(This originally came out in the e-zine Outpost. With minor changes, I am posting this as my entry to the 11th TBR hosted by Doc J.A. of Ripples From The River Of My Thoughts.)
I came upon my own recipe for lasagna the year I started medical school. My social life was drastically curtailed as I was forced more and more to catch up on reading assignments. I had broken up with my boyfriend the year before and my emotional health was at an all-time low. While I had lost a considerable amount of weight during the years he and I were together, the summer before med school saw me adding more than 15 pounds to my girth, perhaps in trepidation over the dreaded years ahead.
So there I was, unhappy and fat, confined to my room to face a mountain of textbooks, desperately trying to get out of doing homework. To escape the dreary monotony of schoolwork, I puttered to the kitchen for the nth time that day, scrounging for leftovers, sandwiches, and packets of previously opened junk food. Having scraped the refrigerator almost clean, I started opening pantry drawers in search for more munchies. The pantry was almost empty by then, save for a few boxes of popcorn, a jar of peanut butter, a tetra-brick of tomato paste, and a box of lasagna noodles.
Then, a flash of inspiration hit me! I rushed to the study room and looked up old cookbooks. I saw an entry for lasagna and scanned the recipe for details. The cookbook was almost a decade old so the recipe seemed a little staid. Now armed with the basic know-how, I turned the kitchen upside-down searching for possible entries to my revised recipe. There was no Parmesan cheese so I settled for quickmelt cheese. There was ground meat in the freezer and there were tomatoes fresh from mom’s garden that day. I saw a fifth of a bottle of white wine in the chiller and I decided to appropriate that for my white sauce. There were some also leftover boiled crabs from dinner the night before so I decided to use that too.
I hurriedly took some money from my wallet and walked the block down to the grocery store over at Times Street, all thoughts of anatomy forgotten. I filled in the rest of my shopping list and ran all the way back, breathless and wheezing from excitement.
In two hours, I had prepared my first lasagna. I ate about half before the rest of my siblings were drawn to the scent and devoured the rest of the dish.
In the following years, I must have made more than a thousand lasagnas for my friends and myself. Most often, the urge to eat lasagna comes when I am at the nadir of my life. Case in point: the day I flubbed the big neuroscience practical examination.
Two weeks before the semester’s end, the college’s most eminent neurologists tested us individually, medical school freshmen, to see how much we had learned from a term’s work load. There would be two exams of that nature for the year, one at the end of each semester. Failure in both exams would doom the student to an entire summer of ward work and lectures while the rest of the class enjoyed the summer break. Failing one meant doing extra research and more course work, courtesy of one’s preceptor.
We held study groups to prepare ourselves for the big day. Older students shared their savvy and expertise. Their most relevant tip? Don’t make a fool of yourself.
We did the rounds of older students’ groups, siphoning them of information which teacher was kindest or who was the strictest, and which chapters to concentrate on. Rumors flew around us and we spent many an hour milling around the lecture lobby, waiting for some salvation from our dreaded state. Some said the techniques on physical and neurological examinations were supposed to count so we used each other as dummy patients. In the end, however, we were told that the entire graderested on the diagnosis.
It was supposed to be a simple case; all one needed to do to pass was to decide whether it was a lower or upper motor neuron disorder. On the day of the examination, we drew lots to see who will test us and just my luck! I drew the stub with the name of this professor notorious for giving out the most difficult questions in any exam. All my false bravado flew out the window, replaced by fear, anxiety, desperation and terror.
The minute I saw Dr. Neurologist, my legs turned to jelly. I had to calm my nerves quietly before I could even step inside the room. I kept chanting under my breath, “Don’t make a fool of yourself. Relax. Smile.” I forced a smile but it came out as an expression of sourness. The doctor stared at me, returning a look of exasperation in his otherwise stoic demeanor.
I examined the patient in haste and started running through the differential diagnoses in my clouded mind. “Lower motor neuron disorder secondary to what-was-that, the thing with the whats-its and whos-its, ahhh, dang it!” I had memorized a whole chapter on the topic yet my mind was drawing a complete blank!
The seconds ticked on slowly, and in the corner of my eye, I saw the doctor stifle a yawn, impatience flashing through his features. He asked a series of pointed questions, all the while motioning for me to hurry up and be done with it.
In my panic, I blabbered like an idiot, trying to swallow the bolus of fear that had lodged deep in my throat. When his patience finally ran thin, he whispered, “Decide now, doktora,” in a low, serious tone. It was make or break time. I decided to end my agony by blurting out the first diagnosis I thought of.
Alas! It was the wrong answer.
I ate the whole 9×13 pan of lasagna that night. I came home at eight in the evening, spent two hours preparing the lasagna, and took half an hour to eat the entire thing. I spent another hour in the tub soaking away, running my tongue over bits of meat still stuck between my teeth. By the time I had finished the lasagna, bits in teeth included, I was feeling a lot better. The exam felt like a distant memory and nothing, not even the humiliation of that day, could make me feel horrible anymore.
On that day, I decided that lasagna would be my comfort food for all my aches and pains. The recipe changes slightly now and then, depending on my mood. Sometimes there’d be bacon in it, other times, shrimps and creamed broccoli. I’ve tried eggplant and cucumber slices, and once, even goat’s cheese. Most times, however, I make do with that’s left in the family refrigerator.
For me, lasagna is best served a day after baking, after an overnight stay in the refrigerator. After a day or so, the noodles have absorbed the flavors of the twin sauces. By then, too, the lasagna has acquired its distinguished form; it will no longer slide and move on top of the other layers the way it does when the sauces are fresh from the oven. To reheat, all one does is to microwave on high for a minute or so, depending on one’s desired size. One may also pop it in the toaster oven or even a conventional oven for a few minutes.
I make it a point to make extra when I get the urge to make lasagna. Wrapped in foil, lasagna keeps well in the freezer for future use. This way, when the doldrums pass by, when the heat of anger consumes me, or when I’m just plain depressed for no apparent reason, all I have to do is to pull out a frozen ccasserole, thaw, reheat, and pig out. Oprah, my guru of good living, always says that good meals can never substitute for good relationships, but hey, what the heck, this really works!
I’ve shared the basic recipe with friends and family but most still flatter me by requesting that I prepare it for them. (Ha! As if I didn’t know.) The procedure is quite tedious, involving separate steps, so they would rather sit down and eat instead of slaving over a hot stove. Personally, I find the procedure calming and relaxing. I get immersed in the stirring and waiting that all my negative feelings, the yin, the bad karmic energies, even unhealthy qi, or whatever name you may call it, are simply banished from their temporal existence.
There’s an order to the universe when the perfect ingredients are all lined up in their light blue ceramic bowls, each ready for use. Chopping, slicing, and dicing release pent-up energies and emotions while the aroma of sautéing herbs and vegetables soothes the confusion in the brain and releases the knots in gnarled neck muscles. There is tranquil in quiet concentration as one layers the lasagna in perfect arrangement and in just the right proportions. Too little cream sauce leaves the mouth watering for more, while too much deadens the taste buds to the intricate and subtle flavorings of your other ingredients.
Luckily, the past few years have been kind to me so my episodes of mindless gluttony have been few and far-in-between. Perhaps it is just as well. It’s hard enough being depressed withough having to continually worry that the sins of your excesses will haunt you in the mirror the next day.
Hey, I’ve just been reminded, there’s an extra casserole tucked in the freezer. Hmmm, I just broke a nail. Is that excuse enough?