Friday, February 17, 2017

Saving the Planet with Pig Poop in Mexico


I'm back in Oaxaca, Mexico and soon will be posting photos of this beautiful city during Carnival, but today I want to re-post a story that I first wrote exactly seven years ago when I was in Michoacan, Mexico, on a tour to see the unforgettable swarming of the Monarch butterflies who come every winter from thousands of miles away.  This tour, led by chef Susanna Trilling of "Seasons of my Heart", introduced us to two indigenous women who are true heroines and feminists, and the way they help the people of Mexico is an inspiration to all women, especially today.  (And I apologize to all my friends who have told me how much they hate the word "poop". I got it from my granddaughter, Amalia, who at the moment is obsessed with poop.)

 Here in the troubled Mexican state of Michoacan, on a tour called “Michoacan Cuisine and Monarch Butterflies” led by the Oaxacan chef Susana Trilling, I’ve met a lot of remarkable people. Two of the most interesting are women from the indigenous Purepecha tribe native to this region. Both women have used their talents and courage to improve their lives and the lives of those around them.

 First we met Benedicta Alja Vardas, who came with her 16-year-old daughter Graziella, lugging her carbon-burning grill, from her small village of San Lorenzo to the  Colegio Culinario in Morelia to teach us some of the dishes from her people’s pre-hispanic roots. (Both the cuisine and the music of Michoacan have been declared non-tangible World Heritage Treasures by the Mexican government.)

Benedicta, who speaks the Purepecha language at home, was an orphan who married at 13.  She had two daughters after the age of 20 and rarely left her village.  But seven years ago, in the first  “Encounter of Traditional Chefs” in Morelia, she won first place and has won first place (and often second as well) every year since. Last year the judges decided to make her a lifetime honoree and let others compete.  Although Benedicta had never traveled, in October of last year she was flown to San Antonio, Texas to demonstrate her cooking methods before the Culinary Institute of America.

Wearing her traditional Michoacan traje of  pleated velvet skirt, lace blouse and lace-edged apron, Benedicta cooked several dishes for us.  The recipes were all labor intensive and involved lots of grinding things on the metate—pumpkin seeds, chili seeds, herbs, flowers and of course corn,( including masa dough), which is the  foundation of the local pre-hispanic diet.   Her speciality is Molé de Queso—cheese molé—and a pumpkin-seed-based Atapakua, which is stirred only in one direction until it thickens enough for the spoon to stand up in the pot.

For a grand finale she made tri-colored tortillas our of blue, white and red corn dough.

The second and even more remarkable Purepecha woman chef we met was Calletana (also spelled Cayetana) Nambo Rangel, whose home we visited in the village of  Erongaricuaro.   She has been fighting  for women’s and children’s rights most of her 66 years. One of 12 siblings, Cayetana says, “I get lawyers for abused women and children. I don’t want any woman to be abused because I was abused myself.”

Cayetana was employed as a social worker in her village when, 13 years ago, the Mexican government sent a group of men “all doctors and engineers,” to Colombia to learn about the revolutionary method of using animal waste to create a natural gas that could be used to power a family’s heat and electricity at no cost—and  in a way that emits no carbon into the environment and even  sterilizes the residue to provide nutritious fertilizer for crops. (It can work with the waste from pigs, cows, goats, and even humans.)

“The government wouldn’t pay for my ticket to Colombia because I was a woman,” she says,  “but I wanted to go, so I sold two cows to pay for my ticket.”  When the group returned from Colombia, the only person who understood the technology and installed it in her own home was Cayetana.

Since then, she has spread the word about bio gas and biodigesters (look it up) throughout her part of Mexico.  She has been visited by people from Peru, Israel, Russia, Canada and many other countries, who came to learn the process.  Cayetana can be seen preaching her  gospel on YouTube (in Spanish).  She shows us a letter written to the U.S. State Department in an effort to get her a visa to come to the Illinois to lecture hog farmers on “improving and implementing technology in hog farms,” but the request for her visa was turned down.

