…in the San Francisco Bay Area. The temperature of the air is ideal. A soft breeze cools the hot sun and makes the tassels on the umbrella above me tremble. When it kicks up a little, they shimmy and shake. Birds are twittering behind me. The sun is blessing my garden with her last light before she slips behind the opposing ridge in this undulating part of Oakland where the land folds from the San Andreas Fault running through it. It runs through my back yard, in fact. When we bought the house twenty years ago, we had to sign a paper indicating we knew the house was in the “Special Study Zone” at the edge of the fault’s maw. It’s not a maw yet, but I guess it has the potential to be one.
Summer sun slips through the slats of the weathered grey streaked fence. The neighbor walks by; I can see her appear in bursts through the slats, and there she is again, and I think as I have hundreds of times, I have to see C., I have to call her, no I WANT to see C., to call her, to have tortilla soup with her again in Latin Oakland, from the mobile taqueria that’s barely a restaurant, long like a railroad car, parked in a lot, with booths and breathtakingly beautiful young Latinas taking orders and serving very good food. It’s a find, this one.
And now that Oakland is getting taken over but good (gentrification), we need to re-find this place, make sure it still exists, and go there with good will, now that this population that I’ve loved forever (heck, I married a Venezuelan) is under serious assault from our “commander-in-chief.” What a joke.
I’m infuriated, like everyone else, about the shit that’s going down, but I don’t mean this to be a political post. What’s the point? I’m outraged, but apparently not galvanized enough to do something serious, something truly attention-getting. Our society has trained us well. Most of us are on the edge of ruin. Very few of us have the savings we need, the slush fund, the envelope of cash in the basement to weather a serious or sudden storm. We go docilely to work, the responsible among us, because we can’t possibly afford to lose our jobs to make a point.
Of course, that’s a lame excuse. If I cared enough, wouldn’t I start a campaign at work, try to create a day where we protest this incredible cruelty being perpetrated by our “elected” government upon our neighbors? Not only neighbors, but people who have sustained our economy and lifestyle for years, for decades.
I’ll never forget the time I was at the park with a bunch of moms when my kids were little. I didn’t know these moms. I was in a rather upscale park in the Rockridge neighborhood of Oakland, an area that was in the skids when I was a kid, but had been rejuvenated to become one of the toniest parts of the “New Oakland.” We tended to try out new and different parks, the kids and I, to abate boredom when they were little. I was graced and blessed to be able to stay home with them until my daughter Little Coo was three-and-one-half. Of course, I paid for it dearly, but that is the subject of another blog.
The short story is, I stayed home even while my children’s father had a tenuous hold on steady employment. I stayed home even though I found with regularity terrifying letters warning my children’s father about “disruptive behavior.” I stayed home even though I was terrified, wide-eyed at night, heart rollicking fit to beat the band, feeling desperately unsafe. With each layoff and firing, we dug into the equity of our home. And yes, thank God that equity was there; we were lucky. I used it to finance staying home and nursing my kids until they were each past three years old. It’s a blessing. But, it’s also why I still owe TWICE the purchase price of my home, after twenty years of paying the bank. Financial savvy? I think not. But, an investment in my children? Yes. I hope so, at least.
My point was, I was sitting in a circle with a bunch of moms. We had our feet in the sandpit, our infants and toddlers in our laps, most of us nursing, when moms began talking about their nannies. We had a nanny too, to give me a precious few hours of break in the mornings now and then. That was Ruth, from Peru. Ruth, who cared for my daughter Little Coo with love, who smoothed her hair with a little water in the mornings, creating a little side part in her downy hair that only Ruth made, only Ruth created. In a way, Ruth made my Little Coo hers each time she did that. The part stayed the remainder of the day, the sign of Ruth, the imprint of Ruth’s loving calloused hand smoothing my baby daughter’s head.
Well, Ruth had left two sons behind with in-laws in Peru, and like all the others of her ilk, was sending money home as fast and furiously as possible, supporting who knows how many people in addition to her sons and those taking care of them.
