Samoon, and Making Friends.

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I am lucky enough to live in a community that has become home to a large and diverse immigrant community–one that, in my opinion, is vibrant enough to rival even some of the biggest cities I’ve been too. There’s clearly something for everyone here, and it’s a beautiful thing because it offers support and stability for the newcomers, and gives even those of us who are born and bred North Carolinians an opportunity to experience other cultures without so much as stepping on a plane.

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A couple months ago I was invited to a Karen New Year Celebration, hosted by refugees from Myanmar and Thailand, and complete with food, drink, music and dancing.

Maybe I notice all the ethnic shops because I actively  seek them out, but once you start looking,  these little gems are not hard to find. There’s one strip mall I particularly like because it contains nothing but shops and restaurants run by immigrants. It’s the kind of place you’d never look twice at if you were just driving by, but when you pull into the parking lot you find a Japanese grocery and gift shop, an African grocery, a Halal bucher, a Mexican carniceria and  grocery, a Himalayan-Nepali  shop and restaurant, an Indian fast-food and snack bar, some clothing shops, and more. Wandering in and out of shops, getting little snacks and bites along the way, is always an interesting way to spend the afternoon….kind of like visiting Epcot without the $150 Disney ticket.

Today I was over there, ducking in and out of shops and picking up my usual collection of favorite snacks, when I spotted one I’ve not visited before. It said it was a bakery, and lured by the prospect of fresh pastries, I ducked in. Immediately upon entering something seemed wrong. There were no cases of cakes. No baskets of fresh rolls. Not even so much as a cookie anywhere. Instead, there were a few shelves of middle-eastern staples and not much else. Disappointed but not wanting to admit defeat, I busied myself examining the sparse offerings.

Behind the cash register a small man is chatting in Arabic to a couple of other shoppers, and after their departure, I wander shyly out from behind the shelves with a tub of sumac. “Did you want bread?” the man asks me in his rapid, broken English. Bread? I immediately perk up and look around. Still not seeing anything that looks like bread, I give the man a confused look. He leads me by the arm over to the corner of the shop, and for the first time I notice a clay oven in the back of the store. “Bread.” He tells me. “Ready in a few minutes.”

I decide to wait and see.

A few seconds later a much younger man comes out of a back room and approaches some shallow wooden boxes stacked along the wall. He grabs them and tosses them onto a table, and unwraps them to reveal in each one a row of 8 freshly risen, peculiarly shaped loaves of bread. “This is Mohammed!” The older man gestures toward the younger man. “I am Hussein.”  Giving scarcely enough time for me to offer my own introduction, he launches into a passionate explanation of his craft. “nothing but flour, yeast, salt and water,” Hussein tells me. “Called Samoon. S-A-M-O-O-N. We are the only bakery in the state to make it!” The younger man, Mohoammed, has by this time carefully lifted each loaf out of its rising box, dusted it with flour and sesame seeds, and is shuffling them in and out of the oven. “250 Degrees!” says Hussein.

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As the hot loaves begins to hit the bread baskets, I pick one up and slide it into a paper bag. “How many did you get?” Hussein asks me. When I tell him I only got one, he tears my bag away from me and tosses in another loaf, “for tasting.” I move toward the register, but Hussein isn’t ready to let me go yet. Gesturing at a photo on the wall, he points to a woman and tells me she is his sister. “She has women’s shop down the street!” He tells me he will introduce us. He then takes off out the door, giving me little choice but to trot along after him. As it turns out, his sister sells formal dresses a few doors down. As we walk toward her store, he tells me a little about his family. I clearly remind him of his daughter, a girl about my age who is a doctor in Baghdad. We look at pictures of her on his iphone. She, along with Hussein’s wife and other children, are trapped there, unable to come to America and unable to even leave their homes because of the threat of danger on the streets. They cannot work, they cannot go to school, and many of the doors that allow refugees to come to this country have closed for them.

IMG_20140628_142054226_HDR(1)^^Every one of those trays has bread in it, by the way.

