Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Seasons Eatings From Home and Abroad

Brussels sprout and potato tree: Whole Foods, Venice, California

High-fructose cola tree: San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico

Pomegranate poinsettia: a street produce stall in Istanbul, Turkey

Poignant poinsettia pose: the market at Chichicastenango, Guatemala

Happy Holidays!

Related Links:
Market Day: Chiapas, Mexico
Spice Bazaar: Istanbul, Part 1
Spice Bazaar: Istanbul, Part 2

Monday, December 16, 2013

The "La Cucaracha"

Replace your car horn with the "La Cucaracha" Air Horn! Five air trumpets play the most easily recognized notes of the "La Cucaracha" song at the touch of a button, getting instant attention with 118 decibels of power!
Can you sue someone for noise pollution? Each time the mysterious driver blasted "La Cucaracha" my Pavlovian response became more rabid. Those abrasive, fingernails-on-chalkboard trumpet notes had ruined my relationship with a once-charming song.

After hearing that horn for years, now it was especially grating since I didn’t work in an office anymore. I was an aural prisoner in my own home for chrissakes. I told my neighbor about my fury and she said, “Why don’t you find him and make peace with it.” Hmmm, that was an idea. I would stake out this noise polluter so I could put a face to the destroyer of classic Mexican folk songs. I mean "La Cucaracha" wasn’t like that tinkly ice-cream truck song:

     Oh little playmate, come out and play with me
     And bring your dolly three
     Climb up my apple tree
     Shout down my rain barrel
     Slide down my cellar door
     And we’ll be jolly friends forever more

Who cares if you ruin that song. What do those corny, archaic lines even mean? But "La Cucaracha?" The song about a cockroach who lost one of its legs (thus the odd beat, representing a missing leg) that is rich with historical significance and popularized during the Mexican Revolution?

     La cu-ca-ra-cha, la cu-ca-ra-cha
     ya no pue-de ca-mi-nar
     por-que no tie-ne, por-que le fal-ta
     u-na pa-ta de a-tras

So one day when I was taking a walk (with both legs intact), I saw a vendor's truck with the back open that had fruit, chicharrones, chips, candy, etc. I had seen it around the ‘hood for years but never paid it much mind. Then it dawned on me. That's it—the object of my ire! So I went up to the man in the back of the truck.
“Are you the one playing 'La Cucaracha?'" I said accusingly.
He nodded yes.
“It’s driving me crazy!" 
I could see he didn't speak English.
"Loco!" I pointed to my head. "Loco!!"

But for as long as I had wanted to say that or something much worse, pinpointing the perpetrator suddenly gave me pause. I realized that this poor guy was just trying to make a living. Was driving this truck around all day such a joyride? Could he even pay for his gas by selling a few mangoes and a pack of Juicy Fruit gum?

“How does that horn work?” I said, trying to soften my wrath.
“Do you press one button and it plays the whole song or do you have to press each note separately?” I asked, tossing out words like canción, accompanied by unhelpful hand signals. 
He motioned for me to follow him to the driver’s area and showed me the horn. He started to play it, and after the first two notes, I signaled he could stop. 
"Qué es tu nombre?" I asked.
"Pedro," he said.
"Gracias, Pedro," I said with a smile. "Adios."
I waved at him and was on my way.

As I was walking home, I realized that this horn was the poor guy’s print ad, TV commercial, billboard and banner campaign. It’s all he had to tell the world he had arrived as he drove spot to spot, parking for 10 minutes at a time, day after day. Maybe the song drove him crazy too. Hell, he had to hear it almost as much as I did. Then I thought all I need to do is re-associate this song in my mind with someone who’s fighting the fight and doing the best he can—kind of like me, sans an abrasive theme song. So from now on, when I hear those trumpet notes blasting across the ozone, I will think, “There goes Pedro. I hope he’s selling a lot of fruit today. Never mind his air and noise pollution, wasteful oil consumption and pitiful carbon footprint." 

Either way you look at it, I think it calls for a drink. Salúd!

La Cucaracha Recipe

1 part tequila
1 part Kahlua

Serve over ice and enjoy.

A La Cucaracha is sometimes made with a third part triple sec, brandy or rum and set aflame and served with two straws. Two people are to drink it as quickly as possible before the straws melt. However I find that this fire- and BPA-free version does very nicely, thank you.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Food Safety Inspector

“We need tongs for these bowls of chips, people! Over 150 hands are goin' in!” I yelled out in the Los Angeles Times kitchen while helping prep lunch at a WriteGirl journalism workshop. I had not only volunteered to be a creative writing mentor for this amazing nonprofit organization that helps teenage girls find their creative voice, I also signed up for lunch duty that day. 

It was my first time as a mentor, and I wasn't too sure what was on a teenage girl's mind these days other than the classics like boys and deflowerment—the ones who still had their flower, that is. But I was paired up with Graciela—an eighth-grade, doe-eyed, unpollinated innocent, and while I was relieved she was not the poster child for the morning-after pill, I wasn’t sure how to connect with such a young girl. I have purses older than her, for chrissakes. So I asked her questions about school, her family and hobbies and hoped she wasn't visualizing a big yellow sign on my chest that said FOGEY ON BOARD. Relating to kids doesn't come naturally to me since I’m not really the warm and fuzzy type until you get to know me. And then it’s not so much fuzz as lint.

But prepping lunch for the girls and their mentors—that's where I shined. When 160 foil-wrapped burritos arrived, the woman in charge told us to cut them in half because there weren't enough to go around. As I was cutting, I noticed little shards of foil getting into the burrito filling. “Make sure not to get any foil shards in the burritos!” I said to the other burrito cutters with burrito-cutting authority. “I had a traumatic foil-eating incident in my youth,” I shared with a kitchen full of strangers. But I nipped my overshare in the bud and left it at that. The truth was I had swallowed a small piece of foil from a veal parmigiana tv dinner that was somehow big enough to scar me, my mother and our carpet for life. To this day I haven’t eaten veal. Never mind that I’m morally opposed to it and  wouldn’t eat it anyway. But veal in a tv dinner? Who came up with that idea? Or to kill baby animals in the first place? Was it someone who wasn’t that hungry and said, “I’ll have a little beef,” and the host went out back and slaughtered a calf?

“Plating, people! It’s all about the plating!” I yelled as we started assembling the burrito halves on large platters. I noticed when I talked, people listened. Sure, it could've been the volume, but I liked the new me. When the woman in charge of lunch referred to me as the “food safety inspector,” I beamed. “Could this be my new calling?” I thought. Bacteria, foil and E coli, oh my! Then after lunch, the head of the nonprofit came over to the lunch helpers and said, “I heard we had the best lunch crew of all time today.” I beamed again and knew she was talking about me.

Meanwhile back at the mentoring ranch, I helped Graciela with an article and gave her suggestions on how to write a good headline. Sure I knew how to do it myself, but teaching a girl was a whole new ball of syntax. Would I be any good at this or was it too soon to tell? I tried not to get all judgey on myself. She was bright and interested in learning and listened when I talked and didn't sext, tweet or Facebook once. And as our five hours together came to an end, I said, “I really enjoyed working with you.” And she said, “Me too. You’re really nice.”

My heart melted. That felt almost as good as being called the “food safety inspector.” All in all, it was a win-win kind of day.

TV dinner image from theimaginaryworld.com

Related Links: