Tag Archive: graduate school


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.

I have mentioned before that one of the most supreme delights of cooking alone is the absence of mystery. I know what I like. I know the amount that I like things in. My only dietary restrictions are the obligatory exclusion of olives (of all sorts) and mayonnaise (except for dill mayonnaise, which is perfectly acceptable). When I go into a kitchen to cook for myself, the only question I have to ask myself is what I’m in the mood for. Sometimes, I have a stare down with everything in my cabinets. At others, ideas simply bubble to the surface of my consciousness like perfectly cooked ravioli. Admittedly, cooking is probably my greatest form of self-love, and for someone who spends so much time thesising, reading, writing, and working at the Writing Center that they have become known to their undergraduate friends/coworkers as “the vampire” (all in good fun, I have been assured, though the label is in part due to the darkness of my apartment and mostly due to my resulting pale complexion), a hot meal is the knife that cuts through the cold, buttery stress of my crazy day. It is how I survived graduate school.

Exam week is always interesting to witness, especially from my standpoint. My father once told me to run the race of life like it’s a marathon, but even during the first few weeks of the semester, I typically find myself sprinting through hundreds of pages of reading daily, scrawling short papers at an alarming rate.

Much like the rainy, cold weather of this southern Michigan June, the conditions of my final semester were not favorable to sprinting. For once, I had to run the marathon. My weekly writing and reading assignments were completed a mere day or so before they were due. Add in finishing my thesis, and you are guaranteed a recipe for at least some chaos, sort of like slicing one too many onion in a saucepan that is already three sizes too small. Toss it wrong, and on top of still having to cook dinner, you have to clean up your own mess.

As with most things I have finished in my life, I don’t really think about how I do them. I’m not really sure how I wound up with a job in Japan. Was it luck? Hard work? A combination? Some cosmic force guiding me like a lost lamb or dragging me along on strings, a limp puppet? It is the same with graduate school. Trials are often the hardest when you are neck-deep in them, just ready to sink below the surface. Then, there is the obligatory breaking point. After days of being sliced at by everyday rigors, the right knife–still sharp enough to cut but dull enough to lack the poise of its sharper cousins–cuts you deep. For me, this was April. The conclusion of the thesis. I had to get it right the first time. Time–it was running out. My hideous lime green wall clock was ticking, ticking, each passing second a derisive laugh, a reminder that my best was not enough.

The e-mail came back, and beneath the constructive criticism, I forced a message into it. I was a failure.

It was over. There was nothing left to do but weep. Weep openly at my keyboard. This was it… my one chance, and I blew it. Surely, this would send my life spinning off into a catastrophic black hole from which I would never emerge. But this is the real test of dedication. In a moment when everything was eroding around me, I dried my eyes after letting myself have five minutes, engaged in a phone conversation with Melissa to take my mind off things, dusted myself off, heaved myself up at the keyboard, and kept going.

This thesis was not going to beat me.

It was fitting that I should experience this three weeks prior to my thesis defense, three weeks before most of my coworkers and peers were going through the same slump of not sleeping, skipping meals, drinking gallons of coffee, and neglecting themselves entirely for the sake of their studies. Sadistic as it is, I almost see more self-love in this than I do in cooking. The enduring dedication, even in moments of doubt and despair, and even at the cost of almost everything, opens doors that we sometimes can’t see when standing smack dab in the middle of a dark and empty labyrinth of everyday rigors. The subject of my thesis was Victorian literature, but what I learned in the process was so much more than that–and certainly a subject to explore in another blog entry. Empathy was my constant companion during exam week, when I finally caved to  my complete and utter lack of motivation and exchanged my pen and pages for a pot and a wooden spoon. Instead of reserving these tools solely for myself, I share them–and their delicious results–with those still immersed in the rapid boil of finality, a prelude to some well-earned decompression.

When I dug out the eight-quart stainless steel soup pot after fourteen weeks of neglect, I knew immediately that I couldn’t approach it the same way as I did when I cooked for myself. This soup was not for me; it was for my creative nonfiction class, the class that made me a blogger, which meant I had to deal with not just my own idiosyncratic palette but those of nine fellow students and one instructor.

And then, there were the dietary restrictions.

Some people choose not to eat different things for ethical reasons. Others cannot eat them because of medical conditions. They respect my dietary decisions and/or my lack of food allergies, one that I return, and one that I show by taking things like this into consideration when I find myself staring at my own distorted reflection in the bottom of my soup pot. Of course, it is a challenge. How can I possibly accommodate for a vegetarian and for someone who is gluten intolerant?

