We stand at the bottom of a rocky cliff looking up. The razor yellow rays itch just so we can barely see the summit of the mountain, but there it is. We are waiting. Lots of us have paid to wait as the wind sings and the waves crash below, they arrive.
Like seals frolicking on a lazy afternoon we spot them: the divers. The famous Acapulco divers. They are there below us, knowing we are awaiting their deathly plunges into the water they thoughtlessly play in below.
“How will they get to the top of the mountain?” my daughter innocently asks.
And as if on cue they begin, first one, followed quickly by all seven others. With the nimble speed and agility of Spiderman (my alert son informs) they begin their ascent: no rope, no ladder, no steps- just calloused feet and strong arms pull them up reaching crevice to crevice of this incredible Mexican cliff, they climb. We are already in awe and no one has dived.
Once they reach the top the real show begins: they must dive into the narrow passage of water which they came from. The crowd begins to hush.
“It’s all about the timing,” Husband assures. But no one can quite believe that these boys (for they are merely seventeen or eighteen, at best) must time their jump precisely to the second which the swale of water consumes the narrow gap that is their landing spot. If they land when the tide is out, then they land on deadly gaping rocks.
We are hugged tightly by the mob of people watching, waiting. No one breathes in anticipation with the first diver. No one moves.
“I’m hungry,” I squeak. I can’t help myself. I need a distraction, and there is a tiny taco stand selling all sorts of homemade goodies. I can smell cilantro and meat and something else very familiar and sweet…honey is it?
“Not now,” Husband barks incredulously.
“But, I need,” I begin to whine nervously. People shoot me dirty looks. They don’t understand that if I don’t focus on food I’ll have to focus on this poor chap up there, willingly diving to his death.
“Shhhhh,” Husband commands. “He’s about to..”
And with that we hear oohs and ahhs from the crowd. I look up, biting my tongue, and see a graceful spin, twist and splash all against the backdrop of a beautiful sunset. I wait and hope for a happy ending. It arrives as the diver triumphantly pops out from under the wake and the crowd bursts into applause.
My children are in awe, clapping crazily with the crowd and shouting “amazing!”
I find I can finally exhale and my tummy growls in unison with the applause.
One by one the divers display their majestic and daredevil stunts. Some spin, some flip, some back dive. I hold my breath for all of it, only exhaling once their tiny heads appear above the rough waters. This could be my son doing this crazy thing in the not-so-distant future, I think to myself.
The taco stand lady knows there are plenty of nervous eaters like me. By diver #4 she begins sizzling and stirring stuff. She is off on the sidelines of the action but still I turn to her regularly. Our eyes meet. She smiles. They will be okay. They’ve done this one hundred times, guerita, don’t worry, her mocha eyes seem to assure me. And with that she pats more tortillas and places them on her comal, or Mexican skillet, to begin heating them. The sweet scent I can’t figure out haunts and comforts me. I can see it comes from a big pot but am not able to figure out what it is. Are there traces of brown sugar? Smells from home? I suddenly feel comforted and safe. Tortilla lady smiles gently at me. Dos mas, ‘mija, dos mas, she seems to say, assuring me only two divers are left.
Of course they are the last two, so they jump from the highest peak and do the most complicated stunts. The last one plays recklessly with time, landing just as the water begins to exit the passageway that is his landing spot. People gasp and break out in cheer when he reappears after an unpleasant pause of not seeing him. My knees buckle on that one. Off on the side I hear a small giggle. It is the tortilla lady. She has been watching me. She knew that kid would get me. Once it is all over and the crowd begins to disperse I run over to her stand, almost tempted to ask for a hug instead of a meal. But once I get there the aroma of sweetness overwhelms me and I ask with urgency what’s in the pot.
“Platano maduro,” she replies, informing me she has ripened plantain simmering in honey.
A warm smile spreads over my face. Of course! Baked plantain! A favorite of mine as a kid growing up in Venezuela. My nana Yoli used to wrap them in aluminum foil, place a dab of butter, a drizzle of honey and a sprinkling of cinnamon, seal the package and bake them until the flavors melded into one sweet comforting embrace.
Immediately I know I must have one. It will restore me. I ask for one and the tortilla lady smiles, knowing that this sweetness will round off the edgy nerves left on her new gringa subject. She grabs a foil packet from the aluminum pot and gently opens it releasing the sweet steam that has been teasing me all afternoon. The sun has set and the sky turns purple and pink.
“Queso?” she inquires
Yes, nothing compliments this caramelized banana better than salty dry white cheese. Yin yang at its best.
“Si, queso, porfavor,” I replied and she generously sprinkles on shredded white cheese.
