Sunday, August 29, 2010


 The day I met Alejandrina, Hurricane Felix was whirling our way. The category five hurricane was rapidly gaining momentum and was predicted to hit land within two hours, on the North Coast of Honduras, twenty kilometers from Alejandrina’s simple home.

Usually I relished interviewing clients, and today shouldn’t have been any different. Alejandrina’s courage and steely determination was inspiring; against the daunting odds of poverty, she was building a better life. On her third loan from the Adelante Foundation’s micro-credit program, she had created a profitable clothing re-sale business. With the earnings, her goal to fortify the house she and her husband built had been realized—rotting wooden planks were switched out, two cinder block walls were constructed, a leak-proof metal roof replaced the dilapidated jerry-rigged tarp covering.

Proudly showing me around her two room abode, Alejandrina appeared unshaken by the tinny voice broadcasting a clear warning from the radio: Stock up on canned food and clean water, Felix is coming!

A queer, ominous light streamed through the unprotected windows. The dark brooding sky hung over us like an evil force preparing for battle. The air was hair-raisingly still. Raw fear electrified my being; I needed to get home.

Hastily fleeing to my car, I couldn’t help wondering if Alejandrina’s house would survive nature’s imminent smack-down. She met my uncertain gaze with the confident smile of a warrior. Decades of adversity mapped out across her face. Three years later I’m still awed by Alejandrina’s unflappable fight against life’s unrelenting storms.

This post was entered in the GranTourismo HomeAway UK Travel Writing Competition for August: Portrait. We would love to hear your thoughts in the comment section.

Valiko jan

In May, I observed municipal elections in the predominantly Aremenian state of Samatshke-Javakheti in the Republic of Georgia. My observation partner, Ruslan, was Kazakh and spoke fluent Russian – as did Aremnui, our interpreter and Valiko, our driver. When the three of them spoke Russian, I patiently waited for an abbreviated explanation of a 15 minute conversation or a joke that was lost in translation. Likewise, when the three of us would speak English, Valiko would turn up the radio. There was a disconnect between Valiko and I based solely on our inability to communicate directly with one another.

On the eve of the election, after we finished mapping the routes to the polling stations, we stopped in the sprawling countryside for an impromptu picnic. Valiko threw out a wool blanket, cranked up some Armenian pop music and offered us all bread that his sister-in-law had made fresh that morning. He opened a bottle of cognac, passed small glasses around and gave a toast with the typical flare that Georgians are famous for.

“Cheers, Valiko jan.” I used the diminutive “jan”, a familiar ending added to one’s name akin to “dear”, a custom I picked up in South Asia that I noticed was also used here.

Valiko froze. A huge smile plowed across his face. He squatted down on his haunches. “Jan?!?!?!?” He echoed approvingly. This little word bridged a cultural gap that volumes of Russian could not.

“To you, Jiffer jan”, he said. We smiled and clinked glasses.

This post was entered in the GranTourismo HomeAway UK Travel Writing Competition for August: Portrait. We would love to hear your thoughts in the comment section.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Iconic German Currywurst

German currywurst. To some a snack; to others an institution. To the untrained palate it is nothing more than a hot dog with spicy ketchup. But to connoisseurs, it's a delicacy - depending on where you find it.

Last October, I was in Berlin for a short stint and wanted to make sure that I got in one plate of Berlin currywurst. Lowri and I jumped in a cab and I asked the driver if he knew "this one currywurst place in Prenzlauerberg, under the S-bahn tracks, near Schönhauserallee".. that's all I had to go on; no name, no address. To our surprise, our Algerian cab driver, who became quite chatty when he found I out spoke a bit of French, refused to take us there. 

"Oh yeah, I know the one you are talking about," he said. "But you don't want to go there."

Me: Um, actually, yes we do. Right there. To THAT one. We want to eat currywurst THERE.

Cab driver.: No, no. Not THAT one. It's dirty. You don't want to go there. I'LL take you to THE BEST currywurst stand in the city.

Me: Well, OK. I guess. I mean. I've already had the currywurst at THAT place and I thought it was great and others swear by it as well but if you know a better place....

Cab driver: Oh, I do.

Me: So, it's your favorite currywurst then?

His face shot up in the rear view mirror, eyebrows askew, feigned shock. 

Cab driver: MINE?!?!? I don't eat that sh*t, I'm Muslim. But you know, it's what they say. 

Me: Right, OK.

About 25 minutes and 20 Euros later, we arrived at Biers 195 on the Kudamm - one of Berlin's most beloved shopping addresses. My fears that the driver only took us there for a larger cab fee quickly dissipated as I took my first bite. The wurst was juicy, the curry sauce had just the right amount of kick and the fries were also good. Plus points.

So, this episode - in addition to a run in with the "Curry Queen" in Hamburg, where the curry mixes are prepared by a Michelin-starred chef and the sausages include, in addition to traditional pork, venison and Kobe beef - more on that another time - and the incessant debate between Berliners and Hamburgers about who owns the dish, led me to the Currywurst Museum of Germany, in Berlin, one lovely summer day last month. 

