Category: Leftovers


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?

Of Bread and Biscuits: A Slice of Life

My apartment has betrayed me again.

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

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

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

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

Almond Chicken Ding

Aside from gin, this was my only friend.

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

I wanted nothing to do with soup.

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

Gin makes me forget about all of that.

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

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

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

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

That feeling is misery, stewed in groans and laughter.

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

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

Chowder and Shirley

In all things, progress tastes of chowder.

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

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

Perhaps a bowl of soup would be nice after all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The coffee grinder whirs. The microwave dings.

And I turn just one more page.