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Coffee Shop Consequences

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I like my decaf coffee as strong as any caffeine-lover.

I’m about to offend some of you addicts: coffee addicts in particular. I put it this way because what I want to say is that caffeine is a drug, and it’s a drug whose consequences are mightily ignored. I had reason to contemplate this fact yesterday because I went into a coffee shop.

The man behind the counter was about my age—the hair drawn back into a pony tail had grayed, and wrinkles crisscrossed his forehead and cheeks. When I entered through the back door (from the parking lot), he was seated at a large sink washing plates. He looked up sideways at me, but didn’t move. The recognition that passed over his face wasn’t real recognition, just typing. Immediately, I could see he didn’t like me.

Mind you, I had never been in this coffee shop before. I knew of it from my students, who sometimes spoke of its open-mic nights and artsy vibe. The only reason I had stopped there was because it sat directly between the hardware store, where I had gone to buy some plant potting supplies after my haircut appointment, and the hospital medical plaza, where I was due in an hour for an MRI, another MRI.

While I stood waiting, I glanced around the dingy interior. A young man sat behind me at a table, tapping into his laptop, a knit cap pulled down over his head in spite of the 85-degree day. A young couple sat holding hands on one of the sofas in the open area up front, a laptop on the coffee table in front of them, their intensity focused between the three of them. In an upholstered chair, another young man sat with his back to the counter; I couldn’t see his face, but he, too, was young and seemed to be reading, his hair sticking up with gel around his cranium as though very excited about the ideas he encountered. But he slumped in the chair, one leg thrust out as though barely able to hold him up. Bright mid-afternoon light streamed through the front windows, picking up every crumb and smear on the filthy floor. I didn’t mind. I have worked in many a dirty restaurant in the past. All I wanted was a peaceful place to pass half an hour or so, reading the book I’d brought along for this very possibility of a time gap.

Finally, the aging hipster stood up, wiped his hands across his apron and asked me, “What can I get you?”

“A medium decaf latte, with skim if you have it,” I said.

He moved over to the espresso machine. “What size?”

“Medium,” I said. I liked that Austin’s menu board used small, medium, and large instead of the deceptive and silly tall, grande, and venti.

“You said decaf, right?”

“Yes,” I said, and then because the barista response is so predictable, I tried to make light of my request. “You don’t want to see me on caffeine.” I wiggled my fingers in the air.

He did not smile. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. But I was starting to get worried. I mean, I was the brain patient, and my short-term memory seemed better than his.

“What kind of milk do you want? We have whole, half and half, two percent, soy, and skim.”

“Skim is good,” I said.

I tried not to stare as he moved around the space, tamping the coffee and turning the levers, so I looked back out the front window as a kid wheeled off on a bicycle. When I turned back, the guy was putting the whole milk back in the fridge. I decided to let it go.

Then he asked if I wanted whipped cream. A little surprised—since when is whipped cream part of a latte?—I shook my head and said no emphatically. He poured the last of the milk with its top of foam into the cup, then lifted a plastic bottle and squirted Hershey’s chocolate syrup all over the top before I could say a word. Who puts chocolate syrup on a latte? My god, I thought, he must have a lot of those little girl customers to whom coffee drink means sugar drink.

I gave the man my five-dollar bill, then transferred the change into his huge and stuffed tip jar. Briefly I contemplated the ridiculousness of this current coffee fad. We’ve all gotten used to the idea that these large sums are worth it to get exactly what we want in a cup of coffee.

However, I at least seldom get exactly what I want in a cup of coffee at a coffee shop, and I am vowing now to give it up pretty much entirely. If I have to meet someone at a coffee shop, I will order something else. Because I am very tired of baristas giving me caffeinated coffee when I order decaf. And I am tired of the attitude that also sometimes comes with such a request. Still, I would rather have the put-down attitude and get my decaf than have the silent but disobedient person who chuckles as he gives me a drug that my body cannot handle.

One barista even asked me once why I bothered if I was going to have decaf. Usually I am mild in my response—after all, these people have my coffee in their hands—but what I always want to say is, “Can’t you see that the person who orders decaf is the one that really loves coffee? All I want it for is the flavor. You caffeine drinkers are simply using it as a vehicle for your stimulant. Why not just take it in a pill if that’s your motivation for drinking coffee?”

I am a genuine coffee lover. I love the smell of it, I love the taste of it, the darker the better. Unless I drink the occasional latte, I drink it black as I can get it. I seek out French roast or at least Italian when buying it for home use, though it can be hard to find. I virtually never add sugar to it.

Yet, over and over and over and over, these macho little baristas (who are indeed always skinny) turn up their twitchy noses and their stubbled chins at me, and treat me like I’m some sort of inferior being for asking for decaf.

Maybe they find an excuse to treat every mature person this way. I forgive them over and over and over again for being young. I was young once myself, and in my waitressing days, there were numerous times when I would pour a decaf refill from the regular pot. But I only did it in an emergency—when the decaf pot had run dry. True, I didn’t fully understand the importance of the request, but I never sneered. Still, sometimes I tell myself that every time I get a cup of caffeinated coffee it’s just karmic justice. But I’ve paid those dues enough now, and I’m over it. And there’s no excuse for a middle-aged barista acting this way. The coffee world has supposedly opened up in the past decade, and the idea is that there’s a wider variety available and more understanding about coffee.

However, no one wants to hear much about the destructive nature of caffeine or admit it by providing someone a decaf. Smokers love smokers, and caffeine junkies love caffeine junkies. Mind you, I have nothing against caffeine junkies—unlike smokers, their addiction doesn’t waft over into my nostrils. Unlike over-drinkers, they don’t wreck cars and kill people.

