It's Not a Bird, It's Not a Plane

The tremors began on the couch.

Shannon and I were leisurely thumbing our way through an Hawaiian tour book, making lists of potential activities for the trip we had just booked.

“Swimming with dolphins sounds like fun.”  We wrote it down.

“Let’s go to the volcano!” More notes.

“How about skydiving?”


Dry mouth.


I clasped my hands together so that he would not see them shake violently.

“Sure.” I replied, nodding robotically.  “Sure.  Sure.”

“You okay honey?  You look a little pale.”  Shannon got up to get me a glass of water and I tried to calm myself down.

I think skydiving is one of those things that everyone considers for at least a moment or two.  It’s a thrill that you might feel 100% capable of or interested in when you’re sitting, say, at a bar or a restaurant in the middle of New York City in the dark depth of winter.  But here it was on the table for real. 


This wasn’t “Oh yeah, I would totally do that!!!” This was “Here it is.  We’re making a plan.  We’re putting down a deposit.  We’re jumping out of a plane.” And I was unreasonably terrified- because I was just sitting on the couch.

The next day, I felt different.  I was starting to get excited.  This was actually something that I had wanted to do for a long time and what better place than the North Shore of Oahu in the middle of January.  I had also made a little deal with myself… I would jump as fearlessly as I could manage and then reward myself with something sinfully delicious.  Food rewards have become a shameless substitution for the booze rewards I used to give myself after a long day of accomplishments (or a moderately long day, or a day when a couple of things got done, or a day when I woke up).   When I first got sober, I ate for a month straight.  I’m better than that now of course, but I still think of dessert as the prize I win for doing a good job (or getting out of bed).

new-york-city-aerial-from-airplane-windowWhen my plane departed out of New York, I stared out the window watching the ground fall away.  I thought “Well, you could never jump out of a plane from this height.  There wouldn’t be enough time to react.  You would just free fall to your death.”  A little further up it felt more comfortable.  Another 500 feet and I felt my jaw unclench and my heart start to race.  Now this, THIS I could imagine. 

Clouds and sky and the ground so far away that you know you would have a while to figure out what to do before you hit anything.  It’s not like I was going to be alone on my first jump anyway.  I would be strapped to a guy who does it like 40 times a day.  I exhaled and pushed the metal button on my armrest to tilt my United Airlines coach seat back as far as it would recline.  I was cocky now.  Soon I’d add skydiving to my list of accomplishments.

Hawaii was more beautiful than I was prepared for.  Even the horribly touristy parts packed with overweight mainlanders in too-tight bikinis or flower shirts were a refreshing change.  We swam and walked and played and ate… well… we ate for nourishment more than pleasure.  We were staying on the beach of Waikiki and found the restaurants to be a mélange of awful lowest-common-denominator grub.  If you craved something battered or fried or swimming in a tropical sugary sauce, you were in heaven.  But if you wanted something authentic or recently harvested, you’d go hungry.  It was like going to Times Square for the food.  It’s not what you do if you know any better.  We hadn’t known any better until it was too late.  Ah well, we didn’t go to Hawaii for the cuisine.

My problem was this though: I hadn’t found my big reward yet.

The morning of skydive day, I was more excited than nervous with a very healthy dose of disbelief.  The people who run the facility are pros.  They play you a movie showing how you’ll be expertly strapped to your instructor and that you can say you don’t want to jump at any time before the actual moment and then how great it is to be in the sky.  I was trying my best to stay in the moment and failing miserably.  A gaggle of young British men stumbled into the main room, laughing and whooping.  They were the group that had just landed and were pumped full of adrenalin.

aero-game“How was it?” I asked one of them with a voice ten times tinier than I had hoped to represent myself with.

“I don’t know.  It didn’t seem real.  It was like a video game.”  He replied.  I’m sure I frowned as I walked away trying to devise a plan to take it all in.

We started to board the itty bitty Cessna plane.  There were 5 of us jumpers strapped spoon-style to the bellies of our sky lords.  We sat on benches in the small metal cabin which rattled as we cruised to take-off speed.   Not long after we were airborne did someone open the sliding side door of the plane.  Wind filled the cabin and I felt my already damp palms become pools of sweaty terror.  My first instinct was that they should be careful because someone could fall out.  Ah denial.  It was you that got me up here.

