Black Raspberry Summer Nights

When I was little, we used to walk along the cracked pavement streets of my grandpa’s neighborhood to the little Stewart’s gas station market on the corner. It was always summer – we almost never traveled to Upstate New York in the winter, snow and my mother’s hatred of it being the main deterrent – and there is in fact something magical about the “North Country” in the summer. 

Being so far north, the summer nights were long, and the soft light of the setting sun would still stretch towards us well past 8 pm as trucks whooshed past, fishing gear clattering in their beds. Once inside the gas station market, we’d go straight for the ice cream counter. There were at least twenty flavors available, but I only ever wanted one: black raspberry. 

In Upstate New York, as well as other parts of New England and northern Pennsylvania, black raspberry-flavored ice cream reigns supreme. Ice cream shops down south will claim to have it, but it’s not the same. There is something so uniquely delicious about local ice cream made up north, a haven of dairy farms, that it just cannot compare to anything claiming to be black raspberry down here in Virginia, if you can find it at all.

And no, black raspberry is not just a cute way to say “blackberry,” and it’s not just raspberry ice cream mixed together with some purple dye. There is, in fact, an actual “black raspberry” berry that has a hollow core and a fuzzy, soft exterior like a raspberry, but instead of red, it’s a deep, dark purple — a slightly less tart, less sickly-sweet, and fruitier cousin to the blackberry. They grow in colder climates and are harvested in July – around the same time my grandpa would be sneaking me down to the gas station for a double scoop.

“Don’t tell your mother,” he’d whisper, and the Stewart’s gas station attendant would load up a sugar cone so high that the little globes of dusky, purple ice cream would almost teeter off the edge. It was sweet and bright and creamy, and I’d always lick it too slowly on the walk back to my grandpa’s apartment until purple veins of ice cream were melting down to my elbow. It was me and my grandpa’s secret outing, trilling cicadas as our soundtrack, as we made our way back home in the waning summer light of Upstate New York.

A month ago, I started writing about my experience of going to an all-women food and hospitality group event focused on ice cream, but it didn’t quite feel right. I was going to write a pithy little intro about how I’ve come to love D.C. through its diverse food scene. There were going to be jokes, a little self-deprecation, I was maybe going to make fun of the obnoxious white dude in Denver, standing in a “new American gastropub” full of other white guys, who told me that D.C. had no diversity in its people or its cuisine. I was going to somehow tie it all together while quickly and breezily touching on the heavier subjects that were covered during an otherwise very lighthearted event focused on ice cream, gelato, sorbets, and female entrepreneurship, and it was maybe going to include a few pictures of my build-your-own ice cream sundae.

But here’s the thing: I didn’t walk home that night from Pineapple Collaborative’s “Dairy Queens” event feeling giddy and in touch with my local community just because we talked about all the cute flavor combos you can make with gelato, or how to stay motivated in business when you’re working around the clock. I was practically humming on my way home from the event because when I had first walked into the loft space of Big Bear Cafe, with its exposed brick walls, old wooden beams, and #instagrammable string lights everywhere, I found a room full of a wide array of people — women, men, families, children, grandmothers, women in hijabs, women in crop tops, women eagerly and unabashedly devouring their ice cream sundaes with unrestrained joy. It was one of the more diverse audiences I had ever seen at a Pineapple event.

I was moved that night because the panel of women who spoke about their businesses all came from different backgrounds that uniquely shaped their experiences in the food industry, and even shaped the flavors of their ice cream.

I teared up that night, specifically, because Hiba Akhtar of BlueNoon Gelato – a brand new, local gelato business — explained how the election of our current president opened up a space for hate in our country on the national stage. How she and her business partner’s families are from the Middle East and South Asia, from countries associated with war and destruction and chaos, and how they, despite having zero gelato experience, wanted to start a business that would help people learn about their cultures in a different way — to see what they see when they think of home, or their grandparents, or their own understanding of where they come from. So they decided to connect with people in the most universal way possible: through ice cream. 

