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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One Chord

elton johnOne chord. That’s all it takes. One chord and I instantly know this song and the artist. It’s the sound of that one chord that caused me to have a reoccurring nightmare for weeks on end in 1974 where I would hear that chord and then faint, waking up hours later after having missed an entire live rock concert with my favorite rock star of all times, Sir Elton John.

I was introduced to Elton John in the summer of 1973 while on a student tour of Europe. Five girls from my high school, Delta Heritage Academy in Buras, Louisiana, went together on this trip and we were paired up with five boys from Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia. We all got to be good friends, but one boy, Al, was the most popular of his group. He was fun and flirty with all of us, and deep down inside, I think we each thought he liked us best. While sitting on the bus on long rides from one country to another, he told me about Elton John and how much he loved his music. We had music on the bus, but no Elton John. The 1972 Harvest album by Neil Young was played so much that I knew every word to every song on that album. “…I crossed the ocean for a heart of gold. I’ve been in my mind; it’s such a fine line. That keeps me searching for a heart of gold…”

After my big adventure in Europe, I returned to high school for my senior year. The chaperones had given each of us a list of the addresses of all of the students on the trip so we could keep in touch. Al began writing me and several of the other girls in my group. He ended up coming for a visit, staying part of the trip with my family and part of the trip with another family. He brought hostess gifts to my mom, and for me, he brought me a book of piano sheet music from Elton John’s most recent album, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. One of the hits from that album was “Bennie and the Jets”. The visit did not work out exactly as I had hoped, but my book of Elton John sheet music is still sitting in my piano bench.

In August of 1974 I headed off to my freshman year of college at Southeastern Louisiana University. After my parents helped me carry all of my belongings to my dorm room, and my mom helped me unpack a few things, we said our goodbyes and they headed home, which was a good two and a half hour drive away. 8 track tape playerThe first thing I did after they left was to set up one of my prized possessions: my 8 track tape player. It was a gift from the parents of my best friend, Judy. I had visited Judy in the hospital during our sophomore year of high school and the 8 track tape player was a thank you present. I only had a few tapes: The Carpenters, Barry Manilow, Simon and Garfunkel, and of course, Elton John, and I played them over and over and over. I played them so much that they began to “drag” when I played them. I’m not sure if it was the tapes wearing out or the machine itself but I discovered I could stop the dragging by wedging my hairbrush under the tape to support it and help hold it in its correct position in the machine.

So, on that August afternoon, feeling very melancholy about being nearly alone in my dorm—hardly anyone had moved in yet, including my roommate, a girl I had never met before, I popped in my 8 track tape of Elton John’s Madman Across the Water madman across the water 8 trackand sang along while I unpacked and got myself ready for my college adventure. Even today, some forty years later, hearing “Tiny Dancer” or “Levon” yanks me right back to that dorm room in Livingston Hall, and I can even close my eyes and picture myself standing at my dorm window, watching the boys rugby team practicing on the field adjacent to my dorm, while eating tuna salad on Club Crackers.

All of my family and friends knew how much I loved Elton John’s music. Just after classes started my freshman year, I received an early birthday card from my godmother, my mother’s only sister who I have always called Nanny Pat. In the card was a note about my present. She had purchased for me a ticket to see Elton John in concert at LSU. My uncle was going to drive to Hammond to pick me up, drive my cousin, Elizabeth—who I have always called “Lizard”, and me to Baton Rouge for the concert which we would attend, and then he would drive me back to my dorm, where he would have to sign me in with my dorm mother since it would be after midnight. ELTON JOHN IN CONCERT! Was that the best gift ever?

Now, you may recall I have told you about my Nanny Pat before. She gave me the subscription to Reader’s Digest magazine when I was just a young girl—my very own copy that arrived every month addressed to ME. I absolutely loved my Reader’s Digest magazines. That was the best gift ever. But this—this was something on a whole different level. This was ELTON JOHN. I was ecstatic over this early birthday gift. Everyone on campus knew I was going to that concert.

And, that is when the nightmares began. One night I dreamed I was in my uncle’s car, in the backseat with Lizard, and we get to the arena. We go inside and find our seats. The lights go down. The stage is dark until one single light shines down on a grand piano. Then we hear the chord—that one chord. And, that is when I faint. In the dream/nightmare, I faint and slink down between the stadium seats. My cousin is frantically trying to revive me but I stay out cold until the lights all come on at the end of the concert, when I wake up, look around, and realize that I have missed the entire concert.

