Small Miracles

A can of chicken noodle soup

I’m not usually the person to write about the miracles of modern food science. I usually write about its opposites: food heritage, food history, and what has become the cult of fresh, local and organic. Today I want to take a minute to appreciate industrial food.

Getting pregnant, I’ve realized over the last few years, is not always something in your control. It wasn’t in ours. I’d spent so many years trying to avoid getting pregnant that it seemed like it pregnancy would be inevitable, with the precautions removed. It was not. And there was not a lot I could do about it. Well, we could do it, but it, did not always help. I began to feel like something was wrong with me. Maybe I was not healthy enough. Maybe I would get pregnant, and stay pregnant, if, somehow, I was healthier. I decided to eat more kale.

Being healthy is important, but this kind of magical thinking is the result of believing I can control things that I can’t. I didn’t get pregnant, but I did eat lots and lots of dark leafy greens. And omega-3 filled sardines, and beets and tomatoes, and salmon, and organic grass-fed beef. Foods high in good fats and folic acid. Nuts and berries and legumes; delicious, healthy, fresh, local and organic things. I shopped and cooked for my desires and my hopes and myself.  Surprisingly, it didn’t help.

Last fall I’d almost given up. We’d been trying for nearly two years. It was time for more invasive action, or adoption, or a different plan. Maybe I this motherhood thing wasn’t meant to be: I began to taste that thought. I gave up on kale and started eating burgers, and dessert, and put on 5 pounds.

And then, that month, I was late. And then still the next week, and the week after that. But being pregnant—I’d learned—did not mean I was going to have a baby. Things happen, and after everything that happened, I was too afraid to test, or talk about it, or tell. But, some things you can’t hide. I am happy to report, more than happy actually, and also scared as hell, that it is now Week 15, and things are still going well.

Fresh, local and organic are still a great thing, and a good goal, but until a week or two ago, Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup was all I could keep down. No kale, absolutely not sardines, nuts, berries, or fruit. Everything I thought was healthiest made me violently ill.

The doctor said this was a good sign. My hormone levels were high.

“And the Campbell’s Soup?” I asked. I was worried I might not be getting the nutrition I needed plus some kind of industrial poison. This was not the perfect nutrition I had in mind. “How hard do I need to push the kale?”

“Not at all,” he said, “just eat what you can. If you’re body wants you to eat kale, you will.”

That afternoon, I ate another can of Chicken Noodle Soup.

I’ve never loved the stuff. It was industrial, commercial: I only ate it when I was ill. But when I could not eat anything else, I could eat Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup. It tasted the same way it always had, and it was safe, and sanitary, and I knew I could find it wherever I went.  And that seemed like a miracle as well.

Lemon Meringue Pie Love

Wayne-Thiebaud

A few weeks ago my parents celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary. If you count the 5 years they knew each other before they got married, that’s a pretty awesome amount of love. It’s also a little scary. Zilla and I are only on year 5.

I happened to call my grandma the day of. “It’s you parent’s anniversary isn’t it?”

“It is,” I said. At her age, it really was good of her to remember.

“I didn’t call or send a card,” she said. “But I suppose they will forgive me. It was a wonderful wedding. I remember it. I was there.”

And for the first time I realized something that has been obvious but, I’ve just never thought of before: My grandfather was there too. They were in the middle of, or just through a divorce.

“I never liked your meatloaf, anyway,” was apparently what he said as he walked out the door.

That was thirty years ago. I’ve only met the man once, when I was about four. I remember running through an old abandoned grave yard in North Florida with his new younger-than-me son, by his new younger-than-my-mom wife. My “uncle” and I were hunting for tiny, tiny frogs. For years afterward, if my mom talked about that trip, it was to say that the new-wife didn’t cook.

Wayne Thiebaud

When Zilla and I got married, one of our friends gave us a book called The 5 Languages of Love. It is thin and purple and covered in cursive writing. I think there is a couple, holding hands, walking into the sunset. I hate this kind of book. It has sold 5 million copies.

