Begin With Russian Dumplings

We might live in less divisive times if world leaders learned a few lessons from multi-cultural families.

The intersection of New Year’s weekend in Latvia with the Russian side of our family [by marriage] with news of cyber-hacking by Russia’s government in the U.S. presidential election is one example. Cultural and political tensions between nations have always been complicated to resolve. In contrast, relationships in our dual culture family grow stronger with shared experiences, cooperation, and acceptance. People behave better than governments.

The holiday time in Riga made me think about new ways to initiate diplomacy between Russia and the United States. It might begin with, well…making Russian dumplings.

I have been to Latvia twice with our daughter-in-law’s family. [Previous stories: Shrooming in LatviaLetting Go In Latvia] What I know about Russian generosity, from the first time and thereafter, is that it begins at the table and flows outward from the heart.

New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2016

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This was the evening for a small family gathering. After gifts were exchanged, we sat down at Aunt Olga and Uncle Ivar’s large dining table.

There was food covering the entire surface. We generously helped ourselves to dishes of caviar or smoked fish and quail eggs on bread. There was a huge platter of olives, pickled tomatoes, stuffed peppers, salted cucumbers, garlic and mushrooms. There was perch salad, stuffed calamari, meat salad, and layered shrimp salad. There was sturgeon in fish jelly, herring-in-a-coat, and lamprey–a bottom feeding fish that I diplomatically declined.

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aubergine salad, crudités, caviar, quail eggs on smoked fish, meat salad, marinated mushrooms [from the forest]

That was the beginning. Later, a second round of eating featured mutton, potatoes, and  more of the first courses. The finale was Polina’s homemade cheesecake.

We toasted throughout the meal [me, too!], which meant raising a shot glass of icy Beluga Vodka and downing it whenever someone spoke. After the first two toasts, I strategically sipped my drink. The other women refrained from vodka and drank juice or wine. I stayed with the cold Beluga, [too special to ever use in a mixed drink], finding it perfect with the food.

At 11:00 PM, when it was midnight in Moscow we toasted the Russian New Year. One hour later we toasted the arrival of 2017 in Latvia. Fireworks lit up the sky. Seven-month-old granddaughter was carried to an upstairs window to see the colorful light show.

New Year’s Day, January 1, 2017

The day for partying with family and friends! Guests and more guests arrived throughout the afternoon. It was an open house that overflowed with adults and children of all ages. There were platters and casseroles of food, shots of vodka [yes, indeed], glasses of cognac [with tonic and lemon], prosecco, champagne, beer and wine.

Russian music concerts played nonstop on the television. Women gossiped around the table or in the living room. Men stood at the kitchen island for manly talk and vodka. I learned that if Beluga is not available, Grey Goose or Finlandia are good choices for icy shots.

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manly toasting on new year’s day

Yuri Gorbacev is Anna’s maternal grandfather. Every year, on January first, he makes fresh dumplings from a family recipe that originated in the Ural Mountains.

Meat stuffing had been prepared the day before. It was a mixture of ground beef and pork, eggs, salt and pepper, onions and cabbage. When it was time to make the dough, two young girls joined Yuri. A new generation was eager to learn as there is no written recipe.

Basic Dumpling Dough [by observation]:

Start with a glass bowl with water in it. Break three eggs into the water. Stir yolks with a fork until broken. Throw in two unmeasured amounts of salt [like mini handfuls] Add more water. Pour in flour straight from the bag in several batches. Keep stirring with the same fork, even when dough gets thick and sticky and hard to turn. Arm muscles helpful.

Eventually, dump the lump of dough onto floured counter. Begin kneading.

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yuri’s hands, photo courtesy of kristians lipse

The girls were fully engaged under Yuri’s guidance. The rest of us watched. Our hands-on help time was approaching. Kneading completed, the dough was rolled out flat and thin, then cut into small rounds with the open end of a glass. Each round had to be packed full of the meat mixture, pinched tightly closed, bent into a circle and laid on a floured tray.

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the art of cutting circles, photo courtesy of kristians lipse

Readied dumplings were placed in boiling water. In a few minutes, they were pulled from the pot and immediately served. Latvian sour cream with or without black pepper was the dipping sauce. Vodka shot optional.

Adam and I stood next to each other as part of the dumpling-filling team. Others continued to roll dough, cut circles, fill or boil dumplings. Volunteers rotated by choosing a part to play: production, cleanup, serving, eating, or simply enjoying the party.

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leila lends her helping hand

The volume of voices suddenly grew very loud. Russian–spoken, shouted and sung overwhelmed the room. The cacophony turned into background “white noise” for Adam and me. We spoke of feeling “invisible” in the middle of a hubbub we couldn’t understand. It was surprisingly peaceful, even meditative. We murmured in our own language, rhythmically filling, pinching, and turning out dumplings.

Adam said it is like this every year. The dumpling ritual gives him a purpose. Then, when he can no longer discriminate words through the tangle of sounds, he slips into his own thoughts. It’s a little quieter there, yet he remains physically present amid the chaos. He can be happy in both places at the same time.

