Farm Fresh RI: So Much More Than a Bumper Sticker

If you’ve ever seen an “I TOMATO My Farmer” bumper sticker, then you are familiar with Farm Fresh RI. 

Farm Fresh RI is a nonprofit whose main mission is to make fresh, local and healthy food more accessible to Rhode Islanders while helping farmers and food makers across New England thrive. RIprides itself on its food, from its unique culinary items like clam cakes, pizza strips and coffee cabinets, to its world-renowned restaurants and seafood. It may not immediately come to mind, but we are also home to a host of bountiful farms and orchards. Farm Fresh seeks to bring it all together to reduce food insecurity. I recently spoke with Thea Upham, Farm Fresh’s director of programs and operations, to discuss what they’ve been doing and what’s to come. 

According to its tagline, Farm Fresh has been “a hub for local food since 2004.” Everything they do across a number of programs promotes their mission in some way, from community education to food delivery. According to Upham, the program that provides the most access to healthy food is their “Bonus Bucks” program.

In 2009, Farm Fresh created the infrastructure that allows SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) recipients to utilize their benefits at participating farmers’ markets and receive more support as an incentive. In 2018, Farm Fresh received a federal grant that enabled them to increase this bonus to a dollar-for-dollar match, meaning that each SNAP recipient could spend double at the Farmers’ Market compared to what they could at a traditional grocery store., with the bonus supporting the  purchase of fresh fruits and vegetables. These are the “Bonus Bucks.” Upham notes that this has had an enormous impact on the RI food economy, as farmers reach customers who wouldn’t otherwise shop at farmers’ markets while consumers get fresh, local food – a win-win for sure. 

While Farm Fresh’s mission has been consistent since its inception, that mission became more vital in the wake of COVID-19. Last year, they partnered with the RI Community Food Bank to bring fresh food from local farms to food pantries across RI. The food bank has always faced challenges storing perishable food: Farm Fresh provided a solution with what Upham describes as the “right size fit.” Farm Fresh is able to make their deliveries to the food banks at just the right time and in just the right quantity. They have even curated the contents to meet the cultural needs of the various communities. Federal funding for this program expired, but it has been such a success that the RI Community Food Bank uses their own funds to continue the program. 

Aside from continuing its current successful programs, this year Farm Fresh will partner with the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) to distribute food boxes to seniors. Seniors can face both financial and mobility challenges in attempting to access fresh fruit and vegetables; Farm Fresh and the DEM will use Farm Fresh’s “Market Mobile” to deliver boxes of seasonal produce directly to senior centers. 

Making all this magic happen requires space. Farm Fresh outgrew their former locale in Pawtucket and in 2021 moved to their current home on Sims Ave in PVD. Aside from a need to expand, the move “came out of a desire to create a space to celebrate RI food, both its agriculture and production,” explains Upham. FFRI has done just that with a hub that covers all elements of the food chain. The space is unique. This is no food court for sure, but rather a perfect blend of local RI food producers, farmers and consumers, all coming together to celebrate the unique and remarkable culinary offerings of our humble state. 

Each Saturday, Farm Fresh hosts a farmers’ market, year-round. Over the fall and holiday season, the building also hosted the Providence Flea, and holds other special events throughout the year. Upham tells me the building will open fully this year, with exciting tenants such as Anchor Toffee, Robin Hollow Flowers, Rhed’s Hot Sauces, Tallulah’s Taqueria, Providence Brewing Company and Wright’s Creamery, the state’s only cow-to-cone ice cream producer. New Harvest Coffee & Spirits also moved to the Farm Fresh Food Hub last year, meaning you can get a quality cup of Joe or a cocktail while you support RI farmers and food-producers. What a perfect way to spend a Saturday. 

Fun Note, carved in stone: When you go to Farm Fresh RI, be sure to check out the marble carvings. According to historical records, the stonecutters who built our current statehouse leased the land where FFRI now resides, leaving behind unused marble. While remediating the land surrounding the building, pieces of marble, from large slabs to small pieces, were unearthed. FFRI has honored this history by creating unique pieces of art out of that marble. Read here for more information on this exciting piece of RI history: Public Invited to Watch Renowned Stone Carver Create Unique Art at Farm Fresh (farmfreshri.org)

To learn more about all the amazing programs at Farm Fresh RI, check out their website at Farm Fresh Rhode Island – A hub for local food since 2004 (farmfreshri.org)

Chaska: Garden City hot spot achieves perfection

I have been a staunch advocate and number one fan of East Greenwich’s Rasa, the most southern member of the Rasoi/Kabab & Curry restaurant group. Chaska, the newest member of that group has recently stolen my heart … with soup.   

