This is one of those things I can definitely blame my mother on.Why I never reached her long-limbed stature, had that glamorously sensual neck or movie star beauty are harder sells in the ‘it’s-all-your-fault’ department, but this, this is so very different.
It all started with my mom actually.Come breakfast time, she’d sit amongst the tropical fireworks of bougainvillea that sprawled lazily in our back garden porch in Venezuela and eat imported toasted English muffins with imported cream cheese and imported jam.She could have started her day with so many different delightful things bountiful in this South American culinary haven:arepa con queso guayanes (grilled or deep fried cornmeal cakes hugging a buttery fresh white cheese that makes mozzarella di buffalo seem tough and chewy) or perico (no, not parrot as the name implies, but rather a kaleidoscope breakfast dish of creamy eggs, diced onions, tomatoes and green peppers slowly simmered together to make merit to its name). Those in a rush would simply grab a cachito de jamon– a freshly baked sweet bread stuffed with generous amounts ham glazed with pineapple and cloves or a bowl of tropical and sinfully sweet fruit that is as abundant there as the hookers on Avenida Libertador after ten p.m.
So you see, there is plenty to eat for breakfast in Venezuela.
But mom almost always chose her jam and that caught my eye.She was a one-flavor gal: when she found something she liked, she tended to stick to it. And so she seemed plenty content with her quiet jar of Trappist Raspberry Jam with its tiny image of a monk on the label elevating the whole thing to a very pious level.
I scoffed at this choice for most of my childhood, readily gobbling away all the Venezuelan tasty choices offered to me by our Colombian cook. But still, when I moved away from home and came to the States I’d be hit with the regular pangs of homesickness and find myself reaching for the same Trappist jam I’d keep in my refrigerator as a safety net.
And then it all started: this obsessive, compulsive purchasing of jams.Once I began, I couldn’t make myself finish.What commenced as a one-jam-relationship (‘oh let me buy that Trappist stuff to remind me of mom’) turned into a wild and endless series of one-night stands with jams around the world:licking off crystallized pieces of Chinese ginger from my British-bought jam is ethereal, slapping some Seville Sour Orange marmalade from Spain on thin slices of hearty pumpernickel renders delight. Flirting with hot Pepper Jelly from my backyard of Miami feels dangerous, and the Belgium Organic Apricot is in hot competition with my French Confiture de Abricots (forever enchanting me with its secretly housed whole crunchy almonds).
It’s a lover’s quarrel with my palate and my fridge, and what began as one tiny shelf of sweetness has turned into an invasion of the northwestern territory of my refrigerator.New conquests occur every day and I simply can’t help myself: wild Blueberry Peach Preserve from Stonewall Kitchen in Maine batted their tiny blues at me and stayed, traditional Persian-style preserves of Sour Cherry a left me puckering for more, and Brazilian Passion Fruit Jam afflicted me with a zing I can’t forget.
I am shamelessly unfaithful to my jams, yet love each and every one of them the same and am constantly looking for any opportunity to pull them out of their respective fridge spot and parade them in my meals.A breakfast of crêpes is the perfect venue for such celebrated infidelity.
Crêpes de Confiture: Infidelidad Desvergonzada
Esto es una de aquellas cosas de las que definitivamente puedo hecharle la culpa a mi madre. Por qué nunca alcancé su estatura larguirucha o tenía aquel cuello encantadoramente sensual o aquella belleza de estrella de cine son más difíciles de justificar como culpa de ella, pero esto, esto era definitivamente muy diferente.
Todo comenzó con mi mamá realmente. Ella se sentaría entre los fuegos artificiales tropicales de la buganvilla que se tumbaba perezosamente en nuestro jardín en Venezuela y alli comía los ‘English Muffins’ importados con queso crema importado e mermelada importada. Ella podría haber comido tantas cosas encantadoras que ofrece este asilo culinario sudamericano: arepas con queso guayanes (torticas de harina de maíz fritas o asadas a la plancha con un trozo generoso de queso blanco fresco que hace la mozzarella di búfalo parecer resistente y correoso) o perico (no un loro como el nombre implica, pero mejor dicho un desayuno de huevos, cebolla, tomate y pimentones verdes preparado a fuego lento para hacer el mérito a su nombre). Aquellos con prisa agarrarían simplemente un cachito de jamon-un pan dulce relleno con cantidades generosas del jamón cocido al horno, o simplemente una ensalada de frutas tropicales que son tan abundantes como las putas en la Avenida Libertador despues de las diez de la noche.
