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Dispatch | 11.10.18

This week has felt like a decade. Between the midterm elections (I worked election night in the newsroom), yet another mass shooting, RBG breaking some ribs and near-continuous attacks on the free press, I’ve been high-key anxious all week.

There’s been some light, though: I finally got to write and publish a story about a question that’s been bugging me for ages, and got two cakes out of it, to boot. Alas, the photos accompanying the story are the last taken by my beloved camera before its internal sensors shattered. Besides work, I’ve been trying to stay afloat and manage my anxiety by staying off social media as much as possible, cooking at home and keeping things tidy (my favorite form of procrastination).

Lumix GF6 -- beloved

Non-Recipe

Cleaning out my fridge last week, I realized how much stuff we still had. I hate waste, so instead of ordering take out, I put together a big ol’ salad. Just as well, since I’ve been trying to work out more and curb my junk eating (hi, Halloween), but damn, do I hate salad. Salad is just not interesting to me, though I do love vegetables. It’s a paradox. Here, I roasted off some sweet potatoes in smoky gochujang, and tossed them with creamy Bulgarian feta, quick pickled shallots, pomegranate seeds and arugula. The still-warm potatoes lightly wilted the greens and melted the cheese, which made for a great balance in texture. When salad can be this laissez-faire, I’m all in.

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Music

It’s been fall for a minute, my favorite season. While a weekend getaway to Indiana two weekends ago provided a little bit of leaf-peeping, it wasn’t enough — I’ve been taking a lot of walks in the brisk, cold air to get my fill before winter comes. The below playlist is my attempt to capture the feeling.

Books

I’m closing in on my Goodreads challenge of 50 books this year. Right now, I’m at 33, with some lessons learned along the way. Mainly, I’ve come to terms with putting down books that I’m just not getting into. Case in point, I got 60 pages into a memoir before I realized I was just not jiving with the author’s story. On the other hand, I tore through Dietland, which follows Plum Kettle as she confronts her fatness and society’s demons. An exploration of fatness (and shame culture), Dietland is also a revenge fantasy of women tearing down the patriarchy with disregard to the rules men have arbitrarily created. Highly recommend. PS: The Hoopla app is wonderful — sign in with your library card (you have one, right?) and you can download a ton of ebooks and comics, which is how I was turned on to Dietland in the first place.

Podcast

With my anxiety on high, I’ve stopped listening to a number of daily news podcasts — I can’t subject myself to the deluge of information any more. The world sucks, I get it! Stepping back, even in this small way, is self-care. That said, if we’ve spoken about podcasts at all in the last year, I’ll have definitely recommended Thirst Aid Kit to you. Hosted by Bim Adewunmi and Nichole Perkins and now celebrating one year of lusting out loud, it’s a show that unapologetically explores desire and pop culture. Raucous, hilarious and so, so smart, Bim and Nichole explore the body of work (and bodies of werq) of celebrities, and how thirst can be so much more than just a pretty face — though obviously that’s a draw.

Richard Olney’s Infuriating Recipe for Mussels

In an attempt to clean up this blog, I took a look into my drafts. Reader, the terror of this particular corner of the internet strikes fear into my heart. The constant starts and the stops alone kill me! But *sigh*, therapy has taught me “done is better than perfect,” so in that vein, I’ll be publishing some of those drafts, as close to their “draft state” as I can reasonably stomach. Here, then, an entry from June 2015: 

I’m a way-late bloomer when it comes to this food thing. I didn’t go to culinary school, teaching myself from mostly from home. And while I eat at restaurants, it’s usually because a place looks charming, not because of its star-power (though I do try to make it to those, too). My food heroes growing up were Sarah Moulton and Emeril, and then your Julia Childs, your Jacques Pepin. As an adult, I predictably gravitated toward the contessa herself, Ina Garten, like a gay moth to the brightest disco ball.

But I had no idea about Richard Olney. Then, over a year ago , I came across him twice in short order. I first encountered him in the words of John Birdsall’s essay, America, Your Food is So Gay, published in Lucky Peach’s Gender Issue. The piece shed light on the work of Craig Claiborne, James Beard and Olney, three gay men who were influential in shaping America’s food identity. With the exception of Beard and some bits about Claiborne, I otherwise had no idea, about Olney in particular.

