Thursday, December 28, 2006

Busy, protecting you

I am a worrier.

If you believe in nature over nurture, I worry because my father and by mother are both apprehensive and it’s engrained deep within the double helix that is my DNA.

If you instead believe in nurture versus nature, I worry because I have seen my concerned parents wring their hands over small and not so small incidents all my life.

If you believe in astrology, I am a worrier because I am a Capricorn, and that’s what Capricorns do besides being sure footed and having a singleness of purpose.

I worry all the time. I worry that something is going to happen to someone I love, or that something is going to happen to me. I worry Luca will hurt himself playing soccer and that my family is not safe in Mexico City. I worry if a friend expresses anything less that ecstatic joy. I worry that we forgot to close our garage door.

If, according to my own beliefs (expressed with vehemence in my recent blog entry “people do”) people really can change; and according to my most recent blog entry about New Year’s resolutions a New Year’s resolution can graduate into become second nature, then that means that I can decide to stop.

My New Year resolution for 2007 could potentially be “worry no more.”

And if I say “but, it’s who I am” then I’m doing the very thing I rage against in my entry “people do”. I’m throwing in the towel. Turning my lazy back on the nearly limitless power of human potential.

So why is it hard for me to even consider letting go of something that could be making me sick?

Because I believe that if I worry about something I can worry it out of existence. I believe that most things I worry about won’t happen precisely because I worry about them. My worry is a protective shield, an undetectable force that swirls around the people that I love and accompanies them wherever they go like a halo on an angel’s head.

And the fact you probably think that is ridiculous doesn’t worry me at all.

Friday, December 22, 2006

New Year Resolution Guidelines

I like to pick simple resolutions. If you can’t keep them past February 15, what’s the point?

“Drink more water” was the 2004 resolution.
“Read more nonfiction” was 2005. (Now I hardly ever read fiction. I lost my taste for it.)
“Use sunscreen every day” was 2006.

On years where I’m feeling enterprising, I pick more than one. “Sleep eight hours a night most nights” or “see my family more”.

One of my favorites was “do one new thing a month”. Being an animal of habit, I get nervous when Luca, in an attempt to avoid traffic, takes a shortcut, altering our usual route to work. This resolution encouraged me to try rock climbing, which I now love, ride a bicycle and join a gym, not to mention branch out when going to restaurants, even ordering dishes I wouldn’t have initially considered.

I have two resolutions for 2007 (well, two that I’m comfortable sharing.)

The first one: take a multivitamin. Based on my research I go back and forth on the merits of doing so but the general consensus is that it’s a really good idea. (Just make sure it doesn’t have too much vitamin A, and that if it has iron and you have small children in the house they can’t get to it.)

The second: eat less sugar. Not no sugar, just less. Call me a chicken, but I don’t think I would have picked to do this without a chance to practice. Besides choosing a simple resolution, sometimes I start early just to determine if it’s something I can truly commit to. I wouldn’t want to let myself down.

Bring on the New Year.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

People do

I concede there could be exceptions. Maybe I don’t mean the person you thought had stopped doing hard drugs and is now nowhere to be found. Nor the guy who cheated on his wife. Again.

But I do mean your friend. The one you tactfully point out to that that thing he does is actually kind of self-destructive, to which he replies, “I can’t help it. I’m too old to change.”

Inevitably, someone says it with a sigh and a shake of the head.

People don’t change.

Saying “people don’t change” is a cop out. It’s so defeatist. It’s more than just pessimistic. It’s fatalistic. It’s like saying there is no point to the exercise that is life. It’s turning your back on you, on your ability to be better, to grow, to learn the lesson. It’s giving up on the (flawed, but oh, so hopeful) human race.

I’ve heard “people don’t change” so many times that it never occurred to me to question it. But, guess what? I know for certain that people do. I’m the closest person I can point to. My husband changed me. My work changed me. I know that in many fundamental ways I’m the same person I used to be twenty years ago, but also know that in other – equally fundamental ways – I’m not the person I used to be. Sometimes for the worse (for example, I used to be more of a fighter), but mostly for the better (for example, I used to be more of a fighter.)

People change through being dedicated to something. They change when they are loved. They change when they decide it’s time to, when whoever they are is just not working anymore.

Of course, change is not always a good thing. People often change for the worse. All I’m saying is that if it’s possible for people to change for the worse, then it’s at least just as likely for people to change for the better.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Am I not here?

Once I tell you about her, you’ll start to see her everywhere.

She is the Virgen of Guadalupe, and protects all Mexicans. She belongs, of course, to the catholic religion, but Mexicans who aren’t catholic adore her too.

I guarantee you will see her beautiful image wherever you see someone from Mexico. In the corner restaurant (behind the cash register), a cab (hanging from the rearview mirror), the gas station, a picture over the doorframe, a small gold medal hanging around someone’s neck. You’ll see her in a small shrine at the side of the road, on a screensaver, even on someone’s bicep, in a full color tattoo.

The Virgen of Guadalupe is the mother of all Mexicans. She is often called a Queen. You will, in fact, occasionally see her depicted with a crown, but I don’t think she likes that, as she’s the Virgin of the people. Her favorite flowers are roses.

The first time she appeared, in a miracle officially recognized by the Vatican in 1745, she did so in a cloak that you can see today, protected between two panes of bullet-proof glass, in a church built especially for her. This basilica was erected in Tepeyac, originally a site of an Aztec temple dedicated to Tonatzin (Earth goddess, mother of the gods and protector of humanity). Today, this Basilica is the most visited Catholic Church in the world, next to the Vatican.

The Virgen of Guadalupe is one of the factors that made possible the assimilation of the Aztec and the Spanish cultures, quite possibly the reason why I’m in the world today.

Today, December 12, is her birthday. Millions of faithful gather for processions, prayers, songs, dances, and fireworks to honor "La Madre de México". If you want, you can buy red or pink roses and put them at the foot of anywhere you see her image. Or, even where you don’t. She’ll know they are for her.

Saturday, December 9, 2006

Chile, frijol y tortilla

I can't believe I haven't written about this before.

Here it goes: There is nothing Mexican about Taco Bell.

Mexican food you eat in California is not Mexican food. Burritos are not Mexican food. Nachos are not Mexican food. The yellow cheese you see on Nachos is not cheese. (But, I digress.)

Mexican food has soul. It’s restoring. (Chicken soup? Add dry chile ancho to the broth. Now you’re talking.) It will breathe life into you. It cures hangovers, but is also known to aid in the mending of a broken heart. Mexican food is not to be confused with Tex-Mex. This is not judgment on Tex Mex - I'm not saying it's bad (or good.) It's just not Mexican.

Mexican food is vital and the triumphant result of an assimilation of very different cultures. It’s old world (corn, zucchini, beans, avocado, cacao, potatoes) and new. We do not glob sour cream on everything. We do not use shiny liquid processed yellow gook. We do not encase whole meals in a fluorescent green flour wrap.

Mexican food is 2,500 different types of chile (you've heard about jalapeno, habanero and chipotle, but there is also poblano, guajillo, chile de arbol, and another 1,494). It’s cilantro, corn, tamarindo, epazote, frijoles, huachinango, papaya and corn tortillas instead of bread. Huevos rancheros, sopes with potato, chalupas with beans, chicken tamales, tacos al pastor; but also carnitas, nogada, tinga, chicharron and even chapulines. Pipian, adobo, sopa de tortilla, caldo de pollo, quesadillas, carne asada, barbacoa, pozole. Bud negro, albondigas, guacamole, nopales. Jicama, tuna, ensalada de naranja, mango with chile piquin, lemon on everything. Arroz a la mexicana, pescado a la Veracruzana, mole poblano, cochinita Yucateca, camarones al ajillo. For dessert not just flan, but platanos al horno, cocada, rompope, pina dorada, nieve de sandia, and capirotada. And there is so much more. To really know Mexican food, do yourself a favor and travel across Mexico.

Will I think less of you if you eat at Taco Bell? No. Just don't judge Mexican food by tasting something that isn't.

Sunday, December 3, 2006

Liquid wisdom

I had read that tea is really good for you, because of the high content of flavinoids (antioxidants that come from plants). Catechins, found in green tea, pack a more powerful punch than vitamins C and E; and studies find that tea reduces the risk of several cancers, including skin, breast, lung, colon, esophagus and bladder.

Tea also reduces heart disease, as it helps block the oxidation of bad cholesterol and increase good cholesterol, improving artery function. It also reduces the risk of hypertension. (Source: Harvard Women's Health Watch).

For these reasons, I tried to drink it for years. I just couldn’t pick up the habit. I’d fill a cup and leave it, untouched, on the table. Then, recently, coffee started getting on my nerves (literally). I vowed to give it up and turned to tea to take the edge off. I noticed tea was offered everywhere – and most frequently with a choice of flavors, from mint (more of a tisane – more about that later) to earl grey. I even found that if I followed a meal with a cup of tea it curbed my sweet tooth. I was suddenly the proud owner of a three-cups-of-tea a day habit (a welcome replacement to my former two-coffee-several-chocolates-a-day habit.)

