Recipes like shopping lists

fried chicken
That’s my mom, second from the right (yes, with the saddle shoes).

My mother had a photo album – with black pages and adhesive corners – filled with photos from her childhood. I loved to go through it, staring hard at the photographs to try and piece together a story about her life, and the photo above was a great favorite of mine because I found in it some vague resemblance between her face and my own (I don’t look much like either of my parents, but I never gave up trying).

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Upon reflection, I think I may have lacked some of her poise. That’s me and my dad up on our roof in Brooklyn circa 1982.

However, I chose that photo of my mother not to illustrate that the only thing I inherited from her was her teeth, but to show that this is a woman who has always enjoyed a good piece of fried chicken. One of her favorite birthday treats was to go to KFC or Popeye’s for a messy meal of fried chicken that would end with scrunched up paper napkins strewn across the table and a tray stacked with bones. But the best fried chicken of all was her sister’s, and we used to try and make it at least once a year.

Fast forward to a few weeks back, when we culled two chickens. They were young, so much so that their skin was fragile and ripped if we weren’t gentle as we plucked. I began to think out loud about how nicely they would roast – we rarely roast our chickens, as we tend to kill them on the older side, when they’ve had an athletic, outdoorsy life that leaves them muscular (i.e. tough) and with unappealing, thick skin. “You could fry them,” Ali offered.

It was like fireworks going off in my head; I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d fried a chicken. From that point on, plucking was a breeze, gutting, butchering, all no problem – there was fried chicken in my future. Time to summon the Recipe.

The Recipe lives in this box. It’s from roughly the same time as that photo of me and my dad, hence the stickers.

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Because the recipe is my aunt’s, it’s on the vague side. Probably every family has an ultimate culinary authority and in our family, it was definitely my aunt. And like most ultimate culinary authorities, she appeared to rely very little on recipes, at least where the dishes from my mother’s childhood were concerned. (Cookie recipes were very precise.) This is probably why her directions and measurements were so skimpy on the details – she really did just put a little bit of this and a little bit of that in. My favorite recipe of hers for pigs’ feet – a dish that I loved so much that she made it (along with her famous fried chicken) every time I went to visit her. They are cooked in black vinegar, and my uncle had to leave the house while they were on the stove because he couldn’t breathe from the fumes. Despite this, once they are well cooked, the dish is sweet, sticky, and gingery. Her recipe reads: pigs’ feet, sweet black vinegar, ginger, slab sugar.

Here is the recipe for her fried chicken. (Her name, by the way, wasn’t Ga – that’s “elder sister” in Cantonese. Her name was On-Ye but I never actually heard anyone call her that. I called her Auntie Ga – not logical, maybe, but it worked for us.)

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Frying chicken is a pain, but my mom had a handy shortcut – she would fry the chicken until it was brown and crunchy on the outside and then finish cooking it in the oven (I use my instant read thermometer to figure out when they’re cooked inside). Also, a cast iron pan is a great help as it retains heat well and keeps the oil nice and hot provided that you do not put too many pieces of chicken in at once. And I like to fry chicken in schmaltz if I have it handy, although it feels slightly vindictive.

When we eat fried chicken, we also make coleslaw and there’s a recipe for that too. It goes like this: cabbage, mayo, cider vinegar, salt, pepper and sugar to taste. My mother always made it ahead of time so the flavors could meld and really get into the cabbage. Plus, she loved her coleslaw very cold. I never think that far ahead, so my compromise is risk my fingertips and use the mandoline to slice the cabbage nice and thin. I toss everything in a ziplock bag, squish it around, and stick it in the fridge until it’s time to eat. I go heavy on the pepper and vinegar, but that’s just me.

Everyone was hungry that night, so there was dead silence around the table as teeth tore into that fried chicken. I always think that the less talk there is around the table when the eating begins, the better the food must be, so I chalked it up as a success.

 

Novel hunting

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Happy Halloween!

