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In the wake of national events involving Universities and their Presidents, I think it’s important that I sit down tonight and write you a letter. Your comment to the press in response to past statements about LGBTQI people have really been on my mind of late. I am inclined to believe that you responded with “I have no comment about those lifestyles,” because you were annoyed and tired and just ready to go home. I feel you there – I have compassion for what it must feel like to constantly be under scrutiny. Yet, your words have me thinking beyond your tiredness – not only to your responsibilities as the President of the UNC family, but also to the implications of the words “those lifestyles.” I am inclined to believe that in this day of #blacklivesmatter you don’t really want to go on record as calling an aspect of black life ‘that lifestyle.’ I want to believe that you would (and can) make the strongest public statement possible about the spectacular and quotidian national events that have inspired a generation of community members, college students and beyond.

If you are puzzled by my comments above, then let me explain. I am a Full Professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and I identify as an LGBTQI person of African descent. Because my identities are intersectional, how you feel about the queer/black community matters to me. So, I guess my first question to you is about your commitment to both. I have been asked the same question of late by my students and I see no reason not to ask you about yours, especially as someone whose wheelhouse is education.

On my way to teach during summer session II, I passed by Silent Sam. It was the morning after the first time the statue had been defaced. Inside the yellow tape stood a phenotypically white male and two phenotypically black men. The white man was instructing the black men as they carefully washed and sandblasted the statue. I had seen the same scene of instruction and restoration the previous day on Facebook posts and in the media as the State of South Carolina restored the confederate flag that the brave North Carolinian Bree Newsome removed. It was a sobering welcome to my first day of summer teaching. The recent Silent Sam protest brought home that moment and your comments quickly followed (at least from my temporal location).  Not a good week, this.Silent Sam2

I do have some thoughts about the statue and what it represents. Let’s be honest with one another, it does represent the Confederacy. I can’t imagine descendants of abolitionists coming by to remember their ancestors at the feet of Silent Sam. Instead of focusing on the statue and the flag it drags in its psychic wake as a symbol of grief for those whose kindred were associated with its legacies, we might step back and begin to see what the flag not only is, but also does to public space where broader understandings of community hold sway. Many of us were not present (or born) when that statue of commemoration was erected, but we are now and that should remind us that things do change. It is time to acknowledge, as our colleagues in Mississippi and Texas have done, that we too have grown. This is the primary work of the examined life that Socrates, for example, envisioned so clearly for intellectual endeavors. This change is what we are about. Addressing the presence of Silent Sam among us will not stop the confederate mourners from grieving — that private act can and does occur elsewhere; but for the public act of grieving for all of those inevitably changed by the war and the ideologies which engendered the flag’s presence among us, another symbol of our collective mourning must appear. The work of choosing that symbol will be an opportunity for all of us to share in its making. That is the work that intellectual community can and should do.

And speaking of those private acts – acts to which your comment about “those lifestyles” refer – I’d like to invite you to a slice of my life. My question here is: can we separate how we live from the fact that we live? This seems to be the central point of #blacklivesmatter and all struggles for civil liberties in this country. But to that slice of life. . . I live on a road in unincorporated Chapel Hill – a road that used to be called “Old Colored Road.” Why? Because the African-American community has had land in the area since emancipation. My move here was not intentional – I fell in love with the land and the privacy, so I moved. When the kids (almost 4 and 8) are with us, my partner and I usually make kale chips or some leafy green salad for dinner and while one of us cooks the other plays soccer in the living room with the oldest – last night they broke a lamp. I loved that lamp, but laughed anyway when the 8-year-old showed me the broken pieces. Why? Because the night before her Mom and I couldn’t help it and we were playing soccer in the living room and I hit the lamp pretty hard. I think it broke because there was already a stress fracture there. Tonight we danced to the band I grew up with, TroubleFunk – a group featured on one of the stages in this year’s National Folk Festival in Greensboro. Sometimes it’s silliness like “Whip/Nae-Nae,” at others it’s Celia Cruz from the early days. At bedtime, the youngest usually has a meltdown about something and the 8-year-old asks me to tell her a story – one of the requirements of which is that someone get hurt but not enough to die. She makes it easy for me. Later, when the kids and the dogs are tucked in with each other, my partner and I try to watch something on the computer. I usually fall asleep on whatever it is. I love the way she can stay up once the video is on – for me it’s like a lullaby. As for the rest, Macklemore is right, “she keeps me warm.”

To my larger point about “lifestyle.” I don’t know how to live my black life separate from my LGBTQI life, so I assume you referred to both. And, when you get right down to it, the lifestyle – if you refer to that quotidian one – I live is not all that fabulous, really. Just a few people and dogs in the house trying to work their way to loving one another deeply across race and species and generation. The lifestyle – the way in which we live – that I see around me on campus, the one that concerns me the most, is the atmosphere of denial that borders on the unethical.

Let’s do something proactive for once and have a conversation about that lifestyle. Come to my house for dinner – I’ll cook for you, tell me what you like – the kids will be here and that should be interesting, inspiring, and slightly annoying. One of them will most likely be a future tarheel. One who met the President one night over a dinner of kale salad and mung beans while listening to Cruz or Silento . . .  a President who changed her mind about so much after she came to dinner.


Big shout out to Bar Lusconi in Durham, N.C. for hosting the event that occasioned my return to this blog and presented an opportunity to share my work/life story. Shout out to Susan for the fabulous intro and for organizing this fundraiser for the LGBT Center in Durham, to Chris for the stellar BLTs, to Jenn, bartender extraordinaire and to Tim for his enduring friendship.

Bar Lusconi

In a matter of days, the Supreme Court will rule once again on the substance of LGBTQI life. In a matter of days, something will happen to all of us that will be profound. This is an essay on love, but it begins with hate; you need to travel through muddy water to reach dry sand. Sometimes.

In this country, the people who are most likely to be out at home or at work are people of color. In this country, the majority of LGBTQI people raising children choose to do so in the south. I am no anomaly. I have published a few books that matter to the intellectual and emotional communities that I serve. I have held several jobs over the 23-year arc of my career and if you hold my CV as a reflection of a single life – mine – then it will give you pause. But until very recently, it hadn’t dawned on me that my reasons for moving from one job to another have the twin explanation of love and hate. Let me explain.

