Category: Cooking

Sustenance

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I made tamales last week.

I have never made tamales on my own. I once made tamales at a friend’s 60th birthday party, but the ingredients were all accounted for, the fillings made, and we assembled them under her direction. We made hundreds of tamales together. And each of us got to take home a Ziploc full of steamed tamales. I’ve never been to a more delicious birthday party.

I like the communal aspect to making things like dumplings, ravioli, and tamales. And I love tamales.

So I really wanted to make tamales on my own.

There are so many other things I’ve been doing on my own. I bought my car’s child seat a few weeks after I was on my own with her. I assembled her toys and I’ve used a screwdriver more times than any in my life to date in this past year. I’ll have to do my taxes for the first time on my own, too. I’ve never done my own taxes, before, believe it or not. This is what happens when you meet the man who becomes your husband when you are in college.

We bought fresh masa at the Mexican grocery store across the street from the urban farm store. We have chickens now. It’s been raining, so we bought straw to mitigate mud puddles, and more feed so they could eat. We expect they will lay eggs any week, now. They are hearty and happy chickens. One is friendly and comes straight up to you, a second is spunky and figures things out a little faster than the others, and a third is standoffish and cranky. I named them after Gatsby female characters: Jordan, Myrtle, and Daisy.

We also bought chile peppers, tomatillos, and lard.

I made the fillings. I have been a very bad Jew this year, and I continued in that vein and bought a pork shoulder to braise and slather with a homemade red chile sauce. And a chicken that I poached. I blistered the tomatillos and made a tomatillo sauce for the chicken.

Then I went to sleep. Tamales take a lot of labor, require many steps, and I decided to spread it out over a couple of days.

There have been many steps in my life this year. I look back at the long road behind me, and I have come a ways. Some of the things around me are decidedly new and exhilarating. Other things are new and frightening, or familiar and comforting. Most exasperating are the things that are familiar and toxic. I am still taking steps.

Some days I am petrified with fear. I am not sure what will happen, and all the roads before me are new, and I am tired and overwhelmed and very scared, even while I am oftentimes happy and exhilarated. You can be happy and scared at the same time, by the way.

Last week, I had an anxiety attack that was so bad, I sat in my bed rocking myself, while hugging myself. I was crying, too. I was aware that I was acting crazy, but rocking back and forth made me feel better. So I kept doing it. I had to. I thought about the time I read about little babies in orphanages rocking themselves in their cribs, because they weren’t held enough, and because human beings need that comfort. Comfort. Comfort. I rocked back and forth for about half an hour and texted a good friend that I was doing so. Then she called me. I answered the phone, sniffling through my nose like a little kid. And then I felt better.

There is a lot of labor. A lot of work. Some of it is dreary. But I’m happy to say that a chunk of the labor is writing a memoir about my stroke, a glimpse of which readers saw in my BuzzFeed essay, “I Had a Stroke at 33.” I am writing a book proposal and getting started on writing the chapters.

I try to rest when I can. It is hard to rest when there is a toddler zooming around the house. But I am thankful to everyone who helps me watch after her. Very thankful. Like, a forever indebted thankful. Like, I wish I could pay everyone who watches my daughter a million dollars.

I woke up the next day and heated up some water and put all the dried corn husks into the pot so that they could soften.

Then I did some work. Some writing. After the husks were soft enough for folding, I scooped out lard and a little bit of butter and turned on the mixer. Then I added the fresh masa. And then some chicken broth from the poached chicken. Just so you know, at this point, masa mixture went flying everywhere. There are still little lard and masa flecks on the side of my fridge.

But when I plopped a teaspoon of mixed masa into water, it floated. Which meant the masa was ready to use.

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Yes, I am aware that it looks like a tiny penis. I did not do it on purpose. Though it still pleases me that this happened.

I set up the masa assembly. My tamale-partner-in-crime had work to do, so I assembled the tamales myself. It seemed fitting to my theme. I did not mind. It was peaceful to take a break from my writing and smear masa on the insides of corn husks, put a tablespoon of filling, and then some sauce on top of that, fold the husks, and then wrap them. I decided to put one tie on the pork tamales, and to put two ties on the chicken.