“Whatcha got there?” Husband inquires, appearing out of nowhere as I am about to bite into heaven.
“Platano con queso,” I growl, adding a possessive tone to my tight grasp. I know it is one of his favorites, but after this diving stress, I must have this alone. He looks at me and gets it. He almost always gets it.
“Enjoy,” he replies. “I’m in the mood for a taco, anyway,” he lies, bypassing his confusing wife and heading straight for my smiling savior.
This week’s wise words of advice: when offered bacon, never turn it down.
I mean it. I know, I have friends who are rolling their eyes as they read this whilst running on their treadmills. Yes, I actually know people who can roll, read, and run at the same time! I, for one, am not one of them. But back to the bacon…
The stuff is good. I’m not talking about turkey bacon: that impostor cardboard slice spayed silly with smoke flavor fails to recreate juicy, fatty, meaty reality. I am in no way trying to scoff the attributes of turkey here. It has many. Roasted turkey happens to be one of my family’s favorite meals, actually. Just don’t try and pass it off as a pig, for God’s sake!
Oh, and speaking of God. I’m so sorry. So, so, so sorry. As a Jew, I struggle with the dietary laws that restrict certain things from my diet that are not kosher (like pig) and confess that I eat bacon.
Dream in bacon.
However, I’ve managed to work through my bacon guilt and try to maintain some control. I visit treadmills occasionally and compensate for my spiritual anemia by doing mitzvahs (good deeds) every day. I have to: my family sits around the dinner table each night to report on our positive contribution to this world. So you see, I gotta keep up on the spiritual goodness. It’s just when bacon comes in play I lose my north and become a puddle of weakness and readily indulge, replacing my healthy and theological consciousness for my culinary compass.
My kids are equally passionate about bacon when the topic arises. That’s just a polite way of saying they beg for it…ALL THE TIME. My twelve-year old proudly sports her “Bacon is a Vegetable” t-shirt in a passionate attempt to redefine the food groups. Even my self-proclaimed eight year-old vegetarian pleads for the addictive crispy flavor of bacon. (When questioned on ethics, he feigns ignorance as to its source of origin.)
If I try and implement the theory of moderation, they rebel and get creative as to when and where bacon can be enjoyed. They know how to get to my weak spot by becoming proactive in the kitchen, and, the two of them (normally aiming swords at each others jugulars) miraculously come together to get their bacon way. Here’s how it goes down:
The Girl (known to be manipulative and incredibly smart):
“Mom, we want to help you cook dinner tonight.” (Mom’s radar is beginning to activate, but, aw, mom is turning to mush here.)
The Boy (an irresistible charmer (have you seen the eyelashes?) and frightenly good liar):
“Yeah mom, you always do so much for us. We want to do something for you.”
I know what you are thinking right now: I am a sucker with this stuff. And I am so not a sucker normally. I am a hardcore, don’t mess around, no-B.S. type of gal. You want to barter down the best price on that jalabia in the Khan El Khalili Cairo souk? I’m your gal. Need to sweet talk your way into Sir Richard Branson’s exclusive Kasbah Tamadot in the Atlas Mountains? Then you’ve come to the right person. But pair food, the kitchen and my kids and I go soft, Brie-left-out-in-the-sun soft.
In minutes they put together a quick excuse to eat lard: creamy boiled fingerling potatoes, Normandy butter, shredded Wisconsin cheddar, Turkish black pyramid salt and crumbled bacon. It’s not brain surgery, but it is slathered with manipulation and plenty of worthwhile calories.
How, or why, could I say no to that? We sit down to dinner with their new creation, which they have decided to call Dajopo (Daniela Jonathan Potatoes) and commence reporting our mitzvah for the day: Dani shared her materials with a classmate that was ill prepared. Jonathan used his allowance to buy a newspaper that supports the homeless.
The treadmill waits patiently for me tomorrow and the rabbi would smile if he could hear us share the ways we helped someone else for that day. I want my mitzvah to be that I’ve created these two awesome children that are smart, assertive, caring and exceptional culinarians. After all, they make a mean bacon.
It’s a fun life being a foodie and a Jew. Granted, aside from Yom Kippur, when we fast and pray for atonement, every other holiday requires a ridiculous amount of food as an accompaniment. Sukkot, the holiday currently being celebrated, is no exception. During Sukkot (which falls five days after the oh so somber Yom Kippur and lasts for 8 days) it is traditional to eat foods that reflect the autumn harvest. For us Floridians autumn means the humidity is down to an 80% instead of 100% and temperatures dip into the high eighties, if we are lucky. But still, autumn.
