Author Archives: lisak

Step It Up

Curiosity finally got the better of me tonight.

I’ve walked by the different classes in the gym so often, thinking how fun they look. I’ve told myself a million times that one day I would try one.

Tonight, the stars aligned, traffic was kind and I made it in time for a “power step” class.

Side note: I can’t dance, and I have no sense of rhythm, so spoiler alert here, this may not end well.

The music starts, LOUD and pumping. The students select their step benches from the stack against the wall and position them around the studio. They are all old hands at this. I sink a little into myself as I see this. I choose a spot on the end, close to the window, hopefully out of the teacher’s direct line of vision.

She sees me anyway, smiles, sort of, and away we go!

No gentle warm up, this is not yoga. It’s STEP STEP STEP, turn, STEP STEP kick turn STEP STEP STEP! I can barely make out what she is saying through the crackly microphone over the pulsing beat. I am so out of step from the very first count.

Left! No, wait, the OTHER left. No wait, what? That original left! Dang it. I’m lost again. And now you want me to TURN? Dip! Stomp, walk it out. STEP STEP STEP!

The students step and stretch furiously. They twirl and pirouette. I try, too, and almost end up spinning into the innocent barbells quietly sitting against the wall next to me. I am dizzy, but still trying desperately to keep up. I am NOT quitting, oh hell, no.

It takes me half the class to realize that I should NOT be watching the teacher in the mirror, because she’s a mirror image! Duh. No wonder I’m stepping off with my left foot when everyone else is prancing with their right. Sigh…….

I sweat furiously. I’m embarrassed, but also laughing because, in truth, it’s simply a lot of fun. I have no idea where I am in the sequence of this “step dance” but at some point, I don’t care and I just hop along as best as I can.

I feel successful at the end of the hour because I haven’t run into the wall, or tripped over the step, or lost my cookies with exertion. My legs are killing me, I’m giggling to myself at what a ludicrous show I must have made. And then the instructor looks directly at me, and tells me “good job!”

I think it’s because I didn’t give up and walk out halfway through. No matter, I’ll take that compliment!

As I make my way to the locker room, it dawns on me. This is what it must feel like for my students just starting to learn English.

The words must rush over their heads, and swirl around their ears, too quick to catch. At some point, I wonder if they know which way is up or down as the chain of sentences binds them up and spins them around. Do they just march in place, trying to keep time?

I think, too, that just like I got everything reversed in the mirror, it must be discombobulating to try to write from left to right, when all your life, you have started from the other direction. At some point, does it all become just a kaleidoscope of dots and dashes? Does anything make sense?

Flailing about tonight, being lost and trying to hang on was a good reminder for me. To be out of my element, to be the one turning left when everyone else is going right.

Yeah, I needed that.

I’ll be back for more classes. And maybe, just maybe, while I’m searching for another way to get my students to understand my English, I’ll be counting a one two step step step beat in my head.

 

 

 

 

Finishing a Chapter

 

(Lisa’s note: this happened on November 19, 2016, when I decided to close the restaurant part of my business. The wholesale part is still going strong. Thanks everyone!)

They file in on cue, awkwardly, hesitantly, a bit suspicious of what is to come.

Nine gentlemen walk through the door of the restaurant. They will be our final guests before we shut the doors for good.

I made the decision to walk away from the restaurant world three months earlier. For someone who worked most of her career to finally pilot her own ship, it was an unimaginably hard decision to make.

I lived and breathed restaurants for almost twenty years.

My brain taps along to the Morse code of the ticket machine. My heart pulses with the hum and swoosh of the dish machine. My head pivots to sound of the bell ringing, calling servers to come get the food. My soul loves the sound of utensils clinking on plates.

But now it feels like preparing for death. In a way, it is. I am saying goodbye to a way of life that I have embraced for so long. And like anyone facing death, I wonder if there is life on the other side of the Styx. I wonder if it will hurt. I wonder what I will do next, if there is indeed life after….

I do know one thing. I don’t want to slink away at the end of the night. I don’t want to post a note on the door for my employees telling them we are no more. I don’t want to just disappear.

I want to go out proud, and with dignity.

I want the last meal I serve to the public to be one that means something, that will make people remember us kindly, perhaps. I want to use my restaurant one last time to be a part of the neighborhood and do good.

The nine men walking in the door are key players in this. They are from a organization in the neighborhood that helps people deal with HIV. And these nine men have been living with HIV for a long time now.

Tonight, they will do me the honor of being my last guests.

