On Potlucks, Being Brown, and Belonging in the Desert

About an hour after getting off the plane in Reno, my mother started handing me food to “try” on the 2.5-hour drive back to my hometown Winnemucca. Since I got off the plane, I’ve been eating Gilmore Girls-quantities of food in the sometimes-indecorous style of Nigella Lawson. For those of you who are not fluent in either of these languages I’m speaking: I’m eating a lot of food and I’m stuffing it into my face without giving any fucks about looking demure.

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I haven’t made anything this week. But I have eaten incredible amounts of good food. My mother’s birthday was last Saturday, and her friends threw her an impromptu potluck lunch.

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I often describe Winnemucca’s location as being “the literal middle of nowhere,” not out of derision, but because it’s a little bit true. I guess you could describe any town in Nevada, excluding Reno and Las Vegas, as being in the middle of nowhere.

(Fun fact: Nevada has more ghost towns than actual towns. That might explain why I love spooky stuff so much.)

When I was growing up here, as I’ve written about before, I hated it. There weren’t any coffee shops until I was a junior or so in high school. There weren’t any bookstores or music shops or anything. There were only casinos, restaurants in casinos, Walmart, the public library, the volunteer-operated thrift store Poke-N-Peek, and one or two small clothing stores.  

What this town did have, though, was an unexpected and healthy (for the town’s size) Filipino population. My memories of Winnemucca are full of Filipino parties and potlucks. I met my childhood best friend, Chris, on Halloween night at a Filipino party when we were around 6 years old, and we’ve been BFFs ever since. (Our BFF status was cemented that very night in a very strange and inexplicable way, but that story is for another time when I can explain our weird behavior. Which will probably be never.)

Nevada seems like a great empty expanse in the western U.S. (and in a lot of ways, it is), but I grew up surrounded by people who (kind of) looked like me, and helped me know who I was and where I came from. At the time, I didn’t realize how lucky this was. To be familiar with the cadence and sounds of Tagalog and Ilocano, to know the smell of every good food and every stinky one, to know that every person has their own adobo or pancit recipes with their own trick or twist. To have a best friend who wouldn’t blink at the “weird” food you ate and wasn’t intimidated by large groups of Filipino women talking away in Tagalog.

Look at these skinny brown kids. Taken during a Filipino party in the early days.

Look at these skinny brown kids. Taken during a Filipino party in the early days.

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What was on the menu for my mom’s potluck lunch this year: ceviche, a spicy Thai yellow curry, pancit, papaya salad (drooooool), fried chicken, mini quiches, squash pancakes with a vinegary garlicky sauce (more drool, especially with that sauce!), rice cooked with coconut oil and coconut milk (but not quite full-fledged coconut rice), cassava cake, meatballs, guacamole, baked beans with cocktail sausages (I’m dedicating an entire post to that dish, I promise you), marinated chicken breast strips, and fruit.

I haven’t even gotten to the cake yet. (More drool.)

And this potluck was smaller than last year’s. Can you even imagine? (No, no, you can’t.)

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***
A year ago, my mother had been on her cancer treatment for about 5 months or so. At that point, the cancer was responding so well to treatment that her tumors were shrinking down to almost nothing. It was the best possible news we could receive, and we were all relieved. Things were slowly going back to normal, but I didn’t want to get too comfortable because I knew that things could go pear-shaped at any moment. Cancer can be a real shitshow in that way. So I flew home to spend a few days with my mom for her birthday. That’s when I learned that her friend was organizing a big birthday party for her.

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My mother is notoriously late to everything. She was two hours late to her own birthday party that year. And why? She was busy cooking like 5 extra dishes because she was worried there wouldn’t be enough food. (I had also been roped into cooking two dishes, somehow. I honestly don’t remember what they were — a spicy chorizo and shiitake mushroom soup and maybe browned butter chocolate chip cookies?)

This is one of two photos I took at the party that year. This is that chorizo and shiitake mushroom soup, presented in a styrofoam bowl.

This is one of two photos I took at the party that year. This is that chorizo and shiitake mushroom soup, presented in a styrofoam bowl.

