Earning My Chops

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The first time I had sushi I was in Las Vegas on a spur of the moment weekend date with a boy I had met on a dance floor. It was one of those thoughtless things we do in our twenties. I was grooving with friends in my new leather jacket and Kevin approached me to tell me he liked my moves. He was from out of town and asked me on a proper date after we had danced together all evening. I drove to LA for the date but because his roommates had commandeered the household to work on a film project, we had no privacy to get to know each other over the dinner he had planned to make. So naturally we decided to drive to Las Vegas. The drive was one long questionnaire in getting to know each other and by the time we arrived in Sin City, it was pretty clear we did not have a love match. He liked pop music and I liked alternative, jazz and classical. He liked bubbly, career-oriented professionals and I was a funny yet brooding artist. So we went to the world’s biggest buffet at the Rio Hotel & Casino and decided to just be friends.

When I picked up a slice of sushi roll with a fork, he (who was half Asian and half French) said incredulously, “I’ve never seen anyone eat sushi with a fork before.”

My face reddened in shame. The truth was I didn’t know how to use chopsticks—had never even tried to before.

Twenty years later, I had still not learned how to use chopsticks. You know what happens when you are embarrassed by something once in your life? You tend to shy away from that moment for the rest of your life. Sure, I had faked it many times at Chinese restaurants with friends, holding the sticks improperly and using them more as a scoop, adhered together between my awkward fingers to dig into rice, avoiding the meatier chunks of vegetables or meat. But no one noticed. That is, until I met my current boyfriend.

He’s Asian and loves his cultural cuisine full of fatty, slithery foods meant for twirling around those trickery implements with grace. So inevitably we ran into the moment where I was sitting across a table with him, clumsily wielding two wooden sticks. He noticed my klutzy hit-and-miss attempts between the bowl and my mouth and decided to help me out by giving me a crash course in the proper way to use them. After a hilarious meal of hand cramping I at least had the concept down and told myself I would use them every chance I got. Which was easy, because he made plenty of homemade bowls of steaming Asian soups in our kitchen over the course of our first year together.

My biggest moment of fear came when, at Christmas, it was time to meet his parents. I wanted to make a good impression, which meant that in the very least, I had to get my chopstick acumen down before I met his mother. I also prayed that the opportunity to use them might conveniently NOT come up. I offered suggestions when we were planning our many meals out together for the holiday. How about the steak house? What about a good burger? Let’s go to that fancy Italian place with the arancini and panzanella salad. But it did no good.

Eventually, we were sitting down at a casual Japanese restaurant and I had a threatening bowl of ramen before me with the fattest and most slippery noodles I had ever seen swimming in a broth slick with oil. Acting all confident with my newfound skills, I leaned over to try a bit from my boyfriend’s bowl. As I pulled up the noodles to take a slurp, they dropped right off my sticks in a slosh, spewing hot liquid all over him.

“What are you doing!?” he blurted out as he jumped back to escape the mess.

His mother pulled up the big porcelain spoon on the side of her bowl and tried to give me a tip about first scooping the noodles into the spoon but enveloped in mortification I could only hear what I assumed was going on in her brain, damn fool, what kind of idiot woman is this with my son. Of course, that is probably not true, but nonetheless, I pretended to be full a lot faster than I was that evening so I could stop my awkward chopstick dance.

A year later during their next Christmas visit, I was sure I would be better equipped to eat a chopstick meal. We went to a dim sum restaurant where the shumai came oversized. I cringed inwards as I held my hand to the middle of the table to pick up one of the dumplings with my sticks. The minute I raised one from the plate, it wiggled free and plopped right back down on the plate. In my embarrassment, I poked the chopstick into the food and lifted it up, primitive spear-style like a dunce.

My boyfriend’s mother promptly asked the waitress for a fork, handed it to me, and said, “The pieces are so big, just use a fork.”

With blood red cheeks, I finished the meal realizing that any attempts to win the parents over were now forever doomed. I had to dig into a well deep within me to realize that I was not perfect, never would be, and that was okay. That was a liberating lesson in itself.

And of course, every liberating lesson comes with a Murphy’s Law dose of corrective action because after my boyfriend’s parents left on that particular visit I became a chopstick pro. This was partly due to the fact that I started eating my lunches at home with chopsticks. I became the queen of the expertly tossed rice bowl. I even began to enjoy the unseen benefits of chopstick utilization which included slow eating, the savoring of individual ingredients, getting full faster on a smaller amount of food and most of all, reestablishing some modicum of my pride.

The Last Tomatoes of Summer

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In his famous poem, Ode to the Tomatoes, Pablo Neruda describes summer as a time when “The street filled with tomatoes, midday, summer, light is halved like a tomato, its juice runs through the streets.”