I had my own thoughts, too. Here I was, on New Year’s Day, in a houseful of partying Russians and Latvians who embraced me with ease. No tension. No discord. An international marriage, a dual culture grandchild and, of course, Yuri’s dumplings bound us all together in friendship, joy, and love.

It should always be this way…

 

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the cutest dumpling

“Not a Station, but a Place”–Paris to Avignon [Part 2]

For the historical and contemporary story of Gare de Lyon and Le Train Bleu, see Part I of “Not a Station, but a Place” published on this blog, October 2016.  “Not a Station, but a Place”–Gare de Lyon and Le Train Bleu, Paris [Part 1]

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railroad map: paris to avignon

In April 2016, my husband and I headed to Provence for a early spring weekend getaway. We wanted to explore Avignon, the former Papal capital during the Middle Ages. The direct TGV train from Paris’ Gare de Lyon would take us there in a little over three hours.

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the staircase to le train bleu

We arrived at the station two hours before departure time and ascended the wide curving staircase to the stylish restaurant on the second floor, Le Train Bleu. It overlooks the tracks of incoming and outgoing trains on one side and the city of Paris on the other.

The first order of business was to relax in comfortable ambience before travelling. The second was to enjoy a classic petit déjeuner à la M.F.K. Fisher who wrote stories set in this very spot from the 1930s-1960s. My mission was to replicate the experience 50+ years later, in her memory, and for mine.

Le Train Bleu is grandly austere and mostly empty in the early mornings. A few scattered travelers may show up to drink coffee or tea, but the white tablecloth tables and red leather banquettes are unavailable until lunch.

We invited friends, Sally and John, to join us even though they were not travelling. They were first timers to Le Train Bleu, and we knew they would enjoy the historical elegance along with an early breakfast and conversation.

Fisher’s typical breakfast order was thin slices of Italian Parma ham, good bread and butter and a half bottle of brut Champagne. Parma ham is no longer a menu choice, but the whole grain brown baguettes with butter and jam are still a tradition. Cappuccino or café noir replaced champagne as the beverage of choice.

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We breakfasted leisurely, ordering a second round of coffees. When our friends left on the metro back to Montmartre, we boarded the train headed south.

Exiting the station, the train picked up speed passing sooty graffiti-walled cityscape. Then came the banlieue [suburbs] with blocky cement apartment buildings and finally pastoral countryside dotted with farms and grazing animals.

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photo courtesy of SNCF [TGV trains]

Avignon sits on the banks of the Rhône River in Provence and is north of the coastal city of Marseille on the Mediterranean Sea. When the Catholic Church moved the papacy [during the 14th century] from Rome to Avignon, it was the center of Christianity for seven decades. From 1309-1376, the Palais de Papes [Popes’ Palace] was occupied by seven successive popes beginning with Clement V.

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UNESCO world heritage sites: bridge of avignon and pope’s palace, photo courtesy of meu

Avignon was still under papal control until the time of the French revolution in 1789. Afterwards, it was used as a barracks and then as a prison for many years. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage site with a must-see museum–the Popes’ Palace.

The Palais de Papes is the largest Gothic palace ever built. Its’ walls are an impenetrable 17-18 feet thick. Immense proportions are replete with cavernous halls, chapels and chambers.

For me, the most memorable part was the “Treasure Room” where all the gold, silver and jewels owned by the Church were kept. Back then, it was off limits to all, except for the Pope. Today, the room has a glass floor where you can see propped up, massive rectangular stones under which the treasures were hidden. Only the wildest imaginings can fathom the volume of wealth once secreted under these stones.

We stayed at La Mirande, an historic hotel in the shadow of the Palace museum. Originally it was a Cardinal’s palace, but resurrected into a period hotel centuries later. Our room had a small, walkout walled terrace overlooking rooftops and a church steeple. We sipped wine there after dark and carried pots of coffee from the breakfast buffet to sit in the morning sun as it slipped in and out of thick gray clouds.

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closeup on the steeple view

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rooftop mosaic from terrace

As is often the case, one of the best experiences we have when travelling is a restaurant we stumble upon.

We were lucky to slip into the last table for two in a tiny, terra cotta tile-floored café not far from the hotel. What we ate was simple and so satisfying that I knew we would replicate it at home.

On a piece of black slate, we were served a small round of baked Camembert cheese in its’ thin wooden container. Around the cheese box was rolled up slices of prosciutto, tiny roasted potatoes, small green cornichons, and a lightly dressed mixed salad. A basket of fresh bread and glasses of wine completed the table setting.

That molten cheese into which we dipped bread, potatoes, prosciutto and pickles is as memorable now as it was at first bite. The cold dampness of all-day showers disappeared. Dim lighting radiated warm ambience. Provençal wine complimented the peasant-like simplicity of the meal. We ordered a second glass.

That day, which began in the splendor of Belle Époque frescoes in “Not a station, but a Place”, ended at an unpretentious brick walled café with fogged over windows dripping rain.

There is a kind of perfection in the harmony of opposites. Enjoyment exists there too.  Early morning spring sunshine–chilly, drizzling afternoon rain. Parisian breakfast in luxurious splendor–provincial dinner in old world simplicity.

