It’s Not You, It’s Me. It’s Not Me, It’s Mercury: Vegetarian Chili Bowl

Vegetarian chili bowl (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

I have broken nearly everything I’ve touched this month. Not just dishes and glasses, but hard-to-break things, like nail polish bottles and candles encased in heavy, shatterproof glass. I broke the little porcelain pig that holds the toothpicks, the Bodum French press, the bottle of hot sauce, the glass of anchovies that then dripped salty fish oil all over the kitchen floor. When I was making this vegetarian chili bowl, I showered the room with little bits of TVP as the bag fumbled from my hands.

Is this just a serious case of butterfingers? Or is it something more? January has been a hard month for me. My body aches like an old tooth. I’m cranky and easy to displease. I’ve had trouble waking up in the mornings and little energy for work. All of these things have made me an incredibly pleasant person to be around.

TVP (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

It’s especially frustrating because it’s exactly the opposite of what I want – not that anyone actively wants to be cranky and accident-prone. I’d set clear goals for myself for January, all of them designed to make me a more relaxed and easygoing individual. Read more books in the evenings, don’t use electronics before bed, don’t force yourself to keep working when the work day is done, make time for exercise, stretch in the mornings before work.

And this January, I’ve had about a 25% success rate for meeting my goals. When I manage to wake up without hitting the snooze button four times, I stretch – sometimes. When I don’t devolve into playing Hay Day on the couch at night, I read – sometimes. I’m more enticed by Facebook’s endless scroll than I’ve ever been, and the thought of addressing the email situation makes me feel like I’m willingly signing up to be Sisyphus. » Continue reading this post…

America and the Americans: Pineapple Mai Tai

Pineapple Mai Tais (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Everyone I’ve told about the cruise I went on in early January has asked me if I’ve read David Foster Wallace’s essay on cruising1. Yes, I have. And no, I don’t think there’s a cruise in the world that DFW would have enjoyed. It’s a tacky business, but in the best possible way. It’s like going to Oktoberfest in a dirndl and braids: You have to give yourself over to it. To the glitter and feathers at the evening show, the white pants and silk shirts, the poolside piña coladas, overpriced bingo games, the awkward audience involvement. You have to love it. And in return, it will love you back.

Meyer's Dark Rum and Añejo rum (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Mai Tai with lime (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

One of my favorite games has always been to pretend I’m someone else, to slip into another voice, another life. In fact, I was a theater kid long before I hit the stage. My grandma used to tell me how I’d stand in front of the mirror and practice crying, just so I’d be ready when real waterworks came in handy.

On a cruise, I get to pretend my life is always cocktails in the evening sun, that I’m in the habit of wearing cute skirts and high heels and bright red lipstick to dinner, that I keep my nails manicured and enjoy small-talk with strangers. I go to the sauna and to the gym and carry around a sparkling gold clutch as if I had anything more to keep track of than my little blue sea pass. There’s no internet to remind me of my responsibilities – or of my real life. All I can do is immerse myself in this alternate world. Yes, DFW, it’s a show. But if I’m already in it, I may as well live it up.

The ocean at Cozumel (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Pineapple Mai Tai Recipe (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

I spent a lot of time observing other people on the cruise, seeing small kindnesses in the buffet line and considerate gestures – and also moments of casual disregard for the crew’s constant service and hard work. » Continue reading this post…

It’s Time for a Reboot: Peppermint Marshmallows

Peppermint marshmallows (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

December is a wasted month. Or maybe it’s better put this way: for the entire month of December, I’m useless. It’s like my brain has decided eleven months is enough months of functioning, and that the twelfth month is a month of rest. While the pace of work picks up, my brain revolts. No, I will not perform for you this month, it says.

It’s a month of goofs. I forget major and obvious steps in the tasks I undertake (oh, there’s a whole middle of the film to subtitle?). I have trouble focusing (must wrap gifts, write recipes, send emails, clean bathroom walls, and paint toenails AT THE SAME TIME). And worst of all, I make mistakes so sloppy it pains my meticulous January-November brain (misspelling the name of a rather important email recipient? Twice? Check).

All-American ingredients (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Homemade marshmallows (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

I arrived in my ancestral country about a week ago and have done – nothing. I sit on the couch and brush up on my cell phone game skills. I read my book. I let my coffee be made for me and ushered to my slothful seat. My brain has entirely given up. And I’ve let it. It’s a wonderful feeling.

I’m a firm believer in viewing your body’s refusal to capitulate as a self-defense mechanism. Deny yourself any breaks from your to-do list, and don’t be surprised if your leg seizes up or a winter cold levels you full-force. Work your brain too mercilessly, and it might just give out.

Clearly, my brain needs a break. I let it wander. If baking cookies is too much work, I tell it, That’s fine. Go lie down. If it wants to take a walk around Baltimore’s cool, blue Inner Harbor, I follow it outside.