Soon after this took root, Luca went to China and brought me back a tea set, which included seven beautiful boxes of loose tea that you spoon into a tall cup with a built in filter. Every morning, we enjoy a speedy, mini tea ceremony. I look at the leaves (some are tight little balls that unfurl in the hot water and turn into flowers), smell the fragrant steam, and glance through the newspaper as it seeps. Then I sip it. It’s outlook transforming.

This morning, as we drank, Luca asked me what tea was, and if there was a “tea plant” (one of his favorite musicians, Ivano Fossati, has an album titled “the tea plant”.) It turns out that there is. (And I’m embarrassed I didn’t already know this.)

“Similar to the way the thousands of different kinds of wines all come from grapes, the thousands of kinds of teas all come from the same plant, Camillia Sinensis. The differences in taste, color, shape and smell are a result of different soils, climates, harvesting and cultivation processes. The types of tea are basically broken down into White, Green, Oolong, Red, Scented and Pu'er, the biggest difference between them being the degree of 'oxidation' in the process, (oxidation is often incorrectly known as "fermentation"). Oxidation happens when the membranes in tea cells are broken down (by rolling, tumbling or tossing), mixing the cells' polyphenols and the enzyme polyphenolase, which acts as a catalyst in oxidizing the polyphenols by oxygen. The leaf is bruised and darkens (like a banana), and starts to acquire unique flavors. The trick is to halt the oxidation process the perfect moment when the best flavors have been acquired. Green tea is not oxidized at all, whereas Oolongs are partially oxidized (look at a brewed leaf and you'll see a green center with red tinged edges from the oxidization) and Red tea is 100% oxidized. Lastly, the category Red tea is often called Black outside of China, leading to much color confusion.”

(Source: )

Any infusion that does not come from Camillia Sinesis (such as chamomile) is not a tea but a tisane.

Brewing tea is an art. To do it properly, different infusions require a different temperature and different seeping times.

According to the Japanese “If man has no tea in him, he is incapable of understanding truth and beauty.”

You can’t help but feel particularly bad for poor Lewis Carroll’s Alice, in that famous tea party she attended, uninvited:

“Take some more tea”, the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.
“I’ve had nothing yet”, Alice replied in an offended tone, “so I can’t take more.”
“You mean you can’t take less,” said the Hatter. “It’s very easy to take more than nothing.”

Sunday, November 26, 2006

To Go

Certain members of my family, who shall remain nameless, opine getting a doggy bag – asking your server to put leftover food in a bag you can then take home – is unthinkable.

Certain other members of my family think not doing so is a waste, and waste is a capital sin. I belong in this latter waste phobic category. I believe having the ability to request a box to take home what you left on your plate is one of the many things that make this country great.

If your plate is heaped with food and you’re taught, as I was, to finish what’s on it, you eat every scrap in a frantic attempt to banish the thought of them (God forbid) throwing it out. If you know you can take it home, you relax and enjoy the meal at leisure. Twice.

And this is what happened after our memorable Thanksgiving lunch. Not only did we have a celebration worthy of an annotation in our personal history book, but also we got to be grateful again, and enjoy it again at dinner the next day. (Minus the dessert. For one thing, there was nothing left to bring home, and for another, I’m valiantly back on the no sugar wagon.)

Long live leftovers!

Friday, November 24, 2006

The Grinch that (almost) stole Thanksgiving

Abstainer: a weak person who yields to the temptation of denying himself a pleasure.

Ambrose Bierce

I was set on abstaining from Thanksgiving celebrations this year. Normally, it’s one of my most favorite holidays. But this time around I wanted to stay home, go on hikes and watch movies. I mean, you’re expected to eat too much – what’s the fun in that?

In addition, I’m not a fan of a lot of typical Thanksgiving fare. Stuffing. Pumpkin. Butternut squash. Turkey. So, we declined a few invitations and chose to hunker down and enjoy four glorious days of doing nothing.

Or so I thought.

Luca surprised me with reservations at Cetrella, a restaurant on Main Street we go to when we have something to celebrate.

When this was first announced, I was bewildered. Had I not been saying that I was looking forward to just hanging out at home? Had I not recently confessed to not being a fan of yams? I looked longingly at my reading nook and resentfully jumped in the shower.

I’m so glad Luca yanked me out of my pre-holiday funk. We had a HUGE lunch, to celebrate this fantastic holiday with the dignity and reverence it deserves. We started with roasted pumpkin and pear soup. Then, a mixed green salad with persimmons and blue cheese. After that, we were served slow roasted turkey (moist! yummy!) with cranberry and orange compote (the combination of cranberry and turkey is just brilliant. Brilliant.) and (“And”. Not “or”.) rosemary honey glazed smoked ham.

As side dishes, we had wood roasted Brussels sprouts with lemon and smoked bacon, roasted yams with goat cheese and toasted pecans (I finished them – yams with goat cheese and pecans rule) and brioche sage stuffing with wild rice, roasted vegetables and toasted chestnuts. (As you can see, there was a lot of roasting going on at Cetrella.)

Also, ceremoniously breaking my nearly two month abstinence from sugar in honor of Thanksgiving, we had pumpkin pie – possibly the best pumpkin pie I’ve ever tasted, with spiced cream on top - and chocolate pot de crème for dessert.

After that, we rolled into the car and drove along the coast, to take in the perfect, cloudless, crisp fall day. We went on a couple of short hikes on the cliffs to see the Pacific Ocean (photo above.) Then we came back home and I happily partook in another honorable Thanksgiving tradition. I took a two-hour nap.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Not this time

I know. The Holidays are upon you, and you’re feeling you have more things to do than time to do them. Right? And you tell yourself that this is the opposite of the point. The point is to be on a holiday, to have time to think, take stock, carefully pick a New Year resolution.

So I told myself: not this year.

In a frenzy that began about two months ago, I made a list of Little Things That Don’t Get Done Until You Put Them Down In Writing; and then went methodically through it. We changed the outdoor sconces, replaced a couple of light bulbs, re-touched the paint in the house. We re-landscaped our overgrown, jungle-like front yard. We had the windows cleaned. We went through our closets, weeding out things we didn’t use throughout the year.

I then reviewed what I had in my pantry and bought the missing ingredients that would turn these random items into actual meals; cooked several dishes and froze them. Then, I restocked the pantry and the fridge with new things. (Yes. I do worry that all my labels face in the same direction, like the demented bad guy in “Sleeping with the Enemy.”)

I went out, bought all our holiday gifts and wrapped them. We ordered our cards, and then requested my friends send me their updated addresses and created labels, which I printed.

Last week, I suggested to Luca that we fast in Thanksgiving, in a gesture of gratefulness and self sacrifice that seems more congruous to me than giving thanks while eating too much. Luca, who until now was putting up with my maniacal obsessive behavior, drew the line. He wants turkey and chocolate coffee pecan pie, thank you very much.

So I shuffled over to my desk to scrutinize my calendar and my “to do” notebook, to figure out what else I could possibly do to get ahead of the elusive curve.

That’s when it hit me.

I’m getting ready for tragedy to strike. It did on January 15, 2006, when Luca had a heart attack, and I was caught completely unprepared. I never want to be that naïve again. It was like being shot in the back.

Is it at all possible to have a plan for whatever life has in store for us? Can we ever truly be ready? Can seven hundred lists make one hoot of a difference?


Well, at least if something unexpected happens, maybe our Holiday cards will be delivered by then. And if you drop in for a surprise visit, there is fantastic Minestrone in the freezer.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

At peace, with you

The word "homesick" does not exist in Spanish. You can say "I miss my home" or that you are feeling "nostalgia", even "melancholy", but it's not a handy, right on the mark, single word like it is in English. Which is odd, since Mexicans are world known to miss their beloved Mexico when they're away. (And is, furthermore, proof that you can indeed feel what you don't have a word for.)

What exactly is "home"? When you leave your country of origin to go to another, when does the place you go to become home, if ever? Are immigrants destined to feel forever incomplete, harboring a vague sense of loss, of not belonging, a disorientation that lingers for years? Do these people dream of one day returning only to realize that ten, twenty years have gone by, that their lives have been accidentally built elsewhere, that what they knew as "home" no longer exists?

Many years ago, when I was living in Paris, I called my father on the eve of September 16th (Mexican Independence day) wailing for my family, Mariachis and Mexican food. Aside from that single sleep deprived dramatic exception, my personal experience is that I tend to make home wherever I am. I don't mean that I have no roots, but rather that I grow them quickly. Personal space is important to me, so I swiftly create and inhabit it. I seldom suffer from homesickness (unless I'm traveling on business, in which case all I want is to return and walk around the house touching my things, doing laundry and making soup.)

