Friday, February 20, 2015

Best Laid Plans

The three of us grew up in Baltimore together.  Twenty something, just out of grad school, living alone but down the block from each other.  We were covered in school debt and looking for jobs with the ever profitable NGOs.  Poor but well educated dreamers.
On Valentine’s day, we met up in Tanzania to re-kindle our love.
It was going to be a romantic night.  We dressed up in long clingy beach dresses and did our make-up channeling “sultry.”  The taxi arrived to pick us up and we lifted our long dresses into the car. 
30 minutes later, we were deeply stuck in Dar Es Salaam’s special brand of engagement breaking traffic.  The fumes swam up through our nostrils into our stomach. 

“Ugh, I’m so sick,” said Jen who was new to Tanzania.
“It’s ok,” said Val our host, “we’ll be there soon.”
30 minutes later, again, we turned onto a bumpy dirt road, weaving through tall swampy reeds, straight into a dead end.  We turned around and did the same thing in another direction.

“Does this look familiar, Val?”
“Kind of, I don’t know. [turning to the driver] Can you ask someone where the restaurant is?”
10 minutes later.
“Please sir, can you asked someone where the restaurant is?” No reply.  We call another driver we know who knows where the restaurant is and how to speak English.  We pass the phone.

We arrive at our romantic restaurant 2 hours later, but it’s ok, it’s only 9pm, and we’re sitting on the beach. 
“Let’s order a bottle of wine, some appetizers, and some delicious food. It’ll be so good.”
The waitress brings over one glass, one menu and a candle that has blown out.
“I’m sorry to be a pain but could you please bring us some more menus and place settings?”
We pick out a bottle of white sparkling wine, crisp, cold, and perfect for the occasion.
Jen hands the waitress a card saying, in Swahili, that she has a gluten allergy.  The card lists things that she cannot have, flour, soy sauce, barley… 
“So does the fish have gluten in it?  Does it have these things on the list?”
“It does have things on the list?”
“Can I have this dish without getting sick?”
“Yes I will bring for you.”
“No, I’m asking.”
“I’ll have the chicken.”

Val and I ordered Lobster Macaroni and Cheese and fish cakes for appetizers and pasta with seafood for dinner.
20 minutes later the waitress come back with the menu, “I’m sorry, this wine is not available.”  No problem, we order the red.  And would it be possible for her to bring matches for the candle?
Jen’s chicken comes out and starts to get cold. 
“Please Jen, eat it, I’m sure our appetizers will be here soon.”
The waitress comes back, “I’m sorry, this wine is not available.”  Can you just bring us what wine you have?  And matches please?  And our appetizers?

15 minutes later she brings a bottle of wine to our table, and we cheers.  To being young and in Tanzania and being on the beach.
Jen finishes her dinner and Val and I don’t have food.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, is our food coming?”

Just then a speaker we thought was a rock erupts with loud dance music and a DJ rapping into the mic “Sound check, sound check, yeah yeah yeah, sound check, sound check.” He has a button on his mixer that makes a siren noise.  “Sound check, what what, EREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEWWWWWWWWOOOO, Sound check sound check.”
“I don’t think he gets the meaning of sound check.”
“Ma’am, can you turn down the music a bit, we are screaming to hear each other.”
Our appetizers and entrees come out all at once 5 minutes later.  The appetizers are cold and hard but still pretty delicious and our pasta was overcooked but had good flavor.  Jen sat and watched us eat. 

“I’m sorry, ma’am can you turn down the music, it’s so loud and there is no one on the dance floor.”
“Sound check, what what, EREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEWWWWWWWWOOOO, Sound check sound check.”
A flashing colored light turns on facing the beach, blaring into our faces.
“I’m sorry sir, can you turn that light away from us?” we ask the manager.
“Oh sure, so sorry.”
He tilts the light a fraction of an inch to the left.
“Thanks so much.”
We start cracking up, leaning into each other.  Because so it goes.
We grab our wine and walk along the beach toasting to our love and our future loves.
We return back through the restaurant to meet our car out front.
The waitress has returned with matches to light the candle on our table.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Life on the Beach

I’ve been in Tanzania for a week now.  Had to leave Uganda for a month to sort out a visa situation. So I ran away to Tanzania and am staying with Val.  Val left with her brother to go on a safari and I spend my days working on a balcony that presses against the sea.  The skyline’s to my right, the neverending Indian Ocean to my left and the stupidly blue sky above me.  It’s silly how lucky I am.  

My nights are spent getting to know the expats from Dar.  I think I might have the expat friend maker formula down:

Isn’t it hard to find men out here?  Don’t you miss cheese?  Do you want to go on an adventure this weekend?  Of course I’ll bring the wine.

And you’re in.

