Wild Cravings: Chicken Salad, Shrimp, and Soup

This is a goodbye to this series — for now. Wild Cravings could come back one day. I’ll never stop craving after all. Some updates: I never heard back from my cousin about the beachside breakfast shack. I never reached out to this friend or that friend either. I found the watercress soup at least, but you already knew that.

Before I go, I wanted to leave you with some cravings.


I’m craving chicken salad. A — you guessed it — specific chicken salad. It’s from a regional grocery store that no longer exists in my hometown. You can still get this chicken salad at Publix and Kroger and the other big-chain grocery stores that took over. The chicken salad lived beyond the store itself. And for a good reason. It’s the best chicken salad I’ve ever had. I’ve tried to recreate it. The list of ingredients is right there on the back of its plastic tub. But it’s never that simple, is it? You can never really know how a person’s hands touch this or that as they’re adding, mixing, chopping, how the exact arch of a back over a kitchen counter may somehow be significant. Recipes are about more than just the ingredients and the steps. And I know this chicken salad isn’t made by a little old grandma somewhere, at least not anymore. But it was someone’s recipe once. And now it lives on and on and on. When I think of this chicken salad, I think of hot peppers. My mother has always had a green thumb, keeping multiple gardens around the house I grew up in and now tending to dozens of houseplants in their new place in the city. My father grows one thing. Peppers. Short, round ones that turn orange, long, thin green ones. Some mild, some that pack so much heat you can only use one in an entire stew. The long, skinny green ones were my father’s and my favorite. Once, we sat down for dinner, and he pulled a handful from his pocket, silently handing some to me. He did it like it was the most normal thing in the world to carry around chili peppers all day. I started calling them pocket peppers. That regional grocery store that no longer exists is still known for its rolls — soft and white and delicious. The chicken salad on one of those rolls? Heaven! Ecstasy! Simply the best! But the thing that takes this snack to the next level is my father’s pocket peppers. You don’t slice them and add them on top. You simply leave them whole on the plate, alternating between a bite of chicken salad roll and a bite of pepper. It tastes like eating something straight out of a secret garden — fresh and bitey.

***

I’m craving shrimp. Specifically, the shrimp in Norway. They’re little juicy guys full of flavor, meant to be eaten cold — either on their own with a squeeze of lemon and sprinkle of fresh dill or on a piece of white bread with mayonnaise (the Norwegian kind, which is thick and rich and yellowy). The last time I was in Norway, I went to a park with my sister and her best friends. Before, we tried to buy fresh shrimp brought in by the fishermen in Bergen. But we got to the market too late. All the fresh ones were gone. So we settled for frozen — still good but a little more work. We defrosted three kilos of shrimp, laying them out flat while we dressed for our picnic. We hauled the shrimp to the park with a loaf of bread, tubes of the good mayo, lemons, dill sprigs, strawberries, cookies, wine, plastic cups, and paper plates. We spread out a blanket, piled on, and got to work. It takes time to shell the shrimp. Making one open-faced sandwich easily takes over five minutes if you do it right. To do it right is to stack layers of shrimp so high on the piece of bread that it’s difficult to get your mouth around it. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a shrimp with a fat, orange bulge of roe to suck out, little bursts of salty sea. We sat there in the grass, shelling our shrimp, the sun beating down on our backs and our cupfuls of wine. It was early summer, a time of year over there when the sun did set but barely, dipping low late at night but never fully disappearing, leaving a little glow behind before coming back up. When we finished our sandwiches, one of my sister’s friends stripped down to her underwear and jumped off a rock into the cold fjord, so deep the water looked black. She tried to coax the rest of us in, but I was scared. I used to be scared of unknown waters. Now, I can’t pass a lake or bay or stretch of ocean without an immediate urge to swim in it. There was someone else there — at the fish market, at the picnic, in the water — but I’ve written her out. I like the story better this way. Does that make me a bad person? A manipulative writer? It’s better this way, I promise. In this version of the story, all that matters is the shrimp and the sun and the squeeze of lemon over everything we touched.

***

I’m craving the assorted vegetable and dough drop soup ($12.95) from Le Sia in the East Village. Its rich tomato broth. Its hearty greens. Its swirls of egg ribbons and little drops of freeform dumplings. One day in January 2019, I got bad news. I can’t remember what the bad news was. I only know I got bad news because I tweeted about getting bad news. I do remember it was a bad day and that I hadn’t eaten much. I’ve always been of the belief that soup can fix most things. So when I got off work at the end of the day, I needed soup. I couldn’t decide between two restaurants: Le Sia or Little Tong Noodle Shop. (The former has survived the pandemic, and the latter did not.) Why not both? I called in my orders. Dough drop soup from Le Sia. The grandma chicken mixian from Little Tong, a brothy mix of rice noodles, juicy chicken, black sesame garlic oil, gai lan, pickled daikon, and fermented chili, a perfect tea egg swimming on top. It is — was — the best chicken noodle soup in the world. I took the subway from the Financial District to the East Village. My fingers were freezing, my body felt hollow. I picked up both soups, but I didn’t know what to do next. It was a strange time in my life; I’d developed a sudden and inconsistent fear of being underground. I’d already taken the subway twice that day, but the journey from the East Village back to Crown Heights seemed daunting. It seemed impossible. I was certain I’d have a panic attack, and then not even soup could help. I spent too much money on a Lyft, and then there I was, sitting in the back of a car going over the Manhattan Bridge, blasting Sleater-Kinney in my ears, two soups in tow, their heat making their plastic to-go containers soft and pliable, warming my fingers, already working their magic.


Wild Cravings is a biweekly series by Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya about food and memory.


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kaylakumari

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Miami. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 321 articles for us.

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