Si vous êtes chanceux, alors ça va parfois dans la vie… [If you are lucky, so it sometimes goes in life…]

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parisian luxury, le train bleu

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provincial simplicity, chez lulu, avignon

 

BAKED CAMEMBERT A LA PROVENÇALE

  • 1 small round camembert cheese per person or 1 large round for 2 people
  • boiled or roasted potatoes, skin on
  • prosciutto or any charcuterie [sliced meat], optional
  • tiny pickles [gherkins or cornichons]
  • raw veggies such as sweet peppers, radishes, cherry tomatoes, etc.
  • chewy baguette or crusty country bread
  • mixed green salad, dressed in homemade vinaigrette
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basic ingredients: camembert cheese, cornichons, potatoes, bread, veggies, mixed green salad

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remove some rind, insert garlic slices, drizzle with olive oil

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sprinkle with rosemary and/or chili peppers, place in an oven proof dish

Preparation:

  1. Remove the paper covering over cheese. Line the inside of the wooden box with aluminum foil [keeps cheese from leaking out of box]. Place cheese back in box. [Box should be held together with staples, not glue!]
  2. Cut a thin layer off the top rind to expose interior. Insert several slices of fresh garlic, place a few fresh rosemary leaves on top, a sprinkle of sea salt or chili peppers, as desired. [Optional use of garlic, rosemary, salt and peppers.]
  3. Drizzle a tiny amount of olive oil over. Place on baking sheet or in cast iron skillet in preheated oven set at 180C or 350F.
  4. Bake no more than 10-15 minutes, until cheese is “melt-y”.
  5. Place box of oozing Camembert on serving plate arranged with prepared potatoes, crudités, pickles, meat, and salad.
  6. To make the world’s best vinaigrette look here: Babies and Rice So Very Nice
  7. Serve with a basket of good bread.

A light red wine [Burgundy pinot noir], a crisp white wine [French Chablis], a rosé from Provence or Champagne [always perfect, all the time] as accompaniment.

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baked camembert served with turkey, pickles, tomatoes, bell pepper, potatoes, salad and bread

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et voilà, c’est mieux avec un verre de chablis

Winning–At What Cost?

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American Ambassador’s Residence, Paris, France  November 8, 2016

I am not a political pundit or an op-ed writer. I don’t wear my politics or spiritual beliefs on my shirtsleeve. I write stories. Not of war and peace, but about relationships, experiences, or simply a place–often overseas.

Twenty-nine years ago, we chose to leave our home in the U.S. and move to a country in Asia with two very young children. The initial motivation was a job opportunity. But the multi-cultural, international lifestyle suited us. So we remained abroad, living as expatriates.

From the beginning, we found ourselves experiencing stronger patriotic feelings toward our country by living outside it and looking back in. We talked about this with other Americans also living overseas. We weren’t alone in our pride.

People from other cultures have often told us how much they love and admire the United States. They openly wept and leant support in times of national disaster, 9/11 in particular.

They followed the details of our presidential elections. No matter what country we lived in, we have been asked to give opinions about current U.S. politics. Keen to the international importance of American leadership, people were interested in our “insider” knowledge. Which was, of course, simply what we ourselves believed.

This 2016 presidential election has been a turning point to wondering where in the world we belong. Yes, we are a generation older. Our global perspective feels very normal to us now. Yet, we are clearly outsiders looking back to a country we no longer recognize. We see a head-knocking clash of values and compromised national character.

This has been THE most difficult of elections to discuss or try to explain to non-Americans. During the campaign, my husband and I were often asked by neighbors in our Paris apartment building how Donald Trump could become a candidate for the Republican Party.

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We fumbled for words that mostly ended in head-shaking silence. Throughout the whole painful cycle we hung onto the [naïve] hope that preparation and decency and respect for the responsibility of being President of the United States would win in the end.

Because it didn’t work out that way, we have stumbled. We feel stuck in a way that is difficult to shake. Or explain to others in our overseas world.

My personal upset, initially “all over the map”, was honed by something I read a few days ago. A female educator, in Massachusetts, initially thought her sorrow would be about the loss of a qualified woman to lead the U.S., the loss of knowing what could have been.

She went on to say, “…but that’s not where the disappointment is for me. The disappointment is in the values that won and what it means for lots of people.”

In other words, our collective sorrow should be directed towards the dread of a man whose character and values make him a devastating choice both at home and in the world.

And there, in a nutshell, is my sticking point.

Values are goals to strive for, abstract standards to live by. They are the moral fiber that makes us human. Having them defines character. We grow up. We get to choose personal values that play to our individuality, defining the path by which we live.

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Notre Dame, Paris at sunset

There is also a history of values that Americans have culturally ascribed to those serving as U.S. President. Intelligence, preparation, responsibility to service and inclusion of all others, integrity on the job–these are a few.

Living in Europe the past eleven years has solidified for us the valued role American leadership has played historically and continues to play globally. In Normandy, where we repeatedly visit, United States and French flags are flown side by side. At the American cemetery on Omaha beach, French school children annually adopt an individual gravesite to take care of, remembering and learning about the soldier who lies there.

