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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.

 

Sylt Roses

The car radio broke on Sylt, which is why we listened to just two cassette tapes as we drove up and down this slender sliver of land in the cold Atlantic ocean.

T and I barely made our way to this German island in the North Sea, having almost missed the ferry from Denmark, because of someone’s (not mine) notorious tendency to be tardy.

We raced from Hamburg to Denmark, propelled as much by adrenaline as pistons in T’s old forest green VW Golf.  With minutes to spare before our sailing time, we trundled into the belly of the ferry. Leaving the car, we made our way through the gaggle of vacationers to the passenger deck. There, in the late summer breeze, we watched the August sun trace our wake southwest.

We docked and headed off the ferry and onto a magical slip of an island. Leaving the touristy ferry dock, we meandered down single lane roads, passing thatch-roof houses, green pastures and the always-present border of sand and sea. The rush and scramble of Hamburg seemed far away, indeed.

A few kilometers down the road, the car radio decided this was as good a time as any to go AWOL, and promptly deserted us. Armed with only two cassettes, we were reduced to an aural diet of Peter Gabriel’s So album and The Gipsy Kings. We alternated between wailing along with the soulful poetry of Peter Gabriel and high-energy-bopping-along to the rapid fire guitars of the Gipsy Kings.

Repetitive motion. Is it any wonder that those two albums are forever imprinted in my mind as the Music of Sylt?

As we rounded a bend along the road, T pulled up and parked. “This is my favorite spot on the island.” he told me.

He turned to watch my reaction, as I stared in sheer wonder at a bank of Sylt roses (rosa rugosa) shrubs in full bloom. Sporting only five petals each, but carrying an attitude of regal tea roses, these blooms tumbled over each other in a mad dash to drink in as much of the intense summer sun as possible before the winter cold came calling. Bumble bees flitted from from flower to flower, like tiny manic orchestra conductors.

“Play, play play!” they exhorted. Their sonorous buzzing was the perfect backdrop to the high soprano notes of the fushia pink petals.

Shasta daisies rounded out the tableau, with cornflower blue bachelor buttons and red poppies acting as the chorus. These humble garden blossoms happily filled in the harmony, doo wopping their songs, giving the entire floral act a little jazz flourish.

I got out of the car, and walked over to inhale the heady raspberry fragrance of the roses. It was overwhelming and emotional, a purely sensual experience. If you could smell joy, it would be this. Sweet, high and intense, with earthy notes of sand, salt breeze and green summer grass to temper it.

The warm sun on my back, the cool whisper of sea air across my arms, and my eyes and nose filled with this heavenly bouquet; it was a moment of sheer bliss. I looked at T, who smiled back at me, and said “I knew you would like this.”

We stood there for a few more minutes, gathering up and twisting threads of this beauty into a ribbon.

I pull this ribbon out on cold days, grey days, days when I need to remember how it felt to have the sun warm on my back, the sea breeze playing on my skin and the smell of roses in my nose. It’s old and worn now, but still treasured.

We reluctantly clambered back into the car, hit play and let Peter sing to us about red rain, not giving up and streets of mercy.

I want to go back to Sylt, and find that floral hedge. I do. I want to drive in an old green VW Golf, with no radio and just two cassettes to play. I want to capture that pristine moment. I want to be young again.

I won’t, of course. Sylt has changed. I am no longer the same person. Thirty years have gone by. Life moves on. Even if I go back, nothing will be the same. It’s perfect that way.

 

 

 

 

Mama’s Colibri

The ancient Aztec thought the colibri (hummingbird) were the returned souls of warriors killed in battle. It seems only fitting that B and I saw one today, delicately perched on a cherry tree that was arrayed in rosy floral chiffon.

Three weeks ago, B’s mother died after a year and half long battle with pancreatic cancer. Today was my first time to see B after her mother’s death.

Pancreatic cancer. When B came into work and told me that her mother had just received a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer that very day, I hugged her tight and murmured words like “be brave” and “it’ll be okay”.

But in my mind, I was alarmed; pancreatic cancer seems to be a quick killer. People get diagnosed, and mere weeks or months later, they are gone.

B’s mother held on and fought tough. Amazing for this demure woman. Despite tussles with insurance companies, convoluted conversations with doctors and nurses (B translating English to Spanish for Mama), months of agonizing chemotherapy and radiation, she tenaciously clung to life. She did it stoically, with grace and good humor.

I met Mama once, briefly.  She was having a good week, so B brought her by to say hello. She was quiet, sweet and kind.  She didn’t say much to me, because of the language barrier, but she beamed at her daughter and grandchildren. It was clear she was savoring every moment with them, not knowing how many more she had left. Love was her lingua franca. It spoke her heart’s mute adoration clearly and sweetly, like the hummingbird’s piccolo trill, audible and distinct.

Colibri were Mama’s favorite birds, so B asked her to choose one, giving her sixteen pictures from which to decide. A week later, B got that hummingbird picture tattooed on her forearm, and surprised Mama with it.

Two more weeks, and Mama was gone.

Tattoos last forever. Thankfully.

Today I took B to my favorite place to view the cherry blossoms, along a quiet street in Seattle. I wanted to give her a place to find solace and beauty after such a rough and ugly time in her life.  I wanted to remind her that the nature can be generous and soft, not always grasping and harsh.

