Sustainable Habits During a Crisis

lifestyle

So I can’t beat around the bush: the world is a wild place right now and many, if not everyone, reading this has been staying home for one reason or another. At the very least, I hope everyone reading this is minimizing trips out and keeping social activities virtual. In this moment I’m learning that sustainability in my life is experiencing a change for better and for worse.

As you may know, I’m passionate about reducing my carbon footprint through my lifestyle choices. I shop second hand, limit my single-use products and reduce food waste where I can. In these respects, some parts of my life have not changed with the onset of social distancing. I’ve been home enough to make use of all my leftovers and food scraps, I haven’t had a desire to even leave the house and shop, and my reusable products are saving me trips to the store and keeping me from hoarding products that I do not need. In some respects, my shift towards a more sustainable lifestyle has made this major change a little easier.

However, in other ways it has been safer to understand that public health must come first and that may require using more disposable products. Look, I’m not about to stubbornly frown upon people from a sustainable high horse while simultaneously putting those people in danger. Disposable gloves, single-use masks and disposable disinfectant wipes are crucial to keeping public spaces safe for immunocompromised people and essential workers. Processed and packaged foods can stretch your pantry to reduce your grocery store trips and that’s okay. Living with someone considered an essential employee means taking some of those not-so-eco-friendly practices into my home, primarily using more disposable paper towels and disinfectant wipes to get surfaces clean without potentially contaminating other surfaces. Also using more chemicals to keep spaces as clean as possible. It’s not an easy change, but it’s a necessary shift for this moment in time. Even Lauren Singer of Trash is for Tossers has had to compromise some of her sustainable practices for the sake of public health and safety.

So maybe you’re saying “Marcella, what sustainable practices CAN I maintain during this time?” I’m so glad you asked.

Keep in mind that, like Lauren said in her post about prioritizing values during this crisis, the ability to purchase sustainable and unsustainable products (especially in bulk for the sake of the latter) is a massive privilege in this country and in this moment. I’m fortunate to be able to support myself with these means right now. If you, like me, feel this way I encourage you to help where you can: don’t hoard food and support local, non-profit initiatives like food banks and farms.

You can repurpose old shirts, socks and towels into rags for cleaning surfaces. I’ve been doing this recently to give new life to items that can’t be donated to second hand shops. It’s something my mom always did that didn’t make much sense to me until this point in my life. This is helpful especially if you’re trying to limit your paper towel usage to important things like food preparation and cleaning high-traffic surfaces. I use these for kitchen spills, cleaning glass and mirrors and dusting hard surfaces. You can make the most of the paper towels you have by thinking about what HAS to be disposed of versus what can be thrown in the wash. Therefore, no need to hoard.

Using fewer disposable hygiene products also reduces waste and trips to the grocery store. There used to be nothing worse than having to make a trip to a pharmacy or grocery store for just tampons, especially after going to the grocery store the DAY BEFORE. So in this time I’m thankful for my menstrual cup and safety razor, two items that are going to help me save money and reduce unnecessary trips to stores.

Lastly, being home all day and needing to be resourceful in the kitchen is the perfect soup storm. Meaning, save your scraps PEOPLE! Mushroom stems, onion skins, chicken bones – you name it. Roast your scraps to release some deep flavors, throw it all in a stock pot and add spices of your choice and water and let simmer all day while you work from home. Now you have homemade stock, which can then be the canvas for many dinners. Add leftover cooked veggies or wilted greens and give them new life. Add noodles and crunchy carrots for chicken noodle soup, or a beaten egg for stracciatella. This whole experience has made me more resourceful, and cooking has provided an escape from daily anxiety.

I’m so sick of living in these interesting times, and I’m sure you are too. I yearn to see my friends and hug my family, but right now I understand my responsibility to stay home. I hope you’re all staying safe and healthy, and I hope you can relate to some of these sustainability challenges during these times.

I Finally Tried ThredUp and Here’s What I Think

lifestyle, Vintage

So I’m not the official authority on thrifted clothing but I know a thing or two about the whole process. I’ve been trying to make the conscious effort to shop ethically and sustainably which sometimes means shelling out a bit of money for something well made and ethically sourced, or sifting through racks of second hand clothing at my nearest Goodwill or Savers. Personally, I like visiting thrift stores and spending time finding a piece that speaks to me. Without an agenda, a sense of “oh I really NEED a new black dress,” and instead a sense of “what treasures can I find today,” I find the hunt exciting. It’s an activity. However, what happens when you want something specific and don’t want to shell out the money for a high quality version because it’s just not the “worth it” sort of item? That’s when you use ThredUp.

