Travel for Beginners

soy sauceI know almost nothing about soy sauce. I know I like to dip my sushi rolls into it and I know that the colored tops of the soy sauce bottles on the tables in Asian restaurants denote whether the soy sauce is regular (red) or low sodium (green). I know it is one of the two ingredients in the teriyaki sauce I make to go on Aunt Kay’s Sesame Chicken, a recipe I begged off of the wife of my husband’s boss after a dinner party at their house. I also know almost nothing about Singapore, like for instance, what languages the people speak there.

All that changed this week, however, and I didn’t even have to leave my house. I traveled to Singapore and learned about the ancient art of making soy sauce by reading Kirstin Chen’s debut novel, Soy Sauce for Beginners. I am itching to go to an Asian market and buy a bottle of really expensive, artisanal soy sauce and have a tasting of it on little rice crackers. I am also intrigued with the idea of tasting a splash of it in a glass of ice-cold Sprite.

I really enjoyed reading Chen’s story of a young woman from Singapore who has made a life for herself in America, only to have it come crashing down around her when her American husband leaves her for a much younger but also Asian woman. She escapes the trauma of her life by returning home, flying back to the nest to the home, and business, of her parents. She reluctantly goes to work at her family’s artisanal soy sauce factory with her father, not kicking and screaming per se because the energy that would involve is not something she can muster, but with a melancholy resignation that it is better than staying home to watch her mother drink herself to death. Running on a track of constant avoidance, first of her parents and their provincial life, then of her first career, then of her husband, then of her family’s business, and finally of her very image of herself, she comes full circle and discovers who and what she truly is, the keeper of the legacy of her grandfather’s life’s work. I learned so much from Chen’s book.

A few years ago, a similar thing happened when I stumbled upon The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger. This book also took me to a new and exciting world where I had little knowledge or background. Geography is not my strong suit so I can honestly say I did not even know where to find Bangladesh on a map. In reading The Newlyweds, I was transported into a world of internet dating, arranged marriage, and immigration. Although it was not her first novel, Freudenberger was new to me, and after finishing it I immediately Googled her to find out her life story. I was shocked that she was American, born and raised in New York City, and while she had taught English in Thailand, she was no more Bangladeshi than I. How had she managed to get inside the head of Amina so completely and how did she transfer to paper the complex character profile of an immigrant in an arranged marriage? As a burgeoning writer, this fascinates me, and it makes me jealous.

a week in winterImagining village life in an Irish town is not as challenging as the exotic allure of Asia, particularly because I have an affinity for British literature, films, and television. Yet, Maeve Binchy’s novels sweep you away with such force that you feel as though you could walk out of your own door and pop down to the village for a pint at the local pub. I’ve enjoyed quite a few of Binchy’s books, but it is her last one, A Week in Winter, finished just before her death, that perfectly blended her talent of rich development of quirky characters with the authentic imagery of her setting. A Week in Winter tells the story of an inn set high on the cliffs of Stoneybridge, a fictional town on the west coast of Ireland. I would eat ramen noodles for a year to save enough money to travel to Ireland to spend a few weeks at Stone House.

Halfway through the book, Binchy takes her readers on a cliff walk with two of her characters, Winnie and Lillian, and the imagery in that part of the story is particularly powerful:

“And at first, it was exhilarating. The spray was salty and the rocks large, dark, and menacing. The cries of the wild birds and the pounding of the sea made talking impossible. They strode on together, pausing to look out over the Atlantic and to realize that the next land was three thousand miles away in the United States.”

a moveable feastPaula McLain also has the power to jerk me away from my suburban 21st century life. I’ve been fortunate to travel to Paris several times but her book The Paris Wife not only takes you to 1920s Paris but also inside the marriage of Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson. Drawing upon Hemingway’s own telling of his first marriage and life as a young, struggling writer in his nonfiction A Moveable Feast, she retells and embellishes the story from Richardson’s perspective. Hemingway’s angst over his writing and his constant search for approval of his work combined with Richardson’s loneliness and insecurity as a young bride is palatable and poignant.

McLain then jumps continents but remains in the 1920s to take us on safari, on a journey to colonial Africa, and into the life of Beryl Markham in her masterpiece Circling the Sun. My travels have taken me around Europe but never to Asia or Africa. While I have always wanted to visit parts of Asia, I had no desire to experience Africa, until, that is, I read Circling the Sun. McLain’s words describing Kenya paint a vivid picture, albeit a picture that cannot be recreated in today’s world, a picture I now long to see for myself. She is a master storyteller, and her ability to not only bring back to life both Hadley Richardson and Beryl Markham, but to make the reader truly care about them, is astounding.

states visitedMy first vacation was a 45-minute plane ride to Monroe, Louisiana, the opposite side of my home state, for my cousin’s college graduation. I was in the 8th grade and before that I had only traveled by car, to New Orleans (60 miles away) or Baton Rouge (120 miles away). Two years later I flew to Memphis to visit my friend who was a patient at St. Jude Children’s Hospital. Up until the year between my junior and senior years of high school, I had not been anywhere else. Before that high school trip to countries visitedEurope, my only real travel was between the pages of a book, where my passport was always at the ready and well-used. Being an avid reader during my childhood and adolescence broadened my very narrow view of the world and introduced me to people, places, and possibilities I could not imagine for myself. Even today, after having traveled to 18 countries and 30 states, I still read for these very same reasons.

book with flowersDo yourself a favor; take a trip. You don’t need to pack much; you only need some time and a comfy chair. Escape to another world, meet some new people, learn about a new culture, taste some new foods, learn some new words. Read a good book.