Entonces usted ve, hay qué comer para el desayuno en Venezuela.
Pero mamá siempre elegía su mermelada. Le gustaba su rutina y cuando encontraba algo que le gustaba, tendió a atenerse a ello. Y en este caso, lo que le gustaba erael frazco de mermelada “Trappist” sabor a frambuesa con su imagen diminuta de un monje en la etiqueta que eleva todo el asunto a un nivel muy piadoso.
Yo me burlaba de su opción para la mayor parte de mi infancia, preferiendo ingerir todas las opciones sabrosas venezolanas ofrecidas a mí por nuestra cocinera colombiana. Aun asi, cuando me fuí de casa y vine a los Estados Unidos y me atacaba momentos de nostalgia yo me encontraría alcanzando para la misma mermelada que guardaría en mi refrigerador como una red de protección.
Y asi es como comenzó esta compra obsesiva de mermeladas. Una vez que comencé, yo no podía terminar. Lo que empezó como una relación solitaria de mermelada (‘ah dejame comprar aquella mermelada para recordarme a mamá’) se convertió en una serie salvaje e interminable de estancias de una sola noche con mermeladas internacionales: lamiaba pedazos cristalizados de jengíbre chino de mi mermelada británica, me sumergía en el sabor de la mermelada de Naranja Agria Española sobre rebanadas delgadas de pan negro. La Jalea de Pimienta Caliente de Miami se sientía peligrosa al tocar mis labiosy rogaba que regrasara para más, y la mermalada orgánica Bélgica de Albaricoque competía con mi Confiture de Abricots Francesa que guardaba su afrodiásico de almendras crujientes.
Soy desvergonzadamente infiél a mis mermeladas, y aún así, las amo todas y siempre busco la oportunidad de sacarlas al público para disfrutarlas. Un desayuno de crêpes es la comida perfecta para tal infidelidad famosa.
I like listening to classical music to remember my father.It was the one detail I had not divulged to anyone else.In the years of bitterness, anger, and deception that had slowly built a calloused wall between us, I still had that stream of pureness that effortlessly floated out as notes from Beethoven, Mozart or Brahms (his favorite) were played.I’d find myself sitting in the quiet intimacy of my car listening to the music playing loudly and softly thinking of Sunday mornings long ago when the air was thick with youth and carelessness as the bacon gently sizzled and life was good, safe and sweet.
Mom was alive and very beautiful, wrapped in her mocha-colored terry cloth robe, always an odd shade in my young mind, yet, soothing in the way it contrasted the gentle blush of her soft cheeks and opened center-stage to her unwavering blue eyes.Every Sunday morning I’d find her faithfully by the stovetop, stirring her scrambled eggs with a withheld patience, quietly luring them to a creamy perfection never duplicated by anyone since.Mom would turn towards me and smile as I approached her those mornings, a twinkle in her eye, the words that I knew would come from her comforted me long before they danced from her lips:
“Breakfast will be ready soon dear,” she’d say with a soft smile and I knew I was well and loved and safe.
Life with filled with a sleepy and thick layer of deliciousness.In a daze I’d float through the wonderful smells of velvety eggs, followed by the apple tart smokiness of sweet cured bacon, sputtering shamelessly on the back burner.
This was all in perfect synchrony with the music that would be playing.It would be whatever my father would have selected for that morning amongst his endless collection of classical albums, all stacked close together; the crumpled brown thin papers hugging the shinny vinyl and keeping it from harm.There were hundreds of records and each Sunday my father would approach them with a studious wrinkle in his brow and decide what mood would begin our day.Quietly and very carefully he’d pick one and gently caress it clean and place it on the turntable to come to life.
