I would never list travel as a hobby. I have mixed feelings about how money and culture can intersect when I land somewhere as an American tourist. But I love to explore. I love meeting people and hearing their stories. I like to feel what it is like to exist elsewhere. And I’ve been blessed with a life rich in changes of location, by circumstance and by design. With the arrival of COVID, that, along with so many other things, has changed. Maybe one day soon, I’ll be glad to go again, feeling the freedom of the open road rather than wondering what restrictions and challenges it will present. But I’m not there yet. And freedom is the thing, really.
That and the food.
Gourmet magazine had a column called “You Asked For It”. Readers wrote in asking for recipes — that soup from a favorite restaurant, those beloved scones at a charming B&B — and the magazine tracked them down. It was a delight to live vicariously through the experiences of others, to think about the recipes that one could ask of one’s own. Over the past few months, I feel like I’ve become my own “You Asked For It” column. What better way to relive past trips, and fantasize about future trips, than to create the tastes you remember and hope to experience one day?
It all started with a seed cake. Years ago, my husband and I traveled to the UK to visit one of my daughters-in-law, who was studying there at the time. Just as we were getting ready to go home, the volcano erupted. Eyjafjallajökull! We were stuck in London. Worse things have happened. We quietly drank coffees and debated whether or not the gentleman at the next table was a Fine Young Cannibal. We brushed our way through Borough Market. One day, while strolling through Spitalfields, looking for a snack, we dove into St. John’s Bread and Wine for eleven: a big slice of butter, egg and caraway seed cake and a glass of Madeira.
This seed cake came to mind recently, out of the blue. I had forgotten about everything until suddenly it was there, just when I needed it. It was time for eleven somewhere. I watched “Beyond Nose to Tail” by chef Fergus Henderson recipe book from the library, delivered it to my Kindle, and baked. (The recipe is also in line.) I didn’t have caster sugar so I used granulated, an easy swap. I approached a self-rising flour version, adding baking powder and salt to all-purpose flour. Were the proportions right? Who knew.
When the toothpick was clean, I took it out of the oven: a magnificent, imposing golden loaf. The kitchen smelled good. I waited a bit, then cut myself a big slice. And the bread fell apart, somehow still liquid in the middle. It was the worst baking disaster I’ve had since…ever. I called it melted seed cake and ate it anyway. The edges, at least, were as I remembered them. Either way, it felt right, like memory itself, clear and perfect in places, confused and eclipsed in places. You can’t go back, not exactly.
After that, I cooked. At the start of the pandemic, I was supposed to meet a friend who lives in Sicily in the convenient middle ground of Mexico City. (It made sense at the time.) I had never been and wanted; she had lived there and knew the town well. We had previously spent a few days in Mexico’s Valle de Guadalupe wine region with another friend, and the weather was deeply memorable, despite the local bottles and mezcal. I can almost see us, heading up the coast on our last day together, sharing one last taco after one last dip of our feet in the waves. I asked the stall owner if I could buy a dozen of her freshly baked tortillas: “I want to take them back to Boston,” I explained. She smiled, refused my money, and handed me a warm, fragrant pile.
I still haven’t been to Mexico. But I dreamed of the food there and beyond, via the excellent”Treasures of the Mexican Tableone of my favorite cookbooks of the last year. The host of PBS’ “Pati’s Mexican Table” travels the country, finding and recreating his best regional recipes. When I opened the book and it opened directly to the page of vuelve a la vida, a seafood cocktail served along the Gulf and Pacific coasts, it seemed like it was meant to be. The dish is called “come back to life” for its hangover healing powers, but I knew it would work for New England winter blues too. It’s a tangy combination of fish and shrimp with lime, chili peppers, tomato, cilantro, olives, capers and more, spicy and restorative. I ate it with crackers and sliced avocado, and I could almost feel the warm waves lapping over my toes.
I’ve made them all: Onigiri filled with shiso and plum, my favorite breakfast when I lived in Japan to teach English, grabbed in a hurry at the Lawson convenience store as I rode my red granny bike to the one of the local colleges. An egg dosa, sprinkled with chillies and ginger, like the one my dad and I once shared in a Delhi hotel. Lindsey Shere’s must-have lemon pieChez Panisse Dessertsto remind me that California still exists. A version of the grand aioli, a giant platter of vegetables cooked and raw then dipped in garlic mayonnaise, via Rebekah Peppler — whose book “Aperitif: French Cocktail Houris my surest way to feel like an expat living a cool girl life in Paris. (Disclosure: I’m not, and never have been, a cool girl in any city.) The tagine my brother-in-law’s friends cooked for us at their home in Sefrou, Morocco, when he was in the Peace Corps. A recreation of the vegetarian tom kha soup I ate in my early twenties in Chiang Mai. It was complex, rich in coconut milk, spicy. Wait, not just spicy. Wait! Incinerate. Wait! Obliterating. Wait!
I lay on my back on the wooden bench in a grove of trees, tears streaming down my face and landing in the dirt below. I had ingested one of the tiny red peppers that infused the entire pot of soup with heat. I tilted my head and saw them, blurry: The women who had cooked this soup, unable to stop laughing.
What can you do. I laughed with them, through the tears.