Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Weight of Memory

I was born into a tiny Jewish community of less than one hundred families who all made their way from Europe to El Salvador in the first half of the twentieth century. My actual blood ties are few, but so many people have known me since I was born, have known my grandmother since she arrived in El Salvador from England in 1946, that blood ties have little, if anything, to do with my concept of family.

They tell me I was the first grandchild. Of course that is my grandmother’s generation. There were plenty of children born into the Jewish community before me, even as little as a couple of years, whose parents were the “middle-generation” – the ones born after the war whose ages cut right between my parents’ and grandparents’. But apparently I was the first of the second generation to be born in El Salvador, the first grandchild born into the group who had met in the thirties and forties.

There were those who spent World War II in El Salvador. Having attempted to get whomever they could out of Europe, they lived in the tropical sunshine, working hard and yet still hungry for news of their families “back home.” Then there was the wave that came after the war: when the Salvadoran, Jewish bachelors scoured Europe and Palestine for Jewish wives whom they then brought back from the ruins of war to a life with chauffeurs and maids and strange foods that sounded a lot like bodily functions.

When my grandfather arrived, young and ambitious, the group of Jewish people his age told him he was lacking one very important skill: he didn’t know how to dance. Though he had been a cook in the US army, though he spoke German, Czech and English and was learning Spanish, though he had gainful employment and buckets of determination, it would not be enough to find a suitable bride. So DS, a famously curvaceous woman who remained a friend until she died, taught my grandfather how to dance.

Years later, my grandparents needed little more than the first few notes of a good song -- light-footed and elegant, they enjoyed all kinds of music. My grandfather was a natural. He loved to dance and had found an enthusiastic partner in his young bride. It was in these little things that they recaptured all the fun they had missed during the war years. My grandfather’s hand strongly cupping my grandmother’s back, my grandmother tenderly holding on to his shoulder; they moved as if they had always known each other and the steps they would take as they drifted and twirled together, in tune with the music.

They would go to the movies back then. The lucky ones got to sit up top, on the balcony. If you got stuck down below, you would be pelted with garbage from above – shells of seeds, cigarette ash and candy wrappers rained down like thick drops, hindering the view of the film as you picked it out of your hair and shook yourself clean every few minutes.

After they married, my grandmother decided she would learn how to drive. Clinging to her shiny new licence, she told my great-grandmother that she was going to drive her home. They trooped into the garage, my grandmother turned the key in the ignition and promptly drove into the wall. The next day, my grandfather hired a chauffeur.

A few years ago, I had lunch at the house of one of my grandmothers’ best friends in Haifa. She had cooked something delicious, rich and very Ashkenazi tasting. Though I can’t remember what it was, I do recall the familiar taste, the comfort that I felt. When I complimented the chef, her response was “yes, it is wonderful isn’t it?”
Accustomed to more modesty, I replied “if you do say so yourself.”
My grandmother’s friend laughed and told me that she had learned to compliment her own cooking from my grandmother: “your grandmother is right,” she said, “What’s wrong with saying I like something if I do. Even if I made it! Who will compliment my cooking if I don’t?”

It is the generation that was forced to grow up in unimaginable situations, the generation that were adults before they had time to grasp that they were children. Nothing was explained, my grandmother has said on more than one occasion, things just were what they were. One moment you had a mother and a father, you had school and friends. The next your parents had been taken away and you were on a train heading somewhere unknown.

In my grandmother’s case, it was England. Many others were not so lucky.

About ten years ago, with friends of my grandparents, I watched Spielberg’s “The Last Days”, a documentary about the Jews of Hungary. This couple are part of my extended family even though they didn’t end up in El Salvador. They lived in Nicaragua. Over the years, I have noticed the tattoos on their arms, the row of numbers, the unforgettable mark of Auschwitz. Today, they live in Miami Beach. At 80+, he still plays tennis; she and I love to kibbitz about the hosts of The View, a women’s morning talk show. As the documentary skipped between interviews and footage of concentration camps, my grandparents - who had been spared those horrors as both had escaped Europe in time - wept. Their friends, on the other hand, sat rigidly watching the images.
“That was my job”, the wife, my grandmother’s friend, one of my favourite people in the world, said as they showed an inmate pulling the corpses out of the gas chambers and stacking them on a wheelbarrow, “I took them away.”

In the grey luxury of the mundane, it is difficult to picture suffering, even when the victim is describing it themselves, in person, sitting half a meter away. They say we have been desensitized by violence on television and in video games, but is it possible to even grasp such a concept as torture, as starvation, as hell in London, in Miami Beach, in New York City, when it is only that: a concept?

A few weeks ago, my mother and grandmother spent ten days here in the UK. We ate lunch and then dinner in that way that sometimes tourism feels, when everything becomes a stop-gap between meals. We got drenched and enjoyed a good few days of beautiful sun. I took them around my neighbourhood and the restaurants where the manager knows my name (and dietary restrictions). They came to the first fitting of my wedding dress.

My grandmother walked up to our fifth floor apartment and then all the way back down – four times!

We took the train to Gloucestershire where we enjoyed dinner and then lunch with D’s parents, aunt and uncle and his ninety-six-year-old great aunt. It was the first meeting between our families and it went rather well.

At the lunch, a couple of friends of my grandmother’s joined us: L had come to Britain as a refugee during the war with her mother, and had become friends with my grandmother because, as my grandmother put it, “we were both poor refugee girls.” L had met and married J, an Englishman, and they still live in the same town over sixty years on. Armed with hearing aids and old notions of one another, the three talked and laughed.
“Your grandmother had all the boys after her!” L told me.
“I wasn’t such a sex-pot!” my grandmother retorted in self-defense.

She always had admirers though, I know that. That morning at breakfast, she had confessed that one of her former boyfriends had been from the town where we were staying. “I’ve forgotten his last name,” she lamented. I think part of her would have wanted to look him up, if only she could remember his name…

The night before, with mischievously upturned lips, she had declared that I should write about an old woman who comes to the Cotswolds to find her old lovers.
“Who would that be?” I asked her
“I don’t know…” she grinned, looking like she must have when the boyfriend she now couldn’t remember had given her flowers all those years before.

She confessed that L’s husband, J, had originally taken a shine to her.
“But since L was so crazy for him, naturally, I resigned,” she told us, proudly.

I take after her in so many ways. I can see my face in hers, my body has the same curves, the same penchant for amplitude that my mother’s tiny, more delicate frame does not. And we are both moody people, with an inner pendulum that swings from joy to doomsday with little rhyme, reason or warning.

Good days are great: happy, grateful, productive. On the bad days, I am alone in this cold, cruel world, just like my grandmother.

At age fourteen, I used to walk the kilometre to my private Jewish school in my grey and blue uniform. I usually lived at my mother’s and had lunch at my father’s. My biggest problems were that I felt I deserved a later curfew and that the guy I had a crush on didn’t know I existed. When she was fourteen, my grandmother arrived in the tiny English village of Sheepscombe to stay with a Quaker family who had agreed to take in a Jewish refugee from mainland Europe. She would often walk the three miles to the next village in the pitch dark of the Black-Out.