As the needle’s scratchy touch awoke the symphony our lesson would begin.Notes would rise and fall as my father pranced around the toasty kitchen all the while describing the music’s journey while wildly waving his arms about orchestrating his musical bliss.My sisters and I (all under the age of ten) would pretend to be annoyed but in reality we listened to the music and watched him, enthralled at how our father would savor each note with such pure and uncomplicated bliss, just as we’d soon sit to our meal of equal delight.
“Breakfast will be ready in five minutes,” mom would promise and we’d all gather closer to an intimate table of her sour cream slow-cooked scrambled eggs, crispy bacon, hot croissants and freshly squeezed orange juice.Some Sundays, when mom found she had more time, or energy, or both, she’d make cheddar dill biscuits and tuck them comfortably in an old wicker basket, which lay in the center of the table.I remember breaking one warm biscuit in two and placing a perfect square of sweet butter on it.It would slowly melt as I closed my eyes and bit down and there would be a moment where I’d be caught in that lovely circuit of love bound by music, butter and love.
These were our Sunday mornings, our very own moments of quiet and peace, laughter and love, family and food.It was the one time where the outside world no longer mattered.The air we breathed was clean and pure and all of father’s impending distractions would, for that instant, remain uninvited.On those days our family was sealed from such harm.
We played and ran around in our pajamas as mom would work her culinary magic in her remaining five minutes.The symphony rolled on full throttle as we watched our dad in amazement, not quite understanding the look of complete satisfaction that shone in his hazel eyes, eyes that had not yet begun to tire, but rather burned brightly with youth, hope and love.As he’d wave his arms wildly in the air imitating the moves the conductor would make to bring this grandiose piece of music together, a chuckle would escape his happy face.He’d quickly glance at us and realize that his tiny, rambunctious and free family was together for that instant, held close by the notes of love, food, and Brahms. He’d wave his imaginary baton in its final frenzy and declare with a bow, “Let’s eat!” breaking our trance and leading us all giggling and happy to the breakfast table. We were suspended between seconds of music, laughter and food: a perfect and forever ours, Sunday morning.
My first true archenemy was neon yellow. Spikes of felt ran down his spine boasting a treacherous array of rainbow colors. This enemy was quite compact. Tiny, in fact. When caught off-guard, he could fit in the palm of my hand. And when I shook him, he jingled. My only justification for that would be that in his last ruthless battle against Good he swallowed Santa and his reindeer whole and all that was left was their sleigh bell jingle. You’d think I’d encountered this menacing fellow as a child, but my enemy and I met when I was an adult on a long Tuesday when my first child was born.This coming Saturday will mark nine years since that day in battlefield with my neon yellow dinosaur (aka, The Birthing Focal Point) and my petrified husband (aka The Coach) and I remember every moment of it as clearly as if it were yesterday. My skirmish in the Labor and Delivery room was long and hard-fought and full of grimy and unique detail, just as every woman’s experience is there. I went in totally unprepared for how I would come out, and nine years later, I still travel down the road of motherhood falling and stumbling and constantly looking for the signs on the road that are not there. But on that day with that bright neon dinosaur I learned one of my first lessons in parenthood: be prepared to throw all your plans out the window.Dinosaur wasn’t always my archenemy. He came with us as my friend: the honorary role of The Focal Point. I had carefully picked him out amongst a pile of other candidates (a photograph, a tennis ball, a spot on the wall). I felt Dinosaur to be the appropriate one to guide me through the birth of my child: he was tiny, he was a stuffed animal and he had a gentle, soothing jingle each time I shook him. He enveloped the Hallmark-version of all the wonderful things about having a child. At about contraction number four I started hating Dinosaur. It didn’t take long for every inch of that fuzzy creature to annoy the crap out of me. Pain has a way of doing that. Unbelievable, psychedelic pain in your uterus has an even more