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Dear Mr. Salm

(Julia Turshen [@turshen on Instagram] was offering food writing classes via Instagram Live while everyone’s at home due to COVID-19. These are my responses to her prompts. Prompt: “Write a Thank-You note to your school lunch person”. While I was drafting this letter with the hopes of ultimately sending it to Mr. Salm, I was saddened to find out on Facebook that he had passed away just a few weeks ago. I’m publishing this unsent letter with the permission of his son. My sincerest condolences to the Salm family and everyone who’s had the honor of dining at their table.)

You may not remember me, having served thousands of students for over a decade as my high school’s Food Service Director. Then again I was in the same class as your son Shane so maybe you do. I was doing a writing exercise earlier this week and the prompt had us writing to our “lunch lady” and I suppose you’re the closest (and only) one I really ever knew and remembered from the days of eating out of partitioned lunch trays and federally mandated carrots. I remember you only ever wearing two things: your chefs whites and baggy pinstripe pants behind the lunch counter and a yellow sweater when you showed up to the basketball games that your son played in.

I’m sure you’ll agree with me that for the most part, school meals were mostly forgettable affairs: beef stroganoff, fish sticks, chicken cordon bleu, and beef tacos cooked en masse with the rare sparkling grape juice served in plastic cups for special occasions. Still, I wish we thanked you more for keeping us full. The cross country runners who ate platefuls of stuck together pasta to carb load, the bleary-eyed choir boys who rolled hard-boiled eggs during breakfast while NPR blared over the speakers, the perpetually-hungry who fought over chocolate milk and seconds, the international students who learned to like the after-lunch dessert of PB&J dunked in Vitamin D milk. I think those are thanks we owe you and all the other food professionals who’ve done their best to keep students fed on strict regulations and stricter budgets over the years. But my memory and gratitude go a little further.

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Hidden Apron at Home Ep. 4 Recap: On Cooking Creatively

(These are recaps of our “Hidden Apron at Home” Instagram Live sessions filmed under quarantine and held on my @errant_diner account. I focus on the fundamentals of cooking as I, a non-chef, understand them. They are based on my experiences learning how to cook and deal with systems and ways of thinking vs. just recipes. This fourth session is part of a longer series addressing the Motivation – or lack thereof – to cook. This one deals specifically with Flexibility. Click here for recaps of Part 1: Confidence, Part 2: Efficiency, and Part 3: Flexibility)

IG Live Recording can be found below and you can find the Menu Planners and a more in-depth explanation of how to set them up in this post I wrote back in 2015. Note that since this was on Instagram Live, this is best viewed on mobile and at full screen. My roommate coincidentally chose to teach a workout class at the same time so please forgive the chaos and enjoy the quarantine-induced hilarity towards the latter half!

The Lesson

For this past month, we’ve been addressing the multiple factors that stop someone from cooking that often take place before you even enter the kitchen. Having the confidence to approach an unfamiliar dish, the efficiency to make meal preparation less of a drag, and the flexibility to adapt recipes to changing conditions are all critical pieces to consider for any cook. This week, we’re addressing a fourth reason keeping many from cooking: Creativity.

Creativity is a loaded word that we often associate with starving artists and child prodigies. We often think that creativity must be some innate quality and that some of us just aren’t born creative. If we mistakenly consider ourselves from the latter group, we must think that we can’t possibly do the things the stereotypical creatives do: cook, draw, paint, dance. I myself thought so and so it didn’t strike me as strange that I started my career in Accounting. But what is Accounting but the creative moving around of pretty much imaginary numbers? Did you know that it actually takes quite a bit of creativity and persuasion to classify something as a revenue at times and armies of accountants can magically make them disappear so as to lower their tax burden?

Palabok Hapones: Shimamoto Ramen, Ebi Tsukemen, Ajitama.
Photo Credit: Kurt Belen

On the flip side, the “creative arts” are governed by rules and limitations though because they aren’t as spelled out as Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, they are bestowed some air of mystery. When it comes to cooking, I can definitely say that by applying some simple exercises done on a piece of paper, you too can get creative with your culinary escapades. These exercises force our brains to look at certain ingredients, flavors, colors, and other attributes from different angles so that we’re not narrowing down on a single recipe. Think of it like reassembling Lego blocks! Here’s how it works:

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The Daily Rice: What Luxury Can You Savor Today?

You may be drowning in work, childcare responsibilities, and recursive thoughts today, but beyond your bare minimum, what luxury can you savor today?

Unless you’re a blue checkmark-verified celebrity, the lifestyle you’ve adopted these days is more spartan than sumptuous. You’ve cut back on the many luxuries you used to enjoy and unless you’re currently at the bottom of a pizza and ice cream binge of self-destruction, you aren’t really focused on the rich pleasures of previous lives. I myself have been reduced to a single takeout order a week in lieu of the usually hungover orders of fiery Goat Vindaloo and Salty Lassis from the Indian join a few blocks over. Lately however, the lines of luxury blur a little and if luxury is defined as the non-essential, desirable, and extravagant, do we actually have some power to live luxuriously these days?

