Sunday, December 12, 2010


Thursday night, I was surrounded by the merry and slightly tipsy voices of family friends as they robustly sang me "Happy Birthday," crystal classes clinking with white and red wine lapping the rims. Around this table, our rosy cheeks and laughter were clear signs that love and cheer were in sheer abundance. As we passed around plates of crisp pita and hummus, handing forkfuls of golden baked ziti across the table, the dinner marked a celebration in my life - cheers to being 21!

Looking back on the last two decades, I realized that most my birthdays have involved some sort of festivity that centers around the family table. There were the countless birthdays where my grandma made my favorite German chocolate cake with walnut rich icing, the year my friends and I sat in a cozy log cabin, sipping hot cocoa with heaping pillows of whipped cream or the time my Dad made juicy pork chops with a tangy cilantro lime marinade. While I was never conscious of food as a main focus, each dish that was placed on the table for a birthday dinner seemed extra special. It was as if the flavors were magnified and my taste buds even more eager to savor each bite.

Honoring the day we arrived on this earth is important and duly deserving of an extra slice of silky cake, a throng of sparkling candles and a bottle of bubbly to toast off the night. In celebrating the incredible opportunity of life itself, isn't it interesting that we often choose to involve food to create a special atmosphere, one that mirrors our excitement and affection for those we love? Nourishing our bodies with food, while a daily activity, can be a magnanimous gesture and provide the foundation for many wonderful memories.

The beauty of a heartfelt meal is that it doesn't just have to happen for a birthday celebration; it can occur every weekend if you like! Although some days may seem harder than others, each day is filled with reasons to throw our arms up the air and raise our glass to toast the beauty that surrounds us. So uncork the pinot noir, break out your table linens and start slicing the dill Havarti, you've got a reason to celebrate, many reasons.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

An ode to oatmeal

There's just something about those golden rounds cradled in my cereal dish that makes my heart feel light. Dressed up with a little cinnamon, a smattering of crushed walnuts and a good handful of plump raisins, oatmeal is a dish that I revere with biblical proportions.

By now, you might be thinking that I'm a little "oat obsessed" or that my other breakfast options must be terribly unexciting, but I have no shame in saying that oatmeal ranks high on my list of culinary favorites. Sure, oatmeal has the potential to be utterly bland and even gummy, but given some zest and earthy additions, oatmeal can be a reason to jump out of bed in the morning and get the day started with some enthusiasm!

As a college student, oatmeal can be a saviour - it's inexpensive, quick and easy to make. I admit (and know friends who can relate) to relying on oatmeal for a quick fix when a lone dollar nestles in my wallet or when I'm rushing between a dance class and the newsroom.

Steel-cut, rolled, old fashioned, my oats know how to satisfy my hunger pangs. As I mix together a bowl of steaming oats, ginger spread and soy milk, I have the tendency to stare at my concoction rather fondly. Each oblong pearl seems to whisper, "Taylor, you're an oatmeal genius" - praise which I gladly accept.

To those non-oatmeal believers, little do you know the powers of this breakfast treat. Feeling sick? The answer, a soothing bowl of oatmeal drizzled with honey. Needing some energy? Oatmeal with a spoonful of almond butter. Wanting to impress a date? Oh yes, oatmeal with a sprinkle of coco nibs and sliced strawberries.

This week, I encourage you to see how you can put your own twist this traditional breakfast. Invite a group of friends over for a oatmeal tasting where you can enjoy each other's creations. And if you find any keepers... be sure to let this oatmeal connoisseur know about them!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Bring your offering to the table

There was a distinct difference between my Thanksgiving dinner in 2005 and this year in 2010.

Five years ago, the tension bottled up inside of me felt like the pressure bursting through the top of Mt. Saint Helens. That year, I made every dish: the popovers, cranberry sauce, stuffing, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, the pie, even the halfway cooked turkey... don't ask. While there was some slight guidance from my Dad, he was too distracted to focus his attention towards the kitchen, so I was left to master the dinner at 15 years old. While I wanted to tackle the full smorgasbord of culinary delights, I was quickly drown in the stress of not enough oven space, ingredients spilling over the counter and trying to have all the dishes ready by 5 p.m.

