Saturday, December 20, 2014

A good jacket keeps you warm and dry

I've always thought that Christmas was a holiday best spent with family and loved ones.  It's a time to be together and share in the warmth and love of family and celebrate the company and joys of friendship.  And since leaving home after high school, I can honestly say that living on my own, I've spent more Christmases by myself, usually working, than being with family.  I don't mind.  I really don't.  I actually swap work days with coworkers who want to be home with their families for Christmas; and in return, they work for me on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day.  I figured, well, it would be nice for these parents to spend Christmas with their children.  Especially since I so fondly remember how wonderful it was to spend those Christmases a long time ago with my parents and my family.

Some of my best memories growing up are from Christmases so many years ago, when I was just a little boy, so full of joy and smiles, playing with my two young brothers, and helping my mother and father put up Christmas decorations. We would play holiday music and hang colorful lights and shiny ornaments on our plastic green tree.  The three of us youngest boys, my two brothers and I, put the decorations on the lower branches, while my parents and older brothers and sisters put the decorations on the higher branches beyond our reach.  Some years, we had an angel top the tree; other years, we used a star.  Angel or star, it didn't matter.  The tree was always so beautiful, especially when we turned on those sparkling colorful lights. 

Every year, the first night we put up the Christmas tree and turned on the lights, my two brothers and I would beg our parents to let us sleep in the living room to be near the beautiful Christmas tree all decked out with bright, colorful ornaments and magical, dazzling lights.  And every time, my dad would pretend to think really long and hard about it, while we eagerly waited and pleaded.  And every time, my dad would smile and say, "Okay, just for tonight," and my brothers and I would cheer and squeal with joy and laughter, hug our parents, then rush to our room to grab our pillows and blankets and start setting up our sleeping area/pillow fort in the living room, close to the twinkling, fantastic Christmas tree.

I loved the holiday season when I was growing up.  I relished the beautiful bright colors and the happy holiday music.  I enjoyed munching down on the holiday treats with my two brothers and being surrounded by the cheerful atmosphere.  And truth be told, I liked getting presents, all wrapped up in spectacularly colorful paper and topped with shiny ribbons.  But more important than anything else, I loved being around my family, being close to my parents and watching my mother and father laughing, singing, and dancing to holiday music while my brothers and I played in the living room.  I clearly remember being overwhelmed with a sense of happiness, of pure love.  I was surrounded by warmth, and joy, and I truly felt safe, knowing that I had a loving family and a wonderful home.  I belonged.  I was with the people that I loved and those people loved me in return.  It was a wonderful, amazing, utterly joyful experience.  Everything felt right and I truly felt happy.

But life isn't always happy.  And in a very short while after those few happy Christmases, I learned just how cruel and terrible life could be.  My father passed away the spring I turned 8.  The rest of the year was just awful and painful to live through.  That first Christmas after my father passed away was the hardest one to get through.  It was also the last one where I felt like a child.  Somehow, that sense of bliss and carefree existence I once had as a young child was gone forever.  It was a life changing realization to know that death happens, and we can never tell when it comes, only know that it comes for us all in the end.  Nothing forces a child to grow up faster than tragedy and trauma.  And the loss of my father was a truly terrible and traumatic experience.  One that I've never gotten over.  One that I've learned to live with and grieve for the rest of my life.

And as sad and terrible it was to lose my father, I was very fortunate to still have my mother.  And those Christmases I had with her were wonderful and special in their own way.  Watching her that first Christmas after my father passed away was very hard for me.  Because I could see that underneath her cheerful spirit and efforts to keep us happy and carry on our holiday traditions, there were these brief moments of sadness in her eyes when she was by herself, lost in thoughts.  I would watch her, while hiding around the corner, somehow sensing that she needed to be alone for now, not knowing how I could comfort her and feeling like I was intruding on a private moment at the same time.  She would be sad, and that made me sad, and I felt helpless, because I didn't know what to do.

Sometimes, I'd see my mother crying, when she thought she was all alone, the only one still up so late at night.  And those were the hardest moments to deal with, because then I'd cry, too.  I would stay out of sight, tears running down my face and trying to sob as quietly as possible, so I wouldn't disturb my mom, even though I just wanted to hug her and have her comfort me, only I didn't know how to deal with her sadness.  It felt selfish to want comfort from her, when she was hurting and needed comfort herself, and I didn't know what to do, or if there was anything I could do.  Most nights, I'd wake up, suddenly thinking of my dad, that he'd be home soon, after working late nights as he sometimes did during the busy season.  I'd get up and be halfway down the hallway towards the front door, waiting to greet him, only to remember that he was gone.  And I'd go back to bed and cry myself to sleep, wondering why God hated me and why he was so cruel to my family. 

Watching my mother get us through the holidays was a revelation.  My eyes were opened; the death of my father was a terrible and life altering awakening; I was seeing the dark and tragic side of life, the suffering and the dying; but I was also seeing the true nature of things and became more aware of the people and the world around me.  I learned what it meant to have true strength, what it meant to sacrifice, and what it meant to truly love and find a way not just to survive, but to thrive and keep on living and hoping, even if the world had become a dark and unforgiving place.  I learned to cherish life and live every day to the fullest.  And while we mourned the loss of my father, we also celebrated the good things in our lives, that we still had each other, and our mother made us feel loved and happy.  We still had a home and a wonderful, loving family.

And as hard and tough life became after my father passed away, my mother somehow found a way to make sure that we would always be safe and have a good life.  She even took the time to help out others who were less fortunate than us, giving them a place to stay til they were able to get their own home, feeding those who had nothing, and helping others get back on their feet when life knocked them down.  People always said that my mother was very kind.  I always thought that she was very strong and had unbelievable strength of character and will.  I'd be lucky to have just an ounce of her spirit and strength. 

In my darkest hours, when it all becomes too much, and I feel as if I've nothing left to give and no way out of an overwhelming and hopeless situation, I'd think of my mother, and I'd ask myself, 'What would she do?', and somehow, I'd find the strength and the will to go on and overcome whatever obstacles and challenges that stood in my way.  In the midst of my lowest point and deepest desperation, she has been my salvation and my reason to keep on going, to never give up, to find a way and keep moving forward.  If she could survive the terrible tragedies that destroyed her life, and if she could find the strength and will and wisdom to move on and keep on living a full life, then so could I.  And I've never forgotten the sacrifices she made and the life lessons she taught us, and I've told her how much I loved her and appreciated all she had done to give me the tools and skills I would need to survive and succeed in life.

I learned from my mother the joys of giving and sharing.  To me, it was a miracle and magic to see her make other people happy, by doing small acts of kindness and helping those in need.  It really did make me feel good to see others smile because I had given them an unexpected present, a kind word, or thanks in appreciation for all that they've done.  I started saving my money and started working odd jobs to make money so that I'd have enough to buy presents for family and friends.  It didn't have to be a big expensive gift; it just had to be something to remind that person that I cared for them and wanted them to have a good holiday season. 

I remember the very first gift that I ever bought for someone out of money that I'd earned.  I was 9, and I'd collected enough aluminum cans for recycling to earn 50 cents.  It was enough to buy one can of 7UP soda, and I gave that to my mother as a birthday present that night.  It was the only thing I could afford with the money I had made.  It wasn't as expensive as the fancy birthday dinner my older siblings had given my mother; it wasn't as priceless as some of the presents she had gotten over the years; but to my mother, at that moment, it was just as valuable and precious as any jewel she had ever been given in her entire life.  The look of surprise and disbelief on her face was only outmatched by the sincere gratitude and appreciation she gave me in return.  It was just a can of soda, but to my mother, it was the greatest birthday gift she could've gotten that night, and she made sure to tell me how much she loved me and thanked me for thinking of her and getting her a gift.  And for me, that was all that I needed to embrace and find joy in giving to others.  Sure the world can be a tough and harsh place, but it can also be a kind and wonderful place when we take the time and effort to tell people and show them that we care.

I heartily cherish and lovingly think of the last Christmas that I spent at home.  I was 17, in my last year of high school, and I had a plan to leave home and be on my own.  I was excited and eager to start living life on my own, to be independent, and to follow my own dreams and seek out my own adventures and fortune.  But I was also a little sad because in a few months, I would be leaving my family behind, and I wouldn't be around my mother anymore. 

While some teenagers experienced growing pains and arguments and conflict with their parents, I wasn't one of them.  I was actually very close to my mother, and we kept the lines of communication opened and showed respect to each other.  Because I had lost my father at such a young age, I held on to my mother and cherished her as much as I could, because I learned how truly terrible and painful and awful it was to lose a loved one without warning and never get a chance to say goodbye or tell them how much you love them.  Yeah, I was moody and angsty and volatile at times, but what teenager isn't?  Thankfully, I was given space to sort out my thoughts and emotions, and I was always made aware that my mother would be there if I needed anything or just wanted to talk.  And while she didn't always agree with some of my choices, she did offer guidance and let me try things my way, learn from my own mistakes, failures, and successes.  She would be there to help me back up if I fell or got lost; and she would be there to cheer me on as I reached a goal or earned an achievement.

Sometimes, my older brothers and sisters would tease me for being such a brat and pain to them.  They'd call me a mama's boy, and I'd gladly acknowledge it and proudly say, "I sure am a mama's boy, because I love my mama!", and sometimes, my mother would add, "And your mama loves you!", just for laughs, and that would usually put a stop to the teasing from the older siblings.  What else could they do after being confronted with the plain and simple truth?  My mother had a great sense of humor, and everyone loved to hang around her, whether it was at church or the PTA or at work.  Sometimes, in our front yard, she'd be surrounded by people who enjoyed her sense of humor and loved to hear her make conversation and make them laugh.

