Coming Home.

This is what I remember.

My mother making paella — from where I stand on a stool at the sink I can see the wooden spoon she’s using is stained yellow from the saffron. I’m tearing the legs and shells off of the frozen shrimp she will cook and stir into the pot. My hands burn from their cold flesh but it is oddly pleasing work, and their multiple slender legs make a strange and faint zipping noise as I separate them from their frosty, firm abdomens. I reward myself for each tail I coerce intact from its flimsy gray armor, and don’t realize I’ve been given this task to keep me busy, and quiet.

Tomatoes from the garden gathered in a wooden basket and placed before me. I grasp at them clumsily before they are washed, diced and tossed with feta cheese, herbs and olive oil, and then scooped up with pita bread.

Pan de sal, palm-sized rounds of bread dusted with grainy cornmeal and spread with rapidly-melting butter, brought to me on a hand-painted plate by one of my grandmother’s maids, along with a cardboard box of mango juice. Fried baby cuttlefish the length of my index finger, but much thinner and consumed whole — bones, head, tail. After eating them with my cousins in Manila, I clamor for it, but my mother only cooks the little fish for me once, when my father is out of the house; he hates smell.

Leaves of lox and slabs of cream cheese bookended by bagels from H&H, so salty and thick behind the teeth that talking is impossible. Ful, chick peas and fava beans warmed on the stove and spooned into a bowl before getting mixed with mashed garlic, lemon juice, parsley and olive oil. Honey Nut Cheerios and Rice Crispies, crunched with as little milk as possible so the round O’s and puffed rice still snap with each bite. Eggs scrambled with the sujuk my father hangs inside a wooden frame lined with mesh; it looks like a rabbit hutch, but nothing has ever lived in it but sausages drying.

Dolma, stuffed with rice and ground beef, the leftover orange oily broth of which my mother ladles into a mug for me to drink after dinner. Hummos whirled in the food processor with more and more lemon, garlic and tahini added until my father is satisfied. It’s that or mutabbal, which I dislike. Boureg, sheets of phyllo layered with shredded cheese, parsley and red pepper, flaky on the first day and reinflated in the toaster oven on the next. Tray after tray of baklava and Lebanese pastries, and separating each crumbly tier with my tongue. I suck at its rose-scented sweetness with as much strength as I can before finally chewing.

Spaghetti with meat sauce, my Armenian grandmother’s recipe, full of glistening sautéed onions. I plaster it with so much Kraft Parmesan that it resembles the surface of the moon more than a plate of pasta and I don’t care that it feels grainy. More strands of spaghetti, Filipino-style, sweetened with sugar and ketchup and cooked with sliced hot dogs and Spam.

Baloney sandwiches on white bread or lunch rolls, carried to our table in the dining hall on brown plastic trays. I am scared of the meatloaf, which I have neither seen nor eaten before. Breyer’s Cookies and Cream, chunks chiseled off with spoons while sitting on commercial-grade dormitory carpet next to my roommate, who is eating maraschino cherries direct from the jar. Rum and Cokes, obscenely syrupy, sipped nervously from red Solo cups from the corners of parties.

Wilted triangles of pizza oozing neon drizzles of oil onto flimsy napkins. Pasta salad drenched in bottled Italian dressing and tossed with cubed cheese, tomatoes and olives. We pretend we made it all from scratch and finish the leftovers in front of the open fridge. Wonder Bread toast, blanketed with butter and Smucker’s while still warm, so that together they melt into the crunchy top. Corn fritters we fry on the battered stove and dip into a puddle of maple syrup, leaving sticky trails across the counter.

California rolls, the first sushi my best friend tries, and I convince her to place the entire circle in her mouth even though she’ll struggle to chew it. Char siu baau buns, startlingly tangy inside puffy dough, shared with my mother’s father in countless Chinese restaurants and Chinatowns around the world; I carry this memory with me like a creased photograph kept in my wallet, and pull it out often in the days after his death. Chicken B’stilla, simultaneously savory and sweet, drenched in a yogurt and mint sauce I greedily lap up even though mint makes me think of being a child and ill, and of the strong teas my father brewed for me from the plants he tended in old wine barrels in the backyard. Aloo mutter in a room with tangerine-colored walls on Mass Ave, and the man I will marry in six years winks at me across the table.