Throughout my adolescence, I lobbied to be sent away to boarding school. My grandmother was left behind in Vienna when her mother was able to obtain a visa for herself and my great-grandfather to leave the country. It was a one-way ticket out of Europe, and the only way to get her husband out of Dachau, where he had been taken after Kristalnacht.

As a result of my childhood, I spent years in therapy, talking about “what I went through.” My grandmother, on the other hand, spent years in silence. To this day, the abandoned child rears her head from time to time, in those bad moments when she is alone in the world, left behind by parents who couldn’t afford to take her with them. Though I wasn’t there with her, I carry her sadness in my DNA, in my love for her, in the way I feel some days when nothing can cheer me up. I too am the abandoned child, though I was surrounded by luxury and parents who, if anything, were too protective, too controlling -- to the point of suffocation.

The scope of destruction of the Nazis reached so much further than the concentration camps and the millions murdered. There are generations of Jews still recovering from years of persecution, from being stripped of even the most basic human rights, from property and education, from being separated from friends and loved ones, parents and siblings without a chance to say goodbye, from spending formative years in unimaginable situations – in the woods, in strange countries forced to call strangers auntie and uncle, in cellars and attics, in underground holes. The list goes on and on, each example uniquely devastating in its own way. And to think that that generation did not have Freud who himself fled Vienna under the threat of deportation.

My grandmother and her contemporaries had their childhoods cut short. They were never given the proper tools to cope with adulthood. The question of why has been asked so many times but no one has been able to come up with a satisfying answer. My generation has been oversaturated with memories and emotions kept safely pent up that are now coming to light. “Never again” they say to us, as if we would have any more control over it than they did back then.

When the head of the Jewish community of El Salvador was kidnapped and murdered in the late nineteen seventies, the Jews fled, many of them for the second and third time in their lives.

My parents ended up in Belgium. When I was in high school, one of our teachers organized an afternoon at a Flemish (state) school. They had never met Jews and we, in our microcosm, had little, if any interaction with local kids our age. It was the first time I experienced prejudice, but it wasn’t anti-Semitism. Those kids associated Jews with money, because all they knew about us was that we were diamond dealers and drove Mercedes and Porsches. And for the most part, though it was a gross generalization and stigmatization, they weren’t wrong.

Historically Jews have dealt with easily moveable goods like diamonds or money mainly because they weren’t allowed to own property or land and because they were often persecuted and forced out of their homes with no prior warning. So what came first, the stereotype or the reality of the situation?

These days, I make a joke out of it: when asked where I’m from I call myself the Wandering Jew. But really, when I’m honest, it’s not as funny as it is true. Fleeing is in my genes. It is in my DNA, it is the first thing I think of in almost any situation. I have no roots, no one place to claim as mine, and I know that deeds and contracts can become worthless in less time than it takes to sign them.

Walking with my grandmother around the picturesque English village where she came on the Kindertransport in 1939 was an incredible experience. She showed me where she’d lived, the garden with the ping pong table that still exists (though the table itself has probably been replaced many times), the shortcuts she used to take through the school that still functions as one, the way to the forest where she rode horses. In a way, even this is home to her.

When she moved to Israel last year, my grandmother was often homesick for Sheepscombe. She would dream that she was there and wake up very disappointed. Upon waking, she would keep her eyes closed for a long time, yearning to stay there for as long as possible before returning to the new insecurity of life in Israel. Israel may be the home of the Jews, but it took a while for it to become my grandmother’s.

When she lived in Sheepscombe, my grandmother was free, probably freer than she has ever been in her life. She was not yet a wife or a mother, and there was no Jewish community to dictate the correct way of doing things. She was a very conscientious young woman, with strong values and a deep moral sense of right and wrong. At that time, though she was on her own, she was rarely alone. Constantly surrounded by friends and young men, my grandmother may have had to become independent through necessity but she was definitely elegant in her strength and way of coping with the situation.

When the war ended, with the help of generous contributions from the Jewish community, she made her way to El Salvador to be reunited with her parents. But the young adolescent who had been left in Vienna had become a young woman and my grandmother refused her mother’s insistence that she be chaperoned. After all, she had survived alone for years and was old enough to take care of herself.

Later on, when the political situation became too precarious, my grandfather announced without prior warning that they were moving to the United States. My grandmother did not want to leave, but she was not given a choice. As a good wife, she was to follow her husband’s wishes.
“I don’t want to leave El Salvador with only a little suitcase like I left Czechoslovakia,” was my grandfather’s explanation.

When they arrived in Miami, my grandmother confessed that she still felt like a refugee, regardless of how much they had brought with them.
“Once a refugee, always a refugee,” she says when she tells the story.
When she arrived in Israel last year, she felt the same. Even though there had been no political turmoil, no external pressures forcing her to move, even though the decision had – for the first time in her life – been entirely hers.

As she sat, eating her fish and chips in Sheepscombe, at the same pub where she had sat so many times as a girl, my grandmother pointed to her friend L, and told me how L and her mother had fed her.
“L’s mother worked in a nursing home. She would always have food for me. It was war time. I wasn’t starving, but you were always hungry.”

My grandmother almost always eats whatever is on her plate. She will wrap up leftover cookies and pieces of cake “for later.” She is always afraid that people will give her too much and even the oldest articles of clothing in her closet are in better shape than mine after a couple of washes. These days, my grandmother no longer wears cast-offs from her wealthy cousin like she was forced to as a child. She prides herself on her Missoni tops and her Ferragamo shoes.

But even back then, L’s husband, J, remarked that he remembers my grandmother as being the best dressed of the lot. And he is not the only one.
At the orphanage where she lived before she left Vienna on the Kindertransport, she befriended Y, a girl her age who was trying to make her way to Palestine. A few months later, Y wrote to my grandmother to say that her plans had fallen through and asked whether there was anyone else in Sheepscombe who would want to take in a Jewish refugee girl. My grandmother was able to find a place for her friend. Y, who had been sleeping in abandoned train carriages and under bridges, never forgot how beautiful my grandmother looked when they met at the station.

As she sat beaming at her friends from across the table, and as she got to know D’s parents a little, I saw her, not as my grandmother or as my mother’s mother, not as a wife or a woman of a certain age; but as the girl who wasn’t afraid to walk three miles through the countryside in the pitch black, the children’s nurse whose boyfriend was shot down over Germany, the young woman who, as she pedalled through the village, probably had crazy dreams of all she was going to do in her life. She laughed with abandon and blushed with glee at the compliments and the memories. Her flirty charm came back as she entertained all of us at the table, without a thought about her usual reticence.

