realness.

If we’re being perfectly honest, it’s been a little hard for me to find the time or emotional capacity to write here lately.

I’ve never wanted this blog to be some meticulously curated, rose-colored vision of life. I’ve struggled with representing myself here genuinely — between providing consistent content (light-hearted anecdotes, poorly-photographed recipes) and capturing the true breadth and depth of my experiences. Most of the time, I’m happy to keep my inner life private: to selectively share the cheerful, on-topic bits while holding tightly onto the dimmer and sadder parts. Lately, however, I’ve felt it difficult to continue the charade, so to speak.

Every day, I wake up and question what I’ve done and how I’m feeling. Why am I giving up everything (my home, my relationships, my happinesses) in pursuit of my PhD? Is this truly what I want? Am I fixing what’s not broken? This entire process has exposed my vulnerabilities, neuroses, and fears. Now more than ever before, I am afraid… of the unknown, of failure, of loneliness. Lately, these three demons follow me every step I take, whispering worries into my ear even as I sleep.

One year ago, my life was bright and full of contented attachments: date nights, dinner parties, workouts, Whole30s, CSAs and cooking. Simple, fun, and only a little bit unfulfilling. I had been living in the Bay Area for nearly five years. I’d built communities with whom I could watch The Bachelor, escape to Russian River, hike on the weekends, wait in line for brunch. I’d built a comfortable home with my partner, who anchored and grounded me. I’d come to know and love San Francisco, sinking my roots into my surroundings and drawing strength from the rich, wet earth.

And yet? I found myself wanting more. I’d stare despondently out of my office window, watching the omnipresent gray mists of Land’s End, and wonder what I was truly doing with my time. My existence was happy, yes… but I wanted to be more than just happy. I wanted it to be whole and meaningful. I needed to challenge myself and achieve meaningful goals. At first, I struggled with this desire, trying to neatly compartmentalize it, afraid of disrupting my idyllic lifestyle. Soon enough, though, I stopped fighting it; I let my dream expand and take shape. I respected my ambitions, knowing I’d regret never acting upon them. I gathered as much information as I could, applied to graduate school, made an informed decision. I am now poised to begin that journey to self-actualization.

I should be excited. Is this not exactly what I wanted?

Standing at the edge of the precipice, I need to remind myself of a few important things. California, my beautiful home state, isn’t going anywhere. My people, those beautiful beings who I love and who love me back, will always be there for me. I can always cut my fall short. I have a safety net, now and always.

Now: to jump.

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Dispatches from the Grad Apps Egress

Dear friends,

It’s nice to see you again. I’ve been lost in a fugue these past two months. My birthday came and went with hardly any fanfare, save for a quiet dinner and one fabulous ice cream cake. For weeks, I’d have a slice each night before checking my email for the thousandth time, despondently getting into bed and pulling the covers over my head. Only yesterday, I crawled out of that dark, dimly-lit metaphorical tunnel to stumble into the blinding light of day.

I did it. I officially accepted an offer from my top choice program. Come fall, I will formally begin my studies at William Marsh Rice University… and, one day, god willing, I’ll become Yours Julie, Ph.D. (at which point you will all be expected to refer to me as Dr. J).

😭

You (or rather, I) might be asking: what does this decision mean?

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Dispatches from the Grad Decisions Abyss

Warning: melodrama ensues.

At every stage in this grad school process, I’ve thought to myself: Well, this has been really hard. It can’t possibly get worse.

  • After I wrote my personal statements.
  • After I submitted my applications.
  • After I visited every school and stayed on my very best behavior.

Well, I’m here to confess: I was wrong. It has gotten worse. It is currently The Worst.

Ironically, I’m in a position that one colleague called a “prospective student’s dream”: I’m holding multiple offers from remarkable grad programs. I feel very fortunate to be here.

