25 December 2008

Vive la bûche de Noël

Growing up, I was aware of "yule logs" only as the perpetually burning log in the fireplace.  If you didn't have your own fireplace (which we usually didn't, living most often in urban apartment buildings), there was always the televised fireplace flickering for hours on some public access channel--which my family firmly resisted.  I watched my share of "Frosty the Snowman," "A Charlie Brown Christmas"--and let's not forget the classic "It's a Wonderful Life" with Zuzu's petals!--but television was not something we were going to make the centerpiece of our living room, sitting around a cold box wishing for real flames.  But this is beside the point.

The point being that to other people, out there in other parts of the world--certainly to my husband and his family--a "yule log" has always signified less something to burn as something to bake.  According to him, Christmas just isn't Christmas without a Bûche de Noêl, the sponge cake slathered with chocolate buttercream and rolled up to look like a log (covered 
with more buttercream).

Several years ago, my husband revived the recipe in our home.  Having a child of our own, no doubt, made stronger his desire to preserve his own family traditions from France.  I have to confess that at first, I was a bit disappointed.  Something about the dessert seemed too ordinary to me, although its shape was unique to the season.  Buttercream cake, to me, was just the most typical of American-style cakes--something everyone had for their birthday.  And the form of the bûche reminded me of a "jelly roll," which is something I never particularly liked.

A side note: every year I am thankful that we do not have to have arguments over when to celebrate Christmas (the eve or the morning) or at whose house.  
I know this can be a source of tension for many couples.  We just celebrate twice: Christmas eve at our own house, with whichever French relatives are in New York; Christmas day up in Connecticut with my parents.  My husband's family have always exchanged gifts and done their big meal on Christmas eve; we have always waited until Christmas day.  To pull this back around to the bûche, I used to be relieved that we could satisfy my husband's desire for the traditional French dessert, and then I could make something different for Christmas day.  Of course, eating two big meals in the span of less than 24 hours is no easy feat, either.

Another reason I was disappointed in the bûche was that it took my husband a few years to get the recipe right.  This is not his fault.  The recipe is his mother's (of course) and it is not always easy to convert metric and celsius weights and temperatures to our Imperial measurement system.  The first year, if I recall, the cake stayed in the oven too long and became dry and hard to roll.  My husband's solution was to moisten the cake with undiluted rum--way too much rum!--and you'd have done just as well with a straw (and a ready cure for a hangover) as a spoon.  The next year, I don't recall what seemed to go awry; maybe the chocolate was too sweet, as is the sad case with much of the chocolate in the U.S.

And then--horrors!--my husband began to want to share this confection with my family on Christmas day as well.  Two meals, two yule logs.  I thought it would be a one-time event, so I relinquished my title as "dessert provider" for the family (always my contribution, at any event where food is featured), and we ate a so-so bûche.  Then another.

At this point, it would be charitable of me to reveal that in intervening years, my husband started to perfect his recipe, adapted for our American kitchen (more on what an "American kitchen" means in some future post; it's got a very specific sense if you say this to a French person).  And it would be generous as well as accurate to say that, in fact, I have finally come to enjoy (more than my share of) this dessert.  My husband has figured out exactly how long it needs to cook to retain its spongy moistness.  
He has begun to spike it with simple sugar syrup (though we are now thinking a small touch of rum could come back into the picture).  The chocolate he used this year was an unqualified success.  And it's great to see my son enjoying the bûche as I know my husband did when he was a child.

Perhaps I also warmed up to the bûche during the single year that I myself created one.  My son's preschool, which is international in its focus, was having a holiday party, and  I volunteered to supply (what else?) dessert.  The bûche really was a great choice for the impact of tradition and ethnicity.  Of course I refused to make my mother-in-law's recipe; I had seen a version of bûche that was much fancier, more "gourmet," and I spent many hours laboring over it.  In fact, it was quite good--better than the ones my husband had been turning out in those early years--and it was more pleasing to my artist's eye: I made the chocolate look much more like bark, I thought, and I also added meringue mushrooms dusted with cocoa powder (they looked real, were whimsical and fun, and tasted great).  But it was clear that, to my husband, it just wasn't the same.  And I do understand, really.

So, this year, for many reasons, my husband once again was the Christmas chef.  And to give him his due... we had the best Christmas eve meal ever.  Cassoulet (see photo, right), while not traditional as a Christmas recipe, is the dish most associated with his hometown of Toulouse, France.  I will not reveal the source of our ingredients--the duck, the special brand of haricots, the sausage and such--but will say that the whole lived up to, and even surpassed, the sum of its high-quality parts.  A perfect dish on a cold winter's eve, a one-pot family meal to warm the body and soul.  And the bûche: it should be said, this year, it was close to perfection.  Close, I say, because I admit I still long for the pastry art details that please my eye; I miss the meringue mushrooms.  But the taste was wonderful, and I happily ate seconds--on both Christmas eve and Christmas day!

(As a sort of post-script, I will say that although my eye enjoys artistry, I do appreciate the simplicity and the humbleness of the dessert "tout simple"--the lack of fussiness in our bûche.  Even the one I made myself, while "fancy" in some ways, was very modest compared to the commercialized frenzy of the name-brand versions peddled in Parisian boutiques.  Especially in the current economic climate--though this has always been my opinion, even in flush times--I find wealth displays and conspicuous consumption distasteful.  A friend of mine forwarded the following New York Times article about just this subject as applied to end-of-year traditions of champagne and yule logs, and I have to say that I agree with the "scrooges" when it comes to the level of excess depicted here.)


