only took me a month to figure myself out. English major it was, for better or worse. It has been almost seven years since then, and I have no reason to regret rebelling. I’ve earned an opportunity to do something incredible with my life through the very same degree that my parents nearly convinced me not to get.

This week, I decided to break the rules… a lot. Like, to the point where I am expecting my dad to show up on my doorstep to set me straight. I’m expecting at least one comment that says, “How dare you?” Let it be known that I know gumbo is not an Italian dish but Cajun or Creole, and let it also be known that I couldn’t care less. For one thing, I happen to dislike Cajun food, granted I haven’t had much of it. The closest I have probably gotten is Frogmore Stew, which not only does not contain “Frogs” or “Frogmore” and is notably not a stew at all since it does not have a thick stock but a thin and runny broth that tastes like a salt lick infused with Cajun seasoning. If you think about it that way, my “gumbo” is more a gumbo than Frogmore “Stew” is a “Stew.” Italian food is just… better to my palette. My mom jokes that she should have been born Italian. I still wonder why she didn’t marry into an Italian family, but that’s just the way things go, I suppose.

But there was another influence on my decision this week. Cooking meals for yourself means that if you buy a package of five Italian sausages, you inevitably have two left over when you’ve finished making baked penne, and when when there are two perfectly good pieces of Italian sausage hanging out in your freezer, what else can you use them for but something Italian?

Somehow, the kitchen has put me in some paradoxical space between rule-follower and rule-breaker, and I am enjoying every bite of this gray area.

Italianesque Chicken and Sausage Gumbo for the Sole
(With Basil Lemon Risotto… also for the Sole)

The Ninth Bowl

Let’s start with the gumbo…

Ingredients

  • 3 Chicken Tenders
  • 2 Italian Sausages
  • 1 can crushed tomatoes
  • 2 tbsp minced garlic
  • 1 tbsp Italian seasoning
  • 1 leek
  • 1 yellow squash
  • 3 cups chicken stock
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/8 cup flour
  • ½ a bunch of fresh basil

Directions

  1. Defrost chicken and sausage. Cube chicken. Sauté in pan with sausage.
  2. Add garlic. Sauté for an additional 1-2 minutes.
  3. Combine flour, butter, and oil to make a roux. Add chicken stock and whisk.
  4. Remove sausage from pan and slice into ¾ inch pieces (don’t panic if it’s not cooked all the way through).
  5. Add crushed tomatoes and Italian seasoning. Simmer for 30 minutes.
  6. Add squash and leeks. Simmer for an additional 15 minutes.
  7. Add basil and turn off heat. Let sit for two minutes.
  8. Serve with Basil and Lemon risotto… because it is gumbo, after all.

…and add some risotto!

Ingredients

  • 3 chicken boullion
  • 2 ½ cups water
  • ¼ cup lemon juice
  • 1 cup arabiatta rice.
  • ½ bunch of fresh basil
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • ¼ Grated parmesan

Directions

  1. Combine olive oil, lemon juice, chicken bouillon, and water in a pan. Heat to a boil.
  2. Add arabiatta. Cook uncovered for 16 minutes, stirring frequently.
  3. When the cooking liquid is gone, add basil and Parmesan. Stir. Serve with gumbo. It also tastes good by itself.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Today began with a bowl of Chicken and Rubbish soup, the last 80 pages of Bleak House, and the knowledge that before the day was over, I would have to have at least one drink. The first two items of this morning routine are not unusual for me. Why not soup for breakfast? Stranger things have been known to happen. And why not pair the soup with the British spice quartet with an equally British novel? What was unusual was the conviction about alcohol, which usually comes and goes with the roller coaster of the week and is usually impulsive rather than planned in advance.

The occasion for said drink is not, contrary to popular belief, merely because it is St. Patrick’s Day. The day makes its presence known in every corner of campus. On my morning jog, I saw more people in tacky green shirts and shamrock-colored beads than I could count. I was shouted at several times by guys in cars, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t because of my awesome jogging skills but because of some movements taking place as a result. I spent two or three hours in the local coffee house, chatting with a friend and writing blog entries, and wondering why the hell all of the drunk undergrads from the frat houses had to choose Kaya of all places to take a leak when there are plenty of perfectly good shrubs and buildings outside.

