Thanksgiving remains an exciting holiday for me because it is the one and only time of year that I get four consecutive days off work without having to dip into my vacation time. Other than that, I find Thanksgiving decidedly meh.
Thanksgiving remains an exciting holiday for me because it is the one and only time of year that I get four consecutive days off work without having to dip into my vacation time. Other than that, I find Thanksgiving decidedly meh.
“Jews don’t eat tacos.”
We were on the way to Oregon for a Labor Day weekend Scrabble tournament and I was trying to come up with a plausible excuse for my wife regarding why I am totally clueless when it comes to taco-eating etiquette. The depths of my ignorance in this particular realm is so deplorable that I can’t even manage to eat a fast food taco out of its wrapper without making an unholy mess all over the place. Shredded lettuce everywhere. Taco meat stains on my pants. Grease running down my chin onto my shirt.
My wife tried to tell me something about holding the taco by the wrapper on one end while taking bites from the other end and pushing the wrapper up as I go. This seems fine in theory, but I always seem to have trouble making allowances for the effects of gravity. And anyway, what am I supposed to do about the avocado shooting out of the top like some sort of perverse green lava while I’m trying to take dainty little nibbles out of the side?
The obvious reason that traditional Jews don’t eat tacos is that tacos have long been an integral part of the cuisine of Latin America, while most American Jews are of eastern European ancestry. I would no more expect tacos on the menu in Poland or Russia than I would expect kreplach, kugel and cholent to show up on the menu in Mexico. In other words, there is a cultural disconnect.
America, of course, is famous the world over for its cultural heterogeneity. While my forebears feared that the ocean crossing to the States would effectively obliterate all traces of our cultural identity in the bubbling American melting pot, the former assumption of assimilation eventually yielded to a celebration of multiculturalism. No one thinks it a bit odd to wear green on St. Patrick’s Day or to go out for margaritas and enchiladas on Cinco de Mayo, even if we have lack any Irish or Mexican ancestry. Chinese, Thai and sushi restaurants are everywhere for all to enjoy. And yes, non-observant Jews do eat tacos.
However, I grew up in a kosher household in New York in the 1960s. I never even heard of a taco. There wasn’t a Taco Bell in every neighborhood. Our community had no Mexican restaurants. And who would even think of such a goyishe thing, anyway? Feh!
The result was a bit of culture shock when I transplanted myself to a heavily Mexican-American area of California’s Central Valley in the mid-1990s. Never mind that I didn’t speak Spanish. I didn’t even understand the minhag ha’makom, the cultural lingua franca. I embarrassed myself well and truly when I sheepishly admitted to not knowing what a tortilla was.
Even if traditional Judaism had not built bulwarks against the multicultural environment so prevalent in the United States, our religious proscriptions could never have tolerated the taco. Meat and cheese together? Hass v’shalom! You should wash your mouth out with soap! Jewish dietary laws prohibit eating meat and dairy products at the same meal, much less in the same tortilla. And who could even find a tortilla not made with lard? Remember, we don’t eat anything that comes from a pig.
Oh, how times have changed. Packaged tortillas bearing kosher certification are now available at your local supermarket. And thanks to the fake meat revolution spearheaded by industry leaders Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, and the host of non-dairy cheeses now on grocery store shelves, it’s perfectly easy to prepare a respectable pareve (non-meat and non-dairy) taco that even vegans can enjoy. Inevitably, the fast food industry has begun to get on board this train.
Much has been written about the Beyond Burgers sold by Carls Jr. and the Impossible Burgers on the menu at Burger King. Could the taco be far behind? Not a chance. While Taco Bell seems to be holding out, competitor Del Taco has zoomed forward with its Beyond Meat tacos. The avocado version, which eschews the cheese, even claims to be vegan.
While no Orthodox Jew would be eating fast food of any kind, those of us raised in middle-of-the-road, suburban, Conservative Jewish kosher households now find it possible to join the crowd in indulging in fast food tacos. All of which brings me back to my dilemma: How are you supposed to eat the darned things without making an unholy mess? Put them on a plate and use a knife and fork? I remain clueless.
To make matters worse, I arrived at the Scrabble tournament in Oregon to learn that the entrance fee included lunch on Saturday and Sunday. Guess what was served at the first lunch? Someone was about to make a great big mess in front of his fellow competitors.
The night before the tournament, I had trouble sleeping. Not unusual for me when at out-of-town hotels. In bed, I picked up my phone and began perusing the day’s news. A story that caught my eye described a new tactic employed by the City of West Palm Beach, Florida to discourage homeless persons from sleeping on the lawn of one of the city-owned properties. All night long, the city blares from its speakers an endless music loop consisting of the children’s songs “Baby Shark” (doo doo doo doodoodoodoodoodoo) and “It’s Raining Tacos.” This tactic, known as “the weaponizing of sound,” has been roundly criticized by many.
My curiosity got the better of me. A song about tacos? This I had to hear. I pressed “play.”
Um, bad move.
Take my advice: Don’t do it. If you’re not familiar with this Parry Gripp ditty, you are better off remaining in blissful ignorance.
Okay, don’t listen to me. But don’t blame me when you can’t get this catchy tune out of your head for days. (Shell! Meat! Lettuce! Cheese! Cheese cheese cheese cheese cheese!)
And whatever you do, try not to think of this song while you’re making an unholy mess eating tacos with several dozen fellow Scrabble fanatics. If you bob your head and start humming while you’re spewing shredded lettuce everywhere, someone is going to wonder what’s really in that water bottle.
I am not a pet person. (I’ve mentioned this fact on a number of previous occasions in this space — here and here, for example). Today, however, I almost wish I were. You see, our county animal shelter is full.
I’m not exaggerating here. The Bradshaw Road facility out near Highway 50 is usually pretty close to capacity (they chalk it up to a combination of overpopulation due to a failure to spay/neuter and the general public attitude that cats and dogs are disposable). But this is different. They are full. No vacancy. No room at the inn. Can’t take any more no matter how desperate the situation. Nowhere to put any kitty or puppy that shows up at the door.
How can I adequately explain how desperate the situation is? At the beginning of December, the shelter’s occupancy level was labeled “extremely full.” This week, however, the Sacramento Bee reported that a local animal advocacy group posted the following on Facebook: “The shelter is beyond capacity. There is NO MORE ROOM!”
