Some thoughts on my recent trip to California, the abundance of East Bay lemons, and a simple, flavor-packed pasta recipe for one.
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March was a month of fits and starts and hi’s and lows—here and gone before I could write something cohesive. I prematurely celebrated some splendid news from a reputable publication in response to a pitch I sent, not knowing the initial email would be followed by gales of silence (I still haven’t signed a contract, but I do believe I’ve got the gig…probably). The next day, I discovered one of our family cats, the youngest and most lovingly outgoing of our five, dead in a ditch by that goddamned bend in our road that has claimed so many lives over the years. I cried for about a week while we buried Rufus and said our goodbyes. And then I went back to California.
It was a work trip I managed to extend for some family time and it was magic, a last-minute gift from my favorite writing client that enabled me to see and hug people I didn’t think I’d lay eyes on this year. But going back to my old stomping ground always gives rise to heap of psychological flotsam—a kind of mental trash island that bobs up in my brain long before I spy those funky old salt ponds from my window seat during the final descent to SFO. Old life, old self, and a lot of mixed emotions I don’t yet have a tidy narrative for.
I realize, not entirely for the first time, that I don’t know how to write in the moment—at least not well. Some of my favorite writers are gifted at this—muddling through the present with their readers with what appears to be great honesty and openness. Their newsletters invite me in on their turmoil or daily mundane struggles in such a way that I find myself relating to a friend rather than listening in on someone’s tedious therapy session. I admire this because whether or not they are actually muddling (we don’t always know what’s withheld), they express a kind of unresolved messiness that I can’t seem to form words around. Perhaps it’s because I don’t yet know how I feel myself, and expressing that in writing feels too vulnerable. Perhaps, and I think this closer to home, I want to keep some things for myself. But maybe I also feel the need to present these feelings fait a compli, packaged and ready for consumption—a bit of a tall order when I’m still in them.
And it occurs to me just now that, insanely, this is the only aspect of my life that I expect—again, insanely—to be tidy. My laundry bin may be overflowing with three generations of wash cycles I couldn’t be arsed to put away, the grease and suicided moths on my stovetop maybe congealing into a despicable jelly, but my writing, well, that’s neat as a pin! There’s no bugs on our baby!
Utter horseshit, of course, but there I was at the airport trying to squeeze onto three different standby flights back to Dallas, staring at my laptop, writing, erasing, writing, re-reading, blanking, and eating my solid gold tajín peanuts from the newsstand because everything else cost $18+ and I was too outraged to splurge. Even after a journaling brain dump, my thoughts about going home and sorting through the emotional baggage of my twenties and thirties felt like a chore, and too tangled to lay plain for you, like sorting through a jumble of old wires and bum earbuds nobody wants or needs. I felt the things, and feeling them feels better than the years I spent trying not to feel them, and I think that’s good enough for now.
All that tumult was, as usual, for naught, because I was barely in San Francisco anyway. My sister’s home base is across the Bay now, and we spent our time cozied up in her apartment and exploring the neighborhoods near her home, places I never visited when I lived in San Francisco (back then the East Bay felt like another world, and it is, and I wish I’d spent more time there). We ate a wonderful fried chicken lunch at the Fat Apple Cafe in El Cerrito, moist Mary’s chicken breast on an aioli-smothered bun with just enough pickle chips and spicy, herby slaw to provide the requisite crunches and vinegary tingles. I ogled the bakery case as we placed our order—fat chicken pot pies nestled next to flaky laminated puffs and a kirschkuchen (a German cherry cake I’ve never seen before)—and wished we had something like this in Waco.
We strolled down Solano Avenue and I managed to find the perfect birthday present for my partner for under $40, not something I could do in my old Hayes Valley neighborhood where a pair of shoes or a bra or a child’s dress will set you back at least $200. Not something I can do in Waco, where each shop seems to be spread out across acres of sunbaked strip malls—shopping as destination rather than shopping as happenstance. The homes near Solano with their handkerchief gardens were bursting with bright yellow oxalis and enormous blousy roses and flowering rosemary covered in hungry bees, but the lemons in the East Bay always steal the show.
Every corner, every house, every random plot of land seems to have a lemon tree on it, casually heaving with fruit. When I moved to the Texas countryside to live on the plot of land next to my parents, I fantasized about my Mediterranean garden—the heat of summer (San Francisco was ALWAYS cold), the citrus I would grow, the land I would cultivate after all those years in a teeny tiny box of an apartment. But Texas is not the Mediterranean. Our winter freezes are too harsh, so that mild weather plants like Meyer lemon trees must be wintered indoors—an impossibility in the slightly larger small box I occupy now (a box I love, the best box I’ve had, but not one with room or light for lemons).
