20 December 2009


Hi. It's been a while. If you were in the habit of visiting "Melting Pot Family" on a regular basis, you've probably been wondering "What gives?" Actually, you probably stopped wondering long ago, given the length of my absence. With no new content to encourage your return, the fact that you're reading this now is actually quite lucky for me. Thanks for stopping by. (Ditto if this is your first visit, of course.)

The end of the summer brought tight editing deadlines, and then back-to-school season came. I'll tell you something about that: it's always during that time of year when new ideas start coming fast and furious. Maybe it's all those pristine notebooks and freshly sharpened pencils. Anyway, I've been busy since September, just not here. I have, however, still been in the "blogosphere," working hard to create something new. I'm happy to say, it's finally ready.

Those of you who've watched this space (or my Facebook profile) will not be surprised to know that the new site is entirely food-focused. Yes, that's right: I've tossed my hat into the culinary ring of food blogs. Does the world need another? Maybe not, but I hope you'll come over and visit anyway. The site is called FEEDING THE SAINTS, and you can link to the title here, or note the URL down below.

What will you find there? FEEDING THE SAINTS is a recipe-driven blog that explores the intersections between food, culture, faith (in all its guises), and charity. It places particular emphasis on Greek and Greek-American culinary traditions, but it is not limited to this cuisine. There are nods to my "Dixie Chick" roots, my French-by-marriage status, and whatever captures my fancy. It's a space where I can share recipes and stories. It's a project that pushes me to get more creative in the kitchen, and also a space where I can demonstrate my learning curve in food photography. There's also a charitable aspect surrounding a mysterious saint and his cake, but I'll leave that for you to discover.

In writing this, my final "Melting Pot Family" post, I have to say a big thank you to everyone who has read this blog, and especially to those of you who have taken the time to comment. During the past year, I've gotten to reconnect with old friends and also make new (and just as dear) ones. I'm grateful for every reader: friend, family, or complete stranger. I'd be thrilled if you decide to stop by the new blog—and if you do and feel so inspired, please take a moment to leave a comment. I'd love to hear from you. After all, your support has been what's kept me motivated right along, and it's the reason why I've dared to launch something new.

So, here's the URL: http://www.feedingthesaints.com. Come visit, let yourself be fed. See you there.

All the best,

18 July 2009

Pizza Italiano (Cooking with Q)

Well, it's not really Italian, this pizza—it's some crazy, ill-equipped American kitchen version—but it was just so much fun to listen to my son test out his best (and quite good) Italian accent while saying "Pizza Ital-ee-AH-no!" Not to mention the mischief of tossing the dough up in the air and catching it. His eyes grew wide: was I really going to allow throwing food? Not only allow it, but encourage it? I could see him wondering whether I'd gone crazy and also giving thanks for his good luck. We didn't at all accomplish what we should have with the dough: it was way too thick for one thing. But it was a good experiment. We used frozen whole wheat pizza dough purchased at Whole Foods, and then went to town on it. Of course there were no instructions for proper thawing or whether we were supposed to let it rise (or if that had already happened, pre-freezing). The dough never did rise, though I did try to give it time to do so. By way of excuse, I'll admit that the closest we've ever gotten to homemade pizza in the past is dressing up English muffins with sauce and cheese and baking them in the toaster oven like my parents did for me when I was little. This was not really much different. I cranked the oven to 425 degrees F, scattered some cornmeal on a baking sheet and did my best to coax the dough out into a flat circle. Tomato sauce next, plus shredded mozzarella. Then broccoli, because that's what my son likes on his pizza. (Yes, he's six and he has always eaten broccoli, I don't know what I did to deserve such an easy, varied eater!) More mozzarella, then some dollops of ricotta. In the oven for fifteen minutes, maybe twenty, I lost count. Mostly, I just looked at it by eye, pulled it when the cheese was bubbly and the crust looked sufficiently browned. The crust was a bit dense, way too thick for its texture, but it tasted good anyway. Q was happy with the taste of the pizza, and clearly with the escapade of making it. Definitely an experience worth repeating, especially if I can educate myself a bit better about how those pizza guys spin and toss the dough to some objective other than a good laugh.

12 July 2009

Saint Phanourios Cake Version #1

Here's a post I meant to put up a while ago.

Meet the Greek Orthodox Saint Phanourios, patron saint of the Lost & Found, if you will. Those of you who know me already, or know me through other social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, are probably aware of my current interest in Saint Phanourios and his phanouropita, which translates as "St. Phanourios's pie" (think of the more familiar spanakopita, or spinach pie). In fact, the phanouropita is not a pie in the traditional Greek form that features phyllo, nor is it what an English speaker would conjure with the word. I've seen the saint's honorary recipe called a cake, but that's misleading, too. Really, if you imagine a sweet bread loaf, more like a fruitcake—I know, but let's forget the wretched Christmas cakes with chemical cherries—that's the right idea. I'll call it spice cake; that's better.