My ambitions may have been noble, but I was missing the spirit of Thanksgiving: the magic of each guest bringing to the table dishes that they made - traditions, childhood favorites and new creations. Thanksgiving fosters the ability for a group of people to share part of their past and present through the offering of food prepared with their unique love and care. Focused attention on one or two dishes allows for a more effective display of their dedication and personality. Aunt Marge brings her orange-cranberry relish she makes every year, cousin Carol tried Ina Garten's new rosemary mashed potato recipe and your neighbor Jack baked two succulent, golden apple pies. As each guest places their dish on the table, you're reminded how the meal is made special by the contributions of all those who join, not by the stress and sweat one person slaving to making the entire feast - so much so that they are not able to enjoy the experience.

This year, I had the privilege of sharing Thanksgiving dinner with my godparents, their children, grandchildren, family and friends. It was a group of 15 with plenty of laughs and clinking wine glasses to fill the night with cheer and merriment. When each couple arrived, they set their contribution on the kitchen counter, and soon it was covered with the traditional Thanksgiving dishes and then some. No one person was burdened with supplying too many things and each dish was made with the attention and care it deserved. If there was any stress, it was impossible to detect, all aided by the simple act of sharing the creation of what can seem to be a daunting culinary extravaganza.

Five years later and I finally understand the lesson ... let everyone take part in the magic of Thanksgiving! Dishes shared from a variety of people cultivate a memorable and heartfelt meal... and who wouldn't want a taste of that?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Share the invitation

Daily, I committed this personal sin for the past week. Every time I did it, I shook my head, because I promised myself that I won't be in this predicament night after night. When I sat down, I was confronted with my fears and then allowed them to toy with my mind, because deep down, I knew better.

I used to get teary eyed when I thought of my Dad sitting alone at the kitchen table or at a restaurant, uttering the sad syllables that compose the request "Table for one." This image cultivated my fear of him being alone, and after his death, it turned into my fear of isolation. As much as a I didn't want to acknowledge it, eating with someone was the strongest way for me to feel connected and at peace with life's swells of chaos and sheer beauty. Yet as a college student, outside the realm of my hometown friends and family, focus on togetherness at mealtime was placed on the back burner. Then, when I confronted my desire for togetherness and companionship, meals were restored to their prominent status in my hierarchy of priorities.

For me, eating a meal is never an individual activity, it's an action that involves sharing with someone - someone you love, someone you want to know more, someone you respect. It's a chance to show your care for one another, an opportunity to get to know someone on a deeper level. My heart begins to beat faster when I think about how amazing it is that there is an event where such a beautiful connection can be made! ... That's why I feel is it a sin to keep dinnertime to ourselves - to let loneliness win, to let bitterness become of the victor.

With Thanksgiving this Thursday, we prepare for an evening where sharing a home-cooked meal with others and hours of conversation are the centerpiece of the day. In the spirit of this holiday, I am truly thankful that a day exists where Americans retreat from their fast paced lifestyles and unite around the family table. And even though the Thanksgiving meal is usually more elaborate and time consuming, couldn't we devote more evenings to meals like this?

In church today, the pastor finished with this verse, which I took to be as an answer to my question: "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me." Revelation 3:20

Sunday, November 14, 2010

What your food says about you

I am a Bananas Foster. I am served splendidly in a variety of occasions, whether delivered aflame by a waiter in coattails or savored within the comforts of a cozy leather couch. I am exotic - the tastes of tropical banana caramelized with brown sugar and a hint of spicy cinnamon; yet I am also homely - mingled by the flavors of a mother's homemade vanilla ice cream. I am stable, my foundations, composed of fluffy yet slightly toasted pound cake, assuring that every drop of oozing goodness will be absorbed and savored. I am awaited in anticipation, inspiring the eager gaze of guests and the curiosity of children. I am the reminder of a college student's family tradition. I am the part of the day that makes life fun and joyful while being a subtle whisper to relish each moment in the present.

When you eat something, be aware of what it is that you put into your body. Be proud of what flavors excite your tongue. Be adventurous when scouring a menu. Be appreciative of the abundant harvest and hard work that graces your plate. While the concept of eating may have turned into a scientific analysis by leading dietitians and doctors, don't ever let the magic of food turn into something that causes anxiety. Take joy in the fact that you can delight in the wonder of new flavors and preserve traditions through the practice of cooking, eating and sharing this communion.

