shape of things

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I saw circles under my eyes.

Maybe they’ve been there for a while, but some days they look darker and I feel worn. It’s getting older, I know. Late nights. Early mornings. Gravity. The inevitable pull to the center of the Earth.

I stare into myself, at a body recently making 33 years around the sun. I’m not doing so bad. I think that if I play my cards right, I can make it another 33, but imagining a whole other life in my state of consciousness seems like a lot. I know it goes fast. It’s also slow sometimes, and I am impatient.

It becomes increasingly more important to know your body. To know when to speed up and when to slow down. I sit across from my dad and see myself. I sit across from my mom and I see myself.

There are things I know they want for me. To be happy. To be with a person I love. I want those things too, mostly.

I can’t begin to explain the way my mind shifts — the people I grow closer to and further away from. Everything looks different to me. Also, change, is a two-way road. As much as I’ve changed, you’ve changed too.

I fumble around in the dark, attempting to remember the shape of things — the shape of myself and the heaviness of my head as it hits the pillow.

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Another night and another bag of food, as I spend most of my days cooking for others. I don’t always have it in me to do it for myself, and that’s okay. We all get tired from the things we love.

I sleep through the night these days. Maybe because I’ve moved further away from the trains that used to jolt me out of myself. They reminded me of powerful things. The slow roar and the warning noise, letting you know to stay put, wherever it is you are.

Life is still very rich with the people I spend it with. Maybe I’m being patient for something, maybe I’m being stubborn. I’m not sure which, yet. Probably both.

When I write, I always try to be honest about what hurts. Beyond the pains of my body, my shitty back, maybe.

I teared up watching Ratatouille last week. Because I love to cook and I know what food does to people.

I buy fresh flowers every week, because they remind me of people that I miss and love.

I carry the guilt of my attitude, my greed, my small amount of power.
When I walk into my little house, the quietness sets in and I pour forgiveness into everything. Not enough for me to forget, but enough that I move forward. Enough for me to be good.

I am always feeling for the shape of things.

my heart,

and your heart
and everything in between.

Downtown, Community & Digging Up the Earth

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I’ve been working in Downtown Hattiesburg, MS for a bit over four years now.

My history with this work has been relatively small, compared to some others. I am fierce about the ground I stand on. Let me make that clear. I know no other home that I feel more alive and excited, and equally nervous about than in a restaurant kitchen. Especially my kitchen.

But, I want to talk about something else. It’s a perspective that I assume isn’t very popular, but is something I feel very deep in my bones.

I recently read an article by our city’s most celebrated restauranteur. I will always give credit where it is due, in saying the man created a food scene here when it had none. He gave this city a place to experience what the Gulf Coast has to offer.  He deserves to be celebrated for the great things he has done, and continues to do.

This is about place. It’s about community.

Your most recent article talked about the lack of community in downtown cafes and I want to take a minute to tell you what I’ve been pouring my heart into ever since I moved back here.

We run and operate a fairly successful sandwich and coffee shop in the “ass-end” (as I like to say) of downtown Hattiesburg. We work really hard to give people something not just good, but great.

We have people we see every morning. They buy their coffee, we make it with our hands, as well as our unique breakfast options. We lay it down at your table with those same hands.

We’ve worked through the worst conditions, in a kitchen that wasn’t designed to be a kitchen and nearly came close to shutting down a few times before our new ownership.

I worked on broken bones and flooded floors (because buildings down here are OLD and things happen.)

Downtown may have aesthetic, but it is HARD. Trains make it hard. Parking makes it hard. The commute makes it hard. On top of it all, is the ever building pressure to be better and better. That, I put upon myself and my co-workers.

You believe in moving forward. So do I. But we have different versions of this and neither of them are wrong. I’m not one to dwell in the past and maybe it’s just part of my generation to always look to the future for the next thing.