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On this windy, northern French coastline the memories of WWII remain very strong. People in Normandy beam when they learn you are American. All Europeans remember that in 1948, via the Marshall Plan, the U.S. pledged to rebuild a devastated continent. It was a remarkable historical first–the victor rising to aid the vanquished. These events [including the noble Berlin airlift] occurred because of morally responsible government leadership and values that represented the best of America.

One more story: Today, my husband went to pick up his dry cleaning. The normally reserved woman at the counter looked directly at him and asked, “How are you doing?’ Then she said, with utter despair, “I have no words!” It was raw emotion.

This election isn’t solely about disenfranchised voters with a myopic view of what they “think” is going to change and “the guy” who can get the job done. It isn’t solely about the inability to break a ceiling by a woman capable of doing so.

This election, as all before it, is also about the recognition, reputation and stance of the United States in the world. It has unnerved people internationally that much of our American-ness, the compassion and cultural values exercised and upheld for 240+ years have been cast aside by so many. At what cost?

And now, for the first time looking upon my country from afar…I feel ashamed.

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“Not a Station, but a Place”–Gare de Lyon and Le Train Bleu, Paris [Part 1]

Soon after we moved to Paris I sought out this “Place” M.F.K. Fisher [1908-1992] wrote eloquently about as being more than simply a train depot for entering or exiting the city. She was referring to the Gare de Lyon in the 12th Arrondissement. I wanted to know why it was so special…

Fisher’s experience on French trains began in 1929 when she moved from California to Dijon. She described herself in the early years as “…always one more ant scuttling for a certain track.” Then, in 1937, while waiting for guests to arrive, she sat under the enormous glass roof in a trackside café with marble tables and green trees planted in boxes. With a brandy and water in hand, absorbing her surroundings, she was suddenly overcome by a feeling that she “was not in a station, but in a Place”. From then on, she made it a habit to arrive early–with time to wait.

In the 1960s and early ‘70s, after children and husbands and lovers were long gone, she was often sent to Provence on writing assignments. Her publishers encouraged her to fly south from Paris. Memories honed decades earlier meant she preferred the “Mistral” train from Gare de Lyon to Marseille or Aix-en-Provence.

She developed the habit of arriving at least two hours before departure. This allowed time to ascend the wide stone staircase to the second floor restaurant–Le Train Bleu. When you spin through the revolving wood and glass door, then as now, it is like walking into a time capsule from La Belle Époque [1871-1914]. You instinctively stand a little taller and try to walk a little more gracefully to your table.

In 1900, Paris was hosting a second world’s fair. As part of the preparation, a new train station, Gare de Lyon, was designed to highlight the railway lines of the PLM [Paris-Lyon-Marseille] Company from Paris to destinations in Provence and the Côte d’Azur on the Mediterranean. The company also wanted a prestigious and elegant restaurant to symbolize travel, luxury and comfort.

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gare de lyon today

In 1901, Buffet de la Gare de Lyon first opened its’ doors amid sumptuous art nouveau décor. Ornate carvings, moldings, gilding, and imposing chandeliers highlighted frescoes and murals of cities and scenery viewed from PLM trains as they headed south and east. The restaurant offered tranquility, character, and a place for travelers to spend a refined break. In Fisher’s words, it was “all that was opulently cheerful, generously vulgar and delightful about la Belle Époque.”

In 1963, the restaurant was renamed Le Train Bleu in reference to the French Riviera destinations.

Fisher’s early arrival gave her the luxury of time for a leisurely breakfast or lunch. In the 1960s, she believed that the fresh bread served in Le Train Bleu was the best she had tasted since before WWII. For petit déjeuner she always had “bread and butter, Parma ham, and a half-bottle of brut champagne…”, which she thought a bit expensive, but enjoyed all the same.

If lunchtime, she started off with a Kir and wine cocktail, followed by some kind of soufflé and fresh berries for dessert. Oh–and a half bottle of white wine–Grand-Cru Chablis. She liked her grown up drinks, having adapted easily to the French way…

Interestingly, Fisher played a role in the longevity and preservation of Le Train Bleu. By the early 1970s, the paintings were filthy with soot and pollution, gold leaf was flaking from the ceiling, the lace curtains hung in tatters and, underfoot, the flooring creaked and sagged. She was told by a group of worried waiters that the restaurant’s survival seemed doomed. She relayed all this to an American friend, Janet Flanner, who was also her neighbor. Flanner, a longtime journalist and Paris correspondent for the New Yorker magazine, went directly to the French Minister of Culture at the time. Le Train Bleu was designated an historic monument in 1972.

Since that time there have been many renovations, the most recent in 2014. Parquet floors were insulated and shored up, paintings re-cleaned, carved moldings refinished or repainted, brass coat and luggage racks polished and leather banquettes refurbished. The name over the door was updated from neon lights to a chic metal plate.

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neon sign pre 2014 renovation

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and after renovation

The antique Big Ben Bar from 1901 is used today as a decoration piece and stands imposingly by the swinging glass doors to the kitchen. The original cash register is there too.

There is not one corner or wall, ceiling or chandelier, archway or window in this special Place that doesn’t grab your attention or overwhelm your senses. Every time.

