Madeleine

IMG_2576When I was ten, my family chose Paris as our big summer vacation destination. After flying to Hong Kong every summer, you think we’d be used to grueling flights and jet lag, but we suffered terribly that first afternoon in Paris.

After arriving, we found ourselves at a small cafe overlooking a river, facing a menu written entirely in French. My dad recognized select words, but not enough to really understand what the dishes were. The waitstaff could not, or would not, speak English. So we just ordered blindly, and of course, some of the dishes were total misses.

I had never really been in a situation where nobody in my family could speak the language of the native population – though my sister and I understood zero words in Hong Kong, my parents had grown up there and navigated the streets and language flawlessly. In Paris, my mom and I tried to find a chocolate shop and even with a map, we soon lost ourselves in the labyrinth of cobblestoned streets. We gesticulated wildly at strangers and they gesticulated back, every person we asked pointing in a different direction. Three hours later, we finally stumbled into the shop.

Our half day of wandering and questionable food left us all crabby and drained. In our cramped, dark hotel room, we quickly fell asleep (then woke up at 4am, and spent the rest of the night fruitlessly tossing and turning).

The next morning, we came down to an airy lobby filled with light. Outside, the bustling sounds of chatter, cars, and mopeds could be heard, and in the center of the lobby was a large, circular table with a platter of madeleines. Our first half day in Paris faded like a nightmare as we sampled our first madeleines, then quickly reached for seconds.

Each morning started with that first madeleine, its light sweetness holding promises of the adventures to come. We went to the top of the Eiffel Tower like good tourists, and wandered the halls of Musée d’Orsay for an entire day, not realizing how sore our feet were until after we had left. We came across a fair in a park close to our hotel, and rode what felt like the biggest Ferris wheel ever. We ate seafood and duck and pigeon, all cooked impeccably, and delicious French pastries that have since haunted my memory.

Since that trip to France over a decade ago, I’ve eaten copious quantities of croissants, brioche, and macarons, and yet, I never returned to the madeleine, perhaps because I had built it up to such an unattainable symbol of unbridled wonder that I had experienced as a child in Paris.

However, I recently flipped through a cookbook that nobody in my family remembers buying, and came across a madeleine recipe. I felt like fate must have intervened just a little, so I ran out and bought a madeleine pan that night. And these little cakes were sweet morsels of sunshine, a perfect start to our mornings in Paris and at home.

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Tour of a Witch’s Garden

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The Mulford Farmhouse in East Hampton, NY, is described on multiple websites as “one of America’s most significant English colonial farmsteads.” Being a bit of an early colonial history aficionado, I eagerly searched online for what traits made this farmhouse so ‘significant’ – maybe it housed a legendary colonial figure, or stood on the site of some crucial battlefield – and found…not much.

Mulford Farmhouse, you tease. Of course we had to go check it out.

We ended up getting a tour from an enthusiastic woman, a self-confessed colonial re-enactor whose reenactments had crossed from her work life into her home life – she described how her husband had built a bed with straw bedding and rope slats, as well as a full-on 18th century fireplace in which she made a turkey that she brined, soaked in alcohol, stuffed, and cooked over the course of four days.

As an added bonus to our tour, we received a human rights lecture and other political statements, but the real highlight was our tour of Rachel’s Garden, an herb garden where familiar herbs took on significant and mystical meaning. They could reveal to you your true love, they could save you from smallpox, they could cure the common cold.

By the end of the tour, I almost believed what she had said, not only about the extraordinary healing powers of herbs, but also about the completeness of colonial life. She gushed about her four-day turkey as the most flavorful, most tender turkey she had ever had and recounted how fermented food had saved Civil War soldiers from disease. She wondered out loud whether our diet and lifestyle today was missing something, if we had lost something crucial along the way.

And while I don’t condone a return to the colonial way of life – after all, the Mulfords owned slaves and women were treated as witches, or worse, property – I do wonder about how different, and simpler life was back then when it seemed that good things would happen if you believed hard enough.

