Saturday, November 21, 2009

Thanksgiving Prep I: Sweet Potato Crunch

By default, I'm in charge of bringing the "Orange" food to the Thanksgiving table. One dish is a tradition and is required (and I'm told that my safety is not guaranteed if I don't); the other one is one I'm going to adapt from one of my favorite dishes. First, today, I will give you the tried and true recipe. It was my grandmother's. It's actually quite simple and not exactly unique to the Creole kitchen, but as I've gone beyond the Mason Dixon line, I've passed it along to people who just love it. I really don't know why people put up with gross sweet potato recipes.

Here it is:

Sweet Potato Crunch

(in memory of Virginia Eliser)

3 cups peeled, cooked, mashed sweet potatoes or yams
3/4 cup white sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 stick butter, melted
1/2 cup milk (or buttermilk for a slightly different flavor)
1/2 tsp vanilla

1-1/2 cups brown sugar
2/3 cups flour
2 cups pecans, finely chopped
1/2 stick butter, melted

Combine sweet potatoes, sugar, salt, eggs, butter, milk, and vanilla in a mixer and mix until smooth. Pour into 9"x13" greased casserole. Combine ingredients for topping and spread over potato batter. Bake in an oven preheated at 350 degrees for 35 minutes or until topping has set. Serves 20.

What I really love about this recipe is that is states that it "serves 20" indicative of how big our portions have gotten over the years.

I rarely have leftovers.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Nine Years Married

Let's face it, I was no blushing bride.

David and I were married at a beautiful old mansion in San Francisco on November 18, 2000. On that night, we felt so much love, it would make your average cynic sick to death. I was 35; nearly 36. Laid off from a dot com ad agency job.

I cradle-snatched David. He was just over 30. What a baby!

We went into this marriage with eyes wide open. We were beyond fairy tale notions and from the get go, we fostered an equal partnership. This was further solidified when I was laid off one week before the wedding. I had these firm ideas about keeping our money separate, about two careers. Losing my job right before we made our public vows, seems to pull us in together, as one.

And you know what? It worked. We really are a team. Nine years later, I still love my man and can't imagine life without us together, a solid corporation with our two little underlings clammoring for attention.

It's good. I'm happy to be here nine years later with this walk down the aisle being the smartest thing I ever did!


Monday, November 16, 2009

Lifestyle Changing

After a year in the doldrums, I think I am officially in the process of making some significant lifestyle changes. Some of the lifestyle changes have been foisted upon me these lovely times we live in: I've been pretty much unemployed with the occasional freelance project since may and other situations in our lives have me back to living as well as we can somewhat impoverishly. Some, I have to implement myself. The crazy circumstances we found ourselves in, caused me to send any kind of healthy living into the toilet. This means that my high hopes of losing weight this year, pretty much did not materialize. I didn't focus on it for anything after May. Until then, I had actually dropped 10 pounds.

It took awhile for us to figure out the shift in our economic lives. But, we've managed to stay afloat and at the 11th hour, it turned out I could get unemployment. That was nothing short of a miracle. But, now, we can make it. Miles is socked away at kindergarten half days and Audrey gets to attend her preschool once a week in exchange for odd jobs that I do for them. I also found a pretty cool mommy and me class in the 'hood where we sing songs, play, do crafts, and learn things. I like it.

I have hit a nice rhythm with domestic life. I clean the house, do the laundry, run the errands, prepare the healthy mom dinners. It's not so bad. I like it, even. I don't really WANT to work right now unless it's on my own terms. This last part is a bit difficult. I've had a few interviews but nothing has happened yet. I am getting freelance projects as it seems the economy improves. Truthfully, freelancing is the best thing for me right now. We'll see.

I got things in order enough, I was finally able to focus on what I always put last on the priority list: myself. I just can't ignore the weight I've gained and the utterly crappy way I feel toting this excess baggage around. This propelled me to begin going to the gym again and to walk sheepishly back to my Weight Watchers meeting.


As usual, I wasn't able to lose all my weight in one week. Damn that! But, I have to say, I'm slowly doing the things I'm supposed to be doing. Cutting out the stuff, watching portions, exercising. And, it's great. I love it. My hope is to cross this god-awful birthday I have coming at the end of January 20 pounds lighter than I was on October 27. We'll see. In the meantime, I'm finding some rather tasty healthy recipes. Who knew cauliflower with cumin and lemon zest roasted in the oven would be so delish.

