Down East 2013 ©
Yesterday was Inauguration Day. Along with close to 800 others, I went to the Music Hall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to watch Barack Obama being sworn in as the 44th President of the United States live on the big screen. Friends and neighbors greeted one another with tight hugs, others wore flashing Obama hats and Obama t-shirts and pins.
A New Year’s Eve-type energy floated through the great hall. We watched the millions of people huddled on the National Mall in Washington, willing to freeze their toes and fingers, in order to be part of history. We watched as former presidents made their way onto the stage (Democrats seem to age far better than Republicans) and we clapped vigorously at a shot of the moving van taking away boxes of the Bush family’s paraphernalia. Seeing Dick Cheney in a wheelchair felt like some sort of justice. Power had shifted. Finally.
Like so many others, I was enormously moved by the entire event, at seeing that sea of faces — white and black intermingled with Asian and Latino, young and old, babies and grandmothers. When the audience in Washington was asked to rise, we in Portsmouth also rose. When the Obama family made their way down the steps to their seats we cheered and screamed with excitement. Eight hundred cheering, screaming people carries a lot of energy. And I felt every bit of it. I was shocked to find myself experiencing chills as I sang along with the great Aretha Franklin as she belted out “My Country ‘tis of Thee.” (Have you ever seen a hat quite that grand?) I was even more shocked to find myself looking at the American flag with a renewed sense of pride. It’s been years sine I felt anything that even remotely resembles “patriotism.” Ever since 9/11, when the flag became something that George Bush used as a symbol for “you’re either with us or against us,” I’ve felt a coldness toward our national symbol. But somehow all that shifted yesterday, January 20th, 2009, when we elected our first ever African-American president. This new America, where we are asked to help and take part in something bigger than ourselves, feels like a place I want very much to be part of.
Last night, as the President and his elegant First Lady danced among the who’s who of Washington, I did what I do most nights — thought about food and making dinner for my family. I opened the spice drawer to find something interesting to add to a lamb stew, and by accident the entire drawer fell to the floor. Ground coriander and thyme leaves mingled with bright orange turmeric and scarlet red cayenne. I don’t like to think of myself as someone who looks for “omens,” or “messages,” but as I started to clean everything up - smelling the mélange of bright, sharp, and spicy scents - it occurred to me that this intermingling of the world’s spices on my kitchen floor reflected the day I had just witnessed. Our new President, who spent much of his childhood in Indonesia, Hawaii, and later Chicago, whose parents are both black and white, is a lot like the accidental mixture I created. So instead of cooking what I thought would be a standard lamb stew, I added a pinch of turmeric and a touch of cayenne. That was followed by a little curry, some thyme, cumin, and a few tomatoes. Then I added a splash of red wine, a bay leaf, and the lamb, some coconut milk and broth.
A stew for a new era. New times demand new flavors.
Kathy Gunst is a cookbook author, WBUR contributor and James Beard Foundation chef. She currently teaches cooking classes at Stonewall Kitchen.