These days, the menu is priced for upper-crust travellers, tourists or well-heeled Parisians. But because it is such a Place, truly unlike any other, it’s always worth it.

Recently, I went for lunch by myself. Timed perfectly, I arrived near the end of the service, around 2:00 PM. On this particularly cool, autumn day I decided to try the made-in-house foie gras served with rhubarb chutney and grainy toast, green salad and a glass of Montrachet white wine–from Burgundy.

When I dine alone, the pleasure is subtle and personal. I know not everyone feels this way. But, over time, I have fine-tuned the ability to “disappear” in public and enjoy everything around me as if I were invisibly dropped into the scene. It is an example of cultural learning from which I have benefitted greatly.

Fisher sometimes spoke of moving like “a ghost” in her travels, seemingly invisible to others, often because she was wrapped up in one of personal trials. I understand what she meant, but in a different way. For me, invisibility is a feeling of being completely content with my own company. And, at the same time, not taking anything [within the experience I am having] for granted. I observe and wonder discreetly, without being the center of anyone else’s observations.

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view toward kitchen and big ben bar

On this particular day, directly in front of me was an opulent antique buffet with perfectly arranged wine glasses and the PLM [Paris-Lyon-Marseille] logo carved on the top piece. Above that, reaching up to the very high ceiling, was a colorful painting of Marseille.

As the tables to the left and right gradually emptied, I gazed openly through the window to my left onto the tracks and boarding passengers one floor below. I wondered where they were going, how long they would stay. Was it travel for business, pleasure, something mysterious or even sad?

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view toward the station tracks

To the right, down a long banquette of tables reset for another meal, sat two diners leaning in towards one another. They were silhouetted against the window overlooking the square at the entrance. Why were they lingering? What was their conversation about? When you are invisible, all possibilities are imagined…

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Meal over, espresso finished, with no train to catch, I made my way home. Musing on the metro, my thoughts drifted to a getaway my husband and I took to Avignon last spring. A trip that began in a place, not a station…

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Judith S. Clancy drawing, exterior façades, 1979

To be continued in Part 2…very soon.

Shrooming in Latvia

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photo by olga gorbacova

In June 2015, our son, Adam, married his bride, Anna, next to a lake in the Latvian countryside. The partying went on for two days and was partially described in a previous story, “Letting Go in Latvia”.   Letting Go In Latvia

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the site, june 12, 2015

The women in our daughter-in-law’s family–mother, aunt, grandmother–invited me to return to Riga for mushroom hunting season in September. Foraging the forest for edible fungi is an anticipated annual event for the extended Russian family.

The lack of language on both sides [no Russian-me; basically no English-them] was slightly daunting. But then I realized it would be crazy to pass up an adventure like this. Think of the advantages: I would forge a new Russian/American alliance. I would participate in an ancient survival skill involving tools and hunting. And I would learn to avoid poisonous fungi that could upset international family relations.

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architecture in the historic part of riga

Arriving in Riga, I was hosted to a private tour of the old city and it’s history. My guide, a young Latvian woman, spoke fluent English. Anna’s mother, Tania, who speaks a little English but not confidently, acted as my personal photographer. She texted many photos of me around city landmarks and sites to her daughter.

Like many small Eastern European countries, Latvia has a complicated history. In the beginning it was purely Pagan. Then Germanic people arrived bringing Christianity to the old world mix. They set up shops and churches and a new form of civilization. There were also influxes of settlements of Poles, Finns, and Russians.

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on the tour with tania

After WWI, from 1918-1940, Latvia had a brief, twenty-two year period of complete independence. The Russians returned in 1940. Then, the Germans replaced the Russians until WWII ended. In 1945, the Russians ran the Germans out for the last time. The Soviet Period lasted until 1991. Finally, Latvia underwent its’ second independence with the breakup of the USSR. The post-Soviet years began.

In 1991, a new law stated that in order for citizens of Russian heritage to receive Latvian passports they must learn both the language and history of the country. Many chose not to, as they were past school age, raising families or trying to get by working their everyday jobs. Anna’s maternal grandmother, Vera Gorbacova, is one example. She was born on the eastern edge of Latvia near the current border with Russia. She raised two daughters with her husband and worked in a factory. She never learned to speak Latvian. The family’s mother tongue is purely Russian.

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vera aka “babushka”

Mushroom hunters in Latvia are a devoted cult. The day of the hunt has its’ own rituals. As foragers, the women have favorite forest landscapes where they return many times each season. Mushrooms are best harvested in cool, rainy weather where fungi grow plentifully in mossy groundcover, under trees, rocks, and leaves.

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Early fall of 2015 was unseasonably warm and sunny . I didn’t need to dress traditionally in rubber boots or even wear a coat. We left Riga mid-morning and drove 45 minutes outside the city to the secret woods. My guides, Tania, her sister Olga and their friend Edita, my translator, needed to do some serious sleuthing to find forest treasures that day.

I was given my own set of tools–a basket holding a knife for harvesting and a purple plum for energy. I was shown how to cut mushrooms close to the ground with the special blade. Off we went, fanning out to cover maximum territory.