As we strolled down the sidewalk under clouds of pink petals, B’s face brightened as the blossoms cast their spell. The blushing inflorescences seemed even more delicate against a grey spring sky, a potent charm to ward off the chilly April breeze.

We passed several groups of people, all intent on welcoming Spring under this gentle arbor umbrella. We crusty Seattleites smiled at each other, and greeted one another with “good morning” and “have a lovely day” salutations. The magic of the blossoms was strong.

Suddenly, B stopped and whispered “Look!” and pointed across the street to the top of a cherry tree. There, perched on the highest bough, was a hummingbird, resting for just a few precious seconds. It sang a chorus of soprano chirps, and off it went, zipping to its next task.

B looked at me, and we smiled at each other.

“Mama was here!” B exclaimed. And yes, I do believe she was.

Warrior bird. Mama’s bird. Marking a lovely spring day etched with ephemeral cherry blossoms.

The Real Cost

I’m more than slightly irritated that a salad recently cost me over $15.

It was a nice salad, as salads go. It was not the supermodel of salads, but it certainly was more than just spring mix and a couple of lashings of manufactured dressing, haphazardly topped with a few pale cherry tomato halves.  A complimentary mixture of exotic-sounding lettuces, adorned by about a dozen pieces of bacon crumbles, a well-poached egg with a slightly oversalted vinaigrette, it was a perfectly good late afternoon lunch.

And it cost over $15.

Which is probably what the restaurant needs to charge for it.

Because of high rent in this city.

Because of high labor costs.

Because THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS CHEAP FOOD.

And that’s more than fair.

So why am I irritated?

Because I could take a similar salad, remove its fancy French name, put it on a menu in an “ethnic” restaurant, and watch people revolt at the price.

Yes, “ethnic” food in quotes. Because in a Eurocentric world, anything not European based is “ethnic”. (Excuse me while I go bang my head against the wall.)

Why do we do that? Why do we think Asian, Indian, Mexican (insert your favorite non-European heritage food here) has to be cheap?

These restaurants face the same challenges as any other restaurant: rising rent, a competitive labor market, and challenging food costs. Add to the equation utility bills, insurance, taxes, marketing budgets, internet presence, and on and on. The advent of delivery services take their cut. Competition is fierce and unrelenting.

And let’s not even bring up what online reviews can mean for a business. (The biggest most common complaint everywhere seems to be prices are too high. The flip side is the praise of cheap food at these establishments, perpetuating the cycle.)

Fine. I brought up the effects of online reviews.

Smaller restaurants, especially those “mom and pop” models run by newly-arrived immigrants more often than not make everything from scratch. There is no big semi-truck pulling up to the back door, off-loading premade frozen chicken fingers, boxes of fries, already-decorated giant mudslide brownies and so on.  There are no auto-timed deep-fryers and ovens to “cook” the food for workers to assemble, wrap and bag up.

What you will see are hard-working people taking raw ingredients and turning them into delicious food.  What you will see is real cooking.  Flour becomes bread. Tough cuts of meats and underrated vegetables turn into flavor-packed dishes. Herbs and spices are used with a generous hand to bring out the best side of often humble ingredients. Beans and rice attain almost deity status. Magic happens. As it does in kitchens around the world.

So why would you expect to pay less?

These people are sharing with us centuries of cooking traditions, years of memories, and for some, the only way they know to immediately find work in their new homeland, by creating jobs for themselves. For some, for many, their university degrees are invalid here in the States. They open restaurants and small stores to support themselves, create welcoming environments for fellow emigres, and to be a part of the community.

Do you still think you should pay less?

One of the things that I have learned over the years around this globe is that cooking techniques are cooking techniques.  They may not be codified according to Careme or Escoffier, but that does not make them any less valid or legitimate than lessons to be had in a formal French kitchen. We should respect that.

For example, to make a good keay wat, an Ethiopian beef stew, T minced and caramelized sixteen onions and a cup each of fresh ginger and garlic. For ten pounds of beef.  By hand. No food processor, she WAS the chopping machine.

A good chicken stew, she says, takes TWENTY-FIVE onions, minced and caramelized, for TWO chickens. If you’ve ever chopped onions, garlic and ginger finely, you know: mad respect.

Yes, I still look twice when I see something priced over the decade mark on a menu in an “ethnic” restaurant. And then I have to slap myself upside the head for falling prey once again to the same mentality I have been railing against in the above paragraphs.  Because it is so ingrained in us, this idea that these cuisines should be cheap.

Also, please, can someone help me come up with a better descriptor than “ethnic” food, because in China, India, Mexico, Turkey et al, it’s just food.  Speaking of which, I wonder if French cuisine in China is considered “ethnic”?

Bottom line, again, there IS NO SUCH THING AS CHEAP FOOD. Even if the menu prices are low, there are hidden costs: the long-term effects on your health, the lasting effects on the environment, the conditions under which our food is grown or raised and harvested,  and the way it is processed. The safety of our food is fragile as we turn to processing factories to keep up with demand. The diversity is diminishing in the gene pool as we selectively breed for faster growth and bigger yield.  You may not see that reflected in the dollar amount on the menu, but somewhere you are paying for it, invisibly, and unknowingly. Make no mistake.

In such a culturally rich and diverse part of the country, where we strive to be welcoming to all, maybe it’s time to change our ideas of food, specifically where its origins are and what it should cost because of that.  I, for one, am tired of slapping myself upside the head.