Italy provides the answer.

In my early days of exploring soup, I fell for Minestrone. As my tastes continued to develop, we grew apart. The challenge of feeding a class gave me a reason to get back in touch with my old favorite.

What happened afterwards was nothing short of a feeding frenzy of graduate students.

Some may consider it fortunate that I only got two bowls. I consider it a mission accomplished, an opportunity to give back to those who have given me such amazing criticism, those who have contributed to my development as a writer. It’s impossible to forget the taste of something so savory.

Vegan Gluten-Free Minestrone
(Based on this recipe)*

Finished Product

(For anyone wondering, I was in a super-mega hurry to take this picture… ^_^)

Ingredients

  • 4 cups gluten-free reduced sodium vegetable stock
  • 1 can reduced sodium tomato sauce
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 28-oz can diced tomatoes
  • 2 small onions (or 1 medium one)
  • 2 tbsp garlic
  • 2 zucchini, diced
  • 1 yellow squash, diced
  • 1 can northern great northern beans, rinsed
  • 1 cup kale, chopped
  • 2 teaspoons dried basil
  • 1 ½ teaspoons dried Italian seasoning
  • 2 springs fresh rosemary
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • 8 oz brown rice pasta

Directions

  1. In 8-quart pot, sauté garlic and onion in olive oil for about 5 minutes.
  2. Add stock, tomatoes, and spices to pot. Simmer for about 20 minutes.
  3. In a separate pan, cook 8 oz pasta in slightly salted water according to package directions.
  4. Add veggies and pasta to soup. Simmer for another 10 minutes.
  5. Add tomato sauce and water if needed to create more cooking liquid.

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*Note: If any of my readers know about cooking gluten-free, then they will probably tell me that I screwed up big time, the reason being that both wood (like the spatula I used to stir) and plastic (like the cutting board I chopped the veggies on) are both porous enough to absorb gluten and retain it even after being washed. FORTUNATELY, the person I mentioned earlier does not have severe reactions to small amounts of gluten. Otherwise, I would have felt guilty enough to pay the hospital bill.

When cooking for people with celiac disease, they are the best sources of information. The internet and prior experience tie for second. Asking around an organic grocery store to get some ideas could also help if you’re in a pinch. ^_^

http://madamegluten-freevegetarian.blogspot.com/2011/03/gluten-free-minestrone-gluten-dairy.html

Cooking is not a science. Some people say it is, but the truth—or my truth—of the matter is, there has never been anything scientific for me about cooking. I simply walk into the kitchen and observe. Look around me. What is available? I am a forger in familiar territory. My eyes have roamed these shelves more times than the Canadian geese have migrated. I just exaggerated a little bit, but it’s not technically lying if you’re just adding something to the truth, particularly if you’re a story teller. In the same way, cooking is not a science. I don’t let the truth, or a version of it, get in the way of a good culinary experiment. I suspect Benjamin Franklin did not expect lightning to strike his kite any more than Thomas Edison suspected the wire in his light bulb to glow. With cooking, it’s different. I expect the outcome to be positive in the most general sense of the word because I’ve combined ingredients that I like to eat and brought them together in harmony, sort of like a choir, only pleasing to all five senses rather than just the eyes and ears.

Granted, positive things don’t always happen when I mix two things together. I once had a hankering for something sweet and spicy, so I mixed some hot curry powder with creamy peanut butter. The problem is, I used too much and wound up with something that tasted vaguely of sawdust and cayenne pepper. Point taken: curry and peanut butter cannot simply be mixed together. My food taught me yet another valuable lesson.

But I didn’t need food to teach me mathematics. I needed a good high school calculus teacher and a good college calculus professor, and even by their powers combined, they couldn’t make me understand anything past series. Science requires precision, and cooking… well, cooking requires a lot of taste testing. Try that in a chem lab and let me know how it turns out.

I also didn’t need food to teach me philosophy, but it did help a little bit. You are what you eat, after all. I imagine that would make me some sort of chicken soup. Some days, I’m nothing more than ordinary chicken noodle. On others, I’m a zesty chicken chili. On others still, I must be chicken curry since I eat it for breakfast on occasion. In either case, I am an odd arrangement of ingredients that vary only slightly from day to day—and nine times out of ten, a recipe for disaster no thanks to some hereditary clumsiness.

