There is a story that I am blocking out. I remembered it recently only when a friend of mine mentioned it. So if I don’t write this today I will chicken out and never write this story. Because it is very convenient to lock this one away again. It has a coat of agony still covering it, even though it was two lifetimes and seven seas ago. Here goes.
In grad school we had lab picnics once or twice a year when we all got together and did some grilling. Professors attended too and usually there was a game of soccer or volleyball on while the grill was doing its job. We tore up lettuce and cut up onions and tomatoes for burgers and each one brought a dish to share. Some Indian student would always bring along a tandoori chicken-like marinated chicken which was always a hit. Things were good, we liked to say then. Before one such picnic the professors called a town-hall meeting to discuss our research progress during the year. It was supposed to be an open forum where we could express our concerns and voice our opinions. So some of us spoke – me included. As it turned out they didn’t really care what we thought, they just wanted to let us know how displeased they were with our collective research progress over the past year. We were all shocked. I used to be over sensitive then and took it quite personally. The picnic was the last thing on my mind at the end of it but on the insistence of one of my colleagues I did go. But the whole day is blacked out in my mind. I remember we played frisbee and that’s it. And the fact that it was not a sunny day.
But if you discount this particular picnic our other picnics were always fun. The lab Thanksgiving get-together was the first place I learned to love American food. I hated that turkey (it was way too dry) but I loved the gravy, the mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie. I was one of those people that said they wouldn’t eat beef in the US but one bite into a juicy, coal-grilled burger on a sunny Spring afternoon at the first lab picnic and I was a changed person. Even as I write this I crave a big, juicy, flame-grilled Carl’s Jr. burger. After that I decided that it was okay to eat burgers once in a while. And then I met the meatloaf. The rest as they say is history.
We always had chips, drinks and watermelon in addition to the usual picnic salads like potato and macaroni. But sometimes people would bring some interesting food like thai green curry – one of our professors really liked to cook. I remember once a professor brought along lemon bars that his daughter had baked. It was the first time I had a lemon bar and boy did I fall hard. But before I could grab a second one they were all gone. What’s not to love about a lemon bar? Crumbly, buttery, shortbread crust contrasting the tart, sweet and goey lemon filling. I need to bake some here and very very soon. After all it is summer. Another time a professor’s girlfriend brought along a German dish that was very similar to an American apple crumble. Soft, smooth, appley on the inside and crisp on the top. Perfect with a dollop of vanilla ice cream. But the most interesting memory of picnic food is a pasta that a professor’s wife brought. I think it was from a local grocery store. It was just angel hair pasta tossed with some olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper and lemon zest and juice. It was one of those dishes that epitomizes the saying – less is more. Yet whenever I’ve tried to replicate it in my kitchen I’ve only had partial success. There was something about that particular olive oil I think.
You know what the memory of good olive oil, fragrant garlic and fresh lemon flavors can do to you? Wash away all the negativity. Reaching the end of this post, I don’t think of the bad times I had in that lab. I miss the days – coffees in the conference room two times a day and stolen coffee once a day from the CS lounge, lunch at the hospital cafeteria, the union, Subway or Chipotle, ice cream at UDF, dinner at Bob Evans or Don Pablos and celebrations at BD’s Mongolian BBQ. Yes I spent five years there and left without getting a degree. I was scarred for a long time. But for all the good food memories, I say cheers!