Rib-eye steaks cooked medium-rare and eaten off of plates balanced on our knees. We don’t have a dining room, let alone a dining room table. Onions sweated for hours until they caramelize; I stir their gilded ropes into majedera, a mixture of lentils and bulgur, or cluster them across the crust of a goat cheese and sun-dried tomato pizza I will later adorn with an herb chiffonade. Whole split chicken breasts, garlic and lemon slices slipped beneath the fatty ivory skin that will turn crisp and blush gold within the heat of the oven. Butter cookies flavored with mahleb, powder ground from the pits of sour cherries, baked in my new kitchen following the recipe my father’s mother dictated to mine decades before she quietly dies at age eighty-eight in a Los Angeles nursing home that smells of copper and Lysol.

Sausages, sauerkraut and beer underneath the green and white striped awning of a tent on the Rhine. Lechón, the suckling pig I can’t eat without thinking about the sound the animal makes when a knife is plunged into its throat, something I heard for the first and only time when I was ten. Croque-monsieurs on the Pont Neuf, the wind threatening to loosen the scarf from my neck. Fruit-flavored margaritas on D’Aguilar Street; I’m panting in the Hong Kong heat and the tequila goes straight to my head. Cornish pasties and licking crumbs from my fingers in the shadow of Bath Abbey at Christmastime. Squat foil-capped bottles of Yakult, sweetened fermented milk purchased from a 7-Eleven in Seoul. Durian stinking up the car in a Bangkok traffic jam, though later as I eat its sweet and tender flesh, I’ll forget I breathed through my mouth for an hour and nursed a stench-induced headache.

A candied shell enclosing a dollop of sugared olive oil alongside a kumquat skin holding its flesh turned into sorbet. Breaded cubes of liquefied foie gras placed on the tongue whole, then made to explode by the pressure of my mouth closing. Wintermint and vanilla ice cream coerced by science into a pliable rope, knotted and twisted into a cool, icy coil that I cut into with a fork. A Stonehenge of roasted bones upright on a white plate, its marrow shiny and bright under overhead lights before I smooth it across craggy planes of toast, decorate it with verdant parsley leaves and dot it with coarse gray sea salt. And chocolate chip cookies, either straight from the oven or out of a bright blue package that noisily crinkles at my touch, served with a glass of milk to bring me home again.

Coming Home” by Leon Bridges.
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Wrapped Up in Books.

I’m many things, but a New Years resolutionist I am most certainly not.  That said, I am trying to be a bit more positive-minded, as opposed to my regular the-glass-isn’t-just-half-empty-but-also-about-to-fall-off-the-table-and-smash-into-a-million-pieces-on-the-floor mentality.  So rather than lamenting how I spent barely any time last year on writing posts, I’m instead going to focus on the fact that I spent a good amount reading books. And since I know there’s no way I’d be able to write proper-length posts on all of them, but I’ll give some simple summaries of each, along with my opinions.  Since I started recording what I read last year in April, that’s where I’ll begin.  I’ll keep writing these bookish posts and finish with the last book I read this month.

April

  • Winston had just died, and all I wanted to do when I got back to Boston from New York was reread the beautifully-written novel Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, about the titular geisha’s life before, during and after World War II.  I found the following apropos passage on grief, which I then emailed to my mother: “Grief is a most peculiar thing; we’re so helpless in the face of it. It’s like a window that will simply open of its own accord. The room grows cold, and we can do nothing but shiver. But it opens a little less each time, and a little less; and one day we wonder what has become of it.”
  • Not Becoming My Mother: and Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way by Ruth Reichl has been renamed For You, Mom. Finally for paperback, which is not unusual but still something that surprises me.  Something else that surprises me is that I don’t remember much of this memoir.  This is incredibly odd for me, as I have a remarkable memory.  I’m sure the writing is fantastic, as Ms. Reichl’s always is.
  • I do remember The Report by Jessica Francis Kane quite clearly, as I am fascinated by World War II and found this debut novel about a tragedy in the Bethnal Green tube station/air raid shelter to be ridiculously and enviously well-written.
  • A Polish emigrant and a New York adolescent are the sad and cynical narrators of Nicole Krauss‘s The History of Love.  Strange as it is to say, I didn’t care either way about the plot, but since I loved Leo the Pole so much, I managed to overlook everything else.
  • I’ve been obsessed with Suzanne Collins‘s Hunger Games trilogy for a while, and reread The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay for the first time in April.  It held up.
  • While I did enjoy Lynn Barber’s memoir An Education — which was made into the multi-nominated film with a star-making performance by Carey Mulligan — I wonder if part of the reason why I flew through it was because it was so short or because I was on a plane en route to Asia and therefore trapped.  Regardless, Ms. Barber is a perfectly fine writer who recounts her life in the heyday of 1960s England in a refreshing, straightforward way.
  • Ugh, I did not like An Evening of Long Goodbyes by Paul Murray, a hardback book club read that I lugged from Massachusetts to Manila, Vietnam, Cambodia, Hong Kong and back again.  Protagonist Charles Hythloday plays at being a nobly-born country aristocrat outside Dublin; when he’s forced to eke out a living, it was no surprise to me that this insipid loon struggles to find a place for himself in troubled modern-day Ireland.  There’s another storyline involving explosives and actresses, but I can’t be bothered to go into it.
  • Another novel I brought along on my Asia trip was The Missing by Tim Gautreaux, which set me down a path of kidnapping, violence and crime — in my readings, that is.  Mr. Gautreaux’s book is the truly compelling story not just of abduction, but also of redemption and revenge.  Oh, and there are riverboats.
  • I finished reading Bringing Adam Home: The Abduction That Changed America (by Les Standiford with Det. Sgt. Joe Matthews) in Siem Reap, and that night in my hotel room I used the dodgy Internet connection to Wikipedia Adam Walsh’s 1981 kidnapping.  From there I read about Ottis Toole, Henry Lee Lucas, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy and pretty much every other serial killer I could think of until I was too freaked out to open the door for room service.
Wrapped Up in Books” by Belle + Sebastian.

