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travel

Cocinar

There is a women’s cooperative in Leon, Nicaragua, dedicated to reviving and passing forward some dying indigenous history.

Specifically, they are working to preserve ancient recipes. First, they draw upon their collective knowledge of recipes, and then they teach each other. After that, they open their homes so that they can teach interested parties, often tourists.

Byron, a devoted cook, booked us a morning of learning from a woman who is part of this cooperative. Physically, he was almost acquiver with the anticipation. For him, to stand in someone’s kitchen in another country and learn what they do feels like a true Christmas.

Our lesson started when Dona Flor came to our hotel and picked us up. She spoke no English; we have limited Spanish.

With the “no worries” stroll of a Latin American, she led us to a nearby market, a crammed jumble of a place–as all good markets should be–the entrance to which we would never have noticed, had she not led us in.

At the first stall, Dona Flor bought cheese. In the traditional Nicaraguan breakfast, this cheese is fried. For the recipe she taught us, it was grated.
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Next, she bought some peppers.

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Do you see lemons?
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No, you don’t. ‘Cause ain’t none.
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Can Paco find a lemon? Paco cannot. Find none lemon.
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Oh, you can look and look, Waldo, but you will never find even uno limon.
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None lemons in hand, but plenty of other good stuff purchased, Dona Flor shepherded us onto a bus to her neighborhood. Not only was it properly rundown and creaky, central casting had been kind enough to send over a guy holding a live chicken.
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Once we reached Dona Flor’s part of town, we again followed in her thrall. At one point, Byron wondered aloud, “How would I say ‘shady side of street’?” But then, with that “no worries” stroll of hers, Dona Flor naturally migrated shadeward.
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When we got to her house, Dona Flor called out to her Mami to come open the gate. Dona Flor is 58; her husband died two years ago; she has two sons, one 28 and one 19. The 19-year-old is the father of her first grandchild. All of this, I learned during the bus ride. I don’t speak Spanish. In other words, World, go somewhere and don’t fret if you don’t speak the language. Just be ready to smile a lot and use huge gestures. Works for me.
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Once inside, we were seated at the dining room table and given cold water, which may have saved Paco from an early death. Kid gets hot.
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While we drank cold water, and Dona Flor bustled around in the kitchen, pulling out pans, prepping for us to enter, we listened to the sweet mewls and cries of her one-month-old grandbaby. I felt strongly that the baby wanted me to hold it. No one else seemed to speak Baby, though. They just thought she was crying.
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LET THE COOKING COMMENCE!

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The entree was a kind of stew called Indio Viejo (Old Man). Its base is a bunch of fresh masa diluted with water and beef stock. To start the dish, sautee some onions and peppers in oil. Then run out to the field and pluck some fresh masa off the nearest Masa Tree.
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Dona Flor’s kitchen is looong. I love the industrial scale hanging from the ceiling. I also am enough of an animal that I enjoyed the complete lack of dish soap or a cloth or sponge as she washed up a few plates.
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Remember the part about sauteeing onions and peppers? DUH.
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The fresh masa came in a plastic sack; there were about five palm-sized balls that Dona Flor smooshed up with some paprika, for color, before adding crema and beef broth.
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While the stew thickened, Dona Flor showed us how to make tosterones, which are twice-fried plantains. Can one ever fry a plantain too much? we mused, philosophically.
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After the initial frying, the plantains come out of the oil, put under a piece of plastic cling film, and smashed with a drinking glass. Allegra’s massive upper body strength overwhelmed one or two of the weaker medallions.
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Everyone took a turn at plantain smashing, for, as the old adage goes, “The family that smashes plantains together remains silent during long taxi rides together.”
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This is where Paco was sitting while the rest of us shredded beef and smashed plantains. He had to drink more water. Were you paying attention before? KID GETS HOT.
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I feel like we haven’t really stared enough at smashed plantains yet. So here.
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After a second frying of the plantains, the tosterones were done. At that same time, the Indio Viejo stew was also done (shredded beef and grated cheese were added midway in the process). Why, yes, that is fresh papaya/orange juice you see! All of it was so fantastic that it kicked even Paco’s sweaty softness into recovery.
Once we’d finished eating and paid Dona Flor, she walked us back to the corner to catch the bus back to our part of the city. Once it arrived, she gave a good shout to the muchacho handling the money, telling him to be sure we got off near the university. Friends, I kissed her goodbye. I did.
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I mean, the food was good and all, but you know what really restored Paco’s spirits?
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And now we have this recipe, written in Dona Flor’s hand, recording a recipe used by her great-great-great-great-a-hundred-great-grandmothers. It is the best possible souvenir.
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Categories
Twelve Days of Summer

Twelve Days of Summer with My Twelve-Year-Old: DAY TEN

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On the tenth day of Summer(mas), my middle schooler gave to me: ten meringues a’melting

——————–

When he was born, he was a big baby, fully 50% larger than his sister had been. That made sense: I’d carried him 41 days longer than I’d carried her. He’d had bonus snack time inside the sac.

