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Dec. 13, 2019 — The Winter Issue

Chai-Town

A shift in environment can trigger new instincts, cravings and comforts—some of which can last long after the cold has thawed.

Words by Diana Hossfeld
Illustration by Cesar Diaz

This story can also be found in The Winter Issue of Life & Thyme Post, our limited edition printed newspaper for Life & Thyme members.

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Nobody believes me when I tell them I didn’t mind—and actually miss—the winters in Chicago. Born and bred under the Southern California sun, my experience with winter prior to the four years I spent at Northwestern University was limited, with the change in season measured more by visual cues than extreme temperature shifts. When the liquid amber trees surrounding my childhood home in Newport Beach, California, would lose their leaves, their barren branches stretching toward the blue sky like skeleton fingers, my parents would spend an entire Sunday making coq au vin, and my dad would wear the occasional long-sleeve shirt with his khaki shorts. 

But the seasons in the Midwest are tangible. The sticky heat of summer gives way to the crisp edges of fall which dramatically shifts into the bracing, bleak intensity of a seemingly endless winter. Spring is a whisper.

As my first October in Evanston, Illinois, dipped into November, I promptly realized my cute knit Anthropologie gloves and peacoat were not going to cut it. I invested in a down puffy jacket and fleece face guard, and layered my gloves underneath mittens that rendered my fingers completely useless. By the time December rolled around, I was gratefully donning the long underwear my mom, who grew up in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, insisted I bring with me. 

That first winter was cruel in ways I didn’t anticipate. But I also loved that brazenness and would come to crave it during my years in college. The slaying arctic air that would fill my lungs when I’d step outside was an invigorating slap in the face that a tepid Southern California breeze can never emulate. 

I established rituals. Frigid mornings were greeted with thick bowls of oatmeal laced with peanut butter, a stick-to-your-ribs breakfast that never seemed appropriate in my hometown where ribs were only meant to be visible. I plotted weekly visits to local sandwich chain Potbelly’s for a tuna melt sub and cup of chicken noodle soup—a solo endeavor that felt illicit for an undergrad on a meal plan. My favorite ritual came at the end of a day after trudging the mile-long campus, when I’d finally sit down with a steaming chai tea latte and toasted wheat bagel slathered with chocolate spread. I loved those earned moments, relishing the abrupt transition from being laughably cold to cozy and comforted. 

As a competitive cross-country runner (with the appetite to match), I also grew to love the quiet, reflective solitude of my long runs outside during the winter months. I prided myself on my fortitude to traverse the abandoned suburban streets of Chicago’s picturesque North Shore, the heat from my straining muscles warding off the cold around me. I would emerge pink-faced, energized and victorious—not to mention starving for my next meal and cup of chai. 

While those moments made me feel alive in ways I’d never felt in Southern California, I would be lying if I said it wasn’t somewhat of a relief when I accepted a job in Los Angeles after graduating. Even with its rewards, the battle against a six-month-long winter was physically and emotionally exhausting. I missed the sun, fresh fruit that was not limited to bananas and apples, and the ease of California seasons. 

But nearly fifteen years removed from it, I hunger for that brisk slap in the face and that first breath of air that made my lungs feel like they might freeze. I still eat peanut butter oatmeal on colder days and drink tea daily—unsweetened and without adornment now—but the intensity and coziness of its warmth is muted by the lack of such a stark temperature foil outside. I need to close my eyes and remember it. The times I slipped on ice. The times I ran across tufts of frosted, dormant grass. The times my breath stretched up toward the grey skies, asserting my presence amidst the silent winter landscape around me. 

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