However… I’m now at the tail end of the experience, during which I need to sit myself down and think through, very deliberately, my next steps. Cue: the acute agony of choice.* With so many viable options, I have to close some doors in order to (eventually, presumably) walk through one. This, from someone who spends half an hour deciding what to order at a restaurant? I can’t pick between fries or a salad,** let alone School A or School B. There are so many factors to consider: school and program ranking, research fit, mentorship style, cohort culture, location, funding, academic/applied balance, graduate placement, etc. I’m constantly thinking about all the pros, cons, and possibilities.

What’s worse? I thought I’d have a clear picture of my options by now. I don’t. The reality is that my offers haven’t all hit the table. I’m still trying to figure out funding and pin down moving targets. It’s excruciating and exhausting. I’m constantly refreshing my email inbox and second-guessing correspondence with faculty. I am literally sick to my stomach living in this state of limbo.

It should be simple, right? I’ve heard from so many people that, at the end of the day, it comes down to fit and where you intuitively feel most at home. I’m overthinking all of this… and yet, I can’t help it. It could be that I’m taking this too seriously. However, there are few moments in a person’s life where one decision can shape so much of the immediate and distant future. This is one of them. No big deal. Curls up into a ball and cries.

This should end in exactly two weeks. I’m praying I make it until then.

* See highly relevant articles on choice overload and the paradox of choice here.

** Fries. Obviously.

Dispatches from the Grad Interviews Abyss

The only reason I’m ever happy to fly with United: access to Fraiche’s froyo in the airport terminal.

… I went a little MIA there. I’m now a little less than halfway through my grad school interview circuit. Two down, three (and potentially more) to go!

I’ll confess that I’d approached this whole “visiting weekend” thing with a total opportunist/cheap Asian/aspiring jetsetter’s enthusiasm. An expenses-paid trip across the country? Sign me up! The reality, however, is that:

I am not flying to glamorous places. My god, why can’t these graduate programs be in more appealing locations? Who wants to live in a college town in Middle-of-Fucking-Nowhere, USA? Don’t even get me started on how I’m feeling about leaving San Francisco. I’ve now basically seen the rest of America and it blows. I’ve been so very spoiled by California. I say this with complete honesty: the thought of moving makes me question how badly I want this Ph.D.

Being in transit for 8+ hours at a time is so exhausting and uncomfortable. During my last trip, I was seated between between two very beefy men, one of whom I’m 99% sure was a juggalo trying to pass as a normal human being. I was clued in by the Insane Clown Posse tattoos.

It is super disruptive to be traveling every weekend. Next month, I’m spoken for every Thursday through Saturday/Sunday. When I am home, I’m working like a dog and trying to squeeze in time with family and friends. It’s been difficult to maintain healthy habits, like eating well and exercising and not being stressed.

It is very expensive. Although most of these programs are reimbursing me for (at least some of) my travel expenses and food costs, I’m inevitably spending gobs of money throughout the course of these trips. I’m also losing income since I’m not working and using paid leave while I’m out of the office.

The food is not that great. I wanted to sample different regional cuisines, but program catering is usually limited to Costco finger sandwiches and potato chips. I usually don’t even get the chance to explore cities (restaurants and otherwise) on my own, since my schedule is usually packed with recruitment activities.

Yup… these are definitely not the fabulous vacations I’d envisioned at the beginning of the year.

Nonetheless, having complained a whole lot, I’ll acknowledge this is a really crazy exciting time for me. It is absolutely insane and flattering to think that schools want me. What’s more, they’re giving me money to make myself smarter. What a position to be in! I get to study what I want (for free), add three letters after my name, and become the Boss Lady I’ve always wanted to be. God help me if my parents aren’t proud of me at the end of it all.

A Ph.D., however, is not without its downsides. I’ll have to sacrifice a number of things for a few years: living in an amazing city, having a disposable income, being around family and friends… And, as has been well-documented, academia often doesn’t pay off. I’ve been doing plenty of thinking — both assessing/reassessing my goals and gaining perspective from other people who’ve trodden this same road. I’m trying to pay close attention to my motives and emotions in this process. This article was particularly helpful in elucidating the need for achievement; I’d recommend it to anyone considering graduate education or, really, any type of professional development. This is all part of a continuing conversation I’m having with myself.

