The Wren's Nest

A space for inspiration, creativity, & discovery

Simple pleasures

Yesterday I watched this clip of Nigella Lawson cooking Elvis sandwiches—you know, mashed banana and peanut butter slathered between two slices of bread and then toasted in a buttery pan until crisp and golden brown on the outside, and all warm and gooey on the inside.  Well, I made them this morning and they are a total panacea for the early morning, bleary eyed blues.  The sky rumbled and rain fell while Piper and I sat together at her little table, coloring Care Bears pages from her book and indulging in our warm breakfast.

Later, when it stopped raining, we took a walk and breathed in the most healing of fresh air—that slightly damp kind that lingers after a storm.  Piper jumped in all of the puddles on the way to the park.  I love how the puddles on this one street in our neighborhood always cast magnificent green reflections back up at us, because the street is lined on either side by Camphor trees that have grown to form a little canopy.  The water takes on an otherworldly quality then, as though it is a portal to a similar but alternate universe—one where everything is upside down, maybe.

When Will came home from work we enjoyed our dinner outside.  I have been cooking from Anna Jones’s A Modern Way to Eat.  Anna has this really cool way of conceptualizing recipes into parts of a story, or parts of an equation.  Soups, for example, always have a base, herbs, spices, a hero vegetable (often something hearty like pumpkin, squash, sweet potatoes) , and a backup vegetable that supports the hero (kale, spinach, peas, etc.).  Similarly, the most satisfying and memorable salads often have, in addition to the greens, the following elements:  interest (in the form of roasted vegetables or substantial raw ones such as avocados, radishes, tomatoes, etc.), texture (nuts, seeds, croutons, and sprouts), herbs, and hearty add-ins (lentils, grains, eggs, cheese).  This information is golden for most people who would like to improvise in the kitchen while still being able to turn out a reliably tasty and nourishing meal.  Tonight we ate pan-fried soba noodles tossed in a maple and soy dressing and served with quick pickled purple cabbage, crispy strips of tofu, and peas (Anna originally calls for sprouting broccoli)—this recipe, along with so many other quick and wholesome ones, can be found in her book.

At night, when I’m not too tired, I’ll read in bed until I fall asleep.  I’ve been on a Paulo Coelho kick lately, finally reading The Alchemist and after that, Brida.  I haven’t been back to the library yet, so I have been left to scour our bookshelves at home for something I’m in the mood for at night.  I cracked open my old Beowulf, and of course the first passage I came to described that infamously terrifying Grendel who comes in the night, and knew I had better choose a different book.  Instead, I brought The Old Man and the Sea and The Catcher in the Rye to bed, torn between which to read.  In fact, I started reading both for a few moments until I finally decided on Salinger, and fell asleep a few pages later with the books face down on the pillow next to me (Will stays up a bit later than I do).  I set them there on purpose, because they comfort me and give me wonderful and adventurous dreams.

Speaking of dreams, I’m feeling tired already and will end my little ramble here.  Goodnight, all!

Spring eats

Thoughts on Full Moon Feast

Jessica Prentice’s book Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection has both moved and surprised me.  On a quest for a true feeling of nourishment, Prentice explores traditional foodways and discovers across cultures a deep connection and reverence for the Earth that many of us today are out of touch with.  She connects every chapter to a corresponding moon; every full moon marks the beginning or end of a season and carries with it great significance and symbolism.  Her book follows the natural progression of a year, beginning with a chapter on The Hunger Moon and later exploring such fascinating traditional seasons as The Egg Moon, The Sap Moon, The Moon of Making Fat, and The Moon When Salmon Return to the Earth.  Every passage is ripe with meaning, and I often found myself having to read entire chapters aloud to Will.  Prentice believes we will become truly nourished when we can once again honor the Earth as our ancestors did; she believes in eating as seasonally and locally as possible.  In doing so, we will come to appreciate every season’s bounty.  Whether we are enjoying a goose egg in spring, or a bowl of creamy turnip soup in the winter, we will be fostering a more genuine and sustainable connection to nature.  She urges us to shift our focus toward a smaller, community centered food system, where we grow a lot of our own produce, or purchase the bulk of it from local farmers’ markets.  Prentice discusses the concept of a gift society, whereby everyone is mutually indebted to one another in a way that ends up fostering a sense of community.  These are just a few of the main themes in the completely thought provoking Full Moon Feast.