It hurts to have to defend my food against the “Real Local, Real Food” motto, because many of us cook real food daily. Seven days a week. But we choose to focus our mission on expanding what hospitality and food culture can be and we’re often quiet about it. We get left out of all sorts of fun stuff because maybe we don’t have the money or I’m simply not pretty enough. (Joking, guys. I am so pretty.)

My goal for the Depot was to be able to sit outside and imagine that you could be in any city in the country. I wanted our food to remind you of a place you ate at in New Orleans or Atlanta or San Francisco. Our goal is to take care of you and to also help you explore your own world. We’ve been given the task to create and facilitate an experience for you.

Maybe it’s hipster. Maybe sometimes it’s weird and our air conditioner can’t keep up. But it doesn’t make us any less of an establishment striving to create community.

We have grown into something I never thought it’d be. This restaurant is one of the only things keeping me in this town. It is where I pour the deepest and often times, most tired parts of my soul. It is where you can see me at my best and my worst and I have nowhere to hide any of it.

You never say a word about the places downtown that are new and thriving. Only what you don’t see, and that hurts some of us. You have the capacity to bring the world you speak into, downtown but you don’t. Maybe that’s just business.

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I will say, any time someone asks me where to eat in the city, I always tell them your restaurants first and mine second.

Why?

Because it is this city and has been for decades. You are what you’re always speaking of and writing about — but we also crave your attention and some of us need your wisdom. We wonder if we’re doing a good job. If you’re proud of the place we are working to create when you’ve been here doing it longer than any of us ever will.

But since I’ve been here, I’ve heard nothing. Even when I cooked for you, I heard nothing. None of us do. I suppose it isn’t your job, but I am intertwined and tangled with what I do and the people we serve. I am in the kitchen every week, dealing with the back pain and the heavy lifting. It feels good to be alive there. To see that line stretched out the door, remembering where it came from.

I am a caretaker at best. A cook passing through until a better one comes along.

I dig up the earth wherever I plant my feet and that’s never going to change. I don’t dwell on where things have been, but I am always thinking about where we are going, which is what Mississippi needs more than anything.

Thank you, for giving all of us a place to sit and drink and eat, and to receive some of the best service in the city.

I write this, because we all need one another. The last thing downtown needs is doubt and feeling as though it isn’t good enough. We know what we are and we are working to make it better.

So, I invite you to come down and sit down with me and a few of my friends.

Let’s talk about what we want to see in this city.

I’ll cook, if you wanna do the dishes.

 

hustle.

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I come home every day feeling worn down with good and bad words. It makes me the most tired. It’s rewarding and hard, but I am too ripped up, sometimes.

I was half way through making our day’s batch of grits when I heard the news of Anthony Bourdain’s death. Truly truly truly, beloved by millions — conflicted and misunderstood by many as well, I assume — but each person having their own relationship with him, his stories and his active pursuit of good in the world.

There are always words. Even when I can’t come up with any. I owe him some of mine, because of all he gave me.

I’ve read so many pieces from others, explaining why it hurts so much — that Bourdain was the best and worst in all of us — the realest — the guy we all wanted to drink a beer with.

When I lived in Portland, it was his book Kitchen Confidential that inspired me to take my first knife skills class with a bunch of 60 year old women at a fancy kitchen supply store in the Pearl District. I was way too timid to start in a kitchen anywhere, but was working in coffee shops, so I had the spark of a good hustle.

And I started to like the hustle.

He became my person. Like everyone else who loved him, we saw him as one of our own — somehow able to keep one foot in a different universe and the other sitting across from us, talking about our love for cheap hotdogs and steamy hot noodle bowls.

He made us all feel cooler, and perhaps more sane, by liking him.

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I was so angry. It was ripping me up. I was getting texts from friends, asking if I was okay, because they all knew he was an important figure to me and one if not the biggest influencing factors of my career.

I resonated with his bittersweet homesickness. To be everywhere and to be home at the same time. That there’s nothing like leaving home, and nothing better than coming back to your place.