I may post more in the future about the saint, his cake, and my search for the right recipe. For now, though, a preview. On July Fourth, I made my Phanouropita Version No. 1 (not very patriotic, I realize), and overall I think it turned out pretty good. I am still tinkering, so do not want to post a recipe, but I am sharing pictures.

Of the ingredients, I will say that there are two ways to make a phanouropita. One of them corresponds, more or less, to the religious requirements of the Orthodox Church for Lenten (fasting) days. That is NOT this version! This one has butter and is doused with brandy. And though it might not pass muster for various church observances . . . It came out tasty.

Of the process, I will say that I had quite a day of it. First, a full 64-ounce container of orange juice managed to slip from my hand and crash to the floor, splitting down one of the edge seams and splattering juice all over the kitchen and dining alcove floor. First sticky mess to clean. Second, while measuring out the sugar needed, somehow a big rush of it came out of the canister and dumped all over the counter... and onto the still somewhat sticky floor. I was waiting for the third incident, and also wondering if these uncharacteristic accidents were somehow serving as a message from the saint (was this not a good day to bake him a cake?), but luckily a third accident never materialized.

In addition to creating quite the disaster zone in my kitchen, I accomplished the ultimate biceps workout—on one arm only, so that if I start to seem asymmetrically built after many attempts at the recipe, I will offer that up as penance to the saint as well. A full nine minutes of using a wooden spoon and my own sweat equity to stir a very thick batter and I began to suspect I'd never survive a day as a traditional Greek housewife; I was confronted with my soft American upbringing right away. I wondered how anything so difficult to stir could come out as anything other than a giant paperweight in the end, but luckily that was not the case.

There was one other faux pas, though.

It is imperative that you give the cake away. Some say to seven different houses/families, some say in nine equal pieces. You're allowed to taste it yourself, once you've met the requirements of slicing or distributing in nine or seven, but probably it's best to give the whole thing away. The idea is a display of Christian charity, so giving it to those in need is best of all. I'd packaged up some slices—there were some people I determined must taste it, though I would not classify them as needy—a couple were reserved for homeless or hungry people I'd meet on the street. New York certainly has no lack of those; I see them all the time.

So, on Sunday, July 5, I set out to take the bus up First Avenue to the Greek Orthodox Cathedral on East 74th Street. Without the phanouropita! In my haste to leave my apartment, I left the slices on the kitchen table. Like training myself to go to the grocery store with a reusable shopping bag (for months after I purchased my first one, I kept forgetting to have it with me when I went out on errands), I guess I'm just not in the habit of carrying food around with me in my purse. Perhaps I should make a habit out of it, especially leftovers: heaven knows there are people who need them more than I do. OK, I arrive in front of the Cathedral and, to my dismay, a man is standing right in front of the entrance, begging. His message is that he's hungry. He'd be the perfect recipient for the phanouropita, if I only had it with me. I gave him change instead, which was all I had with me anyway, and immediately felt like I had failed my newfound friend, Saint Phanourios. Next time, I will do better.

05 May 2009

Bias and Blitz in Kindergarten Books from Oxford Reading Tree

My family's radar is pretty finely tuned to bias, prejudice, history, and literature. I grew up with socially aware, progressive parents. My father was very active in the South during the Civil Rights Movement; my mother searched hard in a time when there was no market for "feminist" literature, to find books that would open my world and deliver messages that girls/women were every bit as competent, innovative, and adventuresome as boys/men. As a professional in the publishing industry, and as the mother of a young boy, I am generally vigilant about the reading materials in our home. We have books that feature different countries, and books in different languages. Since our family is a bi-national one (my husband French, my own roots Greek-American), I try to be particularly sensitive to global culture. This is why, in fact, when we were looking for a school for my son to attend, diversity and tolerance were high on our list of "must-have" criteria.

I am happy to say that he is in what is perhaps the best school anywhere in terms of offering diversity that is more than just an admissions policy or token effort—it is part of the very fiber of the community of students, families, faculty, and staff. We are truly thrilled with the school on just about every point. In such a melting pot school, of course there are some differences and misunderstandings, and everyone knows that the goal is to work through them harmoniously and with an eye for compromise. I know, too, that I will never be immune from the kinds of home-school conflicts that arise everywhere: disagreements about policies or procedures, struggles with homework expectations, and perhaps the occasional disapproval of curriculum materials. Speaking of which . . . Can we talk about the Oxford Reading Tree series of readers?