Or maybe they do. We’re all familiar with the upside of caffeine consumption—the alertness and fatigue-fighting aspects that seem to apply to both cognition and physical activity. But there are downsides, too. The Mayo Clinic website reports that in addition to the usual side-effects of insomnia, nervousness, restlessness, and irritability, more than 500-600 milligrams of caffeine (about two Starbucks tall coffees) a day can produce stomach problems, fast heartbeat, and muscle tremors. Jack James of the National University of Ireland, Galway, notes (about halfway through this interview) that blood pressure changes from caffeine consumption may be a major factor in cardiovascular disease. A whole host of studies note the bad along with the good in caffeine consumption:

* Good news, bad news
* Fitness benefits and risks
* Be cautious
* Negative may outweigh any positive
* Cognitive impact is mixed

You’ll note that all of these studies rely on an understanding of how much caffeine is consumed, and if you’re curious for yourself, here are some tools for gauging your own intake:

* The Caffeine Database
* Center for Science in the Public Interest caffeine chart
* Starbucks caffeine information

Of course, as with any drug, people’s reactions to caffeine vary enormously based on an individual’s sensitivity. Caffeine is associated with panic attacks, and studies have clearly shown this association, especially for those prone to panic attacks or major depression. But even some in healthy control groups reacted to caffeine with panic attacks or anxiety, whereas none did without caffeine.

And, though not prone to panic attacks or major depression, I’m one of those people who is sensitive to caffeine. Even one cup can make my hands shake and, later, will most assuredly keep me awake all night, no matter how exhausted and strung out I am. This is what happened to me yesterday.

I sat down with my cuppa in Austin’s and opened my book in pleasurable anticipation of my hour of reading. The music blaring from the speakers distracted me a little, but again I felt good-humored about the off-key adenoidal voice, amateurish strumming, and angry-young-man lyrics. “Everyone is interesting but you,” sang the adolescent, who then spat out several expletives. I decided it was the nastiest acoustic music I had ever heard, and it amused me no end that this placid coffee house in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods of Orlando ebbed and flowed with such anger. It went on song after song, and I wondered if the recording featured some local singer, or even the barista himself. It was so bad I had to wonder.

My lack of suitability for this place also flowed over me with the music. I was too old, had no tattoos or body piercings, and was wearing light-colored cotton and sandals. My difference didn’t really matter to me, but soon enough I would think it merited punishment from the coffee tsar. I sat back and turned the pages in my book.

Then my fingers started to feel a little panicky.

Now, an MRI is not an experience to relish. Before yesterday, I’d already had two in the previous 16 months, and I wasn’t really looking forward to another hour in the noise chamber with my head in the tight frame and my eyes shut to prevent claustrophobia, trying to keep my mind busy with thoughts of words, and glasses of wine, and the smell of jasmine on the breeze. So I thought I was just getting nervous about that. Eventually I closed up my book, tossed the cup with its last bit of chocolate syrup and milk foam in the trash, and headed for the hospital, leaving the grunge scene behind.

The MRI was uneventful except inside me. I struggled to hold still as I had never done before. I could feel my fingers and toes wiggle slightly as though they belonged to a different person than me. Half way through, the technician pulled me out of the tube in order to inject me with a contrast dye, and I asked him if I could please please move my hands just a tiny bit.

“As long as you don’t move your head,” he said. It was almost a relief when he pulled my hand over to the side and flexed it back and forth, tied the strip of rubber around my wrist, then slid the needle into the vein above my metacarpals.

During the second set of scans, I found myself holding my breath in order to try to stay still. When I let my breath out, I felt the air rush past my philtrum, tickling me in agonizing fashion. “Be still,” I thought, “and dream of Jean-Dominique Bauby.” It might cause some people panic to think of something like locked-in syndrome when inside an MRI machine, but the experience inevitably makes me think about what I would do if I couldn’t move forever. I try to think about the centrality of my mind to the life I live. I wonder about staying in my mind forever.

Finally, the technician extracted me from the machine. Even after just an hour, I was stiff and took a few minutes to shift around and stand up. I was very happy to get into my regular clothes and walk down the hall and out into the now waning sunshine and to drive home to my dinner.

It wasn’t until midnight that I fully realized the barista had given me caffeinated coffee. In typical fashion, I simply couldn’t unwind and get drowsy. I was tired, exhausted even, from the hour of assaultive noise in the machine and the long day of now-distant work before that. I had watched mind-numbingly dumb TV for two hours, and I expected to sail away into slumber readily. The past three weeks had been some of my best sleep nights in several years. All the work that my husband and I had been doing to help me sleep had been working.

But, no. I tossed, I turned, I played game after game of Scrabble on the iPhone. I turned the phone off and counted backwards from a thousand. I got down to one and started back up, trying to count by threes so some concentration would be required. Bruce sighed and turned over again.

Then it hit me.

“The bastard,” I said out loud.

“Wha?” Bruce roused from his sleep briefly.

“That bastard gave me caffeinated coffee!”

Eventually I got out of bed, took a Tylenol PM, went to the spare bed on the other side of the house so I wouldn’t disturb Bruce any further, cursing the Austin coffee man in one fluid tirade. I felt almost as though I’d been slipped a mickey or doped with rufies.

I gave up caffeine years ago during graduate school because I noticed not only that it kept me from sleeping well, but that it made me irritable and easily annoyed. It made me say things I didn’t mean or that I shouldn’t have said even when I had thought them. Once, at the over-caffeinated end of a long semester, I told a fellow grad student that I hoped I never had another class with her. She’d been characterized by snide asides and had given the most idiotic presentation I’d ever heard in a graduate seminar, but there was no point in me being mean to her. Later, I apologized, but I knew in the immediate aftermath that I had to give up the drug.

