A Love Letter to Pesto

Dear pesto, It wasn't love at first sight. In fact, I thought you smelled precisely like vomit. "Eat it," said my hardworking mother, cooking dinner after a twelve-hour hospital shift. "You'll like it."

This seemed improbable. But I was hungry and knew this was all I would be getting.

That first bite: revelation.

You shared many more nights with me after that first one -- the awkward middle school years with that lapse-in-judgement perm, the high-stress high school years where getting up at five and going to bed at eleven seemed perfectly normal. But it wasn't until college and beyond, when I was finally cooking full-time to feed myself, that I really came to appreciate your irresistible attraction and congenial simplicity.

Oh pesto, you got me through some dark, lonely nights. Your comforting carbs meant I could make a huge batch and parcel you out slowly over several nights. Your greenery and the sleekness of olive oil made me feel like I was putting good, solid things into me (rather than cheap hamburgers and spinach salads and microwave pot pies, which were my other most frequent staples). You were always warm, always willing to pair up with ravioli or tortellini or toasted French bread.

And then, when I met a marvelous man who loved to cook -- oh, the stroganoff! the curry! the mashed potatoes from scratch! -- you stepped aside while I nurtured this new relationship. Then, when I shyly asked you back, you came at once, sharing your bounty with both of us.

Thank you, pesto, for everything.

All my love,

Olivia

The Sandwich Theory Of The Romance Genre

We here at Olivia Waite have been reading Lauren Vivanco's marvelous For Love and Money: The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance. One of the very first things it does is categorize various types of romance in light of Northrup Frye's literary modes (high mimetic, etc.). I won't rehash that for you—especially since you really ought to be reading it for yourself—but it made an idea finally crystallize for me. I've been trying to put words around this for some time. Every time some jerk finds one terrible passage in one romance older than me, and uses it as evidence of the moral turpitude/lesser intellect/self-delusion of millions and billions of women—well, through the red mist of rage that obscures my vision and sizzles my thoughts, I have a hard time rebutting the point in ways that are clear and instantly understandable (and not loaded down with ad hominem attacks and swears).

But I think I finally have it.

A romance is like a sandwich.

That is to say, the word "sandwich" does not denote content or quality, but merely form. You put edible things between two pieces of bread—ta-da! Sandwich!

Just so, the word "romance" is not simply about the material—it's about the shape of the story.

On a sandwich, as in a romance, the beginning and the end of the form are fairly predictable (for a given value of predictable). White bread, rye, bagel, gluten-free—there's a bit of variation, but aside from the impressive wackiness of outliers like the KFC Double Down it's generally a bread product on the outside. (The romance version of the KFC Double Down is, obviously, this virgin-heroine-with-amnesia-meets-and-loves-seven-longhorn-shifter-brothers erotic romance by Lola Newmar. That's a lot of, um, sandwiching.)

But the bread's not really the important part. The bread is part of the formula. It's the meeting on one side, the happy ending on the other.

And it's what you put in the middle that counts.

Oh, I could write an endless paean to the middles of sandwiches. Grilled cheese! BLTs! Tuna with just the right amount of mayonnaise (and none of those noisome pickles)! Elaborate gourmet creations like foie gras sliders! The peanut butter and jelly sandwich, so pure and innocent a pleasure that it can make me tear up a little.

You can't say "all sandwiches are terrible" or "all sandwiches are delicious." I guarantee that if you say the latter, there will inevitably be someone in the group (or on the internet) who will take it as a dare to construct a list of sandwiches that are the furthest thing from delicious. Liverwurst and peanut butter! Roast beef and Crisco on moldy rye! Tuna cones! Which are exactly what they sound like, and aren't technically sandwiches, but which have the distinction of being the most objectively disgusting possible food.