And yet here it is, still, reminding me of important lessons. People show their love in different ways. Some people need to give and get gifts. Some people need space. Some people need to hold hands. The book didn’t say this, I do: some people need to cook.

When I think of my mom, and I think of love, I think of lemon pie (or perhaps her version of my grandmother’s spaghetti, but that’s another post.)

Last week I made a lemon pie for Zilla. I made a graham cracker crust, like my mom always did. I crushed the graham crackers and mixed them with melted butter and white granulated sugar until it was the consistency of wet sand and thought of my mom.

Making lemon meringue pie with my mom is one of my earliest memories. So early, that all of my lemon meringue pie memories involve standing on chairs. I pulled out the breakfast table chair to get to the cookbook above the fridge; I dragged the chair over to the stove to stand on it; I stood on the chair, barefoot, to stir the lemon custard.

Most of the pie making, for me, was about waiting for the custard to get thick. “Is it thick now, Mom?” “Mom, how about now?” “Is this a simmer?” “What about now?” “Mom! Is this thick?”

“Not yet, honey.” “Keep stirring.”

I wore a ruffled half-apron, which was meant to go around the waist, tied halter-top style over what would one day become boobs. I dripped blobs of custard onto the floor when I held up my wooden spoon.

Wayne Thiebaud Cakes

My mom and I used the Betty Crocker—or maybe it was the Better Homes and GardensCookbook, covered in what I would now call Italian tablecloth plain, that, I think, my mom got when she and my dad were married. The recipe for lemon meringue pie was discolored and covered in splotches and glued to and ripped off from its neighbors. I liked this. I could always find it without having to use the index.

My mom always made her lemon meringue pie tarter than the recipe called for—more lemon juice, almost double, and more lemon zest. I don’t remember my mom’s face, or her expression, while we were cooking. I remember her hands, grating zest, cracking eggs.

I was so busy watching them, trying to learn.

This makes me a little sad. People’s hands always do. The shape of their fingers and the beds of their nails are almost as personal as their smile.

When the mixture was finally thick enough, she slowly poured in the yolks in a ribbon. All at once, the custard turned yellow, like the late afternoon sunlight, and the kitchen smelled like lemon.

I started off saying we made lemon meringue pie, but at the standing-on-chairs-age, the truth is probably more like mom made lemon meringue pie despite me. She made them for the people she loved. For my dad, and for his best friend, for whom lemon meringue pie was the only exception to a no-sweets rule.  She made them for my birthday. She made them when my grandparents—my father’s parents—came to visit. I wonder now, if she was ever making them for herself?

Or if I’ve ever made a pie just for me.

I know my mom’s answer to that, or I think I do. What she loved was not so much lemon meringue, but chocolate cream pie, the kind my grandma used to make for my mom’s birthday, when she was little, and occasionally, still does.

I remember a children’s book my mom used to read me called Angel Food Cake for Angela. Angel food cake was not something my mom made, but it was something she loved. In the book, Angela’s mom wrote secret love notes for her daughter in the flour she used to make the cake. My mom used to put real love notes for my sister and me in our lunch boxes. I always had the idea that this was because my grandma wrote love notes in the flour she used for my mom’s chocolate cream pie crust as well.

Wayne Thiebaud Cakes

Meringue comes after the custard. My mother’s meringue is the best I’ve ever had.  One day, when I was about seven, I turned on the electric egg beater, which weighed a ton and used to belong to my great grandmother, who was from Iowa via Ireland, and let a lock of my then much blonder hair fall in the beater. I got the whole two foot long lank zipped up to my scalp in a second. It looked like my hair was in a giant curler, and it scared me, and it hurt.

My mom ran over and pulled the cord out (which was ancient and ungrounded) and kissed me and released the beaters form the heavy handle motor. She sat me down on the chair properly and unwound my hair. Forever more, all cooking adventures required rubber bands. Which didn’t really matter, because I didn’t usually make the meringue. And mom always did after that. She had, and I suppose still does, a way with soft peaks and the texture of beaten egg whites. She can stretch out the meringue on the top of the whole pie and then pull the beaters up to let the meringue flip over so the whole surface is covered in soft little peaks, like the tops of a twenty soft-serve vanilla ice cream cones.