All these years later, I wonder if anyone could devise a study that would look into the social cost of caffeine. Sometimes I’m so astounded by the rampant aggression around me—that anger that seems to be bubbling right under the surface so much of the time—that I feel the only rational explanation is that caffeine is making everyone crazy. I think about the Romans and their lead pipes and cooking vessels perhaps being a contributing factor to the downfall of their civilization. While the lead poisoning theory remains unproven and under continuing investigation, I can’t help but think sometimes that I am caught in the midst of a decline in our society that seems to have some chemical basis.

One report in the Washington Times notes that “the rise of coffee parallels the rise of the Internet” and that because of our increasingly connected world and the demands of “economic turmoil in a hypercompetitive global economy,” we “need caffeine… more than ever.” It also notes the increasing concerns about the use of caffeine (usually in the form of soda or energy drinks) in children and adolescents.

What studies show—and, I might add, what just makes sense—is that the combination of this stressful world and the biochemical effects of caffeine is preventing people from getting the sleep they need to be effective and is irritating the heck out of people.

We don’t usually factor in caffeine’s effects when we track causes for auto accidents, though at least one driver recently claimed “caffeine psychosis” for his running over several people. There’s even a growing sense that using a little caffeine to make driving home after drinking a little safer relies on a dangerous myth: drunkenness is simply combined with inappropriate bravado rather than alertness. One trucker comments on Life As a Trucker about “the adverse effects of sleep deprivation and excess intake of caffeine” contributing to road rage. One attorney’s webpage notes that even without alcohol some caffeine-induced symptoms can “dramatically increase the likelihood that a driver will operate his or her vehicle in an aggressive manner or succumb to road rage.”

We don’t factor in caffeine the way we do alcohol and crack when people are arrested for violent crimes. While I agree with the author of this editorial published in the University of South Carolina’s student newspaper—that caffeine intoxication should not usually offer a good insanity defense in criminal cases—the fact that a few people are claiming it indicates that it’s becoming more believable. Most of the cases in which caffeine is correlated with behavioral problems seem to involve the combination of alcohol and caffeine found in some energy drinks and in “monk’s juice.” But in spite of pre-packaged alcoholic energy drinks being banned in 2011 by the FDA, due to numerous college-student deaths and studies that show they break down inhibitions dramatically, the ingredients to make your own are readily available and commonly used. Even energy drinks that don’t contain alcohol are beginning to be linked—in studies and in patterns noted by police forces—to risky and anti-social behavior. A handful of studies are cited on the LiveStrong page about Caffeine & Psychosis, noting that these studies do demonstrate that caffeine can exacerbate certain mental illnesses.

We certainly don’t factor in caffeine when we talk about the ridiculous and verbally violent depths to which our political rhetoric has fallen. Although there seems to be an anecdotal consensus that something has changed in the tone of our national and local politics, the evidence is frequently cited that politics has always contained its share of abuse and conflict. Certainly, as this slide show indicates, politicians have been drinking coffee regularly for quite some time. There is, however, one blog, started in 2011 and partly covering the current presidential campaign, that has been perhaps appropriately titled Caffeinated Politics.

Something else has also shifted: while awareness of caffeine’s two-sided impact, both bad and good, has become more widely understood, it has attracted its own fanatics on both sides of the issue. We have anti-caffeine crusaders and we have pro-caffeine defenders reminiscent of the temperance reformers vs. the anti-prohibitionists in the early twentieth century and creating something like the current hostile divide between Republicans and Democrats.

Let me say very plainly that I’m not a prohibitionist in terms of alcohol or caffeine. I even believe that most drugs that are illegal today should be legalized or at least decriminalized and that our funding should go to treatment of addictions rather than punishments for them. (And I am well aware that decaf coffee is not completely caffeine-free, so I am even indulging in that drug myself in a small way, as well as the occasional drink.)

But I am very tired of being mistaken for a prohibition-like fanatic when I request decaf (or, for that matter, when I don’t spend my entire evening slurping down massive quantities of alcohol). Baristas, bar tenders, and partiers have a tendency to treat me as though I offend their sensibilities. What I offend, of course, is their dedication to their drug, a clear sign of addiction.

This reverse moral opprobrium is fascinating to me. We have gone so far beyond the mentality that drugs are bad that a person who doesn’t partake of them is somehow the one labeled negatively. Although the political parallels eventually break down, there’s still a similarity to the world of extremes.

Of course, what this has to do with is the kind of phenomenon my husband fondly refers to as tribalism. We live in a time when we can’t be sure who we’re with and to what extent they are like us. Even the trivial bond becomes all important. Do you share my love of caffeinated coffee or might you betray me? It’s laughable, really, but it happens all the time.

Bruce has never been a coffee fan. He never drinks it either at home or away. When he walks into a coffee shop, he orders tea and never has to utter the dirty “decaf” word. He is also one of the calmest, most considered, most fair-minded men I know. I won’t give up my beloved decaf French roast in the privacy of my own home, but I am thinking I will adopt Bruce’s habit in the coffee shop world. As a tea-drinker, even an herbal tea-drinker, I may not be a compatriot, but I’m less likely to seem like some caffeine addict’s enemy and find myself secretly drugged.

Remnants, or Songs from Fourth Grade

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Today, I am still keeping my cat alive. She has revived somewhat—her longer-term survival is still much in question, but she is holding her own and, we hope, healing. Because she was so near death this past week, I couldn’t help but think of “El Señor Don Gato,” the traditional children’s song about the cat that dies and then comes back to life at the smell of fish. We’re still hoping we’ll be so lucky around here, but we also know that it’s a brutal song with a tacked-on happy ending that’s not too realistic.

