Sunday, April 24, 2016

Remembering Mom on Her 85th Birthday

Today would have been my mother’s 85th birthday if she had not passed over in 2005. As it happens, her birthday falls during Passover this year. So, in a departure from writing my usual comedy blog, I would like to honor my mother by sharing this essay about her (and it includes a Passover story). This essay was originally titled “Breaking Bread at My Mother’s Table.”

There was always room at my mother’s table for another chair. Educated as a social worker, she was an expert listener and had a hunger for knowledge about the thoughts, feelings, experiences, motivations, and beliefs of diverse people. Her fascination with people prompted her to sign on as a placement coordinator for the Exchange in International Living. That is how I became an honorary little sister to a Taiwanese brother, a Palestinian brother, and a Turkish brother; and shared my dinner table with countless other foreign students from around the world while growing up.

Mom placed foreign exchange students in host homes for one month of cultural adjustment before the students went off to attend an American college. One of the greatest challenges for hosts was providing students with familiar food. It should come as no surprise that one thing that particularly contributed to homesickness for these students was the strange food in America. They yearned for their mother’s and grandmother’s cooking. One of Mom’s greatest successes was identifying acceptable food substitutes for a Nigerian student who could not find anything to eat in America that resembled food from his home. (In the 1960s, international cuisine was not as ubiquitous as it is today.) He was miserable until Mom did some research and instructed his host home mother to feed the young man steamed spinach and peanut butter with baked sweet potato. He loved it.

When my Taiwanese brother first arrived stateside, he was an adventurous eater. Unlike the picky-eater Nigerian, my Taiwanese brother was game to try whatever Mom cooked. Unfortunately, he was so polite, that he refrained from telling her if he didn’t like something. He just ate it. If you knew how polite he was, you would understand the enormity of his response when Mom attempted to feed him cottage cheese. He took one taste and gagged. Mom apologized, so did he, both of them embarrassed. He blurted out, “That stuff tastes like glue.”

Our family is Jewish and belonged to a community that avidly supported Israel, so it caused some raised eyebrows when my parents took in my Palestinian brother. But public opinion did not deter my parents. My Palestinian brother was the youngest of seven children in a Christian Arab family from Beirut. His older sister taught English at the local high school. She spent two years laying the groundwork to bring her little brother out of Beirut before he was conscripted into the army. Only weeks before his arrival, his sister was deported to Canada by the INS. Before her hasty and traumatic departure, my parents arranged to host her brother upon his arrival. He lived with us for more than a year, then attended college nearby, and finally emigrated to Canada to be near his sister and other family members. While he lived with us, Mom learned how to cook an assortment of Lebanese dishes. She discovered an import store in our area, where she took my Palestinian brother to obtain foods familiar to him from his home.

Having a Palestinian in the family had its choice moments. One time, my mother invited an Italian foreign student newly arrived in America over for dinner. She introduced him to my Palestinian brother and left the two young men to chat in the living room while she returned to the kitchen. A few minutes later, my Palestinian brother appeared at her elbow. “Mom,” he said, “would you please tell Roberto that my people lost the Six-Day War? He thinks I’m Israeli and he keeps talking to me about how my people won the Six-Day War. I don’t know how to break the news to him that I’m an Arab and my people were on the losing side.”

Having found the food import store, Mom had a good source for international food when my parents provided a host home for my Turkish brother. My Turkish brother shared a room with the Palestinian, and stayed with us for only one month; however, he returned to us for part of the summer and during his college vacations while completing his master’s degree because he couldn’t afford the airfare to return to Istanbul. Although he did not live with us for very long, our family formed a close bond with him.

When I was an undergraduate in college, Mom’s open door policy and involvement in the Exchange in International Living led to her most challenging culinary moment. My mother kept a kosher house, meaning she would not cook meat and dairy together in the same meal and she did not prepare un-kosher foods (e.g., pork, shellfish). She patiently trained our foreign students in how to keep her house kosher so they wouldn’t accidentally mix up her meat and dairy dishes or silverware and un-kosher her kitchen. At Passover, like observant Jews worldwide, she removed her everyday plates, cups, and silverware from her cupboards and drawers, and replaced them with her Passover kitchenware (both a meat set and a dairy set). She taped many of the drawers and cupboards shut, covered others with plastic, and she removed all prohibited food from the house. For one week, her kitchen produced only foods deemed kosher for Passover in the old-fashioned Ashkenazi tradition, which forbids foods made from grains (except matzo) or legumes. This means no wheat, rye, barley, rice, beans, lentils, peas, soy (or products containing any of these); and the list goes on for miles beyond the horizon.

