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Eggplants: Cooking and Connecting with the Old World

Food is culture. I am a first-generation Romanian-American, but I don’t know much about Romanian food. My father fled the country in the height of Ceausescu’s dictatorship, and once he moved to the United States, he was dedicated to being an American.

He won’t speak Romanian around my brother or me often, and when we eat together, we usually go out for noodles. Sometimes he will talk fondly of his grandparents’ farm, how they would grow plums and eggplants and he would help care for the animals. He still goes back there at least once a year to see the family that lives there now.

My cooking has never been very culturally inspired, only driven by local availability, price and my deep love for fresh vegetables. I know how to prepare zucchini, and I have developed some second-natured intuition for the tenderness of oven-roasted root vegetables.

For years I’ve been committed to the leafy greens and squashes of farmers’ markets. I have spent many afternoons perfecting my vegetable hash, a recipe-less medley of seasonal produce, dusted generously with salt and pepper and cooked in stages, so that the potatoes are golden-brown and the kale isn’t crispy or the garlic burned.

Once, in an attempt to be more creative in the kitchen, I bought the prettiest vegetable I had ever seen at the farmer’s market. It was an eggplant: oblong and shiny, a deep magenta with delicate white stripes. I had eaten plenty of eggplants before, but I had never cooked them myself.

I excitedly brought the eggplant home, treating it more like a new houseplant than a food, and placed it on my kitchen counter. Overconfident and more accustomed to  cooking straight-forward potatoes, I chopped the eggplant into chunks and threw it into a pan of hot oil.

The skin quickly turned grayish, and the once-spongy white flesh absorbed all of the oil within seconds. I had no intuition for the vegetable. It wouldn’t sizzle. It wasn’t firming or softening. I seasoned it, waited and then reluctantly forked the pieces onto my plate. Whatever I had done was not right. I had naively mistaken it for any simple fry-until-golden-brown kind of vegetable.

Brigitte Riordan, B-Side.

I soon became fascinated with the art of cooking eggplant. It started with a phone call to my mom. She joked I was living my Romanian grandmother’s dream — Mica loved eggplants, she told me. My great-grandparents grew them on their farm outside of Bucharest, and Mica used to make a luscious Salată de Vinete, a traditional Romanian eggplant spread.

I had only met Mica once, when she came to the United States to see how my brother and I had grown and could only say “hello” and “I love you.” When she died a couple years later, the farm was left to my father, a self-proclaimed city boy. He grew up in a town outside of Bucharest infrequently visiting his grandparents’ farm, and never spent enough time in the kitchen to know the magic behind his mother’s eggplant dishes.

Having about as much knowledge of my cultural heritage as I did the proper preparation of the eggplant, my affinity for the vegetable only grew. Online, I found countless recipes, histories and iconographies.

I read every nostalgic narrative that accompanied traditional recipes, with stories of growing up eating eggplants cooked in Romania, Turkey, Egypt and India. Despite all of my research, when it was just me with a cutting board and a four-burner in my tiny kitchen, I was intimidated.

For the next eggplant I bought, I wouldn’t begin with any attempt at my grandmother’s Salată de Vinete. I would try and cook it in a pan, like I had before, but this time I was aiming for the velvety richness I had read about. I stood at my kitchen counter, and slowly sliced through the dark purple skin and cut the flesh into thin, spongy white ovals.

Each piece had to be salted, soaked in a colander, rinsed and then left to dry on paper towels. I heated up the oil in the pan, carefully placed the slices one-by-one, and waited. Every recipe said eggplants take time. My mother told me that once, when my grandmother came to visit, the oven became so hot from her eggplants roasting for such a long time that the window above the stove shattered.

Some recipes online described the transition from firm and spongy to soft and luscious as “the collapse.” I waited for the collapse. I added a little bit of salt and pepper. I flipped them. I started to see them soften. I didn’t break any windows.

I sat with my plate; the slices of eggplant were cooked through. Though my dish wasn’t all that interesting, the vegetable itself was. I felt connected to my father, to Mica, to my great-grandparents. One day, I’ll try and make the Salată de Vinete. One day, I’ll go to Romania with my father, I’ll see the farm and eat the eggplants of my ancestors. For now, I’ll sit alone in my kitchen with an eggplant, sliced thinly and cooked to collapse, salted and peppered and with every intention to cook another one tomorrow.  