We knew that even in fourth grade, where I first encountered “El Señor Don Gato.” Whenever I think of the song, I also have to think of fourth-grade chorus, unfortunately probably the pinnacle of my musical education. Oh, yes, I took guitar lessons during high school, and I certainly had my ears opened when I went away to college and encountered whole new styles of music—New Wave and punk and so forth and so on.

When I look back now, though, I think fourth grade was a watershed in determining I would never be a musician. It’s something I regret, though it’s not difficult to live with. Both my parents had grown up singing at church and both had been put through the requisite piano lessons. Neither had taken to any of it, and they didn’t want to force my brother or me. We were given lots of lessons outside of school—as soon as my father was out of graduate school and well employed, we had a private French tutor (remembered primarily for his one blue eye and one brown eye), and my mother provided me with tap dance lessons, drama and acting lessons, and those doomed guitar lessons. The arts were poorly covered in our Tennessee public schools. Some things don’t change much.

But in fourth grade, we actually had a class specifically for singing. I always loved it and approached it with gusto. That is, until preparations began for our holiday-season performance. It was at that time when my best friend in class, Karen, informed me that she would not be able to stand beside me in the risers.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because,” she said, hesitating slightly, “you’ll make me sing off-key.”

I, of course, had no idea that I’d been singing off-key. I didn’t really even know what that meant. I had just been enjoying belting out the lyrics.

Karen, on the other hand, had a father who was a music professor at the local university and a mother who was a former opera singer and who gave private music lessons in their home. Immigrants from Germany, they had a certain, shall we say, highly disciplined, old-school approach to life.

I’d spent a good bit of time at Karen’s home, and her mother terrified me with her heavily accented and tremulous voice that could easily rise to a Wagnerian-Brunhilde pitch. I recall one day when Mrs. L gathered Karen and me in the kitchen to help make rhubarb pie. Rhubarb pie was something I’d never had before, and as a newly diagnosed diabetic I wasn’t sure I should be having anything to do with pie, but I tried my best to help. Mrs. L put me in charge of mixing together the dry ingredients for the crust.

Of course, I didn’t get far. As soon as Mrs. L saw me dip the measuring spoon into the sugar tin, she grabbed it out of my hand. “You have to mix the salt with the flour in the bowl before adding the sugar,” she said. “You must follow the order of the ingredients in the list.” I felt terrible that I couldn’t even properly mix together a mere three ingredients.

So, no doubt that Karen was under a great deal of pressure to perform well in the holiday concert at school. Still, it hurt my feelings that Karen refused to stand beside me on the risers, and no doubt I sang less well myself without her strong, well cultivated voice beside me. Now, I wonder at the fact that Karen’s mother never made any gesture to help her daughter’s friend develop better musical skills. In spite of a devotion to music, and in spite of the fact that Mrs. L would sometimes be doing complex vocal exercises or giving a lesson while we played, it wasn’t the kind of house where people sang around the piano together. Probably my mother knew better than to sign me up for formal lessons with her.

At any rate, that was a time in my life when I was encountering the wider world and realizing my own limited place in it. Karen’s German parents were one example, as was my friendship with a girl from India, Sonchita, with whom I played all through second and third grade. In fact, other than my failure as a singer, what I remember the most about my fourth-grade chorus class are the tunes from other cultures—the Spanish origins of “El Señor Don Gato” were explained to us, as were the Scottish ones of another of my favorites, “The Skye Boat Song,” a melancholy tune that might be more akin to my mood these days than the cheerful gato song. “The Skye Boat Song” opened my eyes to the complexity of history. It is a song of survival, but of survival after defeat. It’s a tune I will always love in its making of sorrowful beauty.

Mariella’s Cod Soup

In hard times, it’s important to spend time doing restorative things. Often in my life, I have cooked my way through crises. The beautiful colors and textures and smells of fresh foods; the satisfaction of chopping, stirring, tasting, and adjusting; and the pleasure of turning out a good meal for self and others is all truly restorative for me.

Yesterday, I got out an old recipe—maybe this has to do with a particular desire I have right now to be younger and healthier, but whatever the reason I had a craving for a meal I learned to make from a friend many years ago when I had just graduated from college and was working as a waitress in St. Paul, Minnesota, while I tried to figure out what to do with my life. My future was very uncertain, though in different ways than it is now.

Mariella, Marla for short, was a fellow waitress with me at the Minnesota Museum of American Art restaurant. This had been the closest I could come to a job in the arts, and although it wasn’t what I had in mind I still think more fondly of the experience than of most of the other jobs I’ve had in my life. Soile, the head chef, ran the place with European standards and attitudes, and the food was indeed something to be proud of. Before a shift would begin, Soile would make sure we had all tasted each new dish on offer. And after a long day, Soile would make sure that we all sat down and had a sumptuous meal of our own together. Mariella was a Finnish housewife and friend of Soile’s who sometimes waited tables, and she laughed like no one else I knew.

Once when we were serving a dinner to a large contingent of the Finnish American Society, the patrons kept mistaking blonde, broad-faced me for a Finn and chattering away to me in a language I didn’t understand. I asked Marla what to do, and she said, “Just go and pour more wine! All will be well!” And it was.

This soup, a version of which we sometimes served at the restaurant, reminds me of the little bit I learned about Finland from working with these wonderful women and occasionally serving those banquets to the Finnish American Society. It is healthful and piquant, basic and elegant all at once, friendly but surprising, and light in spirit as well as on the palate.