On this particular Passover, when I returned home, Mom had a houseful. My paternal grandmother, a diabetic with a heart condition, had moved in with my parents. She was on a restricted diet for her health. My Palestinian brother, a Christian, was in Lent so he couldn’t eat meat. The Turk, a Muslim, was in Ramadan, when no eating happens during daylight hours. I am vegetarian. A high school friend of mine was living in the basement while she attended a nearby college. She was an Italian Catholic (also in Lent), and was still learning how to navigate my mother’s kosher kitchen (mainly under the tutelage of the Palestinian Arab and the Muslim Turk). The household also included my two younger brothers and Dad. One of my brothers has Celiac, which is a diet challenge unto itself, and my youngest brother was an extremely picky eater who, at that time, lived primarily on ketchup sandwiches. (Ketchup on matzo?) Mom faced a seriously mind-boggling food situation.

Armed with little more than twenty boxes of matzo, dozens of eggs, six jars of borscht, a functional potato kugel recipe, and ten pounds of gefilte fish (an acquired taste to say the least), Mom faced the dubious task of preparing a kosher-for-Passover meal every evening for this eclectic group. On my first night at home, Mom assembled us in the dining room and threw the playbook at us. “I’ve filled the refrigerator and cupboards with food that is kosher for Passover,” she informed us. “I’ll cook for Grandma this week, but the rest of you are on your own. Forage. Just don’t un-kosher my kitchen, that’s all I ask.” Praise the lord and pass the matzo (with ketchup). We did pretty well by her, with only one coffee cup and one spoon going astray during the Passover Challenge Week.

Mom’s kitchen was kosher in the deepest sense of the word. It nurtured the body and soul of people from diverse cultures and backgrounds, with respect for all. When Mom fell gravely ill at the end of her life, prayer circles of every religious denomination in places around the globe spoke her name; and when she transitioned to spirit, my Taiwanese brother drove four hours to her memorial service, my Palestinian brother flew in from Canada, and my Turkish brother phoned from Istanbul to tell us how much he wished he could be there to break bread with us again at my mother’s table.

Respect for others is a value that we teach to our children through our actions; by the way we treat others. I learned at my mother’s table to not only respect the cultures and beliefs of others, but to learn from our differences and to allow myself to change as a result. At my mother’s table, I learned the value of cross-cultural exchange. I am an Eastern European Jew raised in middle-class American suburbia, and I have been married for over thirty years to an African American Christian raised in poverty in the inner city. Raising our three multicultural children together with my husband has enriched my life beyond measure. One of Mom’s greatest gifts to me was cultivating in me the approach to life necessary to successfully nurture a multicultural family. My multiculti children remain my greatest gift to Mom.
This is a classic family photo of my parents:  Eugene and Natalie.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

My Kryptonite Is Borscht

I go on vacation next month, and I’m having my usual anxiety about food while traveling. I’m so particular about what I eat that I’m pretty much not fit for travel. A few years ago, when flying to SoCal with Ron and my youngest son, my bag weighed more than 50 lbs. So I opened it up at the check-in counter and handed my sneakers to Ron and a big zucchini to my son to put into their bags, which brought my bag weight under 50. “Mom,” my son said, “they have squash in Orange County. You don’t have to bring your own.” I replied, “Yes, but do they have a squash that I grew?” A couple weeks ago, before Ron and I flew to SoCal, I emailed my older son to ask him if he has a good, working blender because I have a travel blender. My son emailed back, “Mom, please don’t bring a blender; seriously.” Such attitude. You would have thought that I had suggested I would bring a riding lawnmower.

