Frybread

A few writers who have participated in my monthly spoken word and storytelling show, The Austin Writers Roulette, have written about frybread. Many different cultures around the world have their staple breads, but I’ve never tried any Native American bread before.

Now that I’ve cooked up ethnic dishes for the past couple of weeks, I’ve finally gotten around to frybread. I mixed all-purpose flour, water, salt, and baking powder; kneaded it into a ball; and let it set for about 30 minutes. Although the instructions stated that the longer it set, the fluffier the end product would be. I cleaned my apartment in the meantime and once I finished, I heated up the oil in my wok and rolled the dough into balls. I flattened the dough out with the palm of my hands and put a small hole in the center. Using tongs, I slid the dough into the wok. If it sank to the bottom, then the oil wasn’t hot enough. Since I’d used just enough oil to get the job done, I wasn’t about to get any closer to boiling hot grease to see if the dough touched the bottom or floated. I had a pretty good process going. As soon as I’d prepared one to slide into the wok, the one already frying was ready to be removed. When I bit into the tester piece of bread, my first thought was, “Dough brick.” Fortunately, it wasn’t quite as hard and heavy as my first impression. But not as light and airy as I’d hoped either. I made quick work of the whole batch. Even so, a thin smoky haze floated throughout my apartment. To prevent the activation of my smoke alarms,  I turned on the stove air vent and took the wok off the burner. Just the night before, the culinary challenge was to bake butternut squash, mix it with beef sausage, chopped pecans, brown sugar, butter and sage. All that deliciousness was bound to be a hit. Only thing that stops me from making butternut squash more frequently is cutting that damn thing open in the first place.

As with every new recipe, I realize it’s not the “authentic” experience, but I definitely enjoy mixing  some familiar flavors in novel ways.

The following day, I attended my first ever Native American powwow. One of my fellow rouletters invited me, especially so I could try frybread. She was volunteering at the ticket booth and was supposed to get off around 11:30, but had to work nearly an hour later since her replacement volunteer ran late.I walked around the market and looked in on the start of the traditional dance parade in the arena while I waited. Once she was finally free of her volunteer duties, we waited in line at one of the vendors where she knew the owners.

We both got a regular tostada, which used frybread instead of a tortilla. I made a mental note that when I attempted to make another batch of frybread again, to make the dough in the morning to fry it up for dinner. Perhaps  then it will be closer to the consistency of that delicious frybread.Afterwards, we watched some of the competition.

The announcer called out the various categories of competition, which consisted of several individuals performing at the same time. One of the things they were being judged on was how well they kept up with the live music being drummed and chanted. There were two drum circles and unlike African musicians who collaborate with the dancers, these musicians challenged the skills of the dancers to keep in time with their drumming, which could change tempo without notice.

As usual with such an experience, I wanted to learn more about meaning behind powwows since I’m sure I only glimpsed a small part of the significance since I only could truly see the things which I readily understood.

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Two Medusas

Halloween has been my favorite holiday since I was a child and continues into adulthood. Initially, I was in it for both the candy and costuming. Now, as the producer of my own monthly spoken word and storytelling show, I dress up for the show every month. A third of my closet is composed of costumes. At any given time, clothes that I’ve not worn in a while may very well be repurposed for the cause–or rather the theme of whichever show is on the horizon.

Since I’m an independent agent and Halloween is on the eve of Affordable Care Act (ACA) open enrollment, I granted myself the day off. Although I hadn’t planned on attending any celebration, I still couldn’t pass up the opportunity to dress up. The trick this year was to wear a costume that could withstand the 105-degree heat of a Bikram yoga studio.

Out of all my costumes, my Medusa cobra heads made out of felt were the most practical, considering I wanted to wear a costume in a hot yoga class. Yet, I had a chiropractic appointment before yoga; so wearing my galabeya to flesh out my Medusa look would have just been plain weird. I compromised and wore a flowing shirt along with brown jeans.