instant way of doing that.But Dinosaur wouldn’t know this and neither would Dinosaur’s trusty sidekick, my husband, who clutched this fuzzy friend as if it were HIS lifesaver, not mine. “Please focus, please focus”, my terrified husband chanted (or begged), hoping for the magical effects of the neon yellow creature to cure-all and make me whole and smiley again (it didn’t). His big, calloused hand would swallow the little yellow dude whole, creasing his neck in half and blurring its eyes. He’d shake. Shake. Shake. And like an ill-fated song he’d follow each rattle with a faint command: “Use your focal point” (shake) “Use your focal point” (shake) “Use your focal point.”In the end Dinosaur was cast aside, as was my husband. Both represented the same to me: guys that loved me, meant well, were cute but quite useless with the task on hand. My best friend took over as coach, and it was following her soothing voice, her dry wit, and her gaze brimming with years of shared secrets, fights, and lots of laughter that I gave birth to my beautiful daughter, Daniela.All was not lost for Dinosaur and his sidekick. They were both there throughout the entire experience and were able to enjoy it even more because the pressure was not on them. When I wanted an extra hand to squeeze, my husband’s big, warm hands always did the trick. And when I started getting an odd craving for chocolate chip pancakes both where up to the task. Almost instantly revived with the hopes of doing something useful, my husband (still clutching Dinosaur) shot to attention and ran for a nurse.Husband: (with the uncontrollable urge of a five-year old) “Can my wife have pancakes?”Nurse: (A look of pity and awe in her face) “No sir. Your wife can only have ice chips” (She considered smacking this stupid ass on the head be relented. He’s a first timer. She’ll let it slide).And so the promise of chocolate chip pancakes became my husband’s focal point. As the labor grew harder and harder, my husband’s words of comfort developed around my craving: counteracting every nugget of pain with a detailed description about the buttermilk fluffiness, the chocolate chips oozing and the maple syrup sweetness that would hold it all together. I would deliver a baby and he would deliver me these pancakes.I had not had chocolate chip pancakes since I was about ten, so, the imagery was quite captivating (in between contractions) and certainly more engaging once the epidural was in place. I’d crunch on my cold and indifferent ice chips and wonder about that stack of warm and inviting pancakes I would soon have somehow. And then, that second would be over, and I ‘d be hard at work again.Daniela was born at 3:24pm on February 23, 1999. I had begun the whole process the day before at 4:00pm, so, after embracing my screaming child and welcoming her to this world, I nearly collapsed from exhaustion. My husband was equally excited to meet his first-born. After he exchanged his excited hellos with his daughter, he turned to me with a beaming smile. I knew what he was going to say. It was not “isn’t she beautiful?” or “can you believe it?” or “she’s got all ten fingers and toes!” No, our connection ran well deeper than that, and, even though we both shared the same excitement and fear of our newfound role as parents, we knew we would somehow be all right, particularly because we shared this role together. My husband turned to me and declared with utmost joy and relief:”Now you can have your chocolate chip pancakes!”And with that, I closed my eyes and I smiled.Buttermilk Chocolate Chip Pancakes1 cup all-purpose flour1 teaspoon baking powder3 tablespoons sugara pinch of salt1 egg1/2 cup buttermilk1/4 cup milk2 tablespoons butter, melted1 tablespoon vanilla1/2 cup mini chocolate chipsIn a large bowl, mix the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt. Lightly beat the egg in a smaller bowl. Add buttermilk, milk, butter and vanilla and mix well.Pour wet ingredients into dry and gently mix with a wooden spoon until barely incorporated. Don’t overmix! Heat greased pancake skillet over medium-high heat. Drop big spoonfuls of batter and sprinkle with chocolate chip. Wait until tiny bubbles appear (a minute or so) and then flip and cook another 30 seconds.*Makes 12 – 18 pancakes*Pancake size and chocolate chip quantities vary according to taste. If you had a baby seconds before, you will want LOTS of chocolate chips in your pancakes. If you are sending your kids off to school and want them to focus and not bounce off the walls, you’ll want to reduce the amount. Your call.