Sunday, December 3, 2017

Full of thankfulness

The big bird blow-out is over at Bosque del Apache and by the looks of things it was, as always, a big hit. If you didn’t get a chance to get to the Walk Out to Fly Out, don’t despair, you can still get up early, put on your layers and freeze to death on the flight deckwaiting for the birds to wake up. On any morning. All winter long. If it gets that cold.
I don’t know how cold it will get, but in preparing for winter I went back to my dog-eared copy of the 1817 Old Farmer’s Almanac and it gives this advice: “Kill no more squirrels than you want for your pie, nor more partridges than you want for your spit.” Those old farmers sure do have a down-to-earth way of reminding you to live within your means, I guess.
It did get down to the teens, temperature-wise, in Magdalena Saturday morning, which is cold enough to bring out my winter coat, and I’ll have to say there’s nothing like reaching into the pocket and finding that ten dollar bill you forgot about last March. Just in time for Black Friday. Or Small Business Saturday. Or Cyber Monday.
Or maybe just lunch.
This week we’re celebrating Thanksgiving at a friend’s house, and I was trying to come up with something profound and not having much luck. I figure with all the craziness going on in the world out there, I’m just grateful to be living here.
I did find myself getting sentimental about all the Thanksgivings in my life; from the one when I was single and eating a Hungry Man turkey dinner to the feast with friends at Muleshoe Ranch not so long ago. Not unlike Dickens, sometime I feel like I’ve been visited by the Ghost of Thanksgiving Past.
The thing about Thanksgiving dinner is that it’s not what you eat, but that you’re sharing with others. Growing up, Thanksgiving dinner was just short of chaos at our house. It was myself and my five brothers and sisters crowded around this eight-foot dinner table that my older brother Ed custom-made in shop class. Our parents sat on the far ends. Or rather, our dad on one end and my mother eventually taking time to sit down at the other end.
Eight people, which translates to sixteen hands all reaching for bowls of mashed potatoes and gravy, green peas, candied yams, and turkey with dressing. To the best of my memory, we had dark meat and really dark meat, but I have to say our mother did the best she could.Of course, my father always had first dibs on a turkey leg, but then he had us pass it around the table, each of us taking a big bite. He said it signified our family unity and breaking bread together.
In school, Thanksgiving meant we dressed up in those big-collar pilgrim costumes for a school pageant, or drew turkeys in crayon on construction paper.We all learned about the pilgrims and Plymouth Rock, and how the local Indians – later I learned they were Wampanoag – all sat down in 1621 for the first Thanksgiving in Massachusetts.
But I was wondering, wasn’t it in 1598 the Europeans from Spain had a meal together with the locals? I mean, eight years before Jamestown and 22 years before Plymouth? I’m thinking about the first meal Don Juan OƱate and his “pilgrims” had in Pilabo Pueblo. That could qualify for a Thanksgiving of sorts, couldn’t it?
One thing I’ll always be grateful for is that my family always seemed to be like-minded on things like politics and religion – those sort of things – and it was seldom that discussions got ugly at the table. If that’s not the case for you, however, and you find yourself not wanting to indulge someone’s conspiracy theory or debate politics, here’s some advice I learned from the above-mentioned Old Farmer’s Almanac: “Take a bite of meat and chew it thoroughly, as if formulating your reply. Then, once it is well chewed and tucked in a corner of your mouth, simulate choking to death.”
Otherwise, use one of these replies. They’ll make you sound smart.
·         “It all depends.”
·         “You can’t generalize.”
·         C’est la vie.”
·         “Things are different in [obscure region of the world].”
I just realized that as we lumber into the holiday season – well, I lumber, everyone else seems to flit along – we have an extra weekend for shopping between now and Christmas, starting with Black Friday, so we can finally get all those “early Black Friday sale” ads over with. Black Friday is not really black. For me it would be red Friday; I’d be shopping like a bull – I’d charge everything.

The good news is, since we never took them down last year, our Christmas lights are already up.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Something In That Movie Made Me Hungry

I knew I had an obessession with food when I realized that most of my favorite movies were either about food or had an eating scene. For instance, when I think of the movie Twister the first scene that comes to mind is not the killer tornado, but rather the scene of the big meal the storm chaser crew is having at Aunt Meg's house. Steak and eggs and gravy and mashed potatoes.

There are many others besides the movies that are specifically about food or eating. I'm talking about scenes where food is more or less peripheral and not crucial to the story. Scenes in which my attention zeroes in to the food. 

