Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Simmering Dinner

Photo: Wayne Bremser

Hearing that Judy Rodgers had passed away sent me to the kitchen. Her beautiful cookbook is one of three on my shelf and I've turned to it again and again because Judy, anchored as she was to technique and history, often had answers to all my questions, because repetition came before creativity and innovation. If you think making the same dish day after day is easy, it's not. If you're not falling in love with the same dish each time you carefully gather the ingredients for it, whether it's a caesar salad or a hamburger, you should untie your apron and order take-out. 

I never had the privilege to work with Judy, but have always felt her tall slender presence nearby--a quirky angel with waist length hair, mini skirt and bright colored tights--you would have to search the planet for a more serious, dedicated, intelligent chef. Restaurants come and go, chefs tire and retire, but Zuni stayed and Judy never looked away. She spoke to every single diner through her intensely flavorful soups, her simmered dinners, creamy scrambled eggs, and summer puddings. Moored to her stove, gliding through the dining room with a champagne flute was not for her. She was marrow to the bone.

Tonight, in memory of Judy, we're making her braised chicken with honey and vinegar, substituting dates for figs, and remembering all the soulful meals, the birthdays and anniversaries we celebrated at Zuni.

So long Chef. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

At Last

“Hey, do you know this author Alice Munro,” my husband asked. “She’s Canadian. Did you ever read any of her books?” I woke up at five fifteen this morning to the news of my beloved author’s Nobel prize. What a glorious day! It’s been too long since I’ve actually jumped up and down over the announcement. The last time was in 1995 when Seamus Heaney (1939-2013), another good shepherd, received the award.

I’ve devoured every word Munro has ever written and reread her books when I miss her. Her stories come in teaspoons to be read and savored, page by slow page. To choose a favorite would be like finding one child more enchanting than the other. She taught me that all stories are right here in our backyards, laying low, subversive, unassuming as leaves, if only you bend down to examine them. I learned that a leaf lives an interesting life if you care to look closely and trace its veins like a palm reader to find the miracle of economy. Your entire world is there like an only child.

“Do I know her?” “I worship her!” How had he missed that?

Monday, September 16, 2013

Seventeen Going On Eighteen

During my senior year in high school, I took home economics with Mrs. P. The bulk of my repertoire at the time included banana bread and its many variations, but I came eager to learn how to transform eggs, butter, and sugar into cake, ground beef into meatballs, or flour, water, and yeast into bread. A teenager is always starving and I was no exception. There was no limit to my appetite and the 6th period class came late in the afternoon when I would've eaten my binder if it weren't for the promise of macaroni and cheese or shredded carrot raisin salad with honey mustard dressing.

Our co-ed class met in a big airy room with a cheery light that came through the windows. It felt like being let out of prison. Finally, in this space between the deep sinks, four burner stoves, and Mrs. P's pantry, I felt free. I didn't know it at the time, nor did I have a word for it--the closest image I can draw for you is that of Julie Andrews on the green Alpine pastures, breaking into song. Most of my classmates weren't there to learn how to feed themselves. Let's face it, it was an easy A and despite her stern expression, Mrs. P was a sweetheart, a P-for-pussycat who had been teaching for thirty years and passed the A's like a platter of snickerdoodles--more on her generosity later. Her curriculum focused on comfort food, dishes I turned to again and again in college. Except for her wonderful bran muffin recipe (the only one I've ever had that didn't taste like tree bark), there was no back-to-the earth, holier-than-whole buckwheat and barley gruel. She started each lesson by handing out a recipe or two, three-hole punched for our Home Ec binders, then walked away, leaving us to gather the ingredients, to weigh and measure. Oh, how I wished she wouldn't turn her back because the moment she disappeared around the corner into her office (more like a cubby in the back where I think she took the edge off with a pony of sherry), the first raisins followed by a scoop of ketchup (yes, we made our own) flew across the kitchen to land at your feet, if you were lucky, but often on your neck. This business of a "food fight" and its battle cry was as alien to me as pink hair and punk rock. Call me prudence, but this was where you could single me out as the foreign student. Throwing food was not only unthinkable and barbaric, but my mother would've yanked the hair from my scalp if I threw a grape in the air and tried to catch it. I had no choice but to appoint myself as the class monitor, at first begging them with Come on guys, stop it please, to emphatic cries of Children are starving in Ethiopia! Of course, it was useless but little did I know that trying to maintain order in a kitchen full of teenagers would be my first step to becoming a chef. Bless my friends for taking it well and girding the area around me, but they weren't about to stop. After all, what better place to offer their affection to the person they fancied?When you're young and savage, you show your love with a lump of baking chocolate and butter slipped into an unbuttoned polo shirt. A juvenile be-my-valentine, but effective.