I fondly remember that last holiday season I spent with my family.  It was the Friday after the delicious and fun and festive Thanksgiving feast we had on Thursday.  We were recovering from gorging ourselves on the amazing, tasty, rich food and the chaotic company of the entire large, loud, and lively family crammed into one house.  It was a bright, sunny day as we sat in the living room, just me and my mother, listening to holiday music and reading--me, a travel magazine and my mother, a book.  My brothers were out with friends.  My visiting nephews and nieces, my older siblings children, were asleep in the bedrooms, while their parents were out shopping and socializing.  My mother asked me what I wanted for Christmas.  She'd asked me this every holiday season since my father passed away.  And I answered like I always did, "Nothing," the same answer I'd given since after that first Christmas after my father died.  And I really did mean it.  I couldn't think of anything that I wanted for Christmas. 

My mother kept asking me, telling me that she really wanted to get me something special for holidays.  And I told her, "Mom, I can't think of anything that I want or need for the holidays.  I have everything that I want or need to make me happy.  I have a good life because you gave it to me, and I have a safe, loving home because you worked hard to make it so.  I can't think of anything better than the love and life you've given us."  And I meant it.

I could see the tears well up in my mother's eyes.  But she didn't cry.  She just smiled at me, like I had done something to make her proud, and she was beaming with joy.  And I thought that I had done a good job of telling my mother what I felt, and that I really couldn't think of anything that I wanted for Christmas that would make me any happier.

But my mother found a way.  My mother knew that I wanted to leave home and strike out on my own.  I wanted to travel.  It was a wanderlust I had inherited from my father.  In his younger days, he travelled across oceans and continents, living in different countries and roaming the world for adventures.  Then he met my mother and he happily settled down, far away from the place where he was born and raised.  My mother recognized this wanderlust in me, and she prepared me as best she could, teaching me life skills that I would need and sharing wisdom that came from experience.  She even surprised me by buying me nice new luggage for my birthday that year. 

I remember spending most of my last year in high school having these conversations with my mother; conversations where I told her how much I loved her and how much I appreciated all that she had done for me.  And she'd listen and offer me advice on life, and I tried my best to remember her counsel and listen to her.  It was as if that whole year was one long farewell.  And I'm really glad that I had that time to really talk with her and thank her and share that time with her.  It made me feel good to know that I had her support and her love, and that in some ways, we had said everything that needed to be said.  And I will always be grateful for that time and those conversations.

That last Christmas with my family, I remember my nieces and nephews playing with their new toys, wrapping paper and ribbons scattered on the floor.  Holiday music was playing on the radio.  The house was alive with noise, laughter, and the smell of food wafted in the air .  Cheerful holiday decorations hung on the walls and windows, and the Christmas tree looked beautiful as always, decked out with shiny ornaments and twinkling colored lights. My two brothers, the ones I was closest to in age and relationship, were enjoying their gifts and playing with my nieces and nephews; my older brothers and sisters and their spouses were in the background, laughing, eating, talking.  My mother sat in her chair, holding my youngest niece at the time, just a few months old; my mom was singing a holiday tune to her; it was a tune my father and mother liked to sing.  I tried to commit this very moment to memory, taking in all the joy and warmth surrounding this occasion. 

I soon found myself lost in thought, thinking about Christmases past and wondering what the future held for me and my family.  I was woken out of my reverie by my mother, still holding the baby in one hand and handing me a good sized gift box in the other hand.  I was surprised at the size of the box, since I usually expected clothes this time of year, especially since I never told anyone what I wanted for Christmas.  And while this box was in the shape of a clothes box, it was much bigger than what I was used to.  Maybe it was a whole bunch of clothes! 

I didn't have any expectations about the box when I took off the wrapping.  I was just happy to have new clothes.  But it wasn't new clothes.  It was something more precious and more valuable than I could ever have imagined.  I did not think that I could ever a receive a present that would make me feel any more happier than I was.  But I was wrong.  My mother found a way.  I held my breath and tuned out everyone as I stared at my gift.  It was as if time had stopped and I found myself humbled and surprised at such a wonderful, unexpected, and truly magnificent gift.  My mother had given me my father's bomber jacket.

I immediately flashed back to memories of my father wearing his jacket when he was leaving the house for work or to run errands.  I remember him coming home from work and we'd run up to him when he came through the door.  He'd get down to hug us and I remember the feel of the jacket and the scent of Old Spice coming off my father and his jacket.  He always had a smile and hug for us, and he always felt so solid, so strong, and so warm whenever he embraced us.  It made me feel happy, feel safe, feel loved.  I remember him wearing his jacket when we drove around town or when he was picking us up from school.  I remember my two brothers and I trying on Dad's jacket when he left it hanging on a dining room chair.  It was so big and heavy and warm and soft on the inside and it smelled of my dad.

Now, that jacket was in my hands.  It still felt warm and soft and strong.  I couldn't believe that my mother would give me my father's jacket.  The last time I saw it, it was in a steamer trunk where my mother kept her wedding dress and other important items.  I suddenly realized that my two brothers were next to me, touching the jacket, asking about the jacket.  I looked at my mother, and she smiled and said, "I thought you might need something to keep you warm and dry if it ever gets cold and rainy on your travels."

Suddenly, I was overwhelmed with long buried memories and deeper, hidden emotions.  I wanted to cry then and there.  But I held it together for the sake of the children.  I didn't want them to worry and I wasn't going to bring up sad memories at this time.  For crying out loud, it was Christmas!  It was supposed to be a happy time for all.  I felt a lump in my chest, it was all I could do to keep myself from bursting into tears; that wouldn't be cool. 

At 17, you think you have to be strong, to be stoic to be cool; at 17, you're still an idiot; at least I was.  But at 17, I also knew that I had been given an important gift, one that signified that I was old enough now to appreciate what I had, and that I was loved and had the support of my loved ones.  I stood up and hugged my mother, thanked her for the priceless gift and returned to the sofa where my two brothers were waiting.  My brother who was a year older asked if this was our father's jacket.  And I said yes, it was.  He became quiet, lost in thought as he stroked the jacket.  I don't think he was jealous; not my brother.  After all, for his 18th birthday, my mother had given him my father's watch.
My youngest brother, however, had a confused look on his face.  He needed confirmation that it was our father's jacket.  I let him try it on.  And my other brother and I told him of how we used to try it on when we were younger.  My young brother put it on and treated it very reverently.  After a while, he said he remembers how heavy but warm and soft this jacket was, and he did remember clinging to it when Dad lifted him up and carried him around. 

And suddenly I remembered it, too; my little brother as a baby, laughing and squealing and clinging on tightly to my dad as my father scooped him up and swung him up in the air a few times before hugging him close to his chest  and kissing him and carrying him in his arms for a while.  I remember my baby brother's tiny fingers as they gripped on that jacket; I remember his lively smile as he clung to our father; and I remember the times when I'd see his tiny head falling asleep upon the jacket on my father's shoulder, his little face so content, so at peace while my father rocked him to sleep, sometimes singing or humming a song to help my baby brother fall asleep.

That jacket was a part of my father's identity.  So many of brothers' and my memories of our father involved him wearing his jacket.  Not that he wore it all the time, but for us, his youngest three boys, our best memories of our father were the ones when he spent time hugging us before leaving for work wearing his jacket, or of us eagerly waiting for him to come home after work, hanging out on the porch in the evening, restlessly keeping watch for dad to come home.  And when we'd see his truck coming up the road towards our home, we'd jump and scream with joy, yelling out loud to everyone in the house that dad was home.  We'd wave excitedly at his truck and eagerly waited for him stop the truck by the house, get out of the truck,  and we'd rush into his arms as he bent down to scoop us up against his chest, our faces rubbing against that soft jacket that covered his strong, warm body that held us in a big hug.  I remember my two brothers and me feeling so happy and so safe and so glad to have our dad home.  Every child just wants to be happy and be loved; and nothing makes a child happier or safer or truly feel loved like a good hug from loving parent.

I remember my father wearing that jacket when we'd work outside the house doing chores, working in the garden or tending to the animals on the farm, raking leaves or doing maintenance on our home.  He'd wear it when we'd all go for a ride in the truck for ice cream to treat ourselves after a long day's hard work or just to celebrate.  Sometimes, he'd play with my brothers and I outside after work, still wearing his jacket.  A few times, I remember falling asleep at an outdoors community or family gathering, or maybe after a day spent at the beach or park or out in the woods, and I'd wake to find that jacket covering me like a warm protective blanket; other times, it was a pillow to cradle our heads when we passed out for an afternoon nap.  I remember old fotos of my father when he was a young, single man out and about in the world, wearing his jacket.  He'd had it on his adventures long before he met our mother.  And it was one of the few things that belonged to him that my mother kept after he passed on.  That jacket was an iconic part of my father's identity.  Superman had his red cape; my father had his bomber jacket.

And now, that jacket was mine.  Of all the gifts that I've ever been lucky enough to receive, this was one of the most precious and most important that I've ever gotten in my life.  When you're 17, you think you're invincible and so sure that you know everything there is to know about the world; at 17, my mother showed me that there was still so much that I had to learn, and after all these years, I'm realizing that I know absolutely nothing at all.  17 year olds are stupid.  Actually, anyone at any age can be pretty stupid.  But even 17 year olds can have moments of clarity.  And when I was given that jacket as a gift that Christmas, I had a moment of clarity.  I knew that I had been given a tremendous gift, a great honor, a blessing and a symbol of trust and hope and love.

Later on that night after everyone had gone to sleep--the adults, mostly from gorging themselves on the holiday food and spirits, and the kids, from staying up so late and worn out after playing with their new toys--I put on that jacket and took a walk under the stars and moonlight.  It wasn't unusual for me take a midnight stroll.  I've been doing it for a few years since I turned 14 and couldn't just lay in bed awake all night.  I was a night person.  It was another trait that I had inherited from my father.  He was a night owl, too. 

