It’s been two and a half months since we left Vancouver for Salt Lake City, Utah. Some things, of course, are so obviously different it almost seems silly to mention them. Nevertheless: each day the sun greets us so forcefully here that I squint whenever I walk down the street, where whole blocks go unshaded by trees. The grey, used-dishwater light that characterizes Vancouver has been replaced with a naked lightbulb. It makes me feel alive, reminding me of my growing up years in the Philippines.
With other things, the differences catch you unawares, until you pause to reflect and recognition of change wells up inside you like a spring threatening to bubble over. For me, this came probably the third or fourth week we were in Utah, once Kevin and I had settled into our blue rented bungalow with the corner fireplace and pink-and-red bathroom tile. By that time, we had signed up for a CSA, we had visited a church and liked it so much we decided not to visit any others, I had a steady daily routine, and the desire to cook had returned with such force that every meal felt like a celebration. And what I realized was that I loved this place. I loved it. Salt Lake City, Utah. Love.
I love the small-town feel of this city. I love that 99.9% of the houses here have porches. I love that when I go to my pottery class on Tuesday nights, there is an unspoken rule that at least one person will bring a six-pack of beer. I love that our anxieties about moving here, both big and small, (Would we find a community of faith? Would we find decent Chinese food?) have both been provided for with abundance. I love that Salt Lake City is home to a huge community of writers and readers. I love that in the few months that we’ve been here, I am feeling hopeful and happy about making new friends.
It has been a long time since I’d felt such affection towards the place where I lived. Prior to moving to Utah, I’d spent seven years in Vancouver, and no disrespect to Vancouver, but they were seven hard years. I know many people adore the city: the Canadian politesse, the mountains, the ocean, the Japanese izakayas, and the best dimsum outside of Hong Kong. But Vancouver was my wilderness. It was the place where all the things I’d held dear in my previous life were taken away, the place where I didn’t thrive so much as learn about survival.
When I’m sick in bed, or wanting something silly to pep up my day, I watch Youtube clips of Ellen. On one particular episode many years ago, she interviewed Anne Hathaway, asking about the actress’s experience dating a man who proved to be a high society scam artist. At first, I was a little disappointed. Where were the goofy dance moves? The absurd games? The snarky celebrity gifts? Hathaway looked stricken, but in very measured tones, no doubt thanks to good media coaching, she replied that she’d gotten through the experience with the support of family and friends. Then, her voice growing steelier, she concluded, “I never lost custody of myself.”
I remember being so impressed by that. She’d experienced something painful and humiliating in the public eye, but when she told her story, the thing that remained intact through all her loss was her sense of self. I wished my story about Vancouver had been the same, but it wasn’t.
When I moved to Vancouver, I lost: a career, the church community where I was baptized, regular contact with many dear friends and family members, a cultural frame of reference, my sense of identity. In time, those things were slowly replaced, but in ways that were unrecognizable to my former self. I gained: new work, new churches, new friends, a husband (!). But the sense of being comfortable in a culture, and the sense of confidence in knowing who I was, well, those things remained lost to me the whole time I lived there.
I should mention this: During that time in Vancouver, I gained one more thing. A crucial thing. I gained a renewed understanding of the holy presence of God (well, it was the wilderness after all, and I haven’t read the Old Testament for nothing). But I struggled, still, with feeling His love for me, because I so rarely felt a sense of rightness during my time in Canada. It was a situation where my conversations with God were like, “God, in my head, I know you love me, but it’s harder to feel it in my heart. Why do I feel so icky here all the time?”
I didn’t expect that sense of “rightness,” of comfort in my environment, of liking the person I am, to come back in Utah, of all places. I thought, at best, that Salt Lake might be an “in between” place, a stopover while Kevin and I searched for someplace more suitable. But here I am, in this strange and wonderful little city, my heart overflowing with joy and gratitude, ready to call this place home.
The following recipe is one I first made in 2009, while living in Vancouver, and then completely forgot about until this week, when I found it deep in a recipe folder. The title seemed unpromising: “Smoky Chickpeas and Greens.” But in the recipe, I had written so emphatically about how delicious it was that I decided to trust my old self and give it a shot. That it was just as amazing in Utah as it had been in Vancouver was no small measure of comfort. I’d found a little artifact from my Vancouver days that proved that there were moments of goodness in that city, goodness that I could carry over the border into this new place.
Smoky Chickpeas and Greens
This is how I convinced myself to make it again: “Adapted from both Catherine Newman and Paula Wolfert, this dish was so delicious that I ate it for dinner in a dreamy haze. Each bite was so incredibly savory, so full of umami, that I almost couldn’t believe I was eating a dinner of beans. Goodness.”
Pour a generous glug of olive oil into your pan. Make sure the oil is a flavorful one. Pour in enough that if you tilt the pan, the oil will be deep enough to come up the sides of a few cloves of garlic, maybe three tablespoons. Gently heat the oil over medium heat.
Peel 3 cloves of garlic. Slice each clove in half, and then place them in the oil and let them fry until golden and just beginning to brown.
Meanwhile, place half a teaspoon of salt, a generous grind of black pepper, and three-quarter teaspoons of smoked paprika into a mortar. Once the garlic has browned, fish it out of the oil and add it to the spices.
Turn back to your pan and crank the heat all the way up. Add a cup and a half of cooked, drained chickpeas and three tablespoons of tomato paste. The quality of the tomato paste is important. The stuff from Italy sold in tubes is flavorful and sweet. Fry the beans and the tomato paste in the olive oil until they begin to smell very aromatic, a minute or two.
Use the mortar and pestle to mash the garlic into the spices and salt until it becomes a paste. Add the garlic paste back to the pan, then add a scant cup of chicken broth or chickpea cooking liquid. Let it come to a boil, and then add about three-quarters cup of boiled, chopped greens, gently squeezed dry. I’ve tried nettles, spinach, and chard, but any tender, mild green would be delicious.
Stir the greens around until they are thoroughly heated, and then add a modest drizzle of sherry or wine vinegar, half a teaspoon or more. Taste. It should be headily delicious: smoky, savory, slightly tangy, with the deep, rounded flavor of toasted garlic and tomato.
Congratulate yourself on a well-made dinner, and eat a bowlful on your couch.