Finally reaching the little dress shop, I meet Hussein’s only relative in the US, a matter-of-fact woman who has lived in North Carolina for 40 years. He introduces us in Arabic, and she gives me a quizzical look. “He says you are his daughter,” she tells me. I’m unsure what to make of this, but am thankfully spared from having to respond as Hussein launches into a heavy discussion in Arabic, which goes on a few minutes before he turns to me and informs me that he will be leaving me now and returning to his own shop, but I should stay with his sister (I assume he expects me to buy a dress). He bolts out the door and I am left standing in the dress shop, not wanting to offend but also not wanting to purchase a wedding gown quite yet.

After a brief moment, I turn to the lady behind the desk, scouring my brain for something to use as friendly smalltalk and which will also provide me with an easy exit from the dress shop. I decide to ask some clarifying questions about the little bakery down the street. “He says he has only been in business a few months?” I ask. “Oh yes. Two months and three weeks.” She answers. “He is having some problems finding another baker though, that is what he was just talking about.” “Tell him I’ll come bake for him anytime!” I offer jokingly. Unfortunately, this is taken as a serious offer. “You bake?” She gives me that quizzical look again. “Well, lets go see what they think about that.” She hurries out from around her desk and out the door, leaving me once again unsurely trotting along behind, this time back toward the bakery.

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Once back in the bakery, the lady is explaining in Arabic my offer to the two men. Mohammad gives me a look of utter disbelief, and wants to know if I can handle standing next to the heat of the oven. I tell him I work as a cook, I am used to high heat. He still seems unsure, so he tosses me a fresh loaf of bread straight out of the oven. “Can you touch it?” he asks. I pick it up…it is pretty hot. Hoping I’ve held on to it long enough to prove my toughness, I toss it back in the basket. He looks slightly impressed but not convinced. After a few more minutes of dubious questioning from them, I’m pretty sure that I have no chance of making it as an Iraqi baker; neither of the two men are ever going to believe that a little english-speaking white girl is going to be able to stand next to a hot fire and not melt. Hussein shuffles into the back room and I finally muster up the courage to ask if i could please, finally, buy my items. His sister comes over to the register and checks me out. Before leaving, I tell Mohammed I’ll be back and maybe next time he can let me try. He tells me I need to practice first. But he smiles as he says it, so maybe he’ll let me try my hand at making Samoon afterall.

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It’s a funny thing, in this world of large chain superstores, we complain about going into shops and them being so big we can’t find what we need, we have to walk all around the store, or things moving to different aisle. What we should really be mourning is that we no longer find people. We can walk around a 200,000 square foot store and not talk to a single other person. No wonder half of America is depressed. There’s no community, no sense of belonging. When you don’t even need a cashier to check you out at the grocery store anymore, it’s every man for himself. Maybe what we need is for everyone to begin buying their groceries from stores with shopkeepers who gladly go out of their way to get to know you, to share their bread with you, and call you their daughter without even needing to know your name. In a world with that sort of caring, it’s hard to think that anyone would ever feel forgotten.

A little Garden Update…

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….but with a slight change in the usual format ;)

 

 

 

Well, that was quick, easy, and fun, wasn’t it :P I’d like to do more videos (although in the future I think I’ll do them sitting down, I’m not so good at holding the camera steady), what do you think?

 

A Bug’s Life

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There’s a video making the rounds on facebook (ironically), reminding people to LOOK UP from their phones and be present with the world. It’s a good reminder, but I’ve had a proper “smart phone” for just over two weeks now, and I’ve yet to understand exactly what it is people are looking at all the time. Don’t get me wrong–I spend plenty of time on my computer with not much to show for it, but when it comes to phones and their tiny screens and their difficult “keyboards”, I’m not really finding the appeal.

However, there is one phone feature that I have been making good use of, and that is my new phone’s camera. It’s nice to have something always handy, that isn’t bulky and doesn’t take up any extra room in my pocketbook. As a result I’ve been going around snapping wildy at everything for the past two weeks. In fact, the camera was pretty much the only reason I upgraded at all, I knew my trusty little point-and-shoot, which captured nearly 10 years of  my life on film memory card, was nearing the end of it’s life span and I didn’t see the point in investing in a new point-and-shoot when phones these days seem to take good enough pictures for my purposes (aka, Just For Fun)…and do about a million other things too. So, I caved and got one.