When I was younger, I'd stay up late, pretend to be asleep when my brothers and I were sent to our room for bedtime.  I'd be up til just before 10 pm, waiting for my father to return home from those long days at work during the busy season.  I'd sit at the window, under the night skies, dark when overcast with clouds, and rich with stars like diamonds on black velvet with a pearl moon on clear nights.  I'd be lost in daydreams while I watched for the headlights of my dad's truck to shine through the dark woods as the pickup would come along slowly on the dirt road that led to our house.  As soon as I saw those headlights, I'd run out of the room and right out to the living room to wait by the front door to greet my dad. 

My mother had gotten used to me staying up late, waiting for my father to come home those late nights.  She'd given up on sending me back to bed for being up at such a late hour.  She'd come to the realization that I was a night person like my father.  And as long as I'd be quiet and not wake anyone else up, I'd be allowed to stay up late.  And as long as I still got up on time the next day for school or chores or church, I could stay up a little late.  I had no problems with getting up early back then; but it was a whole different story in high school however, when I just wanted to sleep in late after staying up all night.

I enjoyed waiting up for my dad to come home those late nights.  He'd come through the door and hug me before he'd greet my mother.  We'd go in the kitchen and sit at the table where my mother would fix him a plate of food to eat and a beer to drink.  My parents would talk for a little bit.  Most times, my mother would leave afterwards, kissing me goodnight before she went to bed.  That just left my father and me.  And when you come from a big family with many siblings, any one to one time with a parent is an amazing and most sought after opportunity.  And I loved spending those late nights talking to my dad. 

He'd eat and ask me questions.  I wasn't hungry, having had dinner earlier with the rest of the family, but I loved answering my dad's questions about my day.  And he seemed to enjoy listening to me to go on and on about what I and my brothers did that day; what we saw; who we talked to or played with; what chores we did, like feeding the animals and weeding the garden or picking up leaves or gathering firewood; what things we had planned for tomorrow; how we were doing at school or at community functions and events; whether we were listening to our mother; and he'd remind us to be safe when we explored our surroundings, which included the great woods that surrounded our farm and fields. 

I'd ask him a few questions about his day; and he kept his answers short and simple.  Mostly, he just wanted to listen to how my day was with my brothers; and I loved sharing my day and my thoughts with him.  It didn't matter if we had spent the day climbing trees or playing tag or hide and seek, or pretending to be pirates looking for treasure, or spacemen battling hostile aliens, or ninjas on a secret mission; my dad wanted to hear it all.  He'd laugh at our adventures; he'd smile; sometimes, he'd raise an eyebrow if we did something that seemed a little risky or daring or borderline pushing the limits.  But mostly, he let me drone on and on about my day.  He had a way of listening that made me feel like I could ask him anything and tell him anything, that I could trust him to give me good advice or just to hear me sort out my thoughts.  I really miss that; I truly do.

And as I headed out of the house in the dark hours of that Christmas night, I needed to sort out my thoughts, to help work out the competing and complex emotions and thinking that had stirred up chaos and questions in my heart and my mind.  Some nights, I become overwhelmed with the need to go for a walk to sort things out.  This was one of those nights.  And lately, these restless nights were becoming more and more frequent.

It was a quiet night and I felt as if I were the only person awake in the world.  The stars were out and the air was chilly, but that jacket kept me nice and warm.  A little while later, I found myself by my father's grave.  Suddenly, I was overwhelmed with emotion and memories that I could not help but cry.  It was just too much for me to bear.  I was a small child again, waking up from a bad dream in the middle of the night, wandering down the hallway to find my father to comfort me, only to realize painfully that the nightmare was real, that my father really was gone, and I'd go back to bed and cry myself to sleep, silently sobbing to keep anyone from waking, to see me crying, alone and miserable til exhaustion and sorrow lulled me to sleep.  My heart ached and my soul was still mourning the devastating and painful loss of my father after all these years. 

I thought about my Dad and how much I missed him and wished he was still here with us.  I thought about my Mom and I cried because I wanted so much for her.  I wanted her to be happy.  I was so moved by her giving me my father's jacket and showing how much she loved me.  She wished me well and supported me in my plans to leave home and be on my own.  I had this need inside to get out and see the world beyond our borders, to leave my small town behind and see the big cities and places I've read about so many times in books and seen on tv.  There was a fire inside of me that was burning to see the world; a drive to see what's out there.  I thought about my two brothers and how I was leaving them behind; I was going to miss them; I was really going to miss my family.  But I knew that I had their love and support and I would be fine. 

I stayed at my father's grave til I stopped crying.  I told him of my plans after high school, how I wanted to see the world and live on my own.  I told him how much I missed him and how much I loved him and how much I wanted to make him and my mother proud.  And how I would never, ever forget him.  And whatever happened or wherever I went, I would always have a piece of him with me.

I loved my jacket.  It was one of the most precious gifts that I have ever received.  That last year living at home, I wore it everywhere--to school, to work, and when I was going out and it was chilly or rainy.  I thought it made me look cool; my friends certainly said so, as did a few strangers.  I certainly felt cool.  That vintage sleek look gave me an extra boost of confidence and just enough cockiness to flirt with girls and have a good time, not really caring what the world thought of me.  My already flourishing social life exploded exponentially as I ventured out to try new things and hang out with new people and make new friends.  That jacket made me feel just a little bolder and a little more adventurous.  I loved that jacket and took very good care of it.  It was becoming a part of my identity, and I was making new memories and having wonderful new experiences with it.  A few times, when I would leave it hanging on the back of a dining chair, I would catch my nephews and nieces trying it on, and I'd smile and think back to when my two brothers and I did the same thing.

Six months later, I had graduated high school and found a way to make a living far away from home.  I remember packing only a carry on bag and my backpack.  I wanted to travel light and take only the essentials.  Anything of value I left at home; except for that jacket.  I was taking it with me on my new life. 

The day before I was to leave home, I was hanging out with my two brothers, just sitting on the porch, and talking about everything and nothing.  I was really going to miss this, hanging out with them.  The 3 of us had been together for as long as I could remember.  We stuck up for each other and looked out for each other; part of it comes from being only 1 year apart in age; the other comes from being so many years younger than our much older siblings.  We were friends and brothers.  We had shared many adventures together.  We shared our tragedies and sorrows; our fortunes and our joys.  We shared a  bond unlike any other, and we shared a connection that was closer than to any of the others.  We could just sit in silence and speak volumes without ever saying a word.

And as we sat there on the porch and watched the sun start to set, it finally hit us that this would be our last time hanging out together, for a long while, possibly forever.  I felt an overwhelming sense of melancholy, that I was leaving behind not just my closest brothers, but my friends and fellow adventurers and explorers, my true band of brothers.  And as the sun sunk lower across the horizon, I couldn't help but think that this was the metaphor of my life.  The sun had set upon the days of my brothers and I hanging out together, and I was the one who was ending it.  As the skies changed from orange to lavender, the stars started appearing along the darkening heavens.  A chill started rising with the soft evening breeze.  I felt a sense of sadness and I was conflicted between my desire to leave and see the world or stay and enjoy the company and friendship of my brothers.

I wished that there was a way I could've taken my brothers with me, but life had laid out different paths for all of us.  And we had chosen to take those different paths to find our own way into the world.  It was the end of an era, and I mourned the loss, because now, we were truly no longer children, but young men on the cusp of manhood, poised to venture out into the unknown; independent, free, absolutely terrified and excited at the same time.

Life had shown just how cruel and vicious it could be when it suddenly took away my father.  It shattered my family and my childhood in so many ways.  But I had my mother and my brothers and we rebuilt our lives and we still had each other, we still had a home.  So long as we had each other, we were going to be all right.  Except now, I had chosen to leave, and it would once again change the family in ways that I could not imagine.  But this time, it was by choice that I had decided to leave, and I had always known since I first became aware of the world outside that I was going to leave home and see that world.  My family sensed this, and they've always supported this. That's what family does:  It supports and protects.

Still, it was very sad to realize that I was leaving behind a home and a loving family.  And sitting on that porch with my brothers, a small part of me was ready to give up and stay home, where it was safe and I felt loved and be with the familiar and comforting.  But I knew that deep down inside, I had to go.  It was in my nature and I cannot change who I am.  But I still mourned leaving behind my family, my brothers, and my home.

I looked at my older brother, sitting there, looking out at the night sky, quiet, contemplative.  He never cried, unless it was a truly terrible and tragic event, like the passing of our father.  Most times, he kept his feelings inside, to keep others from seeing him cry.  I did the same thing.  We never cried in front of other people, except at funerals.  We tried to keep it together for the sake of everyone else, and held focus and got things done, handled our business, and when the crisis was over, we'd find a private place to be alone and grieve.  I think that seeing our mother devastated by the passing of our father had changed us.  We had never seen our mother cry and grieve like that, to be in so much pain, to suffer so, and we didn't ever want to see her like that again.  We never cried because we didn't want her to suffer, so we kept it together, like she did, when she had to pull herself together to take care of her family and raise her youngest three boys alone.

My youngest brother, however, was always a gentle soul.  He cried when he was sad, when he was hurt, whenever he felt overwhelmed with emotion.  In a way, he was the most honest and bravest of the three of us.  He was my mother's baby, our baby brother.  And though there were times when my older brother and I were mean to him, those times were very few and far in between.  Rather, we were always overprotective and always looked out for our baby brother.  And looking at him staring out at the horizon, I could just make out the tears shimmering in his eyes, and I almost broke down and cried, because I did not want to see him cry, and I realized that he was sad because I was leaving, that I had made him sad.  In trying to follow my own heart and chasing my dreams, I had inadverdently hurt the ones I loved.  I was a selfish person; I was a terrible person; because I couldn't change who I was and what I wanted, and I was going to follow this path, even if it meant hurting the ones I loved.

I took off my jacket--my father's jacket, my most precious possession.  The night chill gave me goosebumps.  But it also invigorated me.  I handed it to my youngest brother, surprising him out of his thoughts.  "Here," I said, "Put this on."

