F is for Food truck

ZM truck at MannI didn’t set out to own a food truck. I got that fever that a lot of middle class intellectuals get, wanting to open a restaurant. Although I like to think it’s in my blood, since my grandfather owned a very successful deli-style restaurant (which unfortunately closed before I was born).

I was fed up with my 9 to 5 job and the games we play to appease our bosses and colleagues. A restaurant in my  neighborhood went up for sale (the building, not the business), and it got me thinking: what kind of restaurant would I open? My first thought was farm to table: all local and seasonal. But that concept was already becoming so popular, it was losing its wow factor. Then I heard (on NPR, naturally) a review of the restaurant at the National Museum of the American Indian – the Mitsitam Cafe – and I had that light bulb moment: Native American cuisine. I’ve always felt an affinity for Native American cultures; when people ask me why, my standard reply is that I must have been Native American in a previous life. I can’t really think of any other reason. I grew up in a nice Jewish family in Baltimore, Maryland, and had no real contact with American Indians, or even the concept of Native America, until I was 15 years old and went on a cross-country camping trip that included all sorts of unique experiences, among them a home-stay on the Navajo reservation.

The concept appealed to me on so many levels: the potential variety would be endless; the food would be delicious and healthy; I could source locally without that being the main focus of the restaurant; and, most important to me, I could use food as a way to introduce people to the vibrancy of Native American cultures.

Then I came up with an even better idea: instead of a restaurant, I envisioned a nonprofit devoted to educating people about American Indian cultures by introducing them to the native foods and culinary traditions of the Western hemisphere. I would open a little cafe with a modest menu (nothing as ambitious as the menu at Mitsitam Cafe), educational and artistic exhibits, and a variety of programs and activities like cooking demonstrations, speakers, workshops, themed meals, etc.

The problem was I didn’t know where to begin. And I didn’t really have the expertise to curate the exhibits or to put together programming. At that point in time I didn’t even know who the experts were, although today I probably would have no problem keeping a full calendar of activities: I have since met numerous wonderful and generous folks from around the country who are involved in some way or another with Native American foods.

But, I could cook. So … what to do? I sure couldn’t afford a restaurant. I almost bought a little neighborhood coffee shop that would have provided the perfect space for my concept, but someone else made an offer before I had a chance. Then, on the suggestion of a friend, I thought a food truck would be just the thing, so I started looking around. About eight months later, I opened Zea May’s Kitchen. And you know what Z is for. Stay tuned.

F is for Food truck

E is for Elephant

se asia 2011 010Elephants are great for all sorts of reasons. They’re huge, they’re cute, they’re smart, and they’re sensitive. One of my favorite viral videos is the one of Tarra the elephant and Bella the dog. They’re best friends at an animal sanctuary in Tennessee. Bella gets sick and is confined to the animal hospital for a few weeks, and Tarra stands guard outside, waiting for her friend to get better.

Bella & Tarra aren’t the only dog & elephant to become fast friends. At another sanctuary, this one in South Carolina, an elephant named Bubbles struck up a friendship with an abandoned black lab, who, naturally, became a fixture at the sanctuary.

The thing about these stories isn’t just that they make adorable videos. They also provide pretty good evidence for the fact that animals are a lot more complex than a lot of folks give them credit for. I happen to be of the opinion that all animals are created equal – including human animals. I don’t buy into that nonsense about humans being superior and therefore entitled to dominate animals. On the other hand I don’t have a problem with having pets – as long as they’re appropriate for your living situation. After all, cats and dogs domesticated us, not the other way around. (Oops – E is not for cats and dogs. Oh well.)

A few years ago I had the immense pleasure of meeting a lovely elephant named Noey. She lived with some other elephants in a preserve in northern Thailand, outside of the city of Chiang Mai. Noey, like many elephants, really enjoyed those little bananas that are ubiquitous in southeast Asia. (My husband really likes those bananas too. Luckily he let Noey have all the ones that were ear-marked for her.)

There’s something really magical about standing next to an animal as immense as an elephant. To see those huge round feet, to touch that thick leathery skin and that totally funky trunk, to peer into those heavy-lidded eyes. I never realized what I was missing till I met Noey.

E is for Elephant

D is for Dementia

The good news is I’m not the one with dementia (yet). The bad news is, it’s my mom. And dealing with her and her illness kind of consumes my life.