Anyway, 95% of these pictures I’ve been taking with my new phone are of flowers I think are nice, but lately the photo roll has been dominated by small animals that I find to play with annoy. These mostly include toads, lizards, squirrels, and various insects I dig up around the backyard and force to pose. Some of you may have seen this grumpy toad buddy  I found and  posted on facebook last week:toady

I was pretty impressed with the photo quality (for a phone!!) so I set out to find more disgruntled pets to practice my photo-taking skills on.

I didn’t really take these pictures with the intention of sharing, but after I stalked a pair of roly-polys today I thought the pictures were kinda fun so here they are. Plus, they totally prove the point that every picture is improved just by having a little bit of life in it…even a life as small as a bug.rolypoly 5rolypolyrolypoly2

roly poly 4Now, If anyone has suggestions of better things I could be doing with my phone, please let me know because so far, pictures of roly-polys has just about been my favorite thing to look look at.

On Easter…from a Polish Perspective

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If you’ve been reading my blogs for a while, some of the thoughts and images in this post may seem rather familiar. In truth, many of them I am copying them from a blog post I wrote in 2009, while I was studying in Krakow. It’s strange to think it’s been 5 years since I was there, and yet, my time in Poland remains the best adventure I’ve ever been on, and I’m pretty surprised I haven’t been back. If I could drop everything and move anywhere right now, I’d move back to Poland in a heartbeat. But anyway, that spring in 2009 I found myself in the midst of a Polish Easter, and while I expected the holiday to be a bit lonely with all my friends gone and my family far away–perhaps it was–with no hustle and bustle and preparations to get caught up in, it was the kind of aloneness that just gives way to quiet reflection and simple appreciation. In fact, that holiday spent abroad became one of the most special experiences I’ve ever had. I loved it.

I did buy myself flowers at the market to keep me company.

Poland is still a very religious (Catholic) country, and the various days of the liturgical calendar that I tend to overlook are very much remember there. Beginning on this Thursday, Maundy Thursday,  all businesses and schools are officially closed. I wasn’t expecting it because I didn’t grow up learning anything about Maundy Thursday, and I was lucky that someone warned me ahead of time to stock up on groceries, because the stores and most of the restaurants were beginning to close early and would remain so through the weekend (if you’re traveling over Easter, no worries, there’s always McDonalds, which shuts for no one). The one big exception was the bustling Easter Market located in the Rynek Glowny, or main square, in the center of Krakow. This square was historically used by merchants who brought their wares there to sell and trade; today it is host to many community events and festivities, such as this Easter market.

The carts are filled with Easter baskets, flowers, eggs, gifts, candy, and other seasonal treats that delight just about everyone who passes by. There were carts of oscypki (smoked cheeses brought up from the Tatras) men roasting sausages on large outdoor grills, and smearing lard from heavy pots onto thick slices of bread, zapiekanki (toasted french bread loaded with sauteed mushrooms, cheese, and ketchup) and polish piwo and mulled wine.

The churches were busy all week and into the weekend. Throughout my time in Poland, I regularly liked to sneak in and observe from a back pew, and over the holidays, the lines of parishers were out the door as everyone came for the Easter blessings, prayers, and confessions. There is no normal schedule of mass during these days, instead the chancel is stripped bare and altar covered with black cloth. Of course, Poland has chocolate bunnies, Easter greeting cards, and even a man in a bunny suit roaming the mall, but the secular celebration really seemed to take a backseat to the church’s holiday. It was refreshing to remember that this is, in fact, a week set apart to remember the death and resurrection of Christ, not the coming of the Easter Bunny, and I was envious of the Poles’ seemingly unadulterated worship compared to the distracted traditions I grew up with.

Thursday and Friday are days of remembering Jesus’ last moments and his suffering, but they are also a time to prepare for the coming celebrations. These are the days that the family gathers together to decorate eggs, to carve lambs out of butter, and to bake the traditional Babka, or Easter bread–a rich loaf studded with raisins and orange zest. On Saturday, the bakba, butter, eggs, kielbasa, salt, and other traditional accoutrements of the Easter table are packed into baskets and carried to the church to be blessed by the priests.