And I will tell you all about it.. in my next post.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Wednesday Snapshot: Street Food Cravings!

 A food market in Patzcuaro, Mexico.

Cravings are a common side effect of living abroad and I ferociously fed my longings for sushi in LA, big juicy American burgers in Montana, my mom's Wisconsin-style brats in Chicago and anything Asian whenever and wherever I could get it. But, in the last hours of my stay in the US, as I was scarfing obscene amounts of seductively succulent peaches, nectarines, plums and cherries in order to get my fix for the year, (I have yet to meet an acceptable stone fruit in Mexico) my stomach began gurgling for the street food tucked in the alleys, lining the markets and parked outside the night clubs in every city and barrio of Mexico.

Cravings by nature cannot be squelched. Of course they can be temporarily appeased, but soon their point of obsession changes, and vamos, they are off on another tangent, doing their duty to keep me up at night dreaming of bites of pleasure usually not in my cupboard.

As you may have guessed, my cravings can be cruel. However, they always have good intentions, and this time, they guided me off the plane and towards crispy fat tacos eaten at a card table, covered with bright Mexican oil cloth and washed down with an orange soda..... Now, if I could only have another one of those drool-inducing peaches.

Monday, August 16, 2010


I traveled Home three times this summer, always arriving at a different place. Living between two countries, having belongings stored in various friend’s garages with the promise, “we’ll only be gone two years” turning into three, four, five years… creates a sense of place in the world that is neither Here nor There. I relish that nomadic sense of wonderment: without place or permanence. In my early twenties, the perceived ability to jump on a plane and start an adventure far away from potential roots grabbing hold was how I defined myself.

As footloose and fancy free as that propelling philosophy is, I have always given credence to Home. It is the leaving Home and the coming Home that makes the part in between: adventure. Without these bookends to help process and digest the experience, the journey cannot happen. You must leave what is making you feel lost to find yourself; say good-bye to what is winding you up to feel refreshed; flee the routine to live the unexpected. Returning to a starting point puts a journey into perspective, helps you appreciate the time you have taken to explore, relax, learn, and reset your compass.

 View of the Bitterroot mountain range from the porch.

The wooden porch, wrapping around my parents’ yellow farmhouse in the Bitterroot Valley in Montana, has become a Home my soul seeks. I first felt its power after returning from a year of backpacking around Africa and Asia. Under the forgiving expanse of the Big Sky, I began to process the enormity of what I had done; I felt the accomplishment of setting off alone with a one-way ticket to Bangkok in hand; and the temporarily debilitating fear of what I would do next. Carter and I were married beside a creek nearby, and after Oscar was born, we checked in with the peaceful rhythms of Montana to get to know each other and begin life as a family.

The second Home we visited this summer is my original starting place, the house in the Midwest where I grew up. The loud echo of cicadas and familiar summer-time smells of cut grass and BBQ accompanied Oscar and me on our walks into town to the old-fashioned ice-cream parlor where I spent my allowance as a kid. Driving through the shady streets is a tour of firsts: first time riding a bike, first play performance, first kiss… But it is my family that makes this place Home. They are my anchor, and without them I could never travel so far.

 Sharing sweet memory lane with the next generation.

Carter and I are still searching for the place we, as a family, will call Home; the Home that will set Oscar’s compass. For the time being it is Guadalajara, Mexico, and that is the Home we have journeyed back to after our summer of checking in State-side. But this Home does not go deeper than the mortar and bricks around us. Coming back to this starting point, I realize that Guadalajara is part of a continuing adventure. We pay rent, own a car and lots of furniture, but these things do not make a Home. Our existence and our community is transient in nature; the sprawling urban canvas does not cradle my soul and ground me with its energy, but instead keeps me searching.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Wednesday Snapshots: London's Borough Market

Borough Market, my very favorite place to spend Saturday mornings and linger into the afternoon in London.
Not exactly Googlemaps but an adequate chart of the market to help you find your way around.

Pig Day! It's a good day.

Or a few meat pies..

Washed down with a little Pimm's to go - sigh - only in Britain..

A bacon cheese and bubble bap will cure any hangover, I promise.

The meats...

And the cheeses.

An overwhelming selection of fungus..

and curries.

Amen! Cheers Borough Market!

Monday, August 9, 2010

American Summer Vacation Series 2010: Coach's Secret BBQ Rib Sauce Recipe

Want to make these? All you need is a little of this:

Let's break this down, shall we?

Figaro Liquid Smoke Hickory Barbecue Marinade

One half lemon

Bull's Eye (or your favorite) Barbeque Sauce

Kitchen Bouquet Browning and Seasoning Sauce

Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce

Light Brown Sugar

Roundy's Louisiana Style Hot Sauce

Hamm's Beer

Now, I am sure your favorite bbq sauce, hot sauce, or beer could be substituted to taste but this is what my stepdad, who we have always called "Coach", puts into his sauce and he is constantly being badgered for his recipe. Unfortunately for those of us who would like to replicate his sauce, this recipe is of the "oral history" variety i.e. it's never been written down and when pressed for precise measurements, Coach will simply eye-ball it, demonstrate and say, "About that much". What I can tell you is that the base is the bottle bbq sauce, the brown sugar is thrown in in hefty cups full and the rest is a few pinches, squeezes or splashes.