© All Rights Reserved/Melting Pot Family. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from the author, Allison Cay Parker.

23 December 2008

For Maria in Chania, Greece

A supplemental post tonight, just to reach out to a fellow blogger--someone I have never met but am quite sure I would like very much if I ever had the occasion.

It is Christmastime, and while many of us are wrapped up in our plans, our holiday traditions, wanting to stay safe in the illusion that our lives can be, even momentarily, comfortable and festive (and I maintain we must create these pockets of security for ourselves, for our children, especially the young ones)... it is easy to get myopic and pay less attention to those beyond our thresholds, our borders.  I myself am only emerging briefly from myopia--not for holiday reasons exactly; I am on an incredibly tight deadline, editing a book... and I have had to shut myself off from all media for days, just to juggle the current professional needs with my other full time duty: being Mom.  I am very, very thankful for this work right now, but also need to remind myself that part of life in a "melting pot" is to keep up with others across the globe.

I have just posted an entry about--what else?--Greek holiday cookies, and I want now to acknowledge how out of step in many ways that post feels to me, now that I have had the chance to catch up on news from Greece.

If, by chance (and I'm sure this is more likely to be true for my American compatriots, than for my friends and family in Europe; that is a constant embarrassment) you have not yet heard about the recent, holiday-sobering incidents in Greece, I recommend you take a look at this post from the blog Organically Cooked.

Please, go ahead and read my own hopes for pastries in my post from earlier tonight.  Be kind to me in my editorial blur, and do not think me Antoinette-ish.  But know that my heart is with those families in Greece who might not taste the sweets this holiday season as much as they worry for the future of their country's youth.  My thoughts and prayers are with you.  Maria, thank you for your continued posts.


© All Rights Reserved/Melting Pot Family. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from the author, Allison Cay Parker.

07 December 2008

A City Christmas Tree

Well, we did it.  We broke with tradition this year.  No trip to the country, to a hayride and hot apple cider and a cut-your-own experience "en famille" out on a tree farm.  But all is not lost.  In remaining city-bound this year, we participated in a time-honored urban Christmas ritual: visiting the "tree man" on the corner.

We started out by reading a fabulous children's book that I enthusiastically recommend to everyone: Rebecca Bond's magical story, A City Christmas Tree (link to view on amazon).  No other book I've seen captures this aspect of a city Christmas, and this book matches beautiful, lyrical writing and a great family message with luscious illustrations.  Each family member in this story has a unique vision of the tree, a favorite element--the scent, the color, the lights, the angel on top, the family who will gather around it--and in the end, the city is peaceful and calm, beautiful in the light of "hundreds of Christmas tree trees."

So, bundled against the cold (I regret there is no snow yet this season), we headed outside and down Second Avenue to 26th Street, where a small forest of precut trees--nonetheless beautiful and perfuming the block--awaited our inspection.  And where we found our very own "Christmas tree man" ready to guide us.

(Here let me just acknowledge that all over the city, there are also young women sitting out in the cold all day and into the night, sleeping in vans, helping city dwellers find their perfect bit of a country Christmas imported into the asphalt jungle.  I commend these women and men--this transient population, spreaders of good cheer and pine needles--it's a tough job, and I hope they are paid well for their work; they earn it.)

After the usual looking, rejecting , negotiating over the price and looking some more, we found a great Douglas Fir--this being our annual preference among the other varieties--and when we asked, we were told that our particular tree came from Pennsylvania.  Selection made, price agreed, "Franck from Montreal" (we noticed his accent) put our tree into the bundling machine, cut off some of the trunk to give our tree the best chance at drawing up water once in our tree stand, and our transaction was finished.

My son, the budding photographer, is the one who documented the day's excursion with the following pictures of Franck, who is posing with our tree and preparing it for transport.




Come to think of it, perhaps the next time we're heading down 2nd Avenue, we'll remember Franck and bring him some hot cocoa and cookies...

For now, though, we're busy and warm inside: we have a tree to decorate!


© All Rights Reserved/Melting Pot Family. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from the author, Allison Cay Parker.

06 December 2008

Christmas Cookies: Frosted Trees


Here's a bit of holiday cheer!


And if you think these cookies have sparkle... 

You should have seen the twinkle in my kindergartener's eye when he saw the results of today's culinary labor--though I ought not call it "labor," it was simply too much messy fun for all involved.

There is nothing like the first batch of Christmas cookies to build a kid's anticipation as we head into the December season.  Yes, these cookies are gaudy, and no they're in no way good for the body... but for the childlike spirit inside--no matter your age--these do the trick.  You start listening for sleigh bells and a certain jolly toy-maker.  You lick your lips and beg for just one more cookie, please... one more marshmallow in your mug of hot chocolate, you swear it won't ruin your dinner later on.  And as you munch and sip, smile and dream, yes, you know it's time to pull out the yuletide CD and brush up on your caroling.  (At least, that's what we did today, waiting for the icing on the cookies to harden.  My son is hooked on Nat King Cole singing "Joy to the World" and all the rest, and I wonder if, a year gone by, he remembers the catalog of gifts in "The Twelve Days of Christmas"?)

