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.