After all, almost every culture in the world has some variation of a frozen treat that is reminiscent of ice cream. From the ancient Persians and Chinese, to today’s Shake Shack milkshakes and Korean bingsu, ice cream has a long history on almost every continent. 

But BlueNoon’s Syrian Lemonade gelato was particularly good. The tart, bright lemon, the coolness of the mint, the sweetness of it all swirled together — I loved it. Apparently Syrian lemonade is a very common drink served in the summer in Syria, and it was not lost on me that this was something I would have never known if I hadn’t engaged with a community beyond my own. The flavor felt like more than an ode to Syrian heritage, or a way to discuss Syrian customs in a different light than we normally do. It felt like a yearning for that Syrian summer, for an experience of home, just out of reach. 

Throughout the night, I learned about other flavors that each of the women on the panel were making, some of which I had never heard of (like Kunafa), and yet all of them tied back to a specific food or flavor or memory from their childhoods and their backgrounds. I immediately followed all the panelists I wasn’t familiar with on Instagram to keep track of them and their growing businesses. I wanted to eat more, hear more, learn more. It was more than just a sugar-high – it was that electric feeling of connecting and relating to a room full of strangers. Or, at the very least, connecting to their stories.  

I’m not qualified, nor is it my place, to tell BlueNoon Gelato’s full story – especially when they themselves tell it so well. I will only say this: more than a month ago, we had a horrific 24 hours of mass shootings. One of these shootings was the act of racist-fueled hatred. Misplaced anger incited by dangerous rhetoric that our president spews out every day from the pulpit and his (constantly-misspelled) Tweets. 22 people died. I – like most of the United States – continue to be absolutely astounded that our government does nothing to restrict access to types of military-grade guns that should never be in civilians’ hands. 

Dalia Mortada of NPR, Victoria Lai of Ice Cream Jubilee, Violeta Edelman of Dolcezza Gelato, Rabia Kamara of Ruby Scoops, and Hiba Akhtar of BlueNoon Gelato.

But I am equally angry that people continue to hate what is different, to refuse to sit in a room with people who are different from themselves, and just listen. I am tired of the hypocrisy of assimilated American immigrant communities being so hostile to new ones arriving on our shores.

I am so sad that impressive women like Victoria Lai of Ice Cream Jubilee, Rabia Kamara of Ruby Scoops, and the indomitable Violeta Edelman of Dolcezza Gelato have had to work two times, three times as hard to get to where they are because they are women, and because they are not white. And it is absurd that because of those two simple identifiers, they are treated with less respect and sometimes even violence. As if any other non-Native citizen has any greater claim over this country than the person standing next to them. 

This is not exactly groundbreaking news but hey! Just in case you weren’t sure: diversity and immigrants continue to make this country great. They continue to open up doors for the rest of us to learn about other people and other ways of life that we are not familiar with. They continue to build businesses, invent things, and create the very fabric of American society, as they have for decades of American immigration history. 

They even continue to unite us all around the universal love of ice cream. As Lai said, “Everyone has a memory associated with ice cream.” I brushed that sentence away at first. It felt rehearsed and comfortable, like a polished, Spielberg memory of an ice cream truck’s tune, winding down a suburban street. 

And then I took stock of the flavors from several of the “Dairy Queens” that I was so obsessed with, like Marionberry with Graham Crackers. Blueberry with Lavender. Boogie Backyard Berry. All of them somehow swirling with dark purples and bursts of berries that sang of a summer farther north. 

I wasn’t really sure how to put all of this into words or if I should share it at all except this: this past July, after this event, I spontaneously decided to drive the nine hours to Upstate New York for the first time in five years. I saw my grandpa again and, as he becomes less steady in stride and mind, I spent the whole trip acutely aware that it might be the last time I’d see him. For one day on the trip, it was just me and him again, just like it used to be, zipping down pothole-filled country roads, past open fields of Amish farms and abandoned American Legion buildings. 