On Friday, when we visited Cayetana in her large, immaculate kitchen and watched her cook several pre-hispanic dishes (again grinding on the metate) she insisted we get hands-on experience and learn to wrap corn leaves around a dough of masa and frijoles for corundas.  She also created a stew-like soup, all cooked on her stove which is powered by gas from the waste produced by her three pigs .  She cooks using “Quatros Fuegos—four fires” namely burning charcoal, burning wood, propane gas. (she says she can’t remember the last time she bought a tank) and using the bio gas from her pigs.

 She took us outside to show how the waste from the pigs is mixed with water from a hose, (“You don’t  even get dirty”) and then the waste runs into a tank where it  is converted into gas which fills a huge plastic bag.  The gas is then sent by a tube into the house to the water heater and stove.

 Cayetana insisted we work before we got to eat the feast we’d prepared.  in her flower-filled courtyard we toasted her with sweet lime water flavored with Chia seeds before she and her aged mother Lupe hugged and kissed us and waved good-bye.


Saturday, February 11, 2017

Valentines in the U.S. --It all started here

(I posted this last year but have been collecting new antique Valentines since then-- I LOVE the Victorian German-made ones  because they're  so elaborate and fragile and full of romance.  Why can't some modern card company reproduce them in all their three-dimensional glory? ) 

    Worcester, MA, the once-bustling industrial metropolis 45 minutes west of Boston where I live, is enormously proud of its rather peculiar list of “famous firsts”, including barbed wire, shredded wheat, the monkey wrench, the birth control pill, the first perfect game in major league baseball, the first liquid-fueled rocket and the ubiquitous yellow Smiley Face icon.
And every year about this time, you hear about how Worcester produced the first commercial valentines in this country thanks to a foresighted young woman named Esther Howland, known as the “Mother of the Valentine.”
    Esther Howland (1828-1904) attended Mount Holyoke at the same time as Emily Dickinson. She was the daughter of a successful Worcester stationer and, in 1847, she received a frilly English valentine that inspired her to ask her father to order materials from England so that she could assemble her own.  She then convinced her brother, a salesman for the company, to show a few of her valentines on his sales rounds.
    The initial demand was overwhelming and Esther gathered some of her friends to help her assemble the valentines, seating them around a long table on the third floor of her home.  The company was eventually earning $100,000—a phenomenal success.
    Esther is considered significant because, according to historians, she was among the first commercially successful women overseeing a female-run business, and she basically created the assembly-line system, paying the local women “liberally”.  She introduced layers of lace, three-dimensional accordion effects, and insisted that the verses be hidden inside--something you had to hunt for. She had her staff mark the back of each valentine with a red “H”.
    In the Victorian era, Valentines were wildly popular, and the elaborate cards were scrutinized for clues—even the position of the stamp on the envelope meant something. Often the valentine was intended as a marriage proposal.

