For Simona

Dear Simona,

I remember the day I stopped believing in best friends. It was winter of seventh grade, the time of tipping from one age to the next, those years of middle school, which felt very much transitional, and very much awful.

I had had the same best friend since first grade. We were like sisters. Her family was mine, her little sisters my little sisters. We regularly slept at one another’s houses, hers a beautiful two-story house in the neighborhood just across Carpenter Road from my subdivision. Her father was a businessman. He wore suits and went on business trips. My father worked at Cape Canaveral on the solid rocket boosters of the Delta IV rocket. Her side of the neighborhood was where the chiropractors and dentists lived. Mine was where the hourly workers lived, the union members.

Anchovies for the curry paste. 
Anchovies for the curry paste. 

By the time we were in middle school, my friend had outgrown our friendship, had outgrown me, but it took me probably a solid year to figure it out. The day I realized what was happening, I had caught her in a lie. A blatant lie she didn’t even need to tell. It doesn’t matter what about now. What matters is, I didn’t say anything. I didn’t call her out on it. I hung up the phone and sat alone in my room.

I remember the windows were open that day. Mom was cleaning, and the house smelled of bleach and dryer sheets. The wind brought the smell of orange blossoms inside, the line of citrus trees blooming in our backyard, the tangy green leaves brushing each other in the wind. I remember this as clearly as anything: the coolness of the air, the lovely sunshine, the smell of a clean house, and the sick feeling in my stomach, the heavy knowledge of being very alone.

My all-time favorite cookbook and cookbook author ever. 
My all-time favorite cookbook and cookbook author ever. 

After that, I made two attempts at having a best friend. Both those attempts ended much the same way. And I knew then that I would never have a best friend. I didn’t believe in best friends. I would not allow myself to be hurt like that again.

It was ten years after that day that I met you, Simona. But it would be years still before I realized that I had found my best friend. That I could even have a best friend. Years before I even realized what a best friend really was.

You were patient with me. You waited, as I very slowly opened myself up, as I very slowly began to trust. You told me your secrets and asked me to share mine. I kept you at arm’s length for a long time, but you were persistent with me. It took me probably five years to realize we could be best friends, that you weren’t going anywhere.

Homemade curry paste. 
Homemade curry paste. 

I remember one weekend last year that you and Darren came to visit us. It was early May, and we went to Oak Island, and the boys played bocce ball while you and I walked the beach, telling each other our secrets, letting the waves wash over our toes. We lay on beach towels until the sun had nearly set.

I remember the salt air, our hair blowing in the wind—yours light, mine dark—you, the poet, me, the prose writer, the sun soaking into our skin, the clear beautiful beach air filling our lungs. Everything about that weekend was perfect: the Mexican food we ate the first night, while talking about art and God. The beach. The dinner we cooked that evening together, hours in the kitchen.

Coconut cream for the curry.
Coconut cream for the curry.

It was that weekend that we cooked up the idea for this blog.

Once the sun had gotten low enough to let a chill in the air, we left the beach and went home to cook from Madhur Jaffrey’s Ultimate Curry Bible. We drank red wine, our messy hair pulled back from our faces, aprons tied around our waists.

The day was perfect, as was our food.

This past weekend was cold and gray and rainy and cold, so far from that day at the beach, the sun’s glow the color of butter. You are in Atlanta, and I in Wilmington, a six-hour drive away. We are both nearly buried under our work this semester. We have been busy, too busy, and I miss you desperately. So I made a yellow curry from the cookbook we cooked from together, and I thought of you. I thought of your sweet soul, how you were willing to chip away at my defenses, how you were willing to love me as I stayed distant and self-protective.

You know things about me no one else does. I take a long time to open up, and you are one of the few who have been willing to learn. You know what my tone of voice means, you know the punctuation I use when I’m happy and when I’m sad or distracted.

What a beautiful surprise this friendship has been, what a beautiful surprise you are. I admire you so. You are pure brilliance, a loving teacher, a passionate artist. A poet who always knows the perfect words. A soul that loves justice and mercy and goodness. You inspire people to be better, to notice what’s lovely about life. You are complex. You’re fashionable, with an eye for design. And you give. You give of yourself and your talents, to your students and to your friends. And we are all the better for your presence. 

You are the best friend I always wanted but never had. Never—not even when I thought I had a best friend all those years ago. It was always meant to be you, Simona, you my sweet Romanian friend, dear soul, my best friend.

Thank you.