In any case… onward I go. I’m off to the East Coast for the third weekend in a row. This time, I’m making sure I’ll be eating well.

Friday finds

I thought I’d have a nice, long break before the next step in the grad school admissions process — but this was (pleasantly, shockingly) false. I’ve already received acceptances to some incredible programs, and am slated to attend a few other schools’ visiting weekends! This has, of course, resulted in a lot of anxious re-scheduling (including the unfortunate inability to attend my dear friend’s bachelorette party)… but I am excited about all this forward motion. My future’s about to change in a big way!

But. Before then, I’ll be squeezing every last bit of R&R I can out of this weekend.

Harold McGee breaks down MSG for ya.

Yearbook.

My lovely wife in the psych ward.

Bourdain Market is real!

Portraits on steroids.

Make waffles. Turn into pizza.

7×7’s Eat + Drink winners.

Bopping my head to the newest Sleater-Kinney.

2014: a retrospective

Ringing in the new year with a friendly/vicious game of Spoons.

2014: what a year you’ve been.

I’ve traveled internationally and across the country, moved house, picked up hobbies, went to my first baseball game, watched beloved friends get married, and nurtured my community here in San Francisco. Professionally, I’ve juggled part-time classes, published posters, attended conferences, and applied to graduate school. This has been the Year of Being an Adult. Alternate title: Getting Shit Done.

All the while, this little space has been here to bear witness. If nothing else, I can at least say I’ve blogged regularly. I’ve always fancied myself a writer type, but typically fail at journaling of any kind. I’ll write an entry (usually while I’m super pissed off because my mom won’t let me go to the mall and dye my hair!!!) and halfheartedly add another hasty scrawl or two before abandoning the effort completely. Yours Julie has shown me that I can, in fact, be creative and routine simultaneously. Make no mistake — it can feel like an obligation or even work at times. By and large, however, I’m so, so grateful I’ve kept Yours Julie up. As a naturally sentimental person, it fills me with indescribable happiness to look back on previous entries and reflect on where/who I was in life at each moment.

With that said, it’s time for me to complete my annual survey. I’ve been answering the same 60 questions since 2006 (!!) — so I guess that’s another pretty impressive feat. Without further ado…

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greatest hits of 2014

Happy New Year’s Eve, friends!

And what a year it’s been… what a truly delicious year. Last year, despite documenting only a few months’ worth of cooking, I was still pretty pleased with my “best of” list. This time around, I’ve got a much larger oeuvre thanks to a few developments:

  1. Becoming good friends with (or devout worshiper of) the magical slow cooker, through which all stews are possible;
  2. Being on fussy/special diets constantly, which has naturally forced me to cook at home much more often;
  3. Baking like the sugar fiend I am whenever I take a hiatus from said diets;
  4. Picking up a very nice point-and-shoot camera;
  5. Subscribing to Mariquita Farms’ life-changing mystery boxes full of produce; and
  6. Building my spice pantry so enthusiastically that I must now open my cabinet gingerly (get it?) for fear of all manner of grinders, pouches, and bottles tumbling out.

These elements, shaken and stirred with my obsessive need to document things, has resulted in ~40 recipes over 365 days. Out of these, I’ve picked ten of my most favorite dishes. In no particular order…

Beef and tomato stew: I knew I had to include a crockpot dish, but nearly overlooked this simple weeknight meal in favor of some of the flashier, bolder recipes I’ve made. One look at this photo, however, and I was transported: cold winter night, fleece robe, glass of wine, and a bowl of this comforting goodness — what could be better?

Loaf cake with lemon glaze and toasted almonds: This might be the year that my sweet tooth changes course — away from the indulgent and decadent, towards the refreshing and light. This subtly sweet loaf cake was perfect for summer picnics, a breakfast bite, or a snack just because.

Eggplant strata: This brunch dish is not pretty nor simple, thereby lacking two components in my trifecta for a good recipe. That said, it was so incredibly rich and delicious (and, yes, healthy!) that it secured its place in this top ten list, easy.