Girl Got a (Tattoo) Gun

Vermont Custom Tattoo and Piercing is tucked a flight of stairs above Cosmic Grind Coffee at 104 Church Street Marketplace, Suite 2A.

You might just miss it if it weren’t for a plastic sign on the brick walk outside. The shop makes the most of a small space, with orange and teal-painted walls adorned with a murals of a sailor girl and a dragon — and sheets upon sheets of tattoo designs.

When Aja Briana introduces herself, the first thing that is apparent is her radiant personality. There’s an immediate warmth about her as she introduces herself, one that would make any nervous client looking for a tattoo feel instantly at ease. The only outward marker of her career in the tattoo industry is a dainty hand inked onto her forearm just visible under her sweater.

The 22-year-old tattoo artist is a new member of the team— she started her apprenticeship in October of 2016 and has now joined their team as a full-time artist. Equipped with two rotary machines that she bought from fellow Vermont Custom tattoo artist Joe Demers during her apprenticeship, she has made a career out of putting art on skin.

Vermont Custom’s website displays a gallery of her beautiful art on a dozens of bodies; from hummingbirds to mountain ranges to stunning floral arrangements to dog portraits. Her favorite tattoos to create are the product of personal consultations with clients, creating something uniquely for their body. One of the pieces she enjoyed working on the most was a John Milton poem that a client brought in and allowed her to draw out.

Caroline Slack, B-Side. Vermont Custom Tattoo.

Briana was drawing before she began to write, and in her childhood was invested in writing, art and music. The sight of inked skin sparked her interest in the path she eventually chose: “When I was 7, I saw someone with a tattoo and thought about being the person to put art on someone else’s body.”

Briana, who hails from Las Vegas, ended up in Vermont a few years ago to be closer to her younger sister. She was unable to attend college for financial reasons and, following a PTSD diagnosis, “basically came to Vermont for [her] mental health.”

“The tattoo industry is a white male industry. As a Latina female, I feel lucky to work with people my age.” She says she believes the current generation will destigmatize tattoos, embracing them as art.

As a Panamanian-American queer woman, she’s an outlier in her field, especially in Vermont. According to the July 2016 census, Vermont’s population was 93.1 percent persons of white ethnicity with no hispanic origin. With fair skin and a male partner currently, she is able to appear straight and white for the most part. “If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t necessarily have the same relationships with coworkers”, she says.

“I’m certainly very white-passing,” she said, “I’m freckled with typically light skin. But I think I take extra strides to assert that.”

“I’m outspoken about my sexuality because there’s so much discrimination against LGBT people. As a queer person and a Latina person, I will always be outspoken. I will always say that Black Lives Matter.”

She says that she is “In the very special position of having white privilege while still being a minority. I want to use it in a strong, powerful way.”

Caroline Slack, B-Side. Aja Briana showcases her art & tattoos.

“ If you have white privilege, fucking use it. It’s a tool that can be used to point a finger to the voice that isn’t being listened to; a neon arrow to the people that aren’t being heard, but need to.”

Her passion for social justice is a driving force behind her work. “I’m still finding my grounds and bearings, but I want to be part of an inclusive community. I hope that in 100 years, this industry is dominated by people who are passionate about the fact that people come with the vulnerability of wanting permanent art on their skin.”

Right now, her womanhood is the thing that “sticks out” the most, Briana said. “When someone calls asking if there’s a female artist, I carry in mind that this is an experience that they chose to share with me.”

She’s thrilled to be a queer woman who is able to relate with those who might otherwise feel intimidated by tattoo artists. She comments on the fact that women inking intimate areas of their body might feel more comfortable with a woman doing the work, while queer people may feel more comfortable with an artist who is part of their community.

She says “I want people to be able to share with their artist. It’s so important to feel accepted in such a vulnerable situation.”

Caroline Slack, B-Side. Aja Briana at Vermont Custom Tattoo.

Beyond her artistic prowess, Briana is great at what she does because she gives so much care to each and every client she takes in. “I see a lot of beautiful humans and have the utmost honor that they choose to share this transformative experience with me,” she says.

The meticulousness she once considered a weakness has worked to her benefit as a tattoo artist. “I remind myself to take my time,” she said.

“I was always the last one to finish tests, the last one to finish in art class.” The fact that she is patient with details makes her tattoos beautiful and intricate, every stroke made with full intention.