During the course of my career, I was in a 13-year relationship with another woman. Out of love and perhaps, impending disaster, I left one job so that we could be together in a city; I left another so that we could make a parallel move; and I left the last one in an effort to save what I would come to realize was a truly broken thing.

Yes, a casual glimpse at these moves would give one caution, but transparency gives way to the opaque in the matter of LGBTQI life. And this is precisely my point: if I were a man trying to hold a family together by any means necessary, I would be doing what I had to do; as an LGBTQI woman, as a member of three classes of minorities (two legal, the third not-so-much), my motives are suspect. In this version of the story it is not love that has propelled me from one institution to the next, but hate.

The story of love is a nice one, but it also obfuscates what has happened to so many of us over the course of our collective careers. I once had a scholar say to me during an interview: “wow, you’ve left two institutions, both of which were having meltdowns – maybe it’s you.” I didn’t take that job the first time around, but I did on the second try. My bad. It has taken me twenty years to finally see the impression that discrimination has made upon my life; to look it in the eye and to call it by name. It has been my constant companion. Desegregation isn’t something that has happened that we now are fighting to protect and preserve, it is still in its infancy. A friend once eloquently reminded me of the force of the word, “desegregation”:

The challenge – ethical/social more than political – is, I think, desegregation. My Mom always insisted on that word over and against integration, precisely because it was all about how desegregation and the refusal of discrimination was not entrance into an already given world but the end of it. When you step in the room you blow up whatever was going on in the room and we are all supposed to step like that, share that danger while protecting one another.

True that. We have to remember that that civil rights struggle was not something universally agreed upon by the nation’s populace. It took blood, sweat and tears. What do we think is happening to those of us who are pushing the great institutions of this nation to be accountable to their stated core values? How is the work of desegregation actually achieved?

Despite not having federal protection or legal recognition, LGBTQI peoples go to work every day and we speak up, knowing what the consequences might be. A faculty member at my first job once told me: “the chair hates everybody, but she really hates you.” I was supposed to laugh. I was being singled out for being singular. Sometimes redundancy is overwhelming. And here’s the subtler rub: we don’t even have to open our mouths; just the presence of a woman in a tie or braces or oxfords can lead to uncomfortable feeling in the room. What becomes of you when the male faculty member to your left can’t decide whether to ask you out or keep his eye on his partner when you are around? Difference can provoke feelings of disgust and rage. So where does that rage travel? How does an intellectual population being pushed on its understanding of difference at its core, adjust to that one member of the wedding, so to speak? Believe me, ‘justice’ for such a transgression, such a challenge to the order of things is meted out.

Two years ago, I had a drink with dear friends and a faculty member who had been present for what was one of the most homophobic moments in my institutional life was invited to come. Several of us had decided to leave our current place of employment and we had gathered to reflect upon our time there. In medias res, this person arrived and sensing the gist of the conversation, asked me: “So, why are you leaving? What happened to you?” Dear-little-lord-baby-Jesus: thank you for a good bottle of rosé champagne with a bit of bitter and sweet in the mix. I took a sip, shifted my body toward her and recalled for her the incident (one among others): At the end of a faculty retreat, during the part of the agenda where we were to reflect upon our year and offer ways in which we could improve in our support for one another and in our overall mission, I mentioned that our conversations at the table could be more inclusive – I offered that my experience at the University had been rather challenging and that it would be really great if we could think about sexuality, gender and race, to make that black feminist conversation about intersectionality extend from the classroom into the meeting space. What ensued went on for 40 minutes and ended with a threatening email sent to me and my then ex by a member of the faculty and cc’d to three of the most vocal persons in that meeting.

In a subsequent meeting with the Associate Dean I was told that the email was actionable; that I could do something about it. I thought about it for a second. I remember what the earth smelled like as I exited the building, I could hear the sound of college-aged kids drinking beer and blasting music; somewhere to my left a bird fluttered, abandoning its flower-perch. I folded the piece of paper with the email on it, put it in my back pocket and walked away. That was an act of love, that was an act of forgiveness, that was an act for my community. This story is an act of survival, of coming out.

The woman who faced me now did not recall this incident; she did not recall it because after I spoke, when the shit hit the fan, she walked out of the meeting. I wasn’t sure at the time whether her departure meant raw anger or solidarity. But now, at the kitchen counter with me, her nail clicked against the glass stem – she looked bewildered and lost and admitted she had been concerned that I thought she was homophobic. I then told her about the threatening email sent to me and my ex (the “love” mentioned earlier) and that she was cc’d on that correspondence as well. She did not remember that e-mail; she did not remember the details of the retreat. At that point, I almost felt sorry for her, except that I know from the institutional reaction to what happened (the Associate Dean who was also our acting chair was present during the entire event), that the shrug of her shoulders, the shake of her head, the gentle turning away, were normative for what happened after the incident. I am still waiting for an institutional response . . . And when I tell my story, I see shoulders lifted, heads dropping, eyes focused on other things.

What does the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage (AGAIN) really have to do with what I’m talking about here? Everything and nothing at all. Across this country, LGBTQI peoples of conscience are doing the work of desegregation. Our families are sometimes invisible, especially when they do not procreate. Over the years, I have managed to acquire a sister, a brother, a son, a brother-in-law, a daughter-in-law, a granddaughter, and two nieces who feel like my own children without benefit of marriage or blood. When we walk down the street together or introduce one another, we have to explain. Everything. We are painting our way into the landscape of this country – stroke by stroke. What the Court can do for us is simple: take the first and perhaps the second strike at a system of discrimination that works its quiet will. We do need love to conquer hate this time.

Anniversaries generally mark happy occasions – an exchange of vows, a remembrance of life given, a marking of time passed in friendship or intimate relation. To celebrate an anniversary, the greeting card aisle of my local drugstore provides an array of missives available to send to a loved one in order of kinship obligation. There are cards to send to your mother and father, sister and brother, husband and wife, niece and nephew. Some are funny, others are more serious and still more are in need of an English major’s aid.

Hallmark tpt

For those awfully prosaic lines remarking upon a loss, you will have to go to the section on sympathy where kinship relations are again reiterated in an array of sentiment that marks the finality of death.