In a recent family reunion in Mexico, the subject of "homesickness" came up, as Kathia, my brother's wife, seems to be afflicted by it. In the middle of the conversation, my father turned to me and said with finality "you are never coming back to Mexico". It was an unmistakable statement, but I wondered if he hid a question in the folds of its certainty. I shook my head. "While I don't think it's impossible" I responded "I think it's unlikely. Home is California". This is incredible to me, as I grew up feeling for my country almost the same way I felt about my parents. It has happened, though: I'm homesick for California when I am in Mexico. (I tell myself that California used to be Mexican territory. Can I be blamed for circumstancial political geography? Am I not, strictly speaking, on Mexican soil?)

I must make a reference to two songs here - an Italian one, where Jovanotti raps "Voglio andare a casa - e la casa dov'e’? La casa e’ dove posso stare in pace con te" (I want to go home! And where is home? Home is where I can be at peace with you.")

And a Mariachi song that I can't help but cry to:

Mexico Lindo y Querido (Sweet Mexico Dear)
Si muero lejos de ti (If I should die far from you)
Que digan que estoy dormido (Have them say that I am only sleeping)
Y que me traigan a ti (And have them bring me back to you)

When I die, I'd like my ashes strewn across Montara Mountain, which I know in my heart to be Mexican territory, with its dry brown earth and grassy patches that overlook the Pacific Ocean. In the meantime it's home - casa, dove posso stare in pace con te.

Saturday, November 4, 2006

I am not alone

My Godmother used to order raisin bread and then pluck out all the raisins, piling them high on the farthest possible corner of her breakfast plate. When people asked why she didn’t just order ordinary bread, she'd just smile and shake her head.

If a dish involves more than a single ingredient, my friend Andy won't eat it unless everything is evenly chopped into very small pieces.

Sam doesn't like "crunchy and soft". Chocolate chip cookies, for example, need to be nut free.

I have never, ever heard my mom order something right off the menu. She needs to make complex adjustments to every dish. Her husband, Tomas, orders fish al ajillo (meaning “with garlic and chile guajillo”) without the garlic – comparable to ordering a ham and cheese sandwich without the ham (which, much like my Godmother’s raisin bread, would beg the question – why don’t you just order a cheese sandwich?)

With the possible exception of my angel-like husband, who is annoyingly close to perfection, we all have our quirks (and, yes. Some of us are quirkier than others. For proof, feel free to read “Stuck with me”.) Don’t even get me started on my ultra idiosyncratic father, whom I suspect to be the root of possibly more than 50% of my own higher-than-average peculiarity.

Do you have an endearing (or annoying, depending on who you ask) food related eccentricity? Does your significant other have one? Come on. Do tell. I know a certain someone who organizes her spice rack in alphabetical order… you know who you are. Come on out and celebrate what makes you be exactly who you are!

Tuesday, October 31, 2006


You have never truly experienced Halloween if you don’t live in Montara.

I drove around the Bay Area today, from The Coast to Mountain View to San Francisco. And, sure, I saw a fair number of goblins, wizards and Harry Potters. But, the last day of October doesn’t really start until I get home and run inside to open the door to the first Trick-or- Treaters.

To prepare for the evening, we bought four fifty piece bags of fun size mini M&M packs, and four three and a half pound bags of Tootsie Favorites. I distributed all the loot evenly in 5 big bowls and then asked each kid to take one piece. Sure, some pick more than one – and one or two grab a handful. But, still. That’s around five hundred kids who all ring the doorbell between 6:30 p.m. and 9:00 p.m.

I saw skeletons, bloody knives, dragons, severed hands, medusas, unicorns, ladybugs and lions. Darth Vaders, soldiers, mummies and robots. A princess, a man without a head, firemen, a garbage can, a pink cheetah and a kangaroo. (The scariest part of the day was hands down reading the ingredients in a tootsie roll.)

And, just how much candy did I eat today, considering I have been exposed to buckets of a huge variety of treats? How many, having attended four meetings where chocolate was placed in heaps at the center of the table? What were the consequences of spending the past three hours doling out the goods myself? And, what was my behavior when parents of these hoards of kids made chocolate chip cookies and offered them in gratitude to those of us who stock up so their kids can have a good Halloween experience?

I didn’t have a single piece. None. And when I got hungry, I went into the kitchen and made myself a cup of tea.

Pretty scary, huh?

Wednesday, October 25, 2006


Two interesting things have happened to me in the past month or so. What makes them most interesting (to me, anyway) is how they did not require much effort.

The first: I don’t drink coffee anymore. I used to drink a cup a day, in the morning (short nonfat latte), and then it escalated into a second cup after lunch (espresso macchiato). I’m extremely sensitive to caffeine; so going from needing one to needing two and the subsequent feeling of going directly from lethargic to bouncing off the walls subtly signaled to me that I needed to stop. I tried, dealt with withdrawal headaches, crawled back. Then, about a month ago, I had to travel around and was really busy at work and stopping to get coffee and standing in line at Starbucks was just not convenient, and it sort of happened. I’ve switched to tea.

For the past four weeks, I’ve been drinking two cups in the morning (usually green tea, one at breakfast, the other midmorning) and two after lunch (with no caffeine). I’ve had a total of three cups of coffee in a month’s time and have not once felt that “aaaaaaah” release I reveled in when trying to quench the squeezing headache abstaining used to give me.

I’m free.

I don’t know if I’ll eventually slide back into the steamy, fragrant black depths of being a coffee drinker but I’m amazed at how it went from being a nearly impossible feat to an almost accidental one. (I’m sure there is a life lesson in here somewhere.)

The second: for the first time in my life, I have drastically reduced my considerable sugar intake in a sustained manner. I have an (formerly) irrepressible sweet tooth and am used to having some type of dessert every day after every meal (and am no stranger to snacking through the afternoon). Here again, in the middle of being distracted, I just never stopped to look for whatever would feed the craving. Then I suddenly realized I felt so much better: less hungry. I guess what they say about not letting your sugar levels spike is really true. One thing is to read it, the other to live it. (Yet another life lesson lurking here.)

This luxuriously smooth, glossy feeling of not being ravenous mid afternoon has made me strive to not go back to my churning, serrated, sugar-loving ways. For example: the last three times that Luca stocked up on the ultra dark chocolate he consumes while he watches soccer, he’s asked me if I wanted my usual ration of milk chocolate, and I declined. (And, he didn’t look at me in shock, which is in itself quite interesting. I mean, what if someone tries to impersonate me one day? He’d never notice!)

I know enough to realize these series of remarkable incidents might very well be fleeting. But for now, without caffeine and without sugar I am feeling pretty even keeled. Even keeled is good. I think I’ll hang on to it.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Pedro is getting married

Wow. My brother Pedro is getting married.

This statement is incredible to me (literally) since somewhere in my subconscious I still think he’s eight years old. His true age is more like 29 – almost 30. (When in the world did that happen?)

In my defense, I’ve never met the incredibly fortunate woman he’s going to marry, so it’s not like I was eased into this news.

The exhilarating announcement of his impending nuptials filled me first with a benevolent sense of shock (“But, you’re a BABY!” is what passed through my head, but fortunately I didn’t say it out loud) and then with pure delight. He sounded so happy (and perhaps secretly pleased that he had made my jaw drop.)

When he was just a boy, he became the first (and possibly only) person I’ve ever seen win an argument against my father, who is a professional arguer. Not because Pedro was louder or more assertive but because he tends to make unequivocal sense. He has a sharp intellect, a goofy sense of humor and a big heart. (Which he’s given away! Oh. My. God.)

Pedro is a terrific writer. One Christmas, declaring he had no money, he wrote for each of us a priceless poem. He read every one out loud over dinner and reduced us all to tears, a trait he inherited from my father but then claimed as his own with that unique gentleness and appalling, exposing sense of insight.

For inexplicable and varied reasons every member of my family is convinced they are fluent in Italian. Pedro is the one who comes closest to this actually being true. He calls Luca fratello (brother) and Luca really sees him as one.

I believe Pedro is, of my entire family, the one who has spent the most time in school. My little brother is an academic, with a Masters Degree from the London School of Economics. Listening to him talk about politics or the environment renews your hope for the future of this world.

I know that Lorena is an extraordinary woman, because my brother wants to marry her. I’ve never met her, but I already love her like a sorella.

Welcome to the family, Lorena Zapata.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


I’m swimming laps, back and forth, back and forth. I stop sometimes to adjust my goggles, stretch, catch my breath and lean against the far side of the pool. I see a man and a boy about twelve enter the pool area. From the way they walk, their shoulders close together, heads turned in, I know they’re in this alone. They are foreigners.