Of course, I cook way too much food. Of course, they don’t eat half of what I think they will. We end up distributing care packages of food around the park to the unseen people, the ones that are forgotten, the homeless.

The men sit, a bit nervous, not sure of this largess that is being thrown their way. But they eat, and as they eat, they begin to open up.

They tell their stories. They talk about their pain. They recount their daily lives. And all through the dinner, in the quiet camaraderie, they simply are. It’s wonderful to see.

I don’t go out to talk to them. I am too shy, and I don’t want to them to feel obligated to thank me or anything like that. I want them to eat and enjoy, to let me, let us do what we do best: feed and serve.

I’m holding myself together pretty well, like a lighted firecracker bound together with duct tape. Despite the emotions of the night, my stern impermeable facade stands tough.

And then as they get up to leave, one of the men hands me a silver dollar. He gives each of us one. He calls them his worry coins, says he keeps one in his pocket to turn over and spin when he feels nervous.

Another man, actually several of them tell me thanks, and say how this was their Thanksgiving dinner, since for many, they are estranged from their families.

I crumble. I feel like I failed. I wish I had thought about it more, about their circumstances. Had I realized that this would be their holiday dinner, I would have made a turkey, a traditional feast. I feel thoughtless and foolish.

But they smile radiantly at me, and my staff and I take comfort in that. We may have filled their stomachs; they have filled our souls.

After they leave, I lock the front door. We clear up the dining room, and I make one last family meal. Because this staff, these people who are still here with me, they are family now. We eat, laugh, cry a little.

I touch the silver dollar in my pocket, now my talisman for luck.

I get home, walk through the door into the dark living room. I pick up the dog and sit, hugging her like a rag doll.

It’s been a good chapter.

It’s been a great story, so far. It’s not over yet.

Tomorrow, I sharpen my quills and start writing the next page.

 

 

 

If Wishes Were Fishes

“Plip, plip, plip.”

It’s the sound of hundreds of minnows leaping out of the tide and throwing themselves like silver pebbles to skim the waves. They smack the water as they free-fall out of their aerial acrobatics back into their liquid world. There is no choreography to their dance, each fish is performing its own solo. And yet, there is an odd staccato rhythm, set to the pulse of a saline beat.

The dance starts, as most dances do, when the sun hovers over the horizon. The light changes on the ocean, going from shiny gold to burnished copper, antique rose and tarnished silver. As the sky blushes a furious crimson, the “boiling” of the sea begins in earnest.

Suddenly, a much larger splash is heard, like timpani drums over the trilling piscine piccolo. The bigger fish have come out to feed, and in their hunt for dinner, leap out of the water to chase their fleeing prey.

We hurry down to the beach, navigating our way carefully on the stony shingles that cover the shore. We cast our lures out into the water and reel them in. Over and over we do this, mimicking the minnows’ mad dash to straddle air and water.

We are fishing for striped bass.

This is a very different kind of fishing for me. Growing up, we used bamboo poles and frozen squid. Simple and elementary, not a reel in sight. We didn’t cast our lines repeatedly. We made our way to the edge of a deep tide pool at sunrise or sunset, searched out a promising hidey-hole and plopped our bait in front of it. And then we waited.

Sometimes it was a few minutes, sometimes longer. Most often we hooked opapalu, but on the odd memorable occasion, a sea cucumber would fall for our charms.

The fishing was good. In an hour or two, we could catch more than enough for dinner. It was easy and peaceful.

Not so with the hunt for striped bass. Cast, cast and cast again is how you do it. And after three nights of faithful casting, we came up empty-handed.

Faithless bass.

But before you think it was a miserable time, let me put you to rights.

It was calm and soothing, barring the neighbor’s wild Saturday night party way down the point, complete with band doing covers of Uptown Funk. Sure, a few illicit fireworks from around the bay to celebrate the end of summer may have been a bit jarring, but also magically beautiful to see reflected in the mirrored water.

The ocean itself was inviting, and oddly enough, got warmer as I waded knee-deep in to free my lure and hook from the protruding rock that was determined to become my next pet. The minnows darted around my legs, oblivious to my teetering on uneven purchase as I tried not to fall in and become the Summer Story of 2017, the one that family would rehash at every holiday.

My fishing companions were within talking distance, and yet, we kept to comfortable silence, taking shelter in the dark night and under the red sliver of the setting moon. The air was silken, salty and delicious against my skin and my nerves.

We lost ourselves in time, thinking only a few minutes had passed by. But in truth, we returned to a dark house every night.

