I know, I know - that's supposed to be 2019. But I will gladly give 2018 that title. When I was younger, I could think of no better life than eating my way through the world. How this might be accomplished never crossed my mind, only that I oh-so-badly wanted to pick destinations based solely on the cuisine, travel there and pig out, all while never gaining an ounce, of course.
Then came marriage, and two baby carriages, one after the other. My husband, as much as he enjoys food, prefers it served at his own kitchen table. Decades passed, children grew, the schedule became a little more flexible, all without my really having realized it.
This summer, my brand-new eighteen year old and I embarked on a cross-country drive, based on carefully researched restaurants along the way. We dined sumptuously in some places, while some days we chose to forego a meal because we couldn't bring ourselves to stop for the available options. From a bacchanal of twelve courses one day to searingly spicy hot chicken the next, re-visiting an iconic childhood ice cream shop to coffee so bad that I couldn't drink it even though I desperately needed the caffeine, we sampled a lot on that road trip.
Then came an unexpected two-day trip to Providence, Rhode Island. How could I possibly have forgotten the existence of a world-class culinary school housed there, that churns out sorcerers who have opened restaurants, which fed me some of the finest meals I have consumed stateside?? And y'all, we live in Raleigh, where we already have access to some fantastic restaurants, am I right?
Then came my mother's sudden stroke, and I flew to my hometown in South India as soon as I could. Turns out, only being allowed to see her for 30 minutes, twice a day left a whole lot of time in-between. So what did we do? Why, we ate, of course. From the comfort of home cooking to street-side food vendors, fine dining restaurants to finger-licking chaat, I ate it all. Food is my old friend for distraction and comfort.
A week after returning, off we went to Spain for a pre-planned and pre-paid trip. Once again, from Madrid to Barcelona, we ate. And ate. An encounter with strangers at the next table led to them insisting that we share their bottle of Rioja, beginning a correspondence that still has a healthy amount of back-and-forth. Food halls and marketplaces, fine restaurants, veritable institutions in chocolate and churros, centuries-old bakeries. We devoured them all, and were amazed that we simply couldn't get enough of the simple, but crave-worthy flavors of Spain. Salmorejo was a revelation. I sampled my first sea urchin. And the list continues.
According to the Chinese, 2019 is the Year of the Pig. But if you've made it through this post, you'll agree that I was quite the piggy in 2018. And I wouldn't change a thing.
If your house looks like a Hallmark card, perfectly decorated and with the family in coordinated outfits wearing Colgate smiles, I don't think we can be friends.
Maybe because I was once that person. Forget Christmas, I decorated the house for EVERY holiday. I even had a generic-looking gold metallic tree that came with different sets of ornaments, one for every major holiday. Oh, and a two foot tall Mama Goose, who had a wardrobe of jackets and hats, one for every month of the year. All I can think now is that I must have been very sleep-deprived as a mother of young children, to think that these were the last word in holiday decorating.
In recent years, the boxes of holiday decorations have almost become the decorations, as they sit around in our front room for weeks, waiting to be opened. If we are expecting guests for the holiday, it becomes a mad dash of put-up-the-bare-minimum-that-you-can, before having to frantically-stash-boxes-out-of-sight ten minutes before our company arrives.
I'll admit that it makes me sad. To not see my girls' eyes light up when they came home from school to a fully decorated house. To not anticipate the first day of December because that was the day we put our everyday dishes away, and only used our gingerbread patterned dishes with red snowflake mugs for the rest of the month. Too many more little intangibles to recount here.
But I didn't realize that joy can suddenly erupt when you are not expecting it. At 11:50 a.m. today, I realized that my youngest was only ten minutes away from getting out of school for winter break, and I remembered how that felt as a child. All of a sudden, I was excited - it was the start of Christmas break! The end of the work week for my husband, and our last Farmer's Market of the year tomorrow. After Sunday, I don't have to fulfill any orders, nor rush through readying the house for company. I can stay in pajamas for three days straight, and have a Christmas movie marathon. And I like it. It may not look like Christmases past, but I'll have what I didn't even two years ago - time with my family. I'll put a bow on that.