Disclaimer: I don’t want my opinions to deter anyone from using ThredUp. I think any move towards more sustainable options (that may be more accessible due to price point and online fulfillment) is a good move. These are just some questions/concerns/stipulations I had before ordering, and my experiences. Spoiler alert: I would shop at ThredUp again.

I placed my first order on ThredUp on a slow Thursday at work. Honestly, ThredUp can be akin to a thrift store when you surpass the filters and search options, making it a great source for afternoon scrolling. This time, however, I was looking for two specific things: a pair of khakis and a sundress. My first praise to ThredUp comes here: I found both items easily through the filters. I could sort by my size, brands that I like and colors I prefer. I landing on a pair of Uniqlo khakis (a brand that makes pants that actually fit my weird body) and a grey linen Tahari dress.

While I found what I was looking for, now would be a good time to mention some critiques. While I understand that these items are second hand and the site might have a high turn-over rate, clothing often looks a bit disheveled in the photos. The descriptions offer some assistance (both items were classified as “like new”) but when the photo looks one way and the caption says another thing, you get weary. This was actually a deterrent from me ordering clothing sooner. But with enough assurance from other people, I gave it a shot. My other critique: price point. Yes, I know the designer brands and expensive name brands see a high markdown from traditional retail price, that discount diminishes when it comes to other brands. For example, you can probably find Old Navy items in the actual store on clearance for the same price they are listed for on ThredUp, and if you’re shopping second hand due to budget, this isn’t quite the discount you may need. You can probably find some mid-tier brand items even cheaper at actual brick and mortar thrift stores, however without the luxury of pre-sorting items and browsing online.

Nevertheless, I placed my two item order: $29.75. Definitely more than what I’d pay in a traditional thrift store for two items. I actually paid $3 for a pair of pants at a thrift store one week later. Shipping was $5.99 – another critique but something inevitable for an online retailer, I guess. I was STOKED to get a package in the mail, though. It’s like giving a present to yourself. A treat!

Yet, I waited a week for my items to arrive. No big deal, I wasn’t in a rush, but I was less than excited to get two separate packages for only two items. I’m all for sustainability, which is why I shop second hand in the first place, but part of the sustainability process is minimizing both packaging and shipping frequency. Aside from the plastic outer packaging, the inside only had a paper sticker and tissue paper, which was nice because it was recyclable.

Upon receiving both items, I was pleasantly surprised to find them in better condition than they appeared online – a shock as almost everyone looks better online. Good job, ThredUp. The dress was virtually wrinkle free (although that changed once I gave it the requisite wash) and the pants looked as if they had never been worn. I can foresee myself wearing both items regularly and for quite some time, an advantage considering the prices. In addition, both items fit, and while I’m not sure if that’s attributed to good luck or accurate sizing, I’m happy with that fact.

So what is the final verdict? I may not shop on ThredUp frequently. For the higher prices, lengthy shipping time and ambiguous quality, I would rather partake in my favorite pastime and sort through musty racks of clothing. However, for the times when I need a new black cardigan or a specific party dress I can happily turn to ThredUp knowing my purchase will still fit this part of my sustainable lifestyle. When I’m in the mood to spend money and shop online, I’d rather turn to ThredUp.

Becoming New in 2020

lifestyle

It really was the year of realizing things, but good riddance 2019.

Growing pains aren’t only physical. No one warns you about the emotional growing pains present beyond adolescence. The first year post-grad was about living in the moment and making rookie mistakes. It was about working two jobs and drinking beers while painting your apartment. It was about realizing the woes of today’s job market.

In 2019 I made a lot of changes. I changed jobs, I moved into another state, I live with someone, and I’m realizing I’m worth more than I’ve bargained for.

Look, I’m a smart lady. This past year I’ve looked at myself and surged with confidence, and a sense of “what am I doing to be better?”

As a woman, especially as a woman in her early 20s, I’m overwhelmingly proud to see opportunities and not limitations before me. There’s so much more available today than what gender norms have afforded women in the past. It’s made me realize so much.