Anniversaries are for the living, not for the dead.

Today is the silver anniversary of my father’s death. His presence is in my visage and my laugh, even though its edges perhaps are defined by the outline of my mother’s people. Death came by his own hand, marking for those who survived a passage that can be grieved surely, but not mourned. Suicide is a theoretical conundrum, presenting the aggrieved with an opportunity for sympathy, but denying them the understanding that usually comes with it. This understanding produces the work of mourning. Simple, open, compassionate. Suicide provides the opportunity for dis-ease because the aggrieved cannot know, cannot communicate the details that bring closure in the wake of death. At the end of the day, people want to know what happened and if you can be honest, you tell them. But what can they say really? Death requires explanation. In the end you both know that there is simply no hallmark card, no home training for such an event.

Over a decade ago, I allowed myself to say goodbye to him. I stopped marking the before and after of his coming and going. I let myself be okay with remembering if I wanted, and forgetting if I chose. It gave me peace to connect the dots of my life in a pattern without a full stop in the middle. I became whole again.

But on this silver anniversary, I remember him with love and affection. I allow myself to mourn. My grandmother once said that time heals all wounds. I know now that she is right, but it does not help me miss him any less. So I introduce you to my father, “Flip”: avid reader, drunken seaman, serious diagnostician, great compounder of medical remedies, passionate dog lover and rescuer, nervous stutterer, confirmed genius and yes, a terrible father in many ways. I love you nonetheless. I love you still.

Me & DadSo many of us have known several deaths by hands no longer willing to put off the desperation of loneliness and despair, or by hands staving off the pronouncement by a family physician of an end to life as we know it. These anniversaries are experienced as unmarked territory. This is a love letter for those who must find a way to mourn for loved ones who have left us of their own accord, those who cannot be named or marked, and in some cases, recognized as ancestors from whom one can draw strength and confidence. But we should remember them anyway because they have made their mark upon us and I, for one, am glad of it.

One day in my very small town, I will walk the hallmark aisle and there, among the Anniversary greetings, will be a card for us. And it goes something like this:

I am deeply sorry for your loss.

Take courage in what you do know, worry not about what you don’t.

Allow yourself to forget if you need to,

But remember that it’s okay (and sometimes hilarious) to cry in public.

And know this:

Someone else is finding a way to remember too.

Someone like you is thinking of lighting a candle or writing a line of prose.

But most of all: congratulations!

Every anniversary means that you have survived; that you will survive.

Hast thou given the horse strength?

Hast thou clothed his neck with thunder?

Job 39:19


How dare I write to you about accident before love . . .

The auto correct for oxycodone is oxymoron.  I will have to tell friends that my trouble is not a literary one.  The ground comes up quickly below me and I am not stunned, but indignant. Fuckityfuckfuck am I really going down?  Where is he?  How far to my right?  Will my outstretched leg catch his panicked hindquarter? This could end very badly, I think, but before I hit the ground I take a calculated risk, triangulate the vectors and decide to twist my body toward the horse.  Avoiding the face plant and head injury, I choose my shoulder – am lucky to choose.



I spring up and in the corner of my eye I see the foamy backend of Petey, all sixteen hands moving away from me at a long-stride canter with a few bucks thrown in for good measure or for scorn – I cannot say because he is not mine and at this point never will be. Nonetheless, I notice the sheen of his coat and mourn for our fleeting partnership.

What happened?

An oxymoron




I get up so fast that my trainer cheers – I turn to her after seeing Petey galloping down the far fence-line and I raise my right arm for the thumbs-up.  When I go to lift my left arm, something between brain and shoulder breaks down completely. I point to the general region of my collarbone and shake my head, her voice begins to come from far away; I am broken and starting to get high on my personal stash of endogenous morphine.

Help. To Morristown regional hospital for the verdict: I am indeed broken – a wing that cannot be fixed without incident . . . my x-ray is a vision of small bones shattered like glass. I need to see a specialist. I hear the soundtrack to the bionic woman playing in my head and smile. Nice, very nice, I think, as the Demerol begins to make me drool; I tell my trainer that I love her, really and the nurse too and the little boy by the front desk who stares at me in wide-eyed panic, clutching his mother for dear life against the woman with the shredded shirt and paper bag of hydrocodone and the mud stains down the left side of her riding pants.

I will have surgery in five days, in the interim, I teach my class in a sling, cook dinner for a friend reminding myself to not move my wing that little ½ inch to the right and forego all attempts to read books as I have the attention span of a 12-year-old boy. My left eye now possesses a horse’s vision. I see my enemies from two separate flanks and rapid movement makes me rear.

Recipe for repair of a shattered wing: Do I want pins or screws and a plate? The latter. Do I have people who can be with me? Absolutely. Am I allergic to any meds? What? Do I intend to ride again? Yes. Am I insane? Probably. My surgeon comes in and with military precision, he marks the spot where the plate will go, noting the fall of my undershirt. His hands are delicate and seriously clean. He wants to make his mark, but not leave it.

My sister flies down from Boston with my nieces in tow. The facebook post from the oldest reads: “My crazy auntie got bucked from a horse and we have to go take care of her.” None of us are actually related by blood – we are bloodstrangers.  Twenty-four hours after surgery, they walk into my room with the quiet hum of the ice machine circulating, pumping what is now lukewarm water to the wrap under my arm and around my wound.

“Use of this device cuts down by 50% both pain and swelling after surgery”

I am a mess of sheets and blankets in the apathy of anesthesia ringed by a halo of oxycodone. They are worried. How many did you take . . . no really?  Shite, I am a purist and unused to narcotics. The youngest climbs in bed with me, dragging along her father’s ipad. She knows what to do and the rest follow until we become a collection of mac products fanned out among the bed linens along with the limbs of the dogs, enjoying our togetherness in a haze of cyberlove and the constant bling of notifications.

During my rehab, I read the online results from my rib ex rays and find that they do not describe anyone I know.


