I am digesting. Yes. Lots of digesting, both physical and literal, took place at the IACP Conference in Portland last week.
Big shout out to old friends and new. We now Facebook. We now Tweet, I promise to become a tweet whiz like my good friend, Jacqueline! Eating through laughs is as good as it gets. Fun games played, I’m thinking namely Human Bingo at Nourish Network’s mixer event – where a crowded room of strangers learned bizarre details of one on another in desperate attempts at shouting out BINGO. We are a competitive bunch. And yes, I have been to Africa, for those needing that spot filled.
Jaden Hair, from Steamy Kitchen, was a burst of sunshine in the charismatically grey Portland day, offering up tips and advice and always a helping hand to those mastering the world of social networking. Be searchable, was a key phrase I came away with. Dragon Crestwood, filled with spunk and creative energy (and with that name, how could one not be in for a good time!) delivered with her Deep Feast Writing, as we explored our writing lens through a baking potato. Amy Sherman from Cooking With Amy, reminded us about the importance of knowing your voice and having a niche and agents Jenni Ferrari-Adler and Lisa Ekus-Saffer offered useful tips on queries, book proposals, and platform. Oh but I leave so many out, I know I do. Of course Kim Severson, from The New York Times and the food goddess herself, Ruth Reichl, made a memorable duo (requests to host the Oscars are already pouring in), and, Mark Bitterman, was there to offer his salty inspiration and directions to his shop, The Meadow (a dangerous, dangerous place for my credit card, I soon discovered). Author Virginia Willis and publisher Bob Dees offered new insights from opposite perspectives, Scott Givot doled out support and fashion statements and Michael Ruhlman seemed to create a buzz wherever he went.
But let’s get down to it. The food. It was amazing. From the various events hosted by IACP to the morning bakeries to the grungy street cart festival under the bridge, Portland enchanted me with its culinary bravado. I can’t speak enough about it. But I’ll stop now. A picture says a thousand words. Enjoy the feast!
Golden raindrops beckon me from the newly built pergola.They come from Gingy, a tiny kumquat tree that is one of the newer additions to the Martinez garden, which, with my challenged green thumb, turns out to be more of a botanical boot camp than anything else:who ever can survive, deserves to stay.
There’s been a plethora of attendees at the Martinez botanical boot camp, beginning with the numerous lovely hanging plants, ones that are bright and happy and nourished when I purchase them but end up mangled dry messes: telltale signs of abandonment or over care.I try, I tell you I try.I buy all sorts of expensive potions: organic concoctions with photographs of healthy bright plants splattered on them and microscope writing promising fertility and growth, but then I lose interest or desire or simply and awfully forget, until it is too late and I attack the dead plant with a hearty sprinkling of garden magic and a desperate overdose of water which flushes briefly through its dried roots and splatters loudly on the Saltillo tile as in angry reprieve to my carelessness.
I want to be different about it, I do.I see myself as a lover of all things nature, and my garden is no exception.I wander the aisles of local nurseries, endless outdoor rows of bountiful plants and imagine these beauties nourishing my air and creating a lush tropical landscape upon 9340 N.W. 17th Street.And then I buy them and they are in shock with boot camp and die.
Mother nature is not much of a help either, supplying no rain when I am too lazy to bother with a hose or offering up unexpected frigid weather that demands I take my hanging plants indoors for shelter.This is too high maintenance for one that has two children that barely made it through babyhood in tact.