As soon as I sat down in the waiting area, a guy looked at me and said, “You look familiar.” Without missing a beat, I replied, “Of course I do. I’m Medusa.” Another woman in the waiting area burst out laughing. Turns out the guy had been a regular at the same yoga studio.

I arrived at yoga class a little late, which always makes me want to sneak in, but with a hair full of snakes, it was not an easy task. There were positions which made me very aware of my braided snakes. Throughout the entire 90-minute practice, I’m pleased to say that I only lost one snake.  A 90% success rate!

Once I returned home, I read an email from my apartment leasing office about a Halloween celebration. Given the fact that Halloween landed on a Tuesday and the first day of open enrollment was the next day, this low-key celebration was better than nothing and worth putting on one of my galabeyas and some green lipstick and pixie eyelashes for the cause.

About 30 minutes prior to me getting ready, the bottom fell out. I had second thoughts about even making the short walk to the leasing office for free libations. Traditionally, Austin floods around Halloween time; so I didn’t know if the rain would continue throughout the evening. Fortunately, it eased up while I did the bare minimum to get into character. Drizzling, the weather held up and didn’t challenge my cheap umbrella too much.

I loved that the punch matched my lipstick. There were two varieties of punch: “The Regular Stuff” and “The Good Stuff.” Of course I choose the latter, which was laced with Whipped Cream flavored vodka. Never tried that it before, but it definitely got my vote.

I ate half a cold-cut sub and too many chips with onion dip. As if those chips hadn’t sank my regular diet enough, I had a mini chocolate cupcake followed by a jello shot. Note to self: any jello shots with candy suspended in it isn’t going to be good! Adding to the confusion, the doggie jello shots were just beside the ones for humans.  We were apparently supposed to “know” that those suspended things in bottom of the doggie cups were pieces of dog food!  Yours truly got clarification before even attempting any scary-looking shot.

As usual, I happily ate and drank while making awkward conversation with my fellow residents and the leasing office staff. One woman, who I’m not sure if she works there or not due to the relatively high turn over rate, launched into a story about her first date with a guy who turned out to be a chain smoker. I was taken aback by her story since I’d merely approached food spread and she’d begun her story with no segue. I did the socially acceptable thing of asking her questions and making comments and even invited her to sit with me after I’d finished fixing my plate, but she drifted off to talking with someone else.

Another guy complimented my costume and added that that was the first time he’d seen me in makeup since I normally am not wearing any.  I immediately thought “stalker,” but then he stated that he’d not worked out in the fitness room for nearly a month. I let the fact go that I didn’t put on makeup to work out, yet I teased him about rushing to his grave since he’d stopped working out, stopped eating healthily and started back smoking.

Lastly a German guy tried his best to engage us into a deep conversation about the significance behind the observation of Halloween. The only interesting cultural gem I could offer was about how bands of drunken men would go around in England demanding more booze and if not receiving any, would pull a prank on whichever inn or tavern that refused.

Now, I mostly view our celebration as just one big party where I doubt few people attach much significance to any of the original meaning. TV shows like American Horror Story, tends to circle back to the original meaning where the worlds of the living and dead can connect freer than any other time of the year. Yet the basis of the observation was signifying the end of the harvest season when most plants died, which people associated with human death and dressed in costumes to ward off ghosts.

Only time will tell if the modern reinterpretation of Halloween is a benefit or hinderance to our culture.

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How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep

Years ago, I started working out on a regular basis just to get a good night’s sleep. For the longest time, that was sufficient. In the past couple of years, I’ve managed to work out every day for at least 30 minutes, which serves to reduce stress, but not remedy anxiety dreams.

As much as I hate to admit it, whatever I’m doing professionally has now become such a huge influence on whether I get a good night’s sleep. For the first year I taught at a private school in Honduras, I had a principal who turned out to be a very despicable person and for that school year, I hardly ever got a good night’s rest and one of the results, my hair thinned out. Vowing to never exhaust my health like that again, I stood up to him at the beginning of the second school year when he mistakenly thought we’d pick up where we’d left off, but I managed to change the dynamic and started sleeping well.