The man walks his boy to the edge. The boy, keeping his eyes down, gets in using the ladder (I half expected a cannonball). We end up sharing the lane. He’s small and skinny and ultra careful not to graze me as we cross paths again and again. He’s a good, disciplined swimmer, has nice, even strokes. He doesn’t play with the stream of bubbles his body makes as it cuts through the water, nor does he do summersaults or back flips between laps. His body language seems too clipped – un-expansive - to belong to someone so small.

A (very) pregnant woman arrives, adjusts her swim cap, pulls at the bathing suit already tugging tight across her belly, studies the people who now populate every lane. Despite my superpower mental message (not here not here not here not here) she leans over and asks if she can share our lane. I make an effort to sound inviting because she’s going to come in anyway, so why make her feel uncomfortable?

“We can swim in circles,” she suggests. Her tone is easy. “It’s three of us, so back and forth is not going to work”. I nod and reach the boy. I touch him lightly on the shoulder. He stops, whips up, looks at me with wide eyes. “Let’s swim in circles -” I start. He stares. I realize he does not understand me.

His father swims up beside him. “Yes? Can I help you?” his accent is heavy, but his English is crisp. He speaks it well.

“We need to swim in circles so she - ” I point, “can join us”.

The man turns to the boy. “Swim in circles” he says to his son. But he does not switch to their language, does not even signal with his arms. He continues, still in English, arms at his sides. “Don’t swim back and forth on the same lane”. He swims away.

I look at the boy. The boy does not look at me. I want to help, but I don’t know how. I swim, making the circles as wide as I can, willing him to catch on.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Thanks for all the fish

If you read my past blog entry titled “The List Maker”, you know I make lists. They are logistical, tactical, immediate – not aspirational. I’ve tried to develop a “list of things to do before I die” or a “places to go in the next five years” but I never make much progress. I think it’s because half the pleasure of making one lies in checking items off. Having a list that by nature takes years to get through goes against the grain of my list making compulsion.

Years ago, in an attempt to make the “things to do before I die” list, I did manage to get three things down:

1. See Oprah live (she is one of the most extraordinary people of our time.)
2. See the Aurora Borealis
3. Swim with a dolphin

As it turns out, this weekend I did just that. I had to go to Orlando on business and had a few hours off Saturday, so we went to Discovery Cove.

You probably already know a lot of what I know about dolphins. They are intelligent, social; they communicate in ways we don’t fully understand. But I didn’t know they were so soft. Their skin is not like rubber – it’s warm and alive. They have expressive eyes and are not bald - they have whiskers. They have belly buttons. Their ears are like pinholes. They have good eyesight, but use sonar sight too (like bats.) And they always, always thank you when you give them fish.

Don’t try swimming with dolphins or touching dolphins in the wild, but definitely go to Discovery Cove.

Swim with a dolphin: check.

Must do again.

Thursday, October 5, 2006

Disturb me

There it is, that inflection again. It’s imperceptible to the inexperienced ear. It would take years of training to detect the hidden strain. But you can’t fool me. I know it’s there. I reach out for it, but it’s like a wisp, intangible. It’s gone.

“You’re not worried about me, are you?” he says, peppy.
“Well” I say, and opt to come out with it. “Yes, I am, as a matter of fact. Are you OK?”
I know the answer already. I’ve heard it all my life.

Of course I’m OK.

I come from a family of booming communicators. We talk. We write. We debate. We protest. When we were young and still all lived at home, we used to get together every Sunday, sit around an enormous table, and argue over a four hour meal of green salad, carne asada and chocolate cake.

Each one of us keeps secrets, though. If something breaks –and things often break - the shards of glass are quickly, efficiently swept away, lest they hurt someone. They are everywhere, the hints, the bits, like a shattered windshield that leaves blue glass strewn all over the highway. They leave me wondering, guessing exactly what the extent of the damage was.

Is there some perverse reason we speak in half-truths? There is not. You see, we do it to protect one another. The unspoken commandment: thou shalt not concern a beloved family member. Shhh. The children will hear.

This is why I am always suspicious. When it gets the best of me, I launch an investigation that pries, that takes days, where pieces are pasted together to form a distorted picture. Distorted because the various sources of information are caught in this perpetual dance.

Just disturb me. I have strong shoulders. Your silence is worse than the things you leave me to imagine.

What about me, then? If something happened that I could shield you from, would I burden you with it?

What if you heard something in my voice?

Everything is OK. I would say, peppy. Jeez. You’re such a worrier.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Let's lash

Frank McCourt is a brilliant writer. In his first book, Angela’s Ashes, he writes about what growing up poor in Ireland was like. He spends most of his childhood wet, cold and starving.

One of the characteristics I find most delightful is that throughout his books he displays an unabashed appreciation for food. The times his father brings home wages (rather than spending them on drinking) he goes to sleep knowing “there will be a breakfast of eggs, fried tomatoes and fried bread, tea with lashings of sugar and milk, and, later in the day, a big dinner of mashed potatoes, peas and ham and a trifle, layers of fruit and warm delicious custard on a cake soaked in sherry”.

Does this not make you want to “lash” your tea with sugar and milk?

(McCourt’s father, an alcoholic, rarely eats, claiming food is “a shock to the system”.)

I recently read Teacher Man, where he recounts how he almost got fired on his first day as a teacher for eating a baloney sandwich one of his students had thrown at another. (After picking it up, he notices the thick home made bread, the marinated sliced peppers, and knows this is no ordinary sandwich. Sure enough, the kid’s mother was Sicilian.)

You’ll be happy to hear McCourt’s career survived the incident, allowing him to remain a teacher for over twenty years.

Meanwhile, I wonder where I can find a comparable baloney sandwich.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

See for yourself

After recently visiting three very different regions in Italy I can say with confidence that there is no such thing as "Italian Food". Or, rather, the range of food that can be considered "Italian" varies so much from region to region that it defies categorization.

Our trip began with three days in Liguria, where I dreamed of bread every night. Camogli is on the coast close to Genova, and it was so hot we had to sleep with the windows open. The drool inducing smell from the panetteria below rises, wafts through the open window and seeps into your subconscious. They start work at 3:00 a.m. I don't need to tell you what you wake up craving for.

Liguria is where focaccia comes from, as well as troffie, pesto, sugo di noce, moscardini in umido, pesce in umido con patate bollite. We had gelato at least three times a day (after lunch, early evening and after dinner).

Our good friends Jacopo and Paola took us by boat from Camogli to San Fruttuoso for dinner one evening. On the way we saw Liguria from the water, its nooks and soft lights. I remember reading somewhere that when you cook pasta the water needs to be as salty as the Mediterranean, so I tasted it. Next time I’ll get it right.

We sat at a little table right on the beach, eating a seven course meal under the light of the moon.

After the coast, we went by bus up to the mountains to a small town where Luca's family, escaping the nightmarish, humid Milan heat, has spent every summer for the past forty years.

Whenever we visit Etroubles (which has approximately 200 inhabitants and is close to the border with Switzerland), Luca feels like a time traveler. The same six-year-old girl who used to sit behind the counter at the grocery store when Luca was twelve is still there, with her tangled red head, counting coins. Except that, on closer inspection, it's the daughter of the girl that used to be there. This phenomenon repeats itself as we walk through town in the boy on the swings, the teenagers playing soccer, the woman hanging her clothes to dry.

The food in Valle d'Aosta is stick to your ribs, rich, heavy, and slathered in butter, cream or cheese. Polenta e Camoscio, Polenta Concia, Fontina, Fonduta, Mocetta, Zuppa alla Valpellinese, Tegole, Carpaccio di Porcini. I had Zuppa alla Valpellinese and found myself in front of a deep dish of melted Fontina, which I then spread on thick, black bread with my fork. (You'd think "zuppa" would require a spoon. I love surprises.)

In Courmayeur, at the foot of Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc), I had the best yogurt I've ever tasted. The label on the glass container read "this yogurt is made only from milk of cows from the high Valle d'Aosta". As we drove through the mountains, I thanked all the cows who grazed there.

One of my favorite pastries are Brutti ma Buoni (ugly yet good.) They are amorphous blobs of heaven, made from egg whites, hazelnuts and sugar (no flour, no butter.) In search of the best, I decided to sample one at each pasticceria.

Despite the simple ingredients, the flavor and consistency vary greatly, from airy to crunchy to chewy to everything in between. I invited my husband, my in-laws and la Nonna, my husband's 96 year old grandmother, into this endeavor. I was to walk into each bakery, order 5 brutti ma buoni, and deliver one into the (ever so slightly disapproving) hands of each of my family members (Northern Italians pretend to frown upon excess. I say "pretend" because when it comes right down to the wire, they could turn it down but don't.)

It was in Cogne, a jewel of a town deep in a narrow valley, that I encountered the roundest, puffiest, most harmonious looking brutti ma buoni. I walked in and aghast, told the owner "These cannot possibly be considered brutti ma buoni. They aren't at all ugly."