Chaska opened up in Garden City a little over a year ago.  I went with some fellow Rasa-groupies opening week and we were all duly impressed the moment we walked in. Chaska is a feast for all the senses, as the décor is unmatched. Everything is imported and meticulously selected so your eyes don’t quite know where to look next. From the art work and light fixtures to the bowls and glasses, everything is gorgeous, unique and adds to the Chaska experience. It is truly something you need to see for yourself. The stellar service, food and drink also did not disappoint and we all vowed to go back to try more menu items, as everything sounded spectacular. Then COVID hit and, like all good plans, my plan to return to Chaska went by the wayside.

Fast forward to November 2020. Christmas shopping brought me, along with a few friends, to Garden City right before the pause. It was that gorgeous Saturday right after Thanksgiving, with a slight chill in the air, but nice enough to make outdoor dining sound exciting. We could not resist the siren call of the glistening igloos on Chaska’s patio and were lucky to score one as they were quickly filling up.

The igloo was perfectly cozy for our group of four, especially with the space heater going. Our friendly server quickly took our drink orders and we settled in with the menu, overwhelmed by choice and excitement.   

My eyes darted immediately to the house made coriander tomato soup. I cannot resist tomato soup, ever, but certainly didn’t want to waste my choice on something I can get at Panera at the expense of dishes like burrata tomato butter chicken and bagara baingan — eggplant simmering in a tangy peanut coconut sauce. But it was lunch, and the air felt chilly so I decided to give it a go. 

The soup arrived in a gorgeous hand-crafted bowl and the smell of tomato and warm spices filled our igloo. I put my spoon into the soup and got a bit nervous as it first appeared thin. But as I filled the spoon with soup and lifted it to my lips, my conception of tomato soup changed forever. 

It is not without irony that Chaska is hindi for “personal obsession” as this is the perfect description of my reaction to this soup. Chili and ginger added the perfect amount of heat to this soup, as the warmth lingered on my tongue and filled my chest. The combination of tomatoes and Indian spices like coriander and cumin, perfectly pureed together, made each bite a burst of flavor. The silky texture of the soup went beautifully with the garlic cilantro naan. Each bite filled me with warmth, spice and happiness.   Despite the germ factor, each of my friends tried the soup and agreed it was the best they’ve ever had. As I neared my last bite, I wanted to weep.  How could it be over already?  

I moved to my main course: a warm roasted vegetable salad with fresh greens and a roasted spice blend. Yes it was amazing and healthy and filling and I loved every bite, as I sipped my tamarind margarita. But my palette yearned for one more spoonful of the world’s most heavenly tomato soup.   I vowed to return soon, despite the impending pause and dropping temperatures.  

Sadly that has yet to happen, but soon I will don a hat and heavy blanket and make my way to that friendly, delightful patio in Garden City. In the meantime, my soul remains warm and fulfilled by a beautiful restaurant meal with wonderful friends; something for which – after 2020 – I will never again take for granted.  

If you plan to dine in an igloo, I recommend making a reservation. The igloos fit four comfortably and are available for lunch and dinner, weather permitting.  Home – Chaska (chaska-usa.com)

Thanksgiving 2020: Be thankful you don’t have to cook!

This Thanksgiving will be like no other in our lifetimes. Some of us will be thrilled to avoid political arguments with disagreeing family members, crowded airports or that dreaded oyster stuffing. Some of us will actually miss seeing our family and friends, and cannot imagine the holiday without our favorite dish. Regardless, most of us will not be cooking for a large group, leaving us wondering, “Is it worth all the time, effort and money for just the four of us, especially when the kids only eat the turkey leg and the mashed potatoes?”

If you find yourself asking that question, the solution is simple: Order a meal from one of Rhode Island’s incredible yet struggling restaurants.  You’ll not only get an amazing meal cooked for you, you can feel good that you’re supporting an industry to which the pandemic has not been kind.

