Intentionally Intentional

For many years I subscribed to a daily inspirational email. In the beginning the short emails were centered around general Zen Buddhism, moral and spiritual concepts, and occasionally, new age thinkings. They were useful, and they made me stop to think and reflect on my daily actions. But as the years went by, the author’s impetus to monetize manifested, and the daily missives were mixed with offers of online courses on subjects beyond spirituality. Nonsurgical facelift, seven day cleanse and joint health online courses are, I suppose, forms of physical self-improvements that could lead to a more meaningful life spiritually. But as they say, nothing’s ever truly free, especially online. Someone’s got to pay for all the sage advice being pumped out to thousands of loyal subscribers. So now I mostly skim over the first few sentences, then hit delete.

This morning however, the subject line caught my eye: Intent. Something meaty and useful. I eagerly read the email in its entirety. The gist of the message was that we should focus and do things each day, one at a time, with intent, instead of multitasking and mindlessly going through the motions. All good, right? Being mindful and present in all situations big and small, important and mundane – the hallmark of Zen Buddhist practice. In fact, the author claims that intent has the power to transform seemingly mundane tasks into profound experiences. Well sign me up for that!

The concluding paragraph offered a simple tool to use throughout the day to practice intent. Simply say over and over to yourself:  “I am aware that I am …..[insert action or thing]…”.  So you’d say, “I am aware that I am awake,”  “I am aware that I am breathing,”  “I am aware that I am making breakfast,” and so on. Easy enough. I had a lot of errands to run that morning, and I was determined to do them with the utmost intent.

Away We Intentionally Go!

So off to the Lotto international market I go. I hop in my car and I am aware that my car is really, really filthy.  When was the last time that I drove to a carwash? 2018 was it? Some time before the Covid shutdown, I think. Good grief.

Pulling out of the garage, I am aware of a most foul stench. It’s not emanating from my poor unwashed car, I don’t think. Or is it? Did I forget to take out that takeout bag of leftovers on the floorboard again? Looking around, I am aware that there is a big dead frog on the driveway. It looks mangled, probably by the resident fox or hawk, and I am aware that I feel sad for the expired uneaten frog. I’m also aware that I feel relieved that it was not flattened. That meant that I didn’t run over and killed it, which would make me feel even more terrible. It would also make my car even that much dirtier.

I’m acutely aware that the dead frog carcass smells really, really acrid. Maybe my hubby will take care of it before I return home, if he is aware of it, that is. I’m aware that I haven’t even left home yet and I’m already starting off my morning with negative attitudes, and I vow to myself to be more aware of my sarcasm and to try to be more positive, like my blood type. Hey self, B-positive, ok? I’m aware that I’m relieved that my blood type is not B-negative, because, well, you know…. I’m aware that there is no proven correlation between blood type and attitude, but my irrational monkey brain disagreed.

Driving along, I am aware that I have no cell coverage in my neighborhood. I’ll have to text hubby about the stinking dead frog when I get to the store. I am aware that I have impaired short term memory so I’ll probably forget to text him when I get there. I hope that he notices the stench and disposes the dead frog carcass before my return. I’m expecting a package today and the Fedex guy will find any excuse not to timely deliver, including bad traffic and road construction and the war in Ukraine, according to his text. Seriously? At least this time the smelly frog is dead unlike the last time when our resident, very alive, rat snake Speedy G was sunning on the sidewalk. That’s no excuse though, he could have just stepped around the snake or left the package by the gate. I am aware that I am getting annoyed at the *possibility* of being annoyed by the Fedex guy, and I pause to mentally swat at my monkey brain.

Cresting the hill, I am aware of a flock of bluebirds that seem to always fly out in front of my car whenever I pass by. I am aware of the joy in my heart and I break into a grin. I slow down my car and greet them and I wonder if they do the same for everyone who drives by, like a welcome committee of sorts. Maybe next time I’ll remember to ask them.


Looking ahead, I am aware that the weird neighbor down the road has a flock of sheep in his front yard. Whaaaat??? That’s weird. Well come to think of it maybe not so weird for Great Falls. People in this town have chickens, horses and goats in their yards, so why not sheep? The former neighbor behind our house used to keep zebras and gazelles in his backyard, after all, in the same space as his helicopter that he buzzes over our house and pilots into town for lunch. Ok that’s weird too. I stopped my car and scanned for more farm animals. What happened to the chickens in the kiddie playpen by the fire pit? I am aware that they are missing. I am also aware that there are many foxes, coyotes, and hawks in our woods. Perhaps the hens are safely tucked inside his garage. Or wandering around the neighborhood with the local gang of wild turkeys. Perhaps he got the sheep to protect his hens. Regardless, weird neighbor.

Leaving our neighborhood, I am aware that I am annoyed that the turn lanes on Seneca Road are blocked again. I am aware that this is out of my control and that I should not be annoyed, but I continue to be annoyed anyway.  I am aware that honking the horn of my dirty car at the offending fancy car will not make him move up and out of the way, because there is nowhere to go until the light turns green, but I blare the horn anyway. I am aware that I feel a lot less annoyed.

I am aware that people drive way too fast on Route 7. I am aware that I am *occasionally* one of those people. I slow down.  I am aware that the sun is shining. I am aware that I am smiling but my head is hot from the sun and the chemo pill and the other pill that blocks the side effects of the chemo pill but has its own side effect of sun sensitivity. Sigh. I am aware that there are cops hiding in the median. I’m glad I slowed down.

My car comes to a stop at the red light at the end of the exit ramp. I am aware that the adjacent black muscle car with pointy shiny spikes on the tire rims is pumping out really loud rap music, and the deep groovy bass is making my dirty car windows vibrate. I intentionally roll down my dusty window to fully appreciate his tricked out audio amplification and sub woofers. I am aware that I, in fact, know the lyrics to this broadcasted tune with the naughty words! I begin to nod my head to the thumping beats and sing along joyfully, cuss words and all. I am aware that the machismo brother in the muscle car appeared to be absolutely mortified that the grey haired housewife Asian lady in the adjacent unwashed SUV is rocking her head and singing along. In sync and in tune, I might add. Perhaps his choice of music was not as tough and offensive as he thought? Perhaps did I just make him feel uncool? Awww too bad. I am aware of a little smirk creeping up the corner of my still rapping mouth. The light turns green and he hurriedly roars off. I hope he doesn’t get a speeding ticket. I wonder if he is aware that there are a lot of traffic cops out today. He would have, if only he was more intentional in his driving. Just saying, hehe.


The trip continues mostly on autopilot. Nothing really interesting or uninteresting to be aware of, despite my best intentions to be more intentional. I pull my grimy car into the bustling shopping center and am immediately aware of the absolute mayhem in the Lotto parking lot. A dizzying array of cars. Vans. Unattended shopping carts. Squabbling kids. Angry parents. Grandparents with canes. All in the middle of the road. Moving haphazardly or not at all. Oh good grief. Why did I go shopping on a school holiday? Because I was unintentional and thusly unaware, that’s why. Shame on me.

Stuck in the chaos, I am aware of my rising tension. I suppress my urge to shout something snarky to the hombre in the unmarked beat up white van blocking the fire lane in front of the store. Like he is just sitting there without a care in the world listening to mariachi and blocking traffic! I mutter something about this ain’t no eff-ing Guadalajara under my breath but then I feel guilty and insensitive. My guilt lasts a few seconds, until the big dark sunglasses woman in the clean black Mercedes behind me honks her horn. Like where am I supposed to move my car, beetch? I’m blocked on all sides, give me a break! You run over that old geezer in the middle of the road if you’re in such a hurry.

I’m aware that I’m feeling annoyed yet again, and that awareness further annoys me. I am aware that I get annoyed at irritable things. A whole lot. But that’s because there are a lot of irritable things in this world – that’s not my fault is it. I vow to try to be less annoyed and to try to avoid things that annoy me. I reason to myself that even if I did say something and mouth off, the rude dude in the traffic blocking van in front of me and the impatient wench behind me would probably pretend that they don’t understand English anyway. And I’m aware that I know that they do. And that just pisses me off. It’s *so* annoying.

