Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Fruitcake: Let's Give It a Little Respect, Please

I’m an unabashed thrift hound.  Before I left Santa Monica, I happened upon my dream scenario: a junk shop closing and selling off its stock, including 25-cent cookbooks. Even though I was focused on getting rid of stuff, I couldn’t resist. Grubby from foraging and flush with that treasure hunter’s glow, I left laden. I scored junior league compilations, obsolete appliance recipes, dubious diet tomes, ethnic cookbooks, even a few classics. I love all those kinds of things for the nostalgia value but I’ll occasionally find something in them to cook.
Leafing through my spoils, I discovered a folded sheaf of yellowing onion skin paper tucked into a book of one-dish suppers. A recipe for “Christmas Cake” was hand-written on it in cursive script. The long ingredients list revealed that the writer likely was English. Clues were that it called for sultanas rather than golden raisins, vanilla essence instead of extract. 

English Christmas Cake
The words transported me. In English homes, making Christmas cake in November heralds the beginning of the holiday season much as Thanksgiving does in the states. Even though I spent most of my childhood in the Southern hemisphere and Christmas fell in summer, we still doggedly followed all the old traditions. The house would be a furnace as the Christmas cake baked for hours. The cooled cake was packed away to “cure” in an air-tight tin. Then a few days before Christmas, we’d unpack the stored cake, redolent of cinnamon and cloves, to be iced. The first layer was marzipan, rich with ground almonds and egg yolk; then came white royal icing that dried hard as a frozen pond. For decoration we had a little winter wonderland kit kept in an old cookie tin. There was a snow-covered cottage made from plaster of Paris, a couple of bristly pine trees like green bottle-brushes, and a plastic snowman that was taller and wider than the house. 
Our holiday dessert tradition never varied: mince tarts made on Christmas Eve and eaten—their flaky butter-and-lard pastry still warm—after midnight mass; domed plum pudding and golden custard sauce with the big feast always eaten at midday; and Christmas cake for afternoon tea. You’d think we’d be full by then. But there was always room for a wedge of dark, dense cake with its soft marzipan and crisp icing. For me it was the star of the Christmas treats.
 Imagine my shock when I found that in the United States, my adopted country, Christmas fruitcake is scorned. You’ve heard all the jokes. The first year I was here, I heard Johnny Carson make fun of a fruitcake on his show. I didn’t get it. I was especially puzzled because my favorite holiday story is Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory.

My slipped-covered first edition
of A Christmas Memory is one
of my most treasured possessions.
That lonely boy and his elderly cousin foraging for pecans and baking cakes for people who’ve been kind to them throughout the year brings me to tears every reading; and I read it ritualistically every year. How could a country that produced such magnificent fruit cake literature treat the real thing with disrespect?
Over the years, I’ve tried to make converts. I can see how some people have been put off by the dry loaf-shaped cakes that are more common in the US than the round succulent iced version I’m familiar with. But it’s all to no avail and so now I’ve given up.
I guess some memories are best packed away in the old cookie tin of your mind and pulled out to be enjoyed alone.
There have been compensations. I created a whole new set of wonderful memories by holding Christmas teas. (I miss you, girl friends!) They gamely pulled Christmas crackers and wore the silly paper hats. We gorged on cream scones, cookies, and trifle—but no fruitcake.

Christmas Tea 2008

Christmas Tea 2009
Now I’m about to spend my first Christmas in Mexico. I have opportunity to learn new traditions. To the best I’ve been able to find out, cake doesn’t have much place in the festivities. The only cake I see on the horizon is rosca de reyes. That’s the crown-shaped cake that’s served on day of the kings or twelfth night, which falls on January 6th. It has a small representation of the baby Jesus randomly inserted into the batter. Whoever scores the baby in their slice gets to hold a party on February 2nd, the feast of candelaria.(Way to keep the festivities going, Mexico!) In the meantime, I’ll have to make do with galletes de Navidad and buñuelos de viento. That’s okay. Christmas cookies are an okay substitute for Christmas cake; especially when eaten in volume.

Baby Jesus is lurking somewhere in here!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Gringa Moment

So I was sitting at my computer doing my Rosetta Stone Spanish Language exercises and absentmindedly picking from a bag of peanuts – I do like my salty snacks – when I pulled out something that was definitely not a peanut. It was a desiccated carcass about half an inch long, reddish brown in color. It had what appeared to be little legs or tentacles sticking off it. I screamed in horror; spitting partially masticated bits of peanut all over my laptop screen.
 Because we all love to share our disgust and horror, I dropped the “thing” back into the bag of peanuts and I dashed over to my landlady’s house.
“Oh, JesusMaryandJoseph,” I cried. “There’s a dead roach in my peanuts. I think I already ate some. There are other broken bits of it in the bag. Look! I’m going to throw up. Do you think I’ll die?”
She recoiled, suitably horrified. We went back and forth saying very bad words and shuddering with revulsion. 
Then she calmed down and took a closer look. She frowned, picked it up, and popped it into her mouth. Now I know people in Mexico eat fried grasshoppers and drink worms in their mescal, but a cockroach? Are you serious?
 “It’s a dried chili,” she said.
Before you pass judgement ...
what would you have thought?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Dating My Clothes

One of the many things I love about San Miguel de Allende is that people take the time to dress up. Perhaps it’s because there’s a preponderance of women here and women like to show off for each other; or maybe it’s because the beauty of the place inspires people to step it up so as not to sully the landscape.

