Palate of a Food Critic with the Temperament of a Toddler

Casual inspection might lead one to believe that Zack is the person in my household who is difficult to feed. After all, there are lots of foods he doesn’t like: coconut, cucumbers, mango, mushrooms, vinegar, mustard, eggs in most formulations, mayonnaise (except in Waldorf salad), sauce of any kind when applied to sandwiches.

This conclusion is incorrect, however. His pickiness is deterministic: avoid the things on the list and he’ll eat whatever you serve him, delighted to have someone else making the food decisions. My pickiness, on the other hand, is mystifying. What I am willing to eat changes dramatically from day to day, and convincing myself that I have to eat a thing because food is necessary for survival is an uphill battle. At thirty, my body seems to have the palate of a food critic with the temperament of a toddler and the sass of a surly teenager. Consider tonight’s internal discussion:

Brain: We’ve got to eat again.

Body: We just did that like three hours ago. I’m not interested.

Brain: Yeah, well, we’ve got to do it anyway. Can’t you hear our stomach rumbling?

Body: Meh.

Brain: *sigh*

Brain: So what do you want to eat?

Body: A fresh corn and tomato galette with goat cheese.

Brain: We don’t have any goat cheese. Also I don’t want to make pastry. How about a bowl of cereal?

Body: UGH. FINE. Fried rice with the broccoli rabe we thinned from the garden today.

Brain: There’s no rice made, and it’ll take forty-five minutes to make more. By the time the fried rice would be ready, we’ll have passed out from hunger. How about scrambled eggs with the rabe thinnings and tomatoes?

Body: Do you have goat cheese? Because I’m not eating scrambled eggs with tomatoes unless there’s goat cheese involved.

Brain: *rubs at temples* Would you eat a sandwich?

Body: I’d consider eating a charred corn crepe with tomato salad …

Brain: You would?

Body: … if there was goat cheese.

Brain: …
Brain: Leftover cauliflower paneer?

Body: WE JUST HAD THAT FOR LUNCH WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU

Brain:  What about cottage cheese with tomatoes? We had that the other day and you enjoyed it! And the tomatoes are really fresh–we just picked them this morning!

Body: That’s not even cooking. Also, too cold and squishy.

Brain: You’re a jerk, you know that?

Body: FINE. I will accept your paltry offering of a sandwich, but it had better be a FANCY FUCKING SANDWICH. WITH PEACHES, SLACKER.

Brain: *googles ham, arugula, and peach sandwiches to solicit cheese suggestions*

Body: I notice that all of these sandwich recipes call for goat cheese.

Brain: Well, our options are Swiss, havarti, or cheddar. So you’re gonna have to deal.

Body: UGH

Body: I can’t believe you’re not grilling this sandwich

Brain: We’re out of propane and we don’t own a grill pan. Also, I didn’t want to get our fingers oily when we ate.

Body: *side-eyes the sandwich in the toaster*

Brain: I should have just let us faint from low blood sugar.

Body: *picks every piece of arugula off the sandwich*

Brain: I thought you liked arugula.

Body: And maybe if you’d grilled it, I would.

Brain: Why do I hang out with you?

Body: *shrug* Also, I’m still hungry.

Brain: *ragequits*

 

Honestly, it’s amazing that I’ve survived as long as I have.

 

 

 

 

Palate of a Food Critic with the Temperament of a Toddler

Sweet and Sour

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I take my tea sweeter than I used to, when I take it with lemon and honey instead of black. This is interesting to me, especially given the list of things I have rejected just this week for being too sweet (pad thai, Russian apricot cheesecake, lemonade). When I was younger, I took my tea bracingly acidic, half a lemon squeezed into a mug with only a scant teaspoon of honey to temper the sourness. I could tell I had achieved the appropriate quantity of lemon juice when the tea bleached out.

