Our hotel in San Miguel de Allende is half way up a very steep hill. From our balcony there are incredible views of the town below with the pink tower of the parroquia dominating the landscape.
On this morning though, the view from the balcony is of a policeman standing by our car below. Our license plate is missing. We assume that it has been stolen and I immediately begin to picture trying to communicate that to the cop. Max goes down to find out what is happening, I watch as the cop turns to the next car and begins to remove the screws holding the license plate. Oh, oh, he’s got our plate.
We are in luck that this morning the clerk at the reception desk speaks English. He accompanies Max to the car. I watch as he and the cop yell and gesture and then the clerk returns to his desk. A short time later, the license plate is back in place and I can stop imagining the worst.
Across from the hotel is a scenic vantage point with one hour parking. The hotel however has an arrangement with the city for guests to use it. We had placed a hotel sign on the dash but the policeman of the day didn’t know the deal.

Leaving Oaxaca

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We had an inauspicious start to our departure from Oaxaca. Our car was parked in a lot a block and a half from our B&B. Max left to pick it up while I waited with the luggage. After thirty minutes, I began to be concerned; it really was just around the corner. After an hour I was seriously afraid that something had happened to him. The scenarios I imagined varied from his being totally lost, to a fender bender where he was trying to communicate with an irate Mexican.
After seventy minutes he arrived, sheepish and laughing. The streets in Oaxaca are all one way and many are completely dug up for sewer work. The streets are narrow and traffic is heavy. He had been going around and around, often passing our street but at the wrong end for one way traffic.
At last on our way we stopped at a couple of interesting old monasteries undergoing renovation. By late afternoon we were in a small town with one hotel. We spent the night in an immaculate room with two beds and a single light high on the ceiling. No outlets in the entire room or bathroom. The shower was hot and the beds comfortable and the cost for the night was less than $15.
Dinner that night was very good, a typical Mexican meal of meat, salad, beans, and tortillas. It cost $6.29 for the two of us including beer. It was the least expensive day of our trip.

Oaxaca

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I wrote about Tlacotalpan out of sequence. After our trip through the mountains, we arrived at The Oaxaca Learning Center guesthouse owned by our Tlacotalpan host’s friend Gary. He is an American who has lived in Mexico 18 years and started the Learning Center five years ago to tutor local students. Most are from low income families and from a school system that is much like our inner city schools.
The center is staffed by other students and volunteers. It operates seven days a week and serves over 100 students. It is financed by the rental of two small rooms and an apartment, as well as some donors. Our room was small but comfortable and opened onto a pleasant courtyard where some of the tutoring takes place.
Breakfast was included, fresh fruit, granola, and yogurt, a nice change from eggs and black beans and tortillas that is the usual fare at restaurants.
Oaxaca is quite a contrast to the other places we’ve stayed. It is much more international with quite a few Americans. I finally found a bookstore where I could by a decent Spanish-English dictionary and throw away the one I’d brought with me which was useless. I found about one out of five words I looked for.
One day we took a small tour bus for a day trip to some interesting sites. Despite being jammed into the far back seat, especially difficult for Max who was by far the largest person on the bus, we had a good time. We saw El Árbol del Tule, supposedly the “stoutest tree in the world”, greater in diameter than the largest Giant Sequoia.
We saw the process of making mezcal, (tequilla is mezcal but all mezcal is not tequilla) sampled some and of course bought a bottle. Another stop was at a weaving village where we saw how wool was processed and dyed with different plant colors. Our final stop was Hierve el Agua, (Spanish for “the water boils”). It is set of natural rock formations that look like waterfalls. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hierve_el_Agua

In this once thriving port of Tlacotalpan, fishing and tourism seem to be the main employment opportunities now. There appears to be a thriving underground economy.
It’s World Heritage status has rules to be followed. There are no plate glass windows in shops, or large signs, so it is hard to know where the businesses are operating. As we walk around town it seems like every third door we pass has some kind of shop in the front room. Windows are small and often covered with cloth mesh to keep bugs out but the doors stand open.
Most common are small shops selling some soda, a few chips, a few candy bars, maybe some toilet paper, or other sundries and not much else. Others contain electrical shops or tire repair businesses, all hidden behind house doors. Many houses contain two or three tables and a little sign identifying the place as a taco shop or cantina. At the door of one house we watched a man raking coals out of a brick oven and shoveling bread into it, a panaderia (bakery). Another was a furniture factory, a single room with a man sanding a rocking chair. It had a lovely wood frame with caned seat and back, completed ones stood against the wall.
Walking home from the Zocalo (town square) after dark, we could peer into houses and see those same rocking chairs lined up in front of the television set and whole families watching together.
One morning we wakened to the sound of a squealing pig. Our landlord tells us that the man two doors down has an abattoir in his back courtyard. It isn’t exactly legal but no one complains; just one pig every few days. A day or two later in another part of town we passed an open door and saw a partly dismembered pig in the courtyard behind the house.
Another morning we were wakened at 6:40 by LOUD music in front of the house next door. It is a custom to waken people on their birthday by serenading them. In some places a three piece band is customary, here it was a loud speaker mounted on a car.
The Town Crier, a beat up VW bug with a loud speaker mounted on it, crisscrosses the streets all day providing the news of the town as well as advertising.
Other than taxis there are few cars. Bicycle driven carriers are the common means of transporting goods. A two wheeled open box-like structure composed of steel pipes is mounted on the front of a bicycle. They were also widely used in Tecolutla.
All day we hear the calls of vendors coming down the street with something for sale. Each afternoon a boy riding a bicycle with a big flat basket attached to the front, rides down the street calling “pan”. For a few pesos we buy pastries for our breakfast. The pastries are nothing like the rich coffee cakes, muffins and sticky buns found in the US. They are barely sweetened making them the perfect breakfast food.
A Tlacotalpan version of the milkman comes by daily; his cart holds two large silver milk cans. Women come out of their houses holding pans or jars that he scoops milk into. Otherwise, the only milk we’ve seen comes in boxes stored on the grocery shelves.
Another common form of transportation is horseback. We hear the riders passing on the cobblestone streets. Ranchers in the outlying villages ride into town and we see many horses tethered in front of houses.
On two different evenings we had dinner at one of two upscale restaurants on the square. Suddenly a man rounded the corner, wearing protective gear and a gas mask, accompanied by a cloud of mist from a sprayer. A mosquito fighter, he passed the tables while the mist descended on the diners. People casually covered their drinks with their hands and spread napkins over their food until the mist had cleared. No one seemed to think twice about it.
This town is similar in many ways to Tecolutla, the small shops, the bicycle driven carriers, and little traffic, but very different too. Tecolutla is a beach town, a popular resort for Mexicans with most businesses catering to tourists. It seems like every fourth building is a hotel or restaurant.
Tlacotalpan has been preserved in time. It is charming and is a tourist destination but on a smaller scale. A few hotels, fewer restaurants and it felt to us like a funcioning small town.