This career has also forced her to roll with the punches and make the best out of things that don’t turn out perfectly. “I have learned so much through this form of art. I used to struggle with finishing projects. If a line doesn’t turn out, I can’t crumple up a person and throw them away. I’m more accepting of my own mistakes. It’s a funny job for one with anxiety, but everything happens for a reason. Hiccups are a component that help it become a work of art.”

“One of my first tattoos, the girl laughed and it messed up the line I was working on.” She was nervous telling the client what happened, but ultimately, the hiccups inked onto her body “stuck out as a joyful personality.”

One of her recent clients was a “flamboyant” 18-year-old from Puerto Rico who came into the shop with a friend who was getting a piercing, and asked for a tattoo on a whim. He decided on his sister’s birthdate in Roman numerals, only to return a few hours later upon the realization that he had gotten one digit incorrect.

His thought? “The universe wanted us to spend more time together!” They eventually figured out a way to cover the error with a heart. “He was beautiful and gracious, and smiled the whole time,” she said,”  I honor that day and that boy.”

Caroline Slack, B-Side. One of Aja Briana’s tattoos.

Tattoos are taxing and painful; and not everyone reacts well to the experience. “We get told we should be first responders,” she says of herself and fellow artists at the shop. Some clients “throw up, faint, seize, but we still want them to leave here feeling as comfortable as possible. I like to think that people usually feel comfortable here.”

A huge component of maintaining her job is self-care. “You can’t come in hungover or on half a night’s rest,” Briana said. “I give myself time to sit and breathe, not bringing any negativity to the client.”

As a tattoo artist and collector herself, she has plenty of advice for those looking to get inked. “RESEARCH YOUR ARTIST. Write that in all caps.” she said. “Find someone whose work you like.”

Getting a tattoo in itself can be a healing experience. It’s taking ownership of one’s own body. “Tattoos are for no one but yourself” she said. And after a client leaves the shop, it’s up to them to take care of their body modifications and ensure that they heal safely.

“Tattoos heal like sunburns; they peel and flake, and usually heal in about 3 weeks,” Briana said. “Healing is an afterglow of the process— it’s up to you once you leave the shop. It’s a great practice of self love to take care of this decision that you made.”

During a difficult time, she tattooed a snake on her thigh and now she says it looks a bit scaly.

“I have regretted every single one of my tattoos at some point,” she explains. “But trust the self that put ink on you. Even if it’s bad, it’s a bookmark of your past self.”

She’s given herself 3 tattoos in addition to the snake: the first was a pie which her sister had said looked delicious from Crockett Johnson’s children’s book Harold and the Purple Crayon. After the Las Vegas shooting this past October, she tattooed a cactus on her achilles as a tribute to her hometown and gave the same tattoo to a few friends as well. Just the other day, she gave herself a tiny white-ink eye on her finger for fun.

Her eyes light up as she describes her younger sister: a spunky, artistic 10-year-old. She said she took her to a water park, and it was the first time she had worn a bathing suit since she got a tattoo of a maple creemee — a staple of Vermont culture — on her butt. Seeing it, her sister said “Your life is complete,” perhaps a nod to the fact that the new generation is celebrating tattoos.

Assault in ‘safe spaces:’ Women in the DIY music scene speak out

The first DIY show I went to was a hardcore show in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was hosted in a Veterans of Foreign Wars center.

There were kids that looked like they could beat the shit out of me, but who were all probably just as awkward as me. The masking tape on the floor was the only thing separating the bands from the audience, but the crowd wasn’t letting that hold them back.

I tried to wade in the middle of it all, but ended up getting pushed towards the front, where the bass amps would make my ears ring and my head throb.

It was amazing. I’d never been in an environment like that before. Coming from a small, sports focused town in the suburbs of Massachusetts, it was a whole new world.

DIY is exactly what you probably know it to be, a Do It Yourself mentality. Modern DIY culture manifests itself in people putting on shows in their basements, supporting local artists, and a strong community of people who appreciate loud music. 

Those who have been a part of DIY scenes in other areas will often say the Burlington scene is underdeveloped. After a period of venue shutdowns that left an absence of places to play and an overabundance of bands, there’s been a revival in the scene.

New people are introduced to DIY every day, and new organizations are popping up to uplift the community, such as Friends + Family and Tuned In. People who are involved with these groups want to rebuild  the scene, and with that comes a sense of duty to do it “right.” But, as this is a community based off of “Doing It Yourself,” there’s no exact right way to do it.