My tamales did not look very consistent. Some were misshapen or undersized and a few looked like actual tamales.

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I laid them in the steamer insert to steam.

Then you steam them for about an hour. I do this with my writing, too–sometimes you have to put something aside to do some baking. When I look at something I’ve written days later, some things become more clear to me. Ideas sprout.

Sometimes you have to wait for things to become delicious.

Our chickens are now four months old. In a couple of months they will begin laying eggs. The first eggs will be smaller, and possibly misshapen. Yes, I hear the first eggs can be quite odd. But then over time, their eggs will become larger and more consistent in size. We are waiting. We are caring for the hens, making sure they are fed and have water and a clean home.

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When the tamales come out of the steamer, they don’t look much different on the outside. The house smells good, though. I am salivating.

They keep for a few days in the fridge, and they do freeze well. I froze many of them, but we ate many more than we froze.

The cooked masa was fluffy, the filling savory and perfect. Our hands were greasy from the lard and butter in the tamales. This is why I think they are served rarely, even in homes with people who know how to make tamales. But what a treat.

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The labor is rewarding. Doing new things on your own is rewarding.

A couple months ago, I signed with an agent who believes in me and in whom I believe. BuzzFeed named my essay one of their 13 favorite personal essays they published in 2014. And I hope I write a memoir of which I can be proud. I have so many hopes.

Happy holidays.

Lunches for P

My toddler started Montessori–and with that, school lunchbox preparation commenced in our household. She isn’t too much into sandwiches and while she eats most anything, her tastes are still fickle; loves peas one day, wants nothing to do with them the next and loves chicken apple sausages for lunch, doesn’t touch any for dinner. Fun times.

I am driven crazy by the lunch making. Constantly making the lunches! The upside: I can take pictures of the lunches. So I take pictures of.the.lunches. That’s the thing with motherhood pictures; we are with our kid/s all day, and sometimes the only relief is taking photographs; kid just dumped food all over their head? Dammit. Gotta clean it. Gotta re-prep the food. Because kid will still be hungry. But–picture!

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I get up early each morning with my kid. Usually this means around 7am, but sometimes it’s as early as 5:30am if she’s teething or going through a moody phase. I give her a sippy cup of milk. And then I take out the yumbox bento thing.

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When I was a kid, lunches were a very political thing in the cafeteria. Not political in the strict Republican/Democrat sense, but political in the way when meaningless things can affect status. Like how lunchboxes were key in first grade, and how by sixth grade you were carrying lunch in a brown paper bag. And whether or not you had a Twinkie or Doritos, something that you could trade. Nevermind that you traded a Twinkie for a Zinger or Doritos for Cheetos, and the two things were pretty much the same–just the fact that you had something of value made your lunch and thereby you, more interesting, more valued.

I could never clearly explain the above to my mother, who packed my lunches for a short while. “Twinkies are important!”

“No,” she would say.

And she was right. They weren’t really important. But at the same time, they were.

I always put some pasta in my kid’s lunch. She, like so many toddlers, likes pasta. It’s a safe bet. Sometimes I will put in mini farfalle, other times annelini or ditalini. Maybe soba.

Toddlers don’t trade food, of course. During the first few days of transition, I watched the school eat; shoving fistfuls of food with trembling hands into their mouths, or maybe they would miss, and get part of their cheek. Half the food would fall onto the tabletop. They would try again. Like old folks, some of them. Random wailing, then random laughter.

In the meat compartment, I sometimes put in some sliced framani salami, or mini chicken sausages. Or leftover meat like diced steak. My kid likes her protein.

When I moved to California as a kid, I lived in a largely homogeneous neighborhood. I was one of two Korean kids in the whole school. One of three Asian kids. One year, there was a new kid who had just moved to the U.S. from Korea. He spoke no English. Here, said the teacher, teach him English.

At that point, I’d forgotten my Korean. I spoke no Korean, either. But somehow, I accepted the fact that it was my responsibility to be that bridge. I was eight years old. I took a yellow crayon, pointed to it and said, Yellow. I pointed to the words on the crayon label, and said, Yellow.