Then there was Luke Barr’s Provence, 1970, a narrative weaving of letters between Barr’s great-aunt, the storied food writer M.F.K Fisher and her best pals Child and Beard during one fateful winter in Provence. Olney — a trained painter and self-trained cook in the French tradition — makes an appearance, the book’s main source of friction. What I gleaned didn’t paint him in the best of lights: snobbish, meticulous to the point of condescending… Frankly? He sounded kinda bitchy.

But he also knew his way around a kitchen. When I finished the book and put the essay away, I only thought of Olney peripherally, until Ian bought us the 40th anniversary edition of his book, Simple French Food. 

Let’s just start by saying the title is anything but. “Simple” here does not mean a “set it and forget it” call to arms, but instead, a call for a simple list of immaculate ingredients prepped to the utmost of a cook’s ability, so that the food sings. It is a beautiful book, written in bitingly straightforward fashion with no sympathy for your lack of skills. In short, this book forces you to learn how to cook.

Ian cooked Olney’s “lobster dinner for two,” which included game hens, lobster and a raspberry coulis dessert from the French Menu Cookbook, which — duh — took a lot of work. When we picked up Simple, we thought we’d have a slightly easier time.

Not even remotely true.

Because there aren’t enough hours in a week and too many books to try, we’ve so far only really cooked one recipe: his mussels. You’d think this would be a hoot, as mussels are notoriously easy to prepare. Get your broth game correct and you’ll impart a wealth of flavors depending on your combo of aromatics, seasoning and broth-base. Folks will be impressed by the your Ina-level presentation of homey, elegant open shellfish swimming in bright, savory bath.

Let me reiterate: I. Love. Mussels. From Thai-style mussels, piquant spicy flavors of chiles commingling with creamy coconut milk and bright, citrusy lemongrass, to Belgian moules, with yeasty funky beer adding fruity, biscuity notes to the broth, or even French preparations, sing-songy with acidity from dry white wine, mussels in all forms are good. All easy to make.

Enter Olney.

His preparation of mussels—stuffed with spinach, hardboiled eggs and surprisingly, more mussels—reads simply on paper. There are very few ingredients, and the sauce is a quick preparation of butter, onions and pulpy tomatoes. It’s in the doing that you find out Olney is a real asshole.

Case in point? Bro had me stabbing open 50 or so fresh mussels, only to stuff them with their chopped up brethren, and then? AND THEN having me tie each bad boy up with twine. TWINE!

The elegance of mussels is the simplicity by which the dish basically builds itself. Got a bangin’ broth recipe you want to try? Whip it up any which way you like, add your mussels, wait until they open, and boom! Done. You’ve got a magical seafood dish with a rich liquid for sopping up with crusty, comforting baguette. If Olney were around, I would tell him to go fuck himself (not really, as I think he might be my type?) but I would argue against the merits of his prep.

It took me three goddamn hours to bring this dish to the table. By comparison, all of my other favorite mussel dishes take no more than 30 min, from shopping to slurping up the broth. And, to add insult to injury, the sauce wasn’t even in that good, and the stuffing we worked SO HARD to cram into the mussels I murdered with my knife just fell out into the broth anyway. Infuriatingly, we had the added task of UNWRAPPING our mussel packages that managed to stay open, instead of just, you know, EATING.

This recipe was an unnecessary exercise in rage.

While I respect what Olney has done for the culinary world, both as a cook and as a role model for aspiring LGBT food folks, if this was my first introduction to him, I’d chuck the book out the window.

How I learned to love coffee and get over myself

First read September 24, 2018, at Between Bites, a Chicago-based non-profit connecting communities and supporting charitable causes through food-inspired storytelling. Written and performed at the organization’s Fifth Anniversary event, which highlighted 5-minute long flash stories. 

When I was a freshman in college, I was a little shit. I wanted to trade my former good student, Sunday school volunteer life for something else. College was a chance to be a different person, right? But I overcorrected: I was arrogant, entitled, cocky.

I went from cargo shorts and Target-off-the-rack video game t-shirts, to denim and punny graphic tees from Ed Hardy and Abercrombie. It was 2003 and I thought it was not only appropriate but fucking hilarious to wear a shirt emblazoned with a topographic rendering of Iraq and the words “Baghdad Ass Up.”

Bagh. Dad. Ass. Up.