Of course if it weren't for the chronological child in the family, I'd have nothing to do with such fare, so I pause to thank him here, because I have to admit that these colorful cut-out cookies make my eyes light up, too.  They get me in the right spirit, and suddenly I can really remember what it's like to be five years old and counting the days until the 25th of December: it's exciting, and pure magic.

For the child (or "inner child") in your life, here's a simple butter cookie recipe, with directions for royal icing.

Basic Sugar Cookies
(makes approximately 3 dozen cookies, depending on size of cutters)

1/3 cup butter (no substitutes), softened
1/3 cup shortening (such as Crisco brand)
3/4 cup sugar
1 tsp baking powder
dash of salt
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups all-purpose flour

Beat butter and shortening in a large mixing bowl with an electric mixer on medium to high speed for 30 seconds.  Add sugar, baking powder, and salt.  Beat till combined, scraping bowl occasionally.  Beat in egg and vanilla till combined.  Beat in as much of the flour as you can, and stir in remaining flour with a wooden spoon.  Divide dough in half.  Form each half into a disk and wrap in plastic.  Chill in the refrigerator until ready to use.

Preheat oven to 375F.  Roll one dough portion at a time on a lightly floured surface, until 1/8-inch thick.  Cut with desired cookie cutters.  Place cutouts on an ungreased cookie sheet.  Bake 7-8 minutes or till edges are firm and bottoms lightly browned.  Transfer to wire rack to cool.

To store: Place cookies in layers separated by wax paper in a shallow container; cover.  Store at room temperature up to 1 week or freeze (unfrosted) for up to 3 months.  If freezing, allow to thaw before icing.


Royal Icing
(This makes a lot of icing; I always have too much left over.  I recommend cutting the recipe in half!)

3 TBS meringue powder
16-ounce package powdered sugar (=4.5 cups), sifted
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
1/2 cup warm water

Combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl.  Beat with an electric mixer on high speed for 7-10 minutes or till mixture is extremely stiff.  Cover icing with clear plastic wrap.  You can use small portions of the icing to mix individual colors--try to use small amounts of natural food coloring; if using paste food coloring, remember that a very little goes a long way.


Decorating Your Cookies

Have fun and let your imagination lead the way!  Sprinkle cookies with sanding sugar or other decoration while royal icing is still wet.  One technique you may want to try is using a small paintbrush (dedicated only for food) to paint designs: paint patterns on cookies that have already been iced and have dried, or paint on still-wet royal icing and swirl to blend colors in pretty patterns.

Of course if you're like most children, you will succumb to the "little bit of everything" desire and your cookies will be a collage of color and every conceivable topping.  (More is just more, but sometimes it's better!)


© All Rights Reserved/Melting Pot Family. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from the author, Allison Cay Parker.

02 December 2008

Thanksgiving Eulogy... Cranberry Christmas

Thanksgiving was just days ago, but already it is so "yesterday," so completely over, and I'm sorry to see it go.  I'm especially sorry when the spirit of thankfulness for what we have is so abruptly hijacked, twisted by society at large into a demand for what we do not have but want, and what we cannot afford but often buy anyway.  I am proud to say that although there have been past excesses in the family, none of my clan has ever considered credit card debt a mandatory part of Advent; our "waiting" has never been in fear of January interest rates to pay for December foolishness.  This year, with our economy in shambles, it is even more important to keep our perspective.

Still, Madison Avenue continues to sing out its hopeful jingle--"spend, spend, spend"--and the usual signs of a commercial Christmas in the city have arrived.  We will indulge in some of it: enjoy the white lights everywhere on bare tree branches, watch the skaters at Rockefeller Center and maybe skate ourselves (but at nearby Bryant Park, a better value), eat roasted chestnuts sold by the hot-dog vendors, file past the elaborate windows of the big department stores.  This year, for various reasons, we will probably eschew our annual "cut-your-own" tradition in the country and even purchase a city Christmas tree on some corner of Second Avenue (we will be careful to turn it over to a wood-chipper for mulch when the time comes).

So, Christmas is already in the air; carols are being piped in to stores.  Even if you're only shopping for groceries, it's hard to avoid the audio cues of sugarplums and sleigh bells and someone's mother kissing Santa Claus while you pick your eggnog off the shelf.

But this post is a final look back at Thanksgiving, and a reminder that if you're in shopping mode and looking for culinary bargains, this could be the time to buy... marked-down cranberries!  Some of you have already done this, I know.  In fact, this post is dedicated to one of my blog followers, Waterside Mom, who scooped up some cranberries recently and was less than satisfied with the results of the package recipe for cranberry sauce.  Some of you, on the other hand, are perhaps glad to be rid of the focus on this bitter fruit, made too cloyingly sweet in most commercial preparations.

I will simply advocate the following easy-to-prepare recipe, and say that cranberries make a great transition from Thanksgiving to other holiday meals and festivities.  In fact, although I myself tend to associate cranberries with Thanksgiving, it's true that one of the best Christmas decorations in family memory was the year my mom and I made hand-strung garlands of popcorn and cranberries and draped them around the tree.  Plus, I remember a wonderful children's book, Cranberry Christmas, that was around when I was a child, and can still be found on Amazon.com (click the book title to--what else?--shop!).

