Tuesday, April 26, 2011

easter part one: tradition, food and family

Part one of my Easter celebration occurred a week early, on Palm Sunday weekend, when Ben and I visited Midland to celebrate with my parents. We made the traditional croissants and a lovely savory tart--now an official tradition as well, I imagine, as it's in its second year (this is the vegetarian substitute for the ham of my childhood, and let me note that my omnivorous parents welcomed the switch and suggested this year's repeat...either it's that fabulous or they love me that much. Perhaps both.)

We are big on food traditions in my family, a fact I am only now beginning to realize. Along with recognizing the reason for the holiday itself, our celebrations primarily involve (1) good conversation and (2) food.

When I read food writers I admire, I sometimes think that I just don't fit the mold: I love food; I think about it all the time and wrap stories around meals in my mind. But I don't have a background characterized by the interweaving of cultural heritages, my mother's family is not Italian with a signature red sauce for proof and my father didn't have any kind of culinary identification with a place so romantic as Paris.

But my parents are both excellent cooks. My childhood was marked by my mother's muffins, loaves of honey-wheat bread, macaroni and cheese, strawberry freezer jam and summer fruit crisps, all from scratch. Her incredible birthday cakes reflected my interest of the moment, be it Minnie Mouse, butterflies or basketball.

In our household, refried beans were made from scratch, though I don't think I realized that the alternative to the beans simmering on the stovetop was encased in a can. My dad specializes in Mexican food and throws down a fabulous pizza. Though more a cook than a baker, he makes an oatmeal bar layered with chocolate that is absolutely divine.

As I was growing up, we ate dinner together, at home, nearly every night. My sister and I delighted even in simple foods, like crackers topped with cheese melted under the broiler. (And I had no idea how blissfully inexpensive the meal was for our young parents.)

My mom occasionally threw tea parties for us. We wore hats, and she made scones with clotted cream and cucumber sandwiches. I loved the perfect lines of the sugar cubes stacked in their tiny white bowl, and we sipped our tea from the beautiful and fragile teacups of my grandmother's collection.

On our birthdays, we got to choose the menu for dinner (my longest-running choice was my mother's famed chicken and broccoli casserole accompanied by homemade rolls), and each holiday was associated with particular meals and desserts. Unconsciously, I spun these traditions together in my mind. My dad made fudge and party mix only at Christmas and cracked hazelnuts with us for his family's signature holiday cookie; my mom took charge of the intricate Santa cookies and the spritz and the Christmas morning cinnamon roll wreath. On Valentine's Day, she made heart-shaped sugar cookies, decorating them for our school parties with designs in pink and white and light purple frosting. We froze red Kool-Aid to make heart-shaped ice cubes and dropped them in Sprite.

Springtime brought thumbprint cookies with frosting in pale shades of yellow, pink and green. And on Easter, we ate ham with canned cherries atop, twice-baked potatoes, homemade croissants with jam and a bunny-shaped carrot cake for dessert. My sister's blog confirms that both offspring of this family still equate thumbprint cookies, those buttery croissants, asparagus and carrot cake topped with cream cheese frosting with the celebration of springtime and Easter.

In my love of stories, I sometimes miss or discredit my own. And perhaps we have to be adults to truly reflect the influence of our pasts; we have to live long enough to see the story begin to unfold. But these days, as I make my own choices and actually pay attention to them, I am realizing that a significant part of what defines my sense of family, tradition and celebration is food, and this isn't something new to this season of my life. Instead, it's woven throughout my past, just as it is for the aforementioned writers I admire.

I found peace in the food traditions that remained constant for our displaced celebration of Easter. And there is something deep that these food traditions communicate--that you celebrate, because life is hard, and celebration helps; that there are things we can rely on, like food and like family; that food not only sustains us but also, blessedly, can be enjoyed communally, in celebration, with the people we love.

And all of this, as it turns out, I learned from my family as well.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

recuerdos de denia (memories of denia)

I recently wrote a contribution to a book of memories commemorating the twenty-eight years that students from my alma mater--myself included--studied in the sweet and lovely city of Denia, Spain. The program will be moving from that eastern point of Valencia's coast to Oviedo, and I'm certain the new location will be wonderful, though much colder, and without the people and fallas and streets of Denia that I loved.

I have about a million things that I could say about that beautiful, deep, full semester of my life, the spring of 2007 when I was a sophomore in college, wide-eyed and ready to embrace the world, but for today, I'll just share the reflection I wrote for the book.

Oh Denia. Was it really so long ago?
All of my lovely neighbors
María, me and Maite
Cuando considero mi semestre en Denia, la primera cosa que viene a mi mente es la gente: mi querida mamá española, la hermosa Maite; su amiga María; mis vecinos; los amigos que conocí en la iglesia; mis profesores. Es verdad que hay un mar increíble, calles bonitas, un gran castillo y el formidable Montgó, pero últimamente, estas personas son mi Denia.

Maite, mi madre española, influyó mucho mi buena experiencia en España. Comíamos juntos, me enseñó como hacer una buena tortilla y íbamos a los cafés para meriendas de pan tostado y café con leche. Ella compartió conmigo no solo su piso y comida bien preparada; también compartió sus historias, su sabiduría y su amor.

Y compartió sus vecinos. La mesa de mis vecinos era una buenísima aula de clase. Mientras comía un gran plato de paella, escuchaba sus voces, cada uno tratando de hablar más fuerte que los otros, y aprendí mucho de su país y su cultura. Pero también aprendí las cosas que solo se puede descubrir a través de una amistad: las historias personales, las raíces de su cultura y las razones porque le aman su país.

Y yo también me enamoré de España, de Denia y de cada uno de estas personas queridas.

When I think about my semester in Denia, the first thing that comes to mind is the people: my dear Spanish mamá, the beautiful Maite; her friend María; my neighbors; the friends I met at church; my professors. It's true that there is an incredible sea, lovely streets, a castle and the formidable Montgó, but in the end, these people are my Denia.

Maite, my Spanish mamá, had a tremendous influence on my good experience in Spain. We ate meals together, she taught me how to make a proper tortilla española and we went to the cafés for pan tostado and café con leche. She shared with me not only her flat and delicious meals; she also shared her stories, her wisdom and her love.

And she shared her neighbors. The table of my neighbors was an excellent classroom. While eating a plate heaped with paella, I would listen to their voices, each one trying to talk over the others, and I learned about their country and their culture. But I also learned the things that one can only learn through friendship: the stories of their lives, the roots of their culture and the reasons why they love their country.

And I also fell in love with Spain, with Denia and with each one of these dear friends of mine.