The part time writer and cook side of my own world loved it all. His constant humility to the working class, blue collar side of humanity. The way he talked about kitchen life made it seem respectable — and maybe the first time in a long time, the brutality and passion and anger of kitchen and restaurant work was getting the attention it was never allowed to get.

He made the table a sacred place. To feel secure and learn about other people, even if you didn’t agree.

He made the kitchen a place where it didn’t matter what language you spoke or where you came from…but that you showed up and did the work and did it well.

The traveling and writing was work, too. Just like cooking. From everything I’ve read, he took everything seriously, and professionally. He hustled. He showed up early and never left anything for the swim back.

Bourdain may have brought me to cooking, but it’s been the people sitting at our tables that keep me coming back to it.

The food on those plates is, in a way, a testament to his life’s work: inspiring us to be open minded, hard working and kind.

I am so sad you are gone, Tony.

Thank you for helping me not feel so alone.
That it’s okay to be a cook. That it’s okay to question yourself, daily, on what it is to be good in this world.

Thank you.

thank you for everything.

 

 

 

 

 

welcome to the freak show

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I really don’t know why I wrote that title.

I think maybe kitchen life has shown me more about myself than almost anything. Not that I am a freak (okay maybe a little), but that it is all a show and this show is the most wild thing I’ve been a part of in a really long time.

I woke up this morning feeling bone tired. Nervous. Weary. Wanting nothing more than to just sink back into my bed and not think about the day I was about to have.

I even prayed. I asked God to help me, even though it’s been a while because I am stubborn and burnt and mostly lost in all of those things. Lost in them is not a bad place to be, if I’m being honest. I just need to be into something, and the chaos of my day to day is becoming something of a norm.

Embrace it, I say. It makes things easier. Like exploring the vast cosmos trying to make sense of all the galactic chaos. Explosions and gravity and how time is such a big weirdo.

I believe that the chaos will settle and we will begin to take strong steps towards something sustainable. After all, that is at the top of my list. Right underneath “Learn how to make fried chicken taste like Popeyes.”

anger

I have been an angry chef. Pissy and short tempered. Apologetically exhausted. Not only dealing with the complexities of time and fire and plating, but the ooey gooey’ness of the people around me and their ability, unknowingly, to sink deep into my skin when I’m spiraling.

They see me tired. Stressed. Overly-apologetic because I know this isn’t the me I want to see, but it has been the me that survives. Maybe flailing around online and after a few beers isn’t the best idea, but life is too short not get a little ridiculous from time to time.

Overall, I am in awe of everything, and everyone — of seeing people eat and absorb the things I’ve had in my head since forever ago, it seems. I know I will be able to absorb it some day soon, and it will probably be in the midst of some mundane thing. But all I can see is people, and I see in them the good and the bad.

It hurts to hear the bad things, and praise feels like good water pressure.

Still, you move forward into the great and wild unknown.

A freak show in its own time.

An island of misfit toys,

a hard and heavy day,

a broken hallelujah.

Yes.

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“Why Hattiesburg?”

This was a question about four years ago that found me in a totally different place as I was freshly back to Mississippi from my life in Oregon. I had changed and so had this place. I needed work. And I had been out of the kitchen for a few months, which made me feel antsy and a little unhinged.

My answer then was something along the lines of, “I love this city. It’s done a lot for me and I think it has the potential to have really great food.”

The first year back in this city, I was running around everywhere trying to make my life work. I was saying yes to everything. EVERYTHING.

“Can you work this event?” YES.

“Would you like to cook for me and some friends, WE WILL PAY YOU.” YES.

“Will you watch our dogs. WE’LL PAY YOU.” YES. (Hi Pyper and Zoe I miss you a lot.)

“I have a client that wants a five course upscale southern style meal in the middle of a park for 50 guests. Can you do this without a real kitchen??” YES. (I mean, I have no #$^&ing clue, but YES.)