Like body hair. It’s beautiful. It’s comfortable. And while it can make folks uncomfortable it’s also no one else’s business. My whole life I shaved my legs every day. Dancing and performing somehow instilled a need to always have shaved legs so hairs wouldn’t poke through tights and other people wouldn’t be uncomfortable during those tactful quick-changes. And this year I got sick of it. Because it’s so much more comfortable to shave on your own terms and not because you feel others would find it unsightly. Do you. Your comfort is gorgeous on you.

I realized that the more items I throw away the more money I throw away. I mean for anyone who doesn’t see the urgency behind climate change, reducing your single-use items just helps save money. Not only has sustainability been top of mind, but investing in better quality, non disposable items has been a practical improvement. From mindful clothing purchases to bars of soap without packaging, long-lasting, low-waste items offer more stability than low-quality, disposable products. Plus, it feels good to struggle filling up the trash can each week. It’s ignited a desire try to reduce waste even more. Do I want to start a balcony compost garden? Do I want to, oh I don’t know, never buy new clothes again? Regardless, boy do I love not shelling out $12+ for razors every month.

I realized my extrovert self loves a live-in companion. My boyfriend is my best friend and living together has improved the quality of my life ten fold. Coming home to a friend after work makes evenings more pleasant. There’s always someone to hang out with on weekends. There’s someone to commiserate with when times are tough. I’m thankful for the opportunity to live alone for a year and truthfully everyone should get that chance, but finding happiness living with a friend, a significant other or even alone is a bliss I hope everyone achieves.

But 2019 wasn’t full of easy-to-swallow pills.

College doesn’t teach a course on coping with existential turmoil. In 2019 it occurred to me that I don’t actually know what I want to do. But 2019 revealed who I want to be. This world is plagued with so much bad and doing nothing is just as good as contributing to the bad. If you’re not helping you’re hindering, to quote someone wise. I realized I want to actively do something good. And that’s not easy. My indecision and professional discontent has shown me that using my brain for something important might be worth more than the expectation of a stable 9-5. I realized that you don’t have to have it all figured out at 23. Tons of people do and they’re lucky, but if you don’t it’s okay.

It’s the realization that no, I may not be where my friends are in a year, in five years, or ever. There will be no settling down any time soon. But spending the time now to figure out who I’ll be later is worth my time now.

So where does that put me in 2020? Well, I’ll be working really hard. I’ll probably cry a decent amount. I may not see a lot of people or do the traveling I hoped to do. But I finally want to work towards a goal greater than simply coasting.

My 2020 goals include being better to my body and mind while also studying my butt off and writing more. I want to constantly be reading and taking short adventures here and there. I want to surround myself with people who can support me, because part of me knows I won’t be able to do this alone.

I don’t want to reveal too much, but I’m excited and anxious and nervous and I’m ready to share it all here.

In the Night Bar

drink, lifestyle

We’ve all experienced something that we think we could do better than an expert. We’ve all looked at a piece of art, drank a cup of coffee, or heard someone sing and thought “well, I could do that too.” First of all, no you can’t. If you could, you would. But it’s fun to pretend.

Recently I was at a bar. I remember seeing the stone archway from the sidewalk thinking how cool it was to open a bar in an old train tunnel. Then I walked in – so far so good: the dimly lit room had oil lamps on tables and funky chandeliers from times past. Leather arm chairs were positioned around small round tables. The dark wood bar was inviting and behind the bartenders were more cavernous spaces all furnished with old-timey lighting fixtures.

Unfortunately, the drinks left something to be desired and even worse, bartenders served drinks in novelty martini glasses, which is probably the worst of both worlds. It made me think at that moment “man, if I opened a bar I would have x, y and z.” So here’s a glimpse into my dream bar.

First of all, there are only six types of glasses I’m willing to stock. First, the necessary pint glass. Does someone want a beer? How about just a tall glass of water? Boom, pint glass. They are not as aesthetically pleasing as tulip or teku glasses favored by craft beer buffs, myself included, but they are multi-functional and overall classic. No doubt, I would have some local craft beers on tap and maybe a few craft cans if I’m so inclined.

Second, there will be absolutely no martini glasses. Not only are they ugly but they’re cumbersome and no one needs a martini that large. I’m willing to fight someone about this. Plus, have you ever ordered a drink like a manhattan and had it arrive in a martini glass, and go “what do I do with this?” Yeah, it throws you off. To solve this problem, I will stock those elegant coup glasses that fit right in the curve of your hand. A bonus if I could find vintage coup glasses with character. Still a great choice for martinis, but also make manhattans, old fashioneds and other boozy, straight-up cocktails look classic.