A family exiting the church with their Easter baskets—I really hate taking pictures of people without permission, but in this case I couldn’t resist.

Many congregations also create a “tomb” somewhere in their church, so that people can visit the grave of Jesus and, i guess, pay their respects. There is often an honor guard composed of boy scouts or even the military who stand alongside. Saturday evening is marked by a special church service in Poland, which begins in darkness to demonstrate the emptiness of the world without God. A bonfire is lit in the back of the church to symbolize hope in darkness. As the candles are lit and the lights turned back on, we are reminded of the brilliance of the resurrection. As the service progresses, hymns of thanksgiving and praise are sung. I did not actually go to this service because I thought the language barrier might make my attendance futile, but I do wish I had tried. It sounds like a beautiful, passionate service.

Easter Sunday itself was pretty uneventful for me, as most of the Poles were at home with their families, enjoying the day and eating their Easter meals. I met up with a friend and we hunted for somewhere to eat, without a whole lot of luck, but we did eventually find a restaurant open, catering mostly to tourists and the few odd stragglers such as ourselves. Other than that, it was a quiet day of rest and contemplation.

Easter Monday is also public holiday. According to Wikipedia, it was a holiday in North Carolina as well up until 1988, but that had more to do with an annual baseball game between NC State and Wake Forest University than any religious significance. In Krakow there were a couple festivals going on—in the Zwierzyniec District, a nice walk down the river from where I lived, was the Emaus Festival. The modern-day festival stems from a centuries-old fair that commemorated All Soul’s Day,  and although All Souls was later moved to a different date, the celebration continued. I decided to go,  and sadly it turned out to be not that exciting. There were a lot of vendors selling cheap kids toys and candy, and some dumpy looking fair rides for babies to get some excitement out of…but not a lot for older people. I did buy a REALLY good ear of corn there,though, and of course some candy.

More famously, the Monday after Easter marks another popular celebration, called Smigus Dyngus. It is, in the words of my roommate, “a very primitive holiday,” and all that happened was that guys walked around with squirt guns and buckets of water and tried to get the girls as wet as they could manage. Apparently, getting water dumped on you means you’ll have good luck in the coming year, but–luck or not– I was still happy I managed to avoid it.  My roommate had an entire trashbag of water dumped on her from a window on the street, and another friend got egged by some drunks in a passing car. Traditionally, girls would have their turn to get back at the boys on Easter Tuesday, but unfortunately I didn’t see a lot of that going on. Too bad, those boys deserve it.

Tuesday isn’t technically a holiday, so on this day the Easter Market began to get dismantled and shops started opening again.  I still had a day off of school, so I traveled to Podgorze, which is sadly best known as the location of the Jewish ghetto on the opposite side of the river from Krakow. There I found an interesting festival taking place at the base of the Mound of King Krakus, the city’s founder. What the Mound is  no one knows, and if you didn’t know better you’d think it was just a rather strange looking hill on the outskirts of the city. It doesn’t seem like much in pictures, but when you see it up close you find it it’s quite monumental and impressive for being an ancient, man-made structure. You can read more HERE if you want.

The festival was to commemorate another centuries-old Krakowian fair, Renkawka, which has been reinvented in modern times as a Renaissance Festival. According to one source, “The fiesta probably has roots in pagan rites in honor of the dead celebrated here in the Dark Ages. Its feature used to be scattering coins and sweets that boys fought over. There were also bonfires and various contests, from fencing to pole climbing.”

There were reenactments, artisans selling crafts, and lots of tasty “medieval-inspired” snacks. It was really worth going, and seeing an Krakowian landmark I would have otherwise probably not ventured out to see…not to mention the fantastic view of Krakow from the top:

And with that, I finish up my little summary of a Polish Easter. I know it’s a long post but I hope it has been interesting and informative, and I hope I got all my facts right! While it’s always a little bit difficult to imagine not being at home with your own family and traditions over a holiday, I think it’s always worth taking an opportunity to discover some other traditions that are out there. That said, however it is you celebrate this season, I hope you all have a joyous and blessed day.