Since leaving the classroom as math/science teacher, I’ve had several different jobs, trying to find that delicate balance among challenge, creativity and happiness. For the past couple of years, I’ve been working from home, but not quite as my own person.

As a matter of fact, since resigning from the last job I deadened, I’m no longer bored, I’ve proven myself to be a quick learner (once again!), and my schedule is flexible. This is what I’ve envisioned for myself all along when I started working from home: freedom.

Freedom from worry, boredom, rigid schedules, underemployment, and underestimation of my skills. I sleep like a baby! With proper rest, I have so much more energy. Plus, since I’ve completed my on-boarding training, I’ve been exercising in the mornings–just the way I like it.

Sleep has become my accurate barometer of whether all the other elements in my life work productively. By the time my head hits the pillow, if I have lived the day with integrity (being true to myself), then good rest is my reward.

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Liberian Rice Bread

As I read Madame President about Ellen Johnson Sirleaf becoming both Liberia’s and Africa’s first female president, I felt humbled, angry and intrigued. Humbled by all the creature comforts I’ve been born into and yet have the nerve to complain about the challenges I’ve faced, which pale in comparison to what Liberian woman have had to face. Angry over the violence, greed and machoism of the men who plunged their country into such an abyss all the while hoarding wealth. And lastly intrigued by the fact that women, who were assaulted at such a frequency that hardly anyone batted an eye, still had the resiliency to take care of their families by forging into the woods to find something to sell.

Throughout the biography, I looked up pictures of various people who were mentioned. I listened to popular political songs during the time. As if hearing music from that region hadn’t transported me to my times as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Tanzania, the mentioning of food truly landed. Although Tanzanians have their own take on similar ingredients, Liberians have their own flair on such staples as bananas, spices, rice, beef, chicken and something I’d never even heard of before, potato greens.

Since I usually prepare one big meal a week to store in plastic containers and warm up during the hustle and bustle of my work week, I dedicated this week’s cooking to Liberian recipes, starting with rice bread. My general attitude about recipes is that they are guides, which I readily adapt to the ingredients I have, my Vitamix to grind up fresh spices and make sauces, and my usual quest to use the smallest amount of cookware to have fewer things to clean up afterwards.

I chose two recipes: Jollof rice and rice bread. The most interesting one was the latter. I never made a vegan style bread, but I recommended this recipe to both my mother, who’s tasked with Thanksgiving dinner with vegans, and my sister who’s a pescatarian with vegetarian and vegan kids.

I’d never heard of cream of rice before this recipe, but logically enough, it was right beside the cream of wheat. I mixed the small box of cream of rice with three mashed bananas, freshly grated nutmeg, some sugar, oil and baking powder, which was supposed to be baking soda except I didn’t have any. One thing I underestimated was the amount of oil to grease the baking dish. I discovered that after the fact. I even warned my mother. After I got the goods from the baking dish, I sat back and enjoyed it’s deliciousness: crispy on the top, slightly sweet and moist on the inside.

One day, I’m going to taste something more authentic, but in the meantime, I’m very happy with the Teresa version.

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Patio Furniture

The latest leasing agent staff has let me know I’ve worn out my welcome. Perhaps many of us long-time residents have. I’ve not kept an accurate account of how many times the entire staff has turned over, but I think they’re at least the fourth group to come in and they apparently have the most critical eye.

Ever since moving here, I’ve viewed my patio as my art studio, especially for painting. Granted, none of them have probably seen me out there painting, but what they have seen, they haven’t liked. The first email I received months ago, listed all the “acceptable” things that could be on the patio, which were short list of furniture and plants, real or fake.

As far as I’m concerned, I only had three things on my patio, which weren’t clutter nor trash; so I ignored their email. For months. Until the monthly email became aggressive about having the maintenance guys remove the offending things from my patio at my expense. I took the above picture and attached it to an email in response to their escalation, asking which of the three items was “inappropriate.”

