Thursday, January 24, 2008

Julio Iglesias: looking great

Last night, Dave and I were looking at some music videos on Youtube. A few years ago we had a tier of channels on our cable tv that included MTV en Español, and we used to watch that station often. The videos we were looking up last night were ones we used to see a lot on MTV.

Back then, Julio Iglesias released a cover of an old Carlos Vives song, La gota fría. Dave developed an instant dislike of the Carlos Vives original, and an equally instant love for Julio's version. Insisting that he is not, technically, a Julio Iglesias fan, he said that he simply thought his cover was superior.

There's also the issue of personal style. While in his video Carlos has ratty long hair and wears denim shorts and shirtless vests, Julio has neatly coiffed hair and dresses simply but neatly. He also sports his eternal tan, which is clearly legit and not a product of Bain de Soleil.

It's been a few years since we saw the video, and while watching it again last night I commented on how nice Julio looks in it. I said, "I wonder what he's looking like nowadays."

In all seriousness, Dave turns to me and pointedly replied, "Probably great."

After I laughed for about five minutes at the absolute certainty with which he said that, he explained why he's so sure of this. In his mind, Julio is out on the beach somewhere, looking tan and getting all the ladies. But he would still like to point out that he is not a Julio Iglesias fan. He just likes that one song, and thinks he looks great.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Richardson's out -- I guess I have no one to vote for now

The Hispanic demographic in the US has been taken into consideration more and more by the media. In part because of our growing numbers, in part because of the ongoing chatter about immigration.

Now that the media is paying attention to the "Hispanic vote", I again find myself wondering, "What is the Hispanic anything?" In other words, are Hispanics a heterogeneous bunch, who all think the same way?

Bill Richardson, the Governor of New Mexico, was until recently a candidate for President under the Democratic party. He was born in the US to a Mexican mother, and he was raised in Mexico City. In the tv show Today, Matt Lauer asked Tim Russert, a journalist who hosts Meet the Press, the following:

LAUER: All right, let's talk about the other stories from Thursday. The debate
was one. The other was, on the Democratic side, Bill Richardson pulls out of the
race, the New Mexico governor, presidential candidate. He says, `Look, I'm out
of money but I don't want to be out of the game.' So what does his leaving the
race do in terms of the other candidates?

RUSSERT: It opens up the Hispanic
vote, Matt, because Richardson himself from Mexico, his family, his mom. And
where is that going to go? We know about South Carolina. Half the voters are
African-American, at this time heavily tilting to Obama. But what happens when
the race goes to other states like California, like Arizona, like New York?

Why does Russert think that Richardson's withdrawal from the race opens up the Hispanic vote? Richardson's numbers, both in polls and in primaries, were quite low. If there is any room for trends within the Hispanic community, it has been noted that we tend to vote in similar ways depending on the country we're from: for example, Cubans have been noted to lean towards Republicans, Puerto Ricans towards Democrats. The fact that both countries produce Hispanic voters does not mean they share the same general tendencies. With the booming Hispanic demographic in the US, Richardson's numbers should have been much stronger if Hispanics were to, as a unit, back him solely because of his heritage. When Richardson first announced his bid, the New York Times reported that he was not making much of a connection with his fellow Latinos.

At least when discussing the projections for African American voters in South Carolina, Russert specifies that the numbers show them to be leaning towards Barack Obama, also in the race as a Democrat. But as for Richardson, the only reason he gives is because Ricardson and his family are from Mexico.

As a journalist, I generally like Tim Russert. I don't think he actually subscribes to the "they're all the same" mentality that those who are less racially-savvy subscribe to. But it just goes to show that we have people who are otherwise very well-informed making assumptions about people just because they speak Spanish. Personally, I find it almost insulting to think that I would be expected to vote for someone just because of their ethnicity. I am happy to see a Hispanic presidential candiate, truly. But to go so far as to assume that our heritage is so similar that I would by default vote for him? Are we so blinded by the awesomeness of a Hispanic candidate that we throw our reasoning skills out the window?