My youngest brother took the jacket and put it on.  My older brother was watching us silently.  I told my baby brother, "I want you to keep this for me.  I don't want to take it with me and risk losing it."  My youngest brother looked surprised.

I continued, "This way, you'll have something to keep you warm and dry," the look of awe and gratitude in his face was almost enough to make me cry.  I struggled to keep my voice from shaking, to keep myself from crying as I continued, "This jacket once belonged to Dad.  It kept him warm and dry.  And when I wore it, it kept me warm and dry.  Now, you'll have a piece of Dad with you, and a little piece of me with it."

I could only meet my youngest brother's eyes briefly, which shone with such reverence and pride and humility and gratefulness that I looked way before I could cry.  I caught my older brother's glance quickly, his eyes were shimmering, but he had a grin and nodded.  We looked away to the horizon again, before the tears threatened to overcome us all.  Our baby brother was very young when our father died.  He barely remembers him; and he frequently looks at old pictures of our father to remind himself of what dad looked like.  He has these few memories of our father, but those few are so full of love and warmth.  I wished that our father was around much longer, to give my baby brother more memories of him at least.  And my older brother and I had told our baby brother all we could remember of our father; but it was never enough.  He could never get enough stories about our father from our mother and older siblings and other people who knew our father.  Truth was, we never could get enough, because nothing could replace the loss of our father from our lives.

At least with this jacket, my baby brother had something physical to hold on to.  Something solid and real.  Something that would keep him warm and dry.  Something to remind him that our father loved him dearly, and that I did, too.  Later that night, I told my mother what I had done with my jacket.  And she had that look again, where her eyes welled up, but she didn't cry, rather she smiled, she nodded, and told me that I had done the right thing, a wonderful thing.  And I certainly hoped so.

Over the past few months, I had relied on that jacket to give me warmth and comfort.  In a way, I had begun to think of it as my armor, my protection against the outside world.  It would keep me safe when I ventured out into the unknown.  But that night, I realized that I didn't need that jacket as my armor. My mother had taught me life skills to survive and thrive, and growing up with my two brothers had given me the strength, the wisdom, and the experience that I needed to overcome any challenges life threw at me.  I was going to be fine.  My family was going to be fine.  And my baby brother would have a piece of Dad and a little bit of me to keep him warm and dry, and remind him that he was loved by his family.

I admit that in the years since I left home, there were times when I wished I had that jacket with me.  Those were the times when life almost overwhelmed me.  But I survived and kept moving forward.  Then there were times when it was cold and I forgot to take something to keep me warm and dry, and then I really wished I had that jacket.  But that's due to poor planning and unpreparedness on my part.  Now, I travel with a warm jacket and keep a spare in the car.  Still, there are times when I'm alone and I think of my family, my father, my mother, my brothers, and I wish I had that jacket, if only as physical proof that I was loved and grew up in a loving home and had a wonderful father, a loving mother, and great brothers.  But those times are very rare and brief.

The last time I saw that jacket was a few years ago.  I had finally returned home after so many years of being away. It was the first time that the whole family, including my older siblings were together again.  We were standing under the roof of the hospital, watching the heavy rainfall, trying to decide if we should wait for it to ease up or run to the car and go home late that night.  It was me, my two brothers, my eldest niece, my closest nephew, and my eldest sister--these were the people I was closest to in all of my family.  We had just left the ICU, where our mother had just passed away, peacefully, surrounded by those who loved her.

Everyone had tears in their eyes; except for me.  The heavens cried for me that night.  I was relieved that my mother had found peace, that she was finally free from suffering.  And I was glad that I was able to come home and spend what little time we had left together.  And I was so grateful that she was free of pain and suffering, and that she had laughed and smiled and her eyes twinkled with joy during her last hour with us.  When my father died, it was a sudden tragedy that destroyed my life and childhood.  But with my mother's passing, I found a sense of peace and tranquility, of relief knowing that she was no longer in pain, and that she left us surrounded by love and happiness.  Then it struck me, that I had no father, and now I had no mother.  I was now an orphan, and I was all alone in the world.  And it was a strange and undefinable feeling.

I was woken out of my thoughts by my youngest brother, asking me, if I wanted my jacket back.  He had been wearing it all this time and after all these years.  I looked at his tear stained face and shook my head no, and told him that he should keep that jacket a little while longer.  Before my mother got sick, she had given my youngest brother my father's wedding ring.  And when she was rushed to the hospital, it was my baby brother who took her wedding ring to keep it safe.  I thought it right that he should keep both.

Looking at my brother standing next to me wearing that jacket, I couldn't help but think back to that last Christmas I spent with my family so many years ago.  I was 17 and thought that I knew everything, when I really didn't.  I was just an optimistic fool full of hopes and dreams.   I still am, only I'm a lot more wiser now.  Some things in life you can only learn by experience, and sometimes, experience hurts.  I stood there looking out at the rain, wishing that I had more time with my mother.  I wished that I had come home more often and spent more holidays at home.  I wish that I could've spent one more day listening to her talk, listening to her laugh, and listening to her sing and just say whatever, just so I could hear her voice once more.  Just one more day.  What I wouldn't give for just one more day.  Oh, how my heart ached for just one more day with my mom.

But those are the thoughts of a grieving person.  And what's done is done; no going back. And the truth was, though I loved my family, my life was far from the place were I was born and raised.  The last time I did come back home so many years before, I was struck with the realization that I really didn't belong here anymore, that my life truly did belong to the world outside, far away from here.  Christmas at home was never the same after I left.  My older siblings started having holiday gatherings at their own homes, and my mother and baby brother started traveling to these different homes for the holidays.  Sure, my mother's house was decked out for the holidays, and there were a few more holidays held at my mother's house, but by then, not everyone was able to make it, either because they were celebrating elsewhere or were far from home.  As for me, instead of flying home, I sent that money for the cost of a ticket to my mom.  That money funded her trips with my baby brother to other places to see family and friends and enjoy long vacations.  She and my baby brother rather enjoyed doing that, and often times they took some of my nieces and nephews with them on their travels.

Looking at the jacket that kept my youngest brother warm and dry and comforted, I thought of my father, and how he wore that same jacket when he hugged us and picked us up, how sad we were when he left the house for work, and how happy we were when he came back home.  It was a part of him, and it kept him warm and safe and dry.  I thought back to that last Christmas with my family, thinking of how moved I was that my mother thought I was worthy enough and needed that jacket to keep me safe and warm and dry.  I realized that jacket did give me what I needed:  The courage to move forward, knowing that I had the support and love of my loved ones.  That jacket had given my baby brother something to hold on to, to remind him that he had a father who loved him, even if he could barely remember him.  And it reminded him that he had a mother and a whole family who loved him, too.

I realized now why that jacket was so important to me.  It represented love and home.  It made me realize that I was loved by my family and I had a home full of love and support.  Every child should have that.  And I was lucky and blessed to have that growing up.  And I'm still lucky because I have friends that I count as family.  Family is, after all, the people you love and hold most dear.  And friends are the family you get to choose.

A good jacket is a lot like family: strong, dependable, and able to help you weather any storm.  Of course, there are times when a crazy family can feel like a strait jacket.  But a good family is like a good jacket.  It keeps you safe and warm.  It protects you and keeps you dry when the weather gets rough.  And at times when that jacket makes you feel a little hot, you can take it off for a while and cool off; and if you find that you don't need that jacket for now, you can put it up somewhere safe, knowing that it'll always be there for you when you need it.  And if you take the time and care for that jacket, that jacket will last a long time, and in turn, it will take very good care of you when you need it and protect the ones you love and hold most dear.

So for this holiday season, I hope you are among loved ones, friends and family, and if you have children, I hope you take the time to tell them how much you love them and spend time with them.  Do this for all your friends and loved ones.  It's the most important gift you can give them this holiday.  I hope that you are in a place where you are safe and sound, in contact with friends and loved ones, and count your blessings, and know that your actions and intentions do have a great influence on the ones you love and the world around you.  I hope you find kindness and warmth and a sense of home.  I hope you are safe and happy.  And I hope that you have a good jacket to keep you warm and dry.

Related Links:
Hope is a yellow dump truck
Holiday Dismay
Are you there, Santa? It's me
It's the Most Stressful Time of the Year
The thing about fathers
Veterans Day Reflection
Best Laid Plans
The Boys of Summer
Brothers and Sisters

Thursday, August 14, 2014

That offal taste

I visited some friends in a city a few hours north of me.  I like to make short trips to discover new things, enjoy good food, and revel in the company of friends that I don't see as often as I would like.  One of my friends insisted that I stay with her for the weekend.  She informed me that her parents were also visiting for the weekend, and I was looking forward to seeing them.  I like her parents.  They're good people.

Her parents love me.  And I've known them for well over ten years; I've actually spent several special family occasions and been on vacation with them--unwittingly the first time and a few other times since.  The first time I was roped into vacationing with them was when I made the long drive (about 2 days worth) up to the west of the Rocky Mountains to see my friend graduate from college.  The plan was to visit her for a week and then continue on to California for a few days getaway.  Instead, I found myself spending two weeks meeting and getting to know her (extended) family and taking part in what evolved from my friend's graduation into a mini family reunion.

I've been friends with the Graduate since we were in jr high, just a few years before we started high school.  I met her parents back then, and I met a few of her siblings who were still living at home at the time.  But at her college graduation, I got to meet the rest of her siblings and the aunts and uncles and cousins who made the trip.  I found myself chauffeuring half of her extended family around town and across several states over the next two weeks.  Not that I minded.  I quite enjoyed hanging out with her relatives and driving them around to see different places.

