I hardly know what to say right now, so I’m going to take the direct approach: from this day forth, you can call me doctor.
Last week, I wrote to you about cooking for comfort, and it was an entirely appropriate topic, for I was in need of comfort. I felt a little like I was in the eye of a storm, surrounded by an eerie calm blanketing the sea as I sat in my little boat, heart pounding so hard it could have sprung right out of my chest. I needed comfort to soothe my nerves and quiet my mind, which had been spinning a little out of control.
So I cooked, and I took deep breaths, and I did yoga and meditated to find the calm center within my mind. These things worked—for one thing, I slept better—and then last Tuesday, I stood up in front of my thesis committee, talked science with them for two hours, and at the end, they signed a piece of paper and whoosh, I became a PhD.
The whole thing feels surreal to me. I’ve fought so hard to get here. There’s a common misconception among many people that a PhD implies you’re like, super ridiculously smart. That’s not true. Although most PhDs are very smart, my PhD is more like a set of battle scars. I went to war with myself, my experiments, my data, my beliefs, sometimes my advisor, and occasionally even Matt, who absolutely refused to give up on me and my PhD. (That man is a believer.) There were so many days, weeks, months, maybe even years when I wanted to quit. But I didn’t. I don’t even know why I didn’t quit. I certainly had moments when I gave up. But I never quit. I think it was just sheer stubbornness. I’m hardwired for stubbornness; you should see my dad. It’s a dominant trait in my family; we’re all like mules or cats. We work hard, but heaven help the soul who tries to get us to do something we don’t want to do. It’s a very unpleasant job, I can assure you.
My committee meeting was actually rather fun. An epiphany struck me the night before the meeting, and I realized that the meeting itself would be a celebration of sorts: a celebration of science, by scientists. It would be the birth of a new scientist: me. It would be a chance to hole up for a few hours, the data laid out in front of us like so many building blocks. We would discuss and argue, speculate and dream, until we ran out of time, food, or ideas. It wouldn’t be me against my committee; it would be me WITH my committee. Although they would be “examining” me, the conversation would be a team effort.
And so it was.
I don’t know what sparked this epiphany. Maybe I just needed something to calm me down, and so I found it. It’s hard to perform intellectual feats like defending one’s PhD thesis when nerves have made it impossible to think anything but quick little panicky one-liners. Or maybe I realized it while I was making the treats for my meeting, the soothing rhythm of my whisk pushing flour in circles as it pushed confidence-boosting thoughts into my head.
Issues of mental clarity aside, the food was delicious. This summer, I had pursed my lips and pondered the menu for my committee meeting for a long time. At first I was going to make a full meal, based around my favorite lentil salad—tangy with lemon and rich with avocado. But then I realized it was an afternoon meeting and decided a snack menu would nice. I knew it had to have cookies, and with something as important as a PhD on the line, I knew I couldn’t mess around. I went with the heaviest hitter I’ve got, these whole-grain behemoths, sturdy, sweet, and more convincing than anything I could possibly say. I also wanted something savory to serve alongside my cookies. Sweet and savory: that way, I’d cover the two basic food groups.
Do you remember last week how I told you about Ruth Reichl and her morning recipe sifting? That got me thinking about families and the recipe collections they inspire. I don’t know which came first—a remembered recipe or the sifting—but after flipping through my recipes, I found myself looking down at my sister-in-law’s recipe for fresh tomato salsa, and suddenly I knew exactly what I’d be serving alongside my cookies to my thesis committee.
I’d only had this tomato salsa once before, but I remember scooping a garden’s worth of tomatoes into my mouth and adoring every bite of it. It’s fairly obvious what immediately appeals to me about this salsa: it’s sweet. Not from added sugar, mind you, but because tomatoes this time of year, in their juicy, fleshy glory, are sweet. Amanda’s salsa is the essence of tomatoes, rough-chopped and stirred gently together with a handful of tomatillos and a smattering of onion and green pepper. It is delectably mild, with nary a hot chile pepper in sight, which makes the tomato flavor that much more front and center. But it’s not just mild and unspicy—it’s surprisingly complex with the subtle flavors of its fresh vegetable components, sweet and earthy and tangy and deeply, deeply refreshing. It was years ago that I first ate this salsa, but that memory tucked itself deep in my belly, incubating until it was time to make its appearance in my own kitchen.
The morning of my committee meeting, I stood at my kitchen counter, chopping five gorgeous heirloom tomatoes, admiring the rainbow-colored beads they became in my white plastic bowl. Tomato juice seeped off my counter and onto the front of my shirt, but my knife and I paid it no mind. Following the tomatoes were tomatillos, tart and green, then jewel-toned green pepper, and finally some sweet yellow onion. The whole thing was stirred together with some apple cider vinegar and sprinkles of sea salt, and then I covered the bowl in foil and tucked it in my bag for safekeeping before schlepping it to campus.
Actually, that’s not true. I ate a few spoonfuls with my lunch at home that day—you know, just enough to test for quality control—and it was as good as I remembered. Fresh tomato salsa, my favorite chocolate chip cookies, and a PhD: I had such a great week.
I’ll see you on the other side of grad school, friends. Have a wonderful week filled with fresh tomatoes and delicious late-summer sunshine. As always, thanks for spending some time with me here.
Amanda’s Fresh Tomato Salsa
Makes a vat—enough for a party!
4-5 medium tomatoes, stems removed and chopped into small chunks
6 tomatillos, wrappers removed and sliced or diced as you like
1/2 Walla-walla or yellow onion (go for a sweet onion here), diced
1 small green pepper or half of a larger one, diced
1-2 tbsp. apple cider vinegar or to taste
1-2 tsp. sea salt or to taste
1) Mix all the vegetables together in a large bowl, preferably not a metal one so that acids don’t react with the metal.
2) Add the lesser amounts of vinegar and salt; taste. Decide if the salsa needs more vinegar and/or salt and adjust the seasonings to taste. Serve with foods that beg to be doctored up with a spoonful of salsa.
* Leftovers make for a great tomato soup. Here’s how I did it: fry up an onion or two in olive oil and add a clove or two of garlic at the end. Dump in your leftover salsa and a cup or two of water. Bring to a simmer and then add a can of beans, such as black beans or chickpeas, and simmer for another ten minutes or so. Serve with corn chips and some cheese. Yum.
** A special thank-you to Amanda for letting me share her salsa recipe here. She’s such a good cook. One of these times when I’m visiting I might just stay forever and let her feed me.