Third, there will be rocks glasses. You can’t go wrong with a rocks glass. Whiskey on the rocks? Rocks glass. Margarita? Put a salt rim on it and boom. Negronis? No problem. The rocks glass is the perfect vessels for on-the-rocks drinks and frozen beverages. No novelty needed here, the drink should speak for itself. Plus there’s nothing quite like the ambient sound of a large ice cube gently bumping into the side of a rocks glass. Eat your heart out ASMR.

For your crushed ice, muddled mint drinks, the collins glass. Tall, slim and timeless. These are great for soda based drinks and anything remotely tropical. If it’s got a sprig of anything in it, it’ll probably be in a collins glass. Gin and tonic, Moscow mule (no need to take up space with copper mugs, but I’m not against them) and Bloody Marys would fare well in your hand in a classic, sleek collins glass. Also, a great sub-in for water when your pint glasses are all full of brews.

Then we have wine glasses. Will my bar have wine? Absolutely. It’ll have a Wine Spectator award-winning wine list. Maybe some natural wines if you ask nicely. While wine glasses are not controversial glasses, there are variations that make my skin crawl. Like stemless wine glasses? Those glasses where the stem and bulb meet at a right angle? Who are those for? Not me. Not my bar.

Last but not least, shot glasses. Measuring is important and sometimes you just need a shot of tequila. No explanation necessary.

As for drinks I don’t have a menu set in stone but I know what I do not want at my bar. One time I saw a woman order a chocolate martini at a bar and the bartender, without hesitation, just said “no.” Not all heroes wear capes, am I right? There will be no chocolate martinis or bright-blue potions with umbrellas or anything that’s also the name of a cake or candy. Make your peppermint patty shots at home with your girlfriends the way God intended.

When do I have time to think about this? Well, I’ve had this dream to own an old-timey Italian bar ever since encountering the experience abroad. Did you ever read the Maurice Sendak book In the Night Kitchen? A little boy wanders into a dream kitchen only a child could imagine. It was one of my favorite children’s books. I feel that now as an adult my night kitchen is this dream bar. Marble counter, spherical light fixtures, a small buffet of snacks at the start of the evening, aperitivo-style, and sparkling spritzes and amaro flowing from the hands of a dreamy bartender. The dreamy bartender is me, sorry folks. There’s no menu with catchy drink names and no CBD add-ons that will run you an extra $5. What you see is what you get. Buying a drink will get you crumbly taralli, olives and roasted nuts, the antidote to your crazy workday. Sit down and quietly sip a glass of chianti while processing the wins and losses of the day. Have a low-key chat with a friend or whisper intimately close to your significant other. Absolutely no one is yelling. Maybe someone is eating pasta at a nearby table. I think the beauty of these fantasies are not to undermine the work that actual restaurant and bar owners put into a spot, but encourage you to find your peaceful bar sanctuary. Either that, or I’ve been watching too much Cheers while dreaming about a simpler life.

Every Day of 30 Days of Thanksgiving 2019

lifestyle

I talk about 30 Days of Thanksgiving in this article, but I thought I would look back at all 30 days here.

Day 1: I’m thankful for my new home, colorful crunchy leaves and blue skies.

Day 2: I’m thankful for family, friends, dessert before dinner and perfectly crisp, chilly November afternoons.

Day 3: I’m thankful for the unexpected.

Day 4: I’m thankful for waking up to a rising sun and coming home to chicken soup.

Day 5: I’m thankful for my boyfriend, my roommate and all our adventures.

Day 6: I’m thankful for baggy clothes and hot espresso.

Day 7: I’m thankful for my first adult friend (psst…she has a blog)

Day 8: I’m thankful for all my homes: Long Island, Poughkeepsie, Florence, Wappingers Falls and now…somewhere in Connecticut.

Day 9: I’m thankful for nights in.

Day 10: I’m thankful for Sundays spent warding off the scaries with coffee and beer dates.

Day 11: I’m thankful for glorious trips to immortal cities.

Day 12: I’m thankful for persimmons, pumpkin spice and peanut butter. Also working from home.

Day 13: I’m thankful for exploratory trips to find comforts in my new home.

Day 14: I’m thankful for polenta.