Here’s to Mariella’s Cod Soup and to the many warm and uproarious laughs we had in the cold, Minnesota air as we walked back to our cars–or in my case, the bus stop–after shifts at the restaurant. I hope she is still such a happy lady today, still sharing the genuine and simple joys with people in her life.

Cod Soup (Aseljanka or Seljanka)

1 lb. cod (fresh if you can get it, but frozen will do)
1 leek, sliced (or equivalent green onions)
2 T. butter (olive oil is fine)
1 1/2 qts. (6 c.) beef or fish broth
1 big tomato, diced
1-2 dill pickles, diced
2 c. diced, boiled potatoes (optional)
1 T. capers
1 bay leaf
dill, whole allspice, salt, and pepper to taste
(if you use canned broth, don’t add any more salt)
For serving–fresh dill, lemon slices, and sliced olives (green or black)

Brown the leek in the butter (or oil). Add tomatoes and broth. Let it come to a boil. Add fish, pickles, and spices. Cook about 15-20 minutes.

If you like it heartier, cook 2 c. diced potatoes separately, and then use the water as part of the liquid. Add with the tomatoes and broth for a total of 6 c. liquid.

(Sprinkle with fresh dill, add some olive slices and lemon slices. I usually also squeeze a quarter of lemon over each bowl for more lemon flavor.)

Curry and Kindness

A 1683 map of Sri Lanka from Geographicus Rare Antique Maps

Yesterday I picked up some friends at the airport after their holiday travels. In all the pre-holiday hub-bub we had not communicated all that well so I was early, and the plane was late, so I went round and round the airport drive too many times in the crisp Florida sun. At first I was listening to disheartening stories on the radio, but then NPR’s Talk of the Nation featured an interview with S. H. “Skiz” Fernando, author of the recently released Rice and Curry: Sri Lankan Home Cooking, and I perked up.

The guy sounded awkward and smooth at the same time, which always fascinates me. And then the show featured a call-in session. At first this annoyed me—each and every one of the callers just wanted to talk about herself. One, who admitted to living in some isolated place like Wyoming, even wanted to talk about the difficulty of obtaining kefir lime leaves, which Mr. Fernando had immediately said are not part of Sri Lankan cuisine. Another said she met Mr. Fernando when he performed in Paris a decade ago—and the radio host interjected to explain that he is also a hip-hop artist. Clearly, Mr. Fernando did not remember the caller at all, though he treated each caller gently.

But then the radio show host read a few emails, including one from a guy, now living in Florida, who wrote that he had fond memories of the Sri Lanka Curry House in Minneapolis from when he’d lived there a couple of decades earlier. He noted that it has since closed, and that it didn’t include “mild” on the menu.

I laughed at the collision of time and place and suddenly found myself more sympathetic to all those who called to display their memories. I too live in Florida now but lived once in the Twin Cities. The Sri Lanka Curry House was a long way from my home in St. Paul and required a car to reach, so I only ate there once. But I remember it, though it was important only because I discovered something bad about myself. I had gone there with a large group of women, some of whom were my friends. I’m not sure of the occasion, but it might have been after a lecture given by Germaine Greer. We had been provided tickets by a friend whose mother had been one of the organizers. So, if my memory is correct, we were a bunch of feminists. Several of our crew were also lesbians.

It’s hard now to even remember how big a deal that was in 1979 or -80. I had some mixed feelings at the time, not so much about how any individual expressed her sexuality, but how the politics played out. Frequently, one of my lesbian housemates had told me that sooner or later I would see the light. Surely, she said, I would evolve. I could accept that she was a lesbian, but she could only accept that I wasn’t as a temporary setback.

The peer pressure was enormous, and with my many man troubles, I sometimes wished that I could at least claim bisexual status. But I have never been one to cave in to peer pressure. Instead, I get stubborn and resentful. Until that dinner at the Sri Lanka Curry House, I hadn’t really felt that consciously.

One of the women at the restaurant that night was named Marcie. I didn’t know her well, as she had repeatedly snubbed me at various house parties due to my retro-hetero status. As the waitresses put together several tables for our group, Marcie strutted up and down, sorting out where to sit. She noted repeatedly how much she loved hot food and how much she looked forward to this. The rest of us shuffled out of her way. Finally, she chose the middle seat on the table’s opposite side from me. I sat near a corner.

From what I recall, the Sri Lanka Curry House did have a “medium” designation on the menu, and they recommended it to all non-Sri Lankans. Most of us acceded to the waitress’ recommendation and ordered our curries as mild as possible. Not Marcie. She insisted that she was a pro with curries and that she loved her food hot. The waitress tried to talk her out of it, but she shook her head for emphasis. “Very hot,” she said.

Soon enough, the food came, steaming cardamom, cinnamon, turmeric, coriander, cloves, cumin, and fennel. I was not knowledgeable enough to smell the hot flavors of the chilis and mustard, and I wondered that the strongest tasting things often don’t have the most identifiable aromas. We oohed and aahed around the table, eager but tentative, taking mostly small bites and passing each other the condiments of coconut flakes and tomato relish.

Marcie lifted her heaped fork to her mouth and dug in. After a moment, her face blanched and sweat popped profusely out of her forehead. I had never seen anything like it. She grabbed for her water glass. “No!” someone yelped, too late. Marcie gulped water and then grabbed her neck as if to strangle herself. “Water is supposed to make it worse,” the helper said.

“It’s fine,” she said, gasping just a little. “Amazingly hot. But I’m okay.” She dragged her fork across the dish and lifted it again, more slowly this time.