Happy Easter!!

Love Jenny

 

 

Springtime.

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Well, spring has sprung, so I guess I can return from my hibernation. Not that a change in the weather necessarily improves blog content, but it does provide a few nice pictures. We had a burst of warm this weekend, followed by a few days’ return to chilly, dreary, rainy weather…but it turns out that those April showers were just what the plants needed to burst out in blooms.

IMG_2598 IMG_2605 IMG_2606 ometI guess no matter what wind and rain may come our way, it’s difficult to be unhappy when the air is clean and there are flowers in the garden.

 

I’ll be back for another update soon.

 

Six Photos of Manhattan

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IMG_2406A writer I follow recently wrote a wonderful essay on Philadelphia, in which she described the city as having a sort of “gritty sincerity.” I love that. It’s a description I would also tie to New York—-sometimes worn, sometimes battered, sometimes mean, sometimes dirty—but always real. You see, we only pretend to live in a world of manicured lawns and neatly whitewashed fences and cleanliness and convenience. We expect trash to be turned out neatly in cans on the curb, waiting for a truck to come by to pick it up. We expect our sewers to work properly and we expect our neighbors to respect our right to a good night’s sleep by keeping the noise down and the lights off. We don’t expect to smell urine on the street corner, or see bags and bags of waste piled up at the base of a stop sign. We don’t believe that paint should be chipped, or curtains faded, or sidewalks riddled with cracks. We don’t want to have to come face to face with the dirtiness of human life and the passage of time. We turn our heads away from scents, sights, and sounds we disapprove of, cast a blind eye toward the waste we create, and overall just pretend that the reality of life doesn’t exist.

Many times, we find cities like New York repulsive. It is dirty. It’s bright lights and sparkly billboards are downright gaudy. There is trash littered everywhere. Unpleasant smells often linger in the air. But it’s real. In New York, you can’t hide from waste and dirt and weeds, you can’t ignore the reality of this world. Sometimes it’s rough, sometimes it’s polished, sometimes it’s green, sometimes it’s concrete. Chipping paint reveal colors that once were, rusty staples in the telephone pole give testament to the many flyers and notices that have been hung there, the sidewalks are embellished with scratches made by children trying to write their names with sticks. In New York City, we don’t have the luxury of ignoring the mess we create; instead, it confronts us.  Maybe it is gritty, but it’s got the mark of life. Underneath it, there’s a beauty–the type of beauty that adds texture to the otherwise flat portrait of our world. In New York, tribute is paid to generations of people who passed through the world before us…each one, it seems, has left his mark on this place, even just by adding a bit of grit.

IMG_2411 IMG_2403IMG_2409IMG_2400 IMG_2413And there is something beautiful about it, isn’t there?

The Daily Photo

It was suggested (jokingly, I hope) that every day I post a picture of what I make at my new job. That is never going to happen because a) I have never in my life been that consistent with anything and b) I forgot to take a picture of the first day so the plan was ruined before it even began.

For the record, it was jerk chicken. I’m not a big fan of jerk chicken, but it was sold out before 12:30, so I was happy enough. More importantly, all the people I needed to impress were happy, and all is well with the world.

I did, however, get my coworker to take a picture for day two and email it to me. It’s a pork loin with an apple-ginger chutney, sweet potato wedges and roasted cauliflower. It was a pretty fall-ish menu, fitting for the chilly weather we had today. I never quite feel that the plate is balanced without something green on it, but it still looks pretty good to me.

I guess if someone wanted green today, they had to go to the salad bar.IMG_2419I was holding a plate in this picture because I was starving and ready for lunch. I actually didn’t get to eat what I made other than a few snacks in the kitchen and some of the end pieces I set aside while slicing the meat, because I was a little worried we’d run out. Maybe next time…..

Oh, you can see a little of the eating area and the big windows/panoramic view of Raleigh (mostly trees, apparently) behind me (and it’s not dark like it was in the last picture). It’s not really a cafeteria per-say, just a little cafe area, and then some tables and couches for people to work or relax, along with the pool tables and ping pong tables and whatever else they’ve got scattered around the room for people to entertain themselves with.