I decided to pose a question to the group. I asked the moms, “Does your nanny have a child? Is she a mom?” “Oh, no,” they all answered. “She would have told me.” They nodded at each other in their certainty. I said, “I would bet anything they have children, that they’re moms.” A few weeks later, I saw some of them again. They approached me. And they said, slightly chastened and amazed, “My nanny, she has a child.” “My nanny, she has two kids in Guatemala.” Yes. I know.
Now the sunlight has changed. Now, it’s slanting in beneath the branches of the fig tree planted over my daughter’s placenta. Her fig tree, in other words. And the air has cooled considerably. Broccoli is steaming on the stove. The corn bread baked in a 10-inch cast iron pan has been retrieved from the oven, possible a few minutes late. The baby back ribs are still on the electric grill, wrapped in foil and hopefully getting yummy after marinating in an extra spicy (extra cayenne) dry rub for 24 hours.
The neighbors, a husband and wife, people I’ve known for 20 years now, are talking next door. The birds are different. Now it’s definitely not a twitter that’s going on, but a kind of mocking laughing bird that must be something like the famed cuckaburra of the children’s song. At least, it was a children’s song when I was a child. I can hear the traffic on Highway 13, a steady murmur softened by the acres of redwood and other evergreen trees clinging to the soft hills of our neighborhood.
I meant this blog to be about food. But you know how it goes. The broccoli is steaming, and I have to check it now. The ribs are on the electric grill. I’ve never tried that before and not sure it’s working. The cornbread is out of the oven. Little Coo and I just gobbled up the broccoli with cheddar cheese and a slice of the skillet-baked cornbread, which was gummy for my tastes. I’m (obviously) not a cornbread expert (since it came out gummy, and I didn’t know how to prevent that), but I do know I like my cornbread crumbly and salty and perfect for butter and dripping honey to bind it all together.
The ribs, they be a smokin’ further on the grill. The electric grill. Which I’m not at all sure represents a real grill. How can they be smoking on an electric grill? That’s just odd. Yet, when I googled ribs on electric grill, “smoking” came up. Weird, right?
So, we wait. We wait further for the ribs to be done, meaning fall off the bone done, meaning melting butter-soft done. Fragrant and pulling away from the bone done. They didn’t look like that at all last time I checked. They were waxy and pink, defiant in their tin foil jackets, all cheeky and refusing to cook.
The jazz station plays on the faux old-fashioned radio I have atop my fridge now, having lost my treasured grandfather’s radio which I evidently didn’t treasure as much as I thought because, well, I lost it. Probably in the move to Argentina. I miss it. I went for months upon our return with no radio atop our fridge, which meant no Chuey Varela Latin Jazz program every Sunday, percolating throughout the house while I made Sunday Supper. Which meant no Blues Program on Friday nights, consoling me when I was home alone and too stubborn to go dancing. Which meant no Acoustic Sunrise from KFOG on Sunday mornings, a marvelous program which I hear is now defunct.
The post today was meant to be about yesterday’s breakfast. I made Eggs Benedict for the first time in my life, and I’m 50, and I’ve always LOVED Eggs Benedict. The issue was, I’ve had bad luck with mayonnaise for years. So annoying. I know a lot about cooking now, but mayonnaise remained out of my grip. And it pissed me off. Since Hollandaise sauce is a kind of mayonnaise, I couldn’t approach it without trepidation and some calculation and some enervation and some girding of the spirit. So, I resorted to omelettes (which have gotten pretty good, mind you) and scones (which are reliably great) and the occasional pancakes (multi-grain, blueberry studded, and yummy). We went though a blueberry muffin phase, using Edward Espe’s Tassajara Bakery recipe, which was also reliably great.
Now, I’ve managed Eggs Benedict. The funny thing is, I’m not even sure why I chose to tackle this recipe yesterday. I just wanted them. I wanted a special breakfast. Yet, I didn’t even have the ingredients. I had smoked salmon, but not ham or bacon. I had really good bread from Arizmendi Bakery, but not English muffins. Yet, it was Eggs Benedict we were going to have. Of that, I was sure.