Because I am a hopelessly sappy sucker, I’d actually consider adopting one of these critters if I didn’t live in a place where no pets are allowed (except for the landlord’s pets — more about that later this weekend). I’m lucky to have something to save me (and the poor dog or cat who got stuck with me) from my own folly.
Arthur and Ophia, two of the pit bulls currently available for adoption at the Sacramento County animal shelter.
I suspect that one of the reasons for the shelter being overflowing is that most of the dogs currently up for adoption are pit bulls. Like German shepherds and labs, these dogs are big guys. This means that they demand a lot of the shelter’s resources. Also, they’re harder than a lot of breeds to adopt. They eat a lot, they poop a lot, and they need a lot of space to run around in. You probably shouldn’t have a pit bull if you live in a one-bedroom apartment. Also, well, pits have a bad rep. Some people are afraid to have them around babies and little kids. And every so often, you read a story in the news about some unfortunate who was mauled to death by his or her own pit bull. There are plenty of people out there who love this breed, but pits are clearly not for everyone.
Then there are the cats. This evening, I’m seeing 62 of them on the shelter’s website. Six of those were recently adopted. This is as opposed to 17 of the shelter’s 74 dogs having been recently adopted. More than a few of the available felines are labeled as “barn cats,” which I suppose is an appeal to those who have mice to get rid of. Then again, I suppose “barn cat” is a not-so-subtle hint that this is not a cute, cuddly kitty who is going to curl up in your lap and purr while you’re watching Netflix.
Oh, I should mention that there are also three rabbits and four chickens up for adoption at the shelter. No goldfish, turtles, hamsters or snakes, apparently.
It’s no surprise that the adoptable chickens are not the egg-laying hens that everyone wants. No siree, they’re loud, obnoxious, pugilistic roosters. We’ve got plenty in our neighborhood, some of which have a predilection for crowing in the middle of the night. My guess is that if these guys ever get adopted, they’ll go straight in the pot with a bunch of carrots and onions. I see them for sale all the time in cages by the Mexican butcher shop at the corner of Main and Rio Linda Boulevard. I can only hope that they don’t end up forced into illegal cockfighting, a fate arguably worse than being served up next to the mashed potatoes. As for the rabbits, they need to hold on for another three months or so until they’re in demand as Easter gifts. Otherwise, they may well meet the same fate as the roosters.
I have to wonder how many of the shelter dogs and cats will end up murdered — I mean “euthanized.” As if I had to mention it. You know what euthanized is a euphemism for. Back in school, I learned that “euthanize” is from the Greek for “good death.” But you know that half of what you learn in school is propaganda and lies. I was well into adulthood before I learned that the correct translation of the Greek is “couldn’t get adopted.”
Some have registered surprise that an animal lover such as myself doesn’t have pets. I mean, since I’m vegan and all. And especially since I don’t have kids. (As if pets can substitute for children. People are so dumb.)
Honestly, I can understand why more people don’t adopt dogs and cats. They’re a lot of work, they cost a lot of money, and then they die on you. I had to laugh this week when I read an article about a dog that helped save a fat man’s life. This guy weighed 340 pounds, was taking 15 different medications, and all efforts at weight loss had failed him. He hurt all over and tried not to move any more than he had to. (I weigh more than that. You’re not telling me anything I don’t know.) Apparently, he was spurred into action by an embarrassing moment when a plane he was on had to be delayed while they found a seatbelt extender large enough to fit him. Haha! I’ve got that one all figured out. I don’t fly. Oh, this guy had to travel for his job. So do I. Luckily for me, my employer insists on using the discount carrier Southwest, which has a rule that fat people have to buy two seats. Score! Now it’s cheaper for me to drive than to fly. I’ll be laughing at my destination while the others are waiting hours to get through the TSA line.
So then this guy makes an appointment with a naturopathic doctor, who tells him to switch to a plant-based diet. Again, haha! Plant-based diets are certainly gaining popularity; even Kaiser encourages this now and has messages about it on their interminable “hold” recordings. But after three years of being vegan, I can tell you firsthand that eating plants won’t by itself make you thin. The article cited Bill Clinton’s diet, which I’ve read is not totally vegan despite his representations to the contrary.
Then the naturopathic doctor ordered this guy to go to the animal shelter and get a dog. “Why a dog?” he said. “Can I adopt a cat instead?” The doctor responded: “Have you ever walked a cat?” Again, haha! No, I have never walked a cat, nor a dog either. As I see it, you have a nice fenced yard, you let the dog out, it does its business, it comes back in. Or, like our landlord, you leave the dog in a large pen outside the house all day. But going out in the dark of night (this time of year, I go to work and come home in the pitch blackness), freezing cold, wind and snow with a plastic bag and pooper scooper? No how, no way. Oh, and by the way, if I want to go walking for exercise, I don’t need a dog (or cat) to do that.
All of which brings me to my mother. Her beloved Siamese cat, Taffy, left for kitty heaven a little over a year ago at the age of 18. Taffy was originally my sister’s, but wasn’t doing well cooped up in Sis’s condo. She drove Taffy and her meds down from the Bay Area to my parents’ house, in hope that the country air and space to roam about might improve her health. It did. Taffy took to her new life as an outdoor/indoor cat and throve with my parents for more than a decade and a half. Now she’s buried out at the back edge of their property.
Mom’s Siamese, Taffy, back in 2015.
My sister from Boston, who came out to visit this past week on the occasion of my parents’ 65th wedding anniversary, decided that the time has come for Mom to get another cat. I suppose I can understand this, as she’s nearly always had a cat (or two). There were entirely too many for me to remember, but I do recall a gray one named Pussy Willow, an all-white one named Snowflake, an orange hellion named Mewcus (eww), another gray one named Schwantzy and a huge white one with black ears and paws with the unlikely name of Baby Baldrick (who ran away to become a Canadian chat when we attempted to retrieve him from a kennel at a campground in Québec). Mom doesn’t believe in spay and neuter, so we had cats that would have as many as three litters per year. I remember my sisters and I standing with a boxful of kittens on Saturdays, yelling “Free Kitten!” until we were hoarse in front of Pathmark on Route 59.
