In Mexico they call me “guerita” but I’m really a gringa at heart. Sure I am a sucker for mole, (especially the dark black Oaxaqueño type with its 72 mysterious ingredients) and I can never turn down a street quesadilla (how does that fresh white cheese ooze and ooze so much?) but there’s something about being out of the United States that makes me yearn for certain American foods a little bit more.
Take peanut butter, for example.
Now, peanuts are big in the culinary world of Mexico. They call them cacahuates here, and they are everywhere. First and foremost, there’s plain cacahuates as a botana, or snack. Go to the markets or cheese trucks and you’ll find huge sacks of them for sale: plain, the Mexican favorite, sal con limon, (salt with lime) or the uber Mexican favorite: chile, sal y limon (lime, salt and chile).
This is a serious Mexican snack. I keep a stash of the stuff in my desk drawer and my hand grabs regularly as my creative process unfolds. Poe had opium, I have this. There’s something about that tangy, salty crunch with a spicy aftertaste that feeds on the addictive tendency of a writer.
Cacahuates make their appearance in Mexican main courses as well. Soups are a popular starter in Mexico and there is no forgetting the tantalizingly smooth and rich, Crema de Cacahuate (Peanut Cream soup). Pollo en Salsa de Cacahuate competes with the equally delicious Lomo en Salsa de Cacahuate for a combo of crunchy, tangy, and salty- it just depends if you are in the mood for chicken or meat. And of course, I cannot ignore the world of moles again- this time the Mole Poblano, hailing from the colonial town of Puebla, whose rich accent is on nuts in general, including cacahuates.
So peanuts dance in my Mexican palate frequently. Still, sometimes something missing. Even on days bursting with market-going, friendly, beautiful scenery Mexico I may return to my apartment with a longing, a want, a vacuum for the United States that even wonderful Mexico cannot appease: perhaps I miss the quiet of my hometown suburban street, a hassle-free visit to the bank, or simply a run to Target for a much-needed something or other. It is funny how much you miss Target when it is not around the corner, or around the country for that matter.
These are my American nostalgia moments. They seem to be rhythmical pinnings that affect my kids and I at the same time. Placating the kids may prove to be trickier. Their nostalgia is so linked with their entire world: the home they grew up with, their best buddies from forever, and especially visits to movie theaters that play movies ONLY in English. But food, as always, has a way of creeping into our soft spots and tender moments and when they start craving a taste of the United States, I know exactly where to go: down deep into the secret depths of my pantry where I pull out my coveted jar of Skippy’s peanut butter and plan for an all out attack against The Gringo Blues.
My son’s eyes light up when he sees me with the jar. He knows happiness is 12.5 minutes away. I will mix this simple batter in minutes and the whole house will lighten up with its creamy, sweet flavor, instantly bringing moments of sunshine, friendship and good ole’ fashion love. The jar is a prized collection kept in an undisclosed location of my pantry- purchased here in Mexico but imported from the U.S. Only to be used in emergencies, I warn family members. Craving Target slushies warrants an emergency, by the way.
So in my beautiful Mexican kitchen I mix and sugar and flatten the dough, dreaming of dreamy moments I left behind in the peace and quiet of South Florida. Things are always remembered fondly under the aroma of baking cookies- no matter what the recollection is. Today’s memory consists of my son climbing his fortress, his favorite tree out front in our yard back home and my daughter giggling endlessly with her BFF whom she’s been BFFs with since age three. They are American memories mingling lazily with the baking of these cookies.
Life isn’t bad in Mexico. The food here is exquisite. The country beautiful. The people friendly. But nostalgia has a way of wrapping its heartstring around you and not letting go. And when that happens, best bypass the cacahuate drawer and take a bite of a peanut butter cookie.
I know the last post I wrote was about a cookie and so when you see a cookie here you no doubt are wondering “Christ, woman, what has gotten into you? Another cookie story?” And I am gently reminded of my son, Jonathan, who eats the same thing for lunch, each and every day: cheese tortilla roll, sliced in half and never ever heated.
Don’t ever heat that thing or his world will be rocked upside down.
So, what’s wrong with double cookie action then?
Plus, it’s cold here in South Florida.
Oh don’t go rolling your eyes, you Minnesotans, Bostonians or Europeans. Just don’t.
If I had to turn on my car butt heater because the morning air chilled to a horrid 47 degrees, then that is cold. I don’t want to hear ice war stories. Or blizzards. Or any of that.
Even helicopters were hired to hover over Florida crops and keep them warm with their blast of air. True story. So if your oranges have a slight taste of fuel, then you’ll know why. Plus you’ll know I wasn’t bluffing about the cold.
The good news is I get to wear my scarf.
It is a lovely kaleidoscope of fall colors my sister gave me as a present the last time I was in Spain so I’d look chic like all the chic Spanish women. I was psyched. And then bummed. I couldn’t look chic because of the hot Florida weather. I had to reluctantly shelve that beautiful reminder of tapas, wine, and Tali until Mother Nature would get on board with it here.
And so she has.
