Saturday, August 9, 2008

Sweet and Sour Nostalgia

Jerusalem, May 2008, 10:45 p.m.

My good friend from childhood and I were walking around the deserted Mahane Yehuda market in search of cashews – what I usually crave when I have too much alcohol and not enough sustenance in my system.
“By the way,” he said a propos of nothing, “I’ve been reading your blog. It’s not bad. Then again, you’ve always been pretty good with the prose.”
He paused for a few steps as I drunkenly interrogated a shopkeeper about the pretty sad-looking nuts we’d found.
“They’re the best!” the man assured me, his voice echoing off the empty stalls, “I take them home to my own family! It’s because they use so much salt!” He licked his lips.
I thanked him and we continued our search.

“This is just my opinion, but what’s with the recipes?” my friend continued as if he hadn’t stopped talking (he does that – sometimes with years in between sentences).
He is the first person to whom I ever admitted my secret dream to become a writer. He used to be the only person I would show my sad love poems to (sad in many more senses than the obvious emotional one), my half-finished short stories. My childhood friend and I, we would share ideas, joints, hallucinations and dreams of seeing our names on the spines of our future novels, volumes of poetry, gallery exhibits.

Throughout high school, I called him my brother, and we saw each other naked way beyond the age when it would have been acceptable (I feel the need to point out that this has always remained a platonic friendship). Now here he was, age thirty-two, not understanding the superlative importance of the recipes in my blog -- technically the original point of The Point of This Being.

What did that mean in terms of our friendship?

That night, I got pretty drunk – a combination of disappointment and the absence of palatable cashew nuts; but the next morning, my disappointment had little to do with the throbbing in head.

It’s true: our lives had diverged. We’d moved away, from the place we grew up in, from each other. Over the years, the words, “you haven’t changed” became a bridge between us, a way of hoping to recuperate some of our old friendship, reconnect as we did as children, smoking on the roof of his garage or watching Fawlty Towers giddy with munchies, yelling “Fire! Fire!” with John Cleese like a sing-along.

As idealistic adolescents, we’d lament our fate, my friend and I. We didn’t want to be asking all those questions, probe so deeply into our souls or each other’s.

These days, we talk about pills – vitamins, supplements – books we still haven’t written. We discuss “Options” and “Possibilities”, the grown-up replacements for what we once called dreams.

Thankfully some things really haven’t changed: my friend still doggedly pursues me with “have you read my poems?” And I, still lazy, disorganized, overwhelmed by my To Do list, I still honestly admit that no, I have not.

However, those long-standing consistencies are few.

Time seems to elapse quicker than it did when my days were divided into those sleep-inducing fifty-minute blocks of English, Math, Geography, etc. In high school, every class felt like a lifetime wasted. I could have been learning guitar instead of square roots (that’s what calculators are for), and when would I EVER need to recite Shakespeare’s “Friends, Romans, Countrymen…” again?! (bizarrely often, as it turns out)

Last week, it took me an hour and a half to call the plumber.

I used to think I’d raise my kids with my closest friends around. I imagined children as comfortable in their own parents’ houses as with their aunties and uncles. I wonder now who those surrogates would be?

“You’re wrong! I HAVE changed!” I want to yell it, prove it in ways that nobody will be able to argue with. I’m a different person from that pudgy, insecure teenager who wore tents for t-shirts and almost had to have her Doc Martins surgically removed.

I sit across from my old friends, and some newer ones, watching our conversations drift off into the uncomfortable silences that inevitably quell the fire of our original excitement at seeing one another again. I watch us try to restart them, one by one – conversations, connections, commonalities – like an old car that makes a hill look like a mountain, and I wonder when those damning words will pop up.

“You haven’t changed.”

Four words. They sound so innocent and yet they have the power to pull me backwards against my will. It’s much worse than a memory. Memories are in the past. These words are very much in the present: as if all those questions I found more questions to, as if all that soul searching, all those journals filled and love stories lived had never taken place; as if every good time, every bad surprise has failed to leave even the faintest of marks.

It’s true: the oversized t-shirts have shrunk to better-fitting outfits, and these days I’ll even wear heels from time to time. I mostly feel like I’m a different person although I must admit that from time to time I do revert to being that aggressive, irreverent teenager. But besides the wrapping, what has changed inside?

“Look!” I want to open up my brain, my heart cavity, my lungs, my belly, show them the images I carry around with me, all the events that have helped shape who I have become since our last real conversation.

I’ll point to that place at the back of my liver, the spot reserved for the learning experiences -- the bad ones -- “This is the first job I had after college.”
“And over here” I’ll say “right under my throat, here’s the first guy I slept with who really believed in me.” He’s the one who told me I should only marry someone who will appreciate me.

The emails and cards keep pouring in with friends excitedly planning their trip to Israel to be with us on September twentieth while others apologetically decline. Everyone keeps saying that we shouldn’t forget what it’s really about: him and I. And in that sense, D and I are really working our way to new levels of intimacy and loving as we work together to put together our wedding.

I have to admit though, that while we have had some incredible surprises – people who have gone to extreme lengths to be able to celebrate with us in person – others have been nothing short of complete disappointments.

Some people should have, in my mind, responded differently. These are the friends whose title in my life may have become vague with time, like an old, yellowed letter from a past relationship, friends who may have a different view of our friendship than I do, friends who may not be friends other than because we were, once upon a time. Though the markings of their presence may not be as instantly visible on the map of my being, selfishly, a part of me feels they should be the first ones there, at this next rite of passage, their soft, familiar touch guiding me to this next stage I am choosing to enter.