My voice teacher, who introduced me to the practice of tea with honey and lemon, made me a cup almost weekly over the course of two decades. He’d put a moderate squeeze of lemon and two or three teaspoons of honey in the cup–styrofoam when we were at one of the Baptist Churches where he was music minister, sturdy ceramic when we were at his house or the university. It was usually too sweet, and I would add an extra squeeze or two of lemon when I’d drunk enough for there to be space in the cup.

Of course, in high school I used to peel limes and eat them like oranges. It’s amazing that I have any enamel left on my teeth at all.

My family would say that I come by it naturally. One of my father’s sisters was once pulled over by a cop who suspected her of drinking while driving. He wanted to know what was in the cup she was drinking from. She explained that it was lemon juice. He didn’t believe her, so he took a swig.

It was definitely lemon juice. Undiluted lemon juice, poured straight from the Real Lemon bottle.

She didn’t get ticketed.

She also didn’t have any enamel on her teeth by the time I was around.

I don’t know when I started preferring my tea to be a little more balanced than a hot lemon punch in the face. Maybe in Scotland, when I discovered heather honey, which spread like jam and clung stubbornly to the spoon in my cup. Or maybe it was that Thanksgiving during my second master’s when I spent the whole weekend in the lab drinking lemon tea until I ended up in the ER with listeria (I have avoided entire classes of things I ate that weekend). Or maybe it’s just that now I only make tea with honey and lemon when I am feeling particularly cold or sick, and in need of a little extra soothing.

I guess sometimes we all need a little extra sweetness.

 

 

 

 

Sweet and Sour

July, July

I have acquired a small cold; an achey lethargy in my limbs, a stuffiness in my sinuses, a soreness in my throat. I should not be surprised, I suppose–Zack acquired something similar last week.

There is something especially frustrating about a summer cold. In the winter, when it is dark and rainy, it doesn’t feel like much of an imposition to lie on the sofa, drinking endless cups of hot tea with honey and lemon, scrolling through Pinterest infinity. In the summer, when the blue sky goes on for ages and the garden is crawling all over itself in its enthusiasm for growth, it’s much harder to accept the need to be still and recover. Even more so when you’ve got delicate broccoli rabe seedlings pushing up through the soil, ready to wither away unless they’re kept properly moist.

So I dragged my sniffley butt down to the garden, hoping that the alpine strawberries that went straight from the plant to my mouth would make this cold a short-lived one. I harvested a handful of cherry tomatoes and tucked them in a tiffin for Future Me to snack on, then deeply watered all the plots.

I was tired, afterwards. I had to take a nap.

But for a moment, in the dappled shade of the oak tree, water droplets bouncing off the tomato vines, I felt pretty good.

A cluster of cherry tomato blossoms in my garden. The stems holding the blossoms are covered in tiny hairs; the blossoms point towards the soil. The open blossoms are shaped like five pointed stars, or like spinning dancers twirling their skirts wide. Tiny green tomatoes are forming in the cluster already, the withered blossoms still attached to the end.

 

July, July

I am Anti-White and You Should Be, Too

Sometimes, when discussing issues around racism, I hear people say, “I’m not anti-white, I’m anti-racism.”

This is the kind of soft-peddling that is supposed to make an anti-racist message more palatable to white people. It is supposed to soothe white people’s feelings.

On issues of racism, let me say, loudly and forever, FUCK WHITE PEOPLE’S FEELINGS.

I am, actually, anti-white. Whiteness was created by racism. Whiteness doesn’t exist except in context of anti-Blackness and white supremacy. Whiteness is a scourge on the globe, a social construct whose only purpose is to justify the oppression and murder people of color.

That is why we should be anti-white. That is why we should want to see the whiteness dismantled. The knowledge that this construct of whiteness, built to benefit us and our ancestors at the expense of people of color, is still brutalizing and killing people today, should be enough to convince us to commit to its complete obliteration.

But if that’s not enough, consider this: whiteness robbed us of our cultural heritage.

In the United States, people with light enough skin could become white. The Irish, the Scottish, the Italians, the Germans, the Polish–all groups who faced significant prejudice within the US–traded their cultural identities for the protection of whiteness. Any group that could pass as white, did, because of the enormous benefits confirmed by the white supremacist systems we built here.