John (not his real name), brought lunch to school. He had kimbap in his lunchbox–everyone stared. The teacher pointed and said, “What is that? That’s beautiful!”

I knew what it was. I loved kimbap. But I would never dare bring it to school. I figure in our heads was a mixture of interest and awe. But then someone said, “Ewww!” and then everyone else said “ewww!” and that was that. He never brought Korean food to school again.

I also give my daughter vegetables and fruit. She loves legumes. Kidney beans. Edamame. Black beans. And also peas. Not so much broccoli, even though she loves saying the word broccoli. Also, all the fruit. Especially berries. I do not know what I will do when berry season ends. Though she does love frozen berries, and that will see us through winter.

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Eventually, I asked my mother if I could just buy lunch. That way I could be part of the masses. Everyone complained about the school lunches, but I liked them. My mother did not make me spaghetti or lasagna or enchiladas or anything Western at home. And I relished the cafeteria food. I liked the trays.

My daughter is fickle about cheese/dairy. She does not like yogurt, except when mixed into her sippy cup with milk. No cottage cheese, either. Sometimes she will eat cheese. She drinks enough milk, so I do not worry about her calcium. So sometimes I will put diced tofu in the dairy slot of her tray.

In junior high, there was a concession stand. No more cafeteria lunches. I would take my money and buy whatever I wanted. Usually, chili cheese fries. But then I started worrying about my weight. So when Big Debbie wanted my lunch money, I would give it to her. She was kind of a bully, but at the same time, I didn’t really eat, so I didn’t see it as a big deal.

My friend Toni and I sat together everyday for lunch. Sometimes we sat with Big Debbie and her friends. I didn’t sit with my classmates–Big Debbie was a year older, and her friends were kind of tough. Their frosted hair stood straight up with the aid of Aqua Net. They ate the cream filling out of Twinkies with a straw. I learned to swear.

In high school, I stopped eating altogether. I sat with my classmates by then. We sat adjacent to the rally court, on the risers. I sipped my diet coke.

The daycare provides a report with what my daughter eats each day. None, half, or all. She always eats her meat. Mostly eats her pasta. Some of her vegetables. Sometimes all or half of her fruit. Usually, none of her cheese.

Everyday, I wash the yumbox. And then the next day, I make her lunch again.

Peach Cobbler aka People We Have Lost

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I made peach cobbler yesterday.

A cobbler is not the same as a crisp or crumble or grunt or slump or buckle or pandowdy. All of these things are about baking fresh fruit topped with some kind of yummy topping, but a cobbler has a biscuit or cake topping.

I am a fairly experienced baker, but this was only the second time I’ve made a peach cobbler. I’m not an expert on baking cobblers, though I’m pretty good about eating them. So in that sense, I’m an experienced cobbler-taster.

The first time I made a peach cobbler was in an attempt to replicate a friend’s mom’s peach cobbler recipe. His mom died, and he was sad for a long while. He was not even twenty-eight when she passed away. And he wanted his mom’s peach cobbler.

Sometimes you want to taste something to connect to memories and people.

Let’s try to recreate it, I said. Let’s get that part of your mom back.

I googled peach cobblers–there were so many recipes. Fresh fruit. Canned fruit. Biscuit topping made from scratch. Biscuit topping from a can. Cake batter. Pie crust. The formulas are endless.

A cobbler is not the same as a cobbler is not the same as a cobbler, either.

Is it this one, I asked. Or this one. He does not cook or bake. He was not sure how to make it, but he remembered the ingredients, he remembered what she put in. Did she make it from scratch or use peaches from a can?

I went shopping. Bought peaches in a can. Pie crust. If I had my druthers, I’d have gotten fresh peaches. And made the topping from scratch. But we want what we want and what makes us feel most connected to ourselves in our food. I myself love Thrifty’s/Rite Aid ice cream. It’s shitty ice cream–not very rich tasting, and barely ice cream, but I don’t care; it’s what I grew up with and it’s where I went after school for a ten cent scoop of ice cream, and that is the best ice cream for me.