    On Feb. 14, 1849, Emily Dickinson wrote to her cousin, “The last week has been a merry one in Amherst; notes have flown around like snowflakes.  Ancient gentlemen & spinsters, forgetting time & multitude of years, have doffed their wrinkles – in exchange for smiles…”
    In 1879—after 30 years in business—Esther Howland merged with Edward Taft, the son of Jotham Taft, a North Grafton valentine maker.  Together they formed the New England Valentine Co. (and their cards were marked “N.E.V.Co.”)
     This is where Esther Howland’s title of “Mother of the Valentine” begins to get a little shaky.
It seems, upon much study, that Edward Taft’s father, Jotham Taft of North Grafton, a small village near Worcester, started the commercial valentine business in the U.S. even before Miss Howland did,  but he didn’t like to talk about it, because the Taft family were strict Quakers and Jotham Taft’s mother sternly disapproved of such frivolity as Valentines. (Full disclosure—I live in North Grafton, about a stone’s throw from where Taft worked.)
     In 1836, Jotham Taft married Sarah E. Coe of Rhode Island and two years later, they welcomed twin sons.  But in 1840, one of the twins died suddenly, leaving Mrs. Taft prostrate with grief.  Jotham decided to take his wife and surviving son to Europe with him on a buying trip for the stationer who employed him, and while in Germany, he bought many valentines supplies—laces, lithographs, birds and cupids.
     When he returned, Taft began making valentines with his wife’s help, and in 1844—3 years before Esther Howland graduated from college—he opened a valentine “factory” in North Grafton (then called New England Village.)  But because of his mother’s disapproval, Taft never put his own name on the valentines—only “Wood” (his middle name) or “N.E.V.” for “New England Village”.  Some believed that Taft trained Elizabeth Howland as one of his workers before she opened her own factory.
     Taft and Howland merged into the New England Valentine Co. in 1879, and a year later Esther’s father became ill and she left her business to care for him.  After he died, she moved in with one of her brothers and she passed away in 1904.Unfortunately, despite all the couples who presumably found their true love thanks to Esther’s creations, the “Mother of the Valentine” never married.

     In 1881, George C. Whitney bought the combined business of Taft and Howland and it became The Whitney Co,  which dominated valentine production for many years.  Instead of cards laboriously made by hand, Whitney turned to machine- printed valentines and eventually added postcards in the 1890’s.  The Whitney designs, featuring children who resembled the “Campbell Soup “ kids, were wildly popular, although more often exchanged by children than adult lovers, and in 1942 the Whitney factory closed, as a result of wartime paper shortages.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A Brave Young Mother's Thoughts Before Surgery

I had completely forgotten that on Feb. 8, five years ago today, our daughter Eleni went into surgery in Florida to remove one of her ovaries that had been swallowed up by a possibly malignant cyst.  While I stayed in her apartment with six-month-old Amalia, the rest of the family were at the hospital waiting to hear the report, and the suspense was unbearable.  When I finally got the phone call, I posted on Facebook: "Who was it that said the most beautiful word in the English language is 'benign'?"  The happy ending to this story is that three years later, Eleni and Emilio were able to add Amalia's little brother Nicolas to their family.   But today, I re-read the essay Eleni managed to write and post on her blog "The Liminal Stage" before going off to the hospital.  I'm re-posting it here, because I think it's so eloquent and brave, and to remind us how blessed we are.

Same Same, But Different

February 8, 2012 by 11 Comments
Almost exactly 10 years ago I had a cyst removed from my right ovary. It was discovered during my annual gynecologic exam, which I had scheduled early because I was about to move to Greece to oversee the rebuilding of my grandparents’ house, which had fallen into ruin after the Greek Civil War, an experience would form the basis of my travel memoir, North of Ithaka. 

My doctor assured me that the cyst was probably nothing to worry about, that it was most likely water-filled, or a benign growth like afibroid or a dermoid. But a post-surgical biopsy showed it to be a low-malignant potential tumor, which isn’t cancerous, but isn’t benign either, and a CT-scan revealed that I still had two small cysts on the back of that ovary.

Some people counseled me to have that ovary removed, pointing out that your chances of getting pregnant are the same with one ovary as with two (because the remaining ovary steps up its hormone production and releases an egg every month instead of every other). But I was young (27) and very single, and didn’t know what the future held, so I wanted to keep both ovaries just to be safe. So I opted to have routine ultrasounds to make sure that the cysts hadn’t grown in size.

They stayed the same for the next ten years, even throughout my pregnancy. Then last week, in my six-month post-delivery checkup, we did the usual ultrasound and it revealed an 8-cm cyst on my right ovary (actually, the cyst is so large it has sort of swallowed the ovary). Everyone agreed that it (and, this time, the dwarfed ovary) had to come out. It was déja vu all over again.

