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19 January 2007

how this food connects us

that orange drink

Most of my best food experiences come from random happenstance, it seems.

Yesterday, while I was buying my daily venti drip coffee for the Chef at the beginning of his shift, I talked to my favorite barista about her lunch. (We talk every day, and we have become friends. It wasn't as weird as it seems.) She exulted about the jicama she ate, along with fresh fruit. Jicama....My brain caught upon it, the idea of that crisp, delicious white tuber, cut into strips. By the time I had walked back to the Chef's restaurant, I had an idea. Together, we perused his copy of Culinary Artistry, his favorite book besides mine. Jicama goes well with chiles and lime? Hm. When I left the door, I had a new recipe in mind. Time to go to the store.

This is how we ate my new favorite dish for dinner last night: chilled millet with roasted jalapenos, mangoes, lime segments, and slivered jicama. Oh goodness. You'll see it, eventually, too.

There's always a tug at the back of my brain when a new food idea enters. Something stops. For a moment, I seize. My gut says yes. And then my mind won't let go. I walk around for a few moments like a zombie, chanting in my head, "Jicama. Jicama." Finally, I have to go do something about it, just to move onto something new.

I'm so grateful to be living a life that allows me to act on this strange behavior.

Last week, I was reading the February issue of Saveur magazine, their 100 favorite foods, restaurants, drinks, people, places, and things. Don't let me get started on how fascinated I have been by this issue, and inspired. There are pink post-it notes darting up from nearly every page, marking foods and recipes I want to try. One simple paragraph, along with a photograph of a hand clutching a drink, set me going the most, however:

"Though its name means to die dreaming, Morir Soñando hasn't scared folks away from Reben Luncheonette, in Brooklyn, New York, where they've been serving the Dominican beverage — fresh-squeezed orange juice, milk, sugar, and a dash of vanilla syrup, shaken with ice — for 45 years. A sign behind the counter proclaims, 'You taste it. If you don't like it, don't pay.' Assistant manager Aristedes Anthony Garcia says nobody's ever asked for money back."

My brain stopped for a beat when I read this. I don't know why, entirely. I have stopped needing to know why on these matters. I just knew I needed to make it.

On Sunday, my dear friend Merida came over for lunch. She and the Chef have become great friends, so I will switch that pronoun to our from now on. Amidst all the celebrations of the holidays and the manuscript being turned in, we had seen her some, but not just the three of us, alone. What better time than Sunday lunch?

I love a Sunday afternoon, lazy and slow. Food, but nothing rushed. The Chef made us a big plate of fried chicken, from a recipe we developed for the book. "Oh holy god," Merida uttered upon her first bite. I couldn't talk at all, for ten minutes. This chicken was so juicy — from the buttermilk soaking — and so crispy — from the breadcrumbs and sorghum flour, that I just couldn't stop eating it. I barely took a breath.

It had been two years since I had eaten fried chicken.

There was also a lovely plate of sauteed kale and roasted vegetables, but I barely paid attention to that, I'm afraid to say.

Sated and smiling, we all settled down on the couch. We had talked, idly, about going to the movies. But after a meal like that, you rarely want to be industrious and drive somewhere with a purpose. We decided to stay in, instead.

Thus began the longest, loveliest afternoon of sitting in front of the television I have experienced in a long time. For four months, I had to be disciplined and productive, nearly every hour of the day. I could not remember the last time I had acted like a kid still in her pajamas at 4 pm on a Saturday. We gave in.

We watched several episodes of Arrested Development, which the Chef has only started watching, because of us. There was one episode of Jamie Oliver's series, which was really a busman's holiday for the Chef, since every time he watches dear Jamie he sprouts ideas for the restaurant. He makes us put the dvd on pause (not really such a chore, since it freezes on Jamie's lovely face) and scrawls shorthand menu items. This time, it was something with prosciutto and goat cheese. We insisted on showing the Chef the Gourmet Night episode of Fawlty Towers, a series he has somehow never experienced. (He has never seen It's a Wonderful Life or The Sound of Music, either. Shock! We have some movie watching to do.) When Basil thwacked his wonky car with a huge branch, we all laughed so hard I thought I would hurt myself. Mostly, there were episodes of South Park, of course.

(If Matt Stone and Trey Parker are somehow reading this, we would love for you to come to our wedding. We do have a South Park love, after all.)

After hours of idling, we needed something more to eat. Three of the most determined and busy bees finally rested, together. It made us hungry. As I peeled myself from the couch, I suddenly remembered the orange drink. "Hey Merida," I shouted from the kitchen. "Do you want to make this?" And I brought the magazine toward her.

Her eyes grew wide. "Morir Soñando!" she shouted, without looking at the blurb. Her Dominican grandmother and aunt in New York used to make it for her, all through her childhood. "It's good for clearing the head and giving you energy," she said. Well, we could use some of that.

