Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Yak Butter with a Side of Bison

I was walking, crunching steps, on the freshly packed snow at the foot of Jackson Hole’s ski mountain one morning last week. It was bright out, the sun shining after a night of snowfall; the whiteness hurt my eyes. The air was crisply cold; a gentle mist of snow was tossed up by the skiers frequently flying by towards the close base lodge. I was following a bright red coat in front of me, walking in a small group of fashionably dressed women. My dad and step-mom take a trip out west every year to ski with a group of their friends. My brother, step-brother, step-sisters and I often come along. Despite the fact that I couldn’t ski (tragic in the face of all that powder) because of my knee, I went to Wyoming for some not often had family time.

During the day, however, I found myself in an oddly formed group of fellow non-skiers, mainly stylish career moms married to the more fanatical powder hounds. Our group ‘walks’ mainly hovered around the cluster of shops near the hill. It was an interesting jump into an unaccustomed slice of life for me, being 20 years younger and infinitely less monetarily endowed. I had, in the end, a good deal of thinking time in the company of my misplaced self. My mind wandered in disjointed musings while on these walks, the smallest comment inspiring a multitude of thoughts.

One morning I met up with my fellow non-skiers, my bright orange shoulder bag dangling in my hand, prepared to later plant myself in a coffee shop with a book.

That’s a nice bag, Molly, said one woman, ripe in a lime green fur-lined parka and Burberry scarf. It’s very bright. Um, very bright. A small frown of disapproval.

Yes, Molly, very bright, said another. Her white fur lined parka glistened against the snowy background. Very earthy. It looks… Tibetan. You look… Tibetan. Eyebrows raised. Did you buy that there? Have you… been to Tibet?

I could see that ‘Tibetan’ was not meant, really, to be a compliment.

Thanks, I said smiling. But this bag is from Italy.


The small room was filled with smoke. The evening light was fading; only a trickle reaching us through the gaping hole in the roof. The hazy darkness filled the space, pushing against the dirt floor and walls, flickering hesitantly around the small cooking fire in the center of the room. I could hardly see the people surrounding me. Their talk was quiet, a melodious harmony of a Tibetan dialect that I could barely register. A heavy black pot of boiling water added its steam to the already viscous air. There were children; I smiled as they crouched behind their mother’s backs, confused by my new presence. There were women; dark skin toughened by the sun, dark hair wrapped tightly on their heads, traditional deep red chupa dresses were draped around their earthy bodies. They smiled, laughed, exclaimed and whispered. They looked at me intently, touched my large curly head of hair curiously. Small postcards of Buddhist gods, larger ones of the Dalai Lama were perched by the walls. Chipped china cups clinked; the small blanket I was sitting on was hard. I was overwhelmed.

It was July of 2000, and along with six other American students and two ex-Peace Corp members, I had spent three weeks backpacking up rocky paths into the mountain range of Nepal’s Dolpo region. We were in a land without roads or runways, too high for easy helicopter travel, most often traveled by yak herders and foot-bound salt traders. We reached a small village close to the Tibetan border after a good deal of freeze-dried chili and a slow trudge over an airless, 18,000 foot pass. It was one of the few remaining communities of pure Tibetan culture and language, untouched by the Chinese, protected by Nepal’s boundaries. Each member of the group was ceremoniously deposited with a local family in a small, stilted hut. We were intensively submerged in rural Tibetan farm culture for a few weeks while we taught English in the local school. I spoke close to zero Tibetan; it was my first time manning a classroom. We were some of the first foreigners to visit the village. My white skin and glow-in-the-dark wrist watch were alarming to those around me. That first night near the smoky fire of my host family was one of confused communication and the constant patter of gentle anxiety somewhere near my lungs.

That first evening, lost in the haze of smoky Tibetan chatter, I watched as a small blue cup, steaming with frothy tan liquid, was placed in front of me on the protective stone of the fire ring. Next to it a matching bowl was clanked down, filled with a light brown powdery flour.