But who really cares about that, lets look at the food again: IMG_4163We do try to make it look pretty.

On a semi-related note, someone asked me recently whether it was hard to go from a place like the Farm, where nearly everything was from scratch and locally-raised and where I got to see pieces of the entire food puzzle–from the livestock in the fields and the plants in the garden, to the homemade sausages in the butcher shop and the cheese aging in the cheese rooms and so on and so forth—to a place like this, where most things come on a truck from big suppliers like Sysco. The answer is no, it wasn’t hard. The reasons are a little big complicated, but I don’t feel like I’m having to compromise my values and what I think food should be just because I’m not on a farm anymore. Granted, to get ourselves started we’ve bought a few prepackaged things just to provide a safety net until we can get a good routine down, but ultimately, I look forward to it being a completely from-scratch kitchen. And to be fair, everything you see above was 100% homemade. Just because the food isn’t grown right outside the window doesn’t mean I can’t still be responsible with the products I choose and put out fresh, healthful, interesting, and delicious food. And just because the sausage isn’t made next door and I don’t have time to roll my own pasta every day and I don’t have a team of people to go forage some little-known plant to garnish my plate doesn’t limit me to a life without homemade sausage or fresh pasta or interesting greenery. It just means that I have to be a bit more proactive and dedicated if it’s going to be part of my life.

After all, in the real world, these things don’t just fall on your doorstep. The Farm is an extreme anomaly even in the world of fine dining, and it was a privilege to be a part of that for any amount of time. But it’s also a responsibility to take all those things I learned about and introduce them to people who have never been to a place like that, and I guess that’s what I’m doing now. It’s not particularly easy to rethink food I know and enjoy so that it fits this environment (as well as the challenges and limitations that come when you have to prepare a bulk amount of food in advance), but it’s still inspiring and exciting to try.

Plus, I enjoy the people I work with, the hours I get to work, and the freedom to be creative. I like my work, but I don’t like working odd hours and holidays and not being able to see my family or friends or commit to any other activities I wanted to do. I already feel like I’ve been given 100 extra hours in a week just because now I get to clock out of work at 2pm instead of clocking in to work at 2pm, and I feel much happier and well-balanced as a result.

The only reason I’m sorry I quit is because I realize that I’ve given up the rare opportunity to learn from the best of the best, and frankly, I’m not done learning yet. I’ve cut my education short, more-or-less. There’s a lot of interesting things that many top restaurants are doing that, frankly, I will never find an opportunity (or the  budget) to try somewhere like this. And yes, there are some ingredients and products that I simply cannot get now, at least not without buying it with my own money or jumping through hoops to find it. I guess I’ve just had to accept that I made a choice here, and that I believe a balanced life that reflects my values is more important than having an enviable career, even if it means giving up a job at one of the coolest restaurants in the region.

Anyway, I guess that’s all I really have to say today about that.

Love Jenny

Raleigh at 7am

IMG_2245IMG_2243I love the landscape of the mountains, but the great thing about living in a flat  city is you can usually get a really good view of the sunrise. No mountains gettin’ in my way anymore.

I took these two from our 9th Floor Cafe a little after 7am, just as the sun began to peek out over the horizon. Yes, there’s a pool table. and ping pong tables, and air hockey. Those Red Hat employees have no room for complaints.

 

IMG_2233-001This is a picture of my new kitchen so far. We passed our health inspection today and got in our first big order of food, so we’ll be ready to start cooking tomorrow! In other words, we’ll be learning how to use our giant, super fancy combi ovens (which totally make that little range in the corner look like an antiquated dwarf appliance…in fact, don’t even look at it, it’s about to be replaced with a flattop) before opening for real next week. I guess some of us food-service employees really can’t complain, either.

You Know it’s Hot When….

 

 

PS—None of these are my pictures. Some I’ve seen  posted and reposted across the internet, but thought ya’ll might enjoy them so  I decided to share them here!!! I don’t know who the original source of any of these images is, but i swiped them from here. Lots of other funny things on that site too :)

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