Memories Are Made Of This.

Keith and I were supposed to spend last Saturday night at Eleven Madison Park, a favorite restaurant of ours in New York, but Irene threw a wrench in our plans.  Mayor Bloomberg shut down the city, and Eleven Madison Park followed suit.  I can’t say I blamed them, regardless of how much I had been looking forward to dinner.  The restaurant has never failed me in the past, and I know we would have had a spectacular meal.  I was able to get us last-minute back up reservations at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, but they too closed because of Irene.

So, reservationless on the eve of a hurricane, we stayed at home with my parents and ate reheated-in-the-microwave rotisserie chicken from Costco.  A few hours later, the power went out.

And that is how Keith and I celebrated our sixth wedding anniversary.

I am not the kind of girl who cares about anniversaries, or Valentine’s Day, or if my partner stays out late with The Guys.  Frankly, I don’t give a damn about any of it.

Does Keith love me?  Do we still enjoy each other’s company?  Are we happy?  Yes to all of the above.  Isn’t that all that matters?

Okay, take all of that in and then scrap a third of it.  I mean, sure: love, company, happiness… I want to go to there, and most of the time, I do go to there.  But my relationship with Keith moved so seamlessly from platonic to passionate that until we got married, neither of us had a clue as to when it was we actually got together.  It was springtime, we agree, when I was nineteen and Keith twenty-three, but that’s it.  Was it March?  Or May?  Or in between, in April?

This is my point precisely: we have no idea.  And that’s why finally having an anniversary meant something to me.  Valentine’s Day can get bent.  It has nothing to do with me.  But a certain day in August…

It’s just plain nice to have one day marked in Keith and my lives that celebrates us, even if most of the time I don’t think about it unless someone asks or if the end of summer looms.  I feel that with Keith I’m part of something special, and though we take care to appreciate each other often, it’s important to take a minute once in a great while to formally acknowledge it.  Often with cocktails.  So when August 27th does come around, I like stepping into a dress and a favorite pair of heels, sitting across from my husband in a thoughtfully decorated room, and drinking a French 75 while talking about absolutely nothing related to our wedding.

Which is why I was pissed off at Hurricane Irene.

Now about those chickens…

My dad is a horrible snob.  He’s opinionated, and he’s particular, and sometimes — let’s face it — he can be a little racist.  That said, he loves Costco rotisserie chicken.

This is alternately bizarre and hilarious to me because my dad scorns places like IHOP and Outback Steakhouse (though he does like the occasional Red Lobster).  My father likes Peter Luger, drinking oghi on warm summer days and talking about life in Beirut.  Most modern American things are worthless, or a disappointment.  Case in point: Burger King.

In the seventies, when my parents were still dating, they went to a fancy dinner that neither of them enjoyed very much.  As my father drove my mother back to her apartment, he spotted a Burger King.  Still hungry, he pulled into the drive-thru.  They each ate a Whopper in the car, parked in the lot.  Now when my father talks about Burger King, what he has to say is all past tense, what Burger King used to be like.  He pinches an inch of air with his index finger and thumb and says, “The burgers used to be thick, like this.  And the lettuce was crunchy, and green.  The tomatoes used to be so fresh the juice would come out of it!  Now the hamburgers are so thin, like paper.”

For my father, the memory of something is always far more delicious than the reality.  So I can’t help but wonder, what’s up with the chicken?