The next time you flip through a cookbook, scan the grocery isles or visit a local restaurant, ask yourself what the food you're about to eat says about you. I hope it tells a story and I hope that it is a happy one.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Slow and steady wins the race

Walking into a supermarket today can be a scary sight. It's like entering a mass produced, techno-color, "10 for $10!" frenzy! Many grocery stores possess endless isles of products that seem capable of sitting on shelves for eons ... does that raise any red flags to you? So much of the store is composed of "foods" that are pumped full of preservatives and chemicals, so much so, that it raises the question of whether or not it still classifies as food.

As I've increased my awareness of real, fresh produce, I've slowly started to migrate away from the isles and stick to the periphery where I can trust to find substantial, nourishing food. Yet after shopping at supermarkets in Bloomington for the past 3 years, I'm beginning to lose my trust in what I'm purchasing. I don't know who I would turn to when asking about the quality and history of the products they carry. Can you even use the term "grocer" in a supermarket these days? If I were to ask which farm the eggplants came from or if the farmer ethically treats his dairy cows, I can almost guarantee that the clerk would be speechless.

If you are not familiar with the "Slow Food Movement", it is well worth a little research. As the organization Slow Food International says on their website, "Slow Food is an idea, a way of living, a way of eating [...] that links the pleasure of food with a commitment to the community and the environment." The movement stands for local pride, tradition and culture. Slow food encourages using local foods, interacting with farmers and providing the community with care and nourishment.

Last night, I took my aunt and uncle to a restaurant called "FARMbloomington" where head chef Daniel Orr uses seasonal, local ingredients to make culinary creations that leave your taste buds singing and dancing with delight. I literally drooled when my vegetable plate arrived, covered with seven different samples ranging from teriyaki portobello mushrooms to butternut squash topped with a pumpkin puree and goat cheese. Everything tasted absolutely wonderful. As we closed out the restaurant at 11 p.m., polishing off a piece of pumpkin pie drizzled with caramel sauce, the essence of "slow food" captured the moment - appreciating the local bounty with the people you love. This is something that should happen every day. Why settle for chemically infused dressing and hormone injected poultry? And those plastic coated zucchini? I think you can see where this is going.

The message: Eat real food with authentic respect.

A little bit of my inspiration. Watch it and let me know what you think:

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Keeping it simple

Have you ever looked at a 5-year-old beauty pageant contestant, seen their abundance of sparkles, curls, and a thick layer of makeup, and thought, "She looks like she's trying to be something she's not - it's too much!" Underneath the sequin dress and mess of hair sprayed locks is a little girl whose cheeks turn bright red when she runs outside in the cold and would rather jump in mud puddles than burst onto the fashion scene. Her natural beauty as a 5-year-old far outshines the excessive glamour of the pageant queen she's portraying.

Just like these young, over-glamorized toddlers, certain "gourmet" dishes exude a sense of elite sophistication as they display an arrangement of wild ingredients surrounded by a host of edible decorations. Hiding somewhere beneath the gastronomic creation is a simple, elementary food, which maintains a distinct beauty in its own right. So why, I ask, must we seek to complicate our meals with superfluous additions instead of highlighting the true flavor of a single or few ingredients?

On Thursday, I made a dish that contained five ingredients. I made a Margherita pizza - pillows of mozzarella cheese, slices of crimson Roma tomatoes and fresh basil leaves atop a homemade pizza crust drizzled with olive oil. There was nothing complicated to this dish - no need to crowd the dough with other vegetables, cheeses or meats, no need to sprinkle on an array of spices. As we sank our teeth into our first slice, the tomato and mozzarella gushed inside our mouths as we closed our eyes and imagined we were dining in Napoli. This simple dish took little time to prepare and was not intimidating in the slightest. We didn't need the royal cavalcade of the Italian Cioppino to excite our stomachs; between five fresh ingredients, we could think of nothing more satisfying.