You know it as yellow, neatly wrapped in a package. The generation before us bought into the marketing that 'couldn't believe it wasn't butter'. Because it was, y'know, yellow. And vaguely reminiscent of the real thing.
I also grew up with yellow butter, that came in a package claiming it was 'utterly, butterly delicious'. And my goodness, it really was. But when I dream of butter, it is soft, fluffy and white. The kind that most people have never tasted in their lives, unless they grew up on a farm. Or, like us, had a buffalo living on the back patio.
I come from sturdy farming stock, although after my father moved to India from his ancestral village at the time of the India-Pakistan partition he joined the army, and became a businessman thereafter. But, he always craved the taste of fresh milk, butter and yogurt, and what could be fresher than milking the cow or buffalo yourself twice a day?
As a very young child, my mother bought me my own child-sized butter churn. The satisfaction of churning fresh, cold milk over ice for what felt like hours until you could hear the milk make a different sound. Less slosh, and more resistance as the cream separated and formed into clouds of butter on the surface. Scooping a handful right out of the pot and burying my face in the fragrant butter is a feeling and taste I almost cannot describe.
Whether scooped onto a hot griddle flatbread called parantha, or sprinkling a little raw sugar on it and eating it with a spoon, that butter tasted luxurious, with a sweetness and slight tang that is missing in it's commercially produced, salted counterpart.
To this day, I feel immense satisfaction in just looking at butter. Hearing it sizzle in a hot pan just before I add the next ingredient. Watching it get creamy and fluffy when mixed with sugar at high speed in my giant mixer. Melting a pound of it in the double boiler with dark chocolate so it forms a shiny river of decadence.
But my favorite thing of all is when I end up with some butter on my hands, and don't wash it off. Instead, I find myself massaging it into my dry, over-washed hands while hearing my grandmother's voice in my ear telling me how good it is for my skin. She passed forty years ago, and yet I still hear her voice. And no surprise, she always smelled like fresh-churned butter.
My mother forgot my name today. And no, not in the way I forget my children's names sometimes, by listing all three dogs first, and then both children's names in birth order.
Let me backtrack. In early October this year, my mother suffered strokes on both sides of her brain. She lost her ability to speak, to breathe on her own, to swallow, to walk and to do the things most of us take for granted every single day. Heck, she almost lost her life in the first few weeks of being in the hospital. Several times, in fact.
Through it all, any time that she was even vaguely cognizant, all she said was "let's go", in our native tongue. All she wanted was to go home, and feel comfort in the familiar. More than a month in the Intensive Care Unit later, she was able to come home, much against her doctor's advise. Her recovery since then has been nothing short of miraculous.
Now that she is able to speak again, she talks without pause, and demands a 24 hour audience. My controlled, proud mother to whom appearances were everything appears to have left some of her inhibitions in the hospital, and now gleefully berates anyone she feels like. Shouts when she wants to. Melts into a puddle of smiles and love when she sees and talks about her grandchildren and some members of the family. And she forgets names.
On a video call with me this morning, recognition sparked when she saw my face, but she could not summon my name to her lips. Instead, I was called the word for spinach in Punjabi, which apparently has been her go-to word when she can't remember names. No matter. I will gladly be called any kind of vegetable if it means I still get to see love in her old eyes, which so mirror my own.
Turns out emotions need no names anyway, just so long as they can be felt.
Of all the holidays celebrated in America, Thanksgiving would be my favorite. After all, it revolves around food - vast, copious quantities of it - and you get to invite the people you want to share said food around a beautifully decorated table. The weather is (usually) perfect, the light outside is golden, and there's pie.