A good pour of bourbon soothed the regret of the “one that got away”, as we toasted the stripers for evading us for another day. We watched the lighthouse guard the fish as it winked at us every six seconds. We sipped in the good spirits.

One last pass over the water with the flashlight revealed the minnows still jumping and leaping, their silvery scales reflecting the yellow beam like tiny frenetic disco balls. A few crickets practiced the cello in the background. A family of raccoons stared back at us with laser eyes.

We said goodnight to the wildlife around us waiting patiently for us to leave them to their nocturnal recital. The fish swam off, laughing, as the lighthouse cheerfully blinked goodbye to us.

The Equalizer

A simple question to Taghreed: why does eggplant feature so prominently in Iraqi cuisine?

Other Iraqis have told me that the eggplant has a somewhat humble status in their food world, and is a staple of those who can’t afford meat.

I want to hear another point of view, see if indeed this is the case for this photogenic but often ignored vegetable.

“True”, replies Taghreed.

For lower income people, eggplant was the mainstay of meals. Often simply fried, then served between bread with tomato and basil, it was the substitute for meat.

“It was always a delicious and beloved vegetable”, a minor player unless you couldn’t buy meat, she added. But the humble eggplant achieved superhero status in the nineties.

With the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq, food became scarce and meat prohibitively expensive. Food imports trickled to a halt, and suddenly all those old family recipes for eggplant moved to the center stage.

I sit there, listening to her tell me about the eggplant dishes of Iraq. It is incongruous, that she is relating to me true anecdotes about how people half a world away from me found a way to make do, as I sip my cappuccino with a perfect head of foam.

It’s not just any cappuccino. This IS Seattle, after all.

I had a choice between medium or dark roasted beans, whole milk, skim milk, soy milk and almond milk. I designed it to fit my tastes exactly.

In this shop, there are a dozen different flavors of macarons to tempt the palate. The cakes in the case wink and wave as I gaze at each one longingly. The croissants look so delicate, like a mere glance at them will cause them to shatter. Everything beckons, tempts and whispers buttery seduction.

Waves of people queue up and leave, constantly swirling around us, enviously eyeing our table where we are camped. There are bevies of giggling co-eds, dressed up to be seen on a Sunday morning. Mothers in yoga pants and fathers in cargo shorts juggle children, beverages and their precious pastry loot as they wheel oversized strollers against the steady stream of humanity trying to make their way into the shop. An occasional guy in biking gear clip clops in with that curious gait biking shoes cause. Everyone is here for pastries and coffee. No one is thinking about eggplants, much less economic hardships two decades ago in a faraway land.

And yet, all I can think about is a whole nation surviving on eggplants. It is a stark contrast to my present surroundings. I am hearing first-hand about how our government sanctions have, and are affecting real people.

I remember the day the troops started mobilizing and shipping out back in the nineties. I was living in Atlanta, Georgia at the time. It was a normal errand day for me, you know, picking up groceries, dry cleaning and the like. Except for the long convoys of military trucks lumbering down the interstate. And the groups and clumps of people on the overpasses and sidewalks, waving the American flag and shouting out how proud they are, and God Bless.

It was still impersonal. I had no one in my close circle in the armed forces. The nearest I got to any soldiers heading out was when they were on flights I was working. I couldn’t and didn’t visualize what it must be like on other side to see America’s military coming at you; for me, it was just “would you care for a beverage?” and “thank you for flying Delta!”

Now there is a face to that nation of people our government declared the enemy, and she has a name. Suddenly, it IS personal, as close as Taghreed is from me, a mere two feet away.

I feel embarrassed, and ashamed. I feel bloated and spoiled and ignorant. I am humbled and in awe. Around me is the detritus of nothing more harmful than a few shards of croissant crumbs. I sit in safety, cosseted by the excess we consider necessary in our world as I listen to stories of survival during war

Taghreed tells me how the eggplant, a background singer in the all-star line-up of vegetables here, has become the “pan monster” and “hero” of the Iraqi diet. It is the understudy that finally gets its big break. It rescues the show and saves the day. It keeps Iraqi families fed and going.

The contrast between life here and life there is stark, loud and brutal.

When a nation paid for the sins of its leaders, a plebeian vegetable underdog filled the void, and their bellies.

Rich or poor, they ate eggplant. It was the Equalizer.

Halfway There

The frustration hits me like a brick wall.

It’s a solid, heavy, full-frontal assault. This week marks the halfway point for this session. While the apprentices are progressing, I find myself still repeating and echoing the same admonishments over and over again.

“Say behind. No metal on cutting boards. Hold knives against your body, point down. Work NEAT, no exceptions.”