I did all of it. Some of it with a partially cracked foot (don’t ask…) and with no money to buy the food I’d hopefully be paid for. That’s what credit cards are for, right?

It is hustle. It is always hustle, for better or worse. It’s because you’re hungry for it and you have something to prove. Where this beast of a thing came from, is beyond me. In the back of my mind I felt that there was no limit to what I could do with the people I worked with. I wasn’t finding the food I wanted here, so I told myself I would make it, and that people would like if they had it the right way.

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In a year, I put my name on that kitchen, along with the folks who have worked right alongside me, crunching it out day after day. Our backs on fire, but a new hope in our bones that more would be revealed.

In three years, we have built up to a new restaurant.

With this comes many sleepless nights. A drink more than I should have. A deep and moving, but exciting kind of energy. Ultimately me, staring into space wondering how we are going to do it all.

Today, a friend saw me in a local coffeeshop staring blankly at a pile of books and said, “I know this is probably a lot, and it’s really stressful, but I think you’re going to do great, and I just want to say thank you for making this city a cooler place for all of us.”

It meant the world to me, and maybe I teared up after they left. But as a testament to the hardest days of my life, I feel humbled and also ready to get loud and crazy.

All of this, is a product of the people here believing in something as simple as food on a plate and the thought and hard work that goes into it. Maybe I romanticize it too much, because it’s not for everyone, even if they enjoy cooking.

You have to have something more to believe in,

A deeper water that flows even when it is not being fed, and a fire that grows when nothing else around you seems to be catching.

That is what I want to offer.

The space to not be good, but to be great. And to create and fail and start again something new. Because the people here deserve it and we have to keep pushing forward. That is my challenge.

And from the mushiness of my heart, I say thank you for responding. For giving me work. For letting me be pouty and rage-y from time to time. For giving me space to fail but also to succeed more than I ever thought was possible.

I just hope you’re hungry.

-casper

 

the same as mine.

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Some things fade.
They feel like my dreams, like each corner I turn is unfamiliar.

“I know this place.” I say to myself.
But sometimes, time is a lead pencil with a cheap eraser.

Places leave us, as we leave them. My heart bursts from all its creases, and at times, it still finds a way to save itself from ruin. If you’re still here, your heart is the same way — the same as mine.

I sat at a table and saw your ghosts. How you used to drink your coffee. I saw where I buried my pain and where I discovered my greatest joy. Yes it was in between walls but it was also in those creases of my heart.

It was where I discovered the truths of humanity shared — that people are the truest way to presentness.

That is rich. Like dark chocolate and butter and heavy cream — drizzled and smoothed over something that is already just too much.

I was heart sick for so much. To connect. To discover again. But mostly, to be back home where it is becoming more and more evident that my world exists in a tiny corner, of a tiny city in a state no one understands.

I find whatever all of this is, to be the sum of its parts. Maybe this is the beautiful stuff I will think about when I’m dying — when I’m wondering how life moved so quickly and how I became so stiff and filled with old memory.

What a story, I already claim. To have loved greatly and given so much of my heart — to know what it is like to watch it shatter and gather it, along with all the other broken things. I get to sit around with these people and watch them eat things I cook.

I get to watch them grow older with their person and I get to see their babies get peanut butter stuck in their hair or blow kisses to me as I say goodbye.

Your heart is the same as mine. Blubbering and wonderful. Our heavily flawed muscle.

You may not remember where the streets go, or what they turn into.
But I can tell you that it’s not forever lost.

And you are forever, a ghost, a place at my table

— a love with the heart that is the same as mine.

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crawfish.

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it’s starting to feel like spring, here —

warm with dreams of hot crawfish dumped on a table and

I smell it heavy in the air driving home past the big vats of them,

soaking in that spicy water:

garlic, cayenne, celery (and loads and loads of salt)

a hell broth that reminds of the times I learned about Jesus.

 

It is far away, sometimes.

Everything lately has been LOUD.