By the time we arrived at the party, people had started to lose hope that my mother would ever show up. There was already a ton of food brought by the guests, and my mother and I just added more to the spread. It was excess of the best kind.

Looking back, I didn’t really take any pictures. I was just happy and thankful for my mom’s health, and that so many people had come to celebrate her. The party was big and loud and joyful. People from every aspect of my mom’s life were there. Church friends, volunteer friends, Avon friends, Filipino friends, Thai friends — the gang was all there.

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The complexion of the Filipino party in Winnemucca, Nevada, has changed since I left here nearly 14 years ago. (!!!) It doesn’t feel accurate for me to call them Filipino parties anymore. Though there has always been a large Latinx community and there is still a steady Filipino community, there are more kinds of brown people: Cambodian and Thai are the newest communities (to me) to grow roots of some kind in this area.

Often, when I come home, it feels like I can finally relax and take a big breath of fresh air. For me, that feeling has always been more about the landscape than anything else. In this town, I’ve always walked the tightrope between feeling at home and feeling like an outsider. These days, I still feel at home, but also know that people who are current residents have a hard time believing that I grew up here.

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Now though, when I come here, I know that I will be around more brown people than I’ve ever been around in Indiana. I will feel more able to take up space as a woman of color here in rural Nevada than I do in Indiana. Even when I live in a college town that boasts an international appeal.

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I haven’t even mentioned the birthday cake yet. It was perfect. The cake itself was spongy and light -- and the frosting! I’ve been telling everyone I know about it. It was a strawberry whipped frosting — so light, and fluffy, with just the right amount of sweetness. Most frostings I’ve tasted are heavy, both in texture and sweetness, but this one was divine. I honestly cannot stop thinking about it.  

Where was it made? A local grocery store.

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I don’t want to make rural Nevada seem like some kind of magical oasis. Don’t come to Winnemucca expecting to eat all this great food and attend great parties.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you are visitor to this town, you will not see the things that I see. You will not see all the people that I do, and you will not be able to eat the food that I get to eat when I am here. If you visit Winnemucca unaccompanied by a local, you will not remember anything about it except maybe the McDonalds, or the fact that the Burger King overlooks the cemetery, or that we have a giant (and I mean, truly giant) “Welcome to Winnemucca” marquee perched on the border of said cemetery if you come into town taking the West Winnemucca Boulevard exit off I-80.

The point of all this, I guess, is that no matter how small the town, how white it seems, how incredibly desolate it appears to be — we’re out here. We’re feeding and caring for each other. We’re creating and thriving our own communities when the larger world makes us feel like we’re walking a constant line between belonging and forever being seen as an outsider.

I don’t want to speak for anyone else. But this is what I’ve experienced and felt and remembered.

Sometimes, I worry that I’m remembering all this with a heavy filter. I worry that I’m forgetting all the bad shit. Not everything was or is amazing. I know that. I still get stares everywhere I go here. If you happen to accidentally interrupt a bingo game, you will get some intense glares. I can't find dried figs anywhere in town, which is maybe the most egregious insult of them all.

But memories are memories. Feelings are feelings. Delicious food is delicious food. The heart knows when things are good.

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Also: happy birthday, Mom!

More Disasters, Stubborn Bananas, and a Meditation on Creating as a Response to Violence

Wow, y’all. I have not fucked up this much food this many times in recent memory.

I started this week off with a Nigella Lawson recipe from her cookbook, Simply Nigella: Thai Noodles with Cinnamon and Shrimp.

It sounds amazing, right? I was so excited to make this and then eat it. My mouth watered just imagining the umami flavors of the soy and oyster sauces fusing with the sweetness of the cinnamon and cloves to create a flavor bomb of awesomeness.

What I made was the exact opposite of that. I had double the noodles and double the shrimp, so I thought I would just double the sauce, which has large quantities of light and dark soy sauces (??? I don’t know the difference ???), oyster sauce, a concoction of dark soy sauce and brown sugar, pepper, chicken broth concentrate, and water.