I told my cousin about this and she calmly said she would take care of it. I had no idea what that meant but in the car on the way to Baton Rouge she tells me that she has “smelling salts” in her purse just in case the nightmare comes true. That’s what kind of person she is, always prepared, like a Girl Scout loaded down with merit badges. And, she hasn’t changed a bit. Recently, when my father became very ill and I flew down to Louisiana to see him, there she was, driving several hours alone; leaving her boys to fend for themselves so she could come and help me out.

So, on September 29, 1974, I saw Elton John in concert with Lizard at my side. It was a glorious concert, my first ever. And, when he played “Bennie and the Jets”, I swooned but did not faint. The smelling salts were not needed I am happy to report.
concert set list (2)Thanks to the power of Google, I was able to find the setlist from the concert and I am a little surprised as to how few songs he actually played. I don’t remember it feeling short, or feeling that there were so many of his hit songs he didn’t play. I just remember how great it was and how really great my aunt and uncle were to go to all this trouble for me to see my favorite rock star in concert.

I did get to see Elton John one other time. My parents gave my husband and I tickets to see him in concert for our anniversary in 2001. It was his “Face to Face” tour with Billy Joel. face to face (3)I’m not really a Billy Joel fan but beggars can’t be choosers. The concert conveniently was scheduled for when we were going to be in Louisiana for Easter break. My parents got up at the crack of dawn the day the tickets went on sale and drove to New Orleans to buy them. My dad waited in line while my mom sat in the car. It’s hard to picture that, my dad waiting in line to buy tickets for two aging rock stars. “Bennie and the Jets” was performed near the end of the concert. Just as I was thinking he wasn’t going to play it, there it was—the chord. And, the audience erupted as it always does when he hits it. He also played my other favorites “Tiny Dancer” and “Levon”, and many others. Billy Joel was very entertaining and the two performed together seamlessly. It was a great concert.

In June of 1994 Disney released its major hit The Lion King, with the VHS tape released in 1995. Our daughters were five and three at the time, and like little sponges, memorized every single word to every song in that movie. When we finally purchased a car that had a CD player in it, I stocked it with CD’s of my favorite Elton John albums. (Yes, I had come a long way from the 8 track tape!) One day I was driving them home from school, playing an Elton John CD, when my older daughter said, “Mom, that man sounds like the man singing ‘The Circle of Life’ in The Lion King movie.” I explained to her that, yes, it was the same man, Elton John. She was so shocked that I knew who he was and that I actually had CD’s with him singing things that weren’t from her movie! The Lion King revitalized Elton John’s career and introduced him to a whole new generation. His contributions also earned him an Oscar and a Grammy for music from that film.

In early September of 1997, in the midst of extreme grief, he asked his long-time lyricist Bernie Taupin to write new lyrics to one of his classic hits to pay tribute to Diana, Princess of Wales, who had died in a car accident in Paris, France. The new song, “Candle in the Wind 1997”, began with the words “Goodbye England’s rose” and was poignant and heartbreaking. Elton John performed the song live at Diana’s funeral, adding to the already other-worldly experience of the internationally broadcast funeral of such a young, vibrant, and beautiful woman.

My favorites of his repertoire all come from seven albums produced in the 1970’s, during my high school and college days. They instantly bring me back to the carefree and happy days of being a young adult, with my entire life ahead of me. goodbye yellow brick roadThese songs, particularly those from the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album, are the ones I go back to time and time again. In The Wizard of Oz, the yellow brick road leads Dorothy and her new friends to the Emerald City, where hopefully the Wizard will help Dorothy return home. For me, however, these songs represent a time when I was heading out to make my own way in the world. Elton John’s early work is my “coming of age” music, and all it takes is that one chord of “Bennie and the Jets” to make me feel nostalgic and homesick.

A Narrow Sliver of Land

Map of Louisiana showing Plaquemines Parish in red

We all have our Proust moments: the singular bite of something that we loved and cherished in our childhood, re-tasted later as an adult, transporting us back in time to a particularly fond memory. Truman Capote, in his semi-autobiographical short story “A Christmas Memory”, describes in great detail the food of his childhood in the Deep South during the Great Depression: fried squirrel, biscuits and ham, flapjacks, Christmas fruitcakes. Capote could not hardly write a paragraph without offering a food memory from his past and neither can I.