Nevertheless, I think Mom, who is well into her 80s, should decide when she’s ready for another cat, not my sister. But Sis pushed the issue, taking Mom to Petco to look at the adoptable cats, then to the local animal shelter, where over 200 felines were available for adoption. Mom was impressed by the way that the cats had free reign over the place, prowling in and out of cat doors to visit each other in various rooms and out of doors, as well. But she couldn’t seem to find exactly the one she wanted. She said she doesn’t wanted a little kitten, nor does she want an older, lazy fat cat. So what exactly did Mom want?
A Siamese. Mom’s favorite cat was a Siamese named Pouncy who was run over crossing the road in front of our house when I was two years old. She lives on in my father’s reels of Super 8 home movies. After my parents retired and moved to California, Mom’s first cat was a dusky blue-eyed Siamese beauty named Bonnebeau (supposedly because she was beautiful and good). Of course she wasn’t spayed, so Bonnie, an indoor cat, went into heat and meowed piteously to be let out to have at it with the neighborhood toms. Eventually, she did manage to get out and celebrated her newfound freedom by taking off for parts unknown.
Unfortunately, Mom and Sis did not see any Siamese at either Petco or the animal shelter. So my sister got online and showed my Mom pictures of cats, including Siamese, available for adoption from the Cat House on the Kings, over in Fresno County.
Then my sister got on a plane and headed home, after which Mom admitted that she doesn’t really want to deal with another cat.
In early November, my sister sent me a text message inviting me to Thanksgiving dinner. She recently purchased a house in the Bay Area and wanted to show it off. I consulted my wife and then texted her back to say yes, we would come. Her new home is less than two hours away and we didn’t have any firm plans for the holiday, so I figured why not.
Two days later, Sis texted me again to say that Thanksgiving was off. My parents had visited her and apparently indicated that they would never return. It seems that they were frightened off by the winding roads that lead to the mountaintop street where my sister now resides.
An hour later, my sister texted me again. “Thanksgiving is back on.” My parents had agreed to drive as far as a supermarket parking lot on the flats, where my nephew would pick them up and haul them up the mountain.
My parents stayed home anyway. Dad recently contracted a severe case of conjunctivitis and, despite the use of eye drops prescribed by a doctor, he has been unable to open his eyes very far, making driving out of the question. We offered to drive all the way there, pick them up, take them to Sis’s house in the Bay Area, and drive them home again. They declined on the grounds that Dad is probably still contagious and no one will want to be near him.
As if it weren’t bad enough that my parents would be spending Thanksgiving alone, the fact that Dad is unable to drive has created much greater problems. My mother, also age 83, hasn’t driven in seven years and expressed to me that she never plans to drive again. She says she doesn’t feel comfortable driving, and that it makes her feel a bit dizzy sometimes, and that she’s just too old. Nevertheless, she plans to renew her driver’s license when it expires in 2020. She just doesn’t plan to use it.
My parents live in a rural area at the edge of the rangeland where the cattle graze. I call it “the wild prair-ie.” The nearest supermarket is about 20 miles away, although there is a small grocery store about four miles from their house. I’ve been on the phone with my parents on an almost daily basis and they’re starting to complain about running out of their favorite foods. It’s not that they don’t have food and are going hungry, it’s just that they’ve used up the items they need to prepare the meals they like best. Not only that, but they need to prepare more meals than usual, as they aren’t going out to dinner several times per week as is their usual practice.
My parents celebrated Franksgiving, eating hot dogs and beans for dinner. Mom was annoyed that they had no buns on which to serve the franks, although not as annoyed as Dad is that he is out of bananas to cut up in his morning Honey Bunches of Oats. Yesterday, Mom reported that they are completely out of bread. “Not even the frozen kind?” I asked. My parents are famous for freezing many loaves of bread and defrosting a little bit at a time. Nope, even the frozen stuff is gone, she told me.
I asked whether we should drive down there (seven hours round trip) to get them some groceries. No, said Mom, they’re not out of food yet. I offered that, if she provides us with her grocery list, we can probably have what she needs delivered to her door. Then we checked online and learned that we probably can’t. My parents’ location is just too rural. I couldn’t find any online services that deliver to their zip code. Most likely, the best we would be able to do is to have canned goods shipped to them in the mail.
Sis says she may drive down there on her day off and take my mother grocery shopping. If not, my wife and sister-in-law will take care of it. That is, unless Dad is driving again. Now that Mom is putting the drops in his eyes instead of having him do it himself (and missing), things are looking a lot better.
We thought seriously about skipping out on my sister at the last minute and driving to the Central Valley to spend Thanksgiving with my parents instead. However, Mom begged us not to. She told me that Sis was already distraught that they weren’t coming and she’d be truly upset if we were to bag out on her, too.
I had no idea how right Mom was.
My sister urged me to invite all of my wife’s family to join her for Thanksgiving. Most of them had other plans already, however, and the driving that would have been required is excessive. Now, Sis has two adult children. Her son resides in the same town and agreed to come early to help prepare the meal. But her daughter failed to respond to her invitation. Sis even called her ex-husband in an effort to browbeat him into coming and bringing his daughter along. Of course, neither of them showed up. My niece has some type of ongoing argument with her mother and doesn’t wish to speak with her at the moment. As for my sister’s ex, well, he’s remarried and has obligations to spend the holiday with his own family.
Traffic on Interstate 80 was terrible on Thanksgiving morning, and it took us nearly an hour more than expected to reach my sister’s house. At one point, we nearly turned around and went home due to traffic being at a dead stop for close to 15 minutes. I’m glad we didn’t. Other than my nephew, my wife and I were the only guests.
Mom called while we were stuck in traffic to find out why we weren’t there yet. She said that Sis, having initially expected lots of guests, had purchased a 30-pound kosher turkey. I didn’t know that birds come that large, so I wasn’t at all surprised to find that she had been exaggerating more than a little.
My wife had made a fruit salad the night before and I put together a batch of fresh guacamole. We transported both in a cooler, along with my almond milk and a few other miscellaneous items. Well, it turned out that my sister had prepared a feast. Knowing my food restrictions, she served me sautéed tofu with mushrooms and onions, although it was my wife who actually cut everything up in preparation for cooking. Sis also fixed me roasted vegetables and a dressing prepared with gluten-free bread and vegetable broth. Both were delicious, and we had ample leftovers to take home.