1. The cardiac silhouette is unremarkable for the patient’s age.

2. No acute abnormalities in the lungs.

3. Mild scoliosis.”


My oxycodone dreams are vivid and reek of horseflesh. At the barn we often talk about how we think we love to jump and ride . . . until we line up to take the jumps and when our turn comes there is that serious moment of “what the hell is wrong with me, I’m crazy, I can’t jump this 1000 lb. adolescent over that thing.” But then you circle, urge your horse on, kicking just before the jump cycle to get him up and over and when you both leave the ground you are aware of the vulnerability of being alive, the two of you making it work, communicating in a language you have made together. You hit the ground exhilarated beyond ecstasy and pat his neck. He shivers and shakes; his frothing sweat burns your nose as you walk him a bit and dismount. In the barn, saddle off and ready for a rub down, he curls his neck around to nuzzle you just a bit, or to grab that piece of hay dangling from another horse’s feed bag, letting you know that yes, he is hungry and that only together, off the ground can you be close to the gods.

I am pleased to have guest blogger, Jennifer Hong write about food for this month’s post (bio below).

L is for language . . . 

And loss joined hand-in-hand in the kitchen of clashing cultures that inevitably leads to miscommunication and a potentially disastrous meal.

As the sun goes down and my stomach chirps along with the crickets outside, I struggle with a slab of silk tofu, trying to emulate the sleek precision with which my mother usually cuts it. The large butcher knife slips in my hand and the horizontal cut becomes jaggedly diagonal.

“Finished?” My mother comes into the kitchen carrying with her a sizzling wok of nian gao — rice cakes — lightly tinted by soy sauce, scallions, Napa cabbage, and sliced pork. As she places her masterpiece down next to me, I shift to hide the ruined tofu.

“No,” I say lamely.

She peers around my shoulder immediately. She shakes her head, takes the knife away, and finishes the work with deft slices, producing exquisitely chopped cubes of raw, soft tofu. She then drizzles sesame oil and sour black vinegar over it and garnishes it with slits of green onion. Hers are perfect cubes of tofu, except for my malformed chunks falling out of military formation.

“Just one more dish now get me the hao you.”

She’s out the door again before I realize that after she’s told me a million times, I still don’t know what hao you is. I trek outside to the porch where my mother cooks to avoid the smell of oil and soy sauce in the house.

“What’s that again?” I ask.

Hao you,” she repeats. Seeing that I don’t fully understand, she switches to English. “Fish sauce. It’s in the refrigerator. Red…has a panda on it.”

I locate the red panda bottle and look at the label.

It’s oyster sauce.

My mother is an excellent cook who does not limit herself to one region of China or Asia. The home-cooked dishes that I ignorantly assumed to fall under the wide umbrella of Chinese food actually spanned a variety of regions: oyster sauce is often used in Cantonese food, the silken tofu dish that I constantly struggle to make is a variation of Japanese jakopi tofu, and nian gao, which resonates particularly of home for her, is primarily stir-fried in Shanghai and its surrounding regions.

So Chinese cuisine isn’t technically “Chinese” — it’s provincial. Knowing the ingredients in regional cooking is important; a simple slip of tongue and the dish turns into something else entirely. For example, nian gao, generally defined as a sticky rice cake, can be either sweet or salty depending on the regional taste: Shanghai nian gao is sliced white, chewy glutinous rice that is usually stir-fried while Cantonese nian gao is a sweet, dark yellow-brown dessert so sticky that it glues your mouth shut. One mistake and a main dish becomes the dessert.

As an American-born Chinese (ABC), I grew up knowing the words for some ingredients in English and others in Chinese. Unfortunately, I could often never match the terms together. For years, I avoided all dishes with scallions in their descriptions until an awkward conversation with a server (“Can I not have scallions? I don’t like seafood.” “Those are scallops, ma’am.”). I hated bringing mu er to school because its writhing black appearance always piqued questions (“What is that?”) to which the technical definition of “tree fungus” was not a socially acceptable answer. I always replied with a half-truth: “I don’t know what it’s called in English.”

The same applied in reverse. An ABC friend once told me that the only thing you really had to know to get around in China was the menu. Don’t know your foods and you stick out like a sore thumb; a woman who is an obvious foreigner. I tried to keep this in mind when I went back to China three years ago, but for someone whose Mandarin alone is mediocre, traveling in a country where regional dialects screen for foreigners made eating alone impossible. What, indeed, could I order when I didn’t know the reasons behind the particular flavors and culinary styles to each region I visited? The “steamed, roasted, and braised seafood . . . retaining original freshness, tenderness and softness” in my parents’ home province of Zhejiang stems from Zhejiang’s geographic location. Hangzhou’s soy-dark and sweet cooking is the feast of the literati “who mused about the pleasures of eating.” Most notoriously is Sichuan cuisine; as food writer Fuchsia Dunlop writes in Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, “Sichuanese food is the spice girl among Chinese cuisines, bold and lipsticked, with a witty tongue and a thousand lively moods.” The mantra of modern gourmets is “Go to China for food, but for flavor, you must go to Sichuan.” I knew nothing: that it was rude to order red meat in one of Zhejiang’s best seafood restaurants, that Peking Duck in the U.S. is pathetic imitation of its original, and that Sichuan food went beyond just making me the weakest link in the family when it came to spicy foods. The dinner table, which at home served as a reminder of my heritage, ostracized me completely in my motherland.

Language remains the stepping-stone to a cuisine where ingredients are only obtainable at ethnic grocery stores and menus at authentic restaurants have no English translations. When it comes to good Chinese cuisine, hardly any qualified cookbooks exist: cooking good Chinese is a heritable skill, one that cannot be learned from poorly translated cookbooks — never has my mother told me to simmer pork for precisely twenty minutes (“Look at the color, you’ll be able to tell”) nor has she ever told me to add “one teaspoon of soy sauce, then one teaspoon of white sugar” (“It’s trial and error.”) If I did not understand what hao you was or what regional flavor mapo tofu consisted of, I could not even approach making an authentic dish. I was an automatic failure in the kitchen, an outsider with no linguistic or cultural understanding.

I am not alone in my ignorance; a growing percentage of Asian Americans is experiencing a loss of native language in favor of fluency in English, which shows a valuable “acculturation” into Western communities. That precise loss of native language, though, ultimately means loss of culture, especially in the kitchen. If we can’t understand the ingredients and culture documented in cuisine since ancient times, we ABCs will be reduced to deep-frying and serving greasy sesame chicken and monochromatic Moo Shu Gai Pan as poor substitutes for the flavored dishes of our childhood. The future of my dinner table — with white Styrofoam take-out boxes and disposable chopsticks — terrified me.