I’ve been silent for a good long while, I know, and it has been an eventful seven months or so. I had a sad sort of summer, but I didn’t really notice how sad it had been until the weather changed in late September, the air suddenly cooling and lightening as the heavy cloak of humidity lifted. I felt buoyant and energetic and realized that I had spent the entire summer in a deep funk. It wasn’t only emotional heavy lifting that got me down – I was also dealing with early pregnancy shenanigans, which are never pleasant. (We are expecting a baby girl in late January.)

I have always loved autumn, and this year I welcomed it gratefully. The boys went back to school, brimming with enthusiasm and eager to be back among their peers, and of course there’s Halloween. We’ve been gearing up for Halloween for a while now and Kaya burst out of bed this morning, dancing with excitement. There are parties at school (the boys were armed with treats to share with their friends and their costumes in their backpacks), we’ll watch Nightmare Before Christmas after school, and then they’ll go out trick or treating.

But the best thing about fall has nothing to do with today and everything to do with tomorrow. My favorite thing about fall, that I’ve been looking forward to all year, is National Novel Writing Month. It takes place every November, and during this month participants commit to writing a novel of 50,000 words – from scratch – in 30 days. It’s crazy, but it’s completely awesome.

I’m not sure when I first heard about NaNoWriMo, but I joined in 2011 and made no progress at all on my novel that year. For every year that followed, November would roll around and I’d be ready with excuses to get out of trying again, even though writing a novel is something I had always wanted to do. I would be traveling that month, there was a medical situation in the family, Thanksgiving dinner would need to be made – I rolled out every reason I could find. I’m not sure what changed my mind last year, but I decided to cut it out with the excuses and give NaNoWriMo another shot. I somehow managed to convince Baki to join me, participating in the Young Writers Program (where school-age writers can set their own word count goal and write), and thus discovered my secret weapon – a writing partner.

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Baki and I spent an hour a day writing together – this is one of our work stations, but we moved all over the place. We would put in our earphones (I listened to a ton of Korean pop music – very upbeat but with lyrics I could not understand) and type away. Sometimes it was easy to get the words down, other times it was like pulling teeth, but having someone in the room typing alongside me helped more than I could ever have imagined. Baki had set his goal at 5,000 words, and he finished his novel early in the month, maybe by the 20th or so, a first-time novelist at the tender age of 11.

I was writing until the very last day of November, but I made it. Anyone who achieves their word count goal is a winner in NaNoWriMo, but it is really way bigger than that. I always thought I didn’t have a story to tell so I couldn’t write a novel, but I discovered last November how untrue that was. I started my novel with a handful of characters, a setting, and only the vaguest notion of a plot. As the month wore on, the story just grew on its own. I love to read, and the stories I love best are the ones that feel true, like they have some sort of skeleton or integrity that holds them together, separate from everything else. And as I wrote my own story I was amazed discovered that even my lowly attempt at a novel had resembling that inner logic – there was story there, waiting to be written. All I had to do was discover it. I mined everything in my day for clues – conversation, newspaper articles, random thoughts that popped into my head while driving. There were discoveries at every turn. This was not at all how I imagined writing my first novel would work, and it still amazes me. But something about the time crunch broke down all of my resistance to it, and I just pillaged every waking moment for plot points.

Not that what I wrote was a masterpiece. It was a crummy first draft, full of plot holes and typos, characters that morphed mid-story into something else, and motivations that changed as the story grew. It is a long way from being anything that I would let anyone read (except maybe my partner in crime, Baki), but it is my first novel and tomorrow I am going to start on my second.

So I’m going to throw this out there to anyone who might be reading – if you’ve ever toyed with the idea of writing a novel of your own, why not take the plunge and do it this November? Commit to something crazy and see what happens! Tell everyone you know that you are doing it in order to put some pressure on yourself (like I’m doing right now), and if you can, find a writing partner.

If you can’t find a partner, there are virtual write-ins on youtube (dates and times are posted on the NaNoWriMo website) and amazing word sprints on Twitter. The Twitter word sprints (@NaNoWordSprints) were an invaluable tool that really got me unstuck more times than I can count. They are going on practically around the clock, with themes and prompts that changed with their moderators, tons of support and feedback, and all around WriMo inspiration.

