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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Scent: Message Received

winter storm jonasThanks to winter storm Jonas, a/k/a #Blizzard2016, I had an unexpected “winter break” from teaching, and I must say I have really enjoyed my #snowcation. Sandwiched nicely between my Christmas break and my Easter break, this one came with no expectations of shopping or meal planning. With my six school days I did some school work but mostly did things that I wanted to do, not that I had to do. I finished two knitting projects, crocheted a stack of make-up remover pads for my daughter Margaret who blogs about make-up and fashion, made a large batch of grapefruit orange marmalade, organized my bedside library (if you could see the number of books in my bedroom alone you would also designate this area as a library), did some writing and editing, and read several books.

oliver wendell holmesChris Grabenstein’s new book, Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics, was great. I also read Janet Evanovich’s latest, Tricky Twenty-Two, and even though I am really done with Stephanie Plum and her band of misfit friends and family, for many years I have been reading each of Evanovich’s books as they come out and I just can’t quit on her yet. I am one-third in to Kirstin Chen’s debut novel, Soy Sauce for Beginners, and I am hooked already. In fact, I was hooked by the very first sentence:

“These are some of my favorite smells: toasting bagel, freshly cut figs, the bergamot in good Earl Grey tea, a jar of whole soybeans slowly turning beneath a tropical sun.”

figI grew up on biscuits, not bagels; I despise Earl Grey tea; and I have no idea what a jar of whole soybeans “turning” in the sun would smell like. So, of that short list of items that Gretchen the protagonist is describing, the only one I can really identify with is the freshly cut figs. My Aunt Helen had a giant fig tree in her backyard and I used to retreat there when my mother would bring us over for a visit. I would literally climb inside the outer ring of larger branches and stand there, all but obscured from view, and eat fig after fig right off the tree. When I see what a small carton of four or five fresh figs cost at a gourmet grocery store here in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, I can’t imagine how many thousands of dollars in figs I ate in my childhood.

FigsI can’t bring myself to purchase them no matter how badly I want them these days, because I know deep down that they will not taste as good as the memory of my Aunt Helen’s figs tastes in my mind. I know this because when sniffing the carton of absurdly expensive nuggets, they do not smell like fresh figs pulled off the tree, one after another. And, that doesn’t count the preserved figs I’ve eaten. These are figs that were gently poached whole in simple syrup and then preserved in mason jars, given out to friends and family as casually as though everyone in the world had access to that sort of goodness on a regular basis. Those preserved figs were great plopped on homemade vanilla ice cream or pound cake, but they were just as good, if not better, draped across a slice of buttered toast.

Lewis ThomasThe connection of smell and memory is a powerful one. I was never much of an outdoorsy person but I did love the smell of the honeysuckle growing along the fence in my backyard as a child. I could stand there for hours, pulling the tender strands and sucking off the sweet nectar, one after another. The memory of pulling a satsuma off the tree in my backyard and eating it right there, dropping the peels and pithy stringy bits at my feet, is so powerful I can almost smell it right now, the citrus oils, almost acrid, slightly burning my nose.

Mississippi RiverClimbing up the levee to sit and watch the boats go by on the Mississippi River was a favorite pastime, something I did every time I went home for the weekend from college. I loved looking at the water, the soft waves lapping at the rocks along the bank, the pieces of driftwood floating by, but it is the smell of the Mississippi River that instantly told me I was home.

sulphurMy hometown had a smell all its own as well, although those of us growing up there couldn’t really smell it. You had to be away from it for a while to be able to smell it. Originally Port Sulphur was a town created to house the workers of the Freeport Sulphur Company, the townsite as it was called. With its close proximity to the shipping channel via the mouth of the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, it was the perfect location to fill tanker ships carrying the liquid sulphur away to foreign lands. When I had friends come for the weekend they all noticed it right away, but to us it just smelled like home. If you aren’t familiar with the smell of sulphur, you can get an idea of it by smelling the yolk of a hard-boiled egg (especially one boiled long enough for the green ring to appear around the yolk) or the tip of a kitchen match just as it starts to burn.

king cakeEveryone knows the smell of freshly baked bread, the earthy smell of yeast turning a bowl of plain flour and water into the bread of your culture, whatever that might be. In Louisiana, that would be French bread, not really a baguette as it has a soft exterior as well as a pillowy interior. It is the platform for po-boys of every kind: fried shrimp, fried oysters, roast beef, fried catfish, and more. It is just as good slathered with butter and eaten as is. Add some sugar, eggs, and milk to your bowl of yeast and flour and you get brioche, the bread of kings, Mardi Gras kings that is, the king cake. We have one shipped to us every year, just to get a bit of Mardi Gras here in our home in Maryland. Opening the Fed Ex box and then the Gambino’s box, and then the twist tie on the plastic bag, and wow, the aroma of that still fresh brioche hits your nose like a ton of bricks.