Mrs. P emerged from her cubby, tall and teetering a little on her sensible heels, to praise our efforts, refusing a taste with an elegant wave of her hand, Oh no dear, I couldn't possibly digest that! She had sampled enough meatloaf and quick bread, knowing the good ones from the bad at a glance. We were dismissed lovingly and allowed to take home the remains of our cakes and custards. 

One March afternoon, upon receiving my first college rejection letter, I went to class with a lump in my throat. One of those lumps that a tap on my shoulder or a simple Are you okay? would have me dissolve into a puddle of tears--you know the kind. At five feet three inches, I came to Mrs. P's waist and she folded in half to look into my eyes before shooing me to her office where I wept on her shoulder and she brought me a glass of cold water and actually said there, there. When my hiccups subsided, she suggested I stop by her house for a chat one evening. I rode my bike to her little bungalow and she greeted me at the door in the same belted knee-length dress she wore to school (did I expect she'd be wearing sweatpants?) and ushered me to "the parlor" for a little glass of sherry served in a doll size cordial glass. I smelled almonds but tasted figs. Less than an ounce, but enough to overcome my awkward disposition so I could sit on a beautiful old chair across from her. She didn't offer me a cigarette (that would've blown my mind), it was a thrill just watching my teacher light one in front of me-- a smoke signal that graduation was near and we would part friends. Mrs. P spent the next hour asking me about what I expected to do with my life. No one had ever asked before. She didn't realize that I was straw in the wind, that she had given me the confidence to shape my longings into food, to tide over that gnawing hunger. 

It all started in a home economics class that is no longer offered in high school. I thought of Mrs. P after reading and commiserating with Jim Sollisch's article, Cooking is Freedom, in the Sunday Times. He reminded me of my Julie Andrews moment.

Mrs. P's Snickerdoodles

4 ounces unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 1/3 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon

-Preheat oven to 350'.
-Cream the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy.
-Add the egg and mix thoroughly.
-Fold in the flour, baking soda and salt. Mix just until combined.
-Chill the dough for 15-30 minutes before rolling into 1 inch balls.
-Combine cinnamon and sugar in a bowl.
-Toss the balls in cinnamon sugar, not at each other! 
-Place 2 inches apart on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper and bake 8-10 minutes until golden.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Child Labor

I have shelled my share of beans but none have ever made me wish I were a bean, like the fava bean. The moment I pull the zipper and see three, sometimes four or five fat beans nestled in their padded shell, I want to snuggle up next to them. A springtime delight, often overshadowed by the arrival of peas, asparagus, and artichokes, these friendly pods were made for small hands to shuck. If you have access to a few children, and you’re always nagging them about time spent on the computer, here’s a task that will keep their hands busy and hopefully trigger a sense of wonder. I would start with five pounds—the yield is so small that anything less is silly. If they don’t stop to fondle the fleshy pod and resist the temptation to try one raw, they are made of stone and you may consider trading them for more sensitive creatures.

When I was a child, my mother steamed them whole, dusted them with angelica and a drizzle of vinegar, and piled them on a big platter to serve as a snack. My sisters and I sat in a circle and peeled one after another, slipping off their rubbery skin with our fingernails and popping them in our mouths like missiles. I never had a chance to see, nor fondle, or I would’ve missed my share.

It wasn’t until I was an apprentice and given a few cases to shell that I saw them raw and held the bright green emeralds in my palm. Perhaps it’s just as well because as a child I would’ve wanted to line a box with Kleenex and tuck them in for the night. As it was, the chef was very annoyed that after an hour, I had made little progress. Later, I saw him layer those favas with braised butter lettuce and sweetbreads in a startlingly simple composition of spring. Enchanted and terrified (would I be capable of bringing these elements together with such grace?), I understood why I was there, in that kitchen, at that moment. Over the next few hours, we assembled that dish dozens of times and I imagined diners looking longingly at their neighbor’s plate, unable to resist ordering the same. Side by side, we repeated the pattern—soft greens against milky white, a tangle of herbs aloft, a drizzle of jus. It was new each time. Our chef inspected every single plate before letting it get whisked away. Like a father sending his child to the first day of kindergarten, he all but kissed the rim adieu.

