TheMissingIngredient


" … the blessings rain down anyway."

Each holiday, one item becomes prominent by its absence, like an exiled newborn king. Some years it's a spice, others a vegetable or a fruit. Each year this whatever-it-is encapsulates the purpose of the celebration, the search for some seasonal satisfaction. Buddha Hand Citron filled this role for several years, and still threatens each year to reprise its performance, so The Muse and I start seeking sources for this curious fruit by November first. The Muse bakes for the holidays, and holiday baking demands candied citrus peel, the most exotic of these being citron, a fruit that has no pulp, just peel, the exemplar of candying potential. In the early days, we'd start asking after citron in the early fall, expecting to eventually find it displayed pre-processed in small plastic containers in some supermarket's produce section alongside iridescently dyed lime, orange, and lemon peel; little chunks of irradiated glop. But some places don't do citron, have never heard of it, which for us prompted one of those searches seemingly without end, initiating a true seasonal tradition.

We become magi without a guiding star, increasingly frantically seeking some treasure nobody else seems able to relate to.
We repeat our story a dozen different times only to receive a disinterested, slightly confused shake of the head in response. "Citron, you say? Nope, never heard of the stuff. What do you use that for, anyway? Good luck. Maybe that Korean superstore out in Falls Church carries it." Telephoning ahead never helps. If a face-to-face inquiry produces blank stares, a telephone request with someone for whom English hardly qualifies as a second language only makes it worse. No, The Muse and I insist upon putting our feet out there on the street, urchins seeking something we might recognize only when we spot it. We often get to explain to the purveyor what it is we're buying from them. "Huh! So that's what that thing is?"

Some years, we'll drive hundreds of miles, discovering vast new (for us) territories before we finally find the objects of our frustrated adoration. Even when we find them, we might lose one or two to rot before The Muse manages to suspend their decay in a simmering sugar bath. This might send us back to that year's source to restock, for one simply must not short one's self on the season's perennial MissingIngredient. The Muse navigates on these treks, identifying possible sources while I wrangle with traffic. We both feel like alien explorers then, clearly not from around here, not from anywhere, blindly moving toward our own very personal fountain of youth, belief strong if increasingly battered. We can only fail should we stop searching, and we'll search right up to the holiday if need be.

This year's missing ingredient turned out to be Tadio, a South American late harvest white varietal dessert wine, a minor but essential ingredient in an oxtail dish we'd imagined necessary to our seasonal savoring. We found one wine shop manager who'd heard of it, but no shops that actually carried it. "Dessert wine's don't move in this market," one confided. It's not until one attempts to describe the object of their desire that one finds that they have no words to describe it. The Buddha Hand response replicates whenever any passionately-sought anything enters a conversation. The listener takes on a rather pityingly sorrowful face, not so much sorry that they don't carry that curious item, but sad for us for somehow hooking our satisfaction to some Dodo Bird of an objective. Most will suggest pitiful substitutes, seeking to mollify us or resurrect their own sense of authority. The customer clearly isn't right in this instance, but the provider doesn't want to be proven wrong.

The MissingIngredient becomes the spice of our lives whether we finally find it or not. The search seasons the explorer's existence, giving purpose where none might otherwise emerge. This year, I asked early if the local Whole Foods would be stocking Buddha Hands. The produce manager thought probably not. The next week, I found a grisly pile of them displayed as I walked through the door. I supposed so after all. The Tadio replaced the citron this year. I'll splash a bit of cardoon digestif into the oxtail pot instead. The world won't end just because TheMissingIngredient wasn't found. A new world opens instead, one not yet satisfied but still searching even when substituting. By this time next year, I can guarantee anyone that we will have found a small bottle of Tadio somewhere. It will have quite surprisingly appeared when we weren't really even searching for it anymore, a seeming act of synchronicity manifesting before us.

These searches for TheMissingIngredient seem to encourage synchronicity into our life. Without them, we might just as well forego the entire seasonal celebration. Nobody expected three wise men to show up in that gnarly little manger, and I suspect that those guys didn't seem terribly wise until they converged upon the object of their search. Searches seem to work like that. One stumbles around looking every bit the fool until some synchronous something concludes the searching. Call it a Christmas blessing if you must. I suspect that no real blessing comes without some unlikely searching, and that even when TheMissingIngredient remains missing afterward, the blessings rain down anyway.

©2018 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved









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