I eat; therefore, I am.

People say baking is a science, too. An exact science. If you put a few extra drops of lemon juice in a batch of soup, then fine. It will be a little lemony. Toss in something to balance the flavor out, and life is good. But some extra flour in the cookie dough, a missing egg, and a sporadic oven, and suddenly, your warm, fluffy dough pillows turn into crumbly pucks of horror and sadness.

Fact: I am not a scientist. Last time I was in the chemistry lab, I nearly set the school on fire. Too bad my air-headed track athlete lab partner was cool-headed enough to turn off the gas. Otherwise, I would have been a hero among high schoolers for the first, and probably last, time in my life (because, at least in my high school, bookworms with straight A’s were hardly material for the “cool” table). I am a literary critic… I guess. That’s what you become when you finish master’s coursework in English, right? I approach recipes for baking the same way I approach recipes for soup, which I approach the way I approach prose: they are blueprints totally open to interpretation. And if my interpretation happens to include cloves where they were not included before, then who’s to stop me if the bread supports my reading?

Much like books, everyone has their own taste in food. Mine wavers somewhere between Italian, Mexican, and Japanese on most days, with heaps of soup and sandwiches to fill the gaps. The original more than likely holds enough interest, but I have a strange way of looking at the world. I read significance into things and savor contradictions the same way I do curry… although some days, I feel like the world is insipid as plain gelatin—or else it sets me smoking like a charcoal grill.

I’m not hard to please, but underneath all that literary critic frosting is a thin remnant of my childhood, the wafer of writer-ness that, like a Twinkie, will endure long past its expiration date. I was, and still am, a storyteller. Even in verbal recall, I can turn something as ordinary as going to the grocery store into a harrowing tale of how the lady on her cell phone was right in front of the stock selection and how some child in the produce asked his mom if they could have broccoli for dinner. Little facts like that stick with me, especially if they stir up some emotional reaction. Of course, by the time I retell the story, the lady with the cell phone will have been there for five minutes instead of 90 seconds. But then, I could get into the whole discussion of perceived versus actual time; it’s not a lie. It’s just my version of the truth, my perception.

I suppose food really has taught me something about that whole perceived versus actual time business, but perhaps I should save that for another blog entry.

I am not a scientist. I am an interpreter. I can’t be boxed in by lines and directions, but I can be inspired by them… hence, the creative nonfiction class. Of course, not crediting the inspiring force in some way is called plagiarism in my line of work (although I suppose creative writers call it artful stealing… or borrowing, depending on who you are). I saw a bread recipe on Stephanie’s blog, Modern Christian Woman, and I knew the minute I did that I had to try it, and as most interpreters do, I adapted this recipe to my diabolical purposes of feeding a hungry Writing Center staff during what would be my last end-of-semester party with them. They have given their heartfelt approval, and I pass it on to her with gratitude.

Interpreting is only half of my job, though. As a literary critic, I am expected to share my interpretations with others, for better or worse. After all, what good are two ginormous loaves of bread without a company to break it with?

Garlic Cheddar Herb Bread

(Inspired by Stephanie’s Recipe for Garlic Cheese Bread)

Epic Loavery

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 4 tbsp butter
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 2 tbsp. minced garlic
  • ½ cup warm water
  • 4 ½ tsp active dry yeast
  • 2 tbsp spicy Italian seasoning grinder spice (sold at Kroger, but you could easily add salt and red pepper flakes to Italian seasoning.
  • 3 tbsp, plus 2 tbsp shredded Parmesan and Romano cheese

Directions

  1. Heat butter, milk, sugar, garlic, and grinder spice in a small sauce pan until butter is melted. Let cool.
  2. Combine yeast and water in a large bowl and let dissolve. Trust me… use a large bowl. You will kneading (spelling intentional) it later. 🙂
  3. Add eggs, milk mixture, cheeses (reserve 2 tbsp of the grated, though) and half of the flour to the yeast. Mix with a wooden spoon.
  4. Add enough flour to make a dough (roughly an additional 1-2 cups).
  5. Knead dough for 7-10 minutes.
  6. Spray bowl with pam and return dough to bowl. Cover and let rise for an hour. The dough should double in size.
  7. Punch down dough. Remove from bowl and make two loaves of roughly equal size. Place on a cookie sheet, cover, and let rise again (about one hour). The loaves should again double in size.
  8. Give the bread a rubdown with olive oil. I did this with my hands, but a brush would work as well. Grind some extra spice on top. Sprinkle with remaining parmesan. Pat everything down nicely.
  9. Bake at 375 degrees for about 30 minutes.