The woods were not particularly dense, but if I wandered out of visual range I would hear a plaintive “Wennndeeeeey, where are you?” These women were not about to lose an American in a Latvian forest. I tried to stay within their comfort range.

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serene beauty in a secret forest

Olga is particularly gifted in guiding the hunt. She would search an area alone and then call me over to do the actual picking. Or cutting. But I really liked finding some little nest of mushrooms on my own. However, when I showed them off proudly, Olga threw most of them back on the ground because they were too small. Or they were­, well-poisonous.

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olga scouting for me

One of the great parts of the day was when we returned to the car for lunch. A tailgating party! From the open trunk came a delicious little feast you could hold in one hand. No plates or napkins necessary. Silvery smoked fish covered squares of sliced black bread, a hardboiled egg, and a freshly sliced wedge of red tomato. Hot black tea was passed around to drink. Lunch looked like a beautiful still life painting–in my hand.

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olga and edita

Lunch was followed by two more hours of hunting and then a shower before meeting at Tania’s to cook dinner. My translator extraordinaire from that point on was the vivacious Julia, married to the very patient Juris who would not take a drink of alcohol during our time together because he was responsible for the safety and chauffeuring of “precious cargo”. You have to love a man like that!

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cleaning ‘shrooms with julia

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the harvest pre-cleaning

Tania was cleaning mushrooms when we arrived, and her technique is meticulous. They must be completely peeled–head to stem. [Thus, the bigger, the better means less overall work for more result.] If the inside of the stem was not perfectly white when you looked at it from the bottom it meant that worms had invaded. These were immediately discarded as unacceptable. After peeling, mushrooms are rinsed and drained in a colander.

While the cleaning is tedious, the cooking is easy. Slice and chop stems and heads into random sized pieces. Sauté a diced onion in olive oil. Add mushrooms and cook on medium/high heat. Keep the water that is released and stir it around to steam them.

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Then, drain the water. Add some butter. Add two big spoonfuls of solid cream [like crème fraîche]. Add salt. Serve immediately. [I would add a generous grind of fresh pepper or even some red pepper flakes. Not Russian at all.]

While Tania was preparing our meal of roast duck, fried potatoes, sautéed mushrooms, and sliced tomatoes, Julia was introducing me to the finer points of drinking vodka, Russian style. It should be consumed in shots and always with traditional food pairings.

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fish, onion, tomato on black bread, icy cold shot on the side

First the vodka is frozen. Pour into a shot glass. Drink the shot. Immediately eat a tiny piece of black bread covered by oily fish, onion, and tomato. Or, take a shot, followed by a pinch of warm fried potatoes and some pickled cabbage. Either way–completely satisfying. No side effects.

It was a forever memory to be in the midst of these fun, generous, loving women [and Juris as our protector]. We ate and talked and laughed while Julia entertained us with her hilarious antics.

A cultural turning point unexpectedly occurred at evening’s end. For dessert we had eaten sweet watermelon chunks with our fingers. This reminded me of a story Anna told me from her childhood. So I shared it with the others.

When Tania and Sergei would go out on summer evenings leaving her at home, Anna would slip out of the apartment and go to the market with saved coins. She would pick out a big ripe watermelon and lug it home. Managing to cut it in two pieces, she ate one whole half, by herself, with a spoon, on the sofa, watching TV, down to the rind. Seeds and all!

As I finished telling the story, everyone glanced down at their dessert plates. On every other plate there were two, maybe three watermelon seeds, idly dropped. On my plate, there was a black and white mountain of seeds because I had carefully picked them out. Every one of them.

I quietly covered my plate with a napkin. But it was too late. The women watched, and then–they erupted, in unison, in uproarious, mirthful laughter. And so did I.

As it turned out, Glasnost prevails. Around this cross cultural table of Anglo/Russian women we laughed long and hard–and saw each other clearly.

 

 

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my favourite tania and julia photo, june 2015

 

Berry Best Summer Sangria

“A perfect summer day is when the sun is shining, the breeze is blowing, the birds are singing and the lawn mower is broken.” –James Dent

“Hey! It’s summer! Be free and happy and danceful and uninhibited and now-y!” –Terri Guillemets

“Summer afternoon–summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” –Henry James

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My husband has sometimes referred to me as a “late adopter”. I admit this has been true of certain forms of technology. I’m not the first one sprinting out of the blocks to run with the latest tech innovation when it is hurled into popular culture. But, when I do decide to jump in, it’s with both feet. I’m consumed with learning all there is to know. Afterward, it’s impossible to remember life as it was before…

This summer I surprised myself with a totally different type of “late adaptation”. It happened to be with a beverage I had never ever tried, even once.

On the American Independence Day holiday weekend [July 4th] with Dietician Daughter, her husband and his Kansas family, she served me a berry and fresh fruit topped drink in a tall glass with a straw. It was deep burgundy in color. The icy glass, sweating beads of humidity, was garnished with succulent fruit. It was her version of Sangria.