With the sounds of guns,

with the sadness of losing my uncle to cancer.

But I’ve planted some seeds, didn’t you know?

I’m watching them grow. They are wispy like the hairs

on the tip-top of my head.

 

Every season is renewal.

Of dying and growing.

Of being thankful,

and often times full of sorrow.

You meet us there, in that field.

I read that once in a poem.

I imagine you there always,

some great peace in the midst of all the grinding

and working wheels and decaying dark things.

 

Yep.

I see the seeds I’ve planted starting to burst out of the ground,

because the conditions were just right.

I can’t help but feel so green and raw with them,

hanging on for dear life because it is always so new!

Whatever it is we feel, it’s always something new.

 

But honestly, what I really want right now?

Hmm.

Peace, mostly. In my heart and for everything,

but actually, if I’m being true to this one moment,

I want to rip open a flimsy brown bag full of steamy hot crawfish

and wipe the sweat from my forehead.

 

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you will.

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I think I often straddle the line of what I see as heartbreaking and what is beautiful.

Maybe I can dip my toes into both lakes because I know they always meet somewhere down the line. We are always in that meeting place. Of heaviness and both light that swirls infinitely between all of us.

We are the beautiful and heartbroken things. I see it more so, all of the time. The truth is I’ve been raw to it my whole life. Inflamed and swollen and exposed like a nerve. It’s taken me a lot of time to wrap myself in them good things. I keep them tight against my chest so I can feel them when I breathe; up and down.

Being single, officially, longer than I was in a relationship weighs heavy. Why I often weigh things in time is something I’ve developed over the years. All in all, I am so thankful for what I’ve learned in the chaos and in the calm.

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I think I wanted to write this to one person. It might actually be more than one. But they say to write to one person. So here it goes.

I have this card on my fridge from a friend that says ‘Your heart is the size of an ocean” — which seems like something that you’d get stitched on a pillow from the Hallmark store, but actually is a quote from Rumi. He’s probably one of your favorites, too.

But it is. And it is what I often want to grab you by the face and scream so that it finds its way into your heart so you know and so that you’ll know forever. The world is not always angry and misunderstanding. And that so much is birthed from pain. The world was created by melting rocks and hell and only became something beautiful because of time and pressure.

It’s geology. That’s really how we tell things are ground down with different pressures like winds and rains and the inevitable meeting of two souls who have moved and changed.

Your life is in fact valuable and grows more valuable by the day!

Your wounds won’t heal all the way. Most don’t. But don’t let it stop you from moving forward and living your days with intention and love and the power that rumbles in your belly.

It is the hardest thing you will do.

But like the earth you will moan and heat and cool. You will expand and host a world of thoughts and adventure:

5Ks and stiff drinks. Cheese fries and kids falling asleep sweaty on your lap.

You will wake up and breathe again.

And the knot in your stomach will dissolve.

I know it will.

And I know you will.

You will wake up and breathe again.

 

heat.

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It is cold and dark when I leave the house.

Achey cold. It is so hard to unwrap myself from my blanket and take the short ride to work. But I do it early this morning because I have to work a little harder on this day.

I open the kitchen door and turn on the oven and warmers. It’s a welcoming sound as I know heat is on the way. I kick the heater on in our dining room and try to organize my brain. It’s hard to organize yourself that early. That 6am sleepy dreamy scattered thing.

I work on the quiche and the grits and the soup. I decide I need music and for some reason Grimes is on repeat for an hour and a half. But I am by myself and she is fun and wakes me up. I put on a pot of coffee and I can smell it brewing through the kitchen.

A million things run through my mind (as they always do). What if we are too busy on this already busy and hectic day? I put it aside because the older I become the more I learn worrying is the art of suffering twice. I will still do everything I can to make a thing run smoothly, but I know as the day moves forward, so do more people. People are chaos, always.

And maybe it was a little bit of chaos. But I slip into it like a warm bath.

