A Cocktail to Make You Weep

Did your mind jump to mezcal? Of course it did!

When my daughter was about two years old, we visited some good friends in Phoenix. She was sitting on their low garden wall, entranced by their elusive (to her) cat. She reached out for him and toppled backwards, right onto a small cactus. It wasn’t until we pulled her up that we saw the cut under her eye, sliced ever so neatly by the spine of a nearby agave. She cried bitterly as we pulled the cactus spines out of her back. Fortunately, her pain drew that little cat to her; he wove around her legs and let her pet him, finally, which stopped the tears. She still has a thin scar under her eye all these years later. She has had a thousand cuts and scrapes over the years. None of the others left a permanent mark.

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Anyone who has spent any time in the Sonoran Desert knows the agave plant, though hopefully not in such a bloody manner. In fact, their range extends much farther than the Sonoran Desert, reaching north into Utah, throughout Mexico, and even down into parts of South America. Though I lived in Arizona for years, it wasn’t until I spent some time in Oaxaca, Mexico that I fully came to appreciate agave and all it has to offer.

Did your mind jump to mezcal? Of course it did! Before you leave this post already, let me reassure you that I was not a big drinker of mezcal before going to Oaxaca. My prior exposure to mezcal and tequila always seemed to be hearing about people wanting to get drunk quickly and then regretting that decision rather fervently. That is not what this post is about, I promise!

Agave flavors everything in Oaxaca in some sense. It has been cultivated for thousands of years across its growing region. People decorated pottery with agave designs. They stored it in caves. They used different varieties for needles, cloth, thatched roofs, paper, food, and for both alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks. Recently, archaeologists Paul and Suzanne Fish of the University of Arizona (and others) have argued that agave wasn’t merely planted widely in the ancient U.S. Southwest, it was domesticated. That means that they see evidence of techniques used to make these plants more beneficial for those farming it. Indeed, we may need to speak of a fourth “sister” crop, complementing corn, beans, and squash, when considering its importance to indigenous people.

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Agave field in Oaxaca       Photo: Lora Adams

While I was in Oaxaca, I saw fields of multiple varieties of agave. I was also delighted to sample pickled agave flower buds. I might have eaten more than my share of those little honeys.

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Blooming agave with saguaros in Arizona

I was fortunate enough to meet with a shaman, or traditional healer, on one visit. A group of students and I participated in a temazcal. A temazcal is a kind of sweat lodge, and we used several plants during the sweat – coffee, mango, bouquets of basil, and definitely mezcal. Before the temazcal itself, the healer worked on two or three members of our group. Mezcal was used as a substance to purify both healer and the person in need of healing. At one point, our host filled his mouth with it and sprayed it vigorously all over the patient. It was offered many times throughout our visit, and he explained repeatedly that it was very pure. It could not give you a hangover, he said, because it was nothing but agave. The intention was never to get someone drunk, but to cure.

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Shaman’s Tools      Photo: Lora Adams

Our group was still shy about mezcal at this point. The idea of drinking early in the day, and right before sweating profusely, didn’t entice us.

Later in this trip, we visited a mezcal producer. Now, if you visit Oaxaca, you can take many tours of palenques for mezcal. They are made for tourists and export, and have numerous flavors and types available. That wasn’t where we went. On our way to Juchitán, a community on the coast, our wonderful guide took us by his favorite producer of mezcal. No one was around that day, and we were intimidated (okay, I was intimidated) by the family of turkeys roaming the site protectively.

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They are bigger than you think.

Happily, we returned in a few days to find Telésforo Martinez and his sons available to show us their excellent mezcal. They produced every aspect of the spirit. They harvested the plants, keeping different varieties separate; they roasted the piñas, or hearts of the plants; and they distilled the alcohol.

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Piñas ready for roasting

To give us samples, they put a rubber tube into a cask and sucked until it began to flow into a small dried gourd. We then passed around gourd after gourd of mezcal, trying each type. This one is small and grown in the wild, this one is aged for so long, this one is the most popular. To take some with you, you simply paid for the amount you wanted and transferred it into a bottle that you brought with you.