Day 15: Thankful for future opportunities to continue my food and farm education.

Day 16: Thankful for being in the front row at concerts.

Day 17: I’m thankful for my support system of friends, family and coworkers.

Day 18: Thankful for smiling strangers and kindness.

Day 19: I’m thankful for being hit with signs from the universe.

Day 20: I’m thankful for long conversations with my best girlfriends.

Day 21: I’m thankful for the strong and influential women in my life.

Day 22: Thankful for chicken wings and the end of a long, long week.

Day 23: I’m thankful for weekend trips, especially when we explore Yale.

Day 24: Thankful for a rainy Sunday spent recharging.

Day 25: Very thankful for short weeks.

Day 26: Thankful for sunshine on a Tuesday, work from home lunches and very few emails in my inbox.

Day 27: Thankful for a fat bowl of pasta, and being home-home for a few days.

Day 28: I’m thankful for my first Thanksgiving spent with my boyfriend and all the white wine we drank

Day 29: Very thankful for fried turkey.

View this post on Instagram

Best way to cook a turkey. #30DaysofThanksgiving

A post shared by Marcella Micillo (@picturemarcella) on

Day 30: Thankful for the last day of November surrounded by friends, family and lamb barbacoa.

November was difficult. This exercise showed me that on certain days (most days) the smallest things, a perfect dinner, a sunny day, could keep me afloat. Every day is not going to be the best day pf your life, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be the worst day either. My friend said “the sun always still rises,” and I guess that’s what this was all about in the first place.

Vegan Ricotta with Cherry Preserves

Challenges and Joys of Vegan Cheese

food, lifestyle

I’m not vegan, but I understand and participate in the shift towards a more plant-based diet. Enter the meat substitutes and dairy facsimiles that start trends, line health aisles at the grocery store and ignite meaningful conversations about our food system. Again, I eat pant-based as often as I can. I’d consider myself closer to being vegetarian than vegan, but I try to stick to vegetables and grains instead of the substitute products available, especially if those products have unfamiliar ingredients or are no better for me than good old-fashioned vegetables. I guess my biggest concern is: what are in these substitutes, and how are they made?

Now, I don’t consider tofu a meat substitute. I eat it when I’m in the mood for it and in my eyes it’s a protein on its own, with recipes geared towards its unique texture and flavor abilities. I know meat substitutes are often made from tofu. You’ve heard of tofurkey, right? Therefore, I’m not considering tofu as I talk about vegan substitutes because it is not a substitute.

I had the opportunity to fully understand these substitutes when a friend recommended a vegan cheese making kit. I’ve made fresh ricotta, which is easy enough to do if you have a big pot, whole milk, lemon juice and some free time, but I have never even tasted vegan cheese. My first step in understanding the vegan cheese making process was breaking down the traditional cheese making process.

Cheese is just curdled milk. Sorry to burst your bubble. It’s basically strategically spoiled milk that tastes delicious and gives me relentless acne. As I see it, most cheeses require milk, an acid like citric acid or vinegar, and rennet. Specific flavors can be added and the curds can be aged, but at its core cheese contains those basic ingredients.

  • Acid: would you drink a glass of milk followed by a shot of vinegar? Probably not. When you add acid to milk it begins to curdle, forming solid pieces. Doing this over medium heat while skimming those curds away from the whey forms ricotta in it’s most basic form. This is how most cheese making processes start.
  • Rennet: rennet comes from enzymes found in cow stomachs, so not exactly vegan but plant-based substitutes have existed for years. Vegetarian rennet, derived from artichokes, cardoons or nettles, does the job just as well and has been used in traditional Spanish and Portuguese cheeses. The rennet helps the soured milk curds solidify into cheese by working with proteins to coagulate. In order for rennet to work, milk must already be high in calcium and phosphate (which is why rennet might not work well with older milk or goat’s milk).
  • Aging: I love fermentation. Allowing the flavors in cheese to develop over time with bacterial growth gives certain cheese that funky allure. Earthy rinds on brie and savory umami from Parmesan turn the curdled milk into culinary delicacies.

So then how does rennet coagulate almond milk despite a lack of calcium?