We’re at a Chinese restaurant on Buford Highway in Atlanta, where the servers are called fu yuan and the empty Lazy Susan spins idly with a pot of steaming ju hua (chrysanthemum) tea as we order. The Chinese menu that I cannot read lays open in my mother’s hands, and as she peruses it with the seriousness of one who is about to make a very important business transaction, she turns to me.

“Do you want anything in particular?” my mom asks me.

I only know one dish. “Yu Xiang eggplant.

Albeit unspectacular, it’s an appropriate choice. Eggplant is generic, but Yu Xiang is a “fragrant fish” seasoning that is often combined with customary garlic, scallions, and ginger.7 Most importantly, it is often used in Sichuan cuisine, giving the dishes a distinct colorful flavor.

Conveniently, the restaurant is named “Little Sichuan.”

L is for learning too.

Jennifer Hong is a rising junior at Duke University, double majoring in Neuroscience and English. She is a lover of good conversation, good people, and good food, which brings all of the above together.


Peccadillo (n.)  a trifling or minor offense; from the Latin, peccare, ‘to sin’

In life, most things are defined by what they are not so that the chafe of negativity blemishes almost every definition.  A peccadillo is, in truth, a small sin – not one for the chipped steel of the penitentiary’s gates or St. Peter’s tiny notebook. It is neither mortal nor venial, but a sin, nonetheless.

Across from the Napa Auto Parts store, behind a grey door on a dead end street, Peccadillo beckons. Virginia sits by the door checking the membership list – the curtain behind her glows with a red light. Inside, the place is a simple rectangle – black with a cream stripe around three sides. The clientele are eclectic. Some come in Carhartt, others in kitchen clogs; both fresh off the line for cocktails, talk and mischief.  Still others come in bespoke, head to toe.  A beat from MC Lyte comes to mind here: Funky-fresh-dressed-to-impress-ready-to-party.  People in this place have been known to talk to strangers – the atmosphere is seriously promiscuous.  But, at Peccadillo, the possibility of a small forgiveness awaits you.

On the night that I happen to come in for the second time in a week, Etta James has passed. Friends and strangers open their conversations with “did you hear . . .” and like all people in the midst of that blinding predicament called fate, we gravitate toward being together. In this tiny corner of the triangle, she lives – singing the blues, throat wide open, mixing with the cocktails and the low chatter.  I am having a glass of Cava and following the movement behind the bar.  Fresh from NYC’s famed Employees Only by way of South Carolina, Tim Neill’s hybrid Australian/New Zealand accent and crisp white jacket take you back to an era when bars were sophisticated and courted their clientele like their wine list, one bottle at a time.

In a matter of weeks, bartender and partner-owner, Neill has turned Peccadillo into a destination.  Tim will serve you only 3 cocktails:  a Martini, a Manhattan and a Negroni.  In a country where variety is paramount, but at a cost, this can be a bit unnerving.  Neill’s tastes are herbaceous and the martini is simply one of the best I have ever had.  At the end of the night, I wanted to pick the piñon from my teeth.  Seriously.  The drink was chilled but not too much, a little dirty from the juice and arrived with a single bright green olive on the finish. Customers here will not have to survive another disappointing pimento-stuffed night.

Neill’s penchant for detail and educated palate will keep you coming back. Settle in with a bottle of wine shared with the people you’ve just met. Peccadillo’s wine list has the spare lines of a Vladimir Kagan design and is heavy on the Spanish influence.  But it changes weekly, so if you stick around, you might find yourself in another region altogether.  Nevertheless, if you’ve had the pleasure of spending any time in Spain, the back of your tongue will recognize soft tannins, mild minerals and fruity perfumes familiar to that special place. Drinks at 100a Brewer are neat, exquisitely sourced and prepared with what appears to be sleight of hand.

Later in the week, on yet another evening, the throng outside the front door is organized in a familiar smoker’s huddle.  A few UNC undergrads walking through the curve that connects Chapel Hill’s Franklin Street to Carrboro’s Main look down the road wondering what’s happening at the spot. They spy a loose assembly of folks from twenty-somethings to well . . . the officially retired. They move on.  This is no sports bar; you won’t find a TV in the place and the clients are glad for it. The music is just too good to warrant idle attention. As you sip Neill’s deadly fragrant kummel, you notice that one song preserves the slight crackle of a worn 45, taking you back in musical time.  At Peccadillo you feel as if Celia Cruz might actually show up, head encircled by the glow of that one red bulb.

At the end of the street, a woman stands on the corner across from the Taco truck, clutching a cell phone to her ear, cutting the cold with the warmth of her Droid.  “You have got to come to my favorite place to have cocktails.  It is like . . . the best bar ever.”  True that, but as she tries to explain how to get from there to here, she falters and offers to just wait on the corner for her friend’s car to arrive.  In that dress?  I think: good luck with that. We extinguish our refries and shuffle along through the metal door toward the warm light.

The flare of fire against the butt of a lemon rind captivates the trio to my right.  It is midnight and the joint is hopping. The chef du cuisine at a local restaurant shares a nice bottle of ’04 Tempranillo with me and we chat about pâtes.  It is the kind of place where you feel you can fall in love.  Not the love of your college years with more confusion than bliss, but the better love of your mid-to-late 30s: older, wiser and with a sense of humor.

The drinks flow and the laughter is real. The edges here are soft, keeping none of the metal and wire (even the staircase is gone) that was a punk rock venue called the “The Reservoir” – known in cyberspace reviews as “the diviest bar in Chapel Hill.”  As if to test my theory of past and present, hard and soft, on my way out I overhear Tim say “I won’t be happy until there is discarded clothing on the bar . . .” It could happen, because at least here – it’s only a small sin, a minor offense.

My cell phone chimes with the bling of an incoming text.  “Are you at the spot?” asks my foodie friend. I stop with my feet pointed toward my vehicle and spin ‘round. I cross the deserted street with one hand extended toward the door and the other texting, “Hell yeah.  Get over here.”