The men of the village, mainly salt merchants, were on their annual trading pilgrimage across the border to Tibet and I was in a world of women. A small group of them clustered around the fire in my host-family’s hut; they stopped what they were doing and looked at me intently. I knew I was supposed to do something. I knew, from the instruction of my Peace Corp leaders, that it was a special guest’s honor to be served first. In that subtle realm of politeness, it was imperative that I finish with relish the food given to me. And so I clasped the cup, smelling a strikingly savory odor in its loud steam. Thu-chi che, I said; Thank you. The women giggled, watching. I took a sip. It was tea, but oh what a tea. My eyes watered, my mouth shocked by the unexpected intensity. It was my first, but certainly not my last, taste of the Tibetan staple. Yak Butter Tea - salted black tea churned with a thick chunk of yak butter.

The brawny, altitude-loving yak has withstood the difficult living situation of the Tibetan plateau for centuries in a way no vegetable ever could. Therefore, a huge hunk of the culinary tradition there hinges on that hairy animal. Over time, I became intimately acquainted with all sorts of yak products. Yak beef, yak cloth, yak-hair rope, yak cheese, yak milk, yak jerky, yak hide, yak labor, and of course, yak butter. Six years later, I still clearly remember the shock of my first slick gulp. The texture of its thickly coating bulk coupled with the salty tang of its uncommon butter makes for an alarmingly unexpected tea experience.

I smiled widely, though, hiding my initial distaste with an overwhelming show of gratitude. The women around me clapped with excitement. I felt happy. Everyone else began to eat; my attention refocused on the bowl of flour in front of me. Without some kind of visual lead I never would have been able to consume that bowl of tsampa with any kind of grace. Tsampa, a roasted barley ground into flour, is another staple of Tibetan diet in the Nepalese region I was in. I watched as my host-mother, her newborn baby girl cradled deftly in her lap, poured some of her thick tea into the bowl of tsampa, creating a more congealed, dough-like conglomeration. She ate it with her fingers, my eyes watching her every move. I imitated her, sucking the flour off of my fingers. It tasted nutty and dry, sticking slightly to the roof of my mouth, bland without the salty tea.

After a week of little beyond the yak butter tea and tsampa I was more than ready to never lay eyes on the combination again. But that first night, surrounded by a strange culture, crackling fire and giggling children, yak butter and barley flour felt like a strangely celebratory entrance into an unknown world.

I left that village in Dolpo with priceless teaching experience, a smattering of Tibetan language knowledge, a dire need for donuts, and a deeply embedded respect for the women I lived with. I have never seen such hard workers. I watched them working from dawn til dusk in the fields, eyes watering constantly from the smoky cooking fire, subsisting on little more than butter and flour. Even Lahkpa, my 8-year-old host sister, worked with amazing diligence, caring for her newborn baby sister. She walked me to school every morning even though her duties kept her from attending, her short black hair tussled, her little sister strapped to her back with a large, dirt stained cloth. The constant companion of Lhakpa’s crooked smile is something I will never forget. She was always smiling, laughing. Always singing and moving. Perhaps yak butter does more for you than the initial cringe would suggest.


Despite the time I have had in the last few months, I was surprised during my stay in Wyoming last week to feel as if I was finally able to think – to think about things far removed from health, doctors, future plans. I was pleased by the turns in my memory; I had not thought about Nepal or Tibet in a long time. Jackson Hole itself was accompanied by a grand number of buffalo burgers and elk steaks. Bison carpaccio was an interesting jump into the unknown for me. But nothing, certainly, could rival that past novelty of tsampa and yak butter. Wyoming couldn’t give me any yak butter tea, but it did give me a calm chunk of time to think (and a newfound love of chandeliers made with antlers, of course).