As a strict vegetarian, I admit to being fascinated by all of the chapters on meat: how to render lard, how to clarify butter, how to boil bones to make a mineral rich heal-all broth.   Prentice discusses the topic with honesty and respect.  In her chapter about salmon, she mourns the plight of this majestic fish that used to start its life in shadowy hideaways along freshwater rivers, later moving to salty waters only to return by some preternatural knowledge to the same home base to spawn (a magical event in itself) and eventually die.  Now, Prentice explains, so much of salmon is farmed that there is no “Moon When Salmon Return to the Earth.”  Additionally, conditions on the farms are so crowded and unnatural that the salmon’s flesh becomes grey and must later be dyed to give the fish its characteristic healthy pink blush.  In contrast, she shares a story of a culture that would catch only as much salmon that could feed its people for a particular season, share the rest with a neighboring people, and release the rest.  The bones of the fish would be cast out to sea in the thought that they would then reassemble, and the fish would become human and return to its home.  If the salmon were somehow offended, it was feared that the fish would not return the next season.  Still, Prentice advocates eating meat, fish, and dairy as part of a diet that she sees as completely nourishing, traditional, and healthy.  While that is clearly up for debate, I still appreciate her reverence for animals and can even begin to understand her thoughts on vegetarianism.  Prentice had been a vegetarian herself for 10 years and had come to develop several health problems, which appeared to go away after adopting an omnivorous lifestyle.  She supports her choices practically and spiritually, stating that ahimsa (non-harming to all living beings) is meant to be interpreted more figuratively than literally, as she believes it impossible to live without even accidentally causing harm to something.  She also takes her argument a step further, suggesting that vegans specifically may be out of touch with the cycle of life, explaining that they may be afraid to face their own death in seeing death on their plates before them.  She also states that animals are killed quite often even in organic farming—land must be cleared for crops, and pests must be dealt with somehow.  She may be a bit misguided here, in that she seems to view all vegans as dogmatic in their approach to their lifestyle.  Most vegetarians and vegans I know will willingly admit that they are not aiming for spiritual perfectionism or purity, but rather expressing their love for animals and the environment the best way they know how.  She does bring up thoughtful points, though.

Well, before I give away the book entirely, I had better stop writing.  It seems I’ve missed dinnertime and everyone is asleep early tonight.  Let me know what you think if you do read it!  We have been on many adventures lately, which I hope to write about soon.  From sharing the beach with sun-kissed spring breakers, to a first time grilling experience at our nature reserve, to strawberry picking at an organic farm 30 minutes away, to a renaissance festival in the woods filled with jugglers and acrobats and plague doctors all in costume, my imagination is full and spinning me wonderfully colorful dreams.

A Spring Lunch

We came home with many treasures from the market today:  Sweet Gallberry honey from bees pollinating around the Green Swamp, a warm loaf of sourdough bread with a crust so crisp you can hear it crackle when you press it by your ear, fingerling potatoes (what child can resist?), a bag of dried red tea leaves, and a container of creamy butternut squash soup that would become the basis of a playful Spring lunch.

As the soup warmed, Will grabbed our bamboo bowl and we went outside to pick salad greens from the garden.  We gathered a surprising bounty of roots, shoots and leaves including arugula, mizuna, buttercrunch, romaine, kale, green onions, and cherry belle radishes.  I tossed it all in the smallest splash of olive oil, lemon juice, and sprinkling of Himalayan sea salt.  I couldn’t help but think of Jamie Oliver’s method for “tickling” salads as I lifted the leaves into the air and let them tumble away from my fingers.

We ladled the orange soup into shallow bowls and topped them with borage blossoms from the garden.  Piper nibbled on radishes, and we took our bread with honey.

On another note, I know that I have been quiet lately.  I am busy mulling over three books that I received a few weeks ago:  Rosewater and Soda  Bread by Marsha Mehran, The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Goethe, and Full Moon Feast by Jessica Prentice.  They are all so thoughtful and different, but I hope to share some words about them with you soon.