Love always,
Erin

 

Chicken in a Yellow Curry Sauce (Gaeng Kari Gai) – Thailand
Adapted from Madhur Jaffrey’s Ultimate Curry Bible

Ingredients:
14 oz. can of coconut milk, left undisturbed for 3 hours or more [I used a non-canned version of coconut milk, so I substituted coconut cream later on]
4 Tbsp. peanut oil
2.5 oz. shallots, peeled and very thinly sliced into slivers
5 Tbsp. Yellow Curry Paste [see below]
1 tsp. hot curry powder
1 lb. boned and skinned chicken thighs, cut into small pieces
1.5 Tbsp. fish sauce, or to taste
1 tsp. thick tamarind paste or lemon juice [I used lemon juice]
1 tsp. palm sugar or brown sugar

Directions:

If you’re using the canned coconut milk, carefully open the can and skim off thick cream at the top (4 Tbsp). Stir remaining contents and set aside.

Pour oil into large lidded pan over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add shallots and stir. When the edges start to brown, reduce heat to medium-low. Stir as they fry, reducing heat if needed, until they are golden brown and crisp. Remove and place on a plate lined with paper towels.

Add coconut cream and curry paste to the pan with remaining oil from the fried shallots. Stir until oil separates and paste is slightly browned. Add curry powder and stir a few times. Add chicken and stir for a minute. Reduce heat to low and add fish sauce, tamarind, sugar, and 6 oz. water. Bring to a simmer, then cover and cook on low heat for about 15 minutes. Check to make sure chicken is cooked through. Stir in coconut milk and adjust seasoning to taste. Cover and simmer gently for another few minutes.

Serve topped with fried shallots.

 

Yellow Curry Paste
By Madhur Jaffrey

Ingredients:

7 dried hot red chillies (cayenne)
5 oz. shallots, chopped
1 Tbsp. fresh lemon grass, thinly sliced
10 small or 5 large cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
1/2 tsp. white pepper powder
1 tsp. curry powder
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. ground coriander
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. shrimp paste or 3 anchovies from a can, chopped
1/2 tsp. ground turmeric

Directions:

Soak the red chillies in 5 Tbsp. hot water for 1-2 hours, or microwave them for 2-3 minutes and let sit 20-30 minutes.

Blend or process chillies, with their soaking liquid, with all remaining ingredients. Push mixture down with a rubber spatula as many times as necessary, until you have a smooth paste. 

On Rest

This weekend was a dark horse in our rather chaotic, over committed life. It was a weekend of rest. Yes, there was the hosting of my parents, passing through town on their way to a mini vacation, but that was a happy little affair of roasted chicken and golden potatoes, spinach salad with strawberries, pecans, and gorgonzola, ice-cream from a local shop. Laughing with my parents into the late hours of the evening, sharing spoonfuls of lavender, chocolate, and espresso ice cream. A detective show. Then, blissful, dreamless sleep. 

Saturday morning brunch came and went, and we said good-bye to my parents after eggs Benedict, too many cups of coffee, and a wait staff who had to mitigate the creation of a seventeen ingredient salad to satisfy my Dad’s need for crudités, to balance his 5 am incursion in my fridge for the leftover chicken and potatoes, topped off with a glass of buttermilk, which I was saving for pana cotta. No harm, no foul. Just like Churchill, my father keeps strange eating hours.

Later, we spend the afternoon lazily by the Chattahoochee River, taking pictures of tulip poplars and camellia bushes, drinking raw fruit and veggie juices, then undoing all their good by eating macaroons, mint chocolate for Darren, pomegranate for me. I gorge on a book for hours, while the husband sketches, then reads bits to me about how the food industry is conspiring to make us addicted to sugar, fat, and salt. Too late for that realization. 

We sit quietly for long periods of time, watching the river, ducks gliding noiselessly against the current. A boisterous group of kayakers come later, bright sickle moons against the dark water. At times, the silence is almost spiritual. In other moments, some ruckus startles us out of our companionable reverie. I feel the stress of the last few months drain from me. Breeze and sun and descending dark. Dry grasses and new grasses. Trees budding, bare branches. Spring is still one foot out. 

I realize how rarely I rest. How what I would normally call rest is nothing more than distraction. TV shows, emails, online shopping, the endless playing on my phone. Incessant texting, because I’ve developed this need to be in touch with everyone, simultaneously, all the time. I’m always thinking about work, essays to grade, new curriculum to try out, conferences, meetings, why some students talk too much, why others don’t speak at all. Why I feel vulnerable in the classroom, and then numb in the classroom, then alive, then numb again. 

I suppose the problem is in the topography of the mind. New thoughts, replayed thoughts, the cataloguing of every experience, word, sensation, micro-expression. This engine of analysis. Most days I am powerless to stop the onslaught, so I dive into something that makes me close the door for a few hours.  Cooking shows. Podcasts. More books.

Don’t mistake me, I am not arguing against any of these. The occasional distraction is what the mind needs once in a while, but what if our rest has become solely about distraction instead of presence?