Oxford Reading Tree is a reading program for primary school children from Oxford University Press. The series is extensive and generally very well constructed. At the heart of the collection used in my son's school are a group of characters: a family of British children and their parents, extended family, and friends. These are the "Biff, Chip, and Kipper stories," that have been much loved for years, internationally. And I can see why; most stories are engaging, some are humorous, and my son has really enjoyed them, too. As a parent, I like the informational cards that come home with the various titles, because they provide suggestions for ways to make the reading fun and also a shared experience by asking questions and working with the words and sounds in the books with your child. Plus, there's no doubt, my son's reading skills have soared over the past eight months. According to the Oxford Reading Tree Web site (which is worth a look, actually, on the Oxford Reading Tree home page), the program takes a "Simple View of Reading" through:

Speaking and Listening
  • The simple view of reading places increasing importance on the role of Speaking and Listening in developing pupils' early reading skills
Word Recognition
  • The simple view of reading recommends systematic high-quality phonics teaching

Oxford Reading Tree stories have been written using a mix of high-frequency and phonic words [ . . . ] The stories also include high interest vocabulary which helps to develop children's language and comprehension.

Language Comprehension
  • Language Comprehension is at the heart of Oxford Reading Tree's Biff, Chip and Kipper stories, as the multi-layered stories follow a group of characters through real, engaging story lines

(NOTE: I have edited the Web page material for reasons of length; my goal here is not to be extensive in reporting on ORT, but to give a brief illustration of the program's structure.)

Now, because the books are English (culturally English, not just in the English language), there are things that come up, most of them rather humorous and based on vocabulary. The differences between American and British English are certainly well known, so there's no surprise there. Growing up with a knowledge that people say things in different ways is incredibly valuable. The idea that English isn't just one static language is one that can translate to all kinds of meaningful lessons about dialect, regional identity, and socioeconomics. So, there's something fun about translating English to English: "What's a lorry?" "A lorry is another word for a truck." And so on.

As I said, I have basically liked our books. I haven't done the math, but we've probably read close to a hundred of them by now (eight months, minus some vacation weeks, at around four to six books per week . . . yup, let's round to a hundred). Out of one hundred, it's pretty good that there are only two so far—both books that came home this week (and that my son has not yet read; there are other titles to select)—that have raised my eyebrows. And why is that? Well . . .

Let's start with The Blue Eye. It's an adventure story in which our protagonists get transported to another place, thanks to a magic key. (The magic key has taken the kids to many settings in time and history, and often these provide interesting stories and a great opportunity to work in exposure to other cultures, which is great when the opportunity is properly seized.) This time, the place is a landscape that looks very Middle Eastern, though no country is specified. Based on the looks of the buildings alone, as there's nothing yet to suggest anything inherently ominous, the children remark that the place looks "scary." A page later, the notion of something scary—okay, just to make my point, let's use a cousin of the word and call it a notion of "terror"—is confirmed when four scruffy-looking men in Arab dress appear on the street. They are wearing turbans, have big noses and fierce expressions, and are drawn with stubbly faces (in contrast, based on illustrations of the regular characters, one would think that men in England are always either clean-shaven or else have full beards). One man is kicking in a door.

The picture on this page of the book, which I've privately dubbed the "Scary Arab Picture" is posted here, above. A couple of pages later, after a woman escapes from these men by jumping to the street from a window (she is revealed later to be a princess in disguise) and drops a mysterious package, our young heroes happen upon an outdoor market. There you see vendors and, in the crowded street, at least one woman in a full black burka. The children remark that the people "don't look friendly."

OK, so what's going on? It's subtle. Nothing offensive is written down; there's no explicit equation presented (Arab = Scary; Islamic Dress = Unfriendly). And to be honest, perhaps many of us actually have these knee-jerk impressions ourselves in this post-9/11 world. In a world where "we" have been trained for eight years now (by our governments in particular) to fear "them." I was in New York when the WTC towers came down; I can understand the reaction. But whether you fear the Arab/Islamic nations, or whether you think a burka is hostile to women is not the point.

The point is this: in any school, anywhere, do we really need to suggest a dynamic of wholesome, good Anglo-Saxon children versus scary, unfriendly, bad people in turbans or burkas? I don't think so.

Maybe this is too subtle for kindergarten children to pick up on. What if it isn't? There are subtle messages—and many not-at-all-subtle ones—out there to be consumed, internalized every single day. They add up. (For a related story on the impact of visual representation in literacy efforts, see this post on my other blog, which tells of something my mother noticed in my own elementary school.) In the grand scheme, is this one book so horrible? You could argue not, and maybe you could even convince me (though I doubt it). You could say I'm hyper-sensitive and making mountains out of Mohamed. Still, if it's there to be perceived, I say, why have any undercurrent of prejudice at all? It seems most out of step with what our world needs, with a spirit of tolerance and honoring differences (superficial or fundamental) across cultures, countries, religions.