A River Runs Through It

In the summer of 2011 Cackalacky sent something awful to the citizens of New England: Hurricane Irene.  In advance of the storm my neighbor and I checked the generators, secured water and parked our 4×4 trucks at the top of the road.  I pulled a good bottle of Oregon Pinot for that night’s porch sitting and storm stories.  We waited patiently for Irene only to be stood up.  She lost interest in us fast, though the Outer Banks lured her with its siren call.  Like a fickle lover, she kissed our coast, traveled out into the Atlantic for a little pick-me-up and slammed into New York and then Vermont with a vengeance that has still left its mark. Southern cousins still know how to teach Yankee relatives a thing or two, right?

All over parts of the southern end of Vermont and just outside of Brattleboro, you can see signs of the devastation.  Hiking boots with dusty mud streaks are sold at half price with a sign that reads, “Irene damaged goods.”  Whole sections of road have been closed or pushed further into the mountain or the hill by the River’s swell.

I was in Vermont to visit with my brother, whom I tortured to no end by shopping for antiques the better part of my first day.  On our way home, my brother’s mother (Ingrid) instructed us to drop by the farm stand to pick up a box of “livestock” apples, with a warning to ignore the box with the mostly rotten ones – that we did not want.  We were preparing for our trip to see the horses on Saturday morning.  So, off we went – he complaining about nothing in particular, me about the freakin’ cold.  We selected a box with a good variety of large and small apples with only a few rotten bits and paid six dollars for it.

I have a great respect for antique woodstoves and the generation of women and men who loaded, stoked and cooked on them.  Ingrid has such a stove that warms the kitchen all day long.  She originally bought it for $75 dollars from a friend (new ones cost anywhere from 1,500-7,000) and I was obsessed with it from the moment I entered the house.

I was dying to cook something on it.

When we got home with the apples and my brother’s aching back from hauling it out of the Jeep’s terribly engineered back seat, Ingrid informed us that we were going to cook an apple pie – in the woodstove.  I could see the look on my brother’s face, it said: for Pete’s sake, that will take the better part of an evening.  Dinner looked like it would come to us from a land far far away.

Not at all.  We put that pie together in 18 minutes flat and I am still marveling at the way we did it.  We washed, cored and rough chopped the livestock apples – super hint here: we didn’t need to take the peels off and besides, it’s more nutritious that way, right?  We used store-bought piecrusts – one for the top, the other for the bottom.  We then cut apples until the mound in the center looked just right and sprinkled cinnamon, sugar, nutmeg and cornstarch on the top.  The woodstove was fired at about 375 degrees – in went the pie and we sat down to that night’s crock pot dinner – a luscious beef stew made with a variety of beef stocks held over from other culinary adventures.

The results were eaten a la mode and although there are many ways in which Jacques Pepin and Julia Child might have improved upon our pie, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.  The apples were not too sweet and perfectly tart.  We ate and laughed and I marveled at what our ancestors could do and had to do to get dinner, and on those special occasions, dessert on the table.

The next day we took about 1/3 of the box of apples to the horses.  A cruel Vermont wind nipped at my too-thin Cackalacky gloves, but I held the apples anyway as Babe reached over the fence line for one bite to halve it and another to finish it off.  Satiated, with my hands now raw with cold, she stretched out her neck to investigate the newcomer; then she kissed me ever so gently with her surprisingly warm muzzle. When I was a child, I liked nothing more than to go to the barn at my school and be with the horses. Sharing an apple with my horse, leaning on his neck and thinking about nothing in particular still feels like heaven to me.

The river behind Ingrid’s house is closest to the guest bedroom and is slightly menacing, reminding us that a storm is always in the offing.  Bits of rubble from the Builder’s Supply up River still dot its banks, marking the place where the water rose during Irene.  In truth, a river does run through it.

May all our journeys into the madness of the holidays and out of them bring the love of a good horse, the tartness of apples and the smoky warmth of a woodstove like Ingrid’s in Vermont.

When a Man Cooks

My 1955 Esquire Cookbook is inscribed “For Valerie with love from Uncle George and Aunt Janet 8.18.58.”  I do not know whether it was given to Valerie as a joke or for a new beau, but the thought of it is intriguing nevertheless.  Loving old cookbooks is like fingering through a stranger’s life. If they used the book at all, stains left from vegetable and animal proteins will mar the pages, giving the book a patina that lasts.  If not, the book comes to you with a single inscription and the pristine pages signal a missed opportunity for culinary enlightenment, or a passive aggressive anti-utilitarianism.

I found the Esquire Cookbook while trolling through an antique bookstore in Greensboro, just a stone’s throw away from the dormitories of Bennett College (founded in 1873 as co-educational; a college for women since 1926) and down the street from that famous Civil Right’s lunch counter.  The ghosts of sit-ins and protest marches still sing softly at the edges of historic Elm Street.

The introductory remarks, entitled “When a Man Cooks” encourage us in the following manner: “The thing to do with this book, or any cookbook, for that matter, is to find through trial and error a few recipes that seem particularly to suit you, to express your taste, and then learn them so thoroughly that you could do them with your eyes shut.  But first of all, by all means, try them on the dog, and the dog, unless you actually have a dog and are a dog hater to boot, must necessarily be you.”  I am not sure about the gendered nature of such remarks or about Valerie and her cookbook gift, or the tables set in 1958 for the ghosts that could not come to dinner, but I am sure about the dog.

What Thanksgiving has not been ruined by a ravenous wolfhound or a few dogs made into a pack by the necessity of having to be brought along because the kennel is full at the holiday.  This year, my North Carolina brown dogs, found on the side of the road a few years back, ate enough sweet potatoes – purple and traditional varieties – for four pies.  It was my fault, really. Distracted by a perfect bottle of white ’08 Chateauneuf du Pape and the smugness that only comes from having put the confit in the oven and the broth at perfect simmer, I lounged in the living room and chatted with my neighbor.  We laughed . . . until we cried.

I returned to the kitchen to mix the recipe for sweet potato pie that comes from my grandmother’s mother’s mother.  She never wrote it down, but served it every year at the holidays and it was my favorite.  While the other cousins loathed the southern concoction, I could eat a whole pie in one day – breakfast, lunch and dinner.  My grandmother was a country girl who married a professor turned banker and did well enough to never work a day outside the home.  I loved my Nana with a passion that only a second-generation child can love an adult and Thanksgiving is just not Thanksgiving without her luscious pie.