You can't say "all romances are terrible" or "all romances are wonderful," because there is always a counterexample that comes instantly to mind. It simply depends on your subjective definitions of terrible/wonderful. Now me, for instance, I could read a Regency romance once a week/have a turkey-and-swiss-on-wheat-with-mayo every day for lunch and still be pretty excited about Regency romances/turkey sandwiches.

Wait—it's lunchtime. Why am I not doing that right now?

(Eats turkey sandwich while reading Regency romance.)

That's better!

The other thing I like about this sandwich metaphor (which I may be taking criminally too far) is that it also functions as a perfect metaphor for a reader's individual taste. Do you like your sandwiches hot and toasty, or cool as a cucumber? Spicy or subtle? How much cheese are you willing to tolerate—or is it a question of the more the merrier? Do you prefer your sandwiches to be made the same way every time, or are you willing to try experimental things like foie gras sliders (in this metaphor, foie gras sliders are as rich and surprising as A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant)

The precise form may vary slightly from culture to culture—enchiladas, samosas, pasties, dumplings, piroshky etc. ... is there any culture that does not have some variation on the "put delicious things inside bread" idea?—but the appeal remains. There's room in the sandwich world for everyone.

And if that's not the romance industry at its best, then I don't know what is.

The Friendliness Of Finnish Tea

It is particularly cold outside, one of those sharp December days where the frost never really has a chance to melt and one's mind lightly turns to thoughts of wearing as many layers of sweater as humanly possible. One's mind also turns to thoughts of warm beverages liberally laced with sugar and caffeine—and, specifically, the most delicious tea I've ever known. Uskollinen Ystävä, from Nordqvist. The name means Faithful Friend.

A scan of the teabag for Nordqvist's Uskollinen Ystava tea: a friendly yellow color with light turquoise spots and bold black text.

Löytö: Discovery

On another cold winter's day, several years before, I checked my email to discover a friend had sent me a link to a sale Scandinavian Airlines was running. Roundtrip, nonstop flights to Helsinki were going for a mere three hundred clams, plus taxes. At the time, I was living with my parents for a few months between apartments, and even a bookstore clerk can build up some savings when you're not paying rent and your mother is feeding you. Plus, I'd just become a one-day Jeopardy! champion (under my day-name, for those of you quick on the Google) and had some vacation days to use up.

The choice was clear. I bought my ticket, went down to REI, and outfitted myself like Shackleton.

The plane ticket came with restrictions, which is how I ended up in downtown Helsinki in February, disoriented in a labyrinth of narrow old-world streets, with everything I owned in a single backpack. I'd been up for more than 36 hours at this point, and though I tried to find my chosen hostel I eventually gave in to the desire for a bath and a bed and got myself a spendy room at the Radisson (the only hotel I could find that was open). Once I finally was warm and cozy and tucked between some very high-thread-count sheets, it hit me.

Loneliness—hard and fast and solid, like a brick to the throat.

I'd never traveled on my own before. Even my first weeks of college had been packed full of other people, with the sense that friends yet unmet were waiting just around the corner. Maybe if I'd found the hostel that night it would have been different, but right then it was dark and beginning to snow and everyone I loved was half the world away.

It was a miserable night.

I rallied my spirits the next morning over the continental breakfast. Coffee tends to tap-dance in my stomach, so I turned to the tea selections instead. And there, shining like a beacon among the other tea choices, was this sunny little number called Faithful Friend. It offered black tea with peach and orange—a combination I already knew I liked—with the tantalizing addition of pineapple.

How good could a tropical fruit tea be in a near-Arctic climate?

It was phenomenal. Strong and sweet and lush, with none of the black-tea bitterness. Wonderful with lemon and honey, or cream and sugar. It was also loaded with caffeine.

And it helped me believe things were going to work out.

I found the hostel—and some interesting-looking fellow travelers—and later that day I found a place to stock up on food supplies that also sold whole boxes of Uskollinen Ystävä. It became my morning ritual to have a cup before starting the day's adventures: hiking down the snowy freeway to the zoo (camels in winter = pissed off!), drinking beer with Australians, recklessly walking across part of the frozen Northern Sea. I made sure to take a box of Nordqvist tea home with me when I left, knowing I could parcel them out slowly over the next few months.