Too often we come across a recipe that sends shivers down our spine - tipped off by the two hour preparation time, the endless list of rare and unusual ingredients, accompanied by six paragraphs of instructions, is enough to send one into a culinary heart attack. Instead of trying to create a flashy meal, why not emphasize the true, brilliant taste of a few simple ingredients? Ready for another challenge? Why not try turning less into more... now that's a real art.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A little less talk, a little more conversation

"Isn't this great/pleasant/unusual/horrible weather we've been having?" ... If someone centers the conversation around weather one more time, I just might sink my face into my plate of spaghetti. Now, maybe that's a little harsh, but I'd like to point out that constantly falling back on surface level conversation rarely leaves anyone feeling a greater sense of purpose or self discovery. Has remaking about the dreary cloud cover ever challenged your opinion about politics, caused you to question your core values or inspired you to learn more about another culture? ... I'm guessing not. So why don't we bring the art of conversation back into the equation?

Spotlight - the family table. Some of my favorite memories center around dinnertime when my Dad and I would talk about exciting things in the future, a project to help the community or what it means to be successful. Sometimes, the conversations were ones that probed my belief system, challenging what I viewed to be the best scenario when my Dad saw things differently. Between bites of baguette with olive tapanade and mouthfuls of almond crusted tilapia, we journeyed across a range of subjects which induced the occasional fit of laughter and even provoked tears. I'm not suggesting that every meal should revolve around a heart-wrenching conversation, but what a difference it would make it families and friends saw dinnertime as a hour when you were free to express your unanswered questions, debate current events and process your emotions when someone made you feel insignificant!

This past Friday, I shared a delicious homemade dinner with my friend Rebekah, along with my Uncle Chuck and his close friend Carleen. Earlier that afternoon, my cousin Lea and I discussed what we felt to be the definition of a man and a woman, and whether these characteristics are innate or imposed by society. Our conversation inspired so many points of direction that I decided to pose the same questions of discussion at dinner that evening. After we covered our plates with an array of fish and roasted vegetables, I presented the topic of conversation. Talk about a new meaning for "food for thought"!

The conversation danced throughout the night, covering topics of stereotypes, homosexuality, religion, ignorance, violence, the Crusades and 9/11. As I ate forkfulls of roasted zucchini, my mind was ablaze with thoughts of what femininity means to women around the world. Does an Afghani woman view herself as subjugated or mysterious when she wears a chador? Have these women always felt the need to disclose their physicality from men, or did that come with the rise of patriarchal institutions? As we sat around the table, the dinner became much more than a time to eat good food, but transformed into a time where I was fortunate enough to learn about the insights of my company and even forced to examine my own beliefs. We all enjoyed the food, but it was the conversation that made the evening memorable.

Dinnertime can be much more than a heaping plate of meat and potatoes; it can become the foundation of philosophical discussions, the birthplace of your new found respect for the Dalai Lama, or heck, the start of your endless journey of of asking too many questions. Even if you end up talking with your mouthful for a few minutes, I think it's well worth the risk.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A little time for a lot of good

There are 24 hours in a day, 168 hours in a week and about 8,766 hours in a year. Most of us spend a significant amount of that time sleeping, attending classes or work, commuting and participating in various activities. How much of that time do you spend eating a meal with someone where you actually sit down at a table, without the distractions of television and other media, and carry on a conversation while eating a home-cooked meal? Chances are, if you're wracking your brain trying to think of the last time you spent an evening at the kitchen table, it's been too long.

In the age of Martha Stewart and a host of other chefs who whip out "picture perfect" culinary masterpieces, it's no wonder that some may be intimidated to crack open a cookbook or explore the spices they've had in their pantry for the last 10 years. With food, there is no end to the list of possible creations ... which is why I find food so intriguing and wonderful! Yet, because cooking lends itself to so many different directions, it can be an intimidating activity to jump into. When flipping through the pages of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child's description of how to julienne a carrot or braise an onion might make one's head spin. "Is there a difference between an eggplant and an aubergine?" you might ask. "Oh screw it! This is too complicated!" ... and that's it. You close the book and set it back on the shelf to collect dust as if has since the day you bought it when you were feeling particularly in touch with your inner chef.

Most have either a romantic or chaotic image of cooking. What stigma you have attached to the art may dictate how you choose to spend your meals: eating at a restaurant, grabbing a Big Mac from McDonald's, sitting alone with a bowl of Cheerios or serving bowls of your new pasta primavera recipe to your next door neighbors. Which one are you?