Hair of the Dog. . .

My neighbor helpfully suggested that I simply ring Cathy and Michael at Periwinkle Farm – only 15 minutes from my home – and try to beg for more potatoes.  It was 10 o’clock at night and the local Co-op was closed.  I seriously thought about it and even picked up the phone.  But what was my excuse – two badly trained American versions of the dingo or too many glasses of French wine? Embarrassing choices, to say the least.

Time for an executive decision.  I kept the piecrusts for an apple crostata and added 1 cup of cheddar to that portion.  I then used the scraps for some local blueberries that I had on simmer with white sugar, dark muscovado and cassia buds.  I strained the latter and used the whole blueberries in the pie, pureed the remainder and strained them for a topping for buttermilk ice cream.  My post-thanksgiving dinner – luckily this year I was invited to a friend’s home for the actual event – was a dream of the-sweet-potato-pie that never was.  Who can resist a simple white cake with buttermilk ice cream and a dollop of thick blueberry concentrate?

Priscilla’s Sweet Potato Pie

6 sweet potatoes

¾ cup of Baker’s sugar

¾ cup of dark muscovado or local unfiltered molasses

2 tsp. of cinnamon (fresh ground is best – try Ceylon or Penzey’s blend)

½ tsp. of nutmeg (whole, grated)

¼ tsp. cloves (ground fresh)

1 tsp. of ginger

1 tsp. vanilla

½ tsp. salt

½ stick of butter (11g fat or more)

1 can of Pet Milk

3 eggs

Boil, skin and let the potatoes cool.  Mash, adding milk and eggs, then sugars and other spices.  Add a splash of good cognac or brandy; it will elevate the end result.  Bake at 425° for 15 minutes, then 350° for 45 minutes.  This one makes four 9-inch pies (not deep dish – my grandmother preferred smaller pies, not hefty ones). You are on your own for pie crust, although I would recommend a crust for a wonderful pâté – I found an excellent one using egg in Pâtés and Terrines, published by Hearst Books in 1984.

With that said, the list here is approximate, because you will not be sure of the sweetness or the spice until you actually taste the potatoes – some years are sweeter than others. This year I had planned to use all three varieties – purple, white and traditional.  Experiment with combinations of all three – my farmer’s market friend suggested I make a purple swirl in the pie this year.  That will have to wait.

Add ingredients in small lots until you get the right consistency, tasting as you go.  Do the same with the spices.  After cooking, let the pies cool for at least 2 hours or preferably over-night.  They can be eaten at room temperature or cold, given your taste.

Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the holiday season and its ghosts.  Lovers never won, hearts broken, children old and new, families made and unmade at table or at the airport. Whatever it is, it is always bittersweet.  Like this year’s pie that never was.  Esquire says, “If you want to ‘bake a cherry pie’ get yourself a good stolid home-economics-type cookbook and hark to every one of the thousand words and pictures it takes to describe the technique. Otherwise, buy yourself a pie-crust mix and follow the simple directions on the package.”

True that, but be careful because at Thanksgiving your dinner always has the potential to go to the dogs.


It is 8:35 a.m. and I am sitting near the back of the classroom in the public school I would eventually be expelled from.  Among the usual classroom odors of chalk and industrial disinfectant and what we would later learn was particulate matter from asbestos, I can smell the mixed bag that is the 2nd grade lunch:  baloney and nuclear age yellow mustard; raw celery and carrots; leftover supper of unknown origin and . . . something else.  I cringe as I recognize that all-too-familiar smell of potted meat, dreading my reduced capital at the lunchtime sandwich swap.  The combo of pink colored mystery meat with Miracle Whip squished between two slices of Wonder Bread awaits me.  Long after the roaches have reclaimed the earth, this combo will survive as the undeniable 9th wonder of the postmodern/mortem world.  I am clearly able to eat this delicacy because of a 1969 National Academy of Sciences finding that “mechanically separated poultry products” were okay for us to consume.  Among the three varieties – Armour, Libby and Hormel, Armour was a family favorite. For some reason, we eschewed all Hormel products, because, um. . . quality counts.

The potted meat sandwich can take us back centuries.  A cursory search for articles on the internet related to potted meat turn up plenty of fascinating reading material from a diverse spectrum of food writing: from food poisoning and botulism to food cultures and preparation.  One of my favorites is a 1886 report authored by William Couchman (no pun intended), put out by The Vegetarian Society and entitled, “How to Marry and Live on a Shilling a Day.”  Mr. Couchman’s abstract speaks for itself:

“In this paper I have three distinct objects in view, all tending to the one end.  The first is to show, that a Vegetarian diet is best for man; the second, that it is cheapest; and the third, to show, especially to my younger friends, how by this cheap and healthy mode of living, they may carry out the great end of social life – marriage.  Surely, if these advantages are actually afforded us by the system of diet which I advocate, nothing more need be said to commend it to acceptance.”

Nice formula: vegetarian diet + cheap food + marriage = a well ordered society.  Now who could argue with that?

During the Spanish American War, Armour poisoned thousands of soldiers with contaminated meat.  So there is some truth to potted meat’s connection to botulism.  Ironically enough, Armour rebounded in the late 1940s by turning the soap byproduct from their meatpacking operations into the name brand, Dial, to which they added a germicidal agent.  The modern deodorant soap was born.


Within a decade of the Czech revolution that brought us the world’s first poet president, I traveled from Prague to Brno and then found myself on the bus to the tiny village of Kyov.  The bus dropped us off and I was amazed at how small a hamlet this “town” was.  We turned to contemplate options: Next bus not due until five that evening and it was 1:00.  I could see from one end of the town to the other from the threshold of the vehicle.  It was going to be a rather long afternoon.  What to do?  Get back on the bus, or head into the microtown for an afternoon of café surfing?  The bus pulled away, moving ever south toward the Moravian border sputtering black particulate matter into the air. We were staying.