Tlecotalpan, once the largest port in Mexico is now a sleepy little town barely touched by time. In population it is a little smaller than Ipswich, about 11,000 we’re told, but the entire town covers a few blocks in any direction. One side is bordered by a deep river that made the port viable for nearly two hundred years. It was eventually replaced by Vera Cruz.
The apartment that we rented for the week in the center of town is surrounded by single story, brilliantly colored stucco homes. The town was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998 because it retained the colonial homes and atmosphere of a century ago. Exterior facades cannot be altered without permission, no plate glass windows on the shops but the owners are encouraged to be creative with paint. No pastels here. Emerald green, lime green, purple, magenta, violent yellow, fire engine red, intense blue, bright aqua, shocking pink, and every combination imaginable adorn the houses.
The town is preparing for the Candelaria celebration. It is a nine day festival that starts every year on January 31st. Thousands of people descend on the town; every room is taken, including the great apartment that we’ve enjoyed for the past week.
For the past two days there has been feverish activity in the central part of town. The main road through town and all streets leading to the central square are closed. Workmen are putting covered structures over all the streets, some big tents others made of wood. These are already lined with booths and shops, vendors of all kinds.
Platforms are being built in one of the squares. Bands from all over Mexico will play music 24 hours a day. The highlight of the second day of the festival will be the running of the bulls. They swim from ranches across the river and are herded into a corral near the river. At the appointed time, they are released to run through the streets.
Barricades are erected on the route of the bulls but they often don’t respect the rules. Two years ago a man, walking down a side street, taking no part in the festivities was killed by an errant bull.
The third day the statue of the Virgin is taken from the church, placed on a boat and floated out onto the river to bless the fishermen and the people. There are fireworks nightly and partying around the clock.
Our information came from our host Bill Pandolf.

            I have some other things to post about Tlacotalpan but want to send this while it is fresh.  We decided to visit Oaxaca, about 170 miles away, and were advised to take the beautiful drive through the mountains.  It would take six or eight hours, depending on who told us.  Yesterday morning we left at 8:45.  The first thirty miles or so followed the river through many small towns filled with people and “topes”.  Topes are the speed calming bumps found in every town, large and small.  They are extremely effective at slowing traffic to a crawl.
          At the last town before entering the mountains, we stopped for a couple of delicious tacos at a roadside stand.  Fortuitous as it turned out; it was our last food for nine hours.
          Once leaving the city of Tuxtepec the road begins to climb, twisting and turning in never ending sharp curves.  From there it is 70 miles to Oaxaca.  Our usual rate of speed was 25MPH, never getting over 40.  The vegetation became tropical with much of it reminding me of the Costa Rica rain forest.  There were breathtaking vistas around every curve and terrifying drops along the road.  The road itself was surprisingly good, although narrow.
        There were no villages although we occasionally saw corn planted on hillsides so steep that I couldn’t have stood on one and a couple of times we could see the tin roof of a structure below the edge of the road.  It was a wild and desolate place with barely any traffic.  Ferns as tall as trees grew in places and other lush trees and shrubs overhung the road.
            Rounding a curve we nearly ran into a tractor-trailer semi blocking the road.  It was hard to imagine how he had made it so deep into the mountains but he could not negotiate the curve.  He tried to back up and got crosswise stopping traffic in both directions.  The tractor itself went off the road into a gully and stuck there.
          Within two hours there long lines of cars backed up in both directions and dozens of men, each with his own idea about what to do.  Since Max doesn’t speak Spanish, he couldn’t add his advice but he was convinced that the trailer couldn’t be moved.
          First they tried hacking down the brush around the tractor wheels and rocking it out like we do when stuck in the snow, but that failed.  Then someone came up with the brilliant idea of putting oil under the rear wheels of the trailer.  Most of the men got on one side and started pushing.  The trailer rocked off the dual wheels and it looked like they would tip it over before it would move.  Suddenly it started to slide.  They finally slid the rear of the tractor far enough to the side to allow a narrow path around it. 
         Those of us in cars and pick up trucks were able to squeeze around the trailer.  On the other side we passed a long line of vehicles waiting, most with no idea what was holding things up.  There were two big buses and several big trucks.  I can’t imagine that they could navigate the narrow space.  There was a steep ditch on the side of the road.
         We finally reached Oaxaca after dark.  It had taken us 10-1/2 hours but we felt fortunate that we weren’t camped in the middle of the mountains. 

I’ve never thought much about turtles but we had read about the Tecolutla Turtle Preservation Project in our Lonely Planet book.  The project is run out of a shack on the beach.  We walked past it several times before asking a local how to find it.  It was started 35 years ago by Fernando Manzano Cervantes.  He continues to be the driving force of the project and is known locally and by his volunteers as Papa Tortuga.  He is gregarious and charming, totally dedicated to conservation and education.  I was completely engrossed by his description of the work. 

Every April, thousands of green and Kemp’s ridley turtles arrive to lay their eggs on the beach.  They dig a deep hole and lay as many as 100 eggs before covering them with sand and heading back to sea.  Turtle eggs are considered to be good food and the shells are valued as an aphrodisiac and for tortoise shell products.   People and other predators watch for the turtle tracks in the sand and dig up the eggs. 

The foundation relies on dozens of volunteers to patrol 59km (35 miles) of beach during the laying and hatching seasons.  They dig the eggs, move the nest 50 feet, away from the tracks, and rebury them, first with a layer of sand, then mesh screening and then more sand.

Fifty days later they watch for emerging turtles, gather them up and place them in a large wading pool for a couple of days before taking them to the water’s edge and releasing them.  Volunteers and school children release the turtles.  They get to name their turtle and get a certificate of adoption.