It’s been years since I’ve eaten them steamed like my mother used to make. Tonight I may have to forgo the delight of seeing them snug in their cushy beds, unless I find some kids to help me shell.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Wonder Bread

My husband flew home from Copenhagen with Rugbrød lovingly wrapped in brown paper and tucked in his carry-on bag. Rug what, you say? This dark, sour, rye bread is a staple of the Danish diet and the pallet upon which smorrebrød, their delicious, sometimes elaborate, often humble, open-faced sandwiches are served. Some of you may be familiar with my bread tourette’s and therefore may not find it surprising that this loaf, warm from a Danish bakery, carried over the ocean, is a gift of true love.

Packed with cracked rye kernels, flaxseed, sunflower seeds, and weighing nearly three pounds, it is three times the weight of Milton’s multi-grain bread and mustn’t be confused with pumpernickel, which is steamed, and like language (German, Swedish, or Norwegian), it has a distinctly different flavor. Rugbrød (try saying it with your mouth closed like the Danes) would be my choice of sustenance if I were stranded in the wild, given that I could use it to crack nuts or build a raft. It is a complete package. One slice for breakfast spread with butter and honey, or two slices in your lunch box with goat cheese, cucumbers and dill, or a soft boiled egg with radishes, and you may not feel hungry till the next afternoon. Then again, at dusk, just before the day vanishes, what could be better than an open-faced sandwich of liver pate and pickled red onions with a cold beer on the patio? Let’s keep it simple tonight and save the gastronomical somersaults for another day when the light isn’t so pretty.

Over the next week, we will most likely carve this brick to feast morning, noon, and night. When it’s nearly gone, we’ll crumble the end piece for the sparrows, and think back on it with a real nostalgia. How wholesome it was! How it comforted me! How it was, yes, the best bread of my whole life and all other beloved bakeries would understand my brief betrayal.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


Gone are the days I could shield my son from the news. Driving to basketball practice with four boys on Monday afternoon, he turned to me “Did you hear, mom?” “Hear what,” was my response. Blood stained scenes of the Boston sidewalks and maimed runners had already traveled across their screens and my urge to reach for his phone and shut it off, or better yet, hurl it out the window, was too little, too late. All I could do was keep my eyes on the road, my hands trembling at ten and two—please, let me carry these children safely, please. “Do you have your seatbelts on?” I asked. Were they five years old? Did I seriously just ask them that?

At eleven and twelve, they’re still like puppies, scrambling over each other’s conversations, eager to tell me where, when, how they heard about the Marathon bombing. I struggled for something to say, but I wasn’t fast enough so I drove and listened. It occurred to me that they had received this news with a good measure of detachment, drawing parallels to other horrors of their times.

I was supposed to be baptized on nine-eleven, but my parents cancelled it.
So you mean you weren’t baptized?
Yeah, maybe a week later.
Dude, do you remember water splashed on your head?
Yeah. I was, like, whoa, what’s going on?
How could you possibly remember that?
My mom told me.
Dude, my cousin was in a restaurant and they had to evacuate cuz there was a bomb.
Did it explode?
Nah. It was just a bomb scare. Some nut called and said he’s gonna blow up the place.
Who does that?

Good. Good for you, I thought, for wiping away the terror, for dismissing these maladjusted nuts and insisting that we return to normal as quickly as possible. In the decade since their birth, they have grown accustomed to this cycle of horror as routine, but it hasn’t diminished their trust in us, or in the world, as large and compassionate. I wanted to pull over and just hug them.

Afterward, I watched them saunter leisurely to the gym, jostling and slugging each other playfully. Was I going to sit there in the car for two hours and wait for them? It didn’t seem like a bad plan. Rage and sorrow made it hard to move a muscle. It was a beautiful afternoon. A lacrosse team was running laps on the track. I had my running shoes in the trunk. The only logical thing to do was to see if I could keep up with them.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

A Bone to Pick

                                                   Paul Cezanne Still Life with Onions 1896

If you live in the Bay Area you know we had a heat spell this week with temperatures in the upper eighties. Our heat is coy—stopping by unannounced at lunch time, gone by sundown, always leaves you wondering if he’ll be back, if it was something you said, if you need a sweater. At noon, it was eighty five degrees—not a day I would have chosen to make French onion soup. If it were up to me, we’d have Popsicles for dinner.