Before the weekend, I had entertained a somewhat romantic notion of our trip to Sheepscombe. In my head it was a symbolic gathering of the generations, as if by being there my grandmother would somehow pass me along to D in one way or another. What actually took place was, in many ways, the exact opposite. I was able to glimpse the young girl who had once lived a day-to-day existence in those very streets, unaware of the years to come, the moves, the children, the grandchildren -- because at that age, who thinks of growing older. Watching my grandmother as a young woman, I felt myself start to age in anticipation of what is to come, what I am looking forward to in my own life – children, grandchildren, moves.

Often, when my grandmother speaks about the past, she is unable to fall asleep and so I am careful about asking too much. That day, however, questions were unnecessary: it was all there on her face. The day, the sun was shining. Though we were all wearing jackets, it was mostly out of habit. We were surrounded by the lush, green English countryside and it was difficult to imagine blackouts and wartime rations. Not much has changed in the village in the past sixty plus years and for that hour and a half, my grandmother was back to being the young girl who skipped and ran along the lanes, who rented a room above the post office and bought a bicycle after she’d missed the bus to work a few times too many.

The next morning, when I asked her how she had slept, she looked at me with a wistful expression and told me she had dreamt she was walking without her cane: “I was walking so easily,” she said, “walking along without a care in the world. My legs didn’t hurt, my hip was fine, and I was just walking along so beautifully, so happily. Then suddenly I remembered my cane. I had forgotten it somewhere, and I had to get it. But I was walking so beautifully.”

It’s true, many of my memories aren’t only mine. They belong to the world around me, to my history, my community, the places I have lived; but that doesn’t mean I don’t carry them around in some way: in my love for my grandmother, my wedding invitee list that is made up of many members of the Salvadoran community, in the subjects I choose to write about, in my dreams and fears and decisions.

I guess, in the end, it’s not the memory that counts as much as what we choose to do with it.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

This one's all about the food

As someone who deals with dietary issues constantly and loves food passionately, I spent years planning my breakfast, lunch and dinner a day in advance. This was partly a neurotic control thing and partly because I enjoy standing in front of the refrigerator taking in the sight of what I can eat, as opposed to all that I can’t.

In the past few months, however, things have begun to change. Mostly, I've started to reeducate myself to listen to my body rather than base decisions on what I’ve read or been told is the healthy option.

Now, there are more days when the afternoon rolls around and I have to come up with something on the spur of the moment -- a whole new creative challenge, and one that hasn’t always been an easy transition. The first few weeks, I would stand in front of the open refrigerator and eat anything and everything I could. Starting with a finger of almond butter, I would then cut up half an apple and follow that up with a sip of rice milk. Then I might have a cracker or a swig of something else. Savory bites would be offset by sweet ones, and by the time I closed the refrigerator, I would feel ill, not sated. It was mindless eating, guided by my eyes rather than my body.

Due to diet, weight and digestive issues, I hadn’t taken my body into account for so long that I had forgotten how to do so.

The transitions have been… well, interesting. Some days, I feel like I live from meal to meal. I spend those days looking for the magic food that will make me feel satisfied only to later admit to myself that it is not about what I ingest. I get hungry, but often it isn’t for food. The trick is to spot the difference.

This morning, D and I were so busy dealing with wedding stuff that by the time we remembered we were hungry, it was almost three and we were ravenous – a tricky one for me as that is when I tend to stand in front of the refrigerator and shove anything and everything down my throat.

Today, however, is two months exactly until we get married. Two months, or nine weeks, or sixty-two days is all we’ve got. I no longer have the luxury of being able to stuff my face and decide I’ll have a better food day tomorrow.

It’s time to get creative.

I sent D down to the store with two simple directives: find a protein of your choice and pick up whatever fresh herbs are in stock.

In the mean time, I set about putting together a salad.

When I was first dealing with all of my digestive issues, one health care person told me to eat only raw food. A few months later, someone else suggested I stick to cooked food. Salads, they said, were too much for my sensitive system.

Salad, raw foods were taken off the ever-shrinking list of allowed foods and added those I was supposed to stay away from. The NO list, at one point, included fruit, gluten, dairy, sugar, nightshades (potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, aubergines), funghi, nuts, vinegar – it seemed to be getting longer every day.

Some people talk about illness as being a gift, the reason they started down a new path in life. As the number of foods that I was avoiding grew, it became more and more difficult for me to see my paltry diet as anything other than punishment. Then there were the questions and the constant comments ("Oh, you poor thing!" well-meaning friends would say, "Must be hard to watch others enjoying their food," a waiter in LA told me once). To add geographical injury to national insult, in the UK there is less food available to me, my American accent usually makes things worse as restaurants often take my questions as cultural insults. LA may not be my favorite place on earth, but it is a haven for anyone with culinary challenges. When you’re used to catering to anorexic starlets, I’m sure people like me are a piece of gluten-free, agave-sweetened cake.

Back in Albion, however, I have been, more often than not, one grumpy, picky foodie.

Funnily, as any New Age sage will tell you, my savior finally arrived in the form of … well, me. The cycle of life keeps turning and as I've started to learn more about food and nutrition (remember that whole first step in a new direction thing?), I’ve also gained more confidence in my own instincts. As a result, I have started reintroducing foods as well as making my own versions of things I really miss. Berries and other lovely fruits, cookies (gluten free), milk (made out of nuts or seeds), ice cream, bread. I've started enjoying wine again. Even the odd French-fry (or two, or three, or ... yeah, it's hard to stop when it's been a while) has recently been known to pass my lips.

Yesterday I was talking to a new friend who also loves to cook. She was sharing with me her sadness at not being able to ever know the tastes of certain things due to her own set of dietary restrictions.
“I will never know what a real steak-au-poivre is,” she told me.
I did my best to convince her with the same arguments I use to make myself feel better, but I know what she’s talking about. Yes, my meat is always more tender because chefs can’t hide it under a layer of sauce, and yes, I can make my own versions of almost anything. But can rice bread and almond butter really replace fresh, crusty bread and perfectly aged blue cheese drizzled with wine reduction and lightly roasted walnuts? Can gram flour muffins dipped in the loveliest of soups make up for the lack of grated parmesan?

D and I returned last night from celebrating his birthday in Paris. The Eurostar is by far my favorite part of being back in Europe. In less than three hours, you can be sipping un petit Pinot on the Rive Gauche, nibbling on foie gras and other perfectly acceptable, terribly un-PC French delicacies.

Somehow, in France it's easier to avoid feeling deprived. They are so proud of their food that if they are willing to help a girl out, they do so with the same elegance and grace that they bestow on everything gastronomic. Rather than taking pity on me (and rubbing my face in it, no matter how well they mean), the French go out of their way to make my meal greater than great. In Paris, instead of feeling left out, I feel special.

But Paris is a long weekend, a breath of fresh air, a change of scenery. It’s not our life. Our life is computer screens and tube-stop snackbars, a gym with a swimming pool in the basement and evenings spent in front of the telly instead of a good bottle of wine.