In the minutes after the nice doctor scooped him out of me with a melon baller, Paco suffered through the wiping of vernix and the recording of his APGAR score (a 22). But then, quickly reaching the end of his three-minute-old patience, he squawked to the assembled crowd, “Anyone got a nosh? Some croutons? Maybe a pickle? In a pinch, yea, I’ll tuck in to some of that colostrum, but can you do me a solid, Ma, and make it extra rich?”

Thus, Paco’s eating career was launched.

By the end of his first day of life, my nipples were raw; by the end of the second day, the nurses ventured the dreaded question: “Can we give him a bottle of sugar water? You’ve been nursing for hours, but he’s still so hungry.”

Bless him for being Child #2 so that I didn’t have to freak out and blather about “My child shall never have a bottle” and “I can’t meet his needs. I’m such a failure.” Instead, despite the intensely decimating fatigue that rushed in after a day-long induced labor followed by an emergency C-section capped by hella long time in recovery, and despite the hormones that washed away all hope of logic, I greeted the nurses’ question with relative calm.

I only cried a little bit as I clutched a pillow to my incision and sighed, “Yes. You can give him a bottle of sugar water. That traumatized little posterior-facing chunk is ravenous. Please, while I weep quietly into the edge of my sheet and avert my gaze, feel free to take the edge off his hunger.”

Fortunately, some steely maternal resolve governed my milk supply and his attitude, for that was both the last bottle he was ever offered and the last bottle he ever agreed to take. As the days carried on, my nipples toughened, my milk rushed to fill his stomach, and he grew a pound a week for the first eight weeks of life.

So there I was, all the time, every day, plus all night, every night, nursing my 18-pound two-month old, dandling him on my lap, rolling with him around the mattress, kneading his soft, sweet pudge, asking him as he sucked, “Would you maybe like to learn how to drive? Or start an accounting firm? I think you’re ready for keys and a necktie.”

Eventually, we started him on solids–at which point he spoke his first words, a shouted “IT’S ABOUT TIME”–and, from his first sneer at a spoonful of pureed apricots, we also started him on a cascade of preference expression that often sent us to the basement to scream into the dryer (setting: “fluff”).

“Baby want green beans?” was followed by an awe-inspiring hail of vegetable missiles arcing through the air, landing scattershot from bathroom to back door.

“Paco, how about some noodles with sauce?” had all of us gazing at the ceiling, marveling at the tenacity with which a piece of spaghetti can maintain its grip.

“Buddyboy, you finical little monster, want to suck on this wedge of lemon?” revealed a toddler who couldn’t stuff enough sour into his otherwise crabbing maw.

Over the years, until very recently, we’ve often despaired at the strictness of his palate. Then again, the despair has been laced with bemusement, for our rabid lemon eater, he who disdained a hot dog, also clambered aboard my lap in a Vietnamese restaurant when he was three and proceeded to slurp down a significant portion of my massive bowl of pho.

As it turns out, while he came late to lasagna, Paco’s mouth loves pesto, curry, edamame, soy, carne adobada. He sucks down blueberries like a bear cub, a cup of coffee as though his pulse needs a jump start, black pepper popcorn like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are thundering down the alley.

But, sweet rack of lamb, do not offer him a slice of cheesecake, a handful of trail mix, or suggest that his bowl of granola, being delicately lifted to his soft lips with a tiny spoon, might profit from milk or yogurt. Five years ago, I coerced him into trying a bite of cucumber, and I still hear about the anguished torture of swallowing vomit generated by the resultant gag reflex.

I consider it one of my life’s greatest achievements that my son eats hamburgers. It took more than a decade of diplomatic cajoling to win him to that cause.

If I splice his tastes very finely, though, it becomes apparent that his palate is, in fact, admirably refined. He likes anise and basil; screw the ketchup. As well, he has always been crazy for a cooking show and a new cookbook. Recently, I was able to tell him, in the course of a single day, “…so if you have to read a non-fiction book for school this year, you might enjoy the biography of Julia Child called Dearie, and also, yes, we can make the Yorkshire Pudding in Alton Brown’s Good Eats book for dinner. It’ll will, indeed, be the perfect foil for our meat juices.”

Despite years of despair over his refusal to eat “easy” food, I now glory in his quirky requests for pan-fried noodles with a side bowl of spinach leaves–which will be dipped, one by one, into yet another side bowl, this one holding ginger dressing. I also rejoice that his interest in food allowed him to agree to a World Cooking class a few months ago when I was hectoring him to please, please, please, for-the-love-of-your-parents-who-need-you-to-go-away-for-three-hours-a-day-for-just-one-week-of-the-summer, consider a camp or two.

Oh, there were caveats. He did not want to enroll in both the sweet and the savory World Cooking classes even though one was offered in the morning and the other in the afternoon. A full day would be too much. Also, he would vastly prefer the savory section but would perhaps be amenable to the sweet-based sessions so long as we understood they would be spiced with a dash of grumbling. Moreover, he would only attend this camp if a friend would attend along with him.

