"Eating Alone" by Li-Young Lee + Sesame Braised Shrimp

Like young onions pulled from the ground, in our emotional lives there is often more brewing under the surface than is always visible. Some of us are good at hiding this. Others (like me), aren't. I'm not sure why this is, or what about our individual makeup makes us more or less prone to wearing our hearts on our sleeve. Regardless of where you fall on the emotional spectrum, when it comes to the past, food has its way of weaving itself through both the good and bad memories.

Eating Alone

By Li-Young Lee

I've pulled the last of the year's young onions.
The garden is bare now. The ground is cold,
brown and old. What is left of the day flames
in the maples at the corner of my
eye. I turn, a cardinal vanishes.
By the cellar door, I wash the onions,
then drink from the icy metal spigot.

Once, years back, I walked beside my father
among the windfall pears. I can't recall
our words. We may have strolled in silence. But
I still see him bend that way-left hand braced
on knee, creaky-to lift and hold to my
eye a rotten pear. In it, a hornet
spun crazily, glazed in slow, glistening juice.

It was my father I saw this morning
waving to me from the trees. I almost
called to him, until I came close enough
to see the shovel, leaning where I had
left it, in the flickering, deep green shade.

White rice steaming, almost done. Sweet green peas
fried in onions. Shrimp braised in sesame
oil and garlic. And my own loneliness.
What more could I, a young man, want.

As a reader, we first spend some time in the present, where the speaker is gardening. The season has changed, and the ground is left bare with little trace of the bounty of summer and fall. From here, we are pulled into a memory of the speaker with his father. A metaphor is offered for their relationship, that of a rotten pear where a hornet is spinning in its "beautiful, glistening juice." Like many of our family relationships, someone you love is also associated with something that can sting. The hornet might hover most of the time, but once in a while, it will make its way into your skin.

For the recipe, there were two directions to take, either food of the past (of the garden and its pear trees), or food of the present. I chose the present, where we find the speaker alone in his kitchen, eating a meal consisting of ingredients that no doubt comfort his memories as he reflects on the flawed relationship with his father. The last line gets me, too. "What more could I, a young man, want." While he may appear grateful and content on the surface, there is certainly some underlying regret and discomfort here. I think he wants more than he'll ever be prepared to share.

SESAME BRAISED SHRIMP // steamed rice, sauteed snap peas

2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 shallot, minced
Pinch of red pepper flakes
1 pound snap peas
1/2 cup chicken stock
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 lb. shrimp, peeled and deveined
White rice, for serving

Heat up a turn of extra-virgin olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the garlic, shallots, and red pepper; cook just until fragrant and the shallots have softened, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the snap peas, season with salt and pepper, and cook until just tender (they will continue cooking with the shrimp), about 4 minutes.

Push everything off to one side and raise the heat slightly. Add the shrimp and allow them to start turning pink before stirring everything together and adding the liquid. Bring to a boil, then cook partially covered, until the shrimp are done and the sauce has reduced, about 7-10 minutes. (If the sauce needs a bit of help, add 1 teaspoon of flour to help it thicken). Serve in bowls over white rice.