I spend my nights on a pillow on the balcony reading about ebola (best to be prepared), drinking wine, pretending to be an artist, wishing for a Bob Dylan of our time to step up already, rekindling neglected friendships with long emails and shaky Skype calls.

I’m still applying for jobs, and that’s still very scary.  But it is very nice to put a pin in my life and get out to the ocean.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Brooklyn Italian Christmas Eve

I grew up in a Brooklyn family.  My mom is an Irish New Yorker and my other mom is an Italian New Yorker.  Holidays were split (Irish, Gowanus, Easter/ Italian, Coney Island, Christmas Eve).  My family is loud, obsessed with food, loud, curly haired, loud.  My uncle always likes to comment on his dismay when he first entered the family. 
"You plan the menu, talk about the ingredients, talk about the prep, then finally sit down to the meal and all you do is talk about how it was made." 

In keeping with this tradition, I would like to share with you how to make a proper Brooklyn Italian Christmas Eve dinner.
For the first time since my grandfather died and my family moved to Florida, most of us are back together in the city to make the meal that my Grandpa used to make.

Christmas Dinner is the dinner of 7 fishes.  So count with me as I go along.

First you all have to get together, a week in advance, and prepare the menu.
My aunt, cousin, uncle, grandma, and mom (on speaker phone) and 3 bottles of red wine.

"Who's writing this down? Chel, get the pad. Alright, you're the note taker."
"Are you going to hurry up, I have to get all the way back to Staten Island before traffic on the Belt becomes a nightmare."
"Alright, so are we going to do the fish salad?"
"OF COURSE we're going to do the fish salad."
"Can we get it from MET food?"
"What are you sick?  I'll make the fish salad."
"Who do you think is paying?"
"You are ma."
"Ok but we're not doing the fried Bakala."
(Mom from phone perks up)
"OF COURSE we're doing the bakala, that's my favorite part!  Also it's another fish and we gotta make 7"
"Elio (my grandma's boyfriend) made an amazing crab sauce.  We have to put that on the menu."
"AND the scungilli sauce?"
"Whatever.  We have to put the crab sauce on there."
"Ok what about greens.  Broccoli Rabe?"
"Broccoli Rabe on Christmas?  Is there something wrong with you?"
"Salad.  We have salad."
"Ok I gotta go.  Don't go too crazy.  You have a $300 limit.  Go to MET food."
"Ok ma."

Next day at Fairway.

"BILLY!  We got your fish!  It's looking beautiful."
We grab handfuls of slippery calamari and put them into bags.  I picked out one medium size octopus and fluffed it up a bit to see if it would do.  
My uncle takes a look at the chopped scungilli in the case and turns to the lady with a bouffant next to him
"Do you think this will do?"
"For the fish salad?"
"Nah, you gotta go for the wholes."

We pile whole scungilli  in the bag along with shrimp, one long piece of salted bakala, pastas, olives, big bag of freshly grated parmesan cheese.  Pile the groceries into the car, and told I had to be at Grandma's at 9 am to start cooking so that she doesn't freak out.

The Menu

Fish Salad
Stuffed Clams 
Fried Calamari
Antipast Salad
Twisted Italian Bread with Seeds

Long Fussiili with Scungilli sauce
Linguini with Clam Sauce

Fried Bakala
Stuffed Calamari
Shrimp Scampi

Stuffed Artichokes

Fruit Salad

Marzipan rainbow cookies


Fish Salad

The Fish Salad is easily the most time consuming item on the menu.  Everything is done from scratch.  First you gotta:

Crack the olives.  I'm using the bottom of a cup here.  
  • Cut and clean the celery.  Cut and clean the parsley.  
  • Clean the shrimp and saute, low heat with a little butter
  • Clean and boil the calamari  Set aside a few tubes for stuffing later.

  • Cut tubes into ringlets for the salad
  • Take the scungilli and clean it well.  Rinse under water, Use your fingers to remove the "pee pee" and cut into small pieces for salad and sauce.
  • Now is the fun part: Octopus (Polpo).  It's already probably been cleaned by the store, but you have to rinse it a bit more.  Then take the Octopus, put it on a butcher board, and beat the hell out of it to make it tender.  A process my grandfather used to call "Beating the polpo" and would beat it against the ground outside next to the schoolyard.

  • Then, holding the octopus by the head, dip the legs quickly up and down into the pot of boiling water until the legs curl up.  Then put the whole octopus in for 5 minutes.  Remove the polpo, cut the tentacles up for the salad, and cut the head off for the kids to play with as a ball.
  • Put in a large martini glass and drizzle olive oil and lemon juice

Stuffed Clams
Buy from Rocco's in Dyker Heights and serve with lemon wedges.

Fried Calamari
Buy from Rocco's.  Make sure to bring over right away and serve so don't get soggy.