Which is why I celebrate proudly the foliage that survives my tough love.There’s Lilly, of course, my twelve-year old Hibiscus plant that was my first child, long before the kiddies arrived.She knows no other home or parent and seems just fine: happily thriving in mountains of bright pink flowers, she is my reminder that, in the garden, I did something right.The nameless cactus has also been quite a resilient fellow, surviving six years of my neglect as well as my children’s constant prodding and poking and tripping over (the 5-stitch scar above my son’s eye is thanks to Cactus…)
So Gingy didn’t know what was waiting for her when I took her from the magical Flamingo Gardens Nursery and stuck her in the earth here.But so far, she’s fared quite well, offering up a healthy explosion of plump kumquats that where dutifully ripped off by my two young gardeners-in-training and then boiled up into a delightful marmalade. She’s now rather barren of course, only tiny leaves remain, that, upon close inspection, sport holes from some sort of fungi or worm or something demanding further care.She is angry with me, I know.I haven’t surrounded her with orchids and pomelos as she was in her former home.I’ve only planted her, waited eagerly and stripped her of her goods.Cheated her in a sense, she must assume.But I look at it another way, hoping she serves as much an inspiration to me as a gardener as she has as a cook.The marmalade is golden, tart and delicious, offering up chunks of peel that give way to the floral citrus of the kumquat.I have jars upon jars waiting to be enjoyed: a celebration of Gingy lines my refrigerator door.As for the tree, I know I must take care of that problem with the leaves.Maybe buy some fertilizer or some ladybugs to put on her leaves for protection.Something, anything; I owe her that much.But for the meantime, I find myself putting it off for later and enjoying another piece of toast slathered with boot camp perfection.
Bread haunts me so.I am not supposed to eat it this week (a Passover thing) and so, it teases.And lures.And promises me I can’t live without it.
The scale reconfirms Jewish law:I can live without it (the scale insists for longer than one measly week).The rolls forming on my gut reconfirm that Jewish law and scale are correct (when did this happen?)But the bread, ah the bread, in all its glorious forms is insurmountable torture to go without.There are warm bagels sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and spread with generous seas of creamy cream cheese or ciabata bread, with its extra chewy crunch on the outside, torn open to reveal those craters of dough forming planet-like surfaces which beckon wild blueberry jam to get trapped and devoured in.And of course, let’s not forget the French epi loaf with thorns of golden crunch running up and down the captivating baguette like an edible spine.I am shameless with this loaf, leaving intellect behind, notions of carbs and calories and such; I just tear at these spines, ripping whole chunks of epi off their vine and devour them warm and whole, slathering the occasional hunk of butter or brie, if I have self-control or time or either. These are breads I can’t live without.
So, yes, the idea of a boxed cracker called matzo…well, pales in comparison.Don’t get me wrong. I look forward to the initial matzo meeting.There is nothing quite like a whole piece of matzo slathered with butter and a toxic sprinkling of salt.This is how my father taught me to eat matzo and almost anything else:butter and a toxic sprinkling of salt.Butter and salt is how the purists do it, the Israelis, or sabras:the real matzo men (and women).Other ways seem pointless after that.And I’ve tried: egg salad, peanut butter, chopped chicken liver.Some work.Some scream out for the real yeast deal.
I admit then that that first, second, even third piece of matzo was delightful, delicious, a real embracing of my Jewish roots and a straight shot back to my childhood, where, finding matzo in the Latin Catholic country of Venezuela was a feat in itself.But then pieces got stuck in my teeth.And I had to pick them out.And I felt I had eaten cement. Lots and lots of cement with butter.And horribly so, the charoset, that lovely Passover delicacy of dates, figs, apples, nuts and wine, ran out.That stuff does wonders to a piece of matzo.Right up there with the butter.But when I went dry on that, the matzo went awfully dry.
So somehow I found myself traveling to every bakery for every other possible thing one would get at a bakery:truffle mousse at Le Croissant Time, fresh pasta at Doris (strategically placed by their bakery),hazelnut coffee at the bagel shop.I knew this would not end well for me.I understood it was not fair to me.I have no self-control when it comes to food.None. Zero.It is not in my DNA like food and all things food is.Guilt riddles me somewhat, but then that wafting of warm dough sings and dances in my nostrils and I inevitably cave, like I did this Passover, like I did last.
I don’t go crazy on the bread:a fugitive sandwich in a darkened room, a warm bagel incognito in the car on the run.Abstract places for abstract delights.There is no outright celebration of all things yeast, but still, I can’t bear to turn them away, not even for the week.I hope to not have let anyone down:my rabbi, God, my scale.And so I keep the matzo box nearby, just so.And the butter is always soft.
