Raisins are ugly, wrinkled and so full of meaning

"LET me tell you about raisins," the professor said, prompting chuckles and heckling in anticipation of a good line.

We were all a bit punchy. We were crowded into a conference room on a sunny Saturday afternoon, spring-loaded with hours of preparation. In a few minutes, the professor would send each of us to a classroom to face off with a three-person jury. We'd give the 10-minute presentations we'd been writing and practicing the whole semester, defending the first chapters of our master's theses. We waited for months to do this, and now the wait was a few more minutes because the judging was behind schedule.

The professor hadn't had lunch because he was so busy with room changes and working around missing volunteers. So I offered him a box of raisins.

"Let me tell you about raisins," he began. "I have two rules for food. Number one, I don't eat anything that's wrinkled. Number two, I don't eat anything that's ugly. And raisins fail on both counts."

The classmates laughed and offered comments on other unpalatable, wrinkled, ugly things and people. The prof responded and mugged in his trademark Bronx accent and body language. As with any trademark, he has to keep it up or he might lose the brand.

Kindergarten in the Bronx must be different than it was for me on the West Coast. The first recipe I learned was "ants on a log": celery stalks, trenches filled with peanut butter, studded with raisins. We must have made ourselves quite messy with the peanut butter, and these days I can't imagine public school kindergarteners playing with such a potent allergen.

Kindergarten, incidentally, is where I learned the first joke I told: "If April showers bring May flowers, what do May flowers bring?"


I repeated this pun incessantly. It's a pretty poor pun compared to, say, stealing someone's candy and calling it "M&M domain."

I can only hope that my punning abilities get drier and more pleasurable over time, like raisins.

I don't want you to think I'm some sort of raisin fanatic, jumping up and doing the Grapevine to convince bus passengers to trade in their bagels for sweet purple nubbins of joy. I actually find raisins tooth-achingly sweet and only enjoy them in three very limited circumstances:

1. Chewy sweet accent in breakfast, snacks or dessert. For example, Hindu ritual includes a communion dessert, often a sweet noodle soup or soft rice flour dumpling, and raisins make a lot of sense there. My mother also used to make a spicy Chex Mix-style snack with Rice Krispies, nuts and raisins. The raisins' crannies held on to the salt and turmeric and chili powder, turning them into hard little flavor bombs.

2. Ants on a log. Like my first apartment, this dish commands my affection out of all proportion to its actual quality.

3. Test preparation. I read an SAT prep book in the more carefree times of the mid-'90s that suggested I flout the ETS rules and carry a box of raisins with me to the test. I followed its advice and furtively crammed the raisins into my mouth during a six-minute break between sections. Yes, six. Nothing in college was ever that arbitrarily strict.

The prep book suggested raisins because they provide quick energy and, being small, can fit easily into the tiny pencil-pack or purse that the TSA, sorry, the ETS allowed test-takers to carry in.

So now raisins make part of my good-luck test routine. Comfortable jeans, backup pencils and pens, that shirt I wrote a Russian good-luck phrase on and raisins.

But none of those made sense a few Saturdays ago, at the defenses. I had to dress up, in the nearly-unworn interview suit Mom had bought for me when I graduated from college. It had a skirt, so I shaved my legs for the first time since — well, since high school.

Talking for 10 minutes requires no writing utensils. I had nothing to hold on to, no talismans.

I waited until after the defense to stain my teeth with raisin pulp. From kindergarten to the SATs to finishing the first half of my Master's, I keep coming back to prune's Mini-Me.

Let me tell you about raisins, professor. They've passed through a crucible, gaining depth and flavor. The British call them sultanas, and I am not above using false etymology to crown them the Emperor of Snack Food. And raisin innards soothe canker sores on your lip. So there!

I then ate a Clif Bar, which contained nearly no symbolism.

Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living each week. You can write to her at sumana@crummy.com.