We now live in an age where we don’t even know where most of our food comes from (though that’s slowly changing) and yet we know the contradicting statements our politicians have made, we know about conflicts in Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. It’s difficult to imagine a time when people had such an intimate relationship with food that they believed it held supernatural powers.

So maybe I still don’t know what makes Mulford Farmhouse so ‘significant,’ but I’m glad their attempt to attract more tourism enticed me to visit. We laugh at the superstition, the ignorance, of the colonial era, but would they not laugh at us for our ignorance about how to produce our own food, our own clothing, our complete dependence on others for our comfort – and survival?

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Backlog Pt. 1

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Well, it certainly has been a while. But fret not, not much has changed – my food photography skills remain as questionable as ever.

So first off, I suppose it’s worth addressing the elephant in the room. Why did I stop posting, and why am I now returning?

For me, this past school year can generally be divided into a “before” and “after.” A before when I was still pretty okay, and an after when everything seemed to be imploding in an almost-comical tweenage “end of the world” kind of way.

In the beginning, I would start to write posts, then realize they were freaking depressing, and while great food is metaphorically made with “blood, sweat, and tears,” no one really wants to read a sob story when all they were looking for was a cookie recipe. So I’d delete and start again and the post would take another down and dispirited route. I tried to write about movies I’d seen, places I’d gone, about my friends and my family. I discovered that it’s surprisingly difficult to write about superficial joys – and not-so-surprisingly difficult to write about people when you’re ignoring their calls (sorry family members!). Every post I tried to write sounded artificially saccharine and after a while, I stopped trying.

Eventually, I reached the elusive “rock bottom.” At that point, I’d been living off almonds and dried cranberries and packages of dried seaweed and not much else. I felt as if I had lost everything that had been my identifiers – my innocence (which is the nice way of saying gullibility), my deep connection to classical music, my love for food, my confidence in my intellectual capabilities, my tendency to be easily excitable and inspired.

While this was all happening, I’d sometimes wish that I could just “wake up,” that I could sleep off the weariness and the insecurities and the nothingness. Looking back, I have no idea why I thought waking up was easy – the number of times I’ve slept through really important alarms (e.g. that one time I was five hours late for my flight) is, well, alarming. I finally recognized that I could not just wait to wake up one day and feel fine.

I am returning now to this blog, and to the life that I put on hold during these lost months, as part of my reclamation of my ‘self.’ I refuse to ever again fall victim to the names I have been called and the rumors that have been spread behind my back.

I’ve chosen to post this recipes because first of all, it is one of my favorites – an airy, ricotta-based lemon cheesecake that is delicately sweet with a tangy kick. It’s also my dad’s favorite dessert that I make, and if there’s one thing I’ve (re)learned from all of this, it is that my family unconditionally loves me, which I somehow forgot along the way. Finally, spring took it’s sweet time arriving in New England, but I can finally pack away the sweaters and proudly display my lingering “insulation” from the winter in tank tops and shorts, and what better way to celebrate than eat lots of (kind of healthy) cheesecake?

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Lemon Poppyseed Scones

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A month ago, I went to Africa for vacation. It was insane and unbelievable, so unbelievable that I look back now and wonder if the whole experience actually happened. It did, and I have the pictures to prove it.

Elephants grazing in Tarangire National Park, Tanzania

Elephants grazing in Tarangire National Park, Tanzania

Part of the reason it all felt so unreal was because, in a way, it was. We experienced snippets of culture, stopping by a Masai village for an hour, singing and dancing with them, then returning to our hotel, a gated expanse with its own private plantation. The grounds were perfectly manicured, yet we never saw any workers in the fields. And every day, we’d drive around, searching for animals with all the other tourists, spotting elephants and leopards and beautiful birds. It was exhilarating. It was like Epcot and Animal Kingdom on steroids.

Wildebeests crossing the Mara River in Serengeti National Park

Wildebeests crossing the Mara River in Serengeti National Park

While driving from national park to national park, we’d glimpse the Masai herding their goats and cows on red, dusty plains. We’d see people milling about, perhaps looking for work, perhaps not. Women carried bundles of twigs, bunches of fruits, and other large objects on their heads. Men sat outside furniture stores, which seemed to only sell beds. We’d see these people, and for a brief moment, we’d wonder where they were going, what were they doing. And then we’d leave them in the dust.