Since my son read a short story by Roald Dahl about a young boy who muses about onion soup, he’s been asking me why I haven’t made it for him. He’s right to wonder. After all, I ran a French restaurant with onion soup on the menu year round. Even in July I wouldn’t dare take it off the menu lest I face a revolution. A third reminder came last night before he fell asleep “How about that onion soup?” What is wrong with me, I wondered, this is the simplest, most delicious creation in culinary history and I’ve denied him? The thing is, it’s not so easy to find a bowl of authentic onion soup—even cafés in France keep it on their menus for tourists and serve boiled bouillon cubes with three strands of limp onions, forgotten pieces of baguette that fell behind the counter, and a sad sprinkling of what could be string cheese.

Even the butcher was surprised by my request for beef bones when almost everyone will surely be firing up their grills tonight. It didn’t take long for the house to heat up with ten pounds of knuckles roasting in the oven and I do love the sweet smell of caramelized bones. If you’re going to make stock, you might as well make a couple of gallons—at least it seemed like a good idea before the two stock pots came to a boil on the stove. I took a cold shower, then prepped the onions. If you saw the movie Julie and Julia with the one and only Meryl Streep, you may remember the mountain of onions she sliced to earn her stripes. Well, that’s how much you need for a pot of onion soup. If you think you have enough, keep going. Do you have a pot big enough to sauté a wheelbarrow of onions? Yes you do. Grab your big belly pot and throw them all in there, or do it in two batches if you must—like spinach, they shrink as they cook. Add a whole clove or two and a bouquet of thyme and bay leaf (just one). If you’re an impatient person you probably haven’t read this far so it doesn’t seem necessary to mention that now is the time to work on your taxes or fold some laundry, because this part takes a while. Slowly, another sweet aroma will overcome the scent of that rich broth simmering on the back burner. I like to stick my head in the pot when the onions are just turning golden and have a good sniff, then drizzle a little honey to hush a sweet tooth. When I was an apprentice, my chef used to say I was capable of making even pickled herring sweet. “Mon dieu,” he’d cry every time I reached for the honey pot.

The honey is like a sigh. You’ll know when you hear it to open a bottle of good red wine and drench the onions, saving a glass for yourself. Here, the onions will look gloomy, overcast, but not for long (long enough to fold some more laundry, strain your beef stock, toast some croutons), as they will simmer from murky to a glossy crimson, ready for their broth. Let everybody meet and greet, but not too enthusiastically—think British restraint—a gentle boil for a half hour and your soup is ready to be ladled into bowls. I do love the classic ones with the stubby handles that allow you to slide them under the broiler (salamander, for you colts). But first, drop in your croutons (please, make your own), layer some shaved Gruyere cheese, and let it melt—as in bubbling and dripping over the sides. Then wipe your brow and call the cubs to the table—if the heavenly fragrance hasn’t beckoned already. Hopefully you will have extra croutons because those warm bones from your stock are cannons loaded with marrow. Lacquer a spoonful on toast to savor and swallow this magnificent reward.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Shake n' Bake

I was twelve the first time I ate fried chicken. My mother was away for a conference and my Aunt Homa invited my father and me for dinner. I always enjoyed going to her house because she not only had a wicked sense of humor, but a delicious hand—her cooking was tasty. She kept au courant with songs, film, recipes from Good Housekeeping sent to her from abroad. I also loved that Aunt Homa stood up to my dad if he so much as whispered a complaint about his wife’s absence. “You should be so proud of her,” she’d snap.

On this February night, she served us crispy golden chicken legs with parsley potatoes and a green salad. The simplicity of this meal would’ve struck an Iranian guest as miserly. A measure of a ‘better’ host is the surplus of food, a galaxy of dishes on a buffet around which your guests will orbit sampling everything, crowding their plates with pyramids of rice and stews, pickled vegetables and yogurts, bread and feta cheese, herbs and salad. I think my father may have even dared tease my aunt about her scanty offering. That first bite of fried chicken was unlike anything I had ever tasted. I closed my eyes and chewed slowly to understand the crackling outside and the tender inside. I glanced at my father devouring a drumstick, his mustache glistening. Quickly I ate everything else on my plate—saving the best for last. No sooner had I finished than my aunt served me another piece, then another. Like love, I would never tire of it.

Later in the kitchen when I was helping Aunt Homa clean up, she asked if I wanted to know how to make her chicken. An invitation to the ball would not have excited me as much. She handed me pen and paper to write: Rub chicken legs with olive oil, salt and pepper. Put Corn Flakes in a bowl and crush the flakes with your hands. Toss the chicken with the Corn Flakes and lay flat on a greased baking dish. Bake in a 400-degree oven until they’re golden brown. She didn’t tell me to pre-heat the oven, or how many chicken legs, or how long to bake them, but taught me that anyone who cared could learn.