Oh, I also wore scarves. I lived in Southern California, by the way.

This new me was the absolute worst at Starbucks. Having never been a coffee drinker before college, I made sure to make it my business to show everyone I was “hip.” That’s what college kids did, right? Sip lattes disaffectedly while writing poetry from deep, faux leather armchairs? At least, that’s what I thought I was supposed to do. But because I didn’t like bitter flavors — remember, coffee newbie here — I was one of Those People who required a diagram for ordering a caramel macchiato.

Deep breath: 

Quad venti non-fat, no-foam, sugar-free, extra caramel, caramel macchiato. With whip. All these years later, I keep that order in my brain as a reminder of my odious shame. Sugar-free, extra caramel, people! I was a scourge, a ghoul.

One day, I was rushing to class, but I also wanted to look cool and, yes, hip. I was wearing some ridiculous sock scarf and a bright pink shirt that said “don’t hate me because I’m awesome,” and I needed (!) my caramel macchiato to complete my look. I think I had maybe 10 minutes to class, which seemed like enough time to run to the campus Starbucks. I was a snobby asshole to the barista — short, rushed, snide — and literally tapped my toes waiting for my drink. Finally, I got my drink and ran out the door, shuffle-running to the nearby crosswalk before it turned.

And then I tripped on a crack in the street. In a split second, I went from being so cool to so foolish, as my quad venti non-fat, no-foam, sugar-free, extra caramel, caramel macchiato — with whip — rained onto me as I tumbled head-over-heels into the middle of Fullerton Ave. There was a chorus of laughter, and my cheeks were hotter than the coffee running down my back. I was within the sightline of the Starbucks, and my baristo — to whom I had just been so horrid — ran out with a towel and helped me up.

“Are you hurt?” she asked. “Do you need anything?”

“No, no, I’m fine,” I insisted. “My butt and pride are bruised, though.”

She took me inside and helped me get myself in order, during which time, I profusely apologized for my earlier behavior. “I was a dick,” I said. “Yeah, you were, but this is what we call in the biz ‘growth,'” she laughed. I ended up not going to class that day, for obvious reasons, and I got rid of that shirt. (I also stopped wearing sock scarves, which was a wine for everyone.)

The following week, I applied to be a barista at that same Starbucks — I ended up working for the company through college.

And now? I prefer my coffee black and iced.

Photo by Alex Plesovskich on Unsplash

Finding center

I’m not a gym person and I hate joining groups, but for the first time since moving back to Chicago (when I was at my heaviest, 250 lbs.), I’ve plateaued. With that in mind, I finally motivated myself to do something I’ve always wanted to do but was scared to: Signed up for a hip hop dance class, where I’ll hopefully twerk off the 15 pounds to get me back to an arbitrary number I’ve dangled like a carrot for myself.
 
At my heaviest, my breathing was shallow and I felt awful, all of the time. I barely moved my body outside of walking to and from public transportation, while eating at all hours of the day, not to mention drinking casually because wine was always around. Surprisingly, in moving back, I dropped nearly 20 pounds in what I now believe was stress weight from living in NYC, from commuting 5 hours a day, from daily drinking 7 cups of coffee laden with sugar, from drinking wine on the Metro North train home because I “needed to unwind,” from eating junk food that filled emotional holes I didn’t want to acknowledge.
 
I consider myself hashtag blessed for being offered an opportunity that recalibrated not only my career, but my health and life.
 
Now, two years in and down a net 45 pounds, I’m exercising semi-regularly, plus eating and drinking with more intention. Wine is still around, though it’s only a glass or two in the evening, as opposed to the whole personal bottle(s) I was putting away before. My fitness plan is nothing crazy but something that works for me, at my pace (which is slow and deliberate): Swimming three to four days a week over spring and summer, getting off the train one stop sooner to get in more steps (or vice versa), and using a stationary bike at home a few times a week when I’m not being lazy. Throw in a couple yoga sessions here and there, and while we’re at it, special shout-out to therapy, self-reflection and self-care.
The weight loss has been welcome, but ultimately, incidental.
My journey hasn’t been about feeling fat or ashamed for getting to the size I got, but about not feeling like my body belonged to me. A lot of what I’ve learned in the last year is about being more present in my skin — of not ignoring signs like aches, pains, colds, hunger, fullness, sloth. Mindfulness is one hell of a drug — my anxieties aren’t as heavy as the sky, and feeling like I have two feet on the ground has been a boon for doing more, for moving more. For living. I’ve sloughed off so many of my own bad habits, and can happily say that every step has been less about image or even confidence — for the most part, IDGAF about my outward appearance, since I know I’m a cutie pie 💁🏾‍♀️💁🏾‍♂️💅🏾— but about getting back to center, which for me is figuring out how I feel when I’m at my best, and alternatively, how to get there when I’m at my worst.
 