Today, however, with yesterday’s “gaspacho au tomates suivi d’un steak thon avec une frisee” still fresh in my mind, I’m convinced that it is in my power to bring that little piece of Paris back with us.

I try to be as careful and conscientious about what I put into my body, but also about how I eat. And nowhere is this culturally more apparent than in Paris. People linger over their meals. Women truly enjoy desert. Each bite is chewed as if it were the first and the last. The clean-plate club only exists in France when good food is at stake.

I'm sitting in my tiny office watching D scour the Internet for what he's going to wear at our wedding. The dehydrator is whirring away, cooking Brazil-nut chocolate cookies that smell like someone's great-aunt's house. The heavy, dark clouds are hanging low in the sky. It looks and feels like rain though the pavement is dry.

There is too much on my to-do list to wallow, however. I’m hungry for food and millimeters away from going back to bed. Lunch is going to need to be more than a meal. It’s going to have to be a preemptive pick-me-up: a refreshing smack of good cheer combined with a healthy dose of motivational nutrition.

In this spirit, I put together our lunch.

The Salad:
* Fresh greens
* 1 raw zucchini (courgette) cut very fine (with a mandolin, if available)
* one yellow onion, chopped
* one can of chickpeas, rinsed
* fresh mint leaves chopped very fine
* half a pink grapefruit cut into small squares.
* cumin powder (to taste)
* salt (to taste)

Toss the fresh greens along with the courgette and the fresh mint leaves. Put aside.
In a pan, saute the onion on a low flame until very brown and soft (almost burned, but not). Once the onion is ready, add the chickpeas, grapefruit, cumin to taste and salt to taste and allow to heat on a very low flame. (Note: you are heating rather than cooking the chickpeas and grapefruit)

For the dressing blend:
* argan oil(this can be replaced by any nutty oil -- pumpkin, walnut, pistachio, etc)
* the juice of two lemons
* dill
* salt and pepper
* the other half of the grapefruit
* a dash of apple cider vinegar

Optionally, you can add home made croutons. These are made by cubing fresh bread and dry roasting the bits in a pan for a few minutes, stirring every once in a while so they get toasted on all sides.

It was absolutely delicious.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

What do you say in a wedding vow? That you’re theirs forever? That your futures are assured with one another? That you’re guaranteed happiness as long as you remain together? What do you promise the other person that they can believe, not only at the emotion-filled moment in which you speak the words but for every day of your lives as husband and wife, when one of you has their head in the toilet, or has done something terribly wrong, when you feel like you’re looking at a total stranger? What can I say to D that I haven’t already said? How often can I say I love you? And how come, on that one day, in that moment, when I’m supposed to be telling him how I feel about him, it doesn’t feel like it’s enough? As I contemplate my wedding vows, I find myself, for once, at a loss for words.

I’m not usually a fan of Paulo Coelho, but this little tale seemed incredibly relevant:
For days a man and a woman travelled almost without speaking. Finally the couple arrived in the middle of the forest and
found a wise man.
“My companion said almost nothing to me during the whole journey,” said the man.
“A love without silence is a love without depth,” answered the wise man.
“But she didn’t even say she loved me!”
“Said the sage: “Some people always claim that. And we end up wondering if their words are true.”
The three of them sat on a rock. The wise man pointed to the field of flowers all around them. “Nature isn’t always
repeating that God loves us. We only realize that through His flowers.”

Sometimes I think the less there is to say, the more I speak. Often I say words, cobbling together sentences, paragraphs, making points, pointing out evidences, so that I won’t need to hear what the silence beneath my constant babble is trying to communicate instead.

It’s easier to keep talking, to cover up, hide behind statements, opinions, the clarity of verbalization rather than having to decipher facial expressions, hand gestures, body language that may be speaking a whole other truth.

And yet, when I think about the most powerful moments in my life, they rarely involved words; and if they did, the actual words spoken were secondary.

When I was eleven years old, my parents had their last fight as a married couple. It was a lock-down, drag out-saga that stretched across a good few hours and several floors of the house. My father had relegated my mother to the fifth floor while he roamed the first four. I don’t know how it started, but by the end of it, I knew they weren’t getting back together. My brother and I ran after my crazed, impassioned parents as they ascended and descended the myriad of staircases, insulting each other, calling each other by all sorts of names in all sorts of languages, grabbing hold of one another or both of us.

We finally found ourselves on the fifth floor looking out at the building across the street. The room where it all ended was so large that a few years later it was converted into an apartment for my grandfather.

I remember standing with my brother. At ages nine and eleven, it was probably the closest we’d ever stood to one another without attempting to bash the other’s skull in, but we were shell-shocked and, I think, already aware that we were it: he and I would need each other when it came to prying through the he-said-she-said between my parents.

My father knelt in front of us and told us he loved us.
“No matter what happens,” he said, “remember that I love you.”
It is probably the only time he has ever said he loved me like that. But the words aren’t what stick in my mind. What I remember most was what made me feel like he actually meant it. He had tears in his eyes. He had taken my hand into his and was holding it tightly, as if it would be the last time he would grip it (sadly, it was not, but that’s a whole other story). His face was completely void of his usual tense cynicism. It was soft and loving – for the first and last time in our relationship history, my father was allowing his love to flow without shame.

Those few seconds cost me years of therapy and self-deceit. It took me years to admit that he wasn’t that caring, emotional man. It took me even longer to face that underneath the cruelty, the constant criticism and denigration, there was, in fact, no loving father to be found.

Over the years, he would mumble, or spit “I love you” at me as one does during an argument when anything is fair game. But never again did I see that body language, feelings as raw as they were true, from the man who raised me with “emotions are a four-letter word.”

Silence is louder than words; even actions speak louder than the simple, easy sentences we are so used to deploying -- to get what we want, to appease others, to steer situations in our favour. There is nothing sacred about words. They are large cardboard cut-outs, clunky, clumsily painted blocks behind which we can easily hide – all it takes is a bit of imagination. We write them, say them, hear them, read them constantly. And as with anything else, the overexposure has made them worthless.

I like to think that I’m a woman of my word, that my word is worth something. But really, when my words keep changing, how can I remain loyal to only one?

I remember the moment I fell in love with India.

There is not much silence in India. In fact, I think that one moment is the closest I got. Maybe that is why it happened when it did, why I fell in love precisely then; when all the noise subsided, when the chaos got stripped away, the beauty was so magnificent; it was suddenly easy to become intoxicated by the magic of the country’s simple, regal splendour.

It had been a long day. I had spent most of it slowly meandering along the backwaters of Alleppey with a couple of very hungover Irish ladies, and later an American and a Finnish woman. The five of us had talked and laughed all day, as the boat had made its way through lakes and canals, winding through thick greenery, passing the locals as they washed themselves, their clothes and their animals along the banks, or waved at us – another over-enthusiastic, photo-hungry lot of tourists to pose for -- from their porches.