It is.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Biloxi, 1969

(First in a series on family vacation memories).

My summer of '69 was spent along the Biloxi Gulf Coast. I was four, my brother was two, and my cousin Jeff was about 18 months old and an only child for a very brief moment in his life.

I'm sure this vacation was a big deal at the time. My dad owned a very well-maintained 1963 Buick, probably his only possession of any value prior to his marriage to my mother when he was just 21. Since having my own kids, I understand the sense of freedom and promise they must have felt after being chained to the difficult life of having babies. Babies really cramp the style of people who like the social life; who want to hit the road in 1963 Buicks; who are still young.

In 1969, my brother was newly potty trained and this meant it would be a lot easier to hit the beach, stay in a motel. We all went in one car with my daddy driving, his first-cousin, Donald, riding shotgun, smoking his pipe. Kurt got the place of honor in the middle of those two, a mini man among giants, free of safety seats and restraints. In the wide back seat, "Miss Clara," (Mr. Donald's wife), their baby son Jeff, me, and my mama.

I was only four so I remember the things four-year-olds remember, or seem to remember. I remember gun metal skies with lightning streaking across. August in the Gulf region meant a conveyor belt of thunderstorms and, unknown to everyone at the time, a deadly storm was plodding along toward our little redneck riviera. The grown-ups formed a protective barrier so we were able to see a new world and not worry about forces of nature or traffic jams.

In my little mind, going to Biloxi was a great expansion of the world. It was far away. A two and a half hour drive and when you crossed the border into Mississippi, everything was different: kudzu, pine forests, different colored asphalt, blue signs, rebel flags, tighter drinking laws. Even New Orleans loomed big with stacks of interstate ramps that switched us over to a round about easterly route, overlooking the CBD, and shooting us off to Slidell.

Because this pulls from a four-year-old's memory, I offer you flashes of what sticks in my mind: the dolphin show at this giant metal covered amphitheater; actual waves in the Gulf compliments of a soon to be bitch of a hurricane; a ferry ride to Dolphin Island; cloth training diapers hung on the motel patio; and lots of time spent in the kiddie pool with a new friend.

Our hotel was nothing more than a Holiday Inn. I remember we took home the logo towels and used them for swimming lessons for years. And, I remember the lamps in the room. I don't actually remember the lamps, but I remember Mama, Daddy, Clara, and Donald talking about them. They loved the lamps.

Hurricane Camile cut our time short in this first Biloxi excursion. We left in a haste of quick packing and dark skies and lightning, at the time thinking the storm would come our way like Betsy did in 1965. I knew that my parents and Clara and Donald were worried because Betsy was bad enough for them to give them stories to tell all their lives. We packed back into the car to head home, listening to staticky AM news reports, and watching hostile skies.

Hurricane Camille hit on August 17, 1969. While hippies danced in the mud in Woodstock and people died in Vietnam, Gulf Coast residents had to look in the face of the dark side of nature. When we returned home, we all spent the storm together at my grandparents' house across the road from our house. We were spared the full force of the storm. we are on the "good" side. I remember hearing rain and wind throughout that night. My grandparents' house had a tin roof so debris and rain knocked hard. But, the household felt relief around the hurricane lamps, plotting the storm course based on Nash Robert's broadcast which switched to only radio once the power went out.

The devastation from Camile affected my community greatly. Betsy survivors shipped clothes, food, and money to the neighbors on the Gulf. I parted with a beloved doll. And, Mama, Daddy, Clara, and Donald thought about those lamps. Those lamps they loved and joked about stealing. They regretted not taking them.

I don't think the motel where we stayed survived. Soon after, a new one was put in its place. We rode the beach again after the storm seeing slabs left over from the tidal wave, the SS Camile boat that landed in a place of honor to come a monument to the storm. That storm would be the worst people would see...for awhile, at least.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


I'm in a Bunco group.