Masai watching over their cows at the watering hole

Africa was beautiful. Everything was strange and new and incredible. Our guide, Godson, was deeply passionate about animals, describing the movements of different packs of lions, of three cheetah brothers, of the wildebeests. He knew the lions and cheetahs by sight. We searched for rhinos for two days, and long after our family had given up and fallen asleep in the back of the van, Godson and his assistant, Bohke, kept peering into the lengthening shadows of the brush.

For a while, I felt like I hadn’t experienced the true Africa. I felt like a tourist in the worst sense, like I’d just come for the animals. But that would be a disservice to all the people who’ve dedicated their lives to the tourism industry, who work incredibly hard to make sure every one of their clients has a perfect experience. When my parents forgot their luggage at the hotel, we thought we’d never see it again. Pantaleo, the manager of our hotel in Serengeti National Park, called up a friend in Arusha to make sure the luggage was transported properly from Serengeti to Arusha to Zanzibar. For these people, the tourism industry is their life. Angel, our hostess at Tarangire, told us she only was able to see her son every two months.

On one hand, we barely spent any time mingling with the populace in town, and learned about six words in Swahili. But the Africans we met in the hotels are not just some two-dimensional workers; they are people who made enormous sacrifices to enter the tourism industry and create a better life for their families.

Two weeks in Africa taught me a lot, though it took me a while to realize it. After studying abroad last year, I had come to equate cultural immersion with the real experience, as if all other experiences were somehow simply superficial. I felt superior to other “tourists” in that I had interacted with natives, spoken their language, tutored their children, even lived in the same dorm as them. But this view is just as entitled as going to a foreign country and hiding in a walled resort, believing everyone outside the safety of the hotel is a pickpocket.

Lion in Ngorongoro Crater

Lion in Ngorongoro Crater

There is no one real Africa. Countries and the people that populate them are multifaceted. In China, I learned to look down on all the laowai, to laugh at them as they got swindled in the markets. I owe it to Godson, to Angel, to Wilson and to all the other people who I met along the way for making me realize that by indiscriminately looking down on tourists, I was looking down on an entire sector of incredibly hardworking people. The tourism industry has heavily influenced many countries, from Greece to Africa to America. It cannot be ignored, and should not be degraded.

This lemon poppyseed scone recipe really has nothing to do with the post, but hey, it’s a tasty recipe. It’s refreshing and light, which I imagine would be a good change of pace after this wordy and somewhat heavy post.

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Lemon Yogurt Cake

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So a few weeks ago, I inexplicably bought seven or eight lemons from Whole Foods. They weren’t on sale or anything, I just saw them and on an impulse, bought a whole mesh bag of them. I am proud to say that today, I have finally used up the last two. Thank god lemons have a freakishly long shelf life.

For a while, I felt terrible, thinking that because of my impulse, these poor innocent lemons would go to waste. But instead, my split-second decision resulted in a delicious lemon cake. As I was sampling the first slice, I began to wonder why I often condemn impulsivity and so highly value planning and organizing.

On the spectrum of thinking to feeling, I’ve always tested more in the thinking category. I like to do my research, whether it’s headphones, restaurants, or papers. Case in point, I spent three days researching headphones under $30. Three days for a pair of cheap headphones.

For me, impulsivity is freedom. For a brief moment, I can act simply because I want something. I can buy eight goddamned lemons if I so please, and I can be content with my choice. Recently, a couple of economists published an article on “choice closure,” essentially where second guessing leaves a consumer less satisfied with their choice. I over think in part because I’m scared of being impulsive. I’m scared of making the wrong choice.

But I don’t need economics to know that sometimes the right answer simply is the easiest one, the gut feeling.

You know that saying, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade?” Well, the good news is, life never only gives you lemons. It gives you sugar too. So you can mix them together, move forward, and maybe instead of making lemonade, you can instead try making this delicious lemon yogurt cake. Keep it creative. Keep it impulsive.

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