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KAREN’S MEXICAN RICE & “GRAD SCHOOL” BLACK BEANS

I cut my hair short in high school, for many reasons and for no reason at all.  Convenience, defiance, sophistication, some combination thereof.  It ranged from ear-length to pixie-short until I buzzed it all off my freshman year of college.  Head-shaving was the social experiment that I undertook with my fortuitously-assigned college roommate Rebecca. Bolder and defiant than I could conceive of being at that point in my life, Rebecca was my first true friend on campus (and remains one of my favorite people on the planet, I might add).  Shaving our heads was her idea.

Bless my poor father’s heart—he always harbored visions of me with long, flowing tresses like the hip-shaking heroines of the Bollywood movies he loved to watch.  He was forever making remarks that he found funny but I found annoying, encouraging me to “grow it out!” and “not so short!”  But to my surprise and perhaps disappointment, he handled my shaved head remarkably well, voicing no critiques and even silencing my mother who clearly thought I had lost my mind.

Though I never shaved it again–

a) I’m not cut out to live a renegade lifestyle

b) my head is oddly shaped

c) lack of hair dampened my flirting potential, which truly affected my quality of life

–once my hair grew back, I continued to style it short.  I had no reason to wear it longer and plenty of reasons to keep it cropped: I lived in hot climates (Memphis, then Houston, then Tucson), I like a low-maintenance morning routine, I had been told once or twice that I looked like the Indian Halle Berry.  Why mess with a good thing?

In my first semester of graduate school, my parents proposed a trip to India for my cousin’s wedding.  She was three years my junior and had become engaged to a man that she met herself at another family wedding and secretly “dated” before coming home and suggesting to her parents that he might be a good match for her.  I rather liked this schema: it was spunky and made the prospect of braving a wedding (at which I would be the noticeably older, unmarried, American cousin) far more palatable.  Not to mention, I had not been to India, the country of my parents’ birth, in over a decade, and my father and I had only traveled there together once before, when I was an infant.

A few months before we were scheduled to leave for India, my father asked me to grow out my hair.

“Nito,” he said, after he had so cleverly taken me out to lunch in Memphis, plied me with pulled pork barbecue and worked me into quite the food coma, “What if you grew your hair for a little while?  Please don’t cut it before we go to India.  It will just look better, your relatives will like to see it, not so short.”

I knew that my relatives weren’t the only ones who would like to see my hair “not so short,” but refrained from saying so.

“But doesn’t the nose ring count for anything?” I asked him, mostly teasing since I had pierced it on a whim in college, not out of any deep-seated cultural agenda.

“Maybe a five-point bonus,” he said, keeping the joke.  “But your hair could look so nice!”

He said “could,” as in “doesn’t right now,” which I noticed but also choose to ignore.  Instead, I decided to leave my hair untouched.  After all, I had cut it for no particular reason, surely I could grow it out when it meant so much to my father?

“I’m going to cut it as soon as we get back, though, okay?”

“Okay,” he consented.  “It’s your hair.”


My father died six weeks after we returned from India.  Except for the occasional trim, I haven’t cut my hair since.  I grow my hair for a dead man who carried his hair on his arms and his legs and his chest and his back, but not his head, curling and dark. He would be so pleased if he could see this hair.  This hair, my hair, all the way down my back, long and flowing the way he always wanted.

Tomorrow, I’m having my first hair cut in nearly four years.  Not an arbitrary cut, but one that will help mark my twenty-seventh birthday and which will result in an envelope full of my hair being mailed here.  You see, my friend Rebecca and I have many things in common: we’re giant nerds, know more Disney song lyrics than we really ought to admit, have serious sweet tooths, and love to craft things with our hands.  But the most powerful thing we share is the one we never counted on; losing a parent within nine months of each other.