Friday, January 06, 2006

The Power of the Truffle

A bright copper pan was gently placed on the portable burner, perched on a cart, silently wheeled to the edge of our table. The tall, gray-haired waiter wearing a hefty black jacket and white apron synched around the girth of his belly dropped a generous dollop of butter onto the pan. As it melted, bubbling yellow, he picked up a shining metal instrument and a small bobble of bulbous black. In a theatrically rehearsed gesture, he slowly shaved the coveted black truffle over the sizzling butter. He lifted the heavy top off of another nearby pan, exposing a mound of freshly made, steaming pasta. The slithering strings of egg noodles were ceremoniously dropped into the truffled butter, tossed slowly and fastidiously over the low flame until the entire dish gleamed. The pasta landed with a calm flop onto an enormous white plate, placed neatly in front of the wide-eyed Charley, my mother’s hungry boyfriend. The waiter smiled as he shaved a bit more dark truffle on top. I drank the unforgettable, earthy aroma of truffles into my very pores. That pasta was not even something that I had ordered; I probably passed over the simple dish for something more complicated, something of which I have no memory. I did help Charley clean his plate, however. And that meal certainly stands out in my mind.

The rich aroma and deep flavor of truffles – mainly the scorzone estivo, or mild black truffle, harvested largely in the Umbrian countryside of Italy during the summer months – were constant companions in my trip this past August. A truffle-studded pecorino cheese with crusty bread and red wine for a tipsily picnic lunch; a light, crispy pizza bubbling from the wood-fired oven and covered in light, sliced truffle; truffle paste on crackers, shaved over pasta, prancing through my sun-induced afternoon dreams. Even while hiking each day through the crackling Umbrian woods, my eyes were constantly drawn to small neon-yellow rectangles of plastic perched on long metal skewers, nestled alongside the trails at regular intervals. Raccolata Tartufi Reservata, they said, humming with possibility. We were in truffle hunting grounds. There are truffles everywhere, I often told myself. Never really having experienced that uniquely earth-bound flavor before that trip, I thought of them with awe. I was surprised and delighted by their abundance. I loved imagining their delicacy constantly underfoot in the woods, on my plate in restaurants.


And so in the last few months, glancing at the small glass jar perched hauntingly on the window sill of my kitchen, its red cap softly shadowing a luscious black Umbrian truffle, I have felt a wave of sadness. The flavor of truffle, I can only imagine, comes mainly from its unique aroma. After all, around 70% of taste is appreciated through smell. An odorless truffle cannot stand alone. I would not go anywhere near the thing. Being physically close to that truffle, thinking even a tiny bit about what I had wanted to use it for made me angry. It represented the proof of my loss of smell. And this, somewhere in the back of my mind, felt as if it rendered my trip to Italy invalid. It made that wonderful time cease to exist. I didn’t move the jar, though; I didn’t want to touch it. That poor little truffle, still sitting so calmly on the window, took a lot of mental heat for things it had nothing to do with this fall.

The truffle and I, however, are now on better footing. We seem to have made some progress. Perhaps even a glimpse of friendship lurking close by.

I spent New Year’s weekend in New York City. A few days of friends, museums and champagne; it was boisterous, fun, far from being injured. I even wore heels (quite a feat after the past months of limping around Boston I must say). And on that Friday night my friend John and I went out for a cozy dinner in Little Italy. We split a bronzed pizza, gooey with mozzarella and mushrooms, sprinkled with rosemary and truffle oil. Delicious in its own right, of course. But when a vivid image of that large, truffle-shaving Italian waiter immediately came to mind as I chewed, swallowed and slowly exhaled, I knew it was a bit more than that. I could taste the truffle; a rich, familiarly earthy aroma traveled from the depth of my throat out through my nose. It tasted like Italy; it fairly tingled with possibility.