Antipast Salad
Purchase: Stuffed peppers, provolone, olives (mixed), red peppers, artichoke hearts, mozzarella, balls, brined mushrooms

Twisted, Italian Bread with seeds from Cuccio's on Avenue X


Fussili with Scungilli Sauce

  • Saute some garlic on low heat with top shelf olive oil until lightly browned
  • Add scungilli pieces and red wine, reduce
  • Add a few large cans of expensive crushed tomatoes
  • Salt, Pepper more red wine
  • Simmer to death, add more water when needed
  • Served with Fussili, al dente

Linguini with Clam Sauce
Get Elio to make it


Fried Bakala

  • Cut salted bakala into little pieces
  • Dredge in flour
  • Deep Fry

Stuffed Calamari

  • Stuff the breadcrumb mix (Italian Progresso Crumbs, tons of parmesan cheese, chopped garlic) into the calamari tubes that you pulled out earlier
  • Roll between hands to stuff as much as possible
  • Secure with a toothpick, drizzle with olive oil, bake
  • Serve covered with tomato sauce

Shrimp Scampi
  • Clean and saute the shrimp olive oil over medium heat
  • Cover with tomato sauce, bake in oven
  • It's a salad
Stuffed Artichokes
  • Pick nice big green artichokes.  For your produce, go to Three Guys from Brooklyn in Dyker Heights.  It's open 24/7 and they have beautiful vegetables
  • Spread the leaves on the chokes and stuff with your breadcrump mix extremely liberally
  • Stand all artichokes up in a pot.  Pack 'em in so that they don't fall down
  • Add water, olive oil, and white wine to the bottom of the pot, cover the pot and simmer for hours
  • Using a baster, pick up the liquid from the bottom of the pot and pour over artichokes. Add more liquid when the bottom runs out

Fruit Salad
  • Strawberries, pomegranate seeds, mint, blueberries, watermelon, lemon juice

Cannolis and rainbow cookies
Can also pick up from Cuccio's with the bread

Make sure you serve dinner with many (many) bottles of red wine, and about an hour break between each course!

My family documents the prices, menu, and reviews of the food every year in this book.  My grandpa started out writing it and now we all take turns.

Buon Appetito!
Monday, February 9, 2015

Vaccinate Your Children

In 2006, mumps, a deadly disease that had been eradicated in the US, had an outbreak with reported cases in eight states.  The outbreak occurred because unvaccinated children caught and spread the disease, resulting in 15 deaths.  When you don’t vaccinate your child you not only put your own child’s life on the line, but that of someone else’s child as well.  I’m an advocate for personal medical freedom and the rights of parents to know what is best for their children. I relish my customizable life, ringtone for every feeling, adjustable payment plans. But vaccinations are not customizable, not negotiable.  Just as drunk driving puts yourself and others at risk, not vaccinating endangers both your child and others. 

What do we do about this outbreak of non-vaccination?  Parents need to be educated about vaccinations so they can make informed decisions.   Public health officials need to take a stand before exemption becomes epidemic.  And by stand I don’t mean a seat on 60 minutes with Dr. Important “comforting” the public with his alphabet of acronyms.  In 1998, former doctor Andrew Wakefield published an article linking the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to autism.  With charisma and a strong simple message he swayed thousands of parents to question vaccination.  In response, public health officials published in the Institute of Medicine Review.  "…the body of epidemiological evidence favors rejection of a causal relationship" - a weak statement to counter the bold assertions of the charismatic doctor, unlikely to be understood by the average parent. Anti-vaccination groups are using rhetoric of the people, while public health is issuing retractions and calling for additional studies.  These limp wrists and weak fists leave parents without a reliable and convincing source of medical information on vaccine safety.  Educators need to be urgent, informative and conversational to gain the trust and understanding of the public.  In school we are taught how to appreciate foreign cultures in order to implement new public health interventions, yet we don’t understand our own culture enough to educate and influence. In order to make a policy truly effect change we need a message that resonates.  An educational campaign complete with Oprah sponsorship and “Got Vaccines?” clothes line.

When traveling in India I saw a man with polio.  Hunched over with wasted limbs he screamed in pain and for mercy.  It was nothing short of a miracle when Jonas Salk licensed the polio vaccine in 1962.  The vaccine has eliminated polio from most countries in the world, and reduced the worldwide incidence from an estimated 350,000 cases in 1988 to 1,652 cases in 2007.  Now that polio has been eradicated in the US the crippling effects of the disease are no longer visible.  Out of sight and out of mind, parents are forgetting how dangerous these diseases are and are more worried about the infinitesimal chance of adverse events following vaccination than they are that their child will suffer from deadly, debilitating diseases that struck fear in the hearts of parents a single generation before, when vaccines were not yet available. With an effective educational campaign these vaccine safety concerns will seem appropriately slight compared to the horror of polio and measles.  Public health officials need to get this message across to the public or all of the progress we’ve made will be for naught.