I made Shakshuka…

…but I’m really going to talk about nostalgia, memories and connections instead.

Note: this is another one of those posts where you need to hang in there while I make my point. Technically there was cooking involved so it still counts.

As a raging Gen X-er, I’ve been casually considering mortality and aging for nearly five years – yes, my timing is fabulous. But for the last two I’ve noticed little hints of sentimentality oozing in, presumably to help combat the stress of a very real global threat. Having been deprived of so many hallmark moments, family gatherings and social events, I think some of my fond, but forgotten memories have simply resurfaced to fill the voids.

For example, in August of 1991, I was living in NYC after college and we all went to Paul Simon’s concert in Central Park. I had absolutely forgotten that balmy, halcyon afternoon – an extraordinary experience that was simply tucked away in the transoms of my mind. It was not until 30 years later, as I was dancing away to The Obvious Child in my kitchen this week, when the youthful exuberance and pure joy of that day came flooding back. It was an unexpected, although wholly welcome moment of nostalgia. I’ve thought a lot about it since that night. But is that a good thing?

NYC 1991, possibly Khan’s Mongolian Barbeque

I say yes. Nostalgia often gets a bad rap and so does her partner, rumination. Both can distract, distance and detach us from reality, none of which are healthy behaviors in large doses. But if we instead consider them formative memories and independent problem solving, we are somehow elevated to being thoughtfully introspective and well-adjusted. I’d argue that I’m merely curious about connections and take the time to carefully examine the whys. I’m definitely not an overthinker. Am I?

On this particular night I decided to cook yet another first-time reach for which I had no context other than an Instagram photo and a couple of recipes. All of the ingredients were carefully prepped, measured and laid out on the counter, but honestly, I wasn’t feeling it. My happy cooking playlist ended and fizzled into the “you might also like…” selections, so I nearly called an audible and opted for leftovers instead. I just stood there uninspired.

But then I heard a roaring crowd, followed by a 4-tap count-in and finally that commanding, kick-ass Brazilian drum intro. I remember thinking how much I love the studio version of this song when it dawned on me wait, I think I was actually there; I was in this mob dancing and singing along. Apparently the lyrics meant nothing to me at age 23, but now – dear god – talk about mortality and aging. Of all my playlist boyfriends, Paul always delivers and suddenly I was fully recharged for the night. Looking back, I am genuinely surprised that this sentimental throwback didn’t make me feel old and obsolete or trigger the lost youth “reminisce & wallow” thing. Rather, it begged me, almost screamed at me to carry on, right now, as is.

“Well I’m accustomed to a smooth ride, or maybe I’m a dog who’s lost it’s bite. I don’t expect to be treated like a fool no more, I don’t expect to sleep through the night”

Nostalgia easily could have been a roadblock, but became catalyst instead. Now The Obvious Child is associated with entirely new images, tastes and smells – as if my brain simply rewired the memory to allow new connections. Interesting fact: the concert was part of his Born at the Right Time tour. I didn’t miss that when the song came on, by the way – timing is everything.

So now there I was, singing and sautéeing, thinking ill of no one, as my grandmother would say. On the menu – Shakshuka, originally a North African dish of poached eggs in a spicy tomato and red pepper sauce. It is pretty common for breakfast or brunch throughout the Middle East and Europe because it is, after all, a magnificent egg dish. Regional additions from Tuscany to the Mediterranean include creamy feta, eggplant, olives and naan which compliment the tang of the rich sauce and create a complete one-skillet dinner. Rumor has it that it’s preparation is quite danceable.

I’m not sure why I chose to make Shakshuka other than the pure challenge and excitement of something totally new. Well there was that pretty photo, I suppose. I jumped in without expectations or frame of reference. Perhaps it was for those reasons that I put it off night after night – I was nervous without the safety net of experience or taste memory. It’s also why I’ve been writing around it for the last 5 paragraphs. And lastly, I think it’s why I almost quit that night. Maybe it just didn’t mean anything to me floating out there in open water. It needed a connection, so my brain chose to piggyback on Paul Simon.

Y’all do know the buttons up there link to songs, right? Good ones…that you aren’t listening to. Really, I can tell you aren’t.

I’m sure one day the rest of my Shakshuka origins story will reveal itself. You know I can’t let it go. But the finished product was really quite good, although perhaps not something for heavy rotation. Half the sauce now lives in the freezer, so it will get a second chance and then I can write an amusing post about how I really didn’t write about it last time, but obsessed until I found the connection. Because you know there is one.

My latest “hobby” is learning to notice those quiet, seemingly unimportant threads that exist between people, places, ideas, etc. I was going to say “seeking them out,” but they aren’t exactly hidden, we just often don’t feel they matter enough to look or listen. A newly discovered little connection combined with an existing rich memory can tell stories that are heroic, delightful, tragic, cautionary, romantic, dangerous and everything in between. Better than bingeing Netflix really.

One final point about connections: there is a parlor game called “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” where you try to connect him with random actors via the fewest number of common films and co-stars. Obviously it comes from the notion that we are all merely a handful of shared moments away from each other, a wildly underrated facet of our humanity. It doesn’t have to be cosmic or creepy, but I do feel more grounded, more satisfied, when I notice a spark or two of synchronicity in my day. It’s like reaching into a pile of 1000s and pulling out two puzzle pieces that fit together. There is nothing ominous or mystical about it – it’s serendipity, not a glitch in the Matrix. It’s simply a connection.

The point here? Paul Simon was married to Carrie Fisher, who was in Star Wars, directed by George Lucas, who also directed Howard the Duck starring Lea Thompson, who was in All the Right Moves with Tom Cruise who was in A Few Good Men with Kevin Bacon. Boom.

cheat sheet

  • The recipe calls for jarred roasted red peppers but I had a bag of beautiful tri-colored Italian peppers in the rotter so I roasted those myself.
  • Some methods call for stovetop cooking exclusively, while others suggest finishing the pan in the oven for the final poaching. My oven was already warm from the peppers and I hate my cooktop, so guess what I did?
  • Skillet materials matter – cast iron can be reactive with tomatoes and give off a harmless, but yucky metallic taste. Choose your weapon wisely.
  • Double the cumin, throw in some ground coriander, halve the salt and liberally add harissa to the tomato sauce. A sprinkle of za’atar was a nice touch at the end.
  • Spotify>Settings>Playback>Autoplay>play similar songs when your music ends. You never know.

the rest of the weekend:

One thought on “I made Shakshuka…

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