Here is a list of local restaurants and businesses offering Thanksgiving meals that you can still order up until Sunday, November 22 (unless otherwise specified).

For a traditional Turkey dinner, these restaurants are offering a variety of options from full meals to individual dinners: 

  • Gulf Stream Bar & Grille, Portsmouth is a great option for those who want to fire up the oven, as the Gulf has created take and bake options.  Order by Friday, 11/20. gulfstreambar.com
  • The George on Washington, Providence recently opened in the former home of Local 121. This cozy spot is offering dine-in options from 12-6 on Thanksgiving.  thegeorge-onwashington.com
  • The Mariner Grille, Narragansett allows you to choose between turkey dinner or prime rib. Call 284-3282 to order. marinergrille.com
  • Finns Harbourside, East Greenwich helps those looking to add some seafood to their holiday meal. Order the “feast to go” at Finn’s, where you can add baked stuffed lobster, salmon or lobster rolls. All orders are per person, served cold with reheating instructions. Delivery is available on Thursday morning for those living within a 5-mile radius. finnsharborside.com/media/file/feast-to-go-menu.pdf.
  • Cowesett Inn, West Warwick allows you to either pre-order a meal or order on the actual holiday. You can order the traditional feast and add on appetizers, dessert and even half-priced bottles of wine. cowesettinn.net/orderonline
  • All of Fresco’s locations — East Greenwich/West Warwick/Cranston — are open on Thanksgiving for both dine-in and take-out, including cocktails and wine. No pre-ordering necessary. frescori.com
  • Vanda Cucina, Warwick offers the classics as well as some Italian favorites for groups as small as 4 or as large as 12 (don’t tell Gina).  You can take and bake, or get it hot. vandacucina.com
  • Luigi’s Restaurant and Gourmet Express, Johnston has a plethora of flexible ordering options and so many delicious meals from which to choose.  You can order through 1pm on Monday, November 23rd through their website: luigisholidaymenu.ecwid.com
  • Terrazza, Smithfield has a full meal, including dessert, for pre-order.  Email megan.lasher@terrazzari.com. If you prefer to have someone else do the dishes, Terrazza is also open on Thanksgiving; reservations a must. terrazzari.com

Something different, if you’re so over the traditional Thanksgiving meal:

  • Salvation Café, Newport – If you want something truly unique with loads of choices and you’re a last-minute-Larry, this is a great choice. The cut-off for orders is Tuesday, November 24 at 8pm, and the menu looks spectacular with nary a turkey to be found.  instagram.com/p/CHqlglTHF5a
  • Hucks, East Greenwich – Hucks’ cuisine has a Southern flair and their Thanksgiving menu follows suit with items like cornbread stuffing, bourbon pecan pie and sweet tea or mulled wine to wash it all down.  Send orders to info@hucksfillingstation.com
  • Plant City, Providence – If turkey is the least important part of your Thanksgiving meal, Plant City has created a sumptuous plant-based menu with plenty of options. Orders will be accepted through noon on Monday, November 23.   
  • Celestial Café, Exeter – Itching to cook the turkey so you can have the smell in your kitchen but not up for all those side dishes? The chefs at Celestial Café are offering an a la carte menu of creative side dishes and dessert items including pumpkin and butternut bisque, brussel sprouts with bacon, blue cheese and herbs and stuffed mushrooms. Call 295-5559 or email info@celestialcaferi to order. celestialcaferi.com


  • Sin, Providence offers a variety of traditional and not-so-traditional gourmet Thanksgiving sweet treats.  sin-desserts.square.site
  • Ocean State Sweets is a newcomer to the baked goods scene. If you don’t want a whole pie (or, like me, don’t like pie), Ocean State Sweets offers a fall assortment, which has two dozen dessert items to round off your holiday meal.  Orders accepted through Monday, November 23rd. oceanstatesweets.com

If you own a business, or know of one we neglected to include, please contact us at news@motifri.com and we will add you to the list. 

Lola’s Lounge: New Mexican restaurants opens in Smithfield — and it’s good!

In Rhode Island, there is no shortage of Italian cuisine and fresh seafood. Mexican food, on the other hand, can be challenging to find.  Let me rephrase that: good Mexican food can be challenging to find (no offense, Taco Bell and On the Border). Enter Lola’s Lounge, a new Mexican cantina that recently had its grand opening in Smithfield.