And so it transpired. It ensued. It happened. I made the Hollandaise first, approaching it was respect, following the New York Times recipe to the letter, retrieving the blender from the cabinet above the stove. I rather cavalierly guessed on the butter measurement, seeing as I have European butter, which is measured differently so I had to guess… I guessed a little off, I think, because after I’d blended (that was new in the first place, and gave me hope, I had always beaten mayonnaise with a whisk before, and it had always [except once, I think] separated) the eggs yolks with a teaspoon of water (of all things) and poured the melted (European) butter in a thin stream into the yolks and water, and blended it as instructed, it was a little thin. I was again discouraged. But, after turning away in disgust and hopelessness, I suddenly noticed it wasn’t separating. So, I melted a little more butter and added that too, in a thin stream, and blended again. Okay, so it didn’t look particularly like mayonnaise, but it looked good, and it again wasn’t separating. I crumbled some generous pinches of Maldon Salt flakes in and grinded some pepper and ventured a lick of the spatula, and… it was good. Very good.
Everything unfolded from there. The bread was better than any store-bought English Muffin could be, the salmon divine. The other thing I did for the first time (after years of poaching eggs badly) was to swirl the damn water as they tell you to do, and guess what? It works! When you swirl the simmering water and slip the egg (or eggs, up to four, I’m told) into the center of the ensuing whirlpool, the whites really do wrap around the yolk to create a nice little package of yumminess. I couldn’t believe it. It worked for all but one of the eggs (and the swirl was dying down by then). They were beautiful. Beautiful little puffy voluptuous baskets of golden yolk.
The kids were delighted.
I served the breakfast, and I could see. They were delighted. I saw my son’s face, which is rarely relaxed, relax. I saw that. I noted it. And I immediately thought, “Ah. The importance of food. This is why food is important. Food has the power to change a mood, a relationship, a moment, a summer… A life? Maybe.)
Anthony Bourdain is gone, and while I didn’t know his work well as so many others (I read part of Kitchen Confidential, but I was reading millions of books at the time, stacking and layering them as I do, probably several food books as well, and I somehow slipped away from that book), I felt sad. I don’t have cable, we’ve never had cable, and I don’t even know to be honest how TV works anymore, so we’ve missed all of the shows which sound incredibly wonderful and right up my alley, seeing as I have traveled a good bit of the globe myself and have always been a street food evangelist and have always loved the human stories around food. This man sounds like a soul after my own heart, or one I would aspire to be even 10% like. And yet, with all his heart, his soul, his appetite, his love of the world, his gift for bringing others out, for celebrating cultures and folks that might have gone unnoticed otherwise… he’s gone. For all his wealth and success, he’s gone.
And right after Kate Spade. I had already spent a couple of terrible nights waking up in the dead of dark thinking of Kate Spade’s daughter. Of course I don’t know her. I do know she’s 13, however, and that her mother is gone, and that, well, in the middle of the night, I had an instant of empathy that was so searing and sharp it took my breath away. It was too much.
Bourdain of course left an 11-year-old daughter.
I wonder, of course, as we all do, how this could have happened.
I wonder if never having enough money, if having to borrow from Peter to pay Paul every month as I’m doing now (mortgage is not yet paid for June, which is bad, very very bad, to invoke the fucking “commander-in-chief” Jesus I’ve adopted his language) is actually some kind of blessing. Of course, we’re not exactly on the knife’s edge. I just spent some time describing ribs, Eggs Benedict, and European butter, (not to mention the inimitable Shirley Horn on the kitchen radio) and the soft breeze, and the beautiful garden, and the birds tweeting. Obviously, our lives are beautiful. But, we have a gossamer-thin safety net beneath us, one I need to gird — and how. Especially since the orange bozo seems intent on pitching the economy into trash can.
My seven-year-old golden retriever (who may actually be eight now) is curled up beneath the fig tree. The last of the light touches the very top of the Chinese Elm in my neighbor’s garden. The tweeters and chirpers are back, hopping and balancing on the telephone wire running up the driveway to Neighbor C.’s house. A single bird remains on the wire. He chirps once, his breast puffing out as he does so.
It’s time to check the ribs again.
(And I didn’t even write about dance, the other big story of the weekend that just passed. For another day — )