Here, please find my own modified version of a family cranberry classic.  Enjoy it, and remember to keep the Thanksgiving spirit throughout the year.  We are still very blessed, no matter what losses we suffer.




Cranberry Nut Relish
(for the nut-allergic, simply omit walnuts)

1 pound fresh cranberries, washed and picked over*
1 cup granulated sugar (can be cut down to 3/4 cup)
1 lemon, juiced
8 ounces orange-apricot marmalade or fruit spread**
1 cup walnuts, broken into pieces


DIRECTIONS:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees (F).
Toast walnuts in the oven for approximately 10 minutes; set aside.

In an oven-proof (pyrex) dish, combine cranberries, sugar, and lemon juice until well blended.  Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 1 hour.  (Depending on the depth of your dish, you may want to place a baking sheet on a rack under cranberries to catch juice that bubbles over.)

When cranberries come out of the oven, add marmalade and toasted walnuts, and mix well.

Let cool and put into glass containers.  Store in refrigerator.  Keeps indefinitely.

Serve hot or cold.  (We always have it warm!)  If the relish crystalizes, reheat it.


* NOTE: If using frozen cranberries... thaw them first.  I know from messy experience that if you put frozen cranberries into the oven, they will explode and you will not only lose your recipe but also spend hours cleaning out the stove!

** This year I used Sarabeth's brand "Orange Apricot Marmalade" and it was delicious.  The original recipe calls for regular orange marmalade, but the combination of orange with apricot brings a bit more complexity and balances bitter with sweet much better.  The recipe is very forgiving, though, so experiment with whatever orange and/or apricot preserves you have.



© All Rights Reserved/Melting Pot Family. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from the author, Allison Cay Parker.

26 November 2008

Thanksgiving 2008


OK, let it be said: Thanksgiving is my top candidate for "favorite holiday."

Maybe because it's the only one our family celebrates that is exclusively American, yet not linked so garishly to patriotism as July 4th.  Make no mistake, I am a patriot, if a critical one--more the style of our recently elected president; not of the flag waving, "love it or leave it" sort.  I embrace much in our democracy and our culture, and I own up the things I'd rather disavow.  I grill burgers and hot dogs, eat greasy potato chips, and make fruit pies on Independence Day.  Plus, I love fireworks.  But Thanksgiving is so much better.

Yes, there's some unease around the story--let's call it guilt--if you want to consider the way settlers/invaders of the "New World" ultimately repaid the kindnesses of the native people, who helped the pilgrims survive the winter and celebrate their first life-sustaining crops.

And, yes, Macy's and Hallmark have managed to put their commercial spin on it all--though the annual parade in New York is still a "must" if you are or have a child.

And perhaps I can "afford" to love the holiday, because it does not involve family arguments and old injuries brought up around the table--we are so functional as to be an anomaly in this day and age, I think--and also because we do have the financial means to indulge in a hearty (but not obscene) home-cooked meal of fine ingredients.

This is the point, I guess.  It's about the turkey and gravy and cornbread dressing (my paternal grandmother's recipe); it's about the sweet potato casserole WITH marshmallows, thank you very much; it's about the pecan pie that we don't dare tamper with (again, grandma's recipe)... though one year I did make a chocolate version that was heavenly, and that I was promptly told would be appropriate for any of the other 364 days of the year!  But even more than the food (gasp!) it's truly about family, about traditions and taking a moment to honor them.  And Thanksgiving is, to my knowledge, the only public holiday that is completely secular and yet embraces this core idea that belongs to any religion: to show gratitude for the blessings we have, however they may have come into our lives.  When else are we reminded, as an entire nation, to be thankful?

There is always something to be thankful for--even in hard times, even facing global crises of finance, of the environment--and I think it's even more important now to articulate the ways in which we are lucky, too; to not lose sight of the fact that we have so much, even as many of us fear losing jobs, homes, other valuables.

This year, I am most thankful for my son.  For the way he lives in the moment, for the intensity of his feelings, his passion and boundless energy; I am thankful for his curiosity and kindness, his kisses, songs, and things made out of Legos.  I am thankful for his love of learning, and the quality education he is receiving.  (That's his classroom, decked out for a Thanksgiving feast in the photo above).

He says he is thankful "for sleeping in grandma's bed"... which he will no doubt find a way to do this year, as we head to Connecticut to visit.  And I know he's thankful for the hand-knit necktie I made for him to wear at the school's celebration this week (but that's another story!).

I am thankful that as a "class parent" I had the privilege of serving close to 20 kindergarteners, who were all adventurous in tasting the menu (some whom are from other countries and have never had this traditional American fare), and who were very well mannered at the table, remembered please and thank you, and who read aloud a statement of thanks for their parents and their school.  It was so obvious that, at least for the day, they meant it with all their hearts.  (THANKSGIVING TIP: If you ever want a true experience of what the holiday should be about, find a way to place yourself at the epicenter of a spontaneous "group hug" with a dozen plus 5- and 6-year-olds!!)

I am thankful for my husband and his hard work, without which we would not have many of the basic things.  And for his companionship.

I am thankful for my friends, their support, their honesty, and their laughter.

I am also thankful for my parents, for too many reasons to name (they know, I've told them).