Towards the end of the afternoon, we stopped by a cash-only ice cream shop, where we each ordered two scoops of black raspberry ice cream, mine on a sugar cone. “Don’t tell your mother,” my grandpa warned me conspiratorially, as if on cue. We sat under a tree and licked our ice cream until our teeth were dyed purple. 

How strange it would be, if I couldn’t tell this story without someone interrupting and asking me to justify their negative perception of my family, or where I come from? How awful would it be if I hadn’t even been able to go back to see my grandpa or the rest of my family this summer, because of war or violence? How terrible is it that people are too scared to open themselves up to the possibility of connecting with someone different than themselves? 

But how wonderful is it that while immigration and cultural identity are Big Subjects that require in-depth study and reflection, sometimes learning something new about the people around us, and the struggles and triumphs and humanity of their communities, can oftentimes be as simple and delicious as sitting in a room, listening to their stories, and eating a big ol’ bowl of ice cream?

New Year, Same Me

When I brought this website back to life last year, I thought, “This is the year I write.”

I had grand plans of a monthly (if not bi-monthly!) posting schedule. I was going to talk about my oh so thrilling life in D.C. and try to frame it in a way so that someone other than my mom would care about reading it. I was going to finally find and take the time to write for myself, dammit, because I deserved to invest that time in myself!

The last blog I posted is from uh…March 2018. 

Somewhere along the way, I got so focused on living my life, that I forgot to write about it. And for months, I’d take embarrassed peeks at this website, telling myself that this weekend would be the weekend that I’d finally start to write again. So I guess you could say despite my best intentions, it was a new year, but same me.

But here’s the thing – I was writing. I was writing at my day-job as a social media manager, communications manager, and assistant editor (yes, I performed ALL THREE JOBS in one place of employment) and I was writing multiple freelance articles a month. I was writing letters to friends, letters mailed across the country or across the world, letters that I’ve kept and never sent. I was writing an absurdly stupid amount of Instagram captions about all the food I was eating.

And most importantly, I was writing cover letter upon cover letter. I was editing minuscule details on my resume as much as possible within severely-adjusted margins that squeezed all of my qualifications onto one page. I was writing emails explaining exactly why I was perfect for the job, thanks so much for the phone interview, please let me know if I can provide you with any more information to help you with your decision.

Searching for a job while working full-time AND working two freelance gigs on the side is exhausting, to say the least. And amidst all that writing, I was also balancing a somewhat aggressive social life, exploring new hobbies, and hiking plenty of mountains. It’s honestly a miracle that in July, I did get a new job – one that offers me new and more extensive opportunities to learn and grow and finally, finally, finally work in the fields that I really love: writing and editing. I am one of The Writers on staff, and that is thrilling to me.

So here I am, writing again. Writing at work, and at home. But for the first time in a long time, I feel like the writing I’m doing at work actually matters, and for the first time in nearly a year, I’m finally back to writing here on this website.

People make all sorts of lists and goals and resolutions this time of year, right? I tend to shy away from those, as I don’t always stick to them, and then end up feeling like the first half of my year has been a failure because I didn’t manage to lose fifteen pounds or learn to spatchcock a chicken.

But this year, I want to live with intention. I think it’s all too easy to settle into a safe routine when you’ve gotten a better job and are cycling through a schedule of happy hours and historic pub lectures and fun days out. Comfort, in many ways, keeps you from going after what you really want. So this year will be a year of living with intention, of not just cruising and letting things happen to me. This year will be a year of making choices that matter.

This year, I’m going to write.

So What Do You Do?

“So…who do you know?”

It was 2016, sometime in February, and I was jostling for position at the bar, desperately trying to get the attention of the tattooed bartender who was looking at anyone (namely, girls with better outfits and more makeup) besides me. I was out in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of D.C. (which I have since learned to avoid on Saturday nights) and my friends, who had dragged me to this bar, were off somewhere grinding to “mid-2000s throwbacks.” Because, you know, the mid-2000s were so long ago now that we can throwback to them and pretend to dance to Chris Brown without feeling guilty about it.