If you desire to be part of that last image - to enjoy that sense of communion with your family, friends, and heck, even strangers, all it takes is a little time and commitment. The amount of time you need to prepare part of a meal and share it with others, when compared to how many hours we have each day, week and year, is relatively small. Think about the large chunks of time you set aside to work on a paper, practice for a triathlon or spend driving from your house to work each day. Shouldn't you give an equally important part of your day doing something that adds to your physical, psychological and emotional well being? To this I propose a challenge... can you spend at least one night a week where you commit to spend an hour creating a new dish and then share it with someone? If we can't manage to spare the time to do that, then I think we have some bigger issues to examine.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

It must be a sign

Sometimes there are moments in life where you know there must be a higher power guiding you along your path. Saturday night, I had an experience to remind me of just that.

After I made my dinner, a somewhat uninspired bean burrito and salad, I picked up the remote and turned on the TV for the third time since I began living here in August. I was searching for the Oregon vs. Stanford football game, but happened to stumble upon a program where a man was talking about Tuscany. The mention of anything Italian was enough for me to put down the remote and watch whatever he was talking about.

The screen began to fill with images of wine, crumbly almond cookies dusted in powdered sugar and slices of creamy white lardo - aged pork fat, which everyone seemed to agree was decisively delicious. As I swallowed the last bite of my faux Mexican dinner, the host joined in with a Tuscan family as they sat down to feast in celebration of the harvest (what a contrast to my current meal!). He went into a beautiful description of the Italian family table - that while there are individual place settings, glasses and chairs, there is only one table - the central object that links these people together. For Italians, he stressed, sitting down to eat a meal at the family table is not an uncommon sight - in fact, it is a key value in Italian society. Eating a meal together is a very communal experience, one which involves interaction among generations as they pass down the traditions from their family's past. Eating together is a time when children learn how to interact with adults, a time where they not only learn etiquette, but also the importance of building strong and healthy relationships.

I sat there on the edge of my seat as if I was going to jump into the television set and sit down to partake in this remarkable family gathering. How wonderful to know that there are communities that value something I consider to be one of the highlights of the human experience! As I prepare to travel to Florence for my study abroad experience, I can't help but think that there is a reason why I have such a strong pull to go to Italy. For me, this experience will be more than just an opportunity to live in a beautiful city filled with so much wonderful history - it will be my chance to live in a place where family, and sharing in communion at the family table, is a core principal in their daily lives. Seeing that image modeled on the TV screen on Saturday night was just another way of God telling me, "Taylor, I'm sending you to the right place - a place where you can heal, where you can see and experience a beautiful meaning of family."

January, when I arrive, I'll be ready with my bags packed, stomach hungry and heart waiting to be filled with the love of the Italian family.

Here is a link to Burt Wolf's segment on the Italian Family Table:

Sunday, September 26, 2010

In defense of the most important meal

I'm one of those people you love to hate. Why? ... I'm a morning person.

I know some of my friends share my sentiments, but I absolutely love waking up to realize that I've been blessed with another beautiful day. Sure, sometimes there are days when I know there is a lot coming down the pike - tests, papers, meetings - but I can't help but think of all of the possibilities that exist with the dawn of each new day.

Maybe the most fun part about waking up - and I hope most will agree with this obsession - is that mornings equal breakfast! Just think of all the amazing breakfast foods: oatmeal, pancakes, fruit and yogurt, fresh orange juice, coffee, scones, omelets ... I could go on for a very long time (drooling the entire way). From this short list that doesn't even begin to scratch the surface when it comes to breakfast related meals, it's easy to see why God put this meal at the beginning of our day - to give us something exciting to think about as soon as we step out of bed.

A wonderful quality about breakfast is that it makes people happy. Have you ever seen a child cry at the sight of a Belgian waffle topped with succulent red strawberries atop a pillow of fluffy whipped cream? Have you ever heard a man groan when he sits down to eat a hot cinnamon roll dressed in a silky-smooth coat of icing? Honestly, what I'm describing right now is downright food porn!

Unlike actual porn, eating breakfast is something that you never have to hide or be ashamed of. In fact, I think I would be quite delighted to eat breakfast foods for almost every lunch and dinner. Tonight was one such example. In the spirit of communion and in support of the Colts football game against the Broncos, my church parents and I, along with a group of their friends, decided to make breakfast for dinner. Each of us made a favorite breakfast treat to bring to our gathering. Janene made a french toast casserole. Denny and Kim made an omelet with ground turkey, spinach and mushrooms. Jenni, our hostess, made oatmeal and chocolate biscuits. I made fruit and yogurt parfaits. As you can tell, we had a smorgasbord of options. As we gathered to pray before serving ourselves, I could tell that everyone was eager to heap our plates with a taste of each breakfast masterpiece.