The North Shore of Hawaii is stunning.  I took a quiet moment to appreciate its glory.  The rich green pastures, the sapphire of the sea, the waves crashing on shore all looked more vibrant from 12,000 feet up.  Suddenly the engine shut off.  Holy fuck balls.  This is it.

As I mentioned, our instructors have their protocol down.  Moments after our powerless glide began, they were tightening our harnesses and pushing us down the bench toward the open door.

alisonThe first team left, then the second, my guy scooted me down.  Then it was our turn and the moment of “Nofuckingwayyou’reoutofyourmind” hit me. But you don’t have a choice then.  You’re just in the doorway and then you’re in the air.  Honestly, I’m pretty sure I blacked out for a millisecond, as I have absolutely no memory of my first moment of free-fall.  Then he leveled our bodies horizontally and the power and majesty of the sport took over.  You have about a minute; 60-90 seconds of time to experience the drop, half of that after the parachute opens.  I was overwhelmed by respect for our great big planet.  I could have cried for how incredible it was to feel so tiny and powerless and still know that I would be ok.  I fell in love with the sky and clouds and sea and earth.  Somewhere between 12,000 feet and the ground, my tough New York exterior crumbled.  And I was present for the entire thing.  It was not a video game, it was an awakening.

Hours later, Shannon and I recounted our skydiving stories to each other for the umpteenth time over a mediocre dinner.  As we walked back to our hotel room, I saw an ice cream place and remembered my reward promise.  It was funny actually, because that prize had completely escaped my memory when I was in the air.  I guess the jump was reward enough.

But I’m not one to skip dessert.

We strolled into Cold Stone Creamery – a place I hadn’t been in years, and only once then.  They were a big deal many moons ago because they hand mix things (Oreos, candy bars, fruit, etc.)  into their ice cream in front of you.  Unable to figure out what my dream combo would be, I ordered something on the menu.  It was a combination of mint ice cream and cookies and fudge, I think.  Shannon got something too, though I don’t remember what.  We went to the checkout counter and she told us “Hey guys!  Howya doin?!? That’ll be $18.”

That’s right.  $18.  For two ice creams cones.

You know what?  The ice cream was crap too.  It was way too sweet and the flavors muddled each other, misinterpreting the great idea of combining ice cream with fresh toppings.  It was a perfect example of what’s wrong with society today.  We think if two good things together are great, four things would be better!  And then fourteen things would be even better better!!  More more more!  Oh god, just get me back in the air.

A few days later, Shannon and I were rummaging through tiki idols and flower print dresses at a flea market when we found a little woman selling macadamia nut brittle.  It was, by far, the best thing I ate on the trip.  Simple, sinful, sweet, salty.  Now THIS is a reward.

Macadamia Nut Brittle
(Adapted slightly from Wolfgang Puck’s version)


  • 2 cups unsalted macadamia nuts
  • 2 teaspoons Fleur de Sel
  • 1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
  • 1/3 cup light corn syrup
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 1/2 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into inch wide pieces
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
  2. Spread the nuts on a baking tray and toast them in the oven until light golden, 8 to 10 minutes, turning the nuts after 5 minutes so they toast evenly. Remove them from the oven, sprinkle with salt, and let them cool to room temperature. Coarsely chop and set aside.
  3. Put the sugar in a deep, medium saucepan. Add the corn syrup and water and, over medium heat, bring to a boil. Continue boiling until a layer of bubbles forms on top, 3 to 4 minutes. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and continue to boil 5 minutes longer.
  4. Remove the foil, add the butter, and stir with a wooden spoon until the butter is melted. Continue cooking over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until a candy thermometer inserted into the mixture registers 300°F, about 15-20 minutes. Meanwhile, coat with vegetable oil or spray with nonstick cooking spray a 12-by-17-inch sheet pan.
  5. As soon as the sugar mixture reaches the desired temperature, immediately stir in baking soda, and reserved nuts. Spread the nut mixture over the prepared pan, spreading it as thinly as possible with a long, metal spatula. Leave the brittle to cool to room temperature. When it is completely cool and hardened, run a clean, dry towel over the surface to absorb some of the oil. Cut or break the brittle into irregular pieces. Store in an airtight container at cool room temperature.Makes about 1 3/4 pounds

Alison Wonderland Tucker is a chef and caterer who lives and works in New York City. She writes about her love of food and life as a chef on her blog A Wonderland of Words.