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.