We could have gone to the store and bought oranges for fresh orange juice. We could easily have found some whole vanilla beans, which Merida says makes it taste infinitely better. But, when that food idea tugs at my gut, and I can feel it within reach, I want it now. So, we improvised.

"More," Merida said, as I poured in some orange juice from the carton. "A little milk now," she urged me. We had no recipe. We just played with the proportions in the blender until the color looked right to Merida. "There!" she shouted, and we poured it into glasses.

Merida's eyes closed with the pleasure of this childhood treat. I took one sip, and my eyes shot open. "Oh my god!" I shouted, then took a glass to the Chef, in the living room. He took one sip and looked up at me, astonished. We both had the same memory.

Orange Julius.

When I was a kid, one of my most favorite treats was this orange-drink concoction at the mall: Orange Julius. We couldn't afford it that often, and even as a kid I sort of hated the mall. But when we had that frosty, frozen orange explosion in our mouths, I was in heaven. I remember, along with the poofy colored hats the poor kids who worked that stand were forced to wear, that everyone wondered how Orange Julius achieved that elixir of taste. No one knew the recipe.

It turns out — it seemed to us — it was a mass-production variation on a Dominican drink, all along.

And in that moment of drinking orange juice and milk, frothed up with vanilla syrup, I knew why my mind and gut had tugged at reading that recipe. Not just because it reminded me of my Orange Julius childhood, but also because it connected the three of us in that room, with the slender thread of remembered tastes. There we all had been, in the late 1970s — Merida, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan; the Chef at the Cinderella Mall in Denver; and me, at the Montclair Plaza, just outside of Los Angeles — all drinking something similar and marveling at the taste. None of us knew each other then. None of us even knew the other ones existed. But there we were, in early 2007, gathered in this room together, now integral to each other's lives, and remembering our childhoods.

I love how this food connects us. The world now feels much smaller, and far less random, than I once thought.


I am certain that the more authentic version of this, with fresh-squeezed orange juice and vanilla bean paste, would be even more exciting than this simple fix we created. However, I will say this: I haven't been able to stop drinking this version. Besides, with the citrus crop all but destroyed in California now, it may be that we will all be drinking orange juice from a carton for awhile.

Life is short. Let's live it, imperfectly.

4 cups orange juice
1 cup milk
15 ice cubes
2 tablespoons vanilla syrup (or more, to taste)

Throw it all in the blender. Whirl it up. Taste it to see if you like it. Add more of what you need. Blend again. Drink.

Serves three thirsty people.

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At 4:34 PM, Blogger Claire said...

My mom made this for me when I was little! In fact, when I was in kindergarten she came to school and made it for my entire class! The first few days after I had a bike accident in 2nd grade and knocked my front tooth out, this was what I lived on (and a drink diet supplement the dentist's wife gave us!). It's a great drink isn't it. I can't wait to have someone to share it with.

At 5:03 PM, Anonymous Kim said...

Oh my! I saw the picture and automaticall thought, my concoction! After I fell in love with orange Julius as a kid, I used to mix milk and OJ and drank it really fast (the milk would curdle if i was too slow). years later, I told people about my little treat and everyone thought I was odd and how that could never be what Orange Julius was.

I'll have to point them toaward this post from now on.

At 5:14 PM, Blogger ByTheBay said...

I love this drink. I posted the non-dairy version in December:

The Orange Creamsicle

When I posted it on RecipeZaar (with one change: The recommendation to use ice if you wanted a slushy consistency)... It immediately got a bunch of good reviews.

It's just so... YUMMY!

At 8:06 PM, Anonymous kimberly said...

My freshman year of high school, I fell hard for a junior boy I met while performing in our high school musical. After school, he worked at the Orange Julius shop in the local mall. My memories of orange julius are tangled up with young love, a gorgeous baritone voice, backstage kisses and my first heartbreak.

Gotta get me some orange juice...

At 8:08 AM, Blogger astillac said...

Hah! I worked at Orange Julius in high school. If any of you knew me, that would be funny, because I was really NOT the Orange Julius girl -- but I was there for almost three year, until I graduated. They used some dried milk powder, with funny things I can't remember in it.

And sugar water. SO much sugar. We had to mix up an emergency batch of Simple Syrup (that's what it's called), and ... let's just say I was really sticky when I came home.

We could drink as much as we wanted, though, and eventually I got my favorite - strawberry julius. Yum. I should try to remake that.

At 8:08 AM, Blogger liannallama said...

Oh, that Morir looks divine! I remember the good old "mall" days of Orange Julius--yup; even in Montclair Plaza, LOL! That chicken looks delicious, too!