After dinner, we retired to my sister’s living room, with its amazing picture window view of the bay, Oakland and San Francisco. I suppose living on a hilltop does have some advantages. Sis was stretched out on the sofa, my nephew busied himself watching videos about Japan on his laptop, and my wife and I relaxed in a pair of rocker-recliners while we chatted. Sis was facing us, while my wife and I had a clear view of the kitchen, where none of the leftovers had yet been put away.
Soon, Sis made up some soy mochas while my nephew sliced the pie. Actually, there were two pies, both Dutch apple, my sister’s favorite. One was “regular” and the other was both vegan and gluten-free for my benefit. The latter cost a hefty $15. Curiosity got the better of my sister and she decided to try my pie first. She took one bite, gagged, and spit it out. She began yelling that it tasted like lemon-flavored sawdust on cardboard. I assured her that there was no reason to be shocked. That’s more or less what a commercial gluten-free pie crust tastes like. Those of us who cannot tolerate gluten can either put up with it or not eat pie at all. I’m told that there are homemade gluten-free pies that actually taste decent, but I don’t cook and am happy to get whatever is available. This was the first pie I had eaten in about a year or so.
Sis gave me the rest of her slice of pie and we took the remainder of the pie home in its box, where I promptly demolished it. It really wasn’t as bad as she described.
I should mention that my sister has two cats. Butternut (alias Butt, Nut or just Squash) is a rambunctious orange tabby that sheds fur like there’s no tomorrow. Sis rescued her from a shelter in Albuquerque. Then there is Macchiato, whose coat features a crazy quilt of every cat color known to man on one side, while being nearly entirely white on the other side. Macchi was rescued from a shelter in Boise, Idaho. My sister moves around a lot.
Macchiato is fairly shy and made herself scarce during most of our visit. Butternut, however, is extremely outgoing and insists on being a part of whatever happens to be going on at the moment. When not perched on the coffee table or getting underfoot, she would jump up to her cat bed, high atop her scratching post. There, she could be queen and master of her domain.
The availability of a particularly large variety and quantity of food was not lost on Butternut. I decided that I had better describe what I was seeing. The squash meister had jumped up on the kitchen counter and was helping herself. “Your cat is eating your turkey,” I nonchalantly informed my sister.
“WHAT!!!” was her reply, causing my nephew to spring out of his seat and complain that his mother had nearly caused him a heart attack. Sis sprinted into the kitchen, removed Butternut from the counter and chastised her severely. Still, she did not put away the food. Instead, she returned to join us.
We lounged in my sister’s living room, she nearly asleep and me admiring the twinkling lights of the city while listening to my nephew regale me with tales of working in downtown San Francisco. It didn’t take too long before I noticed that Butternut was at the carcass again.
“Your cat is eating your turkey,” I repeated.
“Don’t say it like that!” yelled my sister. I guess I was supposed to jump out of my seat and make a hullaballoo instead of being calm about it. Once again, Sis removed her cat, but not before Butternut had lapped up most of the gravy out of the measuring cup in which my sister had served it. She made growling noises at ol’ Butt that I suppose were designed to teach her a lesson that her behavior was unacceptable.
And then my sister finally began to put away the food. The turkey, she indicated, would end up in freezer bags and would take her many weeks to use up for her lunches. Whereupon she began to portion out the remaining turkey meat, totally unfazed that it had been mauled by the filthy mouth of a cat.
Sunset over Pacific Beach, La Jolla CA
I spent part of this week on a business trip to the southern end of our great state, training staff down in San Diego. The ocean’s moderating influence on air temperature makes the California coast particularly appealing for inlanders like myself this time of year. So I was surprised to learn, while watching live video feeds of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey, that San Diego was under an “extreme heat advisory.” The temperature? 85°F. What I thought to be pleasant is apparently dangerously hot by San Diego standards. I suppose it’s all a matter of what one is used to.
Meanwhile, back home in Sacramento, we continue to experience day after scorching day of 100° plus temperatures, as one of the hottest summers on record marches on into September. Driving north from San Diego, we stopped for lunch in Santa Clarita before chugging over the Grapevine into the Central Valley. The thermometer in our car displayed an outdoor temperature of 112°F. It felt like a flashback to our three years of living out in the Mojave Desert. Our holiday weekend promises more of the same, with the Saturday temperature forecast to hit 111° here in California’s capital. We hide out in our tiny house and blast the A/C. 150 miles to our south, my octogenarian parents (who rarely turn on the central air in their large home) have been paying $400 per month in electricity bills just to keep the house cool enough to avoid heat stroke.
During the monotonous 1,000 mile plus round trip to and from San Diego, it was hard not to notice the roadside signs and billboards up and down the Central Valley along Interstate 5 and Highway 99. I am a bit too young to remember the whimsical Burma Shave signs of yesteryear, but old enough to recall the goofy South of the Border signs that dot Interstate 95 through North Carolina as one approaches that tourist trap in Dillon, S.C. Anyone remember the upside down sign emblazoned with the legend “Pedro Feex Later?” It sounds more than a bit racist now, but as a child in the 1970s, I didn’t know any better and thought it was hilarious. This from a New York Jewish white boy who had never met a Mexican-American and didn’t know what a tortilla is until the age of 35.
Here in California, the signs planted in the fields along the vast empty expanse of freeway cutting through Fresno, Kings and Kern Counties shy away from cheesy advertising in favor of pleas for water. Yes, water. You have to live here to appreciate the never-ending political and financial battles over obtaining more water for agricultural purposes. Now, I don’t pretend to know a thing about California water politics, but I am aware of the constant shrieking and hand-wringing over the relative merits of building tunnels in the Bay Area and high-speed rail service between San Francisco and Los Angeles as opposed to making greater efforts to satisfy the seemingly insatiable thirst of our farmers. I also hear a lot about diversion of Sierra Nevada snow melt runoff away from the Central Valley to satisfy the water needs of southern California cities. Amidst allegations of the south stealing the north’s water, I am reminded of the nation’s bitter division during the Civil War. Indeed, there are perennial proposals for everything from California’s secession from the Union to dividing our sprawling state into two, four, six or eight states of more manageable size with greater local control. If you don’t believe me, check out hashtag #calexit on Twitter or this recent article from the Sacramento Bee or this one from the Los Angeles Times. In California, land of the ballot proposition, anything (no matter how outrageous) can be put to a vote.