Once the pandemic hit in March, the owners of Skyline Place in Providence found themselves with nothing to do. CEO Mike Mota received a call about some restaurant space becoming available in Smithfield and, after seeing the space, felt inspired to bring something new and different to Rhode Island’s restaurant scene. Being Portuguese and married to an Italian, Mexican food isn’t exactly in his blood. Once he saw the space, however, he knew it would be perfect for something reminiscent of relaxing vacations in Mexico, combined with the lounge atmosphere typically found in Boston and New York. Thus came the inspiration for Lola’s Lounge.

I asked Mota what he’d been smoking to open a restaurant during a pandemic. “People want to be out and about; they want to forget everything that’s going on, even for a short time.” So his goal was to create a space to help them do just that. Mota’s new landlord was cooperative and flexible, which made the prospect of leasing restaurant space less terrifying.  Permitting and supplies were delayed more than usual, but in the end everything worked out.  

One of Mota’s main concern was his staff: “With the help of PPP, unemployment and the ability to work from home, we’ve been able to keep our staff working since day one.” And now with a new restaurant and the prospect of Skyline re-opening this fall, Mota is doing his part to keep Rhode Island’s economy moving. 

Lola’s Lounge, named after Mota’s daughter, is more than just great food; it’s an experience. The décor, from the mood lighting and deep paint colors, to the colorful murals that come to life, is intended to create a comfortable, inviting vibe. Upbeat music plays in the background and there is not a television to be seen. DJs kick it up a notch each night at 9pm, when the restaurant transforms to lounge. This place is truly about escapism.

He also wanted to bring high quality food to patrons, as he has done at Skyline. All food is fresh and cooked to order, and authenticity remains a goal. The same goes for the drinks, as there’s a variety of top-shelf tequilas and margaritas done any way you like. When I asked what I should try during my first visit, he responded without hesitation, “The street corn, done Lola’s way.”  

When I asked about safety measures, he assured me that Lola’s is fully COVID compliant. There is plenty of social distancing, plexiglass dividers at the bar and masks available for those who forget (and decorative masks for purchase if you’re so inspired). There is plenty of outdoor space for those who prefer to dine al fresco.  

One look at Lola’s website makes clear the inspiration came from the Mexican Holiday Dia de Muertos (“The Day of the Dead.”). Dia de Muertos honors friends and family members who have passed on; it is not a day of sadness, but rather a celebration of life and family. This is exactly what Mota wants his guests to experience. “I named this restaurant after my daughter because this place is about family and culture. I want people to get out of the house, have a great experience and forget about the outside world.” I don’t’ know about you, but this is exactly what I need these days. 

Lola’s is open evenings only from Wednesday to Saturday. Take-out and delivery options are available from noon to 5pm those days, but in-restaurant dining doesn’t start until  5pm. For more information about hours and location, visit Lola’s website: lolasloungeri.com

Bringing Back Theater: How the independent theater community plans to keep you safe and entertained

Station 11 is one of my favorite books. It’s about a pandemic called the Georgia Flu that wipes out most of the world’s population. It’s probably not the best time to read it if you haven’t already done so, but I do recommend it in the future when we’re vaccinated and feeling safe (or safer, depending on your outlook). The book goes back and forth between the present and the future – 15 years later as society begins to rebuild – and features a storyline about a troupe of artists and musicians who travel around to the various encampments to perform Shakespeare and classical music. This storyline highlights the importance of the arts on society, our well-being and our connection to one another.

The arts have been inaccessible for the past few months, as theaters, museums and concert venues have been the last to open. As we enter Phase III of re-opening, many of us are cautious but excited about once again dining at our favorite restaurant, spending the day at the beach, even going to a movies, but what about our access to the arts, in particular, the theater? Where are they in the plan, and what are the guidelines for keeping us safe in such crowded spaces?  