I feel like a nag.

My tolerance for the constant back and forth of translating has evaporated. I force the issue of speaking and understanding English. I propel the apprentices out of their comfort zone.

Indeed, my acceptance of anything less than excellent is gone. At this point in the game, I expect, no, I demand that they practice the skills I have been trying to teach them. Perfectly diced potatoes should be standard. Prep lists should be automatically written. There should be no standing around, waiting for me to tell them what to do. I set the bar as high as I think they can reach, and then just a little higher.

After five hours of pushing, pulling and growing another set of eyes in the back of my head, the apprentices leave for the day. I do a few more hours of prep work and then I head out to get supplies for a catering event tomorrow. I feel heavy as I climb into my car and plop into the driver’s seat.

About ten minutes down the road, I pull into the parking lot of Saar’s. I’ve never been here before. This store is not what I imagined it would be. I thought it was a quiet Mom and Pop corner grocery store. But instead, I am greeted by a large modern supermarket.

The clientele inside is varied. This is not the polar fleece-wearing, SUV-driving crowd that I encounter at the more manicured stores in my neighborhood. Instead, I see a plethora of Latino families, and quite a few women wearing hijabs. There are lots of brown faces, and I feel like I blend right in.

A young Caucasian woman comes in, wearing red combat boots. A middle-aged Caucasian man is buying his lonely dinner of potato salad and Oreo cookies. They are the minority.

I’m not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

I wander down the aisles, looking for sumac and injera. The store is divided into sections: Hispanic, Eastern European, Middle Eastern and Asian. It resembles a haphazard edible United Nations assembly.

I lose myself in the array of spices from the Middle East, the different snack foods and crackers from each continent, and marvel at how many teas, pickles and jams there seems to be in existence. I’m in no hurry; I start to relax as I pick up jars and cans to read labels, puzzle out what they contain. Some people go to spas, but this is my paradise.

I find the sumac, and the injera, too. I refrain from buying some delicious-looking flatbread, and a seductive fig jam. I give the mangoes a longing glance, and then another, but I move on to check out and go home.

The cashier is a tall African American woman with fuschia hair and lipstick. Her name is Tiffany, and she greets each customer at her register with a friendly hello and tells them she’ll see them soon as they leave. It is a stark contrast to the cashier yesterday in my stomping grounds, the one that couldn’t stop his conversation with his colleague to even look at me, much less say hello.

And then it hits me as I make my way to my car.

My world has expanded. That whole adage of how foods breaks down barriers? I’m living it. All the aggravation, frustration and weariness is not just because I’m pushing the apprentices to greater heights. I, too, am changing and widening my world.

Growth is taxing. To constantly be reshaping thoughts, values, ideas and perceptions is draining. There are days when I want to crawl back into my comfortable shell. I want to escape the foreignness, to be able to speak without pantomiming madly to be understood.

I want to just rest.

And then a little thing happens, to remind me that this world is bigger than that, and that no, you can never go back again. A little thing, like a walk down a grocery store aisle in Tukwila.

 

 

 

A Declaration of Independence

“Teacher, what is date?” she asks me. Another innocuous question in a endless string of simple questions. I face a barrage of them from her. The queries are easy to answer, and I could utter the solutions in seconds without even looking up.

Should I, or should I let her ponder the answer, look around and try to solve the problem herself?

Over the six weeks we have been in the kitchen classroom, I have repeated ad nauseum basic kitchen rules: like goes with like, say behind, label and date, raw chicken on the bottom shelf. I’ve demonstrated, I’ve illustrated and I’ve exhorted.

I stress to her over and again how following these basic rules of kitchen courtesy are so important, that her future employer will expect her to know and observe them. I tell her that what will set her apart from all the cooks in the kitchen is her ability and INITIATIVE to think independently, to show she knows her stuff, that she has a good solid foundation on which her chef can build.

I look at her and return the question to her. “What would you do if I wasn’t here? How would you find the answer if no one was in the kitchen with you?”

I know, it seems heartless of me. Why won’t I answer such an easy question? Why am I making her think about how to find out the answer on her own? What harm could there be in just handing out solutions? It would be so much easier and faster for me to just chirp out answers all the time.

Truth is, this simple question is the symptom of a much deeper issue. And that is the case of someone who has been conditioned to believe she canNOT think, that her opinion doesn’t deserve to be heard, that somehow she is not smart enough or worthy enough of anything more than a cursory education. It is the marker of an infection by someone, many someones really, who have told her over the course of her life that she has to do as they say, that she has to follow their orders, that she has no volition of her own. They have intellectually, emotionally and psychologically crippled her.

