April 2012, Seoul.
I’m sitting across F at a barbecue joint. Sitting on long wooden benches, spicy marinated chicken grilling over a nest of coals on the table between us. We’re getting to know each other, but there are no first-date jitters. We’re chatting and shooting the shit. Normal human stuff.
The meat starts smoking, and I quickly grab the tongs to flip the meat. It’s burnt. I sheepishly smile at F and apologize. An exasperated server appears from nowhere and pulls the long silver ventilation tube closer to our “extra-crispy” chicken. The smoke whooshes away into the tube. We eat around the charred bits of meat, and chat on. Normally, I’d be embarrassed at this, the cardinal sin of Korean barbecue: Thou shalt never burneth thy meat. Curiously, though, in the face of this potentially date-ruining moment, I’ve never felt more at ease.
April 2017, France.
4 a.m. I’ve just woken up from an awful nightmare, and I’m in tears. Half-asleep, F slings his arm around me, and gently places a hand on my stomach. His touch brings me back to this reality: I’m snuggled up, cozy in bed, and safe. Shhh, there’s no reason to freak out.
In a single loving gesture, he puts me at ease.
This time, every time.
Walking through the vineyards on my way to the train station, my carrier pigeon buddy arrives to escort me to the station. He coo-coos alongside me until we reach the threshold between nature and civilization. There, his red beady eyes wink me a “Good luck.” Thanks, pal.
Arriving in town, it’s one of those days where I want to say “Fuck my job.” What am I, some kind of language workhorse? I resent the fact that the corporate masters own my time, even if it’s just 5 hours today. That’s 5 hours off my dreaming time.
All the same, I’m in town, and at least for now, I am indebted to my corporate masters. Unseasonably cold winds tug at my coattails, and my head is pounding for an unknown reason.
I tiptoe erratically around the sidewalk, studded with trampled bits of dog shit. No way am I getting my red leather boots dirty. The cold air invades my nostrils and freezes my brain, aggravating my headache. The fragrance of the first spring cherry blossoms irritates me even more.
The area around the train station is a lot better-kept than in other cities; no seedy sex shops or vaguely-disguised titty bars to be seen, no cannabis fumes in the air; just nondescript bistros that are a bit too antiseptic for my liking. I peek into one, and a middle-aged cook eerily stares back at me, while he scrubs an already-spotless zinc countertop with a clean white towel. Even their ashtrays are immaculate. Freaky.
I approach the monolithic structure, the medieval castle, squatting in the middle of town. Just across the street from its fat, monstrous towers sits another bakery, more modern with dark hardwood floors, and an alluring glow to its sandwiches and pastries that sit on deep blue-gray ardoise slate slabs. I pick up a kouign amann, a Breton specialty: it’s a crispy, flaky, buttery sticky bun. The hammering in my head starts to subside when I take a bite of the luscious pastry.
As I chew and walk on, I’m peeking into chic restaurants, neighborhood barbershops, deserted bookshops and quiet upscale boutiques. A stylish woman walks past, and the sickly sweet cloud of her perfume chokes me as she walks past, her heels confidently stabbing the ground with each step. I catch myself feeling inadequate in her presence, and I think back to a former student of mine, who was a picture of perfection: successful, affluent, immaculately dressed and coiffed. Yet her eyes had glistened with desperation when she confided how deeply she regretted the direction in which her life had gone. I wonder what happened to her.
I drop into another favorite spot, a red-bannered bakery run by a genial bald-headed baker, who always seemed to be dusting flour off his hands and apron in a cloud of magic. His breads and pastries are some of the best in town, and I order a sandwich for lunch. He grabs one off the top of the stack with his large hands, knobby and solid from a lifetime of kneading dough.
Finally, I slide into my favorite café, a neighborhood dig that’s clean, with a good atmosphere, and proprietors that leave you alone to think. I’d like to think I’m becoming a regular, alongside the old salty Italian man who critiques the French and their politics between sips of red wine, rolling his Rs and calling everyone cons (dumbasses)…
I ease into the seat next to the door and order an espresso with water. I catch a cool draft every time the door opens, along with a few wisps of cigarette smoke that sneak in. I don’t mind. I’m surrounded by rough caw-caw guffaws. The server who’s about my age, the older couple that runs the joint, and the old-dog regulars; they laugh and gibe between bites of food, sips of wine, drags of cigarettes. Like a goddamn family sitcom. They’ve got nowhere else to be, except there, giggling and shooting the shit. Hell, neither do I.