There are a lot of things I never imagined myself doing: marriage, childbirth, going to church, keeping a clean house. But Bunco was so far from the possibility of anything in my imagination. Before I was asked to be in a Bunco group, I didn't even know what Bunco was, much less have any desire to play. But, the person who asked me is someone I adore, so I went. I found out after it's this suburban mom thing and the connations associated with all that made me gag. If my 25-year-old self saw me now, she'd disown me.

But, now I play Bunco.

Bunco is this simple dice game that involves no strategy, not much knowledge of anything except the ability to read the dots on a dice. Given that we are aging moms on the verge of bifocals, this part isn't always so easy. Mostly, we drink and chat and eat. When you're not hosting, you get a grown up night in a nice house, eating on nice plates and food appears and you don't have to get up and see about anything if there's a scream or a crash (and usually, screamers and crashers have been handled offsite by cooperative spouses).

The great thing about our group is that we really aren't suburban moms. We live in Oakland in this sort of urban/surburban twilight. And, our organizer has a pretty relaxed approach to it. The commitment is low. No one gives anyone any grief for not showing up. It starts around 6:30 and is over by 9:30. All the women offer up some serious cocktail and food action. I don't have to do any homework like I would on a book club. The game is actually kind of fun. I get to yammer about myself to people who don't know me. And, they let me curse.

What's not to like?

Of course, the thing is, if I were to start a group, there are other things I'd pick over bunco. I get these ideas, ya know, and of course, I have no follow through. But, if it weren't for Bunco, here are the wine-associated activities I'd like to have a group of women meet for:

1) Poker
2) Games of Killer Sorry or Monopoly or Clue
3) Arts and Crafts
4) Nighttime urban hikes
5) Political discussion
6) Movies

My mom belonged to a Po-Kee-No group when I was a kid. When it was her turn to host, I would get so excited watching her pull out the barely used fancy snack dishes that sat on a little merry-go-around. She broke out canned pineapple, cheddar cheese cut into neat cubes and olives and made dips. My job was to pre-toothpick everything so the ladies could just grab and munch. The game itself was so cool, in a dark laminated box with it's tiny playing card images and chips. I would play pokeeno alone when I could get away with it.

Even though I knew most of the women who attended, it felt different knowing they were all coming without their kids or husbands and I never got to see them in that way because we were kicked out of the house and sent to the movies with my dad who used this chance to take us to see many a dying animal saga: Old Yeller, Where the Red Fern Grows, Flipper, Lady and the Tramp, The Aristocats, Benji.

In spite of myself, I really enjoy the Bunco gatherings. Our organizer, perhaps unbeknown to herself, pulled together an interesting hodgepodge of women. Some of the women are Catholic school moms of varying degrees of orthdoxy, two are from the preschool community, with a few neighbors and random friends thrown in. Surprisingly, tho, she managed to pick a group of down-to-earth, nonjudgmental types and it makes for a very enjoyable evening.

My luck with Bunco, though, sucks. Twice I've gotten the "booby" prize, which means I had the lowest score and get my ante amount back ($10). I can't even practice to get better. I just have dumb luck.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Vegan Food for Carnivores With Soul

I am the last person to be steered toward vegetarianism. And, even the word “vegan” sends me into convulsions. Often, I think that people who are most successful at being vegetarians don’t really like food in the first place, so giving up meat is easy for them. So when my friend Melody sheepishly suggested we try a vegan soul food in Oakland, I had to laugh, but I agreed with the full understanding that I was probably going to be hitting the McDonald’s drive thru on the way home to kill the health aftertaste.

For some reason, California can offer the world on a plate. But, when it comes to Cajun/Creole or soul food, I am consistently disappointed. I went to one Oakland spot after it got a gazillion raves and as I ordered I gushed to the waiter at how excited I was and he was all, “well, this isn’t going to taste like Louisiana.” (And he was right). Many times, I’ve dragged my homesick, deep-fried deprived, fatback-decrepit self to the soul flavor of the month ready to be satisfied. And, many times, I’ve left feeling bloated and wanting a plane ticket to Armstrong International Airport.