Usually I tell prospective hosts not to worry about feeding us, that we’ll bring something for ourselves to eat. Or else I offer to contribute to the meal and then bring a whole meal. But sometimes we stay with people who genuinely like cooking for people on special diets and they want to know what we can and can’t eat. They think it will be a fun challenge. Little do they know. I’m a food challenge on steroids. I wrote up a paragraph with basic information about our complex eating habits to send to any brave souls who really want to know. Yesterday, as I read it over, I noticed that it reads like a comedy blog, even though I’m completely serious. I inserted comedy-blog enhancements into the description of our eating habits to see what would happen and the result is both informative and marginally entertaining. So here goes.

I’m vegetarian and Ron does not eat cows or pigs, even if they are dead. He does eat chicken, preferably pastured chicken, and only if it was killed humanely and quickly so it felt no pain or melancholy, and had no time to contemplate its mortality or to write about it. Pastured chicken is chicken that roamed freely, eating insects and buffaloes out on the range where the skies are not cloudy all day. Ron also eats fish, but no bottom-feeders, because who wants to put a fish that eats fish-shit into their body? Salmon caught by Eskimo shamans in handmade canoes is the best choice for him. Although I am vegetarian, I eat eggs and cheese because I make up my own rules and a life without cheese is not a life worth living. I favor eggs from pastured chickens with at least a master’s degree; bilingual preferred. You may wonder where else I get my protein. I love beans (but black-eyed peas make me sick, go figure) and I like tofu, but organic only please (see below under evil mutants). I will only eat tofu if it’s cooked correctly because otherwise it resembles an adhesive more than a food.

We are both lactose intolerant. Interestingly, full fat dairy products have little or no lactose in them. I have discovered that few people know this. We eat some full fat dairy, such as butter and cream (or half-n-half for Ron’s coffee). We don’t drink milk or eat soft cheeses because even though flatulence may seem funny, it’s not when you yourself are the flatulee. We avoid low-fat and fat-free products because 1) they are highly processed, contain dangerous toxins, and their sale lines the pockets of corporate food giants that would sooner drown your grandmother in skim milk than admit that fat is good for people, and 2) fat is delicious and is necessary for optimum brain function. We eat hard cheeses, such as sharp cheddar and parmesan, and other dairy products that are cultured, such as yogurt, cottage cheese, and sour cream (all full fat). I digest goat and sheep cheeses better than cow cheeses. Since goats are smarter and more interesting than cows, I recommend that you get a goat rather than a cow in preparation for our visit. Sheep are really dumb so steer clear of them altogether. Let me know if you want me to bring some straw.

As you may have already surmised, we don’t eat gluten. This is not because I subscribe to the latest fad that considers gluten the root of all evil. I don’t. Some people can eat that stuff with no adverse reaction. I’m not one of them and neither is Ron. Gluten is in wheat, rye, spelt, barley, and may be hidden in many edible products with ingredients so you have to read labels. I generally avoid food items with ingredients and just eat actual foods instead. Collard greens, for instance, have no ingredients; and they taste delicious with butter and garlic, which also have no ingredients. If a food has a label on it, I’m already skeptical. I do a lot of cooking without ingredients. But I digress. We don’t eat bread, pasta, or baked goods unless they are made especially for people on gluten-free diets; and preferably without sugar (see below under space aliens). Gluten-free substitutes include rice, quinoa, corn, and potatoes. Don’t try to do us any favors with gluten-free bread because this is a quagmire. Unless you are intimately familiar with gluten-free bread options, you risk exposure to the grain disaster equivalent of a category five hurricane.

May I alert you to tread carefully with corn. I have an aversion to evil mutant GMO corn, and any other GMOs or unfortunate agricultural products that may have been sprayed with Roundup, such as soy (yup, here’s the tofu stipulation). GMO crops were developed mainly so that they can be sprayed with Roundup without dying off. Roundup is one of the most toxic cancer-causing substances in the known universe and it is regularly sprayed to kill weeds that interfere with the growth of the GMO crop. Just so you know, insects, fungus, and other “pests” will not eat GMOs, which confirms my suspicion that most people are not as smart as mold. To avoid exposure to evil-mutant-GMO-toxic corn, your best bet is to buy organic. A lot of products now say non-GMO on them, which usually means they were not sprayed with Roundup. So I only eat organic corn. Pay attention because corn derivatives are in everything these days, including salad dressing, ketchup, baked goods, farm-raised fish feed, garage doors, rubber bands, presidential candidates, shampoo, boots, spoons, and corn.