In all seriousness, though, there is nothing more irritating than a large group of obscenely loud and incredibly drunk people when you’re trying to write a perfectly good blog entry. Most of them can’t even tell which bathroom is which, and unless they have never been to Kaya, they have no excuse for such things, but I digress.

Drunken Leprachaun

Irish lattes taste even better on St. Patrick's Day.

The only drunkard I can stand is a Drunken Leprechaun, which isn’t really drunk it all. Sure, it has Irish Cream flavoring, among other things, but it’s really just another latte, a delicious one at that. Despite the seventy-eight degree temperature, I drink a warm tall without batting an eyelash and think.

And yet, paradoxically, I don’t plan to have a drink on any other day of the year for the reason that I do today.

Three years ago, on St. Patrick’s day, I got a wake-up call that has significant impacted my life. My grandmother was dead at the age of eighty-one, but other than that new black hole in my life, my condition of living was much the same as it had been since I was fourteen. I did homework. I studied. I read books. I wrote. There was nothing more to it.

It was a fitting day for her to go, St. Patrick’s Day. She was half Irish, and she loved the color green, but here I was three hours north and not able to do a damn thing but throw myself into another textbook with enough vigor to put some distance between me and the thought that my grandmother was dead. It shouldn’t surprise me that, almost six months after her funeral, I suddenly stopped in the midst of reading and said, “Hmm… I wonder how my grandmother is–” But the rest of the sentence broke down under the scorching hot August sun and the blunt blow of recollection.

By some fluke, St. Patrick’s day fell on a Thursday last year. I was working my regular 5 to 9 at The Writing Center when several coworkers suggested getting a beer at Mountain Town. The local brewery had good beer, and Thursday is two-dollar pint night. I figured there was no harm in it.

I drove my car through a thankfully parted sea of green without incident. The whole way, I was waiting for some drunk freshman to dart in front of my red car and make it even redder. There were only a handful of vacant spots in the parking lot. I picked the closest one I could and ascended the steps into a chaotic whir of inebriated patrons, slightly classier than those at the bars but still unnerving enough to make me feel a little awkward.

The people I had my beer with that evening were not people I usually hang out with. They were simply acquaintances that knew each other really well. It was all I could do to get a word in edgewise, not that I had much to say. I was too busy being pressed by past years.

The beer in my cup was not green, but it was a good, crisp raspberry wheat ale. I listened to what chatter I could pick up in the steady roar of conversation and fiddled with the Celtic cross around my neck, hoping it would be enough to ward off any unwanted attention or insistent pinches. I was in an ocean of oblivious individuals so drunk on the joy of the day and so far from the actual meaning of it that it nearly makes my head spin. There I was, drinking a two-dollar pint out of a disposable plastic cup.

No one saw me do it. In the middle of all that festive bustle and chaos, I tipped my glass a little higher, and I tipped my eyes with it. Then, I drank, a toast to the memory of woman whose importance I never really understood until she wasn’t there any more. My insides grew warm and somber, and I spent one moment in quiet reflection. It was an instant tradition, a respectable and moderate gesture to something that only continues to exist in the abstract space between my ears, an acknowledgment of my own guilty avoidance, and a moment away from the  books that made me do it.

Last year, when I was furiously penning a haiku a day for my New Year’s resolution, the one I wrote on St. Patrick’s day was inevitably about toasting my grandmother, and once something like that is in ink, it can be destroyed by flood and fire, but the memory of writing it will resist erasure much like the tradition that the ink stands for.

Sometimes, a soup receives a name, and sometimes, a soup names itself.