I finally get out of the logjam and find a parking space far away from the madness. As I approach the store, I am aware of a group of helmet haired proselytizing ladies prowling the parking lot. Uh oh. They are handing out free brochures to everyone they accost. I tried to avoid them but I am stymied by the triangulation of the beat up unmarked mariachi white van still blocking the fire lane on one side, Mr. Magoo in stylish tunic and sandals hacking up a storm (Covid? Hookah addict? Tuberculosis? Avoid! Avoid!) on the other side, and a row of unattended grocery carts directly in front of me. Gaaagh! Trapped!

I am aware of the familiar feeling of claustrophobia spreading in my tightening chest, and I am also aware of my…. what’s that? Oh, annoyance. I try to let it roll off. I take a deep calming breath but this momentary panic attack caused me to become unaware and cornered. One of the helmet haired ladies cracked a Cheshire smile before offering me a brochure, but I clasped my hands behind my back before she could shove it my way and then I politely declined. No. Thank. You. Followed by a meek smile. Before I could make my getaway another proselytizing helmet haired lady blocked my path and asked me if I had found Jesus? I told her that I wasn’t aware that Jesus was missing, but that if I ran into him I will be sure to tell him that she was looking for him. I am aware that she seemed at loss for words, and I took advantage of her confusion to quickly wave “bye!” before darting toward the store.

Signs, Signs

I am aware of a neatly printed sign prominently taped in front of the entrance to the store. I feel surprised that I have never noticed this sign before. Perhaps I was not as intentional in my previous shopping forays. The sign read: “We are not responsible for injuries resulting from the wearing of sandals on the premises.” Well that certainly gave me pause. That’s some pretty good legalese right there. I am aware that I am wearing flip flops and that, in fact, I wear flip flops most days. I like my little piggies free. I am aware that being run over by a grocery cart or hand truck while wearing flip flops may cause grave injuries. I wonder what kind of lawsuits must have triggered such a warning sign, and what kind of sandal wearing individual would file such a claim. I was never aware that wearing sandals while shopping was such a bold risky move, but here we are.

As I entered the store, I am aware that James Brown is singing loudly over the piped music system. Ow! I wonder what bored but bold and underpaid assistant manager selected the music for this particular store. What was he or she thinking? Was it intentional? Does upbeat music make people shop faster and buy more? Like how they play high bpm music in restaurants to turn the tables faster? I began to laugh and smile and bop and sing while pushing my grocery cart. Get up, get on up! Get up, get on up! Other customers join in, dancing and nodding their heads – little kids, a bald corpulent middle eastern gent, a distinguished old Indian lady in a gorgeous blue sari. I am aware that they are probably not aware that the other chorus to JB’s ‘Get Up’ is: “stay on the scene like a sex machine.” In fact, I don’t think that they understood the lyrics at all, except for the counting off part, when they happily counted per JB’s prompt: go ahead, “one two three four!”.

I am aware of a little baby in a stroller staring at me dancing with my cart. I wink at her and she giggles while I sang away. I got mine (dig it!), he got his… At that moment I am aware that music is a universal language, and that it’s hard to resist a really tight horn section, no matter who you are.

Bouncing left past the French-Vietnamese bakery run by Korean and Hispanic bakers, I am aware of the myriad seasonal fruits and veggies and just piles and piles of foodstuffs everywhere on the floor, in no particular order. I am aware of my ADD brain going haywire, and I try to focus on the nearest table to regain my bearing. The table was stacked high with bright yellow papayas labeled “Hawaiian Papayas”. The country of origin on the label was Mexico. I am aware that this Mexican grown Hawaiian papaya is probably not really Hawaiian if it’s grown in Mexico, but I don’t bother complaining to anyone about it. I intentionally refused to be annoyed by it.

I head over the the rows of vegetables, intentionally picking through a pile of wilted watercress looking for a decent bunch. A handwritten sign that I have never noticed before was taped overhead. It warned shoppers, “for sanitary reasons”, not to pick up vegetables with bare hands. We are to put the provided plastic bags over our hands before touching the vegetables. I am aware that absolutely no one, including myself, was following this rule. I wonder if this sign had been here since the massive scare when we all thought we could catch Covid and die from touching contaminated produce, and I’m aware that I’m glad that I didn’t. It would be terribly embarrassing (in the afterlife), after surviving all these catastrophes and deadly illnesses, only to perish from something seemingly benign like touching lettuce. Besides, it’s hard to disinfect produce with Lysol. Ruins the taste completely. Not that that has stopped some people. Just saying.


Across the aisle, I spy a huge pile of shiny purply fruit, and I am aware of my racing heart and total excitement. Muscadines! In Virginia! In October! What miracle is this? The purple muscadines were mislabeled as “muscats” (which are primarily yellow, by the way, and not purple), and I am aware that the store struggles with signage. I began stuffing my bag with this ambrosial wonder, picking the biggest and firmest fruits. I filled one bag and began filling a second. I am aware that this borders on gluttony but I do not care.

I am aware of two curious ladies and a grandpa intensely watching me bare handedly prod, probe and intentionally select the plumpest and purplest muscadines from the pile. I wonder if they are upset at me for not wearing the plastic bag gloves as the sign directed. One of the ladies asked me in broken English what muscats taste like. I told her they weren’t muscats but muscadines, and that the signage was wrong. I wanted to tell her that they taste like my childhood in Georgia, traipsing in my red dirt stained rubber flip flops through scratchy briars in the humid late summer with my bff, scanning the scrubby pine forest floor for fallen purple marbles of slightly sweet and bracingly tart wild muscadines. I wanted to say all that, and how special this humble little fruit was to me because of all the warm memories it conjures up in my heart, but I am aware that they probably wouldn’t understand and conclude that I’m weird. So I told them it tasted like grapes. Muscat grapes, to be precise, just like the sign said.

The old man picks out a plump muscadine and pops one in his mouth. He chews and winces and then swallows, peel and seeds and all. He pronounced them grapes. Sour grapes. Both ladies sampled too then nodded in agreement. A lot of people sample in this store. It’s wrong, but it’s normal. I am aware that none of them took a shine to the thick skinned, bitter seeded “muscat”. But that’s ok – that means more for me haha. I am aware that I failed to mention to them that you are supposed to spit out the peel and seeds. I feel a little guilty about withholding this tidbit of vital information on proper consumption of muscadines. The peel is tough and tart and the seeds are tannic and nasty. I am aware of my ulterior motive. I didn’t want to see them spit, especially when there was no trash can nearby. I was afraid that they’d toss the masticated peels and seeds back onto the fruit pile or onto the slick floor, where sandal wearing folks like me might slip on them and become gravely injured like we were warned at the entrance. I am aware that I am making some pretty bad assumptions about people I don’t even know, and I vow to be more open minded next time. But spitting out chewed up fruit is just gross and unsanitary, so intentionally withholding information was really not as bad as it seemed and was indeed my intention all along, and I’m sticking to it, judgy or not.

Lessons Learned

I’m aware that I’m not even half way through my first store, and already all this intentional shopping is quashing my monkey brain and making my head hurt. I decide to wrap it up and call it a day. I texted hubby about the dead frog but he was already aware of the stench and had already tossed the poor stinking thing into the woods with a shovel without my asking him to do so. I am aware that my hubby is such a gem, and I vow to generously share my hoard of muscadines with him.

On my drive home I reflected on the awareness exercise. It’s really hard to be intentional about every. single. thing. It’s just exhausting to sustainably focus that long, especially with an ADD brain that is constantly distracted by every little stimuli. I understand now why monks spend their entire lives working on this one practice of doing each task with singular intention. The heightened awareness that comes with being so keenly focused on doing everything with intention amplifies both the good and the bad, the highs and the lows, the emotional and the sublime, and exposes hidden biases and tendencies. It’s been eye opening, for sure, and I thought I was pretty good with mindfulness, but I was wrong. I still have a lot to learn. With daily awareness practice I hope to become better at noticing and acknowledging my inner feelings and regulating them to lessen my self-induced stress that some has labeled as OCD. I can focus on intentionally spreading more joy and happiness too. For now though, I intend to do some serious bingeing on that pile of luscious muscadines, and then go wash my car. With much intention, of course.