Valentine’s Day 2015

We shared such a beautiful day together yesterday.  Will woke up early to cook the thickest, most delicious heart shaped chocolate pancakes.  Studded with chocolate chips, these rich pancakes reminded me of soft baked cookies, still warm from the oven.  We ate them with butter and a generous drizzle of pure maple syrup.  Piper and I also soon discovered a slew of Valentine’s Day goodies all wrapped up and nestled in glittering tinsel waiting on the table for us to open during breakfast.  After a morning filled with both leisure and excitement, we rushed through the house getting showered and dressed for our drive to Bee and Papa’s house.  Very generously, they watched Piper while the two of us spent a few hours in St. Pete.

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Will and I enjoyed a long lunch together at Meze 119.  Our waiter was kind and attentive.  We shared an appetizer of roasted cauliflower florets and creamy dipping sauce.  Then, Will enjoyed a super house salad, dressed lightly and tossed with green and Kalamata olives and sundried tomatoes.  I sipped a spicy vegetable soup garnished with toasty strips of tortilla.  For our main, we both ordered falafel pitas stuffed with cucumber and tomato salad, shredded purple cabbage, Israeli pickles and thickly cut fries.   Oh, and several large, round, herby falafels, of course!  We ordered extra tahina to drizzle all over everything, and ate quietly and quite happily.  Our extra fries came with an awesome creamy hot sauce that sent little vinegary sparks across our tongues.  We shared a bowl of soy ice-cream for dessert, which came with crumbled sesame candy and pistachios that tasted better than the ice-cream itself.  Mmmm…

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Afterwards, we enjoyed a lovers’ stroll through the colorful streets.  A Valentine’s Day race had people trotting by in wonderfully pink and sequined garb; some wore fluffy tutus, tinsel wigs, and bedazzled running shorts that read “I’m with Cupid.”  Still others actually dressed as Cupid, or ran in as little as their red and white Speedos.  A bit further down the road we ran into an indie market, where artists sold handmade knit hats, scented candles in sand encrusted coconut shells, and lots of vintage and bohemian clothing.  I came home with a button down dress and a blue and white striped shirt from a $5 trunk, and bought Will a green shirt from Ecuador.

He looked so handsome wearing it, especially later when he rolled his pant legs up a bit and ran along Ben T. Davis Beach chasing after Piper.  When Piper fell asleep in the car, we decided to drive over to the beach and look out upon the water and listen to the waves break.  Piper soon woke up, though, which was all the better because we wanted to enjoy the beach with her, too.  We felt satisfied running back and forth along the shore and building sandcastles, but let it be written that some brave young souls in bathing suits did jump in the icy water for a nippy swim that day.

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How was your Valentine’s Day?

An encounter at the park on a quiet morning.

We took the wagon to the park this morning.  I packed two mason jars filled with homemade strawberry banana smoothies, and we set off through the neighborhood.  Today is a beautiful day; although it is windy, warm beams of sunlight would sometimes rest upon our skin when we found a particularly open area outside.  Once we truly started playing, we hardly needed our winter jackets.  The park was quiet, and for a while we were the only two there (except for the man who sometimes uses the equipment to exercise, and a few passersby).  Then suddenly, a moon-faced young boy–about six or seven years old–peered playfully over the rails atop the playground equipment.  Piper walked toward him, holding a stick she had taken interest in as some sort offering.  He came down and accepted without words, and the two began to play silently for the next several minutes.  For a while they parted, and the boy continued to play on his own.  A man walked down the path with a large orange dog.  We exchanged humble good-mornings before he addressed the boy in what sounded to my ears like fluent German.  I felt delighted inside; for one, I now knew why the boy was so quiet, and for another, we seemed to be having a very special adventure this morning, meeting by chance these friends from far away.  When I had the chance, I asked the man if he was from Germany.  To my surprise, the man emphatically told me that he was full-blooded American.  I thought for a moment I was having delusions, until he explained that the little boy was in his care this morning, and was part of his extended family.  I asked what language he was speaking earlier, and he answered, “Deutsch — German.”  I bent down a bit and looked at the boy standing patiently by his guardian and said, in quite horrible accent, “Guten tag!” and tried a “Wie geht’s?”, though the shy boy did not reply.  The man then asked me how I came to know any German, and I told him that I have some German ancestry, but I also used to work as a tutor in college, where I met many students from other countries.  We spoke as we pet the family’s large orange dog, and it gave us sloppy kisses with his long black tongue.  I was surprised to learn that the man shared my experience as a student of literature.  The little boy then showed the man a fresh cut on his knee, and they were about to go home.  I offered a quiet goodbye in German, and the little boy softly replied, “Auf wiedersehen!”  It felt like magic to form this bridge of communication, to acknowledge this child who seemed interested in us but did not know the words to say to speak with us.  The boy wanted to play a bit longer after that, so the man settled down into a park bench.  I wanted Piper to run along and play with this little boy, but just as we were about to walk over to the other playground equipment, the older man called out “So who is your favorite author?”  That question is always loaded, and I sometimes imagine people asking me, and wonder at what I will say in response.  I told him about my love for Thoreau’s Walden, and that I had recently read The Count of Monte Cristo, but admitted that I had been reading a lot of contemporary novels lately.  He mentioned that he enjoyed Robert Frost, and then said confidently, “I have a book that you should read.”  “What’s the title?” I asked, and he shouted from across the park “All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr”  “Foer?  Like Jonathan Safran Foer?”  He disregarded my rambling, and repeated again — this time gesturing toward the sky — “All the Light We Cannot See.”  Then he and the little boy left, without another goodbye.  Isn’t this all such a curious incident?  This brief encounter seems to have run deeper than a lot of interactions of a similar nature that I encounter from day to day, and so I wanted to share it.  Auf wiedersehen!