  • In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance there is a scene with James Stewart, Jo

  • hn Wayne and Lee Marvin featuring and plate of steak and potatoes and deep dish apple pie.
  • In The Apartment Jack Lemmon strains spaghetti with a tennis racket.
  • In Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Walter Huston extols the virtues of beans, and proceeds to finish off Bogard's leftovers.
  • In the 1953 War of the Worlds, a forest ranger helps himself to fried fish the scientists are cooking, and later in the movie the female lead cooks up a breakfast of bacon and eggs in a partially destroyed farm house.
  • In Amadeus, a priest tries to coax Salieri out of seclusion with something that looks like cake and ice cream.
  • In It Happened One Night, Clark Gable munches on a raw carrot while describing its health benefits.
  • In Napolean Dynamite, tater tots are coveted in one scene.
  • In Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Spencer Tracy has a hard time eating a hard shell taco.
  • In Tora! Tora! Tora!, that hot dog the Navy officer is eating while trying to alert the president about the Pearl Harbor attack looks pretty good.

There's also the radiated apples in 28 Days Later, the meat and bread Renfield is served in Dracula, the mounds of pasta in A Night at the Opera, the pork dish Johnny Depp eats that gets the cook shot in Once Upon a Time in Mexico, the lobster in Funny Girl, the breakfast in Evolution, and the egg Van Johnson carries around in his helmet in Battleground (I don't think he ever gets to cook it). They all catch my attention, regardless of what the scene is about...

These are the ones that I immediately remember at this sitting, but there are probably hundreds more. Other movies feature food eating - Tom Jones, 9 1/2 Weeks, dozens more - but they don't me hungry, per se.

As for movies in which the story or plotline centers on food or cooking, the ones that work up my appetite have to be Babette's Feast, Big Night, My Dinner With Andre, Mambo Cafe, Tortilla Heaven, Like Water For Chocolate, Eat Drink Man Woman, Chocolat, and Tortilla Soup.

Many include coffee drinking, but don't get me started here. That's for another day.

Monday, December 9, 2013

A Marine Remembers Pearl Harbor

For years Rudy Pina proudly flew the flag of the Marine Corps every day above his home in rural New Mexico. Pearl Harbor Day 2013 was last weekend, and I thought of my late friend.

He died at age 94 in 2012, but not before he shared with me many of his memories from being stationed at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
Enlisting in 1938, the Arizona native was a gunnery sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps whose unit was bivouacked at the time in tents near the harbor. But his recollections of the attack begin the week before, on Sunday, Nov. 30, at church.

“I had went up to church the week before, and sat in the back with another Marine,” he said. “In came a brand new ensign. He had just arrived on the base with his young wife.” After the services the officer approached Pina and his buddy, he recalled. “We got to talking and he said ‘You Marines doing anything? How would you like to take a tour of the island, show us what's what’?” Rudy said. “He said ‘Come with us.’ He and his wife drove us all over the island, up to Scofield Barracks and down to the rest of the island.”

He said their sightseeing tour ended at what Pina called “officers country,” a club not open to non-commissioned officers. “We drove up to a sentry, who was surprised to see us enlisted guys, but the ensign said it was okay,” he said. “So we came in, and sat down at a table. We only had 35 cents to drink with.”

Rudy said two nurses on an outrigger moored at the club invited him and his buddy to join them for dinner. “The ensign comes over and said, ‘we’re going to go,” and the nurses said, “we’ll take them home,” Pina said. “We stayed and ate and were swimming, and then dancing in our swimsuits until the place closed at nine o'clock.”

“We told them we lived down at Pearl Harbor, and they drove us down,” he said. The same sentry was surprised to see them this time with the nurses, who told them “never mind, they’re our guests." Before dropping them off at the encampment, Rudy and his buddy tore open their shirts and asked the nurses to smear lipstick on them as a joke "for the other guys to see." The other guys were duly impressed. "A friend asked how did we meet those nurses," Rudy laughed. “At church we said. He said he would be going to church us the next Sunday!"

The next Sunday was December 7.

"That morning everyone had a hang-over.” Rudy had been out jitterbugging the night before, and a photograph of him dancing with a young woman appeared in the Honolulu Times in the December 7, 1941 Sunday morning paper. He kept a copy of that newspaper.

"But I was up and ready to go to church before 8 a.m., but my buddy was slow getting dressed in the tent," Rudy said. Then..."they came from out of the north."