I spoke to Kevin Broccoli, the artistic director of Epic Theatre Company in Cranston (and Motif contributor). He is part of the newly formed Rhode Island Theater Coalition (RITC), a group of independent theater companies brought together to be a collective voice in Rhode Island’s plans to re-open.  The theaters part of the coalition, in addition to Epic Theatre Company, are the Academy Players, Burbage Theatre Company, The Contemporary Theatre Company, Head Trick Theatre, Mixed Magic Theatre, The Players at the Barker Playhouse and WomensWork Theatre Collaborative. The larger theaters, such as PPAC and Trinity, have been part of the conversation, but, as Kevin explained, the independent theaters had been completely left out. He realized that this oversight was not intentional, but rather due to a lack of awareness. “They seemed to have no idea we even existed.” Hence the RITC was formed, with the main goal of becoming part of that conversation.

Now they have a seat at the table with regard to re-opening. The problem, however, is that guidance for theaters is virtually non-existent.   Restaurants have clear guidance, but theaters have been told to follow the general guidelines for Phase III: public gatherings should be limited to 66% capacity with 6-foot spacing. What does that mean for an independent theater that may have a successful performance with an audience of 30? Is it safe? What about the actors, who must be in close proximity both on and behind the stage? With no clear guidelines, the theaters are left to make these critical decisions on their own. 

One concern for the RITC is perception. Restaurants have been given a lot of air time and leeway, while theaters have been one of the last entities to get the green light to re-open. But is a restaurant really any safer than a theater? During a theater performance, it’s quite easy to sit 6 feet apart wearing a mask. Not so while dining in a restaurant. As Kevin explained, “opening restaurants while theaters remain closed makes it seem like going to a theater is more dangerous than going to a restaurant. That could cause long-term damage to the arts.” This provides further impetus for the RITC to get it right when it comes to reopening. 

Fortunately, artists are creative, so unlike restaurants with limited options, the sky is the limit for independent theaters. The RITC is working collaboratively to channel that creative vision and come up with protocols and safeguards for theater-goers and cast alike. Kevin suggests the state can learn from the example the theater community will set. So many other facets of our lives are akin to a theater performance: church, college classrooms, even elementary schools. There is a performer and an audience. What works for one might work for all, so this is definitely something worthy of attention. 

By forming a coalition, the RITC has solidified what had already been a relationship of respect and cooperation. Now they are sharing their knowledge, protocols and ideas, working as one entity toward one common goal: safely bringing the arts back to Rhode Islanders. Kevin shares the concern that many of us do: While life feels pretty good right now, the fall brings much uncertainty as fears of a larger, more deadly second wave loom. While we certainly hope that’s not the case, Kevin reminds people that “hope is not a plan.” Fortunately for all of us, Rhode Island’s independent theater community has both hope and a plan.   

IMBIBE: May Is for Moms and Margaritas

Cultural appropriation aside, each year I look forward to Cinco de Mayo for one reason, and one reason only: margaritas. Margaritas have long been my favorite cocktail, even in college when the tequila was cheap and the sour mix was alien-green in color. Before craft cocktails became the rage, I had to conduct my own quest for the perfect margarita: a delicate balance of sweet and sour that allows the taste of the tequila to shine through and always, without exception, rimmed with salt. I learned the key is fresh lime juice. Margaritas are a bit labor intensive, as you must juice your own limes and make your own simple syrup. You can’t substitute with Rose’s lime juice or bottled sour mix. I mean, you can, but it will be sure to suck.

I make a ton of margaritas at home, experimenting with different simple syrups and salt/sugar rims, my recent favorite being a honey cinnamon margarita. But I’m always thrilled when I see something creative on a bar menu because (a) that’s less work for me at home and (b) I’m running out of ideas. I’m also grateful for any bartender who will indulge my request to have the margarita straight up, since I prefer to sip my margaritas slowly rather than guzzle them through a straw.

The East Bay’s Revival restaurant has opened up in East Greenwich on Main Street. The long, deep bar is an enticing place to share a cheese board and have a cocktail or two because their drink menu is well-thought-out and fun. They also have an impressive beer and whiskey selection. My friend Deb and I got two prime seats at the bar on a quiet Wednesday night.

Deb ordered herself a vanilla sidecar, which sounded (and tasted) incredible, but I was in the mood for a margarita. The bartender pointed me to a fan favorite: the jalapeno pineapple margarita. My heart skipped a beat when I saw the word “jalapeno” because I think everything is better when it’s spicy. This margarita was perfection — just enough tart, just enough sweet, just enough spice. Revival makes their cocktail bases, including bitters and simple syrups. For this drink they made their own sour mix, which I’ve never thought to do: equal parts lemon, lime and simple syrup. The lemon brought a freshness to the drink that I hadn’t noticed was missing in my at-home blends. And the jalapeno was not subtle; the drink had a distinct pepper flavor and spice.   

