Where there is food there’s a story. If you want to know a neighborhood, go to its markets. If you want to know a family, go to dinner. If you want to know how two people feel about each other, watch them in a kitchen together.
Celinabean is a lot of things. It’s about an unsung city and its food. The people who cook and the people behind the shop counters who will teach you their secret recipes. And, of course, the people who eat. It’s about foraging for fresh curry leaves, glistening porgies, and the best $6 all-you-can-eat lunch buffet. And it’s about cooking for a multicultural, multigenerational family. But, most of all, it is a place for our stories.
I am, in my heart, a storyteller and a story listener. Stories are paths through the dark, the way we reach out and find each other. So gather round and pull up a chair.
I will start with my own story.
In my 20s, I loved nothing more than meeting new people. Strange towns and distant countries held the same thrill. And if I had only a few hours to immerse myself in a city, I would visit the supermarkets, the big ones with bright lights and piped-in music and the little shops with rickety glass doors, narrow aisles, and unexpected finds lurking in back coolers. Four colors of tomatoes tell a different story than a small stack of half-wilted iceberg. Take in the warm whiff of cinnamon sticks and cardamom seeds and you’re in one place; if your nose tightens with the sharp hit of hanging pig carcasses, you’re in another. And because most people shop for food, and how they shop reflects everything from the way they were raised to what they do for a living, you could do worse than spend an hour watching people choose their dinner.
This did not make me a great travel companion. After high school, I spent a year criss-crossing the country in a red Honda Civic named Trigger. I didn’t own a credit card and barely had enough cash for a can of refried beans, but I still found myself arguing to whoever was riding along that we really needed to check out the local Winn Dixie or Safeway, or talk to the guy selling plums and fresh corn by the side of the road.
Stories — it always came back to stories. Italy. Asia. Greece. The housewife in Hokkaido, Japan, who’d never had her own birthday cake. The opera singer in Italy who taught me to wait for the smell of olive oil to rise off the pan. The Southern woman on the worn front porch whose eyes got a faraway look when she described catching catfish with her mother. What she remembered was the smell of her mother’s snuff box and the motion of her hands as she skinned the fish. My obsession grew.
Somewhere along the way, I started traveling alone so I didn’t have to argue about spending four hours poking around the food stalls in Paris or an afternoon in Georgia talking to an old woman about the different schools of peach cobbler.
My 30s feel different. I’d much rather discover something new about an old friend than do the get-to-know-you routine with a stranger. The same goes for geography. I roam the streets of Albany, NY, and its surrounding cities, towns, and farm stands the way I used to roam the country. It’s how I’m teaching myself to put down roots after 30 some years of wandering. To feel at home, for me, is to know where to buy thin-sliced marbled beef for sukiyaki and to be greeted with a friendly nod of recognition by the lady who sells it. I’d rather stumble across Albany’s best place to find a 2 a.m. breakfast or get to know the local apple farmer than be the outsider looking in on an unfamiliar scene.
And when I’m done foraging, I return home to cook for an ever-shifting clan of people who know that they only thing they have to do if they want dinner is show up at 6.