Category: Food for Thought


Weird things are known to happen in my kitchen. Especially around breakfast time.

When I walk into the kitchen at 7:30 in the morning before a 9:00 shift at the Writing Center, the choice is obvious. I go straight to the cabinet and grab a granola bar, then contemplate how I’m going to tough out being hungry for about two hours before my lunch break. That early in the morning, that’s about the only thing I can stomach. There’s just something about the morning that murders my appetite. Eggs have always been my mortal enemy, and I seldom have a desire for anything bigger than a bowl of cereal, a cup of yogurt, or a piece of fruit.

Then, I graduated—and became a night owl.

Forget breakfast. If I wake up at 9:00, it’s 11:30 by the time I get hungry, practically lunch time. Sandwich. Soup. Give me anything before I pass out at the keyboard because now, I’m finally awake enough to feed myself, no longer distracted by YouTube or Sherlock Holmes, no longer preoccupied by packing or by proofreading. The need is immanent, and I reach for the first thing I can get my hands on, not because I’m apathetic but because I am desperate to shut my stomach up before it growls loudly enough to register on the Richter scale.

My first Monday off from graduate school, I got up around 9:30 with the flavor of liberty in my mouth. Strangely enough, I was already hungry. I stretched once and walked downstairs, heading for the only thing I would dare eat for breakfast that morning.

The night before, my friend from Chile and I went to The Italian Oven, a local gem where I have spent many celebratory meals, including one to celebrate Gracielle passing her cumulative exams. And then, of course, there was my mom and I, who were unfamiliar with the geography of Mt. Pleasant when we traveled there for our tour of the campus, but since it is one of the best places to eat in town and is conveniently located on the south end by the freeway, we didn’t even give eating there a thought. Besides, we both should have been born Italian.

On this particular grip with Gracielle, Hailee went with us. I had three weeks to move out, and I was running out of food, which I had no desire to buy more of. Besides, I needed to celebrate my thesis defense… again. That’s the sort of thing I felt like celebrating repeatedly. It meant moving on, graduation, no hitch in the plan–until that damned e-mail about formatting that came in today.

Then, I had an idea, one based on years of not eating breakfast for breakfast.

Breakfast Cannolli

Behold, the 1,000-calorie dessert/breakfast.

I ordered a strawberry cannolli to go, and I made a rather lavish breakfast out of it, parked in  front of my television watching season three of Psych in my pajamas. No guilt, no urgency, no frugality. Every bite was a smooth reminder of the ending. This would be my last trip to The Italian Oven. Even now, sitting here and writing about that impulsive breakfast cannolli, I consider my conclusion in Mt. Pleasant to be sudden like a drop-off in the ocean floor. I was prepared to leave two weeks before my actual departure, but when it finally did end, I stood in the empty apartment and listened to my footsteps hammering off of the white walls and the clean floor, unimpeded by the dust of thirteen weeks of chaotic thesising and classwork.

Before then, I had never eaten a cannolli for breakfast, and if I ever do again, I will think of the empty footsteps and the week of sweet celebrations and all the people I knew who are(n’t) there anymore. I will remember the relief that followed the urgency, and I will smile.

Unusual things just tend to produce that reaction.

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.

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?

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?

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.

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.

Something to Stew Over

Apparently, French kitchens are a relatively straight-forward concept in comparison to the whole “soup vs. stew” debate.

I recently received a comment from Joe, a reader and classmate, in response to a recent post on what I considered a minor detail: is a soup a stew? Is a stew a soup? What about Rachel Ray and her portmanteau of “stoup”? And just where the  heck does that leave chowder?

I’ve done a little light reading on the subject (limited due to the interference of one Mr. Charles Dickens) of the difference in order to better educate myself, and I can’t help but find it mildly comical that what started out as a simple class project has led me to self-discovery and to greater knowledge (not to mention a bunch of other tasty blogs). According to the article Soup vs. Stew: Difference in Details, there is a legitimate difference between soup and stew. To paraphrase the information given (see above link for full text), soup is not only more fluid than stew but also less hearty. In comparison, stew is mainly comprised of the “goodies” (meat, potatoes, vegetables, etc.) surrounded by a minimal amount of gravy. However, soup contains a thinner liquid. Furthermore, while stew can stand as the main dish, soup is generally seen as a “first course.”

According to a different article found in a food dictionary, one that compares definitions from another source, different sorts of soups had varying consistencies depending on how its made, whereas stew constitutes as any dish that is prepared through the process of stewing. Soups apparently encompass a wide variety of dishes from the thinnest of consommés to the chunkiest of chowders (again paraphrasing from the above link), whereas stews are a combination of hearty ingredients immersed in “a thick, soup-like broth.” Like the author of this particular source, I question the validity of this definition as it uses the word “soup” to define “stew” and transforms the matter into a culinary paradox of sorts. Just where does the soup end and the stew begin?

