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10-20 years ago

Paprika: Turning Outside In

Sunken down into the chair, beat down from the day, longingly awaiting the simmering to be done as fatigue slowly enclosed me in its grasp. The year had been simultaneously fast and long with learning to balance work and a new baby. The balance, organization, energy I had always had control over now ceased to exist. I was an outsider to this life, trying to climb my way back inside towards sense, sensibility, predictability. Though grateful and in love with this new baby that entered my life, I struggled to reconcile my former self and new self. The long sleepless nights had introduced a tiredness I had not experienced since college during the sleep deprived nights of endless paper writing, and even that paled in comparison. Bath done, dinner for the baby done, preparation for the next day done. My thoughts now floated into nothingness. Thank God for my husband who had graciously taken over the meals. His ode to perfection meant waiting…. He claimed “all good things come in time… or patience for goodness,” but it was always worth the wait. 


The dish gently placed on the table in front of me broke me from my reverie. Succulent chicken thighs nestled in dumplings and bathed in a thick, bold red and smoky sauce. The smoking dish wafted up towards my tired face and I was filled with an earthy smokiness that slowly began tinkering with long forgotten memories. My grandmother’s chicken simmering in oil and topped with paprika filled the background of the small house with its comforting blanket of old world spice as we visited my grandmother on Sunday afternoons for dinner. The molten red spice sprinkling traditional egg dishes of egg salad or deviled eggs at every Murphy-Matula (now adding Mason) gathering. I lifted the spoonful of warm liquid now parallel with every sense. I breathed in the goodness of the parikash csirke. The saucy delicacy filled my nostrils and tastebuds like a warm and comforting blanket. It was the rich, subtle earthiness that brought me back to an earlier struggle with turning outside in and the same one that then, and now filled be with a reinvigorated hope/energy. 


Paprika was perhaps my fourth Hungarian word I learned and gratefully so, for it was the same in English as it was in Hungarian (or Magyar) and easy to remember. Depending on where one put the emphasis of the syllable, it could mean pepper (as in the vegetable we ate on sandwiches with butter or cheese daily. pAPreeka) or the spice made from the crushed and ground peppers (Paaaaprika) that sprinkled the land that was Hungary. I soon learned Paprika was the heart of the land. Every person I encountered, from my roommate, her family, my colleagues to my 16-17 year old students all had a story or fact to share about Paprika. Strangely, it was not native to Hungary, but introduced by the Turks during the 16 and 17th centuries. It was discovered by herders and shepherds who had the most contact with the outsiders. They had begun to integrate the sometimes mild, sometimes fiery spice into the peasant dishes of the countryside. Ironically, it was adopted by the aristocrats in the 19th century and has become the dominant spice in most Hungarian dishes ever since. Festivals and holidays were devoted to this spice, school schedules were determined around paprika picking season, and Hungarians, a people proud of their history, had turned something from the outside, pushing and oppressing and turned it inside, reclaiming it as theirs, their culture, their heritage. 


As an outsider living in Hungary for two years, paprika became the doorway inside the culture. It gave me a sense of ownership and allowed me to contribute back to a land that had taught me balance, moderation, appreciation for the simple items I had taken for granted in life (dinner with family, talking on the phone, a TV to inform you of what was going on in the world, stores with every ingredient always on hand). I suppose one of my first transformations began in Hungary and with Paprika. Aside from crudely crushed avocado in a bowl, scrambled eggs and toast, and my innovative mustard and potato in a bowl, I had not learned to cook. After moving to Hungary, I realized this would be an essential for survival as there were no microwaves or frozen aisles, and few canned ingredients. Instead there were open markets on Saturdays with fresh vegetables piled in the back of wagons brought in from country towns and a multitude of dried beans and legumes and potatoes along with plenty of paprika. 


I slowly learned to cook with my roommate and friend, Zsuzsi, standing at my side. We began from scratch, chopping vegetables, simmering them in oil, then flour and paprika. Stirring quickly, watching for too much browning, adding in stock, potatoes, beans, vegetables and more paprika until the mild, spicy smell began to waft over the entire dish becoming familiar, becoming comfort, becoming home. Days on end, I would walk home in the bitter cold streets, before the snow fell, and start the pot, firing up the vegetables and paprika, stirring and simmering, staring into the pot. I felt the day’s triumphs, struggles, misunderstandings, laughter, and confusion slip off me into the pot simmering before me. It became a daily ritual to stir away the days of living as an outsider and beginning to sprinkle in myself into the pot, becoming part of the culture and the family. Paprikash reconciliation. 