If all I ever do as a writer is bang out a wobbly first draft every November, I will consider it time well spent. Why not join in the fun?

On-Ke Wilde 1937-2017

takes talent

there are two
kinds of human
beings in the world 
so my observation
has told me
namely and to wit
as follows
firstly
those who
even though they
were to reveal
the secret of the universe
to you would fail
to impress you
with any sense
of the importance
of the news
and secondly
those who could 
communicate to you
that they had
just purchased
ten cents worth
of paper napkins
and make you
thrill and vibrate
with the intelligence
                   archy

Don Marquis, “the Life and Times of Archy and Mehitabel”

Although I wasn’t there, they tell me that she was asleep and that she simply stopped breathing. It was the death that everyone says they want. She was in her apartment in NY; we had returned from Turkey only ten days earlier. It was an abrupt end to a life lived with boundless generosity, infectious enthusiasm and plenty of laughter.
Her diagnosis this past August of ALS was a challenge that she tackled with her customary aplomb. Nothing, neither gradually losing her ability to speak and swallow nor the obstacles this posed to both communicating and eating seemed to dampen her spirits for long. She simply kept finding things to be delighted by every day. She found humor in the most unlikely places and never hesitated to share it. 
One night about a month ago, at my home in Antalya, I heard her in the kitchen in the middle of the night, so I got out of bed to join her. Her lips were dry, she indicated, and I brought her some lip balm. She carefully applied it, as if drawing her mouth on and then paused, sensing the gesture. Then she mimicked scribbling over her whole face with it and I laughed. She waved a hand dismissively, to say “I’m fine, don’t worry,” sending me, smiling, back to bed.
So we thought, “We have plenty of time,” and we thought “This thing has nothing on her.” And then in February she got pneumonia and stayed in hospital in Antalya for three days. She got over it – two weeks later she had a clean bill of health; she was tough. But it knocked her sideways. She had trouble breathing, and her optimism waned. Where once she towered over the puny threat of ALS, now she seemed cowed by it.
We returned to NY on March 17 and she was referred to hospice on the 20th. On the 22nd she was admitted, they brought a hospital bed to her apartment, and we arranged 24 hour care to supplement the hospice nurse visits. I left her, reluctantly, on the 25th, and she was joined by my cousin Pamela. On the 27th I received the news that she had died, at home, in her sleep. 
So here we are. We will gather at her apartment on Saturday, the 1st of April (no joke) between 11 and 4. And next week I’ll take her cremated remains to Turkey and bury them next to my dad’s, under the Bodhi tree in our garden. The boys will help me dig the hole and we’ll plant something with fragrant flowers over top. A wintersweet, maybe, or a variegated daphne. And we will all slowly, slowly get used to the hollow spot at the center of our lives.

p.s. – another article (with a stellar photo) here.

The best cup of tea ever

Routine pleasures have a way of being overlooked…

This past Monday night, I made myself a cup of herbal tea as I always do, adding a scoop of collagen powder for good measure (this will likely make perfect sense to a few people and strike others as bizarre, but I won’t get into it now). It’s a nightly routine, and I mostly do it automatically. But last Monday night it was simply heavenly and I felt so deeply grateful for this daily treat.

By way of background information, I ought to mention that my mom was diagnosed with ALS (also known as MND and Lou Gherig’s Disease) in August of 2016. Her initial symptoms were a very slight slurring of speech that only a few of us could hear but quickly progressed into difficulty swallowing. It took almost a year to get to the bottom of what was causing her troubles, and I then spent the hottest weeks of the summer grappling with her diagnosis in Antalya while she mulled it all over in NYC.

My mother, for those of you who do not know her, is a feisty lady, and she has dealt with all of the challenges thrown at her with great aplomb. When swallowing became a tiring and scary prospect, she consented to have a feeding tube put in and has adapted marvellously to her new way of eating. She still cooks, of course. Although she now eats pretty much nothing at all by mouth, she spotted three overripe avocados on my counter this evening and whipped up a quick guacamole so they would not go to waste.

