A = Asafoetida
Harold McGee writes that asafoetida is “the strangest and strongest of all spices,” bearing a “strong, sulfurous aroma reminiscent of human sweat and washed-rind cheese.” Asafoetida is also referred to as stinking gum or devil’s dung, which gives an approximate idea of its odor prior to cooking, though I’m told it’s actually very nice when cooked. In college, I worked in a market that sold herbs and spices by the ounce. We kept the spices in Kerr jars with gleaming golden lids. The market is no longer there, and, even though I really didn’t enjoy the aroma of refilling the asafoetida jar, I mourn its demise.
B = Blood
My son, Kai, is learning to read, and, as part of the process, I am relearning to read. Kai reads the word blood as ‘blewd.’ This makes sense: ‘oo’ means ‘ooh.’ It fascinates me to watch him as his brain picks through the intricate web of the English language, which has so many different, conflicting rules governing simple combinations of letters.
C = Ciabatta and Chop Suey
The word ciabatta makes me want to kiss someone. I admire the sound of the word as much as the bread itself; not many words produce a similar effect. Ciabatta also awakens my irrepressible affinity for word play: Ciabatta incites in me a cacophony from the cockles of my heart to the core of my coccyx. Never dangle enticing words in front of a word lover: terrible consonance results.
Chop Suey is my favorite food to slander when my self-esteem draws low. I say, “What am I, chicken chop suey?” and everyone laughs. Except maybe me.
D = Decrashuns
Kai wrote his first story in kindergarten this year. I was proud to the point of bursting. Here is his story: “It was my dad’s birthday but my mom was sick so I went to the stor to by partey decrashuns and a cake. My dad was so happy he gave me a big hug.” This story is gloriously original and bears only two falsehoods: I am rarely sick and Kai cannot drive.
E = Effervescent
I am ebulliently and effusively effervescent.
F = Fava Beans
Quick! What’s the first thing you think of when you hear ‘fava beans’? For me, it will forever be chianti.
G = Ginger
Great rhizome, great dried spice, great color, great adverb. Also, my favorite character on Gilligan’s Island.
H = Hasenpfeffer
According to my dictionary, hasenpfeffer is “a stew of marinated rabbit meat garnished usually with sour cream.” It comes from the German words: hare’s pepper. I have never eaten hasenpfeffer, but I like to say the word. It reminds me of that Loony Tunes episode where a heavily abused Yosemite Sam fails to procure hasenpfeffer for the angry king and Bugs Bunny uses his wiles to trick the king into thinking that carrots are hasenpfeffer. The episode was called “Shishkabugs.”
I = Ibis
An ibis is a bird that has long, stick-like legs and a long curved beak; is indigenous to waterways; and was at one time revered as sacred. The Ibis is also the name of the shop I worked in throughout college. I started there as a barista, but found that I preferred working on the market side. In addition to the herbs and spices we sold, the market offered fresh feta cheese and olives by the pound, bulk dried beans and rice, and various gourmet items with pretty French labels, which at the time I considered very exotic. I didn’t appreciate those beautiful raw ingredients enough during my years working there. Sulfurous asafoetida powder, dried juniper berries, lovely stars of anise, red lentils, adzuki beans, basmati rice… The market no longer exists; it has since been remodeled into a more profitable café venue. Sometimes I feel like a jerk for not fully appreciating all the market had to offer. See also Idiot.
J = Juniper
Juniper berries make me think of my ex-boyfriend Jeff – all the hard, spicy ways we fell apart. He was a chef. He looked at me like a starved wolf. I should have known better.
K = Kodachrome
I don’t care what anyone says about Paul Simon. I am physically unable to prevent myself from singing the “Kodachrome” song when I hear it. I hear this song and dance through grocery store aisles; I hear this song and have never felt happier to see English muffins and small white tubs of Greek yogurt. What is wrong with expressing appreciation for nice, bright colors and the greens of summer, for thinking that all the world’s a sunny day? What do I care if a musician writes a song that is actually – heaven forbid – financially profitable? Why do people have to be such haters?
L = Libation
A shot glass delivers a Lilliputian libation.
M = Mother
At the Ibis, we kept olives brined in large gallon jars, which we stored in refrigerated cases, shielded from the sun. The brines sometimes harbored strange substances on their surfaces. When I brought these particulates to the attention of my boss, she shrugged and said, “Oh, that’s just the mother.” I thought I misheard her. I have sifted through many dictionaries and encyclopedias, learning nothing about mother except this possible connection: “noun: a stringy, mucilaginous substance consisting of various bacteria which forms on the surface of a fermenting liquid and causes fermentation when added to other liquids, as in changing wine or cider to vinegar.” Harold McGee says nothing about mother, but notes that olives are often fermented, requiring a “slow alcoholic fermentation that takes as long as a year.” Since my former boss was – and is – a very knowledgeable person with epicurean savvy well ahead of her time, I readily accepted her diagnosis of the state of the store’s olives. Now you know. That weird-looking scum floating on top of the olive brine? That’s mother. “Mother” is also a kickass Danzig song.