Our kind and encouraging guide assured me that we would have no trouble getting them through U.S. customs. I just couldn’t believe him, so I bought labels at a store in town and decorated them to fool the agents.

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Don’t laugh. That is totally convincing. Also, they didn’t stop any of us or question it at all.

One night in the city of Oaxaca, we ate at a wonderful restaurant called Zandunga. I had their fantastic red mole, but the highlight was truly my cocktail, La Llorona (The Weeping  Woman), made with local mezcal. People in Mexico and the United States tell many versions of the story of La Llorona. Always, she drowns her children and is doomed to cry for them forever. In some places, the tale contains elements of class inequality (she was poor but her love was a wealthy man who scorned her after she bore him children), in other places she is a warning to women (she was a neglectful mother who prefers the attention of men to caring for her young children). Some of you may know the gorgeous Mexican folk song of the same name, which originates in Oaxaca. Check out Lila Downs’ version if you are feeling weepy. (When the song came on as I watched the movie Coco with my daughter, I totally burst into tears.)

I approximated my own version of the cocktail when I got home. I swear I get a little teary with nostalgia for Oaxaca when I drink it.

La Llorona

You have to begin by making jamaica, a sweet drink from hibiscus flowers. You can find the flowers in any Mexican grocery.

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Lovely jamaica flowers

Bring 6 cups of water to a boil and then add 2 cups of dried jamaica flowers and 3/4 cup sugar. Boil for one minute. If you are using a non-corrosive pot, leave it there to steep for about 2 hours, or transfer to another container you can’t stain. After it has steeped, pour the liquid through a sieve over a pitcher to strain out the flowers. Push out all that liquid! Check for intensity. Sometimes I need to dilute the strength with cold water.

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It gets pretty strong.

Enjoy over ice and keep in the fridge for a refreshing drink on its own.

For the cocktail, fill a tall glass with ice. Combine 2 shots of pineapple juice, 1/2 shot simple syrup, and 1 shot of mezcal. Top with jamaica. Add some freshly grated ginger to taste. I also sometimes throw in some Penzey’s crystallized ginger for extra fun. Stir and enjoy! I make this without alcohol as a special treat for my daughter.

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Isn’t it beautiful?

If you aren’t listening to Lila Downs right now, I need to know the reason why. And before you ask, it is NOT just as good with tequila.

The Terrifying Truth about Pesto

Before I share my recipe with you, I am going to need to tell you something terrifying.

I have seldom been more outraged than when someone stole my basil plant off my apartment porch in Tempe, Arizona. I had raised that little baby from a seed – from a seed – and some monster came and took it from me. Can you imagine? I think it was the same person who stole the tire off my thrift store bike that I used to ride to school there. I mean, why? It was not a great tire. Are you just mean? Anyway.

Pretty much since I’ve been settled anywhere, I’ve tried to keep a little garden and I ALWAYS have basil. When I lived in Tucson, I once brushed off my hands after planting some seeds and a plant sprouted in the well of my orange tree. The regular irrigation and sunshine produced the most enormous basil plant I’ve ever grown, big enough that my husband became worried about the survival of the citrus tree. I ended up lopping off big branches and taking them to trade with our neighborhood Italian restaurant, Fiorito’s, which is now closed. They gave me meals in exchange for it, I had so much. (As a side note, their lasagna was the best ever. If anyone out there knows the former chef, please oh please get me that recipe. I am serious.)

In my garden right now, I have three sweet basil plants growing. I also am confident that I will have volunteer Thai basil come back, as it does each year. I have three plants because I just like to be certain that I will have enough basil for my family’s pesto needs. Our needs are significant, y’all. We also like caprese salads a lot, so I simply can’t mess around when it comes to having sufficient basil.

