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.