This year, I am thankful that we will still gather and share the same, time-tested recipes.  We'll be doing this in a rehab center (for physical therapy; my father is recovering from knee replacement surgery), bringing the meal along with us, and toasting to health in a private space on site that we've managed to reserve for a couple of hours.  If you can't come to the Thanksgiving table, then the table will come to you!  That's how we operate in our family.  Together at all costs, with gratitude.

And now, excuse me while I get the pie out of the oven.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone.

14 November 2008

Athens to Methoni

Greece April 2007: Part I
(first of several posts from the journal I kept during my trip to Greece last year)

We are being driven out of Athens by Nikos in his yellow Mercedes taxi.  It is a luxury that embarrasses me intensely--I did not order it, would never have done so; I would have attempted more tedious, "everyman" public transportation--yet I admit I am thankful for the comfort.  The drive to Methoni, across the entire Peloponnese, is expected to take 4-5 hours, depending on the traffic, which promises to be heavy due to the approaching Easter holiday.  It is Holy Thursday, and already Athens is emptying out, releasing her grip on those who go back to their families' villages for the biggest celebration of the year.  The Greeks do Easter like no one else.

My mother and I are on a pilgrimage of sorts, heading first to Methoni, but eventually to Filiatra, the town where my grandmother grew up (also not far from the area of my grandfather's boyhood).  This ancestral visit has been a dream of mine for a long time.  We have only just arrived in Greece the day before, and it's still hard for me to believe we are actually here--except for the smell of orange trees in bloom, surrounding Syntagma Square, where we have met Nikos to begin our day's journey.

"They are too bitter to eat," Nikos says when I mention the heady orange scent drummed up by a light rain overnight.  That's okay.  I am content to keep the memory of their perfume in my nose; my stomach is already sated.  There is no better breakfast in the world than a Greek breakfast of rich, tangy whipped yogurt with thyme honey, accompanied by coffee with warmed milk... at least, if it's eaten in Greece!

The sights out the window roll by, still mostly highway heading toward the Peloponnese.  We stop at a toll booth, and Mom notices the women working the booths.

"I see the women have taken over the toll booths," she says.
"Yes, it's better to see a beautiful woman than a man with a mustache," says Nikos.
I can't resist: "Or a woman with a mustache."
"What a nightmare!" Nikos says with a shudder, and we laugh.

At the Isthmus of Corinth, we stop to look at the canal cut through the neck of land that separates the Peloponnese from the mainland.  It was created in 1893, Nikos tells us.  He is well informed.  Perhaps not more so than your average Greek, it's hard to say.  Average Greeks, I am willing to bet, receive a more complete, deeper knowledge of history as part of their basic education than what the average American acquires.  It's a shameful imbalance, for which I feel the need to make amends.  The canal was created by the Greeks, the French, and the Hungarians, to facilitate shipping trade.  Nikos says the first one to have the ambition and idea for the project was Alexander the Great, although the technical engineering knowledge of the age was not up to snuff.  Apparently Nero also made attempts, abandoned them.  The canal is very narrow and around 4 miles long, at sea level and minus a locks system.  It is amazing to see how sheer the rock walls are.  Looking down is a surprise--driving alongside it, you have no sense of being so high above sea level, but the drop is a long one.  The water is a lovely blue-green.

We stretch our legs, use a bathroom.  A woman sits at a table outside the door to the men's and women's rooms, a dish of coins and an ashtray on the table before her.  She sits there all day refilling the paper in the stalls and keeping things clean.  "Madame Pipi," the colloquial French members of my family would call her.  It's quite a job, but she seems to do it with some small measure of grace, or anyway she manages a cheerful thanks when we leave our tip.

Nikos is on a cigarette break (had he been getting a bit crabby as the time wore on?).  The clean air campaign has yet to turn up in Greece and its restaurants.  I'd forgotten when it was like to be asked for a smoking or non-smoking table, as we were asked at the restaurant we visited the night before--or else you are NOT asked and you take your chances.  Nikos motions back to the car, and we climb in.  His mood has improved, and conversation becomes more personal.  Nikos is a large man, but he can speak with a great gentleness, especially when he tells us about his mother from Smyrna, who came to Greece in the great population exchange that took place with Turkey in the 1920s.

The countryside opens up around us, changes, becomes more rocky once we pass through the area where the fortress of Acrocorinth looks over the canal, the Gulf of Corinth, and the Saronic Gulf.  The limestone outcrop is approximately 1,900 feet high.  We pass through Nemea, the site where, in Greek mythology, Herakles wrestled the lion.  Today this area is one of the wine-producing areas of the Peloponnese.  We pass Tripolis, Megalopolis, through the Arcadian landscape made famous by the ancient poets.  Wildflowers are everywhere now--sometimes a single flower, hearty, brightly colored, and clinging to a rock; sometimes entire fields of bright yellow.  Yellow, blue, purple blossoms on trees, the occasional red flower (a miniature poppy?)... the vibrant green grass, new this spring and newly refreshed with rain, makes the "spring green" in a box of crayons look muddy and dull.  Sheep.  Steep inclines and hairpin turns.  We know how perilous each turn is by the number of shrines at the side of the road where other travelers, unlucky, never made it to their final destinations.