Of course, I never heard back from them. I forgot about the email until the second month I received it. In a huff, I wheeled my portable drawer of oil paints to the corner, put the flower pot underneath the drawer, threw an old sheet over the whole thing and placed my hideous clay sculpture of a nude lounging woman over it.

With such a fine concession, I figured this was the most creative thing I’d done on the patio in a while; so the aggressive emails should end, right? Nope. Got the same threatening email the following month.

Next time I hand-carried my rent check to the office, I politely-as-possible inquired about the email. One of the nameless staff members informed me that everyone receives the email. I turned on my heels and calmly walked out, all the while scheming how long it would take me to save up enough money for a down payment for my own place.

Not too soon after, I quit my old job, where I’d dead ended after a year, but had to remain a few months longer until I lined up something more lucrative. Now that I’m in my final week of independent health agent training with ACA open enrollment right around the corner, I’m looking forward to an increased call volume and working six days a week for those six weeks.

Thanks to blanket threats, regardless of whether I’m in violation or not, I’m more motivated than ever to get the hell up at of here. I know bullshit exists wherever I go, but it’s time I start earning equity to mitigate that bullshit.

At least my patio situation was easier to remedy than one of my neighbors. They must now drive around with a canoe on their SUV since it can no longer hang neatly from their patio.

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Stormy Nights

Most of my “dark and stormy” takes form as reoccurring anxiety dreams, independent of the actual weather. Adding flavor to the nightmarish experience are sleep apnea and teeth gnashing.  Like everything else, these dreams have evolved.

My earliest recollection of a reoccurring anxiety dream was when I was a child prior to being school age. I’d dream that one of my grandmothers lie supine on a circular metal slab that rotated. As it began to move, sharp automated synchronous blades sliced her like a pie. I’d wake up, run to the bathroom and vomit. One time, I took control of the nightmare and stopped the blades from chopping her up. That was the last time I dreamed about it.

When I was a young child, I had a funny digestive track and couldn’t mix my food while eating. I had to eat all of one thing on my plate, then the other or else I’d throw up. Eventually, I outgrew that digestive problem.

Then as a Peace Corps Volunteer in my early twenties, my reoccurring nightmares involved my teeth falling out. The worst one was when my teeth had fallen out and a variety of bugs swarmed out of the sockets. Those ended as soon as I finished my Peace Corps service after nearly two and half years. In addition to stress, the malarial prophylaxis I took contributed to “changes in sleep,” as warned on the label.

The latest and most long-lasting genre of anxiety nightmares involve me frantically looking for something: my car keys, my car, a missing shoe. In those dreams where I’m looking for my keys or a shoe, I’m usually in some fancy hotel, going down an endless series of hallways, never quite retracing my steps to find what I’m looking for.

Now, you’d think in those dreams where I’m looking for my car, the setting would be a parking lot, but I’ve yet to have that dream. Instead, I’ve parked my car on some sketchy street and the farther I walk, the more apocalyptic the neighborhood becomes. And it’s always nighttime. Sometimes, I’m walking down a craggy hill or through the forest. Other times, there were some not so friendly-looking clowns walking all around me or chain-wielding thugs.

Occasionally, I even find my car, but I’ve never been able to get in it and drive away. It’s always in some visible state of disrepair where I have to get a tow truck at that time of night, in the middle of an apocalyptic event and my cellphone doesn’t have reception, so one of those sketchy-rapey thug-clowns volunteer to escort me to a bar, but when we get to there, it’s one of those darkened out, dilapidated places with broken out/boarded up windows, no one inside for apparently years as evidenced by all the cobwebs and dust, but allegedly has a working phone.

So, that was the worst of those looking-for-my-car nightmares since during that dream, I declared, “Fuck this!” and not dreamt it since.

Obviously, the moral of these nightmarish anxiety dreams is that once I face the fear in the dream, they no longer reoccur in the same fashion, but there’s always something for me to worry about.  The week before I quit my latest dead-end job, I had a beautiful baby girl in my arms and I was frantically looking around for her parents. Clearly, that little girl did not represent any maternal instincts on my part since I’ve never desired having children and I’m blissfully past child-bearing age. I believe she was a metaphor, either representing my inner child or creativity.