I turned to look at the guy who had been attempting to make some pretty terrible small talk with me and thus, had made me lose my one chance to grab just one gin and tonic please, is that so much to ask when the bartender scanned the crowd, saw us talking and presumably assumed I was too busy for alcohol, and ignored me once again. The man trying to talk to me was your average white dude, if we’re being honest. His face was unremarkable, his hair…probably brown? I know he was wearing a collared, button-down shirt, but it’s noteworthy that the rest of him was so entirely un-noteworthy to me that he’s become just a blur of a memory, two years later.

“What?” I yelled above the thudding, terrible house music.

“Who do you know?” The guy yelled back. And I looked at him – with his neatly-pressed khakis, his Ready To Meet The Parents-haircut, that smarmy smirk like he had just dropped the world’s cleverest pick-up line – and I immediately recognized him as a staffer. You know who I’m talking about: the quintessential white, male Capitol Hill employee. And as soon as I realized that, I also realized that he wasn’t asking me who I knew in this bar, or if I had friends I could introduce him to. No, this man was quite literally asking me, in a crowded bar on a Saturday night in an effort to make a move, who I knew of importance in the United States government.

“Well, personally, I think my mom’s pretty cool,” I responded, to which the staffer looked predictably unimpressed. It was at that moment that I seized my chance, elbowed a pretty blonde out of the way, and grabbed the bartender as he passed. “Just one gin and tonic,” I yelled over the noise. “Please.” Is that so much to ask?

Washington, D.C. is, obviously, an interesting city. It’s the capital of the United States, so people often think that the only thing here are government buildings and historic monuments, but it is actually an interesting city. The international food scene is incredible, there’s a thriving art community both online and on the streets, national and international movements are born here, and if you’re ever bored on a weekend, it’s because you’re too lazy to find something to do, because there is literally always something to do.

But guess what else? Washington, D.C. can be a terrible place to date people. And not just because of the transient nature of the place – after all, people flow in and out of here based on election results, and foreign diplomats don’t exactly put down roots. It’s also not just because eventually, people get sick of the high cost of living, the insane traffic congestion, and all of these allergies, and eventually move away to smaller, less pollen-ridden towns.

No, Washington, D.C. can be a terrible place to date people…because of the people. Don’t try to fight me on this – I will die on this metaphoric hill.

It’s a constant joke that the first question people will ask you when you’re out at a bar, event, or just minding your own business while watching ducks float by at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool is: What Do You Do? I have navigated entire evenings of conversation in which I learn all the ins and outs of someone’s job, what hip D.C. neighborhood they can afford to live in because of their salary, and what they want to do next in their career, but I’ll leave the conversation realizing that I never learned their name. Worse than that? I leave the conversation feeling like I didn’t even learn anything about them. Their opening line is always the same: so what do you do?

This isn’t just me. This happens to everybody. When you mention it, everyone laughs it off in a “Oh, isn’t that just such a silly D.C. thing,” with a dismissive hand wave and chuckle, but it’s actually a terrible phenomenon. And it’s not just with dating – this happens in every D.C. young adult’s life when trying to awkwardly make friends as a grown-up. Even grabbing drinks with friends has become branded as a chance to expand your circle, make contacts, learn more about “the industry.” After all, it’s not just grabbing drinks with friends – it’s a “networking happy hour.” And if you’re going to a networking happy hour, you better bring your business cards and the D.C. conversation starter pack: It’s so nice to meet you! Where do you work?