Now, about sugar. I am convinced that sugar is a plot by space aliens to poison earthlings so they can take over our planet. If you don’t believe me, I have photographs. Moreover, Ron is diabetic. So we generally avoid sugar, except as manifested in high quality dark chocolate (more than 70% cacao, organic). The space aliens have definitely not discovered dark chocolate yet and so it is the last stronghold of humanity, meaning it must be eaten every day to preserve the species. Seriously, sugar is the underlying cause of most chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease (sugar causes heart disease, not fat), cancer, and arthritis. We use maple syrup or honey as sweeteners. If I could grow sugar-maple trees in California then I would be out in the yard with a bucket collecting sap to make brownies. I suggest you consider keeping bees in preparation for our visit. I’ll bring my epi-pen.

There’s more. Ron dislikes melons, except watermelon. It might be amusing to make him unwittingly eat a piece of melon just to see his expression, but that would be taking unfair advantage of a melon-impaired person. I love melons, so you see we are a match made in heaven. I can no longer digest onions in any form other than as onion powder. Don’t ask. Really, don’t ask; and try not to imagine either because you’ll live to regret it. I can’t eat bananas either, which I used to love, but I can’t digest them anymore, and so I consider them my forbidden fruit. I hate beets, even though I have tried everything short of hypnosis to make myself like them. If I were a superhero, my kryptonite would be borscht. Ron dreads finding arugula in his salad since it tastes bitter to him. I’m not crazy about it either. Give me basil or cilantro instead. Once we visited some people who assured me they would make a salad for me since the main course was pork sausage in banana sauce over wheat pasta. They made me a salad that contained only arugula and red onions. Sigh.

Good choices if you are a mutton for punishment (oops, meant glutton) and insist on cooking for us might be eggs, hard cheese, and/or organic fruits and vegetables; salmon or chicken for Ron. I love salad and will dance around singing arias to a large bowl of greens with little provocation. I could compete with a cow for consumption of greens and win hands down, because I actually have hands and a cow doesn’t. I wonder if I might be a ruminant. We are happy to bring food we like (that I approve of, no evil mutants or space aliens involved) for ourselves and to share with those who are brave enough to host us. I have also been known to graciously eat what is cooked for me if it won’t make me sick, even if it’s not up to my usual purist standard, just because I can still appreciate the love someone has put into preparing a meal for me. Food is a volatile subject and can explode if one can’t determine accurately which wire to cut to disable the soufflĂ©.  

Now you have been briefed and should be ready for us to visit you. What’s for dinner?

Beet and banana smoothies? Not for me. 
The raspberries, much as I love 'em, can't make a difference for this.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

TSA Security Check

In March, Alaska Airlines began flying direct from Sonoma County Airport to John Wayne Airport in Orange County (OC), and last weekend we took advantage of the new service by flying on one of the first flights available. What a boon for us! Our son and his wife live in OC, and our daughter lives only an hour away in the L.A. area. Sonoma County Airport is not much bigger than my vegetable garden, and we flew on a prop plane about the size of my mailbox. The runway was practically a poppy field. The airport in OC is pretty small also. However, undaunted by their diminutive stature, both of these airports take airline security as seriously as they do at JFK International.

As a white old lady with no bling or flashy electronics, I am usually as boring as a crust of bread to the TSA. My husband, however, is another story. He is a black male for starters, which obviously should not make him automatically suspect, but the default setting for triggering TSA high alert mode is apparently “man of color.” Next, he wears two different subcutaneous devices to help him control his Type 1 diabetes:  an insulin pump and a blood-sugar-level monitor. Then, to top off the ensemble, he also carries the equivalent of a Black and Decker tool chest of crap in his pockets, half of which is made of metal. Moreover, he’s woefully disorganized, so he often forgets to take off his belt or remove his cell phone from his pocket, or some other detail that is the security-machine equivalent of triggering the space shuttle to start the sequence for re-entering the atmosphere with a flaming shield and no parachutes. He typically sends the security machine into paroxysms with beeping alarms and flashing lights. On a scale from oven timer (1) to TV section of Best Buy (10), my husband is Disneyland (104) at the airport security check.