"Regretfully, signora, we make everything in our pastry shop beautiful. These are indeed brutti ma buoni, only they are not brutti."

I looked around. This was truly a gorgeous pastry shop. Cookies piled high with different flavors of jam, goodies swirled in chocolate, meringues coiffed in cream, almond paste filled croissants dusted in confectioner's sugar.

Exercising atypical restraint, I stuck to our mission, ordered the usual five brutti ma buoni, and while my family still chewed I declared them the best in Italy. To be fair, I hereby disclose they couldn't object - they had gummy yummyness gluing their teeth together.

My political family is all originally from Lombardia (in this case, Milan) where we went to next. Typical Milan dishes are Risotto alla Milanese (which is made with saffron and is half the reason my blog is called 'Epazote and Saffron'), Osso Buco (which I admit I'm not a passionate fan of - but Luca's eyes bug out when he sees this on the menu, and when he breaks down and orders it he mops his plate clean with bread), Cotoletta alla Milanese (breaded meat which even in far away places like Mexico we call "Milanesa") and Panettone, the high, fluffy, dried fruit encrusted dessert bread sold in Milan over the Christmas holidays.

I know that my initial declaration of there being no such thing as Italian food is really nothing new. It's that it's such fun to experience it for oneself.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

What is Popeye going to do?

We’ve been told not to eat fresh spinach (regardless of where it comes from: restaurants, supermarkets, vegetable stands, even if its organic) until the source of the current E. coli virus is figured out. At least 157 people in 23 states have been affected (according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.)

Those who die of complications of E. coli usually die of kidney failure.

Most at risk are individuals with weaker immune systems: children, pregnant women, and the elderly.

It seems that the culprit behind the current outbreak is irrigation or floodwater that is infected (with feces.)

Besides the obvious cost of human life (and human health) I’m worried about this on so many levels.

- This is a huge blow to spinach growers and producers (growers in the Salinas Valley are plowing their crops under. I’ve seen the photographs – fields and fields of beautiful, green leaves are being buried. What a colossal waste.)

- This point, above, means that workers (many of them migrant workers) will not get paid.

- Fear could make consumers stop buying other leafy vegetables, as well as anything that comes in those ultra convenient, pre-washed bags of salad. In other words, the implications in the industry are still to be determined.

- Washing the spinach doesn’t help. Not even dousing it with chlorine or dipping it in bleach, as the bacteria is absorbed from the root and resides in the inner tissues of the plant. The solution implies a profound change in agriculture practices and is not in our hands.

- Spinach consumption in the United States had been increasing. In a country in the grip of an obesity epidemic, this is a tremendous setback.

- Vegetable processing plants routinely wash lettuce and other vegetables in chlorinated water to kill E. coli and other bacteria. I don’t know about you, but my naïve reaction to this was - WHAT? My vegetables are washed with CHLORINE?

Granted, chlorine is a disinfectant, but it’s also a health hazard and may trigger asthma in children. Among adults it has been linked with other health problems, including bladder and rectal cancer and may increase the risk for coronary heart disease. (My source on this last paragraph is Andrew Weil.) Yes, I’m grateful to chlorine for protecting me from E.Coli and for keeping my pool clean. But are there not other alternatives? Must I eat it?

- The prospect of a food-safety scare has a domino effect. Raw almonds are being plowed under as well. The dairy industry is under intense scrutiny.

We can only hope this forces an improvement on us. We need to better inform ourselves about what we put in our mouths and where it comes from. Stringent practices in the agricultural industry must be established (feces coming into contact with food typically consumed raw? Come on!) We also need to be responsible in our use of antibiotics and chemicals. First do no harm – right?

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


The last time I was in Mexico, I warned my cigar loving father about secondhand smoke. "It's so bad for you" I told him. He looked at me with what I can only call adoring disgust. "You" he said disdainfully "have become a Californian".

He's right. Here is further proof that I’m a (Northern) Californian:

  • I have forgotten how to cross a street. I put my foot on the pavement and fully expect cars to screech to a halt. In other parts of the world (like Mexico, Milan and even England) this could have fatal consequences.
  • I order a latte for breakfast. Non fat. In Milan, baristas looked at us blankly.
  • I say “Good morning! How are you today?” to complete strangers. In London, they almost had me committed.
  • I expect produce to be bountiful, colorful, cheap and organic.
  • I never ask "how is the weather?"
  • I consider pressed jeans to be formal attire.
  • Even in Italy, I missed tofu. (Don't knock it until you've tried my tofu lasagna.)
  • Huevos rancheros for breakfast, sushi for lunch, Asian Fusion for dinner.
  • I feel that "that's neither here nor there" and "it is what it is" actually contribute something to the discussion.
  • I have become addicted to open space. I realized this after several weeks in Italy (driving through high mountains and narrow valleys) and a visit to London. We went to Kensington Park, to an area called The Pond, and I sat on a park bench entranced by the swath of sky. California skies are enormously wide and I love looking at the Pacific Ocean and the swirls of windswept clouds as we drive into the office.
I live in the most beautiful place in the world. California is home.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Sunday Lunch

With the exception of Fausto, who is less than three years younger than me, I remember when each of my siblings arrived in my life. They were newborn. Nothing like the babies I had seen coo in Gerber commercials, cuddly, rosy and soft; but real ones, noisy, smelly, gurgly babies my father regarded with equal parts adoration, apprehension and delight.

Just as time came to bear on me, it came to bear on them. They saw the world through their own eyes; developed personal versions of incidents we experienced, made friends I’ve never met that greatly influenced their lives, fell in love, drew intimate conclusions of our parents values, declarations and beliefs. They went to college, became dexterous in subjects I am ignorant about. They made choices that defined them and, while I wasn’t looking, emerged as adults. It is my blood that courses through their veins. I catch startling snippets of me in the way they turn their head, in a speckle in the color of their eyes – and then I am gone, and what is left is a grown up that has been an inextricable part of my life but that, shockingly, I don’t know much about.

We are all thrashing in the riptide of two equal forces. One, centripetal, that we keep even from ourselves, which yearns for unity. Another, centrifugal, that is disillusioned and wants no part of it, this thing we call brother/sisterhood. We have not caught on that a brief episode that occurred during another’s formative years cannot be extrapolated into a broad judgment of character. And yet, clumsily, this is what siblings are destined to do.

I wonder if, like I have done, they have patched me together, assembled me with defective blocks constituted by their subjective memory of me and alleged attributes they overhear from my parents, and have constructed a jagged notion of a person who, in effect, doesn’t exist. I left home more than ten years ago. Do they assume they know me? The fact is, we are brothers, we are sisters, but we are strangers.

Who are these people? In a cosmic sense, are we randomly assigned to one another? Are we, despite it all, because of the same sacred genetic structure that binds us, more similar than we are different? If so, what is the exact composition of the miraculous helix that runs through all of us?

What would it take for us to get wise, to get past our assumptions, our faulty premises, to get over conclusions imposed by others, however unintentionally, to reassess well meaning labels affixed onto us by our parents, and arrive at who we really are? This is the treasure I would find at the end of the rainbow.

This past weekend I went to Mexico for a quick visit, and sat around the big square table at my father’s house, like we used to do every Sunday so many years ago. I am transfixed by these extraordinary, beloved strangers I call family.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Emma and Lauren

In my friend Emma’s poignant blog entry, she talks about her niece Lauren, and how, by choosing to leave home, she is missing out on Lauren growing up.

I know how Emma feels. I too decided to leave home, and know that while I go about my daily business, time does not stop back in Mexico. My mother sits at the computer in her library whether I’m down the hall or not. She gives her dog a treat through the open window, and eats on a tray in her room while she reads. Her husband sits in a patch of sun, beads necklaces that I will never see. My father will go on his morning run and I will not be waiting for him at the breakfast table. He will sit behind his desk in the office, no longer expecting to see me walk in.

And during the very same time that I drive to work, carry on with meetings and make Luca dinner, my parents will grow old. If I dwell on this thought for too long, I feel a sense of loss so strong I can barely breathe.

Before I was born, I made the following promises to my parents:

1. To be happy.
2. To do, to the best of my abilities, the right thing.
3. To be independent, economically and otherwise.
4. To make my own way.

While leaving Mexico was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, I did it without hesitation or difficulty. I did it because it was an intrinsic part of the deal I had struck.

Emma is doing for Lauren the most important thing an aunt can do: she is being an aunt by example. If Lauren’s parents do their job right, Lauren will one day leave everything behind to find her own way. And she will not look back.

Except maybe once, to give Auntie Emma a wink.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

You can change the world

I fear that you’re going to start reading this and then figure out what it’s about and stop. I’m asking you to give this page a chance. I promise not to say anything that will make you want to give up on an entire food group. It's just that I need you to pay attention.