With water being the essence of life, it is difficult for anyone to argue against it. However, the signs along the freeway have a tendency to pander to base instincts at the expense of rational thought. One is led to believe that providing more water to California’s agricultural interests is a “no brainer.” But is it, really? And so, without further ado, I present for your entertainment two of my favorite roadside signs that I have seen in multiple locations with a number of minor variations.
“Is growing food wasting water?” The most recent version of this sign features a photo of a young boy with a puzzled expression scratching his head. Um, well, for starters, define your terms, please. What exactly do you mean by “growing food?” Perhaps you are referring to California’s famous fields of lettuce, onions and tomatoes, our orange groves and almond orchards, our world-renowned vineyards. Or perhaps what you really mean are the vast hay and alfalfa fields that suck up water to feed, not our people, but the animals that power the state’s beef cattle, dairy and poultry industries. This type of “growing food” leaves us with a legacy of methane gas that contributes mightily to global warming (I told you it was hot) and waterways polluted with millions of tons of animal feces. If you should happen to think I’m being overly dramatic, by all means take a ride down I-5 past Coalinga and catch a whiff as you whizz by Harris Ranch. The hubris of that operation in posting billboards advertising its restaurant boggles my mind. How would you like your shit today, sir? Rare, medium or well done?
Is growing food wasting water, you ask? I’m surprised that the state’s agricultural industry has the nerve to bring this up. It sure is wasting water when used to sustain hungry and thirsty livestock just long enough to kill the poor beasts and turn them into hamburgers, steaks and Chicken McNuggets. If raising animals for meat and dairy were banned from the state, we’d have more than enough water to grow the plants needed to feed our own people and export to neighboring states and to the world. But agricultural interests don’t want you to know that. They must think we’re ignorant, stupid or both.
“No water for valley farms = No jobs!” Oh, goodness, you’ve got to love this one. Again, define your terms, please. No jobs doing what?? No jobs picking grapes, strawberries and citrus? Check out this article in today’s paper, suggesting that a significant reduction in the number of undocumented Mexicans crossing into the United States to perform backbreaking labor in the fields at low wages has resulted in increased automation and fewer jobs. This has nothing to do with water.
Then, of course, one must consider the folly of the paradigm that is California’s agriculture industry. The PR people will tell you that we are “the nation’s salad bowl” and that we feed the world. Excuse me, but why? Anyone who thinks about our climate for even a minute would have to at least ask. The climate of California’s Central Valley is Mediterranean, just one tick shy of desert. We are a very dry place. It doesn’t rain at all here for most of the year. Our water supply depends largely on how much snow the state’s northern and eastern mountains get in the wintertime. The phrase “seven years of drought” is bandied about regularly. Yes, we have year-round sunshine and suitable land, but who in their right mind would plan extensive agriculture in a desert climate with little water? All of us need a steady, reliable water supply for our homes and families. I say people before agriculture.
Our state’s agricultural industry is largely dependent on irrigation. That means bringing in water from elsewhere because we don’t have much here naturally. Wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to concentrate our nation’s plant-growing operations in areas that God has blessed with plenty of water instead of in the desert? The Pacific Northwest and New England come to mind. Why deprive the people of our cities of their water supply in order to run the Rain Birds and sprinklers that prop up the state’s agriculture?
When the sign says that no water means no jobs, what it really means is that no water means no agricultural jobs. The state’s big agricultural interests would have us believe that we’ll all be out of work unless we kowtow to their demands to commandeer our scarce water supplies so they can keep making money. This is a lie, pure and simple.
I have to laugh when I hear the wry suggestion that the entire valley be paved over to bring all the call centers here from India and the Philippines. I do get it, though. We have evolved into a post-agricultural, post-industrial economy that focuses on the information industry. Concentrating our state’s economic efforts in that direction instead of wasting them on irrigation not only fits with the realities of climate change but would also create plenty of jobs and bring renewed prosperity to California.
Uncle Guac’s Stupid Sign of the Day
(Hand-written on green construction paper and taped to a telephone pole. I wish I could have taken a photo of it, but I was driving.)
I will buy your house for ca$h! Call Larry.
Oooh, Larry, now aren’t you a stud? Put that dollar bill away, you big spender, you. Actually, I’m not looking for ca$h. I was kind of hoping you would pay me in chicken eggs. Bawk!
Sunday afternoon. Sitting in our car in front of a Wal-Mart on the drive back from my parents’ house down south. My wife ran in for a minute to get a couple of things, so I get to people watch in my air conditioned cocoon, buffered from the 104°F heat just outside my door.
I feel sorry for the cart guy as he leans into his conga line of shopping trolleys in the searing sun. Here comes a young woman in an orange T-shirt (logo illegible from this distance) and bright purple hair. We once had a Chevy that color, but I never associated it with a part of the human body. Out comes a middle aged woman pushing an empty cart. You have to wonder what’s up with that. Wouldn’t you leave the cart in the store if you couldn’t find what you’re looking for? Maybe she needed the cart to lean on. The woman’s deeply wrinkled face makes her look old, perhaps a legacy of years of nicotine. Indeed, she has a cigarette hanging from her lips; the second she crosses the store’s threshold into the dreadful heat, she lights it.
My thoughts drift away to our Fathers’ Day visit to my dad. We went out to dinner to a local Italian place on Friday night (I need the gluten-free pizza crust, please, and here’s a little Baggie of vegan cheese to use in place of the mozzarella, okay?) and to a steak house on Saturday (an order of broccoli, please, steamed with no butter, and a baked potato with just chives; also a salad with no cheese, croutons or dressing). Family occasions can be a challenge for gluten-free vegans.
It seems that I seldom come away from a visit to my parents without at least a few stories that I hadn’t heard before. I need to hear these while I still can.
This time, I learned that my uncle, age 90, is one of the youngest veterans of World War II. He was sent overseas with the Army Air Corps at the very end of the war; when the war ended, he was still eighteen years old.