In return, they fed me a wonderful assortment of Chinese food, one of my favorite foods in all the world.  Everyday was like a buffet where I got to eat and enjoy so many different, delicious Chinese dishes.  I loved the usual stir fried dishes of rice, pork, beef, chicken, and seafood, along with new stews and soups I've never had before.  After spending two weeks in the company of her large and lively family, I suddenly found myself adopted into their clan.  And whether I wanted it or not, they'd taken me in as one of their own.

My friend told me that her family really liked me and appreciated what I was doing for them.  I didn't really understand what the big deal was.  But my friend stated that her family was impressed with how courteous and friendly I had been to them; driving them around town and across hundreds of miles to and from neighboring states, to see and enjoy the some of the magnificent natural (and man made shopping) wonders of the world.  I didn't mind it, really, as I enjoyed visiting those places and sharing in the company of her family.  They fed me and made me laugh and made me feel welcomed in their presence.

But my friend related how it was sometimes difficult for her family to deal with some of the people in this country.  My friend is a first generation American; her parents and aunts and uncles were immigrants, who got their citizenship decades ago.  They've had children and grandchildren born and raised here, and still, in some parts of the country, they treat them like foreigners.  I was kind of surprised and upset to hear that.  How is it that people can still be idiots in this day and age?  This country was founded by immigrants; and unless you're a native American, everyone in this country is a descendant of immigrants!  Granted, those first immigrants took advantage of the native people's kindness and proceeded to steal the natives' lands and wipe them out, but that's another topic to discuss another day.

I've never given much thought to the immigrant experience.  Back in my remote part of the world, we had our fair share of foreign visitors and immigrants, and we welcomed them with opened arms, whether they stayed for a few days or permanently.  My father was one of these world travelers who actually came out on business for a few days, but then he met my mother and decided to settle down and call this new place home.

In our community, we were raised to be gracious hosts and welcomed our visitors and immigrants.  We were taught to be courteous and friendly; to be hospitable was to be respectful; and we tried to treat everyone the way we'd like to be treated.  The idea was to create reciprocity--to be kind and helpful to others, so that when the time comes and you need help, those others would help you and be kind to you in your times of trouble.  Those were ideals the community tried to attain and instill in us.  It wasn't always possible to live up to those ideals, but for the most part, we tried our best and looked out for each other as best we could.  We wanted our guests to have a good time, and we did this by inviting them over to share in a good meal, surround them with good company, and ensure an enjoyable experience by providing entertainment, music, dances, and games.  We were a hard working people; but we were also a hard partying people.  We worked hard, so we played hard.

As a remote, small community, in the middle of nowhere, we loved getting visitors, especially the foreign ones.  We were fascinated with stories of big cities and different places and different peoples and the variety of cultures that differed from our own.  Mind you, this was decades before cable tv made it to us.  Back then, we only had 3 channels on tv, until a hurricane knocked one channel out.  And both remaining channels were off at midnight and wouldn't be on again til 6 in the morning.  It wasn't until I was in high school that we actually got a satellite channel that was on for 24 hours, but it was all CNN headline news and military news, because it was the nearby, new military installation that provided access to that channel.  So for many years before then, visitors were our only source of entertainment and news from beyond the borders.

It was amazing to hear tales of the world far beyond our borders, and we loved learning new things about other people and their way of life.  In addition to the stories and news from abroad, the most exciting thing about having visitors and travelers and immigrants is their food.  Of all the interactions and trade that happen between two different people and communities, food is the greatest and most powerful of all these cultural exchanges.

Food is the ultimate cultural marker.  It identifies and makes each culture unique.  Every culture has a signature dish or technique that defines it and sets it apart from all others in the world, yet at the same time, sharing that dish or technique brings that culture closer to the others in the world.  To share a meal is to get to know someone better; you are given a glimpse into the character of a person.  And anyone who shares a meal freely is someone well worth knowing.  To share a meal communicates respect and a willingness to share ideas and a chance to better understand one another.  And making new friends and learning new things are some of the reasons why I enjoy being an adventurous eater.  I get to experience new tastes and discover new cultures, and I get to know someone or a culture just a little bit better.

What is even more amazing than the differences in food across cultures are the similarities.  Some dishes are almost identical across the spectrum, only they're named differently in different parts of the world where they are prepared.  And sometimes, the addition of an ingredient or two is the only difference.  Take sashimi, for example, those thinly sliced pieces of raw fish; every seafaring and coastal culture has their own version of a raw fish dish; add a few ingredients and it becomes ceviche, poke, oka, poisson cru, or tartar.  Every culture has their own version of bread--flat, round, sliced--it's easily recognized across the world.  These similarities are a testament to the common origin and inventiveness and adaptability of mankind.  When we prepare and share food, we put a little piece of ourselves--our history, our ideas, our beliefs--into the food and it is expressed in the way the food is made and served.  Food is the story of us.  Food feeds the body, enriches the mind, and blossoms the soul.

I wasn't always an adventurous eater.  Truth be told, I was a very picky eater growing up; finicky and spoiled is what my older siblings called me, and they were absolutely right.  I was finicky and spoiled.  I didn't like anything spicy or with strong flavors.  I liked things bland, like plain oatmeal with just some sugar; I only ate the yolk, but not the white of a boiled egg, because I didn't like the texture of the egg white; I didn't like oregano or any strong spices, so I didn't even like pizza, unless it was just cheese on bread.  My favorite meals, besides fried chicken (which I still love to this day), were a plain fried egg sandwich and pancakes with syrup.  And if I didn't like what we were having at a meal,  I would complain, and my mother would see to it that I would have a fried egg sandwich, usually made after giving instructions to my older sisters, who would then complain and threaten me for being so spoiled and making extra work for them.  But I didn't care; I knew I was going to get my sandwich, one way or another.

But the good times ended when I was 10 and complained that I didn't want to eat the lamb curry that my mother had prepared.   Ungrateful little bastard that I was, I asked for something else instead.  But instead of hearing my mother issue orders to my older siblings, there was just silence.  I suddenly felt the hairs on my neck stand up and I got that sense that I was in deep trouble.  A quick glance at my mother confirmed my fears.  She had that look in her eye that I recognized as I was in trouble.  I shut my mouth and waited for things to calm down.

My mother then asked me what I wanted to eat.  Relieved, like a fool I thought, 'Oh, good, things are back to normal and I'm getting what I want.'  I told her I wanted a fried egg sandwich.  But instead of telling one of my older sisters to make one for me, my mother instead told me that she would instruct me on how to make one right then and there.  Imagine my shock!  At first, I thought she was kidding.  But nope, she really was giving me instructions on how to make a fried egg sandwich, all while my older sisters rejoiced that they were no longer subject to my picky food whims.

I have to admit, after getting over the initial shock of having to make my own sandwich, I was delighted to learn that I make a pretty good sandwich under the supervision of my mother.  That sandwich tasted great.  And any thoughts I had of this incident of making my own meals was a one off were quickly corrected when I was apprenticed to the kitchen that weekend, so I could learn how to cook.  By the time I was 12, I was put into rotation in taking turns to prepare a meal for the entire family.  My parents believed that learning to cook was an essential life skill we needed in order to survive and thrive.  And I loved learning how to cook.  In fact, I become more curious and started experimenting with different dishes and ingredients.  Granted, my experiments weren't always successful (or well received by my family, the unwitting guinea pigs I secretly tested recipes on), but I was learning to appreciate food and my curiosity about food and technique helped me evolve into an adventurous eater.

I love discovering new dishes and experiencing new tastes and new cultures.  And having many friends from different parts of the world and with different backgrounds and cultures helped me explore and try out many different dishes that only broadened my tastes and appreciation for food and life.  Of course, there are times when the food just doesn't taste right to me.

There are just some dishes that I just don't like.  For instance,  I don't like egg drop soup--it's just a watery, bland liquid mess to me.  I don't care for cheese cake either; it just doesn't taste all that great to me, and I've yet to find one that I would order again.  I'm not a fan of spaghetti, either.  I just want the meatballs; keep the spaghetti strands or toss them out. I don't like anything with cilantro (coriander), because it tastes like soap to me; no matter how well someone thinks they've cooked or prepped a dish with cilantro, I can always taste it, and it tastes like soap.  How do I know that it tastes like soap?  Because I've had the taste of soap in my mouth before, and cilantro tastes just like soap.  It's a genetic thing; some of us are programmed to recognize cilantro by its soapy taste; no getting around that.  It is what it is.  Some people are allergic to nuts and others are lactose intolerant; I only taste soap when I have a dish with cilantro.  Ever wonder what soap tastes like?  Well the next time you are in the shower, go ahead and take a lick of that bar of soap or drop of shower gel.  Then you'll know what soap tastes like, and that's exactly what cilantro tastes like to me, just like soap!

Then there are dishes that are just too overwhelming for me to even give them a try. Kimchi is one of those.  My parents were adventurous eaters (probably where I got it from), and one of their favorite dishes was Kimchi--a very gawd awful pungent stinky smelly fermented cabbage Korean dish my dad discovered on his travels.  My entire family loves Kimchi; my entire family that is, except for me.  I can't stand the smell of Kimchi!  And every time we had it at the house, my mom would make sure I would get a different, separate dinner that I would eat outside the house, away from the horrid, ghastly, putrid death and spoiled stench of Kimchi.  In spite of these set backs in my food adventures, I can say that for the most part, I've succeeded in meeting the challenges of eating new and foreign treats.

Graduate's family were among the many who introduced me to new and exotic dishes.  The first time I was introduced to Graduate's parents, four of us were working on a history project for school.  Graduate wanted us to work at her house, since it was central and about equidistant from the other 3 of us in the group.  It made sense, so we went to her house to work on the project.  During a break, her mother served us the usual stir fried dishes of rice, chicken, beef, and pork.  But then she introduced the 3 of us to the most amazing, tender, and flavorful stew of baby octopuses and squids.