When you think about food, you think about what you put in your mouth and the consequences it will have on your body (or at least your waistline). The fact is we need to consider the impact our food choices have on others - and I mean beyond the obesity epidemic. The food industry has crossed ethical lines, and we are its accomplices.

Every time you eat you are making a choice – and that choice has tremendous power. You need to put this power to use. How many times a day do you put something in your mouth? Every time you do, your choice is the easiest, most consistent, most relentless way for you to be politically active.

Ask yourself: Is the food grown without pesticides or herbicides? Are farm workers paid a living wage? Do animals suffer needlessly?

Take chicken. Chicken is the cheapest meat available. Tyson is the self-proclaimed “largest provider of protein products on the planet”.

Out of respect for the fact you’ve read this far, I won’t get into how chickens are treated at Tyson. Here is what you need to know: Tyson Foods is listed as one of the Ten Least Wanted Animal Factory Operators, and has a long history of convictions for pollution. It has repeatedly discharged untreated wastewater into a tributary of the Lamine River: hundreds of thousands of gallons of wastewater a day.

Tyson has also been named one of the Ten Worst Corporations due to the number of workers who die in industrial accidents within its walls. Tyson been fined by the Department Of Labor for violating child provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Tyson was also fined by the Occupational Health And Safety Administration for violating health and safety laws in several states. We are talking about a company that makes billions of dollars in profit and has a record of seeking to lower wages and cut health benefits for its workers.

Do you know what intensive chicken production causes (due to crowding, among other factors)? Avian influenza. If this virus mutates…well, you know the rest. A pandemic would bring disastrous economic consequences. And I say “economic” (rather than the cost in human lives) because this is the true price you end up paying when you are buying the cheapest chicken meat in the market.

What can you do to change this?

Don’t buy Tyson products.

Is this enough?


- Consumers (me and you) are increasingly seeking out organic produced food. Today, organic foods can be found almost anywhere and are the fastest growing section of the food industry.

- Whole Foods and Wild Oats announced they would not sell eggs from cages hens, and Trader Joe’s said it would not use caged eggs for its own brand of eggs.

I’ll be writing future pages about other similar cases so you know who not to buy from. In the meantime, you can make a strong, positive contribution just by buying your food from someone other than Tyson.

You really can change the world.

Source: Peter Singer, Jim Mason. The Way We Eat – Why our Food Choices Matter. Rodale.

Monday, August 14, 2006

The Best

Truism: we live in a culture obsessed with being “The Best”.

If by definition, only one can be “The Best”, where does that leave everyone else most of the time?

Resentful, that’s where. Not just unfulfilled: un-fillable. Not just unsatisfied: insatiable. If this is the case, if most people feel like losers most of the time, then there is a fatal flaw in the initial proposition.

Why, then, are we buying into it?

What if, instead, we focused on Being? Not The Best. Just Being.


- We’d commit. We’d stop running, chasing, clutching. We’re not lost. We’re here. Commit.
- We’d listen. Not look at the person who’s talking while our minds are vagrant. Not nodding while sneaking peaks at our Blackberries and cell phone screens. We’d stop. And listen.
- We’d exercise, every day, an earnest effort to put someone else’s needs before our own. Your kids don’t count.
- We’d love with abandon. Not through the land mines of our complexes.
- We’d read voraciously. Books, newspapers, magazines. We’d read things that have permanence; that will be a thread in the web of events we call history. We wouldn’t read tabloids or celebrity gossip. It’s perennial.
- We’d realize that what we do to ourselves has indelible consequences that will catch up with us. For one thing, we wouldn’t eat food that comes from a conveyor belt.
- Shopping would be a necessity, not a pastime. There would be no ineffable emptiness to quench.
- We’d recognize that happiness is something to strive for rather than something that befalls us (or doesn’t.) It would be its own worthy goal.
- We’d be clear on what our priorities are and let them be what guides us.
- We’d ignore our enemies. Heck, we might not have any.

Would this make us rich, famous, Number One? Maybe as a side effect. Maybe not. But we’d never wonder what it all means, if this is all there is, or what we’re supposed to do next. We would be defined by what we are, not by what we do. We’d be left, in the end, with something more valuable than perfection. Perfection is overrated.

Sunday, August 13, 2006


A truism is not exactly a statement of fact. It is “a claim that is so obvious or self-evident as to be hardly worth mentioning” (according to Wikipedia.)

Years ago, I saw an exhibit by Jenny Holtzer at the Guggenheim museum in New York. She uses space to write out her “truisms”. The word (“truism”) itself, as well as her statements, stuck with me.

Some were, indeed, hardly worth mentioning:
A name means a lot just by itself
A relaxed man is not necessarily a better man
Disgust is the appropriate response to most situations
Every achievement requires a sacrifice
It's not good to operate on credit

Some made me think:
Ambition is just as dangerous as complacency
A strong sense of duty imprisons you
Categorizing fear is calming
Men are not monogamous by nature
Sacrificing yourself for a bad cause is not a moral act
You are the past present and future

Others I agreed with:
Abuse of power comes as no surprise
A little knowledge can go a long way
A positive attitude means all the difference in the world
Action causes more trouble than thought
Ambivalence can ruin your life
If you live simply there is nothing to worry about
Ignoring enemies is the best way to fight
It's better to be naive than jaded
It's just an accident that your parents are your parents
Murder has its sexual side
Raise boys and girls the same way
When something terrible happens people wake up
Wishful thinking is not effective
Worrying can help you prepare
You are a victim of the rules you live by
You owe the world not the other way around

Others I disagreed with (and was so disturbed she’d consider them truisms):
Crime against property is relatively unimportant
Decency is a relative thing
Enjoy yourself because you can't change anything anyway
Everything that's interesting is new
Morals are for little people
Exceptional people deserve special concessions
Loving animals is a substitute activity
Money creates taste
To disagree presupposes moral integrity
You must have one grand passion
Your actions are pointless if no one notices

Luca asks why I am including entries that are not strictly about food in this blog.

Because they are food for thought.

We both agree this is a truism.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Slow Food

Slow Food is an international organization that stands for “banishing the degrading efforts of Fast Food”.

We are proud owners of The Slow Food guide to San Francisco and the Bay area and have tried several restaurants described in its pages (three of them in the past two weeks, others in the past several years.)

Here are some restaurants featured in the book that I’d recommend:

Kabul (Mountain View) - I heard that Kabul was one of the best Afghan restaurants in the country, so checked if that was really the case by asking my friend Suraya what she thought. I also got from her a few suggestions so I’d know what to order. Go with a lot of people so you can all get different things and share (and order firnee for dessert).

Chez Panisse (Berkeley)– I heard so much about this place that I didn’t go for the first six years I lived here. It just couldn’t possibly be that good. Let me tell you, it is. If you are in the Bay Area for a day, or can only afford one restaurant a month, this is it. The salad is cut from the garden seconds before it’s set on your plate.

Greens (San Francisco) – A perfect place to take visitors. First, because it has fantastic views of the San Francisco Bay, and second because it is completely vegetarian and you wouldn’t know it (and therefore, a San Francisco experience.) I usually order a tofu dish because I’m fascinated by its uses. The pizzas, Luca’s preference, are very good too. By the way, it’s vegetarian, not vegan. They’re not shy about their use of cream and cheese (and I’m not complaining.)

Hawthorne Lane (San Francisco) – this is one of the restaurants we discovered just this week. We walk in front of it every day and I’d never noticed it. I loved it because it’s quiet and unstuffy, perfect if you want to go somewhere to talk. I had melon gazpacho with crab, and figs stuffed with cheese and wrapped in prosciutto. I also ate one of Paul’s French fries, more of an unpeeled potato wedge, crunchy on the outside and soft inside.

By now it’s probably time to confess I’ve never been to Gary Danko’s. I like “middle of the way” restaurants (bistros and trattorias) much more than I like ultra expensive ones, so have been putting it off. In one of my father’s recent visits, we read in a guidebook (Zagat) something to the effect of the chef being a God. For reasons I no longer remember, my father and Carmen went without us. The next day, eyes gleaming, he concurred God played an active role in that kitchen.

Speaking of bistros, another restaurant I found myself at recently was Fringale. Luca ordered the halibut and I had a fantastic tuna burger (Jim ordered the tuna burger too so I’m afraid I can’t report on many other dishes.)

Because I’m married to an Italian, we generally avoid Italian restaurants. We do love Albona, where I recommend going if you’re craving home made but don’t cook. Order the minestrone. Antica Trattoria, on Russian Hill, is delicious too. I like the blood orange, fennel and red onion salad and ravioli. (There are other Italian restaurants we like but they’re not in our Slow Food book. More on those at a later date.)