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Buttered Toast

toastButtered toast.  Buttered toast and a cup of steaming café au lait.  Buttered toast and a cup of English Breakfast tea, with a paper-thin slice of lemon floating delicately on top.  Buttered toast and a cup of homemade chicken noodle soup.  Heck, buttered toast all by itself.  Two ingredients.  Simplicity in itself. Comforting.  Delicious.

For years my dad’s breakfast was a cup of coffee and two slices of Sunbeam white sandwich bread, lightly toasted in the toaster oven (not a pop-up, never) and buttered…stacked one on top of the other, laid upon a folded paper towel and cut in half.  At some point after he had retired early to care for my mom, he switched to canned biscuits, and then to frozen biscuits that he could heat up one or two at a time, again in the toaster oven.  My mom loved her buttered toast and for years joined my dad in the customary breakfast but after a triple bypass in 1993 it was recommended to her that she switch to Cheerios instead.

When I was young and stayed home from school sick, my mom would make me buttered toast in the morning.  At lunch I would get a special treat of a frozen chicken pot pie or a bowl of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle or Chicken and Rice.  And when I was just home from the hospital after delivering by c-section my first child, a beautiful baby girl, my mom served me, yes, you guessed it, a cup of tea and buttered toast. I was exhausted just riding in the car home and that cup of tea and buttered toast is still a vivid memory for me. The restorative values aside, it was the absolutely perfect welcome home snack. Boy, do I miss my mother.

Buttered toast is ubiquitous all over the world.  In India, what is naan if not thin bread that has been “toasted” on a hot slab of rock and coated in ghee (clarified butter).  In Italy, ciabatta sliced thinly and grilled with a little butter (or maybe it would be olive oil instead) is the perfect appetizer when topped with chopped tomatoes, garlic and basil.  Admittedly, toast is not de rigueur in France, where you should expect a crisp on the outside but soft and chewy on the inside baguette or warm and still crackly croissant.  But anywhere in the British Isles, you will absolutely get the message loud and clear that buttered toast is the bread product of preference. If you watch any British sitcom with a breakfast scene I can assure you that you will see how important buttered toast is to the British.  Toast must be served in a toast rack, never laid on a paper towel or stacked on a saucer…this would cause steam from the heat of the bottom slice to eek up into the next slice causing it to become SOGGY, which by definition is not what toast is all about.

The toast rack is a strange little houseware item that looks like a letter holder for your outgoing mail, except that instead of bills and birthday cards standing between the slots, you have slice after slice of toast.  Mostly made out of stainless steel, these are on every table in every bed and breakfast in Great Britain.  My dear husband bought me an antique sterling silver Art Deco one at the famous street flea market on Portobello Road in London for our 15th wedding anniversary.  The whole raison d’être for a toast rack is that air circulates between the slices so there is no way it can steam itself and get soggy.  Remember, steam is the enemy of toast.  Each perfectly toasted slice is then cut or torn into smaller pieces where upon copious amounts of marmalade or preserves are then applied.  Or, maybe a drizzle of honey.  My mom (daughter of Scottish immigrants) always put grape jelly on top of buttered toast and on top of this she placed either two strips of crispy bacon or a slice of fried until it’s almost black Oscar Mayer bologna.  Yummmmmmy.  Did I mention the triple bypass?

But, back to the British and their buttered toast, which is washed down with vast quantities of properly made hot tea from a proper tea pot with proper loose tea leaves, not a Lipton’s bag in a mug with the string hanging over the edge.  When we vacationed in Scotland, visiting my mom’s relatives and staying in a bed and breakfast inn, I swear they would have brought out rack after rack of toast until lunch time, as long as we kept eating it!  In Ireland, visiting friends and a retired priest we know, same thing, even on the buffet in the Americanized chain hotel we stayed in, industrial size toast racks with row after row of perfectly toasted white (and wheat) bread.

But here in the good ole US of A, there is little consideration to be given as to what kind of bread the toast is actually made of . . . white sandwich bread, from either a bag with primary colored dots on it or the one with the adorable-if-not-dated little girl with the blonde curls.  I am fully aware of the health benefits of whole grain, but when it comes to buttered toast, well, why in the world are you going to mess around with sticks and twigs?  Then, of course, comes the other ingredient of the buttered toast recipe, the “buttered” part.  You can begin with the top of the food chain, sweet creamery butter, unsalted of course, and work your way down from there.  I personally grew up on Fleishmann’s margarine, in the sticks, the original flavor.  It’s made of corn oil and is supposed to be healthier for you than real butter.  The best thing I can say for it is this; it is always the perfect consistency for spreading on toast, unlike a stick of butter straight from the fridge.  Of course, we could leave it out on the counter like they do all over Europe (and in some reckless homes in the US too) but the food police would be on us in a minute.

Another British invention for buttered toast is a variation called “toast soldiers”.  This is just buttered toast cut into strips; say maybe three evenly sized strips out of each slice of toast.  These are then dunked into a soft-boiled egg that has had its top cut off.  I’m not much of an egg person, so to me, this is just a waste of a good piece of buttered toast, but it seems to be viewed as somewhat of a religious experience in Great Britain.

So next time you are feeling a wee bit peckish, a little bit blue, or maybe just under the weather, give yourself a boost with a couple of slices of toasted white bread, slathered with sweet butter, and wash it down with a cup of tea, or coffee, or even hot chocolate.  You will not be sorry, I promise you.  And remember, you are just one ingredient and a skillet away from that other all-powerful comfort food, the grilled cheese sandwich, but that’s another story altogether!