Here’s how to make their margarita at home:

1.5 ounces jalapeno-infused tequila (Revival infuses their own, but you can also buy pre-infused tequila. Tanteo is an excellent brand.)

1 ounce orange liqueur

Muddled pineapple

2 ounces of sour mix

Combine the ingredients and mix them well in a shaker filled with ice. Dip a martini glass into a mixture of salt and black pepper. Strain the drink into the glass, and garnish with pineapple and a lime wedge.

IMBIBE: The Calendar Says Spring, but the Weather Says Winter

Spring is a confusing time for cocktails. My mind is on gin and tonics and summer ales with an ocean view, but the chilly nights keep me craving bourbon and red wine. When the temperature still gets below freezing and I’m seeing dirty gray piles of snow in every grocery store parking lot, I can’t get down with cool icy drinks.

Bars provide no solace, as most bartenders have yet to switch to their spring menu. I’m still seeing those drinks with figs, black walnut liqueur and apple cider. Like my boots and big sweaters, I’ll always love them, but it’s time for them to go away for a while. 

The only solution was to hit my kitchen and experiment. Not being a lover of vodka, I decided to stick with bourbon but lighten it up with some citrus and berries. I landed on a cocktail I’m calling the Sprinter, as we sprint to the finish line of cold, ice and snow. The bourbon will keep the heart warm, but the fruit will guide us to better weather — perfect for those disappointing days between winter and true spring.    

Go Get:

2 ounces of your favorite bourbon or whiskey (I’m still loving Ethan Craig Bourbon)

.5 ounce Cointreau

.5 ounce mint simple syrup (1 part sugar, 1 part water, 5 or 6 mint leaves, boiled and cooked down till slightly thick; then remove mint leaves and chill)

A dash of freshly squeezed lemon juice

A handful of blackberries

Mint leaf for garnishing

Make It:

At the bottom of your glass, muddle the blackberries. Add ice. 

Combine bourbon, Cointreau, simple syrup and a dash of lemon juice to a cocktail shaker.  Pour it over the ice and muddled blackberries, and garnish it with a mint leaf and a blackberry. 

If you prefer your drinks straight up, put all the ingredients right into the cocktail shaker (including the muddled berries) and strain.

IMBIBE: The Irish Cold Brew: Survive March with a little day-drinking

IMG_2376 I’m so done with this winter. My yard is an ice rink, my fingers are perpetually frozen and I look like a vampire. The only way I’m getting through this month is day-drinking. 

I’ve come to realize that drinking during the day is way better than doing so at night. It only takes one or two to get a good buzz, you’re sober by dinner and there are zero hangovers.  Win, win and win.IMG_2375

Back in the day, if you wanted to day-drink you had two acceptable choices: Bloody Marys or mimosas. Of course you could always go hardcore, but not without looking like you had a problem. Nowadays, places like Julians and Nick’s on Broadway have entire menus devoted to brunch cocktails. And while the favorites still show up, they’re taken to new levels. My personal favorite is the Future Ghost at Julians, which features ghost pepper-infused tequila, lime juice, grapefruit simple syrup, fresh lime juice and champagne. And best of all, it comes in small, medium and large! A close second is the grapefruit and thyme mimosa at Nick’s. 

Jackie and Annalee, who work the bar at Nick’s during the day, agree that day-drinking is so underrated. Annalee thinks bubbles are always a safe bet because they wake you up while putting you to sleep, so the effect is net zero. You don’t want to go too heavy, so it’s best to avoid those amber-colored liqueurs, unless you’re mixing them with coffee.

Nick’s offers an Irish Cold Brew that combines their cold brew coffee with vanilla liqueur for sweetness and bourbon for that rich caramel flavor. It’s not currently on the menu, but they’ll make IMG_2379it for you if you ask nicely. I can’t think of a better excuse than St. Patrick’s Day to give one a try, so here’s the unofficial recipe:

  • 6 ounces of cold brew coffee
  • 1.5 ounces of bourbon
  • .5 ounces vanilla liqueur

Combine the ingredients and pour them over ice. And if you prefer your coffee creamy, try adding a shot of Bailey’s. 

