how this food connects us

that orange drink

Most of my best food experiences come from random happenstance, it seems.

Yesterday, while I was buying my daily venti drip coffee for the Chef at the beginning of his shift, I talked to my favorite barista about her lunch. (We talk every day, and we have become friends. It wasn’t as weird as it seems.) She exulted about the jicama she ate, along with fresh fruit. Jicama….My brain caught upon it, the idea of that crisp, delicious white tuber, cut into strips. By the time I had walked back to the Chef’s restaurant, I had an idea. Together, we perused his copy of Culinary Artistry, his favorite book besides mine. Jicama goes well with chiles and lime? Hm. When I left the door, I had a new recipe in mind. Time to go to the store.

This is how we ate my new favorite dish for dinner last night: chilled millet with roasted jalapenos, mangoes, lime segments, and slivered jicama. Oh goodness. You’ll see it, eventually, too.

There’s always a tug at the back of my brain when a new food idea enters. Something stops. For a moment, I seize. My gut says yes. And then my mind won’t let go. I walk around for a few moments like a zombie, chanting in my head, “Jicama. Jicama.” Finally, I have to go do something about it, just to move onto something new.

I’m so grateful to be living a life that allows me to act on this strange behavior.

Last week, I was reading the February issue of Saveur magazine, their 100 favorite foods, restaurants, drinks, people, places, and things. Don’t let me get started on how fascinated I have been by this issue, and inspired. There are pink post-it notes darting up from nearly every page, marking foods and recipes I want to try. One simple paragraph, along with a photograph of a hand clutching a drink, set me going the most, however:

“Though its name means to die dreaming, Morir Soñando hasn’t scared folks away from Reben Luncheonette, in Brooklyn, New York, where they’ve been serving the Dominican beverage — fresh-squeezed orange juice, milk, sugar, and a dash of vanilla syrup, shaken with ice — for 45 years. A sign behind the counter proclaims, ‘You taste it. If you don’t like it, don’t pay.’ Assistant manager Aristedes Anthony Garcia says nobody’s ever asked for money back.”

My brain stopped for a beat when I read this. I don’t know why, entirely. I have stopped needing to know why on these matters. I just knew I needed to make it.

On Sunday, my dear friend Merida came over for lunch. She and the Chef have become great friends, so I will switch that pronoun to our from now on. Amidst all the celebrations of the holidays and the manuscript being turned in, we had seen her some, but not just the three of us, alone. What better time than Sunday lunch?

I love a Sunday afternoon, lazy and slow. Food, but nothing rushed. The Chef made us a big plate of fried chicken, from a recipe we developed for the book. “Oh holy god,” Merida uttered upon her first bite. I couldn’t talk at all, for ten minutes. This chicken was so juicy — from the buttermilk soaking — and so crispy — from the breadcrumbs and sorghum flour, that I just couldn’t stop eating it. I barely took a breath.

It had been two years since I had eaten fried chicken.

There was also a lovely plate of sauteed kale and roasted vegetables, but I barely paid attention to that, I’m afraid to say.

Sated and smiling, we all settled down on the couch. We had talked, idly, about going to the movies. But after a meal like that, you rarely want to be industrious and drive somewhere with a purpose. We decided to stay in, instead.

Thus began the longest, loveliest afternoon of sitting in front of the television I have experienced in a long time. For four months, I had to be disciplined and productive, nearly every hour of the day. I could not remember the last time I had acted like a kid still in her pajamas at 4 pm on a Saturday. We gave in.

We watched several episodes of Arrested Development, which the Chef has only started watching, because of us. There was one episode of Jamie Oliver’s series, which was really a busman’s holiday for the Chef, since every time he watches dear Jamie he sprouts ideas for the restaurant. He makes us put the dvd on pause (not really such a chore, since it freezes on Jamie’s lovely face) and scrawls shorthand menu items. This time, it was something with prosciutto and goat cheese. We insisted on showing the Chef the Gourmet Night episode of Fawlty Towers, a series he has somehow never experienced. (He has never seen It’s a Wonderful Life or The Sound of Music, either. Shock! We have some movie watching to do.) When Basil thwacked his wonky car with a huge branch, we all laughed so hard I thought I would hurt myself. Mostly, there were episodes of South Park, of course.

(If Matt Stone and Trey Parker are somehow reading this, we would love for you to come to our wedding. We do have a South Park love, after all.)

After hours of idling, we needed something more to eat. Three of the most determined and busy bees finally rested, together. It made us hungry. As I peeled myself from the couch, I suddenly remembered the orange drink. “Hey Merida,” I shouted from the kitchen. “Do you want to make this?” And I brought the magazine toward her.

Her eyes grew wide. “Morir Soñando!” she shouted, without looking at the blurb. Her Dominican grandmother and aunt in New York used to make it for her, all through her childhood. “It’s good for clearing the head and giving you energy,” she said. Well, we could use some of that.

We could have gone to the store and bought oranges for fresh orange juice. We could easily have found some whole vanilla beans, which Merida says makes it taste infinitely better. But, when that food idea tugs at my gut, and I can feel it within reach, I want it now. So, we improvised.

“More,” Merida said, as I poured in some orange juice from the carton. “A little milk now,” she urged me. We had no recipe. We just played with the proportions in the blender until the color looked right to Merida. “There!” she shouted, and we poured it into glasses.

Merida’s eyes closed with the pleasure of this childhood treat. I took one sip, and my eyes shot open. “Oh my god!” I shouted, then took a glass to the Chef, in the living room. He took one sip and looked up at me, astonished. We both had the same memory.

Orange Julius.

When I was a kid, one of my most favorite treats was this orange-drink concoction at the mall: Orange Julius. We couldn’t afford it that often, and even as a kid I sort of hated the mall. But when we had that frosty, frozen orange explosion in our mouths, I was in heaven. I remember, along with the poofy colored hats the poor kids who worked that stand were forced to wear, that everyone wondered how Orange Julius achieved that elixir of taste. No one knew the recipe.

It turns out — it seemed to us — it was a mass-production variation on a Dominican drink, all along.

And in that moment of drinking orange juice and milk, frothed up with vanilla syrup, I knew why my mind and gut had tugged at reading that recipe. Not just because it reminded me of my Orange Julius childhood, but also because it connected the three of us in that room, with the slender thread of remembered tastes. There we all had been, in the late 1970s — Merida, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan; the Chef at the Cinderella Mall in Denver; and me, at the Montclair Plaza, just outside of Los Angeles — all drinking something similar and marveling at the taste. None of us knew each other then. None of us even knew the other ones existed. But there we were, in early 2007, gathered in this room together, now integral to each other’s lives, and remembering our childhoods.

I love how this food connects us. The world now feels much smaller, and far less random, than I once thought.


I am certain that the more authentic version of this, with fresh-squeezed orange juice and vanilla bean paste, would be even more exciting than this simple fix we created. However, I will say this: I haven’t been able to stop drinking this version. Besides, with the citrus crop all but destroyed in California now, it may be that we will all be drinking orange juice from a carton for awhile.

Life is short. Let’s live it, imperfectly.

4 cups orange juice
1 cup milk
15 ice cubes
2 tablespoons vanilla syrup (or more, to taste)

Throw it all in the blender. Whirl it up. Taste it to see if you like it. Add more of what you need. Blend again. Drink.

Serves three thirsty people.