To be fair, before I move on to the second book, I'll say that at the end of this one, there are also some good people in turbans. The adventure story is exciting, and comes out well in the end. But I assume there is no limit on creativity at Oxford, and there are always multiple ways to present a theme, an adventure . . . So I find it hard to believe that an equally effective story might not be crafted without the cultural assumptions that the child protagonists of the Oxford Reading Tree series make right off the bat.

The second book has its own set of problems. It is called, I think (the book is no longer at home), What Was It Like? and it's a revisiting of London during the blitz of WWII. Now, I understand as well as anyone that war is a fact in the world, and that sooner or later, my son will be exposed to it (I hope fervently that this remains an academic experience for him, not one of necessary practice!). Already, of course, he's heard the word, knows it means "fighting," and knows that it's bad and people die. Is this overly simplistic? Of course it is, but hey, this is kindergarten, folks. I keep him away from graphic front-page newspaper stories, and we don't have a TV to desensitize him to violence. (Lest you feel sorry for him, I'll tell you that we rent plenty of DVDs that we watch on the computer, and he nonetheless learns about television programming and gets his doses here and there, so he is hardly deprived of cultural references to SpongeBob Square Pants or the Backyardigans or whatever.) I am by no means a Luddite, and I want him to be a child not just in the messy world he inherits but of it—owning it, understanding it (and its history) so that maybe he can help make it better in his own way someday. But in order to do this, must he learn how to read by reading about children wearing gas masks in a bomb blitz (see photo, below), or children who are upset because they've been separated from their parents in an evacuation? Just how does Oxford envision this particular story fitting into a curriculum for five- and six-year-olds?

In their defense, I'll admit, the story clearly places the war in a historical context and does not position it as a present-day threat. Still, children can be terrific worriers: they see monsters in a darkened hallway; mine tells me sometimes that he worries about me getting home safely if the weather is bad. Seems to me, the adjustment to serious schoolwork alone is sufficient stress for them at this age (in fact, homework in kindergarten is scandal enough for some parents). Do they need to worry about bombing or air quality or how to find Mom in a raid? That's my job—and Homeland Security's—not my son's.

Again, to be fair, I'll say again: the Oxford Reading Tree series has been largely delightful. These are two books in a series of hundreds. I hardly expect or wish for my son's school to abandon a reading program that works well overall, just for the sake of two books that cross questionable lines. Still, despite my abhorrence of censorship, it'd be nice to see these titles suppressed. If this were an age-appropriate literature class, I would not raise objections to content. The thing is: it's not literature at this point, not really. It's a tool, like flash cards are tools, to get the kids excited about and competent in reading.

Looping back to cultural differences, I have considered that maybe it's just my American self that is shocked by these books. Maybe people from other countries would think nothing of it. Certainly, if you live in an area of the world where war is part of your daily life, a book featuring gas masks for kids might be seen as responsible more than outrageous. I'll concede that we are privileged here; that it is a "luxury" to choose whether or not to expose our children to these ugly realities, or at what age. But really, isn't this a luxury worth fighting for? If it makes us spoiled or soft for a few more years of our youth . . . well, where war is concerned, isn't that a good thing? With so little time for innocence, shouldn't we look for ways to preserve it just a bit longer?

[CLOSING NOTE: I am very interested in gathering a range of reactions to this post. If you've made the investment of time to read this through to the end, I thank you. I also ask for just another moment, if you would care to post a comment . . . it would be much appreciated.]

18 April 2009

Evelyn's Crackers

OK, it's about time, I know. I have been promising this and other posts for months, but I have been so busy with daily posting on "365 Memories" that I have simply not had the stamina for more. But, when something's good, it's good, and I have a good bit to say about crackers. Listen up, especially if you are planning to visit Toronto, Canada.

A couple of weeks ago, while my son was on spring break, I decided to go with him up to Toronto, to visit a good friend who also happens to be an excellent cook and baker. I've known Dawn Woodward since day one of college, back in 1988, and since then we've each made our own way through the world—she farther afield, to be sure—but we have always stayed close, kindred spirits and devout food-folk. (Side note: Our first joint experiment, when we realized that both of us had family from the South, was to try to make a pot of boiled peanuts in our dorm's efficiency kitchen. We made the mistake of using dried peanuts in the shell—you know, the kind you might buy at the circus; it didn't work, although we boiled the hell out of them for an entire weekend. Turns out, you need to use fresh peanuts!) We cooked and baked together throughout college, but after graduation it was Dawn, not I, who went professional with this shared love of food.