The project is supported completely by donations and the sale of tee shirts and turtle trinkets.  If you’d like to know more www.tecolutla-turtle-preservation-project.org

Papa Tortuga (center)
Papa Tortuga (center)

2010 Mexico 121

            We entered the tiny barber shop with Hector a wizened 84 year old man who had become our self appointed “good friend”.  He introduced the gaunt elderly shop keeper to us as his bien amigo.  Two other men in the shop rose to shake hands and then we found ourselves being embraced by each of them.

            One of the men asked if I was Hector’s sister.  “No, no, solo amigo”.  This taxed the extent of my Spanish.  Hector and the men carried on a brief, incomprehensible conversation and then we bid them adios.  More hand shakes and hugs before we were on our way again.

            Hector had befriended Max on our second day in Tecolutla.  He arrived each morning on his “little car”, an ancient, junior-sized bicycle.  He was eager to show us around and wondered if we’d like to take a boat ride on the river or go fishing or visit a vanilla farm.  He had learned a bit of English as a boy; later he worked at a hotel with English speaking guests.  His English was basic but we managed to communicate fairly well.

            He was curious about the United States and asked many questions.  He usually started, “Max, more or less, would you say…?  If we asked a question he answered, “More or less…”  We learned that he doesn’t think much of the Mexican government, or of George Bush.  He approves of Obama and is a champion of most things American.

            Hector talked of his boat and the years that he’d spent fishing.  We agreed, with some trepidation to a boat ride on the river with him to see the Mangrove swamps.  We were greatly relieved in arriving at the river to find a charming young man in a well constructed boat waiting for us with life jackets.   

            Another day we had a private tour of a vanilla farm with Hector.  We saw vanilla beans drying in the sun and then went to the orchard to see them growing.  We donned masks and caps and went through the processing plant.  Throughout it all the young woman guide gave detailed descriptions.  Hector listened intently and asked her questions but wasn’t great as an interpreter.  We did get the general idea.

            Hector joined us for breakfast our final morning in Tecolutla.  We were sad to say good-bye.

A 24 Hour Room

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           The end of our second day in Mexico; it was time to find a hotel.  We drove slowly through the town of Naranjha.  We passed a new, attractive complex with a huge Motel sign, there appeared to be an enclosed courtyard and a garden.  There were several other hotels but none looked nearly as inviting.  We returned to MOTEL (no other name in evidence).

            Driving into the courtyard we saw a puzzling sign. $120 por 2 hora, $210 por 4 hora.  We asked a young man in front of the office if there were any habitacions libre (rooms available).  He seemed confused.  He spoke no English, we speak no Spanish but I had carefully written the question on a card.  Two other men arrived, they conferred and then they led us to a beautiful room, tiled floors, king sized bed, toilet and shower in separate spaces, and a garage with an automatic door.

            The older man wrote down the very reasonable price for 24 h.  An unusual way to rent a motel room but hey, what do we know?  We’re in Mexico.  Everything is immaculate, I turned down the bed, and there was a bottom sheet and a thin bedspread.  No top sheet, no blanket.   Next to the bed was a small dish holding some mints, and…a condom.  We were beginning to think things were not as we’d thought.  Max turned on the TV, oops, a selection of porn, the clues were mounting.

            A visit to the office was, well, no office more like a linen closet, just shelves of sheets and bedspreads.  I managed to collect another sheet and regrets that there was no TV.

            Over the bed there was a 6x6x10inch black box that looked like a speaker.  The bedside lights were on dimmer switches and the garage doors, once closed, open only if we dialed 0 on the bedside telephone. 

            Oh, one more thing.  There was a small door in the wall that opened to a space accessed from the outside by another small door.  Like the milk delivery boxes of generations ago.  We couldn’t figure out what this is for.  Maybe pizza delivery?

            We slept well, despite the Latin music that came from someplace during much of the night.  In the morning we discovered that the speaker over the bed would pipe the music into our room, loud only.  The shower was fabulous, better than any of the motels in the US.  As we packed up in the morning, we discovered the reason for the small interior door. 

            A car arrived across the courtyard, drove into the garage and a young man shut it, then walked to the small exterior door and waited.  Shortly he collected money.  Maybe M$120 or M$ 210.  This was at 9AM.

            We packed up, dialed 0, and waited for our door to open.

           

We're introduced to a Peek-A-Boo Hotel

We're introduced to a Peek-A-Boo Hotel

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            Arriving in the south from New England is always a surprise.  Suddenly people everywhere are smiling and greeting me with, “How’re you-all?” and “nice day isn’t it?”

            In the supermarket, I walk through the produce department with employees asking if there’s anything I’m looking for.  The deli person starts with, “Good morning, nice day.”

            The clerk in the post office has a big smile and asks if there’s anything else they can do for me, and hotel reception wants to know if there is anything more we need.  When we ask for a coffee pot it arrives, with a smile, within minutes.

            I had forgotten my surprise last year when I spent a few weeks in South Carolina.  Afternoon walks were marked by greetings from all the other walkers.  No one averted their eyes when passing. 

Conversations spring up easily, the kind that don’t require any commitment but make me feel like I’m not invisible, one of the hazards of independent travel.

            Our meal in a restaurant was like visiting a friend.  The waitress asked where we were from and then told us the city highlights and where we would get the best dinner in town.  Remarkable.

A New Year

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A New Year

            The holidays are over and New Year’s resolutions already broken.  Answer all the notes received in Christmas cards…. not done.  Maybe I can write Valentine greetings.  Lose the extra five pounds that December brought… not done.  I did have to eat the food in the fridge before leaving.  Sort the stuff piled on my desk… not done.  It will be there when we get home.

            Max and I are on our way to Mexico for a few weeks.  We have no set itinerary and hope to roam, finding small towns where we can rent an apartment or small house for a while.  I bought four books on Mexico as well as doing a web search.  All in all, it’s too much information.    

            I’m sitting in a Galveston, Texas motel room across from a lovely beach on the Gulf of Mexico.  The sea is gray with crashing waves, the temperature is hovering around freezing and the wind is fierce.  Not what we had expected to find this far south.  Nor had the people who live here been prepared for the cold.  At least there’s no snow.