Roasted cauliflower a la Mary Celeste: To the naked eye, it just looks like another roasted vegetable dish — but on the tongue, it’s a completely unexpected combination of flavors. Love this (especially because I’m ethnically Vietnamese and truly believe that everything tastes better with a dash of fish sauce).

Chinese steamed fish: Again, we have an unassuming-looking preparation… but the spice-blooming technique here really amps up the flavors of the herbs and seasonings. Don’t underestimate the power of a perfectly cooked fish and an incredible Asian sofrito. This is one of my very favorite 30-minute meals.

The New York Times’ consummate chocolate chip cookie: I’ve made many a CCC, but none so impressive as this monumental mash-up of classic recipes. Craggy, crispy, chewy, gooey, salty, sweet — it’s as close to perfection as I’ve ever gotten.

Plum torte: The best way to showcase a surfeit of fruit? Bake it into a light, sweet cake and top with a cool scoop of vanilla bean ice cream. This, for me, was summer in one beautiful spoonful.

Orange chicken and cauliflower fried “rice”: Now is the time to acknowledge dear Jay, who has patiently withstood many meals interrupted by my demands of “Waitletmejusttakeapictureofitfirst! CanIborrowyourIphonetooplease!” I also send him plenty of gratitude for washing countless dishes and picking up after I casually shake up the kitchen. Before we pity him too much, however, let’s remind ourselves that there is a silver lining to dating a home cook — and my other half is one very appreciative eater. This “healthy” rendition of a Panda Express favorite earned raves from Jay, who declared this one of his most beloved bites ever.

Chia pudding: With New Year’s resolutions around the corner, a sweet like this comes in handy: a blank slate that can be tweaked and fine-tuned to fit any tastes. Make a big batch, top with fruit, nuts, granola, chocolate, or any number of additions, and enjoy guiltlessly throughout the week.

Roasted chicken with za’atar and lemons: This year, I overcame my fear of salmonella and learned to roast poultry. With that skill, many, many doors opened. This particular dish tasted as deliciously exciting and bright as it looked — just phenomenal.

Phew! After the jump: the complete list of 2014 dishes. Unfortunately, there would’ve been even more recipes had life not gotten in the way. If only you could see my backlog of entries… there are so many things I cooked that I simply didn’t have the time to write into existence. Hopefully those meals, as well as many future ones, will make it here in the very near future.

In any case, friends, thank you for being here. I know I’m not a cooking authority nor blogger juggernaut, but I am a writer (I think?), and writers love readers (maybe?). For the first time ever, I’m actually encouraged to share what I’m creating with others. It’s immeasurably gratifying. I wouldn’t — I couldn’t — have done it without you. Love y’all.

See you in 2015. Cheers!

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Dispatches from the Grad Apps Abyss

I’m not dead, but I sure feel like it.

I returned from a blissed-out wedding in Cabo* only to be plunged back into the depths of grad school application hell. Admittedly, hell isn’t so bad. I’m sitting at my dining room table, stress-eating five bowls of cereal and erratically browsing my blog feed, in the golden light of San Francisco. On second thought, I wish all of my mornings would look like this.

As we know, however, crises aren’t always apparent from the outside. Though I may look like a lady living the life of leisure, I’m in agony internally. I’d decided to apply to a dozen schools, not realizing the crushing weight of twelve separate deadlines. One afternoon, as I started creating the applications, I felt a sense of panic rising in my sternum. Questions I’ve been hysterically screaming at the computer:

  1. Why am I spending an hour trying to find a single program code? It’s a wild goose chase tracking down the application requirements on university websites.
  2. Why does every school want an impossibly irritating level of detailed information? Not only do I have to list the exact dates that I took some throwaway class at a community college — but I have to do so for every single application. It is data entry of the most infuriating order.
  3. Why must I rewrite the same “personal statement” for each program? Basically, I have to say “pick me” twelve different ways, 1/2 to 3 page(s), single- or double-spaced.
  4. Why am I hemorrhaging money already?
    4a. Why do schools charge so much for the privilege of having some admissions committee member roll their glazed eyes over my CV before tossing it in a pile of scraps?
    4b. When we’re so early in the application stage, why must I pay for official GRE reports and transcripts when free, unofficial copies could suffice?
    All costs considered, each app will likely average $100 a pop — and that’s not even considering potential open house travel expenses. I’m being hazed into the order of broke-ass graduate students before I’ve even become one.