Recently I’ve been thinking about my smells that have returned. The scents that I can detect most strongly these days are all tied to meaning greater than a simple odor. The fruity tang of wine is a thousand memories of friends, family, travel and cooking tied up in each sip. Rosemary’s smell blew through my consciousness even more frequently in Italy than that of truffles; the wildly growing rosemary bushes perfumed my hair, clothes, thoughts. The subtle perfume of soap, one of the first odors I regained, is the comforting familiarity of daily clean. The scents of chocolate, coffee and cinnamon, slowly coming back around to my olfactory registration, immediately conjure up thoughts of home, winter evenings with my mom. Truffles have become Italy; a country I fell in love with while studying art history in Florence, a place I’ll always return to. And I can’t help but wonder why I am so lucky as to get back the smells that mean the most to me. It is as if my emotions, memories and thoughts (however unconscious) are influencing the speed and strength of my olfactory neuronal growth. A strange thought; one that my mother the psychoanalyst finds strikingly interesting and one that I would love to be true. If I think about it really hard, perhaps I’ll soon stumble onto the smell of freshly baked bread, warm out of the oven. If my subconscious has the power to reinstate the truffle, truly anything is possible.

A Finalist in the Food Blog Awards!

I recently found out that I was nominated and am now a finalist for Best Writing in the 2005 Food Blog Awards. I am surprised (and exceptionally excited) – thank you to all who nominated (and all who vote for) my little blog. I’m up against some big contenders in this category and feel quite honored to be amongst such wonderful writers. Vote away!

Monday, January 02, 2006

my favorite dishwasher

I was expecting a call from my father, my cell phone balancing expectantly on my knee as my mother and I drove the icy road to Vermont on Christmas Eve. When the clanging ring sliced through our festive background music of Handel’s Messiah, I picked up the phone quickly, ready to fill my dad in on the results of my week at UConn Taste and Smell Center. But instead of his usual loud phone greeting, I heard a crackling static and a quiet, Molly? Hola? Molly?

Yes? I asked, hesitantly, vaguely aware of the familiarity in the voice.

Molly? Hola! Como estas? And then it hit me; who else would call me speaking in a gentle Spanish? It was S., my dishwashing partner from the Bistro that I worked in this summer, a surprise call on a snowy Christmas weekend. I yelled out his name with an excitement that startled my driving mother, babbling my happiness at hearing his voice in an extremely incongruous Spanish-English-Italian mix. I had not spoken to him since my last day of work, over four months ago.

I surprised myself with the ease in which I could eventually switch to Spanish. Despite my meager understanding of the language, the majority of my vocabulary hinging on words pertaining to dishwashing, we had a working conversation. I filled him in on my accident, lightly, without much detail; he was shocked and delighted that I am now ok. He told me that The Chef is still loco y enojado; J. was fired a few months ago (as well as four other dishwashers who came one by one to replace me). S. is still in the dark hallway of the bistro’s prep arena every night, washing those heavy white dishes and chopping mounds of garlic and onions. It was somehow shocking to realize that the life I lead this summer still continues, simply without me there.

He recently acquired a phone, luckily having saved the phone number that I handed him on my last night of work in August. He called to say Feliz Navidad and to see how I was. I was touched to hear his voice, to hear his concern, to remember the unexpected connection of friendship that we made despite our difference in background and future.

Before hanging up, he softly, with clear intonation said Es bueno que usted no es un lavaplatos. Pero tu era mi favorito companero de trabajo. He never did understand why I was washing dishes with him, never thought it was a good idea for the chica pequena to haul piles of plates all hours of the night. He is glad that I no longer live that life. But the fact that I was his favorite gives me a glow of pride. I was surprised by his call; it hit me like the sudden shot of steam coming out of the bistro’s sanitizer door after a mountain of pots and pans were fitted in for cleaning. Except, I suppose, this burst of steam didn’t come into an exhausted face in a 112 degree kitchen at 2am. It was a deluge of comforting warmth on a chilly winter afternoon. I’m happy to know S. is doing well and that we have the ability to continue our mismatched friendship. It’s a good thought with which to bring in the New Year.