I thought I had everything under control. I marveled at the darkness of the sauce and the smell of the garlic and ginger and the cinnamon sticks and the star anise as it simmered and bubbled in the pot. It truly smelled incredible. Then, I dumped in my shrimp. I stirred them around and realized I had made a huge mistake. The shrimp were so coated in the sauce that I wouldn’t be able to tell when the shrimp turned pink because the sauce was so dark.

I shrugged and thought, oh well. Shrimp don’t take too long to cook, and when I put the noodles in, they will soak up the sauce, the shrimp will turn back to a normal color, and everything will balance out.

I dumped the noodles into the pot, and they also turned dark. The more I tossed the ingredients together, the more everything simply turned full dark, no stars.

And not only was every ingredient of the dish just the same shade of dark, they were amazingly, incredibly salty. I tasted one shrimp and thought it wasn’t too bad. When I ate an entire bowl, though, I had to chug water every couple of bites because I was afraid of shriveling up like those aliens in The Faculty

Even through the saltiness though, I could taste the sweetness of the spices. I could taste what the dish was like under all its darkness.

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These goddamn bananas are driving me nuts. They are still ripening.

So still no banana cream pie this week. My baking fingers are itching to make something.

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I’ll be honest. For the past week and a half or so, my body has been preparing to shed its uterine lining. (Yes, I’m going to talk about periods. Deal with it.) This means that my energy has been super low, my ovaries have randomly felt like they were trying to rip their way out of my body, and I’ve been hungering for moderately salty foods  (i.e. NOT the monstrosity I made of Nigella's recipe) and deeply chocolate foods. Sometimes, even at the same time. (Gasp.)  

On Wednesday, I could feel the cramps coming. It’s like watching a train come down the tracks really slowly. I can hear its whistle, I know it’s on its way, and I know I have only a brief amount of time before it flattens me on the tracks.

So I hurried and made this Spicy Beef Noodle Soup from the latest issue of Cooking Light. Cooking Light reports that the soup is immune-system boosting. It’s brothy, it’s spicy, it cleans out your sinuses. It’s got a million cloves of garlic in it (okay, fine, it actually has only 15+ garlic cloves), it’s got little nuggets of beef, crisp baby bok choy, and earthy mushrooms. It’s delicious.

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Two hours after I finished the soup, my cramps hit. I spent the rest of the night on the couch with my trusty heating pad and a comfortably full belly.

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Usually, when I mess up a dish, I want to forget it ever happened. I want to bury the recipe and my mistakes in a cemetery along with all my other botched things (food and otherwise). I usually make notes on the recipe for myself, for when I've forgotten the disaster at hand and want to try again. But that amnesia and ensuing motivation usually comes long after. Weeks. Months. Maybe even years.

I was so disappointed in my Thai noodles miscalculations. I was disappointed that I didn't get to enjoy what I could tell was a tasty dish underneath all that salt, and I was disappointed in myself for not trusting my intuition (which had been yelling and waving its arms at me frantically as I ignored it and continued to pour unthinkable amounts of salty ingredients into the pot).

This time, however, I wanted to get right back on the horse. I wanted to try again. I want to try again.

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I’ve been waiting around for these bananas to ripen because I really want that banana cream pie. But it occurred to me that I don’t have to wait around to bake, just because the bananas aren’t ready. I can bake something else while I wait.  I don’t have to deprive myself of baking for however many weeks, just because these bananas are taking forever to rot.

So simple a revelation, and so duh, but, man.

And so, I’m ending on another culinary cliffhanger this week. I’m going to make a Nigella chocolate cake. I have no idea where I’m going to find edible rose petals for this thing, but I trust that I will find a suitable substitute somewhere. 

Who knows. Maybe next week’s Friday Bites will chronicle the making of a dark and sumptuous chocolate cake and the world’s tastiest banana cream pie. Here’s hoping.

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I’ve realized that cooking is nice and all, but baking is what makes me feel like everything is going to be okay in the world. The precision and order of baking is comforting in times of chaos and violence, which is the world we live in. It's not a coincidence that my need to create something tangible and nourishing reared its head after I read the news about the18th school shooting of year. When I feel powerless and devastated, the instinct to do something comes.

There are so many things to do. Call your representatives. Protest. Petition. Lobby for change. Write op-ed pieces. Tweet angrily.