But maybe they’re more correct than I would like to admit, those cursed words. Maybe I am the one who has closed my eyes to the inevitable evolution – mine, my friends’. While I claim so proudly to have moved on, maybe I am the one who is stuck in the desire to claim that nothing has changed between us when so much clearly has.

By sending their regrets, those people are telling me that they have changed, that our friendship is no longer what it used to be, that maybe I need to open my eyes to the divergence of our paths.

In some cases, it doesn’t matter. Some friends remain, sinking into sporadic afternoons drinking tea, or evenings sharing a bottle of wine – because we find a new common language or because we both enjoy that jaunt into our common history.

They could still call me in the middle of the night if they had an emergency, those friends, whether they are coming to my wedding or not. And I guess, in a way, that’s what makes us friends – even if we don’t have much to say to one another, even if we more often than not find excuses not to get together, even if they sent an apologetic email when I was expecting a delirious congratulatory one. We are friends, no commitment ceremony necessary.

“I love to cook,” I told my friend, “in fact I’m working on a cookbook.”
“Really,” he said, shrugging, “cool…”
The conversation about food was obviously over.
We had started walking towards the bar where D and some others were waiting.
“Hey,” my friend glanced over at me. I knew what was coming… “Have you read my poems?”


Sometimes a first impression of someone says nothing about who they are, or what role they end up playing in your life. Sometimes people you think are friends turn out not to be while sometimes people we distrust end up being the most loyal.

Sometimes ingredients one wouldn’t naturally pair work perfectly together. Who would have thought peanut butter and jelly would work? Or chocolate and mint?

Twice in the past month, I have randomly thought up a combination of ingredients that sounded incredibly far-fetched; and both times I have decided to follow my instincts and see where they lead. The results have been tremendous.

The first was a blueberry and green onion sauce which D and I drizzled over tuna tataki. The story is quite sweet: I was on the bus on my way home when D called.
“Where are you?” he demanded in very uncharacteristic shortness.
“I’m on the bus.” I retorted snarkily.
“Come home quickly, sweetheart, I’ve chopped off the tip of my finger.”
The bus inched its way through London’s rush hour.
Finally, I arrived home to what looked like a murder scene. There was blood everywhere, even in my stash of tampons where D had apparently been looking for a plaster. The poor man had bled his way through the kitchen and the bathroom looking and by the time I came home he was trying to cut strips of tape left-handed. He had been mandolining courgettes (zucchini) and apparently his writer’s mind had wandered off to some far-off place until he’d felt his pointer-finger connect with the blade. Now that I knew he was no longer in mortal danger, I had to laugh: every day, I prepare two to three meals and the one time D decides to cook, he lobs off his finger. I took over, bandaged him up, cleaned up the puddles and set out to make the dinner he had originally planned. As he sat holding his finger in the air, annoyingly and lovingly instructing me on how to pestle the spices and the oven temperature, I added my own ideas and ingredients.

The tuna was quickly covered in well-pounded cumin and fennel seeds, what was left of the mandolined courgettes were baking away. Somehow, we thought up a blueberry and green onion sauce. Slightly tart, a little sweet and a wonderful counterbalance to the saltiness of the tuna, this sauce is quick, easy and absolutely delicious.

Blueberries (about one punnet)
Two or three green onions the green bit chopped fine
Cumin seeds, just a pinch
A dash of cayenne
A spoonful of date syrup (to taste)
Grated ginger

Mix the ingredients in a pot
Add enough water that it will all melt into a nice saucy-like consistency.

Bring to a boil. Once boiling, turn down the heat to as low as possible and allow to cook until the blueberries are soft and the green onion all but disappears. I left it on there for about twenty minutes if not a little more). By the time the tuna is done, the sauce should be warm and ready.

D pronounced it my best meal ever.

Until last Thursday…

I must admit that I was very proud of myself for having come up with such an astonishing idea – and one that worked! I kept bringing it up to D, who rolled his eyes appreciatively and, I’m sure, hoped I would “outdo myself” soon just so I would stop talking about the damned blueberries.

Then, last Thursday, I woke up in the morning with a very specific craving: I wanted shrimp with fresh basil and grilled peaches.

So that night, we grilled shrimp with fresh basil and peaches. Try it, it’ll blow you away!

Fresh shrimp, peeled and veins removed
Fresh basil, finely chopped.
peaches, sliced
olive oil
salt to taste

mix the ingredients together and let marinate for a little while.

In the mean time, prepare the rest of the meal. We had a leafy green salad and mint guacamole.

Mint Guacamole:
Salt and pepper
Fresh mint
Lemon juice

Mash up the avocados
Add salt, pepper and lemon juice to taste, mix very very well.
Add the garlic, minced or chopped as fine as humanly possible.
Chop the mint as finely as the garlic and mix and mash until your hand feels it’s about to fall off.

Once the rest is ready, grill the shrimp and peaches. We don’t have an outdoor grill, so we use a Le Creuset pan grill, which worked brilliantly.

The result was sweet, savoury, crunchy, nourishing, refreshing and, more than anything, just a lot of fun. It’s a dish that tastes like laughter, and with it’s vibrant greens and oranges, it looks like it too.

1 comment:

ciara byrne said...

I love how you mix life and food effortlessly - that is how our experience on the planet should be.... I want to rush out right now and try the recipes - but we are traveling. they will have to wait a while.