I’m still not done with my personal work, of course, but that there’s more to do in itself feels grand.

The Unapologetic Lightness of Being

I was re-reading Stephen King’s On Writing over the summer — make it an annual or semi-annual habit, fellow writers — when a line struck me. In the second half of the book, after King lays out his abbreviated memoir, in the opening paragraph on his treatise of the writing progress, he says this:

“I can’t lie and say there are no bad writers. Sorry, but there are lots of bad writers. Some are on-staff at your local newspaper…” etc. etc.

Ouch. 

I’ve read On Writing, oh I don’t know, about a dozen times since it was published in 2000, but I guess I’ve glazed over this line. No big deal, normally. Except I’ve also been going to therapy for work-related anxiety. For my work as a newspaper writer.

That line was a blow I felt a little too deeply. Imposter syndrome is a bitch, folks.

I hear you get over it, eventually? At least, I feel like I have, in a huge way.

In early November, I had the honor of attending the Poynter Institute’s Power of Diverse Voices workshop, one of 15 other journalists chosen to deep-dive into four days of personal essay and opinion writing.

I went in with my usual bundle of nerves. I’m not good enough to be with these people. My writing is shit. Why am I bothering? What if they don’t like me? 

Well, friends, in reverse order, I think they liked me, and I bothered, and my writing wasn’t nearly as bad I expected it to be.

In case you’re unfamiliar, the Poynter Institute is a respected non-profit journalism think-tank that trains journalists and media professionals. Poynter hosts seminars and workshops all over the country, but the workshop I attended required traveling to the Institute’s home base of St. Petersburg, Florida, for four days of sun and sand. (Ha, just sun, but only barely.)

While the warm Florida sun blazed outside, enticing tiny lizards and birds to flit about on ground and sky, we journalists were inside, huddled in work groups poring over our words. Sessions varied, as did the instructors (audio training with Eric Deggans of NPR, column writing advice with Aisha Sultan of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, storytelling and focus with Tom Huang from Dallas Morning News), plus some serious time plumbing our depths as writers of color.

Poynter Power of Diverse Voices seminar.

My fellow journalists at the Poynter Power of Diverse Voices seminar.

It was this last point that I am trying to hang on to, like bottling lightning. I’ve never felt so charged, so sure of my faculties, as I did talking to my fellow POC writers. There was no explanatory comma, no having to educate, no emotional labor. These were people who understood the struggle of feeling othered in a newsroom. These were people who knew all too well the chest-crushing weight of Impostor Syndrome and it’s close friend, “Twice as Good” (as in, “to get half as far”). There was the work, and nothing else.

It was emotional. It was taxing. It was healing.

If only writing could be like that, all of the time.

On night one, Roy Peter Clark, legendary Poynter dean, instructor, VP and now, senior scholar, serenaded our group with a keyboard rendition of Smoky Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears,” before hammering home the weekend’s theme: Storytelling from the heart, speaking truth to power, the importance of exploring dangerous places in one’s writing.

The resonance this had on my weekend, as we collectively got braver with pen and paper, became clearer as I interacted and became friends with my fellows. While waiting for my connecting flight to Chicago in Baltimore-Washington airport’s cavernous, empty D gate, I wrote on my Instagram:

It’s too soon to assess what this weekend will do for my writing, but I can say my heart is full to bursting. I got on my flight from Chicago in the wee hours of Thursday morning, slightly terrified and intimidated by the 20 other award-winning journalists I’d be meeting over the course of the weekend, but now I’m waiting for my connecting flight, looking forward to the next time I see my new friends. I’ve been writing and working as a journo for about a decade now, and I think I’m pretty good, if I do say so myself, but I didn’t know how much I was missing, spiritually. How much I needed to be in a room with brown people from Champaign Urbana, from Atlanta, Toronto, Seattle, San Francisco, Albuquerque. From Pakistan, from India, from Taiwan, from Houston, from Delaware. I didn’t know how much I’d held in, held back. I didn’t realize the extent to which my chest felt constricted and heavy, an explosion waiting to happen. I didn’t realize how alone I felt as a brown gay immigrant journalist, how much I codeswitch not just in my everyday life but in my own writing. This weekend? I’ve cleared away so much of that mental and emotional detritus and see in front of me a clear path, more focused than I’ve ever hoped for. This, without exaggeration, was life-changing.