Snapshots on the eve of a new month.

Cherished children’s books and stories

I love reading time with Piper.  On dreary days especially, we like to climb into bed with a few baskets filled with our favorite stories.  I thought I would share a few titles with you here, as I know some of you have children, while others still are childlike at heart.

Favorite Winter stories (and a few dreaming of Summer stories, too)

One Snowy Night by M. Christina Butler and Tina Macnaughton

  • A deep winter story about a little lost hedgehog and his friends Rabbit, Badger, and Fox.  I love the cozy illustrations of Rabbit’s warm home in the base of a tree.  Our copy is a touch-and-feel book as well; youngsters will enjoy the velvety softness of a certain red hat.

Caillou Makes a Snowman an adaptation of the animated series by Roger Harvey, with illustrations by Eric Sevigny.

  • Piper loves Caillou, so we surprised her with this book for Christmas.  In this story, Caillou’s friend Sarah teaches him how to build a snowman.  I love being on this journey of discovery with Piper; at just over two years old, the world is still new for her, still fresh.  This story in particular is a reminder of the simple pleasures of childhood.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening Robert Frost’s poem, beautifully illustrated by Susan Jeffers

  • My sister gave Piper this wonderful book for Christmas.  The illustrations bring that enchanting, mystical quality of the woods to life and are sure to captivate both young and young-at-heart readers.  I’m grateful for Jeffers for making Frost’s poetry accessible to children.  This will be one we read even in later years, with Piper’s understanding of it growing as she herself does.

A Day at the Seashore by Kathryn and Byron Jackson, illustrated by Corinne Malvern

  • Some of you may remember me buying this book before our fantastic beach adventure down in Sarasota a while back.  It has since become one of Piper’s cherished favorites, so much so that she has a lot of it memorized.  I love the classic illustrations (the book was first published in 1951).  This is the perfect book for a cold and dark winter’s day, when you’re most craving a trip to some warm, sunny beach.

Harry by the Sea by Gene Zion, illustrated by Margaret Bloy Graham

  • Another classic beach story that will have you dreaming of Summer, Harry by the Seawas first published in 1965 and used to be one of my own favorites while growing up.  There’s no room for poor dog Harry under his family’s beach umbrella, so he sets out along the shore to find someplace cool to sit.  Instead, he ends up tangled in seaweed and confused for a sea monster.  This quirky adventure will keep you and your little one giggling as you read aloud such zany exclamations as, “Holy Smoke! — It’s a Bushy-backed Sea Slug!”

Favorite Classics

The Gingerbread Man told by Nancy Nolte, illustrated by Richard Scarry

  • This one is another childhood favorite of mine that I picked up for Piper during Christmas.  This book is very easily read aloud, and provides many opportunities for little ones to chime in.  Piper and I both love Richard Scarry’s whimsical illustrations; Piper seems to find something new to look at each time we crack open the book.