Since I resigned from teaching, I’ve had a series of jobs where I’ve enthusiastically thrown myself into and hit a dead end within a year since none of them have held the intellectual challenge and creative outlet that teaching allowed me until the combination of oppressive high-stakes testing and asshole administrators, ie the anti-educational Texas two-step, motivated me out of the classroom.

I remember years ago when one of my friends declared that people just needed to do their self-actualization on their own time and when they’re on the job, just work. After all, she reiterated, that’s why it’s called “work.” This is the same friend who’d also confessed in an unrelated conversation that her inner child was dead.

Well, my inner child is alive and still creatively curious and energetic about the world. At times, my mind is so stimulated about pursuing a new project or worried about something that I need to strategize my way out of, I can hardly sleep or when I do, I pick up on a new genre of anxiety nightmares like tuning into a new season of American Horror Story.

Here’s the latest one since starting my new job: the setting is one of those big multilevel houses horror movies just love. For some inexplicable reason, I’m one of the chaperones of a children’s birthday party in this dimly lit house. The woman of the house, who’s also the only other adult besides this creepy-looking maid, comes to me in a panic about some of the children having wandered off and she wants me to go find them since she suspects they’ve gone upstairs unsupervised.

I recruit four kids to go with me and we all hold hands as we walk upstairs where the lighting is even dimmer. As we get to the middle of the staircase, I notice a doll version of the creepy maid with her back against the wall, slowly sliding down just above the banister. Before she goes past us, I quickly grab her and run to the kitchen.  I have the doll by her throat and I partially wake up at this point to slow down the progression of the nightmare to consider my options.

Then I go back into the dream. I still have the doll, clutched by the throat in my left hand, and I use a kitchen torch burner to set it on fire, but then I rewind the dream. Instead have the doll clutched by the throat with metal tongs so I don’t burn my hand when I light it on fire. I rewind the dream again. I have the doll clutched by the throat with metal tongs, but before I set it on fire, I gesture a cross with my right hand over the sink full of dishwater, saying, “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, I bless this water.” Then I set the doll on fire, burn it to a crisp and plunge it into the water I just blessed. I was determined not to have that demonic doll return in another anxiety dream! She represented the doubts I had whether I’d make enough money as an independent health insurance agent.

Why, it was absolutely delightful the next week when I dreamed that my sandals had disappeared when I’d slipped them off while attending a meeting. That anxiety dream was joyfully clown-, thug-, and demonic doll-free. I did the prerequisite searching under skirted tables, looking for my sandals before I took control of the dream. I declared during that dream, “I’m going to reach into this bin, pull out my sandals, put them on and walk out of here.” And so I did.

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Mayor’s Task Force on Institutional Racism & Systemic Inequities Meeting at HT

Months ago, Mayor Adler formed a task force in order to address institutional racism. This was far overdue, especially after stories started circulating years ago about how Blacks were leaving Austin, which was the reverse trend, compared to  other growing cities around the US. Normally, Austin is revered as the Live Music Capital of the World; so this embarrassment had to be eventually addressed.

Fortunately, I found out about this meeting a few days before it took place last Sunday afternoon at a nearby historically Black university, Huston-Tillotson. In addition to Mayor Steve Adler, the other panelists included Huston-Tillotson President, Colette Pierce Burnette, AISD Superintendent, Paul Cruz, City of Austin Diversity Officer, Brian Oaks and moderating the discussion was Austin American-Statesman Senior Editorial Writer, Alberta Phillips.

Given my proximity to the university, I’d allowed enough time to get there, but had no idea I’d have to park so far away and walk across an unpaved parking lot in the blazing sun and across the campus, which I’d had the foresight to locate on a campus map prior to leaving home. I joked to myself that this was my mini-freedom march, which I wouldn’t dare say out loud because people before me have actually risked their lives to march for freedom, the recognition of which humbled me and chased away any complaints I may have had about the parking situation.