I love jicama and here's something you may or may not have tried. My Mexican MIL makes it and it's so yummy! She puts cubes of jicama and mango to make a "fruit" salad. Sometimes she'll add papaya or other tropical fruit. Sometimes there is cucumber and some fine slices of radish. Then she tops it off with crumbles of White Mexican cheese, or feta. It's so tasty when all the flavors blend together!

At 8:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

you've done it again. Teenage memories of Orange Julius and the mall, whiling away the long afternoons.
This is one drink I will just have to make for the twins.
I can see it with the vanilla past from TJ's and the non homogenized milk from the Co-op. YUMMY!

At 5:42 AM, Blogger Liz said...

This makes me think of horchata as well.

I adore jicama. There used to be a place here that would bring you a plate before your meal - sprinkled with a bit of cayenne and lime juice. Lovely!

At 6:49 AM, Blogger Paz said...

Oh, wow! I just returned from the Dominican restaurant, where I picked up my breakfast. If I'd read this earlier, I would have asked if they had this drink. Better yet, now that you've provided a recipe for it, I can make it. ;-) It's wonderful how food and its memories connect us.


At 9:02 AM, Blogger Jane ~ said...

I have not had Orange Julius in years. Your blog constantly inspires, thank you. I have been reading and watching you blossom for a long time. From someone about the same age, diagnosed at the same time, you have consistently shown me how glorious gluten-free can be!

At 1:44 PM, Blogger Cupcake said...

I came across your page after trying to start a blog of the same name. I started a blog just talking about my GF experiences in Nashville TN. I just wanted to say hi!

Megan- Nashville

At 2:00 PM, Anonymous excelsior said...

"Life is short. Let's live it, imperfectly."

May I adopt this as my motto?

At 3:27 PM, Blogger Lucy said...

That episode of Fawlty Towers, though I have seen it too many times, still makes me howl with laughter - I've just introduced my step-children to it recently and they adore Basil. The drink sounds wonderful...

At 4:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

OMG I love morir sonando!! my mom makes this for me every saturday its soo yummy specially in the summer, we use evaporated milk tho. I highly recommend drinking this with a hearty plate of mangu with sour onion and fried sausages. (mangu is mashed plantains) yummy

At 5:02 PM, Anonymous shazam said...

hahaha i used to work at orange julius back in high school! and that is exactly what the drink reminded me of, before you mentioned OJ. i think your version sounds much tastier! (and healthier). we used to have to go down to the smelly "dungeon" of the mall and stir up massive batches of sugar syrup for the drinks... oops hope that's not a trade secret ;) love your blog ;)

At 6:35 PM, Blogger BipolarLawyerCook said...

Thanks so much for writing about this-- I missed this blurb in Saveur the first few times I read their "100" issue. Not only did I find it this time through, I found three other things I'm going to try this month-- including the cheese shop in Providence, RI that they mentioned. Thank you, Shauna, for your keen eye and your sharing heart!

At 8:48 AM, Blogger Lynna Kay said...

Hi. I just stayed up all night reading your entire blog, from start to finish. My son has just been placed on a gluten-casein free diet and for the past month all we've eaten is chicken stir fry. Your blog inspires me to branch out, though - thank you!

At 1:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My dad makes this every Christmas morning...I like it better than every present! YUM

At 6:07 AM, Blogger lee said...

I love the Saveur 100. It's actually the January issue. I dug out the old ones from my basement and have maybe 6 out of the 9 they have done. I hope to do a post about them soon. I'm going to try the morir with the volcano blood orange juice from Trader Joe's. Mmmm...

At 8:43 AM, Anonymous amanda said...

oh my goodness! what a wonderful story of connection. I love that. And I will most definitely be loving this recipe I am sure too! We'll try it tonight!Thank you!

At 11:00 AM, Blogger APKimberMama said...

I just have to comment, because I am almost positive my first Orange Julius came from the Montclair Plaza in the late 70s. Back when it was a one story mall, and the Orange Julius shop was a tiny, dark place. My dad always ordered his with a raw egg.

At 11:05 AM, Blogger madre-terra said...

Jicama, jicama, oh how I love to eat and say, "jicama".
Have you seen "The Vicar"? Another funny British comedy to add to your Sunday....
As a kid I would make anything in the blender that I could ice cubes to. Thanks for the walk down memory lane....

At 7:12 AM, Blogger Genevieve said...

Silly question I suppose but where does one get vanilla syrup? Sounds great!!!

At 1:04 AM, Blogger Dana said...

Shauna- I know exactly the zombie walk you describe. Too funny!!! I didn't realize what I was doing until I you captured it in words! I'll laugh every time I do it now.

At 12:31 PM, Blogger One Must Have Chaos said...

Hey, I have not read much of your blog, But your "Yes" entry inspired me to start my own now in my last semester of college. Beautiful work.


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