There comes a time in every sole chef’s life that they realize they have purchased a little too much at the grocery store. It is admittedly difficult for someone to buy food just for one person, particularly when his or her appetite fluctuates so greatly. One week, I will be chowing down on everything in sight. The very next, I will be averse to the mere thought of victuals. Since my departure date is pending and will be no more than five months away, I have to be extra careful about what I buy and in what quantity because I doubt I can transport a freezer full of food home even with my parents’ help. Even more pressing still is the absolute fact that my tastes vary greatly from my dad’s. My love affair with lentils and soup and chicken are all inexplicable to him; on most days, he would rather have beef or pork, both of which seldom occupy any space in my fridge or in my stomach, even when I decide not to cook. And don’t even get me started on curry. I could probably eat curry every day, but I refrain for the sake of variety. Good thing I have friends who appreciate it as much as I do, willing participants in my culinary experiments.

Unfortunately, the number of friends I have who appreciate vegetables is significantly lower, and I am thankful for those that do. It gives me a reason to use an extra onion in the stir fry or an extra few stalks of celery in the soup, because celery is horribly volatile and goes bad quickly despite its necessity.

Bottom line: I opened the fridge when I got back from my visit home to find the red bell pepper I had bought a couple weeks before and thought, “I need to use this.” The same went for the celery I had just purchased, volatile but absolutely necessary for my cooking endeavors, and the carrots, which I had just bought more of due to a cognitive slip at the grocery store and my failure to generate a list beforehand. I followed the trail to half a pint of half and half, an open box of chicken stock, and finally to the freezer, where there lurked all manners of frozen vegetables that were just begging to be used. The trouble was getting this mish-mash of ingredients to cooperate with one another in a dish. I was daunted by the impossibility of making these ingredients work with one another. How would I turn this discord of ingredients into something palatable enough to be exposed to the public eye and tongue?

The solution rested in an old British ballad and a quartet of spices.

Several days after my culinary adventure, I was having a conversation with my most loyal reader, who never fails to comment on my posts… never mind the fact that I may or may not have bribed her with soup. “What are you doing?”

“Eating leftover soup. This week, it turned out really well.”

“Really? What kind of soup is it this time?”

“Chicken and Rubbish soup,” I answered. “Though I’m a little hesitant about the name.”

“Why?”

“Well, I called it that because I basically used everything in my fridge that I would have thrown away otherwise. Still, the word ‘rubbish’ might throw people off. It has a bit of a negative connotation.”

“Well, I like it. I think it’s funny.” She would, too, since we have practically the same sense of humor. We are the ones who needed nine rounds of rock-paper-scissors to determine who got the first slice of pizza because of eight consecutive ties. “It’s a good selling point. It will make people wonder what’s in it.”

“In other words, it’s good advertising?”

“Exactly,” she answered.

When the idea for this soup first came to me, the nascent conception of this dish told me exactly what it would be called. It was not a matter of determining a more euphemistic term but of taking a risk on a word that could either revolt or charm and combining it with something canonical enough to convey the right meaning.

Scarborough Fair Chicken and Rubbish Soup for the Sole

The Eighth Bowl

Ingredients

  • 4 chicken fingers, frozen
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • ¼ cup carrots, diced
  • 2 stalks celery, diced
  • ½ red bell pepper, diced
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1/8 cup flour
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 1 cup half and half
  • 2 tsp lemon juice
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 2 tsp parsley
  • 2 tsp sage
  • 2 tsp rosemary
  • 2 tsp thyme
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/8 cup frozen corn
  • 1/8 cup frozen green beans
  • 1/8 cup frozen peas

Directions

  1. In a three-quart sauce pan, sauté onions, carrots, celery, and spices in olive oil for about 5 minutes.
  2. Add butter and flour. Make a roux.
  3. Whisk in chicken stock, lemon juice, and half and half.
  4. Add frozen chicken fingers. Cook for about 30 minutes until chicken is done.
  5. Remove chicken and shred. Return to pan.
  6. Add bell pepper and frozen veggies. Cook for an additional 10 minutes.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Frost

According to Frost (2011), it is time for new insulative measures.