Then there’s my dad’s take on history. During the Great Depression, he tells me, the life expectancy of an American male was 62 years. A guy who had a job would remain employed until he was too old and sick to work. Then he’d spend a year sitting on a park bench. Then he died. There was no Social Security. No one took care of you, my father went on; people took care of themselves. Before FDR’s New Deal, he told me, our guarantees extended to life, liberty and property. How you ate and paid your rent was up to you.
My father seems to long for those days. His ideas put me in mind of Archie and Edith Bunker, opening each episode of “All in the Family” by singing “didn’t need no welfare state/everybody pulled his weight.”
I have some questions. Was it really like that? Or is it more like wearing rose-colored glasses regarding the Good Old Days? How did the old, sick guy on the park bench support himself for that year? And what about his wife?
I suspect that part of the answer lies in extended families supporting each other. I’ve been rereading Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath lately, and it is not lost on me that the Joads dragged the elders of the clan along with them as they headed west, even though Grandpa had to be drugged to prevent him from stubbornly remaining behind.
Just as my octogenarian father waxes wistful over a time long gone, I wish we still lived in an age when people stuck together. The breakdown of the American family over many decades results in people in need having no support (of either the financial or the emotional kind). We have elderly folks living by themselves in little apartments, spouses dead or divorced, children moved to distant cities and states to pursue their own lives and dreams. Perhaps striking out on their own and leaving family behind is reflective of the pursuit of happiness. After all, family members often don’t get along. And yet, in the days before public assistance, it seems that families had to get along just to survive.
It makes me sad that we seem to cherish the freedom to worship the self and ignore others and, ultimately, the freedom to end up old and alone.
With the eight days of Passover starting Monday night, I find myself feeling a bit nostalgic. I first led a Seder, the traditional family dinner at which we recite the story of the Israelites’ exodus from slavery in Egypt, at the age of six. Neither of my parents were able to read the Hebrew and Aramaic from the Haggadah, and I had already been attending an Orthodox Jewish school for two years. We hold two Seders, on each of the first two nights of the eight-day holiday, and I have attended at least one nearly every year of my life.
This year will be an exception. I thought about driving four hours to visit my parents and attend a Seder at their synagogue, but that would have required me to take two to three days off work. I could attend a communal Seder at one of the area synagogues, but even then I’d have to take at least a day off work. The Seder can’t start until sundown, and usually lasts until well past midnight. That makes it tough to get up for work at 4:30 in the morning. So I will have to skip the Seder this year, although that doesn’t mean that I will “pass over Passover.” The holiday comes with many dietary restrictions and I plan to honor as many as I am able.
As bad as I feel about not attending a Seder, the whole matzo situation makes it even worse. Matzo is the traditional crackerlike flatbread that we eat for eight days to remind us of the unleavened bread pulled abruptly off the hot rocks of Egypt before the loaves had time to rise when the Jews were thrust out into the wilderness without a moment’s notice. Granted, it gets old after four or five days, but I know I will miss it. Made of only wheat and water and baked for less than seven minutes, it’s not a food for the gluten-sensitive. Sure, I could order an expensive box of gluten-free matzo online, but it wouldn’t be made of wheat and therefore wouldn’t satisfy the ritual requirement of the mitzvah. So what’s the point?
At the Seder, we eat many traditional foods, including a green vegetable (always celery in my family) dipped in salt water, super hot horseradish, and the delicious haroseth (apples and walnuts chopped up fine, seasoned with cinnamon and a dollop of grape wine). We drink four cups of wine or grape juice. And then there is the dinner, which at my parents’ house always included hard boiled eggs (dipped in the salt water left over from the celery), chicken soup with matzo ball dumplings, gefilte fish (cold fish patties with salty fish jelly), homemade borscht (beet soup, usually served cold) and then meat, potatoes, carrots and dessert. My mom usually served homemade applesauce before we put the tea on to boil and broke out the honey cake and coconut macaroons. It’s hard to leave a Seder without being utterly stuffed.
Of course, as a vegan, I no longer eat most of these things. And being gluten-free clearly does not help the situation. Traditionally, on Passover we eat no bread, corn, rice, cereal, pasta, legumes or anything that might become leavened. This means no corn, including any prepared item containing corn syrup. It means no beans, including soybeans, which means no tofu. In other words, most of my vegan protein sources are off-limits for the next eight days. Most Passover desserts contain dairy, eggs or both, so those are out for vegans. It makes an already difficult holiday just this side of bearable.
So what do observant Jews eat during Passover? Lots of meat and fish, lots of eggs and lots of dairy. Good luck, vegans. We do eat fruit and some types of vegetables. In my case, I go through many pounds of potatoes and carrots, plus some eggplant, zucchini, spinach, broccoli and mushrooms, and lots of salad. My favorite fake burgers, made of pea protein, are out. So is my fake cheese and anything made with vinegar (think mustard, salad dressing, pickles, olives, hot sauce). I flavor everything with black pepper, garlic and lemon. I eat lots of plums, apples, bananas and citrus.
In the old days, my Passover breakfast might be cottage cheese with fruit and matzo with cream cheese or fried eggs or matzo brei (pieces of matzo dipped in egg and fried). Now, it’s potatoes. In the old days, my Passover lunch would typically involve tuna on buttered matzo and hard boiled eggs with maybe a slice or two of tomato. Now, it’s potatoes. Maybe with some carrots or plain salad with lemon. Very boring and largely protein-free. I try to remember to eat spinach or broccoli each day, as they each contain a small amount of protein.
My mother has always referred to Passover as “a hard holiday.” However, the difficulties are tempered by many delicious traditional foods and lots of Passover sweets. None of those benefits accrue to those eating a vegan, gluten-free diet. True, you can be creative, particularly if you cook. I don’t. I am highly fortunate that my wife is willing to boil pounds of potatoes and roast vegetables in the oven for me.
And yet here I am, with Passover not yet begun, already looking forward to the holiday being over. I suppose I should look at the bright side. Perhaps I will gain an improved perspective on the hardships faced by my ancestors who, having escaped slavery due to the Lord splitting the Red Sea, wandered in the desert for forty years.
Eight days seems mighty reasonable by comparison.
We’re just a couple of weeks away from Passover and eight days of matzo, but I’m still thinking about Purim, now a few weeks in the rear view mirror.
