I found muscatel raisins after eight tries. Statistics show* most people give up on muscatels after two or three.
It’s not that I have a personal thing against Thompsons, the garden-variety dark raisins we all know. But an Irish reader gave me an old Christmastime recipe (‘Raisin Cake from the Blasket Islands’) that calls for a half-pound of muscatels, and I’ve never used them or even tasted them before. I wanted to honor the recipe, as well as the recipe writer, who gets a virtual kiss for translating archaic measurements like ‘a small knob of butter’ and ‘3 mugfuls of flour’ into modern measurements.
Muscatels are double or triple the size of Thompsons, and they tend to be described as ‘big and meaty.’ This was appealing. And I like trying new things, learning new things. This conviction is compelling enough that I called all over the county and into New York City looking for these raisins.
I found them in my own town—if you can believe it—walking a couple of blocks in sideways rain, in a tiny store frequented by our Middle Eastern residents. The place had big cans of coconut milk, pita bread (they call it ‘Syrian bread’), and delectable staples like kibbe and sanbusak. The clear plastic container, labeled Rasins, cost $3 for over a pound. And man alive, they’re big and meaty.
When I made the cake, I plumped up the raisins even more in a festive trifecta of warm water, my homemade vanilla extract, and my newly distilled crab apple schnapps. There they are above, luxuriating in their boozy Jacuzzi.
Then a steam roll of ideas clicked together like IKEA end table joints when they actually fit, and the first came to me when I was nosing around the store. I was surrounded by unusual and exotic ingredients, so I got to thinking about techniques, and dishes, and cultures, and thought how wildly cool it is that there are so many different ways to live. Isn’t it the best kind of insane that if I decided tomorrow that I wanted to cook with whole coriander seeds, I could? That all I have to do is sniff it, learn how other cultures use it, and do what they do (and, bonus round, eventually end up experimenting with it until I discover something new)? That all I have to do is be curious about it in order to learn about it, and in doing so, my life gets a little bigger? That I can choose this?
…Then a friend posted about personal integrity via arbitrary food preferences, and I thought about how much I love differences of opinion** because Miss Sociology Nerd always finds it fascinating, expansive. (As I write this, another friend asked if I wanted to go out for Filipino food next week. How exciting is that? I get to taste flavors I’ve never tasted before!)
…Then I got to thinking about the socio-political atrocities in the news lately, and how much I believe it’s based on narrow-minded thinking that inevitably leads to narrow-minded acting.
And here’s what I came up with: The problem is that insidious narrow-minded thinking. And it’s deliberate. Why in the name of the earth, heavens, and all assorted cherubim would we choose to make our lives smaller rather than bigger?
It’s a broader topic than one blog can tackle, much less a food blog, and I’m sure there’s more than one culprit. But if we want to discuss one of them:
I can remember a time in my own life when I made a point to make my life smaller, too. It was when I was really sick, stress sick from old crap that had been piling up unresolved for too long, and really, really terrified. My health was so erratic from day to day that I wanted routine and predictability in every other aspect of life. After about seven years I was pretty much clear of it, and wanted adventure on both a micro and micro scale.***
If my story sounds familiar and you have a sneaking suspicion it’s at least part of what’s keeping you from a big life, please take this as an emphatic nudge. It’s new-leaf time. We need to shake off the crap that we end up wearing for years on end, like Miss Havisham in her old wedding dress, worn every single day since she was stood up at the altar decades earlier. Old crap can’t be wished away; would that it could. And a mantra like ‘serenity now’—yeah, that doesn’t work. Here’s what does.
1) Tell the truth. Now tell the rest.
2) Spread it all out on the table, every little bit.
3) Get a coach to help you sift through it. Discuss, discern, discard.
4) Mourn whatever needs mourning. Then take off the damn dress.
The cake is out of the oven for the second time and I’m having a slice at tea time. Can’t wait to taste the difference between these raisins and Thompsons, as well as the difference between a cooked cake and one that has a center like lava.
Wishing you a life as big and meaty as a muscatel raisin.
*Exhaustively researched by someone other than me. It’s possible.
**As long as—and this is a big as long as—they’re delivered respectfully and don’t attack anyone.
***We’d gone to Disney World every year and suddenly I wanted to go to the French Polynesia. Macro.