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The bane of my existence is human error.

I fully and freely admit that I make mistakes all the time. Poor life decisions? You bet. Just this past week, I learned one of my mistakes first hand. A combination of pre-exam stress and PMS led to writing one e-mail that has changed things for the better, but even here, I am not faultless. Putting things off isn’t something I normally do unless the task involves potentially hurting someone’s feelings. I’m lucky to have friends that understand me enough to get that, friends who are honest enough–and genuine enough, or maybe mature is the word–to seek improvement when I have to be the asshole that sends the long and elaborate e-mail explaining the issue in a manner that will not generate conflict. Bottom line: I will become a better person for it. I will correct my past mistakes and be more assertive.

Damn being an English major. I can do things better in writing than I can verbally half the time, and the other half, I can’t do well in either.

Two weeks ago, I handed over my most precious possession: a paper copy of my thesis, all 94 pages. Its intended destination was the desk of none other than the department head; that which I loved like a child was being sent to a paper shredder to be bathed in red ink. Still, it must be done for the sake of timely departure. I gave it to the secretary, clutching it in both hands, and said, “This is my thesis, and to me, it is the most important thing in the world. Please, be careful with it.”

Cue two weeks of insanity, two grueling weeks where I forget that the sun shines, that the world is peopled, that I am surrounded by bars–temples of temptation that beckon me at nearly every turn. I must resist them. I must resist them to finish my coursework. The nights grew long and sleepless. The days are measures not in minutes but in words that slide out of the keys, shifting like hourglass sand that swept me away in its current. There is no rest for the weary. No food for the hungry. No cool and calming water to slake my thirst. I found spare moments of calmness, but it was not until last night, Saturday, that I felt a wave of relief crash down on me. Ten hours of nearly non-stop work, and I had given birth to the final drafts of the documents that would end my classes. One poorly written twenty-page paper and corresponding handout, and one Friday morning, separated me from the finish line I have been dashing towards for two years.

Of late, my dash has become more of a Smirnoff sort of stagger. My vision is touch and go under the additional stress and fatigue. I’ve lost count of how many meals I’ve eaten out this week. The coffee shop has become my house of worship, and I attend mass daily. Hail coffee, curry, and tea lattes, the lifeblood of exam week students! Still, my perseverance has paid off, and I have much to show for my devotion. One class down, one more to go… and my defense is only six days away. I treat myself with a slightly longer than usual break, then sleep. It took me forty-five minutes, but I finally managed to reign Morpheus in.

Sunday morning began at a slow pace. I threw my laundry in, meandered the internet stream for about a half an hour, and checked my e-mail.

Then, human error struck.

My most cherished possession was not only missing in action; it had never come into the hands of the department head. I can only imagine how it deviously sneaked out of eye shot while the secretary was busy with something else, or how, hapless and homesick, some sinister paper mites crept out of the stapler and gnawed it to dust.

Once again, I find myself turning to soup for the answer. The last of last week’s leftovers, also the last in the fourteen-week soup for the sole challenge, is sitting in the fridge. Between page 15 and 16 of an English paper, and after two thoroughly irritated phone calls, one to my parents, one to Melissa, I heat the last bowl and depart to throw my laundry in the dryer. There are some things in life you can help, things like how spicy your soup gets; and then, there are some things you just can’t. Some people deal with it in sighs and complaints. I deal with it using a slew of clauses strung together by frustration… and a shrug. I can sleep easy knowing I’ve done all I can.

After fourteen weeks, the soup is finished, as the thesis will soon be… but it’s not quite the same. I don’t plan to write another thesis, but I plan to keep making soup. My life is made of soup and stories; what good would I be without one or the other?