I preheated the oven, and then we mixed the peaches with cinnamon and corn starch. Does this smell right to you, I asked. Is it cinnamon-y enough? I made sure the juice would thicken, added pats of butter for richness. The technical details are often easiest–they are from rote memory.

We feel our way in the dark when it comes to the people we have lost. This is the chill of the wind I felt on New Year’s Eve. This is the taste of prosecco my friend and I shared. This was how his hands felt in mine as we wept. Maybe that was the real moment of goodbye.

That was the moment I told him he had shown me to the door. To 2014 after an awful, devastating 2013. That I would thrive. I was grateful, I told him.

And then I laid out the pie crust on top. Is this how it looked?

We have snapshots of memories–photographic stills. And I have photographs. We walked through the Village and SoHo taking photographs one afternoon, chasing that magic hour of light.

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Of course, we had the peach cobbler a la mode.

It was, he said, just like his mom’s. He held the dish in his hands.

That made me happy. Food is a connection to memories and people. It can ease loneliness. Sometimes, it is even love. Maybe equating food with love makes for a dysfunctional relationship, but sometimes we don’t get love, and then what? We have to make do with inadequate substitutes. Because sometimes the substitute keeps us from completely falling apart.

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But this time–I wanted to make my own peach cobbler. I was having a BBQ with friends, and it was a hot day, and it’s peach season, and I can’t eat peaches unless they’re cooked. So, cobbler.

I am allergic to raw peaches. I like to taste my food as I cook to make sure the aromatics and sugar and salt are in balance. But I cannot eat raw stone fruit–my mouth swells, itches, and burns. Even the skin on my hands itch and burn when I handle raw stone fruit.

I can eat cooked peaches–the thing to which I am allergic, the low levels of cyanogenics from the pit of stone fruits, disappears when the fruit is cooked. Chemistry can change all things. Heat changes ingredients–transforms them. Pressure and stress can change a relationship. This is denaturation.

I googled all the peach cobbler recipes. I found this hilarious writeup on making a peach cobbler, and it made me laugh and made me want to make a peach cobbler. And the recipe, which was based on this epicurious recipe, sounded on point, too. I love reading recipes–I can taste how the food comes together while reading the directions.

Sometimes, you just know a recipe when you see it. It’s like falling in love. That’s chemical, too.

I didn’t use peaches out of a can. I didn’t use pre-made pie crust. I made this peach cobbler with Frog Hollow Farm peaches and homemade biscuit dough. I went to the store and headed to the stone fruit, and stood behind a man squeezing each peach with vigor. “All of them are hard!” he said with deep judgment.

I would not let that man anywhere near my boobs, is what I was thinking with deep judgment. Aloud I said, “I see you are thorough and squeezed them ALL.”

“Yup!” he said, and moved on to the squeezing of the nectarines.

I did not mind hard peaches. They’re easier to cut. I can pry the pits out of the halves of them more easily. Actually, I will go so far as to say I prefer hard peaches for cobbler. Plus, they were Frog Hollow Farm peaches, and they never grow a bad peach. It’s true.

So while I prep the fruit, I smell. I inhale and see if I can detect the profile I want. Not being able to taste food while cooking is like being blind and trying to navigate a landscape. Or–being able to see and walking in the dark.

I don’t know why the friendship ends. He stops talking to me. I ask him why. I ask him why again. And no answer. There is something I cannot see in the (to me) abrupt silence. I wasn’t enough for him. I wasn’t enough for yet another man.

But I’m making another peach cobbler. And I adapt the recipe. I add a splash of vanilla to the sliced peaches. (Next time, I’ll add a glug of bourbon, too). I use brown sugar instead of white.

I put the peaches in the oven. The house starts to smell very very good.

I’m not fooling around with the biscuit dough, though–I follow the directions to a T. I mix the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. I add cold-cold butter and cut it in with a pastry blender. And then I add boiling-hot water a little bit at a time, until the dough comes together.

I am not tidy about dolloping the biscuit dough atop the half-cooked peaches. The dough does not look promising–it is gloopy and kind of wet. But I have faith; heat can change things.

And then it comes out like this. It is beautiful. And delicious.

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