Having grown accustomed to what I can expect at the TSA with my husband, I generally plan to arrive at the airport four hours early to give an extra hour for my husband to get through security and an extra three hours for him to kvetch about it while putting his shoes back on and reloading his pockets with all that crap he carries around.

On our trip to SoCal last weekend, they cheerfully waved me through the security check at the Sonoma Airport without a hitch. Then my husband stepped into the machine wearing his belt, which caused it to shriek “ah-woo-gah” as frantically as a tugboat trapped in a herd of stampeding icebergs. While half a dozen trays of his crap rolled down the conveyer belt and came to a stop next to where I stood, a TSA worker asked him to step aside to the higher-level security area so they could pat him down. I leaned over the railing that delineated the higher-level security area to tell him I would wait for him at the end of the ramp. Immediately, several distraught young TSA workers with perky ponytails descended upon me and barred my access to my husband. They were so young that I wondered if their parents knew they were at the airport. (I mean, weren’t they supposed to be in school on a weekday morning?) One of them told me that I could not have any contact with my husband because I was cleared and he was not. “No conjugal visits?” I asked in mock surprise. The adolescent TSA ponytail girls eyed me with consternation. They looked like cheerleaders parading in police uniforms. It did not appear that any of them understood what the word “conjugal” meant, which is odd, since the whole purpose of adolescence is to have sex. I thought it was a good joke and it was wasted on them.

As I waited for the TSA kids to decide whether or not my husband’s belt was a bomb, they confiscated our lunch and ran a detection device over every inch of our salads to determine if they contained explosive material. While olive oil does tend to increase my husband’s explosive tendencies, it poses no life-threatening danger to air travelers. Also, we carry juice boxes with us because they are helpful if my husband has a low blood sugar episode. We have learned that if we declare them as a medical necessity, then the TSA will allow us to keep them. But they must run the detection device over them to determine that they are not explosive. While a TSA cheerleader lovingly stroked our juice boxes with her wand, an agent patted down my husband and declared him approved for travel.

He put his shoes back on and joined me at the conveyer belt, where a TSA cheerleader promptly asked him to remove his shoes again. I can’t remember why (maybe just to see if he would have a stroke). I guess he had been cleared for travel but his shoes had not yet been cleared, and so he was not allowed to have contact with them until they had been patted down. It took him forty-five minutes to reassemble his crap, repack his backpack, refill his pockets, put his belt on, get back into his shoes, do his morning stretching routine, read the newspaper, and iron his jacket. Then he discovered he had misplaced his cell phone. So he took everything out again, put it all back in, and then noticed he had left the cell phone in the high-level security area where they had patted him down. He had to apply for a top secret clearance from the CIA to return to the security area to reclaim his phone. Then, once he got it back, he had to check his email. By then they were boarding the plane for our return flight from OC and we hadn’t even gone there yet.

Once, about twelve years ago, we flew from Oakland to Philadelphia. This was not long after a flight was hijacked by terrorists wielding box cutters. Security was tight. They picked apart our bags and discovered that my husband had, of all things, a box cutter in the side pocket of his carry-on. He normally took that bag to work with him on a daily basis and when cleaning it out for the trip he forgot to remove the box cutter. They confiscated it, of course. Fortunately, they did not mistake him for a terrorist and insist on a strip search, which would have certainly sent him over the edge (and would have caused us to miss our flight since he can rarely get dressed in under an hour). That evening, as he was unpacking his bag at my brother’s house in Pennsylvania, he discovered another box cutter in his bag that they had overlooked. Makes you wonder, huh? I mean, not about the competence of the TSA, but about this:  Who forgets one box cutter in their carry-on, let alone two?