I will say here that it's great to have a good friend who's a world traveler and passionate about local cuisine. Although Dawn is American like me, I feel that through her travels, she has become my most "melting pot" kind of friend, the one who pulls me without fail out of any insular American rut I might fall into. But instead of waiting for the influences of ethnic cultures to come to her, she goes out and tracks them down at the roots. Through her, I have learned about (and tasted) some fabulous food, especially from Southeast Asia, but also from the Republic of Georgia, and other countries bordering the Black Sea, though these are just a smattering of places she has visited.

Although Dawn has quite a repertoire and a résumé of diverse culinary focus, her business now is crackers: Evelyn's Crackers. And up in Toronto, the crackers are gaining traction. I will say up front that I regret posting about a wonderful product (an accurate assessment despite my bias of friendship, I swear) that is not commercially available outside of Toronto. If you want to taste the crackers, you'll have to either go there, or else catch me at a time when I've scored some crackers from across the border and am willing to share them with you. Nevertheless, I felt compelled to write about them.

Evelyn's Crackers is a business that "builds local community, one cracker at a time," as declared on the Evelyn's Crackers Web site. From supporting area farmers and suppliers, to embracing native varieties of grains such as Red Fife whole wheat, Evelyn's Crackers is a local, organic, artisan effort. Great for healthy, sustainable, eco-conscious business; kind of bad for non-Torontonians. As I said, it's a border-crossing fix, but now I'm hooked.

The crackers themselves are all handcrafted and have a wonderfully rustic appeal. Simple in shape with their mostly long, thin forms and straight or serrated edges, they are made visually interesting with their earthy tone and richly textured surfaces. The crackers' simple design serves to showcase the fine grains and spices with which they are made. They are wonderful to accompany hard or soft cheeses, and I recently served the last of my cracker supply with a yellow-split-pea purée, which went along with some mini-spanakopita on an Easter hors d'oeuvres tray. The crackers are unusual—not the typical airy, bland, over-processed, over-salted rounds (or squares) we all grew up with. They are at once sophisticated yet unpretentious and unfussy (like Dawn herself!).

As for cracker varieties, there are quite a few. Among my favorites: Barley Extra Virgin (now called Bay Barley Anise, if I remember correctly), which perhaps I like for its aromatic Greek spices; Slightly Seedy, because I love the health kick and meaty crunch of the flax, pumpkin, and sesame seeds; and the Spicy Dal and Coconut Sticks, which definitely have a good heat. My son's favorite is the Salty Oats cracker, which is more buttery than salty, and could almost qualify as a dessert in my book—I can imagine this as a good cracker to serve with a cheese course before a true dessert. Finally, there are the Cheddar Crispies, which are made with a local, aged sheep's milk cheddar and gussied up with hints of paprika and nigella seeds.

Evelyn's Crackers began as a summer greenmarket venture, and since that time, the business has made retail inroads and has also earned some deserved kudos in print and online media such as Canada's Globe and Mail and, I believe, Chowhound. If you visit the website (linked above), you'll also get to see some great photos of cracker production, catering activity, and travel attractions, all taken by Dawn's husband and business partner, Edmund Rek. Oh, yes, and in case you're wondering . . . there's an adorable picture of Miss Evelyn herself.

Now, if only I could convince Dawn to break into the U.S. market. Canada, America . . . that's still local, right?

© 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.

11 January 2009


Today our family confronted one of the toughest moments of any new year: dismantling and disposing of our Christmas tree. I am always guilt-ridden and very sad about doing this, and I try to put it off as long as possible. I am filled with loathing of our culture as I walk down the streets of New York City in early January and see trees at the curb, evicted from their seasonal homes and surrounded by garbage bags, and I get very angry when I see trees with abundant tinsel or decorations still on them (or bagged trees), as I know that the Department of Sanitation will take those along with the landfill trash. At least I can say that, in the years since I first lived here, there seem to be fewer curbside trees overall (I will have to dig for statistics), and certainly there are a lot fewer with tinsel or other items that mark them as unacceptable for recycling. The city has, it seems, made strides. According to a press release on the Department of Sanitation's Web site, "clean, non-bagged Christmas trees that are left at the curb between Monday, January 5th and Friday, January 16th will be collected, chipped, and made into compost. The compost will be processed and subsequently spread upon parks, ball fields, and community gardens throughout the city. In January 2008, the Department collected over 160,000 discarded Christmas trees." This actually suggests that the bare trees I see at the edges of sidewalks will meet with an eco-friendly end.