Since this task force meeting was in collaboration with the League of Women Voters (LWV), there were plenty of signs guiding the way to the chapel where the meeting was held. Indicative of the LWV, a check-in table and refreshment table awaited those of us who’d trekked to be in attendance. I’ve attended LWV meetings before and have always enjoyed how organized, respectful, and informative they were. This meeting was no exception.

Despite being a few minutes late, I found a seat near the front among the large audience. I’d missed most of the student speakers, but caught LWV President Cinde Weatherby’s overview of the league’s activities. I especially appreciated that she gave us a brief history of LWV, acknowledging that  the group originally concerned itself with white women’s vote when it was formed in 1919. I loved that mention since it set the tone for why we’d all gathered there in the first place: to unpeel the layers back from institutions and organizations and reveal how people of color have been marginalized from full participation. She also made the appeal to everyone who wanted to get voter information should text 42828. Plus, anyone who wanted to become a Volunteer Deputy Registrar (VDR) should speak with a LWV member after the meeting.

Mayor Adler shared with us the he’d received many calls after forming this task force, saying that they thought it was a good idea. In the same breath, they asked, “Could you call it something else?” To which he said that they had just proved his point.

Here are my takeaways from the discussion that ensued, which I wrote down on my ever present notepad:

  1. AISD has 60% poverty students and pays the most into recapture as far as tax money is concerned.
  2. AISD is closing “Black schools” on the east side of Austin while building “White schools” on the west side of Austin.
  3. In 1928, Austin divided the city and invested differently into the east and west sides of town–a legacy that still manifests itself today.
  4. Officer Oaks stated that the city shouldn’t show up with all the answers, but should have conversations with the community because the people closest to the problem are also the closest to the solution. Suggested three things: 1) normalize racial equity; 2) organize around equity with the community actively involved; 3) operationalize equity by taking positive action.
  5. President Burnette stated that the fact that we’re having this conversation is the direct result of the task force. Systems don’t change until people do. When leadership changes, then change can take place. Then she gave some examples to identify if someone is part of the problem: a) you don’t call out a racist joke; b) you look around and remain silent about the lack of diversity in the staff; c) you feel that bad things always happen in another part of town and doesn’t affect you.
  6. Mayor Adler pointed out that homelessness should be dealt with through intervention programs rather than jail.
  7. Superintendent Cruz said that the first step has to be training leaders to tackle institutional racism since they have to change the way things are done.
  8. Moderator Phillips stated that Obama was who America wanted to be, but Trump is  who America is.
  9. AISD’s suspension policy changed because students of color were being suspended a lot for minor things.
  10. All panelist agreed that students of color should receive reparations in some shape or form.
  11. We need a root-cause analysis about housing to see which solutions to implement (co-op, intergenerational housing, and so on).
  12. There needs to be accountability around the percentage of housing that’s affordable within new development. In reality, less is set aside and often there’s complicated and prohibitive bureaucracy involved to discourage participation.
  13. Gentrification improves property, raises property value and displaces low economic status people, but who’s responsible for these displaced people?
  14. Gentrification also involves the environment since investment in property mostly serves people with money, but property where poor people live must also have positive investment.

 

Categories: Special Events | 2 Comments

AWL Resignation Letter

Dear Team Jedi Leadership

No longer drinking the Kool-Aid, not even a sip

Although my work was diligent

I received little compensation for my talent

Just an increasing bullwhip

 

If there’s truly an angel among us

She’d be S. Thomas

Such positivity and support

Even when she was in my cohort

Having her as my TL was definitely a plus

 

Yet TLs have limited power

Having very few options when the team starts to sour

To upper management (UM), they can suggest

Things that would incentivize their agents best

But UM reacts with such dour

 

Mass exodus of agents who felt daunted

Here are the incentives that we wanted:

More products, higher commissions, quarterly raises

NOT decelerators, punitive LBs and hipchat praises

Instead of feeling appreciated, we felt taunted

 