My dad did the grocery shopping while my mother was away. We’d been eating a lot of eggs in her absence, so I asked him to buy chicken. Corn Flakes, however, were not so easy to come by, but one nearby market kept a paltry selection of stale American cereal. When my father came home from work, I served him ‘Kellogg’s chicken’ with radishes and a sliced cucumber drizzled with lemon juice, then watched him chew happily the first meal I had ever made him. He was the hardest working man I knew and usually never came home before ten o’clock which gave me plenty of time to experiment and tweak the only dish I’d learned to cook. Night after night we feasted on chicken until my mother came home, surprised to find her enameled stove spotless. We resumed a more balanced, colorful menu, which after days of browned bird legs, felt like a carnival.

Just because I’m a chef doesn’t mean that we eat duck a l’orange every night. Even though in my family we talk about what’s-for-dinner at breakfast, there are days when I have to fall upon my tried and true. The other night, after a busy day, I crushed a couple bars of Weetabix (if you’re wondering why I have that in my pantry, it’s not as bad as Twix), and tossed seasoned chicken legs with the crumbled flakes in a Ziploc bag. And since the oven was on anyway, I roasted some fingerling potatoes, too. A butter lettuce salad with Dijon vinaigrette and voila! Dinner was ready. Weetabix, we agreed, is a happy substitution for Corn Flakes, breadcrumbs, or even real fried chicken. At the table, I made a toast to my auntie who knew that less is more and you’re never too young to cook for your parents. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2013


Raise your hand if you ever took a typing class in high school. One or two hours a week dedicated to tapping keys in a windowless room, all girls except for two boys in the back row. I was of the Hunt and Peck variety, which meant I sacrificed speed by glancing away from the copy to find and press each key individually instead of relying on the memorized position of the keys. I probably took the class because I thought it would have something to do with writing, not transcribing at record speed. Nevertheless, it came in handy in college when I stayed up all night to finish term papers—the ding of the carriage return and clickety-clack not only made good company in the still dormitory, they provided just the right little-engine-that-could motion that kept me on track.

In the early nineties, I upgraded to a portable Brother electric typewriter to write a business plan for a restaurant. At the time, it seemed harebrained—an impossible dream (I was told many times), but once I started pecking, the words nudged each other forward—I think I can, I think I can. And when the lease for L’amie Donia was signed (oddly the space used to be a typewriter repair shop), we shoved a desk into the storage room upstairs and it became my office where I wrote menus with Brother. Downstairs carpenters hammered and drilled booths and bar tops, while I perched in my nest hatching summer dishes for a July opening.

For our first anniversary, my husband gave me a vintage Smith Corona (he’s never been subtle in urging me to write). It has a nice clatter even with neighboring arms jamming when pressed at the same time. In a crazy dream not too long ago, every key I pressed spurted batter instead of ink on the page. With every mistake I was forced to scrape away what looked like buttermilk pancakes off the carriage with a paring knife. I won’t even address the symbolism here, but what a mess! Talk about think before you write.

Brother retired sometime after my sister gave us a bright blue iMac which sat like a spaceship on my desk urging me to hop on board. Well, there was no going back after that, but I miss the bell, the springing forward of words that can’t be deleted, the commitment to staying on track. I love my laptop, but Brother never made it easy for me to walk away, erase, cut and paste, or check email in the middle of a paragraph. And when the day was done, you had something to show for it.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Walk With Me

In the shopping center near my parents’ old apartment, there was a flower shop that stood apart from the rest of the storefronts, angular like a kiosk dropped there accidentally. Home for the holidays on winter break, I carefully filled an application there, even listed my hobbies (cooking, reading, writing), left out where I was from, and confessed to my lack of experience. I could identify roses, carnations, and tulips but couldn’t tell apart poinsettias from amaryllis. It didn’t matter. When I handed it to the lady behind the counter, she asked if I had a driver’s license and sighed with relief when I opened my wallet. Never mind that I hadn’t driven since I totaled the used ’72 Firebird my parents had scraped together the funds to buy for my graduation. She called her husband who was out making deliveries to give him the good news. He rushed back to give me the keys to a white Dodge van in the parking lot with it’s rear doors thrown open displaying several wreaths with huge red bows destined for a house in Atherton.