The juice certainly runs through our household as the Cute Gardener cultivates various breeds. It is a time when whole buckets full are brought in from the garden and Saturday mornings teem with the scent of a simmering pot stuffed to the brim. Hours later the reduced, seething lot will be pressed through a sieve into jars that will last us throughout the year as we liven pasta sauces and pressure cooker braises of hearty pork and beef. Lambs shank will soften for musky one-pot meals and chicken breasts will turn Mediterranean swimming in bright red stews spiked with black olives and herbs.

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We spend many warm season noontimes in the vein of Neruda where “…unabated, the tomato invades the kitchen, it enters at lunchtime, takes its ease on countertops, among glasses, butter dishes, blue saltcellars. It sheds its own light, benign majesty.”

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This majesty comes in the form of simple dishes where the tomato is star, untainted by complicated preparation but extolled for its purity. We dice cucumbers and toss them with diced, plump Cherokee tomatoes, feta and olive oil for light salads. Or sliver yellow grape tomatoes with bits of avocado, panko breadcrumbs and arugula. Or slice bulging marzanos for Swiss cheese and rye sandwiches, adorned with nothing but a few flakes of Maldon salt.

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But my favorite, the sun dappled heirloom arrives fat and orange with the innards a world unto itself. Cut in half, it reveals a universal starburst of veins that Neruda’s description merrily befits …”the tomato, star of earth, recurrent and fertile star, displays its convolutions, its canals, its remarkable amplitude and abundance, no pit, no husk, no leaves or thorns, the tomato offers its gift of fiery color and cool completeness.”

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These vivid cross sections make for excellent layers of a dressed down quesadilla, juicy slabs atop a spare bed of cheese, swathed within a thick and fluffy tortilla.

And when we’ve exhausted all options there is nothing better than chopping up the remains of the harvest into grand tubs of fresh salsa to be enjoyed, daylong, with crisp triangles of white corn chips.

Table For Two, Please

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For the past month I have been doing research for a book I am writing on the mother-daughter bond. In Gabor Mate’s exquisitely profound In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts, he presents evidence that babies need to feel attunement and connection from their mothers in order for proper brain development. If they lack these important ingredients in their evolution, they will grow up hungry for love and look for it externally through various means—oftentimes in addictive substances and through pleasure-seeking and non self-regulating behaviors. The book was heartbreaking and explains a lot of crises within the psyche of today’s humanity where we are constantly too busy to connect intimately with those we love.

I have been actively seeking instances over the past six months to bond one-on-one with friends and family rather than relying on social media to give me curated glimpses of their lives. During this time I have noticed visceral changes in my own sense of wellbeing and the poignancy of life. Whether spending three hours at a fancy afternoon tea, floating in a swimming pool drinking rainbow sherbet floats, or enjoying a pot of bibimbap at the Korean Spa – these moments with singular friends have taught me that there is simply no substitute for a great conversation over food between two people. Those are really the only moments I care to have and they make up a great percentage of the life I share with the Cute Gardener – a duo bellied up to a bar or glancing across the landscape of table at each other.

My daughter and I have a tradition that has carried on since she was a child that I share with nobody else. When she was little I turned her on to Thai food at a popular joint in town. Our first meal together consisted of a simple steaming, silver, donut-shaped pot of Tom Kha Gai soup spiked with lemongrass, chicken, and coconut milk and a small bowl of white rice back in those days when, as a single mother, I was too poor for much more. In the years that followed, the table merrily expanded to include fried potstickers, pad Thai and Thai tea—perhaps a small salad of iceberg lettuce with peanut sauce. Fifteen years later and the menu remains the same.

Only nowadays I am not driving us down to the corner restaurant to enjoy my Thai for two mommy and daughter meals. Today, I drive an hour to my daughter’s place to a restaurant she frequents with her boyfriend. She was beaming with pride the first time we ate there when, upon our entrance, all of the staff knew her name and called out with smiles making us feel right at home. She was so proud to show me her favorite booth and to order our traditional meal only with her novel addition of egg rolls and some fried donuts in coconut frosting at the end as a splurge. During these times we never stop talking while pouring rice into our soup, filling each other up on news from our lives while slurping boba from the bottom of our glasses, sharing the stop-and-go interrupted bouts of conversation and laughter while licking sweet sauces from our spoon, asking each other advice as we reveal secrets and point out bits of milk on each other’s lips –all the while exposing both confidence and vulnerability. We’ve been doing it since day one and although the subjects have changed the content never has – that of a mother and daughter bonding in a pocket of time held sacred for only them. This is as essential as breathing and needs to be fed.