In my own experiences, I can definitely see a difference between the dishes in terms of texture. Stew tends to be heartier and contain large chunks. The fluid base is thicker as well. The problem is I have had my fair share of soups in life, everything from a mushroom bisque at a French bistro in Columbus to the classic beef and vegetable my grandmother used to make. My palette has been charmed by the homemade French Onion soup, served in a miniature crock with a large crouton and topped with mozzarella cheese that has been broiled to perfection. I have ventured into everything from chicken and potato curry soup with mushrooms to broccoli cheddar. My tongue is a more seasoned traveler than I am, having been to Mexico, China, Texas, Italy, France, and Louisiana (but not New England… I never was a clam chowder fan; they’re a little too snotty for me). In my experience, stew has not taken me to the same places (although I did go to Morocco once in a crock pot).

In light of this culinary conundrum, and at Joe’s suggestion, I have decided to poll my readers about whether or not stew constitute as “fair game” in this fourteen-week challenge. I have plans for the next two soups already, so on February 11, depending on the results of this poll, add a “stew clause” to the existing guidelines I wrote in my first entry.

Aside from voting in this poll, of course invite readers to comment and leave their rationale (and to persuade others to see things their way… because what fun would a friendly debate–or Jane Austen, for that matter–be without Persuasion?). I have included the links to my source information but invite other research (informed voting is the best kind) and would also be interested in seeing this information.

Forget football. This is the Super Bowl.

I’m eating my last bowl of chicken and red lentil soup in the library coffee shop, a well-lit place crowded with vivid and various people. For once, I’m not eating dinner a la sole but with a friend and colleague who, like me, has a dash of cook in her and who, unlike me, has two roommates to boot. We discuss the ever-important philosophical debate of whether or not a stew constitutes as a soup (and it does in my book, so expect to see some stew in the future).

In the middle of her broccoli salad, Caitlin states, “Soup just isn’t that important to me, you know?”

“Not I,” I respond, swallowing another mouthful of my nightly victuals. “To me, soup is… life.”

But it’s strangely not soup I’m thinking about. No… instead, I’m thinking about the kitchen I left behind four hours ago when I went to work, the dark and cramped little nook of my apartment where I let my culinary muse run wild when it isn’t buried under a stack of Victorian novels. I started thinking about my kitchen two days ago, around the same time I started thinking about that last bowl of soup sitting in my refrigerator, positioned among sandwich fixings, tortillas that will one day be tacos, the basics milk and bread, and a criminal line-up of condiments (the usual culprits). Two days ago (and even two hours ago), I was fully prepared to deep-fry my kitchen in derision. Its Lilliputian size, the hideous linoleum tile that reminds me of pithy high school memories, the bleak cinder-block walls, the abused, scarred countertops, the cabinet whose particle board door is starting to resemble Feta crumbles, and that horrible monster living under the sink that I must pacify with scraps of vegetables or fruit peels mixed with water—none of this appeals to me. I was ready to dislike everything from the dim lighting to the dip in the floor.

Earlier today, I read a blog post by Becoming Madame about French kitchens, and I’m whisked away to Paris on a plane built of words and photographs. Copper pots, a quaint, antiquated feel rather than a tacky, antediluvian atmosphere that could suffocate a technoholic, and well-placed lighting that would secure the functionality of my eyes for years to come. Apparently, French kitchens commonly have windows (a novel concept!) with fresh herbs growing out on the sills (naturally free of charge and full of love!—which, might I add, makes soup taste even better), and sometimes, they have these rustic, knotted pine cabinets (made of genuine wood!). For one brief moment before beginning my three-hour shift, I could almost see myself in a French kitchen, spacious and liberated, waltzing among copper pans and chandeliers, throwing down a hardy bowl of Vichyssoise or French onion and having lunch among my many copper assistants.

And now, only moments after having scarfed a peanut butter and chocolate muffin in front of my computer, I realize that the culprit is not the kitchen itself. That miniscule space is not to blame for its design. I now find myself serving my bitter blame to the table, who obdurately and obstinately refuses to be wieldy, who takes up valuable space that could have been more counter and cabinets.

I never eat at the table. I’m always at my desk laboring away (sometimes more languidly than I should be) on this novel or that paper, or else staring hard into the face of my computer and trying to figure out why the words I’ve put on the screen are not as pungent as they were in my head (perhaps it only lacks a dash of salt). Otherwise, I’m at the coffee table, sitting on the couch and sharing whatever I’m eating with Dickens or Emily Brontë. In the rare event that I dine with company, I kneel at the coffee table after the manner of the Japanese, sitting on one of my orange throw pillows, and my friend either joins me or sits on the couch. The only one who has ever sat in any one of its four chairs is George Foreman, and the only reason he’s there is because there isn’t enough counter space to accommodate him. My sun tea jar occupies another. They sit in limbo, waiting for a meal that will never come. The top is littered with all manner of miscellanea: a steamer I received as a Christmas gift, napkins from chain restaurants I’ve turned to when I haven’t had the appetite for cooking, recipes that haven’t been touched in two months because I hardly ever follow them, or else I keep a permanent copy on my hard drive, recyclable grocery bags, old receipts cataloguing the ghost of goulash past.