It was just unbelievable how delicious and tender and savory those baby cephalopods were.  Now, I've eaten adult octopuses and adult squids before cooked in various ways--stewed, grilled, roasted, and dried--and they were tasty and flavorful eats.  But I've never had baby octopuses and baby squids before, and the way they were stewed was just an amazingly rich and savory experience that was new and delightful and such an eye opener.  Over the years, Graduate's family continued to introduce me to other new dishes, like chicken feet and bird's nest soup.  To be honest, I prefer the gelatinous chicken feet to the meh tasting regurgitated bird saliva soup.  Bird's nest soup is really made from a bird's nest, and that nest is created from the saliva the bird throws up and lets harden to create its nest.  At least the chicken feet are packed with flavor.

Every time I share a meal from different cultures, I come away feeling good, having sampled some amazing dishes and usually learning something new about a dish or ingredient or cooking technique.  It's a great learning experience; but not all learning experiences are great.  As I've learned the hard way over the years, there are times when I need to stop and ask myself, "What the hell am I doing here?" and "What the hell am I thinking?" when it comes to certain dishes.  Like the time I was offered a sea cucumber fermented (spoiled) in the sun inside a glass jar.  It not only looked disgusting, but the stench was strong and off putting, like Kimchi.  I just couldn't bring myself to try it.

The same can be said for when I was offered a bit of an artisanal maggot infested cheese.  That's right; maggots in the cheese!  And it was a very expensive cheese; you'd think that for a cheese that costs so much they could keep the flies and maggots off it.  But nope; I was told that is what made the cheese unique (and expensive), the freakin maggots!  I could see them crawling in the moist, spongy parts of the cheese; but what really put me off was the strong ammonia scent of the cheese; it reminded me of industrial strength bathroom cleaners.  Hell, even Pine-sol smelled a lot better than that fancy cheese.  The overpowering pungent scent made my eyes water and I just couldn't get past that burning, chemical stench to attempt swallowing maggot cheese.  I couldn't bring myself to taste it; it just smelled too awful!  No, thanks.  I'll stick to the processed stuff that comes in individual plastic wrapped slices.

Thankfully, those off putting experiences are very far and few in between.  And it's been a very long time since I've had to question my food choices.  That is until I was confronted by a new dish prepared and offered by Graduate's mom when I sat down for dinner.

In addition to the usual stir fried rice, pork, beef, chicken, and vegetable dishes, there was new dish I had never seen before.  Graduate had to excuse herself from the table to take a call.  Graduate's mother, in her heavily accented English, explained that the new dish I was seeing was made of pork, "It's from the pig."

Sure it was, except it was really all pork offal.  Offal is made up of the internal organs and non-skeletal muscles of an animal, parts such as the stomach, heart, brains, intestines, liver, lungs, kidneys, etc.  Stop making that disgusted face and ewww sounds.  If you've ever had a hot dog, sausage, or bratwurst, then guess what?  You've had offal!  That includes vienna sausages, cocktail sausages, and breakfast sausages.  Processed meat is made up of offal.  And if you've ever eaten spam, bologna, salami, and pepperoni, then you've eaten offal, my friend.  Yummy delicious animal innards, mmmm!  Offal, when prepared right, is absolutely fantastic and flavorful.  You know what else is offal?  Sweetbreads.  Which is really the thymus gland and pancreas of an animal.  Talk about a misnomer, there's nothing sweet or bread like about sweetbreads.  So why call them sweetbreads?  Because it sounds a lot better than thymus and pancreas on a plate.

As an aside, I really hate it when misnomers occur in food.  Imagine my disappointment when I found out that sweetbreads wasn't really a sweet bread or jelly roll, but the thymus gland and pancreas of an animal.  Thankfully, sweetbreads is scrumptious when fried.  But I still do not appreciate the mismatched name.  You know what else was a big let down?  Breadfruit.

When I went to a luau on vacation, I was offered breadfruit.  I imagined a pastry roll full of pineapples or berries or mangoes or apples or other delicious sweet fruits.  But nope.  Wrong again.  There was nothing bread like or sweet about breadfruit.  Granted, it is a fruit from a tree, but it's not sweet; you can't eat it raw; it's about the size of a football, and to eat it, you have to cook it.  It's more baked potato like in consistency when boiled, sort of light and fluffy and spongy when baked, and it fries up nice and crispy when sliced thinly, which is my favorite way to eat breadfruit, as fried breadfruit chips.  Come to think of it, just about anything deep fried comes out tasty and delectable.

And while I did enjoy eating both the boiled and baked breadfruit dipped in coconut milk sauce and palusami (a spinach dip like dish made of soaked taro leaves wrapped around a coconut milk mixture with onions, salt, and sometimes, some meat or fish or poultry all baked in a umu or underground earth oven); and sure, breadfruit was a fantastic, tasty side dish to the grilled mahi mahi, garlic and onion stir fried shrimp, and kalua pork, I was still a little pouty that it wasn't a sweet roll dessert like the name implied.  If you're going to call something breadfruit, then by gawd, it better be some sort of bread with a delicious fruit stuffing!

You know what else is a misnomer?  Chinese parsley.  There's nothing Chinese or parsley about it. It's just coriander!  Fraking cilantro!!!

Back to the dinner, I took some of the prepared pork offal and had a taste.  It tasted amazing, so savory and sweet and sour and spicy at the same time.  It was a sensational hit in my mouth.  I liked it a lot!  I told Graduate's mom that the pork was just delicious and so full of flavor.  She laughed and said thanks.

As I continued eating the pork offal, I tried to discern some of the ingredients that went into making this fantastic dish.  I could tell there was garlic and onion and ginger in the dish; and Graduate's mom verified my findings.  I tried to guess some of the other unique flavors, some of which were very subtle but familiar, while others were foreign yet completely welcomed on my palate.  I guessed there were Szechuan peppercorns and salt and hints of soy and fish sauce; and I was right, as Graduate's mom told me.  I ventured if there was sugar added, and yes, just a tiny amount along with some lemon juice for that hint of citrus flavor.  It was becoming quite a challenge to identify the last few ingredients.  In addition to the hint of sugar, I guessed that there was cinnamon with that distinct sweet and spicy flavor, along with perhaps some cloves, because I had seen her use those two spices before in her cooking.  Graduate's mom said that I was tasting cinnamon and cloves.

But I could not figure out what the remaining ingredients were.  There was a unique taste, that had a very familiar undertone, like I had tasted it before, only I could not for the life of me remember what it was.  Then it dawned on me why it tasted familiar.  I asked Graduate's mom if she had used any fennel in the dish, and she replied yes, she had.  I was ecstatic that my taste buds were getting so good at detecting these exotic ingredients that went into making this very savory and sweet and spicy dish.  But there was still that one flavor that eluded me, and while I thought it was fennel, it was somehow similar, yet different, almost more pungent in its undertones.  There was a secret ingredient, I was sure.  But I could not figure out what it was, no matter how hard I racked my brains to figure out what it could be.

I was all ready halfway through eating my bowl of tasty and richly flavored pork offal.  So I finally asked Graduate's mom, "You know, I think there's one more ingredient in there that I just can't guess what it is.  It seems familiar but new to me at the same time.  Is there something else that was added to make the dish taste so wonderful and full of flavor?"

Graduate's mom replied, "Oh yes, the last ingredient; it's the only one you haven't guessed yet.  I'm not sure if you've ever had it before, but it's a really strong flavor," she paused, leaned in a bit like she was about to reveal the secret ingredient.  She looked me in the eyes and said, "It's the anus"

I was like, 'Say what?'  In my head I thought, maybe I heard her wrong.  But she continued, "The anus adds more flavor to the pork."

Nope.  I heard her right the first time.  She said the secret ingredient was anus!  Oh, my gawd!  I was eating a pig's anus!  At least I think it's a pig's anus; for all I know, it could be the anus of another animal that was used to flavor the offal!

Now I've eaten many strange things over the years.  I've had pig's feet, and I've had pig's tail (which is best when it's crunchy from being roasted or fried); sea turtle (which surprisingly tasted a lot like a lightly salted beef and pork meat combo in a savory stew); eels (I like 'em grilled or fried); grubs (stir fried is the best way to enjoy their fatty, sweet, woodsy goodness); crickets (chocolate covered or twice fried are the best with the legs removed); horse (it was just like beef in a roast); alligator (so tasty when deep fried; then again, isn't everything tasty when it's deep friend?); sea worms (best when stir fried or baked with a yummy briny taste when eaten raw); sharks and stingrays (grilled and in soups);  roasted moose (which has a strong gamey, tasty flavor); and barnacles, the crustaceans that grow under boats and on whales and sea rocks (and because they are crustaceans, they taste like crab).

Sure, I've eaten some bizarre and exotic things.  But never, ever, could I recall an instant in my food adventurous life where I had eaten an anus!  I quickly thought about hot dogs, but no, I'm pretty sure they don't add anuses in the hot dog meat.  How could I be so sure?  Because I recall a conversation some friends and I had back in college.

We were discussing the worst jobs we've ever had, and the winner was a friend from up north.  One summer, he worked at a meat processing plant just outside of Chicago.  His job was to operate the machine that ripped the anuses off the cow carcasses.  The reason being that the anus was too tough to be used in the offal and left over meats and gristle bits that were made into a meat batter, that would be transformed into hot dogs and sausages.  That's right; the anus is too tough for the meat batter that is turned into delicious hot dogs and sausages.

But if I was hearing things right, Graduate's mom had somehow found a way to incorporate that tough anus into a savory, tender, delectable meal.  My gawd!  I didn't know whether to throw up or be impressed!  I try very hard not to be judgmental when it comes to different cultures and their unique dishes.  Some people eat cows; others worshiped them.  I couldn't deny that the pork dish was still tasty enough that I couldn't stop eating it, even though a part of my mind was screaming, 'Dude!  You're scarfing down anus!'