            Yesterday we visited a couple of museums and then stopped at a place on the beach for Happy Hour.  We had Shrimp Kisses; shrimp stuffed with pepper jack cheese, wrapped in bacon and deep fried an instant.  They came on a bed of Sharks Teeth, battered deep fried onion rings.  To finish off this definitely unhealthy snack, we had Puffins, Jalapeño peppers filled with crab stuffing (like crab cakes) rolled in crumbs and, you guessed it, deep fried.

Moving to the orchard in 1979 was the beginning of many changes in our lives. Thanksgiving celebrations soon became the responsibility of someone else. I had always roasted the turkey and prepared the meal as my grandmother and mother had done. Suddenly, Thanksgiving meant days of making and baking pies, hundreds of pies. By the time we closed the store at noon on Thankgiving Day, I just wanted to crawl into bed. Others had to take over the dinner preparations.

Over the years each member of the family has created his/her own Thankgiving rituals. For me it means dinner with our son Matt’s family. They are joined by several other families and it is a happy occasion.

In my childhood we always celebrated with my mother’s family. In my memory it was a Norman Rockwell occasion. When I was eleven years old, my grandmother had a stroke and was an invalid the rest of her life. Thanksgiving dinners were held at our house or one of my uncles. The one that stands out in memory was going to take place at Uncle Dean’s house sixty miles from us. He and Aunt Alice had a new baby that we were eager to see.

Mother had made pies, ground the cranberries, oranges, and apples for the Cranberry Relish and baked rolls. Aunt Alice was preparing the rest of the meal.

We bundled into our 1939 Plymouth for the twenty mile drive to Flint where we would pick up Grandma from her nursing home. The weather was very cold and it was spitting snow. The roads were covered with slush that splashed up onto the engine. We were only half way to Flint when the car stalled. Daddy and Grandpa worked under the hood drying something off until it started again. Just before getting to Grandma’s, it stalled again.

Getting Grandma settled into the car was a feat. She was in a wheelchair that had to be negotiated down the front porch steps of the nursing home (no ramps there) and pushed through the slush, by this time it was snowing quite heavily. She was lifted into the front seat and we set off. It wasn’t long until we stalled again. It took some time to get it started. Mother and Daddy decided that it wasn’t safe to drive to Uncle Dean’s with the car in that condition. They stopped at a pay phone and called to say we couldn’t make it. By this time it was a real snow storm and our progress was very slow. Eventually we reached home.

There wasn’t any food in the house for a festive dinner but Mama set about putting together a meal. She always had some canned salmon in the house and potatoes and, being child of the depression, she could make a meal of almost anything.

Shortly before we were to eat our rather meager meal, the door burst open. Uncle Dean, Aunt Alice, baby Aldeana, and the entire Thanksgiving dinner had arrived. They had plowed through the storm to be with us and celebrate the holiday with our family. It was a joyous day.

Turkey Time

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It is a fact that time speeds with age. I know this is a fact because the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving and Christmas were once interminable, now they fly. Summer flashes by and then the really busy season begins at the orchard and before we know it, the holidays are nearly here.

Most days I listen to WBUR, the local public radio station. The mid-afternoon program is Talk of the Nation. On Friday, the program is called Science Friday. I swear to you that Science Friday happens every third day! The year flys by like a speeded up film.

Every year we raise some turkeys at the orchard. Early November it is time to take them to a farm where they get turned into the form found at the local supermarket. Our turkeys seem to get huge. I mean really, really, huge. This year three of the turkeys were over 40 pounds, too big for the oven and too much meat unless one is feeding forty or so people.

Max and I cut up those three birds, ending up with over 75 pounds of meat. The breasts were cut into roasts and cutlets and the thighs boned for dark meat roasts. Doug ground up leg meat and small bits for ground turkey and the rest, bones, skin, and scraps, went into two huge pots where, covered with water, they simmered for a day. After straining the broth, I added several chopped onions, chopped carrots, and celery. A few bay leaves, a big spoonful of herb de Provence, a spoonful of peppercorns and some salt for flavoring and the pots went back on the stove for another long simmer. Finally I turned the fire on high and reduced the stock to ½ of one pot. That was strained and reduced more.

The last step was to pour the reduction into two 9×13 inch cake pans and place in the refrigerator where it turned into stiff gel. Once the fat was skimmed off, the gel could be cut into cubes and frozen. These are intensely flavored and will make rich base for turkey soups and to enhance the gravy for the smaller turkeys when they’re roasted. There can never be too much turkey gravy.

The best condiment for turkey has to be something cranberry. Here’s my favorite recipe.

Cranberry and Apricot Chutney

1 ¼ cups sugar

½ cup water

1 package cranberries (12 oz.)

¾ cup snipped dried apricots

3 tablespoons cider vinegar

3 tablespoons brown sugar

3 tablespoons minced fresh ginger

In a 3 quart heavy saucepan combine sugar and water. Cook and stir over medium-high heat until sugar is dissolved. Bring to boil without stirring.

Stir in cranberries, apricots, vinegar, brown sugar and ginger. Reduce heat. Simmer, uncovered, for 10-15 minutes or until berries have popped and mixture starts to thicken, stirring occasionally.

Remove from heat and allow to cool. Cover and refrigerate, this also freezes well. Bring to room temperature 30 minutes before serving. Makes 3 ½ cups.

Last weekend was the annual Apple and Wine Festival. I wandered through the barn watching hundreds of people sampling the wine and foods prepared for the occasion, making their own apple pies, and munching on donuts. There were demonstrations of cooking and cider pressing on a small, old press, crafts for the children and myriad other things to do and see.

Walking past the blazing fire I overheard a woman telling a group about when she had worked at the orchard twenty-four years ago. The small fireplace room was the entire store. All the apples were pre-bagged for sale in peck and half peck bags. We sold cider, apple pies, cider donuts, and some candy. Except for the busy months of September and October, we often left the store unattended. A basket on the counter held a few dollars in change. Customers would come in, make their selections and leave money in the basket.

In our early years I peeled apples by hand in the house kitchen, baked them three at a time (all the oven would hold), and carried them to the barn store hot from the oven. Our first cider donuts were made nine at a time in a small fryolator. The batter from a hand plunger and turned with the handle of a wooden spoon.

The main part of the barn was used for apple sorting and storage. By 1981, we had installed a larger oven in a corner of the barn in what had once been a tack room and purchased an automated donut machine. An apple peeler made pie making much easier and the bakery was on its way.