Only this time everything felt totally different. On the one hand, I was much better off than I had been during my first surgery, when I was young and single and had no idea if I’d ever have children. I now have the incredible husband I wasn’t sure existed, and we already have one very funny, highly adorable baby. A baby who came partly from an egg that the problematic right ovary had dropped (I know because during my pregnancy ultrasounds we saw the corpus luteum cyst, which remains when the egg is released, on the right).

But that’s where things get complicated. That what’s changed the most since my last surgery–this little baby. She depends on me for everything, down to the food she eats. The truth is, she’d get by just fine if I weren’t around–she has her papi and three grandmothers and loving aunts and grandpas and all the rest–but she’s also such a delight to be around that I don’t want to miss watching her discover the world, not even for the day I’ll be surgery. She gets so excited feeling the wind or watching the rain or when a stranger waves at her, and I want to see every one of those smiles and hear her guttural little laugh.

The oophorectamy I’m having today is an outpatient procedure. If all goes well, I should be in and out the same day, and after three days of pumping and dumping (and Amalía’s grandma giving her milk I’ve stored) the anesthesia will be out of my system and I can feed her again.

So I’ve been trying not to get all Terms of Endearment about what I hope what will be a minor procedure. The doctor told me that there’s a 20% chance the mass is cancerous, given my history and the tumor’s size, but I’ve been trying to focus on the 80%. And eighty percent is pretty good odds, even though it’s a B-, and nobody likes a B-, not even in gym class. That’s probably my problem–my life is the equivalent of grade inflation; I have the family I always wanted (although I would like to keep adding to it), and my novel is coming out in a week; maybe I’ve been too lucky and now I want everything to be A+ all the time without the interference of clear-liquid diets, surgery, and whisperings of mortality.

But I’ve been talking to some of my girlfriends, and I think it’s not just me and my unrealistic expectations. One friend was about to go in for dental surgery when I called her, and, knowing she was about to be put under general anesthesia, she said she couldn’t stop thinking about who would raise her child if something were to happen to her, where her husband would move, and what influences would dominate her baby’s life. It may be maudlin, but it’s also natural and unavoidable. Everyone tells you that everything changes when you have a baby; this is just one of the unexpected ways in which that is true.

I think that’s one of the most significant things that changes when you have a child; you become aware that if something were to happen to you, you would miss out not only on experiencing your life, but also on witnessing his or hers. The joy of life doubles, but then, so does the risk, the potential loss.

I realize this blog’s a bit of a downer. And that’s how life has been lately, but only in moments. Because every day there are incidents that are so amazing, watching Amalía laugh at her grandparents who are visiting, as she tries to bite their knuckles to soothe her teething, or they pinch her nose. And those moments are so purely fun that they’re not even outweighed by the fear of missing out on them.

So I’m trying not to worry too much, to stay calm until the surgery happens and to hope everything goes well. I do what I can to feel in control, employing the rituals that give me comfort. I pray. I went to church and took communion. I bought my mother a necklace with an image of Ganesh, remover of obstacles, on it. And I had my toenails painted, because every time I look at them while I’m having a medical test they cheer me up.

 I also see signs everywhere, or I hear them rather; “the Rose” was playing on the muzak system during my MRI, and I remembered singing it with my sister in the backseat of the car on a drive across Greece with my parents. “Dynamite”, which was sort of a theme song of our wedding reception, played on the radio the way to one doctor’s appointment, and I had to laugh out loud that I considered a cheesy disco tune to be a message from on high. I saw a big rainbow en route to my pre-op blood typing. And every time Amalía chuckles her vaguely evil little chuckle I think it’s a promise that I’ve got a lot more of those coming to me.

Because after the initial appointment when I learned I need surgery, I rushed home to relieve the babysitter, who was already late for her next appointment, since what was supposed to be a routine doctor’s visit took so long. Then I wheeled Amalía’s stroller down to the beach to show her the ocean and to promise that there’ so much more we’re going to discover together in the future, and she laughed to show she understood what I was trying to tell her.