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I am a reader of recipes. When I make a dish, I generally like to consult several cookbooks in advance. Then, I concoct one of my own based on multiple recipes and my own tastes. Happily, this method appears to be what Italians like too. They’ve been gleefully mashing up garlic and pine nuts with olive oil for millennia, apparently, and about 150 years ago started adding basil to the recipe. When we spent a little time in Italy, I tried several varieties of pesto. We had a favorite local delicatessen in Arezzo that carried their fresh version that we brought home regularly. The worst version came from one in which the chef added cashews, incapacitating three unsuspecting allergic diners, including my daughter. I say this not to point fingers, though it was somewhat terrifying, but to show that Italians like to experiment with ingredients too, even with things that are “traditional.”

Ultimately, I came up with my own version that was worthy of writing down, and it’s what I have used and shared for years. Before I share it with you, though, I am going to need to tell you something terrifying.

Terrifying Truth #1: Using the Mortar and Pestle Makes Significantly Better Pesto

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I’m sorry. I didn’t want that to be true! I love the food processor and it is what I have used for years and years. Also, when you use the food processor, you get a greater volume of pesto, which means you can save half for the winter months. And that is fabulous! I know all of this, and you can continue to use the food processor. I get it. But ever since we started using the old fashioned method with a mortar and pestle, we haven’t been able to go back. The taste of the pesto is so much better that it is worth the effort for us. And it’s a group effort – we all take turns mashing up the basil and garlic. The reason it is better is because of another terrifying truth.

Terrifying Truth #2: The Basil Screams When You Mash It

Okay, that may be a small stretch of what you would call “truth,” but work with me. Did you know that when plants get munched on by bugs or mammals, they cry out?  Read this amazing story for more detailed info: https://www.npr.org/sections/krulwich/2014/04/29/307981803/plants-talk-plants-listen-here-s-how

The summary is that plants can send chemical signals to other plants or even to predator bugs and those plants and bugs respond. Some even send signals underground or through ultrasonic clicks. I love this science!

So, I am using that science to say that smashed basil releases different chemicals than cut basil. And it releases its beautiful and fragrant oils in a different way. So the metaphorical screams of the basil make for better eating. It makes me slightly sad and also puts me in mind of A Wind in the Door, the sequel to A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. But purge the idea of sentient plants from your thoughts and pound that basil up, friends! Here’s how:

Basil Pesto

2 cups fresh basil, well packed
4 garlic cloves
4 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted and cooled if you feel fancy
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup (or less) olive oil
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
¼ cup freshly grated Romano cheese

Pesto is completely dependent on the quality of your ingredients. Do not use some crappy olive oil. Get the good stuff. Your garlic matters. Your cheese matters. GET THE GOOD STUFF.

In the food processor, process the first three ingredients until finely chopped. Then gradually add the oil and salt until blended. Add the cheeses and pulse a few times until blended. Voila!

By hand (mostly): Put the garlic with the salt in the mortar. Smash that stuff up until it looks more like mayonnaise than garlic. There should be no shape to your pieces. Now add the basil a little at a time and pound the heck out of it. It will start releasing a scent that will make you need to burst into song, so you should plan ahead. I like to listen to Mariza about now. Yes, she’s singing in Portuguese but her gusto matches this phase of pesto preparation very well, I think.

Now, I do use a mini food processor for the pine nuts. Others use the mortar for this too, but I am usually out of room.  I scrape my smashed glory into the processor with the already chopped nuts and add the oil and blend briefly. I use less oil for this version, because it is so juicy. Like even half as much oil as with the food processor version. And when I say scrape, you better do that. I want all the juices. That basil will not have screamed in vain, I tell you. Then add your cheese and pulse briefly until combined. Taste for salt and cry just a little at how good it is.

To serve, put a cup of either version in a large bowl for 1 pound of pasta. Actually, we’ve been loving gnocchi with pesto, so give that a try some time. While your pasta cooks, stir about 1/4 cup of light cream into the pesto and give a few twists to a pepper grinder. Drain the pasta briefly and then toss it into the bowl with the sauce and give it a stir. Serve nice and hot!