Amma’s ashram had been visible from far away as its pink towers were by far the tallest buildings in the area. The women from Ireland were going to keep making their way South to the beach, but the three of us had decided to disembark at the ashram. Unlike the other two, however, I would not be staying the night. My young travel companion, H, had stayed back at the hostel with food poisoning, so I was planning to head back to Alleppy. By boat, the trip had taken eight hours, but I had been told that the bus ride would be only two, which would allow me a little time to explore the ashram and experience the supposedly incredible energy of the Hugging Saint.

As we made our way to the main meditation hall, signs in all languages indicated all sorts of rules: where to put your shoes, where to go to the toilet, where to buy memorabilia, where to make phone calls. There was even a tourist center.

There were Westerners everywhere, dressed in venerating white, looking straight ahead with a mixture of purpose and New Age apathy. I felt I had landed in the centre of a flock of sheep that, by some miracle, had been transformed into human beings for a day or two. People roamed more than walked, drifting around with little direction. Many sentences around me started with, ended on, or had as their main function to praise Amma.

I had to admit that there was a strong energy coming from the large photograph at the end of the meditation hall. Even in 2D, she is powerful. But the love and kindness I saw in her eyes was a good few solar systems away from the machine that is the ashram.

When I bumped into the American woman and her Finish friend a few minutes later, I had to laugh at the expressions on their faces. Their horror was only slightly appeased when an electronic gong sounded, calling all guests to the main meditation hall. Amma was not there that day, but that didn’t alter the worship schedule.

Fighting against the stream of people I made my way back towards the river. By the time I had crossed the bridge, I was breathing normally again and no longer afraid of hyperventilating. I had been hoping to find some kind of spiritually enlightened community, inspiration, possibly something I could take home with me, an addition to my own journey, maybe even some sensible answers. Instead I had found shameless commercialism capitalising on people’s weakness, their search for meaning and direction. I knew where I was heading: as far away as possible, as quickly as my muddy flip-flops would take me.

“How do I get to the nearest town?”
The group of rickshaw drivers looked at each other. I could tell they were sizing me up both in terms of means as well as desperation. I won’t lie: I’m sure I looked like a chicken with a broken leg to a hungry fox.
“Seventy roupees, madam.”
He was the youngest of the lot, the boldest, the most arrogant. An earring dangled from his left ear like Captain Jack Sparrow of India minus the eyeliner. He raised one eyebrow, daring me to negotiate.
I was too tired, too spent, too saddened by how I had become a cash cow – even to the devoted, let alone those who made a living driving people like me around.
“Fine.” I sighed and wearily pulled myself in. It had been raining on-and-off throughout the day, and I didn’t like the look of the dark grey cloud that had draped itself over most of the sky.
The driver hopped behind his little steering wheel with glee and proceeded to zig zag happily for the next twenty minutes, between cattle, children, old women and other rickshaws, all the way to the next town.
He dropped me off at what he claimed was the bus station, although all I could see was a fire pit, a group of people standing around watching the blaze, and an elephant with a very thin man on its back and shackles around its four enormous legs.

I’ll skip the details of the other two buses other than to point out that, like the third one I took, the first two were rickety, loud and overcrowded. Unlike the last bus I took that night, however, the first and second ones were also quite abrupt, unfriendly, stuffy and generally unpleasant.

Maybe by the third one, I’d gotten used to feeling like a sardine and smelling foul body odour around me. Maybe it had stopped bothering me that there was little, if any, regard for what I would term my private space in any other part of the world. Or maybe the world had shifted ever so slightly by the time I sat down for the final part of my journey back to Alleppy, where I hoped young H had recovered from her bout of food poisoning and had not made off with my belongings.

Whatever it was, as I hoisted myself into the last remaining seat on the old blue bus, I found myself hoping that it would clear out so that I could sit by the window and zone out for a few moments. In India, there are people everywhere, and they are always talking – either at you, over you or through you. I was exhausted, and would have probably given my vocal chords for a few hours alone to sit on my couch watching Sex And The City reruns.

At the next stop, almost everyone got off. Though the bus filled up quickly, I was able to slide to the far end of three-person seat where I could look out the glass-less window, and breathe deeply, enjoying the wind in my hair. As we continued along the unpaved roads, and the sun started to set, it was as if all of India was starting to prepare for the fall of night.

The sky turned a darker hue, the people on the streets started to slow down. Inside houses and stores, the bustle was replaced with a hush. Fires were being lit and the scent of food, the warm spices that make up the local cuisine, was everywhere.

Next to me, a young Hindu woman struggled to keep hold of her daughter. The little girl couldn’t have been more than five or six, but she was so exhausted that she kept falling asleep and hitting her head against the seat in front of us as her mother, too tired herself, kept losing her grip.

“She can lie on me if you like” I told the mother.
I’d gotten so used to the constant cacophony of sounds that I hadn’t noticed that nobody on the bus was talking. When I spoke, everyone around me turned to stare. The mother obviously didn’t understand English as she too was simply looking back at me.
“Here” I patted the bag in my lap.
Before I’d finished gesturing, the mother had already dropped her daughter’s head on me. A few seconds later, they were both sound asleep, the mother’s head lolling towards my shoulder, the daughter’s cupped in my lap. What could they have gone through to be that tired?

As the bus drove along, the sun setting outside, past the loud motors and the roar of generators, a silence fell. Though technically it was noise – constant hums, yells, coughing of faulty mechanics, animals belching, men grunting – it was silence. India was heaving a sigh of relief as yet another day had ended in relative peace. Inside the houses we passed, families had arrived home and were sitting around tables, the children playing together, the women stirring pots, and kneading dough. The people on the bus held on to the railings and bobbed back and forth with the rhythm of the squeaky springs, calm in the knowledge that they too would soon be home. All of a sudden, there was no need to rush. And in my lap, a beautiful little girl moved her lips as if she was saying something very important in her dreamless sleep.

That was the moment I fell in love with India. Silently, completely, fully. It was the moment I understood why people go back over and over again, even though they are robbed and prodded, even though they return to the West with worms and parasites, even though there are so many other places in the world that they would love to see. For just a moment, I felt the existence of God.


One of the things I love most about cooking is its meditative quality. Some dishes require speed and constant attention while others allow long, lingering thoughts to swirl around my head as I tend to the minutiae of preparation.

Last week, I found myself with three bags of broad beans. D and I receive a box of organic vegetables every week from one of those farm-box schemes that supports small, local businesses and delivers seasonal produce to your door.

For two weeks in a row, I had unpacked the box, sighing at the damn broad beans. What was I going to do with them? I had been scared away by the supposed high-maintenance food that people say they are. This stems from the double work required when cooking them. First they have to be removed from their shells. Then they are boiled in order to be able to get rid of the outer coating on the actual bean, which also has to be removed. It sounded terribly dull and time consuming. Still, I hate throwing away food, so I was going to have to do something… and soon… rather than letting them rot.

