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On the Best and Worst of Times

A few weeks ago I came across an excerpt from C. S. Lewis’s Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays* where the British writer of Narnian fame commented on the anxiety of the Atomic Age (highlights are my own):

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

— “On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays

I’ve been remarking to a few friends lately that these really are the Best and Worst of Times (Dickens, not Lewis). Or rather, this is the Best Time to have the Worst Time and simultaneously also the Worst Time to have the Best Time.

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#FoodWriteNow #4: Teenage Turon

(Julia Turshen [@turshen on Instagram] is offering food writing classes via Instagram Live with prompts and special guests M – F 2 PM EST while everyone’s at home due to COVID-19. These are my responses to her prompts.)

I posted a modified Turon recipe using Caramelized Apples for a more Midwestern twist HERE.

Prompt for Tues. 3/24: “What is the first thing you ever cooked?”

I moved to United States in Sophomore Year of High School, trading the burning sands of the conservatively Islamic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for the frigid snow of the conservatively Catholic St. Lawrence Seminary in Mt. Calvary, Wisconsin (population: 762). At fifteen years old, I was way out of my element, completely ignorant of the things American boys cared about at the time: how to ask a girl out, the best episodes of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the communal enjoyment of the peculiar delicacy they called “Peanut Butter & Jelly”.

Far from what friends back home imagined, the all-boys boarding school was not filled with ultra-religious farm boys, a predominantly white population of Germanic descent (Caucasians only formed 30% of the student body), or problem children whose parents thought the Bibles would serve better than Boot Camp. Instead we had sons of Vietnamese businessmen in California, of Mexican doctors in Chicago, of Indian engineers, Korean construction tycoons, and Hmong refugees. Boys came from as far as Ghana and we Filipinos had a sizable contingent coming from Saudi Arabia. It was a blessing to be exposed to a wide swath of the world despite being atop a hill in a village that no one knew and while the prayers that were said in multiple languages, it was really in our after-school meals (often supplied by visiting families) that our “United Nations”-ness was celebrated – instant Jjajangmyeon traded in exchange for homework help, Tamales and Valentina-soaked Hot Cheetos after Sunday Mass, Spam Musubis with Sriracha folded amidst weekend games of ping pong.

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#FoodWriteNow #3: Socialist Snacking

(Julia Turshen [@turshen on Instagram] is offering food writing classes via Instagram Live with prompts and special guests M – F 2 PM EST while everyone’s at home due to COVID-19. These are my responses to her prompts.)

Prompt for Mon. 3/23: “Who is the oldest person you know? Give them a call and find out their favorite thing to eat when they were young”

“When you go your whole life being cooked for, it’s no surprise you have no favorite food!” my mom chided my dad, the oldest person I know at almost-70. He gave the anti-climactic “everything your grandmother made was great” answer which was surprising since he’s quite the picky diner insisting that each meal have a plate of rice, a sud-an or main dish, and a bowl of soup for it to be considered a meal. And so it was that my mom, five years his junior, volunteered a very particular dish she grew up eating.

“We’d snack on dilis, anchovies, as children. They were fried and dipped in soy sauce and vinegar with a side of rice and so as I ate, I would cut their tiny heads off after they’ve soaked in the dip and wrap them in tissue paper before going to school. During class, I’d sneak out the tiny little heads and snack on them!”

All of us imagined my petite and demure mother pulling out fish heads from a soggy tissue paper, vinegar perfuming her skirt and the classroom, and laughed. “Is that what you communists did back in the day?!” we joked, pointing out her upbringing in the Chinese communities and schools of Iloilo, Philippines and the stereotypes prevalent during the time. “You all sang the Chinese national anthem every morning after all!”.

Unfazed by her already bizarre answer, my mom pressed on: “Communist? Hell no. We were socialists. Big difference! The communists wore pigtails and longer skirts. They went to our rival school and when we saw them outside, oh we shouted across the street from them! Hua siong kaw kabugaw, cha sai pe bin tao. Eat shit with a side of bread, pomelos of Hua Siong!*”

It’s hard to imagine profanity out of your own parents, much less them picking at fish heads in the middle of class. Then again, food, like family, sometimes skews bizarre rather than romantic.

*it rhymes a lot better in Hokkien.

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#FoodWriteNow #2: Everyday's Your Birthday

(Julia Turshen [@turshen on Instagram] is offering food writing classes via Instagram Live with prompts and special guests M – F 2 PM EST while everyone’s at home due to COVID-19. These are my responses to her prompts.)

Prompt for Thurs. 3/19: Imagine today is your birthday. What would you like to eat to celebrate? Why is this special? Who would you want to share it with?

Up until the years when both my brother and I finally moved out of the house and to our boarding school in rural Wisconsin, we had celebrated our birthdays with a single cake lain on a low table in front of our couch. Every year, we’d put on our good clothes (shirts mostly tucked in), sit next to each other on that couch facing my dad’s old camera and camcorder, sang “Happy Birthday” once, took photos, and proceeded to watch whatever movie was on TV. It’s not like we were cake-loving family per se. It took us more than a week to polish off that single cake and we only ever ate a sliver of a serving in each sitting including the actual birthday.

The cakes themselves started off as my mom’s guesswork, a patchwork of graham crackers, uneven frosting, random marshmallows, and whatever topping she could throw on top that gave it the semblance of a cake. The cakes were always low and rectangular since they had to fit in the tiny tabletop oven that doubled as our grill and were more a testament to my mother’s ingenuity than her baking prowess. In later years, her cakes were substituted by the more convenient and much neater blueberry cheesecakes from the bakery next door. These days I prefer ice cream to cake and looking back, I hardly recall any of the cakes as being particularly memorable. But perhaps that wasn’t the point.

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#FoodWriteNow #1: Odious Oatmeal

(Julia Turshen (@turshen) is hosting food writing classes on her Instagram at 2 PM EST daily with writing prompts and special guests. Given that I’ve been away from writing for far too long, I figured I’d give it a go. Follow her for more things to do while you’re practicing social distancing!)

Prompt for Wed. 3/18: What is a food you used to dislike, but now you like? When + how did that change happen?

“The ambulance is on the way,” she said turning to me while I lay on her bed crying in pain. My mother returned the phone to her ear and continued, “911? Yes that’s right. My son refuses to eat his oatmeal. Can you please bring extra IV bags and your largest set of needles? Twenty minutes? Great!” I cried even harder. If there was anything worse than my parents’ oatmeal, it was the fear of being forced to consume it via needles through my veins.

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