To be clear, I fully admit to sometimes cheating a recipe and using a store-bought bird rather than poaching or roasting my own.  When I do that though, I feel like such a culinary con man.  My mother raised me better than this, I think guiltily as I hide the chicken’s take-out container deep within the recycling bin.

Of all the social stigmas in the world, the ones we’ve associated with food have got to be the strangest.  I mean, we have a whole category called junkBut is there anything junky about a rotisserie chicken?  If there is, like Valentine’s Day, does it even matter?  They’re flavorful and nutritious, and my Republican dad loves them.  And when I think about the day that marks my sixth year married, what I’ll think about is this: eating chicken with our crybaby puppy tangling himself up in the now-tattered quilt I made for our bed over a decade ago, while my parents — once so disapproving of Keith — tease and cajole my husband to eat some more as they piled more white meat onto his still-full plate.

And, for me, that’s what’s up with the chickens.

* The most popular recording of “Memories Are Made Of This” is by Dean Martin, but I’m quite fond of Johnny Cash‘s.

Everything Has Changed.

Yesterday Keith and I drove to New York, where we are now and where we picked up our new puppy.  He’s a whippet, born April eighth. We’ve named him Fergus Henderson, after the chef at St. John in London, but we’re just calling him Fergus. (Whippets are English, the name Fergus is English…) Fergus Henderson is just too much of a mouthful, especially if you want to be smart and stick both Keith and my last names in there too.  That’s a lot to fit on an ID tag.

My dad won’t admit it, but he’s pretty enamored with Fergus. I don’t blame him, because this dog is pretty damn cute.  I’ll be posting a photo of him every day on a separate site called Fergus, At Your Service, though I’m sure I’ll be mentioning him on a fairly regular basis — we’ve now got a four-legged reason to stay in.  So get used to more writing about home-cooked meals rather than restaurant food.

You’ve been warned.

Everything Has Changed” by Lucinda Williams.

Sunday Sunday.

Keith and I just spent three weeks in Southeast Asia; during that time we were in Manila, Hanoi, Halong Bay, Siem Reap, Boracay and Hong Kong.  It was a lot of fun, but man — that’s a lot of stops to make when you’re something like fifteen time zones away from home, especially when you squeeze in additional Manila breaks between Siem Reap and Boracay, and then again Boracay and Hong Kong.  Even though we went to some pretty awesome places, the highlight of the trip — for me, anyway — was staying at my grandmother’s house.

The last time I was at my grandmother’s was five years ago, but before that it had been ten.  We used to visit with far more frequency, but traveling 8500+ miles gets more difficult when there are things like jobs and vacation time to consider.

My grandmother lives in the Makati portion of Manila, in a neighborhood called Bel-Air; she’s lived in the same house my whole life, on Solar Street.  I always thought that bit was particularly cool, not only as it’s alliterative but especially as other streets in the neighborhood have names like Galaxy, Jupiter, Aquarius, Asteroid, Polaris… Filipinos love a theme.

There’s something so pleasing about going back to a place from your childhood and finding it to be as you had last left it.  Of course there have been changes, the most notably the fact that my grandfather wasn’t there — he died in 2008 — but I was still so surprised and comforted that so much of it was the same.  Much of that feeling was because the entire upstairs of the house is literally as I remember it; my grandmother is quite fit, even at 83, but she has little reason to go to the second floor and lives almost exclusively on the ground level.  Still, the bedrooms I’d slept in as a child have the same décor as they did in the eighties; the same mini-fridge full of mango juice stands at the top of the stairs; the glass case on the landing still houses my grandmother’s playing card collection (from when airlines used to give out decks as part of the in-flight entertainment).

When I used to travel to the Philippines as a kid, I’d arrive during summer vacation in August or July. Those are the months of the American summer; in the Philippines, the season runs from mid-March through May, so my many cousins (there are almost thirty of us) were in school during the week.  The house in Bel-Air would be filled with family on Saturdays and Sundays.  The aunts and uncles — my titas and titos — would arrive, with my cousins and their yayas in tow.  Food would have been laid out on the long credenza in the dining room, fresh mangoes sliced onto platters, drinks lined up next to the bar sink… all waiting to be consumed.

My favorites were, and are, calamares cooked in their own ink.  And pan de sal, always pan de sal, with or without butter.

The eating takes all day, and when we show signs of slowing, the meriendas comes out.  In another word: snacks.  Snacks like peanuts boiled in their shells, sapin-sapin (sticky rice and coconut cake), ensaymadas (sweet rolls covered in grated cheese and granulated sugar), hopia (mung bean cakes) and chicharróns.