Pumpkin Spice This!

You can’t escape it. It’s everywhere. Pumpkin spiced latte, pumpkin spice bread, pumpkin spice air freshener, pumpkin spice candles, pumpkin spice deodorant. No. Seriously. How did we get here?

Pumpkin spiced spice tea. A bit redundant, no?
Pumpkin spiced spice tea. A bit redundant, no?

It started out innocently enough. Ahhh. The aroma and harbinger of Fall. Pumpkin spices equal pumpkin pies equal Thanksgiving. “Pumpkin spice” is basically the same spice mix as that used in apple pie: ground cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, plus extra ginger and clove.

Pumpkin by itself is pretty bland and not particularly aromatic. No one has ever proclaimed, “Oh you smell as lovely as a ripe pumpkin,” or picked up a pumpkin and gushed, “This pumpkin smells soooo divine!”

Standing in a field of pumpkins. Smell anything? Me neither.
Standing in a field of pumpkins. Smell anything? Me neither.

With such a lackluster leading star, pumpkin pies just demand more spices than apple pies. The pumpkin pie spices predominate. They become the de facto star of the pie, a coup d’état over the vapid pumpkin. Later at some point the word “pie” got dropped because, well, you know, it isn’t really about pies anymore. And that’s the genesis of pumpkin spice.

Pumpkin pie spice cracker is a mouthful.
Pumpkin pie spice cracker is a mouthful. Pumpkin & Spice sounds better, even if there is no actual pumpkin in it.

The spice world stayed dull for a while until Starbucks decided to make pumpkin spice lattes. They were so wildly popular that shortages ensued. Then all hell broke loose and copy-catters rushed to pumpkin spice everything nice. Good grief.

Pumpkin spice sparkling apple cider. What were they drinking?
Pumpkin spice sparkling apple cider. What were they drinking?

The ubiquitous pumpkin spice we see and smell today is but a shell of the original cinnamon-ginger-allspice-clove. It’s fake Franken-spice, more powerful than its earlier incarnation, created in a secret lab by white coat wearing flavor scientists. It’s stronger and longer lasting. It screams in all caps: “I AM PUMPKIN SPICE AND I WILL NOT BE IGNORED!” It’s an aberration. An abomination. And it’s in freaking everything.

The only real spice listed on the ingredient label? Paprika. Hmmmm.
The only spice listed on the ingredient label? Paprika. Hmmmm.

Last week someone spilled an entire cup of pumpkin spice latte in the stairwell of the parking garage in Reston Town Center and just left the whole mess there. We had to gingerly step over pools of pumpkin-spiciness slowly oozing down the steps. The enclosed stairwell made the pungent faux pumpkin spices all the more unbearable. It was not a good beginning to date night.

That's what the stairwell reeked of: fake pumpkin. Hello?
That’s what the stairwell reeked of: fake pumpkin. Hello?

When we returned to the garage after dinner the mess was mopped up but the steps were still sticky from the sugary pumpkin-ness. And the stairwell was rank with the fake sweet smell of pumpkin spice.

“I bet this fake pumpkin spice smell will still be here next week,” I said to hubby. And it was. A week later it was date night again and we parked in the same garage, in his favorite parking space, and descended the same stairwell. The acrid smell of pumpkin spice and sour milk seeped out of the walls and enveloped us.

“I bet if I drank a pumpkin spice latte every day, when I die my body will still smell like pumpkin spice a year later,” I said. “Especially if I use that pumpkin spice deodorant too. Or maybe I’ll smell like burnt pumpkin spice if I’m cremated. What do you think?” Hubby did not find my pumpkin-spiced dead body to be an appropriate subject to discuss on date night. Especially before dinner.

Speaking of dinner – we had a lovely fall dinner: pumpkin filled raviolis with sage brown butter. I detected a hint of nutmeg in the dish but nothing on the level of pumpkin spiciness. The featured beer on tap? Pumpkin spice IPA. No, thanks. The featured dessert? Yep. Pumpkin spice cheesecake. I passed. Next week is Thanksgiving. An orgy of pumpkin spices await at every relatives’ tables. I don’t see pumpkin spices going away any time soon. Until maybe Spring. Let’s hope.

Punkin beer. Now you're taliking.
Punkin ale. Now you’re talking.

My Most Requested Recipe

Here it is, my all-time most requested recipe: Thai Chicken Coconut Soup (click here).  The soup is called Tom Kha in Thai, which translates to “boiled galangal”. The recipe is a bit detailed so read it completely through before starting. I’ve inserted links to selecting and prepping the fresh ingredients. Let me know in the Comments section if any section is confusing or unclear. This is a work in progress and feedback is helpful and welcomed.

Every Thai has his or her own version of chicken coconut soup. This is mine. I’ve made it for friends who need a warm food hug, family members who are ill, and most recently, last week’s teacher’s appreciation luncheon at my daughter’s school. Making it from scratch takes time and is a labor of love that I enjoy.

I’m also including a link here to the Fennel and Citrus Salad that I also made last week. It’s great with pastas or all on its own for a light Vegan lunch. I’ll post the Inferno Deviled Eggs recipe later this week on this website. For those who can’t wait, it’s basically the basic deviled eggs recipe, except you substitute spicy Dijon mustard for regular mayo, chopped cornichons for sour salad cubes, sweet hot chow-chow for sweet relish, and cayenne pepper for paprika. Stir in a good splash of Tabasco sauce and Korean Gochujang hot sauce and you’re set!

Cooking real food is not hard. It should be a pleasure, not a chore. Once you master the basic cooking skills and the nuances of cooking with fresh ingredients you won’t want to go back to the prepackaged processed stuff. I’m posting my recipes and detailed instructions on this website while teaching it to my daughter. Come along with us and let’s have fun.

Tent Worms are Back!

They’re everywhere this Spring. White silky tents in the crooks of tree branches, especially wild cherry trees. Inside the tent, hundreds of fuzzy caterpillars wriggle around, emerging in late morning to munch on the host tree and to putter on the ground. The Eastern tent caterpillar (Maladosoma americanum), or commonly tent worm, is back with a vengeance.

Fuzzy wuzzy was a tent worm.
Fuzzy wuzzy was a tent worm.

Your first reaction might be to grab the nearest can of insecticide and spray away, or to swat them onto the ground with a stick and stomp on them like I used to do, but please, don’t. These tent worms have been a part of our ecosystem for thousands of years and are an essential food source for local wildlife during the crucial breeding and nesting season when other sources are still scarce.

Yes, a particularly large colony of these fuzzy worms may denude your tree, but only temporarily. Tent worms only reproduce for one generation each year so the infested tree will have ample time to recover and leaf out again before summer. A pesky nuisance, but not a death sentence for the tree.

Tent worms crawl inside and outside their sticky poop-filled nest.
Tent worms crawl inside and outside their sticky poop-filled nest.

For years we gardeners thought that birds don’t care for fuzzy tent worms. Have you ever seen any birds pecking away at these sticky nests? Me either. But researchers at the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station have found otherwise. They documented over 60 bird species that eat tent worms, including local birds such as jays, orioles, nuthatches, and chickadees. Other species that eat tent worms (and the resultant adult moths) span the food chain, from insect predators and parasites to frogs, mice, bats, squirrels, skunks and even bears. Fun fact: researchers counted around 25,000 caterpillars in a day’s worth of a single bear’s poop. I wonder which lucky intern got that task?

This wild black cherry tree in our front yard is just crawling with tent worms.
This wild black cherry tree in our front yard is just crawling with tent worms. Compare the denuded branches in the back to the branches in the foreground still covered in leaves.