As my family were visiting, I decided it would be a good opportunity to try something new. My grandmother calls my cooking “interesting” (sometimes this is meant in the good sense, though not always. But at least she is polite about it)

My mother and I peeled the first layer off the beans. Though we can talk for Britain, we quickly lapsed into silence, both enjoying each other’s company as well as the soothing feeling of doing the mindless, repetitive work. For a few minutes we talked about how calming it was, but we soon returned to concentrating on our fingers and letting our minds wander.

I had explained to my grandmother that it wasn’t a big deal or a big mess, that I was using her presence as an excuse for the “patchkerei”, as she put it (loosely translated, this means “a lot of work”)

A quick search on the Internet brought up a Moroccan soup called bissara. It sounded delicious – perfect for a rainy, cold summer evening in London.

This is my adaptation of a few recipes I found on various sites on the Internet.

A large bowl or plate of broad bean, shelled and peeled*
Water or broth**
4 cloves of garlic roughly chopped
3 T olive oil (I would have used argan oil had I thought of it then)
1 t cumin
½ t sweet paprika
½ t hot paprika
Juice of half a small lemon.
Dash of cayenne
fresh mint leaves finely chopped to use as garnish
salt and pepper to taste

Once the beans are shelled, peeled, etc., return them to the water or broth they originally boiled in and bring it to a boil once again. There should be enough water to cover them and then some.
As it boils, add the garlic cloves, salt and pepper and turn the heat to low low low.
(a froth will start form at the top of the mixture. This can be skimmed off with a spoon)

In a separate bowl, mix the olive oil, cumin, both paprikas, cayenne and the lemon juice. Allow the mixture to sit for a while so the flavours have a chance to hang out and get to know each other a little bit.

When the beans have simmered for about ten to fifteen minutes and are soft, blend the mixture together so it becomes a proper soup or puree (depending on the bean to water ratio) – no chunks should remain.

Serve the soup in small bowls and spoon the oil mixture on top. Garnish with a dash of fresh mint leaves.

* As previously mentioned, the first stage is to remove the large green peel so that you remain with only the beans. These are then put in boiling water or broth (not too much water as you want to use that same water to make the soup and it’s important to retain as much flavour as possible) for about five minutes. Once boiled, remove the beans and blanch them in a bowl of ice to stop the cooking process so you can remove the outside layer of the bean. What remains is a bright green bean.

** I would use vegetable or chicken broth but I’m sure beef would complement this dish very nicely as well

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Laila Tov, he said...

Hello from Fat and Bloated. Does everyone feel this way half the time, or is this my own special gift -- to be a Petri-dish, a pawn with no control over when I will be thrown down the white-waters of my digestive system’s moody delights and surprises? Maybe it’s the weekend of Cotswold food – duck baked to within an inch of its long-lost life, vegetables boiled to distraction, freshly fried chips as thick as a baby couch potato’s arm. Maybe it’s the anti-biotics, or the week of running around without time to consider myself. Whatever it is, mama ain’t likin’ the gut, or the feeling of wearing a blubber suit.

It’s [ONLY] on days like today that I miss [ONLY ONE ASPECT] of my old job in television production: the hours of being on my feet, running around, trying to locate a battery in a desert, or a ham sandwich in a dairy farm. Typing doesn’t do much for the cardiovascular. And the London summer doesn’t lend itself too well to outdoor exercise.

But enough with the self-pity. As my friend V says, “put the bat down…”



Oh all right… Fine…

The other day I was talking to someone about the upheaval involved in travelling as much as I do. We were talking about the rituals of life, and she asked what mine were.

I tend to think of rituals as big, orchestrated events created to mark a new stage in life -- weddings, bar-mitzvahs, funerals – days weighed down by traditions and a list of boxes to tick off, dictating what should happen when. The seven days of prayers before a couple gets married, the seven days of mourning after the death of a close family member, the intonation in a young boy’s voice as he reads the chapter of the Torah he has been rehearsing months – all of these constitute rituals for me.

I remember the shock that rippled through my grandmother’s building when people found out that there would be no formal shiva for my grandfather. That meant that for the seven days of mourning, there would be no formal prayers every day and so no excuse to go stock up on the cold cuts, pastries and breads that are traditionally laid out for the mourners and the waves of neighbours and friends who come to pay their respects.

After the funeral, as the car made its way back to my grandmother’s apartment, we talked about the rabbi whose heavy New York accent had given his speech a bit of a farcical undertone.
“Your grandfather never liked that man,” my grandmother told me matter-of-factly, “he would have hated to have him there.”
“Why did you get him to lead the service then?” I asked, shocked.
“There was nobody else,” she said. “It doesn’t really matter anyway, it won’t bring him back.”

As I plan my wedding, I find myself looking for meaning in even the smallest of decisions, those that I rationally know will make very little if any difference at all. I have read many articles asserting that I am not alone, that the cost of weddings has nearly quadrupled as couples, striving to make their wedding “unique,” drape everything in so much symbolism that there is often little wiggle room left for enjoyment of the actual moment that is at the core of the event. It becomes more important to have shoes in the exact shade of white, the right flowers, the perfect everything, than to enjoy the day – a sad but telling segue into what is to come. Apparently, as we become more immune to the D-bomb, as divorce becomes a way of solving marital spats, as sticking with one another through thick and thin becomes less about a couple and more about a pre-nup, weddings have been transformed into an insurance policy of sorts, as if an expensive wedding could ensure a long-lasting marriage. These same articles, go on to gloatingly point out that none of this -- not cost, not symbolism, not neurotic micro-planning -- matters in the end.

D and I have an interesting dilemma in terms of how we would like to honour our respective traditions – or not. In the end, it is relatively simple to go down the list of our dos and don’ts and decide that yes, we will break a glass and no, I won’t wear a veil, yes there will be Jewish dancing, no there won’t be any hula. These definites are easy: there’s an accepted way in which these things are done, and it is our choice whether we follow these simple guidelines and remain traditional, or whether we off-road and do our own thing.

All adventures aside, however, we’ve been spending a lot of time examining parts of our separate cultures and reshaping them into a shared creation. We are appropriating, modifying, rearranging traditions like one would when transforming a new house into a home. “Mine” becomes “ours” as we morph historical customs into new, modern innovation with a wink and a nod to our histories:

We are getting married under a chuppah, me in a traditional Western wedding dress, D in a kilt. As a result, I keep having to explain to people in Israel what a kilt is.
“Oh, the Scottish skirt!” is the usual response.
On the other hand, I have had to look up the exact symbolism of a chuppah to explain to our many friends who had never before heard of it.

And once you start going down the road of meaning, it becomes a question of where you decide to stop. A chuppah is historically constructed using a prayer shawl that is held up by four poles. Traditionally it symbolised the future home of the couple; and at the ceremony itself, the man would be waiting under it for the woman to join him. This parallels the way the marriage would, more often than not, affect each of them individually: the woman would move from her home and into her husband’s; she would be the one leaving her own life behind and integrate -- preferably as seamlessly as possible -- into his. Though that is not the case with D and I, something about perpetuating that small gesture irks me. It is an unimportant detail, but will I be able to let it go – another one of the seemingly endless questions, options, minutiae -- in order to focus on other elements of this day?