“The first Zero came in and just cleared the tent. I could see his face it was so low,” he said. “He had a big grin on his face." That plane hit the battleship California, which was moored at Ford Island. “Two more came in, and I grabbed a .50 caliber machine gun, and shot the third plane down,” Rudy said. “The guys went to where it came down and got to chopping on the pilot.”

He said while they were shooting at the planes, they were also waiting for orders. “They were dropping bombs and everything else. Sailors were running out in their skivvies. I told them, ‘go in the tent and get what you need’,” he said. “We dragged a couple of guys out of the water and we took some to the mess hall.”

Rudy said he finally got orders when an officer came up to him. “He said, ‘Pina get your ass going, we’ve got to get the ammunition out of here!' We pulled out and a Colonel Hall called ahead to arrange the delivery of ammunition to where it was needed around the harbor.”

“They loaded us up right away and I zig-zaged all the way,” Rudy said. “That was the way to drive the truck around. But one guy got a little piece of shrapnel.” Although the attack lasted about two hours, he said the rest of the day was spent with emergency and rescue efforts. “I had a motorcycle and was sent all over delivering messages and medicine,” Rudy said. “The bike let me get through places a truck or jeep couldn’t. They sent me all over.”

Rudy was also part of an effort to get medical supplies to Ford Island. “They had this tug to get to Ford Island,” he said. “To get there we had to go through a fire so it had four pumps going to get through. We got the medicine over there. They really wrecked that island.”

Rudy Pina at home in 2007
That was the beginning of the long war for Rudy, who was sent to New Zealand for combat training, and then to Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, Tinian, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa.

"Tarawa was the worst," he said. By the time World War II ended he had been wounded one time. "I did catch a little shrapnel. I was lucky."

His first tour of duty was in Shanghai, China. In early 1941 his unit was split, "one half was transferred to Manila in the Philippines, and my half was sent to Hawaii."

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Frybread and Navajo Burgers

With an Indian reservation just 20 or so miles north of here, I have come to appreciate Navajo cuisine. And we're talking here mainly about frybread.

Frybread is nothing more than flour dough flattened into a circle and fried in oil. But lard is better. It can be a little crispy, which is best when eating it by itself.

The other day we went to the annual fall festival in Socorro called (guess what) Socorrofest. There was a wide variety of bands playing in the gazebo and dozens of art, crafts and food vendors throughout and bordering the plaza. Also a wine and beer tent featuring New Mexico brewers and wineries. Incidentally, for my money the wines coming from the Tularosa valley are as good as the best anywhere. And so is the Monk's Ale brewed by Benedictine monks at Abbey Beverage Company at the Monastery of Christ of the Desert in Abiquii. 

But I digress.

Vanessa and I found a frybread vendor near the wine and beer tent, staffed by AISES students from New Mexico Tech - that's American Indian Science and Engineering Society. It was a fundraiser for the club, so how could we not partake of their board of fare?

Anyway, I hadn't had a Navajo Burger for much too long a time. Navajo Burgers are one my ultimate comfort foods; two hamburger patties, chopped green chile, and lettuce and other stuff that you'd expect with a burger, all folded into that delicious fried dough. And just five dollars.

What a meal. It lasted me well into the evening.

I first discovered Navajo frybread while we were vacationing in New Mexico before we eventually moved here. It has been a traditional food since the 1860s, when the government deemed it necessary to round up all Navajos and relocate them to the Bosque Redondo reservation in eastern New Mexico.

From northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico they were forced by Kit Carson and the U.S. Cavalry to walk hundreds of miles across the state, known now as the "Long Walk." Men, women, children, and elderly suffered the months-long forced march (there were actually several) and an untold number of family members perished along the way. Food was in short supply as well, and what was eaten had to be easily prepared, and thus the first frybread was born.

Today frybread is still a staple not only in the Navajo Nation, but also with Mescalero Apache and in most other reservations across the western states. It has provided not only sustenance, but is also a symbol of their struggles and perseverance. It is part of the sense of identity to the Navajo people.

Anyone can make frybread - it's a no-brainer - but nothing beats the way it's cooked over an open grill by a Navajo lady.

Like we get it here in New Mexico. 

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Wings. Just wings, please.

It's hard to believe but I never had chicken wings until I was well into my thirties. Hard to believe because I was raised by an Alabama-born mother who made us fried chicken probably every two or three weeks.  Also, I believe that when I was growing up wings/hot wings weren't as sought after as they are today.