My sis and I hopped over to her friend’s house in Richmond Annex—an adorable little bungalow (don’t ask how much it costs for a one-bed-one-bath house, you really, really don’t want to know) with to-die-for views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay from her backyard. And two gorgeous lemon trees. The friend was away on a trip so, with her blessing, we let ourselves in through the back gate with our market bag. We stood under those Meyer trees huffing that incredible perfume and picked greedily, knowing there would still be enough lemons left hanging to vinaigrette the entire neighborhood for a year. Such luxury!
I made fragrant lemon bars which stuck to the pan, breakfast home fries with sliced lemons and onions and, one night for dinner, a huge torn bread salad with a blood orange and Meyer dressing. I served the salad with lemony pan roasted salmon and blanched asparagus under a lemon-mustard vinaigrette, and the whole NorCal family showed up. Both my niece and nephew and her boyfriend and my sister’s boyfriend squeezed round her dining room table for the feast. A day or two earlier, my nephew and I slow-cooked a thick, buttery, miso stew loaded with vegg, tender sauteed lemon slices, and splashes of that heady juice—gobbling it at 9:30 on a school night because I’d started the stew too late.
Every meal we made featured those resplendent Meyers, and there were still enough remaining at the end of my trip for squirrelling away in my carry-on. I’m looking over my laptop now at the remaining four and deciding how to send them off in style.
I will make what I made for myself the night after we buried our Rufus cat, a comforting, quick spaghetti dish both rich and light that will be five times better with these fancy-pants Meyers. It’s a good dish for a grieving stomach, unfussy, homey even, and with enough citrus to wake a mouth that’s numb from crying (recipe below). It’s equally great if you aren’t sad, and it makes a lovely meal if you’re cooking solo and want to treat yourself without breaking a sweat. That’s one lemon gone.
I’ll save the next lemon to hide in a soup for a friend of mine who is sick, a kind of talisman imbued with all the goodness I can muster. She won’t know it’s there, but it will protect her. That’s two.
And with the last two, maybe I’ll give those lemon bars another whirl. Maybe this time they’ll release from the pan. Maybe they won’t. With lemons this good, it almost doesn’t matter.
Miso Brown Butter Spaghetti with Orange & Lemon
This vegetarian pasta recipe is rich in flavor but light on the tum and comes together quickly with just a few affordable ingredients. It’s a real treat if you’re cooking solo, which is why this recipe serves 1, but it’s easy to double or even quadruple if you’ve got company.
¼ lb. spaghetti
Peel from 1 or 2 oranges, about 6 peels, finely julienned
Peel from 1 1/2 lemons, about 4 or 5 peels, finely julienned
3 T unsalted butter
5 cloves garlic, smashed
¼ c parsley, finely chopped
2 T white miso
Juice from ½ lemon, about 1 ½ T
2-4 T reserved pasta water
Salt to taste
Parmesan cheese for garnish, grated or microplaned
- In a medium saucepan or pot, boil water for pasta (throw in a little salt if you like to do that).
- Cook spaghetti al dente according to package instructions. Keep a handled measuring cup close by for scooping out or reserving some pasta water to add to the sauce and stop the brown butter from burning.
- While the pasta cooks, place a medium frying or saute pan over medium high heat and add the butter.
- When the butter is hot, add the garlic and citrus peels. Continue cooking and stirring until butter begins to foam and amber flecks begin to appear at the bottom of your pan.
- Stir in the miso paste and the parsley and continue stirring for one minute until fragrant. More brown flecks will appear, but be careful not to let them go black or your sauce will be bitter.
- Immediately add the lemon juice and pasta water.
- Note: Use your handled measuring cup to scoop out some pasta water if your pasta is still cooking, or reserve some water in the measuring cup when you drain your pasta. Start with roughly 2 Tablespoons and see how it looks. You can add more pasta water later, if need be, so don’t dump it out until you’re happy with your sauce.
- Drain pasta if you haven’t already, transfer it to the saucepan, and toss to combine over low heat, allowing the pasta to cook in the sauce for a minute or so. Adjust for texture, acidity, and saltiness. Add more pasta water if you like you want more sauciness, add more lemon juice if you want something brighter, and add more salt if needed.
- Serve hot as is or top with parmesan cheese.
- There’s no reason you can’t use any other pasta of your choosing for this recipe, and you should!
- Avoid the white pith on your citrus. When peeling lemons and oranges, try to remove as little of the white pith as possible, as too much will make your dish bitter. A little pith is inevitable, and just fine.
- Try using red miso or adding a splash of orange juice. Why not?