Assimilate into whiteness, the choice was clear, or risk suffering some portion of the cruelty that white supremacist systems visit upon people of color.

Those that could assimilate, did. They gave up their languages, their holidays, their traditions–until only wane shadows of who they had been remained. They were white, now, the only distinction that mattered in the United States.

This is a testament to how badly we treat people of color–people will give up their identities to avoid similar treatment.

So when we feel culturally unmoored–envious of the robust cultural heritage of more recent immigrants and the people of color who couldn’t choose whiteness, wishing for that connection to past and future, aching for those structures to bring your community closer–remember, that was the cost of admission to whiteness. Our ancestors sold our cultural heritage for the opportunity to be white. What we lost cannot be measured; in exchange, we received a new identity built entirely around sadistically murdering and enslaving people with dark skin.

We can’t undo that bargain, any more than we can undo a thousand years of oppressing people of color. No amount of genealogy research and trips to Europe will ever give us back what we could have had. We grew up white, a cultural identity drenched in blood and blandness.

But it doesn’t have to stay this way. We can reject whiteness. We can dismantle all the systems and institutions that privilege whiteness. We can relegate whiteness to the ash heap of history. We can begin building new cultural identities for ourselves, that don’t exist purely to oppress people of color. We can raze whiteness, salt the earth of anti-Blackness, and begin to build cultures free from injustice, together.

We can–and we must.

So yeah, I’m anti-white.  You should be, too.

For further reading on the construction of whiteness:

 

 

 

I am Anti-White and You Should Be, Too

Berlin, Wieder, Immer

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It is in the nature of cities to change.

They tore down the stand where I used to buy currywurst; the sidewalks and streets are busy with bicyclists now. Hipster restaurants line the streets of Neukoeln and they’ve built fancy condos along the East Side Gallery. The graffiti is denser on the walls, but it’s more words than pictures. The buses have two stories; they sell tortillas at the small grocery store near my flat.

It is in the nature of people to change.

My German is ten years decayed, clumsy on my tongue and slow in my mind. I am fat, now, my flesh lush and my mind untroubled by the endless depressing calorie counting of my twenty-year-old self. I have a business and I apparently come across as enough of a professional that people want to listen to me. My home is ludicrously full of plants, my community ludicrously full of love.

I was afraid to come back to Berlin.

I fell in love with this city at 18, moments after my plane touched the tarmac. I had never encountered something like it; my models for cities were Memphis and Dallas and Tulsa, heat and endless driving. I’d seen Chicago, briefly–been dazzled by the skyscrapers and taken dozens of photographs of fire escapes. I’d been to London, even more briefly–at 17 I found it too clean and proper to hold my attention.

But Berlin–it was 9:36 am when I landed, and I hadn’t slept a wink on the plane. Berlin shocked the sleep from my eyes with its visual cacophony–the art, the graffiti, the inexplicable giant pipes, the glorious old architecture standing by the scars of war, the no-nonsense lines of communism.

I had never experienced such freedom of movement; I had never seen a place with so many surprises. It was my first experience walking in a city where the air smelled like flowers. Berlin is an intensely green city–towering shade trees line the sidewalks, and even the waste spaces fill with plants.

It was a place where I liked to be outside.

That had never really happened before. Oklahoma is a hard place to grow up if you don’t like to be hot or cold. I spent most of my summers looking for pools of shade to scuttle between. My neighborhood didn’t have sidewalks. I’d never ridden a bus that wasn’t a school bus.

So my love for Berlin was immediate and intense.

And that was just the city. My friends here seemed so grown-up: multilingual, well-traveled, competent. I had only had my driver’s license for six months; when their girlfriends slept over at their parents’ houses, they shared beds. They navigated these huge, complex systems like fish in a river, utterly at home, and I still didn’t know how do do laundry.