N = Nicotine
The Science of Good Food reports: “Eggplant, one of the more benign members of the notorious nightshade family, is neither addictive nor poisonous like its relatives tobacco leaf and deadly nightshade… Eggplant contains more nicotine than any other vegetable, about 0.01%, which is negligible compared to the amount inhaled through passive smoking.” Now I understand my fondness for eggplant – it’s magically addictive.
O = Olives
Not to harp on olives, but did you know that olive trees can live for a thousand years? The University of Arizona campus in Tucson, Arizona, is thick with well-established olive trees. In the spring, small bright yellow flowers blossom on green branches. The exposed roots of the tree’s trunks are gnarled, welcoming seats for those in need of shade.
P = Poppies
Morphine is derived from the opiates contained in poppies. My husband, who recently experienced the intense pain of kidney stones, says that morphine is the greatest substance on earth; ergo, poppies are medicine’s greatest flower. According to him, the morphine administered to him in the Emergency Room took his pain away in 30 seconds.
We have a poppy patch in our backyard. As summer approaches, the patch shoots out pale green, alien-like egg-shaped sacs on long spindly stems. Everything is covered in dense fuzz. On one special day in early summer, the luscious red flowers ‘pop’ open, revealing their black pollen in a glorious, fleeting display. I imagine the effects of morphine on my husband were much like that ‘pop’: so lovely, so ephemeral.
Q = Qua
Here are five words you can play in Scrabble when you have a ‘q’ but you don’t have a ‘u’: qaid, qindar, qintar, qiviut, and qoph. Qua is also a good word to play, but only if you have a ‘u.’
R = Rhubarb
Harold McGee writes that rhubarb is “a vegetable that often masquerades as a fruit.” Olives, avocadoes, corn, okra, plantains, and tomatoes are fruits that masquerade as vegetables. Mushrooms fall into neither category because technically they are fungi.
S = Salt
One adds salt to a sweet recipe because it intensifies the qualities of sweetness. I add salt because it reminds me of living in St. Augustine, which has very nice beaches. When my children were little, Kai chased sandpipers down the shore, and Rory and I knelt in shallow tidal pools, admiring minnows and hoping to see little crabs. The sun warmed our backs. Salt caked our skin.
T = Teetotaler
I admire the temerity of anyone who tries to titillate a teetotaler.
U = Umami
Umami, the quality of savory deliciousness, was discovered in 1908 by a Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda. Ikeda used brown algae kombu to create the flavorful white powder, MSG, now commonly accepted as a source of the umami sensation. Umami is also experienced through consumption of meats, mushrooms, certain cheeses, and broths.
V = Vespers
Sometimes I pray out loud. To what and to whom, I don’t really know; despite having been raised a relaxed Lutheran, I have yet to sort out my full feelings of organized religion, let alone declare one to follow. I do, however, believe in prayer. I believe it is important to take the time to say: “I am thankful for my family. I am thankful for my health. I am thankful to have so many memories. I am thankful to be alive.”
W = Won ton
There used to be a Chinese restaurant called Sam’s on the corner of Third Avenue and 29th Street in Manhattan. It was a bright, open place with several large windows overlooking the street. A line of chefs flanked the southern wall, separated from the seating area by tall silver counters and cooktops. Ducks hung upside down in the kitchen; underneath them sat a wizened woman molding fresh dumplings in her small, smooth hands. Sam’s made the greatest vegetable dumplings I have ever eaten. They also made excellent won tons, which I consumed wantonly.
Sam’s isn’t operating anymore; now it’s a bar/nightclub. The windows are blackened, and the doorway is lettered in crimson on black. Sam’s is a memory of love to which I can only return in my mind.
X = Ox
Ax, ox, xi, xu. Commit these to memory and you will always be able to play your ‘x’ piece in Scrabble.
Y = Yucca Brevifolia
The yuccas of the Mojave have evolved to nurture sister species of the female moth that share their name: the yucca moths, tegeticula synthetica and tegeticula antithetica. The moths lay their eggs in the yucca’s fruit; the fruit nourishes their larvae, which grow into moths and thereby propagate the yucca by perpetuating the cycle of pollination of its flowers. Yuccas and their moths have coevolved to mutually benefit one another. Without this relationship, both would perish.
Z = Zinfandel
One day, I will sip zinfandel in Zurich and remember how my father used to wiggle his white mustache mischievously and say, “Zizzer zazzer zuzz.”