Remember too that chemical pesticides used to kill tent worms also indiscriminately kill other types of worms such as those of monarch butterflies and our native swallowtails. Predators and parasites who subsequently ingest these dead worms may also die, thereby inadvertently worsening the infestation. And when it rains these chemical pesticides wash into the soil and over time can degrade water quality – an important consideration when the majority of our community here is on well water.

So leave the tent worms for the birds and the bears. Summer’s only a few months away. The trees will recover just fine.

By late morning all the worms have left their silky tent for a day of feasting.
By late morning all the worms have left their silky tent for a day of feasting.


A Little Christmas Tale

“He comes down the chimney and leaves presents in your stocking! I’m telling you it’s true!” said Robin Blue Eyes.

“You’re making this up,” I replied. “Besides, there are no chimneys in Bangkok.”

“Well, he came to our flat last December, he did. His name is Santa and he brought me a shiny new top, all the way from England!”

“And how did he get to your flat?”

“By a flying sleigh pulled by reindeer. Reindeer look like water buffaloes with bigger horns, and they can fly.”

Robin Blue Eye’s story was getting more and more preposterous. Everybody in third grade knew that Robin likes to make up stories about England even though he was born in Thailand and has only been to England once to visit his grandparents.

“Ok then. I’ll ask my parents about Santa. They went to school in America and I’m sure if this Santa exists they would know about him.”

That evening I asked my mom about Santa. She assured me that no such person exists, and if he did, he wouldn’t visit Bangkok in December anyway because reindeer can’t fly through the winter monsoon rains. This explanation made sense to me, but still I wondered about how Robin got that fancy spinning top from England.

I didn’t give Santa another thought until December 24th. It was just another day at the International School but all the English and German kids returned home early. It was a warm sunny day and I thought of what Robin Blue Eyes and my mom had said about Santa.

What have I got to lose? If Santa really did exist maybe I can get a new toy from England too.

That night I searched for a stocking but the closest I could find was an old school sock with a large hole in the heel. There was no chimney in our house so I threw the sock on the top of my mosquito netting, the highest point in my bedroom.

“What are you doing?” asked my older sister J.

“Hanging up my stocking for Santa,” I replied.

“Santa doesn’t exist. Mom said so. You believe everything Robin says.”

Of course I did. Robin Blue Eyes was my first childhood crush so everything he said must be true. I stayed up late waiting for Santa but eventually succumbed to sleep.

The next morning I scrambled out of the mosquito netting and pulled the sock down. It was empty.

“I told you Santa doesn’t exist!” said my sister. “Now do you believe me?”

“No, I don’t. He does exist. But my sock had a hole in the bottom so his present must have fallen out.” And I truly did believe that for the longest time.

The following year we moved to America and Robin Blue Eyes left Bangkok for boarding school in England. As fate would have it, we met again thirty years later at a conference in Asia. He was still as charming as ever and his eyes were still as robin egg blue as ever.

I told Robin my story about Santa and he admitted to me that he knew all along that Santa didn’t exist, but he so wanted to believe the stories that his parents told him about England. And though I’m all grown up now, on Christmas Eve I always double-check just to make sure that all of our Christmas stockings are in tip-top shape with no holes in the bottom.

On a Wing and No Prayer

Loud popping noises. Staccato like machine guns firing. Then silence. I glance out over the wing and watch as sparks fly from the right engine. Seconds later a metallic scent wafts through the air.

We’re at cruising altitude somewhere east of the continental divide.

“Hey, did anyone hear that?” I ask.

No one answers. A male voice comes over the speaker.

“Good afternoon, folks, this is your captain here. We’re having engine trouble and will need to shut down the right engine. Not to worry, it’s not the only engine. We’ll still get you to Seattle on time.”

There’s more than a few hours left to go. Can we really make it there with one less engine?

Outside the window pale grey smoke curls out of the silenced engine. A teenager behind yells, “Smoke! Someone tell the pilot the engine’s on fire.”

Don’t jinx us, kid. It’s just smoke. It’s not on fire. Yet.

A flight attendant peers out the window then rushes to the cockpit. Other passengers stand up to look. I begin to regret sitting in the window seat of the exit row nearest the smoking engine.

I peer around. The flight is full. I can’t change seats. The captain comes back on.

“Folks, looks like we’re going to have to take a little detour to the land of a thousand lakes. Minneapolis-St. Paul airport is less than thirty minutes away. We’ll switch planes there and get you back on your way.”

We all sit and wait in silence. I look at my watch, then at the smoldering engine, then back at my watch again. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes.

A whiff of smoke begins to permeate the cabin. A lady in the back hollers something unintelligible. The flight attendant says something to her and she turns quiet.

Twenty minutes. Below us I see emerald-green lakes dotting the landscape and I wonder out loud whether we were going to land in one of those lakes if we don’t make it to the airport.

Thirty minutes pass and still no airport. The plane banks hard to the left and passengers gasp. The captain’s voice comes back on.

“Folks, it’s your captain speaking. Only a few more minutes to the airport. Before we make the final approach, I’ll circle the plane around a few more times to dump jet fuel and empty the tanks. Standard procedure.”

Is he going to empty the entire tank? What then? Is there a reserve?

“Now please direct your attention to the crew as they demonstrate how to brace yourself for the landing.”

We watch the flight attendants demonstrate how to lean forward in the seat with feet flat on the ground, tuck our heads in our arms and brace our bodies. I find the nearest safe exit across the aisle. I wish I didn’t have heels on.

Black smoke billows from the engine.

The plane levels off and I see the airport. But it looks deserted. All the runways are completely emptied of planes and over in the far corner fire trucks and ambulances line the edge, red lights flashing.

“There’s our welcoming crew,” says the captain. “We should be on the ground shortly. I’m turning off all the engines and we’ll glide down the rest of the way. Now get in brace position.”

I lean forward against the seat in front of me and tuck my head in my folded arms. All the engines cut off. The plane immediately slows. It feels like a lead brick. Like the momentum will stop at any time.

We are falling out of the sky.

A few more seconds drag on. The cabin is eerily quiet. I feel sharp pains in my ears. The baby in front starts to cry.

“Brace for impact,” says the captain. “Heads down. Stay down! We’re about to hit ground.”

I shut my eyes and hold my breath. It occurs to me that I forgot to pray. I search for words but my mind is blank.

Dear God…

The plane tips down and slams hard onto the tarmac. The front tires explode. We lurch forward. Someone screams. The plane skids before stopping at the edge of the runway. The screaming stops. Silence. A man in front claps and slowly other passengers join in.

Then the cabin begins to fill with smoke.

Holy crap.

Moments later flashing red lights surround us and the burning engine is quickly doused in foam. The crew opens only the forward and rear exit doors. I gauge their distances. Front. Back. Either way I’ll be close to last getting out.

So much for sitting in the exit row.

I hold my breath and rush to the back of the plane. I scrape my bare feet sliding down and limp along with other dazed passengers across the hot tarmac.

Never wear high heels on the plane again. You have to take them off during emergency evacuations.

We board a bus to the terminal. No one says anything to the local news crew.

Back at the gate agents hand out meal coupons and vouchers for a $200 airfare discount. A few passengers tear up their vouchers swearing never to fly this airline again.

Since no one dies and no one is seriously injured, the incident makes it no further than the local news. No global social media exists in 2000. No cellphone cameras to record the flaming engine. No tweets to broadcast live eye-witness accounts.

Just another near disaster that will soon be forgotten.

Five hours later we board another plane for Seattle.

I spend the next five days in silence hiking and photographing the damp Pacific rainforest, taking only black and white photos. It rains every day and my mood is glummer than the skies. For the remainder of the year my images remain colorless.

The red-eye flight home is turbulent. I sit awake all night staring out the frost-etched window at the little flashing red light on the darkened wing.

The next morning I head straight from the airport back to work, bright and early as usual. I return emails and phone calls and sip my huge mug of lukewarm black coffee as usual. I jot a quick email to a friend detailing the experience then I never speak of it again. Until the train wreck thirteen years later. But that’s another story for another day.