Richard Scarry’s Best Mother Goose Ever, a collection of nursery rhymes illustrated by Richard Scarry

  • Richard Scarry’s humorous depictions of classic rhymes will keep you and your little one smiling.  The collection includes all of your well-known favorites, as well as some that may be less familiar, such as the following:

As I was going to St. Ives,

I met a man with seven wives.

Every wife had seven sacks,

Every sack had seven cats,

Every cat had seven kits;

Kits, cats, sacks and wives,

How many were going to St. Ives?

The Twelve Dancing Princesses by the Brothers Grimm, retold by Diane Muldrow and illustrated by Fred Marvin

  • This particular telling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses story is great for reading aloud.  It begins, “Come a little closer, and I will tell you about a king who had twelve lively and beautiful daughters.”  Muldrow’s engaging tone holds children’s attention throughout an otherwise rather long tale.  The story itself is a fantastic adventure, filled with a secret entrance that leads to a mysterious palace surrounded by trees glittered with silver, gold, and diamonds.

Eloise Wilkin Stories – Nine Beloved Classics (various authors)

  • I fell in love with this collection while shopping for books for Piper during Christmastime.  Eloise Wilkin’s illustrations are so sweet, even a bit idealistic.  However, I so enjoy reading to Piper from this collection, and she so enjoys listening to the stories and looking through the pictures with me, that some days we almost make it through all nine stories in one sitting.  What I love about classic Little Golden Books are the various authors’ and illustrators’ abilities to portray the simplicity, innocence, and beauty of childhood.  This collection is no different–some of our favorite stories included are Busy Timmyby Kathryn and Byron Jackson, Guess Who Lives Here by Louise Woodcock, Wonders of Natureby Jane Werner Watson, and the Baby Listens and Baby Looks stories by Esther Wilkin.

Corduroy by Don Freeman

  • Another sweetly illustrated book, this one about that beloved department store bear looking for his lost button.  Rather than finding his button, in the end he finds a friend (he has always wanted one of those).  Another childhood favorite of mine, perhaps because of the retro feel that I love so much.  The story is surprisingly adventurous, particularly the pages involving the night watchman.

Donald Duck and the One Bear A Turn-About Tale with no author or illustrator listed, unfortunately

  • Donald and his nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie are on their way to Daisy’s house while their pizzas cool on the counter.  While they are away, a very hungry bear climbs in through an open window and makes himself at home.  Upon their return, the ducks find themselves in a situation not at all unlike the beloved Goldie Locks and the Three Bears tale.  Piper loves this quirky story.  Perhaps Huey, Dewey and Louie remind her of her triplet cousins?

Madeline story and pictures by Ludwig Bemelmans

  • If you have been following my blog very long, you know how much Piper and I love the Madeline story.  Now the both of us have it memorized, and when Piper sees crying babies she sometimes says “Cried and cried her eyes were red!”  I love to hear Piper tell me the story in her own way.

Favorite Garden/Nature Stories

The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

  • I have been reading The Tale of Peter Rabbit to Piper since she was just an infant, and she is finally beginning to enjoy the story.  Unlike his siblings Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail, Peter is a naughty bunny with an appetite for grumpy Mr. McGregor’s garden produce.  When spotted snacking on radishes and the like by the old farmer, Peter must outrun him, or at least find a good hiding place.  No sooner does poor Peter escape the man than he realizes he’s lost in the large garden.  All ends well, though, with Peter safe at home at last, and in bed with a cup of chamomile tea.

Who is hiding in the Garden? a lift-the-flap board book, illustrated by David Crossley

  • Piper enjoys peeking behind shells, plant pots, flowers, and grass to see what kind of critters are hiding in the garden in this sweet book that we bought for a few bucks at the bookstore.  Lift-the-flap books are a fun and interactive way to get children interested in reading.

Lily’s New Flower Hat this little board book unfortunately has no author or illustrator listed.

  • Another cheap find from the bookstore, and merely a few pages, but we like it nonetheless.  Lily the littlest fairy has lost her flower hat and tries a few others on for size before the queen of the fairies gives her a crown of thistledown.