In a nutshell, breakfast doesn't have to be complicated. Starting off your day with eating breakfast is a way of showing respect to your body. If you want to be a person who is passionate, who serves others (and yourself), you have to put fuel on the fire from the moment you rise out of bed; and that, my friend, is done by the simple act of eating breakfast.

Maybe tomorrow, maybe a day later this week, I challenge you to breakfast... or rather, to break-slow, to break for your health, to break for reflection, to break for the start of a new day full of limitless possibility.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A taste of my roots

I wouldn't naturally position folk music in a food-related self discovery, but after feeling the sensations brought on by the band Crooked Still, I would say their lyrical sound melted into the essence of my family table image.

On Saturday night, I stood in front of the Lifecycle stage at Bloomington's Lotus World Music & Art Festival, my ears captured by the plinky tune of the banjo and the undulating sounds coming from the cello. When lead singer Aoife O'Donovan began to sing, her mellow yet passionate voice took me on a journey. Guided by the dancing rhythms that sailed from the fiddle, the music began to unlock part of my heart and open me to a longing I never knew I had. My head nodded and my hips swung side to side as a smile crept across my face and stayed for the rest of the evening. I closed me eyes and was instantly transported to the heartland.

While the heartland conjures images of the rural Midwest, (where I happen to be going to school) I think that it is a place where the boundaries of nature and man meet and live in equanimity. The heartland I was experiencing, elicited by the bluegrass swing, was a place where I could see my family - my Dad tossing rocks into the cold and glassy creek; my grandfather looking his wife in the eyes as they sat under the stars at night; my great grandfather treading through the forests of Nicaragua to help cure a dying man. This land, this space, while evolving, is a place where I imagine my family growing, laughing, giving, loving. My heartland is enveloped in the roots of my past, which extend to generations of men and women whom I have never met but feel embraced each other with an unconditional love.

It has been almost eight years since I last saw my mother, more than eight years since I can remember my parents showing their love in a romantic way, eight years since I have been able to introduce my parents to my friends. It's now over two years since I last kissed my dad and wished him a good day at work, two years since I tossed the football with him in the backyard, two years since we stayed up late talking about our dreams. These days I find that I am so hungry to have parents, to reach out to them, to feel, really feel their love by just their mere presence.

It is this hunger that grew within me as I stood before the stage listening to Crooked Still. Their music seemed to be luring me into my past, to untangle my roots and acknowledge a past that sometimes seems less painful if I just forgot it was even there. The sounds churned within me a desire to reach inside my family's ancestry and find the stories of the people I've descended from.

As I sit down at the table each night for dinner, it is this same heartland that I feel a longing to revive - to create a presence where I feel a love and warmth, where I feel apart of a family. While my family might not have come from a people who played the banjo or danced around the magical sounds of the fiddle, I couldn't help but feel that this music was a sound from my loved ones, whispering to me that there is a "hole in the middle", a hunger that can only be filled through the magic of communion.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

My Dinner Table

Communion: an act or instance of sharing.

When I think of my Dad, one of the first things that comes to mind was his love of cooking and having dinner parties. Every night, I was always eager to see what he had roasting in the over or sauteing on the stove. The house would fill with the clatter of pots and pans and scents of onion and garlic would guide my grumbling stomach downstairs towards the table.

Our table was long and made from dark wood that was textured as if someone had taken a mallet and whacked it hundreds of times. Running my hands over its surface, it felt as if it had been around for centuries ... I'm sure that's what World Market was thinking when they manufactured it - some young girl hoping that her relatives in Scotland had sat around its edges every night, gobbling down their turkey and sipping ale ... well, that's a vision I am happy to keep.