But now in my older and wiser years, one of the best comfort foods for me is chicken wings. They could be be fried, baked, broiled or barbecued, anything but pre-made frozen from the supermarket. And they must have the bone in. Knawing away on each bone is part of the comfort, being the instinctual carnivore that I am. 

I also like them with the skin on and dry - instead of drippy and smeary. Drippy and smeary are what you get more than not if you order them someplace.

Over the years I've met people from different places who brag on their local wings. "Oh, Memphis has the best wings," or "You haven't had good wings if you haven't had them in Denver," or "Go to Birmingham for the best wings," and on and on. I find that all that talk irrelevant.

Then I've known chicken wing gastronomes who spend time arguing whether it's white meat or dark meat. Aye-yai-yai.

There are also the Hooters wings devotees, but I won't go into that. 

Actually I will.

One time I had a co-worker (my on-air partner on a morning radio show) who asked me to go down to the Hooters near the radio station to get us some wings. She said she would pay for mine if I went because she said she refuses to "go in there."

They were okay wings, but I figured one had to eat them right there inside Hooters served by a Hooters waitress to fully appreciate the dining experience.

Anyway, this last Thursday I decided it was time for another batch and fetched out from the freezer a long tray of raw chicken wings I bought at Smith's a couple of months ago.

The worst part of making chicken wings at home is cutting them up and removing the tips. Last time I left the tips on and found I had to use an extra baking sheet because they wouldn't all fit on one. It's an icky job, but I've learned to just soldier through and whack away.

After that gets done, it's all downhill. I get the little slimy fragments all lined up on our baking pan with the grill thing on top and bake them plain for fifteen minutes on each side, and while that's going on I mix up a third cup of Frank's Hot Sauce with a third cup of melted butter. But the more Frank's the better, I've learned.

Then I swab 'em down and bake for fifteen minutes, take them out, turn them over, and swab down that side and bake for another fifteen minutes. This turning and swabbing goes on over and over again until I run out of sauce.

After all that backing and swabbing, maybe an hour and a quarter, they end up nice and dry and zesty.

Trouble with making wings is, however, is that they run out too fast. You'd think 28 wings would last more than a couple of days worth of snacks. But no, between my wife and I they were gone in less than 24 hours.


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Sidetracked By Homebrewing

I had planned to take time to write a blog today but I have been sidetracked by beer-making, a hobby I've had going on four years now.  I'm not a huge beer drinker these days but I do enjoy having a good, tasty brew after work.

When I was younger, especially my late teens and early twenties when I was in the Air Force and single, I had a stronger resistance to alcohol, once downing an entire case of beer in one 24 hour period, which was an admirable accomplish because it was Carling's Black Label. That was in 1969 and I don't know if it's even made anymore but that was about all we could get at the base where I was stationed at in Vietnam. That, and Hamm's. Coors if we were real lucky.

It all depended on who got dibs when the shipments were unloaded at the Qui Nhon docks by the U.S. Navy, and since we were at the lip of the central highlands our little Base Exchange got what was left after the bigger guys got their pick.

The other side of the Black Label coin was, however, that a case costs only $2.40, the same as a case of Coca-Cola. That affordability made a good case for opting for beer over something like marijuana, and we drank a lot of beer, especially on our one day off a week. It was on one of those days off that football's third Super Bowl was played. Being in an entirely different hemisphere it came on the radio sometime around one or two in the morning which meant a lot of beer drinking and it was on that night I went through a full case. As far as I can remember.

My guzzling days are mercifully over and I take joy in having the no more than one beer at a sitting.

When I started making beer back in 2010, my wife had been making her own wine for a while, and had invested a certain amount of money in the equipment - buckets, carboys, siphoning tubes, etc. - and we were talking about the quality of beer I had been buying at the supermarket or liquor stores in Socorro and Albuquerque.  One of the types of beer I had grown fond of was stout, and also porters. The darker the better.

I told her the one thing about store-bought that stout that troubled me was the price, which was usually around ten dollars for a carton of six, and since I was accustomed to having a beer after work everyday this was putting a small dent in our tight budget.

The next time we were in Albuquerque we stopped by Victor's Grape Arbor where she would sometimes pick up supplies for her wine-making. The store also carries everything needed for making beer, so on a whim I bought a kit to make Imperial English Stout, which cost about twenty dollars. The next task was to collect two cases woth of empty beer bottles, so I started saving the bottles from store-bought beer. Not the screw tops, though, just the good stuff.