I resolved to split my time between Berlin and the US. I was going to be a commercial pilot; I would fly the trans-Atlantic routes for FedEx and write novels high over the ocean. I’d have lovers in Berlin and Paris and New York, slipping into their beds in the wee hours still smelling of expensive perfume, ozone, and jet fuel*.

That didn’t play out quite like I’d planned, but I came back to Berlin as soon as I could. I spent a semester at the Technische Universitaet, not eating enough but still rattling around the city in a constant state of wonder and delight. I was probably depressed, then–too isolated even from my friends here and spending too much time alone in my cubby of a dorm room–but Berlin drew me out over and over to chase some new surprise.

I was trying on identities then, I think. I had plans of becoming glamorous and cosmopolitan. Berlin sang endless stories of possibility and adventure that I could spin my life around.

And then I went home (it never gets any easier to leave Berlin) and didn’t return for a decade, except for a handful of days that Christmas and another handful in 2010.

I was afraid to come back to Berlin.

I have changed so much in the intervening decade, and so much more in the four years I count as My Adventures in Real Adulthood™. I am happier than I have ever been, for all that this year was a series of storms to weather, but I have long since abandoned plans of being either glamorous or cosmopolitan. I gave up bras, for Christ’s sake, because I can’t stand to be even the slightest bit uncomfortable unless it is absolutely necessary. I put a significant amount of effort into optimizing my closet into a uniform chosen for practical comfort; I’m pretty sure I discarded glamour some time ago.

I doubted that I had grown up to fit in Berlin.

I worried that the intervening years had worn away my friendships–that’d I’d missed too much while struggling to survive in our late capitalist dystopia. I worried they’d find my decayed German irritating, my body too large to exist in their city.

Fortunately, Past Me is always glad to sign me up for things that terrify me, and then my plane was landing and I was once again submerged in the delicious shock of Berlin.

It took me a few days before I concluded I could still swim here and not drown. My first night, as I am standing outside my flat, desperate to pee and completely unable to unlock the door, I had serious doubts. I felt keenly out of place in public–my uniform has rather starkly diverged from the styles of Berlin, and I was self-conscious about the fullness of my skirt and the neckline of my dresses. Last Friday, exhausted and pushing through the crowds of revelers beginning their nights at Warschauerstrasse, I thought maybe the me who moved through Berlin in a cloud of grace and delight didn’t exist anymore. I felt, instead, intensely awkward, perpetually standing in someone’s way and forty-five seconds behind on the correct response in German.

But on Saturday I had lunch with a new friend, someone who came to know me only after I entered Real Adulthood™, and together we threw a rope across the gorge between my diverged lifetimes. Suddenly I was no longer just ghosting through nostalgia, observing the places and people as they’ve moved on without me, but building something new again. My German, assisted by a German language viewing of Captain America: Civil War, began to return a little. The awkward chill of time and distance began to melt off my old relationships and they introduced me to their lives and selves as they are now.

I successfully ordered an ice cream cone even though I couldn’t remember the word for cone.

I needn’t have worried. Berlin changed and I changed and my relationships changed and though we didn’t change together, shaped by each other’s changing, we weren’t rendered irreconcilably different, either. There are new things to bring us delight and wonder together, even if they aren’t what I imagined they would be.

A selfie of the author, taken standing under a weeping willow tree by the river Spree. The sun is shining off the water and in her hair.

It is, after all, in the nature of cities and people to change.

*A pilot should probably not smell like jet fuel. Further, it would be really impolite to slip into someone’s bed while smelling like jet fuel.

Berlin, Wieder, Immer

Calculations I Wish I Could Do

I was not a good student of physics–
my notes from those classes were mostly sketches

superhero personifications of the forces of nature
decapitated heads sliding gooeily down inclined planes
and once, a refrigerator floating in space.

I wanted to know–
when you drop a fork in your kitchen
how much is its fall changed
by the gravitational pull of the fridge?
It’s hard to calculate for your kitchen,
but I tried, for a refrigerator floating in space.

It is easier, if you assume the fridge is empty.