In my short experience making vegan cheese, the process involves no coagulation at all. In fact, vegan ricotta involves no cooking at all. The ‘curds’ are not formed by intentionally spoiling the milk, but by incorporating macadamia nuts. The nuts add fat content as well as texture (just make sure to both soak and blend them enough so you aren’t left with any grit in the finished product). While the vegan cheese did not behave like ricotta and did not melt, I’d say that what it lacked in textural satisfaction it made up for in flavor. And yes, I love a good cheese pull and much as the next person, but I believe cheese should act as a flavor enhancer to the dish and not simply a textural layer (unless we’re talking grilled cheese or pizza, then the pull is crucial to the dish, and flavor and texture are equally important). The citric acid provided that curdled tang and the bits of ground macadamia nuts added that grainy texture that ricotta takes on after some time draining.

Vegan products, until very recently with the injection of ‘bleeding’ plant-based burgers into the main stream, have been engineered to behave like their non-vegan counterparts and not necessarily taste as such. Vegan cheeses offered textural similarities to dairy cheeses, but struggled to emulate flavors unique to cultured dairy. Slices of vegan cheese could melt like American cheese but could not offer any flavorful addition to a dish (I mean, American cheese offers very little but STILL).

Recently, vegan cheese makers have employed culturing and aging methods to better assimilate vegan cheese into the world of artisanal cheese plates, moving away from coconut oil-based emulsions and leaning towards something based on fats naturally found in cashews and macadamia nuts. Flavors from nutritional yeast add the missing umami lacking from other attempts.

Now to the more philosophical stuff: is vegan cheese even cheese?

When it comes to finding a food substitute, I understand the inherent identity crisis. Artificial meat is still not meat. Almond milk is technically not milk, but calling it creamy almond juice does not necessarily have the same ring to it. Therefore, vegan cheese by definition is not actually cheese. Cheese by definition is formed by curdling milk, and as I mentioned earlier, alt milk cannot curdle. However, who cares when environmental, ethical or dietary needs are on the line? I think progress in the vegan cheese world proves that artisanship and flavor do not need to fall to the wayside to craft a substitute. Relying on crutches like soy often minimize the clientele as more folks see soy farming as problematic to the environment, and can’t shake soy’s bad reputation despite contradictory research. With advancements in vegan cheese making, there could soon be environmentally sustainable, health conscious and flavor-comparable substitutes hitting the mainstream as hard as imitation meat burgers.

In Praise of the People I’ve Met While Out, About, and Alone

lifestyle

Don’t listen to anyone that says “don’t talk to strangers.” I mean, use your best judgment and obviously don’t talk to people that make you feel in danger, but closing yourself off to the friendly faces in the cafeteria or the waitstaff at your favorite restaurant is a huge disservice to your own world view. The flesh-trapped angels you meet at dive bars offer fascinating anecdotes and kind words. Sometimes they’re just a passing ship dumping a hilarious story to tell your friends, or even a free beer. Either way, use your invaluable alone time to open up your heart to someone new.

I get it, alone time is the best. Living along afforded me opportunities to go to the gym whenever I wanted, order sushi for one on a spicy night in and eat Fruity Pebbles from a mug at 11pm. But too much alone time can be intimidating, especially to extroverts who thrive around people. Yet there’s this odd connotation of going out to eat alone: I feel as if unless you’ve got a laptop in front of you and you’re typing away at your manifesto, you’re a loner, people-watching and drinking a beer. America lacks the communal table culture found elsewhere, and the “don’t talk to strangers” thing only worsens the isolation of being alone in a room packed with people.

Reports by The Atlantic in 2014 and Grub Street in 2017 discuss a return of the communal table in America. I can understand the discontent for communal tables at formal restaurants. Maybe you were hoping for an intimate evening out, and suddenly you’re literally rubbing elbows with a marketing executive slurping tagliatelle at a celebratory dinner. But in places like New York City brimming with not only residents but diners, communal tables should be more commonplace and accepted in casual dining spots. Grub Street cited Zagat’s 2016 survey reporting that communal dining was the second-highest reason folks would not dine at a particular location. While America seemed to try to adapt the trendy communal table lifestyle widely present in Europe, Americans lacked the attitudes to carry it towards success.

But what is the harm in talking to someone at your local bar? What is the harm in chatting up the bartender on a slow night when you’re dining at the closest thing Americans have to communal tables, the bar itself? Don’t be weird, but why not talk to someone new?

Ever since my first solo day trip, I’ve been fortunate to meet a few kind strangers on outings alone. Even on one of my worst nights ever (that I mention briefly in my 30 Days of Thanksgiving post), I spoke to the bartender, tried all sorts of his specialty drinks for free, and spoke with a newly wed couple who were absolute joys. I love kind strangers, you get the best stories from these encounters.