Scraping the browned bits of paprika and chicken into my mouth, I realized my husband had brought me back to a time where paprika had become the heart of turning my outside inward. Now standing by his side, sprinkling in the paprika (of course playfully arguing over recipe vs. memory and instinct) we continue adding the paprika, providing a warm blanket in another phase and transformation into parents, Years later, we are still adding the paprika, especially on the days we need to turn the outside in.

- Jen Murphy


The Basketball Story

Every good basketball player who has come out of San Diego has played at Muni Gym.  It’s like the oldest indoor court in San Diego. Or one of the oldest. At least it smells like its the oldest. The ventilation is bad and it gets really hot in the summertime. It reminds me of the way gyms smelled when I was a kid when all the balls were still made out of leather. Even now, I can go to Muni and the gym can be totally empty and it still smells like sweat and leather and wood. It takes me back twenty-five years.

Back in the day, depending on what time of day you’d go, the games could get pretty competitive. If you lost, you could easily wait an hour just to get another game. Forget the other team; your own teammates would get in your face if you did something wrong. That’s the other thing the gym smelled like: nervousness. It’s a different kind of sweaty smell. Sharper, more pungent. Everyone wanted to play their best at Muni.

I’m thinking about this one time—it had to be in ’99 or 2000. I caught a long rebound and turned to run the fast break. My teammate must have known I grabbed the ball, because he took off to start the fast break. I caught the ball, took one dribble, and passed it nearly the length of the court. I passed it so that all my man had to do was catch it, take one step and lay it in. No dribble. Well, he caught it alright. But as he planted his left foot to go up, his left knee popped out of socket, and the lower part of his leg snapped outward—the direction it’s not supposed to bend.  The kid let out a yelp and then just fell on the ground. I can still remember the sound of his yelp, because, it wasn’t, shall we say, commensurate with the injury he sustained. The gym went quiet. All the games stopped and people went looking for the facilities manager. The facilities manager sort of sauntered in, armed with a ghetto icepack—you know, like you fill up a dixie cup with water and put it in the freezer. Anyway, he walks in with this ice pack and sort of goes pale when he sees this guy quivering on the court with his leg broke in half.

The facility manager is dumbfounded. “You want me to call an ambulance?” 
“No man. No. It’s all good, just help me up. It’s all good.”

You need to remember that “It’s all good” was like a year or two old at that time. Everyone was saying, "It’s all good." 

Well here I am in this hot, leathery gym, looking down at this guy who looked like he just stepped on a land mine, and he’s saying “It’s all good” when clearly—CLEARLY—it is anything but good. 

But I wasn’t gonna argue with him. I might have overthrown it a little bit, so if it was all good with him, it was all good with me. 

- Brian Goeltzenleuchter


Nani's dal (Grandmother's lentil)

A significant childhood memory that I associate with scent is that of a special lentil curry made by my maternal grandmother (or ‘nani’ as we call her). I love my grandmother’s cooking and not only is it an extremely satisfying meal but also an instant mood elevator.

A regular day at school was long, hot and filled with lots of activity. By the time I got back home, I would be exhausted, cranky and famished. I used to be a fussy eater and my tantrums about the lunch made at home were a regular occurance in the house. The scenario would be quite different of course, if I got a wiff of a hot and sweet aroma of the curry my nani (who stays two minutes away) made and sent home , steaming hot, right before I got home. 

The sight of that of a little container with a tiny handle on top (so that it can be carried like a handbag) and the aroma of the lentil curry doesn't cease to please me even today. This curry has distinct flavors of roasted cumin and mustard seeds, curry leaves, raw mango and chilli. Jaggery, an important part of our native cooking (which I’m normally not fond of) is also a vital ingredient in this dish. It is a dish typically made by people coming from the state of Gujrat in India. The dish smells of all these flavors and a lot of love. This poured over steaming hot rice was and still is easily one of my favorite scents and meals. It’s a scent I associate to home, warmth and Nani’s soft hands and warm cuddles.

- Aditi Mehta


Old Cabinets

Our house was built in the 70's. My family and I moved into the house in 1995. throughout my childhood the upstairs linen closet had the same cabinets from when the house was first built. they were made of cheap partical board type material with a cream colored paint coating them. My neighbors and i would play hide-and-seek and i would always hide in the linen closet. the cabinets were old and smelled like they were moldy. that dank, musty smell stuck in my mind and every time I get a whiff of something musty i instantly have a flashback to hide-and-seek.

- Tanner


Wet Asphalt

I lived on a col-de-sac growing up and 3 of the houses had kids around the same age as me. During the summer we would always have water balloon or water gun fights. the water on hot asphalt gives off a certain smell that has been locked in my brain ever since. Every time i smell it, it brings me back to the water-fight days.

- Tanner