Chicken Tortilla Soup for the Sole

The Final Bowl

Ingredients

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 3-4 tbsp canola oil
  • 4 chicken tenders, frozen
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 tbsp garlic, minced
  • 1 can Rotel tomatoes
  • 2 tbsp chili powder
  • 2 tbsp cumin
  • ½ tsp cayenne pepper, plus another ¼ tsp
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2-3 sprigs fresh cilantro
  • 1 fresh lime
  • 1 package of 10 corn tortillas
  • 1 cup frozen corn
  • Shredded sharp cheddar cheese to top soup

Directions

  1. Dice onion. In three-quart sauce pan, heat olive oil. Add onion and garlic and sauté.
  2. While onion is sautéing, heat canola oil in a separate pan. Cut six of the tortillas into ½ inch strips and fry until crispy. Remove with whatever cooking implement you have that works best for that sort of thing, and place on a plate covered in a paper towel. Sprinkle with salt and ¼ tsp cayenne pepper. Set aside.
  3. Add chili powder and cumin to the pan. Cook for about 30 seconds to a minute.
  4. Add chicken stock, frozen chicken, tomatoes, and bay leaves. Simmer until chicken is cooked (about 20 minutes).
  5. Remove chicken and shred. Return to pan.
  6. Tear remaining 4 tortillas into bite-sized pieces.
  7. Add frozen corn and tortillas to the pan. Cook for about 10 minutes.
  8. Dice cilantro. Remove soup from heat. Add cilantro, remaining cayenne, and the juice of one lime to the pan.
  9. Top with crispy tortilla strips and shredded sharp cheddar (or cheese of your choosing).

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Sometimes, life throws little surprises your way.

Here’s the thing: I hate surprises. Mostly.

Up until about a month and a half ago, my entire life and future were nothing but chaos. I couldn’t clearly see what I would be doing in the upcoming year, whether or not I would be employed, whether or not I would even be done. And I hate that. I hate it because I’m a planner. I hate it because I get pressure from all sides about what I’m going to do with myself when I’m finally done. I hate it because it is the unknown, which I’m pretty sure irritates me more than anything else.

Then, suddenly, things started coming together.

There is nothing so delicious as proving people wrong, as triumphing over negative expectations and showing that, yes indeed, you can have a degree in English and get what you want… even if what you want changes quite a bit along the way. My original plan was to go straight to a PhD; I never gave the real world a thought—the only thing I wanted was to learn more, write more, read more. Then, quite suddenly, one negative experience blew the lid clean off of the pan and splattered tomato sauce all over the back of the clean range.

It took me two months to wake up to that reality, and when I did, I wanted to go right back to sleep. I had decided on this course five years ago, so why was it changing now? Then again, that begs another question: when exactly do people ever really know what they want? The truth is that the conception of something is usually so grandiose, so flawless, that the reality of it just stings like a steam burn. Maybe it’s only like that for me. As a perfectionist, I like to think things are perfect, that they really are as good as I think they are and that I’m the one who’s flawed so I have to work that much harder to make them better.

I’ve had the epiphany at least forty times by now, and it will be forty more until I get on the plane, but this morning, I woke up to the thought that I had a job. It wasn’t a sharp realization like it was at one-thirty in the morning a few weeks prior. This one was gentle fingers of steam prodding me into consciousness. No… today, my abrupt realization was that, after nearly a year and a half, I had a full and finished draft of my thesis, ninety-four pages long, and that if anyone hacked, maimed, or otherwise jeopardized the well-being of my computer, I would more than likely try beating them to death with a ladle.

Everything came together, just like that. Thesis, job, and all.

This has nothing to do with soup—or does it? Because if there is one thing I have learned during all of this blogging, it is that soup has a way of coming together just at the last minute. A dubious line-up of ingredients that, at first glance, may raise some eyebrows, but with a little work, a little effort, maybe some tears from chopping the onion, they come together. As someone who likes to be mystified at the goings on in the world, I don’t question why or how. I just savor my soup in gratitude.

I celebrated the end of my first semester in a rather unique way. While everyone else was drinking alcohol, I decided to make soup. Tortellini soup. I’m not really sure where the idea struck me, but I thought I should give it a shot. I assembled my ingredients, and when the last tortellini floated to the top, I served myself a bowl. I have probably made tortellini soup more frequently than anything else since moving out, possibly with the exception of paninis, but those hardly constitute as cooking. Maybe curry beat it out. I’m not quite OCD enough to pay attention to that sort of thing. In any case, I told my dad about it, and he eventually altered the recipe to his own specifications, substituting the type of tortellini, the broth used, and several other ingredients.

“Why did you use beef tortellini instead of chicken?” I asked him. It wasn’t a complaint; more like an inquiry so that, for once in my life, I could get a glimpse into my father’s psychology.

“Because I like beef better.”