So when she got into a real flap on Friday morning because she couldn’t breathe properly, I was alarmed. And when it happened again in the afternoon, I declared that it was time to go to the hospital. Ali and I spoke on the phone briefly and decided that I’d better take her to the Akdeniz University Hospital because we had heard that there were doctors there dealing with ALS, and the university hospital had a reputation for being a sensible place where the doctors are not in the least profit driven, which cannot be said for some of the private hospitals.

We went in to the emergency room. “Can’t breathe easily” is a vague complaint, but they were quick to bring my mother in and set her up with a nebuliser, and before long she was breathing easily and seemed more relaxed. They took some blood and did a chest X-ray. And we sat around a lot – I’ve been to the ER with my a few times now, and there is invariably plenty of waiting. It’s like being on a plane – you just have to let go of the time and let it pass unobserved or you get edgy and despair tugs at you.

A neurologist came to see my mom and encouraged us to visit the neurology clinic the following week, because a professor there was doing work with ALS patients. “They’ll admit her tonight because they found pneumonia,” he said, conversationally, “so she may still be here on Monday.”

“They found pneumonia??” I echoed, aghast. Pneumonia is no walk in the park for anyone, particularly once you get past a certain age, but it’s especially bad news for people like my mom who can’t cough without assistance from a machine, or spit stuff out. It can be a serious danger, so I found myself suddenly grateful to be in the hospital.

My mom was admitted that night and moved into a room with a diabetic woman who was apparently completely chock full of cortisol and no one could figure out why. I went home to get some things for us both and tell Ali and the boys the latest.

When I got back, my mom was writhing in pain. “The IV needle hurts,” she wrote on her board. I went to find the nurse and told her what my mother had said and she tutted sympathetically. “It’s the medicine – it burns the veins.” 

“Wow,” I thought, “that really sucks,” and went to break the news to my mom.

So for the next few days we found ourselves caught up in the routines of the hospital ward. Lights on at 6, blood pressure, temperature, antibiotics. Breakfast cart at 8:30, but no food for my mom. When they heard she had a feeding tube they were happy to leave her feeeding to me. I got food though, from the Companions food cart. 

More antibiotics at 12 – the burning one. Lunch at 1:30. And a blood thinner at 2 and more antibiotics at 6 and more fire water at midnight, with the dinner cart in between. Sometimes there were other, weird things like the time that they got my mom out of bed at 4:30 a.m. to weigh her. And the days passed surprisingly quickly with all of these regular occurrences to mark the time.

Her room was almost at the end of the hall, across from a bright lounge area. People drifted in to the lounge to compare notes, commiserate, or sometimes to just nap. I discovered that my mother’s roommate had been there for three weeks, while the young man from down the hall had been looking after his diabetic mother there for two weeks; her foot was infected. The day we left, he told me strickenly in the elevator that they were going to amputate it in a week’s time.

On Monday morning, a head nurse marched in folllowed by an orderly pushing a cart piled high with sheets. “Let’s clear that window sill,” she said briskly, pointing at the thermoses and feeding paraphenelia I had lined up there, “and put your bag in the cupboard.We’ll  change the sheets. Can you untie that plastic bag from the bed? That’s not allowed. Doctor visits today – the room should look it’s best.” So I hid everything away, and they changed the sheet while my mom was in the bathroom. When she got out she raised her eyebrows at the lack of plastic bag for her tissues – “it’s forbidden,” I explained. She shrugged. Later that day she spat into a tissue and held it aloft for a moment before defiantly throwing it on the floor. We laughed behind the curtain dividing the room, feeling complicit. Then I told my mom that in Hong Kong when you blow your nose in a tissue it’s called “making won ton” and we laughed over that. “Give your won ton to me,” I said.

The nurses had alluded to the fact that my mom would be discharged on Monday if she improved when they changed shifts, and a doctor breezed in and asked for a blood test and phlegm sample. Once these were tested, my mom had a green light to leave.