It’s hard for me to believe that it has been thirty years since our first season. Another generation of Russells is now carrying on with the dream, trying new things, expanding the orchard production, and husbanding the land.

I picked up Organic Gardening magazine recently and found a piece by Maria Rodale, daughter of Robert Rodale, organic gardening guru of the 60s and 70s, and founder of Organic Gardening Magazine. She was recommending The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It: The Complete Back to Basics Guide by John Seymour. I was reminded that forty years ago we were avid organic gardeners, composting and mulching, raising quantities of vegetables that we then canned and froze and dried and pickled.

Self-sufficiency was the by-word. We raised a pig and a few turkeys that were butchered every fall. We had chickens for meat and eggs and kept hives of bees for honey. Max baked a dozen loaves of bread each weekend. We drove to New Hampshire to buy unpasteurized milk for cheese making and sought out grass fed beef at the few butcher shops that carried it. There was usually a quart jar of homemade yogurt in the refrigerator. Max had built a small window greenhouse in an upstairs window where he started the seedlings for our huge vegetable garden.

Little wonder then that the prospect of owning an orchard was tremendously appealing. What we hadn’t considered was the amount of work required to revive an orchard of ancient trees. The tractors and equipment were aging and faltering. There were run down buildings to be repaired and tasks enough to keep the whole family working ten hour days. There was no time for vegetable gardens or bread making or searching out grass fed beef. The family focus was on learning how make a living growing apples.

Happily, over the years we have been able to resume composting, growing vegetables without chemicals, and keeping chickens for eggs and meat. It’s been years since we’ve canned anything and Max hasn’t baked bread or made cheese for thirty years but we still remember the wonderful food and tremendous satisfaction that providing so much of our food brought.

Eating fresh, eating local produce, and eating organic isn’t new but I’m so happy that the pendulum is swinging back toward healthier less processed food.

Choosing food in a country where you don’t speak the language can lead to some surprising meals. Unlike most European countries, English is not widely spoken in Argentina, especially the areas where tourist aren’t found.

Visiting Buenos Aires last winter I had one of those surprising dinners. The restaurant was small, only a few tables were occupied when my friends and I arrived. We spent long minutes with our Spanish/English dictionary trying to decipher the menu. Nothing on the menu seemed to resemble any of the words in our Spanish foods dictionary. No one there knew any English.

Vegetarian Kim eventually managed to convey to the waiter that she wanted anything as long as it didn’t contain meat. Sadie settled on something and it was my turn. There were a number of dishes listed under Carne de Vaca. According to the dictionary, carne is meat and vaca is beef. Argentina is known for its beef and I had determined to try steak while I was there so, my choice was Lomo de Vaca Asada. The waiter raised his eyebrows and wrote it down.

At the open grill and I noticed the waiter and cook looking my way. From where I was sitting it looked like the cook put a huge slab of bacon on the grill. That could not be what I had ordered. I assumed that someone else had ordered that streaky looking piece of meat.

Kim and Sadie’s food arrived looking tasty, modest portions served on dinner plates. The waiter returned, with a smile and a flourish he placed a strip of meat, both ends hanging off the platter in front of me.  Just meat, not even a garnish.  The cook was smiling broadly from his station at the grill.

DSCN1809Lomo de Vaca Asada

It turns out that Lomo means spine, indeed, down the upper edge of the steak there was a row of bones.  I managed to eat about three inches of it before I was full.  The flavor was excellent but the meat was pretty chewy.

Soups On

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October seems like soup weather. I’d been thinking about making some for days but hadn’t done it. I noticed a container of squash in the back of the fridge that needed to be eaten or tossed. My depression era mother taught me that food is not to be thrown out lightly but that squash had been a disappointment. The flavor was not bad but it was so dry that it was barely palatable. We had eaten a little and the rest nearly filled a pint container. It had baked unevenly so that there were still some hard lumps in the mashed squash.
Maybe I could salvage it by making soup. I sautéed a chopped onion in some butter and then added the squash with three cups of chicken stock along with some salt and pepper. I added a clove of garlic and a couple small knobs of fresh ginger root. I noticed a half an apple on the counter and added that too along with ¼ teaspoon curry powder. It simmered until the hard lumps were soft and the flavors blended.
I cooled it a bit and then pureed it in the food processor, added a little milk, then refrigerated it. The next day Matt was unexpectedly with us for lunch. The soup, with a dollop of sour cream, was perfect for a quick meal, and good.
The nice thing about soup is that the combinations are endless. A couple of days later I diced about a quarter pound of bacon and sautéed it with an chopped onion and a couple of leeks. Along with a quart of chicken stock, I added several unpeeled potatoes, a couple of carrots, salt and pepper and a little thyme.
This simmered until all was soft, then I drained the stock into a pot, pureed the vegetables with a little of it, and then combine the puree with the  reserved stock . It made a nice dinner on a cold night.

Our Lovely Day

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Picture us on a cloudless September day, warm sun, slight breeze, sitting on a grassy slope at the base of Loon Mountain. That’s where we spent Saturday with Hunton and Cecelia watching the Highland Games. A gathering of Americans celebrating their Scottish heritage. There were bagpipe competitons and fiddlers and dancers. Whiskey tasting was on the agenda but as responsible grandparents, we didn’t participate in that.

A large area was set up with booths for the different Clans to display their tartans and maps of Scotland were marked with their areas. Bearded and kilted men were in the booths talking about their Scottish heritage. The children were given “passports”, blank books that they carried to each clan booth for a stamp repesenting the clan.

A living history area was devoted to interpreters, in costume, explaining about early Scottish life. One woman had a collection of herbs used for medicines, another was carding and spinning wool. Over an open fire an iron pot held simmering food while more women chopped vegetables with primitive tools.

Men dressed in colorful military uniforms from different eras demonstated weapons of the period and talked of Scottish history and the wars between the Scots and the English, All fascinating to young (and old) boys.DSCN3241

The most intriguing part of the day were the athletic events that we watched from the side of the mountain. The Caber Toss kept our attention as athletes from around the world competed to flip a 22 foot long log at a precisely 12:00 angle (the winner tossed to 11:30). Then they competed to flip an 18 foot log over and then the farthest. Less than half the logs actually flipped.