I've often thought that every decade has a scapegoat. Periodically, people go from fearing one group of people to another. This time, I feel Hispanics are on the receiving end, mostly because of the immigration issue, but also because our numbers are growing every day. When you are a small minority, easily marginalized, it's easy to be overlooked. But Hispanics are not in that position anymore. Past scapegoats have organized and brought about a message to the community at large, to the point where it's no longer acceptable to openly say "they're all the same". The way I see it, when we have the media assuming that Hispanics are, indeed, all the same, it's time for us to step up and remind them that we're not. As much as I feel that Hispanics don't have a single mind, I do feel that all of us who hail from Latin America have formed our own community -- whether it be around the term Hispanic, or Latino, the things we do share bind us together, to a certain degree. But if we were all of a single mind, the community we are in the process of forming would be far less interesting, and far less capable of growth.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Cultural comparison fieldwork: The gym

For a few months now I've been going to the gym for all of my exercise needs. I was going after work, which was, truly, a bummer. Some people convinced me that I should try going in the mornings. I reluctantly agreed to try it. This meant that I would need to shower and get ready for work at the gym.

Before I continue, I need to draw some initial comparisons between Portland women and PR women. In Portland, women generally dress in a somewhat reserved manner. Not dowdy, really, but even on a night on the town you won't be seeing much cleavage. In contrast, women in San Juan wear clothes that are tighter, sexier, more revealing. Some go too far, but that's just to be expected -- some people are given an inch and they take many, many miles. But in general, in Puerto Rico women's fashions are a bit more saucy.

Using random pictures found online, this is my rendering of the difference between these two camps:

One picture came from the Dockers site, the other from bebe. So, that kind of explains it. Now, I'm not saying every single woman dresses like these two. But in terms of capturing the zeitgeist of the two cities, I think it's a fair comparison.

With that out of the way, back to the gym. Showering there means using the locker rooms, and using locker rooms means I'll be seeing women in various stages of undress. I expected this.

What I did not expect was how different these women, who in their outdoor lives are usually conservatively dressed, would act in the confines of a female-only locker room. Many didn't bother to wrap themselves with a towel when heading to or coming out of the showers. They bent themselves into positions that are at best passable when clothed, but outright indecent when not. The first few mornings, I had to struggle to not laugh.

Because I had, in the past, compared women in Portland to women in PR, I couldn't help but wonder if women back home would act the same way. You would assume that, since the sense of style down there allows for more revealing clothes, that women would be just as unconcerned with covering up when in a locker room. But the way I see it, I think PR women would attempt to conceal way more than their Portland counterparts. I'm thinking that when they are ready to hit the shower, they'd wrap themselves in a towel. When they come back to the locker, they'd also be wrapped up, and they would discreetly get dressed without deciding that this is now the time to, in public, take care of several grooming needs which a towel could perhaps inhibit. Such as, applying lotion, and raising various appendages in order to make sure not an inch of you remains un-moisturized. When they stood in front of the mirror to dry their hair and apply makeup, they might choose to perform these activities while fully clothed (especially if the hair-drying part requires bending over). If I ever ran into any of these women on the street, I'd have to look away, because I have seen more of them than anyone should ever see of a stranger.

I've never been to a gym locker room in PR. Has anyone been? Can they attest to what locker room culture is like there? Because I need to know -- indeed, must know -- if my hypothesis is correct.

Sunday, January 6, 2008


Or rather, sumsum! The author of the cookbook I used says that these were popular with Syrian Jews in Paris -- they'd have some with their coffee during the Sabbath. Let's explore Sabbath snacks through the eyes of Syrian Jews in Paris!


2 packages of dry yeast (make sure they are not expired)
1/2 teaspoon of granulated sugar
1 cup warm water (anything that feels hot will kill the yeast)
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups all-purpose, unbleached flour
8 ounces (2 sticks) of melted butter
1 beaten egg, to brush
1/4 sesame seeds, to sprinkle

You will note in the background that my santos were present, like when I made pernil, to ensure a successful baking session. Fantastic! So, in a mixing bowl, stir together yeast, warm water, and sugar. Allow the yeast to dissolve and become frothy, about 8 minutes.