Sukkot is downright a festival of the outdoors. Sukkah’s, or temporary huts, are built and decorated with all sorts of fruits and foliage. Not only do we celebrate the harvest, but we also commemorate the 40 years of exile that Jews spent after leaving Egypt: two for the price of one.
Pay close attention to my words here: festival, celebrate, commemorate. This is all Jew-speak for EAT, EAT, and EAT.
Seriously, folks, the idea behind this holiday is to gather yourselves together, preferably with a whole bunch of other hungry people, ideally under one big Sukkah overlooking the stars and stuff your faces with lots of amazing food. One big happy Jewish outdoor potluck.
There is a tendency for stuffed foods (peppers, cabbage), possibly reflecting the cornucopia being celebrated, possibly for convenience sake (easy to travel from Sukkah to Sukkah), regardless, it is quite traditional to serve vegetables this way. Tsimmes, which is Yiddish for ‘to make a big fuss over’ is a popular Ashkenazi Jewish casserole served. Ashkenazi Jews find their roots in Eastern Europe. The tsimmes is always sweet and usually a combination of fruit, vegetables, and/or meat cooked together for a long time over a low flame. Honey or brown sugar play a crucial role as sweeteners and carrots and raisins tend to be a favorite addition.
Although I am a Sephardic Jew (whose origins trace themselves to Spain and the Middle East), I enjoy hopping over to the Ashkenazi palate and dabbling in these holiday favorites. Since I don’t have memories of grandmother’s Tsimmes and my wonderful aunts (both stellar chefs) filled our holiday tables with such Sephardic specialties as Braised Chicken with Honey and Tomatoes, Rice with Curry and Raisins, and Moroccan Carrot Salad, I resorted to Joan Nathan, America’s most reliable culinary expert on Jewish Cooking, for my Sukkot tsimmes this year. Instead of the popular carrot taking center stage, this dish is made with mashed sweet potatoes, heightened with pineapple, and, as an ode to Thanksgiving (which is soon approaching) the whole dish is topped with marshmallows and baked.
When I made it for my synagogue, I figured, what dish can go wrong with marshmallows? And I was right. Kids were drawn to it because of its gooey delight, and adults where dazzled by its sweet yet slightly tart taste. Either way, I came out a winner, adding one more satisfying dish under a Sukkah bursting with culinary celebration.
It’s a horrible thing to kill an addiction cold turkey. It’s even worse to have it killed for you. Ruthlessly. Thoughtlessly. Cruelly.
That is how I feel with summer’s official end. Sure, South Florida kids have all been in school long enough to adjust to the bleak reality of a structured schedule, and, as the parent of two of them, so too have I been confined to early morning wake-ups, rushes to bus stops, drop offs, pick ups, homework screaming, and early bedtimes whilst insuring all three hundred different activities and requirements have been filled. It’s no wonder I collapse in bed with them at 8:30!
Still, the TRUE end to my summer comes with the dreaded temporary close of The Dairy Belle, in Dania Beach. Home of The Best Soft Ice Cream, I have been a faithful addict throughout the hot summer months, making the twenty minute drive for an unforgettably smooth twist on a cone- the loveable tango of chocolate and vanilla embraced in a cool, creamy spiral that balances precariously on a crispy crunch.
There are many soft ice cream joints around, and definitely many closer, but this one is IT, a fact they themselves boast by announcing they use more cream than others in their mix.
There are other pluses that make this tiny shack with five picnic benches a winner. The owners are French Canadian and extremely jovial. They are five minutes from the beach. And the place is always crowded with French-speaking uber tan, relaxed people. That in itself is a vacation and an escape from the humdrum of American suburbia life.
And then, of course, there is the poutine.
Poutine is the French-Canadian way of taking fries up a notch. A big notch. A concoction of French fries, cheese curd and brown gravy, this snack will hook you in your first crunchy, creamy, salty bite.
Originally created in Quebec, the French-Canadians are serious about their Poutine. And Dairy Belle does not disappoint. Served in tiny or large tin foil squares, their fries come heaping with steam, fresh cheese curd, and a savory thick brown gravy.
Dairy Belle will be closed from September 7th – September 27th, so needless to say, I found myself there with my two kids on Monday, September 6th- a rarity because they are normally closed Mondays. But this was the exception: the big send-off, and Labor Day weekend. We sat at our usual green bench and ordered up a poutine and several cones of soft ice cream: as we licked and chewed the three of us grew quiet, enjoying the salty air from the beach nearby, the cool creaminess of the ice cream, and the steaming crunchy poutine. It was all my comforts wrapped into one: beach, dessert, and salty goodness. I looked at my two kids and smiled, one was coated in ice cream, the other in gravy, I, daresay, in both.
“It doesn’t get better than this, kids. It doesn’t get better than this!”