IMBIBE: Self Love Sour

February for many is the month of love. Not for me. It’s not that I’m against love; I mean, it’s fine and all. I just really hate Valentine’s Day. Admit it; you do too.  Like me, you know there are no winners. If you’re single, it’s a reminder that you should feel lonely and insufficient because you’re not coupled up. If you are coupled up, you can’t win.  The $200 you splurged on dinner cannot compare to the diamond tennis bracelet that Karen from HR got from her significant other. And Karen wonders why she and her significant other didn’t go out to dinner. #nowinning.

I’m always looking for new and exciting ways to celebrate my hatred of Valentine’s Day, and no celebration is complete without a cocktail. This year I decided to hit my favorite East Greenwich haunt: Rasa, an Indian restaurant known for its incredible cuisine and warm atmosphere. What few realize, however, is that Rasa is home to some of Main Street’s best bartenders. They’re always friendly and mix up creative concoctions that use the same herbs and spices they feature in their dishes. I decided to see if they were up for the challenge to create my anti-Valentine’s Day cocktail.

I headed to Rasa on a quiet Sunday night and was greeted by Ethan, the bartender on duty. Hearing the name “Ethan” gave me a craving for bourbon, as I’d just sampled some Ethan Craig bourbon at friend’s house a few nights prior. I normally don’t love bourbon unless it’s accompanied with bacon and/or maple syrup, but this barrel was spectacular:  super smooth with undertones of hazelnut and caramel that warm you from the inside out.

I told Ethan I was looking for a drink with bourbon or whiskey that celebrated hate. He raised his eyebrows, so I explained the anti-Valentine’s Day thing. “It can’t be anything pink or bubbly. It should be something dark and deep, and not too sweet.”

“Oh,” he responded, “you mean something more manly. I mean, I do think of Valentine’s Day as a holiday that’s more for women.” The feminist in me wanted to decry this statement, but I can’t. While I know plenty of women who love bourbon and hate Valentine’s Day, I don’t know many men who are excited when they see February 14 coming up on the calendar.  Please feel free to challenge my blatant stereotyping.

Okay back to the drink. Ethan decided to do a take on a whiskey sour, and the result was a perfect blend of tart and sweet that allowed the flavor of the bourbon to continue to shine, yet with a unique twist from a dash of turmeric simple syrup. He’s calling it a Self Love Sour and it’s not on the menu, but it’s now in his repertoire so feel free to ask for one, even if you’re not soured on Valentine’s Day.

1.5 ounces of Maker’s Mark Bourbon

.25 ounces of Cherry Heering Liqueur

.25 ounces of house-made turmeric simple syrup (since this was pre-made, Ethan couldn’t tell me exactly what was in it, but his best guess was a classic simple syrup – equal parts sugar and water – boiled down with turmeric and possibly some garam masala).

.75 ounces of lemon juice

Humanity Prevails: Local woman lives her truth by heading to the border

StatueOfLibertyFianlThe Trump presidency has been making me feel appreciative, as I see examples of people speaking out against injustice, engaging in activism and prioritizing actions consistent with their values. We’re seeing the best of us, from local and state institutions down to the individual, particularly with how we treat immigrants. Take, for example, my friend Kate Goldman.

Goldman works at Brown University at the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies. She’s bi-lingual, lived  in Mexico and Chile and is married to a Chilean native, so the issue of immigration is important to her heart. Once the Trump Administration enacted its ghastly family separation policy, Goldman could no longer sit by and do nothing. After some research, she connected with the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) and found a volunteer opportunity in Dilley, Texas.

It took her months to get the invite to Dilley; she applied in June and didn’t go until October, when she finally received clearance from ICE. In the meantime, she learned about a program through the Capital District Women’s Bar Association in Albany, New York. She spent a week in July translating for a group of 300 people who arrived via plane from all over the world, some seeking asylum, others just looking for a job — all just wanting an opportunity for a better life. She helped their lawyers get them released. While the experience felt worthwhile and she heard some hair-raising stories (like the guy who told her he’d never slept as well as he did in jail because at last, no one was trying to kill him), nothing could prepare her for her week in Dilley.