And when she took the pie out of the oven it was golden brown all over. My sister was so tempted she once stuck her finger right in the top.

Wayne Thiebaud

I made Zilla a lemon meringue pie right after we met. He requested it for his birthday. I was pleased. I thought it was a choice that boded well and bespoke good taste. And, he’d never even had one like my mom made it, with extra lemon and with graham cracker crust!

So I made my first lemon meringue pie on my own. I was cooking professionally at the time—pastries no less—so this was not technically hard, but it was strange, strange to realized that this recipe was something I always made with my mom, and that even then, it had been a long time since we’d made one together.  What was essentially my first recipe, even thought I knew it by heart, now seemed strange. No one made cornstarch custard pies anymore, or graham cracker crusts, or meringue topping. The recipe was dated, like wearing bell bottoms, or painting your kitchen orange.

Zilla ate half the pie. He said it was delicious. In the interest of health, he took the rest to work.

So I made this pie for this man I was newly dating and then—oh, the innocence–he came over a day or two later and announced that another woman—who I now call that bitch — had made—of all things!–a lemon meringue pie for him too.

He was elated.

Can you believe the luck, his face said. Two pies for me!

I blinked. I was not elated. This did not feel like luck. To me, this recipe, any pie, is an intimacy, a testament of love. Was he not as free he said he was? “Why,” I demanded, “is some woman making you a pie?”

“Because it’s my birthday?” he asked, though his face had changed. He didn’t know what, but he knew something was wrong.

“You don’t make a pie for someone else’s boyfriend, period.” I said, “and especially, you don’t bring it to work.”

He looked around. He looked trapped. “Yours was better.”

I glared.

“Much better.”

I kept glaring.

“And it was ugly. Her meringue was all messed up.”

Thanks, mom. I thought. And what is that fury? It was the first time I had ever felt jealous. I realized it must be true love.

I nodded. The girl moved out of town. We moved in together and got married.

Last week, six years later, I made him a second pie.

Paintings by the wonder Wayne Tiebaund. I think he likes pie too.


One Night in Paris

Bar at Chateaubriand

Zilla’s mother, who we call Amma, just sent us a message: “Hello from Katunayaka.” Katunayaka is the name of the airport in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Amma is in Katunayaka because she is about to get on a plane to Dubai, and from there, after 9 hours in the airport, on another plane, to Seattle. She is coming to live with us. It is a long flight—from Dubai to Seattle alone is 16 hours.

When you are traveling half way around the world, it doesn’t really matter which way you go. Zilla and I have connected through Tokyo and London and Qatar. The last time we connected through Paris.

Before I knew Zilla, I never appreciated how complicated it could be to travel. When we met, Zilla had been living in the US for almost twenty years—and he’d just gotten a green card. This was fabulous. It meant that he didn’t have to worry about the technicalities of a visa. He could always come back to the United States—and me and his job. He could always come home.

But even with a green card Zilla was still traveling as a Sri Lankan citizen—or trying to. And because of Sri Lanka’s ongoing civil war sometimes that was hard. Without visiting the consulate, submitting tax information, bank statements, a complete itinerary and a return ticket many countries wouldn’t let Zilla visit. There’s a Japanese consulate in Seattle. That’s how we got to visit Tokyo. In Qatar and Dubai, Zilla had a landing visa only: meaning, he could change planes, but not leave the airport.

You know us. We love to eat. We’ve always wanted to go through Paris together, to visit France. But the closest French consulate is in San Francisco. Those were the years when Zilla’s father was ill. We were usually making last minute trips in the middle of the night to try reach his Zilla’s dad. We weren’t planning ahead. We didn’t have to time to get Zilla a French visa, or the energy or the money for vacation. As much as we wanted to, we never made it to Paris.