At the end of the day, I take out the trash and look at the new building we are moving into in a few months. I find it equal parts daunting and beautiful. Some days more beautiful, though. I am in a constant state of wonder how it ended up this way. How I pushed myself a little harder to be good at something, and it magically turned out to be my thing.

There is a certain level of luck and chance. I know the risks of this kind of work. Burn out and margins and hazards. I got it. I hear you. But I don’t often have the luxury to think too much about it. Unfortunately it has affected my writing and I miss it!

And I miss you.

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It has always been about cooking and writing. And I don’t seem to be growing out of it, but I am also a person who knows how to shed a skin and feel raw and stingy.

It all feels too big, sometimes. Like there is a version of me out there that is prepared to do it all beautifully and that version is so not me right now.

I guess maybe that’s how it always feels. But eventually, you do become that person.

I don’t know.

I feel as though I’m about to shed something heavy. I know because something big is on the horizon and I am steady on it and I know I cannot carry both.

It all feels so good right now. Showered and warm and about to crawl back into the blanket I will have to peel off in about six hours again. But it feels good, and I feel strong.

Ready to open the doors,
flip on the oven,

and do it all over again.

 

sparks.

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everything has changed me.

I sit around and chase my mind through every corner of every space. I question everything, and I question everything’s deepest meaning. A friend told me I will do that because I’m a Sagittarius — but I really don’t know anymore.

I wonder how much a person can change as they become older. Maybe you have a problem with a certain race or a certain kind of person. You live your life surrounding yourself with people that make sense and believe the same thing. There is no going against the grain unless you must.

But, the part of me that is questioning everything wants to respond with, “But you have to!”

I am a fool, most times. Thinking too much of things, when the reality is quite underwhelming.

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Sparks. I like them. I like feeling ragey about some things. Especially if I feel like those things make me a better person. Of course I wake up the next day with a hangover of anger mixed with embarrassment. I think to myself, “Why didn’t I just keep my mouth shut?”

I get shakey when people try to push me down. I feel angry when I’m misunderstood. I suppose angry isn’t the right word. I do believe anger is in a lot of things though. More so I feel hurt. It hurts a lot, doesn’t it? That is the worst loneliness. Feeling hurt because it is the most personal thing you can feel about yourself. It is the deepest and most hidden wound.

Lately it has been doubt. Doubt that I can run a restaurant. Doubt that I am not nearly talented enough as a cook to ever make something big happen. But something big is already happening! I don’t know how, but it is.

It is scary and it makes me nervous. I’ve known those two things since I was a little kid. Those two feelings that have probably led up to me having internal meltdowns, but have also pushed me into places I will never regret.

The overwhelming voice I hear is that it will be okay — that more will be revealed. I am asking the higher things above me to give me patience and grace because as I become older, I feel like my tolerance for others lowers by the day. But I’m also aware that true community comes with radical acceptance and understanding.

Most of my days are spent asking myself if I’m good enough. Am I being fair enough? Loyal enough? Who am I oppressing and what can I do to ease it?

The last thing I need you to do is tell me to take it easy and calm down, though. That’s the equivalent of dropping Mentos into Diet Coke. Why that reaction? I don’t know. Long ago I learned to feel what you need to feel and that most people just want to be heard. I also have learned that things pass. Maybe not as fast as you want them to, but anger subsides.

I promise you that it does.

I know people hurt you. There is not a darker place to sit, wrapping yourself up in your own arms in hopes that the thoughts will fade.

But, they do. And you are strong. So strong in fact you want to laugh and take dance lessons again. Or maybe you want to drive into the horizon for a few hours just to clear your head.

It feels good to lay down your weapons. To start over again, daily — like Ursula K. Leguin says about bread and love, “it has to be made daily.”

Maybe all I ever have is questions, but that’s the desire of my own heart.

Make it new, and do it all over again.

And watch out for the sparks, because they could be the beginning of something bigger than you ever imagined.