Of course, leaving a hospital is never especially straightforward, so it took us all afternoon to manage it and we didn’t get back home until 7, after a stop at the pharmacy to buy her antibiotics. I made a quick dinner for us all and my mom went to bed and the kids got ready to go to sleep and I put the kettle on to make my customary cup of tea. 

What a joy to be standing in front of my own stove, waiting for the water to boil, and to pour the water over the tea and smell the scent of it. What a pleasure to walk down the hall to my room and settle into bed – my own bed, not a fold out chair, in pajamas not my days-old clothes. Oh and what a relaxing and lovely feeling to take a sip of tea and reach for my book!

(My mom is on the mend, though the antibiotics don’t agree with her and she’s still kind of congested. It is pneumonia, after all…)

Traveling


I always see this sign on the way to JFK airport. There are plenty of billboards and signs along that road, of course, but this one doesn’t change from year to year and it makes me smile every time I see it. Finally, I had the presence of mind to snap a quick photo of it as we crawled past in heavy traffic.

Kaya and I flew in to NY to help my mom attend to some health stuff (Kaya was there for morale, me for logistics) but nothing dire. While we were there the story about the Egypt Air flight “disappearing” broke. Is it just me or would anyone else rather the media not talk about planes vanishing? I feel like this is something I would say to my kids, but just because you can’t find something doesn’t mean it’s gone. 

Anyway, as our flight home took off, there was a persistent beeping sound in the background. It didn’t last long (no doubt someone had noticed it was unsettling and turned it off) but as I listened to it I had a moment of clarity. I looked over at Kaya who was gazing out the window as the plane lifted off and I thought that if our plane were to “disappear” it would be a horrible shame for his life to be cut short. I’d have done anything to spare him that. 

On a certain day in September, a friend of mine was on his way into a certain building when a plane crashed into it. He looked up and saw stuff falling out of the sky. There was a woman standing next to him, frozen to the spot. He grabbed her and ran. I always thought that was pretty revealing – he wasn’t thinking, he just reacted to his circumstances purely reflexively. Seems to me, those are the moments when you know what you’re about.

I sometimes wonder what my impulses would be in an emergency, and in that moment in the plane I felt a little closer to knowing what I might do. It wasn’t a hugely emotional thing, it lasted a second at most, and afterwards we both promptly fell asleep.

Popcorn chicken

Actually I can’t believe that Popcorn Chicken is an actual thing. For those of you lucky enough not to have encountered this disgusting idea, it may come as a relief to learn that the thought of it is more horrible than the thing itself, which is innocuous. It is basically small scraps of chicken aggressively salted and battered and then deep fried. It is, like chicken fingers, merely a food with an extremely unfortunate name.

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Please forgive the quality of my photos today; I was shooting with my phone because I couldn’t keep these lovelies waiting!

We have been running incubators in our apartment to hatch chicks. We used to do it the natural way, you know when a hen gets broody and sits on about 20 eggs and gets nasty when you try to move here. The thing is, once the chicks hatched (rarely more than half the eggs, for us) the other adult chickens would attack them and eventually they all ended up dead. This was a huge turning point in my relationship to our chickens. I mean, I grew up watching cartoons with motherly hens wearing aprons showing their chicks what’s what, so I was unprepared for this descent into the harsh realities of nature.

Ali’s approach to this problem was to suggest that we get an incubator, but I couldn’t see it. Why buy a machine to do what an animal could do just as well? We could separate her from the flock to raise her chicks. Well, we tried that and ended up with a hen that had nowhere to go once she lost interest in her chicks after three weeks because her old coop-mates wanted nothing to do with her. So I relented and we got the incubator.

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And that is how chickens became the fastest growing aspect of our garden life.

We got chickens in the first place almost by accident; some friends brought us our first group – a rooster and three hens. We had one little coop and we didn’t let them out for the first year because we wanted to protect the plants. Then we realized that chickens are great pest patrollers and that they are particularly fond of eating scorpions, which we had plenty of, to our dismay (and ticks too – the first year was pretty horrific. I even saw a tick crawling on the wall. And it was moving fast!). So from then on our chickens have ranged free and we have caged in our flowers and vegetables, creating chicken-wire perimeters around vegetable and flower beds.