I often struggle with what feels like the most effective thing to do in the moment. What if the thing that feels best and right is to create something? To bake a fucking cake? Does it do anything to create something - a dish, a cake, a pie, a pastry, a poem, a blog post, an essay - and put it out there? What if you create it and put it out into the world with love and revolution in your heart and mind? Is that something?

Soup Disasters & Banana Cream Pie

Friday Bites is my new weekly blogging experiment, where I write and reflect on the food I’ve made during the week. It will be published every…you guessed it…Friday. Let’s see what happens.  
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Do you ever get that feeling that you’re…full? Not full of joy or gratitude or feelings or whatever. I mean like, you’ve been eating lots of meat and cheese and carbs and you feel like you are just…full. Like kind of bloated, but fuller? I don’t know, maybe it’s just me.

When I get to feeling full in the way I just attempted to describe, I crave soup. Brothy soup. This week, I wanted to make some soups that were brothy but hearty enough to keep me satisfied.

So I went for Chrissy Teigen’s vegetable tortilla soup from her cookbook Cravings. It looked bright, healthy-ish, and tasty. I skimmed over the part of Chrissy’s recipe blurb that said the soup had “the perfect kick” and went about my business.

Without question, I chopped up an entire jalapeño and threw it into the soup pot (seeds, membrane, and all). A memory flashed through my mind of the time when, barehanded, I chopped up a fresh jalapeño from a friend’s garden, and the ensuing flames of pain that came when I got the jalapeño juice (alright, fine, the capsaicin) all over my hands and just inside the rim of one nostril. My fingers and nose burned for days. I wish I were exaggerating.

But I dismissed the thought because I would never make that mistake again. And anyway, store-bought jalapeños are fairly mild, in my experience.

As I measured two entire tablespoons of chili powder into the soup, the thought crossed my mind that this might be too much for me. I double- and triple-checked the recipe, and thought, “Okay. Two whole tablespoons? Really? Alright, Chrissy. I trust you.”

The soup simmered, and I fried up some tortilla strips with excitement and anticipation. My kitchen smelled amazing, and I was so hungry. When I finally got a chance to taste the soup, my mouth had exactly two seconds to enjoy the flavor before the spicy heat hit me. I felt like the chili powder had gotten into my sinuses, and my nose started running. I started sweating after two bites, and a few minutes later my eyes started watering. I felt like I was on an episode of Hot Ones, trying to make it through one of the hottest hot wings. I kept eating the crumbled cotija cheese because it felt so cool in my mouth. I started laying pieces of cold tortilla on my tongue. M poured me a glass of coconut milk (because the only actual milk in our house is saved for baking). My skin felt hot. I was turning inside out.

Now, what really bums me out? The “perfect kick” for Chrissy Teigen is 30 minutes of sweaty, teary torture for me and additional digestion problems that come by later at an unexpected time.

Thankfully, M can hang with the spice level of this soup, so it’s all his.

And because I’m sad about the soup, I didn’t take any pictures of it. Oops.  

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I don’t know what it is about barley soups, but I can’t resist them. Beef barley, vegetable barley,  vegetable and beef barley, mushroom and barley. When I was a kid, I loved the Progresso beef barley canned soup and hogged them all for myself when my parents bought them from the store.

So this week, I made a mushroom barley soup using a combination of ingredients and process from The Kitchn and Real Simple recipes. (Look at me! I'm out here, just winging it!) There were no jalapeños in this recipe, no tablespoons of spice. Just some good old-fashioned onions, carrots, celery, mushrooms, and barley.

There’s not much to say about it, other than it was tasty, beautiful, and exactly what I needed on a Wednesday.

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The real piéce de résistance of the week hasn’t been made yet, and it probably will have to wait until the weekend. What is it? It’s banana cream pie, recipe courtesy of Christina Tosi’s Milk Bar cookbook.

Why banana cream pie? Well, there are a few reasons.