As I type this, yep, you got it, I am wearing the scarf.
Thanks, Tali. Love it. And I look way too chic for this ‘burb. It’s a good thing I return to Spain next week. But that’s a whole other story.
Back to the cold and the cookies…
What can I say? Extra cups of tea/coffee/hot chocolate beg for a warm, gooey cookie. So do remnants of that Arctic air that has found its way down here. So the boycott on processed sugar and flour is officially over.
There’s a loophole in that contract, didn’t you know?
If you’re cold, it’s okay, you can eat a cookie. Or two.
I am blowing my hair just like my mother used to. When I made the mental leap of letting my crew cut grow out into an eventual bob, I knew there would be many awkward moments. Six months later, the idea is strongly reconfirmed. I pulled out my dusty hairdryer in an attempt to replicate the glamorous Lady Di do my hairdresser had easily pulled off last week for a party. In thirty minutes and a spritz of hair goo, she had transformed my lame duck period into one of sophistication and awe. How hard can it be?
It’s a private affair, my meeting with maintenance. I am here with my hairdryer purchased in 1989 from a crowded Duane Reed store off of 57th Street back in my New York days when I was a budding adult longing to duplicate the successful-to-be-businesswoman breaking out from her under-appreciated role as secretary (think Melanie Griffin in Working Girl). Hair played a big part. But upkeep really is not my thing, not then, not now, so the hairdryer went into the bathroom drawer with other neglected feminine gadgets: tweezers, Neet, and face creams. And the hair, well, I believe that was the first time I chopped it off into my super short look. Think low maintenance.
Everything comes back, of course (was that not the Beegee’s I heard blaring out of a car today?) so eventually the desire for long hair came back to me as well. But of course, the process is arduous and painful. Wisps of stubborn hair fight gravity and pop up. Curls steer adamantly south instead of north, like a hard-headed teenager on a stolen drive behind dad’s precious wheels. The general feel is one of utmost doofiness- even with highlights, even with pastes/gels/glues/or Vidal Sassoon’s VS547 Ion’s hell of hot air blasting its fury. Of course, it is most likely because I have no clue how to properly apply any of these. But like my curls, I am hard-headed and, every once in a while, get an extra dose of obstinance and give it a shot at trying to control my mop.
Today seems to have been particularly successful. I look up from my endeavor and see my mother’s hair. Oddly enough, I see my mother. There I am, standing in front of the mirror, sporting a navy blue cotton dress (my standard jeans happen to be dirty that day), complemented with some funky silver jewelry I know she would have hand-picked at her favorite bohemian shop in Tel-Aviv, I could be her. My left hand rigidly braces the hairdryer and miraculously, my hair is poofed out in perfect, round curls: full and healthy, just like mom’s was. The only difference is in the color: mine is highlighted blond and hairs was salt and pepper gray.
And suddenly, I am back in 1984. How many mornings did I walk in on this scene as a teenager? How many times did I hear the hairdryer whirling away and my mother carefully willing her hair into shape? The sound would drown all others and I would wait patiently at the door until she was done. Okay, I was a teenager, I probably never waited. I most likely shouted over the hum and demanded something or other:
Did she remember she had to pick me up today to buy my new shoes?
Could I have a sleepover with my best friend at her house today even if it is a school night (with the logical rebuttal that we simply could not live apart handy.)
Other times it would be sweeter demands:
Can you make your fabulous chocolate cake today?
These latter requests where the favors she seemed to love to fulfill. They appeared simple to her, achievable objects of comfort, so much easier than explaining to a thirteen year-old why Cindy invited Carol to her party but not her or why Mark gave her that dirty look even after George told Sally to tell her that he liked her. These were issues of teenage heartbreak and doom that a mother had to tread carefully on. But baking, baking was something altogether different – a powerful tool for love and comfort she shamelessly and willingly used. Mom’s baking won hearts every time.
My daughter walked in as I was struggling with a curl gone AWOL. She gave me an odd look (probably because she’s never seen me handle a blow-dryer before) and announced:
“Mom, do you think Amy will like my new backpack? It’s not a Hello Kitty one with the hood like she has but it has the same colors and I think its cool but I think she thinks I should have one exactly like hers and what if she doesn’t think its as cool as hers?”
I couldn’t help but feel déjà vu. I looked into my daughter’s troubled eyes. I should have felt empathy for her distress, her dilemma was real and palpable to her. Life was on the brink of Hello Kitty disaster. Perhaps this was an opportunity to discuss great life long lessons. Something about individuality? Confidence? Not giving a crap about what others think? But all I could picture were M&Ms and how much my daughter loves them. How the world seems improved with a sprinkling of those neon nougats of love. An M&M’s cookie would surely lift the fog of gloom from her eyes. I smiled as the full circle smacked me in my face. A part not so deep inside me really, really missed my mom.
“She’ll love it,” I assured her. “It’s super cool.”
And as she struggled with believing me or doubting me, I threw in the phrase that would seal the deal:
“I’ll make you some M&M’s cookies tonight and you can tell me how your day went.”