I realize my headache has ceased.
I’m satisfied with life in this moment, and smile into my hot cup of black coffee.
Just another Thursday.
Tonight, I’m back in the kitchen. Today’s mission: risotto from leftovers. I’ve got a half-package of lardons (unsmoked matchsticks of bacon), one slightly manky onion, a couple handfuls of salad greens, and a few lonely frozen asparagus spears, languishing in the freezer.
First, fill up my stock pot with some fresh water. Throw in a couple stock cubes; it’s not as good as stock from scratch, but they ain’t bad. (Hey, I’m a working woman. Who’s got time to simmer stock during the week?) To give a more homemade flavor, I toss in 5 whole peppercorns, a crushed clove of garlic, and the ends of the onion and shallot I’ve just chopped. Let it steep while I get to my risotto.
In a pan, I start by browning my lardons, rendering out that delicious pork fat. Once they look tantalizing enough to eat, I remove them from the pan. On the way, one of those little guys may have accidentally fallen into my mouth. Oops. Add a touch of olive oil. In go one small minced red onion and a few garlic cloves, and a pinch of salt. Sizzle until fragrant, then in with my rice. Keep that pan moving, stir that rice around until those grains start to gleam. Now comes my favorite part: deglaze with the last glugs in a bottle of white wine. The whoosh is satisfying, and while the pan is simmering, I’m scraping up the brown bits at the bottom of the pan. Oh, what lovely flavor!
Now comes the process of lovingly ladling my stock into the rice, then stirring. One ladleful after another, I’m imbuing this mixture with flavor, and feeding those grains of rice until they puff up. Partway through, I add my secret ingredient: a damn good scrape of nutmeg.
Add my chopped asparagus spears and lardons, finish the rice.
The finale: a tablespoon of crème fraîche for that unctuous mouth feel, and two generous handfuls of peppery rocket. If I had chives, I’d snip some of those bad boys over the top.
I serve up two heaping bowlfuls; F is wide-eyed like a little boy in anticipation; the aromas from the kitchen have gotten him salivating. To add heat, we sprinkle Espelette pepper over the top, and dig in.
A lovely moment of kitchen alchemy, a moment to myself during the week.
Self-care: Doing something just because it makes you happy, and for no other reason. Give yourself the privilege of finding joy in a simple moment. Recharge the spirit. Go for a walk, listen to a podcast. Take a hot shower and wash your hair. Wear a pair of comfy socks. Hug an animal. Write a letter to someone you love. Drink a glass of water. Enjoy a cup of coffee that’s JUST how you like it. Take a deep breath.
Me, I cook.
I love preparing fresh herbs and spices. Crushing red peppercorns for a shallot cream sauce to be served over fish. Grinding fresh nutmeg into buttery mushrooms. Grating cinnamon into an Indian-inspired simmering dish. Plucking a fresh bay leaf, snipping sprigs of thyme for a hearty chicken soup. Cutting the ends off a bunch of fresh cilantro for THE essential Puerto Rican seasoning, sofrito. Infusing annato seeds in warm oil to extract their vibrant color: the rich saffron red swirling into the yellow oil is a lovely sight. Adding a teaspoon of this rich orange-colored infusion will keep your pasteles from sticking to the parchment (or, if you’re going traditional, your banana leaf). I feel like an alchemist of flavor in my laboratory. This is my moment of bliss.
Yesterday’s act: bake cookies and share them with friends.
Gool ol’ peanut butter cookies: signature criss-cross top, crisp buttery exterior, soft inside. It’s very satisfying to stir into the smooth butter, and hear the gentle grinding of the sugar as you swirl through the complementary colors. The sound is what makes this experience so sensually authentic. Crack in an egg, and watch it resist incorporation into the gritty butter mixture. Oh, you little scamp, you… Coax it in with a sprinkle of flour. Roll bits of cookie dough around in your hands to make a small ball, the size of a king marble. Tines of a fork imprint the cookie to form a hashtag. Cookies bake until they puff slightly in the middle, and turn golden brown on the sides. 10 whole minutes of anticipation and mouthwatering. Cool until mouthburn can safely be avoided. Devour. Share. Enjoy. Repeat.