At a bare minimum – and I realize said minimum is already more than many can afford – I count my essentials as being able to pay my monthly rent, utilities, and health insurance and eat something resembling three meals a day. If so, everything above and beyond can be a luxury:

  • Spontaneously running a (second) hot shower in the middle of the day for no good reason.
  • Pouring a Martini into an ice cold glass after a nap.
  • Stumbling on a good song to listen to while washing dishes.
  • Having enough time to just watch the cherry blossoms bloom outside my window.
  • Eating dinner with a cloth napkin I stole from a Business Class flight on my lap.
  • Ending the day in silence with non-freezer burned ice cream and fresh mint.

These may sound silly to some, overly extravagant to others, and far too fleeting for most. But they’re enjoyably rich to me. You may be drowning in work, childcare responsibilities, and recursive thoughts today, but beyond your bare minimum, what luxury can you savor today?

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The Daily Rice: Are You an Accidental Influencer?

The questions worth asking in this digital age are: are you an Accidental Influencer? Do you know what you’re inadvertently Influencing others to do?

Earlier this week I had mistakenly posted on Instagram that everyone should buy a nonstick pan when I really meant stainless steel. I later corrected it after a friend pointed it out and thankfully, I heard from a handful of others who saw the post that they thought I was just joking. I wonder how many silent others actually got a nonstick pan (none I hope). I wonder who among my silent viewers and readers has used a specific technique or ingredient because of something I said or did and out of those, how many times was I wrong? How many times was I not questioned purely because of the cooking “authority” I’ve slowly built over the years? Argumentum ad verecundiam.

I wonder sometimes how much of our seemingly “independent” actions are based on the unexamined influencing of the Influencers. Certainly the vast majority are just benignly peddling more stuff for us to buy by way of sponsored posts and follow-me-for-free-prizes contests but the effects can’t be ignored: cult diets, obsessive lifestyle designing, the misguided idea that we aren’t optimal beings without some specific regimen priced at the low subscription of $29 a month.

This is not a post against experts who’ve put in the necessary work to truly explore their craft and all the hard questions and humility that come with it. Nor is this a railing against the more blatant snake oil salesmen around us who rely on complete lies. Rather, this is a word of caution on the Accidental Influencers: regular people whose authority lies in follower counts or engagement metrics, experts in one field who somehow also get Influencer status in a field they know nothing about, beginners like myself who sometimes are promoted too soon.

Just last week, my father who is arguably an expert in personal finance after over four decades of experience, deigned to make knowledgeable-sounding but dangerous comments of how quarantines can be lifted in his community. The posts got dozens of shares despite his degree in epidemiology only being a few weeks old and I shudder to think of some elderly lady looking for solace in the comments section leaving her house with a false sense of security. I’m extremely self-conscious of the things I may inadvertently influencing others to say or do and I don’t think the fact that “people are free to decide for themselves” absolves us of all responsibility.

The questions worth asking in this digital age are: are you an Accidental Influencer? Do you know what you’re inadvertently Influencing others to do?

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The Daily Rice: Do You Have to Be Productive?

Perhaps making it through sans magnum opus is the best thing many of us can do right now and if we’re not living our Best Life, at least it’s still a Life.

Last week was the first week in which my entire Google calendar lay bare and untouched. Every day for the last 6+ years, I’ve religiously filled out my calendar with a multicolored tapestry that served both as a recording of what I did (an hour for lunch here, a mind-numbing 3 hour Netflix binge there) and a forecast of what I was about to do (gymnastics on Wednesday mornings). The obsessive tracking was part of an elaborate system I refined to make me more efficient and productive. Being a long-time follower of Tim Ferris, James Clear, and similar others who spoke in terms of habits, lifestyle design, and a constant stream of quantitative data, I took pride in carpe-ing even the sleep part of my diem.

I’m wondering lately who/what exactly I’m producing for and if productivity is measured by the ability to produce a large amount of goods/products/commodities, is there ever a time when being unproductive is desirable? And no, scheduling some app-optimized, Apple Watch-tracked, polyphasic sleep routine followed by some Wim Hof ice bathing does not count as unproductive, intentionally restful as it may seem. I’m talking about the complete abandonment of any structure or system to “do something” for an unspecified amount of time. In doing so, you may find yourself automatically switching from “Producing” to “Consuming”, thinking these are the only two options one has especially in a society like ours. But what if we can be neither? Is Surviving in an age of aspirational Thriving enough?

I realize that an intentional choice not to produce especially when rent is due in a few months is a privileged one and not participating in a consumptive economy assumes you have other ways of self-actualizing. I also get that in these times, hyper productivity could really just be a coping mechanism designed to keep us from falling into the abyss of our unexplored psyche. But given the choice, would you choose a high level of productivity for productivity’s sake? And if you chose it but can’t seem to find the energy to make the gears turn, perhaps it’s because your focus on just weathering the daily anxieties requires an enormous amount of energy that increases the further down Maslow’s hierarchy you are. It’s still spent energy worth acknowledging.

I am now on day 43 of quarantine and in that time, my roommate has fastidiously worked out twice a day, finished ten books, and broken several personal running records. All this while continuing to produce for his high-profile day job and connecting with friends on countless Face Times and Zoom calls. I eat, sleep, drink, and occasionally find some words worth writing down. Perhaps making it through sans magnum opus is the best thing many of us can do right now and if we’re not living our Best Life, at least it’s still a Life.