I moved into my apartment on a swelteringly humid day in August. I walked in expecting it to look like home, but it looked more like a jail cell than anything. Cinder block walls, high school linoleum floors, a bathroom sink outside the actual bathroom, not a lick of carpet in sight. Poorly lit, a wall phone from the eighties hung vacantly on the wall, its cord a twisted parabola that tore my expectations to shreds. The kitchen was nothing but a postage-stamp sized box that was just as sorry as the rest of my lodgings.

My lodgings. That’s right. This would be my home for the next two years.

I found myself suddenly immersed in a conflicted whir of feelings, keeping up the strong front in front of the apartment supervisor Bill and my mother, at least until the sun went down. I complained about the condition of the place. It was filthy when I moved in. Two weeks later, I would get a razor blade from Bill and scrape long, black strands of hair out from beneath the floor wax. At the same time, I was trying to pull up something positive from this experience.

All day on move-in day, my mother peppered me with positives. “This place is nice.”

“You’re joking.”

“No, I’m not. I told you about my first apartment. There were mice in the walls, and the people downstairs always fought, then had really loud make-up sex.”

As comical as it is to think of this now, I found no solace in her comments then. Maybe I was dubious because of my dashed hopes, or maybe I am just cynical enough to be spot on when it comes to knowing when people, particularly people I know well, are putting on a front. She finally caved at 9, after a grueling day of cleaning what was not clean and moving my belongings.

“This place is horrible,” she said. “Why don’t you just get a dorm?”

I couldn’t reply. That was the moment I burst into tears. I would spend much of the next few weeks in a similar condition, trying to wrap my mind around this grotesque transition, because despite my living conditions, I had determined to accept this place as my own. I worked myself ragged the first few weeks of the semester, and by then, I was so worn out that the cheap hotel mattress (which also notably had some long black strands of hair on it) was the farthest thing from my mind.

I’m not sure when I noticed it, but one morning, I woke up and felt as cozy as a cup of chicken noodle soup. “It’s mine,” I thought. “It’s finally mine.”

* * *

I prepared last week’s white chicken chili in the kitchen where I grew up watching my dad cook. Although it is the most frequently used room in the house (except perhaps the restroom), it is by far the most neglected. The appliances have been replaced twice since my family moved there twenty years ago. The walls have been painted “Eggshell White,” which I still insist makes the entire house feel a little more like a hospital since every room is a subtly different tone of white (except the restroom, which is a vibrant mint green, and my bedroom, which I rebelliously painted orange when I was nineteen). Some hardware in the sink has worn out a few times. We’ve had a few new faucets. Other than that, no renovations have been done in the kitchen.

The Lost Window

Farewell, window of my youth! In case anyone is wondering, I am still this random. I just got really good at playing the part of a normal person.

The entire house is now practically Pergo, in slightly varying shades much like the walls. The roof has been done twice. Just before I moved out, my parents decided to do some heavy renovations: they built an addition right behind my bedroom, robbing me of the window of my youth. They re-sided the entire house, put in a new patio. After I left, they even redid the family room, ripping out the faded blue carpet and replacing it with sleek wood. They furnished it with things that are now entirely foreign as a graduate student. Just how can anyone own as many sofas as there are people in the house? With all of my education, I cannot make sense of this point any more than I can make sense of this grotesque neglect of the kitchen, which soundlessly puts up with constant use and abuse.

It bit back, once. I was reaching for the carpet cleaner, and the splintering cabinets lodged one of their deadly harpoons beneath my finger nail, leaving behind a pain so intense that I nearly passed out dislodging it. I was left breathless and nauseated, and I still had a decrepit dog’s mess to clean up, a dog who, much like the kitchen, was neglected for sentimentality’s sake.

It’s strange how you only notice change when you leave a place behind. I might visit home every three months. Life keeps me busy. Maybe I should visit more. Maybe I just don’t want to, because like it or not, I live another life now, one that has changed my flavors and preferences entirely, one that has challenged me academically, professionally, and culinarily. Maybe it’s because that dark and dingy postage stamp of a room is my kitchen, one that, if I had the power, I would remodel faster than compote boils over on high heat.