Just as with Proust and Capote, my childhood memories are also centered on the foods of my youth, and even today, small tastes of certain foods evoke large memories of my life lived on a narrow sliver of land called Plaquemines Parish. I grew up in the small town of Port Sulphur, located 45 miles southeast of New Orleans, Louisiana. Originally founded as a sulphur mining town, it became the crown jewel of the “fisherman’s paradise” and home to groves of citrus fruit. Unfortunately, Port Sulphur is now known for something else: the exact spot of landfall of Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005. And, on that fateful day, I lost my hometown.

turkey and sausage gumo

Turkey and Sausage Gumbo

My mother’s parents emigrated from Scotland in the early 1920’s when my grandfather was hired by the Freeport Sulphur Company. Unfortunately they both died before my mother finished high school so I never had the opportunity to experience “boiled mince”, which is the first dish she cooked for my father as a newlywed. It did not go over well. So, she learned her Louisiana-style dishes from my father’s mother, known affectionately by all as “Mama the Cook”.

red beans and rice

Louisiana Red Beans and Smoked Sausage

Great cooks abound in my family.  I grew up on several different variations of gumbo, my mom’s versus my Aunt Helen’s and later, my brother Tommy’s.  My dad’s stewed chicken melts in your mouth and my brother John Roy fries a mean turkey. We each make our own version of the Louisiana staple, red beans and rice with smoked sausage (mine is pretty good). My cousin Kim’s crawfish maque choux won a local cooking competition. And then there’s the best jambalaya in the world, made by my Uncle Guy’s brother, Joe.

Uncle Guy, whose first language was Cajun French, married my dad’s sister and went into the grocery business with my grandmother.  He cooked every day in the back of his grocery store. When shopping in the store with my mom, I made a beeline dash to the back of the store to see Uncle Guy. He was my godfather, and I was his “Michelangelo”, his nickname for me. He always offered me a taste of what he was cooking. I would ask “what is it?” and he would invariably respond “chicken”. I lapped it up, only discovering much, much later in life that I had been eating goat, snapping turtle, wild duck, goose, alligator, and more. These foods all seem exotic and distant now, but were perfectly ordinary and normal at the time.

I have many fond memories of Friday nights, when we would all meet at my Aunt Helen’s for dinner.  Being Catholic during pre-Vatican II times, we abstained from meat on Fridays all year-long.  Luckily, given the abundance and quality of seafood from the Gulf of Mexico, this was not a problem. My Uncle Guy and my dad would go out to the “pit”, a separate building next door to their house that had a great indoor barbeque and a small kitchen, to fry whatever fish he had caught that day at “the cut”, the local fishing hole, usually catfish or redfish, sometimes flounder.  He would also boil shrimp and crabs (as opposed to steaming as is done in the Chesapeake Bay region where I now live), and when the season was right, we had boiled crawfish.  My Aunt Helen had a huge pot of seafood gumbo simmering on the stove in the kitchen, and next to it would be a big pot of white rice.  My mom made potato salad and for my cousin Keith “macaroni salad”, a cold pasta salad of small elbow macaroni, mayonnaise, celery, and pickles, and oddly enough, eaten on saltine crackers.  There would be snacks out, too, normal things like potato chips and French onion dip, but also another Louisiana specialty, shrimp mold, which is a cold shrimp salad made with condensed tomato soup, unflavored gelatin, chopped celery and other seasonings, poured into a ring mold, and then after it has set, eaten as a spread on Ritz crackers.

There were always multiple desserts, the domain of my cousin Penny.  Some of her specialties were red velvet cake, carrot cake, bread pudding with bourbon sauce, and usually some crazy cold concoction like “banana split surprise” or some other instant pudding/whipped topping/multiple layered gooey thing.  We often made ice cream: banana, peach, or strawberry, in an old hand-crank machine filled with crushed ice and rock salt, later upgraded to an electric one. My dad’s younger sister, Hilda (affectionately known as Susie), also a stellar cook, would come in from out-of-town laden with goodies such as her specialty, pecan pie. And, if my Aunt Lillian was there, we would have her famous peanut butter fudge, a recipe we all thought went with her to her grave until I found a handwritten copy in an unmarked box of miscellaneous papers after moving 4,000 miles to Waterloo, Belgium.