  1. Banana cream pie is delicious. Why would I not want to make it?
  2. I’ve been watching the first season of The Mind of a Chef, and saw the episode where Christina Tosi makes a tasty-looking banana cream pie with ripened-to-black bananas. I was intrigued and, also, extremely on board.
  3. Last weekend, M told the story of the best banana cream pie he’s ever had. It was so good that since then, he’s measured all banana cream pies against That One Pie. I’m up for the challenge of making a banana cream pie that will blow that one out of the water.

But when we went grocery shopping, all the bananas — and I mean ALL of the bananas — were green. And not just yellow with a hint of green. They. Were. All. GREEN.

So I’m waiting. The bananas are in a paper bag, ripening extremely slowly. It’s the first time I can think of where the making of the delicious treat is not on my timeline — it’s up to the bananas.

So maybe I’ll get to make banana cream pie this weekend. Maybe I won’t. It’s really just up to the bananas. 

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Gratitude: the food edition.

These days, I'm trying to remember gratitude. Life is hard enough on its own. Partly because shit happens, and mostly because the systems that we live and participate in are racist and patriarchal and paternalistic and violent and unjust and every kind of phobic. I've been known to say this on a daily basis:      

Some days, I get overwhelmed with how fucked everything seems, how my every day seems so inextricably woven with oppression and injustice, even though I'm fighting every second to dismantle it. 

It is those days, when I feel so backed into a corner and so overwhelmed, that I need to remember gratitude. I need to remember joy in every small thing, wherever I can get it. 

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I've been home from traveling for almost two weeks now. I'm finally (finally!) over my jetlag and getting back into my meal planning routine. Which sounds riveting, yes, but honestly -- meal planning/cooking are sometimes the only things I do for myself in the course of a week. When I'm choosing recipes, I'm choosing shit that looks delicious and worth working for at the end of a long workday. I'll write more in-depth about meal planning another time (maybe? I'm kind of excited about doing it?), but today, I just want to take account of the good shit, and talk about some of my favorite things, culinary-wise. 

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1. Getting a goodie bag full of fresh produce from a friend's garden. I thought we were getting hooked up with basil and jalepenos. (Okay, but seriously, how do I get some tilda action up in here?! Help me!) Instead, we got this cornucopia of goodness. 

I've already used a bunch of peppers for breakfast adventures. 

I've already used a bunch of peppers for breakfast adventures. 

Yes, that's a motherfucking homegrown cantelope you see. Our near-future is full of stuffed peppers, jalapeno pineapple upside-down cakes, boozy cantelope drinks, chowder with roasted peppers. So thankful for these friends of mine who grow food with such care. 

2. Heirloom tomatoes are one of my all-time favorite summer foods. If I see heirloom tomatoes on any menu in any form, you can bet I'm ordering it and I'm loving it. One of my favorite summer snacks is eating heirloom cherry tomatoes raw and being brought to my knees by all the different flavors and all the beautiful colors. 

Heirloom tomatoes snuggled up with jalapenos. 

Heirloom tomatoes snuggled up with jalapenos. 

These heirlooms are no exception. I ate ONE, and almost fell on the floor with their deliciousness. 

3. Roasting chiles is one of the most satisfying activities ever. Even though it gets to be 500 degrees in my kitchen if I'm roasting chiles in the summer, I love broiling and charring them, throwing them into a paper bag for a few minutes, and then peeling that skin off. There's something so satisfying about the whole process. I don't know what it is. It's so easy? It smells so good? ????

Unfortunately, I had too much fun roasting all my peppers and didn't get any pictures of them. So, don't take my word for it. Roast some of your own. 

4. Slicing corn off the cob. It's a pain in the ass, kind of, but it's satisfying to just slice through all those kernels. The result is delicious, fresh corn kernels ready for roasting or throwing into a summer chowder or just throwing into a regular old summer corn salad. (Did you know you can eat raw fresh corn and it's delicious af?! YES.)

Again, I had far too much fun slicing my corn off the cob this week and roasting those suckers, so no pictures for this either. Try it out yourself. 

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That's what I've got so far. 

Even when it's hard to start my gratitude list, I find that once I start, I keep going. And suddenly, I am filled with all the little things that bring me joy. 

And that's how I'm getting through this week.

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And because Reading Rainbow kept coming up in my head as I wrote this post, I'll end with this: