Sunday, November 30, 2008

Food is for Family

I wrote the following piece about my food experiences during my homestay for one of my classes....

Life in San Luis with the Mata-Vargas family is all about simplicity. The farm is small and simple; the house is small and simple. It doesn’t take much to be happy, especially in such a warm and loving family. The food follows the same pattern—maybe that’s why I like it so much: I mean, life has many complications (no matter how simply you live), so why not keep what you can control in life simple?

To say that the food was simple is not to say that it wasn’t completely satisfying, for my body and for my spirits. Every meal was warm and freshly prepared and well balanced. And that in itself is quite a feat. One complication in life that Eliza, my home stay mother, faces in preparing these wonderful meals to nourish her family, is that every member seems to have a different schedule and different preferences. But it is important to Eliza that her family eats their meals warm and fresh. Breakfast is an especially important meal—“I don’t understand how people can be satisfied with only a bowl of cereal in the morning. I need something hardy, to make me strong for the day,” she says. She usually prepares scrambled eggs on tortillas (fresh and hand-made, of course), gallo pinto, and if there is meat left over from dinner, she will heat that up as well—simple and hardy. But breakfast is actually the most complicated meal during the week. Adrianna, the teenager, catches the bus in Santa Elena to go to school in the San Luis at 5:30 am every morning—hers is the first meal that Eliza prepares around 4:30. Next, Alvaro (my home stay dad) awakes, and Eliza again prepares a fresh breakfast. Some days she’ll eat her breakfast with her husband, other days I don’t know when she makes time for herself to eat. Finally I wake up at 6:15, usually just after Laura, the three-year-old, (and the most picky eater) wakes up and avoids her mother’s first attempt at getting her to eat. Laura is usually willing to eat what I eat—gallo pinto is her favorite, and always papaya when it is our fresh fruit option. All this is accomplished by the simplicity of the meal—Eliza just chops up some cilantro, onions and peppers for the gallo pinto, and combines the rice and beans from the night before, and keeps a bowl of eggs waiting by the stove, and tortillas patted out, ready for the pan—every thing is ready to be cooked fresh as each member of her family awakes.

As important as meals are, I am surprised by how quiet it usually is around the table. True, we rarely all could eat together (even for lunch and dinner), but when we did, we were generally in our own thoughts. I think that for this family, dinner is a time to be tranquillo, to wind down, and to appreciate life. These meals, as simple as they may be, are the fruits of much labor and love. Eliza went once a week all the way to Santa Elena to buy groceries (anything that wasn’t grown on their own farm), and plans the week so effortlessly. She knows exactly what each family member liked and would eat, exactly which treats to buy. They don’t have much, and although they aren’t extravagant, meals are an expression of love and care.

The value of food as a symbol of care is most evident when guests come to visit. On my last Saturday, Adrianna had her fifteenth birthday party, and the whole family came to celebrate. For this occasion, my family bought a whole pig. A couple family members who live nearby came over on Friday, and we spent the whole day cutting and preparing, snacking and chatting around the traditional wood burning “cocinera.” So much love, work and pride went into preparing the food for Adrianna’s big day. And during the party it was clear that food was an important part of the culture of the family. The epicenter of the fiesta was in the back, around the cocinera, where the family munched continuously through the night, as they shared their contentment.

...During the party, and especially during the preparation for this party, I could only think of my own family, and of my Ammy Irene. I imagined that she would have prepared for a party like this much in the same way. The huge pot of pork cooking over the woodburning stove, the constant snacking as we cooked as a family. The smells and the sound of crackling meat in a hot pan brought me back to my grandmother's kitchen, and I was able to appreciate more than ever the love that is involved in preparing meals like this.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Ohhh Baby Baby It's a Wild World

Remember that song from Cat Stevens? I'm reminded of that as I read the further adventures of Little Fi in Costa Rica, and reflect on what a month and a half of political writing for Planetwaves is doing for my head.

We are and always will be a political family. My sister, Fi's mom got her degree in social science and Master's in education at UCSC. Fi's paternal grandmother was a teacher for the Pajaro Valley Unified School District. Fi's auntie, me--well I've been politically active since I started work as a CETA artist here in San Francisco. I am an artist-activist, and have been a core member of one of the nation's highly recognized women's theater company - Cultural Odyssey's the Medea Project--Theater for Incarcerated Women.

In that environment, all Fi had to do (because I've always believed she was an old soul to begin with) was be observant. And she is.

Here we are, November already. The world is becoming a wider, wilder place for me and my family, physically and intellectually. Our country is changing, and hopefully, we're changing with it. We're all learning, and the world at this stage, is in transition. You can feel it by the season and you can feel it by the news. We're going to change.

Aside from my blood family, the one thing though that keeps me grounded here in my little Berkeley cottage is the love of my extended family - friends Bob and Wen, Karen and Jim--and having a few glasses of wine, some beastly argument over politics and a great dinner. Hey--its the Berkeley way. And what goes better with some lamb shank osso bucco than some raw veggies with bagna cauda and some risotto milanese?

A little argument with your salad?