Hot chocolate with peppermint marshmallows (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Hot chocolate with homemade peppermint marshmallows (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

It’s kind of a wonder I managed to make marshmallows, which requires concentration and attention to timing – two traits that have fallen by December’s wayside. » Continue reading this post…

A Winter Slumgullion: Chicken & Shrimp Gumbo

Chicken and shrimp gumbo (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

I collect words. When I find a good one, I copy it into my little black notebook, the one that also contains restaurants and bars I’d like to visit, directions, sketches, snatches of poetry hurriedly composed in a cramped hand, email addresses and phone numbers, Spanish grammar tips, post ideas, books to read, little moments I’d like not to forget. And words.

I carry them around with me all the time – since my little black book is always in my bag – and read through them on occasion, rolling my tongue around and into those verbal nooks. There’s “pullulate”: “to exist abundantly, to send forth buds, to increase rapidly, teem.” Or “sirocco”: “any hot, oppressive wind.” “Quisle”: “to betray, especially by collaborating with an enemy.” “Collop”: “a small slice of meat, a small slice of anything, a fold or roll of flesh on the body.”

Garlic and thyme (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Living abroad, my vocabulary shrivels. Here, English lives within the law of averages, and if I remember from long ago math lessons (one thing I definitely don’t write down in my little black book are equations), an average sucks up the best and the worst and plunks you somewhere in the middle.

There are some words left languoring that way – and good riddance to them. I think “plethora” is the worst word in the English language, like a dull goat in an academic’s gown. Goodbye “myriad” and “veritable” and “moreover.” And truthfully, I’ve found that simpler words, when fitted well together, are often better at expressing ideas than all the viperines, girns and borborygamuses combined.

Okra (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Wintry chicken and shrimp gumbo (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

That brings me to this little gem of a word: “slumgullion,” whose meanings are as myriad as what it means: “A meaty stew, a weak beverage, refuse from whale carcasses, a muddy mining deposit.” I mean, wow, what multitudes! » Continue reading this post…

On a German Christmas Market

Christmas market in Braunschweig (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

There is little quite so lovely as wandering beneath boughs of evergreen with a sack full of chestnuts warming your hand as the smell of powdered sugar and melted butter mingles with pine sap and spice.

The Christmas market is a beautiful thing, a little glow of warmth and good cheer in the bleak midwinter. The crowd jostles along, surprisingly friendly in the crush. It must be the Glühwein – warm wine mulled with citrus and spice – that everyone drinks from tiny, commemorative mugs. Each stand has its own – a little brown boot, a red mug tiered like a whirling advent tower – that people love to pocket at the end of the night, considering the transaction paid for with their two euro deposit.

Spanferkel in a Mumme-roll (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Evergreen huts at the Christmas market (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Mumme-Glühwein (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Here in Braunschweig, they serve a special kind of Glühwein laced with Mumme, a malty extract that started its life as a sailor’s beer but today is mostly non-alcoholic in its uses. A shot added to Glühwein deepens the fruity sweetness with aroma, an invigoratingly dark swirl of flavor and warmth.

At the Mumme stand, they also serve Mumme beer and Mumme-baked rolls heaped with freshly-sliced Spanferkel – suckling pig slowly roasted until the meat is juicy and tender with fat that melts on your tongue like caramels and crisp, salty crackling. We top it off with Mumme-honey mustard and eat it standing up at packed wooden tables, where we wipe our grease-slicked mouths with paper napkins and wash all that goodness down with slugs of hot Glühwein that burns our tongues.

A German Christmas market (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Christmas sausages (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

But there’s more to the market than Mumme. There are tiny poffertjes, buttery, puffy pancakes made with buckwheat and yeast and sprinkled with powdered sugar. There’s a stand selling Swedish meatballs with lingonberry sauce and rosemary-roasted new potatoes. » Continue reading this post…

That’s Joy: Elisenlebkuchen

Elisenlebkuchen (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

I think one of my favorite winter songs is Sufjan Stevens’s “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!”. It’s a melancholy piece: Father yells, the gifts are thrown in the wood stove, sister runs away with her books, while the snow just falls and falls and falls. Haunting voices laced with soft banjo twist Silent Night’s chords into a new shade of recognition. But it’s a beautiful song, gently uneasy like walking out into the cold still feeling the flush of too much food and an overly warm fire.

Candied orange and lemon peel (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Christmas tree (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

I’ve thrown myself into Christmas with a wild whoop. David and I decorated the tree with ornaments and lights. We listened to Frank and Mariah and cheered on all of Kevin’s holiday antics. I’ve outfitted the living room with boughs of evergreen and set out the tiny nativity carved from tough Colombian nuts, the pine-scented candle, the wooden Räuchermänner puffing cedar-scented smoke from their little carved pipes.