Here Mom tells me a family story--a ghost story if you like--about my Uncle Louie.  Louie and one of the Kiros men (of Detroit "Coney Island Hot Dog" fame) were working on a house for Kiros and his family.  Three quarters of the way finished, and Kiros travels back here to the Peloponnese, misses one of said hairpin turns and dies.  Later, as Louie is working on completing the house for the family, he is in the attic alone and hears Kiros's voice say, "Louie, look under the boards."  He hears it twice, and scared halfway to his own death, he nevertheless manages to do as he's told.  Under the floorboards, he finds a strong box with an immense cash savings inside.  He had no idea it was hidden there.  Mom says Louie told her the story himself and that he was not a man to give himself over to stories.  Who am I to disbelieve?  Stranger things have happened in our family.  I think about how disconnected we have become, the current generation, from the kind of energy and openness, from the kind of belief and willingness to receive that must accompany these kinds of experiences.

Mountains roll by, and my stomach rolls with them as we make vertiginous turns up and up, 180-degrees this way then that.  There's something surreal about watching the landscape pivot around you.  And then we're in a valley again, moving toward Kalamata and the olive trees, leaves flashing silver in the sunlight.  Groves of olive trees that go on and on.  Past Kalamata, the olives become orange groves, then olive again.  This is a valley where things grow.  I think of yiayia, Mom's mother, and the olive trees she signed over to a cousin who remained in Greece long after she'd emigrated--this cousin we may find in Filiatra, though we have long ago lost contact.  I think of how my grandmother had a gardener's hand.  I remember she grew roses.  She could take a thorny stem from any cut rose in an FTD bouquet and plant it in the ground, put a Mason jar over it, and next year she'd have the beginnings of a new rose bush in her yard.  She loved flowers, loved making them grow, and it seems a strange paradox, an irony that this woman who lavished love on roses, made them bloom in her presence, never knew how to nurture her children's souls in the same way.

But this trip is not about the past.  It is about us, my mother and I, the hyphenated ones, the Greek-Americans.  We cut through the mountains, tourists driven in our taxi, and we oooh and ahhh like the rest of them, though it does somehow still feel like coming home, too.  We pass through Pylos, stop at Methoni.  We say good-bye to Nikos, wishing him "Kalo Pascha," a Happy Easter.  We have arrived.


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13 November 2008

Maria Filopoulou



Underwater Swimmers II, Oil on Canvas


It wasn't this painting, but it belonged to the same series of Underwater Swimmers.  I was on my way to Borders Books in the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle, NYC, looking for something I needed to purchase--not a pleasure read; it was an all-business kind of day--and the painting stopped me cold.  It was, in fact, a cold day.  Last winter I think it was.  And maybe it was the escapist in me who found this canvas so magnetic.  Before I even knew the artist's name, this painting made me think of the Mediterranean, of Greece and the Hellenic love of sun and sea.  I wanted to be there, swimming, and not at all where I was, roaming the slick public spaces of Manhattan's vertical (and very upscale) answer to a strip mall.

The painter, in fact, is an Athenian-born artist by the name of Maria Filopoulou, represented in New York by Millenia Fine Art.  My sense of affinity increased upon seeing the nameplate next to the luminous canvas, and yet again once I did a little biographical research: not only is Filopoulou Greek--born in 1964, only five years my senior--but once she reached her twenties, she made her way (as I also did) to France, where she studied painting in Paris at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts, working through the equivalent of an M.F.A.

Filopoulou has achieved some measure of international success.  According to the artist's website (linked above), her works grace the National Gallery and the Greek Parliament, and belong to private museums and collections across the globe.  I find it easy to understand why.

As you stand in front of a canvas belonging to this "Swimmers" series, the peripheral world fades away.  The picture seems to extend beyond the two-dimensional confines of the canvas, seems to envelop you, pulling you with a strong current into the underwater world of light and motion.  It is hard to turn away, especially if you succumb to the suggestion of secrecy--the idea that you are viewing a private, sacred ritual of swimming.

Okay, reality intrudes: I would be dishonest to say there were not a few crass gawkers, some unsophisticated tourists doing double-takes as they realized, Those swimmers are naked!  I was embarrassed for them--and also for myself and the condescending turn my thoughts took in their direction.  How quickly people can twist the sacred into something base; how quickly our looking becomes voyeuristic, dark.  It's absurd.

But to be voyeuristic, you have to hold yourself at a distance, which I find impossible to do when facing Filopoulou's paintings.  The key to her success lies in this--in the masterful way she manipulates space in the plane of the canvas.  I do not think it's outrageous to make some comparisons to paintings in the canon of art history: I am thinking of Monet's water lilies, the ones just a half dozen blocks farther south, hanging in the Museum of Modern Art.  The play of water and sky, object and reflection, the illusion that creates depth and infinity within a finite, flat space of stretched canvas... these qualities are similar.

Look at that blue, though.  God, just look at it!  Look at the dazzling hue and the dancing sparks of light, and you know at once that this art could never be born of gray Paris, or even the gardens of Giverny.  The Greek summer sun is unmistakable--the harsh light and honesty of it--and the fact that only the sea can lure it to playfulness.  Filopoulou's scene is not cultured or cultivated as a cosmopolitan city or a garden; rather, it is simple in its joy.  It is open and innocent, as well as free.