I hate my table in silence. I don’t think it knows the truth, that my avoidance of spending time with it is actually my way of expressing revulsion. In its stead, I could have enough counter space for my food processor, which lives in the bottom drawer, and my toaster and coffee pot, which perch on top of my microwave like a mismatched pair of oxpeckers on a rhinoceros. That table and its four chairs mock me. They are five altogether, and I am nothing more than the last bowl of soup in a cold, dark fridge cluttered with the bread of a notion, some pungent crumbles of inspiration, and a smattering of sentiments (the usual culprits), waiting to be warmed.

I can hate that table all I want for spoiling the potential, but it’s still here.

And for the moment, so am I, even if I think I may be going rotten from waiting for so long.

A week is too long to think about the subject matter and form of a final project, and all the hot showers in the world were not helping me come up with any new ideas. I’d scrub every other contemplation from my mind night after night in my homemade sauna, and still, nothing new trickled out of my head. The same old thought clogged my brain. Blog. I spent some quality time with my favorite band, hoping their eclectic juxtaposition of bass and bagpipes would loosen the mental obstruction, burst a pipe, do something. My whole life started backing up. As I read the last of Wuthering Heights for the fourth time in just as many years, my to-do list stared me mockingly in the face.

“There’s no further point in thinking,” it told me. “Just look how I’ve glutted myself on bowls and bowls of your inaction. Best soup I ever had.”

The suggestion of blogging came from Maye, a friend and colleague who happens to be a fan of my music as well as my cooking. The trouble was it had no substance. It needed something. The idea itself was insipid and unpalatable. It had potential, much like canned broth, but what seasoning could I throw into it? Was it missing black pepper or bay leaves? Should the starch be potatoes or noodles? And did I still have some shredded carrots to add some color, or had I used the rest of them in the venison stir fry Maye and I had just collectively cooked and consumed?

The solution was simple: I needed to use what I already had in the fridge, and I needed to stir it.

Two days after sending an e-mail, I visited my professor. “My skill set outside of writing is rather limited,” I explained. “I cook and knit. Other than that, I’m not remarkable in any sense.” As a fellow soup connoisseur, Dr. Mary Wendt and I had already conversed about our mutual appreciation of and frequent indulgence in soup. We discussed Julie and Julia, a work I haven’t had the pleasure of indulging in.

“There needs to be a twist to this food blog, and something like that might work. You could try all of the pastas, or all of the different kinds of one particular food.” This was a welcome pinch of salt to the inert pan of water on the stove. It wasn’t boiling, but at least it was a change.

“I’ve been living alone for about a year and a half, ever since I came to grad school,” I informed her. “It’s my first time on my own.”

“It’s hard to cook soup for one person.” I nodded. “So, since you live alone, why don’t you blog soup recipes for one person?”

“Is that even possible?”

“Well, yeah. I mean, each recipe could make more than two servings.”

Her words lit a burner in my brain and set my thoughts stewing.

“I’m going to need a two-quart pan,” I commented, “and a title.”

Apparently, soup lovers are title haters. Coming up with the right phrase to capture something so profoundly simple as a blog about soup recipes for people living alone, seasoned with the musings of the chef and customer, poses a challenge. It’s like trying to make cream of potato soup without the cream. “You prefer chicken, so could do some kind of Chicken Soup for the Soul thing,” Mary stated.

“Hold on, hold on,” I said. “What about Chicken Soup for the Sole, as in S-O-L-E? Like, sole as in single person.”

My thoughts were at a pleasantly rolling boil, seasoned with anticipation. The idea was four-star. As an English major, I hardly expected to be assigned cooking, let alone eating. I bowled up my thoughts and let them coagulate, reading in the interim, which brings me to the moment of truth, the one where I set down the rules for this culinary excursion. Serenaded by my favorite band, my fingers dance across the keyboard, my mind at a steady simmer, and I write myself a briefing:

Operation: Chicken Soup for the Sole

Your mission, should you choose to accept: Blog for the next fourteen weeks (and beyond?) about soup recipes for a single person using your soon-to-be purchased two-quart pan (without which this saga will be impossible). Pair with some warm, crusty, multi-grained thoughts, reflections, and recollections for extra substance. There are three rules to the soup:

  1. Each soup must include chicken as an ingredient.
    1a: All soups do not necessarily have to use a chicken base. Other bases (e.g., cream, tomato) will also be permitted.
  2. Each soup must yield no more than 4 servings.
  3. As the word “chicken” is typically paired with another ingredient (examples: Chicken noodle soup, chicken rice soup, chicken tortilla soup), no second ingredient can appear more than twice within the course of this 14 week period.
    3a: The aromatics of onion, celery, and carrots, as well as seasonings, are exceptions to this rule, as they are flavorings and rather than focuses.
    3b: Should the blog stretch beyond this fourteen-week trial run, this rule will no longer be in effect.

I’ve done good work today, cooking up this first blog entry. If nothing else, this promises to be one hell of a delicious semester.