Packaged Ramen. Kraft Mac and Cheese.Tyson Chicken Patties (microwaved). These were the bases of my high school culinary masterpieces. They were doctored with other ingredients, and tasted damn good to my teenage palate. My parents were pretty good cooks, and the mealtime ‘fails’ we had experienced during their learning curve were pretty much behind us (but definitely ask me about hamburger surprise sometime!). There I was, feeling pretty secure about my ability to wow on command, when I wound up at my friend Jennifer’s house one afternoon. We were seniors in high school, standing in the kitchen, when she said “let’s make crab rangoon”. I had only just learned about crab rangoon a year or two earlier when my friend, Maria, introduced me to good chinese food. I’m sure I felt uneasy. That was how I responded to things I didn’t know–and especially things that my friends knew and I didn’t.
Crab rangoon sounded like a great idea, and I agreed quickly to the undertaking. The process began with what has become one of my favorite chores - going to the store. Apparently, my parents did most of that shopping without me because I have very few recollections of being in the grocery store, but as I write this, I am reminded of two childhood grocery store traumas. One involved being dangled over a smelly barrel of fish, and the other was waiting in the freezing cold car because my family members entered the store wearing stocking caps made to look like chickens (they even had a cardboard cone inside to make them stand up) and I was way too cool to be seen with them. So, gross and embarrassing: that was my opinion of the grocery store up to that point. I think I understand now why it was important to take my kids to the store with me when they were little. I wanted them to be comfortable around ingredients and cooking from an early age. Also of note, I’ve always felt uncomfortable when I embarrassed them, even though my dad really got a kick out of doing it to us –creatively– and still does!
Jennifer made a grocery list and off we went. Wonton wrappers, canned crabmeat, and chili sauce were all new ingredients for me and I was excited to see how this came together. Deep fryers were also (smartly) kept away from me, so using one became another first. She knew her way around a kitchen in ways that I had yet to even witness. When my parents were frying something, (or cooking at all, really) we were invited away from the kitchen, so handling the deep fryer seemed both exciting and dangerous. We made the filling and prepared the rangoon for frying, even finishing with an egg/water mixture to keep the ends ‘glued’ while frying.
I was judge-y from the outset…these didn’t look like what BoLings put on my plate. I remember that there were only one size of wonton wrappers available and they made smaller crab rangoon than what I was used to (you know, from that vast experience of eating them twice before). I was so busy critiquing their form that I wasn’t prepared for how amazing they would taste! One bite and I was ready to make them for anyone and everyone I entertained. Between the ages of 18 and 21 I made more crab rangoon than I’ve made in the 32 years since, always extending the credit to Jennifer, of course.
Over the years, Jennifer and I have shared many experiences, and the roots between us are firmly rooted in food and cooking. Our kids are older now, but when they were young and she lived in Kansas City, we traded out babysitting, kitchen hacks and well-loved recipes pretty regularly. She shared her southern influence and her gourmet recipes,while I fostered my ability to deliver a creative and delicious meal with whatever ingredients are available on hand. Our styles were complementary and our flavor profiles were pretty similar. We always kept it interesting by experimenting with variations and sharing the results. When we talk on the phone, we wind up talking about the best things we’ve made lately, and her husband has actually chronicled some of their throw-downs and set them to music on tiktok, which you can view @skillet_66 if you want to have some fun with food and drinks.
Jennifer spent most of her childhood in Texas and still holds an affinity for many tex-mex dishes and traditions. Christmas Eve isn’t complete in her home without tamales – a tradition that I immediately fell in love with and adopted into my own holiday traditions. We usually order them from local families who usually spend an entire weekend preparing enough for their own celebrations, as well as some extra to spread around. I missed the order this year and we didn’t get to have them. (Well, I did buy a small package from Trader Joe’s, but it doesn’t feel right to count those–no offense to their maker or their flavor –it's just not the same). Jennifer and her family had actually begun making tamales from scratch a few years ago and the preparation had become a family tradition. Sadly, her family took some hard hits this year. She lost both parents: her father over the summer, and then her mother in the fall. Leading up to finals week and the holidays, her son Max (a junior in college) developed appendicitis which required immediate and unexpected surgery. Jennifer spent that week in his college town as he stayed a few extra days in the hospital battling an infection, NOT preparing to make tamales. We talked here and there about the bummer of it all, as well as the blessings that come from our tragedies (her parents didn’t have to spend much time without each other :) and how ready we were for 2022 to be somehow different and better.
Jennifer is prone to brilliant ideas from left field, so when she suggested Fred and I come to Indiana for New Year’s Eve, I didn’t answer with the “hard no” that would normally follow that suggestion. Yes, covid is everywhere. Yes, my house and my ORM project need some time and attention. Yes, I have intended to be timely with my blogs this session, and I was already behind….BUT, here was an opportunity to spend the 15 driving hours listening to music with my husband, planning for the new year, and making deep connections to all of the things that are important to us, individually and collectively. NYE always falls on Music Week, and it’s a natural time for reflection–connecting us to our more spiritual aspects and making best efforts to set us up with good intentions for the upcoming year. We remained on the fence about our decision until the day before, but that morning we packed up and made the trek to Indiana. I knew I would be celebrating Music Week and gathering ‘ingredients’ for Food Week, but I had no inkling of how powerful those experiences would prove to be.
The drive, both ways, couldn’t have been better. Food Week, at the core, is about recognizing how we are/have been nurtured in life, and that topic stayed front and center. We explored the music of our childhoods, realizing how many thoughts and feelings are tied to songs. The weather cooperated at every turn. Our home was gathering snow, and we were enjoying 60 degree weather on Jennifer’s new back patio. We arrived in time for shrimp cocktail and these fantastic cheese/pecan wafers that I’ve only ever experienced in Jennifer’s kitchen. There were stuffed dates ready for the oven whenever we wanted, and a beautiful tenderloin was resting up for its job as the main course for dinner. Scalloped potatoes, a tomato and asparagus dish from her Ina Garten Cookbook, and creme brulee rounded out the menu. Each dish was served with a backdrop of deeply connected but light-hearted conversations that often circled back to the first few Pillars of ORM, Mentors, Music and Food.
We reminisced and told funny stories. We remembered the people we spent time with and revisited the silly ways we spent our time. We agree, often, that we are lucky to be sitting where we are now, considering the many times we walked a tenuous line… We also agree that we have always been connected by something bigger than ourselves. This is a soul-based friendship that has maintained 35 years of transformation and growth in each of our lives. We are very different human beings with unique ideas about how the world is structured, and we each move through it in unique ways. Finding friends who feed us, body and soul, is a special gift from the universe. Getting to keep them close to our hearts as we move through life? It nurtures this human journey and reminds us who we are when we are whole and balanced.
Whole and balanced is finally emerging as a desired state of being. As we nurture our bodies and our souls, we shift our perspective to the greater good. We put our energy into the things that we love and we share what we have because it feels so good to do it. We appreciate our friends, family and coworkers in ways that we might otherwise overlook. We slow down and take time between activities to appreciate the acts themselves. As we are nourished, we increase our ability to nourish others–emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and physically. And our appreciation allows those intentions to continue to pay it forward, warming the bellies and hearts of the people who need nurturing.