Can you imagine doing this in sweatpants?

In any event, it’s common to see women bedecked, bejeweled, and be-hatted.  Styles you see on the street range from trendy to classic to Santa Fe hippie to Frieda Kahlo.
San Miguel diva Eleanor Piazza

This all suits me just fine.

I’ve been a bit of a clothes-horse since age17 when I made myself a Nehru-style jacket from an old brocade curtain. This sartorial adventure was not inspired by Scarlett O’Hara but rather by early Sonny and Cher in their hippie days, before they went all Vegas-y and Bob Mackie crazy. I saw the duo on television in the mid-60s singing “I Got You, Babe” and was quite overwhelmed by their outfits. I didn’t actually remember all the details, but I had an impression of a fur vest, hip hugger pants, stripes, and mismatched prints. It was in black and white so I don’t know what colors they we were wearing.

My Sonny and Cher inspired era:
I made that skirt from some old jeans and scraps of fabric

Then I thought to search on YouTube to see if I could find that performance. There were actually several clips of them singing that song from 1965, including this one and another from English television also featuring the Beatles. (I love technology! This memory would have been lost to me without it.) The outfits were every bit as insanely cool as I remember and I’d still wear them today if I didn’t stand to look ridiculous. And yes, I remembered more-or-less correctly, there was fur and stripes and frills galore.

They clearly influenced me because my taste has always run to off-beat vintage clothes and exotic ethnic garments made, I hope, by craftswomen contributing to the economy of their village and not 13-year-olds toiling in a sweatshop. You’re more likely to find me rummaging at an estate sale than at Barney’s sale.

In fact, I’ve done more than just buy this stuff. In the 1960s my friend Liza and I had a stall on Portobello Road selling old clothes: and I mean really old; Victorian, 20s. Later, I had one at Camden Lock market dealing in army surplus clothing. And more recently, I had booths in Antique malls in California where I bought and sold vintage clothes. It’s a bit of shocker to find that 80s styles are considered vintage now!

But here’s the thing: I was chagrined to realize a while back that my own wardrobe was more interesting than me. I tended to buy clothes for the life I’d like to live, rather than for the life I actually live. What was I thinking when I bought that silk shawl with flowered embroidery and a beaded fringe at a yoga convention? I must have been in some blissed-out state to have fallen for the sales lady’s pitch about how great it would be over a strapless dress after a night of dancing. At the time I hadn’t been out dancing since about 1992 and have never in my life worn anything strapless.

And what about that faux leopard skin vintage coat? I sprang for it because I’d seen a fashion magazine story about how leopard print was the hot look that season. There were photographs of hip looking people in New York swathed in leopard at swell events: scenes right out of Serengeti and the City.

Wow, I thought when I spotted the 1960s version at a garage sale, I’ll wear that next time I go to a swanky event. Since it only cost $12 it didn’t seem worth dry cleaning, so I tossed it in the washing machine. It came out resembling a predator with a bad case of bed-head. But after a couple of hours of grooming it was quite spiffy. After all that trouble, a year later it was still hanging unworn in the back of my closet. The implications were quite depressing. I assessed each unworn outfit and tried to remember what fantasy scenario I had in mind when I bought it. There must have been some subconscious longing to be the person who would wear it and fulfill the promise that it held.

Clearly, I had two options: throw a garage sale, or let my clothes out to live the life they deserved. I had to assume that my clothes would be a pretty good guide and companion to the social life of my dreams.  Of course, I did neither. I wasn’t really ready to relinquish my cherry-picked wardrobe, nor was I likely to change from being a homebody who was not very proactive about making social events happen.

I eventually opted for a third scenario: I moved to San Miguel with pretty much nothing but a couple of suitcases full of clothes. Finally, I found a place where wearing just jeans and t-shirts and staying home are not an option. There’s too much going on to miss, and my clothes have turned out to be a pretty good guide and companion to the social life of my dreams.

Out dancing in my 1970s vintage
Diane von Furstenberg silk shirt

My only regret is that I left my faux leopard coat in storage, not realizing how bitterly cold it gets here at night. You can be sure it will be coming back with me next trip down.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

San Miguel de Allende: The City of Fallen Women

San Miguel de Allende is often called the “city of fallen women.” The streets are alive with the sounds of snapping clavicles and cracking ulnae as members of the brittle bone brigade make contact with the sidewalk. Cranky ex-pat retirees regularly write to Atencion, the weekly paper, and post to the local Yahoo group, somewhat ironically named the civil list, demanding to know why the city doesn’t do something about the streets.

Hello! Did you not know before you moved here that San Miguel is famous for its cobblestones, 18-inch wide sidewalks, ski-slope streets, and precipitous stairways? All of them made more hazardous when you have to quickly sidestep the parade of the day or a speeding horse (it has happened!).