This year, even as I shop, prep and bake for orders, I am struggling to summon up the anticipation and joy that carries me through my favorite season. For the first time in years, we are not hosting Thanksgiving dinner. Too many losses of life, illness, relationship conflicts and more over the past year have me wanting to sit curled up on the couch with a book and a cup of hot chocolate.
Then we participated in the Holiday Market this past weekend, where I got to see people's eyes go wide at a taste of our pecan pie. A little girl with her pigtails askew who hopped up and down as she excitedly pointed to a cookie. A grown man (who is a fine cook himself) get rapturous over our cranberry chutney. Yes, it all made me happy, and reminded me of why I do what I do.
But, sitting like a lead brick in my tummy was the knowledge that immediately after Market, I was going to a Celebration of Life for a friend who decided that she couldn't go on any longer. As her obituary was read at the Celebration, it reminded me of the little girl at market, with her pigtails askew. My friend was once that little girl. Her daughter is not much older than that little girl. My teenage daughters were once that little girl. My friend's family has been devastated by three unexpected losses in the past year, and the fabric of their lives will never be whole again.
So, I may not celebrate in the same way this year, and that's okay. I have plenty of things to give thanks for, but more importantly, I want to live thankfully. Not by eating turkey and pie one day this year, but whenever I feel like it. Even if that means anxiously eating half a pie out of the pan while waiting for my teenage daughter to text me that she had arrived safely after her first solo road trip. Because life, love, balance, joy, stress - each one of those things looks different for each of us - and that's okay.
Here's wishing all of you a Thanksgiving holiday that allows you to celebrate the way you want to, and hopefully with whom you want to. If that means eating take-out by yourself in front of the television, that's okay. If it means going out to dinner with chosen family, that's okay too. I hope to bundle up, and walk around Lake Lynn while holding my husband's hand. And come home to pie.
As a first-time mother eighteen years ago, I thought I was prepared - after all, I had read 'What to expect when you're expecting' cover-to-cover. Plus, having grown up with three generations under the same roof, I had helped care for my new-born niece and nephew as well. My daughter was on the smallish side when born, and one look at her brought this roaring maternal lioness to life inside me. Combine that with the speed of how hard and fast I fell in love as soon as we locked eyes, and I was a goner.
Alarmingly though, she started losing weight after we took her home, and dropped to under six pounds. The pediatrician insisted on supplementing breast-feeding with formula, but that didn't sit well with me. Most days it seemed as though all I did was feed her, all day long. Then, it seemed as though it happened overnight, and this kid started to look as though someone had taken a bicycle pump to her. I even started calling her my Michelin tire baby. Fat babies are my favorite.
Soon it was time to supplement breast milk with solid foods, and apart from rice cereal, one of the first foods she had was pureed spinach. As I added more variety to her diet, it seemed as though she still couldn't get enough. Her favorite (as well as my second daughter's), was a sort-of soup: jasmine rice, (homemade) chicken stock, carrots, spinach and chicken breast cooked in a pressure cooker, then put through a food mill to make it safe and easy for her to eat. I would mix in a spoonful of plain yogurt, and my children ate it with great relish. At the age of nine months, I fed her pad thai that I had cooked for our dinner, and this child squealed with happiness. Apparently, food has always been our love language.
Fast forward a few years, and if my children were hungry, grumpy, or just needed a quick meal, I would make them a fried rice of sorts with spinach and eggs. Carbs, protein, healthy greens all covered, plus they ate it with plain yogurt. I've been made aware through the years that this combination, as well as all the things I cooked for them were considered 'weird' and 'gross' by several of their friends, and I was okay with that. After all, I wouldn't typically reach for rice, fish, fermented soybeans and umeboshi for breakfast, but Japanese children have been relishing it for centuries.
This past week, both children came home from each of their long, tiring days to spinach-and-egg fried rice. I can't remember the last time I had cooked it, but the satisfaction on their faces as they took the first bite made me wonder why I hadn't more often. They were no longer teenagers in this mama's eyes, but little girls with pigtails, looking at me like I could make all their boo-boos better.