Rebecca’s mom Karen fought an exhausting battle against cancer for two-and-a-half years, one of those terrifying up-and-down rides full of uncertainty and pain, loss and hope.  My friend put her life on hold to tend her mother’s every need, exhibiting the kind of courage and relentlessness that humbles one who witnesses it.  By the time Karen was diagnosed, right in the middle of our senior year of college, Rebecca had become my family and I, part of hers.  My own father’s death very surprisingly interrupted the trajectory of things; who could have guessed that I would be the one to lose a parent first?

To this day it stuns me, how in the midst of their own sadness and grief, Rebecca and her parents tended to me so unselfishly.  I remember spending part of an afternoon at the hospital with them, not long after my father had died and during a time along the cancer roller-coaster when chemo had stripped Karen’s head completely clean of hair.  She had wigs, but they didn’t come close to recreating her.  The most realistic ones are, of course, the most expensive.

“Your hair is so beautiful, Nishta,” she told me, in a voice I’ll always be able to hear.  “I wish I could wear it.”

“I’ll grow it out for you,” I told her.  “I promise.”

Tomorrow I’ll be making good on my promise at the same time I let go of the hair that feels so connected to my father.  I’m nervous, excited, and proud, and I promise to post some before-and-after pictures on Friday, provided that I don’t become totally incapacitated by all of the food I’m planning to eat between now and then (with a birthday today & Thanksgiving tomorrow, let’s hope I can even fit into my pants on Friday!)

I’m wishing all of you very festive and delicious Thanksgivings, full of people you love and lots of linger-worthy moments.

KAREN’S MEXICAN RICE & “GRAD SCHOOL” BLACK BEANS

Rebecca’s mama made the world’s best home-cooked Mexican rice, and she generously passed on her secret to me through her daughter: 1 ¾ cups liquid for every 1 cup of rice. Her ratio yields flavorful rice with the ideal texture and every time I make it (which is often), I picture her in my kitchen, proud that I’m working her recipe.

This rice makes an excellent accompaniment to so many things, but my favorite pairing is with a big pot of simple, vegetable-laced black beans.  “Grad school food,” I call it, given how cheap it is to make, while at the same time being comforting and tasty.  Feel free to swap in or out other vegetables such as chayote, fresh spinach, mushrooms, etc.

KAREN’S MEXICAN RICE

1 cup long-grain rice
1 ¾ cups vegetable or chicken broth
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
3 medium ripe tomatoes, diced or 1 can diced tomatoes, drained
1 T cumin
½ T chili powder
salt
vegetable oil

optional: sliced onion

In a large skillet with a fitted lid, sauté the garlic (plus onion, if you’re using it) in a few tablespoons of vegetable oil over medium heat.  After two minutes, up the heat to medium-high and add the rice, toasting in the oil until the rice begins to brown and become fragrant, about 5 minutes.

Pour in the chicken or vegetable broth, then stir in the spices.  Cover the mixture with the lid and allow it to come to a boil.  Once the mixture boils, dial back he heat to medium-low, stirring periodically until the liquid is nearly gone and the rice is fully cooked.

Toss in the tomatoes and check the rice for salt, seasoning to your liking before serving hot.

“GRAD SCHOOL” BLACK BEANS

2 cans black beans, fully or partially drained*
1 can corn (or 2 ears’ worth of fresh corn, off the cob)
2 carrots, peeled & sliced ½-inch thick
1 red bell pepper, seeded & diced
1 ½ T cumin
1 T garlic powder
1 tsp. salt
vegetable oil

optional: ½ or a whole jalapeño, minced
potential garnishes: grated cheese, sour cream, cilantro, salsa, raw onion, shredded cabbage

In a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat, sauté the bell peppers (jalapeño, if you’re using it) and carrots in a bit of vegetable oil until soft.  Add the black beans, corn, & spices, then mix well.

Cover and turn down the heat to low.  After 10-12 minutes, the beans should be heated through.  Check for salt, then serve over rice.

*If you want drier beans, drain all the way.  For a soupier effect, drain only one of the two cans.

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