Ever hopeful, we turned and walked toward the center of town, taking a slight right past what looked like a butcher shop. This took all of five minutes.  We turned down a side street and at the end of the block: a mirage.  The sign above the door said: ROCK CAFÉ SOHO.  I’m not kidding.  And it got better.  We walked into the bar and sat down at one of the tiny tables.  A man smiled broadly at us – the kind of smile you reserve for an old friend.  We were suspicious.  He apologized for his broken English, we were shamed by our little bit of Czech, which amounted to how to say “perfect” and “take me to the square,” all phrases from Fodor’s 1994 edition, before Lonely Planet guides for foodies would grace the shelves of our Bay Area bookstore.  He offered us the local favorite: Budweiser Budvar.  I looked at him over my glasses – the evening seemed to be headed for that slippery foodie slope.

Nevertheless, we nodded a polite yes to the Budweiser.  And then he introduced himself.  His name was Igor Judas.  I’m not kidding.  Of all the places in the Czech Republic, and we wind up in a pub called Rock Café Soho run by a man named Igor Judas.  Not Casablanca, but things were looking up.  The beer arrived and so did Igor; it was frosty and around twenty ounces per bottle.  I saw a hangover in my future; Igor saw an opportunity for a better education.  He wanted to know if he could invite a few friends to the bar to meet us – they were all practicing their English together and since my friend was of Czech descent, maybe she wanted to learn some Czech?  Sure, bring it on.

Four bottles of Budweiser, six rounds of singing, and two vehicles later, we were at Igor’s house and on offer was a lovely repast of mystery liquor and a tin of potted meat product.  I am back in that 2nd grade classroom. As Igor spoons out the Czech version of a childhood nightmare, I grab a cracker and balance a healthy amount on the end.  Thank god for locally produced olive oil and the kind of hunger that comes with an impending hangover.  I taste it and am actually surprised — potted meat is not so bad at three o’clock in the morning.  I like it.  It must be because it’s European potted meat. The blend of tripe and assorted animal slaughter byproducts are sautéed in a nice white wine from an up and coming region of Italy or France.

*  *  *

I am a long way from that potted meat sandwich, but I remember my mother’s small hands, the smell of her Chanel No. 5 and the plastic baggie laid gently in my Wonder Twins lunchbox.  There is little joy in mechanically separated meat product, but the memory of mother-love and new friends around a small government-issued tin of mystery meat can shorten the distance from here to there, can draw love from suffering.

White is the absence of all color.  This might be why white foods, at least on the plate, are not particularly appetizing; their only enthusiasts seem to be palate-challenged kids between the ages of 6 and 9.  My visual memory doesn’t have a track for whiteness in it – all flesh of this variety was consistently and neatly obscured by sauce or sear.  Love of whiteness reflects an inflexible palate; love of whiteness is an acquired taste.

One white food in particular has fascinated me over the years: it is a tomato-starved variety of gazpacho that I make and serve to mark the summer’s passing.  Unlike its counterparts – red, orange, yellow or green – white gazpacho is hearty and forgiving – it will not be killed with the addition of too much sherry vinegar or overzealousness with the olive oil.  There are several versions out there and if you travel to Spain and catch a local newscast in the early part of the afternoon, you will see varieties of them tested and tasted on a weekly basis.

This version cheats on the no-tomato bit – I add just a little green tomato to brighten the thick soup.  Your degree of thickness will depend upon the strength of your artisan bread maker’s starter and your grape.  Don’t worry; you can always thin with a little filtered water or seltzer (the bubbles give it a nice little tang, without changing the flavor).  You might even try thinning with the white wine you are drinking, but I find that the drier the wine, the better the soup and this one requires a wine with more heft.

Whenever possible, you should try a local variety of green grape.  A North Carolina scuppernong went into my version – bitter thick skins and strong musty sweetness added a balance to the soup that I enjoyed far beyond the California cousin I have always courted.  The local grape will surprise you with its flavor and your green tomato will change its seat to be next to such a randy little partner.  The jury is out on the yogurt, depending upon the type of bread you choose, you’ll either want a think yogurt, like the Greek variety, or forego it altogether and stay as southern as you please with a good locally produced buttermilk.  But, be careful what you wish for: your flavor could go south; testing first with the base before adding the yogurt is wise here.  Use the best sherry vinegar and olive oil (L’Estornell) you can find.  Perhaps the most difficult decision you will make has to do with texture – I guarantee that half your guests will want it slightly gritty, the other will want it smooth as silk.  Go with your taste – choose a fine sieve for silk or an antique chinoise with bigger holes for gritty.

The biggest twist here on the finish is seriously southern – when you live in a state where people fry pickles, you know they have to be good.  Who would waste good frying oil on a badly pickled cucumber?  I found a small jar of pickled green tomato from the “Farmer’s Daughter” at my local farmer’s market.  Wonderful, crisp and seriously sour.

Now assemble the garnish: think about a Now & Later fruit chew – that perfect blend of tart and sweet in the mouth.  Now top the soup: finely dice a little cucumber, some green tomato and the pickles.  Nest them in the middle and drizzle with the Spanish olive oil.  I served this one with a 2008 Miret Penedès, Clar de Castanyer aged in chestnut barrels – the flavor produces a nice slight smoke at the back of the tongue.  I have my wine friend, Jay Murrie at 3Cups to thank for the stellar recommendation.


1 green tomato

2 cloves of garlic, par-boiled or boiled in canola oil until soft (do not brown, it will be bitter)

A little shy of one pint of local green grapes

1½ cups of day old country bread, no crust, it increases the gluten in the soup

¼ cup best olive oil (Arbequina will compliment the flavors of this soup nicely)

1 cup of thick whole milk yogurt, or buttermilk, if you desire.

¾ cup of marcona almonds

1-2 small/medium sized market cucumbers, your taste, leave some for garnish

¼ – ½ tsp. Spanish powdered smoked pimentón, of course.


Start with the garlic. Then add it (no water or oil of course) to your blender or, if you are lucky, your Magimix.  Add grapes, cucumber, yogurt, almonds, bread, and ¼ of the small green tomato.  Blend. While doing so, add in a slow steam of the olive oil.

Your choice, grainy or silky.  Top with green tomato, pickled tomato, cucumber and a nice little shake of olive oil.  Uncork your white and serve with green olives in brine and lots of crusty, warm bread. Enjoy.



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