Comfort looks and tastes different to each one of us. But it can be as simple as a bowl of rice. What does comfort look like to you? More importantly, who in your life could use some?
We drove through eight states. Ate some fabulous food. Sipped some fantastic, and not-so-fabulous coffee. Had one unforgettable dining experience. Visited with, and were amazed by young women we had last seen as little children in a girl scout troop.
We stayed at a hotel that is an aging grand dame from a bygone era. A bed-and-breakfast that was touted as the epitome of hospitality, only to be given an attic room in which the toilet was a few steps from the bed. And by that I mean that it was in the bedroom. Without a door, or a full wall for that matter. Spent two nights at an impersonal, but surprisingly comfortable hotel. Stayed another two nights at a dear friend's house with her entire extended family (I didn't want to leave).
In short, we had a road trip from which we can file away memories, and pull them out to examine and revisit for years to come. But, as they say, there is no place like home. And for us, there is no home like Raleigh. We are very glad to be back; baking, jamming, and feeding everyone again. And I hope to release this writer's block soon, and sound like myself again. Maybe when my brain is back from vacation.
On a sticky, hot day in June, I excitedly got out of my car on the fourth floor of the parking garage at the Raleigh Convention Center. Our daughter was graduating high school that day, and I was a jumble of emotions. At that moment though, I was full of anticipation, looking forward to the ceremony that is the culmination of fifteen years of schooling.
As I took my first few steps, I heard a snap and almost tripped. The strap on my (very cute) denim wedges had broken, and because it was the kind that wrapped around your ankle before being buckled, was extra long. So here I was, heading to my daughter's graduation ceremony, walking from the parking garage, around the block and to the convention center with about fourteen inches of my sandal strap flapping behind me. "That's okay", I thought to myself, "nothing is going to bring me down today".
The ceremony took place like clockwork. I laughed, I cried. My heart swelled with pride for my daughter, and her friends, all of whom we are going to miss as well as they scatter across the country for college come fall. We were a part of the mob of parents and families who went behind the stage afterwards to get 'one last picture' with friends and classmates, and of course with the family. Since we had taken two separate cars, my husband drove his mother and our younger daughter back home. Our graduate(!) and I decided to walk the few blocks down to her place of employment - which happens to be my favorite patisserie - so she could go see her work 'family'. I had also ordered her a cake as a surprise. As we exited the building to begin walking, she said, "Mum, your dress! What happened?" Turns out someone had apparently stepped on my long, summery (also very cute) dress, and it had ripped almost up to my knees in the back.
So, here I was, trailing the strap from my sandal, as well as a torn dress, limping three blocks on a hot summer afternoon with my confident cap-and-gowned daughter by my side. If that isn't an apt representation of how it feels to bring your child through high school and into adulthood, I don't know what is.
So I asked for a pair of scissors to cut the straps off both my sandals, and we tossed them in the trash along with any bad memories of high school. I found a safety pin so my dress didn't trail behind me anymore, and we walked out of the patisserie with the most delicious, decadent chocolate mousse cake.
Here's to every high school and college class of 2018 - I wish for you scissors, safety pins and chocolate cake in your journeys ahead. Congratulations!
If you've experienced a hot, sticky, humid summer in the South and feel like you can now handle anything, I would invite you to visit South India. Notice I didn't say 'visit South India in the summer'. That's because we pretty much have two seasons: summer, and the monsoons, which last for a couple of months. So, that leaves us with just summer, really.
It's the kind of heat that saps you of all energy, where taking a breath outside is like taking in a lungful of air when you accidentally open the dishwasher during the sanitize cycle. Your brain slowly turns to scrambled eggs inside your head, and you often find yourself perspiring while taking a shower. Not a pretty picture to paint, I know, but that is the reality of living in a coastal city in South India, which is where I was born and raised.