Contact sheet, Pacific Northwest. 2000.
Contact sheet, Pacific Northwest. 2000.

Annoy Them With Kindness

Ever since the school year ended I’ve been driving my daughter to summer camp every day through the dreaded Tysons Corner corridor. It’s one of the worst commutes in Northern Virginia: eastbound on Route 7 through the Tysons Corner business district and on to Falls Church in the morning rush hour, then twenty minutes in the kiss-ride line, then westbound back home, and then repeating this cycle again in the afternoon.

This area has the worst commuter mix: office workers rushing to and from work, delivery trucks passing through from Maryland and DC, and during the school year, high-schoolers learning to drive. All dealing with the heavy traffic, beltway crossing and stoplights galore. There’s no alternative route. I’m stuck with this commute for the next three weeks. Ugh.

D*** this traffic jam.   James Taylor 1977
D*** this traffic jam. James Taylor 1977

I’ve spent a good chunk of my life sitting in traffic. First as a worker bee commuting to and from work and later as a full-time mom shuttling my daughter to myriad after school activities. When traffic is near or at a standstill I amuse myself by calculating the traffic flow rate based on speed, traffic volume, traffic light timing and number of cars merging into the maelstrom from cross roads and on-ramps. It’s the systems engineer and the mathematician in me. Always doing time studies in my head. Always thinking about optimization.


Last week my daughter and I were traveling through Tysons Corner during rush hour on the way home from camp. The afternoon was so hot that we decided to pull off to get a drink from the fast food drive-through. Big mistake. The burger joint was located off an access road running parallel to Route 7 and there was no cross road with a traffic light to get back onto the main road.

Happy with a strawberry milkshake for little K and ice tea for me, I attempted to turn right from the access road back on to the Route 7. No dice. Traffic was bumper to bumper, crawling along at a snail’s pace, moving a few feet every ten seconds or so. I rolled down my window and stuck my head out.

No one seemed to notice my turn signal or my impassioned look, pleading, “Pretty please will you let me merge into this mess?” Most drivers looked straight ahead and avoided eye contact. A few just stared back at me as if to say, “What, why should I let you in ahead of me and make me that much later getting home?”

Yeah right. Dream on.
Yeah right. Dream on.

We sat idling for a few minutes before I had had enough. In the small southern town where I grew up there was little traffic and even during the busiest time of day folks would smile and happily wave you in. When I left for college in Atlanta in the early eighties, people drove like Mario Andretti through the downtown connector and no one seemed to get a speeding ticket. The ebb and flow of traffic was courteous even in the heat of rush hour. You could always count on somebody letting you merge into traffic.

Then I moved to Northern California during the internet boom and the shock of commuting there was just as bad as the culture shock of a small town southern girl moving to the West Coast. I remember being stuck for what seemed like an eternity in the Safeway parking lot down the street from where I worked in Silicon Valley. No one would let me merge into traffic. No one. They all avoided eye contact and didn’t acknowledge my turn signal in any manner. In fact, they looked away as if I was a leper or something. It took me forever before I mustered up the courage to cut someone off and merge into traffic. I never went to that store again after work.

There's that sign again. That truck's paying no attention to it.
There’s that sign again. That truck’s paying no attention to it.

Now here I am, fifteen years later, stuck again. I surveyed the line of cars parading by me. A slick haired machismo in a black Ferrari: too risky. A dashing silver fox in a dark suit and tie in a silver BMW X5: too much testosterone. A beat up unmarked white van: probably uninsured. A green jeep full of teenagers: too inexperienced. A real estate agent-like helmet-haired lady in a red Audi convertible yapping on her cellphone: too distracted. A twenty-something blue shirted, open-collared cubicle rat in a late-model navy Acura TLX: the perfect candidate.

“Hold on to your seat, baby,” I said to little K.

“What are you doing, mom? Nooooo!”

Yes. Yes I did. I gunned my SUV and cut off the unsuspecting cubicle rat in the navy Acura TLX. Didn’t even look at him first. He slammed his brakes and blared his horn at me. He glared in fury at me. I turned to face him and smiled.

“Thank you soooo much!” I yelled and waved. He stared back at me, speechless.

Cruel to be Kind

We slowly inched along. Stop. Go. Stop. Go. According to my calculations, less than five miles per hour.

Ahead of me, I spied a middle-aged man in a black Mercedes sedan sitting idly on a side road with his turn signal blinking. Without hesitation I stopped my car, waved at him and signaled for him to merge in front of me. He stared back in disbelief and didn’t budge. I waved at him again. No, no, this is not a trick. I’m really letting you in. He hesitated for a few more seconds before cautiously turning in front of me.

We continued to crawl along. Stop. Go. Stop. Go. In the rear view mirror I could see the cubicle rat in the navy Acura TLX still behind me. He looked really put out.

At the next juncture there was a baseball mom in a burgundy Suburban full of kids waiting to merge. Professional courtesy: I stopped and waved her in too. She smiled and pulled in front of me without hesitation.

Then I heard a loud honk and looked back. The cubicle rat in the navy Acura TLX shot me a bird. Nice guy.

On the road to Nowhere
On the road to Nowhere

Thereafter at every juncture I stopped to let people merge in. Sometimes a single car. Sometimes two or three at a time. What does it matter? We weren’t moving much anyway. According to my calculations, at the rate we were traveling, letting each car merge in would only add about five seconds per car to my commute. No big deal.

After watching me allow six more cars to merge ahead of us, the cubicle rat in the navy Acura TLX behind me had had about enough of my benevolence. At the next opening he quickly cut left to the middle lane and inched past as I fell further behind the merging cars. He sneered at us as he passed, driving, per my calculations, maybe eight miles per hour tops. I nodded at him and smiled.

“Catch you at the next light!”

He stared back, speechless.

Come back soon. Not.

What Goes Around

We snaked westbound along Route 7 for about a minute more before traffic eased up. I continued to let every single car I meet at a juncture merge ahead of me. Probably ten cars total. At worst that amounts to less than one extra minute of commute time. No big deal.

As we approached the right hand exit for the Dulles Toll Road, traffic began to slow once again. Now cars from the middle and far left lanes jockeyed to move right to exit onto the freeway. Up ahead I could see the cubicle rat in the navy Acura TLX sitting in the middle lane with his signals blinking, trying to move back to the right lane to exit.

Amazingly, none of the ten cars that I had let in ahead of me would let the poor cubicle rat in the navy Acura TLX merge back into the right lane. So much for Kindness. Pass it on.

You Saw My Blinker... DJ Jazzy Jeff & Fresh Prince 1991.
You Saw My Blinker… DJ Jazzy Jeff & Fresh Prince 1991.

A moment later I reached the exit ramp. The cubicle rat in the navy Acura TLX was still stopped in the middle lane trying to merge right and a long line of irate drivers had formed behind him.

Without hesitation I waved to let him merge in.

“Mom, what are you doing? That’s the guy you cut off.”

“I’m letting him merge in. See his blinker? He wants to exit.”

The cubicle rat in the navy Acura TLX glared at me, expressionless. Then he abruptly cut in front of my SUV and zoomed down the exit ramp, disappearing onto the freeway below.

As he sped by I waved at him and smiled. “You’re welcome. A**hole.”

“Ohhh mom. Potty mouth!”

“Sorry, babe. Just slipped out.”

I giggled. Kindness never felt so good.














Never Lost

From LA our plane flew due west then south and followed the setting sun for 15 sleepless hours. The never-ending afternoon morphed into morning as we landed in Melbourne, Australia. We are en route to my cousin’s wedding in Yarra Valley, Australia’ s version of Napa Valley.

Auntie N met us at the airport and guided the bleary-eyed bunch to the rental car deck. “See you at the wedding on Sunday,” said my Auntie, waving good-bye. “Call me if you get lost. Here’s my mobile number.”

I scribbled Auntie N’s number on my rumpled boarding pass, slipped it into my purse and promptly forgot about it.