In four months, I am trying to take someone who has relied on everyone around her to take care of her, direct her, make decisions for her, and help her claim her power. Her success in the working world will rely less on her technical skills than her ability to think on her feet and to show initiative.

It’s a powerful combination of religion (doesn’t matter which one, all of them can be used to oppress someone else), social views on women, a lack of education and exposure to the world that renders some of these women helpless in daily activity. They may not be able to drive, have their own bank accounts, or do simple math. They are kept as children in adult bodies, reliant on their husbands or other males to make all the decisions.

But she is NOT a child. She is a beautiful female with an agile intellect, on the cusp of learning how strong she is. She lacks confidence and has been taught through the years that she is inferior, that her opinions are not worthy and that education is wasted on her.

Oh, I get it. Part of the constant question asking is a desire to do the right thing, to make ME happy. But it’s not about pleasing me. It’s about developing her drive and confidence to make a decision, even the wrong one.

I’ll be honest. I get frustrated. I don’t understand how someone can let themselves be so reliant on another person. I want to shake her up and tell her to wake up and stop being so subservient. I want to grasp her by shoulders and tell her to rage against her oppressors, to be in command of her own life.

But then, I have had the luxury of freedom of choice of religion, of a good higher education, of millions of women before me marching, protesting, and fighting to get a few more cracks in the glass ceiling. I can wear what I want, know how to drive (and parallel park), and have my own bank account, my own cell phone and email address (yes, these are small but important things for autonomy). I can vote. I move cross-country and around the world alone if I choose to.

I am heard.

She hasn’t. She isn’t.

This class may be her introduction to her own personal declaration of independence. And she’s taken the first steps by enrolling. She may think she signed up to learn how to get a job, but getting and keeping a job is about more than just learning to put Widget A together with Widget B.

This is the hardest thing I teach. How do I make her realize she has the ability to find the keys to her strength within her? How do I push her to stand on her own two feet? How do I help her reach the point where she grasps the idea that she in and of HERSELF is enough, more than enough, and more importantly, worthy of so much better?

So I look at her again, and ask her, “How can you find the answer?”

She pauses, and then says, “mobile.”

I smile and say that yes, that is one way, that’s a great way, and good job.

And I hope that she has discovered through this little exchange how she IS capable of being her own heroine.

 

 

Gifts from My Father

I always wanted a puppy or kitten from my dad. My father always said no when I pleaded with him. So of course, I did what any other kid would do, I consoled myself with goldfish and crickets as pets.

Side note: The crickets lived a life of luxury in a terrarium, with fresh apple slices and spinach every day. They were also loud as f…, and when they had babies, they had about a thousand of them. I’m guessing; I didn’t actually count. The goldfish didn’t fare so well, and went belly up in less than a week.

But back to the story.

What I did get from my father was far better, in hindsight. The list is immeasurable, but here are three things that I CAN count:

1.) A bike.

With this, he taught me how to try, and try again, despite crashing into the hedges at the end of our drive more times than I care to admit. It gave me freedom to cruise the neighborhood and make friends with the kids around me. It fueled my imagination, as I became the Lone Ranger, racing off to rescue someone. It made me think I was invincible, as I pedalled madly down the street like a streak of five year-old lightning. It gave me bragging rights as we kids argued as to who had the prettiest streamers on their handlebars. It gave me responsibility, because leaving your bike lying in the middle of the driveway was no way to treat a gift.

2.) The thrill of restaurants and food.

Every week, he would take us out for dinner. It was usually the neighborhood coffee shop (where I got my favorite vegetable soup, and yes, it probably came from a can). Sometimes it was McDonald’s, because in Hilo, finally getting a McDonald’s was a huge event. It made us feel like a Big City! Also, the choice of restaurants MY MOTHER WOULD GO TO in Hilo were limited.

On a rare sunny day(it rains, rains, RAINS, in Hilo), it was a bucket of fried chicken and with musubi in Liliuokalani park Afterwards, my sister and I would later roll down the grassy hill or play hide and seek in the bamboo grove.

Other days it was sirloin steaks on the hibachi on the beach, grilled rare and delicious with just a sprinkling of Hawaiian rock salt. After dinner, when we arrived at home, I would ask my mother when dinner was, because my five year-old brain couldn’t grasp a picnic as a proper meal, that we were done eating for the day.

Dad did this for two reasons. He believed that my mother deserved one day off from the kitchen every week. He also wanted us to learn how to behave in public, how to sit through a dinner, how to eat properly, and how to talk to and order from a stranger. Okay, third reason: I also think he really just liked food.