Fair enough. To this day, I find it a little vexing that he wouldn’t accept the same answer for the reason that I chose English as my major over engineering, but I suppose he and I have such divergent tastes that it really doesn’t matter. In the soup of life, things come together at the drop of a spoon.

And on the rare event that they do actually come together, I tend to like surprises.

Chicken-Herb Tortellini Soup for the Sole

The Twelfth Bowl

Ingredients

  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp garlic
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 ½ tsp Italian seasoning
  • 1 can Italian tomatoes
  • 1 can vegetable broth
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 10 oz chicken-herb tortellini
  • 8 oz frozen green beans

Directions

  1. Saute onion in olive oil for five minutes.
  2. Add garlic and herbs. Saute additional 2-3 minutes.
  3. Add cooking liquid and tomatoes. Simmer for 30 minutes.
  4. Add tortellini and green beans. Simmer for 10 minutes.

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My Microwave, RIP.

Sir Nukesmysoup
Born: 1999-ish
Died: April 9, 2012, 1:37 p.m.

Today is a sad day in the kitchen, and not just because thus far, my soup plans have gone awry. Today, I say farewell to an old friend of mine who has been with me since I moved up north.

Sir Nukesmysoup came into my life in July of 2010, a hand-me-down from a college friend of mine. From my understanding, Sir spent a lot of time traveling Ohio after he was born in China and imported to America. He finally settled in Sylvania but found that his services were no longer needed after my friend’s father closed his business. He was thinking about retiring, anyway, but after a couple years of sitting in a musty garage, he decided it was time to re-enter the labor market. He found his way to me, and I hired him for one thing: to heat my leftovers to perfection.

Although Sir was old when I met him, he still had some spunk left. Slow but steady, he took three minutes to heat a bowl, but I never once complained. I’m pretty sure one day I’ll have him to thank for getting cancer since the paint was peeling off the top of his insides when I hired him. Sometimes, I wonder how much of it he dropped into my food. He was a crotchety old thing, Sir, but he was willing to put up with me using him as a storage space for the small appliances I didn’t have any room for on the counter. He held my vitamins in plain sight, and the oversized coffee mug I got in Disney World the summer I met him. The funny thing was, once I gave him something to heat up, he was loth to let it go. He would cling to it with the same tenacity with which he clung to life. His door stuck constantly.

The first time I used Sir, I was mystified by my inability to successfully heat a plate of pasta. I hit the “Start” button about seven or eight times and failed to produce even the slightest signs of life. He was sleeping, anyway, so I didn’t want to disturb him since he would be around for the next two years. With a sigh, I decided to eat the pasta cold. It was a hot day, anyway.

On my second attempt, I’m not sure what prompted it, but I pressed the middle of the button. Sir sprang to life with a mechanical whir that meant he was heating my food. Suddenly, my life away from the home I missed so much looked a little brighter, all because Sir was willing to work with me instead of against me.

For two years, Sir and I have worked together to get rid of leftovers, him heating them, me eating them. Of all the things in my kitchen, I have probably turned to him more often than practically everything, maybe with the exception of the dishes and George Foreman. When I was down, only Sir could heat my soup, and on more than one occasion, he also heated my tea. He cooked my popcorn to perfection and burnt the bottom pieces every time, but still… still, I couldn’t part with him, not since he was struggling so hard.

During my time as a sole chef, I’ve learned that I can live without a lot of things. I’ve realized the superfluity of owning a matching set of dishes. I’ve found ways around buying a rolling pin and a knife sharpener. I admittedly have way too many coffee cups and tupperware containers, and in my time of need, when Sir let me down, when he said quite clearly that he had heated his last bowl by giving me a cold leftover taco, I learned that a microwave was an absolute necessity.

Am I bitter? No. Sir Nukesmysoup lived a good life. He made sure my meals were heated for two years, and even if it wasn’t to perfection, it meant something. It meant I didn’t have to eat another meal out. It meant comfort and sustenance and creative ways to get through the night on caffeine highs. The counter feels a little emptier without him. I take solace in knowing that he would approve of his replacement, who may well perform his job better than he did but who will never quite occupy the same high standing that Sir achieved. A first microwave does that to a person, no matter how many hands it has gone through. One thing is certain: these hands will not forget.