The morning games had started with putting 22 pound rocks, and another event of whirling a stone and letting it go. To end the day, after the amazing physical feats all day, the competitors were required to lift huge concete balls, carry them several feet and lift them onto six foot high platforms. There were six balls ranging in weight from 240 pounds to 340 pounds and they had to be finished in 90 seconds Most of the men stuggled, two didn’t finish but the amazing Dan Ford hoisted each one on his shoulder, dropped it easily onto the platfom and finished in 54 seconds.Balancing and running with the caber

Tossing the caber

Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t give a fig about sports but I was impessed. The childen followed the action intently, lying on the grass with their heads in Grampy’s lap. What nicer way to spend a Saturday in September?DSCN3313

A Romanian Picnic

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Last summer we visited friends in Romanian village. One morning we set off to visit a salt mine and a spectacular gorge some distance from the village. We would have a picnic on the way. I noticed that the preparation for the picnic appeared to be a bag of cucumbers and green peppers from the garden, a metal grate, and a jar of mustard.
After touring the salt mine (another story) our hosts made a detour to a small market where they bought bread, sausages, and some paper plates. Off we set in the direction of the gorges. There were two vehicles packed with people, American visitors and villagers. Suddenly our hosts pulled off the road along a sloping meadow bordered by woods. We spilled from the vehicles, navigated over a ditch and a low fence to get into the meadow. Wild flowers were scattered across the field and a tiny stream flowed at the base of the slope. It was an idyllic setting
Within minutes the Romanians had gathered wood, found some rocks to hold the grill and had a fire going. Soon sausages were sizzling, the wonderful smell wafting across the grass where we had spread blankets for sitting.
When the sausages were cooked, slightly charred, the way I like them, they were wrapped in a slice of bread, slathered with mustard and devoured eagerly by the hungry group. ucumber spears and pepper strips, cut with a knife that appeared from someone’s pocket provided the vegetables. The food was delicious and it was the most memorable picnic of my life. DSCN1079

Tomatoes

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The season of fresh tomatoes will soon be over. By the time the tomatoes are this plentiful, I try to eat them every day knowing that once the season is done, the first freezing frost shrivels the leaves and destroys the fruit, I won’t have a tomato again until spring when the greenhouse starts producing. Supermarket tomatoes, bred for appearance and shipping/storage ability but without flavor just won’t do.
I eat them for lunch and for dinner. BLTs, sliced with salt and pepper, sliced with mozzarella and basil, cut up with cucumbers and a little Vidalia onion with a splash of basil vinegar. There are endless ways to incorporate them into a meal.
A great pasta sauce can be made in a few minutes, it tastes wonderful because it keeps the fresh tomato flavor.

FRESH TOMATO AND BASIL PASTA SAUCE
A couple of tablespoons olive oil
A clove or two of finely chopped garlic
Four or five fresh tomatoes
A handful of fresh basil, chopped
Pasta of choice

Heat oil in a large frying pan. Saute the garlic briefly in the oil. Add chopped tomatoes and heat through. Add basil, cook two or three minutes and serve over hot pasta.

I peel the tomatoes (easy when they’re fresh from the field) and take out some of the seeds to make the sauce less juicy. My friend who also make this never peels, he says peeling destroys vitamins.

Pickles Anyone?

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Our first summer in New England we planted cucumbers. Lots of cucumbers.
We had moved in the winter, from a tiny duplex apartment in San Diego to an old farmhouse on 11 acres of land. Room for a garden, our first. We tilled a large plot of land and proceeded to plant. Peas, beans, corn, potatoes, radishes, every vegetable we could think of and hill after hill of cucumbers, four plants to a hill. Our neighbor, in the taciturn way of many old Yankees commented that one hill would have been plenty.
By July the cucumbers were more than plentiful. It seemed important to use the bounty, thus began the summer of pickles. Max brought them into the house by the bushel and I studied my cookbooks for pickle recipes. Soon I was scrubbing, slicing, salting, and brewing vinegar brines. Dill pickles, sweet pickles, bread and butter pickles, pickle relish, and sour pickles. We had found more than 100 canning jars in the cellar of the house. They all had to be washed and then sterilized with boiling water before being filled. Some recipes also called for processing in a hot water bath.
Did I mention that we had three children under three and it was a very hot summer?
One recipe called for putting the cucumbers in a large crock, filling it with a salt brine and weighing them all down with brick placed on a large plate. This mixture was supposed to sit in a cool place for six weeks before the pickles were bottled, or they could be stored in the brine. I don’t know if it was the lack of a cool place (a corner of the kitchen) or not doing it right, but it wasn’t long before a white scum started appearing at the top of the brine. In the end that crock of pickles ended up on the compost pile.
It’s been a long time since I’ve made pickles but I have found a way to turn fresh cucumbers into a crunchy semi-pickle. I keep a mix of vinegar, water, sugar, and spices in a jar in the refrigerator. If I need a little something extra to jazz up a meal, I slice a cucumber into the brine before I start dinner. An hour in the brine gives a bit of flavor, a nice addition to a meal.

Fresh Cucumber Slices
2/3 cup vinegar
1/2 cup sugar
1-1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon salt
Spices or herbs of choice
One of my favorites is the addition of eight whole allspice berries and a half teaspoon of red pepper flakes for some bite. Or a teaspoon of mustard seed and a whole head of fresh dill seeds. The market sells packets of pickle seasoning, I haven’t used it but I’m sure it would also work.
I keep a jar of this in the refrigerator for weeks adding more vinegar if needed. I dip the slices out when I’m ready to use them and save the mixture for another time. it is a fast way to add a bit of bright flavor to a meal. The slices are also good in sandwiches.