I think it’s wonderful that people are passionate about their jobs and the work they do here in this city. I would rather someone be excited about how they contribute to society for eight hours a day than hear them whining incessantly on Google Hangouts about how bored they are. Being driven and passionate is a good thing! It’s also pretty cool to be in a city that is essentially The Room Where It Happens. The longer you live in D.C., the more you realize that you’re surrounded by people who actually make things happen in the world. Meeting incredible people from all over the globe who care about the work they do and aren’t just cruising through life is definitely inspiring, I won’t deny it.

But unless someone is gushing about their job and why they’re so passionate about it, when complaining about work or discussing the ins and outs of office dynamics and strategy are the only things people talk about at a bar, it gets repetitive and boring. It feels superficial. What about hobbies? What about causes you believe in? What about your friends, family, pets, favorite junk food? What are you excited about, how do you make people’s days better? Instead, you get the usual: so what do you do? In the end, you leave the conversation feeling like you didn’t meet the person at all. I exit D.C. bars after five hours, still craving genuine, human connections that I managed to make in fifteen minutes in the common areas of hostels abroad.

So in an effort to facilitate those genuine, human connections (or actually just to do something completely stupid and spontaneous that took me out of my comfort zone), I did what any normal human would do: Isigned up for an in-person, speed-dating event at my local (absolute favorite) independent bookstore. On Valentine’s Day.

“Retro Tinder,” as Kramerbooks & Afterwords Café called it, was exactly as you’ve seen it in sitcoms and 90’s movies. It was indeed like Tinder in Real Life, except I had to wear real clothes, makeup, and spend money. To be honest, I prefer the version in which I window-shop men in my pajamas from behind the safety of my phone screen, but this was fun too. I did indeed wear real clothes (a bright red dress and heels that I tripped in on my walk to the bookstore), makeup (which I put on my face with five minutes to spare in my office bathroom), and spend money (on a really amazing cocktail called “The Gin Gatsby” that involves plenty of gin, hibiscus, lime, and rosemary sprigs).

My pal Moira and I had signed up for this speed-dating event together, and so we went up to the mezzanine of Kramer’s Bookstore where the event was held. Every table was decorated with a candle, a bowl of sweetheart candy, and the cover of a Fabio harlequin romance novel. I sat down at my assigned novel cover (Wild Scottish Embrace by Rebecca Sinclair) as quickly as possible because with my heels and low ceilings, I was an absolute giant, and then promptly awaited true love.

By true love, I mean a man who was hopefully my own age, since the sign-up form for speed-dating had kept the age range from 23-35, but there were definitely quite a few gentlemen filtering into the room who were significantly older than 35 and had maybe lied about their age. We were instructed to bring our favorite book as a conversation starter – if we didn’t bring our favorite book, then the bookstore staff would hand you a copy of 50 Shades of Grey and you’d have to explain to a complete stranger why that collection of trash masquerading as a book is your favorite thing to read.

Terrified of having to explain to my potential first husband why I was (not at all) passionate about reading an inaccurate portrayal of BDSM, I brought one of my top 10 favorite books of all time: David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day. David Sedaris is an incredibly funny nonfiction writer who basically takes every terrible thought you’ve ever had in the back of your head, pairs it with his fun upbringing as a gay man raised in the boonies of North Carolina, and creates writing that has actually had me snickering out loud on public transportation. I wasn’t exactly expecting to meet anyone significant that night, but on the off chance my soulmate showed up to this random bookstore speed-dating event, I wanted to bring a book that would filter out anyone who didn’t appreciate a slightly twisted sense of humor.

I won’t share names or too many details about my dates because of privacy and all that jazz. They were all perfectly nice and friendly, but the first guy to sit down across from me had apparently partaken in an Ash Wednesday service earlier during the day and I, a survivor of 16 years of Catholic school, started off our three-minute date by making a joke about ashes and Catholicism. It uh…didn’t go over well.

Every three minutes, a buzzer would ring and I’d stand up and move to the next table, where I’d try to decide whether or not I liked this stranger within a grand total of 180 seconds. I guess out in the real world, that’s all it takes to know if you jive with someone, right? The man in the bar who had asked me who do you know? required all of 30 seconds of interaction before I realized I disliked him. The guy I shared headphones with in a brewery a few years ago and danced to Elvis with as everyone stared? It took all of 2 minutes of that song to realize that I was a big fan.