I occasionally can be a "doubting Thomas" type of person, though, and since I am determined that I will see our own tree properly recycled (not hauled away in the wee hours of the morning by a truck going . . . somewhere . . . ), I have committed our family to MULCHFEST.  Which means that we are getting rid of our tree earlier than we'd otherwise like to, but . . . such is our "cost" of having a tree to begin with: at least making sure to treat it (and the earth) in a more friendly, sustainable way.

MULCHFEST is sponsored by the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation.  This tree recycling effort has its own branding, with a logo (top of post), Web page (click here), and so forth. I do wish they did more publicity in the city, though. They should have posters on bus shelters or something. As it is, it seems as though you have to already be very environmentally conscious and recycling-aware to find out about the event. Also, I wish it were more than just a single weekend. But I am not up to changing the cogs in the machine of the city just yet—that'll be a resolution for a long-term future, I'm afraid.

For now, for today, we've done our part. I made sure to prepare my five-year-old son earlier in the week, as he'd already been talking about keeping the tree all year long, and I know this moment can be difficult for kids (and, as I said, for the adults as well!). When the protests started—"This weekend? But, Mom . . ."—and the teary eyes kicked in, I launched into my pitch: You know how much you love the springtime flowers in Central Park? (slow nodding assent) Wouldn't it be great to know that our tree helped make them grow? And you wouldn't want our Christmas tree to be collected like trash, would you? (small voice confirming the negative) Well . . . if we take our tree this weekend, we can be sure that it will be chipped and used by the people who work for the city's parks, and you'll be helping other plants to grow, and the animals in the park will be happy. I am also sure to throw in tidbits about how cool the chipping machine is; machines are a big draw for my son at the moment.

When the time came today, I have to say that my son was completely enthusiastic about the project. He really is easily convinced to do things that make the world more beautiful. This is, after all, the kid who, when he was a toddler, would stop to pick up trash in the subway station and toss it into the garbage cans. He'd then ask me if the earth was saying "thank you," which I confirmed. And since he's been old enough to take lunch to school, he's been proud of his zero-waste packaging—his first lunch box was a great bag made of recycled foil juice packs. (Note: The bags are called "Bazura" bags, and are made in the Philippines by a women's cooperative that purchases the used containers through a network of local school children, then sterilizes them and stitches them into great designs. The bags are strong—the material is sturdy and not biodegradable, making the recycling more crucial—and the co-op helps to empower women to be strong themselves and to help clean up their environment. You can find the bags at the Web site of ReusableBags.com. Another great product on the site: Wrap-N-Mat, a reusable wrapper for sandwiches.)

But back to MULCHFEST. I was going to document our trip to the nearest location for the event, which was eight short blocks and one and a half long ones away from our apartment (kind of a long way to haul a tree on foot, but we whistled our way there); however, the camera was not cooperating. What you would have seen pictures of: a significant pile of naked evergreens waiting for mulching; close to a dozen workers from the Parks Department, smiling through today's frigid weather; trees being loaded at last into the chipping machine. Overhearing some of the workers at the site, we asked for confirmation and were told that during this weekend, at this single location (according to one source, MULCHFEST had 80 drop-off spots in the city), 1,381 trees had already come through. We were able to identify our tree as it was fed into the machine, and my son gave me a "high five," shouting over the significant noise that "we should be proud of ourselves!" Indeed. I was most proud of him and his attitude.

The walk home was bitter cold and icy, but a lot lighter. We returned to an apartment full of stray pine needles and a big empty space where our tree used to be. But I think it's safe to say our hearts felt bigger and our consciences clear. MULCHFEST is yet another family tradition to look forward to each year—a way to close out the holidays and to do a bit of our own recycling of the spirit of Christmas, for the dormant memory of our tree (and its reuse) will no doubt nourish us into the spring season of rebirth, when the fruits of our winter plans, hopes, and dreams will start to blossom.

© 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.

05 January 2009

Kolyva for Aunt Bea

Sometimes, being part of a multi-cultural family, I feel like a fraud no matter where I turn.  I am, at best, half Greek.  I am second-generation American and have no history with the Greek Orthodox Church, being raised nominally Presbyterian.  In an Orthodox service—although now I've been to quite a few—I still hesitate and watch the women in black for some clue of when to sit or stand or how to cross myself properly.  But there are some occasions when, for me at least, it will do only to be Greek, or to claim this mantle to the best of my ability, and the only satisfaction comes from observing Greek Orthodox custom.  One such occasion is when it comes time to memorialize a family member: at these times, I make and eat kolyva.