It’s almost like a recipe for some strange, multi-ethnic dish that nobody quite knows how to make and which can go totally wrong or come out absolutely divine. Add a splash of “forever” to a mixture of “us” and “loved ones”, along with a good dollop of “you’ll never forget” and a healthy dose of “best day of your life” – it’s enough to rattle even the most adventurous gluttons. And I’m leaving out vanity!

When you add vanity to the mix, the rules of the game change completely. When do I want D to first see me in my dress? Does he see me first and do we enter together? Do I want him to catch his first glimpse of the vision I will obviously have to be at the same time as everyone else, or should I be the one waiting for the guests?

Though D has been intimately involved in every part of planning the wedding, when it comes to how we will join one another under the chuppah, his response has been “whatever you’d like, sweetheart.”
Not to downplay how fabulous D is and has been at every stage so far, but he obviously isn’t as affected by the symbolism.

In my head, it’s become a well-greased slope as one thought leads to the next: is anyone surprised that women have been known to lose all control when it comes to getting married? Back then, they were planning their own demise, orchestrating their last meal, setting the music to their walk off the plank. If I was going to become my husband’s property after marriage, I would also be planning it as “my day” – as the more traditional people around me keep insisting it is – my last day of relative freedom instead of a celebration of the union between myself and my partner.

I’m so glad times have changed… sort of

D and I have been planning this as “our day”. We have made every decision together and have deferred to one another at every stage of the process. Still, many people insist on telling me that it’s MY day to shine.
“It’s your day to be a princess,” they tell me as if this will lessen the stress, make things easier in one way or another.
“You can do whatever you want,” they tell me, “it’s all about you.”
Now we all know that this is not true. Everybody comes with expectations, and if they don’t make them clear beforehand, they will most probably take advantage of the years to come in order to do so.

I can already hear it:
April 17th, 2015
#1: “that was a great wedding last night. My chicken was delicious!”
#2: “yes, I loved the dancing. So wonderful, these youngsters. And the decorations! I felt like I was in a different country.”
#1: “Do you remember that other wedding? Terrible.”
#2: “How could I forget? I was so disappointed. She looked like a slob. And the food…”
#1: “You would think they would have planned it better.”
#2: “I always say, learn from other people’s mistakes.”
#1: (laughs) “and there was a lot to learn. Such a shame…”

I know, I know: who cares? why listen? etc. etc. etc.

I’ve never had so many voices, opinions, advice buzzing around my head at the same time. They’re like insects – or onion rings: impossible to ignore.

For example, it is very much frowned upon for anybody but the bride to wear white. The custom is based on the idea that on her wedding day, no one should outshine her. But what if white doesn’t suit her? What if she wants to get married in red? And what about not outshining the groom who probably is more difficult to pick out of the mass of other men in suits?

Where does ritual end and bullshit start?

As I walk around London still in a state somewhat resembling culture shock, I see women everywhere wearing that rock on their left ring fingers and somehow feel a kinship with them. Like when I’m in the middle of nowhere and someone toasts with L’chaim, or their star of David becomes visible under their sweater. These things don’t mean that I’ll have more in common with that person, but in the eternal quest for connection, even something as superficial as being engaged at the same time can create a sense of intimacy. If they see mine, we might exchange a small smile. I wonder where they are in the planning stages, how they are feeling about it. At the pharmacy, the woman tells me she hasn’t had the courage to even start to figure things out. The girl behind the counter at the health food store has left it all up to her mother. A woman I’ve seen on and off on Marylebone High street – she sells me my loose-leaf tea – breaks the news to me that she’s called it off. “More fish in the sea,” she tells me. Speaking of fish, I think, should we include it in the menu, or will chicken and lamb be enough.

In Bangkok, after a particularly intense yoga class, I got to talking with a woman in the locker room. She had been teaching English in Bangkok for the past year, she told me, and was returning to the UK in July to get married.
“My fiancĂ© has done all the planning,” she told me, “it’s been hard.”
If the roles were reversed, I’m sure her future husband wouldn’t have described the difficulties, but this woman was obviously feeling the stress of having to give up control of “her day.”

Some days I can’t wait for my wedding; others I feel I need to prove something although I’m not sure to whom. People ask what a Jewish wedding is, they ask about my dress or the food, the location and the invitee list. I don’t quite know how to explain that I would prefer to say nothing as everyone has their way of visualising descriptions, every imagination builds things up in a different way, and the last thing I want to do is disappoint. But I can’t not say anything – this is my wedding we’re talking about after all and I’ve never been very good at keeping my own secrets!

We wanted to get married in London, in LA, in New York. We thought about castles and friends’ homes and the desert. In the end when we finally found “our spot” – or when it found us – as we stood there holding hands, listening to the silence around us, finally, finally nothing mattered but D and I. For that one moment, it all came together and our two visions merged into one. We saw our wedding, not the symbolism of it, not the price tag, not the expectations; we were able to envision the practical execution of the day itself, the actual marriage, the party, the joy, the rite of passage. We saw our friends dancing, we saw our eyes locking as the sun set and we spoke our vows, we saw the food laid out along the tables. For a second, it had already happened, everything, exactly the way it should. When I get too nervous now, when everything feels overwhelming and every vendor seems blinded by the dollar signs in their eyes, with every question and challenge that creeps up, I recall that vision and remind myself that it will all, in the end, be perfect, no matter what.

There is a beautiful theory in Judaism stating that although Moses died before entering the Land of Israel, before his passing, God allowed him to see all of what would happen to the Jewish people. In the same fashion, when a parent holds their child for the first time, for the briefest instant, they get a glimpse of the entire life that awaits the newborn in their arms. At that moment is when that child receives their name.

Rituals, my friend pointed out, are not just those that mark milestones. They can be smallest things: brushing one’s teeth in a certain way, breakfast, where you hang your coat when you walk in the door. Rituals are what tell me I’m home; they also create a comfort zone when I am in new surroundings.

As a child, I moved often. But every night, no matter where we were, my mother would kiss my ear loud enough for it to ring for the few minutes afterwards (this later become a running joke), and whisper a short prayer. That was when I knew was safe to go to sleep.

These days, though I crave some kind of permanence, I fear it almost as much as I fear the unfamiliar. Sometimes I think that D and I have developed more rituals in airports and airplanes than we have at home. I know where I’m going to sit in Heathrow or JFK or Ben Gurion. I know which magazines I’m going to buy – the really bad celebrity rags that I only allow myself when travelling – and that D is going to open his computer at the terminal and zone out with a coffee for as long as he can, especially if we are travelling economy, because he doesn’t fit into the regular seats and can barely sit comfortably, let alone open his laptop. Once in the air, D will work, his yellow pad cutting into his midriff, while I catch up on all the movies I’ve missed at home where we struggle to create some semblance of a day-to-day routine.