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On a sultry summer afternoon, around a backyard table with good people, this new drink captured, and held, my attention. First, there was the thirst-quenching coolness. Then, there was a sophisticated lushness of summer berries in red wine. I loved it immediately and drank another glass. I had to know everything about it…

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Sangria has been around for 2000+ years. When the Roman Empire reached the Iberian Peninsula of Spain and Portugal and began mixing wine into the water to sanitize it, the beginnings of Sangria were probably born. Long a common informal drink on the European continent, Sangria was not widely consumed in the U.S. until it was introduced at the New York World’s Fair in 1964.

I have been to the Iberian Peninsula in western Spain twice in the past two years, hiking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, but I was not offered Sangria there. We drank delicious Galician wines in the evenings, after a day of hilly hiking, as an accompaniment to the excellent regional food. It was poured straight from the bottle and never mixed with anything.

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trail marker; camino de santiago

Sangria comes from the Spanish and Portuguese word “sangre” meaning blood, because of its’ usual dark red color. It is traditionally made with Spanish red wine, fruit, brandy, some kind of sweetener and ice. Carbonated water may or may not be added for fizz. This is not a necessity.

That’s all there is to it. This is also where Sangria becomes much more interesting. With a rudimentary knowledge of ingredients, the end result is in the hands of the maker. Nutritionist Daughter caught my imagination with her “berry” form of creativity. Now I find I can’t drink it any other way.

I really tried. For the rest of the summer, since that hot July weekend, I began ordering Sangria in bars and restaurants. Some were made with white wine, some with red. At the very most they might have one or two pieces of shredded, mangy looking citrus fruit in the bottom of the glass. Tasteful pizzazz and eye candy beauty were seriously lacking. Not one was memorable. Not one reminded me of friends and family sharing stories and playing games around an outside table on a late summer afternoon. Not one begged to be repeated.

Thus, my short scientific study convinced me that the only Sangria worth the name and the calories is the one you make yourself. With ingredients you choose. The wine must be of a quality that you would drink on its own. The fruit, according to my now highly discriminating tastes, must be plentiful. And FRESH. Keeping the carbon footprint in mind stick with any fruit in season.

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the basic best: summer fruit, wine, brandy, and a jar

So, here is the very, very best summer SANGRIA you will ever make. Or drink. It’s simple, it’s fruity, slightly dry and slightly sweet, a bit boozy, and very refreshing–like a lazy summer day. Pass the pitcher around a table in the mountains, by the sea, on the deck or patio or in the middle of the backyard. Heap more berries on top and serve with a spoon on the side!

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drink sangria in the mountains of colorado

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drink sangria on the côte d’azur, villefranche-sur-mer, france

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or on a patio in oberursel, germany

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in full summer bloom

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maybe even drink sangria on the amalfi coast, italy, overlooking capri

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Sit back and say “yes” to a berry good summer. Then, if possible, lie down and muse for awhile in a hammock strung between two leafy trees.

“Summer is the time when one sheds one’s tensions with one’s clothes, and the right kind of day is jewelled balm for the battered spirit. A few of those days and you can become drunk with the belief that all’s right with the world.” –Ada Louise Huxtable

LARA’S VERY BERRY SUMMER SANGRIA

  • fresh whole berries [or pieces of other fruit] for garnish
  • ice to chill
  • 750 ml bottle of Spanish Red wine, chilled [I used Ribiera de Duero. Rioja works well too.]
  • ½ C. brandy
  • ¾ C. orange juice
  • 3-4 T. brown sugar
  • any seasonal combination of blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and/or strawberries. [Or use peaches and mangoes]
  • ½ orange, rind on, sliced thinly
  • ½ apple, skin on, chopped

In a large glass jar or pitcher, place fruit and sugar and muddle with a wooden spoon or muddler. [I love the concept of muddling as in messing things up.]

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Add OJ and brandy and muddle again. Add red wine and stir.

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Taste and adjust flavors to your liking. [More brandy or OJ or sugar as you wish.] Stir again. Add ice to chill and serve as is in clear glasses.

Get the fruit on. Garnish with lots of fresh berries or fruit of choice. Serve with a spoon for scooping winey fruit into your mouth between sips.

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May be stored, covered, in refrigerator to steep and chill several hours, but then don’t add ice until serving.

Best drunk within 1-2 days.

Santé!

 

 

Babies and Rice So Very Nice

Babies are such a nice way to start people—Don Herold

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leila alisa ulfers, born may 24, 2016

It’s true what they say. Grandmother hormones materialize in much the same way maternal ones do–even 30+ years later. Babies born in one’s own family are the most miraculously perfect creations in the world. Parents [and even grandparents] check out other newborns to confirm this nuance of nature. Gradually it is understood to be a “Universal Truth”. We all simply feel this way.

The good fortune to dust off my pediatric nursing and maternal memories arrived with the birth of our first granddaughter. I reflected on the gift of “presence” my mother gave me after our son and daughter were born. It’s a gift that gives both ways.

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First, an [experienced] pair of hands in the early postpartum weeks gives new parents time to focus on the interplay of relationships that are suddenly right there. Baby inside, baby outside. Everything has changed. All three, mother, father and newborn, enter a timeless dance that begins with a new song.