It makes me happy, this cozy, festive world I’ve created inside our small top-floor apartment. And yet, with every candy cane comes a strange sadness that catches me unawares, that colors my easy comfort.

Winter-blooming cactus (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Baking lebkuchen (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Spices and candied fruit (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Spices for Lebkuchen (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Back in my ancestral home, “I’ll be Home for Christmas” is a banned song. It’s too sad, my mom says. I’d never felt the same before, but not so long ago when it shuffled into play, it made me realize why this season is making me ache.

My grandmother passed away around this time last year, and in the weeks before she left us, the family gathered around her bedside singing the songs she sang to generations of us when we were young. And because it was Christmas, we sang carols in the darkened room – “O Holy Night” and “Do You Hear What I Hear.”

The Christmas tree (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Lebkuchen dough (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Lebkuchen ready to bake (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

As I stood in the kitchen slicing oranges for mulled wine, smelling the crisp citrus-laced air and listening to the words… “I’ll be home for Christmas, you can count on me… I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams”… I was in two places at once, feeling many things at the same time. » Continue reading this post…

A Thankful Heart

Thanksgiving dinner (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Generally, at Thanksgiving, I’m too busy cooking to take any pictures. So I can’t show you the long table cobbled together from ramshackle surfaces and chairs that people brought themselves. Or the way the whole thing was wedged into the living room so tightly you could barely breathe. Nor can I show you the bird, with its deep brown skin, crackled in the oven or the way the moist white flesh slipped gently away beneath the knife.

I can only tell you about all the things we cooked – sweet potatoes roasted in bourbon-maple sauce, bright kale salad with parmesan, almonds, and dates, cranberry relish, sour cream mashed potatoes, a stuffing chock full of caramelized onions and kale, lemony grated carrots, green beans tossed in a dried cranberry and walnut vinaigrette, and pan gravy made from turkey drippings.

Preparing the turkey (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Roasted garlic for aioli (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

And I can only tell you about the things that other people brought – roasted beetroot, warm and spicy enchiladas slathered in cheese, tabbouleh and bulgur salad, olives and dips, onion focaccia and loaves of bread studded with cranberries and walnuts, tomato butter spread, spicy celery, pretzel and peanut butter mousse pie, pumpkin pie, and plenty of wine, certainly.

The kitchen, before it descended into chaos (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
The turkey, ready to roast (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Bourbon and butter for the sweet potatoes (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

But what no picture could have managed to capture is a snapshot of my heart that night – full. Grateful for co-workers who have become friends, friends who have become family, and family that will come and fix the couch the next day after it breaks under the weight of too many guests squashed onto its brittle frame.

The turkey (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

There’s so much sadness and anger in the world, too many things I can’t understand. So many bigoted and hateful opinions, so much violence.

When I read the news and feel my chest start to clench in helpless rage, I think of a story a yoga teacher told once after a class, long ago in a sweaty studio in St. » Continue reading this post…

A Thanksgiving Love Letter: Mrs. Burns’s Cranberry Relish

Cranberry and orange relish (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

It’s nearly here! My very favorite holiday: Thanksgiving. For me, Thanksgiving is like Christmas without all the strings attached. You don’t have to wonder if the present you bought is heartfelt enough or of sufficient monetary value, there are no last minute stocking stuffers to stock up on, no crazy shopping sprees or crazily decked-out stores to suffer through. There are a lot of things I love about Christmas, and there seems to be a theme to the things I don’t.

If Christmas can sometimes feel like it’s about maximizing the value of what you can get out of it, Thanksgiving is about giving out of the plenty you already have.

A bowl of winter oranges (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Fresh cranberries and oranges (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Growing up, our Thanksgiving table welcomed others in. There was always enough food, always enough chairs for a few extra relatives, family friends, my parents’ international students with homes too far away. And every Thanksgiving, we’d crowd around the long dining room table set with the best dishes and laden with food like jewels: a crisp, brown bird in center stage, rich stuffing made from torn breadcrumbs and chestnuts, fresh cranberry relish and hot rolls, green beans spiked with toasted almonds, maple-glazed carrots, sweet potatoes dotted with flamed marshmallows, and creamy mashed potatoes and gravy made from turkey drippings. For dessert, there were pumpkin and apple pies, fresh from the oven and still warm to the touch.

Mrs. Burns's cranberry relish (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Cranberry relish on orange paté (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

What also made an appearance at our table every year were a few dried beans. Before we could dive into that indulgent spread, we had to throw our beans into a pot and say what we were thankful for. One thankful thing per bean. When you’re an angsty teenager, having to publicly admit to being thankful for anything is the worst. I dreaded that show of gushy emotion. Also, it always made me cry. » Continue reading this post…