That first kit worked out well, making just over two cases of very good stout, and I was surprised at how simple it was. Fermentation and conditioning takes about six weeks, but the time I spend actually doing something, including brewing and bottling, is only about six hours. The most fun comes when experimenting with different flavorings, hops and yeasts.and the cost comes to fifty or sixty cents a bottle.

Since then I have made over forty home brews, ranging from low alcohol wheat ales to more exotic chocolate stouts and coffee porters. Right now I've got a lime cerveza and a cherry stout going, conditioning in the bottle.

Anyway, I haven't had time to write anything today, so I'll make time to write and post something tomorrow. Or not.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Red or Green? Both!

August is the beginning of chile season in New Mexico.

A couple of weeks ago my wife and I picked up 30 pounds of Big Jim green chiles from a local grower - Sichler's Snake Ranch Farm - here in Socorro County.
The chile was roasted for us on the spot, and we fortunately remembered to bring a big plastic bucket-thing in which to carry the dripping bag home.

The real chore came next: peeling the burnt skin off of each chile. For this one must wear rubber gloves, as chile seeds tend to burn skin, a fact which I ignored resulting in what was similar to a sunburn on my hands. That's when I remembered to put on the gloves.

After everything is peeled, the stem is remeoved and seeds are scraped out.  Next comes grinding the chile in a food processor and freezing the chopped chile in one cup portions in Zip-lock freezer bags.

We now have about a year's worth of fresh frozen locally grown green chile in the freezer! It's been said that you know someone is a New Mexican by the amount of their green chile in the freezer. This has become a yearly ritual for us ever since moving to New Mexico.

We prefer the Big Jim variety, a medium hot chile. A milder chile variety is Joe Parker, and hotter varieties include Sandia and jalapenos. There's also the X-Hot Sichler Fresh Mix. Whichever, they all are high in Vitamins C and A and phosporous.

Chile can also help with weight loss. According to one study, obese patients taking chile peppers burned an extra 80 calories a  day. The ancient Mayas used chile to treat coughs and sore throats. It stimulates gastric juices and the organs to aid in digestion and flush out illness more quickly. Creams made from chile are made to treat joint pain from arthritis and pain from shingles.

And green chile makes everything taste better!

Of course we also enjoy the red (which is a "ripened" green). The best sun dried red chile powder we've found - what we use for spicing up an untold number of dishes - is from Sichler's Produce in San Antonio (seven miles south of Socorro).

San Antonio is famous as the birthplace of Conrad Hilton, whose father owned and operated a general store in Socorro. Hilton also opened a bar in San Antonio, and the first Hilton hotel. The remnants of the hotel can still be seen, and the original bar is now inside the Owl Cafe and Bar, home of the first green chile cheeseburger. The Owl has been around since the early 1940s.

In 1944, when the first atomic bomb was tested at what is now known as White Sands Missile Range, it was not uncommon to see Robert Oppenheimer and other physicists having a beer and burger at the Owl. During the time of the Trinity test tiny San Antonio - 30 miles from the test site - had become a vitual Army camp, with tents, a mess hall, a tent movie theater and hundreds of soldiers.

Residents of San Antonio, now elderly, recall that summer with the soldiers all over the place. Many also remember seeing - or hearing - the blast on July 16, 1944.

Farmers and ranchers recollect chickens and cows being burned on one side, especially in the vicinty of Bingham, which was only 20 miles from ground zero.
Although winds that morning dispersed the mushroom cloud toward the northwest - towards Carrizozo and Corona, one wonders if the chile fields in the Rio Grande valley were affected by any radiation that day. If so, it must have been for the better since Socorro County chile is superior to the more-famous Hatch chile.

My first experience with the "green" was in 1989 when I moved to Santa Fe, and had my first taste of huevos rancheros with green chile at Maria's New Mexican Kitchen. It was love at first taste. Both sweet and hot. The best green chile balances the heat with flavor. You could say that the heat is secondary to the flavor.

Ever since then, I've learned that good green chile - from hot to mild - improved everything but deserts. But wait...there's also chile jelly. And chile cocoa. And green chile apple pie. And...and...and...

My wife Vanessa has even made wine from red chiles. We add chile to scrambled eggs, soups and stews, hamburgers, pizza toppings, and of course burritos of all types.

Whether you spell it chile (like here in New Mexico) or chili (like further east) it's all good.