And just weeks prior, I had my first real breakthrough in therapy, specifically my keen search for my authentic self and voice in my writing. Added together, I realized that I’ve held back so much of who I am, in favor of some alternate-universe me that is more palatable to others. And I’m done.

I was done with the half-life of the closet a decade ago. I was done with the myth of the model minority at about the same time. But did my previous writing, personal and professional, reflect that? Was I brave enough to claim a space in a white-male-hetero- dominant world? I don’t think so, but as of this month, I’m done. Done being the timid human. Worse, the timid writer. The one I now believe to be the subject of Stephen King’s scorn.

There’s still a lot of work to do, but being unapologetically present in my writing is my first step. My new North star.

Using a different set of crayons

It’s National Coming Out Day, but I don’t want to talk about coming out, or at least the whole process of it. I want to talk about being gay.

It’s actually quite boring.

I put my pants on one leg after the other, brush my teeth more cavalierly than my dentist would like, butter my toast with abandon. I worry about my midsection, paying my bills, and the state of the world, but will full-on belly laugh if someone pronounces “dicks” just right. I have a system when shopping the grocery store (don’t make me veer from it), and I can’t carry a tune to save my life.

Everyday, I get to kiss my wonderfully goofy, brainy, sensitive boyfriend good night, then goodbye every morning on my way to work. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, half-asleep with racing thoughts, I’ll turn to my left and kiss his shoulder. He’ll grunt, and I’ll fall back asleep.

Besides the boy-love stuff, how is any of this gay? Well, it’s not. Not really, because being gay is as normal as being straight, as breathing. It’s incidental to my life, as well as that of many millions of others.

Being out, though? Being open?

That, friends, is magical and wondrous and joyous.

Not long ago, the choice of being out was ostracization, and quite literally death, or the lighter life sentences of conformity and silence in the closet.

Fuck those times and the system that built it.

Praise the universe that today, choosing between the closet or being out is more akin to sitting quietly and coloring within the lines with only gray crayons, or saying “fuck you” to the quiet, flipping the table and ripping up the coloring book.

Being out – as a gay man, or a lesbian, or a trans man or trans woman, or asexual or bisexual – is like saying “fuck your crayons, and the primary colors, too, I’ve got my own fucking paint set. Fuck your lines, I’m coloring on the walls, dummy! With CHARTREUSE.” (My significantly quieter significant other would disagree with me here, but I digress.)

Everyday is a choice to say fuck you to shame, fuck you to bigotry, but also hell yes to living, hell yes to me.

Being gay is normal. The ups and downs, though sometimes more acute, are also normal. Coming out, being out, is spiritual and special, a full-body experience that you never really forget, and one that changes you for the better.

Featured image by Alysa Bajenaru

BeRoll, Vol. 1

I love the b-roll feature over at Good Beer Hunting, these little vignettes that peek into the beer world with just the smallest bit of explanation. Who has time to show everything? Moments can be as special as the whole story, some times, more.

A friend and her boyfriend invited me and my own SO out to the ‘burbs this weekend (specifically, Barrington), to meet her friends and their animals. They have a charming little farm set behind their ranch house, with seven lambs, two goats, countless chickens and roosters and, most excitingly, two mini-horses named Penny and Stella.

“They used to be named Special and Delight, but they sounded like retired strippers,” said Pam, one of the owners.

We spent an hour or so feeding apples and Mrs. Pasture Cookies for Horses to Penny and Stella — “flat hands, unless you hate your thumbs,” said Suzanne, the other owner — and then spent the rest of the afternoon talking, laughing and drinking wine. I even got to ride a lawnmower, so all in all, Saturday was a Delight, or something.

feeing a horse a red apple