Montepulciano, 2017

Walking through Florence alone at 6am to a part of the city I’ve never seen before was pretty frightening, not going to lie. Market stalls were closed and the only figures out and about were likely there from the night before. Luckily, I’m a pretty no B.S. lady when I’m armored up to go out alone. When I arrived at my destination I felt like such an outcast: I was meeting up with a travel group of European Erasmus students. In case that wasn’t obvious: I was an American study abroad student. Therefore, I was the only American on the trip. I even still have the Erasmus card they gave me with my name scribbled on it in blue ink. I found two girls who seemed to know each other and asked if I could tag along with them. They heard my accent and the flood gates opened.

“Why are eggs white in America?” Girl, you’re not missing anything. “Oh my GOD have you seen that movie? Talladega Knights? I love Ricky Bobby.” I couldn’t stop laughing. We spent the whole day together. I learned that they were linguistic studies students from Scotland part of the Erasmus program which gave students grants to live and study throughout Europe. They were responsible for finding rental apartments and even jobs, very unlike American study abroad programs that could arguably be seen as vacation in comparison. We road buses through the Tuscan countryside and drank wine in Montepulciano. I’m friends with them on Facebook, but I never saw them in Florence again.

Waterbury, 2019

True, this night I was not alone, but it was still a moment spent at an unlikely communal table talking to a stranger. I just wanted wings. We’d stumbled on a place called Ordinary Joe’s and decided we like local dive bars. The place was packed and peanut shells were on the floor. Despite casual Friday at work, I was way overdressed. The only seats were at a communal table with a man drinking beer and waiting for a plate of wings. He said he didn’t bite –  which was true. Doug, this kind stranger, talked to us about the life his immigrant parents worked for in America. He’s a caretaker for a number of mansions in the neighboring town and talked about how Waterbury was once such a gorgeous city with beautiful buildings and parks. It’s now something forgotten.

He also mentioned that his mother makes hand made cavatelli for a restaurant nearby, and we should go there and mention that “Doug sent us.” He bought us two High Lifes, told me to marry Nick, and then sped away on his motorcycle.

Woodstock, 2016

The day after election day left a good chunk of people distraught. We all know this. And this particular day I had an interview for an internship up in Woodstock, NY. I got dressed, put on a black shirt in solidarity with students peacefully protesting, and drove almost an hour to my cloudy and grey destination. It was a damp November day. You know the feeling the day after you fall asleep crying hysterically? That’s what the weather felt like. And I was spending time post-interview in the quaint town. I bought a headband and a bandana and I ended up in a small art and incense shop. The shopkeeper said “how are you?” and without thinking I said “good.”

“I’m not,” he said. In that moment, I definitely was not “good.” In fact I was feeling pretty bad, even though my interview went smoothly. He noticed this and said “take some incense, we all could use a little peace today.” We were then chatting. I introduced myself and he mentioned how his wife had traveled to Italy often. “Ci vediamo, it means we’ll see each other,” I said before leaving to fill up on comfort food.

Fall Leaves and Boots

My Mindful Exercise: 30 Days of Thanksgiving

lifestyle

Around 4 years ago I was spending too much time working and not enough time taking care of myself. Weeks of antibiotics took a toll on my physical, mental and interpersonal well-being – not to mention I was non stop working and taking pride in my inability to remember meals or get adequate sleep. It was a toxic form of Stockholm Syndrome where I was growing to love the alienated, unwell version of myself because I associated being exhausted to being important. This was my sophomore year of college, an extremely formative year not just in spite of but because of some of those hard times. This tradition grew out of something unpleasant and that’s always my hope whenever November comes along.

So this is 30 Days of Thanksgiving, a 30 day mindfulness exercise that not only changes my mindset but also prepares me for the holiday carnage. After Halloween ends folks jump straight to Christmas and sentences brim with “I want” statements. “I want a boyfriend,” “I want some new boots,” those kind of “I want” statements that seem greedy and sometimes unrealistic. It really changes the season of giving into a season of taking.

Honestly, slow down. Christmas will come like it does every year. It’s draining, and I’m sure I’m not the only one anxiety-ridden and stressed. What we miss by rushing through November is an opportunity to take care of ourselves and appreciate the little, every day things we take for granted. This is especially necessary before the draining, hectic holiday season. I mean, is anyone ready for heavy traffic and throwing elbows at the mall? I’m not.