So now food plays a focal role in my life. I love the drama and theatre of a restaurant. There’s an unwritten script that restaurants follow. The stage set changes, the locations are worldwide, but the arc of the story remains unchanged. The high wattage attraction of food is something I learned at an early age.

3.) Most importantly, he gave me an education.

Because knowledge is power. And I’m not talking about just book smarts. Dad was convinced that I should to go to The Mainland (the forty eight contiguous states, to us locals) because I needed to get out of the comfort zone of pidgin English, shorts, tee shirts and life in the very slow lane. He said “the world is run by haoles, you need to learn how to deal with them.”

We weren’t a wealthy family. But Dad managed to send his kids to college. It wasn’t even a question of whether or not we would go. It was more of a WHERE we were going to go when we graduated from high school. There was no try, there was only DO.

He told me that my choice of degree wasn’t the important thing. The real reason I needed to leave the island was to acquire the ability to think critically, to see the bigger world and to be comfortable swimming in the wider seas of society. He was right.

I’ve never used my degree. But I have used those four years at university in other ways that have nothing to do with a dichotomous key or the Krebs cycle. I discovered, the hard way, that no one was going to push me to go to class and no one would pave my path for me. I had to do it myself. The toughest lesson of all to comprehend was no start or finish line; waiting for permission from someone else was a waste of time.

It still is, and I am still mastering this assignment.

Looking back, I see that Dad gave me the opportunity to develop and seize my power. He let me design my own life, draw the silhouette of it and fill in the colors.  He allowed me to find my true north on my compass by giving me the tools to read a map and plot my course.

I’m not sure he thought in terms of women’s liberation, even though I grew up in the seventies, when bra burning and protests against male chauvinism were part of the daily diet of television. He simply wanted his daughter to be strong enough to stand on her own.

I’m standing, Dad. Sometimes my legs have been kicked out from under me, but I’m back on my feet. I’ve gone off-road at times, and doggy-paddled against the tide. I’ve been lost and taken many a detour, but the presents you gave me bring me back on course.

The real gifts of his fatherhood are better than a puppy or a kitten. Thanks, Daddy.

Happy Father’s Day.

 

 

Peonies

There’s a rambunctious riot of peonies happening on my porch right now. Deep fuchsia petals in smooth satin, they flare up from a green calyx bodice. Carefully ruched and pinked, they are harbingers of late spring.

I knew WHAT a peony was as a child, thanks to the Japanese card game hanafuda, which my grandmother taught me.  I called them “botan” first, before learning their English name, peony.

I can see my grandmother now, in her simple wooden house by the sea, sitting at the counter with my grandfather, tossing card after card down in an endless cycle of hanafuda games, a mug of instant coffee sitting at the ready.

My cousins taught me the rudiments of the game, which suits belonged together, which cards trumped another.

Matsu, fuji, botan, sakura, and ume.…pine, wisteria, peony, cherry, and plum respectively. These suits were the my first (and only) Japanese language flashcards.

We played the game at dusk, after fishing at sunset in the nearby tide pool. When the light grew too faint for us to see, we left the fish in peace and made our way up over the lawn by flashlight towards the beaming lights of Grandma’s house.

Safely ensconced in a screened-in veranda, with mosquito punks burning in slow coils on their metal spindles for extra protection, we would hear geckos chirp and caw at each other from the rafters and nearby coconut trees.  It was a steady chip chip chip beat set to the faint murmur of the ocean three houses away. On a rare occasion, a hoot from a Hawaiian pueo would break the monotony of the geckos’ chanting.

Grape Nehi and orange Fanta were the drinks of choice, accompanied by dried ika, arare, and potato chips as we sat and played round after round of hanafuda. Huddled around low tables on zabuton, in our ubiquitous uniforms of tee shirts, shorts and bare feet, we whiled the time away as the adults sat with their beers and serious conversations.

Being the youngest of the cousins, I rarely won. But somehow, losing didn’t feel quite so bad when playing with such beautifully decorated cards. Familiar, yet foreign, these cards were a link to the plantations villages of my great-grandparents and a line across the Pacific to Japan. Not that I realized any of this back then; it’s only now that I am older that I realize a simple game interlinked us all.

Eventually, the night would grow darker, and we would head home. Yellow headlights would cut through the dust or rain, illuminating potholes, trees and the occasional owl looming out of the night along the empty country road. In the cocoon of the back seat, we would fall asleep, tucked under quilts my grandmother had sewn.