Good luck!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Welcome Food52!!

Ancho Chili-Cinnamon Chocolate Bark: My recipe, which will appear in the soon-to-be-released Food52 cookbook.

I am absolutely giddy from the awesome honor of being a spotlighted cook by Food52! Regular readers know by now that I have a huge crush on Food52 and greatly admire the careers of Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs. Wait, so they read Smash and Sniff….. That just made my year!

A warm welcome to the Food52 community! Thank you for stopping by. Please, grab a piece of chocolate bark and peruse our little blog which celebrates a childhood correspondence between my cousin and I. Crumpled letters filled with the secret ramblings of youth have evolved into Smash and Sniff, the blog. Today we are less about boys and joy rides and more about culture, cuisine and kids.

If you are new, check out a few of our favorites!
My Tortilleria
The Incredible Edible Smut: Huitlacoche
Mazamitla and Cajeta de Helado
Dispatches from the German and Mexican Grocery Store (A Series)
More Than Just Fisch
Duck fat in Deutschland

American Summer Vacation Series 2010: Wisconsin Walleye Fish Fry

Walleye. The state fish of South Dakota and Minnesota. A fish native to most of Canada and the northern United States, especially around the Great Lakes, is a favorite in Iron Country, Wisconsin near my mom's home (she is surrounded by small lakes and equidistant from Lakes Superior and Michigan). In Germany, a fishmonger might have a close cousin, the pikeperch or zander on offer. Because of the walleye's nocturnal feeding habits, mom's neighbor Mike went out in the middle of the night to catch a few of these freshwater fish from the adjacent lake. We made sure they didn't go to waste.

Not just pan fried, deep fried. This is Tom, another neighbor, who brought over his gas tank and deep fryer. The guys sat outside in the driveway discussing the upcoming dear hunting season while the breaded fillets bubbled and sputtered in a vat of oil. They came out after everyone opened their second bottle of Spotted Cow beer, golden brown, sweet and flaky.

Fish fries are a beloved tradition in the Midwest. Stemming from the large Roman Catholic population in Wisconsin, and perhaps also attributable to the Scandinavian ancestry of many Wisconsinites, fish fries were offered by most "supper clubs" and local restaurants on Fridays throughout the Lenten season before Easter, when the faithful were prohibited from eating meat. They were so popular that they continued after Easter, throughout the summer; in fact, in many places you can find a fish fry any time of the year. And they're not just for Catholics anymore.

Add a salty orb of butter to the piping hot corn on the cob and a spoonful or two of mom's homemade potato salad, top the fish with a bit of impromptu tartar sauce (mayo and pickle relish) and here you are - a bit of summer in Wisconsin on a plate.

Be sure to stop by next time you are in town!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Darby Logger Days II

If you can't read the signs, open it up on a larger screen. You won't want to miss out on the redneck wisdom.

So…..who goes to a logging festival, you may ask. White people. People who own shirts with bald eagles soaring across the front and confederate flags flapping on the back. Sarah Palin supporters and members of the Libertarian Party. People with gun racks and bumper stickers on their American-made pickup that read, “If your answer is Obama, you asked a stupid question.” People who will shoot you for being a stranger on their property. It is just one, big, happy gathering of gun-totin’, Obama-hating, freedom-loving Americans. Carter and I walked around the booths in the back of the Lumberjack Arena Fairgrounds in complete awe, albeit tinged with a tiny bit of fear.

 The fastest saw in The World: The Hot Saw. It has a V8 engine and takes two of the biggest, burliest men on the plant to operate.

We have been living out of the USA for four years now, throwing ourselves at every cultural event and festival from Honduras to Mexico and Darby Logger Days was, by far, THE most culturally enlightening event we have attended. I mean, how often is it that while asking to borrow a pen from an elderly man running a raffle booth, he tries to sell you a ticket to win a 12 gauge semi-automatic shotgun? Oh, and this is a family event. AND, if shotguns aren’t your thing, a seriously intimidating Ruger 350 SP 100 hand gun was being raffled off a few booths down. I was assured by the smiling mom of three who was running the raffle that, “the gun packs a real good punch!” Was she trying to sell me tickets, or scare the crap out of me?

These hunters-in-training are dressed in full-camo and playing "Shoot the Deer". My friends and I probably would have been playing something gay, like, "Wood Faries and Garden Gnomes".

It was sort of fun to walk among "The Other" in an inconspicuous costume of similarity. I was a little frightened to open my mouth for fear that my freak-flag, flower-power views would come spilling out and get me trampled off of the fairgrounds. So I just browsed and tried not to ask too many questions, like, "So, wait... anyone can own a gun!?".