I want to know, now–
how much ice cream to add to my coffee (in grams)
so the coffee stays warm until I’m done drinking
and there’s still two or three bites of floating island ice cream
in the last few gulps.

I know

we’ll have to make assumptions
about the temperature of the ice cream (and its density, and shape)
about the temperature of the coffee (and its volume)

I know

we are always making assumptions

I wish I could calculate
the right amount of doing
to balance our tenuous human connection with

my desire to exist as myself

I have tested
all of the assumptions
and my heart still throws

an exception

Calculations I Wish I Could Do

These City Lights

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Last summer…

… before Zack’s mom got sick
… before spending weeks driving to and from the hospital in the Oklahoma heat
… before my sister moved into our one-bedroom flat with us
… before my grandfather was hospitalized for brain hemorrhaging
… before my mom came down with MRSA again
… before the really terrible extraction of my wisdom teeth
… before, before, before

… I planted some Bright Lights Swiss chard. It struggled in the unusual heat–even in my shaded plot at the community garden, the sun scorched bare spots into its leaves, laying bare the cellulose skeleton beneath the deep green foliage.

I didn’t harvest it. I didn’t harvest it, because I had never cooked with Swiss Chard before, and trying new things requires overcoming inertia. I didn’t harvest it, because everything in our lives tumbled end over end for months as we scrabbled desperately for some kind of equilibrium. I didn’t harvest it, and I didn’t harvest it, and I didn’t harvest it, and then suddenly it was spring again and the sickly chard of last summer was towering gloriously over the red pansies like I had planned it that way.

So last week, I harvested some chard.

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I had planted the chard originally because I’d seen pictures of jars of pickled chard stems, and they were gorgeous. Now, having my own wealth of beautiful chard stems, I decided to try my hand at it. I used a variation of my favorite quick-pickle brine, adapted from the brine used for pickling carrots at Tartine Bakery in the Mission in San Francisco. It’s not acidic enough to be made shelf-stable, but they last for a long time in the fridge.

The pickled chard stems turned out so beautiful that it’s almost a shame to eat them–they’re nearly iridescent.

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Makes 2 half-pints

  • Swiss chard stems
  • 1 cup of water
  • 1/2 cup white wine vinegar
  • 2 cloves of garlic, sliced
  • Peppercorns, mustard seeds, and red pepper flakes (in amounts you find pleasing)
  • Approximately 1 tablespoon of salt (I use Morton’s Kosher: if you’re using Diamond Kosher, which is fluffier, you’ll probably want more than a tablespoon).
  1. Cut and arrange your clean Swiss Chard stems so they fit comfortably in the half-pint jars. You’ll be pouring brine full of spices on top of the stems, so make sure the stems aren’t crammed in there too tightly–you want the spices to have room to drift past the stems.
  2. Bring the water, white wine vinegar, garlic, and spices to a boil in a small pan.
  3. Stir the salt into the water/vinegar/spice mixture and stir until dissolved.
  4. Carefully pour the brine over the chard stems in the jars.
  5. Seal jars and refrigerate for at least 48 hours before consuming.

But, for some reason Zack insists that pickles don’t count as a meal when consumed on their own, so I made some pasta with the rest of the chard.

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This is less a recipe than a template: toasted breadcrumbs layered over chard sauteed with garlic on top of a long, thin pasta (I used angel hair). Toasted breadcrumbs were a revelation. I used up the ends of two loaves of bread so stale that when I tried to cut it into chunks for the food processor, it shattered, sending shards of bread skittering across the cutting board. But after a few minutes in a skillet with butter, olive oil, and garlic, the extra stale breadcrumbs transformed into something really special. (If you would like more specific breadcrumb instructions, I used Smitten Kitchen’s.) I had a few chard stems leftover from pickling, so I diced those and set them to saute first, adding the leaves only a few minutes before draining the pasta. The only thing I would add next time would be some lemon zest for the bread crumbs and a squeeze of lemon for the chard.

It’s a simple meal, but to me it tasted a little like hope, a little like redemption, a little like the promise of better days.

 

These City Lights