Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Cooking Her Way Back Home

Today we are thrilled to bring you a guest post by Rebecca Rasmussen.

In June, my family and I moved from St. Louis to Los Angeles so my husband could go to graduate school out here. I’m not going to lie to you: the adjustment has been difficult for me. We’ve been thrust out of our little midwestern world into a world we aren’t familiar with, a world where half the people we meet are actors or screenwriters or “working in the industry.” People honk a lot out here. They arrive late to lunch because they are visiting their therapists and taking in a Pilate’s class. They’re thin and tan and look more alive than people anywhere else I’ve lived. Los Angeles is a world away from my pie making Midwestern roots, and I find myself missing even the things I despised about home—the grit, the humidity, the heat—for the simple reason that those things feel like home and home makes me feel safe.

I live in a gated apartment building (everything is gated); I couldn’t be safer, but for some reason the sprinklers jolt me out of sleep in the middle of the night and then I’m awake, ambling around the apartment trying to get my bearings back. Here you could be living in a slum and the placard on the gate would say luxury. In my estimation, there are two LA’s, one for the rich and one for the poor.

Don’t get me wrong. There are beautiful things too: the ocean, for one thing, and the palm trees and jacarandas, which work at my psyche daily to make me feel like I’m on a perpetual vacation, though another part of me is always keenly aware that I’m not. And my apartment building is filled with wonderful international families, whose kids my daughter loves to play with and whom I admire because they are even further away from their homes and still manage to smile on the stairwell. They cook wonderful things too, which reinvigorated me for a while. Maybe I could cook my way home.

At first, I tried my usual comfort fare: pies, quiches, nifty spins on old-time casseroles, but those things just reminded me of how far away I was from the apple orchard and spray of rhubarb on my father’s land in Wisconsin. So I turned to something unfamiliar to my typical culinary routine. I surfed the Internet and came across in Indian woman who posts You Tube videos of herself cooking traditional Indian dishes in her apartment. She’s sweet and precise and convinced me to try something new. I wrote down a list of ingredients and carted my daughter to an Indian market in my neighborhood.

We were the only English speakers in the store, but the two clerks were very friendly, even when I butchered the names of some of the spices I was looking for. Apparently, most Americans new to cooking Indian food attempt to cook one of two things: tikka masala or korma. I was attempting to cook korma, which I admit embarrassed me a little bit.

My daughter and I came away with coriander powder, mango powder, cumin seeds, turmeric, asafetida, hot green peppers, ginger, bay leaves, paneer, garam masala, and basmati rice. I’m telling you: that plastic bag of spices smelled so rich and lovely for a minute I forgot where I was and was back in an Indian restaurant in Fort Collins, Colorado, where my husband and I went on one of our first dates over a decade ago. I remembered the mango lassi I was drinking when he reached across the table for my hand.

This was all very promising, indeed.

My husband agreed. When we got home, he offered to help cook the meal, but all I let him do was mince the ginger. I wanted the ingredients to transport me somewhere else (where I didn’t know), and though the meal turned out just the way my Indian You Tube friend said it would, it didn’t take me back in time. But it did something more important: it took me forward, and my family too. We were making future memories in our small kitchen that night. We were listening to the radio. We were laughing.

My hope is that one day we will look back and remember our first days in Los Angeles with both kindness and a little humor.

“Remember when we thought everyone in LA was part of Hollywood. Remember when we didn’t honk our horns. Remember when palm trees still enchanted us. When we didn’t think we deserved all of this good weather.”

Maybe we’ll be sharing a bottle of wine. Maybe our cheeks will be warm.

“Remember that great Indian dinner we made.”
(You made, my husband will say.)
(You minced the ginger, I’ll remind him.)
“Remember when we didn’t know if we were going to make it.” 

And I’ll say: yes, yes, I do, a little too quickly, and I’ll reach across the table this time and hold my husband’s hand and maybe we won’t live happily ever after, but we’ll be happy just then.

Rebecca Rasmussen is the author of the novel The Bird Sisters (Crown/Random House 2011). You can find her at


  1. What a lovely post Rebecca. We moved to Boston from Ontario to do graduate studies and work (MANY years ago)and it was a rough transition at first. Eventually it was home but it's always hard to adjust. It's amazing how food can bring back lovely memories, whether you made it yourself or enjoyed at a friend's or a restaurant. Sounds like your appetizing Indian meal has started you on your way to doing that. Good luck in LA! Happy cooking.

  2. Beautiful essay! Twenty years ago I followed my son around Eagle Heights in Madison watching him play on the sandboxes and swings. The smells coming from my Indian, Korean, and Taiwanese neigbhors' apartments were so good that I was tempted to knock on the door and ask for the recipe! :-)

  3. Oh Rebecca how I remember being married to a Navy man, too young and too shy to be away from home. First to Chicago in the winter, I was so lonely. I was never so happy to see spring and summer. Now I look back and remember fondly the city where my daughter was born and how I enjoyed ballgames at Wrigley Field when the Phillie's were in town; that really felt like home.
    I love your writing I can actually smell the ginger being minced, my favorite spice. Just Beautiful!

  4. Lovely. I can taste the homesick longing. Thanks for a beautiful essay.

  5. Oh Rebecca, this piece really tugged at my heart. So many times in our lives we step outside of our comfort zone - whether it's a new city, a new job, a new baby - so that we can continue on our journey forward and grow. Some times are easier than others, some are harder. I think you summed it up so beautifully when you said "maybe we won’t live happily ever after, but we’ll be happy just then." Being able to finding happiness in the moment is what sustains us through challenging times. Thanks for such a lovely reminder of that.

    Jessica McCann
    Author of the novel All Different Kinds of Free

  6. Beautiful post -- and I can understand both the homesickness for familiarity and also the feeling out of place in Los Angeles (I grew up about 40 miles east in Claremont). I love that you turn to cooking as a way to feel more at home, forging a relationship with a new dish and cuisine. I think that's such a great idea for making a memory there! (p.s. we also lived in Ft. Collins -- moved from there to Maine about 14 years ago!).

  7. Oh Rebecca. So beautiful. You bring tears to my eyes with your bittersweet, but hopeful ending. --Dani

  8. Thank you all so much for your lovely comments and for this lovely blog hosted by three amazing women I admire very much. All love and hugs from me tonight.

    XOXO from LA :)

  9. Have moved for men a few times in my life ... just make sure the next move is for you, Rebecca. Settling in a new place is exhausting, romantic, challenging, mind-boggling, exciting. All of the above. But one day, close your eyes and pick a spot on the map -- make it your place! He can come or not ... it's a free world :)

  10. Deeply profound, on so very many levels. Thank you for the loveliness.