Part of my childhood was spent in a two bedroom apartment on the first floor, which was shared by my parents, sister, two brothers, paternal grandmother, me, a dog, cow, and her calf. Yes, you read that right. Our cow, Lakshmi, lived on our back patio with her calf, and the only way to take her out of the apartment for her walks was through the bedroom shared by my siblings and grandmother. Lakshmi provided us with more milk than we could possibly consume, and the (heavenly) butter that her milk produced left us with buttermilk that was impossibly delicious. We Indians like it lightly salted, with crushed mint leaves added sometimes. It is hands-down the most refreshing, naturally cooling and hydrating drink you can consume, and is very nutritious to boot.
My grandmother, who lived through giving birth to fourteen children (and losing seven of them), making the torturous journey from her country of birth during the Partition of India and Pakistan, and too many difficulties to recount, was naturally reticent and not very sociable. She lit up at the sight of her grandchildren, though, and spent most of her days in prayer, which I would like to think brought her some peace.
However, pretty much every afternoon in my memory, my grandma sat outside our apartment, with a huge clay pot of cold buttermilk. I can still see her, in an old white rattan chair, covering her head with the end of her sari in a feeble attempt to stay cool, calling out to every rickshaw puller, day laborer, construction worker or delivery person to stop and have a refreshing drink. It is no exaggeration to say that in several cases, that was the only nourishment they were going to receive until they went home with their meager wages and ate a meal of boiled rice and watery lentil soup.
Watching her, I learned that giving someone what they needed at that particular time was more important than making a grand gesture and making yourself look important. Showing up is better than showing off. Interaction with another human takes more time, and effort than writing a check to make a donation. That prayers might assuage your conscience, but they cannot fill an empty belly. Kindness and empathy don't come with a price tag. Looking someone in the eye and making them feel like a person, not a statistic could be all someone needs to turn their life around.
So, when I'm tempted to put a check in the mail and check a box off my good deed list, I only have to think of my grandma sitting outside in the sweltering heat. Perhaps I'll cook them something instead.
Loosely defined as "something given or obtained gratuitously or by way of good measure", the concept of lagniappe or la napa is Spanish in origin, later adopted by the Creole French.
If you are fortunate enough to be as old as I am, you might remember this concept played out as the baker's dozen: you bought a dozen donuts, and the baker might throw in a 13th donut, just because. Or so you would think. In reality, the practice dates back to medieval times, when bakers would be flogged if they cheated their customers by providing anything less than that for which they had paid. To be extra sure that they didn't miscount, bakers began throwing in an extra loaf, as a precaution against a possible flogging.
Thank goodness, it's not the fear of a flogging that makes us want to include a little something when our customers keep returning to purchase our baked goods. In some cases, we just want you to try a new cookie we may have baked. In others, we know that you may have ordered a dozen cookies, but the temptation to have one 'on the way home' is just too much to resist, and you can't show up with one less cookie for your family (don't worry, Beth, I won't tell anyone).
So, we are bringing back the baker's dozen. Anytime you order a dozen of our cookies, or bonbons, or whoopie pies, we will throw in one on us. Just because we're nice like that. But we are not too nice either - in order to get your lagniappe, we invite you to join our newly minted Baker's Dozen Club. Simply sign up, and every time you order a dozen baked goods from us, you will get one on the house. Bonus, you will also be the first to know about our new products and promotions.
This has really inspired me to think of more old-fashioned customs or traditions we can bring back - any ideas? I'd love to hear your thoughts, and if we like your suggestion and implement it, we'll send you a little something. Now, isn't that nice?
Also, just a little reminder: with a graduation, family visiting, birthdays, and a trip coming up, we will not be at the Midtown Farmer's Market until July 14th. Except for when I'm traveling between July 3rd through the 11th, our ovens are still on, baking up cookie gifts for teachers, graduation cakes aplenty, and decadent pies.
Now, please excuse me while I go cry my eyes out so I don't embarrass my daughter during her Senior Assembly tomorrow, at which she is one of the speakers. Wish me luck!