The house has changed, and so have I. Even in my parents’ kitchen, I feel a longing for my faithful sous chef, who sits on the back of the stove in Mount Pleasant. I feel the blinding light cast my shadow in several directions. I’ve got a little elbow room here, at least, but that’s about all I have going for me. This is not my kitchen; it is their kitchen. My kitchen, at least for the moment, remains up north.

There are only so many beans left in my can of time here in Mount Pleasant, and they are hastily running thin. When the last of them is scraped out, when I return home for two months to steep myself in Japanese language and culture, when I pass on my living quarters to the next eager-eyed aspiring graduate student, and when I take up residence in a land with a 14-hour time difference, will I look back on this time of my life and regret or rejoice? Or will I simply forget as I run the gauntlet of emotions again, then realize again that over time, home, like chili, grows thick and warm in the presence of heat, then cools  and is consumed before a new batch is made?

About two months ago, just before beginning my creative nonfiction course, I began to notice something strange with my vision. I was seeing the world a little differently than normal, and not just because I had been living alone for over a year. It had nothing to do with the fact that I had successfully completed an interview for a job in Japan or the fact that I was looking at the world differently to meet my daily quota of haiku.

I was coming back from a visit home over Christmas when I noticed the road signs doing some odd things. The white lettering on the green background started shifting in ways that I instinctively knew was not normal. Looking back on things, I had probably been experiencing similar things since August of 2011, but I had simply been to busy to sit down and take notice. Things in the distance started shifting in the same unnatural way wherever I was, whether I was looking the gridded window panes or the Max and Emily’s menu. Letters seemed to occupy an infinite number of places at the same time, all centered around a concentric line of points that surrounded the center point where they rested. My eyes weren’t watering because of onions, but the same fuzzy effect of tears lingered, at least for a few seconds, whenever I shifted my eyes from the computer screen to the distance or from the page to the horizon.

Something must be wrong. That was my first thought. And what better time to figure that out than a trip home for Spring Break, where the vision insurance actually covers most of the exam?

By some miracle, I called the place both of my parents went when they started having vision problems and managed to get an appointment the next day. I pulled into the office and approached the front desk. “Are you here for an appointment?” the receptionist asked.

“Yes, ma’am, at 12:40.”

“Alright. Our computers are actually down right now. What’s your name?”

I told her.

“Alright. We’ve got some paperwork for you to fill out.”

So began the gauntlet. I filled it out hastily. “We’ve got two ways to check the backs of your eye,” she explained. “We can either use the drops or a scan. Now, these scans aren’t covered by your insurance, but they start at $39…”

“I think I’ll stick with the eye drops.” Having just returned from a trip to Chicago, I wanted this trip to have as small of a financial impact as possible.

Michelle, the optometrist’s aid, had the same color of hair as the receptionist did: blonde. It jumped unnaturally as she got further away. She ran me through a gauntlet of exams that left my eyes feeling achy and irritated, particularly the drops. She had threatened me with pain beforehand, jokingly, and I had thought she was serious. “Oh, no… I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you… there isn’t any pain.” She then proceeded to drip what I still firmly believe was onion juice into my eye. “Oh, I forgot to warn you… the drops sting a little when they go in. The doctor will be with you shortly.”

The overly happy optometrist appeared before I can return to Bleak House. He shook my hand in his vice-like grip and introduced himself.

“Alright. We’re going to run one more test.” He started flipping through lenses, asking me which one looks clearer. In the space of two minutes, about 20 lenses, and my best guesses at clarity, he has identified the issue.

“Well, the good news is you’re 20/20 in both eyes still. Your cones and rods look excellent; I expect your eyes will be healthy forever. What you have is a spasm of accommodation.” He drew me a little diagram to explain the issue, and I watched him draw what I thought looked like a cored bell pepper. “You have this lens in the back of your eye that automatically adjusts when going from distance to close-up. It’s supposed to go 250 both ways. Yours is only going 175 out and 100 back in. That’s what’s causing the words to look a little jumpy. Now, the causes of this are stress, anxiety, and fatigue. I’ll bet you have all of those as a grad student.”