I hope this short list is of help to those of you who are looking for different books to read to your little ones.  They are the few stories that we are reading through lately, though I’m excited to explore the others in Piper’s collection as she begins to show an interest in different tales.  Reading time with Piper is truly one of my favorite parts of the day.  It’s a quiet activity, and super bonding.  Do you have any favorite children’s books?  What do your children like to read, or what did you like to read when you were a child?

In and around the house.

We have the windows open today to let the nippy January air freshen this stale house.  The sky is Florida blue and the sun pours into our rooms, splashing its light across the wooden floors, warming them.  This is the weather that brings vitality to our humble backyard garden.  I imagine the space a few months from now, blooming with flowers and heavy with Spring’s first harvest.  Until then, our seedlings gather strength, and perky baby lettuces relish the chilly air that comes before the coming season’s balm.

We planted a mix of greens, and this came up in our pot.  Any ideas as to which lettuce we have growing?

We planted a mix of greens, and this came up in our pot. Any ideas as to which lettuce we have growing?

The kitchen has been quiet lately, as we have all been sick.  Soft noodles, and plainly boiled honey gold potatoes were a treat for our healing stomachs.  Homemade hummus sits in the recesses of the refrigerator, uneaten for three days and perhaps destined for an unfortunate demise in the garbage bin.  A box of organic baby spinach sweats in its container, next to varying sized bottles of electrolyte drinks and applesauce.  I do need to sort it all out today.

Memories of healthier days

Memories of healthier days

While Piper naps and during some evenings before we all sleep, I read a bit from Dubliners.  These short stories are my first experiences with reading Joyce.  They are only a few pages long, but are so thought provoking that I often reread passages and refer to the book’s introduction for an analysis of each story.  The collection offers an honest glimpse into the lives of the Irish middle class in the early 1900’s.  Also, an interesting movie (although somewhat graphic) about Joyce and his wife is titled Nora, with Ewan McGregor as James and Susan Lynch as Nora Barnacle.  The story The Dead in Dubliners is apparently inspired by Nora’s own experiences, though I have yet to read it as it is the final story in the collection.

That’s all that is new around here; I hope in a few days’ time we will have healed completely and have some better stories to share.

Happy New Year & The Hundred-Foot Journey

Happy New Year everyone!  I am curled up on the couch after having eaten my fill of chickpea salad sandwiches.  Piper is napping after a long morning filled with fluffy pancakes for breakfast, playtime at the park and a romp through the garden.  I’m somewhere between sleep and wakefulness; the house is all warmth and my toes are cushioned snugly inside the most comfortable new socks.  Naturally, I’m thinking about books.

For my birthday last month, Will bought me The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais.  The novel is an adventure that begins in Bombay, but takes the reader through London and eventually to a small village in France.  Hassan, the main character, suffers the devastating loss of his mother early on, and it is this loss that pushes his large family out into the world unknown.  In London he comes of age, but it is not until Hassan and his family reach the town of Lumiere in the French Alps that he truly begins to discover his calling as a chef.  His is a story both tragic and comic.  The passages throughout the book about his mother are poetic in nature; her character is brought to life through Hassan’s ethereal recollections of her.  On a lighter note, the conflict between Hassan’s father (also a cook) and his mentor-to-be Madame Mallory plays out in a series of hilarious, if not overly dramatic, events.  Many of their “best” fights take place in the town market, where each chef tries to assert his claim over the freshest produce.  Eventually, Hassan must make the hundred-foot journey over to the restaurant next door and begin to develop his culinary talent under the tutelage of Madame Mallory.  Morais treats the reader to some delicious food writing, and also offers an imaginative glimpse into the competitive world of French cooking, set during a time when the cuisine was changing.  As I’m sure is true in reality, the Michelin star becomes a source of underlying unhappiness in many of the character’s lives.  Remember Pixar’s Ratatouille, where Chef Gusteau dies shortly after learning he has lost a star, which prompts the restaurant to lose yet another star?  The end of the novel feels very much like this.  Yet, Hassan does succeed, even if he is still haunted by memories of his mother, the scents of Bombay, and the taste of home cooked Indian food that reminds him so much of family.

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