Today is the 3rd anniversary of the death of my Aunt Bea, who was my mother's closest sister—they may as well have been twins; it just wasn't a biological fact.  My aunt was the first of this generation of the family to pass away, and because she was the youngest of six (and because of the swift route from apparent health to final days), it was a bit of a shock to put it mildly.

Bea did not, to my knowledge, embrace Greek Orthodox tradition, though some of her older siblings certainly did.  By the time she was born, my grandparents had likely given up trying to force Greek identity in the New World, or very nearly.  No more mandatory Greek School, no longer the arranged marriage.  But my aunt was, I know, a very spiritual person.  She had an artist's eye and an angel's soul, I think.  Certainly, she deserves a memorial rich in symbolism, deep in feeling—something akin to drama and poetry—not the stiff, remote pretension I've always experienced in Protestant death ceremonies.  It's not that these other rituals and remembrances lack emotion or meaning for families; I don't mean to suggest that.  However, I have always had the impression that fear of death (coupled with an emphasis on propriety at all times) causes too great a distance, a desire to pad ourselves from the idea, no, the knowledge, that this will someday happen to us, too.

This is where the kolyva comes in, the special memorial dish prepared in homes and served in church for the benefit of departed souls.  Something happens—that restrained, safe Protestant distance is blown away—when you prepare and share a meal for the dead.

This is the introduction to a kolyva recipe from a 1957 cookbook of the Orthodox Church, Saints Constantine and Helen, in Detroit, Michigan—the church my grandparents attended, and the church where my mother and her siblings were baptized; it was written by The Reverend Father Harry J. Magoulias: "Amongst the many and varied church rites, the Church Fathers have included a special service for the departed souls of the faithful.  This is the 'mnemosinon,' or Memorial Service.  . . . The boiled wheat symbolizes the resurrection.  . . . Just as the grain of wheat must first be planted in the ground in order to take root and bring forth fruit, so is man buried in the earth because of death—but with the promise of the Risen Lord that one day he too will be resurrected.  When we receive kolyva. . . it is to recall to mind the departed soul, and the bereaved make a special appeal to us to pray with them. . . . According to Church tradition, kolyva is offered in the Church three days, nine days, forty days, six months, one year after death, and whenever desired thereafter."  When it is served in church, kolyva is scooped into little wax bags or onto napkins and distributed at the end of the liturgy.

Something appeals to me—beckons me like an ancient call, something more deeply rooted than anything in my newfangled world—about this ritual of eating and remembering.  This dish exists to feed the dead, to nourish them in the Underworld and let them know we are thinking of them.  In certain areas of Greece, at certain moments in history, I know that the belief was more literal than it is these days: the departed souls still need nourishment.  However metaphorically we interpret this now, I still believe it to be a basic truth: we, and our ancestors, need life to continue, sustained in memory if not in a corporeal sense.

The other thing about kolyva, though, is that it tastes otherworldly.  It's a fabulous dish; its meaty grains and its sweetness make it hard to resist.  I do not know how offensive it might be to make this dish without proper occasion, so I eat it only a couple times a year, with the specific intent of remembering my Greek relatives.  But I long for it often.  It's the kind of thing I could eat daily, and probably never tire of it.

Below, however much it would please my sense of nostalgia to prepare the recipe found in the parish cookbook of my own family, I am reproducing the version of kolyva found in Diane Kochilas's book The Food and Wine of Greece.  She adds pomegranate and rose water—and because I love the taste of pomegranate and the symbolism of this, Persephone's food, I have doubled the amount called for, using the whole pomegranate.

Here, then, in fond memory of my aunt, is the recipe I have prepared (cut in half) for today's memorial.

Kolyva Kochilas
(makes 1 large tray, equal to 16 cups for 50 servings)

4 cups whole wheat berries
1 cup sesame seeds, lightly toasted
2 cups ground walnuts
2 cups ground almonds
2 cups golden seedless raisins
1/2 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped
1 pomegranate
3 TBS rose water
2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 cup honey
2 cups confectioner's sugar, for garnish
blanched almonds, silver dragees, rose petals (fresh or crystalized) for garnish

In a large pot, bring ample, lightly salted water to a boil (enough to cover wheat berries by 3 to 4 inches).  Add whole wheat berries and simmer uncovered for 1.5  to 2 hours, until tender, stirring occasionally to keep wheat from sticking to the sides and bottom of the pot.

Drain the wheat thoroughly and spread to dry on a lint-free cloth or towel.

[Note: This takes quite a while.  I try to make this dish when I am not in a rush, as that seems counter to the act of memory, contemplation . . . but I have been known to speed the process by applying a hair dryer set on the lowest setting.  In fact, it's the only thing I've used the dryer for in the past 10 years or so!]