I go to yoga a couple of times during the week. My favorite instructor, Anne, begins each class with Ujjayi breathing which is a form of pranayama. Breathing where you even out the inhales and exhales, where you slightly constrict the throat so that sound washes over you. We are hard shells, ocean held between our ribs. This type of breathing is intended to bring us into the present moment, to invite us into pure awareness. The opposite of distraction, the opposite of fragmenting and scattering the self. I’ve discovered through years of practice that there is pain in the present moment. That in gaining awareness, I inhabit my body, my soul, my spirit in ways that all my other distractions are intended to prevent. I resent the aches in body when I go into certain poses, I resent the fears that ascend quickly to the surface. Sometimes I am that goof who cries during yoga, because I am never this present to my own being. Because all that the mind and heart holds in a day pushes through the layers of the unconscious like a geyser, sometimes violent and unexpected.

And yet, I feel reborn at the end of each class. I feel like I’ve woken up from a deep, satisfying sleep. This present-ness to life, and self, and other, gives me such a sense of rest. I dedicate my practice to God, to the fact that He has given me this gift of life, and self, and consciousness. That on the other side of the pain of presence, there is love.

I had planned to go to yoga this Sunday, but instead stayed home and ate rice pudding with Darren on the back porch. I soaked in sun and wind. And my mind quieted for one moment. I put my phone away, the TV was off, the book was set down. I practiced silence. And listening. And an intuitive kind of prayer, where gratitude welled up without contrivance for this beautiful world.

I hope, reader, that you rest today. And hear your thoughts, and let them go. And let your soul fill with all it can hold, nostalgia, laughter, fear. I hope you find joy on the other side of this. 

For rice pudding, Smitten Kitchen with whom I am clearly smitten has a darling recipe here. I add 1-2 tablespoons of orange blossom water in the recipe, and pecans for topping. 

Spring

On the final Friday of Spring Break, I went to hot yoga, and for an hour I twisted and sweated and worked and let go. Early spring is chaotic, my teacher said—the weather is chaotic, hot-and-cold, windy-wet-placid-windy, and our lives can reflect that, our bodies can reflect that—and her words resonated with me, in my own season of chaos. This semester has been a complicated series of tight deadlines, of endless paperwork, of snow days and the work that comes with making up for snow days, of grading-grading-grading, of pouring everything I can into my students, while still staying married and somewhat sane.

I’m co-leading a study abroad to China this summer, and what that means is it’s my job to make sure seventeen of the very best students on our campus get their paperwork filled out correctly, get their visas on time, get on the right plane, and spend over a month in China having the time of their lives (without getting bird flu). It’s been much more demanding—and even more rewarding—than I could have anticipated.

But the season has taken its toll on me. I am the kind of person who internalizes stress, who gets everything done, who meets every deadline, but then who crashes physically. I have done this as long as I can remember. But I am getting older now, and I realize that my ability to do this is waning.

So I take breaks. I go to yoga. I slow down. I do my best.

And I’ve been trying to feed myself more vegetables, trying to be better to my body, trying to give it what it needs to repair itself. To restore itself.

This week, we got our first Produce Box of the season, and I was delighted at the return of our weekly vegetables. This week, we received sweet potatoes, kale, tangerines, pea shoots, and the softest lettuce I’ve ever had. So this weekend, I made salads. Tender, sweet vegetables, lots of color, tahini dressing.

The pussy willow in our front yard is blooming, its delicate fuzzy catkins a promise of milder temperatures and calmer weather that surely must be on its way. In the air is a feeling of promise, of renewal, and I cling to this feeling. I can’t wait to be on the plane to China, to be so singularly focused. To put the cold and wet of the winter behind me, to thaw out and let the sun warm me to my bones.

Pussy willows are sometimes used in Chinese New Year decorations (the name translates to “silver willow” and sounds like the words that mean “money flowing in”). They’ve also been connected to Palm Sunday celebrations, and in Latvia, the holiday is even called “Pussy Willow Sunday,” the branches of the plant a harbinger of spring, of new life. Resurrection. A new beginning.

So this spring, I cut pussy willow sprigs and bring them inside. I eat my salads. I go to yoga. I untangle myself from the icy, brittle winter, and prepare for summer. The season is still chaos, and will be chaos until the middle of May, but I know it’s a season. And every season ends.

For this salad, I used the vegetables and toppings I had on hand: lettuce, pea shoots, cucumber, red pepper, red cabbage, toasted cashews, golden raisins. I made this dressing, and it was delightful.

Smoky Lemon Tahini Salad Dressing

Adapted from Bon Appétit

Ingredients:

1/2 cup tahini
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup lemon juice (about one lemon)
1 garlic clove, grated
3/4 tsp kosher salt
1/8 tsp smoked paprika

Purée all ingredients in a blender, thinning with more water if desired.