Here’s what I didn’t see coming when the nice doctor melon balled a 10 pound, 2 ounce baby out of me after a day of three epidurals and a Pitocin-fueled labor that resulted in fetal decelerations: the moment twelve years later when I would look that former baby directly the eyes and think, “Although part of me wants to accommodate your attitude because I understand anxiety and the need to be very particular in what feels comfortable, I also suspect you’re at least 10% butthead. However, because an honest parent needs to take ownership of a fair portion of her child’s buttheadishness, I agree to your conditions and will now buoy your butthead ways by writing out a cheque for $120–which, after taxes, is pretty much a day’s work for your father. In return, you will of course excuse me for jotting ‘Ingrate’ on the memo line, yes?”

So we lined up a friend–a cousin!–and took a look at schedules; to my delight for a variety of reasons (read: Butthead Had to Suck It Up and Mommy Loves Napoleons), the kids enrolled in the Sweets section.

As it turned out, the camp ran during the week when I was in New Mexico, so I didn’t even get to enjoy hours in my house without my kid, a phenomenon I call “I do believe in God, for there is a heaven.” I also didn’t get to enjoy all the treats Paco brought home each day. His World Cooking teacher was a French woman, and therefore it must have killed her to be teaching zee mysteries of zee kitchen to callous kids in a rube town in Northern Minnesota. Not only had her subjects been raised on lutefisk as “good food,” she also was limited enough in time and facilities that she had to–comment est-ce que vous dites?cut corners.

At the end of the week of World Cooking camp, which dovetailed with the end of my time in New Mexico, I returned home at midnight and was met in the kitchen by a few Paco Products that he’d saved for me. There were a couple of meringues, wonderfully chewy from the day’s humidity. There was a small wedge of apple strudel. And there was a wee, bite-sized tartlet.

Paco Meringues

To a mother returning home from a week away, foraging in the kitchen at midnight, always hoping for a surprise tidbit of sweetness, Paco’s offerings were fantastic. Alone in the dark, I applauded each bite appreciatively.

Paco World Cooking

The next morning, however, as he explained them, he was apologetic. He was sorry that corners had been cut. He would have liked all the ingredients and processes to be authentic. I talked down his protests: “But, kid, you used a torch on crème brûlée! That’s super authentic.” Holding up my hand, I continued, “I will not hear a word against you or your cooking. Cease.”

Happily, he was excited enough about the camp and his new recipes that he wanted to make something for Byron on Father’s Day. “I’m going to make you a big tart, Dad, one that we all can eat. You like berries, right?”

So we took Paco’s World Cooking class recipe to the store. We bought what it told us to. Then Paco hit the kitchen and, while I was out for a run, he cranked out a tart for his pappy. When I returned home, I took a peek in the fridge and ooohed loudly.

Modestly, Paco corrected my reaction, saying, “It’s not really cooking because it’s pretty much pre-made stuff, and Dad helped me roll out the crust because I got frustrated with it. I was hungry. I did better after I ate. But, even if it’s not totally real, and I had help, it’s still good. I had my piece already, and it was really good.”

After a moment of thinking “…and a happy Father’s Day to you, Byron, stuck dealing with a stomach-growling butthead while I’m out running in the sunshine,” I realized something. All his life, Paco has wrestled with hunger. From the first night he breathed air, he has craved satiation. For twelve years, whenever his stomach has called, it’s been a challenge to find the correct answer. Even worse, his mood is intimately tied to hunger; few things have sent Byron and me skittering to the cupboard faster than our boy in a foul temper. Because Paco, despite his love of croutons and pickles, is fundamentally sweet, not savory, we have long known that if the kid is crabby, he’s hungry. In many ways, his appetite has ruled us all.

Yet.

He wanted to make the food.

He struggled to make the food.

He realized he was hungry.

He fed himself.

He felt better.

This tart, no matter how “fake” the ingredients, was a masterpiece, a turning point.

This tart was a revelation.

As my brain raced to catch up with new realities, I affirmed his words. “I’m so glad you had something to eat and then were able to finish making this beautiful tart for Dad. It’s cool that he helped you with it, too, since he’s always been The Cook in your life, and the two of you are a well-established crackerjack team. But most of all, Pup, excellent work eating when you realized your mood was crashing. There’s no question: this tart is pastry rock and roll. I can’t wait to dig in!”

Smiling happily, letting my words fill him, he advised–in the fashion of Julia Child, Thomas Keller, and Jacques Pepin–“When you eat your piece, Mom, don’t take a bite that slices a raspberry in two. What you have to do is get the whole raspberry in your mouth and then let it explode with juiciness that washes all over the French Vanilla pudding and crust. That will be important to your eating experience.”

A few hours later, as I stood alone in the kitchen at midnight, taking the first bite of my big baby’s masterpiece, I contemplated a raspberry and laughed. It looked just like a raw nipple.

Chuckling, I lifted the fork.

As promised, the raspberry, taken whole into the mouth, exploded with a juiciness that washed over the pudding, the crust, and my heart.

It tasted exactly like love.

Tart

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