Soon we outgrew our first incubator and got a bigger one. The smaller incubator became the hatchery, where we would move the eggs on day 18. Because here’s the thing: eggs hatch on day 21 like clockwork. Which brings me to popcorn chicken.

Chicks can live for two days after hatching without eating a thing, because they hatch with some yolk stuck to them (and they will peck at one another to get at it, which made me nervous but nothing came of it). That’s why you can order chicks in the mail. And they can stay in an incubator for up to 24 hours after they hatch without suffering any ill effects. Anyway, you can’t really take them out until they dry off – they hatch wet and scrawny looking and will catch a chill if they are taken out into a drafty cage right away. You want to move them when they are fluffy, like the chicks you would imagine.

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Sometimes the chicks hatch while we are in the garden and we get there 12 hours or so after the fact. If it is light out and the chicks are energetic, they all cheep like mad and when we lift the lid of the incubator they start leaping about and if you are not careful they will spill out on to the table.

Popcorn chicken.

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Aromatherapy Christmas craft project – pomander balls

Baki is learning about the Bubonic Plague in his Social Studies class, and came home talking about fleas and rats and doctors with beaks, so naturally the first thing that sprang to mind was pomander balls, especially with Christmas around the corner.

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Plague doctors wore masks with beak-like protrusions on them (you might be familiar with the Venetian “doctor” mask, which is quite similar to the one in this picture, if a bit more ominous). This was because the beak area could be stuffed with aromatic herbs; it was believed that sweet smells could ward off the disease. That’s where pomander balls enter the picture. (picture credit: Paul Furst (1608-1666), “Der Doctor Schabel von Rom”)

Every year at Christmas time we open up the boxes of Christmas ornaments and the same smell rises from them – oranges and clove, with faint scents of pine. This is the smell of Christmas to me, and it is mostly coming from the pomander balls in the boxes, some of them decades old.

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Pomander balls in the Middle Ages, when the Plague was a major health concern, were not actually made from oranges at all, but were pieces of jewelry with aromatic herbs inside. The name comes from the French, pomme d’ambre, meaning amber apple – ambergris was one of the sweet scents inserted in the lockets.

My mother said that she learned how to make pomander balls when she was in high school, but couldn’t get more specific than that. All I know is that for as long as I can remember, the clove studded oranges have made their appearance at the end of every year. In my mind they were synonymous with that time of year and I didn’t think much about it beyond that.

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Zanzibar (a small group of islands off the coast of Tanzania) was once known as “the Spice Isles” because they were the world’s largest producer of cloves. When Omani sultan Sayyid Said moved to Zanzibar, he decreed that every farmer plant three clove bushes for every coconut palm on their land. These trees formed the backbone of a major industry, and one that Zanzibar continues to be associated with (unlike the other major function that Zanzibar served at that time – a slave port).

Pomander balls in their present incarnation as clove studded oranges showed up in the 19th century; a gift of a pomander ball at that time was said to indicate “warmth of feeling.” Making pomander balls is pretty straightforward – just cover the orange with cloves. You want to leave a little space between them because the orange will shrink a bit as it dries, but not too much or it will look patchy and balding. When we set Baki to the task, though, it was about thirty seconds before he was complaining of sore fingers and declaring himself bored to death.

Then my mother had a wonderful idea.

“Why not use a fork?” she said.

I had on occasion used a toothpick to poke holes for the cloves , but by using a fork you make the holes and ensure even spacing. A dessert fork is best for the meticulous (me), a dinner fork for the underachiever (Baki).

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Although Baki got off to a slow start with pomander balls, he did come up with a very nice little trick – when making holes in the orange, place the first tine of the fork in the last hole that you made so that your spacing really will be robotically precise. 

In this manner, we were able to make our pomander balls in record time.

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And of course there is the added pleasure of the smell – cloves smell great, and there is something heartening about the smell of orange peels. Make one and see – and keep it for decades! It’ll still hold up, smelling of the Spice Isles and bringing a whiff of the Plague to your holidays.

Merry Christmas to all and sundry!