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.
Wife, mother, baker, jam maker, hug dispenser, reader.