When I read this sentence years ago in my personality profile, I remember laughing about it with my boyfriend. Me, a homemaker? My culinary repertoire consisted of pasta and cookies, and the sight of a cleaning brush made me break out in a cold sweat. And yet now, five years later, like all terrible things, it seems to be coming true.
From looking at my humble, mismatched little apartment, you would never know it. I’m not a queen in a domestic-goddess sense. I’m more a queen in the medieval sense; I married into this position for life. I just happened to marry a TCK (third-culture king. Or was it kid?). Together we dreamed together of living in the far reaches of the world, and his vocation as an international school teacher made it possible.
In our first country, Thailand, many forces combined to relieve me of my royal domestic duties. The first was that we had no moving allowance, so all our kitchen stuff stayed behind. This turned out to be for the best, since our first kitchen was so small we didn’t notice it was there for a week. The second was that we very quickly and happily found out that it was cheaper to eat out every night than to cook. Each week we would treat our taste buds to Thai, French, Italian, Lebanese, Indian, often for less than $10 a night.
With new countries come new expectations. Now that I’m telling people back home that I live in Italy, rather than Thailand, the reaction has been very different. Now, instead of that slight hesitation that crosses their face, and the question, “Is that…in Asia?” or “Have you learned Taiwanese yet?”, people exclaim in envy, “ITALY! You lucky girl. You’re really living the dream!”
I don’t have the heart to tell them that I spend hours every day doing laundry, walking to and from the grocery store, cooking for a husband who misses fine restaurant food, making a fool of myself in Italian, and all this in one of Milan’s tiny, forgettable satellite towns…or perhaps I refrain for fear of sounding ungrateful.*
But a few months into our Italian journey, something peculiar started to happen. My husband noticed it before I did, but once I did life was never the same (no, Mom, I’m not pregnant!). The food I was making went from edible to, well, kind of good. I started cooking for friends. I watched cooking videos on YouTube like a real housewife, and read Tim Ferris’ “Four-Hour Chef” from cover to cover. In a few weeks, I went from peanut butter and apples for lunch to a crisp apple salad with candied walnuts, provolone and lime. I went from cornflakes every morning to making homemade granola and Bircher Muesli. And at the store, where once I saw green and thought “lettuce”, I now see rucola, radicchio, cavolo nero and valeriana, in infinite hues of coral and ivy and emerald. My palate has opened up to a whole new symphony of color, texture and taste.
Part of me though feels that I should be back in the world of sound and sight, giving recitals onstage in one of my silk ball gowns, rather than peeling garlic and onions, all grubby in my pajamas while the ball gowns gather dust. I often play music as I work, and occasionally one of my own songs will come up in the shuffle, recorded in Bangkok, and those glory days feel at once close and far away.
Last night I made a tour de force, recreating my favourite dish from my favourite restaurant in Bangkok, a salt-crusted snow fish. Coming back from the city late thanks to traffic, I ran to the Coop as fast as I could in the pouring rain. At the fish counter, I asked the pescivendola about the day’s catch, where it was from, farm-raised or wild, if I could smell it, and how much to buy for two (all in Italian!). I had memorized all the Italian names of fish in advance for this occasion. When I arrived home with my “catch”, my jacket soaked from the rain, I felt triumphant. And when the fish came out of the oven 30 minutes later, and we cracked open its snowy white crust of salt to reveal the perfectly moist, buttery flesh, I felt unbelievably content.
But can it be compared to the exhilaration of singing some of Strauss’ most moving lieder for a TV crew and audience of thousands, with an orchestra of musicians you know and love? To the contentment you feel coming home, washing away the heavy makeup but keeping the radiant smile on your face as you drift to sleep with the assurance that you are living your childhood dream?
Of course there are still off-nights; lots of them, in fact. The other day I roasted radishes thinking they were turnips (not recommended), and last week after a sleepover with friends I accidentally used pastry flour for pancakes, which made them cling to the pan like snails. After failures like these, the shame and disappointment well up in me, and along with them a fierce determination that makes me swear to myself that the next thing I cook has to be amazing.
