Leftover Guilt

Postcard from New York City, New York

I’ve just freshly downed an enormous and rather eclectic meal of grilled lamb, unfrozen peas, two small peanut butter sandwiches on walnut bread, four cheese puffs, two squares of hazelnut-studded dark chocolate, one glass of red wine, and royal mint jelly. Tonight’s dinner menu, alarming enough as a solitary incident, is actually one in a long string of elaborate and unlikely meals I’ve indulged in these last three weeks: despite the occasional visit to the library, I’ve done nothing this summer in New York—the city I’ve longed to explore since childhood—except shop for food, cook it, and eat it.

I blame the kitchen. I’m caretaking a house this summer, equipped with an enviably stocked kitchen that sports a copious array of bizarre and specialized cutlery, none of which I can even begin to name, let alone discern its functionality. But this hasn’t stopped me in the past week from putting together a layered potato, blue cheese, pear, fennel, and caramelized onion timbale; whipping up apricot cupcakes or concocting a spring pasta with chicken sausage, artichoke hearts, red pepper, eggplant, and zucchini. I hand-pack my own hamburgers; I’ve creamed, broiled, double-boiled, sifted, folded (gently), tossed, scalded, and celebrated. The family I’m housesitting for has stood by and watched in awestruck incredulity as I tear through their kitchen like a possessed Tasmanian devil.

There have been no photo shoots at the Statue of Liberty; no Coney Island weekend jaunts; no brassy Broadway musicals; no Fifth Avenue shopping sprees; no bar-hopping, no galleries; nary an Indie rock show. I haven’t even set foot in the hallowed Met—though not for lack of trying: the guard wouldn’t let me through because I was carrying the remnants of a Central Park picnic. (He sifted through my bag: “Brie? Apple cider? What else do you have in here?” Me, sheepishly: “One half of a raspberry Milano cookie.”)

I try to ignore the crushing guilt of being a bad tourist: Why haven’t I taken advantage of my time here? Why am I merely holing up at the house with my 300 book-long summer reading list and enough food to feed a small country? It should be a minor guilt to combat: lazy Saturday mornings in the backyard hammock with a lime popsicle, a tattered Woolf, and a thick Dostoevsky hardly constitute a squandered summer.

But I can’t disregard that doing precisely and only what I want for the next two months—eating, reading, and avoiding the mad crush of vacationers at all costs—is an endlessly (and inexcusably) self-indulgent exercise. If I’m not miserable, how will I know that I’m growing as a person? Isn’t there something terribly decadent and ironic about my snacking on fresh-picked organic cherries and a Parisian chocolate macaroon when I receive an email news update about poor children in South Africa from a missionary friend? She writes over a shaky Internet connection, “I love working with the AIDS orphans, but it's sad. One group of kids has no toys and one group is living in tin shacks. They are cold and have water dripping in on them. We are building new housing for them. Please pray as we raise money for the project.”

Instead of sitting on my bum in the house, busy being happy and fat this summer, I ought to be off saving the world—or at least cleaning my plate on behalf of all those starving children in Africa. But I can’t even manage that: Every time I open the refrigerator, out tumbles another Tupperware tub full of leftovers. How can I justify that kind of overabundance, that heavy plunk of plastic hitting the kitchen floor? Am I allowed a carefree and extravagant and totally unconstructive summer for myself—what a sympathetic (and perhaps enabling?) friend deems, a “season of grace”?

It’s a season of academic hiatus but I find myself wishing at times that I were back at school in the fall, surrounded again by people who might have something judicious to say about all my leftover guilt.

Grace Tiao ’08, a Crimson editorial editor, is a history of science and English and American literature and language concentrator in Currier House. This summer she is performing the endlessly and inexcusably self-indulgent exercise of interning for a literary magazine.