Travelling, I gain perspective; I see the chaos that is my day-to-day back home and decide to change it. I make plans to work every morning and deal with the administration of our lives in the afternoon. From a distance, it looks simple, straightforward, uncomplicated.

Then I get home.

In London, my return to the stability that I crave when I’m away is more often than not accompanied by melancholy. Ironically, it is the routine that I will have planned from afar that gets me down. Looking out at the rooftops from our fourth-floor apartment that I have redecorated and redesigned to be our home, I tell myself that it is in the small things that I will find profound meaning. I latch on to the smell of my gluten-free bread baking, D’s breathing as he sleeps next to me, having to wear a scarf even though it’s technically summer – something, anything that I will be able to draw out long enough to sustain an interesting next paragraph – for use in conversation, in my writing, in this blog, in my life. Because don’t they say that it is the little details that make all the difference? Yet I can find nothing suitable or exciting enough – no universal messages wait for me under any of the symbolic rocks of my life that I turn over in the dullness of the day-to-day.

Reunions with friends pacify me like local anaesthetic as we catch up on what they’ve been up to in my absence. There is a wedding to plan and I am more grateful than not for the obligatory portions of my day it greedily swallows up. The less time I have, the more I try to get accomplished.

Time, that ominous rogue, inches along at its pace, though when I look back I know it will have flown by.
“Already?” I’ll ask D, as we lie in bed in our hotel room in Jerusalem having just pledged our selves to each other.
He will laugh his warm, kind, loving laugh: “I know!”

Every night, D fills my water glass and puts it by my bed. Every morning, I make him breakfast. He makes the bed, I make tea. I do the dishes, he dries them. Many times I have filled my own water glass and brought it to bed only to find that there is one there already, waiting sweetly for me. D has asked me on more than one occasion what he can make me for breakfast. “Don’t bother,” is my response, I’ll do it. Because as we get to know each other better, we create these little routines, these silly little rituals that are the outline of our couple. They define us as home for one another though I don’t notice them until they’re gone.

When I was a child, my mother would say “it’s not about whether the man you are with is well-read or an intellectual, but whether he pushes the toothpaste out of the tube from the end or the middle.” I am lucky to have found somebody who satisfies my emotional and intellectual needs as well as does his share in the house. And with regards to the toothpaste issue, we use separate tubes as he prefers the commercial, fluoride kind while I use a natural alternative.

Even though I am now an adult, planning my wedding, building my life with my future husband; when we stay over at my mothers and she kisses my ear to say good night, for that one instant, I am once again cradled in the safety of childhood as I was back then, in my messy room that she wanted me to clean up and that I refused to. As my eardrum quivers, for a moment I don’t have all those decisions to make and all that responsibility because I am home, with my mother talking to the cat in the next room. Then D will silently grab my hand, remind me of where we are, who we are now. He will kiss my lips and mumble “laila tov” (goodnight in Hebrew) in our own little ritual before sleep.

“Laila Tov” he would whisper to me over the phone when I was in Thailand, and I would almost feel him kissing me, his hand in mine.
“Laila Tov” he said on the night we reunited after two months apart. It had been a strange day and we had spent a good portion of it looking at each other like teenagers with a crush on one another – wanting to be more emotional but holding back a little bashfully. That night, when he lightly touched my lips with his and said goodnight in Hebrew, I remembered him, our life, and everything I loved about us. Those two words, the invocation of our ritual brought it all back in a way that mere physical proximity to one another hadn’t.


I was born in El Salvador, but I was not raised there. My mother, however, was, and though she grew up often eating dishes prepared from recipes her own parents had brought with them from Europe, she also loves the native Salvadoran food. Taste, like smell, is a powerful emotional tool. My mother is an adventurous eater but still, there is nothing like the dishes she grew up with, the rich corn tamales with cream, the beans and rice, the stuffed pupusas. She has, in turn, passed that love on to my brother and I.

Recently, I was craving some comfort food and decided to try and make my own version of tortillas and frijoles.

One of my favorite kitchen tools is our electric slow cooker. London is quite cold and grey a lot of the time. Stews and roasts are a perfect match for that kind of weather and with a slow cooker, they are the easiest thing in the world. You simply dump everything into the pot and let it sit for a bunch of hours after which the food is ready. It is a great trick for busy people as you can let it sit overnight, or get it started before work and come home to a fully cooked, delicious meal. Vegetables come out buttery and soft (even without butter) and chicken and lamb melt of the bones. The most important thing to remember with a slow cooker is not to over-season: with all those hours of sitting, herbs and spices take on extra strong qualities so a little goes a long way. Our simple, no frills model cost us 20£ or $40. After a few false starts, I can say with certainty that it was definitely worth the investment! And I can see how it will be even more of a lifesaver once D and I start a family.

Extra slow cooked aduki* bean frijoles:
1 package of dried aduki beans. Rinse the beans well and soak them overnight or for at least 8 hours in water with a few drops of fresh lemon juice. (some people say that since I will be cooking the beans for so long, there is no need to soak them. I do anyway)
Throw away the water and rinse the beans well.
Roughly chop a couple of yellow onions (I like a lot of onions, so I use two large or three smaller ones) and a couple of strips of kombu**
Layer the bottom of the slow-cooker with the onions and the kombu.
Pour the beans over the onion and kombu
Add enough water to almost cover the beans and set the cooker on high.
Leave the mixture to cook for three to four hours.
(I usually soak the beans throughout the day and then start cooking around six in the evening or so.)
After three to four hours, add enough water to just about cover the beans, switch the cooker settings to low and let it continue cooking for 8 to10 hours or so.
By the morning, the mixture should be wonderfully thick and stew-like. If too much water remains, the soup can be transferred to the stove and reduced by cooking it on a low flame until enough of the water evaporates.

Corn and brown rice tortillas***
Mix two parts corn flour with one part brown rice flour. Add a pinch of salt and water and knead with your hands. The batter should become slightly thick but quite still watery.
Use a non-stick pan or rub a little oil in a small frying pan. Heat on a low to medium flame. Once the pan is hot, use a ladle to make the tortillas which should be about ten cm / 4 inches in diameter and thick like American pancakes. Flip them every few minutes until cooked through.
Preheat the oven on low to keep the finished tortillas warm (cold tortillas can taste like cardboard)

*aduki beans are a red bean. They help with controlling damp bodily conditions that many people are prone to in the British climate, and are easier to digest than many of their compadres.
** kombu is a type of seaweed. Only very little is needed – a strip or two for an entire package of beans, but it adds wonderful flavor to soups and stews as well as many vitamins and minerals. Kombu is usually hard and tough when purchased, but it softens with cooking. It can be removed once the dish is cooked, or can be eaten.
*** Though beans are a staple of many vegetarian diets, they do not provide a full protein on their own. This is why, nutritionally, rice is a natural complement.