First impressions matter, and so you would think that these three minutes would give me enough of an impression of these men to decide if I liked them or not, and to scribble a little “yes” or “no” on my speed-dating card, but it was stressful. Not only was I trying to get to know them, they were trying to get to know me. The room was loud, there were weird, raunchy Fabio book covers on every table, and I was trying to charm these strangers while wondering if my mascara was melting down my face.

The good news is my mother taught me from a young age how to talk to strangers, so I babbled with the best of them! The bad news was I left each table confused as to whether or not I actually liked the person, or if I just had expertly executed a conversation and was flying high off of that. As I said, everyone was perfectly friendly! We talked about books and how weird speed-dating is! But I definitely scared one particularly shy guy with my exuberance about whatever it was we were talking about, because he walked away looking both relieved and terrified.

In the end, I stayed true to myself: I talked about pasta, I talked about ramen, I talked about prosciutto. I also think I had some conversations about gentrification in D.C., nonfiction as a genre, and where I intended to travel in the next year as well, but I honestly can’t remember. I think someone complimented me on how personable I was, but that could have just been another way of saying that I wouldn’t shut up. I don’t know – it’s all a blur to me now. I had ten dates in one hour and before I knew it, the evening was over. We turned in our cards and were assured that if we had mutual matches, we’d be given the emails of those people in the next few days.

All of the men slowly filtered out of the room, but for some reason, the ladies stayed. I felt like I had just run a marathon, and I decided to reward myself for going through more first dates in one night than I had had in the past two years by buying myself a glass of wine.

But you know what was my favorite portion of the night? The part that came after the dates. The moment when I was standing there in that tiny, dark room – covered in those gaudy Valentine’s Day decorations – sipping a glass of rosé and suddenly befriending the other eight girls in the room. It was instantaneous. If we weren’t laughing at the absurdity of what we had just put ourselves through, we were earnestly talking about the books we had brought, with more enthusiasm than we had been able to muster when talking to our potential dates.

Before we knew it, an entire hour had passed after the conclusion of the speed-dating, and we were basically best friends. You might think I’m exaggerating, but actually, we formed a book club, right then and there. The event’s organizer, Olivia, was a whirlwind of personality and hilarity, and she took all of our emails down and declared that she would be founding a book club with all of us. It seemed like one of those things you say upon meeting new people at one of those networking happy hours, right? “Oh, we should totally grab drinks sometime!” You exchange numbers, friend request each other on Facebook, and then never see them again for the rest of your life.

But guess what? A few days after the speed-dating event, we got the emails with our date matches. And a week later, we got an email picking out days for our future wine and book club to be hosted at Kramer’s, with a suggested book genre already in place. My date matches were perfectly nice and friendly and sent me sincere emails about the conversations we had (about ramen), but I’m kiiiiiind of more excited about this book club that’s coming up.

Because if there’s one thing I’ve had trouble with in D.C., it’s occasionally breaking through that wall of constant professionalism and getting to know the people around me as actual humans with lives outside of their offices. And, surrounded by a bunch of girls laughing at the fact that we had just tried speed-dating for the first time, commiserating with each other on lost love, and gushing about books and reading and life – I realized that I had done it. I had had conversations with people that went beyond just what do you do? I bonded with strangers, I pushed myself beyond my comfort zone on a silly holiday, and I’m going to see all of my new friends next month to talk about the cheesy, ridiculous harlequin romance novel we’re all going to read.

D.C. is a challenging place to date people, it’s true. But if you’re not too afraid of looking like an idiot at events like speed-dating in a bookstore on Valentine’s Day, you might be surprised by the people (and potential friends, soul mates, etc.) that you’ll meet just by asking questions beyond someone’s 9-5 gig.