Then I added 1 cup of the flour and the salt. Blended again, then added the melted butter (it should not be hot, let it cool off a bit). If by hand, beat 40-50 strokes. If with mixer, roughly the same amount of strokes. Basically, you want them well-blended. I added the rest of the flour, 1/2 cup at a time so as to bring the dough around easily and gently. Dump it in all at once and you may end up with a cannonball.

Once a dough starts to form, you're no longer mixing the ingredients, but kneading them. I kneaded it on a low speed for about 5 minutes. Over-kneading, various bread-makers warn, can make the dough tough and not very tasty. I desperately do not want tough and untasty dough, no sir!

I apologize for this picture, as I admit it is not very appetizing-looking. But I wanted to show what the author means when he says the dough should be soft and elastic, not sticky at all:

It's no longer sticking to the sides of the bowl. The folds show you that it's soft, and as I pull a portion of it up, it's pliable. So, we've got dough.

Now we put it in a bowl to rise.

It needs to rise to double the amount of the original size of the dough. I marked it with a marker, because I was using one of those disposable containers and don't care if it gets marked up. If I'd had a rubber band, I would have just wrapped it around the bowl to mark the starting point, that way I would know when it doubled in size.

Some observations: a tall-sided bowl, I think, gives you a good idea of the rise. I also liked using a clear vessel, for ease of observation. You are supposed to let it sit and rise in a room that's about 75 degrees, which is normally considered room temperature. It's winter here, and I'm a miser who doesn't turn up her thermostat past 69. In case you are in a cold environment, boil 2 cups of water in the microwave. Once it boils, stick the container in there and leave the water in there too. That should help create a warmer temperature. Too warm a temperature, and it will rise very quickly, so those of you in PR, take note of that.

This actually happened to me. The recipe said it would take about 2 hours to rise, but in after the microwave trick it only took 1. Moral of the story - rising times are approximate, the conditions in your kitchen will ultimately affect how long it takes. So, keep an eye on it.

With the dough risen (sorry, forgot to take a picture of that!), it's time to start shaping the dough.

The recipe says it should yield 24 sumsums, so I shaped the pieces of dough according to that figure. I placed them on a cookie sheet covered in parchment paper to prevent the bottoms from burning. Then I rolled them out into into balls. Really go to town on this, as my 9th grade English teacher Mrs. Riefkohl used to say when she urged us to "go to town on your essays": cup them in your hands and vigorously ball them up (stop snickering) -- this helped keep them in shape. Flour your hands with each one so they don't get damp and slippery. If they are dry they will hold their shape better.

Now we roll them up so they are approximately six inches long. Again, flour up your hands and the work surface when you do this. I started them out between both my hands to form the basic shape, then finished the job by rolling it between my palm and the work surface to get the length:

Woot! Now, to roll them up. You curl them around your index finger, and you let the ends overlap each other. Kind of looks like a tortellini, doesn't it?

Now is when you start to preheat your oven to 375 degrees, as they will need some time to rest. Once it reaches temperature, brush them with the beaten egg and sprinkle on the sesame seeds, as much or as little as you'd like. Arrange them about an inch and a half apart on the sheet. In the oven they go.

The recipe, curiously, doesn't say how long to bake them for -- only to bake them till they are golden yellow. I made two batches, and discovered that by the time they turn very golden yellow, they are too crispy. Pale golden yellow is the way to go, as it yields a slightly crunchy crust with a soft, buttery interior. Did I say buttery? I meant BUTTERY. You can see the layer of butter inside the bun. If you like butter - and to me, butter is only rivaled by bacon when it comes to its taste sensation - you will love this. I can see why it is served simply with tea or coffee, as it doesn't really need much adornment. I would recommend setting your timer to 20 minutes, checking it, and increasing the cook time by 5 minutes incrementally. My magic number was 25 minutes.

If there are any Syrian Jews in Portland looking for a Sabbath snack, I can totally hook you up.

Recipe from The Breads of France: And How to Bake Them in Your Own Kitchen, by Bernard Clayton, Jr.