It is a strange feeling to realize that the man you love and live with and share a bank account with is not welcome in the same countries you are. It is equally strange to realize that their immigration status can change and all of that does too. In January 2010, twenty years after he arrived in the US and two months after his father died, Zilla became a US citizen.  In Buddhist Sri Lanka families give an offering—a dhane—to the monks on the one year anniversary of a death. Zilla started booking flights. I remember him looking up from the computer. His face was full of wonder. “I have a US passport. We could fly through Paris.”

A restaurant

A place setting

The way the flights worked out we ended up with seven hours. We would land in Charles de Gaulle at 7pm, take the train to Gare de Lyon station to save a few Euros and then catch a taxi and get something to eat.  The plan was to splurge on the restaurant, take as long as possible eating, and then stumble back to the airport full and sated in time for our next flight.

Zilla emailed our friend S. “We have one night in Paris. Where should we eat?”

S lived in Paris years ago—and almost everywhere else that is wonderful to eat. He always knows the most quietly creative places. He used to organize rigorous tasting tours for his friends.

We got an email back almost instantly.

“The general plan would be:

-land, clear immigration, (7pm?)

-head into Paris (train or taxi, arrive at 9pm)

-get a late reservation at a bistro and eat for 2-3 hours

-head to a cocktail bar or simply wander around Paris, stopping at the occasional café

-taxi back to airport

-grab 2 hours of sleep

“I think you two would love Chateaubriand and as long as you make it there, you won’t care what you do before or after. I will call and get you a booking.”

-S

Le Chateabriand Paris 2011-6

fork on a plate

Z looked at his watch. We’d been circling Charles De Gaulle for 30 minutes. Raindrops glistened on the small oval airplane window. Yellow lights mapped out the spider web of Paris below.

“We might not make our reservation.”

By the time we landed and cleared customs it was already 9pm. We headed to the train station just as the train was pulling out. Zilla grabbed my hand and we ran across the street.

Taxis?” the driver asked.

“Oui,” Zilla said and opened the door for me.

The driver leaned back over the seat. His eyes looked like a child’s drawing of a seagull on the horizon. “Bonsoir monsieur.”

Bonsoir,” Zilla said. “Le Chateaubriand, Rue 129 Avenue de Permentier.” In what sounded to me like a perfect accent.

Ahh, vous parlez français.” The driver nodded deeply and entered the address into his GPS.

I jabbed Zilla with my elbow. “Vous parlez français?????

Zilla looked as surprised as I did. “I studied French at the Alliance Française in Sri Lanka when I was a kid. I didn’t realize I remembered.”

The things this man doesn’t tell me!

We flew down the highway. An accordion turn played on the radio. The wet road glowed with white tail lights. Then they turned red.

Zilla looked at his watch. The traffic came to a complete stop.

Ooh la la,” driver sighed.

Ooh la la,” I repeated softly to myself. “I don’t usually think of it as an expression for a traffic jam.”

“No,” Zilla said. We were now almost an hour late. “Not unless the traffic jam is wearing lingerie.”

Smiling ZillaSalad and wine

When we reached the restaurant the curtains were drawn. Zilla peeked in the corner. Every table was full.

I looked around. A man passed us on the street carrying a baguette. Metal garage doors were pulled down over store fronts, some covered in graffiti. The sidewalk was glazed with warm yellow– not yet incandescent blue-cones of light. I wasn’t sure I wanted to just walk around.

Just then another couple arrived. Then five minutes later a third. Then the door opened.

The waiter wore an ironed shirt. He had a deep blue apron around his waist. His eyes crinkled. Then he said something in French that I did not understand.

Zilla looked amazed. Then he turned to me and smiled.

“We are just in time for the second seating.”

Delicious does not begin to describe it. And really, everyone was so kind.

Celebrate

My sister once said: “I never know where you are in the world but I know you are eating good cheese.” I took this as a great compliment, and it was more or less true. I love stinky cheeses– the stinkier the better–, and Zilla and I traveled whenever we could. Until we decided to settle down and try to get pregnant.