You see what I am up against when I travel with him. Next time we go somewhere via air, I’m booking a separate flight for myself. I could leave two days after him and arrive before he does. On our way back from OC, I was randomly handed a courtesy TSA Pre-Check tag that allowed me to bypass the security check completely. Meanwhile, my husband, of course, was treated to the full pat-down, had to remove his belt and shoes (twice), gave blood, passed a treadmill test, and was required to take the citizenship written exam before they cleared him for flight. He has had it. He’s applying for the permanent TSA Pre-Check status. To achieve this, he has to mail all his belts and shoes to the FBI, allow them to wiretap our blender, submit a 10,000-word autobiography, and provide them with the password to his Facebook account. Ask me if I feel safe yet.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

April Fooling Around

I do not like being pranked, so April Fool’s Day does not amuse me. Unfortunately, this does not deter my intrepid husband. The April Fool situation has deteriorated since he retired. Back when he worked, he would play tricks on his co-workers and spare me from his creative pranking. Now that he has retired, however, he has no co-workers, and I have lost my buffer. His entire arsenal of April Fooling ingenuity focuses on me. This year, I had a reprieve since he was distracted (in SoCal visiting our kids).

Once he substituted my toothpaste with a decoy tube filled with cake decoration paste. He knew this prank would make me particularly crazy because I have a vendetta against sugar, which I think is responsible for every disease known to humans as well as the economic meltdown of 2007, the extinction of the Javan tiger, slavery, Jon Stewart’s decision to leave the Daily Show, and the failure of last year’s cherry crop. While he laughed into his pillow in the adjoining room, I made noises of pure disgust while complaining aloud that my toothpaste tasted awful and I wondered if toothpaste could go bad. Come to find out that I had brushed my teeth with pure, toxic, crap-sugar. Ha ha, very funny.

But the toothpaste prank was nothing compared to the April Fool he played on me by resetting the language on my laptop. This is the disastrous consequence of being married to a technology geek. He actually set his alarm clock and got up before dawn on April Fool’s Day so that he could sneak into my study and reprogram my computer so that it would think that its default language was Greek. When I attempted to type anything on it (in MSWord, Facebook, whatever), the computer automatically produced Greek characters and words. When I asked my hilarious husband if he could figure out why I could no longer write in English on my computer, he spent several minutes rolling around on the floor laughing before he admitted to what he had done. (Needless to say, I refused to help him up off the floor. Let the pleading begin.) Then he spent twenty minutes typing on my computer and guffawing at the result before he ostensibly restored the computer to its original language setting. He’s a sucker for cheap entertainment.

I said ostensibly restored because my computer has never been the same. The Greek language fiasco occurred several years ago, before he retired, when April Fool’s Day fell on a weekend and he didn’t go into the office. Otherwise, all his co-workers would have been typing Greek on their computers instead of me. To this day, every time I attempt to spellcheck a document, I still receive a message stating that the spellchecker “can’t find the proofing tools in Greek.” I then tell the computer that’s OK, let’s use English, and it sighs with relief and proceeds to spellcheck in English. Clearly, my computer and I are still recovering from Mediterranean linguistic trauma foisted on us by my husband. (Why didn’t he just take me to Greece instead?)

I fared better with this sorry excuse for a holiday back when my children still lived at home. One year we decided to beat my husband at his own game. He is one of those people who takes a while to get moving in the morning. His brain functions in power saver mode for a while when he first gets up, and the gears don’t fully engage until after he has his coffee. So the boys and I woke him out of a dead sleep at dawn on April Fool’s Day and told him a skunk had gotten inside his car. (This was when we lived at the Ranch.) “How could that possibly happen?” he asked. We said we didn’t know but it had. He incredulously put on his bathrobe and grabbed a broom. (Seriously? A broom?) We followed him outside, where he circled his car, peering cautiously through the windows. When the boys fell down laughing, he looked puzzled at first. Then it dawned on him what the date was. His expression when he came out of the house with the broom was priceless. But it did not make up for convincing my computer that my native language is Greek.

While I have thought of numerous excellent pranks, I have not had the heart (or the straight face) to execute them, thus my husband has been spared. My April Fool’s observance has deteriorated into seeing how long I can keep from laughing while trying to convince my husband of outlandish falsehoods, such as that the Patriots traded Tom Brady to the Miami Dolphins in exchange for one of Cam Newton’s touchdown footballs and a tank of sardines. Meanwhile he is sneaking around at night reprogramming my blender to think it’s a lawnmower and dressing my cats up in dinosaur costumes. I really can’t compete. I hope none of you readers did irreparable damage on April First. If so, you can assume you are now written out of my will.

I googled "images of skunks in cars" and this is what I got. Kinda cute. 
The cat looks like my ginger cat Golda. Fortunately, I have never had a cat get skunked.