Even after going the extra mile

Earning a P&C license, ‘cause that’s my style

I was denied my dream

Of transferring to a more lucrative team

To languish in a situation I found vile

 

So I researched a new Plan B

Since a dead end is no place for me

I’m less productive when bored

A new opportunity I’ve scored

For success glass-ceiling free

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Insurance | 1 Comment

47th Birthday Celebration

So my celebration began the day before my actual birthday. I normally work from home, but once a month, we all gather into the office to work, receiving additional training. This in-office training was special since our team leader had baked two birthday cakes: a chocolate one for me and a traditional Italian family recipe for a coworker.

As if that wasn’t enough, she’d also brought us a gift bag. I figured my gift bag was mainly to conceal the boxed Malbec inside. I had a lackluster sales day, but a wonderful start to my celebration.For my actual birthday, I slept in, took the 10AM Bikram class, then ate at a nearby restaurant to re-tox. One of my good friends met me there.For the first time, I tried their toasted coconut margarita. It was tasty, but would’ve been better with actual coconut cream.As part of my birthday treat, the restaurant gifted me “good karma guacamole,” made fresh right at the table. Then I ordered two tacos: steak and bacon-wrapped shrimp–all meats that I don’t normally eat.

The restaurant also gave me a complimentary dessert: an ancho brownie sundae.  Unfortunately, my friend has gluten sensitivity; so I stuffed most of that delicious brownie into my gut.

I returned to work on Friday, but it was the second Friday in the week and lovely.  I took my usual Friday afterwork swim.

After a Saturday afternoon Bikram class, I met another friend at the same conveniently located restaurant. This time, we caught the tail end of their ever-so-delicious buffet and reconnected. The best thing about meeting one friend at a time for lunch is brainstorming and venting many ideas in a short space of time.

Sunday, which was Mom’s 77th birthday, I hosted the Austin Writers Roulette, which is always a creative and worthy way to round out the weekend, much less my birthday. Our theme was “Ol’ School Soul Food.” I recounted all the delicious foods from my childhood, including the butter!

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It’s All about the Butter

“Life teaches you how to live it if you live long enough.” –Tony Bennett

I’ve lived and traveled around the world as an international math and science teacher for 11 years, starting as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Tanzania straight out of college since I didn’t want to get a real job, then as an ESL teacher in South Korea after not readjusting well in the States, then again for the 8 years during Dubya’s presidency. So, I taught in five different countries and visited about 20 more. Despite the wide variety of experiences, I ate my way through every one of them.

I’ve never been accused of being a picky eater, but living in developing countries challenged that. Everyone should try it. I don’t mean “visiting” a developing country for a few days or a couple of weeks. I’m talking about living there for at least a year or longer, on a reduced budget, where you have to re-strategize your how you obtain nourishment.

If you have enough money to maintain your normal feeding habits, then it doesn’t really count, especially when you can afford to pay ten times as much for authentic bottle of American ketchup.  There’re bottles of red condiment to be found in practically every country, but it’s not the same. In Tanzania, they had Peptang. I credit Peptang for breaking my taste for ketchup.  Not that I found it delicious. Just the opposite. I’d much rather eat my food without any condiment besides a little salt, than to use a ketchup imposter. To this day, you’ll find several varieties of hot sauce in my refrigerator and no ketchup.

When I saved up my money and wanted a gastronomic splurge, I bought a very waxy chocolate or cheese. Perhaps it was a mild cheddar, but it was just called “cheese.” I’d never learned the Swahili word for “cheese” since the people who sold it all spoke English.  And there were two choices: having cheese or not.

Next stop: Seoul, South Korea. The smell of rice hung in the air. I ate rice at least once a day even though I had the money to eat at American chain restaurants. I’d mostly broken my American eating habit, but the one food I paid premium price for was Quaker Oats. How lovely were the mornings I woke up and made a bowl of hot, steamy oatmeal with sugar, cinnamon and a nice pat of Korean butter. I don’t recall Korean butter tasting much different than American butter. But I assure you, a little butter makes everything better.