To some of you, making cookies from scratch may not be a big deal. Why is she even posting about this, you might say? Because I'm new at this and I'm excited about it, damnit. If I become a world-famous baker, you will be able to see my very first attempt and say "Look, I knew her back when making cookies was amazing to her." So, you're welcome.

Let's get started! Here are my ingredients:

2 cups plus 2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled until just warm
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg, plus one large egg yolk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 2.25 oz bag of finely-chopped walnuts (optional)

Okay! So I preheated my oven to 325 degrees. In a bowl I tossed together the flour, baking soda, and salt. In my mixer, I mixed on low speed the butter and sugars until blended. Then I added the egg, yolk, and vanilla and beat that until blended. At last, the flour mixture. The result? Cookie batter!

Oh, cookie batter, you are such a temptress. I refrain from eating you not because of the raw eggs, but only because doing so may fill me up and ruin me for the final poduct. If you don't have a mixer, then mix by hand until the consistency resembles the picture above.
Next, I lined a cookie sheet with parchment paper and got to work making the cookies. Using a 1/4 cup measuring cup (barely filled) in order to ensure that they were all the same size, I rolled up the batter into little balls. What? You can't picture it? Well, here:

But we are not done! To give them a nice chunky appearance on top, I tore each ball in half, and then put them together so that the jagged sides faced up. Look, like this:

Into the oven for about 15-16 minutes, no more than 18. This batch yielded 18 cookies. After they are done, I placed them on a baking rack to cool.

Beautiful, tasty cookies. ¡Fácil!

Happy Three Kings' Day!

I admit that Three Kings' Day is not a holiday I observe now that I am in the Iu Es Ei. Mainly because I have no children, and leaving a box of grass under my bed is no longer guaranteed to net me a cassette tape and box of Ferrero Rocher chocolates. Also, I have no family in the country to make me a lechón. Such is life.

But I do want to celebrate it, even if on a small scale, when we have kids. I envision a day where pork is for dinner (although I'm not sure that would be anything special, since I heart pork anyway), and they get gifts just as small but cute as I used to get. I don't know if this is something all kids in PR were told, or if this was just my family, but my mom used to tell me that Three Kings' Day gifts were small because the kings were poor. I thought to myself, "But they're kings. They gave Jesus gold. How could they be poor?" I didn't want to seem petty and greedy, so I kept my thoughts to myself. Then when I was six it hit me -- a poor king is so inconceivable, that these dudes probably don't exist. I asked my mom, and she just looked at me and said,



To those of you in PR: if you are heading to someone's house up in the mountains, where there's a lechón asado and three guys dressed up as Middle Eastern kings giving out presents to the young'uns, I say: I am jealous, and have a great day! And even if you're just going to Guavate for lechón, I'm still jealous. And to those of us away from the island: do you still observe Three Kings' Day with your own families? How do you celebrate it?

Cooking, baking, and a time without the internet

These past few winter weeks in Portland have been the same one after another: gray and rainy. It hasn't stopped, and won't stop for the foreseeable future. A break in the monotony came on Christmas Day, when it snowed. Aww! Where's Bing Crosby when you need him? But it was barely cold enough for snow, so it didn't stick.

For the past few days I've been thinking that I might want to try my hand at baking. I think I might be suited to its methodical nature. Also, I got a KitchenAid mixer for Christmas. I've never been a baker -- the closest I have come is making cookies from Pillsbury pre-made cookie batter with my grandma. We'd bake them in the toaster oven and, man, those things were like heaven to me.

But even more than baking cookies, I want to make my own bread. I've been wanting to for a long time, and I think I have narrowed down the two main reasons. For one, I adore bread. Any kind of bread, I will eat it. I don't even need butter or jam or anything on it -- if it's good bread, I like it on its own. If I'm hungry and cranky, but I know I won't be eating properly for a while, a slice or two of bread will immediately calm me down. But also, I am very attracted to the process of making bread. I'm fascinated by the idea that people all over the world have been making it, in pretty much the same fashion, for thousands of years. I like the thought of being part of that tradition, of creating food that has been around for a long time and has sustained entire populations. It may be the reason why I also love it when Dave and I make a dish called antico peposo. You braise beef in red wine and crushed peppercorns for about four hours. In the end, the beef comes out almost black, and winey and peppery. It has the feel of something that people may have made long ago, in order to use up less-than-desireable cuts of meat and dress them up a bit. And indeed, the recipe has been traced back to at least the 5th century. As a history buff (especially of antiquity and the dark to middle ages), the idea of eating foods that have sustained people back into times that seem so far away as to almost be inconceivable really calls out to me.