 Creating these new spaces necessitates dialogue in our community, one that addresses difficult issues like sexual assault that may jeopardize the integrity of a space that is intended to be fun and inclusive.

Max McCurdy, B-Side. Rathaus on a Saturday night.

It’s a familiar story: a person goes to a show, or a party or anywhere, and someone makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe.

Sophomore Kenzie Hines is a member of the DIY scene; she attends shows regularly and is familiar with some of the bands.

The UVM Cross Country house is “a place notorious for sketchy dudes,” according to Hines.

“It was more mellow that night, and people weren’t really moshing that hard,” she said. “I had plenty of space but this guy really scooted to me.”

“He came up from behind me and was like, ‘Hey, I’m Henry,’ and then he put one hand in my back pocket and one hand on my left breast.”

She said he leaned into her and ground his pelvis into her, without her consent.

“At that moment I was tired; I was trying to dance,” Hines said. “It’s like, if you want to dance with me, ask — I might say yeah,” she said. “I just hate being on that defense when I’m trying to have fun. It’s almost like I’ve been trained to be constantly aware.”

Senior Aaron Lucci declined to comment on behalf of the Cross Country house.  

Mariel DiMidio, a junior who co-runs the popular DIY collective Friends + Family, agrees that it feels like everyone has to go through this “training.”

“When you are raised as a man, these codes of masculinity just completely ignore body language,” she said. “I feel like because men are not educated in emotional intelligence as women are, they’re missing this important training.”

Autumn Lee, The Vermont Cynic.

Friends + Family is volunteer-run and intended to be a “space for the artists that are noisy, loud, avant-garde, goofy and generally out of the norm,” according to their Facebook page.

DiMidio also talked about Tuned In, a newer music organization in the Burlington scene that’s started up about a year ago, that is a “member-owned cooperative dedicated to prioritizing women and non-binary musicians,” according to their Facebook page.

Senior Marley Zollman is a member of Tuned In. She’s said that she enjoys the emphasis the group puts on intersectional feminism, as well as their confrontation of sexism in the general music industry.  They run “Snuggled Up” shows where femme and non-binary musicians perform to femme and non-binary audiences and open mics in order to foster a supportive environment where people can build their confidence in a safe place.

For DiMidio, DIY is a “wholesome community where [she’s] met a lot of really cool people.”

These organizations, and the people who run them, love this community. They want to see it flourish and become a place where everyone can feel safe, have fun and feel like they belong. DIY encourages active involvement, and people are here to fulfill that role.

Senior Casey Little co-runs Red Handed Records, a new DIY venue that is active in the community and wants to help with this problem.

“People like myself who run these DIY venues can’t help but feel agitated that people don’t want to come out to our shows because there are people out there who wish [them] harm. We want nothing less than a friendly, hospitable place for people to get their jams on,” Little said.

At a recent meeting of DIY Burlington, another collective, I met up with Little, Brian LaClair of Jim’s Basement and Senior Haley Quinn of RatHaus to discuss the community and how it addresses sexual assault.

 “Somehow we need to come together as a collective and recognize the people (the accused) when others know they will be around,” Little said. “Someone who is an unbiased source, who can stand up to scrutiny and keep an eye on said individuals and report those incidents to someone.”

DiMidio said the answer is not to immediately blacklist people who are either accused of or are guilty of sexual assault, but instead to offer some form of redemption or learning opportunity.

“If you’re trying to make change then you can’t just create a prison model,” she said.

“There has to be a space for learning and coming to terms that’s not just kicking people out, but I think there should be some form of restorative justice.”

Max McCurdy, B-Side. Rathaus on a Saturday night.

DIY is like everything your mother wanted and didn’t want for you all at the same time. I’ve met some of the greatest people I’ve ever known through this community. I’ve also been punched in the face in the mosh pit and slammed against sweaty basement walls. It’s a weird dichotomy of love and pain.

This issue isn’t one that will ever be completely resolved. Discrimination will live on for a long time after our generation of basement-going has moved on. Just last week, I was called a “cunt” and a “bitch” because I was running doors for a show and couldn’t let someone in because the venue was over capacity.

But if there’s any take-away from this, it’s that DIY is a community that attracts people from all walks of life.

And the people who truly care about cultivating and pushing the scene forward are willing to listen, discuss and take action in order to create a space in which people can feel loved, welcome and safe.