After sorting out the mechanics of backing a car with the steering column on the right hand side, my hubby eased our rented Camry on to the “wrong” side of the road and we sped off in the warm Australian sunshine. Yarra Valley was less than an hour away, according to the Google Maps that I last checked in LA, where my smart phone was still smart. It’s dead as doornail now.

“Do you have the address of the lodge?” hubby asked. “Can you type it into the navigator?”

My bloodshot eyes scanned the dashboard and my heart sank. The Neverlost navigator that I thought I had reserved was nowhere to be found. I swore I checked that option when I booked the car. But I don’t remember.

“I’ll figure it out as we go,” said hubby. “Yarra Valley is west of Melbourne, right?” Hubby didn’t seem bothered by the lack of a navigational system in the car.

I had to think, directionally challenged that I am.

“We’re now in the southern hemisphere, we’re driving on the wrong side of the road, water swirls counterclockwise down the drain, but east is still on the right hand side and west is still on the left hand side, right?”

“Did you at least print out a map?”

I fumbled through my tote bag and pulled out a folder with directions to each venue. At the back was a printed map with teeny tiny letters that neither hubby nor I could decipher after being awake for the last day and a half.

Running on Empty

There’s another little problem. A few years ago I nearly died from encephalitis from Lyme disease and my spatial memory is all but kaput. That means no sense of direction and no sense of the passage of time (but now I have endless patience!) But worse of all (for a girl who once had near photographic memory), an impaired ability to remember new things. On a good day I can recall about half of what happened that day. On a bad day it’s as if that day never existed.

I became hopelessly lost when my local Target was renovated. It’s hard to find your way when you can’t remember where you’ve just been, and you’re not even aware that you are lost because every turn of the corner is like starting anew. So you wander round and round perusing all the neat new stuff to buy that stay new no matter how many times you’ve seen them. Not so bad really, except when I repeat the same stories over and over, driving hubby nuts.

Now I take pictures to remember and I write reminder notes that I then misplace and forget. And I try to enjoy my ignorant bliss. The only moment I live in is now and that’s a strangely joyful place to be.

Back to Melbourne. With only instincts to guide him, hubby wrangled the car through the maze of one-way streets in downtown Melbourne and then on to the freeway.

“How far is it?” he asked.

“According to this sign, only 20 kilos to our exit,” I replied.

“How long will it take?” he asked.

“I have no idea.”

“How many miles in a kilometer?”

“I don’t know. And I don’t remember.” I turned to ask little K but she was passed out in the backseat, still gripping her iPad and oblivious to the world.

“How long have we been driving?”

“I don’t know. I can’t tell. And I forgot to remember what time we left.”

On and on our repartee went until we arrived at the lodge almost on time, so I was told.

Got me goin’ in circles

The next morning we decided to take a hike through the nature preserve behind our lodge. Our first full day in Australia! We excitedly scrambled down the red dirt path behind the lodge, past a little wooden wedding pergola covered in fragrant damask roses, toward a big white sign at the trailhead.

The sign read, in part, in bright red letters:

Welcome to the Yarra Valley River Nature Preserve. WARNING! Beware of poisonous snakes and insects. Enter at your own risk. Remain on trails at all times.

I stopped comprehending after the word “snakes”. When you’re born in the land of cobras and vipers the fear of snakes is pounded into your head like the fear of the devil’s wrath burning in hell. I’m wearing flip-flops and a tee-shirt and we are heading into the bush teeming with poisonous snakes.

Sensing my hesitation, hubby gently squeezed my shoulders. “Just stay on the trail and don’t touch anything.”

A few seconds later I had already forgotten about the snakes and was happily bouncing down the trail. We soon came to a fork in the road. There were two choices: the Circular Trail toward the mountain or the River Trail that meandered down a deep gorge beside the river. We chose the Circular Trail, thinking that it’d be shorter and less snaky.

There was a sign in front of the Circular Trail that read, in part:

CIRCULAR TRAIL. Difficulty level: moderate. Occasional steep terrain. Length: thirty to forty minutes.

“Can you handle the trail in your flip-flops?” hubby asked.

“Of course I can!” I replied, delighted at my ability to recall that I had just worn these very same flip-flops two months ago in Oahu, strolling aimlessly all the way from Waikiki Beach to the top of Diamondhead. And back. But that’s another story.

Back to Yarra Valley. It did seem a bit odd that the Circular Trail had a “this way in” arrow but no “this way out” arrow or exit trail anywhere nearby. I meant to ask hubby how can something be called circular if it doesn’t begin and end at the same place, but I forgot.

We proceeded down the so-called Circular Trail and into the bush, which was not bushy at all. Just dry brush, canopies of weeping eucalyptus shielding the daylight, burnt rotting wood from the last brush fire and decaying leaves, all smelling strangely of moldy Vick’s vapor rub.

We soon learnt what the Aussies meant by “moderate” difficulty. The so-called Circular Trail consisted of steep grade, steeper grade and steepest grade, all uphill and winding this way and that. We trudged slowly forward, I gasping from my Lyme damaged lungs, little K marching then stopping intermittently to pick up and throw random sticks at random trees. Five paces ahead stood hubby, waiting patiently for his sagging brood to catch up, his eyes scanning the canopy overhead for poisonous snakes.

After what felt like an hour, or not, of hiking we were deep in the darkening forest and nowhere near the end of the so-called Circular Trail.

“Is this the Circular Trail or the Circuitous Trail?” I said to no one in particular.

There was a sudden rustling of leaves followed by a loud screech and cackle. A fire engine red Cockatoo buzzed over our heads and disappeared into the canopy. Then silence again. It dawned on us that the mountain was eerily quiet. When our chattering ceased there was no sound save for the pattering of fat raindrops that had begun to fall.

We quickened our pace and finally crested the mountain. Through a sliver in the canopy we caught a glimpse of the valley below with its emerald-green, undulating ribbons of grapevines snaking up and down the rolling hillside. The lodge was nowhere in sight.  My toes were beginning to chafe from the flip-flops.

“Circular my ass,” I grumbled.

Fight or flight

The misnamed, so-called Circular Trail began to descend. Steeply. We walked quietly with our eyes cast down, gingerly focusing each step on the slippery gravels beneath and paying little attention to our surroundings.

Hubby suddenly halted. About twenty feet ahead of us, directly in our path, was a huge herd of kangaroos. Their beady black eyes met our startled gaze. Three females took off downhill, their little joeys wildly scurrying behind. In a few seconds the entire clan had vanished. Except for Big Papa. Big Papa crouched down in a defensive stance right smack dab in the middle of the circuitous, misnamed, so-called Circular Trail and refused to budge.

We stood frozen in place. Big Papa shot straight up on his hind legs, all eight feet of Russell Crowe-angry male, balled up his fists and snorted. I giggled. He looked silly, like the mysterious Yeti on the Discovery Channel, like how a Yeti might look if the Yeti was a big kangaroo. Like a Kanga-Yeti or a Yeti-roo.

Yeti-roo crouched down, flexed his muscles like a WWE wrestler on a ‘roid rage, then towered up, puffed out his chest and glared at my hubby, who had likewise straightened himself up ramrod tall, puffed out his chest and balled up his fists in response.

“Get me a stick,” he ordered, his voice firm, deep, sexy. I glanced back at little K huddled on the ground, hugging her knees.

“Mom, I’m scared!” she whispered.

“Baby, it’s just a male kangaroo showing off.” I replied.

“The stick?” hubby reminded. I had forgotten about the stick.

“Shouldn’t we try diplomacy first before resorting to violence? He’s just protecting his family,” I reasoned.

“I’m protecting my family!“ hubby retorted. “Stick, please?”

I can see it now. Tomorrow’s headline in the Yarra Valley Gazette: Angry American Tourist Injured in Scuffle with Kangaroo. “It was self-defense,” quoted the American. “I stood my ground.”

The two males continued their exchange: ‘roo flexed, man stared, ‘roo snorted, man glared. I found a eucalyptus branch. Hubby grabbed it from my hand and brandished it like a Louisville Slugger.