Still, I recognized that it was a well seasoned and prepared anus; perhaps the preparation was key to making the anus taste so good and tender.

So I asked Graduate's mom how she prepared and cooked the dish.  She proceeded to describe how she quickly stir fried the veggies and herbs; removed them and then quickly browned the pork offal.  Then she proceeded to use the liquid ingredients with some water to slowly braise the offal with the veggies and herbs added in.  Low and slow for the next two to three hours, and the result was this excellent flavorful, rich dish.

I still needed some clarification on something, as there was one particular ingredient she didn't mention cleaning, so I asked her, "Do you wash the anus before you put it in?"

To my surprise, she shook her head and said, "No; you don't want to wash the anus; washing takes away the flavor.  You just put the anus right into the pot without washing it."

Oh. My. Gawd!  It was a dirty anus!  I was eating a dirty anus! 

She continued, "That's how you get the most flavor out of the anus.  You don't wash it and it makes a very strong taste in the pork."

I'll bet an unwashed anus has a strong taste!  I couldn't wrap my mind around the fact that she used an unwashed anus in the dish.  I immediately thought of all the germs that live in the anus and the diseases they caused.  My gawd!  I hope they at least gave that pig an enema before they took its anus!  I prayed that the long cooking time would've at least sanitized the dirty anus.

I asked Graduate's mom, "How did you get the anus?"

She answered, "Oh, they come in a package."

Anuses come in a package!?! I couldn't believe it, so I asked, "Where do you get the package of anus from?"

She replied, "From the Asian store.  All Asian stores carry the packages of anus because they use them a lot in Asian cooking."

Oh. my. Gawd!  They really do sell everything and anything at the Asian stores!  Now I've been to Asian stores before, and the big ones sell all sorts of exotic fruits and veggies and herbs along with live seafood, including fish and crustaceans and cephalopods and mollusks that I've never even seen before.  I've seen them stocked with lanterns, bamboos, aisles of soy sauces, a variety of dried and seafood flavored chips, exotic smoothies and drinks, dried lizards, and rows of alternative medicinal herbs and concoctions.  But I had never paid attention to the fact that they also stocked up on packages of anuses! 

Graduate's mom continued, "When you go shopping for anus, look for the really dark and brown ones.  You want to pick up the package and smell the anus.  The stronger the anus smell, the better the taste. When you get home, you just put them in a jar and close the lid tight so the anus flavor and smell will last longer."

It took all my strength not to fall out of the chair.  Good gawd!  Now there's a shopping tip I'd never heard before, and I wasn't sure if I wanted to use it.  So if I wanted to buy the best anus, I had to be sure to pick up the package and sniff it, to make sure that I buy the best anus, which will be the one with strongest smell!  I'm not sure what a package of anuses smelled like, but if it's anything like a live pig's anus, I don't think I'll buy any, much less get up close and start sniffing them in their packages!  No thank you; the food adventure stops here.

I still couldn't wrap my mind around it.  Anuses in a package?  Good gawd almighty!  I had to ask, "How do they make the anus packages?"

Graduate's mom answered, "They usually get them from farms when they are just right; dry them out; then put them in packages in the factory.  Then they ship them out to sell in the stores."

My gawd!  There are farms and factories harvesting and packaging anuses!  I didn't know which was worse, working on an anus harvesting farm or an anus packaging factory!  That they didn't wash the anus in the harvesting or packaging process was revolting!  Just dried anus!  Unwashed to maintain the strong flavor.  Ugh!  Try as I might, an unwelcomed thought popped into my head.  Were the dried bits in the anus the parts that gave the anus its strong flavor?  Blaaaaah!  I immediately banished that thought from my head and concentrated hard on other things.

I was done with the pork offal dish and started on the spring rolls and pot stickers and fried rice.  I deliberately focused on how tasty and delicious these dishes were and compartmentalized any more thoughts of pork offal into a deep corner of my mind, to be locked away, banished into oblivion, hopefully in a memory wipe.

By then, Graduate had returned to the table and we started discussing other things, like other family members I had met and some friends of ours and what was going on with them.  We laughed; we joked; we gossiped; we ate and we drank.  Dessert was a sweet and delectable flan.  When we were done eating, Graduate and I volunteered to clear the table and wash the dishes.

While putting the dishes in the dishwasher and putting the leftovers into the fridge, Graduate and I started talking.  I thanked her for inviting me over stay and for feeding me.  She asked me, "So did you like the food?"

 "Of course I liked the food," I answered, "I love the food your mom makes.  It's always so good and delicious."

"Good," said Graduate, "I'm glad you enjoyed it."

I continued, "But I have to admit, from now on, I think I'll just eat the food instead of trying to figure out what's in it."

Graduate looked at me with a question on her face, "What do you mean?"

So I told her, "Well, when I tried the pork dish tonight, it was delicious.  But I couldn't help but try to figure out what went into it.  And I kind of regret asking what was in it."

Graduate looked confused, "Why would you regret finding out what's in it?  There's nothing really strange that went into it, but the usual stuff."

And I thought, 'Of course she would think there's nothing strange in the pork dish; she's probably had anus lots of times before.'  So I told her, "Well, you might be used to it, but this is the first time I've ever eaten an anus"

Graduate looked at me like I had gone crazy, "Say that again?", she asked me.

So I reiterated, "I said you might be used to it, but this is the first time I've ever eaten an anus."

Graduate still looked at me kind of crazy, "What makes you think that you ate an anus?"

Now I was confused.  Surely Graduate must've had some of the pork offal dish that was on the table.  Or maybe she didn't. So I explained to her, "That pork dish your mom made; when I asked her what was in it, she told me that in addition to the usual cinnamon and cloves and spices, she also put in some anus, for that strong flavor."

A look of clarity blossomed on Graduate's face.  Suddenly, she burst out laughing.  I didn't get what was so funny, but Graduate was in a full hearty laugh roll.  She saw my confusion but kept on laughing.  She was laughing so hard that she could barely stand up.  She opened a cupboard and pulled something out.  In between her gasps from laughing so hard, she held up a bottle to me and exclaimed, "It's not anus!  It's anise!  Star anise!"

And sure enough, the bottle was labeled star anise, a herb!  Not a pig's anus as I had feared.  I joined Graduate in her laugh as we discussed the horror I had experienced during dinner when I thought I was eating an anus, and a dirty anus at that!  A dirty anus that from a pig that was raised on a farm and then harvested, dried, and packaged in a factory for sale.

Graduate stopped laughing long enough to say, "You know that my mom has a thick accent!  I can't believe you thought she had cooked you some anus!"

We started another round of laughter.  Graduate went on, "What makes you think that my family would ever serve you some anus?"

I replied, "Well, you did serve me bird vomit soup.  Who's to say that you wouldn't serve me something else that came from the opposite end?"

Graduate started laughing again and then said, "Even if it was an anus,  I can't believe that you would actually eat it and keep on eating it after you found out what you thought it was."

So I told her, "Hey, if all anuses tasted this good, I would definitely try some more in the future!"

What can I say?  I'm just adventurous like that.  The lesson in this story:  If it tastes good, then eat it.  And unless you're allergic to it, you don't always need to know what went into it.


 Related Links:
Curious Cooking Creations
One Night in Bangkok

Friday, August 1, 2014

Gone Bananas

I was eating lunch with some coworkers, sitting at the table, cracking jokes, talking about work and life and nothing in general.  It was the usual lunch time banter, meant to relax and entertain us until it was time to head back to work.  Same old, same old...right up until I reached for my banana and started to peel it.

That's when my colleague--who I shall refer to as Coll--suddenly stopped telling us the story of the fish he caught (and lost) last weekend; his eyes got big and he exclaimed, "Dude!  You are freaking Tarzan!"

I was confused, and so were my other two coworkers, at Coll's sudden outburst.  But Coll continued, "You, man!"

He was addressing me, which only confused me even more, so I asked, "What?"

"You!", he declared, "You peel your banana the wrong way!"

Once again, I asked, "What?"

"You peel your banana the wrong way!", he insisted.

At this point, I looked at Coll like he'd done lost his damned mind.  My other two coworkers were also giving Coll the same look.  But Coll explained, "You peeled your banana from the top, instead of the bottom, where the stem is.  You're suppose to peel a banana from the stem end!"

Okay, now I know he's just crazy.  The other two coworkers were now looking at the banana in my hand.  I told Coll, "Dude, there's no right or wrong way to peel a banana.  Just as long as you get the skin off and get to eat the banana, it doesn't really matter which end you peel first."

But Coll insisted, "No, you're supposed to peel the stem end first, jungle boy.  That's why there's a stem!"

"Says who?", I asked, "Who decided that the stem end was the right way to peel a damned banana?"

"It's just the way it's done," said Coll, as if that would settle the matter.

"No, that's not just the way it's done," I replied, "There are many ways to peel a banana.  I just peel off whatever end is easier to remove."

"The stem end is the easiest end to remove!", insisted Coll.

"No, it's not," I told him, "It's easier to just pinch the top end open, then start peeling from the top to the the stem end.  The stem is just there to hold the banana to the rest of the bunch.  And sometimes, the stem is lost when pulling off the banana from the bunch, and when that happens, it'll be easier to peel the skin off from that end since the skin will be broken there.  Anyway, when you pinch and peel from the top, you don't get those annoying skin strings that come from peeling the stem end first."

"And how do you know that?", Coll challenged.

So I answered, "Because we grew bananas on the farm when I was growing up.  All kinds of bananas--big, small, medium and in a range of colors from green to orange to yellow and even red.  And I've peeled and ate them all in many different ways, and pinching the top end to start peeling is the easiest way to skin a ripe banana.  So yeah, I know a little something about bananas."

Coworker number three interjected his support of my argument by revealing, "When I was in the jungles of Central and South America, I saw how the monkeys peeled their bananas.  And they always peeled from the top end first."

