spice up your life

“The time commitment? It’ll be about five hours a week. Do you think you can commit to that?”

Commit to it? Yes. Handle it? Let’s see. A midterm on Thursday, a paper (or “hypertext project”) for a class that I’m already behind in, two articles due in the next week, losing the next two weekends to a Model UN conference and a parent visit, a review I have no idea how to write for my GISP, trying to schedule a meeting for a new GISP, a stack of economic papers to wade through for my potential thesis, my long-neglected kombucha…

It was a calculation I had run dozens of times. But bound by some mysterious power, or maybe just intimidated and bewildered by the fact that two kids in my grade were sitting across from me wearing suits on a Sunday afternoon, I found myself saying yes to yet another extracurricular.

I don’t think I’m unique among Brown students when it comes to being overloaded, overcommitted, and overcaffeinated goes. Sure, we’re the laid-back Ivy, but most people I know fall under the ‘work hard, play hard’ label. Though we may be a few years removed from packing extracurriculars and APs into every waking moment in high school, old habits die hard. But for me, the choice to pile on the publications and maybe-fifth-classes stems less from an overachieving nature and more from a fundamental anxiety about where I will end up after graduation and, eye-roll-inducing as it may be, making the most of my time here.

While stressing over internships, I wasn’t so much worried about embarrassing myself in front of interviewers as I was about painfully watching the potential for summers I could have had (and jobs after college and grad school plans and…) fade away. While signing a lease on a cute, tiny place in Soho after finally accepting a finance internship, I wondered about all the other apartments out there—surely one that was slightly cheaper and just a few blocks closer to the subway was crying out for me. At Brown, every shopping period is a minor existential crisis. The New Curriculum is the definition of keeping your options open. And when they’re all open, why not do all of them?

This indecision and overload is like the negative version of the feeling I get when I go to Central Market, which unfortunately will be unfamiliar to everyone but Texan transplants. If Whole Foods were a massive warehouse with about a dozen kinds of prosciutto and a bread section to rival a Parisian bakery, it would get close to the magic of Central Market. After I had to scale down my visits from weekly to semi-yearly in the face of a 1,814-mile commute, the items on my shopping list changed from ingredients for mozzarella-laden feasts to bulk treats for the long Providence winter—and a variety of home brewing goodies.

You see, brewing kombucha grew routine after six months, and beer is too much of a time commitment (and too traditional). I needed a new challenge. Buoyed by a habit of afternoon gin and tonics over a winter break trip to South Africa—hey, it’s hot out on the savannah, and quinine, the flavor agent in tonic water, is a natural malaria cure—I turned to the juniper-flavored spirit. I quickly discovered the process was simple: Most home infusers simply infuse decent-quality vodka with a set of botanicals. It’s not far from what real distillers do; they just happen to make their own “vodka” (typically using a barley or corn grain mash rather than vodka’s potato fermentation) and do a better job of getting the yellow-green color out post-infusion.

The only problem for me is that gin turns out to be a category rather than a specific flavor. It can range from smoky to flowery to spicy to citrusy, though juniper is the common denominator. Faced with an abundance of choice and conflicting recipes, my response was simple: drive to Central Market over break and Buy All The Herbs. Hence my dumping carefully calibrated quantities from 10 different tiny, alphabetized bags of spices into a fifth of Tito’s on a January afternoon back in Providence.

The result, after straining the liquid through a makeshift tea-ball-and-funnel contraption about 48 hours later, was fragrant and delicious-smelling. The top note of lavender, the dark spice of cloves, the juniper that screams gin. The true test, though, was when I combined my concoction with ice and tonic water a few hours later and presented it in shining red cups to an esteemed panel of judges. The results were mixed.

“It’s good,” one offered charitably. “It’s just a lot. What did you say you put in this again?”

My face flushed as I struggled to list my cornucopia of ingredients. My companion shrugged.

“It doesn’t taste like gin. You’ve got too many things going on.”

And therein lies my constant conflict: the overloading that makes life full but complicated, sometimes more about rushing than actually doing. If I can’t scale back my bottled experiments, how can I hope to get my own life under control? It helps that this is a contrived metaphor for a column and not a binding prophecy, but I’m still planning on making different decisions my second batch around. If I pick a few fewer ingredients, I know it’ll turn out a little less confusing. But the temptation to throw in just one more thing is irresistible.

If you’re interested in making your own gin, the only essential ingredients are a reasonably priced bottle of vodka, juniper berries, and coriander. The cardamom, lavender, allspice, cinnamon, lemongrass, cloves, licorice root, orange peel, and rose hips are optional. You’re probably better off Googling a recipe. Restraint is not my strongest suit.