I first noticed a problem several years ago, when my dad was still alive and we were planning a party to celebrate his 85th birthday.  We were trying to decide which weekend would be best for the most people. At the same time I was planning a long-weekend get-away, so I made it very clear to my mom that that particular weekend would not work for me. And … you guessed it. She planned the party for that weekend. (Luckily I hadn’t purchased my plane tickets so no harm was done.)

A couple of years later, after my dad died, my mom took me on an amazing trip, a cruise to Antarctica. (In case you’re wondering, this is not a luxury cruise but rather an adventure expedition.) I noticed her inability to remember where our room was – even after a week on the boat. And, she began making things up to cover up for the fact that she couldn’t remember things.

It’s gotten progressively worse since then. I remember being appalled when she put a stamp on an envelope where the return address sticker should be. It’s almost impossible to have a conversation with her for more than a minute without her repeating herself. When I talk to her in the evening, she doesn’t remember what she had for dinner. She often leaves the exact same message on my phone, three or four times in a half hour. (Honestly, I am not exaggerating: ask my sister or my nieces.)

A few months ago she took one of those driving tests for people with impairments. She was only driving around in her little suburb, only going places she’d been to a million times. But we were so worried about her getting lost or getting into an accident, and an elder care specialist confirmed that she was an accident waiting to happen, which scared the daylights out of us. Sure enough, she did not pass, and her license was taken away. So, we hired a caregiver to take her places. Problem is, she doesn’t really need a caregiver – and she sure doesn’t want one. A companion, maybe, but it’s proving impossible to find what we’re looking for: someone like her, only without the memory loss!

The really sad thing is that she is in this in-between stage where she remembers who she used to be and what her life used to be like, and she knows that she’s not that person any more. Physically she’s perfectly healthy; in fact, if you met her, you’d think she was 70, not 84 (unless, of course, you tried to have a conversation with her). But mentally and emotionally she’s a hot mess. She knows she’s losing her memory and, worse, she knows she’s losing her ability to be the strong, smart, independent woman she was. She knows she needs our help and she hates herself for that. What she doesn’t know is just how painful it is to watch her fade away.

D is for Dementia

C is for Chocolate, of course

I’m not sure why I chose Chocolate for today’s topic. I mean, what is there to say about chocolate? It’s simply manna from heaven. I must admit, however, that I am rather picky about my chocolate. It has to be dark, and high quality. It must be ethically sourced; Green America is a great resource for figuring that out. And I like my chocolate to have a little something extra: maybe something fruity or nutty or spicy – or all of the above. Otherwise it’s got to be really, really top notch. Like the chocolate I had in the former Soviet Union. Supposedly they suck the air out of it, leaving little holes (think Swiss cheese). I was in Moscow back when Russia was still the USSR, and I met someone who worked in the state-owned chocolate factory. I begged him to give me a tour of the factory. He asked permission, which was denied, because that factory supplied chocolate to the Soviet army, so its production methods were considered state secrets. Go figure.

Nowadays it’s pretty well known that chocolate is, in moderate amounts, very healthy. It’s got all those anti-oxidants, which are really good for you but please don’t ask me why. It’s also got theobromine (“food of the gods” in ancient Greek), an ingredient that’s rumored to simulate the feeling of being in love – which is why we give chocolate on Valentine’s Day. (Betcha didn’t know that!)

Cocoa pods, source of chocolate. At a demo at the National Museum of the American Indian in DC.
Cocoa pods, source of chocolate. At a demo at the National Museum of the American Indian in DC.

Although chocolate is often associated with Belgium or Switzerland (and, in my case, Russia), it actually originated in Central America, where the Aztecs and Incas and other tribes made a thick, unsweetened drink that they used in religious ceremonies. Just one more reason to thank Native Americans for the many delicious and nutritious foods they contributed to global cuisines.

C is for Chocolate, of course

B is for the Bryn Mawr School for Girls

I spent 10 years of my life at the Bryn Mawr School for Girls – BMS for short – a small, elite, private school in Baltimore, Maryland. The school was founded by some women connected to Bryn Mawr College, an all-women’s college outside of Philadelphia. Apparently there was no where for young women to get a college-prep-worthy education in the early days of Bryn Mawr College; hence the need for a prep school. There’s no doubt I received a truly top notch education there. How many women my age (don’t ask) had the opportunity to study Latin, ancient Greek, Norse mythology, the history of art (with an incredibly quirky recent Radcliffe grad), calculus, physics – all in high school. (Well, I skipped physics, but that’s a story for another day.)