The only fats my grandmother ever cooked with were butter, lard, fatback, and vegetable oil. I never saw a bottle of those fancy oils in her kitchen such as olive, sesame, grapeseed, or sunflower. My grandmother never even made rice for a savory dish, preparing it solely for rice pudding.

Once I got to Alexandria, Egypt, I should have outgrown food cravings. After all, I’d lived and traveled around the world for years, but every country offered a different twist. In Egypt, I could only get alcohol at major hotels and other places that catered to tourists, but could smoke all the flavored tobacco to my lungs’ content. Foraging for alcohol became one of my new hobbies. When I visited the States during the summer break, I bought a flask; so I could always have a mixed drink no matter which restaurant I visited.

Yet, there was something about Egyptian butter. I couldn’t quite wrap my taste buds around it until one day I found myself reaching for the salt. I hardly ever salt my food, but when I butter a biscuit, my mouth has the expectations of salted butter. I cannot say that I craved salted butter, but I began mixing salt into my butter before using it.

By the time I moved to Mexico, I hadn’t eaten pork in six years. I’d given up red meat before moving to Egypt, but started eating beef again. Pork wasn’t available there or if it was, it was harder to find that alcohol.

As soon as I moved to Monterrey, I noticed premade sandwiches labelled “cheese sandwich,” which clearly had a slice of ham, as if the concept of a “sandwich” implied ham along with two slices of bread. I avoided pork when it was obvious, so my first pork poisoning came in form of a frozen burrito labelled “res.” In my basic understanding of Spanish, “res” meant “beef.”

People tried to convince me that I must have food poisoned, but after living in Tanzania and Egypt, I knew what food poisoning felt like.  This wasn’t that. This was stomach cramps without fever or diarrhea. My poor small intestines, which hadn’t made enzymes to digest pork in nearly six years, scrambled to breakdown that swine.

The second pork poisoning came a few months later, when silly me thought it was a good idea to eat a gyro, not realizing that the meat spinning on the vertical spit wasn’t lamb nor goat.  It was so delicious, I should’ve known it was pork.

I grew up in the South where every cooked green vegetable was flavored with bacon grease, lard or actual strips of bacon. Real bacon bits on salads. Somehow, Mexicans had out porked even my family. My grandmother had mixed pork brains in scrambled eggs, fried chitlins, and prepared something I’ve never tried since it never appealed to me, pigs’ feet. Nonetheless, Mexicans would’ve made my grandmother proud in all their inventive ways of incorporating pork.

Finally, I reworked pork back into my diet just so I wouldn’t have to suffer pork-poisoning stomach cramps again. I didn’t have to actually prepare it at home—just order practically any savory food and I’d just about be guaranteed to consume something that had pork.

With the continued evolution of my palate, I surprised myself after moving to Honduras. All I could think about was grits. I’d mentioned grits so much that one of my American colleagues brought me a canister when she visited home. I was a little embarrassed that I’d talked about grits that much, but of course, I readily took my comfort food and prepared it the way I loved it the best: a pat of butter and sugar and with a side homemade salmon cakes. (Salmon cake side bar: last time I took my homemade salmon cakes to a dinner party, a woman wanted to eat the partially eaten cakes off my plate rather than get up and serve herself seconds! Now you know that’s serious.)

Sometimes I went to as many as three different grocery stores to get all the ingredients I needed to recreate a dish I was craving. I explored the world of baking quiches, made Indian and Caribbean curries and above and beyond everything else, I’d fill half my shopping basket with fresh produce. At last, I’d arrived at a place where not only was the food fresh, but inexpensive, especially if I steered clear of prepackaged American foods and condiments.

Since relocating to Austin, I no longer have food cravings, which were probably more related to homesickness than anything else. My diet still mostly consists of produce, freshly ground spices, seafood, and poultry. And every now and again, with my childhood favorites, just a little pat of butter.

 

 

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