It’s important to distinguish between illegal and legal immigration. Illegal immigration is when you pay big money for a coyote to get you across the border, provide you with false documents and get you a job working at a Trump golf course. Legal immigration is when you follow the process. For asylum seekers, it means presenting yourself at the border and requesting a hearing on the issue of asylum. You know, like all those people in that dreaded caravan were hoping to do.

From the border, many are taken to one of several privately run, for-profit detention centers. The South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley is one of these centers. It’s referred to as “baby jail,” because it’s where the women and children seeking asylum wait for their initial hearing. During that hearing, an immigration officer will decide whether you’ve demonstrated the threshold requirements for asylum: past persecution or a “well-founded fear” of future persecution in your home country. If so, you’re released on bond or with an ankle bracelet pending final hearing. If not, you’re sent back to your home country.

For 12 hours a day, Goldman’s job was to prepare asylum seekers for their hearing, also known as the “credible fear interview.” Statistics have shown that preparation is key. The Dilley Project has a 99% success rate getting refugees over that initial threshold.

It’s not about putting words in their mouth; it’s about getting the clients to understand how to answer each question. Goldman felt that, even sympathetic hearing officers won’t necessarily prod for the right answer. For example, the officer may ask, “Why not just move to another city?” An answer like, “It’s dangerous in my country” isn’t enough. Goldman helped each client organize her thoughts and articulate her answers so they could tell their stories and articulate the threats they heard, like, “It doesn’t matter where you go; I’ll find you and kill you.” That’s what the officers need to hear.

According to Goldman, the conditions in Dilley were less than desirable. The maximum capacity for the center is 2,000; there were 1,900 families when she was there. Thanks to fracking, the water contained traces of arsenic and lead. Goldman and her counterparts didn’t drink the water, but the inmates had no other choice. “Every kid I saw there was super sick with illnesses as serious as pneumonia and bronchitis,” she explained. There is medical care, but it’s subpar and the wait can be as long as 7 hours. The situation is perilous; a toddler died last August in Dilley from a viral respiratory infection. Since then, two other children have died in ICE custody.

I asked Goldman if the refugees seemed upset being detained under such awful conditions, and she responded with an emphatic “no.” “If you’re running from a burning building with your baby, you don’t care where you end up. That’s how desperate these people feel,” she said.

In her time there, she spoke with more than 300 women. I asked if any stories stuck out in her mind. “I think one of the worst things is that you think you’re going to remember every story, and then you don’t, and it feels like a huge betrayal that they’ve trusted me with this information and I can’t remember it. I think it’s a defense mechanism.”

She did, however, recall the feeling of relief when she interviewed one mom and her preteen daughter and learned that the daughter was not raped on her journey to America. “The number of girls and women sexually assaulted on the way here is just horrific,” Goldman explained. And sexual assault suffered in their home country is an afterthought. “Rape is so normalized they don’t even see it as a human rights violation that would qualify them for asylum. It’s not the worst of what they’ve been through; it’s not a stand-out event for them in their life.”

Aside from sexual assault, gang violence/recruitment is a major problem, which explains why Goldman was instructed not to wear gang colors. She spoke to a young boy who’d been pressured into joining a gang. One mom told the story of picking up her child from daycare to find him covered in a gang tag, with what appeared to be fake blood on his neck to mimic a throat-slitting. This was done by another preschooler.

It wasn’t all negative and depressing. She did get to experience that “Ellis Island moment” when the refugees were given instructions about their release and told they’d be heading to their new, albeit temporary, home. Most have US connections waiting to house them while they prepare for the long asylum process. “For all of them, it’s a dream realized — a better life is possible. Not a promise; just a chance.” And that chance made it all worthwhile.

Goldman spent a week away from her family, using vacation time from work. Though friends helped fund the trip by donating cash, gift cards, even frequent flier miles, she bore the brunt of the cost. She still feels traumatized by what she saw and heard. “Was it worth it?” I asked her. Of course it was. She continues to volunteer about 10 hours a week translating via phone, and intends to go back. “The whole thing with me this year is: Am I who I say I am? I say I support refugees, I say ‘hate has no home here,’ but at the end of the day, what have I actually done? I can say this is what I’ve done.” Talk about living your principles.

So the next time you think one person can’t make a difference, think of my friend Kate. Her story proves otherwise and I hope that maybe, just maybe, restored some of your faith in humanity. Because that’s something we definitely need these days.