Several years ago, not long after I began writing this blog, I marveled at my amazing good fortune at having hamantashen show up in the break room at work around Purim time. I had been craving these little jam-filled triangular cookies, probably owing more to nostalgia than to their flavor. But there I was, working out in the desert, feeling exiled to the Diaspora as only a Jew can.
I’m fairly sure I was the only Jew in our little Colorado River town, and the last thing I expected was that anyone would have ever heard of hamantashen, much less have known where to get some. I knew I could find something resembling the prune, apricot or cherry filled treats that I associated with the reading of the biblical Book of Esther each spring, if only I had the will to make the four-hour round trip to Palm Springs or the five-hour drive to Phoenix and back. Granted, they wouldn’t be the same as the buttery pastries I remember from Pakula’s Bakery, now long gone mainstay of my hometown of Spring Valley, New York, but any facsimile would do in a pinch. And I felt like pinching myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming when a package of hamantashen showed up on the round table in our break room. As if out of thin air, an answer to prayer, were they really there? Yes, I answered with the first taste. Supermarket variety, to be sure, but it felt like a care package from home, shlach manot. They turned out to be a gift to the staff from a former manager, now retired, who knew nothing of Purim when she picked up some cookies at a supermarket over in Indio. It felt like nothing short of a Purim miracle.
Here in Sacramento, hamantashen are available at several retail stores. And yet the irony is that, this Purim, I tasted none. As it turned out, there are things other than miles that would distance me from hamantashen. The bottom line is that when you’re vegan, gluten-free and have to watch your sugar intake, special holiday foods cannot be taken for granted, even when they are readily available.
I pondered whether, with the right ingredients and a bit of ingenuity, it might be possible to create hamantashen that would satisfy my food limitations. Vegan margarine could easily substitute for butter, and a little oil or applesauce for an egg. There are plenty of artificial sweeteners out there. But what of the flour? Could hamantashen be made of rice flour, almond flour or amaranth?
Yes! Turns out that, a fee years back, April Peveteaux over at Gluten is My Bitch posted a yummy-looking recipe for gluten-free, dairy-free hamantashen. Sub applesauce for the eggs, bring out the Sweet ‘N Low or Splenda, use sugar-free jam for the filling, and I would venture to say we’re there. I don’t bake, but I hope someone will try it out and let me know whether it’s worth the effort.
I found another such recipe courtesy of Lisa Rose at realfoodkosher.com. She suggests using a combination of rice and almond flour and substituting coconut oil for butter.
Anyone want to make me some hamantashen? Must be gluten-free and vegan. I should have asked my mother-in-law. She made me a batch a few years ago and they were some of the best I’ve ever eaten.
Short of homemade, however, I suppose these are my favorites, if only because I don’t have to prepare them. At about a dollar an ounce, the price seems fairly reasonable. The only time I ever ordered hamantashen through the mail, they came mostly broken, including more crumbs than I knew what to do with. But those were “fresh” bakery-style, not packaged, so I suppose the result was to be expected.
I guess there’s not too much that you can’t buy online these days. Maybe next year, eh?
Vegan on the Road
A fairly ordinary truck stop at the edge of the interstate gets a musical makeover.
Among the first things I notice in a restaurant or other retail establishment is the quality (or lack thereof) of the recorded background music piped in through the speakers tucked into the ceilings. At the TA Truckstop on Highway 33 at the I-5 exit here in Merced County, central California, the vibe is decidedly 1970s, presumably to appeal to aging baby boomers such as myself. Represented were Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Mungo Jerry, Bad Company, Roberta Flack, Billy Joel, B.J. Stevenson, Chicago, Styx, Al Stewart, Abba, Linda Ronstadt, Steely Dan and, of course, the Pauls (McCartney and Simon). We were in there about an hour and a half, my wife working on her Thinkpad and me messing around on my phone, and we never heard the same song twice. This was a little different than our last truck stop experience, in Reno, where we made only a short visit and still managed to hear Vanessa Carlton’s “I’m Only Happy When It Rains” four times.
The kitschy music theme of the dining room seemed like it belonged in Gatlinburg or Branson or somewhere. There were fake guitar sculptures and framed photos of recording artists on the walls, giant G clef and music notes above the salad bar and plaques in the booths featuring large type lyrics of a smorgasbord of eras, including songs made famous by Louis Armstrong, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Righteous Brothers, Judy Garland, the Andrews Sisters and Hank Williams. Snowflake mobiles dangling from the ceiling were probably meant to evoke wintertime, but still seemed like bedraggled refugees from some tacky Christmas display. I suppose this should come as no surprise, considering that the truck stop Christmas tree was still up in the lobby, repurposed for the remainder of the winter season by the addition of red paper hearts along the fronds and a large Love sign at the top, where the star of Bethlehem or an angel blowing alleluias on a trumpet should be.
The last time I was here was more than three years ago, when I had a go-round with an impatient cleaning lady. Neither of us spoke the other’s language very well. I wasn’t yet aware that I am gluten intolerant, and it may have been a good thing for both of us that I didn’t know how to say “diarrhea” in Spanish.
Santa Nella is a convenient rest stop between northern and southern California, but we usually patronize Pea Soup Andersen’s, the faux-Danish overpriced tourist trap with the windmill, just across the road. However, when we last made this trip, about four months ago, I was inadvertently glutened by a seemingly safe food item I consumed over there. The opportunity to avoid that and the overpriced tourist schlock led us to try our luck with the truckers.
Even a gluten-free vegan can be relatively happy at a truck stop, particularly if you’re willing to “fudge” a bit, as I tend to do when I’m on the road. These days, I find that I can tolerate a small amount of dairy or egg that may be hidden in restaurant food a lot better than even a little bit of wheat. My body is still revolting from an uncharacteristically stupid food decision I made a few days ago. Let’s just say that it MIGHT have had something to do with a birthday and a chocolate cake. Pain!
When I’m on the road, a salad bar is a sight for sore eyes. In San José last week, we walked into a tiny Italian restaurant that looked and smelled just like one of the mouth wateringly wonderful family-run holes in the wall on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. Finding no gluten-free pasta or pizza crust, we walked right out and headed across the street to a steak house where, my wife assured me via a visit to its website on her phone, a salad bar awaited my delectation.