The school was tiny – only 40 or so girls in my graduating class. And I sort of lied about calculus. There were so few of us (four, to be exact) who made it through all the other math courses that, instead of teaching us at BMS, they sent us across the street to Gilman, our “brother” school across the street. Naturally we four young women – we were seniors then – were both the teacher’s pets and the talk of the school: it was the first time such a program was offered. If memory serves, the four of us received among the highest grades in that class. No surprise, huh?

What BMS had going for it in quality of education, it lacked in diversity. Sure, there was a token non-white girl in every class, and a small handful of us from Jewish families, but most of my classmates were from families that today might be considered the 1%. I’ve been pretty surprised to re-connect with quite a few of them on Facebook, only to discover that most of us share very left-leaning politics. (I was the only one who voted Democrat in the mock election our senior year.)

The school was so preppy it was named the #1 all-girls day school in the Preppy Handbook. Anyone who has known me any time from college on can attest to the fact that preppy is hardly my style. In fact, the college I chose was listed in the very same Preppy Handbook as the #1 college that true preps should avoid: Oberlin College. I guess I was trying to make up for lost time. And wouldn’t you know, Oberlin was the first place (with the possible exception of summer camp) where I felt like I really belonged. Among my reasons for choosing Oberlin, aside from its stellar reputation, were the vegetarian dining hall, the living and dining co-ops, and the absence of fraternities and sororities. And, of course, the reason it was considered antithetical to prep style: the hairy-legged women.

Even though I truly appreciate the education I got at BMS, I’ll always regret not sharing the American public school experience. Especially now, living in Philadelphia, at a time when public schools are experiencing such dire financial crisis. I’ve always thought that if everyone sent their kids to public schools, the overall quality of those schools would be so much better. And there might be more motivation on the part of the powers that be to fund public schools more equitably. Is that too much to ask?

B is for the Bryn Mawr School for Girls

A is for April … and Appendix

I’m always hearing people say things like, live every day to the fullest because you never know what’s going to happen to you. I used to roll my eyes at that because frankly nothing so life-altering ever happened to me. Until February 4. After dinner I got a really bad tummy ache and fever and I couldn’t stop shaking. But I figured I could sleep it off so I just went to bed … for 5 days – not counting a visit to the doctor, who ordered a CT scan. By the time I got the CT scan on day 5, I was in such distress that the radiologist read the scan immediately and then had a nurse wheel me directly over to the ER. Who knew a burst appendix could wreak so much havoc in an otherwise healthy body? Bits of appendix everywhere inside of me, infections galore, abscesses too big to fathom – in short, an absolute mess. Things were so bad it took a full two weeks before a fleet of doctors decided I was well enough to go home. (I’ll spare you the therapeutic details.) Two weeks! Who the heck stays in the hospital for two weeks? And guess what? The doctors were wrong! Five days later, I was re-admitted, this time for a week, during which time I had major abdominal surgery that lasted nearly four hours and left me feeling like I was pummeled by herd of hippopotomuses. It’s now a month later and I still feel like I”m living in someone else’s body. And my only consolation is that, well, you just never know what’s going to happen to you.

A is for April … and Appendix

A is for April … and Appendix

I’m always hearing people say things like, live every day to the fullest because you never know what’s going to happen to you. I used to roll my eyes at that because frankly nothing so life-altering ever happened to me. Until February 4. After dinner I got a really bad tummy ache and fever and I couldn’t stop shaking. But I figured I could sleep it off so I just went to bed … for 5 days – not counting a visit to the doctor, who ordered a CT scan. By the time I got the CT scan on day 5, I was in such distress that the radiologist read the scan immediately and then had a nurse wheel me directly over to the ER. Who knew a burst appendix could wreak so much havoc in an otherwise healthy body? Bits of appendix everywhere inside of me, infections galore, abscesses too big to fathom – in short, an absolute mess. Things were so bad it took a full two weeks before a fleet of doctors decided I was well enough to go home. (I’ll spare you the therapeutic details.) Two weeks! Who the heck stays in the hospital for two weeks? And guess what? The doctors were wrong! Five days later, I was re-admitted, this time for a week, during which time I had major abdominal surgery that lasted nearly four hours and left me feeling like I was pummeled by herd of hippopotomuses. It’s now a month later and I still feel like I”m living in someone else’s body. And my only consolation is that, well, you just never know what’s going to happen to you.

A is for April … and Appendix