Just when you think your blood will freeze over, your nose will crack off, your lips have reached ungodly limits of chapness, you see another poor lad pass you by in the same predicament and you both turn to each other for that split second and nod in communal misery.You may even smile, risking further injury to your taut lips. You don’t know him.He does not know you.But for that instant in the universe, you both share the same moment of cold.
I am a South Florida transplant originally raised in the humid tropics of Venezuela, so, believe me, when I placed myself in frigid weather for a ski holiday in Beaver Creek, Colorado last month, I was more than aware of the shock my mind and body lived minute by minute.
Sure I had the layers. Lots of layers.Some looked like glorified skin gauzes (this is the undergarment for the seasoned skier), other items where more chic, with slick zippers and snazzy tags, all intended to create aesthetically appropriate barriers against the arctic air creeping in from the north.
And for the most part it worked.Until the sun set and you were basically on your own- the layers seemed to melt away into thin cotton, the bitter cold too much for them to bear.And just when you thought you could no longer stand it, just when the snowy slopes lost all romance and the snowman kids had built in childhood play lost all cuteness, I saw the Smores Lady emerge from the cozy and toasty lobby of the Park Hyatt hotel way on the other side of where I was freezing.She carried with her trays and trays of goodies and sliced through the unforgiving wind with a bright and cheery smile.
Sue, the Smores Lady, was headed towards one of the numerous blazing fire pits strategically placed throughout Beaver Creek Village.This one was in front of the Hyatt, so it was particularly glorious- loaded up with a ravenous fire and plenty of spark.Its bright light and unflinching warmth invited me closer, bringing some of the circulation back to my cheeks and fingertips.
Then Sue spoke in a chipper voice I thought not possible under such climate circumstances:
“Come join us for Smores Night” she gleamed.
I looked at her apprehensively.Surely there was a catch here.She was showing off plates upon plates of, what she declared to be, homemade marshmallows:vanilla bean, M&M, Grand Marnier, Mint.Alongside those sat mountains of slabs of Hershey’s chocolate, dark and milk, and alongside that, an endless supply of graham crackers.
Smores night in the bitter cold of Beaver Creek is to an oasis in the scorching heat of the desert.
Where was the credit card swiper to charge you for this delight?Or was this all-inclusive for Hyatt guests only?
The honest Abe in me wanted to clarify that, even though I approached her with the utmost confidence and assuredness (that is just me walking cold, by the way), I was indeed NOT a guest at this incredible and incredibly expensive hotel.In fact, I was staying at a small venue across the road, modern and lovely, but across the road.However, the marshmallows begged me to be silent.They knew I was a foodie. They knew I needed to sample their delights.They needed me to look the other way.
“Do it for us” they implored, Grand Marnier having a bit of a feisty tone to its plea.Mint wanted me to go for it first:
“Betcha never had a smore like me,” it argued. (It was right).
But even Vanilla and M&M put up a good fight- knowing in all due right, that they offered a classic and memorable experience I just couldn’t let my conscience pull me away from.
Sue’s smile had either frozen or she was truly, truly nice.She had finished setting up and now handed me a long iron stick for me to begin creating childhood fantasies.There was no charge.There was no room check.There was just the stick.
What could I do?Raised to be polite, I grabbed it.And then, I went insane.Madly insane.Smored out, I lost myself in a flurry of sticky sweet flavors: mint with dark, vanilla bean with light, slightly toasted, fully toasted, orange Grand Marnier with double graham crunch, and on and on it went, until my belly was full of sweetness, my heart warmed up and my mind swirled with memories of youth and carefree fun.I looked up, liking my sticky fingers to catch the gaze of a fellow stranger enjoying the same sugar high.It didn’t matter where we came from or where we went.What mattered was that we found ourselves side-by-side, warming by the fire on this unforgiving cold night, enjoying a moment of sugar and kindness.We nodded, gave each other a sticky thumbs up and managed to crack a sweet Smores smile.
There are days like today when for no good reason things are just off. No one was nasty to you. The weather was perfect. Even your horoscope claimed things were on the up and up. And yet, it was not so. I try not to delve too much into these days, and find that, instead of steeping in their mediocrity, I can nip it in the bud with a batch of good ole comfort chocolate chip cookies. You see, chocolate solves any problem. I may not have a PhD in food biology, but this fact I’ve got down. The chocolate chip cookie poses as the best solution for delicious cake feel surrounded by tiny explosions of chocolate goodness. Eat a few of these with a tall glass of milk (or merlot) and you will inevitably smile. Try it. You’ll see.For such a simple solution to life’s problems there’s really no reason to get more complicated in its making. Volumes and volumes of books and research have been dedicated to The Ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookie for folks like me on a culinary quest for cookie perfection. Still, after years on my chocolate chip journey, when the day has been tough and I just need to be guaranteed delicious comfort, I find myself gravitating towards the back of my chocolate chip bag, where, proudly displayed to its millions of buyers, you too will find the recipe for Nestle Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookie. It’s too good to ignore.