In her own statement, Filopoulou writes: "My compositions enable me to liberate myself from the enclosed space, providing me with the wide perspective that I need for my work.  I inhabit the space I create and it becomes a secure refuge.  The feeling of security gives me the vital sense of freedom to look at everything calmly and objectively, to experience vertigo, movement and even rebellion."  Yes, there is rebellion, too.

In her talk of enclosed space and refuge, of security and freedom--in her talk of rebellion, too--I find an artist I'd like to imagine is a kindred spirit.  Both of us born in the 1960s, a time of turbulence.  In America, there was the Civil Rights movement, the counter-culture rebellion; in Greece, the "Colonels' Coup" that brought the Junta to power.  Such different childhoods we must have had, she and I, but our countries were both preoccupied with the idea of freedom (America's at Greece's expense, I admit the argument will be made when it comes to the Junta).

But back to the canvas.  Here, there is no sign of struggle, only of organic, utopian life--rhythmic and pulsing, wonderfully vital.  There is something at once modern and classical, ancient even, at work in the "Swimmers" paintings.  And in the moment of standing there--no matter the bitter weather outside or the storms of daily annoyances and emotions within--I become part of it all.  I feel grateful for the innocence, the openness of bodies, the caress of water and light.

Maria Filopoulou's art is, for me, a wonderful discovery.  I hope it is for you, too.

10 November 2008

Black-Eyed Peas

We are on an Alan Jackson audio binge, my son and I.  I have to admit, it's amusing to hear my native-NYC kindergartener sing, "Where I come from, it's cornbread and chicken…," and he even nails the down-home accent!  He throws his heart into this song, even though he doesn't eat the same kind of chicken as they do in Dixie—we're not big on fried anymore.  But he does eat cornbread, plus another culinary nod to the American South: black-eyed peas.

There's a thing about black-eyed peas in my family--on both sides, though the obvious connection is paternal. My father is the one from the Deep South--Alabama, to be precise--and he's the original Alan Jackson fan (we danced to the song "Drive" at my wedding).  When I was small, I learned about black-eyed peas from my dad, and from his parents.  From them I learned about cornbread and chicken, about collard greens and grits.  I learned about the salty-fizzy-sweet of peanuts dropped in Coke, and about the sour tang of buttermilk (which I love to bake with, but simply never could bring myself to drink!).  And despite my mother's Yankee status (Detroit born and bred), my immediate family has, for most years I can remember, enjoyed the New Year's Day good-luck ritual of eating "Hoppin' John," a dish of black-eyed peas and rice, in which we hide a shiny new dime—an extra bit of luck for the one who receives it. (Warning: it behooves you to eat slowly before the dime gets found!)

The tradition of eating black-eyed peas on New Year's Day is common throughout the South, and it is thought to bring prosperity for the coming year.  Some people will tell you that the peas represent coins—which is why you're supposed to eat a lot of them—and that they should be eaten with greens, which represent paper money.  Although we ate collard greens periodically, I don't think we always ate them on New Year's, and maybe this explains my own modest income.

Black-eyed peas are, of course, a modest, inexpensive food—"poor folks" food—and for many people, this member of the cowpea family is loaded with significance.  I have a friend, for example, whose parents (maybe only one parent, I don't recall which one) won't eat them because they pretty much subsisted on them during the Great Depression, and this lowly pea on the plate brings back too many bad memories.  My father's family also knew poverty, but for him I believe there's nostalgia of a happy kind when he eats black-eyed peas.  It's "comfort food," "soul food," and he's transported back to the red dirt and honeysuckle of his boyhood.  Soul food, however, is most appropriately claimed by African-American culture—and, to be historically honest, this may as well be euphemism for "slave culture" in this country.  Black-eyed peas were most likely brought to the New World from Africa aboard the slave ships.  Perform even a cursory search for black-eyed peas on the Internet, and you will turn up references to the slave trade, and also to Union soldiers in the Civil War whose disdain for crops such as these inadvertently helped sustain the Confederate states.  For more than three hundred years, black-eyed peas have been a staple in the Southern diet, but not every association is one of luck, prosperity, or a happy childhood.

Nor is every association of the Southern United States.  It's embarrassing, but I don't know when this second-generation Greek-American finally realized: Greeks eat black-eyed peas, too!  I grew up with many traditional dishes, but black-eyed peas did not seem to be in my Greek family's repertoire.  Other beans, yes, and other greens.  My grandmother mortified her American-born children by picking dandelions from abandoned urban lots and boiling them for supper when times were difficult.  And although I was never the beneficiary of these impromptu, hard-luck meals, I did have my own taste of beans-with-greens: "fassolakia plaki me spinaki" (white beans baked with spinach).

So black-eyed peas weren't "Greek" to me in the slightest, and this view was aided by the paucity of commercial offerings.  Only recently have I seen recipes with black-eyed peas showing up in Greek cookbooks or on menus in Greek restaurants here in the U.S.  There is generally a very narrow allowance for "ethnic" dishes in America, despite our being the "melting pot" nation.  Living in NYC, I can find authentic Greek fare, but for many, there is no room to expand the notion of Greek cuisine beyond the stereotypical gyros or souvlaki in your local diner, a Greek salad with vegetables that don't taste anything like the flavorful ones you'd get in Greece, maybe a mediocre moussaka or the ubiquitous lamb, with a cloying baklava for dessert.