There were lots of family members but also present were neighbors and outsiders too, people who had been in my Uncle Guy’s grocery store at closing time, or his fishing buddies like my mother’s cousin Duffy or someone I remember calling Uncle David (pronounced the French way to rhyme with “speed”).  We would all sit around the den and eat in stages, eat whatever was ready next and then move on to the next item, never sitting down to a table set with silverware and such.  The boiled seafood was eaten either in the pit or in the garage, on big tables spread with newspaper.  When the steaming pots were dumped on the tables, out would tumble perfectly cooked shrimp, crabs, or crawfish, seasoned to perfection with Zatarain’s Crab Boil, and the “side dishes”, corn on the cob, whole heads of garlic, and new potatoes, all cooked together, truly a one-pot meal.

Extra fridges in the garage or in the “sewing room” held sodas and beers, and everyone just helped themselves.  Of course, most women did not drink beer then, so my Uncle Guy was called upon to make his famous “Old Fashioned” cocktails for Aunt Helen and any of the other ladies who wanted one.  After dinner, there would be homemade orange wine, made from the citrus grown on Uncle Guy’s land, “Songy’s Evergreen”, and cherry bounce, a deadly potent liqueur made by fermenting fresh cherries with bourbon and sugar for several months, usually served over vanilla ice cream or pound cake. Aunt Helen had a large glass jug that sat in a wooden stand which would be rotated daily during the fermenting process. If the top wasn’t removed periodically to release the pressure created by the fermentation process, you were likely to find the walls covered in sweet, sticky, dripping cherry bits, sort of like stumbling upon a homicide scene right out of CSI New Orleans!

After the men were finished cooking in the pit, they would play “pedro”, a card game distinctive for the manner in which the cards were played, by thumping them down hard on the table. I can almost still hear the sound of Uncle Guy’s knuckles hitting the table when he played his card, a cigarette dangling from his mouth and a beer in a frosted mug at his elbow, complete with his customary pinch of salt added to the foam.  The men didn’t seem to eat much, other than pieces of fried fish as it came out of the cast iron skillet in the pit while it was cooking.

When the card game was over, and almost everyone was loosened up from the beers and Old Fashioneds, the coffee table was pushed aside, the lights in the den were dimmed, and records were played on the stereo for the grown ups to dance.  Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Roger Miller, Johnny Cash, all were regulars at the Friday night parties.  While this was going on, my mom would give me the “signal” and I would reluctantly go to the kitchen and put the food away, unloading and loading the dishwasher, washing the huge gumbo pot, wiping down the countertops.

shrimp and crab stew

Shrimp and Crab Stew

Life first separated me from my hometown after college, and then more permanently when I moved to Maryland in 1988 for work and for love. But I returned home once a year, husband and babies in tow, for Christmas or Easter or during the summer, to visit family and get a refill of good food and the slow, laid-back lifestyle found only in Louisiana. During those years I made sure to learn the recipes for dishes that instantly transported me back home: the smell of a roux slowly cooking to the color of a copper penny, the smooth creaminess contrasted against the crunch of the celery in shrimp mold, the sweetness of crabmet juxtaposed against the cayenne pepper in crab stew, the irresistible velvety uniqueness of Aunt Lillian’s peanut butter fudge. Unfortunately, I never mastered Uncle Guy’s Old Fashioneds or Aunt Helen’s Cherry Bounce, but my daughters are both well versed in roux-making and beignet-frying, as well as how to determine if fudge has reached the critical soft-ball stage.

I’ve only returned to my hometown twice since Katrina, once in 2006 to see for myself the massive destruction, and then again, for my Aunt Helen’s funeral in 2012. It’s difficult to go back, and there is no one there to go back to. Except for St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, where I received my sacraments and was married, which miraculously survived Katrina’s violent flooding and high winds, there is no physical sign of my past in Port Sulphur:  my parents’ home, every school I attended, the homes of my childhood friends, my extensive collection of original Barbie dolls and their miniature exotic wardrobes, my yearbooks and mementos from high school, all gone.
As time marches on, and those I love age and leave me, all I have left of my hometown are my cherished Blanchard family recipes and memories like those Friday nights, sweet and poignant now, but taken for granted and viewed as an obligation by a sometimes sullen teenager. Home now means the place where my husband and daughters are . . . but deep down, home will always be that narrow sliver of land sandwiched between the mighty Mississippi and the bayous of southeast Louisiana.