These memories come back to me each spring, when the peonies on my porch burst into bloom. An impulse purchase at a grocery store a few years ago, the plant has survived and thrived. Even the fragrance reminds me of Hawaii, of the plumeria flowers that grow everywhere in the islands.

I don’t know if my grandmother ever saw peonies in real life. They were not a flower found commonly in gardens or at florists when I was growing up.  And if they were to be had, I imagine the cost alone would have prevented my grandmother from buying them. Growing up in a sugarcane plantation and raising a family during the Great Depression did not cultivate flower-buying habits in her. She was a woman of necessity, not luxury.

So now, in spite of my rush out the door, or as I return home after a frazzled day of deadlines, traffic and noise, I stop and admire the peonies. I inhale their delicate perfume, and brush their shiny petals. I drink in the vibrant pink, try to sear it deeply enough into my brain to last for another twelve months before their next appearance.

And I think of my grandmother, and hanafuda, and of a childhood by the ocean. Rosemary may be for remembrance, but botan are for my grandmother.

 

 

Again and Again

It had been a long day. It was probably a Saturday, with a 7am start for me in the kitchen, as I scurried around to assemble the chef’s mise-en-place for his cooking class that morning.

Fifteen hours later, it is nigh on ten in the evening.  The dining room has filled and emptied twice over and now only a single table of guests remains.  Two middle-aged couples are enjoying the last of their dinner, probably a crepe souffle.

I tread lightly through the dining room, heading towards the front door and the reservations book. My last duty of the day is to make sure I have everything ordered and ready for the next day of service, so that the chef doesn’t need to worry. It’s a thankless job, this sous cheffing business, and yet I take great pride in my rapid promotion to Second in the Kitchen in one of D.C.’s best French restaurants, a year after graduating from culinary school.

As I pass the four top on my way back to the kitchen, they look up at me and smile.  I ask them if they’ve enjoyed their dinner, and they enthusiastically respond yes.

And then one man ruins it. He looks at me, asks me if I am the pastry chef.

Because I am a woman.

Because of course, a woman can’t hang with the boys on the line and handle the heat.

And because certainly, pastries are more delicate and not as demanding as cooking a steak, so therefore are the perfect avenue for the weaker sex.

Or so he thinks.

I stop dead in my track, and sadly, the professional flight attendant in me comes out. You know, the one that has put up for nine years with grown business men having hissy fits because they “have a Million Miles, Miss” and yet, I DARE MAKE them take their briefcases out from behind their knees and put them in the overhead bins.

New flash: physics doesn’t give two hoots about how many millions of miles you have should the aircraft come to a violently abrupt halt and the briefcase behind your knees turn into a projectile that performs a reverse godfather kneecap bashing. Physics is a bitch like that.

This is the Lisa that grits her teeth, and takes said (heavy as fuck) briefcases and puts them into the bins while these grown men sit and pout, and then revel in their schadenfreude of watching me struggle. Because of course, I made up that FAA rule just to for them.

But I digress.

Back at the restaurant, I pull myself up to all of my sixty two inches, throw a polite but chilly smile at the offending gentleman and reply, “No. I am the sous chef, and I cooked those beef tenderloins you just enjoyed. But thank you for asking.”

(In reality, small kitchens like that one don’t have a pastry chef. The job goes to the garde manger cook, a position I have worked in and subsequently trained others for. I’ve made all the desserts on the menu at some point; indeed, I have made all dishes on the carte at one time or another.)

Uncomfortable silence takes over, and the man shrinks noticeably in his seat.

The women, however, BEAM.

The better half of one couple sharply elbows her husband in the ribs. He smiles wanly, mutters something under his breath, and wishes for his cloak of invisibleness.

She gushes about how great it is, congratulates me on my job. She is ecstatic and effusive in her praise. She recognizes a member of the sisterhood trying to make it in a world skewed against our gender, and I think silently she’s rooting for women like me.

I nod, thank them, and return to the embrace of fluorescent lights to fume and swear in the sort-of soundproof cocoon of the kitchen.

I’ve been justifying, explaining and validating my cooking abilities since that day, if not from before.

Most women have had to. Lawyers, doctors, pilots, fire persons, police officers, scientists, professors……. the list goes on and on.  The thing these jobs have in common?  They have been traditionally viewed as the domain of men.

And for the record, I do NOT think being a pastry chef is “easier” than being on the hot line. If anything, that calling requires a degree of precision, patience, finesse and muscle that I know I don’t possess. If you think pastries are as easy as pie, you are woefully mistaken.