Another recent discovery is Brindisi (the one on 88 Belden Place in San Francisco), where I went twice this week. The first time because it’s right around the corner from where I work and in our new book. I ordered halibut on a bed of spicy broccoli. It was so delicious that I had to go a second time. I arrived, anxious, expectant, two days later, and the menu was completely different. Good that they change the menu every day, tragic that I will dream about that broccoli for months. The first time I went was with Luca, who ordered ravioli (spectacular) the second with Michael who ordered a steak sandwich I debated taking a bite from and in the end decided against it. Taking a bite of what someone else is having is not for everyone (and a concession you must put up with if you take me anywhere) but biting into someone else’s sandwich, is, I think, too much to ask. He said it was “tender and light” while I stared and sat on my hands.

I go to great lengths to avoid Mexican restaurants outside of Mexico. I cook Mexican food at home and am always dismayed by the definition of Mexican food outside my country’s borders. Mijita, at Embarcadero in the Ferry Building, is where I go when I need a taco place that doesn’t sell rice and bean Burritos. The jicama salad and salsas are fantastic, and the tortillas are made fresh right there behind the counter.

Speaking of the Ferry Building, you can’t go wrong in there. Get ice cream at Ciao Bella Gelato and stare at the drop dead gorgeous flower stall, Oak Hill Farm, while you stand in line. Slanted Door is one of my favorite restaurants in San Francisco, though I often prefer Out the Door, their take out, get-a-quick-bite at the counter place on the side of the restaurant. Don’t try Slanted Door without a reservation.

Duarte’s in Pescadero is the first restaurant we ever went to on the Coast. It’s famous for the artichoke soup and its pies (most notably, Olallieberry Pie). Plus you can walk off a late lunch at Butano State Park and look at pelicans on Pescadero Beach.

Also on the Coast is Cetrella, a restaurant that cultivates relationships with local produce farmers and supports a Saturday farmers’ market in the summer. Pasta Moon, one of my father’s favorite places to eat “in the world”, is right at the entrance of Main Street in Half Moon Bay, and serves food supplied by local farmers and fishermen.

After flipping through the rest of the book we’ve determined to be more systematic in our restaurant choices. There is so little time, and so much food to try – and, you certainly don’t want to rush it.

Saturday, August 5, 2006


Time exists so that everything doesn’t happen at once.
Albert Einstein

There were moments in my childhood where I had it pretty rough. For example, my father used to make me wait at least an hour between eating a meal and being allowed back in the swimming pool.
This might sound like a reasonable request to you. You are obviously severely underestimating the fact that an hour to a seven-year-old girl – particularly one who loves being in the water - is like forever.
I would excuse myself from the table, brush by teeth, change my t-shirt, pace around, read a book, pretend to play chess, throw myself on the bed and count the bricks in the ceiling over my head.
How much longer now?

51 minutes.

Flash forward seven years. Chemistry class. 45 minutes of pure, hallucination inducing torture. I would stare at the clock over the blackboard. Draw my name in bold letters on the sides of my sneakers. Scribble a note and pass it to someone. Anyone? Raise my hand and ask permission to go to the bathroom. Saunter along the school hall, a paso de gallo - gallina (where you put the heel of your left foot right up against the toe of your right foot, then switch feet). Arrive at the lavatory. Rinse my face. Squash my nose against the mirror to see how I would look up really close. Find gum in my back pocket. Unwrap it. Put it in my mouth. Chew. Return to class.

38 minutes to go.

Now, I can’t seem to stop it. We have lunch with friends and calculate, incredulously, how long it’s been since we last saw each other. We promise our families we won’t let too much time go by without seeing them, and before we turn our backs on them at the airport, it’s been more than a year since our last trip. Early February, I was talking to a friend and asked how her baby was doing (feeling pretty proud I remembered she’d had one). “Dushka” she said, “he’s nine.”
Who came up with this thing we call time? Do we travel through it, or vice-versa? Who determines how fast or how slow it should go? Is it constant, or does it play tricks on us? Does it vary per individual? Does it exist at all?

The picture you see above was taken in 1966, three years before I was even born. It’s Luca and Fabio, his older brother. Luca’s mom swears to me her husband took it only yesterday.

Thursday, August 3, 2006

Shangri-La, Karma and eating your vegetables

My friend Jim was recently telling me, not without enthusiasm, about the Shangri- La Diet. The premise is that our weight is regulated by a system that has a set point. The objective is to change that set point. How? By eating food that has little or no flavor but still has calories. The recommendation is “to consume 100-400 calories of sugar water and/or flavorless edible oil daily, and to consume it before or well after meal”.

My reaction?

I was twitching. I waited as patiently as possible for the question I was longing for. Finally, it came.

“What do you think?”

I think that if any bit of this diet results in the dieter consuming less calories and exercising more, it will work. If not, it won’t.

Let me save you time and money:

Calorie intake - calorie expenditure = your weight.

Are there any exceptions to this rule? Sure. Your metabolism, regulated by your thyroid, plays a role. Water retention. Whatever. If you want a “diet” that works, you need to change your lifestyle.

What else? Have breakfast. Eat more fruits and vegetables. Less processed sugar. Eliminate hydrogenated oils and corn syrup. And, please. Portion control. A “venti latte” has 400 calories.

Should I be more receptive, more open to the possibility that there might be a diet book out there that works? Sorry.

Jim, a really good listener, quickly understands that, despite my best efforts, this is not going to be a back and forth. I am on the edge of my seat, my fist clenched against my mouth, shaking my head before he can finish walking me through the logic of the author who wrote it.

As I research more about it, I find a review that urges readers to be more open. “When our paradigms are challenged, we all too often respond with our own familiar dogma”. Huh?

I am left with a peculiar urge to lay it all out on the table, move on to other unrelated but frequently asked questions that result in people suggesting I “consider other possibilities.” I assure you that I do. Inevitably, though, I draw a conclusion. Just like you.

I don’t believe in ghosts or the paranormal. I don’t believe time travel is or will ever be possible. I don’t believe there is life on other planets – at least not right now. I believe the universe is infinite, and time is infinite, so the possibility of two societies coinciding in this inconceivable vastness is less than slim.

Do I believe that things happen for a reason? No. Well, do I believe things happen for a reason we have no visibility into? No. I believe things happen for no reason. Things happen because they happen. I occasionally marvel at the irony or the wicked sense of humor of a higher order, but most often, I suspect it’s random.

Do I believe in destiny? No. I don’t believe things are pre-intended, pre-planned, or pre-written. There is no master plan. I believe that those of us who are more fortunate create our own destinies. Those who are less fortunate are trapped in their own. The difference is dumb luck.

(I relish Ambrose Bierce’s definition of destiny: “A tyrant’s authority for crime, and a fool’s excuse for failure.”)

Do I believe in karma? I want to. It would certainly explain a lot. But I don’t believe in heaven, hell, or life after death. Death is it. This life is it. I do believe in instant karma, though. You pay for things right here.

Do I believe we are our body and our soul? I don’t believe those two elements can be separated. I have read true stories about men who, like each of us, have a distinct personality and who suffer an injury to the brain and become someone different. A scientist questions the existence of what we call “soul” – meaning, we are the result of our neurons and the electric impulses between them, if a blow to the head can completely change the very essence of who we are.

Which, of course, begs the next question.

Do I believe in God?

The honest answer is that I don’t know. Sometimes, when I do, I think he’s too busy to bother with us.

Saying “I believe” or “I don’t believe” rather than “I am certain” defines me as agnostic, rather than an atheist. I do stay up thinking about it, which proves I’m not categorical.

(One of my mother’s favorite jokes: what does a dyslexic, agnostic, insomniac do? She stays up all night wondering if there is a Dog.)

I do believe for certain in the power of the human brain. I believe in the self-fulfilling prophecy theory. In my book, you are what you believe. You get what you feel in your heart that you deserve – not what you want, no matter how badly.

I also believe you should do everything in your power to do what’s right. Just in case I’m wrong about the Karma thing.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Did you want ketchup on that?

Police Log
Half Moon Bay Review
Saturday, July 29

Condiments and bathroom essentials left on outside of Half Moon Bay home

On July 24 a Half Moon Bay Police officer responded to a residence on Silver Avenue after a report of vandalism. Sure enough, someone had put ketchup, mustard, shaving cream and toilet paper on the victim's house. There didn't appear to be any permanent damage.

Healthy fast food?

Jamba Juice is California's answer to healthy fast food. It's a colorful fruit bar where you can get fresh juice, juice blends and fruit smoothies that have no artificial colors or preservatives. In typical California style, everything they offer can be made dairy free, gluten free (except for a couple of boosts and blends), vegetarian or vegan.

On the positive side, you have really delicious, filling fruit smoothies. On the negative, the smoothies are very high in calories and sugar. (To be honest, I don't know if sugar is added or if it's naturally occurring. I looked everywhere on their site and couldn't find the answer. My guess is sugar is added, specially when the blend includes sorbets, yogurt or soy milk.)