If I’m honest with myself, it wasn’t all perfect in Bangkok either. Far from it. I’ve somehow airbrushed from my memory all those moments when I questioned myself and my (sometimes non-existent) profession, when I couldn’t find a voice teacher, when I arrived at rehearsals that had been cancelled, and when for a year I couldn’t open my mouth to sing without coughing first, thanks to all those motorcycle rides in the smog. These setbacks produced in me the opposite of determination. More often than not they ended up with me locking myself in the bedroom and crying.
In Bangkok I learned that the best way to avoid those painful, paralyzing moments of self-doubt was to keep busy, and that’s why my kitchen time is now keeping me afloat. In fact, I was surprised (and a little flustered; I thought cooking was my thing) to discover that all four of the other new teachers’ spouses have become avid cooks. I don’t blame them; there is something immediately satisfying about cooking. Unlike singing and performing, where the payoff may be years away, the rewards of cooking are tangible and (usually) edible, and just like music, they bring people together.
A flaky Italian tart with seasonal vegetables suspended in béchamel; Middle Eastern lentils pureed with caramelized onions and seasoned with a freshly ground seven-spice blend; Indian paneer homemade from a nourishing pan of simmering milk; I don’t know if this compares to learning classical Arabic maqam, or putting on a fusion concert with one of the best tabla players in the world, or a night of Italian tarantella music with tambourines and accordions and wild dancing. Sometimes I look down at my hands, wrinkled and water-logged from hours of doing dishes by hand, and it reminds me that youth and beauty do not last forever, and as much as we hate to admit it, my chance at international stardom pulses and fades alongside them.
Yet there is one saving grace, and that is that I have not stopped singing. I sing every day, both vocalises and chant, geetham and arias, and sometimes just wordless exclamations of melody, like the Sami joik, at shades joyful or sorrowful. I would continue to sing even if I were trapped deep within the earth, with only deaf earthworms for company. I pray that one day I will have a place to sing among the angels, to sing for those still on earth, to comfort and inspire them. I believe that my entire life, not only my voice, but who I am as a person, to my family, to my friends, to the world, is all in preparation for that time.
Don’t worry, this blog is not about to become a food or religious blog (although I can’t promise not to mention them!). Singing is still my passion. In the meantime, though, it’s Friday in Italy. Let’s bake a fish!
Whole Fish Baked in Salt Crust**
Large bowl (about 1 kilo) full of salt, any kind but preferably coarse
1 kilo of fish (or about 400 g per person)
4 egg whites, whipped
1-2 lemons, sliced
4 cloves garlic
Fresh herbs (thyme, parsley, bay leaves, etc)
1. Preheat oven to 400. Prepare a baking sheet covered with oven paper.
2. Whip egg whites until they form soft peaks. Combine with the salt until the mixture resembles slightly damp sand. Paint a bed of salt onto the baking sheet for the fish.
3. If not already done, clean and gut fish. Stuff with lemon slices, garlic and herbs (stuffing is optional, you can skip this step if you like). Place on the bed of salt, then cover completely with remaining salt.
4. Place in oven and bake for about 15 mins, or until the internal temperature reaches 130 F (measure using a probe thermometer, inserted in the thickest part of the fish).
5. Crack and remove salt crust with a spatula. Still using the spatula, remove skin, fillet the fish and place on a serving plate. Serve with lemon wedges and a side salad (or, as my favourite restaurant did it, green beans and sautéed potatoes).
This is a tasty and impressive dish, and also happens to be one of the easiest and quickest I have ever made. Any whole, white, non-oily fish will work for this dish, such as red snapper, turbot or snowfish. To get the freshest fish, look for sparkly scales, clear (not cloudy) eyes, bright red gills, and a fresh, clean smell. Also ask your fishmonger, or check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s site, to make sure you are buying fish that is sustainably caught.
*Although my gratitude does seem to increase proportionally with my intake of fine Italian espresso and wine.
**My apologies for the lack of a photo! I’ll try to remember to take one next time I post a recipe.