I once worked at a groovy little family-owned cafe that specialized in gluten-free cooking and baking. It seems like forever ago now—like another lifetime ago—the four years I spent working there. I started out working the counter, which meant: taking orders, operating the cash register, running food, studying an endless parade of faces and their expressions, getting to know regulars, memorizing people’s orders, likes, dislikes, dietary restrictions, medical necessities, and, there were even a select few for whom discussing their experiences with gluten-induced gastrointestinal distress was of paramount importance.
As customers walked in many would often say “It smells so good in here! What smells so good?” Sometimes the question was rhetorical and the only answer sought was a smile, but when it wasn't, when they really wanted to know, it was hard to answer specifically because it was everything—everything always smelled so good in there. It’s funny, I think, to gloss over a four year chunk of my life only to wax poetic about the warm fondness I have for those days now—but isn’t that one of the tricks our minds play on us? Or is that just what perspective is, coming to terms with the fact that the problems which once preoccupied you with their seeming all-importance often become a vaguely recognizable blur in the distance.
Over time I switched to solely working the back of house, where two mornings a week I’d come in at five to bake loaves of gluten-free sandwich bread to help the owners keep up with demand, as their bread was an exception to the rule of the crumbly, cardboardy gf bread available back then. Other mornings I’d come in to setup and work the kitchen through lunch. It was a sweet gig, and I loved having freedom in the evenings and nights to spend at home with Ryan and, eventually our adopted dog, our fur angel, Otto. It was pretty close to what I imagined working a 9-5 job might be like, hours-wise, at least.
My mouth begins to water when I start reminiscing about all of the delicious menu items (oh my god the carrot cake, oh my god the hush puppies, oh my god the fries!) but there are some dishes that stick out more prominently than others in my food memory bank, and green coconut curry soup is one of them. It was sometimes served with rice or garnished with julienned red bell pepper, but most often it was served just on its own. Everytime the lid came off the tureen of coconut curry for an order I would drink in the scent, basking in it as it perfumed the air, and think to myself: “Man, this would be so good with chicken, or noodles, or as the base for a seafood stew!” Everytime the lid was lifted, possibilities would spring to mind.
It would start showing up in the soup rotation towards the tail end of summer, when the change in weather from warm listless days into cool crisp nights where crunchy, wind-rustled leaves scraping the sidewalks was something you knew was coming but weren’t ready to accept yet. This was the time of year that the college students started reappearing to populate the nearby campuses of Vassar, Marist, Bard, and The Culinary—so many young adults following the path, doing what one is supposed to do. Uncoincidentally, this was the same time of year that I’d find myself wondering if I was ever going to do anything with my life, like, say, complete my anthropology degree. Or get an adult job somewhere doing something where the kind of shirt one wears isn’t the free baseball tee your boss gave you, with the cafe’s hot dog logo emblazoned across the chest. Or something seemingly even more impossible than that, like be honest with myself. I was uncomfortable with feeling as though the job I had and the place I worked at defined me as a person, as though it summed me up into one bite-sized piece of information that could be readily consumed, digested, understood—and judged—by others. I grew up being told I could do, and be, anything I put my mind to. So, what did it say about me that this was it? Was this it?
Don’t get me wrong, I was pretty happy with the actual work when it came to cooking and baking there, and any job comes with some amount of drudgery or frustration, right? But how happy can one be when they feel badly about themselves, or when they believe that who they are and what they do isn’t good enough? It’s hard to change the things about yourself you don’t like when you don’t allow yourself the possibility to do so. I wonder why anyone should be made to feel as though happy is something that they are supposed to be all the time? Maybe realistically, happiness is finding a way to appreciate life’s good seasons while knowing there are storms yet to weather beyond the horizon. I don’t know.
So many seasons passed by this way. Stirrings of change would occasionally crop up around the same time as this soup, when the college kids rolled back into town, though it was the CIA kids that piqued my interest. I’d think about the classes my sister and I took there when we were kids. I’d think about our food-obsessed dad who was always so excited to try everything we learned to make there. “That’s the best mac-and-cheese I’ve ever had,” he’d say matter-of-factly. “Those are the best enchiladas I have ever had,” he’d say the following weekend. And it wasn’t to humor us, this was high praise coming from a man who could give you a detailed account of just about every meal he’d ever had, and enjoyed doing so. It brought to mind all the times he had gently suggested I consider going to school there.
Every now and again I’d request information about attending The Culinary, but trees were slowly and needlessly dying with every letter or pamphlet that came to the house. I’d start filling out the application and then set it aside, thinking I’d do it another day, maybe. I’d pay special attention to CIA students that came into the cafe, sizing them up, wondering if I had what they had, if I had what it took to make it through the program there. I was always unsure, and let’s just say that when it comes to making pros and cons lists, I excel at finding cons. I listened more to the not-so-little voice in my head that told me I didn’t have what it took, and that I wouldn’t make it through the program there—that I would fail—just like I failed at completing my other degree. There’s an element of silliness to those thoughts and beliefs now that I know those are lies I was telling myself, and that those are the kinds of lies I try not to believe anymore (thanks, therapy!). In hindsight I know that it’s okay to try and fail at things, and it’s also okay to take time in the chrysalis. Sometimes being oneself is the hardest thing to be.
I am so grateful to have been able to eventually follow through on that dream, to have excelled in the culinary arts and the bachelor’s programs there, though it still pains me to squeeze in a humble brag. That I was finally able to unburden myself from some past shame and regret and to have finally felt what it was like to be in an environment where I was able to shine and thrive, after so much blessed time spent hiding, well—I could just cry. I wish I could have been more patient with myself, but you see, when I started working at that cafe it was just coming up on the one year anniversary of my dad’s death. At that time, I had never experienced anything so painful. The timing wasn’t right for me to realize certain dreams then, and nor would it be for quite awhile.
These are the sort of things I find running through my mind when I’m compelled to make a recipe, like this soup, which reminds me of a place in time where I once existed. It provided comfort then, as it does now, even just the thought of it conjures up its sweet, warming scent, and at that point I know it's time to look in the pantry for cans of coconut milk. It’s a touchstone: a way to travel backwards and think about where I’ve been and wonder where I might go. It helps me to recall some of the details of what life was like then, the uncomfortable and painful parts as well as the fond. It helps remind me that food is always more than just a meal, whether or not we are aware of it with each bite, the interdependencies between the lives we live and the foods we eat. If we're lucky, life is long—though never quite enough, it seems.
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Coconut Curry Soup
Yield: 2 quarts
Aside from in its original incarnation, I've also included recipes for a cilantro rice pilaf to serve with the soup as well as a recipe for using it as a sauce base to have with mussels. But don't be limited by these three options, try it with shredded rotisserie chicken, or tofu, or shrimp, or tons of vegetables! Have fun making it your own and enjoy.
Thinly sliced Fresno chilis and scallions
Cilantro Rice Pilaf
Yield: About 3 cups
This can be cooked entirely on the stovetop. After the water comes to a boil, cover the pan and reduce to a simmer. Continue to cook as directed below.
Coconut Curry Mussels
Serves: 2 hungry people
Garnish with thinly sliced Fresno chili, scallions, and cilantro. Serve with cilantro rice pilaf or plenty of crusty bread for dipping and sopping up extra sauce.
Well hello! I'm Kat, and
I'm always either cooking or thinking about what I want to cook next. For me, food is always about so much more than just my next meal. This is a place for sharing stories and recipes from a life lived through the lens of food...