Also, you can freeze any prepared pesto easily. I freeze it in one-cup portions for easy winter meals. And yes, the cheese freezes up just fine. Don’t stress about it. Enjoy!

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An Anthropologist’s Take on Food

Have you heard that joke about the anthropologist? Her student was preparing to go to her field site, where she had worked many years earlier. As she was giving the novice advice, she said, “Don’t turn down any food they offer! It’s very insulting to them if you say no.” When the graduate student got to the village, she began to ask older members of the community if they remembered her mentor. Oh yes, they replied, we remember her well! The student noticed that they were grinning a bit, and making eye contact over her head. What was so funny?, she asked. Finally, one of the older men burst out, “That woman would eat ANYTHING!” And they all rolled around laughing.

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I had been a vegetarian for six years when I started doing fieldwork as a cultural anthropologist. I ate fish and dairy, so I was pretty low down on the vegetarian meter. I was comfortable asking to be accommodated, and although I sometimes dreamed (literally) about eating bacon, I had no intention of changing my dietary practices. I had traveled internationally with no issues or need to eat meat. Then I started working outside my own cultural boundaries.

The first time I ate meat again was at the U.S.-Mexico border. I’d been working with a middle school and had made some real friends there. One friend, who I will call Maricela, asked me if I’d ever eaten a torta.  When I said no, she got excited and insisted on taking me directly to her favorite torta guy for lunch, who had a food truck close to the border fence in downtown Nogales.  As we drove, she explained that a torta was a kind of sandwich on a bolillo, a soft white roll, smeared with avocado, usually some lettuce and tomato and onions and pickled jalapeños, and your choice of meat.

Okay, I thought, maybe there will be some kind of fish option. And if not, maybe this one time I could eat the chicken. As we walked to the truck, I scanned the sign that listed today’s choices. There was no pollo. In my memory, there was only carne, and carne of many types. Standing there with my friend, who was so thrilled to be introducing me to the very best torta, I just couldn’t say, “I don’t eat that.” And as I asked about the different meat options, it turned out that each one had a story of its preparation, a time when you might prepare it at home, who might be invited, a memory of the best one you ever had. All this in a sandwich. I got carnitas that day, I’m pretty sure.

I didn’t change my regular eating habits immediately after that day, but that scene began to repeat over and over again as I fully engaged with ways of living that were not the ones I had grown up in. When I was invited to people’s homes, they had always prepared something very special for me. Often, that included meat. An Arab man in Jerusalem, who I had just met hours earlier, arranged a feast for me that included many small meat dishes. (That led to a very exciting stomach-related adventure the next day, which I will write about if you ask me nicely.) A favorite treat might be a strong cup of instant coffee, served without my usually required cream and sugar. It might be the beans your grandchildren love and say that no one can make just like you do. As people offered me their favorite dishes, I stopped being able to say no or ask how it was prepared on my way to declining it.

Have you heard that joke about the anthropologist? Her student was preparing to go to her field site, where she had worked many years earlier. As she was giving the novice advice, she said, “Don’t turn down any food they offer! It’s very insulting to them if you say no.” When the graduate student got to the village, she began to ask older members of the community if they remembered her mentor. Oh yes, they replied, we remember her well! The student noticed that they were grinning a bit, and making eye contact over her head. What was so funny?, she asked. Finally, one of the older men burst out, “That woman would eat ANYTHING!” And they all rolled around laughing.

I’m not suggesting that I feel the need to eat everything. I’m not suggesting that vegetarian anthropologists don’t do great work. But I do think that food is an avenue into culture in a very deep sense. The memories of eating a particular dish tell us about social relationships. The act of eating together across cultural barriers can bind people in a way that few other social acts can. Sharing and accepting food symbolizes a willingness to engage.

I’m also aware, because of my work as an anthropologist of borders and globalization, of how our food is produced. Many favorite dishes are born of poverty and the need to make do with what was available. Dishes that we think of as “authentic” to a region could only be possible because of global movements, trade, and migration. And the people who farm and harvest our food are among the most exploited people on our planet. (Yes, look for a follow-up piece on another reason I grow my own berries.)