It’s like pulling teeth, if those teeth were numerous and very expensive. After thinking seriously about the emotional/financial costs of this process (i.e., staring in horror at the number of open tabs in my browser window), I’ve decided to pare down the list of 12 to 10. I’ve already spent a good amount of time culling the list, asking myself the obviously important questions (Which programs are strong? Where would I want to live? What faculty have my same research interests?). Now, I’m going to have to be very careful in which remaining programs I cut, using the following rubric:

  • Is the economy thriving? I suppose this should’ve been a top consideration, but some of the top programs in the field are in smaller college towns. Either way, there needs to be strong internship and job opportunities available.
  • Is this city in the South? Because: if yes, then no.
  • Is weather nice. ??? . I’ve spent too many summers staring into the fog soup of San Francisco. I don’t need the climate to be desktop wallpaper-esque, but I’d appreciate sunshine and/or seasons.
  • Most urgently, is there good Vietnamese food in the vicinity? You might say that this question really gets at issues of diversity — and yeah, you might say I care a lot about not being the only woman of color in the room. (It’s one of the things I aim to study in grad school.) Ahem. That said… sometimes a gurl just needz her cá kho tộ, nah?

So, there we are. These very important questions may decide how I spend the next five years of my life. I’m sure there’s some anticipation in me; it’s just momentarily buried underneath many, many layers of angst. Dante’s Inferno, meet Dinh’s Inferno.


* More on Cabo later. It was a beautiful dream soaked in sun, sand, surf — full of laughter, tears, and unbelievably good-looking people. All this, even in spite of the hurricane that recently devastated the peninsula (and the food poisoning that wrecked our bowels). It’s truly painful for me to remember how, only days ago, I was frolicking in the tropics, celebrating the union of my two dear friends without a care in the world. Now: here I sit, huddled under my garish green fleece robe, pouring out my sixth bowl of cereal and hoping for better days soon.

falling figs, Fall 2014

Hi there. I’m still alive (barely.) — trying my hardest to hang in there as I wrap up my fellowship proposals. To think, this is only the beginning of grad school application season! I’m dreading the coming months, particularly as I also have some enormous work deadlines looming ahead.

In any case, I came across this illustrated quote by the mercilessly talented ZenPencils. Sylvia Plath so perfectly captured my state of mind; I had to share.

my dad’s Vietnamese egg salad

This weekend, as you all probably know, marked the passing of another Father’s Day. While I’ve found it impossible to discuss food without mentioning one particular parent, it’s a totally different story with the other. Like my mom, my dad was an immigrant from southeast Asia. Very distinctly unlike my mom, though, my dad didn’t assimilate into Western culture willingly, instead staying quite firmly rooted in the traditions of his native country. Read: distant authority figure who did no cooking. (I suspect that this approach is not uncommon cross-culturally.)

All the same, it’s not hard for me to conjure up happy memories of us in the kitchen. To be sure, he never made us a proper meal; I don’t think that was a skill he was ever taught or interested in learning. Rather, some nights he’d come home with a butcher paper-wrapped parcel of fish, fragrant and fresh from the market deep-fryer. He’d fold together a makeshift tray, carefully origami-ing a sheet of aluminum foil, and reheat the whole deal in the toaster oven. When the fish emerged, crackling with hot oil, he’d pick out the crispy bits (my favorite) and let me eat them. Other nights, he’d pop open a can of Vienna sausages, warm it up, and serve over white rice. I wonder if his affection for pseudo-meats was a stand-by from his time in the military or refugee camps; whatever the case, those little pink tubes made for unbelievably satisfying comfort food. Among my favorite meals, however, were those for which my dad would really bust out his cooking chops: a riff on egg salad.

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