“Honey?” I asked sweetly. “Before you go all mano a mano with Yeti-roo, can I take a quick picture of him first? Won’t take but a second.”

I snatched up my Nikon, pointed the lens at Yeti-roo and quickly snapped a picture before hubby could say no. Click.

It might have been the brrrring of the shutter or the bright pop of flash, or Yeti-roo might have simply been camera-shy, but nary a second after that shutter click did Yeti-roo spun around and fled into the hills, faster than an angry Sean Penn evading TMZ.

Hubby and I turned and glanced at each other. We grabbed little K’s hand and ran down the mountain, down that circuitous, misnamed, so-called Circular Trail and high tailed it out of the bush.


On our last day in Yarra Valley we had intended to visit a winery just up the road, allegedly less than fifteen minutes from the lodge. The innkeeper’s directions seemed easy enough: exit, right past the local airport, past the town a few kilos. The winery is on the hill on the right.

We drove past vineyards teeming with kangaroos, a hill adorned with grazing cows, past an expanse of shaggy grass that we later learn was the landing strip of the supposed airport where we should have turned. We drove further, past one town then another and still no winery.

“Perhaps we are lost?” I suggested after what seemed, to me, like at least an hour of driving.

“We are not lost,” replied hubby, annoyed at the suggestion.

“Daddy, I’m thirsty,” came a little voice from the back. “Let’s stop at the top of that next hill.”

“Sounds good,” I agreed. “Must be really good wine. Lots of cars in that parking lot.”

Turns out the place was not a winery but the Yarra Valley Chocolate factory.   Little K was ecstatic. Willie Wonka down under! We entered through cotton candy colored doors and were greeted by walls of chocolate confectionary and long glass counters filled with truffles with exotic flavors like bush spices and mallow. Not where we had originally planned to go, but where we were happy to be.

We survived just fine roaming around two weeks in Australia without a navigational system or a legible map. On the last day traffic was heavy and we arrived back at the Melbourne airport less than two hours before departure. Hubby quickly emptied the trunk of luggage.

“Don’t forget to check the glove compartment for sunglasses!” he shouted to me.

I opened the glove compartment and reached inside. There, nestled behind the rental agreement, deep in the back right hand corner and still in its cheery trademark yellow and black case, was the Neverlost navigator.


Happy Father’s Day! With much love to hubby, loving husband and father, with whom we are never lost.


Identity Matters: Thai Shrimp and Grits

Shrimp and grits. The ultimate comfort food. This past winter I made shrimp and cheese grits for some dear friends. It’s one of my family’s favorite – a warm homey dish especially for those of us who grew up far below the gnat line. I’ve been tinkering with this dish for years. It’s my go-to for potlucks, teacher luncheons and friends or family in need of a warm food hug. The shrimp and grits were a hit and my friend thanked me with a lovely Facebook post, calling the dish “Thai Shrimp and Grits” and that got me thinking…. what makes a dish Thai? What’s in a name?

Roam if you want to

I was born in Bangkok but spent my formative years in a small town in the deep south. My cooking is influenced not only by my heritage and upbringing, but also by all the places I’ve lived and visited.   And vagabond that I am, that’s all over the globe. I collect spices and cookbooks the way that other travelers collect souvenir shot glasses and tee shirts: with reckless abandon, shipping the cookbooks home when the load got too heavy for my luggage.

A little corner of my cookbook library
A little corner of my cookbook library

The Spice Worlds

In my spice cabinet lemon myrtle from Australia sits next to white peppercorns from my cousin’s garden, baharat from a little Lebanese grocery store in Atlanta and lavender from an apothecary in Paris. I collect spices the way some kids collect Pokémon cards, trading them with my other spice hunting friends. And I use all these different spices in my dishes, guided by fragrance and flavor, not origin. Is the resulting dish Thai because I am Thai? French because the spice was purchased in Paris? Or American because I’m American?

Current favorite spices on heavy rotation at my home.
Favorite spices currently on heavy rotation in my kitchen.

Tell me who are you

My Australian cousin and I discussed our frustrations with identity on a trip we took together to Thailand. We’re both comfortable in our own skins, assured in our self-identity. It’s how others try to define and categorize us based on appearance alone that’s annoying. Some days we felt like strangers in our homeland.  My cousin was born and raised in Melbourne to Thai and Chinese parents. Except for her looks and genes, she is completely Australian in every sense of what the world attributes Australian to be: adventurous, outdoorsy, jolly world travelers.

And though I spent the first eight years of my life in Thailand, in no way do I act like a stereotypical Thai woman, however she is defined these days. I have the Thai vocabulary of a third grader from the early seventies. I don’t know how to curse in Thai. I don’t know any of the “adult” words nor any of the slangs that modern Thais use.

70's era Thai dictionary and language cassette tapes.
70’s era Thai dictionary and language cassette tapes.

Thai language has evolved since the seventies.  When my mom watches Thai TV on the internet at her home in Georgia, she complains of unfamiliar words and slangs. Often these garbled words are acronyms or variants of English words, intentionally mispronounced in the way that Asians often mispronounce English words, combined with a Thai prefix or suffix for good measure. Complete gibberish to the thousands who have long since left the homeland. It’s the Thai version of Spanglish — Thai-lish if you will.  Dad complains that the younger generation no longer speaks “real Thai”, as if that were some long-lost dialect only spoken by the diaspora who have remained untainted by the rampant global electronic media.

And speaking of unfettered satellite TV and the internet, we are all really just one giant melting pot now — the entire wired and wi-fi’d world. Influence is no longer one-way. Cultures are fluid and ever evolving, harder to define or pin down. We all appropriate the best and worst of each other’s native foods and make them our own.  Korean hotdog pizza bun made by a Korean-French-Vietnamese bakery in Virginia, kimchi carnitas tacos made by surfer dude food trucks in LA, Peruvian chicken hawked by Mexican cooks but actually invented by a Swiss chicken farmer. No wonder we are confused about nomenclature.

Korean hotdog pizza bun.
Korean hotdog pizza bun.

The Name Game

Defining a dish by its stereotypical ingredient is one way to name it.  Notice how some people call a dish “Thai” just because there are chopped peanuts in it?  Yet peanuts are New World crops, more Peruvian than Thai.  Few Thai dishes actually have peanuts in them, and when they do, the ground up peanuts are there only as garnishes.  Same goes for fiery hot chilies, which originated in the Americas but are associated with Thai food.  Such dichotomy is lost on most, but amateur cultural anthropologist that I am, it drives me nuts.

Back to those shrimp and grits.  Traditional southern shrimp and grits is flavored with bacon or salt pork, but I like to substitute andouille for the bacon because it’s spicy and less greasy. So is my shrimps and grits really Cajun because of the andouille? If I substituted chorizo for the andouille would that make it Mexican Shrimp and Grits? What’s in a name?

With the exception of a splash of Thai hot sauce and the Thai lady stirring the pot, the dish is more Cajun (andouille sausage) than Thai.  But whatever you call it, it’s all good.  The Thai Shrimp and Grits recipe can be found here.

True Grit: Cheesy Grits

When I was nine years old I tasted real southern grits for the first time and was instantly hooked. I fondly remember the grits served at my elementary school cafeteria for breakfast: runny and swimming in a liquidy gold pool of melted Parkay margarine. Swirl in some greasy torn bacon pieces and two of those little foil topped packages of Welch’s grape jelly (!) and you’ve got yourself a creamy, chewy, crunchy, salty-sweet and totally unhealthy breakfast treat.

Every southern diner has its own version of grits. Some places serve grits all day. I love these places and seek them out whenever I’m back down south. The Majestic Diner in Atlanta, Huddle House and Waffle House chains all serve delightful grits.  Here in Northern Virginia you can find grits on the menu at the Silver Diner, though the quality can be inconsistent.  Sometimes they are delicious and other times they are gummy, bland and undercooked (management, are you listening? Use real grits, cook them longer and stir the pot now and then, ok?)