Everyone looked at her, then we went back to taking our own small bites of our own super-hot “medium” dishes. I didn’t figure that Marcie would eat all of her dinner, but I found myself not minding. I found myself feeling a little mean.

After a bit of dawdling with her food, Marcie ventured a second bite. As soon as she took it, the sweat began running down her cheeks. She blinked twice, slowly, and pushed the plate away from her. Suddenly, she was face down on the placemat, groaning slightly. “Here,” her neighbor gestured to the waitress. “Bring a lassi. Mango lassi, please, quickly.”

Soon enough, the wise waitress appeared with the sweet, milky drink, and Marcie’s neighbor at the table clapped her on the back and coaxed her to sit up. “Here,” she said, “this will cool you off.” Marcie shook her head no and gasped out that her throat felt burned.

“You’ll feel better,” her helper said. “Really. It will soothe your throat.”

So Marcie alternated between rolling her head side to side on the placemat and sipping the lassi. Eventually she sat up and wiped her face with the cloth napkin, though the sweat continued to pour. Everyone cooed around her, asking if she would be okay, patting her on the back, and reassuring her that the food was “insanely hot” and that she couldn’t have known. Most everyone ordered lassis to keep her company.

I recall growing quieter and quieter as the evening went on. I didn’t order a lassi because I knew it would be too sweet for my diabetes, and no one talked about how great the food was except for the lassis. (The food was great.) One thought kept echoing in my mind: Machismo is dumb whether exhibited by a man or a woman. I had also discovered my own inescapable judgmental nature, and I knew this wasn’t a nice thing about me.

This is something I have struggled with ever since. Judgment is something we all need, but need to temper with kindness. I never would have set Marcie up for such a painful episode, but the fact that I really didn’t feel all that bad for her demonstrated to me my propensity to blame people for their own ills. It might have been easy for me to do that in such a clear-cut case, but most cases of blame are not so clear.

I have always had a hard time making excuses for people of the “you couldn’t have known” variety. And this has made me very hard on myself as well.

Lately, I have been thinking further about the way that language can be shaped to an interpretation. Some of this has come out of my reactions to all the “lucky” and “blessed” labels bestowed on me in recent weeks. But it goes beyond that to thinking about how our interpretations in the world of politics can be so different when reality is presumably the same (or at least close) for all of us. And to thinking about so many self-help endeavors that claim that if you view things positively, you will do better. I want to make more distinctions in all of this about what we can affect this way and what we are lying to ourselves about with euphemisms. I want to be able to tell the difference.

In teaching introductory creative writing, I often do a lesson about denotation and connotation. What, I ask my students, is the difference between red, maroon, scarlet, vermillion, cherry, rust, and cerise, not just in shades of hue, but in implication? What is the difference between wine and claret? Within individual word choices, of course, lies the way to truthfulness and accuracy in our writing. But they can also lead to manipulation.

These days I have been noticing these differences in day-to-day description even more. I am thinking about what the difference is between the opposites that we use for the same situations and things. The weather reports long ago changed from “partly cloudy” to “partly sunny” to try to keep people happier with the newscast. Someone said to me the other day that she wasn’t sure if her holiday had been relaxing or frantic. “I could describe it either way,” she said, “and both would be true.”

There have long been issues like this that are hard to split. In another memory from my college days, I actually remember having a conversation about whether or not all “nice” guys were also necessarily “boring.” Having since been trapped on many a date with a boring man, I can say that I no longer think the two words synonymous. In fact, now I think that the kind of man typically described as “exciting” might be boring in his likely narcissism and avoidance of depth. I wouldn’t use the word “exciting” to describe such a person at all. I would describe my husband both as exciting and as one of the nicest guys on earth.

What, I might ask, is the difference between mild, medium, hot, and very hot?

I am setting as one of my New Year’s resolutions to think about how to make these relationships between words and the world meaningful, and also to at least consider a kind interpretation when I can. Marcie, after all, could never have known how hot “very hot” was, even though I still feel a touch of satisfaction that she found out. Wink.

May we all have spicy kindness in the new year.

Holiday Makeovers

Caramel Spice Cake

Right now, I’m in the midst of making a cake. The icing-glaze is cooling and thickening before I pour it over the cake. My mom and I have stood over the new induction cooktop and the old cast iron skillet, stirring as the sugar, baking powder, buttermilk, and dollop of Karo syrup melt and bubble and foam and turn that magical, golden-brown color. The sound of the spoon scraping the bottom of the pan softened as I pulled up more and more of the browning sugar from the bottom. Finally, when just the right crisp smell arose, I turned the heat off and stirred in the butter. Now it cools.

I love this cake. Over all the holidays, it became my favorite from the numerous yummy things my mother and grandmothers baked. It is the one that I make still—not the amazing amalgamation cake, not the high white coconut cake, not even usually the dried apple stack cake. It is the humble cake that remains my favorite—dark and spicy, complex and serious.

I haven’t mentioned the name of this cake. For many years, it had an image problem. In my youthful days (before my parents divorced), we would throw parties at the holidays—friends would come by and eat well, sit by the fire and laugh, catch up after years apart at college or at new jobs. For years, few would eat this cake. It would sit unmolested while the aforementioned amalgamation, coconut, and apple cakes dwindled. I felt sorry for this cake, and for all the people who missed out on it.

So one year when I was in college, I convinced my mother to change the name. We put out little label cards for each dessert on the buffet. Lo and behold, the cake disappeared that year. Many commented on how delicious it was. It no longer had an image problem. We had changed the name from “prune cake with burnt sugar icing” to “caramel spice cake.” That was all.