“If you let your leg dangle just a teensy weensy bit off the side of the bed, the bed monster will get you,” my older sister informed a gullible six-year old me many many moons ago.Her steady, authoritative gaze bore deeply into my impressionable eyes and I instantly believed her.Why wouldn’t I?She was my big sister and my guide to survival in life.Whatever she said, stuck.
And so, this freshly seared image of a patient beast (slightly benevolent and cuddly but with a wicked temper that could turn on you in an instant) housed itself in my psyche and settled in so comfortably that it took me years to stop sleeping with my feet safely curled up by my chest…just in case.
I would greet mornings with a quiet sigh of relief and a quick toe count and then eagerly jump out of bed to the welcoming aroma of our nanny Yolanda’s cooking.Yolanda seemed to never sleep, for, walking into the brightly lit kitchen as dawn turned to day was like entering a whirlwind of a restaurant at high peak.Pots clattered, coffee brewed, fresh orange juice awaited, and something always sizzled on the stovetop.
On top of being an amazing cook, she seemed psychic as well, for, on nights that had seemed particularly bumpy (maybe my foot had accidently slipped and my big toe leaned precariously over the side, maybe I had felt a sharp claw or furry paw make its deadly move) she’d erase my troubled, sleepless look with a batch of her famous empanadas de carne, meat empanadas.These would sputter shamelessly on the skillet, ending up as golden crescents exploding with seasoned meat, carrots and potatoes.Crunching into them made my stomach and every other part of me, for that matter, feel happy and safe.
Years later I confessed to my sister the countless nights I slept curled in a ball, not because I liked it, but because I felt my life depended on it.She seemed puzzled and asked me why and I, aghast, reminded her that it was because of the monster story she told me when we were little.A chuckle escaped her mouth and her blue eyes softened and sparkled at me.
“Seriously?” she said,“I don’t even remember saying that.”
I could have kicked her, as siblings do.But instead, I joined her in her chuckle and more than anything, got an instant craving for Yolanda’s meat empanadas.
He kissed me, not a soft kiss, but a forced, hurried one, right between Period 4 and Period 5, we stood there in a secret rushed moment of youth, I, at the ripened age of eleven and him, a much wiser and older twelve, he kissed me.
And it was disgusting.
Not what little girls tucked comfortably away in their pink canopy beds dream about or are read to in tales of princes and peas where the kiss is The Event of Grandeur, ever so tender and complete and enveloping.The girl loses senses.Knees buckle.Long perfect blonde hair cascades between them.A tiny sigh is heard.And life as we know it is renewed.
This is what I had expected, what I’d been promised, in countless years of fairy tale grooming.And even though it was the seventies, an era where women proudly burned bras and demanded from men things that had never been demanded before, this little girl expected to swoon, blush, and feel whole and refreshed by her first kiss.
Instead, oceans of bubble gum grape saliva had infested my mouth.I’d always been a big fan of Hubba Bubba, heck, my sister and I nurtured our reputations based on the proud acknowledgement that we knew the guy who’d invented its unforgettable flavor, but, the critical difference was that I chose when to taste it and between Period 4 and Period 5 in the stairwell that day was not one of those moments.
My kissing mate misread my initial hesitation as a moment of shyness (one of many poor calls in judgement) and proceeded to plunge further into my mouth; his thirsty, clumsy tongue digging deeper and deeper in feign attempts of pleasure he swept my throat for tonsils, it seemed.And I fought this alien creature slivering inside me, eyes watering, mind spinning, I wondered why I’d been fooled into believing this would be the luckiest moment of my life (and with a sixth grader no less!) But instincts are uncontrollable things and mine kicked in after the initial moment of horror wore off. I ripped myself away from my self-appointed courter and, right there, between Period 4 and Period 5, on his Nike-clad feet (coveted shoes hard to secure in Venezuela back then) I spat, spat, spat that Hubba Bubba flavor in desperate efforts to remove the memory from mind.
I looked up to find a small ego staring back at me (for no one had used his toes as a spittoon before) and my eyes winced as my body moved away (wishing now I’d taken the main stairs and gotten a good seat at World Geography instead) and not a word transpired between us, two fallen lovebirds, both equally shocked by the action of the other, we drifted away leaving the stairwell with its memory and puddle of grape saliva.