Will the real corn grits please stand up?

Real unprocessed grits is just coarse ground corn and nothing else.  Certain brands of “enriched” stone ground grits may also contain the added ingredients niacin, reduced Iron, thiamine, riboflavin and folic acid (not ideal, but still ok).  If you are in the American South, grits means white corn.

Stone Ground Grits
Stone Ground Grits

In Italy, grits, or polenta, is yellow corn. Polenta has a stronger corn flavor, more reminiscent of corn muffins, and if that is your thing polenta can be cooked in the same manner as the white corn grits. It may turn out a bit mealy depending on the coarseness of the polenta, so watch out.


Cooking real grits requires time and patience but the results are well worth your efforts. You can spend a lot on fancy stone ground grits, which are indeed fabulous, but I find that the cheapest grits works just as well and is just as tasty. As long as it’s not “instant” or “quick cooking”.

And here is where I jump on my soapbox and declare: DO NOT buy instant grits (wallpaper glue) or quick cooking grits (stripped of flavor for the sake of convenience) or flavored grits (food-like stuff you can’t pronounce).  These are nasty, nasty things and no true southern cook would be caught with them.  They are gritty (pardon the pun), tasteless and processed.  Why bother?

I stock up on real grits when I visit my folks in Georgia. The local Piggly Wiggly and Ingalls have a nice selection.  Venture outside metro Atlanta and some Krogers may carry it too.  Ideally, there should only be one ingredient on the label: corn. Bob’s Red Mill has yellow corn grits that’s organic – important since so much corn grown here in the US is the pesticide laden GMO corn.

Folks living above the gnat line or in other grits desert can easily score true grits on the internet. It’s the fashionable dish du jour with hip restaurants and TV chefs, which I find funny for such a humble dish formerly more associated with the deep south than with high cuisine. Remember Flo’s sassy “kiss my grits?”  No, Millennials, not Flo Rida the low-low-low rapper, but Flo the Marge Simpson-haired waitress from the 70’s and 80’s sitcom Alice, which was actually set in Arizona and not the deep south, but then later Flo moves to Houston and gets her own sitcom, and Houston may as well be the deep south food-wise, so my point being…

Grits. Trendy now. Yes. Unbelievable. Next thing you know the prognosticators and the trend setters of all things comestible will be pushing souse (head cheese with vinegar), another southern delicacy. Except they’ll come up with some nouvelle moniker like “pickled southern charcuterie” or “snout-to-tail pork terrine” or the chic “viande de porc de la tête” (which is just headcheese in French), and they will squiggle on some non-native, on-trend sauce like the ubiquitous Sriracha (Californian, not Thai, don’t get me started), lay the whole kit and caboodle on a bed of raw shredded Tuscan kale and quinoa (notice I didn’t just then, like other food scribes, condescendingly give you dear readers the helpful pronunciation of “keen-wah” — oops), call the dish the house special and the foodies will lap it up. Haha. You read it here first. But then again… It’s. Head. Cheese.

 Flaky little secret

Back to the grits. Cheesy grits is the only dish that my mom, the utmost excellent cook and supreme ruler of her kitchen (she: the head/sous/line chef, entremetier and garde manger chef, me: the lowly prep cook), requests I make for her when I visit. At my daughter’s school I am known to some as the cheese grits lady, which is a really weird thing now that I think about it. Hmmm.

My cheesy grits are said to be unctuous and addictive because of a secret ingredient which I will now reveal.  Drum rolls please. My secret to the cheesiest tasting grits ever: nutritional yeast.  Surprised? Definitely not something most southern grandmas have in their larders.  But the times they are a changing, because if your grandma is vegan, she probably makes her southern mac and cheese with quinoa (pronounced “keen-wah”) elbow macaroni and nutritional yeast.

Nutritional Yeast Flakes
Nutritional Yeast Flakes, tasty by the spoonfuls or atop popcorn.

I said good-bye to meat

During my short-lived foray into wholly vegan cooking, I discovered nutritional yeast. Inspired by the likes of former NBA star and fellow Yellow Jacket John Salley, former president Bill Clinton and other formerly-pudgy-but-now-slim-and-trim baby boomers who tout the healthfulness of going vegan, I took the plunge and tried to do the same. Headfirst into veganism, I purchased the latest vegan tomes like Veganomicon and Vegan Yum Yum and devoured them cover to cover. Styled and photographed in the most flattering light, such food porn never looked so tasty!

That little dilettante with veganism lasted less than a month. Living with a die-hard carnivore did not help. Watching him eat a medium rare strip dripping with juice while I toyed with my thick slice of dry, pasty grilled cauliflower that looked like a cross-section of the brain with grill marks on them did not help. Craving my usual Wednesday date night at the Tap Room Buffalo wings and Loose Cannon IPA did not help. Before I too could proclaim, “My cholesterol level is lower than ever!” I was back to my old carnivorous ways,  seasoning with anchovy sauce and noshing on Zacos tacos.

Zacos tacos and beer, not a vegan combo
Zacos tacos and beer, not a vegan combo

But some lessons from the vegan world stuck with me, the best ones involving how to finesse more flavors from plant-based ingredients.   These techniques really help improve your cooking repertoire, meat or no meat.   Even though we still eat meat at home, a larger real estate on our plates goes to more flavorful vegetables and fruits to accompany that meat, a satisfying and healthy compromise.

Yeasts are fungi, and fungi are not animals, right?

Right.  Yeasts are fungi, and fungi are not animals, but they are not plants either. Fungi are fungi. Like mushrooms are fungi, yeasts are fungi. Nutritional yeast is fungi. Dead ones. Cultured, snuffed out, then desiccated. Do not confuse nutritional yeast with brewers yeast or baking yeast, which are totally different, living fungi critters, and are no substitute for nutritional yeast.

Yeast for baking
Baking yeast, not the same thing, do not eat raw!

Nutritional yeast, also known as vegan cheese powder, is a great vegan substitute for adding cheesy flavor and umami to any dish.   It comes in powdered and flake forms. I like the version with the larger flakes because you can use as-is or easily ground it to powder if needed.  Try different brands and find your favorite. Bob’s Red Mill, Braggs and Red Star brands of nutritional yeast are all good. You can also find it in the bulk bins of most heath food stores. Not only does nutritional yeast add a nice depth and cheesy flavor, it is a complete protein that packs a powerful punch of B vitamins and iron, making this cheesy grits, dare I say it, healthy.

More addictive secrets to reveal

To make the grits even yummier and healthier I add a good dose of garlic, which in my book elevates any savouries in both taste and healthfulness. Slowly cooking fresh garlic with the grits adds a sweet, subtle garlicky flavor to the grits without overwhelming the corn flavor. The trick is to thinly slice the garlic bulbs instead of smashing them, and to cook the garlic slowly until it disintegrates and melds into the grits.  These techniques will help avoid any bitterness and bring out the sweet mellow side of garlic.

Freshly harvested garlic
Freshly harvested purple and white garlic

I won’t bore you with detailed geeky chemistry, save to say that the traditional squeezing of the garlic clove with a garlic press or smashing it with the flat side of a knife crushes the garlic clove’s cell walls, causing a chemical reaction in the myriad noxious sulfur-containing compounds and resulting in increased pungency (i.e. it makes the garlic so much stinkier). Great for flavoring a stir-fry with a heady punch of garlic. Not so great for smooth creamy grits. So do not take shortcuts. Don’t just smash some garlic cloves and lazily toss them into the grits pot.   Unless you are trying to repel vampires. Then by all means, smash away.

Fresh Corn
Fresh Corn

Finally, to gild the lily even more, if fresh corn is in season I cut the kernels off one ear of sweet corn and swirl them into the grits at the end of cooking, just before serving. The residual heat from the grits barely cooks the corn, leaving a fresh corn taste that’s popping with sweetness, a lovely contrast against the smooth and creamy mouth feel of the cheesy grits and the mellow aroma of slow cooked garlic. True grits perfection.

Click here for my Cheesy Grits Recipe.

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