For Italians, the smell of a pot of tomato gravy bubbling away on the stove or a pan of lasagna baking in the oven is the smell of their grandmother, cooking love right there in her kitchen. For me, that would be the smell of a roux. It’s so simple, a roux, just equal parts of flour and fat. Yet, it is the basis of many a Louisiana recipe: First you make a roux. The trick is to cook it very, very slowly, until it simmers into a liquid pool of peanut butter-colored lava. I say lava because if you have ever had a bit of roux splash up on your hand while cooking, you will know exactly what I mean. Outside of cooking caramel (again equal parts of two otherwise benign ingredients, sugar and water), a cooking roux is the hottest substance in a kitchen. holy trinityWhen you add the holy trinity (chopped onion, bell pepper, and celery) to a hot roux, that smell can transport me to the kitchen of my mom, my Aunt Helen, my Uncle Guy’s make-shift kitchen in his grocery store, the kitchens of restaurants all over Louisiana. Both my daughters know that smell and when I am making a gumbo, they come out of their rooms, away from their phones and devices, to stand in the kitchen and smell the smell of a Louisiana they never lived in, a place where they have only visited, a place they only know through family and food.

mom's perfumesPeople have their own individual smells as well. My mother loved perfume and she loved trying them all. A walk through a department store with her meant an interminable amount of time spraying and spritzing one after another. She never wore a lot of perfume at any one time but she wore perfume every day. We all knew her favorites and there was always perfume under the Christmas tree for her. She loved the little sample bottles that came with cosmetic purchases. These miniature bottles became so popular that they started making them to sell as a boxed set. She received several of those as presents and long after she had tired of the perfume inside each one, she kept the bottles on a mirrored tray on her dresser. This collection of little glass memory containers was lovingly bestowed upon my fashionista daughter.

al di laI guess I have my own smell which has changed over the years. Fresh out of college in my first job I found a perfume I loved and wore it for years until the store where I bought it closed. I’ve never been able to find Al Di La since but I still have my last bottle of it. It has a few drops left in it, enough to whisk me back to driving my chocolate brown Ford LTD, a former unmarked police car that was my college graduation present from my parents, windows down, wind blowing my hair, feeling as young and carefree as I actually was at the time. From there I transitioned to many of my mom’s favorites, the Estee Lauder perfumes: Aliage, Estee, Youth Dew, and eventually landing on my all-time favorite, Cinnabar. my perfumesAs a young working mom in a big company, I was told many times my scent announced my visit before my colleagues saw or heard me coming. I never used a lot of perfume at any one time, much like my mom, but the spicy, warm smell of Cinnabar became my signature smell. One of my bosses from that same company announced one day that it was time I find a new scent, and she gave me for Christmas a gift set of Aromatic Elixir by Clinique. I am still wearing that scent to this very day, alternating occasionally with Cinnabar.

Rachel Carson, the environmentalist who wrote Silent Spring, once said,

“For the sense of smell, almost more than any other, has the power to recall memories and it is a pity that we use it so little.”

cruso quoteThis is so true for me. Today as I opened the little pink box where my daughter keeps those miniature perfume bottles, the smell of my mom enveloped me and brought a lump to my throat. Yes, the image of those little bottles, arranged just so on my mom’s dresser in my parents’ pre-Katrina home, is a strong one, but the soft, powdery smell emanating from that box made me yearn to give her a hug and make her a cup of tea. The smell of a roux cooking will always make me yearn for those simple times of eating a bowl of gumbo at my Aunt Helen’s house or a plate of my mom’s crab stew. These are the smells and scents of my life, each one cataloged and filed away for instant recall at the opening of a bottle or the making of a roux.