Today, we laugh over the story. We feel a little conflicted still about what to call it. We talk about the ladies who created the original recipe, and how honest they were: the caramel glaze is, I am sure, not a genuine caramel as you would find in a box of candy from the Carmelite nuns. It’s a different process. And the prunes are a main ingredient, the fruit that moistens and darkens the cake and gives it that underlying rich flavor. But we faced up to the fact that “burnt” sounds bad and that people associate “prunes” with constipation relief. The latter might be a great thing alongside the overabundant and overly unhealthy food we usually fill up on at holidays, but no one wants to think about it while they indulge.

This is an image makeover that I can live with.

It’s also something that makes me think about the ways in which family traditions, especially around holidays, evolve and how that evolution is a great part of every holiday, even if sometimes we miss the way things were when we were younger. My mother’s most widely adopted holiday innovation was putting orange peel in the toll-house cookies—just the other day, after I’d given out a tin of cookies to our contractor, and he brought the tin back empty, I asked him which was his favorite. “The ones with the orange,” he said. “So good.”

My own adaptation of that standard recipe was using half shortening and half butter. The recipe says “either or,” and most cooks adamantly choose all one or all the other. The butter purists are after the flavor, the shortening folks cite its cheapness and lower saturated fat. I tried going with butter, but my cookies always spread out too much and burned at the edges. So it finally occurred to me I could combine the qualities. Voila! Perfect orange-tinted toll-house cookies.

My brother recently told me that his adaptation has been to the giblet gravy, which I gave up on entirely some years ago. He said the key is to leave out the heart and liver, which have a bitter flavor and which no one seems to want to eat. He still uses the gizzard meat and a hard-boiled egg for that chunky feel.

This year, I’m making another change—to the sweet potatoes. When I was diagnosed with diabetes, my mother took to reducing sugar all around. She immediately got rid of the icky marshmallows and gooey butter and heavy loads of brown sugar in the sweet potatoes, and she sweetened those with orange juice and just a touch of brown sugar. She would whip them up to a light soufflé-like consistency, sometimes with nuts and raisins, and they were great. But now I am married to a man from the northland who likes his regular old white mashed potatoes. So this year I decided that I wanted a different texture in one of the potato versions, and I am going to roast a medley of sweet potatoes, butternut squash, red peppers, and onions with olive oil, thyme, and rosemary.

All of these adaptations and all of this sharing of food is one of my favorite things about the holidays, along with the caramel spice cake. I love to bake, and I do it only once a year because as a chubby diabetic, the last thing I need is a lot of baked goods around the house. At Christmastime, I can give a lot of it away, though more and more people say they have too much. But there are still people who are eager to try the various attempts—the neighbors with a house full of teenagers, a few skinny friends, and others who are seizing the day.

This year, I experimented a lot with cookie recipes, trying to find “healthy” or at least healthier ones. The results were mixed. The ones sweetened with only mashed banana were too soft (so I started calling them oatmeal macaroons), the pineapple-coconut ones spread into flying saucer shapes (so I started calling them scones and served them for breakfast), and I put too much flour in the oatmeal-honey-raisin ones (so I called them biscotti and served them with tea and coffee). The mostaccioli (little Italian chocolate cookies that are only mildly sweet) turned out beautifully, and the blueberry and white chocolate chunk ginger cookies are good as gold (though they need a simpler name). All around I was able to reduce sugar and butter and still have some good things to share.

Mostaccioli Cookies

And so this experimenting and this changing is an integral part of the holiday. Some nostalgia for the “way it was” is part of reminiscing, but I try to remind myself that it’s natural that the recipes change, the relationships change, the faces around the table change. Holidays are eternal, but they shift and modify, too. My wish for everyone this season is that they enjoy both the traditions and the evolutions.

Bon appetit!

Sugar Love and Sugar-Free Love

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Apple Stack Cake from

When I was eleven, going on twelve, I was diagnosed with Type I diabetes. In the hospital for a week, I cried a number of times over this diagnosis—usually when my family members had gone home and I was alone in the sterile room. I didn’t cry over what probably should have given me pause—that diabetes is a life-threatening illness with frequent gruesome complications like blindness, gangrene and subsequent amputation, heart disease, and kidney failure. All of that had not sunk in yet.

I cried for two reasons—I was going to have to take shots every day, and the doctors and nurses had told me that I’d never be able to eat sweets again. That this last was not really true never occurred to me. The medical staff said it, so I believed it.

If you’re not part of the Southern culture, it may be hard to understand how embedded sweets are in expressions of love in that culture, particularly familial love. Both of my grandmothers, and later my step-grandmother, as well, were famous cooks. Sweets were an ineluctable part of every holiday celebration. Giving up sweets in this culture was as hard as an alcoholic giving up booze.

Ironically, I had only just reached an age where two of the main products of my grandmothers’ cooking appealed to me. As a younger child, I’d been averse to the tickly, chewy texture of coconut and so I had not loved the high white coconut cake with divinity icing made by my Grandmother Meek every year or the more unusual jam spice cake with nut-, raisin-, and coconut-studded yellow frosting (known as amalgamation cake) that Grandmother Roney made.

These two cakes were as finicky as I was, and every year there was breath-holding over whether or not they would turn out “just right.” The divinity icing had to be made under just the right climactic conditions, and my grandmother beat it by hand with a wire whip on an oval, white platter for what seemed like hours on end. She would not use an electric mixer because it wouldn’t give her just the right feel for the texture. The cake layers themselves would grow dry if not moistened with just the right amount of coconut juice. The amalgamation cake was every bit as complicated. The thick, jam-imbued layers would fall if any sudden vibration hit the oven at the wrong time, and the icing had to be boiled to just the right consistency. No one but my Grandmother Roney knew all of the secret ingredients. Only years and many failed attempts on my father’s part later, did she confess to him that he should include some oil of cinnamon and oil of clove in the batter.