It took some nifty footwork to not get mowed down here

This state of affairs has even given rise to one thriving business: the San Miguel Shoe; subtitled, the original combat cocktail sandal. Designed and made by a local cobbler, they look a bit like Ace bandages on rubber soles and are apparently very comfy and perfect for helping you remain upright in San Miguel de Allende.

The combat cockatail sandal

I’m looking forward to eventually getting a pair but don’t need to just yet because I came down here with a suitcase full of Birkenstocks.

Happy feet are important to me.
For my last birthday, a friend kindly invited me to choose a gift from a catalog that she would then have delivered to my house. It was filled with lotions deliciously scented with vanilla and jasmine; glamorous costume jewelry; silk scarves, and useful gadgets. So what did I choose? Why, a vibrating foot bath. It’s a device about the size and shape of a bedpan. You fill it with hot water, plunge your feet in, and switch it on for a pulsating massage. I can’t think of any other choice that would have more loudly screamed, “Congratulations: You’re 60!”
On writing this, something just occurred to me. All my favorite gifts have involved my feet. A few years ago for Christmas, I got this pair of soft bootees with bags of seeds in the bottom that you heat in the microwave. When you slip your feet into them, the warm soles send waves of pure bliss throughout your entire body. I brought them with me even though the seeds are getting a bit funky now from being zapped so often. They’ve come in really handy on these below-freezing San Miguel nights.
Another time, someone took me for a Chinese reflexology foot massage in Los Angeles for my birthday at a kind of a hole-in-the-wall place short on any kind of pampering elements. The masseurs were all elderly Chinese guys who didn’t speak any English and wore hospital scrubs. I suspect they are real deal Chinese doctors, possibly illegally in the US. I picture them living together in a shipping container somewhere,  since the massage only cost $20 for an hour of unadulterated agony and ecstasy.
That’s sort of emblematic of feet: they can bring both pleasure and pain.
On the pleasure front, they dance and dig pleasingly in sand at the beach and look pretty when you paint your toenails. Well, that’s about it for the good stuff.
Then there’s the pain. You’ve heard the adage that says not to judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes. If you’d have walked in my pointy-toed stilettos during my 20s and 30s, you’d have thought I was an idiot at best, a masochist at worst. You’d have experienced agonizing calluses, painful heel spurs, cramped toes, and tight Achilles tendons that caused shin splints. Why would I have done that to myself? Well, part of it was because I’m so short and spent years trying to measure up to the rest of world. But also because heels gave me elegant arches, shapely calves, and a sensuous swing to my walk. Mostly it was because I was in my 20s and 30s and was indeed a masochistic idiot.
This madness included the years I lived in London. I became quite adept at running for a bus or walking up and down the stairs to my third floor flat in three-inch heels without breaking an ankle. It makes me laugh when people think those “Sex and the City” girls invented all that. Let’s not forget that in my day your feet were also usually encased in binding nylon pantyhose. How my feet would throb and burn by the time I got home from work or a night out (sometimes experienced consecutively and not necessarily in that order).
Finally, motivated by I know not what — late blooming common sense; a fashion for flats? — I eased with a grateful sigh into comfortable shoes. I’ve never worn high heels again; probably couldn’t anymore if I tried. (Actually, I think this was just a return to my roots. Apparently, I was raised in sensible shoes as you can see below.)

Me at four: a hula girl in Clark's sandals
By then I was living in California and overcompensated by wearing nothing but rubber flip flops and ballet flats in all seasons. Then I developed an excruciating pain in my left sole. I hot-footed it to the podiatrist, who diagnosed plantar fasciitis, a fairly common inflammatory condition that feels like you’re walking barefoot across the rocky floor of Death Valley in July.
“It’s your shoes,” the doctor admonished me. It turns out what I was wearing offered no arch support, heel cushioning, or shock absorption. In fact, a report had just come out saying that flip flops were more damaging to your feet and your musculature than high heels. What! That doesn’t seem fair. I got a big lecture on how I had to wear sensible shoes. He recommended that from then on I should wear only athletic shoes.

Comfortable boots and Amazon mud with my friend, Christine.

I hobbled off with some stretching exercises to do, a prescription for pain killers, and a determination to find shoes I could wear. Many hundreds of dollars and a closet full of butt ugly shoes later, I discovered my dream footwear.
Have you see Birkenstocks recently? Yes, they still make those clunky, wide-strap, buckled, beige clod-hoppers so beloved by die-hard granola-heads (well, okay, I suppose that’s me). But now you can also get cool ones in a variety of colors and my favorites, for dressing up, are silver thongs. They support your arches, don’t crunch your toes, and those cork soles are surprisingly warm, even in cold weather. That’s a good thing since I figure I’m still a decade or so away from wearing them with socks. To be honest, I can’t wait because Birkenstocks and cozy socks sound like a dream team for happy feet if ever I heard one, especially on the streets of San Miguel. But then I haven’t tried those combat cocktail sandals yet.