In a large serving bowl, combine whole wheat with the walnuts, almonds, raisins, parsley, pomegranate seeds, rose water, and cinnamon.  Add honey, tossing to mix well.

To serve as a commemorative dish, cover a large serving tray with paper napkins or doilies.  Spread the kolyva over the napkins or doilies, forming a gentle mound toward the center of the tray.  Sift confectioner's sugar over the top and pat down to pack with a large sheet of wax paper or rubber spatula, so that sugar forms a kind of icing on top of the kolyva.  Make a stencil out of cardboard of a Greek cross and the initials of the deceased.  Use the stencils to make a simple design with the silver dragees, adding blanched almonds and rose petals if desired.

You can also use powdered coffee to form the initials of the person you are memorializing against the powdered sugar.

© 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.

01 January 2009

Lentils for the New Year

In a previous post, I wrote about "Hoppin' John" and the good luck tradition of eating black-eyed peas on the first day of the new year. This year, however, my family is more "bonne année" than "happy new year": we're having lentils this New Year's Day, according to French tradition.

Although the dish is different, the symbolism remains the same: we ladle out prosperity in the coming year, along with comfort and safety brought to mind by this "homey" winter meal.

As to the lentils themselves, I have learned to use nothing but the famous "lentilles vertes du Puy," from Le-Puy-en-Velay in Auvergne.  If you never did like lentils here in the States, and have not tried the du Puy lentils, I beg you to try them and reconsider; they are no relation to the drab, soft, muddy-tasting ones that are too common here.  I actually thought I hated lentils until I tried these, and now they are a staple in my kitchen.

Francemagazine.org has a good article about the lentils.  "Originally from the Mediterranean," the article says, "lentils have been cultivated for some 10,000 years.  They were introduced to the volcanic Le-Puy-en-Velay area by the Gauls and have been part of the local landscape ever since. [. . .] Lentilles Vertes du Puy are so prized that they have been anointed with an Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC).  They are green, of course, and small with a tender skin; their fruity, mineral flavor inspires chefs throughout the country to use them with abandon."  You can find the full text of the article here.  The du Puy lentils hold their shape very well when cooked--even when cooked in excess--and they do not need to be soaked before cooking (only picked over carefully; I have found the occasional tiny but very hard pebble in my lot of lentils!).

The following recipe is one I first made for my husband in early 2001, when we were living on 57th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues. We had a small balcony overlooking the southern tip of Manhattan (and, yes, the World Trade Center), and we'd have meals out there whenever the thermometer crept above, say, 60 degrees Fahrenheit.  This recipe has stood the test of time, and is still in our annual repertoire.  It's particularly comforting when the weather turns cold, but we have it on hand to eat year-round.

New Year's Day 2009 is bright and sunny here in New York, and probably a bit cold--no one has been outside yet today.  It's a great day to be indoors, around a family table, sharing hopes for the coming year.  We're having our celebration for the afternoon meal, and the rest of the day will be one of quiet reflection for me--less quiet for my five-year-old, and not quiet at all for my husband, who is going to work later in the day (life in the restaurant industry!).

Without further delay, here is the recipe.  I enjoy it in your honor, wishing everyone a prosperous and very happy new year!

Good Luck Lentil "Soup"
(Note: Cooked at a slightly higher temperature and for a bit longer, I reduce the liquid down to nearly nothing, so for our family this does not much resemble soup any longer, therefore the quotation marks.  You can make this more of a  soup if you wish by following the instructions below, or else cook it down to a thicker consistency as I do.)

1 pound French (du Puy) lentils
2 TBS olive oil
8 slices Canadian-style bacon or hamsteak, diced
1 small onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
8 cups chicken stock (use Pacific brand, organic free-range)
2 bay leaves
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1 large carrot, scrubbed clean and diced
salt and pepper, to taste

Pick over lentils carefully and remove any stones; rinse under cold water, and drain.

Heat olive oil in a stock pot over medium-low heat.  Add Canadian bacon or ham, onion, and garlic.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is translucent but not brown.

Add lentils, chicken stock, bay leaves, and thyme.  Stir and increase heat to high.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low.  Cook, partially covered until lentils are tender, about an hour (stir periodically).

Add carrot, salt, and pepper to taste.  Stir and simmer another 20-30 minutes.  Taste again and adjust seasoning if necessary.  Serve hot; store unused portions in the freezer if you want it to last (it reheats well).

Serving ideas:
Simmer smoked sausage with the soup, or grill some and serve on the side.  There are so many great sausages now (lamb, pork, turkey or chicken), and even very spicy ones such as merguez pair wonderfully with the lentils.

Alternatively, garnish the soup with a piquant salsa or some sour cream mixed with a little curry powder for spice.

© 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.