How does it work?

This could very well be a journal activity, but I prefer to do this on Instagram as a way to bring realism and positivity into the social media realm, something lacking in a lot of hyper-produced, inauthentic content that circulates among the many genuine accounts. Every day, no matter how down I feel, I think of one thing I’m thankful for. It could be anything: people, places, things. You know the drill.

Now despite hard days that inevitably arise when it gets dark at 5pm, you have to keep going. Last year I remember getting a flat tire on my way to meet someone for dinner. It was a perfect situation: no tire iron, no car jack, no roadside assistance. Thankfully, the person I was meeting for dinner drove the extra hour to meet me. We called a local roadside service to change my tire, and after a few hours and about a hundred dollars we were en route to finally get some food. The CBD cocktail I drank with dinner made me ugly cry in the shower a few hours later, but despite all that (plus the next day’s waiting for new tires) I still could find something to be thankful for.

Personally, I find that putting this out on social media almost manifests a positive attitude. There’s something about writing it down and getting input from friends and followers that feels comforting, like we’re all living through November together. However, there are other variations depending on what you can manage. I mentioned bringing this exercise analog in a journal, but you can also verbally express thanks. Tell the people around you when you feel thankful for their presence. Tell your favorite barista that despite your long commute, you’re thankful for mornings because their drinks bring you comfort. Hell, tell the pizza guy that you’re thankful for that stuffed crust. Whatever you choose please don’t forget the reason for the activity. Keep your gratitude front and center even when you’re not posting about it on social media or writing it down in your journal.

Tofu, meet the omnivores

food, lifestyle, vegetarian

My first encounter with tofu was neither pleasant nor life changing. I ordered a miso soup that accompanied a sushi dinner. I remember dunking my spoon into the cloudy amber liquid and lifting jiggly chunks of tofu out from beneath the brothy surface. The flavor was nothing spectacular but the texture was just a little off-putting. I had little to no desire to give tofu a second chance.

But this wouldn’t be a good blog post if I didn’t try tofu again. Many years later I tried tofu in a rice bowl, cooked until crispy and drenched in creamy coconut curry sauce. I thought “man, this is good.” For a second I thought vegetarianism was possible for me.

But the truth is, I love meat. I grew up in an Italian household and that meant fish for Christmas, lamb for Easter and fresh vegetables on the side. The comforts of a Sunday sauce simmered with meatballs or a fried chicken cutlet at my grandma’s house could never be replaced by vegetarian alternatives.

Though I love meat, I have no desire to try something marketed as a “meat alternative.” It’s not meat, don’t try to make it meat. What do I want? I want to highlight plant based proteins and meals for their naturally, non-meat flavors, which brings me to tofu. Let’s edit the dialogue…

While some “meat substitutes” capitalize on tofu’s ability to crumble like ground beef, I prefer to savor this jiggly soy protein for its naturally appealing qualities, and that means heavy handed seasoning and crisping the edges until golden brown. Since tofu is a blank canvas seasoning is everything. It’s not the time to be timid in the kitchen. In my experiences, tofu tastes best with a sweet and salty sauce (like here in this vegan noodle bowl). The tofu’s creamy texture also compliments a bit of spice nicely, so go ahead and add those chili peppers.

When cooking tofu, at least for a crispy result, it is imperative to really squeeze that liquid out. Put the block under some weights and let it just release liquid for as long as possible before cooking. This will ensure maximum flavor absorption and minimal spongey texture.

The downside to tofu? Not great for leftovers unless eaten cold. In my experience reheating tofu results in that rubbery texture. Certain things (like the aforementioned noodle bowl) don’t taste spectacular cold or reheated, but a cold tofu dish tastes great. These shawarma spiced tofu pitas tasted arguably better the next day cold: the tofu maintained crisp edges and didn’t seize up and become little morsels of rubbery nightmares.

Takeaways to this tofu rant: vegetarians and non-vegetarians can enjoy tofu. Period. If you try tofu and it’s spongey or jiggly, give it a shot elsewhere. Season it aggressively and don’t expect a meaty flavor. Instead, approach tofu with open-mindedness and interest to try something new. You might be an omnivore like me and begin incorporating more plant based meals into your diet too, no disguise needed.