“Yeah, and then some.” We shared a laugh.

“Now, all you need to do are these eye exercises. Hold this pencil with words on it close to your eye, just before the text starts to blur, then focus on the text on the wall. Do ten reps for each eye twice a day. Oh, and reading glasses would also help. You need +0.75s.”

“Awesome. I think I’ll just do the exercises for now.” Talk about duplicity. I asked the receptionist for some insurance information, and the figures drive me so close to weeping that I resolve to hunt them down elsewhere. Unfortunately, I met with a rather annoying spasm of accommodation: my grade of reading glasses is too small for any store to carry. Thankfully, by the power of the internet, I have managed to exercise some buying power that will hopefully help correct this spasm at a much lower cost.

Looking back on my life, I realize I have met with many spasms of accommodation, not all of them effecting my eyes. The biggest one so far was moving out on my own. The adjustment took three weeks, during which I experienced a variety of panic attacks and related illness. Soup did nothing to cure my tremors. I simply needed to tough it out. Things got better once I learned how to fill the empty hours with labor of all kinds.

But now, I’m on the cusp of a new spasm of accommodation called culture shock. In five months, I will engage in a 17-hour flight to Japan, where I will begin a job as an English teacher. Right now, I can only question how long it will last, and though I look forward to it, I anticipate the adjustment period to be a little longer, the challenges to be infinitely more daunting, and the jet lag to kill me softly.Worse still, I will have to adjust to an e-reader after a lifetime of paper books… and how will I manage to enjoy anything with the smell and texture of paper, the ever-alluring perfume that drew me down this path to begin with?

Seventeen hours is a long time to fly, but this is what I wanted, and what I still want, more than anything: an opportunity to prove that I can be happy with a Master’s degree in English. It will just take some effort, much like white chicken chili. The first time I made it, I was bitterly disappointed. It was too beery. Not creamy enough. When I re-heated the frozen part, it was so revolting that I promptly ushered it to the trash can. I had eaten good white chicken chili on one occasion, in a soup cook-off at my alma mater. My attempt to match it failed. Someday, though, when I had more experience, I vowed to return to the recipe that had so shamed my cooking skills.

The Chicago trip threw my soup rhythm a bit; the pot of my life bubbled unevenly beneath an onslaught of social opportunities, and the homework remained neglected like the black crust on the bottom of a scorched pan. “I need to borrow the kitchen,” I informed my parents on Tuesday at a local Middle Eastern restaurant.

“Why?”

“To cook soup,” I answered. “Besides, I need to cook you a ‘thanks for the support’ meal.”

“Alright,” my mom answered. “That’s fine with me.”

“What do you guys want?”

“How about some chicken chili?” my dad asked.

Maybe it was just another spasm of accommodation in my life, but suddenly, I was presented with a high-stakes opportunity to trump the soup that once trumped me. Move over, Iron Chef, and don’t let the door hit you on the way out, Chopped. This is reality, not reality TV; this was my opportunity to impress the man who educated my palette for twenty-three years with my own cooking skills, to show him how much I had grown under his tutelage. Using the barricade of “It’s homework, so stay out of my kitchen,” I managed to throw down a meal without much interference.

“That looks like a mighty small pot of soup. What are you guys going to eat?” my dad asked, giving a hearty laugh. “Oh, you haven’t added the beans yet. Still not sure what you’re going to eat, though.”

“I’m making biscuits and salad to go along with it, so it’ll be more than enough. Just trust me.”

The results are in. I got rave reviews the whole table ’round.

But I respect my readers’ independent streaks. Partly because of some minor resistance to the Japan plan on the parental front, I like to let people make their own decisions.