I myself preferred what seemed like the simpler offerings: dried apple stack cake and prune cake with caramel icing. (Later retitled “caramel plum cake,” the latter became much more popular.) These were also family recipes, but my mother had taken on the baking of them. The prune cake batter made a simple Bundt-style cake, and usually the hand-made caramel icing was the only difficulty. I would watch my mother melt the butter in a cast-iron skillet, add the corn syrup and buttermilk, and stir the foam constantly until it browned. It was hard to get the texture just right, so that it would pour, but not pour right off the sides of the cake. I will still swear that that homemade caramel icing is one of the best things in the world, hands down.

Dried apple stack cake was an East Tennessee tradition, from my Grandmother Meek’s background. But she and my grandfather had established their adult lives in West Tennessee, where dried apples of the right variety were hard to get. So my mother would go to the downtown Knoxville farmer’s market in the fall to get the right kind of apples. These had to be dried outside—by the sun—not in some dehydrator. This was the only thing that would give them the deep maroon color and deep flavor best for the cake. Usually they were sold by little, old country ladies as wizened as the apples themselves, ladies who said, “You’uns’ll like them apples,” and who would count out change with their gnarled brown fingers. On our way home from the farmer’s market, my mother always had that air of deep satisfaction, as though she had everything she needed. My mother had also perfected the recipe by making the tea cake layers thinner and thinner, until instead of five or six layers her cake had twelve. It had become a torte. It would melt in your mouth.

Because the stack cake was already made from a naturally sweet fruit that I was “allowed” to have in modest quantities, and because the tea cakes weren’t very sweet to begin with, it was the easiest one to be adapted for my new diabetic needs. My mother took to cutting back the sugar in the tea cakes even further and stirring artificial sweetener instead of sugar into the apples as they simmered in the big pot on the stove. The result was almost as good as the real thing, and a dollop of unsweetened whipped cream made it a real treat.

And this is what can bring tears to my eyes now—thinking about how all of these women, inculcated and habituated as they were in sugar-as-love, took to adapting things for me and making me special treats for the holidays that I was “allowed” to have.

My Grandmother Roney, a complete sugar addict herself, felt most sorry for me. On top of my mother altering the stack cake recipe, Grandmother Roney adapted cookie recipes and made me Chex mix every year (back before it was available in bags at the grocery store). She took to making spiced pecans, too. My Grandmother Meek took to brewing a pitcher of her famous iced tea “unsweet.” Even my step-grandmother, Billie, took to making me sugar-free boiled custard every holiday we visited . It was made with gelatin and rather lumpy, but its artificially sweet creamy flavor made me feel included when everyone was sipping cups of the real thing.

This, too, was also a Southern characteristic: determination to adapt to circumstances. My grandmothers had it in spades, and my mother and step-grandmother still do. And they gave some of that to me, too, along with all their sugar love and their all-important sugar-free love.

The photo of the apple stack cake is compliments of, a food blog that’s also listed in my links. And I’ve also linked to some authentic recipes that approximate the ones I’m talking about. But I’m not giving out the secret family ones! That would be heresy.

Like Water for Chocolate

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In the book and film Like Water for Chocolate (written by Laura Esquivel, then made into a film in 1992), Tita has cried in her mother’s womb whenever her mother chopped onions, and is born on a flood of her own tears right in the kitchen. Tita becomes a great chef, and she ends up using the food she cooks to communicate with her would-be love, Pedro. Tita’s mother has refused to let Pedro marry her youngest daughter, who by tradition must remain single to care for her mother in old age. So Pedro has married Tita’s older sister in order to be close to Tita.

It’s a story of cruel power in the form of Tita’s mother and repressed longing in the form of Tita and her two sisters, none of whom do well under the aegis of tradition. Married to Pedro, Rosaura lives in misery with a husband who fathers two children but doesn’t love her; Gertrudis ends up abandoned in a brothel (thought she later returns triumphant, having overthrown tradition and become a Revolutionary general herself); Tita sneaks around with Pedro and ultimately is rejoined with him, but their long-frustrated passion kills them. Set during the Mexican Revolution, this story is an allegory about the ills of the power in the hands of the few.

What’s special about it is that the food that Tita prepares has magical powers. The wedding cake she is forced to make for her sister and Pedro, and into which she has wept, makes the guests themselves weep and then vomit. The quail in rose petal sauce that she prepares later inflames the lust of everyone at the table.

This book and movie connect us to sometimes mystical but almost always genuine power of real food to affect our emotions. I say “real” food not out of some snobbery, but because I don’t think it’s always true about corporatized or pre-packaged food.

There are exceptions. Years ago at Penn State, I taught a course called Women and the American Experience. Because the course was gen ed, I took a kinder, gentler approach to feminism—the students collected oral histories from women they knew and at the end of the term we had a potluck where all 60 students were to bring food made from a recipe passed down from the women in the family. One young woman brought an Entenmann’s packaged coffee cake. She was visibly upset and said that for years her family had believed her grandmother had gotten up at the crack of dawn on Christmas and made the traditional coffee cake by hand. After she’d badgered her grandmother repeatedly for the recipe, she had finally admitted that it had been store-bought all these years and just heated up with some fresh confectioner’s sugar icing drizzled over it. I couldn’t have planned it better as a commentary on how women have coped. Oppression, whether that grandmother’s or Tita’s, can often be dealt with in ways we don’t expect. And food has been a major tool over the decades.

There’s a better video excerpt (, but it won’t embed, so here’s the rose petal scene (with awful dubbing):