I was terrified. The van was like a small bus. I drove ten miles an hour with my foot on the brakes, peering over the steering wheel, sweaty palms clenching it like a lifesaver. How do I get to Atherton? Where the hell is Atherton? I had an address on Oak Grove and a map open on the passenger seat. I was lost. Circling Menlo Park, stopping to read the house numbers, realizing too late I was in the wrong town. Joyous when I finally found the house, I parked and carried the enormous wreath to an iron gate that opened to a long driveway. I heard the bark before I saw the German Shepard bounding toward me, all fangs, snarl and spit with nothing between us but laurel and holly, so I bolted like a scared rabbit back to the van. It was noon when I had left the shop and four-fifteen when I pulled into their parking spot, pretty scraped up from trying to squeeze into the driver’s seat with a holly wreath.

The proprietors, Mr. and Mrs. Wells, didn’t fire me. Instead, they let me stay in the shop to help take orders and learn to assemble flowers and wreaths in elaborate baskets. I was glad for this paid apprenticeship and they never asked me to make another delivery. Their children were grown with families of their own, they had both graduated from Berkeley and I suppose they were glad to have a student from their alma mater around. They once asked me where I was from originally and I lied, of course. No one in her right mind would confess to being Iranian in the middle of the hostage crisis.

My day started at nine when I helped Mr. Wells pull all the Christmas greens out front, all the while quizzing me on their names, then leaving me to arrange the giant clay pots of cyclamen and boxwood topiaries. Back inside, Mrs. W would offer me some of her Earl Grey tea and we’d go about the store and in the fridge “to shop”, as she liked to say, for that day’s orders. We filled the hours quickly. At noon I would be sent to the deli to pick up their usual (pastrami on rye) while I ate a tuna sandwich from home. They were generous with their knowledge and I proved to be reliable as long as I didn’t have to drive. After lunch, I’d help pack the van and Mr. Wells would leave to make the deliveries, always rolling down the window to call out “Now you girls hold down the fort 'til I get back!”

And we did. I helped guys who were buying flowers for their dates, ladies looking for pretty centerpieces for their dinner parties, and once, a nice man with shaggy hair who stopped in to buy some ferns and camellias. Together we carried the plants to his pick up truck and he followed me back into the shop and handed me a check. When I asked to see his driver’s license, his face lit up with a smile. I took down the number like I’d been told to do and he left whistling. Closing the drawer that evening, Mr. Wells gasped, “Neil Young was here? Here in my shop? Donia did you see him? Martha, did you help him? Look, look, look at this check!” He caressed the signature. “Who’s Neil Young?” I asked. He stared at me, incredulous.

Already dark by five thirty, I would bring the greenery inside and carry a watering can around the store, giving the plants one last drink. My father would often take an evening stroll and walk me home. More than once I saw him standing a few yards away in the waning light, wearing his dark wool coat with the collar turned up, hands shoved in his pockets. I’d wave. He’d nod and look away, quietly sobbing. His shoulders told me—oh how they shook. My father buried his face in his coat and waited for me to finish. We walked home in silence and you would think I’d have asked “Why are you crying, Daddy?” But no, I was too afraid of the answer: because it wasn’t meant to happen this way, because I dreamed a different dream for my daughters, because you have dirt under your fingernails, because you are too young, because you’re giving up your youth, because. His daughter should not have to work in a flower shop, for god’s sake! But my parents had taught me everything I knew about hard work. And what about everything they’d given up for me? Their home, their country, brothers and sisters, friends, patients, work, family albums, all left behind so I could be here, in this world of possibilities, to live in it, free and in charge of my own becoming.

By the time we reached our front door, one of us would wonder aloud what my mother had made for dinner and the spell was broken. My mother opened the door and pulled me in for a hug and a sniff. She said she liked the wintry smell we carried inside and while I washed up, I’d hear them in the kitchen carrying silverware and glasses, the evening news coming on, and the smell of rice and stew that drew us to the table where we were no longer unmoored. The television glowed and while we waited for Jeopardy, I told them about my day, sometimes embellishing an encounter to draw a chuckle. My mother nourished us, anchored us, and slowly we felt the ebb of the emotion that had blindsided us out there.

Three weeks went by and it was time to go back to school. I hated leaving the cozy routine of the shop. They even had a little goodbye party for me. Mr. Wells, always generous, said, “Invite your mom and dad!” But on my last afternoon, it was just the three of us, and a carrot cake. Neil Young on the stereo. A few weeks later, I wrote to the Wells and told them where I was from. Originally. They wrote back and said they didn’t care.