White Bean Chicken Chili for the Sole
Makes 4 servings… and feeds a family of three with one leftover bowl for dad’s lunch
(Inspired by this recipe, but with 50% more chicken)

The Seventh Bowl

Ingredients

  • 1.5 lbs chicken breasts
  • 2 fresh jalapeños
  • 1 poblano pepper
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 medium onion
  • 2 cans cannelloni beans
  • 1 tbsp chili powder
  • 2 tbsp cumin
  • 2 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1 tsp Mexican oregano
  • ½ tsp onion powder
  • ½ tsp garlic powder
  • ½ tsp black pepper
  • 14.5 oz chicken broth
  • ½ cup half and half
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 1 cup Monterrey jack cheese

Directions

  1. Dice chicken. Saute with onions, cumin, chili powder, cayenne, onion powder, garlic powder, and black pepper. Cook for 5 minutes, or until chicken is cooked.
  2. Dice jalapeños and poblano. Cook for an additional 2 minutes.
  3. Mince garlic. Add and cook for 3 minutes.
  4. Add chicken stock and half and half. Simmer for 35-45 minutes.
  5. Drain and rinse beans. Add to pan, cook for about 10 minutes.
  6. Add sour cream and mix well.
  7. Add cheese and also mix well. Simmer for a final 10 minutes.
  8. Top with black pepper and cheddar cheese before serving. Goes great with a garden salad and some garlic cheddar biscuits (which are like these chipotle cheddar garlic biscuits, except with sharp cheddar instead. I’ve got a couple of pictures in the slideshow… ^_^).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I have a confession to make. I have been cheating on my blog with paper.

When it comes to recording the most meaningful snippets of my life, I do not turn to the keyboard but to the pen. I turn not to the screen but to the page. I sweep everything away in a lonely sea of ink in my search for solace or stability, which is hard for a small town girl to find in a big city.

Journal and Such

My three constant traveling companions: My journal, the pen I use to write in it, and my miscellaneous writing utensils.

The quintessential trip to Chicago involves my journal, no matter what my motives for going are. Business, pleasure, a combination of  both: the lined paper I bought at Toguri Mercantile Company on my first three-night trip over two years ago follows me back to the city where I purchased it, and each time I go back, it gets a little fuller.

It isn’t just the city, though. This journal followed me to grad school, and its pages tell a story of myself that I didn’t even realize. Between the two and three-month gaps in my entries, many important things happened. I just didn’t have the time to scrawl them down between reading hundreds of pages and attempting to formulate a literary analysis worthy of an A.

One thing this record of my life fails to chart is my growing love affair with soup, which started with the very first meal I cooked in graduate school. I remember it well, the curry, chicken, and potato soup that could have used more curry and less milk. Cream would have been a nice addition. It was August and probably 85 degrees in my apartment, but I still wanted soup. It was the security blanket that kept me stable in my first few weeks of living alone, combined with the company of my growing number of friends from the Writing Center and the fact that I was too busy to really give much thought to what I was doing, and if I wasn’t thinking about it, how could I possibly write about it properly? Granted, the lines in my journal are frequently incoherent scrawls of nonsensical things that just come to mind, but does coming to mind constitute as thinking? And why should I have to ruminate over a day where nothing out of the ordinary happened? Or perhaps…

Haiku

Haikubes are something I invested in during my last trip to Chicago. Needless to say, we had a lot of fun playing with these. 🙂

Perhaps unusual things happen constantly, but I’m too busy working to catch them.

Last year, while I was writing haiku daily, I experienced something odd… well, odd in terms of my limited existence. I was sitting at the front desk of the Anspach location. There were three writers at the front desk, and I remember one of them was just beginning to speak English. The phone was ringing, and I was trying desperately to finish reviewing an online in the allotted amount of time. But in the middle of this traffic jam, I found something that I seldom find anywhere: one overwhelming moment of peace of mind. The world around me was spinning out of control, but I had this pure comfort inside of me. From where did it spring, and of all the people around, why was I the only one that could perceive it?

I know this moment is unusual because I can’t remember anything else about that day: not the date, not the weather, not even the day of the week. It may have been a Monday, but I couldn’t say for sure.