This table was the scene of countless meals: my Dad and I slicing into a tender pork chop topped with grilled onions and a tangy lime dressing; me and my high school friends diving into bowls of pasta salad and chili that we made for a potluck; the extra-spicy, ignite your tongue on fire jambalaya that my Dad made with triple the spices ... us flinging towels to our guests to blot the sweat off their foreheads. But most importantly, this table is where my Dad and I shared our daily happenings, our embarrassing stories, plans for the weekend, travel dreams, what brought us joy, what was hurting us - how our actions hurt each other.

Regardless of the night, our family table was always a place of communion. There was no grab-and-go frozen dinner, no taking the food to our own rooms, no watching TV. Dinner time was special. The food, while usually delicious, was arbitrary. The conversation, the company, the relationships that were cultivated ... that was everything.

Every time I see a kitchen or dining room table, I always wonder how the empty space will transform that coming evening. Will it remain empty? Will it be buzzing with kids stuffing their face with mac and cheese, speaking with mouths full asking "what's for dessert?" Will it be shared by a husband and wife? Will it be a space of learning and sharing? Will it be a table for one?

Right now, my family table morphs from each day to the next. Yes, there is the table I eat most of my meals at in the condo I'm staying in at college ... but that doesn't feel like my family table. Right now, my family table sits in the house of Tom and Alma, a couple who lives out by the lake I used to row on every morning at 6 a.m.; it sits in my God parents' house in Florida on the island of Longboat Key; it sits in Ft. Smith, Arkansas at my aunt and uncle's house that overlooks the Arkansas River. In truth, my family table is wherever I create and share a meal with those I love and care for. While I do miss that sense of having one table that I can truly call my family table, I can't help but feel blessed that I have family tables scattered throughout Bloomington, Portland and all over the country.

Communion and the family table - two words that will forever be connected in my mind. A shared experience and a place where it can manifest. I don't believe there is any place more sacred.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Paella Perfecta!

The Paella Project - an idea 3 years in the making

After a conversation in Spanish V three years ago, the dream of having a paella dinner finally came to fruition. With an open mind and little expectations, we came armed with fresh vegetables and spices, and hoped the sounds of Rodrigo and Gabriella would lure out our Spanish flare.

At first, the directions seemed intimidating ... how on earth do you peel a tomato with massacring it? Blanch green beans ... do they mean bleach? After a little help from, we quickly learned that both techniques were legitimate culinary processes and that chefs conquered these tasks in their sleep - but the true test ... could three 20-year-olds take on the challenge? With a ladle we surged tomatoes into a pot of boiling water and then with ninja like precision, plopped each tomato into a bowl of ice water. With skeptical thoughts, we took hold of the tomatoes, wondering if we would be able to peel them ... and low and behold, the tomatoes undressed themselves like a hooker in a Las Vegas hotel room.

Blanching the green beans, rather similar to the tomato peeling, proved to be an even easier task. From the boiling water to the ice water, we soon began to boast that blanching was our new favorite cooking technique and one that we preformed rather well.

The rest of the steps were interspersed with laughter and conversation until we read that once all ingredients were combined, there was to be no stirring of the paella until it was ready to be served. The statement caused us to reel in shock and horror ... not stir the paella ... wouldn't the poor ingredients need some help in intermingling, after all, it is such a large pan and how could the rice not need a little assistance traveling through the broth to meet their fellow comrades? Despite our nerves, we decided that we must attempt to keep our hands off the paella until it was time to eat.

Well, our need to check on the progress of our prize creation got the best of us - that's right, we did the paella "no-no". We stirred. But, after the 45 minutes it took to absorb all of the delicious broth, it still looked and smelled like paella... yet until it reached our lips, we were unsure of our culinary success.

With the paella spooned into large white bowls, we sat down at the candle lit table and squeezed lemon wedges over our steaming cuisine. With forks in hand, we closed our eyes and sampled our creation.

The cayenne pepper tingled our taste buds - the green beans crunched between our teeth - the artichoke hearts glided across our tongues and the tomatoes burst flavorful juices amidst a mouthful of saffron infused rice and vegetables. After three years of waiting, this, we soon realized, was heaven.

The evening progressed with "ohhs" and "ahhs" until we licked our bowls clean. The meal, far surpassing our expectations, is soon to become our newest tradition. I can only imagine that when any one of us peels a tomato, blanches green beans or hesitates to stir the simmering paella, we will think back to our first experience and remember that sweet taste of success, our Spanish paella.

- Taylor Smith 7.3.2010