Well, last week I decided that that silver lining you are always hearing about is the foil wrapper on Stilton Cheese. For the first time in a year I knew I wasn’t pregnant. I could eat anything I wanted. I ate raw eggs. Cured meats. I cooked my beef rare.  And man, we went to PFI and bought some stinky unpasteurized cheeses. I went to town!

Case of Cheese

I last went to PFI about a month ago.  I was preparing a birthday dinner for our friend S. He was turning 40.

Five years ago, I cooked S’s 35th birthday. It was one of my first official catering gigs. The first course—of twelve–was a selection of oysters –Virginicas, Kumomotos, Totten Inslets. I ate one before everyone arrived, while I was shucking. By the time I set the second course on the table I was running for bathroom.  There were fifteen guests and ten courses to go and I was sick. Never mind about me, I was just terrified it would happen to someone else.

Zilla took over cooking for a while until we were sure I was better. Then course after course, we waited. I brought out the vitello tonnato and waited, the sorrel soup and waited, the sardine, the quail…  I was the only one. With each course the table got quiet except for full happy sounds.

Appetizers

S plans ahead. He asked us last year if we would cook for his 40th. When S was 35 he lived in Seattle. But a few years ago he moved to Hong Kong. Maybe he’d come to Seattle, he said, and celebrate with old friends here, or maybe do it in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong! I wanted to go to Hong Kong! How I could possibly say no to Hong Kong? But how could I possibly cook in an unknown kitchen?

I stayed up nights, wondering how to pack ingredients and pans.

Napkins and Cherry Blossoms

To my relief—because I never could have said no–S settled on Seattle and we began menu planning in earnest. He suggested we simply redo the previous menu. I declined, specifically, to serve anything with oysters.  Instead, we decided on a Spanish/Portuguese theme.  Delicious!

Sometimes things don’t go quite right the first time, but sometimes they go perfectly, exactly as planned. S invited fifteen guests, I served forty tastes for his 40 years, and we had no disasters, just a really fun, really delicious, filling celebration.

Which is what I love most about S: he takes the time to celebrate. I forget sometimes. And I think it’s important to remember that things really are pretty good.

After the feast

(all the pictures are before and after, because it the middle I had to cook!)

Take me to Tokyo

Sakura Blossom Ueno Park

The cherry blossoms are just coming out and everywhere I turn I start thinking about Tokyo.

The first time Zilla took me to Sri Lanka, which was-wow- already seven years ago, our flight connected through Narita, which is to Tokyo what Seatac is to Seattle. We were in Sri Lanka almost three weeks and in Tokyo for only three days, but it is Japan that I really remember.

Part of it, I’m sure, was the unexpected good luck of it all. Sri Lanka, in those days, was still at war and while we were there the airport was bombed. Zilla and I were newly together, and being home with him, meeting his parents, being white, wondering if what we had would work and if we were even physically safe was, well, a lot. But when we landed in Japan all of that was over. We were just two people again, with two days together.

DSC_0064

We took the train in to Tokyo and walked up the stairs to Ueno Park. Petals blew in the wind and fell on my face. Without even realizing it, without even considering it might happen, even thinking it was remotely possible, we’d come to Tokyo —and had two whole days—right in the middle of the Cherry Blossom Festival.

DSC_0047

The park was pink, petals lined the paths. People were out of their offices, celebrating. Men in suits and women in skirts–knees neatly folded—sat on blue tarps and drank sake. Their shoes lined the blue plastic. Petals fell in their black hair. Petals fell on their umbrellas.  The air smelled like fresh linen. Everyone was talking and taking photos. Food carts were parked everywhere.