Big news! My cast came off last week. For the next four weeks I will wear a small splint and do OT exercises to get strength and mobility back in my right hand. I managed to make a simple meal over the weekend after Max peeled some potatoes and cut up some veggies to go with the mixed baby greens from the orchard.
In addition to the steaks and pork chops with green beans or broccoli that Max does so well, Leah and Susan brought us some spicy chili and a great taco soup, Miranda’ stepmother Marianne brought us a perfectly cooked baked haddock and salad, and Aaron’s friend Nancy arrived with her traditional Italian Marinara and Bolognese Sauces as well as huge servings of lasagne.
Doug and Miranda invited us for a home-grown roast chicken dinner with potatoes and sweet corn harvested by Hunton from his garden. Aaron and Nancy served us an assortment of homemade salads on a warm night, including Aaron’s lobster salad (yummy). Susan and Matt had us for lovely grilled salmon, and last night we went to Alex and Bonnie’s for a feast of roast beef, roasted potatoes with rich gravy (I love gravy).
I had stocked the freezer with leftovers, meat loaf, chicken pot pie, and Stifado, the Greek stew that we love. Despite our disappointment with the restaurants on our travels, we have eaten really well! Nevertheless, I’m eager to get back to the kitchen before the fresh fruit and vegetable season is over.

This is the time of year for sweet corn but I can’t hold it to eat off the cob. Here’s a way to have it as well as using whatever other vegetables are fresh.

Corn Salad

4 or 5 ears of corn
1 red pepper, chopped
1 small zucchini or cucumber (or both)
1 medium Vidala onion (red if you like but I find them too strong)

Those are the things I’d start with and then add whatever I have on hand. A small chopped chili, celery, fennel root, a little crisp, chopped bacon, scallion, tomato, seeded and chopped, a good handful of fresh cilantro or basil.

Bring a pot of water to full boil, drop ears of corn into it and return to boil, then remove from heat, drain and run under cold water. Drain well and cut from cob. Place in large bowl and add other ingredients as desired.

Mix 3 tablespoons olive oil with 3 tablespoons cider (or flavored vinegar) and ½ teaspoon cumin. Blend well, add to vegetables and toss. Refrigerator for an hour to let the flavors blend.
or
Use a bottled dressing of your choice.

On The Road

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Max and I recently took a two week road trip to Michigan via Pennsylvania and Ohio, returning through Saulte Ste. Marie, and Ottawa, Ontario. One of the pleasures of travel has always been the opportunity to eat out.
With the exception of one lunch at Subway, we avoided fast food and chain restaurants. We like to take secondary roads, driving through small towns and enjoying the scenery. Sunday, in little town along Route 20 in northern Ohio we found an unimpressive little dairy bar/diner the only alternative to McDonalds. The ambiance was funky with 50’s memorabilia.
Frank Sinatra posters hung on the wall surrounded by old 78 records. One wall was lined with license plates from the 50s, another held old post cards. The women’s rest room held a huge photo of Marilyn Monroe and fancy 1950s dresses hung from hangers on the walls.
The room was full of cheerful people having a late breakfast or an early lunch. It boded well for the food and we weren’t disappointed. I had a perfectly cooked, hand formed, burger with grilled onions that tasted like the ones from Uncle Bob’s Diner in Flint, Michigan when I was a kid. Wonderful!
It was downhill from there. With the exception of meals eaten with family (my sister Beth’s meatloaf was winner) we were not impressed with the food.
One meal at white tablecloth restaurant we splurged on a tender but flavorless filet served with overcooked roasted potatoes and stringy asparagus. Whether at an upscale restaurant or a small town diner we were uniformly unimpressed and disappointed with the food.
We arrived home late one afternoon. I mixed a cup of ginger wine with a couple tablespoons of soy sauce and a teaspoon of sesame oil as a marinade for some boneless chicken thighs. After a couple of hours I simmered the thighs in the marinade and served with fluffy rice and lovely tender crisp green beans. We agreed that it was better than any of our expensive restaurant meals.
Cooking is definitely worth the effort.

Who Cooks?

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A fascinating piece in Sunday’s New York Times magazine has been on my mind all week.  Michael Pollan, who wrote The Omnivore’s Dilemma, talks of the way his family’s meals changed when his mother started watching Julia Child’s television shows.  A lot is being written about Julia this week with the release of the new film Julie and Julia.

It reminded me of how much I was influenced by Julia. I’ve enjoyed cooking since childhood, mainly because I love to eat. By the time I was twelve I was cooking many of our family’s meals. (I got to skip the dishes) Mastering the Art of French Cooking was a Christmas gift in 1962 and quickly became my bible. In easy step-by-step directions it introduced my generation to new foods with herbs and combinations that were exotic and delicious.  Cooking became more fun.

Reading Pollan’s piece brought back many memories but I began to feel sad as he traces the demise of cooking with the explosion of cooking shows and celebrity chefs. He makes the argument that TV cooking shows no longer are “how to” but rather passive entertainment for a nation of eaters. He gives nods to America’s Test Kitchen and a few others but believes the shows are mostly carefully crafted by the food industry to sell more processed food (shortcuts) and food related items.

Pollan blames much of our obesity and poor diets on processed food filled with fat, salt, amd sugar, all are cheap and in various combinations are used in most of the food we buy. He suggests that the time and work involved in cooking once put a check on our appetites. He quotes a 1992 study showing that the best predicter of obesity was not income or social class but who cooked. In the end he says, if you want to eat less, cook it yourself. Eat whatever you like but cook it yourself.

There was so much more, I’d like to reproduce the article but instead I refer you to the source.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/02/magazine/02cooking-t.html?em

The owners in my condo complex take turns setting out the trash and recycle bins. When it’s my turn my compulsive habits get in the way. The instructions are explicit, No plastic bags! But there are always plastic bags mixed in with the papers and bottles! I can’t put the stuff at the curb without sorting out the bags and putting them in the trash. On the weeks when it isn’t my turn, I try not to look.
We first started recycling in Andover 45 years ago. Bottles were separated by color, green, brown, and clear. Cans had to have both ends removed and be flattened. Papers couldn’t contain any cardboard and, in the beginning, no glossy pages. Once collected, we had to load the bins into the station wagon and head to the town Dump along with our trash. Cast off household items also went, threadbare rugs, broken chairs, toasters that no longer worked, all went to the landfill.
Saturday mornings were eagerly awaited. One or more of our four sons would go on the dump run and the station wagon invariably returned bearing treasures cast off by some other family. The boys then happily spent the afternoon recycling their treasures. They might build a go-cart, add a lava lamp to their room decor, or disembowel a non-functioning radio, depending on what had been salvaged. Weeks or months later, these would go back to the dump to be replaced with other equally interesting bits and pieces.
Laura’s recycling habits today are worthy of a gold star. Bottles and cans go into a bin. A composting bucket holds any scrap of food that isn’t consumed and even the most minuscule piece of paper goes into a paper bag to be recycled. Not content to manage her own recycling, she keeps a close eye on the rest of the family and lets us know when we aren’t being diligent enough.
At the orchard we are doing our bit to Go Green by recycling, composting, growing “no spray” veggies, turning used oil into biodiesel to run the tractors, generating hot water via solar panels, and burning wood from old trees to heat the greenhouse.