Merienda time is also mahjong time, when four of my aunts settle a card table in the air conditioning, lining up the tiles and engaging in a genteel form of trash talking over the swish and click of tiles sliding across the table and colliding into one another.  The game lasts all day, often into the night.  The aunts and grandmothers take turns at the table while the grandkids run a lopsided triangular loop from the TV to the park across the street to the meriendas and the husbands sit in the dining room with newspapers and coffee.

Not much has changed, except the kids that now watch a sleek flatscreen TV are my cousins’ children, the great-grandchildren, and the husbands now tap iPads alongside their sons instead of flapping newspaper pages alone.  The meals may vary from week to week depending on moods and trends in food, but the essence is still the same.  Sunday is still the busiest day of the seven.  I may not know what I’ll be up to in a few days, but I can definitely tell you what’s going on half a world away.  And if we were there, I know I’d be sitting on the sofa underneath the 3-D TV, iPad in hand, while Keith and my aunts swirl the mahjong tiles in the middle of the table, making the little ivory tablets swish and click, swish and click.  I can hear it in my head from here, a little whisper of what was, what is, what will be.

Sunday Sunday” by Blur.
Makati skyline image from mvdelrosario217’s flickr photostream.

A Place Called Home.

Here I am now, at home.  I love traveling, and I love going places, and even though I’ve been to Asia more times than I can count, each trip is still amazing and fun and exciting.  That said, I’m glad to be home, sitting on my pouf with my laptop while Bethenny Ever After… is on On-Demand.  (Don’t judge.)

I do admittedly feel that clichéd thing about time fly fly flying but that’s how the trip felt for me: it went by so fast and intense that it’s almost hard to imagine the details of it at all.  I mean, we were in Boracay a week ago, perspiring and getting absolutely gnawed to death by mosquitoes, and now it’s a bit chilly in my apartment and something like 57° outside and sunny, but in a way that makes you want to sit in it as opposed to hide from it, which is what it was certainly like in Asia, particularly for the easily-sunburned Keith.

Speaking of Keith… what a lovely man, what an outstanding individual.  I’ve been sick as a pike since Tuesday and he’s been handling it (read: me) incredibly well.  I arrived in Hong Kong on Monday with a tickle in my throat, and by the time Tuesday rolled around I had run out of medicine and was taking these Chinese herbal pills called Zomoxyl, which smelled like nothing else I have ever experienced.  It had ingredients in it such as herba androgrphitis (40%), herba taraxaci (20%), herba violae (20%), radix scutellarine (10%) and glycyrrhiza uralensis (10%).  The best part was the little English-and-Cantonese write-up that came inside.  I would have scanned it, but it was just too ridiculous and it’s much if I just tell you about it.  Let’s just say that there was a bald eagle, with a waving-in-the-wind American flag behind it, and a star-bedazzled olive branch framing the whole thing.  Here are some highlights of what Zomoxyl supposedly treats:

  • upper respiratory tract infections like otitis media;
  • lower respiratory tract infections like lung abscess, empyema and bronchiectasis;
  • dental infections;
  • skin and soft tissue infections like cellulites and impetigo;
  • genitourinary (?!) tract infections like pyelonephritis, cystitis, bacteriuria, acute prostatitis and gonorrhoea;
  • bone and joint infections like ostemyelitis;
  • and “severe systemic infections” like gynaecological infections, pureperal sepsis, septicaemia, peritonitis, intra-abdominal spesis, menigitis, typhoid and paratyphoid fever.

I kept all the spelling from Zomoxyl sheet as is.

I should never get sick again after fourteen of those capsules, instead of coughing my way across Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui and Victoria Harbour and spitting up funky chartreuse phlegm and trying to walk around in crazy heat and humidity with a congested heavy head that felt like it was slowly going to cave in.  And when I say crazy heat and humidity, I mean the kind where standing still outdoors makes sweat drip down your boobs and your back.  I can’t figure out which is worse, sweat dripping down the front or the back, when neither is preferable.

What I should do now is some laundry and make a grocery list for my empty home, but what I really want to do is take a nap.  More later, I suppose.

Oh, and the vomiting — I’ve been vomiting since Wednesday.  I stayed in bed until noon while Keith bought some tea and stocked up on table tennis gear, then vomited up my Michelin-starred lunch, my water the next morning at the hotel and at the airport, and then who-knows-what on the plane several times and then more at JFK…  Why couldn’t I have gotten sick in Manila, when I was almost always surrounded by a surgeon, a pediatrician and a med student, instead of by Chinese pharmacists with whom communication was a true adventure?  This eagle-loving, USA-emblazoned Zomoxyl better clear up everything that ever has or ever will be wrong with me medically ever.

And now, laundry!

A Place Called Home” by PJ Harvey.