And then my roommate drank them all while I was out one evening.

I stared aghast at the five little yellow tags hanging from the giant water pot. "Oh, was that your tea?" the roommate asked. "It was really good."

"Yes," I agreed sadly, "yes it was."

Metsästys: The Hunt

A year or so later, I had just entered graduate school and was taking a class in Finnish when I met Mr. Waite at a karaoke bar. I sang "Creep"; he sang "Sledgehammer"; within a month we knew we were going to get married someday.

He was also being sent on a whirlwind European tour that winter for work—a tour that included Helsinki among other cities. I pleaded with him to find me this tea, showed him photos of the box online, found descriptions for him. He agreed to do his best.

In the 24 hours Mr. Waite spent in Helsinki, he enlisted the help of his Finnish comrades and came home with two boxes of teabags and two packages of the loose-leaf variety. The latter was especially delightful, as it contained actual chunks of dried pineapple, scattered amid the tea leaves.

This tea, which I'd used as a talisman against loneliness, was now evidence that I was loved.

I was careful with my treasure, this time; it lasted me over a year, as Mr. Waite and I designed rings, got engaged, and planned a wedding.

Rakkaus: Love

Reader, I married him. We went to Helsinki for our honeymoon, where my two years of Finnish language classes proved adequate for reading things but not for much conversation. There was some trouble finding places to buy Uskollinen Ystävä, but we eventually tracked down a few boxes in a hidden grocery store on the outskirts of town. The adventure took us three hours, two smartphones, and a couple experiments with stop-and-ask-the-locals. But we found it, together, and carried it home in our bags as though those friendly yellow boxes were gold bars.

I drank the last cup of Uskollinen Ystävä about a month ago. I miss it still. Lady Grey and English Breakfast are all very well, but nothing quite bolsters the spirit like a Faithful Friend. (And if you have an octopus teacup to drink it from, so much the better.)

A pale table holds a white teacup, and the teacup holds black tea gone beige with cream and sugar. To the left is an opened yellow packet that once held an Uskollinen Ystävä teabag.

We Are Chock Full O' Gratitude Up In Here

We here at Olivia Waite consider Thanksgiving the best modern holiday of the pantheon. It's a whole day where you sit down and think about all the wonderful things that have happened to you, all the marvelous people you know, and all the delights of life both big and small. And then you eat beige foods until you can't eat any more because you are too busy falling asleep.

With other holidays, you have to worry about gifts (Christmas) or explosives (Fourth of July) or fires (Hanukkah) or papercuts (any of the false Hallmark holidays that right-thinking people legitimately despise). But the worst thing that happens on Thanksgiving is that the turkey comes out dry. And then there's gravy right there in a boat shaped like Aladdin's lamp!

In short, Thanksgiving is too amazing to let it happen only for one day. So for this whole week, I will be posting daily to talk about what I am thankful for.

Today I am thankful for: this amazing recipe from the amazing Bake It in a Cake: Pumpkin pie cupcakes with cinnamon buttercream.

That is a miniature pumpkin pie baked into a from-scratch vanilla cupcake. I am not a talented baker and I still managed to make a delicious dessert for a Saturday crafting party—a feat which speaks admirably to the recipe's author rather than to my skill. Laziness and the lack of a mixer did compel me to use a powdered-sugar glaze instead of the cinnamon buttercream, but believe me when I say that this is a cupcake where the frosting is optional. Blasphemy, you say? Try it, I dare you!

{Olivia is also thankful for: the 1300 words she wrote today on the sequel to Damned if You Do, the fact that she did not have to go out in the cold winter rain this afternoon, the coziness of dozing dachshunds, and the one pumpkin pie cupcake left on the plate downstairs—which will be hers since Mr. Waite is out on the town this evening.}