But, eaten in Greece throughout the year--and particularly during Orthodox Lent and other fasting periods, when observant Greeks shun all animal meat and dairy—black-eyed peas (called "mavromatika," literally the "black-eyed," plural) appear in tomato-based soups, in hot dishes mixed with greens, and are featured in cold salads.

So, why eat black-eyed peas (and why write about them)—at New Year's, or at any other time?  Obviously, taste is a matter of personal preference (and I will save the North/South debate on firm vs. "cooked to within an inch of its life" for another time).  Beyond taste, they are nutritious, being good sources of protein, calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, fiber, and folate.  For the superstitious, the link between black-eyed peas and good luck goes a long way back: according to one site I visited, yet unverified, the tradition can be traced to Babylonian Talmud (Jewish law) from the early centuries CE.  Why not?  These are good reasons.   For me, I can say that when I eat them, I think of "comfort" and childhood memories, like my father does.  But also, I eat them every so often because of their humble origins and history, and because I married into a Gallic world of "haute gastronomie," fine dining and rich foods.  Every so often, I need a good dose of humility.


Our Greco-Dixie Family Recipe for "Hoppin' John"

1 TBS butter

2 TBS olive oil

1 large onion, minced

1-2 cloves garlic, minced

1 pound dried black-eyed peas, picked over

1 ham bone, or ½ pound piece of smoked ham

½ tsp fresh thyme, chopped (in a pinch use ¼ tsp dried)

1 bay leaf

1 quart chicken broth

1 quart water

½ cup brown rice

1 lemon, juiced

1 tsp lemon peel, grated

salt and pepper to taste

1 tsp chopped chives

Heat butter with oil in a large pot over medium-low heat.  Add the onion, cook 1 minute.  Add garlic; cook five minutes.  Stir in black-eyed peas.  Add ham bone, thyme, bay leaf, chicken broth, and water.  Heat to boiling, then reduce.  Simmer, partially covered, 1 hour.

Stir in rice and continue to cook partially covered until black-eyed peas and rice are tender.  This may take at least another hour.   Remove ham bone.  Cut off any meat from the bone and chop fine.  Add ham to the soup and cook a couple of minutes.  Stir in lemon juice and lemon peel.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve hot, sprinkled with chives.   Don't forget to hide a shiny new dime in the serving dish for good luck!

05 November 2008

Yes We Can!

Last night, history was made in America, and I witnessed it.

How proud I feel.  It is not often that we are able to know and deeply appreciate, in the very moments of our lives as they unfold, the significance of events in the stream of time.  We all know that history is a revisionist's terrain, an exercise in looking backward, in editing, judging.  How often are we allowed to experience history in the now?  And how often do ordinary people claim authorship of it?  History books are written by the winners of wars, the conquerors, the ones in power, yes?  Yet I truly feel, on Election Day 2008, we were all empowered to speak, individually and collectively, and to send a clear message: Enough!

This sounds naive, I'm sure.  Especially from a longtime cynic.  But I remember the words of George Carlin, and I know their truth, that inside every cynical person, there is a disappointed idealist.  Well, today, I am not disappointed.

Last night, America elected the first (half) black man to the highest public office of the nation.  Last night, America reclaimed for itself the image of a land where anything is possible, where if you dare to dream it you can achieve it.  With the election of Barack Obama to the White House, America has again become the land of opportunity, has bought back the soul it sold these past decades.  And what an opportunity that must be seized.  We can, perhaps, begin to repair the damage to our international reputation.  We can, perhaps, truly leave behind the past eight years of "regime change" and arrogance, war and torture, deprivation of civil liberties, and governance by fear.  Perhaps we will be able to hold our heads up again when we travel abroad.  Perhaps this will be a renaissance.  The artist in me hopes so.  Time will tell.

Today, though, I want to believe in possibility.  I want to believe in the American Dream.  It's the same dream that brought my own grandparents here from Greece during the first decades of the 1900s--the dream that was the difference for them between life and death.  The dream they were willing to suffer for and never give up: not during the Great Depression, not during World War II, not during the social unrest and the race riots that came to their chosen hometown of Detroit in the 1960s.  It's the same dream that my father strived to help bring about in the South in the 1950s and 1960s--yes, that dream, the dream of Martin Luther King, Junior, a man my father knew personally, and who lost his life for his efforts to make the American Dream color-blind.  Finally, it's the same dream that lured my husband across the Atlantic: the dream of job opportunities that he did not have in France.  We are a family of dreamers.  Practical, feet on the ground, roll up your sleeves and get to work dreamers.

In 1956, at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, with the State Capitol building a couple of blocks away, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke, as my father tells me, with the quiet confidence of a Biblical prophet: "It will happen. The day will come when equality will walk the street outside this church.  It won't be easy; there'll be many crosses along the way, but it will happen.  Someday, a black man will hold the highest office in the land.  We may not live to see it, but it will happen."

I am so grateful that, although MLK did not, my father did live to see this day.  I have lived to see it.  And my five-year-old son, who is right now dreaming his own dreams with the night light on, has seen it too.  Of course he cannot know the weighty significance of this event; he sees nothing unusual in what has happened.  But this is in fact the biggest gift: that the eyes of his generation may see the American Dream in every color of the spectrum, take it for granted, and in the face of whatever future adversity comes their way, they will perhaps be that much better equipped with a role model in the office of the President who tells them: Yes you can!