Japanese Fans

DSC_0079

Tokyo Strawberry Lollipops

Japanese Woman

DSC_0018

Zilla spent the first grade in Kyoto—because his parents were on sabbatical there— and he still remembers how to pronounce some Japanese. Please and thank you, bathrooms, money, takoyaki, which the food carts sold, but mostly just the basics now, since it has been thirty years. But his pronunciation is perfect and he has the right body language, a sense of when to nod and bow. So I followed his lead, and we just carried on with a few words and lots of sake, covered in petals and eating fresh tofu soup, making new friends, as it grew dark.Photographing Cherry Blossoms

That night we stayed in a traditional Japanese ryokan—or guest house–on  folded mats. I bathed nude in the traditional baths with three old ladies—more on that, I promise—and we had a thirty course meal, one of which was a single perfect strawberry, that reminds me that perfect falls short as a word. A geisha—or at least that is what she looked like to me– in full kimono brought each dish, kneeled at our low table, backed away as if I were a queen, and then bowed. I hadn’t seen anything like it, except on Reading Rainbow! We still have the menu framed on our wall.

DSC_0115

Fortunes Tokyo Ueno Park

Ueno Park Tokyo Sakura Cherry Blossoms

I think about that trip sometimes, when life gets busy and time seems to stop. Graham Greene says in Travels with my Aunt that travel makes stretches time, makes it longer. Two days, and they held enough wonder for years. Just two days.

Where would you go?

Update 1: I finished my first Computer Science problem set. BAAM! As Emeril would say. The second one was harder: baam? (not a roar, but a meow)

Update 2: Several says ago I woke up to this email: “Your friend has send you an article from WebMD.” I opened it. “How to Get Pregnant Quick: Fertility, Ovulation and Conception.” The friend who sent it? Zilla’s mom! AHHHHHHH! At least I know she’s reading my blog.

Free

Last Fall, Istanbul, Turkey

Lahmacun?”

I wanted to know if Z had anymore room to try this hot bread that the books compared to Turkish pizza. He nodded. We got out the map an stepped off the main street. Soon, our footsteps echoed. Windows were smashed. Molding and grand old façades crumbled.

I handed Z the map. “Are we going to right way?”  He nodded. A large dog’s bark echoed in an empty building.  We were only three blocks downhill from Istiklal. “What do you think happened? Where did everyone go?”

Z shrugged. “Why do you think they went anywhere?” He pointed at a shop. Three men worked a long wooden paddle in front of an oven. Hot lavash flew in and out. I stopped. They stopped. One of the men handed me a small piece and smiled. They would not let us pay.

Z put his wallet back into his pocket as a family drove past, groceries and children and grandparents, all on the motorbike. “It is a neighborhood. It’s not fancy, but people live here.”

*

We turned up the hill, towards Istiklal and our hotel just as people began to spill down on their way home from work.

Butchers cut meat, bakers flaky slabs of borek; greengrocers spooned olives or wrapped quince or dark grapes in tissue paper.  Sun set orange over the mosque and I heard the first notes of the call to prayer.

We stopped in front of one of the shops. I compared it to the picture in our book.

The round man inside waved. “Lahmacun, no? I said to him my friend you will come back one more time.”  He pointed to a boy in a leather jacket who worked kebabs on a grill. Before we could answer he began to flour the dough and pull its edges into a soft circle. “Where you from?” He looked to Z’s darker skin and then to mine.

“Sri Lanka,” Z said, “But we live in the US.”

The man ladled some sauce onto the dough and winked.  “You have American girl.”

The small room smelled of meat and smoke and sweat and sweet pepper.

“Wife,” Z said.

‘Wife,” the man said, solemnly, and pushed the paddle deep into the oven.

He looked into his wood fire and then into Z’s eyes. “You citizen?”

“Yes,” Z said, “But it took twenty years.”

“I have cousin in New York,” he smiled and tasted the lahmacun sauce. “I have American girl too. Sometime she visit. But always we fighting.”  He raised his eyebrows, took the crisp bread out of the oven, sprinkled on sumac and parsley and handed us the lahmacun. “You know women.”

The boy in the leather jacket turned a sis kebab and shook his head.

“How much?” Z asked.

I took a bite. Crunch and char and crisp leaves. The man smiled as I ate and held up his hands like a cowboy in a Western. “No, my friend, free.”