There was one ray of hope for a brief moment in time while I was pregnant with Miles. A New Orleans native named “Chef D’Z” opened a poboy shop on East 14th in San Leandro. David and I went there a few times in our little Blue Focus, circumnavigating the African American Harley Riding Group that was usually parked out front drinking from brown paper bags and revving their engines. I’d crawl out like Moby Dick coming out of a clown car: a belly followed by a person looking for jambalaya. Chef D’Z got me through a pregnancy where I’d crave red beans and rice, jambalaya, poboys, and crawfish. His place was so good, it was like it had been lifted up by a giant crane right from New Orleans and plopped on the outskirts of San Leandro. He boiled crawfish in the back for football games. It was the real deal. Alas, Chef D’Z took a trip home to Mardi Gras and got into a terrible car accident. We went for a last poboy and his mama was PISSED and told us that she didn’t move out to California to work at no restaurant and soon after, the great beacon of real Louisiana food that I did not have to prepare myself was extinguished.

Since then, I’d take reviews of soul food restaurants in Oakland at their word, summon up some friends and go sample the fare and while initially feeling like I was getting some semblance of home, in the end, I was always left flat and disappointed.

Along comes Melody with her whacky ideas and her links to the East Bay Express reviews of Souley Vegan. I figured, what the hell. I read the reviews. Melody and I get together once a month more to hang out than have an incredible foodie experience. I wasn’t going to let the food thing be the focus but after reading the reviews, I really did feel the need to offer my expert opinion. Souley Vegan was named best soul food restaurant in Oakland--Not best VEGAN restaurant or best Vegan soul food, but best soul food in Oakland. Hard to believe, I thought.

The comments after the article were mostly glowing with a few people complaining about the dirty curtains and the service. They all seemed to love the food.

I was still skeptical.

Tonight, there we were, the first customers of the evening, greeted by the sweetest woman (who is the sister of the owner) and told as first timers, we should just get the everything platter.

The platter consisted of lentils, black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes, mac and cheese (fake cheese, of course), greens, cornbread, barbecue tofu, and southern fried tofu with an extra-added bonus of red beans and rice and fried okra.

OK, I know y’all read that and stopped short at the tofu section of that sentence. I did too. I was not looking forward to that. The other stuff, I was ok with, but I figured the cornbread would be “souley” lacking in cornbreadiness, and I activate my gag reflex at the idea of non-cheese cheese. I also gasped at the array of mint teas and such. I figure if I’m going to be eating tofu, I’d at least like a beer. I must admit, I skipped on the tea and stuck to tap water.

OH well.

After a short wait, out came our plates. And there it was. The things that could pass without any sort of meat in them (the greens and beans) surrounded by fried tofu thingies.

I kept an open mind, but the expectations were low.

But, it smelled AMAZING.

I decided to just get the tofu over with right away and dug right into the barbecue. And, lawdy lawdy miss clawdy, that barbecue tofu was THE SHIT. I know using the word shit in a review about food is kinda gross, but IT WAS THE SHIT. I loved it. The sauce was amazing. In fact, the sauce was so good, they could pour it on actual shit and it would be good.

Each dish we sampled was just absolutely delicious. I can’t believe it. The deep fried tofu looked, dare I say it, like catfish and I didn’t even think I was eating tofu. The crust on it was perfect and so flavorful.

Restaurants out here fry stuff, but the batter never has any flavor. I complain about this often. But here, wrapped around bean curd like some sort of sacrilegious middle finger to meat eaters everywhere was the most kick ass fried whatever I’d ever had. I didn’t care. It was good.

The greens were spicy but not overly so and complex and not bitter at all. Usually, I find vegetarian versions of greens fall flat. The red beans and rice would make my Maw Maw weep and say a novena in disbelief that beans could taste that good without any salt pork or sausage. I loved the spices used. And, again, they don’t just put a bunch of cayenne in stuff and call it dinner. The fried okra was good (well, even among the real deal, fried okra is vegan), lightly battered and nice and crispy. The sweet potatoes were wonderful, without being too syrupy or mushy. And, I just want to know how in the hell they got vegan mac and cheese and vegan potato salad to taste equally as good as the dairy based counterparts. No lie! It was good and it was kinda freaking me out.

So, folks who doubt me, go check it out and tell me what you think. I ain’t giving up the chance to walk cat-a-corner to the Everet and Jones for full on meat bbq, but I tell ya, the Vegan Soul Food at Souley Vegan makes me really think hard about being able to have some good tasting food without hurting anything who’s had a mother.