Disappointment greeted me. No salad bar!
It sounds like the opening of a bad joke. “A vegan walks into a steak house…” But as every vegan traveler knows, steak houses do have one good thing going for them (if you can grit your teeth and overlook the bloody cow carcasses): Baked potatoes. So there we were at dinnertime in a steak house, with my wife choosing a French toast breakfast and me settling for a dish of salad and a baked potato. We are a strange pair.
Salad bar at the Santa Nella truck stop
Here at the truck stop, it is still early in the day and everything on the salad bar looks fresh, even the melons and pineapple. I load up on beans for protein and grab some taters from the breakfast buffet. Lucky me showed up just as the staff was switching over to the lunch buffet, which provided me with carrots, squash and rice. I ate my fill, then headed out to the car and reclined the seat in preparation for an hour’s nap.
It was my wife’s turn to drive.
When I was ten years old, my family took the short ride into Manhattan to visit my Dad’s aunt. A lifelong spinster, she was an accountant who lived high in an apartment building that shot its way up into the sky at 435 West 57th Street. I was highly impressed with everything: The midtown location, the doorman, the soft music in the elevator, the tiny, compact living quarters, my aunt’s adding machine with the smooth, green buttons and the frou-frou lunch we enjoyed across the street at the Holiday Inn.
The fancy items on the one-page luncheon menu included such delicacies as blueberries with cream. My meal consisted of a cream cheese and green olive sandwich, with the crusts cut off the bread, of course. Now, I had eaten a cream cheese and walnut sandwich with my father at Chock Full O’ Nuts, but this was my first experience with an olive sandwich. My mother rarely purchased olives on the grounds that they were salty and “not good for you.”
After that visit, I begged my parents for olives on a regular basis, and sometimes they relented. These delicacies were a beautiful thing to behold as I speared and wrestled them out of their narrow briny prison — first the bright red pimiento, followed by the luscious green orb. I made Philadelphia cream cheese and olive sandwiches on whatever we happened to have on hand — soft white bread from Waldbaum’s, chewy onion rye from Barnett’s Bakery, a Lender’s frozen bagel, Ritz crackers, matzo. As my sisters and I, bored on the long, hot, suburban days of summer vacation, pulled chairs out onto the shady patio and attempted to devise methods of self-amusement (long before the advent of video games and the internet), I proposed that we pretend to start a ritzy restaurant like the one at the Holiday Inn on 57th Street.
My first task, I knew, was to develop a menu. Of course, I included blueberries and cream along with cream cheese and olive sandwiches, as I strained to remember the other items printed on that page in midtown Manhattan. Now that decades have gone by, one thing remains unchanged: I still cherish cream cheese and olive sandwiches. As an adult, I now have the privilege of eating them almost daily. Even as a vegan (voluntary) following a gluten-free diet (forced by health issues), I enjoy soy cream cheese and olive sandwiches on gluten-free rice bread.
But there is another thing that has remained unchanged as the years go by. I still dream of starting a little restaurant that serves all the dishes that I wish were on the menu when I visit a restaurant. A vegan, gluten-free lunch spot where I can walk through the door knowing that I can eat anything on the menu without asking a million questions of disgusted staff. And just like back in that summer when, at age ten, I tried to develop a menu out on our patio, I still think of what my fantasy luncheonette would serve. I have developed a no-nonsense menu, based on vegan, gluten-free dishes that I have actually have eaten, prepared either by a restaurant, myself or my wife. In time, as more gluten-free, vegan items become available on the market and as customers make suggestions for dishes they’d like to eat, I am sure that the menu would be further developed and augmented. And so, without further ado, I present you with my modest gustatory proposition.
UNCLE GUACAMOLE’S FANTASY LUNCH COUNTER
— where everything we serve is vegan and gluten-free —
Sandwiches served on gluten-free rice bread (add $1 for gluten-free tortilla wrap)
soy cream cheese and olive
soy cream cheese and tomato
PBJ (grape jam, strawberry preserves or orange marmalade)
triple decker (vegan cream cheese, peanut butter, choice of jam)
Tweedledee (melted vegan provolone)
Tweedledum (melted vegan gouda)
California (fresh veggies and avocado – optional: onions, dill pickles, pepperoncini)
Lebanese (hummus, tomato, cucumber)
protein bowl (tofu, garbanzos, tomatoes, cucumbers)
garden greens (red leaf and iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, green olives,
raisins, sunflower nuts, served with balsamic vinegar)
fresh fruit salad with coconut milk yogurt
baked potato with your choice of toppings (Earth Balance vegan margarine, Tofutti vegan sour topping, Daiya vegan cheese shreds, broccoli, onions, salsa, jalapeños)
vegan chili (add $1 for loaded: onions, Daiya vegan cheese shreds, Tofutti sour topping)
vegan “beef” (Tofurky brand) over rice
bunless burger (Dr. Praeger’s GF vegan) with fries and salad
sautéed tofu, mushrooms, onions over rice
nachos (vegan cheese, onions, Tofutti vegan sour cream, guacamole)
eggplant parmigiana (prepared with vegan soy cheese)
macaroni and cheese (gluten-free pasta, vegan soy cheese)
fried potato and tofu tacos (corn tortillas)
loaded fries (vegan soy cheese, Tofutti sour topping, onions) (chili or guacamole $1)
gluten-free pizza (vegan soy cheese) (toppings $1 each: mushrooms, onions, peppers, olives, broccoli, artichokes, tofu, pineapple)
choice of hot veggies: carrots, broccoli, spinach, corn, zucchini in tomato sauce, vegan “cheesy” broccoli or cauliflower
“ants on a log” (celery, raisins, your choice of peanut butter or vegan cream cheese)
chips and salsa
beans and vegan cheese
frozen coconut milk “ice cream” (chocolate, vanilla, cherry chip)
Sugar Plum Bakery whoopie pies
fresh brewed iced tea, iced coffee, Pepsi products, seltzer (orange, berry or plain), orange juice, apple juice
So, what do you think? Would anyone actually want to eat lunch at such a weird place? Anyone out there want to raise some capital for this venture? Has Uncle Guac finally lost his mind? Talk to me in the comments.