Summer, circa 2014.
F strums his guitar and I sing along. We giggle when he hits a false note and when my voice cracks. My feet are bare and we sit facing the window that opens to the garden. It’s sunny and we have nowhere to go, nothing else we’re supposed to be doing, no other responsibilities except to each other.
Later on, I’m in my favorite napping spot. Laying on the couch, sun filtering in through the blinds, I’m dozing. Just around the corner, F has taken up his guitar again. I suppose he’s determined to get that chord just right, every time. And he starts to sing: his voice is gentle, not much more than a whisper.
Now that she’s back in the atmosphere
With drops of Jupiter in her hair, yeah…
She acts like summer and walks like rain
Reminds me that there’s time to change, yeah…
I bury my face into my pillow and let out a tear. I can’t help it; he opens my heart and pours love in.
F and I sit down for his birthday meal. For apéritif, we enjoy marinated anchovy fillets, and mussels with peppers. Relaxed, we chit-chat and ignore the clock. We pass from starters to the main meal, which I happily finish preparing. In the kitchen, I feel like an alchemist: I place seasoned steaks onto a hot cast-iron grill pan, searing them to medium-rare. I put aside those perfect steaks and make the sauce: deglaze with red wine and cognac, add the veal stock, swirl in the cream. The bubbles grow thicker as the sauce becomes more unctuous. To finish, stir through a pat of butter and a sprinkle of pepper. I spoon some creamy garlic mashed potatoes onto the plate next to a green salad, lay the beef upon the potatoes, and finish with the sauce. I bring my two picture-perfect plates to the living room, and we ogle how delicious they look before we clink glasses and tuck in. This moment is delicious, and there’s nowhere else we need to be, except present with each other.
Sunday morning. Fall is here, and she’s brought the throat tickle. Time for my standby home remedy:
Equal parts honey and freshly minced ginger root.
Add about 1 tablespoon of the mixture to mug.
Stir in boiling water.
The first sip of my sweet, pleasantly spicy tea soothes my throat and brings me back in time. Saenggangcha, ginger tea in Korean. The winters in Seoul were cold and windy, and it felt so comforting to settle into a warm cafe and order a mug of ginger tea. I’d write or draw, sip, meditate. The earthy, pungent ginger punched into my nose while the honey made the whole go down nice and smoothly… There were little chunks of ginger sitting at the bottom, and I crunched them gladly. Warming, soothing, delicious.
I wake up and try to remember what day it is. Thursday. F is still in dreamland next to me. I wonder what he’s dreaming about, because he’s chuckling lightly into his pillow. I exit the bedroom on tiptoes, and come out to sit at our table by the window. It overlooks the garden, and from where I’m sitting, I see nothing but green: all those tree leaves take on a yellowy brilliance in the morning sunlight. I open the window to let in the fresh clean air. The world is silent, except for one faraway cheeping bird. There’s some leftover coffee in the pot, so I add it to a glass with some ice and toast some bread. It’s going to be another hot day, and I’m glad to eat while it’s still cool enough to satiate my appetite, before the heat steals it away.
Today’s brekky: Iced coffee and toasted grain bread spread with butter and crushed raspberries.
I crunch into my toast and wonder. Where F and I will be tomorrow, next year, in 5 years. Where we’ll travel next. Why the Incas practiced cranial binding. What my family’s doing at the moment. How the Ellis book I’m reading will finish, and what I should read next. How the word “toejam” came to be. Whether I’ve got it in me to accomplish anything resembling greatness. What New Zealand is like. What I can whip up for lunch today. How humans first invented butter. What I would do if I didn’t have to work today…
I would close all the blinds and shutters to keep out the heat. In the cool darkness of our apartment, I would bake a walnut coffee cake with a thin layer of coffee buttercream icing, and keep it in the fridge. Like those impossibly hot summer days when I was a girl, I would curl up with iced coffee and a good book; the bits of sunlight that get past the shades would offer just enough light to read by. In those days, my mother would warn me that it was bad for my vision; now it’s F who doesn’t want me straining my eyes. But I’ve always loved the cozy feeling of hunkering down in the dark while the outside world is screaming hot.
I turn back to my iced coffee, of which I’ve just taken the last gulp, and sigh. Work starts in a couple hours.