I thought it would get better as we as a society developed, as we evolved and graduated to a higher plane.  But last night, in 2017, twenty years later, an older man asked me if I was REALLY A CHEF, if I was a chef IN REAL LIFE.

And then he proceeded to ask me for my credentials.

I’m 52 years old, and have been cooking professionally for over 20 years. I’ve cooked for and with some of the best chefs here in the states. I have been a chef overseas. I stood my ground to a fucking hurricane, didn’t run when Katrina came calling. I’ve opened my own restaurants, and have my brand on prominent local market shelves. Some may say I failed, some may think I succeeded. I don’t really care. I lived, and that’s enough for me.

But this guy wants to know my qualifications to be a chef, wants me to explain myself to him.

Women get this All. The. Time. It happens when we least expect to be questioned, so of course, we are ill-prepared to come back with a snappy scathing retort. We also have ingrained in us the whole “be polite” mantra, to our disadvantage.

Look, I’m not saying don’t ask me questions. And no, I don’t want my ego stroked. But fer crying out loud, think before you let your ignorance and latent sexism show. Maybe ask yourself, hey, how would I feel if I had to explain why I like to (fill in the blank with any activity or profession that normally is done by women). And then if you think you wouldn’t like it, just be quiet.

Guys get it, too. Think about male nurses. Or male flight attendants. Or stay-at-home dads. Or men who like to sew or knit or dance, anything remotely judged by our society as “feminine”.

Either direction, it’s not fair. We all make silly assumptions, put our foot in our mouths whether it be about religion, race, sexual orientation, age, and gender. We put people in boxes, and get mad when they don’t stay in them.  Cats jump into boxes and stay there and that’s cute. It’s not the same for people. It’s never cute to box someone up.

It’s exhausting to constantly be on guard to defend and justify our place in this world. We shouldn’t have to, no one should have to.

It’s 2017. Can we please catch up to it?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rock On

Last night, the first two apprentices from our culinary training program at Project Feast graduated. It was the culmination of four months of pushing, pulling, coaxing on seemingly endless repeat.

Sixteen weeks of seeing the potential in someone, and then molding, urging and polishing to reveal the gem hidden underneath. Ninety days of faceting, carving, and buffing away the lack of confidence, fears and failures to bring out the shine obscured by all of that dross.

Let’s be real. I took the job because I needed it. Being a restaurant or hotel chef didn’t appeal to me, not this time around. I wanted to, I needed to find balance in my life. I had to learn that work is not everything, that down time is not a bad thing, that being idle every now and then is good for the soul, my soul.

So I took the job, with every intent of giving it my all, because if you don’t give it everything, why even bother picking up the ball? I had a litany of qualifications in my mind of why I was the perfect candidate. Truly, with all those years in the business, with all the myriad of jobs, experiences, adventures, success and failures (maybe THE most important thing), I was such a great fit for this position.

I WAS GOING TO CHANGE LIVES.

I didn’t quite expect to have my life changed. You see, everything that happened in Paragraph Two of this post happened to me.

People sometimes have this idea of helping refugees and immigrants. It’s lofty and gilded. They see themselves as generous souls reaching down to hoist someone up. And yes, we need people to care enough to extend a hand, to buy into the vision of benevolence and good deeds. Without kindness and compassion, nothing like this gets done.

What is invisible is the struggle, to be in the trenches daily with a group of people with varying levels of education, English comprehension, and work experiences. Add to the equation life trauma, prejudice, stereotypes, PTSD and more, and you have quite the cocktail going on. You are in it, every day, no escaping and no avoiding it. It can be exhausting.

Imagine all of us thrown into a rock polisher, which is basically a barrel spun over and over. As the rocks crash against each other, they chip off the sharp edges of the other stones, make surfaces smoother and help bring out the beauty. It is a long process, noisy, jarring and if rocks could feel, painful. The dust turns to soil, and only in soil can seeds grow.

It’s what happens in the kitchen. Sometimes we collide against each other, and when we crack in half, we reveal the beauty inside, like a geode. Other times, we are like well-matched mosaic pieces, each of us a tile precisely cut to complete the greater picture. Every day is a new adventure, and another chance to fill in a piece of the puzzle.

A new class starts on Tuesday, and another seven souls will be there to push and pull against each other. We will change each other as well as ourselves in ways we may not know until years down the line. Sometimes we’ll be rocks, other times we’ll be gems. We might even be a tile or two. But hopefully, in the end, we will bring out the best in each other and reveal a little more of our hidden beauty.