If I owned Jamba Juice, here is what I would change:
  • Products would contain no added sugar.
  • There would be smaller portion options.
  • I'm extremely skeptical about two of the boosts: energy and burner boost. Increase stamina? fight fatigue? burn fat? c'mon.
  • I'd love it if they offered organic options.
Why is organic better? Because there are less chemicals (both in your body and in the soil), more nutrients and a guarantee that you are not getting genetically modified food. If the products contain dairy, you are using less antibiotics and other medicines too. Finally, people argue that organic tastes better (I emphatically agree).
  • Jamba Juices takes pride in "searching the world to find fruits and vegetables of the highest quality". I'd like for Jamba juice to try to use more local produce.
Why is local better? Because local is fresher. It hasn't been traveling or cold stored for days or weeks. The less time from tree to mouth the better the taste and the higher the nutritional value. Because it gives fruits and vegetables time to become ripe. Because it's better for air quality and pollution. It keeps us in touch with the seasons, when we eat food when it's at the peak of its taste, at its most abundant and at its least expensive.
  • Whenever I go into Jamba Juice I wonder why they don't change their menu more often (to reflect seasonal changes). I understand there is evidence that frozen fruit and vegetables are as healthy as when they are fresh, but isn't it hard to consistently offer (for example) mangoes or pineapple in December? Wouldn't it be easier and healthier to make seasonal adjustments to the menu?
I'm delighted to report that I went into Jamba Juice today to get a blueberry smoothie and found a letter from Paul Clayton, the CEO, that explained that the menu would have to change. "When it comes to passion-fruit - a key ingredient in many of our smoothies - we buy only the best and that means at this time of year we look to Ecuador. Unfortunately, Mother Nature does not always cooperate with our plans. Due to prolonged drought conditions in the region, this year's passion-fruit crop was extremely small, leaving us with a shortage. In order to continue providing you the best possible freshly made smoothies, we have made slight adjustments to two or our recipes".

I applaud Jamba Juice for doing this! I wish they would do it more often. I would be happier to buy whatever is in season over a fruit that was bought months ago from the other side of the world, then frozen and dragged all the way over here.

The bottom line: I thank Jamba Juice for making it easier to get our five servings a day of fruits and vegetables and for giving us a quick, convenient option to getting our food.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Pass it on

It all begins when someone recommends a book, when I read a book review or fall prey to one that tugs at me at the bookstore. Or, someone gives me a book. (I love it when that happens.)

I take it home and put it on my “unread books” bookcase. After a while, it’s promoted to my bedside table or near my comfy chair. An unequivocal indication that I intend to read it in the short term.

Once I’ve finished the book the rule is this: no matter how much I loved it, I have to let it go.

I was born in the midst of a family of serial library creators. This savage dictum - give your books away - is vexing to parents and siblings alike and has been shunned in the past.

I’m sticking to it, people.

Yes. the reason behind this is in part due to my aversion to hoarding things. But more importantly, I believe it's a sad destiny for a book that's meant to be read to sit forlorn on a bookcase, collecting dust, getting old without anyone cracking open its pages.

Books should be held, opened, their sentences traced, passages bookmarked. So, in order to fulfill its destiny, once I’m done reading a book, I give it to a pre-designated recipient. In turn, they have to pass it on.

Take what happened with my book by Wislawa Szymborska.

The first time I heard of her was from my father, who placed an urgent long distance call and said I absolutely needed to read her poems. “Must” is one of his favorite words. You certainly don’t want someone you love missing out on something you loved.

He in turn learned about Szymborska through my brother Pedro.

Wait. I wouldn’t want to give you the wrong impression. We are not like a book club, which would be too forced, too stale for our fiercely independent sensitivities. We are, instead, accidentally inclusive. Every recommendation in our family is unintentionally elliptical.

And so it was that Szymborska found its way into my evergreen “list of books to buy”. In time, I dutifully bought one of her books, brought it home, took it out of its crinkly brown bag, and left it on you know which bookcase in my room, where it sat, waiting patiently for its turn, for several months.

About six weeks ago, I noticed it, thin, pale, unassuming, sandwiched between other more flashy things that had caught my eye. I took it, patted it, felt its reassuring weight, and set it down near my favorite chair.

I intended to start it that very evening, but other more insistent books got in the way.

On a recent Sunday morning I finally opened it up and read one poem chosen at random. And, well, I just wasn’t taken in.

Never underestimate the sneaky, smoldering kind of love that grows on you slowly.

The very next day I saw a poem my sister Isabel had generously posted on her blog. I felt a new brand of indignance - indignant kinship - towards whoever had dared write it. Each sentence I wanted to say “Heeey! I’ve felt that! I wanted to write that!”

I looked for the author down at the bottom. You guessed it. Wislawa Szymborska.

I’ve finished her book (incidentally, I’m giving it to a friend tomorrow. I sent him a couple of poems via email to test if he’d be a worthwhile recipient. He passed.)

Now I’ve become somewhat of a Wislawa Szymborska groupie. I've gone online to find out more about her. To my surprise, she was born in 1923. It grates on me that I’m reading poems that have been translated, from Polish to English. (Part of what initially turned me off.) Less surprising is that she won the Nobel Prize of literature in 1996.

I present you with a sample, so you can see for yourself. Granted: disturbed as I am by recent world events, I gravitated towards something appropriately chilling. But make no mistake. She makes light of nothing, and you need to be prepared.

Wislawa – I apologize to you for leaving you on the shelf, unattended.

The End and the Beginning

After every war
someone has to clean up.
Things won't
straighten themselves up, after all.
Someone has to push the rubble
to the sides of the road,
so the corpse-laden wagons
can pass.
Someone has to get mired
in scum and ashes,
sofa springs,
splintered glass,
and bloody rags.
Someone must drag in a girder
to prop up a wall,
Someone must glaze a window,
rehang a door.
Photogenic it's not,
and takes years.
All the cameras have left
for another war.
Again we'll need bridges
and new railway stations.
Sleeves will go ragged
from rolling them up.
Someone, broom in hand,
still recalls how it was.
Someone listens
and nods with an unsevered head.
Yet others milling about
already find it dull.
From behind the bush
sometimes someone still unearths
rust-eaten arguments
and carries them to the garbage pile.
Those who knew
what was going on here
must give way to
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.
In the grass which has overgrown
reasons and causes,
someone must be stretched out,
blade of grass in his mouth
gazing at the clouds.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Sisyphus has a secret

You know the story, right? Sisyphus is a character of Greek mythology, whose punishment in hell (Hades) is to push a giant rock up a mountain to the top. Whenever he reaches the summit, it rolls back down, forcing him to start over and push it back up again, for all eternity.

Camus, in his definition of the “absurd man”, uses this story as a sort of “Exhibit A” and compares it to our jobs - people who work in offices or factories. We realize, he says, only in instants of tragic lucidity, that our lives are pointless.

We all have a Sisyphusean element to our daily grind. Take my dishwasher. I fill it up, run it, and find myself emptying it, over and over. I smooth a kitchen towel on the countertop above it, stack the clean, white dishes on it, and place the silverware back in the appropriate compartment in the drawer.

What about making our beds morning after morning? Fluffing the pillows, lightly spraying linen water on them, making sure the duvet is squared and smooth, that the soft, fitted sheet is wrinkle free?

And, doing the laundry? Sorting dirty clothes by color, pouring detergent into its designated place, taking everything out to put it in the dryer, pulling a pile of warm, fresh smelling clothes out, folding them and placing them into neat stacks?

How many times do we cook the same thing for dinner? In this world brimming full of cookbooks and recipes in every magazine, how often do you see yourself in front of that same luscious pasta dish, using the same bowl, your favorite?

In a world of coffee addicts, where you can freely order a “short, nonfat, half caff, white chocolate mocha, no whip, with sprinkles” without anyone batting an eye, how many of us have a standard order that never changes? (And how many times have you wished it were tomorrow morning so you could hold the hot, yummy smelling cup in your hands?)

Do you find yourself making a concerted effort to do something different, go to another restaurant for dinner, to widen your circle of friends, only to find you can’t help but get your favorite salad, again?

And this is my point – are we not animals of habit? Is that infinite punishment for Sisyphus really that horrific?

I love to swim. Whenever I have access to a pool I dive in, kick my way over to the closest side, lean my elbows against a wall, push my feet against it, and paddle back and forth, back and forth, for about an hour. At first, I try to switch styles, perfect my stroke, stretch. After a while, it all goes on automatic, and I am free to daydream. Ahhhh. Repetition. There is a comfort in doing things over and over again. A familiarity, a rhythm, a cadence, that is precisely what we call life.

Sisyphus has a secret. He has come to appreciate his predictable schedule. He is in great shape by now, strong and proud. He has worn down a side of that huge rock, and fits it snugly between his shoulder and his neck. His tread has created a path, and he enjoys the hike, loves the fiery views. Shhhhhh. He knows it’s not pointless if you are deriving pleasure from it.