 

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On this blog, I want to share my love and passion for exploring other ways of life through food. Some of the posts will be about the food where I live – Arkansas, in the southern United States. Others will be about food in the places I have traveled and worked as an anthropologist. I hope all of them will entertain, and will help you to entertain family and friends, and to cross cultural boundaries whenever you can.

 

Summer Begins, Or Anne Struggles to Keep Up with Berries

I know you came here for the cake.

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I am really a terrible gardener. The only thing I can do well is put things in the ground. It’s pretty easy for me to decide that I want a plant to grow close to me. Most of my decisions about plants are motivated by the potential for eating them, or at least smelling them. My daughter will pick things solely for how they look, and I’m grateful for her perspective but I don’t understand it. Me, I want to put them in my mouth.

My husband is generally very supportive of my poor gardening, in that he does nothing to criticize or discourage me. He does occasionally suggest plants, and blueberry bushes were at the top of his list. I quickly followed those with raspberry and blackberry canes, given to me by a friend when his bushes spread. Now I have a nice little patch. and I get this every few days.

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Faced with this abundance, I have to act fast. I freeze, I snack, but I also make desserts, which brings me to this beautiful cake. I know you came here for the cake.

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While I am definitely bad at gardening, I am a decent cook. Okay, I’m a good cook. I know you are eyeing that very homemade-looking cake and you are doubting me. My food may not always look gorgeous, but it tastes amazing. I think you should probably try making this cake and see what you think.

I got the original recipe from the August 2001 issue of Bon Appétit, and they got it from Thymes Two Catering out of San Francisco. Don’t you think those chefs lie a little bit when they give out their recipes? I mean, I probably would. But I’m not going to lie to YOU. I made this cake just a little different. Some would say better, but let’s just assume that they were lying about the real recipe and I somehow accidentally discovered it. I have restored it to its previous glory!

Lemon-Blueberry Cake with Lemon Cream Cheese Frosting

2 cups plus 6 tablespoons cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt

1 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon Penzey’s double strength vanilla extract
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon Penzey’s lemon extract
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1.5 cups sugar
4 large eggs, room temperature

Preheat oven to 350° F. Butter and flour three 9-inch cake pans, and  line with parchment paper. Sift cake flour, baking powder, and salt into a small bowl. Take one tablespoon of flour mixture and toss with fresh berries until coated in separate bowl.

Stir together the milk, lemon zest, vanilla, and lemon extract in small bowl. Beat the butter and  sugar together in a mixer until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs one at a time. Alternate adding flour and milk mixtures, about a third at a time, until blended.

Divide the batter between the three pans. (I honestly think you could use two pans if you wanted thicker layers, but then you get less frosting per slice, so I’m going to leave that up to you.) Sprinkle on the blueberries evenly over the batter. I use my fingers to lightly swirl the batter over the blueberries. You could just mix in the berries, but I like a more even distribution and I don’t want them all stuck on the bottom.

Bake cakes for about 25 minutes, until golden brown and the tester comes out clean. Cool cakes in pans on racks for about 10 minutes and then turn out onto the racks to cool to room temperature. Now make the frosting!

Lemon Cream Cheese Frosting

2 8-oz. packages cream cheese, room temperature
¾ cup (1.5 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
4 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon Penzey’s lemon extract
1-2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon Penzey’s double strength vanilla extract

Beat the cream cheese and butter together using a mixer. Gradually add the powdered sugar, followed by the lemon juice, vanilla, and extract. Taste for lemon! I like mine strong. Refrigerate until cool enough to spread easily, about an hour.

Assemble your layers, covering each with about 3/4 cups of frosting. I always have frosting left over, no matter how much I slather on, so be generous. Use some of your other berries to decorate the top. I have tons of raspberries, so I like those, but any berry would be fun. Or leave it plain or add some lemon peel curls.

Eat and enjoy! Let me know how it turns out for you. I store mine in the refrigerator because Arkansas is hot this time of year!

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