A distinctive aura hovers over first time parents, beginning in their own relationship. Helplessly charmed by the miracle they created, they now exist inside a bubble of enhanced love and new responsibilities. At the same time, bonds between mother and baby, father and baby unfold daily, even hourly. My presence [teaching rigorous burping techniques [!], offering parental napping time, having my own cuddling and singing time] opened a bit of space for these relationships to settle and strengthen in the first month.

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dressed like daddy

The second gift of being present was entirely personal. Watching my first-born baby [now a 34 year old man] tenderly hold, and croon to, his tiny, perfect daughter overwhelmed me with wonder. That “circle of life”, as clichéd as the phrase may be, sideswiped my heart with a flush of love and emotion. I’m all in now.

At night, I mulled over the randomness of dominant and recessive genes forming this beautiful baby’s eye color [murky grey to clearly blue–overnight!], the turned up button of a nose, the rosebud mouth, the one dimpled cheek, and the movable face of so many expressions [skeptical, smiling, hesitant, observant, and sometimes cross-eyed]. Even though it was too early for spontaneous social smiling, we gathered expectantly, eagerly, with each facial movement, hoping to be the first to receive that important human recognition, “I’m happy to know you.”

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sweet dimpled dream

One day I had a flashback of maternal “déjà vu” when my daughter-in-law said, “I’m overwhelmed by how precious she is to me. I didn’t know I would feel this way.” None of us do. But almost every new mother is eventually overcome by the feelings of her own power to nurture and love her baby. That’s universal too…

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wearing her “what’s not to love” onesie

I observed parents and babe develop their rhythms–for communicating, comforting, handling, and, of course, feeding. The dance changed by the minute, the hour, and the day. Flexibility is key with babies. But, in less than a week, my daughter-in-law blossomed from tentative new mama to an instinctively confident one. My joy was seeing this unfold.

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mama/baby love

Newborn nourishment is where everything begins. Breastfeeding rituals gradually establish themselves. Then, suddenly, they fall apart with a day of feeding frenzy or a night of longer sleeping intervals. It is an ebb and flow of constant change in the early weeks.

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independent girl time–hanging out with the owls

No less important is the nourishment of parents. Emotional swings as a result of sleep deprivation, new responsibilities, and sweetly swaddled newborn love leave not-so-much-time for meal preparation.

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father fatigue happens

We planned and cooked together as a team. Daughter-in-law, knowledgeable of her protein needs, prepared the meat or fish. Son stepped up to roast veggies on the grill. I offered carbohydrate rich side dishes and green leafy salads.

Leftovers were used creatively for other meals. A big batch of brown rice became the base for protein breakfasts of eggs on rice*. Two eggs cooked over easy then cut up into a bowl of rice with freshly chopped tomato on top nourished mama with easy effort.

*Detailed recipe for “eggs on rice very nice” can be found in blog story Comfort Food for Cal

Grilled eggplant, peppers, onions and mushrooms from the night before became a hearty side dish the next day when combined with whole-wheat penne, sautéed garlic, fresh spinach, and a sprinkle of grated Parmesan.

One night I made an old family favorite, Mujaddarah, a Lebanese lentil and rice casserole. The addition of chopped up bacon made it not purely vegetarian. Still, it was smothered with very slowly sautéed onions that made a delicious caramelized topping.

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Babycakes nearing the one month mile marker

Extra lentils [the tiny green French kind] became the basis for another day’s cold salad with green onions, carrots, cucumber, parsley, and homemade vinaigrette. However, after two days of lentil eating by nursing mama, Babycake’s reddened bottom required some open airing sans diaper.

The family food tradition I used every day and wish to pass on to my granddaughter is the simple 1-2-3 of dressing a salad. Any salad, any day, any time. With ingredients found in most kitchens.

So, with arms opened wide to embrace Leila Alisa into our family’s love, care, and nurturance, here is my simple wish:

May you grow up healthy and wise and become an interesting person. And may you always make your salad dressings from scratch.

DUB’S [W’S] DAILY DRESSING

Ingredients: Amounts will vary according to how large the salad, so all are approximations. Taste testing necessary. Stick your finger in and adjust.

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basic lineup of what you need, plus some options

  • Dijon mustard, if you have some [optional]
  • Good quality vinegar of choice [balsamic, wine or champagne]
  • Good quality olive oil, extra virgin
  • Salt & Pepper
  • Dried basil [optional]
  • 1 clove garlic, minced or pressed [optional]
  • Seed mixture–like sesame, poppy, sunflower, pumpkin, almond, walnut or whatever [optional]

Preparation:

  • Place a small amount of Dijon in the bottom of a bowl. [¼ to ½ tsp.]
  • Measure about 2-3 spoonfuls of vinegar over mustard. Add the garlic, seeds and basil, if using.
  • Sprinkle in S&P.
  • Then, very slowly, pour in a thin stream of olive oil, blending rapidly with a small spoon. There is no exact amount of oil. You simply taste with your finger and adjust proportions of vinegar to oil, as you prefer. Adjust salt.
  • Pour dressing over prepared greens and veggies. Toss together.
  • Grind of fresh pepper over all and serve.

Voilà! A lifetime of salads without bottled dressing.

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Colorado supper with a glass of white

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the one month director’s meeting