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Today we went to a huge buffet with accompanying children’s activities: jungle gym, swings, slides, air hockey, and–the highlight for the Munchkin–a real, working, child-powered four-horse merry-go-round. The buffet features over 100 dishes, and three different musical groups take turns entertaining the crowd or serenading a table:  a guitar duo, a mariachi band, and a pop band up on stage.

The decor reflected the imminence of September 16, Mexico’s Día de la Independencia. So did the food: note the green, white and red spaghettis.

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Even the dessert got in on the act. Gelatina is a favorite snack in Oaxaca. I wasn’t tempted, but it went fast.

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There were plenty of desserts to tempt us, though. All three of us had delicious chocolate cake. I was curious what was in this dessert to make the bees love it so much, but didn’t try a slice to find out. Honey, presumably.

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Naturally, people can celebrate their own culture in ways that would be frankly racist if an outsider did it. This leads to some jarring moments, such as seeing this decoration:

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People were also having their pictures taken inside an enormous frame that put a Pancho Villa mustache on them and a black sombrero on their heads. And there was this . . .

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“Cabrones” shows up in my dictionary as “not a nice thing to call someone,” but it’s true that one meaning is “guys.”

So, we tried this and that dish and seconds on the best ones, until I felt like this little guy.

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When it was time to stretch, we walked out on the grounds. Munchkin, of course, had been doing plenty of running and climbing in the indoor playground; now we all needed a break. The grounds are enormous, clearly designed to host weddings and other such events, and also have another playground and a boat for kids to climb on, which Munchkin promptly did. They also had a fountain that reminded me of our trip to Teotihuacan in 2010. The munchkin, then three, had wanted to climb the Pyramid of the Sun. I told her we’d come back when she was older for another chance. Maybe today was it.

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She identified this plant immediately, having learned about it in her summer camp last month. Its name is as lovely as its flowers: Lluvia de estrellas, rain of stars.

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And we went back inside for hours more of sitting (the adults), climbing (Munchkin), and feasting (all of us). We decided to skip dinner tonight.

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As a Universalist, I have a naturalistic view of hell. Actions carry their own consequences, which often create hellish conditions for ourselves or others. One sin that clearly comes pre-packaged with its own punishment is gluttony, as I learned last week.

We had a big family farewell dinner at a seafood restaurant in Seattle, and I ordered the two pounds of clams and ate them all. Every single one. If you’ve ever steamed clams yourself, you know that there are always a couple that don’t open up, and that that is precisely the way to decide which clams are okay to eat. The ones that emerge from the pot still closed should not be eaten. They are bad–again, not theologically, but biologically.

Well, when I came to a couple of closed clams, I pried them open and ate them. I wasn’t really thinking; I was immersed in conversation with my interesting in-laws, and I don’t think very well about anything else when I’m in an interesting conversation. And what vague idea did amble across my mind about discarding closed clams was shouted down by my desire for as many clams as I could eat.

At bedtime that night, I felt a little under the weather. At 1:30 a.m., I woke feeling distinctly ill, visions of those last few clams dancing in my head. The nausea and the knowledge that it was my own damn fault struck simultaneously, so I didn’t even have the consolation of self-pity. I looked up food poisoning on the internet and decided it was too late to do anything except drink a big glass of water and wait for the bug to tear through my system. On a travel day, too: no hope of lying in bed whimpering, since we had to pack up and fly home.

I seem to have gotten lucky, because I got back to sleep, and come morning, I had nothing worse than some tummy upset and a mild case of cold sweats, which didn’t lift until about 24 hours had passed, but stayed manageable. Some bacillus or staphylococcus fired a shot across my bow, and I learned a lesson. Gluttony isn’t worth it. Throw out the closed clams.

photo by Emma Pease

Last night’s midweek service, which was about Hanukah, was preceded by a latke feast, and I invited people to come even earlier than that to join in making the latkes. Over a dozen did, and we had a great time.

I billed the dish as the World’s Best Latkes and then had to come up with an actual recipe, since the way I really cook these would go more like, “Buy twice as many potatoes as you think your family can eat. Peel and grate. Add enough grated onion to make it look right. Add enough egg for it to stick together . . . ” etc. Not very helpful, though my great-grandmother in the Old Country would approve. Attendees and cooks asked for the recipe, so here is what we did last night. The only way to improve on it would be to make sure you always have a dozen fun people to cook with.

I forgot to tell everyone last night that there’s a reason latkes are the quintessential Hanukah dish: you are supposed to eat fried foods as a tip of the hat to that miraculous oil. That’s what we call a handy theological excuse. Now, in addition to the miracles of a small army defeating a large one and the oil’s lasting for an extra seven days, do you suppose there’s a miracle by which the calories from oil in which latkes were cooked disappear?

Or let’s just appreciate this miracle, pointed out by Rabbi Brad Hirschfield:

that people dared to light that tiny bit of oil and trust that somehow things would work out. Perhaps the enduring miracle which Hanukkah celebrates is that there is always more light than we first imagine and that the fuel to create it is really there when we look hard enough and dare to trust its power.

Amen to that, and Happy Hanukah, everyone!

The World’s Best Latkes

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