There, I thought.  That settles that stupid argument.  But I was wrong. 

After lunch, we returned to work, where Coll discussed with the others what had gone down and ignited the great 'Right way to peel a banana' office debate that took up all afternoon and was not settled when it was time to clock out.

I didn't know whether to be amazed or disturbed that my coworkers seemed more fired up about the right way to peel a banana than they were about doing their work.  Even several supervisors and a manager got involved in the crazy banana peeling debate.  A few times, the debaters got so animated in their arguments, waving their hands wildly and being loud that I actually thought I was in the jungle looking at a bunch of screeching, hooting monkeys!  Everyone in the office had gone bananas!  B-a-n-a-n-a-s!

We didn't reach a consensus at the end of the day.  Daylight come and me wanna go home.  A few people sided with Coll, that peeling a banana stem end first is the right way.  Some sided with me that pinching and peeling the top end first was the simplest way to skin the banana.  And a few others also shared my point that it didn't really matter which end you start peeling, as long the skin is removed and you can eat your banana.

I've never really given much though to the merits of peeling a banana.  Really, all I'm focused on is removing the skin so I can eat the sweet, delicious banana.  But now I'm curious.  How do you peel your banana?  And why do you peel it that way?  And other than eating it by itself, what's your favorite way to use your banana?  Mine is to mash up the really ripe ones and adding them to a pancake batter to make banana pancakes.  What about you?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Easy Eats

The fabulous and fantastic MJ asked for tips on easy, quick entertaining.  Here are some tried and true quick meals I've made for easy, casual entertaining for a party.  I find finger foods and appetizers are perfect because they're easy to make, and I can mingle with guests.  I like to wrangle a guest or two to help pass out drinks, to make sure everyone's glass is full.  It helps break the ice and makes some people feel like they are doing an important job at the party.  They are.

I like to serve meals buffet style or family style, everything on the table and everyone can help themselves.  Or I just wrangle another guest or two to pass out the appetizers at the beginning, then everyone can help themselves to the food at the table.

Here are my easy eats dishes, ranging from easy no cook meals to ones that require a little bit more effort:

Dip & Eat

1. Buy celery and chop into stalks (I like to keep the leaves on the stalks; or just buy celery stalks) and buy baby carrots (or regular carrots, then peel and chop into baby size)
2. Serve with dipping sauce of choice: ranch, thousand island, cheese, and for a sweeter flavor, peanut butter.
I've also toasted bread, then cut them into 1 inch wide slices to dip in sauce to eat.

Cheese & Crackers

1. Buy a box of Ritz or unsalted saltine crackers (usually come in a box of 4 packets)
2. Buy a small rectangle of cheese (Cheddar, Colby Jack, Swiss, etc), cut into thin, small squares/rectangles small enough to fit on cracker. Or use Cheeze Whiz or any cheese spread you like on the cracker.
3. Peel and cut cucumbers into thin circles. I find 1 large cucumber is almost enough for each cracker packet.
4. Cut tomatoes (I like roma, or use any variety you like) into slices small enough to fit on cracker.
5. Assemble from the bottom up: Cracker, cheese, cucumber, then tomato. Serve on a large tray or plate.
You can make this up to at least a hour to half an hour before the party.

Pork Sliders

1. Buy breakfast sausage patties (the kind that is all ready cooked; they are more flavorful and you can just microwave them! I like pork; you can use whatever you cooked meat you like). Buy enough for your guests.
2. Buy a package of rolls small enough to fit the sausage patties (the ones common around Thanksgiving that you just brush with butter and heat in the oven will work). Or just buy a loaf of sliced bread and trim them to size. Or get those small frozen mini waffles that you can toast.
3. Sauce or condiment of choice: My go to is mayo ketchup mix--equal parts mayo and ketchup mixed together, the poor man's thousand island; use thousand island; or even avocado or guacamole; Sriracha for some heat. With mini waffles, I've used maple syrup or honey.
4. Cook/Microwave sausage patties. Cut rolls in top and bottom halves to make buns for patties. For extra flavor, toast the rolls lightly (I like to butter the inside ends that will hold the patty and lightly toast the buttered sides down in a pan on the stove-top or on a baking sheet buttered sides up in the stove; or just lightly toast the bread before trimming them to size to fit the patties; save the toast trimmings for use as bread sticks to dip in sauce).  Spread sauce on the toasted buns, then put the cooked patty between the bun slices to make your sliders (small hamburgers).
5. Optional toppings for flavor: pickles, onions, bacon, tomatoes, shredded cabbage/lettuce, stir fried bell pepper slices, caramelized onions, cheese, potato chips, fries etc.
You can make these an hour before the party; just keep them in a warm oven to keep warm.

Pigs in a blanket

1. Buy 2 cans of Pillsbury crescent rolls
2. Buy 2 packs of hot dogs (8 hot dogs/pack usually).
3. 8 slices of cheese, each cut into 6 strips.
4. Preheat oven to 375F or according to crescent roll directions.
5. Slit hot dogs to within 1/2 inch of ends; insert 3 strips of cheese into each slit.
6. Unroll dough into triangles. Wrap dough triangle around each hot dog. Place on ungreased baking sheet, cheese side up.
7. Bake at 375F for 12 to 15 minutes or until golden brown or according to crescent roll baking directions.
You can make these at least an hour in advance before the party, just keep them warm in a warm oven.

For Piglets in a blanket

1. Buy 2 cans of Pillsbury crescent rolls
2. Buy 2 packages of Lil Smokies or enough for 48 sausages (cocktail sausages, usually 48 from two 14oz packages)
3. Preheat oven to 375F or according to crescent rolls directions.
4. Unroll dough into triangles. Cut each triangle into 3 very narrow triangle strips.
5. Place sausage on widest side (base) of triangle strip and roll up to the point or tip of triangle. Place pointed side down on ungreased baking sheet.
6. Bake 12 to 15 minutes or until golden brown or according to crescent rolls directions. Remove from sheet and serve warm.

Bacon Dogs

1. Buy 2 packages of hot dogs (8 hot dogs/pack usually)
2. Buy 1 package of bacon or enough for 16 slices (usually 16 slices/package)
3. Butterfly the hot dog (Slit it halfway deep from end to end to open the hot dog like a book)
4. Wrap or coil 1 strip of bacon around each butterflied hot dog. Stick toothpick through bacon at ends of hot dog if you find that you need to secure the bacon to hot dog. Just remember to remove toothpick if you use it before serving.
5. Heat frying pan on Low heat with 1 Tablespoon of vegetable oil (enough oil to lightly cover the bottom of pan); place bacon dog opened end down first into frying pan. Fry until bacon is crispy to your preference. Flip hot dog over carefully to crisp other side.  Remove after other side is done crisping.  You many need to remove excess oil if you have more hot dogs to pan fry.
6. Serve warm.  Optional toppings: cheese, onions, sauerkraut, etc. Use condiment or sauce of choice. Serve over toasted hot dog buns or with a side of baked potato. I make these about 2 hours in advance of the party at the latest and keep them warm in a warm oven.

Easy Baked Microwave Potato

1. Wash and scrub enough potatoes to fit in the microwave (start with 4 to 6 fist size Idaho russet potatoes). Use a fork to poke holes through potato to pierce the skins (it doesn't have to be a deep poke; just enough to break through the skin).
2. Place cleaned, poked potatoes on microwave safe dish in microwave.  Use the potato setting on microwave. If your microwave doesn't have a potato setting, I find that microwaving the potatoes 6 to 8 minutes is enough to cook them, depending on your microwave strength. Adjust cooking time accordingly, until the potato is fork tender (you can poke the potato with fork and the fork goes into the potato easily).
3. Serve warm with toppings of butter, salt, pepper, parmesan or other cheeses, sour cream, tatziki sauce, or favorite sauce or condiment like mayo.

Roasted Corn (courtesy of LX's great easy recipe)

1. Buy corn still in the husks, enough for your guests.
2. Preheat oven to 350F
3. Bake unshucked corn for 35 minutes.
4. When done, remove husks and serve with melted butter, salt, pepper. I like to add options like mayo, parmesan, or a squeeze of lemon or lime.

These are a few of the easiest dishes I make for casual, easy entertaining.  Sometimes, I just make sandwiches, my favorite being a simple egg salad:

Egg Salad sandwich

 You'll need eggs, salt, pepper, mayo, and bread.
1. Put 3 eggs (or enough eggs for your guests; about 1 egg per sandwich) in a pot and fill with enough cold water to cover the eggs.
2. Place pot on burner and turn on heat to Medium.  Once the pot comes to a rolling boil, turn off the burner.
3. Leave pot alone for at least 15 minutes.  The residual heat will cook the eggs.
4. After 15 minutes, pour out the water from the pot. Shake the pot to crack the cooked egg shell.  Then turn on the cold faucet and let it fill up the pot with the cracked cook eggs.  Let the cold water run til it overflows out of the pot.  Then turn off the cold water and leave the pot with the cold water alone for at least 1 minute (up to five minutes).
5. After 1 minute under cold water, reach into the pot and give each egg a gentle squeeze to crack most of the shell.  This will make it easier to peel off shells.  Now peel off the shells and put the egg into a bowl.
6. Lightly salt and pepper the eggs; you can always add more after you mix it for taste.  Add 1 Tablespoon of mayo to eggs (I use 1 Tablespoon of mayo to every 3 eggs; adjust according to your taste); use a fork to mash the eggs and mayo into a well mixed, chunky mixture.  Taste. Season according to taste.  A great substitute for mayo is avocado.  It's creamy and delicious and healthy.
7. Spoon mixture between bread slices.  Sometimes I like to toast the bread slices.  Eat sandwich.  Optional toppings and condiments include: pickles, caramelized onions, tomatoes, cabbage, lettuce, potato chips, and even ketchup and thousand island dressing, etc.

I hope you find these easy eats helpful and tasty.