Did you ever wonder why hot dog buns come in packs of eight and hot dogs in packs of ten? I’m pretty sure it’s for the same reason that leeks only come three in a bunch at the local Kroger: to force people who hate wasting food, people like me, to get very creative with their cooking.

With hot dogs, the solution is easy. So you’ve got ten hot dogs and eight buns. You serve eight at a party, and cut the other two up and eat them for breakfast. It’s that simple. With or without beans. If you’re feeling creative, you can make little octopus wieners and draw little faces on them with ketchup or mustard. But because I made the mistake of reading the label once, I no longer face this dilemma. Hot dogs will not cross my threshold, and for a good reason. Kosher beef is an option, but how the heck would I make soup out of hot dogs, and how would I go about spinning kosher beef into a blog about chicken soup? It’s best for me to stick to those bags of frozen chicken breasts, which have significantly less fat… at least before I stick them in a cream-based chowder.

Leeks are slightly more difficult. I usually only cook once a week, and when I do, I go through the motions of cutting, peeling, dicing, slicing, sauteeing, and simmering. I do it with a smile or while singing slightly off tune, and I do it so I know I’ve got something good waiting for me at the end of the day. I’ve got this paranoia of illness. At this point in the semester, I know that catching anything will spell sudden death, so if I want to stay healthy, I feel the need to eat healthy, hence the soup.

The trouble with leeks is this: they are slightly more volatile than your everyday hot dog, and you can’t just fry a leek up and eat it (well, you probably could, but I would personally prefer to pair it with something… pasta maybe?) any more than you can just hack it up and put it on top of a salad (now that I think of it, that’s not a bad idea… I’ve never had a raw leek. I’m not even sure if they’re edible). This presents a troubling impasse of options for someone who wants a leek and hates to waste food, and the solutions I’ve come up with hardly seem adequate.

  1. Buy the leeks and throw the ranky ones away. It’s worth it for soup, right? Not at $3.00 a bunch, it doesn’t.
  2. Over-leek the soup. Of course, given the constraints of my personal challenge, this creates a bit of a problem. Over-leeking might create bigger problems.
  3. Get really sick of leeks by week 3. Grin and bear it… and make just one more recipe with leeks. Once the soup is done, proceed to the fridge for a celebratory shot of gin, maybe two. Completely lose the desire to think about leeks until you realize that you haven’t updated your soup blog in a timely fashion. Cuss. Cuss again because there’s simply too much shit to do. Grin and bear it. Write a blog entry and put leeks to bed for good… or at least for now.

I’m ready to leave leeks behind. They really have tested my creativity as a cook, pressed it to its utmost limits. I’ve had to grapple for solutions, altering one old recipe just to use one, then finally getting rid of the last one with an excellent fallback, once again from childhood, and once again because of my father. I was eleven when I was presented with what looked and smelled like an oversized green onion. “What exactly is this?”

“A leek.”

“A what?”

“A leek. It’s like a green onion.”

“What are you going to do with it?” I had just eaten lunch, but I was intrigued by this strange piece of produce.

“I’m making potato and leek soup.”

I knew what a potato was, so I had no doubt that it would be delicious, and I was not disappointed. My expectations were met and then some. I gave my compliments to the chef.

Maybe it’s his fault that I had a leek craving three weeks ago and had to go through the pains of finding really creative ways to use them up. Fortunately, this is the end of it. I am happy to report that the leeks are gone and that the cause of my cravings, in a roundabout way, prompted the solution to my problem. As I sat down with the first bowl, I thought of my dad, whom I would soon be seeing because of an impromptu Easter trip home, took a bite of my own efforts, and smiled. Even in the face of a hellishly busy week, I was happy to find that I was still happy to enjoy the little things in life.

Chicken, Potato, and Leek Soup for the Sole

The Eleventh Bowl

Ingredients

  • 3 chicken tenders, defrosted
  • 1 leek, washed and diced
  • 2 stalks celery, washed and diced
  • 1 mammoth potato, washed and diced
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 2 cups half and half
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tsp black pepper
  • 2 tsp thyme
  • 1 tsp coriander
  • 1/8 cup flour

Directions

  1. Combine olive oil, spices, chicken, leeks, and celery in a pan. Sautee for 5-7 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  2. Add flour to magical magnificent puddle of water from leeks, etc. Combine well.
  3. Add half and half. Whisk like the devil.
  4. Add chicken stock and continue whisking vigorously until all lumps of flour are gone.
  5. Simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

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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.

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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.

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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.