* * *

This is the sort of chaos that always strikes me in Chicago. The traffic is pure madness to someone used to straight roads and a completely visible line of sky. There is a language to being a pedestrian: a flashing “Do not Walk” light means “run like hell,” not “stop.” And then, there is the overwhelming amount of people. There are people everywhere, mainly aloof. Only the destitute beggars seem to have any interest in talking to you, and even then, their motives for doing so are (in my opinion) more mercantile than affable. Apparently in Chicago, words have a price, even outside of used bookstores and newspapers.

Skyscrapers

There's a sky up there somewhere... unless I left it in "Kansas."

Chicago has lost this chaotic atmosphere in my six-month absence. I did not see my life flash before my eyes while the taxi cruised to the Residence Inn where I spent three nights sleeping on a sofa bed. Crossing the road while a car inches forward to turn left no longer frightens me. But is it Chicago that has changed? Perhaps I have changed. Perhaps I am the one who has finally gotten used to the city. Have I learned the language, and to what extent am I fluent in it?

Leona's Minestrone

I spent ten minutes trying to dissect this soup before I decided to just shut up and eat it.

Perhaps the thing that keeps me grounded in Chicago is not my previous experiences but the same journal that kept me sane during the first few chaotic weeks of adapting to living alone. I wonder… it can’t possibly be the soup. During this past trip and the one before, the only bowl of soup I had was at Leona’s, an Italian restaurant by the Belmont stop on the El’s Red Line. This time, it was minestrone. Last time, it was chicken noodle. In both cases, it left me with plenty of ideas, but it’s hard to eat soup away from home, not simply because I associate it with home but also because it reminds me of social instances. How can I be social in a city that is so aloof? I eat a bowl of paradox in silent contemplation, not sharing the moment with anyone because there is no one to share it with, no one that will quite understand this fascination of mine.

When I went back to the hotel room later, I wrote about things that are no one else’s business. The soup never made it into the pages, probably because soup has a place on a blog and among friends, unlike a lot of things in my life.

* * *

Oddly enough, I went to Chicago for the same reason in November: to prove that I can be happy and successful with a master’s degree in English. In both cases, I leaned on my journal for support. I told it things I would never tell anyone else. When the pen started dying this past trip, I panicked. “I need to go buy a pen,” I stated.

“Why?” one of my fellow travelers inquired. “You have pens in your pen case.”

“Yeah, but none of them are the kind I need.”

“What? I don’t get it.”

“When I keep a journal like this,” I explained, “I always use the same kind of pen. Usually, I stick to liquid blue ink. I switched to a black ball point for one journal, but I used it consistently throughout.”

“Weird. So why don’t you just use one of the pens in your bag?”

“Because this is a liquid ink journal,” I answered. She gave me a dubious look. “I’m very particular about my pens.”

“I can tell.”

“Hey, I’m a writer. If I’m writing about impressive things, I want to write about them with an impressive pen.”

She couldn’t really argue with that.

Maybe I’m also a bit particular about my soup. When I go to Chicago, I refuse to eat at chains I can eat at while at home. I will never set foot in a Subway in Chicago. That blue liquid ink pen with a grip has a time and place, and the only time and place is in the pages of that journal. Soup belongs in my kitchen or at my desk or with whoever I’m cooking it for. It also belongs on my blog, which I didn’t have to worry about in November.

Needless to say, this week’s bowl will be delivered late in light of this trip. When I was supposed to be cooking soup, I was eating a Tikka Masala sandwich at Blokes and Birds, holding a first edition of Bleak House and an autographed copy of Slaughterhouse Five, shopping for my own first editions, and getting a phone call notifying me that if I could arrive by 4:10, I could complete my individual interview before the 6:45 time slot.

Tikka Masala Sandwich

Pip, pip, cheerio! Our excursion to this British-esque pub was totally worth it. 🙂

I opted for going earlier, but my soup this week won’t arrive any sooner because of it. It is positioned to arrive, as the conductor on the train said, “on time… around 12:15, maybe later.”

Who knew spring break would be an unexpected delay?