Feasting on the burned bits at the bottom

This afternoon while the toddler napped and my mother texted me about family in Colombia, I read Lynn Johnston‘s essay about burned rice, which appeared in The New York Times.

You might not know about crispy burned rice, the beautifully golden-brown color it takes on after just the right amount of time, the way it crunches in the teeth, the way it brings back one’s childhood. If you haven’t had that childhood, or positive experience with this foodstuff, then yeah, you don’t know about it in the way others do. I’m sorry.

Growing up with a Colombian mother meant that burned rice at the bottom of a pan is as much a staple and talisman in my life as is anything. And Johnston, a literary agent based in NY, is not Colombian, but as she shared her own experience eating crispy rice as a child in Saigon I felt all the same things about city and place and familiarity and comfort as she described in her essay.

I cried, people. I cried. I so wanted to be in Colombia multiple times in the last year, but especially over the holidays. Reading how Johnston has weathered the pandemic with rice, how she has connected (or not) with her mom over rice during this time, and how she has bonded with her own child(ren) through rice made me so nostalgic for my family, my origin story and my people on this first day of the new year. If a bit of burned food can do that for me, what can this metaphor do for the rest of the world?

Could the metaphor of burned rice allow us all (those reading, at the very least) to see how much we have, and how we’re all capable of “getting through” the fires that engulf us?

I had rice with the in-laws this evening, and as I watched my sister-in-law fret over the perfection of the rice, I marveled at the stress with which one might view this part of a meal. Yes, rice as a staple in so many peoples’ diets is worth perfecting, but what of the experience that comes with the hard bits at the bottom?

What if we could all appreciate the darkened bits as they coat the surfaces of our lives?

There’s no way of knowing what 2021 has in store, but I ask you to be on the lookout for the crunch and crackle of things and see them as new experiences, as new flavors that add to the dish that is your daily life.

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