DSCN2788Last night Miranda’s fans were treated to an evening of music. Along with her band and some guest performers, she kept the room rocking with an eclectic selection of songs. Each time I hear her sing I think back to 1990 when our daughter Laura, who was managing the orchard, often talked about one of her teen-aged employees, Miranda Henry. Laura called her “the little sister I never had”. We never guessed that she would one day be a much loved member of the Russell Family.
Listening to the music and watching our dear grandchildren proudly cheering for their mom in a room crowded with family and friends gave me such a feeling of happiness.

Strawberries are a sweet memory for this year but eating sun-warmed raspberries and blueberries directly from the bush is keeping us happy. With such an abundance, it’s time to make our favorite berry recipes and try out new ones.
Our friend Leatha in Michigan made this for us a number of years ago with berries freshly picked from her garden. She says that it’s an old recipe found in many cookbooks but for us, it will always be:
Leatha’s Blueberry Glaze Pie
4 cups blueberries
1/2 to 3/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
3/4 cup water
1 baked 8 inch pie shell
Whipped cream (optional)

1.Combine sugar and cornstarch, add water and 1 cup crushed blueberries. Cook over medium heat stirring constantly until thick and clear.
2. Remove from heat and cool until barely warm.
3. Place 1-1/2 cups of berries into pie shell and pour half the cooled mixture over them. Add remaining berries and filling. Shake to settle filling.
4. Chill at least four hours. Serve with whipped cream.

Surgery

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It’s been a very long time since I’ve had someone “taking care” of me. That is exactly what happened this week and I must say, it isn’t bad. I finally admitted that the arthritis pain at the base of my thumb wasn’t going to go away on its own and had surgery last Thursday. For the next month my right hand will be in a cast.
Max has been staying with me while he builds the guest house that will be his retirement home. He’s turning out to be an amazing caregiver. Cooking, shopping, laundry, vacuuming, he does it all cheerfully (and well). I might get really used to this!
I think dinner should be about 7:30, he thinks 5:00 is the right time. Now that he’s cooking dinner is very early but you can be sure, I’m not complaining.

Sunshine streaming through the skylight wakened me this morning. Oh happy day! It seems like it has been raining for months. It is a good day to start this blog.

It is the Fourth of July, the summer holiday that marks the beginning of the New England vacation season. The kids are out of school and the weather (usually) is hot making our lakes and coast a destination.

As a kid my family didn’t take vacations. My father got one week off from work and spent it at home resting but the Fourth of July was a big occasion. Mama would pack a big basket with potato salad, homemade bread, cole slaw, a berry pie, chocolate chip cookies and, best of all, fried chicken. Our fried chicken wasn’t coated with anything, this was long before KFC.

The day before the Fourth Mama would go to a local farm for a fresh chicken. The farmer picked one from many scratching in the chicken yard, a hefty hen that wasn’t laying eggs any more. Early the morning of the holiday, the chicken was simmered in a big pot of water until it was tender, then fried in butter until it was brown and gooey and chewy. I loved it.

The picnic stowed, we drove to a small lake not too far from home where we met aunts and uncles and cousins. They always arrived early enough to claim the choice picnic tables. We children swam and played on the tiny sandy beach. The men played horseshoes and catch while the women talked and relaxed. After eating we had to stay out of the water for an interminable hour.

At last dusk settled, we donned sweaters and snuggled on blankets ready for the highlight of the day, the fireworks. They were much too short and finally we packed the car and headed home, sandy, sleepy, but happy.

Socks

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I’ve just rummaged through my socks drawer to find something suitable for a warm Spring day. There are a couple pair of fleece socks that are hard to get on, thick fluffy orlon socks that will only fit with hiking boots or sneakers, thin short socks that I can’t remember how I came to buy, several pair of knee socks that, when worn under slacks always create static electricity so that whenever I walk, the slacks cling to my legs, and some low socks that cover just my feet.

Stuffed into the back of the drawer is a package with a ten pair of nylon panty hose, left from a dozen that I bought just before I retired nine years ago. The drawer is so full that I can barely open it but I still can’t find anything to wear.

These thoughts of socks reminded me of the years when our boys were growing up. The Sox Box, a cardboard carton sat on the dryer where all the socks got dumped as they came out of the dryer. I began by trying to match up pairs for their bureau drawers but by the time there were routinely two or three dozen unmatched socks, I gave it up.

In an attempt at organization I started buying each boy a different color but otherwise they were all the same. Black for Matt, navy for Doug, brown for Jason, and green for Aaron. It was their morning ritual to paw through the box looking for a pair.

Laura, our only daughter’s socks were more interesting and colorful. By middle school she had solved the missing sock dilemma by never wearing matching socks, even if she found them. Her friends soon followed suit. I thought of her last week when seven year old Cecelia arrived wearing mismatched socks. Another trend setter perhaps.

Mumbai

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I love to travel and I love to eat. I have memories of great food experiences around the world. India was one of my first ventures abroad. Through Servas, an international friendship organization, I was invited to spend a couple of days with a middle-class family in Mumbai.

They had servants who did dishes and cleaned the apartment but the mother and two adult daughters did the cooking. Mid-morning they brought bowls of vegetables, sharp knives and cutting boards into the living area. Sitting cross-legged on a sofa they spent the next hour chatting and chopping vegetables.

Mid-afternoon they followed the same routine. The meals were vegetarian and spicy, accompanied by hand formed chapatis, the whole wheat Indian flat bread that we used to move the daal (lentil soup) and vegetables from bowl to mouth.

Prior to my visit I had read carefully the importance of respecting Indian culture and knew that it was proper to keep the left hand under the table. The left hand is reserved for hygiene purposes, the right hand is used for eating. Curling the bread into a scoop, getting some soup to stay long enough to get it in my mouth was hard but even harder was getting the soft bread to scoop the vegetables and rice without it falling apart. They finally took pity on me and suggested that I use both hands.