Anyway! I woke up on a rainy Saturday morning, and decided that on that fateful day, I would break in that mixer. I would make chocolate chip cookies, my favorite, and bread. I looked through my cookbooks and found two recipes: Thick and Chewy Chocolate Chip cookies from The New Best Recipe, which is a cookbook published by the magazine Cook's Illustrated, and Ka'Achei Sumsum, which are bagel-like buttery breads that, according to The Breads of France: And How to Bake Them in Your Own Kitchen by Bernard Clayton, Jr., are popular with Syrian Jews during Sabbath. Syrian Jews? Sabbath? That sounds old. Sign me up!

A word about The Breads of France: I linked to the 2002 edition, but I have the 1978 edition. It was a hand-me-down from my mother-in-law, an experienced baker. Having read over 30 year old-plus cookbooks before, I was concerned that it might be hard to translate the recipes into something I could make today as a beginner. Not so. His instructions are clear and step-by-step; having no clue what the finished dough should feel like, his descriptions alone guided me pretty much perfectly. What did make me laugh were the repeated references to hard-to-find ingredients or tools, and the inclusion of addresses to write to the manufacturers for a list of retailers. No internets! In fact, many of those items are now easily found today. See what I say about olden times? They're fascinating.

Things like these are what I love about old cookbooks: you can see how times have changed, not just in how easily some ingredients can now be found, but in the level of knowledge about world cuisines that is present then versus today. For example, Clayton mentions that to many Americans, the catalogue of French breads is comprised of mainly a baguette. And in an old Trader Vic's Mexican cookbook, Vic himself writes:

I ate Mexican food [in Mexico] until it almost gave me an ulcer. In Mexico it was pretty greasy. The finest Mexican food I have enjoyed came from what is known as Texas-Mex. Now, I know I'm, going to make a lot of Americans sore as hell -- you have to understand that I am an American, not a Mexican, and I eat what pleases me most. So, my wife and I went to work flying all over Mexico, eating their stuff, and then making adjustments on it so it would be palatable to Americans.

Mexican food is "stuff"! Har! He goes on to give Mexico credit for one thing: its arts and crafts. He and his wife became avid buyers, and he calls them "absolutely the most". Oh, Vic! That's better than "groovy", isn't it? Are they also the bee's knees?

I haven't tried any recipe in this book. Personally, I stick to his tropics-inspired cocktails -- his recipe for piña colada from his Bartender's Guide produces, bar-none, the best one I have ever had. But the book has brought me countless moments of joy as I read through it, and found such gems. The thing about Trader Vic and his numerous world-cuisine cookbooks is that, even though the recipes were beaten into American-palate-of-the-70's submission, they did bring all kinds of crazy ethnic cuisines to American home cooks' food conciousness. You have to start somewhere, and I guess it was all about baby steps at first.

So, in honor of this momentous occasion, where I would be making bread, the staff of life, and cookies, what might as well be the staff of life for sugar addicts like myself, I decided to document this first attempt at baking for posterity. Soon I will post pictures of those attempts.

(By the way, if the antico peposo sounds interesting to you, which it should, since it's easy to make and delicious, check out this book by Lidia Bastianich. The woman is an Italian cuisine master, and she has a great show on PBS. Also, stop watching the Food Network and start watching the PBS cooking shows, if they are available where you are. New Scandinavian Cooking, Fast Food My Way with Jacques Pépin, Lidia's Italy, Daisy Cooks with Daisy Martinez...wonderful shows. But I do give you permission to watch Good Eats with Alton Brown on the Food Network and, if you are in the mood for a laugh, Semi-Homemade with Sandra Lee, the woman responsible for this monstruosity.)